Littell's Living Age/Volume 126/Issue 1626/The Dilemma - Part V
From Blackwood's Magazine.
A few days had passed after the Grand Mustaphabad Steeplechase, during which Yorke was casting about in vain to discover some opportunity for obtaining a glimpse of the one person who now made up his world, uneasy and restless at getting no news of her, yet not venturing to present himself at the residency lest he should be thought to be presuming too much on the sympathy Miss Cunningham had shown on that occasion; when one morning Mr. Spragge, returning from the mess a little later than his chum, came across the little garden towards the veranda where Yorke was sitting in his easy-chair, waving a piece of paper in his hand, and calling out, "Don't you wish you were me, my boy! Here's a start!" handed the paper to Yorke to read. It ran as follows: —
|"Brigade Office, February ——|
|"The 76th N. I. will furnish a detachment of one European officer and eighty sepoys to receive charge of treasure from the detachment —th N.I. which arrived at the station this morning, and to convey the same to the residency. The officer to report himself at the brigade office for instructions at 3 p.m.|
|"Adjutant's Office, 76th N. I.|
|"With reference to the foregoing extract from brigade orders. Ensign Spragge is directed to take charge of the detachment, which will be furnished by Nos. 3 and 4 companies in equal proportions, and will parade at 3 p.m.|
|Lt. and Adjutant.|
"What do you think of that, my boy, for an opportunity for making the running?" said Spragge, while the other read the extract with eager face; "cut you out, old fellow, and no mistake. No, no, Arty, it's only my chaff," he continued, seeing that Yorke's eye glared on him with a ferocious expression quite unusual to it. "I sha'n't aspire to the lady herself, you know; I shall make up to the little French girl — Mademoiselle Justine, isn't her name? I shouldn't know a bit what to say to the mistress; never was a lady's man. I wish I knew a little French, though. I couldn't make love in English, if you paid me for it; but I feel as if I could do the thing in French at a tremendous pace, if I only knew how to talk it."
"You are very glib with your anticipations," said Yorke, who had risen from his chair and was pacing up and down the veranda; "but you won't have too much time to display your accomplishments. I suppose you will be back again to-night?"
"Back to-night! not a bit of it. It's the nawab's stipend, don't you see, that's come from the lower provinces. It has to be made over to his people, and there will be counting, and weighing, and receipt-taking, and what not, which will take a precious lot of time. Sure to be kept waiting one day, if not two. Oh yes, I hope to punish the commissioner's champagne at dinner to-night, and no mistake. But I say," he continued, noticing Yorke's eager, anxious face, "I had forgotten about you all the time. What a selfish chap I am, to be sure! Now, you needn't look so fierce, Arty; of course I've got eyes in my head, even if I can't see through a stone wall; why shouldn't you go instead of me? No, I don't want to go a bit, I was only humbugging about the little French girl — in fact I'd much rather stay at home. The thing's done in a moment. I'll just step over and tell the adjutant that I have a particular engagement, and ask him to alter the roster. So I have, I want a game of rackets this evening most particular;" and so saying the good-natured fellow set off on his errand, hardly waiting to hear his friend's hearty — "I declare, Jerry, you are the best fellow that ever lived."
The detachment of the 76th duly marched into the residency grounds a little before sunset, the senior native officer with drawn sword leading the little column, the tumbrils with the treasure in the midst, Yorke on horseback in the rear. They were met at the entrance-gate by one of the commissioner's red-coated servants, who led the way to a clump of trees on the right just within the enclosure-wall, which was to be the site for their encampment. In answer to Yorke's inquiry why the tent he had sent on in advance was not pitched and ready, the man explained that the commissioner had ordered the officer's things to be taken to the house, where a room was prepared for him, and his servant was now waiting; and while the man was speaking, Yorke descried the commissioner and his daughter advancing from the house towards him. Yorke had never seen Miss Cunningham on foot, except when close by in a room, or surrounded by people: as she now came across the lawn, attired in a light muslin dress — for the days were getting warm — he had time to notice the grace of her light step, the easy movement of her tall figure; while from her dainty boots to her broad-brimmed garden-hat, everything about her seemed equally tasteful and refined. The very parasol she carried, he thought, was like the wand borne by a goddess to enchant and subdue mortals.
The commissioner, after greeting, explained that he had taken the liberty of assuming that Yorke would be their guest while at the residency, and so had ordered his baggage to the house; and when the latter objected, with sore misgivings lest he should be taken at his word, that duty required him to sleep with the men by the treasure, Mr. Cunningham relieved his mind by explaining that his duty had in fact ended with the delivery of the treasure at the residency. Strictly speaking, the commissioner ought then and there to take over the money from him, but it would be simpler to have it made over direct to the nawab's people from the tumbrils, and so save a double transfer, the commissioner meanwhile being responsible for its safe custody. Thus Yorke could accept the invitation without any qualms of conscience. He would actually spend a whole day and sleep under the same roof with his beloved. It was like a vision of paradise opening before him.
"And so here is the poor horse that fell with you," said Miss Cunningham, turning towards Devotion, which during the conversation had been standing peacefully a little behind its master in charge of the barelegged groom. "None the worse, I see. How nice the poor fellow looks!" she added, moving up and patting its neck. "Will he eat bread, Mr. Yorke? if so, we must give him some presently, when the man brings it for Selim. I am so glad to see it has got off without harm as well as its master. You must have thought it so unkind of us," she added, turning to him, "never to have sent to inquire after you; but Colonel Tartar was calling here, and said you had been dining with him the evening before, and gave a very good account of you." And the pang of jealousy that Yorke felt at hearing of Colonel Tartar's visit was sufficiently allayed by the reflection that Miss Cunningham had been thinking and talking about him. Stopping first to post his sentries, he then with elated heart followed his hosts in their visit to the stables, where the young lady fed her Arab with bread and lucerne grass, reserving, however, some morsels for Devotion, while Yorke looked on in an ecstasy of pride. Thence they strolled into the garden, and wandered about till it was dusk and time to dress for dinner.
The house, flat-roofed, formed a great square block, one storey high, the floors raised about four feet from the ground, the public rooms in the centre, the sleeping-rooms opening to the spacious veranda which extended round the house. Yorke's room, which seemed big enough to take in the whole of his bungalow, was entered from the east veranda by two enormous doors, which served also as windows: a door on the opposite side communicated with the drawing-room. Miss Cunningham's own room, no doubt, would be on the west side, and the thought that she was occupying the same house made the whole building seem sacred; and the young man dressed himself for dinner with a sort of pious awe.
On entering the drawing-room, now dimly illuminated — for it required a great wealth of lamps and candles to light up this great salon properly, an expenditure reserved for large parties — Yorke made out that there was another person present, who proved on closer acquaintance to be Captain Sparrow. That gentleman received him with languid affability, observing that he supposed there was a good deal of duty in the way of treasure-escort and work of that sort, which must be an agreeable relief from the monotony of cantonment life. Then presently Miss Cunningham entered in a dinner dress of silk, for the evenings were still chilly. Surely, thought Yorke, each change of toilet is more becoming than the last. Then came the commissioner — Colonel Falkland had returned to his own province — and dinner being announced, they repaired to the breakfast-room, always used for small parties or when the family were alone, and which with its small round table, well lighted up, looked bright and cheerful by contrast with the dim drawing-room, — Captain Sparrow conducting the lady, Yorke and the commissioner following.
The dinner was very quiet: the commissioner was taciturn, according to his wont; while Yorke was almost too happy for conversation, nor did the brilliant epigrammatic turns of speech which would alone have been worthy of utterance in the presence of the beautiful hostess, come readily uppermost. Sparrow, however, in his languid way was talkative enough, and Yorke observed with secret complacency that Miss Cunningham was evidently amused at his harmless vanity and his affectation of refinement. The same sense of humour, he thought, was apparent in the earnestness with which, after their return to the drawing-room, she pressed him to sing, going to the piano and beginning the accompaniment of one of his songs; when the captain, nothing loath, stood up beside her and warbled forth a ditty in his approved style. His song ended, the commissioner led him away to the adjoining billiard-room, then followed for Yorke a blissful half-hour, while Miss Cunningham sang to him, on his pressing her, one song after another; and as the young man stood by her side, watching her face, the one point of light in the great dim chamber, they seemed so entirely alone, and he was so borne along on the tide of emotion aroused by the tender accents of her voice, and the nearness of her person, that his humility and bashfulness for once forsook him. Surely, he thought, all this hope cannot be born altogether of delusion. In that gentle breast there needs must be some responsive sympathy with so much devotion, which only awaits an appeal to be called forth: and in another moment Yorke might have fallen at her feet to pour out his tale of love, his hopes, his fears, his sense of unworthiness to aspire to the priceless reward he sought for, when a voice was heard at the other end of the room, that of Mr. Cunningham, asking them to come and join in a four-game, repressing the ecstasy of passion which was on the point of finding utterance. And the words which were rushing to his lips remained unspoken.
The glare of the billiard-room, with its unromantic accessories of settees and cigars, acted like a disenchantment to recall our subaltern to the prosaic realities of every-day life; but he found some compensation for the descent on its being settled that he was to be Miss Cunningham's partner. In billiards, at any rate, he could be her master (although he thought with an introspective sneer that it was a contemptible thing to excel in such a matter), for he was much the best player of the four, while the lady was only a beginner; and to give confidential advice about each stroke, to be even allowed to touch her hand and adjust the taper fingers so as to form a proper rest for the cue, this was a new form of bliss.
But the happiest hour must have an end. The second game finished. Miss Cunningham, placing her fair arms on her father's shoulders, greeted him with a kiss on either cheek, and holding out her hand graciously to each guest, retired from the room. Captain Sparrow followed her example; and then the commissioner, proposing an early ride in the morning, wished his visitor good-night, and the gentlemen repaired to their respective rooms. Then Yorke, lighting a cigar, strolled across the park to visit his guards, wandering afterwards about the lawn on his side of the house. He would fain have carried his steps to the other side, when perchance some light might indicate at a distance the shrine which guarded his mistress; but although the watchman and some of the numerous servants of the household had passed that way on their various errands, and he knew therefore that her chamber must be closed, a sense of delicacy restrained him. But at last, tired out with walking, he sought his room, stumbling over his bearer asleep in the veranda, and fell asleep himself while recalling the minutes that had been passed, the voice, the gestures, the words of his beloved.
Next morning, his late hours of the previous night notwithstanding, Yorke was up with the first grey light of dawn, although not sooner than the commissioner, who was a regular old Indian as regards early rising; but it was with a pang of disappointment that he found only one riding-horse besides Devotion was standing saddled under the portico. Selim was not there. His daughter, Mr. Cunningham said, was not going to ride that morning, but would have some tea ready for them when they returned; and accordingly, they rode through the city, which Yorke had never seen before, and where he had the opportunity of contrasting the deferential salaams accorded to the great man on his way through the streets, with the air of insolent curiosity with which any unknown subaltern performing the journey alone would be regarded.
The commissioner had various duties in the town — anew tank in course of excavation to visit, the widening of a new street in progress, the scene of a late robbery to examine, and so forth — and the sun had mounted high before they returned to the residency, when, as they entered the park, Yorke's quick eye discovered Miss Cunningham sitting by a tea-equipage under the shade of an awning spread by some trees on the western side, whither directing their horses they dismounted. Limited though was his visiting acquaintance, Yorke had often noticed that the Indian habit of a second toilet tended somewhat to impair the early appearance of such of the fair sex as took exercise in the morning. Ladies who came out at mid-day or evening in elaborate costumes, and with hair carefully dressed, would sometimes dispense with these feminine graces when attiring themselves for the early ride or drive, and would appear with careless, not to say dishevelled locks, and appearance generally suggestive of repairs needful to be effected afterwards. No such remissness could be detected in the young lady who now, after morning greetings, began to pour out the tea. Her rich brown hair, though folded in simple braids, was fit, the young man thought, to grace a coronation; the light morning-robe was crisp and fresh; in each aspect, he thought, she seemed more noble-looking, more delicate, and more refined. And see, facing him across the lawn as he sits down, is the shrine from which his goddess has issued. The wide doors in the west veranda thrown open to catch the morning air reveal some mysteries of a chamber within — the dressing-glass trimmed with dainty muslin and ribbons, the wardrobe where rest the garments which have the happy duty of enshrining their sweet mistress.
Soon the little party was joined by another horseman, Dr. Mackenzie Maxwell, the civil surgeon, who lived about half a mile from the residency, and had charge of the jail, the hospital, and the residency establishments — a benevolent-looking, middle-aged, man. Yorke had scarcely ever met him before, for Dr. Maxwell lived very much by himself, and had almost forgotten his existence as a member of the residency circle; and for a moment, on observing the warm greeting accorded to the new-comer, he was disposed to feel jealous, when he remembered having heard that Maxwell was a widower; but this feeling was soon allayed on perceiving the sort of fatherly way in which the doctor addressed his hostess, and the absence of embarrassment between the two. Soon the doctor and the commissioner rose and strolled into the garden, leaving Miss Cunningham and Yorke alone. But although the latter, fully impressed with the importance of the occasion, was in an agony of suspense as the brief moments flew by, he could not manage to rise in his conversation beyond the level of commonplace; and when the others returned he had only the consolation of there being still a long day before him, during which the commissioner must be absent in court, and then, perhaps, a word or hint, or even some glance exchanged, might tell him that his case was understood, and not hopeless, and embolden him to pour out his tale of love.
"I have been telling the commissioner," said the doctor, addressing that gentleman's daughter, "that I think your plan a very good one. What he wants just now is a little rest and change. I daresay a month at Patanpoor may do all that is needed; at any rate it will be time to think of a season in the hills if this little trip fails to set him up. On what day do you think of going away?"
"Going away!" exclaimed Yorke, and in a tone of such unfeigned concern that the other two gentlemen could not help smiling; and Miss Cunningham, with a little blush, explained that they were thinking of paying Colonel Falkland a visit for three or four weeks before the hot weather set in. Her father had been out of sorts for some time, but they hoped this change and the holiday might be sufficient to set him to rights again, and prevent the necessity for taking leave to the hills, "Papa dreads the idea of spending a whole hot season away from his beloved cutchery. You know he has never been to the hills all his life."
"Yes," broke in her father, "and I hope I never shall go; a season of Simla lounging would finish me off, I believe, if I went up ill in the first instance."
"And you?" said Yorke, turning to his daughter, — "what are your feelings in the matter? But I need not ask," he added, with a shade of bitterness in his voice. "Of course you must want to go. Simla is the gayest place in India." And the subaltern's heart sank within him as he pictured to himself for the moment its beautiful mistress treading the round of mountain dissipation, surrounded by all the male butterflies who flutter about that favourite resort.
"Of course I should like to see the hills," she replied; "it is impossible to watch the distant peaks lighted up of a morning from here without longing to explore them; but I am a domestic creature," she added, smiling, "although you may not suppose so, and I think I should like to spend my first year at any rate quietly here. I have been wandering all my life, and it seems really wrong to begin moving about again just when I am settled in a home at last. But I hope," she added, looking anxiously towards her father, "that it may not be necessary."
This little speech filled Yorke with a transport of delight. This desire to remain here, knowing as she must his feelings, might he not fairly interpret it to mean encouragement? Could she indeed have said more, without departing from proper maidenly reserve? And as she threw that glance of filial anxiety towards her father he thought she had never looked so beautiful before.
"Papa," said the young lady presently, who was employed on some embroidery work, "you have given Dr. Maxwell a cigar, but you have not offered one to Mr. Yorke."
"I did not know that Mr. Yorke smoked," replied her father, hastening to supply the omission by handing him his case; "he refused the offer of one last night in the billiard-room."
Yorke said, looking a little sheepish as he accepted the proffered cheroot, that he thought perhaps Miss Cunningham might not like the smell of tobacco.
"If she does not," said her father, "then she must be in perpetual discomfort, for I smoke all day long, and in every room in the house, I think. But I offered to give up the practice when first she came, and to keep my smoke to my own room — didn't I, Olivia?"
"You dear old papa! You must have had your old bachelor ways and comforts sufficiently broken in upon by my invasion, without my depriving you of your last remaining solace. Besides," she added, laughingly, "there was some real selfishness at the bottom of my request after all, for I did not want you to banish me to solitude in empty rooms. You are at home little enough as it is. It would be dreadful if you were to keep to your own room in order to enjoy your cigars there. Women should put up with smoking nowadays when it has become such a regular habit. Gentlemen seem to smoke as much here as they do in Italy. Colonel Falkland is the only person I have met who does not smoke."
"But then," said Yorke, "if smoking is discomfort to other people, surely it is better the sacrifice should be on the side of giving up what is after all an artificial want. Some ladies declare they can't bear the smell of tobacco even in the open air."
"Don't you think some ladies are a little affected? Could anybody pretend to smell the cigars you gentlemen are smoking, now? Even in the house the rooms are so big and curtainless that no smell hangs about them. Besides, even in the open air, gentlemen would never sit quietly in their chairs like this, if they were not allowed to smoke. We women have our fancy-work to keep us from the fidgets. So you see," she added, looking at Yorke archly, "selfishness is at the bottom of one's amiability after all. But gentlemen seem so much more domestic in this country, they deserve to be spoilt a little."
"Perhaps it is because they are petted at home that they are so domestic," observed Yorke. Adorable creature, he thought, perfect in every aspect, if ever woman lived who might insist on those about her dispensing with tobacco and the small vulgarities of life, surely it is you. Yet you make no terms for your beauty and your grace. Your mind is as simple as a child's, despite the lovely frame it is set in!
The doctor, his cheroot finished, now rose to go, summoning his groom and horse from the shelter of a neighbouring tree; and a red-coated messenger bringing the commissioner a bundle of official vernacular reports, he lighted another cigar and departed for his own room. Miss Cunningham retired into the recesses of the western veranda; and Yorke repaired to his own side of the building to receive the reports of his native officers, and then spend the time till breakfast in pretence of reading — really to live the last half-hour over again, recalling each look and word.
The little party met together for breakfast at ten o'clock, but were now reinforced by Justine, the French maid or companion, who came in and took her place silently at the table, retiring on the conclusion of the meal. The commissioner also got up then to go, observing that the nawab's people were ordered to come for the treasure at four o'clock, but that it was quite possible they would be unpunctual after their fashion, and arrive too late to take it over that evening, "in which case," he added, "I must ask you to stay with us till Monday, for the transfer ought not to be made to-morrow, being Sunday. You will excuse my running away; but I must leave my daughter to entertain you." The infatuated young man with difficulty concealed his delight at this prospect of his visit being extended, and went across the grounds to Captain Sparrow's house. He could not well be at the residency without paying him a call, so he would get it over as soon as possible, and then have the long day alone with his beloved.
On returning to the big house, Yorke found Miss Cunningham in the drawing-room engaged upon a water-colour drawing. He hurried to her side, and looked over the paper — a sketch of trees taken in the garden, that she was finishing.
"What! do you paint, as well as play and sing?" cried the young man with admiration. "Where is the end to all your accomplishments?"
"One can't play and sing forever, you know," said the young lady, laughingly, "and one gets tired of reading; so it is fortunate I am able to draw a little, or else time might hang heavily sometimes, with these long days spent alone."
Ah! thought the young man with admiration, looking down on the graceful head that was bending over the work — then you too feel the want of a companion! He said aloud, "You talk of drawing a little: why, a regular artist could not do better than this."
"You would not think much of this," she answered, "if you had seen any good work;" then, seeing that the young man looked distressed at her rebuke, she added, kindly, "but perhaps you draw yourself also: it must be a very useful accomplishment for a military man."
"No," answered the young fellow, humbly; "my education, such as it has been, is devoid of accomplishments of any sort."
"But there are better things than accomplishments," she continued, with earnestness, "and you have been busy mastering the solid acquirements needed in your profession. You have quite a reputation in that way among your brother officers.""Acquirements are comparative. Most of our fellows are very lazy about these things, and so they exaggerate the smatterings of knowledge others may pick up."
"But Colonel Falkland would not exaggerate, and he does not speak of your knowledge as a smattering."
"Colonel Falkland has a kind word to say to everybody; but, after all, if one does know something of his profession, what is the good of it? If there are seven officers away from your regiment already, all the education in the world won't get a fellow on to the staff. I beg your pardon," he added; "of course this technical shop is like gibberish to you. What I mean is, that there is a fixed limit to the number of absentees from a regiment, and my turn has not come. Besides, there is Captain Braddon come back to regimental duty, a splendid officer, who ought by rights to be served first. Not that rights have much to do with it," he added, bitterly; "a little interest is worth any amount of brains in these times."
"You mustn't say that," replied his companion;" Colonel Falkland said only the other day that he was certain that you would rise to something brilliant whenever the opportunity came."
That she should have been discussing his character and prospects with their common friend, and in such sympathizing terms, sent a thrill of pride and pleasure to the young man's face; but he replied, perhaps with a dimly-conceived desire to invite still further praise, "But when will opportunity come? The days of opportunity have gone by. For us young men there is nothing left but to grow old in the humdrum monotony of a subaltern's duties." Then he stopped, feeling that he was hardly giving himself a fair chance in thus running down his own position and prospects. And yet honesty forbade that he should make out his case better than it really was. But Miss Cunningham replied —
"Colonel Falkland says that every man in India gets his opportunity, if he only knows how to make use of it. He himself says he had never seen a shot fired (isn't that the expression?) till he had been ever so many years in the army; so you see there is still a margin of time available for you, before you enter the road to fame and fortune."
There was a pause, while Yorke determined that the morning should not pass away with all its unlooked-for opportunities, without his asking her whether he might venture to hope to gain, at some future time, a greater and more valued prize than fame or fortune, and the young lady for her part plied her brush, as he stood by her side, hopeful yet uncertain, hardly daring yet longing to speak — when the door leading from her apartment opened, and Justine, the French maid, entering quietly, her work in hand, took a seat at a little distance from the table, and began silently to ply her needle.
Here was frustration of hopes. It was evident that Justine was destined to act as duenna, and that there would be no more tête-à-tête conversations for that day, unless he could contrive some device for getting rid of her. A happy thought occurred to him. Looking through the portfolio which lay on the table, he observed —
"What a number of drawings you have made already — and all sketches from life apparently! These are groups of the different servants, I suppose; and there is your pretty Selim, and the commissioner's horse too. How industrious you must have been to have done so many!"
"Yes; but few of them are finished. I have been in a hurry to collect subjects for working up when the hot season comes, and when, they tell me, it will be impossible to draw out of doors."
"Why not try a sketch of my encampment this morning, with the tents, and the bullocks and carts, and the sepoys standing about in various attitudes? It is still quite cool out of doors."
"That is a capital idea; it would make a charming subject. This is a bad time of the day for sketching, when the sun is so high; but the trees will make light and shade. Suppose we start at once. But then we may be interrupted by callers?"
"Cannot you be 'not at home,' just for this one day?"
"But is it not a shame to give people the trouble of coming all the way out along that hot dusty road from the cantonment, merely to go back again without stopping to rest? I am sure I never drive into cantonments myself in the daytime without bringing a headache back."
"But this amount of heat and dust is like the Arctic regions compared with what we are going to have by-and-by. Besides, are you always so considerate? I have heard of people coming out along that hot dusty road to find the residency doors closed, and that not so very long ago."
"Ah, I deserve your reproaches, and, will you believe me, I felt very penitent when I saw your card. But we really did not expect anybody that day, and papa was unwell, and I was keeping him company in his room. However, I owe you amends; so will you please give the order about our not being at home, and we will have chairs taken out under the trees."
The young man, enraptured at the success of his scheme, gave the needful order; and but that, with a dozen servants at hand, it would have been a perfectly useless excess of zeal, he would have carried out the chairs and camp-table himself. As it was, he was fain to content himself with taking charge of the young lady's sketching-block and colour-box, while she went to get her garden-hat. The day was one of those towards the end of an Indian winter when the climate is perfect; the chill air of the cold weather had passed away, but the season for high winds, heat, and dust had not arrived; and as Yorke arranged the chairs under a tree from which a good view could be obtained of the little encampment, and where the fair artist would, while enjoying the light genial air, be protected from the bright sun overhead, and also be concealed from sight of any visitors driving up to the portico, he thought with an unwonted exaltation of feeling that in this long morning passed together the opportunity must surely arise, in some encouragement let fall, or some understanding expressed, for the avowal of his love. Alas! on returning from the encampment, where he had been grouping the men according to the artist's instructions, he saw a servant in the act of placing a third chair by side of the other two, to be occupied a few minutes later by the inevitable Justine, armed with enough embroidery to last through the day — silent herself, and the cause of silence in others. The opportunity, then, was gone, although there still remained the long morning to be passed in this sweet companionship, becoming each moment, as he felt, more friendly. "And I should be an ungrateful brute to find fault with my lot," thought Yorke to himself. "I might have lived for a dozen years in the cantonment and not have become so intimate with her as the luck of this treasure-party, following the steeplechase, has made me already. And if she seemed charming and gracious before, when I had scarcely spoken to her, how much more admirable and perfect does she appear to my better knowledge now! With all her beauty and accomplishments, how modest and humble-minded she is! and yet there is no want of humorous appreciation of character. She is shrewd enough to see through people, yet without any ill-nature in her remarks. Can she have failed," he added, "to have seen through me and my secret?"
Thus thought the lover to himself, as the commissioner, who had come over for a few minutes from the court-house, led the way to the house for a late luncheon. The meal ended, they were again about to resume the morning's occupation, when a messenger announced the arrival of the nawab's guard to take over the treasure, thus shattering the hope which Yorke had cherished of spending Sunday at the residency. Putting on his uniform, he repaired to the spot where the detachment was encamped. The transfer of the money was a tedious affair; and when finished it was time for the detachment to set off on its march back to cantonments, and Yorke despatched them accordingly, returning to the house to pay his adieus.
He found the commissioner in his study smoking a cigar, and his daughter sitting by him, reading a book; while the open carriage drawn up outside announced that they were about to take their evening drive. Already, thought Yorke with bitter heart, and yet ashamed of himself for harbouring such a feeling, they have their occupations and plans in which I hold no share.
"Good-bye!" said the commissioner, holding out his hand, but without rising; "it was unfortunate the nawab was so punctual — we should have been glad if you could have stayed till Monday. But cannot we drive you down to cantonments? we may as well go that way as anywhere else."
Yorke would fain have clutched at even this brief respite, but he had to explain that his horse was waiting, and he must overtake his detachment presently and accompany it on foot into cantonments.
"Good-bye!" said Miss Cunningham, who had risen, holding out her hand; "it is so provoking of the nawab to cut short your visit, you must ——" What she was going to say he could not tell, for something in the expression of his earnest gaze caused her to drop her eyes, and with a slight blush withdraw her hand.
On the following Monday Yorke would have ridden out to the residency, notwithstanding the shortness of the interval since he had last been there; a call after a dinner being proper, much more he argued should one be proper after a day's visit; but an order reached him in the morning to proceed on court-martial duty to a neighbouring station some fifty miles off, where officers were scarce, and he was fain to express his thanks in a note, which it is needless to say consumed a quantity of best paper before it got itself written to his satisfaction; the expression that the Friday and Saturday spent at the residency had been the happiest moments of his life being eventually toned down to the effect that this had been the pleasantest visit he had ever paid.
The court-martial lasted for several days. When it was ended, Yorke determined to return by easy marches, stopping for a few days to shoot on the road, the plains round Mustaphabad being fairly supplied with game. In this way he would kill time till the month's absence of the commissioner and his daughter should be completed, every day of which had been ticked off as it passed, for he felt that life in cantonments would be insupportable till their return. Thus spinning out the time allowed for his own return, he pitched his camp for the last day at a village about eight miles from Mustaphabad, and walking off his impatience by a long morning and evening tramp with his gun through the surrounding country, slept the sound sleep of fatigue in his little tent, and rode into cantonments early the next morning.
Spragge was away in the lines at the orderly-room when he reached the bungalow; so, calling for tea, and throwing off his coat, for the days were now getting hot, he sat down in the veranda till his chum should return.
That gentleman soon came into view cantering into the compound, his long legs upheld at a short distance from the ground by his diminutive pony; and after bestowing a few cuffs and blessings on that animal's patient attendant for some faults of omission and commission, greeted his friend in his usual hearty manner.
The first topic of conversation was, of course, the amount of Yorke's bag; next followed Yorke's inquiry what the news was.
"News? there never is any news in this blessed place, except that it's getting infernally hot already, which you can find out for yourself. A lot of fellows have gone off to the hills for six months' leave, and almost all the ladies have started; I should like to have gone off myself, but can't afford it; and now we are in for the regular hot-weather dulness. Nothing but billiards and rackets left for a fellow to do. But I say, you ought to have been here, my boy, to come in for the goings-on of my cousin Ted while officiating commissioner. He has been doing the big official in tremendous style — bachelor parties, ladies' parties, handing in mother Polwheedle to dinner, and all the rest of it; hermetically-sealed soups and claret-cup poured out like water. Ted's been going it, and no mistake. Pity he's got such a short tether of the office!"
"Yes, indeed," said Yorke, trying to assume an air of indifference; "the commissioner is to be back again this week, isn't he?"
"Comes back to-morrow, but only for a few days, you know; and I think they might have given Ted the acting appointment."
"Acting appointment!" said Yorke, starting up, and at once thrown off his guard, "what do you mean?"
"Why, bless me!" replied Spragge, "you don't mean to say you haven't heard the news? Why, it's been in all the papers a week ago. I thought, of course, you must have seen it. The commissioner has been very unwell — liver gone wrong, I believe — and has been ordered home sharp, and Colonel Falkland is appointed to succeed him."
"Colonel Falkland!" cried Yorke, feeling suddenly as if something more remained to be told.
"Yes, of course," answered his friend; "he is engaged to Miss Cunningham, you know. They are to be married in a fortnight."
When Mr. Cunningham lost his young wife, which event happened just twenty-one years before the time at which this history begins, and within a year of his marriage, he was left with a little daughter on whom the poor mother had scarcely time to bestow a parting kiss before she died. The friendly wife of a brother civilian, who was present on the occasion, proposed to carry off the infant to her house and bring it up for the time with her own children; but the young widower was averse to parting with the charge, and the lady was fain to be content with coming over daily to bestow an occasional superintendence on his nursery establishment. A still more frequent supervision over the child's welfare was given by his friend. Lieutenant Falkland, who, although he declined the young widower's proposal that he should give up his bungalow in cantonments, and share the other's more comfortable house in the civil lines, spent almost as much time there as if he had been a permanent occupant of it. The subaltern had plenty of leisure; and his friend's servants were never sure during their master's long absence in court at what moment they might not receive a visit from Falkland, and even if they had been disposed to neglect the child would have been prevented by his vigilance. But indifference to their master's children is not a fault of Indian servants; their weakness is rather in the way of too much petting and indulgence. In the case of a baby, however, there was not much room for injudicious kindness; the little Olivia's wants were sufficiently ministered to by the stout young mussalmáni woman who had been engaged from a neighbouring village to fulfil the office of wet-nurse; and the young civil surgeon of the station. Dr. Mackenzie Maxwell, declared in his daily visits that no child could be better cared for, or more thriving. As the little Olivia grew out of babyhood, almost the first person she came to recognize after her nurse and the old bearer who was appointed her special attendant, was the young officer; and the child would hold out her little arms to greet him as he came up the avenue of an evening while she was taking her walk in the old man's arms, attended by the nurse and another female, while a tall office-messenger with a red belt, brass plate, and gigantic umbrella brought up the rear. Long before she could understand the use of them, the self-appointed guardian began to pour in consignments of toys, which soon littered the young civilian's house; Benares lacquered bricks, little wooden elephants and camels, cups and saucers, and tea-equipages; a swing to be hung up in the veranda; with a rocking-horse as large as a Burmah pony. A visitor to Mr. Cunningham's house in those days of a morning would generally find the same group assembled there: the father in an easy-chair smoking his cheroot; his friend sitting more erect, as became a man with strict military ideas, and not smoking, — the two watching the child and the old bearer on the floor together, engaged in the joint task of erecting a tower, which, from the number of bricks strewed about the room, promised to assume the proportions of a very Babel.
Thus passed the child's earliest years, when just as she was beginning to prattle freely, and had been advanced to the dignity of a seat on a raised chair at her father's breakfast-table, a disruption took place of the small commonwealth which had conducted the government of the little Olivia's household. Falkland was appointed to the staff of the army on the frontier, and the good doctor was transferred to another station; while the advent of his successor was heralded by a reputation for his power of subduing the strongest constitutions of adults, and a perfectly ogre-like capacity for the massacre of children; such as escaped the first onslaught of his calomel, it was rumoured, invariably succumbed to the subsequent treatment. The arrival of this terrible official caused a general panic in the station. Mrs. Spangle, the wife of the brother civilian already referred to, determined to anticipate by a year or two the time fixed for the inevitable home-voyage; and Cunningham, thus left without his friends, accepted her offer to take his little daughter to England with her own children, to be made over on arrival to the charge of his only sister.
To Mrs. Maitland, Cunningham's sister, who had no children of her own, the arrival of her little niece was a very welcome event; she soon came to love the child as her own, and Olivia found in her house a happy home, where even the dimmest recollections of India soon faded away. Nor were the father's letters calculated to recall them. Cunningham did not possess the sort of literary power which alone could have enabled those unacquainted with the scenes among which it was spent to realize his mode of life; and, under the feeling that his letters had no real interest for the reader when they passed beyond mere personal topics, his correspondence, though still affectionate, gradually became brief and infrequent. His sister's letters were longer and more regular, for all home allusions could be understood by the parent, and full accounts of his daughter, her health, progress, and occupation, made up an interesting letter; and as soon as the child was able to write herself, each mail carried a letter from her to her unknown father, all to be carefully filed by the Indian exile, and containing a complete record of progress, beginning with the uncertain ink-tracings over her aunt's pencilled outlines, and so through the large round-hand and short stiff sentences of childhood and all the various developments of girlish hands, to the easy writing and ready expression of the accomplished young woman.
When Olivia was about twelve years old her uncle died, and his widow was shortly afterwards ordered for her health to the south of France; and having now no ties with England, and finding Continental life and climate to her taste, Mrs. Maitland had continued from that time to reside with her niece in various parts of the south of Europe. Meanwhile Cunningham remained in India; although not a brilliant man, his industry, temper, and judgment had gained for him a considerable reputation in his service, and whenever he was on the point of taking a furlough, the transfer to some new employment had always happened to prevent his doing so; now a neglected district to be brought into proper form; now a newly-annexed province to be reduced to order, — some call in the way of preferment appealing to his sense of duty and the love of distinction, and tempting him to stay in the country. Thus year after year passed away without the intended furlough being taken; till at last, when Olivia was arrived at womanhood, and the question arose whether instead of his going home the daughter should not rejoin her father in India, he was invited by the government to assume charge of the province ceded by the nawab of Mustaphabad, and to introduce the blessings of British rule into the districts so long misgoverned by that unfortunate prince. Such a request could not be refused; and Cunningham, feeling that his daughter was more at home with the aunt who had been a mother to her for so many years, than she could be with the father who had now become little more than a name, and being, it must be confessed, now quite reconciled to his solitary life, had just proposed a scheme for completing his new task and eventually retiring on the pension which he had now earned to join his sister and daughter in Italy, when the plan was upset by the news that Mrs. Maitland had accepted the offer of marriage from an Italian nobleman. To Cunningham the idea of such a connection seemed thoroughly repulsive; for although the count was reported to be unexceptionable in every respect save that he was a good deal younger than his intended bride, Cunningham's Indian experiences were not calculated to remove the insular prejudices of an Englishman; and notwithstanding that his sister wrote to him that her marriage should make no difference to Olivia, for that her future husband was equally desirous with herself that she should continue to make her home with them till her father returned from India, a sudden anxiety now possessed him lest his daughter, living in a foreign household, should also fall in love with a foreigner and so be altogether lost to him. He determined, therefore, that she should join him for the remainder of his service; and, writing to express his decision in terms so peremptory as seemed to the kind aunt a poor requital of the many years of loving care bestowed on his child, he knew scarcely an easy moment till he heard in reply that his instructions would be acted on at once. Mrs. Maitland and Olivia made a speedy visit to England, in order that the latter might be placed in charge of the wife of a brother civilian returning to India; and after a brief interval occupied in the preparation of Olivia's outfit, aunt and niece parted at Southampton with mutual tears and sorrowings, each to enter on a new life. The count had followed his intended bride to London, and the marriage was to take place immediately after Olivia's departure, when the married pair would return to live in Italy. "Farewell, my darling child!" she said, folding her niece to her breast in the little cabin of the steamer as it lay on the parting morning alongside of the quay in Southampton Docks; "farewell, and forever! even if you don't marry in India, your father will never let you come to me again." Olivia could only reply through her tears by returning the embrace; nor was there time for further words, for just at that moment rang the warning-bell, summoning those who were not passengers to leave the vessel.