Shall I not one day remember thy Bower—
—The Song of the Bower.
THIS is a base betrayal of confidence, but the sin is Mrs. Hauksbee’s and not mine.
If you remember a certain foolish tale called “The Education of Otis Yeere,” you will not forget that Mrs. Mallowe laughed at the wrong time, which was a single, and at Mrs. Hauksbee, which was a double, offence. An experiment had gone wrong, and it seems that Mrs. Mallowe had said some quaint things about the experimentrix.
“I am not angry,” said Mrs. Hauksbee, “and I admire Polly in spite of her evil counsels to me. But I shall wait—I shall wait, like the frog footman in Alice in Wonderland, and Providence will deliver Polly into my hands. It always does if you wait.” And she departed to vex the soul of the “Hawley boy,” who says that she is singularly “uninstruite and childlike.” He got that first word out of a Ouida novel. I do not know what it means, but am prepared to make an affidavit before the Collector that it does not mean Mrs. Hauksbee.
Mrs. Hauksbee’s ideas of waiting are very liberal. She told the “Hawley boy” that he dared not tell Mrs. Reiver that “she was an intellectual woman with a gift for attracting men,” and she offered another man two waltzes if he would repeat the same thing in the same ears. But he said: “Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes,” which means “Mistrust all waltzes except those you get for legitimate asking.”
The “Hawley boy” did as he was told because he believes in Mrs. Hauksbee. He was the instrument in the hand of a Higher Power, and he wore jharun coats, like “the scoriac rivers that roll their sulphurous torrents down Yahek, in the realms of the Boreal Pole,” that made your temples throb when seen early in the morning. I will introduce him to you some day if all goes well. He is worth knowing.
Unpleasant things have already been written about Mrs. Reiver in other places.
She was a person without invention. She used to get her ideas from the men she captured, and this led to some eccentric changes of character. For a month or two she would act à la Madonna, and try Theo for a change if she fancied Theo’s ways suited her beauty. Then she would attempt the dark and fiery Lilith, and so and so on, exactly as she had absorbed the new notion. But there was always Mrs. Reiver—hard, selfish, stupid Mrs. Reiver—at the back of each transformation. Mrs. Hauksbee christened her the Magic Lantern on account of this borrowed mutability. “It just depends upon the slide,” said Mrs. Hauksbee. “The case is the only permanent thing in the exhibition. But that, thank Heaven, is getting old,”
There was a Fancy Ball at Government House and Mrs. Reiver came attired in some sort of ’98 costume, with her hair pulled up to the top of her head, showing the clear outline on the back of the neck like the Récamier engravings. Mrs. Hauksbee had chosen to be loud, not to say vulgar, that evening, and went as The Black Death—a curious arrangement of barred velvet, black domino and flame-coloured satin puffery coming up to the neck and the wrists, with one of those shrieking keel-backed cicalas in the hair. The scream of the creature made people jump. It sounded so unearthly in a ballroom.
I heard her say to some one: “Let me introduce you to Madame Récamier,” and I saw a man dressed as Autolycus bowing to Mrs. Reiver, while The Black Death looked more than usually saintly. It was a very pleasant evening, and Autolycus and Madame Recamier—I heard her ask Autolycus who Madame Récamier was, by the way—danced together ever so much. Mrs. Hauksbee was in a meditative mood, but she laughed once or twice in the back of her throat, and that meant trouble.
Autolycus was Trewinnard, the man whom Mrs. Mallowe had told Mrs. Hauksbee about—the Platonic Paragon, as Mrs. Hauksbee called him. He was amiable, but his moustache hid his mouth, and so he did not explain himself all at once. If you stared at him, he turned his eyes away, and through the rest of the dinner kept looking at you to see whether you were looking again. He took stares as a tribute to his merits, which were generally known and recognised. When he played billiards he apologised at length between each bad stroke, and explained what would have happened if the red had been somewhere else, or the bearer had trimmed the third lamp, or the wind hadn’t made the door bang. Also he wriggled in his chair more than was becoming to one of his inches. Little men may wriggle and fidget without attracting notice. It doesn’t suit big-framed men. He was the Main Girder Boom of the Kutcha, Pukka, Bimdobust and Benaoti Department and corresponded direct with the Three Taped Bashaw. Every one knows what that means. The men in his own office said that where anything was to be gained, even temporarily, he would never hesitate for a moment over handing up a subordinate to be hanged and drawn and quartered. He didn’t back up his underlings, and for that reason they dreaded taking responsibility on their shoulders, and the strength of the Department was crippled.
A weak Department can, and often does, do a power of good work simply because its chief sees it through thick and thin. Mistakes may be bom of this policy, but it is safe and sounder than giving orders which may be read in two ways and reserving to yourself the right of interpretation according to subsequent failure or success. Offices prefer administration to diplomacy. They are very like Empires.
Hatchett of the Almirah and Thannicutch—a vicious little three-cornered Department that was always stamping on the toes of the Elect—had the fairest estimate of Trewinnard, when he said: “I don’t believe he is as good as he is.” They always quoted that verdict as an instance of the blind jealousy of the Uncovenanted, but Hatchett was quite right. Trewinnard was just as good and no better than Mrs. Mallowe could make him; and she had been engaged on the work for three years. Hatchett has a narrow-minded partiality for the more than naked—the anatomised Truth—but he can gauge a man.
Trewinnard had been spoilt by over-much petting, and the devil of vanity that rides nine hundred and ninety-nine men out of a thousand made him behave as he did. He had been too long one woman’s property; and that belief will sometimes drive a man to throw the best things in the world behind him, from rank perversity. Perhaps che only meant to stray temporarily and then return, but in arranging for this excursion he misimderstood both Mrs. Mallowe and Mrs. Reiver. The one made no sign, she would have died first; and the other—well, the high-falutin mindsome lay was her craze for the time being. She had never tried it before and several men had hinted that it would eminently become her. Trewinnard was in himself pleasant, with the great merit of belonging to somebody else. He was what they call “intellectual,” and vain to the marrow. Mrs. Reiver returned his lead in the first, and hopelessly out-trumped him in the second suit. Put down all that comes after this to Providence or The Black Death.
Trewimiard never realised how far he had fallen from his allegiance till Mrs. Reiver referred to some official matter that he had been telling her about as “ours.” He remembered then how that word had been sacred to Mrs. Mallowe and how she had asked his permission to use it. Opium is intoxicating, and so is whisky, but more intoxicating than either to a certain build of mind is the first occasion on which a woman—especially if she have asked leave for the “honour”—identifies herself with a man’s work. The second time is not so pleasant. The answer has been given before, and the treachery comes to the top and tastes coppery in the mouth.
Trewinnard swallowed the shame—he felt dimly that he was not doing Mrs. Reiver any great wrong by untruth—and told and told and continued to tell, for the snare of this form of open-heartedness is that no man, unless he be a consmnmate liar, knows where to stop. The office door of all others must be either open wide or shut tight with a shaprassi to keep off callers.
Mrs. Mallowe made no sign to show that she felt Trewinnard’s desertion till a piece of information that could only have come from one quarter ran about Simla like quicksilver. She met Trewinnard at a dinner. “Choose your confidantes better, Harold,” she whispered as she passed him in the drawing-room. He turned salmon-colour, and swore very hard to himself that Babu Durga Charan Laha must go—must go—must go. He almost believed in that grey-headed old oyster’s guilt.
And so another of those upside-down tragedies that we call a Simla Season wore through to the end—from the Birthday Ball to the “tripping” to Naldera and Kotghar. And fools gave feasts and wise men ate them, and they were bidden to the wedding and sat down to bake, and those who had nuts had no teeth and they staked the substance for the shadow, and carried coals to Newcastle, and in the dark all cats were grey, as it was in the days of the great Curé of Meudon.
Late in the year there developed itself a battle-royal between the K.P.B. and B. Department and the Almirah and Thannicutch. Three columns of this paper would be needed to supply you with the outlines of the difficulty; and then you would not be grateful. Hatchett snuffed the fray from afar and went into it with his teeth bared to the gums, while his Department stood behind him solid to a man. They believed in him, and their answer to the fury of men who detested him was: “Ah! But you’ll admit he’s d—d right in what he says.”
“The head of Trewinnard in a Government Resolution,” said Hatchett, and he told the daftri to put a new pad on his blotter, and smiled a bleak smile as he spread out his notes. Hatchett is a Thug in his systematic way of butchering a man’s reputation.
“What are you going to do?” asked Trewinnard’s Department. “Sit tight,” said Trewinnard, which was tantamount to saying “Lord knows.” The Department groaned and said: “Which of us poor beggars is to be Jonahed this time?” They knew Trewinnard’s vice.
The dispute was essentially not one for the K.P.B. and B. under its then direction to fight out. It should have been compromised, or at the worst sent up to the Supreme Government with a private and confidential note directing justice into the proper paths.
Some people say that the Supreme Government is the Devil. It is more like the Deep Sea. Anything that you throw into it disappears for weeks, and comes to light hacked and furred at the edges, crusted with weeds and shells and almost unrecognisable. The bold man who would dare to give it a file of love-letters would be amply rewarded. It would overlay them with original comments and marginal notes, and work them piecemeal into D. O. dockets. Few things, from a setter or a whirlpool to a sausage-machine or a hatching hen, are more interesting and peculiar than the Supreme Government.
“What shall we do?” said Trewinnard, who had fallen from grace into sin. “Fight,” said Mrs. Reiver, or words to that effect; and no one can say how far aimless desire to test her powers, and how far belief in the man she had brought to her feet prompted the judgment. Of the merits of the case she knew just as much as any ayah.
Then Mrs. Mallowe, upon an evil word that went through Simla, put on her visiting-garb and attired herself for the sacrifice, and went to call—to call upon Mrs. Reiver, knowing what the torture would be. From half-past twelve till twenty-five minutes to two she sat, her hand upon her cardcase, and let Mrs. Reiver stab at her, all for the sake of the information. Mrs. Reiver double-acted her part, but she played into Mrs. Mallowe’s hand by this defect. The assumptions of ownership, the little intentional slips, were overdone, and so also was the pretence of intimate knowledge. Mrs. Mallowe never winced. She repeated to herself: “And he has trusted this—this Thing. She knows nothing and she cares nothing, and she has digged this trap for him.” The main feature of the case was abundantly clear. Trewinnard, whose capacities Mrs. Mallowe knew to the utmost farthing, to whom public and departmental petting were as the breath of his delicately-cut nostrils—Trewinnard, with his nervous dread of dispraise, was to be pitted against the Paul de Cassagnac of the Almirah and Thannicutch—the unspeakable Hatchett, who fought with the venom of a woman and the skill of a Red Indian. Unless his cause was triply just, Trewinnard was already under the guiotine. and if he had been under this “Thing’s” dominance, small hope for the justice of his case. “Oh, why did I let him go without putting out a hand to fetch him back?” said Mrs. Mallowe, as she got into her ’rickshaw.
Now, Tim, her fox-terrier, is the only person who knows what Mrs. Mallowe did that afternoon, and as I found him loafing on the Mall in a very disconsolate condition and as he recognised me effusively and suggested going for a monkey-hunt—a thing he had never done before—my impression is that Mrs. Mallowe stayed at home till the light fell and thought. If she did this, it is of course hopeless to account for her actions. So you must fill in the gap for yourself.
That evening it rained heavily, and horses mired their riders. But not one of all the habits was so plastered with mud as the habit of Mrs. Mallowe when she pulled up under the scrub oaks and sent in her name by the astounded bearer to Trewinnard. “Folly! downright folly!” she said as she sat in the steam of the dripping horse. “But it’s all a horrible jumble together.”
It may be as well to mention that ladies do not usually call upon bachelors at their houses. Bachelors would scream and run away. Trewinnard came into the light of the verandah with a nervous, undecided smile upon his lips, and he wished—in the bottomless bottom of his bad heart—he wished that Mrs. Reiver was there to see. A minute later he was profoundly glad that he was alone, for Mrs. Mallowe was standing in his office room and calling him names that reflected no credit on his intellect. “What have you done? What have you said?’ she asked. “Be quick! Be quick! And have the horse led round to the back. Can you speak? What have you written? Show me!”
She had interrupted him in the middle of what he was pleased to call his reply; for Hatchett’s first shell had already fallen in the camp. He stood back and offered her the seat at the duftar table. Her elbow left a great wet stain on the baize, for she was soaked through and through.
“Say exactly how the matter stands,” she said, and laughed a weak little laugh, which emboldened Trewinnard to say loftily: “Pardon me, Mrs. Mallowe, but I hardly recognise your——’
“Idiot! Will you show me the papers, will you speak, and will you be quick?”
Her most reverent admirers would hardly have recognised the soft-spoken, slow-gestured, quiet-eyed Mrs. Mallowe in the indignant woman who was drununing on Trewinnard’s desk. He submitted to the voice of authority, as he had submitted in the old times, and explained as quickly as might be the cause of the war between the two Departments. In conclusion he handed over the rough sheets of his reply. As she read he watched her with the expectant sickly half-smile of the unaccustomed writer who is doubtful of the success of his work. And another smile followed, but died away as he saw Mrs. Mallowe read his production. All the old phrases out of which she had so carefully drilled him had returned; the unpruned fluency of diction was there, the more luxuriant for being so long cut back; the reckless riotousness of assertion that sacrificed all—even the vital truth that Hatchett would be so sure to take advantage of—for the sake of scoring a point, was there; and through and between every line ran the weak, wilful vanity of the man. Mrs. Mallowe’s mouth hardened.
“And you wrote this!” she said. Then to herself: “He wrote this!”
Trewinnard stepped forward with a gesture habitual to him when he wished to explain. Mrs. Reiver had never asked for explanations. She had told him that all his ways were perfect. Therefore he loved her.
Mrs. Mallowe tore up the papers one by one, saying as she did so: “You were going to cross swords with Hatchett. Do you know your own strength? Oh, Harold, Harold, it is too pitiable! I thought—I thought——” Then the great anger that had been growing in her broke out, and she cried: “Oh, you fool! You blind, blind, blind, trumpery fool! Why do I help you? Why do I have anything to do with you? You miserable man! Sit down and write as I dictate. Quickly! And I had chosen you out of a hundred other men! Write! It is a terrible thing to be found out by a mere unseeing male—Thackeray has said it. It is worse, far worse, to be found out by a woman, and in that hour after long years to discover her worth. For ten minutes Trewinnard’s pen scratched across the paper, and Mrs. Mallowe spoke. “And that is all,” she said bitterly. “As you value yourself—your noble, honourable, modest self—keep within that.”
But that was not all—by any means. At least as far as Trewinnard was concerned.
He rose from his chair and delivered his soul of many mad and futile thoughts—such things as a man babbles when he is deserted of the gods, has missed his hold upon the latch-door of Opportunity—and cannot see that the ways are shut. Mrs. Mallowe bore with him to the end, and he stood before her—no enviable creature to look upon.
“A cur as well as a fool!” she said. “Will you be good enough to tell them to bring my horse? I do not trust to your honour—you have none—but I believe that your sense of shame will keep you from speaking of my visit.”
So he was left in the verandah crying “Come back” like a distracted guinea-fowl.
“He’s done us in the eye,” grunted Hatchett as he perused the K.P.B. and B. reply. “Look at the cunning of the brute in shifting the issue on to India in that carneying, blarneying way! Only wait until I can get my knife into him again. I’ll stop every bolt-hole before the hunt begins.”
Oh, I believe I have forgotten to mention the success of Mrs. Hauksbee’s revenge. It was so brilliant and overwhelming that she had to cry in Mrs. Mallowe’s arms for the better part of half an hour; and Mrs. Mallowe was just as bad, though she thanked Mrs. Hauksbee several times in the course of the interview, and Mrs. Hauksbee said that she would repent and reform, and Mrs. Mallowe said: “Hush, dear, hushl I don’t think either of us had anything to be proud of.” And Mrs. Hauksbee said: “Oh, but I didn’t mean it, Polly, I didn’t mean itl” And I stood with my hat in my hand trying to make two very indignant ladies imderstand that the bearer really had given me “salaam bolta.”
That was an evil quarter minute.