The Kiplings and India: A Collection of Writings from British India, 1870-1900

A Pinchbeck Goddess, Chapter 6


“Imp of Dreams, when she's asleep
To her snow-hung chamber creep,
And straight whisper in her ear
What awake she will not hear—
 Imp of Dreams, when she's asleep."
T. B. Aldrich.

          Dreams have often a distracting knack of reflecting the sleeper's most secret thoughts; and though the mirror held up by Imp of Dreams is a distorting one, there is generally likeness enough to sting, as a clever caricature does. Nancy Ivey had a vivid dream on the night of the Birthday ball, which left her flushed and self-reproachful after waking. She had attended a vaguely splendid entertainment held in a beautiful garden, to the music of the spheres. At first she was a little vexed to find that she was wearing her blue cashmere dressing-gown, and had her hair streaming over her shoulders, but nobody seemed to notice this, and after she had heard an announcement that Julius Caesar had just come, and Henry Irving was expected, she entirely forgot her own appearance. She was trying to gather a rose, the stalk of which lengthened out like elastic as she pulled at it, when she saw Captain Curtis looking very handsome in full-dress uniform. He gave her a bouquet of wild-lilies, and said: "You have come at last, Nancy; I have been trying to find you everywhere." And he kissed her—a long kiss—and she remembered the smooth feeling of the fine red cloth against her cheek as her head lay on his shoulder. A voice said: “This is our dance." And there was Mrs. Edwards, with a diamond crown and sceptre. They began to dance at once, and Nancy was in the act of hurling a stone at the diamond crown, when she woke to find her little white room filled with the morning sun shine.
          The dream seemed very real, in spite of its absurdity, and the coarse phrasing of her least acknowledged thoughts almost frightened her. She was displeased with her blue dressing-gown, and looked askance at it, as though its simple folds held a Walpurgis Night memory. When she went into the next room to have chota haziri with her mother, she put on a white one instead.
          “This is an early waking for you after your ball, dearest," said Mrs. Ivey; "didn't you sleep well? That white gown is a little chilly for wearing in the morning; where is the blue one?"
          “This is quite thick cotton, mother," said Nancy, kissing her. “Oh yes, as thick as muslin! I wonder why girls are so fond of trying to catch cold."
          Nancy's foolish dream haunted her through all her little morning duties. While she arranged the wild-flowers the jampanies had gathered on the hillsides; while she fed the fowls, and took care that the small ones, known to the heartless khansamah as “curry-wallahs," had their fair share of grain; even while she gave her pony, Brownie, his daily dole of carrots, and made sure that he was not thinking of beginning a sore back, she could not forget the vivid impression that Imp of Dreams had brought her. She felt as though her untouched young lips were less absolutely pure than before; as for her mind, if it were capable of such objectionable imaginings, it needed discipline. She wrote three duty letters that had long hampered her conscience, and after she had practised resolutely for two hours upon a piano that was not quite in tune, Imp of Dreams fled dismayed.
          “I am going for a ride this afternoon, mother," she said at lunch-time; “shall I meet you at the library?"
          “Very well, dear, only it looks a little stormy; do you think it is wise to ride?"
          “I always like to after a dance, and Brownie will be jumping out of his shoes if he gets no work to-day."
          “Please go round Jakko, then, Nancy, and I shall know you have a good road all the way; it frightens me to think of your riding alone through rain and thunder on a narrow unfenced path."
          “It's just as well," thought Nancy, while she was dressing; "if I never go round Jakko, it would look as though I was afraid of meeting him, and probably he's never there now. I dare say he goes down to Annandale with Mrs. Edwards, and it doesn't matter to me in the least degree what he does. I shall put on my old blue habit, it's quite good enough, and the round felt hat that doesn't suit me; I really ought to wear it out."
          Brownie pricked delicate ears, and snorted and flourished his tail with a great pretence of speed, when they started, but he was rather lazy in reality, and disliked solitary rides more than his mistress did. The sun was hidden, and the sky looked threatening as Nancy crossed the Ridge and trotted through the Lakkar Bazaar. Several monkeys sitting on a roof looked down as she passed; one of them pulled a fiend's face at her, and she shook her whip laughingly.
          “Get on, Brownie," she said; “I shall call you ' Lazy Legs,' if you are so slow." Brownie cantered briskly past Snowdon, and past the cottage where two of the Chief's aides-de-camp lived. Nancy looked straight before her, not allowing her eyes to stray to the name that was painted in white letters on a black board —”Captain Noel Curtis, A.D.C." Noel was a foolish name for an Englishman.
          She met very few people whom she knew, and as Brownie's pace grew slower she began to remember some of the many times she had traversed the Jakko road the year before. It was a beautiful road, even though the mountain ranges were dull masses of gray shadow, and the hill oaks and rhododendrons showed vividly and unnaturally green under the clouded sky; but Nancy had no thought for its beauty. There had been a delightful picnic at Mashobra last September; she had ridden there and back with Captain Curtis: that was the day when he had told her about his home and his people. He had said: "I'm sure you'd get on awfully well with my father." She remembered his expression when he said it, and the very tone of his voice.
          Riding here another day, a sudden thunder-shower burst over the hills, and just as they reached this big gray rock, he insisted on wrap ping her in his waterproof. What a bundle it made of her! He must have spent a good deal of his time in going round Jakko then, for if she came, she had been certain to meet him sooner or later. Last season had been a very happy one —because it was her first in Simla, she supposed. Now she was growing tired; everything was just the same, but with a difference. Why should a few months’ work such change, and bring avoidance instead of eager seeking, and shadowed speech instead of happy laughter and frank confidence? She was unchanged.
          Nancy suddenly realized that she was dwelling on a subject she had forbidden herself, and her little hunting - crop came down sharply on Brownie's innocent back.
          “Oh, that was horrible of me!" she said, swiftly repentant, as she stroked his soft neck. “I didn't mean it, Brownie, and you are as good as gold, and you shall have two pieces of bread to-night. Now go, dear—go hard."
          They had turned the corner by San Jowli; the wind-swept stretch of level road called the Ladies' Mile lay clear before them, and Brownie broke into an eager canter. Half-way along a stone came rolling and bounding down the steep green slope above. A monkey had loosened it; it gathered force as it came, and its last leap landed it close in front of Brownie. He was untouched, but it startled and vexed him, and after two or three indignant bounds he set himself to gallop in a way that he knew was only allowed on a racecourse. Nancy sat back in her saddle as the wind sang in her ears, and was not frightened; but both her hands were needed for the reins, and her round felt hat broke its elastic, and blew off her head without her being able to save it. Brownie's attempts at running away never lasted long, and under the tall, many-coloured cliffs, known as the Infernal Rocks, he allowed himself to be quieted.
          “You are the most affected creature," said Nancy. “Have you never seen a stone before? Now I've lost my hat; there isn't a sign of it on the road, and I suppose I shall have to go down the Mall looking like a lunatic; and it is all your fault. Couldn't you see that one stone was not an avalanche?"
          No one was in sight at the moment, and she looked about anxiously for her hat, while loosened ends of hair blew into her eyes and whipped her face. The hat had evidently gone down the khud—justified its name by bowling down the mountainside, a sheer stony descent of many hundred feet. She could not dismount and leave excited Brownie, who was still stepping as though the ground were red-hot; her syce was waiting for her at the library two miles away, and she did not know to within a quarter of a mile the spot where she had lost her hat.
          The thought of returning bareheaded through Simla was terrible to her; but there seemed nothing else to be done, and whether she went on down the Convent Hill or back the way she had come, there was still a stretch of Mall to be braved, where she was sure to meet a number of people. They would think she was such a bad rider; it was one of the signs of a bad rider to lose one's hat, and nothing could look more ridiculous. Poor Nancy had a wild notion of waiting until it was quite dark, but the evenings were long, she would have to wait until after dinner-time, and her mother would be very anxious. Besides, somebody was bound to pass in a few minutes—somebody who would pity her and laugh at her.
          She heard the noise of rickshaw wheels, and looked back quickly, to recognise Mrs. Edwards' magpie liveries.
          “The very person I dreaded," she thought. “But I don't care; she can make fun of me if she likes. I won't seem to run away; I'll ride slowly past her."
          She drew herself up, and tried to look dignified; but the wind would blow her hair into her eyes.
          “I hope you haven't had an accident, Miss Ivey," said Winnie, stopping her rickshaw.
          "Thank you; I have only lost my hat," said Nancy stiffly.
          “But one of the jampanies shall pick it up for you." “I don't know where it is; it may be anywhere down the khud. My pony tried to bolt, and in stopping him I lost it."
          “They shall look, and they will be sure to find it."
          Three of her people, with an obedient start, went through the railings, and scattered themselves amongst the stones on the hillside, but the hat was not found. A roar of distant thunder reverberated heavily round the circle of the hills. “It really doesn't matter. Tell them not to trouble any more; I'll go home quickly," said Nancy.
          But her face was sadder than she knew.
          "You mustn't indeed; there's a storm coming, and you would catch a fearful cold," said Winnie. “Besides, you'll meet lots of people on their way back from tennis at Peterhof."
          “I don't know what to do."
          “I know; have this." And Winnie took off the black sailor hat she wore. “It won't look strange; it's perfectly plain. I've seen you riding in a white one like it."
          “Oh yes; but what will you do if I take your hat?"
          “I'll have the rickshaw hood up, and go straight home; or, better still, this will do for a bonnet—anything does for a bonnet." She unpinned a bow from her throat—a trifle of kilted black chiffon, edged with white lace—and considered it laughingly. “Two pins there. Jampani, give these long pins to the miss sahib. You will want them for fastening the hat with. Now, if I only had a flower to put at the back! Why, I forgot; here are two white roses in my belt— the very thing! There! does that look very funny with a veil round it?"
          She frankly produced a hand-glass from her rickshaw pocket, and arranged the little make shift on her gleaming hair; then she gave the glass to Nancy, saying:
          “Put your hat on quick, dear, and no one will know."
          “It is so kind of you; I don't know how to thank you," said the girl fervently.
          “It's nothing; I'm glad I happened to be wearing a sailor. Look, the storm's coming; good-bye."
          “She's a dear," thought Nancy, “a real dear! and I never thought she was a woman who would do that sort of thing. How pretty she looked with the little black bow on her head; and, oh! I hope she won't tell anyone."
          There was a quick clatter of hoofs, the sound of someone riding swiftly up the steep hill that Brownie was picking his way down, and a gap in the trees showed her who the rider was.
          “I suppose he is trying to overtake her," she thought. “How do you do, Miss Ivey?"
          And the bay pony was pulled up so suddenly that the pebbles spurted round his feet. “You are going the wrong way; won't you turn and come back by the Ladies' Mile?"
          “This is my nearest way, and there is going to be a bad storm," said Nancy sedately; but she could not prevent her eyes from shining, or her cheeks' pink from deepening.
          “Let me come with you, then, for I know Brownie doesn't like thunder."
          “I have had one accident to-day, so I am not likely to have another," said Nancy, suddenly determined to tell her own little story. If she was to be made ridiculous in the eyes of Noel Curtis, she preferred to do it herself.
          “An accident? Good God! you haven't been hurt?"
          Nancy explained, giving much praise to Mrs. Edwards; and yet it pleased her to find that Curtis attached no importance to her kindness and a great deal to Brownie's behaviour. “What does that beast mean by trying to bolt?" he said, frowning at Brownie, who was peacefully waiting his opportunity of giving Bay Rum a friendly bite; “I always tell you you don't  work him enough. Do send him over to me tomorrow morning, and I'll give him a good spin on the racecourse; that will take the wickedness out of him."
          “Poor old Brownie! he doesn't know what wickedness is. The stone hurt his little feelings. Here comes the rain at last."
          They stopped at a sheltered turn of the road, where a tangle of ilex and rhododendron shielded them from the heavy drops. The thunder crashed in the valley, and echoed from ridge to ridge like signal-guns answering each other. The day had been sultry, but now a cool little breeze brought them the fresh smell of the drinking earth. The rain was soon over, and the sun's last rays patterned the road before them with leafy shadows.
          “It's quite early, and it means to be a fine evening," he said; “shall we go round Elysium? Oh, do come; there is lots of time."
          The mountains were lovely in the sunset light, the mosses and wild-flowers spangled with little water-drops, and the pines freshly green and beautiful. Man and maid went round Elysium together, and the world was very good.

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