WHEN I left England for India early in the year 187--, it was with great reluctance. But, as I had nothing to urge against an arrangement which which my father thought an excellent one except this reluctance, I had agreed to his wish after a protest which he declined to accept as an argument. He was the senior partner in a mercantile house which had, among other business, large transactions in indigo; and though he told me that it was desirable that someone connected with the firm should go to India with a view to making purchases without the intervention of the Calcutta brokers—the cost of whose agency frequently left a very small margin for profit in England,—he had, I am convinced another object in wishing me to leave home.
I had left Oxford more than a year before, and up to this time had not settled to a business life, for which in truth I had little inclination, making no secret of my loathing for the office in the City. The prospect of being taken into partnership at an early date, which my father held out to me to stimulate my languid interest in invoices and ledgers, had a contrary effect; and though he found it difficult to understand my indifference and dislike to a life which more than satisfied his every aspiration, affection for his only son led him to modify his plans, and the Indian scheme was the result.
When I had fairly faced the impending change, I came by degrees to be reconciled to it, so far at least as to accept its conditions with a mental reservation. My father spoke of two years as the period of my banishment; but in my own mind I was determined that, for good or ill, my absence from England should not exceed twelve months. The event proved it to be even less.
After many fluctuations of mood I settled down towards the end of my journey into the cynical indifference so dear to the young. I looked upon my fellow-passengers with critical eyes, and decided that the men were not wise and the women were not fair. I had my own standard, as I considered a man just from Oxford had a right to have, and no one came up to it. I weighed mankind, as represented by some fifty individuals on board the steamer, in my own balances, and found them all wanting; and landed in Calcutta about the middle of February as pretty a specimen of a young prig as any one could wish to see.
By my father's wish I made no stay in Calcutta. He had given me a letter of introduction to a planter up-country with whose name I was familiar upon invoices and other uninteresting documents, and had desired me to present this as soon as possible after my arrival. Accordingly I went on at once to my destination.
It was an out-of-the-way place, and looked to me very dismal. Calcutta had seemed far enough from my own world, and from the centre of the only civilisation which I considered to be worthy of the name; but here was a place so unlike any I had ever seen or imagined that, with the contempt born of ignorance, I made up my mind that existence would be impossible with such surroundings.
The planter's house was the only European dwelling within miles; and though, with the hospitality for which his class is so justly celebrated, he gave me a cordial welcome and bade me consider myself at home for as long as I cared to stay, my spirits sank hopelessly as I accepted his invitation. He was a man of about forty years of age, slightly bald, and his figure already showed that thickening of the outlines which so often accompanies the approach of middle age; but he was active and alert, and had a boisterous cheerfulness of manner which jarred upon me horribly. It was impossible, I thought- with the fine scorn of youth—to have an idea or feeling in common with a man of that kind. He spoke of his wife and child; apologising for the absence of the former, whom he said I should meet at dinner, and led me to my room with a warning that I should hear the gong very shortly, as they kept early hours.
The sun had scarcely set, but the big barrack in which I found myself was almost dark. In one corner was my baggage, and a bearer whom I had engaged in Calcutta, on the strength of a lying chit—which said he could speak English, but which omitted to mention that he was a liar and a thief, the writer probably thinking it unnecessary to mention what any master would be sure to find out for himself,- was overhauling my possessions as if they belonged to him.
I felt as blue as the wretched stuff that had brought me out. "Two years of this!" I said, as I heard in the distance the cadenced howl of the coolies—veritable blue-devils they seemed to me—going to their huts after the day's work was done. "What an ass I was to leave England!"
"Don't dress," my host had said; but the bearer had laid out my kit, and of his wisdom had selected evening dress, and, too indifferent to ask for any other, I put it on mechanically. "Ready for the Opera, by Jove!" I said savagely, as I glanced at my reflection in the glass. "I've a great mind to take everything off, and go to dinner streaked with his infernal blue dye, like an ancient Briton in his woad."
Clang went a gong, and a moment later a servant stood before me with folded hands, muttering some gibberish, which I took to be an announcement that dinner was served. Down a dimly-lighted passage I followed the messenger who had summoned me, and a sudden turn to the left brought me at once to the dining-room. The planter met me in the doorway, and looking beyond him I saw a lady. "It is his daughter!" I thought, with a quick feeling of satisfaction that I had not attired myself in the costume of an ancient Briton. "What a pretty girl!"
"Laura, let me introduce Mr. Scott to you," said my host with great cordiality. "He will be our guest for some time, I hope; and you must do all you can to make him comfortable."
"The pretty girl was his wife, then- and not his daughter! She welcomed me kindly in a few words, holding out her hand with a frank grace that was peculiarly winning, and without further formality we took our seats at the dinner-table.
Though I was conscious of a feeling of disappointment which I did not stop to analyse, in discovering that the relationship between my host and hostess was not that of father and daughter, I yielded myself gladly to the influence of the latter's presence. "If all the women are like this one," I thought gaily, "The place will not be so bad after all."
The light from the centre lamp fell full upon the charming figure of Laura, the shining shoulders and arms half hidden under their thin muslin drapery, and the beautifully-shaped head covered with little rings of light-brown curling hair, short and crisp as that of a child of three years old. When I spoke to her she looked me straight in the face with eyes which, seen by the lamp-light and under the shadow of their heavy lashes, I imagined to be brown, but which in reality were in colour and texture like the deep purple leaf of the heartsease. About her manner of speaking there was a delicious piquancy, and little flashes of humour illuminated her phrases, many of which seemed to me bewitchingly original. She made me think of a humming bird, so daintily did she alight on any subject, and so airily did she flit round the dull stream of the planter's talk.
"If all the women are like this," I had thought as I took my seat beside, her. "There never was a woman like this!" I said to myself an hour later, as she rose from the table, bidding us come to her room when we cared for coffee.
Conversation languished when Laura was gone, and it was with difficulty that I could fix my attention sufficiently to reply to my host's question as to my taste in cheroots. We spoke of the climate, the subject which in India takes the place of the eternal weather in England, of my journey, of books which he had never read, of plays which he had never seen, and it was plain that, as far as was possible, he tried to look at life through his young wife's eyes. "We are alone here," he said; "but not so lonely as you might think. My wife has her books and flowers, her child and her piano; she is fond of riding, and has got the best horse I could find for her. A woman can be contented and make herself happy with all those things, don't you think?" It struck me that his manner was more wistful than assertive, as though he sought rather to reassure himself than to inform me. "We will do what we can for you," he continued, more briskly, "though I am afraid at first you may find it all dull. If you care for sport you can have plenty of that. I am a busy man with lots of leisure, and you may generally reckon upon me."
"I don't care for sport in any form," I said. "my life hitherto has been chiefly spent among books at school and at College; and I am afraid you must count upon my being willing to share the dulness of life up-country rather than upon my being able to contribute anything towards its enlivenment."
He looked at me for a moment across the cloud of smoke which had arisen between us, in grave silence, and something in his expression provoked me. I thought I detected a shade of contempt, and was determined not to be despised for nothing, so I went on:- "I play the violin and sketch in water-colours; and it is because I care chiefly for these things, which my father considers unpractical, and almost unmanly, that he has sent me to this"- my temper was getting the better of my good manners, and I only just checked upon my lips a most uncomplimentary adjective- "place."
For all reply my host rose and threw away the end of his cheroot. "Shall we go to my wife's room for a cup of coffee?" he asked. I felt foolish enough as I followed him along the verandah and entered a charming room, which in any civilised place would have been the drawing-room, but which, as I afterwards discovered, was in this primitive region simply called "Madam's room."
The aesthetic craze, if it existed at all, was in its earliest infancy at the time of which I write, and most certainly had not acquired strength to travel across land and sea. But by some prophetic instinct of selection, the young Englishwoman whose lot was cast in far-away Eastern Bengal had brought together for the decoration of her sitting-room a harmonious variety of objects which would have filled an art collector with envy. As I paused on the threshold, involuntarily paying tribute to the influence at once soothing and exhilarating of one of the most attractive rooms I had ever seen, the planter, interpreting the effect produced upon me in his own fashion, laughed lightly.
"Funny, isn't it?" he said. "But I let my wife have her own way in everything inside these walls. Whitewash and matting are good enough for me; but Laura likes carpets and curtains and what she calls pretty things, though most of them seem to me uncommonly ugly."
Before I could speak a word of the admiration I felt, Laura, who was seated on a low chair by a couch, on which lay a sleeping child, imposed silence by a pretty gesture, her finger on her lip. She apologised for the presence of the little creature. "Little Norah was restless," she said; "and I brought her here, thinking she would sleep better." She rose to give us the coffee which stood upon a small table by her side, and as she did so the child stirred upon its pillow.
"You will forgive me," she said, turning to me, "If I say good night and take baby away?" She lifted it from the couch, and made a lovely picture as she held out her hand to me, the baby on her left arm, its head lying upon her shoulder.
Five minutes later I had left the room, and was groping my way along the dimly-lighted passage to my chamber, across the threshold of which my bearer lay sleeping.
I fell asleep that night in the midst of pleasant thoughts. Life could not be as colourless as I had anticipated with the daily companionship of such a woman as Laura, and with such a haven of repose open to me as this brilliant bower of hers, this dainty shrine in which the goddess, the Madonna - my last waking memory was of mother and child as I had seen them pass into some unknown region through the doorway of which I had drawn away the curtain as they vanished for the night.
That first evening with all its details is firmly fixed in my memory, but of many days succeeding I have no distinct recollection. Morning after morning I rode with my host to one plantation or another; and on our return found Laura in the verandah, sweet and fresh as a newly-blown white rose. Her child was often with her, a dainty miniature of its mother, but with eyes blue as forget-me-nots, and tiny curls of pure gold. Evening after evening we drove, or rode again, but in the evening Laura generally accompanied us; and after our early dinner came an hour or two in the room which I had named my "lady's chamber."
When I had been the planter's guest for a few weeks I suggested that it was time I should seek a residence elsewhere, but my kind host would not hear of it. He pointed out that I should be obliged to build a house if I were determined to have one of my own- a formidable expense which he was sure I should regret; that the hot weather was already upon us, when I should be able to do little or nothing; that I should be lonely to a suicidal degree, and in conclusion urged me to remain where I was. "The house is big enough for all," he said, "and whatever you may think now, I am certain you will not care to stay here as long as your father intended. By this time next year you will have learnt all that is to be learnt here, and a season in Calcutta will teach you more than another twelve months on the plantations. And your company is pleasant to us," he added kindly. "It's dull for Laura without a companion near her own age. You and she get on very well together; you seem to care for the same kind of books and things, and that's what I don't pretend to you know. So stay on with us, my boy, and say no more about it."
This invitation so cordially given by her husband was repeated by Laura with kindly grace; and I accepted it gladly. Already I had made my home in their hospitable house, but from this date began a life of greater intimacy. Instead of carrying back to my own quarters at night the books which I had read during the day, they found a permanent place in Laura's room; and the familiar copies of my favourite authors lay on the same table with her work or desk. I read aloud to her every day, and discovered similarities of taste which I flattered myself were due to sympathies of nature.
I showed her verses which I had written at College, in which I had striven to immortalise the transient emotions of boyhood; and felt honoured by her criticism, which was always intelligent and appreciative. I induced her to speak of her past life, of her innocent eighteen years in a country home where she seemed to have known no excitement greater than a Sunday school fete, or an occasional visit to some quite watering-place. Her mother had been left a widow when Laura was an infant, and she had passed from childhood to girlhood without events of any importance to disturb her tranquillity. She had not been to school, but her mother had proved a careful and able instructress; and what she had learned had been supplemented by what she had read, and it seemed to me that no educational process could have better developed her sympathetic nature and original mind. On the subject of her marriage she spoke little, but I gathered that she had met her husband at the house of a distant relative to whom she was paying a visit; that her engagement had been a short one; and that she had left England immediately after her marriage- now some three years since. Though I often lost myself in dangerous speculations on the subject, I never dared to refer in any way to her sentiments towards her husband, who, good fellow as he was, and to his young wife affectionate and most indulgent, had not, I felt certain, awakened in her heart any feeling warmer than that of gratitude. Her love for her baby daughter was the strongest emotion she had ever known. Of that I felt assured; and I suspected in her life loops and gaps that remained empty, while at the bottom of her heart lay an incurable nostalgia. I say incurable, yet I fully believed that a visit to England would do much towards curing it; and she confided to me a scheme, which she had not yet broached to her husband, for going to visit her mother in the summer of next year, and persuading that lady to return with her to Bengal.
Is there any need to explain how it came about that, before long, the memory of the life which I had left with so much regret grew dimmer and dimmer till it almost faded away entirely? How the home letters for whose arrival I had at first cared so much became a matter of indifference to me? By every mail they came with almost a disturbing effect, and I found myself bored by reference to things which, six months before, had interested me intensely. The stir and bustle of English life came to me as a dull and meaningless but irritating murmur.
The hot season came quickly on, and the morning rides which I was now in the habit of taking with Laura had to be shortened. Though we might leave the house at the first faint glimmer of dawn, the sun was scarcely above the horizon when his beams made it necessary for us to return to the cool shelter of the darkened room, and for twelve hours his fury must be endured there as best we might.
One morning in April we were out at sunrise, and as even then it was too hot for any pace but a slow walk, our horses went on at their own will, while Laura and I talked of English spring mornings and of country lanes with hedgerows bright with blossom, and rippling rills flashing like jewels in the cool sunlight; and of woods where lilies, shut in golden buds, were waiting for the wooing breath of summer to display their beauty, and where the ferns slowly unfurled their soft green fronds in the sleepy light made by the shadowing trees.
"There is all this in England now," said Laura wistfully; " ' 'Tis a month before the month of May, and the Spring comes slowly up that way.' "
I was riding carelessly, the bridle lying loose on my horse's neck- looking at her as she spoke, noting on her lips the faint tremor that shook her voice as she quoted the musical lines with infinite tenderness- when my animal stumbled, and I was thrown to the ground. I do not think that I was hurt by the fall, but unluckily I was flung in front of Laura's horse, and his next step was upon my arm, the bone of which snapped under his foot. Laura dismounted and was by my side in a moment, and seeing her expression of dismay I strove to reassure her by endeavouring to rise. The pain, however, was almost unbearable, and in spite of my efforts a sick faintness obliged me to give up the attempt. The situation was unpleasant enough; a mile from the house, no one in sight, not a tree for shelter, and the sun already pouring down a purgatorial foretaste of his infernal heat.
By a fortunate chance the house of one of the overseers was nearer than the planter's, and thither Laura went for assistance; returning in a short time with all the help necessary. I was carried home, and the overseer, who boasted some rude skill in bone-setting, brought me by a rough road of torture to a land of dreamy ease. Fever was the natural result of what I had undergone, and for some days after my accident I did not see Laura. I was journeying in a fantastic land of delirium, climbing perpetual mountains, descending endless valleys, tortured like Tantalus by glimpses of cool water which was never brought near to my thirsty lips, or still more by visions in which the draught I craved rolled like a stream of burning lava down by parched throat.
But it was not my illness alone that separated me from the dear presence of Laura. She also had been ill with an attack of fever, brought on by exposure to the sun that unlucky April morning; and when at last I was strong enough to meet her in her own room, I was startled by the change wrought in her appearance in so short a time.
It was during those days of convalescence that I fully realised the nature of my feelings towards the woman whose sympathy and gentle kindness had surrounded me with an atmosphere of peace and contentment which nothing from without could penetrate or disturb. It may be that my will had been weakened by illness no less than my physical strength. It is certain that for a time I made no effort against myself, and—though no word of love affronted the sweet sisterly affection which I well knew was all she gave me, or would ever give- I yielded unresistingly to the dear delight of her presence; and in the dim shade of my "lady's chamber" I felt like a soul that has won paradise by purgatorial pains and, in that calm haven, takes no thought of past or future.
The planter showed always towards me a certain rough kindness, though I believe in his heart he rather despised me that I did not sooner shake off the grip of illness, and bestir me like a man; and gave me a friendly greeting night and morning; but the whole long languid days belonged to Laura and to me as absolutely as though we had been the only created man and woman, and the cool shade of her room the lonely bowers of Eden.
Long, monotonous, delightful days grew to weeks. I had recovered my strength, and with health so much mastery of myself that I had thrust into the background the passion which, at one time, had threatened to overpower honour, truth, and all the good impulses of my nature. I know now, even better than I did then, with what devotion I worshipped the best and sweetest woman I have ever known. But this is not a love-story, and there came a time, all too quickly, when I found my only consolation under an overwhelming grief in the knowledge that no breath of mine had ever dimmed the pure mirror of her soul.
The moist unhealthy heat of the rainy season tried Laura's feeble strength to the utmost; and one attack of fever after another so far reduced her that in his alarm her husband promised to make arrangements for taking her to England early in the following spring. I would go with them, I declared; and we discussed our plans day after day with an eagerness that never failed, and Laura and I talked like happy children of the sights we would see together in the lovely garden-land of England. In the prospect of again seeing her old home, Laura revived and brightened wonderfully. Her step was lighter, her cheek less pale, and her constant reference to home showed how close the hope lay in her heart.
She whispered of it to her year-old baby, and declared that the little creature understood what was in store for it as well as we did. "Oh!" she said one day, with a little impetuous burst that startled me; "nothing shall keep me now! I would cross the land barefoot; I would swim the sea, rather than not go! You never knew," she went on, misreading the expression of my face, "that I cared so much about home? Why, when I hear of the poor creatures who make a vow to measure with their bodies the miles that lie between them and some shrine if only the goddess will give them their heart's desire, I feel that I could do the same if by so doing I could reach my England!"
There was no portent in the air, no sign in the sky that evening, as we watched the sunset from the verandah of Laura's room; but before dawn of the next day the crisis of our lives had come.
The night was sultry, and rest was impossible for some hours after i lay down, but I fell at last into a sleep so deep that neither dream nor vision could penetrate it. From this I was suddenly roused by a terrible clamour, and by flashes of lurid light that seemed to extinguish the pale gleam of my night-lamp. Hideous sounds—that to my half-awakened, wholly bewildered, senses conveyed no meaning, but fell on my startled ear with a nameless horror such as the dead may feel when roused from their long sleep by the trump of doom on the Last Day—resolved themselves at length into a delirious beating of innumerable tom-toms, and the frantic yell of anguish and affright. I saw that the red light flamed from a score of torches held by the plantation coolies who hurried aimlessly hither and thither. Before I had time to speculate as to the meaning of this terrible scene, my bearer rushed into the room, a ghastly pallor overlying his brown colour; and gasped with shivering lips, which he could with difficulty control sufficiently for speech—"The cholera, sahib! the cholera!"
I dashed past him, and on to the large door at the front of the house. The planter and a couple of Eurasian overseers were standing under the porch, from which position the distracted coolies could be plainly seen. Dismay was written on their faces, and not without cause; for in the silent night the cholera had fallen like a thunderbolt upon the village; a dozen coolies were dead since midnight, a score more were dying, and the remainder, panic-stricken and helpless, were flying in all directions. There was no doctor within reach, and if there had been, what could he have done against the awful power which even to its victims gave no warning of its approach, but with invisible hand wrung the life out of a man in an hour's time?
The planter alone was calm and self-possessed. "There are medicines," he said to the overseers; "you can give them; but- I have seen this before. Tell them to put the stick into the large godown; and, if any one can be found to do it, make them burn the dead at once."
As he spoke the light of a huge fire flashed out upon the darkness, paling the torches that had seemed so bright before, and we saw distinctly, though we were some hundred yards distant, that it was a funeral pyre. With cries that reached us even through the throbbing beat of the tom-toms which never stopped, the living cast the dead upon the fire, the fury of which they sought to increase by every means in their power.
A door opened in the verandah, and Laura stood beside me, her child in her arms, and face white as death in the terrible corpse-light. "Charlie," she said, "look at little Norah; she is ill."
Her husband, occupied in giving directions to the overseers, had gone with them to some little distance, and Laura and I were alone. The wan face which lay on her bosom was not that of the blithe little creature who had bidden me good-night with a kiss from her rosy lips some hours before. It was pallid, pinched and sunken, and the golden curls were matted and damp upon the waxen brow. I saw at a glance that there was death in the baby's face and despair in the mother's.
"She is as cold as clay," Laura whispered, "and even her breath is icy chill."
I took the corpse-like figure from her arms and carried it into her room. The planter was away among the coolies and could not be found, and Laura and I kneeling one on each side of the couch on which I had first seen this baby sleeping, watched it die.
Cholera in its most appalling form had seized the nursling about midnight, and before its danger was realised it was past all hope or help. The tiny rose-bud hands were clenched, and the forget-me-not eyes dim and glazed when I laid it down. The light of dawn struggling with the lamp-light made the scene very ghostly, and not a word was spoken till the planter hurried into the room.
"You sent for me, Laura," he began, and stopped as his eye fell upon the kneeling figure of his wife, whose head was bent down upon the pillow where the dead child lay. I rose and left the room.
I threw myself upon my bed feeling sick and ill, and, for some time lay there almost stupefied by the suddenness of the shock. When I left the room I heard terrible news. The pestilence was spreading and the panic had reached the house; not a servant was to be found.
The planter looked old and grey as he told me that the deaths among the coolies were mounting up with awful rapidity; and his voice broke as he said that little Norah was to be buried at sundown.
"And Laura?" I asked.
He answered at once like a man whose mind is made up.
"She must be taken away from this. I cannot go. Will you take her? My place is here; but I won't risk her life. Take her to—" He named the nearest hill station. I have sent to lay a dooli dak, and after sundown you must start.
"You can be ready?"
I went at once to make arrangements for the journey with my bearer, who put up my kit with alacrity.
"I not go Sahib," he said with a ghastly grin. "My mother gone dead in Calcutta. I go; come again in two weeks."
The man was terrified and useless.
Baby Norah was buried at sunset in a spot consecrated only by the use to which it had been put; and by the side of two others, whose resting-places were marked by crosses of decaying wood, the planter and I laid the little body for its last long sleep.
Laura's dooli was ready when we returned to the house, and a syce was bringing my horse round from the stables, coolies were taking up their burdens, and the time for our departure had come.
The planter went into Laura's room; and I awaited her in the verandah. The door opened, and she appeared, dressed for her journey, pale and wan with weeping- the very ghost of herself. Her husband supported her with his arm, and there were traces of strong emotion in his face. I drew back; for suddenly he clasped her in a farewell embrace, and, never heeding the presence of a crowd of servants and coolies, kissed her repeatedly.
"My love," he said, "must I lose you too?" God only knows what my happen before we meet again!"
Laura was settled in her dooli at last, and everything was ready; there was no possible excuse for further delay; we only waited for the word of departure, which the planter seemed loth to give.
At last he turned to me. "Charlie," he said as he wrung my hand, "take care of her; she is all I have in the world. God do so to you and more also, if you fail in your care of her." Before I could reply he had turned from me, seeking to hide the emotion by which he was shaken.
I mounted my horse in silence, and set forth upon this most fateful journey walking slowly by the swinging dooli, the door of which was closed on the side nearest to me. Besides ourselves there were only the necessary coolies and bearers; Laura's servants like my own had excused themselves from accompanying us on various pretexts. They were completely demoralised by panic.
Our destination was three days' march distant, but it had been arranged that we should travel at less than the usual rate of speed, that Laura might not be overfatigued; and the dawn of the next morning brought us to the dak-bungalow, where we purposed to spend the day. A couple of sheep were procured for the coolies, who were to feed and sleep all day, and would thus be ready to take us on again at sunset, and I undertook to make the superannuated half-blind khansamah in charge prepare a meal for us.
His best efforts resulted in an abominable breakfast, which Laura was unable to touch. "I think it is only my want of appetite," she said, as I used some strong language in reference to our incapable cook. "I shall be less tired at dinner time, and then you will see that things will be better."
She was looking pale and wary, and I made a couch of one of the cots in the room by a careful arrangement of rugs and pillows, and induced her to rest there; offering to read to her from one of our favorite books which I had brought with me.
"I cannot listen, Charlie," she said; "my heart is too full."
What could I say to comfort her? My heart also was too full; but full of a love I dared not speak; and though I would have given my life for her I could utter no word of sympathy; for speech would have betrayed what now, more than ever, I was bound never to reveal.
She fell asleep presently with little Norah's name upon her lips; and exhausted by fatigue and emotion, slept through the hottest hours of the day.
A dinner if possible more odious than the breakfast closed the day, and Laura tried in vain to eat the unpalatable food set before her. As I put her into her dooli I was startled to feel that her hand was hot, and trembled in mine with a feverish vibration.
"You are ill," I said; "let us stay here till to-morrow morning, that you may have a chance of being better able to bear the journey."
"I am afraid I am going to be ill," she answered; "but we won't stop here. We will see at the end of the next stage what is best to be done, if I am not better." Her eyes were bright, and her breath came rapidly as she spoke; and my heart died within me as I made every arrangement of which our resources allowed for her comfort. She was inclined to sleep, and had no doubt that would refresh her. I was devoured with anxiety, for I feared another attack of the fever from which she had suffered so severely, and tried in vain to think that it was only natural that the anxiety and grief she had suffered during the last twenty-four hours should produce some ill effect, and to hope that rest was all she needed. She seemed sleeping through the earlier hours of the night; but towards dawn fell into a shivering fit which alarmed me excessively. I heaped upon her all my rugs and wrappings, taking off the overcoat which the chill night air had made me put on, to increase their number. I promised whole flocks of sheep to her bearers if they would quicken their pace; and the good fellows did their utmost and brought us to the door of the rest-house in an incredibly short time.
I took her in my arms, and carried her into the only room the poor little place afforded, and as I laid her upon the cot which stood in the middle of the bleak-looking den she lay back in a stupor, which, in my ignorance of illness, seemed to be of the most alarming kind.
I felt that the first thing to be done was to find her food; and after a hurried search in the outhouses connected with the bungalow, I came upon the khansamah, very drunk.
I adopted my treatment to his condition, and bribed him with a bottle of brandy to procure some milk. A goat was tethered close by, and I returned to Laura's side with a glass of milk, into which I had poured some brandy. The exhaustion of fever had been increased by want of nourishment; and a few spoonfuls of this restorative, which with the tenderest care I put to her pale lips, revived her.
In an hour's time my anxiety was immensely relieved, and though her face looked like a fading white rose, she could smile and speak to me.
An hour, however, exhausted her feeble strength, and the white rose changed to burning crimson as she fell asleep again; assuring me that, when evening came, she should be able to continue her journey.
I sat by the window, not to disturb her while she slept. The coolies lay at a little distance under the shadow of the avenue of trees through which the last mile of dusty road swept. Far overhead I heard the scream of the circling kite; and with a stupid kind of interest I watched a goat disposing itself to rest in a strip of shadow under the eaves of one of the outhouses. A lean, dust-coloured bullock limped painfully along by the mud wall of the compound, looking with a dissatisfied eye at the dry tufts of burnt-up grass in the white dust. Within was shadow and comparative coolness, but the bare room was almost as dreary as the wide wariness of the outside world. The fate that had led Laura from the chances of the happy life of England with its green Summer and cool air seemed trebly cruel, and the bitterest pang I had yet suffered for her sake tore my heart as I turned from the ghastly waste upon which the window opened to look upon her sleeping form. She lay in perfect tranquillity, breathing quickly, but, as I fondly hoped, with healthful regularity and ease.
As the leaden-footed hours crept slowly by and still she slept, the assurance of her well-being, with which this slumber had at first soothed my anxiety, changed to alarm.
The flush of fever had again faded, and the wan pallor of her cheek and the complete prostration of her form, as she lay hour after hour on her pillow, absolutely motionless, terrified me. From time to time I knelt by her side and spoke her name in a soft whisper, for the day was passing, and the hours of silent watching had reduced me to a state of intense anxiety as to the future. If we were to go on with our journey, the termination of which was still a long march distant, Laura must awake and take some refreshment, and if she was too ill to proceed-. The urgency of this thought made me speak her name aloud; and the faintest motion of her closed eyelids showed me that she heard my voice, but beyond that there was no sign of consciousness.
In a restless agony I went again to the window, and saw that the coolies were making preparations for our departure, and that it was necessary, without further delay, to learn from Laura if she felt able to bear the motion of the dooli.
Once again I knelt by the cot on which she lay, and took her hand in mine. It felt strangely chill in my warm clasp, and the dim terror, which for some hours had haunted me, took a distinct shape at the unresponsive touch of her small fingers. With a cry which I was unable to restrain, I folded her closely in my arms, and pressed my lips to her pale cheek. As I did so her eyes opened; and her whole face was illuminated by an ineffable smile, while her bosom heaved in a long, soft sigh. By some despairing instinct, I knew in a sudden flash that this smile was her last farewell; and that I now only held to my heart the sweet body from which her pure young soul had escaped.
The waxen image which lay on the pillow where this beloved woman had rested was a thing of unfamiliar beauty, scarcely in any way reminding me of the warm loveliness which had been the delight of my eyes for so long. The fever in my blood was subdued by the touch of that icy hand, and it seemed to me that, could Laura have been given back to me again in place of that pale stranger, the passion that had possessed me would henceforward have changed to a pure and tender emotion which could have been the consolation and best influence of my life.
At sunrise the body of Laura was laid to rest under the shadowing branches of a large tree, about a hundred yards from the bungalow. A native woman of the lowest caste, with gentle kindly hands, had prepared her for her grave, by swathing the dear form in a thin woollen shawl, going softly about the room with pitiful little ejaculations, and, now and then, pausing to wipe a tear from her brown cheek with the end of her crimson chuddah. This tender soul came an hour later to the newly-raised mound, and laid at its foot a little offering of bright, yellow flowers; then, making respectful salaams, stooping almost to the earth, she hid her face in her drapery and passed slowly out of sight, having sought no reward for her services.
Stunned and bewildered as I was, I yet remembered that it was necessary that the planter should know of Laura's death. I had taken from her hand the two rings which she always wore, and one of these, her wedding-ring, I enclosed in my letter to him. I gave this to the muccadum, with instructions to return at once to the place from which we had started three days before, and to deliver it into the Sahib's own hand.
In a fortnight's time I was in Calcutta, having made arrangements to leave for England by the next mail-steamer; and on the morning of my departure I was surprised to see the man to whom I had entrusted the letter containing the ring. He took from the inner folds of his upper garment a small parcel wrapped in paper, and gave into my hand my own letter, the envelope unopened, but much soiled, and closely covered with the lines of a strange handwriting in which I read that the planter had died of cholera within twenty-four hours of our departure.