15. Ah, For Some Retreat, Deep In Yonder Shining Orient
"Have you ever heard anything more of that poor Mr. Roche, whose wife deserted him?" asks Erminie's sister-in-law.
"No," replies Mrs. Lane sadly. "We had one awful night when he came and told us the news, and fainted. I am so weak-minded, I thought he was dead immediately, and shrieked and tore my hair, and made quite a scene. I always jump at conclusions, it is so stupid of me. Nelson had a bad time of it that night. We sent for a doctor, but it was ages before we got him round, and then he seemed so strange and reticent that it frightened me still more. I thought he would lose his reason, he had just that look on his face. The following day he left us without a word. He just held both my hands very tightly, and said thank you with his eyes. Of course I made a fool of myself, and kissed him and cried over him like a child, which only made matters worse. I asked him what he intended doing, and he gasped 'Eleanor' under his breath, and rushed out of the house. We have never seen him since."
"How strange! Then he has entirely vanished out of your lives? I thought he seemed strangely depressed at the theatre, the evening we went to the Savoy."
"Ah! that was the night before."
"Yes, he disappointed me. I had heard so much of your charming cousin, but I suppose the poor fellow had some inkling of it then."
"I never expect to see him again. He was a very sensitive man, and the curious or condoling looks of acquaintances would have driven him mad. Nelson says he has left England, yet no one knows where he has gone. The nice home on Richmond Terrace is broken up, and I have practically lost a brother. It was a strange ending to his married career."
"That is what comes of marrying beneath you. These people with low minds----"
Erminie stops her sister-in-law with a deprecating gesture. She is staunch to Philip, and knows how it would pain him to hear these words.
"I was fond of her," she says simply. "Let us talk of something else."
"I wish we could go up to the source of the Irrawaddy River, where no white man has ever been," says Eleanor, laying her hand confidingly in Carol's. "I should not be afraid with you, dear--such a traveller, and knowing the country so well. How many years is it since you were last in India?"
"Over seven. How did I drag through them without you?" he replies tenderly.
"We had a glorious voyage, didn't we? and everybody was so nice to us. I remember, Carol, how frightened I felt when first you suggested this long journey, and promised to take me north of Burmah to this strange, uncivilised village, where I should have to eat nothing but rice, or shoot my own game. Of course you had been here before, and though it is so wild and out of the way, there are still some white people to remind us we are not all savages."
"My dear, you must not call them 'savages,'" he says smiling. "They are really very nice, though a trifle odd and original; but that is what you like, I believe."
"Oh! yes. I am quite in love with my black servants. I think they are ever so much more picturesque and pleasant than my Richmond acquaintances. They look on me as a white angel, which no one would have done at home," with a smile at her quiet humour.
Eleanor's feelings by now are blunted to a certain extent, and she frequently jests on the wholesome horror with which her English friends must now regard "that reckless Mrs. Roche!"
Yet there are times when the thought of her sin rises like a dark thundercloud over the sunshine of this life of love.
She is standing in the low verandah of her bamboo house, looking out over a network of gorges, rifts, and ravines, precipices in peaks, with villages crowning each crest. The houses are thatched with long grass, which grows over the hills, while below in the valley the rice is cultivated in terraces. The villages are stockaded with bamboo, and the water runs through them in troughs of split bamboo.
"The people are certainly very dirty," says Eleanor, watching an old woman with large amber earings, pounding rice, and talking to a dusky man in a blue turban.
"Yes. They wear their clothes till they fall off, and never wash except when it rains. That man below is a noted warrior in these parts."
"How do you know?"
"You see the sword slung over his shoulder, with a bamboo hoop? Well, the tiger's hoop is a sign of distinction."
"I wish the old woman would stop pounding. She makes my back ache to look at her. She has been making linen on a loom all day, and must be dreadfully tired."
"Did you notice the bell on it?"
"Yes. What was that for?"
"So that her lord and master may know when she stops working."
"There was a funeral to-day," says Eleanor; "the guns have been going since morning in the jungle, to keep the spirits off. What a misery it must be to believe in 'Nâts.'* That old woman there gave me a charm. I am always to wear it to keep the devils off. Do you think it will, Carol?" with a low laugh. "Or am I theirs already?"
"Don't, Eleanor," he cries, drawing her to him. "I cannot bear to hear you say such things."
She wriggles herself free, determined to tease him.
"But there are heaps of devils about," she declares, shaking her head; "or else why do they put up arches especially to keep them off--propitiate them, and prevent their entrance into the village? They have little bamboo huts like dolls' houses, and place food inside, that the devils may lodge and eat. It seems that the corpse to-day had a good time of it. They gave him a month's food, new gong and gun, a complete set of new clothes, and two or three gourds of Zoo--they are always drunk with that stuff. It is an awfully strong drink, though made from rice, which sounds innocent, doesn't it? Rice always reminds me of my bib-and-tucker days."
"It is rather like English cider, with the strength of whisky. But what a lot of information you pick up, little woman, while I am out shooting!"
"It terrifies me when you are away all day," she declares. "Then I feel lonely--deserted--afraid. Tigers and bears are such alarming things to picture you chasing, though you are accompanied by a troop of negroes."
Eleanor leans back in a low chair, gazing wistfully across the wild country. She can see the course of the Irrawaddy river, with its numerous rapids and picturesque cascades. It seems only the other day that she and Carol steamed up it, past Mandalay, Bhanio, and Myitkyina. She wishes they could travel on overland through the jade, amber, and ruby mines, but Carol fears for her, and prefers to stay in these more quasi-civilised regions.
A group of women and girls strikes her eye, carrying loads supported by a strap encircling their foreheads, after the curious fashion of Dundee fisherwomen.
The unmarried girls wear square-cut fringes and their hair hanging loosely at the sides to the shoulders, while the married women have it done up decorously on the head.
"I am glad I have not to carry loads like those poor creatures," says Eleanor softly; "yet perhaps an external load is better than an internal one. Sometimes, Carol, I remember that I once had a conscience. It just stirs and half wakes when I am quite alone. Often in the darkness I fancy I see Philip, or feel as if he were near me. I would sooner die a thousand deaths than meet his eye."
"Do not think of it, dearest; we have cut ourselves adrift from old associations for that purpose. There is nothing to remind you or trouble you."
"Nothing," replied Eleanor, "I am content, Carol. We have discovered an Eden--after the fall."
Eleanor is in a roving mood, and while Carol is engaged in the mild sport of pheasant shooting for a change, she wanders alone into the jungle to watch the children playing with large beans like marbles. Though she cannot understand what they say, she grasps the method of the game, watching it with amused interest. They are such queer little dusky creatures.
One boy among them especially attracts her attention. His face is strangely European, and his features noticeably different to those of his comrades. Yet his skin is dark and swarthy, there can be no mistaking the black blood in his veins.
Now and again Eleanor fancies she catches an English exclamation from his lips. She wishes she could join the children in their gambols, as in her girlhood at Copthorne. But they eye her suspiciously and sidle away when she approaches.
She wanders back disconsolately, wishing she knew more of the boy with the European face.
That very day her wish is satisfied. It is late in the afternoon, and Carol is still out. She is too blinded by love to resent his selfishness in leaving her so much alone, and wanders down to the river, singing from sheer lightness of heart.
She sees as she saunters along a trap set for a deer, and gives it a wide berth as she passes.
It consists of a noose fastened to the top of a pliant tree, which is bent down and pegged across a path leading down to the water. Thus it serves to entrap prey on the way to drink.
She has scarcely gone a hundred yards when a shriek rends the air, and turning simultaneously Eleanor sees a small boy trip over the noose, which, released from the peg, flies back with the full force of the tree, carrying him into the air with it.
She rushes up terror-stricken at the horrible sight. The screaming child is suspended far above her head, the cruel thongs cutting deeply into his flesh.
The sight puts energy and cat-like agility into her limbs. She climbs the tree with all the daring of her orchard days, tearing great rents in her dress, spurred on by the cries of the helpless victim. She creeps on hands and knees along the willowly bough, upon which he hangs till her weight combined with his brings the inevitable result. A crack, a crash, and the two fall together to the ground. Unharmed herself save for a few bruises and scratches, Eleanor releases the unfortunate child, raising his bleeding body tenderly in her arms, binding up the wounds with her handkerchief, and soothing his groans with kisses.
"Oh! dear," she says, "I wish I knew where you lived, you poor little darling."
To her intense surprise the boy replies:
"Up there," pointing feebly with an injured arm.
Then she sees for the first time he is the child with the European features.
"Will it hurt you if I carry you back?" asks Eleanor.
"Best try," answers the boy abruptly.
He is heavy for his age, but she staggers forward manfully, while the little aching head drops confidingly on her shoulder.
"You're awful pretty," he gasps at last, "and I am dropping no end of blood off my arm on your bodice. Oh! how my leg hurts. Guess I have broken it clean in two."
At every step Eleanor fears she must give in, the perspiration is standing out on her forehead, while her own wounds smart and ache.
"I am afraid I shake you terribly up this hill; would you like me to rest a moment?"
Eleanor hopes he will say yes, for her strength is giving out.
"Sit on that stone, I'm just dying," moans the little lad.
Eleanor eagerly assents, and moves him into a more comfortable position.
"My mother is white like you," he says at last, raising his head.
"Is she, dear? Are you better? Shall we go on?"
"Yes, please. We may meet father, he is ever so big and dark. I shall be big and dark too, all the good men are black."
"And the good women?" asks Eleanor, smiling in spite of her load.
"Oh! white of course, white all over like you and mother, hands, feet, everything."
Eleanor staggers on breathlessly up the hill, the boy seems to grow heavier at every step. She is nearly exhausted. He is like the weight of her sin, which increases with time.
Eleanor staggers on breathlessly up the hill.
One or twice she stumbles, the boy clutches her round the neck, fearing she will fall upon him, and his hands half choke her. She gasps for breath.
"Is it much farther?" she pants, turning sick and dizzy with the climb.
"No, there is my house, that hut ahead, see."
It has come in sight not a moment too soon, for Eleanor's arms are cramped and paralysed by supporting his body, her cheek pale with the heat, her heart fluttering spasmodically.
Only a few steps more, and she will have reached the haven of refuge. How foolish it would be to fail now.
Through sheer force of will she reaches the hut, and as the boy cries "Mother! mother!" she sinks exhausted in the entrance, still holding her suffering burden in her arms.
A woman rushes out, and takes her bleeding son from the stranger's embrace.
"He has been hurt," explains Eleanor faintly. "I carried him up the hill."
"Oh, you good soul!" cries the grateful mother, feeling her son's arms and legs; "and you're just as done up as can be. Come in, you poor young thing, and I'll give you a drink of Zoo to pull you round."
"No, thank you, I don't want anything. I am better now; but let me help you with the boy. We had better get his things off, and wash the wounds."
Together the two women tend the child. His leg is strained, not broken, and they put him to bed and watch him till he falls into a restless sleep.
Then their eyes meet, and the mother holds out her hand to Eleanor.
"God bless you!" she says; "if anything had happened to Tombo we should have broken our hearts. He is our only child."
Eleanor has recounted the history of the accident, leaving her share in the background, and making as light of it as possible.
She thinks, as she looks at the white woman, with her fair hair and sandy eyelashes, that something in the face brings an indistinct memory to her mind.
She glances curiously around the hut, adorned by the heads of animals.
"I must go," she says; "it is getting late."
"The boy is sleeping. I will walk home with you."
"No, stay by him. I shall be all right alone."
"They have shot a tiger, and will be all drunk in the village for a week. You are different to me. I must come."
"Thank you," says Eleanor. "I shall enjoy your companionship. May I ask your name?"
"Elizabeth Kachin. And yours?"
Mrs. Roche's eyes droop as she turns them away from the sleeping face of that innocent child.