19. The Ideal! Dim Vanities Of Dreams By Night
From the moment those fatal words were uttered: "Go! I, too, am a wicked woman!" the scales fall from Elizabeth's eyes.
How natural it seems to her now, the so-called Mrs. Quinton's act of sympathy.
But what she does not know, nor can ever guess, is the supreme effort that confession costs Eleanor. It is wrung from her lips through sheer force of will, and as Mrs. Kachin obeys the command, and with head held proudly aloft, passes out into the blinding sunlight, Eleanor receives her first slight since leaving England.
The cup is bitter, it takes away her breath. She stands in the doorway gasping, blinded by the glaring light of day. A victim at the shrine of truth, self condemned, self accused.
It is thus that Carol finds her, gazing tragically at the departing figure of Elizabeth Kachin.
"What's up?" he asks, seeing her distress.
"I have told Elizabeth," she says slowly, "what I am."
Quinton bites his lips with annoyance.
"I should not have thought even you could have committed such an egregious act of folly!"
"I could not help myself. Elizabeth thought me so good, so different, and her words seared my conscience. Ah! you smile, no wonder. It ought to be dead by rights, long ago."
"You poor little thing," he murmurs tenderly. "But it was very silly, and another time do not let a few miserable scruples overrule your better judgment. After all, Elizabeth is no great loss, but it is always unwise and unnecessary to give yourself away. There! I have done my lecture, come and kiss me."
She flies into his arms.
"It is terrible when you are annoyed with me, Carol. I should like you to think everything I do or say perfection. But then we cannot have all we want in life, and especially such a delightful life as ours. Do you know, however deeply you love, however constant you may prove, you can never realise your ideal. It exists alone in the realms of fancy; it is as unsubstantial as a dream--in fact, it is a dream!"
"Have I disappointed you then?" he asks, with a wounded look.
"Oh, no," raising her eyebrows at the bare idea. "I meant it just the other way--that I have failed to please you in everything. An ideal has no fault, and I appear full of errors. An ideal is something good, holy, perfect. I am bad, unreasonable, foolish."
"You certainly have a way of making a fellow feel a cur without meaning it."
"Have I?" says Eleanor simply.
"Do you ever long to be back in London?" asks Quinton suddenly.
"No--a thousand times no! It is a city of destruction, a hell of iniquity, Satan and the Savoy, his satellites Giddy Mounteagle, and----"
"Carol," with deep reproach in her tone, "though my life here with you is one which the 'Elizabeths' of Society shun and condemn, I believe, in the peaceful atmosphere, the blessed quiet, and sweet unfretful days, I have been a better woman. When I think of the daily quarrels in Richmond, the frivolous worldly conversations of Giddy and her set, it soothes all suspicion of regret in my heart. Love is my only law, and this is described as chief among virtues."
"Then you are happy. I have brought some solace and light into your days, Eleanor? If I died to-morrow, or was lost from sight, you would look back and say: 'He gave me my dearest hours, my most treasured memories. He brought me from the slough of despond to the sunshine of the east.'"
"Yes," she murmurs, quoting her favourite song:
"If you've heard the East a-callin',
You won't never 'eed naught else."
She snatches up her guitar with the light laugh of a girl.
"No, you won't 'eed nothin' else, but them spicy garlic smells, An' the sunshine an' the palm-trees, an' the tinkly temple bells."
"Come out for a ride," says Carol, "now it is cooler."
Eleanor's face brightens, her eyes glow. He goes so frequently alone, never even telling her the direction he has taken, and answering shortly when questioned. His suggestion meets with her highest approval.
"We will go by the jungle," she says. "You know my favourite road; not past Elizabeth's hut, since her doors will be closed to me henceforth. I shall miss her friendship when I am alone, but you must not leave me so often now, and we will ask that nice Major Short and Captain Stevenson to come and see us again."
"So you are
fond of society still," says Quinton smiling, "though you denied it just now."
"Two congenial spirits are not 'society,'" she replies, "That word comprises people in a bulk. But here are the horses. Doesn't Braye du Valle look splendid? I hope if I died you would let him drag me to my grave."
"Don't be gruesome," says Carol.
"Oh! we must
take the dog. Where is he? Do go and find him, dear."
"He is such a bothering little beast, we shall be better without him," protests Quinton. "Yesterday he nearly frightened my horse over a precipice, flying into the bushes and fighting with some wild animal. I don't know what it was, but he came out bitten and bleeding. He limped home, leaving a track behind him. Something big rushed away, I shot at it but did not hit it. I don't know how the dog escaped with his life."
"But he is all right to-day, and I want to take him, he is always so busy and amusing," Eleanor persists. "Besides, such a plucky little beggar ought not to be coddled. I think you will find him in my room."
Quinton goes unwillingly. The dog and its vagaries have got on his nerves, though he does not care to own it.
As Eleanor is waiting without she hears the sound of a horse behind, and, turning quickly, is surprised to see a stranger riding up the hill. A tall, handsome woman well developed, with portly shoulders and large hands. She is riding an immense charger, and whistling gaily. At a second glance Eleanor sees that this masculine young woman is strikingly attractive, her style distinctly original, her figure, though large, splendidly proportioned. She has shiningly white teeth under her curling lips--full, red, and smiling. Her eyes are large, dark, and brilliant, flashing like twin stars under a level brow, with black, almost bushy eyebrows.
Her complexion is rich and clear, her hair braided in masses under a man's hat. A gun slung over her shoulder gives her a sporting appearance.
She looks curiously at Eleanor's fragile beauty--the contrast between them is marked.
The whistle dies on the stranger's lips, she sets her mouth, averts her head, lashes her steed, and gallops by--never halting till out of sight of the slim woman on Braye du Valle.
"I wonder who she can be?" thinks Eleanor, watching the departing figure so intently that she never notices Carol return with the dog till he speaks:
"What are you looking at?"
His eyes follow the direction of her gaze, but discern only a cloud of dust in the distance.
"A stranger," cries Eleanor excitedly, "a white woman riding alone."
"Really! What was she like?"
"Big, and bold, and handsome. The sort of 'knock you down' woman who balances weights at music-halls in tights. Giddy and Bertie took me once to a box at the Empire; she reminded me of the strong lady in spangles. A magnificent creature, like a splendid animal."
"Oh!" ejaculates Quinton.
"Couldn't you find out who she is, Carol; I would love to know? She gave me such an odd look from her great brave eyes, then, to my astonishment, galloped madly away as if I were going to eat her. She was armed, too, so need not have been afraid, though I don't look much like a savage, do I?"
"I can't see that we need trouble about her."
"She raised my curiosity."
"Simply because of her good looks."
"She was the strangest woman I ever saw. I should like to know more of her."
Quinton jags his horse's mouth angrily, and, calling the dog, rides forward to stop the discussion.
"He has no thought for any woman but me," mentally ejaculates Eleanor, as she follows on Braye du Valle.
She is perfectly satisfied with her lot as she rides beside him, gazing at his handsome profile.
Some sombre-hued birds on the ground fly into the air as they approach. The transformation from dark feathers to brilliant yellow plumage as they spread their wings in flight is pleasing to the eye.
"I love the golden oriole," says Eleanor, "they look like a flash of sunlight. The Eastern birds are very beautiful."
As she speaks there is a low growl from behind.
Simultaneously Eleanor and Carol turn in their saddles, looking sharply at the dog, and then to the thick growth towards which he is stealing, his tail between his legs and his head down.
"I believe that dog is cracked," says Eleanor, calling him back sharply. "I always feel as if some evil spirit were near us when he behaves like that."
"I told you how it would be if we brought him."
"Let us see what he will do."
The dog has taken no heed of her call, but crouches nearer the bushes, bristling all over. Then suddenly he makes a dive into their midst, disappearing from view.
This is followed by a series of shrill barks--the sound as of a dog fighting for its life--a skirmish--a hideous yell--and then--silence.
"Something has killed him!" whispers Eleanor under her breath.
"We had better get on," replies Quinton; "it may be some dangerous beast."
"What! ride off, and perhaps leave the wretched dog mangled and maimed to crawl away and starve? Carol! what are you thinking of?"
She springs to the ground, flings him her reins, and before he realises what she is going to do, rushes into the bushes after her pet.
"Eleanor, are you mad
?" he thunders, already picturing her devoured by some fierce beast.
It is a moment of horrible suspense. Then she emerges, her face scratched by the low boughs, bearing tenderly the limp body of the terrier, torn and bleeding.
Bearing tenderly the limp body of the terrier.
"He is quite dead," she says sorrowfully, tears standing in her eyes. "I can see the marks of teeth on his throat."
"Poor little beggar! Do you know you too might be dead at this moment for the sake of recovering the lifeless body of a dog? You must be off your head, Eleanor, to do such an utterly insane thing. Whatever were you thinking of?"
"I was excited--my blood was up. I am like that," she answers apologetically.
They ride silently home.
"We shall miss him," sighs Eleanor at last.
"Who? The dog?"
"Yes. We must let Captain Stevenson know."
"I wonder what animal killed him?"
"I saw nothing; only I fancy I heard a rustle in the trees to my right, and the sound of a horse's hoofs scampering towards the jungle. It may have been only imagination, or perhaps the stalwart lady with the fine eyes was hovering near us."
Quinton's face blanches. He turns to her sharply:
"If you did
imagine it, I wish you would not romance."
Eleanor is sorry she has told him, since he appears anxious and uncomfortable. He has never been quite the same since his wrestle with the masked man. He is easily startled and alarmed. She blames herself inwardly for want of discretion, and reassures him with a smile.
"Oh! it was nothing, dearest; if anyone had been riding I must have seen him--I mean--her."
Eleanor knows this is not the case, but seeing Carol's relief at the words, does not regret them.
"We must expect adventures now and again," she continues cheerfully, trying to throw off her depression.
"I shall never forget that night," says Carol, "when I rode away from you in the dark. I did
wish I was on Charing Cross Station."
"It was too bad of me; I might have had the sense not to pursue you, sheer idiotcy on my part."
"Has it ever struck you, Eleanor, to wonder how long we shall go on living in this out-of-the way hole?"
She catches her breath.
"No, Carol. I am quite contented to be here, though I suppose in time you will weary of the place, and we shall move elsewhere. Yours is rather a roving spirit, I fear, never happy for long in one spot. I feel rooted to this restful retreat; but directly you tire of it, only say the word, and I will follow you to the end of the world. We have our home here, and there is plenty of sport for you, so I expect we shall jog along for a while!" with a feeble attempt at a laugh. Any signs of discontent on Carol's part fill her with vague dread and suspense.
"Would it not seem strange," he continues, "to go back to England and be respectable? Imagine yourself in a prim little village, posing as a good young widow, playing Lady Bountiful to the poor, and being called on by the county magnates, while I lived a virtuous bachelor life in the dreary precincts of Clifford's Inn."
apart!" gasps Eleanor.
"My love, I was only 'supposing.' But isn't the idea ludicrous, quite too funny and absurd? You romanced first, I am only following your lead. I have heard respectability termed 'the curse of pleasure.' It kills enjoyment, breeds hypocrisy, fosters discontent, revolutionises Bohemia!"
Eleanor dislikes his flippancy. The picture he has drawn bewilders her. The thought of life without Carol is hideous, impossible. Her usual spirits flag.
"Why are you so dull and down, darling?"
"You make me so!"
"It seems, Eleanor, you can never take a joke."
All the glamour of her present happiness has faded under the saddening influence of Carol's "joke!" But she will not own it is that which distresses her.
"I do not see an animal I know and care for bitten to death every day, and that poor little dog was so attached to me. I wish I had given him the extra biscuit he begged for this morning. I told him he was greedy, and hid it away."
She goes sadly into the house and dresses for dinner in a dainty robe of white muslin cut low at the neck, for Quinton's benefit.
The sudden necessity for looking beautiful, and making herself pleasant and fascinating, comes over her like a nightmare. Her throat is parched. Her temples burn.
The gown is soft and clinging, the effect fairylike and picturesque. Quinton never sees her in this simple garb without an exclamation of approval.
She creeps behind him in the verandah, twining her bare arms round his neck.
He looks at her admiringly, as he would at a picture which gladdens the eye for a moment.
"How late it is," she whispers, kneeling beside him. "Cook is frantic, for all our dinner is spoiled, we were out a long while."
Quamina, who only talks a smattering of English, rushes into the verandah, wringing her hands. Her black lips tremble, her eyes start from her head.
"Oh! Sahib, Sahib!" she cries, "the big black devil that tracks the Sahib, he rode up the hill, there
;" pointing with outstretched fingers.
Quinton starts to his feet.
"Where?" he asks, looking out but seeing nothing. "What do you mean?"
But Quamina continues to shake and cry, moaning "The devil, he has come for the Sahib!"