Beck Center English Dept. University Libraries Emory University
Emory Women Writers Resource Project Collections:
Women's Genre Fiction Project

Babes in the Wood, an electronic edition

by B. M. Croker [Croker, B.M. (Bithia Mary), d.1920]

date: 1914
source publisher: Methuen & Co., Ltd.
collection: Genre Fiction

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PAHARI lay barely a mile ahead, and the pair on their smoking animals rode towards it in absolute silence; for Trafford's sensitive instinct assured him that his companion in their recent adventure must be left to recover herself undisturbed.

As he and his guest dismounted close to the verandah, the new bearer and the cook received them with dignified salaams, and unbounded but secret astonishment.

'The sahib and a miss sahib!' Surely this was against all order and custom.

'We have been chased by the big buffalo,' explained their master; 'please get some hot water in my room for this lady, and make tea and toast. I shall want the grey'--and he looked up to the sky--'in an hour's time. Do you think you can start in an hour?' he asked, as Miss Hampton toiled wearily up the steps.

'Oh yes; if I could only wash my face, have a cup of tea, and rest a little, I shall be all right,' and she followed him into the bungalow.

There was no woman on the premises (except grass-cutters--the syces' wives), and the bearer undertook an ayah's business--brought in hot water, towels, and a piece of soap, and made deft arrangements in the new bedroom. Trafford went in to give a look round. Yes, it was as neat as possible. Manoo, who arrived early, had made the change, and distributed the few things he had brought on the chakra. All the lumber and baggage was removed; the place no longer gave forth the essence of dry-rot and damp, but a clean healthy scent of leather from new gun-cases and boots.

Tea, buttered toast (buffalo butter) and biscuits | | 108 were laid in the verandah, and in ten minutes, Miss Hampton, looking another person, appeared carrying Henry (who had forced his acquaintance upon her) in her arms. Tear-stains removed, her hair knotted up, her expression composed, Trafford again recognized the fact that his guest was a remarkably pretty girl, although she looked thin and delicate, and her pale complexion testified to two hot weathers and two steamy rains. She was rather small, slight, and erect as a wand; in fact, she carried her dark head unusually high! As for her face, it was full of contrasts: the nose was insignificant, but the upper lip, mouth, and teeth were perfection--it was too wide across the cheek-bones (à la Japonaise), but then the dark deep-set blue eyes were of the West, and both eloquent and glorious; delicate ears, nostrils, and fingers indicated race, and Trafford noted, with a satisfaction akin to joy, that she did not bear even a remote resemblance to her mother or sister.

(Naturally Joan had received from Lily, early, exaggerated and copious descriptions of 'Traffy.'

'He was awfulee handsome--oh my! you just should see him! But so grand, and so stand-off--no jokes at all, noa, he could not wink if he tried, and had next to nothing to say for himself.'

Her mother's verdict was, 'A dear, nice fellow, and so polite.' Mr. Castellas's opinion was compressed into tabloid form and the solitary word 'Extraordinary.')

The sky was full of an orange sunset as the young couple took their places vis-à-vis and Joan proceeded to inaugurate the new brown teapot. She poured out tea with Henry in her lap, and he made conversation easy and intimate by occasionally clambering into the tray, and exhibiting other manifestations of a budding character of greediness and push.

Meanwhile, Manoo, the grave-eyed bearer, stood at attention in the doorway, whilst the cook and his | | 109 matey, from a convenient angle, kept an interested watch on host and guest. As if by mutual consent, these said but little of their recent experience--there was no need to repeat or compare their poignant sensations. Death on the white horse had been within a few strides of them an hour ago; they had escaped with their lives; and it were best not to dwell on the past--memory was too vivid, too raw; by mutual consent they endeavoured to thrust it from them, and drive their thoughts into other channels. Nevertheless, as the result of their joint escape they were aware of a reciprocal fellowship, comradeship--friendship.

They discussed tennis tournaments, books, and plays, a commemoration at Oxford, and their several journeys out.

'I fancy that after England this jungle life must be a curious experience for you' said Trafford, looking steadily at the little aristocrat across the table--aristocrat to her finger-tips.

'Well, yes,' she admitted; 'but one gets accustomed to everything in time.'

'As eels do to skinning?'

'That is a fallacy--no one has heard the eel's point of view, and please do not suppose that I am a skinned eel! '

'Oh, I say, Miss Hampton!' he expostulated, in a tone of energetic protest; 'you know I didn't mean that!'

'I love India--it has opened my eyes, given me a wider outlook, and I like the natives, and I adore these solemn magnificent woods, and faint, far-away plains.'

Her eyes as she spoke wandered across the river, to the amphitheatre of distant blue hills, then back to the forest's arched vista, and the silent grandeur of their wild surroundings.

'It is all so real and so peaceful--as if no kind of trouble could ever find one!'

| | 110

Trafford recalled a recent scene, when he had found her sitting in the forest's very heart, a forlorn figure of grief and despair, encompassed by troubles in the form of bills, and made no reply. Evidently she divined his thoughts, as colouring faintly she said--

'You know so much already, I must tell you more. I am not unhappy--oh, please, do not think it; it is only that sometimes I find it hard to do battle with circumstances.'

'We all find that a bit of a tussle.'

'You see, I was brought up by connections of my father's, and when my old cousins died, I was only too glad to come out to mother. I had always understood that she was well off, and I was of course surprised to find that--' she faltered for a moment, half-choked, 'that--things were different. As I have already told you, they are all like children where money is concerned; they really cannot keep it.'

'You, however, can, Miss Hampton, and that is their one chance. If I may presume to offer you advice--be firm and hold the purse in your own hands.'

'Yes, it is the only thing to do--but--' and a look of genuine distress dawned in her eyes, 'it does seem so dreadful to refuse money to one's own mother.'

'You must harden your heart,' and he nodded his head impressively.

It was plain to her, as she glanced at his firm mouth and chin, that, as far as Mr. Trafford was concerned, 'hardening his heart' would be a very simple process.

'Do you think this new venture of Mr. Castellas will come to any good?' he inquired, after a pause.

'I should not like to discourage him,' she replied, 'but he plunged into this scheme far too suddenly; there was no road to Dhona, and no water, when he | | 111 set up his perfume-works. The expenses are heavy and, as far as I can see--and I help with the accounts--the profits are nil.'

'Yet it is a splendid idea,' said Trafford, 'when you come to think of it; the Orientals are wonderful people for perfumes. What a market he could open up!'

'That is true, and Mr. Castellas always seems to strike out brilliant ideas, and they either flicker away, or other less clever, but hard-headed, practical people, suck his brains, and steal his discoveries. For instance, a jute-mill which he started with new improvements, that all but ruined him, is now paying splendidly, and making his supplanter's fortune. He is too dreamy and sanguine--and generous.'

'The artistic temperament, of which, thank Heaven, I have not a grain!'

'I am sure I have many grains,' she said. 'I love the land of dreams, but just now I'm too busy to take many trips there. I help a little at the distillery.'

'You do--and what is the process?'

'Horrible!' and she laughed. 'Quantities of the blossoms are collected in baskets and put into a big vat alternately--think of it!--with layers of fat. This somehow preserves the very essence and juice of the flower, when the heat sends it through the retort into another receptacle. The fat is subsequently drawn off and makes pomade, and the scent is labelled and bottled. Such is the treatment, in a rough outline.'

'Yes, I understand; and I suppose the wages and carting and material come to a considerable sum per week?'

'Oh, a dreadful drain, and of course, the coolies must be paid promptly, also the furnace man, and the baboo, or they would all leave; and it's such a difficult business to find the ready money.'

'And what about the market?'

'Only a few dozen bottles a week latterly; and | | 112 the sales dropping. There must be some flaw in the process, for at times the perfume is quite abominable, not a scent, but an odour--even the coolies complain! But Mr. Castellas is endeavouring to remedy this.'

Trafford was silent; he mentally believed the, 'C.P.' 'odour' would probably go from bad to worse, and he felt acute pity for this pretty fragile girl who sat at the other side of the table.

'I noticed two photographs in your room,' she said; 'I looked at them. One is such a beautiful woman--and the other is a girl.'

'Yes, my mother and my sister, Milly.'

'Your mother!' she repeated incredulously.

'Oh yes; every one exclaims--"Your mother!" She looks so young.'

'I am sure she would be very unhappy if she knew you had such a lonely post as this.'

'No,' he answered deliberately; 'I don't suppose she would mind--one way or the other.'

Miss Hampton gazed at him in unqualified surprise.

'Since you have told me your family secrets,' he continued gravely, 'I think I am bound to tell you one in return.'

Miss Hampton nodded; her eyes were expressive of interest and sympathy.

'My mother does not care about me; it took me a long while to learn this--but I have got the lesson by heart. She does not care for any one but herself--you see she is made that way, and cannot help it! She was born so!'

'Then I am better off, my mother is fond of me; but perhaps you are mistaken--some people have deep feelings which they never show. No, not even if they try!'

'Unfortunately there is no mistake. My mother has no feelings to display; possibly that is why she looks so young. When I was dangerously ill at school, and they thought I was booked--she could | | 113 not come to me because it was Ascot week; and even when I started for India she did not see me to say good-bye, but sent a shilling wire from a shooting lodge in Scotland. Now, on the other hand, Milly, my sister, is all heart. She has, if anything, more than her rightful share, a cruel act or a cab-horse dropping dead will upset her for days; and as for her friends, she would give all she possessed and think it nothing! We used to plan that she was to come out and live with me, as soon as she grew up, and I was settled; but I am afraid Pahari would be trying her rather high--and I believe I'm stuck here for two years.'

'But do let me look round,' said Joan, rising; 'perhaps another girl could judge for you. May I?'

'I shall only be only too grateful,' he answered eagerly.

As they entered the sitting-room together, Trafford explained that he would get a piano, and arm-chairs, and bookcase.

'Yes, and a nice bright chintz,' she added; 'and colour the walls white, and hang pretty cheerful prints. You might put the piano across that corner,' she said, standing and pointing; 'and I think a sofa would just fit along that wall. Really, with some flowers and books and dogs,' dandling Henry (who was somewhat distended in figure and half-asleep), 'the place would be quite gay. And I see you have another room. May I look?' and she stood on the threshold of the chamber of horrors, and glanced within. 'Well, no,' turning slowly round, 'I must admit that there is nothing gay about that. I--I cannot explain, but now and then I take a dislike to places. Please--please don't laugh at me, but there is something uncanny in the atmosphere of that apartment; but of course,' she added, 'you are not foolish like me, and you could give your sister your room and sleep there,' and she moved away into the verandah.

As she stood gazing out towards the forest, it seemed to Trafford that the mere presence of this good, | | 114 innocent, unselfish girl in some way ejected an evil, brooding presence--and hallowed the entire bungalow.

Before her departure he brought her a cheque in an envelope and said, with a nervous smile--

I've only made it out for four hundred--but, honour bright, Sirdar is worth more.'

'I am perfectly satisfied,' she answered, with a business-like air, putting the envelope and contents into her pocket,' and I only hope '--her voice became suddenly husky--'that you will be as good friends as he and I have always been.'

Presently Trafford, riding Gehazi, preceded by a syce carrying a rifle and a lantern, accompanied Miss Hampton through the forest on her way home; the moon had risen, but the woods were dark-save here and there where the light, filtering through the almost impenetrable mass of verdure, fell in broken patches on the grassy track. When within a mile of the border, and well separated from the danger zone, the two parted.

'This has been a most eventful day,' she said. 'I have sold Sirdar, been chased by the celebrated wounded buff, and penetrated to Pahari. I've also been extremely silly. Please forget that, Mr. Trafford, but,' holding out her hand, she added tremulously, 'I shall always, always remember your kindness. Good-bye.'

Then turning about she gave Sirdar his head, and cantered away on Trafford's new pony.

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