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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Many a time had Sirdar's new owner placed him at the disposal of his former mistress (having added to his stable an excitable stud-bred to which Scruby had given the name of 'Biscay' (a boisterous bay); but Miss Hampton invariably excused herself, save when on a few occasions during the cold weather she had indulged in a canter with Trafford and Scruby--never with Trafford alone. The little party usually kept to the uplands of the plateau, where the springy green turf and fine forest trees recalled an English park; and various rides in the silvery moonlight, or the dew-steeped morning, stood out in red letters in the memories of at least two of the trio. Scruby, the energetic promoter of such excursions, offered to escort the lady and his friend to certain widely celebrated cattle races which took place annually on the day after the 'Til Sankrant,' a big local festival.

'Trotting bullocks in pairs in a chakra or ringhi are raced across country for half a mile,' he explained. 'There will be heaps of entries, many close events, and half the district looking on and yelling. Do be tempted--you'll find it quite a good show. It comes off to-morrow close to the village of Gaikhuri, or "Cows' Hoof," an appropriate starting-place, only seven miles from here--we can jog out quietly about three o'clock, and be in lots of time. What do you say?' and he appealed to Miss Hampton and Trafford, who were watching a game of tennis. After some demur on the part of the lady, the expedition was arranged; and at three o'clock the next day, when the two young men rode into the Castle compound, followed by a led pony, a slim figure in a smart Busvine habit--sole | | 149 remnant of a "Europe' outfit,--awaited them on the verandah.

Lily was also there, lolling in a low chair, with a book in her lap, and a generous display of open-worked stockings.

'Oh, I do think you are silly!' she screamed to the visitors as they doffed their hats; 'seven miles in all the sun, just to see those bullocks galloping in carts. You know such things are only for the native people!'

'And why should the native people have all the fun to themselves?' inquired Trafford, who was saddling Sirdar; for my part, I expect a most exciting afternoon--a sort of Cow Derby!'

'Our bheesti is going also,' continued Lily. 'He says his uncle has a pair of good bullocks, and therefore he will risk two rupees--why not let him join you? He can take the piebald! She burst into a shriek of laughter, and presently added, with contrasting solemnity, 'Captain Gresham thinks it awfully bad form to go to such things.'

But what Captain Gresham thought or said, sat but lightly upon her half-sister, who swung herself into the saddle, whilst Sirdar, who was exceedingly fresh, reared and kicked with exuberant spirits.

'Oh, my goodness! Whatt a bobbery pony! Do not let him kill you, Joan, for you have lots to do this evening--and mind you come back err-lie! Now, you promise?'

Joan nodded a smiling acquiescence.

'Doesn't she look awfully smart and different to everyday?' cried Lily, reluctant to lose an audience. 'Once in that saddle she gets away from all this,' spreading out her expressive Oriental fingers, and nodding her head at Scruby and Trafford. 'Yes, but she has got to come back all-ways--all-ways--ah, bah!'

Nevertheless this statement had no discouraging effect on Miss Hampton, who presently rode out of | | 150 the compound on a capering pony, with a cavalier, on either hand. Lazy Lily watched the trio with a countenance of heavy discontent as they broke into a brisk canter and finally disappeared over the brow of the hill; then, stretching her limbs luxuriously on a long chair, and piling pillows at her back, she proceeded to console herself with the contents of a paper of greasy bazaar 'jallabies,' being entirely swallowed up by the East that was in her.

The village of the 'Cows' Hoof' was large, red-tiled, straggling, and embowered in venerable papal trees. Immediately outside its borders a vast concourse were already assembled; also many horned cattle in carts, not a few 'ekkas' and equestrians--riding the usual cow-hocked country 'tat'; vendors of fruit, jallabies (native sweets) and fiery Daru spirit, were thrusting through the crowd and offering their wares with a brazen lung power that rose high above the confused babble of the multitude.

The three English spectators were drawn up on a knoll under a Lindia--a tall, handsome tree, covered with white sweet-scented flowers; here they were well aloof from the mob, and yet commanded a capital view of the course.

Eleven competitors had assembled for the first event, and at a casual glance carts and bullocks appeared to be inextricably mixed in one solid block, but ultimately were disentangled, sorted, and arranged in line. The jabbering rose higher and yet higher, the crowd swayed to and fro, as the drivers stood erect, awaiting the signal to start.

'Why, it's just a burlesque of the Roman chariot races,' remarked Trafford. 'And every bit as exciting in its way,' rejoined Scruby. 'Some of these cattle are surprisingly fast, and take a lot of driving, and there is a nice cheery, 'happy-go-lucky air about the whole business--but no nonsense with regard to the stakes! They are | | 151 deposited with stake-holders before the race, as public opinion is not sufficiently strong to compel the payment of debts of honour! By the way, Miss Hampton, will you have a bet with me? Shall we have something on?'

She looked at him interrogatively--her eyes contained a reproach.

'Oh, not money, of course,' instantly divining her thoughts; 'say one of your sketches of the jungle against a tiger-skin. I've a beauty I got last hot weather--as soft as velvet.'

'No, indeed; my sketches are of little value, but, if you like, I 'll bet one of them against a pair of gloves--four-button suede, size six, if you please.'

'Done with you! Trafford will be our bottle-holder.

'But what about me, Miss Hampton?' he urged; 'may I not have something on too?'

'No, no,' she laughed; 'two bets on one race would be a dreadful strain! But perhaps you will advise me?'

'I must say I think it's rather hard lines that I may have no chance of a sketch; however, I'll be magnanimous, and do my best to pick out the winners. What 'do you think of the little dun pair, number three on the left; the driver has a red rag round his head. They look smart, and in good condition.'

'Very well--yes, I'll back the duns.'

'Much Trafford knows about it!' scoffed his friend.' I choose the big white pair--they are rather bony, but unless I am mistaken, they are Khamarpanis, the fastest breed in the Central Provinces. I hope there will be no accidents or bad smashes; last year two men were killed.'

'Oh, Mr. Scruby,' protested Joan, 'if I'd known these races were so dangerous, I'd never have come.'

'The ground is soft and going good. It's only dangerous when the drivers have too much of that | | 152 abominable Daru; then they are mad, and drive into, or over, anything. Now they are off! Oh, I say, there's an upset already! No harm done. Hurrah--here they come!'

As he spoke, a veritable tornado of cattle and dust, whirling wheels, blows and yells, swept by them.

'The duns have bolted--sorry I made such a bad shot,' said Trafford; 'a red pair are leading--no, by Jove! there's a wheel off. What a capsize! Yes, and another cart down on the top of them too!'

'It's my race!' cried Scruby, waving his hat. 'Look at the white pair winning hands--or rather horns--down'

'It wasn't a square deal! You have been here before,' objected Trafford, 'and know the form of the bullocks.'

'Well, it's all over except the shouting,' said Scruby; 'that excitement did not last long, and I'm a sketch to the good.'

This race was succeeded by others, including several breathlessly exciting matches; there were clouds of dust, various minor accidents, much shouting, triumph, and genial good-fellowship. Noticing that a large crowd had collected at some distance up the course, Joan said--

'Do look over there; I 'm afraid some one has been badly hurt.'

'Shall I go and see what has happened?' volunteered Scruby, and without waiting for an answer he galloped off, and Joan and Trafford for once found themselves alone. The unconstrained confidence of their first meeting, that long talk as they rode back through the forest, with the syce's lantern swinging before them, had not been repeated; accidental acquaintance had never melted into intimacy, and yet both were deeply sensible of a mutual and ever-increasing interest--a subtle influence each exercised over the other. Trafford haunted Joan's imagination; and she was ever present in his day-dreams | | 153 --yet when they were together they spoke little, and then of mere commonplace topics.

Trafford was diffident; the young lady, over-weighted by a consciousness of disability, was prouder if possible than Lucifer himself, and fiercely struggled to thrust from her a strange and alluring element, that threatened to invade her existence.

Trafford watched his friend's headlong career for a moment; then he turned to look at his companion, where she sat beside him, slim and erect under the flowering Lindia. There was a tinge of colour in her small white face, a brilliance in her dark blue eyes as they met his own.

'I am awfully sorry you lost your bet,' he remarked. 'Why did you refuse the tiger-skin?'

'It would have made no difference, would it, as things turned out?' she answered, with a smile that was like a flash of sunlight; 'and if I had won, it was a hundred times too much in exchange for one of my wretched little daubs!'

'Scruby would not think so--nor would I.'

'Besides, my mother hates tiger-skins. She has turned all ours over to Captain Gresham; so what could I do with it?'

'Keep it till you had a place of your own.'

'A place?' she repeated interrogatively; she looked at her companion, and surprised an expression in his eyes that made her drop hers.

'I mean,' he continued, with a seriousness that dismayed her, 'a home of your own.'

'That I shall never have,' she answered, the colour coming into her face; then, looking up and meeting his gaze unflinchingly, she reiterated the word, 'Never!'

'Oh, but look here,' moving Biscay a little nearer, and laying his hand on Sirdar's firm neck, 'listen to me--Miss Hampton--Joan--'

Joan made a quick gesture of protest, and Scruby's approach at a gallop put an end to further discussion.

'It was only a bullock after all!' he announced; | | 154 'and as the genial festivities have commenced, and the moon is up, I suppose we ought to be making tracks for Chandi!'

As he rode beside the young lady through a romantic and fairy-like scene--the moon had risen to her full splendour, the great forests which flowed to the foot of the hills resembled a wide sea of shimmering translucent silver--the sharp crispness of the cold weather was in the air.

His companion seemed unusually gay and talkative, but Trafford, for some reason best known to himself, lagged obtrusively apart--a silent and solitary figure. Miss Hampton's smiles and animated conversation might be given to her listener, but her thoughts, her sympathy, and her heart, were with the other. Joan had long been aware that Philip Trafford cared for her, for what says the proverb? 'Love and smoke cannot be hid.' And she--did she care for him? She dared not ask herself the question. Weeks ago, she had endeavoured to drive him from her thoughts, recalling in good time the photograph of his mother--that handsome, haughty, implacable face! What would Mrs. Trafford--who, it was rumoured, had entertained royalty--say, and think, of her relations, especially of her dusky stepfather and sister--yes, and her poor vulgar little mother, with her terrible lapses in grammar and etiquette? She vowed herself that she would not be such a snob and coward, as to disown, or be ashamed, of her own and blood. Philip Trafford could never be anything to her, and she regulated her manners accordingly, and set the clock to 'slight acquaintance'; friendship might only lead to something else--and as that something else, it would bring family quarrels, separations, scorn, shame, and endless misery. Their two mothers stood as it were with flaming swords and kept the gates of a forbidden Paradise. Who would have believed, when they saw how inflexibly she kept him at a distance, her manner of cold, | | 155 formal reserve, that Joan Hampton had given her sad little heart to Philip Trafford?

'It is best; it is the only thing to do,' she repeatedly assured herself, when she was alone; yet, sometimes, one or two hot unruly tears had splashed upon her sewing.

Scruby--le fâcheux troisième--who had thoroughly enjoyed his afternoon, was sincerely sorry when the glare of Chandi bazaar and the lights of the little Club came into sight, and soon they were riding down the steep slope into the Castle compound, to where Lily stood silhouetted in the verandah.

'0h, my Joan, how late you are!' she screamed. 'Ma-ma has been calling for you such a time, to rub her side, and Captain Gresham is coming to dinner, and you've got to make the sauce and the savoury. You know you promised you'd be home err-lie.'

'Good-night,' said Joan, turning hastily to her escort--she had slipped off her pony before Trafford could assist her--'thank you both so much. I don't know when I've had such a delightful expedition.'

'Be quick, oh, do be quick,' urged Lily. 'Will you hurry?' and she gave a little stamp with her foot.

'It's after eight o'clock, and he'll be here directly!'

When the two young men rode away, Scruby looked back over his shoulders and heaved an exaggerated sigh as he exclaimed--

'Alas, poor Cinderella--where is the Prince?'

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