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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ALTHOUGH she bore tropical heat with surpassing fortitude, it was a novel experience for Mrs. Heron to spend a hot weather in Chandi; but as she was returning next year to England 'for good,' she decided to 'remain down with Tom,' and was eloquent and pathetic on the subject of such rare virtue and self-sacrifice. In truth, the lady was sick of picturesque Pachmari ('five caves'), the hill station of the Central Provinces: of the people who annually resorted there, of the scenes of repeated picnics and conventional flirtations,--and perhaps Pachmari was a little tired of her!

Moreover, she was a bridge fanatic, and amazingly lucky. Of late, other players were somewhat shy of the lady's company,--as she was credited with a 'roving eye' and an uncanny knowledge of hands.

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Chandi, after all, was on a plateau a thousand feet above the scorching plains, and she would be comfortable enough in her own cool and darkened bungalow, with all the newest novels and every alleviation of the temperature that money could devise. Mrs. Heron was naturally and secretly superstitious, her nerves were highly strung; recently she was obsessed by a strange presentiment, a vague, dim, indefinite impression, that something was going to happen. After a period of blank monotony, a change was about to take place in Chandi--in what form she could not divine; but that it was approaching, she was confident. It produced, in its way, a sensation similar to that indescribable feeling in the atmosphere, which is a certain precursor of the breaking of the rains. Who or what would it affect? In what shape would it arrive? Did it mean death, triumph, success, or disgrace to one of the community? The oracle was dumb. After all, the possibilities were not very alarming, or likely to relate to herself. Mr. Baxter might lose his sight and give up the Mission--the Castellas be turned adrift--or Trafford fall victim to a tiger.

Meanwhile Chandi was hopelessly soporific, and its principal Mem Sahib welcomed the premature return of Dudley Dene,--although he was not a young man that she particularly liked, with his dark complexion, brooding, tragic eyes, and air of suppressed impatience. He had been shockingly spoiled on account of his wealth, and except on the important subject of bridge, they had not one single idea in common, and to her circle she made no secret of her opinion, that he had black blood in his veins--West Indian, no doubt!

Nevertheless Mrs. Heron invited Mr. Dene to tea, being anxious to pump him and to acquire the latest jungle news, and if Miss Trafford had succeeded in captivating Colonel Tristram? (the future Earl of Pulborough). That girl's hardihood in attaching | | 268 herself to the shikar party was the most audacious feat Mrs. Heron could recall in a world-wide experience. Mr. Dene, who declined the invitation to tea, was therefore asked to dinner, and most of the station were bidden to meet him; the Castellas (five), Dr. Collins, Mr. Maguire, and Mr. Chapman, all accepted, with the exception of Mrs. Castellas, who was feeling the heat, and her husband, who remained with her.

Mrs. Heron, wearing a rose-coloured diaphanous garment--peculiarly becoming to her lissom, voluptuous grace--received her guests in the darkened drawing-room, and presently they were all enjoying an excellent cold repast. The dishes were in aspic, the sweets were iced, the wines cooled to perfection. With the sole exception of the hostess, it was a 'white party,' from the tablecloth and punkah, to the snowy clad attendants, and the guests--the men in linen and cummerbunds, the young ladies in the thinnest of muslins. Joan Hampton's face was white too; she looked wilted and faded, like a transplanted flower, whilst on the contrary, her half-sister seemed to flourish and expand in the heat of her native soil. Her full-blown lips were scarlet, her beautiful hair resembled a great bronze turban; on the present occasion she had not been sparing of powder or patchouli, and was enjoying herself to her heart's content, seated close to Captain Gresham, and eating pâté de foie gras, with her big brown eyes rolling greedily in all directions.

Mr. Dene, robust and swarthy, was placed on the right hand of his hostess, and indulged his listeners with vivid accounts of his recent exploits; he also gave particular details of his mysterious misses, and Trafford's unaccountable flukes. Possibly his conversational exertions induced a thirst, for, as dinner progressed, he drank a surprising quantity of the well-iced champagne, and became not merely loquacious, but indiscreet! With callous indifference, | | 269 he thrust aside insidious questions respecting the young lady who was with the shooting party.

'Oh, she's all right!' he declared. 'She and Tristram are tremendous pals, and she has a ripping voice. The other night she brought the whole village out of their beds. She's not keen on shooting.'

'No?' exclaimed Mrs. Heron, in a tone of affected surprise. 'Then what can have induced her to face the heat of April in a tent--what is she keen on, do you know?'

'Her brother,' he answered shortly.

Mrs. Heron and Gresham burst into a simultaneous and derisive laugh.

'Yes; and by Jove, when Trafford comes back he will make no end of a row. He is mad keen about his work. This is supposed to be private, but I don't mind telling you, that he has got on the track of some one who has been making a regular business of selling the forest timber and lac--not to speak of horns and skins! He believes he can put his finger on the thief!'

'Oh, he can, can he?' said Gresham, and he smiled as one smiles at the absurd pretension of a child. 'You don't say so! He ought to be in your department, Chapman--you want a little fresh blood, eh? You haven't made a haul for years!'

'I always suspected there was a terrible leakage in the Bandi,' observed Mr. Heron. 'Frost was slack, and did not care--he let everything slide, and his subordinates had it all their own way.'

'I rather fancy you are wrong there, Governor,' argued Gresham, with a glare in his bold aggressive eyes.

'Oh no, I know what I'm talking about,' rejoined Mr. Heron, with dry decision. 'I've seen strings of carts creeping out of the forest at daybreak.'

'Yes, your own woodmen, I'll bet!'

'No, these men had guns; my fellows don't fancy working in the Bandi after dark.'

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'Well, all the same, the smart new Assistant Conservator has got hold of a mare's nest. These young enthusiasts are often made fools of.'

'Not easy for a man to make a fool of Trafford,' interposed Dr. Collins. 'Though we don't know what a woman might not do--eh, Mrs. Heron?'

Mrs. Heron shrugged her graceful shoulders, and drawled--

'Oh, pray don't refer to me! I am absolutely the last person to ask.' But as she spoke her eyes had a far-away look, and glowed with an unholy phosphorescence.

'Talking of the forest,' said Maguire, suddenly rousing himself, 'did ye hear that two of the late Rajah's wild elephants have been shot--both tuskers?'

'Where do you get hold of such rot? That's only a bazaar shave!' sneered Gresham.

'No, me boy! a true bill--they'd been dead a week, and with the thermometer at 100, I needn't remark, they did not take long to find! The tusks of both were missing. I'm told they were worth a thousand rupees a pair--'pon me word, it's a case of most impudent robbery! The District Commissioner has been notified, and will sift the business thoroughly.'

'Oh, will he?' exclaimed Gresham. 'I believe he is on leave.' Then in another key, 'I say, Maguire, you never go in for shooting, and you're a fine shot, like most Irishmen. How is that?'

'To tell the truth, it's too hard work, on the top of me other business, and in this weather. Poof!' and he mopped his face with a fragrant silk handkerchief. 'I like to take me pleasures at me ease, and look forward to the time at home, when I'll enjoy a strip of bog, and a stretch of river--that's all I ask for.'

'Eh, snipe and salmon--quite good enough for me,' declared the doctor. 'I'll come and stay with you, Maguire. Make a note of that.'

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'Now we will leave you to talk shop,' said Mrs. Heron, rising--'woods and forests, cotton and grain--don't be long--as we want to have some bridge.'

In the drawing-room, two green tables were already set out with packs of cards and markers. At one of these, the hostess established herself, and Lily drew up beside her--offering her tasty morsels of bazaar gossip, and relating with much gesticulation of hands and wrists, how scandalously Government had treated poor Captain Gresham. 'Oh, they were so awfullee suspicious, and fussy and prying; and over and over again he said how sorry he was he had ever set foot in Jambore--but fortunately for himself he was independent--and could afford to be his own master.'

'Tell me--is he going to marry you, Lily?' asked Mrs. Heron, as she put two fingers under the girl's round chin, and stared into her face with an expression of ironical amusement.

Lily glanced at her sister, who was languidly turning over the pages of a book, and then with a broad and defiant smile, that displayed most of her teeth, replied--

'Why, for whatt do you take him? Of course!'

'I wonder what he sees in you?' continued Mrs. Heron, with a frankly speculative gaze.

Before Lily could reply, the men sauntered in, and immediately the card tables were filled. At one, Dr. Collins, Chapman, and Mr. Heron settled down to humble 'Cut Throat'; at the other, Gresham and Mrs. Heron did battle with Mr. Dene and Maguire. Lily looked on, squeezing her chair between those of Gresham and Dene, whilst Joan removed herself and her book to a seat near a shaded lamp. The hostess did not think it worth while to trouble about Joan Hampton; she reckoned for little as one of her guests--a stiff young woman who had a queer sort of pride (declined to wear second-hand finery) and a sensitive conscience.

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The hot weather is a proverbially trying people's nerves become frayed, and their tempers inflammable. As bridge progressed, even natured Maguire was inclined to be short, while Gresham was unaffectedly insolent.

The game had been exceedingly close: Dene was endowed with what is called 'a card brain,' and he and Maguire proved to be a powerful combination--nevertheless they lost the first rubber. Dene was reckless and excitable, clamoured loudly for revenge and backed his luck against Mrs. Heron for fifty rupees, and the lady, who loved a bet, instantly picked up the gauntlet. They were jealous players, both hot tempered, and their veins were pulsing with the true gambling fever. The first game, was played with a certain amount of acrimony, was won by Mrs. Heron and Gresham; the second went to their opponents. With boisterous triumph the third--accomplished at racing speed--was scored by Mr. Dene with a 'No Trumper.' He did not prove to be a magnanimous victor, for he laughed, and bragged, and jeered. Then suddenly Mrs. Heron lost her temper, and a stormy scene ensued; at last the altercation became so loud, that it compelled the players of 'Cut Throat' to rest upon their 'hands,' and look and listen in nervous amazement. Mrs. Heron angrily accused Dene of a Revoke--which accusation he as furiously denied; trembling with passion, she stretched out her arm, and snatched up and examined his cards. Her eyes were literally blazing as she flung them across at him, and articulated the word--


Something in her frenzied gesture, the gleam of storm in her flashing eyes, instantly sobered her foe. His tanned face became suddenly yellow, great beads of perspiration stood on his forehead, his countenance expressed horror and amazement, as he glanced from her face to a black bangle on her | | 273 wrist, on which the name 'Zella' was inscribed in diamonds.

'Zella is your name?' he asked thickly, as he suddenly bent towards her.

'What has that to do with you?' she retorted, turning on him the lightning of her gaze, her whole facial expression concentrated in her wonderful eyes.

'Why, of course Zella is the name of Mrs. Heron,' volunteered Lily in her high 'chi-chi' accent; 'it is in all her books--but Mr. Heron he calls her "Ell-la."'

Mrs. Heron hastily thrust the bangle up her loose sleeve, and leaned across the table, her breast panting, its rise and fall evident, beneath a too transparent covering.

'Will you tell me why you revoked, and denied it, and shuffled up the cards?' she demanded excitedly.

'Yes--if you will answer a question,' rejoined Mr. Dene, who seemed to articulate with difficulty, and visibly shook with the vehemence of his feelings. 'Were you not Zella--Newton?'

She drew back with a sharp jerk, precisely as if she had been struck; and all the cards in her clasp pattered to the matted floor.

'Ah, I see 'he continued, now speaking in gasps. 'Your answer is in your face. I was only eight years old--but it seemed familiar--and that bangle gave you away'

Mrs. Heron remained motionless, leaning back and staring at him as if hypnotized, seemingly powerless to utter, or to move.

'I--I--played with it as a kid; I can swear to it--I learnt my letters from that diamond "Zella."' Still shaking all over, he rose to his feet, and pressing his hands hard on the table in order to steady himself, he added dramatically, 'I have the honour to be your son!'

A strange deathlike silence followed, during which | | 274 a great hot-weather insect boomed helplessly the room. By this time Mrs. Heron had recovered her senses; she turned her head away, as if to avoid some hideous sight, and cried--

'Oh, Tom, how can you allow me to be persecuted by this horrible madman? Turn him out of house at once!'

Tom, who had hitherto been an uneasy spectator, now laid a heavy hand on his guest's arm.

'Mr. Dene, I must ask you to leave us.'

'Yes, yes, all right; but first give me two minutes,' urged the young man, now thoroughly sober and collected. 'I am not mad, drunk, or even lying. Let me tell you about my mother here,' pointing her as he spoke. 'She is half Cuban, half American. Her mother came from Havana, her father from Orleans; he was a shipping agent in Bermuda, there my father, Anson Newton, a lieutenant in the Navy, met her--Zella Barrelle--the most beautiful girl in the West Indies; and married her when she was only sixteen.'

Joan Hampton in the distance felt stupefied, she looked on and listened. Was this a scene in a play? a dream? or was it really happening? The silent white-clad group by the card table-among whom the hostess's crimson gown seemed to assume a peculiar and sinister significance. Her attitude expressed guilt, defeat, and capture--as she lay in her chair, with a face rigid as a mask. Maguire and Gresham nervously fumbling with pencils and markers, the others standing round as if in judgment and the dark young stranger glancing from face to face with Mrs. Heron's own black eyes!

'My father was a poor man, and often at sea,' he resumed. 'One day I was left alone in our Southsea lodgings. My mother had gone away on his yacht with a rich South American. Before a divorce could be instituted, this man died intestate,' pursued the accuser, speaking quickly, his hands with great | | 275 swollen veins now firmly grasping the back of his chair, 'and she disappeared. When my father returned, I was banished to school--he could not stand the sight of me--I was so dark and foreign looking--an ugly likeness of my beautiful mother--and there was I, a miserable, whimpering, friendless little cur--that no one wanted!'

'Oh, he is a lunatic--he is insane' burst out Mrs. Heron, half-rising; 'it's all lies--devilish, damnable lies!'

'One moment more,' he implored, 'and I've finished. I went to Sandhurst, and into a cavalry regiment. My father was rich--a relative left him a fortune and a name, and he became Newton-Dene. He died three years ago, and as my mother was never divorced--she is Mrs. Newton still!'

He paused, possibly to permit this astounding piece of news to sink into the intelligence of his assembled listeners.

'And if further proof is needed,' he resumed, 'my solicitors are Wake & Keep, Lincoln's Inn Fields. They will corroborate every word I have said. Now I have done! None of you'--surveying the company with a comprehensive flash of his eyes--'will ever see me again. If I'd had a decent mother'--here his voice broke for a second--'I'd be a better sort of fellow. As it is--I hate the whole world!'

He made this startling statement with clenched fists, standing in the middle of the room; then turned towards the entrance with headlong haste; there was no door, merely a purdah, and he gave this such a savage wrench aside as he passed out, that the portiere came down with a muffled crash, and proved to be in every sense the fall of the curtain! The late Mrs. Heron--now Newton--uttered one long, ringing scream, threw up her arms, and collapsed in a dead faint upon the floor. Of all the company Joan Hampton alone remained to restore | | 276 her; for, as with one consent, the rest of the guests quietly and awkwardly dispersed. No, this was not an occasion for ordinary thanks, and leave-taking; as for condolences with Tom Heron--he would be a brave man who would have ventured to tender them!

And what a tale for Chandi! a true tale--as the lady, with eloquent justifications, subsequently acknowledged. She posed as an injured, deserted wife, but shrewd Tom Heron had noticed the young man's face of abject horror as he confronted her; and when their tempers were aflame, the undeniable likeness between mother and son was a most convincing argument. He raked carefully among the embers of his memory. Where had she been for ten years? From the time she had abandoned her home, until he had been fascinated by the similarities of their symptoms at Carlsbad, and had become the slave of the captivating Mrs. Notwen--Newton spelled backwards.--What a history, or rather romance she had woven of a consumptive husband, and of their agonized wanderings in search of his health! This fiction had adequately accounted for her poverty and amazing familiarity with fashionable foreign cures.

To all Zella's tears, tales, prayers, Tom Heron was as an image of stone, for he realized that he had been the dupe of a fascinating adventuress.

As for Mr. Dene, he took a precipitate departure for Secunderabad, merely leaving a note of brusque farewell for his relative and host.

Before Chandi had recovered from the shock of this young man's revelations, there came from jungle yet another piece of startling intelligence. A runner had brought an express letter from Scruby to Maguire, asking for news of Trafford, who had left the camp for a few hours, and been missing nearly two days.

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