A Second-Rate Woman
by Rudyard Kipling
Est fuga, volvitur rota,
On we drift: where looms the dim port?
One Two Three Four Five contribute their quota:
Something is gained if one caught but the import,
Show it us, Hugues of Saxe-Gotha.
–Master Hugues of Saxe-Gotha.
‘Dressed! Don’t tell me that woman ever dressed in her life. She stood in the middle of the room while her ayah no, her husband it must have been a man threw her clothes at her. She then did her hair with her fingers, and rubbed her bonnet in the flue under the bed. I know she did, as well as if I had assisted at the orgy. Who is she?’ said Mrs. Hauksbee.
‘Don’t!’ said Mrs. Mallowe feebly. ‘You make my head ache. I’am miserable to-day. Stay me with fondants, comfort me with chocolates, for I am Did you bring anything from Peliti’s?’
‘Questions to begin with. You shall have the sweets when you have answered them. Who and what is the creature? There were at least half-a-dozen men round her, and she appeared to be going to sleep in their midst.’
‘Delville,’ said Mrs. Mallowe, ”’Shady” Delville, to distinguish her from Mrs. Jim of that ilk. She dances as untidily as she dresses, I believe, and her husband is somewhere in Madras. Go and call, if you are so interested.’
‘What have I to do with Shigramitish women? She merely caught my attention for a minute, and I wondered at the attraction that a dowd has for a certain type of man. I expected to see her walk out of her clothes until I looked at her eyes.’
‘Hooks and eyes, surely,’ drawled Mrs. Mallowe.
‘Don’t be clever, Polly. You make my head ache. And round this hayrick stood a crowd of men a positive crowd!’
‘Perhaps they also expected ‘
‘Polly, don’t be Rabelaisian!’
Mrs. Mallowe curled herself up comfortably on the sofa, and turned her attention to the sweets. She and Mrs. Hauksbee shared the same house at Simla; and these things befell two seasons after the matter of Otis Yeere, which has been already recorded.
Mrs. Hauksbee stepped into the verandah and looked down upon the Mall, her forehead puckered with thought.
‘Hah!’ said Mrs. Hauksbee shortly. ‘Indeed!’
‘What is it?’ said Mrs. Mallowe sleepily.
‘That dowd and The Dancing Master to whom I object.’
‘Why to The Dancing Master? He is a middle-aged gentleman, of reprobate and romantic tendencies, and tries to be a friend of mine.’
‘Then make up your mind to lose him. Dowds cling by nature, and I should imagine that this animal how terrible her bonnet looks from above! is specially clingsome.’
‘She is welcome to The Dancing Master so far as I am concerned. I never could take an interest in a monotonous liar. The frustrated aim of his life is to persuade people that he is a bachelor.’
‘O-oh! I think I’ve met that sort of man before. And isn’t he?’
‘No. He confided that to me a few days ago. Ugh! Some men ought to be killed.’
‘What happened then?’
‘He posed as the horror of horrors a misunderstood man. Heaven knows the femme incomprise is sad enough and bad enough but the other thing!’
‘And so fat too! I should have laughed in his face. Men seldom confide in me. How is it they come to you?’
‘For the sake of impressing me with their careers in the past. Protect me from men with confidences!’
‘And yet you encourage them?’
‘What can I do? They talk, I listen, and they vow that I am sympathetic. I know I always profess astonishment even when the plot is of the most old possible.’
‘Yes. Men are so unblushingly explicit if they are once allowed to talk, whereas women’s confidences are full of reservations and fibs, except ‘
‘When they go mad and babble of the Unutter-abilities after a week’s acquaintance. Really, if you come to consider, we know a great deal more of men than of our own sex.’
‘And the extraordinary thing is that men will never believe it. They say we are trying to hide something.’
‘They are generally doing that on their own account. Alas! These chocolates pall upon me, and I haven’t eaten more than a dozen. I think I shall go to sleep.’
‘Then you’ll get fat, dear. If you took more exercise and a more intelligent interest in your neighbours you would ‘
‘Be as much loved as Mrs. Hauksbee. You’re a darling in many ways, and I like you you are not a woman’s woman but why do you trouble yourself about mere human beings?’
‘Because in the absence of angels, who I am sure would be horribly dull, men and women are the most fascinating things in the whole wide world, lazy one. I am interested in The Dowd I am interested in The Dancing Master I am interested in the Hawley Boy and I am interested in you.’
‘Why couple me with the Hawley Boy? He is your property.’
‘Yes, and in his own guileless speech, I’m making a good thing out of him. When he is slightly more reformed, and has passed his Higher Standard, or whatever the authorities think fit to exact from him, I shall select a pretty little girl, the Holt girl, I think, and’ here she waved her hands airily ”’whom Mrs. Hauksbee hath joined together let no man put asunder.” That’s all.’
‘And when you have yoked May Holt with the most notorious detrimental in Simla, and earned the undying hatred of Mamma Holt, what will you do with me, Dispenser of the Destinies of the Universe?’
Mrs. Hauksbee dropped into a low chair in front of the fire, and, chin in hand, gazed long and steadfastly at Mrs. Mallowe.
‘I do not know,’ she said, shaking her head, ‘what I shall do with you, dear. It’s obviously impossible to marry you to some one else your husband would object and the experiment might not be successful after all. I think I shall begin by preventing you from what is it? ”sleeping on ale-house benches and snoring in the sun.”‘
‘Don’t! I don’t like your quotations. They are so rude. Go to the Library and bring me new books.’
‘While you sleep? No! If you don’t come with me I shall spread your newest frock on my ‘rickshaw-bow, and when any one asks me what I am doing, I shall say that I am going to Phelps’s to get it let out. I shall take care that Mrs. MacNamara sees me. Put your things on, there’s a good girl.’
Mrs. Mallowe groaned and obeyed, and the two went off to the Library, where they found Mrs. Delville and the man who went by the nick-name of The Dancing Master. By that time Mrs. Mallowe was awake and eloquent.
‘That is the Creature!’ said Mrs. Hauksbee, with the air of one pointing out a slug in the road.
‘No,’ said Mrs. Mallowe. ‘The man is the Creature. Ugh! Good-evening, Mr. Bent. I thought you were coming to tea this evening.’
‘Surely it was for to-morrow, was it not?’ answered The Dancing Master. ‘I understood I fancied I’m so sorry How very unfortunate!’
But Mrs. Mallowe had passed on.
‘For the practised equivocator you said he was,’ murmured Mrs. Hauksbee, ‘he strikes me as a failure. Now wherefore should he have preferred a walk with The Dowd to tea with us? Elective affinities, I suppose both grubby. Polly, I’d never forgive that woman as long as the world rolls.’
‘I forgive every woman everything,’ said Mrs. Mallowe. ‘He will be a sufficient punishment for her. What a common voice she has!’
Mrs. Delville’s voice was not pretty, her carriage was even less lovely, and her raiment was strikingly neglected. All these things Mrs. Mallowe noticed over the top of a magazine.
‘Now what is there in her?’ said Mrs. Hauksbee. ‘Do you see what I meant about the clothes falling off? If I were a man I would perish sooner than be seen with that rag-bag. And yet, she has good eyes, but Oh!’
‘What is it?’
‘She doesn’t know how to use them! On my honour, she does not. Look! Oh look! Untidiness I can endure, but ignorance never! The woman’s a fool.’
‘Hsh! She’ll hear you.’
‘All the women in Simla are fools. She’ll think I mean some one else. Now she’s going out. What a thoroughly objectionable couple she and The Dancing Master make! Which reminds me. Do you suppose they’ll ever dance together?’
‘Wait and see. I don’t envy her the conversation of The Dancing Master loathly man! His wife ought to be up here before long?’
‘Do you know anything about him?’
‘Only what he told me. It may be all a fiction. He married a girl bred in the country, I think, and, being an honourable, chivalrous soul, told me that he repented his bargain and sent her to her as often as possible a person who has lived in the Doon since the memory of man and goes to Mussoorie when other people go Home. The wife is with her at present. So he says.’
‘One only, but he talks of his wife in a revolting way. I hated him for it. He thought he was being epigrammatic and brilliant.’
‘That is a vice peculiar to men. I dislike him because he is generally in the wake of some girl, disappointing the Eligibles. He will persecute May Holt no more, unless I am much mistaken.’
‘No. I think Mrs. Delville may occupy his attention for a while.’
‘Do you suppose she knows that he is the head of a family?’
‘Not from his lips. He swore me to eternal secrecy. Wherefore I tell you. Don’t you know that type of man?’
‘Not intimately, thank goodness! As a general rule, when a man begins to abuse his wife to me, I find that the Lord gives me wherewith to answer him according to his folly; and we part with a coolness between us. I laugh.’
‘I’m different. I’ve no sense of humour.’
‘Cultivate it, then. It has been my mainstay for more years than I care to think about. A well-educated sense of humour will save a woman when Religion, Training, and Home influences fail; and we may all need salvation sometimes.’
‘Do you suppose that the Delville woman has humour?’
‘Her dress bewrays her. How can a Thing who wears her supplément under her left arm have any notion of the fitness of things much less their folly? If she discards The Dancing Master after having once seen him dance, I may respect her. Otherwise ‘
‘But are we not both assuming a great deal too much, dear? You saw the woman at Peliti’s half an hour later you saw her walking with The Dancing Master an hour later you met her here at the Library.’
‘Still with The Dancing Master, remember.’
‘Still with The Dancing Master, I admit, but why on the strength of that should you imagine ‘
‘I imagine nothing. I have no imagination. I am only convinced that The Dancing Master is attracted to The Dowd because he is objectionable in every way and she in every other. If I know the man as you have described him, he holds his wife in slavery at present.’
‘She is twenty years younger than he.’
‘Poor wretch! And, in the end, after he has posed and swaggered and lied he has a mouth under that ragged moustache simply made for lies he will be rewarded according to his merits.’
‘I wonder what those really are,’ said Mrs. Mallowe.
But Mrs. Hauksbee, her face close to the shelf of the new books, was humming softly: ‘What shall he have who killed the Deer?’ She was a lady of unfettered speech.
One month later she announced her intention of calling upon Mrs. Delville. Both Mrs. Hauksbee and Mrs. Mallowe were in morning wrappers, and there was a great peace in the land.
‘I should go as I was,’ said Mrs. Mallowe. ‘It would be a delicate compliment to her style.’
Mrs. Hauksbee studied herself in the glass.
‘Assuming for a moment that she ever darkened these doors, I should put on this robe, after all the others, to show her what a morning-wrapper ought to be. It might enliven her. As it is, I shall go in the dove-coloured sweet emblem of youth and innocence and shall put on my new gloves.’
‘If you really are going, dirty tan would be too good; and you know that dove-colour spots with the rain.’
‘I care not. I may make her envious. At least I shall try, though one cannot expect very much from a woman who puts a lace tucker into her habit.’
‘Just Heavens! When did she do that?’
‘Yesterday riding with The Dancing Master. I met them at the back of Jakko, and the rain had made the lace lie down. To complete the effect, she was wearing an unclean terai with the elastic under her chin. I felt almost too well content to take the trouble to despise her.’
‘The Hawley Boy was riding with you. What did he think?’
‘Does a boy ever notice these things? Should I like him if he did? He stared in the rudest way, and just when I thought he had seen the elastic, he said, ”There’s something very taking about that face.” I rebuked him on the spot. I don’t approve of boys being taken by faces.’
‘Other than your own. I shouldn’t be in the least surprised if the Hawley Boy immediately went to call.’
‘I forbade him. Let her be satisfied with The Dancing Master, and his wife when she comes up. I’m rather curious to see Mrs. Bent and the Delville woman together.’
Mrs. Hauksbee departed and, at the end of an hour, returned slightly flushed.
‘There is no limit to the treachery of youth! I ordered the Hawley Boy, as he valued my patronage, not to call. The first person I stumble over literally stumble over in her poky, dark little drawing-room is, of course, the Hawley Boy. She kept us waiting ten minutes, and then emerged as though she had been tipped out of the dirtyclothes-basket. You know my way, dear, when I am at all put out. I was Superior, crrrrushingly Superior! ‘Lifted my eyes to Heaven, and had heard of nothing ‘dropped my eyes on the carpet and ”really didn’t know” ‘played with my cardcase and ”supposed so.” The Hawley Boy giggled like a girl, and I had to freeze him with scowls between the sentences.’
‘She sat in a heap on the edge of a couch, and managed to convey the impression that she was suffering from stomach-ache, at the very least. It was all I could do not to ask after her symptoms. When I rose, she grunted just like a buffalo in the water too lazy to move.’
‘Are you certain? ‘
‘Am I blind, Polly? Laziness, sheer laziness, nothing else or her garments were only constructed for sitting down in. I stayed for a quarter of an hour trying to penetrate the gloom, to guess what her surroundings were like, while she stuck out her tongue.’
‘Well I’ll withdraw the tongue, though I’m sure if she didn’t do it when I was in the room, she did the minute I was outside. At any rate, she lay in a lump and grunted. Ask the Hawley Boy, dear. I believe the grunts were meant for sentences, but she spoke so indistinctly that I can’t swear to it.’
‘You are incorrigible, simply.’
‘I am not! Treat me civilly, give me peace with honour, don’t put the only available seat facing the window, and a child may eat jam in my lap before Church. But I resent being grunted at. Wouldn’t you? Do you suppose that she communicates her views on life and love to The Dancing Master in a set of modulated ”Grmphs”?’
‘You attach too much importance to The Dancing Master.’
‘He came as we went, and The Dowd grew almost cordial at the sight of him. He smiled greasily, and moved about that darkened dog-kennel in a suspiciously familiar way.’
‘Don’t be uncharitable. Any sin but that I’ll forgive.’
‘Listen to the voice of History. I am only describing what I saw. He entered, the heap on the sofa revived slightly, and the Hawley Boy and I came away together. He is disillusioned, but I felt it my duty to lecture him severely for going there. And that’s all.’
‘Now for Pity’s sake leave the wretched creature and The Dancing Master alone. They never did you any harm.’
‘No harm? To dress as an example and a stumbling-block for half Simla, and then to find this Person who is dressed by the hand of God not that I wish to disparage Him for a moment, but you know the tikka dhurzie way He attires those lilies of the field this Person draws the eyes of men and some of them nice men? It’s almost enough to make one discard clothing. I told the Hawley Boy so.’
‘And what did that sweet youth do?’
‘Turned shell-pink and looked across the far blue hills like a distressed cherub. Am I talking wildly, Polly? Let me say my say, and I shall be calm. Otherwise I may go abroad and disturb Simla with a few original reflections. Excepting always your own sweet self, there isn’t a single woman in the land who understands me when I am what’s the word?’
‘Tête-fêlée,’ suggested Mrs. Mallowe.
‘Exactly! And now let us have tiffin. The demands of Society are exhausting, and as Mrs. Delville says ‘ Here Mrs. Hauksbee, to the horror of the khitmatgars, lapsed into a series of grunts, while Mrs. Mallowe stared in lazy surprise.
”’God gie us a guid conceit of oorselves,”‘ said Mrs. Hauksbee piously, returning to her natural speech. ‘Now, in any other woman that would have been vulgar. I am consumed with curiosity to see Mrs. Bent. I expect complications.’
‘Woman of one idea,’ said Mrs. Mallowe shortly; ‘all complications are as old as the hills! I have lived through or near all all All!’
‘And yet do not understand that men and women never behave twice alike. I am old who was young if ever I put my head in your lap, you dear, big sceptic, you will learn that my parting is gauze but never, no never, have I lost my interest in men and women. Polly, I shall see this business out to the bitter end.’
‘I am going to sleep,’ said Mrs. Mallowe calmly. ‘I never interfere with men or women unless I am compelled,’ and she retired with dignity to her own room.
Mrs. Hauksbee’s curiosity was not long left ungratified, for Mrs. Bent came up to Simla a few days after the conversation faithfully reported above, and pervaded the Mall by her husband’s side
‘Behold!’ said Mrs. Hauksbee, thoughtfully rubbing her nose. ‘That is the last link of the chain, if we omit the husband of the Delville, whoever he may be. Let me consider. The Bents and the Delvilles inhabit the same hotel; and the Delville is detested by the Waddy do you know the Waddy? who is almost as big a dowd. The Waddy also abominates the male Bent, for which, if her other sins do not weigh too heavily, she will eventually go to Heaven.’
‘Don’t be irreverent,’ said Mrs. Mallowe, ‘I like Mrs. Bent’s face.’
‘I am discussing the Waddy,’ returned Mrs. Hauksbee loftily. ‘The Waddy will take the female Bent apart, after having borrowed yes! everything that she can, from hairpins to babies’ bottles. Such, my dear, is life in a hotel. The Waddy will tell the female Bent facts and fictions about The Dancing Master and The Dowd.’
‘Lucy, I should like you better if you were not always looking into people’s back-bedrooms.’
‘Anybody can look into their front drawingrooms; and remember whatever I do, and whatever I look, I never talk as the Waddy will. Let us hope that The Dancing Master’s greasy smile and manner of the pedagogue will soften the heart of that cow, his wife. If mouths speak truth, I should think that little Mrs. Bent could get very angry on occasion.’
‘But what reason has she for being angry?’
‘What reason! The Dancing Master in himself is a reason. How does it go? ”If in his life some trivial errors fall, Look in his face and you’ll believe them all.” I am prepared to credit any evil of The Dancing Master, because I hate him so. And The Dowd is so disgustingly badly dressed ‘
‘That she, too, is capable of every iniquity? I always prefer to believe the best of everybody. It saves so much trouble.’
‘Very good. I prefer to believe the worst. It saves useless expenditure of sympathy. And you may be quite certain that the Waddy believes with me.’
Mrs. Mallowe sighed and made no answer.
The conversation was holden after dinner while Mrs. Hauksbee was dressing for a dance.
‘I am too tired to go,’ pleaded Mrs. Mallowe, and Mrs. Hauksbee left her in peace till two in the morning, when she was aware of emphatic knocking at her door.
‘Don’t be very angry, dear,’ said Mrs. Hauksbee. ‘My idiot of an ayah has gone home, and, as I hope to sleep to-night, there isn’t a soul in the place to unlace me.’
‘Oh, this is too bad!’ said Mrs. Mallowe sulkily.
”Cant help it. I’m a lone, lorn grass-widow, dear, but I will not sleep in my stays. And such news too! Oh, do unlace me, there’s a darling! The Dowd The Dancing Master I and the Hawley Boy You know the North verandah?’
‘How can I do anything if you spin round like this?’ protested Mrs. Mallowe, fumbling with the knot of the laces.
‘Oh, I forget. I must tell my tale without the aid of your eyes. Do you know you’ve lovely eyes, dear? Well, to begin with, I took the Hawley Boy to a kala juggah.’
‘Did he want much taking?’
‘Lots! There was an arrangement of loose-boxes in kanats, and she was in the next one talking to him.’
‘Which? How? Explain.’
‘You know what I mean The Dowd and The Dancing Master. We could hear every word, and we listened shamelessly ‘specially the Hawley Boy. Polly, I quite love that woman!’
‘This is interesting. There! Now turn round. What happened?’
‘One moment. Ah h! Blessed relief. I’ve been looking forward to taking them off for the last half-hour which is ominous at my time of life. But, as I was saying, we listened and heard The Dowd drawl worse than ever. She drops her final g’s like a barmaid or a blue-blooded Aide-de-Camp. ”Look he-ere, you’re gettin’ too fond o’ me,” she said, and The Dancing Master owned it was so in language that nearly made me ill. The Dowd reflected for a while. Then we heard her say, ”Look he-ere, Mister Bent, why are you such an aw-ful liar?” I nearly exploded while The Dancing Master denied the charge. It seems that he never told her he was a married man.’
‘I said he wouldn’t.’
‘And she had taken this to heart, on personal grounds, I suppose. She drawled along for five minutes, reproaching him with his perfidy, and grew quite motherly. ”Now you’ve got a nice little wife of your own you have,” she said. ”She’s ten times too good for a fat old man like you, and, look he-ere, you never told me a word about her, and I’ve been thinkin’ about it a good deal, and I think you’re a liar.” Wasn’t that delicious? The Dancing Master maundered and raved till the Hawley Boy suggested that he should burst in and beat him. His voice runs up into an impassioned squeak when he is afraid. The Dowd must be an extraordinary woman. She explained that had he been a bachelor she might not have objected to his devotion; but since he was a married man and the father of a very nice baby, she considered him a hypocrite, and this she repeated twice. She wound up her drawl with: ”An’ I’m tellin’ you this because your wife is angry with me, an’ I hate quarrellin’ with any other woman, an’ I like your wife. You know how you have behaved for the last six weeks. You shouldn’t have done it, indeed you shouldn’t. You’re too old an’ too fat.” Can’t you imagine how The Dancing Master would wince at that! ”Now go away,” she said. ”I don’t want to tell you what I think of you, because I think you are not nice. I’ll stay he-ere till the next dance begins.” Did you think that the creature had so much in her?’
‘I never studied her as closely as you did. It sounds unnatural. What happened?’
‘The Dancing Master attempted blandishment, reproof, jocularity, and the style of the Lord High Warden, and I had almost to pinch the Hawley Boy to make him keep quiet. She grunted at the end of each sentence and, in the end, he went away swearing to himself, quite like a man in a novel. He looked more objectionable than ever. I laughed. I love that woman in spite of her clothes. And now I’m going to bed. What do you think of it?’
‘I shan’t begin to think till the morning,’ said Mrs. Mallowe, yawning. ‘Perhaps she spoke the truth. They do fly into it by accident sometimes.’
Mrs. Hauksbee’s account of her eavesdropping was an ornate one, but truthful in the main. For reasons best known to herself, Mrs. ‘Shady’ Delville had turned upon Mr. Bent and rent him limb from limb, casting him away limp and disconcerted ere she withdrew the light of her eyes from him permanently. Being a man of resource, and anything but pleased in that he had been called both old and fat, he gave Mrs. Bent to understand that he had, during her absence in the Doon, been the victim of unceasing persecution at the hands of Mrs. Delville, and he told the tale so often and with such eloquence that he ended in believing it, while his wife marvelled at the manners and customs of ‘some women.’ When the situation showed signs of languishing, Mrs. Waddy was always on hand to wake the smouldering fires of suspicion in Mrs. Bent’s bosom and to contribute generally to the peace and comfort of the hotel. Mr. Bent’s life was not a happy one, for if Mrs. Waddy’s story were true, he was, argued his wife, untrustworthy to the last degree. If his own statement was true, his charms of manner and conversation were so great that he needed constant surveillance. And he received it, till he repented genuinely of his marriage and neglected his personal appearance. Mrs. Delville alone in the hotel was unchanged. She removed her chair some six paces towards the head of the table, and occasionally in the twilight ventured on timid overtures of friendship to Mrs. Bent, which were repulsed.
‘She does it for my sake,’ hinted the virtuous Bent.
‘A dangerous and designing woman,’ purred Mrs. Waddy.
Worst of all, every other hotel in Simla was full!
‘Polly, are you afraid of diphtheria?’
‘Of nothing in the world except small-pox, Diphtheria kills, but it doesn’t disfigure. Why do you ask?’
‘Because the Bent baby has got it, and the whole hotel is upside down in consequence. The Waddy has ”set her five young on the rail” and fled. The Dancing Master fears for his precious throat, and that miserable little woman, his wife, has no notion of what ought to be done. She wanted to put it into a mustard bath for croup!’
‘Where did you learn all this?’
‘Just now, on the Mall. Dr. Howlen told me. The manager of the hotel is abusing the Bents, and the Bents are abusing the manager. They are a feckless couple.’
‘Well. What’s on your mind?’
‘This; and I know it’s a grave thing to ask.
Would you seriously object to my bringing the child over here, with its mother?’
‘On the most strict understanding that we see nothing of the Dancing Master.’
‘He will be only too glad to stay away. Polly, you’re an angel. The woman really is at her wits’ end.’
‘And you know nothing about her, careless, and would hold her up to public scorn if it gave you a minute’s amusement. Therefore you risk your life for the sake of her brat. No, Loo, I’m not the angel. I shall keep to my rooms and avoid her. But do as you please only tell me why you do it.’
Mrs. Hauksbee’s eyes softened; she looked out of the window and back into Mrs. Mallowe’s face.
‘I don’t know,’ said Mrs. Hauksbee simply.
‘Polly! and for aught you knew you might have taken my fringe off. Never do that again without warning. Now we’ll get the rooms ready. I don’t suppose I shall be allowed to circulate in society for a month.’
‘And I also. Thank goodness I shall at last get all the sleep I want.’
Much to Mrs. Bent’s surprise she and the baby were brought over to the house almost before she knew where she was. Bent was devoutly and undisguisedly thankful, for he was afraid of the infection, and also hoped that a few weeks in the hotel alone with Mrs. Delville might lead to explanations. Mrs. Bent had thrown her jealousy to the winds in her fear for her child’s life.
‘We can give you good milk,’ said Mrs. Hauksbee to her, ‘and our house is much nearer to the Doctor’s than the hotel, and you won’t feel as though you were living in a hostile camp. Where is the dear Mrs. Waddy? She seemed to be a particular friend of yours.’
‘They’ve all left me,’ said Mrs. Bent bitterly. ‘Mrs. Waddy went first. She said I ought to be ashamed of myself for introducing diseases there, and I am sure it wasn’t my fault that little Dora ‘
‘How nice!’ cooed Mrs. Hauksbee. ‘The Waddy is an infectious disease herself ”more quickly caught than the plague and the taker runs presently mad.” I lived next door to her at the Elysium, three years ago. Now see, you won’t give us the least trouble, and I’ve ornamented all the house with sheets soaked in carbolic. It smells comforting, doesn’t it? Remember I’m always in call, and my ayah’s at your service when yours goes to her meals, and and if you cry I’ll never forgive you.’
Dora Bent occupied her mother’s unprofitable attention through the day and the night. The Doctor called thrice in the twenty-four hours, and the house reeked with the smell of the Condy’s Fluid, chlorine-water, and carbolic acid washes. Mrs. Mallowe kept to her own rooms she considered that she had made sufficient concessions in the cause of humanity and Mrs. Hauksbee was more esteemed by the Doctor as a help in the sick-room than the half-distraught mother.
‘I know nothing of illness,’ said Mrs. Hauksbee to the Doctor. ‘Only tell me what to do, and I’ll do it.’
‘Keep that crazy woman from kissing the child, and let her have as little to do with the nursing as you possibly can,’ said the Doctor; ‘I’d turn her out of the sick-room, but that I honestly believe she’d die of anxiety. She is less than no good, and I depend on you and the ayahs, remember.’
Mrs. Hauksbee accepted the responsibility, though it painted olive hollows under her eyes and forced her to her oldest dresses. Mrs. Bent clung to her with more than childlike faith.
‘I know you’ll make Dora well, won’t you?’ she said at least twenty times a day; and twenty times a day Mrs. Hauksbee answered valiantly, ‘Of course I will.’
But Dora did not improve, and the Doctor seemed to be always in the house.
‘There’s some danger of the thing taking a bad turn,’ he said; ‘I’ll come over between three and four in the morning to-morrow.’
‘Good gracious!’ said Mrs. Hauksbee. ‘He never told me what the turn would be! My education has been horribly neglected; and I have only this foolish mother-woman to fall back upon.’
The night wore through slowly, and Mrs. Hauksbee dozed in a chair by the fire. There was a dance at the Viceregal Lodge, and she dreamed of it till she was aware of Mrs. Bent’s anxious eyes staring into her own.
‘Wake up! Wake up! Do something!’ cried Mrs. Bent piteously. ‘Dora’s choking to death! Do you mean to let her die?’
Mrs. Hauksbee jumped to her feet and bent over the bed. The child was fighting for breath, while the mother wrung her hands despairingly.
‘Oh, what can I do? What can you do? She won’t stay still! I can’t hold her. Why didn’t the Doctor say this was coming?’ screamed Mrs. Bent. ‘Won’t you help me? She’s dying!’
‘I I’ve never seen a child die before!’ stammered Mrs. Hauksbee feebly, and then let none blame her weakness after the strain of long watching she broke down, and covered her face with her hands. The ayahs on the threshold snored peacefully.
There was a rattle of ‘rickshaw wheels below, the clash of an opening door, a heavy step on the stairs, and Mrs. Delville entered to find Mrs. Bent screaming for the Doctor as she ran round the room. Mrs. Hauksbee, her hands to her ears, and her face buried in the chintz of a chair, was quivering with pain at each cry from the bed, and murmuring, ‘Thank God, I never bore a child! Oh! thank God, I never bore a child!’
Mrs. Delville looked at the bed for an instant, took Mrs. Bent by the shoulders, and said quietly, ‘Get me some caustic. Be quick.’
The mother obeyed mechanically. Mrs. Delville had thrown herself down by the side of the child and was opening its mouth.
‘Oh, you’re killing her!’ cried Mrs. Bent. ‘Where’s the Doctor? Leave her alone!’
Mrs. Delville made no reply for a minute, but busied herself with the child.
‘Now the caustic, and hold a lamp behind my shoulder. Will you do as you are told? The acid-bottle, if you don’t know what I mean,’ she said.
A second time Mrs. Delville bent over the child. Mrs. Hauksbee, her face still hidden, sobbed and shivered. One of the ayahs staggered sleepily into the room, yawning: ‘Doctor Sahib come.’
Mrs. Delville turned her head.
‘You’re only just in time,’ she said. ‘It was chokin’ her when I came, an’ I’ve burnt it.’
‘There was no sign of the membrane getting to the air-passages after the last steaming. It was the general weakness I feared,’ said the Doctor half to himself, and he whispered as he looked, ‘You’ve done what I should have been afraid to do without consultation.’
‘She was dyin’,’ said Mrs. Delville, under her breath. ‘Can you do anythin’? What a mercy it was I went to the dance!’
Mrs. Hauksbee raised her head.
‘Is it all over?’ she gasped. ‘I’m useless I’m worse than useless! What are you doing here?’
She stared at Mrs. Delville, and Mrs. Bent, realising for the first time who was the Goddess from the Machine, stared also.
Then Mrs. Delville made explanation, putting on a dirty long glove and smoothing a crumpled and ill-fitting ball-dress.
‘I was at the dance, an’ the Doctor was tellin’ me about your baby bein’ so ill. So I came away early, an’ your door was open, an’ I I lost my boy this way six months ago, an’ I’ve been tryin’ to forget it ever since, an’ I I I am very sorry for intrudin’ an’ anythin’ that has happened.’
Mrs. Bent was putting out the Doctor’s eye with a lamp as he stooped over Dora.
‘Take it away,’ said the Doctor. ‘I think the child will do, thanks to you, Mrs. Delville. I should have come too late, but, I assure you’ he was addressing himself to Mrs. Delville ‘I had not the faintest reason to expect this. The membrane must have grown like a mushroom. Will one of you help me, please?’
He had reason for the last sentence. Mrs. Hauksbee had thrown herself into Mrs. Delville’s arms, where she was weeping bitterly, and Mrs. Bent was unpicturesquely mixed up with both, while from the tangle came the sound of many sobs and much promiscuous kissing.
‘Good gracious! I’ve spoilt all your beautiful roses!’ said Mrs. Hauksbee, lifting her head from the lump of crushed gum and calico atrocities on Mrs. Delville’s shoulder and hurrying to the Doctor.
Mrs. Delville picked up her shawl, and slouched out of the room, mopping her eyes with the glove that she had not put on.
‘I always said she was more than a woman,’ sobbed Mrs. Hauksbee hysterically, ‘and that proves it!’
Six weeks later Mrs. Bent and Dora had returned to the hotel. Mrs. Hauksbee had come out of the Valley of Humiliation, had ceased to reproach herself for her collapse in an hour of need, and was even beginning to direct the affairs of the world as before.
‘So nobody died, and everything went off as it should, and I kissed The Dowd, Polly. I feel so old. Does it show in my face?’
‘Kisses don’t as a rule, do they? Of course you know what the result of The Dowd’s providential arrival has been.’
‘They ought to build her a statue only no sculptor dare copy those skirts.’
‘Ah!’ said Mrs. Mallowe quietly. ‘She has found another reward. The Dancing Master has been smirking through Simla, giving every one to understand that she came because of her undying love for him for him to save his child, and all Simla naturally believes this.’
‘But Mrs. Bent ‘
‘Mrs. Bent believes it more than any one else. She won’t speak to The Dowd now. Isn’t The Dancing Master an angel?’
Mrs. Hauksbee lifted up her voice and raged till bed-time. The doors of the two rooms stood open.
‘Polly,’ said a voice from the darkness, ‘what did that American-heiress-globe-trotter girl say last season when she was tipped out of her ‘rickshaw turning a corner? Some absurd adjective that made the man who picked her up explode.’
”’Paltry,”‘ said Mrs. Mallowe. ‘Through her nose like this ”Ha-ow pahltry!”‘
‘Exactly,’ said the voice. ‘Ha-ow pahltry it all is!’
‘Everything. Babies, Diphtheria, Mrs. Bent and The Dancing Master, I whooping in a chair, and The Dowd dropping in from the clouds. I wonder what the motive was all the motives.’
‘What do you think?’
‘Don’t ask me. Go to sleep.’