THE SCHOOL OF SORROW
The aromatic scent of the Simla pines literally encircled and pervaded the Bassetts’ bungalow, penetrating to every corner. Lady Bassett was wont to pronounce it “distractingly sweet,” when her visitors drew her attention to the fact. Hers was among the daintiest as well as the best situated bungalows in Simla, and she was pleasantly aware of a certain envy on the part of her many acquaintances, which added a decided relish to the flavour of her own appreciation. But notwithstanding this, she was hardly ever to be found at home except by appointment. Her social engagements were so numerous that, as she often pathetically remarked, she scarcely ever enjoyed the luxury of solitude. As a hostess she was indefatigable, and being an excellent bridge-player as well as a superb dancer, it was not surprising that she occupied a fairly prominent position in her own select circle. In appearance she was a woman of about five-and-thirty—though the malicious added a full dozen years more to her credit—with fair hair, a peculiarly soft voice, and a smile that was slightly twisted. She was always exquisitely dressed, always cool, always gentle, never hasty in word or deed. If she ever had reason to rebuke or snub, it was invariably done with the utmost composure, but with deadly effect upon the offender. Lady Bassett was generally acknowledged to be unanswerable at such times by all but the very few who did not fear her.
There were not many who really felt at ease with her, and Muriel Roscoe was emphatically not one of the number. Her father had nominated Sir Reginald her guardian, and Sir Reginald, aware of this fact, had sent her at once to his wife at Simla. The girl had been too ill at the time to take any interest in her destination or ultimate disposal. It was true that she had never liked Lady Bassett, that she had ever felt shy and constrained in her presence, and that, had she been consulted, she would probably have asked to be sent to England. But Sir Reginald had been too absorbed in the task before him to spend much thought on his dead comrade’s child at that juncture, and he had followed the simplest course that presented itself, allowing Nick Ratcliffe to retain the privilege which General Roscoe himself had bestowed. Thus Muriel had come at last into Lady Bassett’s care, and she was only just awaking to the fact that it was by no means the guardianship she would have chosen for herself had she been in a position to choose. As the elasticity of her youth gradually asserted itself, and the life began to flow again in her veins, the power to suffer returned to her, and in the anguish of her awakening faculties she knew how utterly she was alone. It was in one sense a relief that Lady Bassett, being caught in the full swing of the Simla season, was unable to spare much of her society for the suddenly bereaved girl who had been thrust upon her. But there were times during that period of dragging convalescence when any presence would have been welcome.