The faintest break in her own voice warned her, and she hurried out of the room.
It was a foolish thing, and the Livingstones’ old Karim Bux much deplored it, but the miss-sahib had forgotten to give information that the dinner of eight commanded a fortnight ago would not take place—hence everything was ready in its sequence for this event, with a new fashion of stuffing quails and the first strawberries of the season from Dinapore. The feelings of Karim Bux in presenting these things to a woman in the dress of a coolie are not important; but Alicia, for some reason, seemed to find the trivial incident gratifying.
Under the Greek porch of Number Ten, Middleton Street, in the white sunlight between the shadows of the stucco pillars, stood a flagrant ticca-gharry. The driver lay extended on the top of it, asleep, the syce squatted beneath the horse’s nose, and fed it perfunctorily with hay from a bundle tied under the vehicle behind. A fringe of palms and ferns in pots ran between the pillars, and orchids hung from above, shutting out the garden where heavy scents stood in the sun, and mynas chattered on the drive. The air was full of ease, warm, fretillante, abandoned to the lavish energy of growing things; beyond the discoloured wall of the compound rose the tender cloud of a leafing tamarisk against the blue. A long time already the driver had slept immovably, and the horse, uncomplaining but uninterested, had dragged at the wisps of hay.
Inside there was no longer a hint of Mrs. Barberry, even a dropped handkerchief agreeably scented. The night nurse had realised herself equally superfluous and had gone; the other, a person of practical views, could hardly retain her indignation at being kept from day to day to see her patient fed, and hand him books and writing materials. She had not even the duty of debarring visitors, but sat most of the time in the dressing-room where echoes fell about her of the stories with which riotous young men, in tea and wheat and jute, hastened Mr. Lindsay’s convalescence. There she tapped her energetic fat foot on the floor in vain, to express her views upon such waste of scientific training. She had Surgeon Major Livingstone’s orders; and he on this occasion had his sister’s.
There was an air of relief, of tension relaxed, between the two women in the drawing-room; it was plain that Alicia had communicated these things to her visitor, in their main import. Hilda was already half disengaged from the subject, her eye wandered as if in search for the avenue to another. By a sudden inclination Alicia began the story of Laura Filbert on her knees at Lindsay’s door. She told it in a quiet, steady, colourless way, pursuing it to the end—it came with the ease of frequent private rehearsals—and then with her elbows on her knees and her chin in her palms she stopped and gazed meditatively in front of her. There was something in the gaze to which Hilda yielded an attention unexpectedly serious, something of the absolute in character and life impervious to her inquiry. Yet to analysis it was only the grey look of eyes habituated to regard the future with penetration and to find nothing there.