On a Moonlight Night in Simla
“I do hope you are not going to weep!” said Nina.
She and he sat on a far-sheltered corner of the terrace in the gray shadow, and she had just told him that “everything was over.”
As “everything” had been going on for the best part of three months, it was, perhaps, only natural that she should experience some concern as to how he meant to take it.
He was slow to reassure her, and she was impatient. “Because,” she explained, “I never know just what to say or do when they weep. I’m never at a loss at other times; but—”
“Of course I shall not weep,” he protested at length, with something of indignation in his tone. “Whatever gave you such an idea?”
“It isn’t unusual,” she explained. “Sometimes they storm. I’ve known them to swear most awfully. But when they are young, as you are, they so often just melt; and it is very trying, you know. Perhaps you’ll swear. I’d much rather have it so. There was Emborough, for instance. He—”
“If you don’t mind,” he cut in, “I’d prefer not to hear.”
“Ah, I see!” she exclaimed quickly. “You are neither going to weep nor storm. You are going to be just plain disagreeable. And if there is anything I hate it is a man who mopes.”
He was thinking very hard, and for the moment he had failed to follow her. Disaster had dropped upon him like a bolt from the blue at the moment of his greatest confidence.
It was at Simla where, Kipling says, “all things begin and many come to an evil end;” and something, it seemed, had come to an end—evil or otherwise—as well as the season and the last of the dances at Viceregal Lodge.
Ten minutes ago he had been so convinced that the end was to be “otherwise” that even now he couldn’t believe it was to be evil.
“Why,” he managed to say after a brief pause, “I don’t understand you at all. I—”
“No one ever has understood me,” she assured him. “Even when I’ve gone to the trouble of explaining they manage somehow to get the explanation all upside down. It’s very tiresome—very.”
“I really thought you loved me! You—”
“They all think I love them. That’s the odd part of it. I’m sure I never told any one. And yet they are so conceited—Oh, why can’t you men appreciate being petted and amused, without imagining that it must be inspired by adoration and coupled with a desire for life-long attachment?”
“You promised to bolt with me,” he asserted boldly.
Nina’s chair jumped back three inches, impelled by the reflexes of a slim but sturdy pair of long legs. Hers, not the chair’s.
“I abominate a liar!” she announced firmly.
“So do I,” he came back. “You did promise me. It was during that last waltz.”
“I am never responsible for what I say when waltzing.”
“You admit it, then?”
“I admit nothing. I neither confirm nor deny. I don’t know.”
“But we came out here to arrange it. Or don’t you remember that, either?”
“I fancied it was because you wished to smoke.”
“God!” he exclaimed suddenly. “How can you be so bitterly cruel!”
She may have been a reincarnated tigress—in after years there was a man who always declared so—and then again she may not. It is quite possible that circumstance and environment made her what she was.
Certainly at heart Nina Darling was not a bad woman. There were times when she tried very hard to be a very good woman according to her lights. And yet, somehow, somewhere within her she seemed to possess a faculty for making men wretched.
The world—or a very large part of it—regarded it as an insatiable craving, an unappeasable appetite—a sort of lust for personal aggrandizement, growing out of personal vanity. But then the world knew nothing of Nina Darling’s secret—which made all the difference.
For right judgment a few facts will not serve. Unless we have them all we are likely to fall into error. To argue from effect back to cause is a very risky undertaking. And that was what most people did in Nina Darling’s case.
Young Gerald Andrews, of the civil service, the most recent victim, whom she had had in leading strings ever since he came to Simla, fancied her from the very first the most beautiful creature he had ever seen.
Now, stung by the lash of her scorn, the sheer fact of her unattainableness seemed to redouble her charm.
There was something wraithlike about her. She appeared to hold kinship with the moonlight, which in its loveliness overspread lawns and flowerbeds near at hand and turned to opal the mists that hung and swayed over the valley beneath them, where the lovely Annandale roses were blowing.
Until now he had always thought that her big eyes were violet-blue. But suddenly he saw opal lights in them and opal flame. And her gown was not white and silver, as he had fancied, but spun of moonbeams and studded with opals.
Her long, sinuous figure, more revealed than hidden by its gauzy investure, suggested to him Lilith, and the medieval conception of an angel as well.
He hardly expected an answer to the exclamatory question wrung from him by the torture of her words, but she had it ready.
“Because I eminently prefer my matrimonial frying-pan to the blistering coals of the illicit,” she said coolly.
The boy—for he was scarcely more, big and handsome and strong though he appeared—looked terribly wobegone. But on the comparison floated a straw, and like the proverbial drowning man, he clutched at it.
“You admit it’s a frying-pan,” he reminded her.
“Sizzling hot,” she told him. “I’m scorched through and through. My heart’s a cinder.”
The straw went under, carrying him with it, but he still clung on. “Let me take you out of it,” he pleaded desperately.
But her shapely shoulders rose in a discouraging shrug.
“Into the fire?” she asked calmly.
She laughed at that. “Worse,” she said with a touch of cynicism. “The home of the blessed dead! I’m not blessed and I’m not dead—and I don’t want to be!”
“You know I didn’t mean that,” he objected.
“The only other Elysium I know is Elysium Hill, with its doleful deodars. A most distressing—”
Young Andrews interrupted her by springing up. “Oh, don’t be so frightfully literal!” he cried, annoyed to a point of misery. “You know very well what I meant.”
“If you’re going to be rude—” she began threateningly. And on the instant he was in his chair again, leaning forward, groping for her bare hand.
“No, you mustn’t!” she warned, drawing both hands out of reach. “You’ll only declare that I encouraged you.”
At that he gasped audibly. “Encouraged me!” he exclaimed when he breathed normally again. “Aren’t you a little late with your caution? I suppose I never have been encouraged.”
“There! I knew you’d say it.”
“Well, I’ve held your hands dozens of times, haven’t I? More than that, I’ve held you in my arms, and I’ve kissed your lips and your eyes and your hair. Isn’t that encouragement?”
She smiled calmly and whimsically.
“Yes. Encouragement for me. I couldn’t resist you.”
“Your heart isn’t a cinder at all,” he growled, frowning. “It’s a stone! How many other men have you treated like this?”
“None,” she answered boldly. “I never treat two alike. I have too much imagination for that. There are always variations.”
His voice was very bitter as he said: “You’ll meet your match some day. I hope to God you will!”
“I’ve met him already,” she returned. “He’s the only man I care a straw about.”
“Your husband?” he hazarded.
“Good Heavens! No! Poor Darling! He doesn’t deserve the life I lead him. I’m charitable enough to wish him a better fate.”
“What happened to your match then?”
“Now you are asking riddles,” she said. “That question has never been satisfactorily answered.”
“You mean you don’t wish to tell me, I suppose.”
“I’d give anything in the world if I could. He was reported dead eight years ago, but—”
“He wasn’t then.”
“How do you know?”
“He was heard from after.”
“Then he’s alive still—you know that much?”
“No,” she replied languorously. “I don’t know that much. He may have died since, don’t you see?”
“Let me find out for you,” he proposed abruptly. “I’ll—”
“You’re very kind, but you’d have your trouble for your pains. He doesn’t want to be found, wherever he is, dead or alive, and I’ll back him against the world when it comes to having his own way.”
She shivered slightly and drew the filmy scarf closer over her bare shoulders. “Besides,” she added, “when the message was sent he was starting for ‘the world’s end,’ and ‘the world’s end’ is a big place to find a man. The needle and the hayrick are child’s play to it.”
“I’m terribly interested,” said young Andrews. “I am really. I didn’t believe you’d admit any chap was your match. Do you mind telling me what he was like?”
“He was more than my match,” she confessed. “He was something else, and that is why no other man ever will be able to please me after his newness has worn off.”
“As mine has?”
“As yours has.”
“Gad! But you’re frank, Nina.”
“I know it. It’s my one admirable quality. I’m tired of you, Gerald. I always get tired in the same place.”
“The same place?” he repeated, puzzled.
“When they’re not satisfied with a day and want to make it forever. The mere thought of forever wearies me. I feel like killing a man when he so much as hints at it.”
“You haven’t killed your husband,” he reminded her.
“Ah, but how I have been tempted!” she laughed. “Some day I may.”
“I know something of what a beast Darling is,” he ventured. “I’ve heard it at the club. They say—”
“Don’t!” she begged. “I won’t listen. It may all be true, but I’d rather not hear it. I’m sorry for him. I’d only kill him to put him out of his misery—to put us both out of our misery.”
“Of course you don’t mean that. You shouldn’t say it.”
She didn’t contradict him, and for a little there was silence between them. His thoughts reverted to the man who was her match—and more.
“And the other man?” he queried. “You said he was something else. What else?”
“My mate,” she said simply. And again the silence fell.
Presently her laugh rang out, clear and bell-like, startling her companion from gloomy reverie. It jarred awfully. It was like dance music at a funeral.
“I can fancy what else you’ve heard at the club,” she began, the opal lights in her eyes suddenly blazing. “They say I’m an angel, don’t they?”
“They wouldn’t dare say anything else in my presence.”
“To be sure”—bitterly—”that’s condemnation enough in itself. Before you they pronounced me a good and virtuous wife, I suppose. And behind your back—Good Heavens, what must they not say behind your back!”
“You are good and virtuous,” he defended with boyish loyalty.
“Of course I am,” she agreed. “I’ve driven one man to drink by marrying him, and more than I can count by not. I’m an angel, truly. But it’s so hard to tell just what to do. I am my brother’s keeper, and yet I go through life adding each year to the army of the besotted.”
It was not at all the trend that young Andrews had foreseen in bringing Nina Darling to this shadowy corner of the terrace. Every fresh lead made the situation more uncomfortable. He had been brimming over with passion and sentiment, and here they had strayed away into a field rife with some of life’s hardest facts.
“Promise me,” she begged, “that you won’t desert the civil service for the army—this army, my army!”
“God knows what I shall do, Nina!” he flung back desperately. “I banked everything on you. I didn’t think you’d fail me.”
“I’ve failed every one that ever came into my life,” was her candid rejoinder. “Every time I crave and take a little passing pleasure some one suffers, and I haven’t a drop of vicious blood in my veins. I believe I was cursed in my cradle.”
He started to protest, but she shook her golden head dispiritedly. The blues—rare visitors—had settled down upon her.
“If I had only met you first!” he cried. “If you had married me I would have saved you.”
“Don’t!” she supplicated. “Please, please don’t! I hate the word—marriage. Who was it said: ‘Love is a soufflé that marriage changes to a bread-and-butter pudding?’ I’ve seen it borne out scores of times. Soggy, indigestible stuff, without spice or flavor.”
The melody of the dance music which all along had seeped to them in harmonic murmur from the distant ballroom was now hushed.
In the distance, at the opposite end of the terrace, figures—single and grouped—moved in silhouette across the glare from the lighted windows. Along the garden paths there passed at intervals sentinel Ghurkas from the viceroy’s guard of honor.
Young Andrews’s thoughts were long, long thoughts. He was sorry for the woman, but he was still more sorry for himself. He had turned a little away from her. His head was bowed, and his gaze was lowered to the pavement at his feet.
Nina had risen before he was conscious of her movement. Then belatedly he sprang up.
“It is late,” she said. “The Ramsays are probably looking everywhere for me. I mustn’t keep them waiting.”
But he scarcely heeded. He stepped very close to her and gripped her by either arm.
“Tell me,” he begged, low-voiced, earnest, “is there nothing in your heart for me?”
“Oh, yes!” she answered quite casually. “Sympathy—oh, ever so much sympathy!”
“And there can never be anything else?”
“There never can be anything else—except—”
She paused, and his hopes fluttered.
“Except—” he repeated.
“Gratitude. I am grateful. I was so afraid you were going to weep. And you didn’t.”
Categories: English Literature