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A TALE OF SIMLA by DR. HELEN BOURCHIER

April 3rd, 2009 · No Comments · Maiden Stories

There was a dinner-party…

that night at the lieutenant-governor’s, and those of the governed who had followed him from his territory of Lahore up to Simla were bidden to the feast. In one of the pretty private sitting-rooms of the Bellevue Hotel three ladies were discussing chiffons in connection with that function.

“Elma doesn’t care for dinner-parties,” Mrs. Macdonald said regretfully. Elma was her daughter, and this was her first season in Simla. “Oh, mother, I like the parties well enough!” said Elma. “What I hate is the horrid way you have of getting to parties.” “What do you mean?” the third lady asked. “Elma means that she doesn’t like the jampans,” Mrs. Macdonald explained. “I am always frightened,” said Elma in a low voice, and a little of the delicate colour she had brought out from England with her faded from her lovely face. “It seems so dreadful to go rushing down those steep, narrow lanes, on the edge of a precipice, in little rickety two-wheeled chairs that would turn over in a minute if one of the men were to stumble and fall; and then one would roll all down I don’t know how many feet, down those steep precipices: some of them have no railings or protection of any kind, and in the evening the roads are quite dark under the overhanging trees. And people have fallen over them and been killed—every one knows that.”

Elma cannot speak Hindustani,” the mother further explained, “and the first time she went out she called ‘Jeldi, jeldi!‘ to the men, and of course they ran faster and faster. I was really rather alarmed myself when they came tearing past me round a corner.” “I thought jeldi meant ‘slowly,'” said Elma. “Well, at any rate you have learnt one word of the language,” said Mrs. Thompson, laughing. “I should not mind so much if mother was with me,” said the girl; “but those horrid little jampans only hold one person—and mother’s jampannis always run on so fast in front, and my men have to keep up with them. I wish I wasn’t going this evening.” “She has the sweetest frock you ever saw,” said Mrs. Macdonald, turning to a pleasanter aspect of the subject. “I must say my sister-in-law took great pains with her outfit, and she certainly has excellent taste.” “Didn’t you ever feel nervous at first,” Elma asked, “when you went out in a jampan on a dark night down a very steep road?” Mrs. Thompson laughed. “I can’t say I remember it,” she said. “I never fancied myself going over the kudd—the ‘precipice’ as you call it. I suppose I should have made my husband walk by the side of the jampan if I had been afraid.”

Then she got up to go, and Mrs. Macdonald went out with her and stood talking for a minute in the long corridor outside her rooms. “She is a very lovely creature,” said Mrs. Thompson pleasantly. “I should think she is quite the prettiest girl in Simla this year.” “I think she is,” the mother agreed; “but I am afraid she will be very difficult to manage. She is only just out of the schoolroom, you know, and girls are so unpractical. She doesn’t care to talk to any one but the subalterns and boys of her own age—and it is so important she should settle this year. You know we retire next year.” “It is early days yet,” said the other cheerfully. She had come out to India herself as the bride of a very rising young civilian, and she knew nothing of the campaign of the mothers at Simla.

Elma indeed looked a lovely creature when she came out of her room an hour or two later to show herself to her mother before she stepped into the hated jampan. Her dress was a delicate creation of white lace and chiffon, with illusive shimmerings of silver in its folds that came and went with every one of her graceful movements. She was a tall and slender girl, with a beautiful long white throat, smooth and round, that took on entrancing curves of pride and gentleness, of humility and nobleness. She had splendid rippling hair of a deep bronze, that had been red a few years earlier; and dark blue dreamy eyes under broad dark eyebrows; a long sweep of cool fair cheek, and a rather wide mouth with a little tender, pathetic droop at the corners.

“That frock certainly becomes you to perfection,” said the mother. “I hope you will enjoy yourself; and do try not to let the boys monopolise you this evening. It is not like a dance, you know, and really, it is not good form to snub all the older men who try to talk to you.” Elma lifted her long lashes with a glance of unfeigned surprise. “Oh, mother,” she said humbly, “how could I snub any one? I am afraid of the clever men. I like to talk to the boys because they are as silly as I am myself, and they would not laugh at me for saying stupid things.” “No one is going to laugh at you, goosey,” said her mother. “I wish I was not going,” said Elma. The ayah came out of the bedroom, and wrapped the tall young figure in a long white opera-cloak; and then they all went down together to the front verandah, where the jampans waited with the brown, bare-legged runners in their smart grey and blue liveries.

Mrs. Macdonald started first. “Don’t call out jeldi too often, Elma,” she called back, laughing: “I don’t want to be run over.” And the ayah, hearing the word jeldi, explained to the jampannis that the Miss Sahib desired, above all things, fleetness, and that she had no mind to sit behind a team of slugs. Elma got in very gingerly, and the ayah settled her draperies with affectionate care. The dark little woman loved her, because she was gentle and fair and never scolded or hurried.

The night was very dark. The road was by narrow backways, rough, heavily shadowed, and unprotected in many places. The jampannis started off at a run down the steep path as soon as they had passed through the gate, and Elma sat trembling and quaking behind them, gripping both sides of the little narrow carriage as she was whirled along. Once or twice it bumped heavily over large stones in the road; and when they had gone some little distance a dispute seemed to arise between the runners. They stopped the jampan and appealed to her, but she could not understand a word they said. She could only shake her head and point forward. Several minutes were lost in this discussion, and when at length it was decided one way or the other, the men started again at a greater speed than ever, to make up for the lost time.

They bumped and flew along the dark road, and whirled round a corner too short. One of the men on the inner side of the road stumbled up the bank, and, losing his balance, let go the pole, and the jampan heeled over. Elma’s startled scream unnerved the other runners, who swerved and stumbled, and in a moment the jampan was overturned down the side of the kudd. The white figure in it was shot out and went rolling down the rough hillside among the scrub and thorny bushes and broken stakes that covered it.

The jampannis ran away; and after that one scream of Elma’s there was silence on the dark road. It seemed to her that she was years rolling and buffeting down that steep hillside, which happily at that point was not precipitous. Then something struck her sharply on the side and stopped her farther progress. She did not faint, though the pain in her side gripped her breath for a moment. For all her delicate ethereal appearance, she was a strong girl, and, like many timid people, found courage when a disaster had really happened. She could not move. She was pinned down among the short, stiff branches of a thorny shrub; but she screamed again as loud as she could—not a scream of terror, but a call for help. Then she lay and listened. All about her there was no sound but the rustling murmur of the leaves and the tiny, mysterious noises of the little creatures of the night whose realm she had invaded. Now and again she tried to move and disentangle herself from the strong branches that held her; but they pressed her down, the thorns pinned her clothes, and her bruised side ached with every movement—and she was forced to lie still again and listen for some sound of the jampannis, who must surely be looking for her.

Presently, on the road above, there sounded, very faint and far off, the tramp of shod feet. She called again, and the tramp quickened to a run, and a man’s voice shouted in the distance: “Hullo! Hullo!” As the steps came nearer above her, she cried again: “Help! I am here—down the kudd.” In the leafy stillness her shrill young voice rang far and clear. “Where are you?” came the answering voice. “Down the kudd.” The steps stopped on the road above. “Are you there?” the voice called. “I see something white glimmering.” “I am here,” she answered; then, as the bushes crackled above her, she called a warning: “It is very steep. Be careful.”

Very slowly and cautiously the steps came down the steep side of the kudd to an accompaniment of rolling stones and crashing and tearing branches, and now and then a muttered exclamation. Then she was aware of a white face glimmering out of the darkness. “Are you there?” said the voice again, quite close to her. “Yes, I am here, but I cannot move; the branches hold me down.” “Wait a moment. I will get a light.”

She was lying on her back, and, turning her head a little, she could see a match struck and the face it illuminated—a strong, dark, clean-shaven face; a close-cropped, dark, uncovered head. The match was held over her for a moment, then it went out. “I see where you are,” said the rescuer, “we must try to get you out. Are you hurt?” “I have hurt my side, I think,” she said.

Without more words he knelt down beside her and began to tear away and loosen the short, sturdy branches; then he took her under the shoulders, and drew her slowly along the ground. There was a great rending and tearing in every direction of her delicate garments; but at last she was free of the clinging thorns and branches. “I am afraid the thorns have scratched you a good deal,” he said in a very matter-of-fact voice. “Will you try if you can stand up now? Lean on me.”

Elma scrambled to her feet, and stood leaning against him—a glimmering, ghostly figure, whose tattered garments were happily hidden by the darkness. “Do you think you can manage to climb back to the road now?” he asked; “there may be snakes about here, you know.” “I will try,” said Elma. “I will go first,” he said. “You had better hold on to my coat, I think. That will leave my hands free to pull us up.” Very slowly and laboriously they clambered back again to the road above; there was no sign of the jampannis, and the jampan itself had gone over the kudd and was no more to be seen.

They sat down exhausted on the rising bank on the other side of the road. “How did you get here?” he asked. “My jampan went over the side, down the precipice,” said Elma, “and I am afraid those poor jampannis must have been killed.” The stranger laughed long and loud, and Elma, in the reaction of her relief, laughed too. “I have not the slightest idea what you are laughing at,” she said. “You have not been long in this country?” he asked. “Why?” “You do not know the jampanni. As soon as the jampan tilted they let go, and directly they saw you had gone over they ran away. Killed! Well, that is likely! I daresay they will come back here presently to pick up the pieces, when they have got over their panic: they are not really bad-hearted, you know. We will wait a little while and see.”

There was silence between them for a few peaceful moments; then Elma said gently, “I thank you with all my heart.” “Oh, not at all!” said the stranger politely. They both laughed again, young, heart-whole, clear laughter, that echoed strangely on those world-old hills.”Words are very inadequate,” said Elma presently. “Oh, one understands all right without words,” said he; “but where is the rest of your party, I wonder? I suppose you were not alone?”

“Mother has gone to a dinner-party,” she answered. “Oh dear, what ought I to do? She will be so frightened! She is waiting for me. I must get some one to go and tell her I am all right. How could I sit here and forget how frightened she will be when I don’t come!” “We had better wait a little longer, I think,” he said. “You cannot walk just yet, can you?” “My shoes are all cut to pieces,” she owned ruefully. “I suppose we must wait. It was very lucky for me you were passing just then.” “Yes, I had just cut the shop for an hour or two, and I came round here to have a quiet smoke. Lost my way, as a matter of fact.” “They must keep open very late at your shop,” she remarked. He hesitated a moment before he answered, “Very late.” “And I suppose you haven’t dined?” she went on. “You must come back with me, and dine at the hotel. I cannot go on to the party now, at any rate; my clothes are in rags, and, besides, it must be quite late.” “Do you know your way back to the hotel?” he asked, as the time went on and the jampannis remained, to all appearance, as dead as ever. “No, I have never walked down this way, and it is far too dark to attempt it now,” said Elma very decidedly. The time passed pleasantly enough while they waited, and more than once their light-hearted laughter rang out into the night.

At last they heard a pattering of bare feet coming down the road. The stranger hailed in Hindustani, and the natives stopped and began an excited jabbering all together, which the stranger answered in their own language. “These are the jampannis who were killed,” he announced to Elma. “If you wish it, I will send one of them with a message to your mother, and the others can fetch a couple of jampans to take us to the hotel.” “You seem to know Hindustani very well,” she remarked, when the men had been sent on their various errands. “Yes, I have been some little time in India,” he answered, “though I have only been a few days at Simla. Will you allow me to introduce myself? My name is Angus McIvor.” “And I am Elma Macdonald. I hope we shall not meet any one at the hotel before I can get to my room. Oh! and will you let me go on in front, and get out before you come?—I am so dreadfully tattered and torn.” “I promise not to look at you at all until you give me leave,” he answered gravely. “And what about me? I have lost my hat, and as yet I have no idea of the extent of the damage my garments have sustained.” “Then I won’t look at you either,” said Elma, and they laughed together again in the gayest camaraderie.

Dinner was over at the Bellevue when they got back there; but they neither of them felt the want of other company. They had a very merry little dinner-party all to themselves, and Angus was able to look at the damsel errant he had rescued. Her beauty came upon him with a shock of surprise. He had seen many beautiful women in his time, but never anything so enchanting as the droop of her mouth, or the lovely curves of her throat, or the transparent candour of her sweet blue eyes. What Elma saw was a tall, well-knit young fellow, with a dark, plain face, a hawk nose, and grey eyes. He was clean-shaven; no moustache or beard concealed the masterful squareness of his jaw or the rather satirical curve of his thin lips.

Directly dinner was over he left her, though she begged him to stay till her mother came home. “Mother would like to thank you for what you did for me,” she said. “I will come and be thanked to-morrow morning, then,” he said, laughing. “I shall want to know how you are after your accident, you know—that is, if I can get away from the shop.”

Mrs. Macdonald came home rather early, and not in the best of tempers. She had been a good deal alarmed and upset when Elma failed to arrive at Government House; and even after the jampanni had brought the message that her daughter was safe at the hotel she was extremely annoyed at Elma’s absence from the party. There were several bachelor guests whom she would have been glad to introduce to her; and when she thought of the radiant figure in the shimmering white robe that she had last seen on the hotel verandah, she was ready to cry with vexation and disappointment. She listened with ill-concealed impatience to Elma’s account of her accident. “And pray who is this Mr. McIvor who roams about rescuing distressed damsels?” she asked. “I never heard his name before.” “He said he came out of a shop,” said Elma simply. “A shop!” cried Mrs. Macdonald. “Really, Elma, you are no better than an idiot! The idea of asking a man who comes out of a shop to dine with you here! What will people say? You must be mad.””But he was very kind to me, mother,” said Elma, “and he missed his own dinner by helping me. And, you know, I might have lain in that horrible place all night if he had not helped me out. I don’t see that any one here can complain about his shop; they were not asked to meet him: we dined quite by ourselves, he and I.” Mrs. Macdonald stamped her foot. “You are hopeless, Elma—quite hopeless!” she cried. “What was your aunt dreaming of to bring you up to have no more sense than a child of three years old?” “He is very gentlemanly,” said Elma, still gently expostulating. “You will see for yourself: he is coming to call on you to-morrow, and to ask how I am.” “Elma, I forbid you to see him again!” said the mother, now tragically impressive. “If he calls to-morrow, I shall see him alone. You are not to come into the room.”

“I am afraid he will think it very unkind and rude,” said Elma regretfully; “and I can never forget how kind he was and how glad I was to see him when he came down the kudd after me.” But she made no further resistance to her mother’s orders, having privately decided in her own mind to find out what shop in Simla had the advantage of his services, and to see him there herself and thank him again.

Angus McIvor duly called next morning, and was received by Mrs. Macdonald alone; but what passed between them at that interview remains a secret between him and that lady.

After lunch Elma strolled out for her usual solitary walk while her mother was enjoying her siesta. She wandered idly along under the trees down the road along which the jampannis had whirled her the evening before, and so to the broken edge of the kudd where she had rolled over. There, sitting on the bank, smoking serenely, was Angus McIvor. He threw away his cigar, and got up as soon as she saw him. Her lovely face flushed, her blue eyes darkened with pleasure, as she held out her hand in greeting. “I thought you would be sure to come here,” he said, smiling down upon her. “Oh, you expected me, then?” she said, and her eyes fell before his.”Why weren’t you there this morning when I came to be thanked?” he asked. She turned her head away uneasily. “Mother did not wish me to come in,” she said. “Why not?” No answer. “Well, never mind that now,” he said. “I will ask you again some other time. Now let us go up towards the top of Jacko; there are some pretty views I should like to show you.” And, nothing loth, Elma went with him.

“Why did your mother not wish you to see me this morning?” “I cannot tell,” said Elma lamely. “Was it because of the shop?” he persisted. “Tell me. I promise you I will not mind. Was it?” The fair head drooped a little, and the answer came in a whisper he could hardly hear: “Yes.” “And do you mind about the shop?”She raised indignant blue eyes to his. “Of course not!” she said. “You ought to know that without asking me.” “Then will you meet me again to-morrow outside here?” he asked. “No, I cannot do that.” “Then you are ashamed of the shop?” “Indeed, I am not!” “But I cannot meet you any other way,” he urged. “I cannot come to see you, and you have not been to my shop yet since I came to Simla. So where can I see you? Will you meet me again?”  “Indeed, I cannot!” “Then it is the shop?” The blue eyes were full of distress, the tender mouth grew more pathetic. “I will come just once,” she said, “to show you I care nothing about the shop. But you must not ask me again to do what I know my mother would not like. I cannot deceive her.”

And on the next day they met again and walked together. He did not ask her to meet him again, but on the third day he joined her at the gate. “This is quite accidental, you know,” he said, laughing down into her happy eyes. And as they walked in the tender green shadows upon wooded Jacko, his eyes said, “I love you,” and hers faltered and looked down. And on the homeward way he took her hand. “I will not ask you to meet me again in secret, my sweetest,” he said, “because I love you. I am ashamed that for one moment I doubted your innocent, unworldly heart. I will woo and win you openly as you should be wooed.” And without waiting for an answer, he kissed her hand and left her.

That evening there was a great reception at Government House, and the Viceroy’s new aide-de-camp, Lord Angus McIvor Stuart, helped to receive the guests. “This is my ‘shop,’ Mrs. Macdonald,” he said. “It was a silly and slangy way to speak of it; but, upon my honour, I never meant to deceive any one when I said it first.”

Then was Elma Macdonald openly wooed and won by the man who loved her.

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