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The Pool in the Desert By Sara Jeannette Duncan Characters: 13396

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


To understand how we prized him, Dora Harris and I, it is necessary to know Simla. I suppose people think of that place, if they ever do think of it, as an agreeable retreat in the wilds of the Himalayas where deodars and scandals grow, and where the Viceroy if he likes may take off his decorations and go about in flannels. I know how useless it would be to try to give a more faithful impression, and I will hold back from the attempt as far as I can. Besides, my little story is itself an explanation of Simla. Ingersoll Armour might have appeared almost anywhere else without making social history. He came and bloomed among us in the wilderness, and such and such things happened. It sounds too rude a generalization to say that Simla is a wilderness; I hasten to add that it is a waste as highly cultivated as you like, producing many things more admirable than Ingersoll Armour. Still he bloomed there conspicuously alone. Perhaps there would have been nothing to tell if we had not tried to gather him. That was wrong; Nature in Simla expects you to be content with cocked hats.

There are artists almost everywhere and people who paint even in the Himalayas, though Miss Harris and I in our superior way went yearly to the Simla Fine Arts Exhibition chiefly to amuse ourselves by scoffing. It was easy to say clever things about the poor little exhibits; and one was grateful to the show on this account, for nothing is more depressing east of Suez than the absence of provocation to say clever things. There one afternoon in May as we marched about enjoying ourselves, we came upon Ingersoll Armour, not in the flesh, but in half a dozen studies hanging in the least conspicuous corner and quite the worst light in the room.

'Eh, what?' said I, and Dora exclaimed:

'I SAY!'

'Sent out from home,' I said, ever the oracle.

'Not at all,' replied Dora. 'Look, they are Indian subjects. SIMLA subjects,' she went on, with excitement.

I turned up the catalogue. 'Ninety-seven, "Kasumti Bazaar"; ninety-eight, "Clouds on the Chor"; ninety-nine, "The House of a Friend"-Lord, what apricot blossoms! Yes, they're all Simla.'

'For goodness' sake,' said Dora, 'who painted them? You've got the catalogue!'

'"I. Armour,"' I read.

'"I. Armour,"' she repeated, and we looked at each other, saying in plain silence that to the small world of Simla I. Armour was unknown.

'Not on Government House list, I venture to believe,' said Dora. That in itself may show to what depths we sink. Yet it was a trenchant and a reasonable speculation.

'It may be a newcomer,' I suggested, but she shook her head. 'All newcomers call upon us,' she said. 'There in the middle of the Mall we escape none of them. He isn't a calling person.'

'Why do you say "he"? You are very confident with your pronouns. There's a delicacy of feeling-'

'Which exactly does not suggest a women. We are undermined by delicacy of feeling; we're not strong enough to express it with brushes. A man can make it a quality, a decorative characteristic, and so we see it. With a woman it's everything-all over the place-and of no effect. Oh, I assure you, I. Armour is a man.'

'Who shall stand against you! Let him be a man. He has taste.'

'Taste!' exclaimed Miss Harris, violently, and from the corners of her mouth I gathered that I had said one of those things which she would store up and produce to prove that I was not, for all my pretensions, a person of the truest feeling. 'He sees things.'

'There's an intensity,' I ventured.

'That's better. Yes, an intensity. A perfect passion of colour. Look at that.' She indicated a patch of hillsides perhaps six inches by four, in which the light seemed to come and go as it does in a sapphire.

We stood and gazed. It was a tremendous thing; only half a dozen studies with feeling and knowledge in them, but there in that remote fastness thrice barred against the arts a tremendous thing, a banquet for our famished eyes. What they would have said to us in London is a different matter, and how good they really were I do not find the courage to pronounce, but they had merit enough to prick our sense of beauty delightfully where we found them-oh, they were good!

'Heaven send it isn't a Tommy,' said Dora, with a falling countenance. 'There is something absolutely inaccessible about a Tommy.'

'How could it be?' I asked.

'Oh, there are some inspired ones. But it isn't-that's French technique. It's an Englishman or an American who has worked in Paris. What in the name of fortune is he doing here?'

'Oh,' I said, 'we have had them, you know. Val Prinsep came out at the time of the Prince of Wales's visit.'

'Do you remember that?'

'It's a matter of history,' I said, evasively, 'and Edwin Weeks travelled through India not so many years ago. I saw his studio in Paris afterward. Between his own canvases and Ahmedabad balconies and Delhi embroideries and Burmese Buddhas and other things he seemed to have carried off the whole place.'

'But they don't come up here ever. They come in the cold weather, and as they can get plenty of snow and ice at home, they stay down in the plains with the palm-trees.'

'Precisely; they do,' I said.

'And besides,' Dora went on, with increasing excitement, 'this isn't a master. You see, he doesn't send a single picture-only these tiny things. And there's a certain tentativeness'-Miss Harris, her parasol handle pressed against her lips, looked at me with an eagerness that was a pleasure to look at in itself.

'A certain weakness, almost a lack of confidence, in the drawing,' I said.

'What does that signify?'

'Why, immaturity, of course-not enough discipline.'

'He's a student. Not that it amounts to a defect, you know'-she was as jealous already as if she possessed the things-'only a sign to read by. I should be grateful for more signs. Why should a student come to Simla?'

'To teach, perhaps,' I suggested. Naturally one sought only among reasons of utility.

'It's the Kensington person who teaches. When they have worked in the ateliers and learned as much as this they never do. They paint fans and menu cards, and starve, but they don't teach.'

Sir William Lamb, Member of Council for the Department of Finance, was borne by the stream to our sides. The simile will hardly stand conscientious examination, for the stream was a thin one and did no more than trickle past, while Sir William weighed fifteen stone, and was so eminent that it could never inconvenience him at its deepest. Dora detached her gaze from the pictures and turned her back upon them; I saw the measure of precaution. It was unavailing, however. 'What have we here?'

said Sir William. Dora removed her person from his line of vision, and he saw what we had there.

'The work of a friend of yours?' Sir William was spoken of as a 'cautious' man. He had risen to his present distinction on stepping-stones of mistakes he conspicuously had not made.

'No,' said Dora, 'we were wondering who the artist could be.'

Sir William looked at the studies, and had a happy thought. 'If you ask me, I should say a child of ten,' he said. He was also known as a man of humour.

'Miss Harris had just remarked a certain immaturity,' I ventured.

'Oh, well,' said Sir William, 'this isn't the Royal Academy, is it? I always say it's very good of people to send their things here at all. And some of them are not half bad-I should call this year's average very high indeed.'

'Are you pleased with the picture that has taken your prize, Sir William?' asked Dora.

'I have bought it.' Sir William's chest underwent before our eyes an expansion of conscious virtue. Living is so expensive in Simla; the purchase of a merely decorative object takes almost the proportion of an act of religion, even by a Member of Council drawing four hundred pounds a month.

'First-rate it is, first-rate. Have you seen it? "Our Camp in Tirah." Natives cooking in the foreground, fellows standing about smoking, and a whole pile of tinned stores dumped down in one corner, exactly as they would be, don't you know! Oh, I think the Committee made a very good choice indeed, a very good choice.'

Sir William moved on, and Dora was free to send me an expressive glance. 'Isn't that just LIKE this place?' she demanded. 'Let me see, the Viceroy's medal, the Society's silver medal, five prizes from Members of Council. Highly Commended's as thick as blackberries, and these perfectly fresh, original, admirable things completely ignored. What an absurd, impossible corner of the earth it is!'

'You look very cross, you two,' said Mrs. Sinclair, trailing past. 'Come and see the crazy china exhibit, all made of little bits, you know. They say the photograph frames are simply lovely.'

Mrs. Sinclair's invitation was not sincere. Miss Harris was able to answer it with a laugh and a wave. We remained beside the serious fact of exhibits 97-103.

'Who are the judges this year?' I asked, not that I did not know precisely who they were likely to be. There is a custom in these matters, and I had been part of Simla for eleven years.

Dora took the catalogue from my hand and turned its pages over.

'Mr. Cathcart, of course; the Private Secretary to the Viceroy would be on the Committee almost ex officio, wouldn't he? Impossible to conceive a Private Secretary to the Viceroy whose opinion would not be valuable upon any head. The member for Public Works-I suppose he can build bridges, or could once, therefore he can draw, or could once; besides, look at his precedence and his pay! General Haycock-isn't he head of the Ordnance Department? I can't think of any other reason for putting him on. Oh yes-he's a K.C.B., and he is inventing a way of taking coloured photographs. Mr. Tilley, the old gentleman that teaches elementary drawing to the little girls in the diocesan school, that's all right. And Mr. Jay, of course, because Mr. Jay's water-colours are the mainstay of the exhibition, and he must be given a chance of expressing his opinion of them.' She handed me back the catalogue. 'I have never been really angry with them before,' she said.

'Are you really angry now?' I asked.

'Furious,' Dora replied, and indeed her face expressed indignation. Its lines were quite tense, and a spark shone oddly in the middle of the eyes. One could not credit her with beauty, but as her lady friends were fond of saying, there was something 'more' in her face. I saw a good deal more at this moment, and it gave me pleasure, as all her feelings did when they came out like that. I hasten to add that she was not unpleasing; her features had a symmetry and a mobility, and her eyes could take any transient charm they chose to endow themselves with; though there were moments when she compared very badly with the other young ladies of Simla with their high spirits and their pretty complexions, very badly indeed. Those were occasions when the gay monotony of the place pressed, I imagine, a little heavily upon her, and the dullness she felt translated itself in her expression. But she was by no means unpleasing.

'I must go and see Lady Pilkey's picture,' I said.

'What is the use?' said Dora. 'It's a landscape in oils-a view of the Himalayas, near Narkanda. There are the snows in the background, very thin and visionary through a gap in the trees, and two hills, one hill on each side. Dark green trees, pine-trees, with a dead one in the left foreground covered with a brilliant red creeper. Right foreground occupied by a mountain path and a solitary native figure with its back turned. Society's silver medal.'

'When did you see it?' I asked.

'I haven't seen it-this year. But I saw the one she sent last, and the one the year before that. You can trust my memory, really.'

'No,' I said, 'I can't. I'm dining there tonight. I must have an original impression.'

'Congratulate her on the warm blaze of colour in the foreground. It's perfectly safe,' urged Miss Harris, but I felt compelled to go myself to see lady Pilkey's landscape. When I returned I found her still sitting in grave absorption before the studies that had taken us so by surprise. Her face was full of a soft new light; I had never before seen the spring touched in her that could flood it like that.

'You were very nearly right,' I announced; 'but the blaze of colour was in the middle distance, and there was a torrent in the foreground that quite put it out. And the picture does take the Society's silver medal.'

'I can not decide,' she replied without looking at me, 'between the Kattiawar fair thing and those hills in the rain. I can only have one-father won't hear of more than one.'

'You can have two,' I said bluntly, so deeply interested I was in the effect the things had on her. 'And I will have a third for myself. I can't withstand those apricot-trees.'

I thought there was moisture in the eyes she turned upon me, an unusual thing-a most unusual thing-in Dora Harris; but she winked it back, if it was there, too quickly for any certainty.

'You are a dear,' she said. Once or twice before she had called me a dear. It reminded me, as nothing else ever did, that I was a contemporary of her father's. It is a feeble confession, but I have known myself refrain from doing occasional agreeable things apprehending that she might call me a dear.

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