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The Pool in the Desert By Sara Jeannette Duncan Characters: 10446

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07

A dog of no sort of caste stood in the veranda and barked at me offensively. I picked up a stone, and he vanished like the dog of a dream into the house. It was such a small house that it wasn't on the municipal map at all: it looked as if someone had built it for amusement with anything that was lying about. Nevertheless, it had a name, it was called Amy Villa, freshly painted in white letters on a shiny black board, and nailed against the nearest tree in the orthodox Simla fashion. It looked as if the owner of the place had named it as a duty towards his tenant, the board was so new, and in that case the reflection presented itself that the tenant might have cooperated to call it something else. It was disconcerting somehow to find that our dove had perched, even temporarily, in Amy Villa. Nor was it soothing to discover that the small white object stuck in the corner of the board was Mr. Ingersoll Armour's card.

In Simla we do not stick our cards about in that way at the mercy of the wind and the weather; we paint our names neatly under the names of our houses with 'I.C.S.' for Indian Civil Service, or 'P.W.D.' for Public Works Department, or whatever designation we are entitled to immediately after, so that there can be no mistake. This strikes newcomers sometimes as a little professional, especially when a hand accompanies, pointing; but it is the only possible way where there are no streets and no numbers, but where houses are dropped about a hilltop as if they had fallen from a pepper-pot. In sticking his card out like that Mr. Armour seemed to imagine himself au quatrieme or au cinquieme somewhere on the south side of the Seine; it betrayed rather a ridiculous lack of conformity. He was high enough up, however, to give any illusion; I had to stop to find the wind to announce myself. There was nobody else to do it if I except the dog.

I walked into the veranda and shouted. Then I saw that one end of it was partly glazed off, and inside sat a young man in his shirt-sleeves with his back to the door.

In reply he called out, 'That you, Rosario?' and I stood silent, taken somewhat aback.

There was only one Rosario in Simla, and he was a subordinate in my own office. Again the hateful need to explain. Between subordinate clerks and officials in Simla there is a greater gulf fixed than was ever imagined in parable. Besides, Rosario had a plain strain of what we call 'the country' in him, a plain strain, that is, of the colour of the country. It was certainly the first time in my official career that I had been mistaken for Rosario.

Armour turned round and saw me-that I was a stranger.

He got up at once. 'Oh,' he said, 'I thought it was Rosario.

'It isn't,' I replied, 'my name is Philips. May I ask whether you were expecting Mr. Rosario? I can come again, you know.'

'Oh, it doesn't matter. Sit down. He may drop in or he may not-I rather thought he would today. It's a pull up, isn't it, from the Mall? Have a whisky and soda.'

I stood on the threshold spellbound. It was just the smell that bound me, the good old smell of oil paints and turpentine and mediums and varnish and new canvas that you never by any chance put your nose into in any part of Asia. It carried me back twenty years to old haunts, old friends, old joys, ideals, theories. Ah, to be young and have a temperament! For I had one then-that instant in Armour's veranda proved it to me forever.

'No thanks,' I said. 'If you don't mind I'll just have the smell.'

The young fellow knew at once that I liked the smell. 'Well, have a chair, anyhow,' he said, and took one himself and sat down opposite me, letting his lean brown hands fall between his knees.

'Do you mind,' I said, 'if for a minute I sit still and look round?'

He understood again.

'I haven't brought much,' he said, 'I left pretty near everything in Paris.'

'You have brought a world.' Then after a moment, 'Did you do that?' I asked, nodding towards a canvas tacked against the wall. It was the head of a half-veiled Arab woman turned away.

The picture was in the turning away, and the shadow the head-covering made over the cheek and lips.

'Lord, no! That's Dagnan Bouveret. I used to take my things to him, and one day he gave me that. You have an eye,' he added, but without patronage. 'It's the best thing I've got.'

I felt the warmth of an old thrill.

'Once upon a time,' I said, 'I was allowed to have an eye.' The wine, untasted all those years, went to my head. 'That's a vigorous bit above,' I continued.

'Oh, well! It isn't really up to much, you know. It's Rosario's. He photographs mostly, but he has a notion of colour.'

'Really?' said I, thinking with regard to my eye that the sun of that atrocious country had put it out. 'I expect I've lost it,' I said aloud.

'Your eye? Oh, you'll easily get a fresh one. Do you go home for the exhibitions?'

'I did once,' I confessed. 'My first leave. A kind of paralysis overtakes one here. Last time I went for the grouse.'

He glanced at me with his light clear eyes as if for the first time he encountered a difficulty.

'It's a magnificent country for painting,' he said.

'But not for pictures,' I rejoined

. He paid no attention, staring at the ground and twisting one end of his moustache.

'The sun on those old marble tombs-broad sun and sand-'

'You mean somewhere about Delhi.'

'I couldn't get anywhere near it.' He was not at that moment anywhere near me. 'But I have thought out a trick or two-I mean to have another go when it cools off again down there.' He returned with a smile, and I saw how delicate his face was. The smile turned down with a little gentle mockery in its lines. I had seen that particular smile only on the faces of one or two beautiful women. It had a borrowed air upon a man, like a tiara or an earring.

'There's plenty to paint,' he said, looking at me with an air of friendly speculation.

'Indeed, yes. And it has never been done. We are sure it has never been done.'

'"We"-you mean people generally?'

'Not at all. I mean Miss Harris, Miss Harris and myself.'

'Your daughter?'

'My name is Philips,' I reminded him pleasantly, remembering that the intelligence of clever people is often limited to a single art. 'Miss Harris is the daughter of Mr. Edward Harris, Secretary of the Government of India in the Legislative Department. She is fond of pictures. We have a good many tastes in common. We have always suspected that India had never been painted, and when we saw your things at the Town Hall we knew it.'

His queer eyes dilated, and he blushed.

'Oh,' he said, 'it's only one interpretation. It all depends on what a fellow sees. No fellow can see everything.'

'Till you came,' I insisted, 'nobody had seen anything.'

He shook his head, but I could read in his face that this was not news to him.

'That is mainly what I came up to tell you,' I continued, 'to beg that you will go on and on. To hope that you will stay a long time and do a great deal. It is such an extraordinary chance that any one should turn up who can say what the country really means.'

He stuck his hands in his pockets with a restive movement. 'Oh, don't make me feel responsible,' he said, 'I hate that;' and then suddenly he remembered his manners. 'But it's certainly nice of you to think so,' he added.

There was something a little unusual in his inflection which led me to ask at this point whether he was an American, and to discover that he came from somewhere in Wisconsin, not directly, but by way of a few years in London and Paris. This accounted in a way for the effect of freedom in any fortune about him for which I already liked him, and perhaps partly for the look of unembarrassed inquiry and experiment which sat so lightly in his unlined face. He came, one realized, out of the fermentation of new conditions; he never could have been the product of our limits and systems and classes in England. His surroundings, his 'things,' as he called them, were as old as the sense of beauty, but he seemed simply to have put them where he could see them, there was no pose in their arrangement. They were all good, and his delight in them was plain; but he was evidently in no sense a connoisseur beyond that of natural instinct. Some of those he had picked up in India I could tell him about, but I had no impression that he would remember what I said. There was one Bokhara tapestry I examined with a good deal of interest.

'Yes,' he said, 'they told me I shouldn't get anything as good as that out here, so I brought it,' but I had to explain to him why it was anomalous that this should be so.

'It came a good many miles over desert from somewhere,' he remarked, as I made a note of inquiry as to the present direction of trade in woven goods from Persia, 'I had to pound it for a week to get the dust out.'

We spent an hour looking over work he had done down in the plains, and then I took my leave. It did not occur to me at the moment to ask Armour to come to the club or to offer to do anything for him; all the hospitality, all that was worth offering seemed so much more at his disposition than at mine. I only asked if I might come again, mentioning somewhat shyly that I must have the opportunity of adding, at my leisure, to those of his pictures that were already mine by transaction with the secretary of the Art Exhibition. I left him so astonished that this had happened, so plainly pleased, that I was certain he had never sold anything before in his life. This impression gave me the uplifted joy of a discoverer to add to the satisfactions I had already drawn from the afternoon; and I almost bounded down the hill to the Mall. I left the pi dog barking in the veranda, and I met Mr. Rosario coming up, but in my unusual elation I hardly paused to consider either of them further.

The mare and her groom were waiting on the Mall, and it was only when I got on her back that the consciousness visited me of something forgotten. It was my mission-to propose to take Armour, if he were 'possible,' to call upon the Harrises. Oh, well, he was possible enough; I supposed he possessed a coat, though he hadn't been wearing it; and I could arrange it by letter. Meanwhile, as was only fair, I turned the mare in the direction of the drawing-room where I had reason to believe that Miss Dora Harris was quenching her impatience in tea.

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