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The Pool in the Desert By Sara Jeannette Duncan Characters: 11849

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07

The very next morning I met Armour on my way to the office. He was ambling along on the leanest and most ill-groomed of bazaar ponies, and he wore a bowler. In Simla sun hats are admissible, straw hats are presentable, and soft felt hats are superior, but you must not wear a bowler. I might almost say that if one's glance falls upon a bowler, one hardly looks further; the expectation of finding an acquaintance under it is so vain. In this instance, I did look further, fortunately, though in doing so I was compelled to notice that the bowler was not lifted in answer to my salutation. Of no importance in itself, of course, but betraying in Armour a certain lack of observation. I felt the Departmental Head crumble in me, however, as I recognized him, and I pulled the mare up in a manner which she plainly resented. It was my opportunity to do cautiously and delicately what I had omitted the afternoon before; but my recollection is that I was very clumsy.

I said something about the dust, and he said something about the glare, and then I could think of nothing better than to ask him if he wouldn't like to meet a few Simla people.

'Oh, I know lots of people, thanks,' he said. 'It's kind of you to think of it, all the same, but I've got any amount of friends here.'

I thought of Mr. Rosario, and stood, or sat confounded.

The mare fidgeted; I knocked a beast of a fly off her, and so gained time.

'This is my second season up here, you know.'

'Your second season!' I exclaimed. 'Where on earth have you been hiding?'

'Well, I didn't exhibit last year, you see. I'd heard it was a kind of a toy show, so I thought I wouldn't. I think now that was foolish. But I got to know quite a number of families.'

'But I am sure there are numbers that you haven't met,' I urged,' or I should have heard of it.'

He glanced at me with a slight flush. 'If you mean society people,' he said, 'I don't care about that kind of thing, Mr. Philips. I'm not adapted to it, and I don't want to be. If any one offered to introduce me to the Viceroy, I would ask to be excused.'

'Oh, the Viceroy,' I responded, disrespectfully, 'is neither here nor there. But there are some people, friends of my own, who would like very much to meet you.'

'By the name of Harris?' he asked. I was too amazed to do anything but nod. By the name of Harris! The Secretary of the Government of India in the Legislative Department! The expression, not used as an invocation, was inexcusable.

'I remember you mentioned them yesterday.'

'Yes,' I said, 'there's a father and daughter. Miss Harris is very artistic.'

His face clouded, as well it might, at the word. 'Does she paint?' he asked, so apprehensively that I could not forbear a smile at Dora's expense. I could assure him that she did not paint, that she had not painted, at all events, for years, and presently I found myself in the ridiculous position of using argument to bring a young man to the Harrises. In the end I prevailed, I know, out of sheer good nature on Armour's part; he was as innocent as a baby of any sense of opportunity.

We arranged it for the following Friday, but as luck would have it, His Excellency sent for me at the very hour; we met the messenger. I felt myself unlucky, but there was nothing for it but that Armour should go alone, which he did, with neither diffidence nor alacrity, but as if it were all in the day's work, and he had no reason to be disobliging.

The files were very heavy during the succeeding fortnight, and the Viceroy quite importunate in his demand for my valuable suggestions. I was worked off my legs, and two or three times was obliged to deny myself in replying to notes from Dora suggesting Sunday breakfast or afternoon tea. Finally, I shook myself free; it was the day she wrote:

'You must come-I can't keep it to myself any longer.'

I half thought Armour would be there, but he wasn't; that is, he was absent corporeally, but the spirit and expression of him littered every convenient part. Some few things lay about that I had seen in the studio, to call it so, but most of the little wooden panels looked fresh, almost wet, and the air held strongly the fragrance of Armour's north veranda. In one corner there used to be a Madonna on a carved easel; the Madonna stood on the floor, and the easel with working pegs in it held an unfinished canvas. Dora sat in the midst with a distinct flush-she was inclined to be sallow-and made me welcome in terms touched with extravagance. She did not rush, however, upon the matter that was dyeing her cheeks, and I showed myself as little impetuous. She poured out the tea, and we sat there inhaling, as it were, the aroma of the thing, while keeping it consciously in the background.

I imagine there was no moment in the time I describe when we enjoyed Ingersoll Armour so much as at this one, when he lay in his nimbus half known and wholly suppressed, between us. There were later instances, perhaps, of deeper satisfaction, but they were more or less perplexed, and not unobscured by anxiety. That afternoon it was all to know and to be experienced, with just a delicious foretaste.

I said something presently about Lady Pilkey's picnic on the morrow, to which we had both been bidden.

'Shall I call for you?' I asked. 'You will ride, of course.'

'Thanks, but I've cried off-I'm going sketching.' Her eyes plainly added, 'with Ingersoll Armour,' but she as obviously shrank from the roughness of pitching him in that unconsidered way before us. For some reason I refrained from taking the cue. I would not lug him in either.

'That is a new accomplishment,' was as much as I felt I could say with dignity, and she responded:

'Yes, isn't it?'

I felt some slight indignation on Lady Pilkey's account. 'Do you really think you ought to do things like that at the eleventh hour?' I asked, but Dora smiled at a glance, the

hypocrisy out of my face.

'What does anything matter?' she demanded.

I knew perfectly well the standard by which nothing mattered, and there was no use, of course, in going on pretending that I did not.

'I assured him that you didn't paint,' I said, accusingly.

'Oh, I had to-otherwise what was there to go upon? He would have been found only to be lost again. You did not contemplate that?' Miss Harris inquired sweetly.

'I should have thought it was the surest way of losing him.'

'I can't think why you should be so rude. He observes progress already.'

'With a view to claiming and holding him, would it be of any use,' I asked, 'for me to start in oils?'

Miss Harris eyed me calmly.

'I don't know,' she said, 'but it doesn't seem the same thing somehow. I think you had better leave it to me.'

'Indeed, I won't,' I said; 'there is too much in it,' and we smiled across the gulf of our friendly understanding.

I crossed to the mantelpiece and picked up one of the little wet panels. There was that in it which explained my friend's exultation much more plainly than words.

'That is what I am to show him tomorrow,' she exclaimed; 'I think I have done as he told me. I think it's pretty right.'

Whether it was pretty right or pretty wrong, she had taken in an extraordinary way an essence out of him. It wasn't of course good, but his feeling was reflected in it, at once so brilliantly and so profoundly that it was startling to see.

'Do you think he'll be pleased?' she asked, anxiously.

'I think he'll be astounded,' I said, reserving the rest, and she cried in her pleasure, 'Oh, you dear man!'

'I see you have taken possession of him,' I went on.

'Ah, body and soul,' Dora rejoined, and it must have been something like that. I could imagine how she did it; with what wiles of simplicity and candid good-fellowship she had drawn him to forgetfulness and response, and how presently his enthusiasm leaped up to answer hers and they had been caught altogether out of the plane of common relations, and he had gone away on that disgraceful bazaar pony with a ratified arrangement to return next day which had been almost taken for granted from the beginning.

I confess, though I had helped to bring it about, the situation didn't altogether please me. I did not dream of foolish dangers, but it seemed to take a little too much for granted; I found myself inwardly demanding whether, after all, a vivid capacity to make colour conscious was a sufficient basis on which to bring to Edward Harris's house a young man about whom we knew nothing whatever else. An instant's regard showed the scruple fraudulent, it fled before the rush of pleasure with which I gazed at the tokens he had left behind him. I fell back on my wonder, which was great, that Dora should have possessed the technique necessary to take him at a point where he could give her so much that was valuable.

'Oh, well,' she said when I uttered it, 'you know I made the experiment! I found out in South Kensington-you can learn that much there-that I never would be able to paint well enough to make it worth while. So I dropped it and took a more general line towards life. But I find it very easy to imagine myself dedicated to that particular one again.'

'You never told me,' I said. Why had I been shut out of that experience?

'I tell you now,' Dora replied, absently, 'when I am able to offer you the fact with illustrations.' She laughed and dropped a still illuminated face in the palm of her hand. 'He has wonderfully revived me,' she declared. 'I could throw, honestly, the whole of Simla overboard for this.'

'Don't,' I urged, feeling, suddenly, an integral part of Simla.

'Oh, no-what end would be served? But I don't care who knows,' she went on with a rush, 'that in all life this is what I like best, and people like Mr. Armour are the people I value most. Heavens, how few of them there are! And wherever they go how the air clears up round them! It makes me quite ill to think of the life we lead here-the poverty of it, the preposterous dullness of it....'

'For goodness' sake,' I said, obscurely irritated, 'don't quote the bishop. The life holds whatever we put into it.'

'For other people it does, and for us it holds what other people put into it,' she retorted. 'I don't know whether you think it's adequately filled with gold lace and truffles.'

'Why should I defend it?' I asked, not knowing indeed why. 'But it has perhaps a dignity, you know. Ah, you are too fresh from your baptism,' I continued, as she shook her head and went to the piano. The quality, whatever it was, that the last fortnight had generated in her, leaped from her fingers; she played with triumph, elation, intention. The notes seemed an outlet for the sense of beauty and for power to make it. I had never heard her play like that before.

It occurred to me to ask when she had done, how far, after a fortnight, she could throw light on Armour's aims and history, where he had come from, and the great query with which we first received him, what he could be doing in Simla. I gathered that she had learned practically nothing, and had hardly concerned herself to learn anything. What difference did it make? she asked me. Why should we inquire? Why tack a theory of origin to a phenomenon of joy? Let us say the wind brought him, and build him a temple. She was very whimsical up to the furthest stretch of what could possibly be considered tea-time. When I went away I saw her go again and sit down at the piano. In the veranda I remembered something, stopped, and went back. I had to go back. 'You did not tell me,' I said, 'when he was coming again.'

'Oh, tomorrow-tomorrow, of course,' Dora paused to reply.

I resented, as I made my way to the Club, the weight of official duties that made it so impossible for me to keep at all closely in touch with this young man.

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