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The Pool in the Desert By Sara Jeannette Duncan Characters: 9611

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


I ventured for a few days to keep the light which chance had shed for me upon Armour's affairs to myself. The whole thing considered in connection with his rare and delicate talent, seemed too derogatory and disastrous to impart without the sense of doing him some kind of injury in the mere statement. But there came a point when I could no longer listen to Dora Harris's theories to account for him, wild idealizations as most of them were of any man's circumstances and intentions. 'Why don't you ask him point-blank?' I said, and she replied, frowning slightly, 'Oh, I couldn't do that. It would destroy something-I don't know what, but something valuable-between us.' This struck me as an exaggeration, considering how far, by that time, they must have progressed towards intimacy, and my mouth was opened. She heard me without the exclamations I expected, her head bent over the pencil she was sharpening, and her silence continued after I had finished. The touch of comedy I gave the whole thing-surely I was justified in that!-fell flat, and I extracted from her muteness a sense of rebuke; one would think I had been taking advantage of the poor devil.

At last, having broken the lead of her pencil three times, she turned a calm, considering eye upon me.

'You have known this for a fortnight?' she asked. 'That doesn't seem somehow quite fair.'

'To whom?' I asked, and her answer startled me.

'To either of us,' she said.

How she advised herself to that effect is more than I can imagine, but the print of her words is indelible, that is what she said.

'Oh, confound it!' I exclaimed. 'I couldn't help finding out, you know.'

'But you could help keeping it to yourself in that-in that base way,' she replied, and almost-the evening light was beginning to glimmer uncertainly through the deodars-I could swear I saw the flash of a tear on her eyelid.

'I beg your pardon,' she went on a moment later, 'but I do hate having to pity him. It's intolerable-that.'

I picked up a dainty edition of Aucassin and Nicolette with the intention of getting upon ground less emotional, and observed on the flyleaf 'D.H. from I.A. In memory of the Hill of Stars.' I looked appreciatively at the binding, and as soon as possible put it down.

'He was not bound to tell me,' Dora asserted presently, in reply to my statement that the mare had somehow picked up a nail in the stable, and was laid up.

'You have been very good to him,' I said. 'I think he was.'

'His reticence was due,' she continued, as if defying contradiction, 'to a simple dislike to bore one with his personal affairs.'

'Was it?' I assented. My tone acknowledged with all humility that she was likely to know, and I did not deserve her doubtful glance.

'He could not certainly,' she went on, with firmer decision, 'have been in the least ashamed of his connection with Kauffer.'

'He comes from a country where social distinctions are less sharp than they are in this idiotic place,' I observed.

'Oh, if you think it is from any lack of recognition! His sensitiveness is beyond reason. He has met two or three men in the Military Department here-he was aware of the nicest shade of their patronage. But he does not care. To him life is more than a clerkship. He sees all round people like that. They are only figures in the landscape.'

'Then,' I said, 'he is not at all concerned that nobody in this Capua of ours knows him, or cares anything about him, or has bought a scrap of his work, except our two selves.'

'That's a different matter. I have tried to rouse in him the feeling that it would be as well to be appreciated, even in Simla, and I think I've succeeded. He said, after those two men had gone away on Sunday, that he thought a certain reputation in the place where he lived would help anybody in his work.'

'On Sunday? Do you mean between twelve and two?'

'Yes, he came and made a formal call. There was no reason why he shouldn't.'

'Now that I think of it,' I rejoined, 'he shot a card on me too, at the Club. I was a little surprised. We didn't seem somehow to be on those terms. One doesn't readily associate him with any conventionality.'

'There's no reason why he shouldn't,' said Dora again, and with this vague comment we spoke of something else, both of us, I think, a little disquieted and dissatisfied that he had.

'I think,' Dora said as I went away, 'that you had better go up to the studio and tell him what you have told me. Perhaps it doesn't matter much, but I can't bear the thought of his not knowing.'

'Come to Kauffer's in the morning and see the pictures,' I urged; but she turned away, 'Oh, not with you.'

I found my way almost at once to Amy Villa, not only because I had been told to go there. I wanted, myself, certain satisfactions

. Armour was alone and smoking, but I had come prepared against the contingency of one of his cigars. They were the cigars of the man who doesn't know what he eats. With sociable promptness I lighted one of my own. The little enclosed veranda testified to a wave of fresh activity. The north light streamed in upon two or three fresh canvases, the place seemed full of enthusiasm, and you could see its source, at present quiescent under the influence of tobacco, in Armour's face.

'You have taken a new line,' I said, pointing to a file of camels, still half obscured by the dust of the day, coming along a mountain road under a dim moon. They might have been walking through time and through history. It was a queer, simple thing, with a world of early Aryanism in it.

'Does that say anything? I'm glad. It was to me articulate, but I didn't know. Oh, things have been going well with me lately. Those two studies over there simply did themselves. That camp scene on the left is almost a picture. I think I'll put a little more work on it and give it a chance in Paris. I got in once, you know. Champ de Mars. With some horses.'

'Did you, indeed?' I said. 'Capital.' I asked him if he didn't atrociously miss the life of the Quarter, and he surprised me by saying that he never had lived it. He had been en pension instead with a dear old professor of chemistry and his family at Puteaux, and used to go in and out. A smile came into his eyes at the remembrance, and he told me one after the other idyllic little stories of the old professor and madame. Madame and the omelet-madame and the melon-M. Vibois and the maire; I sat charmed. So long as we remained in France his humour was like this, delicate and expansive, but an accidental allusion led us across the Channel when he changed. He had no little stories of the time he spent in England. Instead he let himself go in generalizations, aimed, for they had a distinct animus, at English institutions and character, particularly as these appear in English society. I could not believe, from the little I had seen of him, that his experience of English society of any degree had been intimate; what he said had the flavour of Radical Sunday papers. The only original element was the feeling behind, which was plainly part of him; speculation instantly clamoured as to how far this was purely temperamental and how far the result of painful contact. He himself, he said, though later of the Western States, had been born under the British flag of British parents-though his mother was an Irishwoman she came from loyal Ulster-and he repeated the statement as if it in some way justified his attitude towards his fellow countrymen and excused his truculence in the ear of a servant of the empire which he had the humour to abuse. I heard him, I confess, with impatience, it was all so shabby and shallow, but I heard him out, and I was rewarded; he came for an illustration in the end to Simla. 'Look,' he said, 'at what they call their "Government House list"; and look at Strobo, Signor Strobo. Isn't Strobo a man of intelligence, isn't he a man of benevolence? He gave ten thousand rupees last week to the famine fund. Is Strobo on Government House list? Is he ever invited to dine with the Viceroy? No, because Strobo keeps a hotel! Look at Rosario-where does Rosario come in? Nowhere, because Rosario is a clerk, and a subordinate. Yet Rosario is a man of wide reading and a very accomplished fellow!'

It became more or less necessary to argue then, and the commonplaces with which I opposed him called forth a wealth of detail bearing most picturesquely upon his stay among us. I began to think he had never hated English rigidity and English snobbery until he came to Simla, and that he and Strobo and Rosario had mingled their experiences in one bitter cup. I gathered this by inference only, he was curiously watchful and reticent as to anything that had happened to him personally; indeed, he was careful to aver preferences for the society of 'sincere' people like Strobo and Rosario, that seemed to declare him more than indifferent to circles in which he would not meet them. In the end our argument left me ridiculously irritated-it was simply distressing to see the platform from which he obtained so wide and exquisite a view of the world upheld by such flimsy pillars-and my nerves were not soothed by his proposal to walk with me to the Club. I could hardly refuse it, however, and he came along in excellent spirits, having effected the demolition of British social ideals, root and branch. His mongrel dog accompanied, keeping offensively near our heels. It was not even an honest pi, but a dog of tawdry pretensions with a banner-like tail dishonestly got from a spaniel. On one occasion I very nearly kicked the dog.

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