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- The Path of a Star - 1/49 -


THE PATH OF A STAR

by

MRS. EVERARD COTES

(SARA JEANNETTE DUNCAN)

1899

CHAPTER I

She pushed the portiere aside with a curved hand and gracefully separated fingers; it was a staccato movement and her body followed it after an instant's poise of hesitation, head thrust a little forward, eyes inquiring and a tentative smile, although she knew precisely who was there. You would have been aware at once that she was an actress. She entered the room with a little stride and then crossed it quickly, the train of her morning gown--it cried out of luxury with the cheapest voice--taking folds of great audacity as she bent her face in its loose mass of hair over Laura Filbert, sitting on the edge of a bamboo sofa, and said--

"You poor thing! Oh, you POOR thing!"

She took Laura's hand as she spoke, and tried to keep it; but the hand was neutral, and she let it go. "It is a hand," she said to herself, in one of those quick reflections that so often visited her ready-made, "that turns the merely inquiring mind away. Nothing but feeling could hold it."

Miss Filbert made the conventional effort to rise, but it came to nothing, or to a mere embarrassed accent of their greeting. Then her voice showed this feeling to be superficial, made nothing of it, pushed it to one side.

"I suppose you cannot see the foolishness of your pity," she said. "Oh Miss Howe, I am happier than you are--much happier." Her bare feet, as she spoke, nestled into the coarse Mirzapore rug on the floor, and her eye lingered approvingly upon an Owari vase three feet high, and thick with the gilded landscape of Japan, which stood near it, in the cheap magnificence of the room.

Hilda smiled. Her smile acquiesced in the world she had found, acquiesced, with the gladness of an explorer, in Laura Filbert as a feature of it.

"Don't be too sure," she cried; "I am very happy. It is such a pleasure to see you."

Her gaze embraced Miss Filbert as a person, and Miss Filbert as a pictorial fact, but that was because she could not help it. Her eyes were really engaged only with the latter Miss Filbert.

"Much happier than you are," Laura repeated, slowly moving her head from side to side as if to negative contradiction in advance. She smiled too; it was as if she had remembered a former habit, from politeness.

"Of course you are--of course!" Miss Howe acknowledged. The words were mellow and vibrant; her voice seemed to dwell upon them with a kind of rich affection. Her face covered itself with serious sweetness. "I can imagine the beatitudes you feel--by your clothes."

The girl drew her feet under her, and her hand went up to the only semi-conventional item of her attire. It was a brooch that exclaimed in silver letters "Glory to His Name!" "It is the dress of the Army in this country," she said; "I would not change it for the wardrobe of a queen."

"That's just what I mean." Miss Howe leaned back in her chair with her head among its cushions, and sent her words fluently across the room, straight and level with the glance from between her half- closed eyelids. A fine sensuous appreciation of the indolence it was possible to enjoy in the East clung about her. "To live on a plane that lifts you up like that--so that you can defy all criticism and all convention, and go about the streets like a mark of exclamation at the selfishness of the world--there must be something very consummate in it or you couldn't go on. At least I couldn't."

"I suppose I do look odd to you." Her voice took a curious, soft, uplifted note. "I wear three garments only--the garments of my sisters who plant the young shoots in the rice-fields, and carry bricks for the building of rich men's houses, and gather the dung of the roadways to burn for fuel. If the Army is to conquer India it must march bare-footed and bare-headed all the way. All the way," Laura repeated, with a tremor of musical sadness. Her eyes were fixed in appeal upon the other woman's. "And if the sun beats down upon my uncovered head, I think, 'It struck more fiercely upon Calvary'; and if the way is sharp to my unshod feet, I say, 'At least I have no cross to bear.'" The last words seemed almost a chant, and her voice glided from them into singing--

"The blessed Saviour died for me, On the cross! On the cross! He bore my sins at Calvary, On the rugged cross!"

She sang softly, her body thrust a little forward in a tender swaying--

"Behold His hands and feet and side, The crown of thorns, the crimson tide, 'Forgive them, Father!' loud He cried, On the rugged cross!"

"Oh, thank you!" Miss Howe exclaimed. Then she murmured again, "That's just what I mean."

A blankness came over the girl's face as a light cloud will cross the moon. She regarded Hilda from behind it, with penetrant anxiety. "Did you really enjoy that hymn?" she asked.

"Indeed I did."

"Then, dear Miss Howe, I think you cannot be very far from the Kingdom."

"I? Oh, I have my part in a kingdom." Her voice caressed the idea. "And the curious thing is that we are all aristocrats who belong to it. Not the vulgar kind, you understand--but no, you don't understand. You'll have to take my word for it." Miss Howe's eyes sought a red hibiscus flower that looked in at the window half drowned in sunlight, and the smile in them deepened.

"Is it the Kingdom of God and His righteousness?" Laura Filbert's clear glance was disturbed by a ray of curiosity, but the inflexible quality of her tone more than counterbalanced this.

"There's nothing about it in the Bible, if that's what you mean. And yet I think the men who wrote 'The time of the singing of birds has come,' and 'I will lift mine eyes unto the hills,' must have belonged to it." She paused, with an odd look of discomfiture. "But one shouldn't talk about things like that--it takes the bloom off. Don't you feel that way about your privileges now and then? Don't they look rather dusty and battered to you after a day's exposure in Bow Bazar?"

There came a light crunch of wheels on the red soorkee drive outside, and a switch past the bunch of sword-ferns that grew beside the door. The muffled crescendo of steps on the stair and the sound of an inquiry penetrated from beyond the portiere, and without further preliminary Duff Lindsay came into the room.

"Do I interrupt a rehearsal?" he asked; but there was nothing in the way he walked across the room to Hilda Howe to suggest that the idea abashed him. For her part she rose and made one short step to meet him, and then received him as it were with both hands and all her heart.

"How ridiculous you are!" she cried. "Of course not. And let me tell you it is very nice of you to come this very first day when one was dying to be welcomed. Miss Filbert came too, and we have been talking about our respective walks in life. Let me introduce you. Miss Filbert--Captain Filbert, of the Salvation Army--Mr. Duff Lindsay of Calcutta."

She watched with interest the gravity with which they bowed, and the difference in it: his the simple formality of his class, Laura's a repressed hostility to such an epitome of the world as he looked, although any Bond Street tailor would have impeached his waistcoat, and one shabby glove had manifestly never been on. Yet Miss Filbert's first words seemed to show a slight unbending. "Won't you sit there?" she said, indicating the sofa corner she had been occupying. "You get the glare from the window where you are." It was virtually a command, delivered with a complete air of dignity and authority; and Lindsay, in some confusion, found himself obeying. "Oh, thank you, thank you," he said. "One doesn't really mind in the least. Do you--do you object to it? Shall I close the shutters?"

"If you do," said Miss Howe delightedly, "we shall not be able to see."

"Neither we should," he assented; "the others are closed already. Very badly built these Calcutta houses, aren't they? Have you been long in India, Miss--Captain Filbert?"

"I served a year up-country, and then fell ill and had to go home on furlough. The native food didn't suit me. I am stationed in Calcutta now, but I have only just come."

"Pleasant time of the year to arrive," Mr. Lindsay remarked.

"Yes; but we are not particular about that. We love all the times and the seasons, since every one brings its appointed opportunity.


The Path of a Star - 1/49

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