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Star of India

Star of India

Author:Alice Perrin


he rustic portion of the congregation shouted the familiar hymn with laborious goodwill, overpowering the more cultivated voices that rose from the chancel and the front pews--almost defeating the harsh notes wrung from the harmonium by the village schoolmistress..
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  I dare not choose my lot;I would not if I might.Choose thou for me, my God,So shall I walk aright.

  The rustic portion of the congregation shouted the familiar hymn withlaborious goodwill, overpowering the more cultivated voices that rosefrom the chancel and the front pews--almost defeating the harsh noteswrung from the harmonium by the village schoolmistress, who also led thesinging in a piercing key, supported raucously by her pupils gatheredabout the unmusical instrument. Even in the early 'nineties nothing soambitious as an organ or a surpliced choir had as yet been attempted inthis remote west-country parish, though with the advent of the new vicarinnovations had begun; actually, of late, the high oak pews had beenremoved to make way for shining pitch-pine seats that in the littleNorman church produced much the same effect as a garish oleograph set inan antique frame. Most of the parishioners approved the change;certainly it had the advantage of permitting everyone to observe atleisure who came to church, what they wore, and how they behaved duringthe sermon, even if those who were somnolently inclined found thepublicity disconcerting.

  Stella Carrington, for one, infinitely preferred the new seats. Thoughno longer a child--seventeen last birthday--she could never quite forgetthe hours of misery she had endured in the old pew; the smell of dustand hassocks, the feeling of captivity, the desperate impulse that wouldassail her to kick open the door, to fling a prayer-book over thebarrier, to jump up on the seat; only the fear of grandmamma's wrath hadrestrained her from such antics. This Sunday, as she stood between AuntAugusta and Aunt Ellen, singing the hymn that preceded the sermon,recollections returned to her of her childhood's trials in the high pew,and with these, unaccountably, came the old sense of imprisonment. Thefeeling disturbed her; she searched her mind for the cause, and becameconscious that it was somehow connected with the presence of MaudVerrall, seated with her parents in the religious preserve of the Squireand his family in the chancel. The Verralls had been absent from TheCourt for a considerable period, and now here was Maud, who when Stellalast saw her had been in short petticoats with her hair down her back,transformed into a young lady; she had a curled fringe, bangles andpuffed sleeves; her dress touched the ground, she had a waist, and herhat, of a fashionable sailor shape, was set well to the back of herhead. And all this though she was no older than her former playmate,Stella Carrington, whose skirts even now barely reached her ankles,whose hair still hung in a plait, whose hat, in her own opinion, wasmore suited to a child in a perambulator than to a girl of seventeen. Nowonder she felt stifled, cramped! She realised why the memory of hertortures in the old box-like pew had recurred to her mind; and thensuddenly the hymn that she knew so well and had sung on such countlessSundays, paying no special heed to the words, struck her as the acme ofhypocrisy. She ceased singing, amazed that the recognition had not cometo her sooner. Surely whoever was responsible for the wording of thishymn could never have known the tedium for a young person of living witha stony-hearted grandmother and two maiden aunts in a small villagewhere nothing ever happened; the author must have belonged to peoplelike the Verralls, who were, of course, satisfied with their "lot," anddid not want to change it; people who could "dare" do anything theypleased. If she, Stella Carrington, could choose her lot at this moment,she would change places with Maud Verrall; and she wondered how Maudwould feel if she found herself forced to accept the lot of StellaCarrington! Would Maud still humbly proclaim that she would not changeit even if she might?...

  Only when Aunt Augusta, regarding her severely, touched her arm didStella discover that the hymn was ended; that the congregation wassettling down for the sermon. She sank to her seat, blushing, abashed.

  Summer had set in early that year, and the sun poured through thestained glass window subscribed for by the parish to a former SquireVerrall, casting kaleidoscopic patterns of purple and crimson on tograndmamma's brown silk bonnet; a premature bumble-bee droned and bumpedup and down the panes, the atmosphere felt airless, and Aunt Ellensniffed elegantly at her green salts-bottle. Stella grew drowsy; shecould not attend to the sermon, and her thoughts strayed on inconfusion.... Would Canon Grass, the vicar, dare to change his lot if hemight? Perhaps he would like to change Mrs. Grass, who was older thanhimself, for the pretty visitor who was one of The Court party in thechancel pew.... And how about Mrs. Daw, who was so artistic, andconsidered her talents wasted in her position as wife to a countrydoctor; who complained that no one in the village really understood orappreciated "Art".... How much happier Mrs. Daw would be in London hadshe the opportunity of changing her lot--of converting her husband intoa West End physician. And as to the villagers; everyone knew that theywere never contented, no matter what was done for them. At this point inher reflections Stella fell asleep.

  The service over, she followed grandmamma and the aunts slowly down theaisle, while the school children clattered through the porch. The Courtparty left the building by the chancel door, and Stella saw them pacedown the slope of the churchyard between the tombstones and the yewtrees to where a carriage and pair of horses awaited them at the gates.Squire Verrall went first, in a black coat and a square hat like a box,his whiskers were brushed smartly aside from his ruddy cheeks, his largenose shone in the sun, he waved his malacca cane to the school childrenmarshalled on either side of the pathway; Mrs. Verrall followed,delicate, smiling, sweet, in dark green satin, and a white ostrichfeather floating from a boat-shaped hat; with her came the prettyvisitor, who walked with a Grecian bend ... and Maud. Stella observedthat Maud was "showing off"; that she minced and looked down her nose asshe passed between the rows of bobbing, saluting children and villagers.Stella was filled with an envious contempt for such conceit; such airsand graces! Three maid-servants completed the procession; even theywould drive back to The Court, on the rumble of the big carriage, whileStella Carrington would walk through the lanes to The Chestnuts pullingher grandmother's chair, Aunt Augusta pushing behind, Aunt Ellenshielding the old lady with a green-lined umbrella. They would wait onthemselves at luncheon; probably there would be boiled mutton and a milkpudding....

  There was: in her present rebellious mood, the sight of the plain,wholesome food was to Stella as the proverbial last straw. Aunt Augustacarved the mutton; a watery red stream issued from the joint, minglingwith the caper sauce that surrounded it.

  "None for me, thank you," said Stella, with suppressed fury.

  "My dear, why not?" It was grandmamma who made the inquiry, and Stellathought the old lady looked like a sea-gull, seated at the end of thetable in her close white cap, her snowy hair looped on either side ofher curved nose.

  "I hate boiled mutton!" Beneath her rising defiance the girl wasconscious of amazement at her own temerity. She pushed back her chairand stood up, quivering--a slim young beauty, giving promise of finedevelopment, though neither beauty nor promise had as yet beenrecognised by herself or by her guardians.

  "Yes, I do hate it!" she cried, and her eyes, the colour of burntsienna, filled with rebellious tears, "and I hate milk puddings andbabyish clothes, and getting up in the morning and going to bed at nightwith nothing in between--the same every day. How you could all stand upand sing that hymn, '_I dare not choose my lot_,'" she mocked, "'_Iwould not if I might_,' as if you meant it! Why, for most of us, it wassimply a lie!"

  For a space there was a shocked silence. Augusta, the carving knifepoised in her hand, looked at her mother; Ellen stared at her plate andextracted her salts-bottle with stealth from her pocket; Stella foundher own gaze drawn helplessly to the expressionless old countenance atthe end of the table, and, despite her new-born courage, she quailed.

  "My dear," said grandmamma smoothly, "you had better go and lie down.The weather has upset you. I think you require a powder."

  Stella burst into something between laughter and tears; she made achildish dash for the door and ran noisily up the stairs.

  The meal in the dining-room continued as though nothing had happened.It was not a Carrington custom to discuss unpleasant occurrences atmeals, or, indeed, at any other time, if such discussions could possiblybe avoided; the Carrington elders possessed a fine faculty for ignoringdifficult subjects. It was a gift that had carried them apparentlyunscathed through various trials. When it became imperative to speak ofanything painful it was done as briefly and reservedly as possible. Itwas not until well on in the afternoon, when Mrs. Carrington hadawakened from her nap in the drawing-room, that Stella's outrageousbehaviour was mentioned.

  The drawing-room at The Chestnuts was a long narrow room with threeFrench windows opening on a little paved terrace. Formerly the house hadbeen a farm dwelling, the last remnant of a property acquired a centuryago by a Carrington ancestor with a fortune made in the East anddissipated in the West. The Court, where the Verralls now reigned, hadonce belonged to this magnificent Carrington, and the ladies of TheChestnuts never forgot the fact. They regarded the Verralls asinterlopers, though by now the Verralls had been lords of the manor forseveral generations.

  But though The Court and all its acres were lost to the Carringtons,they had clung as a family to Chestnut Farm, adding to it from time totime as fluctuating fortunes permitted. It was a haven for Carringtonwidows, unmarried daughters, retired old-soldier Carringtons; ajumping-off place for sons as they started in life, a holiday home forsuccessions of young Carringtons while their parents were abroad; andthere was still the family vault in the parish church where they couldbe buried if India spared them to die in England. Stella's grandfather,whom she could not remember, lay there with others of his name, and ithad never entered grandmamma's mind to live or die anywhere but at TheChestnuts.

  But to return to the drawing-room--a room that breathed of a people longconnected with the East--here were sandal-wood boxes, caskets composedof porcupine quills, coloured clay models of Indian servants, brassesand embroideries. The warmth of the afternoon drew forth faint aromasstill stored in these relics, mementoes of travel and service andadventure, the perfume that still hung in the folds of the handsomecashmere shawl draped about old Mrs. Carrington's shoulders.

  It was she who opened the debate; failing her lead, neither of herdaughters would have dreamed of alluding to their niece's outburst atthe luncheon table.

  "What do you imagine is wrong with Stella?" The old lady's sunken darkeyes, that yet were quick and bright, turned from one daughter to theother. The rest of her muscles were perfectly still.

  "She is growing up," said Augusta boldly. She was the elder of the twoand more nearly resembled her mother, physically and mentally, than didfaint-hearted Ellen.

  "She is still a child!" pronounced Mrs. Carrington, oblivious of thefact that she herself had been married at the age of seventeen, hadsailed to India and returned with three children before she wastwenty-one.

  "Perhaps," ventured Ellen, "seeing Maud Verrall in church dressed as agrown-up young lady made her feel a little--well, I hardly know how toexpress myself--rather kept back?"

  Ellen herself had been guiltily conscious of a vague feeling of envycaused by the sight of The Court people in all their prosperity andfinery.

  "Kept back from what?" demanded Mrs. Carrington. "Would you wish to seeStella trigged out like that forward monkey Maud Verrall?"

  "Maud was always a most underbred child," said Augusta.

  Ellen hastily took up the cue. "Yes, don't you remember the day she cameto tea and broke the vase, and allowed Stella to be blamed? I saw herbreak it myself, but of course we could say nothing as Maud was ourguest, and dear little Stella said nothing."

  "But what has that to do with the way Stella behaved to-day?" inquiredher sister. Ellen thought this rather unkind of Augusta.

  "Oh! nothing, of course," Ellen admitted. "Only it just shows----"

  "We are all aware that Stella has spirit," said grandmamma, ignoringthis passage, "she is a true Carrington, but spirit in certaincircumstances is a danger and not to be encouraged, just as in others itmay be admirable. Now if the child had been a boy----"

  The old lady's gaze turned to a portrait that hung over themantelpiece--that of a gentleman in a blue velvet coat with lace andsilver buttons, powdered hair and bold, bright eyes that seemed to smileon the little feminine conclave in amused toleration. "Spirit" in a manwas to be accepted and, whatever its consequences, condoned; but in afemale, particularly in a young girl, it should be guarded against,suppressed. Ellen Carrington's eyes turned also to the portrait. Longyears ago she had shown symptoms of "spirit" in connection with theattentions of a dashing young cousin who had strongly resembled theportrait. Mamma was antagonistic; he had sailed for India

just as hadall male Carringtons one after the other

, and the ship had gone down;so that his vow to return with a fortune and claim his sweet Ellen wasnever fulfilled.

  Augusta, so far as anyone was aware, had known no romance. The familyspirit in Augusta found outlet in a fierce devotion to her mother, andin the maintenance of a pathetically pretentious sort of state in thehousehold; the very manner in which she would ring the bell might haveargued the existence of a host of retainers. Not for worlds would shehave answered the front door herself, neither would she have permittedEllen or Stella to do so. Her attitude towards the domestic staff at TheChestnuts--old Betty, with a daily slave from the village, and the aged,bad-tempered factotum out of doors--was almost that of a Royalpersonage, punctilious in the matter of good mornings and thank yous,yet carefully distant as became the upholding of class distinction.

  "It's a pity she was not a boy," said Augusta, "then she could have goneto school--a little more discipline----"

  "Yes, Stella's education----" interrupted Mrs. Carrington, and pausedthoughtfully. Her daughters listened. Augusta was responsible forStella's arithmetic, geography, history; Ellen for her progress inmusic, needlework, drawing. Was fault to be found with these educationalefforts?--which in truth were not altogether congenial to the teachers,conscientiously though they pursued them. Stella was frequentlytiresome, and she did such odd things--for example, she had "a trick,"as they called it, of rising at dawn and rambling about the woods andcommons and returning late for breakfast, and then she would be listlessand inattentive for the rest of the day. At times she was "wild" anddisobedient, although at others disarmingly docile and quick andaffectionate. On the whole, the aunts were proud of their pupil; whatwas mamma about to say concerning Stella's education?

  Mamma said: "Though unfortunately Stella is not a boy, I have latelybeen thinking that if a suitable school can be found---- What was thename of that friend of yours, Augusta, who years ago started a schoolfor young ladies at Torquay?"

  "Jane Ogle," said Augusta shortly. In the opinion of Augusta, Jane Oglehad lost caste when she opened a school. As the daughter of an officer,Jane should not have descended to such depths as the earning of herliving when she had plenty of relations with any of whom she could havemade her home in genteel idleness. Still, if mamma had any seriousnotion of a school for Stella it was so far fortunate that Miss Ogle hadthus bemeaned herself, seeing that none of them knew anything aboutboarding schools for girls, institutions which were to be regarded withsuspicion.

  "Then you really think, mamma," said Augusta incredulously, "that Stellaneeds different tuition, or at least different management?"

  "Her behaviour to-day would point to it," mamma replied. "Perhaps youwould write to Miss Ogle, my dear, and make inquiries as to her methodsand terms. I am inclined to think Stella is getting a little beyond usin every way."

  Stella, after rushing from the dining-room and up the stairs in suchunladylike fashion, had thrown herself on her bed and wept until herill-humour evaporated and she began to think more kindly of milk puddingand boiled mutton. Then, feeling hungry and rather ashamed, she hadbathed her eyes and "tidied" her hair, and for a while sat and gazedfrom the low window of her bedroom--gazed on the familiar lawn slopingto a narrow stream that had been the cause of many punishments in herchildhood, what with her attempts to jump it, the catching of imaginaryfish, the sailing of paper boats, all of which had involved "getting herfeet wet," a crime in the view of grandmamma and the aunts. The cedartree on the lawn had also been a source of trouble, for Stella had neverfought the temptation to climb it, and the climbing of trees wasforbidden as not only hoydenish but disastrous to clothes--the same withthe high wall of the kitchen garden. There seemed hardly a spot in thelimited domain that for Stella was not associated with punishment; yetshe adored "the grounds," as Aunt Augusta entitled the garden, at allseasons of the year, and at this season she still found it heavenly todabble in the stream, to climb the branches of the cedar tree, even toroll on the fragrant turf.... She loved the old house as well, thoughtwo of the rooms she had always avoided instinctively--grandmamma'sbedroom was one; Stella felt it held secrets, there was somethingmysterious and "dead" in its atmosphere. The painted toy horse and thewooden soldier, the half-finished sampler, and the shabby doll enshrinedon the chest of drawers seemed to her ghostly objects, sad reminders asthey were of uncles and aunts who had never grown up. When, for anyreason, she was obliged to enter the room it was as if these little deaduncles and aunts still hovered about the big bed with its faded chintzcurtains, as if they were listening, watching, hating her for her beingalive.

  Aunt Augusta's room she also disliked; it might have been a spare room,so cold, so polished, so neat, and the enlarged photographs of bygoneCarringtons, framed and hung on the walls, were hideous--all crinolinesand strings of black beads and stove-pipe hats and long whiskers....Aunt Ellen's room was different; it harboured an apologetic air offrivolity, imparted by gay little ornaments and a screen covered withChristmas cards and pictures cut from illustrated papers. WheneverStella studied this screen she found something she had never noticedbefore. Above all, in one corner stood a cabinet containing drawers fullof birds' eggs and butterflies collected by her father as a boy. AuntEllen was the only person who would answer Stella's eager questionsabout her father, and even those answers told her too little--only thathe had gone to India as a very young man, like all the Carringtons; thathe was brave and handsome, that he had died in battle when his littledaughter was about two years old.

  And concerning her mother Stella had never succeeded in extractingdefinite information.

  "She is dead, my dear," was all Aunt Ellen would say with grave reserve,"she died when you were born--in India." Was there a picture of her? No,there was no picture. What was she like? We never saw her. What was herChristian name? It was Stella--and clearly the name itself was notapproved--considered foolish, fantastic.

  Indeed the child's periodical questions on the subject of her motherwere torture to the three secretive, old-fashioned women, who shrankfrom all remembrance of the shameless being who had bewitched their"poor Charles" and led him astray, dragging the name of Carringtonthrough the divorce court. At the time of the scandal they had blamedCharles for marrying the abandoned creature, and when she died, a yearlater, they were glad, though she left an unwelcome infant who waspromptly sent home by the widower to The Chestnuts. The child was, ofcourse, received, but under protest, a protest that vanished when "poorCharles" was killed in a frontier skirmish, a death

for his country

that in the eyes of his mother and sisters fully atoned for hisbackslidings and the disgrace he had brought on a name that had everbeen associated with brave deeds in the East.

  India!--the very word held a magic fascination for the child of "poorCharles." Stella loved the smell of the curios in the drawing-room, andher "great treat" on wet days was permission to open the camphor-woodchest on the landing; fingering the contents, she would feel almostintoxicated with the sight and scent of fine muslin veils heavilyembroidered, funny little caps, tinsel-encrusted; a packet of picturespainted on talc of Indian ladies, black-haired, almond-eyed, smiling,wonderfully robed. At the bottom of the chest were pistols and daggers,and swords, all chased and inlaid with ivory and gold; and there was acarved box full of tiger claws, and silver ornaments, bracelets,anklets, and necklaces that jingled.... In addition to the camphor-woodchest there was the lumber room, a low attic that ran the length of theroof; here were stacks of other interesting relics, horns and moth-eatenskins of wild animals, hog-spears and clumsy old guns shaped liketrumpets. Also piles of old books and pamphlets, packets of letters andpapers, yellow, crumbling, tied up with string and thrown into cardboardboxes.

  On this luckless Sunday afternoon Stella's mind turned to the lumberroom. As yet she had not the courage to descend and face grandmamma andthe aunts after the scene she had made at the dining-table; andpresently she stole into the passage, that was lined with a wall-paperdepicting Chinese scenes, square bordered, then ran up the ladder-likestairs leading to the long attic in the roof.

  There, poring over old papers and pamphlets and books, she forgot MaudVerrall and all that young person's advantages, forgot grandmamma andthe aunts, and boiled mutton and her rebellious outburst against her own"lot"--forgot everything but India, the land of elephants and tigers,tents and palanquins, rajahs and battles, and marvels without end. Shethrilled again as she read of Carringtons who had fought at Plassey andPaniput, in the Mahratta wars, and before the walls of Seringapatam. ACarrington had perished in the Black Hole of Calcutta, a Carrington hadbeen the friend of Warren Hastings, in the Mutiny a Carrington hadperformed noble deeds; Carrington women and children had been sacrificedfor the honour of their country....

  To-day Stella realised for the first time that her father must have beenthe last male Carrington of the line. No more Carrington exploits wouldbe recorded in the history of British India. The name of Carrington inthe East belonged solely to the past. Why, oh! why--had not she beenborn a boy?