Volume 1
Chapter III. Out of the North
 

It was a beautiful day--which was so much in favour of Mrs. Frank Armour in relation to her husband's people. General Armour and his wife had come down from London by the latest train possible, that their suspense at Liverpool might be short. They said little to each other, but when they did speak it was of things very different from the skeleton which they expected to put into the family cupboard presently. Each was trying to spare the other. It was very touching. They naturally looked upon the matter in its most unpromising light, because an Indian was an Indian, and this unknown savage from Fort Charles was in violent contrast to such desirable persons as Lady Agnes Martling. Not that the Armours were zealous for mere money and title, but the thing itself was altogether a propos, as Mrs. Armour had more naively than correctly put it. The general, whose knowledge of character and the circumstances of life was considerable, had worked out the thing with much accuracy. He had declared to Richard, in their quiet talk upon the subject, that Frank must have been anything but sober when he did it. He had previously called it a policy of retaliation; so that now he was very near the truth. When they arrived at the dock at Liverpool, the Aphrodite was just making into the harbour.

"Egad," said General Armour to himself, "Sebastopol was easier than this; for fighting I know, and being peppered I know, by Jews, Greeks, infidels, and heretics; but to take a savage to my arms and do for her what her godfathers and godmothers never did, is worse than the devil's dance at Delhi."

What Mrs. Armour, who was not quite so definite as her husband, thought, it would be hard to tell; but probably grief for, and indignation at, her son, were uppermost in her mind. She had quite determined upon her course. None could better carry that high, neutral look of social superiority than she.

Please Heaven, she said to herself, no one should see that her equanimity was shaken. They had brought one servant with them, who had been gravely and yet conventionally informed that his young master's wife, an Indian chieftainess, was expected. There are few family troubles but find their way to servants' hall with an uncomfortable speed; for, whether or not stone walls have ears, certainly men-servants and maid-servants have eyes that serve for ears, and ears that do more than their bounden duty. Boulter, the footman, knew his business. When informed of the coming of Mrs. Francis Armour, the Indian chieftainess, his face was absolutely expressionless; his "Yessir" was as mechanical as usual. On the dock he was marble--indifferent. When the passengers began to land, he showed no excitement. He was decorously alert. When the crucial moment came, he was imperturbable. Boulter was an excellent servant. So said Edward Lambert to himself after the event; so, likewise, said Mrs. Townley to herself when the thing was over; so declared General Armour many a time after, and once very emphatically, just before he raised Boulter's wages.

As the boat neared Liverpool, Lambert and Mrs. Townley grew nervous. The truth regarding the Indian wife had become known among the passengers, and most were very curious--some in a well-bred fashion, some intrusively, vulgarly. Mackenzie, Lali's companion, like Boulter, was expressionless in face. She had her duty to do, paid for liberally, and she would do it. Lali might have had a more presentable and dignified attendant, but not one more worthy. It was noticeable that the captain of the ship and all the officers had been markedly courteous to Mrs. Armour throughout the voyage, but, to their credit, not ostentatiously so. When the vessel was brought to anchor and the passengers were being put upon the tender, the captain came and made his respectful adieus, as though Lali were a lady of title in her own right, and not an Indian girl married to a man acting under the influence of brandy and malice. General Armour and Mrs. Armour were always grateful to Lambert and Mrs. Townley for the part they played in this desperate little comedy. They stood still and watchful as the passengers came ashore one by one. They saw that they were the centre of unusual interest, but General Armour was used to bearing himself with a grim kind of indifference in public, and his wife was calm, and so somewhat disappointed those who probably expected the old officer and his wife to be distressed. Frank Armour's solicitor was also there, but, with good taste, he held aloof. The two needed all their courage, however, when they saw a figure in buckskin and blanket step upon the deck, attended by a very ordinary, austere, and shabbily-dressed Scotswoman. But immediately behind them were Edward Lambert and Mrs. Townley, and these, with their simple tact, naturalness, and freedom from any sort of embarrassment, acted as foils, and relieved the situation.

General Armour advanced, hat in hand. "You are my son's wife?" he said courteously to this being in a blanket.

She looked up and shook her head slightly, for she did not quite understand; but she recognised his likeness to her husband, and presently she smiled up musingly. Mackenzie repeated to her what General Armour had said. She nodded now, a flash of pleasure lighting up her face, and she slid out her beautiful hand to him. The general took it and pressed it mechanically, his lips twitching slightly. He pressed it far harder than he meant, for his feelings were at tension. She winced slightly, and involuntarily thrust out her other hand, as if to relieve his pressure. As she did so the blanket fell away from her head and shoulders. Lambert, with excellent intuition, caught it, and threw it across his arm. Then, quickly, and without embarrassment, he and Mrs. Townley greeted General Armour, who returned the greetings gravely, but in a singular, confidential tone, which showed his gratitude. Then he raised his hat again to Lali, and said: "Come and let me introduce you --to your husband's mother."

The falling back of that blanket had saved the situation; for when the girl stood without it in her buckskin garments there was a dignity in her bearing which carried off the bizarre event. There was timidity in her face, and yet a kind of pride too, though she was only a savage. The case, even at this critical moment, did not seem quite hopeless. When they came to Mrs. Armour, Lali shrank away timidly from the look in the mother's eyes, and, shivering slightly, looked round for her blanket. But Lambert had deftly passed it on to the footman. Presently Mrs. Armour took both the girl's hands in hers (perhaps she did it because the eyes of the public were on her, but that is neither here nor there--she did it), and kissed her on the cheek. Then they moved away to a closed carriage.

And that was the second act in Frank Armour's comedy of errors.