As it began to dawn upon me more and more that there was no escaping, thoughts crowded my brain in mad confusion. I saw not the world that surrounded me, I was hardly aware of time and space, my mind had entered a dreamy state. At intervals I felt a sensation of acute pain, a desire to see light through the darkness that enshrouded me. At these moments I felt like one maddened by a keen struggle to break through chains that are too strong to be broken. It seemed like irony that of all men Chotu should be the cause of all this. Chotu whom I had loved so much, upon whom I had looked as a friend. Then suddenly a thought dawned upon me, it came like a revelation: Chotu, the friend of my childhood, whom I had trusted as never another, Chotu was to be my saviour now. To him I would explain everything and he would come to my rescue. Now my mental atmosphere became clear once more. I felt like one giddy with joy at the inspiration that had taken hold of me. Yes, Chotu would save me.
While still I was reflecting upon all that might or might not be, a servant came and handed me a card. What strange accident of fate was this? The doctor! my heart stood almost still; it was not joy that caused it, but amazement. I was like one in a trance when I told the servant to show him in. I was alone in the drawing-room, the only private apartment the house afforded. I had fled thither to be away from the curiosity and annoying remarks of friends.
Oh, that I knew what was the right thing for me to do. Was it then really proper that I should receive him? It was useless, however, for me to weigh the question further, for before me stood the doctor ere I had time for serious reflection.
"You appear very poorly, are you suffering still?" He said this almost immediately after entering.
I do not know whether there was the expression of any deep sympathy in these words, but they affected me deeply. It required great effort to suppress my tears and I could falter only a few words in reply.
"You here? How did you come?" He seemed surprised. "Did you not know I would come? I wrote to Mr. Mazumdar (my father) that I would be here to-day."
My father was not in the habit of communicating all his affairs to me. I therefore replied, "No, I had not heard of it. You have perhaps come here in connection with a case."
He remained silent for a while, then said:
"I have come here expressly to see you. I had no other object in coming."
This was a great surprise to me, he had come expressly to see me! On the impulse of the moment I cried out:
"That is really extraordinary; you did not seem so eager to see me in Calcutta."
He smiled and fixed his clear, full gaze upon me.
"I see I made one of my many mistakes in acting as I did, but did you not understand me? Did you not feel why it was I came so seldom?"
"How could I understand?"
He adjusted his eyeglasses, he was evidently a little nervous, then he looked at me with that sweet, tender look that I had seen in his eyes when he leaned over me as I woke from my deep faint.
"I remained away only to control my desire to come again and again," he whispered.
"Then am I to understand that because you have come now, you wish never to come again?"
"That would be making a mistake again," he replied, smiling sadly, and then as I did not speak, after a pause he began again:
"Circumstances have changed since I first met you. You were then engaged to be married. That is all over now, that is why——"
Again he was silent, while I stood with throbbing heart, the perspiration breaking out upon my forehead. Was it really true? What did all this mean? He continued:
"That is why I have come to offer you my life, my soul, my being—the decision lies with you."
Can language describe the moments that followed? I felt myself lifted to the realms of ecstasy. All existence seemed merged into that moment. He was mine, mine, my heart throbbed, my head reeled, I could not grasp it. If there be Heaven on earth it came to me that minute when he offered his life to me, but alas! this great earth of ours holds the reality of Heaven but a second and then appears more threatening than ever. I felt as if by some mocking phantom I had been led to the gates of Paradise, there to bid farewell to it tor ever.
Seeing I did not answer, he spoke again:
"Have you nothing to say to me? Ever since the day I saw you after my return from abroad, I have known that I love you, that without you my life will be empty."
I interrupted him. "But you are engaged."
"Am I? I did not know it. Where did you hear that?"
"I understand your mother herself said so."
He laughed and replied,
"My mother said so! Well, I am not surprised to hear that. Whenever my mother sees a girl who appears good-looking to her she makes up her mind that that very girl must become her daughter-in-law. If polygamy were still in vogue, she would have had half a dozen daughters-in-law by this time. Don't let that disturb you further. I am asking for a reply to my appeal."
What could I say? Was I not his, body and soul? How could I tell him that I was to become the wife of another? At last I replied timidly, hardly knowing myself how I came to say it:
"I am engaged. Father has already settled my marriage."
How strangely sad he looked, how strangely still the room seemed, for neither of us dared to speak after that for a long time.
I saw the struggle that went on within him. At last he spoke, but his voice was barely audible.
"What made Mr. Mazumdar behave in this way? However, let that pass, it should be discussed with him. I ask you only to reply to one question. Do you wish to marry the man your father has selected for you?"
All at once I lost my shyness, I lifted my head high and looked into his eyes as I spoke.
"No, I do not wish it. I have loved you since the day I met you first, and I shall never love another."
I saw his face change all of a sudden, he looked like one inspired, and when he spoke again his voice was sweet and mellow.
"Have you told your father this?"
I was surprised at his question. "How can I say this to my father?" I replied. "I only told him that I wished to remain unmarried, that marriage would not make me happy."
"And his reply?"
"He told me I must marry. Poor father, how can I disobey him? Is it not my duty to make him happy?"
"But do you owe no duty to love, do you owe no duty to yourself, nor yet to the man who cannot face life without you? Ought you to sacrifice your life and his to some misconceived idea of duty? I really do not think your father would force you into marriage with another if he once came to know how the matter stands."
I knew that what he said was only too true, but I did not reply until he spoke again, with an air of impatience this time.
"If you cannot speak to your father, let me do so."
"No, no, do not speak to my father. Listen, I have a plan. The man to whom my father has betrothed me is a friend of my childhood, Chotu, we called him. I have great faith in him. I know Chotu will save me. I loved him when I was a little girl, and I regard him still as a dear friend. The thought of him fills me with happy memories, but I cannot give him my heart. I am certain Chotu would never wish me to be unhappy, I know him too well for that."
"Chotu?" he exclaimed, "you are to be married to Chotu? Certainly, if he has any manliness in him, he will help you."
He almost laughed out loud as he said this. I could not understand him and enquired:
"Do you know Chotu?"
He did not reply to my question. It seemed he did not hear it. He only said:
"This is a world of illusions. Well, tell Chotu and let me know the result. I am off. I may come back this evening, but if I do not come until to-morrow, do not take it amiss. I have not seen your father yet."
And he departed—rather abruptly I thought, not allowing me to say a word in reply.