The Sunburned Earth
Takai, Jan. 19.
There is no doubt this is the ideal place for letter-writing. I sit here, in the verandah, with long, quiet hours stretching out before me and nothing to do but write and write, and I suppose that is why for the last thirty minutes I have sat nibbling the end of my pen and dreaming--without putting pen to paper.
Where did I leave off? The Monday we left Calcutta, wasn't it? To continue. The said Monday was a strenuous day. Boggley absented himself till late afternoon, while I wrestled with wild beasts at Ephesus in the shape of bearers and coolies, my Hindustani deserting me utterly, as it always does at a crisis. G., desolated at the thought of the coming separation, hovered round all day and did her best to help.
About tea-time Boggley walked in, serenely regardless of the fact that we were still devoid of bed and table linen, crockery and cooking utensils. In the end the bearer was dispatched to the Stores with a list, but the result of his shopping I haven't yet seen. G. stayed till nearly dinner-time, and sang to us for a last time. It was horrid parting from her, my dear old G. Do I write too much about her? I thought from something you said in a letter that perhaps I rather bored you talking of her. You see, I like her so much, and you can hardly understand how much she has meant to me since we left England together that showery October day.
After dinner we said good-bye to our friends in what Boggley irreverently calls "the hash-house," and at nine o'clock departed to the station. The bearer was there with all the luggage, and the syces with the ponies, for we are taking the ponies in case there is a chance of polo. In the end we nearly missed the train. At the booking-office, when we tried to book the ponies, the babu in charge lost his presence of mind and turned round and round like a teetotum. I was amazed at Boggley's patience. For myself, I was conscious of an intense, and most unladylike, desire to slap the poor babu. I, who have constantly protested against any want of consideration in the treatment of natives!
As I was the only lady travelling, the guard was much against giving me a carriage to myself, but a man who spoke with authority, hearing us argue, came up and told him to put a "Ladies Only" placard on my carriage, so I travelled in lonely splendour.
At Assansol, which we reached at 5 a.m., we had chota-hazri. Tea and toast, and most diminutive eggs, which we had to hold in our fingers as there were no egg-cups.
Simultala was my destination, and about eleven o'clock we reached it. Underneath the trees a few yards away from the little station we found a bullock-cart, which the Russels had sent for my luggage, and a doolie for myself. A doolie is a kind of string-bed hung on a pole, with a covering to keep off the sun. It is carried by four men, and two others run alongside to relieve their companions at intervals. I had sixteen miles to travel in this thing. I looked at Boggley very doubtfully, and he tried to encourage me.
"It is really quite comfortable," he said (and when he said so he lied), "and the men go very fast. You will be there in no time." So I bundled in somehow, said a wistful good-bye to Boggley, and we started. I can't honestly say I like a doolie. I would rather have been my luggage and gone in the bullock-cart. Whichever way I lay I very soon got an ache in my back. The conduct, too, of the coolies filled me with uneasiness. They kept up a continued groaning. One said, "Oh--oh--oh!" and the other replied, "Oo--oo--oo!" and you can't think what a depressing sound it was. (I know now that doolie-coolies always make that noise when on duty. It seems to keep up their hearts, so to speak, and cheer them on.) Feeling guiltily that it was my weight that made them groan, I lay perfectly still, and was even holding my breath in an effort to make myself lighter, when, for no apparent reason, we left the road, such as it was, and started across the trackless plain. There was nothing to be seen except an infrequent bush, no trace of a human habitation--nothing but the wind blowing and the grass growing. Awful thoughts began to come into my head. I was all alone in India, indeed worse than alone, I was in the company of six natives most inadequately clothed: of their language I knew not one single word; I didn't even know if they were carrying me in the direction I wanted to go. Suddenly the groaning ceased, and I found myself and the doolie planted on the ground. Was my bright young life to be ended? Cold with terror, I shut my eyes tight, and when I opened them I found all the six coolies squatted round, all talking at once, all presumably addressing me. I made out one word which was repeated often, baksheesh. Reminding myself that I was of the Dominant Race, I sat up and waving a hand towards the horizon said sternly, "Jao!" I do think I must have intimidated them, for they meekly picked me up again and we resumed our journey. The longest lane turns, the darkest night wears on to dawn, the weariest river winds at last to the sea; and about tea-time, aching, dishevelled, hungry (having had nothing but a few chocolates since chota-hazri at 5 a.m.), I was deposited before the verandah of the Russels' bungalow.
I don't suppose you know anything about mission work? Neither do I, which is very shocking, as I have had every opportunity of acquiring information. Perhaps, as a child, I was taken to too many missionary meetings, with their atmosphere of hot tea and sentiment, and heard too much of "my dear brothers and sisters in the mission field," for I grieve to say, before I came to India, I quite actively disliked missionaries and thought them a feeble folk. Mother was the only kind of missionary I liked. She has a mission--so we tell her--to the dreary people of this world. Not the very poor--they are vastly entertaining--but the not-very-rich, highly respectable, deadly dull people, with awkward, unlovable manners, whom no one cares very much to visit or to ask to things, and who must often feel very lonely and neglected. While others are taken up with more entertaining company Mother has time to trot to these people with a new book or magazine, or merely to talk for half an hour in the funny bright way which is like no one else's way; has them to the house to meet interesting people (in spite of the remonstrant groans of the family), and having brought them does not neglect them, but draws them out till they seem quite brilliant, and they go away warmed and enlivened by their social success.
Even the most determined distruster of missions couldn't stay long at Takai without being converted. Dr. Russel, very far from being feeble, is a most able man, who would have made his mark in his profession at home; but he prefers healing the bodies and saving the souls of the Santals in the jungle, to building up a lucrative practice, and even attaining the dizzy height of a knighthood.
To heal their poor neglected bodies; to be the first to tell them of Jesus--how did Festus put it?--"one Jesus, which is dead, whom Paul affirmed to be alive"; to teach them, to help and raise them until life becomes for these natives a new and undreamed-of thing--one can see how fine it is, how soul-satisfying!
Dr. Russel has built a hospital, and the natives come from far and near bringing their sick. As I sit here writing, they come trooping past, taking a short cut past the bungalow, stopping to stare at me quite unabashed, sometimes carrying a sick child, sometimes a blind old man or woman. They know they can come at any time and the Padre Sahib will never tell them to go away. It is different with a Government official. He is hedged round by chuprassis who levy toll on the poor natives before they allow them to enter the presence of the Sahib. It is a scandal, but it seems impossible to stop it. You may catch a chuprassi in the act, you may beat him and insist on his handing back the money, but almost before your back is turned the annas or pice have changed hands again! It is dustoor;
My first view of the hospital was rather a shock. Nothing was what I had expected. The beds are square blocks of cement, without even a mattress. The patients bring their own bedding and their cooking pots and pans, and generally a friend to look after them. The said friends camp all round the hospital, and it is pretty to see them at sunset, each cooking his evening meal over his own little fire. This morning being Sunday I went to a service at the hospital. The mingled smell of carbolic, hookahs, and coco-nut oil was, I confess, rather overpowering, but when Dr. Russel asked me, "Is this at all interesting to you, or is it merely disgusting?" I could reply truthfully that it was more interesting than disgusting. The patients sat rolled up in their blankets, and listened while the tale of the Prodigal Son was read to them, holding up their hands in horror when they heard he herded swine: they regard that as a very low job indeed. It is odd the way they respond: just as if during church service at home a man were to answer each statement made by the clergyman, "Right you are, guv'nor."
Coming home, we saw a native cooking his dinner on a little charcoal fire, and as I passed he threw the contents of the pot away. Surprised, I asked why. "Because," I was told, "your shadow fell on it and defiled it!"
One can hardly overestimate the boon a man like Dr. Russel is to a district. Trust is a plant of slow growth with the natives, but they have learned to trust him entirely, and go to him in all their troubles as children go to a father. And he has a very real helpmate in his wife. I never saw such a busy woman. If she isn't in the hospital helping at operations (she has a medical degree), she is teaching girls to sew, or women to read, and yet the children are beautifully cared for, and the house excellently managed. I suppose most women would pity Mrs. Russel sincerely. She passes her life in a place many miles from another European, with absolutely no society, no gaieties, no theatres, not even shops where she can while away the time buying things she doesn't want. Yet I never met a woman so utterly satisfied with her lot. Honestly, I don't think she has a single thing left to wish for: devoted to her husband, devoted to her children, heart and soul in her work.
"If only," she sometimes says, "it would go on! The children will have to go home very soon--the tragedy of Anglo-Indian life."
They are such dear children, Ronald and Robert and tiny Jean. The boys speak Santali like little natives, and even their English has an odd turn. When little Jean was born they were greatly interested in the first white baby they had seen, and Ronald said rapturously:
"Oh, Mummy, aren't ladies darlings when they are babies?"
Their mother found them one day bending over the cradle, arguing as to why the baby cried.
Ronald said, "She has no teeth, for that reason she cries."
Robert said, "She has no hair, for that reason she cries."
And Ronald finished, "She has no English, for that reason she cries."
I am not the only visitor at Takai. There are two missionary ladies here, resting after a strenuous time in some famine district. One is tall and stout, the other is short and thin; both have drab-coloured faces and straight mouse-coloured hair; both wear eye-glasses and sort of up and down dresses--the very best of women one feels sure, but oh! so difficult. You know my weakness for making people like me, but these dear ladies will have none of me, charm I never so wisely. Everything I do meets with their disapproval--how well I see it in their averted, spectacled eyes! I talk too much, laugh too much, tell foolish tales, mimic my elders and betters, and--worst sin of all--I have never read, never even heard of, the Missionary Magazine.
Something you said in your last letter, some allusion to religion, I didn't quite like, and at any other time I would have written you a sermon on the subject. In Calcutta (where I felt so self-righteous) nothing would have prevented me--but now I haven't the spirit. Mark, please, how the whirligig of Time brings its revenges! In Calcutta I thought myself a saint, in Takai I am regarded as a Brand Unplucked. It is rather dispiriting. I am beginning to wonder if I really am as nice as I thought I was.
Takai, Jan. 22.
This Gorgeous East is a cold and draughty place.
We have chota-hazri in the verandah at 7.30, and at that early hour it is so cold my blue fingers will hardly lift the cup. Now the sun is beginning to warm things into life again, and I have been sitting outside basking in its rays, to the anxiety of Mrs. Russel, who, like all Anglo-Indians, has a profound respect for the power of the Eastern sun. The children are taught that one thing they must not do is to run out without a topi. They were looking over The Pilgrim's Progress with me, and at a picture of Christian, bareheaded, approaching the Celestial City, with the rays of the sun very much in evidence, Robert pointed an accusing finger, saying, "John Bunyan, you're in the sun without your topi."
The poor Santals must feel dreadfully cold just now, especially the children, who have hardly anything on. Mrs. Russel has a big trunk full of things sent out from home as presents to the Mission--pieces of calico, and various kinds of garments--and these are given as prizes to the children who attend the Christian schools. The pieces of cloth which they can wind round them are the most valued prizes. Some of the garments are too ridiculous. Shapeless sacks of pink flannelette, intended, I suppose, for shirts; and such-like. This morning there was a prize-giving. The big trunk was brought into the verandah, and the children were allowed to choose. One small boy chose a dressing-gown of a material known, I believe, as duffle, of a striking pattern. In this he arrayed himself with enormous pride: a wide frilled collar stood out round his little thin neck, and, to complete the picture, he carried a bow and arrow. A quainter figure I never saw! I only wished the well-meaning Dorcas who made the garment could have seen him. A little missionary from somewhere in West Africa once told me about a small orphan native she had rescued and adopted.
"I had him christened," she said plaintively. "I had him christened David Livingstone, and I dressed him in a blue serge man-of-war suit; but he ran away." I murmured sympathy, but I couldn't feel surprised. Imagine a little heathen David Livingstone, in a hot, sticky serge suit!
These bows and arrows, by the way, are rather interesting. The natives make them of bamboo and strips of hide, and they are tipped with iron. They really shoot things with them--birds and wild animals, I mean. I bought one from the owner of the dressing-gown for four annas, to take home to Peter. It seemed very little for a real bow and arrow, but Dr. Russel said it was quite enough; and when one comes to think of it, it is double a man's day's wage. I am enjoying myself at Takai. As the man said when he lost his wife, "It's verra quiet but verra peacefu'." After Calcutta, the quiet does seem almost uncanny.
It is a blameless existence one leads. I think I would soon grow very good, for there is no temptation to be anything else. One can't be very frivolous when there is no one to be frivolous with; nor can one backbite and be unkind, for there is no provocation. As for being vain and fond of the putting on of apparel, what is the good when one is the Best People if one wears a garment of any description?
Although there is nothing to do, the days never seem too long. After chota-hazri I generally go for a walk with the children. There is one good broad road passing the bungalow which leads away to the Back of Beyond, but we prefer the little tracks worn by the feet of the natives, which criss-cross everywhere. Jean won't stir a step without a horrid, dilapidated rag doll called Topsy. I do dislike the faces of rag dolls, their lack of profile is so gruesome, and Topsy is a most depressing specimen of her kind; but Jean lavishes affection on her. A woman-child is an odd thing. I remember being taken into a shop to choose a doll, and I chose a most hideous thing with curly white hair. No one could understand why, and I was too shy to tell. It was because the doll was so ugly; I felt sure no one would buy her, and I couldn't bear to think of her loneliness. The boys christened her "Mrs. Smilie," after a lady of that name whom they thought she resembled, and the poor thing came to a tragic end. They were playing at the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, in the shrubbery, seized on "Mrs. Smilie" to play the title rôle, and with brutal realism chopped off her poor ugly head. I arrived just in time to see the deed, and rushed swiftly, with fists and feet, to avenge her fate.
Well, we set off every morning on our pilgrimage, Jean calling herself "Mrs. Jones," and walking primly till we reach what we pretend is the seashore, where she forgets her dignity and rolls about in the sand. A certain kind of tree that Dr. Russel has planted round about the bungalow makes a noise exactly like waves, so it is easy to pretend about the sea. We meet many pilgrims on their way to some holy place, and we create quite a sensation in the little clusters of huts--they could hardly be called villages--that we pass through. The inhabitants crowd around us, saying "Johar," which I take it is Santali for "Salaam," and we repeat "Johar" and grin broadly in reply; and the pie dogs sniff round us in a friendly way. The other day we met a boy who, on beholding me, stood stock still, threw back his head, and shouted with laughter. I never heard more whole-hearted merriment. I had to join in. Whether it was that he had never seen anyone with fair hair before, or whether there is something particularly droll in my appearance, I don't know, but he evidently found me the funniest thing he had met with for a long time. It is generally Topsy who is the centre of interest. They hustle one another to look at her and gurgle with delight. Jean told me solemnly, "I have to leave her at home when I go with Mummy to the villages. They won't listen about Jesus for looking at Topsy."
Jean's great desire is to meet "someone white." Yesterday I saw a horseman approaching in European riding kit and a topi. "Look, Jean," I said, "I believe that is an Englishman" but when he came up to us and raised his topi with a flourish Jean said mournfully, "No, it's nobody white," and I had to pick her up hurriedly in case she should say something more to hurt the poor Eurasian.
When we come in from our walk it is tiffin-time. After that the children are put to bed, and I sit in the verandah and write and rest. Did I say rest? This is what goes on:
I go into the nursery, and Jean, very wide awake, demands a needle and thread, as she wants to sew a dress for Topsy. I tie a piece of thread into a large darning-needle and supply her with my handkerchief, which she proceeds to sew into a tight ball. I return to my writing.
This time it is Robert.
"Olivia, if this bungalow fell into the tank would it splash out all the water?"
"Of course it would."
"Then what would the water do when it fell back from the splash and found the bungalow blocking up its tank?"
Unable to think of an answer, I tell him to be a good boy and not disturb people when they are writing. Ronald begs for a piece of paper and a pencil, and having got it, proceeds to write down everything beginning with G. I once told Peter to do that, and his list when I looked at it ran: "God--Gollywog--Gordon Highlanders."...
Immediately I resume my writing it begins again, "Olivia" in every tone, peremptory, beseeching, coaxing--but like the deaf adder I stop my ears and refuse to hear. I am using this opportunity to write my great work on the Mutiny, and it isn't nearly so easy to write a book as I thought. No matter how much I try, my sentences seem all to stand up on end. I can't acquire any ease or grace of style. I read somewhere lately that young writers use too many adjectives, that good writers depend more on verbs. It has made me rather nervous and I keep counting both, but a certain dubiety in my own mind as to which is which greatly complicates matters. My heroine, too, is a failure, I like her name--Belinda--but it is the only thing I like about her. What is the good of me laboriously writing down that she is beautiful and charming when I am convinced in my own mind she is nothing of the kind? However, I mean to persevere....
We all meet at tea--the nicest time of the day I think. My friend Katie says the world isn't properly warmed up till five o'clock, and certainly there is a feeling of comfort all over everything at the clink of the teacups. Mrs. Russel being Scots, knows how to give a proper tea, with plates, and knives, and scones, and jam; and I am as greedy as a schoolboy over it. Yesterday there was no milk--such a blow. The cows had wandered into a man's land, and he, as the custom is, marched them into the pound five miles away, and there we were--milkless!
The country round Takai is quite pretty--almost like Scots moorland. Yesterday we went for a picnic to a river at the opening of a pass--a most interesting place where not very long ago a native boy had been eaten by a tiger. You see, picnics in the jungle are not quite the insipid things they are at home! There is always the chance that the unwary may be devoured. Actually we did see yesterday the footprints of a tiger in the sand by the river--pugs I think is the proper expression. I was scared, but Robert advanced boldly into the bushes. Ronald, watching him admiringly, said, "He is very brave; he is as brave as Daniel."
Talking about tigers, they aren't nearly as prevalent as I thought. I had an idea they were prowling all over India waiting to spring, but one man told me he had been in India fifteen years and had never seen one. Boggley came on one once and took it for a cow--short-sighted Boggley! Dr. Russel says there was a man-eating tiger in the district lately, and a reward was offered for its capture. A young engineer sallied forth to slay. He directed the natives to dig a pit near where the tiger was known to be and cover it with branches, and the next day went and found it had walked into the trap. The natives removed the branches, the gallant engineer approached, but they had dug the pit on a slope, and the tiger came walking up to meet him!
I would rather like to see a wild beast from a safe distance. A native came into hospital only yesterday with his arm all torn and mauled by a leopard, but, though I have walked miles through the jungle, I have seen nothing more fearsome than a black-beetle, and that I might have seen at home. The Santals are very keen shikaris, and go regularly to hunt armed with bows and arrows and a few guns.
One morning I watched them start. With them was a youth home on holiday from a situation in Calcutta--I liked his idea of a shooting costume. He wore a pair of bright blue socks and yellow shoes, a pink shirt worn over a dhoti, and over that a well-cut tweed coat (evidently an old one of his master's), a high linen collar, but no tie, a straw hat and enormous blue spectacles. The last-named were evidently worn more for effect than by order of the oculist, for the youth removed them when the time came to use his gun.
My home mail has just come in. I like to be in the verandah to see the dâk-runner bring in the letters. I hear him long before I see him, for he carries a stick with jingling bells at the end to frighten away animals as he comes through the jungle. Mine was a particularly nice mail to-day--good news from everyone. You have no idea how out here one loves to get letters, and how one gloats over every scrap of news. Do you really look forward to my letters? Your letters are the greatest comfort to me; indeed, I can't imagine what it would be like without them. I must finish this up, for the mail goes to-morrow. My time here is nearly run. I hear from Boggley that he expects to arrive to-morrow, and we depart together the next day. I shall be sorry and glad--both. Sorry to leave Takai and the dear people, more than glad to be with Boggley.
Robert has just come in, excitedly clutching the tail of a lizard. He had caught it going up the wall, and the lizard had wriggled away and left its tail. Now I suppose it will perseveringly grow another.
Robert is holding the tail before Jean that she may see it wriggle, and saying, "God made it so. Wasn't it clever?" The dear babies! How I shall miss them!
Circuit House, Lakserai, Jan 31.
This letter must begin in pencil, for Boggley has the only pen. By the bye, would you mind keeping my letters till I get home? I think it might be amusing to read them when my cold weather in India is a thing of the past.
Behold us on the first stage of our wanderings!
We left Takai on Wednesday, I in my old friend the doolie, Boggley on his bicycle. It is wonderful where a bicycle can go in India.
I was much sorrier to leave Takai than I thought I should be, and I think they were a little sorry to see me go. Even the missionary ladies unbent so far as to say they would miss my bright face and merry chatter. How differently people describe things! Bright and merry are hardly the adjectives I should have applied to my soulful countenance and brilliant conversation; but no matter. They all stood on the verandah to watch us go. Mrs. Russel, dear woman, was obviously sincerely sorry for anyone leaving such a delectable spot as Takai; and indeed there are many worse places. The boys grinned benignly, each hopping on one foot. Robert, looking rather like a toadstool with his topi and thin legs, said, "I'm going to Scotland soon, and I'm not coming back to India till I have a long beard."
Just as we were starting, an object hurtled through the air and fell at my feet, and Jean's voice explained, "It is Topsy, Olivia; you may have her"; then, self-sacrificing but heart-broken, she buried her head in her mother's lap. I am rather "tear-minded," as our old nurse used to say, at any time, and I saw things through a mist for the first mile or two.
It didn't seem nearly such a long way going to the station as coming from it, but Boggley on his bicycle was there long before me and my doolie men. We got a train to wherever we were going to about five o'clock. I had some sandwiches with me, and we got tea handed in at a station. It tasted of musty straw, and Boggley said the milk wasn't safe, but the cups made up for everything. Boggley's bore the legend Forget-me-not, and mine A present for a good girl in gilt letters. About eight o'clock we came to another station--it is quite impossible to remember their ridiculous names--and got out. It was quite an important station, and the large refreshment-room had a long table set for dinner. Lining the walls of the room were tall glass cases filled with tinned meats, jam, biscuits, and other eatables, for in the Mofussil provisions are bought at the railway stations. After dinner Boggley produced a pencil and sheet of paper. "Now," he said, "we must make a list of provisions wanted." So we sat on the table and laid our heads together.
"We'll begin with necessaries," said Boggley "Butter."
"Jam," I added, "and cheese."
These being put down, we couldn't think of another single thing.
"Go on," said Boggley, biting his pencil "That can't be all."
"Biscuits," I said with a flash of inspiration, and we chose three boxes of biscuits, and stuck again.
When the attendant produced a list of provisions kept, we got on better, and soon had two large wooden boxes packed with things that sounded as if they might taste good. The only thing I do feel we have been extravagant in is mustard--it is an enormous tin, and one doesn't really eat such a vast deal of mustard.
The list finished and approved, I asked when our train came in.
"About 4.30," said Boggley. This was 9 p.m.
"What!" I cried, aghast, "Where are we going to sleep?"
Boggley waved his hands comprehensively. "Anywhere," he said; "we'll see what the waiting-room is like."
The waiting-room was like nothing I had ever seen before. A large, dirty, barn-like apartment, with some cane seats arranged round the wall, and an attempt at a dressing-table, with a spotty looking-glass on it, in one corner. One small lamp, smelling vilely, served to make darkness visible, and an old hag crouching at the door was the attendant spirit. It doesn't sound cheery, does it? The bearer, Autolycus by name (I call him Autolycus not because he is a knave and witty, but because he is such a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles), made up a bed on one of the cane seats, and there, in that dreary and far from clean apartment, with horrible insects walking up the walls and doubtless carpeting the floor, with no lock on the door and unknown horrors without, I slept dreamlessly. My last waking thought was, "I wish my mother could see me now!"
Boggley slept in the refreshment-room. Autolycus had gone to the stationmaster and demanded a bed for "a first-class Commissioner Sahib," and, so far does impudence carry one, got it.
I was awakened at 3 a.m., and the aged crone helped me to pack up my bedding. I gave her a rupee, which afterwards I regretted when Autolycus pointed out she had stolen a sheet.
We crossed the Ganges in the grey dawn, a clammy fog shrouding everything. Nothing was visible but a stretch of wan water, and one or two natives near the bank bathing in the holy river. We were the only Europeans travelling, till at one station a nice old priest came in, of what nationality we couldn't make out. I was pondering it when I discovered that my bangle with the miniature, which I always wear, wasn't on my wrist. We looked up, and down, and round about, and then I shouted, "Why, there it is!" And there it was lying on the priest's lap. He looked so utterly dumbfoundered, poor dear man, and blushed all over his fat, good-natured face, and I, when I realized I had pointed an accusing finger, was also covered with confusion. We tried to explain that it had come off with my glove, but he merely bowed repeatedly and made hurt ejaculations in some unknown tongue, so we were reduced to an uneasy silence.
About twelve o'clock we had breakfast in the refreshment-room of a station. We had wired for it, so it was ready. First we got ham and eggs. The ham was evidently tinned, and the eggs were quite black. I poked my share suspiciously and asked what made it so black. "Pepper," said Boggley, who was eating away quite placidly.
Pepper! As if I couldn't recognize plain dirt when I saw it. Our plates were the kind with hot water inside, and a cork, and as the venerable man removed them for the next course I, watching, saw him wipe them perfunctorily with the corner of his already none too clean garment, then gravely hand them back. After that, I thought dry bread was the safest thing to breakfast on.
Now we are installed in Lakserai Circuit House These rest-houses are kept up by the Government for officials on inspection duty. Dâk-bungalows are rather different. Any traveller may stay in them by paying so much. This house consists of one very large room, dining, drawing, smoking room in one, and two bedrooms. It is rather damp and dreary, but that doesn't matter, for we leave again to-morrow morning. We have been to call this afternoon on the wife of the Collector, Mrs. Edston, a pretty woman with nice manners and a sweet voice. We had tea with her and saw her small son. Her bungalow interested me. It was only the second Mofussil bungalow I had seen. The Takai drawing-room was delightful, a big, rather empty room, with one or two good reproductions of famous pictures on the walls, heaps of books, and an almost entire absence of ornaments--rather an ascetic room. It suited the simple, strenuous life there. Mrs. Edston's is quite different--bright and pretty, full of flowers and growing plants; tables laden with silver, and photographs of pretty women and children; comfortable chairs, with opulent cushions, soft rugs and hangings--altogether a very cosy room.
Mrs. Edston has kindly asked us to dine with her to-night.
We have just come back, and as I am not very sleepy I shall write a bit. It was pouring rain at eight o'clock, so a trap was sent for us, and a note asking us not to whip the horses too hard. I thought they must be very restive animals, but it turned out to be a joke. There were no horses in the trap, only coolies!
We had a very pleasant dinner. Mr. Edston is out in camp, but two young assistant officers were there. They live in tents in the compound, as the bungalow is small, and have their meals with the Edstons. Sitting to-night before a blazing fire, in the pretty drawing-room, listening to Mrs. Edston singing, I reflected that they were exceedingly fortunate young men to have such a home-like habitation and such a charming hostess. To do them justice, I think they quite realize their good fortune.
We depart to-morrow morning for some quite unpronounceable place about twenty miles from here, to stay at another rest-house till Monday.
We have reached the unpronounceable place after much prayer and fasting. What a day we had yesterday! We left the Lakserai Circuit House at 10 a.m., preceded by Autolycus and a crowd of coolies bearing luggage. Each coolie carries one thing, and as they are all paid the same without regard to the weight carried, of course there is great competition for the light packages. It is odd to see one man stagger under a trunk while another trots gaily off with a cushion or a kodak. We are allowed to take hand-luggage into the carriage, and we take such a broad view of the word that it means with us dressing-bags, suit-cases, tennis-rackets, gun-cases, polo-sticks, golf-clubs, and as much more as the compartment will hold.
The station, when we reached it yesterday, was crammed with natives squatting so thick on the platform one could hardly move without treading on them. A great festival is going on which only happens once in a long time--fifty years I think--and if they bathe in the holy Ganges while the festival lasts all their sins are washed away. They are flocking from all parts, eagerly boarding every train that stops, regardless of the direction it is going in. The festival ends to-day at twelve, so I greatly fear many will be disappointed. At all times the native loves railway travelling, and, as he has no notion of time-tables, he often arrives at the station the night before, sleeps peacefully on the ground, and is in comfortable time for the first train in the morning. Also, he has no idea of fixed charges, and when he goes to the ticket-office and asks for his "tickut," and the babu in charge tells him the price, he offers half. When that is refused he goes away, and returns in an hour or so and offers a little more. It may take a whole day to convince a native that he can't beat down the Railway Company.
This festival had so disarranged the trains that our train which should have left at ten didn't come in till twelve. Then we had to change at the next station and wait for the connection, and we actually sat there till eight in the evening, when our train sauntered in. They say of a certain cold and draughty station in Scotland that in it there is neither man's meat, nor dog's meat, nor a place to sit down, and it is equally true of the Indian junction. We had nothing to eat all day except ginger snaps, and they pall after a time, especially in a dry and dusty land where no water is. There were two other travellers in the same plight, a Mr. and Mrs. Blackie, and we sat together through that long hot day, too utterly hungry and bored even to pretend interest in each other. When the train did come in, something had gone wrong with the engine, and they lost more time pottering about with it--tying it up with string probably. It was then that my temper, and I do think I behaved with great fortitude up to that time, gave way, and I tried to bully the officials. It was no use. They merely smiled and said, "Cer-tain-lee," and Boggley irritated me more and more by solemnly repeating:
"It is not good for the Christian soul to hustle the Aryan brown,
For the Christian riles and the heathen smiles
And it weareth the Christian down.
And the end of the fight is a tombstone white
With the name of the dear deceased;
And the epitaph drear--'A fool lies here
Who tried to hustle the East.'"
We had nothing to look forward to at the end of the journey except a dâk-bungalow's cold welcome, but the Blackies, who live at Madhabad, insisted we should go home with them to dinner; so, instead of the tinned ham-and-egg meal we had expected, we had a dainty, well-cooked dinner in a cosy dining-room. Warmed and fed, we retired to our present resting-place, and found little comfort here. Autolycus and his coolies had only just arrived, and Autolycus was searching vainly for a lamp--a bati he called it. The floors are stone and as cold as the tomb. Mr. Blackie begged us to go back to his place for the night, but we wouldn't hear of it. Autolycus ran a lamp to earth; we explored for bedrooms and found two, in which he hastily made up beds. They are damp, and far from clean; but one learns to put up with a lot in the Mofussil, and in a very short time we had forgotten our troubles in sleep.
This morning I rose betimes and went out to the verandah, and there I found--quite suddenly--a handsome young man. It seems he too is staying in this eligible mansion. He is an engineer--a bridge-builder, I think--and this is convenient for his present work. He was in bed and asleep, and didn't hear us arrive last night; so he was as surprised to see me as I was to see him. When Boggley appeared we had breakfast together. It was interesting hearing about the kind of life this young man leads. He says although Madhabad is not gay, it is Piccadilly compared to where he often is, out in camp, forty miles from another European, with not a soul to speak to from week to week. The evenings are the dreariest times, and he often goes to bed immediately after dinner. He was quite cheerful, and said he liked the life. Madhabad is a large village, but the Blackies are the only Europeans. There are a lot of planters, however, living round about. We had callers this morning. Mr. Royle, to whose place we go on Monday, rode over with his two small daughters, to say they would expect us to stay with them. We meant to camp, but it will be much pleasanter to stay with the Royles; everyone says they are charming people.
Boggley and I went for a walk after tea to see the country. There isn't much to see except a long, straight brown road and a most insanitary-looking tank. The village is more interesting with its queer booths. I do think it is an incongruous sight to see, as I saw this afternoon, a native, naked but for a loin cloth, plying a Singer's sewing-machine. The natives looked sullen and rather suspicious, or is it only that I imagine it because they are so unlike the broad-smiling Santals with their cheerful johar? There are four trees before this bungalow, and at present two vultures are perching on each--horrible creatures, with long, scraggy necks. I pointed them out to Boggley, who was immediately reminded of a tale of a bumptious young civilian, new to the country, who was told, by one who had suffered many things at his hands, that the birds were wild turkeys, a much-valued delicacy; hearing which the youth promptly shot some and sent them round to the ladies of the station. Do you believe that tale? I don't.
... We have just finished dinner--much the most amusing dinner I ever ate. There is an intense rivalry, it seems, between our cook and the engineer-man's cook; and although we dined together, our bills-of-fare were kept jealously apart. Autolycus, of course, waited on us, and when he handed me the fish, and I helped myself to one of the four pieces, he said sternly, "Two, please," and I meekly took the other. The engineer had no fish, but on the other hand he had an entrée which was denied us. Both cooks rose to a savoury. (They will give you the savoury before the sweet. If you insist on anything else, it so demoralizes them that the dinner is a ruin.) Our savoury was rather ambitious--stuffed eggs rolled in vermicelli. It tasted rather like a bird's-nest, and one felt it had taken a lot of making and rolling in brown hands. I envied the simpler poached egg on tomato of the engineer. You can't pat a poached egg!
Rika, Feb. 9.
I have no home letters to answer this week. We forgot to give the Calcutta people the new address, so on Monday night the dâk-runner with his bells would jingle with my precious home mail into the Takai verandah; Mrs. Russel, having no other address, would re-direct them back to Calcutta, and they may reach us here about Sunday, It is tantalizing, but I don't pine for news in Rika so much as in most places. I am so thoroughly at home. I find the Mofussil is simply full of nice people. When we rode out here on Monday morning, and Mrs. Royle, with a shy small girl on either side, came down the verandah steps to meet us, I knew I was going to love staying here. There is an atmosphere about that makes for peace and happiness, and every day I like the place and the people more.
Rika was rather a revelation. The civilians' bungalows have a here-we-have-no-continuing-city look about them; their owners are constantly being moved, and pitching their moving tents elsewhere; but the Royles have been at Rika for fifteen years, and have made a delightful home. The bungalow is built on a slightly rising ground with a verandah all round--a verandah made pleasant with comfortable chairs, rugs, writing-tables, books, and flowers. At one end a dirzee squats with a sewing-machine, surrounded by white stuff in various stages of progress for the Mem Sahib and the children. From the middle of the verandah a broad flight of steps, flanked on either side by growing plants in pots, leads down to the road, and across the road lie the tennis-lawns and the flower-garden. I have read that one of the most pathetic things about this Land of Exile is the useless effort to make English flowers grow. In Rika they must feel at home, for the whole air is scented with roses and mignonette. When Mrs. Royle took us to see her flowers, Boggley pulled a sprig of mignonette, sniffed it appreciatively, and handing it to me said:
"What does that remind you of?"
"Miss Aitken's teas!" I said promptly. Always that scent takes me straight back to sunny summer afternoons when
"The day was just a day to my mind,
All sunny before and sunny behind,
Over the heather,"
and myself in a stiffly starched frock, accompanied by three brothers with polished faces and spotless collars setting out to drink tea with our friends Miss Aitken and Miss Elspeth. There was always honey for tea, I remember,--honey made by the bees that buzzed through laborious days in their thatched houses in a corner of the sunny garden,--and little round scones, and crisp shortbread; and, as we ate and chattered, through the open windows the roses nodded in, giving greeting to their friends, the roses of past summers dried and entombed in great vases; and the scent of mignonette so mixed itself with the sound of gentle old voices and childish trebles, the fragrant tea in the fragile china cups, the prancing dragons in the cabinet, that now, over the years, it brings them all back to me as surely, as potently, as if it had been indeed a sprig of Oberon's wild thyme or Ophelia's rosemary for remembrance. As I have told you, we were naughty children, sometimes even wicked children, but our conduct at this house was, "humanly speaking, perfect." The old ladies listened so sympathetically to our tales of how many trout we had that day guddled in the burn; of the colt we had managed to catch and mount--as a family--by the aid of the dyke, and of the few delirious moments spent on its slippery back before it threw us--as a family; of the ins and outs of why Boggley's nose was swelling visibly and his right eye disappearing. They would look at each other, nodding wisely at intervals while they murmured, "Interestin' bit bairnies." Boggley, when young, was of a peculiarly fiery temper. At times one could hardly look at him without being confronted with squared fists and being invited to "come on"; but when Miss Elspeth, holding one of his pugnacious paws in her kind, soft hands, assured him he was the flower of the flock, and her boy, he was a Samson shorn for mildness.
Speaking pure Lowland Scots, which was a delight to listen to; full of a gracious hospitality embracing everyone in the district from the highest to the lowest; fiery politicians and ardent supporters of their beloved Free Kirk, to the upkeep of which I believe they would cheerfully have given their last copper, Miss Aitken and Miss Elspeth were of a type now unhappily almost extinct.
Miss Elspeth was the plain, clever one. "In my youth", she loved to quote, "in my youth I wasna what you would ca' bonnie, but I was pale, penetratin', and interestin'."
Miss Aitken had been a beauty, and liked to tell us of the balls she had danced at, when, dressed in white muslin with heelless slippers and a wreath in her hair, she had been called "a sylph," Why she had never married was a puzzle to many. I remember she used to tell us of a wonderful visit to London, and of how she came home sick at heart about leaving all the "ferlies," as she called them. On her first evening at home Miss Elspeth had said, to cheer her, "Come and see the wee pigs." "Me!" said poor Miss Aitken. "What did I care about the wee pigs!" It was, perhaps, more than the "ferlies" she missed, but I don't know. She was no sylph when I knew her, my dear Miss Aitken, but she had a most comfortable lap, and a cap with cherry ribbons, and the kindest heart in all the world. Once, John, who thirsted always for information, and mindful of a point that had struck him in the chapter at morning prayers, said:
"Miss Aitken, are you any relation to Achan-in-the-Camp?"
Miss Elspeth, looking quizzically at her sister, answered for her: "Dod! Marget, I wouldna wonder but what ye micht hae been tempted by the Babylonish garment!"
They were very old when we knew them, these dear ladies, and they have been dead many years, but their simple, kindly lives have left a fragrance to sweeten this workaday world even as the mignonette in bygone summers scented their old-world garden.
How I do reminisce! It is entirely your fault for saying you liked it. You know it is a trait in the Douglas family. Our way of entertaining guests is to sit close together and recall happenings, and delightedly remind each other of childish escapades, shouting hilariously, while our guests sit in a bored and puzzled silence. Pleasant family the Douglases!
Well, as I said, Rika is a pleasant place and the Royles Irish, therefore charming. Mrs. Royle is a most purpose-like person. I like to go with her in the morning on her rounds. Through the gardens we go to see the bananas and pine-apples and tomatoes ripening in the sun, and make sure that the malis are doing their work; then on to the wash-house, where the dhobi is finishing the weekly wash; to the kitchens, to see that the cooking-pots are clean; finally, to stand on the verandah while the syces bring the ponies and feed them before our suspicious eyes. I forgot the henhouse. As we live almost entirely on fowls in the Mofussil, the moorghy-khana is a most important feature of the establishment; but just now, I regret to say, owing to a moorghy famine in the district, the stock is at a somewhat low ebb. Men have been scouring the country for fowls, but when we went to look at the result this morning we found about a dozen miserable chickens, almost featherless, standing dejectedly in corners, and Mrs. Royle wailed, "We can't kill these: it would be a sheer slaughter of the innocents!" It isn't easy to get beef or mutton in this part of the world, and when a sheep is brought to Rika it has to be carefully concealed, or Kittiwake ties a ribbon round its neck and claims it as her own, and terrible is the outcry if anyone dares to make away with her pet.
There are two Royle children--Kittiwake and Hilda. Kittiwake (christened, I believe, Kathleen Helen) is fat and broad and beaming, and very religious. Hilda is inclined to love the gay world, and finds Rika too quiet--the baby aged six! They are both thorough little sportsmen and mounted on their ponies go with their father almost everywhere. Yesterday I went for a ride with them, along dusty brown roads between rice-fields, and they gave me a wonderful lot of information about the place and the people. As we passed a little village temple Kittiwake stopped. "That," she said solemnly, pointing with her whip, "is where they worship false gods."
I told Mr. Royle about Peter being so anxious for a mongoose, and to-day when the children came running to beg me to come quickly and see what the fisherman had caught for me, my mind leapt at once to mongooses. When I saw, confined under a wicker basket, two animals with yellow fur and flat heads that moved ceaselessly, my heart sank. If they had been caught for me how could I be so ungracious as to refuse them, and yet how was it possible for me to carry these most terrifying creatures about with me, and perhaps, on the voyage home, have to share my cabin with them?
I looked round wildly. The fisherman was grinning delightedly at his own cleverness. Our two chuprassis, Autolycus, and a syce stood round with the children, all waiting for my approval.
"They're rather nice, aren't they?" I stammered feebly.
"Oh--sweet;" said Hilda rapturously.
"Sweet!" I echoed. "But aren't they big ones?"
"Big!" cried Kittiwake. "Why, they're only butchas;" and she lifted the edge of the basket to get a better view, at which one of the butchas made a rush for the opening and made straight at me. With a yell I snatched up my skirts, knocked over Hilda, leapt "like a haarse" on to the verandah straight into the astonished Mr. Royle, while the weird beast disappeared like a yellow streak.
"Whatever is the matter?" he asked as I sank to the floor.
"Olivia's afraid of the butcha otter!" squealed Hilda, while she scampered about looking for the truant.
"Otter?" said I.
"Yes," said Mr. Royle; "they are baby otters that the fisherman found at the side of the lake. I thought of sending them to the Calcutta Zoo. They aren't very common in India."
"I'm so glad!" I gasped; and Mr. Royle looked mystified. It didn't seem exactly a reason for fervent gladness, but suppose they had been mongooses? My life, so to speak, was ruined.
Staying in the house with Mr. Royle is rather like being with Colonel Newcome in the flesh. He is such a very "perfect gentil Knight"--as courteous to a native woman as to the L.-G.'s wife. The people round about adore him and his wife; they are a kind of father and mother to the whole district. There would be little heard of disloyalty to the British if all the Sahibs were like Mr. Royle, He is so good--I'd be almost afraid to be so good in case I died--but not the least in a sickly way. He is a teetotaller, a thing almost unheard of in India; and he isn't ashamed to be heard singing hymns with the children before their bed-time; yet (why yet?) he is a crack shot, a fine polo player, an all-round sportsman.
Both he and his wife are very fond of books. Mrs. Royle reads everything she can lay her hands on, but her husband's special subject is philosophy, and last night he lent me a volume of Nietzsche. I don't think I understood a single word, but between it and the moorghy-khana I had a bad night. I thought I had to make in five minutes a new scheme of the Universe. All the odd-shaped pieces were lying about like a picture-puzzle, and I feverishly tried to make them fit, in the clumsy ineffective way one does things in dreams. Just as I had it almost finished, Mrs. Royle came with a fowl in each hand and said sternly, "These must come into your scheme." I took the two great clucking things and vainly tried to thrust their feet--or is it claws hens have?--into a tiny corner, and they had just wrecked all my efforts when I woke!
I have taken some photographs which I shall send you. The delightful babu buttoned tightly into the frock-coat is a clerk of Mr. Royle's, called a "Sita-Ram--two-o'clock." The frock-coat was a legacy from a departing Collector, and he is immensely proud of it. He is a great delight to me, and says he will never cease to pray for my internal welfare! Talking of babus, one wrote to Mr. Royle the other day about a pair of riding-breeches, and said, "I have your Honour's measurements, but will be glad to know if there is any improvement in the girth." Don't you think that was a very pretty way of asking if he had put on weight?
When I showed Autolycus and the chuprassis the photographs I had taken of them, the chuprassis said, "Atcha" (very good), but Autolycus shook his head violently, and when Boggley asked him what was wrong, he replied in an injured tone that it made him look quite black!
... Deep snow, hard frost, bright sun--how gloriously sparkling it must be! It dazzles my eyes to think of it. I don't wonder you revel in the skating and the long sleigh rides through the silent forest. Talk about the magic of the East--it could never appeal to me like the magic of the North.
Storks, snow-queens, moor-wives, ell-women--how the names thrill one! What was your Hans Andersen like? Mine was light blue and gold with wonderful coloured pictures, but it was the frontispiece I studied, and which held me frightened yet fascinated. It was a picture of a pine-wood, with a small girl in a blue frock and white pinafore and red stockings, crying bitterly under a tree, in the branch of which a doll hung limply, thrown there by cruel brothers. Through the trees the sunset sky was pale green melting into rose-colour, and the wicked little gnomes that twilight brings were tweaking the child's hair and jeering at her misfortunes. One felt how cold it was, and how badly the little girl wanted her hood and cloak. The darkness was very near, and worse things than little gnomes would slip from behind the tree-trunk trunks. It never occurred to me that the little girl might have run home to warmth and light and safety. That was no solution--the doll would still have been there. Your letter, with its tale of snow and great quiet forests, and the picture you drew me of the funny little girl with the flaxen plaits and the red stockings, made me remember it. I don't know where my old book is--gone long since from the nursery bookshelf to the dustbin, I expect, for it was much-used and frail when I knew and loved it--but your word-picture gave me the passport and enabled me to creep once again inside its cover, so brave in blue and gold, and to greet my friend in the red stockings, and find her as highly coloured as ever, and not a day older. It is nice of you to say I have a courageous outlook on life, but I wish I hadn't told you the story of the mongoose that was an otter. Now you will say, like Boggley, Funk-stick! If I stay much longer in this frightsome land my hair will be white and my nervous system a mere wreck.
Yesterday we left the solitude of Rika and went to polo at a place about seventeen miles away. It was very interesting to meet all the neighbouring Europeans--mostly planters and their wives. There were about twenty people, and everyone very nice. I wish I had time to tell you about them, but I haven't. After polo, which I enjoyed watching, we all had tea together and talked very affably. Then Mr. Royle drove me home while Boggley went with Mrs. Royle. I heard, as we were leaving, Mr. Royle say something to Boggley about the horse being young and skittish, and a faint misgiving passed through me, but I forgot it talking to Mr. Royle, and when we reached Rika I went off to dress for dinner, taking it for granted that the others were just behind. Letters were waiting me, and I lingered so long over them I had to dress in a hurry, and ran to the drawing-room expecting to find everyone waiting. But the room was empty. Hungry and puzzled, I waited for another ten minutes, and then went along to Boggley's bedroom, to see what he meant anyway; but there was no one there. More and more puzzled, but distinctly less hungry, I went back to the drawing-room, looked into the dining-room, finally wandered out into the verandah, where I found the children's old nurse Anne tidying away the children's toys.
I said: "Nurse, where's everybody?"
Anne left the toys and lifted both hands to high heaven.
"Och! Miss Douglas dear, it wasn't for nothing I dreamt last night of water-horses. The night before ma sister Maggie's man was killed by a kick from a wicked grey horse (Angus M'Veecar was his name, and a fine young lad he was) I dreamt I saw one. As big as three hills it was, with an awful starin' white face, and a tail on it near as long as from Portree to Sligachen. It give a great screech, and a wallop in the face of me, and jumped into the loch, and by milkin'-time next morning--a Thursday it was--ma sister Maggie came into the door cryin', 'Och and och, ma poor man, and him so kind and so young,' and fell on the floor as stiff as a board."
Anne comes from Skye, and often tells me about water-horses and such-like odd denizens of that far island; and I find her soft Highland speech, with its "ass" for "as" and "ch" for "j," very diverting; but this time I wasn't amused.
"But nothing has happened, Anne. What are you talking about? Where is my brother?"
"Mercy on us all, how can I tell? The mistress and the young gentleman has never come in, and the master says to me, 'Fetch me my flask, Anne,' says he; and fetch it I did, and he drove away, an' I'm sure as I'm sittin' here I didn't see the water-horse for nothing. What does a flask mean but an accident? Och--och, and a nice laughin'-faced young gentleman he was, too."
If life is going to contain many such half-hours I don't see how I am to get through it with any credit. I left Anne--whom at that moment I hated--to seek information from the servants, which she did with a valiant disregard of her entire lack of knowledge of Hindustani, a language she stubbornly refused to learn a word of. The last I saw of her she had seized the khansamah's young assistant and was shouting at him, "Chokra--ye impident little black deevil, will you tell this moment, has there been an accident?" Backwards and forwards I went in the verandah, then down the steps to the road, straining my eyes to see and my ears to hear something--what I did not know. From the garden the scent of the roses and mignonette came to me in the soft Indian darkness. I ventured a little bit along the road, too anxious to remember, or, remembering, to care, that I had no lantern, and that at any moment I might tread on a snake. I could only think of one thing, and how often I pictured it! Mr. Royle coming back, and the natives carrying someone--someone who didn't laugh any more. The odd thing was I didn't seem to mind at all what happened to kind Mrs. Royle. It was Boggley, and only Boggley, that mattered to me. Of course nothing did happen to anyone. It isn't when one expects and dreads it that tragedy comes. Tragedy comes quietly, swiftly. I remember going to see a fisherman's widow in a little village on the stormy east coast. She told me of her husband's death. "I had his tea a' ready an' a bit buttered toast an' a kipper, but he never cam' in." That was all--"He never cam' in."
When our wanderers returned they were rather amused than otherwise. The horse had given trouble and ended by kicking the trap to pieces, and they had to walk part of the way home. Quite simple, you see; but the first opportunity I looked in a mirror to see if my hair had not turned white in a single night, as men's have done through sudden fear. It hadn't; but I did dream of a water-horse with "an awful starin' white face."
This morning Mrs. Royle took me to the village to get some brass to take home. The shop was a little hut with an earthen floor, a pair of scales, and one shelf crowded with brass things, made, not for the European market, but for the daily use of the people, such as drinking-vessels--lota is the pretty name--and big brass plates out of which they eat their rice and dhalbat. They keep them beautifully polished with sand, and I think they ought to be rather decorative; much more attractive certainly than the candlesticks and pots and cheap rough silver-work which is the usual loot carried away by the cold-weather visitor.
Another mail-day will soon be upon us; they simply pounce on one. We have to get letters away by Tuesday from the Mofussil instead of Thursday as in Calcutta. I look forward with great distaste to leaving this place next week. When with the Royles one can't imagine oneself happy anywhere else. The days pass so quickly; breakfast seems hardly over when it is time for luncheon, and before one has really settled down to read or write it is four o'clock, and time to go to tea, which is spread down by the lake among the roses, the sun having lost its fierceness and begun to think of going to bed. We all sit at a round table and eat brown bread and butter and jam, all home-made. The china we use is very pretty and came from Ireland, but Mrs. Royle has been greatly troubled by its discoloured appearance, which the servants assured her there was no cure for. I suggested rough salt and lemon-juice, and after tea yesterday afternoon they brought it, and we each set to work on our own cup and saucer, and behold! in a very short time they were like new. Boggley made his particularly beautiful, but unfortunately broke it immediately afterwards, at which Kittiwake laughed so immoderately she fell on her saucer and sent it to its long home.
I have learned to take a most intelligent interest in fowls and Nietzsche; and more and more as the days pass do I like and admire our host and hostess. I never met people I felt so affectionately towards.
Here come the children flying, followed patiently by the old khansamah with a spoon in one hand and a bottle of cod-liver-oil emulsion in the other. I had better finish this letter and get the ink out of their reach.
Baratah, Thursday, Feb. 21.
... Now we are really camping out, and I sit outside my tent even as Abraham did of old. I have a whole long day before me to write. Boggley was up and away long before I was awake, and won't be back till evening.
We left Rika on Monday afternoon, very sad indeed. Mrs. Royle, as is her way, heaped us with benefits, and, mindful of our starvation on the way to Rika, had a luncheon-basket packed with cold fowl, home-made bread, tomatoes, and a big cake. As we drove off the children pursued us down the drive crying, "Don't go away. Stay with us always."
At the station we were told that the train was two hours late, and Boggley thought it would be an excellent plan to spend the time calling on the Blackies, who live near; so, leaving Autolycus and the chuprassis with the luggage, we set out. We had been shown the flower-garden and a crocodile that Mr. Blackie had shot, and were about to drink a dish of tea in the drawing-room, when we heard the whistle of an engine. "The train!" cried Boggley, bounding to his feet, and spurning the cup of tea Mrs. Blackie was offering to him. It was no moment for ceremony. With a shrieked good-bye we leapt out of the window and across the compound, and set off on our half-mile run to the station. There is something peculiarly nasty about the nature of Indian trains. Simply because we left the station it chose to be up to time. It must have been an amusing incident to the people in the station, but I would have enjoyed it more had I been one of the natives watching from a third-class carriage instead of, so to speak, one of the principal actors. There was the engine shrieking in its anxiety to start; there was our luggage neatly spread all over an empty compartment; there was Autolycus protesting shrilly that the train could not leave without his sahib, who was a very burra sahib; and finally there we were with scarlet faces, topis on the backs of our heads, surrounded by a thick cloud of dust, careering wildly into the station.
After all the fuss, we had only about thirty miles to travel, when we got out and drove three miles in a kind of native cart to a dâk-bungalow, a very poor and uncomfortable specimen of its kind. It didn't uplift us to hear that plague was very bad all round, and after a somewhat jungly dinner during which we were very thoughtful and disinclined for conversation, we sought our mildewed couches, to rise again at skreich of day and continue our journey, till late on Tuesday night we got out finally at Baratah station and drove out to our present camping-ground. The people knew we were coming, and the tents were up; but they hadn't expected us till the next day, so nothing was ready, not even a lamp. It was the oddest experience to stumble about in black darkness in entirely unknown surroundings. You know how Boggley tumbles over things in the broad light of day, so you can imagine what tosses he took over dressing-tables and chairs in the darkness. It didn't last long, however, for an important fat khansamah hurried in, shocked at our plight, and, explaining that his sahib, Mr. Lister, was away for a few days, brought us a lamp and other necessaries. Dinner was not possible under the circumstances--the box with our forks and knives had not arrived--so the remains of Mrs. Royle's luncheon-basket coldly furnished forth our evening meal While we sat there, uncomfortably poised on dressing-bags, gnawing legs of fowl and hunches of bread, I thought of you probably dining at the Ritz or the Savoy, with soft lights and music, and lovely food, and probably not half as merry as Boggley and I.
I don't know if I really like a tent to live in. The floor is covered with straw, and then a carpet is stretched over it, which makes a particularly bulgy, uneven surface to stand dressing-tables and things on. The straw, too, is apt to stick out where it is least expected, and gives one rather the feeling of being a tinker sleeping in a barn. At night a tent is an awesome place. It is terrible to have no door to lock, and to be entirely at the mercy of anything that creeps and crawls; to have only a mosquito-net between you and an awful end. I woke last night to hear something sniffing outside the tent. It scraped and scraped, and I was sure that it was digging a hole and creeping underneath the canvas. I sat up in bed and in a quavering voice said "Go away," and the noise stopped, but only to begin again--scrape, scrape, snuffle, snuffle, in the most eerie way. Then something worse happened. At my very ear, as it seemed, the most blood-curdling yell rent the astonished air. It was only a jackal, Boggley says, but it sounded as if all the forces of evil had been let loose at once. You can laugh if you like, but I think it was enough to frighten a very Daniel. As for me, in one moment I was well under the blankets, with fingers in both ears, and I suppose even in the midst of my terror I must have fallen asleep, for the next thing I knew was daylight and the cheerful sound of voices. To-night I shall have a lamp burning and a chokidar (watchman) to sleep outside my tent.
Baratah is quite a large town, and has a Roman Catholic Mission and two lady doctors. We are camping about a mile from the town in a corner of Mr. Lister's compound. It is pretty, with well-kept grass and flower-beds, and opposite is the Guest House of the Raj, where we would be staying now were it not that its roof is not quite safe, and it cannot be used. I went through it, and a great neglected place it is, with tawdry Early Victorian furniture and awful oleographs.
When the sun had gone down yesterday, we went for a walk to explore, along an avenue of peepul trees, across a fine polo-ground, and then we lighted on a big tank. A tiny native boy was perched on the bank watching something in the water, so we sat down beside him and watched too. The something was very large and black, and we were puzzled to know what it was, till, at a word from the child, it heaved itself out of the water and revealed itself an elephant. Up it came to where we were, laid its trunk down so that the small boy could walk up, and off he went proudly riding on its head. It was the nicest thing to watch I ever saw.
We got the home mail the night we arrived here, but couldn't see to read it till the next morning. So you are back in London--sloppy, muggy, February London! How you will miss the cold clear North and all the ice-fun; but you will be so busy finishing the book that surroundings won't matter much. It seemed quite home-like to see the familiar address on the note-paper.
To-day I am going to devote entirely to writing. Surely my book will make some progress now. How many words should there be in a book? I've got 18,000 now; "ragged incompetent words" they are, too. I wonder what makes a writer of books! Would knowing all the words in the dictionary help me? My statements are so bald, somehow. It doesn't seem an interesting tale to me, so I'm afraid I can't expect an unprejudiced reader to find it thrilling. The Mutiny is perhaps too large a subject for me--though, mind you, there is one bit that sounds rather well. I have taken great pains with it, and, as Viola said of her declaration, "'tis poetical!" The worst of it is, when I write poetically I am never quite sure that I am writing sense. I dare say I would be wise to take the Moorwife's advice. You remember in The Will-o'-the Wisps are in Town, when the man had listened to the Moorwife's tale he said, "I might write a book about that, a novel in twelve volumes, or better, a popular play."
"Or better still," said the Moorwife, "you might let it alone,"
"Ah," said the man, "that would be pleasanter and easier."
Baratah, Thursday, Feb. 28.
We are still in Baratah, as you see, and shall be till Tuesday. It is a very nice life this nomadic existence, and one gets nearer the people. They come in little groups and talk to Boggley outside his tent, and I must say he is most patient with them and tries to do his very best for each one of them. They make my heart ache, these natives, they are so gentle and so desperately poor. Isn't it Steevens who says the Indian ryot has been starving for thirty centuries and sees no reason why he should be filled?
The Listers are home now and we have been seeing a lot of them. They are delightful people. Mrs. Lister is quite a girl, and so good-looking and cheery. She has the prettiest house I think I ever saw. When we went to call the first time and were shown into the white-panelled drawing-room with its great open blue-tiled fireplace and cupboards of blue china, I suppose it was the contrast with our own rather sordid surroundings, but it seemed to me like fairyland. The hall is lovely, with a gallery all round and most exquisite carving; rose-red velvet curtains, Persian rugs glowing with rich, soft colours, and everywhere great silver bowls of flowers. They are the most hospitable people, and ask us to dinner every night, and to every other meal as well. Mr. Lister told me babu stories last night. Here is one. The Government sent round making inquiries about some Scandinavians. (Please don't ask why Scandinavians, because I can't answer.) The Sub-Divisional Officer forwarded the reference to the different police-stations for report. The babus in charge of these stations hadn't an idea what Scandinavians were, but would have scorned to ask. Three of the reports ran thus:
1. "Honoured Sir, I have the honour to report that the Scandinavian has been concluded in this district and has been removed to Lahserai." (Survey and Settlement operations.)
2. "Sir, I have the honour to report that there has been no Scandinavians in the district this year, but it is raging furiously at Rika." (Plague.)
3. "Sir, I have the honour to report two Scandinavians were seen at Gopalbung. One was shot by Billie Burke Sahib, the other has not since returned." (Tigers.)
That is a good, but somewhat involved, story. Another was about a missionary who had been eaten by a tiger. The police wired, "A tiger has man-eaten the Pope of Ramnugger."
Yesterday the Listers had a duck-shoot. About twenty men came from all round, and Mrs. Lister and I went with them. We drove two and two to a very large lake and then set sail in queer native boats punted by natives. Of course I wanted to go with Boggley, but was sent off with a strange man, one Major Griffiths, who eyed me with great dislike because he said my light dress would frighten the birds. It got frightfully hot with the sun beating on the water, and I simply dared not put up a sunshade in case of scaring the birds more than I was already doing, and thereby increasing the wrath of my companion. He shot a lot of ducks, but evidently not so many as he thought he ought to shoot, and when he saw the birds all congregated at one corner of the lake a thought struck him, and he told the natives to take us to shore. He got out and beckoned me to follow, which I obediently did, and together we crawled through the jungle, with the bandar-log chattering above us and--for all I know to the contrary--snakes hissing beneath our feet. If I stepped, which I could hardly avoid doing sometimes, on a fallen branch, making it crackle, the man turned on me a glance so malignant I positively quailed. Breathlessly we crept to the water-side and the unsuspecting ducks, and then Major Griffiths fired into the brown,--is that the proper expression?--killing I don't know how many. I don't think it was at all a nice thing to do, but my opinion was neither asked nor desired. Even then my friend was not satisfied, and he voyaged about until I knew luncheon was long since a thing of the past, and I hated so the shape of his face I could have screamed. When at last we did return, I found my surmise as to luncheon had been only too correct, and we had to content ourselves with scraps. The next duck-shoot I attend I shall choose as companion a less earnest sportsman.
The weather is beginning to stoke-up, as Boggley calls it, and during the day the tent is insufferable. I can sit outside it in the early morning, but as the sun gets up Autolycus summons the chuprassis, and they carry my table and writing-materials to the verandah of the Guest House, which has a cool, not to say clammy and tomb-like, atmosphere. My chief trials are the insects. There is a land of large black beetle with wings that has a strange habit of poising itself just above my head and remaining there. Someone told me--who I forget; anyway, Boggley says it isn't true, but it seems quite likely--that if these beetles drop on you they explode. Did you ever hear of anything quite so horrible? I keep a wary eye on them and shift my seat at their approach.
Not a hundred yards away a heathen temple stands, with its gilded roof shining in the sun. We tried to go inside it the other day, but an angel with a flaming sword, in the shape of a fakir, kept us out. It didn't look very attractive. We saw enough when we beheld the post the poor kids and goats are tied to, all messy and horrid from the last sacrifice. The priest who forbade us to enter, just to show there was no ill-feeling, hung wreaths of marigolds round our necks. Boggley, once we were out of sight, hid his in the ditch, but I, afraid they might find out and be offended, went about for the rest of the day decked like any sacrificial goat.
That we are leading the Simple Life I think you would admit if you saw us at our meals. I find that food really matters very little. Our cook is of the jungle jungly. Autolycus is disgusted with him, and does his best to reform him. Chota-hazri I have alone, as Boggley is away inspecting before seven o'clock. I emerge from my tent and find a table before Boggley's tent with a cloth on it,--not particularly clean,--a loaf of bread (our bread is made in jail: a chuprassi goes to fetch it every second day), a tin of butter, and a tin of jam. Autolycus appears accompanied by the jungly cook, bearing a plate of what under happier circumstances might have been porridge. A spoonful or two is more than enough. "No good?" demands Autolycus. "No," and disdainfully handing the plate back to the entirely indifferent cook, he proceeds to produce from somewhere about his person a teapot and two tiny eggs. Luncheon is much worse, for the food that appears is so incalculably greasy that it argues a more than bowing acquaintance with native ghee. Dinner is luncheon intensified, so tea is really the only thing we can enjoy. The fact is, if we thought about it we would never eat at all. I happened to walk round the tent to-day, and found the dish-washer washing our dishes in water that was positively thick, and drying them with a cloth that had begun life polishing our brown boots. I stormed at him in English, and later Boggley stormed at him in Hindustani, and he vowed it would never happen again; but I dare say if I were to look round at this minute, I should find him doing exactly the same thing; and I don't really care so long as neither of us perishes with cholera as a result.
Such funny things live behind my tent! What should I find the other day but a little native baby--about two or three years old. It seems his mother is dead, and his father, who is our chokidar, has to take him with him wherever he goes. He is the oddest little figure, clothed in a most inadequate shirt, and a string round his neck with a shell attached to keep away evil spirits. His hair is closely shaved except for one upstanding tuft which is left to pull him up to heaven with; and his face looks nothing but two great twinkling eyes. He squats beside me nearly all day, and eagerly eats anything I give him, like a little puppy dog. Toffee and fancy biscuits, both of which I possess in abundance, are his favourites. An old servant of Boggley's is with a sahib near here, and he arrived dressed in spotless white from head to foot, bearing in one hand a large seed cake wreathed with marigolds, and in the other a plate of toffee coloured pink, green, and yellow, an offering to the Miss Sahib which he presented with many salaams, and of which my little Hindoo gets the benefit. Autolycus and the chuprassis take a great interest in teaching him manners. When I hold out a biscuit Autolycus says sternly, "Say salaam to the Miss Sahib," and the baby puts his small hand gravely to his forehead, bowing low with a "Talaam, Mees Tahib," then snaps up the prize. I shall miss my little companion. I wonder what will become of him--little brown heir of the ages. Already he can lisp to idols, but he has never even heard of the Christ who said, "Suffer the children."
I shall finish this and post it to-morrow before we leave. We have been to church to-night, the most unusual occurrence with us nowadays. Of course it was only an English church (I remember the time when I thought it very exciting and more than a little wicked to be present at a Church of England service) and the padre was a very little young padre, and rather depressing. He insisted so that we were but a passing vapour that I began to feel it was only too horribly true, and Boggley, who had partaken largely of tinned cheese at luncheon and was feeling far from well, grew every moment more yellow and green.
The Listers asked us to go back with them to dinner, but we thought it better (Boggley especially) to seek the seclusion of our tents.
Manpur, March 9.
Now we are in a different place. At least it has a different name and is a day's journey from Bantale, but it looks exactly the same. We left Baratah yesterday morning and got in and out of trains all day until about seven in the evening we got out finally at Manpur. I had a dreadful cold, and was sniffy and inclined to be cross; so when Boggley suggested we should dine in the waiting-room while Autolycus and the chuprassis went on with the luggage to acquaint the dâk-bungalow people of our arrival, I upbraided him for not making proper arrangements, and reviled the meagre repast, and was altogether very unpleasant. When we reached our destination we found Autolycus prancing distractedly. "This," he said to Boggley, "is what comes of making no bundabust." Some other people were already occupying the bungalow, and we could only get the back rooms, small, mouldy, and inconvenient. Poor Boggley looked so crushed I had to laugh, and we calmed the worried Autolycus, who hates to see his Sahib shoved into corners, and, there being no inducement to remain up--went to bed.
Manpur is a fairly big station--the sort of place you read about in Anglo-Indian novels. There are six households and a club. Boggley and I called on all the six this evening, and then went to the club. Everyone meets there in the evening to see the picture-papers and to play tennis and bridge.
It is rather a bored little community, Manpur. I think they are all pretty sick of each other, and one can't wonder. Even an Archangel would pall if one met him at tea, played tennis with him, and sat next him at dinner almost every day of the year; how much more poor human beings--and Anglo-Indian human beings at that. Taken separately they are delightful, but each assures us that the others are quite impossible. They unite in being shocked at our living in such discomfort, and have all invited us to stay; but it isn't worth while to change our quarters. Besides, we are going away for the week-end to some friend of Boggley's who lives about thirty miles from here.
A nice little young civilian is at present calling on us. He came to pay his duty call, and he and Boggley became so deep in Oxford talk, and found so many mutual friends, that we asked him to stay to dinner. Autolycus told me in a stage whisper that the Sahib could easily stay as the dâk-bungalow cook was very good, and that we would get quite a Calcutta dinner. His pride, as he bore in the dishes, was beautiful to see; and it was a good dinner, though rather tinny.
Manpur, Thursday 12th.
This delayed letter must be posted before we leave by the night train for our next trek. We came back late last night from Misanpore after a nice but very queer time. On Saturday, when, after a long dusty drive of eight miles from the station, we arrived at the bungalow of Boggley's friend, there was every evidence that no visitors were expected. Just think! Boggley had never let him know we were coming; the poor man was ignorant of the fearful joy in store for him.
I gripped Boggley by the arm. "Wretch," I hissed in his ear. "Why didn't you write? What sort of man is he? Will he hate having me?"
"Qui hai?" bellowed Boggley to the deserted-looking bungalow. Then, turning to me, "Oh yes, he'll hate it," he said calmly; "but he'll be pleased afterwards." I could have shaken him. Making me play the part of a visit to the dentist!
When our host appeared, very dishevelled (it turned out that he was feeling far from well and had been lying down), and beheld me, dismay was written large on his countenance. He glared round in a hunted way, and it looked as if he were going to make a bolt for it; but he remembered in time his manhood, and faced me. (His name is Ferris, and he is tall and bald, and about forty, and so shy that when he blushes his eyes water.) Somehow, we all got inside the house, and Boggley and I sat in the drawing-room while Mr. Ferris rushed out to summon his minions and make arrangements. We heard a whispered discussion going on about sheets, and I longed to tell my distracted host that I had all my bedding with me in a strap; but the thought that he might consider me "ondelicate," like Mr. Glegg, deterred me. Presently I was shown into what, only too evidently, was our host's own room, for a servant snatched away some last remaining effects of his master--a spatter-brush and a slipper--as I entered. I sat down on the bed and pondered over what I would have felt had I been a man, and shy, and seedy, and a strange female had been suddenly shot into my peaceful home.
It was rather a difficult week-end. I have met men who were difficult to talk to, but never one like Mr. Ferris, who, while willing, indeed anxious, to be agreeable, so absolutely annihilated conversation. It wasn't till dinner on Sunday night that I discovered a subject that really interested him--London restaurants. He grew quite animated as we discussed the relative merits of the Ritz, the Carlton, the Savoy, the Dieudonné. I think that long, thin, bald, gentle bachelor spends all his spare moments--and he must have many in lonely Misanpore--thinking about his next leave and the feasts he will then enjoy. Yet the odd thing is he isn't greedy about food. I think it must be more the lights and music and people that attract him.
Mr. Ferris and Boggley were away all Sunday, and I spent the whole day with a volume of Dana Gibson's drawings, the only book I could find. I did go for a short walk, but the dust was nearly knee-deep, and, except the little bungalow and outhouses, there was absolutely nothing to see.
Yesterday again Boggley had to go and inspect some place, so it was decided he would bicycle there, and then pick me up at some station we had to change at on our way to Manpur. I drove to the station in Mr. Ferris's little dogcart--alone. Mr. Ferris said he was so sorry he had an engagement, but I think myself it was simply that he couldn't face the eight miles alone with me.
The groom, instead of sitting behind, ran behind; and as the pony was fresh he had to run pretty fast. There were two roads--a pukka or made road, and a cutcha road, on which the natives walked and drove their ekkas.
Autolycus and the chuprassis were waiting at the station, and put me into a carriage. They went straight on to Manpur with the luggage instead of waiting at the station where we changed trains. It was ten o'clock when I got out of the train, and Boggley had said he would be no later than half-past eleven; then we would have luncheon, and get the one o'clock train to Manpur. I went into the refreshment-room to ask what we could have for luncheon,
"Ham and eggs," said the fat babu promptly.
"Nothing else?" I asked.
"Yes," said the babu; "mixed biscuits."
"Oh," I said, surprised.
"Certainlee," said the babu.
Then I went outside to read a book and watch for Boggley. My book was one of those American novels where every woman is--to judge from the illustrations--of more than earthly beauty. I got so disheartened after a little when everyone I met had a complexion of rose and snow (besides, I didn't believe it) that I shut it up. I found it was nearly twelve o'clock, and Boggley hadn't arrived. I waited another quarter of an hour, and then went in and ate some ham and eggs. One o'clock, and the train came and went, but still no trace of the laggard. Outside the station the blinding white road lay empty. Nothing stirred, not even a native was visible; the whole world seemed asleep in the heat. A pile of trunks lay on the platform addressed to somewhere in Devonshire and labelled Not wanted on the Voyage. Some happy people were going home. A far cry it seemed from this dusty land to green Devonshire. I sat on the largest trunk and thought about it. Two o'clock, three, four--the hours went past. I felt myself becoming exactly like a native, sitting with my hands folded, looking straight before me. If I hadn't been so anxious I shouldn't have minded the waiting at all. Now and again I refreshed myself with a peep at the babu, just to assure myself that I wasn't the only person left alive in the world.
About five o'clock Boggley and his bicycle strolled into the station. I had meant to be frightfully cross with him when he appeared--that is to say, if he weren't wounded or disabled in any way--but somehow I never can be very cross when I see him, the way he wrinkles up his short-sighted eyes is so disarming.
He had absolutely no excuse except that he had run across old friends, and they had persuaded him to stay to lunch, and then they had got talking, and so on and so on. He was very repentant, but inclined to laugh. I expect really he had forgotten for the time he had a sister. He confessed he hadn't mentioned my existence till he was leaving, and then, he said, "They did seem rather surprised." I should think so indeed!
Our home mail was waiting us at Manpur and another "Calcutta" dinner. Your letter, my faithful friend, was more than usually charming and kind--a balm to my lacerated feelings! If you don't get a letter next mail after this it will mean either that we are entirely out of the reach of post offices, or that a tiger has eaten the dâk-runner.
Chota Haganpore, March 25.
... a whole fortnight since I wrote last, and our tour is almost over. On Wednesday we go back to Calcutta, and in April I sail for home. The time has simply rushed past. This last fortnight has been a time of pure delight; I have been too absorbed in enjoying myself to write.
First, we stayed two days in a town where Boggley had to open some sort of building. The natives met us with a band, and there were decorations and mottoes and crowds. In the evening a dramatic entertainment took place for our amusement--Julius Caesar acted by schoolboys. Mark Anthony wore a dhoti, a Norfolk jacket, and a bowler hat. In the middle of "Friends, Romans, Countrymen," the bowler fell off. Still declaiming, he picked it up with his toes, caught it with his hand, and gravely put it on again--very much on one side. I envied the "mob" their serene calm of countenance. Boggley and I made horrible faces in our efforts to preserve our gravity.
The next day Boggley played in a football match with these same boys. One got a kick on the shin, and limping up to Boggley said, "Sir, I am wounded; I cannot play," whereupon another ran up to the wounded one, crying, "Courage, brother. Tis a Nelson's death." Great dears I thought they were.
Since then we have been through dry places, and camped in desolate places, hardly ever seeing a European, and enjoying ourselves extremely. One day, a red-letter day, Boggley shot two crocodiles. One was a fish-eater, but the other was a great old mugger, most loathsome to look at. Autolycus hoped for human limbs inside it, and I believe they did actually find relics of his gruesome meals in the shape of anklets and rings and bangles. Boggley is going to have the skins made up into things for me, but it will take about six months to cure them. It is good to think there is one mugger the less. I hate the nasty treacherous beasts. Pretending they are logs, and then eating the poor natives!
One night we had a delightful camping-ground on the edge of a lochan well stocked with duck, which Boggley set out to shoot and ended by missing gloriously. We were much embarrassed by a fat old landowner heaping presents on us. He nearly wept when we refused to accept a goat!
All the fortnight we have only met two Europeans--a couple called Martin. I don't know quite what they were, or why they were holding up the flag of empire in this lonely outpost, but they were the greyest people I ever saw.
Finding ourselves in the neighbourhood of Europeans, we called, as in duty bound. The compound round the bungalow had a dreary look, and when we were shown into the drawing-room I could see at a glance it was a room that no one took any interest in. The rugs on the floor were rumpled, the cushions soiled; photographs stood about in broken frames, and the flowers were dying in their glasses. When Mrs. Martin came in, I wasn't surprised at her room. A long grey face, lack-lustre eyes, greyish hair rolled up anyhow, and greyish clothes with a hiatus between the bodice and skirt. "This," said I to myself, "is a woman who has lost interest in herself and her surroundings," Her husband was small and bleached-looking and, given encouragement, inclined to be jokesome; sometimes (by accident) he was funny. Mrs. Martin paid very little attention to us, and none whatever to her husband's jokes. I laughed loudly. I thought it was so persevering of him to go on trying to be funny when he was married to such a depressing woman. As we got up to go I noticed in a corner a child's chair with a little chintz cover, and seated in it a smiling china doll lacking one arm and a leg.
I could hardly wait till I was outside to tell Boggley what I thought of Mrs. Martin and her house. "The hopeless, untidy creature!" I raved. "She doesn't deserve to have such a little cheery husband or children."
The only thing I don't like about Boggley is that he never will help me to abuse people.
"Poor woman," he said; "she's pretty bad." Then he told me her story as he had heard it.
Ten years ago, it seems, she was quite a cheery managing woman, with two little girls whom she worshipped; she and her husband lived for the children. They were just going to take them home when they sickened with some ailment. Mr. Martin at the time was prostrate after a bad attack of fever. There was no doctor within thirty miles. One child died, and the mother started with the other on the long drive to the nearest doctor. The last ten miles it was a dead child she held in her arms.
When Boggley finished I was silent, remembering the little chintz-covered chair--empty but for a broken doll.
Now that I have tasted the joys of solitude I don't see how I am to enjoy living in a crowd again. I am practically alone all day, for Boggley has long distances to ride and bicycle--and I never was so happy in my life, I write, and I read, and I fold my hands in newly acquired Oriental calm (which my bustling, busy little mother most certainly won't admire), and sit looking before me for hours.
The books lent me by various people are all read long ago, and I have gone back to those that are always with me.
They are all before me as I write. The little fat green one at the end of the row is Lamb's Essays of Elia; he so well fits some moods, and certain minutes of the day, that gentle writer. Next is my Pilgrim's Progress, the one I have had since my tenth birthday. Father gave each of us a copy when we reached the mature age of ten. It was only on high days and holy-days that we were allowed to look at his own treasured copy, which stayed behind glass doors in the corner book-case. The illustrations, I know now, were very fine, and even then we found them wonderful. Then comes my little old Bible. I coveted it for years before I got it because it had pages like five-pound notes; I value it now for other reasons. Next the Bible is Q's Anthology of English Verse, its brave leather cover rather impaired by the fact that for two mornings Boggley, having mislaid his strop, has stropped his razor on it. Lastly comes my Shakespeare.
Sometimes in a night-marish moment I wonder what the world would have been like had there been no Shakespeare. Suppose we had never known Falstaff, never heard the Clown sing "O Mistress Mine," never laughed with Beatrice nor masqueraded with Rosalind, never thrilled when Cleopatra "again for Cydnos to meet Mark Antony" cries "Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have immortal longings in me."
What would we do when surfeited with the company of those around us if we couldn't creep away and pass for a little while into the company of those immortals? What does it matter how tiresome and complacent people are when I am Orsino inviting the Clown to sing words the utter beauty of which bring the tears to my eyes:
"O fellow, come, the song we had last night:
Mark it, Cesario; it is old and plain:
The spinsters and the knitters in the sun,
And the free maids that weave their thread with bones,
Do use to chant it; it is silly sooth,
And dallies with the innocence of love,
Like the old age."
One never comes to the end of the beauty. Only to-day, while I was browsing for a few minutes in a comedy I have not much acquaintance with, I happened on these lines, which I am going to write down merely for the pleasure of writing them:
"I am a woodland fellow, sir, that always loved a great fire, and the master I speak of ever keeps a good fire. I am for the house with the narrow gate, which I take to be too little for pomp to enter: some that humble themselves may, but the many will be too chill and tender, and they'll be for the flowery way that leads to the broad gate and the great fire."
A very pleasant thing about our present solitude is that one can read aloud or speak to oneself without risk of being thought demented. The fact is, the inhabitants of the little village on the outskirts of which we are camping regard us as so hopelessly and utterly mad already that no further display of eccentricity on our part could make any difference.
Even in the jungle there are servant troubles. Our cook, finding, I expect, this life too uneventful, intimated that his father was dying, and left last night. We thought we should have to go without dinner, but Autolycus, stepping gallantly into the breach said No, he would cook it; he had often cooked while with Colonel-M'Greegor-Sahib. The next we saw was a hen flying wildly, pursued by Autolycus, and in about half an hour it appeared on the table, its legs--still rather feathery--sticking protestingly from the dish. That was all there was for dinner except two breakfast-cups of muddy coffee.
... The dâk came in a little while ago with the. English mail. I have just finished reading your letter. I think I know what you must feel about your book. It is sad to come to the end of a long and pleasant task--something finished you won't do again; a page of life closed. I know. It scares me, too, how quickly things come to an end. We are hurrying on so, the years pass so quickly, that even a long life is a terribly short darg. Life is such a happy thing, one would like it to last. I was twenty-six yesterday, and if my soul were to say to me now, "Finish, good lady, the bright day is over," I would be most dreadfully sorry (and I would expect everyone else to be dreadfully sorry too; I'm afraid I would insist on a great moaning at the bar when I put out to sea); but I would have to admit that I have had a good time--a good, good time.
But I don't agree with you about the darkness of what comes after. How can it be dark when the Sun of Righteousness has arisen? I suppose it must be very difficult for clever people to believe, the wise and prudent who demand a reason for everything; but Christ said that in this the foolish things of the world would confound the wise. I am glad He said that. I am glad that sometimes the battle is to the weak. At the crossing, "I sink," cried Christian, the strong man, "I sink in deep waters," but Much-Afraid went through the river singing, though none could understand what she said. I don't know that I could give you a reason for the hope that is in me (I speak as one of the "foolish things"), but this I know, that if we hold fast to the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen, looking to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, then, when the end comes, we shall be able to lay our heads down like children saying, This night when I lie down to sleep, in the sure and certain hope that when, having done with houses made with hands, we wake up in the House of Many Mansions, it will be what John Bunyan calls a "sunshine morning."
I shall have to stop writing, though lecturing you is a fascinating pastime, for the day is almost done, and Boggley will soon be home.
Autolycus, looking very worried, is busied with the task of preparing the evening meal. One of the chuprassis, his gaudy uniform laid aside, and clad in a fragment of cotton, is sluicing himself with water and praying audibly. The dhobi is beating our clothes white on stones in the tank. In the village the women are grinding corn; the oxen are drawing water from the well. The wood-smoke hangs in wisps on the hot air, and the song of the boys bringing home the cattle comes to me distinctly in the stillness. The sunset colours are fading into the deep blue of the Indian night, and the faithful are being called to prayer.
At home they are burning the whins on the hillsides, and the Loch o' the Lowes lies steel-grey under the March sky.