Twelve of the following sketches originally appeared in The Journal, and were afterwards published in book form by the Pioneer Press, Allahabad. One appeared in the Bystander, the remaining five now making their first appearance.
It was the beginning of May, and I had just come down from a month in the hills. After the glorious freshness of the higher latitude among the snows the heat in Slumpanaggur seemed unbearable.
Nothing but a charming little note of welcome from Berengaria, with an invitation to tea at half-past four, which I had found awaiting me on my arrival the night before, would have induced me to start out at such an absurdly early hour in the afternoon. It was only just four o’clock — to my mind, the hottest hour in the whole day, with the ground thoroughly well baked and literally radiating heat, while the slanting rays of the sun have a nasty habit of creeping under one’s topee and striking one full in the face or just catching the back of one’s neck. Already half blinded by the glare, a dry, hot wind swept past one down the narrow, ill-paved streets, raising clouds of dust that got into one’s eyes till one could scarcely see the road ahead, and worked its way down one’s throat, leaving the lips parched and cracked. Jezebel, my neat little mare and a recent purchase, objected to the state of the atmosphere almost as much as I did, and made driving more difficult through the dense, fog-like clouds of dust. I longed for tea and a punkah and the delightful cool of Berengaria’s drawing-room.
To my surprise, Berengaria herself, apparently unconscious of the heat and the dust, was standing at the top of the veranda steps as I drove up. She was talking to the faithful David, still her right-hand man and confidential manager. Behind him stood two scantily-clad, low-caste natives, who might have been grass-cutters, punkah-wallahs, malis, or some other of the usual retinue of outdoor menials.
‘So glad to see you back again,’ said Berengaria, as she gave me her hand and a charming smile. ‘Wonderfully cool, isn’t it, for the time of year?’
For a moment I wondered which Berengaria had developed, a nice sense of humour or a vein of bitter sarcasm. I looked at her doubtfully, but she was perfectly cool and serious, and regarding me with that calm, half-pitying gaze with which a cool person always does regard a hot one. That, of course, only made me all the hotter, and I mopped my brow furtively, murmuring apologetically of my late stay in the hills. Berengaria, quite unsympathetically, turned again to her devoted henchman.
‘All right, David, these two men will do. Tell them they can begin work from to-night. I’m just engaging my night punkah-wallahs,’ she continued, turning to me.
‘You don’t mean to say,’ I gasped, ‘that you haven’t started night punkah-wallahs yet?’
‘No; it has been delightfully cool so far,’ said Berengaria, ignoring my astonishment; ‘but I’m going to start to-night, though they really aren’t absolutely necessary yet. I think these two men look strong and hardy, don’t you?’
I remarked that they both looked capable. I privately thought they looked old and sleepy, but I would have said anything just then to get inside under a punkah.
‘Perhaps they are a bit old,’ said Berengaria, regarding them critically as if divining my thoughts. ‘But I make a point of never engaging young punkah-wallahs; there’s no keeping them awake. You’re quite sure these men will pull well, David?’
‘These men giving missus no trouble,’ David assured her in his best manner, with his confident, protective smile.
‘And you’re quite sure they don’t work somewhere else all day, and won’t drop off to sleep at night when they ought to be pulling my punkah?’
‘These men giving missus no trouble,’ David reassured her, his tolerant smile expanding. ‘David seeing these men sleeping all day and pulling punkah all night.’
‘Well, I only hope they will,’ said Berengaria less confidently than usual, and doubtless mindful of former experiences, whereupon David and the newest additions to Berengaria’s household salaamed and disappeared round the corner of the veranda.
Just then a kitmatghar, to my infinite joy, announced that tea was ready, and we passed into the drawing-room, discoursing of the ways and doings of punkah-wallahs.
For a moment I didn’t notice it, and then the awful truth overwhelmed me. There was no punkah in the room! The very thought of sitting down to drink tea in that heat without a punkah was appalling. My head felt fit to burst already. It was only with an effort that I realised that Berengaria was still talking as gaily as ever.
‘Don’t you think so?’ I was dimly conscious of her asking me suddenly, as she came to a pause.
I hadn’t the remotest idea what she had been talking about, but I hastily murmured a suitable affirmative, too appallingly hot to know or care to what new erratic idea of Berengaria’s I was pledging my adherence.
‘Boys require too much sleep,’ I remember her saying, as she sat down to pour out tea.
‘Last year I engaged boy punkah-wallahs, and never again. They ruined sleep and temper alike, and I had to learn abusive words in the vernacular to make them pull at all.’
I sat up at that. It sounded interesting as well as suitable and appropriate. At that moment I felt like using all the abusive language I knew myself.
‘Who added to your vocabulary?’ I asked, remembering Berengaria’s scanty acquaintance with the language.
‘Well,’ said Berengaria slowly, as she passed me a cup of tea, ‘I knew it was no use asking the Commissioner, because he never says anything stronger than “oolu,” and that has no effect at all upon a sleepy punkah-wallah. So I had to resort to David. I asked him what one native called another when he was very angry, and he gave me quite a long list of words. I learned them off by heart, and used them as a kind of volley whenever the punkah stopped.’
I trembled to think what Berengaria had called those punkah-wallahs.
‘Did you know what the words meant?’ I asked tentatively, sipping my tea.
‘Not in the least,’ said Berengaria, with cheerful irresponsibility, helping herself liberally to sugar and cream.
My interest grew. Curiosity I regard as the lowest of the vices, but there are times when I am willing to admit that it is wonderfully seductive. I deliberately pursued the subject.
‘Didn’t you ask David what the words meant?’ I ventured.
‘No. Why should I?’ Berengaria laughed softly. ‘The punkah always went on again violently before I’d finished. What more could anyone want?’
Having once heard David abusing the ayah, I feared that Berengaria must have wounded those unfortunate punkah-wallahs in their tenderest feelings, besides abusing all their relations to the third and fourth generations. I hinted something of the kind to Berengaria.
‘Really,’ she said meditatively, as she poured herself out another cup of tea, ‘it never struck me that I might have been talking Billingsgate.’
‘Well,’ I said, not wishing to hurt Berengaria’s feelings, ‘I fancy it was hardly quite the language of the West End.’
‘I once knew a lady — I may say she was born in this country,’ said Berengaria, beginning a story in her delightful narrative style — ‘who sometimes called her syce a —’
But, unfortunately, this interesting reminiscence was cut short by the sudden announcement of Miss Proudfoot.
Berengaria expressed her disapproval of the interruption by a word that she had probably used in Hindustani to the punkah-wallahs. I am afraid I looked shocked. I object to the use of slang by ladies.
‘I wanted to talk to you,’ said Berengaria penitently, seeing my disapproval, and, of course, I straightway forgave her.
Berengaria got up to receive her guest. I took the opportunity to mop my heated brow.
Miss Proudfoot wore her usual meek, apologetic air and a new hat.
‘How are you, Empsey dear? I am glad to see you,’ said Berengaria unblushingly, as she embraced her.
‘You dear!’ was all Miss Proudfoot said, with a timid little bow towards me.
The words and the act were so simultaneous that an impartial observer might have thought they referred to the same person; but, of course, we knew what Miss Proudfoot meant.
‘Come and sit down here,’ said Berengaria, seating herself on the couch and patting the place beside her in an inviting way. ‘It’s ages since you’ve been to see me, dear, and I haven’t seen you lately at the club. What have you been doing?’
‘Oh, I feel the heat so dreadfully,’ said Miss Proudfoot, sinking on to the seat indicated with an involuntary glance of horror at the place where the punkah ought to be.
It was evident she hadn’t known beforehand of Berengaria’s latest little idiosyncrasy.
‘I cannot understand how it is that people feel the hot weather so,’ Berengaria said, as she poured Miss Proudfoot out a cup of tea.
Miss Proudfoot, however, hastily refused tea, murmuring again of the heat.
‘Now, I’m perfectly cool,’ continued Berengaria, drinking the fresh cup of tea herself — I’m not quite sure, but I think it was her fifth.
And the wonder was that she looked cool. Dressed in something white and simple, she was a refreshing picture of coolness and repose. At least I thought so, but Miss Proudfoot confided to me afterwards that the sight of Berengaria only made her all the hotter by contrast.
‘If there’s one thing I do hate,’ Berengaria rattled on, not noticing our silence or distress, ‘it’s a hand punkah.’
Miss Proudfoot ventured to murmur that they did give a breeze, and I felt that I would have given all I possessed for a breath of one then, though I knew that to say so would have only excited Berengaria’s scorn.
‘A breeze indeed!’ Berengaria was saying in answer to Miss Proudfoot’s mild assertion.
‘More like a hurricane if they do by chance catch you in the right place. And then Heaven help your hair and fringe! In two minutes your head looks as if it had been drawn through a briar bush.’
It was cruel talking of punkahs when there wasn’t one in the room. It was like talking of lifebuoys to a drowning man and never attempting to throw him one. I mopped my face again surreptitiously. Now, I suppose I ought not to say it of a lady, but, glancing up quickly, I confess I caught Miss Proudfoot doing the same with a tiny lace handkerchief. She saw that I saw, and got hotter than ever. I grew frightened that she might succumb to apoplexy, and moved my chair back as if tea were done. It couldn’t be worse, and there was just the chance that by this time it might be cooler outside.
‘Let me give you another cup,’ said Berengaria, poising the teapot in her hand.
I gasped out a negative. Another cup would certainly have given me apoplexy. To my horror Berengaria poured herself out more tea! I hope I’m not exaggerating, but to the best of my belief it was her seventh cup. And she still looked cool! Berengaria, as I have often remarked, was no ordinary woman.
Miss Proudfoot and I afterwards agreed that we never knew how we sat through the five minutes that Berengaria took to drink that last cup. She seemed to linger over it, as we anxiously watched her. All the while she talked delightfully, but unfortunately we were not in a condition to appreciate the sparkling gems of wit that fell from her lips.
‘And some people say they cannot do without a punkah,’ she ended her recital triumphantly, putting down her cup at last, and moving away from the table. Then I think she must have caught sight of my face. If it looked anything like what it felt, it must have looked flushed and damp. ‘You don’t mean to say that you do feel the heat?’ she asked in a tone of hurt surprise.
I murmured something unintelligibly, for just then I was forced to mop my face again, whether Berengaria was looking or not. I’m sure she saw, from the scornful tone of her next speech.
‘You men drink such a lot, that’s why you feel the heat,’ she said.
Now, that was the unkindest blow of all from a lady who had just drunk seven cups of tea. I mopped my face again. My collar lay in a damp mass round my neck, and I was a prey to prickly heat. I think Berengaria divined and relented.
‘I suppose it’s because you’ve been up in the hills,’ she said. ‘Come into the veranda if you really do feel the heat. There’s a punkah there.’
I rose with alacrity and a sigh of infinite relief to follow Berengaria into the veranda.
‘Isn’t it awful?’ gasped Miss Proudfoot as she passed me.
‘Talk about a Turkish bath,’ I murmured hoarsely, mopping my face freely behind the ladies’ backs.
‘When I saw the punkah in that veranda,’ Miss Proudfoot confided to me afterwards, ‘I thought I should have died.’
‘When I saw the punkah in that veranda,’ I acknowledged, returning Miss Proudfoot’s confidence, ‘I knew what the feelings of the fox must have been at the stork’s dinner-party.’ That punkah in Berengaria’s veranda was only four feet long by one and a half deep. I know, because I measured it out of curiosity while Berengaria had gone to put on her hat. It seems incredible, and I should scarcely dare to make the statement if I hadn’t Miss Proudfoot’s word to back me up. Every one will tell you that Miss Proudfoot has never been accused of imagination, or of deviating from minute and exact truthfulness by so much as a hair’s breadth. Had she not once with unwonted intrepidity pulled Berengaria up short when the latter was discoursing about the riots, merely because she converted the one arrow that struck our tum-tum on that memorable night into fifty? Miss Proudfoot’s testimony is unassailable. Strong in her support, I am encouraged to make my next statement about that punkah, incredible as it may seem. It hung six feet six inches from the ground! I know, because I stood underneath it to measure. I’m just six feet, and there were at least six inches between the bottom of that punkah and the top of my head. You could just feel a breath of air from it if you sat in a certain spot on the right side. Everywhere else you had to be content with seeing it flap aimlessly somewhere up in the roof.
‘Will you drive me to tea with Mrs. Lovejoy to-morrow afternoon?’ asked Berengaria, as she came back ready for the club. ‘She has asked a few people to tea to see the new house, and told me to be sure and bring you if you were back.’
Mrs. Lovejoy was the wife of a planter and man of many trades, whose money had been made in the good old days, and who had just built a fine two-storied house at the end of the station.
‘I must start early, though, as I’ve promised to be at a meeting at the padre’s at five o’clock,’ Berengaria said as she buttoned up her gloves. ‘So be sure you are here at half-past three.’
Of course, if Berengaria wanted to start at that abnormal hour on a hot day, it was not for me to say ‘no.’ I groaned in spirit, but arrived punctually on the following afternoon.
Berengaria looked cool and charming as she came down the veranda steps. She read appreciation of her new dress and hat in my face.
‘I’m so glad you like my new hat,’ she said, as she got into the tum-tum.
‘I think it’s perfectly charming,’ I said enthusiastically.
‘I was half afraid it didn’t quite suit me,’ she said, with a glance and a smile in my direction.
Now, of course, Berengaria knew that that hat suited her to perfection, but, womanlike, she wanted to hear some one else say so.
‘I don’t think,’ I said deliberately, choosing my words, ‘that I have ever seen you looking so charming or so —’
‘Oh, do take care!’ cried Berengaria, blushing and looking pleased, but creating a diversion.
‘You very nearly ran over that child.’
Now I knew Berengaria’s nerves were in good order, and that many children had had much closer shaves than that from the wheels of our tum-tum before. Womanlike she had induced a compliment, and then cut it short half way. But I knew that she would return to the charge, and meant to hear the whole of that compliment later on.
It was evident as we drove up to the Lovejoys’ that we were early. The house had that shut-up, all-asleep look that most Indian houses have in the afternoon during the hot weather. A chaprassie lay full length in a shady corner, and not another sign of life was to be seen save a punkah-wallah lazily pulling the punkah of an upstairs room. I helped Berengaria out of the tum-tum, and she passed on up the steps into the veranda, while I turned to give some directions to the syce. Suddenly I heard Berengaria’s voice uplifted in unmistakably angry tones.
‘Oh, how dare you!’ I caught the words spoken in a kind of breathless, staggered amazement. ‘Oh, how dare you!’
I turned in surprise and alarm, and ran quickly up the steps.
Berengaria was standing in a threatening manner over the punkah-wallah a little further along the veranda.
‘Oh, how dare you!’ she repeated again, stamping her foot. It seemed as if further speech failed her.
I looked on in astonished surprise, trying to grasp the situation. The punkah-wallah, with a frightened look, was crouching on the ground, and the punkah-rope hung loose in his hand.
He had quite forgotten his present duties in alarm at the sudden apparition of this wrathful memsahib.
‘Don’t you see!’ Berengaria cried, turning to me and pointing at him fiercely with her parasol. ‘Don’t you see! That’s my night punkah-wallah!’
Then I understood the cause of Berengaria’s wrath. The night punkah-wallah she had engaged the day before was the Lovejoys’ day punkah-wallah.
‘That’s why you went to sleep at least a dozen times last night. You budmash!’ hissed Berengaria, fairly beside herself with rage, and swinging her parasol threateningly in the air.
I swung round quickly and took an interest in the palms and crotons. If the Deputy Commissioner memsahib should be had up for marpit, I thought it just as well to be able to swear that I hadn’t seen it.
Then, all in a twinkling, as I looked the other way, it happened. An irate voice from above — I recognised it as Mr. Lovejoy’s — demanded in no complimentary language why the punkah had stopped again. There was the rapid sound of a jhilmil flung back and the sharp splash of a volume of water through the air. I turned round in horror, just in time to catch a glimpse of an empty jug and a livid, horrified face at the window above, and the whole force of the water descending straight as a die on Berengaria’s head. Simultaneously the parasol descended on the back of the punkah-wallah and the contents of the jug on the Deputy Commissioner memsahib.
With a faint shriek Berengaria jumped back. For a moment she was dazed; then, in a flash, as she caught sight of her soaked, bedraggled garments, she realised her awful fate.
‘Quick!’ she gasped. ‘Take me home! No one must see me like this.’
I sprang down the steps to recall the tum-tum. Fortunately, the horse had not been unharnessed, and in two minutes we were speeding down the drive on our way home.
‘Drive quickly,’ said Berengaria, putting up the pale blue sunshade, that fortunately had escaped the deluge. ‘I must get home and change and back again as soon as I can.’
I admired Berengaria’s courage. It was soon destined to receive a shock. Just at the gates we met the Rudest Woman in Asia driving in. Berengaria cowered under the pale blue sunshade.
‘What! Are you just goin’ away?’ cried the Rudest Woman, peering suspiciously under the lowered parasol as the tum-tum flashed past.
Fortunately, there was no time to answer, but the thought of the Rudest Woman’s triumph if the story of her humiliation should be regaled to her at tea made Berengaria furious.
‘Stop!’ she cried to me as we swung round a corner of the road just out of sight of the house. ‘Quick, have you got a pencil and a scrap of paper?’
I drew up by the side of the road, and fortunately had both. Berengaria scribbled something on a loose sheet of my pocket-book, folded it up, and addressed it to Mr. Lovejoy. The syce took it, with many hurried instructions as to the method of its delivery, and to waste no time. What Berengaria said in that note I never knew, but the story of that little scene in the veranda never got abroad. We sat in the tum-tum waiting for the syce’s return.
‘I suppose my hat’s ruined,’ said Berengaria dolefully, yet with an appealing look at me to say it wasn’t.
I looked at it doubtfully. That chiffon confection I had so much admired not an hour ago hung, limp and feeble, all askew.
‘Oh no!’ I said hastily, catching Berengaria’s eye, as I surveyed it. I felt that anything was better than the truth just then. ‘It will be all right when it’s dry,’ I added hopefully.
Berengaria looked relieved, evidently giving me credit for greater truthfulness than I deserved. I glanced furtively at that hat again. It was perfectly hopeless. I felt glad I should not be near when its owner looked in the glass again.
Fortunately, the syce returned before Berengaria was able to demand further sacrifices of truth on my part. I devoted all my attention to driving back to the house in record time. Berengaria was unwontedly silent. Almost before I had pulled up she had jumped out and run up the veranda steps.
‘I won’t be five minutes,’ she said, as she disappeared inside the bungalow.
I had my doubts, however, and installed myself carefully on exactly the right spot beneath the tiny veranda punkah. I had had bitter experience before now of Berengaria’s idea of five minutes — especially when putting on a hat was concerned. And unless I was greatly mistaken, there would be something more than that needed now. Berengaria’s hair, I must confess, had looked strangely damp and straight.
But to my infinite surprise she was back again, trim and smart in another bewitching hat and costume, in something very little, if at all, over the five minutes. I made a mental note of that. It proves that ladies, if they like, need not keep their husbands and other people waiting when it’s time to go out. I mean to remember this instance to confront my own wife with — if, indeed, I ever decide to have one.
I drove back rapidly again so that we might not be noticeably late. We arrived in excellent time. Only half a dozen people were there before us, prominent among whom was the Rudest Woman in Asia and the new Commissioner Sahib, whom Berengaria had described after their first meeting as an ‘unwashed-looking little man who wore pince-nez and frayed trousers.’ Berengaria sailed in gracefully, though I knew she was in a state of terror lest her adventure might have leaked out. I saw at once from the Rudest Woman’s face that we were safe so far, and with a sigh of relief sat down in the background to talk to Miss Proudfoot. It was then that we confided in one another our bitter experiences of the previous afternoon in Berengaria’s punkah-less drawing-room. Suddenly to my horror I heard some one across the room mention the word punkah-wallah too. A glance, however, at Berengaria’s face reassured me. She herself had led up to the subject, she confessed to me afterwards. She said she had felt irresistibly drawn to talk of punkah-wallahs — partly to see if her terrible adventure were known.
‘I once knew of an engagement that was broken off owing to a punkah-wallah,’ Berengaria was saying.
‘Oh!’ I said, looking round quickly, as I felt Berengaria’s imagination was running away with her. ‘You make a mistake: I hadn’t proposed.’
‘But you almost had,’ urged Berengaria, as if pleading with me not to deprive the story of half its interest.
‘I had made up my mind to do it next day,’ I admitted.
‘Oh, how interesting!’ murmured Miss Proudfoot.
‘And I’ve always thought,’ said Berengaria, ‘that you’ve never told me quite all the story.’ The Rudest Woman stopped ‘making up violently to the new Commissioner,’ as some people put it, and thrust in her word.
‘Do tell us all about it,’ she said; and Miss Proudfoot murmured, ‘Yes, do.’
‘Well it was like this,’ I began, as I saw they expected to hear the story. ‘It is all so long ago, and the lady, now happily married at home, used to tell the tale herself, so that I don’t feel any compunction in relating the circumstances.’ I copied that style of beginning a story from Berengaria. She always had the knack of exciting curiosity at the start, which, as she said, was half the battle. I was rewarded by a rustle of expectation round the room and a look of interest on every face.
‘I was staying with the lady’s family,’ I went on, ‘and had been out to a bachelor’s dinner at the club, returning home about eleven o’clock.’
‘Extraordinarily early for a bachelor dinner,’ murmured the Rudest Woman.
‘As it happened,’ I continued, ignoring the interruption, ‘every one had gone to bed, and not a servant was to be seen in the veranda.’
‘You don’t mean to say,’ exclaimed the Rudest Woman, ‘that you couldn’t find your room?’
‘No,’ I said with a touch of hauteur, annoyed at these repeated interruptions. ‘It was my punkah-wallah that was not to be found. It was impossible to sleep on a baking hot night such as that without a punkah. I couldn’t call out and wake the whole house at that time of night, and a search round the dark veranda was only productive of two punkah-wallahs, both at work pulling at different rooms at either end of the house. I could think of nothing else to do, so, in a rash moment, I took the rope from the hands of one of them, and sent him off to find my punkah-wallah, with strict injunctions to hurry back. The man ran off, and I stood pulling the punkah. It was rather amusing at first, and I pulled so strongly and vigorously that I felt the individual inside, if awake, must be wondering at the sudden energy.’
‘What a joke one might have had!’ said the Rudest Woman; and Miss Proudfoot murmured,
‘It came to be something more than a joke,’ I said, ‘as I went on pulling and pulling, and the wretched man I had sent off didn’t return. It grew horribly monotonous, and my arm began to ache badly. I felt tired and sleepy, and in a weak moment I sat down on the punkah-wallah’s box. I suddenly realised that I was absolutely at the man’s mercy. What if he didn’t come back at all! I should have to sit pulling that punkah all night! It seemed ages that he had been away. I distinctly remember nodding once or twice, and pulling myself together, and then nothing more until I awoke to a whack on the head and an apparition in the doorway.’
‘Who was it?’ asked Miss Proudfoot breathlessly.
‘It was a lady,’ I said hesitatingly.
‘The lady,’ murmured Berengaria.
‘What! Not the one you were going to propose to next day?’ gasped Miss Proudfoot.
‘Oh, how interesting!’
There was a pause. I’m sure every one wanted to hear more, but was afraid of showing undue curiosity. The Rudest Woman maintained her reputation for intrepidity.
‘What did she look like?’ she asked.
The question took me by surprise.
‘Oh, something white and lacy,’ I stammered uncertainly.
Berengaria blushed, but the Rudest Woman evidently wanted to hear more.
‘And you didn’t propose next day?’ she said.
Again there was a pause. Again it was broken by the Rudest Woman.
‘Won’t you tell us why?’
I hesitated. Berengaria stepped into the breach.
‘He has been known to say that one taste of that lady’s shoe and tongue was enough,’ she answered for me.
‘Was that all?’ asked the Rudest Woman, in a tone of evident disappointment.
‘Her language was rather strong, even to a punkah-wallah,’ I pleaded.
‘And the shoe hurt?’
‘It was an extremely well-directed blow,’ I admitted, ‘and, I fear, showed unmistakable signs of previous practice.’
‘I don’t believe that’s all,’ said the Rudest Woman, unconvinced.
I felt I was being pushed too far, and rose to put down my cup.
‘That’s all I’ve ever heard,’ murmured Berengaria, looking up at me doubtfully.
‘I’m sure that’s not all,’ exclaimed the Rudest Woman confidently.
There was an effective pause. I kept my eyes on the ground. The pause grew prolonged. I felt that it was the moment to speak.
‘She wore what little hair she had in curlpapers,’ I confessed.
Miss Proudfoot moved uneasily.
‘That really is all,’ I added hastily.
But Berengaria blushed again, and rose to go. As we passed out, I caught one last sentence from the Rudest Woman in Asia’s lips.
‘Only to think,’ she was exclaiming ambiguously to the new Commissioner — ‘only to think that that might happen to oneself any night!’
Teazer was a name well known in Slumpanaggur. But the animal that answered to it was seldom seen in public. Only occasionally one caught glimpses of her being taken for a quiet ‘roll’ along unfrequented roads. Once it had not been so, and Teazer for a brief space had been much in evidence and in high favour.
‘She’s the most delightful lady’s mount I’ve ever had,’ I remember Berengaria saying in her enthusiastic way, almost the first time I met her. But their acquaintance was scarcely more than a week old then, and I am sure that opinion was retracted a week later, though Berengaria was never known to refer to the subject again in public.
Teazer was a neat little country-bred mare that Berengaria had brought with her to Slumpanaggur, having purchased her only a few days before through an advertisement. In appearance she was all that could be desired, and after riding her once, I felt inclined to endorse Berengaria’s enthusiastic eulogiums.
‘There is only one thing I don’t quite like about her,’ Berengaria had said, after riding her two or three times. ‘Have you noticed how she puts her ears right back and keeps them there all the time? I always think she is going to kick, but as she never attempts to do anything of the kind, I suppose it’s only a harmless habit of hers.’
So Teazer lulled all suspicions in Berengaria’s mind by her apparently exemplary behaviour. But that only made the catastrophe the more unexpected and humiliating when it came.
It was the first Sunday morning ride that Berengaria had ever been with us that the dire event happened. It was a particularly big meet that morning, nearly the whole station turning up. Berengaria was in great form at the start, praising up Teazer and being introduced to the people she had not previously met. But I soon noticed, what Berengaria apparently didn’t at first, that Teazer showed signs of unwonted excitement, and her ears lay farther back than ever. Berengaria, however, couldn’t fail to become aware of it before long, for Teazer refused to stand still, and wheeled around in a way that broke up her animated conversations with new acquaintances. So she walked her round the group of riders to try and quiet her, and finally drew up again near me. But there was no making the animal stand still, and I could see Berengaria was a bit uncomfortable.
‘I’ve never taken her out with a lot of other horses before,’ she said, as if to justify her previous praise, ‘and I expect so many have rather excited her at the start.’
Just then, to Berengaria’s distinct relief, we moved off. But Teazer was still troublesome, and jumped about and pulled hard to get on ahead. Once she gave out a nasty kick, and only just missed the Doctor’s fiery little steed, which naturally resented such treatment, and caused its fiery little rider to swear beneath his breath. Berengaria grew more uncomfortable. Added to the physical discomfort of the mare’s kicks and plunging, there was the humiliation of knowing that the whole station saw her difficulties with the animal, whose excellent behaviour she had so much praised.
But it was not till we got on the open diara land that the final catastrophe came. Teazer began jumping about with renewed energy, and kicked out at any horse within reach. Then I think Berengaria lost her temper, and she gave the mare a good hard cut with her riding-crop, and that was the beginning of the end. Teazer resented that cut, and she had her full revenge. With a plunge that almost unseated Berengaria, she darted forward ahead of the other riders, and when pulled up, she threw back her head and stood on her hind-legs till a crash appeared inevitable. Berengaria clung on nobly, and had the presence of mind to leave the reins slack, and so the worst possible accident was avoided. But the next moment the unfortunate Berengaria lay on the ground, while the mare, with a playful parting kick, was careering across the diara as hard as heels could carry her.
Poor Berengaria was very dazed and dishevelled when we jumped down to her assistance, and it was a few minutes before she realised the bitterness of her humiliation. Most of the field considerately moved off in pursuit of the rapidly disappearing Teazer, and the ride that morning developed into an exciting chase for the runaway. Some one had gone for a trap, and Berengaria, bruised and angry, awaited it beneath a tree on the edge of the diara. So the home-coming from her first big ride in Slumpanaggur was humiliating, and henceforward Teazer was in the direst disgrace.
It was not till six months later that I ever heard Berengaria mention Teazer’s name again. And then it was only to express her intention of getting rid of her. I think she had had a certain idea that it wasn’t quite dignified to get rid of her directly after the famous fiasco, but she had got tired of keeping her for nothing by the end of six months.
‘I think I shall advertise Teazer,’ she said to me one morning; ‘it’s no use my keeping her, so I shall sell her if I can, and buy another. I don’t think anyone in the station wants a horse, so I must advertise her.’
I didn’t think that anyone who knew Teazer would buy her, but, of course, I didn’t say so.
‘If you will help me, we will write out the advertisement now,’ she said, as usual, losing no time when she had set her mind on anything. So she crossed over to the writing-table and settled herself to begin.
‘Let me see, how does one start?’ she said as she took up a pen. ‘I’ve never advertised a horse before.’
‘Well, one generally begins with description, height, etc.,’ I said.
‘Oh yes, of course,’ said Berengaria, starting to write with great energy. ‘Brown mare —’
‘I think you had better be a little more explicit and say “light bay,”’ I ventured to suggest.
‘All right,’ said Berengaria, making an erasion with a flourish; ‘perhaps “light bay” does look better. Well, what next?’
‘Her height?’ I asked.
‘Fourteen hands,’ wrote Berengaria. ‘By the way,’ she added, suddenly looking up, ‘I wish I had kept the advertisement I bought her from; it looked most wonderfully attractive, and I thought I had got a prize.’
Of course, that wasn’t actually saying so, though it was tantamount to it, that she would have reproduced that advertisement if she had had it. I looked sadly at Berengaria, and began to grow anxious as to what I should be called upon to corroborate in the present advertisement.
‘Light bay mare, 14 hands,’ read Berengaria, starting again on a clean sheet of paper.
‘You might just mention somewhere that she’s a country-bred,’ I added.
‘Light bay, country-bred mare, 14 hands,’ she repeated, making further erasions, and then pausing with her pen in the air for further suggestions.
‘What about her age?’ I asked.
‘Heaven only knows!’ said Berengaria. ‘I can’t remember what the advertisement said — not that one could put much faith in that, though.’
‘If you are not certain,’ I said, ‘you had better write “aged.”’
‘Oh, but that looks so dreadfully old!’ said Berengaria, ‘and she would never be sold. Couldn’t I put her down as six or seven?’
‘I think she’s older than that,’ I ventured. It was the first point where that advertisement and truth threatened to part company, and I determined to make a stand at the outset.
‘Very well, I’ll say “nine,”’ she said, writing it down hastily as if she feared I might protest further. It was a compromise; but I remembered once being told that if you were asked the age of a horse and couldn’t tell, and wanted to pretend you could, ‘nine’ was always a safe age to say. So I thought that might pass. ‘Now,’ said Berengaria, thoughtfully resting the end of her pen against her chin and looking at me rather doubtfully, ‘I suppose we shall have to say something about her accomplishments.’
‘Yes,’ I said. It was Berengaria’s turn to make suggestions now. I would confine myself to keeping them as near the facts as possible.
‘Goes in both saddles,’ she wrote. ‘I can say that, can’t I?’
There suddenly flashed across my mind a picture of a young married couple, with strictly limited means, tempted by that alluring ‘goes in both saddles.’ Of course, they couldn’t afford two horses, and here was the very thing for them — one that they could ride alternately, and so each get exercise. I felt sorry when I thought of the bitter disappointment in store for that innocent and beguiled young couple. Yet what could I do? That brute Teazer did, in a way, go in both saddles. So Berengaria had the letter of the law on her side, and I couldn’t very well object.
‘Fast, easy paces, good-looking,’ proceeded Berengaria, writing it all down and never giving me a chance of putting in a word. ‘And now what about the price?’
‘What do you think?’ I asked, seeing I was expected to say something.
‘Well, we gave four hundred rupees for her, you know.’ Berengaria paused and looked at me.
I remained discreetly silent, refusing to be drawn.
‘What do you say to my advertising her for the same amount?’ she asked at last.
‘You know best what you think she’s worth,’ I said diplomatically.
‘Of course, I should never have given four hundred rupees for her if I had only known her,’ she admitted frankly. Having been swindled seemed to have blunted Berengaria’s conscience. She had no hesitation whatever in trying to swindle some one else.
‘I think you would have more chance of selling her if you put the price lower,’ I said, my mind still dwelling on that unfortunate, impecunious young married couple.
‘Well, I suppose the animal is a dead loss anyway,’ she replied despondently. ‘I’ve kept her for the last six months — four seers a day — and she’s done absolutely nothing.’
‘Buying a horse from an advertisement is always a risk,’ I said, thinking of the present no less than of the past.
‘It’s a terrible sacrifice,’ said Berengaria, ‘but I’ll let her go for three hundred.’
It was a great concession. After all, that newly-married couple wouldn’t lose so very much even if they could make no use of the horse, and, of course, they could always advertise her again, as Berengaria was doing, if they were not too innocent.
‘There,’ said Berengaria, as she wrote out a fully corrected copy of the advertisement, ‘no one could say that that’s not a correct description of the mare. Some people have absolutely no conscience in advertising a horse for sale.’
I looked up quickly at Berengaria, but it was evident that the sins of omission in that advertisement did not weigh upon her mind. Her conscience, at least, was easy, and I half envied her its elasticity. And, after all, the affairs of that newly- married couple were none of my business. Like other people, they must learn from bitter experience.
I was almost as curious as Berengaria was anxious to know the fate of that advertisement. It was to be inserted three times, and duly appeared, but the three days passed and there was no sign of a reply. Berengaria grew despondent.
‘That mare seems determined to be nothing but a worry and expense,’ she said crossly. ‘I ought to have made the advertisement more attractive.’
But the next day an answer had come, and I found Berengaria most hopeful. She showed me the letter at once. This was evidently no ingenuous young married couple, but rather the shrewd, business-like reply of a man who knew something about horses. I felt immensely relieved. My protégés were spared this disappointment at least. I knew the man by name, too. He was distinctly ‘horsey,’ and prided himself on his successful deals in horseflesh. So there was no need here for my sympathy.
‘I suppose you have replied to him?’ I asked, as I read again the list of questions he had asked, and wondered how Berengaria had managed to answer them. Some of them were distinctly awkward, considering Teazer’s character, and I was curious enough to hope that she would show me her reply; but I was disappointed.
‘Oh yes,’ she said; ‘I wrote off to him at once and told him all about the mare.’
How she could have told him all about the mare and still hope he would buy her was a riddle impossible to solve. But I was used by this time to the vagaries of Berengaria’s conscience.
Two days later I went round to the Deputy Commissioner’s. I found Berengaria jubilant. Teazer had been purchased by telegraph and sent off to his new owner that very morning. Berengaria’s joy was quite unbounded. In getting rid of Teazer she had got rid not only of a useless burden and expense, but, what was even more important, of a constant reminder of her great humiliation.
‘Now you must help me look about for another horse,’ she cried gaily, ‘and I’ll take good care I get a decent one this time.’
She was evidently determined to be duly cautious this time, for three months passed, and though there had been much talk of various horses, no purchase had been made. The cold weather, however, was coming on, and Berengaria suddenly renewed her energy, and said she must have a horse without delay.
‘I really think I’ll try an advertisement again,’ she said to me one day, taking up the daily paper and turning to the advertisement column. ‘Surely some of these must be good, especially where people give their names.’ Berengaria, by the way, had not attached her name to her advertisement.
We read down the list together and found two that really looked most suitable, with every qualification Berengaria wanted. They were both mares, one a bay, the other a grey, and she wrote off about them at once. Replies came from each of their owners two days later, and we held a consultation. They both seemed most satisfactory, and it was hard indeed to decide between them. About the only point in favour of the grey was that the owner had had her for two years, whereas the owner of the bay had only purchased her a month ago, and was now selling as he was ordered to another part of India unexpectedly. The price in each case was four hundred and fifty rupees.
‘I think I must be safe in getting either one of these, don’t you?’ said Berengaria hopefully.
‘The letters certainly seem straightforward enough, though you never can tell,’ I answered, determined not to be in any way responsible for advice in case of accident.
‘Well, I’ll risk it,’ she said, ‘and trust that these people have not parted with their consciences in their desire to part with their horses. Which shall it be, grey or bay?’
‘There really seems very little to choose, the accounts of both are so good,’ I said. ‘You haven’t taken a particular fancy for either?’
‘I can’t decide,’ she answered. ‘I tell you what I’ll do: I’ll toss’ — taking a rupee out of her purse. ‘Heads bay, tails grey.’
The coin spun in the air and came down — heads. So the matter was decided, and a telegram despatched accepting the bay. Berengaria’s excitement and interest in the new horse were great, and she asked me to tea on the third day, so that I might be there when it arrived, the train from up country getting in at four o’clock. A syce had been sent to meet the train, and we had finished tea and were sitting in the veranda awaiting the arrival.
‘It will be nice to have a good horse again,’ said Berengaria, leaning back in her deck-chair with an air of anticipatory enjoyment. ‘It was a relief to get rid of that brute Teazer, and I do hope this one will turn out all right.’
‘Well, here it comes,’ I said, seeing a syce and horse just enter the other end of the long drive. Berengaria jumped up excitedly to watch its approach, and we stood together at the end of the veranda to get a good view. Somehow, as the horse drew nearer, I seemed to recognise something familiar about it. What it was I couldn’t at first quite tell, and then suddenly the awful truth dawned on me — it was Teazer! I turned hurriedly and looked at Berengaria. I saw incredulity slowly giving place to certainty and horror on her face as the truth was slowly borne in upon her. She had bought back Teazer, and for four hundred and fifty rupees!
But there I draw a veil over the humiliation of Berengaria.
There could be no possible manner of doubt about it that those children of Berengaria’s were spoilt. Though they were a great source of interest and an inexhaustible topic of conversation, they were a trifle exacting and undoubtedly palled at times. So after a winter in which I had seen rather more of them than usual, it was with no unmixed feelings that I saw them depart for the hills at the beginning of April.
Now there may be people who enjoy having their hair pulled suddenly and violently from behind. I envy them their placid disposition, but I’m not one of them. Fortunately, Berengaria kept those children pretty well restricted to the nursery and the charge of Miss Simpkin, the governess, and one only saw them occasionally at breakfast or for dessert after dinner, when one of them had a birthday or something of that kind. But woe betide one if by chance one came across them in the garden! There they seemed to have cast off the restrictions of the house, and their spirits ran riot. They acted wonderful scenes of adventure, and any unfortunate visitor — known or unknown to them, it was all the same — was eagerly welcomed as Man Friday or some such other horror. Now, I’m much too big to crouch behind bushes without being seen, let alone the discomfort of it, and I’m not rich enough to ruin a suit of clothes by crawling about on all fours very often, and I don’t like imitating the habits of a cannibal in any form. So I used to tread that garden stealthily with a view to immediate flight, but, of course, I was caught unawares sometimes.
The longest of hot weathers and rains come to an end at last, however, and the time arrived for Berengaria to go up to the hills to fetch the children home. Not that it was at all necessary for her to go and bring them down herself, as they were always accompanied by the faithful Miss Simpkin; but Berengaria had an idea that it looked nice and motherly to do so. Besides, ten days in the hills at that time of the year were not unpleasant, and I noticed that it always took ten days to get the children ready to come down.
I was waiting on the platform at the station to meet them, in response to an urgent wire from Berengaria — ‘Deputy Commissioner in camp; please meet us at station; much luggage.’ I felt uneasy about those last two words. I knew Berengaria’s weakness in that direction, and, with three children and a governess, I anticipated that the commissariat duties would be heavy.
At last the train came in sight, and there was no doubt whatever that it contained Berengaria and family. The three hopefuls were all leaning out of the window frantically waving flags in the shape of towels tied on the end of sticks and umbrellas. They were evidently expecting me, and hailed me with a shout as the train came in. Stuffy gave his flag a final flourish as he caught sight of me, with the result that the towel lost its hold on the umbrella, and, flying straight at me, twisted itself round my head as I stepped forward to open the carriage door. It was not the most pleasant of beginnings, and I’m afraid my welcome home to Stuffy was not very cordial.
‘How long does the train stop here?’ asked Berengaria anxiously, as she shook hands with me. I turned to the guard, who had just come up. ‘Three minutes,’ he said, looking suspiciously into Berengaria’s carriage, from which sundry strange cries were issuing.
‘The coolies will never get everything out in time. Do help me,’ she said, leaning through the window and holding out a parrot in a cage which was expressing strong disapproval of things in general.
‘But where’s Miss Simpkin?’ I asked, as I deposited Polly in a safe place on the top of a pile of boxes. I had seen no sign as yet of the faithful attendant who was usually very much in evidence on these occasions.
‘I’m very much afraid she’s left behind,’ said Berengaria, seizing on another cage, containing two excited cats which a coolie was hauling out of the carriage with unnecessary violence. ‘Stuffy insisted on her getting out to give his goat some milk at a station further up the line, and she hadn’t been gone a minute before the train moved off, though the stationmaster had assured us that we stopped there a quarter of an hour. We could see nothing of her on the platform, so, unless she managed to get into the horse-box with the goat, I’m afraid she is left behind.’
Stuffy chuckled as Berengaria related the story. He was free from Miss Simpkin’s control for at least one day, and it was early yet to think of her anger with him, as the cause of her being left behind, when she finally should reach home.
Meanwhile the coolies were still hauling out parcels of various shapes and sizes, trunks, and hat-boxes. I had always known that it was possible to take much luggage with one in the carriage; but Berengaria in this, as in many other things, had beaten the record. At last, however, the carriage was empty, and even the coolies smiled in answer to Berengaria’s anxious inquiry as to whether they were sure there wasn’t something more. The platform around us was hopelessly blocked, and Stuffy, Midget, and Dolly were adding to the confusion by teasing the cats and the parrot, and getting generally in the way. Fortunately, Berengaria wanted tea, so she consented to leave everything in charge of a chaprassi. The children, with the goat, the cats, and the parrot, and many small handbags and parcels, were safely installed in a ticca gharri, with many injunctions to the ayah to take care of them, and at last we were off.
Miss Simpkin arrived very cross and dishevelled the following afternoon. I happened to be in the veranda as she drove up.
‘Just my luck, meeting you when I’m in this state!’ she said, in her matter-of-fact way, as I helped her out. ‘I did hope I should escape being seen, for I know I must look a bit wild. Just imagine being left behind, with only a saucer of milk, at a horrid little wayside station, too, where there is nothing civilised to be got. Oh! I’ll never forgive Stuffy, never.’
Miss Simpkin certainly kept her word — if not for ever, at least for a long time. Stuffy was always in disgrace, and I overheard one or two very animated conversations between them. Stuffy, I am bound to say, always won. He would wait silently while Miss Simpkin lectured him and got rather angry; then, when she paused for breath, his time had come.
‘Please go and feed my goat,’ he would say, with a chuckle, and run away, leaving the enemy angry and discomfited.
The Deputy Commissioner’s was one of the few two-storied houses in Slumpanaggur, and the upper story was devoted to the children and Miss Simpkin. Berengaria paid them periodical visits, but she preferred to see them when they came down to breakfast, or when she took them out for a drive. She had her own views on the bringing up of children. ‘The less they see of you, the more they respect you,’ she said to me one day quite seriously. She was no doubt right, but it sounded rather quaint, and it didn’t seem to have struck her that it wasn’t very complimentary to herself.
It was not often that I was admitted to the nursery, but occasionally we paid it a surprise visit. Strange indeed were the things we sometimes stumbled upon there. At least one of the three was generally to be found in a special corner reserved for those in disgrace, and it seemed to be a point of honour with them to stand out the time of their punishment there, although left quite to themselves.
I remember once coming upon Midget in that corner. The room was empty, save for herself, but she was faithfully standing in the place of penance and singing in a plaintive little voice, ‘O Paradise! O Paradise! ’tis weary waiting here.’ Needless to say, after the amusement she had caused us, Midget was at once released from further ‘waiting,’ which, as Berengaria said, would naturally increase her faith in the efficacy of hymns.
Whatever may have been the case, however, with Midget after this, Stuffy certainly found the learning of hymns a trying task. It was one Sunday afternoon that we had gone up to the nursery, and Berengaria had sat down with Stuffy on her knee to try and teach him the verse of a hymn. He repeated the first line after her several times, but with marked disinclination and a tendency to wriggle off the unwonted post of honour on Berengaria’s knee. But the second line was altogether too much for him, and he succeeded in struggling down, saying, with a solemn little shake of his head as he ran off, ‘That’s much too pretty for me!’ So Stuffy escaped learning that hymn, at any rate for the present; but, as Berengaria said, he would probably learn to know the value of them later on, as Midget had done.
But it was Stuffy’s misdeed, just before he was sent home, that created the greatest sensation and became the talk, not only of Slumpanaggur, but of many another station far and near. The Lieutenant-Governor was paying his annual visit to Slumpanaggur, and was staying with the Deputy Commissioner and Berengaria, as Mrs. Commissioner was ill at the time. Berengaria had arranged a big dinner on the night of his arrival, and had set her heart upon its being a great success. But just as it was on the stroke of eight o’clock, and she was about to go down to the drawing-room, a foreign telegram was handed in to her. Opening it, she found it was for the Deputy Commissioner, announcing the sudden death of his father at home. Berengaria ran in at once to the Deputy Commissioner, and broke the news to him. What was to be done? Could the dinner possibly be put off? But that question was quickly decided by the arrival of the first of the guests, and the result of a hurried consultation between Berengaria and the Deputy Commissioner was that the dinner must proceed and the news not be announced till the following morning. Neither of them in the excitement of the moment noticed Stuffy, who had come down to see ‘Daddy’ shave, and who throughout the hurried conversation had been seated on the bed, eagerly taking in every word.
Berengaria just told me what had happened as we went into the drawing-room, and asked me to help them get through the dinner as cheerfully as possible. Everything went well till dessert came, and with it the arrival of Stuffy. Now, Stuffy had made great friends with the Lieutenant-Governor in the earlier part of the day, and had got him to ask Berengaria to allow him to come down to dessert — an honour that Stuffy always especially coveted and enjoyed. He was very proud of being allowed to come on such an important occasion, and was in great form as he sat between Berengaria and the Lieutenant-Governor. He worked havoc with a plate of crystallised fruits, and would have finished a plate of chocolates if Berengaria had not stopped him. Stuffy was very angry at not being allowed to have as much as he wanted.
‘I want more,’ he said indignantly.
‘No, no!’ said Berengaria; ‘you’ve had quite enough.’
‘I want more!’ he repeated, his temper rapidly rising.
‘I’ve told you once,’ whispered Berengaria, ‘you’ve had quite enough for to-night.’
‘All right, then,’ said Stuffy, looking up at her meaningly and threateningly, ‘I’ll tell.’
Berengaria looked at him wonderingly.
‘I’ll tell!’ he repeated with more determination than ever — ‘I’ll tell!’
Just then someone addressed Berengaria, and she turned away to answer. Stuffy folded his hands on the table and looked round expectantly. I could see that he was waiting his opportunity for something, and wondered what the little villain was up to. Suddenly there was a more or less general pause in the conversation. Stuffy’s time had come. Straightening himself in his chair, he looked at Berengaria.
‘I said I’d tell, and so I will,’ he said, in a voice so loud that it produced an immediate hush of expectation. That was just what he wanted, and, looking all round the table, with his folded hands beating time, as it were, to a kind of chant, he began: ‘Grandpa’s dead! Grandpa’s dead! Grandpa’s dead!’
The consternation and confusion that followed can be better imagined than described. Stuffy’s departure home was hastened with all speed, and within a month Slumpanaggur knew him no more.
‘I have ordered a cookery-book,’ Berengaria suddenly announced one morning, as we wandered round the garden superintending the malis at work.
Berengaria wore an old pair of the Commissioner’s gloves, and carried a huge pair of scissors. I carried a basket and felt unhappy with it, as a man always does when he has anything more cumbrous to carry than a walking-stick or a neatly rolled umbrella.
At the mere mention of that cookery-book I somehow scented danger, and tried to keep Berengaria’s attention on the flowers. They, at least, were harmless, though they did rather lose their beauty for me when I had to carry them round in a basket.
‘It ought to arrive by this morning’s post,’ she continued, not to be put off by my apparent want of sympathy. ‘I have got so tired of the everlasting Indian dishes — murghi curry, murghi cutlets, murghi roast, murghi boiled — that I felt I must get a cookery-book and make something new.’
‘Have you ever gone in for cookery before?’ I ventured to ask, toying nervously with a rose and mindful of former bitter experiences when Berengaria had started doing things she had never done before.
‘No, never. That will make it so interesting,’ she answered gaily, snipping off the head of a zinnea that had grown too tall, and throwing it into the basket I carried.
Just at that moment I happened to glance up, and there was a post-office peon coming down the gravel path. He was obviously bringing something by book-post. There could be no possible manner of doubt that it was the cookery-book. Now, Berengaria had not seen the peon yet, and I quickly stepped behind her as she bent over a flower-bed and tried to wave him away. I had no desire to meet that cookery-book with Berengaria in her present frame of mind. If I could only wave the peon back towards the house, I might make some hasty excuse to get away, leaving Berengaria to examine that cookery-book and exhaust her first enthusiasm over it alone. So I waved frantically to the peon while he was yet a long way off. He hesitated for a moment in his onward course, mutely holding out the inevitable little bit of yellow paper that always insists on asserting itself for signature with every parcel. I tried to signal to him: ‘Go away. Not now. I’m busy. Go to the house.’ I flattered myself I was succeeding. The peon half turned round, on the very point of retreating.
Then suddenly I was recalled by a little shriek from Berengaria. I glanced round quickly and guiltily. She was staring with a look of fascinated horror at my feet. With a horrid sense of something wrong I looked down timidly. I was standing, firmly planted, in the middle of a flower-bed. In my anxiety to get behind Berengaria in order to signal to the peon, I had not noticed where I stepped, and the basket I was carrying hid much of the ground below. Now I found myself ruthlessly crushing at least five zinneas and as many balsams. I am bound to admit that my feet are rather large.
I hopped off the flower-bed as unconcernedly as I could, and began to shout loudly after that retreating peon. It was the only thing I could think of to divert Berengaria’s attention. Her face was a perfect note of surprised interrogation. I believe she thought I had suddenly taken leave of my senses.
‘I’m sure it’s the cookery-book,’ I said, with every pretence of excited interest I could muster, as the peon turned back again and came towards us down the path. ‘I’m so anxious to see it after what you have said,’ I added lamely, as Berengaria still regarded me doubtfully. I can quite believe I was looking a bit wild.
‘Well, I never knew you were so keen on cooking,’ she exclaimed at last. ‘You must help me to begin.’
I felt the toils already closing round me. Terrible visions of impossible viands and nightmares of indigestion rose up before my mind’s eye. But, at any rate, momentary embarrassment was avoided. Berengaria had forgotten all about the trampled flower-beds. At sight of the book in the peon’s hands she had dropped her scissors and hastily pulled off her gloves, throwing them carelessly on the grass.
‘What fun!’ she cried, all enthusiasm for the new distraction, as she signed the receipt. I stood helplessly by, still holding the basket of flowers, and cursing my ill-luck in having stepped on that flower-bed.
‘Now, come along to the veranda, and we will study the book at once and choose our first dish.’ Berengaria was already tearing off the cover as we moved towards the house. ‘Why, it looks quite appetising from the outside,’ she cried, displaying a delicate pale-green cover with a cook and a row of pots and pans most inappropriately stamped in gold.
Somehow, at first sight that book filled me with distrust. I may have been in a pessimistic frame of mind, or it may have been the prejudice of a mere man against something he knew nothing about; but I distinctly remember wondering at the time if the writer knew much more about cooking than Berengaria herself. I was filled with a vague foreboding. Into what tangled labyrinths and unintelligible details of culinary lore might not that innocent-looking green cover with the golden cook lead us?
I followed Berengaria across the garden towards the veranda, still carrying the basket half full of flowers, and the scissors and gloves I had collected from the ground, where their owner had discarded them.
‘Where shall I put these?’ I asked, as we reached the veranda steps.
‘Oh, throw them down anywhere. The mali will see to them,’ was Berengaria’s characteristic reply, the new interest now, as ever, thrusting out for the moment all thought of the old.
A gorgeous chaprassie in red and gold relieved me of them, and we settled ourselves in our accustomed seats at the end of the veranda.
‘“This is a book of simple recipes ”’ — Berengaria was reading from the preface — ‘“designed especially for those who have hitherto had little acquaintance with the culinary art.” Now, that sounds promising, does it not?’ she exclaimed cheerfully, looking up. ‘I wanted a book for a complete beginner, and I do believe I have hit upon the right one straight away.’
I devoutly hoped it might be as simple as it looked, but as yet I said nothing.
‘Let’s begin at the beginning,’ said Berengaria, settling herself down with pleased anticipation to the task, ‘and then, when we come to anything we particularly fancy, we can go and make it.’
Turning to the first page, she began to read aloud:
‘“How to boil a ham.” Oh, I don’t think I want to know how to do that!’ she said in a tone of hurt disappointment. ‘I always get my hams up from Bombay, and I don’t think it would be at all interesting to boil them oneself. Dear, dear!’ she went on, turning over several pages in a cursory sort of way, ‘there are no less than six pages about hams in various forms, and sausages, and things like that. I’ve no desire to make sausages.’
I grew hopeful. If there was much more about common things like hams and sausages, the chances were that Berengaria’s ardour for cookery might cool as suddenly as it had arisen. But she was too much in earnest to be lightly turned aside as yet.
‘“Scotch woodcock,”’ Berengaria read on, skipping whole pages now in the search for something interesting. ‘I don’t suppose there are any of those to be got round here, so that’s no use. “Potted pheasant, lobster, or liver.” Well, as we can’t get pheasant or lobster here, it would have to be liver, and I really can’t be bothered with liver. I can’t see anything I particularly fancy. “Pig’s cheek” — perfectly horrible. “Cow’s heel fried” — how ridiculous! “Reindeers’ tongues.” Now, I expect they would be delicious, but, of course, they are out of the question. “Boiled cod’s grounds.” What on earth are they? Ah! here’s something more like — “tea-cakes.” “Flour sixteen ounces, butter four to eight ounces. Add sufficient milk and roll the cakes thin. Bake in a pan or on tins in an oven.” Now, I believe I could make those, they look so simple.’
I had visions of heavy, lumpy tea-cakes, of which I should be expected to partake largely, and I determined to nip the idea of tea-cakes while yet it was young.
‘Your man makes such delicious ones,’ I ventured. ‘What I should like to try would be something we had never had before.’
Berengaria seemed rather struck with the idea.
‘Of course,’ she said; ‘you are quite right. That’s what I bought the book for — to lend a little variety to our miserably monotonous daily fare.’
She proceeded to turn over more pages, murmuring the name of a dish now and then as it arrested her attention — ‘muffin pudding,’ ‘mosaic cream,’ ‘whip syllabub,’ ‘Dutch jaunemange.’
We had evidently got to the sweets, and I felt more cheerful. I was only waiting for something simple like ‘boiled rice pudding’ or ‘stewed something or other ’ to declare my passionate devotion to it. But I hadn’t the remotest idea what the four things that Berengaria had just read out might be, so I dared not fix my choice on any of them.
‘“Croquettes de riz à la fleur d’orange,”’ read Berengaria. ‘Now, I like the look of that,’ she exclaimed, full of interest again. ‘It would look so well on a menu. Dear, dear, though, I am afraid it is rather complicated! The recipe occupies more than half a page.’
‘Yes, I think I had some once,’ I said hastily, ‘and I didn’t much care for it.’
To attempt a high-sounding thing like ‘croquettes de riz à la fleur d’orange,’ I felt, would be absurd for beginners. It would be simply courting disaster at the outset.
Glancing sideways over the page that Berengaria was reading, I saw the heading ‘Brandy Pudding.’ If only Berengaria would mention that, I thought, I would pin my faith to it right away. It sounded simple and sustaining, and though it might be a failure as a pudding, the brandy would save it from being utterly tasteless and unappetising.
‘“Brandy pudding,”’ read out Berengaria at last, to my intense delight.
I showed great animation.
‘Let’s try that,’ I said. ‘It sounds delicious.’
‘“A quarter of a pound of dried cherries, two French rolls, half a pound of macaroons, one glass of sherry, three eggs, half a lemon, one glass of brandy—”’
‘What kind of a glass?’ I interrupted, thinking it would take a good deal to make much impression on all that amount of ingredients.
‘It doesn’t say,’ answered Berengaria blankly.
‘That’s just like a cookery-book,’ I cried triumphantly. ‘I never yet came across one that could give you a simple direction simply.’
But I realised my mistake as soon as I had spoken. Berengaria felt bound to stand up for her particular cookery-book.
‘I never knew you had such an acquaintance with cookery-books,’ said Berengaria, looking up at me with a gleam of amusement in her eyes. ‘You will be a most invaluable help when we come to begin.’
At that I gave up. I had only become more deeply involved the more I had tried to escape. Moreover, I had quite lost faith in ‘brandy pudding.’ It was evidently one of those deceptive things that look more simple than they really are.
‘Ah! I have it,’ cried Berengaria after a moment’s silent turning of the leaves. ‘I know what we will make: a vanilla ice-cream!’
I confess that my mouth watered at the idea of that vanilla ice-cream. Berengaria’s mind, too, was evidently made up, though, out of a strict regard for truth, I am bound to confess that it was partly out of necessity. She had come to the last page of the book!
A kitmatghar, announcing breakfast, cut short Berengaria’s enthusiastic dissertation on the joys and merits of vanilla ice-creams.
‘What!’ she cried, ‘can it really be twelve o’clock? Why, we have spent the whole morning in discussing it.’
We got up to go in to breakfast.
‘Never mind, though,’ said Berengaria cheerfully, ‘we have decided on what we are going to make, and that’s something.’
I admitted that it was much, especially considering — though I didn’t say this to Berengaria — that we had had to wade right through the cookery-book to get to it.
The Deputy Commissioner, torn away from his beloved files by an insistent kitmatghar, hurried in to breakfast.
‘I am going to start cookery, dear,’ Berengaria said to him affectionately, patting the book which she had placed on the table beside her plate.
The Deputy Commissioner beamed across at her with his usual expression of extreme good nature and blissful absent-mindedness.
‘And I am going to begin by making a vanilla ice-cream,’ she announced triumphantly.
‘H’m!’ said the Deputy Commissioner in a sudden access of playfulness, and glancing up at her with a smile and a passing gleam of interest. ‘Do you call that cookery?’
Berengaria looked visibly hurt. The Deputy Commissioner saw at once that he had made a mistake, and that his wife’s cookery was not a subject for joking, and would need to be treated with respect.
‘A vanilla ice-cream,’ repeated Berengaria in a cold and dignified voice, as she helped herself to salad.
The Deputy Commissioner hastened to redeem his false step.
‘There is nothing I should enjoy more on a hot day like this,’ he said enthusiastically. Then, feeling that his peace was made, as Berengaria smiled once more and resumed the conversation, he forthwith relapsed into his accustomed dreamy unconsciousness of things present.
During breakfast, Berengaria issued manifold directions to the kitmatghar, consulting the cookery-book from time to time. Everything that could possibly be wanted for the making of a vanilla ice-cream was to be placed on a table in the side veranda by half-past four.
‘Tea at four o’clock,’ said Berengaria, as we rose from breakfast; ‘that will give us plenty of time to make the ice before dinner.’
I had fleeting doubts as to whether an ice at dinner was after all sufficient compensation for four hours’ hard labour, but, of course, I said nothing more to damp Berengaria’s ardour, and went off to enjoy a good siesta before the time came to begin the experiment.
It was not until twenty minutes past four, and after an urgent summons from the kitmatghar, that I appeared for tea. I found Berengaria looking businesslike in a neat white dress and a huge brown apron. She had already had tea, and was presiding at a big deal table that had been evidently moved in from the back veranda for the purpose. She looked beamingly happy and childishly important. Three white-robed kitmatghars hovered round with worried looks.
‘Help yourself to tea,’ said Berengaria, waving her hand towards the tea-table. ‘I have had mine, so hurry up and come and help. The vanilla ice-cream demands our whole attention.’
I watched Berengaria as I drank my tea. She made such a charming picture that I felt my prejudice against that pale-green cookery-book almost disappearing. Everything was in the neatest order and most artistic. Berengaria was busy moving a pretty glass ice-pail here and a beautiful china bowl there, putting spoons and a fork ready to hand, setting the silver sugar-basin handy, and eight nice brown eggs on a plate, while what I was soon to discover was the bain-marie — the only ugly object in the picture — stood beside her on the prettiest of three-legged stools, its ugliness carefully veiled in a neat frilled paper cover. Berengaria, looking her best in the simple costume she had donned for the occasion, was the presiding genius: the white-robed kitmatghars, flying hither and thither at her command in a state of evident excitement, formed the background.
Berengaria was so impatient to begin that I did not get half enough tea. I only mention it because it was a fact that I had such bitter cause to regret later on. Ever since that day I always make a point of letting nothing interfere with my tea. I know now, from my own experience, that much may happen in the few short hours that intervene between dinner and tea.
‘Now,’ said Berengaria, leaning back in her chair and surveying the neatly-ordered table before her with evident satisfaction, ‘at last we’re ready.’
I stood looking on, feeling rather helpless. How on earth our ice was to be produced out of eight eggs and so much sugar I couldn’t conceive. Yet those were all I could see in the shape of edibles on the table. I presumed, of course, that there was a plentiful supply of ice in the background; but however that, combined with eggs and sugar, could turn into an ice-cream stumped me at the outset. I suppose I did look a bit at sea, and I fear it annoyed Berengaria.
‘Do get a chair and sit down and look useful,’ she said, glancing up at me and catching sight of my expression. ‘Perhaps you would like an apron.’
I looked at Berengaria sharply. Did I catch a gleam of humour in her eyes, or was it only my imagination? I hastily declined an apron, and sat down on the opposite side of the table. Berengaria opened the now well-known cookery-book that lay within easy reach.
‘“This is a simple recipe for a delicious ice that will not be found expensive,”’ she read. I remember wondering if the writer referred only to mere pecuniary expenditure or also took into account the expenditure of time, energy, and temper.
‘“Mix the yolks of eight eggs well with a pint of fresh milk.”’ Berengaria laid down the book. ‘We’ll just take each sentence as it comes, and carry out the directions,’ she continued; ‘then we can’t possibly go wrong.’
I agreed that that certainly seemed a sensible and intelligent plan. As Berengaria said, we could hardly go astray if we carried out the instructions to the letter.
‘Now break the eggs,’ she said gaily, pushing them towards me, ‘while I pour out the milk.’
I thought that rather an unfair division of labour. I would much rather have poured out the milk, but it was soon evident that all the nasty, unpleasant, sticky work was to be done by me.
Now, my only excuse is that I had never broken an egg that way before, though I still maintain that it does require some practice to break an egg on the side of a basin with neatness and precision, especially when some one is watching you critically from the other side of the table. But I will say no more in self-defence. I will honestly confess that that first egg fell heavily in a nasty broken mess over the wrong side of the basin on to the nice, clean, white tablecloth. Of course there was a sensation. Berengaria started back and knocked over the bain-marie, while the three kitmatghars darted forward to my assistance, and between them upset the bowl of milk. I looked on in dismay, only dimly conscious of a secret hope that there might be no more milk to be had. But in a twinkling all was reduced to order again, and only the dark stain on the tablecloth remained to mark the disaster. The bain-marie was restored to its place on the stool, and Berengaria was pouring out another jug of milk, and I was nervously breaking another egg. I had suggested, after the first fiasco, that the kitmatghars might be allowed to do this menial work of breaking eggs, but Berengaria had vetoed my proposal.
‘I want to do everything ourselves,’ she said, which, being interpreted, of course meant that she wanted me to do everything myself.
However, the eggs were broken at last, and the yolks and whites properly separated. Eight nice little red yolks lay at the bottom of the bowl, and I surveyed my work with pride.
‘Now you must beat them up,’ said Berengaria.
I suddenly remembered that there were such things as egg-beaters. I had seen them advertised in catalogues. I looked round the table in a superior, intelligent sort of a way.
‘Where is the egg-beater?’ I asked.
‘Egg-beater!’ repeated Berengaria scornfully. ‘You use a fork, of course.’
I took the fork humbly and began to beat. My arm soon ached violently with the unaccustomed motion, yet, of course, nothing would have induced me to let Berengaria know that I felt tired. I should have had to stop, though, if she had not released me in the nick of time.
‘Stop, and let me look,’ she said.
I handed her the bowl, and she inspected it critically. She passed it back to me, and, according to her instructions, I beat gently while she poured in the milk. That done, Berengaria turned to the book for further instructions.
‘Strain it.’ That was easily done, though I was distinctly nervous pouring it from one bowl to another. ‘Sweeten it to taste.’ That was more difficult. Berengaria said it would make her ill to taste it, so, of course, I had to do it. Yet how could I be expected to know what degree of sweetness would be to Berengaria’s taste? From that point onwards I had a strong presentiment that I should be the scapegoat if anything went wrong. If it was too sweet I should be blamed, and if it was not sweet enough, it could be no one else’s fault but mine. I sipped that wretched mixture of eggs and milk and sugar in a fever of uncertainty until I felt positively nauseated. Berengaria was growing impatient.
‘Come now,’ she said at last. ‘Is it, or is it not, sweet enough?’
‘Yes, I think it is,’ I replied desperately, immediately regretting the decision. ‘No, I would put in another spoonful,’ I added hastily, just in time to stop the kitmatghar disappearing with the bowl. Berengaria put in another spoonful, with a set expression that I knew was a tacit reproof to my indecision. She turned to the book again without a word.
‘Flavour it with vanilla.’
To my intense disgust, I had to go all through the tasting process again. I felt positively ill by the time I had come to a definite decision whether the vanilla flavouring was sufficient or whether it still wanted more. As in the case of the sugar, I erred on the side of caution. Excess of sugar or vanilla would be irreparable.
‘And set it in a saucepan in your bain-marie to thicken,’ read Berengaria. The kitmatghar was allowed to carry out these instructions. I gave a sigh of relief and sat back in my chair. It meant a brief respite, and I devoutly hoped that the thickening process might take some time. Berengaria, too, seemed glad of the break in our exertions and bubbled merrily of things other than vanilla ices.
‘I’m sure it must be sufficiently thickened by this time,’ she said at last, however, referring to the subject of the evening. The kitmatghar, at her order, lifted the saucepan out of the bain-marie.
‘“When you have got a nice thick custard whip it well,”’ read Berengaria. Looking into the saucepan, she had doubts as to its correct degree of thickness, but it was now something over an hour since we had sat down to make that ice, and to my intense delight I observed the first signs of impatience in Berengaria’s manner.
‘That will really have to do,’ she said, dipping up spoonfuls of the custard and letting them fall back again slowly into the saucepan. ‘It does look a bit thin, I admit, but I don’t think that it ought to be left longer.’
I acquiesced with as careless an assent as my eagerness to get done with the whole thing would allow. I began to whip it up cautiously with a big fork, in much dread of whipping it over the edge of the saucepan. Berengaria was deep in the book, intent on the next direction. A bewildered, puzzled sort of look came over her face as I watched her.
‘“Let it get cold,”’ she read slowly. Her voice sounded puzzled, as if she failed to grasp the meaning of the words. Then suddenly, as she repeated them, I understood.
‘Let it get cold,’ she repeated again, looking at me with a mild dazed expression. ‘Let it get cold! Why, it has never been hot!’
I dropped the fork in amazed despair. It was a cruel blow. Pessimistic as I had felt from the beginning, I had not expected such a knockdown blow as this. I had always distrusted recipes as deceptive things that looked simple until you came to try them, but this was beyond a joke. Let it get cold indeed, when it had never told you to make it hot! I said hard things of cookery-books in general, and of this one in particular.
Meanwhile Berengaria had begun to read the recipe through again slowly, hunting for the place where we might have gone astray. This she did twice over, the second time with a distinctly noticeable note of anger in her voice, and when at last she looked up at me, Berengaria was undoubtedly flushed.
‘If I were a man,’ she said, almost taking away my breath by her sudden vehemence — ‘if I were a man I should swear.’
‘Being a woman?’ I asked nervously.
‘I’m not sure that I shan’t act like a man,’ she said, eyeing the cookery-book venomously.
‘Don’t mind me,’ I said cheerfully; but what Berengaria muttered then I couldn’t catch, and nothing has ever induced her to tell me since.
‘I’m surprised that you know such words,’ I said at last, pretending that I had heard what they were.
‘You forget that I have been married to the Deputy Commissioner for twelve years,’ she laughed.
‘What a shame to take away the Deputy Commissioner’s character like that,’ I said, glad that Berengaria was momentarily diverted from the cookery-book.
‘Come,’ she said, quite restored to good humour again, ‘I’m sure that custard has had quite long enough to get cold. The only thing to do is to go on with it according to the prescription and see what comes of it.’
‘Pour it into your ice-pot and freeze it.’
The nice thick custard well whipped — several muscles of my arm could speak to that — was deposited in a cocoa tin, and carefully packed all round with ice in the ice-box. The clock struck seven as we reached that happy ending. Two hours and a half struck me as rather a long time to take in preparing merely one course for dinner — if indeed it could be called a course — and that the least substantial of all. But of course if it turned out well, we should be well repaid. Not that I felt the least inclined for an ice. It had turned out a nasty cold damp evening, such as one sometimes gets towards the end of the rains, really cold, and taking a mean advantage of one’s light summer clothing. I actually shivered now as I sat in the veranda, and bitterly regretted as I went off to change for dinner that I had nothing warmer than white drill.
Berengaria took a last look at the receipt before she went off to dress. She was still hopeful.
‘“It will turn out rich and creamy,”’ she read in joyful anticipation, ‘“not a bit like the milk-and-water ices one so often mourns over.” How delightful!’
‘Delightful!’ I repeated, though I fear without the same hopeful enthusiasm.
‘Oh, I never saw this footnote!’ exclaimed Berengaria with a distinct note of disappointment in her voice as she was about to shut the book: ‘“If a superlatively nice ice is required a coffee cup full of whipped cream should be added.” What a pity we can’t have a superlatively nice ice! I had set my heart on making it as nice as possible, and now this horrid little footnote tells you how to make it nicer just when it’s too late.’
She closed the book with a bang and, I fear I almost wrote, ‘flounced away.’
‘Never mind, it will turn out nice and creamy as it is,’ I said cheerfully, holding back the curtain for her to pass out. She murmured something discontentedly as she went, but ‘superlatively’ was the only word I caught.
A kind of uneasy expectation pervaded the earlier part of dinner that night. We none of us spoke about vanilla ices, but I’m sure they were the one subject uppermost in our minds. Berengaria, unusually for her, wore a preoccupied air. The dinner dragged slowly through, and at last came the awful moment when according to the menu the vanilla ice was due. It may have been my imagination, but the period before it finally appeared seemed interminable. I admit that I talked at random just to fill that pause. I couldn’t in the least remember five minutes afterwards what I had said. I do, however, remember noticing that Berengaria looked feverish and the Deputy Commissioner unmistakably nervous. At the supreme moment of tension a kitmatghar came in with the vanilla ices on a tray. It may have been imagination again, but as that kitmatghar advanced to hand them to Berengaria, I could have sworn I caught a gleam of cynical amusement on his face. I hadn’t the courage to look at the plate as it was placed before Berengaria to see if it really was ‘rich and creamy, and not a bit like the milk-and-water ices one so often mourns over.’ You might have heard a pin drop as that kitmatghar went round distributing those vanilla ice-creams. For a moment I did not dare to look at my own plate. Then I braced myself up and slowly brought my eyes down to it. It was only with the greatest difficulty I checked an exclamation of surprise. There was nothing that could be called an ice-cream there at all! Instead, a thin custard looking lost and strangely out of place flooded the small glass plate. I glanced up quickly at Berengaria. She was gazing down as if she distrusted the evidence of her own eyes, her hand grasping the spoon arrested on its way to the plate. I looked across at the Deputy Commissioner. He, good soul, uncertain how Berengaria might like the awful catastrophe, was quietly eating the custard as if it really were a vanilla ice-cream. Not a muscle of his face betrayed the fact that it was not vanilla ice-cream. I admired the Deputy Commissioner more that night than I had ever done before as I picked up my spoon and, following his example, began to dispose of the custard. The silence grew terrible. I looked furtively at Berengaria; she was still regarding her plate with that look of fixed bewilderment and unbelief. The silence grew impossible. The Deputy Commissioner manfully rushed into the breach.
‘Delightful!’ he murmured, beaming round upon us, ‘delightful!’
My admiration for the Deputy Commissioner increased. But I was determined not to be behind him in tact.
‘Delicious!’ I said, scooping up the liquid in the tiny ice spoon and tilting up the shallow plate so as to secure the last drop.
Then at last Berengaria spoke.
‘Yes,’ she said quietly, raising her eyes, ‘it may be. But it isn’t vanilla ice-cream.’
For a moment I thought Berengaria was challenging me to say that it was, and I had almost committed myself to perjury when I caught a gleam of amusement on her face.
‘Whatever it is, I confess I should like some more,’ said the Deputy Commissioner, beaming generally and determined to spare Berengaria’s feelings. My admiration for him rose yet higher, an admiration that was not even dimmed when he told me afterwards that he had been only too glad to find that vanilla ice-cream so wholesome and innocuous.
Berengaria glanced at him gratefully, then proceeded to eat her ice in silence.
‘It’s very good custard,’ she said at last in the same quiet voice.
I cordially acquiesced, glad to find that I could do so conscientiously. I plunged into a discourse on the merits of custards.
‘Yes,’ said Berengaria, when I stopped, breath and imagination failing me further, ‘but, unfortunately, we didn’t start out to make a custard, you know.’
I felt desperate. Here were the Deputy Commissioner and I trying to spare Berengaria’s feelings, while she herself seemed determined to lay bare the shortcomings of that vanilla ice-cream. ‘We must have made a mistake somewhere,’ she continued; ‘we must try and do better to-morrow.’
I still tried to put the best possible light on things.
‘We didn’t try to make a superlatively nice ice, you know,’ I said.
‘I don’t think we began early enough,’ said Berengaria, ignoring the remark. ‘To-morrow we will begin at two o’clock.’
Staying in the house, there was no escape, and at two o’clock the next day I was assisting once more at the evolution of a vanilla ice-cream. I needn’t describe all that happened and how we worked on again — with only a very short interval for tea — heating the milk this time in order to let it get cold, as the receipt directed; how we worked on again till the first gong went at half-past seven; and how we sat through dinner again in the same self-conscious state of suppressed excitement. Suffice it to say that when the vanilla ice-cream finally appeared and was placed before Berengaria, her astonishment at its aspect found vent in a short, astonished exclamation.
‘Goodness gracious,’ was what she said, ‘if it isn’t custard pudding!’
There, sure enough, on my plate when it came lay a large, solid lump of custard pudding.
I must say that Berengaria took it remarkably well. We made exceedingly merry at our own expense, though again the kind-hearted Deputy Commissioner asked for more, saying that though we might not be able to make vanilla ice-cream, we could make uncommonly good custard pudding.
‘I think,’ said Berengaria, as she rose from the table — ‘I think that to-morrow I will let David make a vanilla ice-cream. He may have better luck than we have had.’
Need I say that on the third night we had a delicious, I might almost say, a superlatively nice ice-cream.
‘David must have worked on quite a different principle from our recipe,’ said Berengaria; ‘yet I can’t quite understand why we made either custard or pudding when we tried to make ice-cream.’
I confessed that it was a puzzle which I saw no hope of solving.
‘It looked so simple,’ she said meditatively. ‘But I’ve rather lost faith in cookery-books,’ she added, with a smile, ‘and I’ve given mine to David.’
Happening to find David in a communicative mood two days later, I asked him if he had used the cookery-book yet.
‘David never using cookery-book,’ he replied, wagging his head from side to side.
‘But what had become of the one Berengaria had given him?’ I inquired.
He smiled in his usual deprecating way, with a backward glance to satisfy himself we were alone.
‘Cookery-book having very good covers,’ he whispered, ‘which David using to keep David’s chits in.’
And I must admit that I felt a vindictive pleasure in hearing of the undignified uses to which that cookery-book had fallen.
David was the faithful and devoted servant of Berengaria. He was a Madrassi ‘boy,’ who had been with her ever since she had been out, and was known far and wide as a great character. It was owing to his pidgin-English that Berengaria had never taken the trouble to learn much Hindustani. So David had been established as her right-hand man, and ruled her household with a rod of iron.
‘I really don’t know much about my servants,’ Berengaria once confessed to me. ‘You see, I let David appoint them all except the ayah, and then if anything goes wrong, I make him responsible, so it’s to his interest to see that they all do their work properly. The plan really works admirably, and I avoid all the bother and worry. I pay them all through David, too, and he presents all the bills to me in English, which saves such a lot of trouble.’
Fortunately for Berengaria, David was comparatively honest, and I don’t believe he made more than a comfortable competence for life for himself and his numerous family of relations during the time he was with her. I had always noticed that Berengaria’s servants were all either very old and infirm or very small and juvenile; and now I began to suspect them of being cheap labour, which enabled part of the wages paid by Berengaria to halt half-way in the pockets of the faithful David. Still, if the work was done and Berengaria was satisfied, it was no concern of anyone else, and David was a wise man in his day and generation.
I was sitting one day with Berengaria in her veranda, just before breakfast, when up came David, evidently in some agitation and bursting with information. David’s face always wore a satisfied, half-tolerant sort of smile, as if he regarded us as poor creatures who would be lost without his protection, and when he had news to tell — even though that news might be bad — he positively beamed with satisfaction. To-day it was evident he had news.
‘Please, missus, Buddha very ill,’ he began, after giving me a dignified salaam.
‘Buddha!’ said Berengaria, looking at him doubtfully. ‘Who’s Buddha?’
‘Missus not know Buddha?’ said David, evidently hurt and surprised. ‘Buddha been with missus five years, being garden coolie.’
‘Oh, that dear old man!’ said Berengaria, turning to me. ‘He is quite a patriarch, and so industrious. He is always weeding down the drive as I drive to the club in the evening. I must do something for him.’
I remembered Buddha now, quite the oldest of David’s subordinates, and one who worked virtuously and ostentatiously in prominent places when there was a likelihood of your passing by.
‘What’s the matter with him?’ asked Berengaria of David, who was well pleased that he had lighted on a subject of such evident interest.
‘Buddha very bad, missus. If missus not helping, Buddha going dead,’ David replied, shaking his head with as much solemnity as his smile would allow.
‘Yes, but what is the matter with him? Where does he feel bad?’ pursued Berengaria, who loved nothing more than doctoring people. She kept a special room filled with many shelves well stocked with medicine bottles, and here she was in her element diagnosing cases and distributing remedies for everything, from leprosy to common or garden peth ke dard. The natives had a great belief in the Burra Memsahib’s dawai, and many were the applicants. If Berengaria could not make out what exactly was the matter with the patient, she gave him a dose of Eno’s Fruit Salt or Mother Siegel’s Syrup. I don’t know whether they liked the sense of importance being ill gave them, or whether they really enjoyed the medicine; certain it is that some of the most constant applicants never showed any outward and visible sign of being in need of artificial supports to health. Even Berengaria grew suspicious at last of a strong and lusty young paniwalla who came regularly every day for three weeks and consumed one whole bottle of Eno’s Fruit Salt and another of Mother Siegel’s Syrup; so she resorted to a dose of ipecacuanha, and he never came again.
Meanwhile David was doing his best to explain the nature of Buddha’s illness for treatment. ‘Buddha getting pains all over. Buddha getting old and feeble and not able walk any more. Buddha getting up and falling down just like drunk man. Buddha very weak, eating no food.’
‘Oh, if he is as bad as all that,’ said Berengaria, ‘I don’t think there is much to be done. He had much better go to the hospital. They’ll feed him up and look well after him there, and that’s what he seems to want more than anything else.’
‘No, missus, Buddha not going hospital. Us never going there, rather dying.’
‘David, David, I never can make out why you all so object to going to hospital. Do you know,’ said Berengaria, turning to me, ‘I believe some of these people really would rather die than go to hospital. Time after time I’ve tried to persuade some of them to go, but I’ve never been able to do it, until they are so bad that they have no further say in the matter, and are just carried there. Now, David, I insist on Buddha going to hospital. What possible objection can he have?’
‘Buddha never going hospital,’ said David, looking round mysteriously and drawing a step closer. ‘Me telling missus why us never going hospital. Many people dying in hospital, and leaving many devils behind them, taking off other sick men. Many plenty devils in hospital.’
‘Oh, David, I’m ashamed of you!’ cried Berengaria, shocked and indignant. ‘You call yourself a Christian, and yet you believe in devils like that?’
‘Please, missus, these very bad devils,’ pleaded David, ‘such drefful ugly devils, no god ever going near them.’
‘How can you be so wicked, David!’ said Berengaria, getting up hastily to hide a smile.
‘Well, if Buddha won’t go to the hospital, I must do what I can for him. I had better go and see him.’
‘Please, missus, Buddha not liking missus going seeing Buddha,’ hastily interposed David. ‘Buddha very ill and no very clean; not washing many days, being very bad. Missus not like seeing Buddha now.’
Berengaria had a vivid imagination, and showed no further desire to go and see Buddha.
‘I wonder what it would be best to send him?’ she said; ‘he evidently wants something strengthening. The best thing I can think of is Bovril, with a good strong dose of brandy in it. I’ll go and get him some at once before breakfast.’
David was most communicative during Berengaria’s absence. He began by giving me a short sketch of Buddha’s history. Buddha, it appears, was David’s great-grand-uncle by marriage — at least, that was the nearest I could get to the relationship from David’s many-worded explanations. Finding that he had a good secure place with Berengaria, and the full control and appointment of her servants, he had sent for Buddha from the south. This was quite a new light on the interesting subject of Berengaria’s servants, and I began to wonder if the other aged and infirm and small and juvenile retainers were all more or less distantly related to David. I was just pursuing my inquiries in this direction when Berengaria returned with a large basin of the promised Bovril and brandy.
‘Now, give Buddha this in spoonfuls, and not too much at one time,’ she said, as she handed it over to David. ‘This is quite enough to last all day, and I’ll give him some more to-morrow if he isn’t better then.’
David expressed his great faith in any remedy supplied by Berengaria, and went off, well pleased to tend Buddha.
We had finished breakfast and returned to our seats in the veranda when David again made his appearance. It was evident that he had fresh news of still greater importance than before.
‘Please, missus, Buddha dead,’ he said impressively.
‘Poor old man! how very sudden!’ said Berengaria, adding hastily: ‘I do hope it wasn’t something catching after all. There are so many infectious diseases in this country that carry you off quickly that I am always suspicious of anyone who dies suddenly — aren’t you? Well, I suppose there will be an inquest now, and I hope we shall be satisfied it wasn’t plague.’
Berengaria’s ideas of native life and doings were still evidently vague. David probably thought of none of these things, but was enjoying with an Eastern instinct, that no Western creed could quite eradicate, the pleasurable anticipations of the funeral banquet that would follow the disposal of poor Buddha’s remains.
The unexpected demise of Buddha turned Berengaria’s thoughts to the ways and doings of her servants in general, and she discoursed in her usual light, witty vein of many things quaint and humorous that had come within her experience. But Berengaria’s servants deserve a chapter to themselves. She was just relating some of the enormities committed by successive ayahs when she suddenly stopped with an exclamation of surprise.
‘What can have happened to the turkeys?’ she cried, jumping up and looking out towards a corner of the compound where about six or eight fine turkeys had just come into view.
‘Just look at them. What can they be doing?’
She might well ask, for they certainly were behaving in the strangest fashion possible. They were staggering about and bumping up against one another in the most irresponsible manner, and altogether acting as if they were either feeling very ill or had suddenly taken leave of their senses. Sometimes one would actually fall down and roll over, and only recover its feet with difficulty, while another would suddenly stagger and bump violently against its neighbour, upsetting his already unsteady equilibrium. The sight was one of the quaintest I have ever seen. There was one especially comic old turkey who stood up and tried to look dignified, but every now and then he would give a violent lurch, and only just prevent himself from falling. Then he would try to look dignified again, but the very first step he took would lead to his undoing.
‘Oh dear! oh dear!’ cried Berengaria in distress, ‘I’ve taken such trouble with those turkeys. I reared them myself, and the Rudest Woman in Asia told me they would never live, so I determined that they should, just because she said they wouldn’t; and now, if they die, I’ll never forgive them. What can be the matter with them? They must be dreadfully ill with spasms or something like that. Do call David, quick!’ her thoughts turning to her faithful henchman in this crisis.
‘We must save them if we can.’
David came, after much shouting on my part, scrambling into his chapkan as he came. He had been taking his aram , and was not best pleased at the sudden demand for him at this time of the day, which he considered especially his own, and when all well-conducted people should be asleep.
‘Oh, David, what can be the matter with the turkeys?’ Berengaria cried as soon as he came in sight. ‘Just look at them staggering about!’
David looked very long and hard at the strange doings of the birds, and rubbed his eyes as if he were not quite certain that they told him true. Then suddenly perplexity left his face, and the old assured smile dawned as he turned to Berengaria.
‘Turkeys not liking medicine,’ he said enigmatically.
‘Not liking medicine!’ repeated Berengaria in amazement. ‘What do you mean, David?’
‘Please, missus, me telling missus Buddha dying, not wanting medicine missus giving: me thinking pity wasting medicine: me giving turkeys Buddha’s medicine.’
So this was the secret of the turkeys’ strange behaviour! I had sometimes thought Berengaria lacking in a sense of humour, but there was no doubt about it when she did see the comic side of things, and she laughed now till the tears rolled down her face.
‘Well, turkeys must have weak heads,’ she said, as soon as she could control herself sufficiently to speak, ‘though I did put in half a tumbler of brandy. How bad they will feel afterwards, and what headaches they will have! Still, I am glad it’s nothing worse the matter with them, and it can’t be helped now that they are drunk,’ she continued, laughing, as we took up our topis and went down the veranda steps to get a better view, ‘so we may as well enjoy the fun!’
It was a brilliant idea of Berengaria’s to start a hunt, and, of course, a pack of hounds as a kind of necessary afterthought. There was a lot of open diara land round Slumpanaggur that promised excellent runs if only the jack proved accommodating. I was away from the station when the first hunts took place, and they were a regular Sunday morning institution when I got back. I heard all about them, however, at dinner at Berengaria’s the first night after my return.
‘You know,’ said Berengaria, ‘we all felt the ordinary Sunday morning ride was getting a bit slow, as there are only two possible directions to go, and with the hot weather coming on we felt it would need some further inducement to bring us out at all.’
‘Yes,’ said the Rudest Woman in Asia, and she spoke with a light lisp that she thought wonderfully attractive, ‘the last time we had an ordinary ride only one other turned up besides myself, and as I hadn’t been on speaking terms with him for the last three months, you can imagine it was rather a fiasco.’
‘Well,’ continued Berengaria, ‘I thought it would sound nice and attractive to call it a hunt instead of an ordinary ride. We had seen plenty of jack about the diara, so there was really nothing to prevent our beginning hunting at once.’
‘And how did you manage about dogs?’ I innocently asked.
Berengaria frowned. I had touched upon what I soon discovered to be the weakest point of the hunt.
‘Oh, we soon managed to get together a pack,’ she replied airily, after her momentary hesitation. But as I had only been away a short time, and did not remember anything in the way of a sporting dog before I left, my curiosity got the better of my discretion, and I pursued the evidently rather tender subject.
‘A pack of hounds! How very jolly!’ I remarked as ingenuously as I could. ‘What kind of dogs are they?’
‘Oh, we all contribute to the pack,’ said Berengaria, rather ambiguously; and I noticed there was an awkward pause in the general conversation as if every one was listening to us.
But Berengaria had recovered her momentary weakness, and was rattling gaily along.
‘Of course I bring Puck’ — Puck was mostly pariah, but was politely spoken of as a cross between a foxhound and a bull terrier — ‘and Mrs. Commissioner brings her Airedale terrier, and the Doctor has two really very fine foxhounds he is keeping for a friend during the hot weather, and Miss Proudfoot’ — she was the policeman’s daughter and the meekest of the meek — ‘she brings a — What kind of dog is yours, Miss Proudfoot?’ leaning forward and addressing that lady at the other end of the table.
Miss Proudfoot was visibly embarrassed by the sudden question, and appeared heartily ashamed of the animal whatever its breed might be.
‘Oh — a sort of a greyhound,’ she murmured vaguely and apologetically, and hastily entered into an animated conversation with her right-hand neighbour.
‘So you see,’ said Berengaria cheerfully, ‘we make up quite a respectable pack. Of course they are a bit uneven, and, unfortunately, they don’t always get on well together; in fact, one of the Doctor’s dogs is inclined to be distinctly aggressive, and nearly killed one of the Airedales last time. But when once we find and they get on the scent, they follow up all right.’
I found out afterwards that they certainly did ‘follow up,’ but not quite ‘all right,’ or in the sense that Berengaria intended.
‘You will be sure and turn up next Sunday, won’t you?’ was Berengaria’s parting injunction that night — ‘six o’clock, at the club, you know. We ought to make quite a big muster with so many people in the station now. You won’t forget, will you, or oversleep yourself, or anything of that kind? Be sure you bring Joe.’
Joe was my one canine possession — an excellent ratter, but hitherto without experience in the cross-country line. I duly promised to be present at the meet at all hazards, and accordingly turned up at the club just before six on the following Sunday morning.
Cantering across the maidan, I saw two figures on horseback slowly pacing up and down in opposite directions in the small space in front of the club. As I drew nearer I recognised the riders and saw what had happened. The Rudest Woman in Asia and the man she had not been on speaking terms with for three months had been the first arrivals! The amused smile on the face of the man only deepened the frown on the face of the lady, who hailed my advent with relief.
‘I’m so glad you’ve come, though you have interrupted our little tête-à-tête’ she said sarcastically in her strident tones, and well within hearing of the enemy.
As I was on speaking terms with both parties, however, the position was a trifle embarrassing, and I welcomed the arrival of the Deputy Commissioner and Berengaria. The Deputy Commissioner was a very small man, and rode the biggest of walers: while Berengaria was built on a generous scale, and rode a diminutive steed, which, luckily for itself, was endowed with much strength. The Deputy Commissioner’s seat was loose, but he never fell off more than twice in the same day. Berengaria prided herself on her horsemanship, though, as she never by any chance rode anything but her diminutive steed, which was noted for its docility, her reputation did not rest on a very sound basis. Behind the Deputy Commissioner and Berengaria followed the familiar figure of Puck, who, in spite of his reputed ancestry, showed no outward and visible signs of inward sporting proclivities.
Arrivals now followed quick on one another, and the small space in front of the club was soon filled with prancing steeds and a motley crowd of dogs, renewing, in some cases, a not too friendly acquaintance with one another. The Commissioner and his wife had arrived, bringing two Airedale terriers that showed a distinct aversion to a ferocious-looking animal brought by a planter, whose dog-boy held it with difficulty by a chain. Miss Proudfoot had also arrived in her usual meek, apologetic way, and the ‘sort of a greyhound,’ as she had quaintly described it, was with her. Then came the Doctor, a fiery little man on a fiery little pony, over which he had the smallest possible amount of control, and on which he was even more of a danger to the lives of others than to his own.
‘We won’t wait any longer,’ said Berengaria.
‘I think every one is here who is likely to come now. So let’s start at once.’
She moved off as she spoke with Mrs. Commissioner, Puck and the two Airedales following demurely behind, and looking as if even the sight of a jack would not rouse them from their state of dignified decorum. The Doctor’s foxhounds and the ‘sort of greyhound’ were the only animals that showed any signs of exhilaration, which expended itself chiefly in the form of worrying the milder specimens of their kind.
Berengaria chatted gaily as we trotted along, and was full of the hunt and eager to be in at the death — a thing she had never yet achieved.
‘Now we must try and keep the dogs more or less together to-day,’ she said, as we halted at the edge of the diara waiting for the others to come up. ‘Last Sunday, you know, we all got hopelessly scattered. I quite lost poor Puck, and thought I should never have seen him again, though he turned up quite cheerfully about tea-time just after I had offered a reward for him.’
‘We’ll draw this patch of sugar-cane to the left first,’ said the Doctor, who evidently shared with Berengaria the leadership of the hunt. Calling to the dogs, who seemed suddenly to show a keener sense of the situation, he cantered off, shouting directions to the rest of the field. We all spread out along two sides of the patch of sugar-cane, while the dogs worked their way through, urged on in encouraging tones by their respective owners. Berengaria was loud in her exhortations to Puck. Puck responded with alacrity, and frisked about and got generally in the way of more seriously minded dogs. All was bustle and expectation. The excitement grew as the dogs worked their way through, but slowly one by one they emerged from the further edge of the patch, and we knew that our first draw had been a blank.
We all hastened round to join our dogs on the further side of the sugar-cane: they needed some approbation and further encouragement before pursuing the chase. As we crossed a nullah and approached another long oblong patch, we got woefully scattered, and Berengaria was clearly too intent on being in at the death to think much about the rest of the field and pull us together again. I was at quite the other end of the line, and soon lost sight of her altogether as she disappeared into a gachhe with five or six attendant ardent sportsmen. Suddenly from over in that direction we heard cries and shouts and exhortations, and, pausing in breathless expectation, we saw the field emerge from away behind the gachhe. First of all came Berengaria and the Doctor riding a neck-to-neck race at full gallop; then three or four other horsemen careering along in a cloud of dust; then well in their rear came the jack with the dogs — or such of them as had got so far in the chase — panting along twenty yards behind and visibly losing ground. It was the most comic sight in the world, and I laughed as I thought how true was Berengaria’s remark that the dogs ‘follow up all right.’ It was quite clear what had happened. The excitement had been too much for Berengaria and the Doctor, and they had started off at full speed, with the result that they couldn’t pull up in time and had headed the jack. In the clouds of dust they left behind them the other horsemen had failed to see the jack, and so the procession tore on in that unwonted order — horsemen, jack, and dogs. But Berengaria’s gentle steed had soon had enough of that mad gallop, and though the Doctor’s fiery little horse disappeared with him into the distance, the others managed to pull up and wheel about. This was decidedly awkward for the jack. He was easily out-distancing the dogs on the straight, but he was a bit done, and the sudden attack in front naturally took him by surprise. The horsemen excitedly surrounded him, and so belaboured him with their crops that the poor brute got dazed and fell an easy prey to the dogs when they finally came up, though he was not despatched without much assistance from the huntsmen and many hunting-crops.
I congratulated myself that I had had by far the best of the sport as a spectator, though it never struck Berengaria that it might be so. She was receiving the brush as I came up, and looking proud and flushed at her success.
‘Oh, I’m so sorry you missed all the fun!’ she said, as she caught sight of me.
‘Not at all; I enjoyed it,’ I replied, and Berengaria never guessed the element of ‘fun’ I found in that particular hunt.
Of course, I know we ought not to have done it, but as soon as we saw her we dubbed her the Two of Spades.
She was plain, insignificant, and whitey-brown. Now, perhaps I ought not to have written that last word, but if you had seen her you would have admitted that the adding of ‘whitey’ to ‘brown’ was a compliment about the justification of which there was some room for doubt. As Berengaria said, the poor thing had evidently had to take her geography of the British Isles on trust.
We had happened to be playing cards directly after we had first met her. Berengaria at that time had just been initiated into the mysteries of bridge, of which she had at once become a passionate devotee. Her contempt for all the cards of black suits was great, consequently the smallest in value of them all had no position at all in her eyes, like the lady in question. Hence the comparison.
‘She’s just like that insignificant, worthless, stupid little card, the two of spades,’ said Berengaria, as she viciously played the card in question.
‘What!’ I said. ‘The Deuce?’
Berengaria looked shocked. She had evidently never played poker.
‘I thought that word was only allowed at tennis,’ she said reprovingly.
I hastened to explain that there was a game called poker in which the two of spades plays a by no means insignificant part. Berengaria at once wanted to learn poker. With some difficulty, however, I induced her to try patience instead. I felt that if Berengaria, with her usual ardour, once plunged into a gambling game like poker I should not be able to answer for the consequences. So Berengaria, at my instigation, played that detestable game for one called patience, and, like everything else that that most charming of memsahibs took up, it became for a time a passion. I assisted at several games, but all I can say from personal experience is that the only patience about the game was in its name. Berengaria invariably lost hers.
It was while we were playing one afternoon with the cards all spread out on the table that Berengaria suddenly took to dubbing all the people we knew by the cards they most resembled, on the plan she had adopted with the two of spades.
‘Who does that remind you of?’ she asked me suddenly, pointing to the ten of hearts.
I confessed that it did not conjure up before my mind either friend or foe or yet acquaintance.
‘Why, it’s just like the new Chota Sahib,’ she said. ‘Doesn’t that remind you of his large, blood-red setting-sun sort of countenance?’
I knew Berengaria disliked that new Chota Sahib, but still, I thought it rather hard of her to compare him to that full-blooded card the ten of hearts.
‘And the knave of hearts,’ rattled on Berengaria, ‘can only be the Judge. He always has reminded me of that unheroic character of fiction. If he ever did have the pluck to steal some tarts, I’m sure his courage would evaporate immediately. He would turn tail and run away at the very first sight of their wrathful owner.’
‘And the Queen of Hearts?’ I ventured. ‘Ah,’ said Berengaria, displaying a sudden and deep interest in the game of patience proper, ‘I must leave you to assign that card.’
I looked at Berengaria with a smile. Could there be any possible manner of doubt whatever that by right of beauty, presence, and character the position of the Queen of Hearts was hers? But, unfortunately, I hesitated too long in saying so, and truly, he who hesitates is lost with Berengaria. Before I could speak she had looked up with one of her dazzling smiles, beneath which there yet lurked the faintest suspicion of a laughing, malicious intent.
‘But, of course, the King of Hearts is Mr. Boniface,’ she said, throwing the words at me laughingly like a challenge.
It was a cruel blow. I admit that it was gauche of me to ask who the Queen of Hearts was. I ought to have assigned the part to Berengaria at once in a delicately worded compliment. However, she had her revenge by shutting me out of the part of the King.
Mr. Boniface was what the ladies called ‘such a nice young man.’ Needless to say, we men thought him a fool. I muttered something to this effect when Berengaria placed him at the top of the sequence of hearts.
‘You men are so horribly jealous of one another,’ she said. She was evidently very much hurt that I hadn’t made her Queen of Hearts. ‘People say that women are jealous, but they are generous to their foes compared with men. Why, I never can trust what one man says of another.’
I, of course, protested that men were the most generous of beings alive, scorning such a petty vice as jealousy, and rendering even their enemies their due. Besides, men are always the best judges of men.
‘Tell me what men in general say of a man. That will be a pretty accurate measure of him. If men speak well of him, then you may be sure he’s all right, but if men don’t like him, then you may be sure there’s something wrong,’ I ventured to remark.
‘Now, on the contrary,’ said Berengaria, ‘if ever I hear one man say anything disparaging of another, I immediately feel drawn towards that other. I look upon him as the victim of jealousy or spite.’
‘You must admit that a man has the best opportunity of judging another man,’ I remarked as quietly as I could, endeavouring to keep the conversation from becoming too heated.
‘A man who condescends to speak ill of another,’ said Berengaria, disdaining to admit my premises, ‘does himself more harm than the man he abuses. Everybody sees that he must have some ulterior motive.’
I thought to myself that exactly the same might be said of a lady, but, of course, I didn’t say so.
‘I don’t say that a man should speak ill of another,’ I admitted; ‘but there are other ways of letting a person know you don’t like him.’
‘If ladies like a man, it’s an almost universal fact that men at once dislike him,’ retorted Berengaria hotly. I felt sure she was still thinking of that objectionable Mr. Boniface.
‘Perhaps so,’ I said; ‘but for some other reason, not because ladies like him. A man recognises a cad so much quicker than a woman can.
‘I entirely dispute that,’ cried Berengaria. ‘Do you mean to say that a lady can’t tell when a man is a gentleman?’
I admit I was getting angry. In imagination some of Berengaria’s sometime men-friends passed before my mental vision. I suppose Berengaria would think me jealous; but any jury of men in my own position in life would, I feel sure, agree with me that some of those men were ‘cads,’ ‘arrant cads,’ ‘bounders,’ or whatever you like to call men of that description. And yet they had stood high, for a time, in the graces of that much misguided lady, Berengaria. So I replied with some heat and natural indignation to that last question.
‘I will not go so far as to say that ’ — I still retained a certain amount of caution — ‘but I do say that ladies are sometimes unaccountably infatuated, and that they rave about a man who is essentially not a gentleman.’
I thought that was putting it quite mildly, but it made Berengaria exceedingly angry. She turned upon me with some scorn.
‘I see,’ she said, with a tantalising smile and nod. ‘I see what it is: you’re still jealous of dear Mr. Anthony Hopkins.’
I shuddered, literally shuddered. I’m afraid I must have looked apoplectic, too, from suppressed rage, for Berengaria grew frightened and relented.
‘He was very amusing, you know,’ she said quickly, ‘but I never really thought him a gentleman.’
It was with difficulty that I recovered the power of speech. To be told that I had been jealous of such a worm as Mr. Anthony Hopkins! A man who had descended on the station ostensibly from some remote jungle in Burmah; who had been taken up enthusiastically by the ladies of the station, but whom the men only tolerated for the sake of his really charming wife; who had departed after being made much of for a fortnight, leaving a heavy bill at the club, of which he had been made an honorary member, many small debts in the bazaar that gradually leaked out after his departure, and who had borrowed a thousand rupees under false pretences, favoured by his intimacy with the Judge, from the local mahajan. To be accused of being jealous of such a man! All the men in the station had voted him a mean little cad, and felt really sorry for his wife. We had found out afterwards that no one in Burmah would have anything to say to them, and they had had to turn out. I looked at Berengaria coldly. The recollection of how warmly she had taken up Mr. Anthony Hopkins came back to me.
‘I never really thought him a gentleman,’ repeated Berengaria, shuffling the cards and then laying them out again for the game of patience, known as ‘street.’
I was silent. I felt that if I spoke I could not suppress the natural and righteous indignation that surged within me.
Berengaria glanced up at me in the act of laying down a card. I saw the light of fun and mischief dance in her eyes for a second before she lowered them.
‘I half believe’ — she said, and gave me one quick flash of her eyes. Then she smiled, and became ostentatiously absorbed in the game.
Of course, my silence had been misunderstood, so I determined to leave a dangerous subject and talk gaily about something else totally different. It’s an invariable plan of mine, and I always find it answer.
‘We have travelled far from the Two of Spades,’ I said genially, drawing up my chair to the small table to watch the game.
‘Oh, poor thing!’ murmured Berengaria.
I’m sorry to say that on the next occasion when I heard Berengaria speak of her, the expression was ‘Silly little fool!’
It happened like this. The Rudest Woman in Asia always made up violently to new arrivals in the station. The Two of Spades had only been in Slumpanaggur a week. The Rudest Woman in Asia, the station understood, had made herself extremely useful in the matter of lending tintacks and such-like things needed in settling into a house, and was known to have spent at least three whole mornings running ostensibly giving a helping hand in the bungalow of the Two of Spades. Of course, that being so, every one knew that that lady must know by that time pretty well all there was to know about the station and its inhabitants. We all instinctively felt that the mind of the Two of Spades had been poisoned against us.
For the first week the Rudest Woman and the Two of Spades were bosom friends — if that term can be applied to two people so utterly unlike as to have scarcely a point in common. The former needs no further description to any who may read these pages; she necessarily looms large in any account of Slumpanaggur. The latter was insignificant and shy, and impressed you as one weighed down with the heroic resolve to steer through the troubled waters of station life without a collision. She always agreed in a weak, dispirited way with whatever you said, changed whatever opinion she might have on any subject with the greatest facility, if it was opposed to yours, and fawned assiduously on Barra Memsahibs. Meek and unobtrusive, with this morbid desire not to give offence, she fell an easy prey to the wiles of the Rudest Woman in Asia. She was flattered and dazzled by the attention shown her by a memsahib so generally held in much awe, if not in much esteem, and consequently she became at once her willing slave.
We were seated on the chaboutra outside the club about ten days after the arrival of the Two of Spades. The Rudest Woman had been making herself more obnoxious than usual, and the Two of Spades had echoed everything she said with all the enthusiasm of which she was capable.
Berengaria had been quietly reading the illustrated papers. Only the quick rustle of the paper as she turned the leaves spoke of her self-control. At last she rose to go.
‘We are playing tennis and badminton tomorrow afternoon at my house,’ she said, turning to the Two of Spades. ‘I shall be very pleased if you will come.’
I thought the Two of Spades flashed a questioning glance at the Rudest Woman in Asia, but I could not swear.
‘I’m so sorry,’ she answered in a tone of regret that was a little overdone, ‘but I’ve promised to ride out with the Rudest Woman.’
‘Oh, well, perhaps you could come on Friday instead,’ said Berengaria amiably.
This time there was no doubt about it. The Two of Spades cast a helpless, appealing look at the Rudest Woman. But that lady sat with her face averted, and the smile of the legendary tiger of the Niger on her lips.
‘I — I’m afraid I’m engaged for Friday, too,’ faltered the Two of Spades, evidently torn between her fear of the Rudest Woman and her reluctance to offend Berengaria.
Berengaria, suddenly on guard, looked at her suspiciously. The Two of Spades, like all weak natures, was wont to take refuge in explanation. She did so now — to her own undoing.
‘I’ve promised to ride with the Rudest Woman on Friday, too,’ she said nervously.
The smile of triumph on the Rudest Woman’s face was positively indecent.
Berengaria smiled sweetly.
‘Oh, I’m sorry you can’t come,’ she said. ‘Good-night.’
We passed into the club.
‘Has the Rudest Woman booked the unfortunate Two of Spades for the rest of her natural life?’ said Berengaria indignantly, as we waited for the tum-tum to be brought round.
I shrugged my shoulders expressively. I saw from Berengaria’s face that silence on my part would be golden. It was one of those moments when whatever one may say is apt to give offence.
‘Silly little fool!’ I heard Berengaria mutter. ‘Poor, silly little fool!’
We began the drive in a silence that I felt embarrassing, but feared to break. At last, to my relief, Berengaria spoke.
‘Do you think they really had made engagements for to-morrow and Friday?’ she asked suddenly.
I thought it extremely improbable, but I knew it was well to be diplomatic.
‘The Two of Spades said so, you know,’ was all I ventured.
‘I believe the Rudest Woman intends to use that poor cat’s-paw as a means of annoying me,’ said Berengaria at last.
She spoke deliberately, as if from deep conviction.
‘Oh no,’ I said weakly, feeling that things were getting volcanic. ‘Impossible!’
We drove on again in silence. We were nearing the Deputy Commissioner’s bungalow, and nothing, I thought, should induce me to go in to-night. I would let things blow over, as they probably would do by next day. I congratulated myself on being so near escape. But the storm broke suddenly.
‘Ah,’ said Berengaria, with the note of combat in her voice, ‘I know what I will do.’
I whipped up the good little mare between the shafts, making her fly along at the unwonted touch. I felt that I should yet be involved in some awful station row that would wreck our peace and quiet for weeks to come.
‘I will give a picnic on Friday and ask all the station’ — Berengaria laughed — ‘including the Rudest Woman and the Two of Spades.’
‘No, don’t,’ I said, feeling sure that evil would come of it.
‘I will, I will!’ cried Berengaria. ‘Oh, what fun to see their faces when I ask them on the chaboutra to-morrow!’
‘I wouldn’t if I were you,’ I remonstrated.
Being a perfectly peaceful person myself, I hated rows of any sort, and this kind of thing I knew from bitter experience foreboded war to the knife. Besides, I had a vague premonition that the Rudest Woman in Asia’s native wit, aided and abetted by her imperfect acquaintance with the manners and rules of good society, might quite well turn the tables successfully on Berengaria.
As it happened, I was called from the station early the next day, and only returned on Friday morning. An hour after I had got back came a note from Berengaria: ‘So glad you have got back in time for the picnic. If you can come round for me at ten o’clock I’ll drive you there.’ So that confounded scheme of Berengaria’s was coming off, I thought. ‘Look out for squalls,’ was the only possible comment. But, of course, I was much too interested to miss it. I couldn’t get away as early as ten, however, so had to write round to Berengaria that I would drive down later.
When I arrived they were just going to sit down to tiffin. To my utter amazement, there was the Two of Spades talking amicably with Berengaria — nay, even as I looked, they linked arms in that confiding way impulsive feminine natures sometimes will. I marvelled at the surprises fate kept in store. To find the Two of Spades an honoured guest at the picnic given with the express purpose of putting her and her new-found friend to shame implied some sudden change in the position of affairs of which I had as yet no inkling.
Berengaria was not long in enlightening me. After tiffin the party scattered, and Berengaria and I strolled away together. She looked up at me with her fascinating smile as soon as we were alone.
‘I’m sure you’re dying to know how it comes to pass that the Two of Spades is at my picnic, aren’t you?’ she said.
I admitted that I was surprised.
‘Not curious?’ she asked. ‘Then you must be very different from the rest of your sex. Men are so curious.’
Now, if Berengaria was going to start off on the defects of men in general, I knew that I was in for many a home truth. I didn’t feel inclined for home truths just then. I was lazy and comfortable, having had a very good lunch, and my only desire was to spend the afternoon in a delightfully dreamy unconsciousness of things unpleasant. Besides, I was as curious as a man can be after a good lunch to know the mystery that surrounded the presence at the picnic of the Two of Spades. So I hastily admitted everything.
‘I confess,’ I said, ‘I am dying of curiosity.’
‘Well, it was like this,’ Berengaria began.
‘The day after that little scene on the chaboutra, I sent out invitations to all the station for a picnic here. I thought I would write to the Rudest Woman and the Two of Spades. I could tell them sweetly how sorry I was when I saw them in the afternoon, because it never entered my head but that they must refuse. Well, the Rudest Woman in Asia did refuse on the ground of her engagement with the Two of Spades. But what was my surprise to receive a note of acceptance from the latter: “I have cancelled my engagement with the Rudest Woman,” she wrote, “and shall be very pleased to come.” Ah, I thought, something has gone wrong here, so I drove down to the club in great glee. There on the chaboutra was the Two of Spades, but the Rudest Woman in Asia was not in her usual place. The Two of Spades at once began apologising in her weak sort of way, you know, and I soon had the whole story. “Even a worm will turn,” was the burden of it.
‘The poor thing, it seems, had submitted to be dragged out every morning at six o’clock to ride with the Rudest Woman. The Rudest Woman always rides every morning, you know, in the obviously unsuccessful endeavour to retain her figure. “It meant getting up by lamplight,” as the Two of Spades pathetically put it, and going out in the early morning always gave her fever, until, at last, her husband said he really wouldn’t allow it, especially as the Rudest Woman always borrowed his horse, and he said it was getting a sore back, she rode so badly. And then the poor little woman broke down and actually cried on the chaboutra. I took her for a walk across the compound, and heard the end of her story. It seems that when the Two of Spades had timidly suggested that she couldn’t ride any more at six o’clock, and that her husband couldn’t lend her a horse any more, the Rudest Woman in Asia had become abusive. “And what do you think she said at last?” sobbed the poor little woman. “She said my husband was a native, and that I wasn’t much better.”’
Then, at that point, I imagine Berengaria became kind and consoling, and the consequence was that the Two of Spades had transferred her short-lived allegiance from the Rudest Woman in Asia to one more worthy of it, and was, like the rest of us, a devoted admirer of Berengaria.
‘Do you think it’s really a second mutiny?’ was the eager inquiry that met me as I entered Berengaria’s drawing-room one afternoon at the beginning of the cold weather. Berengaria was visibly agitated, there was no denying the fact, and for the first time in the history of our acquaintance I suspected there was something of which she was afraid.
The officials in the station had been aware for some time of an under-current of unrest among the natives in the district. But the reports that filtered through the bazaar were vague and imaginary, and our peace of mind was not disturbed. But suddenly the alarm was sounded, and great was the flutter among the small official community at headquarters. News arrived that four constables had been attacked thirty miles away and the Thana destroyed, while the rioters were reported to be closing in on the station from all sides.
‘I’ve been practising all the morning with the Deputy Commissioner’s revolver,’ said Berengaria, during our discussion of the possibilities of events, ‘but I’m horribly afraid of it, and I never hit the bottle once, though I stood quite close. Miss Proudfoot did smash one bottle, though I’m almost certain she was shutting her eyes when she fired.’
‘Miss Proudfoot firing a revolver!’ I exclaimed, smiling at the incongruity of the person and the act.
‘Oh yes, I made her do it,’ said Berengaria decisively. ‘We must have some means of self-defence. I, for one, am not going to submit tamely to being killed as some women do. I mean to be prepared for anything that may happen. By the way’ — with an insensible lowering of tone — ‘I’m expecting Miss Proudfoot some time this evening. I’ve asked her to come and stay with me. You see, the Deputy Commissioner may be called away into the district at any moment, and I can’t be left alone.’
I smiled at the thought of Miss Proudfoot as a protection.
‘Of course, she won’t be of much use,’ said Berengaria doubtfully, as if divining my thoughts, ‘but still, she will be some one.’ That last statement was quite undeniable, though personally I should have preferred the room to the company of a lady who fired a revolver with her eyes shut.
‘And if it comes to dying,’ continued Berengaria morbidly, as she poured herself out another cup of tea, ‘well, I shouldn’t like to die alone.’
‘Are you coming down to the club to-night?’ I asked cheerfully, to distract her attention from such dismal thoughts. It was so unlike her to look at the dark side of things or to be afraid of anything in the world.
‘I hadn’t thought of going,’ she replied absently, her mind evidently still dwelling on sudden death and a lonely end.
‘But you’ll come, won’t you?’ I said.
‘There is the band to-night, and every one will be there.’
For a moment Berengaria hesitated. I wondered if she really was afraid.
‘I am expecting Miss Proudfoot,’ she said at last; and there could be no doubt any longer that Berengaria was afraid.
‘You will be sure to find her at the club,’ I said, ‘so you may as well come, won’t you? I will drive you down.’
So, left without any excuse, Berengaria reluctantly consented, and we were soon on our way to the club. As I expected, every one was there, gathered in force to discuss the one absorbing topic of the moment. Everything looked so peaceful and wore its usual familiar aspect that fear of the rioters almost vanished. At the sight of the groups on the veranda, and the sets of tennis and badminton in full swing, Berengaria’s spirits rose visibly.
‘I don’t think there is really any fear of riots in the station, do you?’ she said smilingly, as I helped her out of the tum-tum; and, of course, I assured her there was not.
But beneath the outward appearance of peace and quietness there was an undercurrent of excitement among the men and alarm among the ladies. The local Volunteers were to meet at the Town Hall at nine o’clock that night to patrol the town and outskirts. Some of them were not very cheerful at the prospect. The Judge had been heard to use an expressive term of disapprobation when the news was conveyed to him. He had not bargained for this sort of thing, he said, when he had been persuaded to join the Volunteers, and he declared his intention of immediately retiring to the peaceful ranks of the honorary members. The Doctor was offensively jubilant that he hadn’t to go out, and took a perverse delight in pointing out the discomforts and physical ailments likely to arise from a night in the saddle in the cold weather.
‘I shall have my hands full to-morrow,’ he said cheerfully, ‘not even counting the wounded.’
The Judge, who was portly and pompous, looked ill, and called for a peg.
‘You’ll make a splendid target,’ some one had told him, and the saying rankled uncomfortably in his mind.
It was dark, and we were playing snookers when the Deputy Commissioner drove up to bid Berengaria a hasty farewell. He was off into the district at once with several of the other officials in the station.
‘I knew that was what would happen,’ said Berengaria despondently, as she watched the lights of the Deputy Commissioner’s tum-tum disappear down the road. ‘I foresaw that we should be left to protect ourselves.’
‘You forget the Volunteers,’ I said impressively, having been once a Volunteer myself. But Berengaria refused to be cheered by the thought of any such martial protection.
Suddenly a bomb went off outside, quite close to the club. Who was responsible for that bomb no one ever discovered, but for a long time one or two of the gayer spirits lay under the suspicion of having perpetrated a practical joke, and, as far as the ladies were concerned, they were under a cloud for many days to come. That bomb was responsible for too great a show of palpitations and hysterics to be lightly forgiven. Berengaria was particularly angry. At the sound she had lost her nerve and fled towards the greater seclusion of the reading-room, and, as luck would have it, she had run straight into the Rudest Woman in Asia in the doorway. If the truth were known, the Rudest Woman was probably leaving the reading-room in as great a fright and hurry as Berengaria was entering it; but, of course, Berengaria could not know that, and consequently her shame was great.
But Berengaria might really have complimented herself on her calm behaviour compared with that of most of the other ladies there. Besides, such general confusion reigned that no one noticed anyone in particular. Everybody seemed seized with a sudden desire to go home, and tum-tums were ordered in haste. I could see my syce getting mine ready, too, so I went inside to find Berengaria. I found her engaged in an animated conversation with Miss Proudfoot in a corner of the reading-room.
‘You must come,’ I heard her say, half pleadingly, half imperatively, as I went up.
‘The tum-tum is just coming,’ I said, ‘if you’re ready.’
‘Yes, quite,’ said Berengaria hastily, without offering to make a move. She was still looking doubtfully at Miss Proudfoot, who persisted in looking the other way, and was evidently very much distressed. It was clearly a case of the stronger will, and the arrival of the tum-tum brought matters to a crisis.
‘Well, I shall expect you in time for dinner about eight o’clock,’ Berengaria said decisively, and turned to accompany me.
I thought the victory was hers, but Miss Proudfoot had one last card to play.
‘I really don’t think I can leave mother,’ she said, taking a step after us.
Berengaria whisked round with something that was almost a snort. Mrs. Proudfoot was a lady of whom the world of Slumpanaggur took no heed; she was of a still more retiring and apologetic disposition than her daughter, and forty years or more of self-effacement had done their work. Mrs. Proudfoot now only smiled and did embroidery. I could see that Berengaria longed to say something cutting. But she wanted Miss Proudfoot, so she must needs be diplomatic.
‘I tell you what, dear,’ she said, taking her arm and leading her out into the veranda and down the steps, ‘it’s a long drive for you alone. Come with us now, and we can send a note to your mother to let her know you’re all right, and to get your things.’
It was an excellent stroke of Berengaria’s, and most successful. Before Miss Proudfoot quite realised what had happened, she was seated in the tum-tum between Berengaria and myself, and we were bowling along the road towards the Deputy Commissioner’s.
That was not in any sense a pleasant drive. It was very dark, and the road was bad and bumpy, which, coupled with the fact that my tum-tum only comfortably seated two abreast, while we were seated three, did not tend to make things run smoothly. Then my two companions were ominously silent, and I knew that they expected an attack momentarily.
‘What’s that?’ Berengaria exclaimed once suddenly; and Miss Proudfoot declared she saw ‘something,’ and, I feel sure, would have indulged in a faint if only there had been room in the tum-tum.
A moment afterwards, just when we were on the darkest part of the road, something whizzed past our heads and struck a tree at the side. There was no mistaking that whizzing through the air, and a few paces further on an arrow fell at our feet in the tum-tum. Berengaria declared her belief that death was imminent, but, nevertheless, she picked up the arrow to keep as a souvenir ‘in case we did survive.’ Several other arrows flew near us as we came out in the open, though we could see no one, and the shelter of the Deputy Commissioner’s porch was a welcome haven after what had proved a very nasty drive.
Berengaria urged me not to risk my life on that road again, and persuaded me to stay to dinner. It was an excited meal, and Berengaria ate it in haste, prepared to fly at a moment’s notice. She hadn’t removed her hat, and by her side was a small dressing-bag, filled with meat lozenges and beef extract and a bottle of whisky. On the table lay the pistol, which I was much more afraid of in Berengaria’s hands than the arrows on the road.
Dinner was nearly over when a note was handed in to Berengaria. We watched her expectantly as she read it.
‘We are all to spend the night in the Town Hall,’ she said, looking up at last. ‘The Volunteers and the police are going to guard us there. It must be getting awfully serious, mustn’t it?’
I was surprised at the order, and didn’t relish the thought of driving Berengaria and Miss Proudfoot back along those two miles of road; but there seemed nothing else to be done.
‘If only I had a closed carriage,’ said Berengaria pathetically, as we awaited the arrival of the tum-tum. ‘If we ever live through this, I shall make the Deputy Commissioner give me one as a thank offering.’
I didn’t quite grasp the idea of the thank-offering, but there was no time then to pursue the subject.
‘I certainly wish you had some kind of protection,’ I said, ‘if there are going to be any more arrows flying about.’
I was sorry the moment I had spoken, for it only increased Berengaria’s alarm and Miss Proudfoot’s undisguised terror.
‘We really can’t go without something to ward off the arrows,’ said Berengaria, jumping up and looking round the room wildly. ‘We ought to have armour of some kind. Can’t you suggest anything, Miss Proudfoot?’
I thought Miss Proudfoot was much too frightened to be capable of suggestion, but I was wrong.
‘It sounds dreadfully absurd,’ she said, half hysterically, though pursued even in this crisis by her fear of the ridiculous, ‘but a frying-pan would be such an immense protection.’
‘A frying-pan!’ repeated Berengaria disdainfully, and yet thoughtfully, so that I could tell she was considering the idea. ‘Oh, well, you can easily have one.’
The kitmatghar was summoned, and soon produced two bright and shining specimens. There were only two of the right size, and Miss Proudfoot generously insisted on Berengaria’s taking one.
Berengaria, however, needed some persuasion.
‘I should never forgive myself if anyone saw me in these,’ she said, as we tied the frying-pan in front and the lid of a large saucepan behind; ‘but with a dust cloak over no one could possibly tell, and you must drive us round to the back of the Town Hall, where we can take them off quietly.’
And so we started. Miss Proudfoot had done the thing thoroughly, and had a frying-pan behind and a pie-dish and two saucepan-lids in front, while she held a saucepan in front of her, and I am sure would have put her head inside if she hadn’t been afraid we should laugh.
Berengaria was very nervous lest I, having no protection, might be shot, and in that case she would have to drive.
‘You had better let me fix you up with a saucepan-lid,’ she said, as we were starting.
I declined the offer, as I had once been a Volunteer.
‘Volunteers never wear armour, you know,’ I said gravely; and for once Berengaria sympathised with Volunteers.
Of course, as we were so well prepared, nothing happened during the drive to the Town Hall. Most of the people in the station had already collected there, and as we drove up, the Rudest Woman in Asia was just descending from the Doctor’s tum-tum.
‘Drive round to the back,’ Berengaria commanded in a whisper; but it was too late, for the Doctor was already hailing us, and waiting to help out Miss Proudfoot, who had been sitting on top.
‘Never mind,’ said Berengaria, poking Miss Proudfoot’s saucepan well under the seat, ‘we shall manage to get them off somehow.’
But the luck was against Berengaria that night. As Miss Proudfoot jumped out the pie-dish somehow lost its hold, and fell with a clatter on the Town Hall steps.
‘Hallo!’ said the Doctor in his brusque way, as he stooped to pick it up. ‘What’s this? Why, a pie-dish, by all that’s holy!’
‘Yes, yes,’ said Miss Proudfoot, hastily recovering her breastplate, and giving the whole show away in her nervousness. ‘They were shooting arrows along the road, so I wore this to protect myself.’
The Doctor turned away to hide a smile, and the Rudest Woman in Asia laughed outright from the top of the steps. From Berengaria’s expression at that moment I knew that her chief desire was to turn and rend the unfortunate Miss Proudfoot. But there was worse to come. The Rudest Woman in Asia had many a grudge against Berengaria, and her opportunity had come. If Miss Proudfoot, coming from Berengaria’s, wore pie-dishes, what might not Berengaria herself be wearing?
Running down the steps, she put her arm affectionately round Berengaria. There could be no mistaking the feel of that frying-pan.
‘I am so glad to see you safe, dear,’ she said effusively and with a touch of sarcasm that was not lost on her victim. And then she did what Berengaria never forgave. She tapped her playfully, yet firmly withal, with the fan she carried, and the sound of that frying-pan went abroad! I trembled to think of Berengaria’s revenge. It might tarry, but it would surely come; and when it came, I felt that I should be sorry even for the Rudest Woman in Asia.
The night passed peacefully but uncomfortably for those within and without the Town Hall, and in the morning we returned to our homes, and the trouble had passed as quietly and mysteriously as it had come. If I had not been there myself, I should have said that those arrows on the road from the club to the Deputy Commissioner’s were the result of imagination. Everybody did say so when Berengaria recounted the story; so I had to come forward and support her statements. But I always avoided the subject, as I felt even my reputation for truth was not sufficient to impress the sceptics who had seen no arrows.
We had arranged a duck shoot that morning. Not that a duck shoot was at all an unusual event on our camping tour; on the contrary, we invariably set out with our guns in quest of the wily bird whenever there was anything in the shape of a tank or jhil within reasonable distance.
We were camping ‘somewhere in India,’ as Berengaria’s friends addressed their letters, which only Berengaria’s fame enabled to reach their destination. The party consisted of the Deputy Commissioner, Berengaria, and myself — these three, and the greatest of these was Berengaria!
The fates had decreed that the duck shoot that morning was to be no ordinary one: it became the chief subject of conversation with Berengaria for many months to come, and Berengaria’s conversation was always interesting.
Our previous attempts in the shikari line had not led us to forecast anything very exciting when we made our plans for that particular day. We had become so used to repeated disappointments that, as the Deputy Commissioner said, he, at least, was now quite callous. Duck shooting to us had become mere routine, with such exasperatingly similar results had one expedition followed another. We would sally forth in dim grey dawn, shivering with cold, but buoyed up, at least for my part, with a secret hope. Arrived at the jhil, we would find it literally covered with duck, and, forgetful of past disappointments, hope would revive even in the callous mind of the Deputy Commissioner. We would distort ourselves into the most horrible shapes as we wriggled along the ground to stalk the all too wary birds. Topees discarded, we would crawl along with breaking backs, till just as we congratulated ourselves that the long-expected reward of perseverance was ours, there would be a sudden commotion, a whirr of wings, and the whole flight circling over our heads just tantalisingly out of gunshot.
This had been our fate every day for the last three weeks, with only very occasional variations in the shape of a bag of two or three. Even Berengaria, who generally awaited the result of our expeditions in all the comfort of a deckchair outside her tent, was beginning to lose interest and spitefully regale us with stories of what her brothers used to shoot in some remote period of the past, place unspecified. Now, if there is one thing more annoying than another, it is to come home empty from a shoot and be told how successful some one else used to be. However, at length, we had an exciting day, though the form of excitement was perhaps not quite the one we should have chosen.
The morning that was to prove so eventful broke cold and grey. It was one of those mornings of an Indian winter when to awake ‘somewhere in India’ is to shiver, and to make the final plunge out of bed a pain and grief.
My first impression that morning was of the figure of the Deputy Commissioner standing at the door of my tent clad in pyjamas and an overcoat. By the way, how the Deputy Commissioner could walk about in nothing but pyjamas and an overcoat those bitterly cold mornings I never could understand. But after all, that was only one of the many things neither I nor anyone else could ever understand about the Deputy Commissioner.
Summoning all the determination I possessed I tore myself from the warmth of many blankets and struggled into some clothes in the chill, cold air. Stumbling in the half-light across many ropes to the dining tent, I ran against Berengaria.
‘You surely are not coming, too,’ I said in amazement.
‘Oh yes, I am,’ said Berengaria. ‘One of the zemindars has just sent to say he has got us some boats on a big jhil about two miles off, so I thought I would come. There will be no horrid tramping and crawling to do, and I haven’t been out shooting at all this camp yet; so perhaps I shall bring you luck.’
All through chota haziri Berengaria was very lively, prophesying great thing from the boats, which would enable us to stalk the birds very easily, and with a minimum of trouble, she thought. We agreed to take some lunch with us, as the jhil was large, and we hoped not to frighten all the birds away at once. The Deputy Commissioner and I sat and shivered, while Berengaria, with much help on the part of the kitmatghar, packed the luncheon basket. We were quite certain that the most important thing would be left behind, but, of course, we could not be expected to make any suggestion when Berengaria asked us what else was wanted. So she said it would be our own fault if anything was missing. Now, of course, it’s easy enough to find out what’s wanting when once you start eating, but I never could see how a mere man can be expected to know anything about such things beforehand. Still, if anything was missing, Berengaria would always say with an air of conviction: ‘There! I told you so,’ just as if she had not had the remotest connexion with the previous history of the luncheon basket. And somehow, in those days, we always submitted to the implied accusation and looked guilty.
However, on this particular day we hadn’t even the chance of discovering anything missing in that luncheon basket, and I don’t expect the fishes or the ducks, if they ever found it, complained of its composition.
At length we were ready, and a start was made. Arrived at the jhil after a smart canter along the road, which managed to warm us at last, we found the boats awaiting us. Berengaria’s ardour was somewhat cooled by the sight of them. They certainly did look particularly light and narrow, and mine gave an ominous lurch as I stepped into it as gingerly as I could. However, Berengaria was much too proud to show any sign of timidity, and she was soon safely deposited at the end of the Deputy Commissioner’s boat, behind a mass of reeds and grass which had been propped up there to try and deceive the wily duck. It was not a comfortable position, crouching down in the boat, as Berengaria soon discovered, especially as the Deputy Commissioner was crouching just behind her with his gun, and, as we all knew, the Deputy Commissioner’s gun was always much more dangerous to human life than to feathered fowls.
Paddled along at a wonderful rate of speed by scantily clothed natives, we soon came in view of the ducks. It was a grand sight. Far away in front stretched the jhil with its patches of reeds and islands of jungle growth, and here and there its open spaces black with duck, while away to the left rose the hills, which stood out more clearly every moment as the sun dispersed the mist and made the face of the water shine like a mirror. On the right lay one vast stretch of jungle. There was nowhere a touch of human workmanship to the whole picture to mar the impressiveness of its grandeur and solitude.
Berengaria was so engrossed by the beauty of the scene that she sat upright in the boat and began to talk, and her white topee gleamed in the sunlight over the top of the reeds and rushes that had been put up to hide it. It needed all the Deputy Commissioner’s expostulation to reduce her to a shikari frame of mind again as we cautiously approached our nearest prey. Silently, from opposite directions, with scarce a ripple of the surface of the water, we drew nearer and nearer. It was an anxious moment, and, with my finger on the trigger of my gun, I almost held my breath in suspense in the pause before I fired. With a scarce perceptible motion now we crept on, and still the duck showed all the signs of blissful ignorance of our approach. But just when the tension reached its height, and we were within about twenty yards, there was a sudden fluttering of wings, and the whole group rose. I expended both my barrels into the midst of them, and to my great satisfaction I counted five birds fall straight as a die plump on the water in a manner to bring joy to any shikari’s heart. Straight away from me flew the rest of the birds, and directly over the Deputy Commissioner’s boat, which had been some way farther off than mine. It gave him a chance of a grand shot, the whole flight in one mass, low down on the wing and unsuspecting. I looked across intently to see the result, and caught a glimpse of the Deputy Commissioner’s contortions to get a good shot from his cramped position in the narrow little boat. Then what happened I never could quite tell. Both barrels went off, and in the twinkling of an eye there was the boat floating peacefully upside down, with never a trace of its late occupants. I gazed in amazement, hardly able to believe the evidence of my eyes, when up bobbed the woebegone face of Berengaria, dripping, mud-stained, and spluttering. I hurried off to the rescue, and succeeded in getting Berengaria on to the up-turned boat, while the Deputy Commissioner, spluttering and muttering words that at any other time would have horrified Berengaria, scrambled up beside her. In fact, tell it not in Gath, for I really couldn’t swear to it, but I do believe Berengaria’s first exclamation, when the water she had got down her throat allowed her to exclaim at all, was a well-known little word of four letters. It was an irresistibly funny sight — those two soaked figures sitting on the upturned boat, in their mud-stained garments — for the jhil was fortunately muddy rather than deep — with all Berengaria’s wonted dignity gone. It was all I could do to prevent myself laughing and forfeiting Berengaria’s regard for ever.
That home-coming was painful. Berengaria’s dignity revived as the shock passed off, and the sun did its best to make her feel less damp; but, alas! every hairpin had been left at the bottom of the jhil, and I made a discovery that had never even been whispered in the station before. Berengaria wore false hair! Fortunately for her, and for us, it had been saved, and now reposed peacefully, if rather moistly, in the unwonted seclusion of Berengaria’s pocket. However, before we reached home she had resolved to treat the whole expedition and its dramatic ending as a great joke; and, with one important and natural omission, the story of this famous shoot was repeated by her with many extra touches to all our occasional visitors for the rest of the tour.
I was really astounded when I heard it. Knowing Berengaria as I did, I was always prepared for the unexpected, but I never anticipated this. She was bringing those three dreadful children of hers out from home and back to Slumpanaggur at the beginning of the hot weather!
For a year Slumpanaggur had not known Berengaria, the Deputy Commissioner, and ‘the Three.’ At the commencement of the previous hot weather the Deputy Commissioner had taken the leave which he had so well earned and so long postponed, intending not to come out again until the beginning of the cold weather in the following year, after eighteen months at home. When he had been home just a year, however, he suddenly got an offer from Government of the Commissionership of Slumpanaggur, which had unexpectedly fallen vacant. Government was just then very short of officers, it being the beginning of the hot weather, when many had either already gone or were about to go on leave, hence the offer of the post to the Deputy Commissioner. Now to be the BurraMemsahib in Slumpanaggur, the head and centre of society in that most delectable of Mofussil stations, was a great thing in the eyes of Berengaria, and she and the Deputy Commissioner — or I should now say the Commissioner — set out in haste at only five days’ notice to assume all honours. At the very last moment it appeared Berengaria had suddenly discovered that she loved the dear children so much that she could not let them be separated from her, with the result that they were dragged away at a moment’s notice, regardless of the fact that they would be arriving in India during the worst of the hot weather, and that their outfit, as the Rudest Woman in Asia took care repeatedly to point out when they did arrive, was hopelessly incomplete and inadequate.
It may be imagined what Slumpanaggur said when it heard that ‘the Three’ were returning. Midget, Dolly, and Stuffy were aged eight, six, and five respectively when they left for home rather hurriedly after Stuffy’s famous performance at the Lieutenant-Governor’s dinner, and that was more than a year ago. To bring back to India children of that age was totally against all accepted canons, and no one but Berengaria would have thought of doing it.
‘There is nothing like home influence,’ she said the first time I saw her after her return. ‘It may only be a home in India in the plains in the hot weather, but it’s a home, and as such its influence must make itself felt.’
‘There is certainly nothing like example,’ I said, trying to think of something pleasant to say.
‘The Commissioner is certainly all that could be desired in that way,’ she admitted.
‘And you, too, of course,’ I added.
‘Do you know, I’m not so sure,’ she answered, with a fascinating smile and glance at me. ‘I don’t believe I ought to talk so much to you.’
We both laughed.
‘But, seriously, for the sake of the children, I don’t think we ought to see each other quite so often in future,’ she went on. ‘They are growing up now, and I am so anxious to set them a good example.’
‘But they are much too young to have any ideas on the subject!’ I protested, unwilling to be sacrificed for the sake of three children whom I did not love.
‘Oh, but I’m afraid they are not too young,’ said Berengaria. ‘If only you had heard what Stuffy said about you the other night!’
Of course, I was naturally very keen to know what Stuffy had said, but Berengaria flatly refused to tell me. No amount of persuasion would induce her to disclose it, and, when I got hold of Stuffy surreptitiously later on, and tried to find out from him what he had said, I met with no greater success. He was at first extremely reticent when I tackled him about it, and, even after the inducement of many bribes, I was able to get nothing further from him than that he had called me a ‘very nice man.’ Therefore, to this day I do not know what it was that Stuffy said about me. Now, nothing is more annoying than to know that somebody has called you something which can hardly be complimentary behind your back, and not to know what that something is. So I naturally hated Stuffy with a deadly hatred, which, however, I flattered myself that I concealed with more dignity than some of those many others who also hated Stuffy, not without just cause.
Now, of all those who bore him enmity, none was more bitter than the Rudest Woman in Asia. There was no one else in all Slumpanaggur of whom she stood in awe, not even of Berengaria; but it was common report that she really was afraid of Stuffy. Now, love may or may not cast out fear, but fear certainly does cast out love, of which little remained between Stuffy and the Rudest Woman. One of their encounters in particular created great excitement at the time, and has been one of the stock stories of Slumpanaggur ever since. The Rudest Woman had been suddenly and most unaccountably inspired to give a children’s party a short time after Berengaria’s return, and, of course, ‘the Three ’ were bidden. They duly arrived, suitably garbed, attended by the devoted Miss Simpkin, and looking as demure as only ‘the Three’ could look when they liked. Everything had gone well until Stuffy was discovered filling his pockets with the little silver ornaments that adorned the Rudest Woman’s silver-table. Now, her silver-table was the pride of the Rudest Woman’s heart, and one of the silver ornaments was found to have been broken when finally dislodged, after much protest, from the depths of Stuffy’s trouser pockets. Whereupon the Rudest Woman had lost her temper, and, calling Stuffy a ‘nasty little thief,’ had sent him off home in disgrace. Stuffy was too tearful then to be able to retaliate, but he was evidently one who bided his time, and did not forget, as events proved.
It was on the following day at the club that his opportunity came. Berengaria was not there, and it was easy to escape from Miss Simpkin and the other children at play under the trees to one side of the club-house. Most of the ladies of the station were seated on the chaboutra reading the English papers, which had arrived that morning, their chairs arranged in the stiff, prim order that a native loves, in the form of a circle. Suddenly Stuffy rushed into the midst of them, and planted himself full in the centre of the group facing the Rudest Woman, his hands deep in his pockets, his legs apart. Everybody looked up from their papers at the sudden apparition. The Rudest Woman and Stuffy looked straight at one another.
‘I don’t like you,’ said Stuffy brutally, in a loud voice.
The Rudest Woman looked him up and down with a scathing glance that would have crushed anyone less intrepid.
‘You’re very old and very fat,’ he went on, regarding her with an eye that never flinched under her withering glance.
The Rudest Woman, according to an eyewitness, winced visibly at this brutal shaft, but her eyes flashed angrily at the sturdy little figure that stood its ground so fearlessly before her.
‘And’ — he paused impressively — ‘you’re the Rudest Woman in Asia — everybody says so.’
The sensation, as may be imagined, was enormous. It is currently believed in Slumpanaggur that this was the first time the Rudest Woman had ever heard the nickname by which she was known in the station, and those who were present say that even her worst enemy must have been sorry for her just then. For a moment there was an awful pause, then all the ladies, with one consent, got up and moved away, ostensibly in search of their papers, leaving the Rudest Woman and Stuffy alone on the chaboutra. Now, the ladies of Slumpanaggur made a fatal mistake, which they were afterwards not slow to realise, in leaving those two alone on the chaboutra, since there was consequently no one present to report what subsequently occurred between them. It was unfortunate, since what Stuffy said further to the Rudest Woman and what the Rudest Woman said to Stuffy must have been interesting. They were, however, in full view of the club veranda, whence many spectators watched them surreptitiously. It was observed that an animated conversation ensued between them, but the only sentence that reached the eagerly listening ears on the veranda was one in Stuffy’s high-pitched, angry voice:
‘If you do, I’ll bite you.’
What it was that the Rudest Woman had threatened to do no one knows, but it is evident that she did not do it, or else Stuffy did not keep his word. To the intense disappointment of the spectators no pitched battle took place, and almost immediately afterwards Miss Simpkin, hastily fetched by some foolish spoiler of sport from the side veranda, whence her charge had escaped, appeared upon the scene, and Stuffy was removed chuckling in that horrid little old-man way he had as if all the honours lay with him.
Thus it was not surprising that the Rudest Woman was loudest in her condemnation of Berengaria’s action in bringing those children out again. Of course, it was an absurd thing to do. The hot weather was in full swing when they arrived, and it was hardly possible to keep them down in Slumpanaggur all through it and during the rains, while, apart from this, they were now of an age when they ought to have been given a chance of growing up like the average English boy and girl in an English home. Stuffy had been so un-English when he left India a year before that the language he knew best was Hindustani. It was one of Berengaria’s many theories that he should not speak English at all until he went home, lest he should get a chi-chi accent. The result was that until Stuffy was getting on for five it was almost impossible to talk to him in English, of which he knew only a few sentences, and one had to use Hindustani. Now, as Berengaria’s was the ordinary Anglo-Indian memsahib’s Hindustani of the wildest and most ungrammatical description, the conversations that took place between them were often intensely funny, and it occasionally happened that the ayah, who spoke some broken English, had to intervene as interpreter between mother and son, which somehow, even to a bachelor like me, didn’t seem quite right.
When Stuffy returned from England, however, he did speak English, though for a long time I always thought that he spoke it hesitatingly, as one speaks a foreign language. Berengaria was very keen on his learning to recite, as she thought it the best means of improving his English, and so the unfortunate Stuffy was made to learn off by heart long selections of poetry to recite to the equally unfortunate people who were forced to listen. He seldom had the remotest idea of the meaning of what he recited, but, of course, that was a trifle. Hymns, on which Berengaria was particularly keen, he particularly disliked. Why, I could never quite understand, as I should have thought them easier to remember than most things in the poetry line, since if they don’t always quite rhyme they always mean to do so. Every Sunday afternoon Berengaria religiously set aside an hour to teach Stuffy a new hymn, which poor Stuffy had to repeat every day of the week until a fresh one succeeded it.
The first Sunday after their return I breakfasted with the family at eleven o’clock, and afterwards Berengaria gathered the children round her in the drawing-room in her charmingly maternal hen-like way. The hymn she had chosen for that day was the well-known one in which occur the lines:
‘And Satan trembles when he sees
> The weakest saint upon his knees.’
All went well until we got to them. These two lines Stuffy repeated two or three times with a thoughtful frown on his expressive little face; then he stopped, evidently puzzled.
‘Go on, dear, repeat them again,’ said Berengaria encouragingly.
‘No,’ said Stuffy decidedly, shaking his head; ‘I not like them.’
‘Not like them,’ exclaimed Berengaria, shocked and hurt. ‘Oh, Stuffy!’
Stuffy looked up at her, serious and earnest as if something puzzled him, yet as if he were not quite sure if he would confide his difficulty and ask an explanation. Then he suddenly blurted it out:
‘But why should the saint sit on Satan’s knees?’
For a moment I failed to grasp the working of Stuffy’s mind, and then I saw what he meant, and Berengaria saw, and we both laughed so immoderately that Stuffy got annoyed and, seizing the opportunity, escaped. When he was brought back and the possessive adjectives assigned to their rightful owners, Stuffy was exceedingly cross, and I am sure if he had been older would have said hard things of hymns and hymn writers. The moral of which is, if you are going to write hymns be careful of your possessive adjectives, lest the minds of little boys be thereby greatly troubled.
It was only a few days later that I again encountered the amusing side of those children. I had gone round to see Berengaria early in the afternoon, and found her still taking her siesta, so I had strolled into the nursery to see the children. I came upon them all three seated at the table deeply engrossed in a book over which all three heads were bent in the deepest interest. As I entered there was a scramble, and all three sat up straight and self-conscious, while Midget very obviously hid the book under her pinafore. Of course I was curious to know what new mischief was afoot, and I asked them what it was they were reading. They refused at first to tell me what the book was about, but at last Midget explained.
‘We were looking through the advertisements in a newspaper the other day,’ she said, pulling the book out from underneath her pinafore, but still keeping her hand upon it, ‘and saw a book advertised: “Advice to mothers. How to bring up children.” So we sent for it.’
‘To see if we had been brought up properly,’ added Dolly.
‘And we don’t think we have,’ chimed in Stuffy, leaning forward with the most serious and earnest look on his little old-young face.
I laughed. They were all three so absurdly in earnest and serious.
‘Besides, we may have children of our own some day,’ explained Midget thoughtfully, ‘and we think we ought to know how to bring them up.’
‘I don’t think I shall have any,’ said Dolly; ‘mother says they are such a nuisance.’
‘That’s you,’ chuckled Stuffy. Then, ‘I shall have one,’ he announced, ‘just to show I can afford it. But I shan’t want it.’
‘Not want it?’ I exclaimed. ‘Why not?’
‘Because,’ said Stuffy slowly, eyeing me seriously the while — ‘because I think it’ll be like you.’
I took the hint and fled.
‘This is the last meet I shall probably be at in Slumpanaggur,’ said Berengaria as we were arranging plans for gymkhanas and tournaments of all descriptions, ‘and I mean to make it a success.’
Of course, it was nominally a Volunteer meet — every meet in Slumpanaggur was. It seemed to be regarded as a duty to bring in a little volunteering in the morning to counterbalance, as it were, the frivolities of the rest of the day, and a stern duty that hour in the saddle in the early morning sometimes proved, with the strains of the music of the last night’s dance still ringing in one’s ears. Still, one might grumble as much as one liked on parade, but woe betide the man who had the courage of his convictions and stayed away!
It was just at the beginning of the hot weather that we got up this meet. The idea originated — like so many other ideas in Slumpanaggur — with Berengaria, and it was only her energy that carried it through. As she said, it was probably the last meet she would be present at in the station, as the Deputy Commissioner was taking furlough, and they were going home in May. So Berengaria was determined to make it a success.
Now the meets in Slumpanaggur had always been productive of much heartburning, and they were responsible for many of the feuds that broke up the peace of the station long after the meets themselves had been forgotten. There was the regulation concert, for instance: that always gave those who wanted to fight a chance. There were so many people in the station who had an exalted idea of their own musical abilities that it was almost as impossible as it was undesirable to ask them all to perform. Berengaria had asked me round to tea to discuss the momentous question of the concert which was to open the meet on the first night, and we were trying to decide impartially the claims of the various aspirants.
‘There is one thing I’m quite determined on,’ she said, as we began the discussion: ‘the Rudest Woman in Asia shall not be allowed to sing this time.’
That was a reminiscence of the last concert. Then the Rudest Woman had sung a comic song that had shocked — or, at least, they pretended that it had — some of the good ladies of Slumpanaggur. That, as Berengaria had said, was bad enough, but, what was worse to the musical critic, she had sung out of tune — ‘as out of tune as a hot weather bird trying to run up the tonic-solfa scale.’ So the Rudest Woman was not asked to sing again, but she had her revenge by making rude remarks when Berengaria sang.
The funniest item about that concert, when it did come off after many rehearsals and much ill-feeling, was undoubtedly the Shy Young Stranger’s song. He was a nice boy, as Berengaria called him, and was staying with the Judge, and it was only after much persuasion that he was got to sing.
‘It isn’t that I haven’t enough people to sing,’ Berengaria told me, ‘but I must have a young element among the singers. People shan’t say that no one but old stagers performed at my concert.’
So the Shy Young Stranger was impressed into the service, and, after several practices with Berengaria, he decided to sing ‘Little Dolly Daydreams.’ The time came, and the Shy Young Stranger mounted the platform, looking shyly over the top of his song-book. Now, if you know ‘Little Dolly Daydreams,’ you will know that the accompanist has a long piece of music to get through before the singer gets a look in. Well, the song was new then, and the audience began to wonder what had happened, as the accompaniment went on and on, and the Shy Young Stranger still looked shyly over the top of his music. Every one waited in breathless expectation, as the embarrassment of the singer visibly increased. Could it possibly be that he was too nervous to begin? But at last his time came, and the song started with the words, sung in a diffident, half apologetic sort of voice, ‘I’ve waited long to have my say.’ It was too comic an opening after the long wait for the prelude, and the unfortunate singer got no further than that first line. A roar of laughter convulsed the audience, and the Shy Young Stranger had to wait till order was restored before he could proceed with the song.
‘That’s the first time I’ve sung at a concert,’ the youth confided to me afterwards, ‘and, by Jove, I’ll “wait long” before I sing at another.’
Still, his song was undoubtedly the making of that concert, which otherwise passed off much as concerts usually do, those who thought they could sing, and hadn’t been asked, making as unpleasant remarks as possible on their more successful rivals, and those who had been asked to sing feeling pleased and flattered. So all parties probably enjoyed themselves.
The other evenings during the meet were occupied with dances and dinners. There were no theatricals this time. The Rudest Woman in Asia had tried to get some up just to show that she could do it as well as Berengaria had done when she got up ‘Denham’s Wife.’ But Berengaria had taken prompt action, and filled up every night of the meet, so that the Rudest Woman was forced to abandon them. She consoled herself, however, by giving a dinner-party the night before the meet began, and having some theatricals in her own house afterwards. But as neither Berengaria nor myself was favoured with an invitation, I can’t give an authentic account of them. Of course, those who were present were so pleased at being asked that they said they were excellent.
The gymkhana went off most successfully. Berengaria devised some novelties both for bicyclists and riders. The good old Victoria Cross race on bicycles, however, proved by far the most amusing item. The dummies had been made to represent the different ladies of the station, and were wearing costumes that had once been worn by the originals themselves, so that the likenesses might be as perfect as possible. Some of the dummies were really excellent representations. The Rudest Woman in Asia’s well-known features and characteristics were carried out most successfully — in fact, so successfully that I rather suspected Berengaria of having made that dummy. She proved, too, quite as troublesome to the unfortunate bicyclist to whose lot she fell as she did to every one in real life. It was the little Doctor who had drawn her, and his frantic struggles to dispose of her across the handle-bars or on his back were a very comic sight. She finally brought the little Doctor to grief, her skirts getting mixed up in the back wheel; but her own fate was sad, as the pedal crushed in her face when the fall came. I’m afraid no one sympathised with that dummy, and I did hear some one say that they would like to see just such a fall, metaphorically speaking, happen to the original herself.
The Rudest Woman in Asia didn’t seem to be in luck that day. In the arithmetic race she suffered a humiliating defeat. The prize was a handsome teapot, and most of the ladies coveted it.
‘I’ve quite set my heart on that,’ I had heard the Rudest Woman say as we were looking at the prizes. ‘Now, I wonder who the fastest runner in the station is?’
The race was for a gentleman nominated by a lady to run a hundred yards and give his nominator a sum to be added up, with which he had to return to the starting-point — first in with correct answer to win. The Rudest Woman had finally decided on a young planter as the most promising runner, and she felt certain of winning. Her tremendous self-confidence never allowed her to doubt her powers as an arithmetician, and she added up the sum with assurance and much speed.
‘Oh, I’ve won!’ she said a moment later, as she saw her nominee reach the winning-post well ahead of the second man, who was Berengaria’s nominee. ‘The tea-pot is mine!’
But, alas! when her sum was presented to the judge it was found to be hopelessly wrong, and she had the humiliation of seeing the prize go to Berengaria, who had proved a better mathematician.
But the Rudest Woman had her revenge by winning the badminton tournament, though how she won it is a tale that will long be told in Slumpanaggur. No one was very keen on badminton, and though every one went in for the tournament, no one took very much interest in it except the Rudest Woman in Asia, who was determined to secure one prize during the meet by some means or other. So slack was the whole thing that several of the games were played off without an umpire, and thus the Rudest Woman got her chance.
She had drawn a very good player, and they had already vanquished several couples. But they met at last a couple who proved unexpectedly good — the Shy Young Stranger and Miss Proudfoot. The Rudest Woman had never seen the former play, and it was rather a shock to her to find him exceptionally good. She was one of those people who never could play a losing game, and after losing the first game she lost her temper too. The second game was going decidedly against her, and she evidently couldn’t trust herself to win. Perhaps she recognised the meekness of her two opponents, and decided in a moment of weakness to play upon it. Their score was seventeen, while the Rudest Woman’s was, I think, eleven or twelve, though no one could be quite sure — which was the pity of it. It came to her turn to serve.
‘Seventeen all,’ she cried as she hit the shuttlecock over the net.
‘Oh, surely not,’ said Miss Proudfoot apologetically, as she hit it back.
‘Seventeen all,’ the Rudest Woman repeated, as she returned it again viciously.
‘I thought you were only twelve,’ said Miss Proudfoot quite boldly.
‘You should keep the score more carefully,’ said the Rudest Woman, as the shuttlecock flew backwards and forwards.
Then for a moment the rallies were too keen for words. But at last the shuttlecock fell on Miss Proudfoot’s side.
‘Eighteen, seventeen,’ said the Rudest Woman, preparing for another serve.
Then Miss Proudfoot gathered up her last reserve of courage. I never admired her so much as at that moment, for the Rudest Woman, waiting to serve with the shuttlecock in hand, looked formidable.
‘Stop!’ cried Miss Proudfoot across the net, blushing at her own boldness, but with unwonted determination in her voice. She turned for support to her partner, the Shy Young Stranger. ‘What’s the score?’ she said.
For a moment the Shy Young Stranger wavered, then caught the Rudest Woman’s eye, and the game was lost.
‘I — I’m afraid I don’t know,’ he stammered hopelessly. ‘I’ve quite lost count.’
From that moment the Shy Young Stranger was the favourite of the Rudest Woman.
Poor Miss Proudfoot was too dazed to resist such treachery on the one side and such effrontery on the other, and the game proceeded.
‘Eighteen, seventeen,’ cried the Rudest Woman triumphantly, as she served to the Shy Young Stranger. But he was quite demoralised now and missed every stroke, while Miss Proudfoot still seemed dazed. And that was how the Rudest Woman in Asia won the badminton tournament in Slumpanaggur.
‘Some insects are so very small, I really wonder they find it worth while living,’ said Berengaria, as she flicked a microscopic specimen off her spotless white cuff. We were sitting on the one rickety seat the tennis ground boasted, and watching a quartet whose play was in no wise remarkable, save for its frequent interruptions and fierce wordy disputes as to faults and points.
‘Yes,’ I replied contemplatively, ‘what a curious life an insect’s must be.’
‘A brilliant idea!’ cried Berengaria, ever ready for some new distraction. ‘Let us write the life of an insect. I was reading the biography of a baby the other day. It was really very amusing, and I don’t see at all why an insect’s should be a bit less funny. Let’s try. We’ll both write the life of a gandi, and then read them out to one another. It ought to be capital sport.’
‘Yes, great fun,’ I said complacently, without the least intention of cultivating any further acquaintance than I already had with that loathsome insect, and never for a moment expecting that Berengaria would remember her erratic proposal two minutes later.
Judge of my surprise when I turned up at breakfast at Berengaria’s invitation the next morning to find her awaiting me with a neatly written page of foolscap in her hand.
‘Well,’ was her first greeting, ‘have you written the life of a gandi?’
With characteristic impetuosity, she never waited to hear my apologetic negative, but proceeded at once to read from the paper in her hand. I lay back in the long deck-chair and chuckled. It was too funny to see the stately Berengaria, with her curious and mysterious smile, perched on the edge of a settee solemnly reading the life of a gandi! I only regret I cannot lend to the words the dramatic reading of Berengaria.
‘I was unfortunate enough to be born a gandi. I suppose it is pure chance what one is born, but still, I do think it very hard luck to have been born a gandi. If people would only realise that that might have been their fate, I am sure they would be more sympathetic and put up with our little failings in a much kinder spirit. Besides, they ought to remember that if they are not very careful, mine may be their fate in another existence. I was once a man — though you would hardly believe it — and I remember quite distinctly some part of my former life, though what I can have done to deserve such a dreadful reincarnation I cannot for the life of me recollect. I tremble to think what I shall be next, though there is always this consolation, that it cannot be much worse.
‘Only yesterday I found myself crawling on my grandson’s table, as he and his young wife sat at dinner. He is a great swell now, holding a high position in the station, and I chuckled to myself to think how sick he would be if he only knew his boasted grandfather had become a gandi. But, alas! my chuckling was brought to a speedy termination, for the conceited young cub stretched out his heavy great hand and quickly flicked me off the table. I was most indignant, and longed to tell him what I thought of him; but I suppose I really got off easily, as I heard his wife saying, as I fell sprawling on the ground, “Oh, Charlie dear, why did you not kill the horrid thing!” How I hated that woman, although she was my granddaughter by marriage. I sincerely hope she may be a gandi some day.
‘But I haven’t yet touched on the terrible thing that makes our life so pathetic. I really hardly like to expose our suffering to the rude, unsympathetic public gaze, but still, I do think it right that people should know, so that, perhaps, they may not be quite so scornful and regard us so disdainfully. I needn’t mention the unpleasant odour we are condemned to bear perpetually about with us, but I wonder how many people know the awful fact that we ourselves are burdened with keen olfactory nerves! Was ever anything so pathetic? Think of the misery of it! To carry about with one this terrible burden that the sweetest and freshest breeze of the air cannot waft away, or the scent of the rarest flower mitigate. I feel myself at times as if I should be overpowered, and gasp for breath as if I were suffocating. Never for a moment is there any cessation, and every breath is an agony. I go to sleep whenever I can, as that is the only possible way to forget the unending misery of our existence. I have serious thoughts of suicide, but I dread the thought of beginning a new and unknown life. Oh dear! Oh dear! This awful odour, I feel sick and faint!
‘Even my birth was strange. I was born at the same time as six struggling little chickens among the straw under a kuruk murghi. It was an extremely unpleasant position to begin life in, and I ran great danger of being trampled to death at the very outset. It was terribly dark and the atmosphere close and suffocating, and the awful odour that I know so well now first smote upon my keen olfactory nerves. But in those first moments of infancy I did not realise the awful legacy that was mine, and vainly thought to escape it by clambering out into the daylight. As I shifted uneasily among the straw, a tiny chicken pounced upon me, and I only just managed to escape its horrid little claws and beak. But, alas! when I finally emerged from the straw into the daylight, the awful reality of my existence was borne in upon me, and I wandered aimlessly away, groaning in bitterness of spirit.
‘The first creature I met was a ladybird, and I eagerly claimed her as a relative. To my intense disgust, she merely sniffed disdainfully and turned away without a word. To be disowned by a relative simply because she has gayer clothes is very hard, and I dislike all ladybirds now and never try to make friends. I am bound to say they never give me the slightest chance, and shun me as if I had the plague; but, then, nobody ever did show me any kindness.
‘Even now, as I write beneath the shade of this large green leaf of the pepul-tree, my life is extremely precarious. A woodpecker has just made a pounce for me and almost got me. Though how he can think me a tasty morsel I cannot conceive. There is a hawk, too, on the next branch, which has been eyeing me for a long time, and I feel too dull and sick and faint to get out of his way. I wonder if this is really committing suicide to stay here with the hawk’s eye fixed upon me. I feel quite reckless now. Yes, that hawk is coming. I knew he was. It is too late to escape now. I really do wonder what I shall be next. Ah—’
We had all begun to wonder what had become of Berengaria. Night after night she put in no appearance at the club, and for a whole week there had issued from her hospitable bungalow none of those dainty little notes of invitation that we knew so well. Never before, since I had been in Slumpanaggur, had a whole week passed without the smartest of the Commissioner’s chaprassies, who was especially deputed to obey the commands of Berengaria, salaaming in my veranda with a note bidding me to some little festivity or other. The Commissioner, burdened with the cares of State, often withdrew himself from the public gaze, so that his absence was in no wise remarkable, but Berengaria was not wont at any time to hide her light under a bushel. ‘Could she be ill?’ we asked one another anxiously. No, it appeared she was not, for she had been seen taking a solitary ride round the racecourse at sunset on at least two evenings during the week.
It was Saturday afternoon when we always played polo and had the band at the club, and it was the custom of the whole of Slumpanaggur to turn up in full force. Still Berengaria’s well-known form and face were absent, and we were once again discussing the cause of her sudden withdrawal from station life, as we collected in the veranda after polo. Some of us had just arranged to go and call on her the next day and try and find out what was wrong, when suddenly the familiar barouche hove into sight, and up drove the subject of our conversation.
We hastened down the steps to help her to alight, and she was soon seated among us in the veranda. There was a look of animation and excitement on her face that we knew of old portended great things, and we waited expectantly for her to begin. Berengaria was not wont to beat about the bush, and we knew that she would rush straight into her subject if we only waited. We were not disappointed.
‘The station has been horribly dull lately, hasn’t it?’ she began, addressing us all in general, and looking round the group as if to focus our attention. We were too much interested to do anything but murmur assent, and Berengaria was soon launched upon her subject. ‘We’ve really done nothing since the Christmas meet, not a single dance or concert or anything of the kind, and now in ten days it will be Lent, and then, of course, we can’t do anything till Easter. So if we are going to get up anything it must be at once.’
‘Oh, do let us get up something,’ said Miss Proudfoot, subsiding at once after speaking in that curious way she had as if horrified at her own boldness in having spoken at all. But Berengaria beamed upon her for having made the desired suggestion. ‘Yes, but what shall we do?’ we echoed, and looked at Berengaria, well knowing that she already had some well-defined project in her mind.
For a moment Berengaria paused as if to give impressiveness to her proposal.
‘I’ve been in the station two years, and we’ve never had any theatricals the whole time. What do you say to having some now?’
‘How delightful!’ cried Miss Proudfoot. And we all unanimously echoed her sentiments.
Berengaria smiled at the obvious sensation her proposal had created, and we all began to discuss the idea which had come to us quite as a surprise. Every one seemed to take it up most cordially, and the ambition of showing off their histrionic talents sprang up in many hitherto inoffensive and contented minds. The Rudest Woman in Asia didn’t wait to be asked to take part: she graciously signified her willingness to represent any suitable character, though she preferred tragedy to comedy; and the Judge, who was small and stout and pompous, from the enthusiastic way he took up the proposal, evidently anticipated a triumph behind the footlights.
‘But what are we going to act?’ broke in the apologetic voice of Miss Proudfoot. There was immediately a lull in the conversation as we descended from flights of histrionic imagination to the practical necessity of securing a play before we could begin to act.
All eyes were turned upon Berengaria, who, for the first time in the history of our acquaintance, looked just the least trifle embarrassed.
‘Oh!’ she said, with an unusual note of hesitation in her voice, ‘I’ve just written a small play which I thought we might act — it’s quite a simple little affair, you know, with only five characters, and very few stage properties needed.’
‘You’ve written a play!’ ‘How delightful!’ ‘How clever!’ came a chorus of congratulation. And in that moment Berengaria was well repaid by the wonder and applause for the week of strict seclusion the writing of that play had entailed.
But after the first burst of enthusiasm had died away, the aspirants to histrionic fame looked at one another suspiciously. Only five characters! It dawned upon them then that a process of selection must operate, and that some of those who would fain shine behind the footlights would have to be content with a seat among the audience on the other side! As we could only muster about twenty-five people in the station, it was perhaps just as well that as many as possible should be left to form the audience. Still, it was hard to think of having to take an insignificant seat on the wrong side of the footlights when one was confident of one’s ability to appear with credit on the other side!
The play was called ‘Denham’s Wife,’ and a special stage was to be erected for it in the Commissioner’s veranda — so much Berengaria announced, but she said nothing about allotting the characters then. But just before leaving the club, she asked me to go over and dine quietly with her and the Commissioner, as she wanted my advice about the play. I was too much amused and too curious to hear more about the play not to willingly accept the invitation, and at dinner Berengaria unburdened her difficulty.
‘You know,’ she said abruptly, as we sat down, ‘I’ve been looking everywhere for the last week for a butler and a housemaid.’
For the moment I did not connect her remark with the play, and looked my surprise.
‘Oh, I forgot I hadn’t told you what the play was about,’ she said. ‘There are a butler and a housemaid in it, as well as Denham and his wife, and, of course, another woman. Well, the other characters aren’t hard to fill; but about the butler, I admit, I’m puzzled. The people who have got just the figures couldn’t act to save their lives, and the people who can act couldn’t possibly be made to look like butlers — it’s really most annoying. Do suggest some one.’
I smiled as I thought of the feelings of certain dignified officials in the station if they could have heard their qualifications for the part of a butler being seriously considered; but, seeing that Berengaria evidently expected me to sacrifice somebody, ‘Wouldn’t the Judge do by any chance?’ I hazarded.
‘Well, of course, I have thought of him,’ she replied reflectively. ‘He’s quite pompous enough, but who would engage anyone so short and stout as a butler? No, he won’t do; though I know he’ll be mortally offended at not being asked to take part at all.’
‘Have you thought of the Policeman?’ I asked.
‘Yes; I’m sure he could act, but he’s much too thin and starved-looking to ever make up as a self-respecting and respectable butler,’ she replied. ‘Think again.’
I looked furtively at the Commissioner across the table. Could he possibly be made to look like a butler? No, I really didn’t think he could, with any success; and I hastily looked away from him lest Berengaria should divine my thoughts and take offence. I found Berengaria’s glance fixed upon me with her most engaging smile. She leaned forward.
‘Do you know, I believe I shall have to ask you to sacrifice yourself and be my butler!’
I confess I was a bit taken aback: it had never occurred to me that the lot would fall upon myself.
‘I’m sure you can act,’ she added, seeing my surprise, and hastening to soften the blow. ‘I should feel perfectly safe with the part in your hands, and we’ll do our best to make you look as much like a butler as possible.’
Now, when Berengaria asked there was no refusing; so, of course, I was booked on the spot for the part of the butler.
‘And who are the other characters?’ I asked as soon as that was settled.
‘The Commissioner is going to take the part of Denham, and I shall be the wife,’ she began.
‘My dear girl!’ interposed the Commissioner — it was evidently the first he had heard of a part being allotted to him — ‘I really think you had better leave me out; acting is not my line, you know.’
‘But you must act this part,’ said Berengaria, ‘because I have written the part of Denham’s wife for myself, and we have to make it up and embrace at the end, and, of course, I couldn’t do that properly with anyone else. So you see you really must take it.’
‘Oh, all right, in that case,’ said the Commissioner, with a sigh of resignation, as if he chose the lesser of two evils, and preferred to sacrifice himself rather than spoil the full emotional effect of Berengaria’s finale. The Rudest Woman in Asia, it appeared, had been allotted the part of the other woman, and the housemaid alone remained.
‘I’ve thought of every one for the housemaid’s part,’ said Berengaria. ‘I even thought of dressing up the Chota Sahib, but I’ve finally decided on Miss Proudfoot, though I’m sure you would never find such a meek and apologetic housemaid if you searched through London.’
Rehearsals were soon in full swing, and peace in the station was at an end. Those who thought they should have been asked to act and had not been, showed much anger and irritation, which found an outlet in sarcastic references to the theatricals, and open hostility was only prevented by the fact that Berengaria was all-powerful in the station and not to be lightly offended. Feeling ran very high as the eventful day approached, and the disappointed ones spread the rumour that the theatricals were going to fall through, a catastrophe that would have greatly rejoiced their wounded pride. But it was quite evident that such was not to be the case. Those who were acting were absorbed in their parts, and talked of little but rehearsals and stage properties. Miss Proudfoot became more absent-minded than ever, and was heard to mutter strange things in a wondrous accent that she supposed housemaids used. She was evidently fast becoming a prey to nervousness, and the numerous rehearsals visibly told upon her.
Berengaria proved the strictest of stage managers, and as she had written the play, we could only meekly submit and suppose that she knew best. The Commissioner had a particularly hard time of it. He was continually forgetting his part and coming on at the wrong time, and in various ways taxing Berengaria’s patience to the utmost. As for the Rudest Woman in Asia, she was on the verge of mutiny many times, and open disruption was only averted by Berengaria’s tact and the fact that the Rudest Woman knew that there were many others only too anxious to snatch at her part if she threw it up. Still, she made herself as unpleasant as possible. She confided to me, and to most other people, too, that she didn’t think her part suited her, and she was sure she could have acted the part of Denham’s wife much better than Berengaria. Whether the latter was too much absorbed in her own part, or too anxious for the success of the whole thing, certain it is that many of the nasty little speeches of the Rudest Woman, that at any other time she would never have dared to make to Berengaria, were allowed to go by unnoticed. As to the housemaid and the butler, they were quite content to do as they were told. Miss Proudfoot was only too painfully anxious to do her best, and she really did what little she had to do very well. Her chief fault, then, as ever, was her absolute lack of self-confidence, and that was so rare a fault in Slumpanaggur that one was almost inclined to classify it among the minor virtues.
At length the great night came. We had arranged it to be on Shrove Tuesday, the latest possible day, so that we might get as much time as we could for rehearsals. Those last few days were passed in a state of unnatural excitement, and we really could not have lived at that level much longer, so we all heaved a sigh of relief when the time came. They really were a great success. All Slumpanaggur turned up in full force, and ‘Denham’s Wife’ met with unbounded applause, even the disappointed ones who had come to criticise being forced to give a grudging approval. Even the fact that the Commissioner twice forgot his part and came in once at the wrong time, and once failed to appear when he should have done so; even the fact that the Rudest Woman in Asia was so upset at not receiving the applause she expected on her first entry that she left out her most telling speech; even the fact that Miss Proudfoot was so nervous that she forgot all about the accent she had so assiduously practised — all was unnoticed or forgotten in the general effect, and none of these things could mar the triumph of Berengaria. She rose to her part magnificently, and the audience — the majority of whom had come to be pleased and amused — applauded to the echo. When she was called before the curtain at the close, and the Commissioner threw her a bouquet, her triumph was complete.
It was just striking twelve o’clock as I said good night to Berengaria after the last of her guests had taken their departure.
‘Once more I congratulate you,’ I said, as she accompanied me to the top of the veranda steps.
‘Yes, they were a great success, and you did splendidly as the butler; but, to tell you the truth,’ she added, as I descended the steps to my tum-tum below, ‘I never knew theatricals entailed so much strain. I’m quite worn out and need a good long rest. In fact, I never welcomed Lent so much before.’
It had been an absolutely hopeless day towards the end of the rains. A dull, leaden sky and an incessant downpour of rain from early morning throughout the day had not exactly conduced to gaiety and lightness of heart. A Sunday in an Indian mofussil station is hardly exhilarating at the best of times; but a soaking day like that coming at the end of a week of steady rain took the heart completely out of one, and made one feel altogether limp and useless. I had shamelessly slept the afternoon away for sheer lack of anything else to do, and it was late in the evening before, clad in my stoutest boots and mackintosh, I literally waded across the Commissioner’s compound to seek the distraction of Berengaria’s society.
I found that lady alone in the veranda, her hands listlessly clasped in her lap, doing nothing. Now, I knew from old experience that when Berengaria was found doing nothing, there was most assuredly something wrong. Berengaria was one of those delightful people who must always be doing something, yet who never tire out their friends by their own energy. But knowing her as I did, I knew I should soon hear what was wrong, and I had long since learned that nothing is more certain to produce confidences from a woman than a simulation of indifference and a polite ignoring of the distrait air. So for a time I talked of things conventional, duly abused the climate, and calculated how many inches of rain had fallen in the twenty-four hours. It was quite evident, however, that Berengaria’s thoughts were elsewhere, and that it was not the hopelessness of the day alone that had depressed her. Having failed to interest her in any subject of conversation that I had started, I relapsed at last into silence, wondering greatly what new interest held possession of Berengaria’s fertile brain. Now, silence is a thing that some women can’t stand, and Berengaria is one of them. Characteristically she rushed straight, without preliminaries, at the subject that was interesting her, as most women would have done. It was never Berengaria’s wont to beat about the bush.
‘I have only just woke to the fact that John has to retire in two years’ time,’ she said suddenly, ‘and — we haven’t saved a penny.’
It was so alarming and unexpected an announcement that for a moment I was at a loss for a reply.
‘But surely—’ I began feebly, feeling that Berengaria expected me to say something.
‘It’s true,’ she repeated dramatically, ‘we have to retire in two years’ time, except, of course, in the improbable event of John’s being made a Lieutenant-Governor, and — we haven’t saved a penny.’
‘Oh, it can’t be as bad as that!’ I said hastily, trying to think of something consoling to say.
‘I can’t imagine why I have never thought of it before,’ she went on, disregarding my attempt at consolation. ‘I won’t admit that I have been extravagant. I am sure I have not been that, and yet there is no denying the fact that I have spent all John’s income down to the very last penny. And now here we are on the eve of retirement, with three children to educate, and nothing to look forward to but our pension.’
Again I attempted to take the cheery view.
‘But at least you are not in debt,’ I said encouragingly.
Berengaria’s optimism, however, once shaken, was not so easily restored.
‘I see it all,’ she said, regardless, gazing out tragically at the falling rain. ‘Some dreadful little villa, probably semi-detached and hideous in red brick, with a tiny strip of garden back and front, will be all that we shall be able to afford, and there John and I will lead a set grey life, and oh, how dull it will be! There will be two little Cockney servants who will probably give more trouble than all my ayahs put together, and I shall have to do the dusting. And we shall have one spare room in which nobody will want to come and stay, and cold supper on Sundays; and the only people we shall know will be the dreadful people from the other dreadful little villas all round, who will hurry in to call and spy out the nakedness of the land, dressed in their Sunday best, even before we have got properly settled in. And I’m sure the windows will have green Venetian blinds, and we shan’t be able to afford to change them,’ ended Berengaria dismally.
‘You will surely be able to do much better than that on a thousand a year,’ I said cheerfully. ‘Why, I knew a man —’
Ah, but there are the children,’ she interrupted. ‘You have not thought of them. And children are so expensive. You have no idea how much it costs to start a boy in life.’
Being a mere bachelor, I had no idea. Having once been a boy, I suppose I ought to know how much it costs to start a boy in life, but somehow that is a piece of information about oneself one never seems curious to acquire.
‘I have already written to tell them that they can’t have any more clothes for two years,’ said Berengaria.
I thought that rather a drastic beginning in economy, but, of course, I didn’t say so. I only devoutly hoped those children were well provided with clothes just then, and I made a mental note that my next presents to them should be something they could wear. I knew, however, that this would have to be done with tact. People are so absurdly touchy about receiving gifts of clothing. I suppose they think it a slur upon the clothes they already have, a suggestion that what they have isn’t suitable or that they can’t afford any others. But I felt in this case that growing children suddenly called upon to wear the clothing that they had for two years would be most deplorable objects at the end of that time. In fact, I did remember to have heard of children not being allowed to attend school because their clothing was not sufficient. But I was not going to add to Berengaria’s depression by mentioning the fact. Fortunately, however, Berengaria’s natural optimism and enthusiasm were already reviving.
‘So I have determined to economise all round,’ she announced, with something of her old animation, ‘and I am just now busy seeing how it can be done.’
It was evident from her manner that domestic economy was going to be adopted as a new sort of hobby, and I knew that, as such, Berengaria could be trusted to run it for all it was worth. I trembled to think to what length it might carry her.
‘Never having tried to economise before, it was rather hard to know where to begin,’ she went on. ‘You can’t possibly do without a certain number of servants in India, and one must eat, though on looking into cook’s accounts I think I shall be able to economise largely in that direction.’
I thought with despair of the dinner-party of the following night for which I had accepted an invitation. If there is one person whose accounts one should not unduly meddle with, it is the Indian bawarchi. Give him more or less of a free hand and keep an eye upon him, and he will turn you out a decent dinner, but begin to tamper with the numerous items of ghee, spices, and etceteras that adorn his accounts, and he will take an unholy joy in turning you out a dinner warranted seriously to interfere with the healthiest digestion.
Berengaria’s thoughts had also flown to the dinner-party of the following night, but evidently not from the same point of view as mine.
‘Unfortunately, I have already asked people to dinner to-morrow night,’ she said, ‘but it’s the last dinner-party I shall ever give. We can’t afford anything more than garden-parties in future.’
It was evident that retrenchment and reform of the severest kind were to be the order of the day. Berengaria seemed to have completely forgotten the Commissioner with the hospitable soul, and also the duties entailed by his exalted position, on which she set no light store. But, as I was soon to discover, Berengaria was not content with merely not spending; she had other and more elaborate plans for economising.
‘I have thought of every possible way of saving and making money,’ she said, ‘and at last I believe I have hit upon a really good scheme.’
Berengaria had quite recovered her spirits again. My own spirits sank considerably as I wondered what new terror was about to be added to life. I soon knew the worst.
‘It’s a mutton club,’ said Berengaria with animation, turning to me as if for approbation. ‘You see, one must eat, and I thought a mutton club would be such a splendid way of getting good meat cheaply. There has never been a mutton club in Slumpanaggur, so I am going to start one to-morrow.’
As I believe I have remarked before, Berengaria never lost time when once she had decided upon a scheme. Now, upon the mutton club I tried my utmost to throw cold water at the outset, knowing from bitter experience in another station how expensive mutton so obtained might be, not to speak of the endless feuds that were almost certain to ensue among the members as to the distribution of the joints. Tactfully I hinted at these things, but Berengaria’s enthusiasm brushed them lightly aside. For nearly an hour I listened as the details of the great scheme were unfolded to me. There were to be eight members of the club and fifty sheep, and one sheep was to be killed every Wednesday, the members taking the various joints in turn. The club was to be run entirely in the interests of Berengaria, who, for the trouble of managing it, was to get her joint free every week. It all seemed admirably arranged except for two things. Berengaria, full of her plans, had never mentioned how she was going to obtain the members or the sheep. I ventured to ask about them at the first opportunity.
‘Oh, the members can easily be managed,’ said Berengaria lightly. ‘Of course, I shall insist upon everybody in the station joining. But the sheep,’ she went on slowly, as if the thought had just struck her for the first time, ‘to tell you the truth, I had quite forgotten all about getting the sheep.’
‘They are rather an important item in a mutton club,’ I laughed.
‘But how am I to get them in Slumpanaggur?’ she asked, now really alarmed. ‘It is always difficult enough to get mutton at all here, and I am sure there are not enough sheep in the whole place to start a mutton club. What are we to do?’
‘Why not ask David?’ I suggested, my thoughts at once turning in a difficulty to the faithful man-of-all-trades, who in his day had played many parts in Berengaria’s somewhat erratic household.
‘A capital idea!’ cried Berengaria. ‘Let’s send for him at once.’
David came in answer to our call, evidently roused from a deep sleep in the back veranda, and putting the last finishing touches to his toilet in great haste.
‘David, I want fifty sheep,’ said Berengaria, in her direct, impulsive way.
‘Missus wanting fifty sheep?’ echoed David, blinking his eyes at the unexpected demand, as if struggling to realise that this was not some fantastic remnant of a dream of his just broken sleep.
‘Yes, fifty sheep,’ Berengaria repeated.
‘Fifty sheep!’ murmured David again, as if at last he were fully grasping the situation.
‘Or perhaps lambs would do, if they were nice and well grown, and they might be cheaper,’ supplemented Berengaria, as if suddenly struck by a new idea.
‘No lambs now, missus,’ said David decisively, now fully awake to his responsibilities in the matter; ‘all lambs being sheep this time of year.’
‘Well, sheep it must be, then,’ said Berengaria, ‘and I want fifty of them to-morrow.’
David smiled deprecatingly.
‘Missus excusing, that not being possible. No good sheep living within hundred miles of Slumpanaggur. No good sheep living nearer than Bhaunpur.’
‘Well, you must go to Bhaunpur and buy them,’ said Berengaria, as if she were ordering him to go to the general store round the corner and buy a packet of pins.
David’s eyes grew round.
‘And how bringing fifty sheep back from Bhaunpur?’ he asked dubiously. ‘Missus ordering special train?’
David had not yet grasped the fact that these fifty sheep were not an item of extravagance, but an item of economy.
‘Special train! Most certainly not!’ exclaimed Berengaria, horrified now at the mere thought of such expense. ‘They must walk, of course.’
Poor sheep! A walk of one hundred miles in the rains sounded anything but desirable. Yet if Berengaria said so, of course, they must do it, in spite of the fact that it would be very bad for their health, and that they would not be fit to eat for quite a long time afterwards.
‘Do you know how much sheep cost?’ asked Berengaria, busily preparing paper and pencil wherewith to make notes.
‘Missus getting very nice sheep for rupees three at Bhaunpur,’ David assured her — ‘very fat, well-made sheep for rupees three.’
‘How very cheap!’ cried Berengaria, delighted. ‘I really think we might begin with seventy-five, if they are as cheap as that.’
I hurriedly suggested that seventy-five might be rather an unwieldy number to bring by road, and Berengaria reluctantly dropped back to fifty again. There was no reason why the mutton club should be more expensive than it need be.
‘You must start to-night, David,’ went on Berengaria. ‘What time does the train leave for Bhaunpur?’
‘Missus excusing, there being no train for Bhaunpur, being Sunday evening. David starting to-morrow morning,’ said the faithful henchman, evidently reluctant to turn out that night, and, perchance, hopeful that the morrow might bring to Berengaria another mind.
‘Very well, then, David, you must start by the first train to-morrow morning,’ said Berengaria, dismissing him. ‘I will give you the money for the journey and the sheep to-night.’
David salaamed and went off, shaking his head sagely, and I thought I heard him muttering to himself, ‘Fifty sheep! fifty sheep!’ as if he still puzzled over this last unexpected order of his lovable but erratic mistress.
For some time longer we talked of the all-absorbing subject, and then I took my leave.
As I descended the veranda steps, David waylaid me. He was evidently very much troubled, and for once rather at a loss how to begin.
‘Master being missus’s great friend,’ he said after a moment’s hesitation, standing on one foot and nervously scratching the back of it with the toes of the other.
‘Yes, certainly, David,’ I said encouragingly. ‘What is it?’
‘Missus suddenly going in for ’conomy,’ he said hurriedly, with a quick glance to right and left. ‘Missus suddenly cutting down cook’s hisabs. Missus making great mistake. Cook getting very angry, saying he give very bad dinner Burrakhana to-morrow night, putting plenty shame on missus before all station.’
David spread out his hands dramatically. It was truly a terrible fate that overhung Berengaria and her first attempts at economy. Yet what could I do? The Commissioner had been called away unexpectedly two days before, and would not be back in time for the dinner. Wild thoughts of bribing the cook, or making good what Berengaria had cut, flashed through my mind.
‘All because of just few pice,’ added David tragically.
I hinted to David that cook might possibly be induced to do well just for this last big dinner. Had not Berengaria said that it was the last? If so, the station might never know about Berengaria’s economies, and the terrible tragedy that they had nearly resulted in. But David’s next words dispelled that hope.
‘David offering cook all pice that missus cut if cook give good dinner,’ said the faithful old man; ‘but cook very, very angry, and not listening. Cook saying always give very rotten dinner, heaping plenty shame on missus.’ David almost wept at the thought of such a fate overtaking his beloved mistress.
This was serious if cook really were so angry that a bribe had no effect. But I could not believe that he would hold on to his desire for revenge if the bribe were made sufficiently seductive. So I slipped a ten-rupee note into David’s hand, and told him to tell cook that he should have it if the dinner went off successfully on the following night. But David refused to be comforted.
‘David not being here to-morrow night to see things going right. David going off to buy fifty sheep,’ he said dolefully, as I got into my tum-tum.
‘Well, never mind,’ I said cheerfully, gathering up the reins. ‘Promise cook the ten rupees, and everything will be sure to go well.’
But David still refused to share my optimism, and I left him at the foot of the steps wagging his head like some bird of evil omen.
I thought over the matter as I drove home, and debated as to what I should do. Should I warn Berengaria? Yet that might only upset her, and lead to fresh trouble with the cook, so in the end I decided to trust to David and the ten rupees, and to hope for the best.
I did not see Berengaria again until I arrived for dinner on the following night. Several of the guests were there before me, so that I had no opportunity of asking her how the ’conomy, as David called it, was progressing. Everything seemed as usual, and in due course we passed on into the dining-room unsuspicious of the fate that awaited us. Yet to me at least it was soon evident that something was wrong. The hors d’oeuvre, so far as I could make out, were merely little pellets of bread, very highly spiced, on toast, but no one takes much notice of a hors d’oeuvre. The soup, on the other hand, always arrests the attention, and in my opinion generally gives one a very shrewd notion as to what the rest of the dinner is going to be like. In this case there could be no possible doubt that the soup did call attention to itself in the loudest and most unmistakable manner. It was absolutely boiling hot; it was a brilliant green and as thin as water, and it had the most peculiar odour that soup ever had. You kind of sat and looked at it fearfully, and felt that you must be ill and that it couldn’t possibly be true. Then you glanced up furtively at your next-door neighbour to see how she was taking it, and caught your next-door neighbour in the act of glancing round at you. Then, feeling somehow horribly ashamed, you looked hastily away, and seized your spoon in desperation, and nearly burned your lips off in a hurried effort to regain your self-respect. But after the first spoonful it was well-nigh impossible to make even the pretence of drinking it. As I said before, that soup was most unusual. It kind of forced itself upon you in steaming clouds, whether you drank it or not, and you were obliged to edge away from it with one eye on your hostess to make sure she didn’t spot you doing it. It would look so very odd to be caught edging away from the food your hostess set before you at a dinner-party. It seemed ages that that soup sat before one practically untouched. I rushed headlong with much animation into conversation with my nearest neighbour until at last the kitmatghar came and took it solemnly away, and we all breathed again hopefully. I glanced anxiously across at Berengaria. Even I, who knew her so well, could not have told from her expression that anything was wrong. She was talking in her own inimitable way with her own inimitable enthusiasm to her neighbours right and left. Save for the appalling odour of the soup, that still hung about the table, I could almost have believed that she had not noticed. But with the advent of the fish, I knew that she knew, and her quick look of appeal towards me went straight to my heart. The fish consisted of sardines hot, served up in a soup-plate! We pretended to eat them in an astonished silence, alternated with bursts of conversation when we felt the silence unendurable. But Berengaria smiled and still talked on. When the entrée came and it proved to be potato chops; when the joint was served and was found to be hashed murghi; when the sweets arrived and disclosed themselves to be fried bananas, and the savoury anchovy toast of the worst description — then I knew that Berengaria was really great. Not a muscle of her face, not an inflexion of her voice, gave evidence of the humiliation that I knew she must be suffering. In spite of blow after blow that fell with the arrival of each course, she still smiled and talked on in her own bright, airy way, and all we who saw admired and tried our utmost to seem as if all was well.
That terrible dinner came to an end at last. It makes me ill even now to think of it. It was a perfect parody of a dinner. Not the meanest dâk bungalow boasting a khonsamah could have served up a worse one, even if you had arrived unexpectedly. No dinner I have ever had before or since has quite equalled it. There was no ice, and the drinks were warm, as if they had been heated. Even the punkah-wallah seemed in league with the rest, and pulled his slackest. The port was palpably watered, and the coffee looked and tasted as if it had been made of mud. Yet even to the bitter end Berengaria gave no sign, and carried things through just as if the dinner had been one of the many successful ones she had so often given. But how deep her humiliation must be none knew better than I. So, for the moment, the revenge of Goberdun the cook was complete, and the first result of Berengaria’s attempts at economy furnished a topic of conversation for the whole station for many a day to come. Not the least annoying result of it to Berengaria, in her present economical frame of mind, was that it proved expensive, too, since she would be obliged, she said, to give another dinner to the same people as a sort of apology.
Yet it was, perhaps, the mutton club that proved the most expensive item in Berengaria’s scheme of economy. David returned two days after the dreadful dinner-party, beaming with satisfaction. He had purchased the fifty sheep for a sum which, as he explained, worked out at rupees two, annas fourteen, pice three each. Berengaria was overjoyed, and for the first time since the dinner-party resumed something of her former animation and gaiety. David also was in high glee, and quite enthusiastic over the new venture. It seemed left to me to remember that there was really David’s fare to and from Bhaunpur to be added to the price of the sheep. It was the first of many items of expense to be ignored in that mutton club. But, determined not to damp Berengaria’s reviving enthusiasm, I refrained from pointing out this rather obvious fact, and rejoiced openly with her and David. Even when the shepherd arrived with the sheep, which, when counted, proved only to number forty-four, I refused to be depressed, and simulated Berengaria’s optimism. Three sheep were reported to have died by the way — I failed quite to understand from what cause, but I should imagine of pneumonia caught from sleeping out in the rain, if sheep ever do die of that complaint. One, however, according to David, must certainly have died of appendicitis. Two were unaccounted for, and we could only suppose them to have been lost by the way, as David assured us they numbered fifty when he bought them. These losses, coupled with the backshish given to the shepherd who brought them, considerably increased the price of the forty-four sheep that remained. But, of course, Berengaria ignored this insignificant fact.
I shall never forget the look of those sheep when they arrived. It was pouring with rain, and they appeared the most miserable, bedraggled objects one could possibly imagine. Thin and ill-fed, they looked quite hopeless from a mutton club point of view, and I should not have been at all surprised if none of them had lived to become mutton at all. But Berengaria’s enthusiasm blinded her to such defects. Even when within the next few days five more died and three more mysteriously disappeared, she made light of such misfortunes, fully occupied in the absorbing process of fattening those that remained. These certainly did improve marvellously in the next few weeks, and the date fixed for the first distribution of mutton drew near.
The seven other members of the club had been induced to join by Berengaria, who had arranged a fixed tariff for each joint, which each member was to take in turn. Berengaria, however, soon got muddled with the accounts, and, of course, I had to do them. They were somewhat complicated by the fact that Berengaria persistently ignored the heavy losses caused by natural deaths and disappearances, and still valued each sheep at only ‘rupees two, annas fourteen, and pice three.’ The wages of the man who was retained to look after them didn’t seem to count likewise, and I think Berengaria rather resented my entering in the accounts the food they ate, but, of course, I had to do that.
‘Sheep seem to eat an awful lot,’ she exclaimed indignantly one day, when we were going through the accounts. ‘I always thought that you just turned them out and left them to forage for themselves.’
‘I’m afraid the members of the mutton club might complain if you did,’ I said deprecatingly. ‘The sheep would be so very thin.’
Berengaria sniffed huffily, and I feel sure she thought ever afterwards that I pampered those sheep horribly.
Wednesday in each week, as I have said, had been fixed as ‘killing day,’ and no sooner had the first ‘killing day ’ been announced than misfortune began. Every member conceived the brilliant idea that Wednesday would be the very night to give a dinner-party with such an excellent addition to the menu as nice home-fed mutton. Berengaria herself thought it would be an excellent opportunity to give another dinner-party and retrieve her reputation. The result was that the morning after the date of the first ‘killing day ’ had been announced, each member of the mutton club sat down and wrote invitations for a dinner-party on that evening. The station was soon alive with chaprassies going round with the familiar receipt-book and a batch of chits. Each member, having issued invitations on her own account, felt bound to refuse the other invitations as they arrived, and so naturally everybody’s dinner-party fell through, and the prospect faced each member of eating his or her mutton in solitary state. All save one, for there was one member wiser than her day and generation. It was not in the nature of the Rudest Woman in Asia, who was also proverbially the meanest, to let slip an invitation to dinner if she could help it. So, when the succession of chaprassies arrived bringing invitations from the other members, and she saw what had happened, she hastily sent out another chaprassie to fetch back the one who had gone out with her invitations. He was, fortunately, found loitering in the bazaar with one still undelivered. This happened by good chance to be the one addressed to Berengaria. Each of the replies received declared with monotonous regularity that, as the writer was also giving a dinner-party that evening, she regretted being unable to accept the Rudest Woman’s kind invitation. It was an opportunity not to be missed, and straightway the Rudest Woman with great glee sat down and wrote an acceptance to Berengaria’s invitation.
When I went round to see Berengaria that evening I found her in a state of collapse, divided between amusement at what had happened to the various dinner-parties and fury with the Rudest Woman, for that lady had followed up her acceptance of Berengaria’s invitation by another note saying that she wouldn’t want any mutton on the following Wednesday, as she was dining out. Of course, everybody except the Rudest Woman had refused, so Berengaria foresaw a solitary dinner with her and her husband, both of whom she cordially disliked. In her wrath she said strong things about the Rudest Woman, and for the first time turned upon the mutton club and abused it. So it came to pass that on that first Wednesday ‘killing day’ the members of the mutton club dined each in her own home except the Rudest Woman, who saved her mutton and dined off Berengaria’s. Berengaria was quite ill with annoyance for some time afterwards.
But Berengaria’s cup was not yet full. Undeterred by the fate that had befallen her own and every one else’s dinner-party that week, Mrs. Proudfoot issued invitations at once for a dinner-party on the following Wednesday. Every one accepted, except Berengaria, who was annoyed with Mrs. Proudfoot about something or other, with the result that the other six members wrote round to Berengaria, saying that as they were dining out on the following Wednesday they would not want any mutton next week. Whereupon Berengaria sat down and wept bitterly.
‘We shall have to kill a whole sheep,’ she said tearfully, ‘just for the sake of Mrs. Proudfoot’s portion, which only happens to be a forequarter this week,’ she added as a melancholy afterthought, refusing to be comforted even when Mrs. Proudfoot wrote round, saying that, as she was having a dinner-party, she would be very glad if she might have a leg or sirloin as well as her forequarter. ‘There will be such an awful lot still left,’ mourned Berengaria, ‘even if I choose the very smallest and thinnest sheep of them all.’
We eyed the flock disconsolately from the veranda steps.
‘There’s one over there, though,’ said Berengaria suddenly, with a note of hope in her voice, ‘that David says he is afraid will die before next Wednesday; but if it does not, I shall kill that.’
I felt really sorry for Mrs. Proudfoot and her guests, though they would never know how ill that sheep had been.
‘And you must come to lunch and dinner and help us eat up all the rest,’ said Berengaria, still disconsolate.
To help eat more than half a sheep that had only just escaped a natural death by meeting the butcher’s knife did not strike me as particularly desirable; but, of course, I said nothing, only devoutly hoping that the ailing sheep might die before next ‘killing day.’
It did not die, however, and I ate large quantities of it, and said I liked it, though it was very tough and tasteless. Berengaria ate none of it.
‘It’s very foolish of me,’ she explained as she pressed large quantities more upon me, ‘but I can’t bear the thought of eating anything I knew alive.’
And so it was until the end. Berengaria ate none of the mutton of the mutton club; in fact, the very last sheep of the flock had become such a friend that it was never killed at all, and died long afterwards of old age and much overfeeding.
For my own private information, I totalled up the cost from first to last of Berengaria’s mutton club. Out of the fifty sheep that David bought at Bhaunpur only thirty-four eventually became mutton, and the average cost of each of these amounted to no less than nine rupees four annas. I calculated that there was a dead loss of something like two hundred rupees over the whole venture. Yet Berengaria will still tell you with great enthusiasm and a wealth of detail how, in order to economise, she started the famous mutton club, the memory of which still survives in Slumpanaggur.
I said somewhere that Berengaria’s servants deserved a chapter to themselves. I did them an injustice. Nothing short of a volume could describe them adequately, but that volume must be from Berengaria’s pen. If she could write of them as only she could tell of them, the world would be the merrier for that book. She had often said she would write down some of their quaint doings, but the ‘Life of a Gandi’ seemed to have exhausted her literary efforts, or other interests had forced them into the shade. So, awaiting the book by the master-hand, a chapter of mine must do for some of them what justice it can.
David, of course, was the chiefest among the army of dependants that waited on the Commissioner and Berengaria. ‘He’s a most invaluable servant,’ she said to me one day, as we sat in our usual chairs in the front veranda after breakfast. ‘I don’t know what I should have done without him. He’s always willing and anxious to please, and he manages everything so well that I really have very little trouble. You know, I always have so much to do that it’s a great thing to be saved any unnecessary bother.’
I cordially agreed as to the desirability of being saved unnecessary bother, but I could not help wondering for the thousandth time what it was that gave Berengaria ‘so much to do.’ It was a pet phrase of hers, and formed a wonderful standby in emergencies. If there was anything she didn’t want to do, those four delightfully vague non-committal words could express polite refusal, urgent necessity, or regretful impossibility as occasion might demand. I remember once arranging to meet Berengaria at the club at seven o’clock one morning for a ride. She failed to turn up. Later in the day we met, and she apologised. ‘I was so sorry I couldn’t come this morning,’ she said seriously, ‘but I remembered when I woke up at half-past six that I had so much to do to-day that I really had to give up the ride.’ I, too, remembered that the morning was cold and raw, and ‘so much to do ’ was easy of interpretation. But I am wandering far from the back veranda.
‘There’s only one fault I can possibly find with David,’ said Berengaria presently, in that contemplative voice that foreboded reminiscences: ‘he never can get on with any of my ayahs.’
Now, ayahs had been the great domestic trials of Berengaria’s life in India. Many and great were her stories of their enormities.
‘Do you know,’ she went on thoughtfully, ‘I was counting up the other day, and I’ve had no less than seventeen ayahs since I’ve been in India, six of them during the two years I’ve been in Slumpanaggur.’
‘And wasn’t there one good one among the seventeen?’ I asked.
‘Only one,’ said Berengaria, ‘and, of course, with the usual perversity of things, she very soon died.’
‘How annoying of her!’ I said. ‘But isn’t there a decent one to be got in Slumpanaggur?’
‘Well, if there is, I haven’t found her,’ exclaimed Berengaria, and the flow of recollection began. ‘The first ayah I got here was an awful creature. Perhaps you remember seeing her. She was the kind of person once seen never forgotten. I never in my life saw such an evil face, and, I admit, I was terrified of her. But not content with looking bad, she must needs smell worse, and I simply lived in the odour of hookah and pan. Well, I couldn’t stand that long, and it was necessary to get rid of her before all my dresses got thoroughly impregnated. I daren’t give her notice, as I felt sure she could be violent, so I got the Commissioner to turn her out suddenly one morning, and I never shall forget the look she gave me as she swept across the back veranda. I slept with all my doors and windows shut for many nights afterwards, though it was the middle of the hot weather.’
‘And the next?’ I asked, as Berengaria paused for breath.
‘Oh, the next was the good one that died,’ she proceeded; ‘but as she only lived a fortnight after she came to me, that wasn’t much use. The one that succeeded her was the worst of the lot. I not only suspected her of drugging the children, but I actually found her asleep in my deck-chair, and, of course, that settled it. An ayah who would do that would do anything. All the others have been just about as bad, and now I’m afraid the sixth will have to go, too.’
Berengaria paused in despair.
I had occasionally caught glimpses of the latest addition to the household. Outwardly she was noticeably clean, quiet, and respectful — all that could be desired. I ventured to remark so to Berengaria.
‘Yes, Monica certainly is clean,’ she admitted, ‘and I really thought when she first came that I had found a treasure at last. But I was soon disillusioned. The outwardly quiet, respectful manner was soon penetrated. Outside in the back veranda she quarrels morning, noon, and night with the other servants, and her voice is pitched on the level of Sister Mary Jane’s top note. For flow of language and sustained pitch and harshness commend me to Monica. It’s getting quite unbearable. Just when I want to sleep in the afternoon the row begins, as well at other odd times, and David is always complaining of her. Yes, Monica, I’m afraid, will have to go the way of all the others.’
As Berengaria finished, I thought I caught even then the faint sound of voices from somewhere in the back regions. A moment more, and there was no doubt whatever, and no mistaking, from the angry tones, that a takrar had begun. Berengaria looked at me.
‘Listen! that’s the ayah’s voice,’ she said. ‘Did you ever in your life hear anything so shrill and harsh?’
Above the babel of many voices rose the clear, high-pitched tones of a woman. The increasing excitement that was evident in them, and occasionally ended in a shriek, told that the owner was fast losing all control of herself. I have heard many loud-tongued disputes, both before and since, over subjects many and varied, but none ever quite equal to this in intensity. Ten or a dozen human beings have no idea how much noise they can make till they try, and those in the back veranda spared themselves no pains.
‘Chaprassie! chaprassie!’ cried Berengaria; but her voice was lost in the din, and the gorgeous specimen who should have been in the front veranda, but was generally somewhere else, was probably an interested spectator of the scene behind.
‘This kind of thing can’t be allowed to go on any longer,’ she continued, as it became obvious that no one heard her call. ‘It’s too bad of David not to put a stop to it. Come with me, and let’s see what’s the matter.’
We went in through the dining-room and out into the back veranda, where we had a full view of the little scene that was being enacted. Grouped around the kitchen door were ten or twelve figures in more or less various stages of undress, each gesticulating violently and pouring forth a torrent of abuse. In the midst stood Monica, no longer the neat, white-robed ayah, but a wild figure wrapped in a gaudy, faded sari, with distorted face, and hair streaming down her back. In one hand she flourished a frying-pan, while the other clutched a rolling-pin, the two occasionally meeting and adding their resounding clash to the discord of human voices. David, the faithful David, I failed to recognise at first. Clad in the meagrest of garbs, he was struggling with another half-clothed figure, swaying to and fro and giving vent to a continuous flow of vituperation that almost rivalled Monica’s. It was a perfect pandemonium, and I wondered how long it would have been possible for them to have sustained those gesticulations and that pitch of excitement without dropping from sheer exhaustion.
Berengaria stood by, speechless for the moment. None of the group of servants had seen us, and the din was at its height. Suddenly, with a shriek of fury, Monica dropped the frying-pan and rolling-pin, and deliberately scratched her face, digging in her nails in a transport of passion. Then, rushing out from the group, she ran towards the house. Halfway across the yard she caught sight of us and wavered for a moment. She had expected to find us in the front veranda, and a doubt evidently seized her now as to whether we might not have seen her self-mutilation. It was too late to turn back, however, and on she came.
Flinging herself at Berengaria’s feet, and lifting up her scratched and bloodstained face, she began her tale with a rush of words. Needless to say, she accused David of having torn her face. It was he who was the cause of all the disturbance: so long as he remained in Berengaria’s service there would be no peace, and she prayed the ever-merciful Defender of the poor to save her from a violent and speedy death at the hands of her enemy. Berengaria, of course, didn’t understand two words, as Monica’s excitement was much too great to allow her to make use of the little English she knew. Only her native tongue could adequately express her feelings in such a crisis. But the frequent repetition of the name ‘David’ was enough without an interpreter to show the important part he played in the drama.
Meanwhile the group across the yard had caught sight of us, and there was a general scramble for the various bundles of clothes that lay about the ground. The chaprassie grew dignified again, as he hastily resumed the gorgeous cap and belt of office. David, struggling into his clean white chapkhan, was a very different being from the excited figure of a moment since. The cook withdrew himself and his venerable beard within doors, and the others slunk away or tried to look indifferent, as they watched the second act in the little drama in which we were taking part in the back veranda.
Berengaria disdainfully withdrew her skirt from Monica’s frantic clutch and imperiously summoned David. He came, buttoning up his chapkhan and doing his best to look as if nothing had happened.
‘Please, missus, me telling missus,’ he said impressively in his usual opening form of speech, in answer to Berengaria’s demand for an instant explanation. ‘Ayah being very bad woman, and doing all sorts of things missus never knowing. Ayah causing all trouble, and there being no peace to missus till missus sending ayah away.’
It was only after much questioning, however, that I discovered the original cause of the quarrel. I verily believe they had almost forgotten it themselves in their excitement and general giving and taking of abuse. And, of course, it was the merest trifle when we did discover it. David had taken the remains of the tea from breakfast which Monica considered her traditional and legitimate perquisite, and that was quite enough to set aflame the smouldering antagonism between the two.
Needless to say, the ayah did not sit tamely by to hear herself abused. Her voice was good for some time yet, and she started off again, she and David both trying to speak at once and secure a hearing.
‘Chup, chup!’ cried Berengaria, with apparent familiarity with Hindustani, but speedily lapsing into English. ‘I’m ashamed of you, David! What do you mean by disturbing me and behaving like this? You ought to know better than to do such things. As for you’ — turning to the ayah — ‘the sooner you take yourself off the better, and don’t let me ever see you round here again.’
The ayah got up defiantly and stalked off across the yard, throwing back a stream of angry words as she went.
Berengaria silently led the way back to the front veranda.
‘I feel in despair,’ she said as we sat down.
‘I had such faith in David hitherto, but I can never feel quite the same confidence in him again.’
‘That ayah was a terrible woman,’ I remarked.
‘You are certainly well rid of her.’
‘Yes, but what am I to do?’ asked Berengaria plaintively. ‘I don’t know where I shall get another. I’ve tried six, and they haven’t given me much hope of the seventh.’
‘Why not do without one altogether?’ I ventured.
‘Oh, that’s quite impossible,’ was the decisive reply. ‘Why, just think of my dresses! I’ve much too much to do as it is.’
‘Why not get David to supply you with one?’ I suggested more hopefully.
‘Ah! now that is a really excellent idea,’ cried Berengaria. ‘It may put an end to all the quarrelling, too. He never has got on well with any of my ayahs yet, but he can hardly fight with his own nominee.’
It was a few days later that I saw another neat, white-robed figure cross the veranda, as I sat with Berengaria in the old familiar seats.
‘I see you’ve got a new ayah,’ I said.
‘Yes,’ said Berengaria impressively, ‘and she’s the last.’
‘This one has developed quickly,’ I laughed. ‘What are her special enormities?’
‘Oh, she doesn’t go in for enormities. I could almost forgive her if she did. Her continual little annoyances are far worse. She hadn’t been in the house a day before she had got on my nerves. I can never escape from her, try as I may. She follows me about all day long and hangs about, as near as she can, just in view, till I’m nearly driven wild. I feel like a prisoner being watched, and if there’s one thing I do hate it’s to feel I’m being spied upon. Why, she’s looking through the chinks of that door even now, do you see?’ said Berengaria, suddenly leaning forward and looking towards the drawing-room door. I followed the direction of her gaze, and there, sure enough, was a pair of eyes peering at us through the chinks. ‘It’s always the same, and I almost fall over her every time I go out of a room suddenly,’ continued Berengaria, as the eyes quickly disappeared when their owner saw our discovery of them. ‘It gives me a creepy sort of feeling, and my nerves won’t stand the strain. No, in future I’m going to do without the doubtful luxury of an ayah altogether.’
‘I’m going in for bicycling,’ said Berengaria, looking up from an advertisement list, as I entered her drawing-room one afternoon. ‘Come and help me choose a machine.’
Now, I didn’t know much about bicycles myself in those days, though I could ride. But Berengaria certainly knew less. So I gave her what advice I could, and the machine was decided upon, and the order dispatched at once. When Berengaria wanted a thing, there was no unnecessary delay.
‘There, that’s settled!’ she said, as she poured me out some tea. ‘How long do you think it will be before it gets here?’
‘Well,’ I calculated, ‘if they send it off at once, you ought to get it within a week.’
‘Oh, I can’t wait a week!’ said Berengaria, with characteristic impetuosity. ‘I want to begin at once. I know what I will do. I’ll write and ask Miss Proudfoot to lend me hers for this evening.’
I wondered, as Berengaria sat writing that note, whether she had ever ridden a bicycle in her life. She certainly hadn’t ridden since she had been in Slumpanaggur, and yet she talked so confidently of riding and borrowing Miss Proudfoot’s machine for the evening that I could hardly doubt but that she was proficient in the art.
‘You’ve nothing to do this evening, have you?’ she asked, looking up.
‘Nothing,’ I said, feeling a sudden doubt as to what was coming next. I had no bicycle with me, and I couldn’t see a prospect of much fun for two out of one machine. I had once in my younger days taught a lady how to ride a bicycle. On that occasion I had registered a solemn vow. One such lesson was enough for a lifetime. But I had my doubts of Fate as I looked suspiciously at Berengaria. That other lady I had taught was small and slight, and yet the task had seemed Herculean, and I trembled at the possibilities as I looked at Berengaria’s tall and stately form. Could she ride? That was the question that trembled on my lips, and which yet I feared to put.
‘That’s all right,’ said Berengaria cheerfully, as she dispatched the note to Miss Proudfoot. ‘The bike will soon be here, I expect. Meanwhile, have some more tea.’
I passed up my cup. There is nothing like fortifying oneself against any possible emergency, though I don’t think much of tea as a rule.
‘Bicycling is such splendid exercise, isn’t it?’ she said, as she poured out my tea.
‘Yes, capital! Have you ridden much?’ I asked, torn between hope and fear, but seizing the opportunity to end the suspense.
‘Oh no! I’ve never ridden in my life,’ she said, pausing with the cream jug in the air. ‘I thought you understood. I want you to teach me. You said you had nothing to do this evening, you know.’
And Berengaria handed me the cup of tea with a smile that somehow reminded me of the spider and the fly.
So the blow had fallen! But there was just one chance of escape, I reflected, as we passed out into the garden a few minutes later. The bicycle might not turn up! There was just the chance that Miss Proudfoot might be out; or, better still, that she might even be cycling herself; for I knew that chaprassie’s aptitude for finding people far from their own homes. It was a faint hope, but every minute of delay was welcome. I skilfully drew Berengaria to the summer-house at the farther end of the garden, and led her to talk of other things. But I should have known that it was hopeless. If Berengaria once set her mind upon anything there was nothing in the world of any importance till that thing was accomplished.
‘That chaprassie has been gone a long time,’ she said, jumping up suddenly. ‘Let us walk down the drive and see if he’s coming.’
‘Perhaps Miss Proudfoot is out,’ I said cheerfully, my spirits rising.
‘Oh, my chaprassie will find her if she is anywhere in the station,’ she replied confidently, and my spirits fell.
Yes, there, sure enough, was the faithful chaprassie, wheeling the bicycle up the drive. There was no help for it now, and I took off my coat both actually and metaphorically. However, the chaprassie looked strong and lusty, and I determined he should take his share. I took the machine from him, and stooped down to examine it critically. I might just as well appear an authority on bicycles, I thought, and gain a little reputation in return for the labour I foresaw, and I knew Berengaria was a safe audience. So I made a few general remarks that had their due effect.
‘I had no idea you knew so much about bicycles,’ she said. ‘But let us begin.’
I ceased my examination, and stood up. Alas! the chaprassie had taken the opportunity of my interest in the bicycle to disappear. Perhaps he had experiences with former memsahibs who wanted to learn bicycling, or it may be it was only the natural desire of a chaprassie to escape a new hukum; at any rate, he had gone, and I stood face to face with Berengaria alone.
‘I’m sure that seat is too low for me,’ she said, eyeing it suspiciously. ‘Can you raise it?’
And then my troubles began. Berengaria held the handles while I struggled with the screw beneath the seat. That screw seemed to have been screwed in with a defiance to all the powers that be to unscrew it again. I tried it this way and that without making the faintest impression upon it. I grew frantic. I knocked my knuckles against the bars and pinched my fingers, and yet I dare not give up, for I knew Berengaria’s eye was upon me. I could see her tapping the ground impatiently. I made one supreme effort, and suddenly it gave — so suddenly that my knuckles came into such violent contact with the bars that I swore beneath my breath. Berengaria coughed.
‘That screw was rather tight,’ I said, straightening myself, and trying to look as if I hadn’t expended much energy.
‘So it seems,’ she replied, rather dryly, I thought. ‘Still, at any rate, you’ve raised the seat.’
‘Is that about right?’ I asked, raising it about two inches and holding it out for inspection.
‘It looks rather high now,’ said Berengaria, examining it critically. ‘And if it is, you know, you’ll have all the trouble of altering it again.’
I hastily let it down half an inch to avoid any such contingency. I was cautious, too. As I had altered the seat, I presumed I should have to restore it to its former height before it went back to Miss Proudfoot. So I was careful not to fix that screw too tight — quite secure enough, of course, as I thought, but not so tight that it needed superhuman efforts to move it again.
‘I think that’s all right,’ I said, giving it a last turn.
‘Yes,’ said Berengaria. ‘Now you must show me how to mount.’
I wheeled the machine to the veranda steps and rested the pedal on the lowest one. I thought that was the best way to begin. So Berengaria mounted, and said she felt quite comfortable, and the terrible moment came for pushing off.
‘Everything depends upon balance,’ were my last words before the final start.
‘The great thing to do is to keep on pedalling, and have confidence,’ I said, as we moved off.
I was rather proud of my instructions, but I remembered my own early days on the machine, and that those were just the things I couldn’t do.
For the first few yards down the drive, I thought things were not going to be so bad. I grasped the seat firmly with one hand and the nearest handle-bar with the other, and Berengaria leant lightly on me to preserve her balance. But one or two narrow escapes soon filled her with the fear of falling over on the other side. So she leant a little more heavily upon me, and the tendency to lean, once begun, increased so rapidly that the bicycle was soon at an angle that foretold certain disaster, while I struggled on breathless beneath the increasing weight. Still, it was wonderful how far that bicycle went at that alarming angle before the crash came, and the speed only seemed to increase. I heaved with all my might in a final effort to try and right it, but I could make no impression at the rate we were going.
‘If you feel you’re falling,’ I gasped as we tore along, ‘put your foot to the ground.’
‘I daren’t!’ said Berengaria excitedly. ‘Oh, what will happen?’
‘Slow up,’ I gasped again. ‘Slow up gradually, and then put your foot to the ground on this side.’
But Berengaria had no chance of a reply. Suddenly the seat I thought I had fixed quite securely fell with a bang, and at the angle we were going that upset everything. Then the crash came. Berengaria and the bicycle both fell heavily. I speak from experience, as I was underneath. I remember wondering vaguely, as I lay there in the moment before I attempted to move, how much Berengaria’s actual weight really was!
It was with difficulty we extricated ourselves. Berengaria was rather dazed, but she declared she wasn’t hurt, only a trifle bruised. So I led her to the trunk of a fallen tree a few yards away, and we sat down to recover. Berengaria kept silence for an unusually long time, and sat fanning herself with her handkerchief. She looked hot and exhausted, but I knew her too well to think that she would ever give in. She had set out to learn bicycling, and learn it she would. As for me, what with holding up Berengaria and the bicycle and running at a high rate of speed with that weight and the anxiety, I felt quite done up. My collar had long since collapsed, and my cuffs were crumpled and limp. I felt I badly needed a peg.
‘It was all the fault of that seat,’ said Berengaria, breaking the silence at last. ‘You didn’t fix it tight enough.’
I thought it ungrateful of her to say that after all I had done, and I only vouchsafed a monosyllabic reply. My temper was at its worst, and I knew it too well to be cautious. I think Berengaria must have seen that I was rather hurt, for she pulled herself together again.
‘After all,’ she said pleasantly, ‘one can’t learn bicycling without one or two falls to begin with, can one?’
I assured her that she would have many falls before she could ride, and probably after. I still felt sore and bruised, and not to be easily conciliated.
We had both of us forgotten the bicycle, which still lay in the middle of the drive where the crash had come. Suddenly Berengaria remembered it.
‘I do hope it’s not damaged, or I shan’t be able to ride again to-night,’ she said, as we picked it up.
I devoutly prayed it might be badly damaged. Neither of us considered Miss Proudfoot’s feelings in the matter at all. It was wonderful how little harm was done. Only one pedal was bent quite out of shape, which made riding for a beginner impossible, and for that I was duly grateful.
‘I’m afraid that’s the end of your lesson for to-night,’ I said as sadly as I could, trying to suppress the note of elation in my voice.
Couldn’t you possibly straighten it?’ she asked, still keen on continuing the struggle.
‘I’m afraid not,’ I said.
I had lost all desire to pose as an expert on bicycles now.
‘We shall have to put it off till to-morrow evening, then,’ she said, as we walked back to the house, wheeling the machine. ‘Instead of the ride we’ve arranged, we will have another bicycling lesson. You don’t mind, do you? I really ought to be able to ride after the next lesson, don’t you think?’
‘You’ll very soon learn if you persevere,’ I said pleasantly, quite determined that she should acquire the art at some one else’s expense than mine in future. I struggled into my coat, drank the peg that Berengaria considerately offered me, and said a hasty goodbye.
‘To-morrow afternoon, then, at five for the next bicycling lesson,’ she said gaily, as she gave me her hand.
I smiled as cheerfully as I could, and promised. Hadn’t I a whole day to think out some plan of escape? And so I drove away devising many schemes.
That night I slept little. I lay restlessly tossing from side to side, for no feasible plan of escape could I devolve. And yet I could think of nothing else. I was haunted by bicycles over which no one seemed to have any control, and by heavy weights. I would drop off to sleep for five minutes only to experience the awful feeling of being crushed by a huge weight, and to wake with a start of terror just as it fell with all its force. It was no use trying to sleep, so I gave up the attempt, and paced up and down the veranda. Suddenly a brilliant idea struck me. There was nothing for it but to flee from Slumpanaggur. Fortunately, too, I had an excuse ready to hand. There was a part of the district fifty miles away I had long owed a visit, and there I would escape on the morrow. And so at last I slept.
The train that I had to go by left Slumpanaggur at nine the following morning, so I started half an hour earlier to go and explain matters to Berengaria. I felt rather nervous and guilty about that explanation. But, to my surprise, Berengaria never referred to the bicycling lesson that was to have come off that evening, or expressed regret at its necessary abandonment, as I expected her to have done. I wondered what could have happened, and if for once Berengaria’s ardour had cooled before it had attained its object. But I discovered the reason as she said good-bye on the veranda steps.
‘I’m sorry we can’t have another bicycle lesson,’ I said, lying genially and cheerfully now that I was safe.
‘Well, to tell you the truth,’ said Berengaria with a smile, ‘I don’t know that I am. I’m so terribly stiff this morning that I don’t feel as if I should be able to ride for a week.’
If I had only known earlier! Even then I thought it might be worth my while to miss my train and postpone my journey for a week. Berengaria’s next words, however, settled it.
‘But I shall be all right in a few days, I expect, and you’ll be back at the end of a week, won’t you?’
‘One never can be quite certain, you know,’ I said as I drove off.
And I registered a mental note that I must be away a fortnight at least.
Fortunately, I had a great chum in Slumpanaggur who sent me out the daily gossip of the station, with my other correspondence, when I was away in the district. For the first few days there was no mention of Berengaria in his delightfully versatile notes. I suspected she was still feeling stiff and bruised, and was keeping quiet. Then on the fourth day she was reported to have said that she was only waiting my return to continue her lessons on the bicycle. I smiled and wondered how long her patience would hold out. On the fifth day came the news that she had said she must go on learning at once, and that she intended to ask Mr. de-Vere-Smith-de-Vere, the lately joined young Policeman, to help her. Sixth day, Mr. de-Vere-Smith-de-Vere was teaching Berengaria to ride. Seventh day, Mr. de-Vere-Smith-de-Vere was very ill in bed with fever and a combination of other complaints. But Berengaria was not to be baffled, and on the eighth day she had impressed the services of the two most stalwart chaprassies, and was making wonderful progress. On the tenth day Berengaria had ridden up to the club on her own new machine and dismounted gracefully, amid general admiration. I returned to Slumpanaggur by the very next train.
I found Berengaria just wheeling out her machine when I went round to see her next day.
‘I can ride all right now, you see,’ she said gaily, as she prepared to mount. ‘But it’s all the result of that first lesson, you know,’ she added with a smile, looking back over her shoulder as she pushed off.
Now, it was nice of Berengaria to say that, though perhaps she didn’t mean much by it, but at any rate, as I watched her circling in and out along the garden paths, I forgot the terrible experiences of that first and only lesson I had given her.
‘I’ve an American girl coming out from home to stay with me for the cold weather,’ announced Berengaria one afternoon, as we took our evening ride across the racecourse. ‘She’s a cousin of mine, very fascinating and very pretty.’
‘What a charming addition to Slumpanaggur!’ I said.
Berengaria flashed one of her bewitching smiles at me.
‘What a charming addition to you!’ she corrected.
‘To me!’ I exclaimed, surprised and alarmed. ‘To me!’
‘I’ve quite decided that she will do excellently for you,’ she explained complacently.
‘Oh no, I’m not that sort!’ I laughed.
‘So you say,’ nodded Berengaria sagely; ‘but you haven’t seen the American Girl yet.’
‘But I’m a confirmed bachelor,’ I maintained defiantly.
Berengaria smiled in what I thought rather an annoying way.
‘A statement like that is a sure and certain sign of impending matrimony,’ she laughed.
‘Not in my case,’ I asserted. ‘I’m the exception to the rule.’
‘Oh, every man thinks that,’ said Berengaria. ‘But you’re bound to marry some day.’
Why does every woman tell every man she knows at all intimately that he’s bound to marry some day? It always particularly annoyed me in those far-off blissful days, when I considered myself a bachelor and quite safe. I’m older now.
‘Nicola Fairfax is pretty, clever, charming, and rich. What more could you desire?’ asked Berengaria triumphantly.
‘But have you seen her lately?’ I asked, seeking round for a way of escape.
‘Not for some years,’ admitted Berengaria.
‘She may have changed a lot since you saw her,’ I said hopefully. ‘I have known of engaged couples, long separated, not recognising one another when reunited on the Apollo Bunder at Bombay.’
‘No!’ maintained Berengaria, refusing to be drawn aside from the main point. ‘Nicola has not changed. I’ve the very latest information out from home, and she is all that I have said. Just wait till she arrives, and you will find yourself proposing to her within a week.’
I suddenly began to have a dreadful creepy feeling. I knew to my cost how determined Berengaria was, and how she always carried through anything she set her mind upon, and it made me distinctly nervous. I had awful visions of being married to some one I didn’t want to marry before I realised what I was doing, because Berengaria had said that it was right and proper.
‘I’ve never proposed yet,’ I ventured mildly.
‘Oh, come,’ she said, and laughed again.
I was a little bit annoyed.
‘I think it’s rather rude of you to laugh,’ I said.
Berengaria stopped laughing, and looked at me with an amused twinkle in her eye.
‘Rude,’ she considered. ‘I wonder why?’
‘Because,’ I said slowly, choosing my words, ‘because if I had proposed, don’t you think the chances are I should have been a happy man?’
‘Well,’ exclaimed Berengaria laughingly, ‘for real conceit, pure and undiluted, commend me to a man! But you’ll propose to the American Girl all the same,’ she added, as we turned to canter homewards, and somehow her words took hold of me. I felt that there was something coming.
I was away in camp when the American Girl arrived in Slumpanaggur, and it was not until she had been there some days that I returned. Then I knew at once that Berengaria was right. Miss Fairfax was all that she had said of her and much more.
Now I am bound to admit that when I first read the American Girl’s book, in which she writes much of Slumpanaggur, I was a little hurt to find that she had not so much as mentioned the fact of my existence. But when I came to think it over, I knew, of course, that she was right. For I may as well confess at once that I proposed to the American Girl in Slumpanaggur. I never could have believed that I should propose to anyone, but I did.
It was in the delightful garden that was Berengaria’s special pride and joy that I first met her. As soon as I saw her I knew by instinct what was going to happen. Has any man ever really described exactly the sensations he experienced at the first moment of falling in love? If so, I should like to read it. No conventional English idiom in the least describes what I experienced. I felt shattered, as I did once afterwards in an earthquake; dizzy, as if I were sitting on a steeple, and weak about the knees, as if all strength had suddenly gone from me. It was a most extraordinary, I-shall-never-be-the-same-again sort of feeling, such as I had never had before. I’m not shy usually, yet, during that first talk with the American Girl, I must have seemed a perfect fool. I said things that I didn’t mean and that I knew were not true, and generally behaved like a drivelling idiot. Why is it that when one would naturally like to appear at one’s best, one so often appears at one’s worst? The American Girl was perfectly calm and collected, and I felt instinctively that I had not made a favourable first impression. Whereupon I struggled the more frantically to be sane and natural, and only succeeded in becoming more inane than ever. Worst of all, I was fully conscious that Berengaria, with a distinct gleam of humour in her eyes, was enjoying my discomfiture to the full.
But when I met the American Girl at dinner at Berengaria’s that same evening I had so far recovered as to appear at least sane and normal, and I think I may say we got on together famously. In fact, next day Berengaria told me several nice things the American Girl had said about me. Now, I’m not at all sure that I approve of people telling other people what a third party has said about them, even when it is altogether favourable. Berengaria always tells the people she likes the nice things other people say about them, and I must say I was very glad she did it in this case. After the terrible mess I had made of things in the afternoon, it was consoling to know that the American Girl did not think too badly of me.
Now, some people will probably blame me for not more fully describing the American Girl and explaining what it was that made me fall in love with her. But what man in love ever can explain why he is in love? I could tell you the colour of her eyes, and the colour of her hair, and things of that sort, but it would convey to you nothing of the wonderful charm of her personality. She was altogether adorable. Till I saw her I would have betted all I had that I should never fall in love with her or with anyone else. Yet there I was desperately in love with her the very first time I met her. They say that bachelors who hold out longest are often the most severely bitten in the end. It was certainly so in my case. For as I have said, I am not that sort. I had never proposed before.
After our first meeting we met almost daily, and Berengaria watched our growing intimacy with much satisfaction. We rode, and boated, and picnicked; we played golf and tennis and croquet, and generally enjoyed life so far as the delectable station of Slumpanaggur permitted. With each hour that I spent in the American Girl’s company my admiration for her grew.
‘She is charming, isn’t she?’ said Berengaria one day, as we rode along one of the shady lanes outside the town. The American Girl was riding on in front between Jim Sherman and Bobby Jenks, two planters who ‘planted’ close by.
‘Yes,’ I admitted readily, ‘most charming.’
‘And you are going to propose,’ said Berengaria, not asking a question, but stating a fact.
Now, of course, all along I had known that it would come to that, but somehow I had never formulated the actual idea of a proposal in my own mind. Suddenly I crossed the Rubicon. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘I am going to propose.’
‘I’m glad.’ Berengaria flashed me a look of approval. ‘I’m very glad.’
‘Do you think —’ I began, and then hesitated. It seemed hardly dignified to ask one lady if she thought another would accept you. Yet that was what I longed to do. Being in love, I found, made one horribly uncertain of oneself, and I was torn by doubt as to what the American Girl would answer when I did propose. I alternated between the heights of bliss and the depths of despair.
‘Yes, I do think,’ nodded Berengaria reassuringly. ‘But — don’t delay. If Nicola does not have half a dozen proposals within the next few days, then I know nothing of the youth of Slumpanaggur.’
That alarmed me, and I made up my mind to put my fortune to the test at the earliest possible moment. Now, two nights afterwards Berengaria was to give her annual dance to the whole station, to which many of the planters round came in with their wives, their sisters, their cousins, and their aunts. It was a great event in Slumpanaggur, and I determined to make it the setting for the all-important scene. Now I always associate dances with proposals. It is rather a conventional idea, doubtless, but I felt that my courage would be greater after dinner with a band playing lively music, and I always imagined that women were more sympathetic and responsive at a dance. So on the night of Berengaria’s ball I determined to venture everything and make my proposal to the American Girl.
Great were the preparations annually made for Berengaria’s dance. The town hall of Slumpanaggur is about as unlike the ordinary English idea of a town hall as one could imagine. It was built by Babu Haripada Mukherjee, a rich local Babu, to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. It is very ugly, very gorgeous, very bare, brilliant red brick with white stone facings and much unnecessary ornamentation. It was built to Babu Haripada Mukherjee’s own design, which was fearful and wonderful. There was the one large room with any number of smaller ones, and many pillared verandas and passages quite in the style that a native loves. It was all inconceivably bare and cold and staring. To decorate it up so as to make it look festive for a dance would have seemed a hopeless task to any but a seasoned Anglo-Indian memsahib. But Berengaria, assisted by a few devoted admirers, an army of servants, and a strange motley gathering of coolies, soon transformed it into a thing of beauty. There was one thing, however, that the Slumpanaggur town hall did lend itself to, and that was the making of most excellent kala jagahs. Now a kala jagah is a ‘dark place ’ just made for two, quite hidden out of sight, without a sufficiency of which well arranged no Anglo-Indian dance can be voted an entire success. And the more kala you can make the jagahs the more enjoyable will be the dance. Consequently Berengaria made a speciality of them, and on the day of the ball, with many hundred yards of native cloth, yellow and white, and many palms and ferns, we fitted up the most entrancing kala jagahs it was possible to make. Berengaria and I went round to look at them when all was done, after the others who had helped had gone off to dress for dinner, and at the very last moment we discovered a most excellent place for yet one more. It was in a corner of the veranda, open on one side and shut off from the next kala jagah by a thick purdah which had been hung there. Berengaria said that it was much too good an opportunity to be missed, so we got two chairs and made things cosy and congratulated ourselves on having a nice little kala jagah known only to ourselves.
‘It must be in there,’ said Berengaria meaningly as we went away.
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘it shall be in there.’
But I am bound to confess that I was desperately nervous now that it had come so near to proposing-point. I had unfortunately omitted to book a dance with the American Girl until I took her in to dinner. I then discovered, to my infinite disgust, that she was already booked for by far the greater number of dances on the programme. The earliest one I could get with her was number seven. The result was that I had six miserable dances to get through before the critical moment could arrive. Berengaria, to whom I turned in my distress, said that, as hostess, she couldn’t possibly dance before number four. I didn’t feel equal to dancing with anybody else; so, until number four, I just mooned about, feeling all the courage oozing out of me inch by inch. Number four, however, cheered me up considerably. Berengaria, in some subtle way, always contrives to raise one in one’s own estimation, and it’s such a blessing to other people to be able to do that. We danced the greater part of the dance, then, just before it was over, we hurried off to the little kala jagah which we had arranged for ourselves that afternoon.
It was charming in there. One side was open to the night, and a flood of glorious moonlight poured in. Surely, if one was ever to feel sentimental and romantic it would be there.
‘Well, have you done it yet?’ asked Berengaria eagerly, as we settled ourselves comfortably in our seats. ‘I’m just dying to know.’
‘No,’ I replied; ‘not yet. I’ve decided that in here, after the seventh dance —’
I stopped abruptly. There was another couple just entering the kala jagah immediately adjoining ours. Now, I suppose we ought to have coughed straight away to let them know that we were there; but, before we could even think of what we ought to do, one of them spoke. I recognised the voice. It was Jim Sherman’s.
‘Can’t you even give me hope?’ he asked, in a voice that quivered.
I listened in amazement. Sherman was a typical planter — keen sportsman, tough as nails, and without a grain of sentiment, I should have said, in his whole composition. But if I had listened to Jim Sherman’s voice in amazement, it was with something akin to horror that I recognised the American Girl’s in reply.
‘I’m afraid not,’ she answered softly, in a voice that sounded wonderfully kind and sympathetic. ‘I’m afraid not.’
For a moment there was silence — one of those silences tense with emotion that can be almost felt. Then I began to recover my scattered senses. Some one else was proposing to the American Girl! I had been forestalled! It was not surprising that my head reeled. My first thought when I realised what was happening was to get away with all speed out of earshot, and I half rose from my chair. But there was no way of escape save through the next kala jagah, where Jim Sherman and the American Girl sat. Berengaria laid her hand lightly on my arm.
‘We should embarrass them more by moving now,’ she whispered, and side by side we sat on, scarce daring to breathe, lest the crackle of the wicker chairs we sat on should betray us. Then the man’s voice spoke again.
‘I have never loved anyone else.’ It was scarce above a whisper, but we, listening against our will, could hear every word with horrible distinctness. ‘I know I was a fool to imagine that you could ever love a rough fellow like me, or lead the life of a planter’s wife. But I’ve never loved anyone else, and I thought perhaps — perhaps you might —’
The voice tailed off lamely, hopelessly. Could this be Jim Sherman, the bluff, right-down good sort, with the rather boisterous spirits, and a voice unsuspicious of sympathy or sentiment?
‘I’m sorry,’ was all the American Girl said, yet it seemed to say so much. ‘I’m so sorry.’
Again there was silence, and again the man’s voice broke it.
‘There is some one else?’
It was more of a statement of fact than a question, as if he had divined and knew.
‘Yes,’ she answered slowly, ‘yes. There is some one else.’
How my heart beat! There was some one else. Could that some one else possibly be me? I grew dizzy with fear and hope.
Then the band began to play a valse, and we heard the two in the adjoining kala jagah get up and move away. Berengaria and I crept out quickly and silently, and stood for a moment side by side in the full light of the ball-room. Then we looked at one another guiltily, as if we had done some evil thing. I felt as if I had intruded on something sacred — as if I had stripped away a veil that none should lift, and I knew that Berengaria felt the same.
‘Good luck go with you!’ was all she whispered, as, a new partner claiming her, she turned and joined the dance.
As for me, I turned and fled out of the ballroom. I was engaged for number five, I knew; but it was impossible to dance it and talk inanities with my head in a whirl like that. The smoking-room was equally impossible. I must get away where I could be alone. The dance was in full swing, and the corridors and kala jagahs deserted. I sought refuge in the innermost kala jagah, where Berengaria and I had so lately sat, and of which none but she and I knew.
Alone there and undisturbed, I was so consumed by agitation and distracting thoughts that I never heard another couple come and take possession of the adjoining kala jagah. It was with a shock of surprise that I found myself listening to another conversation.
‘Won’t you call me Bobby? They all call me Bobby,’ said a man’s voice, unmistakably the complacent, drawling voice of Bobby Jenks.
Another voice made reply, but, unfortunately, the noise of a carriage drawing up on the gravel below drowned the words. From the general tone of it, however, I gathered that the lady was not altogether desirous of the honour of calling him Bobby.
‘Oh, that doesn’t matter,’ said the man’s voice. ‘Most women call me Bobby the first time they meet me. I say, you know, you are a stunner!’
‘Mr. Jenks!’ They were only two words, but they gave me a kind of electric shock. It was the American Girl who spoke them.
‘Do you know,’ went on Bobby, ‘I’ve always wanted to tell you something ever since I first met you, and, by Jove! I’ll do it now.’
There was a quick crackle of a wicker chair, as if some one had sat up suddenly.
‘No, please don’t,’ said the American Girl.
‘I say, you know, you remind me awfully of my mother,’ he went on, and even in that embarrassing moment I remember a thought flashing through my mind as to whether that was altogether a tactful thing for a man to say to the girl to whom he was proposing.
‘No, do I?’ replied the American Girl, rather shortly. ‘Aren’t those stars lovely!’
‘And I feel quite sure she would give you a very warm welcome,’ he added. The warm welcome, I presume, was into the bosom of the Jenks family.
‘How very kind of her!’ said the American Girl, with a suspicion of dry humour in her voice that I caught even through the purdah, though I am sure Bobby Jenks was much too self-satisfied to detect it. ‘I wonder if you would take me to have an ice?’
It was evident that the American Girl was tiring of Mr. Bobby Jenks. She had risen to her feet.
‘Won’t you sit down a few minutes first and listen while I propose?’ said the imperturbable Bobby.
From the way the wicker chair creaked on the other side of the purdah, she must have sat down again with considerable impatience.
‘Please don’t propose,’ she exclaimed plaintively. ‘It’s no use.’
‘But I love you,’ said Bobby, stirred at last out of his complacency.
‘You don’t really,’ she answered. ‘You only imagine for the moment that you do.’
‘No,’ said Bobby, and then he must have leant forward and said something in a quick, eager voice, too low for me to hear.
‘I’m very sorry’ — the American Girl spoke again at last — ‘I’m very sorry, but I could never love you. There’s some one else.’
That some one else meant so much to me that my head reeled again. Then the band struck up once more, and I heard some one leave the kala jagah close beside me. Thinking it was empty, I stepped out, eager to put my fortune to the test. Surely there was luck for me in that I was the third, and the third is proverbially never like the rest. Then I stopped short. In the outer kala jagah sat the American Girl alone.
It was obvious to her as soon as she saw me that I must have heard. Our eyes met, and hers read all that there was to be read in mine. Without a word she made room for me beside her, and I sat down and took both her hands in mine. For a moment she let them lie there passively.
‘I, too,’ was all I said — ‘I, too.’
Then she raised her eyes, and looked so long into mine that I grew desperate between hope and fear. Gently at last she withdrew her hands from mine.
‘Dear friend, don’t spoil our friendship,’ she said.
‘And is that all?’ I asked, knowing now that it must be all. ‘The some one else is some one else to me also?’
‘Yes,’ she answered again. ‘There is some one else I love. But we, you and I, will keep our friendship always.’
And so it has been. It is four years now since the American Girl married, yet she has succeeded, as so few women do, in retaining her old lovers and transforming them into stalwart friends.
Berengaria was terribly upset when I danced the ninth dance with her and told her what had happened.
‘I feel it is partly my fault that you proposed,’ she said remorsefully.
I quickly relieved her mind of that delusion.
‘No,’ I asserted; ‘I loved her. From the first moment that I saw her I loved her, and I always shall.’
Berengaria turned to me with such a quick look of understanding and sympathy that my heart went out to her. I suddenly realised how much I had neglected her these last few days, and how fully the American Girl had occupied all my thoughts. Yet she had said no word and made no sign.
‘Whatever comes or goes,’ I said, ‘our friendship never changes.’
‘Never,’ she replied softly; ‘and I sometimes think that friendship, and not love, is the greatest thing in the world.’
And I am more than half inclined to think that Berengaria was right. At any rate, I have never proposed again.
Great was the lamentation in Slumpanaggur. Within a fortnight the station would know Berengaria no more.
We had known for some time that the Commissioner had taken long leave, and that they were going home in the hot weather, but it was not till the time for their departure was almost at hand that we recognised what a loss ours would be. It seemed almost impossible to think of Slumpanaggur without Berengaria. For three years she had been the life and soul of the place, and under her beneficent rule the station had acquired a reputation far and near for gaiety that it had never had before. Of course, Berengaria liked to run the whole show herself, and could brook no interference; but most people in Slumpanaggur were of that placid disposition which is only too content to follow if another leads the way.
Of the Commissioner it could not be said that he would be greatly missed; he had never taken a great part in station life, though he always formed a willing background to any scheme of Berengaria’s. Berengaria was undoubtedly the predominating partner, and the Commissioner was content to play second fiddle.
It was only now that her departure was imminent that we discovered how popular Berengaria really was. I don’t think anyone has ever succeeded in attaining universal popularity in Slumpanaggur, which has long been noted for its faction fights, but no one certainly has come nearer to it since I knew the station than Berengaria. No place in which the Rudest Woman in Asia happened to be quartered could be absolutely at peace, and there was no concealing the fact that she was desperately jealous of Berengaria. She aspired to be a Burra Memsahib, but the exigencies of fate or her own rash choice had placed her in a service from which the ranks of the Burra Mems are not recruited. She had once been a Burra Memsahib, as some one sarcastically put it, but then she had been the only white woman in the station! So the Rudest Woman waged war with those more fortunate than herself, and a woman as bold as she is always sure of a few followers, whose devotion is inspired, not by love, but by fear. The majority of mankind prefers to live at peace, so the rude ones of the earth career on unmolested, rage they never so horribly. So it was with the Rudest Woman, and it needed a Berengaria to keep her within bounds.
But, with the exception of the Rudest Woman and, perhaps, the Judge, every one in Slumpanaggur loved Berengaria. The question of the respective precedence of the Judge and the Deputy Commissioner was always a vexed one, but as the former had no wife, his importance in the station was nothing like that with which Berengaria’s brilliancy had invested the Deputy Commissioner while he held that office. So the Judge, who was pompous and whose temper was bad, sometimes rebelled and criticised Berengaria as much as the rest of the station would let him.
We held an informal meeting at the club one night, in the Commissioner and Berengaria’s absence, as to what sort of entertainment we should give them as a final farewell from the inhabitants of Slumpanaggur. The local Rajah had been already first in the field; and we had all been to an entertainment at his brand-new red-brick residence. We had sat in the stifling heat watching a cinematograph that was somewhat out of gear, and defied you to look it in the face for long. It was like a kaleidoscopic puzzle that didn’t quite fit, disjointed and delusive. To try and follow out its evolutions made one dizzy. Then we had adjourned to the veranda to watch a never-ending dance, with its low monotonous accompaniment of voice and drum. Then a conjurer, who did wonderful feats that no one followed, and produced belated results from beginnings long since forgotten. Finally, very good fireworks and very bad champagne and the stately departure of Berengaria and the Commissioner, hastily followed by the smaller fry.
One such was enough, so no one suggested a variety entertainment as a farewell from the station, though many people had ideas of their own on the subject. A dinner, however, was finally decided upon, and, after much discussion, a fancy-dress dance was arranged to follow. A heated controversy raged round the question whether it should be fancy dress or not. The ladies of Slumpanaggur were not endowed with much imagination, and the Englishman’s rooted objection to appearing in anything but a dismal black evening suit almost carried the day in favour of plain dress. In fact, no one was very keen on fancy dress except the Judge, who fancied himself in a jockey’s costume that had long since grown too small for him. But he could never have carried the day alone had he not found an unexpected ally in the Rudest Woman in Asia. No one had ever seen her in fancy dress at any dance, even when fancy dress had been supposed to be de rigueur. She said she objected to making a fool of herself, though it was whispered that she had not had a new ‘plain’ dress for two years, and was much too mean to buy a ‘fancy’ one. As to making a fool of herself, Berengaria had once pertinently remarked that it was only those people who had a secret misgiving that they really were fools who lived in terror of making fools of themselves. However, this time the Rudest Woman gave her decision in favour of fancy dress, and in a voice that let it be known that she would make herself nasty if her views were not carried out. So, as there were many people who feared the tongue of the Rudest Woman, the voting went in favour of fancy dress.
Every one was fully occupied with the momentous question of costume till the eventful day, and the dinner and dance, when the time arrived, were a great success. Everything, as the Rudest Woman with unwonted graciousness was pleased to say to Berengaria, was delightful except the occasion of it. The Rudest Woman, indeed, was in great and unusual good-humour that night. Was she not wearing undoubtedly the handsomest dress in the room, the admired of all observers? Then at last we discovered why it was that she had voted for fancy dress. She was arrayed in loot from China! Nothing could compare with the Oriental splendour and embroidery, the gold and the dragons, which an adventurous journalist brother had sent home in the nick of time. And when we saw her fully arrayed, we admitted that she had had some excuse for insisting on fancy dress.
Berengaria came as her namesake of Navarre, and she brought the Commissioner as her consort, Cœur de Lion. It was not a character best suited to the Commissioner’s figure and bearing, and he had evidently been sacrificed to play the part of Berengaria’s husband. Berengaria herself looked charming and stately as the great crusader’s Queen, and was even more gracious than usual that evening. She opened the dance with the Judge, to the surprise of every one, and not least of the Judge himself.
‘I feel in a forgiving mood to-night,’ she had said, as we drove down to the dinner; but I had thought no more of her words till I saw the opening dance. They looked rather an incongruous couple as they danced together — the Jockey and the Queen — but that had not daunted the forgiving courage of Berengaria.
I danced one last dance with her, and the spirit of forgiveness still burned.
‘Distance will soon invest Slumpanaggur with the halo of remembrance,’ she said with a suspicion of tears in her voice. ‘I shall forget the bad and remember only the good, and I hope the station will do the same of me. Come, I really will forgive the Rudest Woman in Asia before I go to-night.’
There was one last scene. It was the execrable custom in Slumpanaggur for every one to go to the railway-station to see the departing official off by train. Now, it was a most undesirable custom for many reasons. In the first place, the departing official or his wife or his family is apt to get flurried at the last minute with a hundred things to see to, and in the second place, a farewell at a railway-station is always a trying ordeal at the best of times, and to have to say good-bye to a whole platform full of people is embarrassing to the ordinary individual unaccustomed to such public leave-takings. For in Slumpanaggur, not only did the European population turn out to see a big official off, but all the most important natives of the town assembled too. And the worst of it was that your popularity was gauged by the density of the crowd, so that, while you didn’t want a lot of people to see you off, you were secretly torn by anxiety beforehand lest a sufficient number should not turn up.
It was a motley gathering that collected on the Slumpanaggur platform the evening that Berengaria departed. If evidence had been needed of her popularity, it was forthcoming then. Every European in the station, without exception, was there, and the crowd of Babus and natives of all sorts was so great that there was scarcely room to move. A square of red carpet had been placed in front of the carriage which had been reserved for the Commissioner and Berengaria, and this was almost the only clear space on the whole platform. On one side of the red carpet stood the little group of Europeans, on the other side were drawn up the chief native dignities. First stood the local Rajah, a gorgeous figure, resplendent in yellow brocade and a tinsel crown; then came Rai Charan Singh, Chairman of the Municipality, fat, pompous, and perspiring; and Babu Haripada Mukherjee, Vice-Chairman, small, thin, and wiry, with a deep-lined face, foxy and inscrutable. Beyond were many others — municipal commissioners, members of the Local Board, honorary magistrates, and holders of many other offices that delight the Babu’s heart. Not one of them was absent on so great an occasion as this.
A quarter of an hour before the train was due to start Berengaria and the Commissioner arrived. The three children had been sent on two days before in charge of Miss Simpkin and an ayah to await their parents’ arrival in Bombay. Berengaria had said that last moments were distracting enough without the anxiety of three children, who could always be calculated upon to do the unexpected at the most critical moment. So the carriage that drew up outside the station contained only the Commissioner and Berengaria. As they alighted a native band, with much braying and many false notes, struck up the National Anthem. The tune was just recognisable if you had a good ear for music. The Commissioner had no ear for music under the most favourable conditions, and I saw Berengaria nudge him as they got out of the carriage to make him take off his hat. In great state the Chairman of the Municipality conducted them to the square of red carpet. It was a stiflingly hot night, and the heat in the midst of the crowd of humanity on the platform was appalling. The Commissioner, being of a shy and retiring disposition, was much overcome by the heat and the publicity combined, and repeatedly mopped his forehead with a large red and yellow handkerchief.
Then, with charming grace, Berengaria went round, saying a word of good-bye to each. It is astonishing what a lack of originality English people show at times. One by one, in the most conventional terms, the European residents of Slumpanaggur bade the Commissioner and Berengaria farewell.
‘Good-bye, dear,’ said Miss Proudfoot, kissing Berengaria effusively. ‘I can’t think what I shall do without you.’
‘Good-bye and good luck,’ said the Rudest Woman, with more feeling than I could have imagined her capable of.
‘I’m real sorry you’re going,’ said the Judge, forgetful of old feuds, and gripping Berengaria’s hand till she almost winced; ‘real sorry.’
Poor Mrs. Proudfoot was so tearful that I could not catch what she said.
When it came to the natives, however, there was no lack of originality. In fact, the originality was so great that it was apt to be a trifle embarrassing to the ordinary conventional Englishman. The first with whom Berengaria shook hands was the Rajah in yellow brocade and a tinsel crown. It was only recently that he had risen to the dignity of a Rajah, thanks largely to the recommendation of the Commissioner. Hence his gratitude and grief that the Commissioner and Berengaria were departing. In spite of the fact, however, that he was a new-made Rajah, he was not without much of the old-world dignity of the East.
‘When the master leaveth the house of his servant, then indeed is the house a place of mourning,’ he said, quoting an old Persian proverb, as he bowed low over Berengaria’s hand. ‘But though we say good-bye with our lips,’ he added, raising himself again to his splendid height, ‘we do not say it in our hearts, for there you will dwell always.’
Berengaria lingered to speak a few words to him, and for the first time I noticed a suspicious catch in her voice as she bade him good-bye. Then she turned to Rai Charan Singh, the Chairman of the Municipality. He was perspiring heavily with the heat and an undue sense of his own dignity and the importance of the occasion. It was quite evident that he had prepared his farewell speech beforehand, and had rehearsed it carefully before Berengaria reached him.
‘Deeply, madam, deeply as we must all of us regret your departure,’ he began, in a loud voice, as if addressing a large assembly, ‘we cannot but hope that it will prove a blessing in disguise.’
The ending was so unexpected that a dead pause followed. I imagined we were all trying to follow the working of the Babu’s mind. Was her departure to be a blessing in disguise to Berengaria, or to those whom she left behind?
‘Truly are we torn between the depths of grief and the heights of joy,’ he went on — ‘grief that your beauteous form will no longer gladden the compass of our lives, and joy that you will be once more restored to the aching bosom of your family and home.’
There was evidently much more to come, but I think Berengaria had grown nervous. She murmured something hastily but sympathetically and passed on.
Babu Haripada Mukherjee, the Vice-Chairman, stood next. He had shown considerable agitation while Berengaria had been talking to Rai Charan Singh. It was obvious that he, too, had been rehearsing what he was going to say, and was anxious not to be outdone in magnificent language by the Chairman.
‘Madam, you are indeed a heavy-weight loss to Slumpanaggur,’ he began, producing an effect he little anticipated — ‘a heavy-weight loss indeed.’
Now, Berengaria, as I have mentioned before, was large and generously proportioned. Babu Haripada Mukherjee, in his efforts to find an effective phrase, had stumbled upon a most unfortunate one. Berengaria gazed at him reproachfully, her hand clasped tightly in his. Then again she murmured something hastily, stopping a further flow of language, and hurried on.
The fourth of the native magnates was an honorary magistrate, who always spoke in a meek, apologetic voice in company, and I failed to catch what he said. After that the band struck up, and much as I wanted to follow in Berengaria’s wake to hear what the others said, I could hardly do so. I only caught one more Babu farewell. The band stopped suddenly, and a high-pitched, squeaky voice that carried far was all that broke the silence.
‘You have been both a father and a mother to us all,’ the owner of it was saying to Berengaria, ‘and without you we shall be like dam sucklings deserted by their progenitors.’
In the momentary pause that followed a bell rang loudly, and there was mercifully an end for Berengaria.
I stood by the carriage door after the last farewells had been said. Berengaria and I had clasped hands in silence. Words are poor things at best, but they have to serve. She turned to me once more with the old smile, but not with the old voice, for in it now was the sound of tears.
‘In friendship,’ she said softly, ‘there is no parting, and no absence, and no distance. Is it not so?’
‘Yes,’ I answered, smiling back at her as cheerfully as I could, ‘and of all the memories that are ours none can rob us.’
The whistle sounded, and there came the last hurry of departure. The band struck up ‘Auld Lang Syne,’ the Europeans raised a cheer, the natives salaamed.
‘Good-bye, Slumpanaggur’ — I caught Berengaria’s last words as she smiled and nodded till the end — ‘and yet not good-bye, for you will live in my heart always.’
Slowly the train moved out of the station, and Slumpanaggur knew Berengaria no more.