Chapters VII. and IX. have appeared in The Madras Mail, to which acknowledgments are made.
Stella Macfarlane rose from her afternoon siesta and pushed open the Venetian windows of her hot bedroom. A hint of coolness in the dry and dust-laden wind rewarded her and she turned again to the room where her ayah was patiently fanning the month-old baby in its tiny swinging cot.
The room was small and almost filled by two bedsteads placed side by side under one mosquito net. A faint draught blew in over the half-doors leading into the sitting-room, but the slight exertion of dressing brought the perspiration in beads of moisture on the fair face of the young mother. The long golden brown hair clung to the hot hands that were endeavouring to fasten it up. Baby slept on. Ayah sat on the matted floor, her elbow on one raised knee, swinging the palmyra-leaf fan automatically. In the mati-room1 Stella’s house-boy was beginning to collect the tea-things and cut bread and butter.
The road outside was quiet, for this was the Anglo-Indian quarter, and somewhat removed from the ever noisy native town. The houses on either side were small for South India, but solidly built of sun-dried bricks plastered with white chunam.2 This was apt to fall off in large patches, and together with the blistered and faded paint on the Venetian window shutters gave the road a disconsolate neglected air. Next door Mrs. Pereira opened her windows and stepped out on to her veranda in her dressing-gown, with bare feet thrust into native grass shoes, and sat fanning herself in a long cane chair. From the d’Silva house came the sound of children’s voices, half Tamil, half English, and of Mrs. d’Silva herself, striking in with her good-natured high staccato. The small brown Lily was clamouring to go to the gardens to hear the regimental band and to wear the new pink frock.
Stella passed into her sitting-room where the mati was opening the Venetian windows. It was furnished in the simple way of the country. Matting of split bamboo covered the cement floor, cane arm-chairs were drawn up to the plain teak-wood table. Whitewashed walls, green painted doors and nondescript door handles were common to all the houses in the road, but there the similarity ended. Drawn-thread holland chair backs took the place of crocheted anti-macassars, and water-colour sketches covered the walls where Mrs. Pereira would have placed cheap crude oleographs, and Mrs. d’Silva coloured prints from magazine Christmas numbers. Stella sat down now at a small bamboo table where an unfinished sketch was laid. It was the picture of a wayside Hindu shrine, set near a field of young paddy, which the evening sunlight was touching to a fairy greenness. She had only time for a few deft touches when a bicycle bell sounded down the road and the next moment her husband sprang up the steps and took her into his strong arms.
“Are you all right, dearest? You are very hot in here,” he said with a shade of anxiety in his voice. He looked round the cramped room and at his wife’s pale face, but Stella laughed cheerfully and called to Boy to bring tea and to Ayah to bring baby and sat down in her usual seat at the table.
John Macfarlane wore the khaki uniform of a soldier, but he looked like an officer in disguise. Indeed Mrs. Pereira confessed sometimes that she nearly said “sir” when he spoke to her and that Mrs. Macfarlane was more like the major’s lady than a common soldier’s wife.
“Depend upon it, he has done something,” said Mrs. Lopez, the wife of a contractor. “He is a gentleman surelee, and onlee hiding his face in the regiment for a purpose, eh? No?”
“But how good he looks, Mrs. Lopez! I am not believing anything against him.”
“But what other reason can he have, my dear?”
To look at him now, with his fine face and clear good eyes, it was impossible to believe that he had “done something,” and quite certain that there was some other good reason for his being in the ranks, and for his wife and child to be living in this quarter of the country-born instead of in an airy bungalow in the cantonments. He determined to stop at Dr. Smith’s on his way back to barracks to ask him to call and see that all was well with her.
The civil surgeon was at home, smoking in a long veranda chair. His wife had just driven off to tennis at the Club. He was going to rest and smoke and follow her later, for his day’s rounds in the heat had been very tiring. He knew and liked Macfarlane and called out a welcome. The soldier propped his bicycle against a croton-bush and joined him.
“I’ve come about the wife, sir,” he said. “She is pale and languid still. Ought I to try and get her to the Hills?”
“I’ll go round and see her,” said the doctor. “But, look here, Macfarlane, suppose you drop the ‘sir’ when you speak to me. I am not an army doctor.”
Dr. Smith spoke in matter-of-fact tones when he made this unusual suggestion, but he saw the start of dismay and hesitation that passed over the strong face before him and began to wish that he had let well alone. After all a man’s secrets were his own. It was no business of his if a gentleman chose to serve in the ranks. It was hard on the wife, though.
He pushed forward a long chair and offered a Trichinopoly cheroot. Macfarlane took them both but looked at his watch.
“Well, doctor, this is my trouble,” he said. “My wife ought not to be living as we are doing. She is not even in cantonments as you know, and I’m always asking myself if I ought to have let her come out. We did not really know what life in our circumstances would mean here, and though she is cheerful I am anxious about her.”
The doctor noted the cultivated voice and easy manner and felt he would give a great deal to know the story that lay behind all this. To look at the man before him was to be certain that his past held nothing shady.
“I’ll go round at once,” he said. Then the two men rose, one to regain the barracks, the other to shout for his dog-cart.
A week later the weather changed. Banks of clouds hung every evening on the low horizon, only to disappear and gather again the following night. The stifling air, dust laden, was stirred by little whispers of wind. It was as if the earth waited breathlessly for the coming monsoon.
“Then sighed the Tamarind to the Palm
‘Have courage! for this thunderous calm
Will lighten soon and bring us balm.’
Behind the Palm and Tamarind
The moon leads up a gentle wind—
Man’s heart, and not the land, hath sinned.”
This fragment flitted through the doctor’s mind as he smoked in his long veranda chair. He was somewhat uneasy, for isolated cases of cholera had occurred in the town, and the first rains might be more harmful than the hot sunshine.
That evening clouds swept up into the sky and down smashed the monsoon rain. It fell day and night without cessation. The nullahs3 by the roadside filled to overflowing and the water raced along like tiny rivers. The drains in the town—open cemented channels—filled and overflowed back again into the houses, a horrible condition of things for the poor Indian inhabitants, for the town planners of old days did not sufficiently study drainage. The European bungalows were high and dry and mostly rainproof, but the Anglo-Indian houses had many cracks in their flat roofs. Basins, jugs, and tubs stood in unwonted places to catch the drips, but as compensation the air was cooler every day and grass was beginning to green over the parched compounds.
Stella lay in her close bedroom recovering from an attack of fever. The bed was pulled out into the middle of the floor, for the little lizards on the walls battening on mosquitoes were more amusing to watch at a safe distance. The corner where the kerosine lamp hung on its nail was their happiest hunting ground. A mosquito net draped the bed and over it was a grass mat and two open umbrellas. Stella laughed at her husband’s serious face. She was dry, she said, and so of course was baby. They could not get away from the crack right across the ceiling, but the umbrellas ran the water off to a fringe of basins and he was not to worry.
The doctor sent his wife and the chaplain’s wife to see his patient the following week. The ladies brought flowers, and hid their dismay at seeing this fair girl in such unsuitable surroundings and the young wife’s perfect manners made the visit easy. After this packets of books constantly found their way to the little house and many kind notes, but the station was singularly free from gossip and Stella Macfarlane’s affairs were never discussed in the regiment.
The rains continued, needed by the land, but in the intervals between the downpours a reeking miasma rose which filled the dispensary with fever patients. The nights were spoiled by the continual croaking of frogs in the garden tanks. Winged ants flew in to the lamps on the dining-tables, shed their wings and crawled away. Soup must be swallowed quickly, saucers must cover the tumblers of whisky and soda, but better to hurry over such uncomfortable meals and go out to the long veranda chairs, leaving the lights inside.
Then came cholera. The Hindu conch-shells were blown every day as the dead—open-faced, marigold wreathed—were carried to the burning-ground. A hubbub of wailing would suddenly rend the night air from the Muslim quarter, and disinfectants, lavishly used by the municipal authorities, marked certain streets as infected.
The native town was out of bounds for the regiment and the colonel suggested that the ladies should go to the Hills. Usually English ladies are said to fly before cholera, but from this station not an English woman would go. The children, thank God, were in England. The captain’s young wife with her child had been at Yercaud on the Sheveroy Hills all the hot season and was still away. The wives said they could not and would not go, leaving their men to drink tainted milk and unboiled water, so the men, proud but anxious, tried to make the best of a sad and fearful time.
In the Anglo-Indian quarter Mrs. Macfarlane set the fashion in precautions. The cow-man milked his cow at her doorstep. She scalded the pan with her own hands, boiled the milk and locked it safely away in the perforated safe on the tiny back veranda. Her neighbours began well in their panic, but grew careless as the sickness seemed confined to the native streets.
The anxious days passed slowly. Preparations were in progress for the regiment to go into camp, but the hospital began to fill ere they got away.
Dr. Smith came home at tea-time one muggy afternoon and went in search of his wife. She was dressing after her afternoon nap.
“Poor Macfarlane has gone,” he said. “Will you go down and tell his wife, my dear? Poor girl! bring her back with you if you can. She mustn’t be left all alone down there. Those friendly neighbours of hers will drive her crazy. They will literally kill her with kindness. We must get her away out of the country.”
Mrs. Smith’s face went white.
“When was he taken ill? It is more sudden than usual, isn’t it? He must have been well when he left home this morning.”
“No. He felt ill, but did not tell his wife. He just managed to reach the hospital. Poor chap, he was a good sort. Well, go after tea, my dear, or better still, get them to make you a strong cup of coffee. You will be back by dinner time and I hope Mrs. Macfarlane will return with you.”
Mrs. Smith ordered her victoria and drank the coffee. This was not the first errand of the sort her doctor-husband had sent her upon, and before long the carriage drew up in the Anglo-Indian street. She alighted and receiving no answer to her call, walked in. Sounds came from the bedroom, and she knocked at the half-door.
It was opened by Mrs. d’Silva, dishevelled and frightened. “Oh, doctor—where is doctor?” she wailed. “She is dying, ma’am. Oh, what shall we do?”
Mrs. Smith caught her by the arm. “He is at home. I’ll send the carriage back for him. But why, oh why, was no one sent before?”
She scribbled a note for the syce to take and camp back into the house.
Mrs. d’Silva was overwrought and sobbing.
“Mrs. Macfarlane sent ayah off hours and hours ago, telling her to go straight to you with baby. Where has that woman gone? Oh what shall we do?” With an inward prayer for courage and common sense the doctor’s wife left her and went into the bedroom. Ah! the death-angel was there before her. She went softly to the bedside and took the wasted hand in hers and chafed it gently. Mrs. Macfarlane opened her sunken brilliant eyes.
Her voice was a mere whisper.
“I’ve sent baby to you. Please keep John away. I’ve said good-bye.”
She had strength for no more. Her whole soul was crying out for John. Oh, to hold his dear hand while she slipped away into the dark shadows.
Her friend bent over her.
“My dear,” she said, “God is with you through all this weakness, and John is waiting for you on the other side. You are going to him, not leaving him. Do you understand?”
In recalling this scene later it seemed to her as if at that moment husband and wife met and recognised each other. This thought filled her with an inward content as she drew the sheet up over the poor dead face and turned to see the doctor behind her.
Consternation filled the kind man’s heart. Here was tragedy. His wife, too, was running risks which he did not like. He said nothing, but put her in the carriage, telling her to bathe and change immediately and rest until he returned.
“But where are ayah and baby?” he asked suddenly of Mrs. d’Silva.
“Mrs. Macfarlane sent them to you long before tiffin-time,4 doctor. Where can they be? She was afraid it was too hot for baby and told ayah to hold her big sun-topi over its head carefully. She was afraid for it to stay here.”
“They have gone to the wrong bungalow, I expect,” said the doctor. “I must go and see about them.”
Ayah had not gone to the wrong bungalow for she had not gone to the cantonments. When her young mistress had kissed the baby in her arms and told her to take it to Mrs. Smith and fetch the doctor, she was shaking from head to foot, and her usual “Wery good, Ammá,” came from trembling lips, for she knew the dread disease was coming upon her too and one instinctive longing filled her ignorant heart. She must at all costs reach her own village to die. It was a long way off, several hot and difficult miles, but fear and desire would give her strength. The baby could be sent back to-morrow. If she stopped for it now Smith Duraisáni5 would certainly send her to hospital and the doctor Durai6 would not send her corpse to her village. She shuddered to think where her corpse might be soon. Her poor teeth chattered, as well they might.
This was not a Madrasi ayah, that gentle and faithful breed, but an untaught, untrained ayah from nowhere in particular.
Baba slept in her arms. She pulled her dáwani7 well over it and threw away the sun-topi. Then turning her face resolutely homewards she commenced her last journey. The shady tree-bordered road stretched for weary miles before her, and hour after hour she dragged her ever weakening feet along it, now pausing to rest, now struggling on again, blindly, instinctively seeking a haven amongst her own people. Baby clamoured for food. She remembered a little sugar tied in the corner of her cloth (oh, naughty ayah) and pressing it between the infant lips quieted them for a time.
Towards evening her strength gave out and she lay down on the scant grass by the roadside. She could go no further and home was still far distant. No one knows what thoughts filled her untaught soul, but God who made her knew.
A village lay back from the road about a furlong distant. It was only a little huddle of mud huts thatched with palmyra leaves, facing in any direction that their builders had fancied. It was not clean and was sometimes noisy, but just now men and women were at work in the fields and only old people dozing in the shade and small languidly playing children were to be seen.
Across the road came a coolie8 woman. A bundle of firewood was on her head and on her back in the folds of her red cloth was a little infant. She heard another infant’s cry and stopped to listen. It came from that sleeping woman’s direction and she went on her way.
But the cry continued and the woman did not stir. The coolie-wife turned back to see the reason for this and there, lying on the cold breast of a corpse, was a tiny white baby. She had a very soft heart, this dark village mother, and she tenderly raised the fragile infant and placed it on her own warm bosom. She took it home to her hut and laid it on a soft clean cloth, and placing her own baby near sat down to consider. It was a puzzling event and her brain worked slowly.
She watched the road, however, and presently saw a red turbanned police-peon giving orders to some municipal sweepers and poor ayah’s cold body was borne away by Authority and thrust with all haste into a nameless grave.
Meanwhile in the stricken town search was made day after day for the little one. Nobody had seen it. It had vanished. In twenty-four short hours a whole family had been blotted out.
The funeral of Macfarlane and his wife took place at dawn the following day, after which their house was disinfected and sealed up. The few things that were not burnt and destroyed would be sold for the benefit of any claimants, and the home so lately filled with love and cheerfulness lay desolate for the lizards and bats to play in undisturbed.
But Stella’s baby was not forgotten. Advertisements were put in all the vernacular papers and rewards offered for its return. Mrs. Smith dreamt of it night after night. Stella’s sweet face haunted her. She thought of her own little daughter in England and then of this girl-child lost in vast and mysterious India. But somewhere, if the baby were not dead, God’s eye could see it. So to God’s care it was committed, but as weeks passed into months without a sign, the conviction grew that the frail little life had flickered out, and that in heaven the mother’s empty arms were filled again.
In the village the two babies lay side by side and stared about them. The pairs of eyes, brown and blue, looked longest at the doorway for the evening sun was shining in and the patch of light attracted them.
Latchmi busied herself making a fire of sticks between three stones and set a pot of water on to boil. It took time and Perumál's rice must be got ready. She sat in her doorway throwing it up in a basket sieve and letting the husks blow away. A little dust caused the white baby to sneeze.
“Very good,” she said, “good fortune is coming to us.” Far off along the field-paths the villagers might be seen wending their homeward way. They were as brown and sun-dried as the earth they worked in. They were thin and spare with long hours of toil and scant nourishment, ground down by load upon load of debt, impossible, mountainous, accumulated family debt, slaves of the soil in very truth, for money-lenders would have their pound of flesh and these men could never hope to be free. Yet for each one a home was ready.
Perumál was coming. His wife rose and waited for him with a smile which showed her strong white teeth. A loin cloth and a wisp of turban, both once white, was all he wore and his body was earth-smeared with his toil. Two days’ beard grew on his face. He was thinking of nothing-at-all as he walked. Arrived, he sat down on the beaten earth near his own hut. Latchmi was still smiling. When she spoke long habit made her do so in the startled tone that would make a European jump.
She went inside and picked up the two babies and sat down in front of him with one in each arm.
“Huh,” said Perumál again, but he looked at them. “Where did it come from?” he asked after an interval.
“Its mother was dead by the roadside. They took her away. This and my daughter are twins. Luck has come to our house. It sneezed too for more luck. Ayyah, see, are they not twin jewels? What the gods send we will keep.”
Perumál sat and chewed his quid of betel-leaf. He threw off his turban, shook down his kudumi9 and deftly re-knotted it. He had a thought but found it hard to follow up. He was a travelled man, he had once gone ten miles. The thought danced along the road of that journey just out of sight. One lean arm rested on a gnarled knee. He watched the babies having their evening meal and settling contentedly off to sleep. He watched his wife blowing up the fire through her little piece of hollowed bamboo. Then it came suddenly.
“Albino,” he said.
“Huh,” said Latchmi, and continued blowing. The sun set. Acrid blue smoke from the evening fires enveloped the village dwellings, and one by one the day’s noises were stilled. Sleep settled down on tired eyes. Only an owl or a distant jackal broke the silence. Perumál presently rose and took down his little tom-tom10 from a nail. He stepped out under the stars and night swallowed him up. Latchmi prepared for sleep. The bare floor was her bed, and as she lay, her husband’s familiar voice arose a short distance away. He beat his happy tom-tom and he sang. Tune came to him as he uttered it, up and down the scale, tones and quarter-tones and shakes. Words came too. The tom-tom inspired them.
Latchmi lay and wondered, for the song Perumál sang was a song of rupees!
The next morning the village was early astir. The dawn wind, cool and pure, swept over the land, bending the growing cholam11 into ripples of light and shade, starting a fairy concert in the pale green clumps of young bamboos, rattling the stiff branches of palm and palmyra and drawing from them also musical sounds. The tethered goats leisurely arose and stretched their slender legs. The dogs and buffaloes eyed each other to see what mood they were awaking in, and the toilers bestirred themselves for the day’s work.
The men departed after a frugal meal—a little cold rice flavoured with an onion or a broiled chilly, moistened with the rice water from yesterday. The women had household duties even though their homes were small. Water must be fetched from the well that lay between this village and the next. Doorways must be swept and adorned with little chalk patterns. Pots must be cleaned. Food must be prepared. There was no need for any one to be idle.
As a group of women passed with earthenware chatties on their hips going to the well, Latchmi called a girl and asked her to fetch water for her too, offering a tiny present. Her augmented family required all her attention this morning. She sat on her heels combing out her long black hair and watching the two infants. Baby-like they were awake betimes and lay contented and kicking side by side.
The first thing that struck her was that baby Latchmi was dusty, noticeably so as she lay beside the little gift of the gods; so, her toilet being ended, and her hair screwed into its tidy side-long protuberance, she busied herself in attending to theirs. It was to be somewhat of a ceremony, for a bath was not an everyday occurrence. Water was too hard to come by for that, and besides where was the need? She warmed some now and started a charcoal fire for the drying process.
The white baby’s nightgown must first be taken off. Latchmi noted the tiny sleeves and embroidered front. Whatever caste clothes were these? Beneath it was a soft flannel binder sewn carefully on only yesterday morning, (could it indeed be only yesterday!) by Stella’s shaking fingers. Round the baby’s neck there hung by a little silver chain a gold signet-ring. It was set with a stone engraved, Latchmi thought, with a figure of some god. This must be carefully kept lest evil befall. It was John Macfarlane’s ring and crest. When it had grown uncomfortably tight upon his little finger he had given it to his wife, and Stella, finding it slipped off her fingers as they grew always thinner and more transparent, had hung it round her own neck and then round her child’s.
First one baby and then the other was washed in the comforting water. First one then the other was dried in the charcoal smoke to prevent it catching cold. Then the kind mother laid them down admiringly side by side.
This time the white baby did not please her. It looked as one might say skinned. She wondered that its mother, dead by the roadside, had not thought to cover its albinism, and finding some pieces of turmeric root, she ground them and mixed the powder in the water, and the bathing and smoking process began over again.
The result was very satisfactory. Baby Latchmi was several shades lighter, she did not look like a poor coolie’s child. But the gift baby shone golden, a Brahmin of the Brahmins. Adé! Latchmi! Now you must colour your own face and hands and arms to match and all will be complete.
The chain and ring had better not go on again as they were. Why risk theft? The coolie’s wife deftly plaited the chain into a sort of thread with very narrow strips of red cloth torn from an old chaddar, and the ring she wrapped in folds of cloth until it looked like an ordinary square amulet. This was all the clothing the golden baby would need. Sewing was not one of Latchmi’s accomplishments and the flannel binder was put aside with the night-dress never to be used again.
By all the rules baby Stella should have flown away to heaven at this juncture. Her ayah had exposed her to fearful risks and her foster-mother’s care was kind but uninstructed. Was the sun to be her friend or enemy? Were the chills of night to be deathly harmful? The golden baby lay, however, kicking and gurgling in happy unconsciousness of all dangers, well fed, clean and comfortable.
The days pass uneventfully in small hamlets. Very little change marks the passage of the months. There was no one in the village who could read, not even the head man in his brick house. There was no school and no local priest. Religion was just a personal matter. If it was somewhat neglected in good seasons, as was but human, it was called to mind when the crops failed or were damaged, or an epidemic broke out. There was the sacred tree and the simple village idol, a mere group of shapeless stones. At the festival in honour of the Nagas, that malevolent race of half-human serpents, the women of the village, after bathing, would take milk and flowers and a dish prepared, with ground rice, jaggery12 and camphor and go to the nearest white-ant heap, a favourite abode of the cobra, and there, with hair hanging down, would repeat the name of the god and pour milk down the hole, scattering flowers on the hillock and burning incense by it. Then they would offer their dish of food by waving the hand from it towards the supposed abode of the snake. There was always danger of a cobra darting out, and now and then a poor woman would meet her death, but the day usually ended with a festive meal when the mothers and girls and boys returned home.
The village religion was little better than demonolatry or fetishism. Both men and women made obeisance to the rising sun, and always at night, when the family lamp was lit, obeisance was made to the flame. Their strong belief in transmigration was perhaps the greatest check they had on evil deeds, but nevertheless a witness to God was implanted in their hearts, a ray of that Light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world.
Through all the dark tormenting fears that beset them, while the objects of their worship were terribly fierce and full of anger, and while their chances of being born again as despised animals or insects were so many, the lamp which God, the unknown God, had lighted burned with its little glow-worm spark through the murk of superstition, ignorance, and wickedness, for mother-love dwelt under the palmyra thatch and kindly mother-deeds not rarely lightened the gloom of direst poverty.
Latchmi’s twin babies gave the women something to talk about as she stepped forth on her outdoor errands with one on her back and one in her arms. The neighbours smilingly caressed the round little faces and called them by harsh and scornful names lest the gods should be jealous and work them an injury. Again and again had Latchmi to relate the tale of the golden baby’s finding. They were never tired of hearing about it. It was discussed along the narrow field paths. It was ruminated over as they picked up firewood, the babies meanwhile swinging in a cloth suspended from a branch cradle-fashion.
The golden baby had many little drawbacks. It would get hot and feverish for no apparent reason, but its kind nurse did her best. One bad day, when it quite unexpectedly had convulsions, she quickly heated a piece of iron and branded three little marks on its tiny chest, for this primitive village remedy was the only one she knew, and explain it who can, the convulsions ceased and never returned!
The village children sat in a circle sometimes round the hut entrance watching the babies, until perhaps a sudden brawl drew them off like a flight of seven-sister birds to form an interested audience elsewhere.
One day a woman with towsled hair suddenly appeared. Her cloth, wound round and round her waist to form a petticoat, was brought up over one shoulder and tucked in at the back leaving the other shoulder and arm bare. She held something firmly in her hand and turned to face another equally towsled woman who was holding a noisy hen. The language hurled to and fro was startlingly personal and exasperating. The children gleefully danced about awaiting developments. The headman called out to know the cause of the trouble and the whole village assembled to listen.
She of the bare shoulder opened her hand and disclosed an egg. This she had found in her gourd patch. It was therefore hers.
The owner of the noisy hen was nearly frantic with rage.
“Oh! my property! my property!” she shrieked.
The two women were ready to tear each other’s hair. Suddenly the egg fell and lay smashed between them.
A pause, a shout of laughter, and the episode was ended. The combatants laughed too when they grasped the notion that there was nothing left to fight about, and went amicably to their huts!
But the villagers discussed it night after night at the gathering place under the Peepul tree. Opinions were divided. They had slow thoughts, slowly expressed. Like Job’s friends they assembled to talk, and talked at great length round and round in circles of simple argument. Quite possibly the village is still engaged in thrashing the subject out, though the chief performer, the noisy hen, has long since fulfilled its destiny in a festival dish of curry.
Perumál always watched the infants thoughtfully. He was fond of children in his heavy way. When the first little teeth shone pearl-like in the golden baby’s mouth he grunted as he chewed his betel-leaf, turning an old thought over in his mind.
“Look, woman, at the child’s teeth,” he said. “We shall soon have another mouth to feed, and how is enough food to be found?”
Latchmi picked up the beautiful baby and smothered it with kisses. It would not need rice yet awhile. She must work harder for it when that time came.
But Perumál, manlike, having got a thought in his head, held to it tenaciously, knowing that he would get his way in the end.
One evening as the buffaloes were being herded homewards by the boys, and long shafts of sunlight lay across the land a merry sound was heard upon the distant road. The children ran off to see what it was and met the familiar figure of a Dásári, or Pariah priest. He had the trident-shaped mark of Vishnu on his forehead and other parts of his body, and as he walked he strummed on an instrument like an Indian guitar, beating time for himself with a pair of small bell-metal cymbals. He also carried a large fluted brass vessel for collecting alms. So, strumming and clashing his cymbals and singing, he entered the village, sure of a welcome.
His gay and naughty songs beguiled the time pleasantly under the Peepul tree. Many of the villagers sought his advice for a small fee, for he was physician, astrologer, and soothsayer. Amongst others Perumál consulted him. He had, he said, an important journey to make, and wished to know the lucky and favourable hour and day of the week for starting.
The calculations seemed long and complicated and their heads were together for such a length of time that the headman began to be suspicious that mischief was being brewed between them. However, everything was settled at last and a trifling sum changed hands. Latchmi’s husband slept with a cheerful mind that night, but he kept his thoughts to himself.
On a certain bright January day the high-road was a scene of animation, for travellers were passing and repassing to visit their homes for the feast of Pongal. All the villages were gay, for the gods were being carried in procession with much beating of drums and blaring of trumpets. The houses were cleaned and decorated and special food prepared. No work was done, for this was a kind of harvest festival and the cattle were given a rest and extra food.
Perumál was still in a cheerful mood. He bade Latchmi put on her best cloth and bring the children, for they would journey down the road to see her mother. Latchmi, glad of this break in the year’s monotony, made ready and fastened up the hut with rough barriers. The little ones, freshly washed and tinted, sat now one on each hip for they were growing heavier. She fixed them on with a swathe of her cloth so that her arms might be free, and they watched the new world through which they were passing with solemn baby eyes.
The man and woman stepped out jauntily. The cool wind blew the dust about their bare feet. Family-laden bullock carts creaked along with shouts of driver and twistings of bullocks’ tails. Perumál walked in front with some food tied in a cloth bundle suspended from a long stick carried over his shoulder. His wife followed in his footsteps five paces behind as wives in India do; occasionally both drawing to the utmost limit of the roadside to let a Brahmin pass, but for the most part the wayfarers were villagers like themselves, Pallars13 and Pallachis, who called out to know their business or crack a wayside joke. After some hours of tramping they overshot the path leading to the village of their destination and Latchmi called out also.
“Whither goeth thou, Father of my child? This is the way and yonder is our village.”
A grunt from Perumál was the only response. Latchmi, greatly wondering, plodded on after him in silence. At length he allowed her to come up with him.
“We are not going to your people, that was a good enough story for the village. We go on a journey of several days. I do what I do. Peace, then, and follow.”
When night fell they halted by the roadside, and after eating the cold rice that they had brought lay down on a single spread of cloth. Perumál’s new turban, unwound, served him as a covering sheet.
The next day they started again. Wayfarers were more numerous now and, their food being finished, they were dependant on help at the halting-places. Handfuls of cooked rice were ungrudgingly given them by the better provided travellers. No one starves on an Indian high-road.
At a parting of the ways Perumál stopped to make inquiries.
“Ayyah, which is the road to Madras?” he said. The man addressed looked him all over.
“Where have you come from?”
“We have come from Sitapuram and we go to Madras; which of these roads leads to it?”
“What is your business there?”
“We go to see relations. What else? Is it not Pongal?”
“How long have you been travelling?”
“Since yesterday morning. Ayyah, which road?”
“That on your left, brother. Peace to you.”
Day after day they journeyed on, sometimes spending a few pice, but more often receiving food given as a matter of course for the asking. Latchmi, having learnt by experience that she must protect the golden baby from the sun if she would keep it well, walked ever in the shade of the tree-bordered roads, or covered its head with her cloth. Sometimes a lift was obtained in a bullock-cart, but she was hardy and a good walker.
In the larger villages were choultries, built and endowed by the charitable for the use of wayfarers. Water or buttermilk was provided and food also for those who were poor. These choultries form an excellent substitute for inns and hotels for all travellers rich and poor. Here religious mendicants rest and ply their trade of fortune-telling and begging. Snake-charmers are to be met with, also bear-leaders, and men with trained monkeys. Truly life beyond the village was amusing.
One day they fell in with a troupe of dancing-girls from a neighbouring temple going to festivities at a Rajah’s palace. These servants-of-the-gods were dressed in a peculiar manner and kept to themselves. They had been trained to the evil life of the temple from childhood and were looked upon with favour because they served religion. Their roving eyes noted the villager with the two babies, which she somewhat proudly displayed.
That evening a woman who had been in attendance upon them joined Latchmi in the rest-house. “Ammá,14 you have two children of one age. One is not yours. How did you get it?”
“I found it by the roadside near our village. Its mother was dead. I took it and kept it with mine. They are babes of no account.” And with that she gave them each a resounding kiss and knuckled their little cheeks affectionately.
The woman kept her eye fixed on the golden baby.
“Presently, when they eat rice, you will find it hard to feed them,” she said tentatively.
“I’ll manage somehow,” said Latchmi.
“When the time comes for marrying them, then what will you do?”
“That is many years away. Why trouble yet? What would you have me do, Ammá? Shall I throw my babies to the crows and jackals?”
“That golden baby is of a good caste. You sin in out-caste-ing it thus.”
“Its mother was dead. What could I do but take it?”
“You had better return it to the gods, Ammá. See, I will give you ten rupees for it.”
The silver gleamed in her hand. She watched the village woman intently to see if this bait succeeded. There were more rupees in the bag hidden at her waist.
Latchmi had never seen so much money before. It meant a fortune to her, but what were silver rupees compared with her golden baby? She held it close and safe in her motherly arms.
“No, no, I cannot part with it. It is the apple of my eye. Go away before my man comes with a stick.”
“Here are more rupees, more and more,” said the woman, jingling her bag and glancing round. “How much will you take for it? Don’t be a fool!”
At this Latchmi’s village temper began to rise. Her black eyes shot forth darts. Her breath began to come noisily. Very soon a torrent of words would flow in a high key, rising hysterically higher and higher, a crowd would collect and the business become public. The dancing girls’ attendant rose and slipped away baffled, but glad to escape into obscurity.
When Perumál heard the story he grunted and said nothing.
Counting the days on the fingers of her two hands, five and five, and yet another five, Latchmi was glad when they neared a large town one afternoon. Their road lay alongside some shining metal tracks and presently a puffing smoking monster rushed by them with a roar and rattle. This was their first sight ot a railway train. Ayyo! and do men and women get into that? Never, no never for Latchmi.
Madras, spreading along its miles of seashore, was before them. Villages large and numerous, separated by paddy fields and tanks and plantain groves, were all part of this spacious South Indian city. The people were alert and quick by comparison with the newcomers from their remote and sleeping village. They passed bazaars where more things were collected than Latchmi had ever dreamed existed. There were cloth shops with cloths piled on shelves to the ceiling the merchant having just room to move to reach down his wares to display to customers. They traversed the China Bazaar, and the Evening Bazaar, full of tin-ware, chatties,15 baskets, sweets and mats. The bright-eyed bazaar children, the beggars and lepers, the students in neat coats and round caps, yellow turbanned moneylenders, Muhammadans, Anglo-Indians, all formed part of a busy scene which kept the travellers quiet and staring.
Perumál, however, knew where he wanted to go and asked the way to the large Monegar Choultry, for the Dásári had promised to meet him there. Jostled, pushed, and bewildered they at length arrived, and were given a little empty space for the night.
This large rest-house, well endowed, and the recipient of bounteous Hindu alms-giving, was always full and in much favour. Portions of it were set apart for different castes. Well-to-do travellers brought their own supplies, but food was bestowed every day without discrimination on the poor, for the mere giving was considered meritorious quite apart from the worthiness of the recipient. As the roadside mendicant expresses it: “Maharaja! Maharaja! Charity is success! Charity is success!”
Here were gathered beggars without number, deformed and halt and blind. There were holy men with wicked faces, pedlars, and idlers. There were also genuine travellers to whom the choultry was a real haven of refuge from the teeming perilous bazaars.
Having bestowed the sleeping babies and secured a meal, Perumál left Latchmi with them and wandered away. He had not far to go, however, for, wonderful to relate, he found the Dásári at the place appointed. That worthy, who had been waiting in the choultry for a fortnight, was the centre of a throng of men who were seated on their heels chewing betel and spitting red. Their bare brown bodies smelt hot and oily. Some had no turbans and others had taken them off for comfort. The Dásári had been telling them a story and now, while his large fluted copper vessel was going round for alms, he thrummed his little three-wired guitar and gave them a benediction. “My blessing is Brahma’s blessing. By the mercy of the All-bountiful may you have prosperity in abundance.”
Later, the two men drew aside and talked together in low tones, with much gesticulation and repetition, for Perumál was slow-witted. He was very pleased about something and longed for his little tom-tom left at home. A bangleman came into the choultry at that moment and the villager beckoned him to follow to where Latchmi sat patiently waiting.
“Bangles!” she exclaimed “and for me!” With the pleasure of a child the village woman held out her wrists and the bangleman, carefully removing his strings of brittle glass-ware from over his shoulder, squatted down before her, barber-fashion, and began kneading and pressing her hands with practised fingers; nor did Latchmi cry out when he hurt her, for the smaller the bangles the more becoming they appeared to be. Four for an anna16 they were, blue and black and green. Perumál was generous. She was given eight on each arm, ending up with four bright yellow ones made of lac and shining with colours and bits of glass. These were put on first and last on each arm, cut and pressed open, then heated and stuck together again.
Now she looked truly a wife. No one could possibly mistake that. She was for putting little glass bangles on the babies’ wrists, but Perumál grunted to her to leave them covered and sleeping.
With evening came the Dásári, and the villager bade his much wondering wife pick up the babies and follow them. Out into the quickly darkening streets they went, the men in front, and Latchmi behind. No one noticed her infants, for they nestled up to her sleeping and enfolded in her cloth.
The little party walked in the soft dust at the side of wide red roads along which rolled carriages, jatkas17 and push-pushes, and which were dimly lighted at corners, or at entrances to compounds by flickering oil lamps. Then they plunged into a labyrinth of narrow evil-smelling streets, again through broader streets with little bazaar shops and so into a district of dwelling houses, one storey high, but receding back from the road to surround courtyards.
All was growing quiet now. They halted at an inconspicuous doorway, from the piál18 of which rose an ancient woman who had been on the look-out for them.
She looked at the Dásári. He looked at Perumál. They all looked at Latchmi. Perumál grunted. There were whisperings behind the door.
Latchmi felt as if the Evil Eye were abroad. She looked from one to the other with growing surprise.
Then Perumál roused himself for action.
“The golden baby is to go into this house for a few moments. It is to ward off misfortune. Give it up, woman!”
Before the loving foster-mother could gather her startled wits together the aged crone had picked the golden baby from her bosom and vanished like a shadow with it through the doorway. The heavy nail-studded door was slammed to and silently bolted in their faces.
“What is this! Give me back my baby!” screamed the thoroughly frightened Latchmi.
“Peace,” hissed the Dásári.
“Peace and come away,” added the still phlegmatic Perumál.
But Latchmi was rooted to the spot. Her own baby awoke and cried, but she did not heed it.
“Ayyo! my baby! Give me back my baby!” With her disengaged hand she beat upon the door and the two men violently dragged her away. Screaming and crying at the top of her voice, as only Indian women know how to scream, she was pulled along the silent street. No one in the neighbourhood took any notice. It was nothing, only a woman crying.
Then hysteria began to get Latchmi in its grip. Her words became louder and more incoherent, until at last in a climax of passion she felt that she almost wished she were a widow and smashed her new glass bangles on her arms.
By this time they had emerged into broader places. Dark trees overhung the roadway. The Dásári had disappeared and Perumál felt that he had borne enough. With his stout stick he fell upon his wife, and beat, and beat, and beat.
The sun shone fiercely into the courtyards of a Muhammadan house. In the outer one, from which a short passage led into the street, the gentlemen, divested of their outer coats, and with the long inner coats unbuttoned at the neck, reclined or sat in the shade of the veranda smoking hookahs. They had just returned from performing the midday prayer at a great mosque in Triplicane and were conversing of the news of the day, and the gossip of the mosque cloisters.
The schoolboy sons, with satchels on their backs, sauntered through to the inner courtyard in search of dinner. From the street came the distant sounds of leisurely traffic, the soft shuffle of bare feet, and the chant of the faqir whose begging beat this was, and from the edge of the sloping veranda roof rose the noisy caw-caw of an alighting crow.
The head of the household was a dignified figure. His turban removed displayed a shaven head. His long beard, black as the crow’s wing (albeit white at the roots!), rested on a portly breast. He drew in the scented smoke with a soft hubble-bubble, ever and anon removing the mouthpiece to pass a remark to his companions.
Mírza ‘Abdul Karím was not a poor man, and he had a reputation for learning. His reading was sonorous and musical. He could quote súrahs of the Qur’an with the air of bringing only a little from his storehouse of learning that silenced younger men and roused the ‘Alim19 of the mosque to greater feats of recollection.
His eldest son lay reclined on a low, square, portable divan with a greasy red bolster beneath his neck. He was not a pleasant-looking man, for dissipation was already beginning to set its mark on his face, and his eyes entirely lacked the gravity that made his father’s expression dignified. They were bold and roving eyes, and his mouth was loose-lipped and peevish. Mír Ja’fir had been spoiled from his cradle. Adored by the inhabitants of the Zanána he had lorded it over them unchecked. The schooling of his boyhood had been desultory, for when he wished to stay at home no one sent him forth, and when he played truant outside no one took notice of the school complaints. His father only accorded a half-hearted belief in education so different from his own, and his mother thought he was the most learned son in the world already. His employment was, however, within his capacity and as it exercised his brains he was not dull-witted. He worked in Black Town20 for the Persian indigo merchants resident there.
The other two men were guests of the moment and do not concern this story.
Mírza ‘Abdul Karím’s schoolboy sons had pushed their way through the curtained doorway into the Zanána and had sat down on the floor to steaming plates of curry and rice, waited upon by loving hands. Boy-like their appetites were excellent. Bádsháh, a lad of fourteen, was the taller and older. Sáhib Ján, to give them their familiar household names, was full of merriment and mischief. The Zanána spoiled them as a matter of course, but they were as yet innocent and unbesmirched.
Bádsháh had a grievance. He thought he was worthy of promotion to a higher class at school and had been passed by.
“I am not staying any longer in that school,” he announced to his mother. “The teachers are without understanding. They do not cause me to learn Angrezi21 properly, either. I shall leave.”
Záhira Begum, Mírza ‘Abdul Karím’s senior wife, looked at him with pride.
“What will you do then, my son? You cannot seek employment in a ‘Farangi Arfice’22 yet. You are not old enough.”
“I shall go and put myself into Miller’s school.”23 Here a diversion was caused by a little baby boy of two years old who tripped over the step from the covered veranda to the open courtyard. He sat where he had fallen, his face puckered with an angry howl. A girl of sixteen, the wife of Mír Ja’fir, flew to pick him up, and small Răhmăt Ulláh lifted baby arms to his young mother. Bádsháh snapped his fingers, and Sáhib Ján made grimaces, and peace was restored. The young uncles had to go off to school now and the Zanána settled down to its usual afternoon ennui.
The women’s quarters comprised the inner courtyard of the house, connected with the mărdána, or men’s quarters, by a curtained doorway and by a small intermediate room with a door on either hand. This room had no window and was used largely as a storage place for boxes and bolsters. There were no windows in any room opening into this courtyard, but the main living veranda was light enough, although hot from having no free passage of air through it. The slightly raised floor was plastered with chunam and kept reasonably clean by the besom of twigs used by Rábia, one of the serving women. There were mats ready for use standing rolled up in a comer. A swinging wooden cradle filled with soft red bolsters hung to a stout pot-hook and cord suspended from a rafter, and the Sáhiba’s silver-mounted hookah stood near a small low wooden divan. Chairs and tables there were none, nor were they needed.
Záhira Begum sat back further into the shade and Rábia silently seated herself near and began massaging her mistress’s ankles and feet. ‘Aziza Bi hushed her little son off to sleep and sat near him doing nothing.
She had been married to Mír Ja’fir for three years and except to visit her mother’s home at Muharram24 time, for they were Shíahs, she had not left the house. This did not seem to her a grievance. It was only what her position in life required.
The servant sitting patiently kneading her senior mistress’s feet had lived in that house most of her life. The ladies were, for Indians, fair of skin, their feet and hands were small and shapely, but Rábia was dark and unrefined, for she was of low-caste Hindu extraction and had been “made a Muhammadan” as they say. Several little dusky children running about the house called her mother and looked to her for their needs to be attended to. She was, in fact, merely a slave, although the nikah or secondary wife of Mírza ‘Abdul Karím.
“What is Sitárá doing?” Záhira Begum asked presently.
Rábia sniffed, for she wished just then to be in ‘Aziza Bi’s25 good graces, and ‘Aziza Bi was not fond of Sitárá.
“She is trying on jewels,” she said.
“What! that interloper!” shrieked ‘Aziza Bi. “How dare she handle my jewels? Sitárá, come hither this minute.”
From a dark airless room formed in the angle of the courtyard veranda emerged a tall girl of about twelve summers. She was dressed as were the others in bright thin muslins. A green sári draped round her over a red skirt showed her graceful body through its thin fabric. She came forward with a little defiant pout and stared down at ‘Aziza.
The wife of Mír Ja’fir, on her part, stared angrily up at her. They were accustomed to Sitárá, but she was very unlike any of the other inhabitants of that house. For twelve years old she was a tall girl and, compared with the rest, broad of shoulders. In the place of straight jet-black hair hers was a glossy golden brown, breaking out of its stiff tight coiffure into little waves and curls which caught and held the sunlight. Her skin was of a dazzling fairness. It gleamed white beneath her sári, and from a sweet pale face glowed eyes of the darkest blue.
A wave of colour rushed into her face under ‘Aziza Bi’s scrutiny.
“I was only sorting them,” she said.
“My jewels you are not to touch,” said ‘Aziza Bi crossly. “There is work to do. Go and do it.”
Sitárá sauntered away in the direction of the cook-room and sat down there near the aged Mariam. Listlessness was in her every movement. There was really nothing there to do. Mariam and Rábia had done all the work and had time to spare.
Sitárá did not like the cook-room. It was dark and smoke-begrimed and her eyes and throat smarted when the chillies were being ground for curry. ‘Aziza Bi sent her there constantly, but at any rate Mariam was fond of her and made her welcome.
The old woman looked at her now thoughtfully. She had nursed Sitárá from infancy and loved her as her own child. It was she who had urged that the little girl should be taught the Qur’án as a daughter of the house, with the little daughter who was now married and gone. Many a long toilsome hour had been spent learning by heart, parrot-fashion, the high-sounding Arabic phrases, to them meaningless and un-explained, but to be repeated correctly nevertheless, prompted by the Ustádni’s26 cane.
She had taught Sitárá to hold a needle and make her little muslin jackets, to cook and prepare sweet-meats and thread garlands.
She had seen to it that her manners should be correct: how to sit, how to stand, how to salaam. She had taught her the exact depth of salutation required in the Zanána for divers personages, and the words with which to address those who were to be honoured.
This was all that a girl need learn and Mariam looked askance when Sitárá taught herself to read Hindustáni from the boys’ school books, and firmly forbade her even attempting to write. Why should a woman write? It was a high-road to mischief and trouble. Love letters could be written and received. It was wrong to write. “What are love letters?” Sitárá had asked, but Mariam had not answered her.
Mariam was old. Her grey hair was not kept tidily under her white widow’s chaddar. Her eyes were filming over and becoming dim through long contact with the charcoal smoke of the cook-room. Her withered arms were unlovely with down-hanging flaccid muscles, but she had had her hey-day in that house many years ago. There she had known joy and sorrow; the joy of children, the grief of losing them; kindness, neglect, illness, festivals.
Now she lived on in quiet contentment, for her place there was assured. She was the last surviving of Mírza 'Abdul Karím’s secondary stepmothers.
Sitárá watched the old woman languidly. Mariam was making a favourite pillau, and after the slight interruption of Sitárá’s entrance turned to it again. The pillau was a cooling one, and as it was of a thin consistence it was important to measure the ingredients carefully. Using rice as the foundation Mariam added her rosewater and milk, saffron and sugar, and then put aside the large earthenware jar while she cleared up the floor space, putting the copper vessels and earthen platters into some sort of order against the smoke-stained wall. A few puffs through her hollow bamboo was all that the charcoal fire required before she turned kindly to the dejected child.
“Ammá,” said Sitárá. “I hate ‘Aziza Bi. I wish she may die of cholera or smallpox—or go blind or lame, or be widowed. May Alláh recompense her according to her unkindness to me.”
Mariam gasped incredulously. How could Sitárá, a child of the house, dare to say such things of the young Sáhiba?
“Chup,”27 she said sharply. “Chup, be quiet,” and she struck her wrinkled cheeks with her skinny old hands, crying “Tauba, repent, naughty one.”
Sitárá’s sweet face looked very impenitent just then.
“I am fairer than she is. Why am I a servant, Ammá?” Mariam glanced round hastily. They were out of earshot, but caution won the day and checking a slight inclination to be communicative she took refuge in platitudes.
“Máasha Alláh! It is thy Kismat,28 O little one without sense.”
One day follows another with a quiet monotony behind the Pardah.30 broken only by religious festivals and fasts and family events. As Muhammadans reckon the year by lunar months these fasts and feasts vary as to time reckoned by the solar calendar. When the Ramazán moon rises in the cold season the fast is far less arduous than in the thirsty days of midsummer. The mourning of Muharram also, so akin to feasting, and the festival of New Year’s Day are among the greater landmarks, and old people remember the date of any incident by their aid, “It was at full moon in Ramazán in the year of the People’s Park fire,” they will say.
Marriages and deaths, and the birth of sons and daughters are all attended with days of cooking and feasting. So are the visits of pardah relations with their children and servants, sometimes lasting for several days, and the return visits in closed and shuttered carriages. Then jewels are displayed and compared, rich sáris are worn, fingers are more carefully henna-dyed and eyes darkened. The talk, as the ladies sit round on mats and divans, is of family affairs and scandals, or bazaar tales brought in by the non-gosha31 servant women and the missi32 and kajul33 sellers, who use their eyes and intelligence and supplement the more authentic go-betweens, by whose aid marriages are frequently arranged.
Sometimes events of a different nature happen. One such was the return of Ustádni.
Sitárá remembered her well. She had been strict and somewhat unmerciful with her cane, but that had been considered her duty and merely earning her wages.
Apart from that they had been good friends. Ustádni loved the poems of Háfiz, some of which she had caused to be copied in a treasured manuscript book, and would read or chant them to the listening children as the shadows lengthened across the courtyard. She it was who had awakened dimly in the little girl a feeling after a world beyond the Zanána walls. Here were no bul-buls, fountains nor lovers, no moonlit plains nor starlit gardens. The poets’ world was a place where roses bloomed and nightingales sang and Kings’ sons adventured through wildernesses in search of the ladies of their dreams. Sitárá would sometimes glance at herself in a little hand mirror, and knew that she was fair, aud wished that she were a princess instead of no one’s child, and, as ‘Aziza Bi sometimes said, merely an interloper.
The “Zanána” was prepared to give their friend a warm welcome. A stir of excited interest kept them happy all day until at last a call from the outer door announced her arrival.
Mariam hastened through the men’s courtyard and assisted Ustádni to alight unseen from her bullock-cart by holding up one sheet while the gáriwán34 held up the other, making a lane through which the newcomer hastened, and then enveloping her in them until the Zanána courtyard was reached.
Then what kissing-of-feet to Záhira Begum, the lady of the house! what joyous taslíms35 from all the children!
“Ustád Bi, Ustád Bi, Taslím!” they cried as they crowded round her and drew her to a seat on a mat near Záhira Begum.
Even ‘Aziza Bi condescended to look pleasant and added her greetings, but the Ustádni in her own mother’s home had been considered as merely a servant hired for a purpose, and she thought this fuss undignified.
There was much to hear. Ustádni had joined the women’s caravan of a well-known Pír-ni, or woman saint, in the Telugu country and by slow and complicated stages had contrived the pilgrimage to Karbala, the burial-place of Husain, whither all good Shíahs wend in heart, and in person if possible, since there are religious points in the Meccan pilgrimage which offend and trouble them.
She glanced round the well-remembered place. All was nearly the same as when she had left it. The cook-room was more smoke-blackened, the paint on the wooden pillars of the living veranda more sun-blistered. That was all the change she noticed. The grown women had hardly altered, but the children were taller. Her eyes rested with pleasure and kindness upon Sitárá, who sat near her showing her affection by many little loving touches.
The “Zanána,” however, felt a difference in Ustádni which they could not explain.
It seemed as if a breath of fresh air had blown in upon them.
Her eyes were bright and full of intelligence. Her manner was alert and energetic. She had seen and done so many things since last she had been with them. She was a traveller indeed.
Far into the evening she told them of the train journey to Bombay, the sea voyage, the riding across the far-off arid plains, where Arabic and Persian, the languages of the Ulama36 in Hindustan, were spoken by all and sundry.
“Yes, I, even I, was mounted on a donkey and rode with the caravan,” she said. “Yá Alláh! when the first fear was over what an experience it was!”
Sitárá listened entranced, and something within her stirred in response to the recital until her young limbs ached at their inactivity. Ah! some day, when she was quite old like Ustádni, she too would go on pilgrimage!
The others listened with interest, but with no desire to follow Ustádni’s example.
It was quite seemly that she should have gone, of course. She was a widow, and a woman of piety and learning. If she had risked her “gosha” now and then, on her own neck be it. But for ladies of their position such a journey would only be possible in the train of their men-folk, and they had no special desire for so much movement and trouble.
Mariam and Ustádni presently fell to talking quietly together as the others drew off. They spoke about Sitárá.
“Do you remember when she came?” said Mariam. “A tiny baby, and, but for a heathen charm round her neck, as naked as when she was born. I thought at first she was a Brahmin orphan picked up by villagers to sell to us. But she is not Brahmin. What is she?”
Ustádni looked at Mariam. Was it possible that she had no inkling of the truth?
“Without doubt she is a Farangi,”37 she said. “I have seen many such. They are pale women with pale eyes, cat’s eyes belike, and with hair of various hues, some so pale as to be nearly white. Unveiled they walk, fearlessly and quietly like low-caste Hindus. They are not thinking about it. Their faces are gentle and good.”
“Ché!” said Mariam. “Without doubt they must be bold and bad. Unveiled and out and about! His sublime holiness Muhammad Mustafa (the blessing and peace of God be with him) ordained that women should be veiled. But they are Kafirs!”38
“Achcha,” said Ustádni, “very good, but what I have seen I have seen. The Persian women are out and about in burqas and their faces are not better than the faces of the Farangi women for all their veiling. The Farangis’ hearts are gosha, Bibi, that is the secret of it. Many things I have seen and with many people have I spoken. Truly, Alláh is great, and this world is wonderful.”
Ustádni drew softly at her hookah.
“What does the House-Sáhib intend concerning Sitárá?” she asked after a pause. “She is a full-grown girl now, no longer a little child. To whom will he wed her?”
Mariam blew up her little fire and glanced round the courtyard before answering.
“She is a bought slave, is it not so, just as I was in my day? The House-Sáhib no doubt bought her for merit. See! he has caused an infidel to become a good Muslim.”
She looked up as she spoke and caught a troubled look in Ustádni’s eyes.
“‘The oil of the fried cakes is poured on the brinjals.’39 Perhaps Mír Ja’fir—“ she paused and her sentence was left unfinished, for there were hasty and urgent cries for her. “Mariam, O Mariam,” and a sudden hubbub of voices surged into the men’s quarters.
Răhmăt Ulláh had eluded his mother and toddled off into the street. Only old Mariam could follow him and she must first snatch up a burqa40 to clothe herself withal.
The baby-boy’s journey, however, was quickly ended, for the schoolboy uncles chanced along, and picking him up carried him home roaring.
The year of the great famine is remembered yet in South India. The rains had failed and the scarcity of food was widespread. The railroad, as far as it extended, was an untold blessing. The Government irrigation schemes saved thousands of lives, but in that vast province countless people suffered hunger, and died by scores in little unknown hamlets and remote villages.
In the cities famine prices brought privation to many who could live comfortably in normal times, and when the great storm blew the Rangoon rice-ships onto the surf-lashed beaches of Madras, and the longed-for grain was sodden and spoiled by salt water, then indeed it might be considered that the gods were implacable.
Mírza ‘Abdul Karím enjoined economy on his household, but the high prices did not affect their way of living. The millions always on the border-line of starvation were the first to bear the brunt, and they streamed into the large towns, walking skeletons, bringing cholera with them. Famine relief work on a large scale was started by Government, which worked with all its resources to save life and keep down sickness, and succeeded beyond expectation as the Blue Books will bear testimony.
For the second time in his life Perumál took the Madras road. He was thin to emaciation, and in the weary hollow-eyed woman who followed him it would be hard to recognise the buxom Latchmi of old days.
Another Latchmi walked with them, a dark village girl of about fourteen summers. Her childish ways had long since been subdued by the toil and moil of life. She was a woman in all but years, and now, though not so thin as those of her parents, her young cheeks were hollow and her eyes sunken and lustreless.
The weary, weary road! When would their toil-some journey end! Each rest-house must be reached at sundown or death by the roadside awaited them. Food was the lure that carried them forward through the fierce heat, and Madras was reached at last.
Perumál even found the way to the Monegar Choultry ere death claimed him, and there Latchmi and her daughter herded for a while with other starving and sad-eyed women, secure at any rate as to food and shelter.
One day our acquaintance, the Dásari, made his appearance.
Older he was, and less jaunty, but with the same knowing air and self-important gait.
Latchmi remembered him and her former connection with him, and he recognised her, which was more surprising for she had altered in these days of distress.
Now it happened that the Dásári, amongst the lumber in his mind, had put away for future use the suspicion that had dawned upon him concerning Latchmi’s golden baby. That the child was English he felt reasonably certain, and in ways of his own he had kept an eye on her.
Little did Mírza ‘Abdul Karím dream that a Pariah priest knew many things concerning his home, so carefully secluded from contact with the world, so sacred to his own use and pleasure. But the Dásári knew that Sitárá was alive and beautiful, and that ere long she must certainly be married according to custom.
Hunger sharpens wits, they say, and the Dásári was no exception to the rule. Somehow his knowledge must fill his stomach. His village clients could not support him in these days, for they were destitute.
Thereupon arrives Latchmi, the noisy one, the screamer, the breaker of bangles. Alas! she is now dull and aimless. She cannot think, but she can still feel, and with a pain in her heart she watches her daughter and fears that she will soon be cast upon the world an orphan.
The Dásári for his own purposes one day led her forth and, guiding her through the maze of little streets in the Muhammadan quarter, showed her the well-remembered door before which she had lamented so many years ago. Suddenly the mother thought of a plan to save the young Latchmi from being utterly cast away and one sultry evening Mariam answered a knock on the street door when the men’s courtyard was empty and saw there a Hindu mother and young daughter who craved admittance.
She led them through to the Zanána courtyard where Záhira Begum, in her brilliant clothing, was reclining and peacefully smoking her hookah.
The Hindus from the country stared at the solid walls and numerous mats and other signs of comfort, and bore meekly the indifferent condescending glances of the Muslim ladies. It was Rábia who first saw how famished and faint they were, and leading them to one side, fetched rice-water and bade them drink.
Latchmi looked from one lady to another. Záhira Begum took no further notice of her. ‘Aziza Bi stared lazily. Rábia’s children gathered round, and presently from the cook-room came old Mariam and Sitárá.
Ah! this was she! The golden baby grown into a goddess! The poor village woman crouched at her feet and poured out a torrent of words. Sitárá could not understand, but old Mariam caught their drift and soothed the speaker in her own Tamil tongue, and waved the children off so that they might talk in peace.
Sitárá stayed near, for she saw that much of what they said concerned herself, which was an extraordinary thing. The conversation was lost to her, for she spoke only Hindustáni, but she watched Mariam’s intent face.
Suddenly the Hindu woman leaned forward and caught at the thread which hung round her neck. Talismans and charms were attached to this in the form of minute receptacles for folded papers inscribed with sacred Qur’ánic words, each sewn into red cloth and much alike. Latchmi’s feeble fingers wandered amongst these before any one thought to prevent the desecration, and lingered on one shaped somewhat differently. Sitárá saw Mariam nod.
Now Sitárá had never thought about these talismans except now and then to make them fresh covers, but she took note of the one indicated and determined to find out in what it differed from the rest.
The Tamil conversation continued and now eyes were turned upon young Latchmi sitting listlessly against the wall with her feet straight out in front of her in an ill-bred manner never seen in this household. She too was soon listening intently, her young breast heaving, for, O misery! her mother was bargaining to sell and leave her. To such a pass had hunger brought them both.
Mariam rose then and took them to the lady of the house. Presently some rupees were given to Latchmi and she was sent away.
The village girl did not realise that prison doors were closing upon her. She wept to let her mother go, but here were food and shelter. She promised herself that she would return home after a while when times were better.
The mother, alone and sad, but thankful that her daughter would not be left in the bazaar, set her face towards the home of her people far away in the country along the already twice-trodden road.
She never reached her destination for some one stole her money. Faint and half-dead, she was picked up from the roadside and carried to a Famine Relief Camp.
Young Latchmi in the Zanána, when her strength began to return to her, was like a little caged wild thing. She could not breathe in the confined space. She could not understand why it was forbidden to go out into the street. Her mother surely could not have left her for good and all. She must go seek her and return to the open village, which now seemed, for all its privation, such a happy place.
The Hindustáni talk around her was like the chattering of green parrots, and when Mariam said in her own tongue that she must now be made a Musalmán and repeat the Kalima (the creed) Latchmi made a determined effort to escape.
The front door, only reached through the men’s quarters, was impossible. Desperate and greatly daring, the active girl had nearly escaped over a high wall, reached in a way the women thought most marvellous, when she was ignominiously hauled down by Mír Ja’fir and soundly beaten.
Behold her now with feet hobbled like an untamed colt, only able to shuffle with difficulty about the courtyard; rage and despair in her heart, sullen gloom upon her dark face.
Mariam tried to soothe her, for she alone understood what the girl was feeling. The others, even Sitárá, thought she was ungrateful and foolish. She was getting such a rise in life. Her body was being fed and clothed. Her soul was being saved. They had done such a meritorious deed in taking her that the least she could do was to work for them.
Such was to be her lot and the sooner she began the better.
There was plenty to do, for a great feast was toward. Răhmăt Ulláh was approaching the age for the ceremony of Bismilláh, or teaching the child to pronounce the Name of God. The correct age was four years four months and four days, and the invitations were being prepared.
For two or three days now the little boy had been sitting in state under a cloth canopy to represent a throne, dressed in yellow clothes and rubbed over with chiksa, a sweet-smelling powder. He was already tired and cross, but Dádi41 was firm and his part must be performed.
Mírza ‘Abdul Karím sent out letters to invite his friends.
“To (such a one), the obliger of friends, greeting! At this poor man’s house his son is this evening to be taught Bismilláh Khwáni. I beg you will, by becoming one of the party, grace and ornament the assembly with your presence, and joyfully partake of something, for by so doing you will afford me peculiar pleasure.
Mírza ‘Abdul Karím.
The letter of Mwnshi Shamsu’d-D’in.”
The ladies were invited by the sending of cardamoms, and dhoolies were sent to bring them, accompanied by women servants.
On the Bismilláh day many ladies assembled in the Zanána.
Záhira Begum, dressed in silk and jewels, received them with dignity. ‘Aziza Bi, moving with slow grace, performed her duties as second hostess. All were seated on new mats or freshly covered cushions, and feasted, scented and garlanded.
Sitárá, with few jewels but with a new pale green sári, went amongst them with bright interested face for she loved Tamáshas.42 No one there was so beautiful as she. ‘Aziza Bi bit her lip viciously as conversation sometimes turned upon her.
“Depend upon it, Mír Ja’fir,” began one. “She is kept very strictly, I hear,” said another. “‘Aziza Bi sees to that. Also her heart is gosha. This house is not a house of bad talk. Come, dear one, and sit with us.”
Room is made for Sitárá and the ladies ply her with intimate questions, and tasty morsels of pán supári,43 until attention is distracted by the dressing of Răhmăt Ulláh.
Mariam and Rábia had just bathed him and washed all the chiksa off, and were exchanging his yellow garments for fine silken red ones shot through with golden thread. His little shaven head was adorned with a gold braided cap, and now were tied round his neck, attached to a red thread, the silver discs brought as presents by some of the guests. He was scented with sandal-oil and attar and garlanded with yellow flowers round neck and wrists and forehead, and taken through to the outer courtyard where Mírza ‘Abdul Karím was entertaining his male guests. They had assembled at a later hour than the ladies, who had thus arrived unobserved.
Răhmăt Ulláh, poor babe! would have cried had he dared. The Zanána warnings and threats were behind him. In front of him sat a circle of bearded gentlemen amongst whom his father and grandfather seemed remote and unfamiliar. The sight of the school-boy uncles, however, gave him a little courage, and presently he found himself seated in front of the family Munshi in the midst of the assembly.
Near them were two trays containing sweetmeats, some of which were covered with gold and silver leaf. There were also flowers, sandal oil, betel leaves, a small silver disc, a pen and inkstand, and a cloth.
With eyes like saucers Răhmăt Ulláh watched his teacher. The Munshi offered Fátiha or blessing over the sweets and wrote on the little silver disc with the pen dipped in saffron water, the words Bismilláhu’r-Rahmánu’r-Rahím.44 This the little pupil was made to lick off and was then comforted with gold and silver sweetmeats. To be able to enjoy these at leisure it was worth while going through with all that was to be required of him, and he was growing accustomed to the situation.
Munshi Shamsu’d-Dín45 was very deliberate. This was one of his own great days.
He took a piece of red paper and on it, with all the art of caligraphy at his command, for writing Arabic is a fine art, transcribed the first súra of the Qur’an.
When the slow and careful movements of his pen ceased this was put into the baby-boy’s hands, and he was bidden repeat after his teacher first the Bismilláh, then the newly-written Súratu’l-Fátiha, and then a few verses from súra ninety-six, which being the first revealed by Alláh to Muhammad the Chosen (the blessing, etc.) is considered of great excellence.
“Read, in the name of thy God; for He it is who hath created all mankind out of a lump of coagulated blood. And He is also that Almighty Being, who has blessed us with the voice of utterance, and taught us the use of the pen.”
The sonorous voice of the Munshi and the lisp of the little child ceased. There was a moment’s pause and then the garland of flowers was hung round the Munshi’s neck, he was anointed with sandal-oil and presented with cloth, pen and inkstand.
After this the pán-dán46 was handed round. Răhmăt Ulláh, much relieved, made a fine little taslím to his teacher and another to the company, and amidst congratulations to his parents, he was called amongst them and found his little cold hands filled with shining rupees.
Then followed dinner, over which we will not linger, and as Mírza ‘Abdul Karím did not favour entertainment by dancing girls, the company gradually dispersed.
The ladies were to stay the night, and female musicians had been hired to sing and play to them. They sat up all night feasting on sweetmeats and listening to the music. Any who were so inclined snatched an hour’s sleep in the midst of the enjoyment. When morning dawned, they ceremoniously departed as they had come, happy and well entertained.
Răhmăt Ulláh was now a schoolboy. He had advanced a stage in life. Though he liked the Zanána petting and spoiling, he more frequently slipped into the outer courtyard to evade obedience, and was learning to pour abuse upon the servants and even his mother that sounded shocking on his childish lips.
For this he was sometimes beaten, sometimes admired, and was fast becoming a very tiresome little boy.
One day all the imps of mischief seemed to possess him. Latchmi had slapped him, and, roaring to his mother, he had seen her well cuffed in return. Then he had pestered old Mariam in the cook-room and had torn Sitárá’s sári from end to end.
This was complained of to Dádi, and Răhmăt Ulláh was at last in for the spanking that he well deserved. Did he wait for it? Not Răhmăt Ulláh! Not the schoolboy who was going to be a man and lord it over all women in good time!
The front door was open and there was no one to intercept him. Old Mariam in her burqa could not overtake him now. Young Latchmi, fleet of foot, could have done it but she was hobbled again for a punishment, so down the little empty street he ran and up another, then, lost and bewildered, came to a standstill in the midst of a busy thoroughfare. Running syces shouted at him. Some one pushed him to safety from before an English dog-cart. Bullock-drivers grunted. Giant terrors were on all sides of him.
It happened in a moment. A jatka with galloping pony on the wrong side of the road, a creaking country waggon with driver out of sight behind the hood, a yell from a police-peon, and soon a crowd gathered round a little silent form whose garments were covered with dust and blood.
Poor Răhmăt Ulláh! Thrice poor ‘Azfza Bi! Her only child, a man-child, was snatched from her suddenly by death. There was mourning and weeping in the Zanána, for he was the spoiled darling, the heir of the house.
It was Kismat.47 It was the will of Alláh. If this was of any comfort to them it was all that they had, and never once did it enter their remotest thoughts that had their customs been different this young life would have been spared to them.
The dusty Thieves’ Bazaar was thronged with the usual morning passers-by.
The bazaar men were sitting amidst their wares, driving hard bargains when they could, and good-humouredly giving in when customers were equal to them.
A gang of Tamil coolie women passed with loads of grass upon their heads. The upper portions of their cloths were brought across their chests and then up behind to make pads upon their heads on which to rest their burdens, leaving their arms and backs nearly bare. Their sturdy hip-swinging gait and loud coarse joking were signs of health and contentment.
A leper woman with a child on her hip shuffled painfully by, her sore feet, had she but known it, infecting the very dust of the road. Other beggars there were, some maimed in childhood for the purpose, others suffering from ignorant neglect or more ignorant surgery, all sent forth from their hovels to earn a living on the road.
“No fader got. No mudder got. Belly empty. Durai! Durai!” shouted an active little rascal to a passing Anglo-Indian, thumping his bare stomach and keeping up with the indifferent drill-clad figure.
Since no pice came from that quarter he gave up the pursuit and wandered off to where cheerful music offered amusement.
Some jugglers were sitting chewing betel-leaf with their few appurtenances beside them, and a whimsical Pariah priest had just joined them and was singing to his little guitar.
Many strolled up and stopped to listen and passed on with a jest. Respectable Hindu housewives pulled their cloths modestly over their heads and hastened by to fulfil their errands. Low-class Muhammadan servant-women went more leisurely, full of curiosity to catch the drift of the song. An old burqa-clad figure tottered by, poor and unnoticed, old and ugly, forced by want to leave her Zanána dignity, but clinging to its prestige by making herself invisible.
The Dásári watched her dosely, but let her pass. Presently came another, and her feet were not old and tottering, and through the opening in the circular garment a middle-aged hand made a secret sign.
She passed but waited within sight, and the Dásári, neglecting to send round his begging gourd, presently rose up and followed her.
They could not talk in the Bazaar, for what should an apparently respectable though poor Muhammadan woman have to do with a Pariah priest? She led the way towards the seashore, past the Maidan, where the High Court now stands, and where is still to be seen the dark grey slab of granite that marks the tomb of the little son of Mr. Elihu Yale, sometime head of the Honourable East India Company’s affairs in the Bay of Bengal, and Governor and President of Fort St. George, and the founder of the University in Connecticut which bears his name; past the old historic Fort St. George itself, which Clive held against the French and where he was married; across the sandy road and past a grove of casuarinas planted long ago to mask a hidden battery. There, with the hot sun blazing down upon the shimmering beach, though in the open they were alone and the woman took off her burqa and rolled it up.
They were both bi-lingual. The Dásári added to his own Tamil tongue a debased Hindustáni dialect. The woman, speaking Hindustáni, was also voluble in bazaar Tamil. So in this unlettered jargon they conversed in low and furtive tones.
“I was selling them saffron yesterday,” she said with a laugh. “I saw the desire of your eyes, O naughty one! Were you even a prince you would have small chance. The girl is innocent, white-hearted. You must cast your glances elsewhere.”
“She-donkey!” said the Dásári with a leer.
“She is not Brahmin,” continued the woman. “She is English without any mistaking, but has been snatched from Gehenna and made a good Musalmán. A fortunate star ruled her birth. I could not worm anything from old Mariam Bi who is close concerning her, but I did contrive to finger the girl’s amulets and they are not all true ones. When I touched a certain one she started and looked at me curiously. Inside was something that felt like an English ring. That is all I can tell you, O Dásári. Give me the rupee and let me go.”
The money changed hands; the woman departed. The Dásári, with a satisfied expression, went off towards Black Town in search of a letter-writer.
He knew what he knew! He had wandered to some purpose along the road past Perumál’s village to the Cantonment town some koss48 beyond.
There, in servants’ go-downs behind the English bungalows, he had beguiled many an evening with his tales and sorceries, and in return had gathered a harvest of ancient gossip, handed down from the last generation of butlers, matis and syces. Dr. Smith’s old coachman, now become a night punkah-wallah and glad of the job, had pointed out to him the house where Sitárá was born, and described the good doctor’s fruitless efforts to find her after her disappearance.
The Dásári had been somewhat depressed to find that she was merely a soldier’s child, but he was shrewd in his way, and knew that the Sáhibs valued even infants of their race at many hundreds of rupees, for they built orphanages for fatherless soldiers’ children, costing, monthly, a fortune as he understood it.
From the old coachman, too, he had procured Dr. Smith’s address in England. The master had left India some years ago, but every quarter there arrived a pension for this faithful servant, which but for famine prices would have saved him from pulling night-punkahs in his old age.
A letter-writer was found in the shape of a Hindu clerk in an office in Armenian Street. He was a somewhat dull man, for he ate opium during his noontide recess, and felt little curiosity concerning his clients’ affairs.
Many came to him, and for a small fee had letters indited. Sometimes they were addressed to school-masters entreating that such and such a promising pupil might be placed in a more advanced class; or to College Professors from the father of a “failed F.A.”49 that his son might be employed as a teacher; and sometimes they were vile anonymous letters against men and women who were walking uprightly and who would not listen to the voice of the briber or seducer.
The letter was written and placed in an envelope made on the spot with a piece of spare paper. The Dásári stamped and posted it with his own hand.
He wandered off after this to haunts he knew well. Not far from Popham’s Broadway, with its European merchants’ offices and the neighbouring streets with their enormous warehouses, there was a tortuous little alley between high windowless walls. It led to an entrance easily overlooked by the uninitiated, as it appeared to lead straight into the house of a gosha woman.
Through this slipped the Dásári, and was soon enjoying his opium pipe with others of his kind, in a very foul and squalid opium den.
One hopes the lair has been long since cleared out with other Black Town plague spots. If it still exists it should not be very hard to find.
As the months passed by, young Latchmi began to to pick up the Hindustáni that was spoken all around her. With quaint Tamil turns to her sentences she could now make herself understood. She and Sitárá were drawn to each other from the first. Although she looked up to Sitárá as to a well-born lady, and Sitárá regarded her with the condescension due to her dark skin and low idol-worshipping origin, the girls became fast friends and often amused themselves with learning each the language spoken by the other.
‘Aziza Bi, whose heart was embittered by her sorrow, hated them both. Latchmi was kept hard at work, but that did her no harm, and old Mariam was grateful and kind. Sitárá was left ill-dressed and often badly fed. She winced beneath the lash of ‘Aziza Bi’s tongue.
Her scant house-liberty, too, was further curtailed. Mír Ja’fir had begun to form a habit of sitting in the women’s quarters with his mother and wife. He would stay for hours sometimes, during which ‘Aziza Bi insisted on her hiding in the dark close corner-room, where there was nothing to do.
With a loud clapping of hands before the curtained doorway of their courtyard Mír Ja’fir would announce himself and ask permission to enter. Once or twice, though she had fled with utmost haste, he had entered too soon and seen her. He made Sitárá’s flesh creep.
‘Aziza Bi was furious on each occasion. The fierce torrents of her abuse caused even old Mariam to stop her ears and hastily distract the listening children’s attention. Sitárá, who only dimly understood its import, felt battered and disgraced, and pulling her sári well over her face would go away to weep in a corner.
Latchmi did not try to escape now. She was settling down to her new life with its regular food. With the feeling that she could escape if she chose she elected to stay for the present. She had been made to repeat the Muslim creed. A Muslim dress had been given her, and her ears had been pierced in about eight places above her already much distended lobes and hung with little cheap rings. She began to feel the self-respect that comes with a rise in life. She had a new Muslim name too, and was now called Lutifa.
The two girls, so unlike in appearance, and yet in one sense of equal status in Mírza ‘Abdul Karím’s house, in that they were both bought slaves, were able now to converse together. Lutifa longed often for her simple village mother and the freedom of the fields. She described the trees (for Sitárá had never seen a tree) and the night cries of the hunting jackals. She described, too, the cheerful gatherings at the well and the women’s talk; the fear of the evil spirits who inhabited the trees after dark, the pinch of hunger and the arduous toil in the fields.
Ustádni, who was teaching her to be a Muslim, would listen thoughtfully, for during the one great journey of her life her eyes had been opened to the ways of men and women on this earth. She herself was settling down again to the stagnation of heart and mind that comes in Zanána life, but she could not altogether unlearn what she had learnt, or forget what she had seen.
One day, ‘Aziza Bi, whose poor solace was her jewel box, having carefully sorted her trinkets and fingered them lovingly, screamed out to her mother- in-law, Záhira Begum, that a nat’h (or nose-ring) was missing.
Her nat’hs, of which she had several, had always been much admired. The ring of this one, formed of gold wire, was two and a half inches in diameter and the garnets and pearls which ornamented it were particularly fine. Záhira Begum left her hookah and came to see for herself.
There was consternation in the Zanána. Every one was called and questioned. The children were frightened and awe-struck at the wrath on the face of ‘Aziza Bi, and the language on her tongue. Sitárá, at first indifferent, became uneasy and nervous at the furious glances directed towards her. Lutifa was too stolid to be easily troubled. The Ustádni, watching the scene, felt there was more in it than met the eye. The childless ‘Aziza Bi was very unhappy. Bitterness and hatred were eating up all her young beauty. She was fast growing capable of any wicked deed and there was nothing to check her. In her Faith hell was reserved for unbelievers and idolators. Muhammadans always went to heaven. Ustádni herself knew no differently, although she turned more naturally to goodness. Here was a field lying ready for the enemy to sow his tares.
“Very well,” said ‘Aziza Bi angrily. “Bahut achcha, no one speaks. The Thief-catcher shall solve the mystery.”
“Ayyo,” murmured women and children.
“Slowly, slowly, Bibi,” said Ustádni. “Let us try to find the nat’h. Truly no thief is here.”
“Thou hast no call to interfere, Ustád Bi,” rejoined ‘Aziza Bi rudely, but Záhira Begum settled the matter by an order to a servant-woman, who pulled a burqa over herself and immediately left the house.
An uncomfortable silence reigned. Old Mariam and the Ustádni knew that they were above suspicion, but, as Ustádni murmured to Mariam, in the wake of the Thief-catcher there always came further trouble. It was as if having dealings with one so conversant with evil spirits and genii somehow gave these an easier entrance. She even knew of a house where for months afterwards an evil jinn had pelted the roof with stones every night until the inmates fell sick from fear and sleeplessness. It had cost many rupees to have the bad spell removed. The Thief-catcher was the only one who could do it, and even his magic circles and lamp-charms were a long time taking effect.
The children watched the curtained entrance with thrills of excitement not altogether unpleasant. Rábia hushed her brood, for they were getting on her nerves. She had reason to know that the Thief-catcher did not always catch the culprit. No one was quite secure.
After a long delay the burqa-clad woman returned. The Thief-catcher was taken to a room between the men’s courtyard and the Zanána and established behind a curtain. With him came a non-gosha Muhammadan woman of the musician class to act as go-between. She was sometimes a seller of saffron and knew the house.
Her free unholy glance wandered now over the group of women and rested with a gleam of interest upon Sitárá, who shrank in dismay behind the stolid Lutifa. Since she had last been here the girl had grown in beauty. She had heard of the Dásári’s letter to England and meant to reap a further reward for herself should anything come of it.
In the meantime here was this fool thief-catching business to attend to!
A nat’h was it? O yes! She would help find the thief! Her glance rested full upon ‘Aziza Bi herself, who suddenly felt cold shivers down her spine and began to tremble. To hide her discomfiture she asked in a hard voice which method of divination they would use. The woman spoke to the man behind the curtain and found that he had already besmeared the floor with red ochre and had sketched thereon a hideous figure of great size; a square body, with an arm at each corner and a frightful head, full face, projecting from each side. Four arms and four heads. He asked for a handmill and placed it in the middle of the square. Working unseen, he quickly rubbed some assafoetida about the centre of the mill between the two stones. He then wound some flax round the pin near the top and rested the upper stone on this, but making it appear to be suspended in the air.
He was now nearly ready.
As a finishing touch he produced the top of a human skull, of which he made a lamp by filling it with oil and lighting a floating wick. Near this were placed a few fruits and burning frankincense.
His voice then boomed in the ears of the listening frightened group beyond the curtain.
“Behold by my power the stone is suspended. One by one, O people, come hither and touch the centre of the mill. Whoever is the thief, her hand will be caught between the stones. Perhaps the upper stone will fall and crush it.”
He then retired into the men’s quarters to wait. Finding these empty he afforded himself a useful opportunity for investigating the few books and papers lying in Mírza ‘Abdul Karím’s private sanctum, the little front room looking on to the street.
The seller of saffron now took his place. One by one the inmates of the house came into the room, touched the centre of the mill as they had been bidden and, obeying a wave of her hand, seated themselves against the wall.
‘Aziza Bi declined to move.
“It is my own nat’h,” she said crossly. “Why should I go?”
But Záhira Begum led the way with dignity and bade her follow.
Her knees shook under her. That horrid woman’s eyes had doubtless through the power of her magic seen the lost nat’h carefully concealed in her kurta,50 and the same magic would crush her hand. It began to ache unaccountably as if already bewitched.
Her turn had come. She went forward with her sári hanging well around her and, unobserved, made a mere pretence of inserting her hand between the millstones. Seated by the wall in safety at last, and breathing freely again, she watched the rest advancing one by one into the weird circle of light cast by the gruesome lamp.
The sight of Sitárá, white to the lips and with fast-beating heart, caused her to smile maliciously. The girl, nevertheless, thrust her hand in boldly and passed to sit down unscathed.
The woman then rose and went alone into the Zanána courtyard and bade her clients come to her one by one. This they did, and after she had held each one’s hand for a moment close to her face they were passed on in silence to the corner room.
Of all the hands she thus sniffed at, Aziza Bi’s hand was the only one that did not smell of assafoetida.
“Let the owner of the nat’h return to me alone,” said the woman. Thus addressed, ‘Aziza Bi issued forth again.
“Bibi,” said the woman softly. “Quick! a reward for me your slave, and I will not expose you. Produce the nat’h and we will hide it and find it.”
Fear and trembling seized upon the already over-wrought ‘Aziza Bi. This was indeed magic! She pulled the nat’h from its hiding-place without a word, and stooping, detached an anklet and pushed it towards her.
With one movement as it seemed the woman deftly inserted the nose-ring into a long slit in a red bolster lying near, and lifting the curtain, disappeared to call the Thief-catcher.
He then, once more established out of sight near his skull and red ochre magic, gave judgment to the trembling Zanána.
“Listen, O people! There is no thief. All are virtuous. Fairies have hidden the nose-ring and it lieth concealed in a certain red bolster within reach of all.”
Ah! What sighs of relief, what shaking of bolsters, what jubilation of the reviving ‘Aziza, and what sardonic grins on the faces of the Thief-catcher and his accomplice as they go away well rewarded.
Dr. Smith was spending his years of retirement in the Kentish Weald. For some years he had not taken kindly to his enforced leisure, but new interests came to him and old interests were kept alive by occasional foregatherings of old Indian friends in London. Mrs. Smith had found the settling down to English domestic problems harder still, and had it not been for Brenda and Brenda’s future they would seriously have considered retiring to one of the charming South Indian hill stations, where in an equable climate, and with Indian servants in plenty, life flows on placidly from year to year amidst gay flowers and sunlit mountain slopes.
Brenda, a tall athletic girl of twenty, was playing tennis with her father and beating him.
“I must play with my head,” he grumbled, “my legs are of no use.”
Whereupon he brought off one of his famous corkscrew twists, which his undutiful daughter deliberately skied in return beyond his reach.
“It is no good, my dear—that is set to you. Let us go and sit down.”
Through the bushes on the bank above the tennis court they could see a carriage and pair drawing up at the front door and a moment later Mrs. Smith approached accompanied by a tall and dignified old lady, dressed in deep mourning.
Mrs. Macfarlane was not a near neighbour, but the doctor and his wife, with their ignorance of local gossip and their wider horizons, much attracted her.
They were not, however, wholly ignorant of local history and knew that the Manor House, now silent and deserted save for its sad mistress, had once been the centre of the social life of the neighbourhood. But the son and heir had suddenly disappeared leaving sorrow and desolation behind him. He had just been married and there seemed no cloud on the horizon of his happiness. The world of the Weald could not account for the mystery, and the stricken mother confided in no one. She lived on amidst their silent and respectful sympathy wrapped in the mantle of her sorrow, aloof but not unfriendly, and gradually, as the neighbourhood changed hands, young Macfarlane and his sudden extinction were forgotten.
While the elder ladies seated themselves on the garden seat Brenda collected the balls, and running to intercept the postman, brought the letters.
“The Indian mail is in, I see,” said the doctor.
“Here is a quaint looking envelope.”
“‘The Hon. Dr. Smith Esq.’ written in green ink. Which of your queer acquaintances is that from father?” asked Brenda.
“It is sure to be funnier inside,” said Mrs. Smith.
He glanced at his visitor for permission and then opened it where he stood. The ladies waited expectantly.
But the doctor seemed speechless with surprise. He pushed his fingers through his already rumpled hair and his wife caught down his arm and looked over it at the letter.
“Read it aloud, my dear,” he said. “It is a most astonishing missive.”
“Most honoured Sir.
“This humble one begs to fall at your Excellency’s feet and to wish you long life and good health until growing up of children’s children. This humble one has tale to tell. When your Honour living in India, then plenty talk making of lost child. Your Honour truly being ‘Nourisher of the poor’ for that common soldier’s child only, not good caste child. Now this poor humble one finding child. Baba now grown Missie. I no humbug man, I giving sign to master. Missie done got English signet ring hanging on necklace. I questioning bad bazaar people too. This not open talk, plenty secret business making. I understanding well. This humble one stays in Monegar Choultry in Madras every Hindu feast day for half year. Your Honour please to cast eye of favour on this poor man.
“Honoured Sir. I kiss your blissable feet.
“Written for Dásari by Rámaswámi, writer of Messrs. Binny and Co., Armenian Street, Madras.”
“Oh, my dear, can it possibly be true?” gasped Mrs. Smith. “You know what natives are!”
Dr. Smith read the letter through again.
“A Dásari! A Dásari is one of those Hindu buffoons hung over with tom-toms and gourds and little fiddles! Good Lord!”
“How truly terrible!” said Mrs. Smith.
“What is terrible, mother?” said Brenda, who was tying the tennis balls into their net bag.
“That an English child should be in the hands of common bazaar Hindus. It is unthinkable.”
“What is the story?” asked the old lady with polite interest.
“It was in a bad cholera year, an English child was stolen by its ayah and never found.”
“Oh! the poor parents!” sighed Mrs. Macfarlane.
“They were both lying dead of cholera, so they were spared that grief, but what the ayah’s motive could have been puzzled us all. She was never traced.”
“Probably she and the baby died of cholera too,” said Dr. Smith. “We sent to her village, but she was not there, and never went there.”
“Well, but about this baby in the letter, mother?” said the practical Brenda. “Suppose the soldier’s baby didn’t die. Suppose this juggler hid it.”
“He couldn’t have hidden an English baby,” said her mother. She sat looking straight in front of her. Brenda’s words had started a new train of thought.
“What was the baby’s name?”
“Stella, after its mother. I’m sure she would rather it had died.”
“Did you know all the soldier’s wives by name?” asked Brenda, surprised.
“Oh dear no, but these were rather special people. So unusual. They were gentlefolk although Macfarlane was in the ranks.”
“Oh look, father,” cried Brenda, starting forward.
Mrs. Macfarlane, who had risen, was sinking back on the garden seat with an ashen face. She tried to speak, but no sound came through her drawn lips. The doctor sat down beside her while Brenda ran into the house for restoratives.
“You are tired with the heat,” said the doctor’s wife sympathetically.
The old lady shook her head slightly and tried again to speak.
“I am very foolish,” she murmured. “Stella is quite a common name and so is Macfarlane, but that was the name of my son’s wife. What was——”
The words would not come, but the questioning eyes wrung the doctor’s soft heart.
“The husband’s name was John,” he said quietly, to end her suspense once for all.
The old lady sat perfectly still for a few minutes with closed eyes. She hardly realised the presence of her friends and began talking to herself in a low whisper.
“Then he has been dead these many years. I knew it. I felt it. But something did not let me rest. It was the child. My little granddaughter.” The doctor and his wife looked at each other. They could not jump to such a sudden conclusion.
“You knew this young couple, doctor?” she asked suddenly.
“Young Mrs. Macfarlane was a patient of mine and my wife was with her when she died,” he answered simply. His watchful eyes were on the stricken face before him and he was weighing every word he spoke.
“Then I beg of you to come home with me now and see my photographs, and at home I will tell you some of my son’s story. The photographs will settle the matter one way or the other.”
“We certainly will, madam, with pleasure. Will you drink this while my wife gets ready.”
A few minutes later the carriage was bearing them swiftly through the wood-bordered roads, past quiet villages sleeping peacefully in the sunshine and through the Manor gates into an undulating park planted with fine and ancient trees. It drew up before a wide flight of stone steps and they followed the lady of the Manor into her home.
She led them without pausing through the lofty hall and up the broad oak staircase to her boudoir. It was a quiet old-fashioned room and nothing had been added to or taken from it for many years. It was as if its mistress had lost interest in her immediate surroundings. The things that were there already might stay since she had to live her life out but it was of no importance either way. So the room was sombre and somewhat scantily furnished. Her chair was drawn up to the fireplace and near it stood a large old table, bare and polished, upon which now rested her spectacles and newspaper.
When the doctor and his wife were seated the old lady found a bunch of keys and opened a small and richly carved cabinet. From it she took a few framed photographs and placed them on the table without a word. Her visitors jumped to their feet and looked more closely. There was no need to ask if they recognised them. John Macfarlane, just as they remembered him so many years ago in India, was there before them. There was no room for doubt. And here was Stella in all the freshness of her young beauty. Stella in court dress, the equal of any lady in the land.
“When we knew her she was still beautiful, but of course not quite like this,” said Mrs. Smith musingly. “She was in a hot little bungalow, with very few comforts. She of course felt the climate, and then there was the baby.”
The old lady sat back in her great chair.
“You say John was a soldier in the ranks?” she asked at last.
“Yes. He didn’t change his name. Could he not have been traced?” queried the doctor.
“Did he seem under a cloud?”
“Not at all. Your son was very highly respected in the regiment. His wife was little known naturally, but my wife and another lady visited her when we discovered that she was a gentlewoman and did what they could to help her. She suffered very much from the heat when her baby was born.”
“Ah, the baby. That is what I have to live for.”
“She will be a grown girl by now, Mrs. Macfarlane. If this Pariah priest’s letter is true I hardly dare think of the sort of child we ought to expect to find.”
But Mrs. Macfarlane knew very little of India, fortunately perhaps for her peace of mind. She dwelt on the one main fact that in all probability her son’s daughter was to be given back to her and she pictured her as a second Stella.
“Perhaps you will forgive me if I do not relate my son’s story after all,” she said hesitatingly. “Others are so much involved in it that the dead past had better remain buried. Suffice it to say that he took upon himself the whole burden of the consequences of other men’s fatal folly. He was quixotic to a fault, and his wife trusted to his judgment without questioning. She would have followed him to the world’s end.”
“That is just what she did,” said Mrs. Smith. “Was no search made for them when they disappeared?”
“Privately, yes—publicly, no. It was a hard thing for a mother, doctor, to forego the right of public search, but the whole affair was so frightfully complicated and large public interests were at stake, so I felt I must share John’s sacrifice and bear my share of his trouble. I would not live through that time again for any consideration whatever. Only time brought relief by God’s mercy.”
Doctor and Mrs. Smith drove home very silently, each thinking of India and the long past days and how they could help to best advantage.
“I think, my dear, we ought to offer to go to India ourselves to look into this personally and privately, don’t you?” said the doctor. “Mrs. Macfarlane can’t go and we are at home in South India and know the ropes. Shall we offer to go?”
“I’d be quite willing,” said his wife. “In fact, I’d dearly love to go, whatever the reason, but what about Brenda?”
“Oh, she can be disposed of for a few months. Those Welsh cousins of hers are clamouring to have her. If the circumstances were different it would be very jolly to take her with us, but it would be wiser not, I’m sure, and Mrs. Macfarlane must be prepared for a disappointment. We have literally only the word of a very doubtful character to go upon, but looked into it must be. There is no question of that.”
“Ustád Bi,” said Sitárá. “ When can I go on pilgrimage?”
The Ustádni, who was sitting in her usual retired corner, looked up from her book. Before speaking she marked her page and pushed away book and book-rest together. Then, making room for Sitárá on the mat beside her, she took off her clumsy spectacles and carefully placed them in their clumsy case. Her white chaddar had fallen back and a curly greying lock of hair fell forward a little over her forehead.
“Pilgrimages are not for girls,” she answered at last. “There is life’s pilgrimage to tread first.”
Sitárá sat down very close to her. The bright head drooped with lassitude. The blue eyes were full of a world of ennui. One white finger traced the pattern on her sári border as she hesitated on the verge of speech.
“Did you always long to go, ji?” she asked.
Ustád Bi sat looking at the courtyard before her, but her thoughts were far away in the past.
“When I was a girl the longing came to me, but partly I longed to see the world beyond the house-door. How much was for Alláh’s glory and how much the desire of the eyes I cannot say. God knows. Alláh the Merciful will forgive.”
“Why is it wrong to see beyond the house-door?” said the girl greatly daring.
“Aré! hush, child,” said the teacher. “The very thought is from the Evil One.” Her glance around assured her that her favourite’s flippant remark had not been overheard.
“But my life’s pilgrimage is like the tread-mill you told me about. I always stay in one place. I am puzzled at myself, Ustád Bi. I am as gently born as ‘Azfza Bi who has relations and friends. Why have I no one to whom I can go sometimes on a visit? I am only a servant here, but how did I come to be here? Are my parents dead?”
Ustád Bi was disturbed. She had not known that the gentle listless child ever puzzled about herself.
“Depend upon it they are dead,” she said. “You were brought here as an infant. Záhira Begum felt that merit might be stored up for her if you were reared in the true Faith—and another pair of hands is always useful.”
She spoke quite gravely. No irony was intended.
“Lutifa says women walk about freely outside in the streets. When I am quite old, when I am twenty, I shall go out in a burqa and see for myself.”
“Tauba, tauba!” said the teacher. “Repent, repent! Lutifa is black-hearted. Why should a good Muslim girl listen to a heathen?”
Zanána life somehow sharpens the intuition, explain it how we may. Sitárá knew that Ustádni spoke with less than her usual conviction, and watched her face curiously. In matters of religion Teacher-ji was the recognised authority and usually spoke with finality.
Ustád Bi herself was disturbed. It was so much simpler to be quite certain about things. Her pilgrimage surely could not have led her into the sin of unbelief, but what she had seen with her own eyes kept recurring to her memory.
Her glance fell again on Sitárá. The girl was Farangi most assuredly. Her blood was crying out for liberty and how could she consider it a sin?
“Listen, dear one,” she said at last. “If you are a caged bird it is that you may sing the sweeter. It is God’s will. It is Kismat. Some day you will marry and settle down with children to look after. No wife needs to look for life out of window.”
Sitárá hung her head at this plain speaking in the recognised manner of modest good breeding, and did not see Mír Ja’fir entering without his usual ceremonious knocking. His unpleasant eyes sought their corner, but not before Ustád Bi had sheltered the girl behind the loosened end of her own long chaddar.
“Why did he not knock?” she thought. “Ah, ‘Aziza Bi is away! I must guard this white-hearted girl for the sake of God and His Prophet.”
The courtyard was blazing with sunshine, and Rábia’s children playing marbles on the kerb had begun quarrelling in sharp treble voices. Mír Ja’fir, turning his back on Ustádni and Sitárá, greeted his mother and seated himself by her side on a mat hastily spread by Rábia. She squatted to resume her massaging of the mistress’ feet, but Záhira Begum dismissed her with a slight turn of her head and pushing aside her hookah moved among her cushions to get a complete view of her household over Mír Ja’fir’s shoulder. What a fine eldest son he was—what eyes, what a beard! Bádsháh and Sáhib Ján would never have so much spirit. She did not understand her schoolboy sons, dear as they were to her. They were fond of books, but they would never be “‘Ulama.” There was something maiden about them, for Bádsháh winced at coarse jokes, and he and Sáhib Ján never sat through any of Mír Ja’fir’s stories. They would never be men therefore—and yet Záhira Begum, musing honestly to herself, knew that she had been proud of the happy clean young life in her home, often remarked on by outsiders. Sitárá, fair without and simple and natural within, treated them like brothers, used their books and listened to their school talk and mended their torn jackets, and sometimes all the elder children gathered round Ustádni and tried to learn the semi-religious odes and chants of which she knew so many.
Ustád Bi and Sitárá slipped away into the cook-room while Mír Ja’fir’s back was now turned to them, and his mother gave a little sigh of relief. Sitárá was of marriageable age and was becoming somewhat of an anxiety. There was no reason why she should not become Mír Ja’fir’s wife, but ‘Aziza Bi would never stand it.
Záhira Begum sighed again. What was the use of kicking against the ordinary lot of a woman? She herself had had to stand it, and her mother before her, and ‘Aziza Bi was not as she had been, the mother of many sons and placid in temperament. ‘Aziza Bi was childless and sharp-tongued, and Mír Ja’fir, bichára (poor fellow), could not be expected to be content for ever.
“Do you know who she is, Mother-ji?” he asked, with a slight backward tilt of his head.
“No, my son. She came to us as a milk-drinking babe, and never have we heard of inquiries being made for her. The Sáhib says that that is astonishing, for she is Angrezi,51 and although they are Kafirs and hell-bound, this one good thing they do : they care for the children of their race, and spend their alms on feeding and clothing them rather than scattering pice in the bazaars to the beggars and holy faqirs.”
“Who brought her?”
“An idolator, a Hindu. It was Lutifa’s mother. They came from far and far—from the heart of the jungle country. They said they had picked her up by the roadside. Who knows! God knows!”
“A likely story,” sneered Mír Ja’fir. “They must have stolen her for reward and then feared that their reward would be the Jail-Khana. Then she is yours without doubt?”
“Without doubt, my son.”
Mír Ja’fir said nothing more but reached to the chow-ghari52 and helped himself to several pinches of spice. His mother pulled her hookah towards her and clapped her hands for Rábia to bring fresh glowing charcoal, and her son presently lounged through the doorway into the Mardána.
“Cheer up, my dear,” said Dr. Smith from his well-wedged deck-chair. “This Rolling Rewa will roll us shoreward soon!”
They were ploughing through the Mediterranean, which was neither blue nor smiling, and had plenty of leisure to meditate on what was before them.
“The poor child will be like an Anglo-Indian, I suppose,” said Mrs. Smith. “She is sure to have an accent. Do you remember Mrs. Lopez and Mrs. Pereira? I wonder if they are alive still?”
“We may have to go up-country,” said her husband. “We are absolutely in the dark. Perhaps a clue may lead us to our old station. I should like to see that the old coachman is getting on all right, good fellow that he was. Do you remember how our horses were the envy of the regiment? What I can’t make out is how a Pariah priest comes in,” he added musingly.
“Perhaps he knew the ayah who disappeared,” his wife suggested. “Where did she take the child? How was it she was never traced and what did she want with it? I wonder if we shall ever get answers to all our questionings?”
She sat up suddenly. “Do you think she took it for a human sacrifice to propitiate the cholera goddess?”
“Oh no! not in South India. That sort of thing has been stamped out long ago.”
Thanks to Government and Christian Missions,” she added.
The Mediterranean voyage and the slow passage through the Suez Canal were novelties to them. To get to Madras in six or seven weeks seemed wonderful. They smiled at the remembrance of their first honeymoon voyage of three months’ sailing round the Cape in The Lord Warden of happy memory. But even steam was hardly fast enough for Mrs. Smith’s desire.
Everything comes to an end at last and they rounded Ceylon in the first fresh intimations of the north-east monsoon.
Dr. Smith had thought it wise to tell the captain something of their quest and to secure passages for their return voyage should they be quickly successful. With the captain’s connivance it would be easier to keep little Stella well in the background. She must never in her after-life in England be remembered as the crude untaught “country-born” girl they feared to find. Thank God, there were several years left for education, and he knew that Brenda would be a good and useful friend to her.
“Come up and say ‘Salaam’ to Madras,” said the doctor one grey and cloudy morning. Mrs. Smith, the last touches put to her packing, followed him on deck.
There, on the larboard, lay a low palm-fringed coast. The rain had fortunately ceased. Even as they watched it the palms were interspersed with buildings. One of the passengers handed her field-glasses, and the old white ice-house, to which American sailing ships had brought ice-blocks in the old days, could be clearly seen.
The glasses, travelling along the shore, disclosed the Chipauk Palace with its Saracenic beauty, and the University Senate House with its four little towers. “Like pepper-boxes,” the Calcutta passengers remarked.
Then came the greenery of the compound of Government House, the low-lying indications of the Fort, and almost immediately it was time to begin saying “good-bye” and preparing to land.
The Rewa was rolling in its very finest style. The monsoon wind was dead on-shore. The lines of breakers along the level beach were making themselves heard in a hoarse continuous roar. The harbour looked like a mere apology for one, and the captain would not take his ship in.
Dr. Smith came to his wife with a grave face.
“The gangway can be lowered,” he said. “But the captain says no lady could do the jump into the Mahsulah boat. He wants to know what you will do.”
“If only I were Brenda!” she groaned.
“Come on with us,” said the Calcutta passengers, speaking after their manner. “We can give you a civilized landing.”
Mrs. Smith looked over the taffrail at the waves, and then at the approaching Mahsulah boats, one of which would take them ashore. It was a very frightening sight, but for the honour of Madras she must not turn a hair.
The boats rose and fell upon the enormous waves.
The naked boatmen at their long oars were singing a native sea-chant and their steersmen were managing their unwieldy crafts with perfect skill. There was really nothing to fear. When a backwash from the steamer struck them as they approached, their sides merely gave to the blows, being made, as they were, of planks sewn together with fibre. The gangway was lowered and coolies came on board to hand down the baggage. The few men passengers descended. Not for worlds would they have hesitated with a fringe of Calcutta eyes along the deck, but the jump into the tossing cockle-shell was a nasty one.
“My wife cannot possibly do it, captain,” said Dr. Smith decidedly. “She will have to go on to Calcutta.”
“I can’t go on to Calcutta, my dear,” said his wife. “I must land. Some one must try to throw me as they do the children.”
The captain could not help smiling. His quartermaster was a brave man, but even he would back out of doing that.
“If we lash you to a chair, Mrs. Smith, and swing you out by the derrick, would you be very frightened? It is quite safe.”
“I’ll go that way. I must go,” said poor Mrs. Smith desperately.
The Calcutta passengers watched with interest the quartermaster and the lascars at their preparations, but when Mrs. Smith, with white face and clinging hands, was swung out in a chair over the heaving water and gently lowered to the tossing Mahsulah boat far below, a loud and hearty cheer was raised, and cheer after cheer accompanied her to shore.
Madras in old days was not rich in hotels, but Dr. Smith found one where he thought they would be comfortable.
After breakfast and a long rest beneath a well-pulled punkah they felt wonderfully at home. The Indian sights and sounds and scents gave them intense pleasure. The crows alighting on the veranda balustrade with hoarse caws seemed almost like old friends.
“I’ll go alone to the Monegar Choultry this afternoon and be guided by circumstances,” he said to his wife. “If the old chap is there, well and good. If not, we must settle down here and wait for a Hindu feast and try again. My Tamil is very rusty, but he has only to lead the way and I’ll follow him to where she is and see her present guardians, if she is here in Madras. Perhaps they live in Vepery.”
“Shall I come?”
“I wouldn’t like to take you to the Choultry. No one would notice me. I might be an official, but a lady would cause remark. The sort of folk who congregate there are not used to Europeans at close quarters.”
In the Monegar Choultry the Dásári sat as he had sat for many days, and as he was prepared to sit for many more.
The usual crowd of squatting coolies listened to his songs and tales. Money for his needs came easily, for the ceremonies he performed and the sorceries he worked were in frequent demand. He was becoming very repulsive in appearance, for opium-smoking degrades even the degraded.
He caught sight of Dr. Smith while in the midst of a very improper song and instantly changed it to a semi-religious ode. He need not have troubled, for the good doctor’s Tamil at its best had never been equal to such flights.
He stopped almost at once after this, and gathering up his appurtenances, salaamed to the Englishman and sauntered out into the roadway. Dr. Smith followed, and they walked separately for some distance.
When at last they could come face to face the Dásári salaamed again and began to speak, but the Englishman’s blank face showed very plainly that he did not understand.
“Teriáthu,” said Dr. Smith. “I don’t understand.” Without another word the Pariah priest turned, and signed to him to follow. They threaded their way through busy bazaars until the man knocked at a modest door leading into a modest Hindu home. Its owner was Rámaswámi, the writer or clerk of Messrs. Binny and Co. He showed them into a tiny room and offered Dr. Smith the one chair in it. He stood near it, while the Dásári squatted on his heels and began to speak.
“He says,” translated Rámaswámi, “that she whom you seek is a Muslim in a Muslim house in Triplicane. He does not know, Sar, what plans you have for abducting her. Plenty difficult business, Sar. Law very strict. A friend of his is in prison for seven years for abduction.”
“He is talking rubbish,” interrupted Dr. Smith. “Tell him to begin again and talk sense.”
The two Hindus spoke together for a few minutes and Rámaswámi cleared his throat.
“He says, ‘What rupees Durai giving if I help him?’ He says, ‘These Muslim people taking care child since baby time. Loving very much. Quickly making marriage now. Not letting come away Muslim girl to Christian people. What can do?’”
Dr. Smith sat thinking. It was indeed a very difficult problem. To get the girl out by the high hand of the law was one way, but was not so simple as it appeared, for the whole Muhammadan community would be incensed and outraged, and her name would be bandied about in common bazaar talk.
He turned to Rámaswámi.
“What does he suggest?” he asked.
“Dásári telling, ‘Master leave to me, I managing everything and delivering girl at hotel.’”
“Ask him how I am to know it will be the right girl?”
“Dásári telling, ‘Right girl English girl in Muhammadan house. That plenty strange thing.’ Also telling. ‘Missie hanging ring round neck. Certain sure English signet ring.’ He no humbug man, he telling, Sar.”
“How will he get her out?”
“He telling, Sar, he plenty friends with juggler people. Has the Durai seen the basket trick? He managing. He sitting in choultry long time waiting and planning. Missie can be got out in juggler’s basket. But plenty rupees wanting.”
“Tell him that won’t do,” said Dr. Smith shortly. “I’m not going to mix up with that sort of thing. He must come to the hotel to-morrow when I’ve had time to make a few inquiries.”
This being translated the Dásári grinned and rose to go. He thought he was indispensable and could afford to wait the Durai’s time.
Over a cup of tea in the hotel Dr. Smith told his wife of the real state of things.
“Why not go direct to the Police Commissioner?” she suggested. “Every one will most gladly help us. This is a very different thing from interviewing a few Anglo-Indian people as we had imagined ourselves doing.”
“That is the very thing we ought to do, and if you are not too hot and tired we will go at once,” he said.
In a few minutes they were jolting along the red roads in a hired carriage with rattling shutters, and drew up under the wide portico of the Police Commissioner’s house.
Master was in, said the highly ornamental peon on the steps, just going to Club but not started; so they alighted and were shown through the empty hall, up a staircase which led directly into the dining-room and across this to a pretty drawing-room where the Police Commissioner joined them.
He was very much interested in their story as Mrs. Smith had foretold, and they felt that his assistance would ensure success.
“You must not stay at the hotel,” he said heartily. “It will be a great pleasure to me if you will stay here with me. My wife and daughters have gone up-country on a visit. The girls’ bedroom is the coolest one in the house. It is a roof-room and catches some air even in these stifling mid-monsoon nights. I hope you will do me the honour,” he added, with a smile and bow to Mrs. Smith.
Being assured that it would be giving him no trouble, she gratefully accepted this cordial invitation, and Dr. Smith went back to the hotel for their boxes.
After dinner that evening when Mrs. Smith was comfortably seated in a cool basket chair, and the gentlemen, in long-armed veranda chairs, were smoking their Trichinopoly cheroots, the Police Commissioner began to make his suggestions.
He had not been idle during the few hours that had intervened. There are very few secrets that a Police Commissioner is unable to unravel with the means at his disposal.
“I have been making inquiries,” he said. That simple sentence overlaid a whole network of information machinery. “The girl is in the house of a highly respected Muhammadan gentleman, Mírza ‘Abdul Karím by name. I have even pumped your friend the Dásári, and if his story of how she came to be there is true, one can only believe that a Higher Power was watching over her.
“The Dásári says he first saw her as a baby in a remote village. A village woman had picked her up on the road near a corpse which she took to be that of her dead mother. They had never seen a European and they thought the child was an albino.
“The woman’s husband, with the Dásári’s assistance, sold her for a few rupees into Mírza ‘Abdul Karím’s Zanána, and there she has been ever since. At any rate she has been safe there, that is a great thing, though had she been kept in the village, sooner or later she would have been discovered. As it is, she has never crossed the Mírza’s doorstep from that day to this.
“You must be prepared to find in her a totally ignorant Muhammadan girl, Mrs. Smith. She can be no otherwise. It is even a question whether she will consent to come away from the only home she has ever known. Perhaps she is pleased at the thought of soon being married. We cannot hastily take her without her will. It would make too much commotion and do her no good.”
“What had we better do?” said Mrs. Smith. “We will be guided by you entirely.”
“Well, the course I suggest is this. You, doctor, can write to Mírza ‘Abdul Karím from this address on my official paper, and I will send it by an office peon. Tell him frankly the reason for your journey from England, and ask for an interview for yourself with him, and for your wife with the inmates of his Zanána. He will not refuse in the circumstances, and we can make sure that the child is really little Stella Macfarlane. After all, at present we only have that Dásári man’s word for it.
They separated for the night soon afterwards. But though the roof-room was the coolest in the house, and no grating punkah-wheel disturbed her, Mrs. Smith lay awake all night counting the hours, and praying for the success of their difficult mission.
Mirza ‘Abdul Karím sat on a chair under the veranda roof of the men’s courtyard. Other chairs were disposed in a semicircle on either side of him. Mír Ja’fir occupied one of them. Father and son did not speak to each other. The Mírza stroked his beard and pondered. Mír Ja’fir fidgeted impatiently. He was not pleased at the thought of the coming interview, and his unpleasant face took on an expression of cunning now and then that was not lost upon his father, who could see much when his eyes were apparently looking at the floor.
Munshi Shainsu’d-Dín was standing in the little sanctum from which he could see into the street. The schoolboys, Bádsháh and Sáhib Ján, were outside seated on the piál.
A carriage drove up to the door and stopped. The coachman and syce were dressed in the Police Commissioner’s livery, and a peon, with a shining badge of office on his breast attached to a broad band of bright cloth, jumped down.
Dr. Smith forthwith alighted and turned to hand out Mrs. Smith across the open gutter. Then, preceded by the salaaming schoolboys, they entered Mírza ‘Abdul Karím’s house.
Its master came forward to salute them with courteous dignity. Mír Ja’fir and the Munshi also salaamed and stood waiting. Bádsháh and Sáhib Ján, highly interested and anxious to begin their work as interpreters, waited too.
Dr. Smith was waved to a seat, and the Mírza, signing to Mrs. Smith to follow him, led the way through the intermediate room where the thief-catcher’s red ochre still marked the floor, drew aside a curtain and ushered her into his Zanána.
She drew a sharp breath. She had never before penetrated into an Indian home. Her former station life in India had never yielded an experience like this.
Záhira Begum came forward, and salaaming took the Mem-Sáhiba by the hand and led her to a chair covered with a large piece of red turkey twill, evidently placed in readiness for her.
‘Aziza Bi also welcomed her, all expression carefully banished from her face.
They alone knew of the object of this visit. To the others it was just a chance affair but very entertaining, for of them all only Ustádni had ever seen an Englishwoman.
The dignity and quiet courtesy of the Muslim ladies was perfect. They sat down on mats and ordered pán-supári to be brought and offered. Mrs. Smith pinched up something from the many receptacled little pán-dán and hoped that she need not eat it then and there.
In an outer circle hovered the other members of the household. There were Ustádni and Rábia and old Mariam and several children. With a quick catch in her breath the visitor’s eyes lighted upon Sitárá.
She and Lutifa were standing together, leaning against one of the wooden veranda pillars and watching her every movement.
The contrast between the two girls was startling. Lutifa, sturdy and thick-set, with the dark skin of a village peasant, and Sitárá, white and tall and beautiful. Stella’s deep blue eyes looked out from her daughter’s winsome face. Stella’s golden brown hair curled and crisped under the yellow muslin sári.
Her eyes returned to the ladies seated on the mat, and she noted that they also were very fair by contrast with their women. Záhira Begum had once been beautiful. Her grey hair was parted over a smooth low forehead, and her smile was very sweet and pleasant. ‘Aziza Bi was of a tint that could almost be described as golden, but her appearance was marred by the down-drooping bitterness of her discontented mouth and the haughty glances of her hard black eyes. They were richly apparelled in silk and jewels and ‘Aziza Bi’s anklets tinkled at every movement.
Záhira Begum began to speak, but Mrs. Smith could only shake her head and murmur “Teriáthu” in Tamil. So many eyes were upon her and so much depended on this visit. She prayed that God would teach her what to do.
Záhira Begum signed then to old Mariam who came forward, and stood beside the Mem-Sáhiba’s chair. She translated her mistress’ words into Tamil, but still Mrs. Smith could not understand. She never had picked up very much and the little that she remembered was of no use in a long conversation.
They seemed at a dead-lock, and Sáhib-Ján, coming in at that moment, was hailed with a sigh of relief.
“What are they saying? Can you tell me?” asked Mrs. Smith.
Sáhib Ján grinned. It was quite a polite grin and he was delighted to show off his English.
My mother is saying, ‘How long have you been married? Why do you not wear jewels? How many sons have you and what pay are they drawing from Government?’”
All this was so irrelevant that Mrs. Smith began to laugh and the ice was broken.
“Please tell them,” she said, “that I have come all the way from England in search of a girl who was lost as a baby. Her grandmother in England wishes to find her and take charge of her.”
While Sáhib Ján translated, Ustádni and Mariam looked at each other. The ladies on the mats made no sign.
“Tell, them the girl is said to have upon her the signet-ring that belonged to her father. That is the sign by which I shall know her.”
“What has this to do with us?” said ‘Aziza Bi somewhat tartly.
Sáhib Ján did not translate this and Mrs. Smith looked long upon the unmistakably English girl in the yellow sári.
Sitárá had listened from the first with interest. This visit helped to pass the time. Then she saw that the visitor was more like herself that any one else there, and at mention of the ring her hand unconsciously sought her string of talismans and singled out the one she knew did not contain the sacred writings. She quietly detached this and held it amongst the folds of her cloth. Her heart was beating fast. It seemed as if her whole world was melting away. A strange foreign woman was talking about a lost baby and a grandmother and a signet-ring, gazing fixedly at her the while; and the stranger, although she looked good and gentle, was a Farangi and a Kafir53 and sustained life on pig’s flesh.
This last thought made her feel quite sick and faint, and turning away, she sat down behind Lutifa. She did not hear the rest of the conversation, but Ustádni presently stooped and caught at her talisman thread, and asked for the one she had removed.
Sitárá gave it up and glanced round thoroughly frightened.
Ustádni unwrapped it quickly and put the ring into the Mem-Sáhiba’s hand.
With a little cry she looked at it, and without a word rose up and hastened through to the men’s court-yard and pushed it into her husband’s hand.
When Mírza ‘Abdul Karím returned from escorting Mrs. Smith behind the pardah he seated himself in his vacant chair. His every movement was courteous and Dr. Smith could not but respect such an evidently worthy member of Muslim society.
The Muhammadan gentlemen were inclined to remain cautiously silent and allow him to open the proceedings.
Sáhib Ján departed and Bádsháh stood behind his father’s chair.
The years had added lavishly to his height since the day when he took himself out of the school where his merits were not recognised and put himself into “Miller’s school.”
Outwardly he was much as his father and grandfather had been before him. A small skull-cap crowned his shaven head. The early whiskers of Indian manhood were cherished on his cheeks. A long cotton Muslim coat and baggy white cotton trousers were such as they had worn, but there the likeness ended, for Bádsháh although overgrown was exceedingly lithe and active, being one of the college athletes; and he had not been sitting all these years at the feet of earnest Christian educationalists to no purpose.
His mother could prove to any one that the earth was flat like a tray and rested upon the horns of an ox, which occasionally shifted it from one horn to the other causing earthquakes. His father would probably listen without comment stroking his beard. To have to admit the impossibility of this would open the door to a multitude of startling and novel implications for which a religious Shíah was not prepared.
Bádsháh as yet kept the old knowledge and the new in separate mental compartments, but the day would come when his modern Western education would war against his Faith.
“You received my letter, sir?” the doctor presently hazarded somewhat lamely.
Mírza ‘Abdul Karím turned to Bádsháh and spoke at some length. The youth nodded and prepared to translate.
“My father says, ‘Go softly and let us consider this matter in all its bearings.’ He says, ‘Years ago I saved this girl-child from the infidel heathen for the sake of Alláh and His Prophet, for it is written in our Holy Book in the Súra called “the Table,” He who saveth a soul alive shall be as if he saved the lives of all mankind,’ and he wants me to tell you how Sásaa, the grandfather of the poet el-Farazdak, did likewise, But that is a long tale: shall we skip, Sáhib?”
Bádsháh knew better than to smile in the seat of the Elders.
“By all means, my boy. Skip everything that is beside the point,” said the Englishman heartily, for he already began to feel somewhat out of his depth. He had not seriously considered another point of view.
“My father says,” continued Bádsháh, “‘This girl is gosha female. She is true believer and the Qázi has already been asked to come and make Nikah marriage with my eldest son.’”
Here Mír Ja’fir moved in his seat. He was not pleased, for his father’s behaviour seemed to him as simple-minded as that of a Farangi. The line to take would have been to put off this tongue-tied Sáhib with smooth words and hasten on the marriage. A day’s delay would have been sufficient, for it is possible to compress Nikah ceremonies. He did not want to lose Sitárá, for ‘Aziza Bi wearied him.
After pleasing Alláh and the Prophet, Sitárá had been bought for him, thought this cynical indulger of self.
“Tell your father we must go more softly than that,” said Dr. Smith with decision. “I thank him in the name of the child’s lawful guardian for his good care of her, and now ask him to deliver his charge up to me. I am speaking in the name of her grandmother in England. Her father’s mother. Are you making that quite plain? To a man of worth like your father one hesitates to speak of money, but her grandmother will gladly reimburse him for all her expenses, with interest. I think I can say, in her name, that she is very grateful to him.”
Munshi Shamsu’d-Dín had been a silent listener up to this point. He now spoke to his employer, suggesting a question to be asked.
“My father says,” began Bádsháh again, “‘What proof is there, that the Sáhib comes from the girl’s lawful guardian?’ He says, ‘By our law, I, Mírza ‘Abdul Karím, am at present her lawful guardian by right of purchase!’”
“Good heavens, man, but she is English!” cried the doctor. “You cannot possibly imprison her for life like this. You speak as if she were a bought slave. She is English! You can’t keep her shut up here!”
Bádsháh translated. The doctor’s warmth was very evident.
The faces of the Muhammadans were almost expressionless.
“We know she is English,” said Bádsháh, “but she is gosha and Muslim, and my father says, ‘Where is your proof of identity’?”
Though the eyes of all except the young interpreter were fixed upon the floor, the perplexity on the good Englishman’s face did not escape them.
It was at this point that Mrs. Smith made her hasty entrance with the signet ring.
He looked at it and just managed to suppress an unseemly shout. There it lay, undamaged since it had left its owner’s hand, and the Macfarlane crest was cut deep and clear upon the stone.
The next moment he was searching his own pockets for a letter from old Mrs. Macfarlane that he fortunately had with him. The envelope and paper were both stamped with the family crest.
He handed the ring and the papers to the Mírza, who examined them closely and passed them on to Mír Ja’fir and the Munshi.
Still they made no sign. Their manner was as if they were courteously weighing some question which did not concern them nearly.
“I’ve seen her, my dear,” said Mrs. Smith excitedly. “She is sweet. A tall girl as English as I am. She is dressed like all the others and seems quite one of them, but oh! Doctor Durai! she has Stella’s eyes and hair and expression. It was as if Stella were in fancy dress. I nearly spoke to her in English, but she seemed frightened of me. What do we do next?”
Bádsháh brought forward another chair, but the Mem-Sáhiba was too excited to sit down.
The Muhammadans conferred together and Munshi Shamsu’d-Dín spoke at some length. His voice now and then rose and fell in a cadenced chant, but the husband and wife did not recognise the Arabic quotations from the Qur’án, and would have considered them ill-timed if they had.
At last Mírza ‘Abdul Karím signed for Bádsháh’s attention.
“My father says,” Bádsháh translated, “‘Will the lady return with me to the Zanána and ask the girl what she would like to do? She is a minor but her choice will make path simpler.’”
Mír Ja’fir moistened his lips for it was his suggestion.
This seemed the next obvious step to take and Mrs. Smith turned to the Zanána door accompanied by the master of the house.
Sáhib Ján was still there having been kept busy answering questions. Sitárá was seated at a little distance talking in a low voice to Ustádni. She arose from the floor when her name was called and advanced with deference to the Mírza’s side.
He spoke to her not unkindly. He asked her if she who had never stepped beyond his house-door, could so conduct herself and throw off her womanhood as to go with this Farangi Mem-Sáhiba and live in future an unsecluded life in the sight of all men. She had learnt to believe in God and His Prophet (on whom, etc.). Could she bring herself to believe that he was naught but a deceiver? and when she was offered pig’s flesh could she eat it, for she would be so required?
Mrs. Smith could not follow this conversation, but watching the girl anxiously she noted the shrinking horrified eyes fixed upon the speaker. When the Mírza had ended she saw Sitárá’s face turn deathly white as the girl with a storm of weeping flung herself down and clung to Záhira Begum’s knees.
The Mírza kept all expression out of his face. The Mem-Sáhiba had her answer for the moment. He bowed her into the men’s courtyard and intimated that the interview was at an end. Indian fashion, the host put an end to it; but requested Bádsháh to say that his poor house was theirs, and another visit would cause him great gratification.
The doctor and his wife drove away in silence, both too occupied with their own thoughts to speak.
That evening, after dinner, the visitors gave a description of their morning’s experiences to the Police Commissioner.
“You have been where I can never go, Mrs. Smith,” he said. “My men can never follow up clues or track a culprit down, but, sooner or later, they get up against Zanána walls and are baffled. Numbers of villains escape on that account. Some day we shall have women police and then they had better look out.”
“Isn’t there any way of finding out what goes on in these places?” she asked.
“We know a good deal that goes on,” said the Police Commissioner, cutting off the end of his cheroot carefully, “but the knowledge is gained in curious ways through ultra-villains that one does not care to have open dealings with. It is a case of set a thief to catch a thief, and for one crime traced home like that the Government would raise such a hornet’s nest about its ears that it—well, it doesn’t.”
He laughed a reminiscent laugh.
“I know one or two men who could raise your hair with the stories they could tell. There is the Paymaster of the Carnatic Pensions for instance. At one time I feared for his life and had him shadowed. But that is nothing to the Secret Service men over the Nizam’s border. There is one of them, we will name no names, who could add a vivid chapter to the Arabian Nights—if he dared.”
There was a sound of creaking wheels in the portico below and a peon appeared to call his master, who rose and went down. A minute later the peon appeared again.
“Please will Missis come down to Master, and will Doctor Durai go away to side room?” he said.
“What’s up now?” said Dr. Smith, as they hastened to obey.
Mrs. Smith hurried down the stairs, and across the lobby to the broad steps of the entrance, and saw waiting there a bullock-cart, both ends of which were carefully screened with red cloth.
The Police Commissioner was on the steps waiting for her. The bullock-driver had gone to the head of his beast.
“He says there are gosha ladies inside his bandy. I’m afraid we shall have to leave you as mistress of the ceremonies, Mrs. Smith. My wife has taken her ayah with her and the tannicatch54 is a silly old thing. I must go and hide. Will you assure them that there is nobody about and get them up into the drawing-room? I’ll send the servants away to their go-downs.”
When the house was absolutely still and deserted, Mrs. Smith stepped down to the bandy and gently drew aside the curtain. Squeezed into the little vehicle she saw some of her acquaintances of the morning. Yes! there was Stella’s daughter with a wan tragic face, and with her the dark girl by whom she had been standing. There was one other, in a widow’s white sári. By signs she invited them to alight.
The gariwán turned his back and Lutifa jumped out, staring cheerfully about her. Ustádni followed more slowly and turned to envelop Sitárá carefully in a large white chaddar. The three then followed Mrs. Smith through the house and upstairs to the drawing-room in silence.
The half-doors leading into the bedrooms were all closed. Those leading from the dining-room she closed behind her, and smilingly offered her visitors a seat.
The Ustádni and Sitárá. sat down gingerly on the edge of the sofa. Lutifa sat at their feet on the carpet.
Sitárá’s bowed head was turned away. Mrs. Smith could only just see the beautiful profile and down-cast lashes for her sári veiled her from head to foot.
Ustádni began to speak but the Englishwoman could not understand. What were they to do!
She must leave them for a moment and consult with some one. The scent of cheroots led her to a distant veranda where the gentlemen were together smoking.
“Ask them if we may come in,” said the Police Commissioner on hearing of the difficulty. There is nothing else to be done. Something must have happened to have brought them out like this.”
Mrs. Smith returned to the drawing-room and touching her lips said, “Doctor Sáhib! Police Commissioner Sáhib!”
Ustádni understood, and after a slight hesitation nodded consent, and the men entered.
Now the Police Commissioner could speak Tamil remarkably well. Government saw to that. He also had a working knowledge of Hindustáni, and the conversation which followed was in both languages. Ustádni spoke in Hindustáni, helped out by Lutifa’s rustic Tamil, and the Englishman’s replies or questions were mainly in Tamil, translated into Hindustáni for her friends by Lutifa.
Ustádni found it hard to begin. She had met few men face to face, and never Englishmen. Her actions now were without precedent, and the only comfort was that no one else of her community need ever know. She even drew courage from Lutifa’s unconcern.
“Sáhib,” she said, “we have come. We are in your hands. Alláh, the Searcher of hearts, can read what is in mine, for this is no small thing that I do.”
“We thought the young lady was not willing to come away this morning,” said the Police Commissioner. “Does she now want to come or is this merely a friendly visit to the Mem-Sáhiba?”
“The door is shut behind her, Sáhib. She can only go forward now. She is as one walking blindfold on a knife-edge over a deep pit of doom.”
“It is not so tragic as that I hope, Bibi,” said the Englishman. “Why cannot she go back if she wishes to do so?”
“Behind her lie two evils and before her only one. She has made her choice.”
“But there is no evil in store for her with the Mem-Sáhiba. Her father’s mother waits for her with open arms. She is gaining love and wealth and liberty. She is stepping from a prison to her English inheritance of freedom.”
“In these very words I comfort her,” continued Ustádni. “I, who have travelled, know that secluding walls do not make secluded hearts. If our hearts are gosha, Sáhib, Alláh’s Will is surely done. She fears for her religion and her food. All is dark and unknown. She is but a child and this calamity has come very suddenly.”
“You can assure her from us all,” said the Police Commissioner gently, “that no one will interfere with her Faith. In time she will learn for herself what Christianity is, and can make her free choice. And about her food, we can get it cooked Musalmán way while she is here. She will soon grow accustomed to changes afterwards. She is young and will soon pick up English ways.”
“It is not that,” said Ustádni, her gentle face stiffening over. “She fears she will have to eat the unclean animal and she could not do it.”
“Is that all?” said the Police Commissioner, much relieved. “No one will expect her to do it. She need never eat the unclean animal all her life.”
“But it is your religion!” exclaimed Ustádni. “Do you not have feasts wherein all partake?”
The mere thought of it made her feel ill.
“Tell the child all I have said, Bibi, and lay her fears to rest. I pass my word as an Englishman that they are quite groundless. This Mem-Sáhiba knows Indian ways and will care for her as her own daughter until her father’s mother receives her. But what has happened since this morning?”
Mrs. Smith had drawn near to Sitárá during this conversation and had taken the girl’s cold hand in hers. Sitárá met the kind motherly eyes and smiled a little. Now, when Ustádni began again to speak, a little shudder ran through her, and with her free hand she drew her sári completely over her face.
“There has been talk of marriage, but only talk, for the difficulties are many. This afternoon Mír Ja’fir hastened all preparations and appointed an hour for the Qázi’s visit to-morrow. There is no occasion for a ten days’ Shádi wedding, as you must know, Sáhib, when the bride is a child of the house.”
“If that is one of the evils, what is the other?”
The Ustádni glanced round at the closed half-doors and placed her hand over her mouth, gently tapping, as who should say “repent, repent” for the words that were to follow.
“There is one who cannot brook this marriage. Sooner or later calamity would mount on calamity. The certainty of this has caused me to break gosha and come to you. Záhira Begum also knows what I know. The seller of saffron has been in to-day and is a great causer of evil. May God reward her! Záhira Begum pushed us hastily forth.”
“Sitárá says she would rather be poisoned than married,” said Lutifa bluntly from her place on the floor.
“Oho! That is the way the wind blows, is it?” said the Police Commissioner in English, adding in Tamil, “What does the old gentleman say?”
“He is not in the house. When he returns the Begum will explain. What he will say is hidden from us. Alláh alone knows!”
“He will stroke his beard and look at the floor,” said Lutifa, and the Ustádni frowned at her.
“I must see him and have the whole matter settled properly,” said the Police Commissioner. “It is the oddest mix-up of lawful guardians I have yet come across. What did you say the girl’s name is?”
“We called her ‘Sitárá’ for she came to us by starlight.”
“Sitárá—star—Stella! That is yet another coincidence for you, Mrs. Smith.”
“It is indeed,” said the doctor’s wife. “Sitárá! What a sweet name! But what are we going to do for the night?”
“I think,” said her host, “we must give them your roof bedroom. It will be simple to keep them gosha there for a time.”
The Muhammadan woman began again to speak and the Police Commissioner translated.
“The old lady says she must go back again in the bullock-cart. The two girls can stay together. The one she calls Lutifa cannot return now, she would get into too much trouble. She will be useful here, as her gosha is nothing to speak of. She was a Hindu village girl until quite recently. It will be quite easy to arrange for her afterwards.”
He stopped speaking and turned away, for Sitárá’s beautiful head was on Ustádni’s shoulder and the girl was clasped in her friend’s last embrace.
Before the Rewa returned from Calcutta Dr. Smith journeyed up-country to his former station.
A new generation of soldiers and civilians filled the well-remembered bungalows, but in the Anglo-Indian quarter his old friends and patients received him with friendly staccato exclamations, and before he left again the faithful Hindu coachman was relieved for ever from pulling night-punkahs.
The Dásári’s reward took the form of a monthly pension, and as he had to apply for this in person his downward course received a slight check. But opium claimed its victim in the end.
Lutifa was restored to her mother. Latchmi had been passed on from the Famine Relief Camp to a kindly Christian Mission which was gathering up orphan children, and in the serene atmosphere of the Mission compound Lutifa shed her Muslim veneer as a useless garment, and mother and daughter learned together to love God as He is revealed in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Sitárá, swept as by a miracle out of her secluded life, had clung to Lutifa in dazed fashion for a few days and Mrs. Smith wisely left them alone. With a little encouragement the girls walked together in a quiet part of the compound, but Sitárá dreaded the open road and when the Rewa came in she was taken to the harbour in a closed and shuttered carriage.
And then began her new life. Sensation crowded on sensation. This was indeed a pilgrimage and had Ustád Bi shared her novel experiences what a pleasure it would have been! Alone but for strangers it was too sudden a transplanting and Sitárá crouched for long hours on her cabin berth speechless and bewildered. Her friends were anxious and perplexed. There was no precedent for such a situation. The Zanána-bred child dreaded the bold eyes of the Muhammadan ship-servants. She seemed intensely and painfully aware of herself. She had no occupations, no resources.
“She is like a snail without a shell,” said kind Mrs. Smith as day by day Stella’s daughter clung to her more closely. The voyage for them was not easy. The few home-going passengers were discreet and kind, but Aden was passed before Sitárá cared to come to table.
At Naples who should be waiting for them but Brenda, cheerful, sensible Brenda. This was Dr. Smith’s doing, and well he was rewarded. The two girls soon made friends and Sitárá’s education might be said then to commence in earnest. Surprising English sentences greeted them continually. Smiles and even happy laughter brought light and colour into the girl’s sweet face.
Brenda had brought a supply of warm English clothing—complicated, outlandish, laughter-provoking clothing! Uncomfortable too. Why so many seams and stitches when a few yards of cloth would clothe one so well? But when the bitter northern cold struck chill, Sitárá gladly added wrap to wrap and sighed no more for a muslin sári.
How Stella’s daughter fared in the misty land of her forefathers cannot be recorded here. She was English and not English, Muslim and not Muslim. In later life she tried to write down some of her thoughts and feelings of this time when her manner of life was undergoing such a complete change. Her father’s mother wrapped her round with love and bewildered solicitude. “Dádi,” as her granddaughter loved to call her, so proud and happy to own and be owned by a relation, took the lonely child straight into her large and loving heart, and Sitárá sang, “Al-hamdu’lláh!”55 day by day as she entered upon her glorious English heritage of freedom.
Pantry, where the mati or house-boy works. ↩
Chunam = plaster. ↩
Nullahs = ditches. ↩
Tiffin = lunch. ↩
Duraisáni, the Tamil equivalent of Mem-Sáhiba. ↩
Durai = Sáhib. ↩
Tamil equivalent of sári = cloth. ↩
Coolie = labourer. ↩
Knot of hair left when the rest of the head is shaved. ↩
Tom-tom = drum. ↩
A kind of millet. ↩
Coarse sugar. ↩
Caste names. ↩
Ammá = Mother. ↩
Earthenware jars. ↩
A penny. ↩
Jatka = small box-like two-wheeled vehicles. ↩
Piál = small veranda. ↩
Learned religious teacher. ↩
Since renamed George Town. ↩
Used for European = Frank or Feringhi. ↩
The Madras Christian College. ↩
Muharram = the great Shíah Festival. ↩
Bi pronounced Bee. ↩
Woman teacher. ↩
Chup, pronounced like u in “put.” ↩
“Us” pronounced like “uss” in Puss. ↩
Not secluded. ↩
A powder (made of vitriol) to tinge the teeth black. ↩
Lampblack for darkening the eyes. ↩
Respectful salaams. ↩
Learned men. ↩
A Frank—a European. Pronounced like “u” in fun. ↩
A vegetable. ↩
An enveloping garment with eye-holes. ↩
Paternal grandmother. ↩
In the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate. ↩
Which means the “Sun of religion.” ↩
Pán receptacle. ↩
Koss = two miles. ↩
First Arts. ↩
Jacket, “u” as in cuckoo. ↩
Spice box, containing, in four compartments, cloves, cardamoms, nutmegs, mace. ↩
Kitchen waterwoman. ↩
Al-hamdu’lláh = Praise God! ↩