Douglas Arthur Gracie Paterson
Spong’s Hotel, in Bombay, which is neither large nor new, but peaceful and faintly redolent of a less troubled British life in India, stands at no distance from the water, near the ponderous “Gateway”, but half shunning both, and with its long shadowed, verandahed face turned to a narrow street. At the other side of the street is a high wall and, if I remember rightly at this interval, some dark green and spreading trees. When the afternoon sun in the moist air is like a scalding swab on face and body, this is no bad place to come, swinging in one of those open carriages called gharries, and to bundle your body in its stained and crumpled drill out of the brazen day and into the musty air of the hotel. Once there, it is possible to rearrange yourself. The brown paint and dark woodwork and marble, scarcely discernible in the private dusk of the hall, are soothing to eyes so brutally assaulted out of doors. The few degrees less temperature are enough, for a moment, to make you shiver; the peace and quiet are caressing; for once you feel small enough for your clothes.
The odd thing about Spong’s, in my recollection, is that, although I went there often enough, and although I feel sure it must have been doing a fair trade with so many service men on leave or awaiting “the boat” in Bombay that September of 1944, I cannot recall ever having noticed more than half a dozen people using it at the same time. It needs no effort for me to envisage that long, open verandah with its mass of tables, its ornamented pillars in ranks and what persists in my mind’s eye as a comforting, blank green screen of trees for outlook. I can remember the tall, rather elderly, grave waiters in coloured sashes and turbans, I can particularly remember the tea and fresh iced lime juice in daytime and, in the evening, the John Collinses, sweet and demoralising. I can hear, padded away by distance and intervening masonry, the rising and falling characteristic shriek and yammer of an Indian city, the cries of the busy touts and drivers, the golden blasts of American horns. Nevertheless, I seem generally to have had the place to myself, though this may well be a distortion of the fact, a trick of memory’s all-eliminating egoism.
Those of us who were waiting for the boat experienced a dislocation of the sense of time. We knew we were nearer this particular heart’s desire than we had ever dared to expect. Many may well have looked to see the boat drawn up, ready and waiting in the roads, the moment they arrived in Bombay. No boat, of course, was near, nor in the offing. Official secrecy denied us any further information. We settled hopefully into the uncomfortable transit camp at Worli and, being unemployed, spent our days in Bombay. By the time I met Wensley, I had been seven weeks at Worli, and not by the smallest closing of an eye had Authority hinted that I should not be there another seven, or even seventy.
A habit of settling down quickly had been early acquired in my service career. I was not unwilling to profit a little from yet one more strange town, especially since I had nothing to do but potter about and peer at the rich, racketing life which was going on indifferently to myself, to my comrades, and to the war with the Japanese. As I was somewhat short of cash, like most junior officers, there were aspects of Bombay life that I could not reach; otherwise I might have set myself up with a girl and whiled the time away without much noticing the sprawling city with its odd accents—Persian, European and Indian—its slums and palaces, its crazy but lovable architecture. As it was I poked my nose, according to habit, into many corners, by day and by night, exploring the marvellous chaos and loving, with the unattached sentimentality of the departing exile, the mixture of want and plenty, misery and pleasure, all thick and steaming and of a rare consistency in the fierce beams of the sun and the damp air from the nearby swamps and the sea. The Sea! It was my last river, my Jordan; this and a few submarines, a few bombers—both, now, diminished—stood between me and the home it had not yet occurred to me to doubt that I loved. At intervals in my exploration I would hire a gharry and clatter back to Spong’s little backwater to grow cool, and to muse in the continual twilight of the verandah over a fresh-pressed lime.
I have spoken of the unkindly sun, for that is what I chiefly recall from my years abroad, but at the time of my story the monsoon weather was prevailing and very often the sun must do its uncomfortable work through a mat of rain cloud coloured like porridge and looking as sticky and thick. Our beds in the transit camp sheds were sopping from leaks in the roof, our belongings smelt of mould. Clothes, in the morning, were clammy and unpleasant to put on. At times, with a high wind combing the leaden sea, it was positively cold; until the sun broke through, and then, with its heat and the damp in the air, one was like an ingredient in a stew. You could be soaked and shivering, or wet with sweat and burning, or douched and battered by the swift, humid wind. In all weathers, Spong’s Hotel was my port of call and it is strange that I should remember it with such affection, since there can never have been a time there when I was not in acute physical discomfort. Perhaps that is the final good one may achieve in the East, to rise a little above the carcase and its nagging, to be able to elevate one’s mental life out of its reach.
That spoilt and stormy evening on which I met Armin Wensley, I roved back to Spong’s half drenched with salt rain, scorching with prickly heat, irritable and vaguely apprehensive. A strong wind was blowing. Such trees as there are in the city were tossing their thick leafage in a spray of drops, looking, in this perpetual ruined summer, hideously unlike the innocent streaming plane trees of a London June. The light, at five in the afternoon, was failing fast. My gharry driver’s white cotton shirt was sticking to his back, his poor ribby old nag streaked and steaming. Spong’s Hotel, lightless, loomed less than inviting through the sharpdriving rain.
On the first floor verandah the scene might have been truly under water, so deeply submerged it looked. Brown dusk pervaded the long vista, and down it the tablecloths showed greenish white. Outside, there were the wall of the rain, tumbling helplessly, and the wall of the trees wrestling together beyond. The place was totally empty and its air half solid with damp. I took a seat near to the verandah’s edge and from a dispirited old servant who shuffled forward from behind a mat screen, ordered tea. It appeared to me that I had once again touched bottom, and that a long and cheerful holiday from myself was now at an end.
Yet, filled, and for the moment warmed, with tea I could relax and smoke and ponder my rootless existence, and bear—even quite enjoy—a diminished discomfort. The wind presently dropped. The rain then fell straight as a waterfall and with the same suggestion of inexhaustible plenitude and power. The city’s noises were flooded deep, reduced to nothing by the rain. It struck me that Spong’s Hotel resembled a ship, driving steadily on in dirty weather to a nameless destination, myself the only passenger on board. From my promenade-deck-verandah I could look at the falling spears of rain and reflect upon my pallid insignificance, encompassed by fathomless waters and the unfathomable continent beyond. Spong’s, indeed, might be the last rescue boat for the last survivor of British India—for this, in a way, I saw myself to be. None, I felt, loved so dearly nor ridiculed nor respected so whole-heartedly the long tragicomedy of British rule. Spong’s, built in the days of a clear ascendency, held still in its outmost vistas so much that belonged to a marvellous past uncomprehended by the Indians and cold-shouldered or betrayed by ourselves. In the spotted looking glasses there could still materialise for me the sleek heads, the bare, wonderfully white shoulders and gathered fichus of stately girls; the mutton-chop good looks, clean cameos of soldierly gallantry and hearty good fellowship, red coats and gold laced collars of their men; with, here and there, the thin, thoughtful, determined face of an administrator, wise and uncomplicated, luminous with certainty that all was well done for a demonstrably worthy end. For such, Spong’s had come into being, and it was no fault of its projectors that its long verandah should come one day to house the disabused and exhausted, the shabby and mannerless men who had had their hands full with the outcome of so much noble dreaming, so much vigour, and so little perception, nor that their chandeliers and fiddles should expand to a fine and perhaps final brilliance in the heart of an impecunious “intellectual” turned aviator, in the dank fag-end of a monsoon day.
At some moment while I was staring at the tablecloth and printing on it my coloured pictures of the past, a man had come in and seated himself at a table in the second line, a little way back from the verandah’s window of air. For how long he had been sitting there before an inkling of him pierced my preoccupation, I do not know. I know that I looked up sharply, and half over my shoulder, and saw that I was no longer alone. It was a powerful shock: my tongue and teeth thrilled. My nerves, by then, had become entirely unreliable; they have remained so. I suppose I gaped at the stranger, for he intensified with a full smile the halfsmiling, eager and interested look he was bending on me. His look was full of warmth and there was something more about him. He had brought into that clammy atmosphere, untidy with fragments of unfinished things, something very solid and strong. For an instant the place seemed lighter.
Ashamed of my fright, I gave him a sheepish smile and was about to say something when the stranger, instead of addressing me as, from his air, he seemed bound to do, clapped his hands. The old waiter trotted out again from his hidingplace and was told to bring tea. I was going to try again but the other had, imperceptibly almost, and without any abatement of his reassuringness, withdrawn his attention from me, and was looking out at the rain with no expression at all.
I was to come, in the end, to know these two habits of Armin Wensley’s well—that of moving elegantly, quietly, but not effeminately, much as Indians move; and that of establishing an idea with you and then withdrawing to let it do its work.
One must ponder sometimes, a little bitterly, the fact that though a lifetime’s encounters may come in the end to show some evidence of design, they generally exhibit disappointingly little pattern. It is difficult to live for long in the East without having to pay heed to the prevailing belief in fatality, predestination, the unhazardous nature of human transactions. But if I ever felt like presuming that my meeting with Wensley was—in the broadest sense—no accident, I would regret, even resent, his coming into my life so late in my Indian career. We got on well from the first. Before any words were spoken between us we had, by simply staring into the rain, thinking our own thoughts while remaining aware of one another, established a restful state of near-communication: when he finally spoke I did not jump. And it is worth remarking that I, who am incurably talkative, a great starter of conversations, was not the first to break silence on this occasion. Wensley had the kind of authority which guaranteed his having his tea in peace. Still, there we were: two survivors, perhaps, and when he pushed back his chair and began a small, competent fuss with pipe and tobacco pouch, I looked up attentively.
“I like this rain,” he said. “I’m damp, and my tobacco’s damp, and I don’t suppose there’s a dry place in Bombay at this minute. At any time I could start shaking with fever. This hotel is the precise end of everywhere. And I’m perfectly content.” He smiled, shoved his chair right back, crossed his legs, tugged at his pipe and looked at me expectantly.
Apart from taking the thought from my mind, his speech was not striking. It was indeed markedly egotistical, from one point of view; but perhaps just because he had expressed my own feelings, I felt disproportionately pleased. I must have been lonelier than I’d admitted to myself, or more depressed by the weather. Anyway, I fairly beamed at him.
“Before you came I’d been looking on myself as the last survivor of something—I don’t quite know what. After me the deluge, and not long after by the look of it.”
Perennial hopefulness, the probe for a common background, I suppose, makes one put out every time, whatever one’s resolutions, these tired semi-literary feelers. I found myself suddenly hoping hard that my companion would not look blank or, worse, show distaste.
The friendliness of his expression did not alter. He smiled and nodded, but his next words were:
“How long have you been in India?”
“Three years, off and on. I had six months in Ceylon which is near enough, in a way. And you?”
“Fifteen years—off and on. Some of that went in leaves and travelling, but not much. I’m not a regular soldier; just dressed for the occasion, which has been a long one, and not altogether amusing—and I’d be glad, soon, to be allowed to get back to my life. Do you like India? Now that you’re going (I suppose you are going?) do you go with regret? Or are you another that’s hated every single minute of your time?”
Not a taciturn character, I thought with relief. We shall play my favourite game of talk a long time, at this rate. We’re just scratching the surface of something that could take years to excavate—well, why not?
Bengal has a springtime peculiar to itself. It doesn’t last for long, but while it lasts the sky is, for once, a pale and delicate blue, there is an illusory freshness in the mornings, a certain hush and gentleness in the days. The wheels of ox-carts squeak kindly, the maddening little birds of summer are mute, the green of the forests is soft, not dusty, almost fresh to the eye as English greenery: children’s voices sound clearly, and echo, as they do in London streets in spring; something like curiosity, the appearance of hope, informs the look of the peasants. Girls comb their splendid hair over reflections in water still fresh from the rains, the sun shines mildly on their hair, the black waterfalls, and leaps back from water not yet unbearably bright. In the palm copses and at the edge of the jungle there is much movement of small creatures. Flocks of green parakeets, a bee-eater, a glowing purple sunbird, dart and glance. Kingfishers sew a pattern over the tanks, but no bird is brighter than the flowering trees. Suddenly everywhere, in vacant, verminous corners of towns, in tumbledown villages, by temple steps and in the overgrown gardens of rich men the scent is heavy, the blossom a prodigality sharply dramatic. After the long, heavy discomfort of the rains, the harshness of remembered summer, this sudden outflinging of beauty, of new clean colour, silk-textured petals, juicy leaves, inebriating scent, in all that desperate, exhausted, teeming, ruined, perpetually renewing land, is the extreme distillation of Spring—too much all at once, painful for the certainty that it must so quickly end.
I spoke of this to Armin Wensley and he nodded from time to time, and smiled. He did not interrupt, but it was plain from the way he held himself in his chair, a pose relaxed, immobile and yet alert (another of his characteristics not quite European), I gathered I was not boring him. Words which are too often my masters served me well that evening. Something of Wensley’s power of relaxed concentration came to me too. I was eloquent without hysteria, nearer than usual to being sincere. Such lyricism as I was now allowing myself must long have needed expression. After a while I believe I forgot both of us, forgot the place I was in. Something wiped clear for me the dark glass of my everyday vision. Rain and trees and dusty, sad verandah shivered and melted into one bright picture after another. I was saying aloud all the poems I had never written about the country which, at times, I had so earnestly believed I hated, and now knew that I so deeply loved.
After that evening Wensley and I met almost daily, and always at Spong’s Hotel. We found, of course, that we had a handful of people and places in common, particularly Calcutta and a wealthy civilian who had entertained me there, called Michael Goodwin. I was to hear more of this man, a lot more, later on as Wensley’s story unfolded.
I think now that the dark verandah, the howling inclemency outside, were the right setting for Armin Wensley. When I think of his face, half the time so woodenly soldierly and composed, so liable to decompose, in the most agreeable way, to broaden, to flatten, to be swept with a kind of personal weather—more, just, than a twinkle, a smile, more than the friendliest grimace; when I think of that handsome visage (and what a maiden’s prayer, too, with its straight nose, limpid grey eyes, sharply-cut cap of dark hair, and brown skin just sufficiently furrowed to say Experience)—really I can only say that what lit that man sufficiently to melt, every time, my own miserable self-consciousness, to make me (of all people) humbly happy to acclaim a touch of greatness, was nothing less than grace. That is a difficult word, with unfortunate overtones, I know—I wouldn’t use it out loud, but there it was. Grace. The tip of an angel’s wing. And all that. But I could prattle on about Wensley till the cows came home. There are plenty of cows in India, and not their least charm is that they never do come home, in that sense. Home is where they happen to be, very often slap in the middle of the tram lines. It was much the same with Wensley. Distinguished, capable, more than charming, with a touch of the unexplained about him but none of the disorderly, he was perfectly at the centre of his world wherever he found himself, or so I came to believe. This enviable, rare and heartbreaking nature appeared to be one of the few for whom this incomprehensible obstacle-race of a life is truly home. But I don’t think that, in all our meetings, I ever saw his face in the sun, and I see him now as in an eighteenth-century portrait, posed against pillars and black sky and tossing trees, the embodiment of the whole and coherent in an inchoate world.
It was after dinner one evening a week or so later that Wensley took our relationship a stage further. We had dined rather well, and with few fellow-diners—two Indians, arrived too late in history to catch Spong’s at its best, and a couple of crimson businessmen in cummerbunds. These left early, lacking, I suppose, either my own pleasure in damp and moral decay or Wensley’s perfect sense of place., Still, the dinner had been good, and a certain caginess I had felt with my companion at first, the familiar urchin’s reaction to the first-rate which is, if anything is, the characteristic of our time, and of which I have my share, was dispersed by the sight of him tucking so vigorously into his food, demanding second helpings, and sinking at least as much liquor as I was myself. I am a greedy man, whether it’s food, drink or women, and I am not at my best with an ascetic, however genuine. It was a large part of Armin’s attraction that he found the good things of life, however conventional, still good.
We had dined, then, the small crowd had gone, the waiter had taken himself off; we were drinking brandy. I caught myself in a mood of rare peacefulness, all the more delicious for being illuminated by small fires of excitement. Excitement gleamed through the swathes of my contentment like diamonds through gauze. I remember saying to myself “Oh, I am a clever, a dear fellow”. That is a modest cry of my heart when I am near to being happy; at those times I feel it might easily be true.
I was looking at Armin Wensley, full-length in a planter’s chair. Armin was looking out into the darkness which, for once, was still and rainless. The thought struck me that it had needed three years in the East to teach me appreciation of such a man as this. In England, in the old days, I might well have written Wensley off as a leather-face, without troubling to see what went on under the disciplined manner, behind the steady eyes. Certainly—then—I should not have paused in my gyrations to find out, as I particularly now wanted to find out, what made him tick. It had taken Spong’s verandah, and the monsoon, and my suspended state, to attach me to this character; but, at least, by now I knew what a discovery I had made.
In the course of our several evenings together, some of which had been drunken and some devoted to the recondite pleasures of the town, I had learned a few things about my companion. He, for his part, must have learned an alarming amount about myself. Wensley had so swiftly and completely gained my confidence that I never even attempted to disguise my desires and impulses from him; I somehow felt certain that he was past surprise, shock, or the need to pass moral judgments on his friends. Being momentarily in funds from an unlooked-for nugget of back-pay, I was enjoying the round of mild debauchery which has always seemed to suit me so well. I was doubtful at first whether Wensley would care to become involved in such manoeuvres, and a little fearful for his good opinion which, somehow, appeared desirable to me; but he was with me from the outset, in spirit at least, if not in the flesh. He had a remarkable head for liquor, which was no doubt as well, since I have not, and when my truffle-hound’s nose led me, as it not infrequently did, into what my mother would have called mauvais lieux—straw-matted caverns lit by oil lamps, aglow with bright saris and smelling of sweat and jasmine and damp earth—Wensley would lend his dark distinction to the scene with perfect composure. It gives me pleasure, even now, to think of him sitting on the yellow straw, chewing betel or eating the poisonous confectionery so dear to Indians, conversing with the proprietress and any unoccupied young ladies, with great sweetness and gravity, in whatever language they chose; while I floundered boozily in a cubicle, making once again my futile protest against death and separation and the corruption of all I had held dear.
Sometimes we would go together deep into the bazaars, to little eating places all spice and grease and tall shadows where, among quiet men in Indian dress, we would eat the superb native dishes unobtainable anywhere else. Wensley was accepted without reserve wherever we went; not only, I think, because he spoke Indian languages and their dialects apparently so impeccably but because of that other not quite European quality which I had noticed at our first meeting. There might have been much in what he said to people that won him sympathy and respect, but I think it was his manner—reserved and yet friendly, grave yet unponderous, easy yet alert, and a touch of excitement, of Oriental fluidity in his way of speaking—that won him the bows, the cleared spaces and the odd, shy smiles from people who would not have cared for him simply as a Sahib at all. From all these courtesies I derived my own benefits: I was accepted, and kindly treated, in places where no purely sight-seeing Englishman would have been allowed to pass; and I had the good fortune to smell and taste and, momentarily, feel myself part of an essential India whose mystery is genuine past all attempts to cheapen it.
Occasionally while walking, or in some eating-house, Wensley would meet an acquaintance, an Indian, and there would be enacted a kind of ballet of courteous gestures between them. These encounters, though infrequent, were always lengthy and always friendly and I observed with interest, and a touch of my usual envy, the deference with which Wensley was treated. I do not remember often seeing him greet, or even seem much to notice, any European.
Wensley was living near the Bund, in a two-roomed flat which some Indian friend had lent him. He lived alone, apparently, without a servant—a slightly eccentric thing in itself—and never took me home, so that I have no picture of his surroundings. His setting for me will always, as I have said, be Spong’s Hotel, and the few particular scenes he was going before long to fix in my imagination for ever.
I had another look at him lying extended, a thin hand lightly grasping the brandy glass fitted into the hole in the arm of his planter’s chair. He seemed to me more than usually still and withdrawn, so much so that I had a momentary foolish fear that he had died. Some of my contentment had seeped away; my cigar had gone out, and I had finished my brandy. I began to think about a visit to Madame Alix, a dignified middle-aged Frenchwoman, who kept a most orderly disorderly house and who was the doyenne of her profession in that town. It was Armin’s usual custom to sit and drink whisky in a little white iron summer-house like a birdcage in Madame’s garden, while I sought oblivion indoors. It was Madame’s pleasure, when her duties permitted, to sit with him and talk in French. They were both as indulgent to me on these occasions as though I were a schoolboy at his first ices, and it is a tribute to both of them to say that their attitude never caused me the slightest resentment. I remember Armin saying once, as I was leaving them on one of my jaunts, and he perhaps thought me out of earshot, “Il se sauve toujours de soi”. She gravely agreed, but with the smallest note of surprise in her voice, as though, from her experience, this must be obvious to the point of platitude.
Thoughts of Madame Alix’s place coupled with the apprehension that my happy evening was running down, prompted me to suggest a move. I leaned forward to speak to Wensley, and again his singular immobility gave me a stab of disquiet. The verandah was dimly lighted by a few dusty bulbs, widely spaced and high; to look at anything with attention caused eye-strain. I peered at Armin Wensley but, even at that short distance, could not tell whether he was sleeping or merely reclining with his eyes shut; and, as I have said, from his utter stillness, negative, petrified-looking in that melancholy light, I could have supposed him dead.
“Armin,” I said, “are you asleep?” which was a silly enough question. I got no reply, but something began to happen just the same. As though the man were, in fact, coming slowly to the surface from a really deep slumber, even more as though he were coming round from an anaesthetic, and while his face remained perfectly passive, first one hand and then the other, then a foot, a shoulder moved sharply. Suddenly, from lying almost flat in his deep chair in one movement Armin was on his feet and standing, still with his eyes shut and his face blank, without so much as swaying, stiff as a post facing the dark outside.
“Armin,” I growled at him—he was alarming me quite a lot—“Armin, whatever’s the matter?” He remained as he was. I moved closer to him and, as I did so, his face began to come alive, although his eyes remained closed. First he frowned, then stretched his closed lips as though at a foul taste, then parted them as though to speak; then he opened his eyes very wide—staring straight ahead and still frowning painfully—and reached forward to grip the rail of the verandah with both hands. In a voice quite unlike any tone of his I was used to, a voice infinitely tender and sorrowful, he said: “Kumari! Little one . . .” to the night, and began to shake like a man with malaria.
With a steady thumping of its paddle-wheels the white steamer plodded upstream. Here, at the start of the long journey, the river—full-fed with four months’ rains—could have been a great lake. Over many miles of yellow water, gravid with silt—past boats like stick-insects and boats like boxes and baskets, out in the nacreous light mist, the sharpest eye, binoculared, might faithfully register a smudge of shore: but at this stage in its length, and in this month of October, the Brahmaputra is miles wide, and for Armin Wensley, who had been too long in damp, stifling Calcutta and, just now, in a stuffy train, water and mild light and warm, humid breeze were worlds larger than life, the air freedom itself, the river a sea.
It was Wensley’s thirtieth birthday, a fact which had only occurred to him on his way up the gangway at Goalundo. He had been eight years in India, eight years and a lifetime. The mere fact that a birthday could mean, as a festival, so little, indicated surely the different being that Wensley transplanted had become. Now, letting his eyes rest unfocussed on the wet scene in its golden shower of indirect light, he could only by a positive mental effort bring back even the least tang of the birthdays of years ago. A distance immeasurably greater than a few thousand miles lay between him and the orderly world of his youth, from a past not angrily, but gently and quite certainly, abandoned for ever. When on a March morning in 1929 the twenty-two year old Wensley sailed from home, he left more than the land of his forefathers behind Tilbury’s greasy cranes. He left—although he was not to be certain of this for some years—a whole civilisation, taking with him only its discipline in thought and, from his family, a Yorkshire stoicism and sense of decorum and an unpredictable sharp wit.
Much had happened in eight years to that eager and rather conventional boy. Amongst other new qualities he had acquired a technique of living from moment to moment, consciously, as a traveller steps from stone to stone crossing a mountain stream, pausing and balancing, calculating distance and effort for the next step, and yet being aware of the waterlife, the wind, the sun and the character of the banks behind and before. Birthdays, therefore, had early ceased to be milestones in a life full of various excitement. One he had spent in an expanded fiery universe of fever, alone in a tent half-way up a mountain. One he had drunk and danced away among raving strangers on Malabar Hill. Others had been incidentals of long journeys and now, here he was again in transit, marking off another year on the deck of a river steamer bound for Assam.
The rail was moist under his hand. A smell of hot oil and paint and spices blew round him. Wide awnings shaded the scrubbed decks and calm light thrown up from the water thinned their shade. Bells rang, bare feet pattered, a long drawn musical shout, sad and enduring as a Last Post, sang across the low arc of sky. The engines grumbled steadily and, from the deck below, Indian voices chattered. Someone said at his elbow:
“It’s Wensley, isn’t it?”
A mountainous man in white shirt and shorts, with a craggy, boozy, cheerful face, looked down on Wensley’s six feet, alert with pleasure at the encounter. Wensley felt, and reproved, a quirk of annoyance that human society, in this shape, had to be forced on him so early. So many times, when he could have done with company on a long trip, none had been forthcoming: and now, when he really was ready for a session with himself, here, at the very outset, he must throw himself back into the social mould he had hoped to leave behind in Calcutta.
“Mr. Mackenzie?” he said, smiling into the little, genial eyes.
“Right,” said Mackenzie. “And I bet you don’t remember where we last met. Or do you?”
Wensley did remember. Back it all came to him over seven years, the night like blue consommé, long windows throwing golden wedges onto the lawn, and fireflies streaking through black foliage beyond. It had been a dance, in one of the old colonial houses at Tollygunge: about a hundred people sweating round a great shiny floor, refreshing themselves, gasping, getting drunk and drunker: and this old fellow had been heroically, grandly drunk, and was now, as usual, assuming that everyone else must have been worse. He had been amusing, though. Gibraltar-like he had stood at the bar, other celebrants washing up against him and receding like feeble waves, loudly proclaiming that he went to one party a year, and this was it, and since he had hollow legs, he was going to drink the bar dry. “All year long in the Brahmaputra valley,” he had shouted, “toiling like a coolie . . . dog’s life . . . making me thin . . . here’s to civilisation!” and down at a draught had gone another enormous peg. Nobody had minded. “Old Alec,” they said, “he’s a character.” The dry, elegant little host and his nervous wife had hovered at his waist-line, smiling like children at this mass of confident beef. He’d held it well, too, right up to the last: but at the moment when he fell, like an immemorial oak, smashing three gilt chairs, Wensley had been occupied staring away into the darkness beyond the pillared porch, holding yet—though she had been gone for twenty minutes—his very last vision of Laura Johnston, the light on her mass of hair . . .
Wensley turned from the rail and together the two men made a round of the deck. Mackenzie seemed sincerely pleased to have found someone to talk to. The steamer and the river, the Scottish captain and his quick-footed crew, the boats and sandbanks—all new to Wensley—were of this man’s life. Mackenzie tried at first to shrug them off, anticipating wrongly a too-familiar adverse reaction in his companion. Sensing Wensley’s interest, however, and catching something of a fresh, unprejudiced sensibility, he glowed and expanded, becoming really enormous with pleasure. It has been a tragedy for many foreigners in India to have to deny their hearts and belittle the treasures and miracles they have found to appease a convention too strong for them. A word or two of Wensley’s cleared away, quite soon, the false bonhomie, the Dr. Livingstone attitude, and left a personality rather boyish, enthusiastic and a mine of information which shyness must have kept shut too long.
“So you like the river, do you?” Mackenzie kept saying, or, “You don’t mind this old tub?” and relaxed, became confidential, told stories, gave statistics, allowed his carefully dissimulated pride to come out and expand in this new sun.
Soon it was time, in Mackenzie’s opinion, for a drink, and they went down to a little saloon, freshly-painted and artlessly gay, where the water’s light rippled on an ornate ceiling, electric fans circled slowly, and unsmiling stewards hovered near. Mackenzie occupied, in one elephantine movement, a chintz sofa intended for three, puffed, closed his eyes, opened them again and said, twinkling: “I’m an awful fraud.”
“Why?” asked Wensley, who knew that this could not, in any worldly sense, be true.
“Always pretending,” said the other. “Go to Calcutta once a year. ‘Why, it’s old Alec. .. . Hullo, Alec! Come for a taste of the fleshpots?’ ‘Yes,’ I say, very humble, miserable up-country provincial that I am. ‘Yes—owe myself a bit of civilisation.’ But, bless you Wensley, fleshpots! Why, I’ve the best cook in Assam, and tea-gardens that pretty well run themselves since I joined a syndicate, and a fine house built to my own ideas, and the whole Brahmaputra valley to look at, and shoot and fish about in. And the hills beyond: why, d’you know, I can see the snows from my bedroom window every morning in winter? And those idiots in Calcutta—but still, I must be fair, some of them are very decent, and even the Clive Street bunch—very little trouble. But, really, who’d stew in that partially reclaimed swamp, surrounded by smart-alec Bengalis, if he could live where I do?” He frowned into his gin-sling, then went on more slowly: “Well, the answer, I suppose, is—lots would . . . women for one thing. I’m not married, you see: not that that ever stopped me when I was younger and my tastes might certainly have been called catholic——” He chuckled.
“Still, things were different forty years ago, or—I wonder—were they? Yes, well, there’s other things, of course: cinemas, clubs, being in touch. I never gave a damn for being in touch with anything except myself and the price of tea. And don’t I look well on it? Monstrous great belly, and healthy—well, I don’t trouble doctors (and by that same token, the only thing that makes me see red is a missionary, and even they can be decent, too). So you see, I’m easily pleased. If it wasn’t for my owners, and the need to buy some proper new shoes and a few books, I’d never even go to Calcutta.” He brooded for a minute: “Just the same, when I do go there, I do as the Romans do: listen to all the gossip, get plastered, let them patronise me—and nine-tenths of them are kindness itself, but, oh golly, all on edge: pushing and shoving, hating the climate, hating the country they live off, never turning their stupid heads from an imitation England—and how they’re going to hate the real thing when they get back to it! That’s the most pathetic thing of all. Thank God I’ve neither wish nor occasion to go back. The Scots transplant well, you know, born corners-of-foreign-fields. So I’ll lay my bones in Assam, and future generations can dig ’em up and figure out what kind of an elephant that was.” And he bounced and shook with laughter, so that two sashed and turbaned servants came running at once.
“It’s all right, you,” he told them, mopping his scarlet creases, “no earthquake, just Mackenzie Sahib enjoying himself.” They gravely smiled then, and withdrew.
“If I let him talk himself out?” thought Wensley. “Or is that, perhaps, not possible? It isn’t that I don’t like his talk, but we’ve several days on this boat, if he’s going to Rudragarh, and I fancy he’s going farther. Shipboard acquaintances! We’ll know each other altogether too well: and then perhaps, when he’s back among his planters, he’ll be ashamed. Because I swear he’s guileless, and I swear he doesn’t often get a chance to let go like this. Anyway, the flavour’s first-class.”
Lunchtime brought reassurance to Wensley. Four ginslings and a quart of cold beer on top of a full-scale curry slowed down Alec Mackenzie almost to stopping. When he rose from the table he was grave, rather glazed-looking, and disinclined for talk. Murmuring something about a siesta, he sought his cabin. Wensley found a chair on deck and settled down to watch the cornelian-coloured haze of light and water, the endless, restful, grey and green line of shore in the far distance, the river-craft, his few fellow-passengers, and a panorama of his own life superimposed upon it all.
“Armin is an agreeable boy,” ran a school report of Wensley’s ninth year, “but inclined to go his own way. Needs to learn co-operation and team spirit.” A year later another master had written: “No one could call A. W. stand-offish or unfriendly, and he seems fairly popular: but he has an odd quality of not appearing quite to ‘belong’, which he should watch for the future. Work and games are, on the whole, good: but he is perhaps too inclined to solitary pursuits.” When, at thirteen, much the same criticism came up again in a letter from a housemaster, Wensley’s father asked him what these solitary pursuits might be. Schools, on his rare visits to them, seemed as clangorous, packed and bewildering as cities, and he could hardly see how his son could find anywhere to be solitary in, except the inside of his head. When the boy, after thinking deeply for a minute, said: “Could it be my trying to learn Chinese?” his father understood at once. A shy man and, like all landowners in his day, a beleaguered one, he did not exact from his children any overt approval of the world. They had to rub along, as he had. With a bit of their mother’s looks and his family’s proved brains, and the sensible soil of Yorkshire behind them, they’d do all right if anybody did. Nothing disreputable about attempting Chinese, even at thirteen. There’d been one good-sized Orientalist in the family already—Armin’s Uncle Hugh—and there could easily be another. Colonel Wensley, if asked, would probably have asserted that popularity, in any case, was a soppy sort of thing to angle for. Better be right, and just if possible: in any event, be yourself.
Armin’s mother died when he was ten and it was as if one of the bright, stiff portraits had gone from their sunny gallery. She left the same sort of gap; part of the stuff of dream and tradition, of difficult history and “je maintiendrai”, had been removed, leaving a light sense of threat. Her calm, fair beauty, her elegance and ironical detachment were very much of the world which makes and keeps these things.
Her children, servants, a host of shrewd and humble people knew her compassionate intelligence. She never moved where she could not help and helped with gusto, a gay astringent kindness, although she was not one to be touched by the idea of Lady Bountiful, nor was she anyone’s darling Mumsey. Loyal, witty, absurdly brave, and perfectly sure of her identity, she had gladly left her world of palaces, the great shining pleasure-house two dales away, and married “dull” Jack Wensley, to the immense disappointment of everyone but herself. Last of her line—and the Armins had once been great in worlds remote from the Wensleys—she was like a wanderer returning to unaffected simplicities, an enduring home. Her husband—though she brought his heart to his mouth sometimes, particularly in the hunting field—had the whole of his happiness with her and could, later, forgive the short-weight of the years for the quality of it. He was glad, too, to see his steady, careful strain tempered with blood so uncommon.
Armin’s mother had never encouraged her children to lean—upon her or anyone. Whatever her private feelings, she never altered her rule of “see for yourself”, although this led the boys into many difficulties and, once or twice, into real danger. Armin and his brothers were unusually fortunate in that their parents were always there—to be argued with, defied sometimes, but returned to with utter confidence. Theirs was a childhood of light and movement, active and full of laughter, high-tempered and a little wild. Intelligence and some scholarship and a latent melancholy streak on both sides mitigated all this: moods could, and did, shoot up and down. Something enduring, weathered, time-proven in the Wensley character, was apparent in both boys. At his mother’s death the ten-year-old Armin shook but stayed steady: nor, remarkably, did he blame his mother, in any corner of his heart. He held up his head but looked, some noticed, “aged” and wary. Perhaps his thought could have been translated into: “Right. If this is the sort of thing that happens, I’ll be more careful next time.”
Some such way of looking at things must have come to help him when, ten years later, his father died and, after many tedious, dispiriting hours with lawyer and agent, it became obvious that the place must be sold. The two brothers, self-absorbed and separate, had grown up friends, but not indissolubly attached. They came together over the winding up of the property, speaking with one voice. Armin found himself with a younger son’s portion large enough to see him through Oxford and into a career. What the elder had would get him started in Kenya and enable him to marry at once. All dependents provided for, they left Yorkshire for ever, and that was that.
So the odd little boy who had copied Egyptian cartouches in the nursery and studied Chinese at school (while neglecting Greek), who had dosed his colds with home-compounded Indian medicines, and dreamed of Marco Polo and Père Dubois, had followed his Uncle Hugh into the Government Service in India. Although he had since left that service he still found, at thirty, no cause whatever to regret the step.
Armin had deliberately chosen the longest way round to his destination. He had been more than a fortnight on his way to Rongphar and, though this house of Henry Greenwood’s was as nearly perfect a place as he knew, he had not hurried at all. He could have got there days earlier by train from Calcutta and a short river trip, had he been in any hurry. In fact, he was going a very long way round from a tea estate in North Cachar, fetching a thousand mile loop via Calcutta to reach a destination only a hundred odd miles north-west from his home. Armin had planned it in this way for several reasons. He needed to go to Calcutta to talk to various people in the head office of Greenwood, Bellenger and Company, his new employers. He wanted to buy some books and clothes and see a few friends, among them Micky Goodwin who had written to tell him that Chakravarti, last and perhaps greatest of the traditional Bengali singers, had consented to sing in his house. Micky had underlined more than usual his request to Armin to come and hear Chakravarti.
During the two years that Armin had been learning about tea he had not had any leave. Now the company had given him six months, pending his transfer to another field of their enterprise. Armin had chosen to go on from Calcutta to Rongphar in the Brahmaputra valley by the slowest, laziest of methods, the full rail and river journey. He wanted the rest, the seclusion of the river voyage, so he told himself, to be alone and take stock. The present time seemed as good as any for this purpose; it was, in fact, the first time he had had so much unencumbered leisure to enjoy since he came to India.
Something had made Armin linger carefully over each pause and detail of the days. He had re-examined Calcutta meticulously, seeking out old friends, visiting all the places he had once found charming, paying tribute to the self who had briefly lived and bitterly suffered there seven years ago. He had not, however, attempted to revisit Laura’s marble garden-house; he did not wish to threaten his mellow, classifying mood with even a glancing blow.
Micky Goodwin had welcomed him with gossip and amusing spite and an occasional flash of wisdom. Armin was glad to have had the chance of hearing Chakravarti sing at his house. The old Bengali had been very thin, brown, birdlike and venerable. A number of young Indians of both sexes had come at Micky’s invitation to hear him, and Armin had found lovely the spectacle when, with men on one side of a bare white room, and women on the other, himself and Micky in the middle facing the singer, he had sat cross-legged for five and a half hours listening to the strangest songs in the world. The keen, dark faces of the guests, their polished black heads, the hot colour of the girls’ saris contrasting with the men’s plain white clothes, the drums and the tall stringed instruments of the orchestra, had all been beautiful in their simplicity and their subservience to the great man. A young girl in white and gold, who sat immobile through the whole of the performance, had reminded him a little of Kumari. Through the grumbling of the drums, the bourdon of the stringed tanpuras, and the high, delicate, passionate voice, Armin had thought of Rongphar, wishing suddenly, urgently, to be there. But next day and the day after he had found himself dawdling again, delightfully procrastinating over long luncheon parties and hours in bookshops, tending always towards Rongphar, but picking a good many flowers along the way.
The cold weather was beginning, and now with the rains well over the Brahmaputra was shrinking daily. Alec Mackenzie, who had attached himself to Armin in an undemanding, friendly way, was full of stories, taken from forty years’ experience, of disaster, comic and tragic, on the shifting, shallow, unpredictable river. He remembered the days of steamers with thatched roofs which carried their meat and poultry alive in pens on the lower deck, when extra cargo was loaded in two flats, engineless barges lashed to the steamer’s sides; and these flats going adrift and grounding, or a cargo of jute catching fire, or the steamer itself running aground in one of the cold-weather fogs. The Brahmaputra is never the same two seasons running and the heavy rainfall along its valley can send it flooding up ten feet in a night. In the rainy season villages are inundated which, in the cold weather, when the river has dwindled to the confines of a new channel, are far away from its bank. For the southward leg of its course, between Dhubri and Goalundo where it joins the Ganges, the river runs through a flat sandy terrain capriciously, as water will in sand. Sandbanks cannot be confidently charted and, from month to month, their positions change. The pilots who come on board, each at the beginning of his allotted section, possess the latest, hour-to-hour knowledge of the river’s rise or fall, or of changes in the sandy bed.
The engines beat slowly, deeply, like a strong heart and with the same rhythm. The river water came up viscous, silky, ran round with the paddles and flew off in a scatter of bright drops. Life on board settled to peacefulness, almost to somnolence. White faces in the muted light under the awnings looked smooth and youthful, dark faces unequivocally dark, like the chocolate “Hindoos” of an old mezzotint. In midstream the boat and her complement seemed, even while waking, to sleep. Awakening came with the shouts and thumps, the whistling and scampering of the occasional landing-stages, which broke garishly on this floating Land of Afternoon. Even Mackenzie seemed subdued, although smilingly so, as he moved his great bulk from cabin to deckchair, and to and from the dining-table. The food was particularly good and the liquor plentiful. Armin expected an attack of liver for himself, and felt like predicting apoplexy for Mackenzie, but they both continued to thrive. Exercise was polished off with an occasional few turns on deck; once they left the boat for a while at one of the landings and went for a walk on shore. Armin had never ceased to marvel at the way in which the unchanging pattern of village life could be so infinitely and subtly varied in detail from one village to another. It had taken him some time to discover this. What was known to planters and forest officers and to Civilians in the districts, could easily escape even the most attentive traveller passing through. For him the landscape too often appears monotonous to the point of persecution, the recurring villages simply stereotypes of the very first—a single, rutted street, a few mops of banana and tired areca palm, tin roofs and mud walls, the one “good” building of faded brick, and the one weedy tank bordered with hunched-up women muffled in saris of yellow and red. The palms and the muddy tanks and the hopelessly simple, ancient ways of building, and all the time-honoured makeshifts, were repeated in the same way, and for some of the same reasons, as the church and pub and village green of English villages; and each village had its moment of magic. Most Englishmen, in Armin’s experience, preferred the Punjab, the wide stony world of fierce days and cold nights, air choking-hot or pagne-cold, and the spare, angry, tough, unsubtle people. But there was something that appealed even more strongly to Armin. In Orissa, in Bengal, and the coastal plains of the south he, the Yorkshireman, had felt curiously at home. Darker faces and, some said, darker hearts were to be found here, and the forests and tangled thickets, haunted by fierce beasts and shy, exquisite birds, had their counterpart, certainly, in the human mind. Utterly simple and infinitely complicated, hideously cruel and deeply compassionate, sombre and childishly gay, patiently vengeful or forgiving as angels—any pair of contradictions you chose could show up in these people.
Feeling never lay numb and, though manners were almost invariably fine and hieratic, they suppressed nothing. Just as a seed, in all that heat and moisture, would grow, blaze with flower and keel over almost while you watched so would a passion, an idea. To cap it all, you could not take a walk without seeing some face of a beauty to stop your breath. A fragment of a ruined temple, half overgrown and forgotten, could stab you with the knowledge of a powerful past, of beauty already mature when the world itself was young; so could the moulding of a face, a trick of carriage or the management of a sari, a foot or hand speak coldly of the antiquity of race, of a sophistication, once perfect, now returned to the unconscious. Ways changed so beautifully slowly, there was time to consider, compare, to see what was happening. Shackled to their earth by a poverty so absolute as to be almost incomprehensible to the Western mind the villagers nevertheless contrived to live, to perform with every property and in the fullest detail the whole repertory of human drama.
Armin had smelt woodsmoke and open drains, cooking spices and gusts of absolute sweetness from temple-trees, paraffin and jasmine oil and drying dung, all early in his Indian days. At first, like everyone else, he had been revolted, often as not choked, sickened, sent swinging his head like a pestered horse to escape the thousand-strong attack of the smells alone. At first, his eyes had failed him, had flatly refused to deal with any more assaults of hard colour, any more exploding sun, or turbid, ceaseless movement. Little by little, however, as he settled down to his new life, as knowledge grew and things became familiar, sympathy grew too. Quite soon the “night soil” and the frangipani went to their places, so that he was neither disgusted by the one nor bemused by the other. It was his first glimpse of acceptance.
Some, clearly, never accepted anything, nor ever would. In the beginning, Armin had willingly joined the chorus which called down anathema on the country and its inhabitants, and so ruthlessly confused cause and effect as, virtually, to blame the destitute for being underfed. He complained as vocally as most, although perhaps more quietly and with more good humour, of heat, noise, crowds, beggars, the condition of animals, and the conspicuous filth. It was not in his nature, all the same, to set limits to things nor to exclude or deny experience: and if “see for yourself” had been one axiom of his childhood, “live and let live” had certainly been another. Occasionally his mother’s amused glance seemed to be on him: no doubt that she would have engaged herself as gaily and completely with the Indian scene as she had with life in the green valleys of her home.
Home and school and university were leagues away now. Armin could scarcely remember one detail of what had been a fairly smooth progress to his first Indian job. He could, however, almost name the day when, so to speak, the brake came off his life. It had been the same time of year, and he walking idly, exploring the old settlement of Barrackpore. It had been a bright cool day, and his steps had taken him over the dry grass and beaten paths of a park creditably modelled on the English plan. He had enjoyed the lapsed classicism of the older bungalows and official buildings, well-placed, dignified and oddly pathetic in their affirmation of orderliness amid the rioting fecundity of the life around them. Flamboyant-trees burned fiercely in a smoke of fine green leaves, the sky was pale and flawless, and the chatter of the bazaar and the musical cries from the river-front twanged pleasantly across it. Armin, at ease in his cool clothes, enjoying his leisure and the mild exercise, felt again the child’s delight at an open world, an unspent coinage of time and went, as a child would go, with the breeze. His ear caught music, measured, emphatic—cymbals and a wailing pipe and one deep drum—and soon, at the corner of a lane between high walls he came up with a funeral party. It was the humblest of funerals and the corpse, who could not afford a coffin, was being carried along under a grubby sheet on two bamboo poles. The sheet was sprinkled with orange and yellow marigolds and, but for the stillness, the unequivocal lifelessness of the figure under it, the cortège looked as unlike an affair of mourning as possible. Ash and streaked vermilion made, here and there, a mask of some faces and the whole effect, for all its colour and the strident, definite music, might have struck Armin as sinister, but for the easy manner of the mourners. They moved in a hasty walk, almost trotting, so that the departed bobbed up and down like a boat in their midst. And they talked; their chatter was muted, but at every note of the music heads turned, brilliant teeth flashed, Armin’s sudden appearance nearly brought the whole thing to a standstill. He bowed gravely, and received smiles, a bow or two in return. There was something at once jolly and slightly abashed about the mourners’ manner which Armin found appealing. It was as though they were apologising humorously for making such a fuss about a dead man and yet saying, with an almost Latin shrug, that surely a good party needed no excuse. Nor was this all: he could sense reverence, and regret. He had no occasion to think that the dead one was going to the fire unmourned. As he fell in at a fair distance behind the cortege, with a tide of darting little boys about his feet, it came to Armin with electric force that people so wonderfully complicated as this could become the object of great love, that he could never come to the end of them. A continuing inability to fit in, to conform, to find a place by the hearth which had worried young Armin almost as much as it had puzzled his schoolmasters, was all of a sudden illuminated. Before, he had been a foreigner in his own world: in this foreign world he might well find himself at home. He followed the corpse to the burning-ghât at the edge of the Hooghly and saw it consumed in white fire and dark smoke, watched every step of the ancient, grim performance until, at last, the ashes were scattered on the river; turned, and with the now subdued or quietly keening mourners, mounted the brick steps, no longer quite an alien, as though something of his own had been burned up and given to that shining flood.
It was during his first spell of leave in Calcutta that Armin, who was staying with some old friends of his uncle, was asked out to dine and dance at the Curzon Club. The elderly couple who had undertaken to entertain the twenty-three year old boy, were finishing a long term of service in India and, though kind and welcoming, were too preoccupied with the business of packing up to go home to do, as they thought, justice to a young man’s entertainment. Accordingly they had worked hard to find hosts for him for a variety of amusing occasions, and this dinner party of the Carl Johnstons’ was to be the plum, the big event of his fourteen days.
The first year in his job had gone well and not an instant of it had Armin found dull. The British have a notable gift for languages, which they traditionally deny, but even among a gifted lot Armin Wensley’s ability for them had been salient from the first. Alone among his kind at Oxford he had made friends with Indian students and tried to learn from them. Later, working for his examinations in London, he had taken lessons from an old Indian with a permanent cold and steel-rimmed glasses. “Urdu, Mr. Wensley, such as I am teaching you, is a classical language, of courtesy and elegance. So. ‘On the highest tree is the ripest fruit. . . . ‘“ For a moment, for Armin, the ruddy gold of mangoes had gleamed through the drizzle down Museum Street. (“No verb can be too irregular for that boy—when he tries,” had groaned his Greek master at school: but Armin had already turned his attention to Chinese.) Now he was concentrating on Indian languages with all his force, and already his superiors were taking notice.
Armin had early seen that a thorough knowledge of languages and their dialects might, one day, guarantee him an interesting life in the Political Service, a choice of jobs which would take him as near as might be to the core of this fantastically stratified land. He wanted passionately to be near the heart of the country, as deep down and far removed as possible from the genial surface of its European life.
To govern a very large country with very few people intelligence, in two senses of the word, is needed. The Political Service existed to keep an ear close to the ground, and frequently worked in unconventional ways to do so. Armin believed he could promise himself a professional life in no way dull, with which could be combined imaginative and emotional researches of his own: but of these things he did not propose to speak at the dinner-table.
Armin, for fun, rode in an open carriage to the Curzon Club. Sitting up straight on cracked black leather, he peered to either side of the burly, cotton-clad driver as they clattered down Chowringhee. The evening was like a firework display. On his right lay the heavy trees and receding roadways of the Maidan; on his left a continuous explosion of light and shade, stillness and haste. Lights of every colour and degree of brilliancy, low gleaming shops and high blank facades of apartment houses, smart and shabby, new and old, reeled by him—and the crowd streamed past, clotted, thinned, fell apart, and seethed forward again. People walked, ran, stood, sat—even, here and there, lay down. The noise was tremendous, piercing, curiously exciting. Beyond the swish of motor-tyres, the wrenching slither and clash of trams, the ceaseless hooting, there sounded a vast range of voices from growl to high-pitched shout. The chill evening air came to him laden with a sour pungency with sweat and elementary drainage, and the hot smell of his horse. Somewhere, very deep under it all pulsed, only a trifle off the beat of his own pulse, the drums that are never quite still.
Armin felt bereaved of a chance to join in, to wander through the night (not in a dinner jacket) down street after narrowing street to the ultimate quiet kernel of it all. There he might have sat by the hour practising a benevolent stillness, listening, observing, opening his mind and heart to the strangeness which was somehow, to him, not strange at all. But already the noise was diminishing, the lights petering out, as the carriage came to a residential quarter. Soon they swung away to the left down a long empty road, bordered with small trees, and soon again were turning in through white gate posts at the tail of an American car.
The Curzon Club was an expensive preserve of Calcutta’s rich Europeans. Its premises were a wedding-cake villa built lavishly in the days of Edward VII for a minor Rajah who broke himself building it. It had been bought in the twenties by a syndicate of business men who had spent still more money making it remarkably luxurious and, in its way, remarkably good. It was managed by a White Russian called—inevitably—Boris, whose hard, scarred face and impenetrable black eyes were alarming and impressive. It had, as well, a White Russian cook who, never having known anything different, continued to provide eight-course dinners with an interval in the middle for a sorbet and a Russian cigarette. The carpets were inch-deep, there was plenty of white paint and gilding, and curtains of red silk were looped and swagged over windows and doors. At every angle wonderfully alert servants in scarlet sashes were stationed—so many that the place looked crowded even when empty of members. All the chandeliers were too big for the rooms.
Armin stood at gaze in the hall, overwhelmed by this splendour, the catherine-wheel colours and the diadems of light. It was Ruritania at its best. A man who had entered just ahead of him turned and, seeing Armin’s astonished expression, said:
“By Monte Carlo out of Margate. Come to the East and see the Gorgeous West.”
“It’s pretty spectacular, isn’t it?” said Armin.
The man gave a slightly disagreeable smile and lifted one shoulder, but did not answer. He was staring at Armin in an odd, interrogative way, at once bold and diffident.
“Are you, by any chance, dining with the Johnstons?” he asked. Armin nodded. “Then come and have a drink. We’re the first to arrive.”
Armin followed him politely into a room off the hall where there was a long bar presided over by yet another Russian, a Georgian this time, with a wicked twinkling eye and an operatic moustache. Here they could drink and keep an eye on the new arrivals.
“Champagne cocktails,” said the other man, without asking Armin his preference.
“I’m Micky Goodwin,” he said. “And you’re . . . ?”
“Friend of Carol and Laura’s?”
“No, I’ve never met them. They very kindly asked me, to take me off the Peytons’ hands.”
“You’re staying with the Peytons?”
“Yes,” said Armin. “Till next Saturday.”
“Is old Hugh Wensley any relation?”
“Yes. He’s my uncle. Tell me,” Armin went on hastily, tired of this catechism, “tell me something about the Johnstons. Who else will be coming?”
Goodwin said “Bless you” and took a mouthful of his drink. “The Johnstons are Carl Johnston and Laura his wife. Years ago Carl was plain Charlie, but times change and bank balances with them—in Charlie’s case for the better. A very influential man.” Goodwin was looking into his glass and might, from the set of his mouth, have been sucking a lemon.
“Laura,” he went on, “ Laura, now, is in this one’s opinion the loveliest woman in the world and the best, and Charlie—I mean Carl—is, as we provincials say, a very lucky man. Yes, indeed-o. You shall see for yourself. And as to the other guests, there will be about eight of them, as usual, and the belle of the ball will be, as usual, the incomparable Flavia Greenwood, followed at a resentful distance by Henry, her young husband. She is nineteen: married only last year—a pile of broken hearts, you may believe, when that happened.”
Goodwin had a rapid, uneven way of speaking, as though he stopped to listen to every fourth word. He kept glancing quickly at Armin and as quickly away again. His long, lined face had a wedge-shaped chin and a wide, calm forehead quite at variance with the grimacing mobility of the rest. His eyes were pale and restless and his two top front teeth abnormally long. He seemed to have difficulty in keeping his hands still, as though he were suppressing a need to gesticulate or caress. The good-pal appellation “Micky” seemed to Armin unusually inappropriate here. Goodwin’s appearance was elegant, even dandified. Thin, squareshouldered, he moved as though he were dancing, turned his head with something of an actor’s concern for the effective light. His clothes, his linen, the sapphire and diamond buttons in his soft shirt, looked powerfully expensive, carefully chosen, rare.
“Who the others are,” went on Goodwin, “won’t matter much. They’ll just be fill-ins: and there’s always dear old us, is there not?” and he gave Armin a greedy smile which Armin could almost feel as a hot hand on his cheek.
“What a pretty name—Flavia Greenwood,” Armin said, for something to say.
“Pretty indeed,” said the other, rolling his eyes. “Pretty, pretty, pretty. Greenery-yallery Flavia Greenwood. My vegetable love. . . . Now you make a joke,” and he fixed Armin with a full and glittering stare.
“It’s a great life if you don’t waken,” said Armin, who saw no reason not to keep his end up.
“Brilliant,” said Goodwin, in a flat voice. “Brilliant, but altogether too true, dear boy, to be funny. Particularly in Calcutta. . . .” He gulped the rest of his drink and called for more. “Flavia Greenwood,” he said, “is the Toast of British India, and Henry Greenwood is the heir to Greenwood, Bellenger and Company. I see nothing but happiness for the fortunate pair: nothing at all but . . . nothing. Why, here they come.”
For the next twenty minutes there followed the usual confusion of handshakes and smiles, words of greeting blunted by shyness, introductions missed and taken and, finally, an uneven surging movement over the yielding carpet a long way in to dinner. It was not until everyone had been seated, and a new set of splendours taken in, that Armin’s kaleidoscopic view steadied on the party as a whole. All twelve were at one round table, still centre of a brisk, noiseless whirl of scarlet and white and gold as the servants, passionately dexterous, came and went.
The night outside was fresh, for Calcutta: but inside the Curzon Club the air was hot. Armin, used to more comfortable clothes, was already finding his “tropical-weight” dinner jacket oppressive. Turning to the woman on his right, he found her already talking to the man on hers. At Armin’s left young Mrs. Greenwood was engaged with her host. No need, then, to remark on the place or the weather or the great flat fountain of orchids in the middle of the table. Armin could drink clear soup in peace for a few minutes and watch his fellow-guests. Flavia Greenwood’s red-golden head, with the lively drake’s tails and curls in its short crop, was bent almost obsequiously towards Carl Johnston, at whose right she sat. Thickly crusted diamonds flared sharply in her bracelets: her still-childish wrists looked manacled by them. Beyond the sweet complementary curves of Flavia’s neck, cheek and brow jutted the uncompromising raw red of Carl Johnston’s face, a thick, clipped black moustache, a bald forehead hedged with wiry hair. His laugh came loudly, frequently, neither mirthful nor friendly, but full of a purposeful gusto, as though for him enjoyment were an activity, like another, in which to thrust and excel. Parties such as this truly meant for him, perhaps, the fruits of his labours, to be demolished with appetite in the recollection of others and the anticipation of more to come: and in the recollection, full of savour, of a time when there were no such fruits at all. “Not a reflective character,” thought Armin, “but quick and certain and strong in his own world as a cobra, and about as likeable.”
Carl Johnston could congratulate himself. He sat between two remarkably pretty girls, one—Flavia—better than that, really beautiful, beyond what her extreme youth and health and angel-childishness had in their own right. “Nothing to her, probably,” Armin thought, “but who’d care, with that to look at? Vacant, lovely eyes—nobody there at all—and married to Henry of all people. . . .” Johnston’s other neighbour, Cynthia Something-Clark—Armin had failed to catch three names this evening—was pretty as a peach, young as Flavia, and benignly radiant: the kind of English beauty the exiled dream of. Just “finished” in Paris, she was full of poise, an elaboration of manner made appealing by an unfinished hoydenism breaking through. To Johnston’s pointed, unremitting banter—directed equally at both girls—this one responded jovially, looking as if she might easily romp out of her party manners and start throwing bread. On her left was Micky Goodwin, who looked yellow and a little incongruous between Cynthia and another girl, her double almost, known now to Armin as Diana Something. How old is he?” Armin wondered to himself. “Thirty-five? Ancient as hell in some ways and miserable—for good reasons, possibly. Too clever by half, poor chap, to be happy in this particular corner. Worrying—but not negligible.”
The woman on his own right, Armin knew, was called Mrs. Curtis: he had her angry-looking husband directly opposite, moodily drinking his soup while darting unhappy eyes about under hairy white eyebrows. Elderly, unattractive, cross and in some way, it could be seen, indignant, the wife dry, watchful, thin-mouthed—this couple lacked ease, were not well dressed nor beautiful, nor obviously rich. With the three Miss Somethings and a Captain Percy—temporary A.D.C. to the Governor, temporarily sulking because Greenwood had claimed his hostess first—they must represent the fill-ins of whom Micky Goodwin had spoken. They might also be there to enhance Carl Johnston’s ebullient prosperity, pressed down and overflowing. Armin did not expect much from the Curtises. Divided from Mr. Curtis by the third Miss Something—called Joan, Armin believed—sat Henry Greenwood, at his hostess’s right, striking in his way as individual a note as Micky Goodwin.
The Johnstons had brought the Greenwoods with them so Armin had had time to look at and talk a little with all four before the Curtises, the Miss Somethings and Captain Percy—murmuring about “a last-minute for H.E.”—arrived to displace the atmosphere. It had not occurred to Armin, while Micky Goodwin was talking about him, that this might be the Henry Greenwood he knew. Henry Greenwood belonged to Armin’s time at Oxford; they had, indeed, admired, without particularly liking, the rich, clever, rather flashy young man whose cars and horses and elegant dinner-parties were even then a phenomenon, away from the norm. It had never occurred to Armin in those days to enquire into Greenwood’s origins, although, if he had known that they included India, he would probably have felt more drawn to him. They had got on well enough, all the same, when they came across each other at parties and dining clubs. Once or twice he had heard Greenwood make a speech, floridly, authoritatively, with a Disraelian richness to match his splendid clothes. Once or twice they had met as fellow-guests in country houses, where Armin had been as much amused as exasperated by the unshakable poise, the rather ostentatious good manners of someone who seemed, at twenty, never to have been a boy at all. He had noticed before that the children of the rich often seem to spring fully armed into the life of the world, as though born equipped with gold watch-chains and an instinct for pretty women and port. Henry Greenwood had come up to Oxford late, having spent an after-school year travelling somewhere—presumably in luxury. He was in his second year when Armin was a freshman: there must have been at least three years between their ages.
The Henry Greenwood who was now sitting across the table to Armin’s right had changed astonishingly. Although he had surprised nobody who knew him well by getting a First in Classics, he had never formerly looked like anybody’s idea of a classical scholar, or indeed a scholar of any kind. It interested Armin greatly to see, now that he had reencountered Greenwood in a milieu which he would once have thought perfectly suitable for him, if a little limited, that Greenwood himself was trying, consciously or otherwise, to look as out of place as possible. Man of the world in Oxford, he contrived to look distracted, student-like, in Calcutta. His clothes, still well-made and hanging well on a handsome frame, had an uncared-for sat-in look that Armin thought might perhaps be studied. His fair hair, longish and rather dry, looked tangled. He had on the kind of very soft white shirt whose collar, inevitably, curls up after an hour of wearing, and his tie was crooked and off-centre. Armin would not, normally, have wanted to judge any man by his clothes, but to see Henry Greenwood, that blood of bloods, become so careless, and in so short a time, interested him strongly. Then there was the face, no longer high-coloured, smooth, displaying arrogance, self-confidence and a slightly too exuberant well-being. Greenwood was pale now, with a fair man’s light tan, and his whole face seemed narrower, longer, fuller of planes and shadows than Armin remembered. A broad forehead, a rather large nose, a wide mouth, strong cheekbones and a delicate pointed chin—“Different shape, different colour, different chap!” thought Armin. “Perhaps he’s been ill . . . or started to think.” As Armin studied him, Greenwood was shifting his long torso to and fro—leaning forward, leaning back, flinging out an arm to crook the angle of his chair, recalling himself, sitting up straight for a moment, then moving again with a jerkiness which looked, even across the table, nervous in the extreme. He was talking to his hostess, but he could not keep his eyes on her; his soup he scarcely touched; every few seconds his glance sprang back across the flower-laden cloth to Flavia and her torch of hair.
Henry Greenwood might have altered inwardly as much as he had changed in appearance, but the old lavishness still surrounded him. Married to one notably beautiful young woman he could, it seemed, afford to neglect another. Armin saw Laura Johnston begin a sentence, observe that she had once again lost Henry’s attention and, with a quick amused glance across the table, turn towards the soldierly Captain Percy on her left. It was the movement of a swan, but not haughty, simply beautifully controlled, hasteless, right. Armin stopped breathing for a moment. Such a wealth of whiteness—neck and shoulders—the broad straps of a perfectly plain black dress enhanced it: but not a swan’s whiteness, nothing cold. Her colouring, even from ear to fingertip, was something beyond race. The other girls at the table, rosy now in this kind light would, Armin knew, suffer in the harsh sun, grow pale and pink-eyed in the heat. Laura Johnston’s was a radiance never met with, warm moonlight, belonging to a world between the poles of light and dark. Armin remembered a young Greek girl who had travelled on his ship to Port Said. She, too, had had this wonderful pallor, this shadowed, glossy perfection of skin. “Another substance altogether,” Armin told himself. The swan image persisted, though: she was dark-browed as a swan. Her eyebrows were velvet-thick, unplucked, and while the other women had hair cut short, crisply waved and mechanically neat, she had it to her shoulders, tumbling darkly, held by a broad black ribbon. Armin’s stocktaking gaze had come to rest. The band had begun to play, the dining-room had filled up, plates were being changed. All sounds receded from Armin, all the light in the room became concentrated on Laura, seemed now to come from her.
“I said, don’t you think those orchids are beautiful?” a peevish voice spoke in Armin’s right ear.
Armin hastily put down his spoon, which he was holding in the air, and turned a guilty face to Mrs. Curtis. He stammered:
“Magnificent. I was wondering where they came from.”
“Oh, from the hills, somewhere.”
“Do you know what they’re called?”
“Orchids!” Mrs. Curtis gave him a sharp look, imputing stupidity.
“ . . . I meant: what kind of orchids?”
“Good gracious, young man, I don’t know their wretched name. They’re just orchids. When we give a dinner I simply say to my khansama, ‘Orchids, please, Ghulam Mohammed’—and he gets them from the market. I must say, these greeny-white ones are very pretty.” She sounded grudging, as though she thought her hostess had cheated somewhere. “I must ask Mrs.—I must ask Laura where she gets them.”
Foie gras was in front of them now, with Sauce Cumberland. Armin took a forkful. He liked the contrast between the smooth melting goose-liver and the sharp tastes of orange and cranberry, the hot with the cold. Mrs. Curtis pushed with her fork, a hostile, probing movement. She said:
“I can’t stand messed-up food. Foie gras is all right, but this jammy stuff quite ruins it.”
Armin wondered where, if anywhere, they were going to find safe ground. Children? She looked less than motherly: he dared not ask. Work? House? Servants? The pleasures of Calcutta? Servants seemed a safe bet.
“Isn’t the service good here?” he said. “I’ve never seen so many servants, even in India! Do you notice how they never get in each other’s way?”
At this she turned on him a look of total amazement, maliciously amused. On either side of her thin, leathery face long earrings hung like question marks, they pulled heavily at the lobes of her ears. The whites of her eyes were yellowish, her hair a desiccated frizz. She bared her teeth and looked, Armin thought, like a camel that knows something to another camel’s disadvantage.
“Servants!” she exclaimed, at the end of a breath. “My dear boy, don’t speak to me of servants.” Armin wished he hadn’t but found, after a minute, that he had at least hit on a topic which would keep Mrs. Curtis talking. Glancing across the table to his left, he found Goodwin’s feverish eyes on him, but did not return his sneer of complicity. Armin looked down at his food and, perforce, listened.
There was nothing, it appeared, to be said for Indian servants although much could be said about them. To call them inefficient, grasping, idle, full of subterfuge and not infrequently murderous was only to touch on the matter. Volumes more could be spoken; very likely would be, too, thought Armin, unless somebody rescued him. He did note, though, an ambivalence in Mrs. Curtis’s attitude, for it seemed that in addition to their many evil qualities, Indian servants were also honest, intelligent, amusing, brave and passionately loyal to people who really understood them. Mrs. Curtis’s dear old khansama, for example, was the very pattern of the old family retainer, a Dickens character of whom it was known that he would die for Mrs. Curtis without a second thought. She rhymed on giving, in counterpoint, histories—bad and good—of bearers and sweepers and night-watchmen, of butlers and cooks. Armin’s attention wandered.
It was plain that Micky Goodwin was drinking too much. At the start of the evening he had already been mildly tight, elaborate in manner and diction, probably less than usually discreet. Armin could not quite hear what Goodwin was saying to Diana, the girl on his left, but he was speaking with some emphasis, making her a speech in fact, and she was looking uncomfortable, a little plaintive, out of her depth.
A turban of prawns came and went and Armin learned that shellfish were poison to Mr. Curtis. Flavia Greenwood turned to him eventually and he found her restful when she answered his gently-spoken random remarks and questions with breathless little unfinished sentences of her own. Her eyes, which were as near green as eyes can ever be, shone with a tender brilliance. Armin thought: “She doesn’t see me at all; she’s not even looking at Henry; what does she see?” At close quarters the perfectly balanced, softly glowing little face looked curiously exposed. It said nothing, seemed only fragile, as though it might be of a stuff not strong enough for the harsh writing of experience. Perhaps the writing would never come. Henry’s great wealth and the love and approval of her world might be a glass bell to preserve Flavia’s wax-flower colouring unfaded and unbruised. Yet . . . there was something about the girl which troubled Armin even while his senses were, so to speak, all in reverse, reaching beyond his right shoulder to where Laura sat. It was partly the over-eager way in which Flavia had turned to him and her present pose as they talked. She was giving more of herself, it seemed to Armin, than it would be wise for any young married woman, let alone such a blazing beauty, to give to any stranger. Everything about her attitude, the supple twist of her torso from the small waist, the upward thrust of her bosom, the narrow hand pleating a fold of tablecloth midway between them, made it seem as though the girl’s body knew more than her mind. “A young head on old shoulders,” thought Armin, and found the thought macabre. What he sensed he could not, somehow, ascribe simply to adolescent candour. A hint of the same feeling had come to him on first seeing her lean so submissively towards the bull-like Carl Johnston at the beginning of the meal. Glancing swiftly to his right, he again caught Henry Greenwood’s intent stare focussed on his wife. Henry was worried, there could be no doubt of it, and Armin was beginning to see why.
Duck with olives, saddle of lamb, bombe prâlinée, avocado pears with green mayonnaise—the dinner wound on in prerevolutionary magnificence. After the duck came the ritual sorbet, flavoured with mangoes; tasting it, Armin was transported instantly to childhood summers. Sometimes when his parents were giving a dinner party his nurse had smuggled upstairs a couple of water ices. They had been like melting snow, insubstantial, slipping over their small crystal plates, haunting the palate a long time.
“The cook here,” said Mrs. Curtis, “makes his menus far too long. I’m sure these poor girls are dying to dance.” She swivelled a look of insincere compassion from one to another.
“That may well be,” thought Armin, noting how even Cynthia’s lambent good nature was overcast by Goodwin’s excited talk, how desperate Diana was becoming in her efforts to get a smile out of Mr. Curtis, and how glumly Joan, abandoned by Henry Greenwood, was staring at her plate.
Laura Johnston was talking to Henry Greenwood again. Armin, when his eyes could rest on her, felt fall away from him all extraneous sensation, all speculation, all sense of past and future. All that he was, just then, was fixed on that one life, that breathing, moving, effortlessly and endlessly beautiful pattern of dark and light, eyes, limbs and hair. He had, in a way, come home. He felt completely peaceful, satisfied, fulfilled, simply looking at Laura. It was the peace, though—he half knew—of the swimmer who, tired, comes to rest on a slip of warm sand, luxuriating in the sunlight and the end of fighting with the waves, yet knowing that beyond lies more tumultuous water, a longer way to go, a less certain shore.
Armin’s eyes were filled with Laura, his stomach contracted with a sweet pain. When Mrs. Curtis’s acid head-notes again penetrated his ears with, “Laura’s looking lovely tonight, isn’t she?” he knew he had given part of the game away. For the next few minutes he strained every nerve towards Mrs. Curtis, telling her his age, his first impressions of India, something about his job.
“Better not let Arthur know you’re with the Government,” said his neighbour with a bitter smile. “I’m afraid Arthur hasn’t much time for Government: he says it only exists to make the businessman’s life a burden to him.”
“I’m sorry,” said Armin: across the table he caught the hot eye of Arthur Curtis who, half-hearing his name, had sent over a glance packed with suspicion. “I don’t believe that’s the intention.”
“Oh, I’ve no patience with them,” announced Mrs. Curtis. “The Viceroy and the Governors are all right, of course, and some of the army people, but it’s these Civilians with their endless rules and regulations. White babus, that’s what Arthur calls them.”
“I’ll bet he does,” Armin said inwardly and, aloud, “I’m sorry?”
“Is Sir Hugh Wensley any relation of yours?” repeated Mrs. Curtis fiercely: Armin’s inattention, she seemed to say, was a sign not merely of bad manners, but of downright idiocy.
“Yes . . . yes, he’s my uncle.”
There was a pause. Mrs. Curtis readjusted her expression perceptibly. When she spoke again it was with slightly more warmth. “So you’re the Chief Secretary’s nephew. Well, I must say, Arthur will be interested to hear that. You must have a talk together, you two, some time when you’re not dancing.”
“Lord,” thought Armin, “I suppose we must.”
He could tell that Laura was becoming a little anxious about her party. They were not finished with dinner yet, but the social wheels were noticeably beginning to stick. Armin saw her lay a hand on Greenwood’s sleeve, halting him in his talk, and murmur something which caused him to fling round in his chair and bend a sulky face over the girl on his right. The girl appeared both relieved and grateful, but to Armin the little performance had everything about it of clever-undergraduate bad manners; not those, however, of the kind of clever undergraduate Henry had once been.
Carl Johnston leaned sideways across Flavia to ask how Armin was enjoying himself. His right arm pressed full against Flavia’s round breast, but the rapt serenity of her expression did not alter, nor did she withdraw. Carl’s white teeth gleamed with a geniality his eyes did not seem to sharp Armin, while he answered pleasantly, felt again a chill of dislike for this forceful, greedy face jutting forward at him, for the loud laugh, the loud voice, the cocky, molesting selfassuredness of the man. No one, he thought, had any right to be so sure of himself. Carl Johnston was set on a straight track, at great speed. He was like a charging bull—you might trick him, sidestep him, but you could never bring him to a halt.
“You knew young Henry at Oxford, didn’t you? Great family, the Greenwoods. His father and I were friends for years. Greenwood, Bellenger’s a great business—biggest thing in India of its kind.”
Under the marked American overlay in Johnston’s voice Armin could detect a thinner, flatter, Cockney note, more Charlie than Carl. “ Great” was one of Johnston’s favourite words. Its antithesis was “lousy”. Very rapidly and loudly he regaled Armin with a brief history of India, touching on its present troubles, mentioning Gandhi. The latter was not great in Mr. Johnston’s opinion, nor was the Government in letting Gandhi get away with it.
“Mark my words, Wensley, there’ll be real trouble one day,” Carl growled across the unblinking Flavia.
“The real trouble began long ago,” said Armin quietly—so quietly and in so unintentionally cold a voice that Carl stopped and looked askance at him. Hell, thought Armin, “I’m not playing the right game.”
“Oh I wouldn’t say that,”—the bull was charging once more. “When you’ve been in India as long as I have, you’ll know the difference between—well—just ordinary bloody-mindedness and the real thing. Oh no, I’m not really worried. It’s an infernal nuisance, of course, at times, and the Government’s lousy handling—”
When Flavia suddenly said: “Please not to wrangle over my dead body,” Armin was grateful to her. The word “body” instantly reminded Carl of pleasanter things, put him back in his party mood. He ran his eyes rapidly over the girl and was just about to come out with something apposite when Micky’s voice, pitched deliberately high for all to hear, cut in on them:
“I always say this place smells of hot food and cold women.”
Carl said: “Shut up, Micky. We’re enjoying ourselves.” Armin looked across at Goodwin who was leaning his chair backwards, hands in pockets, looking positively malevolent. The girls on either side of him were edging away as far as they could, eyeing him with frank disapproval, tinged with outrage. If their skirts had been more voluminous they would have drawn them aside. Each had been hard put to it to endure her neighbour all evening: this was the last straw. Micky looked, for all the concentrated venom of his expression, uncommonly like the professionally naughty boy at a children’s party, and the girls like nice, shocked little girls. Laura’s laughter, unforced, deep-toned, came down the table.
“Micky, you’re impossible!”
Armin was surprised at the look of affection on her face—of affection mixed with something he could not name: pity? regret?
“You’re an odious wretch and now you’ll have to ask me to dance, to teach you. Henry and Cynthia will waive the the rules, won’t you, my dears?”
Henry Greenwood’s assent was an enormous shrug and jerk of his head. Coffee was before them now and a few couples were already dancing. Armin watched Micky rise from the table with something like enthusiasm, looking momentarily smoothed-out, eager. Hardly had Laura pushed her chair back than Carl Johnston was up, pulling at Flavia’s. In a moment they were off round the floor. For a second Henry Greenwood looked furiously angry—he had started from his seat obviously meaning to dance with his own wife. Now he recollected himself and without any particular grace offered himself to Joan. The instant they were all dancing, brown hands, infinitely deft, twitched, swept, shook out, replaced and straightened everything to do with their table, leaving it like new.
After he had quartered the floor five times, Armin’s turn came with Laura. A slow foxtrot was being played with a nagging drum accompaniment which touched in Armin the same deep nerve as the tom-toms always did. Laura hung lightly on his hands, moving with the swimming grace he now expected of her. Her hand in his was fine-boned, silky and cool. Through the close-fitting satin of her dress her body’s warmth irradiated his other hand. He held this on her ribs, a little below her heart, fearing to clutch and crumple the back of her dress with fingers suddenly grown hot. They danced well away from one another, and with candid, dark eyes, warmly interested, she studied his face as they talked. Cynthia had pressed her solid young body confidingly to him, Mrs. Curtis had danced like a reaping machine, sawing and dipping, Flavia—Armin was now quite convinced about Flavia—had succumbed completely to the music, forcing her pelvis against his and leaning backwards in his arms, almost swooning. Armin had seen her dance thus with Carl, with Micky, even with Arthur Curtis. Only with Henry had she stood up straight, looking flushed and cross while he seemed to lecture her urgently in a low voice. With Laura Armin found he could both dance and talk.
“I’m afraid I’m not very good at this,” he began conventionally: he had never more desperately wanted to acquit himself well.
“You’re as good as gold,” said Laura with a sweet ambiguity. “No hostess could wish for a more stalwart performer. Was it fun with Mrs. Curtis?”
“She feels rather strongly about Government servants.”
Laura laughed: “She gets that from her husband. She’s a dear, really, once she’s used to you.”
“She may not be quite used to me yet . . . . And anyway my trouble is I’ve no small talk. It isn’t even so much that I talk big, but somehow every topic I think of has enormous implications, so that the only thing to do is sit right down on the floor and discuss it for days and nights on end.”
Laura kept a straight face, although her eyes were ironical. “You are a serious chap, I expect,” she said. “Is that what you are?”
“And a prig, and a bore, and worse, I daresay,” said Armin. “Don’t get enough gay society is really it, I suppose.”
“Shame,” said Laura. “And not so tragically old, either.”
Armin’s heart suddenly beat violently so that he gasped as he said: “I’m twenty-three.” Laura was older than he certainly, but not much older. Even so, Armin knew that for many women this was the wrong way round. He was in terror that Laura would think him too young. What he might be too young for was an idea as yet unformulated in Armin’s conscious mind. He only knew it mattered to him more than anything, at present, that Laura should accept him, somehow, into her life. A kind of despair rose up in him: Laura’s few years’ advantage must make her, would have made almost any girl, so much more experienced, settled, worldly-wise. What had his twenty-three years to offer her?
Armin was not vain of his looks. Hard-working and passionately curious about everything in his Indian world, he was, in fact, unselfconscious to a degree. Others, however, were conscious of him. His superiors noted his gift for languages, outstanding even in a brilliant lot, noted his powers of self-effacement, and marked him for an important future. Women liked him, especially the older ones, finding themselves much disturbed by a straight nose, large grey eyes, a thin body for ever on the move, and a clear, subtly expressive speaking voice. Men generally liked his intelligence, his quiet manner and the enthusiasm always breaking through it. Such as did not like him found his seriousness suspect, took his ability to talk lucidly for glibness, pronounced his attitude to the country and its peoples nosey-parkering and unsound. Not to his face, however. There was about the young Armin an air, entirely unsuspected by himself, of purpose and authority which often obliged people to listen to him in spite of themselves. It was a touch of this that had brought Carl Johnston up all standing, just now, at dinner. Such a quality must militate against perfect popularity; it was, nevertheless, the one thing everyone remembered about Armin Wensley.
Armin and Laura danced in silence for a minute. He would have liked this to go on indefinitely, her light movements matched to his, her body under his hand. His eyes pricked with happy excitement; he looked down at her with an almost regretful kindness which made him seem suddenly less of a boy, loving her for her beauty, for her experience, for not flirting with him, for spreading so much radiance. “She is kind, kind—but not foolishly. She is intelligent, independent, gentle, wise—can I amuse her enough, make her somehow wholly aware of me so that, after this evening, I shall not be just one more name in her engagement book?”
“Armin,” she said, “do you mind if I call you that?—answer me two questions. One, when are you leaving us? Two, what do you like best in Calcutta?
“I have to go to Delhi on Saturday week,” he said.
“And it’s Thursday now. You’ve got nearly nine days. Go on.”
Armin scarcely hesitated between his own inclination and what—she was after all a stranger—might be expected of him. This was a test, for both of them.
“I like—the Market, the animals particularly. I nearly bought a bear for eighty rupees but couldn’t quite see where to put it in the Peytons’ flat. The English Cemetery; the old houses at Alipore; the Chinese restaurant a man in the police took me to, miles of twisting and turning in a rickshaw between cardboard shacks and little shops, and unbelievable food the other end; every sniff and glimpse of colonial good taste and splendour, Government House, the Belvedere, Barrackpore; and the crowded, fly-blown, rollicking, squabbling life that goes on—round and through—demoniac half the time and then suddenly quiet, withdrawn, holy. And the little bazaars and the racecourses, and the trees and the people. . . .” He stopped, smiling.
The music came to an end. Walking back to the table Laura looked thoughtful. When she spoke, it was as if to herself: “We seem to have tastes in common. May I call you tomorrow at the Peytons’? There are one or two things I d like to show you, one or two people I’d like you to meet. Are you booked up completely?”
“Not completely, and almost nothing I couldn’t get out of.” Oh, don’t—” Laura began but, seeing his face, broke off. A slight colour came to her cheeks. “Thank you,” she said, . . . for the dance, I mean.” They went back to their seats at the table.
The band proclaimed an interval. Buckets of champagne appeared. The ladies disappeared to tidy up. Henry Greenwood moved over beside Armin.
“God,” said Henry without preamble, “I can’t take much of this sort of thing.”
“I don’t get much—I’m rather enjoying it.”
“You’re lucky. You’ve a job to do that’s worth something, or thought to be.”
“Well, haven’t you? I seem to have heard a lot about the importance of trade and commerce—raising the standard of life and all that, here and at home.”
Henry frowned. “The standard of life gets itself raised, if it does, with no assistance from me. My firm’s much too big and pompous, it’s been going far too long for anybody to welcome my meddling. Different in my great-grandfather’s day, different in my grandfather’s, but now, God help us, we’re an institution, panelled offices in the city of London, bloody great palace here in Clive Street, every sort of fatwit on the board, and they’ve made it perfectly plain that it’s enough for me to be a Greenwood, the Greenwood, in fact. I’m paid for it, too: I’ve nothing to complain of. I can drink myself to death if I want to, or lose lakhs at the races. They’d love that—give them a chance to look down their Nonconformist noses and congratulate themselves on their wisdom in limiting my powers of control . . . . However,” he went on more slowly, “I mean to surprise them right out of their silk trousers one of these days. I shouldn’t be impatient; I’ve no real need to be—I’ve got twenty years at least on all of them—but just the same I am. They like me to do this sort of thing, blast them: every one of Flavia’s diamonds reflects credit on them. Oh, to hell with Greenwood, Bellenger—let’s talk about England.”
Later, Henry Greenwood said: “You haven’t changed much, I must say—not to look at.”
“I think you have, Henry, quite a lot. What’s happened? You used to seem so completely on top of everything and here, now, as far as I can see you’re still on top, but you don’t look comfortable. Not that I want you to, but you must know that for many people you’re an enviable person—”
“For many people, but not for you—is that it?”
“I didn’t say so. My tastes and habits would be hopelessly distorted, any wretched little candle I could light snuffed out at once by all the things for which you might be envied: but that doesn’t make those things bad. Admit that you once found them highly satisfactory.”
Henry Greenwood slammed round in his chair till the splats cracked. He gave an exasperated sigh. “I’m becoming a pest and a bore,” he said. “Wensley, the truth is that I never woke up until I came back to India, after Oxford. Before that, yes certainly, I played the part you remember and enjoyed every minute of it. I hadn’t been here in Calcutta since I went to England to a prep-school at twelve. I was twenty-two when my father died—here, in the house his father built—and he died just after I’d got here. I had that to deal with, plus every conceivable legal and financial complication, and all this,” he indicated the room and the couples dancing, “to absorb somehow. Almost his last words to me were about Flavia. He said he very much hoped we would marry. I’d never found it difficult to fulfil his hopes—they usually had to do with something I wanted, or thought I wanted. He used to hope I’d get myself a good car, hoped I would hunt fairly often; hoped I’d bring my friends to stay when he was in England. He never seemed to hope that I’d do well at Oxford—my degree was a great surprise to him. In the end he decided it was rather a feather in the Greenwood cap. Now here he was, dying and hoping that I’d marry Flavia. That suited me, of course, better than anything in the world, at the time. . . . Damn, here comes Micky Goodwin. Look, let’s try to see a bit more of each other, shall we? There’s a lot I’d like to tell you.”
Armin, who found that Henry had told him embarrassingly much and who was, consequently, almost grateful for Micky’s intrusion, agreed pleasantly. He wondered if Henry unburdened like this to every chance acquaintance but, remembering his towering, word-eating reserve at dinner, was inclined not to think so. Armin was well accustomed to sudden deluges of intimate revelation, often from complete strangers; he could only suppose that he had what people called a “sympathetic face”. Whatever it was, the results could be agonising. He had wanted to shout “Sit still!” to Henry before going any further with him: but Henry, he could see, was on a bed of nails.
Micky Goodwin stumbled as he tried to take the chair next to Armin and came down hard on the table with one hand. Plates and ashtrays danced, some champagne lapped over, fizzled on the white damask and sank in leaving a leaden stain.
“Singularly rough tonight,” said Micky. He squinted at Armin and Henry, trying in vain to focus both of them together. “Blest pair of sirens,” he breathed.
“Hullo,” said Henry Greenwood coldly, “feeling happy?”
“Couldn’t be more miserable. What about Henry? Gilt’s wearing a bit thin on Henry, old jeunesse dorée. Only person who’s p-perfectly g-gemütlich is this nice policeman. He put a burning hand on Armin’s thigh. Armin shifted his position and the hand dropped away, nearly taking Micky with it.
“He’s not a policeman,” said Henry, frowning at the ceiling over Goodwin’s head.
“Spy then. Lackey of capitalist imperialism . . . imperialist capitalism. Caterpillarism. Creep, creep. . . . Very devious . . . . Nicer than you, Henry.”
“I agree, only that wouldn’t be at all difficult——”
Goodwin’s voice was squelching with liquor, his eyes sticky and importunate. He had his head poked forward as though something weighed on the back of his neck. For all his furry manner he looked irritable and aggressive. His conversation was fuller than ever of caesuras, and a slight stammer had crept in as well. Armin found himself wondering why he didn’t dislike Micky more than he did. There was something pathetic, hopelessly out-of-place and lonely about him. Deep down, also, there was something perhaps justifiably angry, and far from stupid. Strength and weakness, for ever cancelling out, stood in his face where the contrast had become more noticeable still between frantically mobile features and a forehead broad, serious, even noble. Henry’s chilling attempts to brush Micky off or silence him were doing no good at all.
Across the table Carl Johnston and Curtis were engrossed in something more than small-talk. Both looked serious, both spoke emphatically and Curtis continually referred to a notebook taken from his breast-pocket.
“Lovely creatures,” said Micky with a soft snarl. “Carry their boardrooms on their backs like snails.”
“You wouldn’t think, to listen to Micky,” said Henry nastily, “that he was one of the biggest whisky merchants in Calcutta, would you? But he is. Why don’t you face facts, Micky?”
“Same to you, little Henry, with great brass knobs on . . . I know why I think everything’s horrible. You have yet to find out. And don’t—” he suddenly leaned forward across Armin and spoke with fury, “—don’t have the impertinence to tell me what to think. I know, I tell you: you don’t—yet.”
Henry Greenwood shrugged his shoulders and looked away; the movement strongly brought back for Armin the image of the old, lordly Greenwood he had known. They both rose, followed unsteadily by Micky—who attempted a bow and nearly fell on his face—as the first of the ladies came back to the table.
After the next interval Flavia stood for a minute in the doorway looking vague and lost. Carl Johnston rose swiftly to join her, but instead of dancing they went out again—to the bar, so Laura explained to a rigid-faced Henry Greenwood.
“Why don’t we all go to the bar?” she asked them. “It’s time, I’m afraid, to think of going anyway—Carl’s got to get off to Bombay in the morning—then we can arrange about lifts and things.” She had an eye on Micky, now fixed and silent, too far gone to be with them all any longer in a sociable sense. He was kicking rhythmically at the rail of his chair and gazing at Laura with a kind of squiffy devotion. Armin observed that Micky would accept an influence on his behaviour from Laura, if from no one else.
Armin had been talking to Mr. Curtis, while Mrs. Curtis threshed the floor with Henry.
“I very much doubt whether young Greenwood will amount to much in Calcutta,” Curtis had said, after a headshaking scrutiny of the young man. “Not got his father’s qualities at all, I’m afraid . . . . Of course he was brought up like a prince, and that’s bound to tell. If he’d been my boy I’d have had him back here directly after school and put him right through the business. That Oxford stuff’s all very well, but a firm like G.B.’s a great responsibility. Luckily they’ve got some first-class men on the board. Whatever Henry gets up to he can’t do much harm.”
“Why should he do any harm at all? He’s unusually able, surely: and his Oxford record was remarkable.”
“A degree in Classics?” Curtis’s bloodshot eyes had a jeering look. “All right for a hobby, my boy—although it wouldn’t be mine—all right if he was going to be a Professor or something; but this is a hard-headed world, and even a firm like G.B. has to keep on its toes.”
“I don’t mind betting,” said Armin, who was beginning to feel too tired to be polite, “that Henry’s great-grandfather wouldn’t have seen any incompatibility. And he was a pretty good thug by all accounts, or Merchant Adventurer, according to how you look at it.”
His rudeness had its effect. Mr. Curtis’s meaty complexion darkened; he looked shocked and hostile.
“Now see here, young man,” he said. “You’re a Government servant and you’re new to India. Probably think it’s a wonderful country, eh?—lots of brown brothers all being exploited by selfish nabobs, eh? Well, let me tell you, you won’t get very far, either in or out of the Service, if you go around belittling the achievements of the men who made our Empire great. It’s people like Greenwood, Bellenger that really count in this country, whatever you highbrows may think up in Delhi. It’s people like Henry’s father and Carl Johnston here who keep white prestige going and British interests to the fore, when all you Clever Dicks would be handing everything back on a plate tomorrow, if you were let.”
“Well, this certainly serves you right,” said Armin to himself. Aloud he said, with a smile: “You mustn’t jump down my throat, Sir. I meant what I said—that Henry’s great-grandfather grew up in a day when Latin and Greek were highly regarded. He’d have been almost certain to combine a respect for them with—with a first-class sense of opportunity. I think,” he went on hastily, “that it would be unfair to Henry to think him less effective because his tastes and achievements aren’t exactly his father’s.”
“Then he’ll have to pull himself together,” said Arthur Curtis, “and learn to take his place here. People who work with him tell me he asks too many questions, has too many opinions altogether for a boy of his age. Always wanting to know why this and why that and can’t we do the other? Kicked up the hell of a shine only last week about pay-scales—thought some of his native clerks weren’t getting enough; wouldn’t believe it when they tried to explain about upsetting the system and making life difficult for everyone else. He’s read far too much, that’s his trouble, and not done enough. My wife tells me he’s rocking the whole servant market here by paying his house-staff just twice what they’ve always been used to. No, if he wants to fill his niche and be a popular, useful member of society over here, he’ll have to toe the line a lot more than he’s done so far.”
“And of course,” thought Armin, “the filling of niches and toeing of lines aren’t any part of Henry Greenwood, poor chap.”
Who would win in the end? Would Henry have the strength to shake this hard-arteried body into a new life? Or would “they” break him? Or would he escape through one of the ever-available side-doors—drink, gambling, biggame hunting? And where would Flavia lead him? “A pity I can’t stay and see this out, but it’s Henry’s problem and I’m glad it’s not mine. Yet it is mine, in one sense; and, in another, it isn’t only Henry’s. . . .”
They had all begun to file out of the room, skirting the dance-floor, when Micky, who had remained seated, realised what was happening. He scrambled up, pulling at the tablecloth, knocking a glass off it, which broke under the dancers’ feet. Then he, too, wove his way towards the door, but by the more direct method of going straight, or as straight as he could manage, across the floor. Armin, looking back, saw him crash into one couple, say a few haughty words and continue on his way, leaving the man clearly in two minds about following him and starting a row; he saw the woman make restraining movements, saw the man shrug and give in, saw them dance away with angry glances behind them at Micky’s lurching figure. When he came up with Armin, the latter put his arm through Micky’s: “Let’s go and get a breath of air,” he said.
“B-breath of champagne, you mean, mon cher. N-nothing like it for cooling fevered brow. Better than that nasty air which . . . breathed,” he wagged a finger, “breathed already by a lot of deleterious Hindus. Can’t think how they d-dare . . .” and he squinted horribly at Armin.
Micky was surprisingly strong and Armin found unavailing his attempts to guide their steps on to the verandah. They entered the bar together. The Georgian was busy filling glasses from a bottle swathed in a napkin. Flavia had a whisky and soda and was laughing ecstatically at something Carl Johnston had just said. Henry Greenwood and Laura were just inside the door, talking in low tones. Laura put out a hand and drew Micky close to her: she smiled at Armin briefly. She said: “Micky, will you take Armin with you and drop him at the Peytons’—Hampshire House, remember? You live nearest.”
Micky bowed. “Such a pleasure, dear lady, if I may just have a thimbleful of your excellent parsnip wine before retiring. I’m sure this old official would like one too. He says the air outside is l-like champagne: for me, at any time, champagne is like air.”
“No more, Micky, there’s a good man. I don’t want you to drive poor Armin up a palm tree.”
Micky turned a slow-motion stare of wonder on all three. Divine creature, he exclaimed. “She c-called me a man!” Henry Greenwood’s face, seamed and dark with ill-temper, took on a savage cast. “That’s a flattering unction for you, Micky”—his voice was rasping.
Goodwin, who had been swaying on his feet, became all at once perfectly still. As Armin watched, his face seemed to grow smaller, older, and suddenly without movement. “Stop spilling your bile over other people,” he said, in an edged, hard, carrying voice. “Any day now—up here,” he touched his own temples, “you’ll see them start to grow: horns!”
Unconsciously Armin had been expecting something violent to happen. He grabbed Micky’s arm and swung him out of reach before Henry’s fist was half way to him. Laura’s voice rang clearly, commandingly: “Henry, I forbid you—” She held his right arm with both hands. Henry’s jaw muscles were working visibly, he was chalk-white and sweating.
“Armin, good night: I’ll get in touch with you. You and Micky go now, will you? We’re all following.” Laura’s smile was like a blown kiss, warm with gratitude and, even in crisis, not without amusement. “Micky, you let Armin drive. It’s all right . . . I love you and forgive you, you monster, which is more than Henry does. No, go, for my sake, please Micky. We’re all going, I tell you.”
Armin sent a vague, valedictory grin round the assembled guests, smiled with all his heart to Laura, and left with Micky, carrying in his head a flashlight picture of them all—Carl with his jaw stuck out, scowling; Henry stiffly apologising, looking shattered, ill; Flavia agape, no longer laughing; constipated disapproval on the faces of Captain Percy and Mr. Curtis; and crystallised shock, once more, on those of the three pretty girls. Only Mrs. Curtis looked alive, avid, full of relish, like a seedy reporter with a scoop.
Micky Goodwin plunged ahead, brushing aside the servants who sprang to open the doors, calling out that he could find his car for himself. The night air seemed, suddenly, infinitely fresh. While Micky fumbled and cursed, trying to find his keys, Armin looked up at the sky pollened with white stars. He shook himself and let out a long breath. “Laura,” he thought, “ah, lovely. . . .”
Eventually Micky got the driver’s door open and fell into his seat. “Do you want me to drive?” Armin asked, without expression.
“I do not,” said Micky.
Armin made his mind a blank about what was coming, suspending judgment, only ready to act firmly if Micky frightened him too much. He took his seat on a wide expanse of grey whipcord and waited while Micky jabbed and scraped with the ignition key at the gadget-encrusted dashboard.
Micky’s Packard was first in the line of cars parked along the Club’s curved carriage drive. When the engine finally started, it was with a whining roar—Micky had his foot on the accelerator. He was muttering: “Not even Laura . . . tell me when . . . when not to drive m’own car. Bloody awful evening, anyway—” They went off with a bound. The gateposts were twenty yards away, presenting the first test of Micky’s scattered powers. “If we don’t hit the gates, and he’s not going too fast to corner, we may—” they were through the gates and at once came a bump, a singing crash and a cry. Goodwin braked so hard that Armin was flung against the dashboard. A bicycle lay in the road, both wheels gleaming in the starlight as they spun. An Indian in European clothes was slowly picking himself up. Micky looked once at him, put his face in his hands and burst into tears. Armin jumped out and ran round the front of the car.
The man was not hurt, not badly at all events. One leg of his white duck trousers was torn to the knee and his sun-hat had bowled away into darkness, for the time being irrecoverable. He was much distressed, however, and would not listen for some time to Armin’s conciliations. “It is not merely the hurt to my body, Sir,” the Indian kept saying, “it is also wrong to rush so, without warning, into the main road. In principle it is wrong, Sir, and most dangerous and unfair.” Armin could not but agree. He took the whole blame himself, apologised warmly, begged the man to accept money for the loss of his hat, the damage to a pedal, the rent in his trousers. In the end they parted on better terms, the Indian protesting that, after all, it was nothing: “A shaking up, Sir. I must thank my lucky stars it was not so fatal.” Armin called goodnight after him as he pushed his bicycle down the dark road, then went back determined to take the wheel from Micky Goodwin.
Micky had moved out of the driver’s seat of his own accord and was now collapsed in the opposite corner, gasping and shivering, with tears streaming down his face. “God, oh, hell,” he was moaning as Armin got into the car, “not that of all things . . . oh why? The only ones I’d never willingly hurt . . . blow the whole bloody lot at the Curzon up, never notice . . . but no, not that—wretched bicycle, Bombay bowler. . . . Oh,” he almost howled, “I wish I were dead!”
“Well, you’re not,” said Armin, shortly, “and neither’s he. Not even hurt, only a bit shaken. He’ll be all right. Now—which way do we go?”
Directions, none too clear, came in gulps from Micky, whose self-condemnatory monologue went on and on through chattering teeth. Armin drove slowly down one dark, curling road after another, enjoying the chance to handle so heavy and powerful a car. It was about one-thirty in the morning and little life was evident. Tree fronds laid patterns of black frost on the luminous blue of the sky; hard glittering stars pressed down like the points of swords. The car slid along as quietly as a gondola; Armin could hear the tyres whispering on the road. Sometimes a figure in a pale glimmer of white cotton clothes could be seen scuttling across a side street or along the shadow of a wall. Three empty rickshaws padded past, going the other way. The air was cool, almost crisp. Armin breathed it in deeply through the open window of the car and with it the teasing inescapable and to him magical scent—half sweet, half rancid—of an Eastern town.
After a while Micky said: “Slow, now, we’re nearly there,” and, leaning across Armin, pressed a button on the dashboard. Three notes sounded—a haunting triplet. Golden and sweet they fell through the air, like leaves on an October day and suddenly, for Armin, the dark, tree-blotted road was a track through a forest in France, the horn a huntsman’s sounding the quarry near.
Armin, at Micky’s direction, slowed down the car, swung it between tall gateposts and stopped at a flight of steps. The long white facade of the bungalow was lit from outside. Yellow light shone through a fanlight over the door. Tall windows with slatted shutters thrown back gave the place an Italian air; a flat roof and a low round dome belonged to the East. The mixture was not incongruous. As Armin stopped the engine and the night’s quiet flowed back, the sound of bolts being drawn came from the house. Double doors were thrown open and a tall figure crowned with the white muslin head-dress of a Pathan stood between them. Micky almost fell out of the car and bundled up the steps. He said something rapidly to his servant and disappeared into the house. Armin followed more slowly, meaning to ask for a taxi, but at the door the Pathan bowed with splendid dignity and led him across a domed hall and into a long drawing-room without giving him a chance to speak.
The room ran the full length of the big bungalow on the far side and, looking at it, Armin forgot his immediate purpose. Its instant effect, after the hectic brilliance of the Curzon Club, was one of coolness and peace. In this room gathering fatigue and irritation fell away from Armin; he no longer wanted to leave immediately for home. It was significantly different from any room he had yet seen. The Peytons’ flat was pleasant, faded, well lived-in, a happy unpretentious jumble of family photographs and chintz and Edwardian furniture from the Army & Navy Stores. Other European houses he had known had been opulent past reason or desire, full of cocktail-cabinets and vast gramophones and curtains swathed and pelmeted like super cinemas. He had known the cleanliness and calm of Indian houses, unadorned, quietly lit: soothing spaces for talk and modest entertainment. This room—it was curious, Armin found himself moving slowly round it, eyeing it from one angle and another—was without obvious pretension, comfortable to the eye and mind. Four tall windows were curtained with a white stuff of Indian make, lightly patterned with grey. The walls were glossy white. Two large square-sided sofas covered in a rough yellow material were at right angles to a flat marble chimney-piece, one on either side. A few dark rugs were thrown at intervals on a polished hardwood floor. A black and white Goanese cabinet, an English Regency sofa table, half a dozen small, plain chairs with coloured seats ranged round the walls, shelves of bright- backed books between the windows from floor to ceiling—this was all. Two glazed alcoves held T’ang porcelain, yellow and white: one tall vase was full of lily-like flowers. Light, low in tone, came from the alcoves and from opaque-shaded lamps on either side of the fire.
The Pathan was kneeling, his dignity unabated, before the wide fireplace where a few long thin logs were laid on andirons. When an even sheet of blue-white flame was streaming upwards, he rose and opened a french window at each end of the room. He closed the curtains again and, approaching Armin, bowed. He was a very tall old man—impossible to guess how old. His movements were a little stiff, but he held himself superbly, so that they had a priestly grace and moment. His face, deeply gouged and scored by time and sunlight, was stern, powerful and intelligent. With his bristling, upswept black moustache and ferocious eyebrows he looked very much a tribesman, undomesticated for all his sleet of white linen and the striped sash and crested badge he wore. Armin spoke to him in his own tongue, asking where he might go to telephone.
“Goodwin Sahib says,” replied the old man, “that you are to wait, Sahib, if you please, a little while. He will return.” Armin was about to insist but refrained, realising suddenly that he was no longer tired, that he did not particularly want to go home, that he did—for some reason—want to talk to Micky again. If Micky were sober enough to talk, that was. Armin thought he had probably gone away so precipitately in order to be sick and so might come back with a clearer head. The old servant went away and Armin crossed the room to look at the books. They made a varied enough collection and Armin who for one reason or another—principally through not being overpaid and having to move about a lot—frequently went short of the books he wanted, felt an uncharacteristic jag of envy. For all his public despair, Micky Goodwin appeared in private to do himself well. There were many books in French and German, a prettily bound set of Proust, much English poetry, some psychoanalytical text-books, some expensive outsize works on painting and the theatre and, among the older ones, volumes of early memoirs, diaries, records of travel, all relating to India.
Armin was looking at McCosh’s Topography of Assam when Micky Goodwin came back, followed by the Pathan with a tray. Micky was in his shirt sleeves, his trousers held up by a black cummerbund. His shirt was open at the neck and Armin wondered: “Is he going to play Hamlet now?” Micky smiled faintly at Armin and went at once to the corner of a sofa near the fire. While the Pathan poured water on to some crystals in a tall glass he stretched out both hands to the fire’s thin blaze. He was given a foaming drink which he drank straight down with a shudder. He gave the glass back to his servant, saying “Thank you, Mir Khan” in a gentle voice and looking up at the old man as trustfully as a child with its nurse. Mir Khan set the tray with ice, whisky and glasses on a table and, withdrew.
Armin went over and stood by the fire. “Take your coat off, why don’t you,” said Micky. “It’s never really cold enough for a fire, only I like to have one. It’s a kind of wood that doesn’t give much heat. Get yourself a drink and sit down, do.” This was a very different Micky from the raging nuisance of earlier on. Coming home he seemed to have sobered phenomenally, gained in dignity, acquired a kind of repose. His eyes had lost their heat and film and now looked, steady and a little withdrawn. He continued to stare into the fire and hold his hands to it: every so often he shivered deeply, but, for the first time this evening, Armin was seeing him relaxed.
Armin listened to the click of the ice in his drink and looked about him peaceably. It was true that the fire gave little heat, for all its fine flame and, sitting in shirt sleeves, Armin was glad of what it gave.
Micky said slowly: “It would be too tedious to apologise at any length for this evening: it would be my ten thousand and first apology, with absolutely no guarantee attached that I won’t be just the same tomorrow night and every night until I succumb to cirrhosis or get knocked on the head. Also, I’ve a feeling that I don’t have to apologise to you: I don’t know, but I suspect—and I’m surprisingly often right—that you are one of those who were born to take it all in. Or if not quite all, at least more than most . . . Tell me, do you like this room?”
“Best of any I’ve seen yet,” said Armin.
“Nice of you. Yes . . . oh yes, if I could only stay here all the time and only see the people I want to see, the world would have no trouble with Michael Goodwin. Good as gold, I’d be. But no such luck. My lines, as they say, are cast elsewhere. Thank you, by the way, for saving my life. Poor Henry, one shouldn’t tease—it’s not really funny, not funny at all. But then, he shouldn’t tease me, should he?”
Armin noted that, for the first time in their short acquaintance, Micky’s face was all of a piece. He had ceased for the time being to contort his mouth, his gaze was direct; he looked alert and humorous and extremely intelligent.
“Furthermore,” he went on, “what I said to Henry, however tactless and unfriendly, was perfectly true. He and Flavia are headed for disaster at an astonishing speed. And I don’t mean any whining, feeble, agree-to-differ divorce case, but a really spectacular crash. Granted the ingredients, the result can only be explosive.”
“Where did Henry find her?”
“Find her! She was here, young queen of all she surveyed, when Henry came out to join his father. She was Flavia Marchant, and I’ve known her since a child—quite without exception the loveliest child I’ve ever seen. Her father was—still is—a director of Greenwood, Bellenger and a bosom chum of the old man’s. The Marchants thought the world began and ended with Flavia and made no secret of the fact from the cradle on. They loved her so much, their little flower, they couldn’t ever bear to send her home to school. As you know, most people try to send their daughters home fairly early, to cool down; otherwise they’re apt to grow up, physically at least, a bit too quickly for Anglo-Saxon ideas, and accidents happen. It’s the climate. . . . The Marchants sent Flavia to school in the hills, but by the time she was seventeen Flavia was not anybody’s little flower any more.” He got up and poured himself some whisky. “Girls like Flavia when they’re born poor soon turn to good account what Flavia did for love—if one may so dignify a rhythmic urge which was as natural to her and no doubt as necessary as . . . Well, anyway, that’s Flavia, the most exquisite mental defective I ever hope to meet.”
Micky’s tone was light-hearted, but there was a look of real regret, a touch of angry distaste, in his eyes. “The poor Marchants! It was only when Flavia had left school and come out, here in Calcutta, that they began to get an idea of her real nature. They hung on loyally, mark you, but this is such a little world—there’s no such thing as a secret—they must have had to recognise the truth, even if only a morsel of what was really there. They hung on, as I said, pathetically hoping that marriage would steady the child and then, sent from Heaven he must have seemed, up pops Henry Greenwood. Marchant was Henry’s father’s greatest friend, and Henry’s father lived in such splendid isolation out at Tollygunge, and occupied such an exalted position, that he wasn’t, not being interested anyway, much troubled with gossip. He and Marchant had always had a joke understanding that Henry should marry Flavia. When Henry arrived and immediately fell in love with the girl, as was only reasonable in a way, the Marchants hardly dared to breathe. And then old Greenwood fell a-dying and, more or less with his last breath, gave the pair his blessing. Well, there was no stopping Henry after that. A difficult chap at the best of times, entêté and entirely accustomed to having his own way. One or two people tried to warn him—I was fool enough to try, myself—and you can imagine what sort of reception they got.”
“How do you come to know all this about Flavia?”
“As Carl would say, ‘when you’ve been in India a bit longer you’ll know that what’s called European society is a perfect sounding board, and even if we kept secrets from each other, there’s always the servants. Bearers and ayahs have a system of communication which would make a Paris concierge seem deaf and dumb. Try it yourself, some time. Sorry, though, I forgot—that sort of thing is partly your business, isn’t it? Should never be surprised to see you turn up, heavily stained with rare juices, helping Mir Khan at a dinner party. He’s already commented favourably on your command of his language.”
Armin laughed. Micky looked mischievous, but for once wholly unmalicious.
“Well, what’s going to happen next—with Henry and Flavia, I mean?”
“Within narrow margins it’s anybody’s guess. Ask Boris at the Curzon Club, ask that polo-playing young Maharajah who shall be nameless—ask Carl Johnston, I shouldn’t wonder. Don’t, however, ask Henry. . . . Armin, you think I’m being callous: you’re wrong. There’s a hell of a lot in Henry that I like and it’s his future that worries me: Flavia’s is entirely predictable and quite uninteresting. Too little happened to Henry for too long and now too much has been happening all at once. India’s happened to him, for one thing: and that might not have been dangerous but for the fact of his birth. Greenwood, Bellenger’s a good deal more than just another prosperous business concern, as I expect you know.”
I know very little about it, except the story everyone here knows, about the original Henry Greenwood.” Arthur Curtis’s angry eyes came before him and he remembered his gaffe at dinner. In truth, though, Armin had always enjoyed the story of the able servant of the East India Company, like himself a younger son without means, who had been sent as adviser to an important Maharajah in the thirties of last century. Wandering about this prince’s territories Greenwood had come upon an upland tract which struck his experienced eye as a likely place for certain profitable crops. Taking advantage of the Maharajah’s known distaste for detail, and with a little legerdemain of his own, Greenwood was able to get the old man’s signature on a document disposing the area he coveted to himself, his heirs and assigns for ever. Upon this piece of inspired sharp practice the first Henry Greenwood had proceeded to build the organisation which now, as Greenwood, Bellenger, owned almost untold wealth in tea and coffee estates and mines of all descriptions in India and Burma, and other interests clear across the world from Chile to Japan.
“Greenwood, Bellenger,” said Micky slowly, “is a world within a world, and a very complete one. In a sense, like all such things, it runs itself—rolls along on its own momentum—and the men who run it don’t have to be very clever or very far-seeing to keep it going. It keeps them going. It’s so big it can’t, as things are, come to a stop—people simply wouldn’t let it. Too many other interests depend on it. All that’s needed is that the men in charge should stick to the rules and know how and when to apply them. It’s come a long way since the first Henry Greenwood, and I’ve an idea he wouldn’t like it a bit if he could see it now. But what’s really important, as I see it—” Micky leaned forward, holding his glass in both hands between his knees “—and this is where Henry’s future comes in—is that Greenwood, Bellenger is an almost perfect symbol of what went wrong with us in India. You see, one can’t dislike people like Henry’s great-grandfather; one can’t really dislike any of the early lot, however ‘unethical’ their conduct may appear to foreigners. Certainly they let go from time to time—shook the pagoda tree—laid about them with fire and sword: but, by God, look what they were up against. And look what the best of them were after—for every brute and scrounger there were a couple of devoted humanitarians, idealists of the deepest dye. And not prigs either, not in the best days anyway: they felt—you’ve only got to read a few of those books over there—oh, I don’t know what in the way of a sense of privilege, of having colossal luck to be in the country, doing a job, at all. Wrongly dressed, wrongly informed, with minus-nothing in the way of backing from home, a tiny handful surrounded by millions mostly hostile, sustained by God knows what inextinguishable little bonfires of energy—they’re awful sometimes, but much more often they’re wonderful. No good saying they didn’t have to come to India. Of course they had to. Listen, Armin, listen to me now, and if I’m still alive in twenty years’ time and the lid hasn’t blown off, come, if you can, and tell me you don’t agree—the whole thing is and always has been a love affair. First and last that’s been what mattered. And it’s taken the course, worse luck, of most love affairs, beginning with persuasion—none too gentle in this case—followed by delighted discovery, mutual esteem, ravishing plans for the future, the first really frightful row, and a long, miserable cooling off into polite bickering punctuated by sharp quarrels and joyless infidelities, each side withdrawing, steadily and continually, more and more of its real self. The first great quarrel, the only one that mattered, was the Mutiny—that wound went deep and we’ve never ceased to bleed from it. Mark you, I think we deserved to suffer, in a way. By then we’d let our character change for the worse. We’d stopped wooing excitingly, violently, with real strength and a lot of poetry. We’d grown a great big bland evangelical face and were going about doing and saying things to people—God forgive us—for their own good. . . . Yet India needs us and we need India, if only as thorns in one another’s flesh. . . . Do I talk too much?” Micky looked suddenly uncertain, almost appealing.
“You talk. But not too much for me. Too much for Mr. Curtis, I should think.”
“Heaven preserve us from him. But it doesn’t. He and his like are my daily bread—which I’m rather good at getting, by the way.”
“I don’t doubt it,” said Armin; there seemed no reason to doubt.
“That was just in case you thought I didn’t know a fact when I saw one. I know what I’ve been saying isn’t scientific—you can’t prove it—but for me it’s a simple truth, you couldn’t say ‘lost sight of’ because it was never seen at the time and . . . oh, well, afterwards there was such a heap of sage observations, reports of commissions, expert opinions, Government blue-books and one thing and another, plus the rank idiocy, bad-faith and hysteria of a lot of Indians, that there wasn’t a hope of seeing anything so naive and uncomplicated. The fact remains that once we sent to India our very best: no talent, no birth, no distinction of mind was too fine to give to this land and its peoples. Men of such commanding ability, such rich character—they weren’t to be contained in organisations; they ramped about all over the place, doing a great deal more good than harm. . . . And a lot of Indians, Hindu as well as Muslim, gave their best to us. Why do you suppose old Mir Khan is content to serve me, Mir Khan who’s a considerable landowner in his own part of the world? Serve me, of all people, who has not one sahibly virtue, whom he could break in half with one hand? Because he admires my race, that’s why. He served my father, he nannied me when I was little. He’s really not a servant, you know: he is an independent country gent who chooses to work for an Englishman because he believes—or believed—that the English are great. Try explaining that to an American! And even there it’s too easy to be sentimental—but love affairs are sentimental: and they’re wonderful as long as they are, and no longer. Never marry anybody for her good, Armin, I beg you. Quite fatal.”
“I won’t. I promise.”
“Well, to go back to G.B. as they all call it. Henry’s great-grandfather was a man, an unscrupulous man, a magnificent opportunist, but where he took he gave. He loved well, in short. His son was all right too, but by the time his son—Henry’s father—came along, mouths were turning mealy, expansion was pretty well over, the old misery of hardening up had begun. People turned their eyes inwards, away from the country, the peoples that had once so enthralled them. India was no longer a land of opportunity. The best as far as commerce was concerned—and I mean the best in that genre, best crooks and all—came no more. Second-rate, third-rate, fourth-rate people went on living off what had been created with such inspired abandon. They brought in narrower, frightened standards, set about limiting everything, making rules, watching everybody’s step—and that’s where we are today. Now my guess is that young Henry Greenwood is—or could be—his great-grandfather all over again. But he can’t be here: there just isn’t the scope. The country, you know, is full of dynamite. We govern under our breaths . . .”
Micky sighed. “It’s the profoundest bad luck for Henry to fall heir to that rambling great elephant of a business, so hamstrung with red tape, so festooned with idiotic pomp. You must have seen the change in him since Oxford. He’s come home, all right—and found it looking-glass country. He seems to be master in his own house, but he isn’t, of course, and he knows it. And I think he loves his house and wants it as he wants it.”
“Has he talked to you much?” Armin asked, thinking this very likely.
“Talked! I’ve had him here all night a dozen times. I try to get the kind of people he wants to talk to—ICS, agricultural men, doctors, even missionaries—the people who matter, in fact. And of, course, Indians. About the only real contact he gets with them is in this house. He goes away on his own, too, sometimes: I don’t know where he goes, but I bet it’s not to the races. All this gets him a bad name, naturally, and seeing me doesn’t do him any good either. They—his people—have to accept me some of the time, for business reasons, but they’d run me out of town if they could; on several counts . . .” and Micky smiled sideways at Armin, an almost timid smile giving and seeking confidence.
Armin in his short Indian life had seen plenty of people under pressure, but he had never yet encountered anyone quite so beset as Michael Goodwin. He wished very much that he could say a word, make a gesture which would encourage or reassure. Micky’s self-defence—he perhaps knew this himself—was mostly disproportionate, childish: there must be some other, better way of stating his terms. Armin felt a little helpless. Reserve had so become a habit with him that even at twenty-three it was difficult to break it. The habit had been acquired to forestall incomprehension in others, something which he and Micky had evidently, in different ways, had to face in common. He would have liked to indicate, somehow, to this man that it was very likely all worth while—the pain and the persecution, the living at cross-purposes, the guilt and defiance so long as heart and intelligence did not go down; for in the last two qualities he could now believe Goodwin well-endowed; and, thinking this, all his own earlier distaste and hostility evaporated. He would indeed have liked to say a warm and hopeful word, even at the risk of being misunderstood, of receiving the one response unacceptable to his temperament. However, although he looked kindly at Micky, no word came.
A log shifted and broke in two, sending up a cloud of sparks. Micky said, half to himself: “Suppose we’d colonised? But how? The bread and butter of emigration wouldn’t have lasted five minutes here, would have been lost in all this sheer quantity. Plenty of reasons against, anyway; health and wealth and racial purity. Principally, nobody really wanted to—nobody wanted to become identified to that extent; quite upset most people’s idea of the correct relationship. . . . A few did in fact become colonial—my family and Henry’s for example. We’re Indian, he and I, in every way that matters to us, except blood. Others have the blood as well, and there’s nothing enviable about their position, poor devils; hard to tell which of us is the more miserable. Between us and the rest, between me and Carl Johnston for instance, there’s as deep a gulf as there is between Carl and his sweeper, which is one of the reasons why I behaved as I did this evening—why I too often behave like that among my peers; another is that Laura is the only woman in the world I’ve ever felt safe with, except my mother.” He laughed with a touch of harshness: “Poor Laura, she’s too young to have to be a mother-figure to an ageing . . . to an undesirable non co-operator like me.” He looked Armin suddenly full in the face: “Laura is worth ten million Carls,” he said slowly, emphatically, as though anxious that Armin should understand him perfectly, “and yet Carl is not negligible. He’s clever and far-seeing and extremely successful; he’s got the kind of drive Indians are powerless against, something a corrupt side of them makes them lie down and love. He’s almost the only one of these people who’d bash his way to the front in any society. I really couldn’t. . . possibly dislike him more.” Micky said this in the tripping accented voice Armin had heard him use at the club.
Armin was thinking of Laura, wondering how she slept, white upon white under a great transparent tent. Did Carl . . .?
“Carl’s off to Bombay tomorrow for a fortnight,” said Micky absently, looking into his glass.
“Is he?” said Armin. “Oh, I believe I heard Laura say so.” His heart was squeezed to nothing and his breath almost choked on the name. “I must go now,” he said, rising to make his intention plain. “Could Mir Khan get me a taxi?”
“Take my car,” said Micky, looking up at him. “I’ll send over for it in the morning.” He did not get up.
“Thank you for the drink. It’s been . . . awfully interesting,” Armin said awkwardly.
“I don’t suppose you’ll have much time for me this trip,” said Micky, smiling up at him a shade coldly. Armin saw that his face had begun to break up again, that his mouth was turning down into the bitter grimace he knew. He put on his coat and moved to the door: beyond, in the hall, Mir Khan waited.
“Goodnight, Micky,” said Armin.
“Goodnight, young Armin. Have a good time with Laura.” He stared disconcertingly at Armin for a few seconds, then put his head down into his hands. Armin hesitated a moment, thought better of it and went out.
Mir Khan opened the door of the car for him. Armin said something about Goodwin Sahib being better now and how pleasant his visit had been. Mir Khan bent his fierce old eyes on him for a moment without speaking, then said slowly, in a lowered voice:
“My master is often sad. It is hard, Sahib, for a man to live always between two worlds.” He bowed then and, stiff-backed, went up the steps.
Armin drove slowly away down deserted roads. He was really tired now, tired and very much confused; too tired to do much sorting out tonight. “Laura,” he said aloud, again and again. “Laura!” It was only when he was in bed at the Peytons’, and on the brink of sleep, that it came to him with real immediacy that Laura was someone else’s wife.
Armin grew to like the regular cries of the leadsman taking his soundings forward for the pilot’s benefit. He looked kindly on his fellow-passengers who sat and dozed about the place in an atmosphere of dreamy suspense, like the mud-turtles and the occasional alligator sunning on an exposed shoal. He was growing really fond of Mackenzie with his cheerful greed, his endless stories and the impression he gave of having been more than a match for the difficulties of his life. Mackenzie’s was a free spirit, innocently unconventional. He often said wise and surprising things, and seemed to Armin admirably untainted with the sour fault-finding and self-righteousness which was, too often nowadays, the mark of his compatriots in India. He was an enthusiast about his life and the corner of India he had made his own. He was also rather endearingly silly, like a giant schoolboy, as when he would sit by the rail for hours on end with a box of crown-corks and a home-made catapult, shooting at turtles whenever the boat passed conveniently close to a mud bank.
Mackenzie’s habits, which included late breakfast, a four-hour siesta in the afternoon and a punctual bedtime at eleven, left Armin a good deal of time to himself. The other passengers were sufficiently somnolent or occupied with each other not to make many demands on him; some, in any case, were getting off at Dhubri, more still at Gauhati and the landing-places between. For the last stretch of his journey to Rudragarh, unless a great many people got on later, Mackenzie and he were going to have their part of the boat pretty much to themselves. At Rudragarh he would disembark leaving Mackenzie to go farther eastwards with the boat, on his own.
On the first evening out from Goalundo Armin and Mackenzie had watched the sun go down in a green and crimson smoke from the boat’s port side. The boat was scarcely moving against the oily water, uneven-surfaced and ringed with eddies. The world was disintegrating in the swift twilight, the shore, scarcely distinguishable all day, had merged by now into receding scarves and planes of grey. The air was cool and still, and something of the limitless hush around them must have entered the boat’s company; for minutes on end there was scarcely a sound on board beyond the now halting and muffled clatter of the paddle wheels.
Dusk had deepened to night with its usual suddenness; the steamer had hooted, a hissing squeal which had almost deafened them. Noise of all kinds had then broken out. The engines had gone astern, then stopped altogether. With a chattering of metal links and to an accompaniment of shouts the anchor chain had run down. The boat was now at her moorings for the night, as she would be every night from now on in these waters, which were too treacherous for navigation in the dark. A sense of lightness and relief made itself felt: it was exhilarating, in a way, to be floating at rest in the middle of this watery nowhere and the sandy wastes beyond.
Mackenzie had half turned, leaning on the rail, and looked consideringly at Armin:
“What are you going to do in Rudragarh, anyway?” he had asked. “If you aren’t in a hurry, why don’t you come and stay at my place for a day or two? I’ll drive you down whenever you like.”
“I’m going on up into the hills to stay with Henry Greenwood—you probably know him?—at a place called Rongphar.”
It was then that the whistle had gone, drowning Mackenzie’s own and killing conversation for ten seconds. Armin could see him staring, his raised eyebrows creasing his big, shiny forehead, his mouth pursed for whistling, while the fiendish noise went on. When it stopped and the wounded night had closed round them again, Mackenzie’s voice came softly, expiringly.
“Are you, now!” he said.
Armin had been prepared for some such reaction. He smiled quickly and, before Mackenzie could speak again, suggested that they go and have a drink. As he spoke, he began to move away from the rail, heading for the saloon. Mackenzie lumbered after him.
The old man was evidently bursting with curiosity. He could hardly wait until they were both seated before exploding his questions.
“Wensley,” he exclaimed, “you must forgive me. I’m shockingly inquisitive and a proper old gossip, but I must have the latest about Henry Greenwood. Why, my dear boy, the man’s a legend in the Brahmaputra valley, and farther afield too, I daresay: I’ll be having free drinks for a month at the club if you can give me a good story!”
Armin had had time to think by now, time to weigh Henry’s injunctions to secrecy against Mackenzie’s proved decency and good nature.
He said, in a calming tone: “I expect things get a bit exaggerated up here, with isolation and distance and so on. I know they do in North Cachar. I don’t think there’s much of a story to tell except that Henry’s built himself a house. After Flavia went he . . . well, he changed considerably.”
Mackenzie beetled at him a look of intense shrewdness mixed with amused exasperation. He stuck out his jaw and glared at Armin.
“Exaggerated my foot!” he boomed in the foghorn voice he sometimes used, which invariably brought the steward running. “Exaggerated my backside! Oh, go away” this to the steward who had hurried over. “No, don’t go away: two burra pegs, ice, water—just bring ’em here and put ’em down, and leave us be.” He was bouncing with impatience so that the springs whined in his armchair.
“Don’t get in such a state,” said Armin, laughing. “You’ll have the whole boat over in a minute.’”
“Can’t stand shilly-shallying, you wretched boy,” Mackenzie bawled. “‘Isn’t much of a story to tell,’ he says! Not much of a story, eh? Then tell me this: after Flavia’d skipped with her Swede or whatever he was, did Henry, or did he not, get Greenwood, Bellenger to give him that moribund tea-garden of theirs up in those hills and spend God knows how many lakhs of rupees, over two years, driving a road and building a stone house with every kind of trimming? And, when that was half-finished, did he, or did he not, disappear for twelve months and come back with an Indian girl of tender years whom he proceeded to set up like a princess in a fairy story with an ayah and a whole staff of servants? I waive the more exciting embellishments I’ve heard from planters’ wives and down in Calcutta. I keep an open mind about the orgies, the drinking parties, the black magic. Some say it’s two girls he’s got there, some say it’s twenty: I’m prepared to believe it’s only one. But there’s certainly one, Wensley, and you dam’ well know that nowhere in India, and most particularly not up-country in Assam, could a man like Greenwood hope to live in one place for five years without provoking gossip, even if he stuck to reading the Bible and doing Swedish exercises from dawn to dark. So you may as well alleviate what you look as if you thought was my vulgar curiosity and give me the true story; at least, then, I’ll have some ammunition against those cackling hens at the club.” He looked pleased with this piece of cunning and sat regarding Armin expectantly, twinkling away, his great chest heaving like an earthquake.
“He wasn’t a Swede,” said Armin gently.
“Who wasn’t a Swede? What are you talking about?” Mackenzie looked puzzled out of his wits.
“The man Flavia ran off with five years ago. He was an Austrian baron, a remarkable looking man with an eyeglass; I believe they’re in South Africa.”
“Wensley,” said Mackenzie threateningly, “if I die of a stroke in two minutes you will be entirely to blame. Stop prattling about Swedes, or Austrians, or for that matter Flavia, who’s quite out of the picture, and do please, for pity’s sake, tell me what you know.”
Armin took a long drink of whisky and water. He enjoyed playing this game with Mackenzie. The old hedonist was guileless and delightful, but by no means stupid. If it should ever come to the point where Henry Greenwood had to have a “side”, he would like to see Mackenzie on it: the best way to this end, Armin believed, was to give Mackenzie what he wanted, the true story. Armin thought that if he made a little extra mystery at the beginning, his companion might later be persuaded to find the facts themselves fairly tame.
Trouble brews especially quickly in a violent climate, and Henry, unfortunately for him, was not a nonentity. His comings and goings would never in all his life go unwatched. Too much jealous rumour on the one hand, too much disregard of public opinion on the other, and a situation could develop which might be anything from merely awkward to outright disastrous: then a word from the right people might well serve to prevent malice from taking arms. Armin, although he had left the Political Service two years before, had not lost the sharp eye and ear and the calculating habit which his work had trained in him. He had become expert at telling the warning signs of unrest; he had acquired a useful basic knowledge of human motives and human irrationality. At present, there was nothing in Henry Greenwood’s situation, difficult and unconventional though it was in many ways, to cause alarm to a friend. The materials were there, however, for a bonfire, and since Henry was the last person in the world to allow for sparks, Armin felt obliged to keep an eye out for them himself.
“All right,” Armin said, “I’ll tell you what I know, and it isn’t so very much.” Mackenzie sat back, his whiskyglass looking toy-sized in his massive hand.
“Let’s see,” said Armin. “That party at Tollygunge was the last night of my first leave—it was nineteen-thirty, and I’d only been out here a year. Well, it was on that same leave in Calcutta that I met Henry and Flavia—Flavia for the first time: Henry I’d known moderately well at Oxford, though he’s a couple of years older than I am.” He gave Mackenzie a brief description of Laura’s dinner party, and of the changes he had found in Henry Greenwood. Armin also recounted his conversation with Micky Goodwin on the same night.
“Him!” said Mackenzie. “Micky Goodwin—he’d be bound to be mixed up in this, never knew such a chap for having fingers in pies. I rather like the fellow, though nobody else seems to be able to stand him.”
“So do I,” said Armin, “and so does Henry, but Micky doesn’t really come into the story, except that I think his predictions about Henry were mostly right. And about Flavia, entirely. Anyway, I left Calcutta that time, wondering what earthly future there could be for the Greenwoods, and how Henry would take it if—or when—Flavia left him. When I got back to Delhi I found I’d been slated for a new job which would mean travelling continuously for a year or two and moving in rather different circles from the ones I’d seen in Calcutta. When I bobbed up again, free to be my ordinary self once more, it was in Bombay in the autumn of nineteen-thirty-one. Someone I’d met casually asked me to an evening party. He had a big place on Malabar Hill and a frightening amount of money, and I was feeling distinctly shabby and unamused and rather sorry for myself when Micky Goodwin appeared. He’d written to me off and on and sent me books and things occasionally—he’s kind, you know, with a real gift for friendship, quite apart from his celebrated hobbies—and so I was glad to see him. We slunk off together to a corner of a verandah with a bottle of whisky and he told me the story of Henry and Flavia. It had only just happened and, of course, Micky was full of it. For myself, I was only astonished that the marriage had lasted so long. Flavia had money of her own, but I suppose Henry’s huge fortune and the position he gave her meant a lot. I believe, you know, she quite simply couldn’t comprehend Henry’s feelings about her infidelities. She probably felt she could have been ideally happy with a less fussy man. Ultimately Henry’s ‘fussing’ wore on her and she just left—like that, without secretiveness, preparation or even packing. Micky told me that half her jewels were still scattered on her dressing-table, her clothes still lying about. She didn’t even leave a note for Henry; just went away, in the dress she had on, and took the train to Bombay. Henry, once he knew that she hadn’t been murdered, knew that she she was in Bombay with her Baron—and incidentally, she’s probably shed him already, a born minor character if ever I saw one—refused to do anything further about her; simply filed his divorce petition, shut up their house and moved into a flat in Park Street. On one or two trips to Calcutta I went to see him there, but generally he saw no one but Micky.”
“Poor brute,” said Mackenzie, looking sincerely sorry. “Can’t blame him for being cut up, or for marrying Flavia either: prettiest thing I ever saw and I’ve seen plenty.”
“Lord, yes,” said Armin, “but he took it hard in a very special way. No tears, no why-oh-why, no expressed regrets at all. Instead, an uprush of terrific energy and determination—but determination to do what, I couldn’t at the time be sure. I believe he waded into the board of directors at Greenwood, Bellenger and gave them the fright of their lives. Told them precisely what he wanted done with the business, and precisely how he’d use his interest in it if they obstructed him in any way. They had strokes all round, of course: but Flavia’s father was deputy-chairman and a broken man full of guilt about Flavia. He felt he had no right, now, to do anything but support Henry.
“As it happened, the other directors needn’t have given themselves such sleepless nights. Henry’s the opposite of a fool and commerce seems to be a hereditary gift with the Greenwoods. Once they’d got over the shock of being spoken to like that, by a mere boy as they thought him, and their nervous systems had stopped jangling, they saw that Henry’s proposals weren’t really the end of their world at all. A bit of liberalising generally, strengthening the junior management, pruning off a lot of worthless properties kept on from sheer swank, and a reinvestment programme which was long overdue—nothing very terrible, though to hear them puffing and squawking in the Bengal Club you wouldn’t have thought so.”
Mackenzie erupted with laughter. “Horrid fellow you are, Wensley, no respect for great men. Don’t you know business is magic, big, difficult magic, quite beyond the comprehension of puppies in the ICS? Yes, I heard them at it: sick as mud they were, thought their whole world was tumbling down. What they couldn’t stand, of course, was Henry’s attitude to Indians. Those training schemes of his, they’re what they really hate.”
“I know,” said Armin. “And if Henry got any pleasure from anything in those first months it was from ramming that kind of innovation down their throats.”
“Should have enjoyed doing it myself,” Mackenzie said. “But go on, do.”
“After a bit, then, this kind of activity—though he worked ruinously hard all through the hot weather—ceased to keep Henry fully occupied. I went to see him once in August of the next year, and found the flat nearly all packed up. I asked him if he was going home. ‘Home?’ he said, ‘Do you you mean England? No, certainly not. Home for me is here. But I’m going away.’ He wouldn’t tell me where, although I thought he was going to: I still think it was in his mind just then to take me completely into his confidence. But he didn’t: and he never has since.”
“But you’re pretty close friends?” Mackenzie asked anxiously.
“Yes . . . yes, I think we are, though we don’t see each other often. It’s not easy, though, to be close to Henry—he’s not exactly convivial. But then, neither am I, or I’ve never really had a chance to find out whether I am or not. I like him, and I respect him, and I think he likes me. He sees very few people, you know.”
“Very few Europeans.”
“Very few people at all.”
“He certainly hasn’t made himself universally popular among the planters,” Mackenzie smiled doubtfully. The few he’s been obliged to speak to from time to time he’s as good as insulted—or that’s how they chose to take it, anyway. The wives have taken it worse, of course.” He looked regretful and spoke more slowly: “It’s a pity, you know, I can’t help feeling. They’re decent people, much more often than not. I’ve spent my life among them and I’ve had some very good times. For many of them it’s an isolated sort of existence and damned exhausting. There’s a sense of community, which is fine, and a sense of being forgotten by the rest of the world, which isn’t. Most planters don’t make fortunes and some have the devil of a time trying to live at all. You’ve seen these others on board—they’re all fairly chirpy because they’ve been away, seen something different from endless rows of tea bushes and the wettest monsoon weather ever, and recalcitrant coolies, and each other’s faces, day in day out. In a few months’ time, you’ll see—or rather, I’ll see—they’ll be careworn as hell, and the new things they’ve brought back won’t be new any more, and they’ll be down at the club trying to cheer each other up with gossip and months-old copies of the Tatler.
“Well then, if a fine-looking chap like Henry Greenwood comes along, full of money and no longer married, you can’t blame them if they look on him as potentially a terrific asset. If he had no money at all, and one eye and no legs and only spoke Greek, they’d still be interested. But when this Henry goes and builds himself what sounds like the most slap-up magnificent house in the most god-damned inaccessible bit of mountain country, miles from anyone, and won’t have anything to do with anyone anyway—can you wonder they feel hipped? And when, on top of all that, he lives—as all the available information agrees that he does—in the kind of scandalous circumstances common enough in my early days, but now fearfully frowned upon, can you wonder that he’s a never-ending subject of the wilder kinds of gossip? Look, Wensley, I’m prepared to believe, on your word, till all’s blue, in the purity of young Greenwood’s motives: I’ll even believe, if I must, that there’s an entirely dull and perfectly simple explanation for all this: but you’ll agree with me, perhaps, that Greenwood has neglected his public a bit these last few years. Gossip can be dangerous, you know, even to a man in his unique position,—Lord knows what fun the Indian politicos might have with this story if it suited them. And why? All because of this surely unnecessary mystery. Golly, there’s enough mystery in the mysterious east without white people setting out to manufacture some more.”
On Friday, the day after Laura’s disastrous dinner party, Armin had stayed indoors all morning, where he was much in the Peytons’ way. He dared not go out for fear of missing some message from Laura. At noon the telephone rang and Armin got to it before it could ring a second time. Laura said: “I’m so glad you’re alive! It was wicked of me letting you go off with Micky in that state. He’s so obstinate: he will always insist on driving himself. One of these days there will be a terrible accident, but at least it wasn’t you—I mean, it won’t be you. My grammar’s very bad this morning, and no wonder.”
Armin laughed. Laura’s voice—how well she played on its limited low-pitched range, a touch of gruffness, an indefinite drawl—exhilarated him. In the doubting moments of waking he had wondered if it still would.
“If,” she had said, “you have positively nothing better to do, would you like to come and look at the town? You shall say where—I could send the car for you at three. . . . Oh, wonderful. . . . Oh, good. . . . Till then.”
It was lucky that the Peytons were so racked with moving house that they ate most of their meals standing up, spoke little and missed each other’s replies, and brought lists and unrelated oddments with them to the table. Otherwise they might have fussed over Armin’s radiant vagueness, absence of appetite and of conversation at luncheon that day. The meal was soon over, his hosts were once more caught up into their private bustle, and Armin went off to his room to change his clothes four times before a wide-eyed servant announced the arrival of the car.
The journey took longer than Armin had anticipated and, with every delaying minute, his interest sharpened. It was not Carl’s choice, surely, that his house should be so far away in so quiet and—now—unfashionable a part of the town. Armin, although half aware that he had not, from the first moment of their meeting, been inclined to give Carl the benefit of any doubt, still could only believe this Laura’s doing. The district to which he was now being silently whirled had, from his own point of view, every merit. Other times, other attitudes had made these large, two-storied houses with their deep verandahs divided by plump pillars, their portes-cochères, and gardens spouting green. In this ruinous, damp climate where constant care is needed to maintain any fabric in decent order, where shrubs and trees and well-kept lawns can expand to jungle with a few months’ neglect, the changing emphasis in living might have made of these sober mansions a buried city, as though Cheltenham should have suffered the fate of Pnom Penh. Decent, however, they remained, looking prosperous enough in their uniform cream-coloured paint and roofs of sienna tiles, their mature gardens heavy with leaf, and cannas flaring in their borders. The neighbourhood had an agreeable air of order and authority: it had been made to a plan, a rather aloof, gentlemanlike assertion of decorum and a preference for elbow-room.
Armin had got as far as asking himself the question “could I have put up with Carl if Laura had been different?” when the car slid leftwards in a perfect curve, through high iron gates, along a gravel drive, impeccably raked, between banks of yellow and crimson cannas, and came to rest in shadow under a pillared porch. He never properly answered his own question: one thing, however, was certain. Carl Johnston might be removing himself every minute farther away, towards Bombay, but his personality was strong in the possessions he had left behind. Armin was glad to quit the suffocating splendour of the car, but he followed the white-gloved Indian butler with a sense of hopeless deception: how could he and Laura ever come to terms of simplicity surrounded by all this? They crossed a waste of gleaming floor and climbed a wide and gleaming staircase. Thereafter, through a succession of dark high-ceilinged rooms, of which Armin noticed little except that they seemed beautiful and beautifully uncrowded, he paced behind the butler feeling, with every step, more of a stranger, more predestinately at a loss.
All the rooms on this side of the house were shuttered. When they turned sharply to the right and came to a little gallery and a framed view of bright sky and sunlit greenery, Armin blinked and, for a moment, had no hand to give to Laura’s, outstretched in greeting.
The butler left them. Armin took a deep breath and shook hands. Laura was laughing.
“You look as if you’d been brought here by force,” she said. “Won’t it do?”
Armin laughed too, finding himself suddenly ridiculous and feeling suddenly easier. Here they were, and Laura was as lovely as he remembered, lovelier even, now that she was isolated in a clearer light. Moreover, after the heavy pomp of the car and the stiff, splendid house, he was relieved to find her encamped in something entirely personal. Laura had made of this small gallery, lit by two pillared openings in a corner of the building, a room of her own, half out-of-doors, friendly and full of colour. There were long bamboo chairs with dark red linen cushions, a white marble table with books and a rose in an opaque blue glass. Tubs holding camellias stood in each corner. The floor was of big, square black and white tiles and on it were rush mats, silk cushions, a book or two, magazines, a Siamese cat, sunglasses, cigarettes, a straw hat, writing paper, a jug of lime juice, a plate of guavas, none of it looking untidy but rather disposed, as in a Moghul painting, orientally, the floor coming into its own as it does in eastern houses.
Armin was ashamed of his feeling of relief. He should have trusted more faithfully his instinct to trust Laura. Last night he had endowed her with rarity, had believed her incapable of the commonplace. Just now he had doubted. Yet, last night, he had seen how capably, in public, Laura could annul Carl Johnston’s thrusting influence. He might have guessed that she would do the same thing at home. He sank into a long chair with a sensation of pure delight, of the happiest expectancy, and looked up to smile into the eyes of a beautiful young woman which were also, it seemed to him, the eyes of a charming child.
Laura sat down on the edge of her long chair, drawing back her legs, facing the view of rustling, glittering leaves. A flight of green parrots, in arrowhead formation, streaked past them with testy screams. The cat yowled sharply. Laura lifted her head, smoothed back her long, thick hair held, today, by a scarlet band of grosgrain—with her left hand. Armin did not fail to notice that she wore, on this, no rings at all. With the slow, inevitable grace he had first so worshipped, she turned her head to him and put her lips together comically tight. Her mouth bloomed like a flower as she opened it to say:
“What a sad end to my poor dinner party!” She did not look at all sad.
“It might have been worse.”
“Oh, I know! You were wonderful: I—we—Micky particularly, whom Henry would certainly have killed—owe you such a lot!”
Armin was abashed. He had not meant to call attention to his part in preventing the threatened fight.
“I didn’t mean that,” he cried. “I meant—oh, just that with anyone else but you it could all have been sinister, embarrassing—whereas, well, when I left, you seemed to be perfectly in command!” He took no pains to keep the admiration out of his eyes. “I’m sure you smoothed it all over in no time.”
“No hope of that, I’m afraid,” said Laura seriously. “Henry took Flavia away, both in complete silence—goodness knows what they said to each other at home. Carl was furious.” Her look was cold, but she added hastily, “I don’t blame him: he’s never at his best with Micky, and Micky was playing up terribly, even for him. Poor Micky . . . he has to do this. You wouldn’t have guessed from his demeanour, or Henry’s, that they’re really very fond of each other, would you?”
“I know that now. I stayed on at Micky’s house for about an hour after I’d got him home. He suddenly stopped being drunk, or noticeably so anyway, almost as soon as he got into the house. We did have an accident, you know, but not a serious one, luckily.” Armin told Laura the story of the Indian and his bicycle. She looked concerned and shook her head slowly, her eyes holding Armin’s, but as though seeing past him.
“Poor Micky again. He’d hate that worse than anything. I expect he’s been scouring Calcutta all day to find the man: he’ll probably take him on for life, look after him, help his family. Micky—he’s a mass of contradictions, but he’s got some nice sides, and he really loves India. That, of course, only makes life more heartbreaking still for him. He once said to me that Pontius Pilate was his patron saint: only Micky won’t wash his hands of anybody, except perhaps Arthur Curtis, or perhaps——” She did not say the name, but Armin was certain she was thinking of Carl.
“I must say,” said Armin, “there were moments last night when I could have kicked him, but I ended up liking him rather a lot. I do wish,” he went on, looking up at Laura humorously, “that the dreary little morals in Victorian children’s books didn’t usually turn out to be true! I wish I could meet—just once—someone rich and gifted who was also happy! You’re happy, aren’t you? I feel sure you must be rich, after that astonishing motor car.” I’m being impertinent, he thought with surprise, and hung on Laura’s answer a little anxiously.
“Time will show about the first,” said Laura. “About the second, yes, I fear we are rather rich. Life would scarcely be supportable here without a great deal of money, unless one were a devoted creature, quite wrapped up in some form of good work, which alas I’m not and probably could never be.” She looked consideringly at Armin. “You are a devoted creature, because of your work: and I believe you’d be one anyway.” Armin could think of no answer: he smiled at Laura and waited; but she made a sudden grimace and shook her head: “No, Armin, no!” she exclaimed, her voice a golden growl. “You must have suffered so much already from understanding women drawing woolly-wise conclusions about you: understanding women are the curse of India, and it’s an all too popular gambit with new young men. I will not be party to it. You shall be immensely mysterious, and I shall be rich old memsahib and entertain you lavishly. Money does have its uses, you know. But it’s obviously not your chief concern, and it isn’t mine: or, at least, it doesn’t touch the part of me that I care for.’
The Siamese, quiet as a thought, stepped towards Laura, leaned against her bare legs, looked up at the inaccessible parrots streaming by. Laura’s hand fell absently to caress it. There was a silence between them now. Here in this airy room Armin had found yet another kind of time: he felt he could sit at his ease and covertly enrich his sight with Laura for as many years as a painting of the scene might last. Just for this age-long minute he was without fret, unhampered by past or future, released from the duty of making human patterns, passionless, receptive, innocent. Laura brooded without anxiety, utterly still, her vision turned inwards, perhaps, towards the part of her she cared for. Armin and she—was it her magic, or something owing to them both?—had found, for a moment, the untenable neutral ground. They were living the last emotion first. They would never know peace of this kind together again.
As though threatened in some way by their stillness, and anxious to get them back, quickly, to a more normal human fume and flurry, the cat yelled hideously from its pink throat. Laura started, looked down at the animal with disgust, looked across at Armin and sighed regretfully. “This cat is a devil,” she said, “the pure principle of selfishness. She never makes an uncalculated move. That was in case we should take root and forget about her for ten seconds.” She jumped up and stood shaking her skirt into place, settling her long hair with small movements of her head. “Come on,” she said, “let’s give the cat the slip and go and see Calcutta.”
Back through the twilit rooms, over thick rugs and yards of polished floor, Armin followed Laura. In the hall she stopped to put on her wide straw hat, looking into the watery depths of an old glass in a baroque gilt frame. Conscious of the butler’s eyes on him, Armin tried hard not to watch white arms and hands at work, not to let his eyes be riveted by a full breast beautifully lifted, outlined by the tautening of the dress. He pretended to read visiting cards on a silver tray. When Laura displayed herself to him, chin up, and said, “All right?” he could only nod for yes.
Standing now in the porch was a small, anonymous-looking grey car. They were settled into it by the butler. When Laura turned to throw bag and gloves on to the back seat, Armin said: “Let me hold them.” She gave him an amused look, friendly and searching, seemed about to speak, but instead, let in the clutch and they bowled away down the drive. After the big car, progress in this one seemed a kind of scamper; it was as intimate and uncomfortable as a small boat.
“No use going into darkest Calcutta in any of the others,” Laura said. Positively too conspicuous and, although we know—don’t we?—that we are as brother and sister, the town gossips might not be so sure. Besides, you might want to buy something, and superior motors put up prices.”
“Sounds like an economic axiom,” said Armin, “like bad money driving out good.”
“Drive out in a good car and your bad money won’t be good for anything,” said Laura gaily, as she wrenched the car round a water-cart.
“Well, I’d rather be your brother than absolutely nothing to you at all,” Armin said boldly, harking back.
“Poor Armin!” All Laura’s attention seemed to be with some erratic foot passengers: she spoke as though preoccupied. “We can’t let you be that. . . .” It was not clear to Armin which alternative she meant.
It was just such a day as the one on which Armin had explored Barrackpore. Along the wide roads bordering the Maidan, and in the great park itself, the trees hung heavy fleeces of dark green, flecked with russet, still, autumnal, experienced-looking. The sky was radiantly pale, thinly filmed with high cloud, the sunlight kindly, blessing where it was accustomed to blast. Small breezes, veering and spasmodic, had an exhilarating edge of coolness and smelt of salt.
“You’ll never have a better day for it,” said Laura. “What a town! It’s permanent grand opera. Incredible rain, thunder and lightning, heat, and violence, and noise, and corruption—and beauty. It’s the most us of any of them, I think. I’d rather live here than anywhere for, oh, lots of reasons. It’s human: rather extremely so, sometimes. . . . Sometimes, when I have a headache, or the heat’s got me down (not really very often), I can hardly bear the way it crawls, like a great overripe cheese. Usually, though, I love it. Life gets lived here all right, in all sorts of ways. Such a delicious, savoury mess. I’m not in the least tidy-minded . . .” She turned her eyes to his for a second, looking mischievous.
“Why do you say it’s the most us?” Armin asked her.
“I can see it’s the most them!”
“That, for one thing.” They were heading up Chowringhee and there, to their left, shone the Victoria Memorial, all plaster-white cupolas and classical incrustations. Armin laughed appreciatively.
“We had to give ourselves a birthday cake like that every so often,” he said. “Nobody else was going to, and Queen Victoria did represent everything we so hoped we were. But this is the sort of thing we’ve scattered everywhere—indeed, when I’m depressed, I sometimes think it’s all we ever shall be remembered by.”
“I think we’ll be remembered best for what we didn’t do.” Laura was having a difficult time with the traffic; her words came intermittently. “For holding our hand—much more often than not—and not accepting discouragement. . . . We’re both talking as though it were all over already! It isn’t, you know.”
“Not quite. But it’s coming to an end just the same. We’ve lost confidence: you can’t lead a cavalry charge if you think you look funny on a horse! We’ll slither along in a crippled way for a few more decades. But the end will come with another war.”
“Oh,” Laura’s voice was flat, “do we have to have another?”
“One never has to,” Armin said gently, “but a lot of people want one, or soon will: and I think, with the mess we’ve got ourselves into at home, underneath we may want one too.”
They turned right and Laura navigated a narrow street, between high walls scaling and spotted with damp. She drew up in a recess of the pavement before a shuttered, square building which might have been a chapel or a warehouse, and switched off the engine. She turned and looked closely at Armin.
“Are you as short of people to talk to as I am?” she asked. Armin nodded. “Goodness,” said Laura, “you’ve only got eight days, and I could talk for eight days without stopping! Lucky you’ve got some other people to see.”
“I haven’t.” Laura’s eyes opened wider. “At least, I haven’t any that won’t be quite ruthlessly put off if there’s the faintest chance of seeing you instead.”
Laura looked at his serious face, the steady, brilliant, disturbing eyes.
“You like my . . . conversation?” she asked, perhaps a trifle breathlessly. For answer Armin laid his right hand very gently on hers, where it lay palm upwards along her thigh.
They wandered through the New Market, followed by a small boy with a deep straw skep for their purchases, threading narrow aisles of bright, cluttered booths, tripping, sidestepping, a target for the toothy huckstering of stall-keepers in white cotton shirts.
Armin had laid his senses joyfully open to any assault that could be made on them. His nostrils welcomed the warring smells, so positive and unequivocal, of sweat and human grease and rotting fruit, of rope and paraffin, jasmine and patchouli, green leaves and cigar-smoke, turmeric and garlic and cardamom. His eyes delighted in heaps of scarlet peppers, phials of rose-attar in boxwood cases, mass-produced Jaipur enamels and worthless brassware, sari-silks in pomegranate and smoke-blue, soft yellow gold and sapphires and rubies, cheap Japanese toys, wicker boxes of lilies and tuberoses, and stilled flights of orchids on curving stems. His hearing was alert to unravel the complex orchestration of sound, to pick up snatches of conversation, to pierce down through layers of high-pitched, chattering Bengali, and kitchen-Hindustani spoken with a rich variety of accents, through shouts of protest or of assent, through the scraped music of a tin gramophone playing an Indian love song, down to the ever-present drum that is always restless and will never permit rest. Often in the press Laura was forced against him, the cool skin of her upper arm sliding against his hand. When this happened the now familiar contraction in his stomach almost made Armin sick with excitement.
Laura forged sturdily through the engrossed, indifferent crowd. There went a prosperous family party led by a stout father in a tight frock coat and a karakul cap, followed by a close-keeping cluster of womenfolk, plump and giggling in soft-coloured saris, discreetly painted and jewelled, a largeeared little boy in miniatures of his father’s clothes, and a girl all eyes and pigtails in silk frock and straw hat and white ankle socks. In and out of the throng darted young men, large-eyed, thin—clerks, students, revolutionaries, perhaps all three—in collarless clean white shirts and cotton dhotis, looking hard-pressed, desperate, ascetic. Some merchants were thin, too, reserved and unhasty in their manners: others were sleek as seals, or fat to bursting-point, quaking with grocerish bonhomie, their quick assessing eyes almost, but never quite, lost in their glistening chaps.
Laura turned her face up to him, faintly flushed with pleasure and exertion, her eyes bright.
“Woolworth’s and Covent Garden and the Arabian Nights!” she said. “Never a dull moment! I want to get some flowers: what do you want?”
“I cant think of anything, except of course a bear!” Armin smiled widely, childishly; his pleasure in her, and the place, and the place with her, was a luxurious ache from head to toe. Laura made him a laughing face.
“You are infatuated with bears,” she said.
“I am infatuated,” he gravely agreed.
Laura looked at him sideways. “Well, you can’t have your bear now,” she said. “There isn’t room in the car; and the animals are over on the other side. Come and get my flowers and then . . . perhaps we’ll buy you something for yourself. You ought to have something.”
“Then I think I’ll have a gong, a large brass gong between a couple of tusks . . . or one of these useful cowbells (I could find a cow for it later) . . . or a Parsee hat with spangles.”
“Or fourteen ebony elephants getting smaller all the time! Or . . . Armin, the very thing!”
Laura had stopped at the stall of an Indian pharmacist whose westernised stock was segregated from a counter of more trustworthy remedies. Laura, who was chuckling silently, said: “Look! ‘Madary Pills’. Look what they’re for . . .” and she read: “‘Ancient and well-known Remedy for Nervous Affections, Hysteria, Epileptic Fits, Madness, etc.’ Armin, do you feel you can afford to be without Madary Pills?”
Armin looked down at her haughtily: “I’m as sane as you or I,” he said.
“You don’t find me maddening, for instance?” Laura asked, wide-eyed, facing him squarely, her shoulders back. Armin looked with tender amusement at her eager face, at the breasts like lively birds under her thin dress.
“Oh, yes,” he said, “I do. Indeed I do. Only I know the cure already.”
Laura looked intently into his eyes a moment longer, then lowered hers. “Sweet Armin,” she said softly, and turned away from him.
They were at one of the flower-sellers’ booths and Armin, who had insisted on buying Laura a red rose, was feeling for some change, when a loud, grating English voice behind them cried: “Good gracious, Laura, what a surprise!” It was Mrs. Curtis, in printed cotton and a panama hat, attended by a depressed-looking boy with a basket. Her big, wet teeth glittered, giving her the look of a cannibal. “And Mr. Wensley!” she exclaimed, more heartily still, as though she had only just noticed him, and shook Armin’s hand. To Laura she said, with a suggestion of yearning: “Have you heard from dear Carl?”
“He only left this morning: he’s still on the train.”
“Oh, of course. How silly of me. Well! Shopping? Oh, lilies, how lovely. I’m afraid I’ve just come in for some very dull necessities: soap, you know, and corn-plasters and steel wool, things like that. This boy—I’ve had to speak to him rather sharply, I’m afraid; he’s been trying to tell me where to shop . . . he’s got a lot of uncles and cousins, I daresay, after my custom. They’re all in league, you know,” she added confidentially to Armin. “Laura dear, now you’re on your own we must see something of each other. Let’s see, how long is Carl to be away?”
“A fortnight,” said Laura.
“Then we must play bridge,” cried Mrs. Curtis, with rasping geniality. “Now, when are you free?”
“Well,” said Laura. “Well, you see . . .” Armin blessed her for her lack of accomplishment. “I’m not exactly sure. I’ve got a cocktail party this evening, and tomorrow it’s racing and another party: and on Sunday . . .”
“Then, why not Sunday?” Mrs. Curtis’s sociable eagerness was beginning to be edged with huff.
“Do you know, dear Mrs. Curtis,” Laura’s own voice held, for Armin’s ears, a note of desperation, “I think I’ll have to telephone you. I’ll have to look at my book at home. . . .”
Mrs. Curtis laughed like a tired hyena, but briefly. “Such a popular girl,” she said. “Well, I’m sure Carl has no need to worry about you when he’s away. You’ll hardly notice, dear, will you, with so much to do? Well . . . I must be off. I’ll leave it to you, Laura, to ring me up. Goodbye, Mr. Wensley. So nice to have seen you again. I’m so glad Laura’s got someone of her own age to run about with.” And beckoning her cowed small slave, she was off like Boadicea into the alien crowd.
“Game and set to Mrs. Curtis,” said Laura, almost with admiration.
“And last night,” said Armin accusingly, “you called that beastly woman a dear.”
“I know, Armin. You must forgive me. It was just stupid social shorthand. You see, I didn’t know you very well, then.” She looked at him anxiously, lips parted; he loved the light arch of her teeth.
Armin was so enraptured that Laura could thus confirm their intimacy, so rapid in its flowering, that for a moment he had no words.
“Well,” he said at last, “don’t tell me she’s rather pathetic really, because she isn’t.”
“No, Armin,” said Laura, “I know she isn’t, and . . . well, I think we’ll try and keep out of her way.”
“That would be a pleasure in itself,” said Armin grimly but grimness vanished at the thought of conspiracy with Laura, of what was implied in her last phrase.
They left the market and had tea in an Italian cake-shop. Laura had to be at home by six and would have driven Armin to the Peytons’, but he refused. He went with her to get the car in the quiet back-street where they had left it. They had arranged to meet on Sunday, early in the morning at the same place. Already, Armin could feel it, they were adapting themselves, slipping into a routine of concealment although, as yet, neither of them had said very much. Laura gave him her hand through the car window. Armin put it swiftly to his lips, released it and stood back. When he had watched the little car out of sight, he walked for two hours on the Maidan, in a glory warmer and more splendid than the sunset displayed in chill magnificence beyond the river.
All through Saturday and the two endless nights Armin barely existed for other people. As if rapt with opium his mind’s eye, his actual eye almost, was filled with moving visions of Laura. Where her skin had touched his the place was hallowed: sometimes, almost unconsciously, he would explore hand or arm lightly with his finger tips, a magic for reassurance. At night he lay as though crucified, pressed back into his bed, willing himself, with a force that shook him like a fever, to be the clothes that fell whispering from her body, the water that licked and ran all over her, the breath that skimmed her parted lips, the cold floor beneath her small, warm feet.
This was Calcutta’s “cold season”, of days of a bearable sun, cool nights and sharp, misty mornings. To Armin lying awake in the long hours came all the troubling nightsounds of an Indian city, the piercing scents and the intolerable moon. He heard jackals cry like dying eunuchs, heard the glassy reiterations of a nightjar, the howling of dogs, shouts and inexplicable commotions, sometimes music, near or far. Some festival was in progress and from the servants’ quarters below his window came, like the beating of another heart, unremittingly, the soft rhythm of a tom-tom. He could imagine the drummer, a dreamy boy perhaps, become for the time being a thing, a conductor merely for a dark force which expressed itself in this rhythm, tapping, patting, smoothing, pausing and resuming, to a circle of entranced faces, half lit by a poor oil lamp on the beaten floor. Bodies slightly swaying, he and his listeners would sit in this way for hours, jaws slowly working as they chewed their pans of betel-nut, while the drummer tirelessly sent out his music, to be felt as much as heard. Against this powerful message to the senses, this siren-song, stopping the ears was useless. Armin flung this way and that in bed, trying to break the spell, but the passion of the muttering drum-beats continued remorselessly, a ground bass to the troubled music of his own heart.
From the servants’ quarters, too, came other sounds of life, raised voices, a child’s cry, snatches of atonal song, and from time to time a warm enveloping breath of cooking spices, exacerbating to the senses in their own way. Armin cursed the symbolism of his situation five storeys up above this ancient, unaltered life, surrounded with civilised comforts, relatively rich and free, and yet utterly at the mercy of the humble, unwilled enchantments rising from below. At times he longed to go down and join the dark drummer and his friends, fall in with the listening circle, sit cross-legged in the red-gold flare of the ancient lamp, beg mutely to be told about his other self, his lost self, the self that his forefathers had been at such pains to lose. Then he would think how deeply shocked they would be, and how uncomprehending, and he would cry, silently: “There is no communication,” and reach under the mosquito net to switch on the light and try to read, and think of Laura, and wonder if she, too, lay with heavy limbs listening to the jackals and the nightjar, her dark hair spread out and her white skin damp with sweat.
On the Sunday morning Laura met him at the recess of the narrow street, before the shuttered warehouse which might have been a chapel. There was about her a charming air of truancy; she looked guilty and excited and gay. A picnic-basket lay on the back seat of the little car, with rugs and a large umbrella of cream-coloured silk.
They were shy with each other at first, and Laura made a great show of attention to her driving as they pursued a subtle course through the lesser streets, first north and then westwards, towards the river. Some attention was necessary, in any case. Although it was only nine o’clock, the streets were full of a great variety of traffic. There were rickshaws and dilapidated victorias, and windowless four-wheeled cabs like boxes, cars, trams, motor-lorries, and carts drawn by humped white or dun-coloured bullocks. To and fro, beside and amongst the vehicles, people swam and eddied like bubbles in a mill-race. There was already an air of almost desperate busyness, of energy being parcelled out upon an infinity of minute matters, of surge and withdrawal like the movement of blood from the heart. A man carried a small, soiled bundle on his head, his whole attitude crying out for care on the part of others, as though his life itself might be contained in it. An old woman in a stained and faded sari, wrinkled, hook-nosed, with flying wisps of grey hair, held her left hand against her, tightly closed and, every few steps, cautiously opened it and fingered with the other a few small coins. Men pushed rickety home-made trolleys with a corded bundle, a brass cooking-pot, a broken-in fibre suitcase—perhaps a cane chair with its seat in tatters, a bedroom jug, a bootjack, or the top of a chiffonier.
“People move,” said Laura, “all the time, from one part of the city to another. They take all their possessions and all their family, and there’s usually more family than possessions. I always long to know about them. . . . There’s so many things I want to know about that I’m completely barred from. You’re lucky, Armin. You will really have a chance to get under the surface, find the life that goes on all the time, independently of us.”
“Yes, I m lucky,” said Armin. “For the present, anyway. I don’t think I could have stood it in any other job—not being allowed to get down and find out.” Laura circumnavigated a cow which was wandering peacefully along, now on, now off the pavement. “Sacré cow!” she murmured.
High houses with balconies of turned and fretted wood leaned inwards above them. In every square foot of space, at pavement-level, some sort of commerce was going on. At the edge of the pavement men were being shaved or having the hairs tweaked from their ears and nostrils. Here and there were stalls of sweetstuff, carmine pink and pistachio green, or fruit sliced ready for eating and acrawl with flies. The air reeked and clattered with ten thousand scents and sounds.
“You see what I mean,” Laura said, “about its being human. And alive. Nothing the least bit impositive about anything!”
“I do see. I love to watch it. Since I’ve been here I’ve discovered that if the streets look like a riot everything’s normal: it’s when they suddenly empty that you need to worry.”
The traffic-cluttered bridge over the Hooghly lay before them. Below it the river washed darkly down, soiled from the jute mills, opaque with sand, littered with barges and tottering sailing craft.
“Where are we going?” asked Armin. “And do we have to come back? Here’s the Grand Trunk Road and all India before us!”
“We’re going up river,” Laura said, “to see a temple Micky thinks he’s discovered, and I thought we’d have a picnic near the river. As to coming back—well, yes, I’d rather like to. I have a plan, but I shan’t tell you about it till you see it, if you see what I mean.”
“I don’t, but I won’t ask any more. I’ll give myself up to mystery—and may this day last for ever.”
“Spare a thought for the evening,” said Laura, without emphasis.
Armin looked at Laura, but she kept her eyes on the road ahead. In the shade of her hat her profile looked pure and rather severe in its petaline perfection. Her expression told him nothing, but Armin’s heart leaped like a fish.
“What about this temple?” he asked, after a pause during which Laura threaded brilliantly a double line of countermarching bullock carts.
“Very choice, Micky says. Small, and late, and much neglected, but some very amusing carvings. I think I know what Micky means by amusing! We may be terribly shocked . . . or terribly disappointed.”
“Let’s hope for the first,” said Armin comfortably.
“Armin,” said Laura presently, “you’re looking rather pale. Have you been sleeping all right?”
“Curiously enough I haven’t.”
“Poor Armin, staying up too late I expect. I sleep like a top.”
“That’s exactly what I was afraid of.” Armin could not keep a touch of real bitterness out of his voice. Laura looked round at him quickly, then back at the road. She said nothing.
“We are like children,” Armin thought, “tying strings across the lion’s cave. It’s a sweet game, but when . . .”
“Armin, . . .” said Laura.
“That was a lie. I couldn’t sleep either,” and she put her left hand out to him with a swift gesture of comfort. Armin took the hand, held it tightly in both his own, kissed all four fingers and gave it back to her.
“I love you, Laura,” he said, “for what that may mean to you.”
Her voice was very deep when she answered, “Blessed Armin, it means a great deal.” She risked an accident to turn full on him a shining look. “We’ll make each other as happy as we can—in the circumstances—won’t we? And try not to ask too much: not too much all at once?”
“You shall decide, Laura,” Armin said gently. “I’ll follow you anywhere; or lead you, whichever you choose.”
“For today, then, you shall follow me. Will you be content, Armin?”
“I am content.”
Micky had provided maps and compendious instructions for finding his temple. They had to leave the main road at a certain milestone, and lurch off down the grooves of a dusty cart-road towards a village hidden in some mango trees. From this village they had to take one of three almost indistinguishable tracks leading out across the unfenced fields and follow it until they came to another grove of mangoes. A few houses would be concealed here, too, and a responsible person called Mr. Nair, who lived in the only “pukka” house, would take charge of the car. From there onwards they must follow a path across the paddy fields to a small mound and at the other side of this would be the temple.
They laughed a good deal over the directions, which were full of Micky’s possessive personality, and were quite sure that they would wander all day between identical mango groves, over acres of identical rice-fields, without ever finding the temple at all. To their surprise, after they had left the car in the village they came out of the shade of the dark trees to see the mound Micky had spoken of rising importantly from this utterly flat land, half a mile away. Laura walked in front of Armin along a narrow bank between the square fields of yellowing rice.
“It looks like the wheat at home,” Laura said. “Do you think much about England, Armin? Are you ever homesick?”
“Less and less every day. I love it, but I know now that I could spend all my life away from it. I very probably shall. Do you long for it, my love?”
“Only through greed, I think,” Laura answered. “I’d like to have it as well. If I were free, even as free as you are, I could be an old woman before I’d stopped having my first look round in India. Then I’d start all over again! But don’t forget, I don’t get treats like this—with you—every day: in fact I don’t get them at all. My life of ease has to be paid for in oceans of bridge and boredom and back-slapping and—oh, other things. I was brought up in Somerset—my father was a clergyman—-miles from anywhere. I loved the country: it was all I had to love—” She stopped speaking abruptly, then, over her shoulder—how clear her voice was!—“for a long time.”
Ten minutes ago they had stopped, at the edge of the sunlight, still under the heavy trees, to kiss; and such lightning had then passed through them that they had drawn apart, shaken, white in the face, each one concerned for the other. Laura had cried, “No, I can’t believe it,” her face transfigured. “What can’t you believe?” Armin had stepped forward quickly, putting his hands to her waist. “Laura—love—is it all right?” She had given him, for a moment, a look of sheer bewilderment which had then flamed into a dazzlingly happy smile. “All right?” she had echoed lovingly. “You’ll see if it isn’t all right, my darling. Oh!” And with that glad cry she had led him off across the chessboard paddy-fields towards their immediate goal.
The mound, covered in rank, strawy grass and low ever-scrub, must represent what once had been the main body of the temple. At close quarters its surface was uneven, full of pits and hollows. They took a path which skirted the mound and came presently to a small dell, a shallow green cup littered with hummocks and bushes and a few fallen stones. Here, standing demurely in isolation, its rosy brick and grey stone alive in the sunlight, stood what was left of the temple, a small building still in fair condition, still recognisable as a shrine. They approached it from behind and found on the far side a paved courtyard with a neem-tree weeping darkly in one corner.
Weeds and tree-roots had grown up here and there between the stones; one or two were broken or canted; but the little space was beautifully proportioned to the tall narrow shrine with its wedge-shaped, ornamented roof and its two low wings, most of whose pillars now lay smashed or uselessly prone at its foot. At the right of the shrine a much-twisted tree with a silvery bark had grown out through the wall and a bunch of creepers climbing up it had spread across the stonework and now hung there thickly matted over most of its area.
“Oh,” said Laura, annoyed with herself, “I wish we’d brought the picnic. It would have been lovely here, it’s so far away; just ourselves and, I suppose, a few scorpions.” She pirouetted, looking at the ground, and pulled off her hat with an impatient sweep of her hand.
“I think we’d have been a bit hot,” said Armin. “That tree doesn’t give much shade, and there isn’t a breath of wind down here. I plump for the river bank: we can always look at the boats if we get bored with each other,” and he lightly stroked the sleek fall of her hair. Laura gave him a preoccupied smile and put a hand on his shoulder.
“Have you seen a lot of Hindu temples?” she asked.
“A few, mostly out of commission like this one.”
“They always do something to me,” said Laura thoughtfully. “It’s always been thought disreputable to have a good word for Hindu temples, except architecturally. But it’s precisely the disreputable things that tug, somewhere here,” and she touched the buckle of her belt. “They make me feel like a child looking at, oh, a much too grown-up book . . . When people complain about Hindu practices, and make faces about them, I make faces too, but I’m only pretending. All the things that they say revolt them—the messy rites, the obtrusive sexuality—I pretend to be revolted by them too, but really I’m not because there’s a part of me that recognises these things, that responds . . . I don’t mean I want to wallow, nor that I could shed at a minute’s notice all my training or the habits of hundreds of years, even if I did want to . . . And temples could easily be tidier . . . But I can’t just blandly condemn, either, something that I know is part of myself—of all ourselves. . . . Oh, Armin,” she looked up at him with momentarily shadowed eyes, “do you understand?”
Armin took Laura’s face between his hands. “Laura,” he said, “in the first place, if you’d told me you were a confirmed vampire I should simply have decided to have a good opinion of vampires from now on: in the second place, long before I set out for India I’d come to much the same conclusion, in theory, that you’ve confirmed with the fact. Will you believe that I do understand?”
“Pretty deplorable, though, for a parson’s daughter,” said Laura with a broken little laugh. She looked more cheerful, but her eyes glistened.
“Depends on the parson,” said Armin. “Too much of a parson might make one too much of a Hindu. The truth, as usual, must lie somewhere in between.”
Laura gazed at him, a small smile on her lips, slowly shaking her head. “Armin,” she asked, “are you really only twenty-three?”
They examined carefully what was left of the shrine.
“It must have been exquisite,” said Laura slowly. She was standing still, absorbed in contemplating with her mind’s eye. “And it’s still very much there. . . .”
“Where are Micky’s famous carvings?” Armin asked. “Have you got the book of instructions?”
“I can remember, said Laura. “One high-relief is lying in the left-hand top corner, over there: the others are under that mass of creepers on the other side.”
He took her hand and they went over to a pile of stained and broken stones. A long carved slab lay half-buried and much defaced. Even in this condition it had the authority of good work; here and there, from the rubbed uneven surface, powdery now with time and weather, sprang a tapering hand, a broadly leering face, a circular disproportionate breast. From even these unrelated fragments there came an almost ferocious sense of life.
They looked at the slab in silence for a minute, hand in hand. Laura gave a little shiver. “Come on,” she said, “let’s go and see what’s in the other corner.”
“Let me go first, then. I’ll have to hold back the creepers.”
Armin found that by pulling at the tree’s slim trunk the tangled stems could be separated so that it was possible to see the wall surface beneath. While Armin held the tree, Laura inspected the sculptured stones, a long frieze set into the wall five feet above its elaborate base.
She came out after a minute, looking thoughtful. “I’ll hold the tree,” she said.
When Armin had finished looking they wandered over to the entrance of the shrine. The doorway was low and square and beyond it was black darkness from which came a chill, earthy, but still faintly fragrant breath.
“I wouldn’t have called them amusing,” Laura said. “Wonderful, and repulsive, and exciting, but not that.”
“They’re magnificently done,” Armin said. He thought it would be long before he forgot the impression of dedicated lust, of orgiastic glee and resource, of truly profound knowingness that the sculptures had given him.
“Well, there they are,” he went on. “If Hinduism had put such things inside its shrines, the whole business would have had to be dismissed as low comedy. But . . . to put them outside, as they do, and to leave the inside uncompromisingly secret, dark and bare, that’s an idea one must pay attention to. No good attempting to pray until certain things are behind you, if only temporarily: and not just side-stepped or ignored, but fully experienced.”
They were standing one on either side of the doorway. Laura suddenly put out her hand. Armin clasped it and in the warm stillness filled with the noise of crickets, across the threshold of the ancient, humbled shrine, they wordlessly pledged themselves to a long journey.
Armin and Laura ate legs of cold duck on a high bank above the river. They sat on rugs in the shade of a ruined wall and the glowing dusk shed by Laura’s large umbrella with its lining of red silk. They had motored on a few miles up the main road and turned eastwards towards the river. When they could drive no farther along a diminishing track, they had left the car in a grassy hollow, where a child was tending goats, and had climbed a green shoulder to look across at the ghâts and jute mills and disposed-looking trees of the other shore. The view was spacious, empty-seeming, vast. Boats and clustering villages, the angular blocks of factory buildings, and woods of tall trees were microscopic in the huge flood of light; and the river itself, splendid, matronly, bore slowly on, dwarfing its own commerce, hushing its dead away to the sea.
Laura had brought papayas, red-fleshed and juicy, and these they ate messily, laughing a good deal.
“You wouldn’t believe the trouble I had getting an ordinary sort of picnic out of the servants,” she said. “They simply don’t see picnics except with silver and linen and chairs and tables, and silk tents, and cooking stoves—and, of course, themselves coming along too!”
“My darling Laura, you live like a Renaissance princess—and it’s no fun?”
“Not much; but very comfortable. Sappingly so, I suppose. I try, Armin, I do try not to fall into believing that I have it all because of my own outstanding qualities!”
“They ought to guarantee it to you anyway,” said Armin.
“Having a great deal of money produces its own simplicities,” said Laura. “I used not to believe that. I used to sneer dreadfully at our local magnate’s wife at home when she talked about things she couldn’t afford, and about her ‘interests’. I couldn’t see her for her servants and gardeners and all the things I hadn’t got. Now I’ve got thirty servants, and I don’t suppose anyone wants to hear me talking about the pleasure of picnicking like this.” Her tone was ironical and a little sad. “It’s your moral stories again, Armin. I told you I was glad to be rich, and I am. Because I’ve nothing to make me glad to be poor.”
Armin felt a twisting of pain at this. He was not to know, yet, that a world is not created in a moment. He could not resist saying: “Could I make you glad?”
Laura leaned quickly to him and took both his hands. “Don’t, Armin darling,” she said, “not yet. You said you’d follow me, today—remember?”
Armin asked for forgiveness; he was in that state of love where emotion is like quicksilver, running and flashing from dark to light. He knelt beside Laura, his arm round her firm shoulder, and looked across to the other side of the river. He abandoned fretting, abandoned the attempt to see beyond the hour, and gave himself up to his senses feeling resilient flesh under his fingers and thin breezes threading the even sunlight, scenting earth and herbs and hot stone.
“I’m sleepy,” Laura said.
“Then you shall sleep, and I will be your pillow.”
“Aren’t you sleepy, too?”
“I’d rather watch you sleep.” He settled himself against the stonework and she lay down with her head against his chest.
Laura slept long, without moving. When she awoke the sun had moved westwards and a hint of twilight was already in the air. Laura opened her eyes, blinked and turned her head to look up at Armin. He smiled down at her.
“You wake like a child, quite clear-eyed,” he said admiringly.
“Memsahibs get accustomed to afternoon naps, there’s so little else in their lives,” said Laura. “I think, now, we could begin to be going back.”
“What for?” said Armin, to tease her. Laura sat up straight, looking solemn.
“My plan,” was all she said.
In this light the river shone like a pearl. They walked beside it on the sandy turf for a little way. Straight and free-moving in her pale green linen dress, Laura walked quickly, sure-footed on the uneven ground. Her round linen hat of the same pale colour shaded her forehead; in its shade her very large eyes with pupils ringed in brown and gold, drawn to a point at each outer corner like leaves, thicketed with crowding black lashes, had a faint luminosity. Armin was amused and touched to see freckles on the bridge of the straight, strong nose. The movement of her shoulders, her swinging bare arms, the simple white gloves she wore, the white shoes planting themselves so firmly, the white belt so snugly embracing her waist, all were enslaving to Armin as nothing had ever been. Some scent of great sweetness drifted their way and with it came to him a sudden languor, a misting of the senses recalling what, in the desperate straits of adolescence, he had sometimes experienced on simply breathing the word “her”.
They struck off down the embankment in the direction of their car. Beneath them, in a hollow, invisible from above, lay a tumbledown village of a few huts and some gnawed-looking toddy palms. Here, kneeling in the dust, they found a young girl in a crimson sari busily, with long fine fingers, shaping cow-dung into round cakes for fuel. The finished cakes she stuck on the mud wall of her home, which was already half-covered with a regular pattern of them. The girl was immaculate, her sari faded but crisp, her shining black hair smoothly drawn back and knotted. She had a few glass bangles on each arm and small gold buttons in her ears.
Laura stopped for a minute to watch the girl at work. Armin saw that her eyes held amusement and a kind of affection.
“I simply couldn’t find words to tell you what that says to me,” she said.
“One word would do,” said Armin. “India.”
Laura nodded. “How many prosperous women would give anything to be as lovely as she is,” she mused. “What a country, where all the real princesses are goose-girls.”
Armin drove the car to Calcutta, then changed places with Laura. As they crossed the Howrah Bridge the sun was going down in a veil of red dust behind them: the city streets ahead were leaden with twilight, the housetops just touched with pink. Again they took a roundabout way, a wide curve southwards through unfamiliar suburbs, sad tracts of stained cement hovels and vacant lots, rubbishy, makeshift, among the black staves of telephone wires and thin struggling trees. The first lights were pricking out in the gathering dusk when they came to a neighbourhood quieter, more orderly, with long walls suggesting large gardens, peaceful and discreet.
Since entering the city each had been silent, busy with a version of the same thought. Full of sun and air, the nearest thing to freshness the hot plains can ever offer, after a day lived hard, a day of strained senses out to miss nothing, of heart-shaking joy and promise, each now felt lassitude, a delicious suspension: each was gathering force for the next great trial.
Laura said in a voice just strung with excitement, “Here we are,” and turned the car into a narrow lane between high, pale walls. The lane was empty: there were no houses: as in a dream, the straight walls were lines ruled to a vanishing point, rubbed out by twilight. Laura stopped the car just short of a pair of solid wooden gates, the only relief to the blankness of the right-hand wall. She took a key from her bag and gave it to Armin.
As he closed the gates again behind the car, as the engine died and quiet descended, Armin shut out the known world. Together they went through a narrow gap in some bushes and again Laura said, “Here we are.”
They were at the edge of a little lawn ringed with tall trees. The last light gleamed in a square pool, full of lotus leaves. On one side, rising from a plinth of three steps, stood a white pavilion, a Petit Trianon in Moghul style. It seemed singularly pure and clear in that reluctant light, as though made of marble. Its delicate, scalloped arches were glazed and in one of them was a door. Laura took Armin by the hand.
The door closed behind them, and now the world was twice removed. Laura led him a few paces through complete darkness. He heard a switch click and light broke from nowhere on a room which made him sigh sharply, with pleasure. It was a room from one of his favourite Indian paintings, pale and spacious, undecorated but for the pretty retting of the arched doors, uncoloured save for the faded rose tones of cushions sewn with gold, scattered on a broad, square divan against one wall. There were a few carved and gilded stools and low tables, a few cups and dishes of jade holding flowers. Across each of four open arches at one side curtains of figured silk hung in shapely folds. The light, he could see now, was thrown up to the coved ceiling from hidden sources at each corner. The scent of jasmine was strong in the room.
Laura again took his hand and led him to the big divan. “This is an Indian room,” she said, “made for Indians. We must recline as they do. Are you good at reclining?” She looked so young, so eager, so unlike the poised and competent young matron he had first known, that Armin felt suddenly protective, anxious, deeply responsible. He prayed that he might make her happy.
She made him sit down and brought him cushions so that he could half lean, half lie in an attitude more comfortable and less ungainly than sitting upright only ten inches from the floor. Then she left him alone, telling him to be patient and practise reclining.
When she had gone, and the silk door-curtain was still again, Armin lay back against a fat cushion and lit a cigarette. It was hard to be patient, hard to stay still at all, when every bone and tendon of his body sang with longing. He blessed Laura for the truth and certainty of her feeling, for her courage, and for the imagination which had devised this paradisal “plan”. He then felt suddenly in his ribs the cold steel of an idea that perhaps such plans were familiar to her, that the radiant purposefulness which had made him, all day, content to follow where she led might be the achievement of habit, the smooth pursuit of a pattern first traced long ago.
“And what business is it of mine?” he cried internally. “Why can’t I take what I’m given and be grateful? How many million meanings has the word love?”
He loved Laura: she was truly the first love of his life. Sentimental excursions there had been, beginning in his boyhood. On several occasions in the last five years he had gone through movements, emotional and physical, which had seemed at the time to be worth calling love. Now, he knew that, in these, he had been playing with a minor definition. Laura, at their first meeting, had burned his heart to a cinder, racked and distracted every one of his senses, and then tenderly recreated him. This evening would perhaps—how could he tell?—merely confirm for her something she already knew; for him it could only be the frontier to a newer, more splendid world. And now he had to reward her angelic kindness by disintegrating into jealousy, shaming himself with the image, so long and so carefully concealed as to be thought dead, of an insecurity to recognise which must make of all his pretensions a melancholy collection of lies.
“What does it matter,” he asked himself, in momentary despair, “if she’s had a hundred lovers, as long as she loves me for an hour?” and could only answer: “It matters like hell.”
He was pacing about, simultaneously reproaching himself and thrusting the blade of doubt a little deeper, when Laura came back into the room. Armin started forward to gaze with adoration at a Laura transformed, and now ideally beautiful. She had exchanged her European clothes for a sari of a red so dark as to be, like certain roses, nearly black, with a wide and gleaming border of gold which swept up from her shoulder and over her head in a fluent curve. There were golden sandals on her feet; she wore neither make-up nor jewellery. She stood facing Armin, her bare arms held in front of her, the thin hands palm outwards, her head a little bent, one foot forward, in the eternal attitude of pride and submission. Only in her eyes could Armin see the friendly, gentle, familiar girl; the rest was antique splendour, Byzantium as much as India, the august expression of a deep-laid unvarying dream. He could only stand and gape: love, and shame, and pride in her beauty, and desire rose to choke him; and still, in an unlit corner of his mind, a thin voice said clearly: “How often has she done this before?”
The room had grown large, mysterious. When Laura, in exactly her ordinary voice, asked: “Do you like it?” the walls contracted, the furniture became solid again, and Armin felt as if he were breathing air after a long dive. He still could not trust himself to speak. Laura said slowly, her eyes full of diffident pride and pleasure, “Darling Armin—thank you: you looked so—moved!” and put her hands on his shoulders. At this, Armin just perceptibly drew back. It was the fraction of a movement, but Laura was aware of it and, at the same instant, of his glance slipping past her to take in the room. For Armin, a wall of glass had come down, cutting off the play of their senses. Wretched, he could only stand like wood, feeling utterly hollow, his integrity drained away.
Laura’s face, from being eager and alight, became slowly blank as a child’s in mortal disappointment. Her mouth, her shoulders drooped. With a movement completely forlorn she sank on to the divan and sat, head bent, with her hands in her lap. In a moment her shoulders began to tremble and the sight of this released Armin from his cold inertia: at once he was on his knees beside her, clasping her tightly.
Guilt and cowardice made him say, “Laura, what can be the matter?” but for a while she could only sob. Eventually she let him raise her chin with his hand and he saw her dark eyes gemmed with tears and tears on her cheek.
“I’m sorry,” she said brokenly, and again: “I’m sorry.”
“It’s I who should be sorry,” Armin said. Although this was the plain truth, something made him keep up his pretence of innocence by asking: “What have I done, darling? Tell me what’s gone wrong.”
“You thought—I think you thought. . . You went away from me, Armin—I think I know why. It was this place, wasn’t it, and having it all planned, and the sari and everything. . . . You thought I was used to doing this.” Full of hurt, her eyes scanned his face miserably. All Armin could say, looking down at her hands, was, “Forgive me, Laura. I’m a wretched, ungrateful fool.” He was amazed at the effort it cost him to say, and mean, even this. Laura gave a pitiful little laugh.
“This pavilion,” she said, “belonged to an Indian friend of mine. Her husband built it for her as a wedding-present. He brought builders from somewhere where they’ve kept the art of making plain, graceful things, and spent a fortune on it, he loved her so. He died, and she lives alone in the big house beyond the trees, and never comes here any more. But when I’d married Carl, and things were beginning to go wrong, she told me—quite simply and without any fuss—that the place was mine, she was giving it to me, to use for whatever purpose I pleased, only I wasn’t ever to tell Carl. She meant it. I never have told anybody about it: but I come here often by myself. I’ve even slept here sometimes—alone.” On the last word her voice throbbed with pain.
“Laura,” Armin said again, “I’m begging you—forgive me. I’m a swine and I don’t deserve you: but please, don’t let me have spoilt our evening. Beloved darling, you’d planned everything so wonderfully for us—for me. Think what I’ll feel like all the rest of my life if we can’t go on, if you won’t let me try and make amends.”
Laura smiled, a shade more brightly, and rubbed at the tear-stains on her cheeks. She stroked Armin’s head, looking at him only half-sadly now, with a tender, almost maternal acquiescence which hurt him more than her tears. She pulled his ear gently.
“I don’t know how the human race has managed to keep going so long,” she said, “with men and women having such a difficult time understanding each other!”
Armin felt an enormous sense of release. He could hardly regret the meanness of his thoughts, or Laura’s tears, because of the peace that now filled him so completely. He smiled worshippingly up at Laura and, taking her hands, began to kiss first one and then the other, then wrist and forearm and the soft, veined hollow of her elbow. Laura dropped back against the cushions with a sigh. The sari fell away from her head and Armin, bending over her, kissed hair and forehead and eyebrows, ran a chain of kisses down her nose, and fastened full upon her mouth at the same instant that his right hand found her breast. She gave a small, dove-like moan. The thin silk was no more than air between her warm flesh and his exploring hand. She moved her round limbs this way and that, and moaned sweetly again.
For a long time Armin had been leaning on one elbow looking down at Laura’s sleeping face. Passion had left the suggestion of a flush under her clear skin. Below her closed eyelids, darker skinned and delicately curved, her long eyelashes lay on her cheeks and curled upwards luxuriantly. The sweat of their encounter still glistened on her chest. Armin had covered as much as he could of the rest of her with his coat although the room, even now, seemed warm. Under the soft, reflected light her lineaments were flawless, pure, her whiteness almost incandescent. Armin looked down on his lover with joy and gratitude, protectively, vigilantly, but also with a faint sense of loss. She had gone away from him into sleep. Part of him wanted to see her sleep like this for ever; another part wanted to wake her and see her lips stir to frame a word. He said, quietly, as though to himself:
“I suppose I should be feeling guilty.”
The dark eyelids fluttered and Laura looked up at him. She smiled drowsily, closed her eyes, sighed and opened them again.
“About Carl, do you mean?” she asked.
“Well, you are guilty, love: we both are. If we are hurting Carl we must face the fact. . . . But I’m as nearly certain as I am of anything that it’s impossible to hurt Carl through any person.” She nestled deeper into the cushions. “Through things, yes. And if it’s my infidelity you’re worrying about—don’t. Carl has never given a second thought to his own, and fair’s fair, I suppose. If I haven’t done this before, it’s because I’ve been . . . waiting: waiting for something special.” She put up a warm hand and touched Armin’s cheek. There was a delicious peacefulness in her smile. “Oh, Armin, you’ve covered me up! You are kind!”
Her naïve and trustful tone made Armin laugh with pure affection. He put his hands under her shoulders and lifted her up to him to give her a cool kiss on the forehead. “I was afraid you might catch a chill,” he said.
They were reclining now, without effort, and as they talked sleepily together life was flowing back to them. Laura became with every waking minute more lively.
“Poor Armin,” she suddenly said, “I never offered you a drink,” and sat up abruptly, looking housewifely and serious. She touched his narrow waist. “You’re a fine figure of a chap,” she said lightly.
“I could do with a drink,” said Armin. “ I could eat an ox.”
“There’s one in the refrigerator,” Laura said. “But we must have a little drink, first of all, to celebrate . . . something! I can’t imagine what?” and she threw off Armin’s coat. They gazed at each other in the purity of friendliness which follows a well-matched battle of love. Armin bent swiftly and laid his hot cheek on the slight curve of her belly, at the same time imprisoning her with his arms. He felt laughter shaking her. “If you hug me to death you won’t get a drink,” her voice came down to him, gruffly musical. He had to let her go, and watched fascinated while she made the length of red silk, which had long lain neglected, lifeless-looking on the marble floor, into the living, glowing swathes of a sari once again.
Laura went out and came back a couple of times, bringing ice in a bowl, a bottle of champagne, glasses, a dish of small savouries. She would not allow Armin to stir. “Let me be a Hindu wife,” she begged him. “Let me serve my lover—only I can’t be one, quite, because I want a drink and I want to drink with you!”
They drank to one another, talked and fell silent, were peaceful and hilarious by turns. Armin got up to fill her glass again; Laura caught his free hand and kissed it.
“Now I’m hungry,” she said, “and I want to hear all about you. But let me get some food first.”
This time she let him come with her and help her in the kitchen. They carried the dishes back into the big room and set them down on the floor. While they ate, Armin told her about himself, about his home and his parents, and his even progress from school to university, and the indiscernible unsatisfactoriness which had troubled him for so long. He told of his fascination by languages and of his oriental studies under the aegis of his Uncle Hugh, and his decision to try for the Political Service. The chronicle seemed dull to him, lacking in light and shade; it was even difficult for him to remember very clearly events not more than two years past.
“You know,” he said to Laura, “I’ve only just this minute realised it fully, but I didn’t begin to live till I came to this country. Everything before that seems extraordinarily far away, colourless, irrelevant. Everything since is as vivid and clear and high-coloured as—as the Market was on Friday.”
“You were probably meant to come to India. Perhaps you’re looking for something you can only find here—some part of yourself, perhaps. I don’t exactly know what I mean but I feel—I’ve felt from the beginning—that you’re, what can I say?—after something. You may easily not know it, but I promise you, compared to most people, you look astonishingly purposeful, directed, as though you were going somewhere and nothing was going to stop you.”
“Perhaps I’m going to have a splendid official career and end up with a knighthood!”
“You easily might, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you did nothing of the kind. I’ve known a lot of ordinarily ambitious people, and—Armin darling, you’re not made of the same stuff at all. No one may ever hear of you in a worldly way: but I believe you’ll have a wonderful life, and I know that no one who has once loved you could ever forget you. . . .” She looked at him rather sadly, her eyes very wide.
Armin jumped up to kiss her cheek. “Darling,” he murmured, “please don’t look at me like that. And don’t talk as if we’d parted for ever when everything’s just beginning. The real truth is I came to India to find you, and I’d cheerfully let my career go hang if you’d come with me and live in the forest.”
“Oh, Armin, dear love—don’t! Please don’t!”
Four full days and nights remained to Armin and Laura when at three o’clock next morning she put him down in the black shadow of a tamarind a hundred yards from the Peytons’ home. Everything had been arranged, she told him: for most of this time it would be possible for her to disappear.
Armin had nothing to fear from the Peytons, now practically demented in the penultimate stage of departure. They refused, to his vast relief, his offers of help and seemed sincerely thankful when he told them at breakfast on Monday that he had a wonderfully full programme for the rest of his leave. “Don’t forget the dance on Friday,” they reminded him and then plunged once more into their disordered drama of farewell.
We haven’t a hope of not being seen by somebody,” Laura said the same morning when, as after an elaborate “chance” meeting in the Great Eastern hotel, they were drinking cocktails before luncheon in a dark corner. “All we can do is try not to be seen twice by the same person. Anyway, whatever happens, I’m not going to have our time spoilt by worrying about people.” She said the word people with the nearest thing to a sneer possible to her, as though the people in her life were a contemptible species, lower than humanity.
“Best not to be seen even once by Mrs. Curtis,” Armin said.
“If she sees us now it will be the second time. She saw us in the market, remember. . . And for Mrs. C. I rather think once was enough. Arthur Curtis, by the way, is going to Bombay this evening to join Carl. He telephoned to ask if I had any message. . . .”
“And had you?”
“Of course. I told Arthur to say I was quite all right. True enough, in its way! But he’s probably been primed by his wife with some interesting hints. . . .” She made her little personal grimace, lips pressed together.
Armin moved his glass about with a fingertip and said with wry amusement, half to himself: “I ought to feel badly . . . I can’t understand why I don’t . . . I was brought up to have all the right inhibitions, and now . . . Laura!”
She raised her face, smiling and narrowing her eyes, as though heading into a cool breeze. “Yes, darling?”
“Do you love Carl?”
“Do you hate him?”
She shook her head slowly, still with her eyes on Armin’s, still faintly smiling. “No. Not now, not any longer.” She was silent for a few seconds and then said: “I’m not going to tell you the whole story of my life, because the only bit I care about is happening at this moment and I don’t want to waste time. But I came out to India eight years ago when I was nineteen, to get over a love affair . . . an unhappy one: my father thought an impossible one. . . . Don’t ask me about it, Armin, it’s truly dead and gone, all gone now. But at first I was miserable for—oh, a long time: and Calcutta was odious. I had no money, and very little fun, and I didn’t belong in the world I came to here, stuffy and incurious and cat’s-cradled with idiotic snobberies—’a hot little middle-class heaven’, as Micky calls it. Carl . . . I suppose he said he loved me as well, but principally he offered me an escape to something tangible—wealth, and what he called a good time—a different world, though not much better as it turned out. We met by accident, and were married almost immediately. . . . Armin—” she reached across the round marble table and took his hand. He was always to remember their hands joined lightly on that cold slab. “Armin—I’ll say this now, and never say it again: I’m not going to leave Carl. . . . No, please Armin,” as he jerked forward to speak, “please listen. I’m going to stay with Carl—not for his sake, nor for my own, but for yours. I’m going to stay with Carl, and enjoy his money, and make the best use of it and myself that I can. I am not going to leave him. Oh, don’t look so wretched, love. Please don’t. Listen: I love you as I’ve never loved anyone—as I mean never to love anyone again. You must take all that I have to give you, now and bless you for wanting it—but you mustn’t ask for more. I know—don’t ask me how I know, but I do—that if I came fully into your life at this moment I’d be committing a crime, a real crime, many thousand times worse than just deceiving Carl, who doesn’t care anyway, as long as his pride’s intact. Armin darling, please smile—please don’t look so sad!”
Armin raised his head and looked long and searchingly into the candid eyes. Despondency was like lead in his veins: he felt heavy and cold as the marble beneath his hand. Yet deep in his mind something twanged and settled into place, a string hummed with an unstopped vibrancy, the outline of a voice said, “Again!” A longing to reject, to deny something he could not name burned his nerves. Suddenly a brief illumination flared in his consciousness with the phrase, “Must I always move on . . . and on?” He felt as racked, disintegrated as if he had shouted the words through bared teeth at the dark, anxious waiters, into the complacent faces of the other people in the room. Already he knew the answer.
Laura was speaking softly, urgently, her eyes full of pity and love. “I couldn’t do it, Armin, I couldn’t do it if I wasn’t sure, quite absolutely sure, that the end will be wonderful—that one day you’ll be glad. . . .”
Armin shook himself and attempted a smile. His limbs felt lighter. He had to swallow twice before he said, “And you, Laura? My darling, what about you?”
She smiled and looked away for a moment, musingly. “A woman—some women anyway—can live for ever on a very short experience of love, provided it is the right experience. . . . Oh, Armin—I’m so glad you came to my dinner party!”
They wandered about Calcutta, choosing their times with an eye to security, acting small charades of indifference and politeness whenever they thought they were observed. They went to the Zoo and the Eden Gardens and walked down narrow paths through an elegant formalisation of the tropics, where the vegetation looked harder to tame than the beasts and birds. They spent hours in shops like birdcages, looking at jewels and at silk gauzes so fine-spun they hung like clouds when thrown into the air. They visited the English Cemetery, to be haunted by intimations of the glorious and pathetic destiny of their race . . . and the great temple of Kali, to be sent reeling by its brazen magnificence and the sense of a permanent emotional storm enclosing a small, hard truth. Towards the evening of each too brief day Armin and Laura returned, by unfrequented routes, to the enclosed garden, the still pavilion which was their home.
Armin moved through the days and nights in continuous exaltation. His love for Laura now lay in and around every circumstance of his life. The air he breathed, the sky he walked under, the little food he ate, the sights that filled his eyes were made insubstantial and yet infinitely actual by her essence permeating them. In the few hours which he was obliged to spend away from her he found himself crippled, incomplete, as if he had lost a limb. It seemed as though Laura’s life had been waiting to come into flower for him. Her imaginativeness, her sometimes fantastic gaiety, her strength and endurance in passion, all now unfolded for Armin with uncloyed freshness. She was supremely endowed for love, yet the gift, after its early frustration, had never been used. In each other’s arms Laura and Armin found violent joy and delicate tenderness; their acts of love silenced for both of them a hundred carking voices and healed a hundred wounds. How lucky they were was weirdly illustrated for Armin on the day when Laura brought with her to the pavilion her neutered Siamese. As he and she lay quietly together, quite consumed, the animal stepped restlessly backwards and forwards over their bodies, arching and sidling, emitting again and again hollow cries of desolation which seemed to speak for everything in nature that was lonely, frustrated or deprived.
In a flash the time was gone. It was Friday again, and the next day Armin was to leave for Delhi on the night mail. All afternoon they stayed in the pavilion, since their evening was not to be entirely their own. Armin had not in any conscience been able to get out of the last festivity benevolently provided for him by the Peytons, a dance at Tollygunge in the house of some people he already knew. Laura, asked in her own right, had accepted, knowing Armin’s plans. They would go separately to the dance . . . Laura would leave early . . . Armin would follow and they would meet and drive to the pavilion. It was all arranged.
They were lounging peacefully on the storm-tossed cushions of the divan, pale and feverish with a love-making which had hourly passed barrier after barrier of delight, when suddenly Laura started up crying “Oh, no!” They had left the curtains of one archway undrawn for the view through it of the pool and the placid trees and for air in a hot afternoon. Armin, at Laura’s exclamation, glanced quickly at the garden and saw a uniformed servant marching towards them from the direction of the big house, carrying a letter on a tray.
That moment had been the true end of everything for Laura and Armin. Laura had had to leave behind her the telephone number of her Indian friend in case of an urgent message from Carl. (“Though all Carl’s messages are urgent,” she had said.) The opened note lay in her lap for a full minute while Laura stared out into the garden, her face drawn and quiet. Eventually she said, in an exhausted tone. “Carl’s got to go to England, he says . . . sailing on Monday . . . He wants me to go, too. I must take a train tomorrow night, my darling—just like you.”
With that the glass bubble which had enclosed their love shattered completely. All at once present fatigue and a future of infinite sterility absorbed them. Wordless, they left their paradise with hardly a backward glance, and drove away.
“Oh, Armin!” Laura’s dry voice rent her throat. “We’re beaten. We must not go back there: we must say goodbye tonight at the dance . . . I couldn’t bear it any other way.” She did not cry, but as he drove her little car down one featureless street after another, through a world grown alien and unappetising, she leaned her head listlessly on his shoulder and drew every few seconds a long shaking breath.
On the night before the steamer was due to reach Dhubri, Armin and Mackenzie were once more sitting in the little saloon, drinking whisky, while Mackenzie rumbled on with his reminiscences of Assam. The days had brought a change to Armin’s mind. When he had planned it, he had not dreamed that the long, peaceful river journey might prove too long. Already he found himself filled, as he had not been in Calcutta, with an itch of impatience to get to Rongphar. His long hours of thinking alone had not had quite the effect for which he had hoped. Far from being able to see the events of his life reduced and clear and in a proper relation to one another, he had felt stirring a sense that all, up to now, had been a sketch and a rehearsal, that there was nothing upon which the last word had been said. He had thought of Laura, now far away in England—she had never returned—had relived the perfect episode she had made him, and had been amazed at the restlessness which then took hold of his heart. Although the image of Laura herself was by now a little diminished, his whole being, as he thought of her, was flooded with a strengthening sense of imminent love. He longed for activity, wanted to shorten the voyage and get to Rongphar quickly, to take up again his part in the lives of Henry Greenwood and Kumari, the miraculous child who was now a grown girl. Tonight the steamer and its comforts, Mackenzie’s festive recollections, gave him little pleasure.
Mackenzie concluded a tale about a tiger, noted without resentment Armin’s unusually flat response, and said kindly:
“You look a bit tired. . . . Tell me—if you’ve no objection that is—what’s this place like that you’re going to? I’d love to know what sort of a house it is that people make such fables about. Quite apart from its inhabitants. . . .”
Armin was silent, looking at the ice in his drink. Kumari would be sixteen this year. . . . Already the preparations to receive Armin would have begun, his room would have been made ready for a long stay. The rivers would be full and the great waterfall thundering hollowly in its narrow gorge, the great waterfall which was such a seedy mare’s tail in the hot weather, shreds of silver lisping through black moss and shadowed flowers. Henry would now be sitting beside a high-blazing fire, one elegant foot crossed over the other, extended, easy after a day in the open. Kumari would soon be coming in to curtsey goodnight and receive his kiss on her forehead. The sunset Armin had just seen would have burned like an opal in the round arches of the loggia: now, from beyond them, all the night’s noises would be coming in from the forest. Somewhere in the shadow by the door, watchful, silent, darkly gorgeous as a hill-pheasant, with her embroidered petticoats and gold bracelets, would be lurking Kumari’s nurse Kajìr. Kumari would be sixteen this year. This was the year.
Armin felt suddenly fatigued, tired of explaining to Mackenzie, unwilling to go on. He called the steward and ordered more whisky.
He said, a little heavily: “Rongphar is one of the loveliest places I’ve seen. It’s not magnificent, although it’s built of stone, and must certainly have cost a lot of money. Some Indian friend of Henry’s designed it, and I’ll never know how it got built. It’s on an outcrop of granite beside a river, forest on three sides; on the fourth you look out clear across the valley. There’s a good road up from the village, not such a good one from there on down to the railway. There’s a little station where you’re met. The road begins in the village between two big pipal trees that Henry calls his park gates. After that it goes round and round on itself to get up the hill, with the jungle pressing in on both sides. In the end you reach a flat platform of gravel, with the view on one side, and there are two proper stone gate-piers and a paved courtyard with a pool in it, and the house.”
“What’s it like?”
“It isn’t big. Spacious, with a loggia on two sides, north and west. Not unlike an Italian farmhouse, quite unpretentious but solid: it looks storm-proof, proof against anything. The hill slopes gently down towards the valley on the north side, and there’s a walled garden with brick walls. You’d hardly think it out of the ordinary in some places, but in that spot it’s—magical. . . . The tea-garden’s farther east; you get to it from the village. You were right in calling it moribund, but Henry’s had it properly cleared and repaired the buildings and re-stocked it. It produces now, but nothing impressive. There’s a Swiss manager whose real job is being Henry’s agent. He and his wife look after the place and keep the servants in order when Henry’s away, and . . . keep an eye on Kumari.”
Mackenzie leaned forward. Something reluctant in Armin’s tone, some sense that he got of Armin’s inability to speak easily about Rongphar, touched his delicacy and sobered his eager enjoyment of a good gossip. “Kumari?” he said softly. “She’s called Kumari? In Urdu that means girl, or Princess, according to how you look at it.”
Armin nodded. His throat felt tight. Beyond Mackenzie’s redness he could see the courtyard grow blue with twilight, feel the enveloping warmth from stones which all day had been too hot to touch, hear the light lapping of water disturbed in the pool and that voice in which Henry’s English was returned pure as glass, lightly flawed with childish excitement: “Armin, Armin! Come and see me dive!. . .”
Mackenzie said, diffidently: “How old is Kumari?”
“Nearly sixteen. . . . The year I told you about, that Henry was away, when he disappeared so completely—well, as I’ve said, I didn’t know where he’d gone, or exactly what he had in mind. I only suspected that, whatever it was, he’d had it in mind a long time—Flavia’s going off simply set in motion a plan he must have at least sketched to himself already. He’s furiously proud, and Flavia got at his pride in every possible way, but principally in the most damaging way of all, as you know. . . . And that’s not all. He loved her, he offered her his whole self, expecting the same response. I think, but please believe this is only what I think—I have no authority whatever from Henry for thinking it—that Flavia’s defection produced in Henry a determination, or hardened in him one already half-formed, never to be let down by anyone, most particularly by any woman, ever again. It’s . . . hard to explain. Being Henry Greenwood is, as you said yourself more or less, a unique occupation. I’m fond of him, but I’ll never be very close to him: he doesn’t allow that. I do know enough about him, and the way his brain works, to know that he is—dangerously—a perfectionist. Whatever he has or deals in must be the best. His marriage to Flavia seemed all right at first: she was the most beautiful girl in his world, he loved her and he simply had no ears for the whispers about her. When he found her so notably imperfect I think the notion came to him—and you can’t call it crazy, because Henry isn’t crazy: he’s unbendingly logical, and his drive and his money enforce his logic most effectively—I think he had the notion of finding himself a girl, and I needn’t tell you why she had to be Indian, sufficiently young and sufficiently intelligent to be brought up according to his ideas so that, one day, he could have a wife who would be not just his own creation, but his own reflection. In that way, I think he thought, something lasting might be achieved.
“Is she beautiful as well as intelligent and young?”
“She is,” said Armin.
Mackenzie tapped lightly with his fingers on the table’s edge. He looked thoughtful, a little sad, suddenly old.
“All right, Wensley,” he said at length, “you needn’t go on if you don’t want to. I’m a meddlesome old fool, ought to know better after all this time, after all I’ve seen. You’ve given me enough to go on; enough to settle the Greenwood legend a bit, anyway. Leave it to me . . .. I love this country, Wensley, as I believe you do. I’ve been through every stage of hatred, and furious impatience, and refusing to understand, just as I expect you have. I’ve seen it make people and break people in direct proportion as they accepted or rejected it. I’ve seen people try to move it, and fail miserably; and I’ve seen people let themselves be moved by it, and succeed wonderfully, although they usually finished up alone in some way, as I have: but by that time they had come to terms with loneliness as well. . . . I’m inclined to leave Henry Greenwood be, and I’d back you to keep him straight, if anyone could. There’s just one thing that worries me”—he groped, his voice faltering, as though the thought eluded him—“Henry went off like that for a year to look for his dream girl meaning to bring her back with him. He had built Rongphar for her, which was something well in the Greenwood tradition. You’ve implied that you think Henry might have had this at the back of his mind a long time—I’d even add, perhaps all his life—and it’s possible he already knew where to go to find Kumari. Indeed, the more I think of it, the more I believe that must have been so: he wouldn’t just have bought or borrowed a girl from nowhere, not with his particular intentions, which I suppose were to marry her respectably enough once she was of marriageable age. He would have had to know something about her family—heredity, health, everything. Also, she’d have to be alone in the world, an orphan perhaps, familyless, someone’s ward or no one’s, who could be legally adopted. One more question, Wensley, if you’ll allow me, and then I’ll shut up. How old was the child when he found her?”
“Like you, I’m not sure exactly when he first found her: but when she first came to Rongphar she was eleven.”
“And the ayah, did she come out of the blue as well? Ah, there, I’m sorry! You must forgive me. This story . . . it isn’t just idle curiosity . . . it touches something. Take too long to explain.”
“Kajìr, the nurse, is an old hill-woman who was Henry’s own ayah years ago. It’s the same with all the servants: they’re all people he knows about, likes and trusts. And don’t mind asking questions: I trust you. You said something was worrying you.”
Mackenzie thought hard for a minute, as though seeking something elusive in a part of his mind not often used. At length he said slowly:
“Yes. I think what’s worrying me is this: a feeling I have (and have no right to, really, not knowing more than an outline of the story) that maybe he’s imposing himself too much. . . . No, that’s not it: not quite, anyway. I’ve just said that people, in my experience, succeed or fail in India according as they go with it or against it. See what I mean, though . . . that perhaps Henry’s only going to make, in a different way, the centuries-old mistake of trying to reshape . . . alter . . . make something in his own image . . . and perhaps distort it in the process. Somewhere in that piece of incoherence is the chief feeling of danger I have about this enterprise. And Heaven knows I can easily be wrong: I don’t even know Greenwood well. For the rest, the house, the girl, marriage, everything—why, there’s no need for trouble. Henry’s influence and wealth and the strength of his personality will make people swallow those in the long run. I could even imagine him making Calcutta society accept his bride, if he’d a mind to it, but I don’t think he’d ever want that.”
Armin said, with reluctance: “The thought’s crossed my mind, certainly . . . that Henry was perhaps a bit unreasonably obsessed with this idea, that he wasn’t making due allowances. Characters of that sort are apt to ride roughshod when they’re pursuing something. I’ve—yes, I’ve had the same doubts you’ve just expressed. But then you haven’t seen Kumari: I don’t know whether she was always a happy child, but I can tell you she’s happy now. I think she worships Henry, and in such a way that his transition from protector to husband will not cause her any undue shock. I think . . . in fact. . . she knows what it’s all tending to very well, and accepts it quite easily. I think they could be very happy indeed, provided—-”
“Provided that Henry”—Armin laughed a little uncomfortably: he had got in deeper than he had meant—“that Henry stays as she knows him. He’s got a lot of growing to do still, like all of us: I would hate it if he grew away from her after all.”
He had said enough, Armin thought: too much indeed for his own comfort or his sense of loyalty.
“Meanwhile,” he went on rapidly, anxious to dispose of the subject if possible, “in the four years I’ve known Kumari he’s done wonders for her, wonders of which building Rongphar was only the beginning. She’s very bright, and he’s seen to it that she learns, most seriously, according to a carefully thought-out scheme. The Swiss manager, Flügl, teaches her maths and French, and his wife, who’s got some sort of degree, teaches her literature and history—music and embroidery, too. Those two were engaged by Henry for their academic qualifications mainly: the tea-garden is not required to do more than tick over. Kumari’s having, in fact, a first-class Victorian young lady’s education. There is something Victorian about Henry, something fundamentally powerful and serious and sure of itself which is . . . positively alarming in this nervous age. . . .”
Mackenzie mopped his forehead with a large khaki handkerchief.
“Well,” he said. “Well! The truth’s simple enough after all, though I must say far from dull: I tell you, I hope I live long enough to see how everything pans out. Look, I’ll give up all pretence of not asking questions. I swear, though, this is my last. When does he mean to marry her?”
Armin leaned forward and put his glass down on the table slowly and very carefully. He continued for some seconds to examine it thoroughly as though it were more than an empty glass.
“This year,” he said.
There was a pause. Mackenzie watched Armin’s averted profile. Another question had come bubbling to his lips but nothing, now, would have made him ask it. He got a sort of answer just the same. Armin said, musingly, still with his eyes on the smeared whisky glass:
“I’d be glad if you’d do what you can to correct any . . . natural jumping to conclusions there has been.” He looked straight at Mackenzie. “Talk of Victorian young ladies: my own grandmother had no stricter an upbringing than Kumari’s. Henry’s attitude, up to now, has been perfectly in keeping with his . . . well, I call it Victorianism, for want of a much better word: admirably cool. . . . Kumari, by the way, is obviously a Hindu, and I’d guess she came from Rajputana somewhere—but, as I’ve said, we’ll probably never know.” Mackenzie heard him sigh.
Well, well, said the old man comfortably. “That’s all fine. Sixteen’s old enough and more for a girl of that kind to be married: we know that. Come, Wensley, one more drink and then I’ll take this speiring old carcase to bed.”
They drank more whisky, and Mackenzie, as if to make amends for his questioning, although really, Armin recognised, it had not been immoderate, launched away into one of his highly-decorated monologues. Armin felt nervous, edgy—he could still not quite pin down the reason for this—and wide awake. He was guilty of urging his companion to another and again another large whisky and soda. When they at last went to their cabins both were hot and sleepy and inclined to stagger, and it was long past Mackenzie’s usual bedtime.
At Dhubri Armin went ashore to buy some razor blades, patiently forcing a way for himself through a flood of people making for the landing-stage. He had to visit several dark, confused little shops whose proprietors, although they did not stock what he wanted, tried hard to keep him, in the genial hope that he would buy something else. The labyrinthine etiquette of commerce had been for long second nature to Armin, but his time was limited, he was really in need of new razor blades and so, never failing in politeness but still keeping on the move, he walked the whole length of three or four crowded little streets in a short space of time until he found the brand he was looking for. Throughout the last five minutes of his walk Armin knew for certain that he was being followed.
For a moment, turning over packets of razor blades in the drug-scented half-darkness of a shop which called itself the “Lakshmi Medical Hall”, Armin was back in a time when being followed had been a matter of real importance. There could not, now, be anyone with a reasonable need to follow him, unless it were someone from that former time. Armin’s half glances to corroborate the message of his trained sixth sense had told him that the unknown person at present interested in his movements was a man, an Indian dressed in European clothes, wearing a sun-hat and carrying a bag or attache case; a stocky, youngish man with big horn-rimmed spectacles.
Armin came out of the shop and there, standing quietly a few yards away and regarding him directly, was someone answering this description and, although there were probably a hundred such in the small town at that moment, Armin did not doubt that this was in fact his man. Armin made no immediate move. He stood on the narrow pavement and adjusted his sunglasses, pocketed his small parcel, slowly smoothed and added to his wallet a crumpled five-rupee note. He then glanced away down the street and moved his gaze idly, as though drinking in the humble charms of Dhubri, until it rested on the man in spectacles.
“Good morning,” Armin said pleasantly.
The still figure started to life. One hand sketched a greeting, the topi inclined towards Armin, light flashed from the horn-rimmed glasses.
“Good morning, Mr. Wensley!” came in a lisping alto voice, and at once Armin recognised that this was someone he knew. He had last heard that voice in a hot courtroom at Allahabad raised in a high, tripping patter of abusive, defensive words. He had heard it die away, half shrieking as, after sentence, the door to the cells had closed.
It’s Mr. . . . S. D. Gupta, isn’t it? How interesting that you should be here! I thought. . .”
“You thought!” The word shot across the gap between them like a gobbet of phlegm. Mr. Gupta’s mouth—wide, thin-lipped, liver-coloured—had gone square at the edges; hysteria shivered him. “You thought I was safely locked up! Locked up in your British gaol, Mr. Wensley! You thought . . . “ But some overriding consideration here choked him to a halt. He readjusted his expression, relaxing his hunched shoulders, drawing back his head which, like a striking snake, he had thrust forward at Armin. He gulped and said quietly, with a smile to match his gleaming spectacles:
“I would like to talk to you, Mr. Wensley, if you have a moment.”
Armin said. “Of course. You must want to tell me why you were following me for so long just now.”
Gupta’s face solidified in pained distaste.
“I did not wish to accost you, Mr. Wensley, in those crowded thoroughfares. It might not have been good for either of us. . . . Now, if you will be so gracious as to accept a cup of tea at the hands of a humble Indian, there is a place just a little way down the street.”
Armin laughed without friendliness. “No doubt that remark sounded delicious to you, Mr. Gupta,” he said coldly, “but if we are to have a useful conversation you must avoid treating me like a fool.”
His companion gave an irritated giggle. “Very well, Mr. Wensley,” he said. “I shall not treat you like a fool, because you are not a fool: but you must please treat me, for once, like a human being!” Gupta’s voice squeaked on the last two words.
“Because you are one? I’ll try,” said Armin.
Gupta moved off quickly at a fast walk, keeping well in to the wall, his sandalled feet slapping the concrete pavement. From half a pace behind Armin examined him attentively, wondering that Gupta should choose to make himself even so moderately conspicuous. In a cotton shirt and dhoti he would have been hard indeed to distinguish from a hundred small, busy Bengalis: by wearing European clothes he greatly reduced his chance of passing unnoticed. Something confident and elated about Gupta’s manner, seamed though it was with the familiar uneasiness which, ordinarily, Armin would have been eager to dispel, made him wonder what the little man might be up to now. Possibly Gupta really did have something important to discuss with him; it was just as likely, however, that sheer euphoria, a desire to show off, to impose himself, had prompted him first to follow Armin, then to put himself in his way.
Without turning his head, Gupta slipped sideways into a little eating house as dark and inscrutable as the other shops, but with a tray or two of brown and yellow savouries displayed outside. Once Gupta had Armin on his own ground, the unquenchable oriental sense of hospitality came to ease his aggressive nervousness as, with an almost paternal gesture of his hand, he motioned him to a wooden bench against the wall. The place was empty of custom and smelt pleasantly of peppery spices and hot ghee. A young boy in a clean white singlet and dhoti came to serve them. Gupta sat down opposite Armin, after placing his attache case carefully under his seat and his faded topi, with equal care, brim upwards on the table. Armin, watching him closely, noted again the suppressed elation and something of a tentative sidelong impudence. Gupta was evidently pleased with himself: Armin had to admit that he would be interested to know why.
“This must be a short interview, I’m afraid, Mr. Gupta,” he said. “I’ve a little less than half an hour before the steamer goes. What was it you wanted to say to me?”
Gupta smiled and wagged his head, looking to one side of Armin’s face. He turned his hands over on the table, thumbs outwards, but said nothing. Armin resigned himself to waiting. Tea and some coloured cakes were set in front of them. Gupta suddenly said with vivacity: “I bear you no grudge, Mr. Wensley!”
“You have no right to any grudge,” said Armin, sharply “And before I accept your hospitality, I should like you to know that, if I could, I would have had you hanged.”
Gupta appeared to shrink a little into his creased grey linen jacket. Behind the glasses, momentarily milky with reflected light, his eyes were invisible, but his eyebrows scowled. He stammered a little as he spoke. “Then you would have been guilty, Mr. Wensley, of a gross miscarriage of justice—worse even than the imprisonment, though, my God, that was wickedness enough!”
“Fiddlesticks,” said Armin.
“Mr. Wensley, it is not fiddle sticks!” Gupta’s voice ascended several tones. “I was wrongfully arrested, wrongfully tried and convicted, wrongfully imprisoned. But for my good conduct I would still be in that filthy gaol.” He was no longer the courteous, careful host. He sat there massaging one brown hand with the other, on the edge of tears or violence.
Armin sat unmoving, his eyes fixed on the flaring lenses across the table.
“You talk like a child, Gupta,” he said. “You must know that I know how Martin Ford met his death. Would you deny that Ford was murdered? Murdered, in broad daylight, in a public place, before a great quantity of witnesses? Do you think it likely that I, his friend, would not have made very sure who his murderers were? I was present at your trial, Mr. Gupta. Shall I recount the evidence to you? It’s still in my mind, every detail of it.”
Gupta sat perfectly still, his breath coming rapidly in small hisses through his teeth. When he spoke his voice was thin and whispering.
“It was not murder. . . . It was an act of justice, of liberation.”
“Of course,” Armin felt suddenly weary. “Of course. It was that in your language . . . but it was murder in mine. Murder of a good and brave man who had shown his respect for India and his affection for Indians time and again, to the point, often, of indiscretion. I was fond of Martin Ford, Mr. Gupta. What do you think . . . should I be fond of you?”
Clear and musical the sounds of life came in to them, street cries, a bicycle bell, the hooting of a train. Somewhere at the back of the quiet room a pan sizzled loudly. Gupta took off his spectacles and Armin saw that his eyes were closed: he looked patient, martyred, intolerably smug. Armin could almost understand how jovial Muslims of his acquaintance could only see such men as this in terms of massacre. He made his voice colder still, although he knew that nothing would be achieved, that they were both showing themselves at their worst.
“The trial did not have the result I then desired, Mr. Gupta, for reasons which you no doubt put down to your own priceless importance. There was serious national trouble at the time—as you will remember. Gandhi and several Congress leaders were in prison: you came in, briefly, for the sympathetic attention of your masters. They saw to it that if you got the sentence you deserved, in that part of the country, with the unrest then prevalent there, we should have—temporarily—an unmanageable job. We saw this, too. Strings were pulled—in both directions, Mr. Gupta, don’t forget. For one day you really mattered. For one day only. Your masters then turned their attention to other things; and you went back to being what you had always been—a ninth-rate little agitator of dubious usefulness, a long way removed from the councils of the great.”
Gupta was shivering as he sat. Even in the half-light of the restaurant Armin could see that his face had changed colour, that it was now less brown than grey.
“Mr. Wensley . . .” he said, and gasped, “Mr. Wensley, I did not ask you here to insult me, to—to hector me . . . . You are cold and hard and sure of yourself, Mr. Wensley!”
“I am none of those things.”
“You are! You are! All you Englishmen are greedy and proud and you cannot, any of you, comprehend the harm you have done to my country. You do not know how India burns for freedom, freedom to stand on her own once again, freedom to recover her ancient glory.”
Armin struck his fist lightly on the table.
“I know all that,” he said. “I also know that India would very probably be an empty word if it had not been for us. We gave you peace, Mr. Gupta, and peace means freedom to develop—in your case, to develop a blind hatred that perhaps serves to disguise a yawning sense of your own inadequacy. But what’s the good of all this? We’re not even using the same terms. If what I call murder is to you an act of justice, how much farther may we not diverge? Did you ask me here, Mr. Gupta, just for this?”
Gupta was silent. He sat without moving now, his eyes on his cooling tea. Armin silently, sourly, called himself a fool. He had accepted this man’s hospitality and then lost his temper. Gupta had served a two-year’s prison sentence: Martin Ford was dead. No earthly good could come of raking over these cold ashes, vituperating Gupta, giving an impersonation of that icily reasonable Englishman, the mere thought of whom was enough to bring out the worst in any Indian of Gupta’s kind. Better to fish for whatever good there might be in this man, or at least find some less debatable ground, than to waste even five minutes over so heartbreaking, hopeless a game—more particularly as his friend Ford, who had thought nothing of his own life hazarded in the cause of gradual understanding, would emphatically have disapproved. “Lord,” thought Armin, “when does one start to grow up?”
He said in a gentler voice: “Let’s try to forget all that, Gupta . . . I apologise . . . I have no right, I agree, to come with you here and then let fly at you. Ford was the best friend I had in my service, that is all. He should have been spared, you know; he was one of the kind of Englishmen who go far to redress the wrongs or stupidities of our past.” Gupta looked up quickly. There were tears in his eyes. “And you are another such, Mr. Wensley!” he cried. “That is why I ventured after you today; that is why I said the words which angered you . . . that I bore no grudge.”
Since his outburst, Armin had succeeded in emptying his mind, more or less, of old rage and dislike. He looked rather more kindly on his host, seeing him now only as another muddled, miserable human stray, product of the unbalanced mingling of two modes of life.
“Let us say, then, that I forget my grudge as well,” he said. He looked at his watch. “We have little time left to us, though. You will have to tell me quickly what it was you wished to say.”
Gupta leaned forward. “You are going up into the hills, aren’t you, Mr. Wensley, to stay with Mr. Henry Greenwood?” Gupta had put on his glasses again, and the side-light from the street now made mirrors of them. Armin could see himself reflected, laughing.
“Really, Gupta! I’ve been two years a private citizen and you still bother to follow my movements! Why should you care where I’m going to stay?”
“It is Mr. Greenwood, rather than yourself—except, of course, personally—who interests me. Perhaps you would like to read this?” and Gupta pulled out a shabby pocketbook from which he drew a newspaper cutting and offered it impressively to Armin. The cutting was from a vernacular sheet, printed in Calcutta and once familiar to Armin for its unremittingly bloodthirsty anti-British tone. He looked with distaste at the smudged printing of the characters, but read the cutting obediently.
The strip of paper, two columns wide, was part, evidently, of an article dealing at length, and in a seemingly restrained and factual style, with a history of prolonged rapacity and commercial sharp-practice attributable to the British. These particular columns were mostly a sustained diatribe against a single business concern, his own and Henry’s, Greenwood, Bellenger and Company. Abuse of Greenwood, Bellenger occupied the first column fully: the second made Armin frown and stiffen a little as he read it. This was a personal attack, detailed, mainly inaccurate but not implausible, upon Henry Greenwood himself, and the disquieting thing about it was that here, leaping from the black-barred lines of print, vulgar, emotional, ill-informed, was a travesty of the story of Henry and Kumari. The girl was not mentioned by name, and throughout thirty lines of fairly skilful misrepresentation she could have stood for any of the cant abstractions of India’s “imprisoned” soul; but however distorted and feeble the rumour which had leaked to the circles responsible for this newspaper, the astutest possible use had certainly been made of it. A confused, nauseated feeling took hold of Armin for a moment: he would have given much to have been able to prevent this. He handed back the cutting and sat looking at Gupta speculatively.
“Well,” he said at length, “what am I expected to make of that?” Gupta’s manner was again showing a touch of triumph and excitement which Armin found displeasing.
“It is a great scandal, Mr. Wensley!” he exclaimed dramatically.
“It’s nothing of the sort,” said Armin, as agreeably as he could manage, “as you very well know. Why can’t they leave Greenwood alone? Surely he, more than anyone, has worked to make a good future for Indians in his business.”
“Firms such as Greenwood, Bellenger have been the curse of India,” replied Gupta solemnly, as though quoting someone.
“Come on, Gupta. You’re an intelligent man. Can’t you forget what has been for one single minute and consider what is, and what might be if people used their brains and hearts instead of their guts for thinking and feeling? I grant that Greenwood has been unconventional, but I ask you to believe my word that your newspaper story is a mess of deliberate lies and distortions, and I repeat—why not leave Greenwood alone?”
Once more Gupta put on a saintly look, patient and pure. “It is not in my hands, alas, Mr. Wensley,” he said, his alto chiming sweetly now. “My people have a long memory, and Mr. Greenwood is heir to men who dealt hardly with them: and now there is this scandal.”
Armin savagely repressed an urge to seize Gupta by the ears and shake a more acceptable expression into the bland, foxy, innocent, infantile complacency of his face. Instead, he rose to his feet.
“I must go,” he said. “Thank you for entertaining me. I still don’t know why you thought it necessary to follow me just to show me that newspaper cutting. It’s obviously quite useless for us to argue any further about Henry Greenwood. I don’t know what mischief you’re engaged in at present, but I do most warmly advise you to keep away from Rongphar.”
Gupta, who had also risen, shrugged his shoulders and smiled with his lips alone. “It is not in my hands,” he said again, in his pale, oily voice. He squeaked suddenly: “Reckoning, Mr. Wensley, may be nearer than you think!”
Armin turned impatiently from him and walked out into the sunlight. “I managed that extremely badly,” he thought with irritation. He had not been long on board again, when S. D. Gupta, carrying his attache case, mounted the gangway and disappeared into the throng of Indian passengers on the lower deck.
“I still cannot make out,” Armin said to Mackenzie the same evening, “what Gupta thought he was doing today. Was he warning me, or warning Henry through me? Was he trying to scare me: Did he expect me to use my influence to get Henry to give up Rongphar and . . . everything? Or was he just showing off?”
“That, most likely,” Mackenzie said. He was lighting a pipe and spoke through gurgling sounds and spurts of flame. “Probably saw you quite by chance and simply couldn’t resist making his number.” Later he said: “You know, there’s only ever been one effective policy for us where Hindus, Bengalis particularly, were concerned, and that was to decide on an objective and just plod on till we got there. They’re so infernally quick and cunning, and so delighted by their own cleverness, it’s a waste of time and effort trying to follow them every step of the way. They run such rings round you they finally disappear up their own backsides and you win the day!”
Armin laughed; but a small disquiet, a slight apprehension of danger and a sense that something lovely had been sullied for him remained at the back of his mind.
After Dhubri they were in Assam where the Brahmaputra runs from east to west through a wide, fertile valley for nearly four hundred miles. They were now heading almost due east and the country was changing. As they steamed on, small hills and ridges, belts of dark green jungle, and more frequent islands appeared, refreshing to look at after the desolate negativity of the lower part of the river. Away to the north, beyond distant green foothills, the Himalayan snows, remote and disturbing, crowned the skyline on a clear day.
Armin and Mackenzie went ashore at Goalpara and spent an amusing hour in the bazaar. It was always pleasant to leave the boat for a while and to regain touch with a life which had become, after so many hours on water, foreign-seeming and strange. Armin was struck by Mackenzie’s pleasure in the small excursion, the ease and joviality with which he moved among the slim, lively people in the bazaar.
Now that there was more to look at, the two men took to leaning on the forward rail, soothing their eyes with the varied greens of forest and hillside, of rice-fields and high-growing tea. As they were moving away from Goalpara Mackenzie said: “There’s a couple of islands farther on called the Gates of Hell. They used to be on the original Assam border. I remember the very first time I came up here as a boy. There was an old planter, an ugly old man like a wart-hog, who used to lean and stare, like we’re doing, by the hour. When we got to the Gates he called me over and said: ‘Ye see yon islands? They’re ca’d the Gates o’ Hell: but they’re no the way in, they’re the way out—if ye’ve eyes in your head an’ a heart in your boosom!’ He was right, too, as far as I was concerned. I took to the place at once, although I must admit I’ve been fairly solitary in my enthusiasm all these years. Most people complain like mad, about mosquitoes and the rainfall and so on—all the usual things. The funny thing is that neither I nor that old wart-hog were ever seriously ill; but I’ve noticed the ones who hate the country go down with every ailment, plain or fancy, under the sun. It’s the same everywhere, I suppose—if you can resist blaming a place for not being exactly like Surrey or the Trossachs, you’ve some chance of surviving it.”
A day or two later they were past Gauhati, the river-lands were growing flat again, small civilized-looking hills, fields and houses and temples giving way to an immense acreage of jungle, sullen and uninviting; but Armin could now see at last, transparent, blue in the distance the square shape of the hills surrounding Rongphar.
Alec Mackenzie said: “Well, good luck to you, boy, and have a good holiday. If you get tired of your mountain paradise, send me a chit, or just turn up. You’ll always be welcome. Don’t try to telephone, it’s a mug’s game up here. If I’m in these parts, I’ll let you know,” and he crushed Armin’s hand affectionately. Armin thought Mackenzie looked wistful and just perceptibly anxious. He seemed unwilling to let go of his hand.
“I don’t want to trespass, and if I wait till Greenwood asks me, I’ll no doubt wait for ever; but if I come near these hills, I’ll get in touch with you, and maybe we’ll meet and go after pheasants together.”
“Or rhinos,” said Armin. The treeing of Mackenzie by a rhino was one of the old man’s best stories. Mackenzie smiled broadly: “Done!” he said.
Armin turned away to join the line of people going down the gangway. Half-way down he turned back to wave to Mackenzie, but the old man had gone inside. Below, on the quay, being greeted by three portly Hindus in tight coats and a very tall priest, was Mr. S. D. Gupta.
Like shuttles in a mysterious machine, small wiry coolies and thin little boys darted hither and thither at all angles. Casks and boxes stood about on shore, with stacks of tea chests, disjointed machinery, crates of chickens, and bales of wire. Confusion appeared to be preferred, and the indigenous noises were swelled by clanging bells, shouts and whistles from the steamer. Armin took a last breath of the boat’s hot, oily smell—he had become fond of it on the long journey and pressed slowly forward, itching to brush aside the cumbersome bodies which impeded him and come to close quarters with a new place.
From the gangway he could see across rooftops to the close green mat of the jungle which lay between Rudragarh and the first slopes of the mountains. Here and there about the town were low, conical hills, tree-spattered to half their height and crowned with shrines. Their shapes were repeated in one or two domed small buildings in the town itself and lonely little edifices stuck out in the cultivated patches beyond. Otherwise the roofs of Rudragarh were the roofs of a thousand Indian towns, a system of simple geometry, cube after cube, rising and falling in a sharp crenellation unvaried by pitch or camber, except where what was probably a Roman Catholic church arched a high back of fluted umber tiles. Directly in front of Armin was some sort of official building, two storeys high, white-painted, with an arcade and a flagstaff and, on top, a peeling balustrade. Kitehawks dipped and hovered above him in the sweet air, which was sleepy with mist and sun and striped with smoke. After the long dream of the river-trip, cobble and brick felt startlingly hard under his feet, the sun on his neck was positive as a kiss, animal essences blew to him as an elemental reminder of actual life.
He felt strong and contented, ready to take an interest in anything. A stall of fruit, crusted green and smooth yellow, a heap of whiskered corn-cobs, a spread of scarlet chillies and brown onions, a boy leading a monkey, an old woman with a bar of soap, all tugged at his attention and made him pause. Sunlight of rare beneficence lay all about him, a Danae shower, golden and warm.
Two coolies trotted along in front with Armin’s luggage, knees bent, bare legs dusty and dotted with sores, soiled white shirt-tails flapping behind. He was on his way to find Henry Greenwood’s car. Henry’s chauffeur was in front of him now, immaculate in white drill and a green turban, contemptuously egging on the tottering coolies, or bestowing stately nods on acquaintances as he went. Armin walked easily, aware that in provincial India a white man is always a travelling peepshow, as unresentful of the turning heads and the universal stares as the people would have been of his own. He was wearing a thin grey flannel coat and trousers, and an open white shirt. He wore sunglasses against the sharp floating dust; his eyes, his dark complexion had long ago learned to endure any amount of sun. At the end of the straight road in front of him lay the jungle, and beyond he could see forested slopes rising first gently, then abruptly into a stationary cloud. Bare patches showed where clearings had been made for cultivation, and in two places tea-gardens made patterns of pale green dots. He could make out, even from this distance, the tall barn of a tea-factory, the sun glinting sharply from its glazed tiers.
Henry’s long black touring car was already loaded with crates and packing-cases. Armin’s luggage was strapped on to the grid behind. They set off, with a continuous hooting through haphazard traffic and indecisive pedestrians, in a swift succession of close shaves, southwards towards the hills. The Sikh chauffeur drove skilfully and fast. The few miles between town and jungle were disposed of in a few minutes, and soon the impenetrable green walls were sliding past in a peaceful blur. Armin settled contentedly into his seat, half an eye on the road laid like a sword through the jungle belt, and the rest of his attention on the curtain of struggling trees and creepers and undergrowth at its edge.
The air whistling past the glass screens of the open car was cool with a leafy tang to it. Two magnificent butterflies, spotted black on blue and as big as sparrows, danced in the green gloom just out of the sun. Jays expanded electric blue wings and settled on the grass verge; a bee-eater hung its pronged tail below a telephone wire; a mongoose slipped across the road, a hastening grey bolt, close in front of the car; and on an old, twisted tree, just apart from the others a big woodpecker showed a black and white spotted coat and the back of a vermilion head.
All had enemies, and none were free, since danger was everywhere and nothing had a close season. Yet birds and animals were beautiful, and the compacted trees shot lovely fountains of leaf into the pale sky, up and over, dropping long fronds and ropes of creeper or aerial roots for the birds to crowd in. From deep-trodden rot, and a whole world of dumb, inconsiderable life drenched or scalded or baked dry by an exorbitant climate, the gorgeous leopard would roam out, the sal tree soar upwards, enduring and splendid.
It was perhaps a buried disposition to quietism that had made Armin so immediately, so easily accept every manifestation of this titanically fertile, sometimes monstrously baneful country. He had loved the strict humdrum cycle of remote villages where the miserly soil and the money-lender were harsh masters, but where the villagers still managed to keep up, in the face of a discouraging destiny, a simple, gossiping gaiety, a humane inquisitiveness and devotion to platitude, which reminded Armin of his people at home. He had been astonished, delighted, sometimes frightened, but always fascinated by the life of the towns, great and small. These were the true correlators of the jungle, with the important difference that the weakest, in cities, did not always perish, nor the best survive. There, the weak developed extraordinary cunning which enabled them to filch at least some sort of a living, whether as beggars, pimps, assassins, peddlers, or whores; whereas the strong, the brave, the beautiful, the intelligent and instructed, very often came to nothing for want of sufficient ruthlessness, a jungle quality which had been carefully bred out of them over many generations.
The political situation, increasingly tense and confused, had greatly favoured the weak and unscrupulous. To this category S. D. Gupta undoubtedly belonged. Armin recognised that his meeting with Gupta, and Gupta’s precise condemnation of Henry Greenwood, had made him distinctly uncomfortable. He could not get the smooth little brown face out of his mind’s eye, could still hear Gupta’s alto saying: “Reckoning, Mr. Wensley, may be nearer than you think.”
Armin shook himself to dislodge Gupta’s image, telling himself that of all the professional trouble-makers in India this man was possibly the least effective, but a small sediment of disquiet remained to cloud his clear pleasure in the unfolding day.
They sped on along the jungle road. The chauffeur was an uncommunicative man who, after politely answering Armin’s questions about the household at Rongphar, seemed to prefer to concentrate on his recreation of missing bullockcarts by the thickness of a razor blade. Greenwood Sahib, Armin learned, had shot a wild boar, and the Miss Sahib had been given a monkey for a pet. Armin watched the chauffeur’s face carefully as he somewhat grudgingly bit off these threads of information. No shade of emotion crossed the handsome, arrogant features when the man used Kumari’s courtesy name; with such a face it would be hard to detect even an intentional sneer. All the same, Armin wondered. He then reproved himself for nervousness and troubleseeking, and relapsed more comfortably into silence, thinking again of the jungle, of Mackenzie, of Kumari with a monkey, and of an expedition he wanted to make to the ruined city of Dimapur.
The hills were nearer now and suddenly, without any thinning of the close green, they were out of the jungle and in a country of dry grass and ant-hills and thin, lonely trees. They crossed the trunk road running east and west, and soon their own road began to curve and climb. In one place they passed, in a patch of forest, an ancient tank, still full from the rains, with a steep embankment and a coping of vast, broken, but beautifully dressed stones. Relics such as this lay all up and down the Brahmaputra valley, last tokens of the great dynasty which had so efficiently enslaved the Assamese that now they would almost rather starve than work for any master. As a consequence of this permanent strike of local labour, the tea-planters had to recruit their garden-coolies, expensively and laboriously, from Orissa and Bengal, and Armin wondered idly how much it cost Henry Greenwood every year to keep the Rongphar tea-garden working so unproductively.
The road veered westwards for a while, running with the Rudragarh branch line, to curve round a spur of the range which was now steep above them. This was a compact block of hills, isolated from the bigger ranges by a deep river valley on either side. The highest peak, which hung directly over Rongphar, was still caught in cloud.
Once round the spur they ran for some miles through cotton-tree jungle and bare spaces of long ash-coloured grass, clumped occasionally with trees, which had a teasing look of having been planned as a park. Armin saw a wild buffalo, shoulder deep in the grass, and a small herd of deer scampering for cover, which added to the impression. They were due to arrive at Rongphar in the late afternoon. He was beginning to feel hungry.
Now it was time to start climbing seriously, and they crossed the single railway track at a village which possessed one enormous banyan tree whose hanging branches had rooted over a wide space, so that it was in itself a small forest, and half a dozen grass and bamboo huts. This was the halt where Armin had left the train on former visits to Rongphar. Presently they took a smaller and worse road to the left which started immediately up the first of a long series of short gradients interspersed with dizzying elbow-bends. Bamboo thickets lay at both sides of the road, their straight stems and green jets of pointed leaves graceful, fresh-coloured. Sometimes a stand of trees from the old forest towered above the bamboos; sometimes, at a turn, Armin, craning backwards, could look down over jungle and waste and squares of cultivation to the shimmering, sprawling river below; sometimes, in a clearing, there would be a tiny grass-thatched hut, with some tasselled Indian corn and a few marigolds growing, and sturdy naked children gazing with black-fringed eyes.
The hill rose in broad terraces, buttressed here and there with granite. Above them hung tangled forest laced with falling streams. Where ploughs had been the turned earth was red. Already the air was thinner, the sun’s heat more scorching. They reached the village of Rongphar, from which Henry had taken the name of his house, just after five o’clock. As they swept between the boles of the two huge pipal trees and onto Henry’s metalled road, Armin felt a contraction in his stomach he had not felt for years, the painless pain which belongs to all last moments before great events.
The chauffeur sat up extra straight, flourished the gear lever, blew long on the horn. They went up in a series of nearly vertical turns through the springing bamboo, the mountain hanging over them two thousand feet, cloudless now, bare and stony at its peak. The world washed in one green wave up to the brilliant sky. They rounded the last turn and dashed down a green shaded lane into the full flood of daylight. There stood the house ahead on its granite bastion; below, to the left and beyond, lay the river valley, broad and flat, patterned with all greens, hung with blue mist. Beyond the dull shining of the river, away to the north, the hills began again. Beyond them, sharper and whiter than clouds, and only barely discernible, far and high were the snows.
The Sikh brought the car to a stop in a spray of gravel. Armin got out quickly. He walked across the courtyard taking in every detail as he went. The trees by the gatepiers had grown since his last visit and now curved over them, a becoming frame. The oblong pool lay calm and brimming. Terracotta pots held zinnias, glowing with chalky colour. The loggia was full of shade.
As Armin reached the glazed double doors leading from the loggia into the main room of the house, he could see the white-clothed figure of Henry’s servant, Lala Dev, hurrying through the hall towards him. There seemed to be no one else about: the wide, high-ceilinged hall, which was also the living-room, was empty. Lala Dev pulled open both doors and stood between them bowing, his kind, creased face shining with pleasure, his teeth a blaze of white. Armin replied warmly to the old man’s greeting, feeling grateful to him, suppressing a definite small sense of disappointment. The last time he had come to Rongphar Henry had been on the steps to shake his hand, Kumari had run lightly across the courtyard to welcome him. To a homeless man, such visits as this were apt to loom like a homecoming . . . . Armin shook himself impatiently and went into the house.
Lala Dev had gone to see about the luggage. Armin stood alone in the hall of Rongphar and let his eyes wander from corner to corner and out to the view. Nothing had changed in this room in two years. It was still as beautiful as ever, as friendly and comfortable. The proportions still seemed to him perfectly right: spacious without pomposity, simple without affectation. The pale yellow stone-paved floor had a curdled surface resembling travertine which shone with a dull polish between rugs that glowed like a spread of garnets. The gilded pillars holding lamps at each side of the fireplace were barley-sugar twisted and carved with leaves: they had found their way to India, long ago, from Italy. Beside the great window which contained the view were a marble dining-table and a set of chairs, Madras work from English eighteenth-century models, fancifully carved and gilded. The walls were flat white, hung sparingly with soft-coloured needleworks whose drooping trees and flowers, paradisebirds, leopards, and sepoys with muskets delicately put into place the realities of the Indian scene. Ample sheaves of fresh flowers sprang from stone vases beside the door. Small tables carried periodicals, Indian and English, books and precious odds and ends; near the fireplace was an arrangement of sofas and deep armchairs. The room smelt sweetly of cold woodsmoke and aromatic polish.
The pale light of afternoon, with its hint of a northern coldness, touched everything with fireless clarity. The room was full of faint shining—polished stone and wood, curves of china and jade, edges of glass and crystal, and the old, rubbed gilding of the pillars and chairs. The fragrant air was still and lapped in a silence so complete that Armin could hear the ticking of a clock in the corridor beyond. Already there were shadows in corners, and away below the house, past the near view of tumbled rocks and forest trees, the valley was changing its pattern as the sun fell away.
Lala Dev came bustling back through the open doors, followed by a dark rough-headed boy, one of the hill people, carrying Armin’s two bags. Armin asked where Henry might be and was told that he had gone down to the tea-garden to see the manager, but that he would be back shortly. The Miss Sahib was with him. Armin refused any refreshment, saying that he would wait, and Lala Dev, with salaams and a muttered scolding of the boy, went away with the luggage. Peace returned to the room and presently took hold of Armin, so that his momentary forlornness left him. In a little while, after loitering about touching, looking at things, reading the titles of books, he began to feel at home; soon it was as if he had never been away. Two years were suddenly reduced to nothing, compressed between two ticks of the clock, their frets and anxieties and discomforts, triumphs and failures dispersed like a pinch of dust into the quiet air.
He sat in the deep window-seat, smoking and looking down past the walled garden to a clump of cinnamon trees at the tip of the descending spur. It was among these trees that a footpath wound up from the tea-garden. Armin was watching for a sign of Henry and Kumari on their way back to the house.
Now he was by the window, which was open and unscreened, Armin could hear sounds. They swam up to him slowly, dimmed and silvery as fish; the clink and whistle of small birds, a far-off barking, thin cries from the coolies at work a mile away, the drumming of the waterfall in its ravine higher up the hill. At three thousand feet the air was sensibly thinner, purer: Armin took breath after breath into the depths of his lungs, needing so much to satisfy him. He would not be acclimatized for a few days.
Gazing out, Armin wondered how he had managed to be patient for the whole of the long journey just completed, let alone to enjoy—as he had—nearly every minute of it. This house had the power, due to much more than mere eminence, of reducing everything beyond its gates to triviality. It seemed in direct communion with the confronting snows. Henry had achieved here something truly extraordinary, nothing less than to give body to a dream which, however much people might joke or sneer, or talk of “Greenwood’s Folly”, must come very close to a deep general wish. It was possibly for this reason that people sneered. Henry had chosen mystery and solitude and had, moreover, used his money with originality—something unfamiliar and so not easy to forgive.
Armin thought of Henry and wondered how he would find him after two years. Henry was now his employer, but this had not, so far, meant their seeing more of each other. He was a poor letter-writer and Armin’s business with Greenwood, Bellenger had been conducted with another member of the board in Calcutta. Armin’s mind hovered briefly over the details of his friendship with Henry and the steps which had brought him into the employment of Henry’s firm. It still made him smile sometimes to think of himself in commerce: he seemed to have gone a long way round to the nearest point. Yet the sequence of events had an odd logic. Henry and he had known each other a long time now. They had Oxford in common and therefore, at their first reunion seven years ago, at least the sketch for a friendship had been already in existence. They had been glad, in any case, to see each other again and, as later conversations were to prove, they had, or felt that they had, many ideas in common as well. To Armin in those days it seemed that Henry might, in his own person, be about to redress an Anglo-Indian attitude that had slipped far out of shape. He seemed the very type of a powerful liberal intelligence, one whose wealth’s chief meaning was that it enabled him at once to breathe free air and immediately put his benevolence into effect. There was nothing of the incapable dreamer about him, as the house of Rongphar existed to prove.
Henry and Armin had met at Laura’s dinner party at the very beginning of Armin’s short, fated love affair with her. It had taken Armin a long time even to approach reality again after the rupture of that shining web. Heart and body had been too deeply engaged. However much he might have wished to dismiss the lost thing with a manly gulp and turn a resolute face to the future, Armin found himself living for many months in a dissolving world, his true reality a marble garden-house and the remembrance of an eager voice, eager limbs, and a personality almost ideally unswaddled by conventional cares. For a long time he could not see a market, walk in a crowded street, or enter an Indian shop without exposing himself to a swingeing jab of misery, an evil sense of severance and incompleteness, as though he had psychically lost the back of his head. It was because of Laura, because of the need to dwell on a too-small hoard of scenes and situations, that Armin had kept touch with Greenwood and Micky Goodwin.
Henry’s original impulses to friendship had not dissipated and within the rather severe limits of their different professions Armin and he saw as much as they could of each other. After Flavia’s disappearance Micky and Armin had been the only Europeans, outside his business, that Henry had consented to see. When Henry went away so mysteriously, early in September 1932, Armin, in common with everyone else, lost touch with him for a long time. When they met again, once more in Calcutta, it was in February 1934, and Henry then invited Armin to stay at Rongphar. They spent a long evening together in Henry’s flat and Henry supplied Armin with—not exactly a full explanation, Armin thought with a smile, but the bare outline of an accomplished fact. He dryly described Rongphar, providing no real notion of its beauty, nor even hinting at the efforts which had had to be made to build it. He said no word about his household there and Armin, when he had arrived to stay in early May, got into Henry’s car at the railway halt expecting to be driven to some kind of small chalet or cabin for a week of primitive living.
Armin smiled again, remembering his astonishment at the piled-up surprises of his first day at Rongphar. He shifted his position on the window-seat, felt for his cigarette case and stopped with it half-way from his pocket to watch a junglecock, neck-feathers like the flare of a match and blue-black tail fluttering, as it rocketed into view below the house. Kumari, entering soundlessly from the courtyard, had her first view of him like this, in arrested movement, his profile sharp against the waning light. Herself motionless, she watched him for several seconds as he sat half-smiling, absorbed, self-forgotten until, sensing something, he looked and sprang up in one motion to come to her with outstretched hands.
Their hands joined, Armin and Kumari stood looking at each other without a word to say. The stillness of the room was fathoms deep, the far clock ticked like a bomb. From the courtyard a koel-bird’s single ascending notes came loud as a train whistle. With a sighing sound of release some white petals dropped on to the stone floor. Armin’s hands, enclosing a delicate warmth, were all at once ice-cold. A house-lizard chirrupped from the cornice. Kumari lifted her head and smiled towards the sound.
Armin said: “Kumari, you’ve grown.” It was all he could think of to say.
“It’s been two years, Armin,” the girl said. “People have to grow.” She smiled at him with all the gentleness he remembered, a slow smile given with the completeness all her expressions shared, unfolding and dying away without haste or ambiguity.
“I suppose so,” Armin said, with an untraceable feeling of resentment. “You’re a grown-up lady now, and when I last saw you—” he paused; that’s not true, he thought. He had been going to say “you were still a little girl”, but when he had last seen Kumari it had been her fourteenth birthday.
“I came back on my own, in case you were here,” Kumari said. “Henry was going to follow me. Let’s go and see if we can see him.” She gently disengaged her hands and walked along the hall to the big window. Armin, feeling suddenly light-headed, slowly followed the slim, archaic figure in its crimson sari the colour of an almost black red rose.
Kumari stood by the window-seat, looking down at the spur with its cinnamon trees, lit all from one side by the dying sun. The top of her head came now a little above Armin’s shoulder. She had grown a good deal taller in two years. This apart, and except for a further slight rounding out of her already almost perfect body and a thinning of her face, she was the same Kumari who had scarcely ever achieved an awkward movement, in whom a thousand selective years had bred an unfailing physical grace. Armin reminded himself that fourteen, for an Indian girl, is maturity, that two years ago Kumari had been already grown up. What she had become since was a wonderful additional blessing, grace in another sense, as though the gods had not been able, for loving her, to stop showering her with gifts.
They heard a shout from below and saw a white-shirted figure briefly emerge from the thick bamboo undergrowth and wave to them. They waved back at Henry and at once Armin became aware again of his own separateness. For a moment he had been lost in living, thoughtless, his burdensome identity annulled. Now he must pay attention again—to the theatrical sunset, the jungle sounds, the remote growl of the waterfall, and to the separateness of his friend Henry Greenwood and of the courtly girl at his side.
While they waited for Henry to achieve the last half-mile of his way to the house, Kumari and Armin sat facing each other on the window-seat, each with an elbow on the low sill. Kumari had never chattered, but with Armin to talk to again after long spells of limited conversation, she kept up a steady enough flow, telling him all her small news and asking him about himself. Henry, it seemed, only came to Rongphar nowadays in the cool months between October and April, and the Flügls, lessons apart, were always busy with the big estate. Moreover, Mrs. Flügl’s conversation, although edifying, gave Kumari little chance to expand. While she talked calmly to him in the calm afternoon, Armin glanced back and back again at Kumari’s face, hoping not to embarrass her, but quite unable to keep his eyes away for long. Above a round, smooth forehead her hair, purely black and youthfully lustrous, was parted in the centre and caught back to a thick coil on the nape of her neck. Its weight, when she bent her head forward, drew all the strands together in a gleaming, perfect curve. In her face, now, no lineament was blurred, no vestige remained of childish imprecision. Lip, nostril, line of jaw, all were beautifully defined yet saved from the least chill in perfection by the subtlety of rounded flesh, the incredibly fine-textured and luminous golden skin—and her eyes. It was to Kumari’s eyes that Armin’s own returned constantly. Even in a stained and ruined mask they would have been beauty enough, but set under clear-carved, lightly slanting brows, their own liquid fullness delicately upturned towards each temple, their darkness starred with scintillas of light at the iris, they were wonderful past words, wholly unforgettable. Armin had not forgotten them in two years of absence: seeing them now brought, with the rest of Kumari, to perfection, he had a moment of deep fear at their terrible innocence and power. Yet, as they looked at him now, Kumari’s eyes were simply gentle and kind, exactly as he remembered them. Of the power of their two-edged lightning she was mercifully unaware.
Kumari continued to talk quietly, with a slight hesitance. Armin loved to hear her speaking English. When she first came to Rongphar she had known only a few words. Henry, with, customary thoroughness, had insisted that she should learn, and learn properly. A year later, at Armin’s first meeting with her in 1934, she already spoke English well There were moments in the early days when Armin thought Henry drove the child too hard. He had to admit, however, that the result was nearly perfect. Kumari’s ear must have been extra-fine in the first place, for she had caught every nuance of intonation in Henry’s attractive, conventionally cultivated voice. Very occasionally she used an odd construction, or richly mispronounced a word, or let a hint of Mrs. Flügl creep in, but these were gems Armin was inclined to treasure. Henry’s incisive and sometimes stately utterance was reproduced by Kumari from time to time, when she used words like “notwithstanding” and “precisely” and “intolerable”. It was, however, something wholly personal that made her way of speaking lovely, the limpid ring of her voice and the way in which she picked her sentences and spoke them to a measure clear and grave.
“And then, you must see my monkey!” Kumari finished a catalogue of things about the place that Armin was to be shown next day.
“I heard you had a monkey. Where did it come from?”
“The gaoniburo down in the village sent to ask if I would like to have it. Henry didn’t want me to . . . he’s angry with the gaonburo just now: but I wanted it very badly. . . .”
Kumari’s watcher saw a minute change in her expression as she spoke these words, a slight lowering of the eyelids, a regretful down-tilt to the long full bow of her lips. Armin was obscurely puzzled. Why should Henry be angry with the village headman, who had gone out of his way to prosper friendly relations from the beginning? And what had happened to his former plan of spending at least one week in every six at Rongphar? Armin was wondering how he could frame a question to Kumari which would not be hopelessly indiscreet when steps sounded in the courtyard and, a second later, Henry was in the room.
With his coming the hall took on, at once, a different character. The air became brisk, almost electric. Henry, looking bigger, heavier, than Armin remembered, wearing riding breeches and boots, immediately dominated the scene as he strode across from the door, holding out his hand.
“Armin, my dear chap,” he said cordially. “I’m so very sorry I couldn’t be here to welcome you. Flügl’s having some trouble with a new batch of coolies and I had to go down. I see K’s been entertaining you, anyway. She insisted on hareing back to see you—wouldn’t wait for me!”
Kumari had risen as Henry came in and now stood looking from one to the other, her face radiant with pleasure.
“It’s lovely to have Armin here again,” she said. “He’s been away too long.”
“Too long indeed,” Henry agreed heartily. “Never mind, he’s going to be with us for months. We’ll probably get sick of him and chuck him out.”
Armin smiled at this and glanced at Kumari. The girl did not smile; instead she looked anxious, her eyes very large. Armin had a better knowledge of Indians than Henry, and a quicker intuition: he knew that, whatever Kumari might learn of English ways, jolly banter of this sort would be for ever beyond her grasp. He knew this intransigent sincerity—another face of innocence—knew it and treasured it in his picture of the girl. Kumari, thank goodness, was never, where any movement of her heart was concerned, going to be able either to make or take a joke.
“Oh no, Henry,” she said seriously, “You mustn’t do that!”
Henry looked hard at her for a moment, then laughed—Armin thought—a little impatiently.
“All right, K,” he said. “I was only joking. I expect we can put up with him for a bit.”
Kumari relaxed her shoulders which she had stiffened a little in her anxiety. Her laugh had a happy ring. She said: “There are so many things we can do—things we’ve planned and never done. We’ve always been going to Dimapur and we’ve never got there yet!”
Henry turned away to throw down on a table some papers he was carrying. “Well, we’ll see,” he said over his shoulder. Plenty of time for plans. Armin, they’ve taken your luggage along, I hope?”
“Yes, thank you, Henry. I must go and have a look at my room.”
“Would you like to see the monkey now?” Kumari asked.
“That monkey—” Henry said, but did not finish the sentence.
“—is a model monkey of whom I am very fond,” Kumari finished it for him. Henry laughed, not wholly agreeably.
“What time’s dinner?” Armin asked.
“Eight o’clock,” Henry said. “Don’t bother to dress.”
“It’s only half-past six now. Bring the monkey to visit me, Kumari,” Armin said, “while I see if I have to do anything about my unpacking.”
Kumari glanced quickly to Henry for permission, but he was bending over a table engrossed in a magazine.
On his way down the corridor to his room, Armin probed a minute discomfort in his mind. With his hand on the door knob he paused, frowning. Henry had taken to calling her K—that must be what was worrying him, Armin decided, but could not decide immediately why the shortening of Kumari’s name should seem to him so entirely wrong. Henry had certainly altered—even a glimpse had shown Armin that. There was something unusually offhand, impatient in his manner . . . disquieting . . . perhaps he was simply tired, or had had a difficult afternoon. Armin shook his head and opened the door.
Once in his room, between the walls that would be home for him for several months, Armin’s small sense of oppression, of irritation, blew away. One wall was simply air and prospect, screened against insects with fine copper mesh. Glass shutters folding back on themselves could be made to disappear or be brought to any length, according to the weather. At present they were tucked out of sight and, like a Chinese painting, the window space framed falling terraces of tree-furred hillside, rocks and bamboo thickets, a few yards of foaming water, and one lone, tormented tree. Where the hillside dropped away the foreground ended, and beyond lay the flat valley, now a lake of shadow. Tomorrow he would see its cloudy enamel of green and blue, the diminished green—grey almost—of the ascending foothills and the snows like a half-apprehended thought. The room faced north and was full of the cool twilight. Bookshelves ran round two sides of it, and against the third wall, alongside the window, was a wide low bed. A fireplace of plain dressed stone held slim logs ready for burning. One picture, by an Indian artist, of stiff, expressionless Hindu women carrying water-pots—thick reds and blues, a sun-drained yellow, and heavy black outlines—hung over it. There were fur rugs on the polished pale wood floor.
Henry’s servant had already unpacked and settled all Armin’s belongings. There was nothing for him to do but sit quietly at the window for a while and let the place work its enchantment on him.
“We’ve come a long way,” he thought, “or some of us have.” A cycle was completing itself, a cycle of three phases from acceptance, through repudiation, to acceptance again. Armin remembered what Mackenzie had said: “I’ve seen India make people or break people . . . as they accepted or rejected it.” But this house, which exemplified for Armin a successful interplay of two worlds, and the whole story of Henry and Kumari, these surely were something better than a purely negative acceptance. They represented, or could represent, a true mutuality, each side consenting to, fostering the best in the other.
He was thinking of Kumari when she knocked on his door. She came in bent double, turning up her face to smile at Armin, leading her monkey by the hand. Once inside, she released the little creature which went immediately, not in a bound as most monkeys would, but in a gentle rocking trot, to the farthest corner of the room where it stood hiding its face in creased grey leather hands.
Kumari stood laughing before him.
“It’s a Shamefaced Monkey,” she said, and Armin’s inner ear made its own echo of her voice, a glass that sang icily pure and went sometimes, under stress, endearingly flat. “But what it’s so ashamed of, I don’t know. It’s hardly old enough to have been very wicked yet!” She went over to the corner to pick the monkey up and talk to it comfortingly.
A presentiment of thorns in the rosy immediate future made Armin watch her movements with his heart in his mouth. He thought that if, now, he were to go blind, the image of her would solace him all his days. He cried: “It’s unbearable!” meaning Kumari’s beauty, the clear grace of her movements, the precious, perilous delicacy of everything she was. He only knew he had spoken aloud when Kumari, kneeling with the monkey, turned swiftly and set on him serious night-black eyes. “Armin? “ she said, a hint of fear in her voice. “What’s unbearable?”
Armin, in confusion, jumped up and said disingenuously, although he felt her eyes unsafely close to the truth: “Did 1 say unbearable? I meant unbelievable . . . the beauty of this place, and so much time to enjoy it in, and seeing you and Henry again.”
The girl got to her feet in a movement like the straightening of a bent blade. She had the monkey nestling in the crook of her left arm, held tight against her breast. She looked for a long moment at Armin; he could see some uneasiness in her eyes, and he thought he divined a struggle going on behind them. Was she about to tell him something? Armin waited, scarcely breathing, looking with heartfelt kindness into the lovely face; but Kumari did not speak to him. Instead, she turned swiftly and went out of the room.
Armin came out half an hour later to see a wraith of white stuff float and vanish at the lit end of the dark corridor. Henry’s house was single-storeyed; at one end the hall took up its full width; then came the long corridor with Henry’s rooms on one side and those for visitors on the other. Kumari had a suite of rooms at the far end, balancing the hall. Armin walked slowly down the corridor towards the hall, lifting his head to breathe something—no actual scent but merely the emanation of her sweetness—left on the air by Kumari’s passing. “I’m a sentimental ape,” he thought disgustedly. “Treasonable, too,” said a quieter voice in his mind, “and by no means the purest of uncles, if all were known. You think there’s enough difference in your ages for all sorts of elder-brotherly twaddle on your part: but you know in your heart you’re not sure of Henry’s right. . . . I’ve defended, I will defend to the echo, Henry’s plans and intentions but, just the same—for Kumari—I could wish . . . .” Armin quickened his pace and all but fell over somebody standing close to the wall. “Why no lights?” he thought irritably, and said aloud, “I’m sorry!” A hoarse giggle and an unintelligible word answered him. Now he could see who this was. Kajìr stood pressed against the wall, moving her head from side to side in vehement servility. Heavy silver cylinders, stuck into the lobes of her ears, had pulled tear-shaped openings in the flesh, an inch long. As Kajìr’s head wagged, these ornaments thumped against the dry sinews of her neck. Armin could see little of the old woman in that shadowy corridor, but he remembered her well. Tonight she was simply a bowing, softly cackling, bundle of petticoats and shawls, but tomorrow, he knew, she would be a commanding figure. Warty, rough-skinned, intricately wrinkled, and brown as strong tea, with black blazing eyes for ever on the move, copiously braceleted and rigged out with a dozen vari-coloured skirts and scarves, Kajìr, the hill-woman who had travelled far, had never lost her tribal style. Armin knew that nothing happened in or near Rongphar that was not referred to the old nurse for advice or approval or comment, which last, in her own high, throaty speech, was probably of a superb flavour. Now here Kajìr stood, pressed against a wall in the semi-darkness to get a last glimpse of her nursling as, glossy and brilliant from her ministering hands, Kumari moved into an alien world.
Armin said a few words to Kajìr in Hindustani, small courtesies and compliments, to which she bobbed and wagged and replied in kind. Then he left her and went on towards the hall, uncertain whether or not she remained there behind his back, watching him now with critical or jealous eyes. Kajìr was a dark horse, of that Armin had always been sure; yet Kumari loved her, was amused by her, and must, incongruously enough, owe at least some part of her sense of dress and gesture to her teachings.
The hall was full of soft light, warmly welcoming, looking its best. Light came from the tall lamps by the fireplace, from candles on the dinner table and from dark-shaded reading lamps scattered here and there. Under the wide chimney-piece a sheet of flame climbed steadily, yellow-white with an occasional scarlet tongue. Weak, tremulous light from fire and candles, mixed with the steady yellow of electricity, gave the room a pulse of illumination, a gently throbbing glow.
Kumari was standing by the fire, all in white, silver-bordered, which made her look, so still was her pose, a sculptured figure, a priestess, perhaps, in marble. Armin went over to the fire and stood a little apart from her, looking down at the toe of her embroidered slipper where it trod lightly on the kerb of the fireplace.
An unusual excitement which he had been feeling all day, which he had put down to the anticipation of seeing Rongphar and its household once more, and which had left him at his arrival, had now returned. Armin felt ill at ease, exposed, at some moments almost hilarious, at others pressed down by heaviness, unable to meet an eye. Without looking at Kumari, he knew how she would be looking at him. Her features, although they could take fire readily with joy or welcome, or show every ripple of an amusement sweetly ironic, fell most naturally into expressions of seriousness. Such eyes, perhaps, although they seemed made to see more delight, might yet take in more sorrow than most eyes. Such a mouth, so perfect in its slow smiling, might follow yet more easily the contours of regret. So Armin thought, and remembered how, in one particular more than any other, Kumari embodied the classical ideal of her people. Her nose, narrow and beautifully moulded, sprang in one straight stroke, without break or indent, clean from the structure of her brow. He had with him, as a birthday present for Kumari, a miniature painting of the Rajput school which he had found in Calcutta. It represented Radha, after a tiff with Krishna, reclining alone on a bed in a musical little world of white pavilions and peacocks and lapidary trees. This Radha was the most exquisite he had ever seen, sitting in profile, looking at once gentle, proud, and sad; and the nose, the eyes—well, these were the nearest to Kumari’s that he ever expected to see in a painting. This secret, however, must wait until December and the birthday which Henry had given to Kumari when she first came to Rongphar.
Eventually he looked up from the toe of Kumari’s shoe and saw that she was wearing a collar of jewels. He had never before seen her adorned even with the thinnest bracelet, and marvelled at his self-absorption that he should not have noticed this innovation immediately. The collar was Indian work—Moghul by the look of it—composed of different coloured stones set into a pattern of leaf-shaped small diamonds sunk in gold. It fitted perfectly the perfect pillar of her neck, and the old jewels echoed the flickering of the wood fire. From where he stood Armin could see five large jewels—diamond and sapphire, ruby and cat’s eye and pearl. He touched his own neck, smiling and nodding towards hers, and said:
“Kumari, what a lovely thing!”
The girl frowned and smiled at the same time with a proud and deprecatory pleasure.
“Oh, isn’t it? They’re the ‘nine sacred stones’—you know? Henry gave them to me for my last birthday but one.”
“But I was here for that birthday. I don’t remember—”
“The necklace was late in coming. When it came, you had gone. This is only the second time I’ve worn it. I think it’s the loveliest thing in the world!”
Armin checked, as cheap, the complimentary remark which came into his mind. He had sufficient of a feeling that things might not be going to be ideally easy for his holiday, not to want to imperil such security as there was on his very first evening. He recognised, however, that Kumari, like all great beauties, could subdue jewels to herself: a few, a very few, lilies could stand any amount of gilding. Even so, since tonight she so beautifully fulfilled her name, looked so perfectly a princess, Armin felt absurdly diffident with her. Kumari evidently sensed this, for she said, with a small frown:
“Armin, you don’t seem . . . quite like yourself this evening. Is anything the matter?”
Armin at once broke his good resolution.
“Only you,” he said.
“I?” Kumari’s voice was almost shocked. “What have I done?”
“It’s not what you’ve done, it’s what you are. . . . Does your mirror tell you nothing, Kumari?”
“Only what it has always told me,” she answered simply.
“And that is—nothing?”
“It’s what I’m used to, and . . . don’t forget I’ve practically only got Kajìr and Mrs. Flügl for comparison! It’s—it’s hard to know.”
“Does Kajìr tell you nothing, then?”
Kumari lowered her eyes and slightly bowed her head. “Oh, yes . . . Kajìr does: all the time, but. . .” She raised her chin and looked proudly at Armin “. . . I don’t often listen to Kajìr!” From the almost imperceptible break in Kumari’s voice, Armin knew that she was disturbed.
A light constraint fell on each of them, which was swept away by Henry’s striding in, still in riding breeches and an old shooting coat. He had removed his boots and tucked a silk scarf into the neck of his shirt. He stood for a while in the centre of the room looking preoccupied and running one hand through his fair hair.
“Sorry, both of you,” he said. “I meant to have a bath and get into some clean things, but I got stuck writing a report that’s got to go off tomorrow . . . . I say, Armin, I thought I said don’t dress!”
“It’s only another suit: I thought you meant no dinnerjackets.”
“Good heavens, no. Dressing for dinner in the jungle! No, but . . . and Kumari, heavens!” He strolled over and stood looking down at her, smiling at her with rather remote amusement, coolly affectionate. “I must say you do us both proud . . . I’d forgotten you had that . . . By the way, I think it’s about time you had another necklace. Remind me to go to Hamilton’s next time I’m in Calcutta. . . .”
“No, Henry, no!” Armin was astonished at the passionate force of Kumari’s tone.
“My dear girl, why ever not? You can’t go through life with only one. Let me get you something a bit more modern; that’s pretty, but. . .”
“Henry, oh, please, I don’t want another one, I . . . I love this necklace. You promised it to me—do you not remember?—long, long ago . . . at the very beginning. I did not remind you then . . .” The girl’s face was tragic. Henry shrugged his shoulders.
“All right,” he said huffily, “don’t have another necklace: but do let’s all have a drink!” and he clapped his hands.
Armin itched with puzzlement. What in the world had happened here in the two years that his back had been turned? What change had come, and for what reasons, to turn Henry’s manner to Kumari from that of a good magician, loving and protecting, to this nullity, at best preoccupied and dimly avuncular? And what had happened to Henry himself?
Armin glanced sidelong at Kumari and caught her looking with helpless appeal at Henry’s back. Henry was bending over a tray of drinks proffered by Lala Dev. Armin felt anger creep in his bones as he marked the almost desperation of Kumari’s eyes. Because the consideration of alternatives was, at present, too painful Armin told himself that this must be one of Henry’s off-days, that it was still far too early to form any opinion at all.
At dinner, Henry exerted himself somewhat more collectedly as a host. Little by little he lost the air of condescension from great affairs which had been so noticeable earlier on, and became once more the Henry Greenwood Armin remembered—or more nearly so. At intervals throughout dinner he fell into abstraction, his face taking on a distant, calculating look, as though his mind were busy with figures, but in the main he was as prodigal in talk as ever, his mind ranging as widely and authoritatively as it had always used to do. For most of the time he held the table. Kumari had masked her distress, but Armin, extra-acute where she was concerned, guessed from small movements of her hands, a sigh, a rather forced occasional attempt at gaiety that, inside, it burned her still. At all events, she spoke little. Armin, too, remained silent, except for a random question or noise of assent: he wanted to see and hear Henry being his old self. Things were safer so.
When Armin judged that Henry was mellowed sufficiently, he shifted the conversation by asking what “improvements” he might expect to see about the place next day. On each of his two former visits Henry’s eagerness had led him at once to display to Armin the latest ingenuity he had installed to outwit the climate of Assam: storm drains, a cooling system for seedlings in the walled garden, a method of combating mould during the rains. This time Henry only yawned.
“No improvements,” he said. “A few things have settled down and a few have grown up. It’s tidy now, anyway. I’ve had a row with the headman down in the village—a matter of pigs.” Henry’s look was full of distaste, his eyes cold.
“What did the pigs do?” Armin asked.
“Came stampeding up the road one night—nearly wrecked the car,” said Henry. “I told them they must keep their pigs to themselves. In fairly round terms,” he added. “I shot a boar two days ago, by the way—a wild one. He was prancing about in the tea. I told the headman this morning that if any more of his pigs came up here, they’d get shot too.”
From the corner of his eye Armin saw Kumari raise her head and look fully at Henry. A minute dimpling between her eyebrows was the beginning of a frown. She looked considering, withdrawn, as though she were judging some plea that she alone could hear.
Armin said: “You can’t mean that! You know what their pigs mean to the villagers . . . and besides, I thought you and the headman were great friends?” He remembered very well making a call with Henry on the courteous old man.
“Oh, it was all right at first,” Henry answered carelessly. “I was up here more then, and everything was unfinished, and what the villagers did mattered less. But it won’t do now. It’s always the same with these people: give them any encouragement and they’re all over you for life.”
Armin fought off a feeling of wild unreality. He must assume he was not dreaming: he must recognise that he had just heard Henry Greenwood wreck, with a few phrases, nearly the whole structure of liberality and tolerance on which, if he only knew it, his friendship with Armin rested. This was more than the work of an off-day.
They finished dinner and left the table to drink coffee near the fire. Almost at once Kumari excused herself, saying that she was tired. She rose and, as Henry laxly heaved himself out of an armchair, joined her hands and made him the Hindu woman’s beautiful obeisance. Henry kissed her forehead and immediately looked away and began to ferret in his pockets for a cigar-cutter. Kumari shook Armin’s hand. He made her a friendly face, searching her eyes at the same time, begging her with his own not to be sad. She managed half a smile, then turned and in the cloud of her white draperies, was gone. Back to Kajìr, thought Armin, back to that cozening old chunk of mother earth. . . . Is Henry Greenwood, after all, raving mad?
The two men settled into chairs on opposite sides of the fire and for a while were silent, Henry lighting a cigar with deliberation and Armin watching him covertly. He was seeing Henry now with a new eye and now, for the first time, he could appreciate the physical change in him. The Henry Greenwood of Oxford and of Laura Johnston’s dinner party had been two different people, the second a pared down, almost an ascetic version of the florid first. The man sitting opposite Armin contentedly puffing his cigar was, Armin could see it now, almost unrecognisably different from the thin, handsome, untidy enthusiast whom Flavia had abandoned. Henry had put on weight, grown heavier under the jaw; his fair hair was neater now, but had retired some distance from his high forehead. Henry now looked almost his Oxford self again, but paler, fleshier, the worse for lacking the high colour and the sheen of youth.
They talked for a while of Armin’s two years as a teaplanter, and the choice of future jobs which were open to him with Greenwood, Bellenger.
“You haven’t regretted, have you, giving up your career to come to us?” Henry asked, making his question sound like a statement of fact.
“Oh, no,” said Armin. In truth he had found his time of apprenticeship in North Cachar pleasant enough, and the work interesting; but the job was restricting in a special way, so much so that he had sometimes bitterly regretted leaving a service which had given him such unrivalled chances to come and go at all levels of Indian life.
It had been during Armin’s first visit to Rongphar that Henry had seriously suggested that Armin should leave the Political Service and join Greenwood, Bellenger. Armin had been, at that time, only mildly tempted. He had promised to think it over—Henry had been pressing, and if anything could have swayed him at that time it would have been Henry’s personality.
Whatever the doubts he might now be having about his original judgment of Henry’s character, in those days Armin found him in almost every way a worthwhile companion. Henry’s victorious attacks on the inertia of his fellow-directors, his determination to do what he could for Anglo-Indian relations through the medium of his business, his apparently deep and continuing interest in everything Indian, and finally the visionary boldness which had resulted in the finding of Kumari and the building of Rongphar—all these had appealed strongly to Armin. He told himself again that the observations of a few hours should not be enough to upset his whole opinion of Henry Greenwood. Nevertheless—and it was Henry’s attitude to Kumari which most appalled Armin—this new view of Henry after two years had been at no point reassuring. He was, moreover, quite certain that Kumari was not, any longer, entirely happy.
It had been the murder of his friend Martin Ford, in January 1935, which had decided Armin to accept Henry’s offer, since repeated by letter, of a paid training and finally a job in close association with himself in Greenwood, Bellenger and Company. Ford was ten years older than Armin, with a reputation as a brilliant negotiator and a linguist second to none. His work was highly valued by the Government, but it was only one of many functions of the liveliest, most unquenchably enthusiastic intelligence Armin had ever known. Ford loved India with a single-hearted and highly critical devotion. “It’s all the missing bits of the jigsaw, old boy,” he used to say, “and we supply the same thing the other way round. Wonderful arrangement—pity we can’t all seem to get on!” He wove his way through violence and chicanery and all the stupefying entanglements of Indian politics with delighted enthusiasm. “Wonderful thing, the human race,” he once said. “If it can possibly avoid going straight, it will! Never get tired of seeing the lengths people will go to avoid doing the obvious thing in the obvious way.” He was the worthy heir of a long line of genial, unselfish administrators and, like too many of them, he met his death at the hands of people who, had they known him, would have loved him and whom, in spite of every possible reverse, he had obstinately preferred to love. The murder of Ford left Armin shaken and dubious—not of his own chances of survival, but of his ultimate ability to do any good if he continued in his profession. He began to wish to try his hand at promoting goodwill by less orthodox means than were open to him as a Government servant. Respecting Henry Greenwood and believing him sincere in his plans to use his great influence towards a new movement of co-operation, Armin came to believe that he might be more likely to find the chance he wanted if he joined forces with him. Accordingly he had written to Henry, accepting his offer and had extricated himself from his service with many regrets and in the face of the real distress and mystification of his superiors. He then joined Greenwood, Bellenger in August 1935.
Remembering Ford, Armin also remembered his recent meeting at Dhubri with Mr. S. D. Gupta. He thought it might be as well to tell Henry the story. Henry listened with a sceptical expression which Armin found irritating and, at the end, merely shrugged his shoulders.
“You don’t take it seriously?” Armin asked him.
“Well, my dear man, what’s one agitator more or less, just now? The whole country’s swarming with them. What do you suggest I should do? Run away and hide? Send Kumari away? Sell up Greenwood, Bellenger?” He laughed with what Armin thought was too large a complacency. He said a trifle acidly:
“No: but since you employ Bengalis here in the tea, I suggest it might be worth telling Flügl to keep an eye out for Gupta. I strongly got the impression that Mr. Gupta’s doing some work he likes, at present: and I don’t really think he followed me all that way just for fun. I’d—yes, I’d certainly watch out for him, particularly round about the date of any Hindu festival.”
“Armin, I believe you’re getting windy!” said Henry, with the edge of a jeer in his voice.
“Well, it’s you they’ve got it in for, not me—” and Armin shrugged his shoulders in turn.
After a while Henry began to speak about his own doings in the last two years and, little by little, as the minutely detailed chronicle unfolded Armin began to have an idea of the influences which had come to bear on Henry and of his response to them. In the first place there had been, early in 1936, a complete tour of the various Greenwood, Bellenger properties which had taken Henry right round the world. He had spent a month in London, another in New York, and had made short stops at San Francisco, Valparaiso and, of course, Hong Kong, Singapore and Rangoon. “Travel broadens the mind,” thought Armin, almost with anguish, “and his was getting so beautifully concentrated. . . . It was clear to Armin that much mischief had been done. The world tour, with all its empressements, the dinners and the speeches, the new faces, ideas and methods to which Henry had been introduced—these should all have fallen into place, assumed reasonable proportions on his return. Unfortunately, by a sort of echoing process, Henry found himself, once back in India, very much sought after, and by the very people for whom, a few years before, he would have had the least use. He soon began, for the first time since 1931, to make public appearances, even to speak in public. Before long he was writing letters to the papers about this or that commercial problem. A series of articles on “Recent Trends in Management” appeared over his name. Henry’s conversation now was all of Chambers of Commerce, Rotary luncheons, the Bengal Club. He hinted impressively at mysterious calls to Delhi “to advise”, and the offer of a seat on the board of the Imperial Bank. Armin was aghast. As Henry, with a good deal of complacency, reeled off his various triumphs, it became with every instant plainer that he could see no discrepancy between the outlook he was now expressing and the one he had adopted when his marriage came to an end in 1931. Deeply anxious on Kumari’s behalf, Armin asked question after question of Henry; and every answer he received only showed more clearly that Henry was now, at last, willingly returning to the haunts and habits of his world. Already he was coming less often and for shorter periods to Rongphar. He had fitted up an office next to his bedroom and was arranging for improvements in the telephone line. Already his appearance had changed, to match his new personality. The other Henry Greenwood who perhaps, but for Flavia, might have lain dormant always, had now disappeared for good. The other Henry Greenwood had been Armin’s friend, Kumari’s husband-to-be. What was to happen to Kumari? Armin knew he must take this plunge. He waited for a pause in Henry’s recital and then leaned forward.
“By the way, Henry,” he said, his voice full of a lively interest, “when is it to be?”
“When’s what to be?”
“Why, the marriage, of course—you and Kumari.”
“Oh,” he said. “Oh, yes—that.”
Yes, that ,”said Armin, still trying to sound cheerful. “One of the things I’ve come up for. It was to be on her sixteenth birthday, wasn’t it? That was what you always intended. In December. I want to know the details.”
“Well, to tell you the truth, Armin,”—Henry’s tone was man-of-the-world, “there aren’t any at present. In fact, I’ve rather changed my mind about the date—not about the marriage, of course,” he added hastily, “but I thought that, in the long run it would really be better to put it off, say for a year. Kumari has a lot to learn still, you know. I rather thought of sending her to Bombay for a year to ‘finish’ her, so to speak.”
“The very word,” thought Armin. This morning he would not have believed it possible that he could ever dislike Henry Greenwood so much. He got to his feet and stretched elaborately.
“I think I’ll go to bed, Henry,” he said. “You’ve told Kumari, I suppose?”
“No . . . no, I haven’t yet. I’ll tell her soon, in the next few days. Don’t breathe a word to her, Armin, will you?”
Armin looked expressionlessly at Henry and slowly shook his head. “Goodnight,” he said.
It was, in fact, some time before Armin could contemplate going to bed. He sat smoking by the wide window of his room, and looked out at the stars and the variable darkness of trees and hills under the starlight, at the intricate brilliant patterns the fireflies made on the night. Insects hit the transparent screen with a continual pattering, an occasional papery thud. Moths, big and small, climbed and reclimbed the copper meshes, their wings whirring. Cries of birds and animals lanced the darkness from all sides. Night in this country covered a wakeful world as busy and as violent as the striving day.
Warm light lay evenly on the spare furnishings of the room. Calmness, simplicity, order—all were here, and the -low square bed lay neatly turned, inviting and yet equivocal. It could give him rest or be a rack to torture him. No use accepting its invitation until his mind had become quieter; at present, like the patiently besieging moths, it hummed and fluttered and refused to be still.
Armin’s anger with Henry had evaporated; he felt only sad now and uncertain of his way. He realised that he had set his heart on Henry’s carrying out his intention and marrying Kumari at the appointed time. He had set his heart on this, not quite consciously perhaps, to keep himself from setting it anywhere else. These last years the critical and grudging admiration he had felt for Henry at Oxford had quickened into something stronger as interest and sympathy grew. Armin had found himself increasingly willing to accept Henry as a leader, to support him and work for him. Now he was faced with having to recognise that the Henry Greenwood he had admired and trusted had startlingly changed, had assumed a new shape which completely betrayed the old. There was not, he told himself—trying to be fair—anything inherently wrong in the direction Henry now appeared to be taking. He would, in the end, do no particular harm to the world and much good to his own self-esteem. To the welcome which his brains, his fortune and his immensely strategic position in business would command from his new associates, would be added the flutes and the feasting due to a prodigal son. The loss would be Armin’s—and Kumari’s: that, at least, was sure.
Armin jumped up and began to pace the room. His own loss might be a matter for real regret, but he would survive it. What, though, of Kumari? Henry was her sun, no less: the giver of all that Kumari had in the world, the shaper of her future, the light and purpose of her life. She had reason to look troubled. Henry who, in the early days, had come more than half way to fetch her from her own world, must seem now to have gone back farther than half way into his own. From there would he beckon her to follow? Come back for her? Or would he perhaps turn away, be distant, unhearing, leave her with empty hands, divided, sickly uncertain, in a no man’s land where, without his passport and his promise, she would never have wished nor needed to stray?
Armin saw that he would have to let the coming weeks bring him the answers he wanted. Tonight, the first night of what was to have been a period charged with fulfilment, at once the happy culmination of a brave venture and the starting-point of something bolder still, he found himself dithering with anxiety, deeply disappointed, with months of his holiday still to go and no firm ground beneath his feet. Tonight he could only pose his chief questions, let lesser ones pepper his bewildered senses from every direction. This situation which Henry appeared so blandly to take for granted must be gone into and lived through. Armin, after the briefest weak moment of wishing he had never come to Rongphar, could only be profoundly glad that he was here at last. For Kumari’s sake alone, his presence at this time must mean good: her little world would be by that much the more solid. “At least,”—he smiled bitterly—“at least I can take turns with Kajìr!”
After a long while Armin went to bed and almost immediately fell asleep. Just before dawn he awoke from a dream, hollow and aching with a sense of loss. The still, cold air of the room rang and vibrated with a soundless shout of dismay: Gone . . . gone—the word had been repeated in a tone of unassuageable grief. Kumari was gone; in Armin’s dream he had searched an empty echoing house for her in vain. So desolating and so immediate had been the dream that Armin leaped from bed, had his hand on the door knob before the room’s familiarity pierced to his sleep-bound senses. He had been on his way, in despair, to search for Kumari in her rooms, which he had never seen. He turned back and stood at the window breathing the first fresh ripples of the dawn breeze, shivering, sick with an apprehension he could not talk down. All seemed alien, inimical; the paling stars jeered at him from a sky of lead; the breeze had a deathly chill. Armin felt small and wretched, full of an unreasoning fear: he fancied that the jaws of the mountains were closing on Rongphar, that they would slam together to crack Henry’s stone house like a nut.
The season advanced towards another year, and Armin found life at Rongphar, his deeper preoccupations apart, agreeable enough. For Kumari’s sake he made, in the first few days, a powerful effort to adapt himself to Henry’s new mood and to the altered atmosphere of this house which had been, for so long, his heart’s home. The process was bruising: Armin felt as though he had turned a double somersault and landed jarringly. Henry, however, except that he eased a little the excessively patronising manner of the first day, appeared unmoved by Armin’s arrival. He who had once been fiercely active in mind and body yet capable, at moments, of a brooding, enraptured calm, now passed his days in a state of bonhomous “normality” so unvarying as to be unmistakably a pose deliberately taken on. Seeing this, Armin could have wept for the sheer perverseness of circumstances. The ease with which Henry had changed his coat, his almost gleeful fitting of himself into the role of Burra Sahib, must now, Armin supposed, invalidate all that had been before. Perhaps the lost qualities in Henry which Armin was lamenting had been simply another set of attitudes as skilfully assumed. Armin despaired of knowing the truth of this. Whatever it was, the practical considerations remained. Once more, his own future was in question since, if Henry was now determined to cut himself so trivially to pattern, Armin—to whom earning money had always been of secondary importance—could see no particular point in continuing with Greenwood, Bellenger. Decisions about his own future, however, could wait: what could not wait was a clear word on the future of Kumari.
Without speaking of it to each other Armin and Kumari found themselves in distinct complicity where Henry was concerned. Both had suffered a derangement of the fabric of their hopes and dreams. Neither consulted the other, but in their ways of treating Henry Greenwood they grew daily more alike. They were both a little breathlessly polite, eager, accommodating and affectionate to Henry as adults sometimes are with a child about whose future there is cause for anxiety. From their manner to him, Henry might have been in danger of, or just recovering from a near-mortal illness. For the time being Armin kept his own counsel and Kumari hers, but with every passing day their unformulated sympathy, the sense of an identity in loss, grew stronger.
Meanwhile the life of the small household continued much as Armin remembered it. Each morning he woke to a roomful of grey-blue light like snowlight and a window totally blank with mist. He lingered over breakfast by the window in the hall, watching serrated foliage, a clubbed tree-top, break through white vapour like rocks through a sea of milk. Before the advancing sun the mist would soon fray to ribbons and then vanish, and the tangled foreground, the noble valley be displayed, all edges touched with a mild glitter, all colours softened as with drifting smoke.
Sometimes the cloud hung on the mountain a long time and rooms and courtyard were washed in cold white light, the near trees turned to grey shadows. When the mist was down the house lost its commanding personality, with the eclipse of its view, and became still friendlier, a comfortable refuge in which to read and watch the fire and forget the pitiless jungle only just at arm’s length.
Rongphar had lost none of its amenity. It was still materially the perfect place to spend a leave, and Armin, to help Kumari and to help himself, took care to do all the things he had done before, to make use of every pleasure or curiosity that house and countryside had to offer. On fine days Armin would go out with a gun to try for the pheasants, green pigeons, or jungle fowl which were always welcomed with nods and clucks by the gloomy old Mâg cook. Sometimes he would take a horse and ride the long way round through the village to the tea-garden to call for Kumari at the bungalow where she still went for lessons with the Flügls each afternoon. Their slow walks back to Rongphar beside the plodding horse became dear to both of them. Under the wide sky, among the orderly tea bushes whose leaves shone like wet paint in the winter sun, adrift in air and space, Armin and Kumari could wander slowly homewards talking and laughing as they had used to do, forgetting for the glowing moment their still uncommunicated cares. To see her smile—this became daily more necessary to Armin. Once away from the house, on their walks through the tea, or in the walled garden, or on occasional trips to the village, Kumari’s spirit would seem to shine in the old way, her quick observing eye catch happily at the thousand small pleasures a temporarily genial Nature put before them. Out of doors there were jays and orioles, immense brilliant butterflies, lizards, an occasional snake. There were the hill-people, dark and nimble, whose men wore fringed striped jackets over their dhotis, and whose women had thick ankle-bracelets and fat silver bungs in the distended lobes of their ears. Sunlight shook on the pointed leaves of the bamboo, jays gave their scraping cries, and monkeys, crashing through high branches, chattered and yelled. The strong, unharmful sunlight was criss-crossed with cool currents of air: just for these few weeks of winter all was stir and gleam, sweet scent and gentle wind; extremes of weather were, for a short truce, put by.
Once back at the house, Kumari seemed to Armin to dwindle away from him. Leaving him in the hall, with a quick, uncertain smile, she would at once dart off down the long corridor to her own rooms. Indoors he saw her too rarely, and it was seldom now that she came to sit beside him in the loggia when he lay there, smoking and reading, in a long chair. At meals she was grave, not untalkative but serious, turning her gaze politely from one to the other of the two men as they talked. When she spoke it was with point and intelligence, but a little flatly, unenthusiastically, as though to talk were a mere duty, no more a pleasure as it certainly once had been.
Listening to Henry nowadays, Armin could hardly blame Kumari for losing all inclination to sparkle. He had developed a tendency to indulge either in very long monologues or equally long silences. There were days when he obviously grudged the time spent over luncheon or dinner as so much lost at his desk. Armin seldom now had Henry’s company on walks or rides; the long-planned excursion to Dimapur remained a possibility but was beginning to look improbable; in the evenings—and it was here that the change in Henry showed most clearly—instead of settling with the remembered gusto to hours of conversation, the architecture of plans and ideas, the enthusiasm kindling and re-kindling between them, Henry now slept, or read, or excused himself to go back to his office for work which, he often said, would keep him till the small hours. What this work might be, Armin could not even bring himself to ask. He guessed that it was probably a massive, complex, and perhaps not entirely necessary scheme for reorganisation within the firm. Henry’s once far-seeing eye had too obviously fixed with delight on some object at close range. Armin reminded himself sourly that the hawk, soaring in enviable freedom, is most often only looking intently for mice.
Henry broke his news, about the postponement of their marriage, to Kumari one day in the first week of November. Armin learned this on asking why Kumari was not at dinner that particular night. Henry shrugged his shoulders and muttered something about Kumari’s being a bit upset. Henry himself remained placid, but Armin spent the evening in deep unhappiness for Kumari, retired early and lay awake, feeling miserable, almost till dawn. He saw nothing of Kumari all next day until, coming into the hall before dinner, he found her standing once more by the fire, in a pale blue, gold-banded sari, wearing her jewelled collar. After one look at her face Armin did not know whether to kneel and worship her or beg her to go and wash it. Every cosmetic device known to Kajìr had been lavished on the girl, whose beauty was now suddenly violent, theatrical. Like the little Radha in the picture, she even had henna on her finger-tips and in the palms of her hands. Armin loved her for her courage and for the spirit which had bred this defiant gesture. An impulse made him move quickly to her side and lift her hand to his lips. Her own lips, now a hard, bright scarlet, widened in a small, grateful smile, but this did nothing to allay the hurt bewilderment in her eyes. If Henry noticed—and he could scarcely have helped noticing—Kumari’s transformation, he made no comment then or later. Armin never saw her made up like this again.
Early in December Henry went to Calcutta, and came back a week later looking much invigorated. Seeing him again after this brief absence, Armin saw more clearly than before how the rapid change in Henry was now reflected in his walk and gestures. There had always been in him an irreducible dignity. This, once dramatic, compelling, had seemed to derive from the activity of his mind: rangy, awkward even, he had moved unselfconsciously but with an air of having his eyes on a distant splendour. Watching him approach across the courtyard, Armin noted the measured, now somewhat heavy way of walking, the head held up, benign, calm, responsible and more than slightly complacent—a public figure such as the world approves. Armin, then, smiled impatiently at himself. If this was how Henry was to be from now on, there was nothing he could, or indeed should, do about it. For Kumari’s sake alone, and, strictly only limitedly even there, had he any right to attempt to influence his friend. Only—as once before, seven years ago—he realised, with sorrow and a sense of hopeless deprivation that he himself was moving on, alone.
Henry had returned in time for Kumari’s birthday and Armin reflected on how much they owed it to the girl’s courage that the day was not a deadly fiasco. Somehow Kumari managed to go through it without the smallest tremor; somehow she managed to produce an air of excitement and gentle gaiety which, if it did not deceive Armin, at least appeared to give Henry pleasure. For the first time in many days he seemed to be giving Kumari his full attention; some of his aloof, preoccupied and condescending airs fell away, and at moments, with curiously mixed feelings, Armin saw someone like the Henry of the early days, the wise and loving friend and protector, whom the child Kumari had found it easy to love and whom Armin had revered. Whether Kumari’s hopes had been lifted by this glimpse of a vanished grace in Henry, Armin could not tell. He was inclined, next day, to hope that they had not, for Henry very promptly retired into a cloud of distinguished brooding and made it perfectly clear at breakfast that he had no thoughts to spare that day for either of them.
Christmas passed almost unmarked at Rongphar, and for this Armin was not sorry. He had always found the Christmas festivities of Europeans in the East poignantly inappropriate. Looking back, he could not remember any declaration of Henry’s part of adherence to any particular religion: he had supposed that, like himself—like most people of their date and kind—Henry was privately engaged on a laborious business of question and answer which might or might not end by confirming him in the faith of his ancestors. Armin could remember Henry’s delighted exegesis of the Bhagavad Gita in the earliest days at Rongphar. He knew that Kumari had been born a Hindu and had thought that Henry, as his relationship with the girl developed, would be more likely to lean in that direction than to incline her towards the remiss Anglicanism in which he had been brought up. But he turned his mind away from these thoughts since they brought back at once the unsettled question of Henry’s rights and duties in taking Kumari away from her environment to one of his own making where this matter very possibly might not have been fully considered.
Nevertheless, the season came, as it must come everywhere, loaded with magic, with the affirmation of rebirth and promise renewed. The villagers had harvested their crops of summer rice and cotton, the cold weather was half over, and soon the season of heat and tempest would return, to be followed by the long cataclysm of the rains. Armin’s leave was half over, too. He found himself divided between a desire to get away from a situation to which he could not be reconciled and despair at the thought of having to abandon the proud and lonely girl to whom—he recognised at last with bitter candour—more than to any other being in his life his whole self was committed.
“But I tell you, Sir, that this time it is serious. This time I think, we shall have to do something. . . .”
It was unlike Flügl, Armin thought, to raise his voice. The Swiss manager was usually so quietly-spoken, sleepy in manner, for all his great size and strength. Armin was standing, hot and dishevelled, drinking a glass of iced lime-juice by the fireplace in the hall which had held no fire, now, for several weeks. The long-projected trip to the ruined city of Dimapur had at last taken place and had been a total failure. The party had returned half an hour ago, the two men sweating and irritable, Kumari divinely cool as always, but downcast and silent, to find Flügl waiting in the loggia. Henry had taken him, at his urgent request, then and there into his office for a private talk. Kumari, with a pathetic look at Armin, had gone with bowed head to her room. Lala Dev, who never failed, had been ready with iced drinks, and Armin had taken one before going to change his clothes.
Now Flügl was coming out of the office with Henry, still talking. His square red face was streaked with sweat: sweat stood in beads on his temples. Rough red skin and a puff of wiry hair showed in the open neck of his shirt. His long fair moustache drooped at the ends, and his pleasant, blunt features had an indignant expression unusual in one so habitually serene.
“Look here, Flügl,” Henry was saying. “You know as well as I do—they’ve always been troublesome, they always will be troublesome: if it weren’t politics it would be something else. Tell me this: when have you not had trouble with coolies?”
Flügl stepped away from Henry and turned to face him. He looked offended, even hurt, but there was a genuine dignity about him as he said: “I hope you will believe, Mr. Greenwood, that I would not trouble you with troublesome coolies if the trouble was one I could mend for myself. I come to you because, for only the third time in thirty years of this work, I have encountered something more than mere caprice, or laziness, or drunkenness or dishonesty.” He stood leaning a little forward, his heavy head thrust out, fixing Henry with affronted bright blue eyes. “This time,” he said slowly, “I can tell you, there is organisation in this mischief. For months now there has been a famous agitator working from Rudragarh. He has caused much trouble in the gardens near the river. I learned today that he has been here as well—” he paused impressively, “a flying visit, as you might say: when I learned about him he had already gone. But he has managed to do something to excite our people, particularly that new batch which came in October. There is a high degree of political-mindedness in that lot, I should tell you, a suspiciously high degree. One could almost think it had been arranged . . . that they should be together.”
Henry looked annoyed, impatient. He returned Flügl’s gaze inhospitably and said, in tones of dismissal: “Well, all right, Flügl. Thank you for coming and telling me. I’ll see what can be done. . . . Meanwhile, see if you can find out exactly what’s exciting them.”
Flügl gave him a jerky bow. “I hope, Sir,” he said earnestly, “that you will give thought to the matter. This agitator . . . he should be stopped.”
“All right, Flügl,” Henry’s irritation was now plain to hear, “I’ve told you I’ll see what can be done.”
Flügl bowed again and lumbered out, every line of his figure expressing dissatisfaction.
When he had gone, Armin said: “What are you going to do?” Henry looked at him sharply.
“Nothing, of course,” he said. “I’ve no time for this sort of nonsense. It’s Flügl’s business to keep his coolies in order. I ask you, what earthly harm, beyond simply working badly, can a handful of chaps like that do in a place like this?”
Armin was silent. It seemed inconceivable that Henry should be deliberately so dense: there must, nevertheless, be a reason for his refusal to take Flügl’s story seriously. Could he, Armin wondered, by any chance have come to believe himself unassailable? It seemed highly probable.
Armin said: “Flügl’s the last person to invent scares. If I were you, I’d take him seriously, Henry. Particularly as I’m nearly sure the agitator he talked about is my old friend, Mr. S. D. Gupta who has—do you remember?—a personal interest in yourself.”
“My good Armin, I’ve other and, may I say, better things to do than lose sleep over every tinpot agitator who thinks I’m an enemy of the human race. Let him talk!”
“It strikes me . . .” Armin began, but stopped, held back by a mounting sense of hopelessness, of the futility of words.
“Well?” Henry said, half-turned on his heel to leave the hall. “What strikes you?” His tone was distant, unfriendly, his eyes cold. Armin looked at him consideringly. He might as well say it, he thought.
“That for blind, infuriating complacency there’s little to choose between you and Gupta. With either of you, in my experience, one might as well talk to the wall.”
Henry’s eyebrows drew together: an unusual glint came into his eyes.
“It’s been a trying day, Armin,” he said, more coldly still, “but I cannot see that you need to be offensive.”
They stood square to each other in the hot dusk of late afternoon, in the quiet room to which the saw and buzz of insect life came faintly from the swarming world outside, in a light made hectic by the massed clouds of an advancing storm.
The expedition to Dimapur had come to nothing. They had never got to the place at all. Badgered by Armin, who knew how Kumari had set her heart on this expedition, perhaps simply because it had been planned in happier days, Henry had finally agreed to put his work aside and come with them. The long delay had lost them the cool weather which would have made a great difference to everyone’s comfort and probably saved the day. It was now the first week in May and intensely hot. They had started in the car at an early hour to get what freshness the morning had to give. Even by going down the hill to the railway and then turning southwards with a fairly good road which would lead them into the valley of the Dhansiri river where Dimapur stood, they had many hours driving before them. Unfortunately Henry had elaborated a theory about the way to Dimapur which, undeterred by the unsuitable season, he was determined to try. This meant taking another road of a secondary, even temporary nature, and plunging off into the forest covering the skirts of their range of hills. By this means, Henry insisted, they would save many miles, get to Dimapur in good time to see it at leisure, before taking the longer valley-road home again. So they had taken the car over what was no better than an elephant track, through sweltering forest, at a crawling pace. Bucked and buffeted by the cruel road, stifled by the heat, Armin and Kumari had endured uncomplainingly for several hours. The chauffeur had kept his thoughts to himself. The road had not been recently cleared, and every now and then the occupants of the car were scraped, smothered by pendent creepers or low branches. Frequently the men had to get out and cut or break back undergrowth which was blocking the road. Soon their shirts were patched darkly with sweat, their arms and faces scratched and bitten. Only Kumari, whom heat could scarcely harm, remained neat, looked cool and at home in the hot sun-spotted twilight of the leaves. Her presence had helped Armin to keep his temper, even when both back wheels of the car went, with the breaking of a rotten log, down into a dry watercourse and it was clear that they would not reach Dimapur that day. He and Henry and the chauffeur had toiled for two hours to get the car out of the ditch, and for another to fill the ditch with wood so that it would be safe to cross. By then, nothing remained but getting home again, and home they had gone through the wrenching ruts and potholes and the clutching foliage, their silence emphasised by the screams of the monkeys watching them from above. Armin and Henry had not, amazingly, had words at any point, but words were in the air. Now, at home again, still scratched, bruised and soaking from their pointless excursion, neither man could feel friendship for the other. The accumulated irritations of the day were for each of them like a hair shirt. Armin, normally well able to control himself, felt boiling within him a mixed brew of feeling—resentment, regret, dislike predominating—which was making him want to shout in Henry’s face. The hot air, prickling with electricity, yet drowsy and savourless, pressed heavily on their nerves. Henry, an inch or so taller than Armin, confronted him in a monolithic pose, seemed for the first time in all these weeks to be really looking at him.
Armin said: “That is a foolish word between friends. You know a great deal, Henry, but you can’t possibly know everything. Why behave as if you did? You must know I know what I’m talking about. People like Gupta—situations like this—were my bread and butter for six years.”
Henry said slowly, heavily: “You seem to have become extraordinarily nervous with it, that’s all.”
“Who’s being offensive now?” said Armin, with an attempt at a smile. He made a great effort to shrug off the load of confused anger which he felt weighing on his shoulders. “I’m nervous, as you call it, not for myself, as you imply, nor even for you, but for . . . everything: Rongphar, the whole atmosphere you’ve created here, the pleasure it’s been to us all. I don’t want the world breaking in here with its hot irrelevancies . . .. And there’s Kumari.”
“What about Kumari?” Henry’s voice was hard.
“Just this. The situation of you and Kumari could look, from outside, very different from what we know it to be. . . . Gupta said as much that day at Dhubri: and the newspaper cutting he showed me said it pretty clearly too. These people aren’t scrupulous, and many of them are desperate. Can’t you see what a beautiful story it all could make, from their point of view? Don’t forget, we’re not amongst the leaders of Indian nationalism here—we’re dealing with small fry, deprived, resentful, bent on disruption for its own sake. Oh, they’re used all right, by the others, for what they’re worth: any trouble’s better than none to some people. But don’t count on your own consciousness of perfect rectitude putting you beyond the reach of accident, because it may not, that’s all . . . . I don’t want anything to upset Kumari, and you’ve no right to allow any situation to develop which might.” Armin thrust his hands into his pockets and looked at Henry steadily.
Henry glared back at Armin. “It strikes me,” he said, his words falling like stones, “that you are agitating yourself unnecessarily about Kumari’s welfare, which remains my concern.”
“And you believe that you can deal single-handed with any situation that arises—that you can live without information—that your wishes, somehow, will always become law? You are a rational man, Henry, but—can’t you see?—what Flügl and I are trying to tell you has nothing to do with reason.”
Henry laughed disagreeably. “That,” he said, with an air of tired good sense, “is only too clear.”
Armin clutched at his vanishing self-control. Blood was beating behind his eyes: his whole body felt taut, overstrained, as though he had hung for long by his hands. He said furiously: “Henry, if—through your invincible conceit and negligence—any harm comes to Kumari, I’ll. . .”
Henry Greenwood’s eyes glittered. He leaned forward as though to be sure of catching Armin’s next words.
“Yes, Armin?” he enquired softly. “What will you do?”
To save the situation, Armin turned quickly and walked a few paces towards the window. The room was in dusk. Beyond the window late sunlight, malign, discoloured, lit the bamboos with a blanching glare. Nearly the whole sky was now filled with toppling organ-pipes of cloud, grey at their tops, growing purple, black, as they went down. They were moving rapidly to invade the last tract of clear bright blue still remaining over the eastern side of the valley.
Turning back to the fireplace, Armin found that Henry had followed him. They confronted one another in the same stance as before. Armin was about to speak, when Henry forestalled him.
“Armin,” he said, “you know I have never cared for interference. . . . With a sudden lightening of amusement Armin thought, “That’s a magnificent understatement!” Ponderously, and always with something of the public manner which now seemed inescapable, Henry went on: “We are friends, I hope, Armin. And you hold a special position in this household. Will you allow me to say that I think you—sometimes—forget yourself? Naturally, you are fond of Kumari. But Kumari—all she is and all she will be—concerns, in all important ways, only myself. She is my responsibility: she will, one day, be my wife. . . .”
Something tore in Armin’s mind. He was trembling slightly. At his back he could feel the limitless pressure and darkness of the storm. The loud insect noises were stilled: no cries came now from the jungle beyond. Only a single koel-bird piped deliberately up its maddening scale, paused and began again.
“Henry,” he said, “I can’t stand this. I’ll have to go. This will have to be the end for us. . . . Dear God, you talk of Kumari as though she were a parcel of shares!” His voice strengthened, he was nearly shouting. “Has it crossed your mind that Kumari may be unhappy, Henry, while you’re pompously carving yourself a career in the world you used to despise? Can’t you see for yourself that you’ve changed—changed, I shall always think for the worse? I’ve lost something that used to matter to me: what do you think Kumari has lost?”
Henry was looking at Armin with an odd expression, mostly of anger and fastidious dislike, but touched, too, with something less positive—some uneasiness weakening his powerful mask, which might have been guilt or the unwilling recognition of a truth. He did not speak. Armin’s voice was tearing its way from his stomach as uncontrollably as vomit.
“You talk of ‘finishing’ her in Bombay—you postpone your marriage because she has a lot to learn. Kumari, I tell you, has nothing to learn, and two years ago it was you who meant to learn from her. Why else, in God’s name, did you ever take her away from wherever it was? Whatever her circumstances, they were at least what she was born to. She’d have had some sort of a life, beginning and end. . . . Henry, since this is likely to be our last real conversation, I’ll say my say and then I’ll go. I don’t believe any longer in your good intentions. You’ve let your world snaffle you back again: you’re no longer the man who found Kumari, who built this place, who meant to me . . . well, never mind . . . but I believe you’re not any longer sure about marrying Kumari. Since everything else has changed, that’s probably changed as well. So where are you now? And, without you, where do you think Kumari will be? You picked her out, abolished her past life, promised her the earth at your own hands: and now do you see why I agitate myself, as you call it? Do you see why I think that you planned and produced all this—worked every kind of miracle—for a bad reason? If you really changed your whole way of life, found Kumari and changed hers, all in a fit of heroic pique about Flavia—as it now seems to me you did—then I tell you squarely, I think you’re on the edge of committing a real crime.”
He stopped, breath coming fast, but Henry’s face was stony and he did not speak. More quietly Armin continued: “I love Kumari. Of course I love her. But you know very well that I’d never have let that influence my relations with either of you if things had gone on as they were going. I wanted this marriage of yours, Henry—partly, perhaps, to have it finally confirmed that Kumari belonged to someone else. Oh, don’t look like that. Kumari has never given me even the lightest hint of encouragement. I’ve kept my feelings from her—from myself, too, for a very long time. She was yours, Henry, in every way: is yours to this day—but you don’t, do you, any longer know what to do with her?”
At this Henry turned slowly round and moved over to the fireplace. With his back to the room he felt about in the drawer of a table for a pipe and matches. When he turned again to confront Armin, his face was heavy and his eyes dull. Armin, feeling suddenly exhausted, became conscious of a deep chill inside his carapace of heat; he felt his wet shirt touching him clammily, a trickle of sweat running down his chest.
Henry stood with his unlit pipe in one hand, looking at a point on the floor somewhere between him and Armin. When he spoke, his voice was as strong as ever, but wholly without his personal quality, his utterance flat, elaborate, judicial.
“I absolutely refuse,” he said, “to discuss Kumari further, with you or with anyone. After this, Armin, I’m afraid I must ask you to cut short your leave. You will agree, I know, that you can scarcely expect to remain at Rongphar.”
“Oh, I’ll go,” said Armin. “Whenever you like.”
“It’s Thursday today. On Saturday the car is going down to Calcutta. I think you had better go with it.”
Armin nodded. He had no wish, now, to say more. He turned to go to his room and saw Kajìr, standing back in the corridor’s gloom, waiting for a chance to enter. As he opened his mouth to speak to her a cold wind blew suddenly past him, lifting Kajìr’s red scarf and setting it flying behind her, lightning flared across the windows, and an annihilating crash of thunder shook the house and the rock beneath it, drowning his words.
Armin found himself alone at breakfast next day. Henry was not about and Armin did not enquire for him. With his breakfast Lala Dev brought Armin a letter which had come up to the house by hand. The letter was from Alec Mackenzie, written in a style as brief and telegraphic as his conversation was abundant, announcing a visit to a tea-garden thirty miles distant from Rongphar. “Be there on Saturday,” the letter said. “Give you a ring: maybe your telephone works, wh. more than mine does.” That was about all. Armin thought this visit might be providential: he would accept, now, Alec’s standing invitation to his own home higher up the valley. In this way he could remain in the same territory as Rongphar, see the same weather, the same far hills as Kumari for yet a little while.
Armin had slept surprisingly well, the better probably, he thought, for having had it out with Henry. Now he felt drained, no more than just alive, unwilling for the moment to do anything but eat and breathe and place one foot carefully in front of the other. There would be time for thought later on, plenty of time, too much: but the future was not to be thought of now. Planning must wait on a return of his essential vitality which, for the time being, was gone.
Kumari had not appeared at dinner the night before: this was what Kajìr had been coming to tell Henry when the storm broke. Armin had finished by dining alone, since Henry had shut himself into his small office early in the evening, and was being given his food in there.
Thinking that he would take a valedictory look at this place he had so loved, Armin went out into a morning world damp and steaming from the night’s rain. He looked long at the house, at the viridian jungle and the rough forested slopes of the hills against towering masses of grey and white cloud. Instead, however, of going, as he had intended, to look at the walled garden, the stable quarters, and the waterfall—all favourite places of Kumari’s—he struck off over the soaked quartzy gravel of the road, through the arching bamboos, towards the village of Rongphar. He thought it would be pleasant to see again the thatched hoods of the little houses raised on stilts and half drowned in a sea of green, the ambulatory pigs and chickens, the hard-pressed, needy simplicity of it all. Opposite the tall trees where the road entered the village, there was a kind of shop, unusual in a hill village, kept by a fat Hindu who made a mysterious living from it. This place served as a meeting-place for the unoccupied, of whom there were always a few able to sit about and talk and enjoy a scrap of opium, or a betel pan, at most times of day. Standing in the shadow of the trees, Armin looked across the puddle-streaked roadway and noted that the shopkeeper was doing excellent business. Many backs, all masculine, were turned on the road: men peered and jostled, climbing on benches to see into the shop. Of all emotions, curiosity dies hardest: Armin wandered over to see what was going on.
He could not, in fact, see into the mouldy darkness of the shop: too many people had got there before him. But he could hear very well a long and excited monologue, spoken in Hindustani, with some words every now and then in the local language from another voice interpreting. The voice doing most of the talking was, quite unmistakably, that of S. D. Gupta. Armin leaned against a wooden post, listening carefully. They were all there, all the familiar arguments, with some of which he was—had always been—in sympathy, most of which he detested for their insane prostitution of the truth. There were other things, though, in Gupta’s speech which were not from the stock in trade. At one point the high voice paused, changed its note dramatically, and with considerable narrative skill began on a story. Armin scarcely breathed, afraid of missing a word. He heard about the innocent, beautiful Indian girl who had been kidnapped by the greedy English millionaire against her will and in spite of the heroic resistance put up by her large, happy, orthodox Hindu family, spirited away to a life of imprisonment and concubinage. As he told the story, Gupta’s voice grew fat with prophecy: only ruin and disgrace could be the ultimate portion of such as Henry Greenwood: but it might take a long time. Why should not history be written more rapidly, retribution speeded up? The peroration was coming: Armin could well guess the look on Gupta’s face, glasses ablaze, lips lightly foaming, as he came to the point of demanding from his audience the immediate liberation of Kumari—“Enslaved, I tell you, my brothers, while yet a tender child!”—and the expulsion of Henry Greenwood for ever from Rongphar.
The alto voice stopped speaking. There was an admiring silence, then isolated murmurs which merged into a general chatter of excitement. Armin noted that fully half the audience, which must have numbered about thirty, were not villagers, but men of a different race, Bengalis by the look of them, evidently some of the coolies of whom Flügl had complained. Armin had time to hear Gupta announce that he would be speaking again this evening at a place on the road half-way between the village and the tea-garden where there was a group of six tall trees; then he thought it best to slip away.
He came back to the house through the dripping bamboos and stood looking at it for a minute, heavily aware that he would not see it again. The day was hot and humid; heavy sunlight drenched house and garden from directly overhead. All round the horizon, dwarfing the great hills, stationary pillars and blocks of cloud stood waiting to break in storms. The pool in the courtyard had been emptied and covered in with wood: there were no flowers anywhere that were not flattened by the night’s rain. Armin crossed the courtyard with a dragging step where, six months ago, he had walked so eagerly.
It was nearly noon and Lala Dev was laying the table for luncheon. He did not look round until Armin asked him where everybody was. When he turned to answer Armin thought he detected strain, a look of sadness in the ugly, honest old face. Henry had gone to Rudragarh, apparently soon after breakfast, and Kumari had gone out, too, half an hour ago, through the stables towards the forest behind the house. Armin guessed that she must have gone to the waterfall, the much shrunken waterfall which was still the only cool place out of doors in these blazing days. He hesitated for a few minutes, moving about the hall, touching things, looking, as he had done on the first afternoon, but this time saying farewell. Long ago, on the eve of returning to school, he had used to do the same, lingering over loved features of the home from which he was to be torn away. Glancing at the sky, Armin saw that the clouds were massing thickly again at the western end of the valley. This was the time of heat and thunderstorms; soon the rains would be here in earnest. He would not see them from Rongphar.
He went down the long corridor, as though to his room but turned, on an impulse already half decided, through the door which led to the back parts of the house. After the neutral dusk indoors his eyes, his nostrils took painfully the shock of the incandescent day. The stable yard was empty, deep in slack, tideless air. Usually there were figures here, grouped as in an old picture, strikingly posed—hill-men and women, the stately turbaned chauffeur, the thin, bow-legged syce, the cook, sometimes a whole court surrounding the regal, hoarsely rhetorical Kajìr. Today no one came or went, and the sunlight lay like syrup on an empty scene.
Armin, his skin pricking with the damp heat, went through the stables and took a path running through the thinned growth at the edge of a ravine. This path, he knew, would wind upwards, away from the faintly sounding trickle of water and would then begin to descend in a steepening zigzag towards a screen of small, twisted trees which hid the waterfall in its rocky shaft. From the trees a rough arrangement of steps led down to the bed of the stream. Of this place, at all seasons, Kumari had always been fond, whether the waterfall was crashing down in a brown and cream coloured flood at the end of the rains or, in the hot weather, spilling over in a single smooth ribbon as if from a tilted jar.
Armin began to climb up the uneven path of red rock sparkling with mica, edged with long grass and wildflowers and seedling trees. All moisture had been dried by the morning’s sun and now, in the fiery noon, the intense light flashed back to his eyes from every surface of rock or leaf. The day was without freshness or delicacy: the foliage glittered, hanging heavily in utter stillness: every green thing lay quiet, and roasted, and endured. Only an occasional lizard, bright-painted, impervious, moved rapidly a short distance and stopped still again. The air was crossed and re-crossed by invisible insects, and superb butterflies lolling drunkenly along. For all their stillness, there was a continual tick and whisper in the leaves, and the air was full of the endless bowing of crickets, brief bird-calls, the question and answer of a pair of frogs.
After a few yards Armin was sweating. He paused and looked up the ascending shallow steps of the path, through hanging creepers and thin-boled saplings to the scalloped snow-masses of cloud enclosing a blue pane of sky. Something caught his eye to the right of the path; he stopped to look into the shadow at the foot of an old tree. Feathers: someone had killed a bird. Armin stepped off the path for a closer look. A cock had been killed, and with its blood signs had been drawn on a smooth flat stone. Red lead had been smeared on the stone and on the exposed roots of the tree. Armin stood thoughtfully looking at the small sacrifice, feeling strangely nonplussed, as though this ought to mean something to him, if he had the right clue. He supposed it must be the work of the hill-people who were animists in so far as they were anything religious, and who made these oblations at random. He had come across them many times before. This, though, was recent work by the look of it: the blood was still wet and shining. Armin felt oppressed: he could have done without this crude reminder of the hostility of nature, the need for propitiation. This morning the jungle already seemed to him cruel enough.
He was turning to go on, when the sound of a stone falling made him look over his shoulder into the deeper gloom beyond. Someone was standing there, someone by her ample and fluttering outline recognisable at once at Kajìr. She was only a yard or two away and now stood, very straight and still, regarding him with bright, unwavering eyes from a face of wood. Armin stared back at her. Kajìr was evidently the author of the sacrifice: one hand behind her back probably still held a knife. To what end had the sacrifice been made? To prosper a wish, to give thanks for a favour, to ward off evil, to bring harm to someone—it might be any of these. Armin was not going to ask Kajìr to tell him. There was something in her attitude as she now stood looking at him which touched a buried recollection in Armin: an unusual mixture of triumph and anxiety as though, perhaps, Kajìr had done something wilful and was now in some fear of the result. Armin remembered suddenly. Kajìr’s look was one he had seen, often, on the faces of revolutionaries, particularly young ones, when they had burned their boats and were facing the future with mingled elation and terror and a halfwish to undo what they had done. Armin greeted Kajìr briefly and received a proud and enigmatic smile in return. Kajìr’s feeling, now, seemed to be entirely triumphant, for she tossed her scarved and ornamented head and made off through the trees with a flouncing of many skirts. Armin struck off again up the path, more unquiet than ever. He had a sense of an irresponsible mischief at work in Kajìr to add to the other miseries of the morning.
Armin came out through the trees above the ravine and stopped in full sunlight to look down at the place where the waterfall was, where Kumari might be. The scorching air felt to him dangerous, combustible. He half-hesitated to strike a match for his cigarette, as though the match might ignite the air and send his forfeited paradise up in a solid sheet of fire; but the struck match only blew a ragged triangle of something less bright than flame, a yellow stuff, opaque, smoky and insignificant. The trees screening the waterfall looked dark, unfriendly: they hid the truth he was seeking. Armin wished desperately that Kumari might be there, beside the rocky pool: he had little hope, otherwise, of seeing her alone again.
As he scrambled down from shelf to shelf of rock, slipping on the red and white crushed quartz, the swish and hollow splashing of the waterfall grew louder. A blue butterfly led him down the path in a lurching dance. Overhead the sky was flawless, a deep sapphire, but the clouds were growing ever higher, diminishing the clear spaces, giving to the sunlight a threatening tone. When he came to the screen of trees Armin could see the thread of water glinting through the leaves. He turned and began to go down the almost vertical rock steps. Below him the brook, which had been a small river when he first came, ran clear and bright from the shadows between dry banks of gravel and water-blunted rock. Armin would not call Kumari’s name for fear of getting no answer. In a moment he would be able to see round the stony shoulder to the waterfall and the pool.
Armin stopped in his descent and looked through a notch in the rock. The pool lay in shadow, softly lucent, brown and gleaming where ring after ring of ripples spread and merged. Sunlight never touched these depths for long; already the sun had moved from the zenith and only one patch still lit the clinging vegetation high on the right-hand side. The pool and the rocks surrounding it were in a shade at first almost impenetrable by eyes conditioned to the glare above. Armin could not yet quite see the cascade itself, falling idly now and rebounding in a quiet flurry from its shallow basin. In all the stillness of leaves—creepers chance-rooted shrubs, a hundred kinds of fern—only the soaked, dark fronds at the pool’s edge nodded with the assault of drops. Down there were perpetual motion and the word cool made matter. Armin sat for a moment and, to soothe his eyes, looked down.
It was then that Kumari came into sight. She must have been standing under the waterfall, letting it run all over her, all through the black splendour of her hair. She had moved a little to one side and now stood, with her back to Armin, looking up at the falling water just out of his sight. Her hair, even in that dusky place still glossy-seeming, streamed down her back. Not for a knife at his throat could Armin have turned away his eyes: he gazed at Kumari naked with wonder and tenderness, knowing this for an unsurpassable moment. He was still as the rock he clung to, rapt, unconscious of his body, past heat or cold, rage or regret, feeling dimly that if this were to be his only possession of Kumari it would be enough: he would not, need not, ask for more. Kumari bent her head and her arms moved with the motion of wings as she smoothed the clinging water from her pale skin, wrung it from the soaked coils of her hair. After a little she half-turned towards him and, at this, Armin awoke from his trance of love and quietly, guiltily slipped out of sight, climbed the rock steps and the open hillside above and sat down, because his legs would carry him no farther, on a stone in the first shade of the trees.
It was not long before he saw Kumari breasting the slope, her monkey leaping and tumbling to one side. The girl showed no surprise at seeing Armin, merely smiled deliciously as she drew near, and took her seat beside him on the stone. She was wearing a wide-swinging red skirt and a tight muslin bodice. She had tied her still-wet hair loosely behind with a red ribbon; a few short strands lay on temple and cheek in fine curls. Her skin was fresh and still dewy from her bath and she looked expanded, momentarily happy, untouched by anxiety, innocently open to sun and air. Armin held his breath, feeling her near him. He could not speak. Kumari turned her head and searched his face with eyes which held a spark of amusement. Amusement gave a little quiver to her voice as she spoke.
“Armin . . . ought you not to be turned into a stag?”
Armin looked at her once in horror, then down at his own feet. He felt amazingly awkward, clumsy, in the wrong. He began to stammer, but Kumari went on:
“And then hunted with hounds, like Actaeon? I read that story only the other day . . . strange: but I’ve no hounds, Armin, only this poor monkey—and I would not hunt you anyway. Armin, it’s all right . . . I don’t mind a bit. I’m glad.”
“You saw me?”
“I knew you were there.”
“And you never turned—”
There was a pause. Kumari was looking straight in front of her. “I did not want to frighten you away,” she said simply. “I wanted you to have that, at least: it is all I have to give you—at present—ever, I’m afraid.”
Armin looked now full at Kumari, willing his eyes to fix for ever each trait and gesture, his mind to hold her words and the sound of her voice for as long as he lived. He spoke slowly: words lagged far behind his overreaching thoughts.
“You knew, then?” he asked.
“Yes, Armin. Since your first evening here, months ago. I knew, then, too that I had been waiting for you to—to speak to me as you did. I’m afraid I was stupid: I did not know what to say.” She was silent a moment, then cried suddenly on a note Armin had never heard: “Why, why has everything gone wrong?”
“When did it start to go wrong—can you remember Kumari?”
“Oh, not long after you were last here—two years ago perhaps. Henry went away for a long time. When he came back he was different—not just on the surface, but different through and through. It was as if, suddenly, all this had ceased to mean anything to him. He was bored: he did not seem to care about things here any longer—small things, I know, but once they filled his days. They must still fill mine . . . . I began to feel—Armin, I cannot tell you how lost, helpless: if Henry went away from me, what was I to do? He brought me here and almost at once—you remember—I loved everything here, and I loved him: I did not quarrel with my destiny. Only I think my destiny has changed—Henry has taken his heart away.” Her voice was carefully controlled, bravely dispassionate—perhaps only Armin’s ear could catch the throb of misery beneath. “He has taken it away, not to any other girl, but to his old world, to big affairs I don’t understand, which were no part of the Henry I loved.”
“We’ve both lost someone, Kumari: or let’s hope,” he tried to sound hopeful, “mislaid him for the time being.”
The girl did not reply. Both were silent for a long time. Finally Kumari laid her hand on Armin’s wrist and said: “About . . . us, Armin. I know now I’ve known a long time, from the beginning almost. Please—you won’t think that I’ve just invented it, recently, to save myself, because I’m not sure of Henry any longer? I would never have said a word—I owed everything to Henry, I could have been happy with him as he was—nor would you, I know. But now it does not seem to matter any longer. I could not bear to let you go away without a word—poor Armin, it isn’t much comfort—a word to tell you that if everything had been different . . .” Kumari put her face in her hands, then looked up, tearless, but with eyes wide with sorrow. “No! I’m making it worse. Since you’ve got to go, I should not have said anything at all. But oh, Armin, I need so to know you are there—somewhere—caring, perhaps, about me as I care about you.”
Armin gently took her hand and laid it to his cheek. “Don’t fret, my love,” he said. “I’ll never desert you—my thoughts shall never leave you, night or day. I’ll make sure I always know what’s happening to you: and if you ever need me—I’ll be there.” A look of pure love and trust rewarded him; Kumari held tight to his hand.
“So you knew I was going,” Armin said.
Kumari frowned. “Henry told me this morning,” she said in a cold voice. “He said that I would not be seeing much of you from now on. I think he is very angry: and I know he is wrong.” She brooded a moment, then sat up straighter and said, almost gaily: “We must go back. It will do no good to make Henry still angrier. And I must do my hair. . . .”
On the way down Armin, remembering his encounter with Kajìr, asked Kumari to tell him something about her.
“Kajìr—” the girl’s tone was of amused exasperation. “I’m fond of her, Armin. She’s a bundle of wickedness, really, but I suppose she can’t help it. She was good to me when I first came to Rongphar, when I was lonely and a little frightened. She’s looked after me well, but—oh, I don’t know—we don’t look at things in the same way at all, and there’s so much I can’t talk to her about.”
“She talks, though, I’m sure.”
“Oh, yes. It’s strange—she was Henry’s nurse and—you know what women of that sort are like—they usually prefer boys, cannot be bothered with girls at all: but Kajìr doesn’t seem to have cared for Henry much, even as a child: whereas I think she took to me at once, although—perhaps because—I wasn’t a baby when we met. She behaved quite reasonably at first but when—when Henry started to go away, she felt it at once (she’s amazingly quick in some ways) and ever since then she’s been talking . . . suggesting . . . trying to get me to run away, or at least be ready to.” Kumari’s voice had become stilted, uncomfortable: she spoke only just above a whisper.
Armin had more than half-guessed what this must portend. He shivered. “Run away, Kumari?” he asked gently. “Where to?”
Kumari turned swiftly to him, her eyes unhappy. “Kajìr is full of plans,” she answered bitterly. “Some big city where, with my . . . looks, my clothes and jewels, and Kajìr to manage it all, I should quickly find a rich protector who would not spend all his time away from home.” She said the last words in a hoarse, scathing tone, in excellent imitation of Kajìr.
Armin put his arm for a moment round Kumari’s shoulders. “Don’t listen to her, dear love,” he said. “Don’t ever listen to her.”
Kumari flashed him a look wild with remembered despair. “I must tell you, Armin, I have listened, sometimes. Once, earlier on, I nearly did go away . . . when I began to think Henry wouldn’t notice whether I did or not. But I couldn’t, quite. Henry had been so good to me . . . and there was still, then, a chance to see you.” She smiled at him with regretful sweetness.
“Promise me, Kumari,” Armin said urgently, “promise me never to listen to Kajìr—never to go away without, at least, giving me the chance to do something. Whatever happens, it can never be bad enough for that. Promise me.”
They had reached the place where they would have to separate to go into the house by different ways. Kumari gave Armin a long look, gentle, loving, yet a little helpless, as though she would not claim a perfect control of her fate: then she turned and was gone without a word.
Armin entered the hall from the courtyard, expecting to find Henry returned from Rudragarh. Lala Dev, waiting patiently to serve luncheon, told him that there had been a telephone message. Henry would not be back until dinner-time. Armin, a part of whose mind had been busy all morning with Gupta and his meetings, decided to telephone Flügl and tell him what he had heard in the village. Mrs. Flügl answered the telephone: her husband had gone into Rudragarh with Mr. Greenwood. “It is a question,” came the toneless, sensible voice, “of replacing some recalcitrant coolies.” Armin went back to the hall with a real sense of relief: Henry must have used his head, at last, and decided to listen to Flügl—perhaps, even, to Armin himself.
Kumari came into the room light-footed, eager, as Armin had not seen her for a long time. Her eyes sparkled when she saw that there were to be only the two of them at luncheon. They sat down together and the meal went by in an atmosphere gayer and less constrained than any Armin had known at Rongphar, even at the beginning. Some of their pleasure seemed to infect Lala Dev, who waited on them with a beaming solicitude, as though they were a master and mistress he had known and loved as children. Only while they were drinking coffee afterwards, did Armin’s anxieties return to haunt him. Kumari said, laughing:
“The minute I left you, I nearly ran into Kajìr. She didn’t see me, though—which, I think, was just as well. She was looking—you know?—very black and witch-like, as she does sometimes, talking to a man I’d never seen before, at the top of the path that goes down to the tea-garden.”
Apprehension gripped Armin suddenly. He leaned forward. “What was he like?” he asked. Kumari looked surprised by his tone.
“Oh—ordinary. An Indian in English clothes, with a topi and big, round glasses. A small man. What’s the matter, Armin? He didn’t look very important!”
“You’d never seen him before?”
“No, never. Armin, what is the matter?”
“Nothing, Kumari. Just someone I used to know—I think it is—and don’t much like. No one for you to worry about. . . . Did they seem to be talking seriously, he and Kajìr?”
“Oh yes, very seriously. He looked as if he were making a speech!” Kumari laughed coaxingly at Armin. “Poor lamb,” he thought, “she’s enjoying herself for once . . . I must stop this.” With an effort he shook himself out of the net of vague fear which had enveloped him, thinking, “Henry’s right: I am getting windy,” and smiled at Kumari with all the gaiety he could muster.
All the long, stifling afternoon Armin and Kumari were together in untalkative, passionless community, simply happy to be together out of Henry’s looming presence. They played chess, but it was too hot for chess; they visited the walled garden, to find everything wilting, half-suffocated; visited the stables where the animals looked sick and sleepy; accomplished the short tour of Henry’s domain. Then they sat quietly in the dead air of the hall, wholly at ease with one another, looking and looking, occasionally touching hands. “If this were to be my last sight of her,” Armin told himself, “I would not have it otherwise.” He was far from believing that it would be his last.
At a quarter to eight that evening Armin, who was reading by the window in the hall, saw the lights of the car come shafting through the bamboo. A quick, impatient step—not Henry’s usual stately pace—sounded on the stones outside, and Henry pushed noisily through the glass doors. He stopped dead just inside the hall, looking round and blinking. Both his manner and appearance were odd. Armin sprang up to get a closer look. One sleeve of Henry’s white shirt was hanging by a thread where it seemed to have been wrenched from the shoulder. There was a long cut on his right cheek, the knuckles of his right hand were bleeding; his hair was tangled and there were dark smears on both forearms. His eyes were burning with anger in a face gone white, and the way in which his jaw muscles were working brought back suddenly to Armin a far-away, disastrous evening at the Curzon Club.
“Armin,” said Henry, his voice harsh and over-loud. “I take it all back. You and Flügl were perfectly right.”
“What the hell’s happened?” Armin’s mind had raced like an electric spark between a dozen probabilities.
“I must have a drink,” Henry said. “Oh, Lala Dev, there you are. Large whisky, please. No, don’t bother about my clothes, just get me a drink. Yes,” he turned to Armin, “I thought it over last night, and decided that perhaps I had better listen to you and Flügl, you were both so insistent. So I took him with me this morning to Rudragarh to arrange about getting a new lot of coolies and shipping this present bunch off home as quickly as possible. We got back to the village about half an hour ago and I took Flügl straight to his bungalow in the car. On the way back, about half way between the garden and the village, my man had to stop the car, there was such a crowd in the road. I stood up to see what was happening and saw a little man in glasses—your friend Gupta, I imagine—making a terrific speech under some trees by the light of a hurricane lamp. He saw the car, and at once started pointing and gesticulating towards us, pretty well foaming at the mouth. . . . I caught a few words of the ‘foreign blood-sucker’ order, and something about ‘monstrous insult to Indian pride and morality’ all directed at me. The crowd looked rather unfriendly.” Henry took a long gulp of whisky and sat down abruptly on the nearest chair. “I shouted to the man in Hindustani to shut up and go away, or I’d have him arrested—something of the sort. He shook both his fists, turned to the crowd and said something to them, and the next thing I knew sticks and stones were flying.” Henry was calmer now, his eyes less angry. “A stone hit me on the cheek.” He touched the wound and studied for a moment the blood on his finger. “I lost my temper, jumped out of the car and made a bee-line for your orator friend. That Sikh of mine loves a fight and he was in behind me, doing considerable damage. I picked the little man up and shouted to the crowd that if this was what they wanted, they could have it. Then I threw him plump into the middle of them. The last I saw of Gupta, he was sitting on the ground shouting blue murder at me and complaining that his glasses were broken, all in the same breath.” Henry took another swig of whisky and looked up at Armin as though for approval. He seemed to be, on the whole, rather pleased with himself. Armin’s heart sank.
“They let you past, all right, after that?” he said.
“Oh, yes: no trouble. I saw the headman among them, though, where he’d no business to be. My God, Armin, the impertinence of that brute Gupta’s past bearing. Flügl’s always handled difficult coolies in the past perfectly well, and tiresome though they can be, the villagers have always been peaceable. Yet it only needs one little rat of an agitator to start this sort of fuss. I’m going down to the village tomorrow to have it out with the headman.”
“Henry—” Armin said slowly, uncertain of his ground, “I wouldn’t. If I were you I’d just get rid of those coolies, get on to the police about Gupta, and tell your men to keep a good look-out. And sit tight yourself.”
Henry gave a strange smile, a little bitter but not unfriendly. “Well, you’re not me,” he said. “We agreed about that yesterday, remember?”
Armin, surprised, had to laugh. “Yes,” he said, “and while we’re on the subject I’d like to suggest a change of plan for tomorrow. A friend of mine, Alec Mackenzie, is going to be in the neighbourhood; he means to ring me up. I’ve a standing invitation to stay with him—he’s got a house farther up the valley. So, if you agree, I’ll get him to come and collect me.”
Henry looked vague, slightly puzzled. “Yes, oh yes, Armin. Do anything you like.” He finished his drink and got up. “I must go and put on some decent clothes,” he said. As he was leaving the room he stopped, turned and looked straight at Armin under frowning brows.
“I think we both got rather worked up about nothing yesterday,” he said. There was something tentative in his voice. “Do, by all means, go if you want to: but I’m sure we’d get on all right if you stayed.”
Armin answered steadily: “That’s generous of you, Henry; but I think I’ll go just the same.”
Henry shrugged his shoulders, said, “Very well,” and went out. Armin followed slowly, pausing to look at a newspaper as he went. The storm which had threatened all day had not yet broken, would probably not break now at all. The air was brackish and disagreeably warm. Faint lightning wavered against banks of cloud across the valley. Something seemed to be wrong with the electric-light plant, for the light dimmed and brightened jerkily. Armin, feeling himself about to become once more the prey of his anxiety, threw down the paper and went to change his clothes.
That night Armin slept badly and had bad dreams. The dreams were largely incoherent, lurid fragments—sheets of tainted colour, a sense of jostling and pursuit. One which was altogether too clear made him, on waking from it, get up and sit for an hour by the window, unwilling to risk sleep on such terms. In his dream Kumari appeared as he had seen her that morning in the pool below the waterfall. There was no waterfall in the dream but, instead, a vacant space full of a faceless, continually shifting crowd. Beside the girl’s slender figure knelt Kajìr, one arm round Kumari’s knees, the other extended, palm outwards, in a showman’s gesture; every tooth in Kajìr’s head glittered, her black eyes were alive with greed.
Morning found Armin hot-eyed, dozing spasmodically. He lay watching with the impatience of fever the slow process of the dawn as it seeped into the room. All night there had not been even the hint of a breeze outside, and the electric fan had stopped its ineffective work entirely at about one. He felt sticky, had a headache, which was rare with him, and left his crumpled bed with relief, as soon as daylight was fully arrived, to have a shower and get out of doors. As he stepped into the courtyard, he said to himself: “My last day,” but either the words had lost their power to sting, or his responses were too bruised by now to feel anything further: the words fell through his mind like stones through water and, like stones, lay still.
Armin found no better air to breathe out of doors; this too was like soup. There was nothing fresh or bright anywhere; the leaves were dark and moist as seaweed; an unhealthy vapour was just thinning from the ground. He walked in the walled garden, on the off chance that Kumari, perhaps having slept badly too, might come to walk there. But he saw no one in the garden, no one at the back of the house. The whole place looked lifeless and forlorn. Armin was in several minds about his going. He had rejected Henry’s gruff offer—the nearest thing to an apology Armin had ever heard him make—for his own heart’s sake, and because he saw it as useless to continue with a man who could think the cause of their quarrel “nothing”. Henry’s assault on Gupta, however, worried him considerably. Armin knew Gupta for a bitterly vindictive man—himself weak, unimpressive, divided at heart, but a well-known inciter of others to dark deeds. Several murders, many acts of sabotage and destruction could be laid at his door. Armin seriously wondered whether, with Henry so much too lighthearted about the situation, he had any right, at this juncture, to leave Rongphar. Useless to tell Henry all that he knew but, combining in his head all the bad omens connected with this place, Armin could not feel that he was manufacturing alarm. Mackenzie’s oblique warnings, Gupta’s remarks at Dhubri, Kajìr’s known unreliability and the fact that she was in touch with Gupta, all these put together were—to say the least—something to think about. Add the beating-up of Gupta by Henry Greenwood, the stones thrown, the disaffected coolies and—well, Armin thought, he had seen hideous mischief made in India with far less material than this.
The night before, after dinner, Henry had refused to go into the whole matter with Armin. He admitted that Flügl and Armin had been right to a certain extent: that he had greatly increased the dangers of the situation himself he could not, or would not see. Kumari had added to Armin’s mental discomfort at dinner-time by looking from the outset drawn and hollow-eyed, by growing quieter, more preoccupied, as the meal progressed, and by excusing herself immediately afterwards to go to bed. When Armin had taken her hand to say goodnight, Kumari had rested her eyes on his for a moment with an expression of such lost and helpless sorrow that Armin had grown cold with fear.
Armin went in to breakfast. Henry presently joined him, looking pale and with a cross of sticking plaster on his cheek.
“A tiresome thing has happened,” he said as he sat down. “Flügl had it all arranged to send away that bad batch of coolies in a couple of lorries early this morning. When he went with his assistant to round them up, they’d gone.”
“Completely disappeared. Flügl’s worried to death. He thinks they’re hiding out in the neighbourhood, waiting to pounce on us all. I think he should know coolies better than that. Concerted action, except striking, isn’t their strong suit: and there’s no money in it for them.”
Armin was silent. The distracting night had left him tired, more tired than he had at first realised. Limbs and brain felt vitiated. He could not answer for himself the question, “Should I stay or go?” He could believe that the stresses and strains of the past few months had indeed worked on his nerves, that he was not now to be trusted to answer coolly; that, because Kumari’s safety was in question, he might be seeing dangers where no dangers were. Perhaps Henry’s wide confidence was the right attitude. Armin thought not: but, for the present he seemed to have lost all power of decision. Weakly he decided to let it all depend on Mackenzie’s telephone call.
The morning wore on. Armin, restless and uncomfortable in the increasing heat, could settle to nothing. Lala Dev had already packed his bags: there was nothing for him to do but move from one flaccid atmosphere to another, in or out of doors, and pray for a glimpse of Kumari, who did not come. Great crags and fortresses of cloud were once more gathering away to the west; once again the sun struck down from a decreasing field of blue as the cloud masses, rotundly expanding, filled more and more of the sky; behind every peak and shoulder of these hills their pure white curves and castellations thrust higher every hour.
Henry spent the morning in his office, sweating grimly at some figures, apparently unmoved by Flügl’s anxiety or his own adventures of the night before. He and Armin lunched together. Mackenzie had not yet telephoned. Kumari did not appear.
At five o’clock the telephone rang. Henry came out of his office a few minutes later, looking irritated.
“I’ve got to go down and see Flügl,” he said. “I’ve no idea what about. He says it’s urgent.”
“Won’t he say what it is?”
“It wasn’t Flügl on the line—it was his assistant, that Bengali I never can understand, he has such a sing-song voice.” Henry was searching for his pipe. “Your man hasn’t telephoned, has he?” he asked.;
“Well, if he doesn’t, don’t worry. The car’s already gone to Calcutta, as a matter of fact. So you can keep on staying here until you do hear from your friend. Even if you don’t, for that matter.” He turned round and gave Armin a slow, generous, extraordinarily sweet smile which Armin had quite forgotten, it was so long since he had seen it. Henry looked at Armin a moment longer.
“The best thing to do with a misunderstanding is to discuss it,” he said gravely. “We used to believe that, didn’t we?” Henry’s face had a wistful look: he seemed younger suddenly, more like his former self. “So I’ll be quite glad if you don’t get your telephone call. . . . Goodbye, Armin, I shan’t be long.”
With Henry’s going, the quiet of the house fell into place like a curtain. Armin thought he would not be able to bear to idle away the daylight here alone. Mackenzie might telephone at any time, or he might not get through at all. The line to the house, in any case, was an extension from the tea-factory: someone down there would put Mackenzie in touch with Henry if Armin could not be found.
He went out once more into the stewing air of the afternoon and shortly found himself, without any conscious intention, climbing the steep path to the waterfall. There was little hope of seeing Kumari again; somehow, Armin knew she would not be there. Such a revelation, in any case, could not—should not—be repeated. Nevertheless his steps were leading him to the place where, for a few year-long seconds, he had known the kind of happiness which now, for all his days, would render him proof against the worst the world could do.
The day was darkening rapidly. Something really important in the way of storms was bearing down on Rongphar. Armin looked up at the sky as he came to the edge of the forest. The blue had gone: directly overhead was low, swirling, grey cloud and from all around, but especially from the west, purple and black giants advanced over black wheels and shafts of rain. A continual steady rolling of thunder sounded among the hills. It would not be more than half an hour before the storm broke with all its force over Rongphar. Armin knew he stood a good chance of being soaked through, but preferred to remain yet a little while, looking down at the trees which hid the waterfall—he did not mean to go nearer—and feeling himself part of a nature breathless in anticipation of the coming storm.
Still the day grew darker. It became like the last moments of twilight, and still the storm had not broken, the stillness remained absolute. It was more than time for Armin to go back now and, slipping in the near-darkness on tree-roots and loose gravel, he scrambled down the steep track towards the house.
As he came out of the forest at a point opposite the stable yard, Armin stopped to peer through the deep dusk at the buildings in front of him. He thought at first that the yard was full of figures; he thought he saw figures run through the stable arch and away down the road, but, looking again, he saw that the yard was empty. Beyond it the house was lightless. The air was full of thunder now, but still the storm held off.
Suddenly Armin’s heart moved coldly in his breast: his mind was illuminated by a lightning of its own. That telephone message—uncharacteristic mystery on Flügl’s part—delivered in a high-pitched voice. And the figures, hurrying away from the house—Armin had seen them. He began to run, tearing down the last few yards of the track and through the arch of the stables into the yard, his breath rasping, mouthing a name as he ran. Just past the arch Armin tripped and fell sprawling over a body. Winded, he picked himself up, looked and saw that the body, a man’s, was headless, its shoulders lying in a black smudge. Armin ranged a few yards and came to a stop, quivering, sick, looking down at a severed head whose only visible feature was a plaster in the shape of a cross.
The air about Armin changed, grew cooler as he stood, and at once the yard was full of a cold wind which blew more strongly with every gust. Revived, he turned blindly and fumbled his way through the open side door, along the corridor, into the hall. None of the lights would work but now, as thunder exploded violently overhead, there was almost continuous lightning to see by. Armin had light enough, with that, to take in the ruin that had been made of the beautiful room: the smashed furniture, the floor inches deep in broken china and glass, the torn-up books, the hangings slashed to rags—and the dead body of Lala Dev, one hand still holding a silver candlestick, and the fire of broken chairs in a corner which had already taken hold of one wall. All this he would weep for later, but now—and with a gasping shout Armin swung round and raced down the pitch-dark corridor to Kumari’s rooms.
No light. Armin lit match after match, found a long muslin scarf, bunched it and set fire to it, and by this torch’s light confirmed that there was no one here. Chaos, but a chaos of dead things only—doors off their hinges, Kumari’s pretty dressing table shattered, its gold and ivory fittings wrenched and broken in the thieves’ wild haste. Armin strode from room to room, finding no one, and back, and again back to Kumari’s bedroom as though, in his absence, she might yet have returned.
Armin’s torch gave out. He went back to the hall, took from Lala Dev’s stiffening hand the silver candlestick and, holding it high, searched every room, every cellar and pantry, cupboard and loosebox in the whole of Rongphar, only to learn that he was there alone: alone with murdered Henry in the stable yard: alone in the little courtyard by Kumari’s shuttered pool. Returning at last to the hall, through chill air strung and quivering with electricity and loud with the sluicing rain, his light fell, in the corridor, on a heap of white and silver stuff. The destroyers, half-hearted thieves, had let fall much of their plunder as they ran. Armin knelt to lift gently the sari he remembered from his first evening at Rongphar. For several inches along one border there spread and flowered a thick bright stain of blood. Holding the sari in one hand, his candle in the other, Armin made one more long search of the house and still found nobody there, alive or dead, but Lala Dev and himself. Slowly returning to the hall, which still blazed coldly with lightning, he noticed without interest that the rain had put out the fire in the wall. He set the candlestick down on the floor by the hearth and, as he did so, his eye caught a vivid flash from something lying under a kicked-up rug. Before he even reached out to touch it, Armin knew in his heart what this would be: Kumari’s collar, her nine sacred stones. Leaving the candle where it was, guttering in the draught from the smashed glass door, and now carrying, one in either hand, his mementoes of Kumari, Armin wandered to the door, kicked it open and, leaning against a pillar of the loggia, looked out into the streaming dark. He said, “Kumari, little one . . .” out loud, and began to shake uncontrollably.
Alec Mackenzie, arriving an hour later with a neighbouring planter and a detachment of police, found Armin standing thus, drenched, stiff, and sightless with shock, clutching his relics with fingers grown now quite rigid.
“You’re coming away with me, laddie,” the old man said to him gently. “I think, maybe, you’ve had enough,” and picked him up and carried him to the waiting car.
Snow is falling. Beyond the graceful windows that were made to shed light on the deliberations of politically-minded gentlemen (but not on politicians) the flakes are coming down purposefully, big and small, in vertical lines. Already the black lilacs and dark, durable London shrubs in the garden behind the club are rimmed and sprinkled with crusty white. There is more where this comes from, by the yellow look of the sky and the softening of distance even at fifty yards. For a while, over the roofs and less-trodden spaces of this ravaged city, the peace and pity of the snow will lie, reminding us all of childish pleasure, hurting a heart or two with its symbolism. Many will be glad when, in a few days time, the white crust is pocked and dotted with soot-crumbs and the urine of dogs, glad when the packed slush grows thin and melts and the gutters run with a black mud-like oil; then they will curse the snow with its indifferent purity, its power to conceal, and relegate its wonder to the catalogue of annoyances made yet more poignantly irritating by the fact of war. In a few days time I shall be longing for India, shall think myself willing to exchange the raw discomfort of this London January for all the dust of the Deccan in my nose and ears.
Homecoming has been charged with equivocation for most of us, a kind of rebirth unattended by rejoicing—like being reborn an orphan upon whose rich inheritance many pilfering sanctimonious lawyers have been long at work. Coming from the relative innocence of operational service, the different tempo and dimension of war in the East, we are alien, suspect in a world which, in our absence, has bred its own difficult loyalties, forged painfully an attitude with which to endure and endure. This gap-toothed, foul and splendid town has found its own soul without our assistance. We cannot, now, be admitted to its secrets: we have not suffered with it, and “putting us in the picture” would take too long. They have fought at Arques, and we were not there. . . .
The boat I had waited so long for came suddenly, in the end. Armin Wensley saw me off, with a final dinner at Spong’s and, at the last moment, a bottle of whisky in a paper bag. My last recollection of India is not of the crowded Bund, nor of the Gateway (that arch of triumph about what?), nor of the crazy skyline of Bombay, but of that face, thoughtful, thin and curiously pure, and of the bright grey eyes in which I could read the wise acceptance of a fact of life, acquiescence in the knowledge that he—and I—-were once more moving on.
Liverpool on a blind October morning set the tone of homecoming very well. After shaking down with difficulty and establishing contact with a few relations not too far out of reach, after noting—without resignation—various gaps and distortions in the world I had known, here I am doing a staff job in London, sleeping in a bed-sitting-room off the Edgware Road, and spending my leisure hours in my club.
This club—and how I should have laughed if anyone before the war had predicted it!—has become truly my home. Its grimy, italianate face and huge, cheerless rooms speak reassuringly in these cave-dwelling days of a bare windy England, beautifully underpopulated, the England of a sporting print where the rich were very rich and the poor abominably so, and each knew a good deal about the other. It represents, this club, just about everything that I am told I have not been fighting for and, even in its fallen state, I am glad of it.
Portraits of ancestors gaze at me in the hall; I gaze back at them with longing, their eyes are so straight and gentle, their foreheads so divinely calm. No doubt each of these magnificent, nineteenth-century heads contained ideas about India, each pair of eyes was prepared to witness a little necessary difficulty before the inevitable righting of everything. They do not make me feel vindictive. I have no wish to rub their elegant noses in the mess they partly made. I only look wistfully at them, thinking them wonderfully fortunate not to have had to see how it all ended.
India is destined to be a “modern nation”: our crime towards her, in so far as we committed one, was that we could not save her from that—a crime of omission only, and ultimately of physical weakness. To save ourselves we had to let the East go, our blood and treasure spilt for nothing, our work less than half done. We ourselves could not resist for ever the diseases of the West; after 1918 we were too deeply tainted to resist their encroachment in India.
Gandhi was right to reject the West in toto, but he was right too late in the day. Western activism, by then, already appealed too strongly to too many of his countrymen. The men who really ran Congress were bent on reproducing every obvious error of the western world. India is going to be a modern nation, or bust. Probably bust, I suppose, a hundred times, with every configuration of upheaval: and, one day, come gloriously into her own. I cannot, naturally, tell how it will end for us, but I can see, as everyone can, that it will end soon. We are tired, tired almost to death: we shall be glad to be rid of India, at any rate glad for a while. Well, it is the end of a love story. Micky Goodwin was right to call it that.
I still remember the passion in Armin’s face as he described to me, on that soggy verandah at Spong’s, how, in Henry Greenwood he thought he had found the one man capable of altering a wretched situation for the better. Henry had boundless energy, vision, and legendary inherited prestige. His company was rich far beyond its practical holdings in mill and mine; there was not a single industrial or financial pie of any significance into which Greenwood, Bellenger could not put a finger, if occasion demanded. Those who called it “John Company Junior” knew what they were talking about; if half of what I have heard is true there was little of the junior about it. Henry, with his controlling interest, therefore, could dispose of a power rare today in one pair of hands. Congress which, Armin believed was furthering the direct opposite of Gandhi’s real purposes, while paying public tribute to them, depended on a powerful handful of industrialists with western ideas. Why should not a counter-movement be set going which would depend on the same powers used in a totally different way? It was as simple as that, and to many people’s way of thinking, quite mad. Armin thought that nothing could be madder than things as they were. Henry agreed with him. Both knew the real strength of India, both admired Gandhi, both believed that, if only as a balancing hand, the British still had a part to play as morally necessary to themselves as it would be useful to India. Initiative, however, could no longer come from Government. The Government, hamstrung by ill-wishers at home and weakened, by the total apathy of a newly powerful electorate, could do nothing, for all its skill and experience, but play a blocking game. This last throw would have to be made, on their own responsibility, by determined individual men. Something, some bowing to ancestral voices, made Henry Greenwood recant, and brought the whole dream to the abruptest of ends. Then had come the series of fearful events at Rongphar.
I have finished writing about Armin Wensley; the manuscript lies there on a desk in the club library, in the blue-white light of the snow. There is not much more to add. For many weeks Armin lay ill in Mackenzie’s house, where the vast old man cared for him like a son. As soon as life had begun to come back to him, Armin began to fret about Kumari. Mackenzie could do nothing to keep or reassure him. As soon as he was well enough, Armin set out to find the girl. There was no real evidence, he said, that Kumari was dead. The blood on the sari might not be hers. She had gone, vanished, and so had Kajìr. This was enough for Armin. He had his knowledge of India, and some money saved. For two years he, too, disappeared.
Sometimes, in the full flood of my eloquence about some teasing trifle, or on days when the winking sophistication of a war’s end becomes too much even for me, my thoughts go to Armin Wensley, the single-hearted, still steadfastly pursuing his search. It is more than seven years now since Kumari was lost, yet I know that her lover still looks for her, and I know that he will never cease to do so. He must, by now, have come as near to covering the whole of India as any man. Without a scrap of evidence, and without ever coming in sight of a clue which did not soon prove useless, he has patiently gone on, fitting his life and work to one exclusive preoccupation. It was unlucky for Armin that Gupta should be killed in some minor piece of rioting while he was still lying sick in Mackenzie’s house. Gupta would have been easy to trace, and not difficult to destroy.
Yet Armin has searched with little, if any, vindictiveness. There seems to have been scarcely room in his heart for anything but his love. Others—people whose lives have crossed his own over the years—have drawn comfort from this love, have benefited greatly from a personality burned and tempered so fine. Our meetings with Indians of one kind and another in Bombay showed me clearly in what high regard my friend was held, and over how wide a field.
In the end it is only with those who have suffered that one can have much conversation. I see now that my early estimate of Armin’s character was vulgar, “literary”, a good way off the mark. I suppose I must have been reading too many books about orientalised Englishmen and so tended to estimate his strength and stability, his absolute poise and sense of place, as the product of something external—a way of living, a system of thought. In fact, I have no doubt that they were the product of tribulation.
Armin Wensley would seem to have lost everything. He shared with Henry Greenwood his vision of India, the personal and loving vision which he held in common with so many Englishmen of the past. When Henry took the astonishing step of finding and “creating” Kumari, Armin was wholeheartedly on his side. Had all gone well I have no doubt that Armin would have shut his own feeling for Kumari securely into his own heart for the rest of his days. One could be sorry for Henry Greenwood, who could not keep the pace he had set himself. The Armins of this world—and God knows they are rare enough—are difficult to keep up with. Whatever flaw there was in the pioneer Henry came out, in the end, in his great-grandson. Henry faltered, his vision of India dimmed, and with it his love for Kumari; and so Armin lost a friend. With Martin Ford dead, Henry Greenwood dead, Laura gone far away, Kumari lost, one could, as I have said, suppose Armin quite denuded. He kept his vision, all the same, kept his engrossing love and went on looking for Kumari. I do not think that he is to be pitied.
In all his years of lonely, patient seeking Armin had never spoken of his trouble to anyone, and it had been driven very deep. It fell to my lot, one dark, damp night in Bombay, to unlock for him this sealed room in his life. After his violent dream on the verandah, when he had recovered, he began to tell me then, and over many days, the whole story. He was, I think, glad at last to do so; and I am glad that he did.
It occurs to me that I shall probably never hear from Armin again. The war, and the difficult, special work he did in it, brought him for a while back into the orbit of his own countrymen, back to ideas and ways which he must have found strange. With his marvellous adaptability, his long-trained faculty of acceptance, he did his work and managed his relationships successfully and without fuss. To many he may well have seemed just another quiet, efficient, disciplined character, Indian Army style; there were plenty of them about. I suspect that, now it is all over, he will have disappeared again and that writing letters to me, or indeed to anybody, will no longer find room in his thoughts.
I know that there is one tiling that Armin Wensley will never accept, and that is that Kumari is dead or lost past recovery. And yet, as I say this, I begin to wonder. Perhaps, in one sense, he has accepted it. . . . Come what may, he carries her in his heart, and he lives and moves in the India he loves, the India for loving which he perhaps came to love Kumari.
The story of Armin and Kumari has haunted me for many days; I shall never be quite free of it. I could believe Kumari fortunate in escaping—by whatever means—from Henry at the end. I would hate her to have been “finished” in Bombay, perhaps forced through despair to become like Indian girls I have known, sharp, bright, impertinent, glossy with riches and trailing Wellesley or the Sorbonne, prattling of economics and Freud. If this was Henry’s ambition for her, I cannot be sorry that she escaped it, and yet—the alternatives were dark indeed. I shiver, sometimes, to think what nightmares Armin, knowing India so well, must have endured on Kumari’s behalf. I think, with anguish almost, of his graceful presence at my “nights out”, since the dives to which he so amiably followed me must always have been a part of his search.
I wish him the peace he deserves, and the chance to see what he loves in India grow and prosper. For me he will always be present, reminder in all this corrupt and vacillating existence of a single heart, an undamaged integrity. Whatever becomes of Armin Wensley, whether he lives or dies, for as long as I live he will stand for me somewhere between heaven and earth.