OLIVIA IN INDIA
"When one discovers a happy look it is one's duty to tell one's friends about it."
JAMES DOUGLAS in The Star.
OLIVIA IN INDIA. By O. DOUGLAS
"Happy books are not very plentiful, and when one discovers a happy book it is one's duty to tell one's friends about it, so that it makes them happy too. My happy book is called 'Olivia.' It is by a certain young woman who calls herself O. Douglas, though I suspect that it's a pen-name.... Olivia can write the most fascinating letters you ever read."—JAMES DOUGLAS in the Star. "Extremely interesting. To have read this book is to have met an extremely likeable personality in the author."—Glasgow Herald.
PENNY PLAIN. By O. DOUGLAS
"Penny Plain" is a story of life in a little town on the banks of the Tweed. Jean Jardine, the heroine—who looks after her brothers in their queer old house, "The Rigs," and is in turn looked after by the old servant, Mrs. McCosh (from Glasgow), and Peter, the fox-terrier—describes herself and her life as "penny plain," but with the coming of Pamela Reston and her brother (who was what Mrs. McCosh called "a Lord—no less"), everything is changed. There is love in the book and laughter. "A very able and delightful book."—The Times. "A delicious novel ... a triumphant success."—"A MAN OF KENT" in the British Weekly.
THE SETONS. By O. DOUGLAS
"Portrayed with the humour and insight of a deep affection."—The Times. "Elizabeth is a delightful creature who radiates the pages."—Glasgow Herald. "To the reading public at large it will prove a sheer delight."—Glasgow Times. "Full of charm."—Spectator. "A delightful romance."—Aberdeen Journal.
OLIVIA IN INDIA
AUTHOR OF "THE SETONS" "PENNY PLAIN" ETC.
PART I THROUGH THE GATES OF THE EAST
PART II FLESHPOTS OF CALCUTTA
PART III THE SUNBURNED EARTH
PART IV THE LAND OF REGRETS
THROUGH THE GATES OF THE EAST
S.S. Scotia, Oct. 19, 19—.
... This is a line to send off with the pilot. There is nothing to say except "Good-bye" again.
We have had luncheon, and I have been poking things out of my cabin trunk, and furtively surveying one—there are two, but the other seems to be lost at present—of my cabin companions. She has fair hair and a blue motor-veil, and looks quiet and subdued, but then, I dare say, so do I.
I hope you are thinking of your friend going down to the sea in a ship.
I feel, somehow, very small and lonely.
S.S. Scotia, Oct. 21. (In pencil.)
... Whatever you do, whatever folly you commit, never, never be tempted to take a sea voyage. It is quite the nastiest thing you can take—I have had three days of it now, so I know.
When I wrote to you on Saturday I had an uneasy feeling that in the near future all would not be well with me, but I went in to dinner and afterwards walked up and down the deck trying to feel brave. Sunday morning dawned rain-washed and tempestuous, and the way the ship heaved was not encouraging, but I rose, or rather I descended from my perch—did I tell you I had an upper berth?—and walked with an undulating motion towards my bath. Some people would have remained in bed, or at least gone unbathed, but, as I say, I rose—mark, please, the rugged grandeur of the Scots character—and such is the force of example the fair-haired girl rose also. Before I go any further I must tell you about this girl. Her name is Hilton, Geraldine Hilton, but as that is too long a name and already we are great friends, I call her G. She is very pretty, with the kind of prettiness that becomes more so the more you look—and if you don't know what I mean I can't stop to explain—with masses of yellow hair, such blue eyes and pink cheeks and white teeth that I am convinced I am sharing a cabin with the original Hans Andersen's Snow Queen. She is very big and most healthy, and delightful to look at; even sea-sickness does not make her look plain, and that, you will admit, is a severe test; and what is more, her nature is as healthy and sweet as her face. You will laugh and say it is like me to know all about anyone in three days, but two sea-sick and home-sick people shut up in a tiny cabin can exhibit quite a lot of traits, pleasant and otherwise, in three days.
Well, we dressed, and reaching the saloon, sank into our seats only to leave again hurriedly when a steward approached to know if we would have porridge or kippered herring! I know you are never sea-sick, unlovable creature that you are, so you won't sympathize with us as we lay limp and wretched in our deck-chairs on the damp and draughty deck. Even the fact that our deck-chairs were brand-new, and had our names boldly painted in handsome black letters across the back, failed to give us a thrill of pleasure. At last it became too utterly miserable to be borne. The sight of the deck-steward bringing round cups of half-cold beef-tea with grease spots floating on the top proved the last straw, so, with a graceful, wavering flight like a woodcock, we zigzagged to our bunks, where we have remained ever since.
I don't know where we are. I expect Ushant has slammed the door on us long ago. Our little world is bounded by the four walls of the cabin. All day we lie and listen to the swish of the waves as they tumble past, and watch our dressing-gowns hanging on the door swing backwards and forwards with the motion. At intervals the stewardess comes in, a nice Scotswoman,—Corrie, she tells me, is her home-place,—and brings the menu of breakfast—luncheon—dinner, and we turn away our heads and say, "Nothing—nothing!" Our steward is a funny little man, very small and thin, with pale yellow hair; he reminds me of a moulting canary, and his voice cheeps and is rather canary-like too. He is really a very kind little steward and trots about most diligently on our errands, and tries to cheer us by tales of the people he has known who have died of sea-sickness: "Strained their 'earts, Miss, that's wot they done!" It isn't very cheerful lying here, looking out through the port-hole, now at the sky, next at the sea, but what it would have been without G. I dare not think. We have certainly helped each other through this time of trial. It is a wonderful blessing, a companion in misfortune.
But where, you may ask, is the third occupant of the cabin? Would it not have been fearful if she, too, had been stretched on a couch of languishing? Happily she is a good sailor, though she doesn't look it. She is a little woman with a pale green complexion and a lot of sleek black hair, and somehow gives one the impression of having a great many more teeth than is usual. Her name is Mrs. Murray, and she is going to India to rejoin her husband, who rejoices in the name of Albert. Sometimes I feel a little sorry for Albert, but perhaps, after all, he deserves what he has got. She has very assertive manners. I think she regards G. and me as two young women who want keeping in their places, though I am sure we are humble enough now whatever we may be in a state of rude health. Happily she has friends on board, so she rarely comes to the cabin except to tidy up before meals, and afterwards to tell us exactly everything she has eaten. She seems to have a good appetite and to choose the things that sound nastiest when one is seedy.
No—I don't like Mrs. Murray much; but I dislike her hat-box more. It is large and square and black, and it has no business in the cabin, it ought to be in the baggage-room. Lying up here I am freed from its tyranny, but on Saturday, when I was unpacking, it made my life a burden. It blocks up the floor under my hooks, and when I hang things up I fall over it backwards, when I sit on the floor, which I have to do every time I pull out my trunk, it hits me savagely on the spine, and once, when I tried balancing it on a small chest of drawers, it promptly fell down on my head and I have still a large and painful bump as a memento.
I wonder if you will be able to make this letter out? I am writing it a little bit at a time, to keep myself from getting too dreadfully down-hearted. G. and I have both very damp handkerchiefs under our pillows to testify to the depressed state of our minds. "When I was at home I was in a better place, but travellers must be content."
I don't even care to read any of the books I brought with me, except now and then a page or two of Memories and Portraits. It comforts me to read of such steady, quiet places as the Pentland Hills and of the decent men who do their herding there.
Is it really only three days since I left you all, and you envied me going out into the sunshine? Oh! you warm, comfortable people, how I, in this heaving uncertain horror of a ship, envy you!
(Still in pencil.)
You mustn't think I have been lying here all the time. On Tuesday we managed to get on deck, and on Wednesday it was warm and sunny, and we began to enjoy life again and to congratulate ourselves on having got our sea-legs. But we got them only to lose them, for yesterday the wind got up, the ship rolled, we became every minute more thoughtful, until about tea-time we retired in disorder. It didn't need the little steward's shocked remark, "Oh my! You never 'ave gone back to bed again!" to make us feel ashamed.
However, we reach Marseilles to-day at noon, and, glorious thought, the ship will stand still for twenty-four hours. Also there will be letters!
This isn't a letter so much as a wail.
Don't scoff. I know I'm a coward.
S.S.Scotia, Oct. 27.
... A fountain-pen is really a great comfort. I am writing with my new one, so this letter won't, I hope, be such a puzzle to decipher as my pencil scrawl.
We are off again, but now the sun shines from a cloudless sky on a sea of sapphire, and the passengers are sunning themselves on deck like snails after a shower. I'm glad, after all, I didn't go back from Marseilles by train.
When we reached Marseilles the rain was pouring, but that didn't prevent us ("us" means G. and myself) from bounding on shore. We found a dilapidated fiacre driven by a still more dilapidated cocher, who, for the sum of six francs, drove us to the town. I don't know whether, ordinarily, Marseilles is a beautiful town or an ugly one. Few people, I expect, would have seen anything attractive in it this dark, rainy October afternoon, but to us it was a sort of Paradise regained. We had tea at a cafe, real French tea tasting of hay-seed and lukewarm water, and real French cakes; we wandered through the streets, stopping to stare in at every shop window; we bought violets to adorn ourselves, and picture-postcards, and sheets of foreign stamps for Peter, and all the time the rain poured and the street lamps were cheerily reflected in the wet pavements, and it was so damp, and dark, and dirty, and home-like, we sloppered joyfully through the mud and were happy for the first time for a whole week. The thought of letters was the only thing that tempted us back to the ship.
I heard from all the home people, even Peter wrote, a most characteristic epistle with only about half the words wrongly spelt, and finishing with a spirited drawing of the Scotia attacked by pirates, an abject figure crouching in the bows being labelled "You!" How I miss that young brother of mine! I ache to see his nubbly features ("nubbly" is a portmanteau word and exactly describes them) and the hair that no brush can persuade to lie straight, and to hear the broad accent—a legacy from a nurse who hailed from a mining village in Lithgow—which is such a trial to his relatives I have no illusions about Peter's looks any more than he has himself. A too candid relative commenting once on his excessive plainness in his presence, he replied, "Yes, I know, but I've a nice good face." I sometimes feel that if Peter turns out badly it will be greatly my fault. Mother was so busy with many things that I naturally, as the big sister, did most of the training, and it wasn't easy. When I read to him on Sunday Tales of the Covenanters, he at once made up his mind that he much preferred Claverhouse to John Brown of Priesthill, an unheard-of heresy, and yawning vigorously, announced that he was as dull as a bull and as sick as a daisy. One night when I went to hear him say his prayers, he said:
"I'm not going to say any prayers,"
"Oh, Peter," I said, "why?"
"'Cos I've prayed for a whole year it would be snow on Christmas and it wasn't—just rain."
"Then," I said very gravely, "God won't take care of you through the night."
"Put me in my bed," said the little ruffian, "and I'll see;" and I was awakened at break of day by a small figure in pyjamas dancing at my bedside, shouting with unholy joy, "I'm here, you see, I'm here," and it was weeks before I could bring him to a better state of mind.
So much younger than any of us—the other boys were at Oxford when he was in his first knickerbockers—he was a lonely little soul and lived in a world of his own, peopled by the creatures of his own imaginings. His great friend was Mr. Bathboth of Bathboth—don't you like the name?—and he would come in from a walk with his nurse, fling down his cap and remark, "I've been seeing Mr. Bathboth in his own house—oh! a lovely house. It's a public-house!"
I'm afraid he was a very low character this Mr. Bathboth. According to Peter, "he smoked, and he swored, and he put his fingers to his nose when his mother said he wasn't to," so we weren't surprised to hear of his end. He was pulled up to heaven by a crane for bathing in the sea on Sunday. Another of Peter's creatures was a bogle called "Windy Wallops" who lived in the garrets and could only be repulsed with hairbrushes. "Whippetie Stoowrie," on the other hand, was a kindly creature inhabiting the nursery chimney, and given to laying small offerings such as a pistol and caps or a sugar mouse on the fender. A strange fancy once took Peter to dig graves for us all in the garden. It wasn't that he disliked us; on the contrary, he considered he was doing us an honour. My grave was suggestively near the rubbish-heap, but he pointed out that it was because the lily-of-the-valley grew there. One day he came in earthy but determined-looking. "Dodo didn't send me anything for my birthday," he announced, "so I've filled up his grave."
Now Peter has gone to school and has put away childish things, and the desire to be a knight like Launcelot. He no longer babbles to himself in such a way as to make strangers doubt of his sanity; and he confided to me lately that when he grew up he hoped to lead a Double Life. He who was brought up in Camelot, he who wept when Roland at Roncesvalles blew his horn for the last time, now devours blood-curdling detective stories, vile things in paper covers, which he keeps concealed about his person, and whips out at odd moments. What he hates is a book with the slightest hint of a love affair. I found him disgustedly punching a book with his fist and muttering (evidently to the hero), "I know you, I know you, you're in love with her," in tones of bitter scorn. When I begin to speak about Peter I can't stop, and forget how tiresome it must be for people to listen. I apologize, but please bear with me when I enlarge upon this brother of mine; I simply must, sometimes.
How good of you to write such a long letter! Of course I shall write often and at length, but you must promise not to be bored, or expect too much. I fear you won't get anything very wise or witty from me. You know how limited I am. The fairies, when they came to my christening, might have come better provided with gifts. But then, I expect they have only a certain number of gifts for each family, so I don't in the least blame them for giving the boys the brains and giving me—what? At the moment I can't think of anything they did give me except a heart that keeps on the windy side of care, as Beatrice puts it; and hair that curls naturally. I have no grudge against the fairies. If they had given me straight hair and brains I might have been a Suffragist and shamed my kin by biting a policeman; and that would have been a pity.
G. and I are crouched in a corner, very awed and sad. A poor man died suddenly yesterday from heart failure, and the funeral is just over. I do hope I shall never again see a burial at sea. It was terrible. The bell tolled and the ship slowed down and almost stopped, while the body, wrapped in a Union Jack, was slipped into the water, committed to the deep in sure and certain hope of a blessed resurrection. In a minute it was all over.
The people are laughing and talking again; the dressing-bugle has sounded; things go on as if nothing had happened. We are steaming ahead, leaving the body—such a little speck it looked on the great water—far behind.
It is the utter loneliness of it that makes me cry!
S.S. Scotia, Oct. 29.
... This won't be a tidy letter, for I am sitting close beside the rail—has it a nautical name? I don't know—and every few minutes the spray comes over and wets the paper and incidentally myself. And the fountain-pen! I greatly fear it leaks, for my middle finger is blackened beyond hope of cleansing, and though not ten minutes ago Mr. Brand inked himself very comprehensively filling it for me, already it requires frequent shakings to make it write at all. I thought it would be a blessing, it threatens to become a curse. I foresee that very shortly I shall descend again to a pencil, or write my letters with the aid of scratchy pens and fat, respectable ink-pots in the stuffy music-room.
You will have two letters from Port Said. The one I wrote you two days ago finished in deep melancholy, but to-day it is so good to be alive I could shout with joy. I woke this morning with a jump of delight, and even Mrs. Albert Murray—she of the hat-box and the many teeth—could not irritate me, and you can't think how many irritating ways the woman has. It is 10 a.m. and we have just come up from breakfast, and have got our deck-chairs placed where they will catch every breeze (and some salt water), and, with a pile of books and two boxes of chocolate, are comfortably settled for the day.
You ask about the passengers.
We have all sorts and conditions. Quiet people who read and work all day; rowdy people who never seem happy unless they are throwing cushions or pulling one another downstairs by the feet; painfully enterprising people who get up sports, sweeps, concerts, and dances, and are full of a tiresome, misplaced energy; bridge-loving people who play from morning till night; flirtatious people who frequent dark corners; happy people who laugh; sad people who sniff; and one man who can't be classed with anyone else, a sad gentleman, his hair standing fiercely on end, a Greek Testament his constant and only companion. We pine to know who and what he is and where he is going. Yesterday I found myself beside him at tea. I might not have existed for all the notice he took of me. "Speak to him," said G. in my ear. "You don't dare!"
Of course after that I had to, so pinching G's arm to give myself courage, I said in a small voice, "Are you enjoying the voyage?"
He turned, regarded me with his sad prominent eyes. "Do I look as if I enjoyed it?" asked this Monsieur Melancholy, and went back to his bread-and-butter. G. choked, and I finished my tea hurriedly and in silence.
Nearly everyone on board seems nice and willing to be pleasant. I am on smiling terms with most and speaking terms with many, but one really sees very little of the people outside one's own little set. It is odd how people drift together and make cliques. There are eight in our particular set. Colonel and Mrs. Crawley, Major and Mrs. Wilmot; Captain Gordon, Mr. Brand, G., and myself. The Crawleys, the Wilmots, and Captain Gordon are going back after furlough; Mr. Brand and G. and I are going only for pleasure and the cold weather. Our table is much the merriest in the saloon. Mrs. Crawley is a fascinating woman; I never tire watching her. Very pretty, very smart with a pretty wit, she has the most delightfully gay, infectious laugh, which contrasts oddly with her curiously sad, unsmiling eyes, Mrs. Wilmot has a Madonna face. I don't mean one of those silly, fat-faced Madonnas one sees in the Louvre and elsewhere, but one's own idea of the Madonna; the kind of face, as someone puts it, that God must love.
She isn't pretty and she isn't in the least smart, but she is just a kind, sweet, wise woman. Her husband is a cheery soul, very big and boyish and always in uproarious spirits. Captain Gordon makes a good listener. Mr. Brand, although he must have left school quite ten years ago, is still very reminiscent of Eton and has a school-boyish taste in silly rhymes and riddles. Colonel Crawley, a stern and somewhat awe-inspiring man, a distinguished soldier, I am told, hates passionately being asked riddles, and we make him frantic at table repeating Mr. Brand's witticisms. He sits with a patient, disgusted face while we repeat,
"Owen More had run away Owin' more than he could pay; Owen More came back one day Owin' more";
and when he can bear it no longer leaves the table remarking Titbits. He had his revenge the other day, when the ship was rolling more than a little. We had ventured to the saloon for tea and were surveying uncertainly some dry toast, when Colonel Crawley came in. "Ah!" he said, "Steward! Pork chops for these ladies." The mere thought proved the thing too much, we fled to the fresh air—tealess.
I meant this to be a very long letter, but this pen, faint yet pursuing, shows signs of giving out. I have to shake it every second word now.
The bugle has gone for lunch, and G. who has been sound asleep for the last hour, is uncoiling herself preparatory to going down.
S.S. Scotia, Nov. 1.
... All day we have glided through the Canal. Imagine a shining band of silver water, a band of deepest blue sky, and in between a bar of fine gold which is the desert—and you have some idea of what I am looking at. Sometimes an Arab passes riding on a camel, and I can't get away from the feeling that I am a child again looking at a highly coloured Bible picture-book on Sabbath afternoons.
We landed at Port Said yesterday morning. People told us it was a dirty place, an uninteresting place, a horribly dull place, not worth leaving the ship to see, but it was our first glimpse of the East and we were enchanted. The narrow streets, the white domes and minarets against the blue sky, the flat roofs of the houses, the queer shops with the Arabs shouting to draw attention to their wares, and, above all, the new strange smell of the East, were, to us, wonderful and fascinating.
When we got ashore the sun was shining with a directness hitherto unknown to us, making the backs of our unprotected heads feel somewhat insecure, so we went first to a shop where we spied exposed to sale a rich profusion of topis. In case you don't know, a topi is a sun-hat, a white thing, large and saucer-like, lined with green, with cork about it somewhere, rather suggestive of a lifebelt; horribly unbecoming but quite necessary.
A very polite man bowed us inside, and we proceeded on our quixotic search for a topi not entirely hideous. Half an hour later we came out of the shop, the shopman more obsequious than ever, not only wearing topis, but laden with boxes of Turkish Delight, ostrich-feather fans, tinsel scarves, and a string of pink beads which he swore were coral, but I greatly doubt it. We had an uneasy feeling as we bought the things that perhaps we were foolish virgins, but before the afternoon was very old we were sure of it. You wouldn't believe how heavy Turkish Delight becomes when you carry half a dozen boxes for some hours under a blazing sun, and I had a carved book-rest under one arm, and G. had four parcels and a green umbrella. To complete our disgust, after weltering under our purchases for some time we saw in a shop exactly the same things much cheaper. G. pointed a wrathful finger, letting two parcels fall to do it. "Look at that," she said. "I'm going straight back to tell the man he's cheated us." With difficulty I persuaded her it wasn't worth while, and tired and dusty we sank—no, we didn't sink, they were iron chairs—we sat down hard on chairs outside a big hotel and demanded tea immediately. Some of the ship people were also having tea at little tables, and a party of evil-looking Frenchmen were twanging guitars and singing sentimental songs for pennies. While we were waiting a man—an Arab, I think—crouched beside us and begged us to let him read our hands for half a crown, and we were weak enough to permit it. You may be interested to know that I am to be married "soon already" to a high official with gold in his teeth. It sounds ideal. G. was rather awed by the varied career he sketched for her. After tea, which was long in coming and when it came disappointing, we had still some time, so we hailed a man driving a depressed-looking horse attached to a carriage of sorts, and told him to drive us all round. He looked a very wicked man, but it may have been the effect of his only having one eye, for he certainly had a refined taste in sights. When we suggested that we would like to see the Arab bazaar he shook his head violently, and instead drove us along dull roads, stopping now and again to wave a vague whip towards some building, remarking in most melancholy tones as he did so, "The English Church"—"The American Mission."
Back on the ship again, sitting on deck in the soft darkness, watching the lights of the town and hearing a faint echo of the life there, I realized with something of a shock that it was Hallow-e'en. Does that convey nothing to your mind? To me it brings back memories of cold, fast-shortening days, and myself jumping long-legged over cabbage-stalks in the kitchen-garden, chanting—
"This is the nicht o' Hallow-e'en When a' the witches will be seen—"
in fearful hope of seeing a witch, not mounted on a broomstick, but on the respectable household cat, changed for that night into a flying fury; finally, along with my brothers, being captured, washed, and dressed, to join with other spirits worse than ourselves in "dooking" for apples and eating mashed potatoes in momentary expectation of swallowing a threepenny-bit or a thimble. To-night, far from the other spirits, far from the chill winds and the cabbage-stalks, I have been watching the sunset on the desert making the world a glory of rose and gold and amethyst. Now it is dark; the lights are lit all over the ship; the floor of heaven is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold...
"In such a night did young Lorenzo ..."
Nov. 2, 11.30 a.m.
Our fellow-passengers derive much amusement from the way we sit and scribble, and one man asked me if I were writing a book! All this time I haven't mentioned the Port Said letters. We got them before we left the ship, and, determined for once to show myself a well-balanced, sensible young person, I took mine to the cabin and locked them firmly in a trunk, telling myself how nice it would be to read them in peace on my return. The spirit was willing, but—I found I must rush down to take just a peep to see if everyone was well, and the game ended with me sitting uncomfortably on the knobby edge of Mrs. Albert Murray's bunk, breathlessly tearing open envelopes.
They were all delightful, and I have read them many times. I have yours beside me now, and to make it like a real talk I shall answer each point as it comes.
You say the sun hasn't shone since I left.
Are you by any chance paying me a compliment? Or are you merely stating a fact? As Pet Marjorie would say, I am primmed up with majestic pride because of the compliments I receive. One lady, whose baby I held for a little this morning, told me I had such a sweet, unspoiled disposition! But what really pleased me and made me feel inches taller was that Captain Gordon told someone who told me that he thought I had great stability of character. It is odd how one loves to be told one has what one hasn't! I, who have no more stability of character than a pussy-cat, felt warm with gratitude. Only—I should like to make my exit now before he discovers how mistaken he is!
Yes, I wish you were sitting by my side racing through the waves. Indeed, I wish all my dear people were here.
Are you really feeling lonely, you popular young man of many engagements? Lonely and dissatisfied are your words. But why? Why? Surely no one ever had less reason to feel dissatisfied. There are very many people, my friend, who wouldn't mind being you. And yet you aren't thankful! Not thankful for the interesting life you have, the plays you see, the dinners you eat, the charming women you talk to, the balls you dance at, the clubs you frequent—though what a man does at his clubs beyond escaping for a brief season from his womenkind I never quite know. Think how nice to be a man and not have to look pleased when one is really bored to extinction! If you are bored you have only to slip away to your most comfortable rooms. Did I tell you how much I liked your rooms that day Margie and I went to tea with you? or were we too busy talking about other things? Now don't be like Peter. He was grumbling about something and I told him to go away and count his blessings. He went obediently, and returned triumphant. "I've done it!" he said, "and I've six things to be thankful for and nine to be unthankful for—"
One thing for which I think you might feel "unthankful" is your lamentable lack of near relations. It is hard to be quite alone in the world; for, I agree, aunts don't count for much. Weighed in the balance they are generally found woefully wanting.
I remember once, when we were laughing over some escapade of our childhood you said you had no very pleasant recollection of your childish days, that you didn't look forward to holidays and that your happiest time was at school, because then you had companions.
I feel quite sad when I think what you missed. We were very lucky, four of us growing up together, and I sometimes wonder if other children had the same full, splendid time we had, and if they employed it getting into as many scrapes. The village people, shaking their heads over us and our probable end, used to say, "They're a' bad, but the lassie (meaning me) is the verra deil." We were bad, but we were also extraordinarily happy. I treasure up all sorts of memories, some of them very trivial and absurd, store them away in lavender, and when I feel dreary I take them out and refresh myself with them. One episode I specially remember, though why I should tell you about it I don't quite know, for it is a small thing and "silly sooth." We were staying at the time with our grandmother, the grandmother I am called for, a very stern and stately lady—the only person I have ever really stood in awe of. We had been wandering all day, led by John, searching for hidden treasure at the rainbow's foot, climbing high hills to see if the world came to an end at the other side, or some equally fantastic quest. It was dark and almost supper-time and we had committed the heinous crime of not appearing for tea, so, when we were told to go at once to see our grandmother, and stumbled just as we were, tired and dusty, hair on end and stockings at our ankles into the quiet room where she sat knitting fleecy white things by the table with the lamp, we expected nothing better than to be sent straight to bed, probably supperless. Our grandmother laid down her knitting, took off her spectacles, and instead of the rebuke we expected and deserved said, "Bairns, come away in. I'm sure you must be tired." It had been an unsuccessful day; we had found no treasure, not even the World's End; the night had fallen damp, with an eerily sighing wind which depressed us vaguely as we trudged homewards; but now, the black night shut out, there was the fire-light and the lamp-light, the kind old voice, and the delicious sense of having come home.
All things considered, you are a young man greatly to be envied, also at the present moment to be scolded. How can you possibly allow yourself to think such silly things? You must have a most exaggerated idea of my charms if you think every man on board must be in love with me. Men aren't so impressionable. Did you think that when my well-nigh unearthly beauty burst on them they would fall on their knees and with one voice exclaim, "Be mine!" I assure you no one has ever even thought of doing anything of the kind, and if they had I wouldn't tell you. I know you are only chaffing, but I do so hate all that sort of thing, and to hear people talk of their "conquests" is revolting. One of the nicest things about G. is that she doesn't care a bit to philander about with men. She and I are much happier talking to each other, a fact which people seem to find hard to believe.
My attention is being diverted from my writing by a lady sitting a few yards away—the Candle we call her because so many silly young moths hover round. She is a buxom person, with very golden hair growing darker towards the roots, hard blue eyes, and a powdery white face. G. and I are intensely interested to know what is the attraction about her, for no one can deny there is one. She isn't young; the gods have not made her fair, and I doubt of her honesty; yet from the first she has been surrounded by men—most of them, I grant you, unfinished youths bound to offices in Calcutta, but still men. I thought it might be her brilliant conversation, but for the last half-hour I have listened,—indeed we have no choice but to listen, the voices are so strident,—and it can't be that, because it isn't brilliant or even amusing, unless to call men names like Pyjamas, or Fatty, or Tubby, and slap them playfully at intervals is amusing. A few minutes ago Mrs. Crawley came to sit with us looking so fresh in a white linen dress. I don't know why it is—she wears the simplest clothes, and yet she manages to make all the other women look dowdy. She has the gift, too, of knowing the right thing to wear on every occasion. At Port Said, for instance, the costumes were varied. The Candle flopped on shore in a trailing white lace dress and an enormous hat; some broiled in serge coats and skirts; Mrs. Crawley in a soft green muslin and rose-wreathed hat was a cool and dainty vision. Well, to return. As Mrs. Crawley shook up her chintz cushions, she looked across at the Candle—a long look that took in the elaborate golden hair, the much too smart blouse, the abbreviated skirt showing the high-heeled slippers, the crowd of callow youths—and then, smiling slightly to herself, settled down in her chair. I grew hot all over for the Candle. I don't suppose I need trouble myself. I expect she is used to having women look at her like that, and doesn't mind. Does she really like silly boys so much and other women so little, I wonder! There is generally something rather nasty about a woman who declares she can't get on with other women and whom other women don't like. Men have an absurd notion that we can't admire another woman or admit her good points. It isn't so. We admire a pretty woman just as much as you do. The only difference is you men think that if a woman has a lovely face it follows, as the night the day, that she must have a lovely disposition. We know better that's all.
The poor Candle! I feel so mean and guilty writing about her under her very eyes, so to speak. She looked at me just now quite kindly. I have a good mind to tear this up, but after all what does it matter? My silly little observations won't make any impression on your masculine mind. Only don't say "Spiteful little cat," because I don't mean to be, really.
This is much the longest letter I ever wrote. You will have to read a page at a time and then take a long breath and try again.
Mr. Brand has just come up to ask us why a sculptor dies a horrible death? Do you know?
S.S. Scotia, Nov. 6.
No one unendowed with the temper of an angel and the patience of a Job should attempt the voyage to India. Mrs. Albert Murray has neither of these qualifications any more than I have, and for two days she hasn't deigned to address a remark to G. or me, all because of a lost pair of stockings; a loss which we treated with unseemly levity. However, the chill haughtiness of our cabin companion is something of a relief in this terrible heat. For it is hot. I am writing in the cabin, and in spite of the fact that there are two electric fans buzzing on either side of me, I am hotter than I can say, and deplorably ill-tempered. Four times this morning, trying to keep out of Mrs. Albert Murray's way, I have fallen over that wretched hat-box, still here despite our hints about the baggage-room, and now in revenge I am sitting on it, though what the owner would say, if she came in suddenly and found to what base uses I had put her treasure, I dare not let myself think. G. has a bad headache, and it is dull for her to be alone, so that is the reason why I am in the cabin at all. To be honest, it is most unpleasant on deck, rainy with a damp, hot wind blowing, and the music-room is crowded and stuffy beyond words, or I might not be unselfish enough to remain with G. I did go up, and a fat person, whose nurse was ill, gave me her baby to hold, a poor white-faced, fretful baby, who pulled down all my hair, and I have had the unpleasant task of doing it up again. If you have ever stood in a very hot greenhouse with the door shut, and wrestled with something above your head, you will know what I felt.
We passed Aden yesterday and stopped for a few hours to coal. That was the limit. The sun beating down on the deck, the absence of the slightest breeze, coal-dust sifting into everything—ouf! Aden's barren rocks reminded me rather of the Skye Coolin. I wonder if they are climbable. I haven't troubled you much, have I, with accounts of the entertainments on board? but I think I must tell you about a whistling competition we had the other day. You must know that we had each a partner, and the women sat at one end of the deck and the men stood at the other and were told the tune they had to whistle, when they rushed to us and each whistled his tune to his partner, who had to write the name on a piece of paper and hand it back, and the man who got back to the umpire first won—at least his partner did. Do you understand? Well, as you know, I haven't much ear for music, and I hoped I would get an easy tune; but when my partner, a long, thin, earnest man, with a stutter, burst on me and whistled wildly in my face, I had the hopeless feeling that I had never heard the tune before. In his earnestness he came nearer and nearer, his contortions every moment becoming more extraordinary, his whistling more piercing; and I, by this time convulsed by awful, helpless laughter, could only shrink farther back in my seat and gasp feebly, "Please don't."
Mrs. Crawley was not much better. In my own misery I was aware of her voice saying politely, "I have no idea what the tune is, but you whistle beautifully—quite like a gramophone."
When my disgusted and exhausted partner ceased trying to emulate a steam-engine and began to look human again, I timidly inquired what he had been whistling. "The tune," he replied very stiffly, "was 'Rule, Britannia!'"
"Dear me," I replied meekly, "I thought at least it was something from Die Meistersinger;" but he deigned no reply and walked away, evidently hating me quite bitterly. I shan't play that game again, and I can't believe the silly man really whistled "Rule, Britannia," for it is a simple tune and one with which I am entirely at home, whereas—but no matter!
G. won by guessing "Annie Laurie." She is splendid at all games, and did I tell you how well she sings? In the cabin, when we are alone, she sings to me snatches of all sorts of songs, grave and gay, but she won't sing in the saloon, where every other woman on board with the smallest pretensions to a voice carols nightly. She is a most attractive person this G., with quaint little whimsical ways that make her very lovable. We are together every minute of the day, and yet we never tire of one another's company. I rather think I do most of the talking. If it is true that to be slow in words is a woman's only virtue, then, indeed, is my state pitiable, for talk I must, and G. is a delightful person to talk to. She listens to my tales of Peter and the others, and asks for more, and shouts with laughter at the smallest joke. I pass as a wit with G., and have a great success. She is going to stay with a married sister for the cold weather. Quite like me, only I'm going to an unmarried brother. I think we are both getting slightly impertinent to our elders. They tease us so at meals in the saloon we have to answer back in self-defence, and it is very difficult to help trying to be smart; sometimes, at least with me, it degenerates into rudeness. I told you about all the people at our table, but I forgot one—a very aged man with a long white beard, rather like the evil magician in the fairy tales, but most harmless. "Old Sir Thomas Erpingham," I call him, for I am sure a good soft pillow for that good grey head were better than the churlish turf of India. He is very kind, and calls us Sunshine and Brightness, and pays us the most involved Early Victorian compliments, which we, talking and laughing all the time, seldom ever hear, and it is left to kind Mrs. Wilmot to respond.
Last night we had an excitement. We got into a thick fog and had to stand still and hoot, while something—a homeward-bound steamer, they say—nearly ran us down. The people sleeping on deck said it was most awesome, but I slept peacefully through it until awakened by an American female running down the corridor and remarking at the top of a singularly piercing voice, "Wal, I am scared!"
To-day it is beautifully calm and bright; the nasty, hot, damp wind has gone; and we are sitting in our own little corner of the deck, Mrs. Crawley, Mrs. Wilmot, G., and I, sometimes reading, sometimes writing, very often talking. It is luck for us to have two such charming women to talk to. Mrs. Crawley is supposed to be my chaperon, I believe I forgot to tell you that. Boggley, who is a great friend of hers, wrote and asked her to look after me. How clever of him to fix on one in every way so desirable! Suppose he had asked the Candle!
We have such splendid talks about books. Mrs. Wilmot has, I think, read everything that has been written, also she is very keen about poetry and has my gift—or is it a vice?—of being able to say great pieces by heart, so between us G. is sometimes just a little bored. You see, G. hasn't been brought up in a bookish atmosphere and that makes such a difference. The other night she was brushing her hair, unusually silent and evidently thinking deeply. At last she looked up at me in my bunk, with the brush in her hand and all her hair swept over one shoulder, and said in the most puzzled way, "What was that nasty thing Mrs. Wilmot was saying all about dead women?" and do you know what she objected to?
"Dear dead women, with such hair, too— What's become of all the gold Used to hang and brush their bosoms? I Feel chilly and grown old."
We are very much worried by people planting themselves beside us and favouring us with their views on life in general. One woman—rather a tiresome person, a spinster with a curiously horse-like face and large teeth—sometimes stays for hours at a time and leaves us limp. Even gentle Mrs. Wilmot approaches, as nearly as it is possible for her to approach, unkindness in her comments on her. She has such playful, girlish manners, and an irritating way of giving vent to the most utter platitudes with the air of having just discovered a new truth. She has been with us this morning and mentioned that her father was four times removed from a peerage. I stifled a childish desire to ask who had removed him, while Mrs. Wilmot murmured, "How interesting!" As she minced away Mrs. Crawley said meditatively, "The Rocking Horse Fly," and with a squeal of delight I realized that that was what she had always vaguely reminded me of. You remember the insect, don't you, in Through the Looking-Glass? It lived on sawdust. One lesson one has every opportunity of learning on board ship is to suffer fools, if not gladly, at least with patience. The curious people who stray across one's path! One woman came on at Port Said—a globe-trotter, globe-trotting alone. Can you imagine anything more ghastly? She is very tall, dark and mysterious-looking, and last night when G. and I were in the music saloon before dinner, she sat down beside us and began to talk of spiritualism and other weird things. To bring her to homelier subjects I asked if she liked games. "Games" she said, "what sort of games? I can ride anything that has four legs and I can hold my own with a sword." She looked so fierce that if the bugle hadn't sounded at that moment I think I should have crept under a table.
"Quite mad," said G. placidly as we left her.
We are going to have a dance to-night.
S.S. Scotia, Nov. 11.
... Now we approach a conclusion. We have passed Colombo, and in three or four days ought to reach Calcutta.
Colombo was rather nice, warm and green and moist; but I failed to detect the spicy breeze blowing soft o'er Ceylon's isle, that the hymn led me to expect. The shops are good and full of interesting things, like small ivory elephants, silver ornaments, bangles, kimonos, and moonstones. We bought various things, and as we staggered with our purchases into the cabin, which now resembles nothing so much as an overcrowded pawnshop, Mrs. Murray remarked (we are on speaking terms again) "I suppose you thought the cabin looked rather empty that you bought so much rubbish to fill it up."
We were dumb under the deserved rebuke. We had bought her a fan as a peace-offering, rather a pretty one too, but she thanked us with no enthusiasm.
In Colombo we got rickshaws and drove out to the Galle Face Hotel, a beautiful place with the surf thundering on the beach outside. If I were rich I would always ride in a rickshaw. It is a delightful way of getting about, and as we were trotted along a fine broad road, small brown boys ran alongside and pelted us with big waxy, sweet-smelling blossoms. We did enjoy it so. At the Galle Face, in a cool and lofty dining-hall, we had an excellent and varied breakfast, and ate real proper Eastern curry for the first time. Another new experience! I don't like curry at home, curry as English cooks know it—a greasy make-up of cold joint served with sodden rice; but this was different. First, rice was handed round, every particle firm and separate and white, and then a rich brown mixture with prawns and other interesting ingredients, which was the curry. You mix the curry with the rice, when a whole trayful of condiments is offered to eat with it, things like very thin water biscuits, Bombay duck—all sorts of chutney, and when you have mixed everything up together the result is one of the nicest dishes it has been my lot to taste. Note also, you eat it with a fork and spoon, not with a fork alone as mere provincials do!
I begin to feel so excited about seeing Boggley. It is two years since he was home last. Will he have changed much, I wonder? There was a letter from him at Colombo, and he hadn't left Darjeeling and had no house to take me to in Calcutta, so it would appear that when I do land my lodging will be the cold ground. It sounds as if he were still the same casual old Boggley. Who began that name? John, I think. He had two names for him—"Lo-the-poor-Indian" and "Boggley-Wallah"—and in time we all slipped into calling him Boggley. I like to think you two men were such friends at Oxford. Long before I knew you I had heard many tales of your doings, and I think that was one reason why, when we did meet, we liked each other and became friends, because we were both so fond of Boggley. I am filled with qualms as to whether he will be glad to see me. It must be rather a nuisance in lots of ways to have a sister to look after, but he was so keen that I should come that surely he won't think me a bother. Besides, when you think of it, it was really very good of me to leave my home and all my friends and brave the perils of the deep, to visit a brother in exile.
I wish I knew exactly when we shall arrive; this suspense is wearing. One man told me we would be in on Wednesday, another said we would miss the tide and not be in till Saturday. I asked the captain, but he directed me to the barber, who, he said, knew everything—and indeed there are very few things he doesn't know. He is a dignified figure with a shiny curl on his forehead, and a rich Cockney accent, full of information, generally, I must admit, strikingly inaccurate, but bestowed with such an air. "I do believe him though I know he lies."
We are in the Hooghly and shall be in Kidderpore Dock to-morrow morning early. Actually the voyage is at an end. I may as well finish this letter and send it with the mail which leaves Calcutta to-morrow. We can't pack, because Mrs. Albert Murray is occupying all the cabin and most of the passage. We shall creep down when she is quite done and put our belongings together.
Everyone is flying about writing luggage labels, and getting their boxes up from the hold, and counting things. Curiously enough, I am feeling rather depressed; the end of anything is horrid, even a loathed sea-voyage. After all, it isn't a bad old ship, and the people have been nice. To-night I am filled with kindness to everyone. Even Mrs. Albert Murray seems to swim in a rosy and golden haze, and I am conscious of quite an affection for her, though I expect, when in a little I go down to the cabin and find her fussing and accusing us of losing her things, I shall dislike her again with some intensity. We have all laughed and played and groaned together, and now we part. No, I shan't say "Ships that pass in the night." Several people—mothers whose babies I have held and others—have given me their cards and a cordial invitation to go and stay with them for as long as I like. They mean it now, I know, but in a month's time shall we even remember each other's names?
It will be a real grief to part to-morrow from Mrs. Crawley and Mrs. Wilmot. The dear women! I wish they had been going to stay in Calcutta, but they go straight away up country. Are there, I wonder, many such charming women in India? It seems improbable. I shall miss all the people at our table: we have been such a gay company. Major Wilmot says G. and I have kept them all amused and made the voyage pleasant, but that is only his kind way. It is quite true, though, what Mrs. Crawley says of G. She is like a great rosy apple, refreshing and sweet and wholesome.
What is really depressing me is the thought that wherever I am to-morrow night there will be no G. to say:
"Good-night, my dear. Sleep well."
And I shan't be able to drop my head over my bunk and reply:
"Good-night, my dear old G."
It will seem so odd and lonely without her.
The ship has stopped—we are to anchor here till daylight.
FLESHPOTS OF CALCUTTA
Calcutta, Nov. 18.
In India. I don't think I have quite realized myself or my surroundings yet, but one thing I know. Boggley has been better than his word, for we are not camping in a corner of the Maidan, but have a decent roof to cover us.
But I shall go back to where I left off on Wednesday night.
We spent a hot, breathless night in the river. Towards morning I fell asleep and dreamed that the ship was sinking in a quicksand and that I, in trying to save myself, had stuck fast in the port-hole. I wakened cold with fright, to find it was grey dawn and they were getting up the anchor.
Of course we were up at an unearthly hour, all our belongings carefully packed and labelled, ourselves clad in clean white dresses and topis to face the burning, shining face of India. There was little to see and nothing to do, and we walked about getting hungrier and hungrier, and yet when breakfast-time did come we found we were too excited to eat.
When we got into the dock we saw all the people who had come to meet us penned like sheep into enclosures, and we leaned over the side trying to make out the faces of friends. Presently they were allowed to come on board, and I, eagerly watching, spied Boggley bounding up the ladder, and the next moment we were clutching each other wildly. But our greeting—what it is to be Scots!—was merely "Hallo! there you are!" I need not have worried about what I would say when I met him—yes, I was silly enough to do that—for he is just the same dear old Boggley, hair as red, eyes as blue and as short-sighted, mouth as wide as ever. I think his legs are even longer. The first thing he did when he came on board was to fall over someone's dressing-bag, and that made us both laugh helplessly like silly children. I introduced him to G. and the others, and by this time G. had found her sister, and soon they were all talking together, so G. and I slipped away to look out for people in whom we were interested. Very specially did we want, to see Mr. Albert Murray, and when we did see him he was almost exactly what we had expected—small, sandy-haired, his topi making his head look out of all proportion, and with a trodden-on look. We noticed the little man wandering aimlessly about, when a voice from the music-room door saying "Albert" made him start visibly, and turning, he sidled up to our cabin companion, who kissed him severely, while he murmured, "Well, m' dear, how are you?" Seeing us standing near she said, "Well, good-bye, girls. I hope you'll have a good time and behave yourselves;" and then, turning to her husband, by way of an introduction, she added, "These are the girls who shared my cabin." Mr. Albert shuffled his topi and looked at us with kind, blinking eyes, but attempted no remark. The last we saw of him he was tugging the hat-box in the wake of his managing wife. G. looked at me solemnly. "We had little to complain of," she said; "we weren't married to her."
The husband of the Candle was the greatest surprise. I had imagined—why, I don't know—that that lady's husband would be tall and red-faced, with a large moustache and loud voice and manner, someone who would match well with the Candle. Instead, we beheld a dark, thin-faced man with a stoop, a man who looked like a scholar and spoke with a delightful, quiet voice. He addressed the Candle as Jane. Jane! If it had been Fluffy, or Trixie, or Chippy, or even Dolly, but, with that hair, that complexion, that voice, that troop of attendant swains, to be called Jane! The thing was out of all reason. I wonder all the widespread family of Janes, with their meek eyes and smoothly braided hair, don't rise up and call her anything but blessed. Oh, I know there was no thought of pleasing me when she was christened, but still—Jane!
It was rather sweet to watch the little family groups, the mother assuring a bored, indifferent infant that this was its own daddy, and the proud father beaming on both.
The self-conscious bridegrooms sidling up to their blushing brides afforded us much amusement. Some had not seen each other for five years. I wonder if one or two didn't rue their bargains! It seems to me a terrible risk!
I could have gone on watching the people for a long time, but Boggley was anxious to be off; so after tearful farewells and many promises to write had been exchanged, we departed.
The special Providence that looks after casual people has guided Boggley to quite a nice house in a nice part of the town. Many Government people who are in Calcutta only for the cold weather—I mean those of them who are burdened not with wealth but women-folk—find it cheaper and more convenient to live in a boarding-house. Does that conjure up to you a vision of Bloomsbury, and tall grey houses, and dirty maid-servants, and the Passing of Third Floor Backs? It isn't one bit like that. This boarding-house consists, oddly enough, of four big houses all standing a little distance apart in a compound. They are let out in suites of rooms, and the occupants can either all feed together in the public dining-room or in lonely splendour in their own apartments. We have five rooms on the ground floor. Of the two sitting-rooms one is almost quite dark, and is inhabited by a suite of furniture, three marble-topped tables on which Boggley had set out the few photographs and trifles which he hasn't yet lost, and a sad-looking cabinet; the other opens into the garden, and is a nice cheerful room. The dark room we have made Boggley's study; as he only uses it at night, it doesn't matter about the want of light, and there is a fine large writing-table which holds stacks of papers. We got the marble-topped tables carried into the cheery room and covered them with tablecloths from a shop in Park Street, bought rugs for the floor and hangings for the doors, and with a few cushions and palms and flowers the room is quite pretty and home-like. I like the chairs, enormous cane things with long wooden arms which Boggley says are meant for putting one's feet on, and most comfortable.
Boggley's bedroom is next his study, but I have to take a walk before I come to mine, out of the window,—or door, I'm never sure which it is,—down some steps, then along a garden-walk, round a corner, and up some more steps, where I reach first a small ante-room and then my bedroom. Like the other rooms, it is whitewashed and has a very high ceiling. Some confiding sparrows have built a nest in a hole in the wall, and—and this is really upsetting—there are ten different ways of entering the room, doors and windows, and half of them I can't lock or bar or fasten up in any way. What I should do if a Mutiny occurred I can't think! My bed with its mosquito-curtains stands like a little island in a vast sea of matting, and there are two large wardrobes, what they call almirahs, a dressing-table, and two chairs. It is empty and airy, and that is all that is required of a bedroom.
The four houses, as I told you, stand in a compound. It isn't exactly a garden, for there are lots of things in it that we would consider quite superfluous in a self-respecting garden. There is a good tennis lawn, plots of flowers, trimly-kept walks bordered with poinsettias, and trees with white, heavily-scented flowers, and opposite my bedroom is a little stone-paved enclosure where two cows and two calves lead a calm and meditative existence! And further, there are funny little huts scattered about where one catches glimpses of natives at their devotions or slumbering peacefully. Imagine in the middle of a garden at home coming on a cowhouse or a shanty! But this is India.
Boggley conducted me round, both of us talking hard all the time. He had so many questions to ask and I had so much to tell: all the home news and silly little home jokes—Peter's latest sayings—things that are so amusing to tell and to hear but lose all their flavour written. You remember Boggley's wild bursts of laughter? He laughs just the same now, throws his head back and shouts in the most whole-hearted way. We talked from 11 a.m. till tea-time without a break—talked ourselves hoarse and thirsty. After tea we drove on the Maidan, up and down the Red Road in an unending stream of carriages and motors, shabby tikka-gharries and smart little dogcarts (called here tum-tums)—all Calcutta taking the air. One might almost have imagined oneself in the Park, if it had not been that now and again a strange equipage would pass filled with natives, men and boys gorgeous in purple and scarlet and gold, or closed carriages like boxes on wheels, in which sat dark-skinned women demurely veiled. From the Red Road we drove to the Strand, a carriage-way by the river where the great ships lie, and watched the sun set and the spars and masts become silhouetted against the red sky. Then darkness fell almost at once.
My mind was a chaos when I went to bed after my first day in India, and I slept so soundly that when I woke I had no idea where I was. All re-collections of the voyage and arrival were wiped from my memory and I was filled first with vague astonishment and then with horror to find myself surrounded by filmy white stuff through which peered a black face. It was only my ayah, a quaint, small person, wrapped in a white sari, with demure, sly eyes and teeth stained red with chewing betel-nut, looking through the mosquito-curtains to see if the Miss Sahib was awake and would like chota-hazri. She embarrasses me greatly slipping about with her bare feet, appearing when I least expect her or squatting on the floor staring at me fixedly. I know no Hindustani and she knows perhaps three English words, so our conversation is limited. The silence gets so on my nerves that I drop hairbrushes and things to make a little disturbance, and it gives her something to do to pick them up. I must at once learn some Hindustani words such as pink, blue, and green, and then I shall be able to tell Bella what dress to lay out, and her place won't be such a sinecure. I call her Bella because it is the nearest I can get to her name and it has a homely sound.
The rest of my impressions I shall keep for my next letter. I have written this much to give you an idea of my surroundings, and you see I have taken your interest for granted. Are you bored? Of course you will say you are not, but if I could see your face I should know.
The home mail arrives here on Sunday, when people are having what they call a "Europe morning," and have time to read and enjoy their letters. When you wrote you had just had my mail from Marseilles. How far behind you are! It was too bad of me to write such pitiful letters, but I think I was too miserable to pretend. Now I am very well off, and no one could be more utterly thoughtful and kind than old Boggley. I am sure I shall never regret coming to India, and it will be something to dream about when I am a douce Olivia-sit-by-the-fire.
You speak of rain and mud and fog, and it all seems very far away from this afternoon land. The winter will soon pass, and, as you nicely put it, I shall return with the spring.
Calcutta, Nov. 21.
It is the witching hour of 10 a.m. and I am sitting in my little ante-room—boudoir, call it what you will—immersed in correspondence, Boggley, hard-worked man that he is, has departed for his office followed by a kitmutgar carrying some sandwiches and a bottle of soda-water, which is his modest lunch. Really a Government servant's life is no easy one. He is up every morning by six o'clock, and gets a couple of hours' work done before breakfast. His office receives him at ten and keeps him till four, when he comes home and has tea, after which we ride or drive or play tennis somewhere. A look in at the Club for a game of billiards, more work, dinner, and, if we are not going to a dance or any frivolity, a quiet talk, a smoke, a few more papers gone through, bed, and the long Indian day is over. All day chuprassis, like attendant angels, flit in and out bearing piles of documents marked Urgent, which they heap on his writing-table. I begin greatly to dislike the sight of them.
So you see I have of necessity many hours alone, at least I have some, and I would have more if G. didn't live within a few minutes' walk, and every morning, armed with a large green-lined parasol and protected by her faithful topi, come round to pass the time of day with me. Her sister, Mrs. Townley, is a very nice woman and kindness itself to me. I can say, like the Psalmist, that goodness and mercy follow me. I started from London knowing no one, yet in twenty-four hours I was fast friends with G. and afterwards with quite a lot of people on board. I thought when I landed in Calcutta I would be a stranger in a strange land and have no one but Boggley, "instead of which" I have G. quite near, and Mrs. Townley says I must come to them any minute of the day I want to; and there are others equally kind. You don't want me to give you a detailed account of Calcutta, do you? It wouldn't interest you to read it, and it certainly wouldn't interest me to write it. When my friends go wandering and write me home long descriptions of the places of interest (falsely so called) which they visit, I read them—oh! I read them faithfully—but I am sadly bored. Somehow people interest me more than places. That being so, I shall only inflict on you a little of Calcutta. I like it immensely. They laugh at me for saying it is pretty, but I do think it is quite beautiful. It is so much greener than I expected, and I like the broad streets of pillared houses standing in their palm-shaded compounds. The principal street is called Chowringhee, and it has some fine buildings and really excellent shops, where one can buy quite as pretty things as in London, only, of course, they are of necessity more expensive; it costs a lot to bring them out. The Clubs are in this street, the Bengal Club, and the United Service where my brother would even now be leading a comfortable bachelor existence if he hadn't had a bothering sister to provide a habitation for.
Chowringhee faces the Maidan, a very large park containing among other things a race-course, and cricket and football grounds. The word Maidan is Arabic and Persian and Hindustani for an open space, and I hope you like the superior way I explain things to you. You, who can be silent in so many languages, will probably know what Maidan means—but no matter.
This, then, is the European Calcutta, clean and spacious and pleasant, but not nearly so interesting as the native part. Turn down a side street, walk a little way and you are in a nest of mean streets, unpaved, dirty, smelling vilely, lined with open booths, where squat half-naked men selling lumps of sticky sweetmeats and piles of things that look like unbaked scones and other strange eatables; and little naked babies tumble in the dust with goats and puppies. It seems to me that I go about asking "Why?" all day and no one gives me a satisfactory answer to anything. Why, for example, should we require a troop of servants living, as we do, in a kind of hotel? And yet there they are—Boggley's bearer and my ayah—I can see some reason for their presence—a kitmutgar to wait on us at table and bring tea in the afternoon, another young assistant kitmutgar who scurries like a frightened rabbit at my approach, a delightful small boy who rejoices in the name of pani-wallah, whose sole duty is to carry water for the baths, the dhobi who washes our clothes by beating them between two large—and I should say, judging by the state of the clothes, sharp—stones, losing most of them in the process, and a syce or groom for each pony. Seated, as one sometimes sees them, in rows on the steps, augmented by a chuprassi or two, brilliant in uniform they make a sufficiently imposing spectacle. I have few words, but I look at them in as pleasant a way as I know how, partly because I like to be friends with servants, and partly because I'm rather afraid of them and don't want to rouse them to Mutiny or do anything desperate, but Boggley discouraged me at the outset. "You needn't grin at them so affably," he remarked, "they will only think you are weak in the head." They quite evidently regard me as a poor creature, even Bella, though she humours me and condescends to say "pretty pretty," or "nicey nicey" when I am dressed in the evening. I think she must once have nursed children, for the words she knows are baby words; she always calls me "poor Missy baba" and strokes me! The pani-wallah finds amusement in practising his English on me. When he sees G. come through the compound, he bounds to my room, holds up the chick and announcing "Mees come," retires, stiff with pride at his knowledge of the language.
I have learned a few useful Hindustani words. Qui hai means roughly, "Is anyone there?" and you cry that instead of ringing a bell, and it brings the instant response "Huzoor," and a servant springs from nowhere to do your bidding. Lao means "bring" and jao "go." You never say "please," and you learn the words in a cross tone—that is, if you want to be really Anglo-Indian. Radical M.P.s of course will learn "please" at once, if there is such a word in the language, which I doubt. One nice globe-trotting old lady, anxious, like me, to conciliate the natives, was having a cup of chocolate at Peliti's, and she insisted on sending out to see if the tikka-gharry wallah would like a cup!
A tikka-gharry is a thing like a victoria, hired by the hour. There are first, second, and third class tikka-gharries. The first class have two horses, the second one horse, and the third is closed, and, having no springs, is a terrible vehicle indeed. The drivers of these carriages have, as a rule, long whiskers, and are dressed in khaki. They have bags of provender for the horses tied behind the conveyance, where also precariously hangs another man who might be the twin-brother of the driver. I don't know why he is there, but there he is.
G. and I love to set out in a tikka-gharry and practise our Hindustani. Starting early when it is fairly cool—Indian cold weather mornings are the most wonderful things, so fresh and so bright and so blue—G. starts us off at a mad gallop by shouting Juldi jao, which I have to calm down with Asti asti (slower). When we reach Peliti's we cry Roko (stop), and get out to buy caramels, chocolates, and cakes for tea. Peliti has a peculiarly delicious kind of chocolate cake, the recipe for which I wish he would confide to Fuller or Buszard. But it isn't the European shops, good as they are, that occupy our mornings. Much more fascinating haunts await us, the New Market and the China Bazaar. The former is a kind of arcade which contains everything that any reasonable person could require; fragrant fruit and flowers, fresh-smelling vegetables, and the wares of butcher and baker and candlestick-maker, all laid out on booths and stalls for the world to choose from.
There, very early in the morning, come the khansamahs of the various Mem-sahibs and buy all that is needed for the day, while the Mem-sahibs are cosy in bed, needing not to worry about house, visitors, or forthcoming dinner-parties. Housekeeping is easy in India. Boggley thought we had better ask some people to dinner, so we did, though I pointed out that we had no silver or anything to make the table decent; and the boarding-house things are none too dainty. "It'll be all right," said Boggley, "leave it to the servants;" so I engaged the private dining-room—and left it. I rather trembled when the evening came and our party walked in, but I needn't have. The servants were worthy of their trust. The table looked charming, and, as I had never seen any of the things before, I had a more interesting time than usually falls to the hostess. What I sincerely hoped was that none of the guests had seen any of the things before either, but if they had they possessed great control of their countenances.
Eatables, however, are by no means the only things to be found in the New Market. Silks, muslins, chicon-work, silver ornaments, and jewellery keep us breathless, while the pleasant shopman in a frock-coat and turban offers them at what he calls "killin'" prices.
The China Bazaar is much farther into the city, quite in the native quarter. It is a real adventure to make an expedition there, and the owners allow us to poke in back rooms from which we unearth wondrous treasures in the way of old brass vases; queer, slender-necked scent-bottles still faintly smelling of roses; old lacquer boxes, and bits of rich embroidery. I am becoming a Shylock in the way I beat down prices. I shouldn't wonder a bit when I go home and am ruffling it once more in Bond Street if, when told the price of a thing is a guinea, I laugh in a jocular way and say, "Oh! come now, I'll give you ten shillings."
But to return to Hindustani. I haven't told you all I know. I can ask for tunda beef, which is cold beef, just as tunda pani is cold water, gurrum pani being hot! I can order what I want at meals. At first when I wanted boiled eggs and heard Boggley order unda bile, I remonstrated, "Not under-boiled, hard-boiled," until it was explained to me that unda meant egg. The native can't say any word beginning with s without putting a y before it, thus—y-spice beef, y-street. When men come to see us I cry, "Qui hai?" and, when the servant appears, order "Peg lao—cheroot lao," and feel intensely Anglo-Indian and rather fast. One trait the language has which appeals greatly to me is that one can spell it almost any way one likes, but that is enough about Hindustani for one letter.
I have come in from a ride with Boggley. The proper time to ride is early morning, but I am too lazy and too timid to go when the place is crowded, and so we ride in the cool of the evening, when we have the race-course almost to ourselves. I ride one of Boggley's polo ponies, Solomon by name. Boggley says he is as quiet as a lamb, but I am not sure that he is speaking the strict truth; he has some nasty little ways, it seems to me. He bites for one thing. We were riding with a man the other night and quite suddenly his pony got up in the air and nearly threw him. Solomon had bitten him. The man looked at me as if it were my fault, and I regret to say I laughed. He has also an ungentlemanly way of trying to rub me off against the railings, and then again, for no apparent reason, he suddenly scurries wildly across the Maidan while I pull desperately, but impotently, with fingers weak from fright. Boggley coming behind convulsed with laughter, merely remarks that I am a funk-stick—which, I take it, means the worst kind of coward.
Think where I have been for the last three days!
Down the river in a launch. That kind Mrs. Townley was taking G. and asked Boggley if I might go. We had to leave on Saturday morning before seven to catch the tide, so I warned Bella that she must bring my chota-hazri before six; but I woke and found it was after six, and there were no signs of the perfidious little black Bella. I wasn't nearly ready when G. rushed in, but I threw on garments and we fled, while Boggley, in his dressing-gown, followed with a parting benediction of Peliti's cake as a substitute for tea and toast. We found the launch delightfully comfortable, not to say luxurious. It had been done up for some of the royalties who were out here. There were only we three on board and three young sailor men, so it was a blessedly peaceful three days. We lay on deck and watched the life of the river, all the ships a-sailing, big ships from Dundee and Greenock, German ships, French ships, every kind and nationality of ships down to the curious native craft. Sometimes we passed a little village on the river-bank with a temple and an idol on a mound. When we anchored in the afternoon two of the officers went on shore to shoot, and the sailors let down a net and caught delicious fish for dinner. I did wish Peter had been there. He would have felt like Robinson Crusoe and rejoiced in it all. At dinner the young men told us wonderful stories of their adventures with snakes and tigers. One man said that he was having his bath one morning when a snake came up the pipe. When it saw him it went down again, but as it was disappearing he pulled it back by its tail. Again it tried to go down and again he pulled it back, and then the snake took a look at him and went down tail first.
I believed every word, but when I came home and related the amazing tales to Boggley he received them with derisive shouts of laughter, and said they had been spinning us sailors' yarns.
The mail was waiting here when I came back yesterday. Thanks so much for your letter. I am immensely interested in all your news, but I have left myself no time to answer you properly, as this must be posted to-day.
N.B.—The two queerest things I have noticed in Calcutta up to now are:
(a) That when a man goes out to tennis and stays to dinner his bearer carries his dress-clothes wrapped in a towel.
(b) Kippered herrings come to the table rolled up in paper.
Calcutta, Dec. 2.
I don't think I like this casting of bread upon the water; I never know which loaf it is I am receiving again. You reply to things I had forgotten I had written, and it is rather bewildering.
When you get this you will be settled down in Germany. I am sorry you have left London for one reason, and that a purely selfish one. I shan't be able to imagine you in your new surroundings, and in London I knew pretty well what you would be doing every minute of the day. Knowing, as we do, many of the same people, when you wrote "I have been dining with the Maxwell-Tempests to meet the So-and-sos," I could picture it all even to little Mrs. Maxwell-Tempest's attitudes. I was only in Germany once for three days, and I came away with an impression of a country weird as to food, feathery as to beds, and crammed full of soldiers; but I dare say it is a very good place to write a book. And now—my heartiest congratulations on having a book to write. It sounds—pardon me for saying it—a very dull subject, but if I were a little wiser I expect I should see how important it is, and anyway I have enough sense to perceive that it is a great compliment to be asked to write it. What fun to be a man and have a career! In my more exalted moments it is sometimes borne in on me that I should have been a man and a diplomatist. I feel, though I admit with no grounds to speak of, that I might have been a great success in that most interesting profession. One never knows, and by putting my foot in it very conscientiously all round, I might have earned for myself a reputation of Machiavellian cunning!
What do you think I met at dinner last night? A Travelling Radical Member of Parliament!
Of course I had read of them—often—and knew exactly what sort of creatures they are—fearful wild fowl who come to India for six weeks—
"Comprehend in half a mo' What it takes a man ten years or so To know that he will never know,"
tell the native they want to be a brother to him, and go home to write a book about the way India is misgoverned.
I was delighted at the prospect of seeing one quite close at hand. I pictured a strong still man with a beard, soft fat hands, and a sob in his voice that, at election times, would touch the great, deep throbbing Heart of the People. Instead, I beheld a small, thin man, with eyes as tired as any of the poor sun-dried bureaucrats, and a wide mouth with a humorous twitch at the corners; a man one couldn't imagine wanting to touch anything so silly as the Heart of the People. He talked, I noticed, very little during dinner, but the men were unusually long in joining us afterwards, and as Boggley clambered after me into the tikka-gharry that was to take us home: "That's a ripping fellow!" said Boggley.
Another illusion shattered!
I hasten to set your mind at rest on one point. I have a chaperon, and a very nice, though entirely unnecessary, one. Her name is Mrs. Victor Ormonde, and she knows my people at home; that is why she bothers with me. She is a most attractive woman to look at, tall, dark and slender, with the dearest little turned-up nose, which makes her look rather impertinent, and she is a little inclined to be sniffy to some people; she considers Calcutta women suburban! Her husband is quite different, friends with everyone, a cheerful soul and as Irish as he can be. He is very fond of chaffing his exclusive wife. "Now do be affable," he implored her the other night, before they went to a large and somewhat mixed gathering. "And was she affable?" I asked next morning. "Oh! rollin' about on the floor," was the obviously untrue reply.
You ask how I like the Anglo-Indian women, and I don't know quite what to say. It is the old story. When they are nice they are very, very nice, but when they are nasty they are horrid. Some of them I simply hate. They give me such nasty little stabs the while they smile and pretend to be pleasant!
I am quite capable of giving back as good as I get, but it isn't worth while, because if one does yield to the temptation, afterwards one feels such a worm. There is no doubt it is more difficult in India than at home to obey the command of one's childhood: "to behave pretty and be a lady." What is a lady exactly? I used to be told that a lady was one who always said "please" when asking for more bread-and-butter, and who never bit the fingers of her gloves. That was simple. "And what'll I be if I'm not a lady?" I asked. "You'll be common," said the nurse severely, and then and there, because snatched bread-and-butter was sweet and gloves chewed in secret pleasant, I registered a vow that common I would be. A dear little lady I met the other day, talking about her sister Mem-sahibs, said airily, "Of course we very soon lose complexions, manners, and morals." She could afford to say so, it being so obviously untrue in her case. I think it is just this, that the women who are pure gold grow more charming, but the pinch-beck wears off very soon. The Eastern sun reveals blemishes, moral and physical, that would pass unnoticed in the murkier atmosphere of England. The wonder to me is that anyone keeps nice when one thinks of the provocation there is to deteriorate. The climate, the lack of any serious occupation to take up their days, the constant round of gaieties indulged in partly, I believe, to keep themselves from thinking, the ever-present anxiety about the children at home—oh! there is much one could say if one held a brief for the Anglo-Indian women.
Calcutta society is made up of Government people, Army people, and business people who are called, for some unknown reason, box-wallahs. It seems very strange that there should be such a desire to go one better than one's neighbour, to have better horses, a smarter carriage, a larger house, smarter gowns, because, at least in the case of the Civil Service people, their income is known down to the last rupee.
Everybody in India is, more or less, somebody. It must be a very sad change to go home to England and be (comparatively) poor and shabby, and certainly obscure, to have people remark vaguely they suppose you are "something in India." I suppose we are all snobs at heart. Snobbery, sir, doth walk about the orb like the sun, it shines everywhere. A good lady talked to me quite seriously lately about what the Best People in Calcutta did. It has become a light table joke with us, and when I plant my elbows on the table and hum a tune while we are waiting for the next course at dinner, Boggley mildly inquires, "Do the Best People do that?"
It is a subject I never gave much attention to, but now awful doubts assail me. Am I the Best People? One thing is certain: I am of very little importance. I am only a chota Miss Sahib and my chota-ness is my great protection. No one is going to bother much what I do, or trouble to pull my clothes and my conduct to pieces, and I can creep along unnoticed to a great extent; I watch the game and find it vastly entertaining.
It grieves me to say that I am one of the class who ought to remain in England. There I am quite a nice person up to my lights, fairly unselfish, loving my neighbour as myself. But I have proved myself pinchbeck. No, you needn't say I'm sweet, I'm not. I find myself saying the most detestable things about people. Oblivious of the beam in my own eye, I stare fixedly and reprovingly at the mote in my neighbour's. Could anything be more unlovable?
I get no encouragement to be a cat from Boggley. Everyone is his very good friend.
"Mrs. Wright called to-day," I remark at tea.
"Did she?" says Boggley. "She's a nice little woman; you'll like her."
"She makes up," I say, "and she had on a most ridiculous hat. Mrs. Brodie says she's a dreadful flirt."
"Rubbish!" says Boggley; "she's a very good sort and devoted to her husband."
"Mrs. Brodie says," I continue, "that she is horrid to other women and tries to take away their husbands. It is odd how fond Anglo-Indian women are of other people's husbands."
"Much odder," Boggley retorts, "that you should have become such a little backbiting cat! You'll soon be as bad as old Mother Brodie, and she's the worst in Calcutta."
This is the Christmas mail, and I have written sixteen letters, but I can't send presents except to Mother and some girls, for I haven't seen a single thing suitable for a man. Poor Peter wailed for a monkey or a mongoose, but I told him to wait till I came home and I would do my best to bring one or both.
I can only send you greetings from a far country.
You know you will never be better than I wish you.
Calcutta, Dec. 10.
Dear Mr. Oliver Twist,—I really don't think I can write longer letters. They seem to me very long indeed. I am not ashamed of their length, but I am ashamed, especially when I read yours, of their dullness and of the poverty-stricken attempt at description. How is it that you can make your little German town fascinating, when I can only make this vast, stupefying India sound dull? It wouldn't sound dull if I were telling you about it by word of mouth. I could make you see it then; but what can a poor uninspired one do with a pen, some ink, and a sheet of paper?
I have been employing a shining hour by paying calls. You must know that in India the new arrival does not sit and wait to be called on, she up and calls first. It is quite simple. You call your carriage—or, if you haven't aspired to a carriage, the humble, useful tikka-gharry—and drive away to the first house on the list, where you ask the durwan at the gate for bokkus. If the lady is not receiving, he brings out a wooden box with the inscription "Mrs. What's-her-name Not at home," you drop in your cards, and drive on to the next. If the box is not out, then the durwan, taking the cards, goes in to ask if his mistress is receiving, and comes back with her salaams, and that means that one has to go in for a few minutes, but it doesn't often happen. The funny part of it is one may have hundreds of people on one's visiting list and not know half of them by sight, because of the convenient system of the "Not-at-home" box.
The men's calling-time is Sunday between twelve and two. Such a ridiculous time! One is certainly not at one's best at that hour. Isn't it the Irish R.M. who talks of that blank time of day when breakfast has died within one and lunch is not yet? I find it, on the whole, entertaining, though somewhat trying; for Boggley, you see, has to be out paying calls on his own account, and so I have to receive my visitors alone. It is quite like a game.
A servant comes in and presents me with a card inscribed with a name unfamiliar, and I, saying something that sounds like "Salaam do," wait breathless for what may appear. A man comes in. We converse.
I begin: "Where will you sit?" (As there are only four chairs in the room, the choice is not extensive.)
THE MAN (seated and twirling his hat): "You have just come out?"
MYSELF: "Yes, in the Scotia." Remarks follow about the voyage.
THE MAN: "What do you think of India?"
MYSELF: "Oh, rather nice, don't you think?"
THE MAN: "Oh, quite a decent place—what?"
Again the servant appears, this time with two cards. Again I murmur the Open Sesame, and two more men appear. No. 1 gets up to go, shakes hands with me in a detached way, and departs, and the same conversation begins again with the new-comers, until they, in their turn, leave when someone else comes in. It seems to be etiquette to go away whenever another visitor arrives. I didn't understand this, and when a man came whom I knew well in my childhood's days and, after a few minutes' stay, got up to depart, I grabbed his hand and said, "Oh, won't you stay and have a talk?" He, very nicely, stayed on, and we did have a delightful talk; but Victor Ormonde, who happened to be present, has never ceased to chaff me about it. When we dine with them and get up to go he says in thrilling accents, with an absurdly sentimental air, "Oh! won't you stay and have a talk?"
I do think India makes very nice men. Almost every man I have met has been delightful in his own way.... I had just written that last sentence when a servant brought in a card inscribed "Colonel Simpson." I got my sunshade and walked round to my sitting-room, where I found a tall, pensive-looking man. Thinking he must be a friend of Boggley's, I held out my hand frankly, and having shaken it, the man went on holding it.
Like Captain Hook, I murmured to myself, "This is unusual," but I tried to conceal my astonishment, and we sat down together on the sofa. Then he began to feel my pulse. By this time I had made up my mind he must be a lunatic, and I had a wild idea of snatching away my hand and making a bound for the window; but feeling that my legs were too weak with fright to be of any real use to me, I remained seated.
"Are you sick?" he asked.
"Not in the least, thank you," I stammered.
A doubtful look flickered over his pensive countenance.
"Are you not my patient?" he asked.
"No," I answered truthfully.
"But—I was sent for to a Mrs. Woodward; this was the address, and I was shown in here."
He was so upset that I hastened to assure him it did not matter in the least; that Mrs. Woodward lived above us, and it was quite, quite all right. But my comforting protestations profited nothing, and the poor man retired in great confusion, murmuring incoherently. If I had seen "doctor" on his card I might have been prepared, but who would expect a Colonel to be a doctor? This confusing India!
This has been a queer day! Nothing but alarums and excursions. G. came to tea and suggested that afterwards we should go for a drive in a tikka-gharry, it being a more amusing mode of conveyance in G's eyes than her sister's elegant carriage. So we drove up and down the Red Road and along the Strand until the darkness came. It rained this morning—the first rain I have seen in this dusty land—making the roads quite muddy and the air damp and cold.
"It's like an evening in England," said G. "Let's get out and walk home." So we told the driver to roko, and G., who had the money to pay him in her hand, got out first; at least I thought she was out, but she had paused, balanced on the step, and my slight push knocked her headlong. How she did it I don't know, but her feet remained in the gharry, while her head was in close conjunction to the horses' hoofs. I suppose astonishment at this feat must have numbed my finer feelings, for G. insists I bounded over her prostrate form, grabbed the money from her hand, and paid the man before I even inquired if she were killed. When I had time to look at her I was glad it was getting dark, and that we were in an unfrequented road. Her white serge costume was mud from head to foot, her hat was squashed out of shape, and even her poor face bore traces of contact with the Red Road. At first she couldn't rise, not because she was hurt, but because she was helpless with laughter. When I did get her on her feet, I found the only injury was a slight cut on the wrist, and great was my relief.