Burmese Days, by George Orwell

Chapter 17

Flory did not see Elizabeth again until he went down to the Club after dinner. He had not, as he might have done, sought her out and demanded an explanation. His face unnerved him when he looked at it in the glass. With the birthmark on one side and the graze on the other it was so woebegone, so hideous, that he dared not show himself by daylight. As he entered the Club lounge he put his hand over his birthmark — pretext, a mosquito bite on the forehead. It would have been more than his nerve was equal to, not to cover his birthmark at such a moment. However, Elizabeth was not there.

Instead, he tumbled into an unexpected quarrel. Ellis and Westfield had just got back from the jungle, and they were sitting drinking, in a sour mood. News had come from Rangoon that the editor of the Burmese Patriot had been given only four months’ imprisonment for his libel against Mr Macregor, and Ellis was working himself up into a rage over this light sentence. As soon as Flory came in Ellis began baiting him with remarks about ‘that little nigger Very-slimy’. At the moment the very thought of quarrelling made Flory yawn, but he answered incautiously, and there was an argument. It grew heated, and after Ellis had called Flory a nigger’s Nancy Boy and Flory had replied in kind, Westfield too lost his temper. He was a good-natured man, but Flory’s Bolshie ideas sometimes annoyed him. He could never understand why, when there was so clearly a right and a wrong opinion about everything, Flory always seemed to delight in choosing the wrong one. He told Flory ‘not to start talking like a damned Hyde Park agitator’, and then read him a snappish little sermon, taking as his text the five chief beatitudes of the pukka sahib, namely:

Keeping up our prestige, The firm hand (without the velvet glove), We white men must hang together, Give them an inch and they’ll take an ell, and Esprit de Corps.

All the while his anxiety to see Elizabeth was so gnawing at Flory’s heart that he could hardly hear what was said to him. Besides, he had heard it all so often, so very often — a hundred times, a thousand times it might be, since his first week in Rangoon, when his burra sahib (an old Scotch gin-soaker and great breeder of racing ponies, afterwards warned off the turf for some dirty business of running the same horse under two different names) saw him take off his topi to pass a native funeral and said to him reprovingly: ‘Remember laddie, always remember, we are sahiblog and they are dirrt!’ It sickened him, now, to have to listen to such trash. So he cut Westfield short by saying blasphemously:

‘Oh, shut up! I’m sick of the subject. Veraswami’s a damned good fellow — a damned sight better than some white men I can think of. Anyway, I’m going to propose his name for the Club when the general meeting comes. Perhaps he’ll liven this bloody place up a bit.’

Whereat the row would have become serious if it had not ended as most rows ended at the Club — with the appearance of the butler, who had heard the raised voices.

‘Did master call, sir?’

‘No. Go to hell,’ said Ellis morosely.

The butler retired, but that was the end of the dispute for the time being. At this moment there were footsteps and voices outside; the Lackersteens were arriving at the Club.

When they entered the lounge, Flory could not even nerve himself to look directly at Elizabeth; but he noticed that all three of them were much more smartly dressed than usual. Mr Lackersteen was even wearing a dinner-jacket — white, because of the season — and was completely sober. The boiled shirt and pique waistcoat seemed to hold him upright and stiffen his moral fibre like a breastplate. Mrs Lackersteen looked handsome and serpentine in a red dress. In some indefinable way all three gave the impression that they were waiting to receive some distinguished guest.

When drinks had been called for, and Mrs Lackersteen had usurped the place under the punkah, Flory took a chair on the outside of the group. He dared not accost Elizabeth yet. Mrs Lackersteen had begun talking in an extraordinary, silly manner about the dear Prince of Wales, and putting on an accent like a temporarily promoted chorus-girl playing the part of a duchess in a musical comedy. The others wondered privately what the devil was the matter with her. Flory had stationed himself almost behind Elizabeth. She was wearing a yellow frock, cut very short as the fashion then was, with champagne-coloured stockings and slippers to match, and she carried a big ostrich-feather fan. She looked so modish, so adult, that he feared her more than he had ever done. It was unbelievable that he had ever kissed her. She was talking easily to all the others at once, and now and again he dared to put a word into the general conversation; but she never answered him directly, and whether or not she meant to ignore him, he could not tell.

‘Well,’ said Mrs Lackersteen presently, ‘and who’s for a rubbah?’

She said quite distinctly a ‘rubbah’. Her accent was growing more aristocratic with every word she uttered. It was unaccountable. It appeared that Ellis, Westfield and Mr Lackersteen were for a ‘rubbah’. Flory refused as soon as he saw that Elizabeth was not playing. Now or never was his chance to get her alone. When they all moved for the card-room, he saw with a mixture of fear and relief that Elizabeth came last. He stopped in the doorway, barring her path. He had turned dreadly pale. She shrank from him a little.

‘Excuse me,’ they both said simultaneously.

‘One moment,’ he said, and do what he would his voice trembled. ‘May I speak to you? You don’t mind — there’s something I must say.’

‘Will you please let me pass, Mr Flory?’

‘Please! Please! We’re alone now. You won’t refuse just to let me speak?’

‘What is it, then?’

‘It’s only this. Whatever I’ve done to offend you — please tell me what it is. Tell me and let me put it right. I’d sooner cut my hand off than offend you. Just tell me, don’t let me go on not even knowing what it is.’

‘I really don’t know what you’re talking about. “Tell you how you’ve offended me?” Why should you have OFFENDED me?’

‘But I must have! After the way you behaved!’

‘“After the way I behaved?” I don’t know what you mean. I don’t know why you’re talking in this extraordinary way at all.’

‘But you won’t even speak to me! This morning you cut me absolutely dead.’

‘Surely I can do as I like without being questioned?’

‘But please, please! Don’t you see, you must see, what it’s like for me to be snubbed all of a sudden. After all, only last night you — ’

She turned pink. ‘I think it’s absolutely — absolutely caddish of you to mention such things!’

‘I know, I know. I know all that. But what else can I do? You walked past me this morning as though I’d been a stone. I know that I’ve offended you in some way. Can you blame me if I want to know what it is that I’ve done?’

He was, as usual, making it worse with every word he said. He perceived that whatever he had done, to be made to speak of it seemed to her worse than the thing itself. She was not going to explain. She was going to leave him in the dark — snub him and then pretend that nothing had happened; the natural feminine move. Nevertheless he urged her again:

‘Please tell me. I can’t let everything end between us like this.’

‘“End between us”? There was nothing to end,’ she said coldly.

The vulgarity of this remark wounded him, and he said quickly:

‘That wasn’t like you, Elizabeth! It’s not generous to cut a man dead after you’ve been kind to him, and then refuse even to tell him the reason. You might be straightforward with me. Please tell me what it is that I’ve done.’

She gave him an oblique, bitter look, bitter not because of what he had done, but because he had made her speak of it. But perhaps she was anxious to end the scene, and she said:

‘Well then, if you absolutely force me to speak of it — ’

‘Yes?’

‘I’m told that at the very same time as you were pretending to — well, when you were . . . with me — oh, it’s too beastly! I can’t speak of it.’

‘Go on.’

‘I’m told that you’re keeping a Burmese woman. And now, will you please let me pass?’

With that she sailed — there was no other possible word for it — she sailed past him with a swish of her short skirts, and vanished into the card-room. And he remained looking after her, too appalled to speak, and looking unutterably ridiculous.

It was dreadful. He could not face her after that. He turned to hurry out of the Club, and then dared not even pass the door of the card-room, lest she should see him. He went into the lounge, wondering how to escape, and finally climbed over the veranda rail and dropped on to the small square of lawn that ran down to the Irrawaddy. The sweat was running from his forehead. He could have shouted with anger and distress. The accursed luck of it! To be caught out over a thing like that. ‘Keeping a Burmese woman’ — and it was not even true! But much use it would ever be to deny it. Ah, what damned, evil chance could have brought it to her ears?

But as a matter of fact, it was no chance. It had a perfectly sound cause, which was also the cause of Mrs Lackersteen’s curious behaviour at the Club this evening. On the previous night, just before the earthquake, Mrs Lackersteen had been reading the Civil List. The Civil List (which tells you the exact income of every official in Burma) was a source of inexhaustible interest to her. She was in the middle of adding up the pay and allowances of a Conservator of Forests whom she had once met in Mandalay, when it occurred to her to look up the name of Lieutenant Verrall, who, she had heard from Mr Macregor, was arriving at Kyauktada tomorrow with a hundred Military Policemen. When she found the name, she saw in front of it two words that startled her almost out of her wits.

The words were ‘The Honourable’!

The HONOURABLE! Lieutenants the Honourable are rare anywhere, rare as diamonds in the Indian Army, rare as dodos in Burma. And when you are the aunt of the only marriageable young woman within fifty miles, and you hear that a lieutenant the Honourable is arriving no later than tomorrow — well! With dismay Mrs Lackersteen remembered that Elizabeth was out in the garden with Flory — that drunken wretch Flory, whose pay was barely seven hundred rupees a month, and who, it was only too probable, was already proposing to her! She hastened immediately to call Elizabeth inside, but at this moment the earthquake intervened. However, on the way home there was an opportunity to speak. Mrs Lackersteen laid her hand affectionately on Elizabeth’s arm and said in the tenderest voice she had ever succeeded in producing:

‘Of course you know, Elizabeth dear, that Flory is keeping a Burmese woman?’

For a moment this deadly charge actually failed to explode. Elizabeth was so new to the ways of the country that the remark made no impression on her. It sounded hardly more significant than ‘keeping a parrot’.

‘Keeping a Burmese woman? What for?’

‘What FOR? My dear! what DOES a man keep a woman for?’

And, of course, that was that.

For a long time Flory remained standing by the river bank. The moon was up, mirrored in the water like a broad shield of electron. The coolness of the outer air had changed Flory’s mood. He had not even the heart to be angry any longer. For he had perceived, with the deadly self-knowledge and self-loathing that come to one at such a time, that what had happened served him perfectly right. For a moment it seemed to him that an endless procession of Burmese women, a regiment of ghosts, were marching past him in the moonlight. Heavens, what numbers of them! A thousand — no, but a full hundred at the least. ‘Eyes right!’ he thought despondently. Their heads turned towards him, but they had no faces, only featureless discs. He remembered a blue longyi here, a pair of ruby ear-rings there, but hardly a face or a name. The gods are just and of our pleasant vices (pleasant, indeed!) make instruments to plague us. He had dirtied himself beyond redemption, and this was his just punishment.

He made his way slowly through the croton bushes and round the clubhouse. He was too saddened to feel the full pain of the disaster yet. It would begin hurting, as all deep wounds do, long afterwards. As he passed through the gate something stirred the leaves behind him. He started. There was a whisper of harsh Burmese syllables.

‘Pike-san pay-like! Pike-san pay-like!’

He turned sharply. The ‘pike-san pay-like’ (‘Give me the money’) was repeated. He saw a woman standing under the shadow of the gold mohur tree. It was Ma Hla May. She stepped out into the moonlight warily, with a hostile air, keeping her distance as though afraid that he would strike her. Her face was coated with powder, sickly white in the moon, and it looked as ugly as a skull, and defiant.

She had given him a shock. ‘What the devil are you doing here?’ he said angrily in English.

‘Pike-san pay-like!’

‘What money? What do you mean? Why are you following me about like this?’

‘Pike-san pay-like!’ she repeated almost in a scream. ‘The money you promised me, thakin. You said you would give me more money. I want it now, this instant!’

‘How can I give it you now? You shall have it next month. I have given you a hundred and fifty rupees already.’

To his alarm she began shrieking ‘Pike-san pay-like!’ and a number of similar phrases almost at the top of her voice. She seemed on the verge of hysterics. The volume of noise that she produced was startling.

‘Be quiet! They’ll hear you in the Club!’ he exclaimed, and was instantly sorry for putting the idea into her head.

‘Aha! NOW I know what will frighten you! Give me the money this instant, or I will scream for help and bring them all out here. Quick, now, or I begin screaming!’

‘You bitch!’ he said, and took a step towards her. She sprang nimbly out of reach, whipped off her slipper, and stood defying him.

‘Be quick! Fifty rupees now and the rest tomorrow. Out with it! Or I give a scream they can hear as far as the bazaar!’

Flory swore. This was not the time for such a scene. Finally he took out his pocket-book, found twenty-five rupees in it, and threw them on to the ground. Ma Hla May pounced on the notes and counted them.

‘I said fifty rupees, thakin!’

‘How can I give it you if I haven’t got it? Do you think I carry hundreds of rupees about with me?’

‘I said fifty rupees!’

‘Oh, get out of my way!’ he said in English, and pushed past her.

But the wretched woman would not leave him alone. She began to follow him up the road like a disobedient dog, screaming out ‘Pike-san pay-like! Pike-san pay-like!’ as though mere noise could bring the money into existence. He hurried, partly to draw her away from the Club, partly in hopes of shaking her off, but she seemed ready to follow him as far as the house if necessary. After a while he could not stand it any longer, and he turned to drive her back.

‘Go away this instant! If you follow me any farther you shall never have another anna.’

‘Pike-san pay-like!’

‘You fool,’ he said, ‘what good is this doing? How can I give you the money when I have not another pice on me?’

‘That is a likely story!’

He felt helplessly in his pockets. He was so wearied that he would have given her anything to be rid of her. His fingers encountered his cigarette-case, which was of gold. He took it out.

‘Here, if I give you this will you go away? You can pawn it for thirty rupees.’

Ma Hla May seemed to consider, then said sulkily, ‘Give it me.’

He threw the cigarette-case on to the grass beside the road. She grabbed it and immediately sprang back clutching it to her ingyi, as though afraid that he would take it away again. He turned and made for the house, thanking God to be out of the sound of her voice. The cigarette-case was the same one that she had stolen ten days ago.

At the gate he looked back. Ma Hla May was still standing at the bottom of the hill, a greyish figurine in the moonlight. She must have watched him up the hill like a dog watching a suspicious stranger out of sight. It was queer. The thought crossed his mind, as it had a few days earlier when she sent him the blackmailing letter, that her behaviour had been curious and unlike herself. She was showing a tenacity of which he would never have thought her capable — almost, indeed, as though someone else were egging her on.

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 20:48