Burmese Days, by George Orwell

Chapter 18

After the row overnight Ellis was looking forward to a week of baiting Flory. He had nicknamed him Nancy — short for nigger’s Nancy Boy, but the women did not know that — and was already inventing wild scandals about him. Ellis always invented scandals about anyone with whom he had quarrelled — scandals which grew, by repeated embroideries, into a species of saga. Flory’s incautious remark that Dr Veraswami was a ‘damned good fellow’ had swelled before long into a whole Daily Worker-ful of blasphemy and sedition.

‘On my honour, Mrs Lackersteen,’ said Ellis — Mrs Lackersteen had taken a sudden dislike to Flory after discovering the great secret about Verrall, and she was quite ready to listen to Ellis’s tales — ‘on my honour, if you’d been there last night and heard the things that man Flory was saying — well, it’d have made you shiver in your shoes!’

‘Really! You know, I always thought he had such CURIOUS ideas. What has he been talking about now? Not SOCIALISM, I hope?’

‘Worse.’

There were long recitals. However, to Ellis’s disappointment, Flory had not stayed in Kyauktada to be baited. He had gone back to camp the day after his dismissal by Elizabeth. Elizabeth heard most of the scandalous tales about him. She understood his character perfectly now. She understood why it was that he had so often bored her and irritated her. He was a highbrow — her deadliest word — a highbrow, to be classed with Lenin, A. J. Cook and the dirty little poets in the Montparnasse cafes. She could have forgiven him even his Burmese mistress more easily than that. Flory wrote to her three days later; a weak, stilted letter, which he sent by hand — his camp was a day’s march from Kyauktada. Elizabeth did not answer.

It was lucky for Flory that at present he was too busy to have time to think. The whole camp was at sixes and sevens since his long absence. Nearly thirty coolies were missing, the sick elephant was worse than ever, and a vast pile of teak logs which should have been sent off ten days earlier were still waiting because the engine would not work. Flory, a fool about machinery, struggled with the bowels of the engine until he was black with grease and Ko S’la told him sharply that white men ought not to do ‘coolie-work’. The engine was finally persuaded to run, or at least to totter. The sick elephant was discovered to be suffering from tapeworms. As for the coolies, they had deserted because their supply of opium had been cut off — they would not stay in the jungle without opium, which they took as a prophylactic against fever. U Po Kyin, willing to do Flory a bad turn, had caused the Excise Officers to make a raid and seize the opium. Flory wrote to Dr Veraswami, asking for his help. The doctor sent back a quantity of opium, illegally procured, medicine for the elephant and a careful letter of instructions. A tapeworm measuring twenty-one feet was extracted. Flory was busy twelve hours a day. In the evening if there was no more to do he would plunge into the jungle and walk and walk until the sweat stung his eyes and his knees were bleeding from the briers. The nights were his bad time. The bitterness of what had happened was sinking into him, as it usually does, by slow degrees.

Meanwhile, several days had passed and Elizabeth had not yet seen Verrall at less than a hundred yards’ distance. It had been a great disappointment when he had not appeared at the Club on the evening of his arrival. Mr Lackersteen was really quite angry when he discovered that he had been hounded into his dinner-jacket for nothing. Next morning Mrs Lackersteen made her husband send an officious note to the dakbungalow, inviting Verrall to the Club; there was no answer, however. More days passed, and Verrall made no move to join in the local society. He had even neglected his official calls, not even bothering to present himself at Mr Macgregor’s office. The dakbungalow was at the other end of the town, near the station, and he had made himself quite comfortable there. There is a rule that one must vacate a dakbungalow after a stated number of days, but Verrall peaceably ignored it. The Europeans only saw him at morning and evening on the maidan. On the second day after his arrival fifty of his men turned out with sickles and cleared a large patch of the maidan, after which Verrall was to be seen galloping to and fro, practising polo strokes. He took not the smallest notice of any Europeans who passed down the road. Westfield and Ellis were furious, and even Mr Macgregor said that Verrall’s behaviour was ‘ungracious’. They would all have fallen at the feet of a lieutenant the Honourable if he had shown the smallest courtesy; as it was, everyone except the two women detested him from the start. It is always so with titled people, they are either adored or hated. If they accept one it is charming simplicity, if they ignore one it is loathsome snobbishness; there are no half-measures.

Verrall was the youngest son of a peer, and not at all rich, but by the method of seldom paying a bill until a writ was issued against him, he managed to keep himself in the only things he seriously cared about: clothes and horses. He had come out to India in a British cavalry regiment, and exchanged into the Indian Army because it was cheaper and left him greater freedom for polo. After two years his debts were so enormous that he entered the Burma Military Police, in which it was notoriously possible to save money; however, he detested Burma — it is no country for a horseman — and he had already applied to go back to his regiment. He was the kind of soldier who can get exchanges when he wants them. Meanwhile, he was only to be in Kyauktada for a month, and he had no intention of mixing himself up with all the petty sahiblog of the district. He knew the society of those small Burma stations — a nasty, poodle-faking, horseless riffraff. He despised them.

They were not the only people whom Verrall despised, however. His various contempts would take a long time to catalogue in detail. He despised the entire non-military population of India, a few famous polo players excepted. He despised the entire Army as well, except the cavalry. He despised all Indian regiments, infantry and cavalry alike. It was true that he himself belonged to a native regiment, but that was only for his own convenience. He took no interest in Indians, and his Urdu consisted mainly of swear-words, with all the verbs in the third person singular. His Military Policemen he looked on as no better than coolies. ‘Christ, what God-forsaken swine!’ he was often heard to mutter as he moved down the ranks inspecting, with the old subahdar carrying his sword behind him. Verrall had even been in trouble once for his outspoken opinions on native troops. It was at a review, and Verrall was among the group of officers standing behind the general. An Indian infantry regiment approached for the march-past.

‘The —— Rifles,’ somebody said.

‘AND look at it,’ said Verrall in his surly boy’s voice.

The white-haired colonel of the —— Rifles was standing near. He flushed to the neck, and reported Verrall to the general. Verrall was reprimanded, but the general, a British Army officer himself, did not rub it in very hard. Somehow, nothing very serious ever did happen to Verrall, however offensive he made himself. Up and down India, wherever he was stationed, he left behind him a trail of insulted people, neglected duties and unpaid bills. Yet the disgraces that ought to have fallen on him never did. He bore a charmed life, and it was not only the handle to his name that saved him. There was something in his eye before which duns, burra memsahibs and even colonels quailed.

It was a disconcerting eye, pale blue and a little protuberant, but exceedingly clear. It looked you over, weighed you in the balance and found you wanting, in a single cold scrutiny of perhaps five seconds. If you were the right kind of man — that is, if you were a cavalry officer and a polo player — Verrall took you for granted and even treated you with a surly respect; if you were any other type of man whatever, he despised you so utterly that he could not have hidden it even if he would. It did not even make any difference whether you were rich or poor, for in the social sense he was not more than normally a snob. Of course, like all sons of rich families, he thought poverty disgusting and that poor people are poor because they prefer disgusting habits. But he despised soft living. Spending, or rather owing, fabulous sums on clothes, he yet lived almost as ascetically as a monk. He exercised himself ceaselessly and brutally, rationed his drink and his cigarettes, slept on a camp bed (in silk pyjamas) and bathed in cold water in the bitterest winter. Horsemanship and physical fitness were the only gods he knew. The stamp of hoofs on the maidan, the strong, poised feeling of his body, wedded centaurlike to the saddle, the polo-stick springy in his hand — these were his religion, the breath of his life. The Europeans in Burma — boozing, womanizing, yellow-faced loafers — made him physically sick when he thought of their habits. As for social duties of all descriptions, he called them poodle-faking and ignored them. Women he abhorred. In his view they were a kind of siren whose one aim was to lure men away from polo and enmesh them in tea-fights and tennis-parties. He was not, however, quite proof against women. He was young, and women of nearly all kinds threw themselves at his head; now and again he succumbed. But his lapses soon disgusted him, and he was too callous when the pinch came to have any difficulty about escaping. He had had perhaps a dozen such escapes during his two years in India.

A whole week went by. Elizabeth had not even succeeded in making Verrall’s acquaintance. It was so tantalizing! Every day, morning and evening, she and her aunt walked down to the Club and back again, past the maidan; and there was Verrall, hitting the polo-balls the sepoys threw for him, ignoring the two women utterly. So near and yet so far! What made it even worse was that neither woman would have considered it decent to speak of the matter directly. One evening the polo-ball, struck too hard, came swishing through the grass and rolled across the road in front of them. Elizabeth and her aunt stopped involuntarily. But it was only a sepoy who ran to fetch the ball. Verrall had seen the women and kept his distance.

Next morning Mrs Lackersteen paused as they came out of the gate. She had given up riding in her rickshaw lately. At the bottom of the maidan the Military Policemen were drawn up, a dust-coloured rank with bayonets glittering. Verrall was facing them, but not in uniform — he seldom put on his uniform for morning parade, not thinking it necessary with mere Military Policemen. The two women were looking at everything except Verrall, and at the same time, in some manner, were contriving to look at him.

‘The wretched thing is,’ said Mrs Lackersteen — this was a propos de bottes, but the subject needed no introduction — ‘the wretched thing is that I’m afraid your uncle simply MUST go back to camp before long.’

‘Must he really?’

‘I’m afraid so. It is so HATEFUL in camp at this time of year! Oh, those mosquitoes!’

‘Couldn’t he stay a bit longer? A week, perhaps?’

‘I don’t see how he can. He’s been nearly a month in headquarters now. The firm would be furious if they heard of it. And of course both of us will have to go with him. SUCH a bore! The mosquitoes — simply terrible!’

Terrible indeed! To have to go away before Elizabeth had so much as said how-do-you-do to Verrall! But they would certainly have to go if Mr Lackersteen went. It would never do to leave him to himself. Satan finds some mischief still, even in the jungle. A ripple like fire ran down the line of sepoys; they were unfixing bayonets before marching away. The dusty rank turned left, saluted, and marched off in columns of fours. The orderlies were coming from the police lines with the ponies and polo-sticks. Mrs Lackersteen took a heroic decision.

‘I think,’ she said, ‘we’ll take a short-cut across the maidan. It’s SO much quicker than going right round by the road.’

It WAS quicker by about fifty yards, but no one ever went that way on foot, because of the grass-seeds that got into one’s stockings. Mrs Lackersteen plunged boldly into the grass, and then, dropping even the pretence of making for the Club, took a bee-line for Verrall, Elizabeth following. Either woman would have died on the rack rather than admit that she was doing anything but take a short-cut. Verrall saw them coming, swore, and reined in his pony. He could not very well cut them dead now that they were coming openly to accost him. The damned cheek of these women! He rode slowly towards them with a sulky expression on his face, chivvying the polo-ball with small strokes.

‘Good morning, Mr Verrall!’ Mrs Lackersteen called out in a voice of saccharine, twenty yards away.

‘Morning!’ he returned surlily, having seen her face and set her down as one of the usual scraggy old boiling-fowls of an Indian station.

The next moment Elizabeth came level with her aunt. She had taken off her spectacles and was swinging her Terai hat on her hand. What did she care for sunstroke? She was perfectly aware of the prettiness of her cropped hair. A puff of wind — oh, those blessed breaths of wind, coming from nowhere in the stifling hot-weather days! — had caught her cotton frock and blown it against her, showing the outline of her body, slender and strong like a tree. Her sudden appearance beside the older, sun-scorched woman was a revelation to Verrall. He started so that the Arab mare felt it and would have reared on her hind legs, and he had to tighten the rein. He had not known until this moment, not having bothered to inquire, that there were any YOUNG women in Kyauktada.

‘My niece,’ Mrs Lackersteen said.

He did not answer, but he had thrown away the polo-stick, and he took off his topi. For a moment he and Elizabeth remained gazing at one another. Their fresh faces were unmarred in the pitiless light. The grass-seeds were tickling Elizabeth’s shins so that it was agony, and without her spectacles she could only see Verrall and his horse as a whitish blur. But she was happy, happy! Her heart bounded and the blood flowed into her face, dyeing it like a thin wash of aquarelle. The thought, ‘A peach, by Christ!’ moved almost fiercely through Verrall’s mind. The sullen Indians, holding the ponies’ heads, gazed curiously at the scene, as though the beauty of the two young people had made its impression even on them.

Mrs Lackersteen broke the silence, which had lasted half a minute.

‘You know, Mr Verrall,’ she said somewhat archly, ‘we think it RATHER unkind of you to have neglected us poor people all this time. When we’re so PINING for a new face at the Club.’

He was still looking at Elizabeth when he answered, but the change in his voice was remarkable.

‘I’ve been meaning to come for some days. Been so fearfully busy — getting my men into their quarters and all that. I’m sorry,’ he added — he was not in the habit of apologizing, but really, he had decided, this girl was rather an exceptional bit of stuff — ‘I’m sorry about not answering your note.’

‘Oh, not at all! We QUITE understood. But we do hope we shall see you at the Club this evening! Because, you know,’ she concluded even more archly, ‘if you disappoint us any longer, we shall begin to think you rather a NAUGHTY young man!’

‘I’m sorry,’ he repeated. ‘I’ll be there this evening.’

There was not much more to be said, and the two women walked on to the Club. But they stayed barely five minutes. The grass-seeds were causing their shins such torment that they were obliged to hurry home and change their stockings at once.

Verrall kept his promise and was at the Club that evening. He arrived a little earlier than the others, and he had made his presence thoroughly felt before being in the place five minutes. As Ellis entered the Club the old butler darted out of the card-room and waylaid him. He was in great distress, the tears rolling down his cheeks.

‘Sir! Sir!’

‘What the devil’s the matter now!’ said Ellis.

‘Sir! Sir! New master been beating me, sir!’

‘What?’

‘BEATING me sir!’ His voice rose on the ‘beating’ with a long tearful wail — ‘be-e-e-eating!’

‘Beating you? Do you good. Who’s been beating you?’

‘New master, sir. Military Police sahib. Beating me with his foot, sir — HERE!’ He rubbed himself behind.

‘Hell!’ said Ellis.

He went into the lounge. Verrall was reading the Field, and invisible except for Palm Beach trouser-ends and two lustrous sooty-brown shoes. He did not trouble to stir at hearing someone else come into the room. Ellis halted.

‘Here, you — what’s your name — Verrall!’

‘What?’

‘Have you been kicking our butler?’

Verrall’s sulky blue eye appeared round the corner of the Field, like the eye of a crustacean peering round a rock.

‘What?’ he repeated shortly.

‘I said, have you been kicking our bloody butler?’

‘Yes.’

‘Then what the hell do you mean by it?’

‘Beggar gave me his lip. I sent him for a whisky and soda, and he brought it warm. I told him to put ice in it, and he wouldn’t — talked some bloody rot about saving the last pieces of ice. So I kicked his bottom. Serve him right.’

Ellis turned quite grey. He was furious. The butler was a piece of Club property and not to be kicked by strangers. But what most angered Ellis was the thought that Verrall quite possibly suspected him of being SORRY for the butler — in fact, of disapproving of kicking AS SUCH.

‘Serve him right? I dare say it bloody well did serve him right. But what in hell’s that got to do with it? Who are YOU to come kicking our servants?’

‘Bosh, my good chap. Needed kicking. You’ve let your servants get out of hand here.’

‘You damned, insolent young tick, what’s it got to do with YOU if he needed kicking? You’re not even a member of this Club. It’s our job to kick the servants, not yours.’

Verrall lowered the Field and brought his other eye into play. His surly voice did not change its tone. He never lost his temper with a European; it was never necessary.

‘My good chap, if anyone gives me lip I kick his bottom. Do you want me to kick yours?’

All the fire went out of Ellis suddenly. He was not afraid, he had never been afraid in his life; only, Verrall’s eye was too much for him. That eye could make you feel as though you were under Niagara! The oaths wilted on Ellis’s lips; his voice almost deserted him. He said querulously and even plaintively:

‘But damn it, he was quite right not to give you the last bit of ice. Do you think we only buy ice for you? We can only get the stuff twice a week in this place.’

‘Rotten bad management on your part, then,’ said Verrall, and retired behind the Field, content to let the matter drop.

Ellis was helpless. The calm way in which Verrall went back to his paper, quite genuinely forgetting Ellis’s existence, was maddening. Should he not give the young swab a good, rousing kick?

But somehow, the kick was never given. Verrall had earned many kicks in his life, but he had never received one and probably never would. Ellis seeped helplessly back to the card-room, to work off his feelings on the butler, leaving Verrall in possession of the lounge.

As Mr Macgregor entered the Club gate he heard the sound of music. Yellow chinks of lantern-light showed through the creeper that covered the tennis-screen. Mr Macgregor was in a happy mood this evening. He had promised himself a good, long talk with Miss Lackersteen — such an exceptionally intelligent girl, that! — and he had a most interesting anecdote to tell her (as a matter of fact, it had already seen the light in one of those little articles of his in Blackwood’s) about a dacoity that had happened in Sagaing in 1913. She would love to hear it, he knew. He rounded the tennis-screen expectantly. On the court, in the mingled light of the waning moon and of lanterns slung among the trees, Verrall and Elizabeth were dancing. The chokras had brought out chairs and a table for the gramophone, and round these the other Europeans were sitting or standing. As Mr Macgregor halted at the corner of the court, Verrall and Elizabeth circled round and glided past him, barely a yard away. They were dancing very close together, her body bent backwards under his. Neither noticed Mr Macgregor.

Mr Macgregor made his way round the court. A chilly, desolate feeling had taken possession of his entrails. Good-bye, then, to his talk with Miss Lackersteen! It was an effort to screw his face into its usual facetious good-humour as he came up to the table.

‘A Terpsichorean evening!’ he remarked in a voice that was doleful in spite of himself.

No one answered. They were all watching the pair on the tennis court. Utterly oblivious of the others, Elizabeth and Verrall glided round and round, round and round, their shoes sliding easily on the slippery concrete. Verrall danced as he rode, with matchless grace. The gramophone was playing ‘Show Me the Way to Go Home,’ which was then going round the world like a pestilence and had got as far as Burma:

‘Show me the way to go home, I’m tired an’ I wanna go to bed; I had a little drink ‘bout an hour ago, An’ it’s gone right TO my head!’ etc.

The dreary, depressing trash floated out among the shadowy trees and the streaming scents of flowers, over and over again, for Mrs Lackersteen was putting the gramophone needle back to the start when it neared the centre. The moon climbed higher, very yellow, looking, as she rose from the murk of dark clouds at the horizon, like a sick woman creeping out of bed. Verrall and Elizabeth danced on and on, indefatigably, a pale voluptuous shape in the gloom. They moved in perfect unison like some single animal. Mr Macgregor, Ellis, Westfield and Mr Lackersteen stood watching them, their hands in their pockets, finding nothing to say. The mosquitoes came nibbling at their ankles. Someone called for drinks, but the whisky was like ashes in their mouths. The bowels of all four older men were twisted with bitter envy.

Verrall did not ask Mrs Lackersteen for a dance, nor, when he and Elizabeth finally sat down, did he take any notice of the other Europeans. He merely monopolized Elizabeth for half an hour more, and then, with a brief good night to the Lackersteens and not a word to anyone else, left the Club. The long dance with Verrall had left Elizabeth in a kind of dream. He had asked her to come out riding with him! He was going to lend her one of his ponies! She never even noticed that Ellis, angered by her behaviour, was doing his best to be openly rude. It was late when the Lackersteens got home, but there was no sleep yet for Elizabeth or her aunt. They were feverishly at work till midnight, shortening a pair of Mrs Lackersteen’s jodhpurs, and letting out the calves, to fit Elizabeth.

‘I hope, dear, you CAN ride a horse?’ said Mrs Lackersteen.

‘Oh, of course! I’ve ridden ever such a lot, at home.’

She had ridden perhaps a dozen times in all, when she was sixteen. No matter, she would manage somehow! She would have ridden a tiger, if Verrall were to accompany her.

When at last the jodhpurs were finished and Elizabeth had tried them on, Mrs Lackersteen sighed to see her. She looked ravishing in jodhpurs, simply ravishing! And to think that in only a day or two they had got to go back to camp, for weeks, months perhaps, leaving Kyauktada and this most DESIRABLE young man! The pity of it! As they moved to go upstairs Mrs Lackersteen paused at the door. It had come into her head to make a great and painful sacrifice. She took Elizabeth by the shoulders and kissed her with a more real affection than she had ever shown.

‘My dear, it would be such a SHAME for you to go away from Kyauktada just now!’

‘It would, rather.’

‘Then I’ll tell you what, dear. We WON’T go back to that horrid jungle! Your uncle shall go alone. You and I shall stay in Kyauktada.’

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/o/orwell/george/o79b/chapter18.html

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