Burmese Days, by George Orwell

Chapter 21

O western wind, when wilt thou blow, that the small rain down can rain? It was the first of June, the day of the general meeting, and there had not been a drop of rain yet. As Flory came up the Club path the sun of afternoon, slanting beneath his hat-brim, was still savage enough to scorch his neck uncomfortably. The mali staggered along the path, his breast-muscles slippery with sweat, carrying two kerosene-tins of water on a yoke. He dumped them down, slopping a little water over his lank brown feet, and salaamed to Flory.

‘Well, mali, is the rain coming?’

The man gestured vaguely towards the west. ‘The hills have captured it, sahib.’

Kyauktada was ringed almost round by hills, and these caught the earlier showers, so that sometimes no rain fell till almost the end of June. The earth of the flower-beds, hoed into large untidy lumps, looked grey and hard as concrete. Flory went into the lounge and found Westfield loafing by the veranda, looking out over the river, for the chicks had been rolled up. At the foot of the veranda a chokra lay on his back in the sun, pulling the punkah rope with his heel and shading his face with a broad strip of banana leaf.

‘Hullo, Flory! You’ve got thin as a rake.’

‘So’ve you.’

‘H’m, yes. Bloody weather. No appetite except for booze. Christ, won’t I be glad when I hear the frogs start croaking. Let’s have a spot before the others come. Butler!’

‘Do you know who’s coming to the meeting?’ Flory said, when the butler had brought whisky and tepid soda.

‘Whole crowd, I believe. Lackersteen got back from camp three days ago. By God, that man’s been having the time of his life away from his missus! My inspector was telling me about the goings-on at his camp. Tarts by the score. Must have imported ‘em specially from Kyauktada. He’ll catch it all right when the old woman sees his Club bill. Eleven bottles of whisky sent out to his camp in a fortnight.’

‘Is young Verrall coming?’

‘No, he’s only a temporary member. Not that he’d trouble to come anyway, young tick. Maxwell won’t be here either. Can’t leave camp just yet, he says. He sent word Ellis was to speak for him if there’s any voting to be done. Don’t suppose there’ll be anything to vote about, though eh?’ he added, looking at Flory obliquely, for both of them remembered their previous quarrel on this subject.

‘I suppose it lies with Macgregor.’

‘What I mean is, Macgregor’ll have dropped that bloody rot about electing a native member, eh? Not the moment for it just now. After the rebellion and all that.’

‘What about the rebellion, by the way?’ said Flory. He did not want to start wrangling about the doctor’s election yet. There was going to be trouble and to spare in a few minutes. ‘Any more news — are they going to have another try, do you think?’

‘No. All over, I’m afraid. They caved in like the funks they are. The whole district’s as quiet as a bloody girls’ school. Most disappointing.’

Flory’s heart missed a beat. He had heard Elizabeth’s voice in the next room. Mr Macgregor came in at this moment, Ellis and Mr Lackersteen following. This made up the full quota, for the women members of the Club had no votes. Mr Macgregor was already dressed in a silk suit, and was carrying the Club account books under his arm. He managed to bring a sub-official air even into such petty business as a Club meeting.

‘As we seem to be all here,’ he said after the usual greetings, ‘shall we — ah — proceed with our labours?’

‘Lead on, Macduff,’ said Westfield, sitting down.

‘Call the butler, someone, for Christ’s sake,’ said Mr Lackersteen. ‘I daren’t let my missus hear me calling him.’

‘Before we apply ourselves to the agenda,’ said Mr Macgregor when he had refused a drink and the others had taken one, ‘I expect you will want me to run through the accounts for the half-year?’

They did not want it particularly, but Mr Macgregor, who enjoyed this kind of thing, ran through the accounts with great thoroughness. Flory’s thoughts were wandering. There was going to be such a row in a moment — oh, such a devil of a row! They would be furious when they found that he was proposing the doctor after all. And Elizabeth was in the next room. God send she didn’t hear the noise of the row when it came. It would make her despise him all the more to see the others baiting him. Would he see her this evening? Would she speak to him? He gazed across the quarter-mile of gleaming river. By the far bank a knot of men, one of them wearing a green gaungbaung, were waiting beside a sampan. In the channel, by the nearer bank, a huge, clumsy Indian barge struggled with desperate slowness against the racing current. At each stroke the ten rowers, Dravidian starvelings, ran forward and plunged their long primitive oars, with heart-shaped blades, into the water. They braced their meagre bodies, then tugged, writhed, strained backwards like agonized creatures of black rubber, and the ponderous hull crept onwards a yard or two. Then the rowers sprang forward, panting, to plunge their oars again before the current should check her.

‘And now,’ said Mr Macgregor more gravely, ‘we come to the main point of the agenda. That, of course, is this — ah — distasteful question, which I am afraid must be faced, of electing a native member to this Club. When we discussed the matter before — ’

‘What the hell!’

It was Ellis who had interrupted. He was so excited that he had sprung to his feet.

‘What the hell! Surely we aren’t starting THAT over again? Talk about electing a damned nigger so this Club, after everything that’s happened! Good God, I thought even Flory had dropped it by this time!’

‘Our friend Ellis appears surprised. The matter has been discussed before, I believe.’

‘I should think it damned well was discussed before! And we all said what we thought of it. By God — ’

‘If our friend Ellis will sit down for a few moments — ’ said Mr Macgregor tolerantly.

Ellis threw himself into his chair again, exclaiming, ‘Bloody rubbish!’ Beyond the river Flory could see the group of Burmans embarking. They were lifting a long, awkward-shaped bundle into the sampan. Mr Macregor had produced a letter from his file of papers.

‘Perhaps I had better explain how this question arose in the first place. The Commissioner tells me that a circular has been sent round by the Government, suggesting that in those Clubs where there are no native members, one at least shall be co-opted; that is, admitted automatically. The circular says — ah yes! here it is: “It is mistaken policy to offer social affronts to native officials of high standing.” I may say that I disagree most emphatically. No doubt we all do. We who have to do the actual work of government see things very differently from these — ah — Paget M.P.s who interfere with us from above. The Commissioner quite agrees with me. However — ’

‘But it’s all bloody rot!’ broke in Ellis. ‘What’s it got to do with the Commissioner or anyone else? Surely we can do as we like in our own bloody Club? They’ve no right to dictate to us when we’re off duty.’

‘Quite,’ said Westfield.

‘You anticipate me. I told the Commissioner that I should have to put the matter before the other members. And the course he suggests is this. If the idea finds any support in the Club, he thinks it would be better if we co-opted our native member. On the other hand, if the entire Club is against it, it can be dropped. That is, if opinion is quite unanimous.’

‘Well, it damned well is unanimous,’ said Ellis.

‘D’you mean,’ said Westfield, ‘that it depends on ourselves whether we have ‘em in here or no?’

‘I fancy we can take it as meaning that.’

‘Well, then, let’s say we’re against it to a man.’

‘And say it bloody firmly, by God. We want to put our foot down on this idea once and for all.’

‘Hear, hear!’ said Mr Lackersteen gruffly. ‘Keep the black swabs out of it. Esprit de corps and all that.’

Mr Lackersteen could always be relied upon for sound sentiments in a case like this. In his heart he did not care and never had cared a damn for the British Raj, and he was as happy drinking with an Oriental as with a white man; but he was always ready with a loud ‘Hear, hear!’ when anyone suggested the bamboo for disrespectful servants or boiling oil for Nationalists. He prided himself that though he might booze a bit and all that, dammit, he WAS loyal. It was his form of respectability. Mr Macgregor was secretly rather relieved by the general agreement. If any Oriental member were co-opted, that member would have to be Dr Veraswami, and he had had the deepest distrust of the doctor ever since Nga Shwe O’s suspicious escape from the jail.

‘Then I take it that you are all agreed?’ he said. ‘If so, I will inform the Commissioner. Otherwise, we must begin discussing the candidate for election.’

Flory stood up. He had got to say his say. His heart seemed to have risen into his throat and to be choking him. From what Mr Macgregor had said, it was clear that it was in his power to secure the doctor’s election by speaking the word. But oh, what a bore, what a nuisance it was! What an infernal uproar there would be! How he wished he had never given the doctor that promise! No matter, he had given it, and he could not break it. So short a time ago he would have broken it, en bon pukka sahib, how easily! But not now. He had got to see this thing through. He turned himself sidelong so that his birthmark was away from the others. Already he could feel his voice going flat and guilty.

‘Our friend Flory has something to suggest?’

‘Yes. I propose Dr Veraswami as a member of this Club.’

There was such a yell of dismay from three of the others that Mr Macgregor had to rap sharply on the table and remind them that the ladies were in the next room. Ellis took not the smallest notice. He had sprung to his feet again, and the skin round his nose had gone quite grey. He and Flory remained facing one another, as though on the point of blows.

‘Now, you damned swab, will you take that back?’

‘No, I will not.’

‘You oily swine! You nigger’s Nancy Boy! You crawling, sneaking, — bloody bastard!’

‘Order!’ exclaimed Mr Macgregor.

‘But look at him, look at him!’ cried Ellis almost tearfully. ‘Letting us all down for the sake of a pot-bellied nigger! After all we’ve said to him! When we’ve only got to hang together and we can keep the stink of garlic out of this Club for ever. My God, wouldn’t it make you spew your guts up to see anyone behaving like such a —?’

‘Take it back, Flory, old man!’ said Westfield. ‘Don’t be a bloody fool!’

‘Downright Bolshevism, dammit!’ said Mr Lackersteen.

‘Do you think I care what you say? What business is it of yours? It’s for Macgregor to decide.’

‘Then do you — ah — adhere to your decision?’ said Mr Macgregor gloomily.

‘Yes.’

Mr Macgregor sighed. ‘A pity! Well, in that case I suppose I have no choice — ’

‘No, no, no!’ cried Ellis, dancing about in his rage. ‘Don’t give in to him! Put it to the vote. And if that son of a bitch doesn’t put in a black ball like the rest of us, we’ll first turf him out of the Club himself, and then — well! Butler!’

‘Sahib!’ said the butler, appearing.

‘Bring the ballot box and the balls. Now clear out!’ he added roughly when the butler had obeyed.

The air had gone very stagnant; for some reason the punkah had stopped working. Mr Macgregor stood up with a disapproving but judicial mien, taking the two drawers of black and white balls out of the ballot box.

‘We must proceed in order. Mr Flory proposes Dr Veraswami, the Civil Surgeon, as a member of this Club. Mistaken, in my opinion, greatly mistaken; however —! Before putting the matter to the vote — ’

‘Oh, why make a song and dance about it?’ said Ellis. ‘Here’s my contribution! And another for Maxwell.’ He plumped two black balls into the box. Then one of his sudden spasms of rage seized him, and he took the drawer of white balls and pitched them across the floor. They went flying in all directions. ‘There! Now pick one up if you want to use it!’

‘You damned fool! What good do you think that does?’

‘Sahib!’

They all started and looked round. The chokra was goggling at them over the veranda rail, having climbed up from below. With one skinny arm he clung to the rail and with the other gesticulated towards the river.

‘Sahib! Sahib!’

‘What’s up?’ said Westfield.

They all moved for the window. The sampan that Flory had seen across the river was lying under the bank at the foot of the lawn, one of the men clinging to a bush to steady it. The Burman in the green gaungbaung was climbing out.

‘That’s one of Maxwell’s Forest Rangers!’ said Ellis in quite a different voice. ‘By God! something’s happened!’

The Forest Ranger saw Mr Macgregor, shikoed in a hurried, preoccupied way and turned back to the sampan. Four other men, peasants, climbed out after him, and with difficulty lifted ashore the strange bundle that Flory had seen in the distance. It was six feet long, swathed in cloths, like a mummy. Something happened in everybody’s entrails. The Forest Ranger glanced at the veranda, saw that there was no way up, and led the peasants round the path to the front of the Club. They had hoisted the bundle on to their shoulders as funeral bearers hoist a coffin. The butler had flitted into the lounge again, and even his face was pale after its fashion — that is, grey.

‘Butler!’ said Mr Macgregor sharply.

‘Sir!’

‘Go quickly and shut the door of the card-room. Keep it shut. Don’t let the memsahibs see.’

‘Yes, sir!’

The Burmans, with their burden, came heavily down the passage. As they entered the leading man staggered and almost fell; he had trodden on one of the white balls that were scattered about the floor. The Burmans knelt down, lowered their burden to the floor and stood over it with a strange reverent air, slightly bowing, their hands together in a shiko. Westfield had fallen on his knees, and he pulled back the cloth.

‘Christ! Just look at him!’ he said, but without much surprise. ‘Just look at the poor little b —!’

Mr Lackersteen had retreated to the other end of the room, with a bleating noise. From the moment when the bundle was lifted ashore they had all known what it contained. It was the body of Maxwell, cut almost to pieces with dahs by two relatives of the man whom he had shot.

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