Burmese Days, by George Orwell

Chapter 23

Next day the town was quieter than a cathedral city on Monday morning. It is usually the case after a riot. Except for the handful of prisoners, everyone who could possibly have been concerned in the attack on the Club had a watertight alibi. The Club garden looked as though a herd of bison had stampeded across it, but the houses had not been plundered, and there were no new casualties among the Europeans, except that after everything was over Mr Lackersteen had been found very drunk under the billiard-table, where he had retired with a bottle of whisky. Westfield and Verrall came back early in the morning, bringing Maxwell’s murderers under arrest; or at any rate, bringing two people who would presently be hanged for Maxwell’s murder. Westfield, when he heard the news of the riot, was gloomy but resigned. AGAIN it happened — a veritable riot, and he not there to quell it! It seemed fated that he should never kill a man. Depressing, depressing. Verrall’s only comment was that it had been ‘damned lip’ on the part of Flory (a civilian) to give orders to the Military Police.

Meanwhile, it was raining almost without cease. As soon as he woke up and heard the rain hammering on the roof Flory dressed and hurried out, Flo following. Out of sight of the houses he took off his clothes and let the rain sluice down on his bare body. To his surprise, he found that he was covered with bruises from last night; but the rain had washed away every trace of his prickly heat within three minutes. It is wonderful, the healing power of rainwater. Flory walked down to Dr Veraswami’s house, with his shoes squelching and periodical jets of water flowing down his neck from the brim of his Terai hat. The sky was leaden, and innumerable whirling storms chased one another across the maidan like squadrons of cavalry. Burmans passed, under vast wooden hats in spite of which their bodies streamed water like the bronze gods in the fountains. A network of rivulets was already washing the stones of the road bare. The doctor had just got home when Flory arrived, and was shaking a wet umbrella over the veranda rail. He hailed Flory excitedly.

‘Come up, Mr Flory, come up at once! You are just apropos. I was on the point of opening a bottle of Old Tommy Gin. Come up and let me drink to your health, ass the saviour of Kyauktada!’

They had a long talk together. The doctor was in a triumphant mood. It appeared that what had happened last night had righted his troubles almost miraculously. U Po Kyin’s schemes were undone. The doctor was no longer at his mercy — in fact, it was the other way about. The doctor explained to Flory:

‘You see, my friend, this riot — or rather, your most noble behaviour in it — wass quite outside U Po Kyin’s programme. He had started the SO-CALLED rebellion and had the glory of crushing it, and he calculated that any further outbreak would simply mean more glory still. I am told that when he heard of Mr Maxwell’s death, hiss joy was positively’ — the doctor nipped his thumb and forefinger together — ‘what iss the word I want?’

‘Obscene?’

‘Ah yes. Obscene. It iss said that actually he attempted to dance — can you imagine such a disgusting spectacle? — and exclaimed, “Now at least they will take my rebellion seriously!” Such iss his regard for human life. But now hiss triumph iss at an end. The riot hass tripped up in mid-career.’

‘How?’

‘Because, do you not see, the honours of the riot are not hiss, but yours! And I am known to be your friend. I stand, so to speak, in the reflection of your glory. Are you not the hero of the hour? Did not your European friends receive you with open arms when you returned to the Club last night?’

‘They did, I must admit. It was quite a new experience for me. Mrs Lackersteen was all over me. “DEAR Mr Flory”, she calls me now. And she’s got her knife properly in Ellis. She hasn’t forgotten that he called her a bloody hag and told her to stop squealing like a pig.’

‘Ah, Mr Ellis iss sometimes over-emphatic in hiss expressions. I have noticed it.’

‘The only fly in the ointment is that I told the police to fire over the crowd’s heads instead of straight at them. It seems that’s against all the Government regulations. Ellis was a little vexed about it. “Why didn’t you plug some of the b — s when you had the chance?” he said. I pointed out that it would have meant hitting the police who were in the middle of the crowd; but as he said, they were only niggers anyway. However, all my sins are forgiven me. And Macgregor quoted something in Latin — Horace, I believe.’

It was half an hour later when Flory walked along to the Club. He had promised to see Mr Macgregor and settle the business of the doctor’s election. But there would be no difficulty about it now. The others would eat out of his hand until the absurd riot was forgotten; he could have gone into the Club and made a speech in favour of Lenin, and they would have put up with it. The lovely rain streamed down, drenching him from head to foot, and filling his nostrils with the scent of earth, forgotten during the bitter months of drought. He walked up the wrecked garden, where the mali, bending down with the rain splashing on his bare back, was trowelling holes for zinnias. Nearly all the flowers had been trampled out of existence. Elizabeth was there, on the side veranda, almost as though she were waiting for him. He took off his hat, spilling a pool of water from the brim, and went round to join her.

‘Good morning!’ he said, raising his voice because of the rain that beat noisily on the low roof.

‘Good morning! ISN’T it coming down? Simply PELTING!’

‘Oh, this isn’t real rain. You wait till July. The whole Bay of Bengal is going to pour itself on us, by instalments.’

It seemed that they must never meet without talking of the weather. Nevertheless, her face said something very different from the banal words. Her demeanour had changed utterly since last night. He took courage.

‘How is the place where that stone hit you?’

She held her arm out to him and let him take it. Her air was gentle, even submissive. He realized that his exploit of last night had made him almost a hero in her eyes. She could not know how small the danger had really been, and she forgave him everything, even Ma Hla May, because he had shown courage at the right moment. It was the buffalo and the leopard over again. His heart thumped in his breast. He slipped his hand down her arm and clasped her fingers in his own.

‘Elizabeth — ’

‘Someone will see us!’ she said, and she withdrew her hand, but not angrily.

‘Elizabeth, I’ve something I want to say to you. Do you remember a letter I wrote you from the jungle, after our — some weeks ago?’

‘Yes.’

‘You remember what I said in it?’

‘Yes. I’m sorry I didn’t answer it. Only — ’

‘I couldn’t expect you to answer it, then. But I just wanted to remind you of what I said.’

In the letter, of course, he had only said, and feebly enough, that he loved her — would always love her, no matter what happened. They were standing face to face, very close together. On an impulse — and it was so swiftly done that afterwards he had difficulty in believing that it had ever happened — he took her in his arms and drew her towards him. For a moment she yielded and let him lift up her face and kiss her; then suddenly she recoiled and shook her head. Perhaps she was frightened that someone would see them, perhaps it was only because his moustache was so wet from the rain. Without saying anything more she broke from him and hurried away into the Club. There was a look of distress or compunction in her face; but she did not seem angry.

He followed her more slowly into the Club, and ran into Mr Macgregor, who was in a very good humour. As soon as he saw Flory he boomed genially, ‘Aha! The conquering hero comes!’ and then, in a more serious vein, offered him fresh congratulations. Flory improved the occasion by saying a few words on behalf of the doctor. He painted quite a lively picture of the doctor’s heroism in the riot. ‘He was right in the middle of the crowd, fighting like a tiger,’ etc., etc. It was not too much exaggerated — for the doctor had certainly risked his life. Mr Macgregor was impressed, and so were the others when they heard of it. At all times the testimony of one European can do an Oriental more good than that of a thousand of his fellow countrymen; and at this moment Flory’s opinion carried weight. Practically, the doctor’s good name was restored. His election to the Club could be taken as assured.

However, it was not finally agreed upon yet, because Flory was returning to camp. He set out the same evening, marching by night, and he did not see Elizabeth again before leaving. It was quite safe to travel in the jungle now, for the futile rebellion was obviously finished. There is seldom any talk of rebellion after the rains have started — the Burmans are too busy ploughing, and in any case the waterlogged fields are impassable for large bodies of men. Flory was to return to Kyauktada in ten days, when the padre’s six-weekly visit fell due. The truth was that he did not care to be in Kyauktada while both Elizabeth and Verrall were there. And yet, it was strange, but all the bitterness — all the obscene, crawling envy that had tormented him before — was gone now that he knew she had forgiven him. It was only Verrall who stood between them now. And even the thought of her in Verrall’s arms could hardly move him, because he knew that at the worst the affair must have an end. Verrall, it was quite certain, would never marry Elizabeth; young men of Verrall’s stamp do not marry penniless girls met casually at obscure Indian stations. He was only amusing himself with Elizabeth. Presently he would desert her, and she would return to him — to Flory. It was enough — it was far better than he had hoped. There is a humility about genuine love that is rather horrible in some ways.

U Po Kyin was furiously angry. The miserable riot had taken him unawares, so far as anything ever took him unawares, and it was like a handful of grit thrown into the machinery of his plans. The business of disgracing the doctor had got to be begun all over again. Begun it was, sure enough, with such a spate of anonymous letters that Hla Pe had to absent himself from office for two whole days — it was bronchitis this time — to get them written. The doctor was accused of every crime from pederasty to stealing Government postage stamps. The prison warder who had let Nga Shwe O escape had now come up for trial. He was triumphantly acquitted, U Po Kyin having spent as much as two hundred rupees in bribing the witnesses. More letters showered up on Mr Macgregor, proving in detail that Dr Veraswami, the real author of the escape, had tried to shift the blame on to a helpless subordinate. Nevertheless, the results were disappointing. The confidential letter which Mr Macgregor wrote to the Commissioner, reporting on the riot, was steamed open, and its tone was so alarming — Mr Macgregor had spoken of the doctor as ‘behaving most creditably’ on the night of the riot — that U Po Kyin called a council of war.

‘The time has come for a vigorous move,’ he said to the others — they were in conclave on the front veranda, before breakfast. Ma Kin was there, and Ba Sein and Hla Pe — the latter a bright-faced, promising boy of eighteen, with the manner of one who will certainly succeed in life.

‘We are hammering against a brick wall,’ U Po Kyin continued; ‘and that wall is Flory. Who could have foreseen that that miserable coward would stand by his friend? However, there it is. So long as Veraswami has his backing, we are helpless.’

‘I have been talking to the Club butler, sir,’ said Ba Sein. ‘He tells me that Mr Ellis and Mr Westfield still do not want the doctor to be elected to the Club. Do you not think they will quarrel with Flory again as soon as this business of the riot is forgotten?’

‘Of course they will quarrel, they always quarrel. But in the meantime the harm is done. Just suppose that man WERE elected! I believe I should die of rage if it happened. No, there is only one move left. We must strike at Flory himself!’

‘At Flory, sir! But he is a white man!’

‘What do I care? I have ruined white men before now. Once let Flory be disgraced, and there is an end of the doctor. And he shall be disgraced! I will shame him so that he will never dare show his face in that Club again!’

‘But, sir! A white man! What are we to accuse him of? Who would believe anything against a white man?’

‘You have no strategy, Ko Ba Sein. One does not ACCUSE a white man; one has got to catch him in the act. Public disgrace, in flagrante delicto. I shall know how to set about it. Now be silent while I think.’

There was a pause. U Po Kyin stood gazing out into the rain with his small hands clasped behind him and resting on the natural plateau of his posterior. The other three watched him from the end of the veranda, almost frightened by this talk of attacking a white man, and waiting for some masterstroke to cope with a situation that was beyond them. It was a little like the familiar picture (is it Meissonier’s?) of Napoleon at Moscow, poring over his maps while his marshals wait in silence, with their cocked hats in their hands. But of course U Po Kyin was more equal to the situation than Napoleon. His plan was ready within two minutes. When he turned round his vast face was suffused with excessive joy. The doctor had been mistaken when he described U Po Kyin as attempting to dance; U Po Kyin’s figure was not designed for dancing; but, had it been so designed, he would have danced at this moment. He beckoned to Ba Sein and whispered in his ear for a few seconds.

‘That is the correct move, I think?’ he concluded.

A broad, unwilling, incredulous grin stole slowly across Ba Sein’s face.

‘Fifty rupees ought to cover all the expenses,’ added U Po Kyin, beaming.

The plan was unfolded in detail. And when the others had taken it in, all of them, even Ba Sein, who seldom laughed, even Ma Kin, who disapproved from the bottom of her soul, burst into irrepressible peals of laughter. The plan was really too good to be resisted. It was genius.

All the while it was raining, raining. The day after Flory went back to camp it rained for thirty-eight hours at a stretch, sometimes slowing to the pace of English rain, sometimes pouring down in such cataracts that one thought the whole ocean must by now have been sucked up into the clouds. The rattling on the roof became maddening after a few hours. In the intervals between the rain the sun glared as fiercely as ever, the mud began to crack and steam, and patches of prickly heat sprang out all over one’s body. Hordes of flying beetles had emerged from their cocoons as soon as the rain started; there was a plague of loathly creatures known as stink-bugs, which invaded the houses in incredible numbers, littered themselves over the dining-table and made one’s food uneatable. Verrall and Elizabeth still went out riding in the evenings, when the rain was not too fierce. To Verrall, all climates were alike, but he did not like to see his ponies plastered with mud. Nearly a week went by. Nothing was changed between them — they were neither less nor more intimate than they had been before. The proposal of marriage, still confidently expected, was still unuttered. Then an alarming thing happened. The news filtered to the Club, through Mr Macgregor, that Verrall was leaving Kyauktada; the Military Police were to be kept at Kyauktada, but another officer was coming in Verrall’s place, no one was certain when. Elizabeth was in horrible suspense. Surely, if he was going away, he must say something definite soon? She could not question him — dared not even ask him whether he was really going; she could only wait for him to speak. He said nothing. Then one evening, without warning, he failed to turn up at the Club. And two whole days passed during which Elizabeth did not see him at all.

It was dreadful, but there was nothing that could be done. Verrall and Elizabeth had been inseparable for weeks, and yet in a way they were almost strangers. He had kept himself so aloof from them all — had never even seen the inside of the Lackersteens’ house. They did not know him well enough to seek him out at the dakbungalow, or write to him; nor did he reappear at morning parade on the maidan. There was nothing to do except wait until he chose to present himself again. And when he did, would he ask her to marry him? Surely, surely he must! Both Elizabeth and her aunt (but neither of them had even spoken of it openly) held it as an article of faith that he must ask her. Elizabeth looked forward to their next meeting with a hope that was almost painful. Please God it would be a week at least before he went! If she rode with him four times more, or three times — even if it were only twice, all might yet be well. Please God he would come back to her soon! It was unthinkable that when he came, it would only be to say good-bye! The two women went down to the Club each evening and sat there until quite late, listening for Verrall’s footsteps outside while seeming not to listen; but he never appeared. Ellis, who understood the situation perfectly, watched Elizabeth with spiteful amusement. What made it worst of all was that Mr Lackersteen was now pestering Elizabeth unceasingly. He had become quite reckless. Almost under the eyes of the servants he would waylay her, catch hold of her and begin pinching and fondling her in the most revolting way. Her sole defence was to threaten that she would tell her aunt; happily he was too stupid to realize that she would never dare do it.

On the third morning Elizabeth and her aunt arrived at the Club just in time to escape a violent storm of rain. They had been sitting in the lounge for a few minutes when they heard the sound of someone stamping the water off his shoes in the passage. Each woman’s heart stirred, for this might be Verrall. Then a young man entered the lounge, unbuttoning a long raincoat as he came. He was a stout, rollicking, chuckle-headed youth of about twenty-five, with fat fresh cheeks, butter-coloured hair, no forehead, and, as it turned out afterwards, a deafening laugh.

Mrs Lackersteen made some inarticulate sound — it was jerked out of her by her disappointment. The youth, however, hailed them with immediate bonhomie, being one of those who are on terms of slangy intimacy with everyone from the moment of meeting them.

‘Hullo, hullo!’ he said ‘Enter the fairy prince! Hope I don’t sort of intrude and all that? Not shoving in on any family gatherings or anything?’

‘Not at all!’ said Mrs Lackersteen in surprise.

‘What I mean to say — thought I’d just pop in at the Club and have a glance round, don’t you know. Just to get acclimatized to the local brand of whisky. I only got here last night.’

‘Are you STATIONED here?’ said Mrs Lackersteen, mystified — for they had not been expecting any newcomers.

‘Yes, rather. Pleasure’s mine, entirely.’

‘But we hadn’t heard. . . . Oh, of course! I suppose you’re from the Forest Department? In place of poor Mr Maxwell?’

‘What? Forest Department? No fear! I’m the new Military Police bloke, you know.’

‘The — what?’

‘New Military Police bloke. Taking over from dear ole Verrall. The dear ole chap got orders to go back to his regiment. Going off in a fearful hurry. And a nice mess he’s left everything in for yours truly, too.’

The Military Policeman was a crass youth, but even he noticed that Elizabeth’s face turned suddenly sickly. She found herself quite unable to speak. It was several seconds before Mrs Lackersteen managed to exclaim:

‘Mr Verrall — going? Surely he isn’t going away YET?’

‘Going? He’s gone!’

‘GONE?’

‘Well, what I mean to say — train’s due to start in about half an hour. He’ll be along at the station now. I sent a fatigue party to look after him. Got to get his ponies aboard and all that.’

There were probably further explanations, but neither Elizabeth nor her aunt heard a word of them. In any case, without even a good-bye to the Military Policeman, they were out on the front steps within fifteen seconds. Mrs Lackersteen called sharply for the butler.

‘Butler! Send my rickshaw round to the front at once! To the station, jaldi!’ she added as the rickshaw-man appeared, and, having settled herself in the rickshaw, poked him in the back with the ferrule of her umbrella to start him.

Elizabeth had put on her raincoat and Mrs Lackersteen was cowering in the rickshaw behind her umbrella, but neither was much use against the rain. It came driving towards them in such sheets that Elizabeth’s frock was soaked before they had reached the gate, and the rickshaw almost overturned in the wind. The rickshaw-wallah put his head down and struggled into it, groaning. Elizabeth was in agony. It was a mistake, SURELY it was a mistake. He had written to her and the letter had gone astray. That was it, that MUST be it! It could not be that he had meant to leave her without even saying good-bye! And if it were so — no, not even then would she give up hope! When he saw her on the platform, for the last time, he could not be so brutal as to forsake her! As they neared the station she fell behind the rickshaw and pinched her cheeks to bring the blood into them. A squad of Military Police sepoys shuffled hurriedly by, their thin uniforms sodden into rags, pushing a handcart among them. Those would be Verrall’s fatigue party. Thank God, there was a quarter of an hour yet. The train was not due to leave for another quarter of an hour. Thank God, at least, for this last chance of seeing him!

They arrived on the platform just in time to see the train draw out of the station and gather speed with a series of deafening snorts. The stationmaster, a little round, black man, was standing on the line looking ruefully after the train, and holding his waterproof-covered topi on to his head with one hand, while with the other he fended off two clamorous Indians who were bobbing at him and trying to thrust something upon his attention. Mrs Lackersteen leaned out of the rickshaw and called agitatedly through the rain.

‘Stationmaster!’

‘Madam!’

‘What train is that?’

‘That is the Mandalay train, madam.’

‘The Mandalay train! It can’t be!’

‘But I assure you, madam! It is precisely the Mandalay train.’ He came towards them, removing his topi.

‘But Mr Verrall — the Police officer? Surely he’s not on it?’

‘Yes, madam, he have departed.’ He waved his hand towards the train, now receding rapidly in a cloud of rain and steam.

‘But the train wasn’t due to start yet!’

‘No, madam. Not due to start for another ten minutes.’

‘Then why has it gone?’

The stationmaster waved his topi apologetically from side to side. His dark, squabby face looked quite distressed.

‘I know, madam, I know! MOST unprecedented! But the young Military Police officer have positively COMMANDED me to start the train! He declare that all is ready and he do not wish to be kept waiting. I point out the irregularity. He say he do not care about irregularity. I expostulate. He insist. And in short — ’

He made another gesture. It meant that Verrall was the kind of man who would have his way, even when it came to starting a train ten minutes early. There was a pause. The two Indians, imagining that they saw their chance, suddenly rushed forward, wailing, and offered some grubby notebooks for Mrs Lackersteen’s inspection.

‘What DO these men want?’ cried Mrs Lackersteen distractedly.

‘They are grass-wallahs, madam. They say that Lieutenant Verrall have departed owing them large sums of money. One for hay, the other for corn. Of mine it is no affair.’

There was a hoot from the distant train. It rolled round the bend, like a black-behinded caterpillar that looks over its shoulder as it goes, and vanished. The stationmaster’s wet white trousers flapped forlornly about his legs. Whether Verrall had started the train early to escape Elizabeth, or to escape the grass-wallahs, was an interesting question that was never cleared up.

They made their way back along the road, and then struggled up the hill in such a wind that sometimes they were driven several paces backwards. When they gained the veranda they were quite out of breath. The servants took their streaming raincoats, and Elizabeth shook some of the water from her hair. Mrs Lackersteen broke her silence for the first time since they had left the station:

‘WELL! Of all the unmannerly — of the simply ABOMINABLE . . .!’

Elizabeth looked pale and sickly, in spite of the rain and wind that had beaten into her face. But she would betray nothing.

‘I think he might have waited to say good-bye to us,’ she said coldly.

‘Take my word for it, dear, you are thoroughly well rid of him! . . . As I said from the start, a most ODIOUS young man!’

Some time later, when they were sitting down to breakfast, having bathed and got into dry clothes, and feeling better, she remarked:

‘Let me see, what day is this?’

‘Saturday, Aunt.’

‘Ah, Saturday. Then the dear padre will be arriving this evening. How many shall we be for the service tomorrow? Why, I think we shall ALL be here! How very nice! Mr Flory will be here too. I think he said he was coming back from the jungle tomorrow.’ She added almost lovingly, ‘DEAR Mr Flory!’

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