Burmese Days, by George Orwell

Chapter 24

It was nearly six o’clock in the evening, and the absurd bell in the six-foot tin steeple of the church went clank-clank, clank-clank! as old Mattu pulled the rope within. The rays of the setting sun, refracted by distant rainstorms, flooded the maidan with a beautiful, lurid light. It had been raining earlier in the day, and would rain again. The Christian community of Kyauktada, fifteen in number, were gathering at the church door for the evening service.

Flory was already there, and Mr Macgregor, grey topi and all, and Mr Francis and Mr Samuel, frisking about in freshly laundered drill suits — for the six-weekly church service was the great social event of their lives. The padre, a tall man with grey hair and a refined, discoloured face, wearing pince-nez, was standing on the church steps in his cassock and surplice, which he had put on in Mr Macgregor’s house. He was smiling in an amiable but rather helpless way at four pink-cheeked Karen Christians who had come to make their bows to him; for he did not speak a word of their language nor they of his. There was one other Oriental Christian, a mournful, dark Indian of uncertain race, who stood humbly in the background. He was always present at the church services, but no one knew who he was or why he was a Christian. Doubtless he had been captured and baptized in infancy by the missionaries, for Indians who are converted when adults almost invariably lapse.

Flory could see Elizabeth coming down the hill, dressed in lilac-colour, with her aunt and uncle. He had seen her that morning at the Club — they had had just a minute alone together before the others came in. He had only asked her one question.

‘Has Verrall gone — for good?’

‘Yes.’

There had been no need to say any more. He had simply taken her by the arms and drawn her towards him. She came willingly, even gladly — there in the clear daylight, merciless to his disfigured face. For a moment she had clung to him almost like a child. It was a though he had saved her or protected her from something. He raised her face to kiss her, and found with surprise that she was crying. There had been no time to talk then, not even to say, ‘Will you marry me?’ No matter, after the service there would be time enough. Perhaps at his next visit, only six weeks hence, the padre would marry them.

Ellis and Westfield and the new Military Policeman were approaching from the Club, where they had been having a couple of quick ones to last them through the service. The Forest Officer who had been sent to take Maxwell’s place, a sallow, tall man, completely bald except for two whisker-like tufts in front of his ears, was following them. Flory had not time to say more than ‘Good evening’ to Elizabeth when she arrived. Mattu, seeing that everyone was present, stopped ringing the bell, and the clergyman led the way inside, followed by Mr Macgregor, with his topi against his stomach, and the Lackersteens and the native Christians. Ellis pinched Flory’s elbow and whispered boozily in his ear:

‘Come on, line up. Time for the snivel-parade. Quick march!’

He and the Military Policeman went in behind the others, arm-in-arm, with a dancing step — the policeman, till they got inside, wagging his fat behind in imitation of a pwe-dancer. Flory sat down in the same pew as these two, opposite Elizabeth, on her right. It was the first time that he had ever risked sitting with his birthmark towards her. ‘Shut your eyes and count twenty-five’, whispered Ellis as they sat down, drawing a snigger from the policeman. Mrs Lackersteen had already taken her place at the harmonium, which was no bigger than a writing-desk. Mattu stationed himself by the door and began to pull the punkah — it was so arranged that it only flapped over the front pews, where the Europeans sat. Flo came nosing up the aisle, found Flory’s pew and settled down underneath it. The service began.

Flory was only attending intermittently. He was dimly aware of standing and kneeling and muttering ‘Amen’ to interminable prayers, and of Ellis nudging him and whispering blasphemies behind his hymn book. But he was too happy to collect his thoughts. Hell was yielding up Eurydice. The yellow light flooded in through the open door, gilding the broad back of Mr Macgregor’s silk coat like cloth-of-gold. Elizabeth, across the narrow aisle, was so close to Flory that he could hear every rustle of her dress and feel, as it seemed to him, the warmth of her body; yet he would not look at her even once, lest the others should notice it. The harmonium quavered bronchitically as Mrs Lackersteen struggled to pump sufficient air into it with the sole pedal that worked. The singing was a queer, ragged noise — an earnest booming from Mr Macgregor, a kind of shamefaced muttering from the other Europeans, and from the back a loud, wordless lowing, for the Karen Christians knew the tunes of the hymns but not the words.

They were kneeling down again. ‘More bloody knee-drill,’ Ellis whispered. The air darkened, and there was a light patter of rain on the roof; the trees outside rustled, and a cloud of yellow leaves whirled past the window. Flory watched them through the chinks of his fingers. Twenty years ago, on winter Sundays in his pew in the parish church at home, he used to watch the yellow leaves, as at this moment, drifting and fluttering against leaden skies. Was it not possible, now, to begin over again as though those grimy years had never touched him? Through his fingers he glanced sidelong at Elizabeth, kneeling with her head bent and her face hidden in her youthful, mottled hands. When they were married, when they were married! What fun they would have together in this alien yet kindly land! He saw Elizabeth in his camp, greeting him as he came home tired from work and Ko S’la hurried from the tent with a bottle of beer; he saw her walking in the forest with him, watching the hornbills in the peepul trees and picking nameless flowers, and in the marshy grazing-grounds, tramping through the cold-weather mist after snipe and teal. He saw his home as she would remake it. He saw his drawing-room, sluttish and bachelor-like no longer, with new furniture from Rangoon, and a bowl of pink balsams like rosebuds on the table, and books and water-colours and a black piano. Above all the piano! His mind lingered upon the piano — symbol, perhaps because he was unmusical, of civilized and settled life. He was delivered for ever from the sub-life of the past decade — the debaucheries, the lies, the pain of exile and solitude, the dealings with whores and moneylenders and pukka sahibs.

The clergyman stepped to the small wooden lectern that also served as a pulpit, slipped the band from a roll of sermon paper, coughed, and announced a text. ‘In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.’

‘Cut it short, for Christ’s sake,’ murmured Ellis.

Flory did not notice how many minutes passed. The words of the sermon flowed peacefully through his head, an indistinct burbling sound, almost unheard. When they were married, he was still thinking, when they were married —

Hullo! What was happening?

The clergyman had stopped short in the middle of a word. He had taken off his pince-nez and was shaking them with a distressed air at someone in the doorway. There was a fearful, raucous scream.

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

Everyone jumped in their seats and turned round. It was Ma Hla May. As they turned she stepped inside the church and shoved old Mattu violently aside. She shook her fist at Flory.

‘Pike-san pay-like! Pike-san pay-like! Yes, THAT’S the one I mean — Flory, Flory! (She pronounced it Porley.) That one sitting in front there, with the black hair! Turn round and face me, you coward! Where is the money you promised me?’

She was shrieking like a maniac. The people gaped at her, too astounded to move or speak. Her face was grey with powder, her greasy hair was tumbling down, her longyi was ragged at the bottom. She looked like a screaming hag of the bazaar. Flory’s bowels seemed to have turned to ice. Oh God, God! Must they know — must Elizabeth know — that THAT was the woman who had been his mistress? But there was not a hope, not the vestige of a hope, of any mistake. She had screamed his name over and over again. Flo, hearing the familiar voice, wriggled from under the pew, walked down the aisle and wagged her tail at Ma Hla May. The wretched woman was yelling out a detailed account of what Flory had done to her.

‘Look at me, you white men, and you women, too, look at me! Look how he has ruined me! Look at these rags I am wearing! And he is sitting there, the liar, the coward, pretending not to see me! He would let me starve at his gate like a pariah dog. Ah, but I will shame you! Turn round and look at me! Look at this body that you have kissed a thousand times — look — look — ’

She began actually to tear her clothes open — the last insult of a base-born Burmese woman. The harmonium squeaked as Mrs Lackersteen made a convulsive movement. People had at last found their wits and began to stir. The clergyman, who had been bleating ineffectually, recovered his voice, ‘Take that woman outside!’ he said sharply.

Flory’s face was ghastly. After the first moment he had turned his head away from the door and set his teeth in a desperate effort to look unconcerned. But it was useless, quite useless. His face was as yellow as bone, and the sweat glistened on his forehead. Francis and Samuel, doing perhaps the first useful deed of their lives, suddenly sprang from their pew, grabbed Ma Hla May by the arms and hauled her outside, still screaming.

It seemed very silent in the church when they had finally dragged her out of hearing. The scene had been so violent, so squalid, that everyone was upset by it. Even Ellis looked disgusted. Flory could neither speak nor stir. He sat staring fixedly at the altar, his face rigid and so bloodless that the birth-mark seemed to glow upon it like a streak of blue paint. Elizabeth glanced across the aisle at him, and her revulsion made her almost physically sick. She had not understood a word of what Ma Hla May was saying, but the meaning of the scene was perfectly clear. The thought that he had been the lover of that grey-faced, maniacal creature made her shudder in her bones. But worse than that, worse than anything, was his ugliness at this moment. His face appalled her, it was so ghastly, rigid and old. It was like a skull. Only the birthmark seemed alive in it. She hated him now for his birthmark. She had never known till this moment how dishonouring, how unforgivable a thing it was.

Like the crocodile, U Po Kyin had struck at the weakest spot. For, needless to say, this scene was U Po Kyin’s doing. He had seen his chance, as usual, and tutored Ma Hla May for her part with considerable care. The clergyman brought his sermon to an end almost at once. As soon as it was over Flory hurried outside, not looking at any of the others. It was getting dark, thank God. At fifty yards from the church he halted, and watched the others making in couples for the Club. It seemed to him that they were hurrying. Ah, they would, of course! There would be something to talk about at the Club tonight! Flo rolled belly-upwards against his ankles, asking for a game. ‘Get out, you bloody brute!’ he said, and kicked her. Elizabeth had stopped at the church door. Mr Macgregor, happy chance, seemed to be introducing her to the clergyman. In a moment the two men went on in the direction of Mr Macgregor’s house, where the clergyman was to stay for the night, and Elizabeth followed the others, thirty yards behind them. Flory ran after her and caught up with her almost at the Club gate.

‘Elizabeth!’

She looked round, saw him, turned white, and would have hurried on without a word. But his anxiety was too great, and he caught her by the wrist.

‘Elizabeth! I must — I’ve got to speak to you!’

‘Let me go, will you!’

They began to struggle, and then stopped abruptly. Two of the Karens who had come out of the church were standing fifty yards away, gazing at them through the half-darkness with deep interest. Flory began again in a lower tone:

‘Elizabeth, I know I’ve no right to stop you like this. But I must speak to you, I must! Please hear what I’ve got to say. Please don’t run away from me!’

‘What are you doing? Why are you holding on to my arm? Let me go this instant!’

‘I’ll let you go — there, look! But do listen to me, please! Answer me this one thing. After what’s happened, can you ever forgive me?’

‘Forgive you? What do you mean, FORGIVE you?’

‘I know I’m disgraced. It was the vilest thing to happen! Only, in a sense it wasn’t my fault. You’ll see that when you’re calmer. Do you think — not now, it was too bad, but later — do you think you can forget it?’

‘I really don’t know what you’re talking about. Forget it? What has it got to do with ME? I thought it was very disgusting, but it’s not MY business. I can’t think why you’re questioning me like this at all.’

He almost despaired at that. Her tone and even her words were the very ones she had used in that earlier quarrel of theirs. It was the same move over again. Instead of hearing him out she was going to evade him and put him off — snub him by pretending that he had no claim upon her.

‘Elizabeth! Please answer me. Please be fair to me! It’s serious this time. I don’t expect you to take me back all at once. You couldn’t, when I’m publicly disgraced like this. But, after all, you virtually promised to marry me — ’

‘What! Promised to marry you? WHEN did I promise to marry you?’

‘Not in words, I know. But it was understood between us.’

‘Nothing of the kind was understood between us! I think you are behaving in the most horrible way. I’m going along to the Club at once. Good evening!’

‘Elizabeth! Elizabeth! Listen. It’s not fair to condemn me unheard. You knew before what I’d done, and you knew that I’d lived a different life since I met you. What happened this evening was only an accident. That wretched woman, who, I admit, was once my — well — ’

‘I won’t listen, I won’t listen to such things! I’m going!’

He caught her by the wrists again, and this time held her. The Karens had disappeared, fortunately.

‘No, no, you shall hear me! I’d rather offend you to the heart than have this uncertainty. It’s gone on week after week, month after month, and I’ve never once been able to speak straight out to you. You don’t seem to know or care how much you make me suffer. But this time you’ve got to answer me.’

She struggled in his grip, and she was surprisingly strong. Her face was more bitterly angry than he had ever seen or imagined it. She hated him so that she would have struck him if her hands were free.

‘Let me go! Oh, you beast, you beast, let me go!’

‘My God, my God, that we should fight like this! But what else can I do? I can’t let you go without even hearing me. Elizabeth, you MUST listen to me!’

‘I will not! I will not discuss it! What right have you to question me? Let me go!’

‘Forgive me, forgive me! This one question. Will you — not now, but later, when this vile business is forgotten — will you marry me?’

‘No, never, never!’

‘Don’t say it like that! Don’t make it final. Say no for the present if you like — but in a month, a year, five years — ’

‘Haven’t I said no? Why must you keep on and on?’

‘Elizabeth, listen to me. I’ve tried again and again to tell you what you mean to me — oh, it’s so useless talking about it! But do try and understand. Haven’t I told you something of the life we live here? The sort of horrible death-in-life! The decay, the loneliness, the self-pity? Try and realize what it means, and that you’re the sole person on earth who could save me from it.’

‘Will you let me go? Why do you have to make this dreadful scene?’

‘Does it mean nothing to you when I say that I love you? I don’t believe you’ve ever realized what it is that I want from you. If you like, I’d marry you and promise never even touch you with my finger. I wouldn’t mind even that, so long as you were with me. But I can’t go on with my life alone, always alone. Can’t you bring yourself ever to forgive me?’

‘Never, never! I wouldn’t marry you if you were the last man on earth. I’d as soon marry the — the sweeper!’

She had begun crying now. He saw that she meant what she said. The tears came into his own eyes. He said again:

‘For the last time. Remember that it’s something to have one person in the world who loves you. Remember that though you’ll find men who are richer, and younger, and better in every way than I, you’ll never find one who cares for you so much. And though I’m not rich, at least I could make you a home. There’s a way of living — civilized, decent — ’

‘Haven’t we said enough?’ she said more calmly. ‘Will you let me go before somebody comes?’

He relaxed his grip on her wrists. He had lost her, that was certain. Like a hallucination, painfully clear, he saw again their home as he had imagined it; he saw their garden, and Elizabeth feeding Nero and the pigeons on the drive by the sulphur-yellow phloxes that grew as high as her shoulder; and the drawing-room, with the water-colours on the walls, and the balsams in the china bowl mirrored by the table, and the book-shelves, and the black piano. The impossible, mythical piano — symbol of everything that that futile accident had wrecked!

‘You should have a piano,’ he said despairingly.

‘I don’t play the piano.’

He let her go. It was no use continuing. She was no sooner free of him than she took to her heels and actually ran into the Club garden, so hateful was his presence to her. Among the trees she stopped to take off her spectacles and remove the signs of tears from her face. Oh, the beast, the beast! He had hurt her wrists abominably. Oh, what an unspeakable beast he was! When she thought of his face as it had looked in church, yellow and glistening with the hideous birthmark upon it, she could have wished him dead. It was not what he had done that horrified her. He might have committed a thousand abominations and she could have forgiven him. But not after that shameful, squalid scene, and the devilish ugliness of his disfigured face in that moment. It was, finally, the birthmark that had damned him.

Her aunt would be furious when she heard that she had refused Flory. And there was her uncle and his leg-pinching — between the two of them, life here would become impossible. Perhaps she would have to go Home unmarried after all. Black beetles! No matter. Anything — spinsterhood, drudgery, anything — sooner than the alternative. Never, never, would she yield to a man who had been so disgraced! Death sooner, far sooner. If there had been mercenary thoughts in her mind an hour ago, she had forgotten them. She did not even remember that Verrall had jilted her and that to have married Flory would have saved her face. She knew only that he was dishonoured and less than a man, and that she hated him as she would have hated a leper or a lunatic. The instinct was deeper than reason or even self-interest, and she could no more have disobeyed it than she could have stopped breathing.

Flory, as he turned up the hill, did not run, but he walked as fast as he could. What he had to do must be done quickly. It was getting very dark. The wretched Flo, who even now had not grasped that anything serious was the matter, trotted close to his heels, whimpering in a self-pitying manner to reproach him for the kick he had given her. As he came up the path a wind blew through the plaintain trees, rattling the tattered leaves and bringing a scent of damp. It was going to rain again. Ko S’la had laid the dinner-table and was removing some flying beetles that had committed suicide against the petrol-lamp. Evidently he had not heard about the scene in church yet.

‘The holy one’s dinner is ready. Will the holy one dine now?’

‘No, not yet. Give me that lamp.’

He took the lamp, went into the bedroom and shut the door, The stale scent of dust and cigarette-smoke met him, and in the white, unsteady glare of the lamp he could see the mildewed books and the lizards on the wall. So he was back again to this — to the old, secret life — after everything, back where he had been before.

Was it not possible to endure it! He had endured it before. There were palliatives — books, his garden, drink, work, whoring, shooting, conversations with the doctor.

No, it was not endurable any longer. Since Elizabeth’s coming the power to suffer and above all to hope, which he had thought dead in him, had sprung to new life. The half-comfortable lethargy in which he had lived was broken. And if he suffered now, there was far worse to come. In a little while someone else would marry her. How he could picture it — the moment when he heard the news! — ‘Did you hear the Lackersteen kid’s got off at last? Poor old So-and-so — booked for the altar, God help him,’ etc., etc. And the casual question — ‘Oh, really? When is it to be?’ — stiffening one’s face, pretending to be uninterested. And then her wedding day approaching, her bridal night — ah, not that! Obscene, obscene. Keep your eyes fixed on that. Obscene. He dragged his tin uniform-case from under the bed, took out his automatic pistol, slid a clip of cartridges into the magazine, and pulled one into the breech.

Ko S’la was remembered in his will. There remained Flo. He laid his pistol on the table and went outside. Flo was playing with Ba Shin, Ko S’la’s youngest son, under the lee of the cookhouse, where the servants had left the remains of a woodfire. She was dancing round him with her small teeth bared, pretending to bite him, while the tiny boy, his belly red in the glow of the embers, smacked weakly at her, laughing, and yet half frightened.

‘Flo! Come here, Flo!’

She heard him and came obediently, and then stopped short at the bedroom door. She seemed to have grasped now that there was something wrong. She backed a little and stood looking timorously up at him, unwilling to enter the bedroom.

‘Come in here!’

She wagged her tail, but did not move.

‘Come on, Flo! Good old Flo! Come on!’

Flo was suddenly stricken with terror. She whined, her tail went down, and she shrank back. ‘Come here, blast you!’ he cried, and he took her by the collar and flung her into the room, shutting the door behind her. He went to the table for the pistol.

‘No come here! Do as you’re told!’

She crouched down and whined for forgiveness. It hurt him to hear it. ‘Come on, old girl! Dear old Flo! Master wouldn’t hurt you. Come here!’ She crawled very slowly towards his feet, flat on her belly, whining, her head down as though afraid to look at him. When she was a yard away he fired, blowing her skull to fragments.

Her shattered brain looked like red velvet. Was that what he would look like? The heart, then, not the head. He could hear the servants running out of their quarters and shouting — they must have heard the sound of the shot. He hurriedly tore open his coat and pressed the muzzle of the pistol against his shirt. A tiny lizard, translucent like a creature of gelatine, was stalking a white moth along the edge of the table. Flory pulled the trigger with his thumb.

As Ko S’la burst into the room, for a moment he saw nothing but the dead body of the dog. Then he saw his master’s feet, heels upwards, projecting from beyond the bed. He yelled to the others to keep the children out of the room, and all of them surged back from the doorway with screams. Ko S’la fell on his knees behind Flory’s body, at the same moment as Ba Pe came running through the veranda.

‘Has he shot himself?’

‘I think so. Turn him over on his back. Ah, look at that! Run for the Indian doctor! Run for your life!’

There was a neat hole, no bigger than that made by a pencil passing through a sheet of blotting-paper, in Flory’s shirt. He was obviously quite dead. With great difficulty Ko S’la managed to drag him on to the bed, for the other servants refused to touch the body. It was only twenty minutes before the doctor arrived. He had heard only a vague report that Flory was hurt, and had bicycled up the hill at top speed through a storm of rain. He threw his bicycle down in the flower-bed and hurried in through the veranda. He was out of breath, and could not see through his spectacles. He took them off, peering myopically at the bed. ‘What iss it, my friend?’ he said anxiously. ‘Where are you hurt?’ Then, coming closer, he saw what was on the bed, and uttered a harsh sound.

‘Ach, what is this? What has happened to him?’

The doctor fell on his knees, tore Flory’s shirt open and put his ear to his chest. An expression of agony came into his face, and he seized the dead man by the shoulders and shook him as though mere violence could bring him to life. One arm fell limply over the edge of the bed. The doctor lifted it back again, and then, with the dead hand between his own, suddenly burst into tears. Ko S’la was standing at the foot of the bed, his brown face full of lines. The doctor stood up, and then losing control of himself for a moment, leaned against the bedpost and wept noisily and grotesquely his back turned on Ko S’la. His fat shoulders were quivering. Presently he recovered himself and turned round again.

‘How did this happen?’

‘We heard two shots. He did it himself, that is certain. I do not know why.’

‘How did you know that he did it on purpose? How do you know that it was not an accident?’

For answer, Ko S’la pointed silently to Flo’s corpse. The doctor thought for a moment, and then, with gentle, practised hands, swathed the dead man in the sheet and knotted it at foot and head. With death, the birthmark had faded immediately, so that it was no more than a faint grey stain.

‘Bury the dog at once. I will tell Mr Macgregor that this happened accidentally while he was cleaning his revolver. Be sure that you bury the dog. Your master was my friend. It shall not be written on his tombstone that he committed suicide.’

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