When Flory arrived at the Club he found the Lackersteens in an unusually morose mood. Mrs Lackersteen was sitting, as usual, in the best place under the punkah, and was reading the Civil List, the Debrett of Burma. She was in a bad temper with her husband, who had defied her by ordering a ‘large peg’ as soon as he reached the Club, and was further defying her by reading the Pink’un. Elizabeth was alone in the stuffy little library, turning over the pages of an old copy of Blackwood’s.
Since parting with Flory, Elizabeth had had a very disagreeable adventure. She had come out of her bath and was half-way through dressing for dinner when her uncle had suddenly appeared in her room — pretext, to hear some more about the day’s shooting — and begun pinching her leg in a way that simply could not be misunderstood. Elizabeth was horrified. This was her first introduction to the fact that some men are capable of making love to their nieces. We live and learn. Mr Lackersteen had tried to carry the thing off as a joke, but he was too clumsy and too nearly drunk to succeed. It was fortunate that his wife was out of hearing, or there might have been a first-rate scandal.
After this, dinner was an uncomfortable meal. Mr Lackersteen was sulking. What rot it was, the way these women put on airs and prevented you from having a good time! The girl was pretty enough to remind him of the Illustrations in La Vie Parisienne, and damn it! wasn’t he paying for her keep? It was a shame. But for Elizabeth the position was very serious. She was penniless and had no home except her uncle’s house. She had come eight thousand miles to stay here. It would be terrible if after only a fortnight her uncle’s house were to be made uninhabitable for her.
Consequently, one thing was much surer in her mind than it had been: that if Flory asked her to marry him (and he would, there was little doubt of it), she would say yes. At another time it was just possible that she would have decided differently. This afternoon, under the spell of that glorious, exciting, altogether ‘lovely’ adventure, she had come near to loving Flory; as near as, in his particular case, she was able to come. Yet even after that, perhaps, her doubts would have returned. For there had always been something dubious about Flory; his age, his birthmark, his queer, perverse way of talking — that ‘highbrow’ talk that was at once unintelligible and disquieting. There had been days when she had even disliked him. But now her uncle’s behaviour had turned the scale. Whatever happened she had got to escape from her uncle’s house, and that soon. Yes, undoubtedly she would marry Flory when he asked her!
He could see her answer in her face as he came into the library. Her air was gentler, more yielding than he had known it. She was wearing the same lilac-coloured frock that she had worn that first morning when he met her, and the sight of the familiar frock gave him courage. It seemed to bring her nearer to him, taking away the strangeness and the elegance that had sometimes unnerved him.
He picked up the magazine she had been reading and made some remark; for a moment they chattered in the banal way they so seldom managed to avoid. It is strange how the drivelling habits of conversation will persist into almost all moments. Yet even as they chattered they found themselves drifting to the door and then outside, and presently to the big frangipani tree by the tennis court. It was the night of the full moon. Flaring like a white-hot coin, so brilliant that it hurt one’s eyes, the moon swam rapidly upwards in a sky of smoky blue, across which drifted a few wisps of yellowish cloud. The stars were all invisible. The croton bushes, by day hideous things like jaundiced laurels, were changed by the moon into jagged black and white designs like fantastic wood-cuts. By the compound fence two Dravidian coolies were walking down the road, transfigured, their white rags gleaming. Through the tepid air the scent streamed from the frangipani trees like some intolerable compound out of a penny-in-the-slot machine.
‘Look at the moon, just look at it!’ Flory said. ‘It’s like a white sun. It’s brighter than an English winter day.’
Elizabeth looked up into the branches of the frangipani tree, which the moon seemed to have changed into rods of silver. The light lay thick, as though palpable, on everything, crusting the earth and the rough bark of trees like some dazzling salt, and every leaf seemed to bear a freight of solid light, like snow. Even Elizabeth, indifferent to such things, was astonished.
‘It’s wonderful! You never see moonlight like that at Home. It’s so — so — ’ No adjective except ‘bright’ presenting itself, she was silent. She had a habit of leaving her sentences unfinished, like Rosa Dartle, though for a different reason.
‘Yes, the old moon does her best in this country. How that tree does stink, doesn’t it? Beastly, tropical thing! I hate a tree that blooms all the year round, don’t you?’
He was talking half abstractedly, to cover the time till the coolies should be out of sight. As they disappeared he put his arm round Elizabeth’s shoulder, and then, when she did not start or speak, turned her round and drew her against him. Her head came against his breast, and her short hair grazed his lips. He put his hand under her chin and lifted her face up to meet his. She was not wearing her spectacles.
‘You don’t mind?’
‘I mean, you don’t mind my — this thing of mine?’ he shook his head slightly to indicate the birthmark. He could not kiss her without first asking this question.
‘No, no. Of course not.’
A moment after their mouths met he felt her bare arms settle lightly round his neck. They stood pressed together, against the smooth trunk of the frangipani tree, body to body, mouth to mouth, for a minute or more. The sickly scent of the tree came mingling with the scent of Elizabeth’s hair. And the scent gave him a feeling of stultification, of remoteness from Elizabeth, even though she was in his arms. All that that alien tree symbolized for him, his exile, the secret, wasted years — it was like an unbridgeable gulf between them. How should he ever make her understand what it was that he wanted of her? He disengaged himself and pressed her shoulders gently against the tree, looking down at her face, which he could see very clearly though the moon was behind her.
‘It’s useless trying to tell you what you mean to me,’ he said. ‘“What you mean to me!” These blunted phrases! You don’t know, you can’t know, how much I love you. But I’ve got to try and tell you. There’s so much I must tell you. Had we better go back to the Club? They may come looking for us. We can talk on the veranda.’
‘Is my hair very untidy?’ she said.
‘But has it got untidy? Smooth it for me, would you, please?’
She bent her head towards him, and he smoothed the short, cool locks with his hand. The way she bent her head to him gave him a curious feeling of intimacy, far more intimate than the kiss, as though he had already been her husband. Ah, he must have her, that was certain! Only by marrying her could his life be salvaged. In a moment he would ask her. They walked slowly through the cotton bushes and back to the Club, his arm still round her shoulder.
‘We can talk on the veranda,’ he repeated. ‘Somehow, we’ve never really talked, you and I. My God, how I’ve longed all these years for somebody to talk to! How I could talk to you, interminably, interminably! That sounds boring. I’m afraid it will be boring. I must ask you to put up with it for a little while.’
She made a sound of remonstrance at the word ‘boring’.
‘No, it is boring, I know that. We Anglo-Indians are always looked on as bores. And we ARE bores. But we can’t help it. You see, there’s — how shall I say? — a demon inside us driving us to talk. We walk about under a load of memories which we long to share and somehow never can. It’s the price we pay for coming to this country.’
They were fairly safe from interruption on the side veranda, for there was no door opening directly upon it. Elizabeth had sat down with her arms on the little wicker table, but Flory remained strolling back and forth, with his hands in his coatpockets, stepping into the moonlight that streamed beneath the eastern eaves of the veranda, and back into the shadows.
‘I said just now that I loved you. Love! The word’s been used till it’s meaningless. But let me try to explain. This afternoon when you were there shooting with me, I thought, my God! here at last is somebody who can share my life with me, but really share it, really LIVE it with me — do you see — ’
He was going to ask her to marry him — indeed, he had intended to ask her without more delay. But the words were not spoken yet; instead, he found himself talking egoistically on and on. He could not help it. It was so important that she should understand something of what his life in this country had been; that she should grasp the nature of the loneliness that he wanted her to nullify. And it was so devilishly difficult to explain. It is devilish to suffer from a pain that is all but nameless. Blessed are they who are stricken only with classifiable diseases! Blessed are the poor, the sick, the crossed in love, for at least other people know what is the matter with them and will listen to their belly-achings with sympathy. But who that has not suffered it understands the pain of exile? Elizabeth watched him as he moved to and fro, in and out of the pool of moonlight that turned his silk coat to silver. Her heart was still knocking from the kiss, and yet her thoughts wandered as he talked. Was he going to ask her to marry him? He was being so slow about it! She was dimly aware that he was saying something about loneliness. Ah, of course! He was telling her about the loneliness she would have to put up with in the jungle, when they were married. He needn’t have troubled. Perhaps you did get rather lonely in the jungle sometimes? Miles from anywhere, no cinemas, no dances, no one but each other to talk to, nothing to do in the evenings except read — rather a bore, that. Still, you could have a gramophone. What a difference it would make when those new portable radio sets got out to Burma! She was about to say this when he added:
‘Have I made myself at all clear to you? Have you got some picture of the life we live here? The foreignness, the solitude, the melancholy! Foreign trees, foreign flowers, foreign landscapes, foreign faces. It’s all as alien as a different planet. But do you see — and it’s this that I so want you to understand — do you see, it mightn’t be so bad living on a different planet, it might even be the most interesting thing imaginable, if you had even one person to share it with. One person who could see it with eyes something like your own. This country’s been a kind of solitary hell to me — it’s so to most of us — and yet I tell you it could be a paradise if one weren’t alone. Does all this seem quite meaningless?’
He had stopped beside the table, and he picked up her hand. In the half-darkness he could see her face only as a pale oval, like a flower, but by the feeling of her hand he knew instantly that she had not understood a word of what he was saying. How should she, indeed? It was so futile, this meandering talk! He would say to her at once, Will you marry me? Was there not a lifetime to talk in? He took her other hand and drew her gently to her feet.
‘Forgive me all this rot I’ve been talking.’
‘It’s all right,’ she murmured indistinctly, expecting that he was about to kiss her.
‘No, it’s rot talking like that. Some things will go into words, some won’t. Besides, it was an impertinence to go belly-aching on and on about myself. But I was trying to lead up to something. Look, this is what I wanted to say. Will — ’
It was Mrs Lackersteen’s high-pitched, plaintive voice, calling from within the Club.
‘Elizabeth? Where are you, Elizabeth?’
Evidently she was near the front door — would be on the veranda in a moment. Flory pulled Elizabeth against him. They kissed hurriedly. He released her, only holding her hands.
‘Quickly, there’s just time. Answer me this. Will you — ’
But that sentence never got any further. At the same moment something extraordinary happened under his feet — the floor was surging and rolling like a sea — he was staggering, then dizzily falling, hitting his upper arm a thump as the floor rushed towards him. As he lay there he found himself jerked violently backwards and forwards as though some enormous beast below were rocking the whole building on its back.
The drunken floor righted itself very suddenly, and Flory sat up, dazed but not much hurt. He dimly noticed Elizabeth sprawling beside him, and screams coming from within the Club. Beyond the gate two Burmans were racing through the moonlight with their long hair streaming behind them. They were yelling at the top of their voices:
‘Nga Yin is shaking himself! Nga Yin is shaking himself!’
Flory watched them unintelligently. Who was Nga Yin? Nga is the prefix given to criminals. Nga Yin must be a dacoit. Why was he shaking himself? Then he remembered. Nga Yin was a giant supposed by the Burmese to be buried, like Typhaeus, beneath the crust of the earth. Of course! It was an earthquake.
‘An earthquake!’ he exclaimed, and he remembered Elizabeth and moved to pick her up. But she was already sitting up, unhurt, and rubbing the back of her head.
‘Was that an earthquake?’ she said in a rather awed voice.
Mrs Lackersteen’s tall form came creeping round the corner of the veranda, clinging to the wall like some elongated lizard. She was exclaiming hysterically:
‘Oh dear, an earthquake! Oh, what a dreadful shock! I can’t bear it — my heart won’t stand it! Oh dear, oh dear! An earthquake!’
Mr Lackersteen tottered after her, with a strange ataxic step caused partly by earth-tremors and partly by gin.
‘An earthquake, dammit!’ he said.
Flory and Elizabeth slowly picked themselves up. They all went inside, with that queer feeling in the soles of the feet that one has when one steps from a rocking boat on to the shore. The old butler was hurrying from the servants’ quarters, thrusting his pagri on his head as he came, and a troop of twittering chokras after him.
‘Earthquake, sir, earthquake!’ he bubbled eagerly.
‘I should damn well think it was an earthquake,’ said Mr Lackersteen as he lowered himself cautiously into a chair. ‘Here, get some drinks, butler. By God, I could do with a nip of something after that.’
They all had a nip of something. The butler, shy yet beaming, stood on one leg beside the table, with the tray in his hand. ‘Earthquake, sir, BIG earthquake!’ he repeated enthusiastically. He was bursting with eagerness to talk; so, for that matter, was everyone else. An extraordinary joie de vivre had come over them all as soon as the shaky feeling departed from their legs. An earthquake is such fun when it is over. It is so exhilarating to reflect that you are not, as you well might be, lying dead under a heap of ruins. With one accord they all burst out talking: ‘My dear, I’ve never HAD such a shock — I fell absolutely FLAT on my back — I thought it was a dam’ pariah dog scratching itself under the floor — I thought it must be an explosion somewhere — ’ and so on and so forth; the usual earthquake-chatter. Even the butler was included in the conversation.
‘I expect you can remember ever so many earthquakes can’t you butler?’ said Mrs Lackersteen, quite graciously, for her.
‘Oh yes, madam, many earthquakes! 1887, 1899, 1906, 1912 — many, many I can remember, madam!’
‘The 1912 one was a biggish one,’ Flory said.
‘Oh, sir, but 1906 was bigger! Very bad shock, sir! And big heathen idol in the temple fall down on top of the thathanabaing, that is Buddhist bishop, madam, which the Burmese say mean bad omen for failure of paddy crop and foot-and-mouth disease. Also in 1887 my first earthquake I remember, when I was a little chokra, and Major Maclagan sahib was lying under the table and promising he sign the teetotal pledge tomorrow morning. He not know it was an earthquake. Also two cows was killed by falling roofs,’ etc., etc.
The Europeans stayed in the Club till midnight, and the butler popped into the room as many as half a dozen times, to relate a new anecdote. So far from snubbing him, the Europeans even encouraged him to talk. There is nothing like an earthquake for drawing people together. One more tremor, or perhaps two, and they would have asked the butler to sit down at table with them.
Meanwhile, Flory’s proposal went no further. One cannot propose marriage immediately after an earthquake. In any case, he did not see Elizabeth alone for the rest of that evening. But it did not matter, he knew that she was his now. In the morning there would be time enough. On this thought, at peace in his mind, and dog-tired after the long day, he went to bed.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:12