At about the time when U Po Kyin began his morning’s business, ‘Mr Porley’ the timber merchant and friend of Dr Veraswami, was leaving his house for the Club.
Flory was a man of about thirty-five, of middle height, not ill made. He had very black, stiff hair growing low on his head, and a cropped black moustache, and his skin, naturally sallow, was discoloured by the sun. Not having grown fat or bald he did not look older than his age, but his face was very haggard in spite of the sunburn, with lank cheeks and a sunken, withered look round the eyes. He had obviously not shaved this morning. He was dressed in the usual white shirt, khaki drill shorts and stockings, but instead of a topi he wore a battered Terai hat, cocked over one eye. He carried a bamboo stick with a wrist-thong, and a black cocker spaniel named Flo was ambling after him.
All these were secondary expressions, however. The first thing that one noticed in Flory was a hideous birthmark stretching in a ragged crescent down his left cheek, from the eye to the corner of the mouth. Seen from the left side his face had a battered, woebegone look, as though the birthmark had been a bruise — for it was a dark blue in colour. He was quite aware of its hideousness. And at all times, when he was not alone, there was a sidelongness about his movements, as he manoeuvred constantly to keep the birthmark out of sight.
Flory’s house was at the top of the maidan, close to the edge of the jungle. From the gate the maidan sloped sharply down, scorched and khaki-coloured, with half a dozen dazzling white bungalows scattered round it. All quaked, shivered in the hot air. There was an English cemetery within a white wall half-way down the hill, and near by a tiny tin-roofed church. Beyond that was the European Club, and when one looked at the Club — a dumpy one-storey wooden building — one looked at the real centre of the town. In any town in India the European Club is the spiritual citadel, the real seat of the British power, the Nirvana for which native officials and millionaires pine in vain. It was doubly so in this case, for it was the proud boast of Kyauktada Club that, almost alone of Clubs in Burma, it had never admitted an Oriental to membership. Beyond the Club, the Irrawaddy flowed huge and ochreous glittering like diamonds in the patches that caught the sun; and beyond the river stretched great wastes of paddy fields, ending at the horizon in a range of blackish hills.
The native town, and the courts and the jail, were over to the right, mostly hidden in green groves of peepul trees. The spire of the pagoda rose from the trees like a slender spear tipped with gold. Kyauktada was a fairly typical Upper Burma town, that had not changed greatly between the days of Marco Polo and 1910, and might have slept in the Middle Ages for a century more if it had not proved a convenient spot for a railway terminus. In 1910 the Government made it the headquarters of a district and a seat of Progress — interpretable as a block of law courts, with their army of fat but ravenous pleaders, a hospital, a school and one of those huge, durable jails which the English have built everywhere between Gibraltar and Hong Kong. The population was about four thousand, including a couple of hundred Indians, a few score Chinese and seven Europeans. There were also two Eurasians named Mr Francis and Mr Samuel, the sons of an American Baptist missionary and a Roman Catholic missionary respectively. The town contained no curiosities of any kind, except an Indian fakir who had lived for twenty years in a tree near the bazaar, drawing his food up in a basket every morning.
Flory yawned as he came out of the gate. He had been half drunk the night before, and the glare made him feel liverish. ‘Bloody, bloody hole!’ he thought, looking down the hill. And, no one except the dog being near, he began to sing aloud, ‘Bloody, bloody, bloody, oh, how thou art bloody’ to the tune of ‘Holy, holy, holy, oh how Thou art holy ‘ as he walked down the hot red road, swishing at the dried-up grasses with his stick. It was nearly nine o’clock and the sun was fiercer every minute. The heat throbbed down on one’s head with a steady, rhythmic thumping, like blows from an enormous bolster. Flory stopped at the Club gate, wondering whether to go in or to go farther down the road and see Dr Veraswami. Then he remembered that it was ‘English mail day’ and the newspapers would have arrived. He went in, past the big tennis screen, which was overgrown by a creeper with starlike mauve flowers.
In the borders beside the path swaths of English flowers — phlox and larkspur, hollyhock and petunia — not yet slain by the sun, rioted in vast size and richness. The petunias were huge, like trees almost. There was no lawn, but instead a shrubbery of native trees and bushes — gold mohur trees like vast umbrellas of blood-red bloom, frangipanis with creamy, stalkless flowers, purple bougainvillea, scarlet hibiscus and the pink Chinese rose, bilious-green crotons, feathery fronds of tamarind. The clash of colours hurt one’s eyes in the glare. A nearly naked mali, watering-can in hand, was moving in the jungle of flowers like some large nectar-sucking bird.
On the Club steps a sandy-haired Englishman, with a prickly moustache, pale grey eyes too far apart, and abnormally thin calves to his legs, was standing with his hands in the pockets of his shorts. This was Mr Westfield, the District Superintendent of Police. With a very bored air he was rocking himself backwards and forwards on his heels and pouting his upper lip so that his moustache tickled his nose. He greeted Flory with a slight sideways movement of his head. His way of speaking was clipped and soldierly, missing out every word that well could be missed out. Nearly everything he said was intended for a joke, but the tone of his voice was hollow and melancholy.
‘Hullo, Flory me lad. Bloody awful morning, what?’
‘We must expect it at this time of year, I suppose,’ Flory said. He had turned himself a little sideways, so that his birthmarked cheek was away from Westfield.
‘Yes, dammit. Couple of months of this coming. Last year we didn’t have a spot of rain till June. Look at that bloody sky, not a cloud in it. Like one of those damned great blue enamel saucepans. God! What’d you give to be in Piccadilly now, eh?’
‘Have the English papers come?’
‘Yes. Dear old Punch, Pink’un and Vie Parisienne. Makes you homesick to read ‘em, what? Let’s come in and have a drink before the ice all goes. Old Lackersteen’s been fairly bathing in it. Half pickled already.’
They went in, Westfield remarking in his gloomy voice, ‘Lead on, Macduff.’ Inside, the Club was a teak-walled place smelling of earth-oil, and consisting of only four rooms, one of which contained a forlorn ‘library’ of five hundred mildewed novels, and another an old and mangy billiard-table — this, however, seldom used, for during most of the year hordes of flying beetles came buzzing round the lamps and littered themselves over the cloth. There were also a card-room and a ‘lounge’ which looked towards the river, over a wide veranda; but at this time of day all the verandas were curtained with green bamboo chicks. The lounge was an unhomelike room, with coco-nut matting on the floor, and wicker chairs and tables which were littered with shiny illustrated papers. For ornament there were a number of ‘Bonzo’ pictures, and the dusty skulls of sambhur. A punkah, lazily flapping, shook dust into the tepid air.
There were three men in the room. Under the punkah a florid, fine-looking, slightly bloated man of forty was sprawling across the table with his head in his hands, groaning in pain. This was Mr Lackersteen, the local manager of a timber firm. He had been badly drunk the night before, and he was suffering for it. Ellis, local manager of yet another company, was standing before the notice-board studying some notice with a look of bitter concentration. He was a tiny wiry-haired fellow with a pale, sharp-featured face and restless movements. Maxwell, the acting Divisional Forest Officer, was lying in one of the long chairs reading the Field, and invisible except for two large-boned legs and thick downy forearms.
‘Look at this naughty old man,’ said Westfield, taking Mr Lackersteen half affectionately by the shoulders and shaking him. ‘Example to the young, what? There but for the grace of God and all that. Gives you an idea what you’ll be like at forty.’
Mr Lackersteen gave a groan which sounded like ‘brandy’.
‘Poor old chap,’ said Westfield, ‘regular martyr to booze, eh? Look at it oozing out of his pores. Reminds me of the old colonel who used to sleep without a mosquito net. They asked his servant why and the servant said: “At night, master too drunk to notice mosquitoes; in the morning, mosquitoes too drunk to notice master.” Look at him — boozed last night and then asking for more. Got a little niece coming to stay with him, too. Due tonight, isn’t she, Lackersteen?’
‘Oh, leave that drunken sot alone,’ said Ellis without turning round. He had a spiteful Cockney voice. Mr Lackersteen groaned again, ‘ —— the niece! Get me some brandy, for Christ’s sake.’
‘Good education for the niece, eh? Seeing uncle under the table seven times a week. Hey, butler! Bringing brandy for Lackersteen master!’
The butler, a dark, stout Dravidian with liquid, yellow-irised eyes like those of a dog, brought the brandy on a brass tray. Flory and Westfield ordered gin. Mr Lackersteen swallowed a few spoonfuls of brandy and sat back in his chair, groaning in a more resigned way. He had a beefy, ingenuous face, with a toothbrush moustache. He was really a very simple-minded man, with no ambitions beyond having what he called ‘a good time’. His wife governed him by the only possible method, namely, by never letting him out of her sight for more than an hour or two. Only once, a year after they were married, she had left him for a fortnight, and had returned unexpectedly a day before her time, to find Mr Lackersteen, drunk, supported on either side by a naked Burmese girl, while a third up-ended a whisky bottle into his mouth. Since then she had watched him, as he used to complain, ‘like a cat over a bloody mousehole’. However, he managed to enjoy quite a number of ‘good times’, though they were usually rather hurried ones.
‘My Christ, what a head I’ve got on me this morning,’ he said. ‘Call that butler again, Westfield. I’ve got to have another brandy before my missus gets here. She says she’s going to cut my booze down to four pegs a day when our niece gets here. God rot them both!’ he added gloomily.
‘Stop playing the fool, all of you, and listen to this,’ said Ellis sourly. He had a queer wounding way of speaking, hardly ever opening his mouth without insulting somebody. He deliberately exaggerated his Cockney accent, because of the sardonic tone it gave to his words. ‘Have you seen this notice of old Macgregor’s? A little nosegay for everyone. Maxwell, wake up and listen!’
Maxwell lowered the Field. He was a fresh-coloured blond youth of not more than twenty-five or six — very young for the post he held. With his heavy limbs and thick white eyelashes he reminded one of a cart-horse colt. Ellis nipped the notice from the board with a neat, spiteful little movement and began reading it aloud. It had been posted by Mr Macgregor, who, besides being Deputy Commissioner, was secretary of the Club.
‘Just listen to this. “It has been suggested that as there are as yet no Oriental members of this club, and as it is now usual to admit officials of gazetted rank, whether native or European, to membership of most European Clubs, we should consider the question of following this practice in Kyauktada. The matter will be open for discussion at the next general meeting. On the one hand it may be pointed out” — oh, well, no need to wade through the rest of it. He can’t even write a notice without an attack of literary diarrhoea. Anyway, the point’s this. He’s asking us to break all our rules and take a dear little nigger-boy into this Club. DEAR Dr Veraswami, for instance. Dr Very-slimy, I call him. That WOULD be a treat, wouldn’t it? Little pot-bellied niggers breathing garlic in your face over the bridge-table. Christ, to think of it! We’ve got to hang together and put our foot down on this at once. What do you say, Westfield? Flory?’
Westfield shrugged his thin shoulders philosophically. He had sat down at the table and lighted a black, stinking Burma cheroot.
‘Got to put up with it, I suppose,’ he said. ‘B— s of natives are getting into all the Clubs nowadays. Even the Pegu Club, I’m told. Way this country’s going, you know. We’re about the last Club in Burma to hold out against ‘em.’
‘We are; and what’s more, we’re damn well going to go on holding out. I’ll die in the ditch before I’ll see a nigger in here.’ Ellis had produced a stump of pencil. With the curious air of spite that some men can put into their tiniest action, he re-pinned the notice on the board and pencilled a tiny, neat ‘B. F.’ against Mr Macgregor’s signature — ‘There, that’s what I think of his idea. I’ll tell him so when he comes down. What do YOU say, Flory?’
Flory had not spoken all this time. Though by nature anything but a silent man, he seldom found much to say in Club conversations. He had sat down at the table and was reading G. K. Chesterton’s article in the London News, at the same time caressing Flo’s head with his left hand. Ellis, however, was one of those people who constantly nag others to echo their own opinions. He repeated his question, and Flory looked up, and their eyes met. The skin round Ellis’s nose suddenly turned so pale that it was almost grey. In him it was a sign of anger. Without any prelude he burst into a stream of abuse that would have been startling, if the others had not been used to hearing something like it every morning.
‘My God, I should have thought in a case like this, when it’s a question of keeping those black, stinking swine out of the only place where we can enjoy ourselves, you’d have the decency to back me up. Even if that pot-bellied greasy little sod of a nigger doctor IS your best pal. I don’t care if you choose to pal up with the scum of the bazaar. If it pleases you to go to Veraswami’s house and drink whisky with all his nigger pals, that’s your look-out. Do what you like outside the Club. But, by God, it’s a different matter when you talk of bringing niggers in here. I suppose you’d like little Veraswami for a Club member, eh? Chipping into our conversation and pawing everyone with his sweaty hands and breathing his filthy garlic breath in our faces. By god, he’d go out with my boot behind him if ever I saw his black snout inside that door. Greasy, pot-bellied little —!’ etc.
This went on for several minutes. It was curiously impressive, because it was so completely sincere. Ellis really did hate Orientals — hated them with a bitter, restless loathing as of something evil or unclean. Living and working, as the assistant of a timber firm must, in perpetual contact with the Burmese, he had never grown used to the sight of a black face. Any hint of friendly feeling towards an Oriental seemed to him a horrible perversity. He was an intelligent man and an able servant of his firm, but he was one of those Englishmen — common, unfortunately — who should never be allowed to set foot in the East.
Flory sat nursing Flo’s head in his lap, unable to meet Ellis’s eyes. At the best of times his birthmark made it difficult for him to look people straight in the face. And when he made ready to speak, he could feel his voice trembling — for it had a way of trembling when it should have been firm; his features, too, sometimes twitched uncontrollably.
‘Steady on,’ he said at last, sullenly and rather feebly. ‘Steady on. There’s no need to get so excited. I never suggested having any native members in here.’
‘Oh, didn’t you? We all know bloody well you’d like to, though. Why else do you go to that oily little babu’s house every morning, then? Sitting down at table with him as though he was a white man, and drinking out of glasses his filthy black lips have slobbered over — it makes me spew to think of it.’
‘Sit down, old chap, sit down,’ Westfield said. ‘Forget it. Have a drink on it. Not worth while quarrelling. Too hot.’
‘My God,’ said Ellis a little more calmly, taking a pace or two up and down, ‘my God, I don’t understand you chaps. I simply don’t. Here’s that old fool Macgregor wanting to bring a nigger into this Club for no reason whatever, and you all sit down under it without a word. Good God, what are we supposed to be doing in this country? If we aren’t going to rule, why the devil don’t we clear out? Here we are, supposed to be governing a set of damn black swine who’ve been slaves since the beginning of history, and instead of ruling them in the only way they understand, we go and treat them as equals. And you silly b — s take it for granted. There’s Flory, makes his best pal a black babu who calls himself a doctor because he’s done two years at an Indian so-called university. And you, Westfield, proud as Punch of your knock-kneed, bribe-taking cowards of policemen. And there’s Maxwell, spends his time running after Eurasian tarts. Yes, you do, Maxwell; I heard about your goings-on in Mandalay with some smelly little bitch called Molly Pereira. I suppose you’d have gone and married her if they hadn’t transferred you up here? You all seem to LIKE the dirty black brutes. Christ, I don’t know what’s come over us all. I really don’t.’
‘Come on, have another drink,’ said Westfield. ‘Hey, butler! Spot of beer before the ice goes, eh? Beer, butler!’
The butler brought some bottles of Munich beer. Ellis presently sat down at the table with the others, and he nursed one of the cool bottles between his small hands. His forehead was sweating. He was sulky, but not in a rage any longer. At all times he was spiteful and perverse, but his violent fits of rage were soon over, and were never apologized for. Quarrels were a regular part of the routine of Club life. Mr Lackersteen was feeling better and was studying the illustrations in La Vie Parisienne. It was after nine now, and the room, scented with the acrid smoke of Westfield’s cheroot, was stifling hot. Everyone’s shirt stuck to his back with the first sweat of the day. The invisible chokra who pulled the punkah rope outside was falling asleep in the glare.
‘Butler!’ yelled Ellis, and as the butler appeared, ‘go and wake that bloody chokra up!’
‘How much ice have we got left?’
‘‘Bout twenty pounds, master. Will only last today, I think. I find it very difficult to keep ice cool now.’
‘Don’t talk like that, damn you — “I find it very difficult!” Have you swallowed a dictionary? “Please, master, can’t keeping ice cool” — that’s how you ought to talk. We shall have to sack this fellow if he gets to talk English too well. I can’t stick servants who talk English. D’you hear, butler?’
‘Yes, master,’ said the butler, and retired.
‘God! No ice till Monday,’ Westfield said. ‘You going back to the jungle, Flory?’
‘Yes. I ought to be there now. I only came in because of the English mail.’
‘Go on tour myself, I think. Knock up a spot of Travelling Allowance. I can’t stick my bloody office at this time of year. Sitting there under the damned punkah, signing one chit after another. Paper-chewing. God, how I wish the war was on again!’
‘I’m going out the day after tomorrow,’ Ellis said. ‘Isn’t that damned padre coming to hold his service this Sunday? I’ll take care not to be in for that, anyway. Bloody knee-drill.’
‘Next Sunday,’ said Westfield. ‘Promised to be in for it myself. So’s Macgregor. Bit hard on the poor devil of a padre, I must say. Only gets here once in six weeks. Might as well get up a congregation when he does come.’
‘Oh, hell! I’d snivel psalms to oblige the padre, but I can’t stick the way these damned native Christians come shoving into our church. A pack of Madrassi servants and Karen school-teachers. And then those two yellow-bellies, Francis and Samuel — they call themselves Christians too. Last time the padre was here they had the nerve to come up and sit on the front pews with the white men. Someone ought to speak to the padre about that. What bloody fools we were ever to let those missionaries loose in this country! Teaching bazaar sweepers they’re as good as we are. “Please, sir, me Christian same like master.” Damned cheek.’
‘How about that for a pair of legs?’ said Mr Lackersteen, passing La Vie Parisienne across. ‘You know French, Flory; what’s that mean underneath? Christ, it reminds me of when I was in Paris, my first leave, before I married. Christ, I wish I was there again!’
‘Did you hear that one about “There was a young lady of Woking”?’ Maxwell said. He was rather a silent youth, but, like other youths, he had an affection for a good smutty rhyme. He completed the biography of the young lady of Woking, and there was a laugh. Westfield replied with the young lady of Ealing who had a peculiar feeling, and Flory came in with the young curate of Horsham who always took every precaution. There was more laughter. Even Ellis thawed and produced several rhymes; Ellis’s jokes were always genuinely witty, and yet filthy beyond measure. Everyone cheered up and felt more friendly in spite of the heat. They had finished the beer and were just going to call for another drink, when shoes creaked on the steps outside. A booming voice, which made the floorboards tingle, was saying jocosely:
‘Yes, most distinctly humorous. I incorporated it in one of those little articles of mine in Blackwood’s, you know. I remember, too, when I was stationed at Prome, another quite — ah — diverting incident which — ’
Evidently Mr Macgregor had arrived at the Club. Mr Lackersteen exclaimed, ‘Hell! My wife’s there,’ and pushed his empty glass as far away from him as it would go. Mr Macgregor and Mrs Lackersteen entered the lounge together.
Mr Macgregor was a large, heavy man, rather past forty, with a kindly, puggy face, wearing gold-rimmed spectacles. His bulky shoulders, and a trick he had of thrusting his head forward, reminded one curiously of a turtle — the Burmans, in fact, nicknamed him ‘the tortoise’. He was dressed in a clean silk suit, which already showed patches of sweat beneath the armpits. He greeted the others with a humorous mock-salute, and then planted himself before the notice-board, beaming, in the attitude of a schoolmaster twiddling a cane behind his back. The good nature in his face was quite genuine, and yet there was such a wilful geniality about him, such a strenuous air of being off duty and forgetting his official rank, that no one was ever quite at ease in his presence. His conversation was evidently modelled on that of some facetious schoolmaster or clergyman whom he had known in early life. Any long word, any quotation, any proverbial expression figured in his mind as a joke, and was introduced with a bumbling noise like ‘er’ or ‘ah’, to make it clear that there was a joke coming. Mrs Lackersteen was a woman of about thirty-five, handsome in a contourless, elongated way, like a fashion plate. She had a sighing, discontented voice. The others had all stood up when she entered, and Mrs Lackersteen sank exhaustedly into the best chair under the punkah, fanning herself with a slender hand like that of a newt.
‘Oh dear, this heat, this heat! Mr Macgregor came and fetched me in his car. SO kind of him. Tom, that wretch of a rickshaw-man is pretending to be ill again. Really, I think you ought to give him a good thrashing and bring him to his senses. It’s too terrible to have to walk about in this sun every day.’
Mrs Lackersteen, unequal to the quarter-mile walk between her house and the Club, had imported a rickshaw from Rangoon. Except for bullock-carts and Mr Macgregor’s car it was the only wheeled vehicle in Kyauktada, for the whole district did not possess ten miles of road. In the jungle, rather than leave her husband alone, Mrs Lackersteen endured all the horrors of dripping tents, mosquitoes and tinned food; but she made up for it by complaining over trifles while in headquarters.
‘Really I think the laziness of these servants is getting too shocking,’ she sighed. ‘Don’t you agree, Mr Macgregor? We seem to have no AUTHORITY over the natives nowadays, with all these dreadful Reforms, and the insolence they learn from the newspapers. In some ways they are getting almost as bad as the lower classes at home.’
‘Oh, hardly as bad as that, I trust. Still, I am afraid there is no doubt that the democratic spirit is creeping in, even here.’
‘And such a short time ago, even just before the war, they were so NICE and respectful! The way they salaamed when you passed them on the road — it was really quite charming. I remember when we paid our butler only twelve rupees a month, and really that man loved us like a dog. And now they are demanding forty and fifty rupees, and I find that the only way I can even KEEP a servant is to pay their wages several months in arrears.’
‘The old type of servant is disappearing,’ agreed Mr Macgregor. ‘In my young days, when one’s butler was disrespectful, one sent him along to the jail with a chit saying “Please give the bearer fifteen lashes”. Ah well, eheu fugaces! Those days are gone for ever, I am afraid.’
‘Ah, you’re about right there,’ said Westfield in his gloomy way. ‘This country’ll never be fit to live in again. British Raj is finished if you ask me. Lost Dominion and all that. Time we cleared out of it.’
Whereat there was a murmur of agreement from everyone in the room, even from Flory, notoriously a Bolshie in his opinions, even from young Maxwell, who had been barely three years in the country. No Anglo-Indian will ever deny that India is going to the dogs, or ever has denied it — for India, like Punch, never was what it was.
Ellis had meanwhile unpinned the offending notice from behind Mr Macgregor’s back, and he now held it out to him, saying in his sour way:
‘Here, Macgregor, we’ve read this notice, and we all think this idea of electing a native to the Club is absolute — ’ Ellis was going to have said ‘absolute balls’, but he remembered Mrs Lackersteen’s presence and checked himself — ‘is absolutely uncalled for. After all, this Club is a place where we come to enjoy ourselves, and we don’t want natives poking about in here. We like to think there’s still one place where we’re free of them. The others all agree with me absolutely.’
He looked round at the others. ‘Hear, hear!’ said Mr Lackersteen gruffly. He knew that his wife would guess that he had been drinking, and he felt that a display of sound sentiment would excuse him.
Mr Macgregor took the notice with a smile. He saw the ‘B. F.’ pencilled against his name, and privately he thought Ellis’s manner very disrespectful, but he turned the matter off with a joke. He took as great pains to be a good fellow at the Club as he did to keep up his dignity during office hours. ‘I gather,’ he said, ‘that our friend Ellis does not welcome the society of — ah — his Aryan brother?’
‘No, I do not,’ said Ellis tartly. ‘Nor my Mongolian brother. I don’t like niggers, to put it in one word.’
Mr Macgregor stiffened at the word ‘nigger’, which is discountenanced in India. He had no prejudice against Orientals; indeed, he was deeply fond of them. Provided they were given no freedom he thought them the most charming people alive. It always pained him to see them wantonly insulted.
‘Is it quite playing the game,’ he said stiffly, ‘to call these people niggers — a term they very naturally resent — when they are obviously nothing of the kind? The Burmese are Mongolians, the Indians are Aryans or Dravidians, and all of them are quite distinct — ’
‘Oh, rot that!’ said Ellis, who was not at all awed by Mr Macgregor’s official status. ‘Call them niggers or Aryans or what you like. What I’m saying is that we don’t want to see any black hides in this Club. If you put it to the vote you’ll find we’re against it to a man — unless Flory wants his DEAR pal Veraswami,’ he added.
‘Hear, hear!’ repeated Mr Lackersteen. ‘Count on me to blackball the lot of ‘em.’
Mr Macgregor pursed his lips whimsically. He was in an awkward position, for the idea of electing a native member was not his own, but had been passed on to him by the Commissioner. However, he disliked making excuses, so he said in a more conciliatory tone:
‘Shall we postpone discussing it till the next general meeting? In the meantime we can give it our mature consideration. And now,’ he added, moving towards the table, ‘who will join me in a little — ah — liquid refreshment?’
The butler was called and the ‘liquid refreshment’ ordered. It was hotter than ever now, and everyone was thirsty. Mr Lackersteen was on the point of ordering a drink when he caught his wife’s eye, shrank up and said sulkily ‘No.’ He sat with his hands on his knees, with a rather pathetic expression, watching Mrs Lackersteen swallow a glass of lemonade with gin in it. Mr Macgregor, though he signed the chit for drinks, drank plain lemonade. Alone of the Europeans in Kyauktada, he kept the rule of not drinking before sunset.
‘It’s all very well,’ grumbled Ellis, with his forearms on the table, fidgeting with his glass. The dispute with Mr Macgregor had made him restless again. ‘It’s all very well, but I stick to what I said. No natives in this Club! It’s by constantly giving way over small things like that that we’ve ruined the Empire. The country’s only rotten with sedition because we’ve been too soft with them. The only possible policy is to treat ‘em like the dirt they are. This is a critical moment, and we want every bit of prestige we can get. We’ve got to hang together and say, “WE ARE THE MASTERS, and you beggars — ”’ Ellis pressed his small thumb down as though flattening a grub — ’“you beggars keep your place!”’
‘Hopeless, old chap,’ said Westfield. ‘Quite hopeless. What can you do with all this red tape tying your hands? Beggars of natives know the law better than we do. Insult you to your face and then run you in the moment you hit ‘em. Can’t do anything unless you put your foot down firmly. And how can you, if they haven’t the guts to show fight?’
‘Our burra sahib at Mandalay always said,’ put in Mrs Lackersteen, ‘that in the end we shall simply LEAVE India. Young men will not come out here any longer to work all their lives for insults and ingratitude. We shall just GO. When the natives come to us begging us to stay, we shall say, “No, you have had your chance, you wouldn’t take it. Very well, we shall leave you to govern yourselves.” And then, what a lesson that will teach them!’
‘It’s all this law and order that’s done for us,’ said Westfield gloomily. The ruin of the Indian Empire through too much legality was a recurrent theme with Westfield. According to him, nothing save a full-sized rebellion, and the consequent reign of martial law, could save the Empire from decay. ‘All this paper-chewing and chit-passing. Office babus are the real rulers of this country now. Our number’s up. Best thing we can do is to shut up shop and let ‘em stew in their own juice.’
‘I don’t agree, I simply don’t agree,’ Ellis said. ‘We could put things right in a month if we chose. It only needs a pennyworth of pluck. Look at Amritsar. Look how they caved in after that. Dyer knew the stuff to give them. Poor old Dyer! That was a dirty job. Those cowards in England have got something to answer for.’
There was a kind of sigh from the others, the same sigh that a gathering of Roman Catholics will give at the mention of Bloody Mary. Even Mr Macgregor, who detested bloodshed and martial law, shook his head at the name of Dyer.
‘Ah, poor man! Sacrificed to the Paget M.P.s. Well, perhaps they will discover their mistake when it is too late.’
‘My old governor used to tell a story about that,’ said Westfield. ‘There was an old havildar in a native regiment — someone asked him what’d happen if the British left India. The old chap said — ’
Flory pushed back his chair and stood up. It must not, it could not — no, it simply should not go on any longer! He must get out of this room quickly, before something happened inside his head and he began to smash the furniture and throw bottles at the pictures. Dull boozing witless porkers! Was it possible that they could go on week after week, year after year, repeating word for word the same evil-minded drivel, like a parody of a fifth-rate story in Blackwood’s? Would none of them EVER think of anything new to say? Oh, what a place, what people! What a civilization is this of ours — this godless civilization founded on whisky, Blackwood’s and the ‘Bonzo’ pictures! God have mercy on us, for all of us are part of it.
Flory did not say any of this, and he was at some pains not to show it in his face. He was standing by his chair, a little sidelong to the others, with the half-smile of a man who is never sure of his popularity.
‘I’m afraid I shall have to be off,’ he said. ‘I’ve got some things to see to before breakfast, unfortunately.’
‘Stay and have another spot, old man,’ said Westfield. ‘Morning’s young. Have a gin. Give you an appetite.’
‘No, thanks, I must be going. Come on, Flo. Good-bye, Mrs Lackersteen. Good-bye, everybody.’
‘Exit Booker Washington, the niggers’ pal,’ said Ellis as Flory disappeared. Ellis could always be counted on to say something disagreeable about anyone who had just left the room. ‘Gone to see Very-slimy, I suppose. Or else sloped off to avoid paying a round of drinks.’
‘Oh, he’s not a bad chap,’ Westfield said. ‘Says some Bolshie things sometimes. Don’t suppose he means half of them.’
‘Oh, a very good fellow, of course,’ said Mr Macgregor. Every European in India is ex-officio, or rather ex-colore, a good fellow, until he has done something quite outrageous. It is an honorary rank.
‘He’s a bit TOO Bolshie for my taste. I can’t bear a fellow who pals up with the natives. I shouldn’t wonder if he’s got a lick of the tar-brush himself. It might explain that black mark on his face. Piebald. And he looks like a yellow-belly, with that black hair, and skin the colour of a lemon.’
There was some desultory scandal about Flory, but not much, because Mr Macgregor did not like scandal. The Europeans stayed in the Club long enough for one more round of drinks. Mr Macgregor told his anecdote about Prome, which could be produced in almost any context. And then the conversation veered back to the old, never-palling subject — the insolence of the natives, the supineness of the Government, the dear dead days when the British Raj WAS the British Raj and please give the bearer fifteen lashes. This topic was never let alone for long, partly because of Ellis’s obsession. Besides, you could forgive the Europeans a great deal of their bitterness. Living and working among Orientals would try the temper of a saint. And all of them, the officials particularly, knew what it was to be baited and insulted. Almost every day, when Westfield or Mr Macgregor or even Maxwell went down the street, the High School boys, with their young, yellow faces — faces smooth as gold coins, full of that maddening contempt that sits so naturally on the Mongolian face — sneered at them as they went past, sometimes hooted after them with hyena-like laughter. The life of the Anglo-Indian officials is not all jam. In comfortless camps, in sweltering offices, in gloomy dakbungalows smelling of dust and earth-oil, they earn, perhaps, the right to be a little disagreeable.
It was getting on for ten now, and hot beyond bearing. Flat, clear drops of sweat gathered on everyone’s face, and on the men’s bare forearms. A damp patch was growing larger and larger in the back of Mr Macgregor’s silk coat. The glare outside seemed to soak somehow through the green-chicked windows, making one’s eyes ache and filling one’s head with stuffiness. Everyone thought with malaise of his stodgy breakfast, and of the long, deadly hours that were coming. Mr Macgregor stood up with a sigh and adjusted his spectacles, which had slipped down his sweating nose.
‘Alas that such a festive gathering should end,’ he said. ‘I must get home to breakfast. The cares of Empire. Is anybody coming my way? My man is waiting with the car.’
‘Oh, thank you,’ said Mrs Lackersteen; ‘if you’d take Tom and me. What a relief not to have to walk in this heat!’
The others stood up. Westfield stretched his arms and yawned through his nose. ‘Better get a move on, I suppose. Go to sleep if I sit here any longer. Think of stewing in that office all day! Baskets of papers. Oh Lord!’
‘Don’t forget tennis this evening, everyone,’ said Ellis. ‘Maxwell, you lazy devil, don’t you skulk out of it again. Down here with your racquet at four-thirty sharp.’
‘Apres vous, madame,’ said Mr Macgregor gallantly, at the door.
‘Lead on, Macduff,’ said Westfield.
They went out into the glaring white sunlight. The heat rolled from the earth like the breath of an oven. The flowers, oppressive to the eyes, blazed with not a petal stirring, in a debauch of sun. The glare sent a weariness through one’s bones. There was something horrible in it — horrible to think of that blue, blinding sky, stretching on and on over Burma and India, over Siam, Cambodia, China, cloudless and interminable. The plates of Mr Macgregor’s waiting car were too hot to touch. The evil time of day was beginning, the time, as the Burmese say, ‘when feet are silent’. Hardly a living creature stirred, except men, and the black columns of ants, stimulated by the heat, which marched ribbon-like across the path, and the tail-less vultures which soared on the currents of the air.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53