The Kiplings and India: A Collection of Writings from British India, 1870-1900

A Pinchbeck Goddess (Alice MacDonald Fleming, 1886)

Summary and Notes

       "She paints dreadfully."
       "Also, that bright colour is heart disease, she is delicate."
       "And perhaps it’s heart disease that gives her her hair—with dark grey eyes. I know she paints it.”
       “Well, however she does it, she is certainly the [best] woman up here.”
       That was what the men said, and all the girls [thought] Mrs. Edwards to be a mass of paint and [colour], and wondered why men had no eyes.
        According to Simla, she was husband-hunting; [women] in Simla all maids and widows, of whatever age, are supposed to be always husband-hunting. It is the men who invent this fiction, […] them importance.
        They also said that Mrs. Edwards showed her [….] openly, it was an absolutely barefaced […g], that a young woman, or at any rate a [woman] who wished to be thought young, should […] to India only accompanied by an un[…ful].
        She was known to have said that she married early, and lost her husband nearly six years ago, but she evaded any questions about her marriage, and Miss Collin, her cousin and comrade, was equally reticent. They were a mystery; nobody knew them at Home, or had ever [heard] of them before. One gossip succeeded in [finding] a man who had come out in the same steamer with them; but he could only tell her […] come on board at Brindisi, and made [….] very pleasant during the voyage. All that was known of them was, that they were pretty and agreeable, rich enough to live in a […] cottage—house-rent is no trifle at Simla—and dress beautifully.
         [A lady], with a touch of the detective in her […], was made suspicious by noticing that the […] portraits in Mrs. Edwards’ drawing room [were] photographs of that lady herself, Miss Collin, London celebrities, and a painting of an extremely pretty child. The caller asked about [the picture], hoping to gain some evidence of a […] daughter—grown up perhaps and languishing at school—but Mrs. Edwards’ answer disappointed.
       “Poor little May!” she sighed. “You can […] lovely she was even then; that was […] a little while before she died; only four years old poor darling I never had another child.”
        Miss Collin moved uneasily, and ejaculated “Oh, Winnie!” in a way that was not lost on the visitor—but Mrs. Edwards was looking so mournfully at the child’s picture, it seemed wrong to doubt her for a moment.
       She had no sooner gone, when Mrs. Edwards burst into a peal of laughter. “Didn’t I do it well?” she cried. “Why, she looked quite sympathetic, but Elsie you must be more careful. Fancy saying “Oh, Winnie” in that shocked voice, and throwing discredit on my story of May.”
        “I’m not an actress” sighed Miss Collin ”and this is like living on the stage. I’m so afraid of forgetting my part and letting it all out some day.”
        “Nonsense! Try and take my view of it. Does not it amuse you to think of how many people we are puzzling? I am actually calling, as a startling novelty, on people I knew quite well last year.”
        “I should live in dread of being found out.”
        “You can’t be—if you will only think before you speak. As for me, its [sic] a little humiliating, that of all the men and women I met here last season, not one of them remembers my face or voice.”
         “But you look quite different.”
         “Yes and much nicer—or so I am told.”
       “That’s another thing. How can you bear the constant deception? The feeling that you are disguising and making up every time you dress?”
        “Very easily. What is a little rouge more or less? And I assure you my golden hair does not weigh on my conscience, though I wonder at anybody admiring it. It looks so palpably false to my thinking.”
         “Do leave it off then.”
      “Elsie, do be frivolous! Can’t you understand what a delightful change this is for me, spite of its unreality. I’ve been plain and serious for twenty-nine years, and now what is it they call me? ‘the prettiest woman up here’! You needn’t look so shocked. I know much of my so called beauty I owe to my hair dresser and dressmaker and the little locked box on my toilet table, and how very much more to human folly; but it is amusing all the same.”
        “But, Winnie, it is changing you [sic] nature, and such a poor pitiful triumph as it is” ! [
     “Yes, I know that—but doesn’t Goethe say we must all be drunk once in our lives, and my fit of intoxication is to last six months. I have been so sober before, and I promise to be my old self in the winter. We will go quietly back to Sutcliff, if you want to.”
        “Well, I hope I shall be able to keep your secret till then.”
        “Of course you will, you have only to remember a few facts. To begin with—who am I?”
        “Winifred Norton, of course.”
        “Elsie, hush! Will you never realize that I’ve been married? How very badly you play at ‘let’s pretend.’ Now I believe firmly in the deceased Mr. Edwards. Dear old thing, he had such a red face, and he always went to sleep directly after dinner every evening!”
        “Don’t please. I feel as if you were telling unnecessary lies.”
     “Silly girl! I’m only acting a novel instead of writing it. Go on. I’m Mrs. Edwards. Who was my husband?
        “Thomas Edwards, a merchant.””Dear Tom! Was he much my senior” ? [sic]
        “Yes, about twenty years.”
        “No, twenty-five. You see, I married him when  I was nineteen, so I naturally felt the difference.”
        “Winnie, how ridiculous!”
        “My dear, you haven’t an artistic soul, and you have no imagination. I delight in these touching details; and now don’t preach any longer. I have business letters to write—most important business. One to Lichtenfeld for a new toupee. [What should I be without my pretty fringe?] and another to Cerise about a fancy dress. They are sure to have a Fancy Ball towards the end of the season, and my costume must be nothing if not startling. At the ball here last year I wore a “Puritan” dress and made it myself. It was down to the floor and nearly up to my ears. This one shall be a contrast.”
        "What shall you be then--a Hornet?"
       "And meet my double at every turn? There never yet was a Fancy Ball without a 'Hornet.' No I'll be a Devil. Don't look so frightened. I'll call myself 'Diavolina.' Seriously, I think the dress would suit me. Very short, all black and yellow and red, with sparkling things for lames and a pitch fork, and I wonder if they could send me out an electric light star for the hair. You can get them now, I believe, and they are uncommon at any rate. I think you can turn the light out if you like; of course I shouldn't care to be brilliantly illuminated the whole evening."
        Miss Collin sighted and settled herself to a severe piece of needlework. She was a quiet looking girl of about four and twenty, always well-dressed, though generally in dark tints, and brown-haired, with a fresh English color. 
        People used to wonder what the bond was between pretty Mrs. Edwards, with her rouge and palpably dyed golden locks, and this sombre maiden who was so unlike her. 
        Poor Elsie, her innocent mind was often sorely troubled by what she called "acting a lie;" but from her childhood Winifred Norton had ruled over her. She had found herself imperiously ordered to leave her post as governess to three spoilt children, and accompany her friend to India; to accompany that friend, too, under a feigned name and a sham identity. It needed much persuasion to maker her do this, but in the end Winifred had her way. 
     Some few people, with long memories, said once or twice in the course of the season--"Do you remember what pleasant dinners the Halls used to give? I wonder how they are getting on at Home." And the lady with a touch of detective in her nature said to a friend "Have you any idea what became of that plain cousin of Mrs. Hall? Miss Norton, you know? A girl no longer young, who came out in search of a husband and did not find one?" No, nothing had been heard of her since her return Home. 
        Miss Norton had  not been liked at Simla. She was a thin, decided woman, twenty-eight years old, with keen eyes and a quick tongue, who had not sought to make herself pleasant. She wore her dark hair drawn straight back from her pale face, and her dresses were puritanical in their simplicity; therefore she was called palin, spite of handsome grey eyes and a well shaped mouth and chin. 
        Winifred Norton went Home in November 1884, and Winnie Edwards came to India in March 1885. Miss Celia could have told how the three months had been spent before pretty Mrs. Edwards dazzled the eyes of Anglo-Indians with her smart dresses, yellow hair, and fashionable complexion.
       It was a poor triumph, but Miss Norton had had no triumphs in her sombre life. She had been dependent on a severely pious aunt, who having cultivated the virtue of humility in her niece, by constantly threatening to leave her penniless, finally made her her heiress. After this lady's death Miss Norton visited India, played a wallflower's part for the whole of a Simla season, noticed many things, and returned to England to prepare for the one freak of her life.
        It succeeded beyond her hopes. She herself was astonished by the change in her appearance, and she was soon able to play her part as well as she looked it. 
      Men who, the year before had yawned if they sat next her at dinner, and avoided her eye at a ball, looking over her head or through her rather than ask her to dance, were now her slaves--glad to be at her beck and call.
        She had always held cynical views of human nature, and the life she led confirmed them. The devotion that was offered her was not a thing to be proud of, but such as it was she won it, and by what means? 
        Winifred Norton, with a clear fresh natural base and honesty, could not obtain what painted, powdered, artificial Winnie Edwards had laid at her feet. It was humiliating to think why she was admired; but admiration is sweet, however gained, and however despised. 
        The second leave-season came, and many of her admirers returned reluctantly to the plains. She did not miss them, and their places were soon filled.
     Women said that the men were really absurd. It was impossible to help seeing how artificial Mrs. Edwards was, yet they quite raved about her. let her only wait till Major Singleton came up, and she would find one man proof against her charms. 
       Major Singleton was unmarried, and had exaggerated notions as to how the loss of a husband should affect a woman's life. Second marriage he thought odious for a woman, though of course it was different for a man. He was fond of expounding his stern views and hatred of frivolity, and had a reputation for singular high mindedness; a kind of Sir Galahad if it is possible to imagine that saintly youth nearly forty years of age with a long moustache and a bald patch on the top of his head. How such a man would despise a waltzing widow who wore salmon-pink ball dresses, and diamante diamonds in her yellow head!
        There was surprise and disappointment among Mrs. Edwards' lady friends one morning, when her card-box, with its legend "not at home" was seen hanging by her gate, and Major Singleton's brown arab waiting near. Major Singleton never rode ponies, and his handsome Arab was known to all Simla.
        Next day assurance was made double sure for he rode with Mrs. Edwards, not seeming at all disgusted by her frequent laughs and her tinted face.
        As the weeks went by, he tried to reason with himself; here was a woman, the very type of all he most disliked and disapproved of, a woman who dreamed showily, flirted, dyed her hair, painted her cheeks, blacked her eyes, and in spite of this, fascinated him. A widow too, who had evidently sacrificed her best feelings for money, and spoke of her deceased husband with shocking levity. In the abstract he despised her, in reality he loved her.
       Often when he saw her in the clear sunlight, her rouge painfully apparent, flirting loudly with the nearest man or men, he felt she was not worth taking seriously. But he did take her seriously none the less. It struck him that she played a part to the world at large, and was only her real self to him. Fate had been very hard to him in thus forcing him to love such a woman, but he loved her, there was no escaping from that.
      Early in October the Fancy Ball took place, and Mrs. Edwards' "Diavolina" dress made a great sensation. Major Singleton did not know how it happened; but he began by scolding her for wearing such a costume, and ended by asking her to marry him.
        "Come and see me to-morrow at one o'clock," was the only answer she gave him, and she left very early. The electric-light star made her head ache, she said.

        Elsie, who had preferred not  to go to this ball, was startled by her friend's early return, and still more so when she saw her eyes full of tears.
       "The play is over Elsie" she said. "How fortunate I have some of my own dreams with me. Major Singleton proposed to me this evening."
        "And what did you say?"
        "I asked him to come to-morrow. Can't you guess what I mean to do? when he comes, Winifred Norton will receive him. I can't keep this up any longer, though I daren't think how it may end."
      Next morning Major Singleton found himself standing before a slight plainly dressed woman; her smooth dark hair was drawn back from a pretty forehead, and the pale cheeks flushed as he looked at her. For a moment he was puzzled--then he recognised Mrs. Edwards' eyes in this girl's face--and Winifred told him her story.
      A few days later the weather became too cold for Mrs. Edwards, and she went down to Bombay, leaving India early in November. Major Singleton rejoined his regiment before his two months' leave had expired. The men naturally said the pretty widow had "jawabed" him and "a deuced good thing, too, it would take down some of his 'side.'"
       The women who naturally said that Mrs. Edwards' attempt to catch the Major had been really shameful. The poor fellow was forced to tell her on the night of the Fancy Ball that he had no intention of marrying her, and she had at once gone back home in floods of tears. 
     In the spring Major Singleton went to England on twelve months' leave, and not longer after the lady who had always taken an interest in Mrs. Edwards read this among a list of marriages in the Overland Mail:--
     "Singleton--Norton-- On the 16h instant, at St. Jude's Church, Sutcliff, Hampshire--Major guy Singleton, 103rd Bengal Lancers, to Winifred, only daughter of the late William Norton of Sutcliff."
     "How strange!" she said. "Major Singleton has married that girl who was out here with the Halls. What a disappointment for Mrs. Edwards. Though of course we all knew he would never marry her
     Major Singleton declares that, if had only come to Simla in the season of 1884, he should have fallen in love with Miss Norton, and Mrs. Edwards would never had existed; but Winifred vows that it was her tinsel and glitter that first attracted him. The quiet girl he would have overlooked, but the sparkling woman caught his eye and the rest followed. 
     In all probability she will spend next season at Simla; and kind friends will be sure to tell her how dreadfully her husband flirted last year with pretty Mrs. Edwards. 



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