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

A Pinchbeck Goddess, Chapter 1


"In the middle of the woods
Dwelt the Wongy Bongy Boo.
One old jug, without a handle,
Two old chairs, and half a candle—
In the middle of the woods,
These were all his worldly goods."
            Edward Lear

          "Winnie, this is like a barn; we can't live here."
          "Don't display your ignorance, my dear; it is a hill-house; they are all furnished like this, only some are worse."
          "But where is the furniture? I suppose this is meant to be the drawing-room, and it has one rickety table and two straight-backed chairs."
          "You have overlooked this couch—behold it! It is upholstered in chintz of twenty years ago, which proudly proclaims that it has never once been washed during that period. There is also a hole in it—a large hole to catch the unwary. Janet, save me! Pull me up! I'm sinking fast!"
          The room was a particularly nice one, considered as part of a cottage in Simla. It was fairly large, and at one end a bow-window looked out across billowing masses of green and brown mountains, to where the snowy range rose clear and pure against the evening sky. After the fashion of Indian rooms, it suffered from a plethora of doors. Two, made chiefly of glass, led into a veranda, two more into a passage, while a fifth opened upon a small square den, capable of becoming a study or a boudoir according to the fancy of the occupant, and most impartially unfit for either purpose.
          The ceiling was made of whitewashed canvas, and bulged exceedingly. The walls had a dull gray paper patterned in brown and blue; the fire place was a yawning gulf, and the mantelpiece a simple ledge of whitewashed clay. A dirty cotton drugget made pretence of covering the floor; and the furniture was one table, two chairs, and the perilous sofa, nothing else. The little square room had a still dirtier drugget, and a very small table tottering on three uneven legs.
          The two women looked at each other, one amused, the other dismayed.
          "We harmonize fatally well with our surroundings," said the one who was amused— "deep in dust, and with a faded, dilapidated appearance. Let's get rid of cloaks and solah topees. Aren't the stairs wonderful? It's just like ascending the Great Pyramid, if you could only imagine that laid down with cocoanut matting."
          The steep steps were few in number, and the rooms they led to rather more meagrely appointed than those below. A middle-aged woman, in whose face a desire to complain struggled with a resolve to show no surprise, was unpacking a great many boxes.
          "There is only one hanging wardrobe, 'm, and it looks so dirty I really don't like to put your dresses in it," was her greeting.
"Never mind about it now, Nugent; the dresses can stay in their boxes for to-night."
          "Winnie," called Janet, across the narrow passage, "this basin is so cracked that it would not hold together for five minutes in England; the climate must have strange powers here."
          "Well, my jug is in two, four, six pieces, cunningly connected with copper wire—a miracle of noble workmanship! I wonder the riveter could find it in his heart to part with it."
          "Winnie, there isn't an inch of curtain or blind in my room; how am I to go to bed to night?"
          "Oh, Cockney! How often must I tell you that we are not in London; there is no one to overlook you here except crows and monkeys, and they are not easily shocked, but you shall have blinds to-morrow."
          The woman who spoke was rather tall and very slender; her face had a studied perfection of tint, accompanied by an unmistakable artificiality of surface. Her eyebrows and long lashes were black, contrasting sharply with bright hair that was too warmly tinted to be golden, too russet to be ruddy, too brilliant to be brown. It decked her pretty head in well-arranged ripples and curls; and a certain quality of dainty finish hard to define, but impossible to ignore, characterized her whole appearance.
"Come down and have some tea, Janet," she said presently, "Mouz Bux has evolved it out of chaos and the luncheon-basket. Doesn't it strike you as a great convenience that, though you are upstairs and I am down, I can talk to you almost without raising my voice, my ceiling and your floor are so thin?"
          "You ought to write to the landlord for more furniture; this is like a practical joke," said Janet, seating herself cautiously on one of the straightbacked chairs.
          "I don't mind doing so, but I know before hand that he will express great surprise at my unreasonable demands. 'Deodar Cottage has been let every season for the last fifteen years, but this is the first time any tenant has been dissatisfied with the furniture; indeed, it is generally considered to be one of the best-appointed houses in Simla.' If I persist, he may perhaps, because of my continual complaining, stop my mouth with a converted packing-case, yearning to return to its former convictions, which he will call a sideboard. Do you think it would be worth the trouble?"
          "But surely he would send you some chairs?"
          "Let me not malign a man who is doubtless both worthy and generous; I see, as in a looking-glass, the chairs he would send us. Wicker chairs, Janet—the ones that squeak, smeared with bazaar paint that smells to heaven, and sparsely cushioned in chintz, own cousin to that on our couch, red cabbages on a black ground. Dost thou like the picture?"
          "What are we to do, then? This room is impossible."
          "Of course it is. Now you see the reason for my bale of Liberty chintz and muslin, though I am sure I have not brought half enough, for the dining-room needs reforming, too. Listen, my dear: to-morrow we will go out in rickshaws; until you are used to them, you will wonder if you are a baby in a perambulator or an invalid in a bath-chair, but that feeling wears off."
          "Yes, and then?"
          "We'll buy a carpet, several carpets, to cover this thing on the floor, which seems to have turned gray with horror at the ugliness of the wall-paper, and we'll get tins of Aspinall, and then you'll see."
          "What, are we to Aspinall this table?"
           "No, even my ambition has its limit; but if we wait—it may be for days, or it may be for weeks—men will come hung round with cane and wicker furniture. We shall buy some of these things, and order others of lengths and breadths to fit the holes and corners; they will bring them anon, with no unseemly haste, and then our work will begin."
          "I can make beautiful frilled curtains on my sewing-machine," said Janet, brightening; "this room will take six pairs."
          ''My dear, you shan't, this is holiday time; besides, you forget that we are in the Land of Luxury, where people habitually die from overwork, so take care. I mean to kneel before Nugent to-morrow, and sing imploringly, ' Oh, can ye sew cushions?' and, what is much more to the purpose, 'Will ye sew cushions?' I had better get a ticca dhirzie, too. That's not bad language, Janet; it only means a man who comes to sew by the day."
          Janet still looked serious; she was a blue-eyed, sturdily-built young woman, who seemed older than her friend. Her brown hair was satin-smooth, and she had a look of radiant cleanliness, which had survived even the dusty ordeal of a fifty-mile drive on a hill road.
          "India is not at all a ready-made country," continued Winnie, who was seeking rest on the couch, and finding none; "you are tripped up by raw products at every turn. For instance, the cotton we are going to stuff our cushions with will arrive in a big bundle, fresh drawn frae the tree, with twigs and pebbles and dirt in it; and we shall hire a man, dressed in the shadowed livery of the burnished sun, and not much else, to sit in the veranda and pick it over."
          "I call that cumbrous."
          "Looked at from the proper point of view, it is fascinating, and savours of the Middle Ages. Another cup of tea please, dear."
Roused by the rattle of teacups, a depressed fox terrier came out of a corner and eyed his mistress reproachfully. His white coat was travel-stained, and his whole appearance expressed his heartfelt dislike for a new place and an unsettled household.
          "Poorest Cripps!" said Winnie; "he was a pale martyr, he was, and if he had only known all he was going to suffer he would never have left own England. First it was a ship, a dreadful ship; and then it was a train that was much nastier, 'cause there was no rats there; and then it was a tonga that shook a dear dog, as if he had been a rat ownselfs."
          Her sympathetic voice moved Cripps almost to tears; his ears drooped lower and lower, and he refused biscuits after one languid sniff. A saucer of sugared milk pleased him better; he emptied it with much splashing and slopping, sighed heavily, and fell asleep in a shivering coil.
          "What are you going to do with this den?" asked Janet, walking into the little square room.
          Winnie followed, and, slipping a hand through her friend's firm arm, spoke with deliberation.
          "Janet, take a boiled shrimp and a ripe apricot."
          “What do you mean?"
          "I'm not reciting from a cookery-book: a shrimp and an apricot, in one pink ruin blent, make a lovely colour, and muslin can be dyed in the bazaar to exactly that tint. I shall flute the walls of this fearful little place eight or nine feet up with miles of that muslin; the effect will be like a bonbonnière, and it will suit my complexion for-bye."
          "Oh, Winnie, your complexion!"
          "Don't be arrogant; we can't all be washable pink and white like you and a nursery wall-paper. I wish I had brought some out with me, by-the-by; these walls are terrible, and the ceiling is like a white petticoat that's coming down. Come and look at the house from the outside."
          It was the end of April, and the warm day had turned to a chilly evening; the sunset was over, and a soft wind had risen to say good-night to the pines. The sough of their branches was like the tender sound of a far-off sea.
          "Oh, listen! " said Winnie; " isn't it distinct? I can hear the very shish of the pebbles as the waves drag them back."
          "What do you mean, dear? "
          "The wind in the pines; " and she drew her cloak closer as she murmured:

" ' And still the pines of Simla hills
Are moaning like a sea:
The moaning of the sea of change
Between myself—and me!'"

          "What did you say, Winnie?"
          "Nothing; only there are eight deadly sins, quotation being the last and worst, especially when one alters the poet's holy writ to suit one's own base ends. Look at Deodar Cottage; isn't it just like a doll's-house on a shelf?"
          There was space enough in front of the house for a rickshaw to turn with great caution and precision; then came a steep bank thickly set with slender pine-tree stems, and brown and slippery with last year's pine-needles. A tangle of white wild-rose gleamed below, but the earth was parched and very thirsty and dusty, waiting for rain.
          "Everything seems burnt up this year," said Winnie; " it is like the plains set on end. When the rains come, all these hillsides will be a tangle of beautiful green things." It was hard to tell where the so-called garden ended and the hillside began; there was no gate, no paling—everything was just as it happened, and the two or three oval plots edged with stones, and holding straggling rose-bushes, looked like unseemly freckles on the face of the great mountain. The hills round them loomed vaguely in the dusk; a fluffy owl cried shrilly from a tree near by, and a large clear star seemed to balance itself on the summit of a tall pine.  
          "I wish there was a moon to-night," said Winnie, turning back in the veranda for a last look at the beautiful shadowed world—" the hills are so glorious by moonlight; but, never mind, we shall be here for six months at least, and there are many moons in six months. Let us go and have cold things to eat; we can't call it dinner, but we will settle down properly to-morrow."
          "This room won't have settled down to-morrow," said Janet, as they came back to the bleak space dimly lighted by one travelling lantern.
          "Never mind; in a fortnight it will be lovely, and then—then calling will begin. Such calling! You will think it a dreadful waste of time; it's a dreadful risk of sunstroke, too, but one has to do it."
          "On whom are you going to call? "
          "Everybody, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop on the wall, which means from her Excellency the Vicereine to the subaltern's wife who lives in a hotel. Several of our fellow-passengers are up here already. You will be glad to meet that nice little Mrs. Myles again, won't you? I do not think I shall need the letters of introduction which Madeline was kind enough to give me."
          "Winnie, Winnie! " said Miss Rosslyn, laughing with grave eyes.
          "It's a fact, my dear, and it is fortunate it is so, for I dare say everyone she knew has been transferred or has gone home. I'm not in the least ungrateful to poor dear Madeline; I'm very fond of her, and I have reason to know that she had a fearfully dull time in her youth; but she was not a very amusing person, was she? To the dull all things are dull. Oh, I wish it was the end of May, the Birthday ball over, and the season well launched. I want to begin."
          "I do hope that all will go well with us," said Janet, sighing.
          "Yes, dear death's-head, I'm sure it will; I will make a point of seeing that it does. Don't be a kind of puritan, sweet soul; we are going to have such fun."

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