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

A Pinchbeck Goddess Chapter 2

"Who's that a-calling so sweet?"

"All things were there for us,
Life was complete—
Fairer than fair for us,
Sweeter than sweet,
With a sky that was reared for our covering,
an earth that was framed for our feet."
J. W. M.

          It was a glowing morning in mid-May, and the cuckoo shouting among the pine-trees had so English a note that it was hard to reconcile his voice with the mountains. The snowy range was veiled in mist, and a dusty simmer of heat brooded over the direction of the distant plains. Cripps, the terrier, lay stretched on the warm ground beyond the veranda, enjoying the forbidden pleasure of basking in the sunshine, till a voice from the house made him start guiltily.
          "Cripps, Cripps ! Janet, have you seen Cripps? Where is that wicked dog? "
          Cripps dashed through the flowerpots in the veranda, and presented himself with the air of a faithful servitor who has run fast and far; but his burning nose, and a blotch of yellow dust on his white side, betrayed him.
          "Cripps, you have been lying in the sun, and if you do that you will get fever, Cripps, and then you will die."
          Cripps grovelled at Winnie's feet in a little brief humility, and wagged his short tail almost under his left ear.
          "No, Cripps. Go to own bed, Cripps, and stay there. If you do it again, you'll get—you'll get—you'll get washed. Take care! "
          Cripps crawled elaborately to a corner, with a great affectation of having no bone unbroken, and lay down in a temporary manner, with a furtive eye on the warm world outside.
          Winnie went back to the piano and sang two lines of a song. "It's no good," she said; "I'm lazy, and scales on a morning like this would be an insult to the sunshine. Haven't we made this room pretty? It's a pleasure to me every time I look at it."
          "It is difficult to believe what it was when we came," said Janet, looking up from her work. "I thought then that it would be impossible to do anything with it."
          "Englishmen in India spend their lives in accomplishing the impossible. We all catch the trick of it out here," said Winnie sententiously.
          The room was a little fantastic, and more than a little incongruous, with its yellow chintz and muslin, silken embroideries, pale velvet cushions, wicker chairs, and tables of carved wood and Cashmere papier-maché; but it had no terrible knick-knacks of plush and satin, no painted stools, sabots, or tambourines. There were singularly few photographs. Most Anglo-Indian rooms are like shrines to absent friends, but this room had only several panel portraits of Winnie herself, surrounded by those emblems of martyrdom—palms, lilies, and the skins of wild beasts —that are so strangely dear to the "artistic photographer." The pictures were all autotypes except one small painting of a charming child in an old-fashioned frock. Her gray eyes were unmistakably like Winnie's, but the wavy hair was dark. The little picture was in a very modern frame of beaten copper, embossed with marguerites, and a jar of tall flowers stood on a table below it.
          "My little Daisy," said Winnie suddenly, as she arranged a fern frond against the frame. "Do you think she is really happy at school? But the place is not like a school; it's like a home, and it is so good for her to have companions of her own age."
          "Oh, Winnie!"
          "You see, I could not bring her out here, dearly as I should have loved to do it," went on Winnie, with a very serious face; " the risk was too great—my one little girl. But I had always longed to see India, and if I had waited until Daisy was older I could not have borne the separation even for a few months. She is only six years old now, but such a tall girl! I tell her she will soon be able to look down on the top of her poor little mother's head. Do you think that sounds very silly, Janet? "
          "I have often told you what I think," said Janet, breaking her thread.
          "Yes, dear; but do you realize how much I needed a change after my husband's death, though that is nearly two years ago now? Poor Tom! he had the strangest horror of mourning; he always used to say, 'Why on earth should you feel obliged to make a fright of yourself because a perfectly natural thing has happened?' He was always so resigned to the idea that I should outlive him. Of course, he was a great deal my senior, poor dear fellow! All the same, I should feel so heartless if I wore anything but black and white, and gray and heliotrope, and luckily they are really very pretty. Some women talk like that, Janet; I have heard them do it."
          "All the more reason for you to avoid it, I should think."
          "Perhaps so. Now, listen. I am going to call on Mrs. Tykes to-day; she is that woman with the forehead we met at the Myles's dinner, and she is one of the few people left up here whom Madeline used to know eighteen months ago."
          "There must be numbers of people that you----"
          “My dear, barring a few potentates who do not count, I doubt if there are five people here now who knew Madeline, and they have forgotten her. This is the Land of Chance and Change. The cards are always being shuffled—visiting cards especially."
          "I am sure there will be someone who----"
          "Consider first that there was nothing about Madeline to catch the eye, and most people looked at her without seeing her. Mrs. Bertie Vernon, for instance. Madeline knew her by sight, and will never forget her, while she will never remember Madeline. The flowers see the stars, but the stars do not see the flowers. Do you retain a lively recollection of the appearance and voice of every plain young woman you knew little and cared for less nearly two years ago?
          "Janet opened her lips to speak, and closed them again on a sigh.
          "It's nearly twelve," went on Winnie. "I must go and be dressed. 'The War Lord Sahib's Lady ' is at home to-day—that is what the natives call the Commander-in-Chief's wife—and I must journey from Dan to Bathsheba—Beersheba, I mean—from Chota Simla to Boileau Gunge. Shall you 'receive' this morning?"
          "Please not. I feel so awkward if people call when you are out."
          "Only learn to say 'Darwaza bund' to the bearer, and you will live in peace. It means, 'The door is shut.' Try and remember it; it is more truthful than 'Not at home,' and should therefore commend itself to you."
          When Winnie came back she was wearing a white gown, lightly touched with black, and a triumphant bonnet.
          "Look at me in the light, dear," she said, " and tell me truly if you think I have too much on—in the way of tinting, I mean. I fancy Nugent is a trifle heavy-handed, and I don't want to look raddled."
          "I should like you better without any tinting."
          "No, you wouldn't; quite a mistake. Oh, do call Cripps; I can't take him. He always gets exactly in front of the wheels; I shall run over him one day, and then I shall never get over it. Catch him!"
          But Cripps was half-way up the steep path to the Mall, telling the mountains with full-throated ease that he was taking his rickshaw and the lady that belonged to him out for an airing. Janet's call from the veranda had no effect upon him, beyond strengthening his belief in his own popularity.
          A fresh breeze blew from the snows, but the Mall was hot and dusty. The white wild-roses were casting their petals in fluttering showers like short-lived butterflies, and their perfume was honey-sweet in the warm air. The roads were noisy with rickshaws, and the men who drew them were in the first freshness of their fantastic liveries—liveries that would soon be worn and shabby. The trees near the narrow paths that led up or down the slopes to the houses among the pines were dotted with little tin boxes bearing names and the statement "Not at Home"—a benevolent arrangement which modifies the tyranny of paying morning calls up the airy mountains. Winnie dealt out cards liberally. It was an excellent day for calling; everyone seemed to be out, and when she reached Snowdon, she saw the reason why.
          The "War-Lord's Lady" was receiving a long procession of visitors, each in her best gown, and with a little air of consciousness assumed at the same time.
          The aide-de-camp in undress uniform who handed Winnie out of her rickshaw was an acquaintance of ten days' standing.
          "How are you, Mrs. Edwards? Going strong? You'll find all and sundry in there. I'll write your name in Lady Percival's book. Got the address on your card? That's all right. Come along and be announced by yourself before the next batch arrives. Mrs. Edwards."
          "You are a newcomer, I think," said Lady Percival, smiling and shaking hands for the hundred and forty-second time in three-quarters of an hour.
          "Yes, I am a globe-trotter," said Winnie. "Mrs. Myles," announced the aide-de-camp, " Mrs. Scott, Mrs. Silver, Mrs. Bryce."
          "I am coming to sit by you," said the first of the little group to Winnie, a dark-haired woman with pretty eyes, and a suggestion of picturesque-ness held in check by severely conventional garments. "How are you, and what have you been doing?"
"Upholstery, chiefly. When are you coming to see the miracle we have wrought with the very dry bones of our house?"
          "Some day, next week, I hope. Where is Janet?"
          "Left at home by her own special request. I like your gown, my dear; it's a beautiful fit."
          "One can't go very far wrong in a gray tailor-made," said Mrs. Myles, glancing down at the skirts of her coat; "but it's not at all exciting. Now, you are like a dream—an artist's dream."
          "That artist must have read a great many fashion papers before he slept," said Winnie.
          "Do you like Simla as much as you expected to?" said Mrs. Myles, after an instant's silence.
          "Yes, and much more."
          "I wonder why? And do you know all these people?" looking round the crowded room.
          "Not yet, but I want to, and I mean to."
          "But they are not in the least interesting."
          "Oh yes, they are, if you talk to them in the right tone of voice; or, at any rate, they are amusing. Do look at those three over there. They were here when we arrived; they have been sitting on the point of departure ever since, and it makes them wriggle dreadfully. Let's give them a friendly lead. Good-bye, Lady Percival."
          "Give my love to Janet," said Mrs. Myles, as they waited in the veranda, "and ask her to come to tea with me some afternoon."
          "And mayn't I come too, please?"
          "You! You will never have an afternoon to spare; you will be riding round Jakko  with----"
          "The beautiful boys of fiction, I suppose," interrupted Winnie; "I have never met any. Send them to call on me when they arrive."
          "They will find their own way. Good bye."
          "Sixteen calls paid, Cripps; we are getting on splendidly!" said Winnie; "now for Mrs. Tykes's box. Oh dear, she seems to be in; how unlucky we are! Niche jao jampanis! Down went the rickshaw, jolting and bumping over the steep, sharply-turning path, down, down, still down. "When people live in the plains," said Winnie, "I do wish they would not pretend they are in Simla. We shall reach Kalka soon. Cripps, where is this place?"
          The path was like that in Looking-glass Land; even as she thought they were nearing the house, it took a brisk turn, shook itself, as it were, and led into what appeared to be the opposite direction. Many devious windings brought them at long last to a broad veranda, where they were received by a chicken, that hurried out of the house taking very high steps. Cripps trembled in every limb from excitement, but was too well-mannered to attack it. Then came a long wait in the sunshine before that open sesame, the word "Salaam," admitted Winnie to Mrs. Tykes's presence. She was a tall woman of austere regard, with hair brushed severely from her brow and flattened tightly upon her head.
          "I did not mean to be at home to-day," was her greeting; " I thought I had sent the box up."
          "I am sure I looked for it," said Winnie plaintively," and it was not there; you should scold your bearer."
          "Oh well, it can't be helped, and I am very glad to see you now that you are here. I was out in the fowl-house when you came; do you know anything about poultry?"
          "No, nothing at all."
          "You should learn; it's a great economy. What does your man charge you for murghies from the bazaar? "
          "I really don't know; Miss Rosslyn very kindly looks after the house for me."
          "I thought so. Well, if you inquire you will find that by buying and fattening your own you will save at least six annas on each bird; that counts for something."
          "Yes, indeed," murmured Winnie, with a polite attempt at enthusiasm. "And you will be surprised to find what a difference a few weeks' feeding makes in the quality of their flesh; mine get the soup-meat every day and all the table leavings. What becomes of your soup-meat?"
          "I think the soup is generally made from shin or something," faltered Winnie. "Wasteful and tasteless," said Mrs. Tykes; "tell your cook to give you meat soup. I will send you one of my murghies to show you how good they are; only it ought to be roasted in a kerosene stove, not over charcoal. Have you got a stove? "
          "No, we haven't."
          "You ought to get one. Indeed, in the rains—and they are not far away now—I don't know what you will do without a stove to dry things, unless of course you prefer that horrid arrangement of charcoal and wicker-work." Winnie was not aware that she had this low partiality, but a meek murmur seemed the easiest answer.
          "You really must get a stove, Mrs. Edwards, and make that maid of yours—useless things they are out here generally—use it. She could roast fowls and small joints in it, and if I were you I should insist on her making all your pastry and things of that kind. I never allow a loaf of baker's-bread into the house; they are dirty wretches; I make my own yeast out of kismis, and it's much better than baking-powder; I'll give you the recipe for your maid to try."
          "Do you think it would be good for her hands when I wanted her to lace my dresses? "
          "Nonsense!" said Mrs. Tykes; "I make all my own bread, and do a great deal more than that maid of yours will ever do, I'll be bound, and look here "—she held out capable hands that showed traces of hard work—"I was writing to my chicks the other day," she continued, in her strong voice, " and I told them that I wanted them to grow up useful—none of your spoilt, dressy monkeys."
          "Your chicks grow up monkeys? " said Winnie interrogatively; her thoughts were still in the poultry-yard.
          "Yes, my children. You have some children, haven't you? You are a widow, they tell me."
          “I have one little girl in England."
          "Left her at home? How old is she? "
          "Only six."
          "Oh, well, I suppose you don't mean to stay out here long. It's quite the fashion for idle people to come here now. «They can have very little to do, I say."
          "But there is so much to see in India."
          "Yes, in the plains in the cold weather; but I should not care to stay in Simla if I was not obliged to. When did you come out?"
          "Last March."
          "That's a queer time of year to choose. I suppose you will go home next cold weather?"
          "Yes, I think so."
          "And what made you want to come to Simla? "
          "I heard a great deal about it from a cousin of mine—not a first cousin—a distant connection —a Miss Norton."
          "I remember her perfectly well. Madeline Norton was her name; she was staying with Mrs. Haymont. So you are related to her? But you are not in the least her style."
          "I am very fond of Madeline," said Winnie, smiling. "She was a nice girl—woman I should say, for she could hardly call herself a girl any longer," said Mrs. Tykes, with a little snort, which was a trick of hers when she wished to be emphatic. "I never saw very much of her, but she seemed quiet and ladylike—sensible, too. She did not wear a fringe and pretend to be pretty."
          "I always tell her that she would look better with a fringe," said Winnie, laughing. "Do you think I am at all like her? Many people see a resemblance when we are together."
          "Not the very least in the world," said Mrs. Tykes, scanning the perfection of Winnie's appearance with a malevolent eye; " I never saw two women less alike. She always looked simple and natural; that's what I liked about her. Why didn't she marry out here? "
          "I suppose she met no one she cared for."
          “Or no one who wanted to marry her; that is more like it, I should say," said Mrs. Tykes, with her snort. "Mrs. Haymont must have been very foolish. If she had only played her cards properly there would have been no----"
          "I had no idea it was so late. I really must go. Good-bye." And Winnie was gone almost before Mrs. Tykes could rise.
          "That is a real example of the odious woman when she is married," she remarked to Cripps, who had reduced his tongue to something that resembled its normal length, but who insisted on riding up the hill in her rickshaw. "However, it is pleasant to know that she had kindly feelings towards that poor girl—woman, I should say— Madeline. Nobody would ever have suspected them."

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