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

A Pinchbeck Goddess, Chapter 4


" Oh, those mountains, their infinite movement!
Still moving with you;
For ever some new head and breast of them
Thrusts into view
To observe the. intruder; you see it If quickly you turn."

“What a perfect day!” said Winnie; “every prospect is pleasing, and even man is not so vile as I have often thought him!"
            “You mustn't be a misanthrope; leave that to the ugly women, poor things!" said Strath- Ingram.
            They were riding out to Sipi among hills refreshed by recent rain, and beautiful with spring blossom and early summer foliage. The winding road, now cresting the summit of a hill from whence could be seen valleys so deep that the tall pines growing there looked like scrubby brush wood, now circling the foot of an ascent so high that the mountain cattle grazing on its side seemed no larger than goats, grew more lovely with every mile. Delicate ferns sprang from the mossy rock, and the deep dark velvet of the moss clothing the tree branches was in exquisite contrast to the fresh young green of the new leaves. The white flowers of the wood-strawberry starred the banks its spreading fans tapestried, and long trailing sprays of wild-clematis festooned the lower growth of verdure.
            The birds were silent, or sang unheard, their sweet piping lost in the babble of the crowd that was going to the fair. Simla seemed to have emptied its native population into the pleasant path, all in holiday clothes and holiday spirits. The men wore clean white raiment with bright turbans, scarlet, orange, or green; and the women were a very revel of brilliant hues. A few of these women carried popinjay babies, comical brown dolls dressed in the gayest shreds and patches, but the majority were without encumbrance. Their little bare feet stepped briskly over the ground, and the gay tinkle of their silver ornaments mingled musically with their laughing chatter.
            “Look at that yellow-and-purple woman, with the red muslin over her head," said Strath-Ingram; “there are all the colours of the rainbow for you, Mrs. Edwards."
            “The rainbow is a dim mysterious harmony compared with this triumphant blaze of colour. What free, untrammelled tastes these people have!"
            “They've got rational dress, and no mistake; wouldn't you like to take a suit of it home to show the reformer people?”
            “Do you think it could be adapted to the needs of the bicycle? These women seem happy enough in it, but that is because they have never seen themselves in a long glass," said Winnie. The baggy print trousers might have been fashioned with cunning intent to hide every grace in a woman's form; they would have made Diana herself look bow-legged, and Venus unlovely. They were so narrow at the ankle that it was a work of difficulty to insert the slender foot, while round the hips some eight yards of solid cloth was drawn lumpily and humpily upon a string. A short jacket—velvet for the prosperous, and printed cotton for the poorer ones—and a veil of the brightest muslin, made what picturesque atonement they could for the hideous paijamahs.
            The merry crowd quickened its pace with each mile left behind till it slipped like a mountain stream from the brow of the hill to the valley of Sipi below, a very steep descent. The road for horses and rickshaws crossed and recrossed this living torrent as it wound down the mountain side, steadily pouring its numbers into the sunny valley, but neither horse nor rickshaw stayed the descending cataract. The valley held the sunshine as a cup holds wine, and there rose from it the inarticulate hum of many voices, and the loud throb of the tum-tum, which seemed to come from the earth or air rather than from any instrument made by human hands, so continuous was its beat. Proud man was dressed in a little brief authority over the everlasting hills, and he had conquered the health-giving fragrance of the pines by the heavy incense of burning ghee, inseparable from the preparation of food for the multitude.
            “It's an intolerable noise," said Winnie, as she dismounted, “but there is something jubilant and exciting about it, nevertheless."
            “It's a great thing to be easily pleased," said Strath-Ingram. “Now, do you want to see the temple? I think it's part of your duty as a globe trotter. We shall just have time to look at it before lunch."
            The temple was a wooden one, much decorated with rough carving, and evidently Thibetan in design. The god had been brought outside, for the convenience of his worshippers, and placed upon a brown blanket, which formed at once a carpet upon the ground and a dado against the wall of the building. Not an imposing deity! He was about fifteen inches high, roughly made in brass, decorated with bead necklaces, and surmounted by a little umbrella-shaped canopy covered with tinsel.
            Before him lay a few silver coins, and further off a pile of copper. Three small heaps of different kinds of grain were disposed upon the edge of the blanket, and two priests squatted close by with an air of proprietorship.
            “You may be quite sure that those rupees have been put there by the priests themselves as decoy-ducks," said Strath-Ingram; "you see all these good people only bring copper."
            Winnie did not answer. She was watching the humble shrine, and marvelling at its power to impress the simple worshippers. They came by twos and threes, sometimes by whole families, to offer their pence, make their reverence, and receive at the hands of a priest a few grains from one of the three heaps. These the men put carefully into the folds of their turbans, and the wo men tied in a corner of their muslin veils, to be sowed hereafter in their fields in hope of a fruitful harvest, or to be eaten in a sacramental spirit. She could only guess which, and she was sure Strath-Ingram was as ignorant as herself, and much less interested. She watched them silently, feeling unspeakably far away from them, and not absolutely confident that this distance lay in the direction of heaven. What devout souls they seemed! The men and women made their salaams with deep reverence, the elder boys and girls shyly following their example, and one little fellow of about three years old nearly tumbled head over heels in a zealous attempt to touch the ground with his baby forehead.
            An elderly woman, whose face was exceedingly wrinkled and weary, made an offering of six copper coins, and with folded hands and devotional air prayed aloud fervently. There was no mistaking the earnestness of her petition, and while Winnie wondered for what she was pleading, she turned back the sleeves of her dress, showing that she was afflicted with a cruel skin disease. She received her pinch of grain with great humility, and went on her way still muttering prayers. Winnie's eyes grew tender.
            “Oh, poor soul!" she said. “It is the prayer of faith." She laid a rupee on the brown blanket. “Tell the priests it's for her; they are to pray for her if that is what she wants."
            Strath-Ingram laughed, and said nothing. “Hullo!” said Yeatt, coming behind them. “What are you worshippin' idols for, Mrs. Edwards? I've been lookin' for you everywhere. Aren't you comin' to lunch?"
            He was a thin, loud-voiced young man; his moustache and eyebrows were fair to invisibility, and his neckties were like no others in India. It was rumoured that he received them weekly from Bond Street in half-dozens of the latest fashion. “Lunch is in a shamidna over this way," he went on. “You don't know what a shamidna is, of course; sounds like some kind of a stag, doesn't it? It's that sort of open tent standin’ in the shade."
            All the world, the little Simla world, was seated at the narrow tables, and Luttrell beck oned anxiously from a corner. He was keeping places for them in Beatrice's heaven, “where the bachelors sit."
            Luttrell was endowed with the fatal gift of beauty, and noted for his eyelashes. His very red lips had a habitual expression which, in a woman, might have been termed “sweet," and he was frequently described as a “darling boy."
            Curtis, one of the Chief's aides-de-camp, sat opposite, square-shouldered and strong-chinned, with a suggestion of seafaring about his sun-browned face and clear eyes.
            “Do have some rhubarb tart, Mrs. Edwards," said Luttrell presently. “Mashobra-grown rhubarb, you know; it's like the exile's dream of home." “Mrs. Edwards hasn't been out here long enough to cultivate a taste for such simple pleasures, dear boy," said Strath-Ingram. “All my pleasures are simple," said Winnie, “and rhubarb tart stands high in the list. How would one ask for it in Hindustani?” “Estalk pie, I should think."
            “Bravo; go up one. I shall never learn the language, but I'm better than Miss Rosslyn. She asked if her bath was on the table the other day. Why are they forming in line over there?”
            “It's for the photo. We always have a big group photo every year. Come along, Mrs. Edwards; we must put you well in front."
            “Why? As a terrible example of a solah topee?”
            “As the fairest flower of all," said Strath-In gram.
            The inevitable photographer fixed the party with the glassy eye of his camera, and one more memento of the ever-changing, never-dying con course of atoms known as Simla Society was added to the number already existing or forgotten.
            “You haven't been introduced to the Sipi elephant yet. Do you care to come and see him?” said Strath-Ingram to Winnie.
            “An elephant here! Aren't they afraid of his tumbling overboard—down the Mud, I mean?”
            “He seems to flourish. It's generally supposed that the Rajah of Sipi has a revenue of about a thousand a year—pounds, you know— and spends nine hundred of it in the upkeep of a state elephant—rather a swagger thing to do."
            “I quite sympathize," said Winnie, watching the restless bulk of the great creature shuffling and swaying under his gaudy trappings. “If I were a begum, I should squander all my substance on elephants; they are much more regal and satisfying than diamonds."
            “There happens not to be a Rajah of Sipi," put in Yeatt. ”The Rana of Koti is the hill chief the place belongs to."
            “Never mind; the principle and the elephant remain," said Winnie.
            It was past three o'clock, and the fun of the fair at its height bore many points of resemblance to the fairs of the Western world. There were countless merry-go-rounds, rough wooden cages slowly revolving, each with its load of men and boys trying how much they could endure in the way of unnatural motion, and flimsy booths covered with thin cotton-cloth displayed a vast amount of glittering trumpery. These were European goods of the meanest, for the most part toys, buttons, beads, tin-framed mirrors, brass gods, and sham jewellery.
            “This is heart-breaking," said Winnie impartially to her escort of three; “I expected to find treasures—real native things—and they offer me nothing but Brummagem horrors. Fancy, a penny china dall in the heart of the Himalayas!“
            But the German toys, the cheap cutlery, and the glaring Manchester cottons did not lack purchasers; the trumpery trifles were carried far away into the interior, where they represented, to unsophisticated eyes, the wonders of a distant land. The little brown child, who had treasured a single coin in a warm clasp since early dawn, could now exchange it for a far greater treasure, and gaze with large-eyed delight on the tin fish or china chicken which was to it the most desirable of all the tempting things displayed.
            “Here's the best part of the fair," said Strath-Ingram, with a fat chuckle; he was a spare man, but he laughed like a stout one; "now we are coming to the marriage market. You will see them all neatly arranged waiting to be chosen."
            “He's humbuggin' you, Mrs. Edwards," said Yeatt; “they're just left here while their husbands go off and have a jolly good time without 'em. All the ugly old ones look after the pretty ones; rippin' good notion, I call it."
            On a piece of rising ground, which was the southern limit of the fair, some hundreds of women sat in patient rows. They had accompanied their husbands to the festival, and had been bidden to sit still, in the safety of numbers, as there were too many men abroad for modest women to encounter the gaze of. Their placid patience was admirable, as through the long day they sat watching the revelry round them. Some of the younger faces were sweet and touching, in spite of the disfigurement of nose-ring or nosestud, but the old women were, almost without exception, nightmares of ugliness.
            One harridan had painted her eyelids in small black and white squares, and called attention to her horrible decoration with nods and becks and wreathed smiles, pointing proudly to her eyes.
            “She hasn't always been so willing to sit quiet among the women," chuckled Strath-Ingram as the decorated creature caught his eye and broke into peals of eldritch laughter.
            “Oh, you terrible old lady, you don't know how wicked you look," said Winnie; “but I wish I could buy your necklace: the turquoise in the silver is beautifully barbaric."
            Each and every woman wore necklaces; four was the most usual number, but many had seven or eight—commonplace adornments for the most part, mere chains with pendent rows of rupees and eight anna bits, but some were old and delightful, quaintly-patterned bosses and plaques of silver, with unexpected incidents of coral and turquoise.
            “You couldn't wear a great lumpin' thing like that." “I shouldn't try. I should give it a thorough bath with carbolic soap, like Mrs. Tykes' jampanies; she told me yesterday that they have one every week, and I am to be sure and see that mine do the same. Then I should put it on the silver table in my drawing-room, and it would make me happy every time I looked at it."
            “Most women would find a mirror did that for them if they had Mrs. Edwards' face," remarked Strath-Ingram with a vocal nourish.
            “Oh, how charming! what do you say in return for a pretty speech like that, Captain Yeatt? I can only blush."
            “Do you think he gets so many compliments, then?” asked Curtis, who was feeling neglected.
            “Yes, I thought they went with the post of A.D.C. like Windsor uniform."
            “Oh, you're makin' fun of me." Winnie looked pathetic. “I'm sure you are all making fun of me, and I hate being teased. Has anyone seen Miss Rosslyn lately? I've lost her."
            “She's all right; she's gone off with Mrs. Myles. Do you like chaperonin' girls?”
            “Miss Rosslyn generally chaperons me and Cripps; she is very good to us on the whole. It's a nuisance to take girls to dances, though; they always want to come home before I do."
            “Ho, ho, I can quite believe that, Mrs. Edwards!”
            Colonel Strath-Ingram had that false air of youth which is imparted by a thin figure, and his orange-tawny hair had clung to him with a constancy worthy of a better colour; but his red face was deeply wrinkled, and when his frequent laugh closed his small eyes, the lines round them were many and evil.
            “I say, they're goin' it here," said Yeatt.
            Two men were performing a very funny dance, to the delight of all beholders, on a piece of rough sloping ground. One of the dancers was an old man wearing a dirty blanket as a cloak; he did fantastic steps; he flung round in dizzying circles; he wound his arms, snapping his fingers; and when the last thump of the drum brought the music to an end, he flung himself into his partner's arms with a fine burlesque of a stage embrace. He was led to a seat on a boulder, evidently exhausted and very dizzy, coughing with his exertion, but chuckling with satisfaction at its success.
            “He's been a famous dancer in his youth," said Strath-Ingram.
            “Even in his ashes dwell their wonted fires," said Winnie.
            “Hullo, I'm wanted; his Ex. is movin'. 'Bye, Mrs. Edwards; see you later;” and Yeatt re turned to his Viceroy.
            “You are coming to Lady Percival's tea, aren't you?” said Curtis; “the Nook isn't far off, and it's such a pretty place."
            “Have I been invited?”
            “Now, that's too bad; I wrote your card myself." “So you did; I wanted to see if you remembered. Ah, there is my chaperon;—Janet, we are going on to Lady Percival's garden-party; it's only a mile or so quite straight up that hill. Am I as untidy as I feel?”
            “Venus robed and crowned," said Strath-Ingram.
            “In a covert coat and a solah topee. Poor Venus! Do you think you could find Two and Two for me? The saddle-cloth is black, with a big white monogram; the groom is also black, and sometimes answers to the name of Dunni."
            “Well, are you being amused?” said Lilian Myles.
             “To the top of my bent. Is your husband here? I have not seen him."
            “No, he was far too busy to come; he always spends a holiday in doing arrears of work. I'll bring Janet up to the Nook; don't wait for us."
            “That's very good of you. Oh, thanks, Captain Curtis; the Colonel is looking for my pony."
            Curtis moved away on aimless feet, hesitated for a perceptible moment, and then went quickly towards a slender girl in a riding habit. “How do you do, Miss Ivey?” he said hastily. “I haven't seen you all day. Have you just come?”
            “We came to lunch, like everybody else," said Nancy. And he could have told her that she had reached Sipi at ten minutes to two, with a cluster of pink wild-roses in a buttonhole of her gray habit. They were gone now, and he wondered if she had given them to someone, or only thrown them away.
            “May I find your pony for you?”
            “No, thank you; one of mother's jampanies has gone for it." Nancy's blue eyes had an almost disconcerting directness of gaze, and her colouring was so delicately and absolutely fair that it recalled and justified the pretty old-time simile of roses and lilies. The heavy coil of her hair was a very pale brown, of the tint that shows flaxen lights, not golden.
            “It has been a delightful day," she said, “only a little too hot."
            “May I ride up the hill with you? Surely you are coming to Lady Percival's?” he said, on the principle of “treating resolution," for he had carefully avoided her during long hours.
            “No; we are going straight home. Mother has a headache. Yes, dear, I am quite ready. Good-night, Captain Curtis."
            He was dismissed, and he found a poor pleasure, or, rather, a slight satisfaction, in betaking himself and his bay pony to interrupt Strath-Ingram's conversation with Mrs. Edwards.
            As the road widened, they were passed by a girl in a gray habit, riding a brown Arab; and the girl had time to notice the brilliance of Winnie's glistening hair, and the dusty texture a side-light betrayed on her pink cheek.
            “She must be a horrid woman, and he has been with her all day long," thought Nancy.
            “'Pon my word," said Strath-Ingram musingly, “there's something about the sunset—I don't know what it is—that always affects me."
            “Makes one feel one's getting old," said Curtis viciously; “that's what I think about it."
            He was watching the sweeping curves of the Simla road, where a gray habit was still visible.
            “It makes me long for my tea," said Winnie. “Take care, Colonel Strath-Ingram; keep a little further off. Two and Two kicks."

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