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

A Pinchbeck Goddess Chapter 5


“Spread forth thy golden hair
In larger locks than thou wast wont before,
And emperor-like decore
With diadem of pearl thy temples fair."
Drummond of Hawthornden.

          It was a proclaimed fact before the end of the Simla Week, which is the last week in May, that Mrs. Edwards was one of the pretty women, and one of the successes of the season, if, indeed, she was not the prettiest woman and the most marked success. She was soon fitted with a nick name, and half was given her by a woman and half by a man; hence the contradiction of terms, the “Pinchbeck Goddess." The title was conferred upon her at the Birthday ball after this fashion: Colonel Strath-Ingram, gorgeous in full-dress uniform, had trodden a measure—a duty lancers—with Mrs. Alchin, the wife of an eminent civilian, and at its close conducted her to the nearest seat without pretending to desire a more secluded position. Winnie passed them, radiantly pretty in white brocade, with a band of diamonds like a crown above her brow, and a huge fan of ostrich feathers laid lightly against her beautiful throat as she looked up at her tall partner.
          Strath-Ingram murmured audibly:
          “She moves a goddess and she looks a queen."
          Mrs. Alchin, who resembled Benedick in that she could sometimes show sparks that were like wit, flashed quickly:
          “A goddess, and painted—a Pinchbeck God dess!"
          “That's just it—hit off to the life," chuckled Strath-Ingram, looking down at the little lady's sleek, dark head and sharp, white face, and wondering whether she knew that those who did not call her the “Pickled Walnut " styled her the “Acid Drop." “Splendid, Mrs. Alchin!" he continued; “let's have some more. I've often wanted to know who it was gave people their clever nick names, but I never hoped to hear them at first hand like this."
          Mrs. Alchin smiled complacently. There was an unexplained distinction about amusing Strath- Ingram; people had a tradition of thinking more highly of him than he deserved, and this was the first time that ever she had roused him to animation.
          “Well, there is the 'Lily Maid,' " she said, indicating with a glance the charming head of Nancy Ivey shining out against a background of yellow curtain.
          “'Lily Maid?' Why, the girl's got one of the best complexions I've seen for a long time: she's as pink as a rose."
          “Yes, I know; but it's her neck, and the way she holds herself. Besides, don't you remember ' Elaine the fair, Elaine the lovable, Elaine the Lily Maid of Astolat'? she makes me think of that."
          He assented, but was evidently not amused, and Mrs. Alchin hastened to metal more attractive.
          “Here comes the ' Unnecessary Evil,' " she whispered, as Mrs. Bertie Vernon swept by, stout in pink satin, with an agonizing waist, a jangle of sequin trimming, and a heavy waft of White Rose perfume.
          Strath-Ingram's responsive chuckle was so economically long drawn out that it lasted until the first bar of the next dance.
The fine rooms at Viceregal Lodge, which, unlike most Indian ballrooms, need no temporary decorations of draperies, flags, or flowers, were filled by a distinctly good-looking crowd. Nobody was very old, and many were quite young. The gowns made a pretty show, and there was a dazzle of full-dress uniforms. The scarlet coats far outnumbered the black ones, and several officers from a Highland regiment, walking with the important little swagger that a kilt gives its wearer, added the picturesqueness of their plaids, and the brown glow of cairngorms in dirk and sgean-dubh to the throng of bright figures.
          “It's prettier than I expected," said Winnie to Yeatt, who appeared to think that his whole duty as aide-de-camp was to dance with the best-looking women present. “It's a very good place for a ball, and the way the light comes through that ceiling is charming."
          “They're gettin' used to electric light now. You should have seen the place in '88. It was my first year in India. I came up on leave just after the Viceroy (Dufferin he was then) moved in here. You see, they'd only had kerosene before, and for the first few dances here you never saw such a shabby-lookin' lot. A dress that ‘ll look awfully well by lamplight just goes to rags when you get the electric light on to it."
          “Many thanks for the warning; I'll keep my rags for wearing by lamplight."
          “Oh, come now, Mrs. Edwards—your rags; why, you haven't got any."
          "Yes, I have—lots. I suppose we are all wearing new gowns to-night; there is a best bib and tucker air everywhere. Oh, look! Miss Rosslyn is sitting out, and so are several other girls, though about thirty men are decorating the wall within a stone's-throw.           You can't have been doing your duty in the way of introducing. I think I had better set you free to mend your ways."
          “Introducing I should think not. It's quite gone out; we never think of doin' it."
          “Rather hard on the new arrivals, who know no one."
          “Oh, that's their look-out."
          “What is the good of an aide-de-camp, then?" Yeatt looked stern for a moment; then smiled kindly, as at a forward child.
          "Chaffin' again; you do roast me most aw fully. Miss Rosslyn's not bad-lookin'—nice eyes and lots o' hair. Have you known her long?"
          “Yes, for ages."
          “Pity she doesn't get married! Hard lines on her."
          “She is engaged to one of the nicest men I know," said Winnie a little sharply, resenting his tone.
          “Really? Where is he?"
          “In Australia, somewhere near a place that sounds like the chorus of a comic song—Bunkiboodle something."
          “Long way off. Has he been there long?"
          “Yes, some years. He is very hard up, of course."
          “Mostly are. Look here, Mrs. Edwards: you tell people that Miss Rosslyn is engaged, and she'll have a much better time, you see."
          “She wears a Mizpah ring, with letters about an inch high. Isn't that information enough?"
          “Oh, I don't suppose many people look at her hands. They know she's not married, and see she isn't a chicken, you know, and so they fight shy of her—see?"
          “Yes, I quite see. Shall I advise her to wear her ring in her hair?"
          “Well, I knew a woman once who did that— Lady Guenny Rodster, Lord Clankelton's second daughter, the one that married Barry Rodsterr. She had some blazin' rings—great big marquise things—and she used to twist little curls through 'em, and pin 'em on the top of her head."
          “She did not believe in hiding her light under a bushel, evidently. Tell me who is that pretty creature who has just gone by with Captain Curtis?"
          “That's Miss Ivey, Nancy Ivey; her father is a judge somewhere or other."
          “And is she as sweet as she looks?"
          “You'd better ask Curtis that, Mrs. Edwards. I never go in for girls myself, 'tisn't my style."
          “Indeed? I am not sure that I admire your taste."
          “I tell you what," went on Yeatt complacently: "I don't believe in the whole of last season I danced once with a girl, except his Ex.'s daughters now and again, and that's different."
          “You must have broken the record for bad manners that season."
          Yeatt laughed in all simplicity.
          “You are awful fun, Mrs. Edwards; one never knows what you are goin' to say next. Let me fan you. That's a jolly sort o' fan; I like one that you can't see through."
          He had drawn his chair very near hers, and leant towards her in a rather exaggerated way. She saw through an open door the melancholy face of a sallow girl in a bright blue gown, who sat alone enviously watching the brilliant couple. “You think I am a horrible woman, flirting merrily, and listening to all sorts of interesting and exciting things. If you only knew, dear!" thought Winnie.
          “Won't you really let me have No. 13? " said Curtis to Nancy.
          “No, I can't; we are going away directly after supper."
          “You always go away so early."
          “Do we? I hate feeling quite tired out the day after a dance."
          “Are you coming to the matinee on Saturday?" he asked.
          "Yes; and you are acting in it, aren't you? so you can tell me all about it. I have never seen ' Cupid's Client'; is it pretty?“
“It's rather silly, like most of these operettas; but the music's not bad, and Mrs. Edwards' part suits her splendidly. She is the only lady in it, you know, and her dance at the end is A1."
          "Really!" said Nancy. Nancy had danced every dance, but the roses in her cheeks had hardly deepened, and her fair hair was perfectly neat. Her white silk gown was daintily plain and simple, and she carried a posy of white wild “lilies of the mountains" that, like herself, had retained their sweet freshness in spite of the heated rooms.
          "You seem quite to have given up Jakko; where do you go now for your rides? “asked Curtis, after a little pause.
          “Oh, different ways; there are a good many roads."
          “We are trying to get up some tilting at Annandale on Tuesday afternoons," he said; “won't you come and practise sometimes? Lady Percival will have tea going, and there will be lots of people that you know. Mrs. Edwards is very keen on tilting; she says she means to come every time."
          “I don't know Mrs. Edwards," said Nancy, straightening her white throat.
          “She's awfully nice; hasn't she called on your mother?"
          “Yes, she put a card into mother's box, and mother put a card into her box; one never meets after two box-calls, I've noticed."
          “I'm sure you'd like her," persisted Curtis tactlessly.
          “I hear the next dance beginning," said Nancy.
          “You seem to be doing a good deal of sit ting out this evening, Miss Rosslyn," said Mrs. Tykes. She wore a long-shouldered, tight-sleeved black satin garment of the early eighties, and a sudden red feather gambolled and waved above her smooth hair.
          “I am not fond of dancing, and I know very few people," said Janet.
          “Your friend Mrs. Edwards seems to know a good many; she has been surrounded all the evening."
          “Yes, Winnie gets on so well with everybody; " and Janet smiled at the graceful figure that whirled past them.
          "She might spare you a few of her partners, I should think."
          “She knows I should not like that, I am so stupid about talking to new people."
          “That's a very handsome gown you are wear ing," said Mrs. Tykes, suddenly pinching between an inquiring finger and thumb a fold of the pale blue brocade that suited Janet's fresh face so well.
          “Yes, Mrs. Edwards gave it to me for a birth day present; I never had such a dress before," said Janet.
          “A good black one would have been far more useful to you, though, and would never have gone out of fashion. Look at this one of mine; I have had it nearly ten years."
          Janet expressed the necessary surprise.
          “Well, I don't know how you feel," said Mrs. Tykes, “but I should like a cup of coffee; where is my husband, I wonder?"
          But Colonel Tykes, a military man who had waxed fat in civil employ, was hiding miserably behind a pillar. He had compressed the figure of sedentary life into the uniform of active days, and his sword-belt had played him false by breaking. He had confided his trouble to an unsympathetic friend, who suggested a temporary piecing with official red tape, and now waited his chance to slip away unnoticed.
          “My sincerest congratulation," said Strath-Ingram, as he led Winnie in to supper.
          “But why?" she asked. “On my present position, here at your right hand?"
          “That is a subject for the heartiest self-congratulation on my part, but I was complimenting Mrs. Edwards on this evening's success."
          “Where does it lurk?" said Winnie, looking up with laughing eyes from her cup of bouillon. “I have been twice lamed for life dancing with Lord Trerowan, someone has printed a large dirty foot-mark on the edge of my dress, and I heard a woman say that I looked like an actress."
          "There's the success in a nutshell; all the men are in love with you, and, naturally, all the women hate you."
          “How delightful are sweeping generalizations! But please don't give me half a turkey; a quarter is quite enough."
          “Your dress is simply lovely!" came in a friendly little whisper to her ear, as Mrs. Myles went out smiling over her shoulder.
Gilbert Myles, C.S., was waiting near the door of the supper-room, with the weary expression he had worn all the evening; he did not dance, and balls were a duty to him, and a very irksome one. He had a good face of the plain, straightforward type; and the brown hair was beginning to recede from his square forehead.
          “Ready at last, Lilian?" he said; “it's nearly one o'clock."
          “Oh, do let us stay for one more dance," she said eagerly.
          She was looking her best in a gown of prim rose satin; her cheeks were flushed and her eyes shining.
          “I thought we had settled that we were to leave at half-past twelve, and it is now nearly one," he repeated.
          “Only one more dance, Gilbert."
          "Just as you like, then; my wishes count as nothing.” He spoke bitterly, and the light was gone from her face in an instant.
          "Oh no," she said quickly; “you look so tired; do let's go; I don't really want to dance any more."
           “You shall have your dance; I am not going to drag you away; if you will be kind enough to come back here when you are quite certain that you are willing to go home, you will find me waiting."
          “But, Gilbert, I am very tired, and I never meant to be thoughtless; please take me home."
          “Your intentions are always excellent. Go and have your dance; I am not interfering with your pleasure."
          His mouth closed like a trap, and his wife turned away sighing.
          “This is No. 13," said Curtis joyfully to Nancy, "and you have not gone yet; just one turn.”
          "We must be quick, then; I'm sure mother will be looking for me," she said.
          They both danced well, and were in perfect accord. The floor was no longer crowded, and from the first bar to the last the dark head and the fair head, the boy in his red uniform and the girl in her white gown, circled and glided through a world of music and happiness. One little tendril of her hair had loosened itself, and the wind of their going blew it against his cheek now and again. Neither spoke; it was enough to move to music together, with a vague, undefined feeling that a misunderstanding had been dispelled. The ending of the waltz came as a surprise to them both.
          "Oh, how short that was!" he said; "but that one dance has been worth the whole evening to me.”
          "Yes; it's much nicer when the floor is not crowded," said Nancy, through quickened breaths.
          “You are looking pale, though; are you very tired? We ought not to have danced like that without stopping, but I thought of nothing at the time. Do let me fan you; no, I shan't break it."
          “Nancy dear, it's getting late ; are you ready to come?"
          Mrs. Ivey spoke, and Curtis was not glad to see her, sweet-faced lady though she was.
          “Let me go and look after your rickshaws," he said; “I'm afraid you'll have a long time to wait for them." Then, as the band struck up, “Oh, I'm awfully sorry! I forgot; I'm dancing this."
          “Good-night, then," said Mrs. Ivey; “Nancy, have you had some soup? You are as white as your dress, and your eyes look huge. Plain child, come home at once."
          And Nancy, who was old-fashioned enough to consider her mother her dearest friend, and her wisest and most tender counsellor on all matters, from the conduct of life to the choice of a dress, laughed and went home; but not before she had seen that Curtis's partner for the fourteenth dance was Mrs. Edwards.

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