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

A Pinchbeck Goddess, Chapter 8 (Alice Kipling Fleming


"Oh, merry goes the time when the heart is young ;
There's naught too high to climb when the heart is young!"

          "Janet, I'm getting lazy; I can't settle down to anything. Is it the result of Simla, or only a reaction after having paid all my calls and seen the last of 'Cupid's Client'?"
          "I should never call you lazy; dear, but you certainly have not done any embroidery for more than a fortnight."
          Janet was lavishing dainty stitchery of white thread on a piece of white linen, and spoke with out raising her eyes.
          "Never mind; you are industrious enough for two. Cripps, don't sleep so audibly; come here, sir."
          Cripps rose under protest, yawned cavernously, stretched himself fore and aft, and sauntered to Winnie's feet.
          "Lazy hound! Listen, Cripps. Once there were some cats-s-s-s-s, and they went for a walk and met some rats-s-s-s-s, and the cats-s-s-s-s said to the rats-s-s----"
          But here Cripps, perceiving that his finer feelings were being played upon for no adequate reason, lost all interest in the story, and arranged himself for slumber on the hem of Winnie's white gown.
          "Silly little dog, Cripps! and there would have been real chocolate later on in that story, if you had only had manners. We have been up here nearly two months, Janet; time does fly. How do you like it—India, I mean?"
          "It isn't nearly as Oriental as I expected," said Janet, wrinkling her smooth brow in the endeavour to phrase her thoughts. "It's very nice, but, except for the scenery and the servants, it's very English. I suppose the plains are different."
          "They look more like one's conventional notions of India, certainly," said Winnie; "and occasionally one goes to see a mosque, or organizes a picnic to an emperor's tomb, but I think one is no whit nearer to any inner significance."
          "I think that is a pity."
          "So do I, but what can we do? The very strong walls of custom, prejudice, and ignorance bar us from any true knowledge of native life— we women especially; and let it be remembered that these bars are as much on the other side as on ours. There are exceptions, of course, but most people are not exceptional," said Winnie slowly.
          "Indian servants are much better than I had expected," said Janet, passing from vague visions of zenanas and palaces to a subject on which she felt herself competent to speak.
          "They are mysterious people; we know nothing about them beyond the fact that they are content to employ a few hours each day in serving us—service is only a little incident in their lives. We do not house them, we do not feed them, we cannot tend them if they are sick, except by giving them papers of quinine, or packets of tea, or a letter to take to the' hospital. One of the jampanies is sure to fall ill when the rains come, and he will send in an empty salmon-tin, or a jagged-edged can that once held two pounds of peaches, to fetch a few drops of chlorodyne."
          "Oh, Winnie, surely you would let the poor thing have it in a wineglass?"
          "One of our unclean wineglasses! The poor thing would indignantly send it back to me, and feel dreadfully insulted, which is a little alienating. Why, there is a rickshaw turning in here, and it is not calling-time yet; who is our friend?"
          "I've been meaning to come and see you for ever so long, only I could never find a minute to spare," cried Mrs. Bertie Vernon, entering unannounced.
          "That's very good of you," said Winnie, while Janet escaped unnoticed and Cripps barked loudly, for like all dogs of character and sterling worth, he had his prejudices.
          It was generally said of Mrs. Bertie Vernon's manners and customs that, if Mr. Bertie Vernon did not object to them, no one else had any business to do so, and the same reasoning applied to her complexion and style of dress. She was a lady of excellent spirits, and her fondness for practical jokes and baby-games had outlived her youth. Her age was shrouded in mystery; popular belief asserted her to be of a few years less standing than Simla Church, but older than the United Service Club. One thing was certain: viceroys, lieutenant-governors, principalities and powers, came and went in Simla, but through all chance and change Mrs. Bertie Vernon was in evidence every season. She would have been a valuable chronicle of the past if she had not made a point of confining her memories strictly within a seven-years limit. Her figure was conscientiously moulded to an hour-glass outline, her fiercely yellow hair was curiously dark at the roots, and she affronted the freshness of morning by the perfume of "Ess. Bouquet."
          "Your dancing was splendid in 'Cupid's Client,' " she said, sitting down with her back to the light; "everyone said it was the best thing in the piece. Colonel Strath-Ingram was so amusing about it."
          "Not really?" said Winnie.
          "Oh yes, he was; he said it was quite professional, and you really ought to let us all into the secret what theatre you used to belong to."
          "What a compliment! but if the dear man had been at home lately he would have recognised the usual five guineas' worth of lessons from D'Auban; I hadn't time for any more. Of course I got my skirts at a good place, though, and that counts a lot."
          "Yes, they were lovely, and everyone was delighted except the Pickled Walnut. I heard someone ask her what she thought of the play, and she said, in such a nasty voice, ' She and her ankles! 'Perhaps I ought not to have told you."
          "Oh, bless her heart!" said Winnie; "is it possible that she reads Browning? I must call on her to-morrow and find out."
          Mrs. Bertie Vernon did not follow her meaning.
          "She's a horrid woman," she said; "she can't stand anyone better-looking than herself, and you know how plain she is. She simply hates me, and I'm sure I've never done anything to her."
          "You have existed beautifully," suggested Winnie gravely.
          "You dear girl!" said Mrs. Bertie, with a sudden clutch at Winnie's hand; "but what I really came to ask you was if you would show me how to do those pretty steps. I always wanted to go in for skirt-dancing, and they're sure to get up a burlesque later on."
          "Oh, I'm so stupid, I am afraid I couldn't teach you anything," said Winnie, aghast.
          "I pick things up very quickly; I'm sure I should soon get into it. Of course I'm taller than you," said Mrs. Bertie, straightening her pinched waist; "but I'm quite slender, and as long as one's well proportioned, I think it's rather nice to be a little plump. I really have lovely ankles."
          She shot out a fat foot in a high-heeled shoe with so much energy that Cripps, who had been growling faintly behind the piano, considered himself challenged, and came forth to war; Winnie caught him hastily and caged him under a wicker chair.
          "What a nasty beast! " said Mrs. Bertie Vernon.
          "But aren't they small? People have often said they were sure I could wear my bracelets on them if I liked."
          "Did you ever do it? "
          "Oh no; it would look rather fast; but for a burlesque, though, anklets would be awfully smart. We must make them get up a burlesque —a real good one. They could give the proceeds to a charity. It wouldn't be much for the dresses, and suppers after run away with a lot of the money. Come along, Mrs. Edwards; show me some steps."
          Winnie stood up, laughing, slightly raised her white skirts, and flashed slender ankles as she wove a chain of dainty movement with her little feet. After a moment Mrs. Bertie, greatly daring, pranced heavily opposite her, and Cripps growled and wriggled in his prison till the chair's progress would have interested the author of "Haunted Homes."
          "It's very hard work," said Mrs. Bertie, panting. "What you really ought to do," said Winnie, pirouetting, " is to practise exercises—practise every day till you are quite supple."
          “I will," gasped Mrs. Bertie.
          “I'll only give you one to begin with," said Winnie very gravely; "you had better practise it first thing in the morning: Stretch out your hand in front of you, quite level with your shoulder, and try to touch it with your foot. When you can do that easily I'll tell you another."
          "Yes, that's right. I mean to really go in for it. Colonel Strath-Ingram says that to see a pretty woman dancing is what he calls the poetry of motion."
          "He's very original," said Winnie.
          "Yes, isn't he? and so clever and amusing; we are such friends. Of course, you know he is a great admirer of yours, Mrs. Edwards. I tell him that I am nowhere now, but I don't think I shall tell you what he says in answer. I'm sure you wouldn't really mind, for just think of all the time I have known him—more than five years. Jealousy is a thing I can never understand; I always tell Bertie so."
          "Is your husband coming up at all?"
          "Oh no; poor dear fellow! he can't get away; he's grilling down below, and at this time of year India is divided into hill stations and hell stations, as Strath-Ingram says. The heat simply kills me. I never attempt to stand it; I always have to come away before the punkahs go up. Dear Bertie would be wretched if I stayed."
          "Yes," said Winnie.
          "I think he really enjoys the hot weather; it is such a comfort to him to know that I am safe in the cool, having a good time. People are always so good to me. I make lots of friends, and I really never feel lonely."
          "You are very fortunate."
          "Do you know, I can always tell at once if I am going to get on well with a person," said Mrs. Bertie earnestly; and Cripps, glaring through the wickerwork, thought the same thing. "Now, the minute I saw you down at Annandale—you were wearing a black-and-white dress, and an awfully smart bonnet—I said to myself, 'There's a woman after my own heart.'"
          "I feel quite overwhelmed."
          "Oh no," said Mrs. Bertie encouragingly; "but it does seem a pity that we did not meet sooner. Now, if I'd met you before you had made your arrangements for the season, we might have chummed together. I like a little house better than a hotel in lots of ways. People do talk so; and don't you find it ties you down dreadfully having a girl with you?"
          "Miss Rosslyn is a very dear friend of mine," said Winnie.
          "Oh, of course that's quite different; I know I looked after a girl one year, and she was an awful nuisance; I was perfectly thankful when she went back to her father."
          Winnie bestowed a pitying thought on the unknown girl, and only smiled in answer.
          "We have rather fun at our hotel sometimes," went on Mrs. Bertie; "there are some nice boys there; we all played Puss in the Corner and games of that sort last night till ever so late. You must come to dinner some day soon; I want to see a great deal of you. Is that clock of yours right? I have an appointment with my dress maker at half-past twelve—such a fiend of a woman! She's making me the simplest little ball frock, and this is the seventh time I've been to be fitted. But I know I'm very particular about clothes; I simply cannot and will not take a thing unless it fits like a glove; it's much the best way. Well, good-bye; mind you come and see me soon."
          "Oh, Cripps, I beg your pardon," said Winnie to the sulky lump that appeared when she moved the wicker chair. "It was a very ill-used dog then; and it thought it was saving own missis from a great big wild elephant, it did. Sue, Cripps! Fetch it! Cats! rats! rabbits!"
          "Gone at last?" said Janet, returning; "what did she want? "
          "To tread the mazy. Were you frightened when the house shook? I nearly sent you up a chit to say that it was not earthquakes, only Mrs. Bertie Vernon trying to skirt-dance. "

And every time she give a jump,
She make the windows sound !

          Janet, I'm succeeding too well. I want to be in the swim and still keep one foot on the ground, and instead of this Mrs. Bertie Vernon says I am a woman after her own heart. Pity me, Charmian."
          “Didn't you feel very angry?"
          "No, I was delighted in one way; but I don't quite like it. I believe there is not the least harm in her, really, only if you carry silliness far enough it becomes a crime; and I think she is kind-hearted, but there is an atmosphere of stale perfume about her last night's pocket-handkerchief —ouf! Yet she is a thrifty soul."
          "Thrifty? I have never seen her wear the same dress twice."
          "Never mind; she atones for that in her makeup, which might be chalk and brickdust and burnt matches: I believe it is. I ought to send Nugent over as a missionary to the heathen." She looked at her own face in a mirror. "Why, compared with that woman my maquillage is like the radiant bloom of infancy."
          Janet shook her head without speaking.
          "But there is a fatal resemblance, all the same," went on Winnie—"a likeness to make one shudder. Janet, I am going upstairs to wash my face.”
          "Oh, do, Winnie; wash it all off!" cried Janet eagerly. " I will, and I shall look like a good, honest, respectable ghoul for the space of half an hour; at the end of that time I prophesy that I shall send for Nugent, and I am quite certain that Nugent will scold me."

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