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

A Pinchbeck Goddess (Prologue)


"Days that are over, Dreams that are done." 

“Face fallen and white throat lifted,
With sleepless eye
She sees old loves that drifted,
She knew not why;  
Old loves and faded fears
Float down a stream that hears
The flowing of all men's tears beneath the sky."
-A.C. Swinburne.

            Madeline Norton had been trying to write letters in the saloon after dinner, but the jangle of a much-travelled piano and the heavy stamp of dancing feet on the deck above her head made consecutive thought impossible. The great steamer was going slowly through the Suez Canal; the pulsation of her screw in the smooth water was like the beating of a very tired giant's heart. Although it was a December night, the air was close and warm, and the smell of dinner lingered unpleasantly in the saloon. Madeline went up on deck with quiet, undecided feet.
            The romping polka was over, and the flushed and heated dancers sat dispersed among the shadows, or leaned against the bulwarks laughing and talking; no one spoke to her as she made her way to a quiet nook and watched the broad stream of electric light that gushed from the prow of the steamer.
            This strong crude light held apart from the silver flood poured down by the full moon over head, and was painfully theatrical in comparison. When the machine-made rays fell on the sand banks on either hand, they were at once shorn of the glamour and glory the moon had lent them, and became barely, badly hideous, unredeemed by either colour or contour. A momentary effect, for even as Madeline watched they glided back into beauty, the moon resumed her sway, while the next hillock ahead was disenchanted, its irregular outline and a few poor leprous plants cruelly emphasized. She looked back, and behind them the sand-hills lay glorified and splendid, ranges of shapes of pearl beneath the lavish silver moon. A string of camels, roped nose to tail, festooned like a decorative frieze against the pale sky; the tall, soft-footed creatures looped along with the leisurely, reluctant shuffle that has never willingly quickened since the slow descent from Mount Ararat.
            Attracted by the music, two dusky shapes were running heavily along the sandy shore, calling for alms with shrill persistence. The bewildering light prevented Madeline from seeing if they were women or children; they were slender muffled forms with sharp, thin voices.
            A lean shadow sped inland howling—a high-pitched howl like a scream. Dog, jackal, wolf, or unclean demon of the night?
            Madeline shuddered, and turned to look along the familiar deck. She saw the broad-shouldered figure of the captain pacing to and fro, and knew from his hearty laugh that the little lady he was talking to had said something amusing. Rosie Thurlow, the prettiest girl on board, her fair hair unshielded from the night breeze, and her fair face in a most becoming ray of moon light, was talking to one man and looking at another. Madeline was the only woman who sat alone; she felt lonely and neglected in the quiet place she had chosen.
            The jangling piano trembled under the strong fingers of the ship's doctor, and the rollicking insistence of "Sir Roger de Coverley" drowned the weary begging voices from the bank. The music that had been intolerable to Madeline while she sat in the saloon was almost alluring in the open air. Her feet beat time to the oft-repeated measure, and she half rose, with the unformulated thought that if she stood near the lamp in the companion she might perhaps get a partner. A quick revulsion of feeling sent her deeper into the shadows.
            "At your age!" she said, half aloud. She possessed several scourges for self-chastisement, and one of them was the fact that she would be thirty years old on her next birthday. She took some pains to accustom herself to this stern truth, for it often seemed to her that she had missed her youth, that she had become a woman without having been a girl.
            A man came briskly towards her, saying, " Our dance, I think? " Then, as she looked up, " Oh, I beg your pardon, Miss Norton; thought you were Mrs. Woods!"
            "Who has ever seen Mrs. Woods sitting alone in a corner? " she asked a little bitterly; but he did not wait to answer her.
            Madeline Norton was a slender woman with a face of possibilities, but most of the possibilities were thwarted ones, for a spirit of perverseness seemed to preside over her toilet. Her wavy dark hair was brushed flatly from her brow, and packed into a tight knot; she rarely smiled enough for people to know that she had charming teeth, and she dressed in the colours that were least becoming to her clear, pale complexion. But no misplaced ingenuity could disguise the delicate out line of her profile, or the beauty of her gray eyes, with their curling black lashes.
            La—la—la. Dee—dum—dee—diddety. Did-dety—dum—dee. Dee—dee—dee, shrilled the jangling piano again and again, faster and faster flew the dancing feet, while Madeline contemplated her past, her present, and her future, wondering which was the most dreary. Meditating in the pale light to the music of a dance she had not been asked to join, she felt that she had little to remember with pleasure, and much to recall with regret—many apprehensions for the future without one joyful anticipation. She knew too well the nature of the welcome that awaited her in the grim house where she had spent cheerless holidays since she was ten years old, and where she had led a repressed and colourless life all the years that had followed her nineteenth birthday.
            Her father's sister, who had been her guardian, support and tyrant since the terrible week that left her doubly orphaned, had always enforced the most absolute maternal authority, while rendering it intolerable by the complete absence of maternal tenderness. The child of ten had cheerfully and willingly accounted to Aunt Agatha for every moment of her time, and had conscientiously tried to explain her every action; but to the girl of twenty this was an ever-increasing burden, and, as years went on, the woman of eight-and-twenty, who was not allowed to open her own letters, did not find the hard rule made easier by habit.
            Madeline sometimes thought that her aunt might have been more bearable if she had never married, for the memory of Mr. Cotesworth, who had been much younger than his wife, and who had quietly died of consumption soon after their marriage, was a never-failing incentive to tyranny. His views concerning the training of children and girls, as expounded by his widow, would have filled a large volume, and his stringent ideas of discipline would have astonished no one more than the gentle creature himself. Even in her childhood Madeline had found it difficult to reconcile the bland portraits of this uncle, whom she had never seen, with the terrible rules for her conduct which he had formulated, chiefly on his death-bed, according to Aunt Agatha. For a long time she was under the impression that "consumption " was something that Aunt Agatha had done to Uncle Paul. But, apart from the distressing influence of this disciplinarian wraith, Mrs. Cotesworth posed on her pedestal of widowhood as one who had fathomed all human sympathies, and from whom the world hid no unknown bliss or bale. The experience of maternity had certainly been denied to her, but, in her own opinion, her adoption of Madeline had more than atoned for this deficiency.
            "She came to me at exactly the right time, when her young intelligence was beginning to blossom, and I have shared her every thought."
            Madeline knew this statement passing well; she had heard it made hundreds of times, to any and every acquaintance, in the elaborately soft voice that was belied by Mrs. Cotesworth's hard eyes. One of the most wearisome necessities of her life had been the constant fabrication of thoughts, or, rather, of substitutes for thoughts, such as she could share with her aunt.
            Her hands moved nervously as she remembered the thousand miseries of the past, which would assuredly be the thousand miseries of the future also. Such petty, paltry troubles, but none the less very hard to bear—the harder, perhaps, for their very triviality. Gratuitous troubles, too, it would seem—quite unnecessary and quite inevitable. What, on the face of things, could appear kinder or more tender than the care and guardianship Mrs. Cotesworth had given her orphan niece? She remembered the room that had been prepared for her—a veritable bower of prettiness, with its pink rosebud chintz and paper. "So near to me, dear child," Aunt Agatha had said, "that I can hear your every movement." What a restraint and torment that nearness had proved!
            It was almost twenty years since this room, to which she was returning, had been furnished; the thought of it gave her a little shudder. Was there something unwholesome in her nature, she wondered, that converted seeming-sweet actions to exceedingly bitter ones? It might appear so, but she alone knew what thorn-set, scentless blossoms were the pink rosebuds with which Aunt Agatha had surrounded her. Looking back that evening to her childish years, she thought with impotent bitterness of their thwarted possibilities, until her heart melted with pity for the child who had needed so little to make her happy, but to whom that little had always been denied.
            The child had had a talent for mimicry—an undoubted power of reproducing the voice and manner of her acquaintances; but this she had been sternly forbidden to exercise. Her passion ate fondness for animals found its only expression in secret petting hastily bestowed on the unresponsive kitchen cat, while her eager desire to possess a pony had been pronounced worldly, if not wicked. The love of music, which Mrs. Cotesworth had tried to direct into what she called a " proper channel," had strengthened with years, and, in spite of constant discouragement and faulty instruction, had become what those who heard her singing of a ballad termed " a real gift." Madeline had early suspected, and it became a conviction in later life, that, with good tuition and training, she might have been a musician; but she found herself, her schooldays passed, a timid and, as she thought, an ineffective performer. One enjoyment only had escaped detection and its consequent reproof, for her love of reading had been unobserved by Mrs. Cotes worth, to whom a book was a book, and it was only in the matter of binding that one differed from another. The unknown uncle had left a library behind him, and in this Madeline had browsed for years unnoticed, if not unseen. Her only difficulty had been to refrain from using in daily speech the lines and phrases that filled her retentive memory, for many a time an apt quotation had been received as an original impertinence, and punished accordingly.
            Her schooldays had been her delight and her salvation; the child at school was a high-spirited, quick-witted creature, bubbling over with young life and laughter, while the child at home moved slowly and spoke quietly, masking her youth with a semblance of age. The instinct of the actress ran in her veins; the child was for ever "making believe." She consoled herself through many a dreary hour by "playing at being Aunt Agatha." The heavy step that Mrs. Cotesworth strove to correct was a faithful copy of the lady's own stately progress, and the very words with which she received a rebuke were carefully studied from her aunt's speech. Happily, this audacity was never detected, save- by an appreciative parlour-maid.
            Madeline's musings were broken by the sound of four bells; she had learnt to recognise it as ten o'clock, and went to her cabin, hoping by hasty undressing and feigned sleep to escape the confidential chatter of the girl who shared its narrow limits with her. She was too late, for Rosie Thurlow followed close behind her, with an infinite deal of nothing to relate at great length. Madeline had been constituted Rosie's confidante before the steamer was two days out from Bombay. Within a week she had heard all that Rosie's busy tongue could tell about "Archie" in Burma, who was coming home to marry her next summer, and had lent a kind though weary ear to long discussions of trousseau frocks. But neither these practical anticipations nor the big sapphire ring on her left hand could keep the girl's light heart from roaming, and sundry feelings and fancies supplied Rosie's days with interest, and her talk of them deprived Madeline's evenings of rest.
            That night, long after Rosie was silent, Madeline lay awake restless and weary, fretted by wandering thoughts. Rosie's prattle had recalled an old memory, an old sorrow—had roused a feeling of revolt from very long ago. Rosie was nineteen; Madeline had been one year older when the only romance of her life began and ended. She smiled in the darkness as she realized the simplicity, the utterly commonplace character, of what had once seemed to her beautiful and wonderful.
            Aunt Agatha, whose habitual petulance formed a prickly scabbard to the steel blade of her will, had on that occasion laid aside peevishness and indecision, and shattered the potentialities of the future in a very ruthless manner. Madeline wept bitterly over her cruelty at the time, and after the shadowy, fantastic love had faded away, the memory of past suffering estranged her still further from her aunt. She was able now to understand that a kind deed had been very unkindly performed. She summoned back Edmund Welmore's thin face to her mind until it showed clearly among the misty memories of ten years ago. She recalled the high, narrow brow, where the lank hair grew scantily, the thin-lipped, anxious mouth, the long neck that rose so far above the collar of his clerical coat, and no gleam remained of the saintly beauty she had once seen in that face. The features she had almost worshipped revealed, in the light of later knowledge, narrow-mindedness and a querulous, unforgiving temper. Her life as his wife would doubtless have brought her sadder days than those she had spent with her aunt, but she did not reach this conclusion without the painful feeling that she was breathing a chiller, lonelier air, since for years the memory of what she had imagined Edmund to be had been a tender shelter to her spirit. She had exalted him into an ideal so far removed from real life that the news of his marriage had hardly troubled her. Now she remembered that one of the last letters from England mentioned that poor little Edmund Welmore, aged five, had broken his nose against the scullery door, unluckily left open in the dark. She threw back her head impatiently on her pillow; it was the sort of ignominious accident that was likely to befall Edmund's son; she wondered it had not happened to the man himself. The poverty of her experiences was sharply brought home to her by the fact that this man had been her first, her only love.
            Her thoughts sped swiftly through a vista of years that had been filled by the exactions of Aunt Agatha and by the dreariest of occupations, those that are self-sought and self-made. Courses of reading undertaken as mental tonics, searches after knowledge that was useless to her, and the manufacture of large pieces of embroidery which, on completion, were locked away by Aunt Agatha lest they should be "spoilt by use "—a prison life during which her constant companion and only support had secluded her, as far as was possible, from all sympathetic friends and outside interests.
            Their final quarrel illustrated the perverseness of Mrs. Cotesworth's disposition. She "enjoyed ill health," and found resource and occupation in her doctor's visits, especially when the old doctor sold his practice to a young man who, though not famous in his profession, had a gift of glib flattery. Madeline thought him at once obsequious, familiar, and vulgar, and was vexed to notice that he paid them longer visits than either the state of her aunt's health or his own duties justified; but this did not prepare her for what happened after six months' acquaintance. He was attending her for a severe cold, and Mrs. Cotesworth having gone out of the room in search of a much-prized gargle, a sentence that began with advice about her throat ended with a request that she would marry him. Surprise did not prevent her answer from being a prompt and decided "No," which her suitor received with cheerful incredulity. Madeline confidently expected Mrs. Cotesworth's approval and support, but her aunt expressed herself as being both surprised and pained that her dearest projects for Madeline's happiness should be thwarted by vanity and ingratitude. Dr. Turner was an ideal match, a man among ten thousand, far too good, indeed, for a penniless girl, to say nothing of a woman whose youth, and such good looks as she had ever possessed, were rapidly departing.
            Madeline was too certain that her one attraction for Dr. Turner lay in Mrs. Cotesworth's bank account to be in the least moved by anything that he could say to her, and she received her aunt's upbraidings in silence. This bowing to the storm availed her nothing, for Mrs. Cotes worth's anguish of mind necessitated frequent visits from her medical adviser; and it was noticeable that after each visit her displeasure strengthened, and its manifestations became more disagreeable.
            It was at this opportune time, when Mrs. Cotesworth intermingled everything she said with the doctor's suit, that Madeline found a friend, who brought with her a glimpse of freedom, a chance of deliverance. On that day, by great good fortune, Mrs. Cotesworth had a head ache, caused by a morning of invective, and, after a final bitter shaft, had issued orders that her sleep was not to be disturbed on any pretext until five o'clock. Madeline therefore found herself free to entertain a stout, pleasant-faced lady, who kissed her twice and told her several times that she was very like her dear mother, only not quite so pretty.
            Mrs. Haymont was the wife of an Indian civilian, and a distant relative of Madeline's mother. She belonged to the unjustly maligned portion of humanity that will do anything for a present friend, and instantly forget an absent one, incurring thereby the contempt of the larger portion that does nothing for friends either near or far. The very fact of Madeline's existence having escaped her memory for many years, she had, as it were, a cumulative stock of affection for her. The sea of her benevolence ran mountains high, until at last one vast wave swept Madeline off her feet; this was nothing less than an earnestly urged suggestion that she should accompany the Haymonts to India the following month. While she stood rapt in the wonder of it, Mrs. Cotesworth entered, and Madeline noted in amazement how her majestic manner softened and became well-nigh genial under this new influence. Opposition was conquered, scruples overcome; and Madeline saw, as in a dream, the thread of her life twisted in a new direction by this wonderful stranger-friend.
            Before Mrs. Haymont left, she had exacted a definite promise that Madeline was to visit her for at least a year.
            When the stimulus of her presence was withdrawn, Mrs. Cotesworth naturally retracted all that she had said, and waxed pathetic as she talked of desertion and eager thirst for pleasure; but Madeline's fetters had eaten too deeply into her soul to allow her to give up the chance of freedom. Mrs. Haymont was staying in the neighbourhood, and the persistence with which she followed up her first advantage was admirable. Mrs. Cotesworth was opposed by a will as strong as her own, and a temper both more energetic and more amiable. The combination was irresistible, and Mrs. Haymont had her way, from the first great decision down to the last pair of gloves in Madeline's outfit. The girl herself could not believe in her good fortune until she stood upon the steamer's deck outward-bound.
            Madeline's eyes moistened with stinging tears of self-pity as she remembered her hopes and visions during that voyage less than a year ago— imaginings almost as foolish as the fairy-tales she had been accustomed to tell herself twenty years before, when the rosebud room was new. She had expected too much. Gratitude led her into enthusiastic admiration for Mrs. Haymont, and disappointment was not long in following. Mrs. Haymont was kind and good, with a sunny nature utterly unclouded by her grim husband, who was silent when he was not surly; but she had a coarseness of fibre, a bluntness of perception, that the sensitive Madeline found intolerable.
            Her views were simple and frankly expressed. Madeline—she should call her Lena by-the-by, it was such a mouthful of a name else—was a dear girl, and quite as pretty as most people. Of course she would marry. With a little trouble she might even make a good match, for no one would think she was more than twenty-five. If the right people were asked to the house, and Lena talked brightly and showed how well read she was, it might be a high-up civilian. She would have counselled her own sister or her own daughter with equal candour and directness. She explained her intentions to Madeline out of sheer goodness of heart, but the shy, nervous woman, whose life had been spent in almost claustral seclusion, was pained and disgusted. Her happy dreams were replaced by exaggerated forebodings, and before long she mistrusted and misconstrued Mrs. Haymont's every word and action. Her anxiety to show that she did not lend herself to any matrimonial schemes made her manner unnatural and repellent, and she took pleasure in smoothing out the pretty tendrils of her wavy hair, and wearing dresses wherein she looked her worst. These trivial measures were her only defence against a very terrible imputation. People would certainly say that Mrs. Haymont was trying to get Miss Norton married, but no word or look of hers should show sympathy with the plot.
            She stood in her own light with unflagging energy and a persistence that was almost pathetic. She repelled interest that might have ripened into love, and avoided acquaintances who would willingly have become friends. She earned for herself the reputation of being a dull and silent young woman, and the season at Simla, from which Mrs. Haymont had expected so much, was a long six months of humiliation and mortification to Madeline. The fact that the humiliation and mortification were self-sought and self-inflicted did not sweeten them to the girl who had lived too long with Mrs. Cotesworth to be wholly free from the taint of morbidness and bitterness.
            Mrs. Haymont was sadly disappointed, and, being unskilled in the finer varieties of feeling, Madeline's behaviour was as inexplicable to her as it was baffling. She began to speak of her as "peculiar," and from thenceforward Madeline was known as "that strange Miss Norton," and her simplest actions were invested with a lurid light.
            It was a thoroughly false position arrived at through a misapprehension, and Madeline's behaviour was out of all proportion to the nervous terror that had originated it. A species of poor pride helped her to maintain her defiant attitude, even after she had a glimmering suspicion of its absurdity; and it was a relief to both hostess and guest when news came, at the end of October, of Mr. Haymont's transfer to Madras on a piece of special duty. Here was an excuse for Made line, the failure, to return to England, and she availed herself of it, though at the first word of parting Mrs. Haymont's kind heart warmed to her anew.
            "Do change your mind and stay with us a few months longer, Lena dear," she said. "I shall miss you dreadfully. If you will, I'll take you to Ootacamund next hot weather; that will be a thorough change, and another chance for you."
            The last words spoilt all. Madeline's lips set to a thin straight line as her coldest voice refused the invitation.
            The scarcely-ended time in India already seemed very far away. She could imagine how it would figure among her memories years hence, when she was an ill-tempered old woman like Aunt Agatha. Perhaps years hence some of the sting and ache and anger at her own foolishness would have died away. The hardest thing of all was the knowledge that her folly had armed Aunt Agatha with a new weapon against her; that lady might be trusted to make good use of it.
            She was now far enough away from her behaviour of the past year to see it in its proper light, and for the first time she realized the full extent of her ungraciousness. She had elected to play a role of almost malign perverseness, and her dramatic instinct had taken possession of her and led her away further than she had meant or wished to go. She had intended to be merely dignified and distant, but she had become disagreeable, well-nigh repulsive, and she thought with a twitching little smile, that trembled into tears, of the gentleman who blacked himself all over to play Othello. If she had wished to indulge the somewhat morbid fancy of seeming other than her natural self, it would have been easy to her to assume a prettier part, to have given free scope for once to the brightness, the light-heartedness and the attractiveness which she was conscious of possessing. Now the chance was over, the one chance of her life, and she had proved to herself and all the world that she was fit for nothing but the cheerless seclusion, far worse than solitude, of existence shared with Aunt Agatha.
            The ship's bells rang out again, again, and yet again, and a fat gray rat, emboldened by night and silence, slid into the cabin and foraged for food. Madeline did not hear him, even when he found a packet of sweets in Rosie's workbasket, and crunched pralines with noisy greediness, and the tears that dripped on her pillow flowed too quietly to disturb him.
Port Said looked hot and very dusty in the sunshine next morning, and Madeline did not care to go on shore. She had no desire to ride donkeys, and the well-worn jokes of their names, "Grand Old Man," "Bicycle built for Two," or "Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay," no longer made her smile. She sat on deck trying, by dint of closed eyes and deaf ears, to discourage the not easily daunted cigarette-sellers and hawkers of lace, photographs, and olive-wood paper-knives.
            A few steps behind her the captain's pleasant face had grown serious over a telegram from England, addressed to him as the "Commander of S.S. Moldavia." "Kindly break to Miss Norton, passenger Moldavia, news of her aunt Mrs. Cotesworth's death. Influenza. December 5."

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