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The Little Pink House (1894)
Story by Alice Kipling Fleming (Pall Mall Gazette, August 1894)
The Little Pink House
By “Beatrice Kipling” (Alice Kipling Fleming)
Pall Mall Gazette, August 1894
John Port held a subordinate post on the Eastern Bengal State Railway; and the post carried with it, besides a certain number of rupees per month, a little pink house, that sat very flat upon the ground near the railway line. It was also near a tank, and had, in consequence, a green dank garden, where marigolds and poppies sprawled together, and big bushes, starred with the scarlet shoe-flower, grew in inharmonious fellowship with the magenta masses of the bougainvillea. A decaying tree trunk was glorified by the tangled wreaths and orange trumpets of the Bignonia vernesta; and there were many foliage plants, clumps of brightly coloured leaves, boasting long Latin names; but John Port called them, one and all, “burning bushes.”
“Tisn’t what you’d call ‘homelike,” said John Port to his pipe, as he paced among these flowering splendours; “but Ellen ‘ll make a difference, trust ‘her.”
And Ellen was on her way out, and every throb of the steamer’s screw brought her nearer to the pink house, and the green garden, and the expectant man, to whom her coming was to make such a difference. It was four years since Ellen Gee had promised to marry John Port, four years since he had gone to seek his fortune in India. He was a steady hard-working man, and the fortune had not been long of coming: the monthly salary, with good prospects, and the pink house and the green garden. In the pride of his heart, John Port sent home money, a cruel sacrifice at a time when sixteen rupees barely equaled twenty shillings, for Ellen’s passage out.
“The idea!” said Ellen, when she received the money, and she promptly put it into the savings bank against a rainy day. Ellen had made her arrangements for the voyage; she came out in attendance on a delicate lady and two small children, and a second-class fare was gladly paid in exchange for her services.
“I only wish you could stay with me,” said the lady; and she gave her five pounds at parting.
The marriage took place in Calcutta. John Port was nervous and excited, and the best coat of four years ago was already a little tight for him. Ellen was very quiet and composed, and wore a grey woollen gown.
They went straight from the church to the train, and as Ellen travelled without a ticket, she felt that she was indeed entering into her kingdom. Six hours of slow progress brought them to the little pink house, which Port had furnished as a man in his ignorance furnishes. Ellen was impressed by the four rooms and the verandah, but her quick eyes took instant note of the scaliness of the colour-washed walls, the inferior woodwork, and the clumsy doors that would not shut. But the servants astonished her beyond all things.
“Whatever ’ave you got all these people for? ” she asked, as a row of four stood salaaming to her.
“Most men’s wives ’as more,” said Port.
“The more shame to them; if I couldn’t manage to do the work of my own ’ouse, after all the time I've been a ‘general,’ it would be a pity.”
“Some of ’em you must ’ave, and you won’t feel much like working when the ‘ot weather comes, you’ll see,” said Port, secretly filled with tender admiration.
“We 'ad it ‘ot enough in the Red Sea, I’m sure,” said Ellen; “and as long as I was looking after Mrs. Nugent, or doing anything for the children, I didn't mind it; but when I sat down with my ’ands in front of me it was awful. Keep busy and you’ll be all right; that’s what I say.”
She had already changed her wedding-dress for a serviceable blue cotton gown, and she was on her knees as she spoke, dusting the long-neglected legs of the big square table; her sleeves were turned up, and she wore a large apron. John watched her in approving silence; she was certainly making a difference already. She went into the verandah to shake her duster, and Mrs. Gasparez, the wife of a ticket-collector, watched her from the house across the road.
“Ooh, thee bride is veree grand,” she said to her husband that evening; “she has brought out an English maid with her; onlee fancy, and makes her work so hard alreadee!”
It never entered into the mind of Mrs. Gasparez that any woman could possibly use a duster on her wedding-day.
John and Ellen walked in their garden when the sun was low, and Ellen spied its flowery tangles with a practical eye. “It’s a waste of land,” she said ; “couldn't we manage some greens instead of all that ’ighbiscus?” And John marvelled at her erudition. She had once attended a series of botanical lectures at Kew, organised by her Sunday-school teacher.
“Things will look more ’omelike presently,” said Ellen, as she fastened strings outside the verandah for scarlet-runners to be trained upon.
She was bending over the strings as she spoke, and John stooped and kissed her smooth hair a little awkwardly. “I knew you'd make it seem different when you came, old girl,’ he said huskily.
“Oh, it is nice to be ’ere,” said Ellen.
Three days later Mrs. Gasparez came to call, picking her way through the red dust of the road with little mincing steps. She was quite young and very stout, and her fat, brown face was naively and thickly coated with white powder; she had abundant shiny black hair and small, good-natured eyes. She wore a bright blue merino dress, trimmed with thin satin that crackled like paper, a cape on her shoulders jangled with beads, and there were red and yellow flowers in her bonnet. A little observation had corrected her mistake as to “thee bride’s English maid”; and though she considered Ellen a person of low ideas, there was no one else to talk to, and she was prepared to be kind to her. There was no servant to be seen in the verandah, and Mrs. Gasparez raised her shrill voice in vain.
“Ooh, I hope this is not a veree great libertee,” said Mrs. Gasparez, as, tired of waiting, she stepped into the little sitting-room; but the room was empty. She examined it critically. “Veree neat,” she said, “ but not at all smart ; my, onlee two antimacassars! ”
She sat down, very genteelly, on the edge of a chair; her flounces crackled stiffly. Five minutes later the bride appeared; she wore a big apron, and she was turning down her sleeves.
“Ooh, I am sorree to have disturbed you; I see you have been unpacking,” said Mrs. Gasparez, politely.
“I’m very glad to see you, and I ’ope I ’aven’t kept you waiting long,” said Ellen ; “ but I didn’t see you come, and I couldn’t make out what that boy Abdool was trying to tell me at first. I was out in the kitchen. Don't you find it very tiresome ’aving your kitchen so far from the ‘ouse? ”
“Ooh yess, but you will grow used to it presentlee. I am veree particular; I go into thee bawachi khana everee morning to see what my bawachi, thee cook you know, is doing, and sometimes in the afternoon also.”
Mrs. Gasparez’s voice shrilled into unexpected cadences, and she emphasised small words, and laid great stress on terminations, with that Eurasian accent which is as indescribable as it is unmistakable. Ellen's voice seemed very lull and deep as she replied.
“I ’aven't got a cook; I don't mean to ’ave one.’’
“My, how will you eat?" screamed Mrs. Gasparez.
“Can’t you cook?”
“My, no. I can make lovelee metai, sweets you know; but to cook thee meats, and thee soups, and thee curries, Ooh, no!”
“I don’t like curries,” said Ellen; “they're too spicy, and all odds and ends: you never know what you may be eating. John says he likes my cooking the best of any ’e ever ate.”
“The bride appeared; she wore a big apron, and was taming down her sleeves."
“Ooh, but your hands!”
Ellen glanced from her own capable fingers to the tightly stuffed yellow gloves that lay on Mrs. Gasparez’s blue lap: one of the seams had burst, and a ring with a vast red stone gleamed through.
“Use comes before looks,” said Ellen.
“Ooh yess,” said Mrs. Gasparez, doubtfully.
“’Ave you been ’ere long; do you like it?” asked Ellen.
“Onlee six months; it is veree dull, there is no societee. I often say to my husband, ‘I think I shall run away.’ You see we came from up countree, and there it was veree jollee, so manee people; here there are onlee four houses. I do not know what to do with myself ahl day long.”
“I should think your children would keep you pretty busy,” said Ellen.
“Ooh yess, there are four, but they are veree small; the babee is onlee three months old, and they have their ayah. You see they are so noisee, and I am not strong.”
“I don't fancy these natives,” said Ellen. “I shouldn’t like to see their black ‘ands touching any child I was fond of.” And then she remembered the dark skin, which so clearly proclaimed Mrs. Gasparez’s connection with the country, and felt very uncomfortable; but, fortunately, Mrs. Gasparez considered herself purely European, and always spoke of the England that she had never seen as “home.”
“My yess, they are fearful, you will see; your servants will always dikh you, worree you, you know.”
“I shall ’ave just as few as ever I can do with. Wouldn’t you like to see my kitchen? You see,” she continued, leading the way into the next room, “I keep all the plates in ere, and shall do the pastry-making and so on ’ere; and I wanted John to let me ’ave a stove, but ’e says it won’t do for the ’ot weather.”
They went out to the mud hut in the garden, which served as a kitchen. It had been newly whitewashed within and without: and at the freshly planed table stood a depressed-looking scullion peeling potatoes; he had scrambled up from his seat on the floor at the sound of his mistress’s voice.
“That’s the only servant I've got in the ’ouse,” said Ellen proudly.
“Ooh, thee hot weather will soon make you lazee,” laughed Mrs. Gasparez.
“Well, I made bread enough for three days yesterday, and baked it in that queer iron drum thing. John doesn’t like the baker’s bread ’ere; there was a beetle in the last we ’ad.”
“Ooh, you will soon grow lazee, we shall see.”
In the course of the next few months, something very like a friendship grew up between these two dissimilar women. John Port was often away, up and down the line, and Ellen became a frequent visitor at the house opposite. It was a larger house than her own, but it always appeared hopelessly crowded. The smell of savoury meats lingered in that house, and odours of garlic, kerosene oil, and bad tobacco strangely blended, never left it. The dogs and the children left bones about, to be tumbled over and kicked into corners; the clothes of the household seemed to have a habit of straying, and were to be met in unexpected places; the boots and shirts of Mr. Gasparez, the brilliant raiment of his wife, and the tattered little garments of the children had alike no abiding city. Nothing indeed was in its right place: the baby was lulled to fitful slumber in an arm-chair, while a tailor, hired for the day, squatted sewing on a child’s cot. Mrs. Gasparez’s abundant hair was generally brushed and oiled in the front verandah; and the three elder children ate strange meals, at odd hours, sitting on the floor of any room they happened to be in, surrounded by servants, puppies, and tame birds. Presently Ellen tried, both by precept and practice, to instil a little order into the chaos; but Mrs. Gasparez, stout in a white dressing-gown, only laughed at her efforts.
“Ooh, you are veree sillee! What does it matter ? Wait till thee babies come to your house, and then you will not be so particularlee neat.”
Although Ellen was too courageous to make any confessions, the cruel heat of a Bengal summer was a revelation of terror to her. She fought the heat with her favourite prescription of hard work; indeed, her husband, who was a great deal away, hardly realised how much she did. She cooked and cleaned, she mended and made clothes, she even washed clothes sometimes, earning thereby bitter headaches and the scorn of her neighbour; but a firm sense of right sustained her.
“Just think of what I’d be doing at ’ome, John,” she pleaded, when her husband noticed that her fresh face had grown white, and her light step heavy. “I didn’t come out ’ere to spend all your money on living like a fine lady; and yet ’ere I don’t need to wash my own dishes, and that Abdool is learning to cook quite nice; ’e can do lots of things already. And as for the washing, wouldn’t your sister think ’erself in clover at ’ome, with a sun like this to dry and bleach the clothes. You let me ’ave my own way, John; I can’t sit idle, and I shall ’ave to be a do-nothing for a bit when the New Year comes”; and at the thought her needle sped more swiftly through the little white garment she was making.
John thought her looking ill, but he supposed it was natural and inevitable, and she never complained.
Then the rains came: at first a respite from torment, presently torment in themselves. A clinging penetrating damp infected everything. The tank overflowed, and the green garden became a dismal swamp, tenanted by many frogs, whose barkings kept Ellen from sleeping. A broad dado of damp showed itself on the walls of the little pink house, and a thin film of blue mould spread over their most cherished treasures. Ellen tried stoves in vain, nothing could get rid of what she called the “mushroom smell.” John Port had several attacks of fever; sharp, short attacks such as he had grown accustomed to, and thought very little of, but it was terrible to Ellen to hear him raving in delirium. She attached no importance to her own sufferings from neuralgia, though a spike of pain seemed to be piercing through her left temple and was her constant attendant all the day long.
“I don’t believe in giving in,” said Ellen, when the autumn fever smote her in turn, and the ground seemed to glide from her tired feet, and objects were three times their right size to weary eyes, whose very lids felt hot. “Just think of the colds I should ’ave been getting at ’ome,” she repeated, with persistent cheerfulness ; “the influenza again most likely; and don't you talk nonsense about this climate being so bad for me,” said Ellen to her husband.
After the first few months, after health and high spirits had flagged, came a terrible nostalgia, and that too was hidden from John Port. He never guessed the passion of longing for her own people that filled his wife’s heart, and it was very rarely expressed in her letters home; but none the less it was an ever present pain.
“My, you are looking seedee!” said Mrs. Gasparez.
“I ’ave a little fever at night sometimes,” said Ellen, “ but it’s nothing; and I suppose it will get cooler every day now.”
“Ooh yess, it will soon be ahlright. And I have some news to tell you: my sister is coming to stay with me—my youngest sister, Miss de Cruz.”
“That will be pleasant for you,” said Ellen, heartily “is she a nice girl ? ”
“My yess ! She is a beautee! eyes that big, hair so long, and her figure, Ooh, lovelee! She will have monee too some day, for my old grandmother is very fond of her, and says she will leave her ahl she has, ever so manee rupees!”
Miss de Cruz was brought to call a few days later: a big girl, plump and shapely, with magnificent eyes. She yawned openly through Ellen’s attempts at talk, and brightened to coquettish liveliness when John Port came into the room.
“That’s a fine handsome girl, a fine strapping girl,” said John Port later; then, with a clumsy laugh, “you aren’t much to look at now, old woman.”
“True enough,” said Ellen, laughing back; and then she went away and looked at herself in the glass with new eyes.
“I do wish it didn’t make one so plain for so long,” she said to the worn face and ungainly figure she saw reflected there.
And all this while Ellen took no heed of the new world round her. She heard the wedding music from the surging ways of the native town, and she said, “Well, they are making a noise.” She saw the dead, slowly borne past the little pink house to the funeral pyre, and she said, “ They’re going to burn ’im; isn’t it ’orrid?” She lived in India, save for the wide difference of heat, discomfort, and loneliness, exactly as she would have lived in England. The only native with whom she held anything approaching to speech was Abdool, a craven representative indeed, and the conclusion she drew from her study of his character was that they were “a dirty lot.” She took no interest in her surroundings: the little pink house in its wealth of strange flowers was only pleasing to her because it had been allotted to her husband, and she trusted the garden would look more homelike when a child played there. She watched the long line of rails down which John’s train would come, without a thought of what the land had been before the wonderful iron road traversed it. There was no romance for her in the widely varying tracts the train came through, and she had no desire to see more of the country in which her lot was cast. “The gorgeous East ” held for her neither glamour nor glory. Her days were passed in an endless succession of small duties, and in secretly hoping that she should feel better to-morrow.
Towards the end of November, Abdool ran over to Mrs. Gasparez’s house one morning with an urgent message.
“My,” said Mrs. Gasparez, as she caught up a solah topee, “onlee seven months."
That was at breakfast time, and John Port was away up the line, and would not return till the morning of the next day.
“I am sorry to bother you,” said Ellen, through her agony ; “but I was that bad all night, and I did want some one to speak to.”
“Ooh, I will stay gladlee,” said Mrs. Gasparez, “and I will send for thee doctor, and you will soon be ahlright.”
The doctor came presently, and went and came again : Mrs. Gasparez wept fluent tears over the sufferings that could not be allayed, even as she said, “Oo, you will be ahlright veree soon.” Ellen lay with clenched teeth, trying not to writhe or cry out. “I do ’ate to give you all this trouble," she said often.
“But she was so strong,'’ said Mrs. Gasparez to the doctor in the next room ; “she worked so hard, she did Ooh, everything ! I am not strong, but I was never like this, never.”
“She has worn herself out,” said the doctor; “the climate counts for something, and she has never considered it."
Some time after midnight the child was born—a dead child; and the doctor went to Mrs. Gasparez’s house for a little rest. Mrs. Gasparez sat nodding and blinking, and drinking strong tea, and Ellen seemed to be sleeping.
Just before the dawn Ellen roused herself and talked for a few minutes to Mrs. Gasparez; she had a message to leave with her.
“Ooh no, you are not going to die,” sobbed Mrs. Gasparez; “go to sleep again, and do not be so sillee; the next babee will live, and it will ahl be jollee.”
Ellen smiled faintly. “Don’t you forget,” she whispered, and turned her head on the pillow; but instead of going to sleep her face changed and worked strangely, and Mrs. Gasparez ran out calling wildly for the doctor. Ellen’s last doleful scene was acted alone, but it must have been a short one, for when Mrs. Gasparez and the doctor came back they found her dead.
John Port’s train came in at seven o’clock. The doctor met him, and told him of his wife’s death, but he did not realise or understand what had happened till he came to the little pink house. Abdool was in the verandah lamenting ostentatiously, but Port put him aside and went into the bedroom. It smelt stuffy and sickly after the fresh morning air, and it was exceedingly untidy; a white sheet was thrown over the bed, and Mrs. Gasparez, her eyelids puffy with crying and want of sleep, came to meet him.
“I have a message for you,” she said ; “ I was to give you her love, and she was veree sorree not to see you again, and she hoped you would not mind that the babee was dead, for it was reallee much better, and would leave you quite free to marree again. Ooh! she did love you.”
John stood by the bed, and laid his hand on the brown hair, pushing aside the scarlet flowers, with which Mrs. Gasparez had surrounded the still face. “Never another wife for me,” he said; “never another woman in your place, old girl, all my life long.”
And through the window came the sound of the high-pitched voice of Miss de Cruz: she was taking a morning stroll with a devoted admirer.
“Ooh yess, Mr. Woods, that is ahl veree fine, veree pretty, I daresay, onlee you do not mean it.”
* * * * * * *
It was in the spring, five months later, that John Port married Miss de Cruz ; and Mrs. Gasparez explained to her friends, that “it was not such a veree bad match for Lulalee, for that nice wife of Mr. Port’s who died, poor thing, was very thriftee, and she had saved, Ooh, quite a great manee rupees.”