A Passage to India CHAPTER III

The third act of Cousin Kate was well advanced by the time Mrs. Moore re-entered the club. Windows were barred, lest the servants should see their mem-sahibs acting, and the heat was consequently immense. One electric fan revolved like a wounded bird, another was out of order. Disinclined to return to the audience, she went into the billiard room, where she was greeted by “I want to see the real India,” and her appropriate life came back with a rush. This was Adela Quested, the queer, cautious girl whom Ronny had commissioned her to bring from England, and Ronny was her son, also cautious, whom Miss Quested would probably though not certainly marry, and she herself was an elderly lady.

“I want to see it too, and I only wish we could. Apparently the Turtons will arrange something for next Tuesday.”

“It’ll end in an elephant ride, it always does. Look at this evening. Cousin Kate! Imagine, Cousin Kate! But where have you been off to? Did you succeed in catching the moon in the Ganges?”

The two ladies had happened, the night before, to see the moon’s reflection in a distant channel of the stream. The water had drawn it out, so that it had seemed larger than the real moon, and brighter, which had pleased them.

“I went to the mosque, but I did not catch the moon.”

“The angle would have altered—she rises later.”

“Later and later,” yawned Mrs. Moore, who was tired after her walk. “Let me think—we don’t see the other side of the moon out here, no.”

“Come, India’s not as bad as all that,” said a pleasant voice. “Other side of the earth, if you like, but we stick to the same old moon.” Neither of them knew the speaker nor did they ever see him again. He passed with his friendly word through red-brick pillars into the darkness.

“We aren’t even seeing the other side of the world; that’s our complaint,” said Adela. Mrs. Moore agreed; she too was disappointed at the dullness of their new life. They had made such a romantic voyage across the Mediterranean and through the sands of Egypt to the harbour of Bombay, to find only a gridiron of bungalows at the end of it. But she did not take the disappointment as seriously as Miss Quested, for the reason that she was forty years older, and had learnt that Life never gives us what we want at the moment that we consider appropriate. Adventures do occur, but not punctually. She said again that she hoped that something interesting would be arranged for next Tuesday.

“Have a drink,” said another pleasant voice. “Mrs. Moore—Miss Quested—have a drink, have two drinks.” They knew who it was this time—the Collector, Mr. Turton, with whom they had dined. Like themselves, he had found the atmosphere of Cousin Kate too hot. Ronny, he told them, was stage-managing in place of Major Callendar, whom some native subordinate or other had let down, and doing it very well; then he turned to Ronny’s other merits, and in quiet, decisive tones said much that was flattering. It wasn’t that the young man was particularly good at the games or the lingo, or that he had much notion of the Law, but—apparently a large but—Ronny was dignified.

Mrs. Moore was surprised to learn this, dignity not being a quality with which any mother credits her son. Miss Quested learnt it with anxiety, for she had not decided whether she liked dignified men. She tried indeed to discuss this point with Mr. Turton, but he silenced her with a good-humoured motion of his hand, and continued what he had come to say. “The long and the short of it is Heaslop’s a sahib; he’s the type we want, he’s one of us,” and another civilian who was leaning over the billiard table said, “Hear, hear!” The matter was thus placed beyond doubt, and the Collector passed on, for other duties called him.

Meanwhile the performance ended, and the amateur orchestra played the National Anthem. Conversation and billiards stopped, faces stiffened. It was the Anthem of the Army of Occupation. It reminded every member of the club that he or she was British and in exile. It produced a little sentiment and a useful accession of will-power. The meagre tune, the curt series of demands on Jehovah, fused into a prayer unknown in England, and though they perceived neither Royalty nor Deity they did perceive something, they were strengthened to resist another day. Then they poured out, offering one another drinks.

“Adela, have a drink; mother, a drink.”

They refused—they were weary of drinks—and Miss Quested, who always said exactly what was in her mind, announced anew that she was desirous of seeing the real India.

Ronny was in high spirits. The request struck him as comic, and he called out to another passer-by: “Fielding! how’s one to see the real India?”

“Try seeing Indians,” the man answered, and vanished.

“Who was that?”

“Our schoolmaster—Government College.”

“As if one could avoid seeing them,” sighed Mrs. Lesley.

“I’ve avoided,” said Miss Quested. “Excepting my own servant, I’ve scarcely spoken to an Indian since landing.”

“Oh, lucky you.”

“But I want to see them.”

She became the centre of an amused group of ladies. One said, “Wanting to see Indians! How new that sounds!” Another, “Natives! why, fancy!” A third, more serious, said, “Let me explain. Natives don’t respect one any the more after meeting one, you see.”

“That occurs after so many meetings.”

But the lady, entirely stupid and friendly, continued: “What I mean is, I was a nurse before my marriage, and came across them a great deal, so I know. I really do know the truth about Indians. A most unsuitable position for any Englishwoman—I was a nurse in a Native State. One’s only hope was to hold sternly aloof.”

“Even from one’s patients?”

“Why, the kindest thing one can do to a native is to let him die,” said Mrs. Callendar.

“How if he went to heaven?” asked Mrs. Moore, with a gentle but crooked smile.

“He can go where he likes as long as he doesn’t come near me. They give me the creeps.”

“As a matter of fact I have thought what you were saying about heaven, and that is why I am against Missionaries,” said the lady who had been a nurse. “I am all for Chaplains, but all against Missionaries. Let me explain.”

But before she could do so, the Collector intervened.

“Do you really want to meet the Aryan Brother, Miss Quested? That can be easily fixed up. I didn’t realize he’d amuse you.” He thought a moment. “You can practically see any type you like. Take your choice. I know the Government people and the landowners, Heaslop here can get hold of the barrister crew, while if you want to specialize on education, we can come down on Fielding.”

“I’m tired of seeing picturesque figures pass before me as a frieze,” the girl explained. “It was wonderful when we landed, but that superficial glamour soon goes.”

Her impressions were of no interest to the Collector; he was only concerned to give her a good time. Would she like a Bridge Party? He explained to her what that was—not the game, but a party to bridge the gulf between East and West; the expression was his own invention, and amused all who heard it.

“I only want those Indians whom you come across socially—as your friends.”

“Well, we don’t come across them socially,” he said, laughing. “They’re full of all the virtues, but we don’t, and it’s now eleven-thirty, and too late to go into the reasons.”

“Miss Quested, what a name!” remarked Mrs. Turton to her husband as they drove away. She had not taken to the new young lady, thinking her ungracious and cranky. She trusted that she hadn’t been brought out to marry nice little Heaslop, though it looked like it, Her husband agreed with her in his heart, but he never spoke against an Englishwoman if he could avoid doing so, and he only said that Miss Quested naturally made mistakes. He added: “India does wonders for the judgment, especially during the hot weather; it has even done wonders for Fielding.” Mrs. Turton closed her eyes at this name and remarked that Mr. Fielding wasn’t pukka, and had better marry Miss Quested, for she wasn’t pukka. Then they reached their bungalow, low and enormous, the oldest and most uncomfortable bungalow in the civil station, with a sunk soup plate of a lawn, and they had one drink more, this time of barley water, and went to bed. Their withdrawal from the club had broken up the evening, which, like all gatherings, had an official tinge. A community that bows the knee to a Viceroy and believes that the divinity that hedges a king can be transplanted, must feel some reverence for any viceregal substitute. At Chandrapore the Turtons were little gods; soon they would retire to some suburban villa, and die exiled from glory.

“It’s decent of the Burra Sahib,” chattered Ronny, much gratified at the civility that had been shown to his guests. “Do you know he’s never given a Bridge Party before? Coming on top of the dinner too! I wish I could have arranged something myself, but when you know the natives better you’ll realize it’s easier for the Burra Sahib than for me. They know him—they know he can’t be fooled—I’m still fresh comparatively. No one can even begin to think of knowing this country until he has been in it twenty years.—Hullo, the mater! Here’s your cloak.—Well: for an example of the mistakes one makes. Soon after I came out I asked one of the Pleaders to have a smoke with me—only a cigarette, mind. I found afterwards that he had sent touts all over the bazaar to announce the fact—told all the litigants, ’Oh, you’d better come to my Vakil Mahmoud Ali—he’s in with the City Magistrate.’ Ever since then I’ve dropped on him in Court as hard as I could. It’s taught me a lesson, and I hope him.”

“Isn’t the lesson that you should invite all the Pleaders to have a smoke with you?”

“Perhaps, but time’s limited and the flesh weak. I prefer my smoke at the club amongst my own sort, I’m afraid.”

“Why not ask the Pleaders to the club?” Miss Quested persisted.

“Not allowed.” He was pleasant and patient, and evidently understood why she did not understand. He implied that he had once been as she, though not for long. Going to the verandah, he called firmly to the moon. His sais answered, and without lowering his head, he ordered his trap to be brought round.

Mrs. Moore, whom the club had stupefied, woke up outside. She watched the moon, whose radiance stained with primrose the purple of the surrounding sky. In England the moon had seemed dead and alien; here she was caught in the shawl of night together with earth and all the other stars. A sudden sense of unity, of kinship with the heavenly bodies, passed into the old woman and out, like water through a tank, leaving a strange freshness behind. She did not dislike Cousin Kate or the National Anthem, but their note had died into a new one, just as cocktails and cigars had died into invisible flowers. When the mosque, long and domeless, gleamed at the turn of the road, she exclaimed, “Oh, yes—that’s where I got to—that’s where I’ve been.”

“Been there when?” asked her son.

“Between the acts.”

“But, mother, you can’t do that sort of thing.”

“Can’t mother?” she replied.

“No, really not in this country. It’s not done. There’s the danger from snakes for one thing. They are apt to lie out in the evening.”

“Ah yes, so the young man there said.”

“This sounds very romantic,” said Miss Quested, who was exceedingly fond of Mrs. Moore, and was glad she should have had this little escapade. “You meet a young man in a mosque, and then never let me know!”

“I was going to tell you, Adela, but something changed the conversation and I forgot. My memory grows deplorable.”

“Was he nice?”

She paused, then said emphatically: “Very nice.”

“Who was he?” Ronny enquired.

“A doctor. I don’t know his name.”

“A doctor? I know of no young doctor in Chandrapore. How odd! What was he like?”

“Rather small, with a little moustache and quick eyes. He called out to me when I was in the dark part of the mosque—about my shoes. That was how we began talking. He was afraid I had them on, but I remembered luckily. He told me about his children, and then we walked back to the club. He knows you well.”

“I wish you had pointed him out to me. I can’t make out who he is.”

“He didn’t come into the club. He said he wasn’t allowed to.”

Thereupon the truth struck him, and he cried “Oh, good gracious! Not a Mohammedan? Why ever didn’t you tell me you’d been talking to a native? I was going all wrong.”

“A Mohammedan! How perfectly magnificent!” exclaimed Miss Quested. “Ronny, isn’t that like your mother? While we talk about seeing the real India, she goes and sees it, and then forgets she’s seen it.”

But Ronny was ruffled. From his mother’s description he had thought the doctor might be young Muggins from over the Ganges, and had brought out all the comradely emotions. What a mix-up! Why hadn’t she indicated by the tone of her voice that she was talking about an Indian? Scratchy and dictatorial, he began to question her. “He called to you in the mosque, did he? How? Impudently? What was he doing there himself at that time of night?—No, it’s not their prayer time.”—This in answer to a suggestion of Miss Quested’s, who showed the keenest interest. “So he called to you over your shoes. Then it was impudence. It’s an old trick. I wish you had had them on.”

“I think it was impudence, but I don’t know about a trick,” said Mrs. Moore. “His nerves were all on edge—I could tell from his voice. As soon as I answered he altered.”

“You oughtn’t to have answered.”

“Now look here,” said the logical girl, “wouldn’t you expect a Mohammedan to answer if you asked him to take off his hat in church?”

“It’s different, it’s different; you don’t understand.”

“I know I don’t, and I want to. What is the difference, please?”

He wished she wouldn’t interfere. His mother did not signify—she was just a globe-trotter, a temporary escort, who could retire to England with what impressions she chose. But Adela, who meditated spending her life in the country, was a more serious matter; it would be tiresome if she started crooked over the native question. Pulling up the mare, he said, “There’s your Ganges.”

Their attention was diverted. Below them a radiance had suddenly appeared. It belonged neither to water nor moonlight, but stood like a luminous sheaf upon the fields of darkness. He told them that it was where the new sand-bank was forming, and that the dark ravelled bit at the top was the sand, and that the dead bodies floated down that way from Benares, or would if the crocodiles let them. “It’s not much of a dead body that gets down to Chandrapore.”

“Crocodiles down in it too, how terrible!” his mother murmured. The young people glanced at each other and smiled; it amused them when the old lady got these gentle creeps, and harmony was restored between them consequently. She continued: “What a terrible river! what a wonderful river!” and sighed. The radiance was already altering, whether through shifting of the moon or of the sand; soon the bright sheaf would be gone, and a circlet, itself to alter, be burnished upon the streaming void. The women discussed whether they would wait for the change or not, while the silence broke into patches of unquietness and the mare shivered. On her account they did not wait, but drove on to the City Magistrate’s bungalow, where Miss Quested went to bed, and Mrs. Moore had a short interview with her son.

He wanted to enquire about the Mohammedan doctor in the mosque. It was his duty to report suspicious characters and conceivably it was some disreputable hakim who had prowled up from the bazaar. When she told him that it was someone connected with the Minto Hospital, he was relieved, and said that the fellow’s name must be Aziz, and that he was quite all right, nothing against him at all.

“Aziz! what a charming name!”

“So you and he had a talk. Did you gather he was well disposed?”

Ignorant of the force of this question, she replied, “Yes, quite, after the first moment.”

“I meant, generally. Did he seem to tolerate us—the brutal conqueror, the sundried bureaucrat, that sort of thing?”

“Oh, yes, I think so, except the Callendars—he doesn’t care for the Callendars at all.”

“Oh. So he told you that, did he? The Major will be interested. I wonder what was the aim of the remark.”

“Ronny, Ronny! you’re never going to pass it on to Major Callendar?”

“Yes, rather. I must, in fact!”

“But, my dear boy——”

“If the Major heard I was disliked by any native subordinate of mine, I should expect him to pass it on to me.”

“But, my dear boy—a private conversation!”

“Nothing’s private in India. Aziz knew that when he spoke out, so don’t you worry. He had some motive in what he said. My personal belief is that the remark wasn’t true.”

“How not true?”

“He abused the Major in order to impress you.”

“I don’t know what you mean, dear.”

“It’s the educated native’s latest dodge. They used to cringe, but the younger generation believe in a show of manly independence. They think it will pay better with the itinerant M.P. But whether the native swaggers or cringes, there’s always something behind every remark he makes, always something, and if nothing else he’s trying to increase his izzat—in plain Anglo-Saxon, to score. Of course there are exceptions.”

“You never used to judge people like this at home.”

“India isn’t home,” he retorted, rather rudely, but in order to silence her he had been using phrases and arguments that he had picked up from older officials, and he did not feel quite sure of himself. When he said “of course there are exceptions” he was quoting Mr. Turton, while “increasing the izzat” was Major Callendar’s own. The phrases worked and were in current use at the club, but she was rather clever at detecting the first from the second hand, and might press him for definite examples.

She only said, “I can’t deny that what you say sounds very sensible, but you really must not hand on to Major Callendar anything I have told you about Doctor Aziz.”

He felt disloyal to his caste, but he promised, adding, “In return please don’t talk about Aziz to Adela.”

“Not talk about him? Why?”

“There you go again, mother—I really can’t explain every thing. I don’t want Adela to be worried, that’s the fact; she’ll begin wondering whether we treat the natives properly, and all that sort of nonsense.”

“But she came out to be worried—that’s exactly why she’s here. She discussed it all on the boat. We had a long talk when we went on shore at Aden. She knows you in play, as she put it, but not in work, and she felt she must come and look round, before she decided—and before you decided. She is very, very fair-minded.”

“I know,” he said dejectedly.

The note of anxiety in his voice made her feel that he was still a little boy, who must have what he liked, so she promised to do as he wished, and they kissed good night. He had not forbidden her to think about Aziz, however, and she did this when she retired to her room. In the light of her son’s comment she reconsidered the scene at the mosque, to see whose impression was correct. Yes, it could be worked into quite an unpleasant scene. The doctor had begun by bullying her, had said Mrs. Callendar was nice, and then—finding the ground safe—had changed; he had alternately whined over his grievances and patronized her, had run a dozen ways in a single sentence, had been unreliable, inquisitive, vain. Yes, it was all true, but how false as a summary of the man; the essential life of him had been slain.

Going to hang up her cloak, she found that the tip of the peg was occupied by a small wasp. She had known this wasp or his relatives by day; they were not as English wasps, but had long yellow legs which hung down behind when they flew. Perhaps he mistook the peg for a branch—no Indian animal has any sense of an interior. Bats, rats, birds, insects will as soon nest inside a house as out; it is to them a normal growth of the eternal jungle, which alternately produces houses trees, houses trees. There he clung, asleep, while jackals in the plain bayed their desires and mingled with the percussion of drums.

“Pretty dear,” said Mrs. Moore to the wasp. He did not wake, but her voice floated out, to swell the night’s uneasiness.