There was much bickering and scandal-mongering at the Club these days. Verrall had put everyone’s nose out of joint. He had taken to coming to the Club for an hour or two in the evenings, but he ignored the other members, refused the drinks they offered him, and answered attempts at conversation with surly monosyllables. He would sit under the punkah in the chair that had once been sacred to Mrs Lackersteen, reading such of the papers as interested him, until Elizabeth came, when he would dance and talk with her for an hour or two and then make off without so much as a good-night to anybody. Meanwhile Mr Lackersteen was alone in his camp, and, according to the rumours which drifted back to Kyauktada, consoling loneliness with quite a miscellany of Burmese women.
Elizabeth and Verrall went out riding together almost every evening now. Verrall’s mornings, after parade, were sacred to polo practice, but he had decided that it was worth while giving up the evenings to Elizabeth. She took naturally to riding, just as she had to shooting; she even had the assurance to tell Verrall that she had ‘hunted quite a lot’ at home. He saw at a glance that she was lying, but at least she did not ride so badly as to be a nuisance to him.
They used to ride up the red road into the jungle, ford the stream by the big pyinkado tree covered with orchids, and then follow the narrow cart-track, where the dust was soft and the horses could gallop. It was stifling hot in the dusty jungle, and there were always mutterings of faraway, rainless thunder. Small martins flitted round the horses, keeping pace with them, to hawk for the flies their hooves turned up. Elizabeth rode the bay pony, Verrall the white. On the way home they would walk their sweat-dark horses abreast, so close sometimes his knee brushed against hers, and talk. Verrall could drop his offensive manner and talk amicably enough when he chose, and he did choose with Elizabeth.
Ah, the joy of those rides together! The joy of being on horseback and in the world of horses—the world of hunting and racing, polo and pigsticking! If Elizabeth had loved Verrall for nothing else, she would have loved him for bringing horses into her life. She tormented him to talk about horses as once she had tormented Flory to talk about shooting. Verrall was no talker, it was true. A few gruff, jerky sentences about polo and pigsticking, and a catalogue of Indian stations and the names of regiments, were the best he could do. And yet somehow the little he said could thrill Elizabeth as all Flory’s talk had never done. The mere sight of him on horseback was more evocative than any words. An aura of horsemanship and soldiering surrounded him. In his tanned face and his hard, straight body Elizabeth saw all the romance, the splendid panache of a cavalryman’s life. She saw the North-West Frontier and the Cavalry Club—she saw the polo grounds and the parched barrack yards, and the brown squadrons of horsemen galloping with their long lances poised and the trains of their pagris streaming; she heard the bugle-calls and the jingle of spurs, and the regimental bands playing outside the messrooms while the officers sat at dinner in their stiff, gorgeous uniforms. How splendid it was, that equestrian world, how splendid! And it was her world, she belonged to it, she had been born of it. These days, she lived, thought, dreamed horses, almost like Verrall himself. The time came when she not only told her taradiddle about having ‘hunted quite a lot’, she even came near believing it.
In every possible way they got on so well together. He never bored her and fretted her as Flory had done. (As a matter of fact, she had almost forgotten Flory, these days; when she thought of him, it was for some reason always his birthmark that she remembered.) It was a bond between them that Verrall detested anything ‘highbrow’ even more than she did. He told her once that he had not read a book since he was eighteen, and that indeed he ‘loathed’ books; ‘except, of course, Jorrocks and all that’. On the evening of their third or fourth ride they were parting at the Lackersteens’ gate. Verrall had successfully resisted all Mrs Lackersteen’s invitations to meals; he had not yet set foot inside the Lackersteens’ house, and he did not intend to do so. As the syce was taking Elizabeth’s pony, Verrall said:
‘I tell you what. Next time we come out you shall ride Belinda. I’ll ride the chestnut. I think you’ve got on well enough not to go and cut Belinda’s mouth up.’
Belinda was the Arab mare. Verrall had owned her two years, and till this moment he had never once allowed anyone else to mount her, not even the syce. It was the greatest favour that he could imagine. And so perfectly did Elizabeth appreciate Verrall’s point of view that she understood the greatness of the favour, and was thankful.
The next evening, as they rode home side by side, Verrall put his arm round Elizabeth’s shoulder, lifted her out of the saddle and pulled her against him. He was very strong. He dropped the bridle, and with his free hand, lifted her face up to meet his; their mouths met. For a moment he held her so, then lowered her to the ground and slipped from his horse. They stood embraced, their thin, drenched shirts pressed together, the two bridles held in the crook of his arm.
It was about the same time that Flory, twenty miles away, decided to come back to Kyauktada. He was standing at the jungle’s edge by the bank of a dried-up stream, where he had walked to tire himself, watching some tiny, nameless finches eating the seeds of the tall grasses. The cocks were chrome-yellow, the hens like hen sparrows. Too tiny to bend the stalks, they came whirring towards them, seized them in midflight and bore them to the ground by their own weight. Flory watched the birds incuriously, and almost hated them because they could light no spark of interest in him. In his idleness he flung his dah at them, scaring them away. If she were here, if she were here! Everything—birds, trees, flowers, everything—was deadly and meaningless because she was not here. As the days passed the knowledge that he had lost her had grown surer and more actual until it poisoned every moment.
He loitered a little way into the jungle, flicking at creepers with his dah. His limbs felt slack and leaden. He noticed a wild vanilla plant trailing over a bush, and bent down to sniff at its slender, fragrant pods. The scent brought him a feeling of staleness and deadly ennui. Alone, alone, in the sea of life enisled! The pain was so great that he struck his fist against a tree, jarring his arm and splitting two knuckles. He must go back to Kyauktada. It was folly, for barely a fortnight had passed since the scene between them, and his only chance was to give her time to forget it. Still, he must go back. He could not stay any longer in this deadly place, alone with his thoughts among the endless, mindless leaves.
A happy thought occurred to him. He could take Elizabeth the leopard-skin that was being cured for her in the jail. It would be a pretext for seeing her, and when one comes bearing gifts one is generally listened to. This time he would not let her cut him short without a word. He would explain, extenuate—make her realize that she had been unjust to him. It was not right that she should condemn him because of Ma Hla May, whom he had turned out of doors for Elizabeth’s own sake. Surely she must forgive him when she heard the truth of the story? And this time she should hear it; he would force her to listen to him if he had to hold her by the arms while he did it.
He went back the same evening. It was a twenty-mile journey, by rutted cart-tracks, but Flory decided to march by night, giving the reason that it was cooler. The servants almost mutinied at the idea of a night-march, and at the very last moment old Sammy collapsed in a semi-genuine fit and had to be plied with gin before he could start. It was a moonless night. They made their way by the light of lanterns, in which Flo’s eyes gleamed like emeralds and the bullocks’ eyes like moonstones. When the sun was up the servants halted to gather sticks and cook breakfast, but Flory was in a fever to be at Kyauktada, and he hurried ahead. He had no feeling of tiredness. The thought of the leopard-skin had filled him with extravagant hopes. He crossed the glittering river by sampan and went straight to Dr Veraswami’s bungalow, getting there about ten.
The doctor invited him to breakfast, and—having shooed the women into some suitable hiding-place—took him into his own bath-room so that he could wash and shave. At breakfast the doctor was very excited and full of denunciations of ‘the crocodile’; for it appeared that the pseudo-rebellion was now on the point of breaking out. It was not till after breakfast that Flory had an opportunity to mention the leopard-skin.
‘Oh, by the way, doctor. What about that skin I sent to the jail to be cured? Is it done yet?’
‘Ah—’ said the doctor in a slightly disconcerted manner, rubbing his nose. He went inside the house—they were breakfasting on the veranda, for the doctor’s wife had protested violently against Flory being brought indoors—and came back in a moment with the skin rolled up in a bundle.
‘Ass a matter of fact—’ he began, unrolling it.
The skin had been utterly ruined. It was as stiff as cardboard, with the leather cracked and the fur discoloured and even rubbed off in patches. It also stank abominably. Instead of being cured, it had been converted into a piece of rubbish.
‘Oh, doctor! What a mess they’ve made of it! How the devil did it happen?’
‘I am so sorry, my friend! I wass about to apologize. It wass the best we could do. There iss no one at the jail who knows how to cure skins now.’
‘But, damn it, that convict used to cure them so beautifully!’
‘Ah, yes. But he iss gone from us these three weeks, alas.’
‘Gone? I thought he was doing seven years?’
‘What? Did you not hear, my friend? I thought you knew who it wass that used to cure the skins. It was Nga Shwe O.’
‘Nga Shwe O?’
‘The dacoit who escaped with U Po Kyin’s assistance.’
The mishap had daunted him dreadfully. Nevertheless, in the afternoon, having bathed and put on a clean suit, he went up to the Lackersteens’ house, at about four. It was very early to call, but he wanted to make sure of catching Elizabeth before she went down to the Club. Mrs Lackersteen, who had been asleep and was not prepared for visitors, received him with an ill grace, not even asking him to sit down.
‘I’m afraid Elizabeth isn’t down yet. She’s dressing to go out riding. Wouldn’t it be better if you left a message?’
‘I’d like to see her, if you don’t mind. I’ve brought her the skin of that leopard we shot together.’
Mrs Lackersteen left him standing up in the drawing-room, feeling lumpish and abnormally large as one does at such times. However, she fetched Elizabeth, taking the opportunity of whispering to her outside the door: ‘Get rid of that dreadful man as soon as you can, dear. I can’t bear him about the house at this time of day.’
As Elizabeth entered the room Flory’s heart pounded so violently that a reddish mist passed behind his eyes. She was wearing a silk shirt and jodhpurs, and she was a little sunburned. Even in his memory she had never been so beautiful. He quailed; on the instant he was lost—every scrap of his screwed-up courage had fled. Instead of stepping forward to meet her he actually backed away. There was a fearful crash behind him; he had upset an occasional table and sent a bowl of zinnias hurtling across the floor.
‘I’m so sorry!’ he exclaimed in horror.
‘Oh, not at all! Please don’t worry about it!’
She helped him to pick up the table, chattering all the while as gaily and easily as though nothing had happened: ‘You have been away a long time, Mr Flory! You’re quite a stranger! We’ve SO missed you at the Club!’ etc., etc. She was italicizing every other word, with that deadly, glittering brightness that a woman puts on when she is dodging a moral obligation. He was terrified of her. He could not even look her in the face. She took up a box of cigarettes and offered him one, but he refused it. His hand was shaking too much to take it.
‘I’ve brought you that skin,’ he said flatly.
He unrolled it on the table they had just picked up. It looked so shabby and miserable that he wished he had never brought it. She came close to him to examine the skin, so close that her flower-like cheek was not a foot from his own, and he could feel the warmth of her body. So great was his fear of her that he stepped hurriedly away. And in the same moment she too stepped back with a wince of disgust, having caught the foul odour of the skin. It shamed him terribly. It was almost as though it had been himself and not the skin that stank.
‘Thank you ever so much, Mr Flory!’ She had put another yard between herself and the skin. ‘Such a lovely big skin, isn’t it?’
‘It was, but they’ve spoiled it, I’m afraid.’
‘Oh no! I shall love having it!—Are you back in Kyauktada for long? How dreadfully hot it must have been in camp!’
‘Yes, it’s been very hot.’
For three minutes they actually talked of the weather. He was helpless. All that he had promised himself to say, all his arguments and pleadings, had withered in his throat. ‘You fool, you fool,’ he thought, ‘what are you doing? Did you come twenty miles for this? Go on, say what you came to say! Seize her in your arms; make her listen, kick her, beat her—anything sooner than let her choke you with this drivel!’ But it was hopeless, hopeless. Not a word could his tongue utter except futile trivialities. How could he plead or argue, when that bright easy air of hers, that dragged every word to the level of Club-chatter silenced him before he spoke? Where do they learn it, that dreadful tee-heeing brightness? In these brisk modern girls’ schools, no doubt. The piece of carrion on the table made him more ashamed every moment. He stood there almost voiceless, lumpishly ugly with his face yellow and creased after the sleepless night, and his birthmark like a smear of dirt.
She got rid of him after a very few minutes. ‘And now, Mr Flory, if you don’t mind, I ought really—’
He mumbled rather than said, ‘Won’t you come out with me again some time? Walking, shooting—something?’
‘I have so little time nowadays! ALL my evenings seem to be full. This evening I’m going out riding. With Mr Verrall,’ she added.
It was possible that she added that in order to wound him. This was the first that he had heard of her friendship with Verrall. He could not keep the dread, flat tone of envy out of his voice as he said:
‘Do you go out riding much with Verrall?’
‘Almost every evening. He’s such a wonderful horseman! And he has absolute strings of polo ponies!’
‘Ah. And of course I have no polo ponies.’
It was the first thing he had said that even approached seriousness, and it did no more than offend her. However, she answered him with the same gay easy air as before, and then showed him out. Mrs Lackersteen came back to the drawing-room, sniffed the air, and immediately ordered the servants to take the reeking leopard-skin outside and burn it.
Flory lounged at his garden gate, pretending to feed the pigeons. He could not deny himself the pain of seeing Elizabeth and Verrall start on their ride. How vulgarly, how cruelly she had behaved to him! It is dreadful when people will not even have the decency to quarrel. Presently Verrall rode up to the Lackersteens’ house on the white pony, with a syce riding the chestnut, then there was a pause, then they emerged together, Verrall on the chestnut pony, Elizabeth on the white, and trotted quickly up the hill. They were chattering and laughing, her silk-shirted shoulder very close to his. Neither looked towards Flory.
When they had disappeared into the jungle, Flory still loafed in the garden. The glare was waning to yellow. The mali was at work grubbing up the English flowers, most of which had died, slain by too much sunshine, and planting balsams, cockscombs, and more zinnias. An hour passed, and a melancholy, earth-coloured Indian loitered up the drive, dressed in a loin-cloth and a salmon-pink pagri on which a washing-basket was balanced. He laid down his basket and salaamed to Flory.
‘Who are you?’
The book-wallah was an itinerant peddler of books who wandered from station to station throughout Upper Burma. His system of exchange was that for any book in his bundle you gave him four annas, and any other book. Not quite any book, however, for the book-wallah, though analphabetic, had learned to recognize and refuse a Bible.
‘No, sahib,’ he would say plaintively, ‘no. This book (he would turn it over disapprovingly in his flat brown hands) this book with a black cover and gold letters—this one I cannot take. I know not how it is, but all sahibs are offering me this book, and none are taking it. What can it be that is in this black book? Some evil, undoubtedly.’
‘Turn out your trash,’ Flory said.
He hunted among them for a good thriller—Edgar Wallace or Agatha Christie or something; anything to still the deadly restlessness that was at his heart. As he bent over the books he saw that both Indians were exclaiming and pointing towards the edge of the jungle.
‘Dekko!’ said the mali in his plum-in-the-mouth voice.
The two ponies were emerging from the jungle. But they were riderless. They came trotting down the hill with the silly guilty air of a horse that has escaped from its master, with the stirrups swinging and clashing under their bellies.
Flory remained unconsciously clasping one of the books against his chest. Verrall and Elizabeth had dismounted. It was not an accident; by no effort of the mind could one imagine Verrall falling off his horse. They had dismounted, and the ponies had escaped.
They had dismounted—for what? Ah, but he knew for what! It was not a question of suspecting; he knew. He could see the whole thing happening, in one of those hallucinations that are so perfect in detail, so vilely obscene, that they are past bearing. He threw the book violently down and made for the house, leaving the book-wallah disappointed. The servants heard him moving about indoors, and presently he called for a bottle of whisky. He had a drink and it did him no good. Then he filled a tumbler two-thirds full, added enough water to make it drinkable, and swallowed it. The filthy, nauseous dose was no sooner down his throat than he repeated it. He had done the same thing in camp once, years ago, when he was tortured by toothache and three hundred miles from a dentist. At seven Ko S’la came in as usual to say that the bath-water was hot. Flory was lying in one of the long chairs, with his coat off and his shirt torn open at the throat.
‘Your bath, thakin,’ said Ko S’la.
Flory did not answer, and Ko S’la touched his arm, thinking him asleep. Flory was much too drunk to move. The empty bottle had rolled across the floor, leaving a trail of whisky-drops behind it. Ko S’la called for Ba Pe and picked up the bottle, clicking his tongue.
‘Just look at this! He has drunk more than three-quarters of a bottle!’
‘What, again? I thought he had given up drinking?’
‘It is that accursed woman, I suppose. Now we must carry him carefully. You take his heels, I’ll take his head. That’s right. Hoist him up!’
They carried Flory into the other room and laid him gently on the bed.
‘Is he really going to marry this “Ingaleikma”?’ said Ba Pe.
‘Heaven knows. She is the mistress of the young police officer at present, so I was told. Their ways are not our ways. I think I know what he will be wanting tonight,’ he added as he undid Flory’s braces—for Ko S’la had the art, so necessary in a bachelor’s servant, of undressing his master without waking him.
The servants were rather more pleased than not to see this return to bachelor habits. Flory woke about midnight, naked in a pool of sweat. His head felt as though some large, sharp-cornered metal object were bumping about inside it. The mosquito net was up, and a young woman was sitting beside the bed fanning him with a wicker fan. She had an agreeable negroid face, bronze-gold in the candlelight. She explained that she was a prostitute, and that Ko S’la had engaged her on his own responsibility for a fee of ten rupees.
Flory’s head was splitting. ‘For God’s sake get me something to drink,’ he said feebly to the woman. She brought him some soda-water which Ko S’la had cooled in readiness and soaked a towel and put a wet compress round his forehead. She was a fat, good-tempered creature. She told him that her name was Ma Sein Galay, and that besides plying her other trade she sold paddy baskets in the bazaar near Li Yeik’s shop. Flory’s head felt better presently, and he asked for a cigarette; whereupon Ma Sein Galay, having fetched the cigarette, said naively, ‘Shall I take my clothes off now, thakin?’
Why not? he thought dimly. He made room for her in the bed. But when he smelled the familiar scent of garlic and coco-nut oil, something painful happened within him, and with his head pillowed on Ma Sein Galay’s fat shoulder he actually wept, a thing he had not done since he was fifteen years old.