The doctor’s epistolary style was queer. His syntax was shaky and he was as free with capital letters as a seventeenth-century divine, while in the use of italics he rivalled Queen Victoria. There were eight pages of his small but sprawling handwriting.
MY DEAR FRIEND [the letter ran],—You will much regret to hear that the wiles of the crocodile have matured. The rebellion—the so-called rebellion—is all over and finished. And it has been, alas! a more Bloody affair than I had hoped should have been the case.
All has fallen out as I have prophesied to you it would be. On the day when you came back to Kyauktada U Po Kyin’s spies have informed him that the poor unfortunate men whom he have Deluded are assembling in the jungle near Thongwa. The same night he sets out secretly with U Lugale, the Police Inspector, who is as great a Rogue as he, if that could be, and twelve constables. They make a swift raid upon Thongwa and surprise the rebels, of whom they are only Seven!! in a ruined field hut in the jungle. Also Mr Maxwell, who have heard rumours of the rebellion, came across from his camp bringing his Rifle and was in time to join U Po Kyin and the police in their attack on the hut. The next morning the clerk Ba Sein, who is U Po Kyin’s jackall and dirty worker, have orders to raise the cry of rebellion as Sensationally as possible, which was done, and Mr Macgregor, Mr Westfield and Lieutenant Verrall all rush out to Thongwa carrying fifty sepoys armed with rifles besides Civil Police. But they arrive to find it is all over and U Po Kyin was sitting under a big teak tree in the middle of the village and putting on airs and lecturing the villages, whereat they are all bowing very frightened and touching the ground with their foreheads and swearing they will be forever loyal to the Government, and the rebellion is already at an end. The so-called weiksa, who is no other than a circus conjurer and the minion of U Po Kyin, have vanished for parts unknown, but six rebels have been Caught. So there is an end.
Also I should inform you that there was most regrettably a Death. Mr Maxwell was I think too anxious to use his Rifle and when one of the rebels try to run away he fired and shoot him in the abdomen, at which he died. I think the villagers have some bad feeling towards Mr Maxwell because of it. But from the point of view legal all is well for Mr Maxwell, because the men were undoubtedly conspiring against the Government.
Ah, but, my Friend, I trust that you understand how disastrous may all this be for me! You will realise, I think, what is its bearing upon the Contest between U Po Kyin and myself, and the supreme leg-up it must give to him. It is the triumph of the crocodile. U Po Kyin is now the Hero of the district. He is the pet of the Europeans. I am told that even Mr Ellis has praised his conduct. If you could witness the abominable Conceitedness and the lies he is now telling as to how there were not seven rebels but Two Hundred!! and how he crushed upon them revolver in hand—he who only directing operations from a safe distance while the police and Mr Maxwell creep up upon the hut—you would find is veritably Nauseous I assure you. He has had the effrontery to send in an official report of the matter which started, ‘By my loyal promptitude and reckless daring’, and I hear that positively he had had this Conglomeration of lies written out in readiness days before the occurrence. It is Disgusting. And to think that now when he is at the Height of his triumph he will again begin to calumniate me with all the venom at his disposal etc. etc.
Item, one shotgun with a damaged left barrel, stolen from a Forest Officer three years earlier.
Item, six home-made guns with barrels of zinc piping stolen from the railway. These could be fired, after a fashion, by thrusting a nail through the touch-hole and striking it with a stone.
Item, thirty-nine twelve-bore cartridges.
Item, eleven dummy guns carved out of teakwood.
Item, some large Chinese crackers which were to have been fired in terrorem.
Later, two of the rebels were sentenced to fifteen years’ transportation, three to three years’ imprisonment and twenty-five lashes, and one to two years’ imprisonment.
The whole miserable rebellion was so obviously at an end that the Europeans were not considered to be in any danger, and Maxwell had gone back to his camp unguarded. Flory intended to stay in camp until the rains broke, or at least until the general meeting at the Club. He had promised to be in for that, to propose the doctor’s election; though now, with his own trouble to think of, the whole business of the intrigue between U Po Kyin and the doctor sickened him.
More weeks crawled by. The heat was dreadful now. The overdue rain seemed to have bred a fever in the air. Flory was out of health, and worked incessantly, worrying over petty jobs that should have been left to the overseer, and making the coolies and even the servants hate him. He drank gin at all hours, but not even drinking could distract him now. The vision of Elizabeth in Verrall’s arms haunted him like a neuralgia or an earache. At any moment it would come upon him, vivid and disgusting, scattering his thoughts, wrenching him back from the brink of sleep, turning his food to dust in his mouth. At times he flew into savage rages, and once even struck Ko S’la. What was worse than all was the detail—the always filthy detail—in which the imagined scene appeared. The very perfection of the detail seemed to prove that it was true.
Is there anything in the world more graceless, more dishonouring, than to desire a woman whom you will never have? Throughout all these weeks Flory’s mind held hardly a thought which was not murderous or obscene. It is the common effect of jealousy. Once he had loved Elizabeth spiritually, sentimentally indeed, desiring her sympathy more than her caresses; now, when he had lost her, he was tormented by the basest physical longing. He did not even idealize her any longer. He saw her now almost as she was—silly, snobbish, heartless—and it made no difference to his longing for her. Does it ever make any difference? At nights when he lay awake, his bed dragged outside the tent for coolness, looking at the velvet dark from which the barking of a gyi sometimes sounded, he hated himself for the images that inhabited his mind. It was so base, this envying of the better man who had beaten him. For it was only envy—even jealousy was too good a name for it. What right had he to be jealous? He had offered himself to a girl who was too young and pretty for him, and she had turned him down—rightly. He had got the snub he deserved. Nor was there any appeal from that decision; nothing would ever make him young again, or take away his birthmark and his decade of lonely debaucheries. He could only stand and look on while the better man took her, and envy him, like—but the simile was not even mentionable. Envy is a horrible thing. It is unlike all other kinds of suffering in that there is no disguising it, no elevating it into tragedy. It is more than merely painful, it is disgusting.
But meanwhile, was it true, what he suspected? Had Verrall really become Elizabeth’s lover? There is no knowing, but on the whole the chances were against it, for, had it been so, there would have been no concealing it in such a place as Kyauktada. Mrs Lackersteen would probably have guessed it, even if the others had not. One thing was certain, however, and that was that Verrall had as yet made no proposal of marriage. A week went by, two weeks, three weeks; three weeks is a very long time in a small Indian station. Verrall and Elizabeth rode together every evening, danced together every night; yet Verrall had never so much as entered the Lackersteens’ house. There was endless scandal about Elizabeth, of course. All the Orientals of the town had taken it for granted that she was Verrall’s mistress. U Po Kyin’s version (he had a way of being essentially right even when he was wrong in detail) was that Elizabeth had been Flory’s concubine and had deserted him for Verrall because Verrall paid her more. Ellis, too, was inventing tales about Elizabeth that made Mr Macgregor squirm. Mrs Lackersteen, as a relative, did not hear these scandals, but she was growing nervous. Every evening when Elizabeth came home from her ride she would meet her hopefully, expecting the ‘Oh, aunt! What do you think!’—and then the glorious news. But the news never came, and however carefully she studied Elizabeth’s face, she could divine nothing.
When three weeks had passed Mrs Lackersteen became fretful and finally half angry. The thought of her husband, alone—or rather, not alone—in his camp, was troubling her. After all, she had sent him back to camp in order to give Elizabeth her chance with Verrall (not that Mrs Lackersteen would have put it so vulgarly as that). One evening she began lecturing and threatening Elizabeth in her oblique way. The conversation consisted of a sighing monologue with very long pauses—for Elizabeth made no answer whatever.
Mrs Lackersteen began with some general remarks, apropos of a photograph in the Tatler, about these fast MODERN girls who went about in beach pyjamas and all that and made themselves so dreadfully cheap with men. A girl, Mrs Lackersteen said, should never make herself too cheap with a man; she should make herself—but the opposite of ‘cheap’ seemed to be ‘expensive’, and that did not sound at all right, so Mrs Lackersteen changed her tack. She went on to tell Elizabeth about a letter she had had from home with further news of that poor, poor dear girl who was out in Burma for a while and had so foolishly neglected to get married. Her sufferings had been quite heartrending, and it just showed how glad a girl ought to be to marry anyone, literally anyone. It appeared that the poor, poor dear girl had lost her job and been practically starving for a long time, and now she had actually had to take a job as a common kitchen maid under a horrid, vulgar cook who bullied her most shockingly. And it seemed that the black beetles in the kitchen were simply beyond belief! Didn’t Elizabeth think it too absolutely dreadful? Black beetles!
Mrs Lackersteen remained silent for some time, to allow the black beetles to sink in, before adding:
‘Such a pity that Mr Verrall will be leaving us when the rains break. Kyauktada will seem quite empty without him!’
‘When do the rains break, usually?’ said Elizabeth as indifferently as she could manage.
‘About the beginning of June, up here. Only a week or two now. . . . My dear, it seems absurd to mention it again, but I cannot get out of my head the thought of that poor, poor dear girl in the kitchen among the black beetles!’
Black beetles recurred more than once in Mrs Lackersteen’s conversation during the rest of the evening. It was not until the following day that she remarked in the tone of someone dropping an unimportant piece of gossip:
‘By the way, I believe Flory is coming back to Kyauktada at the beginning of June. He said he was going to be in for the general meeting at the Club. Perhaps we might invite him to dinner some time.’
It was the first time that either of them had mentioned Flory since the day when he had brought Elizabeth the leopard-skin. After being virtually forgotten for several weeks, he had returned to each woman’s mind, a depressing pis aller.
Three days later Mrs Lackersteen sent word to her husband to come back to Kyauktada. He had been in camp long enough to earn a short spell in headquarters. He came back, more florid than ever—sunburn, he explained—and having acquired such a trembling of the hands that he could barely light a cigarette. Nevertheless, that evening he celebrated his return by manoeuvring Mrs Lackersteen out of the house, coming into Elizabeth’s bedroom and making a spirited attempt to rape her.
During all this time, unknown to anyone of importance, further sedition was afoot. The ‘weiksa’ (now far away, peddling the philosopher’s stone to innocent villagers in Martaban) had perhaps done his job a little better than he intended. At any rate, there was a possibility of fresh trouble—some isolated, futile outrage, probably. Even U Po Kyin knew nothing of this yet. But as usual the gods were fighting on his side, for any further rebellion would make the first seem more serious than it had been, and so add to his glory.