As Flory entered the compound there was a frightened squawk of women and a scurrying within the house. Evidently he had narrowly missed seeing the doctor’s wife. He went round to the front of the house and called up to the veranda:
‘Doctor! Are you busy? May I come up?’
The doctor, a little black and white figure, popped from within the house like a jack-in-the-box. He hurried to the veranda rail, exclaimed effusively:
‘If you may come up! Of course, of course, come up this instant! Ah, Mr Flory, how very delightful to see you! Come up, come up. What drink will you have? I have whisky, beer, vermouth and other European liquors. Ah, my dear friend, how I have been pining for some cultured conversation!’
The doctor was a small, black, plump man with fuzzy hair and round, credulous eyes. He wore steel-rimmed spectacles, and he was dressed in a badly fitting white drill suit, with trousers bagging concertina-like over clumsy black boots. His voice was eager and bubbling, with a hissing of the s’s. As Flory came up the steps the doctor popped back to the end of the veranda and rummaged in a big tin ice-chest, rapidly pulling out bottles of all descriptions. The veranda was wide and dark, with low eaves from which baskets of fern hung, making it seem like a cave behind a waterfall of sunlight. It was furnished with long, cane-bottomed chairs made in the jail, and at one end there was a book-case containing a rather unappetizing little library, mainly books of essays, of the Emerson-Carlyle-Stevenson type. The doctor, a great reader, liked his books to have what he called a ‘moral meaning’.
‘Well, doctor,’ said Flory—the doctor had meanwhile thrust him into a long chair, pulled out the leg-rests so that he could lie down, and put cigarettes and beer within reach. ‘Well, doctor, and how are things? How’s the British Empire? Sick of the palsy as usual?’
‘Aha, Mr Flory, she iss very low, very low! Grave complications setting in. Septicaemia, peritonitis and paralysis of the ganglia. We shall have to call in the specialists, I fear. Aha!’
It was a joke between the two men to pretend that the British Empire was an aged female patient of the doctor’s. The doctor had enjoyed this joke for two years without growing tired of it.
‘Ah, doctor,’ said Flory, supine in the long chair, ‘what a joy to be here after that bloody Club. When I come to your house I feel like a Nonconformist minister dodging up to town and going home with a tart. Such a glorious holiday from them’—he motioned with one heel in the direction of the Club—‘from my beloved fellow Empire-builders. British prestige, the white man’s burden, the pukka sahib sans peur et sans reproche—you know. Such a relief to be out of the stink of it for a little while.’
‘My friend, my friend, now come, come, please! That iss outrageous. You must not say such things of honourable English gentlemen!’
‘You don’t have to listen to the honourable gentlemen talking, doctor. I stood it as long as I could this morning. Ellis with his “dirty nigger”, Westfield with his jokes, Macgregor with his Latin tags and please give the bearer fifteen lashes. But when they got on to that story about the old havildar—you know, the dear old havildar who said that if the British left India there wouldn’t be a rupee or a virgin between—you know; well, I couldn’t stand it any longer. It’s time that old havildar was put on the retired list. He’s been saying the same thing ever since the Jubilee in ’eighty-seven.’
The doctor grew agitated, as he always did when Flory criticized the Club members. He was standing with his plump white-clad behind balanced against the veranda rail, and sometimes gesticulating. When searching for a word he would nip his black thumb and forefinger together, as though to capture an idea floating in the air.
‘But truly, truly, Mr Flory, you must not speak so! Why iss it that always you are abusing the pukka sahibs, ass you call them? They are the salt of the earth. Consider the great things they have done—consider the great administrators who have made British India what it iss. Consider Clive, Warren Hastings, Dalhousie, Curzon. They were such men—I quote your immortal Shakespeare—ass, take them for all in all, we shall not look upon their like again!’
‘Well, do you want to look upon their like again? I don’t.’
‘And consider how noble a type iss the English gentleman! Their glorious loyalty to one another! The public school spirit! Even those of them whose manner iss unfortunate—some Englishmen are arrogant, I concede—have the great, sterling qualities that we Orientals lack. Beneath their rough exterior, their hearts are of gold.’
‘Of gilt, shall we say? There’s a kind of spurious good-fellowship between the English and this country. It’s a tradition to booze together and swap meals and pretend to be friends, though we all hate each other like poison. Hanging together, we call it. It’s a political necessity. Of course drink is what keeps the machine going. We should all go mad and kill one another in a week if it weren’t for that. There’s a subject for one of your uplift essayists, doctor. Booze as the cement of empire.’
The doctor shook his head. ‘Really, Mr Flory, I know not what it iss that hass made you so cynical. It iss so most unsuitable! You—an English gentleman of high gifts and character—to be uttering seditious opinions that are worthy of the Burmese Patriot!’
‘Seditious?’ Flory said. ‘I’m not seditious. I don’t want the Burmans to drive us out of this country. God forbid! I’m here to make money, like everyone else. All I object to is the slimy white man’s burden humbug. The pukka sahib pose. It’s so boring. Even those bloody fools at the Club might be better company if we weren’t all of us living a lie the whole time.’
‘But, my dear friend, what lie are you living?’
‘Why, of course, the lie that we’re here to uplift our poor black brothers instead of to rob them. I suppose it’s a natural enough lie. But it corrupts us, it corrupts us in ways you can’t imagine. There’s an everlasting sense of being a sneak and a liar that torments us and drives us to justify ourselves night and day. It’s at the bottom of half our beastliness to the natives. We Anglo-Indians could be almost bearable if we’d only admit that we’re thieves and go on thieving without any humbug.’
The doctor, very pleased, nipped his thumb and forefinger together. ‘The weakness of your argument, my dear friend,’ he said, beaming at his own irony, ‘the weakness appears to be, that you are not thieves.’
‘Now, my dear doctor—’
Flory sat up in the long chair, partly because his prickly heat had just stabbed him in the back like a thousand needles, partly because his favourite argument with the doctor was about to begin. This argument, vaguely political in nature, took place as often as the two men met. It was a topsy-turvy affair, for the Englishman was bitterly anti-English and the Indian fanatically loyal. Dr Veraswami had a passionate admiration for the English, which a thousand snubs from Englishmen had not shaken. He would maintain with positive eagerness that he, as an Indian, belonged to an inferior and degenerate race. His faith in British justice was so great that even when, at the jail, he had to superintend a flogging or a hanging, and would come home with his black face faded grey and dose himself with whisky, his zeal did not falter. Flory’s seditious opinions shocked him, but they also gave him a certain shuddering pleasure, such as a pious believer will take in hearing the Lord’s Prayer repeated backwards.
‘My dear doctor,’ said Flory, ‘how can you make out that we are in this country for any purpose except to steal? It’s so simple. The official holds the Burman down while the businessman goes through his pockets. Do you suppose my firm, for instance, could get its timber contracts if the country weren’t in the hands of the British? Or the other timber firms, or the oil companies, or the miners and planters and traders? How could the Rice Ring go on skinning the unfortunate peasant if it hadn’t the Government behind it? The British Empire is simply a device for giving trade monopolies to the English—or rather to gangs of Jews and Scotchmen.’
‘My friend, it iss pathetic to me to hear you talk so. It iss truly pathetic. You say you are here to trade? Of course you are. Could the Burmese trade for themselves? Can they make machinery, ships, railways, roads? They are helpless without you. What would happen to the Burmese forests if the English were not here? They would be sold immediately to the Japanese, who would gut them and ruin them. Instead of which, in your hands, actually they are improved. And while your businessmen develop the resources of our country, your officials are civilizing us, elevating us to their level, from pure public spirit. It is a magnificent record of self-sacrifice.’
‘Bosh, my dear doctor. We teach the young men to drink whisky and play football, I admit, but precious little else. Look at our schools—factories for cheap clerks. We’ve never taught a single useful manual trade to the Indians. We daren’t; frightened of the competition in industry. We’ve even crushed various industries. Where are the Indian muslins now? Back in the forties or thereabouts they were building sea-going ships in India, and manning them as well. Now you couldn’t build a seaworthy fishing boat there. In the eighteenth century the Indians cast guns that were at any rate up to the European standard. Now, after we’ve been in India a hundred and fifty years, you can’t make so much as a brass cartridge-case in the whole continent. The only Eastern races that have developed at all quickly are the independent ones. I won’t instance Japan, but take the case of Siam—’
The doctor waved his hand excitedly. He always interrupted the argument at this point (for as a rule it followed the same course, almost word for word), finding that the case of Siam hampered him.
‘My friend, my friend, you are forgetting the Oriental character. How iss it possible to have developed us, with our apathy and superstition? At least you have brought to us law and order. The unswerving British Justice and the Pax Britannica.’
‘Pox Britannica, doctor, Pox Britannica is its proper name. And in any case, whom is it pax for? The money-lender and the lawyer. Of course we keep the peace in India, in our own interest, but what does all this law and order business boil down to? More banks and more prisons—that’s all it means.’
‘What monstrous misrepresentations!’ cried the doctor. ‘Are not prissons necessary? And have you brought us nothing but prissons? Consider Burma in the days of Thibaw, with dirt and torture and ignorance, and then look around you. Look merely out of this veranda—look at that hospital, and over to the right at that school and that police station. Look at the whole uprush of modern progress!’
‘Of course I don’t deny,’ Flory said, ‘that we modernize this country in certain ways. We can’t help doing so. In fact, before we’ve finished we’ll have wrecked the whole Burmese national culture. But we’re not civilizing them, we’re only rubbing our dirt on to them. Where’s it going to lead, this uprush of modern progress, as you call it? Just to our own dear old swinery of gramophones and billycock hats. Sometimes I think that in two hundred years all this—’ he waved a foot towards the horizon—‘all this will be gone—forests, villages, monasteries, pagodas all vanished. And instead, pink villas fifty yards apart; all over those hills, as far as you can see, villa after villa, with all the gramophones playing the same tune. And all the forests shaved flat—chewed into wood-pulp for the News of the World, or sawn up into gramophone cases. But the trees avenge themselves, as the old chap says in The Wild Duck. You’ve read Ibsen, of course?’
‘Ah, no, Mr Flory, alas! That mighty master-mind, your inspired Bernard Shaw hass called him. It iss a pleasure to come. But, my friend, what you do not see iss that your civilization at its very worst iss for us an advance. Gramophones, billycock hats, the News of the World—all iss better than the horrible sloth of the Oriental. I see the British, even the least inspired of them, ass—ass—’ the doctor searched for a phrase, and found one that probably came from Stevenson—‘ass torchbearers upon the path of progress.’
‘I don’t. I see them as a kind of up-to-date, hygienic, self- satisfied louse. Creeping round the world building prisons. They build a prison and call it progress,’ he added rather regretfully—for the doctor would not recognize the allusion.
‘My friend, positively you are harping upon the subject of prissons! Consider that there are also other achievements of your countrymen. They construct roads, they irrigate deserts, they conquer famines, they build schools, they set up hospitals, they combat plague, cholera, leprosy, smallpox, venereal disease—’
‘Having brought it themselves,’ put in Flory.
‘No, sir!’ returned the doctor, eager to claim this distinction for his own countrymen. ‘No, sir, it wass the Indians who introduced venereal disease into this country. The Indians introduce diseases, and the English cure them. There iss the answer to all your pessimism and seditiousness.’
‘Well, doctor, we shall never agree. The fact is that you like all this modern progress business, whereas I’d rather see things a little bit septic. Burma in the days of Thibaw would have suited me better, I think. And as I said before, if we are a civilizing influence, it’s only to grab on a larger scale. We should chuck it quickly enough if it didn’t pay.’
‘My friend, you do not think that. If truly you disapprove of the British Empire, you would not be talking of it privately here. You would be proclaiming from the house-tops. I know your character, Mr Flory, better than you know it yourself.’
‘Sorry, doctor; I don’t go in for proclaiming from the housetops. I haven’t the guts. I “counsel ignoble ease”, like old Belial in Paradise Lost. It’s safer. You’ve got to be a pukka sahib or die, in this country. In fifteen years I’ve never talked honestly to anyone except you. My talks here are a safety-valve; a little Black Mass on the sly, if you understand me.’
At this moment there was a desolate wailing noise outside. Old Mattu, the Hindu durwan who looked after the European church, was standing in the sunlight below the veranda. He was an old fever-stricken creature, more like a grasshopper than a human being, and dressed in a few square inches of dingy rag. He lived near the church in a hut made of flattened kerosene tins, from which he would sometimes hurry forth at the appearance of a European, to salaam deeply and wail something about his ‘talab’, which was eighteen rupees a month. Looking piteously up at the veranda, he massaged the earth-coloured skin of his belly with one hand, and with the other made the motion of putting food into his mouth. The doctor felt in his pocket and dropped a four-anna piece over the veranda rail. He was notorious for his soft-heartedness, and all the beggars in Kyauktada made him their target.
‘Behold there the degeneracy of the East,’ said the doctor, pointing to Mattu, who was doubling himself up like a caterpillar and uttering grateful whines. ‘Look at the wretchedness of hiss limbs. The calves of hiss legs are not so thick ass an Englishman’s wrists. Look at hiss abjectness and servility. Look at hiss ignorance—such ignorance ass iss not known in Europe outside a home for mental defectives. Once I asked Mattu to tell me hiss age. “Sahib,” he said, “I believe that I am ten years old.” How can you pretend, Mr Flory, that you are not the natural superior of such creatures?’
‘Poor old Mattu, the uprush of modern progress seems to have missed him somehow,’ Flory said, throwing another four-anna piece over the rail. ‘Go on, Mattu, spend that on booze. Be as degenerate as you can. It all postpones Utopia.’
‘Aha, Mr Flory, sometimes I think that all you say iss but to—what iss the expression?—pull my leg. The English sense of humour. We Orientals have no humour, ass iss well known.’
‘Lucky devils. It’s been the ruin of us, our bloody sense of humour.’ He yawned with his hands behind his head. Mattu had shambled away after further grateful noises. ‘I suppose I ought to be going before this cursed sun gets too high. The heat’s going to be devilish this year, I feel it in my bones. Well, doctor, we’ve been arguing so much that I haven’t asked for your news. I only got in from the jungle yesterday. I ought to go back the day after tomorrow—don’t know whether I shall. Has anything been happening in Kyauktada? Any scandals?’
The doctor looked suddenly serious. He had taken off his spectacles, and his face, with dark liquid eyes, recalled that of a black retriever dog. He looked away, and spoke in a slightly more hesitant tone than before.
‘That fact iss, my friend, there iss a most unpleasant business afoot. You will perhaps laugh—it sounds nothing—but I am in serious trouble. Or rather, I am in danger of trouble. It iss an underground business. You Europeans will never hear of it directly. In this place’—he waved a hand towards the bazaar— ‘there iss perpetual conspiracies and plottings of which you do not hear. But to us they mean much.’
‘What’s been happening, then?’
‘It iss this. An intrigue iss brewing against me. A most serious intrigue which iss intended to blacken my character and ruin my official career. Ass an Englishman you will not understand these things. I have incurred the enmity of a man you probably do not know, U Po Kyin, the Sub-divisional Magistrate. He iss a most dangerous man. The damage that he can do to me iss incalculable.’
‘U Po Kyin? Which one is that?’
‘The great fat man with many teeth. Hiss house iss down the road there, a hundred yards away.’
‘Oh, that fat scoundrel? I know him well.’
‘No, no, my friend, no, no!’ exclaimed the doctor quite eagerly; ‘it cannot be that you know him. Only an Oriental could know him. You, an English gentleman, cannot sink your mind to the depth of such ass U Po Kyin. He iss more than a scoundrel, he iss—what shall I say? Words fail me. He recalls to me a crocodile in human shape. He hass the cunning of the crocodile, its cruelty, its bestiality. If you knew the record of that man! The outrages he hass committed! The extortions, the briberies! The girls he hass ruined, raping them before the very eyes of their mothers! Ah, an English gentleman cannot imagine such a character. And thiss iss the man who hass taken hiss oath to ruin me.’
‘I’ve heard a good deal about U Po Kyin from various sources,’ Flory said. ‘He seems a fair sample of a Burmese magistrate. A Burman told me that during the war U Po Kyin was at work recruiting, and he raised a battalion from his own illegitimate sons. Is that true?’
‘It could hardly be so,’ said the doctor, ‘for they would not have been old enough. But of hiss villainy there iss no doubt. And now he iss determined upon ruining me. In the first place he hates me because I know too much about him; and besides, he iss the enemy of any reasonably honest man. He will proceed—such iss the practice of such men—by calumny. He will spread reports about me—reports of the most appalling and untrue descriptions. Already he iss beginning them.’
‘But would anyone believe a fellow like that against you? He’s only a lowdown magistrate. You’re a high official.’
‘Ah, Mr Flory, you do not understand Oriental cunning. U Po Kyin hass ruined higher officials than I. He will know ways to make himself believed. And therefore—ah, it iss a difficult business!’
The doctor took a step or two up and down the veranda, polishing his glasses with his handkerchief. It was clear that there was something more which delicacy prevented him from saying. For a moment his manner was so troubled that Flory would have liked to ask whether he could not help in some way, but he did not, for he knew the uselessness of interfering in Oriental quarrels. No European ever gets to the bottom of these quarrels; there is always something impervious to the European mind, a conspiracy behind the conspiracy, a plot within the plot. Besides, to keep out of ‘native’ quarrels is one of the Ten Precepts of the pukka sahib. He said doubtfully:
‘What is a difficult business?’
‘It iss, if only—ah, my friend, you will laugh at me, I fear. But it iss this: if only I were a member of your European Club! If only! How different would my position be!’
‘The Club? Why? How would that help you?’
‘My friend, in these matters prestige iss everything. It iss not that U Po Kyin will attack me openly; he would never dare; it iss that he will libel me and backbite me. And whether he iss believed or not depends entirely upon my standing with the Europeans. It iss so that things happen in India. If our prestige iss good, we rise; if bad, we fall. A nod and a wink will accomplish more than a thousand official reports. And you do not know what prestige it gives to an Indian to be a member of the European Club. In the Club, practically he iss a European. No calumny can touch him. A Club member iss sacrosanct.’
Flory looked away over the veranda rail. He had got up as though to go. It always made him ashamed and uncomfortable when it had to be admitted between them that the doctor, because of his black skin, could not be received in the Club. It is a disagreeable thing when one’s close friend is not one’s social equal; but it is a thing native to the very air of India.
‘They might elect you at the next general meeting,’ he said. ‘I don’t say they will, but it’s not impossible.’
‘I trust, Mr Flory, that you do not think I am asking you to propose me for the Club? Heaven forbid! I know that that iss impossible for you. Simply I wass remarking that if I were a member of the Club, I should be forthwith invulnerable—’
Flory cocked his Terai hat loosely on his head and stirred Flo up with his stick. She was asleep under the chair. Flory felt very uncomfortable. He knew that in all probability, if he had the courage to face a few rows with Ellis, he could secure Dr Veraswami’s election to the Club. And the doctor, after all, was his friend, indeed, almost the sole friend he had in Burma. They had talked and argued together a hundred times, the doctor had dined at his house, he had even proposed to introduce Flory to his wife—but she, a pious Hindu, had refused with horror. They had made shooting trips together—the doctor, equipped with bandoliers and hunting knives, panting up hillsides slippery with bamboo leaves and blazing his gun at nothing. In common decency it was his duty to support the doctor. But he knew also that the doctor would never ask for any support, and that there would be an ugly row before an Oriental was got into the Club. No, he could not face that row! It was not worth it. He said:
‘To tell you the truth, there’s been talk about this already. They were discussing it this morning, and that little beast Ellis was preaching his usual “dirty nigger” sermon. Macgregor has suggested electing one native member. He’s had orders to do so, I imagine.’
‘Yes, I heard that. We hear all these things. It wass that that put the idea into my head.’
‘It’s to come up at the general meeting in June. I don’t know what’ll happen—it depends on Macgregor, I think. I’ll give you my vote, but I can’t do more than that. I’m sorry, but I simply can’t. You don’t know the row there’ll be. Very likely they will elect you, but they’ll do it as an unpleasant duty, under protest. They’ve made a perfect fetish of keeping this Club all-white, as they call it.’
‘Of course, of course, my friend! I understand perfectly. Heaven forbid that you should get into trouble with your European friends on my behalf. Please, please, never to embroil yourself! The mere fact that you are known to be my friend benefits me more than you can imagine. Prestige, Mr Flory, iss like a barometer. Every time you are seen to enter my house the mercury rises half a degree.’
‘Well, we must try and keep it at “Set Fair”. That’s about all I can do for you, I’m afraid.’
‘Even that iss much, my friend. And for that, there iss another thing of which I would warn you, though you will laugh, I fear. It iss that you yourself should beware of U Po Kyin. Beware of the crocodile! For sure he will strike at you when he knows that you are befriending me.’
‘All right, doctor, I’ll beware of the crocodile. I don’t fancy he can do me much harm, though.’
‘At least he will try. I know him. It will be hiss policy to detach my friends from me. Possibly he would even dare to spread hiss libels about you also.’
‘About me? Good gracious, no one would believe anything against me. Civis Romanus sum. I’m an Englishman—quite above suspicion.’
‘Nevertheless, beware of hiss calumnies, my friend. Do not underrate him. He will know how to strike at you. He iss a crocodile. And like the crocodile’—the doctor nipped his thumb and finger impressively; his images became mixed sometimes—‘like the crocodile, he strikes always at the weakest spot!’
‘Do crocodiles always strike at the weakest spot, doctor?’
Both men laughed. They were intimate enough to laugh over the doctor’s queer English occasionally. Perhaps, at the bottom of his heart, the doctor was a little disappointed that Flory had not promised to propose him for the Club, but he would have perished rather than say so. And Flory was glad to drop the subject, an uncomfortable one which he wished had never been raised.
‘Well, I really must be going, doctor. Good-bye in case I don’t see you again. I hope it’ll be all right at the general meeting. Macgregor’s not a bad old stick. I dare say he’ll insist on their electing you.’
‘Let us hope so, my friend. With that I can defy a hundred U Po Kyins. A thousand! Good-bye, my friend, good-bye.’
Then Flory settled his Terai hat on his head and went home across the glaring maidan, to his breakfast, for which the long morning of drinking, smoking and talking had left him no appetite.