Flood of Fire | Chapter 14 of 29

Author: Amitav Ghosh | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 4931 Views | Add a Review

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Eight

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The journey from Rangpur to Calcutta took Kesri and Captain Mee almost a fortnight, most of which was spent on a hired Brahmaputra river-boat.

For Kesri the journey was a time of recuperation. The boatmen did all the work, so he had plenty of leisure. The food was exceptionally good, being produced by a cook who fully lived up to the vaunted culinary reputation of Brahmaputra boatmen: he worked wonders with the freshly netted fish they bought on the way.

Captain Mee had brought along the normal officers’ travelling rations of salted meats, biscuit and so on, and these were usually prepared for him by his own servant. But he soon tired of the sameness of the fare, and having long had a liking for karibat, he hinted to Kesri that he would not be averse to an occasional plateful. Had any other officers been on board it would have been difficult for the captain to share Kesri’s food – but this was a fine opportunity to flout the rules of his caste and he did so not only in the matter of food but also drink: in the evenings, when the boat was moored and the crew had retired below deck, he and Kesri would share the occasional bottle of beer from his rations.

‘Only because we’re in mufti, havildar – mind you, not a word to anyone!’

‘No, sir!’

Never once, in their conversations, did the subject of Kesri’s shunning by the paltan arise; yet Kesri sometimes sensed that the captain was trying to express sympathy for his plight, although without speaking of it directly.

One evening they talked about London, where Captain Mee had grown up but which he had visited only once after moving to India. While reminiscing he made a disclosure that astonished Kesri: he revealed that his father, now dead, had been a shopkeeper – ‘a banyan’, he said, with a slightly embarrassed laugh.

Kesri understood immediately why he had never spoken of this before: the English officers, no less than the sepoys, were very particular about the castes of the men they admitted to their ranks. Most of the officers were from professional, landed or military backgrounds and it was through their family connections, Kesri knew, that they secured the recommendations and letters patent that enabled them to obtain their commissions. How a shopkeeper’s son had managed to do this Kesri could not imagine, but the disclosure helped him make sense of some things that had always puzzled him about his former butcha.

He remembered one evening, many years before, when Mee-sahib had got very drunk at the officers’ mess in Barrackpore. He was then a seventeen-year-old ensign and Kesri was his orderly; he had been summoned to the mess to take his butcha back to his rooms. On the way, Mee-sahib had drunkenly blurted out a garbled story about how he had wanted to join some club in Calcutta: all the other ensigns and second lieutenants had been admitted; he alone had been blackballed. That was when Kesri had understood that there was something about his butcha – perhaps to do with his parentage or caste – that set him apart from the other officers.

For Kesri his butcha’s rejection by the club was like a personal affront: he never spoke of the matter to anyone, and whenever there was any talk about Mr Mee among the men, he always made a point of mentioning that he was ‘a man of good family’ – khandaani aadmi – knowing that such things mattered as much in the sepoys’ estimation of their officers as they did in their judgements of each other.

Not long after this there followed another episode that made Kesri even more protective of his butcha. The paltan was then stationed at Ranchi, along with a number of other battalions. The picturesque little town was then listed as a ‘family station’ and many British civil and military officers had their wives and children living with them. As a result there were many parties, hunts and burra-khanas; as for dances there were so many as to wear out the regimental bands.

Mr Mee had plunged into the social whirl with all the energy of a healthy and gregarious young ensign. Kesri knew of his butcha’s doings because word of the officers’ antics would always trickle back to the sepoy lines, either through the soldiers who were on guard duty at the regimental clubs and messes, or by way of the cooks, stewards and punkah-wallahs who worked in the officers’ residences. Sometimes the news would even cause trouble among the sepoys: some were so closely bonded with their butchas that a quarrel between two lieutenants could spark angry exchanges between their orderlies.

So it happened that Kesri found himself being singled out for some good-humoured teasing on account of Mr Mee.

Arré Kesri, do you know what your fellow’s been up to now?

He’s quite the loocher, always got his eyes on a girl.

Wu sawdhan na rahi to dikkat hoé – if he’s not careful, there’ll be trouble.

Through hints like these Kesri was given to understand that Mr Mee was involved in a flirtation with the most sought-after missy-memsahib in the station: she was striking to look at, tall, full-busted with reddish-brown hair; she was also the daughter of a brigadiergeneral who belonged to one of the highest of twice-born military families.

This entanglement of Mr Mee’s put Kesri in a strange situation for it so happened that he was himself acquainted with this missy-mem. A couple of years before, he had accompanied a hunting party organized by her father, the brigadier-general: he had ended up being assigned to the missy-mem, as a gun-loader. She was a fine shot and that day she had outdone herself, bagging a dozen ducks. For some reason she had chosen to give Kesri the credit, claiming that he had brought her luck. After that she would always insist on having him as her gun-loader when she went hunting.

During duck-hunts, Kesri would sit behind her in the blind, and they would talk. Having been reared by Muslim ayahs the missy-mem could speak fluent Hindustani when she wanted to: she would often ask questions about Kesri’s village, his family and how he had found his way into the Pacheesi. She was the only person to whom he had ever told the story of how Deeti had helped him escape from Nayanpur.

It was she too who was responsible, at least in part, for Kesri’s assignment as Mr Mee’s orderly. Soon after Mr Mee joined the battalion, she had asked Kesri whether he would like to be the new ensign’s orderly. When he said yes, she had told him that she would put in a word for him with Mr Mee.

Kesri had been grateful to her but it had not occurred to him that there might be anything between her and Mr Mee other than the usual casual acquaintanceship that existed between subalterns and the children of senior officers. But in Ranchi, when the rumours began to circulate, he realized that their friendship had been blossoming for a while. It worried him because he knew that his butcha stood little chance of gaining this missy-mem’s hand: Mr Mee had no money and was in no position to get married – having given him several loans already, Kesri was well aware of this. The missy-mem, on the other hand, had many suitors, some of whom were extremely eligible. Kesri did not doubt that when it came to marriage her family would compel her to do whatever was best for her future.

When he overheard others gossiping about Mr Mee and the missy-mem, Kesri would scoff, saying that it was just a friendship, of a kind that was common among sahibs and mems; it meant nothing. But this became harder and harder to maintain: after parties and balls Kesri would hear that the missy had given more dances to Mr Mee than to anyone else, even turning down some high-ranked officers. Then one day a steward whispered in Kesri’s ear that while serving soup at dinner the night before, he had seen Mee-sahib and the general’s larki holding hands under the table.

One day Mr Mee fell ill with a fever and had to absent himself from the social whirl for a while. At the end of the week a summons arrived from the general’s house, for Kesri, to accompany his guests and family on a hunt – and as always he was assigned to serve as the missy-mem’s gun-loader. That day the group was a large one and she was constantly surrounded by people. Only for a few minutes were they alone, and she immediately began to ask Kesri about Mr Mee: How was he? Was he being properly looked after? Then she slipped across a thick pink envelope and whispered: Kesri Singh, can you please give him this, mehrbani kar ke?

Kesri had no choice but to accept: he left the envelope on Mr Mee’s bedside teapoy, without a word of explanation. They never spoke of it, but one day the sweeper who cleaned Mr Mee’s rooms came to him and said that there was some hair lying on Mr Mee’s desk: he wanted to know if he should throw it away. Kesri went to take a look and saw a lock of reddish-brown hair, tied up neatly with a ribbon, lying on top of the envelope.

Kesri realized now that things had taken a serious turn. Risking a berating, he picked up the letter, and the enclosed lock of hair, and handed them to Mr Mee, telling him that it was dangerous to leave such things lying around and that people were already talking. Predictably Mr Mee flew into a rage and shouted at him, calling him a blackguard and telling him to mind his own bloody business and keep his maulers off his things.

Kesri understood then that his butcha was possessed, majnoon, mad with love, and he wished that it had happened for Mr Mee in the same way that it had for himself, with Gulabi – that he too had chosen a woman he could have had. This way he knew there would only be trouble.

It wasn’t long before things came to a head. That year the officers and their ladies had taken up a strange new kind of entertainment, apparently in imitation of a fashion in their homeland. They would ride into the jungle with baskets of food and drink; then they would spread out sheets and blankets and sit down to eat – right there, in the open. This was a great annoyance to the orderlies because they would be taken along, to chase away snakes and keep a lookout for tigers and elephants. It seemed senseless to them that anyone should wish to eat in places where they might themselves be eaten by wild beasts – but orders were orders and they went along and did as they were told.

The worst job of all was to look after the horses, for they were like bait for leopards and were in a constant state of agitation. That day Kesri was attending to a horse when he caught sight of Mr Mee and the missy-mem wandering into the jungle. They were gone long enough that her parents began to worry and asked for a search party to be formed. Since Kesri knew which way they’d gone, he slipped away and went ahead of the others, shouting: Mee-sah’b! Mee-sah’b!

In a while he heard an answer and saw Mr Mee and the missy-mem coming towards him. They looked flushed and dishevelled and Kesri thought at first that this was only because they’d lost their way and had been stumbling about. But then he noticed that there was a new glow on the missy’s face; he saw also that Mr Mee’s collar was disarranged. He knew then that something had happened between them. Trying to banish all expression from his face, he whispered a warning to Mr Mee to straighten his collar.

By the time the couple returned to their party, they had had time to compose themselves and were able to persuade the others that they had merely lost their way. The rest of the day passed without incident – but Kesri knew that the matter wouldn’t end there. He was not surprised to learn, a day or two later, that the missy and her mother had left for Calcutta.

Although the girl was never mentioned between Mr Mee and himself, Kesri knew that his butcha had been hard hit by her departure. The bichhanadar who made his bed would often find her letters under his pillow, and Kesri would sometimes find Mr Mee sitting alone in his room, with his head slumped disconsolately on his desk.

Kesri was glad when the battalion received orders to move back to Barrackpore; he thought the change of scene would be good for Mr Mee. But on arriving at the depot they learnt that the jarnail-sahib’s daughter was soon to be married, to a rich English merchant in Calcutta.

On the day of the wedding, the officers’ quarters were deserted because they were all at the ceremony. Only Mr Mee stayed behind; it was rumoured that he had not been invited.

The next morning Kesri saw that the bichhanadar had put Mr Mee’s pillow in the sun; he touched it and found that it was soaked through.

The cantonment in Barrackpore was large enough that it had a ‘Lock Hospital’, maintained by the army, to ensure that the bazar-girls who were provided for white soldiers and officers were free of disease. Kesri knew that in the past Mr Mee had occasionally visited the ‘Europeans Only’ military brothel in the cantonment’s Red Bazar. That night he found an opportunity to mention to him that he had heard that a nice young girl had just arrived there. In the past Mr Mee had been grateful for tips like these, but this time he shouted at Kesri and told him to mind his own fucking business.

Kesri understood that Mr Mee was seething inside, not just because he had lost the missy-mem but also because he had been humiliated in the eyes of his fellow officers. Knowing how hotheaded his butcha was, Kesri feared that an explosion was inevitable – and it wasn’t long before it happened. One night a steward ran over to tell Kesri that Mr Mee had been involved in a drunken quarrel in the officers’ mess: he had overheard another officer gossiping about him, in the worst kind of language, and had challenged him to a duel.

Kesri was fully in sympathy with his butcha on this: to be called ‘bastard’ and ‘swine’ in a joking way was one thing; but every soldier knew that words like haramzada and soowar-ka-baccha, when used in earnest, had to be answered in blood – only a coward would fail to defend his izzat. This way at least there would be a resolution of some kind – and whatever happened, it was better than shedding solitary tears for an unattainable woman.

The onething Kesri regretted was that the duel was to be fought with pistols: had swords been the chosen weapon he would have had no doubt that his butcha would win. Not that Mr Mee was a bad shot – but with guns luck always played a large part, especially if the gunman was overwrought, as Mr Mee would probably be.

Sure enough, Mr Mee was in a state of wild-eyed agitation when he returned to his room. Anticipating this, Kesri had already made preparations. He handed him a glass and told him to drink the contents: he would sleep well and his hand would be steady when he woke up.

‘What’s in it?’ said Mr Mee.

‘Sharbat – with afeem.’

Nothing was said between them about the duel and nor was it necessary. After Mr Mee had drunk the sharbat, Kesri fetched his pistols and wrapped them in a velvet cloth. He took them to his hut and spent several hours cleaning and oiling them. Then, as was the custom before a battle, he took the pistols to the regimental temple, laid them at the foot of the deity and had them blessed by the purohit. In the morning, after handing over the guns, he dipped the tip of his little finger in a pot of vermilion and placed a tika high up on his butcha’s temple. Mr Mee did not object, although he made sure that the tika was well hidden by his hair.

When the time came, and Mr Mee’s seconds arrived to take him to the field, Kesri was glad to see that his butcha was perfectly calm, even cheerful. It was Kesri who was fearful now, much more so than he would have been had he himself been stepping into the field. His hands trembled as he went to join the throng of spectators who had gathered at a discreet distance.

Duelling between officers was not uncommon, even though the high command disapproved of the practice. Kesri had watched duels before, but this time, when the signal to fire was called out, he closed his eyes. Only when the men around him began to pound him on his back did he know that his butcha had won – and in the best possible way, not by killing his opponent but by felling him with a flesh wound.

In some ways the duel had a palliative effect on Mr Mee, restoring his sense of honour and draining him of some of his rage and grief. But he was to feel the repercussions of that episode for years afterwards: it meant that promotions were always slow to come his way, despite his qualities as an officer.

His entanglement with the general’s daughter was also to have a lasting effect on his personal life: Kesri did not doubt that it was the principal reason why his butcha had never married. He had thought that once the general-sahib’s daughter was safely out of reach Mr Mee would begin to run after some other missy or memsahib. But nothing like that came to pass. When on the march, Mr Mee would sometimes patronize Gulabi’s girls; while in a cantonment he would occasionally visit its military brothel when he was in need of a little chivarleying, as he put it. But he showed no signs of wanting to find himself a wife, which was not unusual in itself, since many of the British officers put off marriage till they were in their forties – but Kesri knew that Mr Mee’s was no ordinary bachelorhood: he was still haunted by the lost missy. Kesri knew this because he was with Mr Mee once when he suffered a chest wound in a skirmish: later, when the medical orderlies were trying to get his jacket off, a small package had fallen out of the inner pocket. Kesri knew at a glance that it contained the missy’s letter: evidently Mr Mee had taken it into battle, wearing it next to his heart.

Since then a lingering bitterness had slowly crept into Captain Mee’s life. The light-hearted exuberance of his youth had been replaced by resignation and resentment. The one thing that seemed to sustain him now was his bond with the sepoys.

It saddened Kesri to think how different his butcha’s life and career might have been if not for that unfortunate entanglement with the missy-mem. But none of this was ever spoken of between them, not even during the long journey from Rangpur to Calcutta when they talked more as friends than as officer and sepoy. Of course Captain Mee did not neglect to ask after Kesri’s wife and children – and had the captain been married Kesri would have done the same. But that was different: the family of a married man was safe ground – this other thing was not.

On the last day of the journey, Captain Mee said: ‘So, havildar, what will you do when we return from this expedition? Do you think you’ll put in for your pension and go back to your family?’

‘Yes, sir.’

Then Captain Mee made a disclosure that was not entirely unexpected. ‘Well, havildar, I wouldn’t be surprised if I put my papers in myself,’ he said. ‘I don’t know that the Pacheesi has been any better for me than it’s been for you.’

*

After his second tryst with Mrs Burnham, Zachary’s burden of contrition became far less oppressive: it wasn’t that guilt ceased to weigh on him – it was just that his eagerness to return to the boudoir made him less mindful of it.

But the next visit did not come about as soon as he would have liked: there was a long, almost unendurable, wait before he heard from Mrs Burnham again. A full fortnight passed before the next message arrived, hidden inside a weighty tome of sermons: it consisted of a single cryptic marking, on a scrap of paper – 12th. The reference was clearly to a date, one that happened to be two days away.

In preparation for the assignation, Zachary made a careful study of the routines of the chowkidars and durwans who guarded the compound; he learnt to listen for their footsteps and tracked the glow of their lanterns. When the night of the 12th came he evaded the gatekeepers with ease: this part wasn’t difficult, he told Mrs Burnham; he had figured out how to navigate the grounds without the watchmen being any the wiser.

His certainty on this score buttressed Mrs Burnham’s confidence and they began to meet more often. Instead of exchanging messages, they would settle on a date at the time of parting. No longer did they care whether the servants were away or not; it was always in the small hours of the night that Zachary stole over to the mansion anyway, and at that time the grounds were usually deserted. As his familiarity with the grounds increased, he learnt to make good use of every scrap of cover, including the wintry mists that often rolled in from the river, at night.

In no way did the increased frequency of their meetings diminish Zachary’s appetite for them: each assignation was a fresh adventure; every visit seemed to conjure up a new woman – one who was so unlike the Mrs Burnham of the past that he would not have imagined that she existed if their connection had not taken this unforeseen turn. Yet he knew also that there was nothing accidental about what had happened between them: it had come about because his body had sensed something that was beyond the grasp of his conscious mind – that hidden within the Beebee of Bethel’s steely shell there existed another, quite fantastical and capricious creature; a woman who was endlessly inventive, not just with her body but also with her words.

One night he got caught in a shower of rain and arrived at the top of the staircase completely drenched. Mrs Burnham was waiting for him in the goozle-connuh. ‘Oh look at you, my dear, dripping pawnee everywhere. Stand still while I take off your jammas and jungiah.’

After stripping him of his clothing, she made him sit on the rim of the bathtub and knelt between his parted thighs. Pulling up her chemise, she draped the hem over his legs and pressed herself against his belly. Murmuring gently, she began to dry his head and shoulders with a towel, clasping him ever closer as she reached around to rub his back. Suddenly she looked down at the unlaced throat of her chemise and gave a little cry: ‘Oh look! I see a helmet! A brave little havildar has climbed up my chest and is raising his head above the nullah, to take a dekko! Oh, but look! He is drenched, even under his topee!’

She delighted in tantalizing him with unfamiliar words and puzzling expressions yet, no matter how intimate their bodily explorations, no matter how much they indulged their appetite for each other, there remained certain matters of decorum on which she would not yield: even when the organ that she had nicknamed the ‘bawhawder sepoy’ was entrenched within her, its master and commander remained Mr Reid, the mystery, and she was never anything but Mrs Burnham, the Beebee of Bethel.

Once, when ‘her shoke was coming on’ as she liked to say, he felt the onset of her tremors and cried out, to urge her on: ‘Oh spend, Cathy, spend! Don’t stint yourself!’

No sooner had the syllables left his mouth than she froze, her shoke forgotten.

‘What? What was that you called me?’

‘Cathy.’

‘No, my dear, no!’ she cried, twitching her hips in such a way as to abruptly unbivouack the sepoy.

‘I am, and I must remain, Mrs Burnham to you – and you must ever remain Mr Reid to me. If we permit ourselves to lapse into “Zachs” and “Cathies” in private then you may be sure that our tongues will ambush us one day when we are in company. In just such a way was poor Julia Fairlie found to be loochering with her groom – for who has ever known a syce to call his memsahib “Julie” as the wretched ooloo was heard to do one day as he was helping her into the saddle? And so was it revealed that much of their riding and saddling was done without horses and in no time at all poor Julia was packed off to Doolally – and all because she’d allowed that halalcore of a syce to be too free with two syllables. No, dear, no, it just will not hoga. “Mrs Burnham” and “Mr Reid” we are, and so we must remain.’

If Zachary bowed to her in this matter it wasn’t only because he accepted her reasoning: it was also because there was something startlingly sensuous about hearing her moan after the passing of a shoke: ‘Oh Mr Reid, Mr Reid! You have made a jellybee of your poor Mrs Burnham!’

The invocation of her married name was a reminder that theirs were stolen, adulterous pleasures, which meant that inhibition was meaningless and restraint absurd: so deadly was the seriousness of their crime that it could only be effaced by frivolity – as when she would cry, with a playful tug: ‘It’s my turn now, to bajow your ganta.’

She deployed these strings of words with the skill of an expert angler, teasing, mocking and egging him on to further advances in the art of the puckrow.

‘Oh Mr Reid, I do not doubt that it is a joy to be a launder of your age, with a lathee always ready to be lagowed – and a dumb-poke is certainly a fine thing, not to be scorned. But you know, my dear mystery, a plain old-fashioned stew can always be improved by an occasional chutney.’

‘You’ve lost me, Mrs Burnham,’ he mumbled.

‘Oh? Have you never heard of chartering then?’

‘You mean like chartering a boat?’

‘No, you silly green griffin!’ She laughed. ‘In India, chartering is what you do with this’ – here she reached between his lips and pinched the tip of his tongue – ‘your jib.’

Thus began a new set of explorations, in which he was soon revealed to be a complete novice, blundering about with all the aptitude of a luckerbaug. ‘Oh no, my dear, no! You are not chewing on a chichky, and nor are you angling for a cockup! Making a chutney dear, is not a blood-sport.’

Her caprices made him long to please her and the mixture of severity and tenderness with which she treated him was far more arousing to him than words of love would have been. On the night when his experiments in chartering finally succeeded in bringing on her shoke, his heart swelled with pride to hear her say: ‘It is a wonder to me, my dear mystery, how quickly you have mastered the gamahuche!’

Her teasing enchanted him, and if he was bewildered by her refusal to take him seriously, he was also captivated by it. He took it for granted that she possessed boundless experience in the amorous arts, and considered it fitting that he should be treated as a neophyte. Yet there was a certain innocence about her too, and sometimes, when she was exploring his body, she would betray an ingenuousness that startled him.

One night when she was toying with the ‘sleeping bawhawder’ and exclaiming over its docile charms, he grew impatient: ‘Oh come now, Mrs Burnham! You are a married woman and have given birth to a child. Surely this is not the first time you’ve handled a co—’

Her hand was on his mouth before he could say the word.

‘No dear, no,’ she said, ‘we will have none of those vulgarisms here. A woman may be bawdy with a woman, and a man with men, but never the one with the other.’

‘But why not?’ he demanded. ‘Why should we not use the words that others use? Why shouldn’t we speak of things by their accustomed names, as all people do?’

Her riposte was swift and unerring: ‘That is exactly why, my dear Mr Reid. Because all people do it, and we are not “all people”. We are you and I; no one is like us, and nor are we like them. Why should we borrow words from others when we can use our own?’

‘But that is unfair, Mrs Burnham,’ he protested. ‘I never was no word-pecker – How’m I to keep pace with you?’

‘Oh fiddlesticks!’ she said, illustrating the exclamation with her fingers. ‘And you a sailor! You should be ashamed to admit to a lack of words!’

‘Very well then, Mrs Burnham,’ he said, ‘I will put my question in ship-language. You are a married woman and have had your mate’s licence for many years. Surely you are not ignorant of the lay of a man’s mast and hatches?’

‘Oh please, Mr Reid!’ she cried with a laugh. ‘Do you imagine that respectable married people would be so wanton as to remove all their clothes and let their hands roam as do you and I? If so, you are much mistaken. I can assure you that for most wives and husbands, coupling is merely a matter of dropping the chitty in the dawk: it is done with a quick hoisting of nightgowns, and that too only when all the batties have been extinguished.’

‘But surely when you were first married …?’

‘No, Mr Reid, you are mistaken again,’ she said with a sigh. ‘Mine was not that kind of marriage: my union with Mr Burnham came about for many purposes, but pleasure was not among them. I was but eighteen and he was twenty years my senior: he wanted respectability and an entrée into circles that had been closed to him. My father was a brigadier-general in the Bengal Native Infantry, as I’ve told you, and it was in his power to open many doors. My dear papa, like many soldiers, was not provident in his ways and was always in debt. He and Mama had pinned their hopes on a brilliant marriage for me – and although a match with Mr Burnham was not quite that, he was a coming man, as they say, and already a Nabob. He offered my parents a very generous settlement.’

There was a confiding note in her voice that Zachary had not heard before; it was as if he were at last being admitted into a recess that was still deeper and more intimate than those he had already explored. Eager for more, he said: ‘Was there no feeling between you and Mr Burnham then? No attachment at all?’

She gave him one of her teasing smiles and tickled him under the chin, as though he were a child. ‘Really, Mr Reid, what are we to do with you?’ she said. ‘Don’t you know that a memsahib cannot allow mere feelings to get in the way of her career? Love is for harry-maids and dhobbins, not for women like us: that is what my mother taught me and it is what I shall teach my daughter. And it is not untrue, you know. One cannot live on love after all, and nor is mine an unhappy existence. Mr Burnham asks nothing of me except that I move in the right circles and run his house as a pucka Beebee should. Beyond that he leaves me to my own devices – so why should I do any less for him?’

‘So did you know all along then,’ Zachary persisted, ‘about what he was getting up to, with girls like Paulette?’

‘No!’ she said sharply. ‘I had my suspicions, but I did not inquire too closely, and if you want to know why I will tell you.’

‘Why?’

‘Because I too have not been the best of wives to him.’

He turned on his side and looked into her face with puzzled, questioning eyes: ‘What do you mean?’

‘Well, I’ll tell you if you must know,’ she said. ‘It goes back to the night of our wedding. When Mr Burnham came to my bed, I was seized by such dread that I fell into a dead faint. Nor was that the only time: I would fall into a swoon whenever he tried to embrace me. It happened so often that it was decided that I needed medical attention. I was taken to see the best English doctor in the city and he told me that I was suffering from a condition of frigidity brought on by hysteria and other nervous disorders. It took years of treatment before I was able to conceive – and suffice it to say that since that time Mr Burnham has come to accept that I am in some respects an invalid, and he has been, in his own way, kind about it. And I, for my part, have long assumed that he had his outlets, as men do – but I had never imagined that it was of the kind that Paulette described to you.’

‘So what did you think …?’

But her mood had already changed, and she cut him short, with a playful tightening of her fist. ‘You are an inquisitive little mystery today, aren’t you, Mr Reid? I confess I would rather answer to your sepoy than to you.’

The rebuff stung him: it was as if she had slammed a door on his face. He pulled himself abruptly free of her hands and reached for his breeches: ‘Well, you need answer to neither of us, Mrs Burnham – it is time for us to go, so we will bid you good night.’

On his way out, when she tried to push some money into his pocket, as she usually did, he brushed her hand brusquely aside. ‘No, madam,’ he said. ‘You insult me if you think that I would rather be paid in silver coin than a few honest words.’

Without waiting for an answer he ran down the stairs.

*

For several weeks, Shireen thought of little else but the journey that Zadig had proposed. Her desire to go was so strong that this was in itself a reason for doubting her motives. Was it in order to escape the house that she wanted to go? Was it out of a vulgar curiosity about her husband’s son? Or was it because of a desire to see Zadig again?

These queries milled about in her head, generating other doubts. Would her family’s objections be quite as insurmountable as she imagined? Or were the difficulties indeed primarily in her own mind, as Zadig Bey had said?

The only way to find out was to try.

One day in early December Vico came by. While talking to him Shireen suddenly came to a decision.

Vico, she said. I’ve made up my mind. I’m going to travel to China.

Really, Bibiji?

Vico made no attempt to disguise his scepticism: And what will your brothers say to that?

The question made her bristle. Look, Vico, she said, I am not a child. How can my brothers stop me from going if that’s what I want to do? There is nothing scandalous about a widow going to visit her husband’s grave. Besides, when I explain to them about recovering Bahram’s funds, they will understand – they may not approve, but they are people who understand the value of money.

And your daughters?

They will worry about my safety of course, said Shireen. But if I tell them that I’ll be travelling with a companion they’ll be reassured. It is true, isn’t it, that Rosa would like to go too?

Yes, Bibiji, but you would have to pay for her passage and her expenses. It will not be cheap.

I’ve thought of that, Vico. Wait.

Shireen went to her room, and returned with a jewellery box.

Vico, look – these are some pieces that I’d kept for myself. Do you think they would cover the costs of the journey?

Reaching into the box, Vico weighed a few of Shireen’s pendants and necklaces in the palm of his hand.

These will fetch a lot of money, Bibiji, he said. Certainly enough for your passage, and Rosa’s too. But think about it – do you really want to risk it all on this journey?

Yes, Vico, because it will be well worth it, if things turn out right.

Shireen could tell that Vico was still unconvinced, so she dropped the subject: Anyway, don’t talk about this yet, Vico. Let me work it out first.

Yes of course, Bibiji. It’s a big decision.

Shireen slept very little that night: all she could think about was how best to present her plan to her family.

It was clear to her that she would need her brothers’ consent, at the very least, if she was to travel to China: such was their position in Bombay’s social and commercial world that no reputable shipowner would grant her a passage if it came to be known that her brothers were against it. The only alternative was to steal off in secret and that was a path that she could not contemplate: if she was to go at all she would have to do it openly, but in such a way as to silence Bombay’s busybodies and bak-bak-walas. This would be no easy thing, she knew, for a great gale of disquiet was sure to sweep through the purdah-ed interiors of the city’s mansions when it was learnt that the Mestries’ widowed daughter was planning to travel to China, on her own.

After much thought Shireen decided that a scandal of some kind was probably inevitable – but if her family presented a united front it would be of no great consequence; they would be able to weather it. The matter might even be cast in an advantageous light, to show the world that the Mestries, who had been pioneers in industry, were in advance of their peers in other respects as well.

But how was she to bring around her daughters and brothers? How was she to get her way without causing a rupture in the family?

Shireen could see so many obstacles ahead that she took to reminding herself of one of her late father’s maxims: to scuttle a boat you don’t have to rip out the whole bottom; you just need to remove a few planks, one by one.

The most important planks in this boat, she decided, were her daughters. If only she could enlist their support then it would be much easier to persuade her brothers. Yet she knew also that no one would be harder to convince than her two girls; they would oppose her partly because of concerns about her safety, and partly because they had developed a great dread of scandal after their father’s bankruptcy.

Shireen was still wondering how to broach the subject when kismat presented her with an unforeseen opportunity. One night when her daughters and their husbands had come over for dinner the conversation veered of its own accord to China. One of her sons-in-law happened to mention that Bombay’s leading shipowners had held a secret meeting. It turned out then that her other son-in-law knew exactly what was afoot: Bombay’s wealthiest businessmen were vying with each other to provide support for the British expedition to China. Lakhs of rupees had been pledged, at very advantageous terms, and many shipowners had offered their best vessels to the colonial government to use as troop-transports. It was understood of course that those who were most supportive of the British effort would be the first to be compensated when reparations for the confiscated opium were extracted from the Chinese goverment.

Although Shireen added nothing to the conversation, she made sure that her daughters stopped fussing with their children and listened to what the men were saying. Later, when she was alone with the two girls, she said: Did you hear what your husbands were talking about at dinner?

The girls nodded desultorily: Wasn’t it something about getting compensation, in China?

Yes, said Shireen. Vico tells me that if compensation is paid, our share of it could be as much as two lakh Spanish dollars.

The figure made them start, and Shireen waited a couple of minutes to let it soak in. Then she added: But Vico says that we aren’t likely to receive anything at all unless …

Unless?

Shireen took a deep breath and blurted it out: Unless I go to China myself!

The girls gasped. You? Why you?

Kain ke, said Shireen, because a lot of the money that went into your father’s last shipment of opium was mine, it came from my inheritance. But if I’m to prove this to the authorities I’ll have to go there myself. Vico says that Captain Elliot knew your father; he says that if I go there and petition him directly he will be sympathetic – and your father’s friends from the Canton Chamber of Commerce will support me too.

But why do you have to be there in person? Won’t the money be paid to us anyway?

No, said Shireen. We can’t count on that.

She explained that the money she had given Bahram was considered joint property, and was therefore regarded as a part of his estate. In the normal course of things the estate would be the last to be compensated. But if Shireen were to be personally present when reparations were paid, then Bahram’s friends in the Chamber of Commerce would make sure that she was treated like any other investor; she might even be the first to be compensated.

The girls chewed their lips as they thought this over. A good few minutes passed before they started to voice other objections.

But to go there and back could take a year or more, couldn’t it?

Ne ahenu bhav su? What about the cost?

Shireen went to her wardrobe and unlocked the iron safe in which she kept her jewellery.

Look, she said to the girls, I still have some of my sun-nu – the gold ornaments I received at my wedding. I had kept them for the two of you – but it would be much better, wouldn’t it, if I sold them now and spent the money on the journey? That way they’ll bring back ten times as much.

The girls exchanged glances and chewed their knuckles.

But what will people say …?

A woman of your age … a widow … travelling alone?

Shireen heard them out quietly, lowering her eyes. When they had finished she said: It’s not just the money, you know: I would also like to visit your father’s grave before I die. If we tell people that, who could possibly object?

Having planted the thought, she left it to germinate, making no further mention of the matter that evening.

A few days later Vico came by to say that he had received a letter from Zadig Bey: he had now completed his arrangements for travelling to China – he would be sailing on a ship called the Hind, which was owned by Mr Benjamin Burnham.

Mr Burnham? said Shireen. Isn’t he the one who bought our ship, the Anahita?

Exactly, Bibiji, said Vico. Mr Burnham was also your husband’s colleague on the Select Committee in Canton. Zadig Bey is sure that Mr Burnham would provide a fine cabin for you, on very advantageous terms, if he knew of the circumstances. Zadig Bey will arrange everything – all he needs is a word from you.

Having already told Vico that she had decided to go, Shireen could not back down now. All right, Vico, she said. You can write to Zadig Bey. I met the Burnhams once when they were visiting Bombay – I think they will remember me. Please tell Zadig Bey to go ahead with the arrangements. Somehow or the other I will get my family to agree.

Once they had been uttered, these brave words deepened her resolve: she knew that there was still a long way to go, but the obstacles seemed a little less insurmountable now than they had before. What was more, the mere fact of having a purpose to work towards energized her as nothing had done in many years. The very textures and colours of the world around her seemed to change and things that had been of little concern to her before – like business, finance and politics – suddenly seemed to be of absorbing interest.

It was as if a gale had parted the purdahs that curtained her world, blowing away many decades’ worth of dust and cobwebs.

December 16, 1839

Honam

This morning, when I arrived at the print-shop Compton greeted me with a broad smile: Naah Ah Neel! Listen – you’re coming to a meeting with the Yum-chai!

At first I thought it was a joke. Gaai choi, I said. You’re giving me a pile of ‘mustard cabbage’.

He laughed: Leih jaan – seriously: you’re going to see Commissioner Lin today. Faai di laa – come on! Hurry!

It turned out that I owed this opportunity to the Sunda, a British vessel that recently foundered off the coast of Hainan. There were fifteen survivors, including a boy. Most of them are British subjects and on Commissioner Lin’s orders they have been treated very well. An official escort transported them from Hainan to Guangzhou and since their arrival here they have been accommodated in the American Factory. They are soon to begin their journey back to England.

Commissioner Lin had asked to meet with the survivors a couple of days ago. Accordingly a meeting was arranged, at a temple within the precincts of the walled city. On Zhong Lou-si’s special request I had been granted permission to attend!

If anyone had said to me when I woke up this morning that I would soon be stepping into the walled city I would not have believed them: foreigners are almost never allowed in and I had long despaired of getting past the gates. Nor for that matter had I ever been in the Commissioner’s presence – I had only ever set eyes on kim from afar. The prospect of a close darshan made my head spin.

Compton and I went together to the south-western gate of the walled city where we found a sizeable company already assembled. Among the foreigners there were a dozen or so survivors from the Sunda and also several American merchants, including Mr Delano and Mr Coolidge. Among the Chinese there were a half-dozen mandarins and also a few Co-Hong merchants.

For me the most interesting members of the assembly were Commissioner Lin’s personal translators: I had heard a great deal about them from Compton, but had never met them, because they live and work within the walled city.

The most distinguished of the translators is Yuan Dehui: a quiet, affable man, he has studied at the Anglo-Chinese College at Malacca and has spent several years in England. He now occupies a senior post in Beijing and is in Guangzhou at the Commissioner’s express request. Then there is Lieaou Ah See, a studious-looking man whose ‘English’ name is William Botelho: he is one of the first Chinese to be educated in America, having attended schools in Connecticut and Philadelphia. Another member of the group is a youth barely out of his teens, Liang Jinde, the son of an early Protestant convert. Lastly there is Ya Meng, the son of a Chinese father and a Bengali mother: stooped and elderly, he has spent many years at the Mission College in Serampore, near Calcutta.

Ya Meng still speaks a little Bangla and there is much that I would have liked to ask him. But barely had we exchanged a few pleasantries before gongs and drums began to sound, to signal the opening of the city gates. They swung apart to reveal a broad, straight avenue, lined with soldiers: a series of arches, spaced at regular intervals, rose over the thoroughfare. The houses on either side were of two or three storeys, with green-tiled roofs and upturned eaves: their windows were filled with the faces of curious onlookers.

Much to my disappointment the walk was a short one, allowing barely a glimpse of the walled city: the temple where the meeting was to be held was just three hundred yards from the gate. The entrance to the complex was blocked off by soldiers, but a large and noisy crowd could be seen behind the ranks, jostling for a glimpse of the foreigners.

The venue of the meeting was at the rear of the temple complex. After crossing several courtyards we found ourselves in a large hall that looked like a library, being packed with books and scrolls. At the far end was a raised alcove where chairs had been placed for the Commissioner and a couple of other top officials.

The Commissioner’s arrival was heralded by gongs. Everyone in the hall knelt when he entered – all but the foreign merchants who bowed but did not kneel. The Commissioner is stocky in build and was dressed rather plainly in comparison with the members of his entourage. He is of middle age, vigorous in his movements, with a brisk, unceremonious manner. His voice is pleasant and his face good-humoured, with bright, sharp eyes and a wispy beard.

All in all, I have to say that my darshan of the Commissioner was strangely anti-climactic. I’d heard so much about him that I’d imagined that he would be somehow out of the ordinary. But of all the mandarins present he was perhaps the least exceptional, at least in appearance. Where other high officials go to great lengths to create an impression of splendour and pomp, he seems to exert himself in the other direction: this perhaps is the most extraordinary thing about him. His manner is almost grandfatherly – he even patted the English boy on his head and talked to him for several minutes.

Unfortunately the rest of the proceedings offered little of interest. It appears that Commissioner Lin had sought the meeting because he wanted to persuade the Englishmen of the justice of his cause. To this end he had brought along several books and pamphlets on the subject of opium and the harm it is doing to China (some of these had been brought to his attention by none other than Compton and myself). On the Commissioner’s instructions a passage was read out from a European treatise on international law to show that the banning of the opium trade was perfectly compatible with universally recognized legal principles.

The Englishmen listened politely but seemed puzz led that the Commissioner should appeal to them: after all it is not as if they are the kind of men who have their hands on the helm of Empire.

Compton too thought that the meeting was nothing but a waste of time.

Later, when we were back in the print-shop, Compton said that the Yum-chai’s chief failing is that he places too much faith in reason. He thinks that if only ordinary Englishmen could grasp the reasoning behind his policy there would be no dispute. In his heart he doesn’t believe that any sensible group of men would want to go to war for something like opium. This is why he wanted to meet the se survivors: he now thinks that his best hopes lie in reaching out to ordinary Englishmen. He has lost faith in Captain Elliot and other British officials, he thinks they are corrupt, self-seeking officials who are deceiving the people they are meant to serve.

I suspect he believes that ordinary Englishmen, like the survivors of the wreck of the Sunda, can petition their government, as people do in China. He doesn’t understand that it isn’t the same in England; these men cannot petition their government or do anything to affect official policy.

I suppose everyone finds the despotisms of other peoples hard to comprehend.

Only after his abrupt departure from Mrs Burnham’s boudoir did Zachary realize that they had not settled on a date for their next meeting. He cursed himself, not only for leaving so precipitously, but also because he could not understand why the thought of being banished from her boudoir should fill him with panic. He knew, after all, that this connection – whatever it was – would have to end soon. Yet he was powerless to silence the part of him that kept crying out: ‘Not yet, not yet!’

Fortunately he did not have long to wait: within a few days a message arrived, hidden inside another weighty tome.

When he next appeared at the door of Mrs Burnham’s goozle-connuh it was clear from the ardour of her greeting that she too was regretful that they had parted on an acrimonious note.

‘My dear, dear Mr Reid,’ she said, wrapping her arms around him. ‘I am so glad you came – I thought you might not.’

‘Why?’

‘Because I think I may have mis-spoken when I saw you last. I’ve always been a dreadful buck-buck-wallee you know. My tongue has a way of running away with me – a flying jib, Mr Doughty calls it – and you must make allowance for it. Am I forgiven? Tell me, am I?’

He smiled. ‘Yes, my dear Beebee – you are.’

‘Thank you!’ She pressed her hips against his and gave a cry of delight. ‘Oh, and better still, I see that our sepoy too is full of forgiveness – and I warrant that he shall rise to even greater heights of bawhawdery when he sees the present I have bought him.’

She helped Zachary peel off his clothes and led him to the bed, which was covered with towels. When he was lying on his back, with his head propped up against a bank of pillows, she turned to her bedside table and picked up a small bowl. Placing it on his chest, she said: ‘Careful now, Mr Reid – you mustn’t move or there’ll be a dreadful spill.’

Zachary saw that the bowl was half-filled with perfumed oil, amber in colour. Submerged in the oil was something that looked like a child’s stocking, except that it was made not of cloth but of a transparent material, and was fitted with a ribbon of red silk at the open end. The ribbon had been artfully arranged to hang over the lip of the bowl so that it hung free of the oil.

Now, pinching the ribbon between her fingertips, Mrs Burnham lifted the sock out of the bowl and held it up so that the oil dripped off the tapered end in a thin trickle, pooling between the ridges of Zachary’s abdomen.

‘Do you know what this is, Mr Reid?’

His eyes widened. ‘Is it …? Could it be …? A French letter?’

She boxed his ear playfully. ‘Oh you are too coarse, Mr Reid! Let us call it a capote – a topcoat for our brave sepoy, so that he shall never again have to suffer the ignominy of shooting his goolies into the air.’

She stooped to give Zachary a long, slow kiss. ‘I know how hard it has been for you, my dear, to so often deny yourself a proper spending. Your sacrifice has weighed heavily on me, and you cannot imagine how glad I am that you will not have to do it again.’

Zachary was touched, as much by the tenderness in her voice as by her gesture. ‘That is thoughtful of you, Mrs Burnham. Was the capote hard to get?’

‘Exceedingly, because I had to be so very discreet. Suffice it to say that on Free School Street there lives an Armenian midwife who is now considerably the richer.’

‘It was expensive then?’

‘Capotes are only a shilling apiece in England but here they cost twice as much – a whole rupee for one. And I got a few dozen of them so that they will last us awhile yet. Have you ever used one before?’

He shook his head. ‘Mere mysteries cannot afford such luxuries, Mrs Burnham,’ he said. ‘I’ve heard of them of course, but I’d never seen one till now.’

‘Nor have I any experience of them,’ she said, ‘but I will do my best to fit it correctly – you can help by lying on your back and holding your sepoy at attention.’

Crawling across the bed, she climbed over his leg and positioned herself between his thighs.

‘I am told that capotes are made from lambs’ intestines,’ she said, as she dipped her fingers into the bowl. ‘Is it not diverting, Mr Reid, to think that the animal that fills our bellies with mutton-gosht at dinner can also offer us this other service at night?’

She held up the length of intestine and slowly pried its lips apart, dribbling a thin trickle of oil down his stomach and groin. Then followed a few minutes of fumbling as she tried to slip the sock into place.

‘It is a slippery business, Mr Reid, and our sepoy is making it no easier with all his twitching and quivering. Can he not be made to understand that this is no time to practise a bayonet drill?’

Her face had sunk deep between his legs now, and he could see only her brow. A frown appeared on it as she concentrated on the ribbon: ‘Oh I have made a mess of it and must use my teeth to undo the knot. Hold still, Mr Reid, do not move!’

He was aware of the nipping of her teeth and the puffing of her breath: it blew on him like a warm breeze gusting against a flagpole. Throwing his head back he groaned: ‘Oh Mrs Burnham, please be done, or I shall be fetched and finished.’

‘On no account! Hold your fire!’

He felt the flight of her fingertips again, and then she gave a little squeal of delight: ‘Oh Mr Reid! I wish you could see the pretty little bow I have tied for you! I am tempted to fetch you a looking-glass so that you may admire it.’

‘No! Please – enough!’

‘Well, I assure you, my dear mystery, there is not a bonnet in the world that sports a better-tied ribbon: the bow sits upon your goolie-pouch like a wreath below a mast! The Queen herself has never had a finer flag hoisted in her honour.’

He was now at the end of his ratline: removing the bowl from his belly, he took hold of her arms and pulled her upon him. ‘And you, Mrs Burnham, have earned yourself a royal gun-salute!’

She laughed and kissed him on the tip of his nose: ‘You see, Mr Reid – you are not as poor in invention as you would have us believe.’

Afterwards, when the ribbon, now sodden, had been undone and the freshly filled intestine was back in the bowl, he said: ‘You are so expert in these arts, Mrs Burnham – I cannot but wonder how often you have done this before.’

She raised her head from the pillow and frowned at him. ‘But never!’ she cried. ‘I have never done this before, Mr Reid.’

‘But there have been others before me, have there not, Mrs Burnham? Lovers with whom you’ve deceived your husband?’

She shook her head vigorously. ‘No; never! I swear to you, Mr Reid, before you entered this boudoir, I had never been unfaithful, never foozled my husband. I was, in my own way, a virtuous wife.’

‘But you have told me yourself, Mrs Burnham, that you hardly ever share a bed with him. And I have seen for myself how ardent you are. Surely you have had your … wants?’

She smiled and raised her eyebrows. ‘What have “wants” to do with husbands and faithfulness, my dear?’ she said. ‘A mem has no want that cannot be satisfied by a long bath, in which she is waited on by maids and cushy girls – or even another memsahib. You may take my word for it, Mr Reid, mems are never happier than when the sahibs are away – which is just as well since they are always gone anyway, on their endless campaigns and voyages.’

Zachary’s mouth fell open, in disbelief. ‘You cannot mean it! Do you mean that your cushy girls give you shokes in your bath? Does Mr Burnham know?’

‘Well it is certainly no secret, my dear: intimate massages, by a nurse, was the cure that was prescribed for my hysteria, by the doctor. It is the standard remedy for the disease, you know, so I have always had to employ a maid or two to administer it. Mr Burnham is well aware of that and he does not disapprove – how can he, when a doctor has prescribed it? It may even be a source of satisfaction to him that he does not have to concern himself about my fidelity. And indeed, until a certain mystery entered my life I had never felt the slightest inclination to stray with any man – and it is amazing to me now, my dear, to think that when you first arrived here, I saw you as a rival, rather than a lover.’

‘You’ve lost me, Mrs Burnham – a rival for what?’

She smiled impishly and scratched him on the chin. ‘Well, my dear, you should know that the reason I was so peevish with you, when you first came here, was that I held you responsible for confounding my plans for Paulette. If not for you, I thought, she would have taken my advice and married Mr Kendalbushe, after which she and I would have been able to share many a happy goozle. I blamed you for dashing my hopes and was utterly resolved to punish you for your loochering; but such is kismet that it is you who are here now, and one day, when you leave me and run off with Paulette, I do not know who I shall be more jealous of – you or her.’

This strange notion cast Zachary’s head into a whirl: as so often with Mrs Burnham, he had the sense that he was floundering in waters that were far deeper and more turbulent than any he had ever been in before. Yet, strangely, instead of cutting him adrift it made him want her all the more.

She was perfectly well aware of this and gave a little laugh. ‘Ah, I see that our sepoy has heard the reveille and is ready to present arms again – although it is but a few minutes since he retired from the fray.’

He smiled grudgingly: ‘One thing I’ll say for you, Mrs Burnham – you sure know how to rattle a fellow’s rigging.’

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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