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CHAPTER V
 The Bridge Party was not a success—at least it was not what Mrs. Moore and Miss Quested were accustomed to consider a successful party. They arrived early, since it was given in their honour, but most of the Indian guests had arrived even earlier, and stood massed at the farther side of the tennis lawns, doing nothing.
“It is only just five,” said Mrs. Turton. “My husband will be up from his office in a moment and start the thing. I have no idea what we have to do. It’s the first time we’ve ever given a party like this at the club. Mr. Heaslop, when I’m dead and gone will you give parties like this? It’s enough to make the old type of Burra Sahib turn in his grave.”
Ronny laughed deferentially. “You wanted something not picturesque and we’ve provided it,” he remarked to Miss Quested. “What do you think of the Aryan Brother in a topi and spats?”
Neither she nor his mother answered. They were gazing rather sadly over the tennis lawn. No, it was not picturesque; the East, abandoning its secular magnificence, was descending into a valley whose farther side no man can see.
“The great point to remember is that no one who’s here matters; those who matter don’t come. Isn’t that so, Mrs. Turton?”
“Absolutely true,” said the great lady, leaning back. She was “saving herself up,” as she called it—not for anything that would happen that afternoon or even that week, but for some vague future occasion when a high official might come along and tax her social strength. Most of her public appearances were marked by this air of reserve.
Assured of her approbation, Ronny continued: “The educated Indians will be no good to us if there’s a row, it’s simply not worth while conciliating them, that’s why they don’t matter. Most of the people you see are seditious at heart, and the rest ’ld run squealing. The cultivator—he’s another story. The Pathan—he’s a man if you like. But these people—don’t imagine they’re India.” He pointed to the dusky line beyond the court, and here and there it flashed a pince-nez or shuffled a shoe, as if aware that he was despising it. European costume had lighted like a leprosy. Few had yielded entirely, but none were untouched. There was a silence when he had finished speaking, on both sides of the court; at least, more ladies joined the English group, but their words seemed to die as soon as uttered. Some kites hovered overhead, impartial, over the kites passed the mass of a vulture, and with an impartiality exceeding all, the sky, not deeply coloured but translucent, poured light from its whole circumference. It seemed unlikely that the series stopped here. Beyond the sky must not there be something that overarches all the skies, more impartial even than they? Beyond which again . . .
They spoke of Cousin Kate.
They had tried to reproduce their own attitude to life upon the stage, and to dress up as the middle-class English people they actually were. Next year they would do Quality Street or The Yeomen of the Guard. Save for this annual incursion, they left literature alone. The men had no time for it, the women did nothing that they could not share with the men. Their ignorance of the Arts was notable, and they lost no opportunity of proclaiming it to one another; it was the Public School attitude, flourishing more vigorously than it can yet hope to do in England. If Indians were shop, the Arts were bad form, and Ronny had repressed his mother when she enquired after his viola; a viola was almost a demerit, and certainly not the sort of instrument one mentioned in public. She noticed now how tolerant and conventional his judgments had become; when they had seen Cousin Kate in London together in the past, he had scorned it; now he pretended that it was a good play, in order to hurt nobody’s feelings. An “unkind notice” had appeared in the local paper, “the sort of thing no white man could have written,” as Mrs. Lesley said. The play was praised, to be sure, and so were the stage management and the performance as a whole, but the notice contained the following sentence: “Miss Derek, though she charmingly looked her part, lacked the necessary experience, and occasionally forgot her words.” This tiny breath of genuine criticism had given deep offence, not indeed to Miss Derek, who was as hard as nails, but to her friends. Miss Derek did not belong to Chandrapore. She was stopping for a fortnight with the McBrydes, the police people, and she had been so good as to fill up a gap in the cast at the last moment. A nice impression of local hospitality she would carry away with her.
“To work, Mary, to work,” cried the Collector, touching his wife on the shoulder with a switch.
Mrs. Turton got up awkwardly. “What do you want me to do? Oh, those purdah women! I never thought any would come. Oh dear!”
A little group of Indian ladies had been gathering in a third quarter of the grounds, near a rustic summer-house in which the more timid of them had already taken refuge. The rest stood with their backs to the company and their faces pressed into a bank of shrubs. At a little distance stood their male relatives, watching the venture. The sight was significant: an island bared by the turning tide, and bound to grow.
“I consider they ought to come over to me.”
“Come along, Mary, get it over.”
“I refuse to shake hands with any of the men, unless it has to be the Nawab Bahadur.”
“Whom have we so far?” He glanced along the line. “H’m! h’m! much as one expected. We know why he’s here, I think—over that contract, and he wants to get the right side of me for Mohurram, and he’s the astrologer who wants to dodge the municipal building regulations, and he’s that Parsi, and he’s—Hullo! there he goes—smash into our hollyhocks. Pulled the left rein when he meant the right. All as usual.”
“They ought never to have been allowed to drive in; it’s so bad for them,” said Mrs. Turton, who had at last begun her progress to the summer-house, accompanied by Mrs. Moore, Miss Quested, and a terrier. “Why they come at all I don’t know. They hate it as much as we do. Talk to Mrs. McBryde. Her husband made her give purdah parties until she struck.”
“This isn’t a purdah party,” corrected Miss Quested.
“Oh, really,” was the haughty rejoinder.
“Do kindly tell us who these ladies are,” asked Mrs. Moore.
“You’re superior to them, anyway. Don’t forget that. You’re superior to everyone in India except one or two of the Ranis, and they’re on an equality.”
Advancing, she shook hands with the group and said a few words of welcome in Urdu. She had learnt the lingo, but only to speak to her servants, so she knew none of the politer forms and of the verbs only the imperative mood. As soon as her speech was over, she enquired of her companions, “Is that what you wanted?”
“Please tell these ladies that I wish we could speak their language, but we have only just come to their country.”
“Perhaps we speak yours a little,” one of the ladies said.
“Why, fancy, she understands!” said Mrs. Turton.
“Eastbourne, Piccadilly, High Park Corner,” said another of the ladies.
“Oh yes, they’re English-speaking.”
“But now we can talk: how delightful!” cried Adela, her face lighting up.
“She knows Paris also,” called one of the onlookers.
“They pass Paris on the way, no doubt,” said Mrs. Turton, as if she was describing the movements of migratory birds. Her manner had grown more distant since she had discovered that some of the group was Westernized, and might apply her own standards to her.
“The shorter lady, she is my wife, she is Mrs. Bhattacharya,” the onlooker explained. “The taller lady, she is my sister, she is Mrs. Das.”
The shorter and the taller ladies both adjusted their saris, and smiled. There was a curious uncertainty about their gestures, as if they sought for a new formula which neither East nor West could provide. When Mrs. Bhattacharya’s husband spoke, she turned away from him, but she did not mind seeing the other men. Indeed all the ladies were uncertain, cowering, recovering, giggling, making tiny gestures of atonement or despair at all that was said, and alternately fondling the terrier or shrinking from him. Miss Quested now had her desired opportunity; friendly Indians were before her, and she tried to make them talk, but she failed, she strove in vain against the echoing walls of their civility. Whatever she said produced a murmur of deprecation, varying into a murmur of concern when she dropped her pocket-handkerchief. She tried doing nothing, to see what that produced, and they too did nothing. Mrs. Moore was equally unsuccessful. Mrs. Turton waited for them with a detached expression; she had known what nonsense it all was from the first.
When they took their leave, Mrs. Moore had an impulse, and said to Mrs. Bhattacharya, whose face she liked, “I wonder whether you would allow us to call on you some day.”
“When?” she replied, inclining charmingly.
“Whenever is convenient.”
“All days are convenient.”
“Thursday . . .”
“Most certainly.”
“We shall enjoy it greatly, it would be a real pleasure. What about the time?”
“All hours.”
“Tell us which you would prefer. We’re quite strangers to your country; we don’t know when you have visitors,” said Miss Quested.
Mrs. Bhattacharya seemed not to know either. Her gesture implied that she had known, since Thursdays began, that English ladies would come to see her on one of them, and so always stayed in. Everything pleased her, nothing surprised. She added, “We leave for Calcutta to-day.”
“Oh, do you?” said Adela, not at first seeing the implication. Then she cried, “Oh, but if you do we shall find you gone.”
Mrs. Bhattacharya did not dispute it. But her husband called from the distance, “Yes, yes, you come to us Thursday.”
“But you’ll be in Calcutta.”
“No, no, we shall not.” He said something swiftly to his wife in Bengali. “We expect you Thursday.”
“Thursday . . .” the woman echoed.
“You can’t have done such a dreadful thing as to put off going for our sake?” exclaimed Mrs. Moore.
“No, of course not, we are not such people.” He was laughing.
“I believe that you have. Oh, please—it distresses me beyond words.”
Everyone was laughing now, but with no suggestion that they had blundered. A shapeless discussion occurred, during which Mrs. Turton retired, smiling to herself. The upshot was that they were to come Thursday, but early in the morning, so as to wreck the Bhattacharya plans as little as possible, and Mr. Bhattacharya would send his carriage to fetch them, with servants to point out the way. Did he know where they lived? Yes, of course he knew, he knew everything; and he laughed again. They left among a flutter of compliments and smiles, and three ladies, who had hitherto taken no part in the reception, suddenly shot out of the summer-house like exquisitely coloured swallows, and salaamed them.
Meanwhile the Collector had been going his rounds. He made pleasant remarks and a few jokes, which were applauded lustily, but he knew something to the discredit of nearly every one of his guests, and was consequently perfunctory. When they had not cheated, it was bhang, women, or worse, and even the desirables wanted to get something out of him. He believed that a “Bridge Party” did good rather than harm, or he would not have given one, but he was under no illusions, and at the proper moment he retired to the English side of the lawn. The impressions he left behind him were various. Many of the guests, especially the humbler and less anglicized, were genuinely grateful. To be addressed by so high an official was a permanent asset. They did not mind how long they stood, or how little happened, and when seven o’clock struck, they had to be turned out. Others were grateful with more intelligence. The Nawab Bahadur, indifferent for himself and for the distinction with which he was greeted, was moved by the mere kindness that must have prompted the invitation. He knew the difficulties. Hamidullah also thought that the Collector had played up well. But others, such as Mahmoud Ali, were cynical; they were firmly convinced that Turton had been made to give the party by his official superiors and was all the time consumed with impotent rage, and they infected some who were inclined to a healthier view. Yet even Mahmoud Ali was glad he had come. Shrines are fascinating, especially when rarely opened, and it amused him to note the ritual of the English club, and to caricature it afterwards to his friends.
After Mr. Turton, the official who did his duty best was Mr. Fielding, the Principal of the little Government College. He knew little of the district and less against the inhabitants, so he was in a less cynical state of mind. Athletic and cheerful, he romped about, making numerous mistakes which the parents of his pupils tried to cover up, for he was popular among them. When the moment for refreshments came, he did not move back to the English side, but burnt his mouth with gram. He talked to anyone and he ate anything. Amid much that was alien, he learnt that the two new ladies from England had been a great success, and that their politeness in wishing to be Mrs. Bhattacharya’s guests had pleased not only her but all Indians who heard of it. It pleased Mr. Fielding also. He scarcely knew the two new ladies, still he decided to tell them what pleasure they had given by their friendliness.
He found the younger of them alone. She was looking through a nick in the cactus hedge at the distant Marabar Hills, which had crept near, as was their custom at sunset; if the sunset had lasted long enough, they would have reached the town, but it was swift, being tropical. He gave her his information, and she was so much pleased and thanked him so heartily that he asked her and the other lady to tea.
“I’ld like to come very much indeed, and so would Mrs. Moore, I know.”
“I’m rather a hermit, you know.”
“Much the best thing to be in this place.”
“Owing to my work and so on, I don’t get up much to the club.”
“I know, I know, and we never get down from it. I envy you being with Indians.”
“Do you care to meet one or two?”
“Very, very much indeed; it’s what I long for. This party to-day makes me so angry and miserable. I think my countrymen out here must be mad. Fancy inviting guests and not treating them properly! You and Mr. Turton and perhaps Mr. McBryde are the only people who showed any common politeness. The rest make me perfectly ashamed, and it’s got worse and worse.”
It had. The Englishmen had intended to play up better, but had been prevented from doing so by their women folk, whom they had to attend, provide with tea, advise about dogs, etc. When tennis began, the barrier grew impenetrable. It had been hoped to have some sets between East and West, but this was forgotten, and the courts were monopolized by the usual club couples. Fielding resented it too, but did not say so to the girl, for he found something theoretical in her outburst. Did she care about Indian music? he enquired; there was an old professor down at the College, who sang.
“Oh, just what we wanted to hear. And do you know Doctor Aziz?”
“I know all about him. I don’t know him. Would you like him asked too?”
“Mrs. Moore says he is so nice.”
“Very well, Miss Quested. Will Thursday suit you?”
“Indeed it will, and that morning we go to this Indian lady’s. All the nice things are coming Thursday.”
“I won’t ask the City Magistrate to bring you. I know he’ll be busy at that time.”
“Yes, Ronny is always hard-worked,” she replied, contemplating the hills. How lovely they suddenly were! But she couldn’t touch them. In front, like a shutter, fell a vision of her married life. She and Ronny would look into the club like this every evening, then drive home to dress; they would see the Lesleys and the Callendars and the Turtons and the Burtons, and invite them and be invited by them, while the true India slid by unnoticed. Colour would remain—the pageant of birds in the early morning, brown bodies, white turbans, idols whose flesh was scarlet or blue—and movement would remain as long as there were crowds in the bazaar and bathers in the tanks. Perched up on the seat of a dogcart, she would see them. But the force that lies behind colour and movement would escape her even more effectually than it did now. She would see India always as a frieze, never as a spirit, and she assumed that it was a spirit of which Mrs. Moore had had a glimpse.
And sure enough they did drive away from the club in a few minutes, and they did dress, and to dinner came Miss Derek and the McBrydes, and the menu was: Julienne soup full of bullety bottled peas, pseudo-cottage bread, fish full of branching bones, pretending to be plaice, more bottled peas with the cutlets, trifle, sardines on toast: the menu of Anglo-India. A dish might be added or subtracted as one rose or fell in the official scale, the peas might rattle less or more, the sardines and the vermouth be imported by a different firm, but the tradition remained; the food of exiles, cooked by servants who did not understand it. Adela thought of the young men and women who had come out before her, P. & O. full after P. & O. full, and had been set down to the same food and the same ideas, and been snubbed in the same good-humoured way until they kept to the accredited themes and began to snub others. “I should never get like that,” she thought, for she was young herself; all the same she knew that she had come up against something that was both insidious and tough, and against which she needed allies. She must gather around her at Chandrapore a few people who felt as she did, and she was glad to have met Mr. Fielding and the Indian lady with the unpronounceable name. Here at all events was a nucleus; she should know much better where she stood in the course of the next two days.
Miss Derek—she companioned a Maharani in a remote Native State. She was genial and gay and made them all laugh about her leave, which she had taken because she felt she deserved it, not because the Maharani said she might go. Now she wanted to take the Maharajah’s motor-car as well; it had gone to a Chiefs’ Conference at Delhi, and she had a great scheme for burgling it at the junction as it came back in the train. She was also very funny about the Bridge Party—indeed she regarded the entire peninsula as a comic opera. “If one couldn’t see the laughable side of these people one ’ld be done for,” said Miss Derek. Mrs. McBryde—it was she who had been the nurse—ceased not to exclaim, “Oh, Nancy, how topping! Oh, Nancy, how killing! I wish I could look at things like that.” Mr. McBryde did not speak much; he seemed nice.
When the guests had gone, and Adela gone to bed, there was another interview between mother and son. He wanted her advice and support—while resenting interference. “Does Adela talk to you much?” he began. “I’m so driven with work, I don’t see her as much as I hoped, but I hope she finds things comfortable.”
“Adela and I talk mostly about India. Dear, since you mention it, you’re quite right—you ought to be more alone with her than you are.”
“Yes, perhaps, but then people’ld gossip.”
“Well, they must gossip sometime! Let them gossip.”
“People are so odd out here, and it’s not like home—one’s always facing the footlights, as the Burra Sahib said. Take a silly little example: when Adela went out to the boundary of the club compound, and Fielding followed her. I saw Mrs. Callendar notice it. They notice everything, until they’re perfectly sure you’re their sort.”
“I don’t think Adela ’ll ever be quite their sort—she’s much too individual.”
“I know, that’s so remarkable about her,” he said thoughtfully. Mrs. Moore thought him rather absurd. Accustomed to the privacy of London, she could not realize that India, seemingly so mysterious, contains none, and that consequently the conventions have greater force. “I suppose nothing’s on her mind,” he continued.
“Ask her, ask her yourself, my dear boy.”
“Probably she’s heard tales of the heat, but of course I should pack her off to the Hills every April—I’m not one to keep a wife grilling in the Plains.”
“Oh, it wouldn’t be the weather.”
“There’s nothing in India but the weather, my dear mother; it’s the Alpha and Omega of the whole affair.”
“Yes, as Mr. McBryde was saying, but it’s much more the Anglo-Indians themselves who are likely to get on Adela’s nerves. She doesn’t think they behave pleasantly to Indians, you see.”
“What did I tell you?” he exclaimed, losing his gentle manner. “I knew it last week. Oh, how like a woman to worry over a side-issue!”
She forgot about Adela in her surprise. “A side-issue, a side-issue?” she repeated. “How can it be that?”
“We’re not out here for the purpose of behaving pleasantly!”
“What do you mean?”
“What I say. We’re out here to do justice and keep the peace. Them’s my sentiments. India isn’t a drawing-room.”
“Your sentiments are those of a god,” she said quietly, but it was his manner rather than his sentiments that annoyed her.
Trying to recover his temper, he said, “India likes gods.”
“And Englishmen like posing as gods.”
“There’s no point in all this. Here we are, and we’re going to stop, and the country’s got to put up with us, gods or no gods. Oh, look here,” he broke out, rather pathetically, “what do you and Adela want me to do? Go against my class, against all the people I respect and admire out here? Lose such power as I have for doing good in this country because my behaviour isn’t pleasant? You neither of you understand what work is, or you ’ld never talk such eyewash. I hate talking like this, but one must occasionally. It’s morbidly sensitive to go on as Adela and you do. I noticed you both at the club to-day—after the Burra Sahib had been at all that trouble to amuse you. I am out here to work, mind, to hold this wretched country by force. I’m not a missionary or a Labour Member or a vague sentimental sympathetic literary man. I’m just a servant of the Government; it’s the profession you wanted me to choose myself, and that’s that. We’re not pleasant in India, and we don’t intend to be pleasant. We’ve something more important to do.”
He spoke sincerely. Every day he worked hard in the court trying to decide which of two untrue accounts was the less untrue, trying to dispense justice fearlessly, to protect the weak against the less weak, the incoherent against the plausible, surrounded by lies and flattery. That morning he had convicted a railway clerk of overcharging pilgrims for their tickets, and a Pathan of attempted rape. He expected no gratitude, no recognition for this, and both clerk and Pathan might appeal, bribe their witnesses more effectually in the interval, and get their sentences reversed. It was his duty. But he did expect sympathy from his own people, and except from new-comers he obtained it. He did think he ought not to be worried about “Bridge Parties” when the day’s work was over and he wanted to play tennis with his equals or rest his legs upon a long chair.
He spoke sincerely, but she could have wished with less gusto. How Ronny revelled in the drawbacks of his situation! How he did rub it in that he was not in India to behave pleasantly, and derived positive satisfaction therefrom! He reminded her of his public-schooldays. The traces of young-man humanitarianism had sloughed off, and he talked like an intelligent and embittered boy. His words without his voice might have impressed her, but when she heard the self-satisfied lilt of them, when she saw the mouth moving so complacently and competently beneath the little red nose, she felt, quite illogically, that this was not the last word on India. One touch of regret—not the canny substitute but the true regret from the heart—would have made him a different man, and the British Empire a different institution.
“I’m going to argue, and indeed dictate,” she said, clinking her rings. “The English are out here to be pleasant.”
“How do you make that out, mother?” he asked, speaking gently again, for he was ashamed of his irritability.
“Because India is part of the earth. And God has put us on the earth in order to be pleasant to each other. God . . . is . . . love.” She hesitated, seeing how much he disliked the argument, but something made her go on. “God has put us on earth to love our neighbours and to show it, and He is omnipresent, even in India, to see how we are succeeding.”
He looked gloomy, and a little anxious. He knew this religious strain in her, and that it was a symptom of bad health; there had been much of it when his stepfather died. He thought, “She is certainly ageing, and I ought not to be vexed with anything she says.”
“The desire to behave pleasantly satisfies God. . . The sincere if impotent desire wins His blessing. I think every one fails, but there are so many kinds of failure. Good will and more good will and more good will. Though I speak with the tongues of . . .”
He waited until she had done, and then said gently, “I quite see that. I suppose I ought to get off to my files now, and you’ll be going to bed.”
“I suppose so, I suppose so.” They did not part for a few minutes, but the conversation had become unreal since Christianity had entered it. Ronny approved of religion as long as it endorsed the National Anthem, but he objected when it attempted to influence his life. Then he would say in respectful yet decided tones, “I don’t think it does to talk about these things, every fellow has to work out his own religion,” and any fellow who heard him muttered, “Hear!”
Mrs. Moore felt that she had made a mistake in mentioning God, but she found him increasingly difficult to avoid as she grew older, and he had been constantly in her thoughts since she entered India, though oddly enough he satisfied her less. She must needs pronounce his name frequently, as the greatest she knew, yet she had never found it less efficacious. Outside the arch there seemed always an arch, beyond the remotest echo a silence. And she regretted afterwards that she had not kept to the real serious subject that had caused her to visit India—namely the relationship between Ronny and Adela. Would they, or would they not, succeed in becoming engaged to be married?


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