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首页 » 英文短篇小说 » A Passage to India » CHAPTER XX
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 Although Miss Quested had not made herself popular with the English, she brought out all that was fine in their character. For a few hours an exalted emotion gushed forth, which the women felt even more keenly than the men, if not for so long. “What can we do for our sister?” was the only thought of Mesdames Callendar and Lesley, as they drove through the pelting heat to enquire. Mrs. Turton was the only visitor admitted to the sick-room. She came out ennobled by an unselfish sorrow. “She is my own darling girl,” were the words she spoke, and then, remembering that she had called her “not pukka” and resented her engagement to young Heaslop, she began to cry. No one had ever seen the Collector’s wife cry. Capable of tears—yes, but always reserving them for some adequate occasion, and now it had come. Ah, why had they not all been kinder to the stranger, more patient, given her not only hospitality but their hearts? The tender core of the heart that is so seldom used—they employed it for a little, under the stimulus of remorse. If all is over (as Major Callendar implied), well, all is over, and nothing can be done, but they retained some responsibility in her grievous wrong that they couldn’t define. If she wasn’t one of them, they ought to have made her one, and they could never do that now, she had passed beyond their invitation. “Why don’t one think more of other people?” sighed pleasure-loving Miss Derek. These regrets only lasted in their pure form for a few hours. Before sunset, other considerations adulterated them, and the sense of guilt (so strangely connected with our first sight of any suffering) had begun to wear away.
People drove into the club with studious calm—the jog-trot of country gentlefolk between green hedgerows, for the natives must not suspect that they were agitated. They exchanged the usual drinks, but everything tasted different, and then they looked out at the palisade of cactuses stabbing the purple throat of the sky; they realized that they were thousands of miles from any scenery that they understood. The club was fuller than usual, and several parents had brought their children into the rooms reserved for adults, which gave the air of the Residency at Lucknow. One young mother—a brainless but most beautiful girl—sat on a low ottoman in the smoking-room with her baby in her arms; her husband was away in the district, and she dared not return to her bungalow in case the “niggers attacked.” The wife of a small railway official, she was generally snubbed; but this evening, with her abundant figure and masses of corn-gold hair, she symbolized all that is worth fighting and dying for; more permanent a symbol, perhaps, than poor Adela. “Don’t worry, Mrs. Blakiston, those drums are only Mohurram,” the men would tell her.
“Then they’ve started,” she moaned, clasping the infant and rather wishing he would not blow bubbles down his chin at such a moment as this. “No, of course not, and anyhow, they’re not coming to the club.” “And they’re not coming to the Burra Sahib’s bungalow either, my dear, and that’s where you and your baby’ll sleep tonight,” answered Mrs. Turton, towering by her side like Pallas Athene, and determining in the future not to be such a snob.
The Collector clapped his hands for silence. He was much calmer than when he had flown out at Fielding. He was indeed always calmer when he addressed several people than in a tête-à-tête. “I want to talk specially to the ladies,” he said. “Not the least cause for alarm. Keep cool, keep cool. Don’t go out more than you can help, don’t go into the city, don’t talk before your servants. That’s all.”
“Harry, is there any news from the city?” asked his wife, standing at some distance from him, and also assuming her public-safety voice. The rest were silent during the august colloquy.
“Everything absolutely normal.”
“I had gathered as much. Those drums are merely Mohurram, of course.”
“Merely the preparations for it—the Procession is not till next week.”
“Quite so, not till Monday.”
“Mr. McBryde’s down there disguised as a Holy Man,” said Mrs. Callendar.
“That’s exactly the sort of thing that must not be said,” he remarked, pointing at her. “Mrs. Callendar, be more careful than that, please, in these times.”
“I . . . well, I . . .” She was not offended, his severity made her feel safe.
“Any more questions? Necessary questions.”
“Is the—where is he——” Mrs. Lesley quavered.
“Jail. Bail has been refused.”
Fielding spoke next. He wanted to know whether there was an official bulletin about Miss Quested’s health, or whether the grave reports were due to gossip. His question produced a bad effect, partly because he had pronounced her name; she, like Aziz, was always referred to by a periphrasis.
“I hope Callendar may be able to let us know how things are going before long.”
“I fail to see how that last question can be termed a necessary question,” said Mrs. Turton.
“Will all ladies leave the smoking-room now, please?” he cried, clapping his hands again. “And remember what I have said. We look to you to help us through a difficult time, and you can help us by behaving as if everything is normal. It is all I ask. Can I rely on you?”
“Yes, indeed, Burra Sahib,” they chorused out of peaked, anxious faces. They moved out, subdued yet elated, Mrs. Blakiston in their midst like a sacred flame. His simple words had reminded them that they were an outpost of Empire. By the side of their compassionate love for Adela another sentiment sprang up which was to strangle it in the long run. Its first signs were prosaic and small. Mrs. Turton made her loud, hard jokes at bridge, Mrs. Lesley began to knit a comforter.
When the smoking-room was clear, the Collector sat on the edge of a table, so that he could dominate without formality. His mind whirled with contradictory impulses. He wanted to avenge Miss Quested and punish Fielding, while remaining scrupulously fair. He wanted to flog every native that he saw, but to do nothing that would lead to a riot or to the necessity for military intervention. The dread of having to call in the troops was vivid to him; soldiers put one thing straight, but leave a dozen others crooked, and they love to humiliate the civilian administration. One soldier was in the room this evening—a stray subaltern from a Gurkha regiment; he was a little drunk, and regarded his presence as providential. The Collector sighed. There seemed nothing for it but the old weary business of compromise and moderation. He longed for the good old days when an Englishman could satisfy his own honour and no questions asked afterwards. Poor young Heaslop had taken a step in this direction, by refusing bail, but the Collector couldn’t feel this was wise of poor young Heaslop. Not only would the Nawab Bahadur and others be angry, but the Government of India itself also watches—and behind it is that caucus of cranks and cravens, the British Parliament. He had constantly to remind himself that, in the eyes of the law, Aziz was not yet guilty, and the effort fatigued him.
The others, less responsible, could behave naturally. They had started speaking of “women and children”—that phrase that exempts the male from sanity when it has been repeated a few times. Each felt that all he loved best in the world was at stake, demanded revenge, and was filled with a not unpleasing glow, in which the chilly and half-known features of Miss Quested vanished, and were replaced by all that is sweetest and warmest in the private life. “But it’s the women and children,” they repeated, and the Collector knew he ought to stop them intoxicating themselves, but he hadn’t the heart. “They ought to be compelled to give hostages,” etc. Many of the said women and children were leaving for the Hill Station in a few days, and the suggestion was made that they should be packed off at once in a special train.
“And a jolly suggestion,” the subaltern cried. “The army’s got to come in sooner or later. (A special train was in his mind inseparable from troops.) This would never have happened if Barabas Hill was under military control. Station a bunch of Gurkhas at the entrance of the cave was all that was wanted.”
“Mrs. Blakiston was saying if only there were a few Tommies,” remarked someone.
“English no good,” he cried, getting his loyalties mixed. “Native troops for this country. Give me the sporting type of native, give me Gurkhas, give me Rajputs, give me Jats, give me the Punjabi, give me Sikhs, give me Marathas, Bhils, Afridis and Pathans, and really if it comes to that, I don’t mind if you give me the scums of the bazaars. Properly led, mind. I’d lead them anywhere——”
The Collector nodded at him pleasantly, and said to his own people: “Don’t start carrying arms about. I want everything to go on precisely as usual, until there’s cause for the contrary. Get the womenfolk off to the hills, but do it quietly, and for Heaven’s sake no more talk of special trains. Never mind what you think or feel. Possibly I have feelings too. One isolated Indian has attempted—is charged with an attempted crime.” He flipped his forehead hard with his finger-nail, and they all realized that he felt as deeply as they did, and they loved him, and determined not to increase his difficulties. “Act upon that fact until there are more facts,” he concluded. “Assume every Indian is an angel.”
They murmured, “Right you are, Burra Sahib. . . . Angels. . . . Exactly. . . .” From the subaltern: “Exactly what I said. The native’s all right if you get him alone. Lesley! Lesley! You remember the one I had a knock with on your Maidan last month. Well, he was all right. Any native who plays polo is all right. What you’ve got to stamp on is these educated classes, and, mind, I do know what I’m talking about this time.”
The smoking-room door opened, and let in a feminine buzz. Mrs. Turton called out, “She’s better,” and from both sections of the community a sigh of joy and relief rose. The Civil Surgeon, who had brought the good news, came in. His cumbrous, pasty face looked ill-tempered. He surveyed the company, saw Fielding crouched below him on an ottoman, and said, “H’m!”
Everyone began pressing him for details. “No one’s out of danger in this country as long as they have a temperature,” was his answer. He appeared to resent his patient’s recovery, and no one who knew the old Major and his ways was surprised at this.
“Squat down, Callendar; tell us all about it.”
“Take me some time to do that.”
“How’s the old lady?”
“My wife heard she was sinking.”
“So she may be. I guarantee nothing. I really can’t be plagued with questions, Lesley.”
“Sorry, old man.”
“Heaslop’s just behind me.”
At the name of Heaslop a fine and beautiful expression was renewed on every face. Miss Quested was only a victim, but young Heaslop was a martyr; he was the recipient of all the evil intended against them by the country they had tried to serve; he was bearing the sahib’s cross. And they fretted because they could do nothing for him in return; they felt so craven sitting on softness and attending the course of the law.
“I wish to God I hadn’t given my jewel of an assistant leave. I’ld cut my tongue out first. To feel I’m responsible, that’s what hits me. To refuse, and then give in under pressure. That is what I did, my sons, that is what I did.”
Fielding took his pipe from his mouth and looked at it thoughtfully. Thinking him afraid, the other went on: “I understood an Englishman was to accompany the expedition. That is why I gave in.”
“No one blames you, my dear Callendar,” said the Collector, looking down. “We are all to blame in the sense that we ought to have seen the expedition was insufficiently guaranteed, and stopped it. I knew about it myself; we lent our car this morning to take the ladies to the station. We are all implicated in that sense, but not an atom of blame attaches to you personally.”
“I don’t feel that. I wish I could. Responsibility is a very awful thing, and I’ve no use for the man who shirks it.” His eyes were directed on Fielding. Those who knew that Fielding had undertaken to accompany and missed the early train were sorry for him; it was what is to be expected when a man mixes himself up with natives; always ends in some indignity. The Collector, who knew more, kept silent, for the official in him still hoped that Fielding would toe the line. The conversation turned to women and children again, and under its cover Major Callendar got hold of the subaltern, and set him on to bait the schoolmaster. Pretending to be more drunk than he really was, he began to make semi-offensive remarks.
“Heard about Miss Quested’s servant?” reinforced the Major.
“No, what about him?”
“Heaslop warned Miss Quested’s servant last night never to lose sight of her. Prisoner got hold of this and managed to leave him behind. Bribed him. Heaslop has just found out the whole story, with names and sums—a well-known pimp to those people gave the money, Mohammed Latif by name. So much for the servant. What about the Englishman—our friend here? How did they get rid of him? Money again.”
Fielding rose to his feet, supported by murmurs and exclamations, for no one yet suspected his integrity.
“Oh, I’m being misunderstood, apologies,” said the Major offensively. “I didn’t mean they bribed Mr. Fielding.”
“Then what do you mean?”
“They paid the other Indian to make you late—Godbole. He was saying his prayers. I know those prayers!”
“That’s ridiculous . . .” He sat down again, trembling with rage; person after person was being dragged into the mud.
Having shot this bolt, the Major prepared the next. “Heaslop also found out something from his mother. Aziz paid a herd of natives to suffocate her in a cave. That was the end of her, or would have been only she got out. Nicely planned, wasn’t it? Neat. Then he could go on with the girl. He and she and a guide, provided by the same Mohammed Latif. Guide now can’t be found. Pretty.” His voice broke into a roar. “It’s not the time for sitting down. It’s the time for action. Call in the troops and clear the bazaars.”
The Major’s outbursts were always discounted, but he made everyone uneasy on this occasion. The crime was even worse than they had supposed—the unspeakable limit of cynicism, untouched since 1857. Fielding forgot his anger on poor old Godbole’s behalf, and became thoughtful; the evil was propagating in every direction, it seemed to have an existence of its own, apart from anything that was done or said by individuals, and he understood better why both Aziz and Hamidullah had been inclined to lie down and die. His adversary saw that he was in trouble, and now ventured to say, “I suppose nothing that’s said inside the club will go outside the club?” winking the while at Lesley.
“Why should it?” responded Lesley.
“Oh, nothing. I only heard a rumour that a certain member here present has been seeing the prisoner this afternoon. You can’t run with the hare and hunt with the hounds, at least not in this country.”
“Does anyone here present want to?”
Fielding was determined not to be drawn again. He had something to say, but it should be at his own moment. The attack failed to mature, because the Collector did not support it. Attention shifted from him for a time. Then the buzz of women broke out again. The door had been opened by Ronny.
The young man looked exhausted and tragic, also gentler than usual. He always showed deference to his superiors, but now it came straight from his heart. He seemed to appeal for their protection in the insult that had befallen him, and they, in instinctive homage, rose to their feet. But every human act in the East is tainted with officialism, and while honouring him they condemned Aziz and India. Fielding realized this, and he remained seated. It was an ungracious, a caddish thing to do, perhaps an unsound thing to do, but he felt he had been passive long enough, and that he might be drawn into the wrong current if he did not make a stand. Ronny, who had not seen him, said in husky tones, “Oh please—please all sit down, I only want to listen what has been decided.”
“Heaslop, I’m telling them I’m against any show of force,” said the Collector apologetically. “I don’t know whether you will feel as I do, but that is how I am situated. When the verdict is obtained, it will be another matter.”
“You are sure to know best; I have no experience, Burra Sahib.”
“How is your mother, old boy?”
“Better, thank you. I wish everyone would sit down.”
“Some have never got up,” the young soldier said.
“And the Major brings us an excellent report of Miss Quested,” Turton went on.
“I do, I do, I’m satisfied.”
“You thought badly of her earlier, did you not, Major? That’s why I refused bail.”
Callendar laughed with friendly inwardness, and said, “Heaslop, Heaslop, next time bail’s wanted, ring up the old doctor before giving it; his shoulders are broad, and, speaking in the strictest confidence, don’t take the old doctor’s opinion too seriously. He’s a blithering idiot, we can always leave it at that, but he’ll do the little he can towards keeping in quod the——” He broke off with affected politeness. “Oh, but he has one of his friends here.”
The subaltern called, “Stand up, you swine.”
“Mr. Fielding, what has prevented you from standing up?” said the Collector, entering the fray at last. It was the attack for which Fielding had waited, and to which he must reply.
“May I make a statement, sir?”
Seasoned and self-contained, devoid of the fervours of nationality or youth, the schoolmaster did what was for him a comparatively easy thing. He stood up and said, “I believe Dr. Aziz to be innocent.”
“You have a right to hold that opinion if you choose, but pray is that any reason why you should insult Mr. Heaslop?”
“May I conclude my statement?”
“I am waiting for the verdict of the courts. If he is guilty I resign from my service, and leave India. I resign from the club now.”
“Hear, hear!” said voices, not entirely hostile, for they liked the fellow for speaking out.
“You have not answered my question. Why did you not stand when Mr. Heaslop entered?”
“With all deference, sir, I am not here to answer questions, but to make a personal statement, and I have concluded it.”
“May I ask whether you have taken over charge of this District?”
Fielding moved towards the door.
“One moment, Mr. Fielding. You are not to go yet, please. Before you leave the club, from which you do very well to resign, you will express some detestation of the crime, and you will apologize to Mr. Heaslop.”
“Are you speaking to me officially, sir?”
The Collector, who never spoke otherwise, was so infuriated that he lost his head. He cried, “Leave this room at once, and I deeply regret that I demeaned myself to meet you at the station. You have sunk to the level of your associates; you are weak, weak, that is what is wrong with you——”
“I want to leave the room, but cannot while this gentleman prevents me,” said Fielding lightly; the subaltern had got across his path.
“Let him go,” said Ronny, almost in tears.
It was the only appeal that could have saved the situation. Whatever Heaslop wished must be done. There was a slight scuffle at the door, from which Fielding was propelled, a little more quickly than is natural, into the room where the ladies were playing cards. “Fancy if I’d fallen or got angry,” he thought. Of course he was a little angry. His peers had never offered him violence or called him weak before, besides Heaslop had heaped coals of fire on his head. He wished he had not picked the quarrel over poor suffering Heaslop, when there were cleaner issues at hand.
However, there it was, done, muddled through, and to cool himself and regain mental balance he went on to the upper verandah for a moment, where the first object he saw was the Marabar Hills. At this distance and hour they leapt into beauty; they were Monsalvat, Walhalla, the towers of a cathedral, peopled with saints and heroes, and covered with flowers. What miscreant lurked in them, presently to be detected by the activities of the law? Who was the guide, and had he been found yet? What was the “echo” of which the girl complained? He did not know, but presently he would know. Great is information, and she shall prevail. It was the last moment of the light, and as he gazed at the Marabar Hills they seemed to move graciously towards him like a queen, and their charm became the sky’s. At the moment they vanished they were everywhere, the cool benediction of the night descended, the stars sparkled, and the whole universe was a hill. Lovely, exquisite moment—but passing the Englishman with averted face and on swift wings. He experienced nothing himself; it was as if someone had told him there was such a moment, and he was obliged to believe. And he felt dubious and discontented suddenly, and wondered whether he was really and truly successful as a human being. After forty years’ experience, he had learnt to manage his life and make the best of it on advanced European lines, had developed his personality, explored his limitations, controlled his passions—and he had done it all without becoming either pedantic or worldly. A creditable achievement, but as the moment passed, he felt he ought to have been working at something else the whole time,—he didn’t know at what, never would know, never could know, and that was why he felt sad.


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