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 “Aziz, are you awake?”
“No, so let us have a talk; let us dream plans for the future.”
“I am useless at dreaming.”
“Good night then, dear fellow.”
The Victory Banquet was over, and the revellers lay on the roof of plain Mr. Zulfiqar’s mansion, asleep, or gazing through mosquito nets at the stars. Exactly above their heads hung the constellation of the Lion, the disc of Regulus so large and bright that it resembled a tunnel, and when this fancy was accepted all the other stars seemed tunnels too.
“Are you content with our day’s work, Cyril?” the voice on his left continued.
“Are you?”
“Except that I ate too much. ‘How is stomach, how head?’—I say, Panna Lal and Callendar ’ll get the sack.”
“There’ll be a general move at Chandrapore.”
“And you’ll get promotion.”
“They can’t well move me down, whatever their feelings.”
“In any case we spend our holidays together, and visit Kashmir, possibly Persia, for I shall have plenty of money. Paid to me on account of the injury sustained by my character,” he explained with cynical calm. “While with me you shall never spend a single pie. This is what I have always wished, and as the result of my misfortunes it has come.”
“You have won a great victory . . .” began Fielding.
“I know, my dear chap, I know; your voice need not become so solemn and anxious. I know what you are going to say next: Let, oh let Miss Quested off paying, so that the English may say, ‘Here is a native who has actually behaved like a gentleman; if it was not for his black face we would almost allow him to join our club.’ The approval of your compatriots no longer interests me, I have become anti-British, and ought to have done so sooner, it would have saved me numerous misfortunes.”
“Including knowing me.”
“I say, shall we go and pour water on to Mohammed Latif’s face? He is so funny when this is done to him asleep.”
The remark was not a question but a full-stop. Fielding accepted it as such and there was a pause, pleasantly filled by a little wind which managed to brush the top of the house. The banquet, though riotous, had been agreeable, and now the blessings of leisure—unknown to the West, which either works or idles—descended on the motley company. Civilization strays about like a ghost here, revisiting the ruins of empire, and is to be found not in great works of art or mighty deeds, but in the gestures well-bred Indians make when they sit or lie down. Fielding, who had dressed up in native costume, learnt from his excessive awkwardness in it that all his motions were makeshifts, whereas when the Nawab Bahadur stretched out his hand for food or Nureddin applauded a song, something beautiful had been accomplished which needed no development. This restfulness of gesture—it is the Peace that passeth Understanding, after all, it is the social equivalent of Yoga. When the whirring of action ceases, it becomes visible, and reveals a civilization which the West can disturb but will never acquire. The hand stretches out for ever, the lifted knee has the eternity though not the sadness of the grave. Aziz was full of civilization this evening, complete, dignified, rather hard, and it was with diffidence that the other said: “Yes, certainly you must let off Miss Quested easily. She must pay all your costs, that is only fair, but do not treat her like a conquered enemy.”
“Is she wealthy? I depute you to find out.”
“The sums mentioned at dinner when you all got so excited—they would ruin her, they are perfectly preposterous. Look here . . .”
“I am looking, though it gets a bit dark. I see Cyril Fielding to be a very nice chap indeed and my best friend, but in some ways a fool. You think that by letting Miss Quested off easily I shall make a better reputation for myself and Indians generally. No, no. It will be put down to weakness and the attempt to gain promotion officially. I have decided to have nothing more to do with British India, as a matter of fact. I shall seek service in some Moslem State, such as Hyderabad, Bhopal, where Englishmen cannot insult me any more. Don’t counsel me otherwise.”
“In the course of a long talk with Miss Quested . . .”
“I don’t want to hear your long talks.”
“Be quiet. In the course of a long talk with Miss Quested I have begun to understand her character. It’s not an easy one, she being a prig. But she is perfectly genuine and very brave. When she saw she was wrong, she pulled herself up with a jerk and said so. I want you to realize what that means. All her friends around her, the entire British Raj pushing her forward. She stops, sends the whole thing to smithereens. In her place I should have funked it. But she stopped, and almost did she become a national heroine, but my students ran us down a side street before the crowd caught flame. Do treat her considerately. She really mustn’t get the worst of both worlds. I know what all these”—he indicated the shrouded forms on the roof—“will want, but you mustn’t listen to them. Be merciful. Act like one of your six Mogul Emperors, or all the six rolled into one.”
“Not even Mogul Emperors showed mercy until they received an apology.”
“She’ll apologize if that’s the trouble,” he cried, sitting up. “Look, I’ll make you an offer. Dictate to me whatever form of words you like, and this time to-morrow I’ll bring it back signed. This is not instead of any public apology she may make you in law. It’s an addition.”
“‘Dear Dr. Aziz, I wish you had come into the cave; I am an awful old hag, and it is my last chance.’ Will she sign that?”
“Well good night, good night, it’s time to go to sleep, after that.”
“Good night, I suppose it is.”
“Oh, I wish you wouldn’t make that kind of remark,” he continued after a pause. “It is the one thing in you I can’t put up with.”
“I put up with all things in you, so what is to be done?”
“Well, you hurt me by saying it; good night.”
There was silence, then dreamily but with deep feeling the voice said: “Cyril, I have had an idea which will satisfy your tender mind: I shall consult Mrs. Moore.” Opening his eyes, and beholding thousands of stars, he could not reply, they silenced him.
“Her opinion will solve everything; I can trust her so absolutely. If she advises me to pardon this girl, I shall do so. She will counsel me nothing against my real and true honour, as you might.”
“Let us discuss that to-morrow morning.”
“Is it not strange? I keep on forgetting she has left India. During the shouting of her name in court I fancied she was present. I had shut my eyes, I confused myself on purpose to deaden the pain. Now this very instant I forgot again. I shall be obliged to write. She is now far away, well on her way towards Ralph and Stella.”
“To whom?”
“To those other children.”
“I have not heard of other children.”
“Just as I have two boys and a girl, so has Mrs. Moore. She told me in the mosque.”
“I knew her so slightly.”
“I have seen her but three times, but I know she is an Oriental.”
“You are so fantastic. . . . Miss Quested, you won’t treat her generously; while over Mrs. Moore there is this elaborate chivalry. Miss Quested anyhow behaved decently this morning, whereas the old lady never did anything for you at all, and it’s pure conjecture that she would have come forward in your favour, it only rests on servants’ gossip. Your emotions never seem in proportion to their objects, Aziz.”
“Is emotion a sack of potatoes, so much the pound, to be measured out? Am I a machine? I shall be told I can use up my emotions by using them, next.”
“I should have thought you could. It sounds common sense. You can’t eat your cake and have it, even in the world of the spirit.”
“If you are right, there is no point in any friendship; it all comes down to give and take, or give and return, which is disgusting, and we had better all leap over this parapet and kill ourselves. Is anything wrong with you this evening that you grow so materialistic?”
“Your unfairness is worse than my materialism.”
“I see. Anything further to complain of?” He was good-tempered and affectionate but a little formidable. Imprisonment had made channels for his character, which would never fluctuate as widely now as in the past. “Because it is far better you put all your difficulties before me, if we are to be friends for ever. You do not like Mrs. Moore, and are annoyed because I do; however, you will like her in time.”
When a person, really dead, is supposed to be alive, an unhealthiness infects the conversation. Fielding could not stand the tension any longer and blurted out: “I’m sorry to say Mrs. Moore’s dead.”
But Hamidullah, who had been listening to all their talk, and did not want the festive evening spoilt, cried from the adjoining bed: “Aziz, he is trying to pull your leg; don’t believe him, the villain.”
“I do not believe him,” said Aziz; he was inured to practical jokes, even of this type.
Fielding said no more. Facts are facts, and everyone would learn of Mrs. Moore’s death in the morning. But it struck him that people are not really dead until they are felt to be dead. As long as there is some misunderstanding about them, they possess a sort of immortality. An experience of his own confirmed this. Many years ago he had lost a great friend, a woman, who believed in the Christian heaven, and assured him that after the changes and chances of this mortal life they would meet in it again. Fielding was a blank, frank atheist, but he respected every opinion his friend held: to do this is essential in friendship. And it seemed to him for a time that the dead awaited him, and when the illusion faded it left behind it an emptiness that was almost guilt: “This really is the end,” he thought, “and I gave her the final blow.” He had tried to kill Mrs. Moore this evening, on the roof of the Nawab Bahadur’s house; but she still eluded him, and the atmosphere remained tranquil. Presently the moon rose—the exhausted crescent that precedes the sun—and shortly after men and oxen began their interminable labour, and the gracious interlude, which he had tried to curtail, came to its natural conclusion.


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