Srikanta (Part 1)/Chapter 12

 

XII


IT was not smallpox but some kind of fever that had prostrated me. As soon as Piari got the news she had come with Banku, two servants, and her maid. She had rented a house at once, and, after removing me to it, had collected all the doctors of the town for consultation. All this I learned later.

As soon as it was dawn Piari said, 'Banku, don't be late, my son; go and reserve a second-class compartment for us. I dare not keep him here another hour.' Banku's eyes were still heavy with sleep. Without opening them he drawled, 'What nonsense, Mother. How can he be moved in this condition?'

'Get up first, Banku,' said Piari, laughing a little. 'After you've done that and have had your wash, I will discuss the question of moving him. Do be a good boy and get up, my son.'

Accordingly Banku left his bed, had his morning wash, dressed, and went to the station. The morning was just breaking, and there was no one else in the room. I called in a low voice, 'Piari'. Another cot had been placed at the head of my bed and on it Piari lay half-asleep, worn out by her long vigil. At the sound of my voice she sat up with a start and bent over me. 'So you are awake,' she said softly. 'I have been awake for quite some time.' Piari passed her hand with anxious care over my head and brow, and said, 'There is hardly any fever now. Why don't you try to sleep a little?' 'I have been doing nothing else for days, Piari. How long have I had this fever?'

'Thirteen days.' She immediately became grave, and said with a seriousness worthy of an elderly matron, 'Please don't call me by that name before the boys. You have always called me Lakshmi;[1] why not call me that?'

I had recovered my normal consciousness two days before; I remembered the incidents of the last two days, 'All right,' I said. Then recalling the subject I had wanted to discuss with her, 'You are trying to move me, but I have given you a lot of trouble already, and I don't want to give you any more.'

'What do you want to do then?'

'I think that if I remain here as I am I shall be all right in three or four days more. You had better stay here these few days and then go home.'

'What will you do then, if I may ask?'

'Something or other.'

'Probably,' rejoined Piari with a smile. Then she rose and seated herself on the edge of my cot. She gazed at me for a few moments and then, smiling again, said, 'I know this fever will be cured in eight or ten days, if not in three or four, as you say. But will you tell me when you will be cured of your real malady?'

'My real malady? And what may that be, pray?'

'To think one way, to speak another, and to act a third: that is the distressing complaint you've been suffering from all your life. You know as well as I do that I shan't consider you fit to take care of yourself for at least a month, and yet you must say, "I've given you such a lot of trouble, leave me!" My dear, kind-hearted man, if you really cared so much for me, how could you take it into your head to turn a sannyasi, and get into all this terrible mess! When I came, I found you lying unconscious on a rotten, old mattress laid on the bare ground, your head covered with long hair that was matted with dirt and dust, all your body tricked out with beads, and two brass bangles decorating your wrists. O my God, how could I help crying when I saw you in such a state!' As she spoke her eyes filled with tears. She wiped them quickly away with her hand and continued, 'Banku asked me, "Who is this, mother?" but how could I tell him, this boy who is like my own son? Oh, what a dreadful day that was! What an auspicious day, I sometimes think, it must have been when your eyes first met mine at school! The pain you have made me suffer, my dear, is what no one else in the wide world has ever made me, or will ever make me, suffer! Well, they say smallpox has broken out in the town; I'll count it great luck if I can get away with you all in safety.' And she heaved a deep sigh.

We left Arrah that night, a young doctor accompanying us as far as Patna. Twelve or thirteen days after our arrival at Patna, I recovered from my illness almost completely. One morning I went through the rooms in Piari's house and was somewhat surprised at the quality and amount of her furniture. This was not the first time that I had seen a house belonging to a singing-girl. The furniture was good and valuable, but, considering the part of the town that she lived in, among wealthy, fashionable, and half-educated Marwaris,[2] the wonder was that she was contented with so little. In this respect her house bore no resemblance to other houses that I had seen belonging to women of her profession. The impression one usually gets on entering such a house with its numerous candelabras and lamps, pictures, glass cases, and mirrors, is one of overloaded stuffiness and want of freedom: one is afraid even to breathe. The innumerable articles which admirers shower as presents, so fill the rooms that one is tempted to think that they, like their donors, have to jostle and elbow one another in order to keep their ground. But here I did not notice a single superfluous article of furniture; what I saw appeared to have been selected for the personal use of the owner of the house, and not to have been thrust in as a kind of intrusion, so to speak, of some one else's wanton desire overriding the taste and will of the owner. Another thing that attracted my notice was that there were no arrangements for singing or music in the house of Piari, the celebrated singing-girl of Patna. Wandering from one room to another, I came at last to the door of a room in one corner of the first floor. One glance at the interior was sufficient to show that this was her bedroom. But how different from what my imagination had pictured it to be! The floor was of white stone, and the walls shone white and fresh as milk. On one side of the room was a small cot behind which stood an iron safe; on the other side, a clothes-rack with a few clothes neatly arranged on it: nothing else. I felt some delicacy in entering the room with shoes on: I left them outside the door and, as this first attempt to walk any distance had wearied me, I sat down, absent-mindedly, on her bed,—a thing I should not have done, I am sure, if there had been anything else in the room to sit upon. Shading the open window in front of me was an enormous neem tree; and a gentle breeze was blowing through it. As I sat gazing listlessly at it, my absent-mindedness must have deepened. My attention was suddenly aroused by a sweet tune, and looking round I saw that Piari had entered the room humming a song. She had been to bathe in the Ganges, and had come to change her wet clothes. She had not yet seen me. She went straight to the clothes-rack and was about to take one of the saris arranged on it, when I suddenly burst out, 'Why do you not take your clothes with you to the bathing-place?'

She looked at me surprised and then broke out into a smile. 'Well, I never!' she said. 'You come into my room like a thief,—no, no, don't get up, don't go—I'll go into the other room and change', and she stepped out lightly with the silk sari in her hand. She came back in a few minutes with a cheerful face, and asked me with a smile, 'You know there is nothing in my room. What did you come here to steal? Are you sure it isn't me?'

'How can you think me so ungrateful?' I asked. 'You have done so much for me, and can I now end by stealing you, of all things? I hope I am not so covetous.'

Piari's face became pale. I had not thought that my words could give her pain. I had no wish to pain her, especially when I was thinking of leaving the place within two or three days. With a forced laugh, which I hoped would dispel the effect of my unfortunate remark, I said, 'I can't help admiring your intelligence: how can one come to steal a thing that belongs to one already?'

But it was not possible to take her in so easily. 'Oh well,' she said, ‘you need not show your gratitude so plainly. It is enough for me that you remembered me in your illness.'

The feeling that I had saddened such a fresh, joyous face on that sunny morning brought a pang to my heart. The fading of her smile made it clear what sweetness had lain in it. 'Lakshmi,' I said in a tone of repentance, hoping to restore that lost sweetness, 'you know I have hidden nothing from you, absolutely nothing. If you had not come, I should have lain like a corpse in the dust or like refuse, for no one would have even thought of sending me to the hospital. Do you remember writing to me, "Remember me in your day of trouble. if not of happiness"? My remembering your request shows that fate had reserved for me a longer lease of life; of that I feel certain.'

'Quite certain?'

'Quite.'

'Then you must admit that it is to me that you owe your life?'

'I have no doubt of it.'

'Then you also must admit that I can claim it as mine, in all fairness?'

'Of course you can. But my life is such an insignificant little thing that there is no reason for you to be at all greedy about it.'

'Well.' said Piari, breaking into laughter, 'it's not a bad thing that you know your value after all!' But the next instant she became grave, and said, 'Joking apart, now that you are all right, more or less, when do you think you will go?'

At first I did not quite catch her meaning. I answered gravely, 'There is no great need for me to go anywhere. So I am thinking of staying here for some time longer.'

'But,' said Piari, 'my son often comes from Bankipur nowadays. If you stay much longer he may begin to think something.'

'Let him, then!' I exclaimed. 'Surely you are not afraid of his opinion? I tell you I'm not going to leave all this comfort and luxury before I have to.'

'Don't be absurd.' Piari remarked dryly. Suddenly she got up and left the room.

Next evening as I lay in an easy chair on the verandah to the west of my room, looking at the sunset, Banku came. I had not had an opportunity before this to have a good talk with him.

'Banku,' I asked, motioning him to a chair. 'what do you study?'

He was a very quiet, honest lad. 'Last year I passed the Matric., sir,' he said.

'Then you are at the Bankipur College now?'

'Yes, sir.'

'How many brothers and sisters have you?'

'I have no brothers, but four sisters.'

'And are they all married?'

'Yes, sir, Mother has got them married.'

'Is your own mother alive, Banku?'

'Yes, sir, she lives in our village.'

'Has your mother here ever been to your home in the village?'

'Yes, several times; she was there five or six months ago.'

'Isn't there any talk about it, any gossip, in your village?'

Banku sat quiet for a little while and then said, 'What if there is? I'm not going to leave Mother because they've boycotted us. How many of them have got such a mother?'

The question came to my lips, 'How did you learn to love your mother so?' but I remained silent.

'Do you think, sir,' Banku went on, 'that there is anything wrong in being fond of music? And that is the only charge they can bring against Mother. She never indulges in scandal and gossip. Besides, she pays the expenses of education for the sons of some of her worst enemies. In winter she gives clothing to a lot of people, and distributes blankets. Is there wrong in all this, sir?'

'On the contrary,' I said, 'it shows great kindness.'

'Exactly, sir,' Banku agreed, with fresh enthusiasm.

'Where would you find so rotten a village as ours, sir? Why, when our new house was built, my mother, seeing how terribly the people suffered from want of water, thought of converting the pit from which the earth for the bricks had been taken, into a tank. She spent three thousand rupees on it, and a fine tank it is, sir, with a brick-built flight of steps down to the water. But they wouldn't let her perform the necessary ceremony to dedicate it as a public tank. Such fine water, but no one could taste it, touch it. Such a rascally set of people they are, sir. They are all dying of envy at our fine brick-built house. Don't you see, sir?'

'Indeed!' I said, affecting surprise, 'they would suffer terribly and yet not use the water?'

'Exactly, sir,' said Banku, smiling. 'But how long could this state of things go on? In the first year nobody came near the tank. But now the poor people and lower castes all use the water, and even people of the higher castes take water from it surreptitiously in summer. And yet they didn't let Mother perform the necessary ceremony. You little know, sir, how painful this has been to her.'

'Well,' I said, 'this, I suppose, is an instance of cutting off one's nose to spite one's face.'

'Exactly, sir!' Banku remarked with great emphasis. 'It is a blessing to live boycotted and alone in such a village: don't you think so, sir?' I merely nodded in reply, without committing myself to a definite 'yes' or 'no'. But that hardly stemmed the tide of Banku's enthusiasm. I saw that the boy really loved his step-mother. The presence of a good listener gave the reins to his tongue, and his unrestrained praise of her began to be almost too much for my patience.

At last he suddenly became aware that for a long time I had not spoken. Feeling embarrassed, he sought a digression by asking me, 'Are you not going to stay here for some time longer, sir?

'No,' I said smiling, 'I go to-morrow morning.'

'To-morrow, sir? But you are not quite strong yet. Do you think that you are completely cured?'

'I thought so this morning,' I answered, 'but now I must think otherwise: I have had a headache since noon.'

'Then why are you in such a hurry to go, sir? I hope you are comfortable here?' and he looked at me anxiously. I tried to read his meaning from the expression of his face. So far as I could read it, I saw no necessity for concealing the truth. Banku was confused, and tried to hide his confusion. 'Please do not go away so soon,' he said.

'Why?' I asked.

'Mother is most happy while you are here,' he answered, and all at once he blushed and left me abruptly. I saw that though the boy was simple, he was by no means a fool. Thinking over his conduct, I understood what Piari had meant when she said to me, 'He will begin to think if you stay longer.' The boy worshipped her. In his eyes she was above reproach: his mother could do no wrong. And Piari was resolved to live up to his ideal of her. All at once my eyes were opened and I realized the full meaning of this relationship to Piari and saw her for the first time in her adopted guise of mother. It was a revelation. It was not difficult for me to imagine the ardent longings of Piari's heart; nor was it, I fancy, a sin to think of her as a free woman in every way, free in every aspect of her life. Yet I could see how, the moment she had taken this poor boy as her own son, she had voluntarily put a hundred chains round her feet. Whatever she might be by herself, she had now to give herself the honour due to a mother. However strong her desires and untamed passions might be in urging her on the downward path, could she forget that a boy now called her his own mother, and could she in any way dishonour the mother whom he revered and loved and who stood before him in the full glory and purity of their mutual relations? I did not know who in the first flush of her ardent and passionate youth had been inspired by love to call her his 'Piari' or Beloved, but I remembered how she had wanted to conceal the very name from the boy whom she called her son.

The sun went down before my eyes. As I sat gazing at the purple grandeur of the western sky, my heart seemed purified and elevated by its solemn influence. I realized how narrow and mean, how far from the truth, had been my estimate of Rajlakshmi's character. However strictly our mutual relations might preserve an outward semblance of propriety, however discreetly we might try to create around them an atmosphere of sweetness and light, there could be no doubt that our desires were rushing headlong to meet in one fierce, irresistible passion. But I saw to-day that such a thing was impossible. Suddenly, like the towering Himalayas, Banku's mother stood between me and Rajlakshmi. 'I must go to-morrow,' I said to myself. 'But let me not, in casting up my accounts, try to keep a balance in my favour. This departure of mine must be a real departure. Let me not deceive myself and leave any subtle tie behind me that would make it possible for me to come back again.'

As I sat there in a mood of abstraction, Rajlakshmi crossed the verandah on her way to one of the rooms: in her hand she carried a censer in which incense was burning. She stopped as she passed me, and said, 'You mustn't stay out here in this chill air when you've got a headache. Go and sit inside.'

I felt inclined to laugh. 'You surprise me, Lakkhi,' said I. 'There is no chill in the air.'

'If there is no chill,' she replied, 'there is a cold draught. That's not good for you either.'

'You are again mistaken. There is no draught either.'

'Everything is my mistake,' said Rajlakshmi. 'But your headache can't be a mistake, I'm sure. Why don't you go inside and lie down a little? What is Ratan doing? Why can't he put a little eau-de-cologne on your forehead? The servants of this house are the laziest rascals I've ever seen!' and she vanished into the house.

When Ratan appeared in my room a few minutes later with eau-de—cologne, water, and other accessories, contrite and sorry, and began to express repeatedly his regrets for his neglect of me, I could not help laughing.

This put some heart into him and he said in a low voice, 'Do I not know, sir, that I am not to blame for this? But you don't surely expect one to tell her, sir, that when she is angry she finds fault with everyone in the house?'

'Why is she angry?' I asked.

'Who can tell, sir? It's my belief, sir, that big folk get into a temper for nothing, and get over it for nothing too. God help the servants unless they can make themselves scarce, sir, when they're in a temper!'

'What do they do then, Ratan,—cut off their heads?' asked a voice suddenly from behind the door. 'If big folk's houses are so inconvenient, why don't you go elsewhere?'

At this question from his mistress, Ratan was stricken into shamefaced silence. 'What kept you so long, I wonder,' she went on. 'Mr. Srikanta has a headache: I told you about it as soon as I heard it from Banku. And that's why, I suppose, you come here at eight o'clock and sing my praises. Well, you need not remain in this house after to-morrow: you can find a job elsewhere. Do you understand?'

When she had gone, poor Ratan applied the eau-de-cologne and water to my forehead and began to fan me. Almost immediately Rajlakshmi returned. 'So you are going home to-morrow?' she asked.

I had planned to go, but I was not going home. So I said evasively, 'Yes, I'm going to-morrow morning.'

'Which train will you go by?'

'Well, I shall leave in the morning, and take any train that I can get.'

'Very well, I had better send some one to the station to get a time-table,' she said, and left me.

Ratan finished his task and went away. Gradually the household sounds subsided, till at last everything was quiet and I knew that everyone in the house was in bed.

But sleep did not come to me. One question tormented me. What could have annoyed Piari? What had I done to make her anxious for my departure? Ratan had said that big folk get into a temper for nothing. Whether or not this was true of other people, it certainly could not apply to Piari. She had immense self-control and commonsense, as I had good reason to know. Nor could I remember having given expression to anything to which any one could take exception. Whatever might be said about my commonsense, my self-control was in no way less than hers, and I did not believe that it was possible for me, whatever might be my inner impulses, to give utterance to them even in the wildest delirium. If, on the other hand, she had acted in any way to cause herself regret or a twinge of conscience, she could hardly blame me for it. So why should she be angry with me? Her inexplicable indifference on the eve of my departure hurt and bewildered me.

Late at night a slight sound roused me, and, opening my eyes, I saw Rajlakshmi enter the room noiselessly, remove the lamp from the table, and put it far away from me near the door so as to shade the light completely from my eyes. The window in front of me was open; she closed it and stood near my bed. She seemed to be thinking something over in her mind. Then she slipped her hand inside the curtain, and laid it gently on my forehead, as she had so often done in the days of my illness. I knew that she believed me to be asleep, and though I was conscious of every movement she made as she bent above me, I did not betray the fact, but lay with eyes closed breathing as regularly as my quick-beating heart would allow. She evidently satisfied herself that I had no fever, for in a moment she withdrew her hand, tucked in the curtain, and left the room, closing the door softly behind her.

I had seen all, and understood all. She had come in secret, and I allowed her to go in secret. But she could not know how much of herself she left with me in the lonely stillness of the night. In the morning I woke up in a fever. My eyes smarted with pain and my head ached so badly that leaving the bed was torture. Yet I felt that I must go. I could no longer trust myself in that house. I might break down at any moment. And it was not only for my own sake, after all. I had to leave Rajlakshmi for her own sake: of that there could now be no manner of doubt.

I saw that she had washed away much of the stain of her past life. To-day boys and girls had gathered round her as round their own mother, and had created a sanctuary by their love and devotion. Was my love to manifest itself by working her degradation? Was I to stain my life by ruining hers?

Piari entered the room. 'How are you feeling now?' she asked.

'Not very bad,' I said. 'I shall be able to go.'

'Must you go to-day?'

'Yes, I must.'

'Well, then, do write as soon as you get home, or we shall be very anxious.'

Her imperturbable self-command charmed me. 'Yes,' I said at once, 'I shall go home and nowhere else. And I will write'.

'Do,' she said. 'And I shall ask you a question or two now and then by letter.'

When I had left the house and was about to get into the palanquin, I looked up and caught sight of Piari who stood watching my departure from the upper verandah. She did not move or speak and, looking into her face, I could not guess what emotions lay behind her clear, calm gaze.

A sigh escaped me as I got into the palanquin. I was learning that a great love not only binds, it separates. It would not have been possible for a lesser love than ours to push me out of that heaven of daily and hourly affection, where I was hedged in with luxury and comfort, for the sake of a greater good, a greater honour. As the bearers carried the palanquin swiftly towards the station, my heart cried out to the woman I had just left, 'Sweetheart, do not grieve, for it is a good thing that I am going from you. I have no power to repay my debts to you in this short life of mine. Let me not dishonour you by misspending the life that you have given me with your own hands. However far I may be from you, my own, let me keep this vow forever!'

 

  1. Lakshmi from Raj-lakshmi, Piari being the name she was known by as a singing-girl. 'Piari' means 'dear' or 'a darling' and is not a name for respectable ladies.
  2. Marwaris: a mercantile community whose home is in Marwar, a part of Rajputana, but whose business ability has given them the control of a large part of the trade of Bengal.