Under the Deodars/A Wayside Comedy
A WAYSIDE COMEDY.
FATE and the Government of India have turned the Station of Kashima into a prison; and, because there is no help for the poor souls who are now lying there in torment I write this story, praying that the Government of India may be moved to scatter the European population to the Four Winds.
Kashima is bounded on all sides by the rock-tipped circle of the Dosehri hills. In Spring it is ablaze with roses; in Summer the roses die and the hot winds blow from the hills; in Autumn, the white mists from the swamps cover the place as with water, and in Winter the frosts nip everything young and tender to earth-level. There is but one view in Kashima—a stretch of perfectly flat pasture and plough-land, running up to the grey-blue scrub of the Dosehri hills.
There are no amusements except snipe and tiger-shooting; but the tigers have been long since hunted from their lairs in the rock-caves, and the snipe only come once a year. Narkarra—one hundred and forty-three miles by road—is the nearest station to Kashima. But Kashima never goes to Narkarra, where there are at least twelve English people. It stays within the circle of the Dosehri hills.
All Kashima acquits Mrs. Vansuythen of any intention to do harm; but all Kashima knows that she, and she alone, brought about their pain.
Boulte, the Engineer, Mrs. Boulte, and Captain Kurrell know this. They are the English population of Kashima, if we except Major Vansuythen, who is of no importance whatever, and Mrs. Vansuythen, who is the most important of all.
You must remember, though you will not understand, that all laws weaken in a small and hidden community where there is no public opinion. If the Israelites had been only a ten-tent camp of gipsies, their Headman would never have taken the trouble to climb a hill and bring down the lithographed edition of the Decalogue, and a great deal of trouble would have been avoided. When a man is absolutely alone in a Station he runs a certain risk of falling into evil ways. This risk is multiplied by every addition to the population up to twelve—the Jury-number. After that, fear and consequent restraint begin, and human action becomes less grotesquely jerky.
There was deep peace in Kashima till Mrs. Vansuythen arrived. She was a charming woman, every one said so everywhere; and she charmed every one. In spite of this, or, perhaps, because of this, since Fate is so maliciously perverse, she cared only for one man, and he was Major Vansuythen. Had she been plain or stupid, this matter would have been intelligible to Kashima. But she was a fair woman, with very still, grey eyes, the colour of a lake just before the light of the sun touches it. No man who had seen those eyes could, later on, explain what fashion of woman she was to look upon. The eyes dazzled him. Her own sex said that she was "not bad looking, but spoilt by pretending to be so grave". And yet, her gravity was natural. It was not her habit to smile. She merely went through life, looking at those who passed; and the women objected while the men fell down and worshipped.
She knows and is deeply sorry for the evil she has done to Kashima, but Major Vansuythen cannot understand why Mrs. Boulte does not drop in to afternoon tea at least three times a week. "When there are only two women in one Station, they ought to see a great deal of each other," says Major Vansuythen.
Long and long before ever Mrs. Vansuythen came out of those far-away places where there is society and amusement, Kurrell had discovered that Mrs. Boulte was the one woman in the world for him and-you dare not blame them. Kashima was as out of the world as Heaven or the other Place, and the Dosehri hills kept their secret well. Boulte had no concern in the matter. He went into camp for a fortnight at a time. He was a hard, heavy man, and neither Mrs. Boulte nor Kurrell pitied him. They possessed all Kashima and each other for their very, very own; and Kashima was the Garden of Eden in those days. When Boulte returned from his wanderings, he would slap Kurrell between the shoulders, and call him "old fellow," and the three would dine together. Kashima was happy then, for the judgment of God seemed almost as distant as Narkarra or the railway that ran down to the sea. But the Government, which is the servant of Fate, sent Major Vansuythen to Kashima, and with him came his wife.
The etiquette of Kashima is much the same as that of a desert island. When a stranger is cast away there all hands go down to the shore to make him welcome. Kashima assembled at the masonry platform close to the Narkarra Boad, and spread tea for the Vansuythens. That ceremony was reckoned a formal call, and made them free of the Station, its rights and privileges. When the Vansuythens were settled down, they gave a tiny house-warming to all Kashima; and that made all Kashima free of their house, according to the immemorial usage of the Station.
Then the Rains came, when no one could go into camp, and the Narkarra Road was washed away by the Kasun river, and in the cup-like pastures of Kashima the cattle waded knee-deep. The clouds dropped down from the Dosehri hills and covered all.
At the end of the Rains, Boulte's manner towards his wife changed and became demonstratively affectionate. They had been married twelve years, and the change startled Mrs. Boulte who hated her husband with the hate of a woman who has met with nothing but kindness from her mate, and, in the teeth of this kindness, has done him a great wrong. Moreover, she had her own trouble to fight with—her watch to keep over her own property, Kurrell. For two months the Rains had hidden the Dosehri hills and many other things beside: but, when they lifted, they showed Mrs. Boulte that her man among men, her Ted—for she called him Ted in the old days when Boulte was out of ear-shot—was slipping the links of the allegiance.
"The Vansuythen Woman has taken him," Mrs. Boulte said to herself; and when Boulte was away, wept over her belief, in the face of the over-vehement blandishments of Ted. Sorrow in Kashima is as fortunate as Love, in that there is nothing to weaken it save the flight of Time. Mrs. Boulte had never breathed her suspicion to Kurrell because she was not certain; and her nature led her to be very certain before she took steps in any direction. That is why she behaved as she did.
Boulte came into the house one evening and leaned against the door-posts of the drawing-room, chewing his moustache. Mrs. Boulte was putting some flowers into a vase. There is a pretence of civilisation even in Kashima.
"Little woman," said Boulte quietly, "do you care for me?"
"Immensely," said she, with a laugh. "Can you ask it?"
"But I'm serious," said Boulte. "Do you care for me?"
Mrs. Boulte dropped the flowers, and turned round quickly. "Do you want an honest answer?"
"Ye-es. I've asked for it."
Mrs. Boulte spoke in a low, even voice for five minutes, very distinctly, that there might be no misunderstanding her meaning. When Samson broke the pillars of Gaza, he did a little thing, and one not to be compared to the deliberate pulling down of a woman's homestead about her own ears. There was no wise female friend to advise Mrs. Boulte, the singularly cautious wife, to hold her hand. She struck at Boulte's heart, because her own was sick with suspicion of Kurrell, and worn out with the long strain of watching alone through the Rains. There was no plan or purpose in her speaking. The sentences made themselves; and Boulte listened, leaning against the door-post with his hands in his pockets. When all was over, and Mrs. Boulte began to breathe through her nose before breaking out into tears, he laughed and stared straight in front of him at the Dosehri hills.
"Is that all?" he said. "Thanks, I only wanted to know, you know?"
"What are you going to do?" said the woman, between her sobs.
"Do! Nothing. What should I do? Kill Kurrell or send you Home, or apply for leave to get a divorce? It's two days' ride into Narkarra." He laughed again and went on: "I'll tell you what you can do. You can ask Kurrell to dinner to-morrow—no, on Thursday, that will allow you time to pack—and you can bolt with him. I give you my word I won't follow."
He took up his helmet and went out of the room, and Mrs. Boulte sat till the moonlight streaked the floor, thinking and thinking and thinking. She had done her best upon the spur of the moment to pull the house down; but it would not fall. Moreover, she could not understand her husband, and she was afraid. Then the folly of her useless truthfulness struck her, and she was ashamed to write to Kurrell, saying: "I have gone mad and told everything. My husband says that I am free to elope with you. Get horses for Thursday, and we will fly after dinner." There was a cold-bloodedness about that procedure which did not appeal to her. So she sat still in her own house and thought.
At dinner-time Boulte came back from his walk, white and worn and haggard, and the woman was touched at his distress. As the evening wore on, she muttered some expression of sorrow, something approaching to contrition. Boulte came out of a brown study and said: "Oh that! I wasn't thinking about that. By the way, what does Kurrell say to the elopement?"
"I haven't seen him," said Mrs. Boulte. "Good God, is that all?"
But Boulte was not listening, and her sentence ended in a gulp.
The next day brought no comfort to Mrs. Boulte, for Kurrell did not appear, and the new life that she, in the five minutes' madness of the previous evening, had hoped to build out of the ruins of the old, seemed to be no nearer.
Boulte ate his breakfast, advised her to see her Arab pony fed in the verandah, and went out. The morning wore through, and at midday the tension became unendurable. Mrs. Boulte could not cry. She had finished her crying in the night, and now she did not want to be left alone. Perhaps the Vansuythen Woman would talk to her; and, since talking opens the heart, perhaps there might be some comfort to be found in her company. She was the only other woman in the Station.
In Kashima there are no regular calling-hours. Every one can drop in upon every one else at pleasure. Mrs. Boulte put on a big hat, and walked across to the Vansuythen's house to borrow the Queen. The two compounds touched, and instead of going up the drive, she crossed through the gap in the cactus-hedge, entering the house from the back. As she passed through the dining-room, she heard, behind the curtain that cloaked the drawing-room door, her husband's voice, saying:
"But on my honour! On my Soul and Honour, I tell you she doesn't care for me. She told me so last night. I would have told you then if Vansuythen hadn't been with you. If it is for her sake that you'll have nothing to say to me, you can make your mind easy. It's Kurrell——"
"What?" said Mrs. Vansuythen, with an hysterical little laugh. "Kurrell! Oh it can't be! You two must have made some horrible mistake. Perhaps you—you lost your temper, or misunderstood, or something. Things can't be as wrong as you say."
Mrs. Vansuythen had shifted her defence to avoid the man's pleading, and was desperately trying to keep him to a side-issue.
"There must be some mistake," she insisted, "and it can be all put right again."
Boulte laughed grimly.
"It can't be Captain Kurrell! He told me that he had never taken the least—the least interest in your wife, Mr. Boulte. Oh do listen! He said he had not. He swore he had not," said Mrs. Vansuythen.
The curtain rustled, and the speech was cut short by the entry of a little, thin woman, with big rings round her eyes. Mrs. Vansuythen stood up with a gasp.
"What was that you said?" asked Mrs. Boulte. "Never mind that man. What did Ted say to you? What did he say to you? What did he say to you?"
Mrs. Vansuythen sat down helplessly on the sofa, overborne by the trouble of her questioner.
"He said—I can't remember exactly what he said—but I understood him to say—that is—— But, really, Mrs. Boulte, isn't it rather a strange question."
"Will you tell me what he said?" repeated Mrs. Boulte.
Even a tiger will fly before a bear robbed of her whelps, and Mrs. Vansuythen was only an ordinarily good woman.
She began in a sort of desperation: "Well, he said that he never cared for you at all, and, of course, there was not the least reason why he should have, and—and—that was all."
"You said he swore he had not cared for me. Was that true?"
"Yes," said Mrs. Vansuythen very softly. Mrs. Boulte wavered for an instant where she stood, and then fell forward fainting.
"What did I tell you?" said Boulte, as though the conversation had been unbroken. "You can see for yourself. She cares for him." The light began to break into his dull mind, and he went on—"And he—what was he saying to you?"
But Mrs. Vansuythen, with no heart for explanations or impassioned protestations, was kneeling over Mrs. Boulte.
"Oh you brute!" she cried. "Are all men like this? Help me to get her into my room—and her face is cut against the table. Oh, will you be quiet, and help me to carry her? I hate you, and I hate Captain Kurrell. Lift her up carefully and now—go! Go away!"
Boulte carried his wife into Mrs. Vansuythen's bedroom and departed before the storm of that lady's wrath and disgust, impenitent and burning with jealousy. Kurrell had been making love to Mrs. Vansuythen—would do Vansuythen as great a wrong as he had done Boulte who caught himself considering whether Mrs. Vansuythen would faint if she discovered that the man she loved had forsworn her.
In the middle of these meditations, Kurrell came cantering along the road and pulled up with a cheery, "Good mornin'. Been mashing Mrs. Vansuythen as usual, eh? Bad thing for a sober, married man, that. What will Mrs. Boulte say?"
Boulte raised his head and said slowly: "Oh you liar".
Kurrell's face changed. "What's that?" he asked quickly.
"Nothing much," said Boulte. "Has my wife told you that you two are free to go off whenever you please? She has been good enough to explain the situation to me. You've been a true friend to me, Kurrell, old man, haven't you."
Kurrell groaned, and tried to frame some sort of idiotic sentence about being willing to give "satisfaction". But his interest in the woman was dead, had died out in the Rains, and, mentally, he was abusing her for her amazing indiscretion. It would have been so easy to have broken off the affair gently and by degrees, and now he was saddled with——Boulte's voice recalled him.
"I don't think I should get any satisfaction from killing you, and I'm pretty sure you'd get none from killing me."
Then in a querulous tone, ludicrously disproportioned to his wrongs, Boulte added:
"Seems rather a pity that you haven't the decency to keep to the woman, now you've got her. You've been a true friend to her too, haven't you?"
Kurrell stared long and gravely. The situation was getting beyond him.
"What do you mean?" he said.
Boulte answered, more to himself than the questioner: "My wife came over to Mrs. Vansuythen's just now; and it seems, you'd been telling Mrs. Vansuythen that you'd never cared for Emma. I suppose you lied, as usual. What had Mrs. Vansuythen to do with you, or you with her? Try to speak the truth for once in a way."
Kurrell took the double insult without wincing, and replied by another question: "Go on. What happened? "
"Emma fainted," said Boulte simply. "But, look here, what had you been saying to Mrs. Vansuythen."
Kurrell laughed. Mrs. Boulte had, with unbridled tongue, made havoc of his plans, and he could at least retaliate by hurting the man in whose eyes he was humiliated and shown dishonourable.
"Said to her? What does a man tell a lie like that for? I suppose I said pretty much what you've said, unless I'm a good deal mistaken."
"I spoke the truth," said Boulte, again more to himself than Kurrell. "Emma told me she hated me. She has no right in me."
"No! I suppose not. You're only her husband, y'know. And what did Mrs. Vansuythen say after you had laid your disengaged heart at her feet?"
Kurrell felt almost virtuous as he put the question.
"I don't think that matters," Boulte replied; "and it doesn't concern you."
"But it does! I tell you it does," began Kurrell shamelessly.
The sentence was cut by a roar of laughter from Boulte's lips. Kurrell was silent for an instant, and then he, too, laughed—laughed long and loudly, rocking in his saddle. It was an unpleasant sound—the mirthless mirth of these men on the long, white line of the Narkarra road. There were no strangers in Kashima, or they might have thought that captivity within the Dosehri hills had driven half the European population mad. The laughter stopped abruptly. Kurrell was the first to speak.
"Well, what are you going to do?"
Boulte looked up the road, and at the hills. "Nothing," said he quietly. "What's the use? It's too ghastly for anything. We must let the old life go on. I can only call you a hound and a liar, and I can't go on calling you names for ever. Besides which, I don't feel that I'm much better. We can't get out of this place, y'know. What is there to do?"
Kurrell looked round the rat-pit of Kashima and made no reply. The injured husband took up the wondrous tale.
"Ride on, and speak to Emma if you want to. God knows I don't care what you do."
He walked forward, and left Kurrell gazing blankly after him. Kurrell did not ride on either to see Mrs. Boulte or Mrs. Vansuythen. He sat in his saddle and thought, while his pony grazed by the roadside.
The whir of approaching wheels roused him. Mrs. Vansuythen was driving home Mrs. Boulte, white and wan, with a cut on her forehead.
"Stop, please," said Mrs. Boulte, "I want to speak to Ted."
Mrs. Vansuythen obeyed, but as Mrs. Boulte leaned forward, putting her hand upon the splash-board of the dog-cart, Kurrell spoke.
"I've seen your husband, Mrs. Boulte."
There was no necessity for any further explanation. The man's eyes were fixed, not upon Mrs. Boulte but her companion. Mrs. Boulte saw the look.
"Speak to him!" she pleaded turning to the woman at her side. "Oh, speak to him! Tell him what you told me just now. Tell him you hate him! Tell him you hate him."
She bent forward and wept bitterly, while the groom, decorously impassive, went forward to hold the horse. Mrs. Vansuythen turned scarlet and dropped the rein. She wished to be no party to such an unholy explanation.
"I've nothing to do with it," she began coldly, but Mrs. Boulte's sobs overcame her and she addressed herself to the man. "I don't know what I am to say, Captain Kurrell. I don't know what I can call you. I think you've—you've behaved abominably, and she has cut her forehead terribly against the table."
"It doesn't hurt. It isn't anything," said Mrs. Boulte feebly. "That doesn't matter. Tell him what you told me. Say you don't care for him. Oh, Ted, won't you believe her?"
"Mrs. Boulte has made me understand that you were—that you were fond of her once upon a time," went on Mrs. Vansuythen.
"Well!" said Kurrell brutally. "It seems to me that Mrs. Boulte had better be fond of her own husband first."
"Stop!" said Mrs. Vansuythen. "Hear me first. I don't care—I don't want to know anything about you and Mrs. Boulte; but I want you to know that I hate you, that I think you are a cur, and that I'll never, never speak to you again. Oh, I don't dare to say what I think of you, you—man!"
"I want to speak to Ted," moaned Mrs. Boulte, but the dog-cart rattled on, and Kurrell was left on the road, shamed and boiling with wrath against Mrs. Boulte.
He waited till Mrs. Vansuythen was driving back to her own house, and, she being freed from the embarrassment of Mrs. Boulte's presence, learned for the second time a truthful opinion of himself and his actions.
In the evenings it was the wont of all Kashima to meet at the platform on the Narkarra road, to drink tea and discuss the trivialities of the day. Major Vansuythen and his wife found themselves alone at the gathering-place for almost the first time in their remembrance; and the cheery Major, in the teeth of his wife's remarkably reasonable suggestion that the rest of the Station might be sick, insisted upon driving round to the two bungalows and unearthing the population.
"Sitting in the twilight!" said he, with great indignation to the Boultes. "That'll never do! Hang it all, we're one family here! You must come out, and so must Kurrell. I'll make him bring his banjo."
So great is the power of honest simplicity and a good digestion over guilty consciences that all Kashima did turn out, even down to the banjo; and the Major embraced the company in one expansive grin. As he grinned Mrs. Vansuythen raised her eyes for an instant and looked at Kashima. Her meaning was clear. Major Vansuythen would never know anything. He was to be the outsider in that happy family whose cage was the Dosehri hills.
"You're singing villainously out of tune, Kurrell," said the Major, truthfully. "Pass me that banjo."
And he sang in excruciating-wise till the stars came out and Kashima went to dinner.
That was the beginning of the New Life of Kashima—the life that Mrs. Boulte made when her tongue was loosened in the twilight.
Mrs. Vansuythen has never told the Major; and since he insists upon the maintenance of a burdensome geniality, she has been compelled to break her vow of not speaking to Kurrell. This speech, which must of necessity preserve the semblance of politeness and interest, serves admirably to keep alight the flame of jealousy and dull hatred in Boulte's bosom, as it awakens the same passions in his wife's heart. Mrs. Boulte hates Mrs. Vansuythen because she has taken Ted from her, and, in some curious fashion, hates her because Mrs. Vansuythen—and here the wife's eyes see far more clearly than the husband's—detests Ted. And Ted—that gallant Captain and honourable man—knows now that it is possible to hate a woman once loved, even to the verge of wishing to silence her for ever with blows. Above all, is he shocked that Mrs. Boulte cannot see the error of her ways.
Boulte and he go out tiger-shooting together in amity and all good friendship. Boulte has put their relationship on a most satisfactory footing.
"You're a blackguard," he says to Kurrell, "and I've lost any self-respect I may ever have had; but when you're with me, I can feel certain that you are not with Mrs. Vansuythen, or making Emma miserable."
Kurrell endures anything that Boulte may say to him. Sometimes they are away for three days together, and then the Major insists upon his wife going over to sit with Mrs. Boulte; although Mrs. Vansuythen has repeatedly vowed that she prefers her husband's company to any in the world. From the way in which she clings to him, she would certainly appear to be speaking the truth.
But of course, as the Major says, "in a little Station we must all be friendly".