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Under the Sun/In Hot Weather

PART II.

THE INDIAN SEASONS.

I.

IN HOT WEATHER.

“And the day shall have a sun
That shall make thee wish it done.”

IS Manfred speaking of the hot weather, of May-day in India? The hot weather is palpably here, and the heat of the sun makes the length of the twelve hours intolerable. The mango-bird glances through the groves, and in the early morning announces his beautiful but unwelcome presence with his merle-melody. The köel-cuckoo screams in a crescendo from some deep covert, and the crow-pheasant’s note has changed to a sound which must rank among nature’s strangest, — with the marsh-bittern’s weird booming, the drumming of the capercailzie, or the bell-tolling note of the prairie campanile. Now, too, the hornets are hovering round our eaves, and wasps reconnoitre our verandahs. “Of all God’s creatures,” said Christopher North, “the wasp is the only one eternally out of temper.” But he should have said this only of the British wasp. The vespæ of India, though, from their savage garniture of colors and their ghastly elegance, very formidable to look on, are but feeble folk compared with their banded congener of England, the ruffian in glossy velvet and deep yellow, who assails one at all hours of the summer’s day, lurking in fallen fruit, making grocers’ shops as dangerous as viper-pits, an empty sugar-keg a very cockatrice den, and spreading dismay at every picnic. But the wasp points this moral, — that it requires no brains to annoy. A wasp stings as well without its head as with it.

Flies, too, now assume a prominence to which they are in no way entitled by their merits. Luther hated flies quia sunt imagines diaboli et hæreticorum; and, with a fine enthusiasm worthy of the great Reformer, he smote Beelzebub in detail. “I am,” he said one day, as he sat at his dinner, his Boswell (Lauterbach) taking notes under the table, “I am a great enemy unto flies, for when I have a good book they flock upon it, parade up and down upon it, and soil it.” So Luther used to kill them with all the malignity of the early Christian. And indeed the fly deserves death. It has no delicacy, and hints are thrown away upon the importunate insect. With a persistent insolence it returns to your nose, perching irreverently upon the feature, until sudden death cuts short its ill-mannered career. In this matter my sympathies are rather with that Roman Emperor who impaled on pins all the flies he could catch, than with Uncle Toby who, when he had in his power a ruffianly bluebottle, let it go out of the window, — to fly into his neighbor’s house and vex him. The only consolation is that the neighbor probably killed it.

The sun is hardly up yet, so the doors are open. From the garden come the sounds of chattering hot-weather birds. “While eating,” said the Shepherd, “say little, but look friendly;” but the starlings (to give them their due and to speak more point-device, — the “rose-colored pastors”) do not at all respect the advice of James Hogg, for while eating they say much, looking the while most unfriendly. They have only just arrived from Syria, — indeed, in their far-off breeding cliffs, there are still young birds waiting for their wings before leaving for the East, — and they lose no time in announcing their arrival. The unhappy owner of the mulberry-grove yonder wages a bitter conflict with them, and from their numbers his pellet-bow thins out many a rosy thief. The red semul-tree is all aflame with burning scarlet, each branch a chandelier lit up with clusters of fiery blossom; and to it in the early heat come flocking, “with tongues all loudness,” a motley crowd of birds thirsting for the cool dew which has been all night collecting in the floral goblets and been sweetened by the semul’s honey. Among them the pastors revel, drinking, fighting, and chattering from early dawn to blazing noon. But as the sun strengthens all nature begins to confess the heat, and even the crow caws sadly. On the water the sun dances with such a blinding sparkle that the panoplied crocodile, apprehensive of asphyxia, will hardly show his scales above the river, and the turtles shut up their telescope necks, shrewdly suspecting a sunstroke. On the shaded hillside the herded pigs he dreamily grunting, and in the deep coverts the deer stretch themselves secure. The peasants in the fields have loosed their bullocks for a respite; and, while they make their way to the puddles, their masters creep under their grass huts to eat their meal, smoke their pipes, and doze.

But in the cities the heat of noon is worse. There is wanting even the relief of herbage and running water. The white sunlight lies upon the roads, so palpable a heat that it might be peeled off; the bare, blinding walls, surcharged with heat, refuse to soak in more, and reject upon the air the fervor beating down upon them. In the dusty hollows of the roadside the pariah dogs lie sweltering in dry heat; beneath the trees sit the crows, their beaks agape; the buffaloes are wallowing in the shrunken mud-holes, — but not a human being is abroad of his own will. At times a messenger, with his head swathed in cloths, trudges along through the white dust; or a camel, his cloven feet treading the hot, soft surface of the road as if it were again pressing the sand-plains of the Khanates, goes lounging by; but the world holds the mid-day to be intolerable, and has renounced it, seeking such respite as it may from the terrible breath of that hot wind which is shrivelling up the face of nature, making each tree as dry as the Oak of Mamre, suffocating out of it all that has life.

But the punkah-coolie is left outside. His lines have been cast to him on the wrong side of the tattie. The hot wind, whose curses the sweet kiss of the kus-kus turns to blessings, whose oven-breath passes into our houses with a borrowed fragrance, finds the punkah-coolie standing undefended in the verandah, and blows upon him; the sun sees him and, as long as he can, stares at him; until the punkah-coolie, in the stifling heat of May-day, almost longs for the flooded miseries of Michaelmas. But he has his revenge. In his hands he holds a rope — a punkah-rope — and beneath the punkah sits his master, writing. On either side and all round him, piled carefully, are arranged papers, — light, flimsy sheets, — and on each pile lies a paper-weight. And the punkah swings backward and forward with a measured flight, the papers’ edges responsive, with a rustle, to each wave of air. And the writer, wary at first, grows careless. The monotony of the air has put him off his guard, and here and there a paper-weight has been removed. Now is the coolie’s time. Sweet is revenge I and suddenly with a jerk the punkah wakes up, sweeping in a wider arc, and with a rustle of many wings the piled papers slide whispering to the floor. But why loiter to enumerate the coolie’s small revenges, the mean tricks by which, when you rise, he flips you in the eye with the punkah fringe, disordering your hair and sweeping it this way and that, — the petty retaliation of finding out a hole in the tattie, and flinging water through it on to your matting, angering the dog that was lying in the cool, damp shade? These and such are the coolie’s revenges, when the hot weather by which he lives embitters him against his kind. But at night he develops into a fiend, for whom a deep and bitter loathing possesses itself of the hearts of men. It is upon him that the strong man, furious at the sudden cessation of the breeze, makes armed sallies. It is on him that the mosquito-bitten subaltern, wakeful through the oil-lit watches of the night, empties the vial of his wrath and the contents of his wash-hand basin: who shares with the griff’s dogs the uncompromising attentions of boot-jacks and riding-whips. For him ingenious youth devises rare traps, cunning pyramids of beer-boxes with a rope attached — curious penalties to make him suffer, — for the coolie, after the sun has set, becomes a demoralized machine that requires winding up once every twenty minutes, and is not to be kept going without torture. And thus for eight shillings a month he embitters your life, making the punkah an engine wherewith to oppress you.

It is Cardan, I think, who advises men to partake sometimes of unwholesome food if they have an extraordinary liking for it; it is not always well, he would tell us, to be of an even virtue. What a poor thing, for instance, were an oyster in constant health; ladies’ caskets would then want their pearls. Who does not at times resent the appearance of a friend who is comfortably fat, come weal or woe? The uniform hilarity of Mark Tapley recommends itself to few. But to the punkah-coolie, how inexplicable our theorizing on the evil of monotonous good! To him anything good is so rare that he at once assimilates it, when he meets with it, to his ordinary evil. He cannot trust himself to believe the metal in his hand is gold. Given enough, he commits a surfeit, and tempted with a little he lusts after too much. Indulgence with the coolie means license, and a conditional promise a carte blanche. And thus he provokes ill-nature. Usually it depends upon the master whether service be humiliation; but the punkah-coolie is such “a thing of dark imaginings” that he too often defies sympathy.

I have three coolies, and I call them Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, for they have stood the test of fire. And Shadrach is an idiot. Upon him the wily Meshach foists his work; and at times even the crass Abednego can shuffle his periods of toil upon the broad shoulders of Shadrach. He is slate-colored when dry; in the rains he resembles a bheesty’s[1] water-skin. In his youth he was neglected, and in his manhood his paunch hath attained an unseemly rotundity. Not that I would have it supposed he is portly. His dimensions have been induced by disease. His thin face knows it, and wears an expression of deprecating humility, to which his conscious legs respond in tremulous emotions. His life is a book without pictures. His existence is set to very sad music. The slightest noise within the house is sufficient to set Shadrach pulling like a bell-ringer on New Year’s Eve; but a very-few minutes suffice to plunge him into obese oblivion, and then the punkah; waggles feebly until a shout again electrifies it into ferocity It is always when Shadrach is pulling that the punkah-rope breaks; when more water than usual splashes through the tattie I make sure that the ladle is in Shadrach’s hands. Meshach is of another sort. He is the oldest of the three and when he condescends to the rope, pulls the punkah well. But, as a rule, he allows Shadrach to do his work; for as often as I look out Meshach is tying curled: up under a pink cloth asleep, and Shadrach is pulling. He has established a mastery over his fellows, and by virtue, so I believe, of that pink cloth which voluminously girds his wizened frame, exacts a respect to which his claim is forged. They are the Children of the Lotus, and he their wise Hermogene. In a grievance Meshach is spokesman, but in the case of a disagreement arising, the master’s wrath falls always, somehow, on one of the others. When pay-day comes, Meshach sits familiarly in the verandah with the regular retainers of the household; while Shadrach and Abednego await their wages at a distance, standing foolishly in the sun. Abednego is a man of great physical power, and of something less than average intelligence. He is noisy at times, and may be heard quarrelling with the bheesty who comes to fill the tattle-pots, or grumbling when no one appears to relieve him at the right moment. But altogether he is a harmless animal, turning his hand cheerfully to other work than his own, and even rising to a joke with the gardener. Bnt Meshach holds him in subjection.

But the hot day is passing. The sun is going down the hill, but yet not so fast as to explain the sudden gloom which relieves the sky. In the west has risen a brown cloud, and the far trees tell of a rising wind. It nears swiftly, driving before it a flock of birds. The wind must be high, for the kite cannot keep its balance, and attempts in vain to beat up against it. The crow yields to it without a struggle, and goes drifting eastward; the small birds shoot right and left for shelter. It is a dust-storm. The brown cloud has now risen well above the trees, and already the garden is aware of its approach. You can hear the storm gathering up its rustling skirts for a rush through the tree-tops. And on a sudden it sweeps up with a roar, embanked in fine clouds of dust, and strikes the house. At once every door bursts open or shuts to, the servants shout, the horses in the stables neigh, and while the brief hurricane is passing a pall lies upon the place. Out of windows the sight is limited to a few yards, beyond which may be only mistily made out the forms of strong trees bowing before the fierce blast, with their boughs all streaming in one direction. The darkness is like that mysterious murk which rested on the fabled land of Hannyson — “alle covered with darkness withouten any brightnesse or light: so that no man may see ne heren ne no man dar entren in to hem. And natheless thei of the Contree sey that some tyme men heren voys of Folk and Hors nyzenge and Cokkes crowynge. And men witen well that men dwellen there, but knowe not what men.” Hark! there are voices of folk; from the stables comes the “nyzenge of hors,” from the direction of the fowl-house a “voys of cokkes crowynge,” and the murk of Hannyson is over all. As suddenly as it came the storm has gone. The verandahs are full of dead leaves, the tattie-door has fallen, and a few tiles are lying on the ground; but the dust-storm has passed on far ahead and is already on the river. Out upon the Ganges the sudden rippling of the water, the brown haze beyond the bank, have warned the native steersman to make for the land. Over his head sweep and circle the anxious river-fowl, the keen-winged terns and piping sand-birds, the egret and the ibis; and as his skiff nears the shore he sees a sudden hurrying on all the large vessel-decks, hears the cries of the boatmen as they hasten to haul down the clumsy sails, and in another minute his own boat is rocking about and bumping among the others. The dust-storm travels quickly. Between the banks is sweeping up the sand-laden wind, concealing from the huddled boats the temples and the ghat across the river, the bridge that spans it, and the sky itself. But only for a minute, for almost before the river has had time to ruffle into waves the storm has passed, and the Ganges is flowing as quietly as ever.

For a while the air is cooler, but the sun has not been blown out, and Parthian-like he shoots his keenest arrows in retreat. And as the shadows lengthen along the ground the heat changes from that of a bonfire to that of an oven. When the sun is in mid-heaven we recognize the justice of the heat, abhor it as we may. The sun is hot. But when he has gone, we resent the accursed legacy of stifling heat he leaves us. His posthumous calor is intolerable. It chokes the breath by its dead intensity, like the fell atmosphere that hung round the dragon-daughter of Ypocras in her bedevilled castle in the Isle of Colos.

A wind makes pretense of blowing, but while it borrows heat from the ground, it does not lend it coolness. The city, however, is abroad again. Children go by with their nurses; the shops are doing business. In the bazaars the every-day crowd is noisy, along the roads the red-aproned bheesties sprinkle their feeble handfuls, and the world is out to enjoy such pleasures as it may on May-day “in the plains.” In the country the peasant is brisk again, and trudges away from his work cheerily; bands of women affect to make merry with discordant singing as they pass along the fields; the miry cattle are being herded in the villages. And in the garden the birds assemble to say good-night. They are all in the idlest of humors, and, their day’s work over, are sauntering about in the air and from tree to tree, or congregating in vagrom do-nothing crowds — the elders idle, the younger mischievous. In birddom the crows take the place of gamins, and spend the mauvais quart d’heure in vexing their betters. An old kite, tired with his long flights and sulky under the grievance of a shabbily-filled stomach, crouches on the roof, his feathers ruffled about him. He is not looking for food; it is getting too late, and he knows that in half an hour his place will be taken by the owls, and that before long the jackals will be trying to worry a supper off the bones which he scraped for his breakfast. But the crow is in no humor for sentiment. He has stolen during the day, and eaten, enough to make memory a joy forever. On his full stomach he grows pert, and in his vulgar street-boy fashion, affronts the ill-fed bird of prey. With a wily step he approaches him from behind and pulls at his longest tail-feather, or, sidling alongside, pecks at an outstretched wing. Even when inactive, his simple presence worries the kite, for he cannot tell what his tormentor is devising. But he has not -long to wait, for the crow, which from a foot off has been derisively studying the kite in silence, suddenly opens his mouth, and utters a cry of warning. The chattering garden is hushed, small birds escape to shelter, the larger fly up into the air, or on to the highest coigns of vantage, and look round for the enemy. The crow, encouraged by success, again warns the world, and his brethren come flocking round, anxious to pester something, but not quite certain as to the danger that threatens. But the crow is equal to the occasion, and by wheeling in a circle round the inoffensive kite, and making a sudden swoop towards it, points out to them the object of his feigned terror. At once his cue is taken, and with a discord of cries, to which Pisani’s angry barbiton in the story of Zanoni was music, they surround the sulking bird. It seems as if at every swoop they would strike the crouching kite from his perch, but they know too well to tempt the curved beak, the curved talons, and though approaching near they never touch him. The kite has only to make the motion of flight, and his tormentors widen their circles. But he cannot submit to the indiguity long, and slowly unfolding his wide wings, the carrion-bird launches himself upon the air. Meanwhile the sparrows are clubbing under the roof, and their discussions are noisy. The mynas pace the lawn, exchanging commonplaces with their fellows by their side, or those who pass homeward overhead. The little birds are slipping into the bushes, where they will pass the hours of sleep; while from everywhere come the voices of Nature making arrangements for the night.

One little bird closes the day with a song of thanks. He is a sweet little songster — do you know him? — a dapper bird, dressed, as a gentleman should be in the evening, in black and white, with a shapely figure, a neatly turned tail, and all the gestures of a bird of the world. Choosing a low bough, one well leafed, he screens himself from the world, and for an hour pours out upon the hot evening air a low, sweet, throbbing song. He appears to sing unconsciously: his notes run over of their own accord, without any effort. The bird rather thinks aloud in song than sings. I have seen him warbling in the wildest, poorest corner, the knuckle-end of the garden. At first I thought he was all alone. But soon I saw sitting above him, with every gesture of interested attention, two crested bulbuls, the nightingales of Hafiz. They were listening to the little solitary minstrel, recognizing in the pied songster a master of their song. And so he went on singing to his pretty audience until the moon began to rise. And with a sudden rush from behind the citrons’ shade the night-jar tumbled out upon the evening air.


  1. The water-carrier.