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Women's Genre Fiction Project

Babes in the Wood, an electronic edition

by B. M. Croker [Croker, B.M. (Bithia Mary), d.1920]

date: 1914
source publisher: Methuen & Co., Ltd.
collection: Genre Fiction

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CHAPTER II
THE KENNEDYS

DINNER was served at a round table decorated with freshly gathered flowers, and lit by wax candles with pretty rose-coloured shades; the appointments were dainty, the menu to correspond, and silent-footed white-clad servants waited to admiration. After his long dusty journey, the stranger | | 8 experienced a sensation of well-being and supreme contentment. If this were Indian indoor life--how splendid!

He glanced from the trophies on the walls, the Persian rugs spread about the floor, to the diamonds that glittered on the fingers of the 'Mother of the district,' finally to a delicate soufflé which was being offered for his approval. As he helped himself he was mentally composing a home letter, with long and vivid descriptions of India's unexpected delights. People talked as if it were a mysterious, wild, uncivilized sort of place. Now he intended to impress upon his family that all such talk was absolute rot!

Meanwhile his host and hostess had been what is vulgarly termed 'taking stock' of their guest: a handsome young fellow, whose dinner suit and well-glazed shirt sat on him with the ease of daily acquaintance. Ignorant and inexperienced with respect to India he might be, but his voice and manners indicated a complete familiarity with cultured life. He was deliberate of speech and a capital listener, but talked in a boyish disjointed fashion of 'board-ship incidents, the poor grouse prospects at home, the latest musical comedy, and the Eton and Harrow match. Naturally the heads and horns on the walls attracted his admiration, and he listened with rapt attention to Mr. Kennedy's description of how, when, and where they had fallen to fate.

'The King of the Bison, I should say!" exclaimed Trafford, indicating a great trophy. 'Did you get him near this, sir?'

'About four miles away in the Kohur jungle, in the rains--but that was years ago--before the line was opened. These tracts of forest remained untouched; splendid natural preserves; but now the sâl jungle has been cleared, and game partly exterminated, thanks to trappers and native shikaris with their cheap guns. Yes, this part of India was the real home of big game, where a man has been known to | | 9 bag his brace of tiger before tiffin--but the palmy days of shikar are over!'

'All the same, you still get good sport, Dick, or at least your friends do,' protested Mrs. Kennedy.' You must not damp Mr. Trafford's hopes, especially as he will be close to a celebrated Reserve.'

Turning to him, she added--

'This part of the world has still a reputation; you would be astonished at the number of people--actually smart Society people with titles--who come to Dick, clamouring for sport; we find them tents and shikaris, and put them up for a couple of days. Shooting is our sole attraction--but I must say it 's a big draw!'

'Have you ever shot a man-eating tiger?' asked Trafford, looking over at his host.

'O Lord, yes! They are common in the district, and take many of the carters and woodmen; but I will show you the skin of a panther that is said to have eaten a hundred people.'

'I say!' exclaimed Trafford; after a moment's silence, he added, 'I should not have thought a panther would be big enough--or bold enough.'

'He is both--a number of panthers are man-eaters--and ten times more dangerous than tiger. They are devilishly cunning, and hold our race in supreme contempt. They prowl round huts, blowing and sniffing under doors.'

'What cheek!' ejaculated his listener.

'Yes, they are only too familiar with mankind, and know his weakness; rambling through villages at night, they will snatch an old man off his charpoy, a child from a mat, and are gone in a flash. Now the tiger is a gentleman, no spy and sneak; but the spotted cat is a bounder--in every sense of the word. However, you will soon be as intimate with these wild beasts as I am--a sort of hail-fellow-well-met! for you are within easy reach of the best beats, and the very cream of shooting.'

Trafford's face beamed; he leant back in his chair | | 10 and smiled like some happy child, whose long promised toy has been placed in his hands at last.

'Oh yes,' said Mr. Kennedy, responding to the smile; 'but, mind you, it's your only asset. Pahari isn't all jam! You have no neighbours, you are off the line, and almost out of humanity's reach.'

'And the reach of temptation,' added Mrs. Kennedy, with her pleasant glance. 'No way to spend money--no cards--no racing.'

'No girls!' broke in her husband. 'Your nearest ladies are Mrs. Castellas and Mrs. Baxter--neither of them either young or attractive.'

'But what about Mrs. Heron?' interposed his wife; 'or is she away?'

'Yes; Chandi doesn't see much of her, except in the cold weather. Old Tom Heron is a long-suffering--' the sentence ended in a word that was half-suppressed, but sounded like 'fool.' 'Now come along, Trafford, and have a cigar, and I'll show you the skin of the Holyghur panther.'

'Richard has skins enough to carpet a garden,' declared Mrs. Kennedy. 'When you have had your smoke, you must find your way to the drawing-room and have a little talk with me.'

Here, twenty minutes later, Trafford discovered his hostess, with her lap full of letters.

'It's my mail,' she explained, looking up. 'The English dâk, your train, brought it. I've had quite a budget, including one from my nephew Harry. I think you and he must be of an age; he is twenty.'

'And I was twenty-three last May,' said Trafford, seating himself, and picking up an easy-going dog.

'Are you really? You look so young.'

'It's a way we have in our family. I could not get into the department at twenty as probationer. I've put in two years at Oxford, and a year in France at Nancy.'

'And so you are an Oxford man and twenty-three; and I've been treating you as a boy! I'm afraid | | 11 you will find your life very solitary. Now, if you'd gone to Bengal--'

'Yes, no doubt I'd be more in the swim; but I applied for the Central Provinces on account of the big forests and the game.'

'So you had a choice! You must have got a good diploma?'

'Middling fair,' he admitted, with rising colour. 'You see I was so deadly keen. I've not much brains, but I can stick at a thing--some subjects were awfully stiff.'

'Subjects--what sort of subjects?'

'Well, mathematics, trigonometry, chemistry, elements of zoology, survey, book-keeping. I worried through, and now I've done with exams for a long time.'

'I had no idea that Woods and Forests were so learned. I thought you only marked trees, and burnt jungle.'

'And I've not done that yet.'

Mrs. Kennedy felt unusually attracted by this boy's personality, his good-looking tanned face, his honest smiling eyes. How she would have adored a son of her own just like him!

'I am sure your mother nearly broke her heart when you left her, now did she not?'

'No, not quite,' he answered, with an embarrassed laugh; 'she knows that nothing ever happens to me. Once when I was a kid I fell out of a window, and was only "shaken"; the mater always wanted me to go to India. She knew I was so keen on it.'

'Did she?' Mrs. Kennedy leant a little forward and gazed at him interrogatively, as if she expected some further explanation.

' Well--er--you see,' clearing his throat nervously, and stroking the blinking dachshund, 'the fact is, the mater never saw much of us. My sister and I were brought up by our grandmother in the country. I was always a frightful pickle; messing about with | | 12 frogs and ferrets, and young rats and slow-worms--just the sort of things the mater screamed at! and I generally had filthy hands, and trod on her dress, or upset the ink--and so, as you may suppose, a little of me went a long way. The mater loathes the country--it gives her neuralgia. I was sent to school when I was eight, and spent the "hols" with grannie, and just saw the mater passing through town. She lives in London and travels a good bit; yachts, and goes to Egypt or Norway. She is extraordinarily handsome and popular, and might easily pass for my sister--or my sister's sister.'

'Oh, tell me about your sister.'

'She is younger than I am, and looks a mere chit, but she must be nearly nineteen. We are tremendous pals, as she spent most of her time with grannie, then she went abroad to be finished. I've not seen her for two years.'

'Have you her photograph with you by chance?'

'I'm afraid it's in my heavy baggage, but someday I mean to have her out to Pahari--and then you will see her in real life.'

'Oh, my dear boy! you have not the least idea of what you are talking about,' protested Mrs. Kennedy, with upraised hands. 'Wait till you have seen Pahari! It is twenty miles from here by a jungle track. You will have no one near you but a few forest guards, and tigers, panthers, and bears; she would not have a soul to speak to--nothing to do--and you absent all the day. Why, she would go crazy from terror and solitude. I wonder if you realize that solitude has a most awful effect on some people? For instance, the former forest officer, your predecessor, young Frost--' she paused meditatively.

Trafford dislodged the dog, stood up, put his hands in his pockets, and looked down the pretty room with its chintz furniture, and stands of books and flowers. There was quite an appreciable silence. At last he said abruptly--

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'And what about young Frost?'

'Poor fellow, he could not endure it! He used to come to us as often as possible, and called this place heaven. He talked of forest sounds and mysteries, the strange, weird cries, the ghostly silences. Of course, he had a peculiar temperament--and was naturally nervous. I was sorry for him, and lent him books, and sent him cakes, wrote notes, and tried to let him feel he was within reach of friends.'

'And where is he now?' inquired his successor.

'No, no, no!' continued the lady, ignoring the question. 'You can't have your sister at Pahari; you must wait till you are moved.'

'Moved? I'm afraid that won't be for some time. Stenhouse said I would be at Pahari for a couple of years.'

'Impossible' cried Mrs. Kennedy, with unexpected heat, 'that would be too, too shameful! You will be away long before that.'

'I say, Mrs. Kennedy, you are in a hurry to be rid of me--and I only arrived at seven o'clock.'

'Oh no; it will be you who will be dying to see the last of us.'

'Not likely. Do you know that already I feel India in my veins!' and he laughed and sniffed. 'Why, I can smell the cork-tree blossoms, and the wet, red earth, as I stand here--delicious!'

'Listen to the torrents--how it is coming down! I am sorry you did not postpone your arrival till the rains were over. August is such a bad time in the jungle.'

'That is what they all said; but I saw no good in slacking about at home. I wanted to make a good start.'

'Yes, and that reminds me that we must get to business,' said Mrs. Kennedy briskly. 'I have set up so many boys, so many bachelor establishments. I hear you have brought out very little?'

'Next to nothing, I'm sorry to say.'

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'What a pity, and you had a large baggage allowance--and things are so much better at home.'

'Yes, and I nearly lived in the Army and Navy Stores for the last week.'

'Do you realize all you will want? Spoons and knives and forks, house-linen, glass and crockery, lamps, oil, soap, stores, and servants.'

As she talked, Mrs. Kennedy seized a book, and with the back of an envelope and a pencil began to scribble at racing speed.

'To-morrow we will post this to Calcutta, and meanwhile I will lend you things to begin with.'

'How more than good of you. I'm really ashamed to sponge on you like this.'

' No, no; I keep a regular lending-out kit. I 'll get you a camp cook and a couple of good goats, and I want you to subscribe for books and papers, and to promise me one or two things.'

'Yes--anything you like to name!'

'You are never to sleep in the jungle on account of malaria; always keep quinine in stock, and wear a flannel belt--especially in the rains; also be on the look out for snakes and scorpions--a scorpion in one's bath sponge is a tragedy.'

'I should rather say so!' agreed Trafford with emphasis.

'Last, and not least, if you ever find yourself in any trouble or difficulty, send in, or come to us.'

'Really, Mrs. Kennedy, you are too--too kind. What a lucky thing it was for me that I chanced upon your husband's carriage--it seems like a good omen'

'Every one helps every one in this country--some day, you will do it yourself.'

'I am sure I hope so. Can you tell me anything of my nearest station?'

'No, I don't know much about the Chandi people beyond Pahari. You see, a great jungle lies between us, and since I had a bad accident, I do not ride-- | | 15 though I liked riding beyond words, my nerve is gone, and I am now only able to get about on wheels--but I believe Chandi is a sort of delightful Arcadia, where all agree, all love one another, and lead the simple life. Just what you pine for! Such a thing as a pack of cards, or a bottle of champagne, have never been seen in the place. Mr. Baxter, an old missionary and a modern saint, has had an extraordinary influence for good.'

'And what sort of people live in Chandi?'

'Oh, they are few and far between. A doctor, a police officer, a civil engineer, young Scruby--we know him rather well--and a Eurasian family who are struggling with a new discovery--also the head of a large timber contract, Mr. Heron.'

Trafford longed to say, 'And what about Mrs. Heron?' but something stifled the question, and instead he merely said--

'I must get off early to-morrow. I hear the fellow has sent the pony.'

'To-morrow--certainly not! The pony can wait--and eat gram for a change. I have to look out for your servants, and maybe a cow. It really would be folly to start in such a hurry, and we shall be so glad of your company. You and Dick can have some tennis, he wants exercise badly, and he will take you up the line and show you about.'

' No--no, many thanks! Much as you tempt me, Mrs. Kennedy, I really must go. I'll scramble along somehow. I will indeed. I've a knack of falling on my feet.'

There was an air of decision about Trafford's mouth and chin that prohibited argument or protest; it was no longer the face of a smiling boy--but that of a resolute young man. 'Scramble along?' she repeated, but at this moment her husband appeared.

'Well, Aggie,' he began, 'still at the soap and candles?'

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'No; but, Dick, Mr. Trafford says he must leave us in the morning.'

'What!' halting as he spoke.

Trafford nodded his head.

'You've been awfully kind, sir, but you see--I--'

'Nonsense, you are not thinking of Pahari for a week.'

'Yes, indeed, I am--I hope to sleep there tomorrow night.'

Mr. Kennedy stared at him; the young fellow's face expressed unalterable determination (he was known at school as 'an obstinate beggar').

'Then I can only say I am sorry--yes, and unless I am mistaken, I think you will be sorry too,' he added curtly.

'And since you are so stern with yourself, I must go and see about your cart and stores at once,' said Mrs. Kennedy, rising; 'I will give the orders now'; and she went out of the room, list in hand.

'It is half-past ten,' announced her husband, looking at a clock; ' time for travellers to be in bed. I say, Trafford, just come outside into the verandah, and be introduced to the mysterious oriental night--the rain has ceased.'

A full yellow moon was sailing majestically above the tamarind trees, illuminating a landscape of river and distant forest-clad bills. From perfumed bushes in the garden the crickets maintained a ceaseless song along the margin of a pool, rose from myriads of sleepless frogs a chorus in praise of the rains; whilst over the entire scene brooded a sensation of vastness and far-reaching space.

'This is India in a break in the monsoon,' explained the elder man, after an expressive silence. Then laying his hand on Trafford's shoulder, he added, 'Good-night, my boy, and may India be good to you.'

Trafford was not sorry to retire; his head felt a little dazed by this new life, these new scenes, but it was his mind, not his body, that was exhausted.

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.'And so this is India at last!' he said to himself, as he pulled off his coat, and looked round his quarters.

In the bathroom, the towels, water-cans, and soap were precisely the same as those he found in his mother's luxurious but cramped little house in London. The bed he lay down on had a spring mattress, and lavender-scented sheets. Oh, what lies people told about the country!

'India! India! India! he murmured, in a drowsy whisper--or was it all a dream? A horse stamping in his stall, the rumbling of a goods-train rolling by, a pattering of rain--only for a punkah that suddenly began to swing overhead, Trafford could imagine himself still in England.

. . . . . . .

The following morning, the kindly Kennedys went forth into the compound to speed their parting guest.

The Calcutta bearer, a camp cook, the baggage, some fowls, and a reluctant goat, had previously set out for Pahari in a country cart; and Trafford, having made a somewhat nervous speech of thanks, and the promise of an early visit, mounted a lean white country-bred, and with a wave of his topee galloped away.

'Wasn't that "Gehazi," Charlie Frost's old pony?' asked Mrs. Kennedy. 'I suppose some native bought him for a song, and will sell him for two hundred rupees to the new sahib.'

'No doubt he will,' agreed her husband, who was still gazing after the animal and its rider, as they gradually disappeared amid the high glistening grasses that lined the wet jungle track. 'That is a nice boy, Aggie, a good stamp! I'm sorry he would not wait a week or so to feel his way; but he has a strong will of his own and a fixed determination to do great things at once. So there he goes, poor fellow like the proverbial young bear--with all his troubles before him!'

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Mrs. Kennedy heaved a sigh of assent, her sole response; then she walked back into the bungalow to take the cook's daily account, and order dinner for two.

chapter 30 >>