Beck Center English Dept. University Libraries Emory University
Emory Women Writers Resource Project Collections:
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 VIII
A LITTLE DINNER

'DID I understand you to say that the Jabberwock was dining to-night?' inquired Gresham, as he walked beside Scruby's pony.

'Yes--any objection?'

'No, not more than usual. His jabber, his brogue, | | 83 and his old stories, get on my nerves. I had a "chit" from Mrs. Heron just now, asking me to look in after dinner. Chapman has turned up and they will have bridge, so if you don't mind, I'll send over my things and dine.'

'Oh, I don't mind at all. Please yourself--you please me.'

'I suppose you are off to-morrow, Trafford?' said Gresham, throwing a nod to the new-comer.

'Not he!' replied Scruby with emphasis.

'Yes, I am! I had intended going back to-day.'

' Pahi is rather alluring,' sneered Gresham. 'I say, you don't happen to want a pony, do you? Because, look here, I can put you on to a rare good one; he's a bit light for the Rajah, but would carry you like a bird--fourteen hands rising six--price four hundred and dirt cheap.'

'No, thanks. I've got two--and that will do me for the present.'

'Surely you don't call this old Gehazi a mount?' cried the other, slapping his quarters with his tennis bat. 'Why, he is so ancient, he must have been in the Mutiny; he has a head like a fiddle, and a body like a grasshopper!'

'Oh, he does me all right; I'm not proud.'

'So I hear you bought the chestnut from Karaki--the Malgoozar out by Khona.'

'Yes,' replied Trafford, mentally marvelling at the speed of Indian news.

'I expect he has done you finely! The brute is so fat he can hardly waddle. I wouldn't give fifty rupees for him--what did you pay?'

'Three hundred.'

'Two hundred too much! but you'll live and learn. I say, Gos, I'll run in by the short cut and dress first. My evening kit is at the Zoo. So long!' and he started off at a lobbing run.

'I hope you note that Gresham sleeps in one house, dresses in another, dines in a third,' observed Scruby, | | 84 looking after the white-flannelled borrower. 'What do you call that?'

'Arcadian simplicity,' answered Trafford dryly.

'You mean, that we are simple Arcadians, eh?' exclaimed Scruby, and his tone was edged.

'No--o--but it seems funny to a stranger--and you must make allowances. I was told that Chandi was Arcadia, and in Arcadia, of course, community of goods is the rule; for instance, I at this moment am wearing a borrowed sun-hat.'

'Yes, you could not very well pay calls in the roof you brought with you. In the jungle, we are queer people, it's our little way; but let me impress upon you, that there is nothing funny about Gresham! He is not at all "a funny man," and takes himself seriously in the il faut se fairs valoir style! I am glad you did not rise to the roan pony--that's a stick if you like! he has navicular, and is a man eater!'

'What--the Rajah's pony!' cried Trafford.

'No; the Rajah's Secretary's pony. Jambore is mighty convenient--when a thing turns out badly, it's the Rajah; when it's all right: it's Gresham. I expect Maguire and he have had a bit of a shake up. Most likely a card fight! Maguire has a fiery Irish temper, though a more generous creature never breathed--he can't bear to be done.'

'Who can, I'd like to know?'

'Here he is on the verandah, nursing Tom and Dick. That's not a stick in his mouth--it's the moustache.'

As they rode in, a tall figure threw down the dogs, and rose to his feet.

'Well, this is a nice way to ask a man to dinner, and most disrespectful to your superior officer, Mr. Gosling! Trafford,'--holding out his hand--'I'm sure. How are ye?'

'All right, thank you.'

'I see you have been doing the rounds! Scruby | | 85 has been trotting you out; he never lets the grass grow under his feet. He has his faults--conceit and insubordination--but I will say this much for him--he is the motive-power of the station.'

'Shut up! shut up! Qui hi!' screamed the parrot.

'That bird is the very devil! Ye won't dress, eh?'

'No, just wash your hands and run a comb through your hair, Trafford,' said Scruby. 'Gresham does all my dressing--and a bit over.'

At dinner, during a pause between the courses, Maguire leant back his chair, and said--

'Now that I've taken the fine edge off my appetite, Trafford, I'd like to ask you a few questions. First of all--what is your general impression of Chandi?'

'Excellent! it combines within a small compass a great deal of beauty, amiability, hospitality and talent.'

'An' will ye listen to him? 'appealing to Scruby, 'an' ye talk at me for blarney! And since ye mention beauty--I conclude you have seen Mrs. Heron?'

'Deilah Heron,' interposed Scruby.

'Oh, don't mind him, Trafford! He is bitter; sure every one in this place adores and admires the lady. Our host is the exception--that proves the rule.

'A rule of three,' muttered Scruby.

'She is uncommonly handsome,' began Trafford.

'Oh, my dear sir, she is more than that,' interrupted Maguire, with Irish enthusiasm, 'she, is an enchantress! as fascinating and alluring as Circe herself, and when you hear her sing, 'pon me word, I declare to you, she's a siren! Oh, such a lovely melting voice! it calls the very heart out of your body; you'd think it was an angel you were listening to.'

'And you never made a greater mistake.'

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'Oh, shut up, Scruby, shut up!' cried Maguire, extending a large hand; then turning to Trafford he said, 'The burrd learnt that from me. At one time I lived here along with the Gosling. We didn't fall out--no--but the Zoo was a bit too much for a quiet man. After finding the bear in me bed, and the mongoose among me most important departmental papers, I cleared. But to return to Mrs. Heron--she is a remarkable personality, so accomplished and clever; a woman to shine among the best. Of course, she has no scope here.'

'But makes the most of her miserable opportunities,' supplemented the unquenchable Scruby.

'Oh, will you shut up!' with an impatient thump on the table. 'She has foreign blood in her veins; those wonderful eyes are not Northern lights, and she has no taste for sport, or riding, like most English-women.'

'No; give her moonlight and a little stroll, or a dim room and coloured lamps, tête-à-tête dinners, melting love songs, cigarettes and cards. Eh?'

Scruby--I'll--I'll behead ye!' shouted his superior officer.

I'm sorry I did not see Miss Hampton,' remarked Trafford, endeavouring to effect a diversion.

'Ah yes--now there 's a good girl! and a girl who makes life pleasant for other people,' announced Maguire, delivering the verdict with both elbows on the table, and an air of weighty authority. 'The climate tries her, and she looks delicate--almost as if she'd come to pieces in your hands; but she has a great spirit, is pure English, and loves the morning air, and tennis, and a good laugh.'

'She doesn't get a chance to laugh much,' remarked Scruby sarcastically.

'Perhaps she laughs at nothing,' suggested Trafford.

'No, indeed,' protested Maguire; 'the only little pleasure she has is that brown pony, and an odd | | 87 game of tennis, then she's as happy as the day is long.'

'I saw her half-sister--she--is--is--'

'Faix, you may say so!' said Maguire promptly filling the gap; ' she is no beauty, and has a heavy hand with the powder-puff--sometimes you'd think her face had been in the flour-bin!--she's just soft, young, and susceptible, and only half-educated, the poor child! Well, beauty is sometimes a great snare,' and he sighed heavily.

'To the man--or woman?' inquired Scruby.

Mr. Maguire made no reply; he was staring straight before him, and appeared to be lost in contemplation.

Trafford looked at him critically. He was powerfully but by no means clumsy; had a large hooked nose, on either side of which twinkled a clever and searching Irish eye. His hair--which was thinning on top--was brown, as was also his magnificent moustache; his able hands were well kept, and he wore a conspicuous ring emblazoned with his family crest.

Kevin Maguire was an honest, kindly fellow, and the very first glance at his face inspired confidence. On the present occasion, his sentimental reflections were disturbed by the sound of creaking wheels and the hoofs of horned cattle.

'It's the doctor in his cow cart!' explained Scruby. 'Trafford, he is coming to return your call the same day--like royalty.'

'Like curiosity, you mean,' corrected Maguire.

As he spoke, the caller entered--a middle-sized, middle-aged man, with grizzled hair, high cheek-bones, and a keen deep-set glance. Nodding, and seating himself, he turned abruptly to Trafford and said--

'I thought I'd find you here--the new arrival, I presume?'

'Yes, I've only just come to Pahari.'

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' Um--hope you won't go sick there--too far from first aid--no native apothecary--nearest doctor old Castellas at Dhona, and his stink factory.'

'Does he practise?'

'I should hope not! He never took out a diploma--but he probably knows the symptoms of cholera.'

As Trafford looked disconcerted, Scruby intervened with a hasty protest.

'Come, I say, doctor, don't be too cheerful!'

'Young man,' continued the doctor, addressing Trafford, 'you will have to keep goats and a filter, and then you'll be all right.'

'But by all accounts it's not so easy to keep goats at Pahari,' objected Maguire. 'Frost said the panthers always took his as fast as he got them. He never had any milk.'

'Ah, well, he wasn't one for much milk,' responded the doctor, nodding expressively, as he helped himself from a jug of barley water; 'that was his misfortune, poor chap! Every man is his own worst enemy.'

'I believe you have lots of tiger over near you, Trafford,' remarked Maguire; 'they are jostling one another in the Rodore Bandi.'

'Yes,' he answered in the same key, 'you can't put your foot in the forest without standing on the tail of one.'

'Oh, well, joking apart, from all accounts they are many and bold. A party was out there last hot weather--you remember, Scruby?--Watson and his brother and some officers from Jubbulpore. They were beating for a fine tiger marked down by their shikaris, and tried hard for him all day over a widish circle, and did their big best; when they got back to camp, fagged out and ravenous, you can imagine their horror when they found that in their absence the tiger had called in, and carried off and eaten their cook! They had no dinner--but he fared well.'

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'A tiger with a sense of humour,' said Trafford. 'I should like to get him.'

'Bah! what a chance you have!' scoffed Maguire.

'And so you've been doing the station, Mr.Trafford,' observed the doctor; 'and went on from me to the Herons, no doubt?'

'Yes.'

'And saw Mrs. Heron. I need not ask if you enjoyed the interview?'

'No--er--she is charming--and--' again he found himself at a loss.

'Astonishing. Yes; with such eyes, the gift of speech is superfluous. Her fascinations are irresistible.

Something in the doctor's expression impelled Trafford to say---

'Do you think we ought to discuss a lady--'

'Hear, hear!' cried Scruby, with an ironical laugh. Behold another fearless champion clanking into the lists!'

'Why not?' asked the doctor grimly. 'Are we saying anything that would not gratify our subject? Anyhow, it is agreed on all sides that Tom Heron is the most fortunate of mortals.'

He glanced from one to the other of the two young men: at Scruby, with his close-cropped light locks, and keen expressive face; then his gaze rested on Trafford. Trafford was undeniably handsome, with clean-cut features, and deep-set romantic eyes--a very proper-looking young blade--quite the story-book hero! However, his light would be hidden in the jungle, where there would be none to admire his well-knit figure and classic features--none but squirrels and parakeets!

'Chandi has one advantage,' resumed the doctor (in what Scruby would describe as his best pulpit manner), 'there's little fear of either of you two boys falling into the blind ditch of matrimony. Here, there are no girls--our only damsel has her | | 90 hands too full to think of lovers. Now at home fisher girls swarm. Husbands are easily caught, if the young ladies know the real fly.'

'And what may that be?' inquired Maguire. 'A green Highlander, I suppose?'

'The fly that never fails is called "Egoism." Men marry to talk--crafty young women give them lots of line, and allow them to explain their characters and tastes, and so on. The man marries, believing he has found some one to whom he can talk about himself--permanently--but soon the poor devil finds out his mistake--he is a listener for life!'

'I hereby give notice,' said Scruby, springing to his feet, 'that I shall not marry till I'm fifty--if then--'

The doctor looked up at him, and nodded his head slowly.

'My good Gosling, you are just the very one that will succumb. The first girl that will have the hypocrisy, and patience, to pretend she likes your jabber, will be Mrs. Scruby. Maguire,' turning to him, 'joking apart, it is time that you were looking about you.'

'Ah, now do ye think so, doctor?' he rejoined, with a little complacent giggle. 'Well, maybe you are right. If any fine handsome young woman of good family, and with a nice fortune, takes a to me--I'll not baulk it!'

And as he concluded, he threw himself back in his chair, thrust his hands in his pockets, and surveyed his companions with an air of magnificent benevolence.

There was a momentary silence, and Scruby, who had darted out, returned carrying a little fat pup with a black-and-tan head and blinking eyes, which he deposited on Trafford's lap.

'Now don't say I never give you anything!' he said. 'Fanny,' indicating an anxious mother, 'hopes you will be good to Henry, and not cut his tail.'

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' Thanks awfully,' said Trafford, delighted with his first very own dog. 'He is a little beauty, and I shall stick to him.'

'Oh, so you are going to add a dog to your troubles,' remarked the doctor, with an indulgent smile.

'Yes, indeed, I am; a dog is no trouble, but a companion.'

'Not much of a companion about that half-weaned chap,' said Collins, with a kindly glance at the whining puppy. 'By all accounts, young man, your work is cut out for you. My apothecary tells me that the forest folks say you are very clever; so already a lot of skins and horns are being hustled out of reach, and a guard who is honest--English style--is suffering from a pain--that may be the rains--and may be poison.'

'Well, I sincerely hope your apothecary will pull him through. I'll be off to-morrow at daylight. There has been an enormous amount of thieving, I'm afraid.'

'Yes; don't you trust Beaufort,' said Scruby emphatically.

'Aye, and Beaufort has a big man behind him,' added the doctor; and an inclination of his left hand gave Trafford to understand that he had complete hold of the situation.

'Who?' he asked eagerly, and his eyes were fixed on the speaker with keen insistence.

'Ah, that I must leave to your discernment! What news from home do you bring us?' he continued, abruptly turning the conversation.

'Oh, we are just jogging along trying to keep our heads above water, and be abreast of the times. I expect in a year or two, we shall be flying over here for a week-end in airships.'

'Heaven forbid!' exclaimed the doctor piously; 'the six- and three-week fellows, are bad enough: prating ignoramuses who come out and talk nonsense, and try and physic this old inscrutable country.

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I've been in India, off and on, for twenty-five years. I keep my eyes and ears open. I speak Urdu, and several other tongues of sorts; and though I've been persevering and pushing, I give you my word, she and I have scarcely a bowing acquaintance yet.'

'And what about the unrest we hear so much of at home? or do you not experience it here?' asked Trafford.

'No,'--leaning back and crossing his legs--'we are out of the traffic--off the high road--just jungle folk, black and white--alike indifferent to the scheming, slaving, seething, big world beyond the forest and the cotton-fields. In my opinion' (here Maguire and Scruby winked gravely at one another), 'ninety per cent. of the Indian population have no part in the agitation. They do not love us, and never will. We, for one reason or other, have failed to make ourselves understood. Some believe we have introduced the plague! They suppose we share the nature of malignant gods, and have their power, and therefore the vast majority are passive and will be passive.'

'Yes, yes,' assented Trafford, an ever attentive listener thirsting for knowledge.

'In spite of what is said, the English have brought prosperity to India, and poured out money and men's lives without stint. Look at the railways, the roads, and hospitals; but we want to bring too much of the West into the East, and there is no doubt an active and malicious propaganda, and a genuine evil does exist at the root of our Indian system.'

'Hear, hear!' cried Scruby, thumping on the table.

'With the rise of the middle class, Britain has fostered education, and if you provide a larger amount of native talent than there is a demand for--the surplus is likely to turn sour!'

'And that's a fact,' agreed Maguire; 'faix, there's no denying it!'

'The openings in Government service, and the professions, are not in proportion to the candidates.

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What is the educated candidate to do? Tell me that?'

Here the speaker looked round his audience, and paused for a reply.

'There is Law, the world of Journalism, and political agitation before him; and the Englishman's extraordinary tolerance suffers a disappointed man to say and write much what he feels--or, at least, pretends to feel. The native aristocracy, the small land-owners, and the commercial class are sound; so are the troops, which are generally loyal to the bone-though it is whispered that a creeping spirit of discontent is fanned by agitators. Then in the bazaars, many awful lies are deliberately spread by emissaries--under the guise of Swamis or Hindoo missionaries. They preach treason, and the downfall of the Raj.'

'Yes, and India by all means for the Indians,' supplemented Scruby.

But who are the Indians, and the true and original lords of the soil? Not these clamouring Bengalis, though I believe some are Dravidian, or turbulent Marathis, but aborigines such as the Gonds, the dark races of the south, the Todas, the Moplahs of the West Coast, those whom the conquering Aryans and Scythians have driven down to the seashore--or into forest fastnesses.'

'I declare to goodness, doctor, ye talk like a book!' exclaimed Maguire admiringly. 'It's a treat to listen to ye.'

'Oh, talk is cheap,' he answered contemptuously, 'especially out here. However, we have one point in our favour: natives, especially of different castes, do not trust one another. But there is no doubt we live in anxious times. The Indian Empire wants a strong and steady hand to guide her--in fact, a man to ride the storm; or, to choose another metaphor, a spark, and--like one of your forest fires, Trafford--who can tell where it may end?'

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He paused, and heaved a profound sigh; and there was a momentary and grave silence.

'Well, anyhow, the forest folk are peaceful enough,' announced Scruby, in a cheerful voice.

'Yes,' agreed the doctor. 'There's nothing of the modern strenuous life about them! They have the ideas and manners of early ages. For instance, the Gonds, the flat-faced primitive aborigines, were here long before the Aryan invasion. They are simple as then in their customs, and believe in good hunting, strange gods, and devils. The Santhals, another race nearer Calcutta, are fine fellows, carry themselves valorously, and speak the truth.'

'The Santhals have one peculiar custom,' added Scruby: 'once a year, the head of every family in a village assembles his relatives under his roof. They shut themselves up, stuff their ears, and sit on the floor together, and there shriek all the abominable words and bad stories they know. This goes on for hours, till they are absolutely worn out, gasping and speechless.'

'Such a unique idea--such a veritable feast of words might be happily inaugurated in other places,' remarked the doctor, who was now nursing puppy, 'say, for example, a little English town, or a small Indian station; it would be a splendid safety valve, and let off any quantity of lying, slandering, hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness! Of course, such a strong antidote would be unnecessary here--here, we are immaculate and love one another,' and he paused, 'but the experiment might be tried elsewhere. It is my opinion, that in a little station, the climate, the limited society, and the monotony of life, bring out the cat in woman, and the wild beast in man!'

'I say, doctor, you want a pill--and a blue pill' suggested Scruby.

'No, you impudent young ass! I want my tonga. There's the rain, and I can't have my | | 95 bullocks drowned. You are all very brilliant and interesting, and I'm desperately sorry to leave you--but go I must. Trafford, I'm glad to make your acquaintance, and I hope you may never want to see me in my official capacity. I'll, however, offer you a sound prescription to take away with you to Pahari district.'

'Thank you, thank you,' he answered vaguely.

'Don't be too sweet,' raising his hand expressively. 'There is a Spanish proverb: "Who makes himself all sugar, the flies will eat him up." They swarm in the forests.'

'Capital, very sound! Very sound advice,' agreed Scruby, 'Bears,' looking straight at his guest, 'are terribly found of honey, aren't they?'

The doctor turned his back on him impatiently, and without a word made for the door.

'I say Collins' said Maguire, 'you may as well give me a lift It will save you the trouble of attending me for a bad cold.'

The two men went forth, growling about the rain--which streamed in sheets, spouted from the gutters, and ran down the steps in cataracts. Then the door of the bullock cart was shut with a hearty bang, and Maguire's loud laugh was the last sound heard as the clumsy vehicle splashed and joggled out of the compound.

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