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 XVI
THE ENGLISH DÂK

THE hot weather in a little up-country station usually brings the remnant that are left into closer and more sympathetic touch. After the long sweltering hours spent in a darkened bungalow (whilst scorching winds roar through the bare trees, driving clouds of red dust along the roads), the community forgather at the Club for society and amusement. Here Trafford and Miss Hampton met at tennis; she was his partner against Lily and Mr. Gresham. Lily was all but invincible; but her sister played up admirably and flitted about the courts with marvellous activity. In the rush and excitement of these hardly contested matches, Miss Hampton abandoned the reserved and monosyllabic attitude that distinguished her relations with her ally; indeed, away from the depressing atmosphere of 'The Castle,' she appeared to be another girl, young, gay, talkative, | | 161 and, despite her bleached complexion and sunburnt hat, ever the most beautiful vision in the opinion of Philip Trafford. Do as he would, she was continually in his thoughts, this shabby little girl with the small delicate face, dark hair, and deep-set, proud blue eyes. He was in love; it was useless to struggle with his doom--he had fallen under the yoke of a power whose dominion was not to be resisted. And she? Could he, dared he, give himself hope'? Ever since the 'Cows' Hoof' Races, and his half-uttered proposal, the young lady had absolutely declined the loan of Sirdar, and her manner had become more subtly negative, more cool and distant except, as before stated, in the heat of enthusiasm at tennis or badminton. How different to her responsive and animated attitude towards his friend; but once or twice, when he had met her unexpectedly, she had blushed--yes, there was no mistake about it--and never, never had Eliot Scruby brought the colour to the face of Joan Hampton!

After their exertions at the tennis courts, and an adjournment to the verandah for iced lemonade, or 'nimbo' pegs, the company sauntered homewards through the breathless May night, with the stars twinkling overhead, and the teak leaves crackling underfoot. During this dull monotonous season, Trafford often found his way to the Castle, where the châtelaine received him with open arms. She wiled away the drowsy midday hours dozing on her cane lounge, divining the future--and even the date of the longed-for monsoon--with a well-thumbed pack of cards, and eagerly welcomed all visitors, but especially 'Traff,' and regaled him with morsels of news (gathered, it must be confessed, from the bazaar), told his fortune, and enjoyed his company--though nothing short of physical force would have induced him to accept her repeated invitation 'just to stay and take pot-luck.' He was sorry for this sinking, helpless family, and anxiously desired to | | 162 assist them (not entirely for all their sakes)--but how? To this question he was unable to find any practical reply. Castellas himself was now invariably at home, looking limp, melancholy, and hollow-eyed, yet ever sanguine. 'Work,' he admitted, 'was a bit slack, and the distillery temporarily closed, awaiting the flower-crop.' Meanwhile he spent his days at a table in the dingy dining room, ever writing, writing, writing; but when he caught sight of Trafford's pony he threw down his pen and came promptly to greet a young fellow who had brains. Trafford too found, to his surprise, that the taciturn doctor was a clever man, and that his vocabulary contained much more than the word ' Extraordinary! ' He even explained his proverbial silence to his new friend: 'You see, my dear fellow, I never talk much at home, because no one listens. Joan would, but she is so busy, and the others are interested in different directions.' His perceptions were acute, he was well read in special lines, full of original ideas, possessed of a magnificent imagination and a transparent mind. Possibly, had not Mrs. Hampton diverted his career, his course would have carried him into the great sea of success--but money, instability, and an enervating climate, had proved his bane.

Lily, when Gresham was absent, lived in a perpetual ferment of emotion and speculation; languished and moped, neglected her appearance and wandered aimlessly about the darkened dwelling, bewailing her hard fate--that she, like other girls, could not go to Simla and have a good time! Meanwhile she wrote many letters, and the one moment of her day was when the dâk-wallah with his brown leather bag stepped into the verandah.

When Trafford came to the Castle, Miss Hampton was rarely to be seen, but the doctor, his idle, disconsolate daughter, and ailing wife, were always home. The latter had taken the young man into the | | 163 inner shrine not only of her heart, but of her confidence.

One airless, dark night, as Trafford was thinking of retiring, he was arrested by the sound of steps and excited whispers in the verandah, and to his astonishment Mrs. Castellas--of all people--ambled in breathless.

'I wanted just to have a word with you alone,' she panted, 'glancing anxiously round the room, then seating herself. 'You see, at home, the others are there, so I slipped out. Of course they think I am in bed ill, and indeed it is where I ought to be--I am that bad with my heart--but--' looking at him steadily, 'you know I feel to you like a mother, or I would not ask you this. My darling boy, I want you to lend me some money.'

'Yes, Mrs. Castellas,' and he paused expectantly.

'Of course it is only for a short time; you shall be repaid; and please not a word to Joan. I know we have been foolish, always expecting--always disappointed. I cannot think whatever the cards mean--generally they come out so lucky! But there it is! And now I am in shocking trouble. I gave a promise to Joan, and I have broken it. Yes, I have!'

Here she took out her handkerchief, and began to whimper like a child.

'I agreed to no more debts, no more orders or credit; but it was too much--I was so used to the other, I could not break the habit; and it seems so hard that some people should have all they want, and we nothing at all. She thinks the rent has been paid, but the money went to Whiteaway & Laidlaw. We owe nearly three years--two hundred rupees--and wherever am I to get it?'

As she concluded, she sat erect, handkerchief in hand, and gazed at Trafford interrogatively.

'We, in our day, lent here, there, and everywhere, and no one ever paid us. Oh, if we had | | 164 only been stiff and said no, I need not come borrowing now!'

Mrs. Castellas spoke as if borrowing was to her an extraordinary novelty and not an every week affair.'

Trafford cast a thought to his account at Grindley's; he had spent a good deal lately, but could spare two hundred rupees. He recalled Scruby's solemn warning, a warning recently repeated, 'If you once begin to lend Mrs. Castellas money you will never stop. She is so confoundedly plaintive, and persuasive and has no nasty pride.'

'I--I think I might manage it,' he stammered, 'then added the saving clause, 'for once.'

'Oh, you dear good fellow,' she cried, 'I knew you would! It's almost life and death, for if Joan found out I owe all this money, and have not kept to our agreement, she will do as she threatened, just return home. Joan always keeps her promises.'

Trafford found it easy to realize that if Miss Hampton departed the place would become as the desert to him. Yet why? Except at an occasional game of tennis, or on Sunday, when she played the ancient and unmanageable harmonium, he never saw her. Nevertheless, if it were to cost him ten thousand rupees, he was determined that Joan Hampton should not leave Chandi.

'You see,' resumed Mrs. Castellas, 'those valuable books of Joan's will soon be sold--Mr. Hampton's collection was celebrated--the will said so many years after his death. The time is up next Christmas twelvemonth--then once more we shall all be rich.'

(So, having dissipated her own fortune, Mrs. Castellas now proposed to enjoy her daughter's.) 'Joan is generous, she takes after me, and will give away her very shoes, and yet so saving. Laws! it 's wonderful how she makes a little money last!' and mentioning certain homely details. 'I tell her she is downright mean!'

The interview ended in Mrs. Castellas receiving a | | 165 cheque for one hundred and fifty rupees, and fifty rupees in notes. These Trafford put in an envelope and handed to the lady, faithfully promising that he would never disclose her secret to any one, much less to her eldest daughter.

Fortified by this assurance and the intoxicating rapture of having money in her possession, Mrs. Castellas threw her arms round Trafford's neck and embraced him fervently; then, refusing his proffered escort, pioneered by her own chokedar bearing lantern and stick, the lady disappeared into the warm May night.

During the hot weather Trafford had enjoyed a certain amount of sport, but in the rains a great deal of hard continuous work had fallen to his share. Now and then he had come into collision with Gresham--chiefly with respect to what Gresham claimed as the Rajah's preserves--but which really belonged to the British Raj. Once the new Conservator, weary of excuses and broken promises, sought a personal interview with the potentate of Jambore. Gresham had often talked of inviting him (and indeed all Chandi) 'out to see his little Rajah,' but, save at the yearly sports, no one beheld His Highness; and he was then, as always, securely defended from contact with the outer world by his polite and specious Grand Vizier.

To Trafford the palace of Jambore proved a surprising disappointment: a rambling, weather-stained residence, it stood inside a high brick-and-mud wall, in a vast untidy courtyard, full of shabby retainers, cattle, and country carts. At one side ran a long line of ill-kept stables, and under a solitary tree a withered old elephant swung at his picket. Trafford delivered his card to a pompous functionary in tawdry green and gold, who had strutted towards him; and after waiting for an hour, with a patience based on a determination not to be annoyed, received a message announcing that 'His Highness sota hai,' | | 166 --in short, was sleeping. So there remained nothing for the Forest Officer but to turn about and ride away, carrying his grievance with him.

'I say, my dear fellow!' exclaimed Gresham in his hearty jovial voice as they met next day in the Club, 'I am sorry His Highness could not receive you, but you know it was rather informal going there just off your own bat-and chucking in a card. It's a thing that--er--of course you don't know--but, my dear fellow, it's not done! Any communication should be sent through the proper channel, and that'--slapping his broad chest--'is Ivor Gresham. If you are a very good boy I'll take you over and present you some day; but the Rajah is awfully stiff and shy of what he calls "little people."'

'He be bellowed!' cried Scruby, who was listening; 'a jungly fourth-class Rajah, with five guns, next to no education, and sodden with opium, refusing to receive an English gentleman, who, let me tell you, is not a little person in this district or elsewhere,' and he shot a furious and significant glance at Gresham, who loftily replied--

'Oh well, my good Gosling, you need not stick your quills up! It's Jambore's little way. I cannot help it,' and with a shrug of his broad shoulders he entered the card room.

'Tell you what,' said Scruby, turning to his friend, 'it's an extraordinary thing that before Gresham got hold of Jambore he was often on view, and not at all a bad sort of little chap; he even came in here now and then and had a game of billards, and talked broken English, and we showed him pictures just as if he were a small boy. He seemed pretty intelligent too, and immensely interested in one or two French things that old sinner Chapman picked up at Port Said.'

'Beastly!' ejaculated Trafford.

'Yes. Well, I'm sorry for Jambore. He would like to go to Europe, to cross the "kala pani," and see the world; but he has no available funds--his | | 167 household devours every rupee, and such a trip is costly. Then he is weak and tied down with debts. I believe latterly he has given up all enterprise, all interest in anything, and soaks his brain in mudduck.'

'Mudduck--what's that?'

'The worst sort of drug going. It 's made of opium and the pounded cinders of the babul tree. There is some deadly quality in this combination. A man who drinks whisky schrab may still fight along, and even a man who takes ganja--always provided they both work; but a fellow who takes the mudduck pill is done for!

'Couldn't Gresham interfere, or do something' asked Trafford.

'Gresham? Lor' bless you, not he! Why, he gets a free hand--he--'

Scruby paused for a moment, then he went on--

'Jambore is surrounded by blood-sucking parasites. I don't mean to insinuate that boss Gresham is one of these, for, hang it all, he's English--a public-school man. However, there's no denying that he has dropped into a nice soft thing, and is never short of coin. You know you can't go racing and up to Simla for nothing! He declares--and we have no reason to dispute the fact--that he has done wonders for Jambore; managing the timber and elephants, and selling lots of teak and lac, and for all the Rajah's debts he has a fine big hoard in the Tosha Kana, or jewel-house. These, native princes gather and keep; and there is no doubt there is coal and manganese in his territory only waiting to be worked; but somehow there is an impression that Jambore affairs are in a rickety state--like those of some other people we know.'

Trafford was silent. Mrs. Castellas had recently made a second raid upon him.

'I wonder,' continued Scruby, 'why Gresham always fends us off from the Rajah? We are harmless--yet he acts as a first-class warder.'

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'I suppose he likes to show that he is important and a big man; between ourselves, I think he is a crooked sort of chap.'

'Crooked--possibly; big man--yes, very much so! The days when Gresham wore our shirts and boots and was in actual straits for food and shelter, now seem to be a sort of dream. When I look at Gresham, clothed with authority and by a London tailor, smoking the best cigars and bossing the whole place--oh, never mind me, Phil, old boy, I believe I was born with a knife in my mouth, instead of the traditional silver spoon, and can't help myself.'

When the rainy season had nearly come to an end Trafford reviewed his year's work with grave misgivings. At one moment he believed he had done fairly well, at others he felt depressed and as if, like Sisyphus, he was wasting his energies in rolling a great stone uphill--which same stone invariably thundered to the foot. Perhaps in the direction of clearing, planting, felling, and timber depots, matters had improved--but it had been a tough job. He had also discovered--thanks to the vigilance of his head forest-ranger--a grand cache of horns and skins in the heart of an innocent little village on the borders of the Jambore preserve. There were the usual loud protestations, expostulations, and explanations; nevertheless, Trafford sifted (so he believed) the matter to the bottom, sternly examined old licences and passes, and proceeded to administer justice. Some of the booty he returned, but a considerable portion was solemnly confiscated.

It appeared to Trafford that if his work was going smoothly in one part of the 'A' class reserve, there was bound to be trouble in another; theft, poaching, burning, and the beating of forest guards. Surely he was struggling with some unseen but deadly influence? Were not he and Joan Hampton alike striving with the hopeless and the impossible? He felt a firm conviction that a silent, active, ever- | | 169 present force was working against him. Joan's mother was working secretly against her (and, shameful to state, with his assistance!). Well, he would fight his enemy, or enemies--yes, were matters to come to a climax, with the very last breath in his body!

The arrival of the English Dâk, bringing a pile of papers and a few letters, made a cheerful interruption, and dispersed some gloomy reflections. Here was a letter from Milly!

In five minutes' time Trafford was running over to Scruby's quarters in a state of breathless excitement. Scruby, intent on his own mail, looked up as he dashed in.

'I say!' he gasped, 'I say, old Gosling! What do you think? I've had a letter from home; my sister is coming out to me next month! She will be here for Christmas. Won't it be ripping?'

Scruby sat up astonished, his eyes widened, his lips parted. After an expressive silence he replied--

'Yes, all right for you--I'm not so sure that it will be ripping for her.'

'Oh, won't it just! She loves the country and animals and tennis and riding; she'll be in her element. Look here, suppose you and I run up to Calcutta and get a piano and chairs and a dinner set, and lots of jam and chocolate?'

'I can't get off; I wish I could; but take my advice, and let the young lady choose for herself when she arrives--then she cannot lodge complaints.'

'Wise old Gosling! You always see all round a subject. I believe you were born with a third eye. Well, anyway, we must try and give her a good time.'

'Righto!' agreed his friend, with emphasis.

The interest at the Club caused by a sensational scandal in the English papers, was now immediately and completely extinguished by this stupendous piece of local intelligence.

'Trafford's sister was coming out to him, and would arrive in Chandi in less than five weeks!'

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