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Authors: Valerie Fitzgerald

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BOOK: Zemindar
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Mrs Wilkins was an ‘old India hand’ (as she was fond of describing herself) and with the misplaced assurance of the vulgar, took it upon herself to enlighten me as to the customs and character of that country—volubly, enthusiastically and, as I was to discover, inaccurately. For Mrs Wilkins belonged to that class of female, all too frequent among our countrywomen, who can travel the world and spend a lifetime doing it, then return to Surrey or Kent as totally innocent of any enlarging experience, of even their own character, as when they first left the shores of England. The boundaries they set themselves in Bokhara or Bombay are the selfsame with which they guard their nonentity in Bristol or Brighton—children and servants, social
and petty scandals—and their minds remain unopened by rational curiosity and imprisoned by mean suspicion of the people they are (generally) well paid to live among.

Of such was Mrs Wilkins, and her daughter Elvira, anaemic and silly, had small chance of making better use of her opportunities.

Our male co-travellers were no more promising than the Wilkins ladies. There were two army men returning to their regiments, and still showing, despite a year’s furlough, the ravages of tertiary ague or other tropical fevers; a couple of young clerks going out to commercial concerns in Calcutta (very brash these, with hair as brightly polished as their patent-leather boots); and two elderly brothers who, after a lifetime in India, had retired to Shoreham-on-Sea, but after one winter had decided to return to the more familiar infelicities of the East. They were reputedly very wealthy and obviously seldom sober.

Small wonder I was grateful for the company of Mr Roberts.

Mr Roberts was a middle-aged widower with two daughters safely married in England. By avocation he was an indigo factor, though he had started life as a ‘writer’ in the service of the East India Company, and his work took him all over the north-eastern regions of India, following the course of the great River Ganges and its tributaries. From his conversation I learned that as well as buying indigo crops, both raw and processed, from established planters, a part of his time was spent in promoting new plantations in untried areas and advising on the cultivation of this plant, which provides the blue dye used to colour the uniforms of our navy and those of most of the navies of the world, including Russia and America.

He was a quiet man with gentle ways, very self-contained, of medium build and neat appearance. When I knew him better, for all his quietness I found he could talk well on the subjects which interested him and discovered also that he was possessed of a wealth of knowledge about India and a depth of sympathy for its people that astonished me. Ignorant as I was of everything pertaining to the sub-continent, innocent—when I left England—of any but the haziest generalizatons of what I would find at the end of the voyage, Mr Roberts took me in hand, and as we huddled in our mackinaws on the gale-swept deck or took our lonely meals in the heaving cabin while the lantern swung violently above our heads, he educated me with tact and humour and that enthusiasm which comes of real affection for one’s subject. By the time the morning dawned when land was at last in sight, I had accumulated a fair knowledge of the geography of India, more than a mere inkling of its complex history, and a great desire to learn for myself something of its diverse and gifted people.

There was little to distract me from Mr Roberts’s teaching. He was the type of man who carries a small library with him wherever he goes, and when I was not actually talking to him, I was reading one or other of the numerous volumes he was pleased to lend me. Of course, for a time, part of my day was occupied by the Wilkinses and always I had to listen for the tinkle of Emily’s little silver bell summoning me to do some service for her, which, with a little more hardihood, she could as well have done for herself. But on the whole I was free to apply myself to my studies of Mr Roberts’s books and listen to his conversation, and, because I knew that otherwise I would have spent too much time thinking of Charles, I was grateful for both diversions.

By the time we neared the coast of India, I had become accustomed to the sight of Emily and Charles together. It was no longer necessary for me to avoid his nearness for fear of betraying myself, and if I still hung on the sound of his voice or allowed my eye to linger a little too long on his face, it was but seldom, and I prided myself that no one seeing us together could have guessed the true nature of my feelings for my cousin’s husband—least of all Charles himself.

Not that I could delude myself that my love for him had dissipated, let alone disappeared. At night, as I waited for sleep, it was still impossible for me to stifle my memories of the time, not so long ago, when I had known myself to be the magnet that drew him to Mount Bellew. Who knows, perhaps in those early days his interest in me, his apparent regard for me, were genuine? But then Emily came back from the holiday she had been spending with relatives in Bournemouth. Emily was seventeen and beautiful and gay, and so sure of her ability to charm that it was taken for granted that Charles would fall in love with her.

And he had.

I think he was bewitched by her the very first time he saw her, when she was wearing a muslin gown sprigged with small cherries and tied with cherry-coloured ribbons, sitting in a hammock slung between the two great spreading cedars on the Mount Bellew lawn. One small foot in its bronze boot tiptoed the grass and kept the hammock swinging, and on her lap she held a blue bowl of polished red apples. I had recognized Charles’s step coming towards us over the grey flags of the terrace, and my heart had leapt, knowing he was searching for me. Instead he had found Emily.

All I had to be grateful for in the weeks that followed was the fact that I had never betrayed my feelings—either to Charles or my relatives. It was a bitter time for me. Within two months Charles and Emily were engaged, and within six had married. My aunt, reluctant to see her adored only daughter leave home, had tried to delay matters. My uncle, however, aware of Emily’s ‘giddiness’, and perhaps knowing that if she remained at home she would become even more spoilt by her mother and brothers, had declared the match a capital one and furthered it by every means.

As it happened, that circumspection for which I had been so grateful, that reluctance to reveal my feelings even to those nearest me, was my undoing.

Charles’s mother, the redoubtable Mrs Flood of Dissham Manor, suddenly decreed that the wedding journey should take the happy couple not to Paris, the Rhine or Italy, but to India. There were several reasons for this decision. To begin with, Charles had recently taken up a position in the firm of Hewitt, Flood & Hewitt, Importers and Agents, of which my uncle was a Director, as had been the late Mr Flood, Charles’s father. Both families concurred that the young man would benefit from a closer knowledge of the country with which most of the firm’s business was conducted. ‘A great experience; a
experience!’ my uncle had declared. ‘Why, it will give the lad a head start over every other young feller in the City. If he plays his cards right, he could even end up on the Board of Directors of the Company itself.’

Mrs Flood also had another reason, which I believe was more cogent than her son’s career in Hewitt, Flood & Hewitt. She had a son by a previous marriage, a man much older than Charles, who was resident in India. We knew little of this gentleman and, according to Charles, that little was as much as he knew himself, for he had never met his half-brother. It was known, however, that he was a wealthy man, in possession of large estates in Oudh, unmarried and therefore inevitably, in Mrs Flood’s mind, in need of an heir. And being Mrs Flood, she did not trouble to disguise the fact that she very much hoped, as in this instance she could not command, that her elder son would see fit to make her younger son that heir. Once thought of, the matter was settled as far as she was concerned, but I had my doubts. After all, the elder son would not be so old that marriage could be entirely precluded, but it was no business of mine, so I said nothing.

My Aunt Hewitt, however, had a great deal to say about the whole enterprise. She was against the idea of Emily even visiting India, but, when she found that her daughter might even have to live in India, her agitation was great.

‘Not at all a likely contingency,’ my uncle reassured her. ‘There was something “off” about that whole business, don’t you remember? Never did get to the bottom of it, but some quarrel about the guardianship of the boy and so on when the first husband died, and Maud was never allowed to have the lad at Dissham. French blood somewhere!’ he concluded as though this explained all.

Uncomforted, Emily’s mother continued to protest. Emily was scarcely eighteen; she had seldom left home and then only for the houses of her relatives; it was unthinkable that she should be required to make a long voyage to a barbarous and unhealthy country on her own. Besides, Emily was impractical, untried. Aunt Hewitt even went so far as to admit that her daughter was headstrong and wilful.

At last, when all other arguments had failed, my uncle suggested a ‘companion’. Somewhat soothed, my aunt immediately advertised, and a succession of respectable females was interviewed. A sensible widow, who had spent some years in India, was engaged, and preparations for the wedding went ahead. Then, just three weeks before the young Floods were due to embark, the widow sent her regrets; she would be unable to accompany the couple as her health had suffered a sudden deterioration and her doctors forbade it. My aunt took to her room and had the vapours for an entire afternoon; my uncle fumed; and Emily rejoiced openly at the defection of the lady whom she had already dubbed ‘the Gorgon’.

Then they thought of me, Laura Hewitt, and wondered why I had not been considered earlier. At twenty-four years of age I could be counted upon to have some common sense and decorum, I was fond of Emily and knew her ways, and had I not done some travelling myself, coming all the way from Genoa, alone, when I was just Emily’s age? Above all, Emily would not object to having me with her.

I had protested with all sincerity against being made part of the wedding journey, but as the true reasons for my reluctance could not be divulged, those that I gave lacked urgency. Moreover, though I foresaw the suffering that constant proximity to Charles could mean for me, though I realized the dissimulation and pretended lack of feeling might prove too much for me, yet beneath and beyond my fears and anxieties I discovered a bittersweet joy in knowing that I would be near him. No wonder my arguments against going were not forceful enough to deflect my relatives from sending me. So, with much haste, I too was fitted out and prepared for a long absence from home.

Towards the end of the voyage, as we sailed north-east in the Indian Ocean, Charles took to joining Mr Roberts and myself as we promenaded the deck each fine morning. Emily, finding the heat too much for her and fearing for her complexion, spent most of her time in her cabin or the sparsely furnished saloon, garnering criticisms of her fellow travellers. While he was ill, Charles had paid no thought to how I was passing my time, but now that he was up and about, I found he seemed to resent the pleasure I found in Mr Roberts’s company. I could see no reason for this resentment; he knew nothing detrimental of my friend. But I learned to dread his appearance as our comfortable conversations
à deux
necessarily came to an end, and what followed too often became mere argument between Charles and Mr Roberts in which I would take no part. I could not hide from myself that Charles, speaking out of ignorance and prejudice, had no right to engage in dispute about things Indian with a man as well-informed and just of mind as my friend. The trend of Mr Roberts’s mind was to inform—not to contend—and often I was embarrassed into silence by the forbearance of the one and the unthinking arrogance of the other. Mr Roberts, typically, saw into my mind and tried to ease it.

‘You must not be so sensitive, Miss Hewitt,’ he said, watching Charles stride away in a pet after a particularly silly argument about caste, a matter about which Charles conceivably knew less than I did, which was next to nothing.

‘Mr Flood is mistaken, but entitled to his opinion, after all.’

‘Not when it is based on prejudice alone,’ I disagreed.

‘Then why did you not tell him so?’

‘Because I thought you would,’ I answered.

‘Oh, no! My dear Miss Hewitt, I am far too old to tell a young man he doesn’t know what he is talking about. He is bound to find it out in due course, and more or less painfully no doubt.’

‘I admire your self-control,’ I said unhappily, not caring to see my idol’s feet of clay so obviously apparent.

‘You must not mind when men disagree; they do it all the time, and generally are the better for it.’

‘But … but he made himself look a fool!’ I burst out.

Mr Roberts laughed. ‘Ah, yes, that’s the barb! And you think that some of the foolishness must attach itself to you? Isn’t that it? But, Miss Hewitt, none of us is responsible for our relations, even less our relations by marriage. You must not expect them to behave as you would, understand the things in which you are interested—merely because you are connected with them. That is beyond the capacity of human nature, and the family, as you must know by now, is the field most likely to give rise to contention and … er … embarrassment.’

We left it at that. Mr Roberts was in many ways a wise man, but not where the young female heart was concerned.

At breakfast on that steamy August morning when we first sighted land, all the passengers took their places at the table except the two old ‘Bengal civilians’, who never appeared before midday. All knew by then that landfall had been achieved, and an air of relieved cheerfulness pervaded the party. Even the salt beef, ship’s biscuits and dried apricots went down more easily now that we had the prospect of fresh vegetables and good meat so near.

‘Oh, Miss Hewitt,’ said Elvira Wilkins as she sprinkled sugar on to her apricots, ‘what a treat I can promise you when you taste your first mango! It is quite the queen of fruits.’

BOOK: Zemindar
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