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Authors: Valerie Fitzgerald

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BOOK: Zemindar
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By ten o’clock the sky was leaden and lowering and we had just determined to retire to the comfort of the
punkah
-cooled drawing-room when, heralded by a tremendous peal of thunder, the rain came. It was the first true monsoon downpour I had experienced, and after the first few moments, when I was almost alarmed, I found myself enjoying it. Never had I imagined anything like the vehemence of that sheeting, pouring, clamorous rain! The storms at sea had been violent, often frightening, but now the heavens literally split and a solid wall of water descended, driving us, in a matter of seconds, into the house. I stood at a door and watched, while Mrs Chalmers, shouting to make herself heard above the din, begged me not to be alarmed: it was ‘only the monsoons’. Soon the garden had become a muddy brown lake, every pathway and patch of lawn awash in inches of water, every plant battered to the earth and every tree lashed and writhing beneath the onslaught.

The gardeners ran for shelter as the first huge drops hit the ground throwing up a spray of dust like miniature cannonballs, and the noisy family of Seven Sisters hopped on to the verandah for shelter, where they remained fluffing out their bedraggled feathers in an aggrieved manner and grumbling to each other about their situation.

Then in something less than an hour the rain abated and ceased almost as suddenly as it had started. I put on my rubber overshoes and went out into the garden to view the damage, convinced that everything must have been washed into the river. The poor bright flowers hung their heads in muddy shame, but the water was running off the paths and beds as I watched, led away by a complex system of little canals leading down to the river. Birds, revived by the deluge, had begun to twitter in the dripping trees; the gardeners came back to work impassively at the tasks they had so suddenly abandoned. And then the sun came out from behind a great bank of cloud, and with it the heat returned and made the wet earth steam like a boiling kettle and caused a dozen flowering shrubs and trees to release their perfumes which, mingling with the scent of damp, warm earth and scythed grass, delighted my senses. I splashed about, helping the zinnias to unload their burden of raindrops and, thus, with muddy skirts and wet hands, was discovered by Mr Roberts, who, true to his promise, and despite my doubts, had come to call.

‘How nice!’ I called, as his coachman unbuttoned the water-proof apron of his light gig. ‘How very nice of you to remember us.’

‘Could you doubt that I would, Miss Hewitt?’ He waited for me to cross the soaked lawn and then took my hand with every appearance of pleasure.

‘No, not really. But in this weather—and I am sorry that my cousins are themselves out calling and so you will have to do with only me.’

‘How nice!’ he said, echoing my words, and we went indoors.

Mrs Chalmers had retired to her sitting-room and her novels, but she had to be informed of my visitor. Mr Roberts took out a card, bent down the top left-hand corner, and placed it on the silver salver with which the Chalmerses’ chief bearer had approached him. Much sooner than I had expected (since she had to dress), Mrs Chalmers was with us and I made the introductions. Her reception of Mr Roberts, though polite, was hardly cordial, but I put her coldness down to annoyance at having a caller at such an unseemly hour and having to don her gown so hastily. I tried to mend matters with Mr Roberts by showing a too-gushing interest in his doings, hanging on his every word as he talked of Calcutta and what we should see and do while residing in the capital. We confined ourselves to small-talk, but as he was preparing to leave, he said, ‘By the way, you will be interested to know that I found a communication from Mr Erskine awaiting me when I arrived.’

‘Well, that is more than Charles has done!’ I said. ‘We have received no word from him yet.’

‘No doubt you will—in Mr Erskine’s own time,’ he added with a twinkle. ‘He has invited me—summoned me, rather—to inspect his indigo plantation this coming winter.’

‘And will you go?’

‘Certainly. Few can afford to refuse an invitation from Mr Erskine.’

‘And which Erskine would that be, Mr Roberts?’ Mrs Chalmers asked curiously.

‘Of Oudh,’ replied my friend. ‘Is there any other?’

‘Oh, not Oliver Erskine? My gracious, fancy being invited to his place! I almost envy you, truly I do.’ For a moment she lost her distant manner. ‘Why, the Erskines live almost like rajahs or nawabs, they say, though come to think of it the old lady is dead, is she not? She must have been a great age too.’

‘Yes, she has been dead some years, I believe. Mr Erskine has recently taken up the cultivation of indigo and I have been advising him on the matter over the last couple of years. Hence the invitation.’

‘And Mr Flood is also acquainted with him?’ Mrs Chalmers turned to me.

‘He is Mr Erskine’s half-brother, but they have never met. Charles hopes to get to know him when we go up to Lucknow.’

‘But how extraordinary. Never to have met—and Oliver Erskine, of all people!’

‘You know him then?’

‘Oh, no, certainly not! But all Calcutta knows
of
Oliver Erskine, I assure you, Miss Hewitt. Why, I can remember myself, in the old days of course, seeing old Mrs Erskine in her magnificent carriage, with matched greys and a whole horde of postillions, outriders, grooms and even guards, all in expensive livery, driving on the
maidan.
They used to come down to Calcutta every year to shop, and there wasn’t a tradesman in the place who had eyes for anyone else when the Erskines were in town. They always entertained the Governor General, as though they were the superior, you know. And often stayed at Government House too. She was a beautiful woman, French, y’know, and her husband treated her like a queen. They say Oliver did too, after the old man died. My—to think that the Floods are connected!’

‘Charles’s mother is Mr Erskine’s mother.’

‘My!’

This intelligence was too much for Mrs Chalmers, who relapsed into round-eyed silence, thus allowing Mr Roberts to take his leave.

He had not been long gone, and I was casting about in my mind for a suitable manner in which to again broach the subject of Mr Erskine to Mrs Chalmers, for I was sure she would be much more informative about this intriguing gentleman than Mr Roberts had been, when Emily and Charles returned from their visiting, very satisfied with their first glimpse of Calcutta society. Emily had lost the peaked and pouting expression she had worn for several days, and Charles was also happier.

‘Only think,’ exclaimed Emily as we sat down to
tiffin
, a meal of far too many highly flavoured courses to be enjoyed in such heat, ‘Calcutta lacks nothing that can make life pleasant: good shops and balls, a theatre, a racecourse and everything! Why, they have even opened a proper picture gallery! It will be very like London. I told Mrs Grimsby how skilled you were with your paints, Laura, and she promises to take us all to Thacker and Spink’s gallery as soon as she has returned our call. And we are to dine tomorrow night with the Frasers and take you (which was
very
kind), and I believe Mr Roberts is to be there too which will make it pleasant for you.’

‘It seems that everyone here knows everyone else, certainly,’ observed Charles. ‘Calcutta is a very close-knit society.’

‘Oh, wait until you get up-country for that!’ laughed Mrs Chalmers. ‘I assure you we are quite strangers to each other here compared to the smaller stations. When you live in a small community, the first thing you learn is the impossibility of keeping anything to yourself, for however discreet you might be, your servants will undo all by gossiping away with your neighbours’ servants about everything that passes in your house. And never delude yourself that they don’t understand you. They pick up every word, believe me!’

‘Then we must be very decorous,’ announced Emily firmly.

‘Or very uncaring,’ I suggested jokingly, but was taken up sternly by Mr Chalmers.

‘Indeed, Miss Hewitt,’ he said, fixing me with his bulging pale-blue eyes, ‘not one of us can afford to be uncaring here in India. You have to realize something of the awesome task we have: to bring the civilization of our country and, above all, the comfort of our faith, to these poor heathens wallowing in their evil and ignorance. You must always remember that our lives must present a pattern of Christian decorum and prudence, in public and in private. We have a duty to show the natives the advantages derived from piety and the exercise of the Christian virtues of sobriety, truthfulness and thrift, to say nothing of diligence. After all, my dear young lady, it was the exercise of these virtues that gave us India, so surely it is now our privilege to give India these virtues?’

‘I had understood that conquest rather than Christianity brought us India,’ I demurred mildly.

‘And could we have conquered without Christianity—the fortitude, the strength, it brings us?’

Privately, I was convinced we could have, but it seemed unwise to press the point.

‘We have all recently been made to see how much rests in our own hands by our most excellent Archdeacon Carter, Miss Hewitt. Calcutta has quite reformed since he came to us, I assure you. Mr Chalmers and I sit under him twice each Sunday, in the cold weather, of course, and I cannot tell you how beautifully he speaks. Such noble sentiments, so inspiring! And all he says so true. We really must do all we can to bring these poor Hindus to the fold of Christ!’

Mrs Chalmers heaved a sigh and wiped a moustache of curry from her upper lip. ‘Not that it is always
easy
to present a correct appearance, mind. This heat, y’know, the general inclemency of the climate, and now that so many more women are coming out, women without the fortitude of my generation (if you young ladies will pardon my saying so), standards have begun to deteriorate rather than improve! You’ll never credit it,’ she added
sotto voce
to me, ‘but I have heard of ladies—women, rather—who let themselves go to the point that they receive morning callers while wearing no stockings!’

I failed to see the connection between this startling revelation and the message Christ left his Apostles, but fortunately Charles just then spoke, and I was spared the necessity of comment.

‘One of the gentlemen we met this morning,’ he said, ‘a Colonel Thorpe, I believe, talked a good deal of the unrest in Oudh. He appears to expect trouble and rather alarmed me with his opinions, since we intend to spend a time in Lucknow as you know. Do you think there is anything in it, Mr Chalmers?’

‘Certainly not. Nothing to it!’ Mr Chalmers practically erupted with annoyance. ‘We have had rumours of war and insurrection here in Bengal too, y’know. Only recently a mutiny, a piddling little affair of course, was quelled in Barrackpore—and very successfully too, I may add. Some matter of discontented sepoys trying to take things into their own hands. We made an example of them, I can tell you! But no, sir, no sensible man gives a hearing to these stories that go the rounds. One has to talk of
something.
That is all it amounts to. The country is more secure, more stable than it has ever been. The people quite devoted to us, quite devoted! And so they should be.’

‘I am glad to hear you say so. Colonel Thorpe also mentioned the sepoys—I believe a large number of them come from Oudh, do they not?—and hinted that all was not well in their ranks, particularly since this business of annexation.’

Here I broke in: ‘Why, Mr Roberts was telling me just the same thing! The gentleman who was here this morning.’ I turned to Mrs Chalmers.

‘Roberts? Not Henry Roberts? Jute and sugar?’

‘And indigo,’ I agreed brightly, while Emily and Charles, who had not yet heard of my caller, looked up in surprise and Mrs Chalmers nodded her head with something like sorrow.

‘Hm. An alarmist if ever there was one,’ Mr Chalmers observed gruffly.

‘Indeed, and is that so?’ Charles’s tone showed satisfaction. ‘He travelled out with us and seemed most well-informed, but of course we are not in a positon to judge the accuracy of his views.’

‘Well-informed?’ Mr Chalmers now looked definitely sour. ‘Well, I suppose so. In some sense. Reads and all that, y’know. Has theories about politics and the rights of man. We need no politics out here; we have enough troubles without
that
! What we need out here is a firm hand. But people like Roberts can’t be made to see that. Always talking—and writing, mind you. Damned fellow prints articles in the newspapers—about the awakening of the Indian mind, the necessity for justice and seeing the native’s point of view. Tosh! The chap’s a Radical! A Liberal!’

Here Mr Chalmers subsided into his meal, first bellowing to one of the
khitmagars
to bring him more rice and be pretty damned quick about it.

Not for the first time I wished that someone had persuaded me in my impressionable years that young females should learn to hold their tongues. Not content with having brought one hornet’s nest about my head, I had actually invited a second. I should have realized from Mrs Chalmers’s manner to Mr Roberts that morning that he, poor man, was somehow
persona non
grata
with the house of Chalmers. And yet I had dragged him into the conversation.

‘I am relieved to have your opinion,’ Charles was saying. ‘I must certainly visit Lucknow; I promised my mother to do as much, but if I felt there was really trouble on the way I would leave my wife and Miss Hewitt in Calcutta naturally.’

‘No need for that,’ assured Mr Chalmers. ‘None at all. Fine place, Lucknow, most enjoyable to visit, so long as you keep out of the native quarter. Never could understand these people who had to make much of the wretched Nawab and his relatives though. Of course you wouldn’t be drawn into all that now that he’s been deposed and lives down here.’

‘No indeed. We intend to stay with Emily’s cousin and her husband. He is in the Army.’

‘Oh, Will,’ exclaimed Mrs Chalmers to her husband, ‘I knew there was something I had to tell you! Just fancy, but I heard this morning from that Mr Roberts of all people that our young Mr Flood is half-brother to no less a person than Mr Oliver Erskine. You remember the Erskines? From Oudh?’

BOOK: Zemindar
5.83Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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