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Authors: Valerie Fitzgerald

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‘That so?’ Mr Chalmers was obviously impressed, but turned to Charles for confirmation of the intelligence.

‘Yes, that is true. But I am not yet acquainted with my brother.’

‘I see,’ said Mr Chalmers, who obviously did not.

‘I hope to meet him when we reach Lucknow of course, and perhaps visit him on his estate for a short time before going on to Delhi. However, though my mother has informed him of our visit to India, we have as yet received no letter from him, much less an invitation.’

‘And
that
doesn’t surprise me,’ Mr Chalmers said, between bites on a large and luscious mango. ‘A very … er … eccentric gentleman, Mr Erskine, so they tell me. Not much given to company. Now, when his grandfather was alive, that huge place of theirs was always full of people. Capital shooting parties, tiger-hunts, expeditions into the
terai
to round up elephant—everyone tried to cadge an Erskine invitation. And great parties and balls and
levées,
even though it was next door to nowhere and halfway back again! Remember ’em well, the old people, I mean. Always made a splash when they came to Calcutta to shop each year, my wife will tell you that, a real splash! But this young feller’s a different story, so I hear. Three generations after all! They all go to seed a bit after a time, get too fond of the black fellers, y’know … to say nothing of the black ladies, ha! ha!’

Mrs Chalmers clucked and said ‘Will!’ reprovingly.

‘Oh, sorry, sorry! But it’s true, m’dear, as you very well know. Look around you today, after all. How many of the old guard are there, people like Skinner and Hearsey, Wheeler—oh, dozens more—who have got themselves fixed up with a local lady, one way or the other? And it’s always the ones who have been out here too long, or whose fathers were here, y’know. Now that won’t do. Won’t do at all.’

Charles, after a quizzical glance at me, said, ‘Well then, I must hope I reach my poor expatriated brother in time. Perhaps I can persuade him to return to the land of his fathers and so save himself!’

‘Oh, laugh if you will, young feller. Laugh away. But mark my words, your Mr Erskine will have some surprises in store for you!’

CHAPTER 6

In the weeks that followed, during which we got to know Calcutta and its life, I often had cause to doubt Mrs Chalmers’s confident assertion that the place was ‘quite reformed’.

It is true that Sundays were observed with due care, almost everyone of any standing attending one or both of the services at St James’s Cathedral. But privately I questioned whether this was not due more to social usage and a desire to do the acceptable thing than to any religious conviction. However, I could not criticize, as I was happy enough to fall in with the local custom myself—though I was not by inclination pious. My father had been something of a free-thinker, and my mind had early been impressed with the desirability of question and analysis—a facet of my character which I took care to conceal, my aunt having pointed out to me its unfortunate unmaidenliness. I could not alter the critical bent of my mind, but I did learn to disguise it, having learnt that my aunt was correct in thinking men deplored fault-finding and self-confident women—not to mention intelligent ones.

The congregation at the Cathedral was large, and whatever the heat and humidity, dressed to the top of its bent. Enormous
punkahs
swayed ceaselessly above us, their squeaks and sighings sometimes drowning the preacher’s voice but doing little to cool the red faces above tight uniform collars or beneath elaborate bonnets. All perspired freely and great was the mopping of faces and necks that ensued as we sang the familiar hymns, and great indeed the relief when at last the final ‘Amen’ sounded and we were free to pour outdoors, mount our carriages and take the evening air on the
maidan.

This ceremonial attendance on Sundays, however, was all I discerned of Calcutta’s moral regeneration. Having listened to a twenty-minute exhortation to love our brethren (sermons being restricted to this length by order of the Governor General), most of us saw nothing inconsistent, on issuing from the Cathedral, in verbally belabouring the unfortunate coachman who had had the temerity to snatch a nap on the plush upholstered carriage seat.

For the rest of the week, and despite the heat, the monsoons and the absence of a large proportion of the female population in the hills, Calcutta seemed bent on only gaiety—even dissipation. Or perhaps it was because we were newcomers, and therefore represented novelty, that we were so hectically entertained. Whatever the reason, as soon as we had started to leave our cards, hardly an evening passed without the carriage driving up to the front porch to carry us to some dinner, private ball or other festivity, and in a very short time Emily had a calling list that at home would have done honour to a duchess.

I had expected that in my undistinguished position as travelling companion to my married cousin my entrances into society would be restricted. But such was not the case: due to the prevailing hot-weather famine in females, I was invited almost everywhere with Mr and Mrs Flood. This did not quite please young Mrs Flood, nor indeed myself, as my wardrobe was far from extensive and I did not wish to spend my money on expensive gowns. I was rescued from this dilemma by Mrs Chalmers who, seeing my difficulty, introduced me to the custom of having one’s clothes made by a native tailor or
derzi
. All I had to do, then, was buy a length of material, find a plate in a magazine illustrating a suitable gown, and, lo and behold, within a couple of days I would find myself wearing its absolute replica, and at a very small cost to myself. This miracle was performed by a gnome of a man, brown, bent and wizened with steel spectacles at the end of his nose, who, with one end of the material clasped firmly between his great toe and the next, cut and stitched and fitted one piece of fabric to another with all the easy expertise of a Bond Street mantua-maker. I had to keep his ministrations secret, for Mrs Chalmers told me it was considered
infra dig
to admit to
derzi
-made clothes. Everyone had them, of course, but vowed they came from Paris or London.

Emily and Charles enjoyed every aspect of their new life. Each day Charles accompanied Mr Chalmers to the offices of Hewitt, Flood & Hewitt, where he put in the required number of working hours—and very short hours they were in comparison to those in London—returning with Mr Chalmers at
tiffin
-time, with only the prospect of the afternoon sleep and the evening’s gaieties before him. Although he considered himself of little importance in the firm, as the representative of a rich and influential concern he was shown almost obsequious consideration, and to my disappointment began to take it seriously. Emily soon became everyone’s ‘dear little Mrs Flood’, was petted and fêted outrageously, and her airs and affections became more marked. This, together with Charles’s new hint of pomposity, sometimes made me wonder with apprehension what effect the country was having on my own character, and I rejoiced that in fact I had little enough to turn my head.

For I was rather less impressed with the company we now kept than were my cousins. What ladies there were in Calcutta seemed curiously lacking in interesting qualities; all their energies were directed towards preparing for the next festivity or recovering from the last. They had no work to do in their own homes, seldom had children to care for, took no interest in the country around them and did not even trouble to learn the native language.

The gentlemen were hardly more stimulating as companions. They talked almost exclusively of guns and horses, and I began to see why so many ladies needed iced champagne at parties to keep their spirits up. No doubt these gentlemen made admirable soldiers, excellent administrators and notable business men, but in a drawing-room they were, not to put too fine a point on it mere bores. After the first few evenings, when novelty had lent everything distinction, I began to dread the appearance of the carriage. So I was always pleased to find my sensible friend Mr Roberts making one of the company, as he never drank to excess and was prepared to talk to me rationally, despite my sex. He it was who, early in our Calcutta days, suggested that I study Urdu, the polite form of Hindustani, which is the
lingua franca
of Northern India (rather than Bengali) and took the trouble to find me a suitable tutor.

The household on the whole were inclined to view my lessons with disapproval. ‘You can’t be
singular
, Laura,’ as Emily put it, while Mr Chalmers, who was suspicious of any form of mental activity in women, said loftily, ‘Lots of young women like to try this sort of thing when they first come out. Doesn’t really signify at all—they never stick it. Too difficult, y’know.’

It was certainly difficult, but that remark made me more than ever determined to ‘stick it’. The language was very strange to my unaccustomed ears, but with diligence and determination I began to make some progress. My tutor or
munshi
, a little old man with exquisite manners and endless patience, arrived each morning at seven, and, having sharpened a fistful of bamboo pens, shaken up his horn of ink and spread out a sheet of porous native paper before us, would commence the lesson by chanting the Urdu alphabet, swaying his body from the waist in unison with the beat of the chant. Mr Roberts never again came to the Chalmerses’ house, but often sent me simple books and primers to assist me with my studies and when we met helped me with my pronunciation.

One morning, as we sat at breakfast on the verandah—the three of us were alone as Mrs Chalmers always slept late and Mr Chalmers had his breakfast in his dressing-room—a packet of badly printed pamphlets was delivered to me by a
chaprassi
wearing Mr Roberts’s monogram upon his jacket. As I opened it, Emily remarked, ‘I declare you have made quite a conquest there, Laura,’ indicating the booklets and indirectly Mr Roberts. Her expression as she spoke was sneering, and I felt my cheeks flush with annoyance. Mr Roberts was old enough to be my father, still devoted to the memory of his dead wife and nothing more than a kindly and considerate friend. I raised my eyes very slowly and gave Emily a long, cool look to convey my annoyance, but she merely tossed her head at me and laughed. I decided to hold my tongue.

Charles, who was immersed in a two-month-old copy of the London
Times
that had arrived the day before, had caught his wife’s remark and looked up to say, ‘That was surely unnecessary, Emily, and in very bad taste.’

‘Oh, I’m sure you think so!’ she replied haughtily. ‘And no doubt you know just how Laura feels, but can you be so sure of Mr Roberts’s feelings too?’

‘Emily! How can you suggest such a thing!’

‘But why ever not?
I
think nothing could be more suitable. Of course he is a little old, but after all, Laura, you’re not so young any more either. I see no harm in his making sheep’s eyes at you, and you must admit he does.’

‘I admit no such thing,’ I answered icily, ‘and I have had enough of this silly conversation.’

‘Oh yes, of course, I am sure you have. Enough of “silly” Emily’s “silly” conversation!’ she mimicked in parody of my tone. ‘But let me tell you that “silly” Emily has eyes in her head and can put two and two together as well as any. When I remember all the time you spent alone with Mr Roberts on the ship, why, you have given him every excuse to think you reciprocate his regard. And as I have said,’ she added spitefully, ‘I think it would be a perfectly suitable match. I can’t see what you are fussing about just because I mention it.’

‘Emily, that’s enough. I’ll hear no more of this nonsense.’

Charles got to his feet and stood glaring down at his wife in a manner that betokened, even to me, the injured party, a quite undue annoyance. Emily set her lips, lifted her chin and stared back at him defiantly.

‘How dare you speak to me like that, Charles Flood?’ she asked angrily, after a moment. ‘I am not a child. I am a married woman!’

‘Then why don’t you behave like one?’

‘Why don’t you treat me like one?’

I knew suddenly that both were oblivious of my presence. As they glared at one another across the table, I saw in their faces a total absorption in their own thoughts—angry, injuring thoughts, thoughts to whose existence I should not have been privy, as I should never have heard their words.

‘What do you mean by that?’ Charles asked, very quietly, when the silence had grown desperate.

‘Just what I say!’ Emily almost shouted, though now her chin was quivering. ‘I will not be treated like a senseless child any longer. Not by you, nor Laura, nor anyone else. I am a married woman, and I will have the con … consideration due to me.’

Another uneasy silence followed; then Charles grated between clenched teeth, ‘As you will then, Emily. As you will. I see I have been mistaken. But I have learnt something from my mistake. Let it be as you will then, Emily—from now on!’

I could see that these words had a far deeper significance for Emily than they bore for me. She flushed and bit her lip to control the quivering of her chin, but continued to stare at her husband with eyes that, though now tear-filled, remained hostile. In white-faced silence Charles picked up his paper, buttoned his alpaca jacket and reached for his hat which hung on the antlers of a deer’s stuffed head on the verandah wall. Then, without another word, he turned and walked with bowed head to where the carriage stood ready to take him to his morning’s work at Hewitt, Flood & Hewitt’s offices.

The day that followed was an uncomfortable one in every sense. No rain fell, and the sticky heat mounted hour by long uneasy hour, filling the big, dark house with a silent oppression of acute discomfort. Emily went to her room and cried, and when I followed her, hoping to make my peace, refused to be comforted. She lay on her high white bed sobbing hysterically and between sobs accused me of ‘unfeelingness’, Charles of ‘hatefulness’ and herself of stupidity for having ever married such a man. Realizing anew that her trouble of mind bore little relation to my brief annoyance at her remarks regarding Mr Roberts and myself, I withdrew and left her alone to her tantrum. There was more here than met the eye, or than I was willing to discover.

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