The Charmed Life/Chapter I
Kiss happiness with lips That seek beyond the lips. —from the Love Song of Yar Ali
I met him in that careless, haphazard and thoroughly human way in which one meets people in Calcutta, in all parts of India for that matter. He and I laughed simultaneously at the same street scene. I don’t remember if it was the sight of a portly, grey-bearded native dressed incongruously in a brown-and-grey striped camel’s-hair dressing-gown, an extravagantly embroidered skull-cap, gorgeous open-work silk socks showing the bulging calves, and clothtopped patent leather shoes of an ultra-Viennese cut, or if it was perhaps the sight of Donald McIntyre, the Eurasian tobacco merchant in the Sealdah, abusing his Babu partner in a splendid linguistic mixture of his father’s broad, twangy Glasgow Scots and of his mother’s soft, gliding Behari.
At all events something struck me as funny. I laughed. So did the other man. And there you are.
Nice-looking chap he was—of good length of limbs and width of shoulders, clean-shaven, strong-jawed, and with close-cropped curly brown hair, and eyes the keenest, jolliest shade of blue imaginable. And—he was an American. You could tell by his clothes, chiefly by his neat shoes. They were of a vintage of perhaps two or three years before, but still they bore the national mark; they smacked, somehow, of ice water and clanking overhead trains and hustle and hat-check boys—and his nationality, too, was a point in his favor, since I had spent the preceding three years in New York and America had become home to me, in a way.
So we talked. I forgot who spoke first. It really doesn’t matter—in India. Nor did we exchange cards nor names, that not being the custom of negligent India, but we conversed with that easy, we-might-as-well-be-friends familiarity with which strangers talk to each other aboard a transatlantic liner or in a Pullman car—west of Chicago. Presently we decided that we were obstructing the thoroughfare—at least a tiny, white bullock was trying his best to push us out of the way with his soft, ridiculous muzzle—we decided, furthermore, that we had several things to talk over. Quite important things they seemed at the time, and tremendously varied: the home policy of the ancient Peruvians, the truth of the Elohistic theory in the study of the Pentateuch, and the difference between Lahore and Lucknow chutney. In other words, we felt that strange human phenomenon: a sudden warm wave of friendship, of interest, of sympathy for each other.
So we adjourned to a native café which was a mass of violet and gold—slightly fly-specked—of smells honey-sweet and gall-bitter, of carved and painted things supremely beautiful and supremely hideous—since the East goes to the extreme in both cases.
We sipped our coffee and smiled at each other and talked. We discovered that we had likings in common—better still, prejudices and mad theories in common, and presently, since with the bunching, splintering noon heat the shops and the bazaar were clearing of buyers and sellers and since the café was filling with all sorts of strong scented low-castes, kunjris and sansis and what-not, chewing betel and expectorating vastly after the manner of their kind, he proposed that we should continue our conversation in his house.
I accepted, and leaving the tavern I turned automatically to the left fully expecting him to lead toward Park Street or perhaps, since he was so obviously an American, toward one of the big cosmopolitan hotels on the other side of the Howrah Bridge. But instead he led me to the right, straight toward Chitpore Road, straight into the heart of the ancestral tenements of the Ghoses and Raos and Kumars—the respectable native quarter, in other words.
That was my first surprise. My second came when we reached his home—a two storied house of typical extravagant bulbous Hindu architecture, surrounded by a flaunting garden, orange and vermilion with peach and pomegranate and peepul trees and with a thousand nodding flowers. For, as soon as he had ushered me into the great reception hall which stretched across the whole ground floor from front to back veranda, he excused himself. He did not wait to see me comfortably seated nor to offer me drink and tobacco, after the pleasant Anglo-Indian, and, for that matter, American habit. But he dropped hat and stick on the first handy chair, left the room with a hurried “be back in a jiffy, old man,” and, a moment later I heard somewhere in the upper story of the house his deep mellow voice, quickly followed by a tinkling, silvery burst of laughter—the unmistakable, low-pitched laughter of the native woman which starts on a minor key and is accompanied by strange melodious appoggiatures an infinitesimal sixteenth below the harmonic tones to which the Western ear is attuned.
So I felt surprised, also disappointed and a little disgusted. The usual. sordid shop-worm romance—I said to myself—the usual, useless pinchbeck tale of passion of some fool of a young, rich American and a scheming native woman, doubtless aided and abetted by a swarm of scheming, greasy, needy relations—the old story; the sort of thing that used to be notorious in Japan and in the Philippines.
Impatient, rather soured with my new-found friend, I looked about the room—and my surprise grew, but in another direction,
For the room was not furnished in the quick, tawdry, thrown-together manner of a man who lives and loves and nests with the impulses of a bird of passage. That I could have understood. It would have been in keeping with the tinkly laugher which had drifted down the stairs. Too, I could have understood if the appointments had been straight European or American, a sort of cheap, sentimental link with the home selfrespect which he had discarded—temporarily— when he started light housekeeping with his native-born Pgryne.
The room, complete from the ceiling to the floor and from window to door, was furnished in the native style; not in the nasty, showy, ornate native style of the bazaars which cater to tourists—and it is in Indian’s favor that the “Oriental wares” sold there are mostly made in Birmingham, Berlin and Newark, N. J.—but in that solid, heavy, rather somber native style of the well-to-do high-caste Hindu to whom every piece—each chair and table and screen—is somehow fraught with eternal, racial tradition. It was a real home, in other words and a native home; and there was nothing—if I except a rack of bier pipes and a humidor filled with a certain much-advertised brand of Kentucky burley tobacco—which spoke of America.
A low divan ran around the four sides of the room. There were three carved saj-wood chairs, a Kashmir walnut table of which the surface was deeply undercut with realistic chenar leaves, and a large water-pipe made of splendid Lucknow enamel. A huge, reddish-brown camel’s-hair rug covered the floor, and on tabourets distributed here and there were niello boxes filled with the roseleaf-and-honey confections beloved by Hindu women, pitchers and basins of that exquisite damascening called bidri, and a soft-colored silken scarf—coiled and crumpled, as if a woman had dropped it hurriedly.
The walls were covered with blue glazed tiles; and one the one facing the outer door an inscription in inlaid work caught my attention. They were just a few words, in Sanskrit, and, somehow, they affected me strangely. They were the famous words from the Upanishad:
“Recall, O mind, thy deeds—recall, recall!” The answer was clear. I said to myself, with a little bitter pang for remember that I liked the man—that here was one who had gone fantee, who had gone native; a man who had dropped overboard all the traditions, the customs, and decencies, the virtues, the blessed, saving prejudices of his race and faith to mire himself hopelessly in the slough of a foreign race and faith. For it is true that a man who goes fantee never acquires the good, but only the bad of the alien breed with which he mingles and blends— true, moreover, that such a man can never rise again, that the doors of the house of his birth shall be forever closed to him. He has blackened the crucible of his life and he will never find a single golden bead at the bottom of it; only hatred and despair and disgust, a longing for the irreparably lost, a bitter taste in the mouth of his soul.
I started towards the door. Out into the free, open sunlight, I said to myself. For I knew what would happen. The man would come down-stairs, carrying a square bottle and glasses. Presently he would become drunk—maudlin—he would pour his mean, dirty confidences into my ear and weep on my neck and—
I reconsidered, quite suddenly. Why, this young American had not the earmarks of a man who had gone fantee. There was not that look in his eyes—that horrible, unbearable look, a composite of misery and lust, bred of bad thoughts, bad dreams, and worse hashish— The man—I had seen him in the merciless rays of the Indian sun—was keen-eyed, clean morally and physically. His laughter was fresh. His complexion was healthy—and yes, I continued my thoughts, he seemed happy, supremely, sublimely, enviably happy!
“Sorry I kept you waiting,” came his voice from the farther door as he came into the room, dressed in the flowing, comfortable house robe of a wealthy native gentleman.
He must have read my gyrating, unspoken thought. Perhaps I stared a little too inquisitively at his face, for the tell-tale sign of the sordid tragedy which I suspect. For he smiled, a fine, thin smile, and he pointed to the Sanskrit inscription, reading the words out loud and with a certain gently exalted inflection as if his tongue, in forming the sonorous words, was tasting a special sort of psychic ambrosia.
“Recall, O Mind, thy deeds—recall, re—”
“Well,” I blurted out, brutally, tactlessly, before I realized what I was doing, “What is the answer—to this and that and this?” pointing, in turn, at the Indian furniture, the inscription, his dressing robe, and, though the stone-framed window, at the native houses which crowded the garden on all sides.
He smiled. He was not the least bit angry, but frankly amused, like a typical, decently-bred American who can even relish a joker at his own expense. “You’re an inquisitive beggar,” he commenced, “but I’ll tell you rather than have some gossiping cackling hen of a deputy assistant commissioner’s mother-in-law tell you the wrong tale and make me lose your friendship. You see,” he continued. with an air as if he was telling me a tremendous secret, “I am Stephen Denton.”
“Well,” I asked, “what of that?” The name meant nothing to me.”
“What? Have they already forgotten my name? Gosh, that’s bully! In another year they will have forgotten the tale itself! You see,” he continued, dropping into one of the divans and waving me down beside him, “I’m the guy whom the kid subalterns over at the British barracks call ‘the man with the charmed life.’
I gave a cry—of surprise, amazement, incredulity. For I had heard tales—vague, fantastic, incredible. “You—” I stammered, “you—are—”
“Yes,” he laughed, “I am that same man. Care to hear the story?”
“You bet!” I replied fervently, and that very moment , came once more the sound of laughter from up-stairs—soft, tinkling, silvery—