At Her Beck and Call

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At Her Beck and Call  (1894) 
by Flora Annie Steel
Extracted from Short Stories (New York) magazine, V 16 1894, pp. 208-212. First published in The Sketch.

"A sudden determination to paint her, the Flowerful Life against the Flowerful Death, completely obliterated the knowledge of my own incompetence; but I urged and bribed in vain. Phooli-jân would not stir. She would not even let me pick a handful of the flowers for her to hold. It was unlucky; besides, one never knew what one might find in the thickets of leaves—bones and horrid things. Had I never heard that dead people got tired of their graves and tried to get out". …


AT HER BECK AND CALL

By Flora Annie Steel

" WHAT is your name?" I asked.

"Phooli-jân, Huzoor," she answered, with a brilliant, dazzling smile.

I sat looking at her, wondering if a more appropriate name could have been found for that figure among the anemones and celandines—the primulas, pansies and pinks—the thousand-and-one blossoms which, glowing against their groundwork of forget-me-nots, formed a jewel-mosaic right to the foot of the snows above us. Flowerful life! Truly that was hers. She had a great bunch of scarlet rhododendron stuck behind her ear, matching the cloth cap perched jauntily on her head, and as she sat herding her buffaloes on the upland she had threaded chaplet on chaplet of ox-eyed daisies, and hung them about her wherever they could be hung. The result was distinctly flowerful; her face, also, distinctly pretty, distinctly clean for a Kashmiri girl's. But coquette, flirt, minx, was written in every line of it, and accounted for a most unusual neatness and brightness.

She caught my eye and smiled again, broadly, innocently.

"The Huzoor would like to paint my picture, wouldn't he?" she went on, in a tone of certainty. "The Sahib who came last year gave me five rupees. I will take six this year. Food is dear, and those base-born contractors of the Maharajah seize everything—one walnut in ten, one chicken in ten."

But I was not going to be beguiled into the old complaints I could hear any and every day from the hags in the village. Up here on the murg, within a stone's-throw of the first patch of snow picketing the outskirts of the great glacier of Gwashbrari, I liked, if possible, to forget how vile man could be in the little shingle huts clustering below by the river. I will not describe the place. To begin with, it defies description, and next, could I even hint at its surpassing beauty, the globe-trotter would come and defile it. It is sufficient to say that a murg is an upland meadow or alp, and that this one, with its forget-me-nots and sparkling glaciers, was like a turquoise set in diamonds. I had seated myself on a projecting spur, whence I could sketch a frowning defile northwards, down which the emerald-green river was dashing madly among huge rocks crowned by pine-trees.

"I will give five rupees also; that is plenty," I remarked suavely, and Phooli-jân smiled again.

"It must do, for I like being painted. Only a few Sahibs come, very few; but whenever they see me they want to paint me and the flowers, and it makes the other girls in the village angry. Then Goloo and Chuchchu——" Here she went off into a perfect cascade of smiles, and began to pull the eyelashes off the daisies deliberately. There seems a peculiar temptation for cruelty towards flowers in girlhood all over the world, and Phooli-jân was pre-eminently girlish. She looked eighteen, but I doubt if she was really more than sixteen. Even so, it was odd to find her unappropriated, so I inquired if Goloo or Chuchchu was the happy man.

"My mother is a widow," she replied, without the least hesitation. "It depends which will pay the most, for we are poor. There are others, too, so there is no hurry. They are at my beck and call."

She crooked her forefinger and nodded her head as if beckoning to some one. For sheer light-hearted, innocent enjoyment of her own attraction I never saw the equal of that face. I should have made my fortune if I could have painted it there in the blazing sunlight, framed in flowers; but it was too much for me. Therefore, I asked her to move to the right, further along the promontory, so that I could put her in the foreground of a picture I had already begun.

"There, by that first clump of iris," I said, pointing to a patch of green sword-leaves, where the white and lilac blossoms were beginning to show.

She gave a perceptible shudder.

"What? Sit on a grave! Not I. Does not the Huzoor know that those are graves? It is true. All our people are buried here. We plant the iris over them always. If you ask why, I know not. It is the flower of death."

A sudden determination to paint her, the Flowerful Life against the Flowerful Death, completely obliterated the knowledge of my own incompetence; but I urged and bribed in vain. Phooli-jân would not stir. She would not even let me pick a handful of the flowers for her to hold. It was unlucky; besides, one never knew what one might find in the thickets of leaves—bones and horrid things. Had I never heard that dead people got tired of their graves and tried to get out, or even if they only wanted something in their graves they would stretch forth a hand to get it? That was one reason why people covered them up with flowers—just to make them more contented.

The idea of stooping to cull a flower and shaking hands with a corpse was distinctly unpleasant, even in the sunlight, so I gave up the point and began to sketch the girl as she sat. Rather a difficult task, for she chattered incessantly. Did I see that thin blue thread of smoke in the dark pall of pine-trees covering the bottom of the valley? That was Goloo's fire. He was drying orris root for the Maharajah. There, on the opposite murg, where the buffaloes showed dark among the flowers was Chuchchu's hut. Undoubtedly, Chuchchu was the richer, but Goloo could climb like an ibex. It was he whom the Huzoor was going to take as a guide to the peak. He could dance, too. The Huzoor should see him dance the circle dance round the fire—no one turned so slowly as Goloo. He would not frighten a young lamb, except when he was angry—well, jealous, if the Huzoor thought that were better.

By the time she had done chattering there was not a petal left on the ox-eyed daisies, and I was divided between pity and envy towards Goloo and Chuchchu.

That evening, as usual, I set my painting to dry on the easel at the door of the tent. As I lounged by the camp fire, smoking my pipe, a big young man, coming in with a jar of buffalo milk on his shoulder and a big bunch of red rhododendron behind his ear, stopped and grinned at my caricature of Phooli-jân. Five minutes after, down by the servants' encampment, I heard a free fight going on, and strolled over to see what was the matter. After the manner of Kashmiri quarrels, it had ended almost as it began; for the race love peace. That it had so ended was not, however, I saw at a glance, the fault of the smaller of the antagonists, who was being forcibly held back by my shikari.

"Chuchchu, that man there, wanted to charge Goloo, this man here, the same price for milk as he does your honor," explained the shikari elaborately. "That was extortionate, even though Goloo, being the Huzoor's guide for to-morrow, may be said to be your honor's servant for the time. I have settled the matter justly. The Huzoor need not give thought to it."

I looked at the two recipients of Phooli-jân's favor with interest—for that the bunches of red rhododendron they both wore were her gift I did not doubt. They were both fine young men, but Goloo distinctly the better-looking of the two, if a trifle sinister.

Despite the recommendation of my shikari to cast thought aside, the incident lingered in my memory, and I mentioned it to Phooli-jân when, on returning to finish my sketch, I found her waiting for me among the flowers. Her smile was more brilliant than ever.

"They will not hurt each other," she said. "Chuchchu knows that Goloo is more active, and Goloo knows that Chuchchu is stronger. It is like the dogs in our village."

"I was not thinking of them," I replied. "I was thinking of you. Supposing they were to quarrel with you?"

She laughed. "They will not quarrel. In summer-time there are plenty of flowers for everybody."

I thought of these red rhododendrons, and could not repress a smile at her barefaced wisdom of the serpent.

"And in the winter-time?"

"Then I will marry one of them, or someone. I have only to choose. That is all. They are at my beck and call."

Three years passed before recurring leave enabled me to pay another visit to the murg. The rhododendrons were once more out on the uplands, and as I turned the last corner of the pine-set path which threaded its way through the defile, I saw the meadow before me, with its mosaic of flowers bright as ever. The memory of Phooli-jân came back to me as she had sat in the sunshine nodding and beckoning.

"Phooli-jân?" echoed the old patriarch who came out to welcome me as I crossed the plank bridge to the village. "Phooli-jân, the herd-girl? Huzoor, she is dead; she died from picking flowers, A vain thing. It was at the turn beyond the murg, Huzoor, half-way between Chuchchu's hut and Goloo's drying stage. There is a big rhododendron tree hanging over the cliff, and she fell down. It must be three years gone."

Three years; then it must have happened almost immediately after I left the valley. The idea upset me; I knew not why. It seemed to dim the sunshine. The murg without that Flowerful Life nodding and beckoning felt empty. I was glad that I had arranged not to remain there for the night, but to push on to another meadow, some six miles farther up the river. To do so, however, I required a fresh relay of coolies, and while my shikari was arranging for this in the village I made my way by a cross-cut to the promontory, with its patches of iris.

Deaths are rare in these small communities, and there were but two or three new graves—all but one too recent to be poor Phooli-jân's. That, then, must be hers, with its still clearly defined oblong of iris, already a mass of pale purple and white.

I sat down on a rock, and began, unromantically, to eat my lunch, finishing up with a pull at my flask, and thus providentially fortified, I stooped, ere leaving, to pick one or two of the blossoms from the grave, intending to paint them round the sketch of the girl's head which I had with me.

Great Heavens! what was that?

I turned positively sick with horror and doubt. Was it a hand? It was some time before I could force myself to set aside the sheathing leaves and settle the point. Something it was—something which, even as I parted the stems, fell to pieces, as the skeleton of a beckoning hand might have done. I did not stay to see more; I let the flowers close in over it—whatever it was—and made my way back to the village. My baggage, having changed shoulders, was streaming out over the plank bridge again, and in the two first bearers, carrying my cook-room pots and pans, I recognized Goloo and Chuchchu. They had both grown stouter, and wore huge bunches of red rhododendron behind their ears. I found out, on inquiry, that they were both married and had become bosom friends.

I have not seen the turquoise set in diamonds since, but I often think of it, and wonder what it was I saw among the iris. And then I seem to see Phooli-jân sitting among the flowers, nodding her head and saying, "They are at my beck and call."

If I were Goloo or Chuchchu, I would be buried somewhere else.

A selection from "The Sketch."

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.


The author died in 1929, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.