Letters from India Volume I/To a Friend 14
Barrackpore, July 19.
I ought to have written to you some time ago, but as I promised I would, the promise you know was as good as the performance, it showed my excellent intention, ‘the earnestness of my affection—my devotion,’ as Falstaff says, and what more would you have? But the day before yesterday was a grand fête day—ten English letters arrived to my own particular address. Amongst others yours, with the little worked scent-bag in it. The bag is lovely, not a bit tarnished by its long voyage, though if it ever contained anything that was to smell sweet, it must have suffered from sea-sickness, as it is quite empty; but it is a pretty little article, and Wright had just been fitting up a very elaborate basket for my dressing-table, a division whereof your bag exactly fits, and it receives the elegant form of my watch at night, and is then covered over by a counterpane of Indian muslin and lace. I mean to take great care of it, but all the care in the world will not avail in this season, everything grows rusty in a night. My drawings are all blistered, my books all mildewed, my gowns all spotted—in short, everything is going to rack and ruin, and as the milliners and shopkeepers will not open any of their packages this weather, we may, with bad luck, be reduced to going about very odd figures indeed—rather in the native line. I mean to make this letter up out of odd things, strange events that cannot happen to you, manners and customs utterly opposed to your cockney habits.
The day before yesterday the rain came down very much as if the river had got up and out of its bed, and was walking about the park; it actually washed the fish out of the tanks, so that they were hopping about in the grass, and the servants were paddling about catching them. Rosina caught a shocking cold in this exercise, and has been very ill for two days; and because she bought back her caste some weeks ago (which of course she had lost by going to England), it is very difficult to feed her properly; she cannot take any tea or anything that our English servants have, nor anything that other Mussulman servants, either of a lower or a higher caste, have cooked, so her son comes five miles with tea that he has cooked for her, and she cannot drink it while any that are not of her own caste are in the room.
Yesterday when George and I had got on our elephant, which is a very large one, Chance chose to go running before it, barking for joy, as he used to do when he went out walking at home, and the elephant was so frightened that it would not move on, and screamed, I suppose, from fear of being eaten up. It is so tall that, though it kneels down to take us up, we have, at the peril of our lives, to mount a ladder of eight steps to get on its back; and when it gets up, first on its fore feet, we are tilted back in an alarming manner. One of its paws would cover two such little splacknucks as Chance, and knead them into the ground, so that not a hair would be left visible; but still they cannot stand a dog’s barking, and I was obliged to have the mouse taken away for fear of its annihilating the mountain.
Another curious creature is what they call an elephant-fly, which occasionally comes into the drawing-room, about the size of a bantam’s egg, and so hard that stepping upon it don’t hurt it, and so strong that if you put a plate over it, it scuttles across the room, plate and all. I cannot abide that animal, nor, indeed, many others.
There were a set of flying bugs (saving your presence) in my dressing-room three days ago, all over the table, and bouncing against me wherever I moved; and, though they do not bite, their smell is something shocking—in short, there is no end to the plague of animals. It charms me when I see one great adjutant kick another off the roof of Government House. They are nearly six feet high, and sometimes there are 150 of them on the roof, where they each have their own places, and if one takes the place of the other, the rightful owner simply kicks him down.
These little facts in natural history will do you great honour if you place them naturally in the course of conversation.
Most people go out driving without bonnets, and a great many without caps, but I have hitherto stuck to my bonnet, because I think the glare as bad as the heat.
What else can I tell you that is odd?
I wish you could see my passage sometimes. The other day when I set off to pay George a visit I could not help thinking how strange it would have seemed at home. It was a rainy day, so all the servants were at home. The two tailors were sitting in one window, making a new gown for me, and Rosina by them chopping up her betel-nut; at the opposite window were my two Dacca embroiderers working at a large frame, and the sentry, in an ecstasy of admiration, mounting guard over them. There was the bearer standing upright, in a sweet sleep, pulling away at my punkah. My own five servants were sitting in a circle, with an English spelling book, which they were learning by heart; and my jemadar, who, out of compliment to me, has taken to draw, was sketching a bird. Chance’s servant was waiting at the end of the passage for his ‘little excellency’ to go out walking, and a Chinese was waiting with some rolls of satin that he had brought to show. All these were in livery, except the Chinese and another man, who had on a green and silver cap instead of a red and gold turban, and as I came out he flung himself down on the ground, and began knocking his head against the floor, whining and talking in the most melancholy way, which, as I don’t understand a word of Hindustani, was of great use. However, I took for granted his house was burnt, which happens to all our servants constantly, and they expect us to pay for a new house; so I told the jemadar to tell him to stand up, as I never would give anything to anybody who went on begging in that crouching way, and to ask what had happened; and, after a great deal more whining and sobbing, the jemadar began interpreting: ‘By your favour, the man say, he be your Lady Sahib’s housemaid—what we call mater—and the Lord Sahib’s mater have got a red turban, and this man say he got none.’ So I said I would ask Major Byrne about it, but I had no objection to give him money privately for a turban if there was any difficulty. ‘Oh! but Major Byrne have given him white turban, only no red cloth in it, and he so sorry.’ I am sure if he had lost all his relations he could not have cried more, and the misfortune is that Major Byrne is quite obdurate about it, and says he is not to have this rag of his ambition; so, to keep things comfortable, I see I shall have surreptitiously to give him the cover of my dressing-box, which is composed of scarlet baize, and will make up into a very handsome turban.
We have been reading ‘Gilbert Gurney,’ and there are two or three bits in it about going on board ship—and about Indians and their ways—this is so like us. Nobody can understand why it makes us laugh so; but all his nonsense about Peons, palanquins, and punkahs, is in fact so perfectly true, I quite like him for it.
Yours most affectionately,