The Old Story

by Homo.

 

“Justice wake, and Rigour take her time;

For lo! our mercy is become our crime.

While halting Punishment her stroke delays,

Our sovereign right, heavens sacred trust decays.”

Dryden, Absalom and Achitophel. Part II. line 733.

 

PART 1

Before

All her life had been spent in the East.  Not the East of the picture-books and globe trotters–a land of luxury and pleasant surroundings, where life may be passed dolce far niente[1]–as a long summer dream–but a place of hard work, strange and unfamilar ways, many incongruities and climate enervating enough to those well-favoured, but unbearable to her, in her monotonous round of existence.

She was a barmaid and when first I met her, unconsciously I would find myself muttering, “where there ain’t no Ten Commandants and a man can raise a thirst.”[2]

I wonder whether Kipling had ever thought of the hard fate of the Eastern barmaid when he penned those lines; methinks he had.

Her parents had been of foreign stock, Austrian I believe. They came to the East a few decades ago–as many did then and do now–inspired by hope of gain—never having read Dante! So they opened a small hotel in P— and tried hard, by selling vile liquors at unheard-of prices, to cajole fortune. They also took in boarders, mostly on the chit system, and at night the Hotel was a miniature café chantant, at any rate, it possessed all the demoralising influences of such, in superabundance, without any of its attractions, if there be any.

Amid these surroundings she grew up. Late hours, very late, spent in a reeking, smoke-laden atmosphere, in company none too choice in its manners and language as the evening advanced, are not calculated to produce an eminently moral tone, certainly not a healthy one. She was very strong-minded however, and the first shaft fell short, the latter may have notched a point, but its undermining influence was gainstayed by a judicious course of late morning hours, and in this way was Nature’s balance restored.

She did not complain of her lot. She knew little of the world without.  From impressions of those of its denizens she had seen, the leading idea conveyed to her brain had been one of mistrust, thus she early received a warning, by instinct.

She was not lonely.  How could one be lonely in a second-class Eastern Hotel? Yet really she was very lonely—she had no brothers or sisters–and, to escape from the sense of dreariness, she would sometimes go in a rikisha to the pleasant Waterfall, in those few delicious hours of the afternoon ‘twixt the wane of the mellow sun and the approach of starry night: and there a feeling of contentment came to her, and erstwhile she returned to the nightly round, comforted, at least in measure.

Her education had been limited, most things in the East are limited, means and patience especially, –but she had diligently applied herself to the tongue of that Fatherland she had never seen, and she was a musician of no mean power: likewise she read a good deal, and perhaps reading was her undoing, though ideas and inspirations often come from without. And her humble life continued, from day to day, until Fate dealt her a cruel blow,–her mother died, and, if she was lonely before, her lot now was one of utter desolation.

‘Tis commonly held by those superstitious, that one stroke of misfortune is followed by two.  In her case the second came swiftly on the heels of the first.  Not long after her mother left her, he–the bread-winner–was stricken with malarial fever, and his constitution vitiated after the manner peculiar to the constitutions of a class of Europeans sojourning in the East, he proved unequal to the contest and he, too, left her–an orphan, a few currency notes between her and–the world!

PART II

After

She had few friends, or rather there were few of her parents’ friends who would now befriend her.  But from one channel came the suggestion that she should go to S—.  In one of the Hotels there was a vacancy for a barmaid,–why not go?

She thought it over long and earnestly, and though the prospect of practically resuming the old round seemed dismal indeed, there was nothing else open to her. She knew of nothing else to do; even could she do it, her stock of cash was dwindling and soon her present abode would be occupied by strangers, who had no need of her services.  Besides, P— had but sad associations–mournful ones–for her, so to S— she went.

For the first few months, life went easier with her. The novelty of the change was yet in evidence, and the kindness of her employers neutralised the old longing for freedom from this sort of life, and she was nearing a state of contentment. There are times with each and all of us when, whatever be our lot, we do approach to a state of satisfaction,–which is contentment, but with most, the journey is never completed.  It was so in her case.

The Hotel she was now in was of fairly good repute, as Hotels in the East go. A poor place in the glare of the sunlight, but not unattractive at night, when well-lit billiard rooms, the piano in the bar-room going merrily, sometimes singing, and occasionally dancing, did not fail to draw a promiscuous crowd, and it is a promiscuous crowd one sees in S— hotels. Some are there having nothing better to do, others because they have better to do but do not feel energetic enough to do it. Some go, not because they want to, but because they can’t resist, others because they can resist, but don’t want to,–not to mention the boarders, day, weekly or monthly, who, having no choice, cannot be blamed for being there. And of all types are the visitors, from would-be stately English clerks, cadets and shopmen, canny Scots, engineers and the like, with a Paddy here and there, to boorish Teuton, M’sieur le Français, swarthy Spaniard and Italian, and a host of men representing intermingled blood, and the language used is not Volapuk,[3] but very suggestive of it when the babel of tones first strikes the ear.

This is a slight sketch, en passant, of the company frequenting X— Hotel and therein being introduced to her, the prime object of introduction naturally being to get her to induce the said cornpany to spend their money more freely.  As a rule, beyond the few ordinary nothings lightly exchanged, she had naught to say. When she did sustain a lengthy conversation, it was in a forced, mechanical manner, and she was for the most part the person quizzed, till she inwardly loathed the quizzer.  Nor were the uncharitable even decent with their remarks, considering her, though a woman, one of the meaner, baser sort, never dreaming of the soul they were paining; indeed they were scarcely ever called upon to think, most of them, unless it was how to spend their money: small wonder then that they could not perceive their error.

Man did not impress her with a sense of his all-powerfulness.  In fact she unconsciously turned her thoughts to a very low level in thinking of man, who, judging from the specimens of his tribe nightly paraded before her, with their empty wit and coarse, ill-timed humour was typical to her of something grovelling and brutish, and decidedly callous. So time went on, until that arrived which has already been foreshadowed,–he came one night.  He was an utter stranger to her for the first few moments only, but, instead of remaining indifferent to his blandishments, little apart from the ordinary wiles of the self-termed wily, she actually took an interest in him. Why, she could not tell, but a feeling came to her as though she had seen an unusually bright cloud on the horizon, when gazing seawards, that–but really, it all seemed inexplicable to her and she was angry within, whilst smiling without as she had rarely smiled before, and when he left, she could not forbear asking him to come again to see her!

He came again, he came many times and the frequency of his visits was soon noticed by others. She knew by this time that she loved him, perhaps she could not tell why, he was not as nice in his manner now as he had been in the earlier stages of their acquaintance, but this only heightened her desire to win his love.  But she was loth to speak and he was strangely silent on this point, for he had probed and found, as he imagined, the depth of his power and he wished to husband his resources for a final coup. His thought was one of lust and lust only.  She was his victim.  Suppose she was virtuous, a supposition he concluded to be too ridiculous to be mooted, it was her fault to be where she was, in other words it meant that it was wrong of her to earn her daily bread, though of course he was not aware of that construction being placed on his thoughts. And so, after all, he only held with the majority–with Society, that evil must contaminate, that a fair flower cannot grow amidst rank weeds, but he endeavoured to go further and substitute for that fair flower something that shall be nameless!

She repelled his insinuations, never dreaming of their real trend, and his liberties she resented.  She loved him madly, but rightly, and she refused to commence that from which there is no drawing back–the course to ruin–with the light, though it should prove to be a will-o’-the-wisp, of the hope of a virtuous, married life before her eyes.  Not that she deemed him to be the scoundrel he was, but because, even in love, she placed self-honour first and she had seen and read, now she heeded. Never a hint of that which was ever on her tongue crossed his lips.  She precipitated the crisis one evening by asking him to take her to the Gardens–that Elysian retreat to weary residents of S—, and he, though strangely surprised, for hitherto she had not permitted rikisha rides at night, willingly consented.

It was a glorious evening. Just before the short twilight fell, the wind, hushed, died to a gentle murmur, scarce perceptible amongst the tropical foliage; the fiery splendour of the fast-sinking sun illumined the fleecy clouds o’erhead with a ruddy glow, the still waters of the lake reflecting in detail the in the West. Then swiftly the shadows of night rose up and o’erspread all things, and in that uncertain light those two figures, until now sitting on that seat yonder, almost motionless, were locked in each other’s arms;–the story had been told. Nature had, for the time being, conquered his heart; false as it was and he had yielded, whilst she, revelling in the intoxication of a newly spoken love, nestled close to him–her loneliness now a phantom of the past.

In the first flush of love, as she imagined, he had promised many things, that dearest to her heart being one of speedy marriage, and herein, in this promise so sacred, was his first step in duplicity and deceit. Speedy marriage he promised, but days lengthened into weeks and weeks into months, and still no definite date for the celebration of their nuptials was fixed. Meanwhile, she was more sick at heart than ever with her mode of life, nor could she tear herself from it. Marriage alone meant relief and, for this end, as well as for the consummation of her love, she prayed that he would re-assure her. But no, it was never in his heart to marry her, and he began to stave off the final point with excuse after excuse, as weak and vacillating as the mind of their framer.

It was about this time I again met her, calling one evening at the X— Hotel with a friend. I was astonished at the change in her.  From the blythe, cheery, healthy-looking girl of a year back, she had assumed the sunken, pallid appearance of a woman years older, she was listless in manner and she moved after the fashion of one having a great grief at heart, and as I wished her auf wiedersehen I noticed a dreary, far-away look of longing in those once sparkling eyes.

Finding he could not obtain his end without taking the extreme step, not long after this he named the day, and from the stupor of long deferred hope, she entered the borderland of a new phase of existence–a new lease of life. Who could have failed to remark the happy change and not wished it might last? I heard of it, but, with an intuition born of experience, I felt that its cause was a false one, that sooner or later the dream must be shattered and, powerless to intervene, I trusted the blow would fall lightly on her.

He played his cards well and so complete was the delusion that she resigned her post and left the Hotel, and the day when she stepped over the threshold of what to her had certainly been a home, but had also, in many respects been very akin to another term for an imaginary place of abode–also a rnonosyllable–her heart was light and her manner gay; had I seen her I imagine it would have reminded me of the jaunty air with which went forth to die by the guillotine les aristocrats in the days of Robespierre and Marat.

She was intimate with the people at F—, another Hotel in S—, and thither she now went and for some days she occupied herself with preparations for the wedding. She did not remark that his visits were not as frequent now as one would have deemed even conventional, so joyous was she at the thought of approaching freedom; the shadow of impending doom had not yet enveloped her.  When a week passed by, however, and neither letter nor lover appeared, for the first time she became suspicious. She knew his address, and wrote him a passionate letter of love.

It was answered by him in person. He had not come before, so he glibly lied, to test her love for him. He wished to feel sure that she could not be happy without him and then he went on, she,  drinking in every word, content to hear him, until at last he asked that which his passion longed for.  Staggered for a moment, but then with the hot blood mantling each cheek with crimson hue, she indignantly refused, then softened somewhat and in milder tones endeavoured to dissuade him from his purpose. Pathetically, piteously she reminded him of the time, now near at hand, when she would be his, body and soul. He must wait—yes wait—and this–he asked, let him meanwhile forget.

He went from her almost rudely, and when he had gone, for the first time she gave vent to her pent-up feelings in an outburst of weeping, but she soon calmed down and she was conscious of having done, or rather said, that which was right, and in this she was comforted. A few days passed, and no sign nor sound of him, and yet a few days more.  Then the bolt fell.  It was a week prior to the day fixed for the wedding that a letter, bearing a local post-mark, arrived for her. At last he had had the courage; small courage needed, to refute the lie he had lived in his attitude towards her for the last few months.  He now said that although he loved her,–marriage was impossible for him–she must consider their engagement at an end.

She wrote to him pleadingly, begged him to take pity on her, pointing out that she had given up her employment, had left the only home she knew of for him, that without him she was helpless, her case hopeless, but he–the wretch–only chuckled when he read her lines, because it was that which he had planned,–her road to ruin, and since fair weather had not charmed, stormy gales should drive into submission,–the fortress would have to capitulate and soon the white flag would be hoisted–he chuckled again as he thought over it all and wondered how long it would be ere he became victor.

Again she wrote, this time in that spirit of desperation born of dire necessity, and he answered, once more throwing down the gage.  When she received the reply, there remained but one day ere the dawn of that day on which her hope this long time past had been centred. She was strangely busy all that afternoon, and just before evening she stole quietly from her room.  It was a glorious starry night, devoid of breeze, and hot, very hot, but she was cold, her blood quite chilled, despite her quickened steps.  These lay in the direction of the harbour, and in a few moments she found herself on the broad Esplanade, then on the sea-wall itself.  Thrice she paced backwards and forwards.  Out o’er the city was the fitful glare of a thousand lamps and uprose the hum of human voices, blending harmoniously with the chirruping of a thousand insects in the trees near at hand.  Seawards twinkled numberless lights, their scintillations and those of the stars o’erhead reflected in the phosphorescent stretch of unruffled water.  Hush–the crash of the signal gun stirring all things for the nonce, then far away on the horizon line the clouds part and through the tiny rift slant the golden beams of the young tropic moon. And that weeping girl, silhouetted on the water’s brink, has noticed it, she has caught the inspiration–there, perhaps, is that rest, that peace with the Inscrutable, the Unknown, denied her here, amongst the Known. Hands locked together, one sharp plunge, a few bubbles mark the spot, a passer-by fancies he hears a moan and half turns ere he proceeds on his way.  Then all is still!

They found her floating peacefully on the morning tide, and the rays of the sun, gently glinting on her face, gave to her peaceful countenance an almost holy light She had gone to rest! The Old Story is re-told–but the living sequel is yet being worked out and the power of curse is strong.  Some day that history shall also be told, though mine may not be the pen to write it!

 Notes

[1] In pleasurable idleness.

[2] From Kipling’s poem “Mandalay.”

[3] An artificial language invented in the nineteenth century.