Monday, August 14, 2006

Olive Schreiner, “Three Dreams in a Desert”

Olive Schreiner was a feminist, and most often (as in this set of parables) a propagandist. Her novels are mostly sold on their Up-With-Woman content today, but she was no Virginia Woolf. Still, there’s something likeable about her utterly naïve vision of progress and sexual freedom. This comes from the 1890 anthology Dreams.

Under a Mimosa-Tree

As I travelled across an African plain the sun shone down hotly. Then I drew my horse up under a mimosa-tree, and 1 took the saddle from him and left him to feed among the parched bushes. And all to right and to left stretched the brown earth. And I sat down under the tree, because the heat beat fiercely, and all along the horizon the air throbbed. And after a while a heavy drowsiness came over me, and I laid my head down against my saddle, and I fell asleep there. And, in my sleep, I had a curious dream.

* * *

I thought I stood on the border of a great desert, and the sand blew about everywhere. And I thought I saw two great figures like beasts of burden of the desert, and one lay upon the sand with its neck stretched out, and one stood by it. And I looked curiously at the one that lay upon the ground, for it had a great burden on its back, and the sand was thick about it, so that it seemed to have piled over it for centuries.

And I looked very curiously at it. And there stood one beside me watching. And I said to him, ‘What is this huge creature who lies here on the sand?’

And he said, This is woman; she that bears men in her body.’

And I said, ‘Why does she lie here motionless with the sand piled round her?’

And he answered, ‘Listen, I will tell you! Ages and ages long she has lain here, and the wind has blown over her. The oldest, oldest, oldest man living has never seen her move: the oldest, oldest book records that she lay here then, as she lies here now, with the sand about her. But listen! Older than the oldest book, older than the oldest recorded memory of man, on the Rocks of Language, on the hard-baked clay of Ancient Customs, now crumbling to decay, are found the marks of her footsteps! Side by side with his who stands beside her you may trace them; and you know that she who now lies there once wandered free over the rocks with him.’

And I said, ‘Why does she lie there now?’

And he said, ‘I take it, ages ago the Age-of-dominion-of-muscular-force found her, and when she stooped low to give suck to her young, and her back was broad, he put his burden of subjection on to it, and tied it on with the broad band of Inevitable Necessity. Then she looked at the earth and the sky, and knew there was no hope for her; and she lay down on the sand with the burden she could not loosen. Ever since she has lain here. And the ages have come, and the ages have gone, but the band of Inevitable Necessity has not been cut.’

And I looked and saw in her eyes the terrible patience of the centuries; the ground was wet with her tears, and her nostrils blew up the sand.

And I said, ‘Has she ever tried to move?’

And he said, ‘Sometimes a limb has quivered. But she is wise; she knows she cannot rise with the burden on her.’

And I said, ‘Why does not he who stands by her leave her and go on?’

And he said. ‘He cannot. Look—’

And I saw a broad band passing along the ground from one to the other, and it bound them together.

He said, ‘While she lies there he must stand and look across the desert.’

And I said, ‘Does he know why he cannot move?’

And he said, ‘No.’

And I heard a sound of something cracking and I looked and I saw the band that bound the burden on to her back broken asunder; and the burden rolled on to the ground.

And I said, ‘What is this?’

And he said, ‘The Age-of-nervous-force has killed him with the knife he holds in his hand; and silently and invisibly he has crept up to the woman, and with that knife of Mechanical Invention he has cut the band that bound the burden to her back. The Inevitable Necessity is broken. She must rise now.’

And I saw that she still lay motionless on the sand, with her eyes open and her neck stretched out. And she seemed to look for something on the far-off border of the desert that never came. And I wondered if she were awake or asleep. And as I looked her body quivered, and a light came into her eyes, like when a sunbeam breaks into a dark room.

I said, ‘What is it?’

He whispered ‘Hush! the thought has come to her, “Might I not rise?’”

And I looked. And she raised her head from the sand, and I saw the dent where her neck had lain so long. And she looked at the earth, and she looked at the sky, and she looked at him who stood by her: but he looked out across the desert.

And I saw her body quiver; and she pressed her front knees to the earth, and veins stood out; and I cried, ‘She is going to rise!’

But only her sides heaved, and she lay still where she was.

But her head she held up; she did not lay it down again. And he beside me said, ‘She is very weak. See, her legs have been crushed under her so long.’

And I saw the creature struggle: and the drops stood out on her.

And I said, ‘Surely he who stands beside her will help her?’

And he beside me answered, ‘He cannot help her: she must help herself. Let her struggle till she is strong.’

And I cried, ‘At least he will not hinder her! See, he moves farther from her, and tightens the cord between them, and he drags her down.’

And he answered, ‘He does not understand. When she moves she draws the band that binds them, and hurts him, and he moves farther from her. The day will come when he will understand, and will know what she is doing. Let her once stagger on to her knees. In that day he will stand close to her, and look into her eyes with sympathy.’

And she stretched her neck, and the drops fell from her. And the creature rose an inch from the earth and sank back.

And I cried, ‘Oh, she is too weak! she cannot walk! The long years have taken all her strength from her. Can she never move?’

And he answered me, ‘See the light in her eyes!’

And slowly the creature staggered on to its knees.

* * *

And I awoke: and all to the east and to the west stretched the barren earth, with the dry bushes on it. The ants ran up and down in the red sand, and the heat beat fiercely. I looked up through the thin branches of the tree at the blue sky overhead. I stretched myself, and I mused over the dream I had had. And I fell asleep again, with my head on my saddle. And in the fierce heat I had another dream.

I saw a desert and I saw a woman coming out of it. And she came to the bank of a dark river; and the bank was steep and high. And on it an old man met her, who had a long white beard; and a stick that curled was in his hand, and on it was written Reason. And he asked her what she wanted; and she said, ‘I am woman; and I am seeking for the land of Freedom.’

And he said, ‘It is before you.’

And she said, ‘I see nothing before me but a dark flowing river, and a bank steep and high, and cuttings here and there with heavy sand in them.’

And he said, ‘And beyond that?’

She said, ‘I see nothing, but sometimes, when I shade my eyes with my hand, I think I see on the further bank trees and hills, and the sun shining on them!’

He said, ‘That is the Land of Freedom.’

She said, ‘How am I to get there?’

He said, ‘There is one way, and one only. Down the banks of Labour, through the water of Suffering. There is no other.’

She said, ‘Is there no bridge?’

He answered, ‘None.’

She said, ‘Is the water deep?’

He said, ‘Deep.’

She said, ‘Is the floor worn?’

He said, ‘It is. Your foot may slip at any time, and you may be lost.’

She said, ‘Have any crossed already?’

He said, ‘Some have tried!

She said, ‘Is there a track to show where the best fording is?’

He said, ‘It has to be made.’

She shaded her eyes with her hand; and she said, ‘I will go.’

And he said, ‘You must take off the clothes you wore in the desert: they are dragged down by them who go into the water so clothed.’

And she threw from her gladly the mantle of Ancient-received-opinions she wore, for it was worn full of holes. And she took the girdle from her waist that she had treasured so long, and the moths flew out of it in a cloud. And he said, Take the shoes of dependence off your feet.’

And she stood there naked, but for one white garment that clung close to her.

And he said. ‘That you may keep. So they wear clothes in the Land of Freedom. In the water it buoys; it always swims.’

And I saw on its breast was written Truth; and it was white; the sun had not often shone on it; the other clothes had covered it up. And he said, Take this stick; hold it fast. In that day when it slips from your hand you are lost. Put it down before you; feel your way: where it cannot find a bottom do not set your foot.’

And she said, ‘I am ready; let me go.’

And he said, ‘No—but stay; what is that—in your breast?’

She was silent.

He said, ‘Open it, and let me see.’

And she opened it. And against her breast was a tiny thing, who drank from it, and the yellow curls above his forehead pressed against it; and his knees were drawn up to her, and he held her breast fast with his hands.

And Reason said, ‘Who is he, and what is he doing here?’

And she said, ‘See his little wings—’

And Reason said, ‘Put him down.’

And she said, ‘He is asleep, and he is drinking! I will carry him to the Land of Freedom. He has been a child so long, so long, I have carried him. In the Land of Freedom he will be a man. We will walk together there, and his great white wings will overshadow me. He has lisped one word only to me in the desert—”Passion!” I have dreamed he might learn to say “Friendship” in that land.’

And Reason said, ‘Put him down!’

And she said, ‘I will carry him so—with one arm, and with the other I will fight the water.’

He said, ‘Lay him down on the ground. When you are in the water you will forget to fight, you will think only of him. Lay him down.’ He said, ‘He will not die. When he finds you have left him alone he will open his wings and fly. He will be in the Land of Freedom before you. Those who reach the Land of Freedom, the first hand they see stretching down the bank to help them shall be Love’s. He will be a man then, not a child. In your breast he cannot thrive; put him down that he may grow.’

And she took her bosom from his mouth, and he bit her, so that the blood ran down on to the ground. And she laid him down on the earth; and she covered her wound. And she bent and stroked his wings. And I saw the hair on her forehead turned white as snow, and she had changed from youth to age.

And she stood far off on the bank of the river. And she said, ‘For what do I go to this far land which no one has ever reached? Oh, I am alone! I am utterly alone!*’

And Reason, that old man, said to her, ‘Silence! what do you hear?’

And she listened intently, and she said, ‘I hear a sound of feet, a thousand times ten thousand and thousands of thousands, and they beat this way!’

He said, They are the feet of those that shall follow you. Lead on! make a track to the water’s edge! Where you stand now, the ground will be beaten flat by ten thousand times ten thousand feet.’ And he said, ‘Have you seen the locusts how they cross a stream? First one comes down to the water-edge, and it is swept away, and then another comes and then another, and then another, and at last with their bodies piled up a bridge is built and the rest pass over.’

She said, ‘And, of those that come first, some are swept away, and are heard of no more; their bodies do not even build the bridge?’

‘And are swept away, and are heard of no more—and what of that?’ he said.

‘And what of that—’ she said.

‘They make a track to the water’s edge.’

‘They make a track to the water’s edge—’ And she said, ‘Over that bridge which shall be built with our bodies, who will pass?’

He said, ‘The entire human race.

And the woman grasped her staff.

And I saw her turn down that dark path to the river.

* * *

And I awoke; and all about me was the yellow afternoon light: the sinking sun lit up the fingers of the milk bushes; and my horse stood by me quietly feeding. And I turned on my side, and I watched the ants run by thousands in the red sand. I thought I would go on my way now—the afternoon was cooler. Then a drowsiness crept over me again, and I laid back my head and fell asleep.

And I dreamed a dream.

I dreamed I saw a land. And on the hills walked brave women and brave men, hand in hand. And they looked into each other’s eyes, and they were not afraid.

And I saw the women also hold each other’s hands.

And I said to him beside me, ‘What place is this?’

And he said, This is heaven.’

And I said, ‘Where is it?’

And he answered, ‘On earth.’

And I said, ‘When shall these things be?’

And he answered, ‘IN THE FUTURE.’

* * *

And I awoke, and all about me was the sunset light; and on the low hills the sun lay, and a delicious coolness had crept over everything; and the ants were going slowly home. And I walked towards my horse, who stood quietly feeding. Then the sun passed down behind the hills; but I knew that the next day he would arise again.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

I Can’t Stop Writing About Crappy Music.

I just listened to Christina Aguilera’s new album, Back to Basics. I did this because I thoroughly enjoyed her latest single and a New York Times story I read made it sound like the whole album would be similar.

Let me get something out of the way first: the music sounds great. DJ Premier has given Danger Mouse a serious run for his money as this year’s greatest pop- album producer. The samples, the horn charts, the late-Sixties-in-Memphis atmosphere, the warm vinyl crackle that permeates the album: I could listen to hours and hours of this, and if there’s an instrumental version of the album, I would seriously consider buying it just to listen to.

But as a singer, Xtina is no Cee-Lo Green.

Yeah, okay, whatever, she’s the best singer of the manufactured-popstar explosion from six years back. She can hit notes, she can hold them for as long as she needs to, she can sing a bunch of different notes really fast, and she can use the top of her register without fear. What she can’t do is make herself sound like a human being. Her voice makes me think of plastic, of vinyl in the floor-covering sense, of Formica: it’s shiny, endlessly adaptable to any purpose, and looks good when it’s new. But it’s not real in the sense that wood, stone, fabric, or even glass is.

Which wouldn’t be so bad if she didn’t open a song on the album placing herself in the pantheon of Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Otis Redding, James Brown, and Gladys Knight, singers whose cloaks she isn’t fit to carry. Those are real voices, the natural materials of my plastic analogy. They carry weight, and express sorrow, resignation, anger, lovesickness, peacefulness, tenderness, all-consuming joy. Xtina’s voice expresses nothing but “I am singing.”

If only it were that good, actually. The lyrics are an embarrassment, fraught with clichés, dunderheaded rhymes, and nothing that hasn’t been said a million times more expressively and intelligently before. (I don’t demand that pop stars have great lyrics, by the way: I love doo-wop as much as anyone. But she’s trying to pass herself off as more than a pop star — ooh, she writes her own songs! — and with that “artist” privilege comes taking the critical lumps.) But you know, it’s fine, ignorable, standard-issue R&B stuff, okay, whatever, until the final three songs on the album, what I’ve decided to call the Trilogy of Defensiveness.

First, she proclaims her resolve to continue being Dirrty, regardless of those (possibly mythical) critics who think, I guess, that she shouldn’t? I don’t know; it’s one thing to say you’re a nasty girl who embraces a sexual image, and another thing to get pissy when the controversy you’re courting happens.

Second, she unloads against all critics, anyone who thinks she’s not good enough, or whatever (again, it’s a little unclear), but really, anyone who's ever said anything bad about her is the target. (So, that would be me.) She’ll still be here when all of us are shown up for the fools and pedants we are, is the message. A fairly common pop-star song, especially for a second or third album, I take it, but taken right after the other song it starts to sound peevish.

And third, in a deeply weird move, she belts out a thank you to her fans, interspersed with clips of fans describing how awesome she is. I listen to a lot of weird music, but no hour-long shrieking, squalling feedback drone has ever made me feel as uncomfortable as this song. I have issues with the very idea of fandom (it smells too much like actual idolatry to this Bible-raised boy), but I guess I’m cool with people letting celebrities know that they've had a positive impact on their lives (but goddammit, live your own lives, people! I keep wanting to say). But what kind of self-involed narcissist displays these messages in public? If she’s so great, I should be able to figure it out from her records, without having to refer to taped messages from several of the gay guys she inspired to come out of the closet. As it is, she sounds defensive and whiny.

Madonna knew enough to never address her critics directly, and now she’s a critic-proof institution. But I guess in the era of MySpace, mixtapes and dumbass beefs, even the girl in the celebrity bubble gets her feelings hurt by some snot with a review blog, and doesn’t even stop to realize that the great thing about being a pop star is that you get to ignore people talking shit about you.

Nothing on the record is as good as Aint No Other Man, by the way; nothing twirls, feints, dodges, then leaps and soars like that song. It sounds most like a Quincy Jones-era Michael Jackson song, and that’s appropriate: the man is, after all, the greatest narcissist of our age.

Monday, August 07, 2006

B. M. Croker, “The Khitmatgar”

I have no clever introduction for this week’s story. B. M. Croker is remembered mainly for his ghost stories, of which this is certainly one. It comes from the 1893 collection To Let.

‘Whence and what art thou, execrable shape?’ —MILTON.

Perhaps you have seen them more than once on railway platforms in the North-West Provinces. A shabby, squalid, weary-looking group, sitting on their battered baggage, or scrambling in and out of intermediate compartments; I mean Jackson, the photographer, and his belongings. Jackson is not his real name, but it answers the purpose. There are people who will tell you that Jackson is a man of good family, that he once held a commission in a crack cavalry regiment, and that his brother is Lord-Lieutenant of his county, and his nieces are seen at Court balls. Then how comes their kinsman to have fallen to such low estate—if kinsman he be—this seedy-looking, unshorn reprobate, with a collarless flannel shirt, greasy deerstalker, and broken tennis shoes? If you look into his face, who runs may read the answer—Jackson drinks; or his swollen features, inflamed nose, and watery and uncertain eye greatly belie him.

Jackson was a mauvais sujet from his youth upwards, if the truth must be confessed. At school he was always in trouble and in debt. At Oxford his scrapes were so prominent that he had more than one narrow escape of being sent down. Who would believe, to look at him now, that he had once been a very pretty boy, the youngest and best-looking of a handsome family, and naturally his mother’s darling? Poor woman! whilst she lived she shielded him from duns and dons, and from his father’s wrath; she pawned her diamonds and handed over her pin-money to pay his bills; she gave him advice—and he gave her kisses. By the time he had joined his regiment, this reckless youth had lost his best friend, but his bad luck—as he termed it—still clung to him and overwhelmed him. His father had a serious interview with his colonel, paid up like a liberal parent, and agreed to his son’s exchange into a corps in India. ‘India may steady him,’ thought this sanguine old gentleman; but, alas! it had anything but the desired effect. In India the prodigal became more imprudent than ever. Cards, racing, simpkin, soon swallowed up his moderate allowance, and he fell headlong into the hands of the soucars—a truly fatal fall! Twenty per cent per month makes horrible ravages in the income of a subaltern, and soon he was hopelessly entangled in debt, and had acquired the disagreeable reputation of being ‘a man who never paid for anything, and always let others in, when it was a question of rupees’. Then his name was whispered in connection with some very shady racing transaction, and finally he was obliged to leave the service, bankrupt alike in honour and credit. His father was dead, his brothers unanimously disowned him, and for twenty years he fell from one grade to another, as he roamed over India from Peshawar to Madras, and Rangoon to Bombay. He had been in turn planter, then planter’s clerk, house agent, tonga agent; he had tried touting for a tailoring firm and manufacturing hill jams; and here he was at fifty years of age, with a half-caste wife, a couple of dusky children, and scarcely an anna in his pocket. Undoubtedly he had put the coping-stone on his misfortunes when he took for his bride the pretty, slatternly daughter of a piano-tuner, a girl without education, without energy, and without a penny.

Ten years ago Fernanda Braganza had been a charming creature (with the fleeting beauty of her kind), a sylph in form, with superb dark eyes, fairy-like feet, and a pronounced taste for pink ribbons, patchouli, and pearl-powder. This vision of beauty, who had gushed to Jacksori with her soul in her exquisite eyes, and who was not insensible to the honour of marrying a gentleman, was she the selfsame individual as this great fat woman, in carpet slippers, and a bulging tweed ulster, who stood with a sallow, hungry-looking child in either hand? Alas! she was.

The Jacksons had come to try their fortunes at Panipore—a small up-country station, where there were two European regiments and half a battery of Artillery—for is not Tommy Atkins ever a generous patron to an inexpensive photographer? The finances of the family were at a very low ebb that February afternoon, as they stood on the platform collecting their belongings, a camera and chemicals, a roll of frowsy bedding, a few cooking things, a couple of boxes, also a couple of grimy servants—in India the poorest have a following, and third-class tickets are cheap. Jackson had a ‘three-finger’ peg at the bar, although there was but little in his pocket, besides a few cards and paper posters, and thus invigorated proceeded to take steps respecting the removal of his family.

Poverty forbade their transit in a couple of ticca gharries, and pride shrank from an ekka; therefore Jackson left his wife in the waiting-room whilst he tramped away in the blinding sun and powdery white dust to see if there was accommodation at the Dak Bungalow. It proved to be crammed, and he had not yet come down to the Serai, or native halting-place. He was (when sober) a man of some resource. He made his way up to the barracks and asked questions, and heard that the station was in the same condition as the Dak Bungalow, quite full. Even Fever Hall and Cholera Villa were occupied, and the only shelter he could put his head into was the big two-storied bungalow in the Paiwene road. It had been empty for years; it was to be had at a nominal rent—say two rupees a week—and there was no fear of any one disturbing him there! It was large and close to the barracks, but greatly out of repair. With this useful intelligence, Mr Jackson rejoined his impatient circle, and, with their goods in a hand-cart, they started off for this house of refuge without delay.

Past the native bazaar, past the officers’ mess, past the church, then along a straight wide road, where the crisp dead leaves crackled underfoot, a road lined with dusty half-bare trees, whose branches stood out in strong relief against a hard blue sky, whilst a vast tract of grain country, covered with green barley and ripe sugar-cane, stretched away on the right. On the left were a pair of great gaunt gate piers, leading by a grass-grown approach, to the two-storeyed bungalow—an imposing-looking house, that was situated well back from the highway amid a wilderness of trees, and rank and rotting vegetation. Distance in this case certainly had lent enchantment to the view! When the little party arrived under the wide, dilapidated portico, they found all the doors closed, the lower windows stuffed with boards, matting, and even paper in default of glass; weeds and creepers abounded, and there was a dangerous fissure in the front wall. After knocking and calling for about ten minutes, an ancient chowkidar appeared, looking half asleep. At first he thought it was merely a party from the station, wishing, as was their eccentric custom, ‘to go over’ the haunted house, the Bhootia Bungalow; but he soon learnt his mistake from the voluble, shrill-tongued memsahib.

This family of shabby Europeans, who had arrived on foot, with all their belongings in a ‘taikr’ from the station, had actually come to stay, to sleep, to live on the premises! Grumbling to himself, he conducted them up an exceedingly rickety, not to say dangerous, staircase—for the lower rooms were dark and damp—to three or four large and cheerful apartments, opening on a fine verandah. Mrs Jackson was accustomed to pitching her tent in queer places, and in a very short time she had procured from the bazaar a table, a few chairs, and a couple of charpoys, and furnished two rooms—she had but little to unpack—whilst Kadir Bux, the family slave, vibrated between cooking and chemicals. Meanwhile Mr Jackson, having washed, shaved, and invested himself in his one linen collar and black alpaca coat, set forth on a tour of inspection, to stick up posters and distribute cards. His wife also made her rounds; the upper rooms were habitable, and the verandah commanded a fine view; it overlooked the park-like but neglected compound, intersected with short-cut paths, and which, despite its two grand entrance gates, was now without hedge or paling, and quite open to the road, a road down which not a few ladies and gentlemen in bamboo carts or on ponies were trotting past for their evening airing. Below the suite Mr Jackson had chosen, were the dismal vault-like rooms, the chowkidar with his charpoy and hukka, and beyond, at the back of the bungalow, the servants’ quarters and stables, both roofless. Behind these ruins, stretched an immense overgrown garden (with ancient, dried-up fruit trees, faint traces of walks and water-channels, and a broken fountain and sundial) now abandoned to cattle. On the whole, Mrs Jackson was pleased with her survey. She had never as yet inhabited such a lordly looking mansion, and felt more contented than she had done for a long time, especially as Jackson was on his best behaviour—he had no friends in the place, and scarcely any funds.

In a short time Mr Jackson had acquired both. His good address, his gentlemanly voice, and the whisper of his having once been an officer who had come to grief—who had been unfortunate—went far in a military station. With extraordinary discretion he kept his belongings entirely out of sight; he also kept sober, and consequently received a number of orders for photographs of groups, of bungalows, and of polo ponies. He had the eye of an artist and really knew his business, and although some were startled at the strength of the pegs which he accepted, he had a large and lucrative connection in less than no time, and rupees came flowing in fast. As he and the invaluable Kadir worked together, he talked glibly to portly field-officers and smooth-faced subalterns, of men whom he had known, men whose names at least were familiar to them—distinguished veterans, smart soldiers, and even celebrated personages. He attended church, and sang lustily out of a little old Prayer-book, and looked such a picture of devout, decayed gentility, that the tender-hearted ladies pitied him and thought him quite romantic, and hastened to order photographs of all their children, or, children being lacking, dogs. Little did they know that Mr Jackson’s shabby Prayer-book would have been sold for drink years previously, only that he found it an absolutely unmarketable article!

Meanwhile Mrs Jackson was convinced that she was positively about to be ‘a lady at last’. She purchased frocks for her sallow girls, a dress and boots for herself; she set up a rocking-chair and a cook, and occasionally drove to the bazaar in a ‘ticca’ gharry, where she looked down with splendid dignity on the busy bargaining wives of Tommy Atkins. The chaplain’s lady had called upon her, also the barrack-sergeant’s wife, who lived in a small bungalow or quarters beyond the garden. She had haughtily snubbed this good woman at first, but subsequently had thawed toward her, for several reasons. Jackson, having been uproariously drunk, and unpleasantly familiar to an officer, had now fallen back on the sergeants’ mess for his society, and on private soldiers for his patrons. He was still doing a roaring trade, especially in cartes-de-visite at six rupees a dozen. He bragged and talked, and even wept, to his listeners in the barrack-rooms, and in the canteen: listeners who thought him an uncommonly fine fellow, liberal as a lord, flinging his coin right and left. They little guessed the usual sequel, or of how the Jackson family were wont to steal out of a station by rail in the grey dawn of an Indian morning, leaving many poor natives, who had supplied their wants in the shape of bread and meat, coffee, and even clothes, to bewail their too abrupt departure. Jackson was ‘on the drink’, as his wife frankly expressed it, never home before twelve o’clock at night, and then had to be helped upstairs, and Mrs Jackson found these evenings extremely wearisome. She rarely read, but she did a little crochet and not a little scolding; she slept a good deal; and, as long as her coffee and her curry were well and punctually served, she was fairly content, for she was naturally lethargic and indolent. But still she liked to wife, and here she had no one with whom to exchange a word. She pined for the sound of another female tongue, and accordingly one afternoon she arrayed herself in her new hat with scarlet cock’s feathers, also her yellow silk gloves, and with the cook as a body-servant and to carry her umbrella, she sallied forth to return the visit of the barrack-sergeant’s wife. She had not far to go—only through the garden and across the road. The barrack-sergeant’s wife was knitting outside in her verandah, for the weather was ‘warming up’, when Mrs Jackson, all-gorgeous in her best garments, loomed upon her vision. Now, Mrs Clark ‘had no notion of the wives of drunken photographers giving themselves hairs! And don’t go for to tell her as ever that Jackson was a gentleman! A fellow that went reeling home from the canteen every night!’ But she dissembled her feelings and stood up rather stiffly, and invited her visitor into her drawing-room, a small apartment, the walls coloured grey, furnished with cheap straw chairs, covered in gaudy cretonne, further embellished by billowy white curtains, tottering little tables, and a quantity of photographs in cotton velvet frames—a room of some pretensions, and Mrs Clark’s pride. Its unexpected grandeur was a blow to Mrs Jackson, as was also the appearance of two cups of tea on a tray, accompanied by a plate of four water-biscuits. It seemed to her that Mrs Clark also set up for being quite the lady, although her husband was not a gentleman. The two matrons talked volubly, as they sipped their tea, of bazaar prices, cheating hawkers, and the enormities of their servants. ‘My cook,’ was continually in Mrs Jackson’s mouth. They played a fine game of brag, in which Mrs Jackson, despite her husband who had been an officer, of her cook, and of her large house, came off second best!

‘I can’t think,’ she said, looking round contemptuously, ‘how you can bear to live in these stuffy quarters. I am sure I couldn’t; it would kill me in a week. You should see the splendid rooms we have; they do say it was once a palace, and built by a nabob.’

‘May be so,’ coolly rejoined her hostess. ‘I know it was a mess-house, and after that an officers’ chummery, fifteen or twenty years ago; but no one would live there now, unless they had no other roof to cover them, and came to a place like a parcel of beggars!’

‘Why, what’s up with it?’ enquired Mrs Jackson, suddenly becoming of a dusky puce, even through her pearl-powder.

‘Don’t you know—and you there this two months and more?’

‘Indeed I don’t; what is there to know?’

‘And haven’t you seen him?’ demanded Mrs Clarke, in a key of intense surprise—’I mean the Khitmatgar?’

‘I declare I don’t know what you are talking about,’ cried the other, peevishly. ‘What Khitmatgar?’

‘What Khitmatgar? Hark at her! Why, a short, square-shouldered man, in a smart blue coat, with a regimental badge in his turban. He has very sticking-out, curling black whiskers, and a pair of wicked eyes that look as if they could stab you, though he salaams to the ground whenever you meet him.’

‘I believe I have seen him, now you mention it,’ rejoined Mrs Jackson; ‘rather a tidy-looking servant, with, as you say, a bad expression. But bless you! we have such crowds of officers’ messengers coming with chits to my husband, I never know who they are! I’ve seen him now and then, of an evening, I’m sure, though I don’t know what brought him, or whose servant he is.’

‘Servant!’ echoed the other. ‘Why, he is a ghost—the ghost what haunts the bungalow!’

‘Ah, now, Mrs Clark,’ said her visitor, patronizingly, ‘you don’t tell me you believe such rubbish?’

‘Rubbish!’ indignantly, ‘is it? Oh, just you wait and see. Ask old Mr Soames, the pensioner, as has been here this thirty year—ask anyone—and they will all tell you the same story.’

‘Story, indeed!’ cried Mrs Jackson, with a loud, rude laugh.

‘Well, it’s a true story, ma’am—but you need not hear it unless you like it.’

‘Oh, but I should like to hear it very much,’ her naturally robust curiosity coming to the front. ‘Please do tell it to me,’

‘Well, twenty years ago, more or less, some young officers lived in that bungalow, and one of them in a passion killed his Khitmatgar. They say he never meant to do it, but the fellow was awfully cheeky, and he threw a bottle at his head and stretched him dead. It was all hushed up, but that young officer came to a bad end, and the house began to get a bad name—people died there so often; two officers of delirium tremens; one cut his throat, another fell over the verandah and broke his neck—and so it stands empty! No one stays a week.’

‘And why?’ demanded the other, boldly. ‘Lots of people die in houses; they must die somewhere.’

‘But not as they do there!’ shrilly interrupted Mrs Clark. ‘The Khitmatgar comes round at dusk, or at night, just like an ordinary servant, with pegs or lemonade and so on. Whoever takes anything from his hand seems to get a sort of madness on them, and goes and destroys themselves.’

‘It’s a fine tale, and you tell it very well,’ said Mrs Jackson, rising and nodding her red cock’s feathers, and her placid, dark, fat face. ‘There does be such in every station; people must talk, but they won’t frighten me.’

And having issued this manifesto, she gave her hostess a limp shake of the hand and waddled off.

‘She’s jealous of the grand big house, and fine compound, fit for gentry,’ said Mrs Jackson to herself, ‘and she thinks to get me out of it. Not that she could get in! for she has to live in quarters; and she is just a dog in the manger, and, anyways, it’s a made-up story from first to last!’

As she reached her abode, and called ‘Qui hail buttie ho!’ a figure came out from the passage, salaamed respectfully, and, by the light of a two-anna lamp on the staircase, she descried the strange Khitmatgar, whose appearance was perfectly familiar to her—a short, square, surly looking person. No doubt he was one of Kadir’s many friends; the lower rooms were generally overrun with his visitors.

‘Send Kadir!’ she said imperiously, and went upstairs, and as she spoke the man salaamed again and vanished.

The wife of his bosom had a fine tale to tell Mr Jackson the next morning, as, with a very shaky hand, he was touching up some plates in his own room.

‘A Khitmatgar that offers free pegs!’ he exclaimed, with a shout of laughter. ‘Too good to be true. Why, I’d take a whisky and soda from the devil himself—and glad to get it. My mouth is like a lime-kiln at this moment—Qui hail whisky-pant do!

Many days, warm and sweltering days, rolled on; the hot winds blew the crackling leaves before them, blew great clouds of red dust along the roads, blew ladies up to the hills, and dispersed many of Jackson’s patrons. But he did not care; he had made a good many rupees; he had more than one boon-companion, and he drank harder than ever. ‘Why not?’ he demanded; ‘he had earned the money, and had the best right to spend it.’ He was earning none now. When customers came, Kadir always informed them the sahib was sota (asleep). Yes, sleeping off the effects of the preceding night. Mrs Jackson was accustomed to this state of affairs, and what she called his ‘attacks’. She rocked herself, fanned herself and dozed, and did a little crochet, whilst the two children played quietly in a back room, with old photographs and bits of cardboard. When her husband did awake, and enjoy a few hours’ lucid interval, it was only to recall bills and duns, and flashes of his old life: the cool green park at home, the hunting-field, reviews at Aldershot, his pretty cousin Ethel. Then the chill reality forced itself upon his half-crazy brain. The park was this great, barren, scorched compound, with the hot winds roaring across it; the figure in the verandah was not Ethel in her riding-habit, but Fernanda in carpet slippers and a greasy old dressing-gown. Was this life worth living?

Mrs Jackson had seen the Khitmatgar several times; once she noticed him looking down at her as she ascended the stairs, once he had appeared in answer to her call, carrying a tray and glasses, but she had boldly waved him away, and said, ‘Send Kadir; why does he allow strangers to do his work?’ There was something far too human about the appearance of the man for her to give a moment’s credence to the ghost-story.

One still hot night, a night as bright as day, Mrs Jackson found the air so oppressive that she could not sleep. She lay tossing from side to side on her charpoy, looking out on the moon-flooded verandah, and listening to the indefatigable brain-fever bird, when suddenly she heard her husband’s familiar call, ‘Qui hoi, peg lao!’ He had been drinking as usual, and had fallen into a sodden sleep in his own room.

After an unusually short interval, steps came up the stairs, shoes were audibly slipped off, and there were sounds of the jingling of a glass and bottle.

The door of Mrs Jackson’s apartment opened into the verandah and stood wide, on account of the intense breathless heat of that Indian night. In a few moments someone came and paused on the threshold, tray in hand, some one who surveyed her with a grin of Satanic satisfaction. It was the strange Khitmatgar! There was a triumphant expression in his eyes that made her blood run cold, and whilst she gazed, transfixed with horror, he salaamed and was gone. In a second she had jumped out fobbed; she ran into the verandah. Yes, the long verandah was empty—he had disappeared. She called excitedly to her husband; no answer. She rushed into his room, to unfold her experience. Jackson was sitting at the table, or rather half lying across it, his hands clenched, his features convulsed, his eyes fixed— quite dead.

He had swallowed one of his chemicals, a fatal poison. Of course, there was the usual ephemeral excitement occasioned by a tragedy in the station, the usual inquest and verdict of temporary insanity, and then a new nameless grave in the corner of the cantonment cemetery.