Into the Jungle
He had a low forehead, orange-red hair, sparse and hanging like that parasitic vine, dodder. His skin was dead white. His lips were long, and thin as earthworms. His chin, lifted in defence, was square but narrow, with a little cleft. The stubble of his beard was orange too.
The bones of his face were somehow bleak – high, rounded cheekbones, like apple-halves, with carved-out yet somehow flattened hollows beneath, with a waxy quality about the skin that you did not want to touch. His ears stuck out, each at a different angle.
He was not tall, but he was well-made, if very thin – from back to front he seemed like a slip of paper. His tailor despaired of ever being able to build some illusion of substance onto him.
But he was strong, and sinewy. His forearms had weight and mass under the red hairs.
This was Gerald Farquhar, third son of four, never to be a farmer like his father; or a lawyer, or a cleric – nor a stockbroker, nor, perhaps, a husband. And what kind of a soldier could such a person be? Not the right sort of soldier; no.
People did not like to think about his prospects, come to that.
It is likely that he smirked because he knew he was ugly, and he wanted to pre-empt your hesitation, your politeness in his presence. Wanted to show that he was just as ill-favoured as it was thought that he was; and what of it? Here he was; and was here to stay.
Of course there must have been pain behind this – the sudden gasping sobs of a child that knows it is not wanted, not trusted to grace its family, but only to disgrace it. Those well-deep sobs.
But everyone got tired of making allowances. For Gerald was unsavoury – his damp hands, his red-furred forearms, his carved-out, yet flat, almost oriental cheeks – a girl would not want to be left alone with him – not for the liberties he might try to take – nobody knew if he would; he never, as far an as anyone knew, had importuned a female – but for his meanness. The way he would say something slighting, or cruel – but half-hid behind an offhand remark, or even a compliment – you had to think on it, later, to be sure of what he’d really said.
He did not like school, when he went; and would make little pointy shapes out of paper, and draw little obscene designs on them, repeating the design over the whole like some printed Japanese motif; then fly them at the back of the teacher’s head. He did not like swimming in the river – said it was too cold; as if the cold itself offended his rightful place in life. Did not like parties – said they bored him; though likely he was just misanthropic from the pain of being unlovely.
What he did like was riding horses; and the squire had a stableful, so he was never at a loss. The townsfolk, the hill-folk, saw him cantering along at any hour and in any weather, straight-spined, easy in the saddle. Sneering down at whoever was below.
People said he could have been an athlete, if only there were more meat on him; perhaps an administrator in the Colonies? For that (was the secret idea) was a way where he could quit their neighbourhood for a long long time. (Though pity the poor natives!) A planter? His father would need to put a stake on him, and he only the third son. And did he have the gift for it? It did not seem as if he would. He did not seem to fancy breeding his beloved horses either, or even, thank god, trading them (for this is so often a dishonourable profession.) He just liked to ride and ride, out into the wilds, sometimes for days on end.
In a jungle far from Gerald’s land and climes, beside a wide, shallow river, an old lady and her old husband had started a hospital for wounded and unhappy elephants. The white soldiers did not know how to use the beasts, nor how to speak with them, know what it was they needed; they hired mahouts for this of course, but still the misunderstandings and confusions communicated themselves to the sensitive creatures – for elephants are discerning, despite their size. And it must be noted that elephants to do not like to be used; nor more than you or I – so the very fact of their slavery was anathema to them. Inevitably there were casualties – infected whipping-wounds, infected feet, depressions, melancholies. At times even a bullet-wound.
The old couple, whose children had all grown and moved away, brought their love and wisdom to the healing and caring for these huge and noble citizens; dedicating a park-like territory to them, hard by a wide and shallow river, deep in the southern jungle. There the two lived together in a bamboo house made tight and snug, with windows, and a verandah, and a special cooking-hut, detached from it, at the back. And there they took fish from the river, and fruits from the trees; and accepted gifts of rice from their dutiful sons who came calling at regular intervals.
Sometimes the forest people – that hidden, lithesome race who lived, quite minimally clothed, in the deeps of the unknown jungle – brought them honey in the comb, and eggs of certain birds, in exchange for cloth, or extra tools or housewares the couple had been given by their sons. And on these occasions the visitors would linger, and eat with the homesteaders; and have a smoke and a gossip – for the old couple spoke their tongue.
When it rained the pair were happy in their shelter; when it was sunny they enjoyed watching their immense patients frolic in the river, blowing water out their trunks; or lying in the shade resting, waiting for evening when their carers would go and stroke them and murmur compliments, tendernesses and blessings into their great waving capes of ears.
No one was expecting what happened next. Gerald Farquhar kidnapped a girl – the fifteen-year-old daughter of a neighbour – and took her away on horseback, to some place nobody could guess. And all the countryside was in an uproar, for miles around – for many had thought he might in truth prefer gentlemen; and others thought he must like beasts, or clergymen, or perhaps prostitutes in the city, if he sometimes went there. Nobody had ever seen him as much as flirt with a girl.
The child was Eileen Letitia O’Sullivan Goshan – for her father had married an Irish girl, scandalously, so many years ago that the scandal had all died down now, as the marriage had proceeded uneventfully for so long. Seven children had issued from it; Eileen was the sixth, and much-thought-of by her father, for she was sweet and bouncy and sunny as the day is long. It was supposed she had not gone willingly; and in that the people had guessed right.
She lay in the bunk looking up at him. The ship rocked slightly, almost idly; it was hot as summer, and the little cabin was stuffy. Sweat lay between her breasts, on her belly.
He was a mean captor, was Gerald, though not yet a violent one. He watched her – watched her – when she dressed; when she went on deck for air he followed, keeping her always in his gaze, even if he himself leant against the rail and had a smoke. His narrow eyes veered at her from their corners – and he had a certain stiffness about him, as of a man who watches out for his possessions in a crowd.
He’d told her that he would harm her family if she ever disobeyed him. That is how he kept her near.
Now she watched his face; wondering how the geography of it formed his ugliness. If he had had a lovely spirit, would that same face glow? Would it become beautiful? It was difficult to imagine this. Had his mother loved him? She did not know.
His beard hairs started out from his pale skin as if alarmed – like tiny red transparent sea-weeds growing about on his skin. His eyes moved from side to side – or, if he looked at her, it was with the smirk of ownership. She guessed that he felt he’d finally gotten something over on his brothers, and was relishing this. On her back; at her cost.
At such a cost.
She thought he was not simply evil. He was hurt – wounded as if someone had cut his feet in half when he was young. His heart. But she could not imagine him redeeming himself, no matter what mercy might be shown him. …But she could be wrong.
He traced a line around her breast now, with his dwarfish finger. “Mine – mine -” – he actually said this. He nearly had horns, she thought – there at his boxy little temples. A squeamish shiver went through her.
His thing was small too. She had, had, of course, no experience of such a thing before; if her father knew where she was, and what experience she now had had, he would kill, and surely be hung for it.
She shivered again.
The nest of hair was darker than that on his head, though still reddish. The thing stuck up like a finger. It had a rounded end, with a drop of dew on it, like a nose in winter. She would have liked to snortle at this thought, but held it back – he would demand to know what she was laughing at.
He had given her a bag of clothing – stolen from his cousins, who lived nearby him. The garments had been hastily-gathered, and did not go with each other – but she’d had to make do. People looked at her – this young wife, so they supposed, of the odd-looking young man. Her clothes not quite the thing. They pitied her, she could tell; people tended to avoid Gerald, with his pointed elbows and his bent, gliding gait, his look of a passionate fugitive. As well they might.
He did not want her talking to any of the other women. She told him that that would seem strange; women always talked. Did he want to arouse suspicion?
Very well, he said, she could talk to them – but only if he was in earshot. She told him he knew nothing. He said that he would clout her. But he did not do it; not then.
She saw her chance when he was in the privy at the end of the ship – there were three of these shacks, at the stern, so that a long drop could be had, into the sea – for he tended to stay long in there. He’d told her to stay near, just by the rail, but she said that the whole area stunk. He said it didn’t matter – that he wanted to be able to hear her tramping about in her tied-up boots, just nearby. She said it was a disgusting request. He threatened again to clout her, but did not – just pinched her shoulder, hard.
Mrs Belinda Graves Macintosh, tall and imposing, with a pouter-pigeon bosom and straight dark hair done up in pinned coils at the sides of her head, was a friendly soul, the wife of a prosperous grocer, going out to meet her sister in India, for the lark of it really. Her sister was to have a confinement soon, and needed her; she was married to an officer, and had sent passage. Mrs Macintosh had both begged her husband, and informed him diplomatically that she would go – and he had agreed finally. She was pleased to be on her way and was enjoying the trip tremendously.
She had noticed the young lady, with her long dark glossy hair, her full breast and pert nose, her look of a Madonna on the half-shell, as Mrs Macintosh commented to herself – and had immediately sensed that something was wrong.
The purser was coming round with tea in a great urn on a trolley. A look passed between the two women (for Eileen had taken note of Mrs Macintosh’s interest,) and, each with her cup, they repaired behind a sort of structure where steps came up onto the deck – a sort of covered vestibule. Quickly., Eileen told Mrs Macintosh everything – for it was not much to tell. “He’s kidnapped me – passed me off as his wife – threatens to harm my family if I escape, or if I tell, or even if I disobey him!” and she told the name of her family, and where they lived.
“Yes – dear – I can see that it is bad for you,” said the kind lady, shuddering at what the girl must be going through. “Don’t worry – I will think of something. Shall I confront him for you now?”
“No – no – don’t – for unless he is imprisoned directly he will punish me and then my family. Let us get the law into it, so that he might be kept from me altogether. Here, he might find some way to convince the captain of his innocence. He will say that I am in a temper against him, and saying anything that comes into my head. Also he can be violent, I am sure – he has a knife, and is very strong. He might do anything, against us, just this minute. Throw us over the side -. Better wait till we have some help.”
“All right -” said the lady dubiously, though later she regretted listening to the girl in this last regard. “Quick – back to your place – he might be coming out.”
The ship by now was nearly at Bombay. For all the weeks of the voyage, Gerald had managed to prevent her fleeing in any port they’d paused at; now would come his great test – for they would be disembarking here.
In the jungle, time has a different meaning. There are no clocks, no calendars; the day moves dwellingly towards evening, not in any rush. The elephants cared nothing for time either, but lived life by the seasons and the moon, and their own Masts, heats, estrus. They were happy, and splashed and rolled and trumpeted; and when a female gave birth, all the elephants gathered round and helped her; and helped to tend and guide the baby when he was young.
And so they knew nothing of the news – that a young Englishman, a fugitive from justice, had escaped from a ship where he was about to be arrested by the authorities in the port; and stolen a horse, and, with a ferocious strength none would have thought him to possess, he had hit a young lady on the head and then dragged her unconscious body up before him on the saddle, and taken flight.
She woke soon – her head hurt horribly, and she was afraid. She was bouncing up and down, skewing to the side, and she reached out and grabbed hold of the pommel. Her vision was clearing, and she looked at what she could see. They must be out of the city – in a flat green countryside – she had heard on the ship that the the monsoon would just be ending. So everything was leafy and green. Straight ahead was a woods.
.He hid the two of them successfully for three days, spending one of them in a banyan tree with the knife held to her side while villagers tramped below, single file. She knew he had that knife – he’d shown it to her on the boat – but she had not seen a gun…at least that was something.
They were hungry – hungrier than either of them had ever been. One night he made a tiny fire in a thicket of trees, just near a little stream., and roasted five frogs on a stick. She forced hers down – it was horrible when the creatures had swelled and popped in the heat. He had not killed them before impaling them. She felt sick.
They’d had little sleep. He was scared, she knew – but she could feel his exultation as well. Finally he could live it out: himself against the world. A showdown he’d been waiting for.
He ate grubs he found under the rotting bark of a tree. She refused them. He said they were nutty, and not too dreadful at all. They drank from streams, and soon her stomach held a dull ache.
He paid a man with a dhow to take them down to the south – past Goa; to where the jungle came down to the shore, and strange, single mountains reared up here and there in the interior, jungle-clad. There were hill stations atop them, but he intended to avoid them. The boat left at night, as he’d asked, and stayed close to shore on the breeze all the way south. It took a few days as they were becalmed from time to time, then again the fresh air would move in and they would scud along. It was a peaceful ride really – just them and the boatman and the man’s wife, who cooked over a little brazier on the deck. They ate spicy lentil strew and rice, and there were fermented rice and coconut pancakes made from a beaten batter poured onto a hot oiled metal griddle laid over the coals. They were delicious.
Eileen had a chance to relax a little, and begin to feel the place she’d been brought to. It was entirely strange – and yet she felt a sort of listening in her, a harking to what messages it might have hiding beneath its everyday sun and water-sparkle and ill-dressed people and the shabby boat. Mysterious new intimations it was sending her…as if some heart beat underneath things, waiting for her to notice; and she could not really notice yet. She was too new.
And she was aware of the jungle, not so far away; that she knew Gerald was planning to settle in – the thick, wet, dangerous, unknown jungle. Where she would be hid away and never see her family again….but surely she would manage to escape? Gerald would make one slip in his vigilance, and she’d find the local Commissioner, and give herself up.
Ruined – so ruined – but alive.
Gerald kept a great pace through the thick woods. The horse had of course been left behind when they boarded the boat; staked in the woods, on the path the villagers took – somebody would find him. So they had no choice but to make their way on foot. The cloth-wrapped packet of rice pancakes and fruit they had asked the woman to make for them was gone. Gerald had woodsman skills; he had been mentored by a groom when he was a child (though the man had taken payment in his own dark, wordless, venal way,) and had learnt to survive in the wilds – to make a fire; a shelter; to bind up wounds, to make a bed of boughs of leaves – to forage English plants and mushrooms – not those of this new, strange land.
They’d left the palm trees of the shore behind, and now there were tall trees of many sorts, with here and there some hanging vines. Neither of them could identify the trees – they did not know that here were Curry, and Sal, and Peepul, and Neem; the weird grey-trunked massy trees with hanging appendages like stretched-out humans, or elephant-trunks joined back to the earth – they knew to be Banyan – for they had each seen them in storybooks.
The ground had changed from sand to packed earth; with grass wherever there was sunlight. Soon leaf-mould replaced grass, and there were roots and vines to trip over. They had to keep to the paths – the raw jungle would have been too difficult to navigate, with leaf-hid holes and snakes and other hidden hazards. Gerald kept his ears open, ready to pull her behind a tree should he hear a horse’s hooves. They did met local people; India is a place in which it is difficult to be alone – but although the people stared, they did not try to apprehend the pair – far from it; they stepped off the path and murmured, “sahib…memsahib…” then looked after them strangely.
It was worrisome – surely word would get back to the officials – so they must hurry – he wanted to go far, far into the interior, to find a place where nobody would discover them….
The jungle was not quite as she had feared; it was not impenetrably viney, full of huge spiders, as she’d read the Amazon was. There were grassy clearings, and trails, and flowers, and sometimes even little settlements of circular huts and a cleared field or two – but these he skirted, pulling her along almost roughly. “Shhhh!” he’d say fiercely – “be quiet!”
She feared tigers, and cobras, and any other predators she could think of; but they saw only birds in wonderful colours, and monkeys high above who threw seed-pods at them and chattered with little sharp teeth, like humanoid cats. In the night, though, when they huddled together for warmth, with his greatcoat and her cloak thrown over them, the jungle was sparkling with eyes, twitching and cracking with sounds. There were soft hoots and calls, and sometimes a scream. She’d start, and get closer to him, and then pull back – for his flesh did not seem to invite her, even though she could feel his hunger and his need. He denied these, she thought, and wilfully turned them to coldness and force.
One night as they were shivering about their tiny flame, hungry as always; Eileen ventured: “oh dear Neighbour,” (for she did not want to anger him,) “this plan of yours, to take us to dwell in the fastnesses of the forest – do you not think it is a foolish hope then, rather than a true possibility? For are we not hungry, all the day and all the night too? Surely we shall starve there before so very much time has passed!” she added piteously.
“Hush, you prissy schoolgirl!” he came back coldly. “Think you the whole world is as mild as the Home Counties? You should be thanking me, for I have taken you from a life of samenesss and stupidities, and brought you far, for an education! Look about us!” – and he cast his arm in a sweep – “So much to learn of noble Nature here! And the people we will encounter, with their strange customs! – it will broaden you! Soon I will find a gun -” he promised – “and then I will shoot game; and when I’ve built our house we can display the heads upon the wall!” and his lips thinned even more, and his chin lifted, and there was a bitter, triumphant glint in his eye for fortunes not yet won.
“But….I do not wish it!” she ventured. And he snapped, “Hush! Wait till you have a bairn or two – then you will be happy! You are just an infant still, stupid girl – but I am making a woman of you.”
She looked at him to see if he believed this – and she thought that perhaps he did not.
The great hindrance, it soon became clear, was to be their feet. They each wore laced-up boots with leather soles and built-up heels – and very soon these seemed to melt a bit, and go clammy, and a fur of green mould appeared on the uppers. The long tramping brought out blisters – they stopped, plucked leaves, put them over the sore places – replaced the boots, and went on.
Gerald fared worst. At one of these stops he lost his balance while standing on one leg to put the poultice on, and the bare foot came down hard on the ground. A sharp bit of branch pierced it. He pulled the splinter out, swearing. He knew that to disinfect the wound he should urinate on it; but this he was loathe to do with Eileen so near. He felt it made him too…exposed. So he spat on his hand instead and rubbed it on the puncture, and then put a large leaf over the place, then replaced his woolen sock – holey now in the heel right where the blister was – and then the boot. As they went on the leaf soon slipped, and so the exercise had been useless.
Over the next day and a half the wound began to swell, and then to ache. At night, at their pitiful little campsite, where each thought and thought of foods they missed and craved so very much…shepherd’s pie, and a good wedge of cheese, and ale, and a sharp pippin apple, eaten from a nice small plate, and cored and sliced with a sharp knife – he examined his feet.
Eileen watched him. She was footsore, tireder than she’d ever been; hungrier too. She was angry, and sad, and frightened. She did not like this man, this boy – nobody liked him – and she missed her mother, her father, her brothers. And oh, how she missed her bed! – her carved wooden bed, with the straw mattress covered with an eiderdown; and then another puffy eiderdown over her. And two pillows, soft as soft….
She looked over at Gerald’s feet. They were narrow and small, very white, with a high arch – poncy feet, she thought, and yet pitiful too. They didn’t look like they could stand up to anything, really – not this big, harsh world. What had God been thinking, making him?
But who was she to question? She shivered superstitiously, a bit undone by this inner argument, and abandoned it.
The wound had closed, sealed itself with a bit of green scab; but under the scab was a raised area of white, and around it red flesh rose up. It looked hot. He bathed the foot in a little stream, and then, wincing, tried to cauterise the area, using his knife heated in the flame, laid side-on over the place. Grimaced – but said nothing.
They were so famished now that they drooped, and their stomachs seemed to meet heir backbones.
On the fifth day, light-headed with hunger, bellies full of water from the last stream they’d crossed, they were walking on a path through a deeply shaded stretch of woods.
Suddenly a little group of people stood before them, come from somewhere, silently.
They stopped – the people stopped – five of them; a child, a woman, a man, and an elder couple – and the the two disparate groups stared at each other.
He’d been limping badly; the forest folk had, Eileen knew, seen this. The older man glanced at the foot, then back up at the two of them.
It was a strange moment. There was, somehow, a great silence in things. Time seemed to stretch out; stand still.
At first Eileen could not think how these innocent people might be able to help her. What would they know of the British, and the law? She would not even be able to talk with them, if indeed she had the chance.
But then something happened.
The older woman raised her eyes to Eileen’s, and it was as if a flicker of telepathy passed between them. The bush telegraph, only unspoken. The older woman, without saying a word, asked Eileen: Is this a bad man? Has he made a mess of things? Is he hurting you, making you unhappy? Would you like me to make things easier for you?
And Eileen, without saying a word; casting her eyes down and to the side, then looking up again, said, silently, Yes. He’s bad. He’s got me as a prisoner. Can you indeed do something?
And a look went then from the older woman to the older man.
That man stepped forward, pointing at Gerald’s foot. He said something they did not understand; but he seemed to be indicating that he could help, if Gerald and Eileen would go with them.
The people seemed to carry no arms save a staff each for the adults. They wore simple cloths around their loins, and each had a gourd for water, and a funny bag made of woven leaves. The younger man wore an English-style shirt, much holed, with the sleeves cut off. The two women wore waistcoats of some coarse cloth, but they did not seem to care if these fell open and revealed a breast. Their hair was thick and dark, woven and braided with vines, and hanging down their backs in a braid. They seemed harmless – though Gerald thought of cannibals, of course; nor did he consider anyone to harmless, really.
But his foot was festering, and he did need help. He decided that they would go.
The next morning, while Gerald still slept, his foot propped on a log and bound up (the old man had quite boiled it in hot water, then applied the juice of a certain plant) – the old woman came and woke Eileen, who slept under a cloth at a little distance from him.
She beckoned the girl, and Eileen, who had not been able to change clothes since the disembarkation – her borrowed bag had been left behind on on the quay when they’d bolted – could smell her own awfulness as she got up and tried to arrange her hair, and put on her stiff woollen socks and the boots. They’d eaten well the night before – some gamey animal made into a soup, and a stringy mass of cooked vegetable, perhaps a root or tuber – and Eileen had been offered a strong, medicinal tasting tea, which she’d drunk gratefully. The bitterness of it was surprisingly welcome. Gerald had been given a quantity of fenny, the fermented coconut liquor that coast-dwellers drink. Perhaps the people traded for it, or went on coconut-gathering expeditions….it was strong stuff, and quite delicious, thought Gerald; and now he was finally resting, dead to the world.
The old woman led Eileen away from the little gathering of dome-shaped huts, picking their way stealthily they entered the jungle on a different path than the one that Eileen and Gerald had walked the day before.
Eileen was exhilarated. To leave behind that pallid nightmare! That icksome, sticky, nasty piece of work! To never again have to submit to his rages, his threats, his knife, his hard, dinky little thing, with its determined head like some amphibious beastie coming up from under a river bank! Never to have to look at the flush of coldness on his face, or see the way the wax bloomed on his skin -. She nearly hopped along – her stomach, incidentally, feeling much better too – and knowing, simply knowing, that this old woman knew what she was doing, and would save her.
Each day, many ships come into the port of Bombay. They come from China, from Ceylon, from the West Indies, Singapore. They come from the Antipodes, from Suez, the Cape of Good Hope, England, the Americas. Today one landed from Bristol, and two middle-aged men got off, stern with purpose.
It was a day’s travel to the place the old woman meant to take her. The path was barely discernible, but the native was sure in her step and direction. They paused several times to drink water and eat a bit of the provision the guide carried; and to look back…but nobody followed. And when the quick dusk of the tropics fell, they came out of the woods onto the bank of a broad, shallow river.
They stopped here for a moment, to drink in the sight – the last light had made a sheet of luminosity on the water, silver, with ripples here and there. The far bank showe a continuation of the woods, with a beach before it, as there was here.
The sense of space and peace, and the fresh smell of the water, woke Eileen as if from a trance – and she stared at the beauty, the place seeming drenched in peace and benevolence. She took a deep breath and let it out…ahhhh mmmmm…… Her body felt as if the river flowed through it – cleansing ,cooling, livening. Lifting her heart.
They turned left along the beach and went round a bend. And there, to her astonishment, was a house – but such a house! Built ramshackle and higgledepiggledy, yet with a kind of grace to its many parts tacked on to each other – a wing here, a turret there – of bamboo! – an outer staircase, a verandah, and another verandah raised up beside an upper room. The roof was pitched and covered in palm-boughs lashed together thickly; the walls were of bamboo and sapling-trunks, but brought together cleverly so that the whole was stout, yet whimsical and lilting. It looked like a fairy-dwelling, or like Robinson Crusoe lived there.
And then her eye moved to the river, and she saw the elephants – several resting, with every appearance of happiness, in the water; she spotted others in a grassy field hard by the river and beyond the house. One was standing beside the dwelling, long trunk reached out to an open window; a brown hand could be seen patting the trunk, and a murmur just heard under the quiet voice of the river.
The old couple had along life behind them, and many adventures, some difficult, and they could speak the tongue of the conquerors as well as several native tongues. And so, over a delicious meal of rice and fish and lentil stew, they talked – all four of them; and understood each other as plain as plain.
The forest-dweller, the spry old aboriginal lady, recounted a dream that someone in the tribe had had – not so long ago. The dreamer saw a peculiar couple with pale skin and the man with hair like a fever, like a shreds of dried mango – and the lady in distress; on her back a large spider had attached itself, with the vine made of the hide of some poor beast, wrapped round and round her – that was the silk of that particular spider.
The lady screamed and cried, in the dream; and the people had to decide how to detach the spider, so that the lady could be saved. The gentleman, pale and with hair like fire, stood like a pole, saying nothing; but he let the spider feast through a hole in the girl’s side, and sometimes he chanted little mantras to it, when it looked like getting bored and loosening its grip. And then it clung some more.
Much debate had taken place about the meaning of the dream. It had been noted that the gentleman seemed spider-like himself – as if already emptied of his own substance too; a husk remaining, animated by a ghost of vengeance.
Waiting for his fate to catch him up.
And so it appeared that he was, by devouring the lady, being himself devoured; a sort of circle from him back to himself. The people pondered on this, saying that it is a way that things can go.
But nothing in the recent life of the village could explain the characters or even the message of the dream – so there was nobody to thank or warn or apologize to for its contents, as the people were wont to do if they had a dream about someone. And so they expected that it was the other type of night-vision…about something that will come to pass.
When the encounter on the forest path had occurred, the old woman had therefore recognized the visitors; as had all the little group – and she had then opened her vision wide to see and understand what was the matter. And later when her man had tended the wound of the young fire-haired sahib, she had watched…and she knew this: the man loved not his life; though he dreamed of power and respect, he had given up on true joys. And so he was turning towards his death, yet unfulfilled in himself: it was wilful turning, not of Nature but of man – he was in pain; and so he wished to die.
But he had vowed that Eileen would go with him. His secret vow was to show the families, back in England, that he was somebody to be reckoned with. So he would take her, and if it came to the confrontation, he would put her in the stream of the bullets before him; and then only he would take his dose. Or if, to save himself – for he would not go without a struggle – he had to flee quickly, deeper in to the forest, and could not take her – he would slit her throat first, and leave her to be found. For he did have a knife.
All of this the Elder saw; and she knew that even if the girl was taken far away, the flame-head must be prevented from coming after – for he had made his vow.
Two men, never friends before this terrible time – bonded now in urgency and in practicality – made their way with two guides and an interpreter, hired through families they knew in Bombay; in search of the fugitive and his hostage. They had no idea what infernal notion might be in Gerald’s mind – what he was aiming at; besides the possession of young Eileen Letitia – but they thought he would not have sought, in India, to conquer polite society. Such an idea was laughable, for the benighted lad had no gift of charm. Nor yet could he pass himself off as Eurasian, and hide in the neighbourhoods unofficially reserved for them – the railway clerks, the sub-school masters, the shipping clerks. Nor yet could he hide with full-blood natives, for he was too fair to permit of this. Could he have gone to the mountains? They thought not – for winters there are full of snow; and why court misery when you can be warm instead? They knew he was a woodsman – and felt he was likely to exercise that ability, as the only power he had. And so they did the only thing they could do: headed for forest, while talking to everyone they met, stating their mission, and asking for clues.
The natives, wanting to appear helpful, told them many a thing, and each thing contradicted the other; and the two thought they would go mad with the frustration of galloping down this road and then that one, to come up with nothing.
But then – a rumour had got about – they finally heard from a chai-wallah who plied his trade at an intersection of two well-traveled pathways between the inland plateau and the sea – about a sahib with hair like copper wire, or sunrise, or suchlike – and with him a sad girl with a pale, young face. And more people had seen them too, and came forward, with just a little rewarding – a coin here and there, a packet of tobacco – to tell of people remarkable for the lack of the usual British travelling accoutrements : bearers, luggage, picnic items, cook, and waggons to trundle it all upon. And so the two men followed the clues, which got stronger once they had gained the South, past the Portugeuese colony and into the mild, wild lands of flower, tree, and red earth, with seldom a road.
“Your son has embarrassed you,” remarked Montreal Goshan to his now-friend, Dennis Farquhar. “I am sorry that it came to this. I would not see you so discomposed, so cast in bad light by association. It is not your doing – your other sons are settled well. The lord works in mysterious ways – so too the other fellow. But if I catch that young bastard,” he continued, a new steel in his voice, “I don’t mind telling you, he will feel the full power of my wrath – and he might not survive it.”
Dennis bowed his head. He understood the point. The girl was ruined – and a lovely girl too; Dennis had remarked her at church on Sundays, in her simple coloured gowns. He had no daughters himself, but he knew the wisdom – once used, the value was no more – unless a fool could be found to marry her – as did sometimes happen. Or a kind man – and that was rarer still.
Thre are times in a person’s life that stand out forever in the memory – islands of beauty, of light and calm and goodliness. These need not be long – it seems to be the way of things, that they are seldom overlong – but they heal and nourish and illuminate the heart all out of proportion to the time-length; and stay with us then to the end of our days – and perhaps beyond.
Such was Eileen’s time at the river with the old couple and the elephants. Golila, the aboriginal woman, went back to her tribe alone a day or two later, and Eileen stayed to laze and play among the huge beasts, to learn simple cooking from Ranulpha (and how she’d got that name was a tale in itself, from her fascinating past;) to learn pachyderm medicine, and thus to sing to them, to soothe and pat them; and to be soothed in turn by their intelligent, lashy eyes and truthful gaze.
She bathed wearing almost nothing by and by; protected by the deep forest of Arjuna trees, and Gulmohar all blossoming red; and many another she did not know. The temperature was perfect, the shallow water where the sun hit it was warm. She grew brown and fit, and relished her meals and her bed – she slept in an upper room once belonging to the children, and hers was the verandah higher up. She woke to light-glint on the river and broad stripe of red low down in the heavens; she slept to frogs and crickets, and the odd bat zooming in one window and out another. A mosquito net protected her from insects while she slept, and ointments produced by Ranulpha discouraged biting things during the day. She heard tigers booming in the forest; but she was no longer afraid.
Her tired spirit melted within her – her smile grew wider – her flesh glowed. She felt as if the river was washing out of her the hateful past, the bad smell of him, the puddle he’d put in her that would fall plopping out again when she’d squat down to pee – for still he’d used her in the forest – though less often than aboard the ship. She began to imagine the river combing out every thread of him – separating the fibres from her flesh, taking him gone. Gone to wherever his place was – for it was not, could not be, with her.
She sensed that the old Ranulpha had no censoriousness towards her, towards what had happened to her. A full life had brought wisdom – only the un-lived are quick to criticize the life of others. For what do we know, really? – Here, in this mystery under the stars – this turning pebble, all blue and green and striped like agate.
Sometimes when the eles trumpeted, bringing their great trunks up and sounding their woodwind, blaring, bleating cry – she howled too, roared and screamed her rage and her vituperation at what she’d been made to suffer. And she wanted him to die –
Yet later, lying on a cloth on the river beach, warm and drowsy, she’d forget all about him – could even thank him, then, if she remembered – for bringing her unwittingly here to this.
And sometimes she feared he’d appear out of the jungle, right here, beside the house where the trail came – and then she almost wished for him some of the healing she was getting. If he could receive it, and leave off his mischief. She almost wished he’d lie in the water and rest his soul…but not, not, not while she was there.
But he never came.
Did Gerald die of his infected wound, or did the Natives dispatch him? They have a custom, you see, that on the extremely rare occasions when one of them has killed a man, the killer walks days to the office of the police, to give himself up to justice. And there is no record of one of the fellows doing that.
It was said, when the villagers were finally questioned, that he had gone into the forest in a fever, dragging his painful and swollen foot; he insisted, and people did not like to hold him – for he was a free man, and a sahib.
(It was clear to them that he would never reach the Elephant River – and so they did not worry. They let the gods do whatever work they’d planned.)
Many weeks passed before Montreal Goshan and Dennis Farquhar, leaner, hungrier, and much edified, came at last to the banks of the Elephant River, and Montreal reclaimed his daughter.
What a meeting they had! What a joyous hullabaloo and wrapping-in-arms; and a feast after! To his astonishment, Eileen seemed neither chagrined, nor ashamed, nor cowed, nor lost, nor even traumatized – though she was angry, if she thought on Gerald – but this she endeavoured not anymore to do.
And so all Goshan’s plans for reclamation, consolation, and then perhaps a future for her as a dutiful, housebound daughter – or a bride of some much more downmarket suitor than he’d earlier hoped – vanished like the smoke of the little fire lit for morning tea and fermented rice pancakes. He could not sustain those maudlin emotions in the presence of his glowing, tanned, radiantly joyous daughter – who showed him the ways of the eles, and groomed them, and patted them and sang and laughed with them. She seemed hardly to blame Squire Farquhar, and included him too in her swims and rambles. She knew now that Gerald was past pursuing her – word had come earlier from Golila – and she let his spirit go skywards, hoping for it a better future. She blew it from her hand, and watched it go.
Her deep vow had become: let me live in India – among the elephants. Let me marry a calm good man, and have adventures; but come back here to see my friends, and take over the job here, when all is said and done.
And so it happened.
May 2017, Hebden Bridge