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Authors: Valerie Fitzgerald

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BOOK: Zemindar
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‘It’s the climate, Emily,’ I said placatingly. ‘People have to adapt to the climate.’

‘Well, I shan’t! Not if it means I spend my days alone in a great gloomy house and my nights sweating under a mosquito net from nine o’clock onwards. Never!’ Then she turned to her husband. ‘Charles, why can’t we move out of here to a hotel, or better still rent a house of our own, just a small house? I remember Mrs Wilkins saying such things were very cheap in the hot weather because so many people are in the hills—and it would be much better for all of us.’

‘Because, firstly, it would be impolite; secondly, it would not be good policy, and thirdly, it would still be expensive!’ her spouse replied firmly. ‘However, I believe I will hire a carriage of some sort. We have a real need of one, and I believe Mr Chalmers would be pleased that his own horses are spared extra effort in this heat.’

‘Well, that will be better than nothing. But I do think we should have a house of our own too. Oh, Charles! Do let’s take a house … please!’

‘No house,’ he replied.

Emily said nothing but set her lips and regarded Charles through narrowed eyes in a manner which I recognized as boding trouble. I had realized very soon after we set sail that the marriage of the young Floods was likely to be a tempestuous one. Emily was wilful and Charles strong-willed. There were many points on which they disagreed, and, though Charles did attempt to reason matters out with his wife, even to coerce her into agreement, he had soon shown that he had no intention of giving way to her poutings and temper, a fact which at first had surprised Emily and then enraged her. Later that day, at
tiffin
, it was obvious from their faces that they had had a quarrel, but it was not until the evening, as I sat on the verandah alone, the Chalmerses having gone out to dine—with many apologies to us, it was a long-standing engagement which they could not break—that Charles told me of my part in it. Emily, in time-honoured female fashion, had pleaded a headache and remained in her room, and I was sitting happily enough in the warm, scented darkness, watching the stars come out, when Charles joined me. His face was still set and angry, and as soon as he sat down he called to one of the eternally hovering servants to bring him a brandy and water.

‘Nothing I can do is right any more,’ he said after a short silence, taking a gulp of the liquor. ‘Nor you either, apparently!’

‘I’m becoming used to that,’ I returned with equanimity, ‘and she will very soon forgive you.’ I was curious to know in what way
I
had erred, but thought it better not to add fuel to the flames by enquiring.

‘She gets more difficult to deal with every day, Laura. I thought I knew her inside out when we married, but I swear I had no idea she could be so … so contrary, and stubborn and … well, foolish as she is being at the moment!’

I said nothing.

‘It’s this matter of the house she wants, if you please. We are only going to be here for a couple of months, but she’s furious because I won’t hear of it. Says I’m mean and parsimonious and threatens to write and tell her father I’m misusing her dowry! Now I ask you! How can I misuse it when I can’t even touch it? And she knows I can’t. The old man has tied everything up so carefully that I might as well have married a pauper. I probably would have been better off if I had,’ he added, attempting to joke.

‘Perhaps you have not really explained the matter to her,’ I suggested. ‘She has no way of knowing what such things really cost, after all. She has never had to deal with money, and even since she married she has had no opportunity to learn.’

‘But I have tried to explain to her as reasonably as I know how! I told her that, though things are cheaper out here than they would be at home, it was still foolish to throw away money just so that she can make a splash in Calcutta. She wants to give her own parties, dinners—balls too for all I know, and we have yet to meet a soul in the place. She thinks it her duty to entertain for
me
, she says. I owe it to my “position”! And the Chalmerses apparently aren’t half good enough in their style of living for my lady.’

‘And what did you say to that?’

‘That I didn’t have a position in Calcutta and didn’t want one. I said too, and this of course was wrong, I acknowledge, that I was only out here as a superior sort of errand-boy, that neither her father nor anyone else had ever allowed me any responsibility in the business when I was at home, and that everyone here would realize it as soon as I opened my mouth. Which is true, you know! I’m the most junior member of the firm, and that only because my father was on the Board. Of course I know that I was very lucky to have this opportunity to come out here and see how things are at first hand; it will give me a real advantage, so they all say, but after all we owe it to my mother, not her father, that we are here. She’s footing the bills. And I’d like to see her face if I wrote home for further funds because we’d had to take a house of our own for a miserable six or eight weeks.’

I could see his point but I held my peace and he remained silent for a while, glowering into his glass and thinking of his wrongs.

‘Wish to God I’d never entered the firm!’ he mumbled eventually. ‘I always wanted the Army, but after my father died, Mama decided she couldn’t afford a commission in the Guards, and she couldn’t see me in anything less. I have no aptitude for commerce,’ he confessed with some embarrassment, ‘and it bores me. I’m already looking forward to the time when I can retire quietly to Dissham and ride a bit and shoot a bit and manage my tenants. But Emily is always throwing her father and brothers up at me—what astute business men they are and how young they were when they started to make money and so on. It’s not even as though we were poor and I had to make do with a salary!’

The mention of poverty made me smile rather sadly to myself. No, indeed—these young people would never be poor! Not as I was poor at any rate. My father, though certainly never profligate, had never shown, either, any very economical bent. His inheritance, as the younger son of a very ‘sound’ family, should have been sufficient for him to live on in modest comfort. But he had had many friends less fortunate than he, and many interests that seemed to consume as much of his money as his time; so between generosity and enthusiasm he managed to go through a very large part of his patrimony. On his death his widow inherited what remained of his money, while I was despatched to my Uncle Hewitt in Sussex with the minute income that was all the lawyers had managed to salvage of my own mother’s marriage portion. It was some time before I could forgive my father his improvidence, much as I had loved him, and I still had daily cause for gratitude that my uncle and aunt were the civilized and magnanimous people they were. They had provided me with all I needed; a great deal more than I had ever had in Italy. And when I had agreed to accompany Emily to India, my uncle had insisted that I receive an adequate imbursement, although I had pleaded that all I wished was a chance to show my gratitude. ‘You must consider it a gift—to a much-loved daughter,’ my aunt had insisted, ‘certainly not as a
salary,
dear, as though we were the sort of relatives who would allow you to put yourself out to work!’

She had smiled as she spoke, but Emily, who had heard the remark, laughed acidly and said to me, ‘So, you’re a paid companion now, are you? And I shall make you feel your position—just as people do in books! How I shall enjoy it!’ I had thought she was joking at the time, but her behaviour towards me over the last few months had often made me remember her words.

Musing in this fashion, I did not realize that Charles was speaking again, and pulled myself together abruptly to hear him say, ‘… and she is convinced that, unless we make a proper splash in the social whirlpool and spend a vast amount of money in order to get invited to the Governor General’s assemblies and so forth, her father will consider that I have failed him and will not further my career. I ask you! Did you ever hear such nonsense? She forgets that, if my mother had not been anxious for us to meet Oliver Erskine, our wedding trip would have been a month in Paris. And now—well, now she chooses to see me as a sort of … of ambassador, no less, from Hewitt, Flood & Hewitt to India. All she talks of is my “position” and her “position” and what people here will “expect” of us. But I can’t make her see reason. She’s just … just childish! Absurd! As though all there is to marriage is a house of one’s own and servants and a carriage and a calling list as long as your arm. But she’ll have to learn. And it looks as though I’ll have to teach her!’

‘Yes,’ I concurred heartily. ‘But leave me out of these lovers’ quarrels!’

‘Lovers!’ he exclaimed, rising suddenly from his chair and going to look out on the dark and aromatic garden with averted face. There was an odd note of bitterness in his voice. I had the impression that he was about to speak again, but after a pause he returned to his chair and said in his normal voice, ‘Yes, I’ll have to do something about it. She’s lying on her bed now like a baby, pouting and crying and saying that if she had known how disagreeable it was to be married, she would have stayed a spinster like you.’

‘Oho,’ I chuckled, ‘that convinces me that she is really angry! She has never envied me my lot before.’

‘No. But she thinks now her father sent you out with us to “keep her in her place”, if you please. Says everyone at home always treated her like a child and you continue to now she’s married. She even hinted that you and I are in league in this matter of the house—that you realize that it would be your “duty”—mark the word—to act as housekeeper and that you wouldn’t care for that since it would make you look “inferior”. I tell you, Laura, I cannot understand the way her mind works.’

‘I believe I am beginning to,’ I answered. ‘She is just trying her strength—with you, with the world, with me. I felt from the beginning that she resented me travelling with you, and I certainly don’t blame her. At sea I had more than a hint of it in her manner, and things she said and the way she said them. It seems to me that she can only feel secure in her place by putting me in mine. But cheer up, Charles. I have no intention of allowing myself to be ill-used by Emily or anyone else. We must both remember that she is very young, after all, and rather spoilt, and has had too much change too suddenly.’

‘Perhaps,’ he said, again in that bitter tone of voice, ‘perhaps she has not had enough change.’

‘What do you mean?’ I asked, puzzled.

‘Oh, nothing. Just words.’

We sat in silence for a time, the tip of his cigar glowing intermittently in the darkness. I felt his nearness acutely, and felt too that there was more he wished to say, that he was debating within himself as to whether to make some disclosure to me. I realized that my love for him, and my sensitivity to his needs, enabled me to guess this. I did not fight the knowledge; it was enough that I could hide it.

‘I must be patient,’ he said at length. ‘But when I remember how sweet-natured and, well, biddable she was at first! It was what made me fall in love with her even more than her beauty. Her sweet temperament. But, as you say, she is very young, and I must just go on being … patient.’ Once again I knew that ‘patient’ was not the word that conveyed his true meaning.

Emily sweet-natured and biddable? Truly, love is blind!

I had a swift mental image of the young virago with whom I had so often had to deal from the time she was ten years old: fists clenched, foot stamping, face red with fury until she had her way. We had given in to her too often, that was the real trouble. Neither her four older brothers nor her parents had ever been able to withstand her rages, and even I, though generally impervious to her avowals of everlasting hatred, sometimes found it simpler to walk away and let her pursue her temper to exhaustion. Now Charles was reaping the fruits of our combined weakness and good nature. Poor Charles! Convention inhibited me from disillusioning him as to the true character of his bride, but I had a premonition that he was not going to enjoy the discoveries of the next few months.

And then he put out his hand in the darkness and covered mine as it lay quietly on my knee. ‘Dear Laura,’ he said gently. ‘A rock of strength, good sense and serenity in the turmoils of our silly troubles. Where would we be without you?’ Then he left me.

I remained alone on the verandah for a long time afterwards, remembering all the many occasions on which my ‘good sense’ had been my downfall.

CHAPTER 5

Charles must have decided that night that the only way to distract Emily from her present discontents was to give her something else to think about. Accordingly, on the following day a servant was dispatched to the city to hire a landau as much like the Chalmerses’ as possible. He himself, with the aid of Mr Chalmers and a native groom, chose the horses, and that evening we took a drive along Garden Reach. The following day, despite Mrs Chalmers’s opinion that they had not allowed themselves sufficient time to recover from the voyage, he took Emily calling.

Emily had been in a twitter about what she should wear since waking, and had changed her gown three times before satisfying herself, but even so it was very early when they set off, Emily in dove-grey silk and a large straw hat, and Charles very neat in his new tropical kit of cream alpaca.

I was delighted to know that I was not to accompany them—though I had an idea my absence was a concession made by Charles to Emily’s bad humour—and settled down comfortably to my needlework with Mrs Chalmers on the dark cool verandah until the gathering heat should drive us indoors. Looking through an arch from the gloom of the verandah to the garden bright with zinnias, cockscomb and cannas against the pearl-pure morning sky, I got the impression of looking at a picture in a heavy frame. Several gardeners, wearing only loincloths, squatted on their haunches and scratched apathetically at the flowerbeds. Various tradesmen, carrying on their heads flat, round baskets of fruit and vegetables, came and went to the kitchen quarters. And a Chinese merchant entertained us with a display of silks and laces, embroidered linen and jade figurines, all produced from a finely woven basket-pack and then replaced with beautiful precision and great good humour, although we had made no purchase. The garden was patronized by all manner of birds, some dull, some most beautifully coloured. All were noisy; one or two had a recognizable song but in the main they chattered, clucked and squawked, and as the heat increased they fell still, all but one group of drab, untidy little things (known, Mrs Chalmers told me, as
Sath Bhai
or Seven Sisters) who continued to quarrel and scream at each other in an hysterical fashion all the hours of the day.

BOOK: Zemindar
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