Isabel Comes to Tea
Sarah Milverton drew aside the curtains of her living room and proceeded to plant a set of freshly picked daffodils in the flower vase. A cake had been put in the oven to bake, the flower pots watered, and it was time she could resume her knitting. Now over sixty years of age, the silvery haired lady still found her greatest joy in tending to her garden, doing knitting and stitching, and attend to a host of sundry things in and around the home.
The ring of a bell announced that a visitor was at the gate. Sarah peeped out of the window to find a young lady dressed in a blue pleated skirt and coat holding a bicycle. The girl smiled and waved, and Sarah waved back.
“Come dearie, come right inside,” said Mrs Milverton cheerily stepping out of the portico. “I have waited for you all along. Come this way!”
The young lady seemed a trifle nervous as she walked into the living room. Having made the girl as comfortable as she could, Sarah went around looking for her son. “Roger!” she cried, “Roger, come and see who we have got here!”
Milverton, who seemed to have prepared for the occasion, emerged in an evening suit and seemed to take some time taking in the sight of the exquisitely made young lady with golden brown hair and a smile which dimpled her cheeks.
“Ah, it is so very nice of you to drop in, Miss,” said Roger pleasantly as he took a seat opposite the girl. “How do you do?”
“She’s Isabel Thorpe, my newest friend,” blurted out Mrs Milverton excitedly as she sank into the sofa beside the girl, giving her a warm squeeze. “She’s newly joined Bruce Memorial Hospital. You haven’t heard her play on the piano, son!”
Isabel blushed at the compliments that were pouring and found it a relief when the maid stepped in bringing a trolley laid out with tea.
Roger began by passing around a plate of biscuits. “My mother speaks a good deal about you,” he said. “I believe you are here on—er—a medical assignment?”
“Oh, well – yes – it was a project I took up last year. I am here to do some research on the medical cures practiced here traditionally, and study the complications that usually arise. It’s quite interesting, you know.”
“Splendid !” said Roger as he buttered himself a toast. “And it’ll serve a very useful purpose too. May I ask, how far have you progressed with your research?”
Isabel stroked her chin softly. The gentleman with the easy going manners seemed pleasant enough, but a bit awkward. Nice people, she thought to herself, nice to talk to, and nice to be with. “I have nearly finished with my work,” she said. “Dr Martin at Bruce Memorial says these findings are going to be tremendously useful, and could be published in the form of a thesis on the subject.”
Mrs Milverton who seemed keen on letting the young pair have some time to themselves had left the room on some pretext. Now she returned and stood in the doorway holding up a carton triumphantly.
“Here’s a new record, children. No evening can be complete without music!” she declared. And placing the record on the gramophone player she gently wound up the crank. The machine began to play the soft strains of Silent Night.
The conversation drifted to other topics. “Mr Milverton,” began Isabel, “have you ever thought of returning to England?”
“Why, no, Miss Thorpe. Why do you ask?”
“I thought you might want to return to civilization,” Isabel said tentatively.
“I like the civilization here,” said Roger. “It is quiet, life is never in a hurry, the natives are good natured folks. . .”
“You know, there are people back Home who dream of the romance of India. I like to live the romance. India has a kind of dreamlike quality.”
Isabel looked at Roger with a smile that soon gave way to a mischievous twinkle in her eye. “Something like a latter day Livingstone exploring the jungles of Africa?”
“Er—not quite. Haven’t you ever had the urge to explore unknown lands?”
“I do,” returned Isabel. “As a matter of fact I have travelled quite a bit in India.”
“Then you will have tales of adventure to tell !”
Mrs Milverton looked fondly at the young pair as they laughed and talked away into the evening. Beyond the open window, the sun sank below the horizon, painting the sky with deep yellow and crimson, while the hills in the distance seemed to grow mellow and dusky. She had changed records and the gramophone was now playing Alexander’s Ragtime Band, her favourite piece of music. She rose from her chair and drew close to Isabel. Then taking the girl by her hand she said, “Come dearie, let’s dance with the music.”
The young lady looked up bewildered. “No, please, Mrs Milverton, you must excuse me,” she protested. “I hardly ever dance; I make a terrible hash of it.”
“So do I, my dear, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try, does it? Come!”
And soon the ladies had swept away, their arms entwined, swaying to the rhythm of the tune amidst squeals of laughter, while Roger Milverton, enthralled with the performance, took on the task of re-setting the gramophone record humming a tune himself while cheering on the pair.
As in most other towns the small English community in Alampore found its recreation in the Englsh club where the sahibs and memsahibs would gather in the evenings for social intercourse and pleasure. Mrs Milverton had long been an active member, but in recent days she seemed to have grown tired of the social life offered by the club and her visits had declined. The truth was that there was something far superior, and far more valuable to be found in the home, for with the coming of Isabel Thorpe, Milverton Lodge had seen a change that would make its inhabitants look forward to each day with eager expectation.
Evenings in Milverton Lodge would see the sound of music when Isabel played some of the finest tunes she knew on the piano. Old Colonel Browning who lived next door called on Mrs Milverton. “Great music coming from over yonder. What is it all about, ma'am?” he wanted to know, and Sarah had told him about her newfound friend and her musical gift. Word quickly spread around, and neighbours began to pour in, eager to hear the young pianist play.
There was a time when Sarah complained of a lack of enthusiasm, a feeling that having reached the eventide of life there wasn’t much of a meaning left in anything around. Isabel who had listened patiently all along didn’t say anything, but when evening came, she returned with a bunch of brightly dressed kids gathered from the neighbourhood. They were soon scampering all over the garden letting out squeals of delight, some even persuading Mrs Milverton to join in the fun, and when she refused, they clambered on to her lap to receive a hug of love.
The children returned the next day, and the day after . . . it left Sarah feeling enthralled. The sparkle had returned to her eye, there was a spring her step. Life that had grown dreary seemed once again to have regained its former zest and meaning.
Then there were picture albums to browse through. The young lady from Bruce Memorial seemed to be equally skilled with a camera as she was with her stethoscope. She had travelled extensively all over the country, and recorded her findings in a series of notes jotted down in a diary, and a set of four neatly bound albums with hundreds of pictures stuck in. Roger and his mother spent many happy hours browsing through these albums with Isabel sitting beside giving a commentary on each picture. Going through these albums was like making a grand tour of the country ; they contained pictures of all kinds : pictures of forts and monuments, armies and regiments, official lodges and bungalows, shops and streets, hill stations and towns, natives and Englishmen in India, stations and ports . . . a breathtaking photographic archive created with nothing more special than an Ensign box camera which the girl had mastered, later graduating to a more expensive folding bellows camera of the same company.
Autumn brought with it a cool breeze coming in from the nearby hills and Sarah’s daffodils swayed in the wind as though to welcome the intrusion that had come in their uneventful life. With the weather growing mild, Mrs Milverton who had mostly kept indoors during the summer began to move out more adventurously, taking a horse-buggy to town or calling up on friends. During one of these excursions she seemed to have caught an infection and was laid up in bed. Dr Martin who was Medical Superintendent of Bruce Memorial Hospital was kind enough to call on the lady for an examination. He pronounced it a case of severe bronchial infection, advising immediate removal of the patient to the hospital.
Isabel who worked under Dr Martin made it a point to snatch every moment she could find to be with her elderly friend. She studied the temperature chart, checked the breathing, then sat down to examine the senior doctor’s prescription. Light diet it recommended, but from her own experience as a physician she knew that on more than one occasion she had proved the text books wrong. She picked up her bag and hurried to the bazaar returning with tin of liver extract.
“There you are, Mrs Milverton!” said Isabel smiling brightly as she stood by the bed holding up a spoonful of the liquid for the old lady. “This should put you back on your feet soon!”
The liver extract worked wonders. Within a week’s time the old lady had grown strong again; the doctors attending on her pronounced her out of danger. She was soon strolling around and to everyone’s astonishment, in another four days she was discharged from the hospital.
And thus it went on, the young lady filling the home with a thousand shades of radiance till Roger and his mother began to find themselves positively looking forward each day to the girl’s visit. “Do you like her?” Mrs Milverton asked her son at the breakfast table once. Roger, gauche and awkward, and well over thirty, had rarely succeeded in engaging the attention of women thus far. He had reached a stage where he found it entirely futile even to conceive a wish that someone from amongst the gentle sex would cast an admiring glance at him, and yet here was a girl who was taking an exceptional interest in both mother and son. “She comes here to see you!” Mrs Milverton said teasingly, and Roger would murmur something in reply flushing with pleasure.
But it was Sarah who found the greatest joy and fulfillment with the arrival of the girl. Materially speaking, she was already well-off; she had a lovely home and a comfortable bank balance; she had worked prior to her retirement as headmistress of a school, a position which had earned her recognition and esteem. And now there was this young lady who had stepped into her life bringing with her a thousand little joys, and making her feel that she was special. With the passage of time they grew closer ; friendship gave way to love so that at last they were like mother and daughter. The young lady was nearly a daily visitor to Sarah’s home. They sat together reading aloud poetry, they sang together, read the same books, tried out the latest culinary art. And how popular they had grown at the Club ! When Christmas came along, Sarah and her friend staged a play with a few others named ‘Broken Blossoms’ based on a short story by one of the writers of the time. ‘Broken Blossoms’ proved to be a runaway success; it made Isabel something like a celebrity overnight. So popular was the play that on public demand several more shows had to be staged ; on the fourth run no less a person than the Collector of the District himself was amongst the audience.
Mother and daughter found perfect happiness in each other’s company. The two got on splendidly. They picked daisies together ; they rode together to the bazaar in a buggy ; and as they strolled about in the garden whispering to each other their inmost secrets, nature herself seemed to brim over with joy : the wind whistled a tune and the leaves rustled, while the crocuses gleefully nodded in the breeze, pleased at the thought of having two friends sharing a blessed communion in their presence.