October 08, 2011

Short Story. . .


Days of Gloom

“That just won’t do,” said Percy in a sing-song tone. “You have got to follow rules, and the rules say that you can’t use the same word twice.”

They were seated beside a window in Sarah’s living room playing a game of words. Mrs Milverton seemed to be behaving queerly these days. After Isabel did not turn up for a month she seemed to grow melancholic, and on Roger’s instructions Percy would put in a visit to the home every now and then. The old lady’s visits to the club had declined. She needed company, and had begun to take an almost childlike pleasure in having the boy around. She fussed over him, offered him cookies, and spoke caressingly. The presence of the lad decidedly had a soothing effect on her.

As  Percy chattered away Mrs Milverton looked out of her window. Evening sunshine had given way to dusk, and then came the shadows of the night. Her garden lay beyond the window engulfed in a mist of gloom. The boy had grown silent as he struggled to find a word he found difficult. Sarah rose and stood by the window breathing in the scents of the night. A train whistled in the distance, its rattle lasting a long time before it died down in the distance.

Will she ever find true love, she wondered. And from across the silence beyond there seemed to be no answer forthcoming. Hadn’t she found love when she married the young Major from the army? Ah, he was a fine young man, with a broad chest and full of vigour, and full of jokes. He had held her close and kissed her, calling her his ‘sweet little dove’. And like a good little wife, she had found her joy in domestic life, a joy in belonging to someone who cared for her. She found herself swept away in an ecstasy of happiness.

Was true love everlasting? Or was it merely a phantom, a will-o’-the-wisp luring the simple hearted with an elusive charm? And from across the void beyond there was again no answer. For Sarah had been seeking for an abiding relationship, a relationship of love that went deeper than what you come across in superficial relationships, love that stood up to the vicissitudes and storms of life. Life was a hurricane sweeping by, unsympathetic, uncaring, unforgiving, sweeping aside everything that came its way, leaving in its wake heartbreak, loss, and suffering. She had her first glimpse of this when only a child of eight as she lay on her bed sobbing, holding her rag doll against her breast. She lived in a village in Derbyshire, famous for its coal mines. Those were the days when the miracle of the Industrial Revolution was sweeping across the world. Her earliest recollections were those of her mother holding her, gazing from over the hillside on the corn fields below, dotted with tiny villages, like a misty landscape spread before the eye. She worked as a seamstress, a calm, placid woman with dreamy eyes who rarely ever spoke a word of rebuke. The home, a two-room poorly affair was always bright with her mother’s cheerful presence, and littered with bits of colourful cloth, great balls of wool, and the accessories her mother needed for her work. Then the tide of fortune turned; they fell upon hard times; money grew scarce; and the mother developed symptoms of consumption. The spells of cough grew worse, the lady grew pale, her strength steadily waned. Then one evening when the mother felt the end was near, she drew her girl close to her and told her of a kindly vicar who would come over and take charge, sending her to boarding school. The little girl cuddled up to her mother that night as she had done so often before, holding her rag doll between them . . .

It was the beginning of a new life at the boarding school. The girl had carried along her doll with her. She held the doll close to her in bed, whispered in her ear, cried, and held her close all night. It brought back pictures from the past, glimpses of a life that was happy and carefree. And the girl grew, ever searching for a ray of her mother’s love in anyone she came upon, hoping to catch a glimpse of the face that was now forever a dream. The mistresses, stern and austere, looked upon her with disdain: ‘that queer little girl with eyes that are forever looking for something’; they shooed her away contemptuously; but the little girl would not give up easily; she was on a quest that would last a lifetime.

The years wore on, and the girl grew up. With the generous donations of a mission she went on to attend college, found a decent job, saved up money, then sailed to India with a friend in search of a new life, adventure—and love. She met young Milverton as she stood on the deck of the steamer watching the birds cawing and wheeling above over the sparkling waters of the Arabian Sea. He was a strapping young man, crisp, with fine manners and a confidence that brushed aside every impediment as though it were a matter of no consequence. She stood for hours on the deck conversing with the young man; he was a Major in the army on his way to join his regiment stationed in Alampore. She found a new tract of life opened up before her. She looked up at the man, fascinated. His clear, blue eyes shone down on hers; there was something in his manner which told her that everything would be well.

Disembarking from the steamer at Bombay they proceeded to Alampore, where they were married in a simple ceremony in St Bartholomew’s Church. He was dressed in aristocratic black; she in her sparkling white gown felt she was the grandest lady around. The Major took his wife to live with him in the Cantonment area. The Cantonment with its colourful bazaar, the buggies and hand-drawn palanquins, the turbaned merchants and fruit-sellers, and the quaint little Club opened up a new panorama of life she had never witnessed before. The ladies of the neighbourhood seemed to be able to sniff out her origin and tended to eye her with suspicion at first; but Sarah had a way with strangers and new acquaintances that soon won them over. She settled down to a life of housekeeping, making her bungalow a pleasant and homely place to which her husband could retreat each day. For two whole years she was perfectly happy. Until the first signs of the breach began to appear . . .

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Mrs Milverton found that she had strayed out of her home lost in reverie. She walked slowly down the gravel pathway. An orange moon rose among the trees; she could see the outlines of the branches and leaves silhouetted against the faintly glowing sky. She strolled to where her crocuses grew and stroked the petals gently as though caressing herself. Why does life always bring with it bitterness, anguish and loss? Why can’t we ever find everlasting happiness and peace? Her own life, she mused, had begun on such promising lines in this far away land. She had found perfect happiness in the company of the man she loved. Then came the breach when she discovered her man on close terms with a young lady in the Cantonment. The discovery of this shocking fact was followed by fuller knowledge and confirmation, then the confrontation, the ensuing rows, the final separation . . . They were bitter memories, bitter to the taste, and she had best put them away she decided.

A bell trilled and Mrs Milverton started. Was it Isabel who had arrived on some business at this hour? Her footsteps crunched along the gravel pathway that led to the gate; but it was only a passing cyclist hurrying on his errand, disappearing round the corner. Sarah retraced her footsteps along the pathway. The lamp in the portico burned steadily as ever, casting a warm, orange glow around. She went back to her room and seated herself by the window. Beyond stretched the Cantonment Road, the oil lamps strung together like pearls glowing softly against velvety black. Faintly moving figures could be seen, gentlemen and ladies with their children returning home after an evening at the club. What a fickle thing is human love—so easily offended, and so very uncertain. First it was the Major, and now Isabel. No one can love with the steadfast, unchanging love of a mother. No one. When the hour of testing came, they all chose to go their own way unmindful of the desolation they left behind. And life marched on, heedless and uncaring, towards some distant, unknown goal.



The Coming of Dawn

Were it not for the crowds that throng its concourse and the clock tower that sits atop it, the railway station of Alampore would easily pass for a stylish bungalow. The main building which houses the offices and waiting halls is a brickwork structure decorated at intervals with stone carvings showing important personalities, with a gabled roof covered with tiles. When the station was first built a clock atop the main entrance was not thought necessary. Then in the first decade of the twentieth century, on the orders of Colonel Townsend who had newly taken over as Agent of the G. I. P. Railway, a clock tower was added. There were rumours that the Colonel arriving in Alampore on business had alighted from his train, and on his way out, looked up hoping to set his watch to station time. The absence of a clock above the station caused him such great distress and annoyance, they said, that he lost no time in ordering one to be erected. At about this time a second clock tower made its appearance in the town. Beginning at the station is the main thoroughfare that leads straight for over two miles leading to the Town Hall. This too has a clock, but with four faces. Townspeople passing this way often glanced up, setting their watches by these clocks; they soon came to accept these timekeepers as something that set apart the town as unique, for in no other city of the province would you chance upon two clock faces looking upon each other from opposite ends of a common avenue. And thus, down through the years these clocks stood facing each other, each looking from its lofty station on the town below with a kind of benevolence reminding its inhabitants of the passage of the day with unswerving faithfulness.

It was a cold winter evening when a horse-buggy was seen pulling up at the railway station. Mrs Milverton looking tired and worn out stepped out of her buggy drawing her shawl around her. She was dressed in a plain skirt and coat, with a scarf around her head and carried in one hand a bag. A Morris standing nearby shot out its beam of light on her, purring to life as it prepared to leave. The lady entered the main concourse from one side where sat the lepers, the lame and the blind, the untouchables. Tiny fires could be seen lit up by the roadside where the evening meal was being cooked with the alms they had gathered during the day. A woman dressed in a saree appearing out of nowhere brushed past Mrs Milverton with her baby following, desperately in tears. Sarah fished out a coin from her purse and pressed it into an outstretched palm.

Further on the crowd was getting more populous. Mrs Milverton glanced up at the station clock ; it showed five minutes to seven; she had twenty more minutes to go. She ascended the steps slowly; a porter offered to help her, but the woman did not notice him.

She was now on the platform with its dim row of oil lamps, the crowd swelling and restless all around, men shouting, cajoling, families seated on the floor with huge bales of luggage beside them. She found a place underneath a cluster of lamps, close to where the Ticket Collector stood. Resting her bag on the floor, she took a deep breath and looked around. It was a familiar scene. Number 2 Down Mail was generally here on time; it came all the way from Peshawar far away to the north; it halted a good twenty minutes while the engine was changed before proceeding onwards to Bombay. But today things looked different. Today’s evening train somehow seemed to be more significant for it was to carry someone important, someone who mattered. In a little while from now there would be a small crowd of English girls to see off their young colleague. What will she say to me when she sees me here? thought Mrs Milverton. And will she be pleased to see me?

Just then a shrill voice called out: “Mrs Milverton, I say! Is that you?” Startled by the voice, Sarah turned around and found herself face to face with station master Barlow, an old acquaintance.

“What’s the matter, Mr Barlow?” Sarah asked with a look of concern.

“There’s someone here to see you, ma’am—over there in my office.”

“Who is it, Mr Barlow?”

“Er—I can’t say. Come right away.”

The old lady picked up her bag and followed the station master in silence. Inside the office she found a man sitting under the light of lamp tapping away busily at a telegraph transmitter. The man paused briefly to glance at the visitor, then resumed his work at the key. On one side in a corner of the room was Isabel seated on a chair.

“Mrs Milverton I knew you would come!” the young lady said, rising.

Sarah’s eyes lit up. “Dear me, isn’t that you, my girl? But what are you doing here at this time? Your train is due any time, you know.”

Isabel glanced at her watch and spoke a word to the station master who nodded. The two women strolled out of the office. They picked their way through the bustling swarm of people coming upon a secluded spot close to the luggage and parcel office. The crowd of travellers was thin here and Mrs Milverton rested her bag on the floor.

“I was looking for you when Mr Barlow called me in saying there’s someone here to see me,” Sarah said. “Here’s something I’ve got for you.”  She unbuttoned her bag and held out a cardigan. Looking up at the girl with a wistful smile she said, “you always liked pink, so I knitted a pink sweater for you. And there’s a pudding inside you’ll love. . .”

There was a pause.

“Mrs Milverton,” said Isabel, “it is all so very nice, but—er—how shall I explain? It has all changed; I am not going anywhere!”

The old lady put the cardigan back and looked up with questioning eyes. “You aren’t leaving, you say? But didn’t you tell me you are leaving today by the night train?”

“I did say that—and I have changed my mind.”

A goods train on a nearby line began to move out, the wagons creaking and clanging as though they were reluctant to commence upon their journey. 

“You know, Mrs Milverton,” Isabel explained, “I have been thinking on this issue since a long time and it finally occurred to me that the experience I’ve gained here won’t be of much use to me if I return to England.” She paused as a wheelbarrow laden with luggage was seen approaching making a great din. The women moved aside to make way.

“My research has to do with the traditional cures practiced here in India for centuries,” went on Isabel. “And I can’t see what use this can possibly be to me back in England. Dr Martin was quite emphatic on this point, and he has helped me to finally see sense. This country needs you more than your own homeland does, he said . . .  And then I thought of you and Roger and all the fun we’ve had together, and I felt kind of homesick at the thought of leaving you all behind . . . ”

Sarah looked at the girl incredulously; it was new development she had never anticipated before.

“I am staying on here and shall continue in Bruce Memorial,” Isabel said. Then she stepped closer and took Sarah’s hand in her own. “Mrs Milverton, I feel so lonely at times. I have no one in the world whom I can turn to—I grew up in an orphanage, you know.  I have been such a beast. Won’t you forgive me?” There was a tremor in the girl’s voice as she spoke. “Can’t you ever be—I mean . . .  can’t you be my friend again . . .  you are so much like a mamma to me . . . ”

Sarah looked up at Isabel not seeming to comprehend the meaning of the girl’s words. She was in a daze; she could not accept what she heard. The women stood on the platform holding each other’s hands, each lost in the other, each feeling a warmth and comfort in the other’s presence she had missed for so long. Then slowly as the light began to dawn, Mrs Milverton’s eyes grew moist; she drew the girl close to her and hugged her. “Dearie . . . ” she began, but her words choked and she could go on no further.

There was a sudden rush of activity; people around were beginning to rise, some dashing hurriedly, others peering over the edge of the platform. The crowd jostled and swelled, travellers with their great bundles were falling over one another, their cries rising till the station seemed to be filled with the shouts and shrieks of men. A dazzling light appeared in the distance, growing nearer each moment followed by a mighty rumble as the train steamed in, but Mrs Milverton could not care less. She stood quietly in a corner with the young lady beside her, watching the jostling crowd, the carriages drawing in one by one, slowly grinding to a halt, porters shouting. The evening Mail which had filled her with dark forebodings now seemed to be a messenger of cheer. Hadn’t she hoped against hope that the girl she loved would come looking for her as a child looks for its mother when he has lost his way in the marketplace? Her dream was now a reality no one could ever change now. Her girl was beside her and no one, no power could possibly snatch her away. She could feel in her heart a warmth, a lightness that had never touched her before. Trains came here every day, and trains left; what did it matter if the Mail came into this cantonment station and pulled out carrying with it a mass of humanity? Nothing could ever come in the way of her happiness now.

The old lady stood awhile pondering over these things, rejoicing in her heart. She turned to the girl standing beside and found her staring ahead with wide eyes as though lost and alone. No, she would not leave the girl on her own. She stooped to pick up her bag. Then without a moment’s thought she took the girl by the hand and began to lead the way out of the station towards the waiting buggy.

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