Short Story (Contd.)

An Unusual Outing

St Bartholomew’s Church with its brickwork spire pointing skyward lies half a mile to the east of Alampore Cantonment. The Cantonment bazaar is served by one main street, always crowded in the evenings, leading by the polo ground, various government offices, finally taking a turn to the left before you come upon the vicarage, followed by the church itself, a magnificent specimen of architecture that was built by the Presbyterians a hundred years ago. Today on anniversary day the church was packed to capacity; the congregation sat in a hushed silence; but secretly each person looked forward to the parson’s benediction when they could join in the festivities that awaited them outside.

The sermon, a long and tiresome one on this occasion, finally ended. Many amongst the congregation, particularly those in the back pews, had sighed in relief. As the parson lowered his head in prayer an elderly woman dressed in a cream coloured dress got up and hurried out, followed by a younger lady at her heels. Outside the church the place was buzzing with activity with two rows of stalls offering games, lucky dips and a variety of delicacies. Mrs Milverton flitted from stall to stall exchanging greetings and picking up doughnuts, cakes, and cheese sandwiches which she stuffed into the wicker basket she had brought along.

They were soon trotting off in the buggy.

“Mrs Milverton,” Isabel asked, “don’t you think we should have stayed on till the end of the service?”

“I am afraid not, dear,” Sarah replied. “The service will last for half an hour more. We have more important things to do.” Roger, it turned out hadn’t attended the anniversary service on that day as he had opted for extra duty at the engine shed. He was to return late in the evening and Sarah was keen on making sure that Roger and his boys did not miss out on the goodies.

The buggy wound its way through the dusty bazaar streets of the old town, then took a side road leading to the station before it pulled up beside a dull brown structure.

The women disembarked from the buggy. “This is where my son works,” said Mrs Milverton beaming proudly. Isabel glanced at the place and did not seem impressed. It looked dark and dismal, something like the remnants of an old factory.

The women went in through the gates and lifting up their skirts began to cross a set of tracks glistening in the morning sun. Before them loomed the engine shed, while two locos joined end to end were standing nearby, letting out a discharge of hot water and steam. Isabel seemed to hesitate, but Mrs Milverton prodded her on. “Come on,” she urged taking the young lady by the hand. “It is not going to jump on us! Come this way.”

Roger who had turned up at the spot looked pleased. “Nice to have a pretty young lady here today,” he said with a grin. Mrs Milverton laughed and exchanged a wink with Isabel . The place reeked of grease and engine smoke. Men dressed in overalls hurried by, there was the clanging of metal and the steady hum of machinery, while a little way off an engine stood spilling out water making a great noise, the boys moving around with giant spanners in their hands. Quite a bit like a surgeon dissecting a cadaver, thought Isabel. The whole place carried a thick layer of soot everywhere. Isabel wished she hadn’t worn her best dress today.

Two men were seated at the table in the loco foreman’s office and seeing the women they rose and offered seats. Isabel looked around and found herself in a dull looking room with a heavy wooden table, a few chairs and heaps of files stacked away in a dismal looking half-open cupboard.

“Where are the boys, son?” asked Mrs Milverton looking around as she settled in a chair. “I have got  eats for you all tucked away in my hamper.”

Two young men in overalls peered into the office and seeing that Sarah was accompanied by a young lady, they signalled to the others. Soon a crowd of curious fellows had assembled in the room.

“Now just a minute, I didn’t summon any of you . . .” Roger began but he was cut short by Mrs Milverton’s booming voice. “Come on boys,” she cried, “come one, come all, join in the fun and help yourselves!” Cheers broke out; there was something like pandemonium in the foreman’s office. “Who’s the young lady ma’am?” cried one voice, while another yelled out “What have you got in the basket for us, Mrs Milverton?” Tea was ordered, and Sarah spread out her wares on the table: sandwiches, doughnuts,  cakes, croissants, mutton patties . . .  It was a surprise party for the boys, made even more grand by the arrival of a young lady. It was certainly an unusual occurrence, one that the boys would remember for a long time to come.

Percy the young apprentice seemed shy and reserved but he took everyone by surprise when he offered to show the young lady around.

Milverton sounded reluctant. “You wish to take her around?” he asked doubtfully. He had planned a class for the boys to explain the working of a steam injector.

“Very well,” he said at last, “but see that you are back soon. I am holding a class today, so make it a short trip!”

As Mrs Milverton settled down to have a word with Roger and his men, Isabel Thorpe and her young escort strolled out of the engine shed to explore. The warmth of the winter sun was delicious. Isabel felt relieved to be out in the open after spending nearly an hour shivering in the loco foreman’s office.

They walked past a row of engines stabled idly on tracks, each letting out steam softly as it waited its turn to be taken into the shed for adjustment and repair. Isabel glanced at these hulks, each with the letters G I P painted against the dull livery of the tender. Everything seemed so different here, it was a new world opened out before her. As Percy led the way Isabel found they were headed towards a large mound of coal. Close by a large beastly machine was making a loud throbbing noise.

“That’s the steam crane!” said Percy excitedly.

“Ah, a crane, is it?” said Isabel as she watched the bucket lower to scoop up coal from the heap below. The bucket rose, and stood motionless in the air as the operator turned aside to glance at the spectators. Then it rose higher up, swivelled to one side and turned over, emptying its contents into the bunker of the waiting engine.

“Miss, have you ever been to a engine shed before?” asked the young guide as they moved on.

“No Percy, I’ve never been to one. But it looks quite interesting. How long have you been here?”

“Over three years, Miss.”

“You didn’t go to school?”

“No. Never liked it.”

“That’s just too bad,” said Isabel scratching her chin thoughtfully. “You don’t know what you are missing out on.”

“But I like it here, Miss!” Percy insisted.

Engine smoke wafted across the yard, and Isabel held her handkerchief to her nose. “What does your mamma say—I mean, about your working here?”

“Mamma sailed back Home years ago. Couldn’t bear the heat here.”

Isabel almost felt sorry for the boy. Must be the son of one of those hard drinking fellows who does not mind putting his boy to work instead of sending him to school, she thought.

“Percy did you have cake?” Isabel asked kindly. “Come let’s return. Mrs Milverton’s got a basketful of goodies for us all.”

They had now reached the turntable. An engine was in sight, with two men pushing with all their might. One of the men spotted Percy and yelled out, “Lucky old boy Percy! Taking the missy out for a walk?”

Percy waved back, then turned to Isabel with a boyish smile. “Miss you won’t be cross if I ask you a question, will you?”

“Go on Percy, ask what you like.”

“The boys here said that you will—er—that you are going to become Mrs Milverton soon. Is it true?”

Isabel laughed out aloud. “I really don’t know Percy,” she said tossing her hair behind. “There are a good many things we don’t know about, aren’t there? Come let’s return to the office.”

“Goodnight Mrs Milverton”

Sarah pinned up her hair into a neat little bun while she studied herself in the mirror. For a woman of over sixty she had a good bearing ; her appearance was what men would describe as demure and ladylike; pleasantly plump, a shade sensitive, with a remarkable ability to make the most of what came her way. Today she had tried out a new recipe: bacon and coriander pancakes. While most people would prefer this at breakfast she found it was a welcome snack at any time of the day, particularly in the cold winter months when you loved to have something hot and spicy.

The winter air was cool and crisp. Isabel had taken a day off from the hospital and was here to spend the day with her friend. Mrs Milverton hummed a tune to herself as she drew aside the curtains flooding her living room with soft dappled sunshine. She glanced out of the window; it opened out onto a picturesque view; tall eucalyptus trees framing the hills in the distance, now disappearing into the golden haze beyond. The months had rolled by lazily; life seemed to be calm and placid. She turned momentarily to glance at Isabel; the girl was curled up on the sofa absorbed in a magazine, the perfect picture of contentment. The arrival of the young lady had made such a tremendous difference in her own life; what was once a gloomy, cheerless home now seemed to throb with joy. Many a time she had hoped that what was now a relationship of perfect understanding and love would eventually blossom into something of a more permanent nature, but she remained silent. The neighbours and the gossips at the club had nudged her often enough hinting that the girl would make a fine companion for her son, but until now Sarah had chosen to remain quiet on the subject.

Sarah’s new recipe was a triumphant success, and the women with plates heaped with pancakes moved out into the portico which opened out towards the west. It was flaming with golden yellow sunshine. Isabel sat on a cane chair resting her plate on her lap.

“How do you find them?” Mrs Milverton asked, beaming at Isabel as she took a seat opposite.

“They are delicious. I wish Roger was here with us. Will he be late in coming?”

“Oh never mind Roger; he will have his share tonight. I have enough batter left to turn out a dozen more. Here, have this chutney. These pancakes always go well with chutney.”

Isabel reached out for a small bowl containing what looked like a greenish concoction with a pleasant smell. “Ummm. . .  this tastes really great. Have one more pancake Mrs Milverton?”

Sarah declined. “One is enough for me,” she said. “At your age I would have had six! Besides, I must really be getting on with my knitting. I have three more cardigans to work on!”

Isabel looked up at her friend. For over six months she was a visitor here, and each time she came she had found Sarah with her knitting bag beside her. It was clearly something more than a pastime; the old lady seemed to be a determined worker.

“Mrs Milverton, why do you always have to be with a ball of wool—do you knit for anyone?”

The old lady seemed amused with the question. “I don’t have growing children,” she said thoughtfully. “If I need a cardigan for myself I can go out and buy one. So if I knit, it is obviously for someone else, isn’t it?”

“Who do you knit for?”

“You don’t go to church often, do you? We hold charity shows. The proceeds go to hospitals, schools, orphanages . . .  you see?”

Isabel seemed to grow enthusiastic. “Oh good! I wish I could help in church,” she said.

There was a tinkling of glasses as Himmat Singh, the attendant, appeared with a tray. “Good evening, Memsahib. I bring sweet wine for you. Also for younger memsahib.”

“Very good Himmat,” said Mrs Milverton. “You may bring in some soda too,” Then turning to the Isabel she said cheerily, “ It is sweetened grape wine dear, the kind you get in church. Here, let me pour you out a glass.”

The women sipped the wine in silence. Isabel found the taste strangely intoxicating as the first sip gave rise to the most delightful tingling sensation down her throat. She looked out of the portico where they sat and saw the red ball of fire disappear below the horizon. Sweet wine is much like the setting sun, she thought. It goes down quickly leaving a warm glow behind. Then turning to her companion once again she said, “Mrs Milverton, you didn’t tell me if there’s any way I could help in church.”

Sarah held her glass up to the light and considered. “There’s a lot you can do, my child,” she said dreamily, “but as they say, charity begins at home. Perhaps you could begin by doing something for me—or Roger, maybe.”

Isabel put her glass sharply down. It looked as if the wine was beginning to take effect and she wished she had not stayed on for so long.

“You know, dearie,” went on Sarah, “I have known you for so long that by now you are like one of the family. I was going to say that—oh well—how good it would be if you could step into Roger’s life; he needs someone who will be caring, you know. Besides, I’d love to have you around.”

The young lady straightened up and turned to face her companion. Sarah had her gaze full upon her now as she spoke in her dreamy, complacent tone. Isabel drained off her glass. She was quite unprepared for this last observation; it took some time for its full import to sink in.

She said slowly, “I suppose this means that you wish me to marry Roger? To be honest, Mrs Milverton, I have never thought of marriage so far.”

“Well, isn’t it time you begin to consider the possibility? . . . Of warm, sunny days ahead with a family of your own?”

“Er—Mrs Milverton, I have so many things on hand—I am right in the middle of a project I have set my heart on completing.”

“But marriage is not something to be despised,” Sarah gently persuaded. “No woman is ever quite complete until she marries. A happy marriage is the crown of a woman’s life.”

Isabel found herself fidgeting with the arm of her chair. As she thought over the matter, visions arose in her mind of being in the midst of domestic life presided over by the lean, weather-beaten, mustachioed locomotive foreman she had known for so long  ;  she, dainty and petite, her tiny hands ministering to the needs of the sick ; he, with his constant gabble characteristic of men of his profession. It seemed to be a far-fetched proposition.

It should not be imagined, however, that Milverton actually repelled the girl. He had always observed due courtesy in her presence ; on many an occasion he would join in when she and the old lady were conversing together on a subject which offered him scope to voice his views ; and at times when she stayed on late, he would even escort her back to her home late in the night. There was nothing essentially unpleasant with the man. Barring a touch of awkwardness which she attributed to that vague nervousness a man of his rank exhibits when he finds himself in the company of men of superior station, he seemed to be pleasant and agreeable in disposition. But notwithstanding these qualifications, she found herself unable to think in terms of a matrimonial alliance. He would make a splendid companion to a girl more suited to his temperament, she felt ; she had always wished  him, as she had wished his mother, all the happiness there was in the world.

She now found herself confronted with an issue the outcome of which filled her with unease. Her relationship with Sarah was something she treasured above everything else. The old lady was something more than a friend to her; she was a counselor, a mother, a confidante’, a bosom friend. The most valuable things in life are only to be obtained at the cost of a sacrifice. She felt she had arrived at the crossroads in life: the junction where two roads open out, and you are asked to choose a path, a choice that will affect profoundly the whole course and destiny of life.

Isabel swung aside her skirts a little taking up a more comfortable position. She looked up to find Sarah still toying with her glass of wine. The lady seemed put out. She raised her glass to her lips, took a sip, swallowed, and turned to Isabel again. “Sooner or later, one has to settle down in life. None of us can really avoid it, can we?” she said with a cheerful smile.

Isabel thought for a moment before she spoke. “I can understand how you feel Mrs Milverton. But you must allow me time to arrive at a decision. Roger and I are the best of friends; we share a beautiful relationship. But again, it is only friendship. It has never been anything more than that.”

The old lady’s hand quivered. Marriage, she had held, was a simple affair wherein a man and a woman were joined together in a bond of love and holiness, sharing for evermore the joys, the triumphs, the sorrows and defeats of life together. Didn’t friendship lead on to love, and from thence to marriage? But the new age had brought along with it a new set of values. The new woman was here, and she was fastidious; she looked for a meaning and significance in everything.

Mrs Milverton looked up at the girl entreatingly. “My--son--adores you,” she spoke slowly in a tremulous voice.

It was an importunate plea, not a statement of a fact at all.

For a few moments there was a hushed silence. Finally Isabel spoke up. She moved her chair closer and leaned forward. “Mrs Milverton,” she said, “I shan’t be staying on here much longer. I am returning to England. I was here to do research—and to see what the country was like. My work is nearing its end. I must return.” She placed a hand on Sarah’s knee and went on gently: “I hope you will forgive me, Mrs Milverton. Both you and Roger have been so very good to me. I shan’t ever forget the good times we’ve had together. And I shan’t ever forget you.”

A light breeze sent leaves scurrying across the portico where the two sat. Sarah instinctively shaded her eyes to keep out the dust. She felt bewildered and shaken ; all her plans had come to nought, making her feel like a boy who has been refused the toy he has taken a fancy to.

Mrs Milverton put her glass down and brightened up a little. “Will you be leaving soon?” she asked in a subdued tone.

“Er—yes. If things go well, my thesis will be published by the end of next year. By the end of March I must be getting back. My ticket by steamer has been booked already.”

She rose slowly and bending over the old lady kissed her. “Shall I take leave now? I’ll come again. Shall we have dinner together this Saturday?. . . .  Goodnight Mrs Milverton . . . ” She picked up her purse and made her way down the pathway toward the gate. She fumbled at the gate, turned around momentarily and smiled at the old lady. And then she was gone, pedaling softly down the street.

(Continued below)