‘Oh, by the way, doctor. What about that skin I sent to the jail to be cured? Is it done yet?’
‘Ah——’ said the doctor in a slightly disconcerted manner, rubbing his nose. He went inside the house–they were breakfasting on the veranda, for the doctor’s wife had protested violently against Flory being brought indoors–and came back in a moment with the skin rolled up in a bundle.
‘Ass a matter of fact——’ he began, unrolling it.
The skin had been utterly ruined. It was as stiff as cardboard, with the leather cracked and the fur discoloured and even rubbed off in patches. It also stank abominably. Instead of being cured, it had been converted into a piece of rubbish.
‘Oh, doctor! What a mess they’ve made of it! How the devil did it happen?’
‘I am so sorry, my friend! I wass about to apologise. It wass the best we could do. There iss no one at the jail who knows how to cure skins now.’
‘But, damn it, that convict used to cure them so beautifully!’
‘Ah, yes. But he iss gone from us these three weeks, alas.’
‘Gone? I thought he was doing seven years?’
‘What? Did you not hear, my friend? I thought you knew who it wass that used to cure the skins. It wass Nga Shwe O.’
‘Nga Shwe O?’
‘The dacoit who escaped with U Po Kyin’s assistance.’
The mishap had daunted him dreadfully. Nevertheless, in the afternoon, having bathed and put on a clean suit, he went up to the Lackersteens’ house, at about four. It was very early to call, but he wanted to make sure of catching Elizabeth before she went down to the Club. Mrs Lackersteen, who had been asleep and was not prepared for visitors, received him with an ill grace, not even asking him to sit down.
‘I’m afraid Elizabeth isn’t down yet. She’s dressing to go out riding. Wouldn’t it be better if you left a message?’
‘I’d like to see her, if you don’t mind. I’ve brought her the skin of that leopard we shot together.’
Mrs Lackersteen left him standing up in the drawing-room, feeling lumpish and abnormally large as one does at such times. However, she fetched Elizabeth, taking the opportunity of whispering to her outside the door: ‘Get rid of that dreadful man as soon as you can, dear. I can’t bear him about the house at this time of day.’
As Elizabeth entered the room Flory’s heart pounded so violently that a reddish mist passed behind his eyes. She was wearing a silk shirt and jodhpurs, and she was a little sunburned. Even in his memory she had never been so beautiful. He quailed; on the instant he was lost–every scrap of his screwed-up courage had fled. Instead of stepping forward to meet her he actually backed away. There was a fearful crash behind him; he had upset an occasional table and sent a bowl of zinnias hurding across the floor.
‘I’m so sorry!’ he exclaimed in horror.
‘Oh, not at all! Please don’t worry about it!’
She helped him to pick up the table, chattering all the while as gaily and easily as though nothing had happened: ‘You have been away a long time, Mr Flory! You’re quite a stranger! We’ve so missed you at the Club!’ etc. etc. She was italicising every other word, with that deadly, glittering brightness that a woman puts on when she is dodging a moral obligation. He was terrified of her. He could not even look her in the face. She took up a box of cigarettes and offered him one, but he refused it. His hand was shaking too much to take it.
‘I’ve brought you that skin,’ he said flatly.
He unrolled it on the table they had just picked up. Itlooked so shabby and miserable that he wished he had never brought it. She came close to him to examine the skin, so close that her flowerlike cheek was not a foot from his own, and he could feel the warmth of her body. So great was his fear of her that he stepped hurriedly away. And in the same moment she too stepped back with a wince of disgust, having caught the foul odour of the skin. It shamed him terribly. It was almost as though it had been himself and not the skin that stank.
‘Thank you ever so much, Mr Flory!’ She had put another yard between herself and the skin. ‘Such a lovely big skin, isn’t it?’
‘It was, but they’ve spoiled it, I’m afraid.’
‘Oh no! I shall love having it!–Are you back in Kyauk-tada for long? How dreadfully hot it must have been in camp!’
‘Yes, it’s been very hot.’
For three minutes they actually talked of the weather. He was helpless. All that he had promised himself to say, all his arguments and pleadings, had withered in his throat. ‘You fool, you fool,’ he thought, ‘what are you doing? Did you come twenty miles for this? Go on, say what you came to say! Seize her in your arms; make her listen, kick her, beat her–anything sooner than let her choke you with this drivel!’ But it was hopeless, hopeless. Not a word could his tongue utter except futile trivialities. How could he plead or argue, when that bright easy air of hers, that dragged every word to the level of Club-chatter, silenced him before he spoke? Where do they learn it, that dreadful tee-heeing brightness? In these brisk modern girls’ schools, no doubt. The piece of carrion on the table made him more ashamed every moment. He stood there almost voiceless, lumpishly ugly with his face yellow and creased after the sleepless night, and his birthmark like a smear of dirt.
She got rid of him after a very few minutes. ‘And now, Mr Flory, if you don’t mind, I ought really ——’
He mumbled rather than said, ‘Won’t you come out with me again some time? Walking, shooting–something?’
‘I have so little time nowadays! All my evenings seem to be full. This evening I’m going out riding. With Mr Verrall,’ she added.
It was possible that she added that in order to wound him. This was the first that he had heard of her friendship with Verrall. He could not keep the dead, flat tone of envy out of his voice as he said:
‘Do you go out riding much with Verrall?’
‘Almost every evening. He’s such a wonderful horseman! And he has absolute strings of polo ponies!’
‘Ah. And of course I have no polo ponies.’
It was the first thing he had said that even approached seriousness, and it did no more than offend her. However, she answered him with the same gay easy air as before, and then showed him out. Mrs Lackersteen came back to the drawing-room, sniffed the air, and immediately ordered the servants to take the reeking leopard-skin outside and burn it.
Flory lounged at his garden gate, pretending to feed the pigeons. He could not deny himself the pain of seeing Elizabeth and Verrall start out on their ride. How vulgarly, how cruelly she had behaved to him! It is dreadful when people will not even have the decency to quarrel. Presently Verrall rode up to the Lackersteens’ house on the white pony, with a syce riding the chestnut, then there was a pause, then they emerged together, Verrall on the chestnut pony, Elizabeth on the white, and trotted quickly up the hill. They were chattering and laughing, her silk-shirted shoulder very close to his. Neither looked towards Flory.
When they had disappeared into the jungle, Flory still loafed in the garden. The glare was waning to yellow. The mali was at work grubbing up the English flowers, most of which had died, slain by too much sunshine, and planting balsams, cockscombs, and more zinnias. An hour passed, and a melancholy, earth-coloured Indian loitered up the drive, dressed in a loin-cloth and a salmon-pink pagri on which a washing-basket was balanced. He laid down his basket and salaamed to Flory.
‘Who are you?’
The book-wallah was an itinerant pedlar of books who wandered from station to station throughout Upper Burma. His system of exchange was that for any book in his bundle you gave him four annas, and any other book. Not quite any book, however, for the book-wallah, though analphabetic, had learned to recognise and refuse a Bible.
‘No, sahib,’ he would say plaintively, ‘no. This book’ (he would turn it over disapprovingly in his flat brown hands) ‘this book with a black cover and gold letters–this one I cannot take. I know not how it is, but all sahibs are offering me this book, and none are taking it. What can it be that is in this black book? Some evil, undoubtedly.’
‘Turn out your trash,’ Flory said.