Page 51 of Burmese Days

‘Well, mali, is the rain coming?’

The man gestured vaguely towards the west. ‘The hills have captured it, sahib.’

Kyauktada was ringed almost round by hills, and these caught the earlier showers, so that sometimes no rain fell till almost the end of June. The earth of the flower-beds, hoed into large untidy lumps, looked grey and hard as concrete. Flory went into the lounge and found Westfield loafing by the veranda, looking out over the river, for the chicks had been rolled up. At the foot of the veranda a chokra lay on his back in the sun pulling the punkah rope with his heel and shading his face with a broad strip of banana leaf.

‘Hullo, Flory! You’ve got thin as a rake.’

‘So’ve you.’

‘H’m, yes. Bloody weather. No appetite except for booze. Christ, won’t I be glad when I hear the frogs start croaking. Let’s have a spot before the others come. Butler!’

‘Do you know who’s coming to the meeting?’ Flory said, when the butler had brought whisky and tepid soda.

‘Whole crowd, I believe. Lackersteen got back from camp three days ago. By God, that man’s been having the time of his life away from his missus! My inspector was telling me about the goings-on at his camp. Tarts by the score. Must have imported ’em specially from Kyauktada. He’ll catch it all right when the old woman sees his Club-bill. Eleven bottles of whisky sent out to his camp in a fortnight.’

‘Is young Verrall coming?’

‘No, he’s only a temporary member. Not that he’d trouble to come anyway, young tick. Maxwell won’t be here either. Can’t leave camp just yet, he says. He sent word Ellis was to speak for him if there’s any voting to be done. Don’t suppose there’ll be anything to vote about, though, eh?’ he added, looking at Flory obliquely, for both of them remembered their previous quarrel on this subject.

‘I suppose it lies with Macgregor.’

‘What I mean is, Macgregor’ll have dropped that bloody rot about electing a native member, eh? Not the moment for it just now. After the rebellion and all that.’

‘What about the rebellion, by the way?’ said Flory. He did not want to start wrangling about the doctor’s election yet. There was going to be trouble and to spare in a few minutes. ‘Any more news–are they going to have another try, do you think?’

‘No. All over, I’m afraid. They caved in like the funks they are. The whole district’s as quiet as a bloody girls’ school. Most disappointing.’

Flory’s heart missed a beat. He had heard Elizabeth’s voice in the next room. Mr Macgregor came in at this moment, Ellis and Mr Lackersteen following. This made up the full quota, for the women members of the Club had no votes. Mr Macgregor was already dressed in a silk suit, and was carrying the Club account-books under his arm. He managed to bring a sub-official air even into such petty business as a Club meeting.

‘As we seem to be all here,’ he said after the usual greetings, ‘shall we–ah–proceed with our labours?’

‘Lead on, Macduff,’ said Westfield, sitting down.

‘Call the butler, someone, for Christ’s sake,’ said Mr Lackersteen. ‘I daren’t let my missus hear me calling him.’

‘Before we apply ourselves to the agenda,’ said Mr Macgregor when he had refused a drink and the others had taken one, ‘I expect you will want me to run through the accounts for the half-year?’

They did not want it particularly, but Mr Macgregor, who enjoyed this kind of thing, ran through the accounts with great thoroughness. Flory’s thoughts were wandering. There was going to be such a row in a moment–oh, such a devil of a row! They would be furious when they found that he was proposing the doctor after all. And Elizabeth was in the next room. God send she didn’t hear the noise of the row when it came. It would make her despise him all the more to see the others baiting him. Would he see her this evening? Would she speak to him? He gazed across the quarter-mile of gleaming river. By the far bank a knot of men, one of them wearing a green gaungbaung, were waiting beside a sampan. In the channel, by the nearer bank, a huge, clumsy Indian barge struggled with desperate slowness against the racing current. At each stroke the ten rowers, Dravidian starvelings, ran forward and plunged their long primitive oars, with heart-shaped blades, into the water. They braced their meagre bodies, then tugged, writhed, strained backwards like agonised creatures of black rubber, and the ponderous hull crept onwards a yard or two. Then the rowers sprang forward, panting, to plunge their oars again before the current should check her.

‘And now,’ said Mr Macgregor more gravely, ‘we come to the main point of the agenda. That, of course, is this–ah–distasteful question, which I am afraid must be faced, of electing a native member to this Club. When we discussed the matter before——’

‘What the hell!’

It was Ellis who had interrupted. He was so excited that he had sprung to his feet.

‘What the hell! Surely we aren’t starting that over again? Talk about electing a damned nigger to this Club, after everything that’s happened! Good God, I thought even Flory had dropped it by this time!’

‘Our friend Ellis appears surprised. The matter has been discussed before, I believe.’

‘I should think it damned well was discussed before! And we all said what we thought of it. By God——’

‘If our friend Ellis will sit down for a few moments–’ said Mr Macgregor tolerantly.

Ellis threw himself into his chair again, exclaiming, ‘Bloody rubbish!’ Beyond the river Flory could see the group of Burmans embarking. They were lifting a long, awkward-shaped bundle into the sampan. Mr Macgregor had produced a letter from his file of papers.

‘Perhaps I had better explain how this question arose in the first place. The Commissioner tells me that a circular has been sent round by the Government, suggesting that in those Clubs where there are no native members, one at least shall be co-opted; that is, admitted automatically. The circular says–ah yes! here it is: “It is mistaken policy to offer social affronts to native officials of high standing”. I may say that I disagree most emphatically. No doubt we all do. We who have to do the actual work of government see things very differently from these–ah–Paget MPs who interfere with us from above. The Commissioner quite agrees with me. However——’

‘But it’s all bloody rot!’ broke in Ellis. ‘What’s it got to do with the Commissioner or anyone else? Surely we can do as we like in our own bloody Club? They’ve no right to dictate to us when we’re off duty.’

‘Quite,’ said Westfield.

‘You anticipate me. I told the Commissioner that I should have to put the matter before the other members. And the course he suggests is this. If the idea finds any support in the Club, he thinks it would be better if we co-opted our native member. On the other hand, if the entire Club is against it, it can be dropped. That is, if opinion is quite unanimous.’

‘Well, it damned well is unanimous,’ said Ellis.

‘D’you mean,’ said Westfield, ‘that it depends on ourselves whether we have ’em in here or no?’

‘I fancy we can take it as meaning that.’

‘Well, then, let’s say we’re against it to a man.’

‘And say it bloody firmly, by God. We want to put our foot down on this idea once and for all.’

‘Hear, hear!’ said Mr Lackersteen gruffly. ‘Keep the black swabs out of it. Esprit de corps and all that.’

Mr Lackersteen could always be relied upon for sound sentiments in a case like this. In his heart he did not care and never had cared a damn for the British Raj, and he was as happy drinking with an Oriental as with a white man; but he was always ready with a loud ‘Hear, hear!’ when anyone suggested the bamboo for disrespectful servants or boiling oil for Nationalists. He prided himself that though he might booze a bit and all that, dammit, he was loyal. It was his form of respectability. Mr Macgregor was secretly rather relieved by the general agreement. If any Oriental member were co-opted, that member would have to be Dr Veraswami, and he had had the deepest distrust of the doctor ever since Nga Shwe O’s suspicious escape from the jail.