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Breakfast with the Nikolides
By Rumer Godden
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1942 Rumer Godden Literary Trust
All rights reserved.
It was in the little agricultural town of Amorra, East Bengal, India.
In the night Emily Pool's small black spaniel, Don, slipped down the stairs. He ran into the garden and out through the gate into the College grounds where the lawns lay smoothly between the buildings and the trees and ended in grass beside the tank. He ran with curious intentness, his head down, his wide ears brushing either side of his hot serious face, and very soon his ears were soaked with dew and stuck with twigs and ends of grass. The featherings of his legs were filthy too.
He was hot. He lay down and panted; but in a moment, pricked with some intense discomfort, he was up to run again, round and round without any point or reason. There was nothing he wanted, but he could not be still, he could not feel or behave like himself at all. He had been a serene and normal dog, quietly engaged in completing himself from a puppy to an adult, but now, and all day, he was like the mirage of a spaniel, lifted out of himself and thrown distorted and heightened on the air. He was forced to run, and run, and run – foolishly to run.
At times he was invisible, quite lost in the shadows and the leaves, and presently he was invisible altogether because he had lain down behind a small balustraded platform that led down to the water tank; it was here the old professors of the staff liked to bring their chairs and their shawls and sit out in the evening. Now it was deserted. Don lay on the grass and pressed his side against the stone. He needed to press himself down where it was cool. The stone was warm from the day's sun but underneath that veneer of warmth there was real old coldness, a damp and chill, and it eased him to feel it beyond the warmth. He needed to be cool, to be still, to be dark, but he was mysteriously compelled to stand up and run in circles round and back to his place below the platform; he did it again and again and each time he circled back to lie invisibly there.CHAPTER 2
In the night the Government Farm at Amorra seemed to grow smaller. By day it was impressive with its colonnaded buildings, its straight well-sanded roads with railings that led through model fields; through the seasons the fields had model crops of jute and paddy-rice, grasses and pulses and fruits, sugarcane and cotton and wheat; they stretched field by field towards the horizon sweeping in a wide half-wheel with the bank of the river, acre after acre. Only Charles Pool knew how big it really was; he knew exactly, because he had made it. He had pushed it out and across the plain, patch after patch, crop after crop; and it had not been easy, for with every field he pushed out into the waste, he was pushing the whole of India before him.
The Indian cultivator is rooted in deep slow prejudice and he is convinced that he is without hope. He knows too well that he is born to live and die in monotony and poverty with nothing but toil, and debts and perhaps hunger and still more toil. Charles's talk of manures and water-conservation and crop-rotation only made the villagers lift their eyes for a moment and sink back into the ways of their great-grandfathers' great-grandfathers' grandfathers again.
Charles talked of peculiar things – of pits for instance; and at first thought, what had pits to do with farming? Charles still talked of pits, pits for rubbish, compost pits, pit-latrines. He talked of dreams, of 85 per cent germinating seed, of bigger crops and better crops and different crops and crop-rotation. 'It does not matter how we farm,' they said. 'If we farm well in a bad year, still we get bad crops; if we farm badly in a good year, still we get good crops. What is to be will be. What does it matter how we farm?' 'There shall be no bad years,' said Charles and talked of wells, and Persian wheels, and levelling and terracing the rainfed land to hold the water and conserve the topsoil.
'Do it now. Combine,' said Charles.
'We'll do it tomorrow.'
'No, now. Now. Today.' He was like a gnat in their ears. Grudgingly, in one or two villages, they began to follow him.
Charles's young men went with white banners like preachers or warriors into the villages. They took with them a bull, and an English cock and hen, and the people's eyes stayed open with astonishment when they saw the size of these creatures. The young men showed them eggs from the hen, they talked of stall-fed milkers for the bull. They had a model village, a model house, a haybox, mosquito nets and quinine, and they had a magic lantern with slides: Cowdung for Manure, Not for Fuel. Use the Haybox. Light and Air. The Poor Man's Pestilence – Litigation. Good Seed Costs Four Annas More, Bad Seed Loses Twenty Rupees. They had posters to match the slides – Fever is Cheap, Quinine is Cheaper; Motherly Love (the mother who drives away the vaccinator – 'Go away, you cruel man!' – while her baby's ears and nose are pierced for ornaments); Send Your Girls to School, the Mother Makes the Home; Who Profits? (when the crocodile of litigation holds its clients in its jaws) – all with lurid highly coloured pictures. They had gramophones and records. Later they had wireless.
There were not enough young men, not one for a hundred villages. The Indian lives to and for himself and his family, his sense of social service and citizenship is small, and voluntary workers were almost nil. The Legislative Government was slow and very cautious in providing paid ones. Already Charles was the fellow who always wanted money and when money was given to him it went like drops of water on dry sand. 'But you only give me drops,' said Charles. 'I want bucketfuls and gallons.'
'That is impossible,' they said.
'It may be impossible but it must be possible,' said Charles. 'It may be useless but it shall be of use. I don't know how you can do it, but you must do it, all the same.'
Charles won. Results are quick in India, once work is started and sustained, and in eight years the Farm had become an Industrial and Research Centre, with an annual exhibition; it had a Stud Farm and a Veterinary Research Annex, and recently the College had been added to it with a roll of nearly three hundred students who came from all parts of the province to study livestock, crop-husbandry, bacteriology, agricultural botany, mycology and entomology.
Now, the mail steamers came up to Amorra; it had a light railway; it was visited and conferred upon; its grant had been raised and doubled, and raised and doubled again. It had equally outstripped its boundaries in land, the gates led one into the other along its roads and new houses were springing up for its staff all along the river in surprising shapes and colours, 'Primrose Villa,' 'Lucknow,' 'Jolly Garden,' 'Riviera View.' One with pink concrete with wrought-iron balconies in silver, one had strips of looking-glass let into its walls, one was completely in the shape of a ship with a railed bridge, a ventilator and a concrete life-belt on the roof. Charles looked at it through his monocle. 'It seems I started more than I knew,' said Charles.
He was held to be a connoisseur of houses though no one quite knew why; rumours also said that his own house was very beautiful and very peculiar, but not many people had been in it to see.
Everyone knew Charles but no one knew him very well, except perhaps the Principal of the College, Sir Monmatha Ghose. Charles was the old as well as the new Amorra, and he never left it. He lived alone in a fixed ray of limelight as the only European in Amorra except for an Anglo-Grecian combine managed by a Greek, Yorgo Nikolides, on the river two miles away. The whole town knew everything Charles did, but that told them very little about him. Naturally a network of rumour and gossip and small coloured lies had woven themselves round his name; his appearance encouraged them.
He looked a little like a pirate; he was burnt so brown that he hardly looked European – though he was too big, his bones too heavy, for an Indian; his walk was commanding; though it was commanding it had a slight roll. He was tattooed on the inside of his arms, and his eyes were a peculiarly brilliant blue, and he had a small cast in one of them that gave him a blind, wilfully obstinate look, a suggestion of a patch, particularly as in it he wore a monocle without a string. His hair was as black as his eyes were blue, and he had hair on his chest and arms and legs. The students to whom he lectured occasionally called him 'One-eyed Carlos' or 'Charlie Chang' – but unlike a pirate he had sober tastes, and unlike a monkey he would never chatter and never hurry. Sometimes he was terse and explosive and the students were in awe of him, but usually he was genial, venial and serene; and on the whole he was popular.
Among the rumours there was one that persisted; it said he had been degraded to Amorra from a very senior post. The curious tried delicately, or bluntly, to find out from Sir Monmatha Ghose if it were true. Sir Monmatha Ghose did not know, but he had been in Charles's house and knew that many of the rumours told of it were not far wrong.
The house was old and deep-walled and cool and spacious, but Charles had insisted on having the whole of it altered. That was odd in Charles, who liked and valued true old Indian things. It was washed yellow, and turreted at one side, with long verandahs and a columned porch, where creepers grew. It stood like a fort with a moat of old bazaar on three sides of it, trenched in upon by the new houses and new streets that were spreading out across the plain. On its fourth side it was joined to the College, and its garden led into the College grounds.
Inside the rooms were still immense, the doors and windows nearly as high as the rooms, the verandahs nearly as deep; it was floored with Mexican red stone except the drawing-rooms, which now had marble in faint grey and white squares; the floors were carefully kept and oiled so that they shone like mirrors, the walls were leeped in delicate lime washes, the panelling and the furniture polished and waxed, and the gardener spent an hour every morning arranging bowls and vases of flowers that were beautiful in the empty rooms.
'Where did you get your mali?' said Sir Monmatha Ghose. 'He has one heavenly arrangement of flowers after another.' There was a square glass jar that held marguerites and lupins in blue and pink and orchid colours, with forget-me-nots and deep red carnations, and a vase flat against the wall, with roses, and the small cream double jasmine that has flat, pale green glossy leaves; and a ring on the table in the next room, where they were to dine, that picked up every colour on the tablecloth: nasturtiums and white candytuft, marigolds, and tips of stock. 'But I suppose,' said Sir Monmatha, 'you imported him with the others.'
Charles's servants were hill-men, of high order and meticulous, who did not gossip in the bazaar.
Sir Monmatha noticed them, and he noticed the flowers, the faint exquisite colourings of the rooms and furniture; and he noticed – what many people would not have seen – that, under the polish and orderliness, nearly all of it had been broken or defaced and put together again.
'This poor table,' said Sir Monmatha Ghose, running his finger down an ugly joining, 'why do you live with it like this? It is so badly broken that it is a pity it has ever been mended. Why do you keep it like that?' As Charles did not answer he took it that he might go on. 'This house,' he said, 'is like a shrine that has been defaced,' and he turned his small deep-seeing eyes on Charles and said, 'It isn't good for you, Pool.'
'On the contrary,' said Charles, 'it's very good for me.'
'You should try to forget.'
'No, I should try to remember,' answered Charles, and after a moment he added, defensively, 'I'm perfectly happy.'
He was perfectly happy. He lived chiefly in two small rooms beside the office; he woke up at dawn and worked into the night – and that was what he liked to do, get up at dawn and work all day into the night. That was how he had made Amorra; but in spite of all his years of work, in the night it looked curiously small in the plain. Its edges seemed to shrink back on themselves as if the plain might swallow them, and the night picked out the great belt of the river that changed its course and its bed through the years, that could perhaps defy the engineers and change its course again and sweep the farm and Amorra out of sight with one twist of its flank. The farm in the night was small between two enemies, the snake river and the tiger plain, but Charles did not see them in the night; in the night he went to sleep.
'You are not afraid of the river?' asked Louise, his wife. 'It might turn again.'
'It might. If the dams won't prevent it, I can't.'
'Why didn't you build more inland?'
'We are growing inland, but we have to irrigate.'
'But there are the rains ...'
'The rains might fail and the crops would dry.'
'So – famine and flood – even here!' Her eyes were dark with melodramatic lashes. 'Even here.'
'Everywhere,' said Charles.
Suddenly after eight years Charles had produced a wife. That had disconcerted, most horribly, his Indian friends. Granted that it was quite possible and usual for anyone in a foreign country to have a hidden past, in spite of the rumours they had not really believed it of Charles. Europeans in India are like cut flowers; that is why most of them wither and grow sterile: they cannot live without their roots, and so few of them take root; but Charles had taken root. They had almost forgotten that India was not his native soil, and they were deeply hurt. They were deeply curious too.
One morning Charles went down to the jetty to meet the steamer; and on the steamer was his wife, and not only his wife – there were two children of perhaps eleven and eight. What were they like? The wife was elegant, handsome but fragile, with a very white skin that made her more than ever noticeable in an Indian community. Her hair was a deep dark gold; 'The colour,' said the sentimental students, 'of the wheat of the fields when it is ripe'; 'The colour of curry powder,' said the not-so-sentimental, 'very hot indeed.'
Her dark eyes under the small veil tied over her hat looked this way and that, quickly as if she were afraid or searching for something, and she lifted her hand to shield her face to ward off the stares, or the sun, as she walked down the jetty to the car. Her hand was small and gloved; gloves had not been seen in Amorra before, nor had the Pekingese, the two dogs feathered like birds that walked down after her. The little girls came behind, one larger, one smaller, like the pictures of the British Princesses; they were dressed alike, one had long hair and one had not, one was pretty and one was not, and they carried attaché cases with foreign hotel labels. Except for the beauty of the mother, they looked very neat and urban, not at all the sort of family anyone would have imagined for Charles. His friends were disconcerted and an immediate unbridgeable gulf opened between them.
Where had this family come from? It appeared that they had been driven out of Paris by the war, and escaped by Lisbon to the Canaries, where they had taken a ship round the Cape to Colombo, and another from Colombo to Calcutta.
Why had they come? Why had they not come before? Why had no one ever heard of them? On all these questions Charles shut his door and gave no word of explanation. Soon, Louise and the little girls might have been living in the house in the bazaar always.
They came in on the paddle-wheeled mail steamer, Louise and Emily and Binnie, on the last stage of the journey from Paris, by Spain and Portugal, by the Canaries and the Cape, by hot little ports on the eastern edge of Africa, by Madagascar and Ceylon to Calcutta; from Calcutta they caught the steamer that took them down the mighty tributaries of the Brahmaputra through East Bengal; and, as they went, a line like a taut string unwound from a tightness under the child Emily's heart, between her heart and her stomach; it slackened as if the thread were casting her off. As the water of the river closed over the track of the steamer, smoothing it back again into calm, these hours began to close over the track in Emily's mind, smoothing it away.
The steamer rode high above the plain, and the hot empty landscape suited Emily. It was the end of the rains; though it was hot there was a promise of freshness; there was a small wind and the river was full to the brim, and on the plain were flat expanses of water, like shallow lakes, rippled by the wind and touched with brilliant green of floating water weeds. There was nothing else but the steamer going slowly and quietly along, coming in now and then to touch the bank near a village of huts in the trees; a plank was put out from the lower deck, a few people with bundles or a wicker crate of hens walked off, a few more people walked on, and the plank was drawn in, the steamer backed off and turned upstream again. It was gentle, unhurried and completely quiet.
Excerpted from Breakfast with the Nikolides by Rumer Godden. Copyright © 1942 Rumer Godden Literary Trust. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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