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George Orwell > Burmese Days > Chapter 13

Burmese Days

Chapter 13


As Flory came through the gate of the hospital compound four
ragged sweepers passed him, carrying some dead coolie, wrapped in
sackcloth, to a foot-deep grave in the jungle. Flory crossed the
brick-like earth of the yard between the hospital sheds. All down
the wide verandas, on sheetless charpoys, rows of grey-faced men
lay silent and moveless. Some filthy-looking curs, which were said
to devour amputated limbs, dozed or snapped at their fleas among
the piles of the buildings. The whole place wore a sluttish and
decaying air. Dr Veraswami struggled hard to keep it clean, but
there was no coping with the dust and the bad water-supply, and the
inertia of sweepers and half-trained Assistant Surgeons.

Flory was told that the doctor was in the out-patients' department.
It was a plaster-walled room furnished only with a table and two
chairs, and a dusty portrait of Queen Victoria, much awry. A
procession of Burmans, peasants with gnarled muscles beneath their
faded rags, were filing into the room and queueing up at the table.
The doctor was in shirt-sleeves and sweating profusely. He sprang
to his feet with an exclamation of pleasure, and in his usual fussy
haste thrust Flory into the vacant chair and produced a tin of
cigarettes from the drawer of the table.

'What a delightful visit, Mr Flory! Please to make yourself
comfortable--that iss, if one can possibly be comfortable in such a
place ass this, ha, ha! Afterwards, at my house, we will talk with
beer and amenities. Kindly excuse me while I attend to the
populace.'

Flory sat down, and the hot sweat immediately burst out and
drenched his shirt. The heat of the room was stifling. The
peasants steamed garlic from all their pores. As each man came to
the table the doctor would bounce from his chair, prod the patient
in the back, lay a black ear to his chest, fire off several
questions in villainous Burmese, then bounce back to the table and
scribble a prescription. The patients took the prescriptions
across the yard to the Compounder, who gave them bottles filled
with water and various vegetable dyes. The Compounder supported
himself largely by the sale of drugs, for the Government paid him
only twenty-five rupees a month. However, the doctor knew nothing
of this.

On most mornings the doctor had not time to attend to the out-
patients himself, and left them to one of the Assistant Surgeons.
The Assistant Surgeon's methods of diagnosis were brief. He would
simply ask each patient, 'Where is your pain? Head, back or
belly?' and at the reply hand out a prescription from one of three
piles that he had prepared beforehand. The patients much preferred
this method to the doctor's. The doctor had a way of asking them
whether they had suffered from venereal diseases--an ungentlemanly,
pointless question--and sometimes he horrified them still more by
suggesting operations. 'Belly-cutting' was their phrase for it.
The majority of them would have died a dozen times over rather than
submit to 'belly-cutting'.

As the last patient disappeared the doctor sank into his chair,
fanning his face with the prescription-pad.

'Ach, this heat! Some mornings I think that never will I get the
smell of garlic out of my nose! It iss amazing to me how their
very blood becomes impregnated with it. Are you not suffocated,
Mr Flory? You English have the sense of smell almost too highly
developed. What torments you must all suffer in our filthy East!'

'Abandon your noses, all ye who enter here, what? They might write
that up over the Suez Canal. You seem busy this morning?'

'Ass ever. Ah but, my friend, how discouraging iss the work of a
doctor in this country! These villagers--dirty, ignorant savages!
Even to get them to come to hospital iss all we can do, and they
will die of gangrene or carry a tumour ass large ass a melon for
ten years rather than face the knife. And such medicines ass their
own so-called doctors give to them! Herbs gathered under the new
moon, tigers' whiskers, rhinoceros horn, urine, menstrual blood!
How men can drink such compounds iss disgusting.'

'Rather picturesque, all the same. You ought to compile a Burmese
pharmacopoeia, doctor. It would be almost as good as Culpeper.'

'Barbarous cattle, barbarous cattle,' said the doctor, beginning to
struggle into his white coat. 'Shall we go back to my house?
There iss beer and I trust a few fragments of ice left. I have an
operation at ten, strangulated hernia, very urgent. Till then I am
free.'

'Yes. As a matter of fact there's something I rather wanted to
talk to you about.'

They recrossed the yard and climbed the steps of the doctor's
veranda. The doctor, having felt in the ice-chest and found that
the ice was all melted to tepid water, opened a bottle of beer and
called fussily to the servants to set some more bottles swinging in
a cradle of wet straw. Flory was standing looking over the veranda
rail, with his hat still on. The fact was that he had come here to
utter an apology. He had been avoiding the doctor for nearly a
fortnight--since the day, in fact, when he had set his name to the
insulting notice at the Club. But the apology had got to be
uttered. U Po Kyin was a very good judge of men, but he had erred
in supposing that two anonymous letters were enough to scare Flory
permanently away from his friend.

'Look here, doctor, you know what I wanted to say?'

'I? No.'

'Yes, you do. It's about that beastly trick I played on you the
other week. When Ellis put that notice on the Club board and I
signed my name to it. You must have heard about it. I want to try
and explain--'

'No, no, my friend, no, no!' The doctor was so distressed that he
sprang across the veranda and seized Flory by the arm. 'You shall
NOT explain! Please never mention it! I understand perfectly--but
most perfectly.'

'No, you don't understand. You couldn't. You don't realize just
what KIND of pressure is put on one to make one do things like
that. There was nothing to make me sign the notice. Nothing could
have happened if I'd refused. There's no law telling us to be
beastly to Orientals--quite the contrary. But--it's just that one
daren't be loyal to an Oriental when it means going against the
others. It doesn't DO. If I'd stuck out against signing the
notice I'd have been in disgrace at the Club for a week or two.
So I funked it, as usual.'

'Please, Mr Flory, please! Possitively you will make me
uncomfortable if you continue. Ass though I could not make all
allowances for your position!'

'Our motto, you know is, "In India, do as the English do".'

'Of course, of course. And a most noble motto. "Hanging
together", ass you call it. It iss the secret of your superiority
to we Orientals.'

'Well, it's never much use saying one's sorry. But what I did come
here to say was that it shan't happen again. In fact--'

'Now, now, Mr Flory, you will oblige me by saying no more upon this
subject. It iss all over and forgotten. Please to drink up your
beer before it becomes ass hot ass tea. Also, I have a thing to
tell you. You have not asked for my news yet.'

'Ah, your news. What is your news, by the way? How's everything
been going all this time? How's Ma Britannia? Still moribund?'

'Aha, very low, very low! But not so low ass I. I am in deep
waters, my friend.'

'What? U Po Kyin again? Is he still libelling you?'

'If he iss libelling me! This time it iss--well, it iss something
diabolical. My friend, you have heard of this rebellion that is
supposed to be on the point of breaking out in the district?'

'I've heard a lot of talk. Westfield's been out bent on slaughter,
but I hear he can't find any rebels. Only the usual village
Hampdens who won't pay their taxes.'

'Ah yes. Wretched fools! Do you know how much iss the tax that
most of them have refused to pay? Five rupees! They will get
tired of it and pay up presently. We have this trouble every year.
But ass for the rebellion--the SO-CALLED rebellion, Mr Flory--I
wish you to know that there iss more in it than meets the eye.'

'Oh? What?'

To Flory's surprise the doctor made such a violent gesture of anger
that he spilled most of his beer. He put his glass down on the
veranda rail and burst out:

'It iss U Po Kyin again! That unutterable scoundrel! That
crocodile deprived of natural feeling! That--that--'

'Go on. "That obscene trunk of humors, that swol'n parcel of
dropsies, that bolting-hutch of beastliness"--go on. What's he
been up to now?'

'A villainy unparalleled'--and here the doctor outlined the plot
for a sham rebellion, very much as U Po Kyin had explained it to Ma
Kin. The only detail not known to him was U Po Kyin's intention of
getting himself elected to the European Club. The doctor's face
could not accurately be said to flush, but it grew several shades
blacker in his anger. Flory was so astonished that he remained
standing up.

'The cunning old devil! Who'd have thought he had it in him? But
how did you manage to find all this out?'

'Ah, I have a few friends left. But now do you see, my friend,
what ruin he iss preparing for me? Already he hass calumniated me
right and left. When this absurd rebellion breaks out, he will do
everything in his power to connect my name with it. And I tell you
that the slightest suspicion of my loyalty could be ruin for me,
ruin! If it were ever breathed that I were even a sympathizer with
this rebellion, there iss an end of me.'

'But, damn it, this is ridiculous! Surely you can defend yourself
somehow?'

'How can I defend myself when I can prove nothing? I know that all
this iss true, but what use iss that? If I demand a public
inquiry, for every witness I produce U Po Kyin would produce fifty.
You do not realize the influence of that man in the district. No
one dare speak against him.'

'But why need you prove anything? Why not go to old Macgregor and
tell him about it? He's a very fair-minded old chap in his way.
He'd hear you out.'

'Useless, useless. You have not the mind of an intriguer, Mr
Flory. Qui s'excuse, s'accuse, iss it not? It does not pay to cry
that there iss a conspiracy against one.'

'Well, what are you going to do, then?'

'There iss nothing I can do. Simply I must wait and hope that my
prestige will carry me through. In affairs like this, where a
native official's reputation iss at stake, there iss no question
of proof, of evidence. All depends upon one's standing with the
Europeans. If my standing iss good, they will not believe it of
me; if bad, they will believe it. Prestige iss all.'

They were silent for a moment. Flory understood well enough that
'prestige iss all'. He was used to these nebulous conflicts, in
which suspicion counts for more than proof, and reputation for more
than a thousand witnesses. A thought came into his head, an
uncomfortable, chilling thought which would never have occurred to
him three weeks earlier. It was one of those moments when one sees
quite clearly what is one's duty, and, with all the will in the
world to shirk it, feels certain that one must carry it out. He
said:

'Suppose, for instance, you were elected to the Club? Would that
do your prestige any good?'

'If I were elected to the Club! Ah, indeed, yes! The Club! It
iss a fortress impregnable. Once there, and no one would listen to
these tales about me any more than if it were about you, or Mr
Macgregor, or any other European gentleman. But what hope have I
that they will elect me after their minds have been poisoned
against me?'

'Well now, look here, doctor, I tell you what. I'll propose your
name at the next general meeting. I know the question's got to
come up then, and if someone comes forward with the name of a
candidate, I dare say no one except Ellis will blackball him.
And in the meantime--'

'Ah, my friend, my dear friend!' The doctor's emotion caused him
almost to choke. He seized Flory by the hand. 'Ah, my friend,
that iss noble! Truly it iss noble! But it iss too much. I fear
that you will be in trouble with your European friends again. Mr
Ellis, for example--would he tolerate it that you propose my name?'

'Oh, bother Ellis. But you must understand that I can't promise to
get you elected. It depends on what Macgregor says and what mood
the others are in. It may all come to nothing.'

The doctor was still holding Flory's hand between his own, which
were plump and damp. The tears had actually started into his eyes,
and these, magnified by his spectacles, beamed upon Flory like the
liquid eyes of a dog.

'Ah, my friend! If I should but be elected! What an end to all my
troubles! But, my friend, ass I said before, do not be too rash in
this matter. Beware of U Po Kyin! By now he will have numbered
you among hiss enemies. And even for you hiss enmity can be a
danger.'

'Oh, good Lord, he can't touch me. He's done nothing so far--only
a few silly anonymous letters.'

'I would not be too sure. He hass subtle ways to strike. And for
sure he will raise heaven and earth to keep me from being elected
to the Club. If you have a weak spot, guard it, my friend. He
will find it out. He strikes always at the weakest spot.'

'Like the crocodile,' Flory suggested.

'Like the crocodile,' agreed the doctor gravely. 'Ah but, my
friend, how gratifying to me if I should become a member of your
European Club! What an honour, to be the associate of European
gentlemen! But there iss one other matter, Mr Flory, that I did
not care to mention before. It iss--I hope this iss clearly
understood--that I have no intention of USING the Club in any way.
Membership is all I desire. Even if I were elected, I should not,
of course, ever presume to COME to the Club.'

'Not come to the Club?'

'No, no! Heaven forbid that I should force my society upon the
European gentlemen! Simply I should pay my subscriptions. That,
for me, iss a privilege high enough. You understand that, I
trust?'

'Perfectly, doctor, perfectly.'

Flory could not help laughing as he walked up the hill. He was
definitely committed now to proposing the doctor's election. And
there would be such a row when the others heard of it--oh, such a
devil of a row! But the astonishing thing was that it only made
him laugh. The prospect that would have appalled him a month back
now almost exhilarated him.

Why? And why had he given his promise at all? It was a small
thing, a small risk to take--nothing heroic about it--and yet it
was unlike him. Why, after all these years--the circumspect, pukka
sahib-like years--break all the rules so suddenly?

He knew why. It was because Elizabeth, by coming into his life,
had so changed it and renewed it that all the dirty, miserable
years might never have passed. Her presence had changed the whole
orbit of his mind. She had brought back to him the air of England--
dear England, where thought is free and one is not condemned
forever to dance the danse du pukka sahib for the edification of
the lower races. Where is the life that late I led? he thought.
Just by existing she had made it possible for him, she had even
made it natural to him, to act decently.

Where is the life that late I led? he thought again as he came
through the garden gate. He was happy, happy. For he had
perceived that the pious ones are right when they say that there is
salvation and life can begin anew. He came up the path, and it
seemed to him that his house, his flowers, his servants, all the
life that so short a time ago had been drenched in ennui and
homesickness, were somehow made new, significant, beautiful
inexhaustibly. What fun it could all be, if only you had someone
to share it with you! How you could love this country, if only you
were not alone! Nero was out on the path, braving the sun for some
grains of paddy that the mali had dropped, taking food to his
goats. Flo made a dash at him, panting, and Nero sprang into the
air with a flurry and lighted on Flory's shoulder. Flory walked
into the house with the little red cock in his arms, stroking his
silky ruff and the smooth, diamond-shaped feathers of his back.

He had not set foot on the veranda before he knew that Ma Hla May
was in the house. It did not need Ko S'la to come hurrying from
within with a face of evil tidings. Flory had smelled her scent of
sandalwood, garlic, coco-nut oil and the jasmine in her hair. He
dropped Nero over the veranda rail.

'THE WOMAN has come back,' said Ko S'la.

Flory had turned very pale. When he turned pale the birthmark made
him hideously ugly. A pang like a blade of ice had gone through
his entrails. Ma Hla May had appeared in the doorway of the
bedroom. She stood with her face downcast, looking at him from
beneath lowered brows.

'Thakin,' she said in a low voice, half sullen, half urgent.

'Go away!' said Flory angrily to Ko S'la, venting his fear and
anger upon him.

'Thakin,' she said, 'come into the bedroom here. I have a thing to
say to you.'

He followed her into the bedroom. In a week--it was only a week--
her appearance had degenerated extraordinarily. Her hair looked
greasy. All her lockets were gone, and she was wearing a
Manchester longyi of flowered cotton, costing two rupees eight
annas. She had coated her face so thick with powder that it was
like a clown's mask, and at the roots of her hair, where the powder
ended, there was a ribbon of natural-coloured brown skin. She
looked a drab. Flory would not face her, but stood looking
sullenly through the open doorway to the veranda.

'What do you mean by coming back like this? Why did you not go
home to your village?'

'I am staying in Kyauktada, at my cousin's house. How can I go
back to my village after what has happened?'

'And what do you mean by sending men to demand money from me? How
can you want more money already, when I gave you a hundred rupees
only a week ago?'

'How can I go back?' she repeated, ignoring what he had said. Her
voice rose so sharply that he turned round. She was standing very
upright, sullen, with her black brows drawn together and her lips
pouted.

'Why cannot you go back?'

'After that! After what you have done to me!'

Suddenly she burst into a furious tirade. Her voice had risen to
the hysterical graceless scream of the bazaar women when they
quarrel.

'How can I go back, to be jeered at and pointed at by those low,
stupid peasants whom I despise? I who have been a bo-kadaw, a
white man's wife, to go home to my father's house, and shake the
paddy basket with old hags and women who are too ugly to find
husbands! Ah, what shame, what shame! Two years I was your wife,
you loved me and cared for me, and then without warning, without
reason, you drove me from your door like a dog. And I must go back
to my village, with no money, with all my jewels and silk longyis
gone, and the people will point and say, "There is Ma Hla May who
thought herself cleverer than the rest of us. And behold! her
white man has treated her as they always do." I am ruined, ruined!
What man will marry me after I have lived two years in your house?
You have taken my youth from me. Ah, what shame, what shame!'

He could not look at her; he stood helpless, pale, hang-dog. Every
word she said was justified, and how tell her that he could do no
other than he had done? How tell her that it would have been an
outrage, a sin, to continue as her lover? He almost cringed from
her, and the birthmark stood on his yellow face like a splash of
ink. He said flatly, turning instinctively to money--for money had
never failed with Ma Hla May:

'I will give you money. You shall have the fifty rupees you asked
me for--more later. I have no more till next month.'

This was true. The hundred rupees he had given her, and what he
had spent on clothes, had taken most of his ready money. To his
dismay she burst into a loud wail. Her white mask puckered up and
the tears sprang quickly out and coursed down her cheeks. Before
he could stop her she had fallen on her knees in front of him, and
she was bowing, touching the floor with her forehead in the 'full'
shiko of utter abasement.

'Get up, get up!' he exclaimed. The shameful, abject shiko, neck
bent, body doubled up as though inviting a blow, always horrified
him. 'I can't bear that. Get up this instant.'

She wailed again, and made an attempt to clasp his ankles. He
stepped backwards hurriedly.

'Get up, now, and stop that dreadful noise. I don't know what you
are crying about.'

She did not get up, but only rose to her knees and wailed at him
anew. 'Why do you offer me money? Do you think it is only for
money that I have come back? Do you think that when you have
driven me from your door like a dog it is only because of money
that I care?'

'Get up,' he repeated. He had moved several paces away, lest she
should seize him. 'What do you want if it is not money?'

'Why do you hate me?' she wailed. 'What harm have I done you? I
stole your cigarette-case, but you were not angry at that. You are
going to marry this white woman, I know it, everyone knows it. But
what does it matter, why must you turn me away? Why do you hate
me?'

'I don't hate you. I can't explain. Get up, please get up.'

She was weeping quite shamelessly now. After all, she was hardly
more than a child. She looked at him through her tears, anxiously,
studying him for a sign of mercy. Then, a dreadful thing, she
stretched herself at full length, flat on her face.

'Get up, get up!' he cried out in English. 'I can't bear that--
it's too abominable!'

She did not get up, but crept, wormlike, right across the floor to
his feet. Her body made a broad ribbon on the dusty floor. She
lay prostrate in front of him, face hidden, arms extended, as
though before a god's altar.

'Master, master,' she whimpered, 'will you not forgive me? This
once, only this once! Take Ma Hla May back. I will be your slave,
lower than your slave. Anything sooner than turn me away.'

She had wound her arms round his ankles, actually was kissing his
toes. He stood looking down at her with his hands in his pockets,
helpless. Flo came ambling into the room, walked to where Ma Hla
May lay and sniffed at her longyi. She wagged her tail vaguely,
recognizing the smell. Flory could not endure it. He bent down
and took Ma Hla May by the shoulders, lifting her to her knees.

'Stand up, now,' he said. 'It hurts me to see you like this. I
will do what I can for you. What is the use of crying?'

Instantly she cried out in renewed hope: 'Then you will take me
back? Oh, master, take Ma Hla May back! No one need ever know. I
will stay here when that white woman comes, she will think I am one
of the servants' wives. Will you not take me back?'

'I cannot. It's impossible,' he said, turning away again.

She heard finality in his tone, and uttered a harsh, ugly cry. She
bent forward again in a shiko, beating her forehead against the
floor. It was dreadful. And what was more dreadful than all, what
hurt in his breast, was the utter gracelessness, the lowness of the
emotion beneath those entreaties. For in all this there was not a
spark of love for him. If she wept and grovelled it was only for
the position she had once had as his mistress, the idle life, the
rich clothes and dominion over servants. There was something
pitiful beyond words in that. Had she loved him he could have
driven her from his door with far less compunction. No sorrows are
so bitter as those that are without a trace of nobility. He bent
down and picked her up in his arms.

'Listen, Ma Hla May,' he said; 'I do not hate you, you have done me
no evil. It is I who have wronged you. But there is no help for
it now. You must go home, and later I will send you money. If you
like you shall start a shop in the bazaar. You are young. This
will not matter to you when you have money and can find yourself a
husband.'

'I am ruined!' she wailed again. 'I shall kill myself. I shall
jump off the jetty into the river. How can I live after this
disgrace?'

He was holding her in his arms, almost caressing her. She was
clinging close to him, her face hidden against his shirt, her body
shaking with sobs. The scent of sandalwood floated into his
nostrils. Perhaps even now she thought that with her arms around
him and her body against his she could renew her power over him.
He disentangled himself gently, and then, seeing that she did not
fall on her knees again, stood apart from her.

'That is enough. You must go now. And look, I will give you the
fifty rupees I promised you.'

He dragged his tin uniform case from under the bed and took out
five ten-rupee notes. She stowed them silently in the bosom of her
ingyi. Her tears had ceased flowing quite suddenly. Without
speaking she went into the bathroom for a moment, and came out with
her face washed to its natural brown, and her hair and dress
rearranged. She looked sullen, but not hysterical any longer.

'For the last time, thakin: you will not take me back? That is
your last word?'

'Yes. I cannot help it.'

'Then I am going, thakin.'

'Very well. God go with you.'

Leaning against the wooden pillar of the veranda, he watched her
walk down the path in the strong sunlight. She walked very
upright, with bitter offence in the carriage of her back and head.
It was true what she had said, he had robbed her of her youth. His
knees were trembling uncontrollably. Ko S'la came behind him,
silent-footed. He gave a little deprecating cough to attract
Flory's attention.

'What's the matter now?'

'The holy one's breakfast is getting cold.'

'I don't want any breakfast. Get me something to drink--gin.'

Where is the life that late I led?

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