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George Orwell > Burmese Days > Chapter 15

Burmese Days

Chapter 15

When Flory arrived at the Club he found the Lackersteens in an
unusually morose mood. Mrs Lackersteen was sitting, as usual, in
the best place under the punkah, and was reading the Civil List,
the Debrett of Burma. She was in a bad temper with her husband,
who had defied her by ordering a 'large peg' as soon as he reached
the Club, and was further defying her by reading the Pink'un.
Elizabeth was alone in the stuffy little library, turning over the
pages of an old copy of Blackwood's.

Since parting with Flory, Elizabeth had had a very disagreeable
adventure. She had come out of her bath and was half-way through
dressing for dinner when her uncle had suddenly appeared in her
room--pretext, to hear some more about the day's shooting--and
begun pinching her leg in a way that simply could not be
misunderstood. Elizabeth was horrified. This was her first
introduction to the fact that some men are capable of making love
to their nieces. We live and learn. Mr Lackersteen had tried to
carry the thing off as a joke, but he was too clumsy and too nearly
drunk to succeed. It was fortunate that his wife was out of
hearing, or there might have been a first-rate scandal.

After this, dinner was an uncomfortable meal. Mr Lackersteen was
sulking. What rot it was, the way these women put on airs and
prevented you from having a good time! The girl was pretty enough
to remind him of the Illustrations in La Vie Parisienne, and damn
it! wasn't he paying for her keep? It was a shame. But for
Elizabeth the position was very serious. She was penniless and had
no home except her uncle's house. She had come eight thousand
miles to stay here. It would be terrible if after only a fortnight
her uncle's house were to be made uninhabitable for her.

Consequently, one thing was much surer in her mind than it had
been: that if Flory asked her to marry him (and he would, there was
little doubt of it), she would say yes. At another time it was
just possible that she would have decided differently. This
afternoon, under the spell of that glorious, exciting, altogether
'lovely' adventure, she had come near to loving Flory; as near as,
in his particular case, she was able to come. Yet even after that,
perhaps, her doubts would have returned. For there had always been
something dubious about Flory; his age, his birthmark, his queer,
perverse way of talking--that 'highbrow' talk that was at once
unintelligible and disquieting. There had been days when she had
even disliked him. But now her uncle's behaviour had turned the
scale. Whatever happened she had got to escape from her uncle's
house, and that soon. Yes, undoubtedly she would marry Flory when
he asked her!

He could see her answer in her face as he came into the library.
Her air was gentler, more yielding than he had known it. She was
wearing the same lilac-coloured frock that she had worn that first
morning when he met her, and the sight of the familiar frock gave
him courage. It seemed to bring her nearer to him, taking away the
strangeness and the elegance that had sometimes unnerved him.

He picked up the magazine she had been reading and made some
remark; for a moment they chattered in the banal way they so seldom
managed to avoid. It is strange how the drivelling habits of
conversation will persist into almost all moments. Yet even as
they chattered they found themselves drifting to the door and then
outside, and presently to the big frangipani tree by the tennis
court. It was the night of the full moon. Flaring like a white-
hot coin, so brilliant that it hurt one's eyes, the moon swam
rapidly upwards in a sky of smoky blue, across which drifted a few
wisps of yellowish cloud. The stars were all invisible. The
croton bushes, by day hideous things like jaundiced laurels, were
changed by the moon into jagged black and white designs like
fantastic wood-cuts. By the compound fence two Dravidian coolies
were walking down the road, transfigured, their white rags
gleaming. Through the tepid air the scent streamed from the
frangipani trees like some intolerable compound out of a penny-in-
the-slot machine.

'Look at the moon, just look at it!' Flory said. 'It's like a
white sun. It's brighter than an English winter day.'

Elizabeth looked up into the branches of the frangipani tree, which
the moon seemed to have changed into rods of silver. The light lay
thick, as though palpable, on everything, crusting the earth and
the rough bark of trees like some dazzling salt, and every leaf
seemed to bear a freight of solid light, like snow. Even
Elizabeth, indifferent to such things, was astonished.

'It's wonderful! You never see moonlight like that at Home. It's
so--so--' No adjective except 'bright' presenting itself, she was
silent. She had a habit of leaving her sentences unfinished, like
Rosa Dartle, though for a different reason.

'Yes, the old moon does her best in this country. How that tree
does stink, doesn't it? Beastly, tropical thing! I hate a tree
that blooms all the year round, don't you?'

He was talking half abstractedly, to cover the time till the
coolies should be out of sight. As they disappeared he put his arm
round Elizabeth's shoulder, and then, when she did not start or
speak, turned her round and drew her against him. Her head came
against his breast, and her short hair grazed his lips. He put his
hand under her chin and lifted her face up to meet his. She was
not wearing her spectacles.

'You don't mind?'


'I mean, you don't mind my--this thing of mine?' he shook his head
slightly to indicate the birthmark. He could not kiss her without
first asking this question.

'No, no. Of course not.'

A moment after their mouths met he felt her bare arms settle
lightly round his neck. They stood pressed together, against the
smooth trunk of the frangipani tree, body to body, mouth to mouth,
for a minute or more. The sickly scent of the tree came mingling
with the scent of Elizabeth's hair. And the scent gave him a
feeling of stultification, of remoteness from Elizabeth, even
though she was in his arms. All that that alien tree symbolized
for him, his exile, the secret, wasted years--it was like an
unbridgeable gulf between them. How should he ever make her
understand what it was that he wanted of her? He disengaged
himself and pressed her shoulders gently against the tree, looking
down at her face, which he could see very clearly though the moon
was behind her.

'It's useless trying to tell you what you mean to me,' he said.
'"What you mean to me!" These blunted phrases! You don't know,
you can't know, how much I love you. But I've got to try and tell
you. There's so much I must tell you. Had we better go back to
the Club? They may come looking for us. We can talk on the

'Is my hair very untidy?' she said.

'It's beautiful.'

'But has it got untidy? Smooth it for me, would you, please?'

She bent her head towards him, and he smoothed the short, cool
locks with his hand. The way she bent her head to him gave him a
curious feeling of intimacy, far more intimate than the kiss, as
though he had already been her husband. Ah, he must have her, that
was certain! Only by marrying her could his life be salvaged. In
a moment he would ask her. They walked slowly through the cotton
bushes and back to the Club, his arm still round her shoulder.

'We can talk on the veranda,' he repeated. 'Somehow, we've never
really talked, you and I. My God, how I've longed all these years
for somebody to talk to! How I could talk to you, interminably,
interminably! That sounds boring. I'm afraid it will be boring.
I must ask you to put up with it for a little while.'

She made a sound of remonstrance at the word 'boring'.

'No, it is boring, I know that. We Anglo-Indians are always looked
on as bores. And we ARE bores. But we can't help it. You see,
there's--how shall I say?--a demon inside us driving us to talk.
We walk about under a load of memories which we long to share and
somehow never can. It's the price we pay for coming to this

They were fairly safe from interruption on the side veranda, for
there was no door opening directly upon it. Elizabeth had sat down
with her arms on the little wicker table, but Flory remained
strolling back and forth, with his hands in his coatpockets,
stepping into the moonlight that streamed beneath the eastern eaves
of the veranda, and back into the shadows.

'I said just now that I loved you. Love! The word's been used
till it's meaningless. But let me try to explain. This afternoon
when you were there shooting with me, I thought, my God! here at
last is somebody who can share my life with me, but really share
it, really LIVE it with me--do you see--'

He was going to ask her to marry him--indeed, he had intended to
ask her without more delay. But the words were not spoken yet;
instead, he found himself talking egoistically on and on. He could
not help it. It was so important that she should understand
something of what his life in this country had been; that she
should grasp the nature of the loneliness that he wanted her to
nullify. And it was so devilishly difficult to explain. It is
devilish to suffer from a pain that is all but nameless. Blessed
are they who are stricken only with classifiable diseases! Blessed
are the poor, the sick, the crossed in love, for at least other
people know what is the matter with them and will listen to their
belly-achings with sympathy. But who that has not suffered it
understands the pain of exile? Elizabeth watched him as he moved
to and fro, in and out of the pool of moonlight that turned his
silk coat to silver. Her heart was still knocking from the kiss,
and yet her thoughts wandered as he talked. Was he going to ask
her to marry him? He was being so slow about it! She was dimly
aware that he was saying something about loneliness. Ah, of
course! He was telling her about the loneliness she would have to
put up with in the jungle, when they were married. He needn't have
troubled. Perhaps you did get rather lonely in the jungle
sometimes? Miles from anywhere, no cinemas, no dances, no one but
each other to talk to, nothing to do in the evenings except read--
rather a bore, that. Still, you could have a gramophone. What a
difference it would make when those new portable radio sets got out
to Burma! She was about to say this when he added:

'Have I made myself at all clear to you? Have you got some picture
of the life we live here? The foreignness, the solitude, the
melancholy! Foreign trees, foreign flowers, foreign landscapes,
foreign faces. It's all as alien as a different planet. But do
you see--and it's this that I so want you to understand--do you
see, it mightn't be so bad living on a different planet, it might
even be the most interesting thing imaginable, if you had even one
person to share it with. One person who could see it with eyes
something like your own. This country's been a kind of solitary
hell to me--it's so to most of us--and yet I tell you it could
be a paradise if one weren't alone. Does all this seem quite

He had stopped beside the table, and he picked up her hand. In the
half-darkness he could see her face only as a pale oval, like a
flower, but by the feeling of her hand he knew instantly that she
had not understood a word of what he was saying. How should she,
indeed? It was so futile, this meandering talk! He would say to
her at once, Will you marry me? Was there not a lifetime to talk
in? He took her other hand and drew her gently to her feet.

'Forgive me all this rot I've been talking.'

'It's all right,' she murmured indistinctly, expecting that he was
about to kiss her.

'No, it's rot talking like that. Some things will go into words,
some won't. Besides, it was an impertinence to go belly-aching on
and on about myself. But I was trying to lead up to something.
Look, this is what I wanted to say. Will--'


It was Mrs Lackersteen's high-pitched, plaintive voice, calling
from within the Club.

'Elizabeth? Where are you, Elizabeth?'

Evidently she was near the front door--would be on the veranda in a
moment. Flory pulled Elizabeth against him. They kissed hurriedly.
He released her, only holding her hands.

'Quickly, there's just time. Answer me this. Will you--'

But that sentence never got any further. At the same moment
something extraordinary happened under his feet--the floor was
surging and rolling like a sea--he was staggering, then dizzily
falling, hitting his upper arm a thump as the floor rushed towards
him. As he lay there he found himself jerked violently backwards
and forwards as though some enormous beast below were rocking the
whole building on its back.

The drunken floor righted itself very suddenly, and Flory sat up,
dazed but not much hurt. He dimly noticed Elizabeth sprawling
beside him, and screams coming from within the Club. Beyond the
gate two Burmans were racing through the moonlight with their long
hair streaming behind them. They were yelling at the top of their

'Nga Yin is shaking himself! Nga Yin is shaking himself!'

Flory watched them unintelligently. Who was Nga Yin? Nga is the
prefix given to criminals. Nga Yin must be a dacoit. Why was he
shaking himself? Then he remembered. Nga Yin was a giant supposed
by the Burmese to be buried, like Typhaeus, beneath the crust of
the earth. Of course! It was an earthquake.

'An earthquake!' he exclaimed, and he remembered Elizabeth and
moved to pick her up. But she was already sitting up, unhurt, and
rubbing the back of her head.

'Was that an earthquake?' she said in a rather awed voice.

Mrs Lackersteen's tall form came creeping round the corner of the
veranda, clinging to the wall like some elongated lizard. She was
exclaiming hysterically:

'Oh dear, an earthquake! Oh, what a dreadful shock! I can't bear
it--my heart won't stand it! Oh dear, oh dear! An earthquake!'

Mr Lackersteen tottered after her, with a strange ataxic step
caused partly by earth-tremors and partly by gin.

'An earthquake, dammit!' he said.

Flory and Elizabeth slowly picked themselves up. They all went
inside, with that queer feeling in the soles of the feet that one
has when one steps from a rocking boat on to the shore. The old
butler was hurrying from the servants' quarters, thrusting his
pagri on his head as he came, and a troop of twittering chokras
after him.

'Earthquake, sir, earthquake!' he bubbled eagerly.

'I should damn well think it was an earthquake,' said Mr Lackersteen
as he lowered himself cautiously into a chair. 'Here, get some
drinks, butler. By God, I could do with a nip of something after

They all had a nip of something. The butler, shy yet beaming,
stood on one leg beside the table, with the tray in his hand.
'Earthquake, sir, BIG earthquake!' he repeated enthusiastically.
He was bursting with eagerness to talk; so, for that matter, was
everyone else. An extraordinary joie de vivre had come over them
all as soon as the shaky feeling departed from their legs. An
earthquake is such fun when it is over. It is so exhilarating to
reflect that you are not, as you well might be, lying dead under a
heap of ruins. With one accord they all burst out talking: 'My
dear, I've never HAD such a shock--I fell absolutely FLAT on my
back--I thought it was a dam' pariah dog scratching itself under
the floor--I thought it must be an explosion somewhere--' and so on
and so forth; the usual earthquake-chatter. Even the butler was
included in the conversation.

'I expect you can remember ever so many earthquakes can't you
butler?' said Mrs Lackersteen, quite graciously, for her.

'Oh yes, madam, many earthquakes! 1887, 1899, 1906, 1912--many,
many I can remember, madam!'

'The 1912 one was a biggish one,' Flory said.

'Oh, sir, but 1906 was bigger! Very bad shock, sir! And big
heathen idol in the temple fall down on top of the thathanabaing,
that is Buddhist bishop, madam, which the Burmese say mean bad omen
for failure of paddy crop and foot-and-mouth disease. Also in 1887
my first earthquake I remember, when I was a little chokra, and
Major Maclagan sahib was lying under the table and promising he
sign the teetotal pledge tomorrow morning. He not know it was an
earthquake. Also two cows was killed by falling roofs,' etc., etc.

The Europeans stayed in the Club till midnight, and the butler
popped into the room as many as half a dozen times, to relate a new
anecdote. So far from snubbing him, the Europeans even encouraged
him to talk. There is nothing like an earthquake for drawing
people together. One more tremor, or perhaps two, and they would
have asked the butler to sit down at table with them.

Meanwhile, Flory's proposal went no further. One cannot propose
marriage immediately after an earthquake. In any case, he did not
see Elizabeth alone for the rest of that evening. But it did not
matter, he knew that she was his now. In the morning there would
be time enough. On this thought, at peace in his mind, and dog-
tired after the long day, he went to bed.

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