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George Orwell > Burmese Days > Chapter 18

Burmese Days

Chapter 18

After the row overnight Ellis was looking forward to a week of
baiting Flory. He had nicknamed him Nancy--short for nigger's
Nancy Boy, but the women did not know that--and was already
inventing wild scandals about him. Ellis always invented scandals
about anyone with whom he had quarrelled--scandals which grew, by
repeated embroideries, into a species of saga. Flory's incautious
remark that Dr Veraswami was a 'damned good fellow' had swelled
before long into a whole Daily Worker-ful of blasphemy and

'On my honour, Mrs Lackersteen,' said Ellis--Mrs Lackersteen had
taken a sudden dislike to Flory after discovering the great secret
about Verrall, and she was quite ready to listen to Ellis's tales--
'on my honour, if you'd been there last night and heard the things
that man Flory was saying--well, it'd have made you shiver in your

'Really! You know, I always thought he had such CURIOUS ideas.
What has he been talking about now? Not SOCIALISM, I hope?'


There were long recitals. However, to Ellis's disappointment,
Flory had not stayed in Kyauktada to be baited. He had gone back
to camp the day after his dismissal by Elizabeth. Elizabeth heard
most of the scandalous tales about him. She understood his
character perfectly now. She understood why it was that he had so
often bored her and irritated her. He was a highbrow--her
deadliest word--a highbrow, to be classed with Lenin, A. J. Cook
and the dirty little poets in the Montparnasse cafes. She could
have forgiven him even his Burmese mistress more easily than that.
Flory wrote to her three days later; a weak, stilted letter, which
he sent by hand--his camp was a day's march from Kyauktada.
Elizabeth did not answer.

It was lucky for Flory that at present he was too busy to have time
to think. The whole camp was at sixes and sevens since his long
absence. Nearly thirty coolies were missing, the sick elephant was
worse than ever, and a vast pile of teak logs which should have
been sent off ten days earlier were still waiting because the
engine would not work. Flory, a fool about machinery, struggled
with the bowels of the engine until he was black with grease and Ko
S'la told him sharply that white men ought not to do 'coolie-work'.
The engine was finally persuaded to run, or at least to totter.
The sick elephant was discovered to be suffering from tapeworms.
As for the coolies, they had deserted because their supply of opium
had been cut off--they would not stay in the jungle without opium,
which they took as a prophylactic against fever. U Po Kyin,
willing to do Flory a bad turn, had caused the Excise Officers to
make a raid and seize the opium. Flory wrote to Dr Veraswami,
asking for his help. The doctor sent back a quantity of opium,
illegally procured, medicine for the elephant and a careful letter
of instructions. A tapeworm measuring twenty-one feet was
extracted. Flory was busy twelve hours a day. In the evening if
there was no more to do he would plunge into the jungle and walk
and walk until the sweat stung his eyes and his knees were bleeding
from the briers. The nights were his bad time. The bitterness of
what had happened was sinking into him, as it usually does, by slow

Meanwhile, several days had passed and Elizabeth had not yet seen
Verrall at less than a hundred yards' distance. It had been a
great disappointment when he had not appeared at the Club on the
evening of his arrival. Mr Lackersteen was really quite angry when
he discovered that he had been hounded into his dinner-jacket for
nothing. Next morning Mrs Lackersteen made her husband send an
officious note to the dakbungalow, inviting Verrall to the Club;
there was no answer, however. More days passed, and Verrall made
no move to join in the local society. He had even neglected his
official calls, not even bothering to present himself at Mr
Macgregor's office. The dakbungalow was at the other end of the
town, near the station, and he had made himself quite comfortable
there. There is a rule that one must vacate a dakbungalow after a
stated number of days, but Verrall peaceably ignored it. The
Europeans only saw him at morning and evening on the maidan. On
the second day after his arrival fifty of his men turned out with
sickles and cleared a large patch of the maidan, after which
Verrall was to be seen galloping to and fro, practising polo
strokes. He took not the smallest notice of any Europeans who
passed down the road. Westfield and Ellis were furious, and even
Mr Macgregor said that Verrall's behaviour was 'ungracious'. They
would all have fallen at the feet of a lieutenant the Honourable if
he had shown the smallest courtesy; as it was, everyone except the
two women detested him from the start. It is always so with titled
people, they are either adored or hated. If they accept one it is
charming simplicity, if they ignore one it is loathsome
snobbishness; there are no half-measures.

Verrall was the youngest son of a peer, and not at all rich, but by
the method of seldom paying a bill until a writ was issued against
him, he managed to keep himself in the only things he seriously
cared about: clothes and horses. He had come out to India in a
British cavalry regiment, and exchanged into the Indian Army
because it was cheaper and left him greater freedom for polo.
After two years his debts were so enormous that he entered the
Burma Military Police, in which it was notoriously possible to save
money; however, he detested Burma--it is no country for a horseman--
and he had already applied to go back to his regiment. He was the
kind of soldier who can get exchanges when he wants them. Meanwhile,
he was only to be in Kyauktada for a month, and he had no intention
of mixing himself up with all the petty sahiblog of the district.
He knew the society of those small Burma stations--a nasty,
poodle-faking, horseless riffraff. He despised them.

They were not the only people whom Verrall despised, however. His
various contempts would take a long time to catalogue in detail.
He despised the entire non-military population of India, a few
famous polo players excepted. He despised the entire Army as well,
except the cavalry. He despised all Indian regiments, infantry and
cavalry alike. It was true that he himself belonged to a native
regiment, but that was only for his own convenience. He took no
interest in Indians, and his Urdu consisted mainly of swear-words,
with all the verbs in the third person singular. His Military
Policemen he looked on as no better than coolies. 'Christ, what
God-forsaken swine!' he was often heard to mutter as he moved down
the ranks inspecting, with the old subahdar carrying his sword
behind him. Verrall had even been in trouble once for his
outspoken opinions on native troops. It was at a review, and
Verrall was among the group of officers standing behind the
general. An Indian infantry regiment approached for the march-

'The ---- Rifles,' somebody said.

'AND look at it,' said Verrall in his surly boy's voice.

The white-haired colonel of the ---- Rifles was standing near. He
flushed to the neck, and reported Verrall to the general. Verrall
was reprimanded, but the general, a British Army officer himself,
did not rub it in very hard. Somehow, nothing very serious ever
did happen to Verrall, however offensive he made himself. Up and
down India, wherever he was stationed, he left behind him a trail
of insulted people, neglected duties and unpaid bills. Yet the
disgraces that ought to have fallen on him never did. He bore a
charmed life, and it was not only the handle to his name that saved
him. There was something in his eye before which duns, burra
memsahibs and even colonels quailed.

It was a disconcerting eye, pale blue and a little protuberant, but
exceedingly clear. It looked you over, weighed you in the balance
and found you wanting, in a single cold scrutiny of perhaps five
seconds. If you were the right kind of man--that is, if you were a
cavalry officer and a polo player--Verrall took you for granted and
even treated you with a surly respect; if you were any other type
of man whatever, he despised you so utterly that he could not have
hidden it even if he would. It did not even make any difference
whether you were rich or poor, for in the social sense he was not
more than normally a snob. Of course, like all sons of rich
families, he thought poverty disgusting and that poor people are
poor because they prefer disgusting habits. But he despised soft
living. Spending, or rather owing, fabulous sums on clothes, he
yet lived almost as ascetically as a monk. He exercised himself
ceaselessly and brutally, rationed his drink and his cigarettes,
slept on a camp bed (in silk pyjamas) and bathed in cold water in
the bitterest winter. Horsemanship and physical fitness were the
only gods he knew. The stamp of hoofs on the maidan, the strong,
poised feeling of his body, wedded centaurlike to the saddle, the
polo-stick springy in his hand--these were his religion, the breath
of his life. The Europeans in Burma--boozing, womanizing, yellow-
faced loafers--made him physically sick when he thought of their
habits. As for social duties of all descriptions, he called them
poodle-faking and ignored them. Women he abhorred. In his view
they were a kind of siren whose one aim was to lure men away from
polo and enmesh them in tea-fights and tennis-parties. He was not,
however, quite proof against women. He was young, and women of
nearly all kinds threw themselves at his head; now and again he
succumbed. But his lapses soon disgusted him, and he was too
callous when the pinch came to have any difficulty about escaping.
He had had perhaps a dozen such escapes during his two years in

A whole week went by. Elizabeth had not even succeeded in making
Verrall's acquaintance. It was so tantalizing! Every day, morning
and evening, she and her aunt walked down to the Club and back
again, past the maidan; and there was Verrall, hitting the polo-
balls the sepoys threw for him, ignoring the two women utterly.
So near and yet so far! What made it even worse was that neither
woman would have considered it decent to speak of the matter
directly. One evening the polo-ball, struck too hard, came
swishing through the grass and rolled across the road in front of
them. Elizabeth and her aunt stopped involuntarily. But it was
only a sepoy who ran to fetch the ball. Verrall had seen the women
and kept his distance.

Next morning Mrs Lackersteen paused as they came out of the gate.
She had given up riding in her rickshaw lately. At the bottom of
the maidan the Military Policemen were drawn up, a dust-coloured
rank with bayonets glittering. Verrall was facing them, but not in
uniform--he seldom put on his uniform for morning parade, not
thinking it necessary with mere Military Policemen. The two women
were looking at everything except Verrall, and at the same time, in
some manner, were contriving to look at him.

'The wretched thing is,' said Mrs Lackersteen--this was a propos de
bottes, but the subject needed no introduction--'the wretched thing
is that I'm afraid your uncle simply MUST go back to camp before

'Must he really?'

'I'm afraid so. It is so HATEFUL in camp at this time of year!
Oh, those mosquitoes!'

'Couldn't he stay a bit longer? A week, perhaps?'

'I don't see how he can. He's been nearly a month in headquarters
now. The firm would be furious if they heard of it. And of course
both of us will have to go with him. SUCH a bore! The mosquitoes--
simply terrible!'

Terrible indeed! To have to go away before Elizabeth had so much
as said how-do-you-do to Verrall! But they would certainly have to
go if Mr Lackersteen went. It would never do to leave him to
himself. Satan finds some mischief still, even in the jungle. A
ripple like fire ran down the line of sepoys; they were unfixing
bayonets before marching away. The dusty rank turned left,
saluted, and marched off in columns of fours. The orderlies were
coming from the police lines with the ponies and polo-sticks. Mrs
Lackersteen took a heroic decision.

'I think,' she said, 'we'll take a short-cut across the maidan.
It's SO much quicker than going right round by the road.'

It WAS quicker by about fifty yards, but no one ever went that way
on foot, because of the grass-seeds that got into one's stockings.
Mrs Lackersteen plunged boldly into the grass, and then, dropping
even the pretence of making for the Club, took a bee-line for
Verrall, Elizabeth following. Either woman would have died on the
rack rather than admit that she was doing anything but take a
short-cut. Verrall saw them coming, swore, and reined in his pony.
He could not very well cut them dead now that they were coming
openly to accost him. The damned cheek of these women! He rode
slowly towards them with a sulky expression on his face, chivvying
the polo-ball with small strokes.

'Good morning, Mr Verrall!' Mrs Lackersteen called out in a voice
of saccharine, twenty yards away.

'Morning!' he returned surlily, having seen her face and set her
down as one of the usual scraggy old boiling-fowls of an Indian

The next moment Elizabeth came level with her aunt. She had taken
off her spectacles and was swinging her Terai hat on her hand.
What did she care for sunstroke? She was perfectly aware of the
prettiness of her cropped hair. A puff of wind--oh, those blessed
breaths of wind, coming from nowhere in the stifling hot-weather
days!--had caught her cotton frock and blown it against her,
showing the outline of her body, slender and strong like a tree.
Her sudden appearance beside the older, sun-scorched woman was a
revelation to Verrall. He started so that the Arab mare felt it
and would have reared on her hind legs, and he had to tighten the
rein. He had not known until this moment, not having bothered to
inquire, that there were any YOUNG women in Kyauktada.

'My niece,' Mrs Lackersteen said.

He did not answer, but he had thrown away the polo-stick, and he
took off his topi. For a moment he and Elizabeth remained gazing
at one another. Their fresh faces were unmarred in the pitiless
light. The grass-seeds were tickling Elizabeth's shins so that it
was agony, and without her spectacles she could only see Verrall
and his horse as a whitish blur. But she was happy, happy! Her
heart bounded and the blood flowed into her face, dyeing it like a
thin wash of aquarelle. The thought, 'A peach, by Christ!' moved
almost fiercely through Verrall's mind. The sullen Indians,
holding the ponies' heads, gazed curiously at the scene, as though
the beauty of the two young people had made its impression even on

Mrs Lackersteen broke the silence, which had lasted half a minute.

'You know, Mr Verrall,' she said somewhat archly, 'we think it
RATHER unkind of you to have neglected us poor people all this
time. When we're so PINING for a new face at the Club.'

He was still looking at Elizabeth when he answered, but the change
in his voice was remarkable.

'I've been meaning to come for some days. Been so fearfully busy--
getting my men into their quarters and all that. I'm sorry,' he
added--he was not in the habit of apologizing, but really, he had
decided, this girl was rather an exceptional bit of stuff--'I'm
sorry about not answering your note.'

'Oh, not at all! We QUITE understood. But we do hope we shall see
you at the Club this evening! Because, you know,' she concluded
even more archly, 'if you disappoint us any longer, we shall begin
to think you rather a NAUGHTY young man!'

'I'm sorry,' he repeated. 'I'll be there this evening.'

There was not much more to be said, and the two women walked on to
the Club. But they stayed barely five minutes. The grass-seeds
were causing their shins such torment that they were obliged to
hurry home and change their stockings at once.

Verrall kept his promise and was at the Club that evening. He
arrived a little earlier than the others, and he had made his
presence thoroughly felt before being in the place five minutes.
As Ellis entered the Club the old butler darted out of the card-
room and waylaid him. He was in great distress, the tears rolling
down his cheeks.

'Sir! Sir!'

'What the devil's the matter now!' said Ellis.

'Sir! Sir! New master been beating me, sir!'


'BEATING me sir!' His voice rose on the 'beating' with a long
tearful wail--'be-e-e-eating!'

'Beating you? Do you good. Who's been beating you?'

'New master, sir. Military Police sahib. Beating me with his
foot, sir--HERE!' He rubbed himself behind.

'Hell!' said Ellis.

He went into the lounge. Verrall was reading the Field, and
invisible except for Palm Beach trouser-ends and two lustrous
sooty-brown shoes. He did not trouble to stir at hearing someone
else come into the room. Ellis halted.

'Here, you--what's your name--Verrall!'


'Have you been kicking our butler?'

Verrall's sulky blue eye appeared round the corner of the Field,
like the eye of a crustacean peering round a rock.

'What?' he repeated shortly.

'I said, have you been kicking our bloody butler?'


'Then what the hell do you mean by it?'

'Beggar gave me his lip. I sent him for a whisky and soda, and he
brought it warm. I told him to put ice in it, and he wouldn't--
talked some bloody rot about saving the last pieces of ice. So I
kicked his bottom. Serve him right.'

Ellis turned quite grey. He was furious. The butler was a piece
of Club property and not to be kicked by strangers. But what most
angered Ellis was the thought that Verrall quite possibly suspected
him of being SORRY for the butler--in fact, of disapproving of
kicking AS SUCH.

'Serve him right? I dare say it bloody well did serve him right.
But what in hell's that got to do with it? Who are YOU to come
kicking our servants?'

'Bosh, my good chap. Needed kicking. You've let your servants get
out of hand here.'

'You damned, insolent young tick, what's it got to do with YOU if
he needed kicking? You're not even a member of this Club. It's
our job to kick the servants, not yours.'

Verrall lowered the Field and brought his other eye into play. His
surly voice did not change its tone. He never lost his temper with
a European; it was never necessary.

'My good chap, if anyone gives me lip I kick his bottom. Do you
want me to kick yours?'

All the fire went out of Ellis suddenly. He was not afraid, he had
never been afraid in his life; only, Verrall's eye was too much for
him. That eye could make you feel as though you were under
Niagara! The oaths wilted on Ellis's lips; his voice almost
deserted him. He said querulously and even plaintively:

'But damn it, he was quite right not to give you the last bit of
ice. Do you think we only buy ice for you? We can only get the
stuff twice a week in this place.'

'Rotten bad management on your part, then,' said Verrall, and
retired behind the Field, content to let the matter drop.

Ellis was helpless. The calm way in which Verrall went back to his
paper, quite genuinely forgetting Ellis's existence, was maddening.
Should he not give the young swab a good, rousing kick?

But somehow, the kick was never given. Verrall had earned many
kicks in his life, but he had never received one and probably never
would. Ellis seeped helplessly back to the card-room, to work off
his feelings on the butler, leaving Verrall in possession of the

As Mr Macgregor entered the Club gate he heard the sound of music.
Yellow chinks of lantern-light showed through the creeper that
covered the tennis-screen. Mr Macgregor was in a happy mood this
evening. He had promised himself a good, long talk with Miss
Lackersteen--such an exceptionally intelligent girl, that!--and he
had a most interesting anecdote to tell her (as a matter of fact,
it had already seen the light in one of those little articles of
his in Blackwood's) about a dacoity that had happened in Sagaing in
1913. She would love to hear it, he knew. He rounded the tennis-
screen expectantly. On the court, in the mingled light of the
waning moon and of lanterns slung among the trees, Verrall and
Elizabeth were dancing. The chokras had brought out chairs and a
table for the gramophone, and round these the other Europeans were
sitting or standing. As Mr Macgregor halted at the corner of the
court, Verrall and Elizabeth circled round and glided past him,
barely a yard away. They were dancing very close together, her
body bent backwards under his. Neither noticed Mr Macgregor.

Mr Macgregor made his way round the court. A chilly, desolate
feeling had taken possession of his entrails. Good-bye, then, to
his talk with Miss Lackersteen! It was an effort to screw his face
into its usual facetious good-humour as he came up to the table.

'A Terpsichorean evening!' he remarked in a voice that was doleful
in spite of himself.

No one answered. They were all watching the pair on the tennis
court. Utterly oblivious of the others, Elizabeth and Verrall
glided round and round, round and round, their shoes sliding easily
on the slippery concrete. Verrall danced as he rode, with
matchless grace. The gramophone was playing 'Show Me the Way to Go
Home,' which was then going round the world like a pestilence and
had got as far as Burma:

'Show me the way to go home,
I'm tired an' I wanna go to bed;
I had a little drink 'bout an hour ago,
An' it's gone right TO my head!' etc.

The dreary, depressing trash floated out among the shadowy trees
and the streaming scents of flowers, over and over again, for Mrs
Lackersteen was putting the gramophone needle back to the start
when it neared the centre. The moon climbed higher, very yellow,
looking, as she rose from the murk of dark clouds at the horizon,
like a sick woman creeping out of bed. Verrall and Elizabeth
danced on and on, indefatigably, a pale voluptuous shape in the
gloom. They moved in perfect unison like some single animal. Mr
Macgregor, Ellis, Westfield and Mr Lackersteen stood watching them,
their hands in their pockets, finding nothing to say. The
mosquitoes came nibbling at their ankles. Someone called for
drinks, but the whisky was like ashes in their mouths. The bowels
of all four older men were twisted with bitter envy.

Verrall did not ask Mrs Lackersteen for a dance, nor, when he and
Elizabeth finally sat down, did he take any notice of the other
Europeans. He merely monopolized Elizabeth for half an hour more,
and then, with a brief good night to the Lackersteens and not a
word to anyone else, left the Club. The long dance with Verrall
had left Elizabeth in a kind of dream. He had asked her to come
out riding with him! He was going to lend her one of his ponies!
She never even noticed that Ellis, angered by her behaviour, was
doing his best to be openly rude. It was late when the Lackersteens
got home, but there was no sleep yet for Elizabeth or her aunt.
They were feverishly at work till midnight, shortening a pair of Mrs
Lackersteen's jodhpurs, and letting out the calves, to fit

'I hope, dear, you CAN ride a horse?' said Mrs Lackersteen.

'Oh, of course! I've ridden ever such a lot, at home.'

She had ridden perhaps a dozen times in all, when she was sixteen.
No matter, she would manage somehow! She would have ridden a
tiger, if Verrall were to accompany her.

When at last the jodhpurs were finished and Elizabeth had tried
them on, Mrs Lackersteen sighed to see her. She looked ravishing
in jodhpurs, simply ravishing! And to think that in only a day or
two they had got to go back to camp, for weeks, months perhaps,
leaving Kyauktada and this most DESIRABLE young man! The pity of
it! As they moved to go upstairs Mrs Lackersteen paused at the
door. It had come into her head to make a great and painful
sacrifice. She took Elizabeth by the shoulders and kissed her with
a more real affection than she had ever shown.

'My dear, it would be such a SHAME for you to go away from
Kyauktada just now!'

'It would, rather.'

'Then I'll tell you what, dear. We WON'T go back to that horrid
jungle! Your uncle shall go alone. You and I shall stay in

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