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George Orwell > Burmese Days > Chapter 24

Burmese Days

Chapter 24

It was nearly six o'clock in the evening, and the absurd bell in
the six-foot tin steeple of the church went clank-clank, clank-
clank! as old Mattu pulled the rope within. The rays of the
setting sun, refracted by distant rainstorms, flooded the maidan
with a beautiful, lurid light. It had been raining earlier in the
day, and would rain again. The Christian community of Kyauktada,
fifteen in number, were gathering at the church door for the
evening service.

Flory was already there, and Mr Macgregor, grey topi and all, and
Mr Francis and Mr Samuel, frisking about in freshly laundered drill
suits--for the six-weekly church service was the great social event
of their lives. The padre, a tall man with grey hair and a
refined, discoloured face, wearing pince-nez, was standing on the
church steps in his cassock and surplice, which he had put on in Mr
Macgregor's house. He was smiling in an amiable but rather
helpless way at four pink-cheeked Karen Christians who had come to
make their bows to him; for he did not speak a word of their
language nor they of his. There was one other Oriental Christian,
a mournful, dark Indian of uncertain race, who stood humbly in the
background. He was always present at the church services, but no
one knew who he was or why he was a Christian. Doubtless he had
been captured and baptized in infancy by the missionaries, for
Indians who are converted when adults almost invariably lapse.

Flory could see Elizabeth coming down the hill, dressed in lilac-
colour, with her aunt and uncle. He had seen her that morning at
the Club--they had had just a minute alone together before the
others came in. He had only asked her one question.

'Has Verrall gone--for good?'


There had been no need to say any more. He had simply taken her by
the arms and drawn her towards him. She came willingly, even
gladly--there in the clear daylight, merciless to his disfigured
face. For a moment she had clung to him almost like a child. It
was a though he had saved her or protected her from something. He
raised her face to kiss her, and found with surprise that she was
crying. There had been no time to talk then, not even to say,
'Will you marry me?' No matter, after the service there would be
time enough. Perhaps at his next visit, only six weeks hence, the
padre would marry them.

Ellis and Westfield and the new Military Policeman were approaching
from the Club, where they had been having a couple of quick ones to
last them through the service. The Forest Officer who had been
sent to take Maxwell's place, a sallow, tall man, completely bald
except for two whisker-like tufts in front of his ears, was
following them. Flory had not time to say more than 'Good evening'
to Elizabeth when she arrived. Mattu, seeing that everyone was
present, stopped ringing the bell, and the clergyman led the way
inside, followed by Mr Macgregor, with his topi against his
stomach, and the Lackersteens and the native Christians. Ellis
pinched Flory's elbow and whispered boozily in his ear:

'Come on, line up. Time for the snivel-parade. Quick march!'

He and the Military Policeman went in behind the others, arm-in-
arm, with a dancing step--the policeman, till they got inside,
wagging his fat behind in imitation of a pwe-dancer. Flory sat
down in the same pew as these two, opposite Elizabeth, on her
right. It was the first time that he had ever risked sitting with
his birthmark towards her. 'Shut your eyes and count twenty-five',
whispered Ellis as they sat down, drawing a snigger from the
policeman. Mrs Lackersteen had already taken her place at the
harmonium, which was no bigger than a writing-desk. Mattu
stationed himself by the door and began to pull the punkah--it was
so arranged that it only flapped over the front pews, where the
Europeans sat. Flo came nosing up the aisle, found Flory's pew and
settled down underneath it. The service began.

Flory was only attending intermittently. He was dimly aware of
standing and kneeling and muttering 'Amen' to interminable prayers,
and of Ellis nudging him and whispering blasphemies behind his hymn
book. But he was too happy to collect his thoughts. Hell was
yielding up Eurydice. The yellow light flooded in through the open
door, gilding the broad back of Mr Macgregor's silk coat like
cloth-of-gold. Elizabeth, across the narrow aisle, was so close to
Flory that he could hear every rustle of her dress and feel, as it
seemed to him, the warmth of her body; yet he would not look at her
even once, lest the others should notice it. The harmonium
quavered bronchitically as Mrs Lackersteen struggled to pump
sufficient air into it with the sole pedal that worked. The
singing was a queer, ragged noise--an earnest booming from Mr
Macgregor, a kind of shamefaced muttering from the other Europeans,
and from the back a loud, wordless lowing, for the Karen Christians
knew the tunes of the hymns but not the words.

They were kneeling down again. 'More bloody knee-drill,' Ellis
whispered. The air darkened, and there was a light patter of rain
on the roof; the trees outside rustled, and a cloud of yellow
leaves whirled past the window. Flory watched them through the
chinks of his fingers. Twenty years ago, on winter Sundays in his
pew in the parish church at home, he used to watch the yellow
leaves, as at this moment, drifting and fluttering against leaden
skies. Was it not possible, now, to begin over again as though
those grimy years had never touched him? Through his fingers he
glanced sidelong at Elizabeth, kneeling with her head bent and her
face hidden in her youthful, mottled hands. When they were
married, when they were married! What fun they would have together
in this alien yet kindly land! He saw Elizabeth in his camp,
greeting him as he came home tired from work and Ko S'la hurried
from the tent with a bottle of beer; he saw her walking in the
forest with him, watching the hornbills in the peepul trees and
picking nameless flowers, and in the marshy grazing-grounds,
tramping through the cold-weather mist after snipe and teal. He
saw his home as she would remake it. He saw his drawing-room,
sluttish and bachelor-like no longer, with new furniture from
Rangoon, and a bowl of pink balsams like rosebuds on the table, and
books and water-colours and a black piano. Above all the piano!
His mind lingered upon the piano--symbol, perhaps because he was
unmusical, of civilized and settled life. He was delivered for
ever from the sub-life of the past decade--the debaucheries, the
lies, the pain of exile and solitude, the dealings with whores and
moneylenders and pukka sahibs.

The clergyman stepped to the small wooden lectern that also served
as a pulpit, slipped the band from a roll of sermon paper, coughed,
and announced a text. 'In the name of the Father, the Son and the
Holy Ghost. Amen.'

'Cut it short, for Christ's sake,' murmured Ellis.

Flory did not notice how many minutes passed. The words of the
sermon flowed peacefully through his head, an indistinct burbling
sound, almost unheard. When they were married, he was still
thinking, when they were married--

Hullo! What was happening?

The clergyman had stopped short in the middle of a word. He had
taken off his pince-nez and was shaking them with a distressed air
at someone in the doorway. There was a fearful, raucous scream.

'Pike-san pay-like! Pike-san pay-like!'

Everyone jumped in their seats and turned round. It was Ma Hla
May. As they turned she stepped inside the church and shoved old
Mattu violently aside. She shook her fist at Flory.

'Pike-san pay-like! Pike-san pay-like! Yes, THAT'S the one I
mean--Flory, Flory! (She pronounced it Porley.) That one sitting
in front there, with the black hair! Turn round and face me, you
coward! Where is the money you promised me?'

She was shrieking like a maniac. The people gaped at her, too
astounded to move or speak. Her face was grey with powder, her
greasy hair was tumbling down, her longyi was ragged at the bottom.
She looked like a screaming hag of the bazaar. Flory's bowels
seemed to have turned to ice. Oh God, God! Must they know--must
Elizabeth know--that THAT was the woman who had been his mistress?
But there was not a hope, not the vestige of a hope, of any
mistake. She had screamed his name over and over again. Flo,
hearing the familiar voice, wriggled from under the pew, walked
down the aisle and wagged her tail at Ma Hla May. The wretched
woman was yelling out a detailed account of what Flory had done to

'Look at me, you white men, and you women, too, look at me! Look
how he has ruined me! Look at these rags I am wearing! And he is
sitting there, the liar, the coward, pretending not to see me! He
would let me starve at his gate like a pariah dog. Ah, but I will
shame you! Turn round and look at me! Look at this body that you
have kissed a thousand times--look--look--'

She began actually to tear her clothes open--the last insult of a
base-born Burmese woman. The harmonium squeaked as Mrs Lackersteen
made a convulsive movement. People had at last found their wits
and began to stir. The clergyman, who had been bleating
ineffectually, recovered his voice, 'Take that woman outside!' he
said sharply.

Flory's face was ghastly. After the first moment he had turned his
head away from the door and set his teeth in a desperate effort to
look unconcerned. But it was useless, quite useless. His face was
as yellow as bone, and the sweat glistened on his forehead.
Francis and Samuel, doing perhaps the first useful deed of their
lives, suddenly sprang from their pew, grabbed Ma Hla May by the
arms and hauled her outside, still screaming.

It seemed very silent in the church when they had finally dragged
her out of hearing. The scene had been so violent, so squalid,
that everyone was upset by it. Even Ellis looked disgusted. Flory
could neither speak nor stir. He sat staring fixedly at the altar,
his face rigid and so bloodless that the birth-mark seemed to glow
upon it like a streak of blue paint. Elizabeth glanced across the
aisle at him, and her revulsion made her almost physically sick.
She had not understood a word of what Ma Hla May was saying, but
the meaning of the scene was perfectly clear. The thought that he
had been the lover of that grey-faced, maniacal creature made her
shudder in her bones. But worse than that, worse than anything,
was his ugliness at this moment. His face appalled her, it was so
ghastly, rigid and old. It was like a skull. Only the birthmark
seemed alive in it. She hated him now for his birthmark. She had
never known till this moment how dishonouring, how unforgivable a
thing it was.

Like the crocodile, U Po Kyin had struck at the weakest spot. For,
needless to say, this scene was U Po Kyin's doing. He had seen his
chance, as usual, and tutored Ma Hla May for her part with
considerable care. The clergyman brought his sermon to an end
almost at once. As soon as it was over Flory hurried outside, not
looking at any of the others. It was getting dark, thank God. At
fifty yards from the church he halted, and watched the others
making in couples for the Club. It seemed to him that they were
hurrying. Ah, they would, of course! There would be something to
talk about at the Club tonight! Flo rolled belly-upwards against
his ankles, asking for a game. 'Get out, you bloody brute!' he
said, and kicked her. Elizabeth had stopped at the church door.
Mr Macgregor, happy chance, seemed to be introducing her to the
clergyman. In a moment the two men went on in the direction of Mr
Macgregor's house, where the clergyman was to stay for the night,
and Elizabeth followed the others, thirty yards behind them. Flory
ran after her and caught up with her almost at the Club gate.


She looked round, saw him, turned white, and would have hurried on
without a word. But his anxiety was too great, and he caught her
by the wrist.

'Elizabeth! I must--I've got to speak to you!'

'Let me go, will you!'

They began to struggle, and then stopped abruptly. Two of the
Karens who had come out of the church were standing fifty yards
away, gazing at them through the half-darkness with deep interest.
Flory began again in a lower tone:

'Elizabeth, I know I've no right to stop you like this. But I must
speak to you, I must! Please hear what I've got to say. Please
don't run away from me!'

'What are you doing? Why are you holding on to my arm? Let me go
this instant!'

'I'll let you go--there, look! But do listen to me, please!
Answer me this one thing. After what's happened, can you ever
forgive me?'

'Forgive you? What do you mean, FORGIVE you?'

'I know I'm disgraced. It was the vilest thing to happen! Only,
in a sense it wasn't my fault. You'll see that when you're calmer.
Do you think--not now, it was too bad, but later--do you think you
can forget it?'

'I really don't know what you're talking about. Forget it? What
has it got to do with ME? I thought it was very disgusting, but
it's not MY business. I can't think why you're questioning me like
this at all.'

He almost despaired at that. Her tone and even her words were the
very ones she had used in that earlier quarrel of theirs. It was
the same move over again. Instead of hearing him out she was going
to evade him and put him off--snub him by pretending that he had no
claim upon her.

'Elizabeth! Please answer me. Please be fair to me! It's serious
this time. I don't expect you to take me back all at once. You
couldn't, when I'm publicly disgraced like this. But, after all,
you virtually promised to marry me--'

'What! Promised to marry you? WHEN did I promise to marry you?'

'Not in words, I know. But it was understood between us.'

'Nothing of the kind was understood between us! I think you are
behaving in the most horrible way. I'm going along to the Club at
once. Good evening!'

'Elizabeth! Elizabeth! Listen. It's not fair to condemn me
unheard. You knew before what I'd done, and you knew that I'd
lived a different life since I met you. What happened this evening
was only an accident. That wretched woman, who, I admit, was once

'I won't listen, I won't listen to such things! I'm going!'

He caught her by the wrists again, and this time held her. The
Karens had disappeared, fortunately.

'No, no, you shall hear me! I'd rather offend you to the heart
than have this uncertainty. It's gone on week after week, month
after month, and I've never once been able to speak straight out to
you. You don't seem to know or care how much you make me suffer.
But this time you've got to answer me.'

She struggled in his grip, and she was surprisingly strong. Her
face was more bitterly angry than he had ever seen or imagined it.
She hated him so that she would have struck him if her hands were

'Let me go! Oh, you beast, you beast, let me go!'

'My God, my God, that we should fight like this! But what else can
I do? I can't let you go without even hearing me. Elizabeth, you
MUST listen to me!'

'I will not! I will not discuss it! What right have you to
question me? Let me go!'

'Forgive me, forgive me! This one question. Will you--not now,
but later, when this vile business is forgotten--will you marry

'No, never, never!'

'Don't say it like that! Don't make it final. Say no for the
present if you like--but in a month, a year, five years--'

'Haven't I said no? Why must you keep on and on?'

'Elizabeth, listen to me. I've tried again and again to tell you
what you mean to me--oh, it's so useless talking about it! But do
try and understand. Haven't I told you something of the life we
live here? The sort of horrible death-in-life! The decay, the
loneliness, the self-pity? Try and realize what it means, and that
you're the sole person on earth who could save me from it.'

'Will you let me go? Why do you have to make this dreadful scene?'

'Does it mean nothing to you when I say that I love you? I don't
believe you've ever realized what it is that I want from you. If
you like, I'd marry you and promise never even touch you with my
finger. I wouldn't mind even that, so long as you were with me.
But I can't go on with my life alone, always alone. Can't you
bring yourself ever to forgive me?'

'Never, never! I wouldn't marry you if you were the last man on
earth. I'd as soon marry the--the sweeper!'

She had begun crying now. He saw that she meant what she said.
The tears came into his own eyes. He said again:

'For the last time. Remember that it's something to have one
person in the world who loves you. Remember that though you'll
find men who are richer, and younger, and better in every way than
I, you'll never find one who cares for you so much. And though I'm
not rich, at least I could make you a home. There's a way of
living--civilized, decent--'

'Haven't we said enough?' she said more calmly. 'Will you let me
go before somebody comes?'

He relaxed his grip on her wrists. He had lost her, that was
certain. Like a hallucination, painfully clear, he saw again their
home as he had imagined it; he saw their garden, and Elizabeth
feeding Nero and the pigeons on the drive by the sulphur-yellow
phloxes that grew as high as her shoulder; and the drawing-room,
with the water-colours on the walls, and the balsams in the china
bowl mirrored by the table, and the book-shelves, and the black
piano. The impossible, mythical piano--symbol of everything that
that futile accident had wrecked!

'You should have a piano,' he said despairingly.

'I don't play the piano.'

He let her go. It was no use continuing. She was no sooner free
of him than she took to her heels and actually ran into the Club
garden, so hateful was his presence to her. Among the trees she
stopped to take off her spectacles and remove the signs of tears
from her face. Oh, the beast, the beast! He had hurt her wrists
abominably. Oh, what an unspeakable beast he was! When she
thought of his face as it had looked in church, yellow and
glistening with the hideous birthmark upon it, she could have
wished him dead. It was not what he had done that horrified her.
He might have committed a thousand abominations and she could have
forgiven him. But not after that shameful, squalid scene, and the
devilish ugliness of his disfigured face in that moment. It was,
finally, the birthmark that had damned him.

Her aunt would be furious when she heard that she had refused
Flory. And there was her uncle and his leg-pinching--between the
two of them, life here would become impossible. Perhaps she would
have to go Home unmarried after all. Black beetles! No matter.
Anything--spinsterhood, drudgery, anything--sooner than the
alternative. Never, never, would she yield to a man who had been
so disgraced! Death sooner, far sooner. If there had been
mercenary thoughts in her mind an hour ago, she had forgotten them.
She did not even remember that Verrall had jilted her and that to
have married Flory would have saved her face. She knew only that
he was dishonoured and less than a man, and that she hated him as
she would have hated a leper or a lunatic. The instinct was deeper
than reason or even self-interest, and she could no more have
disobeyed it than she could have stopped breathing.

Flory, as he turned up the hill, did not run, but he walked as fast
as he could. What he had to do must be done quickly. It was
getting very dark. The wretched Flo, who even now had not grasped
that anything serious was the matter, trotted close to his heels,
whimpering in a self-pitying manner to reproach him for the kick he
had given her. As he came up the path a wind blew through the
plaintain trees, rattling the tattered leaves and bringing a scent
of damp. It was going to rain again. Ko S'la had laid the dinner-
table and was removing some flying beetles that had committed
suicide against the petrol-lamp. Evidently he had not heard about
the scene in church yet.

'The holy one's dinner is ready. Will the holy one dine now?'

'No, not yet. Give me that lamp.'

He took the lamp, went into the bedroom and shut the door, The
stale scent of dust and cigarette-smoke met him, and in the white,
unsteady glare of the lamp he could see the mildewed books and the
lizards on the wall. So he was back again to this--to the old,
secret life--after everything, back where he had been before.

Was it not possible to endure it! He had endured it before. There
were palliatives--books, his garden, drink, work, whoring, shooting,
conversations with the doctor.

No, it was not endurable any longer. Since Elizabeth's coming the
power to suffer and above all to hope, which he had thought dead in
him, had sprung to new life. The half-comfortable lethargy in
which he had lived was broken. And if he suffered now, there was
far worse to come. In a little while someone else would marry her.
How he could picture it--the moment when he heard the news!--'Did
you hear the Lackersteen kid's got off at last? Poor old So-and-
so--booked for the altar, God help him,' etc., etc. And the casual
question--'Oh, really? When is it to be?'--stiffening one's face,
pretending to be uninterested. And then her wedding day approaching,
her bridal night--ah, not that! Obscene, obscene. Keep your eyes
fixed on that. Obscene. He dragged his tin uniform-case from under
the bed, took out his automatic pistol, slid a clip of cartridges
into the magazine, and pulled one into the breech.

Ko S'la was remembered in his will. There remained Flo. He laid
his pistol on the table and went outside. Flo was playing with Ba
Shin, Ko S'la's youngest son, under the lee of the cookhouse, where
the servants had left the remains of a woodfire. She was dancing
round him with her small teeth bared, pretending to bite him, while
the tiny boy, his belly red in the glow of the embers, smacked
weakly at her, laughing, and yet half frightened.

'Flo! Come here, Flo!'

She heard him and came obediently, and then stopped short at the
bedroom door. She seemed to have grasped now that there was
something wrong. She backed a little and stood looking timorously
up at him, unwilling to enter the bedroom.

'Come in here!'

She wagged her tail, but did not move.

'Come on, Flo! Good old Flo! Come on!'

Flo was suddenly stricken with terror. She whined, her tail went
down, and she shrank back. 'Come here, blast you!' he cried, and
he took her by the collar and flung her into the room, shutting the
door behind her. He went to the table for the pistol.

'No come here! Do as you're told!'

She crouched down and whined for forgiveness. It hurt him to hear
it. 'Come on, old girl! Dear old Flo! Master wouldn't hurt you.
Come here!' She crawled very slowly towards his feet, flat on her
belly, whining, her head down as though afraid to look at him.
When she was a yard away he fired, blowing her skull to fragments.

Her shattered brain looked like red velvet. Was that what he would
look like? The heart, then, not the head. He could hear the
servants running out of their quarters and shouting--they must have
heard the sound of the shot. He hurriedly tore open his coat and
pressed the muzzle of the pistol against his shirt. A tiny lizard,
translucent like a creature of gelatine, was stalking a white moth
along the edge of the table. Flory pulled the trigger with his

As Ko S'la burst into the room, for a moment he saw nothing but the
dead body of the dog. Then he saw his master's feet, heels
upwards, projecting from beyond the bed. He yelled to the others
to keep the children out of the room, and all of them surged back
from the doorway with screams. Ko S'la fell on his knees behind
Flory's body, at the same moment as Ba Pe came running through the

'Has he shot himself?'

'I think so. Turn him over on his back. Ah, look at that! Run
for the Indian doctor! Run for your life!'

There was a neat hole, no bigger than that made by a pencil passing
through a sheet of blotting-paper, in Flory's shirt. He was
obviously quite dead. With great difficulty Ko S'la managed to
drag him on to the bed, for the other servants refused to touch the
body. It was only twenty minutes before the doctor arrived. He
had heard only a vague report that Flory was hurt, and had bicycled
up the hill at top speed through a storm of rain. He threw his
bicycle down in the flower-bed and hurried in through the veranda.
He was out of breath, and could not see through his spectacles. He
took them off, peering myopically at the bed. 'What iss it, my
friend?' he said anxiously. 'Where are you hurt?' Then, coming
closer, he saw what was on the bed, and uttered a harsh sound.

'Ach, what is this? What has happened to him?'

The doctor fell on his knees, tore Flory's shirt open and put his
ear to his chest. An expression of agony came into his face, and
he seized the dead man by the shoulders and shook him as though
mere violence could bring him to life. One arm fell limply over
the edge of the bed. The doctor lifted it back again, and then,
with the dead hand between his own, suddenly burst into tears. Ko
S'la was standing at the foot of the bed, his brown face full of
lines. The doctor stood up, and then losing control of himself for
a moment, leaned against the bedpost and wept noisily and
grotesquely his back turned on Ko S'la. His fat shoulders were
quivering. Presently he recovered himself and turned round again.

'How did this happen?'

'We heard two shots. He did it himself, that is certain. I do not
know why.'

'How did you know that he did it on purpose? How do you know that
it was not an accident?'

For answer, Ko S'la pointed silently to Flo's corpse. The doctor
thought for a moment, and then, with gentle, practised hands,
swathed the dead man in the sheet and knotted it at foot and head.
With death, the birthmark had faded immediately, so that it was no
more than a faint grey stain.

'Bury the dog at once. I will tell Mr Macgregor that this happened
accidentally while he was cleaning his revolver. Be sure that you
bury the dog. Your master was my friend. It shall not be written
on his tombstone that he committed suicide.'

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