The Complete Works of



George Orwell > Burmese Days > Chapter 7

Burmese Days

Chapter 7

Elizabeth lay on the sofa in the Lackersteen's drawing-room, with
her feet up and a cushion behind her head, reading Michael Arlen's
These Charming People. In a general way Michael Arlen was her
favourite author, but she was inclined to prefer William J. Locke
when she wanted something serious.

The drawing-room was a cool, light-coloured room with lime-washed
walls a yard thick; it was large, but seemed smaller than it was,
because of a litter of occasional tables and Benares brassware
ornaments. It smelt of chintz and dying flowers. Mrs Lackersteen
was upstairs, sleeping. Outside, the servants lay silent in their
quarters, their heads tethered to their wooden pillows by the
death-like sleep of midday. Mr Lackersteen, in his small wooden
office down the road, was probably sleeping too. No one stirred
except Elizabeth, and the chokra who pulled the punkah outside Mrs
Lackersteen's bedroom, lying on his back with one heel in the loop
of the rope.

Elizabeth was just turned twenty-two, and was an orphan. Her
father had been less of a drunkard than his brother Tom, but he was
a man of similar stamp. He was a tea-broker, and his fortunes
fluctuated greatly, but he was by nature too optimistic to put
money aside in prosperous phases. Elizabeth's mother had been an
incapable, half-baked, vapouring, self-pitying woman who shirked
all the normal duties of life on the strength of sensibilities
which she did not possess. After messing about for years with such
things as Women's Suffrage and Higher Thought, and making many
abortive attempts at literature, she had finally taken up with
painting. Painting is the only art that can be practised without
either talent or hard work. Mrs Lackersteen's pose was that of an
artist exiled among 'the Philistines'--these, needless to say,
included her husband--and it was a pose that gave her almost
unlimited scope for making a nuisance of herself.

In the last year of the War Mr Lackersteen, who had managed to
avoid service, made a great deal of money, and just after the
Armistice they moved into a huge, new, rather bleak house in
Highgate, with quantities of greenhouses, shrubberies, stables and
tennis courts. Mr Lackersteen had engaged a horde of servants,
even, so great was his optimism, a butler. Elizabeth was sent for
two terms to a very expensive boarding-school. Oh, the joy, the
joy, the unforgettable joy of those two terms! Four of the girls
at the school were 'the Honourable'; nearly all of them had ponies
of their own, on which they were allowed to go riding on Saturday
afternoons. There is a short period in everyone's life when his
character is fixed forever; with Elizabeth, it was those two terms
during which she rubbed shoulders with the rich. Thereafter her
whole code of living was summed up in one belief, and that a simple
one. It was that the Good ('lovely' was her name for it) is
synonymous with the expensive, the elegant, the aristocratic; and
the Bad ('beastly') is the cheap, the low, the shabby, the
laborious. Perhaps it is in order to teach this creed that
expensive girls' schools exist. The feeling subtilized itself as
Elizabeth grew older, diffused itself through all her thoughts.
Everything from a pair of stockings to a human soul was
classifiable as 'lovely' or 'beastly'. And unfortunately--for Mr
Lackersteen's prosperity did not last--it was the 'beastly' that
had predominated in her life.

The inevitable crash came late in 1919. Elizabeth was taken away
from school, to continue her education at a succession of cheap,
beastly schools, with gaps of a term or two when her father could
not pay the fees. He died when she was twenty, of influenza. Mrs
Lackersteen was left with an income of L150 a year, which was to
die with her. The two women could not, under Mrs Lackersteen's
management, live on three pounds a week in England. They moved to
Paris, where life was cheaper and where Mrs Lackersteen intended to
dedicate herself wholly to Art.

Paris! Living in Paris! Flory had been a little wide of the mark
when he pictured those interminable conversations with bearded
artists under the green plane trees. Elizabeth's life in Paris had
not been quite like that.

Her mother had taken a studio in the Montparnasse quarter, and
relapsed at once into a state of squalid, muddling idleness. She
was so foolish with money that her income would not come near
covering expenses, and for several months Elizabeth did not even
have enough to eat. Then she found a job as visiting teacher of
English to the family of a French bank manager. They called her
'notre mees Anglaise'. The banker lived in the twelfth
arrondissement, a long way from Montparnasse, and Elizabeth had
taken a room in a pension near by. It was a narrow, yellow-faced
house in a side street, looking out on to a poulterer's shop,
generally decorated with reeking carcasses of wild boars, which old
gentlemen like decrepit satyrs would visit every morning and sniff
long and lovingly. Next door to the poulterer's was a fly-blown
cafe with the sign 'Cafe de l'Amitie. Bock Formidable'. How
Elizabeth had loathed that pension! The patroness was an old
black-clad sneak who spent her life in tiptoeing up and down stairs
in hopes of catching the boarders washing stockings in their hand-
basins. The boarders, sharp-tongued bilious widows, pursued the
only man in the establishment, a mild, bald creature who worked in
La Samaritaine, like sparrows worrying a bread-crust. At meals all
of them watched each others' plates to see who was given the
biggest helping. The bathroom was a dark den with leprous walls
and a rickety verdigrised geyser which would spit two inches of
tepid water into the bath and then mulishly stop working. The bank
manager whose children Elizabeth taught was a man of fifty, with a
fat, worn face and a bald, dark yellow crown resembling an
ostrich's egg. The second day after her arrival he came into the
room where the children were at their lessons, sat down beside
Elizabeth and immediately pinched her elbow. The third day he
pinched her on the calf, the fourth day behind the knee, the fifth
day above the knee. Thereafter, every evening, it was a silent
battle between the two of them, her hand under the table, struggling
and struggling to keep that ferret-like hand away from her.

It was a mean, beastly existence. In fact, it reached levels of
'beastliness' which Elizabeth had not previously known to exist.
But the thing that most depressed her, most filled her with the
sense of sinking into some horrible lower world, was her mother's
studio. Mrs Lackersteen was one of those people who go utterly to
pieces when they are deprived of servants. She lived in a restless
nightmare between painting and housekeeping, and never worked at
either. At irregular intervals she went to a 'school' where she
produced greyish still-lifes under the guidance of a master whose
technique was founded on dirty brushes; for the rest, she messed
about miserably at home with teapots and frying-pans. The state of
her studio was more than depressing to Elizabeth; it was evil,
Satanic. It was a cold, dusty pigsty, with piles of books and
papers littered all over the floor, generations of saucepans
slumbering in their grease on the rusty gas-stove, the bed never
made till afternoon, and everywhere--in every possible place where
they could be stepped on or knocked over--tins of paint-fouled
turpentine and pots half full of cold black tea. You would lift a
cushion from a chair and find a plate holding the remains of a
poached egg underneath it. As soon as Elizabeth entered the door
she would burst out:

'Oh, Mother, Mother dearest, how CAN you? Look at the state of
this room! It is so terrible to live like this!'

'The room, dearest? What's the matter? Is it untidy?'

'Untidy! Mother, NEED you leave that plate of porridge in the
middle of your bed? And those saucepans! It does look so
dreadful. Suppose anyone came in!'

The rapt, other-wordly look which Mrs Lackersteen assumed when
anything like work presented itself, would come into her eyes.

'None of MY friends would mind, dear. We are such Bohemians, we
artists. You don't understand how utterly wrapped up we all are in
our painting. You haven't the artistic temperament, you see,

'I must try and clean some of those saucepans. I just can't bear
to think of you living like this. What have you done with the

'The scrubbing-brush? Now, let me think, I know I saw it somewhere.
Ah yes! I used it yesterday to clean my palette. But it'll be
all right if you give it a good wash in turpentine.'

Mrs Lackersteen would sit down and continue smudging a sheet of
sketching paper with a Conte crayon while Elizabeth worked.

'How wonderful you are, dear. So practical! I can't think whom
you inherit it from. Now with me, Art is simply EVERYTHING. I
seem to feel it like a great sea surging up inside me. It swamps
everything mean and petty out of existence. Yesterday I ate my
lunch off Nash's Magazine to save wasting time washing plates.
Such a good idea! When you want a clean plate you just tear off a
sheet,' etc., etc., etc.

Elizabeth had no friends in Paris. Her mother's friends were women
of the same stamp as herself, or elderly ineffectual bachelors
living on small incomes and practising contemptible half-arts such
as wood-engraving or painting on porcelain. For the rest,
Elizabeth saw only foreigners, and she disliked all foreigners en
bloc; or at least all foreign men, with their cheap-looking clothes
and their revolting table manners. She had one great solace at
this time. It was to go to the American library in the rue de
l'Elysee and look at the illustrated papers. Sometimes on a Sunday
or her free afternoon she would sit there for hours at the big
shiny table, dreaming, over the Sketch, the Tatter, the Graphic,
the Sporting and Dramatic.

Ah, what joys were pictured there! 'Hounds meeting on the lawn of
Charlton Hall, the lovely Warwickshire seat of Lord Burrowdean.'
'The Hon. Mrs Tyke-Bowlby in the Park with her splendid Alsatian,
Kublai Khan, which took second prize at Cruft's this summer.'
'Sunbathing at Cannes. Left to right: Miss Barbara Pilbrick, Sir
Edward Tuke, Lady Pamela Westrope, Captain "Tuppy" Benacre.'

Lovely, lovely, golden world! On two occasions the face of an old
schoolfellow looked at Elizabeth from the page. It hurt her in her
breast to see it. There they all were, her old schoolfellows, with
their horses and their cars and their husbands in the cavalry; and
here she, tied to that dreadful job, that dreadful pension, her
dreadful mother! Was it possible that there was no escape? Could
she be doomed forever to this sordid meanness, with no hope of ever
getting back to the decent world again?

It was not unnatural, with the example of her mother before her
eyes, that Elizabeth should have a healthy loathing of Art. In
fact, any excess of intellect--'braininess' was her word for it--
tended to belong, in her eyes, to the 'beastly'. Real people, she
felt, decent people--people who shot grouse, went to Ascot, yachted
at Cowes--were not brainy. They didn't go in for this nonsense of
writing books and fooling with paintbrushes; and all these Highbrow
ideas--Socialism and all that. 'Highbrow' was a bitter word in her
vocabulary. And when it happened, as it did once or twice, that
she met a veritable artist who was willing to work penniless all
his life, rather than sell himself to a bank or an insurance
company, she despised him far more than she despised the dabblers
of her mother's circle. That a man should turn deliberately away
from all that was good and decent, sacrifice himself for a futility
that led nowhere, was shameful, degrading, evil. She dreaded
spinsterhood, but she would have endured it a thousand lifetimes
through rather than marry such a man.

When Elizabeth had been nearly two years in Paris her mother died
abruptly of ptomaine poisoning. The wonder was that she had not
died of it sooner. Elizabeth was left with rather less than a
hundred pounds in the world. Her uncle and aunt cabled at once
from Burma, asking her to come out and stay with them, and saying
that a letter would follow.

Mrs Lackersteen had reflected for some time over the letter, her
pen between her lips, looking down at the page with her delicate
triangular face like a meditative snake.

'I suppose we must have her out here, at any rate for a year. WHAT
a bore! However, they generally marry within a year if they've any
looks at all. What am I to say to the girl, Tom?'

'Say? Oh, just say she'll pick up a husband out here a damn sight
easier than at home. Something of that sort, y'know.'

'My DEAR Tom! What impossible things you say!'

Mrs Lackersteen wrote:

Of course, this is a very small station and we are in the jungle a
great deal of the time. I'm afraid you will find it dreadfully
dull after the DELIGHTS of Paris. But really in some ways these
small stations have their advantages for a young girl. She finds
herself quite a QUEEN in the local society. The unmarried men are
so lonely that they appreciate a girl's society in a quite
wonderful way, etc., etc.

Elizabeth spent thirty pounds on summer frocks and set sail
immediately. The ship, heralded by rolling porpoises, ploughed
across the Mediterranean and down the Canal into a sea of staring,
enamel-like blue, then out into the green wastes of the Indian
Ocean, where flocks of flying fish skimmed in terror from the
approaching hull. At night the waters were phosphorescent, and
the wash of the bow was like a moving arrowhead of green fire.
Elizabeth 'loved' the life on board ship. She loved the dancing on
deck at nights, the cocktails which every man on board seemed
anxious to buy for her, the deck games, of which, however, she grew
tired at about the same time as the other members of the younger
set. It was nothing to her that her mother's death was only two
months past. She had never cared greatly for her mother, and
besides, the people here knew nothing of her affairs. It was so
lovely after those two graceless years to breathe the air of wealth
again. Not that most of the people here were rich; but on board
ship everyone behaves as though he were rich. She was going to
love India, she knew. She had formed quite a picture of India,
from the other passengers' conversation; she had even learned some
of the more necessary Hindustani phrases, such as 'idher ao',
'jaldi', 'sahiblog', etc. In anticipation she tasted the agreeable
atmosphere of Clubs, with punkahs flapping and barefooted white-
turbaned boys reverently salaaming; and maidans where bronzed
Englishmen with little clipped moustaches galloped to and fro,
whacking polo balls. It was almost as nice as being really rich,
the way people lived in India.

They sailed into Colombo through green glassy waters, where turtles
and black snakes floated basking. A fleet of sampans came racing
out to meet the ship, propelled by coal-black men with lips stained
redder than blood by betel juice. They yelled and struggled round
the gangway while the passengers descended. As Elizabeth and her
friends came down, two sampan-wallahs, their prows nosing against
the gangway, besought them with yells.

'Don't you go with him, missie! Not with him! Bad wicked man he,
not fit taking missie!'

'Don't you listen him lies, missie! Nasty low fellow! Nasty low
tricks him playing. Nasty NATIVE tricks!'

'Ha, ha! He is not native himself! Oh no! Him European man,
white skin all same, missie! Ha ha!'

'Stop your bat, you two, or I'll fetch one of you a kick,' said the
husband of Elizabeth's friend--he was a planter. They stepped into
one of the sampans and were rowed towards the sun-bright quays.
And the successful sampan-wallah turned and discharged at his rival
a mouthful of spittle which he must have been saving up for a very
long time.

This was the Orient. Scents of coco-nut oil and sandalwood,
cinnamon and turmeric, floated across the water on the hot,
swimming air. Elizabeth's friends drove her out to Mount Lavinia,
where they bathed in a lukewarm sea that foamed like Coca-Cola.
She came back to the ship in the evening, and they reached Rangoon
a week later.

North of Mandalay the train, fuelled with wood, crawled at twelve
miles an hour across a vast, parched plain, bounded at its remote
edges by blue rings of hills. White egrets stood poised,
motionless, like herons, and piles of drying chilis gleamed crimson
in the sun. Sometimes a white pagoda rose from the plain like the
breast of a supine giantess. The early tropic night settled down,
and the train jolted on, slowly, stopping at little stations where
barbaric yells sounded from the darkness. Half-naked men with
their long hair knotted behind their heads moved to and fro in
torchlight, hideous as demons in Elizabeth's eyes. The train
plunged into forest, and unseen branches brushed against the
windows. It was about nine o'clock when they reached Kyauktada,
where Elizabeth's uncle and aunt were waiting with Mr Macgregor's
car, and with some servants carrying torches. Her aunt came
forward and took Elizabeth's shoulders in her delicate, saurian

'I suppose you are our niece Elizabeth? We are SO pleased to see
you,' she said, and kissed her.

Mr Lackersteen peered over his wife's shoulder in the torchlight.
He gave a half-whistle, exclaimed, 'Well, I'll be damned!' and then
seized Elizabeth and kissed her, more warmly than he need have
done, she thought. She had never seen either of them before.

After dinner, under the punkah in the drawing-room, Elizabeth and
her aunt had a talk together. Mr Lackersteen was strolling in the
garden, ostensibly to smell the frangipani, actually to have a
surreptitious drink that one of the servants smuggled to him from
the back of the house.

'My dear, how really lovely you are! Let me look at you again.'
She took her by the shoulders. 'I DO think that Eton crop suits
you. Did you have it done in Paris?'

'Yes. Everyone was getting Eton-cropped. It suits you if you've
got a fairly small head.'

'Lovely! And those tortoise-shell spectacles--such a becoming
fashion! I'm told that all the--er--demi-mondaines in South
America have taken to wearing them. I'd no idea I had such a
RAVISHING beauty for a niece. How old did you say you were, dear?'


'Twenty-two! How delighted all the men will be when we take you to
the Club tomorrow! They get so lonely, poor things, never seeing a
new face. And you were two whole years in Paris? I can't think
what the men there can have been about to let you leave unmarried.'

'I'm afraid I didn't meet many men, Aunt. Only foreigners. We had
to live so quietly. And I was working,' she added, thinking this
rather a disgraceful admission.

'Of course, of course,' sighed Mrs Lackersteen. 'One hears the
same thing on every side. Lovely girls having to work for their
living. It is such a shame! I think it's so terribly selfish,
don't you, the way these men remain unmarried while there are so
MANY poor girls looking for husbands?' Elizabeth not answering
this, Mrs Lackersteen added with another sigh, 'I'm sure if I were
a young girl I'd marry anybody, literally ANYBODY!'

The two women's eyes met. There was a great deal that Mrs
Lackersteen wanted to say, but she had no intention of doing more
than hint at it obliquely. A great deal of her conversation was
carried on by hints; she generally contrived, however, to make her
meaning reasonably clear. She said in a tenderly impersonal tone,
as though discussing a subject of general interest:

'Of course, I must say this. There ARE cases when, if girls fail
to get married it's THEIR OWN FAULT. It happens even out here
sometimes. Only a short time ago I remember a case--a girl came
out and stayed a whole year with her brother, and she had offers
from all kinds of men--policemen, forest officers, men in timber
firms with QUITE good prospects. And she refused them all; she
wanted to marry into the I.C.S., I heard. Well, what do you
expect? Of course her brother couldn't go on keeping her forever.
And now I hear she's at home, poor thing, working as a kind of lady
help, practically a SERVANT. And getting only fifteen shillings a
week! Isn't it dreadful to think of such things?'

'Dreadful!' Elizabeth echoed.

No more was said on this subject. In the morning, after she came
back from Flory's house, Elizabeth was describing her adventure to
her aunt and uncle. They were at breakfast, at the flower-laden
table, with the punkah flapping overhead and the tall stork-like
Mohammedan butler in his white suit and pagri standing behind Mrs
Lackersteen's chair, tray in hand.

'And oh, Aunt, such an interesting thing! A Burmese girl came on
to the veranda. I'd never seen one before, at least, not knowing
they were girls. Such a queer little thing--she was almost like a
doll with her round yellow face and her black hair screwed up on
top. She only looked about seventeen. Mr Flory said she was his

The Indian butler's long body stiffened. He squinted down at the
girl with his white eyeballs large in his black face. He spoke
English well. Mr Lackersteen paused with a forkful of fish half-
way from his plate and his crass mouth open.

'Laundress?' he said. 'Laundress! I say, dammit, some mistake
there! No such thing as a laundress in this country, y'know.
Laundering work's all done by men. If you ask me--'

And then he stopped very suddenly, almost as though someone had
trodden on his toe under the table.

< Back
Forward >

Index Index

  • Other Authors:    
> Charles Darwin
> Charles Dickens
> Mark Twain
> William Shakespeare

George Orwell. Copyright 2003,
Contact the webmaster
Disclaimer here. Privacy Policy here.