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George Orwell > Burmese Days > Chapter 10

Burmese Days

Chapter 10

But as a matter of fact, Ko S'la's alarm was premature. After
knowing Elizabeth for ten days, Flory was scarcely more intimate
with her than on the day when he had first met her.

As it happened, he had her almost to himself during these ten days,
most of the Europeans being in the jungle. Flory himself had no
right to be loitering in headquarters, for at this time of year the
work of timber-extraction was in full swing, and in his absence
everything went to pieces under the incompetent Eurasian overseer.
But he had stayed--pretext, a touch of fever--while despairing
letters came almost every day from the overseer, telling of
disasters. One of the elephants was ill, the engine of the light
railway that was used for carrying teak logs to the river had
broken down, fifteen of the coolies had deserted. But Flory still
lingered, unable to tear himself away from Kyauktada while
Elizabeth was there, and continually seeking--never, as yet, to
much purpose--to recapture that easy and delightful friendship of
their first meeting.

They met every day, morning and evening, it was true. Each evening
they played a single of tennis at the Club--Mrs Lackersteen was too
limp and Mr Lackersteen too liverish for tennis at this time of
year--and afterwards they would sit in the lounge, all four
together, playing bridge and talking. But though Flory spent hours
in Elizabeth's company, and often they were alone together, he was
never for an instant at his ease with her. They talked--so long as
they talked of trivialities--with the utmost freedom, yet they were
distant, like strangers. He felt stiff in her presence, he could
not forget his birthmark; his twice-scraped chin smarted, his body
tortured him for whisky and tobacco--for he tried to cut down his
drinking and smoking when he was with her. After ten days they
seemed no nearer the relationship he wanted.

For somehow, he had never been able to talk to her as he longed to
talk. To talk, simply to talk! It sounds so little, and how much
it is! When you have existed to the brink of middle age in bitter
loneliness, among people to whom your true opinion on every subject
on earth is blasphemy, the need to talk is the greatest of all
needs. Yet with Elizabeth serious talk seemed impossible. It was
as though there had been a spell upon them that made all their
conversation lapse into banality; gramophone records, dogs, tennis
racquets--all that desolating Club-chatter. She seemed not to WANT
to talk of anything but that. He had only to touch upon a subject
of any conceivable interest to hear the evasion, the 'I shan't
play', coming into her voice. Her taste in books appalled him when
he discovered it. Yet she was young, he reminded himself, and had
she not drunk white wine and talked of Marcel Proust under the
Paris plane trees? Later, no doubt, she would understand him and
give him the companionship he needed. Perhaps it was only that he
had not won her confidence yet.

He was anything but tactful with her. Like all men who have lived
much alone, he adjusted himself better to ideas than to people.
And so, though all their talk was superficial, he began to irritate
her sometimes; not by what he said but by what he implied. There
was an uneasiness between them, ill-defined and yet often verging
upon quarrels. When two people, one of whom has lived long in the
country while the other is a newcomer, are thrown together, it is
inevitable that the first should act as cicerone to the second.
Elizabeth, during these days, was making her first acquaintance
with Burma; it was Flory, naturally, who acted as her interpreter,
explaining this, commenting upon that. And the things he said, or
the way he said them, provoked in her a vague yet deep disagreement.
For she perceived that Flory, when he spoke of the 'natives', spoke
nearly always IN FAVOUR of them. He was forever praising Burmese
customs and the Burmese character; he even went so far as to
contrast them favourably with the English. It disquieted her.
After all, natives were natives--interesting, no doubt, but finally
only a 'subject' people, an inferior people with black faces. His
attitude was a little TOO tolerant. Nor had he grasped, yet, in
what way he was antagonizing her. He so wanted her to love Burma as
he loved it, not to look at it with the dull, incurious eyes of a
memsahib! He had forgotten that most people can be at ease in a
foreign country only when they are disparaging the inhabitants.

He was too eager in his attempts to interest her in things
Oriental. He tried to induce her, for instance, to learn Burmese,
but it came to nothing. (Her aunt had explained to her that only
missionary-women spoke Burmese; nice women found kitchen Urdu quite
as much as they needed.) There were countless small disagreements
like that. She was grasping, dimly, that his views were not the
views an Englishman should hold. Much more clearly she grasped
that he was asking her to be fond of the Burmese, even to admire
them; to admire people with black faces, almost savages, whose
appearance still made her shudder!

The subject cropped up in a hundred ways. A knot of Burmans would
pass them on the road. She, with her still fresh eyes, would gaze
after them, half curious and half repelled; and she would say to
Flory, as she would have said to anybody:

'How REVOLTINGLY ugly these people are, aren't they?'

'ARE they? I always think they're rather charming-looking, the
Burmese. They have such splendid bodies! Look at that fellow's
shoulders--like a bronze statue. Just think what sights you'd see
in England if people went about half naked as they do here!'

'But they have such hideous-shaped heads! Their skulls kind of
slope up behind like a tom-cat's. And then the way their foreheads
slant back--it makes them look so WICKED. I remember reading
something in a magazine about the shape of people's heads; it said
that a person with a sloping forehead is a CRIMINAL TYPE.'

'Oh, come, that's a bit sweeping! Round about half the people in
the world have that kind of forehead.'

'Oh, well, if you count COLOURED people, of course--!'

Or perhaps a string of women would pass, going to the well: heavy-
set peasant-girls, copper-brown, erect under their water-pots with
strong marelike buttocks protruded. The Burmese women repelled
Elizabeth more than the men; she felt her kinship with them, and
the hatefulness of being kin to creatures with black faces.

'Aren't they too simply dreadful? So COARSE-LOOKING; like some
kind of animal. Do you think ANYONE could think those women

'Their own men do, I believe.'

'I suppose they would. But that black skin--I don't know how
anyone could bear it!'

'But, you know, one gets used to the brown skin in time. In fact
they say--I believe it's true--that after a few years in these
countries a brown skin seems more natural than a white one. And
after all, it IS more natural. Take the world as a whole, it's an
eccentricity to be white.'

'You DO have some funny ideas!'

And so on and so on. She felt all the while an unsatisfactoriness,
an unsoundness in the things he said. It was particularly so on
the evening when Flory allowed Mr Francis and Mr Samuel, the two
derelict Eurasians, to entrap him in conversation at the Club gate.

Elizabeth, as it happened, had reached the Club a few minutes
before Flory, and when she heard his voice at the gate she came
round the tennis-screen to meet him. The two Eurasians had sidled
up to Flory and cornered him like a pair of dogs asking for a game.
Francis was doing most of the talking. He was a meagre, excitable
man, and as brown as a cigar-leaf, being the son of a South Indian
woman; Samuel, whose mother had been a Karen, was pale yellow with
dull red hair. Both were dressed in shabby drill suits, with vast
topis beneath which their slender bodies looked like the stalks of

Elizabeth came down the path in time to hear fragments of an
enormous and complicated autobiography. Talking to white men--
talking, for choice, about himself--was the great joy of Francis's
life. When, at intervals of months, he found a European to listen
to him, his life-history would pour out of him in unquenchable
torrents. He was talking in a nasal, sing-song voice of incredible

'Of my father, sir, I remember little, but he was very choleric man
and many whackings with big bamboo stick all knobs on both for
self, little half-brother and two mothers. Also how on occasion of
bishop's visit little half-brother and I dress in longyis and sent
among the Burmese children to preserve incognito. My father never
rose to be bishop, sir. Four converts only in twenty-eight years,
and also too great fondness for Chinese rice-spirit very fiery
noised abroad and spoil sales of my father's booklet entitled The
Scourge of Alcohol, published with the Rangoon Baptist Press, one
rupee eight annas. My little half-brother die one hot weather,
always coughing, coughing,' etc., etc.

The two Eurasians perceived the presence of Elizabeth. Both doffed
their topis with bows and brilliant displays of teeth. It was
probably several years since either of them had had a chance of
talking to an Englishwoman. Francis burst out more effusively than
ever. He was chattering in evident dread that he would be
interrupted and the conversation cut short.

'Good evening to you, madam, good evening, good evening! Most
honoured to make your acquaintance, madam! Very sweltering is the
weather these days, is not? But seasonable for April. Not too
much you are suffering from prickly heat, I trust? Pounded
tamarind applied to the afflicted spot is infallible. Myself I
suffer torments each night. Very prevalent disease among we

He pronounced it Europian, like Mr Chollop in Martin Chuzzlewit.
Elizabeth did not answer. She was looking at the Eurasians
somewhat coldly. She had only a dim idea as to who or what they
were, and it struck her as impertinent that they should speak to

'Thanks, I'll remember about the tamarind,' Flory said.

'Specific of renowned Chinese doctor, sir. Also, sir-madam, may I
advise to you, wearing only Terai hat is not judicious in April,
sir. For the natives all well, their skulls are adamant. But for
us sunstroke ever menaces. Very deadly is the sun upon European
skull. But is it that I detain you, madam?'

This was said in a disappointed tone. Elizabeth had, in fact,
decided to snub the Eurasians. She did not know why Flory was
allowing them to hold him in conversation. As she turned away to
stroll back to the tennis court, she made a practice stroke in the
air with her racquet, to remind Flory that the game was overdue.
He saw it and followed her, rather reluctantly, for he did not like
snubbing the wretched Francis, bore though he was.

'I must be off,' he said. 'Good evening, Francis. Good evening,

'Good evening, sir! Good evening, madam! Good evening, good
evening!' They receded with more hat flourishes.

'Who ARE those two?' said Elizabeth as Flory came up with her.
'Such extraordinary creatures! They were in church on Sunday. One
of them looks almost white. Surely he isn't an Englishman?'

'No, they're Eurasians--sons of white fathers and native mothers.
Yellow-bellies is our friendly nickname for them.'

'But what are they doing here? Where do they live? Do they do any

'They exist somehow or other in the bazaar. I believe Francis acts
as clerk to an Indian money-lender, and Samuel to some of the
pleaders. But they'd probably starve now and then if it weren't
for the charity of the natives.'

'The natives! Do you mean to say--sort of CADGE from the natives?'

'I fancy so. It would be a very easy thing to do, if one cared to.
The Burmese won't let anyone starve.'

Elizabeth had never heard of anything of this kind before. The
notion of men who were at least partly white living in poverty
among 'natives' so shocked her that she stopped short on the path,
and the game of tennis was postponed for a few minutes.

'But how awful! I mean, it's such a bad example! It's almost as
bad as if one of US was like that. Couldn't something be done for
those two? Get up a subscription and send them away from here, or

'I'm afraid it wouldn't help much. Wherever they went they'd be in
the same position.'

'But couldn't they get some proper work to do?'

'I doubt it. You see, Eurasians of that type--men who've been
brought up in the bazaar and had no education--are done for from
the start. The Europeans won't touch them with a stick, and
they're cut off from entering the lower-grade Government services.
There's nothing they can do except cadge, unless they chuck all
pretension to being Europeans. And really you can't expect the
poor devils to do that. Their drop of white blood is the sole
asset they've got. Poor Francis, I never meet him but he begins
telling me about his prickly heat. Natives, you see, are supposed
not to suffer from prickly heat--bosh, of course, but people
believe it. It's the same with sunstroke. They wear those huge
topis to remind you that they've got European skulls. A kind of
coat of arms. The bend sinister, you might say.'

This did not satisfy Elizabeth. She perceived that Flory, as
usual, had a sneaking sympathy with the Eurasians. And the
appearance of the two men had excited a peculiar dislike in her.
She had placed their type now. They looked like dagoes. Like
those Mexicans and Italians and other dago people who play the
mauvais role in so many a film.

'They looked awfully degenerate types, didn't they? So thin and
weedy and cringing; and they haven't got at all HONEST faces. I
suppose these Eurasians ARE very degenerate? I've heard that half-
castes always inherit what's worst in both races. Is that true?'

'I don't know that it's true. Most Eurasians aren't very good
specimens, and it's hard to see how they could be, with their
upbringing. But our attitude towards them is rather beastly. We
always talk of them as though they'd sprung up from the ground like
mushrooms, with all their faults ready-made. But when all's said
and done, we're responsible for their existence.'

'Responsible for their existence?'

'Well, they've all got fathers, you see.'

'Oh . . . Of course there's that. . . . But after all, YOU aren't
responsible. I mean, only a very low kind of man would--er--have
anything to do with native women, wouldn't he?'

'Oh, quite. But the fathers of both those two were clergymen in
holy orders, I believe.'

He thought of Rosa McFee, the Eurasian girl he had seduced in
Mandalay in 1913. The way he used to sneak down to the house in a
gharry with the shutters down; Rosa's corkscrew curls; her withered
old Burmese mother, giving him tea in the dark living-room with the
fern pots and the wicker divan. And afterwards, when he had
chucked Rosa, those dreadful, imploring letters on scented note-
paper, which, in the end, he had ceased opening.

Elizabeth reverted to the subject of Francis and Samuel after

'Those two Eurasians--does anyone here have anything to do with
them? Invite them to their houses or anything?'

'Good gracious, no. They're complete outcasts. It's not
considered quite the thing to talk to them, in fact. Most of us
say good morning to them--Ellis won't even do that.'

'But YOU talked to them.'

'Oh well, I break the rules occasionally. I meant that a pukka
sahib probably wouldn't be seen talking to them. But you see, I
try--just sometimes, when I have the pluck--NOT to be a pukka

It was an unwise remark. She knew very well by this time the
meaning of the phrase 'pukka sahib' and all it stood for. His
remark had made the difference in their viewpoint a little clearer.
The glance she gave him was almost hostile, and curiously hard; for
her face could look hard sometimes, in spite of its youth and its
flower-like skin. Those modish tortoise-shell spectacles gave her
a very self-possessed look. Spectacles are queerly expressive
things--almost more expressive, indeed, than eyes.

As yet he had neither understood her nor quite won her trust. Yet
on the surface, at least, things had not gone ill between them. He
had fretted her sometimes, but the good impression that he had made
that first morning was not yet effaced. It was a curious fact that
she scarcely noticed his birthmark at this time. And there were
some subjects on which she was glad to hear him talk. Shooting,
for example--she seemed to have an enthusiasm for shooting that was
remarkable in a girl. Horses, also; but he was less knowledgeable
about horses. He had arranged to take her out for a day's
shooting, later, when he could make preparations. Both of them
were looking forward to the expedition with some eagerness, though
not entirely for the same reason.

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