THE GREAT TAMASHA COOKBOOK AND FAMILY
Another Turn of the Wheel
The heat of summer was fast approaching, and Ponsonby was more worried than ever about Indira. She was still refusing to go up to Patapore, whether to live in Dr. Little’s house or not. What was worse, the doctor himself now doubted that in any case she could support the journey.
“Her constitution has been weakened by that last damned bout of fever she had, Gil,” he said, frowning.
“I realise that, thanks! –Uh, sorry, George. No excuse for snapping at you. We have tried feeding her up, but she won’t eat more than a few mouthfuls. Says chewing tires her. Mrs Ashby usually manages to get a lussy down her,”—the doctor loathed this concoction of soured milk: he winced in spite of himself—“whether sweetened or salty, and she will take that, but that’s about it.”
“Mm. Well, if was you, Gil, I wouldn't leave her this year.”
Ponsonby’s mouth tightened. “I see.”
Dr Little looked at him with considerable sympathy. “Matter of balancing your responsibilities, old chap.”
“Yes,” he said heavily: “yes.”
George Little patted his shoulder sympathetically and went out to his tonga, not permitting himself to shake his head until he was actually in the vehicle. Just possibly, he reflected as they jolted slowly through the hot, dusty streets of Calcutta, one of the intentions of Henry John Lucas’s mad will had been to force Gil Ponsonby into just this sort of balancing act—or possibly to force him to make the decision which now seemed called for—for, reflected the doctor, scratching his chin thoughtfully, one should not forget that Lucas had known all the time that Gil was married. He was conscious of a strong wish to talk the thing over with Jarvis Wynton but, that being out of the question, merely shouted at the driver in passable Hindustanee not to whip his horse: he was in no hurry.
Ponsonby sat on with Indira for some time, holding her hand, while she dozed and the little girls took turns fanning her. After a while Mrs Ashby came in quietly and indicated she wished to speak with him.
Hell: turned out they were going up to Patapore this summer!
“Mr Ashby is insisting. Summer heat is not suitable for respectable persons, Colonel,” she explained apologetically.
“No, of course, Mrs Ashby; I quite understand.”
With further and even more profuse apologies, Mrs Ashby presented him with the covered dish she had been clutching and, with much jingling of her bangles, finally took her leave. Ponsonby just tottered over to a sofa and sank limply onto it. He hadn’t realised until this moment how much he had been unconsciously relying on the fact that Mrs Ashby would be here all summer to keep an eye on Indira.
After a little Kamala peeked in. “Is everything all right, Father?”
“Mm? Quite all right, my darling girl,” he said, trying to summon up a smile.
“Did Mrs Ashby bring that?” she ventured.
He realised with a jump that he was still holding the dish. “Yes—here you are.”
Saag Bhajjee (A Curry of Spinach)
This standard Indian dish is very easy to make. In India it is usually made with mustard greens (saag). Spinach is an acceptable substitute.
Rinse 1 lb spinach & drain well. Trim off any hard parts of the stalk, & chop roughly. Heat 2 oz. of ghee or mustard oil in a heavy pan. Chop finely a medium onion & 2 garlic gloves, & fry gently until they turn colour & soften. Slice 2 green chillies, add & cook for a minute. Then add the spinach. Cook gently, turning, until it begins to cook down. A little water may be added, although the moisture of the vegetable itself should be sufficient. Sprinkle in 1 teaspoonful each of salt & black pepper. Once the spinach is fully cooked through it is ready to serve.
Kamala investigated it. “It’s just some curried saag. I think she’s used ghee, because I told her Mother doesn’t like it cooked in mustard oil, oh dear! I don’t suppose she’ll eat it, though. Oh, well.” She bustled out with it and when she came back he patted the sofa.
“Come and sit here.” She came and sat beside him and he put his arm round her. “It appears the Ashbys are headed for Patapore this summer.”
“I see,” said his elder daughter in a small voice. “I knew Mr Ashby wanted to go, but...”
He gave her a squeeze. “Mm. Think he insisted: his consequence requires it. ’Tisn’t respectable to stay when the English vanish to the hill stations, apparently.”
“I know,” replied Kamala glumly. “Mrs Maltravers is going, too. She told Mr Anthony he has to take his leave. I think she wants him to marry Pretty Jackson—the Jacksons are going, too.”
“Uh-huh. Is she pretty?” he murmured in English.
“What? Oh!” said Kamala with a gurgle, as it dawned that this was a pun. “Not very, I suppose, but she’s paler than us.”
He frowned, and tightened his grip on her. “If he lets that sort of thing weigh with him, my dear, he isn’t worthy of your consideration.”
“No,” she agreed dolefully. “He says you’ll go to England and forget about us.”
“Then he’s wrong. Next time I go to England my darling girls shall both come with me.”
Kamala was too innocent to ask if they’d be shunned by all the English mems, to his relief: she became quite excited, and hurried into their mother’s room to fetch Parvati.
Ponsonby frowned. They would be largely shunned, of course—well, not by decent people, such as Jarvis Wynton and his delightful wife, no. And, though he didn’t know the Marquis of Rockingham personally, he fancied from what Jarvis and Midge had said of his charitable activities that both he and his pretty marchioness were good-hearted people who would not dream of giving his poor little girls the cold shoulder. There was the point that his share of Lucas’s fortune would doubtless sweeten the pill for any would-be suitors—but good God! What a fate! It might even be better for them to stay here and settle for the likes of a Mr Anthony Maltravers.
No, it would not: for Parvati, once the excited squeaking was over, revealed: “It’s wonderful, Kamala, now you won’t have to think of horrid Mr Anthony Maltravers ever again: guess what Lucy Maltravers told me the day before yesterday?”
“Who is Lucy?” asked Ponsonby.
“His sister, of course, Father! She’s the same age as me. Mrs Maltravers said he ought to find out definitely how much Kamala will get for her dowry but he said he didn’t want to marry her even if you give her a huge dowry, because she’s too dark and the children would be dark!”
“What?” gasped Kamala.
Parvati gave the affirmative head wobble. “Yes!”
“Why didn’t you tell me before?”
“Ssh! We mustn’t disturb Mother! Um, I thought it might upset you, Kamala, only now it doesn’t matter, does it?”
“No,” said Ponsonby grimly, “it most certainly does not. And the fellow is not worth your wasting another thought on, my darling girls. Come and sit on my knee, Parvati, my little dove.”
Parvati duly came, though noting: “I’m quite big, now, Father.”
“Quite fat, more like,” noted Kamala sourly as their father put an arm round Parvati.
“That’ll do,” he said mildly, giving her a squeeze with the other arm. She seemed to calm down: she gave a sigh and leaned into his arm, admitting: “I didn’t really like him anyway.”
“No,” he agreed.
They sat on drowsily in the hot afternoon for some time, none of them really noticing the passage of time, or even feeling the heat very much.
Finally Parvati yawned and got up. “Would you like a cool drink, Father? We could have nimboo panee, Miss Morgan brought us some lovely nimboos. Or there’s plenty of curd, we made some this morning, didn’t we, Kamala? Mrs Ashby’s got a new gai-wallah, it was buffalo milk. You could have a lussy.”
“Mm, that’d be nice, if there's enough,” he agreed, smiling.
“Yes,” said Kamala, coming to, blinking. “Make a lussy for Mother, too, Parvati. I think the curd should be ready by now.”
Put 1/2 pint sour milk [yoghurt] together with 3/4 pint fresh milk, the juice of 1 lemon or 2 small limes, 3 teaspoonfuls of salt & 1/2 teaspoonful of kewra water. Mix thoroughly until smooth, & serve.
[This Indian recipe may be too salty for Western tastes. An alternative is to use 2-3 dsp sugar instead. Add some iceblocks & whirr the whole in the blender. -C.B.]
Everybody decided on lussy, and the drinks were duly made, Ponsonby sahib drinking his with as much appreciation as did his daughters, salty though the result was—well, salty alongside the sweetness of kewra: worried though he was about Indira, his lips twitched at the thought of, say, Welling’s reaction to the mixture.
Indira sat up and sipped hers, but did not get through it, alas. Somehow the sight of her bravely smiling little face, so much thinner than when he had first known her, decided Ponsonby. He would not go up to the hills this year, and if Josie and Tiddy kicked up, too d— bad.
“But—Well, if not Darjeeling or the plantation, then Patapore, surely?” gasped Josie.
“No, I am afraid not: I have to stay in town.”
The girls looked at him in dismay.
“I—I thought we’d at least see Tonie and Tom, and maybe Tess and John would come up to the plantation, too,” added Josie sadly.
“Yes, well, next year, perhaps.”
“But couldn't we go anyway, Ponsonby sahib?” she urged. “Mademoiselle would chaperone us, it’d be quite proper!”
“Not that any amount of chaperoning could salvage your reputation,” noted Tiddy drily.
Josie’s lips quivered but she put her chin defiantly in the air. “I don’t care! They're all horrid!”
“Indeed they are,” agreed Ponsonby grimly. “And you may apologise to your sister for bringing the subject up, Tiddy; I’m ashamed of you.”
Tiddy glared. “Very well, I do apologise. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings, Josie. But isn’t it better to face the truth?”
“She is facing it,” said their guardian with a sigh.
“Yes,” agreed Josie bravely. “And—and Mrs Dalziel has been very kind!”
Mm. She was about the only one, though. Well, Mrs Allardyce had not closed her door against them, either. But even her influence had not served to rehabilitate Josie at Government House, nor, indeed, with the vast majority of Calcutta’s sakht burra mems. The entire Anglo-Indian community appeared to believe that the poor girl had gone off willingly with damned Hatton in the full expectation of being taken off to his bungalow in the country. Doubtless her earlier monopolising of Freddy Dewhurst and Alfred Lacey—oh, and the little Jeffcott lad—had not helped. As had not the now very evident fact that Welling, by far the most eligible bachelor Calcutta society had seen for quite some time, had eyes for no-one but her. They had received but two invitations since the story had got about: one each from Mrs Dalziel and Mrs Allardyce.
“Well, um, perhaps Mrs Dalziel would take you to Patapore with them, Josie,” said Tiddy kindly.
Josie went very red. “No!” she gasped. “They are not to take their own house this year, for Major Dalziel is away with the regiment, and that horrid cousin of hers, Mrs Peters, has invited them!”
“That’s out, then,” said Ponsonby on a grim note. “And I could not contemplate sending you girls up with Mlle Dupont without an escort, so please don’t insist. –And don’t suggest Mrs Allardyce, Josie, my dear: she has Violet to think of.”
“I know, Ponsonby sahib,” she agreed glumly. “I wasn't going to.”
“It is not fair!” cried Tiddy angrily. “For Violet is completely on our side, and Mrs Allardyce herself has said publicly that no blame can attach to Josie!”
“Don’t, Tiddy,” muttered her sister uncomfortably. “I did get into his horrid carriage with him.”
“Yes, but that was... piffling!” decided Tiddy energetically.
“No. It was flouting the rules of society, like Mademoiselle says. It was stupid,” she admitted, the jaw trembling.
“Oh, help,” said Tiddy lamely. “Don’t cry again, Josie.” She put an arm round her shoulders and, predictably, Josie burst into tears. Tiddy looked helplessly at Ponsonby over her bent golden head.
“There is nothing to be done, my darling girls,” he said with a heavy sigh. “We must just weather the storm.”
“Mm.” Tiddy got both arms round her sister and hugged her fiercely. “Never mind, Josie, we still love you! And we don’t need stupid trips to the stupid hills! Why, we went every year of our lives when we were younger, Patapore can certainly hold nothing new for us!”
“No,” agreed Josie tearfully, sniffing horribly. “I’m sorry, Ponsonby sahib; I’m sorry, Tiddy: I didn’t mean to bawl again.”
“I know!” cried Tiddy. “We don’t need to go to the hills with the stuffy English: we can take the elephants anyway and just go for some pleasant day trips!”
“Tiddy, my angel,” said Ponsonby, trying not to laugh, “it will be very hot, remember.”
“Yes, but if we set out very early, and come back at dusk!” she urged.
Josie blew her nose. “We would have to go somewhere with shade, though, Tiddy baba. And—um—please don’t suggest a ruined temple or some such; I know it’s stupid but I—”
“No, I wasn't going to!” she said quickly.
Ponsonby sahib coughed suddenly. “Er—no,” he agreed lamely at the girls looked at him hopefully. “Of course you were not. We-ell... I know a pleasant serai a few hours out. It ain’t for feringhees, true, but they’d look after us well. Um, don’t know that I can spare a whole day, though. Look, Tiddy, let’s leave it at this: you may take the elephants out very early while it’s still cool, and just give them some gentle exercise, but bring them back before it starts to get really hot. Say, by nine,” he added quickly.
“But she hasn’t got a watch, Ponsonby sahib!” cried Josie.
“Oh. Well, there’s Henry’s—I don’t use it, but, uh, well, I didn’t like to leave it behind. Um, well, thought it might go to the eldest grandson, something of the sort.”
“Ponsonby sahib, what if she loses it?” cried Josie in horror,
“I won’t!” said Tiddy crossly. “But in any case I can tell the time by the sun: I don't need a feringhee watch!”
“No, well, I think we should put it by for the oldest grandson!” decided Josie, suddenly beaming upon them. “How exciting! I wonder if it will be Tess’s or Tonie’s?”
“Ooh, we could have a—No,” said Tiddy quickly.
“If that was to be a word of three letters, starting with B and ending in T, or even a word of five, starting in W and ending in R, then no, you most definitely could not,” pronounced her guardian awfully. With that he hurried out before his gravity could desert him.
“Is he cross, do you think?” ventured Josie uncertainly into the silence that then fell in the small downstairs salon.
“Um, I don’t think so.”
“Did he mean it about the elephants, do you think?”
“Of course! He wouldn’t have said it if he didn’t mean it!”
Tiddy eyed her drily. “Mm; the only remaining point being, can you get up early enough to come?”
Josie tossed her curls, quite in the old manner. “Of course! Besides, there isn’t anything else to do,” she admitted.
“No.” Tiddy licked her lips. “Um, I may not be able to come, um, every day. If we give the elephants turns that would be fair, don’t you think?”
“I suppose so, though I don’t think they’ll know.”
“Of course they will: elephants are highly intelligent! Much more so than horses!”
Josie looked dubious. “If you say so. Well, giving them turns could do no harm. But personally I would much rather go for a ride on an elephant in the cool of the morning than just go to the dusty old bazaar to buy fruit, Tiddy!”
“What? –Oh,” said Tiddy lamely. “Yes, um, would you? Yes, only I've promised Nandinee Ayah. She misses Sushila, now she’s gone with Tess.” She watched Josie’s face anxiously, but this appeared to go over very well, for she just nodded. Tiddy sagged in relief.
After a moment Josie hissed: “Did you notice he called us ‘my darling girls’? I'm sure he's never said that before!”
“No!” she cried in surprise. “He says it all the ti—Oh.”
Not registering the precise quality of her sister’s expression, Josie said pleasedly: “No, he doesn’t, see? I think he’s really fond of us, Tiddy! Well, I mean, perhaps any guardian would have chased after horrible Hatton, don’t you think?”
“What? Oh—yes,” said Tiddy in a strangled voice.
“Yes, that’s what I thought. But to call us his darling girls! He must be really fond of us!” she beamed.
“Um—yes. Do you think so?” said Tiddy on a glum note.
“Tiddy! Of course! Why else would he say it?”
“Um, I thought,” she growled, “that it might be just a habit of speech.”
“But dearest Tiddy baba! That's what I’m saying: it is not a habit at all!”
“Yes,” said Tiddy with an effort: “of course. Um, shall we go and give the elephants the good news?”
Josie gave a giggle. “Goodness, in some ways you are such a child still, Tiddy! But if you wish to, why not? But you must put a hat on, mind!”
“I do not think the presence or absence of the odd freckle on my nose is going to convince that silly young Jeffcott that we are nice to know after all, Josie,” said Tiddy heavily. “But I will if you insist.”
“Of course,” she said on a grim note. “One still has standards. Come along. And don't worry: I am quite, quite sure that we shall find something much better than a mere Jeffcott for you, Tiddy! Tess’s John has a lot of pleasant relatives in England who will not shun us, you know—and your conduct has been perfectly exemplary: not even the worst cats could find anything to criticise in you!” With this she headed for the door, missing the sickly smile that had now spread over Tiddy’s countenance.
Extract from a letter from Ponsonby sahib to Lord Sleyven,
written from “Calcutta, July ’31”
It is now abominably hot, as you can imagine, but to my surprise both Josie and Tiddy are holding up extremely well. The threatened jaunts with the elephants have duly eventuated, Josie actually, to the whole household’s astonishment, getting herself up early enough to go almost every time. Mlle Dupont has declined to accompany them—not one who cares for elephants—but Nandinee Ayah of course goes, and as Richpal, complete with bundook, has volunteered for escort duty, I have given my permission. As matter of fact Allauddin came round and also volunteered. No, it is not, thank God, that he has fallen for Josie’s golden feringhee beauty, though one could scarce blame any fellow who did; rather, he has achieved an enormous respect for Welling in the wake of the beating he gave Hatton—a shared interest in horseflesh also being in there somewhere—and decided, on encountering them preparing to depart, that he should go to keep an eye on W.’s lady. It’s quite a procession: the girls and the ayah on one of the elephants—they are giving ’em turns, as Tiddy is convinced their feelings will be hurt if one is favoured above t’others—Richpal with his bundook sitting next the mahout at the front (head?) and Allauddin on his wonderful grey. Don’t know whether he or Josie told Welling about the expeditions, but on occasion he manages to turn up, too. Allauddin has sold him one of the mares—no, no, not the glorious Mumtaz herself! A sweet-natured little creature named Annapurna; charming, no? Also a chestnut, think she is half-sister to Mumtaz.
|"The little Arab mare, Calcutta, '31"|
Watercolour, 1831, artist unknown, possibly by Gilbert Ponsonby
(From papers & letters relating to Gilbert Ponsonby, Maunsleigh Library)
Courtesy of the Maunsleigh Collection
I am afraid I am putting off the bad news, Jarvis: cannot bear to think of it. Well, it is as I wrote in my last: my poor little Indira is fading fast. D— Little was muttering some mumbo-jumbo about wasting diseases, seen something like it before, but would not come out with anything clearer than such things sometimes run in families, so I got round to the rascally father’s house—yes, the monster is still going strong: wish I had snapped his fat neck for him years back. He was not in, fortunately for himself, but I got the full story out of the wife—wailing and beating of the breast, as you can imagine, but the facts are reasonably clear. An aunt, two uncles and three siblings died of something similar, the aunt and two brothers in infancy, the others at about thirty-odd. Well, that is that, is it not? The symptoms in the latter cases being a heaviness of the eyelids which manifests itself at about age ten, and which has always characterised Indira for as long as I have known her, with or without a certain weakness in the toes. Thank God my little girls have shewn no signs of the eyelid thing! I rushed home to them and to their mystification examined their dear little brown toes anxiously, but no, they are perfectly straight. So relieved that I sat down and wept, Jarvis, I don’t mind admitting it. K. & P. very upset, poor little things: they could think of no other remedy than the temple and a puja to whichever of the gods I fancied, Ganesh having become their favoured one, following Miss Morgan’s example, I think. She herself had just turned up, this time in European dress, the most appalling black hat I have ever seen, so heavily veiled she might as well have been a purdah lady. True, the streets are horribly dusty at this time of year, but there's the disfigurement factor, you see, poor little creature. Large hats seem to be back, have you noticed? Frightful: d— Darjeeling was full of them last summer, but this travesty was more like the huge things I remember Mamma wearing atop the giant wig when I was a green subaltern. My darling little Kamala gallantly admired it! So we left Miss M. in charge while we hurried out to the temple, why not? It was Ganesh, all right, and they duly bought garlands of marigolds for him from the shyster at the door. Yes, well, in this instance I fear the remover of obstacles will not be able to do his stuff, try as he may.
|"Ganesh as a baby, held by Parvati, with Siva"|
Kangra art, 18th century
(from a portfolio of mounted Indian miniatures, Maunsleigh Library)
Courtesy of the Maunsleigh Collection
Got back to Ma Maison to find that Mlle D. and Josie were laid down resting against the heat and there was no sign of d— Tiddy! Just when we all thought she was growing up and behaving herself at last! So fed up that when she at last returned to the house, very dusty, I merely said that I did not wish to hear any lies, and sent her straight to her room. She appeared unmoved but the d— ayah burst into tears. Small consolation.
The oppressive heat of August was now upon them, and no-one of the Ma Maison household was managing very much at all save the early rides with the elephants. Lord Welling, however, seemed relatively unaffected, though admitting it was dashed warm, and called with ever-increasing regularity, now not missing a morning.
“Lord Welling, at least, remains constant,” said Tiddy with a smile over the morning’s post, as Josie opened a note eagerly, discovered it was merely from her friend Diane Fanshawe, dispatched from Patapore without Mrs Fanshawe’s knowledge, frowned, and crumpled it up.
“What? –Oh,” said Josie, looking dubiously at the bright bunch of marigolds which Welling had brought this morning. “It was a kind thought, I suppose.”
“They are auspicious flowers, Josie,” she reminded her.
“Yes, but he wouldn’t know that,” she said wanly.
“I dare say he has not much taste, like so many gentlemen,” put in Mlle Dupont kindly.
“Ponsonby sahib says that on the contrary, he has delightful taste, and fully appreciated Mr Khan’s beautiful house,” replied Josie on a wan note.
“Probably marigolds were all he could find: possibly he did not care to nip out and denude the G.-G.’s garden!” offered Tiddy gaily.
“Of course he would not, do not be silly. My guess would be that he let some flower seller persuade him into them,” she said dully.
Mlle Dupont and Tiddy exchanged cautious glances. Finally the former said briskly: “That shows he has a vairy kind nature, Josie, mon ange.”
“I know that, Mademoiselle,” she said tiredly.
“Josie, my dear,” said Mademoiselle very kindly indeed: “I am quite, quite sure that he intends to offer: you need not worry—”
“No!” she cried loudly, springing to her feet. “You don’t understand! –Either of you!” she added bitterly, as Tiddy opened her mouth. With this she rushed out, sobbing.
Mlle Dupont and Tiddy were left, mouths agape, to make what they could of it.
After quite some time Tiddy said in a small voice: “I am sure he’s going to make her an offer. I’ve never seen a man so besotted.”
“Of course, my dear. But he has only been with us a few months, naturally he will let a suitable interval elapse... I thought she had begun truly to care for him!” she burst out.
Tiddy nodded numbly.
“Eugh—perhaps it is just, well, eugh...”
“Mademoiselle, if you say ‘maidenly fears’, I shall be constrained to strangle you, alas.”
“Mais non!” she choked, taken unawares. “—Oh, dear. Pray do not joke, Tiddy.”
“I—I can’t think what can be wrong,” Tiddy admitted glumly.
“Moi non plus,” she said slowly. “Eugh—I must speak to M. le Colonel. Où est-il?’
“Il est sorti de très bonne heure. Bien avant nous-mêmes et Gajendra.”
|"Lord Vishnu saving Gajendra, the chief of the elephants"|
Watercolour and gold, circa 1850
(from a portfolio of mounted Indian miniatures, Maunsleigh Library)
Courtesy of the Maunsleigh Collection
“Qui ça?” said Mademoiselle weakly.
“Mademoiselle! Gajendra est le plus grand des éléphants! C’est le nom du chef des—”
“Tiddy, my dear, please stop talking about elephants.”
“It’s a very interesting story,” said Tiddy on an uncertain note.
“Now is not the time for it,” replied Mademoiselle repressively, standing up. “I shall speak to the Colonel the instant he returns. In the meantime, I shall fetch my crochet work.”
“Isn’t that counting your chickens before they're hatched?” replied Tiddy on a fearful note.,
“Mais nom de Dieu!” she cried, throwing up her hands. “Now it is chickens? What is this obsession with the livestock, Angèle Lucas?”
“Uh—nothing,” replied Tiddy, gaping at her. “I’m sorry: it’s a saying—an English commonplace. I only meant we have not heard that either Tess or Tonie has started a baby as yet, so, um, well, it might be bad luck to start crocheting baby clothes, Mademoiselle.”
“Is that all! You have been listening to the servants again! How many times do I have to say it, Tiddy? The peasants are always superstitious! Black or White, it makes no difference!” And she bustled out, looking cross.
They had both settled to their work, Mademoiselle crocheting busily and Tiddy reluctantly stitching at a nightgown for the anticipated infant, and only having rushed out once to see if the punkah-wallah needed a cool drink, then having had to be retrieved, ordered to stop gossiping with the servants, come inside and sit down like a lady, when a caller was announced. Mademoiselle dropped her crochet hook, what time Tiddy just gaped.
“Who did you say, Ranjit?” quavered Mademoiselle.
The major-domo bowed and replied properly: “A Commander Voight, Mlle Dupont.” Adding rather less properly: “He is being most respectable man, also very much liked by all English ladies. No wife, and has big ship.”
“Yes, his wife died many years back: so vairy sad...” said Mademoiselle dazedly.
“Mademoiselle, he can’t have heard!” hissed Tiddy.
The little former governess coughed suddenly. “That will do, Tiddy, my dear. Pray show the gentleman in, Ranjit.”
Bowing, Ranjit Singh went out with a very satisfied gleam in his eye.
Tiddy just had time to make a frantic face at Mademoiselle before the caller was shown in.
The gallant Commander had been away with his ship for a year, and so would be very pleased—with his pleasant laugh—to hear all the Calcutta gossip!
At this a horrid silence reigned in the charming little downstairs salon of Ma Maison.
Tiddy cleared her throat , glancing at the French windows. “Um, I think the punkah-wallah has dozed off, Mademoiselle: I shall just—”
“No! Sit down!” she snapped.
Gulping, Tiddy sank back onto her seat.
Mlle Dupont took a very deep breath. “Commander Voight, have you not been up to Government House yet?”
“Er—well, no, thought they’d all be off to the hills this time of year, y’know. Nothing official to report, so didn’t need to—Lor’, has something happened?” he gasped.
“Not what you are thinking, monsieur,” said the little lady grimly. “They are all well.”
“And so are your brother and his family!” said Tiddy quickly.
“Yes, I know that, thanks, Miss Tiddy, I've been to the house. The servants tell me they are up at Patapore.”
“Yes: Patapore has proven very popular this year,” said Tiddy grimly. “It’s all right, Mademoiselle, I’ll tell him.”
“I really think,” said the Commander with a puzzled smile, “that you had best do so, my dear.”
Tiddy made a face. “Yes. Well, Charlie Hatton has made a scandal involving Josie.”
“Er... Oh! Your sister? I’m very sorry to hear that.”
“Thank you. She’s the very pretty one, I made sure you would recall her: she did not come up to Darjeeling, but you did meet her here last—was it last year? Well, anyway, when you were in Calcutta before we went up to the hills.”
“The year before last, I think. Yes, of course, the girl with the yellow hair.”
“Yes. The thing is, it was not so very bad, only silly on her part—though his intentions were entirely evil, I do assure you!”
Commander Voight’s pleasant mouth tightened. “Aye. Never liked him, y’know. Thought he behaved shockingly up at Darjeeling.”
“Yes, so did everyone. But that did not deter him: he started brazenly going about again, um, well, it was before the rains. And this year he kept bumping into Josie when she was taking Mrs Dalziel’s little ones for their morning walk—she is fond of little children,” she explained lamely.
“One sees it all,” said the Commander grimly. “What did he do, Miss Tiddy?”
Tiddy swallowed. “He—he persuaded her that it would be fun to go with Di—I mean, a friend of hers, and young Mr, um, well, a very young man, without chaperonage, to view a ruin or some such and have a picknick some way out of the town. You may well ask, which ruin, but you see, Josie has no sense of geography. As well as very little of the common sort,” she added with a sigh. “She thought it would be a harmless adventure, so she got into his carriage.” She swallowed again.
“My God!” said the gallant naval office in horror.
“No, it was all right, sir, because Ponsonby sahib and Lord Welling chased after them and caught up with them the same day, and Lord Welling beat the living daylights out of him!” revealed Tiddy, suddenly beaming.
“Good for him!” he agreed with a grin.
“Tiddy my dear: that expression,” said Mademoiselle faintly.
“What? Oh. Ponsonby sahib said it—I’m sorry, Mademoiselle, I must have picked it up from him. But the thing is, you see, Commander, no-one believes that Josie was blameless in the thing. Charlie has spread it all over that she went willingly—I mean,” said Tiddy, becoming flustered, “she did, only she thought it was only a picknick with others present, you see—”
“I quite understand,” the Commander said grimly. “Exactly what the filthy little rat would do.”
“Mm. People always seem ready to believe the worst, don’t they?” said Tiddy glumly.
The elegant Commander Voight looked very kindly indeed at the woebegone little figure in its rather crushed muslin dress and said: “I’m afraid they do, my dear Miss Tiddy. But the decent ones, I hasten to add, will not give a moment’s credence to anything that that young scoundrel may utter.”
“No,” said Tiddy, trying to smile. “Mrs Allardyce has been very kind—and we had a lovely letter from Miss MacDonnell but the other day, did we not, Mademoiselle? And also Mrs General Porton, to our surprise! Well, the thing is, Miss MacDonnell let it out that the General believes the worst. Though I am glad to say that Major-General Widdop does not—though General Porton is going round Darjeeling telling everyone that of course he would say Josie is blameless, because he is Tess’s brother-in-law!”
“Really? I am behind the times!” said the Commander with his lovely smile.
“Oh!” Tiddy beamed upon him. “Have you not heard—No of course, you have been away with your ship! Well, there is so much to tell: both Tess and Tonie are married now!’ Forthwith she plunged into the whole, hardly interrupting her narrative when tea and cakes were bought in.
The Commander drank his tea and politely ate a small sponge cake of the English variety and a narial cake of the Indian persuasion, reflecting silently that only in the subcontinent would you be offered such a strange mixture as a matter of course—and at that, only in the houses of the old India hands: these days most of the Anglo-Indians tended to be even more English than the English.
|"Voight ready to woo the ladies"|
Sketch, pencil & watercolour, from John Widdop's journal, circa 1829
From the Widdop family papers
“Is he not a lovely man?” said Tiddy enthusiastically when he had taken his leave, bowing over both their hands and promising to call again very soon.
“Eugh—indeed,” Mademoiselle agreed, eyeing her warily.
“Mademoiselle, do not look like that! I am not in the least danger of falling for him. Never mind if half the silly women of Calcutta are at his feet! Besides, Mrs Allardyce says his late wife was taller than me, though not very tall, and plumper, very dark, with something of a gypsy look to her, and that is the type of woman whom he prefers! Which I dare say,” she ended thoughtfully, “is why he did not remember Josie.”
“Eugh—oui: précisément...” In the hills Commander Voight had encouraged Lady Anna Lovatt to flirt outrageously—but then, it was true she was dark, if horse-faced. And he had also been seen flirting with Lady Caroline Armstrong, of the lush, dark good looks.
“I think,” said Tiddy, narrowing her eyes, “that he is quite intelligent, and when he flirted with Lady Anna Lovatt, he was doing it to annoy Charlie.”
Mademoiselle hesitated. But Tiddy, after all, was not a little girl any longer. “There was an element of that, yes, Tiddy. But also, he is one of those gentlemen who enjoy the company of such women—well, not necessarily of those who allow their conduct to become outrageous. But most certainly of women who enjoy flirting.”
“Yes, I could see that,” she replied composedly.
Mlle Dupont sagged. “Oh—good.”
Tiddy looked thoughtful. “In a way, it must be just as difficult for a gentleman as for a lady, must it not? For one may enjoy the encounter, but then, it would be silly to risk giving the person too much encouragement, if one were not serious.”
Tiddy’s eyes twinkled. “I think you do not seize my meaning, Mademoiselle. I meant, on the one hand, not serious about intending marriage, certainly—but also, not serious about wishing for the sort of involvement which Lady A. enjoyed with Hatton!”
“Tiddy Lucas!” she gasped in horror.
Tiddy stood up. “I think you wished me to grow up, did you not, chère Mlle Dupont? Darjeeling was most certainly an aid to that end. –Pray excuse me, I shall just go up to make sure that the servants have closed all the shutters: yesterday they left Ponsonby sahib’s open and the room was stifling when he got home; I doubt if he had a wink of sleep.”
With this she went out, looking perfectly composed.
Poor Mlle Dupont was left looking numbly at the used tea things.
Extract from a letter from Ponsonby sahib to Lord Sleyven,
written from “Calcutta, Aug.”
Had an interview with Mlle Dupont in re Josie, and then spoke to the girl herself. You may be excused for thinking it was all over bar the shouting, Jarvis! This was the shouting, alas. She stopped me before the phrase “sure he intends to offer” was scarce out of my mouth. Evidently I did not understand.
“Then please explain it to me, Josie, my dear,” said I.
“I—I have ruined my reputation,” the poor girl said through trembling lips, “and it would not be honourable in me to accept an offer. His mother would be furious,” she added glumly, descending rather from the previous high flight.
“Er—well, yes, possibly; but then, you have a respectable portion, my dear: I think she sounds like the sort of woman for whom that would sweeten the pill.”
“A little, perhaps, but not enough, and—and she would take it out on him!”
I was staggered, frankly, Jarvis! This was Josie—Josie!—evidencing thought for another human creature? Though unfortunately she was undoubtedly right. Your cousin, Miss Partridge, did not spare us the full details of the case when he turned up at Tamasha. “Under her thumb” was the least of it—though all phrased most delicately, you understand! I confess, I was rather at a loss as to what to say to Josie. Finally I said, more or less, that one cannot in life make one’s fellows’ decisions for them, and if Welling were to offer, she owed it to him to explain her refusal in person. Very naturally she had expected that that would be my rôle. However, by this time a definite scheme had occurred, so I insisted. I shall have a word with him before I allow him to speak—I am sure he will seek my permission before he says anything to her. In the first place, he is a decent young fellow who has been brought up very strictly—though one gathers there were incidents in his salad days: if you have not already heard, just mention “Lady Violet C.” at the clubs, Jarvis, and you will get the lot—and in the second place, I am certain that under the present circumstance he will be very concerned to do everything with the utmost correctness—in order, you understand, not to insult Josie’s feelings by assuming she is as free in her conduct as rumour has it.
Josie did not look any happier, but acquiesced glumly in her stern guardian’s decision. Well, at least the jaunts with the elephants are getting her out into the fresh air several days a week. I fear that d—Tiddy does not accompany her very often, however, or if she do, she and the ayah then disappear marketwards, not to resurface, very often, until well past midday. Nandinee has a cousin whose husband runs a small restaurant—in the native quarter, of course—and as Tiddy appears to have lost her appetite for the midday meal at home, that is undoubtedly where the two of them will be spending their mornings. Stuffing their faces—quite.
My candle is guttering and Ram is hovering looking anxious, so I will bid you goodbye for now, Jarvis. Pray convey my warmest compliments to Midge, and kiss the children for me.
P.S. On thinking it over, d— sure that Welling intends his beautiful little Annapurna for Josie. Fortunately she has a reasonably good seat & will not saw at her mouth, so Allauddin may not explode with horror! Yrs., G.P.
|"Calcutta, the rains threatening"|
Aquatint, circa 1799, artist unknown
(from a portfolio of mounted prints, Maunsleigh Library)
From the estate of Jarvis Wynton, Fifth Earl of Sleyven.
Courtesy of the Maunsleigh Collection
The weather got even hotter and heavier, and even the elephants lost their enthusiasm for early morning exercise. Poor Mlle Dupont took to spending the later part of the afternoons in the coolest room in the house, which admittedly looked out onto the wide spread of back garden, and was partly shaded by some large trees, but was still scarcely cool, with her feet up on a chaise longue and a cold cloth on her head, what time the obliging bearers took turns with her own Jeanne in fanning her personally, as it were, and outside the punkah-wallahs changed shift with ever-increasing frequency, downing relays of nimboo panee. This latter somewhat complicated by the fact that they were not all of the same caste, and some would not accept drink from any but the same caste as they—Well, as Tiddy said calmly to the exasperated maiden lady, who had merely ordered Ram to get that man a drink: “It is India. One must just accept it. And if you dispense with your corset, Mademoiselle, you will be much, much more comfortable. Don’t worry, Ponsonby sahib is out most of the time. And no-one else cares, Indian women don’t wear the dashed things anyway. Added to which, people like Ranjit Singh or Richpal think that little skinny females like you and me and Jeanne are scarcely women, in any case!” And, kindly changing the damp cloth on her head for her, she went out before the poor little woman could recover from her stupefaction sufficiently even to think up a reproof. Let alone point out that however laudable the sentiment might be, it was scarcely the done thing to refer to one’s servants as “people.”
It was true that Colonel Ponsonby was scarce ever at home these days, and Mademoiselle had begun to feel very irritated with him. Well, that was men all over. Never around when needed—quite. And if it was not the weather for doing much, well, surely he might sometimes be at hand to—well, receive callers, at the least! It was not only Lord Welling—to whom she was sure they owed everything! But Commander Voight had become quite a regular caller, with a pleasant Indian friend of his brother’s to whom he referred as “Ravi” but who, Mademoiselle had discovered with something like horror, was actually the son of a rajah, and so deserving of a much deeper curtsey than the mere bobs Tiddy and Josie had been awarding him. Not to say herself. And then, there was a friend of Miss MacDonnell’s, or possibly of her late brother’s—well, it did not matter—but he was a retired Major Howard, a very pleasant, kindly man, and his wife might not be out of the top drawer—and if Mrs Duckworth had once said her father had been a postal employee then doubtless the information must be correct, but she and Josie were not interested, thank you, Tiddy—Well, they were calling, together with Mrs Howard’s spinster sister, a Miss Merton, a very well-meaning woman indeed, and Josie was not to dare to say that she was as plain as a pickstaff! At least they were calling! Poor Josie had not said any such thing, not even “as plain as a pikestaff”, and she looked at her limply but did not dare to protest.
And it was too bad of the Colonel! He might at least make a push to be in when they were expecting Lord Welling or Commander Voight!
“I see!” said Tiddy with a laugh at this point. “They understand that Ponsonby sahib is much occupied on affairs of business, Mademoiselle!”
“Indeed,” agreed Josie, trying to raise a smile. “It was just the same with Papa. The business demands a lot of attention.”
Mademoiselle sighed, but it was too hot to argue, so she said nothing. And listlessly—since it was now too late in the day to expect either Welling or the Commander, or, indeed, anyone, in this heat—allowed the girls to steer her into the cool back room, unlace the corset, and send for Jeanne, Ram, and a big jug of nimboo panee.
“At least Jeanne,” said Tiddy with a smothered giggle as they crept off, leaving them to it, “has had the sense to take her corset off, did you notice?”
“Well, no,” admitted Josie limply.
“There, what did I say? Skinny!” Tiddy collapsed in giggles.
“Mm. It is terribly hot. I think I might lie down, too.”
“Then take Mrs Allardyce’s shocking advice,” said Tiddy, grinning, “and do so with nothing on but a damp sheet!”
“I certainly shall! I must say,” she said in a very much lowered voice, “that in some ways dear Mademoiselle has a very closed mind, do you not think, Tiddy?”
Help, had she only just discovered that? But Tiddy gave the affirmative head-wobble, and kindly saw her upstairs.
That left her, did it not? With the whole of Ma Maison to bustle in. Not to say the whole of Calcutta. Looking grim, Tiddy collected the yawning Nandinee Ayah and a large portmanteau, and they disappeared into the torrid Calcutta afternoon.
Extract from a letter written by Madeleine Thomas
to her sister Adelaide, 186—
You may well ask, my dear sister, why on earth was she not more closely supervised? Well, you see, nobody suspected! And dear Mrs Tess Widdop assures us that the faithful ayah would have defended her virtue with her life. Also that one cannot imagine, not even sitting out on the sunniest day on the terrace at Tamasha, just what the great heat in India is like. One becomes so entirely languid that nothing seems to matter, and as the rains approach, but do not come, the very sky itself seems to be pressing down upon one’s head! Antoinette and I could not forbear to exchange glances, for she is quite an elderly lady, of course. But dear “Tiddy baba” was nodding and assuring us that it is so, and so was Mrs Tonie, who of course is so very common-sensical—and then, Mr Widdop himself added that that is precisely what his Uncle Henry always says! One cannot imagine it!
Antoinette then asking eagerly what became of Ponsonby sahib’s dear little girls, Tiddy baba laughed very much and cried: “But dearest girl! You know!” At which she protested that she wished to hear it all, properly, in order! So, of course, did I, and as I was not sure that I knew all of the story, I was very eager to do so. Little Matt was also very eager, and has “stuck it out”, if I may use the phrase, most determinedly. What a bright boy he is!
|"Portrait of a Young Boy, circa 1865"|
Reproduced in Hidden Treasures of the Maunsleigh Collection,
Nettleford, England, Maunsleigh Trust, 1974, p. 34.
Miniature, said to be Matthew Ponsonby.
Courtesy of the Maunsleigh Collection
I do so envy you the little ones, dear Adelaide, and hope and pray that when my turn comes, I will be blessed with just such a bright little boy as your Tommy or little Matt Ponsonby!
Mr Widdop then pressed his elderly relatives—teasing gently, you know—to take up the story exactly where it had been left, for it would not do to omit a thing—little Matt innocently agreeing with him—and after his Great-Aunt Tiddy had soundly beaten Mr Widdop with a cushion, and Matt had recovered from the consequent hysterical giggles, the narrative was allowed to proceed.
The next thing that happened was nothing to do with the two little girls at all: it was Lord Welling’s proposal. He came to call very properly, as Ponsonby sahib had predicted, not on Josie, but on her guardian. By this time the dear gentleman himself had joined us and, taking little Gil upon his knee and kissing his darling feathery dark curls, offered to tell it himself. At which Tiddy baba cried out upon him, fearing he would make a joke of it. But her sisters crying that of course he would not, he was permitted to proceed. Antoinette writ it out, dear sister, and she has kindly allowed me to consult her notes.
Lord Welling was in his “best pantaloons”—at this Tiddy baba cried out that he was making a joke of it after all, but he promised to be good. His Lordship, then, called in correct morning wear for gentlemen of the time. And spoke his piece most eloquently and with feeling. As we know, Ponsonby sahib had already had his assurance that it would not weigh with him that his mother had insisted he should not make an offer for Josie unless Col. Ponsonby himself had taken one of the sisters, thus allowing her to have her full share of the family fortune, but he reiterated it. At which he was told that it was most proper of him to do so and would not have expected anything less, and the whole family was aware they owed him more than they could ever repay. Lord W. very gratified, as one would be, tho’ fully deserving of it! Alas, I fear the days of the hero are over; one cannot imagine a man in modern dress acting so gallantly. I mean, the hats alone! Tho’ I am sure Mr Widdop would fling himself at a scoundrel, also! In any case he does not wear a silly hard hat but only a soft one such as our own brother wears in the country. But I digress. Here I reproduce A.’s notes:
“I should be very happy for you to offer for Josie, Welling,” said Ponsonby sahib. “No, pray do not thank me yet, I have something to add. No, two things. Firstly, she is currently in a chastened mood, and behaving herself extraordinarily well, but as she has been vain and silly all her life, may well lapse back into her old ways, if not kept in check. Well,” he said, as the poor young man was looking very taken aback, “it is largely a matter of not giving in and allowing her more pin money if she has spent her allowance, and not giving in and taking her on whatever unsuitable or inconvenient expedition she has decided to fix her heart upon. In short, Welling,” he said, giving him a hard look, “of not giving in.”
The poor young lord stammered, rather—and one must admit that from all the old ladies have said he does not sound very determined, tho’ terribly brave, of course! But he said he perfectly understood and that it sounded rather like a little filly he once had. I am afraid Tiddy baba choked at this point, in spite of her earlier admonitions, so it was just as well the old gentleman was telling the story and not she. Terribly spirited, you see, and pretty as a picture, but horridly wilful, if allowed to have her way. The only tack to take had been never to let her have her way, but to show her who was master. At which she became the most obedient little mare imaginable—Tiddy baba, I fear, in positive hysterics at this point, and even dear Mrs Tess clapping her handkerchief to her mouth—and produced a good little colt or filly a year for him, and even his Cousin Giles (the Marquis of Rockingham, that is, dearest) had said her offspring were the best-behaved mounts in the country and had they but been greys would have been standing in his stud at the very instant. At which, I cannot say precisely why at that instant, Mr Widdop broke down and laughed until the tears ran down his face, followed rapidly, I blush to report, by our brother! Really! The poor man was only trying to show he had understood! And I dare say very nervous and talked too much, as one tends to do when overcome by nerves!
Dearest little Gil baba then piped: “Stop being silly!” At which Ponsonby sahib smiled very much and agreed they were silly. And if they did not wish to sit nicely and hear it they might go away. Alas, Matt became over-excited and cried out that yes, they should “jolly well” go away, for they were spoiling the story! But was calmed down, I fear a sweetmeat from Mrs Tess’s pocket entering into the negotiations—it was only a small thing, dearest, I think some Indian thing, well, she has so many grandchildren that there is always a little packet of something about her person! Little Tessa, tho’ so much younger than D.W., is also a grandchild. After which Ponsonby sahib was able to proceed.
The second point he made with Lord Welling was that Josie herself felt it would not be the honourable thing to accept a proposal from him with her reputation in ruins. Of course he protested, but was persuaded to listen.
“She is perfectly right,” said Ponsonby sahib steadily, “and there is the point that the story will inevitably get home to your mamma. You and your wife will be faced with your mother’s disapproval, and before you speak, I fear I must point out that it is highly doubtful it will weigh with Josie for an instant.”
He brightened, but Ponsonby sahib said firmly: “No; for it will be you who will bear the brunt of it. And I think have you have been used to do pretty much as she says all your life, have you not?”
Oh, dear! Would any man not have been hugely embarrassed? He was, one gathers, but said that he had certainly allowed his mother to think so, but not if it was a matter of principle, of course. Ponsonby sahib asked him outright what these matters of principle might be, so he told him. Well, I shall not give you all the details, sister, dear, and to say truth Antoinette did not write them all down, neither, but the gist of it was that his mamma did not know the half of what went on on the estate. And he had built them a model village in the fashion of that of his “Cousin Giles”, but let his mamma believe that he had merely had the roofs mended! True, it was clear that he greatly admired the Marquis and tried to emulate him, but as dear Mrs Tonie said, how many fine young lords would bother? And unlike that very grand relation, he was not immensely rich, and the estate not much bigger than Tamasha in what it produced, tho’ larger in acreage, which seemed odd to me, but she said that much of it was unproductive Welsh hills. Tho’ I think it is not actually in Wales, is it? But on the border. But that was the gist of it. And clearly disliked the local vicar, but had paid for his second son to go to the university, for the man had very little and the boy was extremely bright and became a true scholar and all very proud of him! He did not wish to tell of this, but Ponsonby sahib dragged it out of him, I hasten to add. His mamma, you understand, was furious when she found out, and berated him for throwing his money away. Also for not having got some trinket off his cousin! To which, need I say, the Standishes, that is the surname, dear sister, the Standishes had no right whatsoever! At which little Malcolm Standish, who had been sitting by listening quietly, not laughing when his cousin did and, we had thought, not taking very much in, stood up and cried: “Huzza! Huzza for Grandpapa!”
Well! There you are, in a nutshell, dearest! Malcolm and his little sisters Harriet and Jane are the children of Josie’s and Lord Welling’s oldest son—Malcolm will inherit the viscounty one day—and dearest Antoinette is of course the daughter of their eldest daughter, Theresa, after dear Mrs Tess!
So Lord Welling, having assured Ponsonby sahib that he was more than capable of convincing Josie to marry him, went off to interview her in the salon. And goodness only knows what was said, exactly, but it all went splendidly, and his honest heart won the day! Mrs Tonie then produced a much folded, and I think wept over, letter from Josie (for she died relatively young, you know, tho’ a very happy life, devoted to his Lordship), writ just after the engagement, but it did not, tho’ extremely happy, clarify the matter very much. At which all three sisters and, indeed, Ponsonby sahib also, smiled a little and sighed a little and said, it was so like dear Josie! They had but the two children who survived infancy, and I think it was two more who died, so very sad, but much beloved, and they also adopted three little girls, the orphaned daughters of some obscure cousin on his mother’s side. And it was, if very fashionable, and did the Season every year, the happiest marriage ever!
|"Joséphine, Lady Welling"|
Oil on canvas, circa 1832, by Fredrick Greenstreet
Formerly in the Welling Collection
Courtesy of the Maunsleigh Collection
Well, he had her portrait painted I know not how many times, and allowed her to spend far too much on dress, also showering her with jewellery on every possible occasion, Christmas, birthdays, &c., &c., but apart from that, I truly believe he did not let her get away with anything! Mrs Tonie says she did not in fact try to, once the babies came, and had always adored little ones.
There! So it was happy ever after for pretty Josie after all! And she became a viscountess, and it served that horrid Hatton out!
My dear sister, I shall tell you something in confidence, so pray do not breathe a word to Mamma! You know what she is. Our brother wished to look at some of the curious Indian manuscripts at Tamasha with Ponsonby sahib, so Mr Widdop said he would walk me home—though it was full daylight, I could have gone across the garden by myself. Immediately the little ones decided to come, and were permitted, on the understanding that they would come straight home when Mr Widdop said. So off we set, he soon carrying little Gil on his shoulder and the others happily running on ahead. So we could talk quite privately. And he said he had noticed I did not laugh at the story of Col. Ponsonby’s interview with Lord Welling, and did I not find it amusing?
I was afraid he must think me the utmost dullard. But I remembered what dearest Papa has always said about “Tell the truth and shame the Devil” and how cross he was when Mamma said that sometimes a girl should take care to give a gentleman a good impression. So I said, holding my chin up and praying that I would not break down and cry: “No; I could see that some might find it amusing, sir, but I was putting myself in the place of the poor young man, and what he must have felt.”
“I see,” he said slowly. “I must apologise for doubting your perspicacity, my dear Miss Thomas.”—At which I reddened like a goop, I fear.—“I apologise for behaving like a boor. It was uncaring of me. I shall take care always to put myself in the place of the other person, in future.” And with that, he hugged little Gil firmly to his left shoulder, took my hand with his right, and kissed it! Dearest sister, my heart pounded so, I feared he must hear it! But he just smiled and walked on as if it was an everyday thing! And as a big crow suddenly flew onto the lawn, told Gil baba a strange story, which he must have had off his relatives, about the king of the crows. Which I cannot retell for the little ones, for I was incapable of taking in a word!
“Now I suppose he will take Josie away,” said Tiddy with a sigh to her guardian.
“He will wish to take her home to England once they are married, Tiddy, naturally.”
Ponsonby hesitated. “Er—look, I cannot promise anything. But, well, we may possibly be able to go back when they do. If they marry after the rains, I suppose they will not set off until February. I’m sorry if you feel it will be boring, Tiddy. Though with Josie safely married I dare say Calcutta society will accept you back into the fold.”
“Does one collect that becoming a viscountess instantly renders one respectable, then?”
He eyed her drily. “It must do.”
“It is all so... negligible! When one considers that all around us, people are—are living the big things in life—well, birth and death!”
“Yes, but most people’s lives are composed of the small things as well as the big, Tiddy baba,” he said kindly.
She sighed. “No doubt.” She got up. “It’s still quite early, so I shall go to the temple with Nandinee Ayah.” She gave him a defiant look. “She wishes to make an offering. I dare say Josie’s and Welling’s babies will come into it.”
“Go with my good will,” he said mildly.
|"Ganesh preparing to throw his lotus, to vanquish a demon"|
Basohli miniature, circa 1730
(from a portfolio of mounted Indian miniatures, Maunsleigh Library
Courtesy of the Maunsleigh Collection
Commander Voight was staying in his brother’s house. He was avoiding Patapore, because he knew his sister-in-law had conceived a plan to marry him off to the lush Lady Caroline Armstrong, and cautious enquiry at Government House had now revealed the fact that the dashed woman was staying with her. Well, she was an attractive enough piece—but a woman of that type? There had been more than one story about her, and not only dating from the time of her widowhood. His lip curled a little at the thought. Not the type of woman whom one envisaged as the mother of one’s children, frankly! This morning he had gone for a stroll early. It was not a particularly salubrious quarter, but the Commander had been in all sorts of places all over the world and he was besides confident he could take care of himself: he looked about him at the little stalls and so on with interest, as the shabby little residential street devolved into a sort of market area. He had got his bearings, and decided he would call at Ma Maison, it was not so very far. He strolled on slowly, looking for a tonga.
He was admitted to Ma Maison’s spacious front hall by a sweating, desperate-looking bearer. The Commander had served in the Indies for many years and was used to the oddness of Indian servants: he thought nothing of it. The sight in the front hall was, however, more unusual: an equally sweaty, desperate-looking Dr Little, just in the act of shouting: “Well, where the Devil IS the fellow?”
The Commander was a man of action: he did not waste time on inessentials. “What’s up?”
The doctor swung round. “Uh—oh! Voight, isn’t it? Can’t find damn’ Ponsonby, these fellows don’t seem to know where he is.”
At this the burly Sikh who was Ma Maison’s major-domo burst out: “Doctor sahib, if not at house of his wife, must be at office, am telling you!”
Commander Voight mentally raised an eyebrow or two: he was not aware, and to his knowledge Calcutta society was not aware, that Ponsonby had a wife. Though he’d certainly heard some very odd stories about his time with the Army.
“The damned fellow knows everything,” said the doctor, producing an enormous handkerchief and wiping his sweating forehead. “Very well, he’s at the office. I’ve got to get back, Ranjit. Send someone reliable to Ponsonby sahib with a message, ekdum!”
“I’ll do it,” said Commander Voight. “What is the message?”
“Uh—you’ll need transport.”
“I’ve got a tonga. What’s the message?”
Grimly the doctor replied: “Indira is dying and he is to come at once. Got that?”
“Yes: Indira is dying and Ponsonby is to come at once.” With this Commander Voight simply turned on his heel and disappeared.
The doctor wiped his face again. “Where’s Tiddy baba?”
Ranjit hesitated. Then he said firmly: “Doctor sahib, Tiddy baba is with Mrs Indira.”
“Rubbish! There’s only that little Morgan female—and the two little girls, of course.”
“Yes, sahib. Is not being Miss Morgan,” said the elderly major-domo steadily.
“I saw her meself, damn your eyes!” he shouted.
“Doctor Little sahib, with respects, you are not understanding. Tiddy baba is pretend to be Miss Morgan.”
The doctor’s jaw sagged. “My God, and I’ve just sent Voight to fetch— I’m off!” With this he clapped his hat upon his sweating head, dashed down the steps of Ma Maison, jumped into his tonga, swore at the driver, and was off.
|"The Indian mask painter, Calcutta, 1926"|
Photograph from the Widdop family papers