Beck Center English Dept. University Libraries Emory University
Emory Women Writers Resource Project Collections:
Women's Genre Fiction Project

Babes in the Wood, an electronic edition

by B. M. Croker [Croker, B.M. (Bithia Mary), d.1920]

date: 1914
source publisher: Methuen & Co., Ltd.
collection: Genre Fiction

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TRAFFORD was a light-weight, there was not an ounce of superfluous flesh upon his frame; and the pony Gehazi, realizing that he was homeward bound, cantered ahead with a lively even pace that spoke of an Arab ancestor whose desert blood rose superior to hard work and scanty fare.

The track lay along the banks of brimming watercourses, across open glades, through patches of tall, wet grass, overtopping and sprinkling the horseman; right and left soared hillsides clothed with dazzling green sâl trees, and delicate bamboo thickets, entangled in orchids and flowering creepers. Not a sound disturbed the silence, save the rustling of leaves as a squirrel ran up a tree, or the far-away cry of a peacock, 'Pee-hawn! Pee-hawn! Pee-hawn!'

Animated by the stimulating consciousness of being for the first time in his life 'his own master,' Trafford rode onward through this strange and vivid country, eye and ear alert to each novel sight and sound, as absolutely happy as it is possible for mortal to be. With youth and hope tingling in his veins, his hand stretched forth to touch a long-desired goal, his cup was not merely full, but actually running over. This incredibly fortunate young man had not a care in the world--beyond a faint doubt as to whether the five rupees he had bestowed on the Kennedys' butler was an adequate 'tip' for that bearded and majestic individual.

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Trafford, filled with a sense of rapture, burst into song; sang, at the top of his pleasant tenor voice, rousing hunting lays and snatches of popular operas--melodies forced from his lips by the sheer joy of living; and the unaccustomed white pony twitched his thin sensitive ears, whilst the running syce calmly concluded that the young sahib was drunk--already! His master was indeed intoxicated; but not with any mortal wine! Only for the same syce's restraining presence, Trafford would have shouted his joy, his heart-felt homage to the jungle, with its noble trees, delicate orchids, and whispering bamboos--yes, to the beautiful glorious world which was gradually opening before him--a dominion where he would be ruler and lord!

Twenty miles of impenetrable undergrowth, luxuriant glowing glades, and racing nullahs brought the enchanted horseman to the end of his journey. The ragged syce--who had run with unflagging ease--suddenly indicated a melancholy red-tiled bungalow; it stood near the forest edge, aloof and solitary.

As the future tenant approached, he became aware that it was surrounded by a low verandah, and flanked by a small cook-house and stabling; these, and the lifeless desolate premises, were swallowed to their threshold in rank weeds.

The new Conservator of Forests hastily dismounted, ran up the steps of his quarters, and pushed open a grimy glass door; within was emptiness and silence--a silence that was strange, and held in it something sinister; there was not a soul to be seen, but an overpowering odour of damp and dry rot had taken possession of the premises. The furniture consisted of two or three rickety chairs, a broken-backed cane lounge, and a wooden table, much notched and ink-stained; the mildewed matting under foot was rotten and in holes, the windows were grey with dirt, and curtained with cobwebs. No, it was not a cheerful apartment! A bedroom opened on either | | 20 hand: the one to the left was empty--save for an old saddle, covered with blue mould; the adjoining bathroom--festooned with cobwebs and jerry mungles (that hideous, wormy spider peculiar to the East)--was crammed with an extraordinary quantity of empty whisky bottles; among the dusty débris, a pair of glittering eyes boldly confronted Trafford. They were the malevolent eyes of a monster rat, who, having effected a leisurely inspection, deliberately withdrew.

'I must certainly get a dog!' muttered the new arrival, as he made his way to the bedroom on the right. This contained a bare charpoy--stained with some brown stuff; there was also a punkah, to which a ragged frill still adhered, and in the bathroom, beside the usual half-barrel tub, a tin basin, and a broken lamp.

When he returned from his tour of inspection, he found a toothless old man in a dirty red turban, salaaming violently in the verandah, who addressed him fluently in an unknown tongue--not Hindustani as learned at Oxford--but jungle talk. Trafford shook his head, and the syce came proudly forward in the character of interpreter.

'This old chokedar, he telling never thinking sahib soon soon coming; not three, four, ten days--all sahibs stay one week or two weeks Kennedy's koti, so he never getting ready, and plenty sorry--no fire--no food--no light--no nothing.'

The syce's outstretched hands were eloquently expressive, and at each dramatic pause, the aged chokedar bowed himself to the ground.

'Well, take the saddle off the pony anyway, and feed it,' commanded the sahib, 'and tell that old man to open all the doors and windows, and get rid of the dust and dirt somehow. I expect the bullock cart will be here in an hour,' he concluded, and walked away to the end of the verandah, which commanded a spacious outlook. No, there was no | | 21 comfort to be drawn from the closed door of the cookhouse, or the tumble-down stable, towards which the syce was conducting a hopeful pony. A melancholy silence, a desolation that penetrated, seemed to weigh upon the scene, whilst the atmosphere was laden with the taint of rank and decaying vegetation.

.Trafford dragged out a chair, sat down, and endeavored to extract consolation from his pipe; but his ardour had ebbed. Even his gay enthusiasm and overpowering good spirits were sensibly damped by his surroundings. On one side, and close at hand, lay a rolling and seemingly boundless sea of solemn somber forests, at present darkened by overhanging clouds. On the other, were far-spreading plains, and a distant range of ragged grey-blue hills; in the foreground curved a turbulent river, full to the brim of a rapid reddish torrent, the result of good rains.

So this was his billet! the post for which he had toiled and struggled, fought down indolence, opposition and temptation.

A fretful little wind now began sighing in the woods, sure harbinger of storm, and something in the dismal sound was in complete harmony with the new forest officer's frame of mind. For two whole hours he remained silent and motionless, an unusual attitude for the active and somewhat restless Trafford; he was gradually mastering a sharp lesson, and learning the meaning of the cruel word 'Disillusion.' His heart no longer glowed and burned with newly kindled hopes. Sitting alone, far removed from kith or country, Philip Trafford went through a curious process in the mills of time. None, to look at him, would credit the fact, but the sincere actual truth was, that there, in that dilapidated and desolate verandah, he had overstepped the boundary between boyhood and manhood, and aged by some years. The radiant youth who came singing through the | | 22 forest asserting the pride of life, was gone for ever and ever!

An unexpected sound of clattering teacups recalled Trafford to the hour and the man, as represented by the venerable chokedar, who, with the aid of an all but naked boy, had made superhuman exertions in the matter of turning out the sitting-room, scaring scorpions, and raising dust. From some mysterious region, a battered kettle and a few old plates and cups had been produced; but cups, and even hot water, cannot unaided furnish forth a meal. The chokedar, who had cast many anxious glances at the motionless figure of the new-comer (truly he was strange--would he become like Frost Sahib?), eventually ventured to approach, and salaaming with a fleshless hand, indicated the leisurely approach of the bullock cart.

With this conveyance came an injured and querulous bearer, also a cook and boy, the lively sounds of bleating and cackling, and an immediate change for the better! Thanks to the marvellous aptitude of Indian servants, the bungalow in a slap-dash hasty fashion was put to rights. Mrs. Kennedy's camp cook took command of the situation, and things, as Americans say, 'began to hum.'

In a surprisingly short time, behold a fire in the kitchen, and a fowl roasting before it, boxes were carried in and unpacked, and a table set for dinner.

The bedroom was overhauled, the charpoy made up with sheets and pillows, and when Trafford entered he actually laughed aloud--a harsh, strange laugh that seemed to find an unnatural echo at the other end of the bungalow. There on the bed were the clothes he had worn the previous night, white shirt, black tie, silk socks and pumps complete; all laid out with the most scrupulous exactitude.

'Why I' he exclaimed, looking at the bearer,' you don't suppose I am going to dress here? Put them away!'

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It was a very nice to say 'Put them away,' but where was the place to contain them? He realized this fact as he glanced round, and meeting the man's eye the bearer spoke; salaaming with both hands he said--

' Sahib--please--I go.'

'What do you say?'

'True--I telling--this too much jungly place--too much fever getting. Pahari plenty bad bungalow--no luck here.'

'Well,' surveying him with lofty scorn, 'you are a nice specimen, I will say! Where do I come in after paying your way down and advancing you a month's pay--twenty rupees?

'Please, sabib, I poor man, I die here. Go-downs bad--too much jungle!' Then after a pause he drew himself up, looked Trafford squarely in the face and added 'Also I speak only true word--too much devil!'

'Too much humbug--too much lies!' retorted Trafford sternly.

'Protector of the Poor--I go back--and then send one good Moffussil bearer--very strong--my own brother.' (The usual tale!)

'Well, anyhow, you must hold on till your brother comes,' said Trafford wearily, 'and then if you must depart, I suppose you must.'

Having thus terminated the interview he went to dinner, and partook of roast fowl--a badly-smoked, venerable bird--also the inevitable anchovy toast, by the light of candles stuck in empty whisky bottles.

The rain had now recommenced, and descended noisily in sheets, pouring, splashing, soaking, whilst flickering lightening darted across the pitch black outer darkness beyond the radius of the guttering candles, and Trafford became sensible of a strange feeling of dissatisfaction and depression, an actual and unaccountable hatred of Pahari.

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How different to the enchanting memories of last evening!--the dainty drawing-room with its water-colours, new books, real English arm-chairs, and aroma of home and refinement. The gracious hostess with her kind dark eyes, the little crowd of sociable dogs, the whole sensation of warmth, kindred spirits, and pleasant company! It soon became impossible to remain in the verandah, owing to its miserably exposed situation, and Trafford was reluctantly compelled to retire to bed; anything was better than the dank and musty sitting-room! In bed he lay awake for what seemed an interminable time, tossing and turning, and vainly endeavouring to compose himself to sleep. Here, there was nothing to mark the passage of the leaden-footed hours; no clock, no bells, no traffic; but strangely enough it seemed to him that once or twice he had heard a faint, husky voice calling, 'Qui hi! peg lao!'

Do as he would, count sheep, or practise other warranted allurements to Morpheus, he could not rest; gradually, oh very gradually, he seemed to approach the edge of mysteries for which there was no explanation, and became aware of a strange and unnatural fear, of an attitude of enforced listening, an expectancy of something horrible in his vicinity. Fear was a novel sensation; hitherto Trafford's nerves (child and boy) had been of cast-iron; now, and for the first time, he was conscious of an actual deadly terror. His forehead felt damp, his heart beat in hurried thumps--heart and brain seemed to have passed completely out of his control, a diabolical force was laying a firm hold upon both. The already dark room appeared to be invaded by a thick impenetrable density, a solid ebony blackness, that was superhuman, and charged with--yes, horror!

As he lay, all his wits on edge, his pulse involuntarily hammering, listening to the swish of the rain, and the regular drops on the broad teak leaves, these seemed to mutter in a monotonous rhythm--

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'And you too! And you too!'

How angrily Trafford battled and argued with his sensations; how he despised these absurd fancies, these foolish fears and palpitations. He sat erect in bed, nursing his knees, peering into the room, assuring himself he was an idiot; that a long day, and little to eat, had given him nightmare, and oh, how he would laugh at himself in the morning! He resolved to light a candle, and search the premises; but as he put out his hand he knocked down the matches and heard the contents of the box scattering over the floor. At the same time, he became aware of a curiously stealthy movement in the bathroom. Was it imagination, or rats? Stoutly and fiercely he combated his terror, still sitting erect with straining eyes, striving to penetrate the strange and solid gloom.

Solitude at night in lonely places frequently succeeds in raising a sense of the elemental in our composition; this sense now held Trafford in its vice-like grip. He might call himself an ass and an idiot, but an irrepressible inward voice urged that he was on the borders of a vast grim forest, imprisoned by a diabolical darkness and tropical rain--alone with some awful, though invisible presence. He started violently--what was that sound of a staggering, halting step coming through the bathroom doorway? Imagination and rats, again replied Reason. No; the thing, whatever it was, was now actually in the room; choking, gasping, and endeavouring to articulate--what? Trafford felt an uncomfortable rising of the skin; his whole being was invaded by the conviction of an unearthly, unseen, acutely felt horror. He struggled desperately to regain the mastery over himself, and exerting all his powers of self-control sprang out of bed, groped for matches, and with a trembling hand lit the candle. After all, there was nothing to be seen; but a thick, unnatural darkness, charged with malignant intention, | | 26 encompassed him on all sides, and was obviously closing upon him! He was certain that if he remained another second where he was, he would lose his reason, and fled into the back verandah as one possessed, shouting, 'Bearer! Bearer! Bearer! I say, Bearer!' but there was no reply; the servants' quarters were as silent as so many tombs; the sole answer he received was conveyed by the steady drumming of raindrops, and a metallic patter on the rough teak leaves, which said--

'And you too! And you too!'

Trafford made a frantic dash at his bed, and snatched at the counterpane; in this he rolled himself and spent the remainder of the night in a chair in the verandah. Here, it was certainly wet, but there was at least air and sanity, a sense of escape, a sundering of bonds, a recovery of freedom.

With the dawn the downpour ceased, and the first flickering of pale green light along the horizon was the signal for the notes of birds, the crowing of jungle cocks, the stirring of unseen animals in the forest. Then Trafford, completely worn out in mind and body, crept back to his deserted charpoy, and fell into a profound slumber; he slept like the proverbial log until the sun was blazing through the grimy windows, and a sonorous voice in the doorway called out--

'Sahib! Sahib! Sahib! Sahib!'

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