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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AS the host faced his welcome guest across the table in the verandah, and dispatched some excellent mulligatawny and fresh river fish, he found it difficult to realize that he was in the identical place he had come to the previous afternoon. Fragrant flowers adorned the board, with a mathematical pattern of jungle leaves arranged precisely around them, on a tablecloth marked 'R. and A. Kennedy'; moreover, there was a promising and substantial cake, also a box of Trichy cheroots--presents which had been discovered as the cart was unpacked.

To-night the moon shone with all the effulgence of midday, and Trafford's spirits rose. After all, his expectations might be fulfilled! Why not? A good dinner, cheerful company, and a glorious Eastern night, have a stimulating effect. When the table had been carried indoors, and chairs set forward, the two young men lit their cheroots and began to talk. Naturally, their first topic was rifles--as with girls it is frocks.

'I say, what sort of shooting iron have you brought?' inquired Scruby.

'A medium bore cordite for one, four hundred hammerless top snap action.'

'Good! I see you mean business. I'd like to have a look at it.'

'So you shall. Come along inside, and we'll unpack them. I've a couple more.'

The empty room at the end was filled with baggage and half-opened boxes; ammunition, books, and clothes were scattered about in all directions. As the cases were opened, an odour of Rangoon oil liberated, and the treasures displayed, Scruby exclaimed enviously--

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'Well, you are a lucky beggar! I've only an Express; and Express rifles, good in their way, are out of date. Your governor has done the thing handsomely: he must have paid a nice little sum for this battery of yours.'

'My governor died when I was a kid. This battery was a present to myself. You see,' and he hesitated, 'I've--I've some money of my own.'

'Once again--I repeat--lucky beggar!' said Scruby; 'a fellow with such guns, all the very newest pattern,' he was examining a weapon at the time, 'and with a little money of his own, is a rara avis in these parts.'

As he raised a rook-rifle to his shoulder, his eye was caught by a large and arresting photograph in an elaborate silver frame. It stood precariously on the window-ledge, amid a collection of collars, handkerchiefs, and pipes.

'Oh, I say!' he exclaimed involuntarily.

'I know,' said Trafford, 'my things are in a sickening muddle. I've no place to put anything, and I had to get out papers and clean clothes. Yes,' reaching over, 'that's a picture of my mater.'

'What!' putting down the rifle and taking up the photograph, 'you're humbugging--your mater! Nonsense!'

The photograph represented the head and beautiful bare shoulders of a handsome woman of thirty, with perfect clean-cut features, a nobly set-on head, the dark hair crowned by a tall spiked tiara. Scruby's remarkably keen grey eyes contemplated the portrait with profound content--but his vision was blinded to the fact that he was gazing upon a triumphantly hard and heartless face.

'And once more I say, lucky beggar!' he remarked as he restored the treasure to his companion's outstretched hand; 'you haven't any more of them--have you?'

'Yes, there's my sister--she is somewhere about, | | 41 but you might as well look for a needle in a bundle of hay. Let us go outside again, the oil and the dry rot are getting a bit thick!'

When Scruby had settled himself in a chair, and slowly proceeded to light a cheroot, he resumed--

'You'll have lots of work for two ponies,' he remarked; 'this is a very big district--as you know.'

'Yes, so I understand, and the bigger the better as far as I'm concerned.'

'Ah, so you think now! The reserve forest is thirty-eight miles across.'

'And full of game,' supplemented Trafford as he struck a match.

'Middling; game is getting scarce, especially bison. This is the best time for tracking, but they are shy and on the move to the hills. Oh, sport is not what it was ten years ago.'

'Mr. Kennedy said something of the sort-but why?'

'For several reasons, my son. One is the increase of wild dogs, who have scattered masses of game all over the district.'

'Wild dogs--I 've read of them, savage, hungry, red fellows that hunt in packs. I can understand them clearing out deer all right--but tiger, bison, buffalo--no!'

'But yes. The wind of these pests, who, like Mazeppa's wolves, "can tire the hounds' deep hate and hunters' ire," is enough; the game scent them as if by magic, and every creature disappears--even the tiger. When they are mad with hunger they will attack anything--tiger or bison--and devour the dead bodies of their fallen brethren. If you were to see a pack of these brutes in full cry after some wretched sambur, it is a sight you would never forget. Next to the wild dogs come the horn-hunters, native trappers, snarers, shooters; day in and day out they are working in the jungle, killing game of all ages and sizes. These heads, horns, and | | 42 skins they sell to a taxidermist, who provides ammunition, and gives a certain price. They get the rupees down--say, fifty for a tiger, ten for a panther, twenty for a bison's head. It is a paying business, I can tell you!'

'I say, what a shame! No wonder game is scarce!'

'Yes, it's a splendid job for Haman. He sets up the heads and skins, and sells them as "trophies" at enormous profits to travellers, who go home with their heads and false tails of great sport. (See the pun?) I believe Haman has an active agent somewhere in this part of the world. I've been trying to find him out--but it's no go. Anyway, the game goes on, and the game is thinning.'

'But can nothing be done?' demanded Trafford impatiently.

'Yes; and what is more, you are the man to do it.'

Trafford swung round in his chair to face his companion, but he did not speak.

'There has been a lot of slackness about here: wood made away with, any quantity of thieving, and as to poaching--Lord bless you, why, the forest guards are the worst!'

'The forest guards!' echoed the new official.

'Yes; all the villages near the edge of the "Bandi," that's the reserve forest, have their own pet shikaris, and these are well supplied with ammunition and cheap guns. I tell you, Trafford, this forest reserve is poached to death--and see you to it!'

'You bet I will!' he cried, jumping to his feet with energy. 'I say, you have let me behind the scenes!'

'Sit down--sit down--be calm,' urged Scruby, with a waving hand; 'don't excite yourself. Keep a close mouth, and trust no one--yet. Keep a sharp eye on your guns and ammunition; that cordite rifle would be a noble prize. I suppose you are a pretty fair shot?'

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'Only middling,' was the modest answer. 'I've shot grouse and pheasants without actually peppering the beaters. The biggest four-legged animal I've yet bagged was a hare. I know nothing about big game shooting--except from books.'

'Oh, books are bosh!' declared Scruby, with lofty scorn; 'the book of Nature is the thing-here it lies open before your eyes.'

'Well, any further information thankfully received.'

'All right,' said Scruby, hitching back his chair and putting his feet on the railings of the verandah; ' but first of all I'11 give you some useful information about your neighbours--shall I?'

'I did not know I had any,' returned Trafford; 'but go ahead--full steam.'

' Society is not overcrowded, as you may suppose; and we cannot afford to be very select at Chandi--a pretty little station a mile beyond me. It's our metropolis, but as the Frenchman said at the fox-hunt," There is no band, no promenade, no nothing!" We have a bazaar--where you can purchase stale Europe stores, huka heads, glass bangles, cotton goods, and sweets. Then we have also a tank, a temple, a little tin church; but our great glory is a railway station on a branch line six miles off. It's chiefly used for timber, skins, and cotton, but a passenger train runs up and down once a day. Think of that! and actually does its seven miles an hour!'

'All right, I'm thinking hard. And what about the people?'

'Well, there is Chapman, a police officer, who lives in Chandi and comes and goes; a travelling padre, a wonderful chap to shoot and cycle; he combines slaying tiger and shepherding his flock--a scattered flock too. He has killed a man-eater, and the natives love him. I only wish we saw more of him. Then there is Baxter the missionary, and his wife; he | | 44 is a splendid old boy, just now gone home to have an operation on his eyes.'

'But you are telling me of the people who are not there,' protested Trafford.

'Now please don't hustle me, and you shall hear of those who are. Collins, our doctor, a bit of a bear, generally gruff and growling when you are well; when you are ill, as tender and affectionate as an old nurse. He has a weakness for cats-white Persian cats--and is a tremendous bookworm. He does not care for the sex; the only woman he lets inside his doors--and has a good word for--is Jane Austen! He is full of sayings and quotations, and really is clever, and deadly keen about books and plays. I shouldn't wonder if he wrote on the quiet! He enjoys bridge--that is to say, when he has a good partner. He has a most awful temper when he is put out, so be cautious how you tread on his toes! Then there is my boss, Maguire--Irish--with the finest moustache in the C.P., and vain as a peacock. He has a most melodious brogue, but bedad, he has all his wits about him, and thoroughly understands the job of getting a lot of work out of his subordinates,--whilst he looks on! These are the officials; except the great Deputy Commissioner--who comes on tour. As for the unofficial: there's Tom Heron, who runs a big wood contract, and is our financial card, and a rich man. Mrs. Heron is handsome, hospitable, and indolent. She has a sultry temper too, and they say when her servants put her out, she--well--no matter. There is a whisper that she has a past--and was--who knows--a divorcee; but even if it were true, no one minds. In India, Society has a short memory!'

'Is that all?'

'By no means. There are the Castellas. Castellas is a Eurasian, a paper-backed, kind-hearted visionary, full of schemes--rattling good schemes too--that he cannot bring off. He is a dark, sanguine, easy- | | 45 going sort of beggar, like an Italian, but he says he's half Scotch--Mrs. Heron declares that his clan live in the lowest slums of Calcutta bazaar--who went "home," as he calls it, to study and take his degree as a doctor--his clan paid up;--the people out here are wonderfully generous to their relatives. "Medicine" was to be his career, but he met his career in the shape of Mrs. Hampton, a pretty widow who patronized the same boarding-house. She had only one child and a nice fortune-- all in her own hands. Castellas was strikingly good-looking in those days--the dark romantic princely style--so she married him, and they came out to India full of magnificent plans and schemes; unfortunately the schemes have swallowed up all her money. Being weak and enthusiastic, poor Otto was robbed right and left. He has tried jute, sugar, tea--even a butter farm in the Neilgherries. The Castellas came here three years ago, and this venture is positively their last stand--the last dyke.'

'And what is the last venture?'

'You'll laugh when I tell you; no less than a perfume manufactory! Castellas knows something of chemistry, and runs a sort of diggings in the forest, where he has a retort and distils an essence from certain flowers,--the blossoms of the babul; the particular process is a dead, dead secret. He once gave me a presentation bottle--and ugh! cabbage-water wasn't in it!'

'Then, of course, it has no sale?'

'No, unless in bazaars. Natives rather enjoy peculiar odours--but I don't think Castellas has got the hang of the thing yet,--and I must confess I'm awfully sorry for Joan Hampton.'

'Who is the lady?'

'Mrs. Castellas' daughter; she came out a couple of years ago. It's hard lines on her. Her father's people are gentlefolk; she looks well-born. Here she is a lady help, supporting a tottering house and | | 46 trying to keep things together, with a helpless mother, a moonstruck step-father, and a dark sister of somewhat limited intelligence.'

'And is that the lot?'

'No; I must not forget--last, but not least, the great Gresham, who dropped into the station three years ago--and has hung round ever since!'

'Hung round!' repeated Trafford. 'What do you mean?'

'I'll try and explain; but Gresham himself would be more eloquent, and no doubt give you a practical illustration of the definition of "hanging round." However, one sober fact remains. I--moi qui vous parle'--tapping his chest, 'introduced Gresham to Chandi! I happened on him by chance, when waiting at the Dâk bungalow at Dongar railway station. The old khansamah came to me, with a face as long as his beard, and said, "There is a sahib here--a second-hand sahib" (he meant second-class) "who has no money, and cannot speak the language. He says he has been robbed. Myself, I believe he speaks lies; and I therefore must put him forth. Already he owes the Sirkar three rupees, and desires greatly to speak with your Excellency." Well, I went into a room and found the individual, a gentleman in appearance and manner; clothes a little soiled and shabby. He looked actually hungry, and pinched, yes, and scared. I expect he had realized that it is no joke to be at a loose end out here. Then he told me his story; he was in an awful hole, and new to the country. Two days before, his servant had robbed him--got out of the mail train at night at some intermediate station, and gone off with all his belongings; portmanteaux, money, guns, letters, and left him nothing but the clothes he stood up in, a couple of pillows, and a sponge bag! He had not even a rupee to pay for a wire, much less the Dâk bungalow charges, and could not speak a word of the language. Would I help him? Naturally, I | | 47 said I would. I settled his bill, wired to the police, and took him home with me--and he has remained in Chandi ever since.'

'What--three years!' exclaimed Trafford, in a tone of incredulity; 'you are not serious? Though I did hear on board ship that quite a lot of social wreckage is cast up in Indian jungles.'

'Wreckage! I wish Gresham was listening to you! Wait till you see him. He is magnificent! The thief was never traced--he had two days good start. Of course we did what we could to fit out the poor victim, and gave him the run of our wardrobes. The Doctor set him up in boots; and Maguire-who is a masher--and I supplied the rest.'

'Pending supplies from home, I presume?'

'Well, you see--he took an immense fancy to us all.'

'Oh, did he? You don't say so--how flattering! '

'Yes, and to the little station,--and was not disposed to move on.'


'Yes, I admit it's a curious case. He told me in confidence that he had a most awful row with his people; that he was once in the army, and went a bit too fast; then a trustee plundered him, so he had to look out for some appointment. A friend in Simla found him a good post as companion to a Rajah--a sort of billet for which he felt particularly qualified; but just after he arrived, he had a wire to Bombay to say the Rajah was already suited--and his influential friend was dangerously ill. He died--and Gresham was, so to speak, left! Then he made up his mind for a trip to Australia to try his fortune in Melbourne, and was on his way to Ceylon to catch the mail boat when he was robbed of every blessed thing he had--and there he was!'

I see--on your hands,' said Trafford drily.

'Well, as a matter of fact, he only spent three months with me, and then he went the round. He | | 48 plays a good game of billiards and bridge; can act, and ride, and talk; isn't bad looking. The Herons took to him, and, figuratively, his future fortune was made! Mrs. H. and he became tremendous pals. Then when the Deputy Commissioner and wife were in camp, she introduced Gresham, and they liked him immensely--especially Mrs. Deputy Commissioner. Oh, I tell you, Gresham knows his way about! And the upshot was, that he got the post of bottle-washer to the Rajah of Jambore--our one and only potentate. We are near his territory; he lives about fifteen miles out. The Rajah is a youngish man, and has a sort of veneer of education, and a taste for horses and champagne. Gresham looks after the stables, writes his letters, and amuses His Highness. He has a bungalow he calls a "go-down," a couple of hundred rupees a month, and the use of the Rajah's ponies.'

So he has fallen on his feet?'

'Yes; he loves Chandi, and proposes to live and die here, and he really rules our station. He is a capital organizer, and has a nice, cheery, bluffing sort of manner; is secretary to the club, runs our sports and dances, manages our theatricals,--a first-class actor in the Hawtrey style,--and does the civil to any big wigs who may happen to come to the Dâk bungalow. When he can, he runs up to Calcutta or Lucknow for the races, and that is all there is to tell about Gresham.'

'And do you mean to say that this chap you found penniless and starving, and of whom you know absolutely nothing, actually bosses the Rajah and the station?' demanded Trafford magisterially.

'Yes; it's a true bill, my lord'

'Then now I think I understand why you are all called "The Babes in the Wood."'

'Oh, it's all very fine to be sarcastic, and superior, but you will soon be a Babe yourself,' said Scruby sharply.

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'At any rate there is no doubt that, whatever his past career, Mr. Gresham has met with success here; he must be uncommonly clever.'

'He is, by Jove, much too clever for some! and now I'll conclude my remarks with a few useful tips.'

'All right--go ahead.'

'As regards natives--a pair of clean hands, that's of course; good birth, too, is useful-breeding counts for more than brains with the people out here. An air of consequence and importance is also essential--this sort of thing, you see.'

Scruby rose with languid deliberation, carefully settled his collar, stuck a rupee in his eye (for eye-glass), and then proceeded to stalk up and down the verandah, with measured tread, and an air of impressive dignity. As he paced by, he scrutinized his companion with an expression of compassionate condescension, and Trafford, as he lay back in his chair watching him, indulged in his first really hearty laugh in India.

'Remember,' continued Scruby, in an authoritative tone, 'that Orientals do not think it worth while to respect one who does not respect himself. That is your tip for them.'

Trafford nodded gravely. Why should Scruby suppose that he was lacking in self-respect? Still, the recollection of last night's humbling cowardice weighed heavily on his memory.

'Don't believe a single word Beaufort says,'resumed Scruby. 'Don't lend money to Castellas. Don't buy a pony from Gresham; and as for Mrs. Heron--it is all the word Don't! We are not a bad little station; we have our occasional teapot storms and squabbles, but we have also our sport: our cricket, tennis, and billiard matches, and hockey. People come in from the district in the cold weather. I'm sorry you are so far out.'

'Yes, it's a bit lonelier than I expected. I suppose | | 50 Frost got the hump, and that was why he cleared. When did he go?'

Scruby took his cheroot out of his mouth, and stared; then he answered--

'Er--about six months ago--just at the beginning of the hot weather.'

'And where was he moved to?'

'Moved to!' repeated Scruby; 'I--don't understand,--didn't you know?' and his eyes suddenly strayed to the newly cut compound, and a solitary gold mohur tree.

Trafford's gaze followed the same direction. Yes, a mound! A mound of unmistakable import, hitherto concealed in long grass.

'Oh!' exclaimed Trafford, and his face fell. He was sensible of a jar, a shock, and for several moments he was silent.' So he died here, did he?' he observed, at last, his gaze abstractedly fixed on the bats, who were wheeling and circling with whirring wings.

'Yes. I see they did not mention it; and of course it's not exactly an encouraging introduction to a new post. He lies there--but he certainly would have been moved out of the service in double-quick time.'

'Why so?'

'This is a lonely station, and Frost had no self-control, no resources. Another chap would have started collecting bugs or skins or stamps--learning the banjo, or writing a play; but Charlie had no inside tastes; he smoked and soaked and brooded. The whisky fiend got hold of him, and he was never out of debt and scrapes. His bills for stores--that is to say, liquor--were a caution--a bottle of whisky a day. He let his subordinates do the work. His hand was so shaky he could scarcely write his name; he was so nervous he dared not ride Gehazi. By the way, I bought him for you for eighty rupees. No, no; don't thank me, the bargaining was a pleasure! Underlings shot and | | 51 stole and took bribes, and played the mischief. Then he had a bad go of "D.T." and swore that this place was full of blackness and devils. I spent a couple of awful nights with him, and I tell you I won't forget it in a hurry.'

'And was nothing known at headquarters?' asked Trafford, after a considerable pause.

'Not for some time; the jungle has certain manifest advantages, and of course the Kennedys helped to shield him. However, by and by things leaked out. Some one was playing hanky panky with Government revenue and Government timber. Kos by kos and inch by inch the business was tracked to this very bungalow.'

Trafford turned his head, and looked at the speaker steadily.

'A letter from Stenhouse, showing Frost that everything was burst up, summoned him to Calcutta. So, after drinking himself crazy, he went and cut his throat in the bathroom, and--that was his end.'

'Was it?--how awful ' exclaimed Trafford. 'Do you know, I had an impression last night that something of that sort had happened here.'

'Oh, bosh! This bungalow is as good in that way as any. There have been lots of suicides, especially in the forest, and every old bungalow can tell some tale. Certainly the Mutiny bungalows I do bar; but here, it's nothing. In isolated spots, men's minds grow a bit crooked from living alone. The great thing is, to be up and doing, and on the move. Now look at me!' said Scruby, who had been pacing the verandah, hands in pockets.

Trafford did as requested. He beheld a slightly built, fair-headed young man with clean-shaven face, a pair of remarkably keen eyes, and a firm, well-cut mouth.

'I get along first rate. I take in heaps of papers, magazines, novels. I can lend you stacks. I garden, I photograph. I have pet wild animals--also | | 52 cows, poultry, and a pack of dogs. I did not bring them along to-day, as they run a chance of being nipped in the forest. Take a leaf out of my book, and keep busy; it's only in the beginning it pinches--when we young fellows are sent out into the wilderness to find ourselves '

'Well, I'll do my little best,' agreed Trafford; 'anyway, I'm keen on my job.'

'That's the main thing. I must confess I rather wonder Stenhouse sent you here. You must have had a rattling good "chit" from home, for as the district is now, it wants a strong man with a sense of his responsibility; and you look a mere lad!'

'I suppose I ought to feel flattered, but Stenhouse's reception certainly did not convey that impression. On the contrary, I think he had his knife into me because, having been at Harrow and Oxford, he thought I might "fancy" myself, and had better get to know my place. My place will be Pahari--for two years.'

Good Lord! what have you been doing already?'

'Nothing, as far as I know; perhaps it was my manner, or because I asked him if he could put me on to a decent bearer; and he glared, and told me to go to--Cook! I suppose he thought it beastly cheek.'

'I expect he had been dining out, and got hold of the wrong champagne. He is not a bad sort; and considered just. I say, how this verandah brings things back! Frost's old Bombay chair, with the greasy mark of his head--and the place he always sat in facing the river. I can see him now-shaky, and silent, and staring, with a pipe in his mouth, and a stiff peg beside him. It was " Qui hi--peg lao!" all day and all night. Well,' in a totally different tone, 'suppose we go out and sit on the steps in the moonlight, and swop shooting yarns?'

'I've none to swop, as you may suppose,' said Trafford, 'but I am only too keen to listen to any amount of your adventures.'

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For the next half-hour, Trafford sat enthralled by moving tales of the pursuit and death of sambur, tiger, bison, and bear. His attention was so close, so unquestioned and sincere, that Eliot Scruby's interest in the new chum increased into a very solid liking--the unconscious Trafford had made a lifelong friend! It appeared that this yellow-headed Scruby had actually shot eleven tiger and three bull bison with his old second-hand Express rifle; and so the two young men remained talking and listening, till the setting of the moon and the stillness of the surrounding world warned them to seek their beds.

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