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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IT was with a halting, half-hearted air that Trafford pressed the one and only bed and bedroom upon his guest. Scruby did not believe in 'things,' and were he to assure him that the spirit of true hospitality lay in the direction of the open verandah and the cane couch, he would have been rudely incredulous. Finally, it was arranged to toss for the charpoy, and to the host's inexpressible relief the outside quarters fell to him. Here he slept speedily and soundly in the chair, with a pillow and rug.

But it was otherwise with Scruby, who, in a gaudy borrowed sleeping-suit, was prepared to enjoy a good night's rest, but after a short interval awoke bewildered to find his heart thumping violently, his face streaming with perspiration, and why? His eyes raked the gloom: there was nothing alarming to be seen or felt-merely a disagreeable odour of dry-rot. Yes, there was! the sensation of something wrong and unusual; undoubtedly a mysterious force, a menacing presence was lurking in the room. | | 54 Strange, sinister, and half-forgotten tales connected with this very bungalow now surged into his mind. For instance, the legend that ages ago Pahari was built on the site of a temple dedicated to secret and bloody rites, inclusive of human sacrifices, and that the demon or entity still haunted the neighbourhood of his obliterated altar, famishing for offerings. This, of course, was rot.

Yet what was the story that Carvill, a level-headed, hard-bitten chap, told of a horrible devilish darkness and paralysing fear. He declared that if he were bound to live at Pahari, there was only one of two things to do--shoot himself--or run home!

Presently Scruby became aware of a hurried breathing close to him--or was it Trafford? Trafford's healthy, long-drawn suspirations came from the verandah, where the door stood wide--one was natural, was the other super-natural?

Nevertheless, though his blood ran cold, he generously refrained from shouting to his host, but rose, and lit a candle with tremulous haste: there was nothing whatever to be seen! He walked into the verandah and looked out. All was silent in a warm throbbing darkness; even the shrilling insects were at rest. The beautiful moon of the rains had sunk behind the horizon, and a complete hush descended on this, the deathly hour between sunset and dawn. Scruby returned to what was truly a dark room; here was a darkness that could be felt, a blackness almost corporeal! but controlling his fears by an enormous effort of will, he hunted for a book--and in vain. Eventually, he was compelled to content himself with an old Scotch newspaper; but even a steady reading of the Perth sheep and wool sales failed in effect. He was wide awake and alert, till a certain bright star arose and glimmered in the eastern horizon; behold Lucifer, Son of the Morning! Then Scruby blew out the candle--and fell asleep.

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By twelve o'clock the new Forest Officer had taken his bearings, and in a fashion set his house in order--thanks to the active assistance and fluent tongue of his companion, and together they started through the great Rodore Reserve for Chandi. Trafford enjoyed this ride; to-day the aspect of the forest seemed different, and full of delightful surprises.

Scruby, who had assumed the rôle of mentor and showman, would interrupt a vivid description of cricket or polo, to indicate some object worthy of note: a rare bird, a sapling frayed and red from the recent rubbing of stags' antlers, the call of a barking deer from the cool depths of a thicket of bamboos, or the clumps of ground orchids, wild lilies, and maiden-hair.

'I must get you that chestnut pony,' he remarked, 'while you fatten up Gehazi. I dare say you could do with two more.'

' Well, perhaps I might.'

'You know, you will be often riding over to see me, and that is a job for one--a motor would be handy if there was only a road.'

'I shall be only too glad to look you up. You have been a real good Samaritan. I must confess, till you came over, I felt like an owl in the desert--a pelican alone upon the house-top!'

'You and I will be pals, Trafford. You see, you are nearer my age than the others. Maguire and the doctor are right good fellows, but over forty--and we have not exactly the same point of view.'

'And you may suppose that I, who am a stranger in the land, will be only too thankfull for a chum, and will get away as often as I can. Pahari is a dreary hole.'

'It is--but you must buck up, and come in often. Gehazi knows the Chandi road well.'

'Gehazi! I say, what a name! It sounds almost profane.'

'Isn't he as white as snow? We are great on | | 56 nicknames out here: the Kennedys are Uncle Dick and Aunt Aggie; Maguire is the Jabberwock; and I'm the Gosling!'

'The Gosling!' repeated Trafford, staring; 'why?'

'Oh, I 'm no fool, as I hope you have already realized; but some stupid ass discovered the likeness--my yellow head, sharp beak, long neck, and a good deal of cackle. I'll be the Gosling when I haven't a hair or a tooth left. However, it amuses them, and does me no harm.'

'I wonder how I shall be labelled?'

Scruby turned in his saddle, and surveyed him deliberately.

'I see nothing remarkable--nothing to catch the eye, as yet.'

His gaze continued to rest on his companion, who was now looking straight ahead. Trafford was an extraordinarily good-looking fellow, with a strong face and a Ten Commandments sort of expression. He must be unusually clever and efficient to be posted to such a difficult district; but when Scruby recalled the gloomy, dilapidated bungalow, the rotting boards, the dank, tall jungle, the bedroom, he did not envy his new friend his billet!

'I'll get you a decent bearer--my old chap's son,' he said suddenly. 'He will look after you; and I'll give you a dog, a really well-bred pup. You must keep a dâk coolie for your letters--and--and--if I were you, I think--I'd move your bed to the other end of the bungalow.'

Trafford glanced at him sharply.

'Well--er--you see, it's more open,' he explained rather lamely.

'Yes, I dare say it is. I must get hold of some furniture--but where?'

'Kampti or Jubbulpore is your nearest; but I'll lend you a few sticks to go on with.'

'Thank you. I say, what a country for lending!'

'And borrowing,' added Scruby with a laugh. | | 57 'I've had the very salt and mustard carried off from under my nose--the servants do it--every one for his own master!'

As they talked, they were riding up a gradual slope, and suddenly emerged from the dim, damp forest upon a broad majestic highway, lined with nim trees, and presenting an animated and noisy scene. Here were long long lines of creaking bullock carts, the drivers incognito, their brown blankets drawn over their heads, strings of pack bullocks laden with rice and grain, ekkas packed to the roof, and not a few family parties on the move on foot, carrying their bundles and cooking pots--for even the natives of India have caught the contagious fever of this age--restlessness.

'The Grand Trunk Road,' announced Scruby, with a comprehensive wave of his hand; 'a great feature--these trees you see now and then, with a squat little image or a stone daubed red, and decorated with coloured rags, are sacred, and the rags an offering to propitiate the gods, and ensure a safe journey--especially through the forest.'

Trafford gazed on a rag-coloured tree with astonished eyes and grave interest; it was his first introduction to heathendom.

'How extraordinary!' he exclaimed, 'and this the twentieth century. I suppose these people believe there's something in it?

'They do, and with all their jim-jams they are a thousand times more what is called "religious" than we are! It's an all-week business with them. I say, shall we shove on a bit?--I'm starving; but I know that Solomon--my head man--has mulligatawny and a fat duck for tiffin--last night's dinner, you see'

Half an hour's brisk trotting brought the riders to a thick bamboo clump through which peered the red-tiled roof of a bungalow; it stood a little aloof from the highway, with two entrances, gate piers | | 58 (Central Province fashion) without gates. It was a bright, cheerful-looking abode, with snow-white steps and a pillared verandah--from which instantly charged four barking dogs, and a parrot in a cage screamed, 'Qui hi! Qui hi! Oh, shut up!'

By one side of the steps--chained and drowsy--basked a sleek young panther, who surveyed them steadily with cruel half-closed eyes, and at a little distance in the compound a spotted deer was tethered. To the right lay a cook-house and stables; outside of these, a stout and very hot black pony was being vigorously rubbed down. To the left lay a garden filled with roses, vegetables, and patches of luscious lucerne, and the entire establishment wore a bustling, gay, well-cared for appearance that appealed to Trafford on the spot. Two syces now came running to meet their master, who exclaimed as he dismounted--

'Hullo, I say! I see Gresham is here; that is his pony. I would not be surprised if he has polished off our tiffin.'

Escorted by four dogs and an insidious mongoose, the hungry pair entered the sitting-room, where at the head of the table an individual, with a newspaper propped against a decanter, was seated at lunch.

As he threw down the screen he revealed a broad-shouldered, well-set-up man of about five-and-thirty, with close-cropped dark hair, a square forehead, black brows, a well-formed nose, and very square jaw; the mouth was concealed by a trim moustache. Mr. Gresham was dressed in neat riding kit, and a heavy whip lay beside him on the table. When he raised his head and stared at Trafford with a pair of bold, tyrannous blue eyes, that young man was instantly conscious of dislike at first sight.

'Hullo, Gos!' he exclaimed, in a full hearty voice. 'So you are back! See,' indicating the carcase of a duck, and a table strewn with cigar ends and empty soda-water bottles,' I did not wait for you. I was | | 59 ravenous! I must say your chap is a treasure. Lord, what a lime soufflé!'

'Glad you liked it, but I think you might have left us some of the duck,' protested Scruby, in an injured tone.

'My dear fellow, I did not expect you; anyway, I believe there's cold hump. This,' with a casual nod at Trafford, 'I presume, is the new fellow in place of poor Charlie Frost?'

'Yes--Trafford--this is Gresham--Gresham--Trafford,' announced Scruby in a grumpy voice; undoubtedly the disappointment respecting the duck still rankled.

'Ah, pleased to welcome you,' said Gresham, extending a hand with the air of the master of the house, and looking him over in a leisurely way. 'Only just come, I suppose?'

It occurred to Trafford that his manner was distinctly lofty.

'Yes, three days ago.'

'And so you have got the Pahari district, eh? It's a rotten billet. I am the Agent and Secretary of the Rajah of Jambore, and have a good deal to do with his woods, so I expect we shall meet officially. I often drop in here on Scruby and the little station.'

'So I hear,' said Trafford stiffly. The magnificent patronage of Gresham, especially when he spoke of himself as 'the Rajah's Secretary,' riled the newcomer.

As Scruby had departed to pillage the larder, the invited guest drew up a chair, and seated himself; he was struck by the tidiness, order, and air of homely comfort about his present quarters: the heads, horns, and sporting prints on the walls; bamboo bookcases crammed with books, the large writing-table with ample elbow-room, and deep and roomy arm-chairs-just the sort to cast oneself into after a long day's work!

'Yes,' exclaimed Gresham, interpreting his | | 60 thoughts; 'the Gosling knows how to do himself well! Good cook, good ponies, and bungalow complete in every particular. It only wants the lady! Though, perhaps, there 's a little too much of the Zoo' about the place to suit a nervous young woman.'

'The Zoo' echoed Scruby, who now entered, followed by a khitmagar carrying a tray. 'Well, I don't mind,' sitting down, and helping his guest to beer. 'The Zoo is a popular institution, and,' significantly, 'well patronized. Anyway, it's better than the Reptile-house, eh?'

'Oh, if you are going to talk scandal,' protested Gresham, rising,'I'm off'; and he took up his whip. 'I just want to look in on the doctor. I'11 take your brown pony. See you again, Gos. Good-bye, Trafford. Glad to have met you; you must come out some day to Jambore, and I 'll show you my pet Rajah. I suppose you are going back to-night.'

' No, indeed,' replied Scruby, speaking hastily with his mouth full; 'he is stopping here for a couple of days.'

'Yes?' halting in the doorway; 'and where are you going to put him?'

'Why, in the spare room--where else?'

Gresham's face assumed a fixed expression.

'But, my dear fellow, I've brought over my kit--where do I come in?' he demanded aggressively.

'I'm rather afraid that for once, Gresham, old boy, you'll have to do the other thing--and go out,' replied Scruby in a cheery voice. 'The Castellas or the doctor will give you a shakedown.'

'Oh!' ejaculated the would-be guest; then, after a moment's hesitation, he added briskly, 'Well, all right; but I'll come back to dinner. I'd like to cultivate our new friend.'

He threw a quick glance at Trafford, as he walked off, and was presently heard shouting to the syces in authoritative Hindustani.

'He did not like it one little bit!' remarked Scruby | | 61 later on, as he and his companion went into the verandah to smoke, and they caught sight of a figure galloping away on a fine brown pony. 'You see, Gresham has come to look on this house as his own exclusive property. He is a rum beggar--extraordinarily clever in his way. There is a queer sort of magnetism about him, and he gets every single blessed thing he wants; has everything done for him, and never puts himself out one quarter of an inch; in fact, he rules this place.'

'But why? For the life of me, I cannot understand,' said Trafford, who had not taken to the gentleman.

'Well, he is under the impression that he discovered us--much as if we were a desert island! To give him his due, he has woke up the station, taught us new tricks, and introduced civilization. He declares that he has the priceless gift of amusing others, and that we could not exist without him!'

'And only for this billet with the Rajah--he would still be living round--or would he go home?'

'Ask me another! He is a riddle, and as clever as he can stick; capital at games and dances, a sound adviser about ladies' frocks, and a fine judge of a horse--don't let him sell you one--plays bridge like a book, and has a wonderful head for drink-two bottles of champagne might be so much spring water.'

'But,' argued Trafford, 'Mrs. Kennedy said this place was Arcadia or Eden--without Eve or the Serpent--cards and champagne absolutely unknown.'

'Ah! Uncle Dick has not been here for some years. We are changed, and have our beautiful Eve and our wily Serpent--I name no names! Gresham has a good deal to say to our revolution, though in church he is a pattern, and when the padré is away for weeks and weeks, always reads the services and lessons in a fine sonorous voice; when big-wigs camp around, I tell you he has the manners of a number one aide-de-camp.'

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'Oh I so then you like him?' said Trafford rather shortly.

'Well, I don't know--I 'm not afraid of him anyhow,' declared Scruby, stretching his arms over his head and stifling a yawn, 'though better be his friend than his enemy!'

'But isn't he the fellow you found shabby and famished in a Dâk bungalow, without a single rupee to his name?'

'That's a true bill; and there he is now, the Rajah's right hand--the big boss of this little station--which he is at present turning out for inspection, on my best pony! Come along; your coolie and baggage have arrived. I'll show you the spare room. You can have a tub, and when you are ready I'll take you round my premises.'

Later on, Scruby formally introduced his dogs, Tom, Dick, and Fanny.

'Harry was taken by a panther. I'll give you one of Fanny's pups, and you must call him Henry. The dogs are pure English bred--but they run to leg, and have a different sort of bark out here.'

After this he proudly exhibited his heads and skins; his butterflies, garden and stables, Ella his pet panther, and Barli his pet bear.

'I rather bar shooting bears,' he announced, 'they cry so, and sing a horrible sort of requiem that haunts one. I shot her mother two years ago, and this little cub was on her back--no bigger than a small cat. I brought the poor furious orphan home, and here she is, as you see--and eats out of your hand.'

Barli, an amiable lady, mopped and mowed from side to side and offered a clumsy paw. She had a snow-white frill, and a most beautiful parting all the way down her back, as neat and straight as if it had been divided by a comb.

'She is awfully tame, and so friendly with dogs and every one, and loves cake.'

'Don't you give her meat?' asked Trafford.

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'No. Where is your natural history? The old girl is a vegetarian, and she has her rice and milk--two seers morning and evening. We are obliged to keep her fastened up in the daytime, as otherwise she scrimmages about and makes hay in the house; but she is loose at night, and never roams far. Do you see those scratches on her lovely face?'

'I do; been in the wars with cats?'

'No; a panther that was going to carry off a dog--her special friend--and she gave him what for!'

Before dinner, the young men strolled into Chandi to the little Club, a neat thatched bungalow with deep verandahs, surrounded by tennis and badminton courts.

'Of course you must become a member,' said Scruby; 'I'll put you up,' and he led the way into the building.

The smoking-room was empty; in the billiard-room, two pallid youths were knocking the balls about.

'They are a couple of Heron's clerks,' explained Scruby. 'We are not exactly the Carlton, nor too exclusive--and these poor beggars want a little amusement. I expect the upper ten are all in the card-room,' he added, pulling back a purdah. It disclosed four enthusiasts playing bridge, who looked up and nodded at Scruby. The quartette included Gresham and three others.

'The man opposite is the doctor,' Scruby whispered; 'the grey-headed chap in shirt-sleeves is Heron; and the dummy is Maguire. We won't disturb them--they hate spectators--and so we will clear out.'

Gresham appeared at dinner, radiant with good-humour.

'Ha! a winner I see!' exclaimed his host.

'Yes, a few rupees only. I took them off the doctor--he was out of luck, and went on weak No Trumpers.'

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'Sometimes they come off,' remarked Trafford.

'You play of course?' glancing at him eagerly.

'Not much--and not well.'

'Oh, we will soon take you in hand! You know there's nothing to do in the jungle but shoot, drink, and play cards.'

'Speak for yourself, Gresham!' objected Scruby.

'Yes, we all know you're a model--a plaster saint. Thank the Lord, I'm not! Trafford, I'm afraid you will be indeed a lost babe starving in the wood at Pahari, but there is a nice little empty bungalow in the station that you might take--and I'll show you the ropes.'

'I wish I could--but I must live where I am posted.'

'And what a hole it is! I used to go there now and then to cheer up poor old Frost; and he always swore there was something in the house urging him to cut his throat.'

'Oh, shut up, Gresham!' interposed Scruby, with a touch of temper. 'Let us talk of something else--every one knows Frost had D.T.'

Gresham accordingly changed his attitude of teacher, patron and counsellor, and proceeded to put several pertinent questions to Trafford in a hearty, good-natured fashion. He soon discovered what part of the world he came from, where he had been to school, his father's regiment, and arrived at the conclusion that this smooth-faced, grave-eyed youth was no green boy--nor one to carry his heart on his sleeve. His speech was deliberate, and his gaze steady. It was extraordinary what a talent Gresham displayed for finding out all about other people's affairs--even the most trivial details--and this from a man so severely reticent regarding himself! In fact, he kept curiosity at bay with a manner that was almost intimidating. He was a Londoner, he had been in the Service, but the rascality of his trustees had ruined him. He liked India, it was just a bit of all right, and here ended the history of Ivor Gresham.

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He soon realized that Trafford, who was not a young man after his own heart (smoked a pipe, drank beer, talked but little), was by no means the usual impecunious fellow, come out to live on, and save his pay, wear Cawnpore boots, jharun coats, and ride cheap 'tats.' Here was a plutocrat, who got his clothes in Savile Row, his guns at Purdeys', travelled first class by P. & O., talked of three or four ponies, and must naturally be cultivated and conciliated; so he abandoned his superior attitude of 'you're not a bad little unfledged chicken,' for that of hand in hand camaraderie and close brotherly fellowship.

When Scruby was called out of the room on business--just as the plantains and custard apples were placed on the table--Gresham hitched his chair closer to the new-comer, and said in a confidential tone--'Now, that's a rare good chap! an old head on young shoulders,' and he laughed, and poured more whisky into his glass. 'I suppose he went to look you up?'

'Yes, he did.'

'Always prompt! and has reported on all of us, eh?' (This query was accompanied by a suspicious alertness of eye.) 'To-morrow, he will lug you round the station, and introduce you to our smart set.'

'I shall be very glad to know them; but I've no end of work to do, and must get back.'

'Well, don't overdo it. Hard labour doesn't pay in jungly billets, and there's a lot of malaria about Pahari. Scruby's nearest neighbours are the Castellas--did he say anything of them?'

Something--not much,' was the cautious reply.

They are nearly broke, I'm afraid. No money sense in the family--I don't know what will be the end--always on the wild-goose chase.'

They, however, have settled here?'

'Yes; he has a miserable little business--a scent distillery. I don't suppose he makes what pays the | | 66 bread man! They live in a tumble-down old place, and Miss Hampton, the "Europe" daughter, has a fine job to keep a roof over their heads. That is a wonderful girl, full of go and pluck. I admire her; though it 's not, I'm sorry to say, mutual. The old woman, who has been a beauty in the milk and roses style, will soon nail you for sympathy for her fallen estate, and tell you all about her carriage, her cook, her debts, and her spasms. Between her extravagance and his crazy schemes, the Castellas have let quite a large fortune slip through their fingers, and now it's the deluge!' As he concluded he pushed back his chair, rose to his feet, and proceeded to pace the room.

'Can't people help them a little?' suggested Trafford.

'They do. I get my Rajah to buy the poisonous odour, the Gosling sends game and vegetables, Mrs. Heron lends a hand with frocks. Oh, there are good Samaritans in Chandi, I tell you!'

Gresham had the ready qualities of a man of the world, and talked to the new-comer with tact, discrimination, and facility. After ten minutes desultory conversation, Scruby reappeared, and he said--

'Oh, here is the Gosling again! I say, Gos, let's get out the bridge table, and have a game of "Cut Throat."'

'All right,' he agreed; 'mind you, you must not rook Trafford. He says he is not a strong player--so we will only say eight annas.'

'Oh, my dear fellow,' expostulated Gresham, 'I never play less than a rupee a hundred.'

'All right, I am agreeable,' said Trafford; 'a rupee is not breaking'; and the three sat down and cut for partners. Gresham drew dummy. He soon proved himself an admirable performer; so steady, so absolutely sure of himself; with an unerring memory and a definite scheme, trick after trick fell | | 67 into his ready hands, and at twelve o'clock, when Scruby declared for bed, Trafford found himself scribbling an I.O.U. for thirty rupees to the credit of Ivor Gresham.

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