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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THE new bearer, Manoo, proved to be a capable man accustomed to the straits and hand-to-mouth expedients of jungle households; at Pahari | | 115 forest bungalow various new chairs, tables, and cooking-pots had appeared, a larger staff of servants, a flock of (temporarily) delighted ducks were quacking and swimming in the rain-pools, and a young, noisy, and insatiably hungry parrot hung in the verandah in a bazaar cage. The pup Henry, who was the baby of the establishment, engrossed a flattering amount of affection and attention--though he once suffered the indignity of being all but carried off by a hawk! Altogether, the premises were changed, and exhibited a surprising amount of bustle and life.

Trafford felt a different individual; it seemed to him as if the visits of Scruby and Miss Hampton--especially Miss Hampton--had left a beneficent impression on the atmosphere; this might, of course, be a wild, mad idea, but the sensations of intense depression, apathy, and--to be quite plain with himself--horror, which had at first encompassed him, had been dispersed.

The night after he had escorted Miss Hampton to the forest's edge, though every fibre throbbed with physical fatigue, he felt curiously elated, in extraordinarily good spirits, and sat down and penned a short and enthusiastic letter to his mother, announcing his arrival and address. He also dispatched a note or two to friends, a scrawl to his sister, and retiring to bed with Henry, slept the undisturbed sleep of the weary and the just.

The new Forest Officer began his work in earnest, and the next day he flung himself into his task with enthusiasm; at an early hour he was out on inspection, escorted by a smart young official called Ambado, who spoke a little English, and seemed eager to learn his business. (Ambado eventually became a trusted foreman and right hand.) Mr. Beaufort was senior, but Trafford had taken his measure; he belonged, for all his courteous genuflexions and unctuous expressions, to another type; | | 116 roguery was inscribed on his bland and smiling visage: moreover, he was behind the times; his talk, his explanatory sentences that conveyed nothing but words--words--words--were a mist designed to conceal his absolute indolence, ignorance, and incapacity. He and the young Conservator had several sharp differences of opinion respecting certain grants of grazing and woodcutting that had been allowed to villagers.

The Reserve, too, was in a shockingly neglected condition for want of felling, removing dead and rotten trees, replanting and burning. It seemed to this active and conscientious new-comer, as he looked about, questioned, and rode hither and thither (yes, he could do with three ponies), and attempted sweeping reforms, that the clearing of the Augean stables was a holiday task compared to the one that lay before him. Trafford realized his responsibilities; he was aware that a struggle was imminent, and the conviction of this gave a certain force and elevation to his character. He no longer looked a mere boy in his teens, but a serious official with the cares of a great district on his shoulders.

Then as to game. There was no doubt whatever of the ravages of the poacher, and the enormities of the horn-hunter. All this would, and should, be ended--and not from a selfish or personal motive--put down with a firm hand. Whoever was caught killing game without a licence would be heavily fined and punished.

'I shall put poaching out of fashion,' thought this sanguine youth. 'When a poacher finds that heads are too costly, he will soon let the forest alone!' He gathered his guards and employees together near the bungalow, and standing bare-headed on the verandah, as in a pulpit, made them his first speech in halting but vigorous language. The crowd stood below, transfixed in silence and amazement. Did this well-favoured young sahib with the bright | | 117 eyes, with, as one might say, 'the milk still on his lips,' think that he could alter the forest customs, and combat the wood and game 'dustoor'? After all, were not the wood, and grass, and creatures, and the money to be made thereof, the property of those who lived upon the land as their forefathers had done for thousands of years?

They listened with true Eastern courtesy, salaamed and replied with one accord--

'Ap ki kushi! (Since it is the will of the Protector of the Poor, so be it!) But some of the older shikaris looked at one another curiously; and Kakor, the chief of these, and rich with the spoils of tiger skins and horns, said to his colleagues--

'Of a surety, he does not know that Beaufort is of us--and with Beaufort is another. He may talk and order and upbraid--but truly he is helpless--and the voice of the people is God's drum!'

Therefore it was in the nature of a sensation when, three weeks later, the news ran in and around the forest that Beaufort had been dismissed. The clear-headed Trafford--who never muddled his brains with 'whisky schrab'--spent one or two wet days in going over books, and examining accounts, and had discovered several inexplicable matters--in short, serious defalcations. Mr. Beaufort was summoned to his presence, and the servants, who listened attentively, subsequently announced, 'There was much loud talk, but the young sahib was too strong--oh, he was very strong, and Beaufort, so fierce and angry at first, had at last fallen on his knees and wept like a butcha (baby), and departed afterwards on his pony with his head hanging low, and bowed with grief.'

Yes, Beaufort was dismissed. A prompt correspondence settled this matter with headquarters, and Stenhouse grinned as he showed a report to his secretary.

'I didn't believe the chap had it in him! I | | 118 thought he was one of your kid-glove fellows; but I see he is a man after my own heart, and can exercise his judgment, and administrative functions. Short, sharp, decisive is the word! I was afraid the job there would be too big for him, but, by George! he is going to make his subordinates sit up, and is ready to fight the whole crowd of plundering, thieving rascals!'

'Yes,' agreed his secretary, handing back the letter, 'his reports are wonderfully lucid, for such a beginner. Evidently he comes of a fighting caste--I see he is an enthusiast.'

'An enthusiast!' cried Stenhouse. 'God forbid!'

'Yes; you, I know, agree with that fellow who said, Surtot, pas de zèle. For my part, I admire a little zèle, and I'd like to know where our British Empire would be without it?'

'Ah, well, the British Empire is a long way from a thieving forest baboo. I see Trafford asks for a small pension--as the rascal has spent twenty-three years in successfully plundering the Government, I expect his pockets are pretty heavy; but I suppose he must have it, and the business be hushed up, otherwise matters may be awkward--and Trafford find himself in a nest of hornets.'

'That Beaufort chap should be sent to the Andamans!'

'Of course--but instead, he will live near the scene of his successes, and be the backer--or rather leader--of the poachers, who will now fight Trafford tooth and nail.'

'It's rather rough on the boy,' muttered the secretary.

'It is, I grant you; but it will be fine practice, and harden him for the big battle of life.'

'Poor chap! Pahari is a beastly hole, and with all the forest against him, man and beast! I would not be in his shoes for something--certainly not for his pay, three hundred and eighty rupees a month!

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But Stenhouse was already engrossed in another correspondence, and made no reply.

The news of Beaufort's fall flew through the Bandi, and was handed on as a sort of fiery cross from village to village; it even penetrated to the Club at Chandi, where Heron, as he settled himself down to bridge, said--

'I say, you fellows! Have you heard that that new chap Trafford is raising no end of a dust in his department--chucking out old hands, and setting his house in order with a vengeance?'

Maquire and the doctor were too much engrossed in sorting their cards to be interested, but Gresham, with a cigarette in his mouth and a sneer on his face, mumbled the words, 'New Broom!'

Gresham's acquaintances were figuratively divided into two columns, 'Profit and Loss.' This recent arrival undoubtedly came under the head of 'Loss.' Publicly he liked Trafford. 'Such a rare nice chap! So unaffected, and good-looking!' Privately, he hated him; and for three weighty reasons. Firstly, because he had in a way ousted him from the Zoo--where he had looked upon the comfortable little spare room as his own. Now, since Trafford and Scruby were such pals, he never knew when his quarters would be empty! Reason the second: it was noised abroad that Trafford had the refusal of Joan Hampton's pony--an animal he had intended for his own riding. He proposed to buy for four, sell the Sirdar to the Rajah for eight hundred rupees--and borrow him on every occasion. So Trafford had indirectly done him out of a considerable sum of money, and a ripping good mount. Thirdly and lastly, Trafford was playing the very devil in the forest! The shikaris and horn-hunters were frightened and idle, all 'business' was at a standstill: Haman was furious, for he had quantities of orders, and many impatient and clamouring customers. | | 120 Trafford found time to pay his promised visit to the Kennedys; but a flock of tents pitched under the cork and tamarind trees, and groups of gaily dressed ladies and flannel-clad men, scared him away; after a short colloquy with the Kennedys' butler, he was riding off, when Mrs. Kennedy caught sight of him, and came hurrying to greet him.

'You are not going--oh, how shameful!'

'Yes, I 'm not got up for Society, you see, and I'll come again when you are all alone. I will indeed.'

'Now please get down at once,' she said authoritatively. 'If you don't, Dick will be so angry, I assure you--he will indeed.'

'But just look at me! Mrs. Kennedy,' he expostulated--'flannel shirt, muddy leggings, and jungle kit.'

'I'd no idea you were so vain.'

'I'm not; only I like to do credit to my first friend in India.'

'Well, do get off for five minutes, have some "cup," and let your pony have bran and water.'

'All right, thank you, but I really must not detain you. I'll get back--Gehazi is posted half-way.'

'Oh, wait a few minutes. They are all engaged. Badminton and three sets of tennis. We have one of your neighbours with us--Mr. Scruby. He came round by rail. And how do you get on?'

'Pretty well, thanks to the start you gave me. Mr. Kennedy was right. Tell him that I had good reason to be sorry for not remaining here a night or two. However, now I've got my work commenced, and I've been in to Chandi.'

'Have you? I've not travelled so far for years. What is it like now?'

'Rather a pretty place, with well-kept roads and gardens, and a nice little Club.'

'And the people?'

'They are not just the simple, spoon-fed community you imagine,' he answered, with a broad | | 121 smile.' They know all about bridge and champagne! No better, and no worse, than the rest of us. And now I must be off--I'll ride over again before long.'

In six weeks Trafford had made several agreeable excursions into the station, stayed with Scruby, played tennis and billiards at the Club, visited Mrs. Castellas, and dined with Mrs. Heron. Mrs. Heron accorded him a flattering welcome; her manner was almost sisterly, as she inquired after his doings, his domestics and his welfare. During dinner, Mr.Heron asked pertinent questions respecting the district--the probable output of wood, the quantity of sâl teak, and the all-important matter of transport. He was agreeably surprised to find that this good-looking boy knew his trade, and had quite an acute business instinct.

'So I hear you are working tremendous reforms amoung the forest folk?' he said.

'Well, I'm doing my best.'

'Gresham was talking about it in the Club. He thinks you are making a most tremendous mistake.'

'I am afraid I don't set any value on Mr. Gresham's opinion of forestry,' rejoined Trafford stiffly. His suspicions of this gentleman had been aroused; he almost believed that Gresham was the power behind Beaufort, and Heron glancing at the young Forest Officer gathered that war had been declared between the houses of Gresham and Trafford!

After dinner, when the lights were low, and Tom Heron was dozing over a cheroot in the verandah, Mrs. Heron sang to their guest, seductive Spanish love songs, in the most exquisitely sweet voice it had ever been his good fortune to hear. The visitor had also been prevailed upon to sing; he had a nice tenor, which his charming accompanist compared to Caruso's. Flattered, elated, enraptured, he rode into the starlit night, with the sacred confidences of a low emotional contralto in his ears, and the thrilling pressure of a soft hand still tingling in his young veins.

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'Let's look at you,' cried Scruby, as he sprang up the steps.' I want to see your head--and if it's turned.'

'No; it 's screwed on a good bit tighter than you'd think.'

'So you had a jolly evening?'

'Rather! Mrs. Heron sang--oh, ye gods, what a voice!'

'The voice of the charmer, isn't it? I give her her voice--a most effective--lure. She sang a lot of Spanish things, "A Creole Love Song," and "Si vous n'avez rien a me dire," I'll bet my bear!'

'I say, Scruby--you and I will never agree there.'

'No, she agrees with you--now. Take my word, she will disagree with you later.'

'What a bitter cynic you are! My good Gosling, what a terrible old man you'll be! Mrs. Heron was awfully kind, and is lending me books, and has asked me to come over and stay a week.'

'Oh yes, I know the programme, and bring your songs--and your ponies--and your sympathy--eh?'

'I refused, of course. I cannot get off for more than a Sunday; and, anyway, I told her I was pledged to you.'

'That's right!' said Scruby, nodding approval, 'It is not every young man who, after a dainty dinner, enthralling company, and seductive songs, can turn his back on the Venusberg, and go forth into the cool and lonely forests.'

'Now look here, Scruby,' said Trafford, suddenly springing to his feet; 'if you and I are to be friends--you will never mention Mrs. Heron's name to me again.'

'What! Do you mean that?' stammered Scruby, for once completely taken aback.

'Yes, I do. Good night. I'm off at four o'clock in the morning.'

. . . . . . .

When Joan Hampton returned from her adventure | | 123 in the forest, and related what Gresham declared to be a 'cock-and-bull story' about a buffalo and Trafford, her family received the news with their usual apathetic placidity. Joan was often late and roaming, and she did not mind adventures,--or even dangerous animals. Twice she had killed snakes in the compound, and once she had thrown a verandah chair at a thing she said was a panther.

She cashed the price of Sirdar with the bazaar bunya, paid off the overhanging debt the day after her long ride, and when the frugal midday meal of dàl curry and fruit fritters was over, followed her mother to her room. Mrs. Castellas, in a loose blue wrapper was busily engaged in putting her scanty fringe into pins, and preparing to enjoy her usual siesta. On the bed lay a parcel, just arrived by 'Value paid, parcel post.' It contained many yards of white spangled material, some white satin, and a pair of dancing shoes.

'Mother, I've come for the money for the servants' wages--forty rupees. You know they are two weeks overdue, and the syce is owed for oil and gram.'

'Oh, laws me, Joan, they can wait!' exclaimed Mrs. Castellas, turning round, and gesticulating with her ugly little hands. 'You cannot get money where there is none, nor blood out of a stone. I have not one pice!' and, with an air of finality, she tucked herself on to a cane couch, and drew her draperies around her.

'But, mother dear, the forty rupees for the little yellow cow?' urged the housekeeper.

'I've just paid it to the bangy-wallah. See'--indicating the bed--'it's for Lily's dress. There is to be a ball in the Club later, and the poor darling has nothing--nothing! How can you expect a girl of her age and beauty to stand aside, and see all the fun and all the life go past her? Can you, dearie?' and she looked up at Joan with a pair of plaintive and searching eyes.

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But Joan was silent.

'You are so different,' pursued her mother. 'You are much older--you do not care, and you are so wise and steady; but if Lily does not get what she wants, you see how she weeps, and frets, and will not eat, and is so miserable; and when she is miserable, I am more than miserable--so there it is! You know, dear, we must try and make a little effort for the poor darling.'

Joan took a turn about the room; then she went over to the bed and examined the pretty spangled stuff, the satin, and the shoes. All the time she was thinking; she must speak plainly to her mother, more plainly than she had ever done, and be firm and unmoved by tears. How she hated her task! But unless they were all to be driven forth as beggars, she was called upon to make a stand. There was--as far as she knew--nothing but her one hundred a year between them and utter destitution. The factory did not pay--and never would pay--and careful as she was of every crumb and bone, her mother brought in guests constantly, and offered pegs (with whisky at four rupees a bottle). The doctor, poor man, was not a spender; indeed he was sorely in need of new boots, and a coat--but Lily was incessantly pleading and clamouring for clothes--for pretty frocks--for money for novelettes and sweets--and her mother, who could never refuse her, went on credit wherever it could be obtained. Then came the bills, which she had to face. The price of poor Sirdar had gone to settle a long-overdue account to a firm in Calcutta for stores and drapery, and this squandering of the cow money was positively the last straw. Some would have abandoned the task, and returned home; but Joan was attached to her weak, faded little mother, who clung to her as to a lifebuoy. Indeed she was aware that all the family fastened upon her in this character. As she stood by the bed, she was considering and making | | 125 up her mind, and recalling the advice of her new acquaintance.

At last she went over, sat down beside her mother on the matted floor, and took her helpless little hand in hers. Mrs. Castellas started--she had been half asleep.

'What is it?' opening her eyes--'a visitor?'

'No; I want to have a little serious talk with you, mother.'

'Oh, dearie, not now. I am so sleepy,' and she closed her eyes as if to dismiss all outside worries, and the troublesome world.

'Yes, now please--it's about money.'

'Oh, laws me! how I hate money talk!' and Mrs. Castellas's tone was querulous.

'But, dear mother, do think--without money, we should starve, or go into the Friend in Need Society--or some refuge place for poor Whites.'

Mrs. Castellas dragged away her hand, with a gesture of indignation.

'You see, dear, we have no income,' persisted her tormentor, in a coaxing voice.

'Your hundred a year is certain, anyhow.'

'It is barely enough to pay for mere food, and there is rent, and clothes, and light, and the servants' wages.'

'A set of thieves--they live on us!'

'They are so poor, their wages are low, and behind-hand. The rent is owing for more than two years. Then there have been great debts--many are still owing.--I have sold my pony.'

'What! My goodness! Sold your pony?' sitting up with a jerk.

'Yes; I had no choice. Chutter-je Huckerjee would have sent down a process server this week to claim the furniture.'

'Oh, what a brute! What a pig! But I do not see why you should have sold your pony--it will make talk--and your father is bound to bring off this scheme.'

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'Poor man, I wish he might, but how can he? He has no capital, no market; the road too is so bad. He has now only a few coolies working.'

'But he says Gresham is talking about getting up a company, and the Rajah will take shares. Oh yes, Gresham will certainly help.'

'No; he never helps any one but himself, and we must help ourselves, and cut down all expenses.'

'Expenses! Oh, my dearie, you do make me laugh!' and she smoothed her daughter's hair.

'The Club subscription--ten rupees a month--guests, wine, whisky, tinned stores, hams--all very expensive. We must live as frugally as natives. We do,--when alone.'

'But I cannot have Gresham and Chapman and the Bright boys and girls here, and offer nothing.'

'Oh yes. Every one knows how hospitable you have been always. You must live on your reputation.'

'I think I would rather die,' she wailed, ' than not be able to offer a cup of tea.'

'But do please listen, mother. It's not merely a cup of tea--it's seldom that. It's, "You must stay for a few days--you must dine--you must lunch."'

'Well, I've always done it,' she exclaimed passionately, 'ever since I married Castellas. Of course your own father was different. We never saw company, except a few of his friends, stupid elderly men, literary people like himself; but when we did entertain, everything was of the very best. For the last few years, when his health was failing, we never had a soul. I'll allow he was a refined, gentlemanly man, so quiet and kind--but twenty-five years older than I was.'

'Then I wonder he married! My grandmother was his housekeeper, wasn't she?'

'Yes, she was, and no better. She knew his family all her life, and was most superior, and so strict. She brought me there when I was twenty, | | 127 and Mr. Hampton--and--and--well--after all, I was very pretty, he was a man--and my mother was dead set on the match--so there it was!'

'My father had a large fortune?'

'Oh yes; for a writer he was rich, and left his money, as you know, to me, saying something nice, that I might enjoy it, and my life and youth, and be a good mother to you. He gave instructions about your education, and said you were to go to school. He was so awful particular, always correcting the way I talked and pronounced words. He would not let me say "okard" for awkward, or "Whatever is it?" or "Oh, laws!"--you see I don't forget. Gresham says my English is so pure!'

But, mother, we have wandered a long way from our present business. I want you in future to promise me you will invite no guests to dine or lunch or visit, run no bills whatever, here or else-where--and leave all the money troubles on my shoulders.'

'Oh dear, oh dear, then we shall have a poor time' and Mrs. Castellas began to weep, and wring her hands.

'We have no choice,' urged the girl, standing up as she spoke.

'Why not?' argued her mother. 'The people here are all so kind. The doctor--or Mr. Maguire--would feel it a compliment if you asked them to lend us a few hundred rupees. I am sure they would do it for you--they would not say no to you--just until the distillery begins to pay. I believe in it, I do--and so does Otto.'

'How many, many schemes have you both believed in, dearest mother? Think'--counting on her fingers--'the jute mill--'

'Oh, we lost thousands!'

'The coal mine--the jam factory--the newspaper--the milk farm--and--now this!'

That is true--all quite true--but such bad luck | | 128 cannot last, and Otto is so clever--something will repay him--look how hard he works.'

'Yes, indeed, but he is not sufficiently practical or hard-hearted to ensure success. Well, mother, what about your promise? Won't you help me?' There was a touch of pathos in her voice as she uttered her request.

Oh, it is so hard to say! If we draw in now, I have to consider poor darling Lily, and her chances. Chapman is just crazy about her; he comes here only to see her--and so does Captain Gresham--he worships the child, does the Captain. Yes, he would be a good match. Maybe a little old, but, I do always say, the grand gentleman, and in such a fine position too, and the child likes him.'

'Yes, I'm afraid she does. Oh, mother, I cannot endure Mr. Gresham. He is a selfish, hard man. I am positive he has no idea of marrying Lily, or any one else--he comes here for a convenience.'

Now what nonsense you are talking!' interrupted Mrs. Castellas, with rising colour. 'Send the young men away that admire your pretty sister; give up company, and the Club; hand the money over to you, and leave you to rule us, as you please. No, never, never, never, never!' she concluded breathlessly.

Joan stood silent during this tirade; burning words were on her lips, tears in her eyes. She felt helpless. After a long silence, she said very gravely--

'Then, mother--there is only one thing to be done, I must leave you. I cannot bear to stay, and witness all the misery that is approaching, and which I can see so distinctly. Misery for Lily, if she cares for Mr. Gresham; misery for you and father, in the way of money difficulties. I will give you fifty pounds a year, and since I may not interfere, you must go your own way; and I only hope and pray that I may be wrong--and that I am as much too pessimistic as you are too optimistic.'

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'Joan!'--throwing her arms round her--'I don't understand your grand words, and I won't understand that you want to leave us. Laws me, what should we do without you? I may have been foolish--I know I am silly--your father always said so--but I can see that you are to us just a rock of strength'; and she clung to her daughter as if she really were what she declared her to be. Subsequently, there were many tears, and a compromise. Joan yielded the Club subscription--ten rupees a month. Mrs. Castellas, on her side, agreed to no balls, no guests, and that Joan was to be the money-holder. Joan granted tea-parties, and a little cash for finery, and sweets; so, after all, the conference ended peacefully, and Mrs. Castellas, feeling vaguely that she had got rid of a heavy burden, and accomplished a virtuous deed, was rewarded with a cup of coffee, and with a contented sigh resumed her interrupted siesta.

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