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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WHEN Joan, with all the honours of conquest, retired to her dreary little room under the musty thatch, there was nothing of the victor in her port. She felt exhausted and dull as she sank wearily into a chair, and stared out upon the pale green rice plains with an expression of hopeless dejection. Two years of an enervating climate, and a heart-breaking struggle, had sapped spirit and vitality, and the late conflict had left her completely prostrated. The day was still and oppressive; the ceaseless drone and buzz of insects filled the air with a drowsy murmur; a bank of murky clouds hung above the distant line of forests, and the prospect | | 130 was sombre and sad; an immense melancholy crept over the girl, which seemed to correspond with her gloomy and depressing outlook.

When her mother had practically abandoned her, and departed to the East, Joan was left at school (as a liberally-paid-for Indian child); her early holidays were spent with two maiden ladies, her father's cousins, sole members of the Hampton family who would acknowledge or receive the housekeeper's granddaughter.

Miss Theresa and Miss Mary Hampton lived in a red-brick Georgian mansion on the outskirts of a prosperous town in Yorkshire. It stood amidst. pleasant, old-fashioned grounds, secluded within high walls. The occupants had but a life interest in 'the Gables,' and their income died with them. Meanwhile they kept up a certain amount of state, read prayers (alternately) to five staid indoor servants and a venerable coachman, issued invitations to one annual garden party, and never, in all their lives, visited in the town. Too proud to acknowledge the Town, too old and uninteresting to be welcome in the County, the Misses Hampton of the Gables were somewhat in the position of the coffin of Mahomet, between earth and heaven. However, besides the poor--two interests were always with them, their garden and their pedigree. Herbaceous borders and 'the Wars of the Roses' were their favourite topics. They addressed one another as 'Sister' in speaking, and when Sister Theresa suggested that Ludovic Hampton's orphan should be countenanced and received, to this Sister Mary eagerly agreed, declaring that 'since Fop, the old Blenheim, was dead, a child would be a nice new pet.'

Joan was five when she paid her first visit to the Gables; a timid little dark-haired creature, terribly afraid of the tall old ladies with bobbing grey curs, the big echoing house and its slippery oak staircase. The small slender creature looked lost in the huge | | 131 four-poster when Lizzie, the kind-hearted housemaid, came to console her--and brought, as an introduction, a slice of bread and butter, covered with delicious brown Demerara sugar. Soon the old women grew accustomed to the child, and the child to them; her shrill young voice, and her quick pattering footsteps, enlivened the staid and silent Gables. She fed the poultry and the canaries with Sister Theresa; weeded the garden, and killed wasps with Sister Mary; and was early educated in the pedigree of the family and the glories of their race. Now and then, after a silent survey, Sister Theresa would piously exclaim--

'Thank God, Sister Mary, the child is a Hampton! There is not a trace of Skeggs. Look at her nose, her ears, her fingers, and her feet!'

And so, from the age of five, it was impressed upon Joan that it was a noble birthright to be born a Hampton. A Hampton had fought at Cressy, had been present at the Field of the Cloth of Gold. Hamptons were always of importance: they had entertained princes, and even kings. Alas, extravagance had been their bane; in this very house, a Hampton had gambled away many wide acres, not only betting on cards, but on pats of butter flung up against the chaste dining-room ceiling. The reigning Hamptons of Hampton Place were still people of acknowledged position, and the sovereigns of Sisters Mary and Theresa. They owned an historical home, valuable pictures, and heirlooms; graciously dispatched game and Christmas cards to their venerable cousins, and thereby made the hearts of these glad within them.

Joan had been educated to look down upon the Town, and desired to remember, that her ancestors had been Crusaders when Mudford was a marshy swamp; she took very readily to this intelligence--for such, after all, is human nature!

As time advanced, and the old ladies declined in | | 132 years, their niece became more prominent in the household. At eighteen she left school, a fairly well-educated, accomplished, and popular girl. She now ordered dinner and the carriage, gave out stores, was consulted in the choice of library books, introduced new chintz covers in the drawing-room, and even palms and lamp-shades. The neighbourhood had become alive to the existence of a young and very pretty Miss Hampton. She was a capital tennis player, and made a sensation at the Hunt Ball. Miss Joan was 'County,' and had a musical laugh, wore a French frock, and an air of distinction. The sisters, who were warmly congratulated by the wife of the Lord-Lieutenant of the Shire and the Duchess of Lincoln, had not felt so proud and for years!

The fame of niece Joan spread to Hampton Place, and the great magnates lent a favourable ear to the praises of their namesake and cousin, and even vouchsafed to extend the sceptre. She was commanded for a three days' visit; and this, such was her success, was prolonged for three weeks, and might have been three months, but for the serious indisposition of Miss Theresa which summoned her home. It proved to be a long and lingering illness, and for nearly a year Joan was both housekeeper and nurse, and finally the comforter of unhappy Cousin Mary, who followed her sister to the family vault within ten days, and Joan found herself alone, not merely in the big old house, but in the world. The two old cousins had nothing to bequeath except one hundred a year, their personal effects, and the framed pedigree. The girl was in a way her own mistress with the said hundred a year, some moth-eaten furs, musty books, mended lace, and two or three fine miniatures.

The Hamptons, who had no daughter of their own, offered Joan a home: they were really anxious to adopt her, this true Hampton, with the family features and characteristics--plus a cool head and | | 133 a warm heart; but as she was deliberating, a letter came summoning her to India.

Joan had idealized this far-away parent--faintly remembered as fair, pretty, and always dressed in pale blue--who had loaded her with presents of Indian bangles, embroideries, and Guava jelly, and sent her gushing, ill-spelt letters. She had cherished a desire to see the mystic East, a craving to know her mother, and threw in her lot with her without an hour's hesitation.

The Hamptons were mortally offended: the girl could not be a real Hampton, thus to turn her back on the home of her ancestors, and to travel out to live with Mrs. Castellas--her mother certainly--but a vulgar, foolish little person of low birth and no education--who was actually married to a black man!

Joan arrived at Chandi overflowing with hope, affection, and an eager capacity for happiness and life, bringing the dainty outfit and refined ideas of a well-bred girl who had never known the lack of money, never brushed her own skirts, made her clothes, or undertaken any housework. Oh, what a change awaited her! By swift degrees, she realized the miserable existence into which she had plunged. The squalor and untidiness, the soiled tablecloths, the men in the verandah with bills, the mean little shifts and bold begging hints of her parent--who was always open-handed and hospitable--at the expense of the bazaar! Then Lily--her half-sister--what a strange girl!--ignorant, stubborn, and crudely violent in her emotions; so self-indulgent, and vain. Joan tried to induce her to read with her, to sew, or to learn a little French. 'My goody me Whatt for?' she demanded. 'We know no French people, and for historee! Ah, bah! give me only my own historee.' No, Lily only cared to array herself in voyant colours, to eat sweets, to flirt, and to entertain Captain Gresham (to whom, | | 134 and his bold blue eyes, Joan had taken an invincible dislike). There was Mr. Castellas; sanguine, hopeful, retiring; ever experimenting, and of no real account in the ménage. Lily ruled her mother,--she was the child of her love--and her mother ruled her husband. In his sight, she was still the beautiful, gracious Mrs. Hampton who had endowed him with her hand and fortune. With one consent the family now leaned upon Joan: here they were in complete accord; indeed, a stranger would suppose, from the way in which the household affairs were abandoned to her, that Miss Hampton had been brought up in India, and that the Castellas were the new-comers. It was 'Joan! Joan! Joan!' all day long. 'Joan, there is no gram! Joan, will you write to Mrs. Heron? Joan, come and do my hair! Joan, the roof is leaking!'

Poor Joan had no friends, except Mrs. Baxter (the friend of all). Her sole pleasures were sketching and riding through the forest with Mr. Castellas. Between these there existed a secret bond: he consulted her gravely, and imparted various little trade troubles and secrets that he would never dream of breathing to his wife or daughter; and she wrote his letters, looked over his accounts, and gave him sympathy and encouragement. Sometimes, when fatigued with her perpetual efforts and the dead-weight of household responsibilities, Joan drew for herself contrasting pictures of what her life might have been--and what it was! By her own deed, she had accepted what implied banishment and poverty, and had been cast out for ever from the august Hampton connection. What was to be her ultimate fate? Would she die of malaria? or would she lose her wits? like a poor girl who, when Chandi was a big station, had gone mad, being crossed in love, and drowned herself in the old Chunan swimming-bath among the mango trees. Joan had only been crossed in life. She abhorred | | 135 her damp apartment, with its rickety furniture and patched ceiling-cloth, haunted by roof cats and rats. When at night she lay awake, listening to the scampering feet, the squeaks, the escapes, the frequent tragedies--the marks of which subsequently oozed through the canvas!--she recalled her lofty airy bedroom at the Gables, its chintz draperies, and valuable old furniture, Spode china, framed samplers, and delicious scent of potpourri-the dainty food, the walled garden, where everything grew in its own particular place--the low subdued voices and cultivated talk. Here was noise, irregularity, squalor, complaints, discomfort, and Lily's piercing voice shrieking at the servants and dominating the entire premises.

Joan was conscious that she now existed, not for herself, but for others, and was weighed down with many cares, such as her mother's health, her stubborn extravagance, and the distillery accounts, which were painful reading (although Mr. Castellas said, 'Only give me time, and the C.P. scent will be known in every bazaar and zenana in the East'), the housekeeping bills, and Lily's follies. Oh, many a night she lay awake on her hard little charpoy, listening to the cats and rats scurrying overhead, vainly seeking to find some way out of her pressing and desperate difficulties.

Recently a new factor, Philip Trafford, had entered upon the scene. From the moment he had found her in the forest, she had felt attracted by him, not on account of his handsome face and well-bred appearance--no! but because in his character she felt confident there was something strong, reliable, and to be depended on. In England, they would have been on the same footing. There, she was Miss Hampton, the granddaughter of Sir Torrens Hampton, of Hampton Place, the equal of any one; here, although Mr. Trafford was but a junior official, he seemed to be on a far higher plane--seemed, and | | 136 was--because of her relations: her Eurasian stepfather, her dark and undisciplined sister, her helpless, uneducated mother, who boasted of Joan's grand connections in a manner that caused her the most excruciating shame. Lately, he had dropped in once or twice, and sent game and books; and it was not Lily he came to see, for he and Lily did not 'get on.' (It was enough for Gresham to have called him 'a meddling, stupid, stuck-up ass,' for Lily to detest him.) Could it be to see her? Oh no, no; yet if his sister were to join him, in Miss Trafford she might find a friend--a companion of her own age and class, a girl educated in England, who did not sleep all the afternoon, eat pounds of cloying bazaar sweets, and greedily gossip with the native servants.

As Joan sat sewing--she was making a blouse for Lily--absorbed by her own thoughts, the storm had been steadily gathering. Suddenly there came a thunder-clap that shook the old bungalow to its foundations; this was immediately followed by a flash of blinding light, then the hiss of the rain sweeping across the plains in solid sheets, and descending on the plateau with a roar.

High above the noise of the elements, and the clapping of doors and shutters, she caught the scream of her mother's voice, calling, 'Joan! Joan! Joan!' If ever anything out of the common occurred, it was always, 'Joan! Joan! Joan!'

. . . . . . .

The rainy season had not yet come to an end, and Trafford found it extremely difficult to keep intrusive toads and reptiles out of his abode; he also was beginning to tire of the weary routine of the days, the deadly solitude of the nights, the drifting mists, raging streams, and turbid red river. Occasionally a dense white fog settled down upon the forest and Pahari, and to its inmate it sometimes seemed as if this had penetrated his very brain! Although he | | 137 still worked incessantly, he was feeling slack; and no wonder, as he drank when in the forest beautifully clear, unfiltered water, and when at home slept in a malaria-poisoned atmosphere, with doors and windows wide, while the wood-owl moaned, bats whirled in and out, and flitting night-jars chorused their contemptuous' Hoo! Hoo! Hoo!'

The inexperienced new-comer little suspected that he had been seized upon by India's latest scourge, typhoid, and went about the woods with burning hands and head as it were of molten lead. One evening he collapsed, and became delirious, and Manoo, his bearer, in a panic dispatched a coolie to Scruby with a chit, which ran as follows:--

'I beg your honour's favour, O exalted one. Trafford Sahib plenty sick--please Doctor sending--or soon, soon die.--Your servant, MANOO'

As the aboriginal Gond fled through the forests with the above in his loin-cloth (the national dress), Trafford tossed and muttered on his charpoy, whilst Henry whined in sympathy; the night-jars sailed nearer and nearer, through the warm, throbbing darkness--their notes expressing a louder, and yet more triumphant 'Hoo! Hoo! Hoo!'

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