Page images
PDF
EPUB

CHAPTER XVI.

CHRISTMAS AT CAWNPORE.

With the thermometer at eighty in the shade, with roses blooming in the gardens by the wayside, and violets scenting the air in the Memorial Gardens, it is hard to believe that this is Christmas Day. The imagination is not greatly helped by the scene around. It is impossible, with whatever goodwill, to imagine Trotty Veck, with his red comforter twisted round his head by way of turban, a pair of trousers made out of a cotton duster, and, for all other clothing, a bright yellow cloth hung about his shoulders. Nor is Tiny Tim to be recognized among the heap of half-clad children that swarm in the streets, though heaven knows some of them are sickly enough.

When night falls the condition of affairs grows more homely. It is cold enough for the most “ seasonable" Christmas weather. Unfortunately for comfort, domestic arrangements in India—at least as far as they are known to the wanderer in hotels—do not recognize the contingency of Christmas weather. The great problem of life in India is how to keep cool, and to its solution all the energy and ability of the housebuilder are bent. We dined last night at Lucknow in a comparatively small room, which had six doors, and every one of them open. There was a fireplace and some fire in it, but it was set back well into the wall, so as to secure the minimum of obtrusiveness. The doors in houses here are not moderate-sized apertures such as serve at home. They are slices out of the wall, cut broad and high, and it comes to pass that a dining-room is actually composed of a series of pillars, the rest of the space being open doors. This is delightful in the hot season, and well enough in the daytime, even at Christmas; but at night it creates discontent.

Anglo-Indians keep Christmas-time with the jealous affection with which they cherish everything that reminds them of home. A sprig of mistletoe or a bough of holly would create unbounded enthusiasm could it find its way to an English bungalow to-day. That is impossible. But since it is the custom in England to deck houses and churches with evergreens on Christmas Day, we have our

show at Cawnpore. The porch of the verandah in which I sit at noon and write, grateful for the shade, is festooned with ropes of mango leaves with garlands and marigolds drooping from them. Running up the posts at the gate are two gigantic plantain leaves. Thus is every large house in Cawnpore decked because of Christmas Day. The Memorial Church is filled with the scent of roses, of which thousands bloom on the pillars, the arches, the pulpit, and the altar. Here, too, the mango leaf plays the part of holly, and the plantain makes-believe to be mistletoe. Walking out before breakfast this morning we met many servants hurrying along, carrying to their masters' friends the compliments of the season and big bunches of fragrant roses.

We spend our Christmas Day all by ourselves, sole tenants of the hotel, which, by the way, is an exceedingly pleasant and comfortable hostelry—a rare thing in India. It was formerly the officers' messhouse, and stands well back from the road in the shadow of monumental tamarind trees. It is called “The Original United Service Hotel,” whereby hangs a tale. The present proprietor had a house a short distance off called the United Service. Some time ago it was burnt down, whereupon a smart native opened another house, for which he borrowed a name that stood in high repute with travellers to Cawnpore. This did very well till another native opened a house, which he called “ Number One, United Service Hotel.”

This necessitated the first pirate numbering himself “two,” and now we have the “original.”

The comfort, which smiled through tiffin and made fresh promises for dinner, with the table prettily decorated with flowers, evergreens, and a generous bill of fare, was destined to suffer rude eclipse. It was the plum-pudding that did it. If there had been no plum-pudding there would have been no catastrophe. As it was, the landlord, anxious that the day should pass off worthily, ordered a plum-pudding, and gave into charge of “ the butler," as the head native servant is called in India, a tumbler half full of brandy. This the butler incontinently drank, and in the course of half an hour was hopelessly drunk. His baleful example spread with alarming rapidity. Every Christian servant on the premises, eager to do honour to the festival, got drunk; only the Mahomedans, unbelievers, remained sober. Unhappily (I mean in this particular connection), the cook was a Christian, and had been overtaken before he had carried into full effort the generous intention of the bill of fare. The consequence was that practially we had no dinner, and the entertainment of watching the butler, with his glance fixed on a distant object, walking up the room as if the floor were a tight rope, holding in his hand a hot-water plate, from which the water either oozed out on the meat or trickled over his trousers, began to pall after the third course.

The manager apologetically informed me on the following day that he had soundly thrashed the butler, a proceeding which, it appears, is becoming somewhat risky.

“You cannot lift your hand now to one of them fellows,” said the manager, with fine indignation, “but they have you into court and you're fined five rupees. It's perfectly scandalous, and will be worse ; it's since this Ilbert Bill has come on. It's very bad for us here, owing to the resident magistrate. It's Colonel Wheeler, whose sisters and father were slaughtered by Nana Sahib. Yet the man's as gentle with the natives as if they were English. He listens to all they say, and as often as not goes with them. Once, when he was on leave, we had here another magistrate, who was a man. It was Colonel He had not been in office five days before he had turned every native out of it. If a native came up complaining that he had been

« PreviousContinue »