A Woman of Resource: A Story of the Polygamous City




ONCE inside the heavily screened door of the women’s courtyard, we saw the wee King stretched out on his lacquer-legged bed, his head in his mother’s lap. With one foot he had gathered the jasmine flowers, that were scattered over his sheet, into a little pile over the wiggling toes of his other foot. He lay imperially eating the season’s first long, cool, green cucumber. Our arrival transformed him suddenly into an ordinary naughty small boy. He thrust the cucumber vainly behind him, and sat up.

‘Miss Sahib,’ he said most politely, ‘salaam.’

His gray-eyed young mother rose to welcome us. Clothed in sheer white garments, with a clinging veil of fine darned net, the circles of gold wire at her ears full of pink roses, she was lovely. His grandmother rose and called for chairs to be brought us. Age could no more hide the sweetness of her face than her veil hid the gold chains at her throat.

His aunt gathered up a lap full of the jasmine flowers she was stringing, and slowly came toward us. The grace of her slender body showed through her soft thin clothes. Her brown eyes were shaded by a mist-like lavender chiffon veil thrown over her head. She was like a slender cluster of wisteria blossoms swinging in the morning sunshine high up against the gray stone houses that face the bay in Naples.

We sat down together beside the King’s bed. Beyond us was a cluster of blooming pomegranates; above us, a mauve and silver sky, and the earliest twinkling stars.

The doctor spoke to the grandmother. ‘Is Akhbar better?' she asked, meaning the King.

‘His fever is down a bit,’was the answer.

The doctor turned to the child. He immediately put out his tongue. It had an ugly coat on it.

The doctor sighed.

‘Has he taken his medicine?’ she asked.

‘We’ve been waiting till you’d come,’ the grandmother began apologetically. ‘He does n’t like it. He preferred the cucumber. O King of Heaven,’ she said, turning to the boy, ‘did I not tell you not to eat that? The doctor is not pleased.’ Then to the doctor, ‘But what could we do? He would have it!’

‘Bring the bottle to me!’ said the doctor.

It was Akhbar’s turn to sigh. A servant brought the medicine.

‘Akhbar,’ said the doctor, — oh so prosaically, — ‘come here.’

No monarch about him now! Only a poor wee Moslem bowing to the inevitable. Had he not learned that clinging to his mother’s arms was useless, and dodging behind the orange trees futile? He went to her.

‘Open your mouth!’ The doctor’s voice absurdly expected obedience.

‘Swallow it!’ Down went the quinine mixture. ‘Now lie down! Lie down flat!’

Akhbar obeyed. As a baby, he had resisted, he had fought, he had kicked and bitten, until he learned the hopelessness of all resistance. What could he, a little child, do unaided, when these his worshiping servants, these women of soft veils and shining bracelets, whose life was consumed with his fever, who died with each of his baby pains, when these gave him over to this creature in stiff white linen, with glasses instead of eyes, a stiff white sun-hat instead of decent draperies, hard white shoes instead of tinkling tinted feet; whose dozens of strong white hands held his arms and legs firmly when he tried to kick; who pried open his mouth with a spoon, indifferent to his teeth; who filled it with bitter stuff, and then held his nose shut till he had swallowed it? No caressing ‘Star of Heaven’ from her! No entreating ‘Lord of my Life!’ Only—oh, so flatly! — ‘Akhbar! open your mouth! Keep this down!’

— speaking to him as if he were a woman!

How vividly he remembered that hard-fought day of his humiliation, when, after he had exercised the right of Indian children to empty their stomachs at their will, the doctor had returned and spanked him in the most efficient, most spinsterly, and most New England fashion! The women had endured this with their weeping faces hidden, only because the other two sons, who had not had medicine, had died. This one — God be praised! — whom the doctor had soaked in quinine, whoso diet she had regulated, — cucumbers were only occasional lapses,

— whom she had nursed through four summers of teething malaria and dysentery— this adorable one lived! If the doctor had decided to feed him on the hardened clay of the courtyard, they would have agreed. And now the doctor was about to go home!

When the doctor had put down the bottle, the young aunt spoke up resentfully.

‘He says he’ll not let us go to your party.’

The doctor smiled.

‘I’m sure he will,’ she said. ‘I’ve written asking him to send you. No one is refusing, and he certainly would n’t. Not for my farewell party!’

‘But he has your written invitation, and he says we’re not to speak of it,’ said the old woman. She was plainly disappointed.

‘ It’s to be strictly purdah,' the doctor assured her. ’There’s to be a sevenfoot screen all round the garden, and not even a manservant in sight. And the general’s wife is coming, and the commissioner’s wife — a lot of English ladies, and the ladies of the rajah’s house, and the judge’s wives, and the Dwan’s ladies, and every one in town. I’ll insist on him letting you come.’

’But my son has decided we’re not to go, and that settles it,’ the old lady sighed.

‘But I’ve decided we will go, and that unsettles it!’ burst out her young daughter. ‘I’m not a child that I should obey my brother! Silly thing that he is! He’s only cross because Rajah Mohammed Khan took precedence of him at the viceroy’s durbar last month — that Mohammed’s grandfather used to herd our grandfather’s camels! — So he said, “Let this new English-made gentry send their women about the streets. I don’t do it. I’m respectable!” That’s all he knows. At my father-in-law’s we ladies go to many purdah parties, and we go driving veiled, after dark — so my husband would want me to go. If my brother does n’t let us, I’ll write to my husband to come and take me home. I’ll not sit here like a toad in the bottom of a dry well. I’ve got such clothes as the women in this town have never seen. I’m going.’

The old lady nodded toward her daughter apologetically.

‘She’s young,’ she said, speaking to the doctor, ‘young and silly. And her husband makes a perfect fool of her, always teaching her to read something or other. Unfortunately she has no mother-in-law. She’s just spoiled. The years may teach her something.’

‘Doubtless they will,’ I hastened to add. Bilquis was annoyed by her mother’s speech. ‘I’m expecting her to get as much out of the years as most people do.’ I chuckled a bit to myself.

Bilquis saw my smile and smiled back at me knowingly. ‘I’m expecting the same,’ she said.

When we came away, the doctor began, ‘I like that man’s impudence! The idea of his refusing! Those women have n’t been out of that house for years, except Bilquis. I’d hate to ask a favor of him, but I might, for the women’s sake.’

‘Oh, you might remind him of a few things,’ I added. ‘The time Akhbar had pneumonia, or’ — I hesitated — ‘of Ethel’s wedding.’

‘Yes,’ spluttered the doctor, ‘so I might. Would n’t I like to! The brute!’

I laughed. It was only a year since the doctor had gone to attend her dearest friend’s wedding, only to be called home before the ceremony by hourly frantic telegrams about Akhbar’s condition. When she had got to him, she found that he had been eating green bananas exclusively for two days. It was hardly decent to speak even now of her disappointment at having to miss the wedding. When she was reminded of it, she said again, ‘The old brute!’

The week before the purdah party was the hottest of the season, and our town is not far from the hottest place in India. The doctor’s furlough, depending upon the arrival of some one to take her place, had been delayed until a season when no one travels. The heat, which was absorbing her last drop of energy, was corrupting every sore and making fetid every wound in the city, burning the eyes out of babies, and simmering away their low vitality, and pulling nerves slowly out of tired mothers. The hospital verandahs and yard were overcrowded with dissatisfied patients. The nurses were overworked. The doctor was sleepless.

The Tuesday night before the party, which was to be on Friday, we went to our beds on the second-story verandah, very weary. I threw a glass of water on the brick floor, and it sizzled and disappeared before I had turned the glass over. Our sheets were hot to touch. The leaves on the tall eucalyptus hung limp. The stars’ rays burned us.

The doctor soaked her sheets in the least hot water, took a sleeping powder, and lay down. ‘I’m trying a new kind to-night,’ she said bravely. ‘I wish I could sleep!’

‘It’s only a week now till you go,’ I said. ‘I must tell them to be sure to give the little fig trees water in the morning.’

And going to the back verandah, I quietly told the good old watchman that the doctor was too tired to be wakened for any reason. Then I went to sleep.

Some time in the night the front gate clicking woke me. I sat up and looked. A man had come in, in spite of the watchman’s expostulations. They came toward the verandah, the voices growing louder.

I ran to the farther end of the verandah and called to them in a whisper, ‘ Keep still. Don’t you dare to make a noise!’

But the doctor was sitting up, dazedly getting her kimono around her.

‘What’s the matter?’ she said.

The man below heard her.

‘Preserver of the Poor,’ he cried, ‘it is I, Rajah Salim Khan. Akhbar is ill! He is dying. You have not come. You misunderstand me. I sent a servant this morning. You were operating. I sent another this afternoon. You were resting. He came again in the evening. You had gone to a patient in the city. He left word for you to come. You come not. The women say that you are angry. How could you imagine I could refuse you anything! If you desire it, my women shall come to spend a month with you. Don’t be angry with me.’

‘It’s an ill wind that blows nobody good,’ I was thinking.

But the doctor was saying, ‘What’s Akhbar eaten now?’

‘Preserver of the Poor! It was most unfortunate! He was uncomfortable in his stomach. Yesterday I returned from Delhi with a box of those foreign sweets called chocolate for my wife to give you. Akhbar got the box and ate them all, — such fools the women are, — ate them all and the silver papers they were wrapped in. He is near convulsions. I know he will die. I beg you to come with me.’

‘I will be ready at once,’ said the doctor.


The doctor and I were arranging groups of chairs on the carpet spread on the tennis-court, an hour before the time appointed for the party, when the ladies from the home of the inspector arrived. Once inside the curtain across the door of the high screen we had erected, they began to lay aside their bur-quas. A burqua, benighted reader, is yards and yards of white longcloth gathered into a little embroidered cap that fits the head, falling like a great full cape over the whole body to the ground. It has two thick little lace medallions in front of the eyes. Hidden in such a garment, no woman can be distinguished from another. Alighting from their carriages at the gates, our guests were monotonous ghosts of blank discretion. Seeing them unveiled inside the screen, one could understand that such beauty would be dangerous to the over-susceptible gaze of the public.

After removing her outer veils, the inspector’s wife came toward us, ahead of the others, wearing a white veil of something as thin and sheer as linen lawn, bordered in emerald green and gold an inch wide, the corner falling almost to her feet in the back; a very loose and full shirt-like garment called a kurta, which came to her knees, cut at the neck like a kimono blouse, made of almond-colored silk embroidered at the wrists and neck in pink and gold; and shining white, very full dividedskirt-like garments which fit snugly at the ankles. These suttens, foreigners, for want of a better word, disgustingly call trousers. Really they resembled trousers as much as my white net frock did. On her feet she wore little sandals with great soft red silk pompons. Gold showed through her veil at her throat and her ears. On her wrists were solid gold bracelets an inch thick.

Her young co-wife wore a sea-green chiffon veil with a six-inch border woven in real gold; a thin white lawn kurta, embroidered all over by hand in white, fastened in front by three gold studs on a jeweled chain; suttens of green and blue changeable taffeta, with appliquéd gold polka-dots an inch in diameter; white satin French slippers. She had a band of flexible gold across her smooth black hair, and pink roses and jasmine flowers in her earrings; gold bracelets at her wrists. She was somewhat fairer than most of our guests, as fair as a European. The lines from her eyebrows to her brown eyes and down on her flushed cheeks were like the lines of a water-lily.

Following these two, four Hindu ladies from the Dwan’s home came in. The one to whom I spoke first was thin and fair, with a face too insolent to be beautiful. She wore three veils of chiffon, one above the other. The under one was rosy pink, the second one faintly salmon-colored, and the outer one mauve. This mystery of color fell about her head and shoulders with a charm which is not to be described to those who have not seen it. Her kurta was white silk, and her very full ungored skirt was changeable blue and pink taffeta faced with mauve, which showed against her pink heels at every step.

Her sister wore an emerald green silk skirt with a Benares design in gold a foot and a half deep, a turquoise-blue silk kurta, a leaf-green little velvet vest, and a point d’esprit veil. Her sisterin-law wore a full skirt of changeable orange and almond color, with a border of fine green, black, and pale blue lines, a cream-colored kurta, a black velvet vest, and a veil of flame-colored chiffon. The fourth woman of that party wore a mulberry-colored skirt with a silver border, a white kurta, and a veil the color of the outer leaves of a Marechal Niel rose.

Our guests continued to arrive, clothed in that wonder of color which had given me new thrills of joy day by day for twenty years. By what English names can one call colors that English eyes never see? There were pinks that were like hyacinths, golds shaken with pulses of rose, dim purples that were green, — or were they gray ? tones of sea-waves in moonlight with phosphorus shining in their curving edges, bronze-colored greens, colors learned from Himalaya dawns, desert sunsets, noons in jungles, twilights in old gardens where peacocks strut, mists on the foothills with clear blue above.

The wife of the head master of the high school was wearing a veil faintly amethyst, exactly the color of the bare limbs of guava trees in the late afternoons in winter, and white satin suttens with great patterns of pomegranates on them.

Bilquis came in with her mother and sister-in-law, a little late, very complacent and gracious. She stood, a little longer than necessary, perhaps, where every eye could see her splendor. Her suttens were of white silk with little bright blue flowers, cut in the newest way about her ankles, to draw attention to the crowning detail of her costume— white silk stockings! Many beholders had on little white satin slippers like hers, but none had stockings. I saw from the beautiful faces around me that gentlemen of our town who went to Delhi shopping would do well to remember silk stockings, whatever else they forgot. Her veil, too, was a new design — long slender green and blue bamboo branches on gold and white mesh. She wore an opal necklace, and instead of heavy gold bracelets like her mother’s, an Englishmade bracelet containing a small watch. There was, of course, no reason why one in such array should not have been gracious.

Our guests seated themselves in constrained groups. Few of them knew each other. No one but the doctor and I knew them all. The English ladies could not, of course, speak Hindustani. Each one of us was secure in the sweet consciousness of being superior to all the others present, and each was just a little cautious not to be misunderstood by different and therefore, of course, inferior sorts of women. So, after all had arrived, and our guests had, with great diligence and perfect indifference, observed each unusual detail of all the costumes, — how many yards of taffeta would be in suttens cut like Nur-ulNessa’s, how much real gold braid was in the banker’s daughter-in-law’s kurta, the peculiar design of the ruby necklace the Lahore lady wore, the depth of the barrister’s wife’s embroidered cuffs, the fact that the Rai Sahib’s wife’s feet looked large in Pashawari shoes, — after all this had been done carefully and perfectly, the doctor started a game.

It was Bilquis who got things going. The doctor showed her a little earthenware water-pot on the ground, blindfolded her, — without crushing the dainty bamboos, — turned her round and round, gave her a big stick, and told her to break the jar. Her frantic drives in the air were so funny that presently even our more portly guests, forgetting the dignity of their ancestors, clamored for their turn. Then eight of the younger women began badminton, a game which is to tennis what a Ford is to a Cadillac. Such a batting of shuttlecocks backward and forward through the air; such flapping of sandals that had neither heels below nor leather above the soles; such dancing about on slippers of leather tinted in peacock feathers’color and design; such tinkling of anklets and bracelets; such frantic efforts to keep yards of veils over patrician heads even in our chaste seclusion; such sudden thrusts of slender white arms up into the air; such fluttering of full skirts, and hurried shaking of sutten folds; such grace of free lithe bodies unused to haste!

No wonder we watched them breathlessly until they were too hot to play longer!

In the lull that followed, when, a little apart, I was praising God for the variety of beautiful eyelids, a very tall woman entered, and without removing her burqua, sat down in the chair nearest the door. We were all wondering who she was, and why she had not taken her veil off, when Bilquis, with a little cry of recognit ion, went to her and removed her veil. It was the doctor, dressed in the Indian clothes that had been given her.

We all crowded around her, laughing, examining her lavender and white suttens, her white kurta, and her pink chiffon veil dotted all over with little gold crescents.

Presently the laughter grew more hilarious. Doctor’s suttens were on backwards! We laughed more when she stoutly refused to put them right. The women were much amused, and full of admiration. How beautiful she looked, they said. Akhbar’s mother took off her jewelry and decorated her. Then they were satisfied! If only she would work in the hospital so arrayed! ‘Look at her now, and consider how she looks in her uniform,’ said one, sighing.

When the first stars were showing above the ragged banana trees, and twilight was falling from the great sheshem branches high up in the air above us, we had refreshments. The Hindus were served by Hindu women of their own caste with the sweets we dare not touch. The Moslem women ate ice-cream with us — at least, they tasted it suspiciously, and put it down. We understood that was their politeness, and continued to eat without them.

After the refreshments, with all their loveliness discreetly swallowed up in their ugly burquas, our friends took their leave.

The ladies from the rajah’s household were the last to go, because, as Bilquis explained, they were awaiting the return of a woman servant she had sent home on an errand. When she returned, Bilquis unwrapped the china bowl she had brought, and gave it to the doctor.

‘Here are the foreign sweets from Delhi,’ she said with a wicked little smile.

‘What sweets?’ said doctor.

‘Those that Akhbar ate the other night,’ she answered; and she snickered for pure joy.

‘She ought to be thoroughly punished,’ put in her mother, laughing, half-vexed. ‘Akhbar ate only two or three of them.’

‘Yes. But he was ill,’ Bilquis explained. ‘ We wanted his father to go for you in the evening, but he was very kingly. Said he did n’t care whether you came or not.’

‘He was going to call the assistant from the government dispensary. He knows we don’t allow that man to put his hands on Akhbar,’ interrupted the boy’s mother.

‘So, when he went out out of the room, I emptied the sweets into this bowl, and when he saw the box empty, he jumped at the conclusion that Akhbar had eaten them.’

Bilquis was enjoying herself through and through.

‘And she told him Akhbar had eaten even the papers,’ said her sister-in-law admiringly.

' I was sorry afterward that you had to get up at night. It was well you came, though, wasn’t it? We’ve had an awfully nice time. That wife of Mohammed Khan’s looks like a stick with a rag tied about it! I’ll tell my brother so.’

And so they swaddled themselves up, and we put them in their closed carriage.