The Story of Sapphire: A Tale of the Polygamous City
WHEN I entered the hospital at half-past twelve, Sapphire, in white garments, was standing by the three cypress trees, in the shaded brick walk leading in from the gate. The moment I got inside the walls of the hospital garden, I began singing the song that had been in my heart all morning. I could not sing in the streets, for, in our city, even to hum is to arouse suspicion. People wonder what a woman can have to sing about, except something forbidden. And Sapphire was wondering the same thing, apparently, for, as I went up to her, she asked, —
‘Miss Sahib, what you singing for?’
‘Because I want to,’ I replied. ‘For joy, child, joy!’ I nearly added, ‘Not for men and money.’ But after all, it was not Sapphire’s fault that she had been born to her work of charming men with music, of making them stark mad, if they were rich enough to deserve the effort.
‘Joy?’ said Sapphire. Her voice was bitter — or wistful. ‘Joy? What’s joy?’
A question, to be sure. It made me daring.
‘Something not found in your calling, I believe,’ I answered.
‘ Miss Sahib,’ cried my friend eagerly, ‘come home with me for a while. You never come to see me nowadays, though I tell Flower every day to ask you to. You’ve nothing to do now. Come with me!’
‘Sapphire,’ I said, ‘I’ve been teaching since six this morning, and I’m late getting home, as it is. The doctor will be annoyed that I’ve stayed out so long in the heat. I haven’t had lunch yet. I’m tired.’
‘Ah,’ she replied, ‘you tire so soon of us! You want a darkened house and a cool room to rest in, where there are no Indians.’
Her answer was so true that it hurt me. Of course she did not realize that talking a half-acquired language for hours might be a strain; neither did noise and dirt and heat and glare tire her. But still I could not let her say exactly what she did. I answered indignantly, —
‘I’m never tired of you. I’m tired working. You’d be, too.’
‘You can rest at my house,’ she argued. ‘I’ll cook you a good lunch myself. The house is quiet, too. Please come! ’
So I went, because I was thinking of Flower. I hated walking through the city with Sapphire, and I was ashamed of myself for hating it, for, as I told myself, I should have been thinking of something else, not of the fact that some who saw us together would say, ‘Two of a kind,’ because we were both dressed in white, and unveiled, and unmarried. But we walked almost the length of the city, down the broad street which writhed in the white heat, without meeting a soul. Everyone had taken refuge from the sun behind closed doors. Turning into a narrow street, we came to a substantial brick house in a good neighborhood, entered the curtained door of the women’s apartments, and were secure.
Now, Sapphire was a conjuri. It is a less hard word than its English equivalent, and one in common use. Mothers, seeing their wee daughters learning baby accomplishments, hug them up joyfully, crying, ‘Oh, sweet little conjuri!' And schoolgirls, playing, call to each other, ‘Conjuri, you!’ on such occasions as used to make us exclaim, ‘You horrid thing!’
Sapphire was not beautiful, but she had a fresh pink color, and a very quizzical smile which kept many people interested in it. Her father was a real gentleman, I have been assured. He lived as a gentleman should; his fathers before him had taught him to live on the wages of his daughters. His wife kept more strict purdah than did any woman in the city — that is, she lived in more perfect seclusion. From the day she had been brought into the house, a bride of good birth, to produce daughters, until the day of her death, she never left the high walls of the women’s quarters. She had three daughters, of whom Sapphire was the eldest, — the youngest was but eight, — whose work it was to fill the outer wing of the house, where they nightly held court, with such mirth as amused their admirers.
Sapphire had learned her cunning as a child, from her aunts, who used to keep dozens of women in the house. Her indignant neighbors said that it was no half-developed art with which she charmed her victims. ‘She takes the very motion songs that you teach Flower in your school,’ they said, ‘and she turns them into the songs which we hear all night from our roofs, and sings them so that men have no sense at all left.’
‘You ought to give her credit for being more decent than her aunts,’ I replied in her defense.
But I could not justify her. When from a distance I would see her walking, gaudily attired, through crowded bazaars, with brazen pleasure, I disliked her immensely. But when she was with me, and there were no women about to stimulate the defiant superiority which she always assumed in their company, her pathetic incessant appeal for my respect made me tender-hearted toward her.
I had met her first in the home of a respectable neighbor, where the women seemed to like her, and certainly to envy her her freedom. I believe she was delighted to find someone who, she supposed, was ignorant of her caste, and her manner begged my friendship. Had she not learned to read in the mission school? Was not Flower’s regular attendance there, which she enforced, most commendable? She showed me her embroidery, which was unusually well done. She talked of the things that pleased me, and I never heard an indecent word from her, which was more than I could say for most of the women I knew. I lavished respect upon her. And afterwards, when she knew that I understood, she warded off any mention of her manner of life, which I imagined she loathed. When I suggested the possibility of such a thing to her merciless neighbors, they laughed wisely. But one day a bitter cry of humiliation showed me that I was right.
‘Everyone despises us — they abhor us. What are such women as we in the world?’ I remembered her words the day she asked, ‘What’s joy?’
The court we sat in, on low cots, was brick-paved, perhaps twelve feet square, and was surrounded by wide verandahs, behind which were living-rooms. Sapphire brought me in gayly, and her mother and sisters received me most cordially, with many reproofs for not coming oftener. Sapphire cooked my lunch — the most delicious omelet I ever ate, flavored with mint and Indian spices. It was great kindness on her part, for she was almost too lazy to order her servants about. When the women, much pleased that I enjoyed their food, removed the tray from the chair on which they had placed it in front of me, I picked up an Indian doll, most cleverly fashioned by hand from white muslin, well colored, and gorgeously dressed.
‘ Who made this? ’ I asked in surprise.
‘I did,’ said the second sister, a redlipped girl, extremely thin and graceful, who at fourteen was well launched in her career. ‘That’s nothing. I’ve made nicer ones than her. Shall I show them to you?’
‘Do,’ I said.
‘You want to see mine?’ asked Flower, the youngest.
She spoke shyly, as sweet little girls sometimes do.
‘Of course I do,’ I assured her.
In a moment both the girls were spreading out on the cot boxes full of dolls of many sizes and nationalities, and alas, alas! they were all dressed in wedding clothes, and wore the jewelry of brides.
‘Are they all newly married?’ I asked the little black-eyed child.
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘my dollies are all married. We play they may be.’
Sapphire turned away abruptly. I could have wept. For it is only to women of their caste that marriage is denied in our city. I examined the childish stitches in the dolls’ small garments, wondering that at eight one should have felt the sting of shame. We talked of everything, but the thing we were all thinking of.
But as I left that day, when Sapphire was standing in the outer door, talking nervously, I said to her, though I knew it hurt her, —
‘Sapphire, give that little thing to me. I’ll take her away from this, and put her in a boarding-school, and she’ll forget about this. I’ll marry her well. She shall be my own sister.’
‘ We ’re going to marry her ourselves,’ she answered, though she knew I did not believe her. ‘And anyway I can’t give her to you. You know that. They would n’t let her get away. They’d say you’d make a Christian of her.’
‘You know you would n’t care if I did,’ I replied. ‘Would you now?’
‘No, I would n’t,’ she said. ‘Anything would be better than this. It would be better to be a pig,’ she added, because in her exhaustive vocabulary she had no word which to her seemed stronger. ‘What can I do about it? It’s too hot for you to be standing here. I must n’t keep you.’
Afterwards I reflected that perhaps it had been too hot that afternoon, or perhaps it was the omelet, or other similar indiscretions. For I had two weeks of fever soon after, and was sent to the hills for the vacation that I had planned lo take later. One noon after I returned, the bearer told me a servant of Judge Faiz Ali had waited a long time for me and had promised to return in the evening. When I inquired who the judge was, I was told that he was a newly appointed district official who had lately married a woman I knew. Her name was Sapphire.
I was delighted that my friend had attained so boldly the respectability she longed for. When I asked the doctor about it, she said that the city had been full of gossip about the marriage, because the men of Sapphire’s family, outraged by her unfilial conduct, had gone to law to regain possession of her. But the judge, who was a man of influence, had laughed at his relatives-inlaw, and won the case.
Next day I went to congratulate Sapphire, who had done all a woman of her caste could do to put away her shame, and more than most women dared to do. But when I got within the decorous seclusion of her new home, the bubble of my gratification burst. She was sitting idly on a low cot, beneath a tree, whose branches spread to make a roof for the paved court. Richly and plainly dressed, with flowers in her gold earrings, she was stringing jasmine flowers for a wreath. In the veranda beyond, two beautiful women were sitting, sewing. Never have I been regarded with such contemptuous disapproval as that which they bestowed upon me for a moment, until they turned and went into the room behind the veranda. But Sapphire made up for their lack of cordiality.
‘Don’t mind her,’ she said. ‘I don’t. She’s the judge’s other wife. The younger one is her daughter visiting her. Yes, I’m very happy here. He’s very good to me. And he has the sweetest little son, just starting to school. I help him with his lessons. And I keep well here. I think this house will agree with me. The only thing is, I seldom see Flower.’
‘Does n’t she ever come to see you?’ I asked.
‘She just runs in for a minute, on her way to school. My father would be furious if he knew it. But I have to see her once in a while. I want her to know how happy I am. You must come to see me often, now that I live so near.’
Whenever I went to see her afterwards, she seemed eminently satisfied with herself and her circumstances. But I saw what the other wife hoped in vain to see: that Sapphire resented bitterly the snubbings which the older woman never failed to make as painful as possible. One day when we were alone she said to me angrily, —
‘Why does she put on such airs? Has he not a right, to marry whom he will? I’m his wife as much as she is. And the little lad loves me. She ought to be glad that I don’t insist on the judge taking another house for himself and the child and me, and leaving her here alone. I will do it, if she is n’t decent. She knows perfectly well I can do it. He never thinks of her, since he’s known me, unless I remind him of her. And he’s always kind to her. She has nothing to complain of.’
‘I don’t know about that,’ I said. ‘Just suppose someone should win him away from you. How would you like that?’
Sapphire laughed. ‘Let anyone try it who wants to,’ she said. ’I’m not afraid. And anyway, if I’d lived comfortably all my life, I would n’t grudge another woman a little bit of comfort.’
Just then the fat little son, in fine white pajamas and shirt and a blue silk vest, with a gold-embroidered cap on his head, which was closely shaven except for a fringe of soft bangs, came in from school. He went straight to Sapphire’s arms. She caressed him, and made him open his book and recite his lesson to me. This he did in shy haste, scarcely waiting to draw breath. When he finished, I praised him, and looking up, saw his mother in the doorway of her room, smiling on him with pride and tenderness unspeakable.
‘Akhbar,’ she said gently, ‘why will you wipe your inky fingers on your shirt. You were so nice and clean this morning, and look at you now! You’re so hot. Come and have lunch.’
‘Akhbar,’ said Sapphire deliberately, untying some coins from the end of her veil, ‘ take this, and go and get the Miss Sahib some lemonade,’
The boy looked at his mother.
‘Send a servant,’ she said shortly to Sapphire. ‘Can’t you see he’s too hot?’
Sapphire gave the child a caress. ‘Run along, king that you are,’ she said lovingly.
The boy went, and the mother turned away into her room.
‘Sapphire,’ I said quietly, ‘you needn’t think I’m going to drink that lemonade. It’s downright wicked of you to act that way! ’
‘Oh, it is, is it?’ she retorted. ‘I suppose it’s my fault I have n’t a son. Perhaps it was wrong to destroy mine, for fear they’d be girls. I suppose it’s wicked to make the little son love me — mighty wicked, is n’t it?’
‘I’m awfully sorry you haven’t a son of your own,’ I replied gently. ‘But that’s no reason why you should torment the boy’s mother as you did then.’
‘One thing I know,’ continued Sapphire vehemently. ‘One thing I am sure of. Flower is not going to live through what I ’ve lived through. She’s like my own child. I ’ll — ’
‘What will you do?' I asked as she hesitated. ‘By the time she is old enough to choose for herself legally, it will be too late.’
‘ Legally! ’ she exclaimed. ‘ Who said legally? I’m not English!’
But she would say no more. I was sorry that I had been so sharp with her. So I drank the lemonade which the child brought in bottles, and when I left she was mollified, and even gay. But that was because the older woman was watching her.
What Sapphire said about Flower stayed in my mind, for every day, as I saw the little child in school during the next three years, the problem of her future rose up and smote me. She was growing quickly into a wonderfully beautiful woman. She was slender and straight; her wavy hair, which, like her eyes, was perfectly black, made a braid thicker than her thin arm, and at her temples curled into soft ringlets. Her face, except in moments of excitement, when her cheeks grew vividly pink, was a clear ivory color, and had the fascinating fluency of expression that seems peculiarly Indian. Her girlish delight, or laughter, or annoyance, any sudden thought she had, flowed across her dimpled face as clear water flows over stones in sunlit brooks. There was no child in school who could compare with her for beauty. Watching her, I used to plan all sorts of futile schemes. And suddenly one morning, when she was about eleven, she was not to be found.
Naturally they rose late at Flower’s home. Her mother, seeing the child’s bed empty, supposed she had slept in the other sister’s rooms, and sent her son to awaken his sister for school. But the sister, angry at being awakened, declared that Flower had not been with her since the day before.
‘She will have gone to the roof,’ said the mother. ‘Call her down.’
But there was no bed on the roof.
‘Well, she’s somewhere,’ the mother said, annoyed, as she began searching. Not finding her, she aroused the house.
‘She must have gone to school without her breakfast,’ her father conjectured.
So the brother was sent running to school, only to find that they knew nothing of her. They searched at the neighbors, vainly. A servant was sent to Sapphire, who asked haughtily why anyone supposed she knew anything about Flower. The sister came to the hospital to question us. The search spread, and continued frantically. The police were called in. They examined the wells round about. The mother wailed and fainted, and the neighbors discussed the misfortune in anxious little groups.
The next morning, when I went to inquire if the child had been found, they told me she had not, and moreover they were angry with me. I must have stolen her away. I protested that I had done no such thing. They insisted that I must have.
‘Do you think I’m lying?’ I asked.
‘You know you wanted her,’cried the sister.
’I did want her,’ I acknowledged. ‘I wish I had her this minute. But I have n’t. Some of the men who were here last night must know something about it.’
They agreed that it was possible, and assured me the police were making investigation. They seemed to think she would be found with Sapphire or me. The inspector, however, accepted my statement, when I told him I was innocent, and Sapphire’s husband refused to have her questioned. She swore to me, weeping, as she had done to her father, by the Most High God, by the Koran, by her father’s beard, by her husband’s honor, by her hopes of heaven, that she knew nothing about Flower.
Days and weeks passed, and Flower was not found. The excitement died away. People generally believed that the child had been kidnapped by soldiers leaving the city for the frontier. But the mother was still crying herself blind, and the father’s anger was only a degree less ardent, when, a month after Flower’s disappearance, Sapphire, very much dejected, and wretchedly worried about the child, returned home to stay. The Judge, she said, had grown tired of her. They had quarreled, and he had divorced her.
The fact that her home-coming comforted her mother and pacified her father did not relieve the repugnance she felt against living at home. She cried for hours together, and coughed painfully, and grew so irritable that even her father had to be careful of the tone in which he addressed her. She may have sung and danced by night, but certainly by day she was not lovely. One morning, when she came wearily to the hospital for her medicine, she answered me very sharply, and at once begged my pardon.
‘Don’t mind my being so cross,’ she said; ‘I’m miserable at home now, and I’m ill.’
‘Why did n’t you stay where you were?’ I questioned, ‘You were better there. I don’t believe for a moment that the Judge divorced you.’
‘Don’t you?’ she asked, greatly pleased. ‘You knew I could manage him, did n’t you? I suppose you think as the others do, that I came back to my people for love of the life!’
‘I’m not judging you,’ I said.
But afterwards I saw that I had been thinking that, after all, she was just a common conjuri. My interest in her rather flagged, without Flower to sustain it, and I was kept busy in the school.
Three or four years after Sapphire’s divorce, she came as an in-patient to the hospital, that the doctor might try a new cure for tuberculosis. She was put in the tubercular ward, which was really two stories of open-roofed verandas, sterilized daily by the sun, and sheltered by sliding screens, where I visited her daily.
The doctor, who had believed Sapphire would respond to the treatment, was much disappointed to see her weakness daily growing more painful. We were discussing her case one afternoon at tea, when our mail was brought in. There was a letter for me, an envelope addressed in English, containing a postcard covered with the scrawling writing of an Indian child. It said, after greetings and prayers for my prosperity, ’Please tell Sapphire I have a son. I am very well. The child loves her exceedingly. Our Sahib’s Memsahib made him a little shirt with her own hands. Don’t let anyone but Sapphire know.’
Oh, but I was glad when I realized what it meant. I could scarcely wait until the time of evening prayers, when every patient who had strength enough even to creep hastened to join the group of women who gathered round the doctor, to hear her songs, and her very proper prayers for their recovery, and to see her beam upon them as they told her of their ailments and their improvements.
Sapphire was too weak to join the gathering of the blessed ones who could walk. But when she saw me coming up the stairs, she tried to sit up on her cot. I made her lie down, and took the fan out of her weak yellow hand. I wondered if joy would hurt her.
‘I’ve got good news for you,’ I said, smiling.
‘It’s from Flower,’ she said; ‘let me see it.’
She had risen on her elbow. She took the letter and read it three times, without looking at me. Her drawn face grew pitifully sweet.
‘Flower has a son,’she said softly. ‘She has a son. Is n’t it sweet?’ she repeated. ‘A little son. It was worth it.’
‘It’s perfectly lovely,’ I said. There was a pause. ‘You don’t seem surprised.’
‘She wrote me a few months ago,’ Sapphire said; and when she had finished coughing, she added, ‘And oh, Miss Sahib, that letter came so near betraying her that I wrote her to write to you for me when she must write, and to have her husband post the letter at a distance. You don’t object, do you?’
‘I’m delighted,’ I said. ‘Would you mind telling me how you managed it?’
‘I’d have told you before,’ she said, ‘But I knew you could n’t lie well in an emergency. I decided I’d tell you before I — ’
‘I understand,’ I said.
Sapphire seemed to be getting great pleasure out of her thoughts in the pause. Presently she began.
‘When I was living in the Judge’s house, I was always planning for her — was she not lovely? You remember the time I went to Amritsar with him? There was a young cousin of his in the house in which we visited there, such a nice lad, who was about to leave for his post in the forestry department away across India. He was not married. I, being his aunt, questioned him discreetly. I told him I would give him a wife lovelier than the sunrise, on condition that he kept his marriage secret. Of course he agreed. The night he passed through, I took Flower to the station — at one in the morning. She had no wedding garments, but the best veils the Judge had bought me, I gave her. In the moonlight, there where the logs were piled in the vacant lot by the station, I put on her a lavender one embroidered in gold. I kissed her much. Ah, but she was brave! She went away like a woman. I put her in the women’s compartment. No one knew us — we were safely veiled. The next morning they were to get out at Delhi. I had told them how to know each other. He promised to marry her in that city.’ Sapphire smiled. ‘Of course I didn’t believe he’d do it because he said he would, but because of his joy when Flower lifted her outer veil. Can’t you imagine how she’d look — all blushing, and the gold next her hair?’
’I can imagine,’ I replied.
‘It must have been sweet,’ she said; and she sighed.
The rest was not so pleasant.
‘I got back to the house without anyone knowing I had gone. But it was fate: the servant of that other wife had returned by the train that I sent Flower on. Next morning early, she said to her mistress, —
‘“That old servant of the Judge’s uncle came last night on the train I came on. He’ll be here presently, most likely. Wonder why they could have sent him here?”
‘But the servant never came, and at evening the other wife told the Judge that his uncle’s servant had come to town by the night train, but had not come to the house all day. The Judge answered that the old servant had merely been passing through with the nephew, with whom he had been sent to the forestry station. And somehow, Miss Sahib, that fiend of a woman guessed that Flower had gone with the young man. She had n’t a sign of evidence. She simply guessed it. And she was so sure, that she sent her old servant all that distance to spy Flower out, and bring her word. And when the servant, returned, after seeing Flower, that woman said to me, —
‘ “You leave this house in one month, or I tell your father where Flower is. As you put the charm on my husband, you take it off. I give you one month to make him hate you.”
‘She had won. I did n’t want to kill her. “I’ll go in two weeks,” I told her. “And if you or your servant tell what you know, I ’ll win the Judge back, and I’ll live in a separate house with him and your son, and my sister will live in a separate house with your daughter’s husband.”
‘She knew I meant it. I went home. It killed me to let a silly deserted woman like her triumph over me. But what could I do? Flower was so little, I could n’t let her be brought back.’ Apologetically she explained away her sacrifice. ‘You know how it is with women. They’re always saying to their children, “Ah, that I might take your pain, and give you my joy! Would that I might suffer in your place!” I had to do it, even if I was beginning to hope for a son of my own in those days. It might have been, for I was well. But now she has a son!’
The hatred died out of her face as she contemplated that glory.
‘Sapphire,’ I began. But Hindustani failed me. I knew there were tears in my eyes.
‘Oh, it’s all right now,’ she said, ‘now that it’s over. Will you write her for me, and say that I’ve never been so happy as I am to-day, lying on this bed panting. You’d better tell her how it was. I don’t think either she or her husband knows I’m divorced. Perhaps something will go wrong with her. He may marry again, or divorce her. What does one know of the future? And if she knows I returned home, naturally she’d return, too. But if you tell her what I did to save her, she’d never come back. I think you can make a good letter about it.’
‘I think myself that I can,’ I said.
‘But you must n’t let it hurt her too much. She’s a tenderhearted little thing.’ She considered a while, and added, ‘But perhaps you’d better tell her I was hoping for a son. There come great temptations.’ She paused again, then chuckled weakly. ‘And when I’m not here to frighten her, the Judge’s wife won’t dare to tell, because she’d be afraid of getting the nephew tried for kidnapping. Flower is safe, and she has a son. It was worth while. It’s very sweet.’