Ladies Only

by ANN LEIGHTON

1

TRAVELING with Aunt Agatha was the ideal way to see North India. Tall, handsome, white-haired, British, and a medical missionary, she was the perfect guide and chaperone. She had lived in India for forty years, but her hospital in the South had so exhausted her time and money that she had never seen the northern part of the country.

Now she was going to take some time off and would ease her conscience by visiting every hospital we came near. Two American girls, under oath to go nowhere unconducted, were extremely lucky to be taken on by her. She spoke several languages and had a way with the natives.

There were only two small drawbacks to traveling with Aunt Agatha. One was the simple problem of comfort, which meant nothing to her, and the other was the question of conventional behavior, which meant everything to us. We could endure being uncomfortable; but the boilishly tender embarrassments of adolescence linger until they are lanced and healed by worldliness. We were young and ext remely tender. Very likely she did not know how much we suffered.

It was her habit of trying out everything herself that frightened us. No matter what we wore shown she would say, “H’m,”speculatively, and set her hand to it. In a gray pith helmet, gray pongee suit, and veil, she was an arresting figure, posed — one arm above her head, as with a pitcher for pouring — among the mirror-inlaid walls of the queen’s bath, or sitting, a hand on each golden arm, on a throne.

We were to meet in Bombay, and to spend our first night on the train, Aunt Agatha said, in a third class carriage. No ONE, she said in capital letters, ever traveled first class, except rajahs and English women who were nervous and liked to lock themselves in with a shower in the bathroom. Colonel Kennedy had been murdered in a first class carriage, she said darkly, as if to show how much good it had done him.

Second class is almost the same as first, except that there is less stuffing in the upholstery and some of the doors can be locked only from the outside. There is an intermediate class with six wooden seats and somewhat European bathroom arrangements. But third class is the way to see India, she said, although we must hurry to be there early enough if wo wanted to lie down for the night.

A third class carriage takes up the whole of the car and is full of wooden benches like a New England meetinghouse. A hole in the floor takes the place of ihe plumbing in other classes, and their signs, DO NOT STAND ON THE SEAT, and DO NOT BREAK ICE ON THE BASIN, are unnecessary here. In any class, one has to have one’s own mattress, sheets, blanket and pillow. “Why pay so much for nothing?” said Aunt Agatha, undoing her bedding.

Hastily we spread our bedding beside hers on the front t hree pews. There was still room left for a very large congregation, but even when we considered that we were taking up the space where many men and women and little children could sit in all the comfort they required, it did not make us feel luxuriously entrenched. I had a window by my head and I made more room for someone by putting my pillow on the sill.

Aunt Agatha did not go to bed at once, she was so interested in the people. The men chewing betel nut sat nearest the windows to be able to spil easily, and I saw why she had insisted we take the seats nearest the engine. Mothers with babies in their arms sat in the middle of the car and did not try to move at all. Aunt Agatha diagnosed everyone automatically and tried to show us how to group the more obvious cases of venereal disease, eye trouble, and goiter. The smell of seeing India so intimately kept one awake, like strong coffee. The lights in the carriage were left bright all night. It was not easy to keep one’s eyes shut, but I think we even slept. I still see as in a dream the little boy baby, all dressed for the great world in a feathered cap, who alternately dozed and puddled next me.

2

THE next morning the carriage was in a great bustle at dawn, brushing teeth and otherwise taking care of itself. Everyone seemed very excited and not in the least tired. Aunt Agatha said she would make us some coffee as soon as we got her some boiling water. Where? From the engineer — as soon as he stopped. We could take her little kettle and walk up and ask him.

The train halted soon to take on water in the midst of a desert waste and we hurried to get. out. The men in the third class got out, too, as the one convenience was not enough. As we picked our way forward, around them and past the second and first class carriages, white faces appeared at the windows, and heads were stuck out to look at us. There was nothing else to look at. They were men’s heads and obviously English. The younger ones looked surprised. It was like those dream parties when everyone fits perfectly into the normal pattern except oneself. And all those potential dancing partners spoke to us as naturally as they do in dreams.

“What,” they said, “are you girls doing out there? Can we help?”

“No, thank you,” we said. “We are just going to get some hot water.”

More heads. “Is anyone hurt ? ”

“No,” we said, and it is wonderful how one can tell who is on one’s side in a difficult world even at first glance. “No — our chaperone is going to make some coffee.”

“My God,” they said with sympathy and went back to their shaving.

The engineer was a Mohammedan who got in his prayers while the sun rose and water ran. He had a huge black beard through which he muttered as he gave us water, which was purer than it looked, from his boiler. We picked our nightmare way back, resolving not to travel third class again if we never saw anything.

But after real baths and breakfast in a pleasant hotel at Mount Abu we studied the intricately carved marble columns without even remembering the smells of the night before, and Aunt Agatha got us into a third class carriage again that evening in a state of weary gratitude for a good day. We had suggested we would pay her fare second class; but she said if we had all that money to waste we had better give it to her hospital. One of her chief supporters in America had turned to prohibition as her hobby and left Aunt Agatha right in the middle of an X-ray machine.

But one more night determined us. We would rather do anything than see India that way. We were cowards, we knew, and we burst into tears and confessed ourselves failed adventurers.

Aunt Agatha was kind to her spoiled companions. As soon as we got to the big cities, she said, we should be staying with her hospital friends anyway. Until then we could spend the nights in hotels. We had a happy day sight-seeing, and Aunt Agatha found out what was the matter with the wife of the local rajah, who would die because her husband would not allow her to go to a hospital.

Our hotel was chosen with great care. The two biggest and best were dismissed as expensive traps for ignorant tourists, but Aunt Agatha knew that one run by a Parsi could be expected to be inexpensive and still have European improvements. So we went to the Hotel Metropole. As our sagging black carriage rolled away from the station, men with bright ribbons, naming hotels, pinned across their bare chests, ran after us calling, “Dirty sheets! Bedbugs there!” in happy unison. Aunt Agatha said they always did that.

The Hotel Metropole was full of lace curtains, and the proprietor was the color of a well-cooked prune. The food could be as European as we liked and was served in courses that were downright British. Aunt Agatha never touched toast or jam until after egg and bacon. Americans, she said with a shudder, mix their food so.

We were going to see a deserted city, piles of rose-red battlements and temples and palaces left intact even by time. It would take us all day and a special car. Aunt Agatha never begrudged expense when the sight was worth it.

The hotel proprietor approached us, bowing very low. Would we, he said, permit a European gentleman to accompany us on our day? We had the only car. The gent leman, too, was eager to see the great empty city.

Aunt Agatha looked straight into the proprietor’s eyes. “Is he,” she said, “a nice man?”

The proprietor reminded her he had said a European. As added security, he said he was also a guest of the hotel. Aunt Agatha graciously consented.

It was bitterly cold, and, as there was no one else about, I do not know why we should have minded so much; but when our fellow tourist appeared in the lace-filled lobby, dressed like a North American Indian in a hotel blanket, we died a thousand adolescent deaths. His overcoat, he explained, had been stolen from him — but the hotel proprietor was allowing him to wear this. With the name of the hotel hugely woven in, the proprietor could have had no fears as to its return.

Aunt Agatha found out at once where he came from in the United States and what he was selling to the Indians. They got on well together, as neither cared in the least what anyone might think. We cared terribly about what even the parrot like guides might say about his costume in their own rose-red corners. And when we all stood together in the queen’s marble latrines and Aunt Agatha pointed out that it was a very sensible plan, really, we were ready to throw ourselves into the moat.

But one has to lose one’s adolescent skin some time. We shed ours that day. We bought second class tickets for that night and told Aunt Agatha we had hers.

As we had our reservations we did not have to hurry to the station, but we got there early to enjoy our night of luxury. We found our names written on the door of the compartment and had our things put in by the scrambling coolies. But we were stunned to see, lying possessively on one the lower berths, a man’s gray felt hat. Aunt Agatha did not seem to notice it. She sat down on I lie other lower berth and opened the railway guide.

The carriage was marked LADIES ONLY. We decided merely to point this out to the other occupant when he should return, and we generously got out to save him time and walked down beside the train to see what other second class compartment he could move into. There were no free places left with any European men, but the compartment next door had two tall Hindus swathed in white sheeting with their heads shaved except for that center lock by which they expected to be pulled into the next world. These locks were neatly furled and they were obviously distinguished and superior men. Whoever he was could sleep with them.

When he bounced in, a stout, little Hindu in European dress, it seemed the solution was brilliantly obvious. We smiled and pointed out the LADIES on the door.

He said that he was not proud — it did not make any difference to him.

We said we were sorry but it did make a difference to us. We knew he would not mind moving into the next compartment.

But he said he would mind. He did not like traveling with uneducated Indians.

A railway guard passed and we asked him to explain to this man that as the compartment was reserved for ladies, he would have to move.

The little Indian guard spoke in some strange tongue to the stoutly European Hindu and was sharply quelled. He bowed and went on his way.

“You are an official on the railway?” asked Aunt Agatha, diagnosing correctly as always. The Hindu said he was and took off his tie.

As quietly as if he were not there at all Aunt Agatha explained to us that the guard would only lose his job if he tried to put him out. She went back to her reading.

We said we were still sorry, but as we had paid to have a comfortable night on the train, we were not going to sit up all night because of him.

He sprang up from removing his shoes.

“The reason you want me to move,” he shouted, “is because you are British and I am Indian. I shall stay here!”

“It is not,” we said tartly. “We are American women and the reason we want you to get out is that we want to get undressed and go to bed.”

“Americans!” he said shrilly, and gave way to theatrical laughter. “Americans! And you want me to move so you can get undressed! ” He waggled a merry finger at us. “I know,” he said. “I know all about travel in America. Ha. Ha. You all get undressed together there,” he said, “in one great big car. All men and women together. And then you all sleep together in the same car, too. Oh, no,” he said, “you don’t get me to move out for any Americans!” He took off his collar.

Aunt Agatha stood up. “Girls,” she said mildly, “if he doesn’t mind, why should we? Let’s go to bed.”

But by then we were consumed by a patriotic fire so great as to be beyond all reasoning, beyond any early reluctances to sleep with strange men. Halfway down the train we had seen an intermediate compartment with three benches as yet unoccupied. That three snoring Eurasian males filled the others in no way detracted for us from that compartment’s fitness us a place to which wc should nail the Stars and Stripes.

We threw our luggage onto the platform as the little man removed his trousers. We called coolies to help us, but we hushed them as we slid quietly into the other compartment and spread our beds among that sleeping company of seeming saints.

Aunt Agatha was very good about it all. She had felt a little guilty about the second class comfort anyway.