FICTION

His Own People

Oliver Sandys August 1 1911
FICTION

His Own People

Oliver Sandys August 1 1911

His Own People

Oliver Sandys

THE ayah, brown, barefooted and toe-ringed, paced silently up and down the matting, crooning to the foster-child in her arms:

“Humpty Dumpty churgear chut, Humpty Dumpty girgear phut:

Na Rajah ka pultan na Rajah ka gora Humpty Dumpty ka kuddy ne jora." After that came a Hindustani version of “Jack and Jill,” and another of “Little Jack Horner,” all chanted in the monotonous sing-song of the East.

Mootima loved the mem-sahib’s child with an exceeding great love. It is beyond explanation, but the fact remains that though a mother of the East is in no way deficient in devotion to her own offspring, when the little hands of the white child she suckles grope their way to her heartstrings there is born within her a love for it beyond human understanding.

Just such another as Mootima is in my thoughts. Her arms, from wrist to shoulder, are marked with old scars— the pinches and scratches bestowed on her by a certain white child, for whom I verily believe she would have laid down her life. The brown baby in her own quarters was very dear to Mootima; but the white one, in her estimation, was beyond the price of rubies.

She knew, as the doctor and all the station knew, that the mem-sahib’s butti was going out—that the end was very near. Mootima had been her ayah before she became foster-mother of her child, and she worshipped Mrs. Pat Macmahon with dog-like devotion. The black woman and the white had shared a common trouble. The chief diversion of Mootima’s lately deceased husband had been to drag her across the compound by her hair, or to

beat her beautifully when the mem-sahib was out. It didn’t matter about the sahib. He never inquired into the cause of shrieks and wails that came from the servants’ quarters, having a sneaking appreciation of the methods of native wifetreatment.

Captain Macmahon did not beat his tvife, but he drank deeply and swore terribly. So after three years of a life in the C.P., two seasons in the hills, and a final year in the sweltering heat of the plains, with the balance of her faith placed in her God, and none in man, it was perhaps just as well that the poor little woman should set sail for eternity. Her one regret was that she could not take her baby with her. She appreciated her husband’s wayward nature well enough to know that although he would regard the child as a double-blank nuisance, he would not dream of letting her relations bring it up.

Her weak voice called to Mootima. The ayah laid the sleeping baby in the cradle, drew the mosquito net over it, and came noiselessly to her mistress’s side. There she dropped cross-legged on the floor and began to fan her with a palm-leaf fan. The punkah-wallah was doing his best outside, too, but the room was stifling hot. The monsoon had not yet broken. A parched stillness lay over the waiting land.

“If the monsoon breaks, Mootima,” whispered Mrs. Pat. “T might get better. Baba sota hui?'’

Mootima assured her that the “baba” slept. Mrs. Pat’s brows were drawn together as if she were worrying. She put her white hand over Mootima's brown one.

“Promise me something, Mootima.”

“Mem-sahib, Mootima ap ka naukar nimak hai (Mootima is your faithful servant.)”

“Then promise me, Mootima, by all your gods, that if I die you will never leave my chota baba.”

Mootima did not answer at once. She waited until her mind grasped all the difficulties the promise might entail. Then very solemnly she vowed:

“Mem-sahib! Thy child shall be as my child. Never will I forsake him. In any trouble will I put him before the son of my own body, and spill for him my heart’s blood. Him will I serve faithfullv all the days of my life, and wheresoever the sahib goeth with him, thither will I go. Ap ka naukar wada kii/a hai (the word of thy servant is given.)”

So, Mrs. Pat, with her mind at ease, turned her face towards the open door and listened for the footfall of her husband. She wanted to say good-bye to him. But lulled into sleep by Mootima’s gentle fanning, that last act of grace was denied her. Two hours later she awoke, conscious of the roar of many waters. Mrs. Pat died as the monsoon broke.

And Captain Patrick Macmahon came home dripping wet and swearing.

Several ladies of the regiment offered to look after the baby boy, but Captain Macmahon had other plans.

“Take the kid and look after it yourself,” he told Mootima. “You seem mighty fond of it. Stop snivelling, now. You’re making its face wet. I’ll give you ten rupees more a month if you’ll stop on and save me from all these badgering women.”

Mootima intimated that she Avanted no further increase in her wages, and went about her duties. They were numerous enough, for she had her own butcha to look after.

The year that followed gentle little Mrs. Pat’s death Avas uneventful enough. The white baby and its brown-skinned foster-brother Avaxed and thrived under Mootima’s care. Occasionally the Captain sahib drank too much and threAv trousers at his servant’s head, and curses at poor Mootima. Mootima kept out of his way as much as possible for the child’s sake. The Captain seemed to have a distinct dislike for hi? offspring, AAT h ose best time, and certainly Mootima’s, was AAffien her

master sent her up to the hills with the child in the company of Mrs. Lowrie, the Major’s wife, and her children. On the day before their return to the plains Mrs. Lowrie said to the ayah:

“You will find a new inem-sahib at the bungalow, Mootima. Captain Sahib did not wish it known until you were on your Avay back. A missie-sahib came out to him from England, and they were married in Bombay.”

Mootima was not a very dark-skinned Avoman. She greAv white under her brown.

It struck her that the new mem-sahib might possibly be meeting the train, so she dressed Derek sahib in his best muslin petticoats, and took pains with the appearance of her own child. He was bonny, and for a native fair-skinned. Mootima Avas a high-caste woman. She had excellent features and a fine physique, and she had transmitted these to her son. The foster-brothers Avere not so very unlike. Had Derek sahib’s brown hair been one infinitesimal shade darker it would have matched little Yaseen’s in blackness. Derek sahib’s eyes were the same color as Yaseen’s, but Derek-sahib had a skin of milk.

There was no one at the station, but the bullock cart had been sent to meet the train. Mootima, all feeling and intuition, sensed trouble.

The second Mrs. Macmahon, however, seemed quite charming. She and the Captain Avere awaiting them in the veranda. At sight of the lady, Mootima felt ill-at-ease. Mrs. Macmahon had hair that Mootima likened to gold that has been dipped in copper. It had been dipped in something else, as a matter of fact. She Avent into ecstasies over the baby, Avhich abated somewhat when the Captain remarked that he hoped she’d rhapsodise over the little beggar in private, as he didn’t care for kids very much himself.

Mootima felt more at ease, and for a little Avhile things appeared to go smoothly. Sometimes she thought her neAv mistress regarded the child rather unamiably; certainly she began to take less interest in it. But one day, returning from her own quarters earlier than usual, she heard the sound of Derek sahib’s voice raised in lamentation, and running in noiselessly discovered Mrs. Macmahon administering chastisement to the child with the back of an ebony hair-brush.

Mrs. Macmahon was not aware of Mootima’s presence until she had wrested the hair-brush from her hand.

“Mem-sahib!’’

The baby’s tender skin was violently red. He was choking with fright and pain. Mootima snatched him up in her arms.

“Kindly put that child down!"

“Mem-sahib, he is but a butcha. You would not beat one who has not vet numbered fourteen months?’’

“Please understand, Mootima, I shall do exactly as I please with the child. He was disobedient. You are not his mother. Stop howling you little brat.”

Mootima did not stop to listen to any more. Indignantly she went off with the child to the native butler, and bade him give it misri—sugar-candv. Then she returned to the lady. Tears were running down her cheeks, and her lips were working.

“Mem-sahib, I am full of sorrow for words spoken in wrath ; but the child is the child of my heart and of my vow-”

Mrs. Macmahon had an imperfect knowledge of Hindustani. She waved Mootima aside impatiently.

“I can’t understand half you say. But it doesn’t matter. Your wages will be paid you this evening, and you can go.”

Mootima stood there like one who had received a blow. Mrs. Macmahon reiterated the dismissal.

“Derek sahib?” faltered Mootima. “Where will he go?”

Mrs. Macmahon laughed unmusically.

“He will stay here and have his little paddy broken. For a baby of fourteen months he is a perfect little demon.”

Mootima did not know what “paddy” meant. She knew what “to break” signified, and connected “paddy” with some vital part of the human frame. Horrorstricken, she knelt at Mrs. Macmahon’s feet and raised her hands in supplication.

“Hearken unto me, mem-sahib. At the time of the going of the little one’s mother to the white women’s heaven she did make me vow unto her that I would never leave the child. And now thou art my mistress, and if thoii tellest me to go I must go. Yet, is it not said that a promise

to one who is dead is sacred? Therefore, what must 1 do? Either by thy goodness let me stay, or if I must go let me take the child with me.”

Hearing Mootima’s voice raised in entreaty, Captain Macmahon strolled into the bedroom.

“What the deuce is all this play-acting about?” he demanded.

“I have told Mootima I don’t want her any more,” answered his wife. “Apparently she refuses to go.”

“Go? Of course she'll go, if you say so,” frowned the Captain. He turned on Mootima. “Sumja, ouratf (You understand, woman?)”

The well of Mootima’s tears dried up. Full of dignity, she rose to her feet.

“Ai, sahib, main jata hun (I am going,)” she said, in a low voice that had a ring of finality in it.

The butler noted and wondered at the set expression on her face as he handed the child over to her. Derek sahib was still softly crying, for his little body was very sore, and the sweetmeats had not taken away the smart of the hair-brush.

Soon after this incident the Captain and his lady, acording to their usual custom, drove off to the club. Mootima knew that at least four hours would elapse before their return, and then darkness would have fallen.

The servants were still drowsy after their mid-day meal. Most of them slept; all of them were comatose. Not a soul saw Mootima cross the compound to her own quarters with Derek sahib in her arms.

“They shall not break thy ‘paddy,’ little one,” she soothed. “Mootima is thy protector and thy servant,” She caught her own toddler up, and hugged the pair of them.

But time was precious. With a bundle on her back, her money in the wallet at her waist where she kept the betel nut, white paste and green leaves, and a baby on each hip, she sped towards the bazaar. Once there all trace of Mootima was swallowed up.

M hen the loss of his child, and the simultaneous disappearance of Mootima and her butcha; was discovered, as it was that evening, Captain Macmahon showed no anxiety to make inquiries.

“Let the woman get off,” he said to Mrs. Macmahon. “She’ll be happier with the kid by a long chalk than either you or I.” Which was undoubtedly true.

But Mrs. Macmahon’s conscience pricked her. She was thinking, too, of what people would ^say.

“We must ao something, or it will look so bad,” she debated; and Macmahon shrugged his shoulders indifferently.

Descriptions were forthwith printed and circulated, and a reward offered for any information as to the whereabouts of one Mootima, an ayah, and the two children, one white and the other black. But no response resulted. Inquiries were also made at the station, but the officials and porters were quite sure no one answering to Mootima’s description had taken a ticket there. They were positive they had seen no native woman with a white child. A native woman with a brown child, yes. Many with black children.

So in this manner did Derek sahib leave the home of his fathers, and thenceforth became lost to sight.

Now seven days after the disappearance of Mootima a weary woman with bleeding feet and sunken, cheeks stumbled into a native village, seven days’ march from the military station of Gurrapoor, whence she had fled. She had one child with her, brown, but hungry, and she beseeched the charity of the inhabitants, for her strength was spent. Charity they showed her, and when she was strong again and able to proceed, she went on her way to her own people in Bengal.

There she lived for sixteen years, the boy with her. For him she toiled more as a servant than a mother, fashioning for him his clothes, tunics fastening at the neck, long of sleeve and baggy of trouser, fitting tight at the ankles. The boy grew into a youth, strong and upstanding. He had no English, except what he picked up in the bazaar, and from the sahibs he occasionally encountered. For Yaseen helped a relative of his mother’s who was a dealer in horses, and that is even a queerer trade in the East than in the West.

There was nothing that young Yaseen could not do with horses, and of the ways of men he had little to learn. He dominated the one and exacted respect from the other. An indefinable something in

him distinguished him from the average native. His own people held him in esteem, and even the white men thought well of him, preferring to negotiate with him rather than with his uncle, the dealer in horses. Yaseen, in their language, was “cute but straight,” while Gungra Das was “cute and very slim.”

And Yaseen liked the white men. One evening he had taken a horse to one of the sahib’s bungalows, and when he returned home squatted down modily on the floor.

Mootima notedthe gloomy expression on his face, but said nothing until she had set down a bowl of water, preparatory to washing his feet.

“What is it, my son?” she then asked.

“I am not of a great darkness, my mother,” debated Yaseen. He unbuttoned his tunic as he spoke, and assuredly his chest though brown was not as dark as his face, arms and legs. “Think you that if I journey to where the snow falls and rub my body with it that my skin may become as the white man’s?”

Mootima’s voice shook as she answered :

“Oh, my son! do not labor in vain. Your body may, indeed, dissolve the snow, but your skin will not thereby become white.”

Nevertheless, the question, and still more the despondent manner in which Yaseen asked it, troubled her. It revived memories which for many years she had striven to forget.

Shortly after this she was aroused one night by the sound of a great cry and, running to where he slept, found him awake and greatly excited.

“I did but dream,” he replied, when she asked what ailed him; “and it has so disheartened me that I shall sleep no more. I dreamt that I sat at meat with English men and women at a long table covered with a white cloth and bowls of flowers and much silver. And I did eat with them as they ate, and I did speak with them in their tongue: yet in my dream it was my own tongue. Then of a sudden speech went from me, and a darkness fell on my soul. For I remembered that I was not of their race, and yet the blood-tie with my own people was severed, so that I was shamed and unfit to belong to one or the other. And I sped out into the night, crying aloud: ‘I am a white man with a dark skin. Woe is me! Woe!’ My mother, what does it mean?”

Mootima heard him out with a sinking heart. To her the dream was a sign from the gods, long dreaded, but inevitable. With a patient sigh she answered:

“My son, in the morning if the dream be not forgotten, I will interpret it for thee.”

She crept back to her sleeping place, and crouching against the wall, faced the affliction that had fallen upon her. The sixteen years of her service and her sacrifice had at last brought her to the crossroads where she must leave the choice of ways to the boy. She had no doubt which he would take.

And the next day he came to her to interpret his dream as she had promised. His eyes, dark yet curiously uneastern, still looked heavy with dreams.

“Hearken to me,” said Mootima, “and judge not until I have spoken. Deal with me gently, for I have loved thee much. Dear to me art thou as the son of my own body.” „Yaseen’s head went up; his thin nostrils quivered. “For the son of my body thou art not. The son of my body is dead. Thy mother was a white woman, and thy father a sahib, who ill-used thy mother, and cared not for thee. With my own child did I feed thee, and when thy mother was dying I did promise her that I would never leave thee, and that if evil befell I would put thee before my own.”

Very simply she went on to tell him of the step-mother, and the circumstances that had led to her flight. The boy did not open his lips. He stood like one turned to stone while Mootima went relentlessly on.

“So, carrying thee and thy fosterbrother, I hastened to the bazaar, where among the many little heed was given to one. Yet I knew that because of thy foster-brother thou went in danger. Search would be made not ont only for thee but for a black woman with two children one of them her own and the other white. It was his weal or thine, and I knew not how to choose.

“In my despair I bethought me of a man of great wisdom who dwelt in the bazaar. Of life and death he held the secret. Death touches him not, for he

was old when my mother’s mother was still a child. These things are true.

“To him I went, and holding thee in my arms, I laid my own babe at his feet. And I cried aloud to the spirit of thy mother: ‘Mem-sahib, if it be possible for me to keep them both give unto me a sign.’ And there was no s’gn. But the holy man had divined my irouble, for he said: ‘To keep both will be to thine own undoing. Thou must choose.’ So I chose, and I fought with my lips to speak the words: ‘My own must die.’ But lo!

before speech came to me the holy man said: ‘Thy babe is dead already.’ And behold, it was even so. And I wept, beating my breasts, for never would another child be born of my body. . . . After

awhile strength came back to me, and I stained thy body so that thy skin grew dark, and when night had fallen the holy man sped me on my way.

“So with thee, light of my eyes, I wandered forth along the great road eastward, and after many weary days found my own people. I have said all. The rest thou knowest. To safeguard thee I let none know of my own child’s death. I called thee by his name, and as Yaseen, the son of Mootima, thou hast been known. Thy way of life and the tongue thou speakest keep thy secret and mine; but some there be who, having noted the whiteness of thy skin where the sun hath not darkened it, point at me the finger of scorn, crying: ‘There goeth Mootima who was a white man’s plaything!’

“But now, my son, the time is at hand when, if it seems good unto thee, thou canst claim kindred with the white men, and seek out thine own people. For thou art a man and strong. Think not of me. I am but thy servant, and what is right in thine eyes is right in mine. If I have loved thee as a son—with all the love I gave my own, yea, and an hundredfold—think of it only as a woman’s weakness which need not touch thy inclination. Of the Sahib-log art thou, as it can be shown; and thy path is smooth for thee.”

She ceased. Yaseen watched her huddled figure swaying to and fro in its grief.

“I am—a white man!” he marvelled, and went out into the sunlight.

All day he wandered, unbalanced by the news of his birthright. Once, when passing the European part of the village, he had been prompted to run into the officers’ mess and cry out the truth ; but something, perhaps the stricken look he had seen in Mootima’s eyes, or pride—the pride of the white man—had held him back.

That pride was strong in him, and it asked: Would a white man desert the woman who had sacrificed her own child for him? Would a white man and the son of a Captain-sahib sacrifice and shame such a woman for the sake of his own advancement? Was his white skin to weigh against her love and devotion?

In the long hours of that day the boy grew into a man, and by eventide he had mastered many things which, as a boy, had eluded him. Among others the true meaning of the words “human sacrifice” had been made known to him. Life was a sacrifice. For him Mootima had sacrificed herself and her butcha. He had only—himself.

Returning, he sought her, and knelt at her feet. All day she had been steeling herself to the inevitable.

“When goest thou, 0 my son?” she asekd despairingly.

“Thinkest thou I would leave thee?” said he with a deep tenderness. “Thou

art my father and my mother. By thy goodness was my life preserved. As it lias been so shall it always be. I have spoken.”

Mootima folded him in her arms. And the peace of God — which is the same whether it be the peace of Allah, Christ or Budda — enveloped tier soul. For though the Lord had taken away, the Lord had given.

Once only was their joint secret in danger. It came to pass that Yaseen fell ill of a fever. So ill was he that Mootima was compelled to seek the aid of a European doctor. He cured the boy, but on his last visit he could not refrain from remarking on the fairness of his patient’s skin.

“How is it,” he asked, “that though thy mother is dark thou art so light in color that thou mightest pass as-”

Yaseen started to his feet. His hands were clenched, and his eyes flashed.

/'Chuprao! (Silence!)” he ejaculated with intense fierceness.

And the doctor of the white ^people, thinking that the boy’s intention was to vindicate his mother’s honor, went his way.