The secret of the stolen love letters
With her golden necklace and her bright orange sari she came to the bungalow after midnight and whispered, “I am in trouble"
aND NOW, as always, he could not make up his mind. For one thing, how could he be sure someone was standing in the dark outside his veranda door? There had been no knock, no drawn-out clearing of the throat or shuffling of bare feet, no self-conscious “Sir?” that usually announced the presence of an Indian student or a servant. In fact the only sound he had heard was a sort of rustling, and that could have been in the tamarind trees.
Mr. Ransom looked at his watch. 12.30. Too late for visitors. None of the students would have dared enter the men’s bungalow at this hour; the servants had retired some time ago; and if it had been a fellow teacher, he would have heard the warning click of heeled shoes along the veranda. “Ergo,” he said, “I am imagining things.” It stood to reason.
At the same time he did have the distinct impression that someone was waiting outside. He knew he ought to get up and investigate. However, that meant he would have to make up his mind, and he did not want to make up his mind about that because he had left the doors open and if anyone really was there they would already have seen him sitting like this, wrapped in a bath towel and smoking a cigarette. So he just sat quietly, waiting and listening, reflecting that the history of his life might easily be summed up in one word : 'indecision.
W7ith a tired sigh he leaned back in his chair and pressed his fingers against his eyes to relieve the fatigue. Outside, the night lay hot and windless all around, and the sounds of evening rising from the mission compound and the city had about them a dull metronomic quality. Mr. Ransom had just come from taking a cold bath and was still dripping wet. On his desk lay a pile of corrected term papers, and next to them the handwritten text of his sermon for Sunday morning. He had chosen as a theme the passage from the Sermon on the Mount which compared people to salt, working out an elaborate analogy between salt that had lost its savor and people who had lost the will to do good. But the analogy itself seemed flat and tasteless to him, and his inability to put a finger on the matter left him in a state of listlessness in which he was no longer thinking about his sermon. In a vague and slightly amused way he was thinking how shocked everyone and Mr. Clayton would be if they could see him sitting like this, and how shocked he himself ought to be and wasn’t. “But I feel nothing,” he said, “absolutely nothing at all, except that someone is watching me.” Then he heard the rustling sound again, too pronounced to question, and he reached frantically for the light switch with one hand, and with the other pressed his cigarette into the ash tray. “Is anyone there?” he said. Continued on page 52
Continued from page 31
She was on her knees. “Do not turn me away,” she implored. “Tomorrow will be too late”
He waited. Someone’s there all right, he thought. He was almost certain now that he could hear someone breathing.
“Yes?” he said, pulling on his bathrobe. “Who is it?” Quietly he felt his way over to the door. His eyes were beginning to adjust to the darkness, and in the lighter shadows of the veranda, flecked with patches of light sifting through the trees from the cottage dormitories, he was suddenly aware of the young woman standing directly in front of him, just below his face and so close that he could feel her breath on his chest where the V of his bathrobe left an open space.
He stepped back, alarmed, and then recognized the young woman as one of the students from his history class. “And what, may I ask, are you doing here?” he said sharply, trying to think of her name and remembering that she was the one who had such a reputation on campus for reckless behavior.
“I am in trouble,” she said. “I need your help.”
There was a certain overtone of haughtiness in her voice that offended him. “Then why didn’t you knock?” he asked as gruffly as possible.
“Because I fear greatly to disturb you,” she said.
He blushed, glad for the darkness. “Don’t you know it isn’t proper for you to come up here? If you are in trouble you should see the matron or Miss Elliot.”
“But I have already,” she explained, “and they refused me.”
So that’s it, he thought suspiciously. “Well, I suggest you get in touch with me in the morning after you’ve had a good night’s rest.”
He turned to go back into his apartment, but she came around and stood between him and the door. For a moment she seemed to waver, and then abruptly flung herself to her knees and touched his feet with her forehead. “I beg you to help me,” she said. “Please do not turn me away. I have no one else,” she said, “and tomorrow will be too late.”
The touch of her forehead against his bare feet sent a warm, tingling sensation up his legs, and he bent down quickly to disengage himself, feeling the wetness of tears on her face and realizing that what he had taken for haughtiness in her voice had only been a defense to conceal her emotion. “All right, all right!” he whispered, looking around to make sure they were alone. “But you must keep your voice down.” He admitted her into his study and closed the doors. Then he closed the shutters and the hall door before turning on the light by the bookcase.
BLINKING, she moved forward into the centre of the room, and in the light he saw that he had never really looked at her before except to note in a general way that she was standoffish with her classmates. Now he was surprised to discover that she was Hindu. At any rate she wore a caste mark on her forehead, and in the left nostril and the lobe of each ear was a small ruby set in gold. About her neck she had wound a gold chain, and on her arms were bracelets, and from her wrists hung a multitude of glass bangles. She was dressed in a bright orange sari, spangled with gold thread
and dots of black, and the sudden brilliance of her clothing in his dingy bachelor’s quarters made him feel uneasy.
He pointed to the chair beside the desk. “Sit down,” he almost barked.
She approached, head bowed, the rustle of her sari and padding of bare feet across the hemp mat filling the room with a soft whispering sound.
Mr. Ransom tucked his bathrobe tightly about him and huddled his chair up to the desk. “I didn’t know there were any Hindu students here,” he began.
“A few day scholars,” she told him, “but they are all men. I am the only Hindu girl.”
“Oh.” He thought about that a while. “Do you come from around these parts?”
“From Ramnad District.”
He assumed that she meant a village in Ramnad District. Among the citydwelling Hindu women, it had ceased to be fashionable to wear jewels in the nose. In the light of this, her coming here must have taken exceptional courage, or desperation, because village Hindus were inclined to be more orthodox than city Hindus, and one of the first rules of any orthodox Hindu family was that its women should never be socially bold.
“Well,” he said, “what seems to be the trouble?”
In reply she burst into a flood of rapid pidgin English interspersed with Tamil words.
Mr. Ransom held up his hand. “Wait a minute, wait! Not so fast. I can’t possibly understand you. There now, begin over, slowly.”
She cleared her throat. “They are going to kill me,” she said.
“Who’s going to kill you?”
“My father, my uncles—” she made a gesture with the back of her hand. “Everyone wants to kill me!”
“Oh, come now,” said Mr. Ransom, “you can’t be that unpopular.”
“But I am!” she said excitedly. “Only today my relatives arrived from my home village. They wanted to come in after me, but the gateman refused to admit them. So now they wait outside to kill me.”
“Why would they want to do a thing like that?” he asked cautiously.
“Because I am being dismissed from college,” she said.
Mr. Ransom ruffled. Here it was, then, he thought, the old mark routine. The approach was, however, unusual. “Seems to me rather an unreasonably violent reaction to dismissal,” he said, his voice crackling with sarcasm.
“You don’t understand,” she said. “I am quite a good student, but my marks—”
“—are rather low? Is that what you were going to say? And you want me to raise your history mark.” He took down his record book and opened it. “Miss . . .” He looked at her. “Sundarabai,” she said.
“Miss Sundarabai. Yes of course. S. Sundarabai.” He ran his finger along the line. “Ninety.” He stared at the mark. “Ninety? But you pass with honors,” he said, confused.
“That I know. As I say, I am a good student and do not come to you about my mark in your class.”
“Then perhaps you’d better explain.”
SHE SHRUGGED. “It is simply that 1 fail in other classes,” she said. Some of her shyness seemed to have vanished and she leaned forward. “You see. I come from a large family—all girls. This is a big disgrace for an Indian family, because it costs my father much money to get us all married off to men of proper caste and standing. He has quite sold himself away to the moneylenders on my five sisters, and I think he would just as soon die an early death and not bother with me, except that it is even greater disgrace to have an unmarried
daughter and his spirit would be restless about it. Then he received an offer from this fat and very old Vellala from Paramagudi, and I have been betrothed to him on the condition that I obtain a college degree because he says he must have an educated wife, you know? Some men are silly like that. But he is even more silly. He wants his wife educated at an Englishspeaking college, and Christian College happened to be cheapest and most convenient. Anyway, all my father’s male relatives have contributed to send me here because they know this fat
old Vellala will make them all rich men when I marry him.”
“I see,” said Mr. Ransom. “If you don’t get a degree, you don’t get a rich husband and your relatives will be angry with you for making them spend all that money.”
“As simple as that,” she said.
It occurred to him that here indeed was a farfetched story, but she had taken him by surprise, and, much to his dismay, he found that he was giving himself more than enough room for reconsideration.
“I’m afraid I still don’t understand
why you are being dismissed,” he said“But I just told you.”
“I mean if you can get high marks in my class, why can’t you do the same in your other classes?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I am very unhappy here. I am Hindu, and the other girls don’t seem to like me very much. Perhaps that is why I am being sent home.”
“Good heavens!” Mr. Ransom said. “Aren’t you sure why you are being dismissed?”
“No,” she said. “They told me nothing except that I am to leave. So I thought it was low marks.”
Mr. Ransom felt a wave of indignation sweep over him. “You should have taken this up with Miss Elliot at once.”
“How could I?” she said. “She it was who dismissed me.”
“The old battle horse!” Mr. Ransom muttered.
“Nothing,” he said. “Merely referring to a mutual acquaintance.” He thought he understood what had happened. This girl had been singled out by her associates because she was different, because she was Hindu, and because they could not understand what seemed to them like arrogance. She was the kind of girl Miss Elliot naturally disliked anyway, so when the opportunity had presented itself, they had lost no time using it as an excuse to send her home.
“At least you should have gone to someone in authority,” he said.
“But you are in authority,” she insisted. “You have always been just with me, as with others, and they will believe what you say. That is why you must help me.”
KI-C FOUND himself wanting to believe that. “But what on earth can I do for you?” he said, almost too eagerly.
“Take me in,” she said.
She said it in such a low, husky voice that at first he was not sure he had heard her correctly. “What did you
“Let me stay with you.”
“Good Lord, woman!” he said rising. “It is quite simple. No one will know. If you let me stay, I promise to behave myself and do exactly as you wish.”
He shook his head, mostly in disbelief t hat she could be so casual about it. “It can’t be done.”
At this she bent forward and began to cry.
“See here,” he said apologetically, “there’s no need to weep. I shall be glad to offer any assistance I can —within reason. But surely you must see how impossible it is for me to do as you suggest.” She remained silent and he felt obliged to explain that if he did what she suggested it would mean his dismissal. But there was a lack of conviction in his voice as he explained his position, and finally in exasperation he cried, “Listen here, you trust me, don’t you?”
“Then for pity’s sake trust me to do the right thing!”
With difficulty he made her dry her tears and persuaded her that the right thing would be for him to take her to see Dean Clayton and discuss the matter. Then he remembered that he was standing improperly clad before one of his students. Embarrassed, he motioned her to wait while he retired to the bathroom where he pulled on his seersucker. Usually he wore the suit with a clerical collar and a black clerical shirt front. Now he did not have time for fuss or indecision and instead put on the jacket, leaving the shirt open at top and uncollared. It
made him feel insecure and somehow
TCTHEN he came back into the study W he saw that Miss Sundarabai had attempted to tidy the room. The interval had also given her time to reconsider. “What if seeing Mr. Clayton does no good?” she asked.
“Oh, but it will,” he said.
“And if it doesn’t,” she said, “will you take me in?”
“But I’m sure it will!”
“Then what difference? You won’t have to do anything about it.”
Mr. Ransom made a gesture of impatience. “Well, all right,” he said. "I’ll promise you this: if persuasion
fails, 1 myself will be responsible for you. Now come along.”
He could fell Sundarabai wanted to follow along behind but he made her stay beside him. When they reached Mr. Clayton’s bungalow, she again attempted to drop behind, and this time he took her firmly by the elbow and kept her at his side. The bungalow was dark except for a light in the hall that shone through the slats in the door, and Mr. Ransom had to pound furiously to arouse any response. After some time a groggy voice called from the upstairs front veranda, “Yes, who is it?” “Ransom here, sir. I say, I’m terribly sorry to disturb you like t his, but I’m afraid that it’s a matter of some importance.”
There was an annoyed grumble that might have sounded like “It better be,” ind then bare feet thumped across the veranda to the inside hall and the -tair well. “All right, Ransom. Wait right there. Re down in a minute.” “He is very angry,” Sundarabai said. 'I am sure he will not understand. Met ter for me to go and not make trouble.”
“You’ll stay right here,” he ordered. “Must I go in?”
“Yes,” he said. “This has to be settled.” It made him feel important, talking to her like that, and for some reason he was anxious to have it all out with Mr. Clayton.
THE DOOR opened and the Dean admitted them into the front hall. He was a short, stout little man, quite bald, and Mr. Ransom knew him for a tower of moral integrity and a colossal bore.
“You in some sort of trouble, Ransom?” Mr. Clayton asked.
“Indirectly,” he said, pushing Sunlarabaj forward. Mr. Clayton looked it them both with a certain matterif-fact curiosity. He herded them into the study and closed the doors. Then he sat down at his desk. Miss Sundarabai would not sit but stood with her back to the bookcase as far away from Mr. Clayton as possible.
“Miss Sundarabai, I understood you were leaving for home today,” Mr. Blayton said.
“That’s just it,” Mr. Ransom said. “She can’t.”
“And why not, may l ask?”
“Well, her male relatives are waiting for her at the gate, and she seems to think they want to kill her.” “Nonsense,” said Mr. Clayton, looking at Sundarabai who was twisting the tip of her sari in her hands.
“I know it sounds improbable,” Mr. Hansom said, irritated by the ease with which Mr. Clayton dismissed his statement, “but they’re there all the same.” Mr. Clayton clasped his hands and leaned his elbows on the desk. “Are you implying that you have verified this claim of hers?”
“Yes,” Mr. Ransom lied with a readiness that made him catch his breath, “I have.”
“Then I must say that I am amazed,” Mr. Clayton said, and the way he said
it left Mr. Ransom in doubt as to whether he was amazed that the relatives were there or at Mr. Ransom for saying so. “They live just north of Sivaganga, and were not notified until twelve hours ago. It takes almost eight hours for the mail to go one wray.”
“Well, they’re there all right,” Mr. Ransom said hotly, “and 1 think we have a responsibility in the matter.”
“Of course.” Mr. Clayton seemed uninterested in Mr. Ransom’s assertion. “Tell me, Miss Sundarabai, did you explain to Mr. Ransom why you
think your relatives are going to kill you?”
“She told me everything,” Mr. Ransom said.
“Please.” Mr. Clayton held up his hand. “Miss Sundarabai, isn’t it possible that they might just have come to take you home?”
Sundarabai shook her head. “1 know my father.”
“'rilen why did you appeal to Mr. Ransom? Why Mr. Ransom in particular?” Mr. Clavton asked.
“I could wake no one else,” she said.
“Did you try?”
“See here, Clayton, are you insinuating ”
“1 am insinuating nothing. Mister Ransom. I am merely trying to establish facts.”
Then it seems to me you’re going about it in a rather devious way and making a lot of shoddy implicat ions.” “Nor am 1 making any implications, shoddy or otherwise, sir! In my position I am more acquainted with the Hindu mind than you are, and I know it to he a deceitful thing.”
“Damn it! How can you utter a statement so obviously prejudiced?
“Very touchy subject,” said Mr. Clayton. “She is being dismissed to avoid scandal”
This young woman’s in serious trouble and all you do is sit there spouting platitudes about the Hindu mind. Frankly I think she’s been the victim of unfair treatment, and I’m here to see that something is done about it.” He paused, surprised at the determination in his voice.
Even Mr. Clayton seemed surprised. “What’s come over you, man? Suppose you give me a rough idea of what she told you about her dismissal.”
In an excited voice Mr. Ransom explained the situation to Mr. Clayton, who nodded, listened, and seemed entirely bored.
“I see,” he said. On a memo pad he wrote down the gist of the argument: “Dismissal without cause . . . supposedly because of low marks . . . due to ostracism, unfair treatment, etc.
. . . marriage contract calls for college degree . . . relatives now threaten life.” He looked at the list. “Hmm,” he said. “Yes, I think we’d better call Miss Elliot. I’m sure she can complete this sketchy picture better than I can.”
MISS ELLIOT was not long in arriving. That was one of her peerless attributes: her ability to be
summoned anywhere at any time and appear after an unreasonably short interval decently clad.
“Good of you to come over, Miss Elliot,” Mr. Clayton said. “Hate to disturb anyone at this hour, but I’m afraid we’ve got a bit of business that can’t wait.”
“Quite all right,” said Miss Elliot, glancing at Mr. Ransom and Sundarabai as if she understood what it was all about. “Has she been talking to you, too?” she asked.
“She has talked with me,” Mr. Ransom said. “I’ve been acquainted with the facts.”
“Well, you don’t want to believe a word she says,” Miss Elliot asserted.
“And why not?” Mr. Ransom had never challenged Miss Elliot on any subject before, and the way he did it now made her raise her eyebrows.
“Because she’s been giving everyone the merry old run-around,” said Miss Elliot, taking the memo pad Mr. Clayton handed her. “I see she’s been telling you that everyone is against her, that her marks are low on this account, and so she’s being sent home, and her male relatives are going to do away with her, and whatnot. Well, she’s already told the same story to several members of the women’s staff, and I can assure you the whole business is quite untrue.”
“But has anyone stopped to examine the facts?” Mr. Ransom roared, slamming his hands on Mr. Clayton’s desk.
“Not of that story,” Mr. Clayton said, blinking.
“Then how the devil can you make such bald statements about the case and dismiss it as rubbish? I object to your attitude, and I’m not going to let the matter be neatly filed away without doing something, do you hear? I’m after action, Clayton, action!”
1%/TlSS ELLIOT sat down on the iflcorner of Mr. Clayton’s desk. “My, my,” she said. “Mr. Ransom, if you had taken an active interest in the social life of the college in the past, we probably would not have to tell you that the story Miss Sundarabai has given you is completely false.”
With a snort of disgust Mr. Ransom turned away from the desk. “And this you say without even investigating!” “That’s because she is not being
dismissed for low marks,” Mr. Clayton told him.
“I beg your pardon?” Mr. Ransom said.
“She is not being dismissed for low marks,” Miss Elliot said. “If you had stopped to examine her story instead of rampaging to her defense so eagerly, you might have discovered the real reason.”
“And what’s that?”
Mr. Clayton and Miss Elliot exchanged glances. “Well, it’s a very touchy subject, Ransom,” Mr. Clayton said, “and I’d just as soon not spread the story around. Miss Sundarabai is being dismissed, I’m afraid, to avoid scandal. And I’d rather not go into details.”
“And I insist that you do,” Mr. Ransom said, “because this whole thing smacks of cover-up to me. I want answers, clear and well-defined, or I’ll take it up with the newspapers.”
Miss Elliot sighed. “Perhaps we’d better tell him.”
“Very well,” said Mr. Clayton, “proceed.”
“Miss Sundarabai,” Miss Elliot said, speaking slowly and a little too carefully, “is involved in a love affair with someone in the college.”
“I don’t believe you,” Mr. Ransom said.
MR. CLAYTON turned in his chair and opened a drawer in the filing cabinet behind hixxi and took out a folder which he handed to Mr. Ransom. “Here,” he said, “have a look.” Mr. Ransom began reading: “Oh, my darling, xxiy precious one, more dear to me than life itself, when will I hear your fond voice again, when will you at last know-—” Letter after letter. All addressed to a fix ver whose name never appeared; all signed “Sundarabai.” “How do you know they weren’t forged?” Mr. Ransom said. He heard Sundarabai weeping by the bookcase. “Perhaps someone did this to hurt her.”
“I must say you’re hard to convince,” said Miss Elliot. “But I’m afraid you’re wrong. One of our student monitors intercepted them. She noticed Miss Sundarabai writing them and saw that they were placed in books on the history shelf in the library. She fetched them to us one by one as they were written.”
The little biddies! Mr. Ransom thought. The filthy little spying biddies! “They still could have been forged,” be said.
“Ask her yourself then,” Miss Elliot replied.
Mr. Ransom turned to Sundarabai, the question in his eye. She nodded, looking away.
“And of course if her relatives are there by the gate, they have every reason to be furious,” Mr. Clayton said. “It’s a serious business among the upper castes, though I doubt they intend to kill her.”
“Who is he?” asked Mr. Ransom, picking his nails.
“She hasn’t told us,” Miss Elliot said. “We questioned her thoroughly all afternoon, but she refused to reveal his identity.”
“Would it help to know the man’s name?” Mr. Ransom asked.
“It might,” said Mr. Clayton. “It depends on the man. If he is someone of good caste and has money, the relatives might be persuaded to agree to certain arrangements.”
“But it wouldn’t help her as far as staying here is concerned?”
“Well, yes and no. I can’t say for certain. There’s a disciplinary element involved. However, if a marriage were arranged, we might be able to take her back after a term’s suspension, or we might be able to transfer her.”
“Sundarabai,” Mr. Ransom said, “I want you to tell his name.”
Sundarabai shook her head, wiping at her tears with the palm of her hand.
“Surely you can see that if the fellow’s worth his salt, he’d come forward of his own accord to vouch for you. If he hasn’t, it’s no use protecting him.”
“No,” she said, “you don’t understand. I cannot tell.”
“But in heaven’s name why?”
“I simply cannot,” she said. “It is asking too much.”
Mr. Ransom took her hand gently. “Listen,” he said, “a while back you told me you trusted me. Do you still mean that?”
“Then you must tell me who the man is.”
SUNDARABAI looked at Miss Elliot and Mr. Clayton, and then looking
directly up into Mr. Ransom’s eyes, she said, “It is you that I love. No one else.” Suddenly the words seemed to pour from her mouth. “I sit in your class, I see you walking in the afternoon, and sometimes you stand on your veranda in the early morning, and my heart goes out with tenderness for you because you understand me. You have been good to me.”
“But the letters?” Mr. Ransom stammered.
“They were for you,” she said. “I put them in the books you read. I signed my name only because I know
that if you do not get them and they are found, they will make trouble for you. I also did not send them through the mail for fear they would be found out and questions asked. I only hope that you will by chance see them and love me as I love you.”
She stood silently for perhaps a second, searching Mr. Ransom’s puzzled expression for some sign of acceptance or rejection, and then, covering her mouth with the tip of her sari, fled from the room. Mr. Ransom sat down, stunned. In far-off tones he heard Miss Elliot and Mr. Clayton exclaiming to each other how mortified they were, how childish it was, and how obviously scheming. And then he found his voice and said in a curiously detached mumble that made Mr. Clayton and Miss Elliot instantly attentive. “Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the
salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted?”
“What’s that?” Mr. Clayton asked. “I said if the salt of life has lost its savour, how the hell are you going to re-salt it?” he yelled.
HE GOT UP and went over to the mirror and looked at his reflection. He had never really seen himself before. Always while shaving or brushing his hair he had been content with the knowledge that his face was still there. But now that wasn’t enough and he examined every detail of it: the high
cheekbones, the fine texture of the skin, pinkish around the eyes, lightly tinged with blue where his beard began, the aquiline cut of his nose, and the pleasant shape of his mouth. He turned and went back to the desk, and picking up the letters, began stuffing them into his pockets. He had talked with this girl, listened to her, understood her, lied for her, argued for her. and now he was not sure but that he might love her too. At least he had never been loved quite like that before, and he was not going to let it wander out of his life by being undecided about it.
Mr. Clayton was standing up. “Ransom, are you all right?”
“Of course,” he said, and changed his mind. “I don’t know.”
He started for the door, and Mr. Clayton came around to him quickly, concern showing in his eyes.
“Where are you going?”
“After her,” Mr. Ransom said. “1 made an agreement and I’m keeping it.”
Mr. Clayton and Miss Elliot looked at each other.
“Agreement?” Miss Elliot asked. They were both trying to pacify him now.
“Yes,” said Ransom. “I told Miss Sundarabai that if persuasion failed here, I’d be personally responsible for her. It’s not anyone’s fault that persuasion did fail, but I’m still taking her in. Now let me by.”
“Ransom!” Mr. Clayton shouted. “I needn’t remind you of the consequences if you do such a thing!” “Don’t worry,” Mr. Ransom said. “My resignation will be on your desk tomorrow.” But he was not thinking about the resignation. He was thinking that he’d have to have a free hand with Sundarabai’s family. Where all this would lead to he was not certain. It didn’t matter. He was going to begin living for himself, and that came first. Impatiently he pushed past Miss Elliot and shut the door.
“Ransom,” Mr. Clayton called again, jerking open the door. “You must be out of your mind!”
Through the slamming of the outer door came the reply, not sarcastic, not bitter, but thoughtful and unmistakably positive, “Yes, thank God, perhaps I am.” -jç