It was Sir Teddy Barnes who made Neweralia the Simla of Ceylon, and he was a man who liked to see things done properly. It’s a different world now, of course, what with Morottua arrack-renters receiving invitations to the Governor’s Ball and counter-jumpers from Slough passing themselves off as honest planters, but in Neweralia we still observe the proprieties, especially in Season. So when I saw a certain familiar equipage bowling up Haddon Hill Road that April day in 186_, with a fantastic forty rupees-worth of millinery floating above the tossing manes, I kept my own lid on, and my eyes smartly ahead. It took effort, I’ll allow – cutting Miss Brooks – but there are times when one simply has to harden one’s heart. It’s for the good of Society.
Young Barrington was with me that morning. He’d come out the year before and was ‘creeping’ on an estate out Badulla way. I don’t suppose he saw a European face from one month to the next out there, let alone one as ravishing as Celia Brooks’s – he thought she was European, see, and he wasn’t the only one. When the clip-clopping died away I unfixed my gaze from the middle distance and turned to see him standing like a man in a trance, hat in hand, gazing after the retreating carriage.
‘An angel,’ he breathed. ‘So they do exist, after all.’
I said something to the effect that Miss Brooks was certainly very pretty.
‘Pretty!’ he ejaculated. ‘That hardly meets the case. That complexion! Those eyes! A scribbler like you could do better than pretty – if he wanted to. And you didn’t even take your hat off to her, man – where’s your manners?’
I replied, mildly, that I always took my hat off to ladies.
‘Are you implying that Miss – what did you call her? Brooks – isn’t a lady? See, Kippering, I may be wet behind the ears by Ceylon standards, but I can still tell a gentlewoman from a jade at forty paces. Women of easy virtue don’t dress like that, nor do they travel with a chaperone.’
He had a certain look in his eye, that volatile mixture of confusion and certitude which marks a man about to make a fool of himself. A full explanation was the only thing that might save him.
‘Oh, she’s respectable all right,’ I said, ‘– in that way. Though I once knew a woman who looked like butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth, and … well, never mind about her. Look, we’ve almost come up to Foster’s. Step into the saloon bar with me and I’ll tell you all about Miss Brooks.’
The trouble began (as I explained to Barrington) when Robert McAllan came out to join his brother in Ceylon. George McAllan had been a pioneer of the coffee enterprise; I can’t say where he started his first plantation – it might have been Imboolpittia, or Poosilawa perhaps – but I can tell you that as soon as it repaid the investment, he sold it and moved up-country to start a new one. He didn’t care a bit for civilised life, you see; when a district got too settled, and the mammas and the padres moved in, McAllan had to move on. By the beginning of the ’forties he’d begun clearing a new place at Lindoola, which was the back of beyond in those days: thick, clammy forest, full of bears and leopards and poisonous snakes and, worst of all, leeches. Leeches are the curse of Ceylon, you know …
But hardship was meat and drink to George McAllan. Sleeping on a string bed inside a leaky twelve-by-eight-foot cabin in the middle of his ever-expanding clearing, shooting wild beasts flushed out by the felling, living on curried fowl and rice, chivvying his Tamils, supervising the grading and lining and all the rest – it was just what he loved. And since he got on as well with the natives as he didn’t with his own people, he wasn’t lonely – not very lonely. Every week on Friday, he would ride down from his mountain fastness to purchase supplies, collect his post and conduct other necessary business in town, and those visits furnished him with as much Christian intercourse as he needed, or could bear.
In the fullness of time the whole acreage was lined and planted. But then there was the weeding, the manuring and re-planting; and always the endless campaign waged against the Golunda rats. A coffee-planter’s like a woman; his work is never done. There was a bungalow under construction, too. The first crop was nearly ripe when it was completed, and proceeds from the harvest furnished it in opulent style. But the labour of harvest-time almost prostrated George McAllan. It became apparent to him that he could not manage so vast an estate, so remotely situated, without an assistant – European. Reluctantly (for he valued nothing so much as his solitude), he drafted an advertisement to be placed in the Situations column of the Colombo Observer and rode into town to post it.
At Neweralia post-office, he found a letter awaiting him from his brother in Calcutta. Robert McAllan wrote that the jute-broking firm for which he worked had lately been ruined by unwise speculation, in such a manner that no-one connected with it might hope to obtain fresh employment in that city. He begged his brother, therefore, to inform him what prospects might exist for someone of his abilities in the Crown Colony of Ceylon.
George immediately tore up the advertisement he had written. Sitting down on a bench outside the post-office, he penned a reply to his brother, offering him the post of assistant manager on his own plantation. The terms proposed must have seemed generous, I suppose, to a Scotsman. At any rate, they were accepted. Robbie McAllan arrived in Colombo six weeks later aboard the Mutton Mail.
Now, Robbie had a little planting experience in the jute line, and though coffee is a very different crop, he learnt the ropes quickly. He made himself enormously useful to his brother on the thottam – indeed, he rarely left it at first. The Calcutta misadventure had seared him – made his skin too sensitive for public inspection – even though he had been exonerated at the inquiry. No-one at Neweralia was likely to recognize him, of course, but I don’t suppose he wanted to take the risk while the scandal was still warm. There was mention of it in the Colombo press, you’ll remember.
Then the monsoon came down. That was the end of all travel in the district, so it wasn’t till the middle of September that Robbie McAllan made his first journey into town.
The bridle-path from the McAllan thottam joined the Neweralia road near a small Singalese village. Any kind of settlement was rare in Lindoola at that time, and this was a little place, not above ten families. It was called Mull Kallé, which means ‘forest of flowers’. A pretty name – but prettier still was the young woman who surprised Robbie along the bridle-path near that village on his first journey into town. Her name was Bisoe Mennike, and a more exotic specimen of her kind you never saw. Skin the colour of fresh-cut satinwood and eyes as green as a cat’s – you could tell at a glance she had European blood in her, though quite how much was anybody’s guess. Her figure was formed entirely along native lines, though, with no assistance from elastic or whalebone needed to render it presentable. How do I know? Why, I’ve seen her myself – several times. She was a woman who could turn any head she chose.
When Robbie McAllan first saw her she must have been nineteen years old or twenty, a regular Aphrodite in the pomp of her youth. And he primed for a fall by months of monkish reclusion! It must have seemed to him as if the girl had been placed in his path by Providence. The impression was reinforced when he greeted her and she replied in English – mangled and broken, but English all the same. She asked him if he was staying at McAllan mahattaya’s house. He replied that he was, and that the mahattaya was his brother. This news seemed to please her. Robbie remembered that clearly, though his other impressions were mainly of eyes and lips and … other things.
Of course, the inevitable happened. You won’t want the details; I daresay you can picture them yourself if you’re so minded. From that day hence, Robbie’s visits to town became as regular as his brother’s. He told George nothing about the girl; he didn’t see that it was any of his brother’s business. Besides, he had long since concluded that George, too, must have a petite amie tucked away somewhere in the district, probably in Neweralia itself.
Things went on in this fashion for some months. A second crop of berries ripened and was picked. While the elder McAllan supervised the manufacture of the beans, it fell to the younger to make arrangements regarding their transport to Colombo. This necessitated several journeys to Neweralia and Kandy. Robbie was ecstatic, for each excursion meant a further tryst with Bisoe Mennike. He was fairly infatuated with her now, his passion all the more intense for being so infrequently expressed. Again and again he pressed her to come and live with him on the thottam, where he now had his own little bungalow; but she refused, pleading that she was obliged to stay at home and care for her aged parents. Robbie proposed several ways around this objection, but Bisoe Mennike deftly countered every one. There the matter rested.
Then, one day at breakfast, George said to his brother, ‘I think I’ll ride to town wi’ye today, Rab. There’s something I need to talk aboot to Vickers doon at the Club.’
George pictured his Singalese lover seated by the roadside, combing her hair as she awaited his coming, and muttered something about taking a message if that would serve.
‘Nae, that willnae do. Besides, it’s a braw day. I’ll come along wi’ye.’
Seeing no other recourse, Robbie assented. ‘I’ll go and see tae the moonts,’ he said, and betook himself whence he might be alone with his chagrin and think on what was best to do. His cogitations yielding no result, the brothers were shortly to be seen taking the bridle-path to town.
Robbie spurred on ahead as they approached the meeting-place. As he rounded the bend he saw Bisoe Mennike exactly as he had imagined her, plying her comb through a waterfall of jet. She rose in alarm as Robbie leapt off his horse and seized her hand.
‘Bisoe Mennike! Look here, ye must get away – hide. Quick! There’s nae time to explain –’ Indeed there was not, for at that moment his brother came round the bend.
George’s reaction to what he saw was curious. That was how Robbie described it: curious. Confusion he expected, disgust perhaps, even anger. But not shock – shock that gave way to visible grief at the sight of his brother holding hands with this native woman. When he spoke, it was in Singalese, his voice all a-tremble.
‘Bisoe Mennike! How did you know I – how came you here?’
The girl released Robbie’s hand and sped to George’s side. Bending low, she bowed her head over his boot in the stirrup as though she meant to kiss it.
‘O my dear,’ she replied in the same language. ‘I came for love of your brother – even as I so often have come for love of you!’
Thus was all made clear. There might have been fratricide on the bridle-path that morning had not Bisoe Mennike physically interposed herself between the two. She had courage enough for a man herself, and sagacity too; I doubt that one woman in a million could have kept the McAllans from each other’s throats that day, far less persuaded them to tarry and work things out in reasonable fashion. But that is just what she did. She proposed a solution – one as common among her own people as it is repugnant to ours. There could be an end to deceit now, she said, to trysts along the bridle-path and lovemaking on a reed mat under a cadjan roof; she would come to live on the thottam and be wife – to them both.
Now I suppose you know that among the hill Singalese – the Kandyans – a woman will sometimes marry all the brothers in a family. It’s a practical sort of abomination, for it keeps the family lands from being divided up among several heirs. The Kandyans have done it for centuries, and still do it, even though there’s a law against it now. Well, this was the arrangement Bisoe Mennike proposed, and prevailed upon the McAllans to accept.
And so it came to pass.
None of us knew anything about it, of course. It was easy to keep a secret on a thottam in those days. Besides, the coffee-rush was now at its height, and all the talk was about land-auctions and bean prices and which Chief Justice or Company colonel had just bought nine hundred acres on ‘tick’. No-one was interested in goings-on at a remote estate in Lindoola. The McAllans and their shared common-law wife were out of the way of Neweralia gossip, and there they stayed.
I can’t say how long the arrangement would have lasted if George McAllan hadn’t been killed by accident while installing a boiler at the estate factory. Robbie inherited everything, Bisoe Mennike included. She’d learnt to read and write by then, and begun helping with the estate accounts. After George’s death Robbie left all that kind of thing to her and got on with managing the thottam, which is a man’s job.
The poor fellow didn’t outlive his brother by more than a few months – it was jungle fever that did for him. When Dr Pascoe went out to him at Lindoola for the very last time, I went too, and that is how I came to hear Robbie McAllan’s final confession, and know what really happened at Dundee Estate, Lindoola, in the years before the Great Coffee Disaster.
At Robbie McAllan’s funeral, Bisoe Mennike followed the coffin, weeping, all the way from the thottam into town. It was her first public appearance. Then, not a week later, she turned up at the probate office with a will, signed by Robbie and duly notarised, naming her sole heir to his estate! There were no relatives to contest it, so it was accepted, though there were some questions, I recall, about the signature. The notary was a fellow named Brooks, a second-rate proctor with a weakness for gin-and-bitters. We saw a lot of him in the weeks that followed. We saw something of Bisoe Mennike too, and couldn’t help noticing her – shall we say – delicate condition. The question was, who had caused it?
Then came the Great Coffee Disaster. In its aftermath, two interesting things happened. First, Brooks and his wife adopted a daughter – an orphan baby girl, whom they named Celia. Second, Brooks began buying up coffee-lands, which were then going for a tenth of the price they’d fetched three months previously. Dundee Estate was the first of his purchases. Since he’d never shown any sign of solvency before, people wondered where the money came from. I could tell them – but of course, I have no proof.
Celia Brooks spent her childhood at Lindoola, and in the fullness of time was sent Home to be educated at a young ladies’ establishment in Twickenham. Bisoe Mennike vanished soon after. I’ve heard tell she went to Colombo, changed her name, and cut a dash in native society. Brooks outlived his wife but died a few years ago – his liver finally gave out on him. Young Miss Brooks inherited his fortune, which, I reckon, was rightfully hers all along.
Well, that’s the story I told young Barrington that morning at Foster’s; and when I was done, he just looked at me agape and I had to tell the whole thing over again, making explicit every ugly detail this time. Do you know, it never did the slightest bit of good. Miss Brooks is Mrs Barrington now. Luckily, they’ve gone Home; Neweralia can do without people like that. No sense of propriety, you see.
We’re better off without them.
~ Richard Simon lives in Colombo. He has worked in advertising and publishing in Asia for many years; this is his first published short story.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
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