The vultures in the big pyinkado trees by the cemetery flapped from their dung-whitened branches, steadied themselves on the wing, and climbed by vast spirals into the upper air. It was early, but Flory was out already. He was going down to the Club, to wait until Elizabeth came and then ask her formally to marry him. Some instinct, which he did not understand, prompted him to do it before the other Europeans returned from the jungle.
As he came out of the compound gate he saw that there was a new arrival at Kyauktada. A youth with a long spear like a needle in his hand was cantering across the maidan on a white pony. Some Sikhs, looking like sepoys, ran after him, leading two other ponies, a bay and a chestnut, by the bridle. When he came level with him Flory halted on the road and shouted good morning. He had not recognized the youth, but it is usual in small stations to make strangers welcome. The other saw that he was hailed, wheeled his pony negligently round and brought it to the side of the road. He was a youth of about twenty-live, lank but very straight, and manifestly a cavalry officer. He had one of those rabbit-like faces common among English soldiers, with pale blue eyes and a little triangle of fore-teeth visible between the lips; yet hard, fearless and even brutal in a careless fashion—a rabbit, perhaps, but a tough and martial rabbit. He sat his horse as though he were part of it, and he looked offensively young and fit. His fresh face was tanned to the exact shade that went with his light-coloured eyes, and he was as elegant as a picture with his white buckskin topi and his polo-boots that gleamed like an old meerschaum pipe. Flory felt uncomfortable in his presence from the start.
‘How d’you do?’ said Flory. ‘Have you just arrived?’
‘Last night, got in by the late train.’ He had a surly, boyish voice. ‘I’ve been sent up here with a company of men to stand by in case your local bad-mashes start any trouble. My name’s Verrall—Military Police,’ he added, not, however, inquiring Flory’s name in return.
‘Oh yes. We heard they were sending somebody. Where are you putting up?’
‘Dak bungalow, for the time being. There was some black beggar staying there when I got in last night—Excise Officer or something. I booted him out. This is a filthy hole, isn’t it?’ he said with a backward movement of his head, indicating the whole of Kyauktada.
‘I suppose it’s like the rest of these small stations. Are you staying long?’
‘Only a month or so, thank God. Till the rains break. What a rotten maidan you’ve got here, haven’t you? Pity they can’t keep this stuff cut,’ he added, swishing the dried-up grass with the point of his spear. ‘Makes it so hopeless for polo or anything.’
‘I’m afraid you won’t get any polo here,’ Flory said. ‘Tennis is the best we can manage. There are only eight of us all told, and most of us spend three-quarters of our time in the jungle.’
‘Christ! What a hole!’
After this there was a silence. The tall, bearded Sikhs stood in a group round their horses’ heads, eyeing Flory without much favour. It was perfectly clear that Verral was bored with the conversation and wanted to escape. Flory had never in his life felt so completely de trop, or so old and shabby. He noticed that Verrall’s pony was a beautiful Arab, a mare, with proud neck and arching, plume-like tail; a lovely milk-white thing, worth several thousands of rupees. Verrall had already twitched the bridle to turn away, evidently feeling that he had talked enough for one morning.
‘That’s a wonderful pony of yours,’ Flory said.
‘She’s not bad, better than these Burma scrubs. I’ve come out to do a bit of tent-pegging. It’s hopeless trying to knock a polo ball about in this muck. Hey, Hira Singh!’ he called, and turned his pony away.
The sepoy holding the bay pony handed his bridle to a companion, ran to a spot forty yards away, and fixed a narrow boxwood peg in the ground. Verral took no further notice of Flory. He raised his spear and poised himself as though taking aim at the peg, while the Indians backed their horses out of the way and stood watching critically. With a just perceptible movement Verrall dug his knees into the pony’s sides. She bounded forward like a bullet from a catapult. As easily as a centaur the lank, straight youth leaned over in the saddle, lowered his spear and plunged it clean through the peg. One of the Indians muttered gruffly ‘Shabash!’ Verrall raised his spear behind him in the orthodox fashion, and then, pulling his horse to a canter, wheeled round and handed the transfixed peg to the sepoy.
Verrall rode twice more at the peg, and hit it each time. It was done with matchless grace and with extraordinary solemnity. The whole group of men, Englishman and Indians, were concentrated upon the business of hitting the peg as though it had been a religious ritual. Flory still stood watching, disregarded—Verrall’s face was one of those that are specially constructed for ignoring unwelcome strangers—but from the very fact that he had been snubbed unable to tear himself away. Somehow, Verrall had filled him with a horrible sense of inferiority. He was trying to think of some pretext for renewing the conversation, when he looked up the hillside and saw Elizabeth, in pale blue, coming out of her uncle’s gate. She must have seen the third transfixing of the peg. His heart stirred painfully. A thought occurred to him, one of those rash thoughts that usually lead to trouble. He called to Verrall, who was a few yards away from him, and pointed with his stick.
‘Do these other two know how to do it?’
Verrall looked over his shoulder with a surly air. He had expected Flory to go away after being ignored.
‘Can these other two do it?’ Flory repeated.
‘The chestnut’s not bad. Bolts if you let him, though.’
‘Let me have a shot at the peg, would you?’
‘All right,’ said Verrall ungraciously. ‘Don’t go and cut his mouth to bits.’
A sepoy brought the pony, and Flory pretended to examine the curb-chain. In reality he was temporizing until Elizabeth should be thirty or forty yards away. He made up his mind that he would stick the peg exactly at the moment when she passed (it is easy enough on the small Burma ponies, provided that they will gallop straight), and then ride up to her with it on his point. That was obviously the right move. He did not want her to think that that pink-faced young whelp was the only person who could ride. He was wearing shorts, which are uncomfortable to ride in, but he knew that, like nearly everyone, he looked his best on horseback.
Elizabeth was approaching. Flory stepped into the saddle, took the spear from the Indian and waved it in greeting to Elizabeth. She made no response, however. Probably she was shy in front of Verrall. She was looking away, towards the cemetery, and her cheeks were pink.
‘Chalo,’ said Flory to the Indian, and then dug his knees into the horse’s sides.
The very next instant, before the horse had taken to bounds, Flory found himself hurtling through the air, hitting the ground with a crack that wrenched his shoulder almost out of joint, and rolling over and over. Mercifully the spear fell clear of him. He lay supine, with a blurred vision of blue sky and floating vultures. Then his eyes focused on the khaki pagri and dark face of a Sikh, bearded to the eyes, bending over him.
‘What’s happened?’ he said in English, and he raised himself painfully on his elbow. The Sikh made some gruff answer and pointed. Flory saw the chestnut pony careering away over the maidan, with the saddle under its belly. The girth had not been tightened, and had slipped round; hence his fall.
When Flory sat up he found that he was in extreme pain. The right shoulder of his shirt was torn open and already soaking with blood, and he could feel more blood oozing from his cheek. The hard earth had grazed him. His hat, too, was gone. With a deadly pang he remembered Elizabeth, and he saw her coming towards him, barely ten yards away, looking straight at him as he sprawled there so ignominiously. My God, my God! he thought, O my God, what a fool I must look! The thought of it even drove away the pain of the fall. He clapped a hand over his birth-mark, though the other cheek was the damaged one.
‘Elizabeth! Hullo, Elizabeth! Good morning!’
He had called out eagerly, appealingly, as one does when one is conscious of looking a fool. She did not answer, and what was almost incredible, she walked on without pausing even for an instant, as though she had neither seen nor heard him.
‘Elizabeth!’ he called again, taken aback; ‘did you see my fall? The saddle slipped. The fool of a sepoy hadn’t—’
There was no question that she had heard him now. She turned her face full upon him for a moment, and looked at him and through him as though he had not existed. Then she gazed away into the distance beyond the cemetery. It was terrible. He called after her in dismay—
‘Elizabeth! I say, Elizabeth!’
She passed on without a word, without a sign, without a look. She was walking sharply down the road, with a click of heels, her back turned upon him.
The sepoys had come round him now, and Verrall, too, had ridden across to where Flory lay. Some of the sepoys had saluted Elizabeth; Verrall had ignored her, perhaps not seeing her. Flory rose stiffly to his feet. He was badly bruised, but no bones were broken. The Indians brought him his hat and stick, but they did not apologize for their carelessness. They looked faintly contemptuous, as though thinking that he had only got what he deserved. It was conceivable that they had loosened the girth on purpose.
‘The saddle slipped,’ said Flory in the weak, stupid way that one does at such moments.
‘Why the devil couldn’t you look at it before you got up?’ said Verrall briefly. ‘You ought to know these beggars aren’t to be trusted.’
Having said which he twitched his bridle and rode away, feeling the incident closed. The sepoys followed him without saluting Flory. When Flory reached his gate he looked back and saw that the chestnut pony had already been caught and re-saddled, and Verrall was tent-pegging upon it.
The fall had so shaken him that even now he could hardly collect his thoughts. What could have made her behave like that? She had seen him lying bloody and in pain, and she had walked past him as though he had been a dead dog. How could it have happened? HAD it happened? It was incredible. Could she be angry with him? Could he have offended her in any way? All the servants were waiting at the compound fence. They had come out to watch the tent-pegging, and every one of them had seen his bitter humiliation. Ko S’la ran part of the way down the hill to meet him, with concerned face.
‘The god has hurt himself? Shall I carry the god back to the house?’
‘No,’ said the god. ‘Go and get me some whisky and a clean shirt.’
When they got back to the house Ko S’la made Flory sit down on the bed and peeled off his torn shirt which the blood had stuck to his body. Ko S’la clicked his tongue.
‘Ah ma lay? These cuts are full of dirt. You ought not to play these children’s games on strange ponies, thakin. Not at your age. It is too dangerous.’
‘The saddle slipped,’ Flory said.
‘Such games,’ pursued Ko S’la, ‘are all very well for the young police officer. But you are no longer young, thakin. A fall hurts at your age. You should take more care of yourself.’
‘Do you take me for an old man?’ said Flory angrily. His shoulder was smarting abominably.
‘You are thirty-five, thakin,’ said Ko S’la politely but firmly.
It was all very humiliating. Ma Pu and Ma Yi, temporarily at peace, had brought a pot of some dreadful mess which they declared was good for cuts. Flory told Ko S’la privately to throw it out of the window and substitute boracic ointment. Then, while he sat in a tepid bath and Ko S’la sponged the dirt out of his grazes, he puzzled helplessly, and, as his head grew clearer, with a deeper and deeper dismay, over what had happened. He had offended her bitterly, that was clear. But, when he had not even seen her since last night, how COULD he have offended her? And there was no even plausible answer.
He explained to Ko S’la several times over that his fall was due to the saddle slipping. But Ko S’la, though sympathetic, clearly did not believe him. To the end of his days, Flory perceived, the fall would be attributed to his own bad horsemanship. On the other hand, a fortnight ago, he had won undeserved renown by putting to flight the harmless buffalo. Fate is even-handed, after a fashion.