When my husband nowadays comes in for his meals I feel I cannot sit before him; and yet it is such a shame not to be near him that I feel I cannot do that either. So I seat myself where we cannot look at each other's face. That was how I was sitting the other day when the Bara Rani came and joined us.
"It is all very well for you, brother," said she, "to laugh away these threatening letters. But they do frighten me so. Have you sent off that money you gave me to the Calcutta bank?"
"No, I have not yet had the time to get it away," my husband replied.
"You are so careless, brother dear, you had better look out..."
"But it is in the iron safe right inside the inner dressing- room," said my husband with a reassuring smile.
"What if they get in there? You can never tell!"
"If they go so far, they might as well carry you off too!"
"Don't you fear, no one will come for poor me. The real attraction is in your room! But joking apart, don't run the risk of keeping money in the room like that."
"They will be taking along the Government revenue to Calcutta in a few days now; I will send this money to the bank under the same escort."
"Very well. But see you don't forget all about it, you are so absent-minded."
"Even if that money gets lost, while in my room, the loss cannot be yours, Sister Rani."
"Now, now, brother, you will make me very angry if you talk in that way. Was I making any difference between yours and mine? What if your money is lost, does not that hurt me? If Providence has thought fit to take away my all, it has not left me insensible to the value of the most devoted brother known since the days of Lakshman." 25
"Well, Junior Rani, are you turned into a wooden doll? You have not spoken a word yet. Do you know, brother, our Junior Rani thinks I try to flatter you. If things came to that pass I should not hesitate to do so, but I know my dear old brother does not need it!"
Thus the Senior Rani chattered on, not forgetting now and then to draw her brother's attention to this or that special delicacy amongst the dishes that were being served. My head was all the time in a whirl. The crisis was fast coming. Something must be done about replacing that money. And as I kept asking myself what could be done, and how it was to be done, the unceasing patter of my sister-in-law's words seemed more and more intolerable.
What made it all the worse was, that nothing could escape my sister-in-law's keen eyes. Every now and then she was casting side glances towards me. What she could read in my face I do not know, but to me it seemed that everything was written there only too plainly.
Then I did an infinitely rash thing. Affecting an easy, amused laugh I said: "All the Senior Rani's suspicions, I see, are reserved for me--her fears of thieves and robbers are only a feint."
The Senior Rani smiled mischievously. "You are right, sister mine. A woman's theft is the most fatal of all thefts. But how can you elude my watchfulness? Am I a man, that you should hoodwink me?"
"If you fear me so," I retorted, "let me keep in your hands all I have, as security. If I cause you loss, you can then repay yourself."
"Just listen to her, our simple little Junior Rani!" she laughed back, turning to my husband. "Does she not know that there are losses which no security can make good, either in this world or in the next?"
My husband did not join in our exchange of words. When he had finished, he went off to the outer apartments, for nowadays he does not take his mid-day rest in our room.
All my more valuable jewels were in deposit in the treasury in charge of the cashier. Still what I kept with me must have been worth thirty or forty thousand. I took my jewel-box to the Bara Rani's room and opened it out before her, saying: "I leave these with you, sister. They will keep you quite safe from all worry."
The Bara Rani made a gesture of mock despair. "You positively astound me, Chota Rani!" she said. "Do you really suppose I spend sleepless nights for fear of being robbed by you?"
"What harm if you did have a wholesome fear of me? Does anybody know anybody else in this world?"
"You want to teach me a lesson by trusting me? No, no! I am bothered enough to know what to do with my own jewels, without keeping watch over yours. Take them away, there's a dear, so many prying servants are about."
I went straight from my sister-in-law's room to the sitting-room outside, and sent for Amulya. With him Sandip came along too. I was in a great hurry, and said to Sandip: "If you don't mind, I want to have a word or two with Amulya. Would you..."
Sandip smiled a wry smile. "So Amulya and I are separate in your eyes? If you have set about to wean him from me, I must confess I have no power to retain him."
I made no reply, but stood waiting.
"Be it so," Sandip went on. "Finish your special talk with Amulya. But then you must give me a special talk all to myself too, or it will mean a defeat for me. I can stand everything, but not defeat. My share must always be the lion's share. This has been my constant quarrel with Providence. I will defeat the Dispenser of my fate, but not take defeat at his hands." With a crushing look at Amulya, Sandip walked out of the room.
"Amulya, my own little brother, you must do one thing for me," I said.
"I will stake my life for whatever duty you may lay on me, sister."
I brought out my jewel-box from the folds of my shawl and placed it before him. "Sell or pawn these," I said, "and get me six thousand rupees as fast as ever you can."
"No, no, Sister Rani," said Amulya, touched to the quick. "Let these jewels be. I will get you six thousand all the same."
"Oh, don't be silly," I said impatiently. "There is no time for any nonsense. Take this box. Get away to Calcutta by the night train. And bring me the money by the day after tomorrow positively."
Amulya took a diamond necklace out of the box, held it up to the light and put it back gloomily.
"I know," I told him, "that you will never get the proper price for these diamonds, so I am giving you jewels worth about thirty thousand. I don't care if they all go, but I must have that six thousand without fail."
"Do you know, Sister Rani," said Amulya, "I have had a quarrel with Sandip Babu over that six thousand rupees he took from you? I cannot tell you how ashamed I felt. But Sandip Babu would have it that we must give up even our shame for the country. That may be so. But this is somehow different. I do not fear to die for the country, to kill for the country--that much Shakti has been given me. But I cannot forget the shame of having taken money from you. There Sandip Babu is ahead of me. He has no regrets or compunctions. He says we must get rid of the idea that the money belongs to the one in whose box it happens to be-- if we cannot, where is the magic of Bande Mataram?"
Amulya gathered enthusiasm as he talked on. He always warms up when he has me for a listener. "The Gita tells us," he continued, "that no one can kill the soul. Killing is a mere word. So also is the taking away of money. Whose is the money? No one has created it. No one can take it away with him when he departs this life, for it is no part of his soul. Today it is mine, tomorrow my son's, the next day his creditor's. Since, in fact, money belongs to no one, why should any blame attach to our patriots if, instead of leaving it for some worthless son, they take it for their own use?"
When I hear Sandip's words uttered by this boy, I tremble all over. Let those who are snake-charmers play with snakes; if harm comes to them, they are prepared for it. But these boys are so innocent, all the world is ready with its blessing to protect them. They play with a snake not knowing its nature, and when we see them smilingly, trustfully, putting their hands within reach of its fangs, then we understand how terribly dangerous the snake is. Sandip is right when he suspects that though I, for myself, may be ready to die at his hands, this boy I shall wean from him and save.
"So the money is wanted for the use of your patriots?" I questioned with a smile.
"Of course it is!" said Amulya proudly. "Are they not our kings? Poverty takes away from their regal power. Do you know, we always insist on Sandip Babu travelling First Class? He never shirks kingly honours--he accepts them not for himself, but for the glory of us all. The greatest weapon of those who rule the world, Sandip Babu has told us, is the hypnotism of their display. To take the vow of poverty would be for them not merely a penance--it would mean suicide."
At this point Sandip noiselessly entered the room. I threw my shawl over the jewel-case with a rapid movement.
"The special-talk business not yet over?" he asked with a sneer in his tone.
"Yes, we've quite finished," said Amulya apologetically. "It was nothing much."
"No, Amulya," I said, "we have not quite finished."
"So exit Sandip for the second time, I suppose?" said Sandip.
"If you please."
"And as to Sandip's re-entry .
"Not today. I have no time."
"I see!" said Sandip as his eyes flashed. "No time to waste, only for special talks!"
Jealousy! Where the strong man shows weakness, there the weaker sex cannot help beating her drums of victory. So I repeated firmly: "I really have no time."
Sandip went away looking black. Amulya was greatly perturbed. "Sister Rani," he pleaded, "Sandip Babu is annoyed."
"He has neither cause nor right to be annoyed," I said with some vehemence. "Let me caution you about one thing, Amulya. Say nothing to Sandip Babu about the sale of my jewels--on your life."
"No, I will not."
"Then you had better not delay any more. You must get away by tonight's train."
Amulya and I left the room together. As we came out on the verandah Sandip was standing there. I could see he was waiting to waylay Amulya. To prevent that I had to engage him. "What is it you wanted to tell me, Sandip Babu?" I asked.
"I have nothing special to say--mere small talk. And since you have not the time .. "
"I can give you just a little."
By this time Amulya had left. As we entered the room Sandip asked: "What was that box Amulya carried away?" The box had not escaped his eyes. I remained firm. "If I could have told you, it would have been made over to him in your presence!"
"So you think Amulya will not tell me?"
"No, he will not."
Sandip could not conceal his anger any longer. You think you will gain the mastery over me?" he blazed out. "That shall never be. Amulya, there, would die a happy death if I deigned to trample him under foot. I will never, so long as I live, allow you to bring him to your feet!"
Oh, the weak! the weak! At last Sandip has realized that he is weak before me! That is why there is this sudden outburst of anger. He has understood that he cannot meet the power that I wield, with mere strength. With a glance I can crumble his strongest fortifications. So he must needs resort to bluster. I simply smiled in contemptuous silence. At last have I come to a level above him. I must never lose this vantage ground; never descend lower again. Amidst all my degradation this bit of dignity must remain to me!
"I know," said Sandip, after a pause, "it was your jewel-case."
"You may guess as you please," said I, "but you will get nothing out of me.
"So you trust Amulya more than you trust me? Do you know that the boy is the shadow of my shadow, the echo of my echo--that he is nothing if I am not at his side?"
"Where he is not your echo, he is himself, Amulya. And that is where I trust him more than I can trust your echo!"
"You must not forget that you are under a promise to render up all your ornaments to me for the worship of the Divine Mother. In fact your offering has already been made."
"Whatever ornaments the gods leave to me will be offered up to the gods. But how can I offer those which have been stolen away from me?"
"Look here, it is no use your trying to give me the slip in that fashion. Now is the time for grim work. Let that work be finished, then you can make a display of your woman's wiles to your heart's content--and I will help you in your game."
The moment I had stolen my husband's money and paid it to Sandip, the music that was in our relations stopped. Not only did I destroy all my own value by making myself cheap, but Sandip's powers, too, lost scope for their full play. You cannot employ your marksmanship against a thing which is right in your grasp. So Sandip has lost his aspect of the hero; a tone of low quarrelsomeness has come into his words.
Sandip kept his brilliant eyes fixed full on my face till they seemed to blaze with all the thirst of the mid-day sky. Once or twice he fidgeted with his feet, as though to leave his seat, as if to spring right on me. My whole body seemed to swim, my veins throbbed, the hot blood surged up to my ears; I felt that if I remained there, I should never get up at all. With a supreme effort I tore myself off the chair, and hastened towards the door.
From Sandip's dry throat there came a muffled cry: "Whither would you flee, Queen?" The next moment he left his seat with a bound to seize hold of me. At the sound of footsteps outside the door, however, he rapidly retreated and fell back into his chair. I checked my steps near the bookshelf, where I stood staring at the names of the books.
As my husband entered the room, Sandip exclaimed: "I say, Nikhil, don't you keep Browning among your books here? I was just telling Queen Bee of our college club. Do you remember that contest of ours over the translation of those lines from Browning? You don't?
/* "She should never have looked at me, If she meant I should not love her, There are plenty ... men you call such, I suppose ... she may discover All her soul to, if she pleases, And yet leave much as she found them: But I'm not so, and she knew it When she fixed me, glancing round them. */
"I managed to get together the words to render it into Bengali, somehow, but the result was hardly likely to be a 'joy forever' to the people of Bengal. I really did think at one time that I was on the verge of becoming a poet, but Providence was kind enough to save me from that disaster. Do you remember old Dakshina? If he had not become a Salt Inspector, he would have been a poet. I remember his rendering to this day ...
"No, Queen Bee, it is no use rummaging those bookshelves. Nikhil has ceased to read poetry since his marriage--perhaps he has no further need for it. But I suppose 'the fever fit of poesy', as the Sanskrit has it, is about to attack me again."
"I have come to give you a warning, Sandip," said my husband.
"About the fever fit of poesy?"
My husband took no notice of this attempt at humour. "For some time," he continued, "Mahomedan preachers have been about stirring up the local Mussulmans. They are all wild with you, and may attack you any moment."
"Are you come to advise flight?"
"I have come to give you information, not to offer advice."
"Had these estates been mine, such a warning would have been necessary for the preachers, not for me. If, instead of trying to frighten me, you give them a taste of your intimidation, that would be worthier both of you and me. Do you know that your weakness is weakening your neighbouring zamindars also?"
"I did not offer you my advice, Sandip. I wish you, too, would refrain from giving me yours. Besides, it is useless. And there is another thing I want to tell you. You and your followers have been secretly worrying and oppressing my tenantry. I cannot allow that any longer. So I must ask you to leave my territory."
"For fear of the Mussulmans, or is there any other fear you have to threaten me with?"
"There are fears the want of which is cowardice. In the name of those fears, I tell you, Sandip, you must go. In five days I shall be starting for Calcutta. I want you to accompany me. You may of course stay in my house there--to that there is no objection."
"All right, I have still five days" time then. Meanwhile, Queen Bee, let me hum to you my song of parting from your honey-hive. Ah! you poet of modern Bengal! Throw open your doors and let me plunder your words. The theft is really yours, for it is my song which you have made your own--let the name be yours by all means, but the song is mine." With this Sandip struck up in a deep, husky voice, which threatened to be out of tune, a song in the Bhairavi mode:
"In the springtime of your kingdom, my Queen,
Meetings and partings chase each other in their endless hide and seek,
And flowers blossom in the wake of those that droop and die in the shade.
In the springtime of your kingdom, my Queen,
My meeting with you had its own songs,
But has not also my leave-taking any gift to offer you?
That gift is my secret hope, which I keep hidden in the shadows of your flower garden,
That the rains of July may sweetly temper your fiery June."
His boldness was immense--boldness which had no veil, but was naked as fire. One finds no time to stop it: it is like trying to resist a thunderbolt: the lightning flashes: it laughs at all resistance.
I left the room. As I was passing along the verandah towards the inner apartments, Amulya suddenly made his appearance and came and stood before me.
"Fear nothing, Sister Rani," he said. "I am off tonight and shall not return unsuccessful."
"Amulya," said I, looking straight into his earnest, youthful face, "I fear nothing for myself, but may I never cease to fear for you."
Amulya turned to go, but before he was out of sight I called him back and asked: "Have you a mother, Amulya?"
"No, I am the only child of my mother. My father died when I was quite little."
"Then go back to your mother, Amulya."
"But, Sister Rani, I have now both mother and sister."
"Then, Amulya, before you leave tonight, come and have your dinner here."
"There won't be time for that. Let me take some food for the journey, consecrated with your touch."
"What do you specially like, Amulya?" "If I had been with my mother I should have had lots of Poush cakes. Make some for me with your own hands, Sister Rani!"
25 Of the Ramayana. The story of his devotion to his elder brother Rama and his brother's wife Sita, has become a byword.