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CHAPTER XIII - THE PROTECTRESS

THE house of Mathur Ghose was a genuine specimen of mofussil magnificence united with mofussil want of cleanliness.

From the far-off paddy fields you could descry through the intervening foliage, its high palisades and blackened walls. On a nearer view might be seen pieces of plaster of venerable antiquity prepared to bid farewell to their old and weather-beaten tenement. Some rude and unpainted shutter hanging by a single hinge whose companion had left the precincts years before, while in others both hinge and plank had left little trace of their existence and had been supplanted by the less pretentious tribe of tát-screens.[1] But a small portion of the huge edifice had ever been plastered on the outside. On the favoured region which boasted such decoration, and which no doubt composed the sanctum sanctorum of some great man in the house, if not Mathur Ghose himself, you might descry a few apologies for Venetians, but window panes the giant house had eschewed as too frail a substance to be permitted to ornament its limbs. By far the greater part of the exterior was unplastered, and the dried slime and soot reposed on the mass of bricks in murky grandeur. Not unfrequently a young shoot of a Bur or a less noble vegetable had struck its roots in the crevices between the layers of bricks, realizing, rather on an humble scale, the Persian monarch's dream of a hanging garden.

The house was divided into four distinct sections. In front you entered through a pair of massive iron-plated and tar-coloured doors into a spacious courtyard, three sides of which were faced by double-storied verandas of no very respectable height. Opposite the portal arose the lofty and spacious hall of five arches. All around was well plastered, but the return of many a rainy season had variegated the white with streaks of dark, particularly in those regions which were surmounted by spouts for drawing off the water from the top. A mazy suite of dark and damp apartments led from a corner of this part of the building to the inner mahal, another quadrangle, on all four sides of which towered double-storied verandas as before. These had indeed a plastering of sand and lime, but few were the pillars which wore these decorations entire, decay aided by the manipulations of idle children having stripped most of them of their coverings. The walls of all the chambers above and below were well striped with numerous streaks of red, white, black, green, all colours of the rainbow, caused by the spittles of such as had found their mouths too much encumbered with pán[2] or by some improvident woman servant who had broken the Gola-handi[3] while it was full of its muddy contents, most frequently by the fingers of her whose pleasant task it had been to prepare the betel leaves, and who had cleverly impressed the walls into her service and had made them act as substitutes for towels. Numerous sketches in charcoal, which showed, we fear, nothing of the conception of Angelo or the tinting of Guido, attested the art or idleness of the wicked boys and ingenious girls who had contrived to while away hungry hours by essays in the arts of designing and of defacing wall. The courtyard, devoid of brick or tile, exposed mother earth in all her vegetable glories. The said vegetable glories, however, were gathered at the four corners leaving in the centre paths in several directions for entrance and exit. Household filth and water had left thick crusts of slime which reposed for ages in unmitigated blackness. A narrow passage, terminated by a small thick door, led you to the third section of the house. This was the kitchen of the household; it had two suites of one-storied apartments on two sides of a vast courtyard where vegetation was much more rank than in the other. Here might be always seen the traces of the havoc daily made on vegetables of the earth, and the fishes of the water by the good dames in charge of this useful department, and here too might be seen the empire of soot in all the majesty of darkness. The fourth department lay behind the kitchen, but apparently all access to it was barred from this side and few were the females of the household who had ever set their feet on it.

A thick and massive door led to the "godown,"[4] as the mahal was called by the males, directly from outside. Bare but high walls, the summits of which were secured against the invasion of human feet by broken fragments of bottles enclosed it on three sides. On the fourth stood the single row of one-storied apartments which it contained. The walls of the apartments were all of unusual thickness, the doors small and plated with iron, and not a window was to be seen. The use to which these "godowns" were put was known to be that of storehouses for all sorts of things. A vast garden of Supari trees interspersed with Bakul, stood on one side of the building, and being enclosed on all sides by brick walls and containing a well-filled tank in the middle, composed the khirki of the household. The passage to it lay through the precincts of the cook, from which a small door opened on the garden.

The reader will be good enough to ascend in our company, through a flight of dark and narrow stairs of solid brickwork to the upper story of the andarmahal, properly so called, that which formed the second section of the large edifice a view of which we have placed before him. We invite him to enter a no less unapproached and unapproachable region than the bedchamber of Mathur Ghose himself. The polished plastering of the walls was clean enough, though not unfrequently could stains and scratches be seen defacing its purity. A little towards one end of the room stood a massive and high cot of teak wood on the uncovered floor over which loosely hung a striped gauge curtain, rather disproportioned to the wooden frame. A few huge almirahs and chest of drawers of the same material, the varnish of which had considerably been soiled by time and rough usage, lined the foot of the walls opposite to the cot. One or two escritoirs, as well as some common country boxes and chests decorated with enormous brass plates across their lids and on the edges, and ornamented with semi-lunes of Chandan,[5] completed the wooden furniture of the room. Two paintings of the largest size, from one of which lowered the grim black figure of Kali, and on the other of which was displayed the crab-like form of Durga, faced each other from high position on two opposite walls.

On the two remaining walls, and placed lower than the terrific Kali and the gorgeous Durga, might be seen arrayed a few specimens of European art, and the exquisite conception of the Virgin and Child might itself be seen adorning the chamber the inmates of which had little knowledge what the artist's genius and engraver's skill had strove to represent. A female of about twenty-eight years of age sat on a window sill. Her face and figure were still handsome. Her complexion was that of a brunette and her eyes were large, dark, and shone with a mild and almost benignant lustre. Beyond this there was nothing particularly remarkable in her countenance, unless it was the expression of sweetness and amiability that never abandoned it. A clean sari covered her rounded limbs and frame, but not her head, which was now uncovered; and the crisp and shining tresses of hair, rendered still more so by recent ablution, fell loosened on the back, scattered and uncombed, but still beautiful from their irregular luxuriance. Golden ornaments of great value but rather of lighter make than usual, graced her ears, her neck, her bosom and arms and wrists. For some reason or other the fine and delicate circumference of the noth was absent from her nostril and cheek, but the tinkling malls[6] maintained their place in her ankles. A few long ringlets of human hair tied to the window-grating furnished occupation to her little fingers as she tried to weave them into mat oft-coveted object of young girls, the hair string. A child of about ten years in whose exquisitely handsome features might be discerned a likeness to the elder female, sat by her and proved by the interest she took in the occupation of the latter that it was to tie in bondage her own wild locks that the product of her mother's delicate labours was destined. A little removed from them, modest, confused, melancholy, sat another woman who however needs no introduction. Suki's mother—the mother-in-law of whose felicity the reader has had her own description—had redeemed her promise by leading the reluctant Matangini to the presence of Mathur's first or eldest wife—the female who was weaving the hair strings for her daughter.

A dialogue was being carried on between Mathur's wife and Matangini in a low voice, while Suki's mother was pouring on a loose prattle without any apprehensions of interrupting either. We need not detain the reader with a detail of either the dialogue or the prattle, as of their purport we will do him the justice to presume he has already some conception. Suki's mother had rendered her mistress acquainted with the unfortunate position of the refugee, so far as she had gathered them from the rather unfaithful version of Kanak, embellishing the narrative with a good many interpolations of her own, and a few observations on connubial felicity as exemplified by the lot of her own happy daughter. The good dame rightly judged that such embellishments and interpolations would do no harm to the interests of her protegée; while at the same time they would afford a varied field for the display of her own powers of harangue. Matangini had not the heart to disclose the real circumstances of her misfortune, especially in the presence of the servant. She therefore unwillingly passed over most points in the good woman's narrative in silence, intending to undeceive her new friend, should it be necessary for her to trespass long on her kindness, on a future occasion, and with so much reserve as might be necessary to conceal the depth to which her husband had fallen. Mathur's wife gave her the warmest and most cordial welcome, rendering it apparent by an intuitive generosity of heart wholly dissimilar to acquired polish of manners, that she rather pressed an invitation than afforded shelter. One step, however, was indispensable before Matangini could be enrolled a member of the household; Mathur Ghose's permission had to be obtained. With the intention of requesting it, she deputed the still eloquent parent of the happy daughter to the sadar to request her husband to step inside for a moment, without, however, mentioning her object before Matangini. After a few minutes, her husband entered the chamber, the wife drew her cloth over her head, and Matangini, as etiquette required, stepped out, not however without meeting a fixed gaze of recognition and wonder from the eyes of the master of the house.

↑ Split bamboo.
↑ Betel leaf.
↑ Pot of cow dung plaster.
↑ Warehouse.
↑ Sandal-wood.
↑ Anklets.

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