THE TWO COUSINS
THE rays of the setting sun had vanished from the tops of the cocoanut palms. But night had not yet descended on the earth. It was at this time that Kanak and her companion were returning home, each with a pitcher in her arm. By the road-side was a small garden, of a type rare in East Bengal. Numerous roses and mallika buds were caressing the eyes of the passers-by from within the compound surrounded by a handsome iron fence. Walks covered with red brick-dust had been laid down beside the old style square and oval beds. There was a tank in the middle of the gardens, whose banks were covered with soft turf. On one side was a row of brick-paved steps. Facing the steps was the reception room, in the front verandah of which two men were engaged in talk.
The older of the two would be above thirty. He was a tall and stout man. It was because he was too stout that he could not be said to possess a good figure. His complexion was dull and dark. There was no feature on his face which could give him the least claim to handsomeness. On the contrary, he had something positively unattractive about him. In fact, his was not a common face; at the same time it was difficult to define its peculiarity off-hand. He had a dhoti of Dacca manufacture on. A long and twisted Dacca chudder was tied round his head in the shape of turban which hid even the few wisps of hair that still remained there. His dark and corpulent body could be fully seen through the shirt of Dacca muslin he was wearing, and with it his gold amulet which peeped out off and on. But the thick gold chain which adorned his neck had actually intruded outside his shirt. The shirt had gold studs fastened with a gold chain; all the fingers had rings; and there was a huge bludgeon of peach in his hand. The two small feet were enclosed in English shoes.
This man’s companion was a remarkably handsome young man of about twenty-two. His clear placid complexion had turned a little dull either through want of exercise or too much comfort. His clothes were good but not very costly; a dhoti, a fine chudder, a cambric shirt and English shoes. There was a single ring on one finger, and no amulet or necklace. The elder man addressed the other, “Well Madhav, you have turned to Calcutta again. Why this infatuation?”
“Infatuation?” replied Madhav, “if my liking for Calcutta be an infatuation, why shouldn’t yours for Radhaganj be called by the same name?”
Mathur asked, “Why?”
Madhav. “Why not? You have spent your life in the shade of the mango gardens of Radhaganj. You love Radhaganj. I have spent my life in the stench of Calcutta. I love Calcutta.”
Mathur. “Stench only? The filth of the drains with rotten rats and cats thrown in. Surely a feast for the gods!”
Madhav smiled and said, “It is not for these that I go to Calcutta. I have business, too.”
Mathur. “Business indeed! New horses, new carriages, visiting all the sharks of the town, throwing away money, burning the oil, drinks for anglicized friends, and pleasures. What are you staring at that way? Have you never seen Kanak? Or has the girl with her just dropped from the sky? Ah, Yes! Who is it with her?”
Madhav flushed, but immediately changed the subject and said, “What a girl Kanak is! She can laugh with so much sorrow eating into her heart.”
Mathur. “Yes. But who is it she’s got with her!”
Madhav. “How can I say? I cannot see through clothes. You see she is veiled.”
It was in fact Kanak and her companion who were returning with their pitchers. Everybody knew Kanak. But such indescribable beauty radiated from every movement of the other woman that it charmed the eyes first of Madhav and then of Mathur. Their looks remained fixed on her and they were as fascinated by the sight as a deer is by the sound of the flute.
When the words last recorded came out of the mouth of Madhav, a sudden gust of wind passed over the heads of the women. The younger woman was then adjusting the pitcher in arms still unused to carrying water, and she had brought down her hand from the veil. The wind blew it away and revealed the face. Madhav raised his brows in surprise. Mathur said, “There, you know her.”
“You know her and I do not? I have spent my life here and you are only a newcomer. Well, if you know her, who is she?”
“Your sister-in-law? Rajmohan’s wife!”
“Rajmohan’s wife, and I have not seen her!”
“How can you? She never leaves her house.”
“Why then has she to-day?”
“I don’t know.”
“What sort of a woman is she?”
“You have seen her.—Very handsome.”
“Oh a thought-reader indeed! I am not asking that. Is she a good woman?”
“What do you mean by a ‘good woman’?”
Mathur. “Oh the college has done for you! It’s impossible to talk with people who have once gone there and recited the jargon of the red-faced sahibs. What I mean is—has she—”
The stern frown of Madhav cut short the coarse speech forming on Mathur’s lips.
Madhav said haughtily, “You need not be so outspoken. You have no business to prattle about a respectable woman passing along the road.”
Mathur replied, “Did I not say that a smattering of English converts our brethren into fiery sahibs! Well, if one is not to discuss one’s sister-in-law, whom is one to discuss—his grandmother? Anyway, let it pass. Relax your scowling face, or the crows would begin to peck at it. What luck! That clown Rajmohan to have a wife like this!”
“Marriage is called a lottery,” said Madhav.
And after a few more words the two parted company.