BETWEEN RIVAL CHAMBERS
Containing a dissertation on connubial warfare.—A siege and a dubious capitulation.
MATHUR Ghose, as our reader had no doubt guessed in the course of the previous chapter, had the good fortune or misfortune of being blessed or incommoded by double ties of matrimony and was the master or slave or both of [his] two wives. Tara, the eldest, has already been introduced; Champak, the younger, was Tara’s junior by not less than eight years. She possessed decided superiority over her rival in the regularity of her features and in the blooming fairness of her complexion. To this, nature had added a witchery of coquettish grace that marked the movements of this proud and insolent beauty which won for her the envied distinction of the proudest damsel in the vicinity. Proud and imperious, Champak ever ruled the household with the authority of its sole mistress. The household approached her with fear and perhaps with a secret feeling of dislike, for often it was that her naughty temper made them feel that every fair face is not the reflector of a generous heart. And, in spite of the rival and superior claims of Tara, she was the real as well as the apparent mistress of the house. Mathur Ghose was not perhaps formed by nature to love and be loved; affection was not certainly the ruling passion of his heart, but the power of woman and her beauty have their influence upon all, and Mathur Ghose was fond of his wife. Sensibility and refinement of the heart lend to the passion of love the form of a fervent and etherialized feeling which finds its gratification in the communings of heart with heart; while, in grosser natures, it degenerates into the yearnings of desire or perhaps into a blind obedience to the mystic power of female loveliness; but the strength of the passion can be equally great in either case. It was not strange therefore that Mathur loved Champak, or if we may not use the word love, was fond of her blindly and ardently. The master who bent with an iron will the interest of all who surrounded him to Subserve his own—was but a slave to the will of this coquette. To Tara, whose sweetness and patience put it beyond his power to be offended—he was indifferent, too much so perhaps to be ever unkind.
Tara had procured an easy assent from her husband to her proposal that the wife of Rajmohan should find a shelter in their house. “Food and clothing,” Mathur said in reply, “are not scarce in my house, under the blessing of the gods and the Brahmans, and if the woman is as you say of good character, let her remain here as long as she chooses.” But Tara’s simple heart had not reckoned upon an opposition which certainly was powerful enough to counteract her benevolence. Champak liked not that it should be under the auspices of her rival that the stranger should obtain a footing in the household.
The sun was shedding its mellowed parting beams on the house of Mathur Ghose, and the day which had been ushered in amidst the gloomy deeds which threatened the fate of Matangini was hastening to a close. The slanting rays fell at intervals on an open veranda, on the second floor. Tara was seated on the bare ground and was employed in tying the hair of her daughter into a khompa[note]Hair-knot.[/note] the knots and bends of which however satisfied neither herself nor the child. Matangini sat close by answering with reserve to some very provoking and impertinent questions, which Champak, employed in painting her little feet with the lac-dye, by the aid of a barber’s garrulous wife, was pouring upon her, without the consciousness that a refugee to whom her husband had afforded shelter from mere compassion and whom she herself could turn out any moment, could ever entertain reluctance to answer questions coming from herself direct. Matangini was answering with meekness and reserve, which however had merely the effect of provoking further impertinence from the haughty beauty. Tara saw the vexation of her protégée and delicately interfered by drawing off the attention of both.
“I can’t tie this child’s khompa, though you see I have been trying my hand at it since noon,” said she addressing Matangini, “you can do it better perhaps. If you will only show me how to turn this binuni,[note]Braided lock.[/note] I think I can do the rest.” Matangini asked to be permitted to tie the braids for the day herself.
“I do not think I can do it well,” she said, “but I will do what I can.”
Matangini took her position behind the child and taking up the braids in her hands, began to untie them and form new ones.
“Aha!” said Champak, “I fear our sister will make only one of her Western country khompas. It is best as it is.”
“If I succeed in tying a khompa as they do in our part of the country,” returned Matangini, “this beautiful child will look twice more beautiful.”
“No, no—you must not do it,” rejoined Champak, “that is the way in which disreputable females dress their hair—it does not look seemly in good people’s children.”
“Oh fie!” interposed Tara, “Is beauty ever disdained because sometimes a bad woman is beautiful? At that rate, sister, you should have disfigured your own fine countenance long before this. No, no, because bad woman may have a fine knot of hair, that is no reason why a good woman should have none. Tie the knot as you please, sister,” concluded she, addressing Matangini.
Champak replied not, but it was evident from the sullen looks she assumed that Tara’s compliment had not been enough to make her forget that she was refused her own way. The tread of heavy slipshod feet was just then heard downstairs, and Mathur Ghose soon appeared in the veranda. Champak drew her cloth over her face down to the very chin and lightly tripped to her own chamber, her malls tinkling as she ran; Tara drew her cloth over her face also but not to the same depth, and slowly rose to retire; Matangini covered herself also, and stood aside. Mathur Ghose stopped to speak with his daughter to whom he addressed a few ordinary questions. Champak who was watching him from behind the door observed, and jealous wife as she was, observed it with dismay, that though he addressed the child alone his eyes occasionally wandered with an eager glance towards the veiled form of the stranger. Mathur Ghose passed on to the apartment of his younger wife, and the interrupted females resumed their occupations with the exception of Champak whom her husband found in the apartment.
Champak well knew that the steps of her husband would seek her there, and she herself sought an interview. But to avoid the appearance of having sought her room in the expectation of meeting him, she hastily opened a box as soon as she saw him leave the veranda, and busied herself in taking out of it some choice spices used in preparing the betel leaf for mastication. Mathur Ghose saw the floor strewed with many a silver, horn, or wooden kauta[note]Small casket.[/note] without end or aim, and his wife little inclined to take any notice of his entrance. Her face was still partly covered with her cloth, her back was turned towards her husband and the work of strewing the floor with little boxes of cardamoms, cinnamon, cloves, almonds, went on bravely progressing. After waiting for a few moments in silence, Mathur observed, “What is the matter now? Some storm brewing I suppose?”
Champak answered not, but went on strewing the floor with kautas after kautas.
“Aha, I see it,” said Mathur, “now tell me for what offence I have to pay the penalty.”
But still Champak did not reply. She now began to gather up the kautas as if she had found what she sought, and having replaced them in the box and locked them up she turned towards the door to go out.
“That won’t do, my life!” said Mathur as he arrested her progress by catching her by the arm, “this cursed ghomta[note]Veil.[/note] has no business here” and he pushed back the cloth from her face.
“Why do you detain me?” asked Champak, casting on him a look of high displeasure.
“Tell me, my life, what have I done that you wear this look?”
“Let me go,” she said, though of course no entreaty was needed to obtain her release as her husband held her arm by a light and loving grasp, and she could have had her pleasure if only she were so minded, “Let me go, I have business.”
“You have business, my lily-face? What can this business be?” enquired Mathur, laughing.
“I have to prepare pán,” responded she with the same irritable look.
“Do it then here and let me have some,” said he.
“Let me go,” said she again.
“Why, what is [it]?” said Mathur fondly, “Name but my offence to you and I promise you expiation.”
“Offence to me,” said she in the same pettish manner, “what offence can you be guilty of towards me? What am I that I can be offended with you? You can do what you please without offending anybody—and I am nobody.”
“Sabash,” said he, “this is anger indeed! But tell me, queen of [my] life, what is that I must undo, and I will undo it immediately.”
“Go to the wife you love,” she said “and she may tell you if there is anything to undo, and undo it then.—What matters to you this wishes of a poor woman who no further trespasses on your bounty than to live in your household which even strangers are permitted to do?”
“Oh! can it be that?” asked Mathur, now comprehending how matters stood—”are you angry that I have taken the poor woman to my household at the”—he would have added—”at the intercession of your rival,”—but he forebore and stopped short.
“It is your house”, returned she, stiU with apparent displeasure, but now glad at heart that he had divined the cause of her displeasure, “you can admit anybody you please.”
“But seriously,” he added with earnestness of manner, “Let go womanishness now and tell me truly how you can object to my affording temporary shelter to such a forlorn creature.”
“Forlorn creature?” returned Champak, “why if she has done ill, she has deserved to be turned out.”
“And how do you know she has done ill?”
“Why, do you think she would be turned out for nothing? Do people turn out their wives from caprice?”
“Yes—it may be she was wrong—it may also be her husband was wrong. But still it cannot be wrong to give her shelter in the house in any case.”
“You can do your pleasure,” she returned sulkily again. “Why do you ask my opinion about it at all?”
“There again! Fie, a woman should be more kind.”
“Yes, kind to those who deserve kindness. But is it right to be kind to all alike, be she good or bad?”
“But still you cannot be sure she has not been more unfortunate than anything else, and report speaks very favourably of her conduct.”
“Report!” said Champak with a contemptuous swing of her large fine noth, “you have picked up all your information on the point from Suki’s mother’s little gossip and you dignify her garrulous lies with the name of report.”
“Why, have you heard any one speak otherwise than well of her?” inquired Mathur rather surprised.
“Women always hear more of each other than men,” said she.
“What have you heard?” Mathur again inquired.
“What propriety is this in you,” replied she a little archly now, “to enquire about the secrets of woman.”
Mathur Ghose felt vexed. From whatever motives, he evidently desired that Matangini should enjoy the benefit of his protection, and he felt vexed, as we have said, at this unexpected resistance from one who, he was aware, was pretty well accustomed to have her own will.
“At least you will admit,” he added after musing for some time, “you will admit that it looks very bad to turn out a kinswoman from the house, for you know she is a kinswoman of ours. Has she not a claim upon us?”
“She is our kinswoman through another kinswoman” was the ready reply. “Why has she not sought shelter with her sister? Are we nearer or dearer to her than her sister? She dares not perhaps to seek shelter with those who know her well.”
“You are very ungenerous,” returned Mathur in vexation of spirit, “what can you have to object to an unfriended woman? Is there want of food or raiment in my house?”
“No,” returned she proudly, “at least I shall not claim my share if she become welcome to them. Send me to my father’s house and let her live here. My father is not one who will be pleased to see his daughter the inmate of a house in which such a woman lives.”
“What is all this again?” Mathur said, becoming irritated.
“Send me to my father’s house,” she replied.
“You know I cannot part with you. Leave off childishness” returned he, softening.
“Then part with that woman,” was the reply.
“Part with that woman; why, what is she to me that there is any difficulty in my parting with her? Well, I will think of it.”
With these words Mathur left the room, resolved to prevaricate and deceive his wife till her mind should change.
That evening when he again returned to the chamber, an extraordinary spectacle presented itself to his eyes. In a corner of the room, far apart from his bedstead, another bed had been neatly prepared on an humble couch which had been pitched up from the room for service.
“What is that for?” asked Mathur, as the additional bed caught his eye. Champak spoke not, but throwing herself on it, went to sleep without deigning a reply.
Our readers will guess what a night the uxorious Mathur Ghose passed. When he rose next morning and went out to his baithak-khana, he observed a visitor waiting for him, who said he was Rajmohan Ghose. He explained to Mathur the object of his visit to be that having obtained intelligence that his wife who had left his house on pretence of a quarrel was here, he had come over to request that she be made [to] return. Mathur could not well refuse to restore a wife to her husband, a course which, he had been taught, was become necessary to him to pursue on other considerations, if he had any relish for domestic peace and the smiles of Champak.
When Matangini was informed that she must depart, her blood froze within her as she reflected on the fate that awaited her. More dead than alive, she followed the steps of Suki’s mother, who was entrusted with the duty of escorting her home. Tara accompanied her as far as the postern gate and would gladly have gone further if she could. She bade her farewell with sorrow and heartily wished her peace and oblivion of past disagreements with her husband.