First publication: Civil and Military Gazette, 4 August 1887
Sussex Scrapbooks 28/3, p.138
By its Occupant
A woman has died and a child has been born in it, but these are accidents which may overtake the most respectable establishments. No sensible man would think of regarding them. Indeed, so sound is my common sense, that I sleep in the room of the death and do my work in the room of the birth; and have no fault to find with either apartment. My complaint is against the whole house; and my grievance, so far as I can explain it in writing, is that there are far too many tenants in the eight, lime-washed rooms for which I pay seventy-five rupees a month.
They trooped in after the great heats of May as snakes seek bathrooms through drought. Personally I should prefer the snakes, the visible, smashable snakes, to the persons who have quartered themselves upon me for the past ten weeks. They take up no space and are almost noiseless, like the Otto Gas Engines (German stationary internal combustion engines, built in the 1860s and 70s) — but they are there and they trouble me. In the very early morning when I climb on to the roof to catch what less heated breeze may be abroad, I am conscious that someone has preceded me up the narrow steps, and that there is some one at my heels. You will concede, will you not, that this is annoying, particularly when I know that I am officially the sole tenant. No man, visible or invisible, has a right to spy upon my outgoings or incomings. At breakfast, in the full fresh daylight, I am conscious that some one who is not the khitmutgar (house sevant) is watching the back of my head from the door that leads into my bedroom; when I turn sharply, the purdah (screen) is dropped and I only see it waving gently as though shaken by the wind. Quitting the house to go to office, I am sure — sure as I am of my own existence — that it is at once taken possession of by the people who follow me about, and that they hold who knows what mad noiseless revels in the room when the bearer has done his dusterflapping and the servants have withdrawn to their own quarters.
Indeed, once returning from office at an unexpected hour, I surprised the house, rushed in and found. . . . nothing. My footfall rang through the barn-like rooms, and as the noise ceased, I felt that the people who had been crowding the floor were rushing away — pouring out into the garden and the verandahs, and 1 could not see them. But I knew they had been there. The air was full of the rustle of their garments. Still an assembly is preferable to the one man — he must be a man; he is so restless — who comes in to spend the evening and roams through the house. His feet make no noise, but I can hear in the hot, still night the jar of the chik (bamboo blind) as he comes into the verandah, and the lifting of the purdah over the drawing-room door. Then he touches a book in the drawing-room, for I hear it fall, or he thrums the Burmese gong ever so lightly, for I catch the faint ring of the smitten metal, and passes on, shifting things, scratching things, tapping things, till I could shriek aloud with irritation. When he comes to the room I am in he stops, puts the purdah aside and looks at me. I am sure of it, for when I turn the purdah has always just fallen. He must be the man who takes so impertinent an interest in my breakfast. But he will never face me and tell me what he wants. He is always in the next room. Though I have hunted him through the house again and again, he is always in the next room.
When I enter, I know that he has just gone out. The purdah betrays him. And when I go out I know that he is waiting, always waiting, to slip into the room I have vacated, and begin his aimless stroll among the knicknacks. If I go into the verandah, I know that he is watching me from the drawing-room. I can hear him sitting down on one of the wicker-work chairs that creaks under his weight.
On Sundays, the long, hot pitiless Sundays, when the consciousness of arrears of work prevents their clearance, he comes to spend the day in my house from ten in the morning till the hour of the evening drive. I can offer him no amusement. He cannot find me cheering company. Why does he hang about the house? He should have learnt by this time not to touch a punkha fringe with his head or to leave a door on the swing, I can track him then and prevent him from sitting down on the chairs in the next room.
I would endure the people who hide in the corners of the lamproom and rush out when my back is turned, the persons who get between the almirah (wardrobe) and the wall when I come into my dressing-room hastily at dusk, or even the person in the garden who slides in and out of the ferash trees when I walk there, if I could only get rid of the Man in the Next room. There is no sense in him, and he interferes sadly with one’s work. I believe now that if he dared he would come out from the other side of the purdah and peep over my shoulder to see what I am writing. But he is afraid and is now twitching the cord that works the ventilating window. I can hear it beating against the wall. What pleasure can he find in prowling thus about another man’s premises? I asked him the question last Sunday, but my voice came back to me from the high ceiling of the empty room next my bedroom, and that was all my answer.
One of these days, perhaps, if I enter my own house very, very silently, with bare feet, crawling through a window, I may be able to catch him and wring from him some sort of explanation; for it is manifestly absurd that a man paying seventy-five rupees a month should be compelled to live with so unsatisfactory a chum as the man in the next room.
On second thoughts, and after a plain statement of facts to the doctor, I think it would be better to go the Hills for a while and leave him to maunder about the empty house till he is tired. The doctor says he will be gone when I return; taking all the other persons with him.