First publication: Civil and Military Gazette,4 May 1888
Sussex Scrapbooks 28/4, pp. 60-61
It is Stevenson who writes on the pains of ‘coming back’. But he understates the case — he understates the case. There is no small sorrow more grievous than that of returning to the Old Station after a season, seasons, and a season and a half. To the eye, nothing has changed. The permanent grey dust-cloud dances over the unshifted umber brick-kiln; the venerable Church that is always being built and never finished by the scattered leaven of devout is as unadvanced as ever; the gharris (carriages) at the Station boast no new paint, and their wheels are as ‘wobblesome’ as of yore, the sun is not dimmed — and the many and manifold stenches have lost nothing of their poignancy. The Old Station has assumed no new graces and discarded no blemishes. Here is the identical guard-post against which Timmins riotously ran his trap on that bleak November night, and then laughed futilely to see the spokes fly from the shattered wheel. Timmins laughs no more now; for six feet of rank Irrawaddy mud (in the Burma wars) on mouth and chest do not predispose to merriment. Goyler was with Timmins and was nearly pitched into the road. By the way, where is Goyler? ‘Oh! He exchanged, ever so long ago, into a battery in Madras. D’you mean to say that you didn’t know that?’ Old friends have an unpleasant air of superiority about them when you ask questions after an interval. I was in the third seat of the dogcart, and I gripped the rails for dear life. . . . and now Timmins is dead and Goyler has drifted into the Ewigkeit (forever) down South.
What has happened to the old Samundri Road that used to run by the Canal? ‘The Municipality changed it ages ago, and it leads straight into Yallapetty now? You’re awfully ignorant.’ Lead on, faithful friend who never left the Station, and let us see what of new the land has to offer. The eye is keen to observe after lengthened absence. ‘Who cut down the big dhak-tree at the Three Shrines?’ The Municipality again. Bless their liberal souls! The old lightning-stricken dhak (flowering tree) was a landmark and a trysting-place for miles about. Ponies that bore the fairest form that ever graced a saddle have been hitched to the lower limb of that confidential tree. And the Municipality cut it down, did they? May their infamous octroi dues (local taxes) shrivel up to naught — may they die in their own blocked drains, and may their bones be buried without a Government Resolution to record the fact! ‘Oh — er — hm! I say. Have you seen anything of Miss — Miss — oh, what’s her name — lately?’ ‘No, I haven’t, seeing that she has been Mrs Bunnion this year and more. If you call tomorrow I daresay she’ll let you look at the baby. It’s cut its first tooth or something remarkable a fortnight ago. She’s wrapped up in it!’ Indeed! There was a time when she took a livelier interest in that decayed dhak than in all the babes in all the nurseries in Asia. But she must have changed with the Municipality. Shall she be cursed, therefore? A thousand times no. What does Sarah Bernhardt’s play say? ‘The justice of man is satisfied. Let us await the justice of Heaven.’ That baby thousand times no. What does |Sarah Bernhardt's play say ? The justice of man is satisfied. Let us await the justice of Heaven.' That baby will make life a sorrow and sighing for Mrs Bunnion. It will be sick in the night, and it will cut all its teeth at distressingly short intervals, complicated by fits — Yes, and croup, and hooping-cough, and big blotches of scarlatina. Happy Mrs Bunnion! After all, the Club is the best place to go to. There are sure to be a score of old friends there.
‘In the name of Auld Lang Syne, to whom do all these new faces belong, and who is the unshaven scallawag who is scowling at me for having taken my own proper and rightful chair in the mouth of the thermantidote? (cooling fan)’ ‘New faces! All! I see. Those are the men of the old regiments. They are going to be relieved in a little while; and I think you’ve got Deemster’s pet chair.’ ‘Have I! Then Deemster may wait for it. He’s an upstart, a parvenu (newcomer), without locus standi (status). Deemster be condemned!’ The snow of extreme age has fallen upon my temples, and I have lived too long. My very chair, too! The one that I sat in when the Club was young — before Deemster was ever bom — much less balloted for. Take me away to the Central Gathering Ground.
‘Old friend, I asked for the Old Station — not for a Sahara of strangers. Who are these, and these and THESE? What has become of the Babbleton children? Does the Raller—Daulsie flirtation go on still? Where is old Bolster and the Brood?’ ‘The Babbleton kids went home last hot weather. Raller is transferred to Assam and flirts with tigers on the Brahmaputra now. Bolster has retired, taking the Brood with him. What a chap you are for asking questions! Let me introduce you to — .’
‘If Friendship depend on anything more than Time and Chance, and if you value my friendship, introduce me to no one. Those irreverents are playing on the new tennis courts, and when I left the courts were taboo.’ ‘They’ve been grassed three times since then, and Romayne caught the fever that sent him Home while paddling about after the mallis (gardeners) when the ground was flooded.’ ‘Romayne gone Home! He said that he was going to die out here. He had bought a place in the Hills, and settled comfortably.’
‘Yes, but he fell in love in his old age, and his wife took him to England.’ Now Romayne, as this battered peg-table could bear witness if it had speech, was wont to lift up his voice and entirely, unreservedly and unrestrainedly abuse, vilify and hold to derision, Marriage and all that appertained to it. Is there no consistency in man?
Of course there is! The oldest and trustiest of all friends, Shallardyce the Immutable, will not fail me. I missed him at the Club, but he must be somewhere near here playing tennis. And when the game is done, he will loaf up, his hat over his left eyebrow, his racquet under his arm, both hands deep in his pockets, and that quaint three-cornered smile on his ugly old countenance. He will only nod, because this David and that Jonathan understand each other without words, and he will drawl: — ‘Hulloo! Back again, old man?’ Then he will pause before he says: — ‘I think we might do a drink together in honour of the occasion. Eh? What shall it be?’ And after we have drunk brotherhood anew, we shall stroll off together and compress all the stored conversation of many months into a few fragmentary words helped out by much cigar-smoke. But we shall know that we are both unchanged; and he will explain why on earth he did not write to me all last month. The twilight is drawing in, and tennis should be ended. — ‘Where’s Shallardyce?’
‘Dicky? Well you are behind the times! Dicky went out (died) three weeks ago with something or other: I’ve forgotten what it was, but it was rather sudden. I bought that skewbald mare of his that pulls like a fiend. Poor old Dicky! Well, so you’re back again. I think we might do a drink together in honour of the occasion, Eh? What shall it be?’
‘Lethe — a poora (full) Lethe and bitters please.’ (for the ancient Greeks, Lethe was the river of forgetfulness) .