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Shadows in the Snow - Chapter 4
by Swapna Dutta

Continued from Chapter -3

It has been raining hard the last five days. A gloomy darkness hangs about the place that I’d have found almost eerie had I not been used to it. Nothing is clearly visible in the half-light that seems to have alighted upon us with an air of finality. As if it had no wish to move away, now or ever!

The half-light makes even the pinewood and bamboo glades seem strange and mysterious. The trickle of the waterfall has turned to a positive roar now. I know I would feel scared to look at the whirling water rushing down from the wooden bridge at this moment. Nor would I dare to look for begonias which grow under the boulders near the waterfall. Right now the most prominent sound that I can hear is the drip-drip-drip of the steadily falling raindrops. The pines are dripping, the orchids that hang so artistically are dripping and the creepers are all dripping with rain. A queer smell of mould and wet wool hangs about the place. When I was cleaning out Madam’s shoe rack this morning I found the soles of her shoes covered with fungus. I hate to see fungus!

But the fire burnt cheerfully now and Madam’s parlour was rosy with the glow of firelight. The logs were freshly cut by Joseph (Madam only allows this on special occasions). But because it had been raining so continuously he had to bake them first. It was fun to see the sap running out into the fender. The room was heavy with the mingled smell of wood-sap, wood smoke and flowers. I thought is lovely because it made me think of sylphs and dryads. They are supposed to be fairies of the wood. Teeny told me a lovely story about them. She is the one who loves to read books. Sometimes I feel that even I can see them dancing by the firelight if only I look hard enough. But the main problem seems to be that I just have no time to gaze at the fire or anything else. There is always so much to do!

That evening Madam asked me to darn her stockings – all those with ladders. I’d been putting it off because I hate sewing, or at least darning, which Madam taught me when I was seven years old. I wouldn’t have minded learning to do the kind of beautiful embroidery that seems to light up the room, the kind Madam has on her sofa and cushion covers, table cloths and centerspreads. But Madam says I need not waste my time doing fancy work. After all, patches and darning are far more useful! I only wish my darning would get done automatically without my having to do anything. Like the prayer wheels of the Buddhists.

There are many Buddhist temples near our place. I have sometimes watched the Buddhist monks put up prayer flags where the wind blows them. And they place the prayer wheels in the stream where the rushing water of the falls turn them. That is how all the prayers written on the flags and the wheels get said. It seems both practical and convenient. But I wonder at times who gets the benefit of the prayers – the one who puts up the flag or the one who inscribes the prayers on it or the one who actually watches it being blown? Or perhaps all three? I must ask Mr. Bose, our newest guest if I get the chance. I heard him telling Madam last night that he had been visiting Buddhist monasteries in Sikkim before coming here.

Come to think of it, his arrival here was quite unexpected. People seldom come here during the rains because there is nothing one can do or see. The snow range is buried under the clouds. The trees are drippy and wet. The paths are muddy and slippery. And there is constant fear of landslides when we get totally cut off. Our Villa Alpina is almost deserted during these months but for our three regular boarders – Mr. Lee, the postal clerk; Jang Bahadur, Dr. Thapa’s compounder (Dr. Thapa is our local doctor) and Mr. Bist, one of the teachers in our primary school. They have been here for so long that Madam scarcely notices them. Nor is she as gracious to them as she is to our casual
guests

When our door bell rang quite suddenly late last night we were all sure that it was Mr. Bist. He sometimes drops in at the local pub for a drink and loses track of time. Or he loses his way and wanders in the mist for ages. This had happened quite a few times in the past. No amount of shouting on Madam’s part seem to have the slightest effect on him so she has given up telling him anything. But this time Mr. Bist was found to be safe in his room, dozing in front of the heater. The one who had rung the bell was a total stranger. A stranger all smiles and apologies, because he had been forced to trouble Madam at such an unearthly hour.

He was quite different from our usual boarders. For one thing, he didn’t seem to fit into any of our usual categories. His cultured voice and accent, his vocabulary, his formality and courtesy made it quite obvious that he was no ordinary salesman or medical representative. And yet he didn’t look like a family man either. The collar of his jacket was frayed in places. Two of his buttons were missing. His shoes, though expensive, were worn out. Madam, who was frowning before he came into the room, thawed quite visibly at his words. I could plainly see that she was not being ‘compulsorily polite’ and that she really approved of this man with salt-and-pepper hair and graying sideburns.

He told us quite frankly what made him come to Villa Alpina. He was on his way to Darjeeling but a sudden landslide higher up made it impossible for his car to pass. The road was completely blocked and there was nothing for him to do but wait until the weather cleared up and the road was passable once again, which might not happen for days. The driver of his taxi had directed him to Hotel Snowflakes. But as they were having some major renovations done there was no place of him. So Kancha’s father had directed him to the Villa Alpina instead.
 
“And that’s how I landed up here at this unearthly hour,” he had said laughing, “Please Madam, would you be kind enough to put me up and let me enjoy the comforts of a true English home? That’s what the owner of Hotel Snowflakes promised I’d get here.”

He said it with a perfectly straight face but his eyes twinkled merrily as they rested on mine. I turned my face away so as not to burst out laughing! But Madam was all smiles as she said, “of course, Mr….”

“Bose is the name, ” said the stranger promptly.
“Vandana, take Mr. Bose up to room number 1,” said Madam looking at me, “Mr. Bose would you care for a hot cup of tea although it is long past tea time? Considering the weather and your being out at this time of night….”

“It would be sheer heaven,” said Mr. Bose with an ecstatic sigh, “thanks ever so much for thinking of it.”

Room number 1 is the biggest and best guest room in the Villa Alpina, reserved for special people. Madam’s own bedroom is bigger, of course, but not quite as nice as this one. There are windows on three sides giving a spectacular view of the snow range when they are visible. I pulled the flowery curtains across the wide glass panes and switched on the room heater.

“I am afraid the geyser is out of order,” I said, “I’ll get you a bucket of hot water from downstairs so you can wash.”

“Don’t bother”, said Mr. Bose throwing his coat on the bed, “I am quite used to washing in cold water. I always find it more refreshing.”

“Really?” I asked surprised.

“And truly,” said Mr. Bose with a smile.

Our boarders are perpetually complaining about the lack of hot water. No one has ever asked me not to bother about it before. On the contrary they tend to shout at me as though I am personally responsible for the short supply. I stood there uncertainly, not knowing what to do next.

Mr Bose whipped out a cigarette from his case and lit it.

“Are you Mrs. Barrett’s daughter?” he asked me.

“I beg your pardon?” I replied, not knowing what he meant. I had never heard anyone call Madam “Mrs. Barrett” before. She was just

‘Madam’ to everyone here.

“Is Madam your mother?” he asked giving me a curious look.

“Madam? Oh no, no,” I cried horrified, “I am her parlour maid.”

“I see”, he said blowing tiny rings of smoke in a way I’d never seen anybody do before.

I felt kind of strange. No one ever asks me about myself. No one bothers. To them I am merely one of the servants. That’s all they need to know. How did this stranger make such a mistake?

“Your name is Vandana, I presume. Where are your parents?” he asked me.

“Mummy died when I was about three or four,” I told him, “Madam has been bringing me up. That’s why I am here. I work for her,” I said.

“And your father?”

“I don’t know. I don’t remember him. I am sure he must be dead too,” I replied.

Just then a shrill voice wafted up the stairs.

“Vandana, have you gone to sleep or what?”

It was Saila. He was calling me to carry the tea tray upstairs.

“Coming,” I shouted, as I rushed down the wooden staircase.

Continued to Chapter 5

05-Jun-2016
 
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