Mrs. Prendergast’s Gift
© 2010 Mike Kimera All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from firstname.lastname@example.org
Had it not been for a chance meeting with Carstairs on the steps of his club, I might have left London without incident and returned the Colonial Civil Service with a greater quietude of mind than that which I was subsequently able to achieve. But tranquillity is not all of life. Chance led me to Carstairs, who brought me to Mrs. Prendergast and her acolytes. She opened my eyes to a world that I had previously only brushed against blindly in half remembered dreams and I remain thankful to her for that.
I am by habit a quiet man, comfortable in my own company, who demands no more of a day than that I reach its end without upset or disturbance. But, wiser heads than mine affirm that a man must touch his shadow from time to time; become, for a moment, the converse of himself, the better to know his own true nature. I had known Carstairs since Eton and he had often been the midwife of my transformation to my shadow self. He is everything that I am not: impulsive, gregarious, flamboyant and prone to eating, drinking and gambling to excess. In short he is a thoroughly bad influence and wonderful company for a man with but one day of his Home Leave left.
“Thorny!” Carstairs exclaimed throwing his arms wide. “My God, man. I thought you were still in exile in jungles of Wonga Wonga Land.”
I could not help but smile at Carstairs’ lack of seriousness. I spent most of my time with earnest and worthy men who labour for the Empire with a seriousness of mind that can sometimes be suffocating.
“That’s Junior District Officer Thornton to you, Carstairs and my jungle is in Ceylon.”
“I thought you were a tax collector or some such,” Carstairs said, shaking my hand vigorously.
“That was when I was a lowly Collector in a Colonial Station.” I said, my spirits already lifted by the sheer brio of Carstairs’ presence. “You, Sir, are addressing a man newly promoted to greatness in the District Office at Colombo itself.”
Carstairs stepped back and made a low sweeping bow.
“It is an honour to be in the presence of one so powerful while yet so young,” he said. “Let us celebrate your elevation with a splendid lunch and a few bottles of claret.”
We entered his club for what turned out to be a hearty meal and several bottles of claret, most of which Carstairs consumed. By late afternoon we were at the brandy and cigars stage and I felt thoroughly relaxed.
“I have been hearing much of your India lately.” Carstairs said.
I refrained from pointing out that Ceylon was not India, Carstairs is not a man for detail.
“I have made the acquaintance of a remarkable woman, recently returned from Calcutta, who speaks of the place constantly. Her name is Mrs. Prendergast, a rather fetching young woman who claims to be the widow of some military hero or other. He died in the Mutiny apparently. Left her penniless and all that. She lived in some very strange circumstances before her return to England.”
I knew Calcutta could be a hard city for a white woman alone. I wondered whether Mrs. Prendergast had become one of the innumerable camp followers that the East India Company tolerates amongst its Brigades and yet she had returned to England and apparently made a positive impression on Carstairs, a man with considerable experience of friendly young women.
“And is she now your latest mistress?” I asked, rather more directly than I would have before the claret and the brandy had taken effect.
“Ah, would it were so. Mrs. Prendergast will not give herself to just one man.”
“You mean she’s a harlot?”
“Thorny, try not to sound so much like a Civil Servant for once. Your disapproval is quite comic. No, she is not a harlot. She is beautiful and intelligent and has a mysterious gift that must be experienced to be believed.”
I raised my brandy glass. “To mysterious gifts.” I said. “And those agile enough to enjoy them.”
Carstairs did not lift his glass and I knew that I had offended him in that irrational but strongly felt way that only alcohol makes possible.
“I am serious, Thornton. She has a gift. She can see into a man’s future.”
“She holds séances? Reads Tarot Cards? Or perhaps she finds your destiny in tea-leaves?”
I’d spoken with more heat than I’d intended. As an educated man I was sceptical of those who claimed supernatural abilities and was irritated that my friend might have fallen prey to a charlatan, even if she was a pretty charlatan.
“I am sworn to secrecy as to her methods. They would not be understood in the wider world. But I am convinced that her gift is real.”
Carstairs was becoming passionate and I feared that a falling out might follow but his mood changed swiftly and aggression was replaced by enthusiasm.
“You must experience it for yourself, Thorny. At once. Tonight. I insist.”
He did indeed insist and was not to be placated by any means other than that we attend upon Mrs. Prendergast immediately.
I had expected Carstairs to take me east, towards the more desperate areas of London, but he gave the cabbie a respectable address in Mayfair. My surprise must have been visible for Carstairs smiled and said, “Tonight will be full of surprises, Thorny. Unless I miss my guess, the greatest surprise will come from you.”
I have never liked surprises but I was confident that I knew myself well enough that Carstairs’ prediction would not come to pass.
We were received into Mrs. Prendergast’s rooms by a beautiful Bengali woman dressed in a style that would have been considered modest and proper in her homeland but which, in a London, seemed designed to display more than it concealed. My eyes were drawn to the firm muscles of the woman’s belly and the fine dark down on her arms and it seemed to me as if I already knew more of her than was proper. She was lighter skinned and longer limbed than the women of Ceylon but had the same sumptuous plat of hair falling down her back and the same dark eyes in which a man might drown. The woman smiled at me briefly and then bowed to Carstairs.
“Mr. Carstairs, my mistress was not expecting you this evening.”
She spoke clearly and with no discernible accent. Hers was not the rapid pidgin English of a lower class servant but of a woman with some education. I was intrigued.
“Apologies to you and your mistress, Aisha but my dear friend here has but one night in London before he returns to serve the Empire in Ceylon. Let me introduce Thomas Thornton, a thoroughly good fellow despite his austere exterior. I could not let him return without the benefit of your Mistress’ insight, Aisha.”
“It is a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Thornton.” Aisha said, bowing to me in the Indian manner, hands held together before her. Her long slender fingers suggested grace. Her demure, eyes-averted, smile offered modesty. I also bowed in the Indian manner, adding “Namaste” hoping that I had picked the right Indian tongue to greet her in. I was pleased to see her smile widen.
“Good God, Thornton,” Carstairs said, “I thought you Colonial Civil Service chaps were supposed to teach the Empire English and here you are going native in Mayfair. What would your superiors say?”
“Mr. Thornton has a kind heart, Mr. Carstairs,” Aisha said “and offers a small reminder of home to a stranger amongst strangers. You could learn much from him.”
Aisha’s tone was light and playful but I thought her comment sincere. I knew a great deal about being a stranger amongst strangers.
“I would rather learn from you, Aisha, than from old Thorny,” Carstairs said, stepping closer to Aisha and trying to place his arm around her waist.
Aisha stepped gracefully out of Carstairs’ reach.
“If you are such an eager student Mr. Carstairs, how is it that you have yet learn what is yours to take and what remains mine to give?”
This time her tone was even and she looked Carstairs in the eye as she spoke.
Carstairs turned to me. “You see how I am chastised, Thornton? What have I done to deserve such treatment?”
“It is not my experience that people get what they deserve.” I replied.
The words came out with a gravity that I had not intended. There was a momentary silence during which they both regarded me with curiosity.
Aisha recovered her manners first and said “I can see that my mistress will enjoying meeting you, Mr. Thornton, I will make Mr. Carstairs comfortable in the Library and then I will let Mrs. Prendergast know that you are here.”
“But the Library contains a depressingly large number of books,” Carstairs complained.
“It also contains a comfortable chair in which a man might enjoy a good brandy.” Aisha said, leading Carstairs away.
Alone in the drawing room, I found myself unable to stand still. My agitation dismayed me. Coming back to London, the heart of the Empire, from which we rule a fifth of the world, should have invigorated me and refreshed my pride in being English. Instead I found that I was less at home walking along The Strand than I was on the streets of Jaffna.
My sense of unease had been increased by dutiful visits to relatives, most of whom had found a way to make it clear that, as a man in my thirties with a good rank in the CCS, it was incumbent on me to take a wife. Some went so far as to offer candidates for the position.
The idea of marriage was not disagreeable to me. A man must have a wife after all. But I knew in my heart that I was not ready. I wanted something… that I had no name for. Something that would make me complete. Something that I no longer thought I would find in London.
All at once it seemed to me to make no sense at all to be waiting to talk to a woman who did parlour tricks to tell the future. I needed to be moving. To be making my future not, waiting for it to be described.
I was on the point of summoning Aisha and making my excuses when Mrs. Prendergast entered the room. All thoughts of departure fell away.
Mrs. Prendergast wore widow’s weeds: a simple black silk dress, adorned with jet, that should have declared her status as a respectable middle class matron. Yet, despite her attire, my first impression was of a strong, powerful, passionate woman. Mrs. Prendergast was tall for a woman, almost my height and she carried herself with the assurance of someone who rides well and dances gracefully. Her regular features were unremarkable and might almost have been described as plain had they not been framed by startlingly red hair, like a halo of fine flame, and dominated by widely spaced eyes that were an impossibly vivid shade of green. In England she was remarkable. In India she would have been truly exotic.
“Good evening, Mr. Thornton,” she said, with a slight bow of her head. “I believe that you are a friend of Freddy’s”.
I smiled. Freddy indeed. Only Carstairs’ favourite sister was allowed to call him by the name he had left behind in the nursery; his friends called him Frederick or Fred. I revised my assessment of the degree of intimacy between Carstairs and Mrs. Prendergast.
“A pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Prendergast. I apologise for calling upon you unannounced. Carstairs-, Freddy was quite insistent that I meet with you before I start my voyage out to Ceylon tomorrow. He is passionate in his belief that you can see a man’s future and that I must know mine at once.”
Mrs. Prendergast’s eyes held me as I spoke. I knew I was talking too quickly and too lightly but I was unable to make myself stop.
“Freddy is passionate about many things Mr. Thornton, it is his blessing and his curse. But I am not a fortune teller. The future is what we make it. It is not a book in which we may read ahead.”
Impressed by her forthright manner, I rushed to show my approval, like a schoolboy in performing for his favourite teacher.
“ A point of view with which I heartily concur,” I said. “A man’s fortune lies in his own hands but it is not written on his palm.”
I smiled at my own witicism but Mrs. Prendergast looked at me rather coolly.
“If that is your opinion, Mr. Thornton, then why are you here?”
“I’m not entirely sure. Freddy described you as extraordinarily gifted…”
“Did Freddy explain the nature of my gift?”
“He told me that he was sworn to secrecy but that it was something that I must experience for myself”.
“I see.” Mrs. Prendergast’s tone had become decidedly chilly.
“I am sure,” she said, scrutinizing my face more closely than I would have wished, “that in your travels in the service of the Empire you have encountered your share of bordellos and the women who work in them.”
Her words caught me completely by surprise. I knew Jaffna had many such places. Some of my colleagues frequented them. I had always avoided them. I did not want to find myself reflected in the eyes of those women.
“Please understand,” Mrs. Prendergast said, speaking over my flustered attempt to respond, “that this house is not such a place and that the women who live here are not yours to use.”
The reproach in her tone was unmistakeable. Remembering my own remark about being agile enough to enjoy Mrs. Prendergast’s gifts, if felt the sting of shame. This woman, whom instinct bade me to impress, thought that I was a man who used women.
I bowed to her and said, “If I have caused you any offence, Mrs. Prendergast, I apologise. I am, I assure you, a respectable man.”
When I looked up from my bow, Mrs. Prendergast smiled at me.
“Your blushes speak well of you, Mr. Thornton. I have always preferred honest men to respectable ones. Please take a seat. We shall take tea together and then I will explain my gift.”
Tea: the English answer to everything. I sat in a comfortable chair, glad to have the opportunity to recover my composure, and let myself be waited on by a young Indian girl, dressed in a sari as Aisa had been. She was tiny, less than five feet tall, yet her broad shoulders and narrow waist made her seem strong and confident. She smiled at me as she handed me my tea. Her fingers were long and slender and warm to the touch.
“You may leave us now, Mina.” Mrs. Prendergast said. “Please make the meditation room ready.”
Mina bowed to both of us and then left, walking so softly that she made no sound.
“So, Mr. Thornton, let me explain my “gift” as Freddy called it. I practice an ancient technique that, if a man gives himself up to it, allows him to know his heart’s desire and find his way to fulfilment.”
I could not help but raise an eyebrow. This was a far grander claim than being able to predict a man’s future; his implied seeing into his soul.
Mrs. Prendergast sat calmly, waiting for my reaction to her statement.
“That would indeed be a gift, Mrs. Prendergast and one that could bring you considerable fame and fortune. Which prompts me to ask why you wrap your gift in a veil of secrecy.”
“Ah;” Mrs. Prendergast said, smiling slightly, “You suspect, perhaps, that I am afraid of scrutiny because it would expose me as a fraud and therefore I hide behind theatrics to perpetrate my deception.”
“You would not be the first to do so.” I said, keeping my tone light. I did not truly believe that the woman in front of me was set upon deception.
“I keep my gift secret for a far simpler reason. If the particulars of my technique became known, I would place myself completely outside society.”
“I do not bandstand.”
“Are you familiar with any Sanskrit texts, Mr Thornton?”
“I’m afraid my knowledge of the language is very limited. Its use is reserved for poetry and prayer and my focus is on commerce and politics.”
Mrs. Prendergast clapped her hands in delight.
“That’s exactly it,” she said, with some excitement. “In Bengal, all that is most important in life is expressed in poetry and prayer. The sutras, the texts, are written as verse and impart wisdom of all kinds.”
“You read Sanskrit?”
“My father was an enthusiast for the history of the ancient world. I grew up reading many languages. I first travelled to India with my him in pursuit of his research. I met my husband, Captain Prendergast there. My father did not approve of him. He did not approve of the East India Company in general: too much commerce and politics, not enough prayer and poetry. He refused to stay for my wedding. I regret to say that we parted on rather bad terms.
But I digress from the Sanskrit texts which are the focus of my story. Via my father, I had met various people who could provide ancient texts. One of them contacted me, unaware that my father had already returned to England, and told me that he had knew of someone who possessed one of texts my father had been looking for. He believed it to be a previously undiscovered version of the Kama Sutra.”
I was shocked. Even I had heard of the Kama Sutra. I did not think it a suitable “text” for a respectable woman to be seeking out.
“Your face, Mr. Thornton, explains precisely why I keep my gift a secret. A moment ago you were eager to hear my story, Now you seem to waivering between outrage and disgust. I will not burden you with any further details.”
Mrs. Prendergast looked had stood up. She looked sad rather than angry. She also looked dignified and quite, quite beautiful. I could not bring myself to leave her.
“I apologise,” I said, “I will try to behave less like a civil servant and more like a guest in your house. I have never read the Kama Sutra so I am in no position to judge its contents. Please, sit down and finish your tale.”
Mrs. Prendergast regard me soberly for a moment and then resumed her seat.
“The Hindu religion sees the relationship between men and women differently from the Christian faith. They associate deity with sensuality and enlightenment with joy. Physical intimacy is path to spiritual growth. It can be an act that celebrates the numinous.
The Kama Sutra is a collection of verses that contain advice on how best to achieve numinosity. Many different versions exist. Most have six chapters. My father had been searching for a version with a seventh chapter that described the ritual needed to perform lingamgnosis. This is the text that I discovered in Calcutta. It was owned by Aisha’s mother, Pavarti. She would not part with the text but she allowed me to visit her over a number of weeks and transcribe the verses. What I learnt from the text brought much joy and enlightenment to me and to my husband.”
Mrs. Prendergast paused, apparently lost in remembered happiness. I looked away. I had not understood everything that she had told me but I was struck by contrast between the almost religious zeal with which she described sexual relations and my own experience.
I was not a virgin. My father had seen to that. He was a man with a prodigious sexual appetite which he satisfied primarily with a succession of mistresses closer to my age than his own. On my graduation from Oxford he had arranged a woman for me. I should have said no, of course. Except that she was young and beautiful and extremely willing and I was aching with need. We spent a tumultuous weekend together at the end of which I discovered myself both sated and ashamed. Since then I have taken care not to involve others in dealing with my physical needs.
I looked at Mrs Prendergast again and said, “I understand your husband lost his life in the service of the Empire.”
“My husband was killed by his own Sepoys in the Mutiny in 54, a few months after I discovered the seventh chapter. I was young, isolated from the other wives and riven with grief. The East India Company was is disarray. My father was far away in London and had not corresponded with me since my marriage. I found myself alone and unprotected. Had it not been Parvati, I do not know what would have become of me. She took me in to her household. In return I taught her daughters, Aisha and Mina, to practice lingamgnosis and to speak and read English.
Later, I learned that my father had died on route to England. It had taken his executors a long time to contact me because they had been unaware of my marriage. Eventually they informed me that I inherited this house, so I returned to it with Aisha and Mina.”
So now you know my history and my gift, Mr. Thornton. Do you have any questions?”
“Just one. What is lingamgnosis?”
Mrs. Prendergast laughed. It was a pleasant sound that I hoped to hear again often.
“Having attended Eton and Oxford I’m sure you recognize gnosis from its Greek root as meaning to have knowledge, in this case spiritual knowledge. As for Lingam, well, I have a Yoni, You have a Lingam. It comes from Sanskrit. It refers to a phallus and sometimes to the God Shiva. Literally translated, it means “Pillar of Light”.The ceremony I practice focuses on enlightenment through that pillar.”
At that point, Mina re-entered the drawing room. She smiled at both of us and said, “The Meditation Room is ready for the ceremony.”
“Well, Mr. Thornton,” Mrs. Prendergast asked, “are you ready for enlightenment?”
I was still coming to terms with having a women lecture me on the Sanskrit meaning of my lingam. This was, a Carstairs had said it would be, a surprising evening. I had no idea if I was ready for the ceremony or not but I knew that if I turned away now I would always wonder what I had missed.
“I have one condition,” I said, “Please call me Tom.”
Mrs. Prendergast held out her arm. I linked mine with hers and she said, “Namaste, Tom.”
© 2010 Mike Kimera All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from email@example.com