The Unbearable Bassington HTML version

Chapter XVI
It was late afternoon by the banks of a swiftly rushing river, a river that gave back a haze
of heat from its waters as though it were some stagnant steaming lagoon, and yet seemed
to be whirling onward with the determination of a living thing, perpetually eager and
remorseless, leaping savagely at any obstacle that attempted to stay its course; an
unfriendly river, to whose waters you committed yourself at your peril. Under the hot
breathless shade of the trees on its shore arose that acrid all-pervading smell that seems to
hang everywhere about the tropics, a smell as of some monstrous musty still-room where
herbs and spices have been crushed and distilled and stored for hundreds of years, and
where the windows have seldom been opened. In the dazzling heat that still held
undisputed sway over the scene, insects and birds seemed preposterously alive and active,
flitting their gay colours through the sunbeams, and crawling over the baked dust in the
full swing and pursuit of their several businesses; the flies engaged in Heaven knows
what, and the fly-catchers busy with the flies. Beasts and humans showed no such
indifference to the temperature; the sun would have to slant yet further downward before
the earth would become a fit arena for their revived activities. In the sheltered basement
of a wayside rest-house a gang of native hammock-bearers slept or chattered drowsily
through the last hours of the long mid-day halt; wide awake, yet almost motionless in the
thrall of a heavy lassitude, their European master sat alone in an upper chamber, staring
out through a narrow window-opening at the native village, spreading away in thick
clusters of huts girt around with cultivated vegetation. It seemed a vast human ant-hill,
which would presently be astir with its teeming human life, as though the Sun God in his
last departing stride had roused it with a careless kick. Even as Comus watched he could
see the beginnings of the evening’s awakening. Women, squatting in front of their huts,
began to pound away at the rice or maize that would form the evening meal, girls were
collecting their water pots preparatory to a walk down to the river, and enterprising goats
made tentative forays through gaps in the ill-kept fences of neighbouring garden plots;
their hurried retreats showed that here at least someone was keeping alert and wakeful
vigil. Behind a hut perched on a steep hillside, just opposite to the rest-house, two boys
were splitting wood with a certain languid industry; further down the road a group of
dogs were leisurely working themselves up to quarrelling pitch. Here and there, bands of
evil-looking pigs roamed about, busy with foraging excursions that came unpleasantly
athwart the border-line of scavenging. And from the trees that bounded and intersected
the village rose the horrible, tireless, spiteful-sounding squawking of the iron-throated
Comus sat and watched it all with a sense of growing aching depression. It was so utterly
trivial to his eyes, so devoid of interest, and yet it was so real, so serious, so implacable in
its continuity. The brain grew tired with the thought of its unceasing reproduction. It had
all gone on, as it was going on now, by the side of the great rushing swirling river, this
tilling and planting and harvesting, marketing and store-keeping, feast-making and fetish-
worship and love-making, burying and giving in marriage, child-bearing and child-
rearing, all this had been going on, in the shimmering, blistering heat and the warm