The engagement took place, and I went down to Colombo for the occasion. My mother had earlier indicated a softening of attitude in that she had told Iris she would come, and had indeed invited Tara and Nimal to come up together to stay at the Old Place after the engagement, but as it turned out she failed to put in an appearance. To me the illness that she pleaded did not seem grave enough to warrant her absence. I could not forget either that the more she and Michael had discussed the matter during his visit, the less likely it seemed that either of them would countenance the marriage.
In Colombo however, Michael and Nimal seemed to be as close as they had been in the past. On the night before the engagement Michael had organized a sort of stag party which seemed to have been a very successful event. Nimal scarcely made it to and through the next evening, though it only fleetingly crossed my mind that that might have been deliberate. Iris, who told me that Michael had been quite difficult at the start, was relieved. His demeanour that evening was impeccably enthusiastic.
Nevertheless I still harboured my suspicions. My mother had always seemed to me the most determined member of our family, and during his visit it had struck me how very much like her Michael was. However, it was not for me to upset things when everyone else seemed content. Besides I was not myself yet entirely satisfied about the marriage. At the same time, as I got to know Nimal better, I grew quite fond of him, so that it was not entirely out of selfish consideration for the family that I welcomed what seemed a solution to the problem.
This was the abolition of entailments. I must confess it gave me some pleasure to explain to my mother that the government’s policy of reform with regard to land and property, which she had so volubly abhorred and execrated, had now come to her rescue: the ultimate intentions of testators no longer having any legal validity, she was quite at liberty to leave the Old Place to Michael or indeed to anyone else rather than Tara. It was almost a sense of triumph I felt when she was at last brought to admit that, though she had to be beholden to the powers of darkness, there might be some relief available from what I said.
I wrote at once to Michael, and I think I was quite sincere in expressing my satisfaction that there was no cause for worry: I did sympathize strongly with him, as with my mother, though as I said there was also a slight sense of relief on Nimal’s behalf that they would now not have to do their utmost to prevent the marriage. In that respect Michael’s reply was not at all comforting. He thanked me for my efforts, but pointed out that what seemed to him the major problem still remained, namely his sister’s determination to make an unsuitable marriage. He did not think he had to point out to me that one owed something to one’s past, but he very much feared that it was too late for Tara to see the light.
After that I became merely a spectator. It was a few months afterwards that I got to know the real story, or some of it at any rate. All I knew at the time was that Michael and Tara and Nimal came to spend a few days, and that after they left my mother exuded a quietly confident satisfaction, even before we got Michael’s letter announcing that the engagement had been broken off. Other currents of feeling I think I sensed, but not explicitly enough to record. I did do my best to have Nimal kept in the house itself rather than the annexe, a set of rooms built at the bottom of the garden for my oldest uncle when his dissipations had grown too much for my grandfather, but my mother said that that was where her husband and Iris’s husband had been put during their first visits, and she did not think it would be fair on Tara to breach the tradition for Nimal.
I was also more than surprised when, towards the end of the stay, my mother claimed that she was not feeling well and told Tara to move from her room, which she normally shared when she stayed, to the wing of the house where Michael slept. I could not however tell Tara not to budge, on the grounds that my mother seemed to me to be perfectly well. I was not fully aware of what was going on and there was nothing I could do.
It might have been because I seemed to suspect something though, that Michael told me the story the next time he came to stay. As I can gather, and I have dropped the occasional veiled hint, Iris does not know it yet. The manner in which Michael told me the tale then however was quite free and easy. We had been sitting up talking for some time after my mother had gone to bed, when I asked him again why Tara had dropped Nimal – which was all he had vouchsafed so far.
He looked at me quizzically, and sipped his brandy. We were in the small sitting room. Brandy and liqueurs there had now become a ritual when Michael visited. ‘She discovered he was being unfaithful of course,’ he said at last. ‘What else could she have objected to, after she had accepted him in the first place?
‘And that was while they were here?’ He nodded, and began to smile. ‘What was it exactly that happened?’
‘I thought you would have found out by now.’ The smile broadened. ‘But I suppose there’s no harm in my telling you. I thought I had to tell Tara a rather sordid rumour I’d gathered from the servants. She had a right to know what she was going into, you see. We decided to check up on it the last night. She was quite upset when it turned out to be true.’
‘And that was…..?’
‘The usual thing. It was Sunil this time. I suppose it’s better than coming across it suddenly when you’re pregnant, and going mad as a result, which I gather is what happened to one of our relations.’
I could not reply for some time, and when I finally did all I managed to say was, ‘I suppose we’ll have to get rid of him now.’
‘That would be a waste.’ Michael poured himself some more brandy. ‘Wait till I have my own flat. I could make use of him in Colombo.’
‘But we can’t keep him when all the other servants are talking.’
‘The other servants aren’t talking at all. I simply made that bit up myself.’
‘How did you know then?’ As I spoke I realized how absurd my question was.
This time Michael did not smile, but I think there was an amused gleam in his eye. ‘Some things,’ he said slowly, ‘you will learn, are obvious.’