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A VICEROY'S WELCOME
THE thud of three guns, dull in the lazy air, told the passengers of the P. and O. Company's "Arabia" that they were at the door of India.
From the steamer the sights of the shore were muffled, like its sounds, in the breathless haze that expects the sun. We lay on still, colourless Water in a channel. To port were shadows of ships, and presently, behind them, a thicker bank of grey wherefrom white faces of ghostly buildings shone without lustre. But to starboard the mainland of India raised itself on its elbow against a horizon that every minute grew rosier. Broad belts of black and pink fired and fused into liquid carmine; the elbows turned from grey to black, and the water began to stir and laugh over a mile of shining dimples. India was awake.
A glance back from the launch showed the "Arabia" at the very moment of awakening. Along the dark hull three tiers of sleepy yellow port-holes blinked at the shadowed water; above, every point and spar and rope were picked out in the intensest black against the crimson sky. The flags, with which she was dressed from prow to rail, hung solemnly motionless. Hugely graceful, the union of power and fineness, revealing unsuspected curves and angles, she had kept the fulness of her beauties, coquettishly, until the moment of good-bye.
The other ships, as we stole past them, turned in like manner from film to the clearest silhouette — the heavy-hulled trooper, the low turret-guardship with awnings from stem to stern like turtle-decks, the slim cruiser, and the slips of torpedo-boats. Higher up lay black and red cargo-boats; lower down, white-winged yachts. On the nearing shore the dim shapes of buildings cleared, separated, and combined into a tall, white-limbed city, warming and blushing like a bride. The launch stopped at a pier beneath a white and amber pavilion. Then suddenly the sun shot up behind the mainland; welcoming reflections sprang everywhere to meet him; the world pulsed with colour. And I was standing in India.
It was good luck for the prying stranger to land at Bombay off the same boat as a new Viceroy. The splendours which otherwise must have been sought out with diligence and found in detail came there to meet the landing and combined themselves. The vestibule of India was swept and garnished. The pavilion that ushered us in was spread partly on Venetian masts, partly on living trees; but their trunks were wrapped round With white and amber also, lest anything dirty should smirch the new Viceroy's gaze. Down the middle ran a broad aisle; on each side of it a battalion of chairs; at the top, above the water, was a clear space for the most notable people, and a triumphal arch in the shape of a tower. A hedge of shrubs round the whole lent it the air of a flower-show. Outside these again was a hedge of native police — little, sturdy, brown men in navy blue, with bare legs, and sandals, and bright yellow caps. At the entrance on the inland side were British military police in white, regulating the traffic.
I looked down the broad avenue that led into Bombay — a vista of white, shining palaces set in green, tier and gable and turret climbing skywards out of massed trees. But before there was time to do more than look, a couple of companies of British infantry, cool to the eye in their white uniforms, marched up, stiffened into line, and grounded arms with a rattle along one side of the pavilion. Directly on that arrived the rulers of Bombay.
They made a strange blending of splendour and shabbiness. Clear-skinned men and bright-eyed women drove up in victorias that showed more dust than paint; a servant in gorgeous livery was on the box, and the stuffing was coming out of the horse's collar. The white men and women wore white, as befitted the freshness of the golden morning; even generals and colonels showed no other colour than the ribbons on their breasts. The dark blue and gold of naval uniforms and court dress, the epaulettes of the very consuls, looked dull in the shimmer of the sun. But the rich natives paid for all. They shone in the gathering crowd like rainbows. There were women in purple and yellow-green draperies, servants in flaming scarlet, masters ablaze with bullion and jewels. Nothing was too resplendent for their modesty or too incongruous for their taste. A black gown like a clergyman's, a spectacled face under a black oilcloth cap — its shape like two hats, one balanced upside down on top of the other — only threw up the neighbouring butterfly in a peaked turban of vermilion and gold, a ring in his ear with a bloated bunch of pearls and emeralds, strings of pearls round his neck, and a gold-embroidered muslin blouse which died away — alas! — below the waist into shrunken pyjamas, no socks, and broken elastic-sided boots, with frayed tabs flapping moodily behind him. Beside this vision of radiance you could hardly see the puff -cheeked, moist-eyed gentleman in a frock-coat and a deerstalker; and the eagle-nosed yellow youth in reach-me-down blue-striped flannels was barely saved from extinction by the green and crimson embroidery on his purple velvet smoking-cap. Every race, every creed, every colour, every style — the rajah with his diamonds and the thin-legged sweeper outside in the street — they grouped themselves to present on the threshold of India a living epitome of the hundred-headed incongruities that swarm within.
Boom! came the first gun from the white warship, the first of thirty-one. A launch flickered across the dazzling water. Along the parapet glided a funnel and the point of a flagstaff. The uniforms and court suits and academic gowns clustered at the head of the steps. They stood for a minute, two, three, in the bunched but shifting group that means greeting and introduction, then broke. "God Save the Queen!" crashed the band; all stood uncovered; and the new Viceroy stepped serenely into his government. A slow procession along the aisle; a pause and a silence which hinted that the Corporation of Bombay was delivering an address; a few clear-cut sentences of reply; clapping; a grey hat bowing from a carriage; the scrunch of wheels; red-and-white lance-pennons whirling into column — and the first glimpse of India shifts and breaks like a kaleidoscope and leaves its first city naked to curiosity.