That Face in the Dark

That Face in the Dark

The clock struck two and I waited in apprehension. By my window, on the first storey of my haveli (mansion), well, my husband’s haveli. I had intentionally left my room unlit, I couldn’t afford to arouse suspicions, it had to be a covert operation. 

The night was moonless, it was pitch dark outside as well. My eyes stayed fixed at the massive doorway, I wondered if I could spot her again tonight. She had been unceremoniously forced out of the mansion a month ago. She, my husband’s eldest, spinster cousin. No self-respecting person would ever return to those gates, those folks, who had offended her so cruelly, but I am certain it was her I had seen that night, a week back. 

I had mentioned this to my husband, that she was back at nightfall, but he was quick to dismiss it, with just a wave of. My husband of six months, handsome, educated abroad, friends with the scion of the royal family and always traveling on business. Well, there’s something more to be added. He despised me. So much, that he seldom cast a second glance at me, let alone sharing a bed. 

 We were engaged to one another as children, a bond between two aristocratic families.  But then I guess, over a period of time, I had turned unworthy of him. My gender stood between me and my formal education, my curiosity, my freedom.

 But if he was so emancipated, he could have refused to marry me in the first place. Why condemn me into a fruitless life, I had once demanded an answer. He married for his parents, he had replied coldly. And if I didn’t put up a show, I could lead a respected and sheltered life with him, he mentioned. So, my life was a never-ending saga of aimlessness and boredom.

The cousin in question had been a respite; cheerful and sensible, unlike the other acid tongued womenfolk of the large family. She was the only child of my husband’s elder uncle. With her parents dead, she was the rightful heir to the haveli and the huge property. Her parents, they say, had gone against the social norms and educated their daughter, she was a graduate I had heard. 

I had met her many a times, I had rather enjoyed my time with her. She had dutifully stood beside my husband as his sister at our wedding ceremony, had welcomed me into her room, and honestly, I had taken an instant liking for her. She would dress simple, I hadn’t found a single piece of flashy jewellery or glitzy sarees in her room. 

I wondered how they had caught her red handed, late into the night, dressed to seduce, waiting for a carriage to take her to her ‘customers’.

My mother-in-law had informed me that fateful day the cousin had been cast away, “Some servants had noticed this woman since sometime, out in the dark, dressed ornately, right outside our entrance. The darkness notwithstanding, she would carry a large bright umbrella, to hide her face. A horse driven carriage would arrive and she would ride into the night, only to return at wee hours. Sigh, this is what happens when they educate the daughters too much, nobody volunteers to marry such free-spirited women and they are left to quench their thirst for pleasure elsewhere. Your father-in- law loved his niece, but actions that shame the family and scar our reputation can’t be tolerated.”

The drama that had unfolded was far beyond my imagination. My father-in-law had got his ‘favourite’ niece tonsured, deemed her dead, banished her out of her own home and performed rituals to cleanse the family. I had no inkling where the poor woman would have gone, or else I could have helped her in some way. But if I did, I knew perhaps I would meet with the same fate.

I agree, I’m illiterate but I do understand the crooked ways of the rich and the privileged. If they had murdered her, many eyebrows would have been raised, the police would have investigated. The public would instantly know that she was killed for wealth. This way, by slandering her, labelling her a whore, my husband’s family had acquired all they wanted, with no harm done to them, in fact the whole village now was on their side.

I wouldn’t have believed any of this, until I saw her unexpectedly near our house, last week in the dead of the night. Of course, she had no reason to hide under her umbrella anymore, her character was no secret and nobody would bother to report her to anyone. But I was genuinely disappointed, I still wished, that the entire story was untrue. It was her for sure, but why would she return to the mansion gates to lure men? Perhaps to seek vengeance, show our family in bad light, I couldn’t be sure.

I was lost in my thoughts, dozing at the window, when a clap of thunder jolted me back to my senses. I gently moved the curtain. It was raining lightly and in a flash of lightening, I saw her. There she was, bright sari, and a fluorescent umbrella, waiting by the wide street. That was all I could register, in the dim light.

I froze, so it was true after all. There was a part of me that still believed she was innocent, but now she was out in the open, for all to see. I fixed my gaze at her, I now saw her spinning the umbrella suggestively, perhaps that was her signal. And, in no time, a horse carriage appeared. The rider got down and opened the door of the coach. She closed the umbrella, and as another bolt of lightning flickered, she suddenly lifted her gaze, looking up to the window, straight at me. The smile on her lips vanished, her expression turned grim, as the buggy sped away. But in that split of a second, I had seen her, clear enough.

My Husband.

I must have sat by the window for hours, when I heard the sound of hooves stopping a little far off the entrance, it was just before dawn. He climbed out and looked up in my direction, I sat staring listlessly. 

“You didn’t sleep?” I heard him in my room now.

He had changed into his man clothes, I noticed.

“Me and the prince.” He elaborated. “We were together for years abroad, don’t know when love happened. He loves me this way, he sends for me every night. The carriage waits by the turning until I make sure everyone’s asleep and signal him. At times, we travel far, to unknown cities, so there’s no fear of being recognised.”

“So, it was always you, never me. All this time, I cursed myself for being a simpleton, being ugly, for not being good enough for you. I would pray, fast, torture myself to get you to like me, but then it was never my fault.” I hissed.

“It’s not my fault either. I have always been like this, is it a sin to love?” He scoffed.

“No, it isn’t. But it’s a sin, that you get to lead your life the way you want and someone else has to pay the price. She was your sister for God’s sake.” I roared.

“Hush.  I had always been careful, hiding well, but that night some servants pounced on me all of a sudden. They let go when they saw it was me, but my parents had no choice. To save the family honour, they had to put someone at stake. She fitted the best, that’s all. We aren’t all that cruel. She’s lodged in the temple premises, with the widows. And we offered to pay for her expenses, but she refused. We did try to take care of her.” He retorted.

“Seizing her rightful share, ruining her life, pushing her into the dark, well, you did take good care of her. Not anymore. You either bring her back, or I’ll make sure the whole village knows your little secret.” I seethed with anger.

**************************

“My poor son.” The mother-in-law lamented, to the new bride. “Oh, the rumours they spread to malign us. You know, he caught her by the window, late in the night, gesticulating secretly to someone. Tell me, would any decent woman do that? To add to our woes, she had made friends with that unchaste niece of ours. It seems, now they work hand in glove, waiting by our gates, attracting potential customers, playfully spinning umbrellas in the rain. So Bahu (daughter-in-law), careful, don’t ever try sneaking up on them. People say, they’re witches, creatures of the night, possess supernatural powers. If you see their face, they’ll turn you into them. And the doors of this house will forever close for you.  

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Preethi Warrier
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