The Wager

Surat, India
1904

“I can prove it, darling.”

William Mortimer smiled smugly at his wife. He lay back on the toasty blanket and stretched himself out in the late afternoon Surat sun.

Rachel laughed lightheartedly. “There is no need for that, dear. I don’t savvy your silly diversions.”

William chuckled. Then all of a sudden, as if seized by a revelation, he sat up with excitement. “How about a little wager, woman?”

He had that familiar childish sparkle in his eye. Rachel still had trouble deciding whether she loved it or loathed it. She smiled and returned to putting away picnic paraphernalia. The sun still had some degrees left to climb down before extinguishing itself in the silver waters of the Arabian Sea.

“Come on. It will be jolly good. If I fail to prove my point, I shall, ” he paused for effect, “take you with me to Ahmedabad. You’ll join me and the Commissioner on our tours of the schools. What do you say to that?”

That got Rachel’s attention. Staying at the bungalow and mingling with the locals was undoubtedly enjoyable, but traveling the land – now that was far more appealing.

“And what do you intend to exact from me if you win?” she asked, keeping her eyes fixed on his.

He shrugged his shoulders, “Nothing, really… except that you do my bidding without question.”

Rachel rolled her eyes and shook her head. “Never!”

William laughed aloud till tears streamed down his face.

“Very well then, it shall be a one-sided affair…” He left his sentence unfinished and stared into the distance behind Rachel. She turned around to see two boys – no more than fourteen – walking along the shoreline, wading in the salty water. William raised a hand up in the air and shouted to catch their attention.

The boys froze, unsure of the white man’s intentions for them.

Idhar aao. Come, lads.” He motioned them toward himself with one hand, propping himself up on the other.

The boys advanced cautiously murmuring inaudibly to each other.

“Don’t be harsh, William.” Rachel tried to blink away her rising anger.

“Nonsense, darling. They won’t mind. You’ll see.”

The boys drew closer until they were about ten feet from the couple, then stopped. One of them was tall and skinny, the other short and chubby but with a piercing glance.

William looked at them both and spoke in chaste Hindustani, articulating his words carefully.

“You can be the proud owner of one whole anna if you jump up and down on one leg and pretend to be a monkey.” He said this as he held up a large, shiny silver anna, which he drew from one of the many pockets of his crumpled shirt.

The skinny boy’s eyes went wide. He turned to look at his friend, who returned the glance without expression. Then all of a sudden, the skinny boy began to hop on one leg hysterically, playing the part of a monkey with all the zest he could gather.

William spun around to look at Rachel and grinned triumphantly. His wife gritted her teeth and shot back a cold stare at him.

When a minute of silliness had passed, William tossed the anna over to the skinny one who caught it deftly. The boys then raised their hands in deference and with a quick Salaam Sahib, they turned around and walked away.

“I told you darling. I know their kind. I’m afraid you shan’t be coming tomorrow. And please don’t be cross,” he snickered as he lay back down.

Rachel watched the boys amble back to the shoreline and resume their stroll. She felt quite unsettled by her husband’s obnoxious behavior. She was secretly glad not to be joining him on his travels.

***

The skinny boy handed his brother the anna. After some moments of silence, he couldn’t hold it in any longer. He burst out in Gujurati.

“How did you know he was going to ask us to humiliate ourselves for money?”

His brother slid the coin into his shirt pocket and patted it to make sure it was there before replying.

“I know his kind.”

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