The Pool in the Desert

Author: Sara Jeannette Duncan


Four days later we were in Agra. A time there was when the name would have been the key of dreams to me; now it stood for John’s headquarters. I was rejoiced to think I would look again upon the Taj; and the prospect of living with it was a real enchantment; but I pondered most the kind of house that would be provided for the General Commanding the District, how many the dining-room would seat, and whether it would have a roof of thatch or of corrugated iron—I prayed against corrugated iron. I confess these my preoccupations. I was forty, and at forty the practical considerations of life hold their own even against domes of marble, world-renowned, and set about with gardens where the bulbul sings to the rose. I smiled across the years at the raptures of my first vision of the place at twenty-one, just Cecily’s age. Would I now sit under Arjamand’s cypresses till two o’clock in the morning to see the wonder of her tomb at a particular angle of the moon? Would I climb one of her tall white ministering minarets to see anything whatever? I very greatly feared that I would not. Alas for the aging of sentiment, of interest! Keep your touch with life and your seat in the saddle as long as you will, the world is no new toy at forty. But Cecily was twenty-one, Cecily who sat stolidly finishing her lunch while Dacres Tottenham talked about Akbar and his philosophy. ’The sort of man,’ he said, ’that Carlyle might have smoked a pipe with.’

’But surely,’ said Cecily reflectively, ’tobacco was not discovered in England then. Akbar came to the throne in 1526.’

’Nor Carlyle either for that matter,’ I hastened to observe. ’Nevertheless, I think Mr. Tottenham’s proposition must stand.’

’Thanks, Mrs. Farnham,’ said Dacres. ’But imagine Miss Farnham’s remembering Akbar’s date! I’m sure you didn’t!’

’Let us hope she doesn’t know too much about him,’ I cried gaily, ’or there will be nothing to tell!’

’Oh, really and truly very little!’ said Cecily, ’but as soon as we heard papa would be stationed here Aunt Emma made me read up about those old Moguls and people. I think I remember the dynasty. Baber, wasn’t he the first? And then Humayon, and after him Akbar, and then Jehangir, and then Shah Jehan. But I’ve forgotten every date but Akbar’s.’

She smiled her smile of brilliant health and even spirits as she made the damaging admission, and she was so good to look at, sitting there simple and wholesome and fresh, peeling her banana with her well-shaped fingers, that we swallowed the dynasty as it were whole, and smiled back upon her. John, I may say, was extremely pleased with Cecily; he said she was a very satisfactory human accomplishment. One would have thought, positively, the way he plumed himself over his handsome daughter, that he alone was responsible for her. But John, having received his family, straightway set off with his Staff on a tour of inspection, and thereby takes himself out of this history. I sometimes think that if he had stayed—but there has never been the lightest recrimination between us about it, and I am not going to hint one now.

’Did you read,’ asked Dacres, ’what he and the Court poet wrote over the entrance gate to the big mosque at Fattehpur-Sikri? It’s rather nice. "The world is a looking-glass, wherein the image has come and is gone—take as thine own nothing more than what thou lookest upon."’

My daughter’s thoughtful gaze was, of course, fixed upon the speaker, and in his own glance I saw a sudden ray of consciousness; but Cecily transferred her eyes to the opposite wall, deeply considering, and while Dacres and I smiled across the table, I saw that she had perceived no reason for blushing. It was a singularly narrow escape.

’No,’ she said, ’I didn’t; what a curious proverb for an emperor to make! He couldn’t possibly have been able to see all his possessions at once.’

’If you have finished,’ Dacres addressed her, ’do let me show you what your plain and immediate duty is to the garden. The garden waits for you—all the roses expectant—’

’Why, there isn’t one!’ cried Cecily, pinning on her hat. It was pleasing, and just a trifle pathetic, the way he hurried her out of the scope of any little dart; he would not have her even within range of amused observation. Would he continue, I wondered vaguely, as, with my elbows on the table, I tore into strips the lemon-leaf that floated in my finger-bowl—would he continue, through life, to shelter her from his other clever friends as now he attempted to shelter her from her mother? In that case he would have to domicile her, poor dear, behind the curtain, like the native ladies—a good price to pay for a protection of which, bless her heart! she would be all unaware. I had quite stopped bemoaning the affair; perhaps the comments of my husband, who treated it with broad approval and satisfaction, did something to soothe my sensibilities. At all events, I had gradually come to occupy a high fatalistic ground towards the pair. If it was written upon their foreheads that they should marry, the inscription was none of mine; and, of course, it was true, as John had indignantly stated, that Dacres might do very much worse. One’s interest in Dacres Tottenham’s problematical future had in no way diminished; but the young man was so positive, so full of intention, so disinclined to discussion—he had not reopened the subject since that morning in the saloon of the Caledonia—that one’s feeling about it rather took the attenuated form of a shrug. I am afraid, too, that the pleasurable excitement of such an impending event had a little supervened; even at forty there is no disallowing the natural interests of one’s sex. As I sat there pulling my lemon-leaf to pieces, I should not have been surprised or in the least put about if the two had returned radiant from the lawn to demand my blessing. As to the test of quality that I had obligingly invented for Dacres on the spur of the moment without his knowledge or connivance, it had some time ago faded into what he apprehended it to be—a mere idyllic opportunity, a charming background, a frame for his project, of prettier sentiment than the funnels and the hand-rails of a ship.

Mr. Tottenham had ten days to spend with us. He knew the place well; it belonged to the province to whose service he was dedicated, and he claimed with impressive authority the privilege of showing it to Cecily by degrees—the Hall of Audience today, the Jessamine Tower tomorrow, the tomb of Akbar another, and the Deserted City yet another day. We arranged the expeditions in conference, Dacres insisting only upon the order of them, which I saw was to be cumulative, with the Taj at the very end, on the night precisely of the full of the moon, with a better chance of roses. I had no special views, but Cecily contributed some; that we should do the Hall of Audience in the morning, so as not to interfere with the club tennis in the afternoon, that we should bicycle to Akbar’s tomb and take a cold luncheon—if we were sure there would be no snakes— to the Deserted City, to all of which Dacres gave loyal assent. I endorsed everything; I was the encouraging chorus, only stipulating that my number should be swelled from day to day by the addition of such persons as I should approve. Cecily, for instance, wanted to invite the Bakewells because we had come out in the same ship with them; but I could not endure the Bakewells, and it seemed to me that our having made the voyage with them was the best possible reason for declining to lay eyes on them for the rest of our natural lives. ’Mamma has such strong prejudices,’ Cecily remarked, as she reluctantly gave up the idea; and I waited to see whether the graceless Tottenham would unmurmuringly take down the Bakewells. How strong must be the sentiment that turns a man into a boaconstrictor without a pang of transmigration! But no, this time he was faithful to the principles of his pre-Cecilian existence. ’They are rather Boojums,’ he declared. ’You would think so, too, if you knew them better. It is that kind of excellent person that makes the real burden of India.’ I could have patted him on the back.

Thanks to the rest of the chorus, which proved abundantly available, I was no immediate witness to Cecily’s introduction to the glorious fragments which sustain in Agra the memory of the moguls. I may as well say that I arranged with care that if anybody must be standing by when Dacres disclosed them, it should not be I. If Cecily had squinted, I should have been sorry, but I would have found in it no personal humiliation. There were other imperfections of vision, however, for which I felt responsible and ashamed; and with Dacres, though the situation, Heaven knows, was none of my seeking, I had a little the feeling of a dealer who offers a defective bibelot to a connoisseur. My charming daughter—I was fifty times congratulated upon her appearance and her manners—had many excellent qualities and capacities which she never inherited from me; but she could see no more than the bulk, no further than the perspective; she could register exactly as much as a camera.

This was a curious thing, perhaps, to displease my maternal vanity, but it did; I had really rather she squinted; and when there was anything to look at I kept out of the way. I can not tell precisely, therefore, what the incidents were that contributed to make Mr. Tottenham, on our return from these expeditions, so thoughtful, with a thoughtfulness which increased, towards the end of them, to a positive gravity. This would disappear during dinner under the influence of food and drink. He would talk nightly with new enthusiasm and fresh hope—or did I imagine it?—of the loveliness he had arranged to reveal on the following day. If again my imagination did not lead me astray, I fancied this occurred later and later in the course of the meal as the week went on; as if his state required more stimulus as time progressed. One evening, when I expected it to flag altogether, I had a whim to order champagne and observe the effect; but I am glad to say that I reproved myself, and refrained.

Cecily, meanwhile, was conducting herself in a manner which left nothing to be desired. If, as I sometimes thought, she took Dacres very much for granted, she took him calmly for granted; she seemed a prey to none of those fluttering uncertainties, those suspended judgments and elaborate indifferences which translate themselves so plainly in a young lady receiving addresses. She turned herself out very freshly and very well; she was always ready for everything, and I am sure that no glance of Dacres Tottenham’s found aught but direct and decorous response. His society on these occasions gave her solid pleasure; so did the drive and the lunch; the satisfactions were apparently upon the same plane. She was aware of the plum, if I may be permitted a brusque but irresistible simile; and with her mouth open, her eyes modestly closed, and her head in a convenient position, she waited, placidly, until it should fall in. The Farnham ladies would have been delighted with the result of their labours in the sweet reason and eminent propriety of this attitude. Thinking of my idiotic sufferings when John began to fix himself upon my horizon, I pondered profoundly the power of nature in differentiation.

One evening, the last, I think, but one, I had occasion to go to my daughter’s room, and found her writing in her commonplace-book. She had a commonplace-book, as well as a Where Is It? an engagementbook, an account-book, a diary, a Daily Sunshine, and others with purposes too various to remember. ’Dearest mamma,’ she said, as I was departing, ’there is only one "p" in "opulence", isn’t there?’

’Yes,’ I replied, with my hand on the door-handle, and added curiously, for it was an odd word in Cecily’s mouth, ’Why?’

She hardly hesitated. ’Oh,’ she said, ’I am just writing down one or two things Mr. Tottenham said about Agra before I forget them. They seemed so true.’

’He has a descriptive touch,’ I remarked.

’I think he describes beautifully. Would you like to hear what he said today?’

’I would,’ I replied, sincerely.

’"Agra,"’ read this astonishing young lady, ’"is India’s one pure idyll. Elsewhere she offers other things, foolish opulence, tawdry pageant, treachery of eunuchs and jealousies of harems, thefts of kings’ jewels and barbaric retributions; but they are all actual, visualized, or part of a past that shows to the backward glance hardly more relief and vitality than a Persian painting"—I should like to see a Persian painting—"but here the immortal tombs and pleasure-houses rise out of colour delicate and subtle; the vision holds across three hundred years; the print of the court is still in the dust of the city."’

’Did you really let him go on like that?’ I exclaimed. ’It has the license of a lecture!’

’I encouraged him to. Of course he didn’t say it straight off. He said it naturally; he stopped now and then to cough. I didn’t understand it all; but I think I have remembered every word.’

’You have a remarkable memory. I’m glad he stopped to cough. Is there any more?’

’One little bit. "Here the moguls wrought their passions into marble, and held them up with great refrains from their religion, and set them about with gardens; and here they stand in the twilight of the glory of those kings and the noonday splendour of their own."’

’How clever of you!’ I exclaimed. ’How wonderfully clever of you to remember!’

’I had to ask him to repeat one or two sentences. He didn’t like that. But this is nothing. I used to learn pages letter-perfect for Aunt Emma. She was very particular. I think it is worth preserving, don’t you?’

’Dear Cecily,’ I responded, ’you have a frugal mind.’

There was nothing else to respond. I could not tell her just how practical I thought her, or how pathetic her little book.


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Chicago: Sara Jeannette Duncan, "V," The Pool in the Desert, trans. Evans, Sebastian in The Pool in the Desert Original Sources, accessed April 19, 2018,

MLA: Duncan, Sara Jeannette. "V." The Pool in the Desert, translted by Evans, Sebastian, in The Pool in the Desert, Original Sources. 19 Apr. 2018.

Harvard: Duncan, SJ, 'V' in The Pool in the Desert, trans. . cited in , The Pool in the Desert. Original Sources, retrieved 19 April 2018, from