The Gentleman in the Parlour by W. Somerset Maugham

First of all Mandalay is a name.  For there are places whose names from some accident of history or happy association have an independent magic, and perhaps the wise man would never visit them, for the expectations they arouse can hardly be realized. Names have a life of their own, and though Trebizond may be nothing but a poverty-stricken village the glamour of its name must invest it for all right-thinking minds with the trappings of Empire.  And Samarkand: can anyone write the word without a quickening of the pulse and at his hear of the pain of unsatisfied desire?    The very name of the Irrawaddy informs the sensitive fancy with its vast and turbid flow.  The streets of Mandalay, dusty, crowded, and drenched with a garish sun, are broad and straight.  Tramcars lumber down them with a rout of passengers; they fill the seats and gangways and cling thickly to the footboard like flies clustered upon an overripe mango.  The houses, with their balconies and verandas, have the slatternly look of the houses in the Main Street of a Western town that has fallen upon evil days.  Here are no narrow alleys or devious ways down which the imagination may wander in search of the unimaginable.   It does not matter:  Mandalay has its name; the falling cadence of the lovely word has gathered about itself the chiaroscuro of romance.

But Mandalay has also its fort.  The fort is surrounded by a high wall and the high wall by a moat.  In the fort stands the palace, and stood, before they were torn down, the offices of King Thebaw’s government and the dwelling of his ministers.  At intervals in the wall are gateways washed white with lime, and each is surmounted by a sort of belvedere, like a summerhouse in a Chinese garden; and on the bastions are teak pavilions too fanciful to allow you to think they could ever have served a warlike purpose.  The wall is made of huge sun-baked bricks, and the colour of it is old rose.  At its foot is a broad stretch of sward planted quite thickly with tamarind, cassia and acacia; a flock of brown sheep, advancing with tenacity, slowly but intently grazes the luscious grass; and here in the evening you see the Burmese in their coloured skirts and bright headkerchiefs wander in twos and threes.  They are little brown men of a solid and sturdy build, with something a trifle Mongolian in their faces.  They walk deliberately as though they were owners and tillers of the soil.  They have none fo the sidelong grace, the deprecating elegance, of the Indian who passes them; they have not his refinement of features, nor his languorous, effeminante distinction.  They smile easily.  They are happy, cheerful, and amiable.

In the broad water of the moat the rosy wall and the thick foliage of trees and the Burmese in their bright clothes are sharply reflected.  The water is still but not stagnant, and peace rests upon it like a swan with a golden crown.  Its colours, in the early morning and towards sunset, have the soft fatigued tenderness of pastel; they have the translucency, without the stubborn definiteness, of oils.  It is as though light were a prestidgitaor and in play laid on colours that he had just created and were about with a careless hand to wash them out again.  You hold your breath, for you cannot believe that such an effect can be anything but evanescent.  You watch it with the same expectancy with which you read a poem in some complicated metre when your ear awaits the long delayed rhyme that will fulfill the harmony.  But at sunset, when the clouds in the west are red and splendid so that the wall, the trees, and the moat are drenched in radiance, and at the night under the full moon with the white gateways drip with silver and the belvederes above them are shot with silhouetted glimpses of the sky, the assault on your senses is shattering.  You try to guard yourself by saying it is not real.  This is not a beauty that steals upon you unawares, that flatters and soothes your bruised spirit: this is not a beauty that you can hold in your hand  and call your own and put in its place among familiar beauties that you know: it is a beauty that batters you and stuns you and leaves you breathless; there is no calmness in it nor control; it is like a fire that on a sudden consumes you, and you are left shaken and bare and yet by a strange miracle alive.

chapter 7 pg 30-32

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