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CobraThe Infant - July 1910 Meerut India

One of mum’s favourite stories was about an experience she was too young to remember, but one her mother often related to her as she grew up. It has now been passed down through four generations and is as fascinating today as it must have been all those years ago.

The temperature had risen to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, as the Mason’s were entertaining one July afternoon.

The punkawallas worked tirelessly to circulate the stifling air in the spacious, sparsely furnished room, but barely managed to create a draft. The rhythmic thrusting up and down of the bamboo fans could only just be heard against the backdrop of deep male voices, female chit chat and the delicate clink of finely cut glasses.

A motionless bundle lay on a rug at the opening to the veranda. The sleeping infant lay so still that you could easily have been forgiven for not noticing her.

Across the room, hot, sticky bodies mingled as food and drink flowed freely.

‘Well done Nell’ boomed a commanding voice that belonged to one of the Mason’s military friends.

‘You’ve provided Bert with a beautiful daughter, just need sons now old girl.

‘Good Lord, not so soon Arthur,’ interrupted the decorative woman supporting herself on his bronzed, hairy arm. ‘She’s only a baby herself, just nineteen.

Come Nell,’ she said, ‘Let’s go and look at your delightful offspring. She looks so adorable, sleeping peacefully on her blanket’

Nell gave her most radiant smile; her head held high, her chest stuck out, but as she turned towards her baby, she froze. She flung her hand over her mouth, stifling a scream; panicking, unsure what to do next. Her extreme actions automatically brought a swift standstill to the dozen or so guests.

All eyes reflected fear, the horror of what was to come. A thin elongated creature with a scaly brownish olive body slithered across the room towards the spot where Beatrice slept. Every now and then, it thrust its head from side to side, its beady eyes challenging anyone to cross it. All were aware that any slight movement could excite this reptile, an adult cobra of almost six feet in length; the white spectacles on the back of its hood waiting to rear up and inflate, ready to deposit its venomous milk in that soft, white baby flesh.

Silent prayers were on everyone’s lips.

Then as quickly as the silence had descended on the party, the snake slithered right across the sleeping infant and out through the veranda. In seconds, which no doubt had seemed like a lifetime, it disappeared onto the undergrowth surrounding the house.

Beatrice hadn’t moved a fraction and this no doubt saved her life.

Normality swiftly descended upon the room. So great was the relief, that the women slipped nervously back to their baby talk and the men continued to argue strategies for their next tiger shoot.

Did my Nana then protectively swoop up her firstborn daughter in her arms, or was the ayah summoned to remove her to somewhere safe while the party continued?

I have no idea, said Mum when asked. I do remember though, that an ayah ((in India) a native nursemaid who looks after children) told me that the incident was a lucky omen and that I would have a long and healthy life she recalled.

As I grew older, I often wondered why the weight and movement of a heavy reptile slithering across the baby did not cause the involuntary movement of a single limb.

But another of Mum’s stories possibly throws some light on this mystery even though she never appeared to link the two incidents together herself. She was now about six months old and again Mum’s ayah at that time was involved.

September 1910

Ellen sat contentedly breastfeeding her sleeping daughter in the presence of a maternal aunt who was making one of her regular visits.

‘Nell, I’ve been watching you for some time now,’ the aunt said tentatively. ‘You really should get Dr. Dyer to have a look at Beatrice. She is far too quiet for a baby of her age.’

Ellen bristled, her dark eyes flashing wildly.

‘Why should I? There’s absolutely nothing the matter with her. I’m very lucky. She is just a contented quiet baby. She certainly does not need a doctor. Good lord, even the ayah who tends her says she has never known such a beautifully calm infant.’

Whether it was following this first discussion or some time later, Mum didn’t know, but Dr Dyer did eventually examine her. He manipulated her tiny limbs, probed her mouth and carefully studied her eyes.

His next words caused Ellen’s legs to buckle under her. Her nursing chair came to her rescue as she flopped onto its welcoming cushion.

‘Nell, at the moment you have a beautiful, healthy baby but you must sack your ayah immediately.’

‘Why?’ she nervously asked, sensing something terrible was about to be revealed.

‘Beatrice is being drugged, hence your Aunt’s concern. The ayah is putting small quantities of opium under the nail of her index finger and then allowing the baby to suckle on the opium. These servants will do anything for a quiet life. It’s not the first time I’ve seen this happen.’

Ellen stifled a sob. She knew she must remain calm. Barely twenty years old, she knew she was about three months pregnant with her second child and had yet to confirm it with this doctor.

She was aware she had no option other than to sack the ayah, even though she had grown quite fond of the girl. It would mean that not only would the ayah have great difficulty obtaining further employment in the close knit military community, but she would also bring great shame to her family. Ellen was not looking forward to this task, but nevertheless obeyed the doctor’s instructions.

No wonder the baby had lain so still when the cobra had made its move two months earlier.

So the ayah who had almost turned our mother into a junkie was also probably responsible for saving her life.

The Ayah’s prediction came true and mum died at eighty eight after a long and comparatively healthy life.

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The Story of Beatrice Mary Mason. Written by F. J. Louis | Copyright © 2009