W. A. FRASER
AUTHOR OF "RED MEEKINS," "BULLDOG CARNEY," "THE THREE SAPPHIRES," "THE LONE FURROW," "THOROUGHBREDS," ETC.
GEORGE H. DORAN COMPANY
BY GEORGE H. DORAN COMPANY
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
The three Mahrattas, Sindhia, Holkar, and Bhonsla, were plotting the overthrow of the British, and the Peshwa was looking out of brooding eyes upon Hodson, the Resident at Poona.
Up on the hill, in the temple of Parvati, the priests repeated prayers to the black goddess calling for the destruction of the hated whites.
Each one of the twenty-four priests as he came with a handful of marigolds laid them one by one at the feet of the four-armed hideous idol, repeating: "Om, Parvati! Om, Parvati!" the comprehensive, all-embracing "Om" that meant adoration and a clamour for favour. Even to Nandi, the brass bull that carried Shiva, he appealed, "Om Shiva!"
But down on the rock-plateau, where gleamed in the hot sun marble palaces, a more malign influence was at work. Dandhu Panth, the adopted son of the Peshwa, had come back from Oxford, and the English believed he had been changed into an Englishman, Nana Sahib.
Outwardly he was a sporting, well-dressed gentleman, such as Oxford turns out; but in his heart was lust of power, and hatred of the white race that he felt would make his inheritance, the Peshwaship, but a vassalage. His dreams of ruling India would fade, and he would sit a pensioner of the British. The Mahrattas had been stigmatised by a captious Mogul ruler, "mountain rats." As Hindus there was a sharp cleavage of character; the Brahmins, fanatical, high up in the caste scale, and all the rest of the breed inferior, vicious, blood-thirsty, a horde of pirates. Even the man who first made them a power, Sivaji, had been of questionable lineage, a plebeian; and so the body corporate was of inflammable material—little restraint of breeding.
And for all Nana Sahib's veneer of English class, mental development, beneath the English shirt he wore the junwa, the three-strand sacred thread, insignia of the twice-born,—the Brahmin.
From Governor General to the British officers who played polo with the Peshwa's son, they all accepted him as one of themselves; considered it good diplomacy that he had been sent to Oxford and made over.
There was just one man who had misgivings, the Resident at Poona. He was a small, tired, worn-out official—an executive, a perpetual wheel in the works, always close to the red-tape-tied papers, always. Strange that one not a dreamer, no sixth-sense, should have attained to an intuition—which it was, his distrust of the cheery, sporty Nana Sahib. That Hodson's superiors intimated that India was getting to his liver when he wrote, very cautiously, of this obsession, made no difference; and clinging to his distrust, he achieved something.
After all it was rather strange that the matter had not been taken out of his hands, but it wasn't. A sort of departmental formula running; "Commissioner So-and-So has the matter in hand—refer to him." And so, when a new danger appeared on the distressed horizon, Amir Khan and a hundred thousand massed horsemen, Captain Barlow was sent to consult with the Resident. That was the way; a secretive, trusty, brave man, for in India the written page is never inviolate.
Captain Barlow was sent—ostensibly as an assistant to the Resident, in reality to acquire full knowledge of the situation, and then go to the camp of Amir Khan with the delicate mission of persuading him not to join his riding spear-men to the Mahratta force, but to form an alliance with the British.
The Resident had asked for Barlow. He had explained that any show of interest, two men, or five, or twenty, an envoy, even men of pronounced position, would defeat their object; in fact, believing Nana Sahib to be what he was, he conceived the very simple idea of playing the Oriental's Orientalism against him.
Barlow would be the last man in India to whom one as suspicious as the Peshwa's son would attribute a subtlety deep enough for a serious mission. He was a great handsome boy; in his physical excellence he was beautiful; courage was manifest in the strong content of his deep brown eyes. Incidentally that was one of the reasons the Resident had asked for him, though he would have denied it, even to his daughter, Elizabeth, though it was for her sake—that part of it.
The affair with Elizabeth had been going on for two or three years; never quite settled—always hovering.
Indeed the Resident's daughter was not constituted to raise a cyclone of passion, a tempest of feeling that brings an impetuous declaration of love from any man. She was altogether proper; well-bred; admirable; perhaps somewhat of the type so opposite to Barlow's impressionable nature that ultimately, all in good time, they would realise that the scheme of creation had marked them for each other. And Colonel Hodson almost prayed for this. It was desirable in every way. Barlow was of a splendid family; some day he might become Lord Barradean.
Anyway Captain Barlow was there playing polo with Nana Sahib—one of the Prince's favourites; and waiting for a certain paper that would be sent to the Resident that would contain offers of an alliance with the Pindari Chief.
And this same hovering menace of the Pindari force was causing Nana Sahib unrest. Perhaps there had been a leak, as cautiously as the Resident had made every move. If the Pindari army were to join the British, ready at a moment's notice to fall on the flank of the Mahrattas, harass them with guerilla warfare, it would be serious; they were as elusive as a huge pack of wolves; unencumbered by camp followers, artillery, foraging as they went, swooping like birds of prey, they were a terrible enemy. Even as the tiger slinks in dread from a pack of the red wild-dogs, so a regular force might well dread these flying horsemen.
And it was Amir Khan that Nana Sahib, and the renegade French commander, Jean Baptiste, dreaded and distrusted. Overtures had been made to him without result. He was a wonderful leader. He had made the name of the Pindari feared throughout India. He was the magnet that held this huge body of fighting devils together.
Thus with the gigantic chess-board set; the possession of India trembling in the balance; intellects of the highest development pondering; Fate held the trump card, curiously, a girl; and not one of the players had ever heard her name, the Gulab Begum.
The white sand plain surrounding Chunda was dotted with the tents of the Mahratta force Sirdar Baptiste commanded. And the Sirdar, his soul athirst for a go at the English, whom he hated with the same rabid ferocity that possessed the soul of Nana Sahib, was busy. From Pondicherry he had inveigled French gunners; and from Goa, Portuguese. Also these renegade whites were skilled in drill. If Holkar and Bhonsla did their part it would be Armageddon when the hell that was brewing burst.
But Baptiste feared the Pindari. As he swung here and there on his Arab the horse's hoofs seemed to pound from the resonant sands the words "Amir Khan—Amir Khan! Pin-dar-is, Pin-dar-is!"
It was as he discussed this very thing with his Minister, Dewan Sewlal, that Nana Sahib swirled up the gravelled drive to the bungalow on his golden-chestnut Arab, in his mind an inspiration gleaned from something that had been.
His greeting of the two was light, sporty; his thin well-chiselled face carried the bright indifferent vivacity of a fox terrier.
"Good day, Sirdar," he cried gaily; and, "How listen the gods to your prayers, my dear Dewani?"
Baptiste, out of the fulness of his heart soon broached the troublous thing: "Prince," he begged, "obtain from the worthy Peshwa a command and I'll march against this wolf, Amir Khan, and remove from our path the threatened danger."
Nana Sahib laughed; his white, even teeth were dazzling as the black-moustached lip lifted.
"Sirdar, when I send two Rampore hounds from my kennel to make the kill of a tiger you may tackle Amir Khan. Even if we could crumple up this blighter it's not cricket—we need those Pindari chaps—but not as dead men. Besides, I detest bloodshed."
The Dewan rolled his bulbous eyes despairingly: "If Sindhia would send ten camel loads of gold to this accursed Musselman, we could sleep in peace," he declared.
"If it were a woman Sindhia would," Nana Sahib sneered.
"It is a wisdom, Prince, for that is where the revenue goes: women are a curse in the affairs of men," the Dewan commented.
"With four wives your opinion carries weight, Dewani," and Nana Sahib tapped the fat knee of the Minister with his riding whip.
Baptiste turned to the Prince. "There will be trouble over these Pindaris; your friends, the English—eh, Nana Sahib—"
As though the handsome aquiline face of the Peshwa's son had been struck with a glove it changed to the face of a devil; the lips thinned, and shrinking, left the strong white teeth bare in a wolf's snarl. Under the black eyebrows the eyes gleamed like fire-lit amber; the thin-chiselled nostrils spread and through them the palpitating breath rasped a whistling note of suppressed passion.
"Sirdar," he said, "never call me Nana Sahib again. The English call me that, but I wait—must wait; I smile and suffer. I am Dandhu Panth, a Brahmin. The English so loved me that they tried to make an Englishman of me, but, by Brahm! they taught me hate, which is their lot till the sea swallows the last of the accursed breed and Mahrattaland is free!"
Nana Sahib was panting with the intensity of his passion. He paced the floor flicking at his brown boots with his whip, and presently whirled to say with a sneering smile on his thin lips:
"The English can teach a man just one thing—to die for his ideals."
"Yes, Prince, of a certainty the Englishman knows how to die for his country," Baptiste agreed in a soldier's tribute to courage.
"And for another nation's country," Nana Sahib rasped. "He is a born pirate, a bred pirate—we in India know that; and that, General, is why I am a Brahmin, because they alone will free Mahrattaland—faith, ideals. Forms! the gods to me are not more than show-pieces. That Kali spreads the cholera is one with the idea that the little red-daubed stone Linga gets the woman a male child, false; these things are in ourselves, and in Brahm. The priests sacrifice to Shiva, but I will sacrifice to Mahrattaland, which to me is the supreme God."
Jean Baptiste looked out of his wise grey eyes into the handsome face and felt a thrill, an awakening, the terrible sincerity of the speaker. At times the ferocity in the eyes when he had spoken of sacrifice caused the free-lance soldier to shiver. A blur of red floated before his eyes—something of a fateful forecasting that some day the awful storm that was brewing would break, and the fanatical Brahmin in front of him would call for English blood to glut his hate. It was the more appalling that Nana Sahib was so young. Closing his eyes Baptiste heard the voice of an English Oxonian that perhaps should be chortling of polo and cricket and racing; and yet the more danger—the youthfulness of the agent of destruction; like a Napoleon—a corporal as a boy. "C'est la guerre!" the French officer murmured.
Then, as a storm passing is often followed by smiling sunshine, so the mood of Nana Sahib changed. He had the volatile temperament of a Latin, and now he turned to the Minister, his face having undergone a complete metamorphosis: "Dewani," he said, "do you remember when a certain raja sent his Prime Minister and twenty thousand men to punish Pertab for not paying his taxes, and Pertab gave one Bhart, a Bagree, ten thousand rupees and a village to bring him the Minister's head—which he did, tied to the inside of his brass-studded shield?"
"Yes, Prince; that is a way of this land."
Nana Sahib drew forth a gold cigarette case, lighted a cigarette from a fireball that stood in a brass cup, and gazed quizzically at the Dewan. There was a little hush. This story had set Jean Baptiste's nerves tingling; there was something behind it.
The Dewan half guessed what was in the air, but he blinked his big eyes solemnly, and reaching for a small lacquer box took from it a Ran leaf, with a finger smeared some ground lime on it, and wrapping the leaf around a piece of betel-nut popped it into his capacious mouth.
"These Bagrees are in the protection of Rajas, Karowlee, are they not?" Nana Sahib asked.
"Yes, Prince; even some of Bhart's relatives are there—one Ajeet Singh; he's a celebrated leader of these decoits."
"And Sindhia took from Karowlee some territory, didn't he?"
"Yes; Karowlee refused to pay the taxes."
"I should think the Raja would like to have it back."
"No doubt, Prince."
Nana Sahib, holding the cigarette to his lips between two fingers gazed mockingly at the large-paunched Brahmin. Then he said; "I see the illuminating light of understanding in your eyes, Dewani—a subtle comprehension. Small wonder that you are Minister to the delightful Sindhia. If you are making any promises to Karowlee, I should make them in the name of Sindhia—through Sirdar Baptiste, of course. And, Dewani, this restless cuss, Amir Khan, might make a treaty with the English any time. The dear fish-eyed Resident has been particularly active—my spies can hardly keep up with him. I shouldn't lose any time—Ajeet Singh sounds promising."
Nana Sahib drew a slim flat gold watch from his pocket. "I now must leave you two interesting gentlemen," he said, "for I am to play a few chuckers of polo with—particularly, Captain Barlow. He is jackal to the bloodless Resident. I really thought a couple of days ago that he would have to be sent home on sick leave. One of my officers rode him off the ball in a fierce drive for goal, and by some devilish mistake the post hadn't been sawed half-through, so when Barlow crashed into it it stood up. As he lay perfectly still after his cropper it looked as though Resident Hodson had lost his jackal. But Barlow is one of those whip-cord Englishmen that die of old age; he was in the saddle again in two days. Well, au revoir and salaam."
When the clattering scurry of Nana Sahib's Arab had died out Baptiste turned to the Dewan, saying:
"I will write the letter to Raja Karowlee, but you must sign it, Sirdar; also furnish a fast riding camel and a trusty officer," the Dewan answered simply.
"But Nana Sahib was nebulous—we may be made the goat of sacrifice."
"It is a wisdom, Sirdar; but, also, it is from the Prince an order; and my office is always one of blame when there are excuses to make—it is always that way. When a head is required the Dewan's is always offered."
In answer to the Dewan's request Raja Karowlee sent a force of two hundred Bagrees to Jean Baptiste's camp. Evidently the old Raja had run the official comb through his territories, for the decoit force was composed of a hundred men from Karowlee, under Ajeet Singh, and a hundred from Alwar, led by Sookdee.
The two leaders were commanded to obey Sirdar Baptiste implicitly; and Baptiste passed an order that they were to receive a thousand rupees a day for their maintenance.
In addition there was a fourth officer, Hunsa, who was a jamadar, a lieutenant, to Ajeet Singh. And if then and there the ugly head had been cut from his body, the things that happened would not have happened.
From the advent of the Bagrees, even on their way from Karowlee, Hunsa had been plotting evil. He was a man who would have shrivelled up, become atrophied, in an atmosphere of decency—he would have died.
Hunsa caused Sookdee to believe that he should have been the leader and not Ajeet Singh.
A document was written out by Dewan Sewlal promising that in the event of the decoits carrying out the mission they had come upon the estate would be restored to Raja Karowlee, and that he would be compelled to assign to the three decoit leaders villages within that territory in rent free tenure. The Dewan, with wide precaution, took care that the document was so worded that General Baptiste was the official promiser, putting in a clause that he, Sewlal, the Minister, would see that the General carried out these promises on behalf of Sindhia.
Baptiste set his lips in a sardonic smile when he read and signed the paper. However, he cared very little; no concern of his whether Karowlee attained to his lands or not—it would be a matter of the King disposes. Even that the Dewan stood in Baptiste's shadow in the affair was another something that only caused the Frenchman to remark sardonically:
"Dewani, the English sahibs have a delectable game of cards named poker in which there is an observance called passing the buck; when a player wishes to avoid the responsibility of a bet he passes the buck to the next man. Dewani, you have the subtlety of a good poker player and have passed the buck to me."
The Brahmin looked hurt. "Sirdar," he said, "you are the commander of matters of war, which this is. You stand here in the city of tents as Sindhia; I am but the man of accounts; it is well as it is. And now that we have signed the promise the decoits will also sign, then I will make them take the oath according to their patron goddess, Bhowanee. They are just without—I will have them in."
When the three jamadars had been summoned to the Dewan's presence, he said: "Here is the paper of promise as to the reward from Sindhia for the service you are to render. You will also sign here, making your seal or thumb print; then it will be required that you take the oath of service according to your own method and your gods."
Ajeet consulted a little apart with Sookdee and then coming forward said: "We Bagrees are an ancient people descended from the Rajputs, and we keep our word to our friends; therefore we will take the oath after the manner of Bhowanee, beneath the pipal tree. If Your Honour will give us but an hour we will take the oath."
A mile down the red road from the bungalow, looking like a huge beehive with its heavy enveloping roof of thatch, that was Jean Baptiste's head-quarters, was a particularly sacred pipal of huge growth. It was an extraordinary octopus-like tree, and most sacred, for perched in the embrace of its giant arms was a shrine that had been lifted from its base in the centuries of the tree's growth.
And now, an hour later, the pipal was surrounded by thousands of Mahratta sepoys, for word had gone forth,—the mysterious rumour of India that is like a weird static whispering to the four corners of the land a message,—had flashed through the tented city that the men from Karowlee were to take the oath of allegiance to Sindhia.
The fat Dewan had come down in a palki swung from the shoulders of stout bearers, while Jean Baptiste had ridden a silver-grey Arab.
And then just as a bleating, mottled white-and-black goat was led by a thong to the pipal, Nana Sahib came swirling down the road in a brake drawn by a spanking pair of bay Arabs with black points. Beside him sat the Resident's daughter, Elizabeth Hodson, and in the seat behind was Captain Barlow.
At the pipal Nana Sahib reined in the bays sharply, saying, "Hello, General, wanted to see you for a minute—called at the bungalow, and your servant said you had gone down this way. What's up?" he questioned after greetings had passed between Baptiste, Barlow and Elizabeth Hodson.
"Just some new recruits, scouts, taking the oath of service," and Baptiste closed an eye in a caution-giving wink.
A slight sneer curled the thin lips of Nana Sahib; he understood perfectly what Baptiste meant by the wink—that the Englishman being there, it would be as well to say little about the Bagrees. But the Prince had no very high opinion of Captain Barlow's perceptions, of his finer acuteness of mind; the thing would have to be very plainly exposed for the Captain to discover it. He was a good soldier, Captain Barlow—that happy mixture of brain and brawn and courage that had coloured so much of the world's map red, British; he was the terrier class—all pluck, with perhaps the pluck in excelsis—the brain-power not preponderant.
"Who is the handsome native—he looks like a Rajput?" Elizabeth asked, indicating the man who was evidently the leader among the others.
"That is Ajeet Singh, chief of these men," Baptiste answered.
"He is a handsome animal," Nana Sahib declared.
"He is like an Arab Apollo," Elizabeth commented; and her tone suggested that it was a whip-cut at the Prince's half-sneer.
The girl's description of Ajeet was trite. The Chief's face was almost perfect; the golden-bronze tint of the skin set forth in the enveloping background of a turban of blue shot with gold-thread draped down to cover a silky black beard that, parted at the chin, swept upward to loop over the ears. The nose was straight and thin; there was a predatory cast to it, perhaps suggested by the bold, black, almost fierce eyes. He was clothed with the full, rich, swaggering adornment of a Rajput; the splendid deep torso enclosed in a shirt-of-mail, its steel mesh so fine that it rippled like silver cloth; a red velvet vestment, negligently open, showed in the folds of a silk sash a jewel-hilted knife; a tulwar hung from his left shoulder. As he moved here and there, there was a sinuous grace, panther-like, as if he strode on soft pads. At rest his tall figure had the set-up of a soldier.
As the three in the brake studied the handsome Ajeet, a girl stepped forward and stood contemplating them.
"By Jove!" the exclamation had been Captain Barlow's; and Elizabeth, with the devilish premonition of an acute woman knew that it was a masculine's involuntary tribute to feminine attractivity.
She had turned to look at the Captain.
Nana Sahib, little less vibrant than a woman in his sensitive organisation, showed his even, white teeth: "Don't blame you, old chap," he said; "she's all that. I fancy that's the girl they call Gulab Begum. Am I right, Sirdar?"
"Yes, Prince," Jean Baptiste answered. "The girl is a relative of the handsome Ajeet."
"She's simply stunning!" Captain Barlow said, as it were, meditatively.
But Nana Sahib, knowing perfectly well what this observation would do to the austere, exact, dominating daughter of a precise man, the Resident, muttered to himself: "Colossal ass! an impressionable cuss should have a purdah hung over his soul—or be gagged."
"One of their nautch girls, I suppose;" Elizabeth thus eased some of the irritation over Barlow's admiration in a well-bred sneer.
"Yes," Baptiste declared; "it is said she dances wonderfully."
"You name her the Gulab Begum, General,—that is a Moslem title and, from the turbans and caste-marks on the men, they seem to be Hindus; I suppose Gulab Begum is her stage name, is it?"
Elizabeth was exhibiting unusual interest in a native—that is for Elizabeth, and Nana Sahib chuckled softly as he answered: "Names mean little in India; I know high-caste Brahmins who have given their children low-caste names to make them less an object of temptation to the gods of destruction. Also, the Gulab may have been stolen from the harem of some Nawab by this bandit."
The Gulab suggested more a Rajput princess than a dancing girl. No ring pierced the thin nostrils of her Grecian nose; neither from her ears hung circles of gold or brass, or silver; and the slim ankles that peeped from a rich skirt were guiltless of anklets. On the wrist of one arm was a curious gold bangle that must have held a large ruby, for at times the sun flicked from the moving wrist splashes of red wine. Indeed the whole atmosphere of the girl was simplicity and beauty.
"No wonder they call her the Rose Queen," Barlow was communing with himself. For the oval face with its olive skin, as fair as a Kashmiri girl's, was certainly beautiful. The black hair was smoothed back from a wide low forehead, after the habit of the Mahratti women; the prim simplicity of this seeming to add to the girlish effect. A small white-and-gold turban, even with its jauntiness, seemed just the very thing to check the austere simplicity. The girl's eyes, like Ajeet's, were the eyes of some one unafraid, of one born to a caste that felt equality. When they turned to those who sat in the brake they were calmly meditative; they were the eyes of a child, modest; but with the unabashed confidence of youth.
Elizabeth, perhaps unreasonably, for the three of them sat so close together in the brake, fancied that the Gulab's gaze constantly picked out the handsome Captain Barlow.
An imp touched Nana Sahib, and he said: "I'd swear there was Rajput blood in that girl. If I knew of some princess having been stolen I'd say she stood yonder. The eyes are simply ripping; baby eyes, that, when roused, assist in driving a knife under a man's fifth rib. I've seen a sambhur doe with just such eyes cut into ribbons a Rampore hound with her sharp hoofs."
"Well, Prince," Elizabeth said, "I suppose you know the women of this land better than either Captain Barlow or myself, and you're probably right, for I see in a belt at her waist the jewelled hilt of a dagger."
Nana Sahib laughed: "My dear Miss Hodson, I never play with edged tools, and Captain—"
But Nana Sahib's raillery was cut short by a small turmoil as the bleating goat of sacrifice was dragged forward to a stone daubed with vermillion upon which rested a small black alabaster image of Kali; while a guru, with sharpened knife, hung near like a falcon over a quivering bird. Three times the goat's head was thrust downward in obeisance to the black goddess; there was a flash of steel in the sunlight, and hot blood gushed forth, to dye with its crimson flood the base of the idol.
A Bagree darted forward and with a stroke of his tulwar clipped the neck from a pitcher and held it beneath the gurgling flood till it was filled.
From where Elizabeth sat she looked across the shoulder of Nana Sahib as they watched the sacrifice; she saw him quiver and lean forward, his shoulders tip as though he would spring from the brake. His face had drawn into hard lines, his lips were set tight in intensity across the teeth so that they showed between in a thin line of white. The blood seemed to have fascinated him; he was oblivious of her presence. She heard him murmur, "Parvati, Parvati! There is blood, blood—wait, thou, Parvati."
The bay Arabs—perhaps their sensitive nostrils drank in the smell of fresh blood—sprang into their collars as if they would bolt in fright. The two syces, squatting on their heels at the horses' heads, had sprung to their feet, and now were caressing the necks of the Arabs as they held them each with a hand by the bit.
There was a curious look in the Prince's eyes as he turned them on Elizabeth; a mingling of questioning and defiance was in them.
Now the holder of the pitcher stood up and the guru drew upon it four red lines and dropped through its shattered mouth a woman's bracelet of gold lacquer beads. Then the pitcher was placed upon the Kali shrine; raw sugar was inclosed in a cloth and tied to a branch of the pipal.
The voice of the Bagree Chief, somewhat coarse in its fulness, its independence, now was heard saying: "Sirdar Sahib, and Dewan Sahib, we men of the nine castes of the Bagrees now make the sacred oath. Come close that ye may observe."
Jean Baptiste edged his horse to the side of the road, and the Dewan, heaving from the palki, stood upright.
Ajeet dipped a tapering finger in the pitcher of blood, touched the swaying bag of sugar, and laying the hand against his forehead said, in a loud voice:
"If I, Ajeet Singh, break faith with Maharaja Sindhia, may Bhowanee punish me!"
Sookdee and Hunsa each in turn took the same solemn oath of allegiance.
As Hunsa turned from the ordeal and passed the Gulab Begum to where the Bagrees stood in line, Nana Sahib said, "Do you know, General, what that baboon-faced jamadar made oath to?"
"The last one, my Prince?"
"Yes, he of the splendid ugliness. He testified, 'If I fail to thrust a knife between the shoulder-blades of Ajeet Singh may Bhowanee cast me as a sacrifice.'"
"He is jamadar to the other, Prince—but why?"
"He looked upon the Rose Lady as he passed, and as the blooded finger lay upon his forehead he looked upon Ajeet, and in his pig eyes was unholiness."
The cold grey eyes of the Frenchman rested for a second upon the burning black eyes of the speaker, and again he shivered. He knew that the careless words meant that Hunsa was an instrument, if needs be. But the Prince's teeth were gleaming in a smile. And he was saying: "If the play is over, Sirdar, turn your mount over to the syce and pop up here beside Captain Barlow—I'll tool you home. The Captain might like a peg."
The bay Arabs swirled the brake along the smooth roadway that lay like a wide band of coral between giant green walls of gold-mohr and tamarind; and sometimes a pipal, its white bole and branches gleaming like the bones of a skeleton through leaves of the deepest emerald, and its roots daubed with the red paint of devotion to the tree god. Here and there a neem, its delicate branches dusted with tiny white star blossoms, cast a sensuous elusive perfume to the vagrant breeze. Once a gigantic jamon stretched its gnarled arms across the roadway as if a devilfish held poised his tentacles to snatch from the brake its occupants.
When they had swung in to the Sirdar's bungalow and clambered down from the brake, Elizabeth said: "If you don't mind, General Baptiste, I'll just drift around amongst these beautiful roses while you men have your pegs. No, I don't care for tea," she said, in answer to his suggestion. There was a mirthless smile on her lips as she added: "I'm like Captain Barlow, I like the rose."
The three men sat on the verandah while a servant brought brandy-and-soda, and Nana Sahib, with a restless perversity akin to the torturing proclivity of a Hindu was quizzing the Frenchman about his recruits.
"You'll find them no good," he assured Baptiste—"rebellious cusses, worthless thieves. My Moslem friend, the King of Oudh, tried them out. He got up a regiment of them—Budhuks, Bagrees—all sorts; it was named the Wolf Regiment—that was the only clever thing about it, the name. They stripped the uniforms from the backs of the officers sent to drill them and kicked them out of camp; said the officers put on swank; wouldn't clean their own horses and weapons, same as the other men."
Then he switched the torture—made it more acute; wanted to know what Sirdar Baptiste had got them for.
The Frenchman fumed inwardly. Nana Sahib was at the bottom of the whole murderous scheme, and here, like holding a match over a keg of powder, he must talk about it in front of the Englishman.
When the brandy was brought Nana Sahib put hand over the top of his glass.
"Not drinking, Prince?" Barlow asked.
"No," Nana Sahib answered, "a Brahmin must diet; holiness is fostered by a shrivelled skin."
"But pardon me, Prince," Barlow said hesitatingly, "didn't going across the black-water to England break your caste anyway—so why cut out the peg?"
"Yes, Captain Sahib,"—the Prince's voice rasped with a peculiar harsh gravity as though it were drawn over the jagged edge of intense feeling,—"my caste was broken, and to get it back I drank the dregs; a cup of liquid from the cow, and not milk either!"
Baptiste coughed uneasily for he saw in the eyes of Nana Sahib smouldering passion.
And Barlow's face was suffused with a sudden flush of embarrassment.
Perhaps it had been the sight of the blood sacrifice that had started Nana Sahib on a line of bitter thought; had stirred the smothering hate that was in his soul until frothing bubbles of it mounted to his lips.
"I was born in the shadow of Parvati," Nana Sahib said, "and when I came back from England I found that still I was a Brahmin; that the songs of the Bhagavad Gita and the philosophy of the Puranas was more to me than what I had been taught at Oxford. So I took back the caste, and under my shirt is the junwa (sacred thread)."
A quick smile lighted his face, and he laid a hand on Barlow's arm, saying in a new voice, a voice that was as if some one spoke through his lips in ventriloquism: "And all this, Captain, is a good thing for my friends the English. The Brahmins, as you know, sway the Mahrattas, and if I am of them they will listen to me. The English boast—and they have reason to—that they have made a friend of Nana Sahib. Here, Baptiste, pour me a glass of plain soda, and we'll drink a toast to Nana Sahib and the English."
"By Jove! splendid!" and Captain Barlow held out a hand.
But Baptiste, saying that he would find Miss Hodson, went out into the sunshine cursing.
"Now we will go back," Nana Sahib was saying as the French General brought Elizabeth from among the oleanders and crotons.
The day after the Bagrees had taken the oath of allegiance to Sindhia the jamadars were summoned to the Dewan's office to receive their instructions for the carrying out of the mission.
In writing the Raja of Karowlee for the decoits, Dewan Sewlal had not stated that the mission was for the purpose of bringing home in a bag the head of the Pindar Chief. As the wily Hindu had said to Sirdar Baptiste: "We will get them here before speaking of this dangerous errand. Once here, and Karowlee's hopes raised over getting territory, if they then go back without accomplishing the task, that rapacious old man will cast them into prison."
So when the Bagree leaders, closeted with Baptiste and the Dewan in a room of the latter's bungalow, learned what was expected of them they, to put it mildly, received a shock. They had thought that it was to be a decoity of treasure, perhaps of British treasure, and in their proficient hands such an affair did not run into much danger generally.
The jamadars drew to one side and discussed the matter; then Ajeet said: "Dewan Sahib, what is asked of us should have been in the written message to our Raja. We be decoits, that is true, it is our profession, but the mission that is spoken of is not thus. Hunsa has ridden with Amir Khan upon a foray into Hyderabad, and he knows that the Chief is always well guarded, and that to try for his head in the midst of his troops would be like the folly of children."
The Dewan's fat neck swelled with indignation; his big ox-like eyes bulged from their holding in anger:
"Phut-t-t!" he spat in derision. "Bagrees!" he sneered; "descendants of Rajputs—bah! Have you brought women with you that will lead this force? And danger!" he snarled—he turned on Sookdee: "You are Sookdee, son of Bhart, so it was signed."
"Yes, Dewan, it is true."
"You are the son of your mother, not Bhart," the Dewan raved; "he was a brave man, but you speak of danger—bah!"
The Dewan's teeth, stained red at the edges from the chewing of pan, showed in a sneering grin like a hyena's as he added: "Bah! Ye are but thieves who steal from those who are helpless."
Ajeet spoke: "Dewan Sahib, we be men as brave as Bhart—we are of the same caste, but there is a difference between such an one as he took the head of and a Pindari Chief. The Pindaris are the wild dogs of Hind, they are wolves, and is it easy to trap a wolf?"
But the Dewan had worked himself into a frenzy at their questioning of the possibilities; he waved his fat hands in a gesture of dismissal crying: "Go, go!"
As the jamadars stood hesitatingly, Sewlal swung to the Frenchman: "Sirdar Sahib, make the order that I cease payment of the thousand rupees a day to these rebels, cowards. Go!" and he looked at Ajeet; "talk it over amongst yourselves, and send to me one of your wives that will lead a company—lend your women your tulwars."
Ajeet's black eyes flashed anger, and his brows were drawn into a knot just above his thin, hawk-like nose; suppressed passion at the Dewan's deadly insult was in the even, snarling tone of his voice:
"Dewan Sahib, harsh words are profitless—" his eyes, glittering, were fixed on the bulbous orbs of the man of the quill—"and the talk of women in the affairs of men is not in keeping with caste. If you pass the order that we are not to have rations now that we are far from home, what are we to do? Think you that Raja Karowlee—"
"Do! do! if you serve not Sindhia what care I what you do. Go back to your honourable trade of thieving. And as to Raja Karowlee, a man who keeps a colony of cowards—what care I for him. Go, go!"
The jamadars with glowering eyes turned from the Dewan, even the harsh salaam they uttered in going sounded like a curse.
And when they had gone, Baptiste was startled by a gurgling laugh bubbling up from the Dewan's fat throat.
"Sirdar," he chuckled, "I've given that posing Rajput a poem to commit to memory. Ha-ha! They have two strong reasons now for going—their shame and lean stomachs."
"They won't go," Baptiste declared. "When a man is afraid of anything he can find a thousand reasons for not making the endeavour. If Sindhia will give me the troops I will make an end of Amir Khan."
"And make enemies of the Pindaris: that we do not want; we want them to fight with us, not against us. The great struggle is about to take place; Holkar and Bhonsla and Sindhia, perhaps even the King of Oudh, leagued together, the accursed English will be driven from India. But even now they are trying to win over Amir Khan and his hundred thousand horsemen by promises of territory and gold. With the Chief out of the way they would disband; he is a great leader, and they flock to his flag. You saw the Englishman, Captain Barlow?"
"Yes, Dewani. Good soldier, I should say."
"Well, Sirdar, we think that he waits here to undertake some mission to Amir Khan. You see, no office can be conducted without clerks, and sometimes clerks talk."
The Frenchman twisted nervously at his slim grey moustache. "I comprehend, Dewani," he said presently; "it is expedient that Amir Khan be eliminated."
"It would be a merciful thing," Sewlal added—"it would save bloodshed."
"Well, Dewani, I must depart now. It will be interesting to see what your Bagrees do, especially when they become hungry."
For two days the Bagrees sat nursing their wrath at the reproaches of Dewan Sewlal.
And the Dewan, in spite of his bold denunciation of the decoits, was uneasy. If they went back to Karowlee with a story of ill treatment, of broken promises, that hot-headed old Rajput would turn against Sindhia. And the present policy of the Mahratta Confederacy was to secure allies in the revolt against the British which was being secretly planned. The Dewan was also afraid of Nana Sahib. He saw in that young man a coming force. The Peshwa was actually the ruler of Mahrattaland; he had a commanding influence because he was the head of the Brahmins—the Brahmins were the real power—and his adopted son, his inborn subtle nature developed by his residence in England, now had great influence over him. The Dewan knew that; and if he failed to carry out this mission of removing the dangerous one from Nana Sahib's path it might cost him his place as Minister.
In his perplexity the Dewan asked Baptiste to formulate some excuse for getting Nana Sahib up to Chunda—some matter affecting the troops, so that he might casually get a sustaining suggestion from the wily Prince.
It so happened that when Nana Sahib swung up the gravelled drive to the Sirdar's bungalow on a golden chestnut Arab, Sewlal was there. But when, presently, Baptiste's durwan came in to say that Jamadar Hunsa of the new troops was sending his salaams to the Dewan, the latter gasped. He would have told the Bagree to wait, but Nana Sahib, catching the name Hunsa, commanded:
"By all means, my dear Baptiste, have that living embodiment of murder in. His face is a delight. You know"—and he smiled at the General—"that that frightfulness of expression is the very reason why the genial Kali has such a hold upon our people. You've seen her, Baptiste; four arms, one holding a platter to catch the blood that drips from a head she suspends above it by another arm; the third hand clasps a sword, and the fourth has the palm spread out as much as to say, 'That is what will happen to you.'"
The Frenchman shivered. He was snapping a finger and thumb in mental torture.
But Nana Sahib chuckled: "Her tongue protrudes thirsting for more blood—"
But the Sirdar protested: "Prince—pardon, but—"
"My dear Baptiste, when the Hunsa comes in observe if these things are not all stamped by Brahm on his frontispiece; he fascinates me."
The Dewan, devout Brahmin, had been running his fingers along a string of lacquered beads that hung about his neck, muttering a prayer against this that was like sacrilege.
When the jamadar was shown into the room his face took on a look of uneasiness. It but added to the ferocity of the square scowling massive head. His huge shoulders, stooped forward as he salaamed, suggested the half-crouch of a tiger—even the eyes, the mouth, induced thoughts of that jungle killer.
Nana Sahib, a sneer on his lips, turned to the Minister: "Play him, Dewani, as you love us. There is some rare deviltry afloat."
"Why have you come, Jamadar?" the Dewan asked.
Hunsa's pig eyes shifted from Sewlal's face to roam over the other two, and then returned a question in them.
"Tell him," Nana Sahib suggested, "that he has nothing to fear from us."
The jamadar was troubled by the English exchange, but the Dewan explained: "The Prince says you are to speak what is on your mind."
"It is this, Sahib Bahadur," Hunsa began, "there is a way that the head of Amir Khan might be obtained as a gift for Maharaja Sindhia. Then Raja Karowlee would be pleased for he would receive his commission and we would be given a reward."
"What is the way?" Sewlal queried.
"The Chief of the Pindaris, after the habit of Moslems, is one whose heart softens toward a woman who is beautiful and is pleasing to his eye."
"Ancient history," Nana Sahib commented in English, "and not confined to Musselmen."
"Speak on," the Dewan commanded curtly.
"When I rode with Amir Khan," Hunsa resumed, "in loot there fell to the Chief's share a dancing girl, and Amir Khan, perhaps out of respect to his two wives, would visit her at night quietly in the tent that was given her as a place of residing."
"Amir Khan seems to be less a Pindari and more a human than I thought him," Nana Sahib commented drily.
"The world is a very small place, Prince," Baptiste added.
"But why has Hunsa brought this tale to men of affairs?" Sewlal queried.
Hunsa cast a furtive look over his shoulder toward the verandah, and his coarse voice dropped a full octave. "The Presence has observed Bootea, the one called Gulab Begum, who is with Ajeet Singh?"
"Ah-ha!" It was Nana Sahib's exclamation.
"Yes," the Dewan answered drily.
"If a party of Bagrees were to go to the Pindari camp disguised as players and wrestlers, and the Gulab as a nautchni, Amir Khan might be enticed to her tent for she causes men to become drunk when she dances. Once she danced for Raja Karowlee, and, though he is old and fat and has more of wives than other possessions he became covetous of the girl. It is because of these things, that Ajeet keeps her within the length of his eye. Thus the Gulab would hold Amir Khan in her hand, and some night as he slept in her tent I would crawl neath the canvas and accomplish that which is desired."
"By Jove!" Nana Sahib exclaimed, "this jungle man has got the right idea. But if Ajeet goes on that trip he'll never come back—Hunsa will see to that."
Then the son of the Peshwa took a quick turn to the door and gazed out as if he had his Arab in mind—something wrong; but a sweet bit of deviltry had suddenly occurred to him. He had noticed the young Englishman's interest in Bootea; had known that the girl's eyes had shown admiration for the handsome sahib. A woman—by Jove! yes. If he could bring the two of them together; have the Gulab get Barlow sensually interested she might act as a spy, get Barlow to talk. No instrument like a woman for that purpose. Nana Sahib turned back to where the Dewan had been questioning Hunsa.
"That description of the Gulab as a nautch girl tickles my fancy, Dewani," he said. "Between ourselves I think the Resident's jackal, the impressionable young Captain, was rather taken with her. I'm giving a nautch this week, and the presence of Miss Gulab is desired—commanded."
Nana Sahib smiled sardonically. "You and Hunsa are planning to send her on a more difficult mission, so I have no doubt that this can be accomplished. The Ajeet should esteem it an honour."
The Dewan, also speaking in English, said, "I doubt if Ajeet would consent to the girl's going to the Pindari camp."
Nana Sahib swung on his heel to face Baptiste. "Sirdar, when you give an order to a soldier and he refuses to obey, what do you do?"
"Pouf, mon Prince," and Jean Baptiste snapped a thumb and finger expressively.
"See, Dewani?" Nana Sahib queried; "I like Hunsa's idea; and you've heard what the Commandant says."
The Dewan turned to the Bagree, "Will Ajeet consent to the Gulab acting thus?"
Hunsa's answer was illuminating: "The Chief will agree to it if he can't help himself."
There was a lull, each one turning this momentous thing over in his mind.
It was the jamadar who broke the silence; somewhat at a tangent he said: "As to a decoity, Your Honour said that we being of that profession should undertake one."
The Dewan roared; the burden of his expostulation was the word liar.
But Nana Sahib laughed tolerantly. "Don't mind me, Dewani; fancy all the petty rajas and officials stand in with these decoits for a share of the loot—I don't blame you, old chap."
Hunsa, taking the accusation of being a liar as a pure matter of course, ignored it, and now was drooling along, wedded to the one big idea that was in his mind:
"If a decoity were made perhaps it might even happen that one was killed—"
"Lovely! the 'One' will be, and his name is Ajeet," Nana Sahib cried gleefully.
But Hunsa plodded steadily on. "In that case Ajeet as Chief would be in the hands of the Dewan; then it could be mentioned to him that the Gulab was desired for this mission."
"That might be," the Dewan said quietly. "I will demand that Ajeet takes the Gulab to help secure Amir Khan and if he refuses I will give them no rations so that he will go on the decoity."
"No, Dewan Sahib," Hunsa objected; "say nothing of the Gulab, because Ajeet will refuse, and then he will not go on a decoity, fearing a trap. If you will refuse the rations now, I will say that you have promised that we will not be taken up if we make a decoity; then Ajeet will agree, because it is our profession."
"I must go," Nana Sahib declared; "this Hunsa seems to have brains as well as ferocity." He continued in English: "If you do go through with this, Dewan, tell Hunsa if anything happens when they make the decoity—and if I'm any reader of what is in a man's heart, I think something will happen the Ajeet—tell Hunsa to bring the Gulab to me. I like his idea, and we can't afford to let the girl get away. Don't forget to arrange for the Gulab at my nautch."
When Nana Sahib had gone Baptiste diplomatically withdrew, saying in English to the Minister: "Dewan Sahib, possibly this simple child of the jungle would feel embarrassment in opening his heart fully before a sahib, so you will excuse me."
This elimination of individuals gave the Dewan a fine opportunity; promises made without witnesses were sure to be of a richer texture; also surely the word of a Dewan was of higher value than the word of a decoit if, at a future time, their evidences clashed.
Then Hunsa was entrusted with a private matter that filled his ugly soul with delight. He assured Sewlal Sookdee, if he were promised, as he had been, full protection, would join in the enmeshing of Ajeet Singh.
Sewlal pledged his word to the jamadar that no matter if an outcry were raised over a decoity they would be protected—the matter would be hushed up.
Hunsa knew that this was no new thing; he had been engaged in many a decoity where men of authority had a share of the loot, and had effectually side-tracked investigation. In fact decoits always lived in the protection of some petty raja; they were an adjunct to the state, a source of revenue.
The Dewan had intimated that Hunsa and his men were to wait until a messenger brought them word where and when to make the decoity. Also if he betrayed them, failed to keep his compact with them, it would cause him the loss of his ugly head.
The jamadar quite believed this; it would be an easy matter, surrounded as they were by Mahratta troops.
So then for the next few days Hunsa and Sookdee cautiously developed a spirit of desire for action amongst the decoits, and a feeling of resentment against Ajeet who was opposed to engaging in a punishable crime so far from their refuge.
The Dewan sent for Ajeet and explained to him, as if it were a very great honour, that Nana Sahib, having heard of Bootea's wonderful grace, had asked her to appear at a nautch he was giving to the Sahibs and Hindu princes at his palace. No doubt Bootea would receive a handsome present for this, also it would incline the heart of the Prince to the Bagrees.
Ajeet was suspicious, but to refuse permission he knew would anger the Dewan; and he was in the Minister's hands. His position was none too secure; there was treachery in his own camp. He asked for a day to consult Bootea over the matter; in reality he wanted to consider it more fully before giving an answer.
Of course Hunsa knew about it, and he told Sookdee; and when the matter came up in camp they professed indignation at Ajeet's stupidity in not appreciating the honour; dancers were only too glad to appear before such people as the Prince and the Resident at a palace dance, they explained.
Of course the matter of Bootea's mission to the Pindari Chief had not been conveyed to Ajeet as yet; and Hunsa felt that this affair of the nautch was a propitious thing—an inserting of the thin edge of the wedge.
Somewhat grudgingly Ajeet consented, for Bootea, strangely enough, was quite eager over it. As Nana Sahib had fancied the girl had taken an unexplainable liking for Captain Barlow. Of course that, the call, is rarely explainable on reasonable grounds—it is a matter of a higher dispensation; just two pairs of eyes settle the whole business; one look and the thing is done.
The Sahib would see her in a new light—in an appealing light. In her thoughts there was nothing of a serious intent; just that to look upon him, perhaps to see in his eyes a friendly pleasure, would be intoxication.
So Ajeet took her to the palace to dance, but, of course, he had to cool his heels without the durbar chamber—smoke the hooka and chat with other natives while the one of desire was within.
The girl had an exquisite sense of the beauty of simplicity—both in dress and manner, and in her art; it was as if a lotus flower had been animated—given life. Her dancing was a floaty rhythm, an undulating drifting to the soft call of the sitar; and her voice, when she sang the ghazal, the love-song, was soft, holding the compelling power of subdued passion—it thrilled Barlow with an emotion that, when she had finished, caused him to take himself to task. It was as if he had said, "By Jove! fancy I've had a bit too much of that champagne—better look out."
Nana Sahib and the Captain were sitting side by side, and the Gulab, when she had finished the song, had swept her sinuous lithe form back in a graceful curtsy in front of the two, and, as if by accident, a red rose had floated to the feet of Captain Barlow. Surely her soft, dark, languorous eyes had said: "For thee."
With a cynical smile Nana Sahib picked up the rose and presented it to Barlow saying: "My dear Captain, you receive the golden apple—beauty will out."
Barlow's fingers trembled with suppressed emotion as he took the flower and carefully slipped it into a buttonhole.
Elizabeth, who sat next him, saw this by-play, and her voice was cold as she commented: "Homage is a delightful thing, but it spoils children."
Nana Sahib leaned across Barlow: "My dear Miss Hodson, these dancers always play to the gods—it is their trade. But there is safety in caste—in varna, which is the old Brahmin name for caste, meaning colour. When the Aryans came down into Hind they were olive-skinned and the aborigines here were quite black, so, to draw the line, they created caste and called it varna, meaning that they of the light skin were of a higher order than the aborigines—which they were. A white skin is like a shirt-of-mail, it protects morally, socially, in India."
"Ultimately, no doubt, Prince. And, of course, a dance-girl is one of the fourth caste, practically an outcast—an 'untouchable,'" Elizabeth commented.
Barlow knew this as a devilish arraignment of himself, for he had felt a strong attraction. He said nothing; but he was aware of a feeling of repulsion toward Elizabeth; her harshness, on so slight a provocation, suggested vindictiveness—a narrow exaction.
Nana Sahib was filled with delight—his evil soul revelled in this discord. Then and there, if he could have managed it, he would have suggested to the Captain that he would arrange for the Gulab to meet him—might even have her sent to his bungalow. But he had the waiting subtlety of a tiger that crouches by a pool for hours waiting for a kill; so, somewhat reluctantly, he let the opportunity pass. While he considered Barlow to be an Englishman possessed of rather slow perception, he knew that the Captain had a quixotic sense of honour, and possibly such a proposal might destroy his influence.
And Bootea went back to the camp with Ajeet, suffused to silence by the strange thing that had happened, the strange infatuation—for it was that—that had so suddenly filled her heart for the handsome sahib whose soft, brave eyes had looked through hers into her very soul.
Nana Sahib had assumed a gracious manner toward Ajeet Singh when Bootea had been brought to the nautch. He had bestowed a handsome gift upon the Chief, ten gold mohrs; and for Bootea there had been the gift of a ruby, also ten gold mohrs.
This munificence,—for Hunsa and Sookdee declared it to be a rare extravagance,—was not so much as reward for Bootea's nautch as a desire on the part of the astute Prince to prepare for the greater service required.
The Dewan also was very gracious to Ajeet over his compliance; but, at the same time, declared that an order had been passed by Baptiste that if the Bagrees would not obey the command to go after Amir Khan he would not pay them a thousand rupees a day out of the treasury. He put all this very affably; raised his two fat hands toward heaven declaring that he was helpless in the matter—Baptiste was the commander, and he was but a dewan. With a curious furtive look in his ox-eyes he advised Ajeet to consult with Hunsa over a method of obtaining money for the decoits. He would not commit himself as to making a decoity, for when they had seized upon the Chief for the crime Ajeet could not then say that the Dewan had instigated it; there would be only Hunsa's word for this, and, of course, he would deny that the Minister was the father of the scheme.
And in the camp Hunsa and Sookdee were clamouring at Ajeet to undertake a decoity for they were all in need, and to be idle was not their way of life.
Hunsa went the length of telling Ajeet that the Dewan would even send them word where a decoity of much loot could be made and in a safe way, too, for the Dewan would take care that neither sepoys nor police would be in the way.
And then one day there came to the Bagree camp a mysterious message. A yogi, his hair matted with filth till it stood twisted and writhed on his head like the serpent tresses of Medusa, his lean skeleton ash-daubed body clothed in yellow, on his forehead the crescent of Eklinga, in his hand a pair of clanking iron tongs, crawled wearily to the tents where were the decoits, and bleared out of blood-shot blobs of faded brown at Ajeet Singh.
He had a message for the Chief from the god Bhyroo who galloped at night on a black horse, and the message had to do with the decoits, for if they were successful they could make offering to the priests at the temple of Bhowanee, for in her service decoity was an honourable occupation and of great antiquity.
Hunsa and Sookdee had come to sit on their heels, and as they listened they knew that the wily old Dewan had sent the yogi so that it could not be said that he, the Minister, had told them this thing.
A rich jewel merchant of Delhi was then at Poona on his way to the Nizam's court. He had a wealth of jewels—pearls the size of a bird's egg, emeralds the size of a betel nut, and diamonds that were like stars. This was true for the merchant had paid the duty as he passed the border into Mahrattaland.
Ajeet gave the yogi two rupees for food, though, viewing the animated skeleton, it seemed a touch of irony.
Then the jamadars considered the message so deeply wrapped in mysticism. Hunsa unhesitatingly declared that the yogi was a messenger from the Dewan, and if they did not take advantage of it they would perhaps have to fare forth on lean stomachs and in disgrace—perhaps would be beaten by the Mahratta sepoys—undoubtedly they would.
Sookdee backed up the jamadar.
"Very well," declared Ajeet, "we will go on this mission. But remember this, Hunsa, that if there is treachery, if we are cast into the hands of the Dewan, I swear by Bhowanee that I will have your life."
"Treachery!" It was the snarl of an enraged animal, and Hunsa sprang to his feet. He whirled, and facing Sookdee, said: "Let Bhowanee decide who is traitor—let Ajeet and me take the ordeal."
"That is but fair," Sookdee declared. "The ordeal of the heated cannon ball will surely burn the hand of the traitor if there is one," and he looked at Ajeet; and though suspicious that this was still another trap, Ajeet without cowardice could not decline.
"I will take the ordeal," he declared.
"We will take the ordeal to-night," Hunsa said; "and we should prepare with haste the method of the decoity, for the merchant may pass, and we must take the road in a proper disguise. There is the village to be decided upon where he will rest in his journey, and many things."
Even Ajeet was forced to acquiesce in this.
Boastfully Hunsa declared: "The ordeal will prove that I am thinking only of our success. This method of livelihood has been our profession for generations, and yet when we are in the protection of the powerful Dewan Ajeet says I am a traitor to our salt."
For an hour they discussed the best manner of sallying forth in a way that would leave them unsuspected of robbing. One of their favourite methods was adopted; to go in a party of twenty or thirty as mendicants and bearers of the bones of relatives to the waters of the sacred Ganges. No doubt the yogi would accompany them as their priest, especially if well paid for the service.
The plot was elaborated on, or rather adapted from past expeditions. Ajeet would be represented as a petty raja, with his retinue of servants and his guard. The Gulab Begum would be convincing as a princess, the wife of the raja. The wife of Sookdee could be a lady-in-waiting.
As a respectable strong party of holy men, and a prince, they would gain the confidence of the merchant, even of the patil of the village where he would rest for a night.
They would send spies into Poona to obtain knowledge of the jewel merchant's movements. The spies, two men who were happy in the art of ingratiating themselves into the good graces of prospective victims, would attach themselves to the merchant's party, and at night slip away and join the robber band so that they might judge where he would camp next night; at some village that would be a day's march.
When questioned, the yogi told them where they would find the merchant; he was stopping with a friend in Poona. So the two set off, and the Bagrees prepared for their journey.
For the ordeal a cannon ball was needed and a blacksmith to heat it. And as Hunsa had been the father of the scheme, Sookdee declared that he must procure these from the Mahratta camp.
Hunsa agreed to this.
The Bagrees were encamped to one side of the Mahratta troops in a small jungle of dhak and slim-growing bamboos that afforded them privacy.
In negotiating for the loan of a blacksmith Hunsa had impressed upon a sergeant his sincerity by the gift of two rupees; and two rupees more to the blacksmith made it certain that the heating of the cannon ball would not make the test unfair to Hunsa.
A peacock perched high in the feathery top of a giant sal tree was crying "miaow, miaow!" to the dipping sun when, in the centre of the Bagree camp the blacksmith, sitting on his haunches in front of a charcoal fire in which nested the iron cannon ball, fanned the flames with his pair of goat-skin hand-bellows.
Lots were cast as to which of the two would take the ordeal first, and it fell to Ajeet. First seven paces were marked off, and Ajeet was told that he must not run, but take the seven steps as in a walk, carrying the hot iron on a pipal leaf on his palm.
"This food of the cannon is now hot," the blacksmith declared, dropping his bellows and grasping a pair of iron tongs.
As Sookdee placed a broad pipal leaf upon the jamadar's palm, Ajeet repeated in a firm voice: "I take the ordeal. If I am guilty, Maha Kali, may the sign of thy judgment appear upon my flesh!"
"We are ready," Sookdee declared, and the waiting blacksmith swung the instrument of justice from its heat in the glowing charcoal to the outstretched hand of the jamadar.
Hunsa's hungry eyes glowed in pleased viciousness, for the blacksmith had indeed heated the metal; the green pipal leaf squirmed beneath its heat like a worm, as Ajeet Singh, with the military stride of a soldier, took the seven paces.
Then dropping the thing of torture he extended his slim small hand to Sookdee for inspection.
Hunsa's villainy had worked out. A white rime, like a hoar frost, fretting the deep red of the scorched skin, that was as delicate as that on a woman's palm.
Sookdee muttered a pitying cry, and Hunsa declared boastfully: "When men have evil in their hearts it is known to Bhowanee; behold her sign!"
But Ajeet laughed, saying: "Let Hunsa have the iron; he, too, will know of its heat."
"Put it again in the fire," declared Sookdee, "for it is an ordeal in which only the guilty is punished; but the ball must be of the same heat."
And once more the shot was returned to the charcoal.
Gulab Begum pushed her way rapidly to where the jamadars stood; but Sookdee objected, saying: "When men appeal to Bhowanee it is not proper that women should be of the ceremony; it will indeed anger our mother goddess."
"Thou art a fool, Sookdee," Bootea declared. "The hand of your chief is in pain though he shows it not in his face. Shall a brave man suffer because you are without feeling!"
She turned to the Chief. "Here I have cocoanut oil and a bandage of soft muslin. Hold to me your hand, Ajeet."
"It is not needed, Gulab, star-flower," the Chief declared proudly.
The Gulab had poured from a ram's horn cool soothing cocoanut oil upon the burns, and then she wrapped about the hand a bandage of shimmering muslin, bound in a wide strip of silk-like plantain leaf, saying: "This will keep the oil cool to your wound, Chief; it will not let it dry out to increase the heat."
There was another band of muslin passed around the leaf, and as the Gulab turned away, she said: "Think you, Sookdee, that Bhowanee will be offended because of mercy. Some day, Jamadar, fire will be put upon your face, when the head has been lopped from your body, to hide the features of a decoit that it may not bear witness against the tribe."
"You have delayed the ordeal," Sookdee answered surlily, "and because of that Bhowanee will have anger."
The blacksmith, though pumping with both hands at his pair of bellows, had felt the impress of the two silver coins in his loin cloth, and, true to the bribe from Hunsa, had adroitly doctored his fire by dusting sand here and there so that the shot had lost, instead of gained heat. Now he cried out: "This kabob of the cannon is cooked, and my arms are tired whilst you have talked."
Rising he seized his tongs asking, "Who now will have it placed upon his palm?"
"Put it here," Sookdee said, as he laid a pipal leaf of twice the thickness he had given Ajeet upon the palm of Hunsa.
Then Hunsa, having repeated the appeal to Bhowanee, strode toward the goal, and reaching it, cast the iron shot to the ground, holding up his hand in triumph. His was the hand of a gorilla, thick skinned, rough and hard like that of a workman, and now it showed no sign of a burning.
"What say you, Ajeet Singh?" Sookdee asked.
"As to the ordeal," the Chief answered, "according to our faith Bhowanee has spoken. But know you this, though the scar is in my palm, in my heart is no treachery. As to Hunsa, the ordeal has cleared him in your minds, and perhaps it is true. We will go forth to the decoity and what is to be will be. We are but servants of Bhowanee, and if we make vow to sacrifice a buffalo at her temple perhaps she will keep us in her protection."
Ajeet knew that he had been tricked somehow, but to dispute the ordeal, the judgment of the black goddess, would be like an apostacy—it would turn every Bagree against him—it would be a shatterment of their tenets. So he said nothing but accepted mutely the decree.
But Bootea's sharp eyes had been busy. She had watched the blacksmith, to whom Ajeet had paid little attention. In the faces of Hunsa and Sookdee she had caught flitting expressions of treachery. She knew that Ajeet had been guiltless of treason to the others, for she had been close to him. Besides she had, when roused, an imperious temper. The Bagree women were allowed greater freedom than other women of Hindustan, even greater freedom than the Mahratta females who, though they appeared in public unveiled, in the homes were treated as children, almost as slaves. The Bagree women at times even led gangs of decoits. Her anger had been roused by Sookdee earlier, and now rising from where she sat, she strode imperiously forward till she faced the jamadars:
"Your Chief is too proud to deny this trick that you, Sookdee and Hunsa, and that accursed labourer of another caste, the blacksmith, that shoer of Mahratta horses whom Hunsa has bribed, have put upon him in the name of Bhowanee."
Sookdee stared in affrighted silence, and Hunsa's bellow of rage was stilled by Ajeet, who whirling upon him, the jade-handled knife in his grip, commanded: "Still your clamour! The Gulab has but seen the truth. I, also, know that, but a soldier may not speak as may one of his women-kind."
There was a sudden hush. A tremor of apprehension had vibrated from Bagree to Bagree; the jamadars felt it. A spark, one lunge with a knife, and they would be at each other's throats; the men of Alwar against the men of Karowlee; even caste against caste, for the Bagrees from Alwar were of the Solunkee caste, while the Karowlee men were of Kolee caste.
And there the slim girl form of Bootea stood outlined, a delicate bit of statuary, like something of marble that had come from the hand of Praxiteles, the white muslin sari in its gentle clinging folds showing against the now darkening wall of bamboo jungle. There was something about the Gulab, magnetic, omnipotent, that subdued men, that enslaved them; an indescribable subtlety of gentle strength, like the bronze-blue temper in steel. And her eyes—no one can describe the compelling eyes of the world, the awful eyes that in their fierce magnetism act on a man like bhang on a Ghazi or, like the eyes of Christ, smother him in love and goodness. The karait of India has a dull red eye without pupil, of which it is the belief that if a man gaze into it for a time he will go mad. To say that Bootea's eyes were beautiful was to say nothing, and to describe their compelling force was impossible.
So as they rested on the sullen eyes of Sookdee he quivered; and the others stood in silence as Ajeet took Bootea by the arm saying, "Come, my lotus flower," led her to the tent.
There the jamadar put his sinewy arms about the slender girl, and bent his handsome face to implant a kiss on her red lips, but she thrust his arms from her and drew back saying, "No, Ajeet!"
"Why, lotus—why, Gulab? Often from thy lips I have heard that there is no love in thy heart for any man even for me, but is it not a lie, the curious lie of a woman who resents a master?"
Ajeet in a mingling of awe and anger had dropped into the formal "thou" pronoun instead of the familiar "you."
"No, Ajeet, it is the truth; I do not tell lies."
"But out there thou denounced those sons of depraved parents in defence of Ajeet; thou bound up his hand as a mother dresses the wounds of a child in her love—even mocked Bhowanee and the ordeal; then sayest thou there is no love in thy heart for Ajeet."
"There is not; just the tie such as is between us, that is all. I never learned love—I was but a pawn, a prize. Seest that, Ajeet?" and Bootea laid a finger upon the iron bracelet on her arm—the badge of a widow.
Ajeet Singh sneered: "A metal lie, a—"
"Stop!" The girl's voice was almost a scream of expostulation. "To speak of that means death, thou fool. And thou hast sworn—"
Ajeet's face had blanched. Then a surge of anger re-flushed it.
"Gulab," he said presently, "take care that the love thou say'st is dead—but which is not, for it never dies in the heart of a woman, it is but a smouldering fire—take care that it springs not into flame at the words of some other man, the touch of his hands, or the light of his eyes, because then, by Bhowanee, I will kill thee."
The Gulab stamped a foot upon the earth floor of the tent: "Coward! now I hate thee! Only the weak, the cowards, threaten women. When thou art brave and strong I do not hate if I do not love. 'Tis thou, Ajeet, who art to take care."
Outside Guru Lal was casting holy oil upon the troubled waters of a disputed ordeal. The wily old priest knew well how omens and ordeals could be manipulated. Besides, unity among the Bagree leaders, leading to much loot, would bring him tribute for the gods.
"It may be," he was saying to Sookdee, "that the blacksmith, who is not of our tribe, nor of our nine castes, but is of the Sumar caste, has sought to put shame upon our gods by a trick. At best he was a surly rascal of little thought. It may be that the iron shot was made too hot for the hand of the Chief. An ordeal is a fair test when its observance is equal between men; it is then that the goddess judges and gives the verdict—her way is always just. Have not we many times read wrongly her omens, and have misjudged the signs, and have suffered. And Ajeet acted like one who is not guilty."
"And think you, Guru, that Ajeet will give you a present of rupees for this talk that is like the braying of an ass?" Hunsa growled.
But Sookdee objected, saying: "Guru Lal is a holy man of age, and his blood runs without heat, therefore if he speaks, the words are not a matter for passion, but to be considered. We will go upon a decoity, which is our duty, and leave the ordeal and all else in the hands of Bhowanee."
Perhaps it was the customs official that told Dewan Sewlal about the Akbar Ka Diwa, the Lamp of Akbar, the ruby that was so called because of its gorgeous blood-red fire, as being in the iron box of the merchant.
This ruby had been an eye in one of the two gorgeous jewelled peacocks that surmounted the "Peacock Throne" at Delhi in the time of Akbar to the time when the Persian conqueror, Nadir Shah, sacked Delhi and took the Peacock Throne and the Kohinoor, and everything else of value back to Persia. But he didn't get the ruby for the Vizier of the King of Delhi stole it. Then Alam, the eunuch, stole it from the Vizier. Its possession was desirable, not only because of its great value as a jewel, but because it held in its satanic glitter an unearthly power, either of preservation to its holder or malignant evil against his enemies.
At any rate Sewlal sent for Hunsa the night of the ordeal and explained to him, somewhat casually, that a jewel merchant passing through Mahrattaland had in his collection a ruby of no great value, but a stone that he would like to become possessed of because a ruby was his lucky gem. The Dewan intimated that Hunsa would get a nice private reward for this particular gem, if by chance he could, quite secretly, procure it for him.
Next day was a busy one in the Bagree camp.
Having followed the profession of decoits and thugs for generations it was with them a fine art; unlimited pains were taken over every detail. As it had been decided that they would go as a party of mendicants and bearers of family bones to Mother Ganges, there were many things to provide to carry out the masquerade—stage properties, as it were; red bags for the bones of females, and white bags for those of the males.
In two days one of the spies came with word that Ragganath, the merchant, had started on his journey, riding in a covered cart drawn by two of the slim, silk-skinned trotting bullocks, and was accompanied by six men, servants and guards; on the second night he would encamp at Sarorra. So a start was made the next morning.
Sookdee, Ajeet Singh, and Hunsa, accompanied by twenty men, and Gulab Begum took the road, the Gulab travelling in an enclosed cart as befitted the favourite of a raja, and with her rode the wife of Sookdee as her maid.
Ajeet rode a Marwari stallion, a black, roach-crested brute, with bad hocks and an evil eye. The Ajeet sat his horse a convincing figure, a Rajput Raja.
Beneath a rich purple coat gleamed, like silver tracery, his steel shirt-of-mail; through his sash of red silk was thrust a straight-bladed sword, and from the top of his turban of blue-and-gold-thread, peeped a red cap with dangling tassel of gold.
In the afternoon of the second day the Bagrees came to the village of Sarorra.
"We will camp here," the leader commanded, "close to the mango tope through which we have just passed, then we will summon the headman, and if he is as such accursed officials are, the holy one, the yogi, will cast upon him and his people a curse; also I will threaten him with the loss of his ears."
"The one who is to be destroyed has not yet come," Hunsa declared, "for here is what these dogs of villagers call a place of rest though it is but an open field."
Ajeet turned upon the jamadar: "The one who is to be destroyed, say you, Hunsa? Who spoke in council that the merchant was to be killed? We are men of decoity, we rob these fat pirates who rob the poor, but we take life only when it is necessary to save our own."
"And when a robbed one who has power, such as rich merchants have, make complaint and give names, the powers take from us our profit and cast us into jail," Hunsa retorted.
"And forget not, Ajeet, that we are here among the Mahrattas far from our own forests that we can escape into if there is outcry," Sookdee interjected. "If the voices are hushed and the bodies buried beneath where we cook our food, there will be only silence till we are safe back in Karowlee. The Dewan will not protect us if there is an outcry—he will deny that he has promised protection."
The Bagrees were already busy preparing the camp, the camp of a supposed party of men on a sacred mission.
It was like the locating of a circus. The tents they had brought stood gaudily in the hot sun, some white and some of cotton cloth dyed in brilliant colours, red, and blue, and yellow. In front of Ajeet's tent a bamboo pole was planted, from the top of which floated a red flag carrying a figure of the monkey god, Hanuman, embroidered in green and yellow.
The red and white bags carrying bones, which were supposed to be the bones of defunct relatives, were suspended from tripods of bamboo to preserve them from the pollution of the soil.
And presently three big drums, Nakaras, were arranged in front of the yogi's tent, and were being beaten by strong-armed drummers, while a conch shell blared forth a discordant note that was supposed to be pleasing to the gods.
Some of the Bagrees issued from their tents having suddenly become canonised, metamorphosed from highwaymen to devout yogis, their bodies, looking curiously lean and ascetic, now clothed largely in ashes and paint.
"Go you, Hunsa," Ajeet commanded, "into this depraved village and summon the patil to come forth and pay to the sainted yogi the usual gift of one rupee four annas, and make his salaams. Also he is to provide fowl and fruits for us who are on this sacred mission. He may be a son of swine, such as the lord of a village is, so speak, Jamadar, of the swords the Raja's guards carry. Say nothing as to the expected one, but let your eyes do all the questioning."
Hunsa departed on his mission, and even then the villagers could be seen assembled between the Bagrees and the mud huts, watching curiously the encampment.
"Sookdee," Ajeet said, "if we can rouse the anger of the patil—"
The Jamadar laughed. "If you insist upon the payment of silver you will accomplish that, Ajeet."
Ajeet touched his slim fingers to Sookdee's arm: "Do not forget, Jamadar—call me Raja. But as to the village; if we anger them they will not entertain the merchant; they will not let him rest in the village. And also if they are of an evil temper we will warn the merchant that they are thieves who will cut his throat and rob him. We will give him the protection of our numbers."
"If the merchant is fat—and when they attain wealth they always become fat—he will be happy with us, Raja, thinking perhaps that he will escape a gift of money the patil would exact."
"Yes," Ajeet Singh answered, "we will ask him for nothing when he departs."
After a time Hunsa was seen approaching, and with him the grey-whiskered patil.
The latter was a commoner. He suggested a black-faced, grey-whiskered monkey of the jungles. Indeed the pair were an anthropoid couple, Hunsa the gorilla, and the headman an ape. Behind them straggled a dozen villagers, men armed with long ironwood sticks of combat.
The headman salaamed the yogi and Ajeet, saying, "This is but a poor place for holy men and the Raja to rest, for the water is bad and famine is upon us."
"A liar, and the son of a wild ass," declared Ajeet promptly. "Give to this saint the gift of silver, lest he put the anger of Kali upon you, and call upon her of the fiery furnace in the sacred hills to destroy your houses. Also send fowl and grain, and think yourself favoured of Kali that you make offering to such a holy one, and to a Raja who is in favour with Sindhia."
But the villager had no intention of parting with worldly goods if he could get out of it. He expostulated, enlarged upon his poverty, rubbed dust upon his forehead, and called upon the gods to destroy him if he had a breakfast in the whole village for himself and people, declaring solemnly; "By my Junwa!"—though he wore no sacred thread,—"there is no food for man or horse in the village." Then he waxed angry, asking indignantly, who were these stragglers upon the road that they should come to him, an official of the Peshwa, to demand tribute; he would have them destroyed. Beyond, not two kos away, were a thousand soldiers,—which was a gorgeous lie,—who if he but sent a messenger would come and behead the lot, would cast the sacred bones in the gaudy bags upon the dunghill of the village bullocks.
"To-morrow, monkey-man, the gift will be doubled," Ajeet answered calmly, "for that is the law, and you know it."
But the patil, thinking there would be little fight in a party of pilgrims and mendicants, called to his stickmen to bring help and they would beat these insolent ones and drive them on their way.
"Take the yogi, Hunsa," Ajeet said, "and the men that have the fire-powder and throw it upon the thatched roof of a hut in the way of a visitation from the gods, because this ape will not leave us in peace for our mission until he is subdued."
In obedience as Hunsa and the yogi moved toward the village, the patil cried. "Where go you?"
"We go with a message from the gods to you who offer insult to a holy one."
The villagers armed with sticks, retreated slowly before the yogi, dreading to offer harm to the sainted one. Muttering his curses, his iron tongs clanking at every step, the yogi strode to the first mud-wall huts, and there raising his voice cried aloud: "Maha Kalil consume the houses of these men of an evil heart who would deny the offering to Thee."
Then at a wave of his skeleton arm the two men threw upon the thatched roof of a hut a grey preparation of gunpowder which was but a pyrotechnical trick, and immediately the thatch burst into flames.
"There, accursed ones—unbelievers! Kali has spoken!" the yogi declared solemnly, and turning on his heels went back to the camp.
The headman and his men, with howls of dismay, rushed back to stop the conflagration. And just then the jewel merchant arrived in his cart. The curtains of the canopy were thrown back and the fat Hindu sat blinking his owl eyes in consternation. At sight of Ajeet he descended, salaamed, and asked:
"Has there been a decoity in the village—is it war and bloodshed?"
Ajeet assumed the haughty condescending manner of a Rajput prince, and explained, with a fair scope of imagination that the patil was a man of ungovernable temper who gave protection to thieves and outlaws, that the village itself was a nest for them. That two of his servants, having gone into the village to purchase food, had been set upon, beaten and robbed; that the conflagration had been caused by the fire from a gun that one of the debased villagers had poked through a hole in the roof to shoot his servants.
"As my name is Ragganath, it is a visitation upon these scoundrels," the merchant declared.
"It is indeed, Sethjee."
Ajeet had diplomatically used the "Sethjee," which was a friendly rendering of the name "Seth," meaning "a merchant," and the wily Hindu, not to be outdone in courtesy, promoted Ajeet.
"Such an outrage, Maharaja, on the part of these low-caste people in the presence of the sainted one, and the pilgrims upon such a sacred mission to Mother Gunga, has brought upon them the wrath of the gods. May the village be destroyed; and the patil when he dies come back to earth a snake, to crawl upon his belly."
"The headman even refused to give the holy one the gift of silver—tendering instead threats," Ajeet added.
The merchant spat his contempt: "Wretches!" he declared; "debased associates of skinners of dead animals, and scrapers of skulls; Bah!" and he spat again. "And to think but for the Presence having arrived here first I most assuredly would have gone into the village, and perhaps have been slain for my—"
He stopped and rolled his eyes apprehensively. He had been on the point of mentioning his jewels, but, though he was amongst saints and kings, he suddenly remembered the danger.
"We would not have camped here," Ajeet declared, "had we not been a strong party, because this village has an evil reputation. You have been favoured by the gods in finding honest men in the way of protection, and, no doubt, it is because you are one who makes offerings to the deity."
"And if the Maharaja will suffer the presence of a poor merchant, who is but a shopkeeper, I will rest here in his protection."
Ajeet Singh graciously consented to this, and the merchant commanded his men to erect his small tent beneath the limbs of the deep green mango trees.
The decoits watched closely the transport of the merchant's effects from the cart to the tent. When a strong iron box, that was an evident weight for its two carriers, was borne first their eyes glistened. Therein was the wealth of jewels the flying horsemen of the night had whispered to the yogi about.
When the merchant's tent had been erected, and he had gone to its shelter, the jamadars, sitting well beyond the reach of his ears, held a council of war. Ajeet was opposed to the killing of Ragganath and his men, but Hunsa pointed out that it was the only way: they were either decoits or they were men of toil, men of peace. Dead men were not given to carrying tales, and if no stir were made about the decoity until they were safely back in Karowlee they could enjoy the fruits Of their spoils, which would be, undoubtedly, great. By the use of the strangling cloth there would be no outcry, no din of battle; they of the village would think that the camp was one of sleep. Then when the bodies had been buried in a pit, the earth tramped down flat and solid, and cooking fires built over it to obliterate all traces of a grave, they would strike camp and go back the way they had come.
Ajeet was forced to admit that it was the one thorough way, but he persisted that they were decoits and not thugs.