Gil the Gunner; or, The Youngest Officer in the East, by George Manville Fenn.
This is a very long book from this author. Gilbert Vincent, very young at the time, joins the army to serve in India. Various battles and engagements take place, as a result of which Gil gets injuries, and spends a lot of time unconscious or recovering. At one stage he is captured by the local Rajah, who is extremely wealthy, and who takes a shine to our hero, making sure that he is treated extremely well by his domestic servants. Gil is offered any jewels he likes, but declines the gift, saying that his freedom to go back to his father in his regiment was worth more than any amount of opulent jewels.
The object of all this fighting is nominally to oust the British from their position as peace-keepers in India. It ought to have made it much more clear to young readers what devastation would result if the British were removed. I do not think it was clear to many of us in the last years of the British Raj how much hatred various kinds of Indians had for each other, until the days immediately following the hand-over of power on 17th August 1947, when they really got going on one another. NH
GIL THE GUNNER; OR, THE YOUNGEST OFFICER IN THE EAST, BY GEORGE MANVILLE FENN.
Or, The Youngest Officer in the East.
"So are you."
"I am, am I?"
"Yes; a cocky overbearing bully. You want your comb cut, Gil Vincent."
"Cut it, then, you miserable humbug. Take that." Crack—thud!
My fist went home on Morton's cheek, and almost simultaneously his flew out and struck me in the ribs. Crack—thud! Morton's return sounding like an echo of my blow.
There was a buzz of excitement. Coats flew off; two of our fellows eagerly pressed forward to act as seconds; my shirt-sleeves were rolled up over my thin arms, and in another instant we two fellow-pupils were squaring at each other, and I was gathering myself up to deliver as hard a blow as I could when—
"Stop! halt!" came in a sharp harsh voice, and General Crucie, with the great scar upon his white forehead looking red and inflamed as it always did when he was angry, strode up, thumped down his thick malacca cane, so that the ferule went into the grass and it stood alone, while he looked from one to the other fiercely.
"Upon my word!" he cried. "Very pretty! Two gentlemen flying at each others' throats like a couple of street boys. A regular blackguardly fight. I'm ashamed of you, gentlemen. What does it all mean?"
"Well, sir, it was like this," began Hendry, my second.
"Silence, sir! I will not hear a word. I pretty well know what it all means. You, Vincent, as usual; that nasty overbearing temper of yours again. Is it utterly impossible for you to live in unity with your fellow-students?"
"No, sir; not if they would let me be, and not fasten quarrels on me," I cried in an ill-used tone.
"Stuff, sir! rubbish, sir! nonsense, sir!" cried the general. "I know you better than you know yourself; and, mark my words, you will never succeed in your profession until you learn to behave like a gentleman. How can you expect to command men if you cannot command yourself. There, I'll hear no more, for I'm sure you have been in the wrong."
The general pointed in so unmistakable a manner that I walked off with my uniform jacket half on, slowly thrusting my arm into the vacant sleeve, and thinking bitterly, with my head bent and my forehead wrinkled up like that of an old man.
I was not long in reaching my little room, a favourite one amongst our fellows; and as I shut myself in, and locked the door, my conscience reproached me with certain passages in the past which led to my having that room, when a fellow-student gave way in my favour, and I don't think it was from kindly feeling towards me.
"I'm a miserable, unhappy wretch," I said, as I threw myself in a chair which resented the rough usage by creaking violently and threatening to break one leg. "Nobody likes me. I'm always getting into trouble, and every one will be glad when I am gone to Calcutta, Madras, or Bombay."
I sat scowling down at the floor, thinking of how the others made friends and were regular companions, while I was almost avoided—at any rate, not sought out.
"Is it all my fault?" I thought; and that day I had a very long think as I wondered why I was so different from other fellows of my age. I believed I was affectionate, for I felt very miserable when I saw my father off with his regiment four years before, and he sailed for the Madras Presidency, and I went back home with my mind made up to work hard at my studies; to look well after my mother and Grace; and always to be a gentleman in every act and thought.
And as I sat there in the silence of my own room, I asked myself whether I had done exactly as my father had wished.
"I might have worked harder," I owned. "I might have been more of a gentleman. But I did try."
Then I began thinking that I had given my mother a good deal of trouble before she and Grace went out to join my father at Madras.
"But mamma did not mind," I said to myself, for nothing could have been more loving than our parting, when I was so miserable at being left that I felt as if everything were at an end.
"The fellows don't understand me," I said at last. "And now if I try to be extra civil to any one of them, they all laugh and think I mean something—want to borrow money, or get another favour."
This had been at the bottom of the quarrel that morning, and as I sat there thinking, I grew more and more roused, giving myself the credit of being shamefully ill-used by every one, from General Crucie and the professors, down to the newest comer, while the governor seemed to me to be the greatest offender.
"Boasts about understanding boys and young men," I said bitterly, "and does not know how to be just. I wish I was out of it all, and could go away, so that I could be where people understood me, and—"
There was a sharp tap at the door, but I was too savage and sulky to answer, and there was a fresh tapping on the panel.
"Vincent, why don't you answer? I know you are in there."
It was the voice of my fellow-pupil with whom I had been about to fight, when the general came upon us.
"Well, what do you want?" I said sourly.
"The governor has sent me for you. Come along, look sharp. He wants you in his room."
My temper bubbled up like the carbonic acid gas in a chemical experiment, and my fists involuntarily clenched.
"To go there and be rowed," I thought; "and all through Morton. He might have let me off now after bullying me before the chaps. And then to send Morton!"
I stood quite still, frowning and angry, but all was still outside, and it was evident that, after delivering his message, Morton had run down again.
"A prig!" I muttered. "Lucky for him he didn't stop. I'd have punched his head if I'd been expelled for it."
I crossed the room, and threw open the door to go down, for, amiable as the governor always was to us, he was most stern and exacting in having all his orders obeyed with military promptitude, and there stood Morton waiting with, as I thought, a derisive smile on his face.
But I altered my opinion directly, for he held out his hand.
"I say, Gil, old chap," he said, "I'm sorry we fell out, and I'm jolly glad the old boy came and stopped us. Pretty pair of fools we should have looked by this time, with black eyes and swollen noses.—I was wrong. Shake hands."
A few moments before I could have struck him; but now I was so utterly overset by his frank manner, that it was not my nose which swelled up, but my throat, so that I could hardly speak as I caught hold of his hand and held it with all my force.
"No," I said huskily, "it wasn't your fault. Mine. I've got such a beastly temper."
"Tchah! not you. Come on down; it's all right now."
"Not quite," I said grimly. "I've got to face the gov., and have another dose. Has he given you yours?"
"No! 'Tisn't that Post's in, and he has had despatches or something. He had a great sealed paper in his hand when he told me to fetch you."
"What?" I cried excitedly. "'Tisn't—?"
"I'm not sure, but I think it is," he said. "Come on."
I felt as if all my breath had been taken away. The blood flushed right up to my temples; there was a singing in my ears, and my hands grew moist in their palms with excitement; but I could not speak as we hurried down.
"You are a lucky one," continued Morton. "I say, you do know some one in the India House, don't you?"
"Yes," I said. "Uncle Joe's on the board."
"That's it, then. You've got your commission, as safe as wheat, as our old coachman used to say. I salute you, sir. You'll be a Lord Clive one of these days, before I get my captaincy."
"Oh, nonsense!" I cried, and then all seemed to be one buzz of confusion, till I reached General Crude's study, and found him walking up and down the room. He had left his table with his gold snuff-box in one hand, his pinched-together finger and thumb of the other holding a tiny modicum of snuff, which he applied to his nose as I entered, and he stopped short before me.
"Oh, there you are, Vincent," he said in his prompt military way, and I noticed that the trouble of a short time before was all put aside. "You know what I want, I suppose?"
"I can't help guessing, sir."
"No, I suppose not. You must have plenty of interest, my dear lad, and I congratulate you. Here you are appointed to the artillery. Calcutta."
"Ah!" I ejaculated; and in those busy moments as I stood looking right ahead out of the study into my future, I felt as if young, slight, and youthful as I was, boyhood was dropping away, and I was going to be a man to command men.
"It's too early, Vincent," he said, shaking his head, and tapping his snuff-box; "much too early. You are such a boy. Why, you'll be the youngest officer in the service, though you do look old. I should have liked you to stay with us a couple of years longer."
"Yes, sir," I faltered. "I'm afraid I've got on very badly."
"No," he said sharply, "that's it; you have not got on badly with your studies. From every professor I have had the same report, that your papers are excellent. That's where it is. You were nearly at the head of the list in the artillery, and it was only just that you should be appointed. But, all the same, you dog, you've influential people at your back. That old uncle the director. I hope one of these days both services will give their promotions and appointments by merit alone."
"Then you think it unjust, sir, that one so young as I am should get his commission?" I said warmly.
"No, I do not, Vincent. Don't be so peppery. What a temper you have, sir. You must master that. I think, in this instance, the interest has been well exercised. I have had plenty of inquiries about you, and I've been obliged to speak well of you always."
I coloured a little.
"You're too young, but they want officers badly, and you'll soon get older, and I have no doubt will make a good soldier, if you command your temper. You ought to have been in the engineers, though."
"Oh no, sir," I said eagerly. "I want to be a gunner. Is the commission for the Horse Artillery?"
He laughed and took snuff.
"Why, you conceited young greenhorn!" he said good-humouredly. "Has all the teaching of the Honourable the East India Company's profession been so poor here at Brandscombe, that you have not learned that it is quite a promotion to get into the Horse Brigade. That they are picked men from the foot—men full of dash—who can afford to keep the best of horses, and who are ready to ride at anything."
"My uncle would let me have any horses I want, sir," I said; "and I can ride."
"Like a gentleman in the park," he said contemptuously.
"No, sir," I said warmly. "My father is a splendid horseman, and I've hunted a great deal. Why, he used to put me on a pony when I was only six, and whenever I was at home he made me hunt with him, and go straight across country."
"Humph! Wonder he did not break your neck!"
"Oh no, sir," I replied; "but I have broken my arm, and had some falls."
"Ah, well; be content with your commission in the foot. Some day, perhaps, you may get into the horse, especially if you ride well, and have some interest to back you up. Well, I congratulate you, Vincent, my lad, and I am well satisfied with your progress."
"Satisfied, sir?" I said, as I recalled the scolding of an hour earlier.
"Oh yes, on the whole, my boy. You've got the makings of a good soldier in you. Little too fond of fighting. Ought to be in your favour, eh? But it isn't. A good officer never fights if he can help it; but when he does, why, of course, he fights skilfully, and lets the enemy know that he is in earnest. But seriously, Vincent, you have one great failing."
"More than one, sir, I'm afraid," I said dolefully.
"Never mind the others; perhaps they'll cure themselves. But you must keep a strict watch over that temper of yours, eh?"
"Yes, sir," I said penitently; "I have a horrible temper."
"A temper, Vincent, not a horrible temper. And I don't know that you need regret it so long as you learn to subdue it. Tight-curb, that's all. Make a better soldier of you. It means spirit and decision, properly schooled. Oh, you'll do, boy. I should like to turn out another hundred of you."
I stared at him in surprise, for I had been working under my military tutor always troubled by the impression that I was the most troublesome pupil he had, and that I was getting on worse than any fellow there.
"I mean it, boy," he said, smiling and taking another tiny pinch of snuff. "Well, Vincent, my lad, I congratulate you. An hour ago you were my student and pupil; this despatch tells me that you are now my brother-officer. So good speed to you, and God bless you!"
His eyes looked a little moist as he shook hands with me warmly, and, though my own eyes felt a little misty from emotion, a cloud seemed to pass from them, and I began to realise that I had been fancying all kinds of things which were not true.
"Sit down, my dear lad, and let's have a bit of a chat," continued the general. "This is a short notice."
"Short, sir?" I said wonderingly.
"Oh yes; very. You are to go out in the Jumna on the twenty-ninth. There's just three weeks for preparation and the good-byes."
"So soon, sir?" I cried excitedly.
"Yes, so soon. There's a Captain Brace going out in charge of a draft of men from Warley—recruits, of course. You go under his charge; so you will have to be brisk in ordering your outfit."
"Yes, sir," I said. "I must write to my father to-day about money."
"By all means," said the general, smiling; and I saw what a stupid thing I had said. "You sail in three weeks, long before your father could get your letter, eh?"
"Yes, sir, of course," I said confusedly.
"But that's all right, my boy. Your father authorised me in his last letters to see that you had a proper military outfit, and draw upon him; so you need be under no apprehension. You will have to run the colonel up a pretty good bill; so be careful not to get superfluous things. By the way, there's a letter for you. Have you got it?"
"No, sir," I said; "I've been in my room. I'll go and—"
"No, no; sit still," said the general, ringing. "I'll have it brought here."
He told the servant to fetch the letter, and sat chatting pleasantly till the man returned with an old-fashioned-looking missive, ornamented with a great red seal.
"From my uncle, sir!" I said excitedly.
"Well, open and read it, boy. It may be more news."
I opened the letter with trembling fingers, and read as follows:—
"119, Queen's Square,—
"May 8th, 18—.
"I hear that you have your commission. I stirred up some old friends. You go out with the next draft. Be a good boy, act like a gentleman, and keep up the honour of your family. You'll find it very hot. I did when I was out there. Don't eat too much, and don't drink, or you'll come home with a bad liver, like your affectionate uncle,
"Gilbert Vincent, Esq.
"P.S.—I mean Lieutenant Vincent. Don't come to see me, for I'm off to-night to Carlsbad to drink rusty waters instead of port. Remember me to your father and mother, if you meet them, and Miss Grace. By the way, boy, you'll want some clothes and a sword. I've told Ferries and Harquars to honour your cheques up to two hundred and fifty pounds, so that you need not draw on your father. You don't deserve it, because you have such a bad temper; but if ever you can get promoted into the Horse Artillery, I'll buy you a horse. Mind and get an Arab; they suit the country. I always rode one; but not in your break-neck way. I tried to get them to let you have a commission in the horse, but they wouldn't stand it. Said it was a feather in a man's cap to get that; so look sharp and grow, and make yourself fit to wear that feather. You'll get it if you deserve it. I'll see that you do. My postscript is longer than my letter. So with compliments to General Crucie, I am, etc."
I handed the letter to the general, who read it through and nodded.
"Hah! that's right," he said, handing it back. "Nothing like having an uncle rich, and a director at the India House. You'll get into the horse by-and-by. Let's see, what was your uncle?"
"An indigo-planter, sir."
"Hah! that means money, Vincent. Well, I shall not have to draw on your father. So much the better. There, you had better begin making your preparations at once, and if there is anything I can do in the way of help or advice, come to me without scruple. Seems only the other day that I was ordering my own kit, Vincent, previous to sailing for Bombay. There, off with you. I'm sure you want to digest the news."
I did—badly, but I could not do it, for the news had already leaked out, and there was Morton at the head of all the other fellows, ready to raise a hearty cheer for the new officer about to depart from their midst.
The cheering was followed by a chairing, and when at last I escaped, I hurried off to my room with the whirl of confusion greater than ever, so that I began to wonder whether it was not all a dream.
I was horribly suspicious about that military tailor in Saint James's Street. Over and over again I felt that he must be laughing at me, as he passed his tape round my chest and waist.
But he was a pattern of smooth politeness, and as serious as a judge, while I sought for little bits of encouragement, painfully conscious as I was about my physique.
He was so quiet and confidential, and took such pains to suggest the various articles I should require, that I felt bound to place myself in his hands, and to a certain extent he won my confidence sufficiently to make me ask a few questions, to set myself a little at my ease.
"Don't often have any one so thin and young as I am to measure for a uniform, do you?" I said.
He looked at me with astonishment—real or assumed.
"Thin as you, sir! Oh, you are nothing to some gentlemen—I mean," he added hastily, "as to being slender. Why, some officers who come here are little better than schoolboys."
"But I am thin," I said.
"Slight, sir," he said reprovingly—"slight. I should hardly call you thin. You'd look a little thin in evening-dress, but in uniform only slight. You see, we are obliged to pad a little in the chest, and to square the shoulders a little, and, one way and another, sir, when we have finished you, you will be surprised."
I was. But just then I only coughed, and felt glad that I was not the youngest and thinnest officer the tailor had fitted out. "Oh, by the way," I said as indifferently as I could, "what about swords?"
I felt proud of my nonchalantly easy way of dealing so familiarly with the arme blanche, as the French call it, in the plural number.
"Oh, we shall supply your sword, sir; everything, if you entrust us with your commands. There are some gentlemen who advise that you should not go to a military tailor, but to a sword-cutler; and, of course, every gentleman has a right to go where he pleases, but if you will trust me, sir, you shall have a proved blade, of which you will be proud."
"Oh, of course I shall trust you," I said hurriedly. "But about size. I think I should like, er—a light, rather smaller-sized sword."
"Oh no; excuse me, sir," said the tailor apologetically. "Speaking from experience, sir, no. There was Lieutenant Verney, sir, younger and lighter than you sir, and not so big-boned—Major Verney he is now, a regular customer—said just the same as you did, sir, and we gave way. Consequently he was greatly dissatisfied. He grew, but the sword did not, and he soon had to have another. Now, if I might advise, I should say have a full-size regulation weapon, well balanced with a good heavy hilt. You'll be surprised, big-boned as you are, sir, how soon you will put on muscle and spread out."
Of course I gave way, being naturally proud of being considered capable of wielding a full-sized sword, and in due time, though not until I had fretted myself into a great state of excitement, the accoutrements were sent home.
It was hard work to assume that indifference which I did not feel, and I'm afraid that I did not deceive anybody save myself.
I knew when the things came, for one of the servants came and told me, and I said in a tone suggestive of the idea that I was in the habit of having uniforms sent home, "Have the things placed in my room."
The servant stared at me, and I turned away, feeling furiously hot as I longed to run up and tear open the packages and tin boxes to gloat over their contents. But I taught myself to feel that I could not do that now—it would be too boyish, so I suffered tortures as I went out into the grounds to talk to some of our fellows, and try to keep my mind to what was being said.
Then came relief in the shape of Morton, who hurried up to the group where I stood. "Hi! Gil Vincent," he cried excitedly. "What's the matter?" I said in what was intended to be a cool way, but decidedly was not.
"What's the matter, indeed! They're taking your gorgeous array up into your room. Tin cases and swords, and goodness knows what. Come on!"
"Come on?" I said coolly; "what do you mean?"
"Hark at him!" cried Morton. "Here he is, as cool as a fish. Don't you want to tog out?"
"No. What nonsense!" I said; but I can remember feeling excited as he spoke.
"Get out! Don't be a humbug. You're red hot to get into them."
"Absurd! Why, I shall be always wearing that sort of thing soon."
"Gammon!" cried Morton. "Oh, I say, what a jolly impostor you are, Gil. Come on, lads, let's have him in, and make him paint himself up for our glorification."
"Oh, if you all particularly wish it," I said, "I don't mind."
There was a roar of laughter at this; and to hide my annoyance, I joined in, and was soon after spreading out jacket and coatee, striped trousers, belts, and slings, all of which, after being duly admired, were donned and exhibited in their proper places.
"Talk about pomp and vanity!" cried Morton.
"Don't be jealous," I replied, as I began to feel excited.
"I'm not a bit, Gil; but you might own to being proud as a peacock of your togs. Come, you are—aren't you?"
"I suppose so," I said, as I involuntarily glanced at myself in the glass; and then I felt hotter than ever, for I saw my fellow-pupils laughing, and this was the signal for me to hurry out of the stiff embroidered uniform as rapidly as I could.
But that night, when I went up to bed!
Well, I was very young then; and I suppose any boy of my age would have been just as proud of his new uniform, all suggestive as it was of sword and flashing steel, trampling horses, and spirit-stirring trumpet and band.
My candle was a long time before it went out that night, but even then I tried to salve my conscience—to make myself believe that it was not all vanity, for I said that the things wanted trying on, and the buttons and buttonholes were stiff. But at last everything was neatly folded up again and put away, and I lay down to sleep and dream of my new career. Somehow I only saw one side of a soldier's life just then. Perhaps if I could have had the slightest idea of the horrors and dangers through which I should have to pass, I might have shrunk away appalled, and been glad to have taken to some more peaceful career.
The good-byes were said, and I was sent off with a ringing cheer by my old companions. My luggage had gone to the ship days before, and I had only a couple of tin cases to take with me in the cab when I reached London and was driven to the docks. Here, after going astray several times, I at last found the great towering-sided Jumna, and went on board with my belongings.
Everything was in confusion, for provisions were still being taken on board along with passengers' luggage; and it was some time before I could find any one in the busy crowd which thronged the deck, to show me my cabin, which, to my disgust, I found contained a second berth and several articles of luggage labelled, "Captain Brace, Calcutta," and in smaller letters, "Cabin; wanted on voyage."
"Not much room for two," I thought, as my own luggage was brought in, and I found by the number of my berth that I was to sleep on the shelf-like bed above that on which a portion of the captain's luggage lay.
Then, wondering what he would be like; whether he would be agreeable, or disposed to look down upon me as a boy, I went back on deck, and stood about watching the busy scene, and learning which was the quarter-deck, steerage, forecastle, and the like. By virtue of being an officer, I found myself at liberty to go where I pleased, and noted which were passengers and which were leave-taking friends.
Then I had a good look at the officers and sailors, many of whom were yellow-faced lascars with dark oily-looking eyes, whose whites seemed to have an opalescent tinge.
Every one was busy, and a good many of the dock-men were up aloft giving the finishing touches to the rigging, a great deal of which seemed to be new. But somehow, as an idler, I seemed to be in everybody's way, and was constantly being requested to make way, or stand aside, or my leave was requested in tones rather insulting, as I thought then.
Suddenly I remembered that General Crucie had said that a draft of men was going out in the vessel, in charge of Captain Brace.
"I wonder where the men are," I said to myself; and at last, as I had looked in vain for red or blue uniforms, I asked one of the sailors.
"Swaddies?" he said. "Oh yes. Forrard. There they are."
He pointed toward the head of the vessel as he hurried off in answer to a shout from a red-faced man who was directing a gang of sailors hauling at something up aloft which he called a yard, and I went forward to have a look at the smart detachment of soldiers I was to help to command.
The illusion was soon swept away, for the detachment was composed of about fifty unhappy, thin-looking men in white flannel jackets, sitting about or leaning over the bulwarks, smoking and watching the dock quay where stood a group of slatternly-looking women, staring wearily at the ship; and now and then one of them would wave a hand or a handkerchief to the men in white flannel, a salute as often as not evoking no response, though sometimes a man would take off his ugly blue woollen forage-cap by the red worsted tuft at the top, give it a twist, and put it on again.
"This cannot be the detachment," I thought, and then, thinking that the best way to know was to ask, I said to the nearest man—
"Would you mind telling me whether you belong to Captain Brace's detachment?"
A surly, half-insolent question in reply to mine, which I repeated.
"I dunno nothing about no 'tachments," he growled.
"Well, are you in the service, and going out to India?" I said.
"I've took the shilling, and I'm going out to cholera borgus, if that's what you mean. Don't bother!"
"You'll get yourself in for it directly, mate," growled another of the men. "Can't you see the gent's a horficer?"
I felt better at this, but I was damped down directly, for my man I had spoken to growled out—
"Horficer? Well, all I can say is as he don't look it."
As the man turned away to rest his arms on the bulwark and refill his pipe, the second man saluted me.
"Yes, it's all right, sir. We're just down from Warley barracks, and we are going out as part of Captain Brace's draft."
I saluted and walked away, feeling in no wise proud of the men who would be partly under my charge. Physically, they were well-made fellows enough, but there was neither romance nor sentiment about them, and in the midst of all the bustle and confusion on board, with the decks literally swarming, I began to feel horribly lonely and depressed, and a sensation of home-sickness was coming on fast, till I told myself it was all nonsense, the home for which I was sickening was only the kind of school which for many months past I had been longing to leave, and that I should in all probability soon meet father, mother, and sister, as well as begin my career as a man.
Just then my attention was taken up by an angry encounter. Three men were brought on board, almost dragged, and thrown down, and it did not need a second thought to grasp the fact that they were sailors who had been spending their advance-money at one of the public-houses which swarmed about the docks.
All at once one of them, as he lay upon the deck, began to sing, and this brought out a smart-looking officer in uniform.
"Here, get these pigs below," he cried angrily; and half a dozen of the sailors crossed to one side, returned with a coil of rope, fastened it round the waist of one of the last-comers, and then seizing him, trotted forward, dragging him along the deck to an open hatchway, where he was unceremoniously lowered down; one sailor followed to unfasten the rope, which was hauled up, and the other men were hauled to the hatchway and lowered in turn.
"That's the way to serve them," said the officer to me sharply. "Some time before they get drunk again."
He nodded shortly and went aft, while, feeling disgusted with the rough scene, I made my way aft too, and came upon quite a crowd of people, evidently friends of the passengers, bidding good-bye, many of them with tears.
"This is cheerful," I thought, and then by an absurd change of feeling, I was hurt because there was no one to bid good-bye to me.
"Confound it all, sir, do get out of the way, please!" said another officer sharply.
I gave him a resentful look, and backed out of his way into somebody else's, sending a man who was carrying part of a passenger's luggage staggering, so that he caught the corner of a trunk sharply against an officer's shoulder, with anything but a pleasant result for the burdened man, who recovered himself, and hurried to the cabin stairs, while, after apologising to the officer, I followed the man, meaning to go up on the poop deck.
But the staircase was full of people, and I dived under to go below and find my cabin, which I now resentfully remembered was not mine.
"Never mind, I'll go and sit down till dinnertime," I thought. "I suppose there will be some dinner some time."
I went along by the row of cabin doors, and found that I was on the port instead of the starboard side; and, crossing over, I found the right cabin at last, seized the handle sharply, for a man was coming along with more luggage, and, turning the fastening, I was about to dive in, but the door was fast, and a quick, authoritative voice cried from within—
"Well, what is it?"
"Open this door," I said as sharply, for I felt irritated at being shut out of my place of refuge from the noise and misery of the deck.
There was the sound of a bolt shooting back, the door was thrown open, and I was face to face in the dim light with a tall, dark, youngish man, whose expression was stern and severe in the extreme.
"Well, sir," he said shortly, "what is it?"
"What is it?" I cried angrily, with a sharp look at my luggage. "What are you doing here? Why is this door fastened?"
He looked at me quite fiercely for a few moments, and then his face softened a little, and he smiled, but it was a cold, wintry sort of facial sunshine.
"Ah, I see," he said, "you are Mr Vincent, I suppose?"
"Yes, I am, sir, and that is my luggage. What then?"
"Only that my name is Brace, and I suppose we are to be fellow-passengers."
"I—I—beg your pardon," I stammered, with my face turning scarlet.
"There is no need," he said coldly. "Perhaps it was my fault for fastening the door."
He turned away, stooped down to a trunk in which glistened a bunch of keys, turned the lock, and then altered his mind and unlocked the trunk, and took out his keys.
"No," he said rising, "there will be no need for that."
He turned coldly, and went out of the cabin, leaving me with the sensation that I had behaved rudely and insolently to an officer who was my superior, and under whose orders I supposed I was to be.
"Nice beginning," I said to myself, and I sat down on one of my own trunks, feeling anything but comfortable, as I came to the conclusion that I had made an enemy who would pay me handsomely during the voyage.
"This is a happy sort of place," I muttered, as I sat listening to the banging of cabin doors and shouting of people for stewards and others, and angry complaints about being kept waiting; and all the time there was a stamping, tramping, and rattling going on overhead that was maddening.
And there I sat, gazing dreamily at the little round pane of glass which lit the cabin, till I grew so hot and weary of the stuffy little cupboard of a place, that I got up and went on deck again, to find that the great vessel had been cast loose, and that hawsers and capstans were being used to work us out of the dock.
We were already some little distance from the dock wall, which was crowded with the friends of the soldiers and sailors on board, those of the passengers for the most part remaining to go down the river, while the men thronged the bulwarks, and climbed to every point of vantage, to respond, with shouts and cheers, to waving of hands and, bonnets and the shrill good-byes.
"Everybody seems to have some one to say good-bye to him but me," I thought again; and half pitying, half contemptuously, I leaned over the side watching the little crowd of excited women and old men who hurried along the dock quay so as to keep abreast of the vessel.
"A sad thing, too—saying good-bye," I thought. "Perhaps they'll never come back and meet again, and—"
My heart seemed to stand still, and I clutched the edge of the bulwark spasmodically, for all at once as I watched the women pressing along the edge of the stone quay, their faces turned toward us as they cried out to the men on board, I saw one young-looking thing wave her handkerchief and then press it to her eyes, and in imagination I heard her sobbing as she hurried on with the rest. But next instant I saw that she had caught her foot in one of the ropes strained from the great ship to the edge of the quay, and plunged forward headlong to strike the water twenty feet below, and disappear.
A wild shriek from the quay was mingled with the excited shouts of the men on board. Then orders were rapidly given, men ran here and there, and amidst a great deal of shouting, preparations were made for lowering down the nearest boat.
But all the time the huge East Indiaman, now steadily in motion, was gliding slowly toward the dock entrance, and the unfortunate woman had risen to the surface, and was beating the water slowly with her hand.
"She'll be drowned long before that boat's down," said a gruff voice behind me, plainly heard in the shouting and excitement. "Why don't they throw her a life-buoy?"
As whoever it was spoke a yellow ring fell from the vessel, splashed, and floated on the surface, but nowhere near the drowning woman. Two men ran along the quay to throw ropes. Other ropes were sent flying in rings from the Jumna's stern; but I could see that the woman was too helpless to reach them, even if she saw them, which was doubtful, and the watching and waiting grew horrible.
The woman was now many yards away from where I stood, and I had seen her wild eyes gazing up as if into mine as we glided by her, the look seeming in my excitement to appeal specially to me, and at last I could bear it no longer.
I drew myself up on to the bulwark, and looked round.
The boat stuck with something wrong about one of the davits; no other boat was visible; no one had leaped and swum to save the woman, whose clothes, after sustaining her for some moments, were gradually sinking out of sight, and the motion of her hand grew slower.
"Yes; she'll be drowned long before they can save her," I said, I believe aloud, for I seemed to hear the words; and then, without calculating the consequences, I dived from the high side of the great East Indiaman, struck the surface, and went on down, down, into the black muddy water, till I felt as if I should never rise.
Then there was light once again, and I struck out, dimly conscious of shouts and cheering, but fully awake to the fact that I was swimming there with the ship gliding away, and the steep forbidding wall of the dock about a score or two of yards distant, looking slippery, and as if it would afford no hold if I swam there, as for the moment I felt urged to do.
For I had forgotten the object which made me plunge into the dock, and the long immersion had confused me for the time being, as I tried vainly to make out what people were shouting to me from the quay.
All at once, away to my right, I saw a hand appear above the surface, and like a flash it came back, and, amidst shrieks and cheers, I swam as hard as I could for the spot, to reach it just as the hand disappeared.
For the moment I thought all was over, but, thrusting my hands down, they touched something, and the snatch I gave made the woman's shoulder roll up above the surface, then her face appeared, and, knowing the imminent danger, I tried to swerve aside to avoid the clutch of the poor creature's hand.
I was too late. The fingers seized me with a death-grip, and as I was thrown off my balance, I struggled to free myself, went under, made a desperate effort which brought me up again, and recovering myself a little, I tried hard to swim now and keep both afloat.
It was a time of confused effort and excitement I don't know that I felt much fear, only that I was getting weaker and weaker, and in a dull, half-stupefied fashion, I thought that if help did not come soon I should not be able to save the poor woman.
Then all was black again; there was a thundering in my ears, a scalding sensation in my throat, and my arms seemed to be turning to lead. But I was striving hard all the time, and once more in a dim way I saw the light, and struck out blindly enough, my only aim being to keep afloat.
I was conscious of shouting. Some one close by cried, "Hold her!" but the water was rising over my eyes again as I felt a sharp shock; hands clutched me directly after, and I was hauled into a boat, where I lay panting, my heart throbbing, and a sensation at the back of my neck as if I had received a sharp blow.
"Oh, he's all right," said a familiar voice. "Give way, my lads, and let's land her. I dare say they'll bring her to. Better chance than we shall have."
In a dreamy way I saw the dock wall above me, and people looking down; then we reached some steps, and the dripping figure of the woman was lifted out of the boat, and taken by other hands.
"Get her into a room, and fetch a doctor directly," said a voice close to me, which I now recognised as that of the officer I had run against. "Now, my lads, give way.—I say, how are you?"
I looked up, feeling dull and confused, and saw the officer was bending down over me. "That's better," he said. "We'll soon have you on board, and the surgeon will put you right in no time."
In a few minutes the great stern of the Jumna was looming over us, and a tremendous burst of cheering rose as we were pulled alongside; but it did not strike me then what it all meant. I looked up, and could see white faces looking down at us, and handkerchiefs were being waved because the woman was saved, I supposed, but I was too weak and exhausted to trouble much. I was conscious of the hooks being made fast, of the creaking of the blocks as the boat was run up to the davits, and then of being lifted out on to the deck, all wet and cold, with the water streaming from me. There was a crowd of excited people around, but all dimly seen, and a loud humming of voices and an order or two, but the faces were swimming round me, and the voices sounded distant, all but one, which seemed to belong to my cabin, and it said—
"My gallant lad!"
Almost at the same moment, as it appeared to me, a rough hand caught mine, and gripped it so that it would have been painful if all I was passing through had not been confused and misty, as if it were part of a dream. There was a face, too, looking down in mine with a woollen cap and a red tuft, and a suggestion of a white flannel jacket, and a hoarse voice said—
"Bless you for that, sir. She's my dear lass."
Then everything was dark again, as if my head had gone under water, and when I saw clearly once more I was in the cabin and two gentlemen were standing by my berth.
"Better, my lad?" said one of the gentlemen, smiling; but I was looking at the other, who was Captain Brace, as I said in a puzzled way—
"Better? What's the matter? Have I been ill?"
"Only nearly drowned. I hope you haven't swallowed much of that filthy dock water."
"Drowned? Dock water?" I said in a puzzled way; and then "Oh!" and I started up, but lay down and said "Oh!" again in a different tone of voice, for I had given my head a sounding rap against the beam above my berth.
"Hurt yourself?" said Captain Brace.
"Not very much," I cried, "but I recollect now. That woman—was she saved?"
"Ask yourself," said the first speaker. "You saved her, and it was a precious plucky thing to do. Oh yes, they'd soon bring her round. There, you don't want me," he continued, as he felt my pulse, and then laid his hand upon my forehead. "Lie still a bit, and have a nap."
He nodded in a friendly way, and then went out of the cabin, leaving me with Captain Brace, whose dark stern face did not look half so repellent now, for it was lit up by a grave sad smile.
"Head ache?" he said gently.
"No—yes—a little. Who was that?"
"The ship's doctor."
"Oh. Did I go off in a faint?"
"Well, hardly that. You were nearly drowned."
"I couldn't keep up," I said excitedly. "She clung to me so."
"Yes, of course; we could see that. But be calm. Don't get excited."
"No," I said. "I'm no worse for it, only I ought to have managed better. I should have swum behind her, and held her up by the hair."
"Yes," said my companion, smiling, "that is one theory; but it is very hard to put theory into practice at such a time."
I lay looking at him searchingly for a few minutes, and thinking I should never like him, for he was cold and sad and stern in his manner. He smiled at me when he caught my eye, but the smile kept fading away again directly, like wintry sunshine, and I was thinking that I would ask if I could not have another berth in a cabin to myself, however small, when another thought occurred to me, and I turned to him sharply.
"I say, that dirty water will spoil all my clothes!"
"Never mind your clothes, my lad," he said smiling. "A few pounds will put that right. They are as nothing compared to a human life. Besides, it was not the brand-new uniform in that case."
I felt the blood come into my cheeks, for he was smiling rather contemptuously.
"I'm not so proud of my uniform as all that," I said hurriedly.
"Don't be a humbug, my dear fellow," he replied quietly. "You would not be natural if you were not proud of it. I was very proud of mine, I know. Stop; what are you going to do?"
"Get up," I said quickly.
"Nonsense; not yet. What about your clothes?"
"Yes; you have no other suit unpacked. I gave your wet things to the steward to get dry."
"I can soon unpack another suit," I said, "if—if you will go."
"Oh, I'll go, if you like, my lad," he replied with a smile; "but as we are to be chums through this voyage, we cannot afford to be very particular, especially as the accommodation is so limited. There, I will be your valet now; you shall be mine if I am ill. Here are your keys, purse, and pocket-book. I took everything out of your wet things. There," he continued, "tell me which is the key, and I will get out clean linen and another suit. Then I'll tell my servant to see that a bath is prepared; and, by the way, you have no servant yet, I suppose?"
I shook my head, as I lay wondering whether I liked this stern, cold, dark man, or whether I did not.
"Ah, well, we will soon pick out a man from the draft. This looks like the key."
It was the right one, and in a quiet matter-of-fact way, and with very little help from me, he selected the necessary articles; and an hour later I went on deck, saving a slight headache, very little the worse.
I was eager to see how far we had dropped down the river; but at the end of ten minutes I was back in the cabin, flushed, hot, and excited, to find the door unfastened this time, and Captain Brace unpacking and arranging such articles as he wanted on the voyage.
"Hullo!" he cried; "not so well?"
"Oh, it's horrid!" I cried excitedly. "How can people be so stupid!"
"Why, what is the matter?"
"I felt quite ashamed of myself," I cried. "I had no sooner got on deck than the men began to cheer. I did not know then that it was meant for me, but directly after the captain came up and shook hands with me."
"Very civil of him," said my brother-officer, drily.
"Oh yes, if he had only meant it civilly; but then the chief officer came up, and a lot of passengers, and they all shook hands, and there was quite a crowd, and before I knew what was going to happen, I found a pack of ladies had come up, and one, a very stout little woman, called me her dear boy, and kissed me, and two others took out their handkerchiefs and began to cry."
Captain Brace laughed unpleasantly, and I grew hotter.
"Why, you are quite the hero of the day, Vincent," he said grimly.
"It's horrid!" I cried pettishly. "I declare I wouldn't have done it if I had known what they meant to do. Such nonsense!"
"Ah, you are talking nonsense, boy. Bah! take no notice. They'll forget it all in a few hours. People soon get over these hysterical displays."
I sat down sulkily on one of my cases, while he went on coolly arranging his shaving tackle, night things, and the boots and shoes.
"I like him less and less," I said to myself, as I sat and watched him, while, as I fancied, he treated me in the most cavalier of ways, only speaking now and then; but when he did speak it was to ask me some question about myself, and each time he made me think how young and inexperienced I was, for he appeared to be getting to know everything, while he was still quite a stranger to me.
"Yes," he said at last, "I have heard of Colonel Vincent—a brother-officer of mine once met him at dinner somewhere up the country. I was in quite a different part."
"Then you have been out in India before?" I cried eagerly.
"I?" he said, with a faint smile. "Oh yes. I was out there seven years—quite an apprenticeship. I was just such a griffin as you when I went out first, but a couple of years older."
"Griffin!" I thought; and I felt I disliked him more and more; just, too, as I was warming up to him a little, and thinking he was improving.
We were silent for a time, and I waited for him to speak, which he did at last, but in a forced, half-bantering way.
"You'll find it pretty hot, squire," he said; "and sometimes you'll wish your uniform back at the tailor's. It is terribly hot at times."
"Yes, I've heard so," I said, with my curiosity getting the better of my annoyance. "Tell me something about the country."
"Eh? About the country? Ah! Of course you, in your young enthusiasm, are full of romantic fancies."
"Oh, I don't know," I replied haughtily.
"Yes, you are," he said laughing. "All boys going out are. I was. But don't expect too much, my lad," he continued coldly. "There are grand and lovely bits of scenery, and times when the place looks too beautiful for earth; but, to balance this, deserts and storms, terrible rains, and dust borne on winds that seem as if they had come from the mouth of a furnace. There are times, too, when the state of the atmosphere affects your nerves, and life seems to be unendurable."
"It doesn't sound very cheerful," I said bitterly.
"No; and I am acting like a wet blanket to you," he said, with a sad smile. "But you will do your duty, and make friends, and it is not such a bad life after all."
There was another silence, and I waited in vain for him to speak.
"What regiment are you in, sir?" I said at last, as he stood with his back to me, as if wrapped in thought.
"I?" he said, starting, and looking round. "Oh, I am in the artillery— the horse artillery. I thought you would know."
I shook my head.
"We may run against each other sometimes out yonder; but it is a great country, and you may be stationed hundreds of miles away."
"I hope so," I thought.
"Rather a rough time to come for you, my lad," he said, with what I took to be a cynical smile; "but you will soon get used to the noise of the guns."
"Of course," I said coldly. "Tell me more about the country. There are plenty of tigers, I suppose?"
"Oh yes, but far more mosquitoes."
"Well, I know that," I said.
"You have never seen one, I suppose?"
"Then don't make the same mistake as the Irish private's wife at Madras."
"What was that?" I said.
"It is an old story that you may not have heard. She was on shipboard, and eagerly listening to an old sergeant's wife who had been there before; and this woman told her that one of the great troubles of the country was the mosquito. 'An' what's a moskayto?' said the Irishwoman. 'Oh, a horrid creature with a long trunk, and it plunges it into you, and sucks your blood.' At last they reached the coast, and the young Irishwoman was eagerly watching the shore with its troops of turbaned natives, palanquins, and mounted men, till suddenly a train of elephants came in sight, steadily nodding their heads and waving their trunks. The young Irishwoman drew a long deep breath, and looked as if she would never see home again, and the old sergeant's wife asked her what was the matter. 'Oh,' she said, in a hoarse whisper, 'is thim moskaytoes?'"
Captain Brace appeared so different as he told me this little old anecdote, that I felt as if I should like him after all; but the light died out of his face again, and he looked at me in a troubled way, as if vexed with himself for having been so frivolous.
"How long have you been back home?" I said, so as to keep up the conversation, for it was miserable to sit there in the silence.
"Six months," he said gravely.
"That's a good long holiday," I said merrily.
"Holiday, boy?" he cried, in so wild and passionate a tone that I was startled, and looked at him wonderingly as he turned away.
"I—I beg your pardon," I said apologetically. "I'm afraid I have blurted out something which I ought not to have said."
"Never mind—never mind," he said, with his head averted; "of course you could not know."
He sank down on the edge of his berth with so sad and dejected a look that I rose and went to him.
"Pray forgive me," I said. "I did not know."
He looked up at me with his face drawn and old.
"Thank you," he said, taking my hand. "There is nothing to forgive, my lad. You may as well know, though. Brother-officers ought to be brotherly, even if they are a little strange. It was a case of illness. I took some one home—to save her life, and—"
He was silent for some moments, and I could feel his hand tremble as he pressed mine very hard, and seemed to be making a desperate effort to be calm, and master the emotion which evidently thrilled him.
"God knows best," I heard him whisper, hardly above his breath. And then aloud, "I am going back to my duties, you see—alone."
The painful silence which followed was broken by the sound of a bell, and he started up quite a changed man.
"There!" he said, in a strange tone, "soldiers have no time for sorrow. It is the dead march, Vincent. Then a volley over the grave, and a march back to quarters to a lively quick-step. Come, brother-officer, we are abreast of Gravesend: as far as we shall go to-night, and there's the dinner-bell. Right shoulder forward. March!"
"No," I said to myself. "I am sorry for him, but he is too strange. I shall never like Captain Brace."
Rough weather as soon as we were out of the mouth of the Thames gave me something else to think about, and I did not spend much time in calculating whether I liked Captain Brace or not; but I suppose I behaved pretty well, for in two days I went on deck feeling a little faint, and as if the great ship was playing at pretending to sink beneath my feet.
"Come, that's good," said a familiar voice; and I found Captain Brace had crossed over to where I was holding on by the bulwark, looking at the distant shore. "Why, Vincent, you are a better sailor than I am."
I smiled at him in rather a feeble manner.
"Oh, I mean it," he said. "It has been very rough for the past forty-eight hours, and I have been, as you know, pretty queer, but I forced myself to get up this morning, and it has done me no end of good. I have been down to see the men, thinking I would rouse them up, but, poor fellows, they are all so utterly miserable that I think I'll leave them alone to-day."
Human nature is curious; for I was so glad that the men were worse than the officers, that I felt quite cheerful, and after breakfast—to which I went down feeling as if I could not touch a bit, but did touch a good many bits and drops—I found myself walking up and down the deck with Captain Brace, taking an interest in the towering masts with their press of sail, and the flashing, sparkling water, which came with a bump every now and then against the side of the great ship, and scattered a fine shower of spray over the bows.
For the wind was brisk, and the ship heeled over pretty well as she sped down Channel.
In the course of the day, during which I began to be acquainted with the officers, a passenger or two slowly made his appearance. I say "his," because not a lady showed on deck during the week. Then, as the weather fell calm, they all came up nearly at once; and when I caught sight of the stout elderly lady who had been so affectionate to me in the docks, I felt disposed to go down. But there was no occasion. The week's confinement below, and their miserable state of illness, had pretty well swept away the recollection of the drowning scene, and beyond one or two looks and a whisper passed on from one to the other, which I felt were about me, there was nothing to make me feel nervous and red.
I am not going to give a description of our long voyage round by the Cape, for that was our course in those days; let it suffice if I say that we sailed south into warmer seas, with the torrid sun beating down upon us in a way which Captain Brace said would prepare us for what was to come. We had storms in rounding the Cape, and then we sailed on again north and east.
It was a long, slow, monotonous voyage, during which I went on learning a good deal of my profession, for there was drilling every morning on deck, and the draft of men were marched and countermarched till the rough body of recruits began to fall correctly into the various movements, while I supplemented the knowledge I had acquired as a cadet, and more than once obtained a few words of praise from the sergeant with the draft, and what were to me high eulogies from Captain Brace.
"Nothing like mastering the infantry drill, Vincent," he said to me one day. "Young officers know, as a rule, far too little of foot drill. It will save you a good deal of trouble when we get there."
It was monotonous but not unpleasant, that voyage out. We had the customary sports on crossing the line; we fished and caught very little, though the men captured the inevitable shark with the lump of salt pork; and used the grains, as they called the three-pronged fork, to harpoon dolphins. I had my first sight of flying fish, and made friends with the officers. Then there was music and dancing on the hot moonlit nights; deck quoits under the awning by day; a good deal more sleep than we took at home; and at last we reached Ceylon and touched at Colombo, where everything struck me as being wonderfully unlike what I had pictured in my own mind.
"Well," said Captain Brace one evening, after we had had a run together on the shore, "what do you think of the Cingalese?"
"That they look so effeminate," I said.
"Exactly," he replied, nodding his head as I went on.
"They are not bad looking; but it looks so absurd to see those elderly men dressed in muslins, with drawers and clothes that put me in mind of little girls about to go to a children's party or a dance."
He looked amused, and I continued—
"And then the ordinary people, with their oily black hair all done up in a knot behind and held by a comb. It does look so womanish."
"Yes; to us," said Captain Brace. "But their clothes are comfortable for the hot climate, and that is more than you will be able to say of ours when you get out in the plains in full uniform some day."
"And it will not be long first now," I thought; and I did not look forward to my first appearance in full uniform under a hot sun with any degree of dread.
Then we were once more at sea, sailing on and on through fine weather and foul, till I learned that we were sailing up through the Sunderbunds, and on up the Hooghly, passing outward-bound vessels with great towering East Indiamen among them. Then the shore began to draw in, and I learned from one that there was good tiger-shooting in that district, beyond where I could see a fringe of palms, and from another that it would not be safe to bathe where we were.
"On account of sharks," I said, with an assumption of knowledge.
"No, sir; muggers."
And when I stared inquiringly, he added—
"Crocodiles; and higher up the river, sir, great turtles, which will snap a man, or a horse, or a dood to pieces in no time."
It was the same evening that I was standing looking at the low, far-off shore, with Captain Brace, and I said quietly—
"I say, that little stout Mr Binns—"
"Mr Commissioner Binns," said the Captain. "Give him his full title. What about him?"
"Was he telling me travellers' tales about the crocodiles—muggers, as he called them—and the risk of bathing?"
"Oh no; they swarm in this muddy river. I wonder they have let that come down."
He pointed to something floating at a short distance from the ship, and I looked at it with curiosity.
"Some dead animal?" I said.
"A dead man, Vincent. We are going up the estuary of the sacred river, you know, and it is the burial-place of the great cities which are upon its bank."
I turned away from the floating object with a shudder of horror, and was silent for some minutes, but broke out with—
"But the great turtles—will they drag a man or a horse under water, and eat him?"
"I have never seen it," he replied; "but I have seen them attack a dood."
"What is a dood?"
"A camel; one of a troop fording the river. It had plunged into a deep hole, and before it could struggle back into the shallow it was pulled under, and never rose again."
"Ugh!" I shuddered; "how horrid!"
"Yes. You will know the danger if ever you have to take your men across a ford."
A couple of days later we were anchored in the great stream in front of the city of palaces, and I was gazing with eyes full of wonder and eagerness at the noble buildings, the great flights of steps leading down to the water, the constant procession of people to and fro, with huge elephants gaily caparisoned and bearing temple-like howdahs, some filled with Europeans, more often with turbaned chiefs or people of importance. The white garments and turbans of the natives gave a light and varied look in the bright sunshine, while amongst them were the carriages of the English residents, the handsome horses of officers, and the gay uniforms of the English and native troops, from whose weapons the dazzling sunshine flashed.
"Yes; plenty of the military element," said Captain Brace, pointing out different figures in the busy scene. "Take my glass," he continued. "That's a sepoy regiment. You can see their dark faces."
"Yes, I see," I cried eagerly.
"Do you see those two mounted men in white, with lances?"
"Yes; who are they?"
"Sowars of the native cavalry; and that little half troop behind—you can tell what they are?"
"They look like English hussars," I said.
"Right. Part of the eighth, I should say. They are stationed here."
"But they are not the East India Company's men."
"No. Part of the regular army. Those sowars are some of ours, and—Ah, you are in luck," he cried, taking back the glass and using it quickly, before lending it again. "Look: there are some of the horse brigade."
"Artillery?" I cried excitedly.
"Yes; and in review order. A troop of our horse artillery with their guns."
My hands trembled so that I could hardly bring the glass to bear upon the long line of men, but at last I had it correct, and excitedly saw them file by at a distance, the sun glancing on their polished brass helmets with long trailing plumes of red horsehair; their blue heavily braided jackets looking as if suddenly cut off by the men's white breeches, and then again by their heavy black boots.
It was to me a gallant show, and I drew a long, deep breath as I counted the guns with the men mounted upon the limbers, and watched attentively till they passed out of sight.
"Well," said my companion, "what do you think of our brigade?"
"Oh!" I ejaculated, "I wish I belonged."
A very brief reply, but the tone made my sad-looking companion smile sadly.
"Ah, Vincent," he said, "you can only see the parade and show. Yes; it is very bright and fresh to you, but the time will come when all that pomp will be very irksome to you, and you will wish that the Company would let you dress simply and sensibly in a uniform suited to this terrible climate, and in which you could use your limbs freely without distressing yourself and your horse."
"But they look magnificent," I said.
"Yes, brilliant, my lad, brilliant; but there is another side to soldiering besides the show. There! all this sounds as if I were trying to damp and discourage you, but I have had seven years' hard work out here in India, Vincent; perhaps, when you have been here as long, you may talk as I do."
"I shall not," I muttered to myself. "I should be a poor soldier if I did. What did you say?" I said aloud.
"I said that to-morrow morning we go ashore, and I can introduce you at head-quarters when I go to report myself. But, Vincent, my lad, what luck it would be if you had been in the horse brigade, and found yourself appointed to my troop."
"Yes," I said, rather non-enthusiastically, for my hopes went in quite a contrary direction.
"You would rather not," he said, gazing at me sadly, and I coloured up like a girl, for I felt that he had read my thoughts. "I'm afraid you don't like me, my lad."
My face burned as I said, "I've tried hard to like you ever since we met."
"Tried," he said, smiling, as he raised his brows. "Ah, well! that is frankly spoken, after all," and he walked away, leaving me feeling that I had hurt his feelings by showing that I did not like him in the least.
We met next day, and I went with him to report myself, the officers I saw making more than one jocular allusion to my being so much of a boy, but good-humouredly telling me that I should soon correct that. Then followed my introduction to my company in the artillery, where with my Brandscombe knowledge I was soon able to hold my own, and obtained some little notoriety from the interest I took in the horses which drew our heavy guns. I never let slip a chance either of being present at the parades of the horse artillery, visiting Captain Brace often; and I am afraid very selfishly, for I felt little warmth for him as a man, though a great deal for him as an officer, as I admired his bearing and the way in which he handled his men.
And so a year passed away, and then came a day when I had to appear at head-quarters, where I showed myself, feeling that I was in disgrace for some reason or another.
I was kept waiting for some little time before an orderly bade me follow him, and directly after, I found myself in the presence of four stern-looking officers, who began to question me severely, one beginning as soon as another ceased.
I suppose my replies were satisfactory, all being on technical matters connected with field-gunnery, but what it all meant, unless I was to be promoted, I could not tell.
At last the officer who seemed to be the head, turned to me.
"Look here, Lieutenant Vincent," he said; "this sharp examination is due to the fact that some pressure has been brought to bear, to have you transferred to the horse artillery."
I turned scarlet with excitement. "Well, sir, we naturally resent this, as we are proud of our horse service, and do not want some lout with interest to back him, foisted upon us. It would be degrading, but I tell you frankly that we are favourably impressed."
"Thank you, sir," I said.
"We have carefully gone into your antecedents. We find that you are the son of a distinguished officer in the Queen's service; that your career at Brandscombe was excellent, and we learn nothing but good of you in connection with your year's work here."
"Of course, we push you forward reluctantly, for it is a great honour to such a youth as you are. Why, you will be the youngest officer in the horse artillery."
"I am young, sir," I said, humbly, but with my heart beating fast.
"And there is another thing before this is settled. What about riding?"
"I can ride anything, sir," I said eagerly.
"I have hunted a great deal at home."
"Ah, well, I suppose we must give way, and I hope you will prove worthy of your promotion to so gallant a corps. By the way, you know Captain Brace?"
"Oh yes, sir," I replied.
"Yes; he speaks very highly of you. So you shall go on probation with his troop at Rambagh."
I tried to speak, but no words came.
"Which means, Mr Vincent," said another of the old officers, "that if you prove yourself a soldier of spirit you will stay."
I hardly knew what followed, and soon after I was dismissed, to go and find Brace, who welcomed me with outstretched hands.
"I am very glad, Vincent," he said, "very glad indeed. Come along with me, and I'll introduce you to Major Lacey, and the other officers of your new corps."
"You miserable, ugly, lazy nigger, take that, and that, and that."
There was the sound of blows at each that, and then a volley of abuse as I neared the officers' quarters, and every word and blow came through the open windows.
"Confound you! do you think I keep you to do nothing but sleep? I'll have my horses look better than any one else's, and they look worse," came clearly; and there were more blows, while a group of white-clothed syces, two of whom held horses, looked at one another, and I saw that their faces wore a troubled aspect, as they whispered as soon as the English sentry on guard by the gateway turned his back to march steadily in the shade to the end of his beat, but as soon as he faced round they stood like bronze statues.
Then came more blows, and it was evident to me that the trouble, or whatever it might be, was taking place in the quarters to which I had been directed; but I wanted to make sure, and I turned out of my way to meet the sentry, who halted and saluted as I drew near.
"Which are Lieutenant Barton's quarters?" I said.
"Straight in front, sir. Through that door where the horses stand."
"Is there something the matter?"
The man grinned. "Lieutenant's licking his syce, sir, for being dirty."
"Oh!" I said; and I was about to turn away, when the man said respectfully—
"Beg pardon, sir; you don't know me again."
"No," I said, looking at the man in a puzzled way. "Yes, of course; you are Denny. I did not expect to find you here. How are you?"
"Nicely, sir, thank ye. I was picked with two more to enter this troop. Very glad, sir, you are appointed to it."
"Thank you, Denny," I said. "It is pleasant to see the same faces."
"Beg pardon, sir," continued the man eagerly. "I oughtn't to talk like this, perhaps, but I got a letter from London yesterday, and she's all right, and ain't no worse for being pretty nigh drowned; and she said if ever I see the young gent as saved her life, as she'd always pray for him that he might live long and die happy."
"Oh, don't talk about it, Denny," I said hastily. "Thank you. That door where the syces are with the horses?"
"Don't stand sulking there, you black-looking scoundrel. It won't do with me; I'll cut it out of you."
There was the sound of more blows, and then, as I nearly reached the doorway, where the native servants made way respectfully, I heard what was evidently the final blow, and the words, "Now get out."
Directly after, a tall native in white came out, with his face convulsed and the blood streaming down one cheek from a cut on the left temple, and staining his white cotton garment; but as he came upon me, his countenance suddenly grew unnaturally calm, and he drew up on one side and saluted, as if nothing was the matter, though I could see that he was trembling like a leaf.
Discipline had already taught me that I had no right to interfere with the actions of my superior officers, but human nature had made me already resent the way in which overbearing Englishmen bullied and ill-used the patient, long-suffering natives; and as I had heard the sounds of abuse and blows coming across the compound, a curious sensation of shame and annoyance made me feel hot and uncomfortable; and now as I came suddenly face to face with the good-looking, dark-faced man, with his bleeding temple, I hurriedly drew out a clean white handkerchief, doubled it into a bandage, and signing to the man to bend down, tied it tightly, bandage fashion, over what was a very severe cut.
The man shrank from me for a moment, as if my action repelled him, but the next he had crossed his hands humbly over his breast, and bent forward.
The act on my part was very quickly done, and then he raised his head, and his eyes met mine with a look that I could not read, but I could see that his lips were quivering, and the side of his head left uncovered was full of lines.
The next moment I had remembered that I was an officer, and drew myself up stiffly.
"Is Lieutenant Barton in his rooms?" I said, in what I meant to be sharp, authoritative tones.
"Yes; what do you want?" came out through the window; and I stepped forward, catching one peculiar look from the injured man again, and noticing that the other syces salaamed to me as I passed out of the glare of sunshine, into the comparative darkness of a mat-hung passage, and from thence into a comfortable room well-furnished with cane chairs, gay Indian rugs, and curtains, and with a light table, on which stood a cigar-box, a bottle or two, and glasses. Between them lay a stout, silver-topped malacca cane, evidently the instrument with which the native groom had been chastised.
But the principal object in the room was a fair-haired, supercilious-looking young man of seven or eight and twenty, in the lightest of pyjamas, and with a scarlet sash about his waist.
He was lolling back in a reclining-chair as I entered, and he wrinkled his face, half-closing his eyes, and drawing his heavy moustache close up under his nose in a very unpleasant way, as he stared at me.
"Oh, you're our new fire-eater," he said, in a bantering tone. "I heard you had come while I was away. How are you? Sit down and have a cigar. Here, hi!"
He clapped his hands, and a grave-looking native in white entered, salaamed, and said softly—
"Mix two cool drinks, and put in plenty of ice. Look sharp!"
"Don't order anything for me," I said, as the man bowed and left the room.
"Don't object to my having one, do you?" was said sneeringly, as I sat down; and then the officer laughed. "Take a cigar."
"Thank you. I don't smoke."
"Don't drink—don't smoke? Ah, well, I dare say we can teach you before we've done. Well, how do you like Rambagh?"
"I haven't been here long enough to tell yet. It is very hot."
"Pooh! this is nothing. Ninety. Wait a bit, and we'll give it to you up to twenty."
"No, that's too cold," I said, laughing.
"Is it? Wait till you try."
"Oh, you mean a hundred and twenty."
"I do. You will not be so ready to use a lot of words when one will do, after you've been here a while."
"I suppose it does make you languid."
"Yes, and you can't get a thing done by the lazy hounds you have for servants. The more you keep, the less there is done. I had to thrash my new syce this morning to bring him to his senses."
"Yes, I heard you," I said. "Are you allowed to knock people about like that?"
He opened his eyes, and then squeezed them up again, as he stared at me wonderingly.
"Allowed? Who's to prevent it?"
"I don't know," I said. "I'm new to the place."
Just then the native servant brought in two glasses of some cool-looking drink, and handed them to his master.
"Now, idiot! how often am I to tell you to go to the visitors first?"
"Ask pardon, master," said the man; and he brought the brass tray to me, but the lieutenant took his own first.
"Health," he said shortly, and half drained his glass. I sipped mine, and set it down as the man left the room.
"Let's see; you came over with Brace, didn't you?"
"Yes; in the Jumna. He advised me to call and see you this morning, as you were out when we came."
"Much obliged to him. Fond of shooting?"
"I dare say I should be. I have had no opportunity so far."
"Oh yes. I have had a little trout and bottom fishing."
"Ah! we can give you some mahseer fishing here. Trying after big ones that can pull you in."
"Thank you. I shall be very glad."
"But you will not have much time yet. Nice grind you've got before you to master your drill."
"Yes, I suppose so," I replied.
"Don't drink, don't smoke, and I suppose you can't ride?"
"Yes, I can ride," I said quickly.
"I suppose so—in a riding-school. Wait till you are going at full gallop over the plain, with six or eight guns bumping and jumping after you; you'll find out then whether you can ride. Well, how do you like Brace?"
The question startled me.
"I—I hardly know yet," I said.
"With him long enough, anyhow!"
"I thought him very gentlemanly and kind."
"Bah! You don't want a man to be gentlemanly and kind. You have got to learn to be a soldier—an artilleryman, not a molly. But, there, don't you be uneasy about that. I'll see that you are not spoiled. Got your servants yet?"
"No; there is nothing settled. I have only just come."
"No horses, I suppose?"
"No. Captain Brace said he would help me to get a couple."
"Hum! Deal he knows about horses. Better let me buy them for you. I know just the thing for you: plenty of speed, showy, and grand action— sort of a charger that wouldn't do for me. Not up to my weight, but it would carry you splendidly. Brace always was the worst mounted man in the brigade. Better try a cigar."
I declined again, and sat chatting to my brother-officer till I thought I had been with him long enough, when I rose to go.
"What! off already?" he said. "Oh, well, if you can't stay. But you haven't swallowed your drink."
I declined that too, feeling that he must be looking down upon me with the most utter contempt; but he said nothing till I had shaken hands.
"Then I shall look out for a charger for you?"
"Please no; not till I have spoken to Captain Brace."
"What for? Oh, he'll be glad to be saved the trouble. That will be all right. You stick to me, and I'll see you through."
I left my brother-officer's quarters soon afterwards, feeling very glad to get away, and certainly under the impression that he thought me very stupid and boyish.
"I suppose I've been keeping him in," I thought, for outside I found the syces still waiting with the horses I had noticed on entering, and there, too, was the man who had been punished by the lieutenant; but my handkerchief was not tied round his head now, his wound having been bathed and covered with a scrap of plaister. I observed, too, that he must have changed the slight white garments he wore, for the ugly stains were gone.
He salaamed as I passed and went back to my own quarters, thinking that I should have to alter a good deal if I used the native servants as I had seen the man treated that day.
I felt bound to tell Captain Brace of Lieutenant Barton's proposal respecting my horses, and he looked at me sharply. "Do you wish him to manage that for you?" he said.
"Certainly not," I replied quickly; "he is quite a stranger, and I have known you from leaving England."
"He has not a very high opinion of my knowledge of horses, I know; but I think I can save your father some money in the transaction; and I promise you that you shall be well-mounted. And, by the way, Vincent, I don't want to worry you with advice, but I must tell you one thing. The climate here is very trying to an English constitution, and if a man—"
I looked up sharply, and I saw a faint smile on his lip as he went on—
"—wishes to keep in health, he must be careful, and very abstemious as to what he drinks. Do you understand?"
I said I did, and thought of the table in Lieutenant Barton's quarters; feeling sure it was meant as a hint to me not to follow my brother-officer's example.
I was so busy during those early days drilling, and learning my various duties, that the time went very fast. I had my servants engaged, and felt rather ashamed to have so many; but the captain said that they were absolutely necessary, and the lieutenant that there were not half enough. He found terrible fault, too, with my horse the first day I was mounted, and on parade; and this, too, after I had tried the handsome dark arched-necked creature several times, and found that it carried me delightfully, being one of those elastic short-stepping animals, whose pace suited so well with the military style of riding.
"Well," said Barton, sourly, "I gave you my advice, and offered to help you. Don't blame me if you get ridden over one of these days."
I was nervous enough before he spoke that morning, and naturally felt a good deal more so afterwards; and during the evolutions in which I took part for the first time, with a stern-looking sergeant close by me to help me through, it seemed to me as if my brother-officer's words were about to be fulfilled. For in my confusion during a gallop I managed to get where I had no business to be, and turned sharply round to see that the men with the gun were pretty close to me before they reined in. To complete my misery, the major in charge of the battery rode up, and delivered a few pretty sharp adjurations to me and to the sergeant.
I did not feel very comfortable that morning as I rode up to the quarters, dismounted, covered with perspiration and dust, and saw my horse led away; neither did I feel much better after my bath and change, as I hesitated whether I should go over to Captain Brace's rooms, he having invited me to breakfast.
"I shall never manage it," I thought. Every one was laughing at me, and it was dreadful to be rowed like that by the major.
I threw myself despondently in my chair, and had quite given up going, when Captain Brace's servant came round to say that his master was waiting breakfast.
There was nothing else for it but to go, and I followed the man to the bright-looking, cool room where Brace was seated.
"Come, my lad," he cried, "I should have thought you would be ravenous. Hallo! What's wrong?"
I looked at him with my face all in wrinkles, and sank down despondently in the seat to which he pointed.
"Tired out?" he said.
I shook my head.
"Then, pray, what's the matter?"
"Matter?" I cried bitterly. "You saw what a fool I made of myself this morning."
His face wore a peculiar look as he shook his head.
"No," he said; "I was not there that time. What did you do?"
"Not there! Why, you saw me get all wrong, and the men nearly ride me down, as Barton said they would, with that horse."
"I thought so," said Brace drily. "How curious it is that a prophecy of evil always makes more impression than one of good."
"I don't understand you," I said.
"My words were simple, my lad. Barton ran that horse down because he did not buy it for you. Now, naturally enough, I kept my eye upon you all through the drill, so as to see how you would get on. Your horse behaved admirably; and I should be ready to give you a couple of hundred rupees more for it than it cost; while, for a beginner, I thought you did remarkably well. Here: have some coffee."
"Well!" I cried, excitedly, "when I was nearly ridden over!"
"You were not nearly ridden over; nothing of the kind."
"But you heard what the major said."
"Yes. He shouts pretty sharply sometimes. You were out of your place, of course."
"Oh yes; I was out of my place, of course," I said bitterly. "I feel completely disgraced."
"Go on with your breakfast, boy," cried Brace, with a good-humoured laugh. "Disgraced! You, a mere calf in just learning your drill. If you had been in the troop for four or five years, and made such a blunder, why, it would have been rather disgraceful; but for you! Why, we are quite proud of the rapid way you are picking up the evolutions."
"No: you are saying that to comfort me," I cried bitterly.
"I have a good many faults, Vincent," he said quietly; "but I don't think insincerity is one of them. If I say a thing to you, my lad, pleasant or unpleasant, you may take it for granted that I believe it to be honest and true."
"But the major? What he said to me before all the men was dreadful."
"Not at all. He was bound to say it. He might have spoken less harshly; but—wonderful!—here he is."
For just then I nearly jumped out of my chair on hearing the major's voice asking for Captain Brace, and the next moment he had stridden into the room.
"How nice and cool you are here," he said. "Ah, Vincent, my lad, feel a bit sore after our gallop?"
"Yes, sir," I replied, gloomily, as the major seated himself at the table, helped himself to coffee and curry, and began to eat.
"You'll soon get over that. It's rough work at first; but use is second nature. I say, that's a very pretty little nag of yours; rather slight, but quite up to your weight. She gallops splendidly. Here, I'm regularly breakfasting. I wanted to have a few words with you, so I came over, as my wife was not down."
"Shall I go, sir?" I said, rising.
"No, no, my dear boy; sit still."
I stared. Not an hour before he was bullying me fiercely before the whole troop.
Brace saw my face, and laughed.
"Vincent is in the doldrums," he said.
"What about?" grumbled the major, with his mouth full of curry.
"You asked him if he was sore. He is: about the thrashing you gave him this morning."
"Bah! nonsense! Good lesson for you, boy. You won't make that mistake again. You are getting on capitally. Wish we had a couple more of your breed."
"There, Vincent," said Brace; "what do you say now?"
I could not say anything, only feel as if the morning had suddenly become bright and joyous; and I began to make a wonderful breakfast; while the major chatted over a few matters connected with the discipline of the troop and the behaviour of some of the men.
"Well," said Brace, as soon as the major had gone; for he jumped up suddenly on receiving a message from his own quarters, leaving his half-eaten curry and a newly filled cup of coffee.
"The general down," he cried. "Bring Vincent over this evening for an hour or two."
"Well," said Brace, "how are the spirits now?"
"Oh, better," I said, smiling; "but I do wish I was more clever."
"Rubbish! Don't be impatient. A soldier can't learn his duties in a month; and when he has learned them, it requires incessant practice to keep up to the mark; and will need," he continued sadly, "to work hard; and, by the way, pay all the attention you can to your sword practice and fencing. I would not miss any of the pistol practice either."
I looked at him curiously, for there seemed to be a meaning underlying his words.
"You need not worry about the riding-school; you can't help getting on well in that. What are you looking at?"
"You don't think there is going to be war, do you?"
"I think a soldier ought always to be ready in case there is," he replied evasively.
"Yes; but not war out here. You don't think Russia means—"
"Hallo! Who has been talking to you about Russia? No, Vincent, my boy, I do not; but I should not be surprised if we have a bit of trouble in one of the provinces before long. I hope not; but we are always having a little affair with some native prince. However, if we do, it may not affect us. Our troop may be a thousand miles away. India is a big place."
"Yes, and isn't it wonderful that so few Englishmen should keep so many millions of the natives in subjection?"
"In some respects, yes, my lad; in others, no. The great power comes from the fact that India embraces many nations who do not all think alike, neither are they of the same religion; and hence if we had trouble with one nation, the possibility is that we could bring some of the others to fight upon our side. But matters are not as they should be, Vincent; and I cannot help having forebodings now and then. We do not treat the people as we should. There is a little too much of the iron heel of the despot on their necks."
I thought of Barton's treatment of the syce, and of many similar incidents wherever I had been since I came out, and then forgot every one but the fact that the post had come in, and with it a letter from my father, enclosing two others from my mother and sister.
"Where are they now?" asked Brace.
"In the north-west provinces," I said eagerly, "at Nussoor."
"Some hundred miles away, Vincent. You are not likely to meet them for some time to come. You will have to introduce me to your people when you do."
My work was hard at Rambagh, for I had no measured hours. I was ambitious too; eager to master my profession, and in constant dread of exciting derision by making some mistake.
Perhaps some lads of my age would not have worked so hard, but would have contented themselves by acquiring the necessary knowledge slowly; but that did not accord with my ideas, and I eagerly attended all the early morning drills, and though the sergeant sourly said that I wanted a deal of setting up, and the riding-master laughingly told me that I looked like a tailor on horseback, I suppose I got on pretty well. At any rate, I was able to keep my place without making many outrageous blunders.
I suppose it was a good deal due to the petting bestowed upon him, but I found my charger—the Sheik—as I called him, at Captain Brace's suggestion, grew quite attached to me, and would follow me like a dog.
And in spite of the intense heat, it was a pleasant life when I grew more used to my work, and less conscious and afraid of ridicule. I had my servants, who were very obedient and servile, but not at all attentive. I was too easy with them, Barton said, and he told me that a good kicking would do them good. Certainly his men flew to obey every word, and shrank at every look.
"And hate him like poison," Captain Brace said bitterly.
But they did not show their hatred, if Brace was right; and no officer rode out to parade in better trim than Barton.
One hot day, as I was seated panting at my shuttered window, I saw that Barton's way of treating the syces was imitated by his subordinates, for one of the Serjeants, for some reason or another, raised his hand to strike a white-clothed figure across the enclosure, but altered his mind, and kicked him instead, with the result that the man shrank away, but made no sign, and I could not help thinking what a tyrant the white man was to the conquered black.
I don't know how it was, but as I lay back in my chair weary after a heavy morning drill, and drowsy from the effects of a good breakfast, I kept my eyes on the white-clothed figure whom the serjeant had kicked. He had stood like a statue till the serjeant had gone into the barracks, but as soon as the officer's back was turned, I saw him glance round sharply, and then he appeared to be speaking to the natives near him in a quick excited way.
From where I lay back, it was like looking at some photograph, every figure stood out so sharply in the bright sunshine, and I was just thinking that I did not feel so indignant at what had taken place as I had when I had first witnessed such a thing, when I half sleepily noticed that the native had left the group of syces by the open doorway which looked black on the white walls. Then he appeared to be crossing the great barrack square, and passed out of my sight, while my eyes closed, and I was dropping off to sleep, when I started wide-awake again listening.
The sound which had aroused me was repeated close to the open window, and it was a sharp hissing drawing in of the breath, as of one in pain; and directly after the syce who had crossed over to my side of the square, passed my window, halting slightly, and with a strange expression on his face, which impressed me even then. As I watched him it passed away, and he drew himself up, walking as usual, and salaaming to some one approaching in the opposite direction, and Major Lacey and Captain Brace sauntered by, while I lay thinking about the syce's expression, and the patient way in which he had hidden the pain from which he was suffering. I had recognised him, too, as the tall, handsome native who had been struck by Barton—a man who, ever since, had saluted me with a grave, gentle smile.
"It's too bad," I was saying to myself; and then, in my listless weariness, I was dropping off to sleep again, as I generally did after a hard drill, when my black servant entered silently, and presented me with a little packet.
"What is it?" I said lazily.
"No know, sahib. Ny Deen bring, and say tell master dhoby man keep it and couldn't get back."
I opened the packet, which smelt most fragrantly, and found first some white flowers, and beneath them, very carefully washed, ironed, and scented, a pocket-handkerchief.