Bright, brilliant sunshine, the glorious summer of India’s winter months; the sky a deep and cloudless blue, the trees in the jungle a gorgeous green, gemmed in many cases with flowers of startling crimson and gold set on bare stems, like huge jewelled cups, and thrown into strong relief by their contrast with the foliage of the surrounding forest. Great crags and strange rounded boulders of blackest basalt rose aloft or jutted from the hillside, which was crowned by a conical Hindu temple of purest white stone, reached by a flight of two hundred steps; and, down below, most magnificent sight of all, the sacred river poured out through the wondrous gorge of stainless marble. The sanctity of the place was as great as its weird beauty. The gods had delighted to honour it with their presence in former days, and still visible were the marks in the marble of Indra’s horse’s hoofs, and the great gap that Hanuman had bridged in one single leap on his way to Lanka.
Two boats were moored at the wide steps of the landing ghât, strange craft—‘dug-outs’—the stems of enormous trees, hollowed out and laid two side by side. Four aborigines—Gonds—quaint squat brown forms, nude save for a loin-cloth, were with them; but two passengers had already alighted, and were now wending their way up the flight of steps, worn by the pilgrims of a thousand years who had gone before them, to the famous shrine of the sixty-three Joginis, deep in the heart of Central India.
The steps were broad and shallow, and the travellers mounted slowly. One was an old man, habited as a Brahmin of the Mahratta country; his quaint turban of multitudinous folds, with its conical point, was of the palest orange, the wide end of golden brocade being turned over and displayed. He wore a long coat of tussore silk, tight to the figure and flowing in the skirts, tied with a silken tassel on the left breast so as to display the snowy linen vest. His ramal, or long, wide cotton scarf, was gracefully thrown round him, over his left shoulder and under the right arm, and the flowing gold embroidered ends floated on the breeze; his dhotie, or cloth, which, in one piece, was curiously girt about his waist and gathered up between his legs so as to fashion a semblance of pantaloons, was of the finest cotton bordered with crimson, and on his feet were large gold-embroidered red shoes. Last, but not least, the sunlight was focussed into globes of verdant splendour by the string of great emeralds he wore round his neck, and again in the single stone ’twixt two fine pearls fastened high up in his right ear. He had a long iron-tipped staff, which he used to help him in his long mount.
The other, a lad, was somewhat similarly dressed, but had on an embroidered velvet cap instead of the puggaree. He seemed about twenty years old. The hair of both was shaved high off the temples and round in a neat semicircle at the back of their heads. Both travellers had broad white lines of sandal across their foreheads, and a tiny crimson dot above the nose between the eyes.
‘Aré, bap, ’tis a long climb to the holy place,’ quoth the lad. ‘Methinks the gods love to live aloof. It may be well when one’s days are done to come here and meditate till the end by the sacred waters; but give me the busy city and the men to win the money from. What fools you make of them, father, with the aid of our good deity!
The older man yawned, and both snapped their fingers violently to prevent any evil spirit taking advantage of the opportunity to locate himself in the yawner’s interior.
‘Tuljagir,’ said the elder, ‘I am glad to see this day. It is nearly seven years since I have seen the face of my guru, and now I bring you with me, his chéla grandson. It is well, by the favour of Mahadeo. Last Akari day I called in a Brahmin, and, as is the custom, addressed him by my guru’s name, washed his feet, and did him worship with garlands of flowers and a cocoanut. I also gave the Brahmin who stood in my guru’s place fifteen rupees, and at the same time offered him that jewelled lingam, the god’s own emblem, which I am now bringing with me, after dipping it in the holy water of Mahadeo’s own retreat in the Pachmarhi hills. My son, it is well you should see your guru’s guru, and learn wisdom from him. He has forsworn all worldly pomps for himself, but his words clothe others with wisdom, and his sayings are strings of jewels for their necks. It is time, too, you should learn the great guiding principle of our lives with regard to the Sahiblog, our Western rulers.’
And the elder man lifted his puggaree, as they neared the top of the flight of steps, to cool his hot brow. His long tuft of black hair, the sacred shendi, fell down on his neck from the top of his head, and he lightly curled it round and replaced it, tucking it under the puggaree.
‘See, father, a good omen! ’Tis the Dussera day, the feast of rajahs, and a blue jay has flown across our path and settled on our right. It augurs well for the coming year.’
A circular wall of large square stones barred their progress at the top of the steps, but in it was a little postern, slightly to the left round the turn of the circle. To this the elder man led the way at once, and the two found themselves inside the circular enclosure, in the midst of which rose the sacred fane.
‘After ten days of parched grain and chupatties, it is good to have reached a spot where a travel-stained Brahmin may venture to eat at the hands of others without the fear of contamination. However, to my old-fashioned notions, it was better to come across the land as holy pilgrims than to sit down in a train cheek by jowl with some sweeper or tanner, or to drink at the station water-standard, open to the twice-born and the outcast alike—wuf!’ and he spat on the ground. ‘However, our journey is over. See! there under the pepul-tree in front of the shrine! It is, it is my guru! Come, Tuljagir, let us hasten to do him obeisance!’
The enclosure was not a very large one, but it was a strange sight for Western eyes. All round the margin wall were wonderful sculptures, mostly of female forms, but of all sizes and in all postures, and almost all of them defaced in some way—the mark of the Mohammedans six hundred years ago. In the centre rose the shrine on its plinth, sheltered by a roof on slender wooden columns, and, facing east, the holy of holies, with its white conical roof and elaborate carvings pointing to the sky. At the side of the plinth rose a huge pepul-tree—the Indian fig, and round its trunk was a wide masonry platform. On this, beside a rudely-shaped lingam, the emblem of Shiva, smeared with red ochre, and over which water dropped incessantly from a perforated earthen vessel, sat a weird being. He was all but stark naked, and emaciated to a degree, his hair matted and coiled in a huge, unwieldy mass round his head, his face and body smeared a dull white with cow-dung ashes, and his only garment a dirty flame-coloured rag. The being sat motionless on its haunches, save for its right hand, which was telling a long string of beads, and its mouth, which ejaculated in incessant repetition and in an undertone the sacred name of Ram. At this strange object’s feet the elder visitor hastened to prostrate himself, the younger standing deferentially behind with his hands reverently joined in an attitude of supplication.
‘Rise, rise, my son; I have been expecting you, Narbaddagir, since I received your postcard a week ago. Is this your chéla? Oh, my chéla!’
‘Come hither,’ said Narbaddagir to the lad. ‘Yes; this is Tuljagir, father.’ And, turning to Tuljagir, who was prostrating himself at the aged ascetic’s feet—‘This is my guru, Tuljagir, the most holy Premgir, who sits on the gaddi of the world-renowned shrine of the sixty-three Joginis.’
Premgir bade Tuljagir rise with his blessing and follow him and Narbaddagir to the shrine.
‘He is a fine-looking young fellow,’ he said to Narbaddagir. ‘I trust, by the favour of Mahadeo, he will bring us credit.’ And then, turning to the lad, he said: ‘I live quite alone here, taking the name of god; but my chélas are many, and they do not forsake me, and many others, too, come on pilgrimages to the shrine.’
The travellers put off their shoes.
‘We bathed before ascending the steps, Maharaj,’ said Narbaddagir; and the three entered.
‘See,’ quoth the old man, ‘the visible presence of the gods manifested to us.’
The shrine contained, as usual, the carved kneeling figure of a bull—the Nandi bail—facing the sacred lingam of Mahadeo; but above the latter was the wonder of the shrine, a bas-relief of Rama and Sita his wife, with his brother Lachman, which exuded moisture constantly; it was cut in the natural rock, but the worshippers recognised in this effort of Nature the actual perspiration of these demi-gods, and tiny flasks containing a little of the moisture collected on the spot commanded a good price.
Narbaddagir and Tuljagir hastened to offer each a cocoanut, which they produced from the folds of their raiment, and then the former brought forth a small but splendid Mahadeo, formed out of a pale sapphire and a deep ruby. This, after placing it before the deities, he asked Premgir to accept. The old man did so with alacrity, murmuring blessings on his chéla and his chéla’s shrine of Achuleshwar at Chandanpur, the city of the moon.
‘Now,’ he said, ‘the day is waning; your brother chélas have all arrived, Narbaddagir. Come, I will conduct you to them, and you may take your evening meal together. To-night the moon is at the full, and we shall assemble under happy auspices. I myself have ascertained that the stars are propitious, and in each of your horoscopes is it not written that to-night is meet and good for commencing new undertakings and for starting in life? Tuljagir, my child, have you your horoscope with you?’
‘Give it to me, and I will scan it what time you are taking your evening food.’
Tuljagir took out a long round brass case from his wallet, and handed it to the holy man.
‘Our baggage and cooking utensils will not arrive till tomorrow,’ said Narbaddagir.
‘What matters?’ replied the guru. ‘Here ye are all brothers; the others will supply you. See, there they are.’
And the three emerged by a postern on the opposite side of the enclosure to that by which they had entered, and found themselves on the flat top of a hill looking out over glade and woodland, whilst the sound of falling water was heard in the distance. There were some small tents, and on one side a meal was being busily cooked in brass pots over little hearths, each improvised out of three rather large stones. Figures were moving about, all nude to the waist and clad only in a dhotie, whilst the Brahmin’s sacred thread was visible, girt round their bodies, over the left shoulder and under the right, in its mystic twist that none save the initiated know how to tie and twine.
‘Ram, Ram, Ram, Ram! Namuskar, Namuskar!’ sounded on all sides, as they hastened to greet the newcomers. Counting Tuljagir, their party now numbered twelve, of whom four were also youths—with the old sage, thirteen.
‘I leave you till the moon is full,’ said the old Bairagi, the ascetic Premgir.
‘Salaam, salaam, Maharaj!’ and he departed mid their reverences, telling his beads ostentatiously with one hand and clasping tight the jewel in the other.
Much introducing then took place. The elder men were all, like Narbaddagir, chélas of the old ascetic; they were celibates, but not Bairagis or hermits, like the old man their guru. They were all Mahants or high-priests of other affiliated shrines, and one of their number would succeed the old Premgir—as yet it was not known which. The younger men were chélas of some of their number.
Tuljagir went off with the latter to assist in the cooking, and the older men squatted down together. Narbaddagir retired to the shelter of one of the tents for a little while, and returned, like the others, nude to the waist, and glistening from a bath, whilst he had changed his cotton for a silken dhotie; for it is written that in silk alone may a Brahmin take his meal.
Great leaves of the teak-tree were being placed round by the younger men to serve as plates, and steaming masses of rice and pulse, curried vegetables and condiments, were heaped before each man, which he proceeded rapidly to dispose of, using his right hand most dexterously with the aid of chupatties—thin unleavened cakes of bread, freshly baked—to convey the semi-liquid food to his mouth. The sun had gone down, but the moon had risen, a glorious orb sailing up through the trees of the jungle.
The meal was over, they had slaked their thirst with copious draughts of pure water from their own brass lotahs, and performed their ablutions; a pipe was passed round for such as cared to take a pull, and then they withdrew and changed their raiment again to their former clothes. Tuljagir and the younger men had also finished, and were clad again as usual.
‘It is time,’ said Narbaddagir; ‘come, brethren, and ye, our sons, and see the loveliest sight our lord the moon looks on, on earth, to-night.’
In single file they went down the hillside into the jungle. The trees and creepers were casting fantastic shadows, and every now and again there was a rustle in the thickets, but the moonlight lay white as snow on the world. They walked rather more than a mile; then Tuljagir and those who were new to the place found that they had reached the river at the entrance to the great gorge where the boats were moored. The rocks rose black and stained, but rifts of glorious whiteness were just visible gleaming beyond. They all twelve got into the two boats, six in each, eight with the two Gond steersmen, who seemed fitted for the strange time and place—brown, gnarled gnomes of the forest. Slowly they glided on against the deep dark tide, on which the ripples of the long paddles glistened like silver. They rounded the corner of the gorge, and even those who knew it well drew a long breath at the loveliness before them. White as the breasts of the queen of the skies, shafts of stainless silver, pinnacles of snowy alabaster, the stone rose on either side to pearly cliffs full two hundred feet high, peerless in the moonlight, a palace made by no earthly hands, whose flooring was the fathomless dark water that lapped the milk-white walls, and whose canopy was the dark blue sky, in which hung the great sphere of the radiant moon, radiant as we never know her in our dull Western lands. To each pinnacle of whiteness, standing out from its strong black shadow, a sacred legend attached, and Narbaddagir, in whispered accents, told Tuljagir how the goddess of the stream, a maiden pure, when brought in marriage to one of the great rivers that sweep southwards on the other side of the ridge, on hearing of his liaison with the nymph of a hillside torrent on the very eve of his marriage, coldly and disdainfully swept aside, carved for herself this wondrous marble home, and alone of all the rivers flows to the eastern sea, a virgin goddess.
‘To-night we will bathe in her pure tide,’ said Narbaddagir, and he murmured a mantra of invocation.
They slowly advanced between the marble walls, which now grew narrower and more fretted with tracery of light and shade. The noise of the waterfall rang in their ears. The tide flowed faster in its small, deep channel, suddenly widening to a basin, then again narrowing even more than before; but still they held their way, though with some difficulty, in the swift waters, and at last before them the gorge ended abruptly in a cliff, high to mid-air, over which fell a great shoot of water, green in the moonlight, like masses of fluid jade set in ivory and alabaster, shrouded in a veil of spangled white mist. The boats were floated up to a narrow ledge of rock on the left, all but level with the surface of the swirling water, and the Gonds cleverly held them grappled to the side by iron-hooked poles. All then alighted, Narbaddagir, whom Tuljagir followed closely, leading the way.
‘Take heed to your feet,’ said the former, ‘for the way is slippery and a fall fatal.’
So, to Tuljagir’s astonishment, they passed round and right underneath the waterfall, which curved out over their heads.
Before them, partially masked by a projecting boulder, yawned a dark cave in the rocks, along which at intervals flickered small oil-lamps of earthenware, just a lighted wick steeped in a saucer of cocoanut-oil. They went on slowly for a couple of hundred yards, and found themselves in a wide, high cavern. The water of the upper river could be distinctly heard now rushing along overhead, and the noise of the waterfall was dim in the distance.
A number of the flickering oil-lamps lit up the scene before them. A large image of Kali, Shiva’s consort, decked with skulls, was in the background, and before it, reclining in a sort of curule chair facing the entrance, was the old Bairagi. The floor was spread with cloths and matting, and the twelve travellers squatted down in a semicircle before him. In rather a sing-song voice Premgir then began:
‘We are all votaries of the dread mother, but her worship is no longer looked on with favour by the foreigners who have usurped our land. Still, the great goddess bides her time in the hearts of the faithful, and Sahiblog and Musulman alike will both be swept from her path as the whirlwind lifts up and scatters the dust and the chaff. The Ingrez, our English conquerors, call this the jubilee year of their foreign Queen, now styled our Empress. It is fit we, too, should hold our meeting to celebrate this year 1887 of their god Issawi—three decades since the time when not so very far from this spot the great Mahratta Queen dared and died to hold her own. These eyes have seen her, the Ranee Lachmi Bai of Jhansi; but it was not to be. Kunbis and Banias, the farmers and the shopkeepers, what cared they, or what could they do? Where are our arms? The soldiery were with us then, but now they care not to fight so long as they are fed. The Sahiblog are our masters, and we must do them reverence with much lip courtesy. But the Sahiblog are simply to be feared as the masters of the goralog (soldiers), the fair-faced people who know nothing save to kill; against their battalions nought avails. It is a puzzle to me who these people are, but I have it they are the sudras, the serving caste, in the great Wilayet, the country across the seas, and that the Sahiblog are their Brahmins. However, I weary you, my children. But if open force avails us nothing, still, we can hold our own by subtlety and craft. It is good, by the favour of the goddess, to make what profit we may out of our so-called masters. We are banded together; there are other confraternities like unto us; the mother knows her own; and we have secured for our brother Brahmins all posts we can—and they are many now—in these provinces—clerks of court and readers to the magistrates, tehsildars, with powers to try civil and criminal cases, and even themselves to become judges and first-class magistrates—all Brahmins. Still, our gain comes all from our own people, the suitor and the worshipper; from the sahib nought, save when some astute man, being on a sahib’s visiting list, takes the opportunity to take toll from those who hope to gain something by the sahib’s favour: this, too, comes not out of the sahib’s pocket, and the sahib cares not for it to find its way thither.
‘To-night we have met for three purposes, ye, my sons, my elder sons, priests, and Mahants of the sacred Tirth of Achuleshwar, of the holy Shankar Manhattan, of our gracious mother Amba Bai at Imlee, thou guardian of the great shrine of Manzia, and thou high-priest of Gardha—ye all who keep Kali’s home at Karari, ye are all my chélas, my spiritual sons!’
He rose from the chair and spread his fingers in the attitude of blessing. The elder men, as he named their temple or their particular incarnation, prostrated themselves in lowly obeisance.
‘Be ye blessed of the goddess! May your seats on your gaddis be secure and your riches increase! Outward wealth availeth little. To possess money is to possess the possibility of all things. And to-night may we, with the propitious face of our dread mother turned towards us, see one of your number indicated who shall succeed me here as guardian of the shrine to which ye are all affiliated.’
He then turned to the youths.
‘My children,’ he continued, yours to-night it is to be made one with us in the service of the goddess. Your gurus, your spiritual fathers, have brought you hither to be accepted, and in time to take their places when they shall have sped once more on the ever-whirling round of existence. To-night ye shall know. My blessing be upon you!’ and again he raised his hand as they, too, bowed down before him. ‘Lastly, our object is to hear any suggestion any of you may make, my sons, to add to our store from the gains that the Ingrez have wrung from the land for themselves.’
I do not know what the rites of initiation were, save that they were worthy of the blood-stained, skull-strung goddess, but I do know that after they were over each of the youthful initiates had strange marks of gore on his forehead, and that Kali had four more devotees to guard her blood-stained interests.
As soon as the initiation was over, the election began for the successor-presumptive to the gaddi of the shrine. It was conducted in the most approved European fashion, by secret ballot, the youngest votary going round with a silver lotah, into which each person dropped a piece of paper inscribed with the name of his candidate. When they were drawn out, it was found that Narbaddagir and the Mahant of Shankar Manhattan had each secured six votes. This left the casting-vote with the old ascetic, and he without any hesitation gave it for Narbaddagir, Tuljagir’s guru. A little disapprobation was visible on the faces of one or two, but nothing was said, and Narbaddagir was henceforth next in the succession.
There now only remained the third and last reason for their meeting, which the sage had indicated, to wit, suggestions as to how to add to the shrine’s wealth.
The meeting resolved into desultory talk, more like that of a young debating club than anything. It was very late, but all-night sittings are nothing to a native. The younger men had naturally kept silence in the presence of their elders, but at last Tuljagir, who had been twiddling his toes and generally giving native signs of mental perturbation, spoke in an undertone to his own guru, Narbaddagir. The latter turned to the ascetic and said:
‘Father, my chéla craves leave to say a humble word.’
‘It is granted,’ said Premgir; but it is better for the beauty of youth to be seen; it is its strongest power. However——’ and he waved his hand.
A silence had fallen on the company, who were surprised and interested at the novelty.
‘See what English education has done!’ murmured one. ‘The boys will teach their grandmothers.’
Tuljagir stood up, made a low reverence to Premgir and the company, and began:
‘I only seek the honour and glory of our dread mother’—and he prostrated himself before the goddess—‘and I know that in so doing she will not forget the least of her seryants.’ He rose and continued: “Though bred from my early years by foreign missionaries, in their Poona college, none can rival me in my orthodoxy. It has been thrown in my teeth that I was a follower of their faith, but my father can tell you if I lack in one jot or tittle of what is the duty of an orthodox Hindu. It is true that I have been taught to search their Scriptures, but their wonders are as impossible and improbable as our own.’
There was a slight murmur of dissent as to the improbability of their own, which Tuljagir hastened to allay, saying:
‘But although Issawi, their god, may well have been an incarnation of the Creator, it is clear his teaching is of no effect, for his followers, much as they preach, practise the contrary of all his teaching. However, if you will pardon the egotism of my words, fathers, there is one thing more I must say of life there. Tuljagir spoke very fluently, and a grave assent was given. ‘They said I was unorthodox, the Poona Brahmins; but, oh! my fathers, I will prove to you my orthodoxy. The missionary praised my speaking, father, and knew I understood their Scriptures well, and pressed me to take up their Gospel work. He knew I was not baptized, but offered me sixty rupees a month if I would go forth and preach during the day in Marathi. My fathers, that was a year ago. I considered the matter, and I accepted, and I trust I did my duty well to my employers. I preached with fervency and a knowledge of the Scriptures. The Brahmins came to my father, and said: “We cannot eat with Tuljagir, he is a Christian.” I was not at the house, but my father said, “I know nothing, save that he is most orthodox in every detail.” I returned and performed, as I have always done, my worship and devotions, discarding every piece of clothing which was contaminated by my daily work. My father told me what he had heard, and I turned to the folk and said, “You can see and you can hear me; I do honestly what I am paid to do, and the money I earn, whose is it? Whose son am I? Kali, the great goddess’s. It is spent in her service and my father’s.”
A slight smile of amusement ran round the listening circle; they knew how far more powerful is practice than precept. Tuljagir perceived that he had his audience ‘on the hop,’ as he would have said in the English slang he had acquired, and went on again in his fluent Marathi:
My fathers, so much have I gained by going among our conquerors. I would fain do more. They are for ever urging us to be like themselves. Why not follow their example, and push it to its extreme point? Imitation, they say, is sincerest flattery: they have crossed the strange, dark waters and despoiled us; my fathers, let us, too, take sail in their own ships, enter their country, and carry off their property. No, I am not mad with my own conceit; I have a very definite plan, if you, my fathers, deign to approve.’
The Maharaj took his hookah’s ivory mouthpiece out of his mouth, and said:
My son, this is the first time you have attended our meetings, or you would know that every project, however strange, is heard, discussed, and then decided.’
‘My fathers,’ continued Tuljagir, ‘I have read many English tales; there, in Poona, the romances of the foreigner can be obtained for a few pice, in English or Marathi—detective stories they call them, tales in which daring robberies are carried out, and the gang tracked at last to earth by the hero of the tale. My fathers, the gangs never got out of the English detective’s ken. They were of the same race—every dog runs as its kind. My great idea is to go to England, act on the principle of the detective stories as to how to get the “swag,” as they call it, or the “loot,” and bring it here.’
‘But what do you intend to loot? A cargo of stolen furniture, I am afraid, would not elude the authorities!’ said Premgir gravely.
‘What can we do better than take the jewellery of their womenkind? what greater profit to us, what greater insult to them? Lots of these romances are full of how to “work the trick.”’
Tuljagir was speaking the Marathi version of the precious works he had read. ‘Send me to England, and by the great mother, I will secure the booty! Hoarded knowledge is golden.’
‘The dawn is near,’ quoth Narbaddagir, as all had sat silent for a few minutes. ‘You have yet to tell how, and in what capacity, you would fain go. We must perform our morning worship, and must leave this holy spot before the pilgrims of the fair are stirring. Come, Tuljagir, curb your youthful excitement; all great things need consideration, even when speedy action is necessary, and here we have time before us. On the first day of the dark half of this moon we will decide.’
‘A fortnight to wait,’ thought the impatient Tuljagir. Once again the company filed out, and into the boats. The white marble cliffs were tinted with roseate hues, and the wood-pigeons were cooing to the dawn; when they reached the landing-stage pious pilgrims were already paying their devotions to the sun, pouring lustrations with their joined palms as they stood knee-deep in the sacred stream, and reciting that glorious invocation which is one of the gems of Hindu Holy Writ. There is no time to tell of the strange throng who had come to the waters for the sacred worship of the goddess. Tuljagir invested in two brass lotahs, full of the sacred liquid and soldered down, so that none should be spilt on the road by the returning pilgrim, and he should be spared the temptation to palm off on his unsuspecting relatives in the distant village the unavailing fluid from some neighbour’s well.
The fortnight passed in excursions to different little shrines, all picturesquely situated, where the frugal meals were eaten by the well-side, under the spreading shade of tamarind or banyan trees, and near some sacred peepul. Not one word was said about their deliberations, nor, as far as Tuljagir knew, did any conversation take place between the elders. On the day before the one appointed he was told to be present the next evening at midnight at the Madan Mahal, that was all.
Tuljagir had seen the Madan Mahal in the distance; it was an old palace fortress of the Gond kings, set high on the hills about three miles off. It gleamed white in the sunlight, as seen from the temple of the sixty-three gods. Tuljagir spoke to his guru, Narbaddagir, after the temple servant had given him the message, but Narbaddagir simply said, ‘You must do as you are told;’ and said nothing of accompanying him.
During the day Tuljagir asked the way to the place, and was shown the road.
‘Go not near it after dusk,’ said his informant, a native farmer, ‘for the lake half-way up is even yet the home of shaitans, and you would add but one more to the enchanted boulders that strew the ascent.’
Tuljagir, for all the incredulity of the rising generation that bubbled in his veins, felt the force of the hereditary superstition of generations, and would fain have not gone.
However, he vowed cocoanuts and incense, a special oblation to Krishnaji, and a kid to Kali, the dread goddess, should he be allowed to escape from the demons, and before he went took the trouble to consult an old Brahmin, who had a reputation in such matters, as to whether the day was a propitious one for him or not, and on receiving a favourable reply felt considerably comforted.
Madan Mahal means ‘the palace of Madan.’ It is on the crest of a high hill, and perched on a huge rounded black basalt boulder overhanging a precipice. The path up lies through similar great boulders, with which the hill is strewn. It was pitch dark, and Tuljagir was quite alone, and had only a small kerosene lantern to light him on his way. There was not a soul about. Half-way up he came suddenly on the black lake, deep, dark, oily-looking. There had been a horrid murder, and a girl’s body thrown into the lake some years before, and each minute Tuljagir expected to see the shaitan of the deceased coming towards him with its feet turned the wrong way round—the distinguishing mark of ghosts; but nothing happened, and at last he found himself in front of the Mahal on its weird eyrie. The building itself was a narrow rectangle some three stories high, and a flight of steep steps led to the first story.
Tuljagir was no coward, and he had made up his mind to go to England; also, as the stories of Jack Sheppard are supposed to demoralize little street urchins at home by firing them with pickpocket ardour, so the detective stories of the worthy Mr. Reynolds and Miss Levenworth, done into choice Marathi, had really suggested to the Oriental imagination of Tuljagir a method of plundering the rich; and he was quite up in the art of laying strings across English lawns, and taking advantage of the family being at dinner to purloin all the family jewels, left for that purpose on ‘my lady’s’ dressing-table. Another spur was that he wished to become a barrister. There is no profession that so thoroughly appeals to the native as the law. The only amusement he knows is to get the better of his neighbour in a thoroughly public manner, and there is no game so interesting as a legal proceeding, criminal or civil. What ‘Cavendish’ is to the Englishman, the codes are to the native Hindu, and to marshal your witnesses as exciting a piece of mental skill as a good game of whist.
Sustained by his hopes and ambitions, Tuljagir thrust aside his natural dismay, and mounted the narrow steps leading into the Madan Mahal. Everything was quite dark, but by the light of his little lantern he made out that he was in a narrow passage, out of which a staircase, just wide enough for one man to mount at a time, ran up in the thickness of the wall on either side. He hesitated a moment which to try first, but decided on the one on his left hand, only to find himself landed against a blank wall. Then he went up the one on the right. First he came to a little chamber, bare and deserted, no matting on the floor, a few travellers’ names scrawled in Hindi, Marathi, and even English, on the walls. Again he went up, and emerged on a terrace overlooking a precipice. This, too, was deserted; an owl hooted suddenly, and made him start, and then he saw what seemed like a gleam of light at the further end of the platform. He went towards it, and found that there was a door leading into the interior, but a heavy purdah, or curtain, hung against it, just allowing a slight streak of light to issue from one side. Even as he approached this was securely fastened from within, and darkness prevailed. He attempted to raise the curtain, but as he touched the iron rod which weighed it down he felt a shock go up his arm, and let it go hurriedly, faint with fright. There was silence for a moment, and then a voice asked:
‘Who is without?’
Tuljagir began in a low voice, “I saw a light,’ and was going on to explain, when the voice interrupted him, saying, as though the speaker were turning away from the door:
‘One who saw a light is without.’
Other voices speaking in turn were heard within, but what they said was not audible. Then the voice from behind the purdah spoke again.
‘What did you wish to do on seeing a light?’
‘I wished to find out from whence it came,’ was the natural answer of Tuljagir, who was recovering his courage, for he almost thought he recognised the voice of his guru-father, Narbaddagir.
‘A most laudable desire. Enter and ascertain, if you dare!’
The concluding words almost made Tuljagir draw back, but, fortunately for him, he had started off to lift the purdah, and was beyond the threshold as a sword of sharp edge descended behind him, just as he stood within the doorway holding up the purdah in his left hand, whilst his right mechanically held forth his lantern to show the scene. It was not needed. He was in a long, low, narrow room. At the end, in robes of gorgeous gold brocade, sat the old Bairagi Premgir, garlanded with exquisite yellow orchids; a silver platter lay before him, on which were eight single specimens of the flower. Narbaddagir was at the door and five other of the Mahants were kneeling, two facing the Bairagi on either side of the silver platter, and one behind him burning incense. Narbaddagir gave no sign of recognition, but placed the point of his bare sword at Tuljagir’s breast, bade him follow, and then led him to the space before the silver platter. Tuljagir, as in duty bound, prostrated himself there, and the old Premgir spoke slowly:
‘Rise, my son.’ Tuljagir rose up and stood before him. ‘You came here of your own free will, of your own free will you will not depart. Attend to what I say. We are Tarvels.’
Tuljagir’s face showed the awed surprise he felt. He had heard, indeed, of the sacred Taru plant that grows only on the male bamboo, and which no man, so far as he knew, had ever seen. These gorgeous blossoms, he saw, must be the fabled flower: but whence had they come?
He knew the legend well. Was not his own guru, Narbaddagir, high priest of the temple of Mahakali, the shrine of Achuleshwar the Immovable, at Chandanpur? Two reigns even before the marvellous teerth of Achuleshwar was discovered, the place where the great goddess’s son Buthnath had been sealed for ever by the gods with the sacred prints of the cow’s hoof to the banks of the Jhurput, for intriguing with their wives, and whence from the five cow hoof-prints in the solid rock now gushes in the temple the healing stream—two reigns before this was discovered, and Sher Shah the king healed of his sores, more than eight hundred years from now, Ram Singh, the king, was said to have been guarded by the marvellous Tarvels—men who had eaten of the Taru, and were invulnerable to steel.
Whilst Tuljagir was calling these things to mind, a copy of the sacred ‘Bhagavad Gita,’ the holy song, had been placed in his hands, and he was sworn upon it to solemn secrecy under the most awful pledges as to the penalty the goddess would exact from him should he fail in his oaths.
‘We are Tarvels,’ then repeated the old Bairagi. ‘Do you wish to receive the Taru with a warm heart and a cold head in this goodly company, to be the special care and votary of the beautiful Buthnath, and the dread goddess?’
‘I do,’ replied Tuljagir firmly.
Then the ascetic proceeded to expound to him that the Taru orchid was an incarnation of the beautiful god, and possessed marvellous properties; that the Tarvels had maintained an unbroken descent from their foundation as a society, which he ascribed to Buthnath, the beautiful one himself, who had initiated the famous Ram Singh, the king.
At this point the crimson curtain which hung behind the ascetic was drawn aside by no visible means, and disclosed a lovely group: Buthnath, the divine and beautiful, standing erect, a nude and lovely youth, holding in his right hand one of the glorious flowers, which he extended to a kneeling figure before him, clad in a warrior’s dress of olden time, but bareheaded and barefooted—Ram Singh, the king. Tuljagir felt his heart bound within him as he saw the god thus, and not bound and sealed to the rock with the cow’s hoof-prints, as depicted in his guru’s temple of Achuleshwar at Chandanpur. The curtain then fell. A small cut was made in the left thumb of each person present, including Tuljagir, in succession, and a drop of blood from each let fall on each of the eight flowers. And all then in silence ate the blood-spotted blooms, Tuljagir doing likewise.
‘Look again, my son,’ said the old ascetic; and Tuljagir was shown, to his surprise, that the cut in each one’s thumb, save his own, had quite closed, and showed but a little line. “This is one virtue of the holy plant, to heal. You, my son, are not yet immune. Take this tincture, distilled from the sacred leaves in the holy water of the Beautiful’s temple, of which your guru is guardian. He will direct you how to drink it, and though your hand will throb and your trouble be great at first, persevere, and you, too, will be guarded against cut and wound. You are now of our blood and of the blood of Buthnath; see that you fail him not, nor disappoint a brother. You must know that to this minor confraternity but few belong. The lands which the great Ram Singh gave the then representatives have been wrested from us. Our own abiding-place is not our own, and Ghairagurh and its Zemindari, the Tarvels’ heritage, were given to another by the loathed Mussulman, and this English Raj upholds the tenure on the documents. We shall see: there is yet a prophecy unfulfilled. My son, this confraternity is indissolubly banded together. Struck by your remarks at your reception into the number of the mother’s temple servants, we have opened our ranks to you. We must enrol new members from time to time; but we do it rarely, and with much heart-searching. Now you may tell us your plans, and know beforehand that we have considered during the light fortnight, and are willing to send you to England, even if you achieve nought.’
Tuljagir said in a low, awed tone:
‘My father, I feel the holy flower and the might of Buthnath, the Blessed and Beautiful, working within me. I have no fully-developed plan—why should I lie?—but I think, if you and my brothers will aid me, I may yet find some way to wrest the jewels of the English from them there, and bring them here, where the brain of European cannot trace nor his hand grasp. And again, you say, my father, that the Zemindari of Ghairagurh is no longer the property of the Tarvels; if I may go to the Bar, I shall at any rate be able to look into the matter.’
‘We have had the best legal advice, my son, and we have no grant forthcoming. However, may the dread goddess and her son, the Beautiful, prosper you, and the Taru keep you in all safety.’ Thus saying, the others joined Premgir in congratulating their new blood-brother.
‘One more thing remains to be done,’ said the old ascetic. ‘Narbaddagir, bring hither the sacred sword.’
A straight sword, broadening at the point, the same that had hovered over Tuljagir’s head and been placed at his breast, was handed to the old man. Tuljagir was made to kneel, and the sword lightly laid on his shoulder, as though he were being knighted. Then he was told to rise, and the sword placed in his hand and its blade shown to him.
‘The Taru to save and help, the sword—Buthnath’s beauty—to destroy. See, it is made of watered steel, and in it are woven from point to hilt the various emblems: your guru will explain to you their significance as signs and tokens of communication, the passwords and the means of communication. Now we can go forth in safety.’
The company set forth, leaving Tuljagir to follow with his guru, Narbaddagir. Much to the former’s surprise, he found they made straight for the neighbouring large English station, and not back to the shrine of the ‘sixty-three.’
Narbaddagir explained that they were to enter into communication with the various officials, obtain letters of introduction, and learn what to do in the great ‘Wilayet.’ And so it came to pass that in due time Tuljagir with one serving-lad went forth on the dark waters, and came to the land of gloom and cold which they call the great ‘Wilayet,’ the home of the ‘Ingrez.’
In the year of grace 1889 Giles Court, Loamshire, was ‘burgled’—that is to say, while old Lady Giles, young Sir Philip, and one or two people staying in the house were dining at the countrified hour of seven, all the famous Giles jewels were abstracted, including the wonderful set of turquoises. Of course, there was not a trace of a clue. On the other hand, when they were styled the ‘famous’ Giles jewels, it must be premised that at the outside they may have been worth £5,000, and that they were famous rather for their history and pedigree than for their intrinsic value.
Now, the Duke and Duchess with a large house-party were staying at the Castle, not five miles off. The amount of jewellery there was very considerable and the stones splendid; but although the London detectives waited day and night at the Castle gates to see those diamonds carried off, nothing happened. There was this one inexplicable small haul made in the county, nothing more.
The prize seemed insignificant to the faculties of the London detectives, yet the loss was very great, very real, and very keenly felt by those who had actually sustained it.
The police examined all the servants. Their characters were excellent and their histories perfect. Then there was old Lady Giles; they really could not suspect her of taking her own few ornaments. There was young Sir Philip, who had just come of age after a fairly long minority, whose estate was quite unencumbered. Miss Hastings, Lady Giles’s niece, was eighteen years old, and had £4,000 a year of her own—quite out of the question. Lastly, there was a Mr. Fitch. He had only £400 a year, it is true. He was a young barrister, a college friend of Sir Philip’s, twenty-four years old, and really didn’t seem to have as yet had time in his life to acquire the acquaintance and the experience necessary for such a coup. He was not in debt, and if he had walked off in some simple but unaccountable manner with the ‘swag,’ still it was certain he would not know how to dispose of it. Besides, the jewels were undeniably in their places when the four sat down to dinner, and it was equally certain the gems had gone when they got up.
There had been some tennis at the Court during the afternoon. The Assizes were on at Easton, and a Q.C., his wife and daughter, and a young native of India (just called, and lionized by the Q.C.’s wife), constituted the party, plus a curate and a squire of the neighbourhood with two of his daughters. They had all left by six o’clock, as far as could be ascertained, taking nothing away with them that was not their own property. The interesting native, Mr. Gussain, had never been seen to leave the side of the Q.C.’s wife, but had wandered with her through the shrubbery, imbibing civilization at every pore.
There was nobody to suspect. The ornaments were in Sir Philip’s dressing-room, in a small iron safe. He had given his mother a little pearl necklace of her own she wanted her niece to wear, a little before dinner; everything was there then. They were to have gone to a ball at the Castle after dinner, but Lady Giles had said she would not put on her tiara and rivière till just before they started, and it was when her son went to take them out of the safe that it was discovered neither they nor anything else were there.
Naturally, they did not go to the ball, but sent into Easton for the police instead; and naturally everyone was very much upset, and poor Mr. Fitch most of all, though he strove to look unconcerned, and it must be said succeeded in doing so. He felt he might be suspected. He was the only outsider present; besides, he was cultivating a tender passion for Miss Hastings. His income was £400 a year, and he had had £7,000 to spend over his ’Varsity career, so he knew that £400 per annum would not suffice for the ordinary necessaries of life, not to speak of the luxuries. Fitch had been called to the Bar, and for some months past had contemplated living by his wits. True, at present he was not in debt, for he had never associated at college with men who had more than £200 a year allowed them to spend; still, he did not quite realize that £400 a year would scarcely seem, even to the London detective, such beggary as would drive the owner to steal £5,000 worth of ornaments which only a professional thief could convert into coin.
So he and Sir Philip sat glumly at the dining-table, whose mahogany had been cleared, whilst the ladies had faint symptoms of hysteria in the drawing-room. Both Sir Philip and his mother, as soon as they had grasped the situation, saw that good breeding demanded calm equanimity and a prompt observance of the convenances. Therefore they double-locked the dressing-room door, having seen that the one window was still bolted and the shutters barred, and then suggested that the gentlemen should go back to the dining-room, whence Sir Philip had come to get the ornaments when the ladies rose, and Miss Hastings and Lady Giles would go on with their coffee in the drawing-room. This had the great convenience of separating the sexes.
Fitch and Sir Philip sat glum. Fitch, in fact, did not quite know what to say. ‘It wasn’t me’ somehow did not seem the thing, although it was what was at first uppermost in his mind. Sir Philip broke the silence.
‘My dear fellow,’ he said, ‘the things could not leave by themselves, but who the deuce lent them legs?’
‘It wasn’t me’ again floated uppermost in Fitch’s mind, but he knew it could not be uttered, and realized that the proper answer must be:
‘Well, I suppose, if we put together the facts as we know them, and see if there are any marks about the place, we may be able to come to some conclusion.’
He felt this speech needed a liquor up, and suggested accordingly a whisky-and-soda.
‘Certainly,’ said Sir Philip, ‘and we won’t join the ladies either. You have hit the right nail on the head, old man, and we must see if we cannot deduce the whole thing from, say, a breath of air. I have wired to Scotland Yard, of course, but we will just see what we can do ourselves. After all, a man may do what he likes with his own, even in the matter of traces and clues; and when these detectives turn up they probably won’t let us have a look in at all.’
Fitch absorbed his whisky-and-soda, and with it a bright idea entered his head. Here was his opportunity to win the gratitude of the house of Giles and the fancy of Miss Hastings. It was a very crude idea, but that was the sort of way in which it occurred to him. It had a sort of use-your-wits air about it that peculiarly chimed in with the point of view from which he had been regarding life for the time being. Everyone who has read anything at all is nowadays perfectly aware what course to pursue in the investigation of a crime.
Fitch and Sir Philip went up together to the dressing-room. They had merely seen to the fastenings and locked the room after Sir Philip had discovered his loss and alarmed the house by calling out to the footman in the hall. The ladies had come from the drawing-room, heard the news, and returned, that was all.
‘We must do everything exactly together,’ said Fitch, ‘otherwise we shall get in each other’s way.’
First they looked outside the door. It opened off a landing just at the top of the stairs, and had a little mat in front of it—a fluffy white thing. This they examined carefully, almost hair by hair. Sir Philip’s valet, whom they had summoned, thought them crazy. They found nothing.
The handle of the door! Here was something—the impression of a finger-print, rather grimy and oily, on the inside of the handle. They carefully unscrewed this precious article.
‘It will be sure to get rubbed off,’ said Sir Philip.
‘What a very curious smell it has!’ said Fitch. ‘It’s a coarse, strong scent. I noticed the smell directly we got up here before, and it is the handle which smells so strong.’
‘Let us photo it,’ said Sir Philip. ‘You have your Kodak, and there is the electric light.’
This was a brilliant idea, and they carried it out by taking a photograph of the handle. As far as could be ascertained, the imprint was of a small, delicate lady’s finger. Whose? flashed simultaneously into the minds of both.
‘Now we have photographed it, we can rub it out,’ said Sir Philip, and screw the handle back again.’
A doubt as to whose the finger might have been had crept into their minds, thanks to the floods of detective novels to which we owe so much.
‘I can do what I like with my own, after all,’ continued Sir Philip
So Fitch wiped the handle with his handkerchief, which he stuck back again into his cuff. Inside the room they could find nothing except the case of the little pearl necklace, which, with another little square case in which an old emerald brooch had reposed, was lying open just outside the safe door. Fitch inquired if any particular interest or value attached to the latter.
‘No,’ said Sir Philip; it is put down in the list as valued at £30; it was a square stone of fair colour. My great-uncle got it in India, and it had some inscription in Urdu on it. No; the turquoises were the most valuable things; they were brought from Russia a century and a half ago.’
They made an end of their searching.
‘Now,’ said Sir Philip; ‘let us adjourn to the smoking-room, and deduce the history of the crime from the data before us.’
‘How on earth did they get in?’ quoth Fitch. “The window was bolted and barred on the inside. I can’t see how they did it unless they walked straight in at the front-door, upstairs into the room, stole the jewels, and came back again.’
Well, they might have done so,’ was the answer. ‘The front-door was not locked. But there is always a footman in the hall. By Jove!’ said Sir Philip, and he rang the bell. ‘Hughes’—to the valet who answered it—‘send Peter here. Peter,’ he continued, turning to Fitch, ‘was in the hall while we were at dinner.’
There was a knock at the smoking-room door, and Peter entered. He was of middle height, a cockney, had a shifty look, and a white, rather startled expression.
‘Peter,’ asked his master, “are you quite sure no one came in while we were at dinner?’
‘Yes, Sir Philip; but—but——’
‘Well?’ cried his master. ‘Out with it, man.’ Both he and Fitch leaned forward. ‘Out with it; one would think you had seen the devil.’
‘But, but—yes, sir; I saw the devil!’
‘The deuce you did! And pray where did you see him, and why didn’t you tell us before?’
‘Yes, and what did he look like?’ added Fitch. The answer had seemed so ludicrous.
‘Oh, sir, I was afraid you would laugh at me. It was outside the ’all window, all black, with streaky white pieces across its forehead, staring eyes, and a long, wispy bit of black hair. It pressed right up to the ’all window and looked in, and then it was gone.’
Fitch took out his handkerchief, blew his nose to prevent himself laughing, and asked:
‘What did you do?’
Peter gave an obvious start.
‘I thought it was my fancy, though I hadn’t had a drop, and went just outside by the window, and it smelt just like that;’ pointing to Fitch’s handkerchief. ‘And then I came in at once, and the jewels were gone, Sir Philip. It must have been the devil.’
‘This is very suspicious, Peter, a thorough cock-and-bull story like this—you had better be careful. You can go now, but the police will be here in the morning, and I shall have to ask you to make the same statement to them.’
‘Well, Fitch, it seems to me we are between the devil and the deep sea. I think we had better go to bed.’ And so the friends exchanged good-nights, and departed to their respective couches.
At this period Walter Fitch was just twenty-four years old. He was the son of a baronet in the shires, the second son. In appearance he was slight, about five feet eight inches in height, with piercing blue eyes and fairish hair, and he was a great sportsman. He had been sent to the Bar because his mother’s people had belonged to the legal profession, and his elder brother was in the army. In reality he was one of those scions of the British race to whom we owe our world-wide dominion—the men who went forth in Elizabeth’s days, and who are going forth still in the days of Victoria, to find for themselves the fame and fortune that are the hereditary possession of their eldest brothers. Walter Fitch was acute enough, but the narrow precincts of the law would never prove large enough for his family instincts to remain cooped up in. When he was a boy he had read of his ancestors’ doings, and, heredity or no heredity, the wanderings of his forefathers were bound to leaven his life. Up to now it had been a case of tasting the delights of freedom and home—his own master in town; the life of the chick that has succeeded in getting hatched, but has not yet even dreamt that it possesses wings, and should fly.
In the morning the party of four met again at breakfast. It is wonderful how soon you get used to unusual situations; it seemed quite natural that the jewels should have been stolen, as if all the episodes of life had simply been leading up to this. Fitch’s first remark, instead of a polite inquiry as to the jewels, was:
‘Well, Giles, how about the otters?’ referring to some otter-hunting that was to have come off. And then, as he caught a grieved look in the Dowager’s eye: ‘Oh! beg pardon; I hope the jewels have turned up;’ and at last, as he perceived the absurdity of this: ‘I presume the police are now investigating the matter, Lady Giles?’
Miss Hastings made the secret comment that it was just the behaviour she had expected.
The conversation became general, i.e., mixed, and as breakfast came to an end a servant inquired if the gentleman from London could see Sir Philip in the smoking-room. Sir Philip went off, and Lady Giles with him. This left Miss Hastings and Mr. Fitch alone together.
Miss Hastings rose and stood by the fire, resting one little foot on the fender, and her two hands clasped together on the marble mantelpiece. She was a pretty and very feminine girl, in spite of her £4,000 a year and her ideas of life, which were new, but not novel. She thought woman should be allowed her own way, which is as ancient history as the little episode of Eve; and as Flora Hastings had the means, of course she had her way. Flora had an exquisite long-waisted figure; her face was smooth, and recalled to mind the calm features of the Roman imperial age. She was eighteen, and had been proposed to oftener than she numbered years.
She stood tapping on the fender with her shapely foot. Of course, Fitch had had to rise, too, and came and stood near her. She was slightly taller than he was.
There was a moment’s pause, then the girl turned towards him, and said:
‘Mr. Fitch, there is something I must say to you.’
‘By Jove!’ thought Fitch, ‘my sentiment to a T, substituting Miss Hastings for Mr. Fitch.’ And he caught himself wondering, with a half smile, if she would say ‘Walter.’ However, she only repeated very gravely:
‘Yes,’ said Fitch.
‘I can come to no other conclusion,’ she said, “than that you know something about this miserable affair; I have watched your every action.’
Fitch was thoroughly taken aback; although in his morbid self-consciousness he had thought the detective must suspect him, still, he had never thought of this. When she saw how shocked he looked, Flora realized what an absurd charge she was making, the mere outcome of dreams, detective novels, and over-excitement, and blushed crimson.
This blush brought all his manhood back to Fitch, who understood her position by a sort of intuition, it so resembled his own thoughts; he hastened to profit.
‘Miss Hastings,’ he said—‘Flora, I can simply say it wasn’t me’ (he had to say so at last); ‘but if you have really watched and studied me so closely, you must have seen what has been the dearest aspiration of my heart for the last six months.’ Being a barrister at least lends fluency to proposals.
Miss Hastings felt she had been caught in her own trap. However, both parties were now on ground with which they were not unacquainted.
‘Mr. Fitch,’ said Miss Hastings, ‘I cannot listen to what you have to say at present, but——’ And here she looked at him again with her large gray eyes.
Flora really liked Walter better than most men she had seen up to date. She wasn’t in love, but they had stayed at the same houses, and met a good deal the last season. She knew matrimony was her ultimate destiny. Walter was a gentleman, and she felt a kind of protecting feeling towards him, as he was not rich, and not overwhelmingly tall. There was no reason why she should have felt like this, for he was well able to look after himself. And now she felt remorseful for having wronged and insulted him. So she said:
‘I cannot listen to what you have to say, but if you could only trace down the jewels that have disappeared, and restore them to their proper owner, there is little you could say which I would refuse to listen to.’
She didn’t really quite mean it, but situations are all the craze, and this one carried her away. Besides, it seemed so unlikely she could ever be called upon to listen to anything. All this her acute feminine perception had fully grasped.
Fitch had just time to pronounce an emphatic marriage-ceremony ‘I will’ when Lady Giles came in. They darted apart from the mantelpiece in what struck her as a suspicious way, and hurried to obey her request that they would join Sir Philip and herself in the library.
‘Surely,’ thought Lady Giles, ‘there can be nothing between Flora and Mr. Fitch—and about the diamonds, too. But the mere idea began to agitate the dear old lady, and she hastened to put all wild surmises from her.
Sir Philip and Mr. Hubbard, the great detective, were sitting in the study. Mr. Hubbard had at once put down Peter’s devil to a flight of rustic imagination. Now, Peter was a cockney. There was no clue; all Mr. Hubbard could say was that this robbery resembled in many respects the famous diamond and jewel robberies of the last two years, winding up with the Countess of Flanders’s robbery, in which countless jewels of enormous value had simply been spirited away. And he produced a number of newspaper cuttings referring to these interesting events.
Fitch asked to see these; he was much impressed by the scene in the breakfast-room, when he had said “I will.’ It had suddenly dawned upon him that this was a chase as interesting and as arduous as the sport he was so fond of; a deer-stalk was nothing to it. This was the stalking of an unknown game, whom you couldn’t approach up the wind.
‘Who is the young man?’ whispered Mr. Hubbard to Sir Philip.
‘A younger son of Sir John Fitch,’ was the reply. ‘He is not very well off, but he is all right.’
‘He’s got a mouth like a steel trap,’ was all Mr. Hubbard said, ‘and what magnificent blue eyes!’
The great detective soon took his leave, and all that was left was a paragraph in the papers to match those that had already appeared anent the other sensational jewel robberies. During the day Fitch said he must make his adieux: he had to appear in a case for the Crown to run in an ordinary burglar at Easton the next day, and then he must get back to chambers, as the Assizes would be over.
To Sir Philip he said:
‘Look here, Giles, I am going to put my back into this business.’
‘All right, old man,’ said Sir Philip; ‘and, of course, if you want any sinews and have any clue, you must let me know.’
To Miss Hastings he said: ‘Can you come into the shrubbery a few minutes?’ And there he turned on her and said: ‘Look here, I love you!’ and there was a look in his blue eyes which made her gray ones quiver for once. ‘You’ve put the taste of the chase into me and I am going to follow this up, and then I shall come back and marry you.’
Miss Hastings found it most interesting, and put it all down in her diary that night, and Fitch went down to the Redlands Hotel, where most of the men on circuit were staying, and sat down to the Bar dinner between a cousin of his, a little fellow of forty who had written some sentimental songs of the day, and the native of India who was Mr. Q.C.’s protégé, and who was just going round on circuit to see what the life was like. He was a millionaire or something in his own country, and, proportionately, better thought of in this. He was evidently a very distinguished person.
Fitch didn’t much like natives. There were some of them at his Inn of Court and about in the common room, and they somehow impressed him with a sense of uncanniness. He couldn’t associate these dingy-coloured folk in sad English raiment with his idea of the inhabitants of the gorgeous East, the tropical jungle with its tigers and extravagant foliage, all under the brilliant sunshine and deep-blue sky; so he got into conversation with his cousin, who was one of the most mercenary and ordinary of men, and yet a genius in his way, for he could voice the commonplace pathetic sentimentalities of the voiceless millions of the middle class.
Vokes-that was his name—had just given an interesting description of how his eldest son, aged fifteen, had entered a public school, and was busy questioning Fitch about the jewel robbery, which had every element of interest in it, aristocratic and professional, when the latter looked round, to find the eyes of the native, his neighbour, fixed on him.
The circuit mess snuff-box was coming its solemn rounds, and the dinner drawing to a close. The only thing that Fitch had noticed about his Indian neighbour was how little he had taken of anything: he hadn’t actually seen him eat at all. Now, the snuff-box had just reached him; he rose in accordance with etiquette, took a slight pinch, and bowed very solemnly to Fitch, who also rose and returned the bow. The box passed on, but Fitch felt that in some strange way they were now literally known to each other—he and this handsome Eastern lad with the clear-cut features and rather wide mouth, who had such large lustrous eyes and a complexion like fine bronze. He was dressed like any well-dressed English gentleman, except that he wore a round, black velvet cap, something like a smokingcap, embroidered with a conventional design in reddish silks.
Dinner was over, and the lights of the circuit were engaged in playing at ‘cock-fighting’ on the floor to relax their learned minds. The Indian had slipped off.
‘Who is that native? And what is his name?’ said Fitch to his cousin.
Vokes knew everything about everybody who was anybody.
‘Didn’t you meet him out at Giles Court? He went there with the Q.C.’s.’
‘Yes, but I didn’t get introduced,’ returned Fitch.
‘Well, he has been about two years in England. His father is a rajah or zemindar or something, with heaps of money. We call him Mr. Gussain, but this is what he writes on his cards’—and Vokes took a slip of paper and pencilled on it, ‘Tuljagir Gosain.’ ‘He lives in those rooms over the gateway at the top of Middle Temple Lane. He is quite different to the ordinary run of native.’
‘Hum! I don’t know whether I like or dislike him, but his face has a kind of fascination about it. Well, remember me to your wife; I hope to call soon.’
Fitch went up to his room, the ordinary hotel bedroom—an excellent place to think in; you dare not think about the room! Fitch sat on a chair in front of the looking-glass: this was a favourite trick of his when alone. It had all the appearance of a companion, and none of the drawbacks; besides, one is really interested in seeing how this Johnny in front of one looks when engaged in meditation. The room was one of a number on the landing. Fitch sat and thought. There was Flora—she represented his career in life; there was his own £400 a year—that represented adventure in life in order to get more; then there was this jewel business. They had developed the photo, and shown it to Mr. Hubbard, who at once was able to say that the finger was a woman’s, it was so delicate. So they had taken impressions of all the women’s fingers about the Court and sent them off to the finger-tip expert. To no effect. It must have been someone who knew the house.
‘How I do wish Francis were here!’ thought Fitch.
Francis was a man he had been with at school and crammers’, and had also seen a good deal of at college. He was in the Indian Civil Service, and had gone out to take up his appointment about eighteen months before.
Suddenly Fitch sniffed: his nose was his strong point. Surely he smelt that same odour he had noticed at the Court! He had told Mr. Hubbard about the smell, but had received the somewhat facetious reply that he himself couldn’t hunt by scent; did Mr. Fitch suggest the use of bloodhounds? He had handed Mr. Hubbard his handkerchief, and the latter admitted there was a faint perfume about it; what scent did Mr. Fitch use? And Mr. Fitch had to admit that he used lavender-water.
‘Precisely,’ said Mr. Hubbard; ‘lavender-water.’ And there the matter had terminated.
Now he smelt it again. It was no fancy. He got the old handkerchief, which he had carefully kept. Yes, although very faint, the odour was the same. He looked all round the room. There was the door on to the landing, and there were two other doors leading into each of the adjacent rooms. These, of course, were locked and bolted on each side, but he noticed the odour certainly stronger on the one on the left. He opened the door on to the landing and looked at the number on either side—123 and 127. Then he went back, undressed, had a refreshing wash, put on his pyjamas, and jumped into bed, to dream that he was up for an exam. in scents at Sainsbury’s, and that Rimmell refused to pass him.
The next day but one saw the return of Walter Fitch to town. He had convicted his burglar, merely having to get up and sit down again; but it was his first brief, and he felt that he had covered himself with ignominy. However, it was all over now. He had settled his hotel bill, and discovered that Room 127 had been inhabited by the native gentleman, who had gone up to town the day before, and Room 123 by a burlesque actress and her husband, who were touring the provinces.
Now, Fitch sat in a comfortable third-class carriage in the Great-Western express, smoking a cigar, and being whirled along to town. There is nothing like railway travelling for active thinking; it is a delightful stimulant to the brain. If you want to think out anything of any kind, take a railway journey, adapting the length to the nature of the scheme. This is why politicians do such a lot of travelling, and is the real origin of railway-platform speeches. So Fitch sat and thought, and by the time Windsor Castle gratified his right-hand eye he had arrived at the conclusion that either Mr. Gussain or the burlesque actress had something to do with the jewel robbery, that he must make their acquaintance, and find out where they got their scent from. He knew the actress’s real name; it was Mrs. Harrison, and she lived somewhere in Clapham. Her stage name was Ruth Hoffnung.
Paddington Station. London nowadays is no walled city, but she still has her great gates—gates not of brick and mortar, with heavy bastions, studded doors, and drawbridges to keep folks out, but huge arches of glass and iron framework to lure all comers in, one at the end of each of the great thoroughfares of the mighty iron horse, each a terminus, each a starting-point of life. Almost every modern story, romance, or novel might begin in a railway-station and end in one.
It was evening when Fitch arrived, and the lamps were lit. He got into a hansom and drove through the ever-strange London streets, heavy with night, yet flaring with lights, and ever palpitating with the unknown life rushing hither and thither down to the Temple. The Middle Temple Lane gateway was closed, and had to be opened for him. He looked up with some interest at the windows of the chambers over the gate. The two end ones had balustrades out into the street—Fleet Street—just over against the great Law Courts clock. The middle window was a small square one. The building, etc., purported to go back to the times of the Stuarts, and parts of it were earlier still in date of structure.
Fitch had just time to note that the rooms were lighted up, but heavy curtains drawn, and then he clattered under the archway and drew up at Garden Court, in which he himself lived—up at the top of No. 1, opposite the Fountain, with a lovely view down across the gardens to the Thames, and with the trees in the springtime flinging their light-green foliage in at the windows.
The laundress had known of his coming, and put everything in order, and when he opened his oak and the inner door he realized what comfort was again. The room was panelled; a bright fire burnt in the grate; the furniture was Chippendale and Sheraton. The room was lighted by wax-candles in Empire candelabra, and on the table was spread a pleasant dessert, with tumblers and wine-glasses on the sideboard, and there were all the materials for making good coffee.
‘It’s your night for the meeting, sir,’ said the laundress.
‘So it is, Mrs. Barry. Thanks awfully for getting things ready. What’s the time? Just half-past seven, and they’re due at eight o’clock. Well, I’ll just wash my face and hands, and go and have something to eat at Dicks’s, and be back ready.’
You must remember this is a story beginning long ago, before the ‘new woman’ or the ‘new man’ had been created, or the ‘green carnation’ blown broadcast upon the land. Most of the characters have been born again, some of them in the course of the events under narration. Fitch was a member of a little society called the ‘Beauseant.’ It was twelve in number, and held its meetings once a fortnight, in a member’s rooms, and the host of the evening was allowed to have two guests. Its object was literary improvement. Four of the number read something they liked out of any book they chose, and the matter was discussed over coffee, cigars, dessert, and pegs. It was a cheerful society, Bohemian and dilettante, with a dash of real literary sense. Its most prominent, though not its most original, member was the living likeness of the martyr Charles, of blessed memory, and a great support to the White Rose. Its most original member was a ’Varsity scholar—a disappointment to his college, who wrote leaders for a Church paper, and was as great an authority on whisky as he was on vestments and positions.
Fitch went out of Middle Temple gate again, and turned straight down the little narrow passage that leads to Dicks’s Restaurant. It is Italian now, but in the good old days it was a coffee-house, and frequented by Counsellor Silvertongue and the periwigged poets of the golden age. Now it has red-plush seats and looking glasses, whilst macaroni and tomato sauce form the staple diet; but you can get a meal cheap and handy, and it is not forgotten of the Temple wits.
Fitch ordered a chop and potatoes and some lager, and sat down next to another man he knew. He was Scotch, which is common at the Temple. He had some money, and was an Aberdeen man. He had taken a scholarship in Equity. He was a Radical, and bent on getting into the House. He lived in the Temple.
‘Hullo, Fitch!’ said he.
‘Hullo, Graham!’ said Fitch.
‘Come along with me to the Empire. We’ll go to the National Liberal first, and see how the by-elections are going, and then we’ll go off to the Empire. There is a ripping fine girl I know there.’
It had occurred otherwise to Fitch, though.
‘I say, old fellow,’ he said, ‘you’d much better come over to my place. I’ve got a meeting of the Beauseant—you’ve been once before, you know. I’ve got no guests, and I’m supposed to have two.’
‘I should like to come, certainly,’ was Graham’s reply. He knew the Beauseant was exclusive, and, besides, he thought them likely to be of use by-and-by.
‘And,’ said Fitch, ‘I must have another. You’re always about with that native who took so many prizes. I saw him on circuit, and should like to know him. I see his rooms are lighted up. Do you think you could bring him?’
‘Right you are,’ said Graham. ‘He really is a decent sort. He’s just written a book on jurisprudence, and I’ve got a copy he’s given me. He’ll make his pile and a name. I tell him he ought to go into Parliament. Look here, you’ve done your chop, and I’ve finished; we’ll go and rout him up.’
The night-porter let them in again to the Temple precincts, so peaceful and quiet after the blare of the London night without, and they went up the little winding wooden stair. The oak wasn’t sported. On it was painted ‘Mr. Tuljagir Gussain.’
Graham gave a rat-tat-tat. There was a pause, a slight sound of shuffling, and then the native himself opened to them. The hall was lighted up, but seemed full of a thickish, queer-smelling smoke. Graham and Fitch coughed a little. Mr. Gussain recognised the former.
‘Will you come in?’ he said.
‘Look here, Gussain,’ said Graham, ‘let me introduce you to Mr. Fitch. He wants us to go to a meeting of a society at his place. It is very interesting. You ought to go. Just the thing for you to see how we manage an intellectual meeting of the rising generation in this country.’
‘I shall be extremely glad,’ said Mr. Gussain. ‘Won’t you come in a minute, and I will dress?’
‘Oh, never mind,’ said Fitch.
But the native had on a long dressing-gown of a queer brown stuff which it was obvious he could not come in. What he had on underneath was not visible, but he had curved red native slippers on his naked feet and the inevitable little cap. So they went in. There was a sort of lobby first, all panelled, with a window looking down the lane. The host opened a door and showed them into a square room, handsomely panelled and moulded, and painted in two shades of yellow. There was a heavy terracotta velvet curtain to the window, and the doors had portières of pink and green brocade. The furniture was Empire, gold and white, and covered with a stuff to match the portières. The lights, like Fitch’s, were wax candles in brass brackets on the walls and in dragons on the mantelpiece. There was a long mirror, two little tables, and three pictures, all autotypes after Bougereau. Nothing at all Indian about the room, but it was foreign, the room of a man of sensuous tastes. A bust of the Antinous in marble was on a slender pedestal, and there was a slim statuette in bronze of a nude Indian lad playing on a reed, whilst a cobra reared its head as though to the music. This was the only thing in the room even remotely suggesting Hindustan.
Mr. Gussain begged them to excuse him, and withdrew. ‘What a curious smoke about the place!’ said Fitch.
‘Oh yes,’ replied his companion; ‘it’s something to do with cooking his food. He doesn’t really eat our dishes, you know.’
There wasn’t a trace of that peculiar scent Fitch had half expected to find, nothing but this queer acrid smoke. Involuntarily he was disappointed, and Mrs. Harrison’s stage name, Ruth Hoffnung, slipped into his mind.
Mr. Gussain now appeared in evening dress. He had a good figure, and Fitch noticed how wide his shoulders were in comparison to his hips, though he was so slightly made.
‘Come along, we must hurry, or the men will be turning up.’
Mr. Gussain slammed his oak as they came out, but left all his lights burning.
‘Now for the feast of reason and flow of soul. Who is going to read to-night, Fitch?’ quoth Graham. ‘I should like to give them a dose of Stuart Mill.’
‘I really don’t know,’ was the reply; but come along in.’
‘You must join in the discussion, Gussain,’ said Graham.
‘I shall be very happy,’ was the deliberate answer, ‘to discuss anything, and compare our Eastern thoughts with those of the go-ahead West. After all, most serious matters are of general and eternal human interest.’
Fitch set down Mr. Gussain as a prig, and began to make the coffee, as the members were arriving fast, and liked the physical food for the inward man as a visible sign of the spiritual sustenance.
Culture and Bohemianism reigned supreme. Gregory, of White-Rose fame, was full of a chapter they were going to hold, with a view to a general demonstration next January on the Martyr’s Day, when a solemn service was to be held in a City church, and Madame de Blanquière was to sing ‘The King went white to his grave.’
Epping the Anglican, however, would only talk about the jewel robbery; his instincts as the coming Old Bailey lawyer were stronger than his Anglican convictions. Curiously enough, he got arguing the matter with the grave Hindoo. Epping had a theory—he always had one—that all the great jewel robberies, of which there had been such a number, were the work of the same gang.
‘What makes you think that?’ said Mr. Gussain; ‘some of them were abroad and others in England.’
‘Because,’ said Epping, ‘the secret has been so well kept. If each robbery had been the work of a different gang, just think how many different gangs there would have to be. Detection would be a certainty; and once you admit that more than one robbery was by the same gang, you may just as well assume they all were.’
Fitch chimed in here; he looked grave, and then said, with a burst:
‘Why, it might have been only one man.’
‘That is impossible,’ said Mr. Gussain somewhat loudly; ‘the Flanders affair and one of those in England took place on two successive days.’
Then he was silent, as if he hadn’t meant to speak in such good company, and at that moment from the other end of the room came the suggestion that the first reading was due, and the matter dropped. But it had struck Fitch for the moment that Gussain seemed to know a lot about the ‘affairs.’ However, the reading started. Fitch announced that the list submitted to him contained a selection from Shakespeare’s Sonnets by Mr. Williams, a young Home Office clerk; the White Knight chapter from ‘Alice through the Looking-glass,’ by Mr. Epping; Sam Weller’s meeting with Mr. Pickwick, by Mr. Bond, an Irishman of a pronounced type; and some of Omar’s Quatrains by Mr. Lotts, an Oriel man eventually intending holy orders.
As soon as the list had been read out, quite a babel of talk ensued, all four books apparently forming the subject of conversation at once. Mr. Gussain remarked to Graham that he thought ‘Alice through the Looking-glass’ was a fairy tale.
‘Oh yes,’ said Graham, “it’s a child’s book; but it’s just like Epping, he will find any philosophy you like in it.’
Then Fitch rapped on the table with a little black hammer, enjoined silence, and called on Mr. Epping for the White Knight.
Epping hadn’t had his hair cut for a month, nor had he apparently ever combed it; he had a blunt, good-natured face, his fingers all ink-stained, as were also his trousers. He had on an old tweed coat, the pockets bulging out. Before he could find ‘Alice’ he took out a missal in Latin, an old worm-eaten copy of the ‘Pensées,’ which he presented to Fitch, a large piece of chocolate, and then the book he wanted. The company were amused, but most of them had seen his rooms, where he had a bed, seldom re-made, and a heap of books—voilà tout. The reading was impressive and soon over.
‘There,’ said Epping, as he finished—‘there is the whole philosophy of most lives, to be prepared for every emergency and ready for none.’
Everyone smiled; at any rate, it was Epping’s. However, all were started on the philosophy of life. Lotts was strong on self-denial. Give away all your possessions,’ he said, ‘and then you will be really happy. You will get the full enjoyment out of them, thinking how nice they were, what you could have done with them, and you will never get tired of them.’
Strange to say, the Hindu agreed with him.
‘That is,’ he said, ‘in effect what our Shastries do—make everything a mental possession, and, of course, fix your thoughts on the great beyond, count all here as nothing. But practically,’ he added, ‘every man, of course, takes what he can get, and what is the practice must be the rule of life; custom, “dustur,” as we call it, reigns supreme with us.’
They all had their say; some of them wanted artistic lives with just enough, which brought Graham down on their heads to know how they fixed the limit, and to announce that all he desired was freedom, political freedom for all, and the total demolition of the Conservatives and Unionists.
Fitch wound up. He said:
‘I don’t know about the philosophy of life, but I should much like to get hatched. I feel exactly like a chicken that has chipped its shell and can’t get out. I want to have adventures, and make money.’
‘Begin by finding out the jewel-robbers,’ struck in the Home Office clerk.
A little silence fell upon the company, and the White Knight was once more lost in the wood.
The Irishman then gave an animated rendering of an Irish Mr. Weller and an Irish Mr. Pickwick; it was old, but it was classical, and at the same time it was laughable. So they all laughed, except Mr. Gussain, who said it was very good, very like Punch.
Then they had the Sonnets. The young Home Office clerk was commonplace, but he had chosen the most passionate and up-to-date of the sonnets. Tuljagir Gussain’s face had lighted up; Fitch noticed he looked inspired, his breath came a little quickly, and his eye was bright. The only person who did much discussion was Graham; he had an endless number of love affairs, but they were all simply the story of the one male and a number of females. The others didn’t feel much advanced.
One or two of them hinted that they knew what love was, but thought it too personal and sacred to discuss. The Home Office clerk in particular had a sort of air apart when he used the word; he was thinking in reality of a barmaid at the place where he had his lunch every day, and whom he had once taken up the river.
Fitch thought of Flora, but love seemed very business-like to him. He said he believed girls never fell in love before marriage, that all came afterwards; if they did, it showed that they weren’t really good, they oughtn’t to know anything about it beforehand.
‘What do you think of it all?’ said Graham to Mr. Gussain; ‘you are a dweller in the luxurious East.’
‘Oh!’ said Gussain, ‘of course you know our marriages are made for us when both parties are quite young; but they turn out very well, and the women make devoted wives.’
‘Still,’ said Graham, ‘devotion, absolute absorption between two persons, is true lore.’
‘It is quite possible, but it has nothing necessarily to do with marriage.’ Mr. Gussain was a little emphatic; he spoke as if he had experienced it himself.
They finished with some of Omar’s Quatrains, which everyone found to his taste.
‘So true! what a delightful land, where the people meditate in that way!’ someone remarked.
Mr. Gussain went up for the time in the eyes of all. The hero of the White Rose delicately put it to him what enviable mortals he and all his fellow-countrymen were.
‘But that isn’t a bit like India really,’ said Mr. Gussain, and tore the veil aside. ‘They are just as keen on money getting and self-aggrandizement as the Londoners and the Western nations, and they are not particular as to the means either. They are just as fond of politics, and quite as reasonable as the Occidentals, only, of course, they write and speak bad English, and that is very comic and shows what children they are,’ he concluded with a slight sneer.
It was getting late, so they had final pegs and cigars, and departed out into the quiet Temple precincts, and thence passed forth through the now equally quiet streets without.
Mr. Gussain thanked Fitch for having invited him, and said what an insight it was to him into the life of young Englishmen, and he hoped Fitch would come and look him up at his chambers.
Fitch thanked him, and said he certainly would. When they had all gone, Walter sat down in an armchair by the open window. He couldn’t go on for ever at the same old thing, he knew the sort of life by heart—Oxford or the Temple—it was all the same; he longed for action, for no furniture, anything away from the trammels of nothing to do. And he saw nothing to do in London town.
Several days passed away. Fitch was no better pleased with the world in general; he was still reading in chambers with a well-known counsel, but it afforded him no satisfaction. Pleadings were interesting as far as they went, but the clients were not his, and they were no more real human documents to him than the yellow-backed romances he could take down from his shelf. He had heard twice from Giles Court. Sir Philip told him that Mr. Hubbard said he had a clue, but that he would not divulge it; he added that he had made the acquaintance of a Miss Ruth Hoffnung, an actress on tour at Easton, who was very amusing; she was married to a man called Tom Harrison, awfully good at billiards.
Fitch felt his interest in the jewel mystery revive, and as he hadn’t yet been to see Mr. Gussain, he determined to drop in that evening. So he went off down to the common-room for lunch, on the chance of seeing the native, to ask him if it would be convenient; for Fitch felt he couldn’t drop on the man unexpectedly in the hope of spying out something.
The common-room between one and two p.m. in the spring is a strange sight. The place is in the basement of the library; the smoking-room is full of smoking barristers playing chess, the luncheon-room equally full of them absorbing food, but the reading-room is generally vacant at this time. A number of natives of India were huddled on a couch in the smoking-room, jabbering to one another. Mr. Gussain was not of them; Fitch looked into the reading-room. Yes; there he was, very well dressed, and a distinct contrast in clothes, cleanliness and mien to the Oriental contingent in the smoking-room. When Fitch came in he got up and held out his hand; Fitch thought it a little odd, but took it—a warm, soft hand, with such a firm grip. Fitch had once, only once, touched the hand of another native student before, and had expected now the damp clamminess he had experienced then, but nothing of the kind; as he dropped the hand, he noticed the flashing fire of a stone in the ring on the little finger.
‘I was looking for you, Mr. Gussain, but don’t let me interrupt your reading,’ was Fitch’s greeting.
‘Not at all; I shall be happy to be of service to you.’ There was no trace of an accent in the man’s pronunciation. ‘I should be glad to be your friend.’ ‘That is very kind of you, Mr. Gussain. I wanted to know if you would be in this evening. I should have liked to have looked you up.’
‘It is very good of you to have warned me you were coming.’ Fitch thought the choice of the word ‘warned’ odd. ‘But I shall certainly be in; I have no other engagement,’ he hastened to add.
The two were alone in the reading-room, bare but for papers, chairs, and a large looking-glass. They made a striking contrast. The Indian was almost the same height, perhaps a hair’s-breadth the taller, with clear-cut features of bronze, a thin face, but with rather wide jaws and curved arched lips; the Englishman fair, with blue eyes, a blunt nose, lips of no particular shape, but firmly set; with a bright, energetic look, and the faintest droop at the corners of the mouth, where the native’s curled up as though in scorn.
The Englishman was much thicker-set and broaderbuilt, and when they had shaken hands the native’s seemed almost that of a boy beside a man’s—but Fitch remembered the grasp it gave.
‘Then I shall expect you about nine o’clock. By the way, have you heard any more about that jewellery affair? You remember I was down there on circuit at Easton at the time. Haven’t the police found anything yet?’
‘Sir Philip tells me they have a clue,’ said Fitch.
‘Oh, what is it?’ was the query.
‘I really don’t know,’ came the answer.
‘Well, it’s a very interesting business,’ said Mr. Gussain. ‘Are you off?’
‘Yes,’ said Fitch. ‘I am supposed to be reading in chambers, but I am going West to see some people of a friend of mine who has gone out to your country in the Civil Service.’
‘May I ask his name?’
‘Francis! at Cobrapur?’
‘Why, yes. Do you know him?’
‘Oh no, but I have heard his name. My family lives near Cobrapur.’
‘Dear me! that is curious. Good-morning, Mr. Gussain.’
‘Good-morning, Mr. Fitch. I shall hope to see you this evening.’
There had again been that look in Mr. Gussain’s eye which had puzzled Fitch before, and it brought back once more the Beauseant evening to his mind. How pat the native had had the names of the different robberies!
Fitch drove to Inverness Terrace. Mrs. Francis, his friend’s mother, was at home, and he was shown up into the drawing-room.
‘It is a long time since we have seen you, Mr. Fitch,’ said Mrs. Francis as they shook hands. ‘Have you heard from Frederick lately?’
‘No, and that is one reason why I have called, Mrs. Francis.’
‘Dear me! Then you don’t know that he is seedy and coming home? I expect him to be leaving Bombay this mail.’
‘Well, that is a surprise!’ said Fitch. I wish he had written.’
‘I expect you will get a letter this mail; it is due tomorrow.’
The chit-chat went on, and Fitch took his leave. He had heard how busy Francis had been, and longed himself to be up and doing. He had not heard from Flora either. Probably she was waiting to hear how he was getting on with the discovery of the jewels, and he had nothing to tell, and did not know quite what to do. He had found out Mrs. Harrison’s house—it was one in a very small terrace near Clapham Junction—but she wasn’t in town yet, and Sir Philip knew more about her.
Fitch went home and wrote a long rambling letter to his aunt—his mother had died long ago, and Sir John had remarried—telling her what a useless fellow he was, and how he thought he should emigrate, and in general bemoaned the uneventfulness of his life. Afterwards he looked back upon this time as an oasis of peace, those pleasant days of no care, those evenings with his bachelor friends, the dances, and occasional dinner and theatre parties. Is the man happy who has no history?
He dined at Dicks’s, and then for the second time mounted the winding stairs to the first floor of No. 4, Middle Temple Lane. He rapped at the door. It was flung open, and a gust of warm air, with that weird acrid smoke borne on it, floated out. It had been opened by an Indian lad with a red turban twisted round his head, a long flowing coat of thin embroidered Dacca muslin, and a richly-bordered cloth twisted round his waist under the coat, and hanging down like pantaloons below each knee. He made a low reverence with his right hand to his head, and said, ‘Come in, your honour,’ as he ushered Fitch once more into the elegantly furnished salon.
A moment passed, and Tuljagir Gussain came in, but Fitch would scarcely have recognised him. He wore a rich twisted yellow turban, that set off his bronze colouring to perfection, a thin white silk coat, a cloth like the serving-lad’s, only of richer texture and border, and thrown round his body over his left shoulder a long piece of narrow thin muslin, heavily bordered with gold. His legs were bare, and he had on red slippers, which he put off before coming on to the carpet. Two native servants were behind him, the boy who had opened the door carrying a garland of red roses strung together through their centres, and two small ones to match, the other carrying a handsome rug and three queer ottoman-shaped pillows covered with white cotton. There was a clear space in one corner near the fireplace, and here he spread the rug and disposed the pillows, then retired and brought a silver salver with some little whitish seeds on it, and a slender silver flagon with a pierced top, which he placed on the table; and the other boy fetched a hookah with two mouthpieces, which he set upon the floor by the rug. “Salaam, Fitch sahib,’ had been Tuljagir’s greeting. ‘You see, I adopt the fashions of your country only when abroad.’
So saying, he took the lovely garland of sweetly-scented roses and threw it round Fitch’s neck, and put the smaller ones, like gyves, on his wrists; then he asked him to be seated on the rug, with a pillow for his back and arms, and disposed himself similarly. Fitch was too astounded to say anything. The silver platter was handed to him; on it were the seeds and little packets of green shining leaves, folded three-corner-wise, and each secured by a clove.
‘Won’t you take some of the cardamom-seeds?’ said Tuljagir gently. ‘The leaves are what we call “pan supari,” and are betel-leaves, with prepared spice and lime, and you may not like them all at once.’
Fitch thanked him, and took a couple of cardamom-seeds. Then Tuljagir took the slender flagon, and said:
‘Attar of roses is what we usually give our guests, but it is not pleasing to Europeans; it is a strong perfume, so you must let me sprinkle you with lavender-water.’
This he did, and then the servants handed him the betel and cardamom-seeds, sprinkled him with perfume, lit the hookah, and with low salaams departed, leaving Fitch and Tuljagir seated Oriental-wise on the carpet with the hookah between them in the elegant salon.
‘I should have wished to have had a dancing-girl to dance before you, but it is out of my power. It may be some day in the far East, in my own country, that I may entertain you in that way, too, as I should wish.’
Tuljagir reached forth his hand for the tube to the hookah.
‘You have never smoked the soother of troubles,’ he said. ‘Will you not try?’
Fitch, however, declined. He took out a cigarette, which he lit, and Tuljagir lazily blew a whiff now and again from the silver and ivory hookah.
‘You are twenty-four years old, are you not?’ he said to Fitch.
‘Yes,’ said the latter, looking surprised.
‘So am I,’ he continued. ‘You were born in the month of April, on the eighth—a Sunday—and I also. He paused. ‘There are five hours’ difference in time between my country and yours. We were both born at the same time, but the constellations were totally different.’
Fitch felt as if he were sitting in Burton’s ‘Arabian Nights,’ but he said nothing.
‘Did I say the constellations were different? Nay, our stars are antagonistic; their paths are alike, but their directions are diametrically opposite.’
Tuljagir’s eyes were glowing with suppressed excitement. The faint, sickly perfume of the hookah hung heavy about the room and oppressed and confused Fitch’s perceptions. The Oriental had risen in his flowing draperies, and with the opium-drugged smoke ascending about him like rolling incense he pointed his right hand down at Fitch in denunciation, while the light caught the gleaming gold of the bangle and the glowing sparkle of the ring he wore like a serpent’s eye against the bronze of the finely-moulded flesh.
‘Brother,’ he cried, ‘no love is so deep, no hate so keen, as between mothers’ sons! Together we sprang from the source of life, together our spheres in the heavens started on their circling course! Alas for the hand of fate! not side by side, twin starry spheres of inseparable love, but ever rushing apart, until the inevitable attraction drags them back to meet in the circle’s fatal crash that sees the doom of one or both!’ He stooped down upon his haunches in the position so familiar and so comfortable to the inhabitants of Hindustan. ‘Give me your hand,’ he said to Fitch, whom the fumes of the opium still held semi-stupefied—‘your right hand. Ah,’ he said, ‘love between the pair. But she—ah, woe to the Indian girl! there is no link between their lines! The line of fate straight as a die from the primal curve. The gold is swift to come, but has wings to go; the fish—the fish is in his palm; the ear of wheat is on his thumb. No luck in mine!’ Then he was silent for a few seconds, gazing intently on the lines of the hand before him. ‘Yes,’ he murmured; ‘from the third seventh there goes my line by his, as his by mine;’ and he looked at his own right palm.
During all this animated discourse on the part of the Hindu the fumes of the hookah had been allowed to subside, and Fitch was beginning to feel himself again, and to realize that this nonsense could not go on. So he jumped up and said:
‘Look here, Mr. Gussain, this is all rubbish! This Eastern mummery is all very well; but you must remember that outside your double windows the busses are plying to and fro, and this is England and the West—the matter-of-fact commercial West.’
Mr. Gussain smiled, and said:
‘You need be under no apprehension.’ Fitch felt as if he would like to throttle him at the suggestion. ‘You are my guest, and an honoured one.’ He made a low salaam.
‘Then,’ said Fitch, I will bid you good evening.’
The Hindu escorted him himself to the door and opened it.
‘We shall meet again, sahib, and in stranger places than this.’
The oak shut behind Fitch, and he went down the stairs and into Fleet Street.
‘We may meet in stranger scenes,’ he thought, but never with such a contrast between the scene without and the scene within; and he glanced up at the thickly-curtained windows of No. 4 as he crossed over and made his way up the Strand to the Gaiety bar. He had a short drink, then came back and went to bed.
Nothing eventful happened for a few days after Fitch’s mysterious evening with the Indian. He did not see that he had got any further clue as to any connection between Mr. Gussain and the jewels, and so went about his daily avocations as though he had no private source of interest in life, but was just dragging out the usual existence of the briefless. However, about a week afterwards, he found a letter awaiting him in the common-room rack from Giles. It was very short, and simply stated that the writer had come up to town, and was staying with Mr. and Mrs. Harrison.
‘She is an awfully nice woman,’ he wrote—‘so natural and free from restraint. I saw her act ‘Pauline’ at Easton—such passionate pathos! The manager introduced me, and we get on splendidly. She is intensely musical, and I have half a mind to take to the stage a bit myself. Of course you know her stage-name is Ruth Hoffnung. Tom Harrison, her husband, is a decent, quiet little fellow, a regular dab at billiards, and adores a cockatoo they have. She is very good to him. Come down and see us, old chap. Harrison has let me take their drawing-room floor,’ and so on.
Fitch gave a slight gasp. Fancy falling into the toils in the wilds of Easton! It was obvious the actress could have nothing to do with the jewel robbery though, or else she was a singularly impudent person.
The next day Fitch went down to Clapham. The abode of the Harrisons was a little house in a little unpretending row; but contrast to existing states is the soul of romance. Hence Sir Philip Giles’s, of Giles Court, fancy for this jerry-built villette. It was about four in the afternoon, warm and balmy. Fitch was admitted by a little handmaid into a narrow hall, and passed upstairs. There, in a front room, was Giles at the piano, clothed in flannels, and with his shirt-sleeves rolled up. A large lady in a scarlet tea-gown was sitting by him on a lounge-chair, slowly stroking his right arm, for he was simply leaning on the keys, not playing. The lady rose; there were traces of powder on her face. Giles whirled round on the music-stool.
‘Hullo, old man! let me introduce you to Mrs. Harrison, the well-known Ruth Hoffnung.’
Mrs. Harrison smiled a deprecating smile and said: ‘Philip, what rot! You know I’m just a tiny provincial!’ She was not tiny, nor was she provincial. ‘I have heard such a lot of you from Philip,’ she went on to Fitch. ‘I do hope you will like me: you ought to, as we both take such an interest in Philip. I tell him it is such a pity he was born a swell; with such a voice and such talents he would be the man for our profession.’
‘And just the life I should like,’ chimed in Sir Philip.
‘Will you have a peg, Mr. Fitch—or, perhaps, some tea?’ said the lady. ‘These are Philip’s rooms, but we all use them, and he takes his meals with us downstairs. Come along down.’
‘All right, we will come down in a minute,’ said Giles. ‘I’ll just put on a blazer.’
The lady sailed out of the room with a stage look of ‘Taking your measure, sir,’ at Fitch. Walter inferred they were to have an armed truce.
‘Well?’ said Philip when they were alone.
‘I have got no clue,’ returned Walter.
‘What do you mean? Oh! the jewels! Never mind them—the “tecs” are on that business.
But what do you think of Miss Hoffnung—her stage name, you know? She’s never had a real chance; not well enough off, you know; has to keep Tom—lost his money in a bank smash; awfully plucky woman!’
Fitch discreetly said he hoped to see more of her.
They had a theatrical tea: everything was on at once. There were herrings and ham, heaps of strawberries and a large loaf of bread, some bottles of beer and a coffee-pot of tea, and Ruth Hoffnung had a small brandy-peg to her own self; she was acting in ‘East Lynne’ at Battersea that night.
Giles and the lady did justice to the spread. Tom, a dapper little silent person, shook hands with Fitch, said, ‘Glad to see you,’ and devoted himself to feeding the cockatoo with tea out of a spoon. Giles and Fitch then went off together, Giles, once more in correct West-End attire, having promised to be present at the performance of ‘East Lynne’ at 7.30 that evening.
‘What does your mother, Lady Giles, think of Mrs. Harrison?’ said Fitch in the train to Giles.
‘Well, she doesn’t know much about her. Mrs. Harrison wouldn’t be appreciated by ladies of the old formal school, so I simply said I had come up to town to see you. You know, old man, it is not a question of the senses between us, but there is an intellectual affinity. I want you to get a lot more men to come to Battersea to-night. If she only gets known a bit, she will forge ahead all right enough. She’s going to see an agent after the notices of to-night’s show are out.’
Fitch listened patiently, but he meant to fight for his friend. However, he saw no harm in going to the night’s performance. At Victoria the two friends parted to beat up recruits for the evening—Fitch Templewards, and Giles to his club.
St. Peter’s Hall, Battersea, did not present an appearance of great theatrical promise. Its not being well lighted, perhaps, was an advantage as focussing the eye of the spectator upon the undersized stage. The seats were cane-chairs with a flavour of evangelical meetings lingering about them; they did not allow the attention to wander.
Fitch had achieved wonders: the first five rows were full; there must have been an audience of quite one hundred people, mainly men. There was a sprinkling of theatrical-looking ladies to lend a professional tone to the scene, but there was no Giles. Mrs. Harrison sat attired as Lady Isobel in the green-room and fumed; the remainder of the company, suburban amateurs, were beginning to suffer from stage-fright. They were admirers of Ruth Hoffnung’s, met by that lady at teas from Anerley to Brixton, each gifted and each costing nothing, and all well calculated to show the difference between the real professional and the sham amateur. You must remember that this was not a performance to give pleasure, but serious business.
Fitch had succeeded in getting Herbert, who ran a small but noisy paper, to attend, as well as Epping, who might advertise the performances when speaking of the wickedness of modern plays in his other-worldly journals; and last, but not least, was Bulgaria’s champion, Mr. Portman, who occasionally contributed information to a well-known evening gazette. The heroine of the play, with a large pout and a rather heavy stamp of her foot, declared she would only wait five minutes more.
‘You whom I have known such a short time are here,’ she said to Walter with a fascinating smile, ‘and Philip deserts me.’ She laid one bangled arm on Walter’s shoulder.
Walter looked at it with slight embarrassment, and then started in surprise so suddenly that he shook the fair one’s arm away.
She was much pleased. She thought, ‘Another conquest: thrilled by my touch.’ But Walter was no ladies’ man, and certainly not magnetized by this large lady of uncertain age. No; Mrs. Harrison was audaciously wearing what was surely a piece of the stolen Giles jewellery—a bracelet of five turquoises set in sapphires, deep blue and light-blue—an uncommon combination in stones. He remembered the hotel and the scent, and that one of the rooms adjoining his had been this lady’s. Giles, too, must have seen her wear it. Could he? But no, surely not. At that moment came a telegram from Giles.
‘Wired for home. Detectives have clue. Awfully sorry to miss your triumph.’
So ran the telegram which was handed to the comely actress as she stood wrapped in all the well-known woes of Lady Isobel at the side of the stage, whilst the amateurs enjoyed themselves thereon alone awhile. She handed it to Fitch with a pout, saying:
‘I hadn’t thought it of him. Tom doesn’t care a bit about my successes, and now I shall have a lonely time home when the show is done. I shall envy you having a snug little supper somewhere, whilst I sit down to cold mutton by myself!’
‘Oh, I won’t desert you, Fair Ladye,’ said Fitch with a low bow. He saw his way now to finding out something about the bangle. ‘Let me be your escort somewhere.’
She threw him a stage-kiss of thanks as her cue came to go on.
‘What would she have done if Philip had come and seen the bangle—unless he gave it to her? He must have recognised it,’ pondered Fitch.
However, it was no use wondering at present; so he gave himself up to watching the fair actress pile on the agony until the audience could scarcely contain their feelings, and yet some wept. Given a child and a quantity of good black crape, and most English people can be induced to feel sniffy sooner or later. It is a good sign: it touches that protective chord which is so strongly marked in Britain’s national heart.
At last the curtain fell. Everyone said, ‘What a success!—a second Siddons!’ to Mrs. Harrison, and had departed more or less thankfully. Fitch had got a decent night hansom, into which he delicately handed the heroine. There was but little room left for himself; still, there is always a glamour about the denizens of the stage, and Fitch felt the lady was not altogether unattractive. They swept silently along the road. By accident Mrs. Harrison let her hand fall carelessly on one of Walter’s. After a second she said, ‘What nice hands you have!’ and gave it a tiny squeeze.
Fitch could but gently return the pressure. Her bangles jingled; he had for the moment forgotten. Just then they stopped at Cavour’s in Leicester Square. It was 11 p.m., and the Empire and Alhambra were beginning to come out. The room they entered was still fairly empty, though one or two ladies in gorgeous evening toilettes were sitting alone at tables, waiting; other tables had their chairs turned up. Mrs. Harrison threw off her cloak and disclosed that she, too, was in evening dress—very décolletéc—deep yellow with black lace, and three rows of Parisian pearls round her throat.
Fitch had no reason to believe that she was anything but respectable, still, paint and powder do not leave much distinction. They had a recherché little supper, with a bottle of ‘the widow,’ and discussed the chances of favourable criticisms in the theatrical papers. She had reproached Fitch, and said she knew he was going to be her enemy and backbite her to Giles when she saw him come into the Clapham room. He remonstrated, and they were on good terms, but he had not yet spoken of the bangle. They emerged; he offered to see her home; the offer was accepted, and again they were in a hansom. Fitch was the better for his supper. One arm slipped naturally behind the lady’s waist; she held up one threatening finger and made all the bracelets jingle, saying:
‘Now then, naughty; I thought you were such a good young man!’
What pretty jewellery you have!’ said Fitch, and he captured the threatening hand in his own left.
‘All gifts,’ she said, with a coquettish look, ‘except one though—this’--and she indicated the turquoise and sapphires; ‘it is only paste.’
Fitch gave a start and sat up straight.
‘What a funny man you are!’ she said. “What’s the matter?’
‘Oh, nothing, only my arm cricked! But what were you saying about your bracelet?’
‘Oh, it doesn’t matter! A lot you care what I say!’
‘I care a great deal,’ he said, with such real feeling in his voice that the actress was taken aback. Was she really as overpowering as all that?
‘Well,’ she replied, “I’ll tell you how I got the bracelet, although I said it wasn’t a present. It was, in a way—from Philip. Fitch couldn’t suppress another slight start.
‘At least, he paid for it.’ This looked even more surprising. ‘And I was going to show it to him to-night.’
Then he hadn’t seen it so far!
‘You see, I and Florette Heifer were in the Strand going to see our agent yesterday, when we saw a man respectably dressed, with a topper on—not at all a swell, though—who spoke to one or two ladies in front. They shook their heads and went on. At last we met him, and I was going to take no notice’—Fitch smiled to himself—‘when he said, “Miss, would you like to buy a pretty bracelet?” Florette pushed my arm and said, ‘Come on; you can’t stop talking here! Another dodge for selling trash!” However, we were quite close to the agent’s, so I said, “Florette, you go on up, and I’ll just look at it in the hall.” So the man came in and she went up, and he showed me this. He said it was worth a fiver, but he’d let me have it for three pounds—that his wife was very ill, and he was out of work, and they had come down in the world, that it had been a wedding-present and these were real stones. Well, Philip had lost a philippine to me that morning, so I bought it with that money. He had a little blue brooch, too, but that he seemed to think a lot of, and wanted a fiver for it; so I told him to get out, and off he went, and I saw him go into Atkinson’s, the pawnbroker’s, at the corner of the street. I told Florette I had bought it, and she said it looked just like real, and was probably another dodge of some firm in artificial stones to sell their wares at double prices. There; I ought to have told you it was real; but then, you’re just the sort of man who wouldn’t be taken in: you’re jolly keen-eyed, Master Walter, and I’ll bet you want to keep Philip away from me.’
Fitch was glad they were quite close to Clapham. The air, the drive, and the supper were enough for Miss Hoffnung after her exciting evening.
‘Come, now,’ he said, ‘you lend me your bangle, and I’ll see if I can’t find you a fellow to it.’
‘Oh, you dear boy! and the fair actress fumbled off the bangle, which he took, and was looking as though about to seek a chaste caress, when the cab drew up at her dwelling. She was seen safely in, and Walter was asked to call the next day but one, and told to look out for press notices, and then the cab turned Templewards. It was nearly 2 a.m. Walter drove home with a determination to inquire at Atkinson’s, gave a look up at the native’s chambers, where all was dark, and then slept soundly till late the next day.
Sir Philip Giles had found a pressing letter from his mother awaiting him at one of his clubs; she did not know where he was staying in town, but kindly Dame Gossip had given her a hint that he had been a good deal with the touring company at Easton, and she knew his musical and theatrical tastes and turn for Bohemianism, the natural reaction from constant social conventionalities. She pointed out that it was a pity he was away; of course, her dear son knew best, but she thought that now the detectives had found what seemed to be a decided clue he ought to be on the spot.
Of course the property was his, but still, he must remember that there might be others to come after him; she herself did not care if the jewels were recovered so far as her own personal adornment was concerned, etc. The very letter to bring him home, and it did. He felt the strength of the domestic cords which bound him as against the petty meshwork of twine he was endeavouring to weave round himself.
So when Walter was just thinking of rising, Philip was bowling along in his dog-cart towards the Court. How fresh and sweet all the world looked in the lovely June morning! The great hedges—England’s pride—where the may still lingered, the verdant meadows dotted with cattle, the woods in all their spring gladness alive with the carolling of the birds; and the brisk salt smell of the sea coming in with the morning wind. Philip felt thoroughly happy; London town had passed away from him. In the portico his mother came to greet him, and behind her his cousin Flora. Never had he seen her looking so fresh and sweet, like a fair June rose herself in her sprigged-muslin gown, with a great crimson rose in her belt.
‘Well,’ he said, after he had shaken Flora by the hand, and thought what a shapely one it was, and how gracefully dignified she looked well, ‘and what is the great clue?’
‘Oh, that can wait until after breakfast,’ said his mother. ‘Mr. Hubbard the detective left a letter for you, which I will give you then.’
Sir Philip had a wash, then joined them at breakfast; they wanted to know where he had been, but he said:
‘Oh, up in musty London with Fitch; don’t remind me of it in this sweet air.’
Flora laughed, and said: ‘Why, Philip, you look as if you had come back with other eyes.’
‘And so I have,’ he returned, ‘and properly appreciative ones.’
Breakfast over, Philip went into the library to read Mr. Hubbard’s letter. He sat at his writing-table for a little while with it in his hand; he could not think what had come to him, and he looked out of the window on to the lovely green sward with beds of scarlet geranium and yellow calceolaria, where Flora and his mother sat under a great striped tent-umbrella, the one reading, the other sewing. To his eyes Flora seemed indeed the embodiment of the spring, fresh and fair and fancy-free. We see everyone, not even through our own eyes, but through our own glasses, and Flora had been seen through singularly pleasing ones to-day by Sir Philip.
‘A truce to day-dreams,’ he said at last,let’s see what the man says;’ and he opened the letter. A thin sealed enclosure fell out, which he laid carefully on the table, and began to read the letter.
Dear Sir (it ran), > > ‘Agreeable to your instructions, I have carefully examined the neighbourhood, but have found nothing except the enclosed little piece of paper, which the lodge-keeper’s little boy picked up inside the gates the morning after the robbery. The road leading up to the house had been swept when the company left after her ladyship’s tennis party, and the little boy picked it up at five o’clock the next morning, so it must have come there during the night; it has strange marks on it which may be secret signals agreed upon between the parties who committed the robbery. I have gone into Easton to see if anything can be done there, and her ladyship asked me to leave this with her for you, as you would be home directly. > > ‘I am, your obedient servant, > > ‘John Hubbard.’
Philip undid the thin packet, and found a little piece of paper about an inch and a half square, with jagged edges, on which was imprinted a square in a sort of violet ink, in which were hieroglyphics of some sort or other. The hieroglyphics came out white and a little smeared on the violet ground; there was a jagged white line running diagonally across the impression.
‘Looks like one of those stamp things in indiarubber, with your name on them, that one gets for sixpence at the Crystal Palace,’ thought Philip. ‘However, clues aren’t in my line; I’ll send it off to Walter, with a line of explanation for Mrs. Harrison.’ And he felt a slight prick of compunction as to how completely in twenty-four hours he had become oblivious of that lady’s existence.
So he indited a short scrawl, enclosing the mysterious scrap of paper for possible elucidation, if not mere rubbish, and begged Walter to inform Mrs. Harrison that he found he had some important family business to see to, and was afraid he would not be back in Clapham for a while, but to please go on using the rooms which he had taken for a quarter, and he should be writing in a day or two. This done, his conscience felt absolved, and away he went out to join Flora on the lawn.
‘We don’t think of going up to town at all this year, Flora and I,’ said his mother. O wise matron! she intuitively knows her boy’s heart is on the rebound, ‘lightly turning,’ as the poet sings.
Flora was not averse to a little amusement; she wanted to know what Philip had been up to, and also she wasn’t sure that she was not to some extent engaged to Walter, so the pastime was piquante. She had noted Philip’s look of admiration in the morning.
So a delicious week went by Philip and Flora played tennis together, rode together, read together in the woods, and were as idyllic as any man could wish to be after a feverish theatrical episode. For Flora he had the glamour of unknown adventures in town, which redeemed him from insipidity. Philip began to take himself seriously.
‘I think I ought to begin to think of settling down, mother,’ he said one morning, as he and Lady Giles were alone together in the drawing-room, Flora having gone to change her habit after a long ride with him through the woods to the sea.
‘There is nothing I should like better, Phil, than to see you bring a nice girl here as your wife,’ and she emphasized the word ‘nice.’
Flora found a great resource in her diary.
‘He is so manly,’ she wrote, and so entirely taken up with me, and yet doesn’t cloy! And he is so natural, so different to Walter Fitch, who always seems to be considering what attitude he intends to adopt. Poor Mr. Fitch! I am afraid I treated him very badly, yet I’m sure he did not really mean a word he said; he made up his mind it was the proper course to take. He is so restless, always devising courses and plans, instead of letting life happen. He is never carelessly happy, I am sure.’ All this was in reality complimentary to Philip.
It only took nine days, therefore, to wind up the courtship, a courtship that perhaps was, after all, of longer duration, for they had known each other all their lives. And one lovely June afternoon out in the fields, where the hay was being made, and the rows of workers were tossing it hither and thither on their long rakes and wasting the sweet scent all abroad, Giles spoke. Flora was sitting under a shady tree that rose aloft from the hedgerow, and Philip was lying at her feet. The insects were humming, and the little English butterflies fitting from woodside flower to flower. The two had been silent for a little time; Philip softly took Flora’s hand and kissed it. Flora said nothing, but simply bent her head, blushed charmingly like an English rose, and quietly tried to draw her hand away.
‘Will you, Flora?’ asked Philip.
‘Yes,’ she whispered softly, and a tear fell on his hand as it still grasped hers.
Philip longed to seize her in his arms and defend her against the whole world. However, he kissed her hand again passionately, and they left the haymakers and went home to the Court, and nobody saw them again until dinner-time. What he told her about Mrs. Harrison I don’t know, but I am sure Flora’s diary contains a record that it was a gracious Providence that brought Philip back to the Court—not that he ever really cared for that woman, though.
The morning that Sir Philip arrived home Walter rose late, and let the laundress make him a second breakfast, for his usual eight o’clock one was quite cold. And over the fresh one he sat and meditated. What was the use of anything? He was sick of the society he saw; dances and theatres bored him; there was no one he cared about since Francis, his great chum, had gone to India. Of course, there was Flora, whom he respected very much; but what he wanted was thorough sympathy. What prospect was there at the Bar? The young men who were said to be rising were all getting on for forty. Stone walls may not make a prison, but the plain facts of life certainly do. Then his thoughts reverted to the preceding evening. What could any man see in a woman like Mrs. Harrison? She was like a character out of a penny dreadful—twopence coloured. However, the black man lent some interest to life.
Fitch got out the bangle. What a rum idea it was selling the one thing like that! And who was the man? Better go to Atkinson’s and see about the brooch.
So he got his hat, stick, and gloves, and sauntered out into the Strand through Essex Street. Omnibuses of every shade and hue, hansoms and growlers, all were still streaming Citywards to that extraordinary medley of streets and mansions in which there is not a single home—a scene of strife and struggle by day, a deserted city by night, where the Angel of Sleep never spreads her wings, a city without a soul.
Fitch paid no attention to the hordes of nameless, unknown units that thronged past him. The scene was a daily part of his life at that time, and not till he returned from his travels did the awful wonder of it strike him.
However, at the present moment his thoughts were in advance, at the pawnbroker’s. He had never been inside such a place in his life, and he didn’t quite know what he was going to do. His professional knowledge told him that he could not well demand to know what pledges had been made, or whether a particular thing had been pledged; he had no authority for doing so.
By this time the three golden balls were gleaming above his head, and he admired the display of curiosities and jewellery in the window. At the side there were four or five doors. Fitch boldly entered one, and found himself confronted by a narrow little counter, up to which and across which partitions ran from the entrance-door, so that a person in one compartment could not see who was in the adjacent ones, nor be seen. Walter felt quite guilty.
A young man appeared on the other side of the counter. A brilliant idea had struck Walter, that he would pretend he wanted to pawn the bracelet, and see if anything was said. After some humming and hawing, he produced it. The assistant took it, and looked at him suspiciously.
‘I am afraid we can’t lend anything on that,’ he said, and a look of doubt as to what he ought to do crossed his face. ‘I should be glad if you would redeem the brooch; it might be as well;’ and he looked at Fitch very significantly, and then turned and produced a box with a duplicate on it.
Fitch took it and looked at it, and read half mechanically, ‘George Jones, 4, Middle Temple Lane’; then he put it down abruptly on the counter, said, ‘I never pawned this,’ and turned and left the shop in a hurry.
The shopman looked slightly surprised, and said to himself: ‘Those were my orders—“If anyone comes about jewellery like the brooch, tell him we don’t want the stuff, and better redeem the brooch.” After all, fifteen shillings on a thing worth fifteen quid ain’t much.’
Walter half ran down the bit of street into the Strand, and then felt what a fool he was. At the corner he met a friend, who hauled him up to lunch westwards, and the two went off to the Adelaide, Gatti’s most amusing restaurant. They watched the people eat their lunch, finished their own, and then lazily sauntered off to the Park.
Poor Fitch! The whole time they gossiped and talked he was wondering whether his companion would see he had something on his mind, and if the pawnbroker’s assistant suspected him of robbery. However, nothing happened.
The next day, whilst noting up a case for the man he was reading with, Fitch got Philip’s letter with the impressed stamp, and immediately took himself off to his own chambers, asking another pupil to go on noting the brief. He had arranged to go and lunch with some people in Kensington, and then go to the Academy, but sent off a wire to say that he was detained by business, and settled himself down to draw up all the data in the mystery that he had in his hands.
There was the strange scent; the appearance of the devil to the footman; the delicate finger-print; the scent again, which must have come from either Mrs. Harrison’s or Mr. Gussain’s room at the hotel; Mr. Gussain’s strange fortune-telling; Mrs. Harrison’s possession of the turquoise bangle; Mr. George Jones’s possession and pawning of the turquoise brooch; Mr. George Jones’s name not appearing on No. 4 staircase (which he had ascertained when he returned the day before), and now this strange hieroglyphic stamp which looked like a postmark.
Walter reviewed it carefully. If a postmark, it was an Oriental one; but the die must have been cracked, for it was obvious the disparity between the lettering on the two parts was due to a crack in whatever made the impress. Fitch made a mental note to have a look at the letters in the common-room rack for Mr. Gussain.
It was now about time for afternoon tea, so to the common-room he wended his way. There were no letters at all in the rack for the native that day. When he had ascertained this, Walter went into the smoking-room and flung himself into an arm-chair away from the chess-players, whilst William brought him a cup of tea and buttered toast—legal afternoon tea. In a little while he was joined by a man named Johnson—a man from the Cape.
‘Well, old man,’ he said as he came up, ‘I haven’t seen you for an age. You must come to my “call” on Wednesday, and then, as soon as possible, I’m off out of this.’
Fitch thanked him, and promised to look in.
‘I can’t understand,’ Johnson went on, ‘how you fellows can all stick at home. You can never make your fortune here. Even if you have a flutter on the Stock Exchange, you really can’t do anything unless you’ve a pile already to provide you with heaps of cover.’
‘But someone must stop at home to provide society with the masses, and the classes, and the respectable bulk of society,’ quoth Fitch.
‘Oh, let them stay that like to. As for me, I prefer to go back a little in civilization in order to get something from Mother Nature for myself, and I prefer bossing it a bit, too, let alone the oof.’
‘There is a chance for a man at home, even, if he can invent something people want and patent it. Why, people make thousands out of match-tips, adhesive stamps, capsules for taking medicines in.’
It was Johnson’s turn now.
Most inventions are lucky accidents,’ he said. “Men go out like Saul to find their fathers’ asses, and come home, having chanced on the crown of Israel. We are all in the lottery.’
Walter felt he wanted a confidant, and he was fond enough of Johnson, who, in his turn, had a great fancy for Fitch’s society when he could get it. The young fellow had been born under Afric’s sun, and had the gallantry of the climate in his veins, and liked to come and tell Fitch the deeds of love he had wrought in London town.
‘Come up to my rooms and have a chat,’ said Walter.
Johnson agreed, and the two were soon ensconced in comfortable chairs looking out through the light-green foliage of the trees in Fountain Court, as yet undimmed by London smuts, with the musical splash of the fountain in their ears and the cool green of the tennis-courts stretching down from the old Elizabethan hall to the Embankment. Fitch told Johnson all about the jewel robbery and the native. Johnson got quite excited.
‘Why,’ he said, ‘you certainly ought to track the beggar down. It is obvious he means you no good, judging from your interview with him; and he knows all about your movements, while you know nothing about his. How awfully jolly! If I had hit on a mystery like this, I would ferret it out, even if I had to go after the Johnny to India itself.’
At this moment there came a knock on the outer door.
‘Excuse me half a moment, old man, while I see who it is;’ and Fitch went out.
There were a couple of letters in the box which he hadn’t noticed when he and Johnson came in; these he took, and then opened the door.
‘Mrs. Harrison!’ he gasped.
‘Yes, I myself! Isn’t it adventurous of me? But I wanted to see your chambers. Philip has so often told me about them and the quaint old Temple, and I was sure you would give me a cup of tea. Let me introduce you to Miss Adrienne Vancouver,’ and she turned to a very pretty-looking girl whom Walter now perceived to be standing a little to one side on the landing. We have just been to the agents about going on tour.’
‘Certainly; do come in!’ and Fitch ushered the ladies into the wainscoted room with its Chippendale and Sheraton furniture.
‘Let me introduce Mr. Johnson to you. Mrs. Harrison and Miss Vancouver.’
Johnson rose, with a slight look at Fitch, and was obviously delighted.
Fitch had to get the tea bachelor fashion, but he had all the usual natty arrangements for doing so. Many were the teas he had given to ladies who wanted to ‘do’ the Temple. He produced a Buzzard’s cake and some ratafias, and, with the tea which had been given him by a member of the Chinese legation, the little meal had all the quaint daintiness which appeals to women. Miss Vancouver was charmed, and it was obvious that Johnson was as charmed with her as she was with the little tea-fight; they were deep in conversation. Walter glanced at his letters, and noted with some surprise they were both from Easton, one in Philip’s and one in Miss Hastings’ writing.
Johnson had been holding both the fair friends in play whilst Fitch had got ready the tea, and they were engaged in an airy discussion as to the merits and demerits of the sexes, the fair and fragile-looking Miss Adrienne defending the superiority of women, in reality winning an easy victory—thanks to a few upward glances from her very pretty eyes, with long-fringed lashes—whilst the somewhat massive Ruth Hoffnung was agreeing with Johnson that it was so delightful for a woman to have men to defend and protect her, and sighed as though poor Tom was not all she required.
Fitch took advantage, and with a murmured ‘Excuse me, I must just see these letters,’ went into his little bedroom adjacent and opened, first of all, Philip’s. It was a startler.
‘Dear Old Man, > > ‘Wire me your congrats. I am the happiest man out. Flora has consented to be my wife. You know what a charming girl she is from all you have seen of her when staying here. > > ‘Ever yours, > > ‘Philip.’ > > ‘P.S.- Please tell Mrs. Harrison how sorry I am I shan’t be back in town for some time. We hope, however, she will be bringing her company on tour to Easton.’
Poor Walter felt rather sick at heart. He hadn’t been violently in love with Miss Hastings; still, it is a jar to one’s vanity when, after a proposal semi-seriously received, the girl takes on another man for good.
Then—’Whew!--Mrs. Harrison!’ he said; ‘and she’s in the next room, too!’
He opened Flora’s letter with a sense of something lost.
‘My Dear Mr. Fitch,’ she wrote, > > ‘I feel you are the first person [little story-teller!) to whom I must confide the news of my engagement to dear Philip; it isn’t given out yet. You know, I have always had a sisterly feeling for you, spite of your little burst of sentiment when you were last down here. I don’t suppose we shall see you here before October, when sessions come on, but do write me a nice letter telling me how glad you are. > > ‘Yours very sincerely, > > ‘Flora Hastings.’
‘D—— it!’ said Fitch. ‘I shall go to India after that native. Love has knocked the jewels out of their heads, but I will find them as a wedding-present for them. I wonder what she would do if I handed them to her, and reminded her of her saying there was little she wouldn’t do for me if I discovered them—little humbug! Well, what will Mrs. Harrison say?’ and he went back into the sittingroom. He was at once appealed to by that lady with the words:
‘I am sure Mr. Fitch thinks his own sex the superior one.’
‘Indeed I don’t!’ said Fitch. ‘I don’t think there’s two pins to choose between them. I’ve just heard that a girl I was rather gone on is engaged.’
‘Oh! to whom?’ cried Mrs. Harrison. ‘To Sir Philip Giles,’ he replied.
Mrs. Harrison looked daggers at him, as much as to say, ‘This is your doing!’
‘I am so glad,’ she said, however; ‘I was always telling the dear boy he was made for a domestic existence. Come, Adrienne, we must be going.’
‘Let me see you as far as the gate,’ said the gallant Johnson.
‘Yes, of course we will,’ Fitch chimed in.
Johnson walked on ahead with Miss Vancouver, and Mrs. Harrison was left with Fitch.
‘Tell me all about it,’ she said. ‘Is it your doing? Did you think I should demoralize him?’
‘I really know nothing more than what I have told you,’ he replied. ‘I know his mother wanted him to marry the girl, as she has £4,000 a year.’
‘Oh,’ cried Mrs. Harrison, laying a hand on his arm, look! there is the man who sold me the bangle!’
‘Where? where?’ asked Fitch.
They were just turning into Middle Temple Lane from Brick Court.
‘There! the little man who is going into that doorway by the gateway.’
It was the doorway of the flight of stairs leading to the native’s and other chambers of No. 4.
‘Johnson,’ said Fitch, ‘will you see the ladies into a hansom? You will excuse me—I must attend to some urgent business. I will come and see you on Sunday, if I may,’ he said to Mrs. Harrison; and in a lower tone, ‘I want to get hold of that man with the bracelet; he may have another, and I promised to bring you its match.’
I am afraid Fitch was a bit of a Jesuit: he never said he would give it her.
As Fitch went up the stairs, he heard the native’s door on the first landing shut. However, the oak was not sported, so he knocked at the old-world knocker. It was opened by the native servant he remembered; and, just inside, he got a glimpse of the man he was in search of, in conversation with the native, in the lobby.
‘What the devil do you mean by giving this address?’ he heard Gussain hiss, and then the two disappeared into a farther room.
Fitch really didn’t know what excuse he had for coming, but asked if Mr. Gussain was at home, and on being answered in the affirmative, sent in his card, and was asked into the room he now knew so well, with its artistic yellow panelling. He stood looking out on the Strand, and the native came in.
‘I hope I haven’t interrupted you,’ said Fitch. ‘You told me to look you up, and I thought I would see if you were at home, as I happened to be passing.’
‘Pray be seated!’ said Mr. Gussain; ‘you are far from disturbing me. I was only speaking with my secretary, You know, I have written a couple of books, and he assisted me in the tiresome details.’
Fitch remembered Graham having mentioned receiving one, and at the same time grasped that Jones might be the secretary.
‘I have no doubt you have been busy since I last saw you,’ and Mr. Gussain smiled a peculiar smile.
‘Oh, moderately so,’ was the reply.
Fitch was offered a cigarette, which he accepted. He felt quite at his ease, as he always did when things came to a crisis. Now he determined to make a move to find out what postmark would be on the native’s letters.
‘I suppose you are getting quite to feel as if England were your own country?’ he began.
‘Oh, well, at present it is the hot season, and I am glad to be here; but I am longing to get back to my own land. Here I am an alien; there, in my little way, a power.’
‘Whereabouts do you come from?’ queried Walter in a casual tone.
‘Oh, my own territory is near an out-of-the-way place called Chandanpur, in Central India, but our chief city is Cobrapur; it is Mahratta country.’
‘I suppose your people always write to you in your native language?’
‘Yes, but they address the envelope in English; the postal authorities here would be rather puzzled if they didn’t. But I address mine in Mahrathi, and just put India in English.’
‘Is it a pretty character?’
‘Well, it is quaint, but not flowing like Urdu. Here! I will give you my address in Mahrathi, and if ever you come out our way you must look me up.’
‘I should like to have your address very much, but I don’t know that I shall ever be in your country.’
‘It is as the Fates will—“nasib ki bāt,” as we say. Here you are!’ and the native went to a little escritoire and brought back a sheet of note-paper, which he handed to Fitch after reading it off:
Guru Narbaddagir Mahant,
At the Temple of Achuleshwar,
Chandanpur, Central India.
Fitch looked at it; the characters were absolutely different to the ones on the stamped paper. At this moment he heard a movement in the hall as of some one going out, and, on the chance of its being Jones, he said he must be departing
‘I hope you will come in and see me soon,’ he said.
‘No doubt we shall meet again,’ answered Gussain. ‘It was good of you to look me up.’
He let Fitch out, and the latter hurried down the steps. In the porch stood the man Jones, waiting for some buses to pass in order to cross the street. Frank stepped up to him. ‘Can I speak to you a minute?’ he said. ‘Mr. Jones, I believe?’
The other turned white, and shrank back as if he would like to run away.
‘My name is Fitch,’ he went on; ‘I mean you no harm, but you can do me a service, I think.’
The colour returned to Mr. Jones’s face.
‘I am at your service,’ he said; ‘though I cannot imagine how you know my name.’
‘Will you come up to my chambers? I am a barrister, and live close by.’
The man assented, and turned back with Fitch to walk down the lane.
As they went along Fitch glanced back, and saw the native’s dusky face pressed against the little square window looking straight down the lane, with the whites of his eyes visible even from where they were, some hundred paces off, and holding a little piece of something white in his hand. As Fitch turned round he drew hastily back, but Walter thought he saw a darkly threatening hand wave for a moment. Jones turned, too, but seeing no one, heaved what seemed a sigh of satisfaction.
It was growing dusk. The hoarse roar which is London’s waking voice was heard as a sustained murmur from the distance; the lamps were not yet lit. Fitch made the man sit down, and offered him a glass of whisky-and-water, which he accepted, and Fitch mixed the like for himself. Jones’s face gleamed white and worn in the twilight; it was that of a scantily-fed, town-bred man of some thirty years, with the dumb struggle for daily bread written largely upon it. He had big, rather lustreless eyes, that looked cowed and frightened; his clothes were the clerk’s inevitable black coat, but worn and shabby, his trousers hung in wrinkled folds—his boots were thick and substantial, with a patch on the toe of one.
‘Mr. Jones,’ said Fitch, ‘I want to get another turquoise bangle like the one you sold a lady in the Strand a few days ago.’
As he spoke Jones rose, supporting himself on the arms of the chair he was sitting in with his two hands; fortunately, his glass was on a little table at the side.
‘Sir!’ he gasped, spare me—for God’s sake! I am innocent.’
‘Sit down, Mr. Jones. Sit down, and take a drink of this,’ said Fitch kindly. ‘You need be under no apprehension, I told you.’
The man drank.
‘God bless you, sir. I will tell you all I can. That black-faced scoundrel got me in his clutches, and doesn’t know what a human heart is.’ He paused, and then continued: ‘I was a clerk to Messrs. Cubator and Co., the booksellers, where he used to come in a good bit, and who published his books for him. He saw I knew something about books, too. I was at King Edward’s Grammar School till I was sixteen, and naturally took to literature in the shop, and he said to me: “Will you come and be my secretary? I will give you £50 a year.” Well, I jumped at the job. I only got £25 in the shop, and I wanted to marry, and he always seemed to be freehanded, so I took up with him. That was just two years ago, and I got married’—the poor man stopped and sighed. ‘She was in a big linen-draper’s in the city as trier-on; she had a splendid figure, and got a pound a week, so we thought we could manage well. I always wondered she cared for me, but she did; we came from the same place in the country. Well, we thought we could do all right on £100 a year, and her hours were easy—ten to six; so I came to this villain, and we got married. I told him, and he said wouldn’t I like to have half a year in advance, the brute! and I thanked him, and he took my I O U “just as a matter of form,” till the money was due to me, and all went right for a time.
‘It was rum work, putting together his notes at lectures, and making abstracts of passages he marked in books, writing all his letters to big-wigs, accepting invitations, and that sort of thing; for he wrote a bad hand, and didn’t word his letters like an Englishman. I wrote them, and everyone compliments him. However, that was all in the day’s work. And then he saw me going home one day, getting on to the bus with my wife’—Jones paused—‘and he asked me who was the handsome girl I was with, and I told him; and he said I was a lucky man; I must bring her to see the Temple, and he would give us tea. Well, I saw ladies often coming to the different gentlemen in other chambers and doing the sights, so I brought her, and he was very affable, gave us a nice tea, and asked where we lived, and told her I was so useful to him, and she was quite impressed and pleased. Then the six months came to an end, and I oughtn’t to have had any salary, but he said: “Oh, never mind, take the six months in advance; it’s all right.” I knew he had the I O U, so I didn’t think twice, for we were a bit put to it, and my wife was rather seedy. After another two months poor Annie got worse, and couldn’t go to the shop; they were awfully good, and said she could have a month’s leave, and they wouldn’t fill her place. I was very worried, and Mr. Gussain asked me about things, but said he was sorry he couldn’t lend me any money as he was short himself, his remittances were over-due (it was all a lie); but he had some jewellery trifles he didn’t want, and if I could get anything on them I could take it as a loan, and redeem the things afterwards. “Of course, don’t use my name!” he said. Well, I thought it awfully kind of him, and he gave me six or seven small articles of jewellery, breastpins, and a little brooch, which I thought funny, and I got twenty pounds on them. I pawned them at two or three different places, in my own name of course, and quite on the straight. I had to give him an I O U for the amount, but he never troubled me for a receipt for the trinkets. This only struck me afterwards.
‘My wife got better, and he sent her some lovely flowers from Covent Garden. Then one day he said to me: “I wish you would get some money on some jewellery for me, like you did for yourself.” I looked a little astonished, for he went on to say: “They send me a handsome allowance from home, but I never can resist buying pretty jewellery, and then I get tired of it. Now, I’ve got to pay up a bet to young Lord Albert FitzClare at once.” Then he took out of a drawer a case in which were two diamond crescents—not very big ones; he said they were worth £50, and I ought to bring him at least thirty. It was twenty-five he had to pay up.
‘I took the things, but I didn’t quite like it. Going constantly to the pawnbroker’s, even if for another man, seemed to take away my self-respect. However, I did it, and he sent me some nice fruit for my wife, which I looked upon as a sort of return for the trouble. Since then he has constantly asked me to pawn articles of jewellery, not of great value, but still costly. I always did it in my own name, too, like a fool, but I was quite straight about it. Then, about two months ago, I refused to pawn some things, and said I didn’t think I had been engaged for that sort of thing. He got most fearfully angry, looked like a wild cat, and said then I could leave his service, and would I please pay him up the money I owed him—d—— him! he knew I hadn’t a penny. What had riled me, though, was his always sending my wife little presents. She had got better, and gone back to her work; but she seemed colder to me, and said we ought to have thought a bit before we married on so little; and she had some new clothes, and said the shop had let her have them on credit, as she had to look nice. And, oh! sir, my heart and my head were constantly in a reel.’
‘Still, you always take her home, don’t you?’ asked Fitch.
‘Oh yes, sir; but he is such a brute. I know something of the way he has been after girls, from letters he has made me answer, and I told my wife, and said we wouldn’t take any more of his presents; but she flew out at me and said, didn’t I trust her, and how were we going to live if I offended him. It was the bangle and a brooch I refused to pledge that I afterwards sold to that lady. Last pay-day he said that he hadn’t any ready cash, but that I could have those things and pay myself—he didn’t say anything about the I O U—and what could I do? I had to get money to live, and if he gave me his things, it was all right. So I took them, and I thought I would get a better price if I sold them outright; so I tried several ladies and sold the bangle, but couldn’t sell the brooch, so I took it and pawned it; and, instead of giving my home address, I just by chance said No. 4, Middle Temple Lane, where I worked, and now it seems the people have been there to ask. There is something wrong about it, and he says he knows nothing about it, and says he shall deny having given me the things, as he won’t be mixed up in any bother. And who will believe me?’—and the man groaned. “He has threatened to discharge me and sue me for the I O U, if I mention him in connection with the jewellery;’ and he looked despairingly at Fitch.
Jones’s statement threw Fitch into a state of much perplexity. It was clear that a mystery was involved in the conduct of the native, in which the Giles jewels played a part; but it was evident there was a good deal besides the Giles affair at stake. Why had Mr. Gussain taken the trouble to arrange a scapegrace in the person of the poor little man who sat before him now?
However, that was all for future consideration. Walter took out his pocket-book to make a note of Jones’s home address. He opened it, and a troubled expression passed over his face. Where was the impression Philip had sent him? He had stuck it under the little band across the front cover, after trying to copy the figures on it, and now it was gone! Could it have got loose and fallen out when he took out his handkerchief in Mr. Gussain’s hall? He must ascertain. Jones’s address was 5, Camden Road, Clapton.
‘Now you can go, Mr. Jones; and don’t be afraid. I think you had better give him notice before he sacks you, and I will let you know when to come here. I should like you to make your statement before another person, and have it properly recorded and attested.’
‘Very well, sir,’ replied Jones, with an effort to look more cheerful; ‘and might I be so bold as to ask if you would try and get me into another place? I shall try at Messrs. Cubators’, but I am afraid it’s no good, as I left of my own free will, and they are sure to be full up. I don’t know what Annie will say’—and he sighed heavily.
The man departed, and Fitch returned to No. 4, Middle Temple Lane. The door was opened by Mr. Gussain himself, whose face wore a faultlessly smooth smile. On learning Walter’s errand, he said:
‘Pray come in, and look for yourself on the hall floor. No one has been in since you left, and I have been the whole time in my room.’
‘Liar!’ thought Fitch. Of course, there was nothing to be found. Walter gave his conventional thanks and was being shown out, when the native said:
‘By the way, do you think you could recommend me a man as secretary? I have had to discharge the one I had. I found out he was anything but what he seemed; in fact, I had reason to suspect that he might be mixed up with some very shady transactions. That is the worst of being a stranger in the land, one is so easily taken in.’
Fitch gave a little gasp, the man’s coolness took him so much aback.
‘Had you no testimonials with him?’ he asked.
‘No,’ said Gussain; “he was with Messrs. Cubator and Co., and I thought that was sufficient. I think it is since then that he has gone to the bad—some woman he was infatuated with, and married, who had tastes above her station. I gave him £50 a year, and yet he borrowed from me.’
‘Well, I will see,’ was Fitch’s answer, given rather gravely.
He was duly thanked, and they parted, Fitch more than ever on his mettle at the game, now he had seen the other finesse so cunningly.
Flaring cressets on the Pavilion roof, lamps of many colours gleaming in the dark midnight over the theatre and music-hall doors, double rows of lights leading away in the darkness to each of the four points of the compass. Piccadilly Circus at dead of night in June is a strange scene; it is the key to Western morality.
Walter turned into the comfortable American bar of the Criterion, and sat down in one of the horseshoe-shaped compartments with its wide leather lounges, and, calling for coffee and liqueur brandy, lit a cigarette. He looked lazily round. There were few people in the room, as far as he could see, although the other bar was crowded.
Suddenly a very black head of smooth hair, crowned by a velvet smoking-cap, attracted his notice, and as he was looking at it intently, the man turned round, and disclosed the dark visage now so well known to Fitch, but wearing an expression of cringing obsequiousness he had never noticed on it before. Mr. Gussain only looked round for a moment, and showed no signs of recognition, but bent to one side and said something to his companion, who was screened by some palms and the curve of the compartment. The two rose, and were moving towards the far door, when Fitch, who had been looking surprisedly after them, jumped up, hurried across the room, and laying his hand on the shoulder of the Englishman who was the native’s companion, exclaimed:
‘Why, Francis, surely it’s yourself! And you haven’t forgotten me altogether! When on earth did you come back? Your mother told me you were not due for three weeks.’
‘Fitch, old fellow! I am glad to see you!’ And they shook hands heartily.
The Asiatic had been looking on with a scowl. Both seemed oblivious of his existence.
‘I think, your honour, I will take my leave,’ he said, and held out his hand to Francis, who took it and let it go again. ‘Good-evening again, Mr. Fitch;’ and he extended his hand to him with the curious remark: ‘I had forgotten that it was this sahib who is your friend.’ Fitch half hesitated, and then shook it, and the two friends were left together.
‘What did the beggar mean?’ asked Francis.
‘Oh, I told him once that I had a great friend in India, and it seemed you were stationed near his place;’ and the two men eyed each other kindly.
The native passed out of their minds for the minute. They had met after an absence of three years, and the past preoccupied them.
It was now closing time, and the crowd was surging out of the Criterion portals—English midnight revellers.
‘Come along, Fitch. I am staying with my people in Inverness Terrace, as in the good old days. Come and walk home with me as you used to do, and we’ll burn the midnight oil in the little study. Why, man, I really can’t tell you how glad I am to see you! One doesn’t easily make fresh friends as one grows older, and I feel forgotten at home. It’s the unexpected always happens. You didn’t write, so I thought you, with your light-hearted insouciance, had quite forgotten me, six thousand miles out of your life. My mother told me you had called, but I determined to wait until you turned up again, and not to trouble to look you up and be disappointed because you no longer were interested in my affairs.’
‘How awfully like you, Francis! Now, if you had really possessed any insight into my character, you would have known it was just from sheer dislike to start writing that you never heard from me. You were more than often in my thoughts. It’s so much nicer to imagine than to do.’
‘Yes; but it leaves no facts behind.’
‘Well, often that’s no objection,’ replied Fitch.
‘But often a vain regret, old man. Still, don’t let’s start straight off arguing on our old tack.’
‘Right you are. Come to my chambers and stay the night; I can give you a shake-down.’
‘No, no,’ said Francis. ‘It isn’t one o’clock yet. Let’s walk across the Park and go to my old room. It’s shabby, and the chairs are broken, but I like renewing my youth——’
‘Your youth!’ broke in Fitch. ‘Why, we are boys together still. I feel as if I were a chicken chipping at its shell, and never succeeding in getting hatched!’
‘You’d feel your shell lying shattered around you if you had been helping to govern India for three years,’ returned his friend with a laugh.
So they passed down the long pavements of Piccadilly and up through the Park, with its attempted suggestions of heaths and highwaymen, and its ever-present reality of a simply ‘open space,’ and so to Inverness Terrace. On the way the home-returned told his companion something of his Indian life—administering justice in criminal and civil cases; touring the district in the cold weather; now stationed in headquarters—a gay multitude of some seventy or eighty pleasure-seeking Europeans—and anon alone in a tract larger than Yorkshire, and practically its supreme despot; how he had got seedy with India’s curse, the country fever, and had had to take six months’ leave home.
It didn’t seem very real to Fitch; after all, words can only raise a vague emotion. In his turn he told of how sick he was of doing nothing elegantly—a life composed of a weary round of socialities, a veritable daily task. After all, pleasure indulged in on the principle of the perfection of the division of labour may turn out a very finished article in the way of pleasure, but too smoothly finished for enjoyment, and, to thoroughly mix our metaphors, the pea in the bed of roses at any rate emphasized the rose-leaves. And so they prattled, these two wise young men. They touched on morality, they dealt with religion, and they finished, comme toujours, with their two interesting selves.
After all, I envy you,’ said Fitch. At any rate, you have been having adventures of a sort, whilst I——’
‘Oh, come now, just think,’ was the retort. ‘You can’t have passed three years of your life with nothing happening to you. Haven’t you fallen in love?’
‘Why, yes, I was engaged—so I was, and thereby, too, hangs a tale. I say, who was the black Johnny you were talking to in the “Cri”?’
‘Why, you spoke to him—you know him yourself,’ said Francis in some surprise.
‘Oh yes, I know something about him; but I want to know who he is in his own country,’ was the reply.
‘Well, he comes from my part of the world, called the Central Provinces. I don’t suppose you are very definite as to where that is. However, you can get a little atlas and look it up. He is what they call a “chéla,” that is, the “disciple” of a spiritual instructor, the latter being called his “guru.” They are like father and son to all intents. They are ascetics, and the sect, or whatever you like to call it, are generally called Gosains. It is difficult to explain the reality, but the idea is that of all religions—absolute abnegation of the goods of this world and devotion to holiness. They cannot marry, but adopt disciples—these chélas—who can succeed them. The gurus have regular shrines, called “maths,” and, like the development of the idea in every religion, have become devoted only too much to the goods of this world. Tuljagir’s guru is on the “guddi,” or throne, of the largest math in my provinces. He is very wealthy, thanks to the endowments of devotees. The old man, Narbaddagir, is devoted to the old Hindu practices, and yet, spite of many outcries, has let this lad come home to study law. I must say it puzzled me, though, that there wasn’t more outcry. I spoke to several respectable natives about it, but they always seemed to politely evade criticism, although in other cases of mere ordinary Brahmins letting sons come home, they have been free enough in their comments on the rewards the fathers were laying up for themselves. However, it is impossible to follow the native mind.’
‘So he isn’t a Rajah, then?’ said Fitch.
‘Lord, no! Rajah indeed! His guru sits smeared with ashes, his hair matted, and scarcely any clothing on. He is very holy, but not in society. Narbaddagir has another chéla, and I often wonder which of the two will succeed to the “Primacy,” so to speak. It would be odd to have a barrister-at-law a religious mendicant. However, that’s enough about him now. Tell me your story.’
Whereupon Fitch told his friend about the jewel robbery, his own quasi-engagement, his wish to start on the quest of the missing stones, the strange episode of the native, and his own lack of the qualities of a Sherlock Holmes.
‘By the way,” he added, ‘I must show you the attempts I made to imitate the figures on the impression; perhaps you will be able to make something of them.’
In the end the two friends found that they had stayed up all night.
This was just the sort of thing that commended itself to Fitch. Francis, however, looked very fagged.
‘Now, I shall get a crawling hansom looking for someone to go by the newspaper-train, and go to my diggings in the Temple. You will come, too,’ Walter said to Francis, ‘and we will go to bed all day.’
They succeeded in getting the hansom, and drove off. There is nothing more beautiful than sunrise in London; the glory is much the same as elsewhere, but it is the sense of the great orb rising slowly and majestically whilst at last the vast city of millions lies hushed in God’s keeping, in the solemn assurance that He is watching over all, till the murky clouds of man’s making rise up and hide the glory from the sight.
Fitch and Francis had a steaming bowl of soup apiece, and then turned in. Fitch had two beds, and the double windows kept out all noise, save a very subdued hum, and so they slept all through the garish day.
For the next fortnight Fitch was completely taken up with Francis; together they revisited Oxford and various other old haunts, and scarcely realized that they had been separated for so long, save for the vague remembrance that Francis would have to return in November to India. It was the middle of Trinity Term, and wanted a couple of days to ‘call’ night, when Fitch had promised to be at Johnson’s ‘call’ party. Of Sir Philip and Flora, Walter had heard nothing more; he had written and congratulated them, and had told Philip of what he had elicited from Jones; and in his letter to Flora mentioned that he had not yet found the jewels, though she apparently thought a couple of months sufficient for him to have done so in. He also told them that Francis was in England, so for the present the Giles’s jewellery mystery was in abeyance, and Fitch was enjoying himself in viewing the world through the eye of his chum. He was therefore for the moment quite unable to recollect who the individual could be, when at breakfast (which he was taking alone in his chambers, Francis having gone to stay the day and night with friends) a card was handed him bearing the name of ‘John Hubbard.’ He told the laundress to show the gentleman in, and immediately recognised the face of the detective whom he had seen at Giles Court.
Mr. Hubbard was looking very grave.
‘I have to see you, Mr. Fitch, on rather important business,’ he said.
‘I am at your service,’ Walter replied.
‘You remember the Giles’s jewel robbery?’
‘I do; I was staying in the house at the time it took place.’
‘Then perhaps you can explain this.’ And he handed Fitch a letter. ‘I have not applied for a search-warrant, as it is anonymous, and I know Sir Philip would not wish me to act against you except on a practical certainty.’
Fitch felt rather uncomfortable; still, he was a lawyer, and so, without saying anything, he read the letter. It was addressed to Scotland Yard, and ran as follows:
‘The police of Her Majesty the Queen ought to arrest Mr. Fitch, barrister-at-law, if they wish to catch the thief who stole jewellery from Giles Court. He has an accomplice called Jones, and they have pledged some of the jewels at Messrs. Atkinson’s, in the Strand, and through Jones other stolen property in many other places.’ And this was signed, ‘An Injured Woman.’
The handwriting was distinctly feminine, and the paper upon which it was written and the envelope were ordinary and common. The postmark was ‘London, N.’
‘I may say Messrs. Atkinson’s clerk has identified you as having been there to pledge a turquoise and sapphire bracelet,’ added Mr. Hubbard.
Fitch tapped with his fingers on the table.
‘I think I can explain the whole matter, Mr. Hubbard, and then perhaps you will tell me what to do.’ And he proceeded to relate how through trifles at first, his suspicions against Mr. Gussain had become certainties owing to the statement of Jones.
‘Then, why on earth did you not communicate with us, Mr. Fitch?’ Mr. Hubbard was distinctly ruffled.
‘Well, I really don’t think now there is sufficient evidence to do anything. He has discharged Jones, and who will credit a discharged servant’s statement, when it is so unlikely and extraordinary?’
Francis came in at this moment, and the situation was explained to him, and he was made known to the detective.
‘Well, we certainly must get hold of Jones. You have his address, you say; let us write to him, and ask Mrs. Harrison to come here the same day, and we will see what we can do,’ he said.
‘You say Sir Philip sent you the piece of paper that was found near the lodge,’ put in Mr. Hubbard; ‘have you it here?
‘I am sorry to say I have lost it, I think that day I went to No. 4, Middle Temple Lane; but I have some copies I made of the lettering. I have always meant to show them to you, Francis; here they are.’ And he drew out his pocket-book and handed it over.
Francis looked at the writing.
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘it is Oriental writing, and is what the Mahrattas call the “baal Bodh,” or Devanagri character. It means the Zemindar of a place called Ghairagurh; it is a name, title, and address. Ghairagurh is a large Zemindari in our provinces.’
‘It is not where Mr. Gussain lives, is it?’ queried Walter.
‘No,’ was the reply; ‘his residence is at a place called Chandanpur. Ghairagurh is right away in the jungles, some three hundred miles off. They have no connection that I know of.’
Mr. Hubbard seemed satisfied by what Walter had said.
‘But who is the lady who wrote this?’ he asked. ‘Have you a feminine foe, Mr. Fitch?’
‘Not that I know of.’
‘Let me see it,’ said Francis, and he read it through. ‘Whoever wrote or made that up,’ he said, ‘has been in India. Look, after the word Queen, “Em” is begun and scratched out. I am so used to hearing Her Majesty spoken of as the Queen Empress, that I read it myself in my mind’s eye, and then saw the writer had commenced the word and then erased it. Have you any of Mr. Gussain’s writing?’
‘I have seen it,’ said Fitch; ‘but this is not his.’
Mr. Hubbard took his leave, the 8th of August, some three weeks later, being appointed for them all to meet and interview Jones. The two friends were left together.
‘I am quite of your opinion, Fitch, that this native is at the bottom of the whole business; but did you know that he returns to his country in August?’
‘No,’ replied Fitch.
‘Yes; I heard from Cobrapur that the old Mahant at Chandanpur was expecting his barrister chéla back in September. Now, old man, why don’t you make up your mind to do as I’ve often asked you, and come over with me on a visit, and you may find out something more about the jewels; though don’t let me hold out any false hopes about that: you have to meet all the wiles and chicanery of a native, a Brahmin, and a Gosain on his own soil.’
‘The inducement is strong, old man; there is nothing to do here, and my practice won’t rust for six months’ absence, But perhaps this business will be cleared up before he intends starting, and the “guru,” as you tell me he is called, be left expecting his hopeful pupil. However, we will see; come along to Sweeting’s, and have some lunch,’ said Fitch, And the two departed.
There is nothing men enjoy more than being together when young, and they look back upon such times in after years as the happiest days of their lives. When all is new in life, and the dregs are still at the bottom of the cup, to taste together the first experience of the world, to sip and compare its flavour one with another, engenders confidences which no bitter memories spoil the flavour of, and the friendships of boyhood, if continued, are cemented, and foundations of friendships for life are laid. There comes only too soon a time when, like the power to grow physically, the power to make friends ceases to be. And if the general society of young men among themselves is delightful and well remembered in older days, how much more so when they foregather together on the common of life to celebrate the start, and support the first steps, of one of their number along the formal road of livelihood, which so soon becomes too narrow and cramped for more than the weary pedestrian himself to travel along it at a time.
‘Call’ night at the Inns of Court is a great institution on this account. Whence its name is rather a mystery—perhaps to comply with the saying, ‘Many are called but few are chosen,’ but more probably originally a literal fact, the newly-fledged barristers being summoned by crier within the barriers of the Court. However, a fig for origins nowadays.
Fitch had promised to go to Johnson’s ‘call’ party. The letters summoning Mr. Jones and Mrs. Harrison had been duly sent, and a letter received from Mr. Hubbard that morning, informing Fitch that Mr. Gussain was to be ‘shadowed,’ though it was not likely anything would turn up against him, as his past history during his stay in England had revealed nothing, and also that Mr. Jones had not been at his London address for the last fortnight, although his things were still in the rooms. First his wife had gone away, and then he himself two days after her, during which time his landlady said he had been continually pacing his rooms and eaten scarcely anything. He seemed in an unhappy state of mind, but had paid her ten shillings on account. Mr. Hubbard wound up by asking Fitch to at once let him know if Jones came to see him, as it was quite possible that the letter they had sent might now not reach him until after the date fixed for the meeting.
Walter felt quite chirpy at the idea that his shadowy suspicions were at all events thought something of by the police, and that Mr. Gussain was now being well looked after. He placed the letter in the inside pocket of his morning coat, and spent a happy day with Francis up the river, only just getting back in time to wash and change his flannels for a black coat, etc., before going into Hall.
It is not the custom to dress. The candidates to be ‘called’ of course wore evening things, with their wigs and gowns, and were much admired by their sisters, their cousins, and their other relatives from the marvellous old Elizabethan music gallery to which the fair sex is relegated on occasions like these, being otherwise not admitted at all.
It is simply a matter of signing your name and hearing a few words gratis from a learned Bencher, and then the fair sex is warned off and dinner is brought on.
Johnson had secured the whole of one of the long tables which run up beside the walls of the Hall and seat three messes of four, so that he and eleven legal friends could take their meal in proximity. It had been a rather large ‘call’ of a number of popular students. Dinner only took about an hour, and then all except the various ‘call-parties’ left, and the dessert each host had provided was set before his guests in varied profusion, as well as good liquor to match. The heroes of the occasion had their healths drunk, but no speechifying took place at present. The evening early began to get a little uproarious; a Scotchman produced a pair of claymores, no one knew exactly from whence, and proceeded to execute a Highland sword dance on the senior barrister’s table to the strains of a bagpipe, the well-known property of a member of the London Scottish. The head waiter maintained a strategic position under the music gallery. He knew what to expect, and as soon as he saw pine-apples and other suitable fruit being used as friendly missiles, hurtling through the air from near to distant parties, he interfered, and suggested that it was time they adjourned to other spheres, and left the evening in Hall ‘to memory dear’ before they smashed anything. After a few trifling and playful sallies, the roysterers complied, and left the fine old Hall, with its magnificent carvings, and memories of Shakespeare and Elizabethan days, and the recollection of a thousand similar scenes to the one enacted there this night.
Johnson borrowed the rooms of a man in Hare Court for the night. They were on the ground floor, which was convenient on a convivial occasion like the present. Hare Court lies parallel with Pump Court on the Strand side. It leads out to the Temple Church, and owns a tree, a good-sized tree. Its rooms date from Stuart times, and its windows have acquired a dusty tone, which time alone could give. It was a bit of a crush, but that didn’t matter. Johnson was in fine form, and the champagne flowed; now was the time for a speech.
The whole company, some twenty in number, were all talking at the same time when McTavish, a briefless son of Glasgow, with fine literary tastes and talk, of striking appearance, piercing black eyes, and a head which frequent visits to Bohemia was rapidly thinning of hair, rose, and proposed ‘The hero of the evening, a worthy son of the Cape of Good Hope.’ He was eulogised in a rush of words that was as exhilarating as the wine. ‘No heel taps!’ was the general cry, and the vociferous sounds of ‘He’s a jolly good fellow’ were borne on the usually quite echoes of the Temple courts in unison with similar musical sounds proceeding at the same time from rooms in another quarter.
The party began to receive fresh additions. Visitors dropped in from other ‘calls,’ to which the members of Johnson’s also, in their turn, wended their way, and returned, as well as stray residents of neighbouring chambers who tolerated the license of this one night per term, and, remembering their own beginning, lent them the light of their countenance. Among them, and rather late, appeared Mr. Gussain, with apologetic reminders that Johnson had asked him to look in. Johnson was already in a state of hiccup, and wanted to embrace him, with affectionate assurances that all men are brothers, and that he should come in and get happy too. He took a seat, and drank a glass of champagne to his host’s health, and then simply sat and watched the scene. He had said ‘Good-evening’ to Fitch, but nothing more.
The songs and speeches which had enlivened the night were dropping; it was getting well on to morn. Several men had been very bad out in the court, and were now in a state between slumber and drink in the easy chairs—one was at full length on an old couch, snoring. The room was littered with empty and quarter-full champagne bottles, a great brew of punch still fumed, whilst used glasses were to be seen everywhere, and, wonder of wonders, only one had been broken. The upper air was full of tobacco smoke, which drifted fitfully out of the windows, and the flaring gas lit up the whole scene, which, innocent enough, now wore the appearance of a wild orgie.
The Hindu sat patiently, awake and watchful. Walter was not drunk, in fact, he was comparatively sober, having copiously diluted his champagne with soda. Epping and two or three others of the guests were also far from being hors de combat. Epping was dying to make a political speech. He said he wanted to harangue London, and went out on the doorstep and began talking, but came in again, declaring it was impossible to get up any enthusiasm in such an enclosed place, and only raised a step or two from common earth. As he entered the room he caught sight of the native.
‘The very thing! he exclaimed. ‘Look here, Mr. Gussain, I am coming up to your chambers. It is absolutely necessary to rouse this benighted city of London to a sense of her condition. Now is the hour and the man; the red dawn is rising behind St. Paul’s. From your balcony I will announce in stirring words the dawn for society of a new day. Come along, all of you.’
He took the surprised native by the arm. The latter rose, and, casting a glance at Fitch, who also was preparing to come, said with some alacrity:
‘Certainly, you are welcome. I will give you some tea; but I don’t know why you want to rouse London in the early morning. I am at your service.’
‘You are a brick! cried Epping, ‘and the coming socialism shall not forget you. We leave here the recumbent classes, and hurry ourselves to the regeneration of the world,’ and he linked his arm in that of Mr. Gussain, and very solemnly made his exit. Four or five others, including Walter, followed; they were glad to get out into the cool morning, and Walter was amused and interested to find himself once more fortuitously the native’s guest.
On arrival at their destination, the native lit a spirit-lamp under a pretty hanging brass and copper kettle, and got out cups and saucers for the party, a huge silver teapot, sugar basin, and a tin of condensed milk, all of which he set ready. Epping had not stood upon ceremony, but had at once opened the long double windows and gone upon the balcony, in spite of the remonstrances of the others, who, finding their efforts useless, threw themselves down on chairs where they could see and hear him. Always a wild figure, the night’s dissipation made him look an ideal socialist as he stood on the balcony waving his arms and pouring forth red hot anarchy to the silent Strand, his only audience the immutable Griffin, and a stolid policeman under a lamp-post beneath the great Law Courts clock. It would be interesting to know the thoughts of a British policeman on the subject of inebriation, but they have as yet never been disclosed. After Epping had done all he could to arouse the phlegmatic guardian of the law, whom he wound up by apostrophising as the incarnation of British insularism, he came in, whistling in a high key, ‘Oh what a happy land is England!
It was now past five. The tea was made and handed round. After taking it, the guests began to depart. All at last had gone except Walter, who seemed to have fallen into a heavy sleep on the couch. Epping was going to rouse him and make him take his leave with himself, but Gussain said courteously:
‘Oh, never mind, Mr. Epping; let Mr. Fitch have his sleep out; I will see to him,’ and then Fitch was left alone with his host.
The latter proceeded to shut the windows and draw the curtains before them, so that, although the light came in, the interior of the room was not visible from the outside. Then he approached Walter, and gently lifted up one eyelid. The result seemed satisfactory; a pillow was placed comfortably under the sleeper’s head and his collar loosened, and then Tuljagir Gussain began to systematically search the sleeper’s pockets. The black coat Walter had on was the one in the pocket of which he had put Mr. Hubbard’s letter the morning before. It was the last one the native opened. He read it through twice attentively, and then, casting a look of hate and defiance at the heavily-sleeping form, he folded it up and replaced it with the others. Covering Walter with a blanket, he at length went into his bedroom and shut the door.
The day went by, and Fitch still slept, and no sound came from the native’s room. The oak had been sported when Epping left, and the two remained absolutely undisturbed till about 5 p.m., when the door of Tuljagir’s room opened, and he came into the room where Walter lay. He had a number of letters and a bottle of strong smelling-salts in his hand. He put the letters down on a little table, and then held the open salts close under Walter’s nose. After a couple of inhalations the latter’s nostrils began to twitch, and he opened his eyes with a sneeze, sitting up as he did so with surprise.
The native had drawn a chair up, and was sitting confronting him; as their eyes met Tuljagir said:
‘You need be under no apprehensions, Fitch sahib. You had taken a little too much to drink last night, and fell asleep here, and have slept undisturbed all day.’
Fitch was sure he had not taken too much, and was sure now that the tea had had a strange taste; however, he merely said: ‘I am much obliged to you for letting me stay here, but I must be off now.’
‘Wait one minute, Fitch sahib, I have something to say to you.’
‘All right; but I should be glad if you would allow me to have a wash beforehand.’
‘Certainly. I am sorry not to have thought of it. Will you come in here?’ and he opened the door of his room. It was very simply furnished. Fitch had a good wash, and came out again a different being.
‘Now I am at your service,’ he said, and remained standing by the fireplace. The native came up and stood facing him. ‘Well, Mr. Gussain?’
‘Sahib, I cannot understand why you are against me. I have not harmed you, and yet it is written in my fate that you should oppose me always. You are a sahib, and my protector; if you will tell me why you are against me, I will do what you wish, if you will cease to be so.’
‘I am not your enemy, Mr. Gussain, and I do not know what reason you have for thinking so beyond the fortune you read in my hand. But if you wish me to be frank with you, I will tell you that a great friend of mine, Sir Philip Giles, lost a quantity of valuable jewellery at Giles Court. I was staying there at the time, and am greatly concerned in restoring the jewels to their rightful owner. If you happen, as it seems to me possible, to know anything in the matter, and will explain how you came to give some of that jewellery to Mr. Jones, I shall be glad.’
‘Sir, you do not think I am a robber, do you?’
‘I cannot say. Do you deny having anything to do with the things?’
‘Sahib, you have been the whole day under my roof; I could have easily put something in your cup which would have removed you without any trace to incriminate me.’ Walter could not help starting, he had never realized being poisoned as an actuality. ‘I have not done so,’ the native went on. ‘I know nothing of your jewels. Your Jones is a liar. Let him prove he got the bangle and brooch from me.’ (Walter noted that he named the articles.) ‘If you will be my friend, I will put you in the way of making much money, sahib. I want to make a company for diamonds and rubies which are to be found near my home. You shall have many shares. Come, Fitch sahib, bury the hatchet of your baseless suspicions-cui bono?—and let your friends know that you have made a mistake in thinking ill of me on the word of a low villain. I am the friend of great people. I have been to see Her Majesty the Queen, I know the Prince of Wales,’ and he ran off a string of great names.
‘I think, Mr. Gussain, if you will allow me I will go. You seem to think my friendship a mercantile commodity. I am under your roof, and you have not poisoned me, as you so kindly remark, but you must permit the relationship between us to remain on the same footing as before, and I must assure you that I shall still do my best to restore my friend’s jewels to him and expose the thief.’
A torrent of Hindustani poured from the native’s mouth. He gesticulated, and broke into English.
‘Very well, Fitch sahib, see if you can match Tuljagir Gussain. You wish to ruin me for no purpose; see that it does not recoil on your own head—yes, on your own head be it. If your spying and peeping lead you to interfere with my plans, it is written in the stars: when the planets rush together we shall see which survives the shock,’ and he again burst into Hindustani, pointing to the door.
Fitch took him at his gesture, and without a word further left his chambers. He went home in a state of bewilderment, and told Francis all that had occurred. The latter looked very serious on hearing it, and said:
‘My dear fellow, I know something of this man’s people; he will not hesitate at much.’
‘Never mind, Francis, forewarned is forearmed. Now, old man, I am going to turn in.’
Francis left him, and went out to cogitate a bit. Walter had not had even the three years’ experience of the East that he himself had had. It was just upon seven o’clock; he might as well go in and dine in Hall, and then go back and see how Fitch was going on. He went in, robed, and noticed what a number of native students there seemed to be foregathered. Tuljagir passed him, on his way to get a dining ticket, with a salaam; he was in evening dress, and had a most glorious yellow orchid, a single flower, in his buttonhole.
Francis went into Hall, and sat down in a mess not far from Tuljagir’s. The native was dining with three others, all of them in evening dress, and each wearing a similar flower; and now Francis could see what a gorgeous bloom it was, the deepest, richest golden apricot, with a glowing scarlet tongue. There were three other natives at another table, and two at one on the other side, all similarly decorated with these magnificent buttonholes. There were several other natives in the Hall without any flowers, and Francis noticed that they had salaamed Tuljagir and his companions, not with the ordinary salaam, but with the ‘Namaskār’—both hands joined and raised to the forehead for a moment, as in supplication. Several others had noticed these exquisite exotics, for not only was their colouring perfect, but their perfume filled the air with a heavy, almost sensual, fragrance.
Dinner over, Francis returned to Fitch, whom he found had had a hot bath, and having a brandy and soda, once more clothed and in his right mind.
Another brandy peg was mixed for himself, and he proceeded to describe to Fitch the splendid orchid Tuljagir and his associates had been wearing. ‘And the others all wore one like it?’
‘Yes. I cannot imagine where they got them from; I have never seen one of the kind before.’
‘Look here, Francis, there is more mystery afoot. Giles and his mother and Miss Hastings are coming up to town soon, I hear, and I should like to get them the jewellery if possible. I am going over to No. 4, Middle Temple Lane to see what I can find out.’
Francis smiled at his friend’s enthusiasm. ‘I will come with you,’ he said.
‘No you won’t, old man; they might do for both of us. You will stay here, and if I am not back to breakfast tomorrow morning you will go through the time-honoured ceremony of informing the police authorities.’
‘Well, there is some sense in that,’ laughed Francis, ‘only take care.’
‘Of course. My hat and stick. So long, old man,’ the two shook hands, and Walter hastened down the stairs, and across Fountain Court through Brick Court to Middle Temple Lane. He certainly couldn’t force his way into the chambers of the native and search them, as he should like to do, but Fortune favoured him. The rooms, as we know, were over the gateway, and were entered from the winding staircase on the right as you go in from Fleet Street. On the left is a quaint little place calling itself a shop, and from this also goes up a staircase, apparently leading to the same set of rooms. Fitch had never been up this, and he determined to explore; the place was over two centuries old, and there was no knowing what the original design might have been. The outer gate was shut, and only the postern open, in which the porter was lounging, watching the buses pass in the dusk without. Fitch slipped up the stairs. The first landing must be his destination; but landing there was none, simply a wide turn in the stair and a door in the wall flush with it, all hung with cobwebs. It had a huge keyhole, through which Fitch peeped, but could see nothing, save blank darkness with streaks of bright light on the opposite wall. He turned the handle, and gave a push to the door. It opened, but evidently something was placed against it, though not of very great weight, for it gave with a slight scraping sound. Fitch waited a minute, but it did not appear to have attracted anyone’s attention; so he then gently pushed again until he could just squeeze himself in. He found the obstacle was a rough wooden box half full of coal, and that he was in a small closet or cupboard, in which there was a sink with a tap, and wood and coal stored. The door through which he had come, on this side, looked like a piece of the rest of the wooden panelling, with an irregular hole, which was the keyhole. It was evident that there had been an entrance to the chambers from both sides, but that it had been closed for many years and forgotten. He put his eye to one of the cracks in the outer panelling of the cupboard, through which light was coming, and found he could see into the third room of the native’s set of chambers, the one into which, as yet, he had never had access.
A strange sight met his gaze. The whole of the floor was plastered over; at the far end hung heavy black curtains, and against them he could descry a horrible-looking shrouded figure, also all black, with four arms, apparently a woman, wearing a necklace of skulls, and holding up in one of her hands the model of a severed human head. The room was fitfully illuminated by a number of dim lights, each just a wick burning in a shallow earthen pan of oil; these studded the mantelpiece, and were also placed in a line on either side of the dread form on the floor. Long pastilles were burning, and the fumes of strange incense filled the air. Fitch could see Tuljagir Gussain and two other natives naked to the waist, and clad simply in a flowing cloth which draped them to the knees. They were standing in front of the image, and now moved aside, allowing Walter to see nine of the glorious orchids placed at right angles, and kneeling over them on its left knee, with head bent to the ground, a small black goat faced the image of the goddess. As the three men moved aside, Walter caught the bright gleam of steel in the hand of one of them; he looked on the weird scene as though fascinated. The goat knelt motionless, whilst a strange chanting proceeded from the space on Fitch’s right, which was out of his range of vision.
Tuljagir and his two attendants again approached the goat, whose sides heaved heavily every now and again. Tuljagir held a curved steel knife, one of the attendants a cocoanut, and the other a brass bowl about the size of a soup basin. The cocoanut was broken on a large black stone, and half offered to the image, the other half divided into nine pieces, and placed by the orchids in a heap in one of the right angles. Then the second attendant came forward, and placed the brass bowl in the other right angle, dipped his hand into it, and what seemed a glorious stream of many-coloured light dropped from his hand back into the bowl with a rattling sound.
Fitch was petrified. It was obvious that this bowl contained a fortune in precious stones.
The chanting still continued. Fitch noticed the strange scent he knew so well pervading the room in which, though full of incense smoke and the perfume of the orchids, the other scent reigned supreme.
The little lights burned dimly. Tuljagir now uplifted his knife, and with one heavy thud brought it down on the neck of the goat, whose head fell clean severed to the ground, whilst its blood gushed out in front of the image. Another quick cut severed the left forefoot. Tuljagir and one attendant hastily lifted the quivering body, and allowed the blood to shoot from the neck all over the black image of their goddess, which now ran with scarlet gore that dripped over the cocoanut and bowl of gems. The goat’s carcase was then laid aside, and the head and leg placed with many supplications before the flowers and jewels. Walter felt quite sick, but a stranger sight made him forget his qualms.
There were an ordinary pair of lace-up walking boots near the fireplace, and Fitch had thought their presence rather curious. They were all muddy, too, and wanted cleaning badly; the mud had dried and caked on them. They were now produced, and put before the image soles uppermost.
The three officiants then solemnly took up a little of the stuff with which the floor was smeared, mixed it with a little blood, and made each of them a small circular dot with it in the centre of their foreheads, just above the nose. After this they once more turned their attention to the old boots. Tuljagir carefully scraped off all the mud; this was kneaded with some of the goat’s blood, and then fashioned into the semblance of a human figure, and in the chanting Walter caught the name of ‘Jones’ repeated again and again. And then Tuljagir held up the little ruddy figure towards the black image, calling out what sounded like imprecations, in which the name of Jones still continued to occur, and lastly crumbled it to earth again in his hands, letting the dust fall on the floor, and then turned and came straight towards the cupboard in which Fitch was, taking up as he came a towel hanging on a hook.
Walter recollected the sink and water tap, and hurried to escape. Tuljagir’s hand was on the door, when, with a slamming sound, Walter flung the outer door to behind him, and dashed down the stairs and down the lane. There was an opening and shutting of doors, but no one pursued him; probably they dared not venture out into the street in such curious attire.
Francis had gone to bed by the time Walter got back, and he was only too glad to follow his friend’s example. But he did not get much sleep in his excited state, and in the morning he went into Francis’s room early and sat on the bed, while he poured out to his friend all he had seen.
‘Well, I can elucidate some of it for you,’ said the latter. ‘They were worshipping Kali, the goddess of destruction, cholera, small-pox, and all that sort of thing. She is the wife of Shiva, and it was in her honour that the Thugs of bygone days pursued their ghastly calling. She is usually propitiated by the sacrifice of a black goat in the manner you saw. The making the spot on their foreheads is called “thika”; it is to prevent any demon in the vicinity from securing the efficacy of their devotions. The last was the most serious business. Natives of India thoroughly believe in black magic, and to get the dust of a man’s footprints and fashion them into an image is often done in the hope that, as the enemy destroys the image, so Fate will treat its living original. However, that remains to be seen.’
‘But look here, Francis, they can’t be such fools as to think that Fate will take them at their words like that. I must find Jones, get him a billet, and keep him under my own eye, and I must let Mr. Hubbard know about the business, and tell him about the basin of jewels. He ought to have a search warrant, and see whether he can find anything in Mr. Gussain’s chambers. I shall write to Mr. Hubbard at once, and myself go and try and track Jones.’
‘I will come with you, old man,’ Francis replied, jumping up, fired by the other’s enthusiasm.
So Fitch sat down and wrote a short letter to Mr. Hubbard, asking him to call before the appointed date, and giving him a brief outline of his last adventure; then he set out with Francis for Camden Road, Clapton.
There was no news of Jones at his old address, and searching for a person, address unknown, in London, is worse than looking for a needle in the proverbial haystack, for in the latter case you have at any rate the satisfaction of knowing that the needle is there, whereas the man may have left town, which is annoying. They tried every haunt they thought likely both that day and the following; stood for a couple of hours at a time outside Messrs. Cubator and Co.’s, the booksellers, in the hope that Jones might turn up to seek employment with his old masters; went to the firm in which his wife had been employed, but to no purpose; and they even inserted an advertisement in the Daily Telegraph to the effect that he would hear of something to his advantage if he applied at Fitch’s chambers, but this only brought them letters the next morning from a hundred and thirteen other varieties of the name, but nothing from their Mr. and Mrs. Jones.
Mr. Hubbard had written that he was taking certain measures, and would prefer to keep to the original appointed date, as Mrs. Harrison at any rate would be present, and Fitch also heard from Giles that he and his mother and fiancée were coming up to town after all, and that he himself would be at Fitch’s chambers on the 8th. So there seemed to be nothing to do but wait the day. Fitch had the turquoise bangle and brooch ready to hand over to Miss Hastings as an instalment of his promise to her. He had written and obtained a cheque from Giles for the amount Mrs. Harrison had been actually out of pocket, and had himself invested in a handsome bracelet, which he intended to present to that lady, after due explanations, in fulfilment of his own promise.
In the meanwhile, germinating strongly in his mind was the idea of returning to India with Francis. He had written to his people pointing out what dawdling work it was at home, and how the West did not seem to present opportunities for forensic practice, and had had a reply to the effect that of course he must judge for himself, and that at any rate his father understood there was splendid big game shooting in Central India, and that if he did not care for it in six months’ time he could come back and practise at home. He didn’t tell Francis of this, but waited events. What was big game shooting? He was hunting a man!
Once during the interval he came across Mr. Gussain at a musical evening at some people’s who lived on the right side of the Park, but a trifle too far West. They were very wealthy, but the source of their wealth, although quite righteous, came directly out of other folks’ pockets. The host, Mr. Turnbull, was an outside jobber on the Stock Exchange, and the advertisement of his firm formed a staple source of income to some of the newspapers, and an equally constant attraction to the needy world. Fitch had come across them through a man he knew at the Bar, a good bit older than himself, who held forth to Walter on the chance of a fortune with judicious knowledge of whatever was going on on the Stock Exchange, and pointed out the advantages of actually knowing the Turnbulls. Fitch had never met them de par le monde, which no doubt did not decrease their appreciation of his society. As yet he had risked but little, and had gained a trifling benefit, and quite by chance made up his mind to give their musical evening a look in on his way to a dance he had been asked to, and see if he could glean any tips. There was good music. The Turnbulls knew the advantage of standing well with the artistic world, and a good number of people assembled, mostly unknown to Fitch, except a man or two, and, in confabulation with one of the sons of the house, Mr. Gussain, in immaculate evening dress. He gave Fitch a regular society recognition, and made his own way on in the crush.
Fitch in his turn spoke to young Turnbull, who alluded to the obvious acquaintance of the two, and said:
‘Have you heard anything of this Ruby and Diamond Company which Mr. Gussain wishes us to help promote? He says he knows a district in Central India where they can be obtained of fine quality. His samples are very fine indeed, and, of course, nowadays nothing attracts like a diamond company, and if there is a bottom in it, nothing really pays like one.’
Fitch disclaimed all knowledge, and passed on; but Tuljagir had gone, and in his turn Walter went, too, with more food for thought.
At last the day fixed for the meeting at Fitch’s chambers arrived. Walter and Francis had not done anything much in the matter in the interval. They had dined and danced, gone to the opera and to the various exbibitions, and had had a good time—for Walter knew a number of people, thanks to his connections and education, but the whole business seemed very tame to him—too much like that of a puppet with movable limbs jerked about by a string in aimless effort to amuse a bored creator. So when the eighth actually dawned he felt quite a thrill of excitement at going on with his real adventure; it had all the fascination and the element of danger which a modern intrigue lacks.
He had arranged that Mrs. Harrison should arrive before the others, and go to lunch at the Du Val with him. This would please her, and he intended to present her with his gift and the cheque in an envelope, after explaining things.
She arrived alone, and muffled as to her face with a huge light gauze veil. She came into the chambers, and unswathed her countenance, which involved taking out an exaggerated bow from her hair, the latter having done duty as a bonnet.
‘Don’t say you are glad to see me!’ she exclaimed, and struck an attitude of deprecation, ‘for I know you don’t mean it. However, you men who say little are better than those who gush. Philip treated me abominably. I was always urging him to marry Miss Hastings, and yet he has never once thanked me for my good advice.’
Fitch remembered the form of chaff which he had heard on the subject.
‘Mrs. Harrison,’ he said, ‘Philip probably feels the subject too deep for writing. He is coming here himself this afternoon.’ Mrs. Harrison bridled and made as though to readjust her headgear. ‘No, no, I want you to meet him. I have a great deal to tell you. But first, dear Mrs. Harrison, I want you to accept a little present in substitution for the bangle I promised you;’ and Fitch produced the handsome gold bracelet he had bought and placed it on the feigned reluctant arm of the lady, whose eyes glistened with pleasure. ‘It is too good of you, Mr. Fitch—I really feel as if I should say “Walter”! But what have you done with my other one?’
‘That is what I have to explain to you. Sit down in this cosy chair, and I will tell you, but in strict confidence, and then we will go and have some lunch.’
And thereupon Walter told his tale, and delicately conveyed the cheque. The lady was deeply interested. She saw herself in all the papers and a tremendous boom, Rachel Hoffnung, the well-known actress, starring it in a diamond drama of real life.
‘And you say Mr. Hubbard and Sir Philip will be here presently to hear me tell them about the bangle?’
‘Certainly,’ replied Fitch.
‘Very well,’ said the practical artiste. ‘Mind you introduce me as “Rachel Hoffnung” to the ’tec. Now let’s go to lunch.’
‘He knows you are Mrs. Harrison,’ said Fitch.
‘Never mind; to him and the world I am not,’ was the answer in Siddonesque tragic tones.
They went to lunch, and Mrs. Harrison enjoyed herself over some nice light wine. She rendered to perfection the demi-mondaine—in fact, a little too much so for Fitch, as he didn’t wish to get chaffed in the common-room for a mid-day adventure.
When they returned to chambers, Francis was there, and was introduced, and soon after three o’clock Sir Philip turned up, in company with Mr. Hubbard.
Mrs. Harrison was introduced under her stage name, and business began. She made her statement with many needless coquettish glances at Fitch, all for the advantage of Sir Philip.
Fitch then contributed his doings up to date. He had compiled a ‘record,’ in which Mr. Hubbard was much interested, and he handed the brooch and bangle to Sir Philip, saying as he did so, ‘Mind you tell Miss Hastings that I am fulfilling my promise by instalments.’
It was then Mr. Hubbard’s turn.
‘Mr. Fitch,’ he said, ‘I feel that to you even more than to Sir Philip, if he will allow me to say so, I owe a full statement of as much as I know. For he is simply anxious to recover his property, whereas you, I perceive, are thoroughly penetrated with the pleasure of the chase. It is my professional business to track out mysteries, but I am only too glad to find someone to carry on my work with and for me. Mr. Fitch has made it practically certain that this Mr. Gussain from India is at the bottom of the Giles jewellery mystery, and if it is brought home to him, I may say almost all the diamond robberies of great value and without a clue of the last few years will probably be solved. There has been a master-mind at work in all of them. You, Mr. Fitch, have had only to deal with the circumstances of one; I have had them all before me at one time or another, and they are all alike in a certain set of facts. Nothing has ever been heard of the jewels; they disappeared utterly. Amsterdam, The Hague, every city of Europe in which precious stones are cut, re-cut, polished, and set, has been the scene of inquiry, but to no purpose. Even America and Australia have not escaped our vigilance——’
‘In other words, there is only Asia left, Mr. Hubbard,’ broke in Fitch.
‘That is so,’ was the reply. Francis looked delighted, for he realized that in the end Fitch would probably accompany him on his return to India. Mrs. Harrison looked disappointed, for she scented no London newspaper paragraphs.
‘Well,’ continued Mr. Hubbard, ‘you must not think we have been doing nothing. We had Mr. Gussain’s chambers searched the very day we received your communication, Mr. Fitch. He had no idea of it. But, after all, we discovered nothing, only hanging up in the cupboard in which you had been concealed some joints of raw mutton very badly skinned. We left them there. You must know that our swarthy friend has a highly respectable reputation. There is absolutely nothing against him in society. He has travelled on the continent, both in France and in the Low Countries, Holland and Belgium. He was in Flanders when the great haul of the Countess of Flanders’ jewels was made, and he is known to have visited two of the country houses in the shires where afterwards sensational jewel robberies took place; but he was not staying there at the time, nor anywhere in the neighbourhood that we know of. The night-porter says he keeps regular hours, much like other young men; but once a month—and it seems always to have been at the full moon—he has a meeting of other native gentlemen at his chambers, which lasts till the small hours of the morning. We cannot ascertain that he has ever disposed of jewels at any time to anybody. He wears some good stuff himself, but it was genuinely bought and paid for by himself. We found a necklace of good emeralds at his chambers, but it was an Indian bauble strung upon a silken twist, and with nothing suspicious of any kind about it. There remains Mr. Jones. Mr. Jones is not forthcoming, but his story as to the pawning of the jewellery by himself is true. We have redeemed some, and seen all the pledges, and among them is one little pin, not of great value, but which can be identified by an intaglio—an ordinary head, but only the owner knew that it took off and was a tiny box. This came from a famous robbery. I hold a warrant to arrest Jones, but Jones, as I said, is not forthcoming. No one knows him save yourself, Mr. Fitch, and Mr. Gussain. We wrote to Mr. Gussain about him, and here is his reply:
‘“My Dear Sir, > > ‘“In reply to your respected letter of the third inst., I have the honour to reply that I have dismissed the Mr. Jones you inquire about for having stolen my breastpin, which I reported instantly to the policeman on the beat. But Mr. Jones, getting information of this, did not come again. I shall hasten to provide you with a clue should I hear of him. His address was: 5, Camden Road, Clapton. But I have good reason to believe he has taken service with Mr. Fitch. > > ‘“I am, sir, > > ‘“Your most obedient servant, > > ‘“Tuljagir Gussain, Barrister-at-law.”’
‘Thoroughly native,’ said Francis.
‘Yes,’ said Mr. Hubbard; ‘he seems to wish to indicate you, Mr. Fitch, if possible, as what he would doubtless term the fons et origo of the whole mischief. We are not so easily misled; but there is nothing more to be done here unless you can find Mr. Jones. If you did, Mr. Fitch, I think we should have the sensational diamond case of the nineteenth century.’
A little talk followed, and the meeting broke up, the three—Mrs. Harrison, Sir Philip, and Mr. Hubbard—all leaving separately. Francis and Fitch remained behind.
‘I have a bit of news in a letter I have just received by the mail which may interest you in your present frame of mind,’ began the former as soon as they were alone. ‘Saunderson, a friend of mine out there at Cobrapur, writes—ah, here it is:
‘“You remember the old Gosain the Mahant of Achuleshwar whose chéla has gone to England to become a barrister? Well, a claim to the Zemindari of Ghairagurh has been started on the strength of some papers produced by him. The gup”—he means “gossip”—“is that it is a splendid case on the documents. I suppose his chéla will be coming out to fight it for the plaintiff. There ought to be rich pickings for somebody in the legal profession.”
‘There is a chance for you, old man. You would be sure to get engaged on one side or the other, probably the other, and then you would be able to have a fight with your wonderful foe. And you know I have set my heart on having you with me, to have a look at the place through your eyes.’
‘Ghairagurh! Ghairagurh!’ murmured Fitch. ‘Surely that was the name on that impression.’
‘By all that’s holy, you’re right!’ chimed in Francis. Fitch pulled out his pocket-book, and the copies of the impression it contained did, as Francis verified, refer to the Ghairagurh Zemindari.
‘Fitch, your destiny points to India, and under Providence you will go there; it is useless to kick against the pricks.’
‘How about the climate, though?’
‘My dear fellow, you could have nothing more delightful than Central India in the cold weather; it is another Eden.’
‘Which you are tempting me to enter.’
‘Your Bar prospects can’t hurt; you’ll be all the better for a change; and you will have a fund of conversation when you come back. There are few or no globe-trotters in our part of the world.’
Still, Fitch could not make up his mind. He was descended from a man who in Elizabethan days had made famous voyages and travels in the East, and his reputation had been borne out by his descendants. But the rootlets of the young are very tenacious in their native soil. They dislike a change far more than their elders do. They cannot as yet conceive the possibility of existence under conditions different to those they have already known. Home is always the home of one’s childhood. The first change made, however, the very British youngsters who were such stick-at-homes bear transplantation to any clime or soil, and thrive.
‘Well, if you are coming, you’ll have to make up your mind now jolly quick, for berths in the P. and O. boat are filling up fast, although her date of sailing is nearly three months off;’ and Francis handed Fitch the Home Mail.
Fitch glanced down the various lists of passengers.
‘Yes,’ he said at last, ‘I am going with you, old man, if you will have me, and be the guide, philosopher, etc.’
‘Done!’ cried Francis. ‘Come and have a drink on the strength of it, and the first thing in the morning we will go and secure our berths.’
They looked towards each other, and after they had bid each other good-night, Fitch said:
‘I see Tuljagir Gussain sails in next week’s steamer.’
‘I see,’ said Francis, ‘and, like a second Nelson, you scud after him with every sail set.’
And so the die was cast. Fitch and Francis secured a double-berth cabin in the saloon on the steamer which was to leave Marseilles in the middle of October, and Walter ordered an outfit under his friend’s able guidance. It didn’t seem a bit more a realized fact after their passages were taken than before, but that is just the way of things. The sense of calm which heralds the long vacation stole over the Temple precincts, and hushed the busy votaries of the law. The common room was shut, and Americans wandered at will through the storied courts.
Fitch had endeavoured to trace Jones, but there was no clue of any kind. He had never revisited his old pawnbroking haunts, and, tired of his searching, Walter had hied him forth to visit friends, and say farewell generally. It was a glorious autumn, and country-house visiting quite put India and diamonds out of Fitch’s head for the time. Change of scene to the lovely hills of Caledonia, and its bracing breezes, quite dispersed the strange scenes he had passed through in London town, and made India’s ‘sunny clime’ still seem only a well known line in a hymn, rather than his destination in a few weeks’ time per P. and O. steamer.
However, before the Long was over he had to get back to town to arrange a few business matters, and to say goodbye to his people. There was a sort of understanding on their part that Walter was coming back in six months; but his mind was made up that he had started off to seek his fortune, and he was not going to return without it so soon as all that. The jewel mystery should be thoroughly cleared up, and who knew with what profitable results?
His Temple friends heard of his departure with sorrow, for his chambers had ever been a rallying point. In fact, they had such a liking for him that as soon as Michaelmas Term began they determined to hold a special ‘Rag,’ and present him with a souvenir of their sorrow at losing such a pleasant companion.
London itself was in about its most dismal mood—cold and dark with continual rain; no amount of attention could keep the streets free from mire, and the damp struck upwards. At night by the lights and fires within doors it was comfortable enough, but the fogs were heavy without, and the darkness thick. The great electric lights were dim even, there was no day; at noon the fog was dark and heavy to suffocation; the buses and hansoms moved at funeral pace.
It was Fitch’s last night in England before he started for India. The evening before his friends had gathered in chambers to bid him God-speed. A chum of school and college had sung Tosti’s ‘Good-bye’ with an amount of feeling that had spread to the whole gathering, and all with cross-linked hands had joined in singing ‘Auld Lang Syne.’
Now, in the cold, damp night he drove up for the last time to Middle Temple Lane to sleep in his chambers.
Who can help feeling melancholy at a time like this? The future is before one like an open landscape in the early morning, all is gray and cold, and the morning mists before the dawn leave every feature a shapeless mass, and most of them an imagined menace.
There was no night porter at the lodge, but the little postern was open. There was scant traffic in Fleet Street, for it was past ten p.m.
He walked down the deserted lane, and came to Fountain Court. A little group was dimly visible in the darkness by the steps of the dining-hall door, but no lights were burning in the Hall, and Walter knew that even the elaborately open-worked iron gridiron in front of the great door was shut. A policeman was there and a couple of hall porters—a little silent group. One of the porters came and spoke softly to Fitch.
‘It is a suicide, sir; he hung himself to one of the bars of the ironwork, and kicked that badly that he got one of his legs right inside. Nobody knows him. Will you have a look, sir? He don’t live in the Temple, but he is dressed nicely.’
Walter moved towards the group; it was a strange farewell to the old Hall. The policeman had a dark lantern, which he turned on the swollen face, and there, stiff and stark, as they had laid him across the steps of the dining-hall, Fitch looked on the dead body of poor Jones.
‘You don’t know him, sir?’
‘Has he any clue on him?’ Fitch replied.
‘Nothing of any kind, not a card, nor a letter, nor a penny piece to bless himself with, poor man! I hope he leaves no wife or child to despair like himself. It is starvation drives ’em to it.’
Walter said nothing. If the man was not identified, and there was no appearance of any foul play, what was the use of his identification by himself, which would detain him in England, and could lead to no useful purpose? It was a weird coincidence, though, this strange suicide on the very eve of his departure. He went on to his chambers in a melancholy frame of mind, and wrote a letter to Mr. Hubbard explaining his action. The morrow arrived at last, and the dark October day sped to evening. The mail train was fretting and fuming in Charing Cross Station, a crowd of his friends—school, college, and Bar—were beyond the barriers waving him farewell. Francis had already got into the carriage, Fitch followed him, the whistle sounded, and the train sped into the darkness.
Fitch was going round the station in a bullock tonga paying calls. It was a rum idea; two trotting bullocks with a yoke on their necks drew the vehicle, and a semi-nude native perched on the near end of the pole was the cabby. He had a sharp goad, and dug it into the bullocks’ flanks, and twisted their tails, or thrust his bare toes into the tender portions of their frames if they did not go fast enough, or bolted into somebody’s compound who had already been called upon.
It was between twelve and two, the hottest part of the day, but Anglo-Indian society is relentless in the matter of calls, time, and number of cards; even the youngest of unmarried girls must have one left for her. Seven pasteboards on one household is no joke—it comes expensive. So Fitch thought. Francis had given him a list of people to visit, and who they were, and what cards to drop. Now here was a Postmaster-General with a wife, two daughters, two lady visitors, and a son: it was awful!
Walter had been out in India a week, a week that seemed to have turned his whole ideas of the modes of existence topsy-turvy. He was now a unit, where before he had been one of innumerable noughts. Scenery, people, climate, actions—all had suffered a strange sea change. He and Francis were inhabiting a big, rambling old bungalow together. The rooms were huge, the floors all covered with matting, and the furniture consisted of a dining-table, four chairs, a whatnot, a little table to play cards on, two camp-beds, two tin baths, an etcetera or two, and that was all. The number of servants, however, amply made up for the lack of furniture.
Walter had scarcely given a thought to Mr. Gussain and the jewel mystery since he left England. The voyage out, at the best time of year, had been a veritable pleasure trip, and he had met several nice people on board the P. and O. boat, crowded as it was: among them a Mrs. Anson-Jones, who was also on her way to Cobrapur, to join her husband, who held a good Government appointment there, and whom she had not seen for nearly two years, as her health had necessitated her going home, and he could not get leave.
Fitch meant to make her his last call to-day, as he had seen her at the club the night before, and she had hinted that when he came to leave his cards she would give him tiffin.
It was about ten minutes to two when the tonga turned into Mrs. Anson-Jones’s compound and stopped in front of the veranda, which was a good wide one, running along the front of the thatched bungalow. Three or four natives were squatting in it, servants of sorts, who rose at the tonga’s approach. As soon as the tonga stopped, another servant, all in white, came out of the house with a silver salver. Fitch put his cards on it, and then the man said ‘Salaam,’ and Fitch hopped out from his seat at the back, the seat of honour in a bullock tonga: everything in Hindustan is the reverse of Western ways, from the thread of a screw to a robin redbreast.
The drawing-room opened straight on to the veranda; the room was darkened. It was very prettily furnished. There were flowers and ferns, and, although it was the cold weather, the punkahs were up; pretty frills of art muslin; a grand piano stood open, with some music upon it. Mrs. Anson-Jones rose to greet her visitor.
She was a fair, rather tired and worn looking woman, with a mass of tousled air. She had on a pretty green blouse and a white skirt, and wore some good rings.
‘How do you do, Mr. Fitch? Are you getting used to our Indian ways—this absurd calling in the middle of the day? I always tell the servants to say, Dirwaza bund—“Not at home;” but I knew you would be coming round to-day, and I wanted to hear what you thought of everyone. What ages it seems since we met at Marseilles a month ago!’
‘Yes,’ said Fitch; ‘but you were so good to me from the beginning, I felt as if I had always known you.’
Oh, I wasn’t fishing! You will stay to tiffin with me, won’t you? I am afraid it is only a tête-à-tête, for Charlie has gone down to Kutcherry—office, you know. You’ll soon pick up the language. You don’t have any work, lucky man! By the way, Charlie is awfully taken with you, he says you play whist so well.’
‘Not as well as he does, Mrs. Anson-Jones.’
‘Ah, well, he is an Admirable Crichton, good at everything. When we go in to tiffin I will show you the cups and trophies he has won racing and golfing. But we have been apart so much, Mr. Fitch’—with a little sigh—‘that is the worst of Anglo-Indian life; if you settle out here and marry, you will find that out.’
‘But ‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder,”’ quoted Fitch.
‘Ah, I don’t know; one gets out of the other’s ways when the absences are such prolonged ones. Still, never mind, tell me what you think of everybody.’
‘Well, I haven’t really seen anybody yet to know them—just at the club.’
‘No, I suppose not. Do you like the cock-and-hen arrangement—a club for both sexes? Still, you men get the better of us, as usual: you may come our side of the place, but we mustn’t go yours.’
‘We might shock you, poor rough rude creatures that we are.’
‘Oh, our society would soften and polish you; but I know what you men really think of us all.’ Then Mrs. Anson-Jones said: ‘Excuse me half a minute while I tell my khansaman you are staying to tiffin. You will, won’t you?’
‘Thanks, I should like it awfully. Mr. Francis is away all day at the Secretariat, and it is a bit lonely in the bungalow, as I don’t understand the heathen, nor they me.’
‘Well, I shall be charmed to have you, for you can sympathize with us poor women. Most men think we ought to find the time pass as quickly as they do, whose hands are full,’ and, raising her voice, she called, ‘Qui hai!’ A red-coated chuprassie came in, and she spoke to him in Hindustani. ‘There,’ she said, as he left, I’ve told him to tell the butler you are staying.’
‘I do envy you,’ said Fitch. ‘I must try and get hold of this gibberish they call a language.’
In a moment or two the white-coated servant who had taken Fitch’s cards reappeared, holding up a long handsome curtain which divided the apartment they were sitting in, and said:
‘Come along,’ said Mrs. Anson-Jones, ‘and share my frugal meal.’
And they both passed beyond the curtain, and found themselves in a prettily arranged dining-room, where the number of silver cups on the sideboards at once struck Fitch. They sat down, while the butler and another white-clothed attendant, both wearing the Anson-Jones crest as a brooch in their white turbans, waited on them noiselessly.
‘Well, now, where have you been calling?’ asked his hostess.
‘Oh, I really don’t know—everywhere! However, I haven’t seen anyone except the Postmaster-General’s people and the De Tompkinses.’
‘Oh yes,’ laughed Mrs. Anson-Jones. ‘Mrs. de Tompkins is never out when eligible young bachelors are calling round. Did you see the girl?’
Yes; I thought her rather nice.’
‘She might have been if it hadn’t been for her mother, who has more maidens at home nearly ready to import, and simply flings Anna at every man’s head. I bet she has asked Mr. Francis all about you and your prospects; and didn’t she try to worm out of you whether he had anything of his own besides his pay, who his people were, and all that sort of thing?’
‘You are absolutely right; it didn’t strike me before, it seemed natural to talk of the man I was chumming with.’
‘Yes, Mrs. de Tompkins knows her way about; however, we are deadly foes, so you mustn’t pass too hard a judgment on me for trying to rend her to bits. I say straight out what I think, at any rate, and she knows it. It is too funny to see her come sidling up to me at the club like a duchess of the early forties, and then—my word she doesn’t stop at much when she speaks of me. However, they failed to prevent my husband getting this appointment, although they did their level best, all because I didn’t answer a note of hers for a couple of days—she is great on her position. However, you will learn all about Indian precedence quick enough. But there, let us leave these foolish people, and talk of something sensible. Were you sorry to leave the ship? It was such a pleasant voyage.’
‘Not when I found you were coming to Cobrapur, too.’
‘Oh, you’ll fall into Mother Tompkins’s clutches, and then you won’t see much of me. Come, shall I leave you to have a cheroot, or will you come into the drawing-room? Smoking is permissible everywhere in India, you know. It is too hot to show you our garden now.’
‘I will come with you, and won’t you play something, Mrs. Anson-Jones?’ asked Fitch.
‘Of course I will, though don’t you let it out; I am not going to play at dinners. Come along.’ And they went back through the curtains to the drawing-room. Mrs. Anson-Jones sat down at the piano, and played really well; it was her one accomplishment.
Poor little Fitch! how Francis chaffed him when he got home, and heard of his doings!
‘I told you you were fated to be a “bow-wow,” and here you are muzzled already, only the best of it is the bow-wows are not muzzled out here.’
‘What do you mean? Do stop chaffing, Francis, or I’ll get out of this long chair, and pour the tea over you.’ They were having five o’clock tea in the veranda. ‘You never said a word about dogs, except your own blessed “pie” that you call a fox-terrier.’
‘Oh, well, I’ll disillusionize you. “Bow-wows” are the bachelors, who are married women’s property. The fair sex rule the roost out here; they’ve got a good working minority, and that does the trick. Mrs. Anson-Jones has annexed you, and you will soon learn to fetch and carry.’
‘And what about the husbands?’ queried Walter.
‘Oh, they have done their duty; they are as uninteresting as prisoners of war out on parole. Don’t imagine there is any impropriety; a bow-wow’s mistress is something between a great-aunt and a younger first cousin to him. But you will see plenty of them. Now come down to the club, and we will have some tennis.’
Fitch was never quite sure whether he was on his head or his heels in these absolutely new conditions of life. They drove down the pretty roads bordered with tall, graceful trees, with long, pendulous, fragrant white flowers, past quaint thatched bungalows, each surrounded with a multitude of flowers and shrubs in pots, and a bare expanse of what, by courtesy, might be called grass, to a similar bungalow, rather a large one, in the compound of which were a number of tennis-courts with people playing on them, and a Badminton court marked out, and surrounded by lanterns on posts, of course unlit as yet. This was the club.
Everyone who was anyone belonged to the club, and met there every day. It was a ‘cock-and-hen’ club, one side, known as the ‘hen-coop,’ being open to the wives of members. But children and dogs were strictly prohibited from coming on to the club premises. Here every day the eighty ‘sahibs’ who made up Cobrapur were to be found from six to eight p.m. Very sick they got of it sometimes, but it would have excited much comment if anyone had invariably stayed at home.
Mrs. de Tompkins was sitting looking on at Anna rushing about the tennis-court. She beamed on the two new-comers, who propitiated her with a few remarks before proceeding to their single. Mrs. de Tompkins was portly, and had a profile, also a ducal carriage. If she had been in England she would have carried a long tortoiseshell lorgnette. She was tall, and her husband was an insignificant little man with a squint, which he counteracted by strong glasses. Mrs. de Tompkins had breathed in strict confidence that at her mother’s wish she had married this person with a ‘heaven-born’ position, and that Anna, too, would be wise and not throw herself away.
De Tompkins himself walked on the tips of his toes, and thought he was a head and shoulders above everyone else—so many great men have been small.
The sun went down, and before Walter had time to think about it darkness set in, and they adjourned for drinks, a look at the papers, billiards, etc., to the club. Papers three weeks old, European politics, and evening papers out of sight, Anglo-India holding its own, shop, leave and promotion, plus the scandal of a small country town. It reminds one more than anything of a small muddy pebble in a gorgeous setting of jewels and gold, Anglo-Indian life in Hindustan.
Fitch changed his flannels in the dressing-room, had a whisky peg, was introduced to some men, and then drifted out into the ladies’ veranda with an idea that he might find Mrs. Anson-Jones.
All the lamps round the Badminton court were lit, and ‘hit and scream’ was going on with a vigour which justified its nickname. Mrs. de Tompkins and her child were playing. It was their game, and at it they reigned supreme. As soon as she saw Fitch come down the steps, Mrs. de Tompkins sent a young fellow, who had the ill luck to be in her husband’s office, and whom she used accordingly as something between a secretary and an upper footman, to ask Walter to play, as the set was just finishing and some of the players were going out. Walter had to consent. Of course he played with Miss de Tompkins, and of course when the game was over she was tired, and accepted a chair in the veranda far from the lights.
Walter Fitch was Walter Fitch, and never could help being a little impressé to a member of the other sex. Anna was an arrant flirt, so there they sat until 7.30, when the De Tompkinses left, as did some ten others who were dining out. Sometimes more than one person gave a dinner-party on the same night, and then the club would be quite depleted, all off to dress. Everybody knew everything about everybody else; there never was a truer exemplification of the fable of the fagots that remained united because they were tied together, than the members of an Anglo-Indian station. At Cobrapur they were a family, more or less loving; in England they were ‘strangers yet.’
And so the days went by. Walter bought a pony, and used to ride almost every morning early with Mrs. Anson-Jones. She chaffed him much about Anna, and told him she had known more than one case in India where eight days had been sufficient for an engagement, and that to be seen with a girl once was quite enough to set people talking, and that they were talking about Anna and himself.
‘But I am always with you,’ was the reply.
‘Oh yes, riding and to tiffin; but nobody sees that, though it sounds far more improper. No, if you sit with Anna at the club it’s all up with you.’
‘But you won’t let me sit there with you’—plaintively.
‘No; I’ve too much sense: besides, Charlie wouldn’t let me.’
Walter dined at each separate household, and found it deadly dull, nearly every eatable tinned, and the only thing to look forward to the club mutton. There were two mutton clubs, five members to each, so that each member got a joint of gram-fed mutton twice a week, and it was the object of the rest of the station to dine with one or other of the lucky individuals those nights.
The De Tompkinses were above mutton clubs, and drank Italian wines, so that their dinners are better imagined than digested. The Anson-Joneses belonged to both mutton clubs, and their popularity was even beyond that, for the hostess sang and played, and the host was devoted to whist, and that brought the men and, it goes without saying, the girls. Men, after all, are the attraction all the world over.
Christmas came and went, a hot-house Christmas to Walter. The routine went on; Mrs. de Tompkins was more than affable, and inquired with a motherly interest into his domestic affairs, as to how he was getting on at the language with his munshi, whether he really meant to practise out there, and if he kept house or Francis, and did the khansaman cheat them? She could give him all the bazaar prices, and then such sweet praises of Anna, and hints of the offers she had refused in Calcutta.
What made it the more interesting was the clearness with which Mrs. Anson-Jones commented on the campaign. She said to Walter quite plainly that he was a dear boy, and she was very fond of him, and that she wasn’t going to see him carried off by wolves right under her very nose, nor used as bait to catch other game.
‘Don’t you see,’ she said, ‘that Anna is head over ears in love with young Fitzwilliam; he is in the Civil Service, is an only son, with prospects, and gloriously good-looking, and knows it. Father, mother, and daughter are dying to catch him. You are here too much; you don’t know how much they have him there, and use you as a bogey to egg him on. I dare say I am a little mixed, but you know what I mean, and you are half inclined to propose because the weary spell of Anglo-Indian station life is upon you, the gaze of eighty pair of eyes, and even your own bearer saying, “The sahib going to marry.” Don’t blush I know. And you don’t care a little rap for her, no more than you care for me.’
‘Mrs. Anson-Jones, I care a good deal about you, you know that,’ Fitch declared earnestly. ‘I don’t know what my life here would have been without you. This is the only bungalow in the place I care to go to, and which has any idea of home about it.’
‘Thank you, sir’—with a little bow. ‘Keep to cupboard love, and we shall do. There is a bunch of violets for you’—they were in the garden after the early ride—‘and be thankful. You wait and see what the hot weather is like when the bungalows are hermetically sealed, and the land a parched furnace. No coming in to tiffin then, sir; I go to bed. By the way, Mr. Fitch, you are going home when your six months are up, are you not?’
‘Well, I really don’t know,’ said Fitch. ‘By Jove! I shall have to turn my attention to that soon, though; here is February upon us. Good-bye, Mrs. Anson-Jones. No, I won’t stay to “chota hazri.” Francis is expecting me back.’
Of Francis Walter did not see much, except in the evening. They often had other bachelors in to dinner, and played whist, but during the day, both at home and at the secretariat, Francis was overwhelmed with routine work. However, this morning Walter found him in, and in a state of some jubilation, saying that he had cleared off all his files up to date.
‘Have your tub, Walter,’ he cried, ‘and I will come and sit on your bed, and talk to you meanwhile. We haven’t had a good “buk” together for a long time, and I have heard something that ought to interest you, though you seem to have become oblivious of your heathen friend; besides, you must tell me all about Anna and Mrs. Jones, you gay Lothario!’
So Francis came and threw himself on Walter’s little camp-bed, and Fitch himself retired behind the purdah, and proceeded to perform his ablutions.
‘Well, what about Tuljagir?’ queried Walter.
‘Ah! I thought you would be curious; you know the beggar has been enrolled here, and is doing fairly well, I believe, but nothing has happened yet in the big suit. Do you mean to stick out here a bit, old man? I know you are getting on well with the language, because if so, you had better get to know one or two of the big natives, and go to the courts a bit. Some of these Johnnies who come to take interviews have alluded to you.’
‘I must say I rather funk the going to court, the place reminds me more or less of Bedlam, with the people squatting about under the trees outside, and the bullocks and little straw-covered carts, and the babel.’
‘Oh! laughed Francis, ‘they will all be your clients, my boy. Ask Macgregor to let you go and sit in his court, and see what it is like. He tries both civil and criminal cases. My advice to you is, stay and get enrolled. It is a very curious thing to my mind that Tuljagir has not been to call on you, he must know you are here, and I think he does not wish to do anything which may determine you to stay; anyway, you are sure to get some cases, and I know enough of natives to know that although there is an immense amount at stake, and each side has money, neither side will engage anyone big from Bombay or Calcutta in the first court, they leave that till they get to the Appellate Courts; they know it will probably go to the Privy Council in the end. They are a most penny wise and pound foolish set—spoil their cases in the first court. However, it gives you your opportunity. Most people come out here for shikar, and you are after the biggest game of all genus homo.’
‘I should like to get some ordinary shooting, too, though,’ said Fitch.
‘Oh, you are sure to get that; now hurry up and dress, and we’ll have breakfast.’
The result of his deliberations with Francis was, that Walter enrolled himself in the High Court, and was at liberty to appear throughout the provinces. The courts struck him as resembling the Harlequinade in the pantomimes at home more or less, especially the subordinate ones. Judges in flannels or riding kit, litigants in almost nothing at all. He engaged a young Brahmin, named Balkrishna, as clerk, and then waited, not for long. A number of petty cases soon visited him, some of which he took to get his hand in; and then one fine morning in March Vittu (Walter’s bearer) came to him and said that the Rai Bahadur’s agent was in the veranda, and wished to see him. Walter had been made acquainted with the man by Francis; his name was Ram Chandur, and his master was the largest native banker in the city.
Fitch asked if a chair had been given him, and then went into the little room he used as an office, and Vittu ushered the Bunniah in.
He was a great, fat man, with one eye, clad in voluminous raiment, and wearing the tightly-folded, jaunty little marwari puggarie of many hues. At the door he put off his shoes, and entered with many salaams, and took a seat proffered him by Balkrishna, who was always present to help Fitch if necessary.
Ram Chandur inquired after Fitch’s health, after that of Francis, and wished to know if he could be of any use to ‘his lordship,’ meandered round in mazy talk, and then began to come to the point. Walter had begun to learn that no native calls on a sahib without a reason, and that patience is needed to come to the point.
‘Does “the protector of the poor” take up many cases?’ was the inquiry.
‘I have taken up some, if I thought them good,’ Fitch replied.
‘I hear that your honour has had great success.’
‘Oh, that is a question of fortune.’
‘Assuredly. If I hear of any clients, may I be allowed to send them to your honour?’
‘Tell him, Balkrishna, that I shall be happy to be of any assistance to his friends.’
Walter had to have sentences interpreted for him a bit as yet.
The marwari salaamed on this intimation, and said that all things were by his honour’s favours, and then there was a slight pause. It was evident they were beginning to get to the point.
‘Does your honour know the chéla of Narbaddagir? He has just come from England, some eight months ago, and is a balister sahib.’
‘I have seen him once or twice in England; he has not called on me here.’
‘Would your honour care to take a case in which he was on the other side? This side are very poor people, but I should be glad to help them.’
‘I don’t mind opposing Mr. What’s-his-name,’ said Walter to his clerk; ‘but I must hear about the case first.’
Balkrishna translated this.
‘Ah!’ said Fitch; ‘Tuljagir, I thought so,’ as Balkrishna used the name which was evidently familiar to him.
‘Very well, very well,’ said the Bunniah; ‘I will bring the papers to-morrow, if I may. I have been troubling your honour too long; have I leave to go?’ Both rose.
The marwari, who was entitled to a seat in the durbar, held out one stiff hand, which Fitch just touched, and then his visitor departed.
‘Well, things do happen strangely,’ soliloquized Walter. Francis was at his office. ‘That is about the last way in which I should have expected to have been brought into conflict with my heathen friend, as Francis calls him.’
The weather was now getting pretty hot, and the bungalow was shut up during the day, and as Walter had nothing to take him to court, he sent Balkrishna over, and himself lay down on his bed under the punkah in the middle of the day. About half past one he heard the sound of wheels, and Vittu came in, bringing a card on a plate. Walter took it and read, ‘Mr. T. Gussain, Middle Temple.’
‘Say salaam,’ he said, ‘and show the sahib into the front room;’ and he slipped on a coat.
Vittu, who understood English well, did as he was bid, and sent a punkah wallah to pull the punkah there.
When Walter came into the room he scarcely recognised the man who rose to greet him, who shook him warmly by the hand, and said:
‘You see, I told you we should meet again, Mr. Fitch.’
There was an expansiveness that seemed to wipe out, as with a sponge, the whole of the English past between the two. It was only in manner, though, that Tuljagir had changed. In dress he was still an Englishman, save for the curious cap of black fluted satin which lay beside him, and which he informed Walter he had invented himself.
‘I have not been to see you before,’ he said, ‘because I heard you were only on a visit, and did not wish to trouble you with a native visitor. You know there is a great gulf fixed, and they will not have me as a member of your club here.’ He never waited for Fitch to say anything, but went on fluently. ‘Now, however, that I know you intend to practise among us, I feel it my duty and pleasure to come and welcome you as a brother practitioner, and see if I can be of any use to you. Of course, we are rivals, but there is room for both, and you with your influential friends will be a great favourite with litigants. I should be happy to have you in a case with me. Native clients often like to engage several counsel, it prevents their adversaries having them, and I shall be happy to tell them to come to you.’
‘That is very kind of you,’ said Walter; ‘but please do not put yourself out on my account.’
‘It is a pleasure to do it, and to know that I shall have one civilized person to work with; in fact, I have a case now just coming on, by the way, which I should be very happy to tell my client to come to you in; it is a very big thing, and will go to the Privy Council, and you will get a good fee, of course—you must settle that. It is a safe case for us, and we are sure to win. I should be happy to show you the papers, and you could show them to Mr. Francis if you liked. I am sure he would tell you the same—absolutely certain.’
‘It is extremely good of you, Mr. Tuljagir; but I should like to wait a day or two. Could you tell me the name of your client, because a friend of mine wanted my opinion in a case in which you are engaged, and it might be the same?’
‘Oh, I have a large number of cases. What was the one your friend mentioned?
‘He didn’t state the name.’
Tuljagir’s countenance smoothed a little.
‘Oh, this is about the Zemindari of Ghairagurh. My client is the Malguzar of Burhampuri, and the other side are the Zemindarin Sabitra Bai and her infant son Ganesh Shah. Let me send you the papers. I know we are bound to win, and then you can inform your friend if the case is the same that you have been retained by us.’
When Fitch still courteously put him off, Tuljagir looked blander than ever, and bade him let him know in a couple of days, and he would be happy to send his man up. Then he turned the conversation on to Cobrapur—how Walter liked the people, the English. Did he know any of the native gentlemen? Would he like to see a nautch?
At the latter query Fitch hesitated a moment. He had not seen a native nautch as yet, and he would very much like to do so; on the other hand, he had much reason to distrust Tuljagir. The latter saw his advantage.
‘I should be most happy to ask Mr. Francis, too,’ he added.
‘Ah, well,’ said Walter, ‘I will tell him, and then let you know. It is really very kind of you, Mr. Tuljagir.’
‘Not at all. I am afraid I am keeping you;’ and he took his leave with an elaborate handshake, leaving Walter with all his interest in the Tuljagir affair once more thoroughly aroused.
Francis expressed little surprise when he heard of the visit.
‘It is just the native way,’ he said. ‘You may be sure that he heard over at the courts of Ram Chandur having been to see you, and hastened to try and put a spoke in your wheel by taking you in the most public and proper way on to his own side. It is probably quite true that he thought you would chuck the idea of practice out here, what with the language and difference to English legal life, and then he would have let you quietly go back without whetting your appetite for the fray by even an interview with himself. I don’t mind betting, though, that your servants have been carefully pumped as to your doings generally. Come, sufficient for the morrow the story thereof. Now for the daily task. It is time to go to the club. You and Fitzwilliam are making the running pretty strong with Anna de Tompkins. Which of you is going to be the happy man?’
Tennis, a change, and the lovely long iced drinks—a pleasure only known in the East—the luxury, where, if there is anything in the theory of adaptation, the Anglo-Indian of the future ought to produce a race of long-necked men capable of prolonging the joys of imbibement—then Walter was just setting off to play whist, when Mrs. de Tompkins collared him—there is no other word for it. Anna was playing Badminton with Fitzwilliam. Mrs. de Tompkins understood a mother’s duty, and proceeded to play the other fish as publicly as possible. You can only judge by appearances in this world. All the world of Cobrapur said Walter was in love with Anna. Nothing has such an effect upon us as what the world says, and Walter, knowing the gossip through Francis, and undergoing the amenities of Anna’s mother’s conversation, plus his own natural inclination to flirt, quite naturally acted as was expected of him, and almost felt it. Mrs. de Tompkins made him sit beside her; told him that he and Anna ought always to dance the ‘Barn-door’ together as they had at the last dance; criticised Mrs. Anson-Jones, her dresses and ways, always with the preface that she knew Fitch liked her, but still, etc., etc., and that at home— However, Fitch was not going to stand that, and left the lady lamenting, but with the sure knowledge that she had let Mrs. Anson-Jones at last have a nasty dig. But Walter hadn’t got away from the de Tompkinses. Anna, when she saw him leaving her mother, on a frivolous excuse called out:
‘Oh, Mr. Fitch, do wait a minute! I have something I particularly want to ask you. We shall have finished in a minute;’ and Walter had to just go into the club and return.
It was about a paper-chase Anna wanted to talk. Wouldn’t Walter help get it up? Mr. Fitzwilliam and his ‘stable’ companion, a man in the railway, would be the hares, and it was to come off in a fortnight in the early morning, and wind up with chota hazri (early breakfast) at some nice place he was to suggest. No one was to know the course over which they would ride, and she made eyes and fluttered about beside Fitch, to the thorough satisfaction of all the inmates of the ‘hencoop,’ and, as Mother de Tompkins hoped, to the annoyance of Fitzwilliam.
Walter and the De Tompkinses were dining out that night at the same place, so left early. Walter naturally took Anna in. Neither Fitzwilliam nor Mrs. Anson-Jones were present, and Walter at the end of the evening, between the blandishments of mother and daughter, felt quite tender on the subject of matrimony. He was rather homesick for England—genuine nostalgia which some people call patriotism. The lone Englishman in India feels his isolation bitterly; at home he doesn’t feel inclined to marry, there is an embarrassment of choice; out there it is different, the embarrassment is coloured. Walter had been doing nothing in Cobrapur for nearly four months, and now felt inclined to go in for matrimony, practice, and routing Tuljagir all at the same time; in general terms, a not uncommon phenomenon. And so with visions of the flighty Anna before his eyes, he fell asleep ’neath the soothing rustle of the gently waving punkah over his head.
Meanwhile, in the Hirra Bagh, where Tuljagir lived, a very different scene had been taking place. The Hirra Bagh, or ‘Verdant Garden,’ was a large bungalow, built in European fashion, and on the verge of the civil station, but just separated at the back by a lane from a house in another compound, built entirely after native ideas. Tuljagir lived in the bungalow, and his uncle, who was a local pleader, and his women kind, in the native structure.
A hired tonga and a native conveyance were drawn up in Tuljagir’s compound, the bullocks of the former unyoked and tethered by their driver, who squatted and talked in undertones to another native beside him. It was the dark half of the month, and there was no one about to notice them even if the moon had been up. A little light came from the portico of the house.
‘Yes, I recognised your bullocks as I was passing down the lane to my house. The sahib was late to-night. I think he will marry the burra sahib’s missie baba. My sahib is the son of a great lord sahib in his own country, Jairam; he dines much with all the “sahib log” here. He has much paisa, and he gives us no trouble. We all love the sahib; he is never angry, uses no abuse, nor strikes us, neither on the back with sticks, nor on the belly with fines. He came to see my little daughter, who is just born, and says he will ake me to the great Wilayet. I would follow him even over the black water. He listens to me, and I got Mangia a place in the bungalow on seven rupees a month. Mangia gave me two rupees as my dastur’ (commission).
‘Radha spoke of your master, Vittuji, to the maid coming in my tonga. She said he is a very knowing sahib, and goes to the house of magic, the Jadu Ghar. Is this well?’
‘Why not? My sahib and Francis sahib and several others, even Bengalis, go to the Jadu Ghar. They call it the “Lodge.” They are good and kind; I see no harm.’
‘True, Vittuji, it is well to propitiate the powers. The sahibs are good men, they protect all.’
‘Yes, my sahib is a good sahib. The serving folk call him the “Thank you sahib”; he always says in English, “By your favour,” when we bring him things; he is of great caste and condescending.’
‘He goes to court now as a balister sahib, does he not?’
‘Yes; he should have a tonga. Yours are good bullocks, Jairam. Did Radha say anything more about the sahib? He does not know her.’
‘No; she said Tuljagir balister sahib had told her he was a knowing sahib, and that the sahib would not get much practice; he did not know the language, and would soon go away. My bullocks are good ones, Vittuji. I am always willing to give you a lift if in the way when you are going to and fro from the bungalow to your home in the bazaar; but I am out of employ now, and only on hire at the railway station. Tuljagir’s servant told me to go and fetch up Radha at ten this night.’
‘I will recommend you to my sahib—but why should I? He may think I presume.’
‘Nay, Vittu, if the sahib will give me thirty-five rupees a month, I will give you twelve.’
‘Wa, wa, Jairam! thirty rupees a month is the hire. However, if you will give me twelve rupees, I will mention to the sahib that thirty rupees is the hire, but that your bullocks are good, and that it would be well give two rupees more. What are thirty-two rupees a month to my sahib? I will send for you to-morrow. Radha is a long time, Jairam.’
‘Yes; see what she is doing, they are in the front room. I know they are not in the sleeping-room, for the punkah is not pulling, and no sign of lights.’
Vittu (for it was Walter’s servant) went and walked slowly past the doors of the room which opened on to the veranda, and were wide open. He was in the darkness, and thought he could not be seen. As he came near he caught the words in a female voice in Marathi:
‘The sahib won’t stop very long if Radha does not want him; you know love for thee has touched my heart.’
Then, just as he caught sight of a female figure in a saree, he heard Tuljagir call out loudly in the vernacular:
‘Kaun hai?’ (Who is there?) He had trodden on a twig. Tuljagir, in English dress, came out into the veranda. Vittu shrank behind a pillar in the wall, and Jairam the tonga wallah answered in a nonchalant voice:
‘There is no one, sahib; one of the bullocks has got up.’ Tuljagir, satisfied, went in, and Vittu crept back.
‘Aré, Vittuji,’ said Jairam, ‘see what comes of peeping at love affairs. Krishna watches over his own. You might have got a good beating. Come, now, I will give you ten rupees, if your sahib shall hire my tonga for thirty-two.’
‘Good, good!’ said Vittu. They both spoke in whispers. ‘I will send the chuprassie for you to-morrow.’ And he slipped off mumchance.
Poor Vittu was very much perturbed. He was a very nice lad of about twenty-two, stoutly built, dark, with wide lips, and a very pleasing expression, a good servant. His father and grandfather before him, who came from the Deccan, had served the ‘sahib log’ as body servants. He had an excellent five years’ character, and had only ceased to be employed as his former master had gone home on furlough just before he came into Fitch’s service, and he had taken a real liking to his new sahib.
Vittu was sure there was something in the wind, the chuprassies of Tuljagir had been asking all about his master. It might be only professional jealousy, but now he doubted it; he had had his eye on Tuljagir, and made a point of passing the bungalow, although it added a trifle to his distance home each time. Now he had been rewarded; something was up. Should he tell Walter? The poor man felt he did not dare do that. He would wait till the morrow, and then consult a soothsayer. After all, he should get ten rupees from Jairam, and could afford to do so.
The next morning Walter was roused, as usual, soon after six by Vittu, clad in spotless white turban, long coat, cummerbund, and pyjamas, who brought in the matutinal tea. He loitered a moment or two after putting the tea and toast down by the bedside, and then said in English:
‘Master liking Narbaddagir’s chéla?’ Walter, surprised, thought a moment, remembered that that was what Ram Chandur had called Tuljagir, and replied:
‘Yes; why not, Vittu?’
‘I think he not like sahib.’
‘I not know, sahib; forgive me.’
‘Oh yes; but what makes you speak of him?’
‘Not knowing nothing, sahib, protector of the poor.’
Vittu was nervous now, and nothing could be got out of him.
He salaamed, and became silent, folding up clothes, till Fitch told him he could go, he was not going out riding that morning.
‘Rum thing,’ thought Walter to himself. ‘Vittu is a decent sort, though. Perhaps, as Francis said, they have been pumping him. We shall see.’
Walter lay on in bed; he had stopped the punkah, and just at a quarter to eight Vittu announced that Ram Chandur’s tonga had stopped outside the gate, and he was walking up the drive.
‘Give him a chair,’ Fitch said, and he got up and put on some things, and went into the office. Balkrishna had not yet come.
‘Never mind about your clerk,’ said Ram Chandur, after the usual formal salutations. ‘I know a little English, and I can read you the vernacular documents in the case myself. You see, sahib, it is like this,’ he explained; ‘it is about the Zemindari of Ghairagurh, near Chandanpur, and the case will be at Chandanpur. Will your honour be willing to go out into the jungle? The case may take several hearings.’
‘All right; tell me the facts, and we will discuss the fees afterwards.’ (Oh for a solicitor! sighed Walter.)
There is no need to weary the reader with a long legal matter; the story was simply this: When the English settled Chandanpur in Zemindaris in the early sixties, the Zemindar in possession of the Ghairagurh estate had proved that he had been granted it by the Marathi conquerors shortly before, and, being actually in possession, was confirmed therein by the British Government, although the present plaintiff, a Malguzar of Burhampuri, a village in that Zemindari, even then contested the decision, showing that the Zemindari had been somehow or other with his father at the beginning of the century (on mortgage as the Zemindar now alleged), and set up a grant by the Gond kings, but that the deed of grant was lost. Now, the original document was said to have been found in the treasury of the Temple of Achuleshwar at Chandanpur, and the plaintiff sought to go behind the settlement.
‘Yes, he could do that,’ said Walter. ‘He contested it at the settlement, and alleged the document; still, the Zemindar might have a good case even then. His being in possession, and the settlement having taken place in his favour, are strong points.’
‘To be sure, your honour; but the first court is a native one, and Vishnu, who presides, hath a peculiar reputation. However, he may not dare do anything if your honour is in the case; he will have heard of your influential position.’
‘I am afraid that won’t be much good,’ said Walter. ‘Still, I will certainly make a fuss if he does anything unjust. So much for the legal aspect of the case; now tell me about the people. If you will leave me the records, Balkrishna will read them to me.’
‘There is one thing more, sahib; the other side are in actual possession now.’
‘What do you mean? How can they be?’
‘Well, sahib, the Zemindar is dead, leaving a widow and a little boy, now eighteen months old; but he mortgaged his life interest in the Zemindari to this very man, and subsequently to us. The plaintiff’s mortgage was a usufructuary one; he ought to have given up possession when the Zemindar died. But he has set up this title, claiming the property as his own, and this Vishnu has allowed him to remain. He sues to alter the settlement, and we, the puisne mortgagees and the poor widow, are left to our remedies. More than that, there is a clause in the settlement report saying, that if the Malguzar could have produced his document before the settlement officer at the old settlement, the decision might have been very different, as many respectable persons agreed that his claim was well founded. There was another grant similar to this, though not so big, and in that case the land was settled on the person by the British Government; but the document was produced, properly sealed, etc., by ourselves, into whose hands it had come through sale, and the villages were settled on my master by the Government. Those deeds are safely disposed of in a secret place. But I have brought you copies, so that you may know exactly what those produced by the plaintiff should be like.’
‘You suspect some forgery, then?’
‘All things are possible, sahib. See here.’ And he proceeded to unfold a rather thick packet of documents, which he had wrapped up, native fashion, in a linen cloth.
Walter did not see much romance about all these proceedings. A law-suit was a law-suit, and he enjoyed its tilting tournaments; but here, after all, was what seemed to be a mere ordinary squabble about land. The Malguzar might be in the right; Tuljagir did not seem to have anything particular to do with it himself.
Ram Chandur proceeded to read out a document in Urdu, purporting to be a grant to some person by Sher Shah the king, and added:
‘I shall obtain the original document, so that careful comparison can be made, and of course we shall have to thoroughly cross-examine Narbaddagir, the Mahant of the Temple of Achuleshwar, where the documents are supposed to have been rediscovered.’
‘Narbaddagir,’ said Fitch. ‘Hasn’t he something to do with Mr. Tuljagir Gussain?’
‘Certainly, he is his guru, that is to say, his religious father, if you understand me. It is nine o’clock, your honour; have I your permission to take my leave?’
The fee had been satisfactorily settled upon for each hearing. Just as he was going out, the Marwari returned as if by an after thought, and said that it might be as well to see the Zemindarin, Sabitra Bai the client, that she herself wished it.
‘Is she not a “purdah nashin”? said Walter, rather surprised.
‘Oh no; she is a Hindu, and only a kunbin, a Sudra by caste; besides, no Brahmins ever are purdah. It is really a Mahomedan custom we more or less adopt. We do not like our ladies to go out in public, but they are not secluded. By your favour, Huzoor.’ And he left Walter, having agreed to see Sabitra Bai the following week.
There are far more official holidays in Hindustan than in England. The public offices are closed on account of the Brahmins’ pantheon of gods, or the Mussulmans’ one prophet, as much as for the holy days of the Ecclesiastical Department. Walter had one of the court calendars pinned up in his office, and saw that the Holi was a Hindu festival a few days off, and a close holiday extending over three days. His clerk told him it was in honour of Krishnaji and his adventures with the Gopis, or celestial milkmaids. The books of reference informed him it had to do with the summer solstice, and Francis said that it was the most indecorous of all the Hindu festivals; it commemorated the amours of Krishna, and license and abusive language were not only permissible, but de rigueur.
You will see what it is like, however, Walter,’ he said; ‘but I should advise you not to go down into the city. They chuck red stuff about, a fluid like claret, and a red powder. It’s so jolly hot now, you won’t want to budge out during the day.’
The time till the festival passed much as usual, in flirtations with Anna, and tête-à-têtes with Mrs. Anson-Jones. The Anson-Joneses were transferred, much to their annoyance and to Walter’s; but it is the lot of the Anglo-Indian official—here to-day, and to-morrow a thousand miles away. It was a hateful time to move, and they had to go all the way to Burmah; still, it was promotion. Mrs. Anson-Jones wished audibly and devoutly that she had not come out. The De Tompkinses expressed their sympathy, and were delighted. Now society would get some tone, and understand who was who, instead of all running after Mrs. Jones and her breakfast-parties and dinners, just because she could sing and ride, and make herself cheap, which Mrs. Jones certainly did not do. No doubt she liked her social popularity, but no one ever saw her pounce on the poor male creatures like Mrs. de Tompkins, with her hawk eye, forgetful that what is run after runs away. The Joneses had taken advantage of the holidays for the Holi, and were to leave on the night of the first day, and thus Mr. Jones would get as little behind hand in his work as possible; and Walter and Francis intended to go down, like the rest of the station, and see them off, and then afterwards go to the nautch to which Tuljagir had invited them, and which was to come off that evening.
And so the day of the Holi came. Walter always had his early tea and toast in bed; this morning he was startled by the appearance of Vittu. His usually spotless coat was stained and smeared, as if someone had thrown all the contents of a bottle of wine at him. He saw Walter staring at him, and when he had set down the tray he took hold of both his own ears with his hands in an attitude of submissive supplication, and said in Hindustani:
‘Pardon, pardon, sahib! It is the Holi; another bungalow servant threw this over me, and I have no clean white coat here. I have sent home speedily to get one.’
‘All right,’ said Fitch; ‘but you had better always keep a change here in case of accidents.’
Vittu went out, and soon re-appeared spotless.
Walter went for his farewell ride with Mrs. Anson-Jones; he was very much attendri, and got leave to write to her, and felt quite disconsolate.
‘Never mind,’ she said, ‘we may meet again at home; and, besides, if the De Tompkinses don’t secure Fitzwilliam, they will you, and I will send you a nice wedding present; but they feel very sure of Mr. Fitzwilliam. The old lady asked me if I didn’t think he and Anna made a sweet couple at the theatricals; and they are to wear the same coloured dresses at the fancy ball in June. There, now, never mind; write and tell me all the news.’ And they finished their ride with a good scamper home.
The Anson-Joneses were breakfasting out, so Walter imprinted a chaste farewell salute on the lady’s glove, and left her, promising to be at the station in the evening. He had given her a very pretty bangle, with a moonstone in it, as a memento, and she called out:
‘I will wear your bangle to-night for luck. Au revoir!’
‘Au revoir!’ returned Fitch, as he set off to his own abode in his tonga, which was waiting for him (Vittu had secured Jairam the place), his pony having gone off at once, as it was nearly nine a.m., and the day beginning to warm up tremendously.
Almost all the natives Walter had seen out were covered with red stains, though he did not see anyone actually throwing the stuff; and in one of the little villages they had ridden through he had heard some of the village men and women abusing each other with much merriment, in terms which even he recognised as only Oriental in their obscenity.
After breakfast Vittu informed his master that there was a dak wallah, a postman, in the veranda, who wished for an interview. Francis inquired what he meant; no post came at that hour, and they gathered it was some piece of masquerading connected with the festive season, and accordingly went out to see what might be up.
It was an almost nude native, with a lot of chains round his neck, unkempt hair, and holding a jangling trident in one hand, and what looked like a post-bag in the other.
‘Who are you?’ asked Francis to the stranger in Marathi, but obtained no reply.
‘He cannot speak,’ said one of the by-standing servants. ‘He is the postman of the gods, sahib,’ explained Vittu; ‘and he is dumb as long as he does their bidding. He may not answer you; he probably brings tidings for the sahibs.’
The strange person then produced two old cigar-boxes tied up in torn English newspapers, and laid them before the two sahibs. He was rewarded, and Fitch and Francis went in.
‘What is in the boxes?’ asked Walter.
‘Oh, nothing,’ said Francis. ‘Last year one of them came to me; it had some messy native sweetmeats, and a lot of waste-paper stuffed in; it is only a dodge to get “backsheesh.” I am going to have a siesta now; you had better follow my example, and then I will play you at piquet after tiffin.’
On getting into his room, Walter found that Vittu had placed the cigar-box on his dressing table.
‘I may as well open it,’ he thought, and proceeded to untie the string and do so. Sure enough, it contained some jellabies-sweet cakes in the figure of eight, but underneath them was an envelope addressed in a very unformed hand to the ‘Right Honourable Fitch, balister sahib.’ Inside, in the same unformed hand on a dirty slip of paper, was written:
‘Honoured sir, take care against the Radha kusbin.”
Walter showed it to Francis after tiffin when they had finished their piquet.
‘It is rather mysterious,’ said Francis; ‘someone who means you well, I suppose. Radha is a great dancing girl, and much admired, I believe, among the natives. You see, no stigma attaches to her profession; kusbin designates it out here. She is quite respectable as it were; it is no shame for a native to be seen at her house. She has freedom of action, and is not at all secluded. The dancing girl is often an agreeable companion; men of position would resort to her house merely for conversation and amusement, with no idea of immorality. It is a New Woman’s at-home, as old as the East. However, I know from my official position that Radha is supposed to be mixed up with a shady lot of people. She had a great friend at one time who was concerned with the Golden Gang Railway robbery, and who forged bank notes by photography—a thoroughly Eastern thing. He got hold of an ignorant, greedy money-lender, took him into his pretended confidence, borrowed a ten-rupee note, photographed it, and handed the two in a little while back to him, doubled by magical powers; then, in a little time, for a douceur undertook to double a 500 rupee note, and when he got it decamped. What could the marwari do? He would have been landed, too, if he had complained to the police. It all came out because the photographed ten-rupee note hadn’t got the coloured green lines when the money-lender passed it. But nothing could be brought home to anyone; it is only in the confidential diaries. If we see Radha dance to-night, we will keep our eyes open. Ask Vittu if he knows who the fakir postman was.’
Vittu denied all knowledge when his master put the question to him, however, and said that the man was quite unknown to him; there were many post runners that day, he might have come from the city. And so the day passed. There was a great gathering to see the Anson-Joneses depart, and then, when the others dispersed to the club, Walter and Francis drove off in the tum-tum (dogcart) to the Hirra Bagh.
‘It will be very slow,’ said Francis, “and we won’t stay long; still it will give you an idea of what a nautch is like, and we shall see if it is really Radha who is performing. I have seen her once, in a case when I was Assistant Commissioner here. She said someone had stolen a necklet of hers. It fell through for some reason, probably a compromise. Here we are; he asked us for 7.30, didn’t he?’
‘Yes,’ said Fitch.
‘Ah! he’s probably got a lot of natives coming who will stay till to-morrow. Tuljagir knows we people cannot stand the monotony of a nautch long.’
Tuljagir, in correct English evening dress, met them in the veranda, and led them into a long, narrow room, stiffly furnished with English furniture from Bombay. Chairs were set round three sides, and a couch, hideously upholstered in magenta repp, was at the top, flanked by two armchairs of the same suite. It is perfectly astounding how an Oriental’s taste in colour goes wrong directly he comes in contact with aniline dyes; perhaps, after all, it is simple vividness that appeals to their sense of sight, and not tone.
On the chairs down the two sides were seated natives in varying costumes, who rose and salaamed at their entrance. Francis spoke to one or two Government servants and native gentlemen he knew, and then he and Walter took their places on the couch, and were garlanded and sprinkled with rose-water; whilst Tuljagir and his uncle, the pleader, sat on the armchairs on either side. Walter’s gaze was fixed on the opposite end of the room, where some native musicians were standing in a little group, and beside them, squatting on the floor with their faces modestly averted to the wall, were three bundles of shrouded humanity which Walter surmised were the dancing girls. At a sign from the pleader, the music began its quaint discordant minor key, rising to a crash, and two of the squatting girls started singing, one of the men joining in, and then the middle woman rose slowly, with her saree drawn well over her head, and completely hiding her features like a cowl, and began to sway gently in rhythm to the music, so that all the little bells round her ankles chimed in time to the tune. She was a fine woman, above the ordinary height even for a European, and massively built, and, although her face was not visible, her arms and legs were very fair—wheat-coloured, as the natives say—and finely modelled. She always remained on the flat of her feet even when pirouetting and going through various gestures. She wore a very full skirt of blue and brown gauze, wonderfully embroidered with gold in wide masses, and she came slowly advancing in her dance up the room. Fitch saw how finely developed her figure was under the tight-fitting little green and gold chola or jacket, as she held up gracefully her orange saree so as to conceal her features, till she came close up to the couch. And then, as the noise of the music grew deafening, and all the audience murmured ‘Shabashe, Shabashe!’ to her final audacious pirouette, she threw it back, and stood looking straight at Walter. A full round face, with pouting crimson lips and bold black eyes, and hair like jet, divided in the centre and brought down flat in bandeaux over the eyes, and sticking out elaborately behind like a Greek teapot handle—if there is such a thing—from which her saree fell in graceful folds. Wide conical gold ornaments were laid on the parting of the hair. After one long look at Fitch, she cast down her eyes, folded her saree demurely, and retired mid the musicians to the end of the room.
The other two girls then sang a Marathi guzul, or love song, and danced; but were tame after the voluptuous Radha (for Tuljagir had informed them that was the nautch girl’s name), although there had been absolutely nothing in the least indecorous in her dance. It was now 8.30, and Francis rose and said they must be going. Pan-leaves smeared with silver, and containing betel-nut, cardamom-seeds, and cloves, were handed round on silver platters, and then they were escorted to the tum-tum (dogcart) by their host. The two Englishmen went off home to dinner.
‘What a look she gave you, Walter!’ said Francis, as they parted for the night. ‘I should like to know who sent you that letter.’
The day on which Walter had agreed to see Ram Chandur and the Zemindarin was drawing near, so he told Balkrishna to get out the papers the marwari had left with him, and to go through them with himself before the clients came.
All the papers were spread out under weights beneath the punkah on the office table, and Walter gave himself up to mastering their contents. What was his surprise when, on coming to the one the bunniah had read out to him as a copy of the only existing original and genuine deed, of a similar purport to the one now set up by Tuljagir’s client, to see at the end when it was spread out before him on he table, as Balkrishna was translating it word for word, a drawing of the seal attached to it, and that drawing a facsimile to all intents and purposes of the impression, as far as he remembered it, of the one found near the lodge of Giles Court after the jewel robbery there. Walter waited until the clerk had perused all the documents and departed, and then took the one document into his own room, got out his old pocket-book, in which he had put away his own drawing, and proceeded to compare the two. There was no doubt they were both drawings of the same original. This was a great discovery; Walter felt he was indeed on the track of the mystery once more, and that it was indissolubly linked with the Ghairagurh Zemindari case. However, he kept his soul in patience, and only gave vent to his feelings by writing a long letter home to Sir Philip, telling him he hoped to get to the bottom of the jewel mystery eventually. But there was no doubt in his mind that the turquoises and diamonds got out of the Giles burglary had weighed little in the abstractor’s mind compared with the engraved emerald, and that this latter accounted for the theft of so small a money prize, compared, for instance, with the value of the booty obtained in the Flanders case.
Tuljagir had written him a line to say that he was sorry to find that he, Mr. Fitch, had been retained by the opposite party, as they certainly had a losing case, and he thought it only right to let Fitch know that the plaintiff even alleged the baby Zemindar to be a supposititious child, and in that case neither Zemindarin nor infant would have any claim to the Zemindari, and the lady might not even get maintenance out of the estate. Walter had sent a polite note intimating that he had received this communication, and that was all.
From the maps, the settlement reports, and what Francis could tell him, Walter had learnt that the estate was a very desirable prize. True, it was about as remote from civilization as possible, and well-nigh inaccessible save to the Banjaras (the gipsy carriers of India, and their pack mules, considerably more than a hundred miles from the nearest railway, and over eighty miles of densest jungle between itself and the little town of Chandanpur, where there were only two Europeans, a district magistrate, and a superintendent of police. But though there were no roads, the great teak-trees could be floated down the river, and well-founded reports had it that in the alluvial deposits diamonds and rubies were to be found, and had been worked, in the time of the Hy Hy Bunsee Princes of Chattisgurh, some 1,400 years before; and tradition states that the Delhi Emperor himself, for valour in the field, and in return for valuable gems from the mine, had granted a former chieftain a morchol, a fan of peacock-feathers set in a chased silver handle, and a choure or fan of horsehair in a silver soche, to be borne before him as insignia of dignity, and these were still in the possession of the family—emblems of dignity no neighbouring Zemindars possessed. So Walter had worked up quite an enthusiasm for his clients’ cause, a woman and a baby to be defended against a ruthless foe, when the morning arrived on which he was to interview Ram Chandur, and see the Zemindarin.
It was a lovely balmy morning; the feathery tops of the Sindhi palms in the compound were just stirring in the breeze, and the air was fragrant with the scent of the mangoe-blossoms. From his office-chair Walter saw two tongas drive up to the gates, one with a heavy shawl flung over the top and hanging down, so as to conceal the inmates; and then Ram Chandur and a little group of natives came up the drive. Two men carried, one the peacock fan, the other the choure, and two others large brass trays covered with gay cloths; and in the middle, close together, a little behind Ram Chandur, two women, one with her saree pulled well forward over her face, the other, who was dressed in more common garb, having her face quite visible, and aiding her mistress’s steps.
Vittu came in and said that Seth Ram Chandur and the Zemindarin of Ghairagurh were in the veranda.
‘Give them “salaam,”’ said Walter, and Ram Chandur and the two women came in, the other serving people crowding in behind.
Salutations were exchanged between Ram Chandur and Fitch, and then the bunniah and the lady were seated. The latter did not speak; she had made a graceful ‘salaam’ to Walter, who had noticed what exquisite little hands she had, modelled in fairest golden bronze, with rosy finger tips; quaint uncut gems gleamed in their rude native setting in rings, and the heavily-chased bangles on her arms enhanced their shapeliness; and while Ram Chandur was murmuring all the usual platitudes Walter found himself glancing at her dainty feet, set off by the gold of her anklets, which were just visible beneath the deep blue of her saree.
‘The rani begs to lay a poor gift at your feet, sahib,’ Ram Chandur was saying, and brought Fitch back to reality and business from the vague speculations he was beginning to form as to the loveliness of the woman within the folds of gauzy blue. ‘A poor gift, sahib, for she is in sad plight. Bring in the fruits,’ addressing a bystander.
The two servants brought in the silver platters, heaped with every kind of fruit from Bombay. Apricot-hued early mangoes, great custard apples, long ruddy plantains and tiny golden bananas, pineapples, melons and luscious fresh figs. The trays were set down on the ground near Fitch, and the little rani got down from her chair and came and stood by them. She put back her saree from over her face and stood like a Madonna, Walter thought, with the deep blue drapery framing a pure rounded face, as fair as the moon, with long liquid eyes and kiss-curved lips, with dark brown hair smoothed Madonna-like over the tiny ears.
Walter was wonder-struck, he had never felt like this in his life before, and he certainly did not like it. He had one overpowering idea in his mind, and that was to take this little queen of the East into his arms and kiss her.
She put her tiny palms together, and said: ‘Sahib, you are my father and my mother, and the protector of my little son,’ and was proceeding to prostrate herself at his feet; but this was too much. Walter hated the native habit of prostration, and he hastened to rise himself and prevent her gently. Never had he felt anything so exquisite to the touch as the little queen’s slender arm.
Ram Chandur, when the Zemindarin had re-seated herself, suggested to Walter that it would be well he should send away the attendants, and accordingly he did so, excepting the handmaid of the Zemindarin.
‘Now,’ he said, ‘sahib, we will go into the case—the Zemindarin here—the Rani Sabitra Bai will herself tell us all she knows about the case; she is an able lady, thanks to her father, the late Dewan of the State. If he were still alive, this trouble would never have happened. Tell the sahib Maharani what you know of these plots.’
‘It was before I became a widow, sahib. The Mahant of the shrine of Achuleshwar at Chandanpur was always coming to my husband, who was an old man.’
‘Yes, sahib, there are two other elder ranis,’ broke in Ram Chandur; ‘but they have no children.’
‘The mahant always came to my husband,’ repeated the rani, ‘and told him the gods were angry with him, and that was why he had no children, and that the land of Ghairagurh was vowed to the immovable one, the holy one Buthnath, and had been gifted to his servants,’ and here she lowered her voice and spoke almost under her breath ‘to the mystic Tarvels.’
Walter was noting down what she said, and marvelling at the clearness and beauty of her voice and the way in which she told her story.
‘Who are the Tarvels?’ he asked.
“Ah, sahib! that I cannot tell you, but they are secret and powerful, sahib, a society of vast influence; but who are its members none know, nor where grows the Taru, the wondrous orchid that is their strength. Some say that its home is in the vast jungles of he who dwells at Taroba, and ’twas there that my lord and I journeyed on pilgrimage and paid our vows three years ago, but to no effect. And then the priest told my husband that never would he have a son and heir as long as the land of Ghairagurh was in his own possession, and pointed out a way, saying: “Benami, mortgage it nominally”; and spite of my entreaties my lord was persuaded. And they told him it was a nominal mortgage in the name of a chuprassie, a servant, and he knew not that the Malguzar of Burhampuri and the Mahant were friends, for never were they seen together, nay, even some dissension was alleged between them, and my lord could not read nor write, save his name, and my father was dead, and no other Diwan, nor did my lord show me the documents. And then what can I say what pleased the deities? but my little lad came. And the Mahant of Achuleshwar told my lord that for the sake of the son he must not even be on the land, and persuaded him to let the Malguzar of Burhampuri come and live awhile in Ghairagurh. And I and my lord, we went to Buthnath’s shrine at Chandanpur, and there my baby was born; and I stayed on in Chandanpur and my lord went back to the village to resume his own, and cholera they say—what know I?—took him, and he died in the jungles, and was ashes. And when the news came, the Mahant and the elder ranis at Chandanpur told me to go, that my child was not my husband’s, and I flung the lie in their teeth and fled to Cobrapur with my attendants—for they are Gonds and faithful—to the good Ram Chandur, for I knew my husband had dealings with him.’
‘Yes, rani sahib, you did well for both, for we hold a subsequent mortgage only two years old for a large sum, and we must fight for both yourselves and our own. And so the rani came to Cobrapur, sahib,’ continued Ram Chandur, with the infant Zemindar—and almost immediately we heard that the Mahant of Achuleshwar had found this document and that his chéla Tuljagir, the newly returned balister sahib, had drawn up the plaint and had filed it at Chandanpur.’
‘Have you seen the document alleged to have been found?’ asked Walter.
‘No, sahib, but my pleader there tells me it seems correct; he had seen the original I spoke of, and says signature and seal all are correct. I have brought that one with me,’ and he handed it to Walter; it had a curiously impressed seal—the stamp having been pressed far in.
‘You are sure no one has ever been able to get an impress of this?’
‘Certain, sahib, but the Mahant knows that this seal exists, he tried hard to get the estate into his hands from us, offering us a fancy price; it is an out-of-the-way place. Now we will crave our leave. The case is fixed for the 13th of May, the height of the hot weather, sahib, just before the vacation. We hope your honour will go to Chandanpur.’
‘I will do my very best,’ said Walter; and the clients left.
The little queen drew her saree round her, put on the pretty little pearl-embroidered slippers she had left at the door, and withdrew with a long look at Walter. She had noted the intent way he had looked at her when she told her tale, though even then she had half pulled her saree over her face. When they had gone, Walter went off to have his breakfast.
‘Heigho!’ he sighed. The case had passed out of his head for the present, but the little lady lingered only too long in his mind. ‘Heigho! how well she told her tale! I don’t know what’s come to me. It’s a rum way to fall in love, my little queen. Why, my heart is thumping now when I think of her face upturned to mine. How Francis would laugh! However, I shan’t tell him my sentiments. And now for breakfast. I must win her case. The villainy is clear enough. What about evidence and witnesses? That’s an idea, too, for suggesting to Ram Chandur I had better see the Zemindarin again. “Heigh-ho! this life is most jolly”—Shakespeare. Coming, Francis; I am just ready. That Chandanpur case is for the thirteenth of May.’
It was the height of the annual festival at Chandanpur. The fair was of unusual dimensions, and the little shanties and booths of bamboo matting made many temporary streets beyond the river round the temple of Achuleshwar, Kali’s son Buthnath the Beautiful. So gracious is the deity that, spite of the hot weather, cholera never breaks out. It was a motley scene—the maidens bearing down the first green shoots of wheat in votive offering to the riverside, accompanied by musicians with trumpets, cymbals, and tom-toms; the holiday clothes and varieties of headdress, the Mahratta Brahmins, the Kunbi, the Telegu, Marwaris in flowing muslins, and almost naked Gonds. It was a gay crowd streaming in and out of the old city gates, with the insignia of the old Gond princes carved over them—a griffin rending an elephant.
The shrine itself was a strange building, four square, with no visible windows or doors—a lofty building, the blind walls of hewn stone covered with strange, half-effaced frescoes of the founding of Chandanpur. In front, facing the fair, it resembled a pantheon with lofty pillars; but two winding staircases, one to the right and one to the left, led down into the bowels of the earth to the sacred shrine. It was utterly unlike the ordinary white conical temples, with their plinths and gray wooden pillars, dotted over India,
This day worshippers flocked in their hundreds, and the shrine garnered a rich harvest; but a careful observer would have noticed that out of the worshippers who had entered some twenty-five to thirty had not returned, although usually each devotee came back in a few minutes and mingled once more with the throng. The police had noticed nothing unusual, not even the District Superintendent of Police, who had been about on his horse near the shrine almost all day. Towards evening the worship ceased, and the great doors were shut, as the authorities had thought fit so to order, and, after seeing this done, the D.S.P. himself departed, leaving a guard to see order was kept, though this was not a night festival like that of Kali at Kawardha.
Meanwhile, the interior of the shrine would have surprised the guardians of the peace, who imagined the old Mahant and his couple of attendants the only occupants. A group of men was gathered round the yellow saried goddess with her necklace of skulls, surrounded by a semicircle of severed black goats’ heads (the day’s offerings; the bodies were carried off by the votaries to feast on), or round her son, represented as a lovely lad in Mahratta gala dress, with the five cow-hoof prints in front of him, each filled with clear water; but at his feet, too, there lay a semicircle of severed goats’ heads.
It was a large, low, vaulted room leading off into impenetrable darkness to the north, and but fitfully illuminated by lights placed before the deities, which were in alcoves fronting the entrance. Desultory conversation was going on in low tones, and then there was dead silence as two twinkling lights were seen approaching in the darkness to the north, and the old Mahant Narbaddagir became visible, slowly advancing, vested in a magnificent yellow pallium, the ends of which were held up by the two temple attendants on each side, and preceded by two lads holding lights. He carried a large square coffer in his arms. Amid the silence he advanced to his curule chair between the two deities and took his seat, placing the coffer before him. The company, when he had done so, squatted down on the ground, native fashion, in circles round him. No one spoke, and the old Mahant proceeded to run his string of beads through his fingers, repeating the holy names. Then he spoke:
‘Brethren of the Taru, we have assembled to-night in honour of Buthnath the Beautiful and his dread mother, but by their favour we have also other work to do. In the outskirts of the temple to-night is a brother who for the Taru’s sake and the advancement of our sabha (society) has voluntarily outcasted himself, crossed the black waters, defiled himself with foreign food, and cannot even approach us for fear of our contamination; but his efforts have been accepted, his offerings are pleasant, he has enriched the Taru, and now seeks the cleansing rites and readmission.’ Then, raising his voice: ‘Tuljagir, my chéla, approach! he cried.
A deep murmur of assent ran through the assembly, and all eyes were again turned to the northern darkness. No twinkling lights were seen to herald his approach, but slowly out of the depths of gloom a figure emerged, smeared with white ashes, clad only in a rough yellowish dhotie, yet upright and handsome. It was Tuljagir. He halted on the outskirts of the place, and said:
‘Dread mother and fair son, and ye gracious Tarvels, I come an outcast—an outcast for your sakes.’ He spoke with real emotion. Perhaps he had realized his loneliness. The sahib-log would have nothing of him; he was a native. The native could have nothing of him; he was an outcast. Perhaps the influence of childhood was strong on him and the religion of the spot. ‘I come,’ he continued, ‘my task accomplished, to be taken back. I dare come no nearer, but thou, my father, place the offering I have wrested from the Wilayet before the shrines.’
Narbaddagir rose, opened the coffer, and took out a bag. Meanwhile, amid breathless silence, the attendants had led in a couple of fine black kids, and brought two long green bamboos, whose feathery tops reached to the vaulted ceiling, and on which were growing great clusters of the glorious Taru orchid. Each person present received a blossom except Tuljagir. Then the Mahant approached the shrines, whilst all prostrated themselves, and as with one blow two attendants severed the heads of the sacrifices, Narbaddagir let fall from the mouth of the bag before Kalima and Buthnath a shower of light, purest white to every glowing hue, and at the same time the vault was illuminated by hundreds of tiny lights, whose wicks had been connected by a cotton thread, which one of the attendants had set light to.
‘It is accepted,’ he said in solemn tones, and lifted up a Taru bloom, the golden hue of which was beflecked with crimson from the sacrifices. ‘Come, my chéla;’ and Tuljagir advanced amid the prostrate throng, and, measuring his own length as he came on the ground, he lay suppliant before the shrines. Narbaddagir gave him the bloodstained flower and bade him eat it, and then said in solemn tones: ‘But as a penance, my son, you must partake of the five products of the cow, and when our other work for which you are destined is over and Ghairagurh is ours, go as a sunyassi (a mendicant pilgrim) to Benares and Kalicut, and then after a year return, and thou shalt become the elect chief of the Tarvels by the favour of the goddess. Now rise, don fitting clothes; we will discuss our other plans and make merry till the dawn.’
The other Tarvels now drew near, exchanged salutations with Tuljagir, congratulated him, marvelled at the gems, and besought him to tell the story of how he had obtained them. Tuljagir assured them they should hear each history in good time at less busy meetings, but that another urgent matter now claimed their attention, and withdrew to change his clothes and partake of the five products of the cow at once in the presence of the Mahant and the two chief castemen present, so that he might eat with the assemblage. He soon came back, handsomely dressed, walking between the two caste-men.
‘We vouch for him! they cried; and one then gave him a piece of a chupattie to eat, and then ate the remainder himself, and the other gave him a drink of water, and then accepted a drink from Tuljagir’s lotah.
‘Hail, caste-fellow and Tarvel! Namuskar!’ and the whole assembly lifted their joined hands to their brows in salutation.
Narbaddagir then resumed his curule seat, with Tuljagir on the ground beside him, and the others took up their former positions, and they proceeded to discuss the Ghairagurh case. To outsiders it would have been a revelation as to the completeness with which it was got up. The witnesses were arranged and tutored, points of cross-examination foreseen and discrepancies prevented, and the document thoroughly discussed.
‘Anandi Kyasth wrote the deed beautifully; but how did you get the seal, Tuljagir?’ asked the Malguzar of Burhampuri, who was figuring as plaintiff for the good of the society.
‘’Tis a long story,’ was the reply; ‘but when we failed to get the impress on the deed in Seth Ram Chandur’s possession—for his firm are as keen on Ghairagurh as we are—my father here set himself to work to find out if by any chance the seal survived in the treasury at Ghairagurh. You know he holds the two elder ranis in his hands: The old Zemindar showed favour to Sabitra Bai, who was but a girl, and they hated her, and will even now give evidence in our favour to spite her and her son. There was nothing in the treasury, but you must know there was an English garrison there between 1818 and 1830 of their era, and you all know the tomb of the Unknown, near to the mausoleum of Durga Shah the Gond Prince, within the fortress. Beneath it sleeps the little daughter of the English captain, and her mother was near to the Zemindar—what need to tell old stories, ever new?—but the elder rani found out that for love of the Englishman Moti Bai the Pearl gave him the emerald seal for luck (from the maidservant who went between them, and who was alive even to last year). That captain’s name was Giles. With difficulty we have traced him; he became a general, and went to the great Wilayet, taking much plunder with him. I have brought some of it back; see, here is the seal!’ And he pointed to the hand of the gracious Buthnath, and there on its finger gleamed the great green emerald. ‘Where so safe,’ he said, ‘as in the keeping of the gods? Yes, our seal is no forgery; ’tis the impress of the king’s own seal, as genuine as the one they will produce—nay, identical. I will have magnifying glasses and English expert testimony brought into court if necessary, and prove its genuineness up to the hilt. There is little doubt of the writing, for Anandi Kyasth had prepared the document long ago, and it only needed the seal.’
A murmur of “Shabashe, shabashe! ran round the assembly, and many cricked their fingers in approbation and delight.
‘But, my friends, there is a great obstacle in our way, it is nasib [our luck). There is an Englishman, cursed with more than the usual amount of curiosity and adventure; we first came into conflict when I obtained the seal, and he constantly crossed my path in England. My opposing planets found in him their favourite instrument; I have read his palm, and I can only hope that by favour of our goddess our cause may win. Removed from our path he must be, for he has come to Cobrapur, and met with Ram Chandur; great is the young man’s favour among the sahibs, and now he has even taken up the rani’s case, and will appear for her—for he, too, is a barrister. If any can suggest a plan, let him lay it before my father.’ And Tuljagir sat down.
There was silence and a little muttering, then said Narbaddagir to the attendants:
‘Call in the dancing girl.’
The audience settled down to comfortable chewing of pan supari from Garbhoree (the best in Central India), warm and comforting betel-leaf and areca-nut, with a little lime.
Radha came in with her musicians, bold-browed and handsome, clad all in crimson, with great necklaces of gold beads and coins, and jingling bells at her ankles. She bowed to the shrines, and then, striking a majestic attitude:
‘A boon,’ she cried, ‘my lords, before I dance. You all know we keep all men’s secrets, or I should not be here. You have a foe, a stripling from the West. Will you leave him to me? He is fit food for women to fight with, the ladling, and I will devote him to Kali and Buthnath; the deities love blood and beauty, and the lad is fair.’
A laugh ran round the group.
‘Do what you will with him, Radha; but see we have nought of him,’ was the reply.
‘My lords,’ said the woman, and began to dance in front of the shrine in the semicircle of the men. Not the tame measure which had been provided for Francis and Fitch, but a wild, barbarous melody crashed on their ears. All Radha’s magnificent figure seemed to vibrate in motion, and yet she stirred not from the spot, save now and again to execute a rapid twirl, and the crimson gauze floated out on the air as she moved, till her fair form grew visible, shrouded, as it were, in a mist of blood; and the musicians began to sing, till at last, after a wild lightning-like twirl, the Bacchante sank down on her blood-red draperies before the deities.
What need to tell of more? The dawn would see the end, and the next day the police reports would tell how uneventfully the Fair of Chandanpur was passing off.
Meanwhile, in Cobrapur things were much as usual. Fitch found the monotony of station life pall. He had been out pig-sticking one Sunday, and thought it great sport, though he had not managed to get a first spear; but the tent club was not going out again for some time. The club-house was a daily institution, but another fortnight would see the exodus to the hills. However, a ball at the end of March was to signalize the arrival of the end of all things pro tem. Though all declared it was too hot to dance, Mrs. de Tompkins had been so keen on getting it up that nobody could well object. Fitzwilliam had been much at their house, and Mrs. de Tompkins had kept a protecting hand on Walter’s shoulder, so to speak. Anna did her level best to keep up an encouraging whirl of trifles light as air for love to feed on; but Fitzwilliam did not propose. The station was betting on which she would bring down—bowl Fitzwilliam over herself, or let her mother pot Fitch. Fitch rather enjoyed being vicariously made love to by Mrs. de Tompkins. Anna was sweet, but she thought she had winged Fitzwilliam. The mother knew that ‘first catch your hare’ was not only a good cookery-book maxim, but that it was always well to have cold mutton in the cupboard in case the hare didn’t come in time for dinner.
As a matter of fact, though, the little rani had sole sway over Walter’s imagination; he had seen her once again about the case, and had felt, as he said to himself afterwards, as if that slender figure summed up all poetry. He argued with himself that it was merely his perception of beauty that was aroused by this alien woman, and not his love. Still, he felt Anna was welcome to Fitzwilliam, and was amused to fill the position of cicisbeo to his motherly Mrs. de Tompkins.
On the day of the dance he went up to the De Tompkinses to chota hazri (early breakfast); Anna was not visible, but her mother came out into the veranda as Walter got off his horse.
‘Come and take a turn round the garden with me, Mr. Fitch. Anna is not back yet; she has gone for a ride with Mr. Fitzwilliam. I wish you were going up to the hills with us, Mr. Fitch; I shall quite miss you. You know we should have been so pleased if you had really been a son to us; but I know you will rejoice with us to see Anna happy.’
‘Certainly, Mrs. de Tompkins, certainly,’ replied Walter.
‘Yes, she and Mr. Fitzwilliam do get on so well together; he was here till quite late yesterday, and has chosen the gown she is going to wear this evening. I shall look for your congratulations to-night; really I wish it had been you, Mr. Fitch. However, I always say I shall make you marry Matilda; she is only fifteen now, so that is a long way off! And Mrs. de Tompkins laughed. They paced on, and Walter thought:
‘Well, I mustn’t spoil sport,’ and said aloud: ‘I think I must be off, Mrs. Tompkins. Francis is expecting me back to chota hazri.’
He was allowed to depart, the lady well pleased at having secured a square dance for the evening.
‘Don’t mention what I have told you till to-night,’ were her parting words.
Alas and alack! Fitzwilliam was a canny individual, and he was by no means in love with the giddy Anna. His mother dinned in his ears, ‘Make a good match at home,’ and personally he adored beauty. Still, pour passer le temps, why be rude? He had certainly never gone beyond legitimate flirtation; it was not his fault if he refused to be rushed. So dance after dance went by, no signs of Anna and he sitting out; supper and farewells, and nothing announced. Fitch was fairly amazed.
Next morning as they were at breakfast, he and Francis, with the punkah going vigorously, who should be ushered in but Fitzwilliam himself; and when the long chairs were drawn up for a smoke before going to kutcherry (office), he said:
‘I want to speak to you fellows; little De Tompkins has brought the mountain to Mahomet with a vengeance.’ And he read them an epistle demanding intentions, or else desistance from the pleasures of the De Tompkinses’ table.
‘And what have you done?’ queried the two men.
‘Well,’ he returned, ‘if the little man had said, “Dine here for ever, or else wed my daughter,” I should have undoubtedly chosen the less of the two evils, and led Anna to the altar. As it is, I am minus the De Tompkinses’ society for the present; but I wanted to explain it particularly to you, Fitch, for I am sure I have never overstepped the bounds of flirtation.’
‘My dear fellow,’ cried Walter, ‘don’t mind me; it is all mother’s love as far as I am concerned.’
Here Vittu came in and said there was a ‘chit’ for Fitch sahib from the De Tompkinses mem sahib. Walter opened it.
‘Well, I never!’ he exclaimed. “I won’t read it to you, but Mrs. de Tompkins invites me up to stay with them in the hills during the vacation, and hopes I’ll come for all their sakes.’
He did not add that she breathed a hint that she had been mistaken; Anna never cared for Mr. Fitzwilliam.
‘Well, they are off to-night, thank goodness!’ said Walter to himself; ‘the Ghairagurh case is an excellent reason for not accepting their invitation. Talk about shikar, the big game of India is man, not tiger, and every woman in the place a shikarri.’
That evening and the next saw Cobrapur almost forsaken of its womankind; only three were left. Fitzwilliam did not see the De Tompkinses off, and for twenty-four hours was a general subject of conversation. Then the temperature again became the prevailing topic, and Walter began to experience all the rigour of the hot weather. He hadn’t much work, although he studied the language hard, and the isolation in the bungalow, every door tight closed, the place darkened from the heat and glare, and punkah going, was very trying. There was no going out in the cool until seven p.m., if cool it could be called. The three ladies who remained in the station did not come near the club, and Walter was very desolate. He thought a lot about the little Zemindarin, and compared her with the girls he had known at home—with Flora, Lady Giles, and many others—but none possessed that wonderful charm, that sense of fragility and dainty exquisiteness. He also compared her with Radha the dancing girl, and wondered they could be of the same clay. Yet Radha was as fair as many a daughter of Southern Europe, and the little queen was of golden bronze. How could he, a fair-haired Saxon, be in love with this little brown lady? it was only his sense of beauty. Still, they were both Aryans; he found great comfort in this, and then evolved another and more satisfying argument. If well-born Englishmen and high-caste ladies of India wedded it would bring about a race like the English at home, a wonderful fusion, a hybrid mongrel lot, if you like, Norman-Dano-Anglo-Saxon, but the peer of the West, as the Eurasian would be the peer of the East, and not the byproduct of the lower classes of each proud race as he is at present. I am afraid he never thought of the vice versa business, the white girl wedding the native, nor of the fact that the Englishman now goes home on three months’ leave for his menus plaisirs, and that the Zenana compounds in the older bungalows have now, therefore, no raison d’être; that unions like that of the Princess of the Mogulai and the English gentleman, whose descendants are not without honour in the land, now play no part in the system of life. Caste has invaded the sahib log; the Anglo-Indians must mate among themselves, as the Brahmini with the Brahmini. Cheek by jowl, not lip to lip—that is the maxim of the Indian Empire; ‘the thin red line’ is the only lasting imperial red tape that keeps the sticks strong in their unity.
One evening Walter and Francis had had some men in to dinner, and whist afterwards; eleven p.m. saw them all safe off, and Walter, after a final peg with Francis, went off to his own room. Vittu was squatting at the purdah at the entrance; it was like all the others, a double door, half glass, kept open, and a curtain or purdah across the opening. He rose and salaamed rather mysteriously as Walter came, and said in a low voice in Hindustani:
‘Huzoor humara kusur nahi hai’ (My lord, it is not my fault).
‘What the devil’s the matter?’ asked Walter, and walked into his room.
He gasped with astonishment. Seated on his little camp bed was Radha—Radha, who came towards him with a smile, a great comb of white jasmine and pink Persian roses in her hair, and a sort of sceptre of the flowers closely interwoven with silver tinsel on a little stick in her hand. She was gorgeously attired in a silken sari, with a wide gold border, and she reeked of some overpowering perfume.
‘Great Scott!’ cried Walter, and he turned to the trembling Vittu. ‘What does this mean?’ he asked with suppressed passion, for Francis’s room was only on the other side of the bungalow. ‘Supposing those sahibs had come in here by chance. What do you mean by bringing this woman here, you scoundrel?’
Vittu fell on his knees at Walter’s feet, while Radha stood with a look on her face as if this was not quite the sort of thing she had anticipated.
‘Sahib, hear me,’ Vittu entreated; ‘she came and would not go away; the punkah people could not prevent her, and she came in by the bathroom door. I saw her and remonstrated, but she would not listen. Sahib, you are my father and my mother; never have any of us seen a sahib so kind and courteous as you to us and ours who are your slaves. I would die for you. And I thought, “The sahibs are here; a fuss is bad for my master. Let her stay if she must till the sahibs go; I will sit here and watch.” So I sat, sahib, just near the door. She could do nothing I could not see, and so, sahib, I have kept guard.’
Walter turned to the woman.
‘Now go,’ he said, ‘or I must call the servants and have you put out; this is no time for interviews if you wish to consult me.’
‘Sahib, you will hear me?’ And she came and put one large fair hand on his arm. Walter shook it off as if it were an asp; the woman revolted him. ‘Many think Radha fair,’ she murmured, ‘and she has come hither for the sake of the sahib at some peril to tell a secret of the Ghairagurh case.’
‘Go!’ said Walter; ‘if you have anything to tell me, come to-morrow, or write it—go at once.’
The overpowering scent nearly made him sick, and this great courtesan, with her bold looks of admiration, was making him downright angry; he could scarcely keep his rage in.
Radha drew herself up.
‘If the sahib rejects Radha’s love’—she lingered on the word—‘and help——’
‘Get out with you at once!’ cried Walter, pointing to the door.
‘Very well, sahib,’ and her whole aspect changed. ‘I have been sought for, never scorned before; wait and see what Radha’s hate is like!’ And she turned and went right out the way she had come, and vanished into the darkness.
‘Ouf!’ ejaculated Walter; ‘what a vile stink it is!’
‘Attar of roses, sahib,’ said Vittu.
‘It is the same scent there was at Giles Court the night of the robbery,’ thought his master.
‘What is it?’ queried Walter; ‘you can go now. Yes, yes,’ as Vittu still lingered, ‘I forgive you; you certainly acted wisely in not letting there be any fuss, but you know I have no liking for these women.’
Vittu salaamed, and still hesitated.
‘Well, speak out, man; what is it?’
‘Garib Purwar, protector of the poor, Radha now hating the sahib, she liking his face much at the nautch, so I hearing——’
‘“Spretae quid femina possit,”’ quoted Fitch to himself.
‘Now she will hurt the sahib; she is great friends with Narbaddagir’s chéla. I know she was at his house; I heard talking about the sahib, and the sahib getting that letter from the Holi post wallah.’
‘Yes,’ said Fitch, “I remember. What will she do, Vittu—poison me?’
‘I not knowing, sahib, but I will keep guard, and tell the sahib.’
‘All right, now go; there’s a rupee for you.’
‘No, sahib, I don’t want reward; you good to my little daughter, no beating me, no cursing me before all when little things wrong. We, too, have izzat [respect] among our people. I will not take the money for guarding my master.’
‘All right, Vittu; you will just make what you can.’
Walter laughed, and Vittu even smiled, but there was a moisture in his eyes as he salaamed. Walter had completely won the hearts of his servants, and all by the recognition of the fact that they were flesh and blood like himself.
When Vittu had departed Walter could not get to sleep; he recognised that things were getting very complicated. He had got some idea by this time what lengths Oriental intrigues could go to, and knew it really behoved him to be on his guard. It was a fight now probably à l’outrance; the currents beneath the smooth surface were running strong.
However, he saw no move in the game that he could make until the 13th, when the case came on; nor did he quite see what Radha could really do, supposing he had been friendly to her; it might have been more dangerous in the end, and he couldn’t have done it. The image of the little queen in his heart absolutely turned him to adamant at the sight of the flaunting dancing girl.
‘There!’ cried Radha, as she lay in a luxurious nest of pillows strewn, Eastern fashion, on the ground by the wall of the room—there, we shall see if that will fetch the little sahib, my Tuljagir.’
The two were together in Radha’s house in the dancing girls’ quarter of the native town of Cobrapur. It was a stuffy little lot of rooms, with a narrow lattice-work veranda; but every chamber had its ceilings studded with fine glass hanging lamps and crystal chandeliers, which made a gay show at night. By day the dusky interior was refreshing after the glare without; there were little punkahs in one or two of the rooms, but not in this, and Tuljagir was being fanned, as he sat on a heap of cushions, by a lad of about twelve years of age in gay but soiled native clothing. He was a brother of Radha’s, so she said.
‘Now, what further plans? You men are no good till you have consulted your womenkind, either us or your wives; and yet the English, I am told, think Hindu women mere beasts of burden. Aré Krishnaji! I think the women rule the world. Does Ram Chandur the marwari do aught without consulting his wife? And now to boot that puling girl, the Zemindarin—I hear she is clever enough for two. ’Tis she who has got together the witnesses, seen the sahib log, and declares the document is a forgery.’
‘She must be a shaitan if she can prove it,’ broke in Tuljagir.
‘Ay, and now she has thrown a spell over the young English balister: they say she sent him a love philter in a dalli among the customary gifts of fruit and flowers.’
‘What words you talk, lovely one! I shall think you love the white boy yourself. You have put so many ideas together and not acted on them.’
‘I! I scorn and hate him!’ And Radha started to her feet, a Clytemnestra in dishevelment.
‘Then you did love him, my pearl? Scorn and hatred are Love’s abandoned children.’ And Tuljagir laughed derisively. ‘Never mind, Radha piari; ’tis your vocation to love. It is well the little sahib should have a share of your charity. And so you have kindly invited him to the shelter of your roof. Come, tell me now, seriously, how did you know that he had cast the eyes of favour on the Zemindarin? and why are you so sure her name will bring him hither?’
Radha had re-seated herself after her ebullition of anger, and Tuljagir, who was toying with her hand, took a pretty ruby ring out of the folds of his dhotie—for he was in native dress—and held it half-way down her finger.
‘Exchange is no robbery!’ cried the woman, whose eyes had gleamed with cupidity at sight of the jewel; and she thrust her finger right into the ring. ‘We of the town hear all things,’ she said; ‘are we not like the winds of the air, that travel whither they list, even through sahibs’ bungalows? Fitch sahib has worked noon and night over the Rani’s case.’
‘What of that, girl? It is his duty and his first opportunity.’
‘Maybe, then, he loves no woman; ’twas said there was a mem sahib and a missie-baba he liked, but they have gone, and I know ’twas but the sahib’s impudent way.’ Then, after a moment, with a teasing air of mystery: ‘Did you know the rani could write, my Tuljagir?’
‘Of course, Radha; what are you coming to? She was the Diwan’s daughter, and he had her carefully taught by the Zenana mission to read and write Marathi and Urdu.’
Radha went on in the same tone:
‘These English have no regard for their lips. I am glad you have no hold with their customs now.’
Tuljagir sat silent; he was versed in the ways of her sex.
‘I should not have thought it tasted so sweetly,’ she continued, then after a pause—‘as Fitch sahib seems to think. Give me some pan supari, brother,’ and she turned to the lad; ‘it is on the platter.’
‘No, I will make you one while you dally with the story, piari.’
And Tuljagir took out a chased brass case containing some fine pale-green heart-shaped leaves and some areca-nut, and with a little lime from its silver receptacle confectioned the whole into a three-cornered packet, fastened it with a clove, and gave it to his companion, who had gone on eulogizing the merits of ink as the blood of love.
‘I suppose you mean Fitch sahib kissed a letter of the Zemindarin’s,’ said Tuljagir; ‘but I am sure she never wrote to him, she is far too prim and proper. It would be a fine thing, though, to oust her from her right to maintenance on account of an intrigue with Fitch sahib, of all people—nothing I should like better. But hurry up; the tonga ought to be here soon, if he is coming.’
‘Well,’ replied Radha, with her mouth full of the pan, and showing all her teeth stained with the lime a brick-red—‘well, Fitch sahib’s waterman saw his master kiss one of the papers brought by the rani when he thought no one was about. Jiwan the waterman told the chuprassie; the chuprassie told the sahib’s clerk Balkrishna, and asked what paper it was so holy that the sahib kissed it like the English swearing in court. Balkrishna showed him the papers, and asked which it was, and I—well, I am kind to all men; who would have thought such news valuable save a woman? You may be sure, O my Tuljagir, that Sabitra Bai knows it too. And now—why now the sahib will be out of the way, and not go to Chandanpur for the case on the 13th; to-day is the 10th, to-morrow he must start. The Zemindarin and Ram Chandur go to-night, you to-morrow. Did you write to the sahib, my Tuljagir, and offer to take him in your tonga and travel with him?’
‘Yes, my heart, as you wished it, I did, but he declined courteously.’
‘Of course he did,’ and Radha laughed. ‘But it was wise of you to offer, as he will not go.’
‘Radha, I don’t believe he will come down here; he will say, “Let the rani and Ram Chandur come and see me at my office.”’
‘Then he is no man, Tuljagir. I sent a little letter in English; the boy here wrote it, a schoolboy hand. The bearer wore one of the Zemindarin’s chuprassie’s badges—what easier? ’Tis mid-day, none are at work; a glass of native liquor with a bazaar acquaintance in the shade. He does not even know that the scarf and badge he laid aside are roaming the streets for a couple of hours. I sent three cardamom seeds, but what will the sahib know of that? And then, Tuljagir, my wise lawyer, who will suspect a snare in the broad daylight and a straight message? No; if that Vittu, the sahib’s bearer, is not there, I fear nothing. He would cross-question the man, for he is a faithful servant and devoted to the sahib; and I know—never mind how—that he is aware I do not love the sahib now. But it was noon, and he will have gone home for the mid-day meal. The old chuprassie of the sahib is a fool.’ And Radha sprang up and began to execute a little dance and to sing. ‘Ouf, it is hot! Can you hear any wheels? Bhai’—to the lad—‘get me some brandy and soda and ice. Tuljagir, you are in caste again; I must not tempt a Brahmin’s chéla.’
‘No,’ said Tuljagir, ‘I keep my caste now.’ And the woman drank off the peg which had been brought her.
‘Hark!’ she cried; ‘there is the tonga.’
‘By the dread mother, he has come!’ said Tuljagir below his breath. Can it be the stars in their courses are now for us?’
‘Is this the place?’ asked Walter, as the tonga stopped. ‘I thought the Zemindarin was staying quite close to Ram Chandur’s house.’
‘It is round the corner, sahib,’ said the chuprassie, who was sitting in front of the tonga, and now alighted; ‘but my mistress bade me come this way. Follow me, my lord.’ And he preceded Fitch through the little latticed veranda into the house.
Walter had been resting in the middle of the day, the courts having been held in the early morning. Francis was away at the hill station for a fortnight, which suited well with Fitch’s arrangements, as he was to be off next evening for Chandanpur, and expected to be there in the Ghairagurh case a week, with the going and coming. He was half asleep on his bed, with the punkah going, when his chuprassie came to the door and said the Ghairagurh Zemindarin had sent a note. Fitch jumped up and took it. To tell the truth, his thoughts had just been with that little lady, who was filling his mind and revolutionizing his ideas on nationality, colour, women’s intellectual capacity in the East, the beauty of Parisian dress, and, in fact, working as many miracles as love can well perform at a time, and more than hypnotism. To hear the lady mentioned, and as having sent a letter, was a startling coincidence.
It was a funny missive, an ordinary envelope, addressed to ‘Mr. Fitch Sahib Balister, Esq.,’ in an ill-formed hand; inside, three cardamom seeds, and on a torn strip of paper:
‘I wish to see you now, by your great favour, and have sent your honour a tonga.’
His chuprassie, who was waiting, smiled at the sight of the cardamom-seeds. Fitch looked at them, but could make nothing of them.
‘A native polite custom, I suppose,’ he said to himself, as he remembered they were always offered at formal visits. Then to his chuprassie: ‘Where is the man who brought this? Bring him in here.’
The chuprassie did as he was bid, and returned with a man wearing the scarf and badge of the Zemindarin. Fitch glanced at these, which he knew well, and his suspicions were allayed. He did not remember the man’s face, but fresh faces had been with the Zemindarin each time he had seen her.
‘Did your mistress tell you any further message?’
‘No, sahib; but she told me to bring the tonga to fetch you. She and Ram Chandur go to Chandanpur to-night.’
‘They do!’ thought Fitch, and that settled it, and his heart gave a great bound of pleasure.
He put on his sun helmet and got into the tonga—he had never noticed the Rani’s vehicle, which always stopped outside his gate, so there was nothing to tell him that it was not her property, though even then she might have sent a hired one—and so away he went down to the native city. He had only been there twice before, and that just driving down in the early morning to a big native’s house, when Ram Chandur’s shop had been pointed out to him on the way. The great tank he knew, with the little white conical temples all mirrored in its still surface, and a few bathers drying themselves on the flights of steps. Then down the steep slope at the embankment end into the city itself, with the great archway and little unglassed booths and shops, curious sweetmeats, native saddles, a rubber stamp shop, and so on, but all deserted, and their half-naked owners somnolent amid their wares in the noonday heat. It was as solitary and lonely as at midnight. Radha was a clever woman.
Then the tonga plunged into a labyrinth of native lanes and dwellings, which left the confiding Fitch, with merely an instinctive knowledge of the points of the compass, alone in the land. And so they came to a standstill outside a tall house with a narrow latticed veranda, and no one visible.
Walter had half expected to be met by Ram Chandur; hence his query as to the place and the vicinity of Ram Chandur’s house, though no apprehensions entered his mind in the broad daylight. He followed the man in along a dark and dirty passage, and then the servant stepped aside and held up a purdah, motioning Walter to walk first. He did so, and entered a room. There was the slamming of a door behind him and the drawing of bolts, and Walter, with a pang of amazement, found himself alone in a squalid dark room with one little strongly-barred aperture, through which a blank whitewashed wall was visible.
He called his loudest, threatened, cursed, knocked and banged at the door, but to no avail. There was no reply save a woman’s laugh. He realized that he was trapped—trapped in the broad daylight under the British Raj, gone whither no one knew, with not a trace behind him. And the poor little Zemindarin’s case: he felt even then for her. Of course, they would raise the alarm, once they found out he did not appear; but there was no clue as to whither he had gone. The old chuprassie alone had seen the man who came to the bungalow, and probably knew nothing about him, and even if he saw him again would never recognise the man, for he was very likely disguised in some way.
However, Walter’s great point was coolness in an emergency, and he set to work to reconnoitre the place he was in. Just the four grimy walls, a charpoy, or native cot, and a cruse of water and some thin wheaten chupatties, or cakes—prophet’s fare. He dragged the charpoy to the little aperture in the wall, but he could not manage to reach the sill. Then he sat down on the pallet, and, putting off his sun helmet, rested his face on both hands to think. What strange things men’s lives were! He remembered some old seer had compared them to birds flying into the lighted hall from the darkness without, and then back again into the night whence they had come. ‘More like telegraph-wires,’ thought Fitch. ‘They seem to go off on both sides into space. But we jolly well know they have a definite beginning and an end ’twixt which the spark of destiny flashes.’
The idea cheered him up, as he felt that at any rate his destination had not been reached yet. Of course, it was Tuljagir again, and Radha who had entrapped him, but he could not entertain the notion that they meant to get rid of him altogether; the hue and cry would be too great. No; he would be released when the case was over. But what the devil was he to do then? And his heart ached when he thought what the little queen would think of him. Tomorrow he was to have started. Francis was not at home; no one in the station would be concerned at his non-appearance. His clerk had gone ahead, so there was only Vittu; and what could a servant do, even if he dared?
It was getting dusk, and Walter, after another outbreak of threats and shouts, despondently ate some of the unleavened cakes and drank a little water. The heat was great, but at last night closed in, and it was cooler, and he fell asleep—so heavily that he thought he must have been drugged when he woke the next morning after disturbed dreams, in which the little rani in tears upbraided him and the bold-browed Radha nearly strangled him—woke to find that his bread and water had been renewed and a note, in the same handwriting as the one that had reached him at the bungalow, placed beside it. It ran:
‘You shall go if you will promise not to have anything more to do with the Ghairagurh woman’s case.’
Walter was now convinced that Radha was in the plot, but felt a little doubtful as to whether Tuljagir had anything to do with it. Still, Vittu had warned him that the two were mixed up together, and the woman herself had said she had come to tell a secret connected with the Ghairagurh case.
Perhaps he ought to have temporized with her. However, he felt it would have been too repugnant to him, and at any rate, come what might, he was not going to give in to her now and abandon his little queen. So he bawled out in a loud tone that they had better take care what they were up to, that he had no fear of his captors, and declined to make any promises.
There was a faint sound, as though someone in trailing garments had been waiting in the passage, and then silence. Poor Walter remained there alone all day, and grew very despondent. His food was not renewed, and he became very hungry and thirsty as at last dusk came on once more, and the intense heat with no punkah tried him dreadfully.
Just after the sun had set, with that sudden change from day to night, and no twilight, which seems to sum up the character of the East, Walter heard a faint sound, and thought he saw something at the aperture—there was no moon. He went close to it, and said in a low voice in Hindustani: ‘Who is there?’ and, to his joy, Vittu’s voice replied:
‘It is me, sahib; thank God you are safe and I have found you at last!’
Walter could have embraced his faithful servant. He had not in his heart believed Vittu would do anything against him, but he had heard so much from the English in the station about the perfidy of servants, that he had looked on his protestations after Radha’s visit as mere lip service. However, here he was.
‘Vittu, where am I??
‘Hush, sahib, do not speak too loud. Your honour is in the house of Radha the nautch girl. I felt sure she must know of your honour’s whereabouts when you disappeared, for Ram Chandur and the rani knew nothing, and have gone down to Chandanpur.’
‘Did you tell them I had disappeared?’
‘No, sahib, it was not so late, and you might have returned.’
‘And the case is to-morrow; I can’t get there now,’ quoth Fitch. ‘However, first to get out of this. How did you get out there, Vittu?’
‘It is a courtyard at the back of Jaganath’s Temple, sahib. No one ever comes here. All the walls are blank save this little hole. I have been prowling round here all day. Radha cursed me, and swore she never had seen or wished to see my master again, and that she would have me done for if I did not get out, so I pretended to go right away, but at nightfall crept back.’
‘Now, Vittu, here, take this bit of paper. I have scribbled on it how I came here. Give it to the chuprassie, and tell him if you and I are not home by ten o’clock tomorrow morning to take it to the Deputy Commissioner. Have you been to him?’
‘No, sahib, to no one; I knew they could do nothing, for where were you? There would be but a scandal, and you might have gone away to please yourself, and then your anger would have been great upon me.’
‘All right, old man,’ said Walter affectionately, in English. ‘Now go; I couldn’t get through the window even if it wasn’t barred. Come back at midnight and bring some bread and a flask of brandy, and I will tell you what to do next.’
‘Salaam, salaam, sahib,’ whispered Vittu.
He had thrown a dark cloth round him, and was practically invisible in the dark night. No one came near Walter, who heard the sounds of native music and singing in the distance, then all was still. Fitch had determined to draw benefit out of his evil plight if he could get out. He had a distinct hold on Radha. His one worry was what might happen in the case at Chandanpur, but if he could only get out in time to send an urgent wire to the judge and to the Deputy Commissioner at Chandanpur all might yet be well. He had no wish for his own sojourn in the house of the dancing girl to be a public story, and if he could keep that quiet, and at the same time extort from Radha what she knew of Tuljagir, Walter felt he should have distinctly scored after a very nasty check from the black queen.
Vittu was back before midnight, and handed in the bread and brandy, which refreshed his poor master, who bade his servant go early the next morning to Radha, and, on seeing her, say that he had seen his master, that all the facts in the sahib’s own hand were lodged in safe keeping to give the Deputy Commissioner, that he, Vittu, declined to leave the place until Walter was produced publicly (‘Don’t let them bring you here, Vittu,’ Walter said), and that if it were not done by ten a.m. the Deputy Commissioner would be there.
‘I fear,’ said Vittu, ‘but in my sahib’s name I will be bold. I will sleep here, sahib, but must go away before dawn, lest an early worshipper stray round here by chance.’
Tired out, Walter slept heavily, in spite of the heat, and never woke until the door was being noisily unbarred, when he sat up on the pallet with a start. It was broad daylight. A man with his face and turban tied up in voluminous cloths, so that only his eyes were visible, came in and beckoned Walter to follow him. He did so, into the passage and up a narrow flight of steps. There in a small room, the ceiling studded with bright coloured globes and lamps, stood Radha, and Vittu facing her; both had their eyes fixed on the doorway. The disguised man withdrew. Radha did not seem at all out of countenance. Vittu looked worn, but salaamed his master as if nothing had occurred.
‘See, sahib, what love can drive one to,’ and she came towards him. ‘And now you would put me in prison!’
‘Certainly,’ said Fitch, “and I should think you would get the maximum punishment.’
‘Nay, sahib. Come, let me wash your feet in warm water and restore you, and you shall know what my love really is.’
‘Let me hear no more on that subject,’ returned Fitch, with a gesture of impatience. ‘There is one condition on which I will agree to take no further steps legally in this matter, and only one—if you will answer me such questions about Mr. Tuljagir and the Ghairagurh case as I choose to ask you, otherwise I shall certainly prosecute. It is now eight o’clock, and I must go and prevent the Deputy Commissioner taking action. I will give you till this afternoon to consider. If you agree, you can attend at my office at two o’clock; if not, I shall then put in a sworn complaint in court, and let the law take its course, come what may. Now, Vittu, show me the way out.’
The woman stood confounded, and Vittu and his master were soon out and in the bazaar.
‘I have hired a tonga, sahib; here it is.’
They got in, Vittu in front and Fitch behind, and drove to the bungalow.
‘The bath is ready, sahib,’ said Vittu; ‘let me help your honour off with your clothes.’
‘Here, Vittu, first shake hands.’ And Walter held out his. Vittu took it gently, and put it to his own head.
‘I am your honour’s slave.’ To himself he added, ‘My sahib is a great sahib; he has shaken hands with me; dignity is as a king’s.’ And there was a rush of emotion in the poor dark lad’s heart. He would follow Fitch’s fortunes to the end of the earth.
Walter’s first thought was to send telegrams to Chandanpur, to Ram Chandur, the Deputy Commissioner, and the judge, saying that he was unavoidably detained; and that if the other side raised any objection to the postponement of the case he would make affidavits which would probably more than satisfy everyone. Then he had a warm bath, and great was his relief to get a reply telegram later on to the effect that the case was postponed for a month.
It was now just upon two o’clock, and Walter went into his office and had the punkah there pulled. The house was close shut up. In a few minutes the chuprassie came in and said that one Radha wished to see the sahib on business.
‘Show her in,’ said Fitch.
The chuprassie did so with much curiosity. What did the most notorious dancing girl of the city want with his master? He had been rather surprised when Vittu had given him his orders about the papers to the Deputy Commissioner; but the sage bearer had represented that it was simply about the Ghairagurh case, and that his master had had to go out for a couple of days about it, and he had taken him clothes. So the dull-witted chuprassie did not trouble to piece things together for himself, and there was no outsider’s curiosity to be aroused.
Radha came in dressed in rather common clothes, but with a good deal of gold jewellery on, and with that peculiar waddle from the hips that seems the inherent characteristic of her class in all countries. She came up to the table, and stood with one hand on it, and her saree drawn over her face looking modestly down.
‘Does the sahib forgive me?’
‘Yes, if you answer my questions rightly; sit down. Did Mr. Tuljagir know anything of my detention in your house?’
‘No, sahib,’ in a low, earnest voice. ‘I loved you the first time I saw you, and you scorned me; you don’t know what passion burns in our breasts—no, sahib. I knew you wished to win the Zemindarin of Ghairagurh’s case, and determined to thwart you. I was mad.’
‘Are you acquainted with Mr. Tuljagir Gussain?’
‘Yes, sahib; I know Tuljagir Gussain. It was through me he sold the star of light to the Rajah of Golconda. The sahib will not understand how valuable an aid Radha’s can be; many litigants ask me when they come for their appeals, “To whom shall we give them, Radha?”’
‘Does Mr. Tuljagir, then, deal in diamonds as well as in the law?’
‘The sahib does not know?’ Radha was regaining all her impudent confidence. ‘Ah! the sahib does not know with whom he has to deal in Narbaddagir’s chéla; the sahib is no good against the Tarvels.’ And Radha snapped her fingers.
‘Now, my good woman,’ said Walter, rising and standing at the back of the chair, ‘you will just tell me all you know about these Tarvels, or you will leave this room in charge of the police.’ The ‘good woman’ ejaculated a few oaths, and Fitch added, ‘And if you give me any false information, I shall not consider myself bound by any promises.’
‘If Tuljagir were here!’ muttered Radha.
‘Yes, but he is not here to advise you; and you may be in havalat [the lockup] when next he hears of you. Is Tuljagir a Tarvel?’
‘Very well, then; what is a Tarvel?’
Sahib, sahib!’—Radha began to cry—‘the dread mother Kali and Buthnath, her son, will destroy me.’
‘Or else you will go to gaol.’
‘Sahib, they have eaten the Taru, the yellow flower, and are bound together for Buthnath’s sake; they have much wealth—even now Narbaddagir’s chéla has brought great jewels from the West.’
‘Where do they meet?’
‘Sahib, at the Temple of Achuleshwar at Chandanpur; but their real head place is Mahakali’s Temple at Ghairagurh. There, sahib, I have told you everything; you will be murdered, and so shall I.’ And Radha sat, looking very sullen. ‘Have I my leave?’ she said.
Walter felt there were several things he wanted to ask her, but still did not like tackling a woman so.
‘One more thing,’ he said; ‘are the Tarvels mixed up with the Ghairagurh case?’
‘Yes,’ replied the woman; ‘and now I shall go.’ And she went out, and spat as she got to the road.
Walter sat down.
‘Sahib,’ said a voice; it was Vittu at the door-sahib, ‘I have heard what the woman said; better go back to the great Wilayet.’
‘No, Vittu,’ said Walter; ‘I shall go to Ghairagurh.’
‘Then, sahib,’ said the man, with tears in his voice, ‘by the head of my child, I will go with you!’
Walter waited with impatience for the return of his clients from Chandanpur. It took them a few days, as the Zemindarin travelled slowly with her attendants in little country carts down to Wargaon, where they could take the train. The morning after their arrival Ram Chandur waited upon Fitch. There was an element of constraint in his greeting; born and bred in an atmosphere of intrigue and counter-intrigue, he almost doubted a sahib even. With many expressions of respect, and hopes of the sahib’s good health, he informed Walter that the case had been postponed without any opposition as soon as Mr. Tuljagir had read the telegrams; he was very loud in his words at first, though.
‘Ah! I knew he was in the plot!’ was Walter’s internal comment.
The marwari went on, without asking any question directly as to Walter’s strange absence, to hope that the sahib had other important new cases in hand, perhaps due to the general report that he was retained for the Zemindarin.
‘No, Ram Chandur,’ said Fitch; ‘no other business, nor my health, would have prevented my coming. I shall simply give you my word that I was prevented through no fault of my own, and I should like to be able to assure the Zemindarin of that fact myself.’
Ram Chandur, though curious, was not dissatisfied; he certainly did not suspect the truth, as he knew nothing of Walter’s past relations with Tuljagir, nor did he know of Radha’s interest in the matter.
Tuljagir, on the opposite side, had evidently believed the sahib’s telegram, and the case had been successfully put off, Tuljagir having forgotten to press for costs; so the old marwari was cheerful now he realized there was no collusion, and went off, saying:
‘The Zemindarin will wait on your honour to-morrow. But I can assure her; why should your honour take the trouble?’
‘No, I prefer to see the Zemindarin. I may have one or two other business questions to put to her.’
All day Fitch was in a state of agitation. He was going to see his little queen again, and he meant, if possible, to tell her why he had failed to be present in her case. He did not know if she had noticed what he felt, but he knew that his voice changed to a softer tone when he spoke to her, and that his face altered when he looked at hers. He had given up arguing about race and colour, and merely remembered she was the joy of his eyes.
Vittu had a shrewd idea of what was in his master’s mind; he had heard of the kissing of the handwriting, and noted his master’s fits of abstraction, and that he liked to talk and ask questions about the Zemindarin, and the ways of native ladies generally. So at night, when helping his master to undress, he inquired when the sahib would go to Chandanpur in the Ghairagurh case, said the Zemindarin was a good lady, and very beautiful; did the sahib not think so? Yes, and he thought the Zemindarin had a great opinion of the sahib.
‘You are not to talk in this way, Vittu,’ said Fitch.
‘My fault, sahib, my fault—pardon; but I thought perhaps the sahib might like to send me to the rani with a gift.’
‘Good heavens, man! what do you take me for? I admire the Zemindarin; I might admire any lady who was beautiful and clever. You can go.’
Vittu obeyed, with a silent salaam; but what he did was to go down to the city and talk with the servants of the Rani, and even begged to be allowed to prostrate himself before the lady herself, which was not refused him, as who knew what influence the bearer of the sahib might possess with his master? At any rate, he might omit, if not well treated, to mention to his master that his clients were in waiting, or cause them some little trouble and annoyance. So Vittu made his salaams to the Rani and the baby Zemindar.
‘Here,’ said the rani, and waved her retainers a little out of hearing from where she sat, carefully hidden by a bamboo matting—‘here, how was it your master could not go to Chandanpur?’
The Rani only asked out of curiosity, and did not suspect any plot.
‘Rani sahib, I do not know,’ was, however, the only answer she could elicit from Vittu.
‘’Tis well,’ she replied; ‘take these five rupees.’
And Vittu withdrew and went and squatted till the early dawn with the other retainers, who were listening to one of their number tom-toming on a dulah (a half-drum with two different thicknesses of parchment, so as to give two tones, according to where it is struck with the thumb), and singing a never-ending, doleful chant. And yet Vittu was in his place before six o’clock in the morning, and duly announced the Rani’s presence in his veranda to Fitch a little after eight o’clock. It was already very hot now, even at that early hour, the temperature going to 110° in the shade—about the heat of an English cooking-oven—and the bungalow was tight shut up by 7.30 a.m.
The Rani came in with one woman attendant. Walter was sitting in his chair behind his office table; it was a curious situation.
‘You wished to see me, sahib, about the case?’ asked the rani, as she sat up on the chair, her saree well over her face, and one leg drawn right up on to the seat of the chair, with the tiny little bare foot resting on it. Even like this she was a picture, Walter thought. The maid squatted on the floor in the corner of the room.
‘Yes, Rani sahib,’ said Fitch, as he seated himself—he had risen at her entrance. ‘I wish I could be alone with her for a little while and talk confidentially; but that is out of the question,’ he thought, and he could not help involuntarily glancing at the serving woman. Sabitra Bai, who had so placed her saree that she could study his every action, at once perceived this.
‘Be under no apprehension, sahib,’ she said; ‘but if you like I will tell my maid, from whom I have no secrets, to sit inside your big drawing-room; she can hear if I call. I am a widow now, and, moreover, I can trust the sahib. Sita, go and sit inside the gol kamera.’
The woman rose and went out; the door into the veranda was shut for the heat, and now they were quite alone.
Walter looked at the lovely little figure with an earnestness in his gaze which made her cast her large eyes down, and made the blood mantle in the pure curves of her cheeks.
‘You must pardon me, Rani sahib, for not having been at Chandanpur, but I wished to explain the matter to your ear only, as it was right you should know; your name was used to prevent me, and also you know more of the plotters who are mixed up in this case.’
And Walter proceeded to tell the little queen his story. She listened with breathless interest, letting her saree drop back on her graceful Grecian knot and hang in folds from thence. Then she said:
‘And what must you have thought of me, sahib? I recognise your great kindness in at once wishing to hear what I wanted.’
‘Rani!’ burst from Walter, ‘I would have gone anywhere you asked me!’
Then he bit his lip as he realized what he had said, and though the little lady’s eyes shone again, she apparently let the observation pass unnoticed.
‘And what must you have thought of me, sahib?’ and the great tears began to gather in her eyes as her Eastern mind conjured up ideas which were odious to her of her presumed forward and unwomanly conduct.
It was too much for Walter to see the tears in her eyes.
‘I thought nothing,’ he said, ‘save that you wished to see me urgently about the case,’ and he got up, and was coming towards her as two slow tears dropped from her eyes.
‘No, no,’ she said, ‘sit down, sahib;’ and as he did so, ‘When I think what danger you ran for my sake, sahib, I can never find words to thank you; let me bow myself at your feet,’ and she was going to carry her words into effect, but Walter caught her, and when he felt the magnetic thrill of her form in his arms, before he knew what he had done he had kissed her.
‘Sahib!’ cried the little lady, in a low, startled voice; ‘I thought I could trust the sahib!’
Walter let her go, and she cried quietly, pulled the saree well over her face, and called Sita. Fitch went to the purdah leading into the big room.
‘Sita,’ he said, ‘your mistress wants you.’ The maid came in, and the Rani made as if she were going. One moment,’ said Walter to her. ‘I should like to add a word if you will allow me, and once again trust me’—he laid a little stress on the last words—‘and tell your maid to go into the other room.’
The little Rani hesitated a second, then bowed, and said in a composed voice, which quite startled Walter, whose own thoughts were all in confusion:
‘Sita, sit in the other room again awhile.’ As soon as she had gone, ‘Rani sahib,’ said Walter, ‘will you ever forgive me? I can never forgive myself. I hold you in all honour and respect, and I love you with all my heart.’
‘Sahib,’ said Sabitra Bai, ‘I am not of your caste nor colour, but I have honour and respect, and am no plaything: I am no Brahmin, and I might marry again, and if what you say is true I would, if you were my caste-fellow, be honoured as your wife. But aught but a wife I cannot be, and to wed you is impossible,’ and she lifted her shining eyes and beautiful face to his.
‘You love me, sweetheart?’ cried Walter; ‘then I will marry you!’
The girl flung her saree over her face.
‘Nay, sahib, what have I said! Let me go!’ and, her Oriental ideas of modesty all outraged, the girl burst into tears, which Sita heard, and came running into the room.
‘Nay, nay, Sita, it is nothing; but I am frightened for the case. The sahib is very good.’
‘By God! I will win your case, Rani sahib!’ cried Walter. ‘And you, too, my darling,’ he added under his breath; ‘I must see you again.’
‘I do not know, sahib; if necessary, send your bearer, Vittu, to my maid here, but I do not think there will be any need,’ and with these words she salaamed and took her leave.
All this was enough to occupy any man’s mind, and Walter had no thoughts now for anything else but his own romance. Europe and home seemed to have faded away to almost invisibility on the encircling horizon of his life. It was too hot for words. Life at the club had dwindled till the place was almost as bare a desert as the parched-up world without. Not a blade of grass was to be seen in Cobrapur, and though Francis, who had returned from the hills, and Walter, both took their beds out into the compound at night and slept beneath the stars, it was not till the early morn that they could get any refreshing rest,
Walter heard nothing directly from Tuljagir or Radha, nor did he receive any communication from Ram Chandur or the little Rani. Francis had mentioned with languid interest that he was told Tuljagir had been received back into caste, and had readopted native dress.
‘He must look a strange mixture if he wears his gown over it. It is a good thing it is not the custom to wear the wigs out here, or Mr. Tuljagir would have to stick his on his turban or else on his semi-shaven pate,’ said Walter. ‘I wonder what his English friends would say if they saw him squatting half nude, eating with his hand out of a tray?’
Walter had not told Francis why he had not gone to Chandanpur, but simply let him know that the case there had been postponed.
‘Beastly for you having to go down in the rains,’ said his stable companion, hearing the date. ‘There is a big river and ever so many nullahs to cross before you get to Chandanpur, and the water rises like one o’clock when the rains begin. And in reply to Walter’s query as to how to get across: ‘Oh, there are “dug-outs,” great trees hollowed out and floated down stream across; but it is an awkward process. Native fishermen wait to help you at the big river, but not at all the nullahs. Let’s hope you will have a break of fine weather to go down in. Why don’t you go up to the hills meanwhile and see the De Tompkinses?’
‘Oh,’ said Walter, ‘they don’t want me now, even if I cared to go. Haven’t you heard the old lady has got Anna off her hands? A love-struck youngster went up and proposed to one girl and got the ‘chuck,’ and was off down again, when Anna rushed out of the hotel just as he was getting into his tonga, and was accepted faute de mieux. Of course, that is a trifle exaggerated, but it was something much like it, and the engagement is a fact, for Mrs. de Tompkins wrote to me and said Anna had met the man two years ago and had loved him ever since. In any congratulations I said I had always felt sure there was someone whom Miss de Tompkins really cared for.’
Francis laughed heartily.
‘And you are reserved for the next batch, if you are still here. By the way, do you mean to settle down here, old man, and practise, or shall you flit “Westward ho” again when the Ghairagurh case is over?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Walter.
Ah, ha! quoth his companion, ‘you have got the spell on you. “Put me somewhere east of Suez, where the best is like the worst, where there ain’t no ten commandments, and a man can raise a thirst.” By George! what a thirst one can raise! Do you know, I have drunk thirteen bottles of soda-water to-day besides the tea and coffee I have imbibed!’
They were sitting after dinner in the open air, with the bright moon bathing the palm trees in silver and black.
‘It is about time the rains came. You can’t believe what a transformation scene is worked in the land, Walter, by the first shower. Another week will see it, however; the “Pi” to-day said they had broken at Bombay.’
During the next day and the following the air got hotter and hotter and more and more heavy. Walter could scarcely breathe, and wandered about the bungalow in search of coolness. The sky began to get heavy with clouds, and great sheets of lightning lit up the skies, but no rain, and not a breath of air, and then in the afternoon of the third day came a great gust of wind and storm of dust. Everyone rushed to make sure all doors in the house were barred and shut. The trees bent, branches broke, and, with a rush, the water came down in buckets, whilst the thunder roared and the lightning flashed as though all the powers of nature were striving to burst their bonds, and a savour went up from the thirsty ground which is never known to temperate climes, the land refreshed.
As soon as the rain began to fall the wind subsided. All the doors were opened, and it was a joy and a relief to breathe again. The effect was comparable to nothing but the Prince’s kiss in the old fairy-tale of the ‘Sleeping Beauty.’ Frogs innumerable croaked abroad, the air in the bungalow whirred with insects; when the lamps were lit myriads of winged creatures, that shed their feeble wings at a touch, almost obscured the light, and the lizards darting round feasted till the wings of their victims stuck out of their maws, and they fell from the walls, too heavy to hold on. The bath-rooms swarmed with large black ants, and at dinner, spite of the punkah, every sort of beetle and moth abounded, and, to crown all, a shower of green bugs, the smell of which is indescribably terrible, invaded the place.
‘My word,’ said Fitch, ‘this is not a very dead-alive sort of place now!’
‘Yes, and mind and look out for snakes and scorpions, not to speak of centipedes,’ Francis warned him.
When they went to bed there was a regular river rushing through the compound, and the poor punkah people had rigged up a bamboo-matting screen to protect them.
‘Nice for you,’ said Francis, ‘if this is the sort of thing you have to go to Chandanpur in. I shouldn’t think you would ever get there.’
‘Well, it is a week off,’ replied Walter, ‘let us hope we get a “break.” I don’t suppose it will be very dreadful, after all, if it is raining a bit.’
The case was fixed for the 21st of June. The Rani and Ram Chandur proposed to leave Cobrapur on the 18th, and Walter with Vittu on the 19th, getting to Chandanpur on the 20th. Everything now seemed to favour them; the rain had stopped on the 17th, and there was a prospect of a break, as the sky was cloudless and the scene radiant. Walter could scarcely have believed that a few short hours could have worked such a miracle; everywhere there was a lovely, vivid green vegetation, that charmed the eye all the more for the striking contrast it presented to the same scene a week earlier. Gay butterflies were fitting about, and the maddening note of the ‘coppersmith bird’ was no longer heard in the land, added to which the physical sense of well-being was appealed to as well as the sensuous eye, by the promise of fresh greens and vegetables after months of tinned things.
So Walter started off in good spirits. There was no one else in the long first-class carriage, with its comfortable couches and little bath-room. Vittu made up his master’s bed, and Walter composed himself to sleep as the train sauntered out into the night. He would reach his first destination about seven next morning. He couldn’t sleep, though—his thoughts were running on the case and the little Rani, and the natives’ jabbering as they stopped at stations added to his wakefulness. Walter came to the old conclusion, that you cannot explain what love is. Cupid is too elusive for description, it is neither form nor face, nor curves of the body nor character of mind—it is a charm which abideth for ever, that transfigures age and glorifies youth.
‘And this being so,’ said Walter to himself, ‘I do not intend to spoil my life by thrusting it from me. I honour and respect and dearly love my little queen. We can marry, and then I look the thing straight in the face—a jungle life for me. The only thing is, will her prejudices ever give in? Everyone seems to have such a wrong idea—they talk at home and even think it out here—about our white pride and aloofness from the natives. Great Scott! why, it’s all the other way round, save in the case of the native who has been home, whom neither will have. The English would be quite willing to mix and mingle, but caste and innate certainty of the Brahmin superiority are what prevent it. How can it be otherwise with people who wear one set of clothes when they meet the Europeans, and go home and change every stitch and bathe, to avoid all contamination before they sit down to their meals or engage in any household affairs! Never mind, I am going to do what I can to break the barrier!
Here Walter fell asleep, to wake—the rain pouring down—at the station where he was to get out and make his first incursion into the jungles. Fortunately, the dak bungalow (rest-house) was close at hand, and Vittu got his master and their belongings safe over into shelter in a short time, announced that the sahib would take his chota hazri, and then start in one of the Government tongas.
Walter was new to rest houses, to the dreary, whitewashed rooms and scant, rickety furniture. The plates, garnered in ones and twos from discarded mess services, and still bearing the varying mottoes and numbers of the regiments, did not depress him; nor did he inveigh against the cackling hen, which first ran past the room, and then in an incredibly short time appeared as chicken cutlets, chicken curry, and chicken roast, as a lengthy bill of fare; but when Vittu came in and informed him that both the Government tongas had been engaged and taken off by the other side, and that the proprietor of the only other decent conveyance in the place refused to hire it out on the score of the weather, Walter lost his equanimity.
‘Why won’t the man let out his tonga? I will pay him well.’
‘Protector of the poor, I think he is really afraid of the other side in the case.’
‘Well, get to Chandanpur I will, even if I walk. How do your people usually go?’
‘Your honour cannot go in a country cart.’
‘Yes, I can.’
‘But it will take twenty-four hours in this weather, even if we can get across the nullahs; there will be no relays of bullocks on the road.’
‘My word, this business is mismanaged! What a fool that Ram Chandur is!’ cursed Walter, though he felt he ought to have foreseen things a bit himself. ‘Get a country cart, Vittu—’
‘Sahib, your honour will not send a telegram?’
‘No. When did the Rani and Ram Chandur leave this place?
‘Yesterday, sahib; but they go very slowly.’
‘Very well, get a cart. If they won’t send it, bring it yourself. I don’t care.’
Vittu went off and did not come back for some time. At last he appeared with a conveyance that excited Fitch’s mirth at the idea of its conveying a barrister to court. The local hansom was a very narrow, inclined plane, not unlike a coster’s cart, with a piece of bamboo matting arched over it just high enough to let a man crawl in and squat; it was yoked to a pair of tiny humped bullocks.
‘Great Scott, Vittu!’ Walter exclaimed, ‘is that all you can do?’
The driver was bunched up in front under a coarse brown blanket folded and tied at one end, which served to keep off the rain. How they managed to get in Fitch scarcely knew, but they did. His waterproof hung over the matting, the pillows and blankets were put on the straw inside, he only took his brief bag by way of luggage, and away they went into the wilderness. The road was a good one of red murrum, the little bullocks trotted splendidly, at first urged on by much abuse of their female relations on the part of the driver.
Soon the jungle closed in on every side, but Walter could not see much, as it began to get dark; the rain, too, still fell incessantly. Splash they went through a watercourse which ran across the road, another one met them very little further on, and again and again; but, fortunately, at the larger of these they found ‘dug-outs’ and men, as the country cart could not have got through without. The two great, hollowed-out trees lashed together were hauled to the bank, and a wheel of the cart placed in each with great difficulty, and the little bullocks swam behind. It was a damp and dispiriting as well as a difficult process.
Walter got very cramped, the bullocks were going slower and slower. Vittu sat like an immovable log, trying not to take up too much room and making the pillows as comfortable as possible for his master. At each of the two last nullahs they got the discouraging tidings that they would not be able to get across the deep, narrow nullah at Bhandrapur; there were no ‘dug-outs,’ and the current was a torrent. It was nearly 10 p.m. Walter had some brandy and a biscuit, and made Vittu take some; he wanted the cartman to, but Vittu said:
‘No, sahib; he has caste, he is a Tirela Kunbi.’
And so they came to the dreaded nullah.
‘It cannot be,’ said the cartman.
Walter got out and looked; the black water swirled and hissed through a gorge.
‘There is a serai [a native rest house) here,’ said the man; ‘the sahib must wait and see if the water goes down.’
‘Is there no ford higher up?’ queried Walter.
‘No, sahib, there is the postman’s bridge only. It is just two or three bamboos laid together across from tree to tree, for the dak wallah to run over.’
‘I will see it,’ said Walter. ‘Where is the serai?’
They showed him a dim glimmer of a light through the great strange forest trees, and the cart turned off thither. It was just a square building for the convenience of natives, with three rooms and a courtyard; there were several carts and oxen tethered.
‘The Zemindarin is here!’ said Vittu.
In truth, Ram Chandur came out; the little Rani and her women were in one of the rooms by themselves.
‘It is most unfortunate, Huzur, but it is the will of Heaven—our fate. What can we do?’
‘Oh, a good deal,’ said Walter. ‘I am going on.’
‘How can you, sahib?’
‘What is this postman’s bridge like?’
Walter was in his thick ulster, and moved off with the cartman in his blanket to see it. Ram Chandur unfolded a white oiled cotton umbrella, with ‘Made in China’ imprinted on it in large blue lettering, and went also. The cartman carried a lantern. It was a weird bridge, some large bamboos tied together with wattle-work, and thrown across, secured at each end, and a slender handrail added.
‘How many miles are we from Chandanpur?’ Walter asked.
‘Fifteen, sahib,’ replied the marwari.
‘Vittu, will you come?’
Vittu had borrowed a blanket from one of the Rani’s people, and tied it over his head like the cartman.
‘Whatever are your honour’s orders,’ he said, with his teeth chattering a little.
‘Then I am off. The road is straight, isn’t it?’
Vittu, without a word, shouldered the brief-bag under the blanket and followed his master, who cautiously crossed the slippery bridge, and was off down the road into the darkness. It was thick dense jungle on either side, but Walter did not imagine any but a human animal would be likely to prowl about in the wet. The rain was still falling steadily. He was a good walker, and though his ulster got soaked and heavy, the miles went by. Vittu was getting tired, and it was nearly dawn. Walter took the bag from him and carried it himself. Fortunately, the rain stopped, and soon they heard the sound of rushing water. It was time, for Walter was now feeling very weary, and walked mechanically. Then in the gray dawn, as they turned a corner of the road, they saw the highway end abruptly in a great rushing river, which tore along well over its banks, turbid and discoloured, the half-submerged palm-trees looking like islets in the flood. A small collection of mud hovels was a little off the road, and Vittu roused the inhabitants, who soon got the dug-outs ready and floated the pair down-stream and across, though Walter really felt some dread lest they might be swamped, for there was a hole in one of the trees which a man kept plastering with mud to keep the water out.
‘Never mind, sahib,’ said he, though; ‘it will float, anyhow.’
And so they got across. Another mile, and they came to the dak bungalow, aroused the astonished khansamah (the man in charge), got towels, and Walter dried himself, and made the khansamah lend Vittu some dry things, and then went to bed for awhile. He had sent a man over to the Deputy Commissioner, to whom he had a letter from Francis, and borrowed some flannels. They were sent at once, and an invitation to come over and dine that evening and put up with him. Walter declined the latter invitation, but accepted for dinner, and then, learning the court (before whom the case was to come on) would sit at twelve, started off at eleven himself, as he wished to inspect the record.
Tuljagir, he found, was staying in the native city, but in the compound of the dak bungalow were the two Government tongas, and one of these Walter took to go to the court in. The rain had ceased, and it was quite fine again, and he was able to appreciate what a very pretty place Chandanpur was, embowered in great clumps of verdant mango-trees, feathery tamarinds, and sacred peepuls. The few bungalows peeped out here and there, and a very small red church, that would be crowded by a congregation of twenty, occupied a central position. His clothes had been dried, and his gown had not got wet, thanks to Vittu’s care of the brief-bag, into which it had been stuffed, and Walter felt a certain sense of elation as he rolled along in the tonga over the red road to the court, and thought of the astonishment and, he hoped, dismay which his appearance would cause to the other side. In fact, his success in having surmounted the elements almost did away with the natural nervousness he had expected to feel at appearing in such new surroundings and under such strange circumstances; but he did feel his heart beating a quicker time as they turned into the District Court compound, a large field abutting on the limitless jungle on one side, in which stood a rambling red-tiled building, with a veranda running round it in disconnected bits (it more or less resembled an English farmhouse). Some natives were standing or squatting about, and quite a little crowd collected at the portico as his tonga was seen approaching.
‘Zillah sahib hai’ (It is the Deputy Commissioner), said some. And a man with a huge dead snake stepped forward and laid it outstretched before the tonga, and cried, ‘Inām, sahib!’ (the Government reward).
‘Nay, nay,’ said a rustic-looking chuprassie to whom the tonga man had said a word, drawing the snake-man away, and himself salaaming to Walter.
And somehow or other the words ‘Balister sahib’ passed round, and the little crowd increased, those behind craning their necks as Walter passed through in the chuprassie’s wake, who carried his brief-bag, and followed the man into the court-room, a dingy apartment, with a couple of chairs and a table on the floor, then a railing, and on a daïs another table and chair, while over all were two punkahs. On the daïs in the corner squatted a native with a heap of files before him in cardboard covers; in these were the cases. Walter sat down in one of the chairs, the cynosure of every eye, as the three doors leading into the room were blocked at once by the crowd, who foresaw a treat after their own hearts, a good legal tussle. Tuljagir was not visible, nor anyone apparently connected with the other side.
Fitch asked the squatting native (who was the reader to the court) to allow him to see the record in the Ghairagurh case, and was at once handed it, and proceeded to inspect it on the little table. The plaint merely set forth the title of the Malguzar, quoted the documents now produced, and the original settlement proceedings, and prayed that, in view of the statement by the settlement officer at the time, and the present production of the original grant, the settlement be gone behind, the defendant ousted from his titular possession, and the plaintiff confirmed therein.
Walter thought he had a very good case on the merits, and did not doubt of ultimately succeeding in the Courts of Appeal, but was very doubtful as to the fate of his case in the first instance. He then went on to compare the document filed with the one Ram Chandur had provided him with; there was no doubt that the seals were the same; the crack, each scratch, and the lettering, all were identical.
‘I am convinced it is a forgery, though,’ said Walter to himself; ‘but how on earth am I to prove that Sir Philip Giles’s emerald was stolen by the other side, and used for this impression? There is my rough drawing, but that might have been made from this, and there is no description of the Giles seal in existence. It is very awkward.’
The crowd outside scanned his every action; the paper, the writing, all looked alike, old and genuine. Walter had turned to look at the people at the door, and in so doing held the paper up so that the light came through it, and caught a glimpse of something like a figure in the woof. He held it up flat against the light, and the watermark, an angel with ‘Goa’ underneath it, stared him in the face. He hastily held up his own genuine deed; there was no trace of any watermark at all. Walter’s profession knows only too well on what trifles mighty issues hang.
‘It is a case of Eureka! I have found it!’ Walter’s heart beat fast. ‘Oh for an Encyclopaedia in the wilderness! He gave the record back to the reader—it was close upon twelve o’clock—and went out for a stroll in the compound to collect his faculties. As he did so another tonga drove up, and a native got out and went in, after a curious glance at Fitch and amid many salaams from the natives about. It was the native judge, a stout Mahratta Brahmin. Walter took a turn round, and asked when the Deputy Commissioner came, and was told he had arrived; so he went in to see him in his court, thanked him for his invite, passed Francis’s remembrances, and then asked if there was an Encyclopaedia anywhere in the place; unfortunately, there was not.
‘But I have a Haydn’s Dictionary at the bungalow I can lend you,’ said the Deputy Commissioner, Mr. Smith. I will send a chuprassie for it, if you want it, at once.’
Walter thanked him, and returned to his seat in the other court. As he entered by one door, Tuljagir did so by the other, and could not suppress the astonishment he felt at seeing Walter. However, he at once advanced to him, and expressed his pleasure that he had not been prevented reaching Chandanpur again.
‘The weather was very unpropitious; we had to have our tongas urged on so as to get across the nullah at Bhandrapur, and were only just in time,’ he said.
‘I had to walk,’ said Walter curtly, remembering that Tuljagir had taken both tongas.
Tuljagir looked at him with astonishment; he felt a real fear of this slight, fair young Englishman, whom nothing seemed to daunt, and who crossed his own path at every turn.
‘Well, I am afraid you are having a good deal of trouble,’ he said, ‘for a weak case. We will settle the issue to-day, and then my witnesses will come on at the next hearing to prove the finding of the document.’
Walter merely bowed and sat down, apparently immersed in his own papers. The little space was crowded with natives, some on a bench brought in and placed against the wall. Tuljagir was in handsome native dress, with a long, flowing black silk coat, not wearing his gown, so Walter did not put on his.
‘Will Mr. Smith’s chuprassie ever come with the book?’ thought Walter. ‘If it is as I imagine, and Goa not Portuguese until after the alleged date of the document, then victory, victory!’
The judge now called on the Ghairagurh Zemindari case, and recorded the appearance of Tuljagir and Walter definitely pitted against each other. Tuljagir then gave a statement on behalf of his client, the plaintiff, alleging inter alia that one of the servants of the shrine of Achuleshwar had been cleaning and arranging the documents in the muniment-room, which the present Mahant was having catalogued, and had found the deed now produced in the mahant’s presence. Before he had finished his pleadings the chuprassie arrived with the longed-for book. Walter hastily turned up the reference.
Yes, Goa was founded by the Portuguese in 1510, and no paper with a watermark made before that date.
He rose, concealing his agitation with difficulty. ‘I think it right,’ he said, ‘not to allow my friend to go on. I challenge the genuineness of the deed, and request a preliminary issue on that point, which can be decided now, and which will not involve a protracted date for further hearings.’ Tuljagir turned round blazing with wrath.
‘You mean to say that my client has forged the document?’
‘I do not say that,’ said Walter to the court; ‘I maintain that the document is a forgery.’
‘This issue cannot be struck now; it must wait,’ retorted Tuljagir, and proceeded to quote cases relevant and irrelevant for some minutes, when he paused.
‘I would ask the court to look at the document,’ said Fitch.
The judge, who was looking rather annoyed, consented with alacrity.
‘Yes; let me know why it is known to be forged.’
It was soon pointed out. If the paper on which it was written was not made till half a century after the date of its alleged making, then there must be an end to the case. Walter handed up the book of reference.
Tuljagir scrutinized the papers in his turn, and spoke in low, agitated tones to the natives with him.
‘I will frame the issue,’ said the judge.
Walter promptly put in his pleadings.
‘What have you to say?’ queried the court to Tuljagir.
The latter was evidently nonplussed, and began to talk of defamation and the Indian penal code on behalf of his client.
‘Stay, Mr. Tuljagir,’ said the judge, who had a good deal of shrewd sense, ‘there is no need of that; your client’s reputation is not touched. No one knows when this deed was made; it was not produced from your client’s custody, and as far as I know’—and he smiled significantly—‘there is no community of interest between your client and the Temple of Achuleshwar, where it was found. Supposing Mr. Fitch’s contention is correct, it may have been made many years ago. It was alleged to have been in existence before the settlement and lost, and your client’s ancestor may have been deceived himself, and have in all good faith lodged the deed in the muniment-room of Achuleshwar.’
Tuljagir’s countenance cleared a little.
‘As your honour pleases,’ he said; ‘but I maintain that the matter cannot be settled like this. The whole case must be gone into and then a decision come to, when all the evidence on both sides is on the record.’
‘I shall take till to-morrow to pass orders,’ said the judge.
There was a hubbub and stir in the compound when the result was known. Walter was the centre of an admiring throng of commenting natives of every sort; while Tuljagir and his party went off sullenly, with murmurs of appeal, irregularity, and the like.
Walter’s heart danced within him; he felt pretty certain of to-morrow’s order now, and then meditated a coup that had come into his mind by a happy flash. The plaintiff was in actual possession under the mortgage deed, but the Zemindar was dead who had made it; the Zemindari could only be mortgaged for his life. To-morrow he would ask for an order ejecting the Mulguzar of Burhampuri from possession, and then the little Queen and her baby son could return at once to their heritage.
‘She will forgive me now for having been so brutal to her;’ and Walter sighed with longing to see her and tell her the good news.
As he got back to the dak bungalow Vittu came swiftly to meet him.
‘Jit giya, jit giya, huzur!’ (You have won, you have won, your honour!). ‘The gods have indeed favour on you.’
‘Well, we shall see,’ quoth his master; ‘you had some share in it, Vittu, for I shouldn’t have much liked coming on by myself. Tell the khansaman to get me some tiffin.’
He flung himself into a long-armed chair and lit a cigarette. The literature of the place seemed to consist of some torn copies of Cornhill back in the seventies, and a bound volume of odd numbers of Tit Bits; so, after glancing at the latter, he gave himself up to his own thoughts. Yes, it was better than London life; he certainly felt not only hatched now, but with his wing feathers grown.
‘Tuljagir and I have crossed rapiers at last after so much preliminary skirmishing, and I have got first blood, and, hang it all! the little Rani is the guerdon of victory—nay, rather I am her knight in the lists. I wonder if she would give me a badge? Talk of an angel and you hear its wings.’
‘Sahib,’ said Vittu, standing in the doorway. ‘The Rani’s carts are passing; I have told Ram Chandur what has happened, and he wishes to pay his salaams.’
Ram Chandur appeared just behind the servant.
‘I would take no denial, sahib. You are indeed our father and our mother; I have heard from Vittu you have won the case. The Rani would come in, but she is travel-stained, and bids me give her humble salutations.’
‘Sit down, Sethji;’ and Walter explained all that had occurred, and then the marwari went away with many expressions of thanks and devotion. Walter got a sleep after his chicken tiffin, and then at about six o’clock a dogcart drove up to the house. It was the young Deputy Commissioner.
‘I thought I would take you for a drive round before dinner,’ he said. “Come as you are; we don’t dress. There is only Hunter, the District Superintendent of Police, and myself.’
‘And I haven’t anything else to dress in,’ said Walter, and told how his things had been left behind. Then he jumped up into the tum-tum beside his host; the latter, of course, was anxious for all the latest ‘gup,’ official and otherwise, from Cobrapur, and then turned to Fitch’s own case, and congratulated him on what he had heard of it.
‘They are an awful set of people in court. However, I gather the plaintiff will get out of any criminal consequences. Your opponent is a very smart lawyer; I hear he is the chéla of the great Mahant here, a nice man, I think; at any rate, he has great influence in the district, and has been useful to Government several times. We will drive through the city, and I will show you the Temple.’
Walter was much impressed by the city walls, massive stone ramparts and bastions, with elaborately carved gateways. They were an excellent piece of fortification, and in perfect repair, but inside the walls the glories of the days of the Gondwana kingdom were a thing of the past. The magnificent main street still existed, but lined with hovels, and fields and gardens had taken the place of the crowded houses of the golden days. They drove out at the opposite gate and alighted.
‘Come and see the tombs of the Gond kings,’ said Smith, and they passed into an enclosure in the ramparts. There were beautifully carved kiosks, and marvellous fountains, now out of repair, and all overgrown with tropical vegetation. Then they crossed the river which surrounds the city on two sides and came to the Temple of Achuleshwar.
‘We cannot go inside,’ the Deputy Commissioner told him. ‘It is about time we went back, but I must show you where we breached the city wall in 1818. The natives have a curious story: they say that Bullal Shah, the founder of Chandanpur, was cured of a dangerous illness at the shrine of Achuleshwar, and one day, after he had been supervising the erection of the Temple, as he was riding away, a hare started out of a bush and pursued his dog, which fled. The King, in amazement, followed. The dog ran in a wide circle, while the hare took zigzag cuts to catch it. At one point it closed with the dog, which, however, shook it off and continued its flight. Finally the dog killed the hare near the place where the chase commenced, and the King then saw the hare had a white spot on its head. Like a wise man and like all natives, he consulted his wife. That shrewd woman said it was a good omen for the building of a city, the walls following the hare’s track, and that special bastions must be built where the hare closed with the dog and the dog had killed the hare, saying the latter would prove the points of danger to the future city. Well, the King did as he was advised; the hoof-prints of his horse were clearly visible, and our breach in the walls is said to be just at the point where the dog killed the hare. However, it took six hundred years to fulfil the lady’s prophecy.’
It was now ‘lamp-lighting time,’ as the natives say, and they drove back to Smith’s bungalow. Here they found Hunter, the District Superintendent of Police, a man of about forty, and smoked and talked in the veranda over a peg apiece.
‘Wonderful what a lot of treasure there is in that shrine of Achuleshwar,’ said the District Superintendent of Police, as the chat went on. ‘The old Mahant showed me some wonderful jewels the other day; said they were heirlooms of the shrine, and wanted a police guard like the Temple of Amba Bai at Amraoti. I said he must apply to Government at headquarters.’
‘What sort of jewels were they?’ inquired Walter.
‘Oh, mostly diamonds, and, curiously enough, almost all European cut, I believe. There were a number of Italian diamond-cutters in India in the palmy days of the Delhi emperors.’
Walter smiled to himself. He had a guess of a different kind, and had a suspicion that the Mahant and his chéla half feared that he might manage to ‘burgle’ in his turn.
‘I don’t know how I should do it,’ he thought; ‘but Tuljagir, if they are the stolen jewels, must know I am very much on the scent. Isn’t Ghairagurh, the Zemindari in the case I have come down in, supposed to produce precious stones?’ he asked.
‘Yes,’ said the District Superintendent of Police, ‘it certainly did in bygone days. The representative of the Gond Rajah here has a ring with a very fine ruby, said to have come from there, but it is very out of the way, and the Zemindar, who was not too cultured, certainly did nothing towards working the mines. The place is very much in the hands of the Temple people there at the shrine of Mahakali, to which this one of Achuleshwar is affiliated. Buthnath, who is called Achuleshwar the Immovable, is the name of Kali’s son. If there are any jewels to be found, they keep it pretty dark.’
‘Did you ever hear of any people called Tarvels about here?’ said Walter.
‘Tarvels,’ said Hunter—no, not that I know of; there is no caste or tribe of that name. There are the Mariās. You ought to see them do their peacock-dance, but they are right out in the jungles. The people have a fable about a flower they call the “Taru,” which is said to be found in the depths of the jungle somewhere near this Zemindari. They say it makes them strong who eat it, so that they can resist cuts, and their bones are as flint. I have never seen it, though, so think it must only be a fable, but it is supposed to grow on male bamboos, and may have some silicate in it, which would strengthen the frame.’
Walter said nothing, but wondered the more. Perhaps he had seen the flower whose existence the worthy head of the police doubted—a golden bloom with an apricot scent.
‘Crowe, the Forest Officer, told me about it,’ Hunter went on. ‘He had a man, a Brahmin, in his department who cut his hand badly with one of those little native axes when out on a “beat” after tiger with him. Crowe was much taken with the man, and got out the hospital assistant, who feared lockjaw, but the Brahmin made a wonderful recovery, and when questioned by Crowe, said: “It is the Taru, sahib; I cannot tell you more about it, but if ever you are badly wounded and the place will not heal, send for me.” Crowe made a note of it. He has seen some odd things, and never disbelieves anything his native friends tell him.’
‘There’s dinner,’ said their host, and they went in to the little meal. ‘No ice now,’ laughed Smith, as he turned to Fitch. ‘Can’t get luxuries in the jungle. It’s a good thing the soda-water has not run out.’
Big game shooting, the gossip of the provinces, and official ‘gup’ occupied them all dinner, and then, after a game at ‘jacobi’—‘the best game for three there is,’ quoth Smith—Walter was driven back to sleep at the dak bungalow.
‘I prefer it,’ he said to his hospitable host, who pressed him to stay. ‘I can see my clients more easily, thanks.’
Whilst Walter slept soundly and well, worn out by fatigue and excitement, the long night through, the Temple of Achuleshwar was the scene of deep and anxious plotting on the part of the rival side. There were no accessories of flowers, lights, and sacrifices. One brass lamp with five little wicks steeped in cocoanut-oil alone lit up the darkness and illuminated with its fitful flicker the forms of the dread goddess and her son and the faces of three men who sat on the ground around it. They were Tuljagir, the Mahant, and the Malguzar of Burhampuri.
‘You need have no fear,’ the Mahant was saying to the Malguzar. ‘The Tarvels will not see you molested by the British, justice or no justice. After all, we know the Zemindari was really given us, and so does the whole countryside. We do but manufacture our arms. If the worst comes to the worst, as far as you are concerned, you must go on a pilgrimage to Kasi and Puri. As well go now as later; ’twill save your soul from Put, and meanwhile your body from a chance of crossing the kala pani (black water) as a convict. But have no fear: by the favour of the mother, as Vishnu, the judge, said to-day, there is nothing to show that we are not ourselves the innocent instruments of a fraud perpetrated long ago.’
‘Curse the young hawk and all his relations to the third degree!’ muttered the Malguzar.
Tuljagir was sitting silent, his brow contracted in a frown.
‘It is all very well to curse,’ he said now. ‘Curses break no bones. Leave the curse to the Taru and the goddess. But Fitch sahib must be put a stop to. You do not know, my father, quite what a blot he is on my horoscope; but you do know what threatening conjunctions of the planets rule for me, and with what care the Joshi, our own astrologer, bids me act to avert the threatening misfortune. You know how successful my simple plans in Europe were, and what wealth in precious stones I sent out to you here. Look what a price you got for the “Star of Light” from the Raja of Golconda through Radha. I wonder whether he would think more of his treasure if he knew it had gleamed on the brow of a European royalty, instead of imagining it the heirloom of ages of a Hindu shrine! However, that is not to the point. The moment I came to handle the Zemindari matter, that moment this sahib crossed my path. I would much like to see Sabitra Bai’s horoscope or read her hand. You wrote to me, father, what you had found out about the seal of Bullal Shah from the elder Ranis, and I ascertained the subsequent history of Captain Giles—found out his home and his descendants. They kept their jewellery in an ordinary safe in a dressing room. The house was alone in the country. Following the old plan, I waited till dinner was on, stripped in a shrubbery, and, after oiling myself, renewing my caste marks, and worshipping the goddess, slipped into the house, where a lazy manservant was not on the watch, and walked out again with some trinkets and the seal. Fitch sahib was in the house that night. I was at a hotel in the town, but I heard through friends of mine how much interest he was taking in this matter, and that Sir Philip Giles, whose property the things were, boasted that if anyone found out the mystery it would be his friend Fitch. I had sent everything straight off to you from town, save a couple of trifles, which I thought to raise a little ready cash on through a fool of an Englishman I employed; but this Fitch got on the scent, and I almost feared would have caught me, in spite of a nearly successful move to lay suspicion on himself. As it was, I had to send my fool of an Englishman to our dread mother—he had a pretty wife,’ and Tuljagir waved his hand, while a smile curved the Malguzar’s lips—he knew Tuljagir.
‘Then, by all that is unholy, Fitch sahib came out here. It is nasib, my luck; but I am not ashes yet.’
‘No,’ said the Malguzar; ‘but why should Fitch sahib not be carried out?’
‘Radha did trap him,’ replied Tuljagir in a low voice. ‘But what is woman? Her heart failed her both ways, for love and fear, and she let him go.’
‘Bait the next trap with death,’ said the Mulguzar, ‘if woman is not deadly enough. The datura plant grows on every dunghill. Send him, Zemindarin, and Zemindar, and old Ram Chandur, too, all to the dread mother, and then come on a pilgrimage with me.’
Tuljagir said nothing, but lapsed into grim silence. After a while the old Mahant spoke; he had been passing his beads through his hand the whole time, and did not discontinue the mechanical motion even now.
‘I am averse to bloodshed,’ he said, ‘save to please the eyes of the goddess and her son, the beautiful and immovable one; but my plan is a great one. Consolidate Ghairagurh and the other Zemindaris of Gondwana in the hands of the Tarvels, then in those of the chief of the Taru, thus securing an hereditary raja and priest, and a power would be created which could treat with the British Government, and effect something in reality for the brethren. Who knows how far such a policy might go? Not in my days, and perhaps not in yours, shall we attain our goal; but by consolidation, confraternity, and unhesitating compliance for the good of all, it may be by the favour of the gods that we may yet rule over our own empire. I laugh at congress walas and the mimicry of the West; as well say the moving reflection in a looking-glass is a man capable of action. No; Hinduism and orthodoxy are the only foundations of power for the Hindu—now to be thwarted at the outset! There is only one course: let Kali put her hand upon her enemy. She has granted us treasure; she will give us land.’
Tuljagir’s eyes had lit up.
‘With reference to the work in hand,’ he said, ‘we must keep Ghairagurh actually in our possession until the enemy is laid. You will take it from me as knowing the law, that Fitch sahib is bound to ask for our ejectment when the order dismissing the case is passed to-morrow, and he will succeed. You, Malguzar, must go to Ghairagurh as quickly as possible. Take as many of our brethren the Tarvels as you can—say twenty-five or thirty—and let them stay in the shrine of Mahakali; go quietly, without exciting the attention of the police. I, too, if necessary, will go tiger shooting’—and he laughed cynically—‘for, if I am right, when Sabitra Bai goes to take possession with the little Zemindar, our friend Fitch sahib will not be far off.’
‘Why not hold the fortress there against them?’ said the Malguzar.
‘Nay,’ replied Tuljagir; ‘they will be armed with the warrant of the courts. Why rouse the British lion, even to scratch, if it be not necessary? Once there, tigers and cholera may account for much, and, perchance, on the road the datura may make the Rani dance. If Mr. Fitch does not go to Ghairagurh, so much the better. Once the Rani and boy are ashes, Fitch sahib’s occupation will be gone, as their Shakespeare says. But from all I heard from Radha, it is a case of “Whither thou goest I will go,” to quote their Scriptures after their Shakespeare, between Fitch and the Rani sahib. Ghairagurh shall be ours, father, and your plans succeed; and blessed shall our names be in the days when our grandsons offer the pinda [the funeral cake) to our shades.
Meanwhile, in another part of the city the little rani, too, was wakeful, thinking over the events of the day, and pondering the future. She was housed in the old mansion of an agent for the Zemindari; the room was a small one, but not uncomfortable. Carpets had been spread over the floors, and a light burned in a quaint silver lamp on a pedestal which rested on the floor near the bed, where the Rani was half lying, half sitting, in a thin blue silken saree on a number of soft white cushions, with her little head propped on her arm, as she watched Sita fanning the child, who lay sleeping in all the innocence of infancy on her lap. There were a number of pictures in gaudy hues on the walls, and the light caught the colours again and again—Mahadeo and Krishna, Ram and his wife Sita—mostly with ‘Printed in Germany’ inscribed on them. It was a peaceful and pretty scene; the little queen in her faint blue draperies against the white pillows, the silver lamp at the back, and Sita in dark red and yellow, with the sleeping boy in her lap, like a dimpled cherub by a Spanish painter.
‘Sita,’ said the little Queen.
‘Yes, Rani sahib.’ And Sita stopped in the song she was crooning and looked at her mistress.
‘He has the eyes of Rama when he slays the monster at Lanka in the picture.’ And she pointed to one of the coloured prints representing the demi-god which the lamp shone full upon.
‘Rani sahib, I think he must have the bow of Krishna, and knows how to use it.’ And she went on chanting a Mahratta love-song in an undertone, as she rocked the child. The little Rani beat time with her tiny gemmed fingers on the white cushions.
‘I think he would have walked through the wilds and the dark rain in any case,’ said the little lady meditatively. Sita laughed again.
‘Yes, Rani; he is a sahib; no doubt he merely did his duty.’
‘Yes, Sita, you are right; he did not try to see me at Bhandrapur. Still, he said he loved me, at Cobrapur, and would win my case.’ She lapsed into silence; then, ‘I must see him and thank him,’ she added.
‘He has won the case, Rani Bai,’ said Sita earnestly, turning a fold of her saree over the sleeping child. But oh! my mistress, I have been with you since you were as small as your son here. Do not listen to your heart; there can no good come to you from the love of the sahib for you or yours, or to the sahib. His race is not your race—pardon your old Sita—but let no shame overtake you and your baby here.’ And she held up the boy to his mother, who took him in her arms and folded him fondly to her breast, whilst a slow tear fell heavily on his little fist. He slept soundly, though, and it did not wake him.
‘No, Sita,’ she said. ‘Have no fear; our mother Lachmi the goddess will protect me. The Zemindar is dead; he was kind to me, and I was grateful. But this I feel in my bosom is an aching pain, Sita. Do they love like this who are betrothed and wedded in our fashion when children, and grow together to one wedded life? I long to feel the sahib’s arms round me as when I wept in his office, and would have thrown myself at his feet, and he prevented me, and to tighten my arms round his neck as though death itself could not part us. I see his eyes like lakes now in front of me, and his lips. No, Sita,’ she cried; ‘take the child.’ And she held him out to her. ‘No, our girls cannot feel like this for the men they wed; the missionaries are right.’ And she clenched her little palms, and gazed hard at Sita.
‘Rani sahib, never mind, my darling.’ And Sita crouched close by the bed-side, and, holding the baby in one arm, she laid the other hand tenderly on Sabitra Bai’s rounded arm. ‘I think our ways are best; see, my bird, when the girl knows she is wedded as a child she has eyes only for him who is to be her spouse. Look around you among the households you know; are they not happy? I speak not of the Moslems, but our own people; they are indeed one from earliest life—husband and wife. What the missionaries tell us is right; but this custom of the Ingrez is to choose what the eye lusteth after, and is but passion, the mad passion of a day, as you choose a flower for its beauty, and cast it away in an hour, its first bloom past. Darling, with us girl and boy grow to one another, as the creeper to the tree; she stays at his mother’s home, as a child he learns her ways, she his. You, my darling, were the sport of chance, wedded to an old man; the tree fell ere the creeper could clasp it with its tendrils.’ Sabitra Bai was listening intently; then:
‘Sita mine,’ she said, ‘let me be the exception still, if the sahib will wed me. Why not?’
‘Rani sahib, he cannot wed you,’ was the sorrowful reply.
‘He said he could,’ cried the little Rani angrily, and burst into sobs. The words Fitch had uttered half in frenzy had sunk deep into her mind. Was not her sahib truth incarnate and a lawyer to boot? ‘No matter, Sita;’ and she drew her saree round her haughtily. ‘My son is the descendant of kings, and I am of a proud house; you need have no fear that the girls at the wells shall talk of me. But, Sita,’ and her voice softened, ‘there is another thing. I told you all that passed between the sahib and me, and how that vile woman sought to trap him. I fear, Sita, I fear,’ she cried tremulously, ‘lest aught should happen to my sahib.’
‘Nay, Rani, we will watch and ward; if you may not show your love, you may at least watch and guard him. Leave that to me; I shall seek all information, and I trust that man of the sahib’s, Vittu; if need be, I will talk with him.’ The Rani held out her hand, which the woman kissed softly. ‘Now sleep, my darling, and I will watch over both my children.’
‘May the gods have my sahib and us all in their safe keeping,’ said the little lady, and she drew her saree over her head. Sita put the boy beside her, who nestled instinctively into his mother’s arms; and soon the two were sleeping, and the silent night lay upon the eyelids of all, plaintiffs and defendants, partizans and counsel, who figured in that Eastern cause in the Western court of justice.
The next day events fell out much as had been anticipated by all parties. The court dismissed the plaintiffs’ suit with all costs. Walter made his application for the ejectment of the Malguzar mortgagee, and the court proceeded to grant his request, but Tuljagir opposed it, as he intended an appeal against the decision of the judge on the case, to the higher court at Cobrapur. Spite of Fitch, this objection prevailed, and his request was only granted subject to the Appellate Court’s decision, so that until that was known matters at Ghairagurh remained in statu quo.
Nothing now remained but for all parties to return to the more civilized districts whence they had come. Walter’s journey down the road again was to be a more expeditious one than when coming. He had got one of the Government tongas to go in, and had arranged for relays of bullocks every few miles along the road. Fortunately, the break in the weather still continued, so he hoped to do the thirty miles in five or six hours’ time.
Seth Ram Chandur was very jubilant at the way everything had turned out. He waited on Fitch at the dak bungalow, and salaamed again and again, expressing his great gratification, but said he should wish to consult Fitch in Cobrapur on his own account, as they were in much the same position as mortgagees as the Malguzar.
‘But the Rani, or whoever are the young Zemindar’s guardians, will make that all right. Yours is admittedly a genuine debt,’ said Walter, ‘and even I know how binding ancestral debts are felt to be, even when it is not legally obligatory upon the descendants to discharge them.’
Ram Chandur salaamed even more than ever.
‘I am indeed reassured,’ he said, ‘for I know how deeply the Rani and those about her appreciate all you have done in the case. She herself wished to wait upon you, but felt you were in the hurry of departure, and that a dak bungalow was not a fitting place for her to meet you in; but she charged me with every message of thanks, and has sent her own maid with a dalli of fresh sweetmeats, which she has prepared with her own hands,’ and he withdrew, promising to wait upon Walter in Cobrapur in a short time.
As soon as he had gone, Vittu came in and said that the Rani’s personal attendant, Sita, had brought the present of sweetmeats made by her mistress herself, and desired to be allowed to lay them at Walter’s feet.
‘You will see her, huzur?’
Walter had intended to, certainly, but something in Vittu’s tone convinced him that it was absolutely necessary he should do so.
‘Yes, show her in at once,’ he said.
Vittu promptly did so, and Sita entered, bearing a handsome silver tray, with beautiful white square sweetmeats, and others of a brown hue, 8-shaped and semi-transparent. She salaamed low and laid them on the ground. Vittu discreetly withdrew. Sita glanced round and saw that the veranda was clear—no doubt in consequence of a hint she had given Vittu.
‘The Rani sahib humbly offers these trifles, barfi and jalabies of her own making,’ she said, and then, in a lower tone, ‘I have a word for the sahib’s private ear. May I speak on?’
Walter glanced round in his turn, and perceived there was no one about.
‘What is it?’ he asked.
‘Sahib,’ she said, ‘I was the Rani’s nurse, and am now the nurse of her son. Though I am her handmaid, she is as a daughter to me, and the apple of my eye. The sahib loves my mistress; Krishna has willed it so, and we are all captives together in his net.’
Walter said nothing. He remembered the little Queen had spoken of this woman as knowing all her affairs. She went on:
‘I have known the Rani so many years, and, sahib, I can read her heart. Be merciful, sahib, for you are the lord of it, and I am sore afraid. You are a sahib, and their words are good. Will you swear to me, as your nation does in the courts, that you will do her no harm? Otherwise, it were best I gave her myself that within her cup which would procure her now what the Lord of life holds in store for us all.’
‘I swear I will never cause your mistress any harm willingly,’ said Walter earnestly. ‘She is dearer to me than anything I know of—than life itself. Her honour is to me as precious as to you. I give you my word. Well, then, I swear it.’ And he took the dusty old Bible that stood on a shelf in the dak bungalow between Tit Bits and the tattered old copy of Cornhill, opened it and kissed it.
‘Sahib! sahib!’ cried the woman, and she could say no more. Then, recovering herself: ‘I must go,’ she said, ‘or the servants will be coming. You can trust Vittu, sahib Bahadur. One word more. My mistress cannot come to your bungalow at Cobrapur. Already gossip has touched her name and yours. But she wishes to see you, and now, as you fear your God, I trust you, and I will tell you there how and when you shall see her. Have I leave, sahib?’
Walter choked down something that rose in his throat.
‘Yes,’ he said. “Stay, take this to your mistress,’ and he took one of the Persian roses that garlanded the tray and kissed it. ‘Give that to your mistress with my homage, if you will; the others I shall treasure. Vittu,’ he called. Vittu came with suspicious alacrity. ‘Bring a plate.’
Sita hid the rose in her saree, salaamed, and went with Vittu. The latter returned with a plate, and took the silver tray out to Sita, and then went back to his master.
‘Is the tonga ready?’ asked Fitch. Have the bullocks harnessed; I will pay the bill, and let us start as soon as possible.’
The journey back was a very different one from the one down. Walter’s heart sang for joy. The sun shone, the rocket birds darted from tree to tree along the road, their long tails streaming behind them. The wood-pigeons cooed on every side, whilst bevies of green paroquets and little bronze ‘wire-tails’ abounded, and every now and again the golden mango birds flashed from the dark-green foliage. Once some spotted deer ran across the road, and again and again they met country carts, a constant stream of traffic, the bullock bells jingling, and the gay turbans making patches of colour on the road.
The jungle depths lay on either side, and Walter felt all the fascination of the scene, and a pang of regret when the unsightly colliery chimneys and the smoke of the train as he reached Wargaon reminded him that he was once more in touch with civilization, that runs like some malignant fever through the world on the veins and arteries of the railway.
Cobrapur again. Francis glad to hear the case had gone successfully, but more interested in hearing news of Smith, and full of station gup, news of promotions, and transfers in the service, and the chances of leave.
So Walter settled down again to station life routine. The rains continued at intervals; he had some cases in the courts, played whist and tennis; the ladies began to come back, and had to be called upon over again. Social gaieties revived in the shape of dances and amateur theatricals. So some ten days or a fortnight passed by, and he had had no news of the little Rani or her attendant, and began to feel anxious. Tuljagir had filed an appeal, which would be heard in September, after the rains were over; was he to hear nothing till then? He thought of sending for Ram Chandur, and spoke to Vittu.
‘He has gone to Jeypore, sahib, to see his master,’ Vittu said, and then seemed as if he were going to add something more, but stopped.
‘What is it, Vittu? Speak out, if you have anything to say,’ said Walter.
‘The sahib knows I am his slave; he is my father and my mother—he will not be angry with me?’
‘No, but I shall if you don’t hurry up.’
‘Huzur, Tuljagir hates my sahib for the case, but now still more so, for—sahib, forgive me—but Narbaddagir’s chéla casts the eyes of desire on the Zemindarin.’
‘What did you say, Vittu?’ cried Walter sharply. They were in his bedroom, in the morning, Walter sitting on his bedside, after his tub, with a large bath-towel round him, whilst Vittu put on his socks. ‘What do you mean, Vittu?’
‘Sahib, I know you love the Rani sahib; I, too, loving her as your honour’s self. I know this that I tell you is true. Ever since, as your honour will remember, Radha played false—ever since have I kept careful watch there, not overtly, but as we know how, to find out. Now, I know that Radha Kusbin is furious within her gates; she threatens Tuljagir, who is her favourite lover, that she will have his life, and tossed back the jewels that he gave into his face, saying: “Take them to the little Zemindarin.” I know more, sahib: Tuljagir saw the Zemindarin when she was starting from Chandanpur before the purdahs could be properly arranged over the cart, and now he has been sending his servants to the place where the Rani stays and endeavoured to get hold of some of her servants; they are, indeed, faithful, but gold is gold, and some of them are but of recent service—who knows what may happen? I fear, for the Mohurrum is coming; it is a wild time, and he is a very bad man.’ Walter had let Vittu go on.
‘It is well, Vittu,’ he said. ‘Give me the rest of my things, and now listen to me; I will trust you. You have eaten my salt, and have proved a good servant. I shall not forget you nor your house, and will see that you are provided for.’
‘Your fortunes are my fortunes, huzur,’ said Vittu, as he carefully passed a shirt over his master’s head.
‘Now, Vittu, I must see the Rani sahib—see her quietly. You know her attendant, Sita?’
‘Well, see her and ask her how it is to be managed, but it must be done quickly.’
‘Jo hukkum huzur’ (as your honour orders). When your honour comes from Kutcherry this afternoon I will report to your honour.’
Walter was dressed by this time, and went in to breakfast with Francis prior to going to court.
‘What is this holiday really like—the Mohurrum?’ he asked in the course of conversation.
‘Oh, you must make a point of going to see it,’ Francis replied. ‘It is the great festival of the Mohammedans, but the curious thing in this part of the world is that the Hindu Rajah sends a “Tazia” to head the procession. It is to commemorate the deaths of Hussen and Hussain and their followers who were massacred for the faith. The pious Moslems prepare huge structures of lath and paper, gilt, and hung with lanterns and bells and modelled like mosques, and these go in procession the last night of the festival—it lasts three days.’
‘Is there any friction between the Hindus and Mohammedans?’
‘Well, in most parts there is, but not so much here; the police and District Superintendent of Police will be on guard. You must go down for a night; you can stay at the city kotwali, the head police station, or ride through the streets. The natives run about like mad, with lighted torches and tridents, and escort what they call the Wali, the incarnation of the Pirs—Mohammedan saints—from one tomb to another. There is generally a row somewhere between rival processions, or something of that kind.’
‘Yes, I shall make a point of going down,’ said Fitch.
‘I will come, too,’ said Francis, ‘and we will have something to eat sent down to the kotwali; it has a nice flat roof, and the Superintendent and District Superintendent of Police will be there. Now I am off to work.’
‘And so am I,’ said Walter, and he went off to court; where he had a couple of appeals to distract his mind till the afternoon. By half-past four he was back again.
Vittu was in waiting, and Francis not in. Vittu salaamed: ‘Will the sahib have his tea brought into his own room?’
‘Yes, please, Vittu.’
The servant went off and returned with the afternoon’s tea and some sandwiches, as Walter had had no tiffin; then he stood at attention, after placing them on a little bamboo table by his master’s chair.
‘Well, Vittu, the punkah wallah can’t hear out there, so speak out.’
‘I have seen Sita, sahib; she was afraid to come here, as Tuljagir’s people are always following her, and she is careful of her mistress’s honour. That man is a bad man; he sent one of his men to Sita to tell the Rani sahib that if she would listen to him he would not interfere any more in the case. But Sita flung away the rupees offered her, and has not even told the Rani, for fear of frightening her. Then Tuljagir sent music to play love songs outside the house the other night, and the Rani inquired and had to be told, and then bade her chuprassie drive the people away; and, sahib, I have heard that Tuljagir swears he will have the Rani even by force, and has not been to Radha’s house for nearly a week.’
‘Well, well, Vittu,’ interrupted his master impatiently, ‘and how about my seeing the Rani sahib?’
‘Huzar, Sita says that four days hence is the Mohurrum; if you will put on native dress and come with me into the city, we can go and see the Rani sahib. She says her mistress is most anxious to see you, and sent many, many salaams to her lord.’
‘I will come, Vittu; but how about time and clothes?’
‘I will arrange, sahib. It must be after dinner, when you have retired for the night, on the tenth day of the Mohurrum.’
‘The tenth day?’
‘Yes, sahib; the first day of the holidays.’
‘I understand. All right, Vittu, you can go.’
Walter sat with his feet up on the prolonged arms of the chair, and smoked a cheroot. He must arrange all things now with the little Rani when he saw her; no one would be surprised at his leaving Cobrapur. They could marry quite legally if she would nominally quit Hinduism, and then he would lead a patriarch’s life in Ghairagurh, manage the kingdom for the little Zemindar, secure concessions from the Government for the ruby and diamond mines, and see what could be done with regard to them.
‘I am not afraid of possibilities,’ he said, “and my descendants shall have every advantage in my power as to means and education; but they shall look on Ghairagurh as their home, and the Zemindar as their brother. However, true love never did run smooth, and we are not out of the jungle yet. I wonder what she will think of my plans.’
Francis came home, and they went to the club, two uninteresting, ordinary sahibs.
The Mohurrum had begun; the weather had been perfect, and all day long natives, in their holiday garb, had streamed into Cobrapur from the country side, till by 8 p.m. the road along the great tank down to the city was one mass of gaily turbaned moving heads; whilst, like a human rockery, on stands at the side, and especially at the corner where the road ran steeply down into the city, the Hindu women-folk were squatting, looking on at the scene. It was the first day, and the tazias were not to move out till the morrow; but there was much to be seen. Men dressed up as tigers, smaller tazias carried along, the rajah and his courtiers on gaily caparisoned elephants, and as it grew dark torches lit up the scene. Francis had arranged to ride down with Walter on the second night, when the fun would be at its height, and accordingly Vittu had suggested that Walter should take advantage of the first evening to visit the Rani sahib, when the crowd would be great and the lights not so numerous, as the nal sahib and the other pirs and walis would not then be traversing the streets in their ganja kindled incarnations mid the escort of countless excited torchbearers. He had provided his master with a sober Mahratti dress, and a decoction of berries wherewith to lightly stain his face and legs. Walter was all anxiety for dinner to be over, and bed-time to come. At last he could retire.
‘Now, Vittu, produce the things,’ he said.
First Walter used the stain; fortunately, he had but little moustache, and the blue and gold embroidered dopatta Vittu had provided as a turban completely hid his hair; a long coat of chequered Tussore silk, tight fitting at the chest and flowing out thence to the knees, a barabandi, or waistcoat, with twelve strings instead of buttons, a long cloth which folded and twisted into the semblance of pantaloons, no stockings, and red shoes, and a long muslin scarf flung over his shoulder completed his disguise.
‘Now, sahib, look in the glass,’ cried Vittu, and Walter was amazed to see the handsome native lad who returned his glances as he did so. ‘Krishnaji himself, thought Vittu, ‘will visit the Rani sahib to-night.’ Then, ‘Now, sahib,’ he said, ‘come, we must walk a little way, and then get a tonga. I have managed it so that the tonga wallah will not know you come from here. If any speak to your honour, and you must reply, your honour is Anand Rao, an agent of the Zemindari from Chandanpur; but I will do all the talking, if necessary. They know me well, and that I often go to the Rani sahib’s; but we must not seem to go in there together. Here, sahib, is a big lathi [an iron-tipped bamboo]; it is a good weapon should occasion require it.’
Everything went off well; as Vittu predicted, they got a tonga near the museum, and drove down to the confines of the city, alighted, and mixed with the throng that crowded the streets, Walter keeping a little behind Vittu, as though they were not together; and in this way Vittu secured his master a way through the mass of people without seeming to be making it for the person behind him.
Walter attracted no attention, there were many dressed much like himself, and they reached the entrance to the Rani’s house, which abutted on the main road. Vittu walked straight into the courtyard; there were a number of servants about, and he went to them and began talking. Directly she saw Vittu come in, Sita came down from the veranda, and came up to Walter, who had followed his servant in.
‘Ah, Anand Rao,’ she said, in case any passers-by should hear, Vittu having attracted the attention of the servants by some loud story. ‘Come this way; we were expecting you.’ And she led Walter swiftly into a dim side passage. Then, ‘Come quickly, sahib,’ she said; ‘the Rani is here,’ opened a door, pulled aside a purdah, and let Walter pass in, dropped it behind, and shut the door herself on the outside.
Walter found himself in an almost square room, lighted by two lamps hanging on the walls; but he had no eye for details at the moment, for his little queen came running towards him as he appeared on the threshold, and then suddenly stopped, a dainty vision in a pale blue and gold saree and faint pink silk choli, and cried in a startled voice:
‘Kon hai?’ (Who is it?) and then, with a rippling little laugh of recognition, ‘Oh, sahib, my sahib! I thought you were some stranger, and I was afraid.’ And she came fearlessly up to Walter, who still stood in the doorway gazing eagerly at her, his heart thumping so hard that he dared not move for fear he might show his agitation, and say or do something to distress his heart’s lady. ‘Now you are here, my sahib, I fear nothing. Come.’ And she took his hand in her tiny little hand, smooth as satin. A thrill ran through Walter’s frame, and he stooped and kissed it. ‘Nay, sahib,’ she said, but did not draw it away, and she led him across the room to where a small, carved wooden box was suspended from the ceiling by four ropes. ‘There, my sahib,’ she said,; ‘sit here on this heap of cushions by me.’ And she pointed to a number of silken bolsters or cushions strewn on a large thick carpet. ‘I must rock the cradle.’ And Walter saw the baby Zemindar sleeping nestled in the box. She sat down and made a place close beside herself for Walter. He saw there was no constraint of any kind about her; she trusted implicitly to him. And he felt she was a wise little woman, and his oath and the cradle hedged her round with walls of inviolable purity. He put his hand on hers, that was all.
‘Piari meri’ (Darling mine), he said, ‘you have no need to fear whilst I am here to protect you.’
‘No, my lord,’ she replied, “and hence I bid you come, for there is much to talk about, and I fear for my honour. Sita has told you of the attentions with which I am persecuted. But there, wait a moment; I do not like you with your face like that, I must see my own sahib as he is. There, you rock the cradle, so, and I will get some water.’ And she was off, and the place seemed dark when her little form had disappeared; but she was back in a moment.
‘The sun has risen again,’ cried Walter, as she reappeared. She laughed joyously.
‘See,’ she said, and laid a brass basin of water before him. ‘There, now, wash your face.’ He did so, and dried it with a cloth Sabitra had brought, took off his turban, and smoothed his ruffled hair.
‘There, now!’ she exclaimed; ‘you are my sahib again.’
Walter could have caught her in his arms and smothered her with kisses, but for his oath’s sake and the child.
‘Now,’ and she placed herself again on the cushions by him—‘now we must talk seriously. I am afraid, my lord, we must part for ever.’
‘Why?’ asked Fitch in an angry voice.
‘Nay, my sahib, do not be angry; but you cannot marry me, and otherwise we may not continue.’
I do not think Sabitra Bai seriously contemplated parting, she spoke so quietly; but the little lady, as she had told Sita, once her sahib had said they could marry, was willing to believe it, only she wanted him to say it again and again, and to know how—wise little woman.
‘But I will marry you, sweet of my heart.’ And he had to put his arm round her shoulder. She kissed his hand for the second time, and Walter—poor Walter!
‘How can you, sahib? Whither thou goest I would go. But, sahib, with my house, honour is more than love.’
‘Listen, my queen; if you would say before the Deputy Commissioner that you have left your people’s ways, it could be done.’
‘My lord,’ said Sabitra Bai, with tears in her eyes, ‘I would do that for you; but my boy?’ and the two tears fell. Walter held her hand tightly.
‘I am not going to ask you to leave him, sweet,’ he said earnestly. ‘I will live at Ghairagurh; you shall not go away from your people at all. I have enough money of my own for us, and if God wills, we may do much good in the world for both races.’
‘I shall be an outcast from my people,’ said the little lady slowly, ‘and yet with you——’ There was a little pause, and then one of those brilliant inspirations, sent, it may be, from above, came into Walter’s mind.
‘Do you not have Panchayets [caste meetings of five] to settle and decide vexed questions?’ he asked.
‘Sahib, sahib! See, Krishna has put it into your mind! Yes; a Panchayet of my house and caste at Ghairagurh, and they shall say what is meet in their eyes! Then, my lord, if I may with honour, my life will be full of joy.’
‘Rani Bai, I must call the Panchayet, and take the initiative. I will go to Ghairagurh when you do and the case is finished. It will be well from all points that I should go, for there may yet be trouble in taking possession, and I will go armed with the authority of the courts.’
‘Will you travel with me, my sahib?’
‘Yes, heart’s delight. But I understand; I will not make any attempt to invade your privacy. We will simply travel together; it will not be misconstrued.’
‘My sahib is very good,’ she murmured. ‘Who is there?’ she cried, as a tapping was heard at the door, and Walter stood up in front of her as though he would have wrung the neck, like a chicken, of the first person who came in.
‘Only Sita, Rani sahib; it is past midnight,’ was the reply.
‘One thing more, my queen: I must see you again like this: and oh, darling mine, if you fear Tuljagir’s men, I will ask for police protection for you.’
‘How so, my sahib? Here in Cobrapur he surely dare not harm me, and on the journey you will be with me.’
She went with him to the door. Walter wound the turban round his head.
‘I can hide my face,’ he said, ‘if I see anyone: it is too late, though. And now, my queen’—and he was going to kiss her hand, but she flung both her lovely arms round his neck with an abandon of passion he had not believed her capable of.
‘Go, my good, my true sahib,’ she said, and they kissed each other on the lips. He pressed her to him, and went out.
How Walter got home he could never tell. It was well Vittu was with him, for he saw nothing but his little queen before him. He went to bed. Next day he ate mechanically, and answered Francis in monosyllables, but the Madonna face of the little queen in her draperies of blue and pink and gold, with her arms round his neck and her warm kisses on his lips, was all he was really conscious of.
The night of the next day drew on; he had to rouse himself out of his reveries, and make ready to ride down to the city with Francis to see the Mohurrum at its height, and he did so all the more willingly as it meant seeing Sabitra’s house. And so about nine o’clock they bestrode their steeds, took the syces with them and one of Francis’s official chuprassies in his scarlet coat, and set off for the city, purposing to ride through the streets, visit one or two of the principal persons who had made tazias, and wind up at the kotwali to see the procession start at midnight.
The civil station was absolutely deserted—quiet as death as they rode along down past the great tank, the same road Walter had traversed the night before. All the Hindu temples were dark and silent, but when they began to ride down the steep little descent at the end of the tank and into the principal thoroughfare of the city, Walter was astonished at the scene before him. The night before there had been a great crowd—a concourse of people moving hither and thither with a few torches, and making no noise to speak of. But to-night it was pandemonium; lights innumerable seemed to be prancing through the darkness, like will-o’-the-wisps on currents of air; loud cries of ‘Doolah! Doolah!’ (The bridegroom! the bridegroom!) mingled with alternate wails of ‘Hussen! Hussain!’ Just as they got into the street a throng of men darted out from a by-lane holding torches and tridents, and escorting a boy apparently insensible, held up by two men, one at each side, and holding a long bâton with what resembled a horseshoe affixed to it.
‘It is one of these incarnations of Mohammedan saints,’ said Francis. ‘He hasn’t got a large following. They have rows when two meet, and one won’t give place to the other; in fact, so great is the rivalry as to greater saintship between the two big nal sahibs—“nal” means horseshoe, you know—that the police have to make the processions take different routes.’
Walter laughed. ‘Precedence in heaven’—how rum! he said.
‘I don’t know,’ said Francis; ‘we are just as bad. Did I ever tell you that the De Tompkinses took it right up to the Local Government, and the secretariat had to decide, whether Mrs. de Tompkins or the wife of the commandant took precedence of one another at the Communion table?
Walter laughed again. By this time they were right in the throng, and, what with the dashing lights and the noise, the horses were getting restive. However, the syces were at their heads, and the chuprassie walked in front and made room for them through the crush.
‘We’ll go and see Mirza Mohamed Mias’ tazia first. It will be at his house; they don’t move out till twelve, and he will be pleased by the attention,’ said Francis. ‘Come, it is up this way;’ and they turned off into a by-alley.
‘Hallo! what is that row?’ cried Fitch after they had gone a little way up the alley, leaving the crush and crowd behind them, and only an occasional sightseer hurried by on his way down. ‘My word! there is a row on further up: I hear a woman’s voice calling! Francis, come on!’ and he started off at a canter.
‘It is only two of those processions, I expect,’ rejoined his friend, setting off, too, while the syces and chuprassie hurried after as best they could.
A very few moments, and Walter debouched on the scene of the affray. No better spot could have been chosen for an attack. It was a little bit of an open space, with only a small oil-lamp on a post to light it up, and four lanes leading off into the darkness. Walter could perceive a couple of carts—one with a purdah over it and a mêlée of men going on round it. Right up at the other end were three men with torches, apparently part of a procession, but simply looking on. It was not their quarrel, and with true Hindu indifference they were not going to mix themselves up in it.
As soon as Walter came on the scene there was a sauve qui peut on the part of most of the men, with a cry of ‘Sahibs! sahibs!’ as they saw Francis, too, dash up behind him. But one of them, his face well muffled, seized a torch from one of the three men and thrust it heavily into the face of Walter’s horse. The beast reared right up; Walter hit it with his whip on the head, but to no effect: it could not recover its balance, and fell right back. With great presence of mind Walter slipped his feet from the stirrups, and was off at the side unhurt, and made straight for the villain, who had thrown away the torch and stood still, apparently in the hope of seeing the rider disabled. Walter grappled with him before he had had time fully to realize what had happened, leaving the horse to get up by itself, for he knew the syce was close. So, when Francis reined in his horse, he saw his friend wrestling and struggling with a native, and then lifted up into the air and thrown heavily on the ground. The native, a slight man, with his head well muffled up, stooped for a moment over Fitch as he lay on the ground, just as Francis leapt from his horse to go to the rescue of his friend, and then dashed up one of the dark alleys.
‘Are you hurt, old man?’ Francis asked anxiously. ‘No, no!’ gasped Walter. ‘But the Rani! the Rani!’ and he sat up with a slight groan. ‘Help me up, Francis; I’m only a bit bruised.’
Francis did so, and Walter hurried across to the carts, the drivers of which, who had run away, had now returned. By the foremost cart a woman was standing, speaking to someone behind the curtain.
‘The sahib is all right; he is coming here. Aré bapji!’ she cried half under her breath; ‘it is our own sahib!’
‘Hush, Sita!’ said Walter, also in a low tone; someone was just pulling the purdah aside. ‘Don’t let your mistress open the purdah.’ And lower still, close against the cloth, ‘I am all right, my little queen. And you?’
‘I am safe now, my sahib’—and he could hear her softly weeping.
‘Get in, Sita,’ he said, and turning to Francis: ‘We have rescued my client, it appears.’
‘Where on earth do the police get to on these occasions?’ said Francis. ‘I suppose they are all down looking at the tamasha. Does your client know who her assailants were? Are you sure you are none the worse for the shaking? Tell her she had better have the matter reported to the police.’
‘I will call her maid here,’ said Fitch. ‘No, I am none the worse, thanks, save being a bit bruised and dusty.’
‘That’s all right. But how the deuce did you know it was your client when you were lying on the ground?’
Walter affected not to hear, and turned off to speak to Sita. How could he say that his assailant had been Tuljagir, the force of whose grip was on him still, and who had stooped and whispered, ‘We have come into conflict at last; this is only a tumble. I fancy next time it will be life or death. I am not afraid of your going into court over your mistress’s name’?
‘No, huzur, I cannot tell who they were,’ said Sita loudly, and she looked straight at Walter; ‘probably robbers, but my lady cannot lay any information. She could identify no one, and her izzat [her honour] will be lost if she is mixed up with the police and the magistrates.’
‘All right,’ said Francis. ‘Never mind’—to Walter—‘we can do what is necessary, and if any clue does turn up, then the Rani sahib can be informed. I know how these native ladies fear publicity.’
‘We had better escort them to their home,’ said Walter. ‘I can ride all right; I am only shaken.’
‘I must say that was a superb fellow you were tackling,’ said Francis. ‘He was as slim as a girl, but what strength he must have! You are no weakling, but he lifted you like a feather.’
‘Yes, I had difficulty in preventing his throttling me; that was what he tried when I first collared him. However, let’s get on.’
The syces had hold of the horses. Walter was still rather agitated. The carts moved on, and were seen safe to their destination. Walter dared say nothing, and he moved off slowly with Francis to the kotwali. There they told the District Superintendent of Police what had taken place, and he sent some police to the spot; but there was no clue, and the matter was simply entered in the police diary.
They sat and watched the wild scene—the great gaudy tazias, the native music, the strange rushing processions which passed under the peepul-trees in the market-place—Walter ardently wishing for the next day, that he might send Vittu down and, if possible, arrange to go again himself and consult with the little Rani. He would fear for her now whenever he was not with her, and felt she would be safer at Ghairagurh. Utterly worn out, he got home at last, very much bruised, as he found. Vittu, who was waiting for him, was aghast, and insisted on getting him a warm bath at that unearthly hour, malish karro’d (shampooed) his tired limbs with that gentle massage, the inherited knowledge of his race, and promised to go early in the morning and inquire into everything.
‘You lie still, sahib. It is a holiday. They will take the tazias and throw them in the river, or stow them in the “Imambara.” You can rest; there are no cases.’
And at last Walter fell asleep. Vittu lay down at the doorway, within call if he should awake and need anything.
It was six weeks since the attempt of Tuljagir to carry off the Rani sahib at the Mohurrum. No startling incident had occurred; the rains were over, and the process of drying up was well under weigh. Walter had seen Sabitra twice, and his disguise had excited no notice. The little lady had been much alarmed by her night experience, but had convinced Walter that no overt notice could be taken. Tuljagir was a native, and thoroughly conversant with their ideas, and had obviously had no fear of any consequences; in fact, he seemed to take a pleasure in speaking to Fitch when they occasionally met in court, and to enjoy the idea of the depths of love and hate that the smooth veneer of their Western conventionality covered. The little queen was most anxious for the appeal to be over, so that they could start for Ghairagurh.
‘My own sahib,’ she said, ‘if the Panchayet says “No,” I cannot live without you; there will be but the funeral pyre for Sabitra.’
The more Walter knew of her, the more he recognised her good sense and ability. She went into details of administration of the Zemindari, and had one or two formal interviews with himself and Ram Chandur with regard to the way the estate should be managed if all things went in their favour and its possibilities developed.
Walter had given the marwari to understand that he was very keen on shikar (sport), and that the Zemindari, being the very place for that sort of thing, he should go up there, see the Rani and her boy properly reinstated, and very likely assist the management for a time himself, with the approbation of the local Government. The marwari received the plan favourably, as he foresaw it meant profit to his own firm and liquidation of the debt the late Zemindar owed them. He showed no signs of any surprise, nor in any way suggested that he was aware of Walter’s affection for the Rani; but it is quite probable he had an inkling thereof, for Vittu had told his master that the attempt of Tuljagir to carry off Sabitra Bai was known to all the native city, and in that wonderful way in which native gossip spreads, it was rumoured in the bazaars that Walter was the Rani’s lover.
‘I bet Radha is at the bottom of the report, curse the jade!’ said Fitch when Vittu hinted that it would be wise not to go again to the Rani sahib’s, but to wait for the journey to Ghairagurh.
‘Maybe, huzur,’ was Vittu’s reply; ‘but she is mad with Tuljagir now, and would do anything to thwart him. I heard she was going to invite your honour to her house on the Ganesh Chaturthi day. Will your honour go?’
‘Certainly not, Vittu. What! run headlong into another trap! and for no toasted cheese this time! What is this “Ganesh Chaturthi”?’
‘It is the day of the birth of Ganesh the elephant-headed. He is the god of luck, and all the dancing girls keep his feast. They have images of him of putty, gilded and jewelled, with his two wives; they are consecrated, and the god-head enters therein. Then the nautch girls dance before him, and the fourth day, in solemn procession, the images are cast into the tank. Radha’s is the largest of all. Your honour might like to see it?’ the man said slowly.
‘If you want me to go, Vittu, say so, and why. But I have not been invited yet.’
‘Your honour is the protector of the poor, and my father and mother, and the source of all wisdom for me, yet your honour might hear something of Tuljagir’s plans if you saw Radha. And all in the bungalow will know you have gone there; it is no secret arrangement.’
‘Well, I will see, Vittu. I am glad you let me know, or I might have refused straight off.’
When he next saw Francis, Walter mentioned the matter to him.
‘Oh yes,’ said he, ‘there is no earthly reason why you shouldn’t go down and see the business if you like. It wouldn’t perhaps do for an official, but those reasons don’t apply to you.’
Walter had taken his friend quite into his confidence over the whole matter when he had felt convinced that he meant to carry out his own plans with regard to Ghairagurh and the Rani. Francis had been much interested, and not at all surprised at the mass of intrigue below the surface.
‘We know only too well what depths of chicanery the native is capable of,’ he said. ‘After all, they are only slightly more primitive than we are, and their philosophy is far beyond us.’
But Walter’s ideas with regard to Sabitra he thought quixotic in the extreme. He represented all Anglo-India’s views most loyally, but to no effect. ‘There is no need for publicity,’ said Walter. ‘No one expects me to be a permanency here. Most will think I have just gone home again, and the few who will have to know may talk for a week, and wonder when I shall desert the Rani; but, Francis, in the days to come I may have initiated a movement that will have established a veritable Indian Empire.’
‘Rodomontade,’ said Francis, unconvinced. ‘However, never mind. “Love is blind,” so go your way. If you are going into camp, you had better get a couple of tents; there are some being auctioned by the Public Works Department which ought to suit you very well. They are really quite good.’
The date for the appeal was close at hand, so Walter made haste to follow his friend’s advice. He had no doubts as to what the decision would be, and wished to set off for Ghairagurh immediately after it was given. So he sent his tents down to Chandanpur, engaged men, and sent his two ponies down also, and then announced to the station at large that he intended going off tiger-shooting in the Chandanpur jungles—an announcement that created no excitement. The station had ceased to be interested in him, which was to a great extent his own fault, as since Sabitra had come into his life he had completely ceased to take any interest in the station, and withdrawn into his own shell.
‘India has such a bad effect on some people,’ one or two mothers of families murmured. But Walter had never felt so much alive before—he did not know himself for the same creature who took so moody a view of existence at home.
‘All prefaces are dull,’ he mused, ‘and really I think my own was duller and longer than usual; but I feel quite compensated for having waded through it now.’ And before his mind’s eye came a vista of forest trees and blue skies, strange birds and beasts, and to crown all, a woman’s face with all the charm of fairydom about it. ‘It is like loving a fairy,’ he said; ‘fancy flirtation in a stuffy drawing-room again, or a Parisian beauty at a music-hall!’
Walter was sitting in his office when indulging in this meditation; it was the afternoon, and the case was just a week off. He had stopped taking any new cases so as not to be prevented from getting away. The punkah was going, for Walter found the damp of the ‘drying-up’ more trying than the intense heat of April and May. He had his feet on the office table, and had tipped his chair back on its hind legs whilst he blew little clouds of cigarette smoke to meet the punkah as it swung away from him. Through the reed curtain he saw someone come into the veranda, and in a moment the old chuprassie came in to say that there was a messenger from Radha the dancing-girl—would the sahib see him?
Walter said, ‘Let him come in,’ and a short dark native in a very red puggaree and a neat black coat was shown in. He salaamed profusely and stated his errand. It was to invite Walter to witness the installation of Sri Ganesh the next night but one.
‘Radha would have come herself, only she feared the sahib would be annoyed. She is the sahib’s most humble servant, and she begs him to do her this honour, and show that he has favour on her house,’ the man said, and added that Radha had bade him tell the sahib that Sri Ganesh would probably increase the sahib’s luck.
Walter hesitated half a moment, for though Francis had said it would be all right for him to go, and Vittu seemed anxious that he should do so, still he felt a repugnance himself to going. The woman had declared a liking for him which was abhorrent to him. He distrusted her, and did not want any confidences, and though he knew nothing was likely to happen to him there, he had no wish to run any unnecessary risks by going down to the city at night at this important juncture of his little queen’s affairs. So he bade the man thank Radha, and say he regretted it was not possible for him to come. The native withdrew, looking very disappointed, and Walter continued to blow the smoke from fresh cigarettes into the air, and wondered whether he had done right.
‘Vittu!’ he called, ‘chā lao’ (bring the tea). Thanks,’ he said, as the order was complied with, and then: ‘I have declined to go to Radha’s, Vittu.’
‘’Tis your honour’s mercy. I thought she might tell your honour somewhat of the plottings of Narbaddagir’s chéla,’ and Vittu forbore to say more. He could not understand why his master would not go on the chance of information. However, as it happened, it made little difference, for the next morning, after Francis had gone off to the secretariat and as Walter was again sitting in his office working up Marathi, the chuprassie announced that Radha in person wished to see the sahib.
‘Let her come in.’
The order evidently surprised Vittu, who was folding up some clothes in the adjacent bedroom, and he came to the purdah, and said, ‘Huzur!’
‘Oh, you are there, Vittu?’ said his master. ‘Well, just wait in the bedroom, and don’t go away.’
Vittu did not say anything beyond ‘As your honour orders.’
Then Radha came in, bold-eyed and flaunting. Walter indicated a chair on the other side of the table. The woman took it, placed the carved empty shell of a cocoanut on the table, and looked at Walter.
‘You will remember Radha, sahib, in spite of your refusal to come and see the Ganesh at her house?’
Walter looked at the cocoanut-shell; he did not understand.
‘I meant no discourtesy in refusing your invitation,’ he said, and then called out ‘Vittu!’
The man appeared from behind the purdah, and took in the situation at a glance.
‘Ah, protector of the poor,’ he said, ‘it is the dustur [custom] of their caste; your honour will of course bestow somewhat?’
Walter, guided by Vittu, said:
‘Yes, bring me that ten-rupee note, Vittu.’
The man did so, and Radha took up the plenished shell and salaamed.
‘By your favour,’ she said, ‘but I have not come here for the trifling lucre—that is but our custom and your compliance; I take it, too, that you bear me no personal ill-will? Sahib, I wished to see you, not that I wish you success, but, sahib,’ and a murderous expression crossed her face, ‘that I wish Tuljagir sahib all evil that can befall him. I need not tell you why—you can guess it if you will. Faith he has none; but he had better have used gloves when I was his tool. He says he is bound to win his appeal.’
Walter apparently took no notice.
‘He has been to Seth Ram Chandur and advised him to compromise. He has pointed out all the strong points of the Malguzar’s case, and threatened to drag the whole matter to the Privy Council, and said you would go to the great Wilayet in the middle and leave them all in the lurch.’
Here Walter interrupted her.
‘I do not suppose that had much influence on Seth Ram Chandur, and I have heard nothing from him.’
‘No, sahib, he knows how highly you esteem the Zemindarin, sahib.’
‘Will you kindly not mention that lady’s name,’ said Walter, ‘or I must terminate this interview.’
The woman tossed her head, but said:
‘Your pardon, sahib, I have come to warn you to go fully armed to Ghairagurh. Take men with you; the Tarvels are there in force, and they mean to do for you. Who will reckon with the tigers there? And where is the British Raj in those jungles?’
‘Who are these Tarvels?’ asked Walter sternly.
‘Sahib, I will tell you: they are a society banded together—Narbaddagir is their head, but Tuljagir their mainstay. They have come down for thousands of years. They have secret rites and eat the Taru flower. At Chandanpur is their temple, but at Ghairagurh is their chief stronghold. How do I know these things? Have I not actually danced at their meetings? And was not Tuljagir my willing thrall? And now, for the sake of a puling face——’
Walter raised his hand; she stopped abruptly and then went on again with vehemence:
‘Had my caste no honour? We dancing girls are no castaways. There is my husband, the great peepul-tree beyond the city gate. Tuljagir says he will wed the Zemindarin willy-nilly. I don’t think you will let him, sahib?’ and Walter clenched his hand. ‘Nor I,’ she added, after a pause. ‘Now, sahib, I will tell you a little more. It is sweet to have put you on your guard and forestalled any further attempt to carry off the Zemindarin, but it will be sweeter still to deprive him of the sinews of war too. The Tarvels are wealthy, sahib; they have coffers of gold and silver; but Tuljagir has increased their store enormously. From the great Wilayet he has brought great numbers of the finest gems. One diamond he sold through me to one of my clients, a rajah, for a lakh of rupees, the rest are at Ghairagurh. If you succeed, as I believe you will, in going there, do not stop at taking the woman: take the jewels, too, sahib, from that ungrateful hound. I will tell you where they are. The shrine of Mahakali stands in the grove, and that is the Tarvels’ chief meeting-place; but, sahib, beside it is Mahadeo’s temple, and in front of the temple flows a wide reach of the Naggurhee river, and there, deep down beneath the water and the sand, is the old-world temple known but to Narbaddagir, Tuljagir, and me. Get into Mahadeo’s shrine, sahib, press hard the marble nandi bull that kneels before the holy emblem of the god, it will move to the right. Go down, sahib, and prosper! When, scorned and poverty-stricken, the ingrate comes back to Radha, he will not meet with an open door!’ and she laughed metallically. ‘Have I your leave, sahib, now?’
And she withdrew as Walter bowed assent. He could not trust himself to speak. It seemed impossible to comprehend a love that could turn to such gall as to utterly betray the false lover and sacrifice all its own passion to revenge. He went into his bedroom, where Vittu was.
‘You heard what that woman said, Vittu?’
‘Well, do not mention it to anyone.’
‘As your honour orders, but I think she is distraught. You will see, sahib. The gods have maddened her for her own destruction.’
Walter made a careful note of all she had said, in the event of his actually finding there was any foundation in it when he got to Ghairagurh. He had suggested to Vittu that it might be a deep-laid scheme on the part of Tuljagir to entrap him when at Ghairagurh, but Vittu said:
‘No, sahib, Radha was speaking the truth,’ and, indeed, her accents had the ring of sincerity in Fitch’s own ears; ‘but, sahib, she is mad with a love-philter.’
The next day but one the appeal came on, and, as Walter knew, it was a foregone conclusion in favour of his clients. Tuljagir’s endeavours to bring about a compromise had failed utterly, and Walter’s clerk informed him that the Malguzar of Burhampuri had cursed him vigorously in the court veranda for the benefit of other litigants squatting there waiting for their cases to come on.
‘You will get a large practice, sahib, winning like this.’
‘No, Balkrishna; you know I do not intend to continue practising. I shall manage this Zemindari awhile, and then see. I have secured you a place as a clerk in the Deputy Commissioner’s office.’
Balkrishna salaamed and withdrew. After all, Government employ was best for a Brahmin.
All Walter’s things were ready. He had had a long interview with Seth Ram Chandur. The Rani and her retinue were to leave that night by train, Walter the next day. All his tent-pitchers and men were already at Chandanpur; he had chosen them carefully, and with the Rani’s faithful Gonds they made a compact little troop of men, and Walter went contentedly to bed that night. But the next morning——
‘Sahib, sahib!’ cried Vittu as he came in with the chota hazri.
‘What is it, Vittu?’ said Walter, waking up with a start. ‘Radha is dead, sahib.’
‘Yes, sahib; and by this time they have carried her forth to the funeral pyre. They say it was cholera, but who knows? Her hands were clenched and her body convulsed, the tonga wallah told me. I have seen a man die like that whose wife loved another.’
‘But there will be an inquest?’
‘Oh, the doctor sahib, huzur? Nay, she is well-nigh ashes ere this.’
Walter instinctively shuddered.
‘The tonga wallah told me, sahib, that yesterday afternoon a rich merchant of Hyderabad visited Radha, a stranger who had come to Cobrapur on business. She sang and danced, and he seemed to have plenty of rupees and to take pleasure in her society. In the evening they drank sherbet, and retired to the inner chamber, and soon after midnight Radha was ill. She was speechless with agony from the first. The Hyderabad wallah naturally went away from the scene of confusion, and he has not been seen since.’
‘And the police?’ asked Walter.
‘Nay, sahib, there will be no report for the police. Radha’s sisters in the house do not want their abode ill-famed among their clients. Besides, sahib, it was written in her destiny. She was mad to visit your honour.’
Walter sipped his tea thoughtfully. Just a year ago he had gone out into the darkness of a new life from Charing Cross, and a man’s death had marked its inauguration. Now he was again on the threshold of a strange existence, and again death stepped in and demanded a sacrifice.
‘If Tuljagir saw it in that light, I expect he would say that Kali must be very propitious to me. It makes one quite superstitious. Whose death is the third to be?’ pondered Walter.
When he got up he found Vittu’s news was quite correct. Francis spoke of it at breakfast.
‘There have been a good many cases of cholera in the city this rains,’ he said; ‘but when the new water-supply is opened, cholera will be a thing of the past, I hope.’
Walter suggested that Radha might have come by her death through foul means.
‘Oh, I don’t think so,’ his friend answered. ‘She doesn’t seem to have had any enemies, and her people make no complaint. You have got your Oriental embroglio too much into your head, old man. However, I hope you will have all luck. What guns are you taking? Mind you don’t “marry in haste,” and don’t make too great a fool of yourself. It has been awfully jolly having you here, and I shall expect a full account of all your adventures, and hope you will be at home next year when I go home to be spliced.’
He came down with Walter to the station, and wished him an affectionate farewell.
‘You will probably have had enough of jungle royalty by the next hot weather,’ were his last words, ‘and be on your way to England; but I shall be out in a district then, so I expect I shan’t see you till we meet in the old country.’
A grasp of the hand, ‘So long, old man,’ and once more Walter was speeding out into the darkness of life.
There was a delicious snap in the air, a sensation of brisk energy pervading the atmosphere in spite of the balmy warmth. It must have been days like these that Adam spent in Paradise, and yet we prosaically call it the ‘cold weather,’ the cold weather of the Indian plains.
Walter had left even Chandanpur behind him; like the patriarch of old, he had gone forth from the city gate. Country carts drawn by slow-pacing bullocks carried his tents, his apparel, and his provisions, and now he was encamped nearly half-way to Ghairagurh. The tents were up. He had had his tub after the morning’s march, which he had ridden, and now sat in front of the tent in a campchair—collapsible, like all his camp furniture—and smoked the cigarette of peace.
The little Rani and her retinue put up at the house of the Malguzar of the adjacent village, whose flat roofs and conical shrine were visible across the blue waters of a tank shrouded by tamarind-trees, through which a number of wild-duck could be seen feeding on its surface. They had halted here as the jungle stretched for miles to the left, and Walter hoped for a ‘beat’ for tiger the next day, more especially as a ‘man-eater’ was in the neighbourhood, and had scared all traffic at night from a defile in the next day’s march known as the ‘Tiger’s Gap,’ on account of the number of unwary travellers he had picked off as they passed through it; in fact, even by day the camp-followers declined to go through save to the noise of cymbals and brass instruments to scare the beast away. Up to now the road had lain through cultivated tracts, through fields blue as the summer sea with the flower of the linseed, or green as the robes of spring with the young wheat; or, again, the land was divided up by little ridges into tiny squares, in which stood the yellowing ‘dhan,’ the rice strewn broadcast for the first harvest.
Walter felt the keenest interest in the strange crops as he rode through the land—the great haulms of jowari, the millet with its large dusty head of seed, the tall brakes of green sugar-cane, the great stretches of neat little shrubs, pulses of various kinds, toor and chauna and Indian sesamum. The peasants, too, as they stood on their wooden ploughshares to press them more firmly into the sod, whilst the patient bullocks trod their solemn way, made him think of Millet’s pictures and that sense of religion which ever pervades an agricultural life. There was always something new to greet his gaze. His first cotton-field, the low shrubs with their delicate flower, and the great bursts of white filaments where the seed was ripe, sent his mind home to Manchester and Birmingham, the whirr of the machinery and the toil and grime of factories, and the contrast between the workers ’neath their smoky skies to the placidity and beauty of the present scene, where dotted here and there ’mid clumps of spreading trees were the hamlets of the land; no isolated farms, but each a compact group of houses tenanted by the proprietors of at least one tiny field in the land, and over all blue sky and golden sunshine. Now, however, he was on the verge of the very jungle itself, the Indian virgin forest. It stretched away and away to the left: teak-trees, with leaves like tea-trays, great clumps of feathery bamboos rivalling the tallest pines of the North, and ever and anon what seemed like the whitened skeletons of bygone monarchs of the forest, gaunt white trunks and branches bare of all foliage, but dotted with wide cups of gold or ruby flowers; and no noise, no twittering birds, nothing save the monotonous cooing of the phātars (the stockdoves).
Walter longed for the next day to come, that he might explore the mysteries of the wood. There is nothing in the world like the fascination that a great forest exercises over those who come near it. As the day drew on Walter went out with his gun, and visited a couple of the neighbouring tanks.
He flushed a number of snipe, and bagged a variety of duck and teal—a very welcome addition to the meals of the camp-followers; they were mostly Kunbis, and could eat the game. And in the afternoon Sabitra Bai, who had sent up to know if it would be convenient for him to give her an interview, came up and sat with him, as she did almost every day, in the open shamianah, or dining-tent. They were alone as far as their talk was concerned, though in the full view of all, for the little lady would have no clandestine meetings now. Walter respected her for it, but he felt the order hard to bear at times.
They had heard nothing so far of Tuljagir and his doings, and both felt anxious as to what steps he might be taking, and what would meet them at Ghairagurh. Walter had the properly authenticated orders of the court, and he thought that Tuljagir and those whom he advised would never be so rash as to openly oppose themselves to the orders of the Government.
‘However,’ said Sabitra Bai, ‘he cannot have gone to Ghairagurh himself, for we should have heard if he had come along the road; there is no other, and I do not think he has sent any messenger.’
Walter was teaching her a little English, and was himself becoming quite fluent in Marathi, and more and more struck with the Shāstras, the Scriptures of her race. Sabitra had been well taught in them by her father, and Walter realized from her lips what a magnificent conception their teaching was: that God is all-pervading, that each of us is His shrine, that He is manifest everywhere, and each thing is worthy of worship and not desecration.
‘We may all attain to being higher manifestations of the Godhead,’ said his little teacher. Krishna and Rama were His incarnation; why not Issawi, too, whose teaching was so good?’
She had great hopes of the Panchayet, and Walter had a deep-laid scheme, which, however, he did not impart to her, for putting the Panchayet themselves forcibly out of caste if they did not see reason. They were very happy in the present—let humanity thank God that its present happiness is not marred by knowledge of future sorrows.
After discussing their plans, their religions, and their futures, the little queen said she must return to the Malguzar’s house before it was too late.
‘We have an addition to our travelling party,’ she said; ‘an old man, his wife, and daughter, have asked permission to go with us through the Tiger’s Gap. They arrived the day before us, and are travelling back into the Mogulai from Chandanpur. They are well-conditioned people, and I have had a pleasant talk with the daughter; they are people of caste, and are to take their evening meal with the Malguzar and myself. They have taken quite a fancy to Sita, and have been making much of her.’
‘Did you know them before?’ asked Walter.
‘No, my sahib; but they speak of many people in Chandanpur whom I know, and the Malguzarin was already friends with them ere we came. They broke bread with her yesterday, and the man with the Malguzar.’
‘Well, be careful, my queen, whom you make friends with; we have had some alarming experiences. Still, I suppose these people are innocent enough; they are ahead of us, and naturally would prefer company when this dreaded man-eater is about.’
They parted, and Walter watched the covered cart out of sight, and then turned in to dinner and bed, as he was to be up at six for the ‘beat,’ there being some distance to go into the forest to the machan (the native bed, tied up in a tree), on which he was to await the animal, if any, in the beat.
Next morning Walter was up betimes, and set off into the jungle soon after the sun had risen. Two Gonds went with him to guide him to the position he was to occupy, one carrying an extra gun for the sahib and his own handy little axe; the other was to let the beaters know when the sahib was installed, and they could begin the beat. Everything was quite quiet as they walked along, avoiding the great dry teak-leaves on the ground as much as possible, on and on, a monotony of trees and bamboos, up hill and down dale, till at last, after a couple of hours’ hard walking:
‘There is the machan, sahib,’ said the man, ‘well up in the fork of that tall tree.’
Walter saw a barricade of foliage, and managed to clamber up to it with the Gonds’ assistance; the guns were handed up, and he squatted down on the native bed, round which the nest-like arrangement of boughs was placed; and whilst one of his companions squatted behind him, the other silently disappeared to the beaters, who—some hundred and fifty men—had gone off in the night with the chuprassies and the Malguzar’s eldest son to their rendezvous.
Walter surveyed the scene. He was facing an opening in the jungle some forty yards wide and eighty yards long, bordered by a thicket; a nullah, its watercourse now dried up, was at the lower end.
‘They will come out there and there, sahib,’ said the native under his breath; he was an old Shikari. ‘The tiger’s pugs are fresh in the sand of the nullah.’ And he pointed to two spots in the opposite jungle, where the undergrowth looked a little less dense, and then lapsed into silence.
All was still; Walter’s legs were getting cramped; the dumbness of the jungle was oppressive. Once there was the sound of something moving underneath. Fitch craned his head over as quietly as he could; it was only a jungle cock. Now dimly in the distance began to be heard tapping and faint shouts. Fitch’s nerves were at full tension; he had taken aim at the spots indicated by the old Gond, and now had his gun at half-cock in readiness. Tiger was his game, and anything else was to pass unscathed. Nearer and nearer came the noise and din of the beaters: shrieks and loud beating of sticks, banging of old kerosine oil-tins, the beating of drums. A stirring in the opposite jungle, a movement, and something retreated, then came down again, and slowly a large sambhur hind emerged and stood in the glade, and then another, and then the lord and master, a splendid stag with fine spreading tines; they stood a moment, and then ran up the jungle.
‘There will be no tiger, sahib,’ whispered the Gond.
They were followed almost directly from the other spot by a herd of cheetal (a lovely spotted deer) that trotted through the glade. Walter still held his fire.
‘There will be no tiger, sahib; the deer are not afraid.’ And then, ‘Dekko, dekko, sahib!’ (look, look!) and he pointed down the ride, where some uncouth, black object was shuffling shaggily along. ‘Balu’ (a bear), he said; ‘shoot, sahib.’
Walter’s excitement was great; it was the first savage beast he had seen in its native wilds. Bang! bang! went his gun. The animal doubled a somersault, and then reared and glared, giving vent to deep grunts and clutching the air, whilst the sand began to crimson at its feet as it collapsed again. Walter, now quite cool and collected, put another bullet into it as a quietus. The noise of the beaters, which had stopped for a moment at the sound of the shots, now redoubled, and Walter saw a number of dark figures moving about; he was just going to take aim at one, when he realized they were the beaters, and that the beat was over, as men began to collect in the opening and surround the dead bear.
It did not take Walter long to get down, and he stood proudly surveying the first victim of his prowess; it was a fine animal. The men slung it on bamboos, and carried it off homewards, Walter following after a nip from his flask and some biscuits, and the procession debouched triumphantly in front of his tent.
There were a number of villagers collected round the shamianah tent as Walter and the beaters came up, and he naturally supposed that they had congregated to welcome him back with the spoil. Great, then, was his surprise when he saw the crowd open and Vittu come hastily towards him with an agitated countenance, taking no heed of the dead bear.
‘Oh, huzur! he cried, thank Heaven you are safe returned. Come down at once to the Malguzar’s house; there has been foul play this night, but by the mercy of God no one much harmed.’
‘What is it, Vittu?’ Fitch asked anxiously.
‘Come, sahib, with me, and I will explain.’ And the man turned to the beaters, and said in a loud voice: ‘Sit down, you people; the sahib will return directly, and your reward will be counted out to you.’
The beaters, who were mostly Gonds, squatted down contentedly in circles, ready to wait any time with paisa in view, whilst Walter and Vittu, followed by a little crowd of villagers, hastened towards the Malguzar’s house.
‘The Rani, Vittu?’ queried Walter.
‘Is safe and well, huzur; but Sita is not yet herself, nor the Malguzarin. Oh! why did the stars let your honour go to shikar to-day, or we might have caught the miscreants. Now they have fled across the river yonder, and are away in the Mogulai. Little they cared for passing up the road through the Tiger’s Gap.’
Walter hurried down to the bara, the Malguzar’s big house in the village. There was a great concourse of people jabbering and squatting in groups.
Inside in one of the verandas facing on to the courtyard sat the little Rani on a stool beside a charpoy, or bed, on which lay a recumbent figure covered with native blankets. She rose and came towards Walter, instinctively drawing her saree over her head.
‘Oh, my sahib, here you are! Sita is much better, thanks to Heaven! and will recover now. We gave her a decoction of the jambul bark; fortunately, my father taught me our simples. But see; the Malguzarin is very bad.’ And she indicated a group in the other corner of the courtyard.
Walter went across, and Sabitra reseated herself by Sita, who was sleeping, exhausted by the strong emetic and the poison. Walter approached the Malguzar, who stood with his hand clenched.
‘It was the datura they put in the food; see, sahib.’ And Walter saw in the clear space within the little group the unfortunate woman. She was sitting on the ground, and seemed to be drawing imaginary long threads out of her fingers and toe-nails, and ever and anon made as if she were polishing something she held in her hand.
‘Is she mad?’ he asked.
‘No, sahib, but the plant always works like that, she thinks she is polishing the cooking utensils. But I trust she will pull through.’
‘We must send a report in to headquarters, and see if anything can be done to catch the miscreants,’ said Walter to the Malguzar, who accompanied him into a small room, and there detailed what he knew: how the three strangers had seemed so plausible and well acquainted with folk in Chandanpur, and how the two women had helped prepare the evening meal, and how, fortunately, the Rani, alarmed by Walter’s remarks as to strangers, had said she would prepare a little ‘dal bāt’(curry and rice) for herself, and had done so, and the disappointment the strange women had expressed when they found she had taken her meal alone earlier than they. But the disappointment had been thought only natural. And then, when the confusion by the illness of Sita and the Malguzarin in the night arose, the party of three slipped away back to the road and across the river into the Mogulai, the independent non-British territory on the other side.
As Walter wrote his report, he thanked God for his little queen’s escape. He went back at length to his own tent, and sent a runner back to Chandanpur to the Deputy Commissioner. It was clear that he had to fight a foe in the dark, and that it behoved him to take every precaution and press on to Ghairagurh as quickly as possible.
The next morning brought the good news that Sita seemed quite herself again and able to travel in her cart, and that the Malguzarin was also in a fair way to recovery. So after waiting one day more the party set out again on its march. The village musicians and a number of natives banging kerosine-oil tins, accompanied them as they went through the narrow defile in the hills known as the Tiger’s Gap. Walter, as he rode in the van, laughed at the absurdity of going through this farce of scaring away the beast. It would never attack a large procession of people in broad daylight—there were at least twelve carts. The defile was a lovely spot; the road ran up-hill with high banks at each side covered with thick shrubs, low trees, and tropical creepers, with here and there clumps of feathery bamboos and tall, slender palm-trees spreading their fans against the sky.
Walter was quite out of the defile and riding along the level plateau when the din, which had borne a certain semblance to time and rhythm behind him, became an uproar and then ceased, and he heard yells and screams of ‘Bagh! bagh!’ (tiger! tiger!) and the carts came rattling along as fast as the bullocks could canter. He turned his horse and galloped back, seizing his gun from the man who was carrying it, but he saw nothing at all save the cloud of dust rising in the road, and Vittu, who had been in the last cart but one, tore up to him.
‘Huzur,’ he gasped, ‘Ram Swamy, the cook—in the last cart—the tiger has got him up there! Sahib, the animal leapt out from there as the last cart passed; it must have watched us all. It is no tiger, but a devil—a shaitan!’
Walter pressed his unwilling steed up the declivity. There were scraps of clothing and blood on the bushes.
‘Who will go with me and track the beast?’ Walter called out. ‘We cannot leave the poor man without making an effort to save him.’
After some hesitation, two Gonds, who were practised trackers, volunteered, and Vittu, who would not let his master go alone. They set off. The rest of the party were to halt on the top of the plateau and await their return. It was wonderful how the Gonds did it. A tiny drop of blood on a leaf, a broken twig—anything and almost nothing served to guide them as they pressed on for over two hours, and at last came to a dense thicket from which they could find no marks of exit.
‘It must be in there,’ they said.
There was a hole in the thicket, and Walter dragged himself in, though Vittu begged and implored him not to. He went some way, but could see nothing, then he thought he saw two eyes glaring and he went back. The Gonds suggested lighting a huge fire, and the idea was carried out. The smoke filled the thicket, there was a roar and a crash in the jungle beyond on the opposite side. They hurried round; the pugs were clear on the ground where the beast had sprung out.
‘We can never catch it now,’ said the men, it will run for miles, and the day is waning.’
Walter made his way into the thicket, the little Gonds skilfully cutting a way with their axes, and at last they found the mangled remains of poor Ram Swamy. He had been seized by the shoulder and life was quite extinct; probably the journey through the forest had mercifully accelerated his death. There was nothing to do but let the Gonds dig with their axes and bury the corpse, and heap stones on the grave in the hope of preserving the body.
‘Will the beast come back?’ Fitch asked. But the Gonds said, No, it was never known to return to its kill; it was a shaitan, a man-eater. It was just a year since it had infested the place.
Walter returned to the party. It was late, so they settled to just stay where they were that night, and move on the next morning to the next camping ground. Great fires were lit to keep off the man-eater and other beasts. Ram Swamy was a great loss, but fortunately Vittu added a knowledge of cookery to his other accomplishments, and cheerfully undertook to prepare his master’s food.
The next morning they moved off again, but Walter was informed that the tiger’s pugs had been found quite close to the camp, and it was evident that much anxiety was felt by the natives on the subject. Even Vittu confided to his master that this tiger was a great shaitan, a regular vampire, a thing supernatural.
They marched on day by day through the forest; villages were rare, and when they occurred were nothing more than two or three huts made of wattle-work and leaves, in a clearing where the jungle had been burnt by the Mārias, an aboriginal tribe; and over the surface of the ashes, neatly smoothed, korree and kindred grains were sown broadcast for one good yield.
Fitch got to know all the trees of the jungle, the wide-leaved sagun, the monarch of the woods, the sheshun, with the black heart, the mohwa, as dear to the hearts of the people as malt and hops to us, ebony and satin wood, tendoo and huldee, and the three-leafed chaste tree (the holy nirgoodie), whose leaves, ever three in one, are emblems of the Hindu Trinity.
Vittu was unfeignedly glad the morning they came across the nirgoodie-tree; he took a number of the leaves and insisted on keeping some in the pockets of all his master’s clothes, for the whole camp was perturbed by the action of the man-eater at Tiger’s Gap.
The beast had evidently deserted its old haunt, and to the horror and amazement of the natives was accompanying the party as they marched towards Ghairagurh. Night after night, as the Gond shikari informed Walter, it had prowled round the watch-fires, and he showed him its pugs in nullahs and sandy spots. They knew them well, for one of the claws on the left hind-foot was missing, the consequence of a wound inflicted by a native hunter, an accident which was supposed to have determined its evil career; and it was a tigress, judging from the oval shape of the pads on its feet, but no one had actually seen the beast. Walter found that it was causing serious alarm among his followers, and if it had not been that it was obviously unwise to leave the protection of the camp, many would have fled. It was not the presence only of the tiger that frightened them, but its constantly following in their track. What had they done—in what way offended the evil spirits? A bhoomuk, a professional tiger-charmer, was even called into requisition at one of the little villages they went through, but to no effect, for the next morning the same report as usual reached Walter, that the tigress had been on her nocturnal perambulations.
At the time the little Gond shikari brought Walter the intelligence, Vittu was helping his master into his riding kit preparatory to the early march to the next camping ground. They were now only a couple of marches off Ghairagurh.
The man waited until the shikari had withdrawn, and then said:
‘Huzur, will your honour allow me to say something?’
‘Of course, Vittu. What is on your mind now?’
‘Sahib, it is the bhāmsa, the she-buffalo.’
‘What the devil do you mean, Vittu?’ (Two cows and a she-buffalo accompanied the party, to furnish milk and butter.) ‘What about the beast?’
‘Sahib, she must be given over to the tigress shaitan.’
‘What rot, Vittu!’
‘Nay, sahib, your honour does not know; but she is tukki; all the Brahmins in the villages have said so.’
‘Tukki? What is that?’
‘Oh, sahib, many beasts are marked for the Evil One. That horse that threw Smith sahib and slew him, had it not an ill-omened whorl of hair on its chest—else why did the poor sahib get it so cheap? And this buffalo—peace to it!—is it not one-eyed? Is not the other eye stone white? And who can help regarding it with aversion? Ever since it came with us, have we not been pursued by ill-fortune? And I hear the sahib your honour got it from, had had fever the whole time it was with him.’
‘Rubbish, Vittu! I will listen to anything sensible you have to say, but I am not going to sacrifice a poor beast like that for no fault of its own. The Sahiblog don’t go in for that sort of thing.’ Vittu sighed heavily.
‘Nasib ki bāt,’ he murmured under his breath; ‘it is our luck, by your honour’s favour.’
Two more marches, and the third morning the tents were struck for the last time, and they started to cover the fifteen miles which would bring them to their destination, Ghairagurh itself. The jungle was once more replaced by cultivation, little hamlets buried in groves of trees nestled among the fields, and in the distance rose a couple of high isolated hills, whose summits shone white, as the morning sun smote the buildings with which they were crowned.
‘Ghairagurh, sahib,’ said the chuprassie, who was walking along beside Walter’s horse, shouldering his master’s gun. ‘Ghairagurh; we have arrived spite of the tigress shaitan.’
‘What a lovely spot!’ burst involuntarily from Walter’s lips as they drew near. All round on the horizon swept the dense jungle, while in the centre of the circle of cultivation, from noble groves of ancient trees, rose the two hills, fortress crowned, and mirrored at their feet in two lovely lakes.
‘On the other side of the hills is the sangam, the holy spot where the Cobranaddi runs into the Satnaddi, and where Mahakali’s shrine stands,’ so the chuprasie informed Walter.
The cavalcade was now on the outskirts of the town itself. Walter had not galloped ahead this morning, as was his wont, but kept with the procession of carts, so that all might arrive together. A number of people were waiting to meet and greet their sovereign and the sahib, grouped round a handsomely-dressed native on a white horse, whose mane and tail were stained bright pink, and whose neck a bearing rein held tightly arched, whilst it curvetted and pranced, and showed off all the paces so dear to a native’s mind.
When the new arrivals were about a hundred yards off, the rider on the white horse alighted. He was gorgeous in a gold-brocaded coat and fine curved scimitar, and advanced at the head of the crowd salaaming. Walter hesitated a moment, and then himself dismounted and advanced in his turn. Salutations were exchanged, and Walter learnt that this was the Zemindarin’s uncle. He looked at him anxiously, for on this man probably his own happiness depended. It was a handsome elderly native’s face, the only striking thing about it being the fierce martial air with which his moustache was twisted upwards and outwards on either side. They proceeded to the purdah which covered the Rani’s cart, and paid their respects to the lady behind it. The little Zemindar was brought forward in Sita’s arms, and the whole crowd almost prostrated themselves in front of him. Then Walter and the uncle, Amrut Rao, once more bestrode their steeds and rode side by side into the town of Ghairagurh.
It struck Walter as thoroughly mediaeval, and he called to mind with a feeling of amusement the London cabs and buses. Side by side they rode, the Mahratta and the Englishman, through the streets. Many of the houses were two-storied and built round courtyards.
‘They are the town houses of our noblemen,’ said Amrut Rao. Everywhere the people came out and salaamed. The lower classes were mostly Mārias, Walter learnt from his companion, and wished to dance in the fortress in the evening before the Rani in honour of her victory and safe return. ‘It is a sight worth the sahib’s seeing,’ said Amrut Rao.
And then, as they left the town again behind them, and began to ascend the steep road that led up abruptly from the lakes to the fortress entrance, Amrut turned the conversation to the law-suit. He began by thanking Walter heartily for all he had done and his goodness in coming out to Ghairagurh to look after things, adding that he himself had done his best to get things into order since the Malguzar of Burhampuri’s agent had given up possession. Walter looked surprised.
‘Possession already given up! and not even a struggle of words!’ He asked when this had taken place, and learnt that a runner had arrived from Chandanpur a week earlier with orders to the agent to deliver possession at once to Amrut Rao on behalf of the Zemindarin.
Walter thanked him, and said he was sure the management was in good hands. He had no wish to alienate the gentleman and make him desirous to oust himself from the spot, as he would be sure to do if he thought his own chances were going to be interfered with. ‘Не can’t do any harm in a few months,’ thought Walter. ‘Love comes first, and then we can see about other mundane things.’
It was a wonderfully steep ascent, the rocks at the side falling almost sheer to the water below; but the view as they reached the archway of the fortress gate was very fine, a wonderful panorama. The frowning bastions receded on either side; a little to the left lay the town and the lake; to the right the two rivers wound along in bands of silver; and in the magnificent mango-tope, at the point where they met, were visible the white carved conical roofs of the temples of Mahadeo and Mahakali. The two riders reined in their horses, and turned round to admire the scene and allow the Rani’s cart to pass in. After a few minutes they followed, and in the great stone veranda of the courtyard, facing the fortress shrine of Gurh Bowani, the castle goddess, stood the little Rani with her boy in her arms. She advanced towards her uncle and Walter, who had entered on foot, her saree over her face, and in accents broken by emotion welcomed the sahib to the place and thanked him for herself and her son, and then her uncle, too, adding that she knew how attached he was to her interests, and that she had much private matter to discuss with him if he would give her of his leisure after she had bathed and recovered from the journey’s fatigues. Then, salaaming, she left them.
Amrut Rao ushered Walter to a large, lofty, square room, whose windows, narrow unglazed slits in the thick wall, looked out over the rivers and the shrines below. Here Walter found Vittu, who had preceded him with the baggage at dawn. With salaams Amrut Rao then left him, stating that he should wait upon him again when refreshed.
‘Well, Vittu, here we are at last!’
‘By your honour’s favour,’ said Vittu, and a smile of pleasure lighted up his dark face as his master went on to observe on the natty way everything had been arranged. An air of comfort pervaded the whole apartment, spite of its stone walls and narrow embrasures. On the floor Vittu had spread the warm blue and white striped dhurries (tent-carpets). A bright-coloured rezai covered the little camp-bed in the centre of the room, and all Walter’s paraphernalia were neatly arranged on the dressing and writing tables, with his Prayer-book and Bible in a conspicuous place. Vittu always treated these with much awe and respect. The guns were in their rack, and the man had even brought a piece of red baize and managed to nail it up on to the wall, and on it hung the much-polished spurs, bridles, bits, etc., as he had been accustomed to in the bungalow at Cobrapur.
After saying, in return for Walter’s grateful praise, that he was only his honour’s slave, Vittu helped him off with his riding things, and said, ‘The sahib’s bath is ready,’ drew aside a curtain he had rigged up over another doorway, and disclosed a smaller apartment, where a most welcome warm bath awaited his tired master.
‘Your honour will have breakfast and dinner in this room?’ he asked as the curtain of the bath-room fell behind Walter, ‘for there is no other suitable.’
‘Oh yes,’ was the reply.
Walter did not trouble to inquire into the mysteries of how Vittu had arranged kitchen affairs. If with three bricks and a little charcoal the man could provide five-course dinners in the jungle, Fitch flattered himself he would not fare badly here, and he would not suggest a doubt of his capacity by inquiring how it was to be done. Nor were his expectations disappointed, for the man turned out a splendid little breakfast, from the fish to the bananas and oranges, with excellent coffee, and even fresh butter was not wanting. When he had finished, Walter lit a cigarette and settled down in his long chair, from which he could see a narrow landscape picture through one of the slits in the wall. He felt this life was charming, a brilliant pattern shining out on a background of mystery.
Vittu, who had removed all signs of a meal, now announced that Amrut Rao asked the honour of an interview. A chair was placed, and the Mahratta gentleman ushered in. Walter assured him that his every want had been foreseen, and thanked him diplomatically for what he felt was really due to Vittu. Then the conversation naturally turned to business matters. Walter learnt that the Malguzars, or landed proprietors, of the Zemindari, were overjoyed at the idea of their hereditary chief coming by his own again, that revenue was good, and all the thousand and one little details of estate administration likely to go well, and he assured Amrut Rao that he felt they could not be in more competent hands. Many of the Malguzars had come in to pay their respects, and would be present at the big dance the Mārias were going to give by torchlight in the great courtyard of the fortress that evening.
‘And about the Tarvel?’ asked Fitch.
There was a dead pause. At last Amrut Rao spoke.
‘Then you know about the Tarvels, sahib,’ he said in a low voice.
‘Well,’ replied Walter, ‘in one way I know too much about them.’
‘Ah, sahib, but they have gone away; they went as soon as the runner came with tidings to hand over charge to me. There were twenty-five or thirty of them down at the shrine, with Narbaddagir’s second chéla at their head. But I had no fear; I come of a fighting stock, and I have a splendid akara (gymnasium], sahib. My young men are a match for them, and my people will watch against foul play. However, they have now all gone. But how did your honour know that they were here?’
‘I did not know,’ said Walter, and he told Amrut Rao the outline of what had happened.
‘Yes,’ said the latter; of course, we all knew the Tarvels were at the bottom of it; but of what avail was our knowing that in your courts ? I wonder they did not resort to open force up here: little the sirkar could do in a local riot, three hundred miles from headquarters. Besides, the police would not dare report it if we and the Tarvels were in the matter. However, they have gone, and Shiwaji, the poojari of the shrine of Mahakali, is coming to pay his respects with the other nobles to-night. We shall have to keep our eyes open, sahib; but Ganesh watches over his own, and they may have given the matter up as a bad job.’
‘Do you know anything about the Taru orchid itself?’ queried Walter.
‘Well, I have seen many cut ones, but it is a secret whence it comes. I hear they grow on the male bamboo in some spot in the jungle hills; but none of our people dare even go in that direction; it is some thirty miles from here. For the efficacy of the holy plant I can speak, for I was a weakling once, as a lad, and the then poojari here of the temple gave me one flower to eat every morning, reciting certain mantras, and appetite returned, and my strength revived, but it was bitter to the taste, spite its sweet smell.’
Walter felt convinced it was a powerful tonic, and probably of considerable medicinal value. It was getting late in the afternoon now, but Walter felt he must broach the subject that was nearest and dearest to his heart, and he had told his little lady he must be the first to speak about it.
‘We are quite alone,’ he began, and I have something to say to you of the deepest importance to myself and to your niece.’
Amrut Rao waved his hand. ‘Speak, sahib,’ he said. ‘I am glad you are open with me, for I am no longer a young man. I will not conceal from you that I have heard rumours—rumours that have greatly discomforted me, as dealing with the honour of my family.’
‘I need not assure you that the honour of your family is as dear to me as my own,’ returned Walter, and then he told his tale, and spoke of the Panchayet. ‘I contemplate nought that is not honourable,’ he said, ‘but I give you my word that Sabitra Bai, your niece, shall be my wife.’
Amrut Rao had held his peace during Walter’s impassioned speech; now he spoke as Walter ceased, and pointed out strongly the obstacles there were in the way. He knew what a compliment was being paid his family, but it would involve the fact of utter separation, and he wound up at last thus:
‘Sahib, we are alone. I am advanced in years, and I know that there is no real distinction between man and man as merely human beings, but the power of convention is too strong; we cannot admit you to our meals nor to any intimacy, if we would retain our friends. Sahib, do not think I am for selfish reasons against you. Even if I stood out for you, do you think the Panchayet, one of whose members would have to be the poojari of Mahakali, would ever allow such a union? No, sahib; you cannot marry Sabitra, and you only harm her name as it is. Go, sahib, when these matters are settled, and God go with you. Believe me, who might be your father in years, you will find that woman writes her name on our hearts but in water.’
Walter stood up.
‘Amrut Rao,’ he said, ‘I swear to you that I shall do my best to make Sabitra Bai my honoured wife.’
Amrut Rao sat silent a moment, as though struck by the power of conviction in Walter’s voice.
‘You are a sahib,’ he said, ‘and you have borne yourself masterfully so far, and your nasib [your luck] has brought you here. There, it is your English fashion; give me your hand! What aid I can give you I will, and you shall be a son to me as Sabitra is my daughter, for of my own—the Fates have willed it, I have none.’
He then took his leave with the promise that, at any rate, the Panchayet should be called, and Walter, full of thought, drank the afternoon tea Vittu brought him, and then sallied forth in the cool of the day to explore awhile, and after roaming about the battlements, returned to his dinner when the sun had set, preparatory to the Mārias’ dance in the courtyard.
About nine o’clock Amrut Rao again put in his appearance, and requested Walter to do him the honour of assisting at the nautch. With alacrity that young man complied, and the two, followed by the faithful Vittu and preceded by the chuprassie, came out into the great courtyard. The night was quite dark, but countless torches threw their dusky red glare on the fantastic scene, illuminated the crenellated battlements with flickering shadows, and threw into strong relief the strange figures grouped around. It was a picture worthy of Rembrandt, as the weird light fell on the large semicircle of beings that stood before the two chairs on which were seated Fitch and Amrut Rao. The visitors, Malguzars and other native gentlemen, were on benches to right and left, and the little Rani and her women behind bamboo lattice-work in the veranda. A semicircle of nigh two hundred aborigines terminated in a group at either end that held the flaming torches aloft. Dark visaged faces gleamed out as the light played on them, glinted on the brass chains and armlets, and the bells hanging from the back of the men’s necks, and, above all, the light was focussed into waving sprays of colour and shadow as it danced about on the great nodding peacocks’ feathers which fluttered on each man’s head, and created devilish shadows on the bison skins and horns in which the feathers were stuck.
The musicians were with the dancers—kettle-drum and large drums, piccolos and flageolets, and one enormous brass horn. After introductions of the gentry, including the priest of Mahakali’s shrine, to Fitch by Amrut Rao, the music struck up in low, monotonous rhythm; the semicircle moved into a circle, and the dance began—breakdown steps and polka steps. Faster and faster the music; faster and faster the living circle moved round in the flaring torchlight. The dancers broke into discordant song as the intoxication of the dance mounted to their heads, and Mephistopheles and his familiars on the summit of the Brocken could scarcely have rivalled the whirling circle which Walter, in ordinary English garb, was watching. The performance went on for a couple of hours, and Fitch was beginning to think he had had enough of it, when Vittu, who was standing behind his chair, bent down in the darkness, and in a whisper said, close to his master’s ear: ‘Will your honour retire? I have a message for you from Sita.’
Walter waited a few minutes more which seemed hours, and then turning to Amrut Rao expressed his regret at leaving, but the latter hastened to assure him that he quite understood that he would like to rest after the journey, and escorted Fitch to his apartment after exchanging farewells with the other gentlemen and garlanding him in due form.
‘It will be dawn ere we retire,’ he told Walter, as he took his leave on the threshold of the room,
‘Well, Vittu, what is it?’ asked his master, as soon as they were alone.
‘Your honour, the Rani sahib has sent you salaams. Sita is without and will take you to her mistress. I will stay here in case anyone comes, if your honour so please.’
Walter’s heart leapt with joy. Never had he been so filled with happiness as he was to-day. In Scotland they would have said he was ‘fey.’
He found Sita in the passage with a little lamp. No one was about. The noise of the revel could be heard faintly. Walter followed the maid through some narrow passages, and found himself at a small entrance on the other side of the building to the courtyard. Sita blew out her light, let herself and Walter in, and then shut the door behind them. Inside the room, Sita left him alone awhile. It was an idyllic little chamber of the purest white marble, the walls curved and fretted into Saracenic patterns and archways, and inlaid with a deep blue stone that seemed to be lapis lazuli. There were blue silken hangings with a great yellow border, and thick Persian rugs and large white silken pillows on the floor, while a silver lamp hung from the roof, which rose to a Moslem dome. Never had he seen a fairer place. The hangings, behind which Sita had disappeared, opened again, and Walter forgot all about the room as he saw his little queen looking at him with lovely eyes swimming with happy tears.
‘Welcome home, my own sahib,’ she said, as she stood holding the blue curtains apart, but before the words were well out of her lips Walter had her in his arms and kissed her. She made no resistance, but nestled softly to him. Both were silent—it was too much to be together like this. At last he drew her to the great heap of cushions, and with her close beside him, he half lay, half sat whilst she held his hand.
‘Walter,’ she said in a low voice.
Walter started, and kissed the little hand which lay in his. It was the first time she had ever called him by his name.
How strange and sweet it sounded from her lips! ‘Walter, my sahib, now we are here at home together at last I feel you are truly mine.’
‘Till death, my queen,’ he said. There was a silence again.
‘Does my lord like my room?’ asked the little lady at length. ‘It was built in the days of the great Delhi empire, when a Zemindar here married a Moslem princess. It was done in those days—marriage with one of alien race—why not in these?’ her voice quivered.
Walter’s arm stole protectingly round her.
‘Fear not, sweetheart mine, man shall never part us.’
His voice was exultant, and Sabitra caught his exaltation; life was too happy thus. They were jubilant together over Amrut Rao’s promised aid, and hoped everything from the Panchayet. They planned the future—what great things they would do in the Zemindari: open out the ruby and diamond mines and find the Taru orchid, and themselves live happily ever after. Never had Sabitra been so enchanting; she was her natural self, with a sweet confidence in her sahib. She insisted on bringing him sherbet and cakes she had made, and they feasted together on a banquet Cupid himself would not have disdained. But even love itself cannot stay the hand of time, nay, nor of death, and for one moment, as they at last realized they must part, an unutterable sadness stole over the lovers.
‘I must go, my sweet,’ said Walter, as he stood by the outer door, and then with a low cry, all her self-restraint overcome, the little Rani flung her slender arms around him, laid her head upon his breast, and moaned:
‘I cannot live without you, my sahib—my own sahib—life of my life!’ and she turned up her face to his. ‘The day of your death will see Sabitra’s hours numbered, unless she is already waiting for you on the other side.’
Walter bent and kissed her passionately on the lips, and then they parted in a tumult of love and longing, and Walter found himself at last on his little camp-bed. Life was crowned with joy. Alas! when a man is ‘fey.’
A week passed away. Walter had a number of interviews with Amrut Rao, for whom he took a great liking. The Panchayet had been arranged for, and an auspicious date some weeks off fixed. But Amrut Rao held out no great hopes to Walter; the poojari of the temple, he said, would never let such a match take place. However, Walter cared little, for he meant to carry it through. There was not a sign of Tuljagir nor of his emissaries. Fitch had been down and visited the sangam, but of course could not publicly enter the temple and ascertain the truth of what Radha had told him with regard to the means of entrance through Mahadeo’s shrine to the subterranean temple. The Nandi bull he could see kneeling there in marble, and he gathered from Amrut Rao that there was a tradition of an old-world temple existing beneath the sand of the reach of the river there. He had inquired also into the existence of the diamonds and rubies, and had visited the spot where they were found, and had even got specimens of bits of stone of a peculiar leaden-gray, semi-metallic lustre, somewhat like small lumps of gum arabic, and intended forwarding them to England for an expert’s opinion, and meanwhile had written in to the secretariat to obtain concessions. Of the Taru orchid he had heard nothing, though he had let it be known he was anxious to obtain a specimen if one came into the town; but a deep reserve overcame everyone the moment the subject was mentioned.
All seemed going well, but of his little queen he had been able to see nothing more. Amrut Rao’s wife was with him in the fortress, and lived with Sabitra, and but for the Māria nautch it would not have been easy for him to have seen her even as he had done—a memory that was warm and glowing in his heart. Still, all looked well and promising for the future, so when one morning Vittu informed him that there was a villager who had brought a Taru orchid to show the sahib, and could point out where it had been found, it seemed as if fortune were playing consistently into Walter’s hands.
The man was brought into the veranda of the big courtyard, and Fitch sent Vittu with a salaam to Amrut Rao. Meanwhile he looked at the flower and its bearer. The man was an ordinary-looking villager, nude save for a loincloth and a large red puggaree. He looked moderately intelligent.
When Amrut Rao came he answered all questions well enough, said he was a teli (an oil-maker), and lived beyond Armori; that he had heard at the weekly bazaar there was a sahib at Ghairagurh who would give much paisa for a Taru flower. He knew where they grew, as he had been lost in the forest once and came across them; and in spite of the shaitan and wild beasts, had ventured to go and get one for the sahib, and the sahib would doubtless give good reward. The man seemed quite genuine. Amrut Rao verified the flower as a Taru; it was really a magnificent bloom. Even as a plant of no medicinal value, Walter felt it would be worth its weight in gold in England, and marvelled how wonderfully native silence on the cult had kept it from the local authorities, the only Europeans likely to come about the place, and that at very rare intervals. Amrut Rao questioned the teli as to whether he knew the spot well.
‘Oh yes,’ said the man; ‘and if the sahib will give me a good reward, I will take him there.’
‘Nothing I should like better,’ said Fitch. However, Amrut Rao advised the man being kept that day, and the matter discussed. This was done, and some money given him for the specimen he had brought, which Fitch carried off. He ate some of the apricot-coloured fleshy petals, and felt them act on his frame in a most exhilarating manner—he got the most wonderful appetite for dinner that night.
The result of his deliberations with Amrut Rao was that he should go with the teli, taking a bodyguard of men with him. Amrut Rao had not heard from any of his people that the Tarvels were about or any strangers; still, it was well to be on the safe side, as they might be going into the heart of the enemy’s preserves.
Accordingly, the next day early Fitch sallied forth. He was mounted, the men were on foot, all armed with heavy tipped staves, the Arms Act preventing swords and guns; but Walter had a sword Amrut Rao presented him with, and Vittu carried his master’s gun. They were to be away all that night, and sleep at a Malguzar’s house in a village. As he rode out of the courtyard, Walter turned and lifted his hand and kissed it to the lattice-work; for Sita had told him her mistress would be watching her sahib ride forth. And so he rode out into the brisk morning air. The scene had ceased to cause him any particular interest, more than the ride to town at home; everything seemed natural and ordinary now.
The teli led the way, Vittu walked by his master’s horse, and the eight young men, all members of Amrut Rao’s akara, or gymnasium, marched behind. They crossed the cultivated track and debouched into the jungle.
‘Your honour knows the tigress shaitan is still about?’ said Vittu.
‘Is it?’ said Walter. ‘I should like to get a shot at it; we must have a beat when we come back.’
‘It will never come out in any beat, sahib, and the people are much frightened here. It carried off a little girl the day before yesterday, only two kos [four miles] from here. They say its pugs are found all round a regular circle, of which Ghairagurh is the centre. It bodes ill, sahib, and, I pray the gods, not to us; but with us it came, and so they say in the market-place.’
‘Well, I shall trust to exterminate it, Vittu, and then you will see what nonsense this superstition is.’
At mid-day they halted and took some refreshment, and then went on again till about three in the afternoon. Walter noticed that they had left all ordinary trees behind them, and were in a jungle of bamboo only; but what magnificent specimens! full eighty feet high, like glorified green feathers. And then the teli stopped suddenly, and Walter gasped with surprise. Of a verity the man had spoken the truth, he did know the spot. Never had the young Englishman seen anything in his life like the scene which met his gaze. They were in an oblong opening, the great bamboos meeting as they bent their lissom heads above the glade; and like great glorious lanterns, pendant in the green shade and almost luminous, hung innumerable clusters of the exquisite flowers, and the air was heavy with their fragrance.
It was like a wondrous temple, of which the pillars were the separate clumps of bamboo, and they sprang up in lovely vaulting arches over their heads. All were lost in astonishment, and strayed hither and thither as a fresh and more splendid spray caught their eyes.
Walter had dismounted from his horse, and approached one of the bamboo clumps to find the easiest way of getting at the flowers, when a number of men, with their faces muffled and armed with iron-tipped staves, rushed out from behind the clumps, and began attacking Walter’s party. There was no time for thought. Walter found himself confronted by a man armed with a sword, and instinctively drew his own. It was Tuljagir himself! Clash, clash, rang the steel. Walter thanked God from the bottom of his heart that sword-play had been in vogue at the ’Varsity. The two fought on desperately and vigorously. They heeded not that all had grown deserted around them. The shouts of ‘Bagh! bagh! [Tiger! tiger!] Shaitan ki bagh!’ which had sent all their followers fleeing in terror of the beast and its supernatural qualities, never reached the ears of the two combatants.
Vittu had fled with the rest, but came back and crouched by a bamboo: he had sworn not to leave his master. He saw the vile beast walk round and round in circles, watching the two as it may have watched two Sambhur stags fighting to grim death in the jungle. Vittu had the gun, but no cartridges; they were with Walter. His master was getting hard pressed, but neither man was touched. Then the tigress crouched—crouched low in the thicket opposite Vittu, with her eyes fixed on the two combatants. The man could stand it no longer.
‘The eyes of Radha!’ he shrieked, ‘the eyes of Radha!’ and, rushing into the glade, flung himself upon Walter from behind, and dragged him well backwards on to the ground just as the tigress sprang—sprang and fastened on to its victim, Tuljagir.
Walter was up, and had his senses in a moment as he heard the cry of agony that burst from his late antagonist’s lips and the crunch of flesh and bone, and smelt the sickening odour of warm, fresh blood.
‘God bless you, Vittu! The gun! the gun!’ he cried.
The animal lay growling and worrying its prey. Never again could Walter load and fire as he did then. The shot rang out. The beast leapt up into the air, its teeth still in the unfortunate wretch, who was silent as though dead, and then itself fell over lifeless. Walter put another bullet carefully into its body, and then went up to it, Vittu, lead-coloured and trembling like an aspen, with him. Tuljagir opened his eyes.
‘The eyes of Radha! the eyes of Radha!’ gasped Vittu.
‘Get water, Vittu. There is a nullah down there’—and Walter gave his helmet to serve as a cup, but. Take away your polluting drink!’ said the dying man. ‘I die pure! Oh, dread mother, I come a willing victim—to the glories of your house! Fitch sahib, I have done my best, but—it was written that one of us—should perish! It is I. Remember, though, it is written—in your hand, “Woe, woe to the Indian girl—and—to you!”’
His voice rose to a shriek, and he fell back lifeless as a great gush of crimson fluid poured out of his mouth and over one of the glorious Taru blooms, which had dropped from overhead, and mingled with the life-blood of the great gaunt tigress, whose fangs were still fastened in his shoulder. Walter sat down at the foot of one of the great clumps of bamboo close to the two corpses.
‘Sit down, Vittu,’ he said to the man, who stood faint and tottering, and gladly obeyed.
It was past five o’clock. Walter took a pull at his brandy-flask, and made his servant do the same; then he sat silent once more; the whole episode had been too dramatic. Vittu squatted, his eyes fixed on his master’s face. After the clash of arms the glade was possessed by the silence of death, the only movement the myriads of tiny red ants that streamed along the ground to the two dead bodies, the only sound the discordant scream of the vultures and carrion kites that were circling round above the canopy of green. Sudden death had come into Walter’s love idyll, and, spite his sense of relief that his foe was no more, his heart was heavy as he thought of Tuljagir’s dying imprecation. Are there such things as presentiments of ill? At last he called himself back from his indefinite gloomy reveries.
‘Vittu,’ he said, ‘what has happened to my horse?’
‘It stampeded, your honour, when she came.’
‘When who came, Vittu?’
‘Radha, your honour. She was the shaitan in the tigress. I saw her eyes before she sprang on Tuljagir.’
Walter made no reply; he could not argue on the point now. The superstition was no evil one—retribution overtaking the murderer through his victim’s spirit, for Walter never doubted that Tuljagir was ultimately responsible for the courtesan’s death. He returned to the more practical question of the horse.
‘It is getting late, Vittu, and if we could get hold of the beast, we might get to some village, and we ought to bring the body into shelter for the night.’
‘Yes, sahib; if we knew of a village near, we could send some chamars [tanners] to bring in the corpses; they would not be contaminated.’
‘Where are all the other men?’ asked Walter.
‘I do not know, sahib; the teli who guided us here disappeared at once; he must have gone to tell his master how successfully he had lured us hither. But we all ran away when the tigress came.’
‘But you are here, Vittu.’
‘Yes, huzur, I had to come back.’ The man did not say any more, but Walter put his hand for a moment on that of his servant; he had understood.
‘Then let us halloo,’ he said. ‘Perhaps some of them may be about. I do not fear the miscreants returning.’
They both shouted, but got no response; they shouted again, and there seemed to be an answering echo. As they continued calling, the shouts in reply came nearer and nearer, and at last some figures moved out of the thicket into the glade, which was quite dusk now. They were Gonds. Vittu spoke to them.
‘Stand on one leg,’ he said to the one who seemed to be the principal man. The man obeyed, to Fitch’s wonder, and Vittu, turning to his master, said: ‘Now, he will be sure to speak the truth, sahib.’ And to the Gond: ‘How far are we from your village?’
‘A kos (two miles].’ The man salaamed when he saw Walter was a European. ‘Is the sahib after shikar?’ he said as he noticed the confused outline of the tigress’s body.
‘Yes,’ replied Vittu, ‘and the tiger has killed a man in the chase.’
‘Ah,’ said the Gond, the spot is ill-omened. None save we of the jungle will come near it, and a horse has come to our village with a sahib’s saddle; so we thought something must have gone amiss, and came out, and then heard and followed the shouts. If you and the sahib will come with us, we will send men to bring in the corpse and the beast.’
Fitch and Vittu thankfully went off with the Gonds. The village was a very mean one, only some ten mud hovels; but there was the horse now tethered, and by midnight, somehow or other, Tuljagir’s body and the tiger’s skin were brought to Walter.
‘Where is the little bone from the tigress’s shoulder?’ asked Vittu of the Gond. But the man gave no answer, and stolidly turned away.
Vittu turned to his master. ‘Huzur, they have stolen the lucky-bone out of the beast. Your honour will make them give it up?’
But Walter, preoccupied with his own thoughts, said it did not matter, and Vittu was left lamenting that his master took no care to secure good luck.
With the early morning Walter and Vittu, under the guidance of a villager, set off for Ghairagurh. The short sleep had refreshed them both, and Walter looked forward with a sense of elation to relating his successful adventures. Vittu was on a little pony of the Gond Malguzar’s, and the villagers passed them on to a man of the next village, he to one of the succeeding place, and they quickly reached Ghairagurh, and rode up the steep ascent just after nine o’clock in the morning. They had not passed through the town, but outside it and along the tanks to the road mounting up to the fortress gateway. There was no one on the road, no one at the gateway, but just as they reached the entrance the sound of loud wailing broke upon their ears—a long, prolonged keening note.
‘Vittu, what is that?’ cried Walter.
‘Sahib, they are mourning for the dead.’
Walter involuntarily clapped his heels to his horse’s sides. The animal gave a spring forward and dashed under the archway, and Walter had to rein it in sharply, as he found himself amid a throng of people in the courtyard, their hair dishevelled, their garments torn, many in tears and rending the air with their lamentations. At the sight of Fitch there were screams of dismay.
‘The sahib’s ghost!’ resounded on all sides as the people shrank together.
‘Nay,’ cried Vittu, who was now beside his master, ‘we are flesh and blood, alive and well! Tell us what is the matter.’
Walter leapt down. Louder lamentations rent the air. The crowd parted, and a stranger came up to Walter, nude save a dhotie—a clean-shaven man. He spoke, and with a start poor Walter realized that it was Amrut Rao, the Zemindarin’s uncle, but without his curved moustaches, and with tears running down his face. He said nothing, but laid one hand on Walter’s arm.
‘Come,’ he said, and Walter went with him mechanically, whilst Vittu, who had spoken to someone of the throng, suddenly burst into convulsive tears. ‘The Rani is dead!’ he cried, ‘the Rani is dead! What will my sahib do!
‘What!’ cried Walter, in such a terrible voice that a dumb silence fell on the mass of people.
‘It is true, sahib,’ said Amrut Rao; ‘it is the will of Heaven. Come inside.’
Walter’s teeth met in his lip till the blood stained them scarlet. His eyes were scalding, but no tear fell.
‘My God!’ he said, and followed Amrut into the apartment. Walter sat down on the little camp-bed. ‘Sit down,’ he said to Amrut Rao. He spoke as though he had been hit a violent blow on the head and was dazed.
‘Sahib, the men came back and swore you were dead, that Tuljagir had killed you through a tiger, and your servant also. They told the Rani; all of them were certain.’
At this moment Sita appeared at the door of the room. Amrut Rao beckoned her in as Walter sat staring vacantly at the floor.
‘Here is Sita; she will tell you. It is the will of God—nasib ki bāt, the saying of fortune.’
‘Be proud, sahib!’ said Sita in loud tones, ‘be proud! I know in what honour and respect you held our Queen, and she was worthy of you. Sahib, when the news came that you were no more—news that those cowards thought must be the truth, for I have heard the story from Vittuji—sahib, when my lady believed that you were dead, no tears dimmed her eyes, she wasted no vain regrets. “I go to join my lord,” she said. “I am suttee as our queens in olden days. My lord shall not wait for me in the borders of Paradise, for without me, Sita,” she said, “I know my lord will not be happy even there.” I wept, sahib,’ and the woman was crying even now, but she soothed my tears. “You will not forget us, Sita,” she said, “if weep you must. Bring out my fairest sarees and my jewels.” I dared not stay her, for she was possessed by the spirit. She would not wait for her uncle’s return. She kissed her boy, sahib, with one long kiss, and put him in my arms. “He is my uncle’s now,” she said, and even then she shed no tear. Never, never have I seen my lady so fair.’ Vittu and Amrut Rao were weeping bitterly, but Walter’s eyelids never faltered. ‘She bade them harness the white bullocks to her cart of state, mounted it while we stood awe-stricken, the finger of Heaven upon us, and she urged the beasts down the precipitous descent. Sahib, I know no more. I lost my senses, and my lady—my lady—lay drowned in the waters of the lake.’
The woman’s composure had quite forsaken her, and she sank down crying. Walter looked round at Amrut Rao.
‘Where is she?’ he said.
‘She is ready for the funeral pyre, a saint indeed,’ was the answer. And Amrut Rao got up, and Walter followed him out of the room.
Once more Walter saw the white marble chamber with its blue hangings, but what had before been pervaded by the joy of living love was now the cold home of death. In the centre, as though asleep, lay Sabitra.
‘Leave me a moment,’ said Walter to Amrut Rao, and he was alone with his dead.
Once again Walter sat gazing out through the narrow embrasure of his room in the fortress at the fair landscape without, but a pall of gloom seemed to have settled on it. Everything he had set out to do he had accomplished, and it was bitterness. Now he sat waiting to hear that his horse was saddled for the first march back to civilization and London town.
It was more than a month since Sabitra’s death. A black band on Walter’s arm bore token to his loss. Vittu had seen the Sahiblog do this in Cobrapur, and had religiously placed one on each of his master’s coats. But Walter never spoke or alluded in any way to the event to anyone. He had duly seen Tuljagir’s death reported to the police authorities as due to a tiger—a fact which excited no comment, as he found Tuljagir had left Chandanpur ostensibly for shikar. The Rani’s death was reported as due to a carriage accident, but the ballad-mongers of the country side knew better than the authorities.
Walter had the concessions for the rubies and diamonds. He had specimens of the Taru orchid, and, taking Amrut Rao into his confidence, he had gone by night to the shrine of Mahadeo and made his way alone into the lower shrine. He was callous to danger now, and therefore nothing molested him. There, in front of a hideous image of Kali, he had found a small box. It was full of gems, but out of their settings; there was nothing to point to their owners. The square emerald that had been lost in the Giles burglary was certainly not there. It was safe on the finger of Buthnath the Beautiful and Immovable at Chandanpur. The gems he left to be dealt with as Amrut Rao and the Deputy Commissioner should think proper as treasure trove, but a number of large turquoises that were among them Walter took, certain that they were those which had formed part of the stolen ornaments at Giles Court.
He had made ample arrangements for the welfare of the little Zemindar. Amrut Rao had formally adopted the boy, and would be his guardian, and Walter meant to have a long interview with the Deputy Commissioner at Chandanpur on the subject. And now he sat waiting his departure. At last Vittu came in.
‘The horses are ready, your honour.’
They went out and started on their long journey, for Vittu was to accompany him to England. Amrut Rao stood at the entrance gateway; he held the baby boy in his arms. Walter shook Amrut by the hand, and got on his horse, and then he held out his arms.
‘Give me the boy,’ he said, and he took him up and kissed him gently, and, giving him back to his uncle, rode slowly down the hill, Vittu following on a little pony.
At the bottom, by the lake side, stood a new square white pillar. On it were traced two footprints, the marks of a true suttee, and Walter alighted and stood with his helmet off a moment reading the inscription:
‘DILEXI,’ I have loved,
and then rode away back to the life of the West.
Some New Novels
The Standard, Friday, March 17, 1899, p. 6.
The author of “Fitch and his Fortunes” (One Vol., Elliott Stock), Mr. George Dick, has clearly not been favourably impressed by the educated Indian native. The hero of his Anglo-Indian novel, one Tuljagir, a high-caste Brahmin, who has been educated at a Christian college at Poona, only makes use of his acquaintance with Western civilisation to carry out a vast system of fraud and robbery. Taking a hint from the sensational literature on which his youthful mind had been nurtured, he conceived the plan of enriching his own particular little sect and shrine in India by a series of great jewel robberies in England, and with a view to perpetrating them he comes to England and enters himself as a student at the Middle Temple. From the first he excites the suspicions of Walter Fitch, a briefless barrister, and the book describes the attempts made by the two men to outwit each other. It is apparently indispensable for the progress of the romance that this very common-place young Englishman, with absolutely no knowledge of detective work, should throughout get the better of the wily Hindoo, who, for an impassive Eastern, is singularly lacking in self-control. The tale shifts from England back to India, with which country the author appears to be familiar, and there is no lack of sensational developments, concerning the possibility of which we will not venture to offer an opinion. Mr. Dick’s style, if possess3d of a certain vigour, is, unhappily, deficient in literary distinction. In the desire to be humorous or colloquial he is apt to use phrases which, if not absolutely ungrammatical, are certainly not literary; and there is, moreover, a good deal of inaccurate French:— “à l’outrance,” “impressé,” and the like—scattered through his pages.
(London Evening Standard)