“List, list, list!”
—Hamlet, Act I
Some years ago, when I was a slim young spin, I came out to India to live with my brother Tom: he and I were members of a large and somewhat impecunious family, and I do not think my mother was sorry to have one of her four grown-up daughters thus taken off her hands. Tom’s wife, Aggie, had been at school with my eldest sister; we had known and liked her all our lives, and regarded her as one of ourselves; and as she and the children were at home when Tom’s letter was received, and his offer accepted, she helped me to choose my slender outfit with judgment, zeal, and taste; endowed me with several pretty additions to my wardrobe; superintended the fitting of my gowns and the trying on of my hats, with most sympathetic interest, and finally escorted me out to Lucknow, under her own wing, and installed me in the only spare room in her comfortable bungalow in Dilkousha.
My sister-in-law is a pretty little brunette, rather pale, with dark hair, brilliant black eyes, a resolute mouth, and a bright, intelligent expression. She is orderly, trim, feverishly energetic, and seems to live every moment of her life. Her children, her wardrobe, her house, her servants, and last, not least, her husband, are all models in their way; and yet she has plenty of time for tennis, and dancing, and talking and walking. She is, undoubtedly, a remarkably talented little creature, and especially prides herself on her nerve, and her power of will, or will power. I suppose they are the same thing? and I am sure they are all the same to Tom, who worships the sole of her small slipper. Strictly between ourselves, she is the ruling member of the family, and turns her lord and master round her little finger. Tom is big and fair (of course), the opposite to his wife, quiet, rather easy-going and inclined to be indolent; but Aggie rouses him up, and pushes him to the front, and keeps him there. She knows all about his department, his prospects of promotion, his prospects of furlough, of getting acting appointments, and so on, even better than he does himself. The chief of Tom’s department—have I said that Tom is in the Irrigation Office?—has placed it solemnly on record that he considers little Mrs. Shandon a surprisingly clever woman. The two children, Bob and Tor, are merry, oppressively active monkeys, aged three and five years respectively. As for myself, I am tall, fair—and I wish I could add pretty! but this is a true story. My eyes are blue, my teeth are white, my hair is red—alas, a blazing red; and I was, at this period, nineteen years of age; and now I think I have given a sufficient outline of the whole family.
We arrived at Lucknow in November, when the cold weather is delightful, and everything was delightful to me. The bustle and life of a great Indian station, the novelty of my surroundings, the early morning rides, picnics down the river, and dances at the “Chutter Munzil”, made me look upon Lucknow as a paradise on earth; and in this light I still regarded it, until a great change came over the temperature, and the month of April introduced me to red-hot winds, sleepless nights, and the intolerable “brain fever” bird. Aggie had made up her mind definitely on one subject: we were not to go away to the hills until the rains. Tom could only get two months’ leave (July and August), and she did not intend to leave him to grill on the plains alone. As for herself and the children—not to speak of me—we had all come out from home so recently that we did not require a change. The trip to Europe had made a vast hole in the family stocking, and she wished to economize; and who can economize with two establishments in full swing? Tell me this, ye Anglo-Indian matrons? With a large, cool bungalow, plenty of punkhas, khuskhus tatties, ice, and a thermantidote, surely we could manage to brave May and June—at any rate the attempt was made. Gradually the hills drained Lucknow week by week; family after family packed up, warned us of our folly in remaining on the plains, offered to look for houses for us, and left by the night mail. By the middle of May, the place was figuratively empty. Nothing can be more dreary than a large station in the hot weather—unless it is an equally forsaken hill station in the depths of winter, when the mountains are covered with snow, the mall no longer resounds with gay voices and the tramp of Jampanies, but is visited by bears and panthers, and the houses are closed, and, as it were, put to bed in straw! As for Lucknow in the summer, it was a melancholy spot; the public gardens were deserted, the chairs at the Chutter Munzil stood empty, the very bands had gone to the hills! the shops were shut, the baked white roads, no longer thronged with carriages and bamboo carts, gave ample room to the humble ekka, or a Dhobie’s meagre donkey, shuffling along in the dust.
Of course we were not the only people remaining in the place, grumbling at the heat and dust and life in general; but there can be no sociability with the thermometer above 100° in the shade. Through the long, long Indian day we sat and gasped, in darkened rooms, and consumed quantities of “Nimbo pegs”, i.e. limes and soda water, and listened to the fierce hot wind roaring along the road and driving the roasted leaves before it; and in the evening, when the sun had set, we went for a melancholy drive through the Wingfield Park, or round by Martiniere College, and met our friends at the library, and compared sensations and thermometers. The season was exceptionally bad (but people say that every year), and presently Bobby and Tor began to fade: their little white faces and listless eyes appealed to Aggie as Tom’s anxious expostulations had never done. “Yes, they must go to the hills with you.” But this idea I repudiated at once; I refused to undertake the responsibility—I, who could scarcely speak a word to the servants—who had no experience! Then Bobbie had a bad go of fever—intermittent fever; the beginning of the end to his alarmed mother; the end being represented by a large gravestone! She now became as firmly determined to go, as she had previously been resolved to stay; but it was so late in the season to take a house. Alas, alas, for the beautiful tempting advertisements in the Pioneer, which we had seen and scorned! Aggie wrote to a friend in a certain hill station, called (for this occasion only) “Kantia”, and Tom wired to a house agent, who triumphantly replied by letter that there was not one unlet bungalow on his books. This missive threw us into the depths of despair; there seemed no alternative but a hill hotel, and the usual quarters that await the last comers, and the proverbial welcome for children and dogs (we had only four); but the next day brought us good news from Aggie’s friend Mrs. Chalmers:
“Dear Mrs. Shandon,
“I received your letter, and went at once to Cursitjee, the agent. Every hole and corner up here seems full, and he had not a single house to let. To-day I had a note from him, saying that Briarwood is vacant; the people who took it are not coming up, they have gone to Naini Tal. You are in luck. I have just been out to see the house, and have secured it for you. It is a mile and a half from the club, but I know that you and your sister are capital walkers. I envy you. Such a charming place—two sitting-rooms, four bedrooms, four bath-rooms, a hall, servants’ go-downs, stabling, and a splendid view from a very pretty garden, and only Rs. 800 for the season! Why, I am paying Rs. 1000 for a very inferior house, with scarcely a stick of furniture and no view. I feel so proud of myself, and I am longing to show you my treasure-trove. Telegraph when you start, and I shall have a milkman in waiting and fires in all the rooms.
We now looked upon Mrs. Chalmers as our best and dearest friend, and began to get under way at once. A long journey in India is a serious business, when the party comprises two ladies, two children, two ayahs, and five other servants, three fox terriers, a mongoose, and a Persian cat—all these animals going to the hills for the benefit of their health—not to speak of a ton of luggage, including crockery and lamps, a cottage piano, a goat, and a pony. Aggie and I, the children, one ayah, two terriers, the cat and mongoose, our bedding and pillows, the tiffin basket and ice basket, were all stowed into one compartment, and I must confess that the journey was truly miserable. The heat was stifling, despite the water tatties. One of the terriers had a violent dispute with the cat, and the cat had a difference with the mongoose, and Bob and Tor had a pitched battle; more than once I actually wished myself back in Lucknow. I was most truly thankful to wake one morning, to find myself under the shadow of the Himalayas—not a mighty, snow-clad range of everlasting hills, but merely the spurs—the moderate slopes, covered with scrub, loose shale, and jungle, and deceitful little trickling watercourses. We sent the servants on ahead, whilst we rested at the dâk bungalow near the railway station, and then followed them at our leisure. We accomplished the ascent in dandies—open kind of boxes, half box, half chair, carried on the shoulders of four men. This was an entirely novel sensation to me, and at first an agreeable one, so long as the slopes were moderate, and the paths wide; but the higher we went, the narrower became the path, the steeper the naked precipice; and as my coolies would walk at the extreme edge, with the utmost indifference to my frantic appeals to “Beetor! Beetor!”—and would change poles at the most agonizing corners—my feelings were very mixed, especially when droves of loose pack ponies came thundering downhill, with no respect for the rights of the road. Late at night we passed through Kantia, and arrived at Briarwood, far too weary to be critical. Fires were blazing, supper was prepared, and we despatched it in haste, and most thankfully went to bed and slept soundly, as any one would do who had spent thirty-six hours in a crowded compartment, and ten in a cramped wooden case.
The next morning, rested and invigorated, we set out on a tour of inspection; and it is almost worth while to undergo a certain amount of baking in the sweltering heat of the lower regions, in order to enjoy those deep first draughts of cool hill air, instead of a stifling, dust-laden atmosphere; and to appreciate the green valleys and blue hills, by force of contrast to the far-stretching, eye-smarting, white glaring roads, that intersect the burnt-up plains—roads and plains, that even the pariah abandons, salamander though he be!
To our delight and surprise, Mrs. Chalmers had by no means overdrawn the advantages of our new abode. The bungalow was solidly built of stone, two storied, and ample in size. It stood on a kind of shelf, cut out of the hillside, and was surrounded by a pretty flower garden, full of roses, fuchsias, and carnations. The high road passed the gate, from which the avenue descended, direct to the entrance door, at the end of the house, and from whence ran a long passage. Off this passage three rooms opened to the right, all looking south, and all looking into a deep, delightful, flagged, verandah. The stairs were very steep. At the head of them, the passage and rooms were repeated. There were small nooks, and dressing-rooms, and convenient out-houses, and plenty of good water; but the glory of Briarwood was undoubtedly its verandah: it was fully twelve feet wide, roofed with zinc, and overhung a precipice of a thousand feet—not a startlingly sheer khud, but a tolerably straight descent of grey-blue shale, rocks, and low jungle. From it there was a glorious view, across a valley, far away, to the snowy range. It opened at one end into the avenue, and was not inclosed; but at the side next the precipice, there was a stout wooden railing, with netting at the bottom, for the safety of too enterprising dogs or children A charming spot, despite its rather bold situation; and as Aggie and I sat in it, surveying the scenery and inhaling the pure hill air, and watching Bob and Tor tearing up and down, playing horses, we said to one another that the verandah alone was worth half the rent.
“It’s absurdly cheap,” exclaimed my sister-in-law complacently. “I wish you saw the hovel I had, at Simla, for the same rent. I wonder if it is feverish, or badly drained, or what?”
“Perhaps it has a ghost,” I suggested facetiously; and at such an absurd idea we both went into peals of laughter.
At this moment Mrs. Chalmers appeared, brisk, rosy, and breathlessly benevolent, having walked over from Kantia.
“So you have found it,” she said as we shook hands. “I said nothing about this delicious verandah! I thought I would keep it as a surprise. I did not say a word too much for Briarwood, did I?”
“Not half enough,” we returned rapturously; and presently we went in a body, armed with a list from the agent, and proceeded to go over the house and take stock of its contents.
“It’s not a bit like a hill furnished house,” boasted Mrs. Chalmers, with a glow of pride, as she looked round the drawing-room; “carpets, curtains, solid, very solid chairs, and Berlin wool-worked screens, a card-table, and any quantity of pictures.”
“Yes, don’t they look like family portraits?” I suggested, as we gazed at them. There was one of an officer in faded water colours, another of his wife, two of a previous generation in oils and amply gilded frames, two sketches of an English country house, and some framed photographs—groups of grinning cricketers, or wedding guests. All the rooms were well, almost handsomely, furnished in an old-fashioned style. There was no scarcity of wardrobes, looking-glasses, or even armchairs, in the bedrooms, and the pantry was fitted out—a most singular circumstance—with a large supply of handsome glass and china, lamps, old moderators, coffee and teapots, plated side dishes, and candlesticks, cooking utensils and spoons and forks, wine coasters and a cake-basket. These articles were all let with the house (much to our amazement), provided we were responsible for the same. The china was Spode, the plate old family heirlooms, with a crest—a winged horse—on everything, down to the very mustard spoons.
“The people who own this house must be lunatics,” remarked Aggie, as she peered round the pantry; “fancy hiring out one’s best family plate, and good old china! And I saw some ancient music-books in the drawing-room, and there is a side saddle in the bottle khana.”
“My dear, the people who owned this house are dead,” explained Mrs. Chalmers. “I heard all about them last evening from Mrs. Starkey.”
“Oh, is she up there?” exclaimed Aggie, somewhat fretfully.
“Yes, her husband is cantonment magistrate. This house belonged to an old retired colonel and his wife. They and his niece lived here. These were all their belongings. They died within a short time of one another, and the old man left a queer will, to say that the house was to remain precisely as they left it for twenty years, and at the end of that time, it was to be sold and all the property dispersed. Mrs. Starkey says she is sure that he never intended it to be let, but the heir-at-law insists on that, and is furious at the terms of the will.”
“Well, it is a very good thing for us,” remarked Aggie; “we are as comfortable here, as if we were in our own house: there is a stove in the kitchen, there are nice boxes for firewood in every room, clocks, real hair mattresses—in short, it is as you said, a treasure trove.”
We set to work to modernize the drawing-room with phoolkaries, Madras muslin curtains, photograph screens and frames, and such-like portable articles. We placed the piano across a corner, arranged flowers in some handsome Dresden china vases, and entirely altered and improved the character of the room. When Aggie had despatched a most glowing description of our new quarters to Tom, and when we had had tiffin, we set off to walk into Kantia to put our names down at the library, and to inquire for letters at the post-office. Aggie met a good many acquaintances—who does not, who has lived five years in India in the same district?
Among them Mrs. Starkey, an elderly lady with a prominent nose and goggle eyes, who greeted her loudly across the reading-room table, in this agreeable fashion:
“And so you have come up after all, Mrs. Shandon. Some one told me that you meant to remain below, but I knew you never could be so wicked as to keep your poor little children in that heat.” Then coming round and dropping into a chair beside her, she said, “And I suppose this young lady is your sister-in-law?”
Mrs. Starkey eyed me critically, evidently appraising my chances in the great marriage market. She herself had settled her own two daughters most satisfactorily, and had now nothing to do, but interest herself in other people’s affairs.
“Yes,” acquiesced Aggie; “Miss Shandon—Mrs. Starkey.”
“And so you have taken Briarwood?”
“Yes, we have been most lucky to get it.”
“I hope you will think so, at the end of three months,” observed Mrs. Starkey, with a significant pursing of her lips. “Mrs. Chalmers is a stranger up here, or she would not have been in such a hurry to jump at it.”
“Why, what is the matter with it?” inquired Aggie. “It is well built, well furnished, well situated, and very cheap.”
“That’s just it—suspiciously cheap. Why, my dear Mrs. Shandon, if there was not something against it, it would let for two hundred rupees a month. Common sense would tell you that!”
“And what is against it?”
“It’s haunted! There you have the reason in two words.”
“Is that all? I was afraid it was the drains. I don’t believe in ghosts and haunted houses. What are we supposed to see?”
“Nothing,” retorted Mrs. Starkey, who seemed a good deal nettled at our smiling incredulity.
“Nothing!” with an exasperating laugh.
“No, but you will make up for it in hearing. Not now—you are all right for the next six weeks—but after the monsoon breaks, I give you a week at Briarwood. No one would stand it longer, and indeed you might as well bespeak your rooms at Cooper’s Hotel now. There is always a rush up here in July, by the two months’ leave people, and you will be poked into some wretched go-down.”
Aggie laughed, rather a careless ironical little laugh, and said, “Thank you, Mrs. Starkey; but I think we will stay on where we are—at any rate for the present.”
“Of course it will be as you please. What do you think of the verandah?” she inquired, with a curious smile.
“I think, as I was saying to Susan, that it is worth half the rent of the house.”
“And in my opinion the house is worth double rent without it;” and with this enigmatic remark, she rose and sailed away.
“Horrid old frump!” exclaimed Aggie, as we walked home in the starlight. “She is jealous and angry that she did not get Briarwood herself—I know her so well. She is always hinting, and repeating stories about the nicest people—always decrying your prettiest dress, or your best servant.”
We soon forgot all about Mrs. Starkey, and her dismal prophecy, being too gay, and too busy, to give her, or it, a thought. We had so many engagements—tennis-parties and tournaments, picnics, concerts, dances, and little dinners. We ourselves gave occasional afternoon teas in the verandah—using the best Spode cups and saucers, and the old silver cake-basket—and were warmly complimented on our good fortune in securing such a charming house and garden. One day the children discovered, to their great joy, that the old chowkidar belonging to the bungalow possessed an African grey parrot—a rare bird indeed in India; he had a battered Europe cage, doubtless a remnant of better days, and swung on his ring, looking up at us inquiringly, out of his impudent little black eyes.
The parrot had been the property of the former inmates of Briarwood, and as it was a long-lived creature, had survived its master and mistress, and was boarded out with the chowkidar, at one rupee per month.
The chowkidar willingly carried the cage into the verandah, where the bird seemed perfectly at home.
We got a little table for its cage, and the children were delighted with him, as he swung to and fro, with a bit of cake in his wrinkled claw.
Presently he startled us all by suddenly calling “Lucy,” in a voice that was as distinct as if it had come from a human throat. “Pretty Lucy—Lu—cy.”
“That must have been the niece,” said Aggie. “I expect she was the original of that picture over the chimney-piece in your room; she looks like a Lucy.”
It was a large, framed, half-length photograph of a very pretty girl, in a white dress, with gigantic open sleeves. The ancient parrot talked incessantly now that he had been restored to society; he whistled for the dogs, and brought them flying to his summons—to his great satisfaction, and their equally great indignation. He called “Qui hye” so naturally, in a lady’s shrill soprano, or a gruff male bellow, that I have no doubt our servants would have liked to have wrung his neck. He coughed and expectorated like an old gentleman, and whined like a puppy, and mewed like a cat, and, I am sorry to add, sometimes swore like a trooper; but his most constant cry was, “Lucy, where are you, pretty Lucy—Lucy—Lu—cy?”
Aggie and I went to various picnics, but to that given by the Chalmers (in honour of Mr. Chalmers’ brother Charlie, a captain in a Ghoorka regiment, just come up to Kantia on leave) Aggie was unavoidably absent. Tor had a little touch of fever, and she did not like to leave him; but I went under my hostess’s care, and expected to enjoy myself immensely. Alas! on that selfsame afternoon, the long-expected monsoon broke, and we were nearly drowned! We rode to the selected spot, five miles from Kantia, laughing and chattering, indifferent to the big blue-black clouds that came slowly, but surely, sailing up from below; it was a way they had had for days, and nothing had come of it. We spread the table-cloth, boiled the kettle, unpacked the hampers, in spite of sharp gusts of wind and warning rumbling thunder. Just as we had commenced to reap the reward of our exertions, there fell a few huge drops, followed by a vivid flash, and then a tremendous crash of thunder, like a whole park of artillery, that seemed to shake the mountains—and after this the deluge. In less than a minute we were soaked through; we hastily gathered up the table-cloth by its four ends, gave it to the coolies, and fled. It was all I could do to stand against the wind; only for Captain Chalmers I believe I would have been blown away; as it was, I lost my hat—it was whirled into space. Mrs. Chalmers lost her boa, and Mrs. Starkey, not merely her bonnet, but some portion of her hair. We were truly in a wretched plight, the water streaming down our faces, and squelching in our boots; the little trickling mountain rivulets were now like racing seas of turbid water; the lightning was almost blinding; the trees rocked dangerously, and lashed one another with their quivering branches. I had never been out in such a storm before, and sincerely hope I never may again. We reached Kantia more dead than alive, and Mrs. Chalmers sent an express to Aggie, and kept me till the next day. After raining as it only can rain in the Himalayas, the weather cleared, the sun shone, and I rode home in borrowed plumes, full of my adventures, and in the highest spirits. I found Aggie sitting over the fire in the drawing-room, looking ghastly white: that was nothing uncommon; but terribly depressed, which was most unusual.
“I am afraid you have neuralgia?” I said, as I kissed her.
She nodded, and made no reply,
“How is Tor?” I inquired, as I drew a chair up to the fire.
“Any news—any letter?”
“Not a word—not a line.”
“Has anything happened to Pip”—Pip was a fox-terrier, renowned for having the shortest tail and being the most impertinent dog in Lucknow—“or the mongoose?”
“No, you silly girl! Why do you ask such ridiculous questions?”
“I was afraid something was amiss; you seem rather down on your luck.”
Aggie shrugged her shoulders, and then said, “Pray, what put such an absurd idea into your head? Tell me all about the picnic,” and she began to talk rapidly, and to ask me various questions; but I observed that once she had set me going—no difficult task—her attention flagged, her eyes wandered from my face to the fire. She was not listening to half I said, and my most thrilling descriptions were utterly lost on this indifferent, abstracted little creature. I noticed from this time, that she had become strangely nervous (for her). She invited herself to the share of half my bed; she was restless, distrait, and even irritable; and when I was asked out to spend the day, dispensed with my company with an alacrity that was by no means flattering. Formerly, of an evening she used to herd the children home at sundown, and tear me away from the delights of the reading-room at seven o’clock; now she hung about the library until almost the last moment, until it was time to put out the lamps, and kept the children with her, making transparent pretexts for their company. Often we did not arrive at home till half-past eight o’clock. I made no objections to these late hours, neither did Charlie Chalmers, who often walked back with us and remained to dinner. I was amazed to notice that Aggie seemed delighted to have his company, for she had always expressed a rooted aversion to what she called “tame young men,” and here was this new acquaintance dining with us, at least twice a week!
About a month after the picnic we had a spell of dreadful weather—thunderstorms accompanied by torrents. One pouring afternoon, Aggie and I were cowering over the drawing-room fire, whilst the rain came fizzing down among the logs, and ran in rivers off the roof, and out of the spouts. There had been no going out that day, and we were feeling rather flat and dull, as we sat in a kind of ghostly twilight, with all outdoor objects swallowed up in mist, listening to the violent battering of the rain on the zinc verandah, and the storm which was growling round the hills. “Oh, for a visitor!” I exclaimed; “but no one but a fish, or a lunatic, would be out on such an evening.”
“No one, indeed,” echoed Aggie, in a melancholy tone. “We may as well draw the curtains, and have in the lamp and tea to cheer us up.”
She had scarcely finished speaking, when I heard the brisk trot of a horse along the road. It stopped at the gate, and came rapidly down our avenue. I heard the wet gravel crunching under his hoofs, and—yes, a man’s cheery whistle. My heart jumped, and I half rose from my chair. It must be Charlie Chalmers braving the elements to see me!—such, I must confess, was my incredible vanity! He did not stop at the front door as usual, but rode straight into the verandah, which afforded ample room and shelter for half a dozen mounted men.
“Aggie,” I said eagerly, “do you hear? It must be——”
I paused, my tongue silenced, by the awful pallor of her face, and the expression of her eyes, as she sat with her little hands clutching the arms of her chair, and her whole figure bent forward in an attitude of listening—an attitude of rigid terror.
“What is it, Aggie?” I said. “Are you ill?”
As I spoke, the horse’s hoofs made a loud clattering noise on the stone-paved verandah outside, and a man’s voice—a young man’s eager voice—called, “Lucy.”
Instantly a chair near the writing-table was pushed back, and some one went quickly to the window—a French one—and bungled for a moment with the fastening. I always had a difficulty with that window myself. Aggie and I were within the bright circle of the firelight, but the rest of the room was dim, and outside the streaming grey sky was spasmodically illuminated by occasional vivid flashes that lit up the surrounding hills as if it were daylight. The trampling of impatient hoofs, and the rattling of a door-handle, were the only sounds that were audible for a few breathless seconds; but during those seconds Pip, bristling like a porcupine, and trembling violently in every joint, had sprung off my lap and crawled abjectly under Aggie’s chair, seemingly in a transport of fear. The door was opened audibly, and a cold, icy blast swept in, that seemed to freeze my very heart, and made me shiver from head to foot. At this moment there came, with a sinister blue glare, the most vivid flash of lightning I ever saw. It lit up the whole room, which was empty save for ourselves, and was instantly followed by a clap of thunder, that caused my knees to knock together, and that terrified me and filled me with horror. It evidently terrified the horse too; there was a violent plunge, a clattering of hoofs on the stones, a sudden loud crash of smashing timber, a woman’s long, loud, piercing shriek, which stopped the very beating of my heart, and then a frenzied struggle in the cruel, crumbling, treacherous shale, the rattle of loose stones, and the hollow roar of something sliding down the precipice.
I rushed to the door and tore it open, with that awful despairing cry still ringing in my ears. The verandah was empty; there was not a soul to be seen, or a sound to be heard, save the rain on the roof.
“Aggie,” I screamed, “come here! Some one has gone over the verandah, and down the khud! You heard him.”
“Yes,” she said, following me out; “but come in—come in.”
“I believe it was Charlie Chalmers”—shaking her violently as I spoke. “He has been killed—killed—killed! And you stand, and do nothing. Send people! Let us go ourselves! Bearer! Ayah! Khidmatgar!” I cried, raising my voice.
“Hush! It was not Charlie Chalmers,” she said, vainly endeavouring to draw me into the drawing-room. “Come in—come in.”
“No, no!” pushing her away, and wringing my hands. “How cruel you are! How inhuman! There is a path. Let us go at once—at once!”
“You need not trouble yourself, Susan,” she interrupted; “and you need not cry and tremble;—they will bring him up. “What you heard was supernatural; it was not real.”
“No—no—no! It was all real. Oh! that scream is in my ears still.”
“I will convince you,” said Aggie, taking my hand as she spoke. “Feel all along the verandah. Are the railings broken?”
I did as she bade me. No, though very wet and clammy, the railing was intact!
“Where is the broken place?” she asked, imperatively.
“Now,” she continued, “since you will not come in, look over, and you will see something more presently.”
Shivering with fear, and the cold, drifting rain, I gazed down as she bade me, and there, far below, I saw lights moving rapidly to and fro, evidently in search of something. After a little delay they congregated in one place. There was a low, buzzing murmur—they had found him—and presently they commenced to ascend the hill, with the “hum-hum” of coolies carrying a burden. Nearer and nearer the lights and sounds came; up to the very brink of the khud, past the end of the verandah. Many steps and many torches—faint blue torches held by invisible hands—invisible but heavy-footed bearers carried their burden slowly upstairs, and along the passage, and deposited it with a dump in Aggie’s bedroom. As we stood clasped in one another’s arms, and shaking all over, the steps descended, the ghostly lights passed up the avenue, and gradually disappeared in the gathering darkness. The repetition of the tragedy was over for that day.
“Have you heard it before?” I asked with chattering teeth, as I bolted the drawing-room window.
“Yes, the evening of the picnic, and twice since. That is the reason I have always tried to stay out till late, and to keep you out. I was hoping and praying you might never hear it. It always happens just before dark: I am afraid you have thought me very queer of late. I have told no end of stories to keep you and the children from harm. I have——”
“I think you have been very kind,” I interrupted. “Oh, Aggie, shall you ever get that crash, and that awful cry out of your head?”
“Never!” hastily lighting the candles as she spoke.
“Is there anything more?” I inquired tremulously.
“Yes; sometimes at night, the most terrible weeping and sobbing in my bedroom;” and she shuddered at the mere recollection.
“Do the servants know?” I asked anxiously.
“The ayah Mumà has heard it, and the khansamah says his mother is sick, and he must go, and the bearer wants to attend his brother’s wedding. They will all leave.”
“I suppose most people know too?” I suggested dejectedly.
“Yes; don’t you remember Mrs. Starkey’s warnings, and her saying that without the verandah the house was worth double rent? We understand that dark speech of hers now, and we have not come to Cooper’s Hotel yet.”
“No, not yet. I wish we had. I wonder what Tom will say? He will be here in another fortnight. Oh, I wish he was here now!”
In spite of our heart-shaking experience, we managed to eat, and drink, and sleep, yea, to play tennis—somewhat solemnly, it is true—and go to the club, where we remained to the very last moment; needless to mention, that I now entered into Aggie’s manoeuvre con amore. Mrs. Starkey evidently divined the reason of our loitering in Kantia, and said in her most truculent manner, as she squared up to us—
“You keep your children out very late, Mrs. Shandon.”
“Yes, but we like to have them with us,” rejoined Aggie, in a meek apologetic voice.
“Then why don’t you go home earlier?”
“Because it is so stupid, and lonely,” was the mendacious answer.
“Lonely is not the word I should use. I wonder if you are as wise as your neighbours now? Come now, Mrs. Shandon.”
“About what?” said Aggie, with ill-feigned innocence.
“About Briarwood. Haven’t you heard it yet? The ghastly precipice and horse affair?”
“Yes, I suppose we may as well confess that we have.”
“Humph! you are a brave couple to stay on. The Tombs tried it last year for three weeks. The Paxtons took it the year before, and then sub-let it; not that they believed in ghosts—oh, dear no!” and she laughed ironically.
“And what is the story?” I inquired eagerly.
“Well, the story is this. An old retired officer and his wife, and their pretty niece, lived at Briarwood a good many years ago. The girl was engaged to be married to a fine young fellow in the Guides. The day before the wedding, what you know of happened, and has happened every monsoon ever since. The poor girl went out of her mind, and destroyed herself, and the old colonel and his wife did not long survive her. The house is uninhabitable in the monsoon, and there seems nothing for it but to auction off the furniture, and pull it down; it will always be the same as long as it stands. Take my advice, and come into Cooper’s Hotel. I believe you can have that small set of rooms at the back. The sitting-room smokes—but beggars can’t be choosers.”
“That will only be our very last resource,” said Aggie, hotly.
“It’s not very grand, I grant you; but any port in a storm.”
Tom arrived, was doubly welcome, and was charmed with Briarwood, chaffed us unmercifully, and derided our fears until he himself had a similar experience, and heard the phantom horse plunging in the verandah, and that wild, unearthly and utterly appalling shriek. No, he could not laugh that away; and seeing that we had now a mortal abhorrence of the place, that the children had to be kept abroad in the damp till long after dark, that Aggie was a mere hollow-eyed spectre, and that we had scarcely a servant left, that—in short, one day, we packed up precipitately and fled in a body to Cooper’s Hotel. But we did not basely endeavour to sub-let, nor advertise Briarwood as “a delightfully situated pucka built house, containing all the requirements of a gentleman’s family.” No, no. Tom bore the loss of the rent, and—a more difficult feat—Aggie bore Mrs. Starkey’s insufferable “I told you so.”
Aggie was at Kantia again last season. She walked out early one morning to see our former abode. The chowkidar and parrot are still in possession, and are likely to remain the solo tenants on the premises. The parrot suns and dusts his ancient feathers in the empty verandah, which re-echoes with his cry of “Lucy, where are you—pretty Lucy?” The chowkidar inhabits a secluded go-down at the back, where he passes most of the day in sleeping, or smoking the soothing “huka.” The place has a forlorn, uncared-for appearance now; the flowers are nearly all gone; the paint has peeled off the doors and windows; the avenue is grass-grown. Briarwood appears to have resigned itself to emptiness, neglect, and decay, although outside the gate there still hangs a battered board, on which, if you look very closely, you can decipher the words “To Let”.
“I am just going to leap into the dark.”
We had come home from India on three months’ furlough, taking return tickets, and, after the manner of Anglo-Indians, stayed to the very last moment of our leave; in fact, if the cab that conveyed us across Paris, from the Gare-de-l’Ouest to the Gare-de-Lyons, had broken down—a not impossible contingency, for our cocher was drunk—we would have missed not merely our train, but our steamer, and Charles would have had to forfeit I don’t know how much pay, and go to the bottom of his grade.
Charles is in the Civil Service; we are middle-aged people without any family, and are comfortably off, and think very little of running home. We were just in time to get our luggage weighed, swallow some soup, and climb into the carriage ere it started. We rattled through France all night; next afternoon we were at Turin; that same evening, cramped with two days’ sitting in the train, and nearly black with dust, we found ourselves in Genoa. “No time to go to the hotel,” was the unwelcome intelligence; “we must go on board at once.” Our steamer lay off in the harbour, and sailed in two hours.
“Just touch and go,” grumbled Charles; “never saw such a shave. All your fault, Louisa.”
Charles was put out. He wanted to have a tub and his dinner; and, moreover, he hated to be fussed and driven about by porters, being accustomed to the grand leisure of an important Indian official. I never argue with Charles when he is hungry, therefore I scrambled out of the boat in silence, and went to my own cabin—secured months previously. I wondered if any of our friends had turned up? Colonel and Mrs. Hatton were going back in our steamer, Mrs. Clapp, and young Brownlow of the Secretariat, who had come home with us. We would be a nice little party, and all sit at the same table. When I was dressed I went up on deck; it looked crowded, and I was immediately accosted by half a dozen Indian friends, and soon engaged in exchanging items of news. It was a bright starlight night, and Genoa looked lovely, rising from her harbour, but it was unpleasantly chilly. I was afraid of my neuralgia, and presently beat a retreat downstairs, and seated myself at a central table with my gold eye-glasses and blotter, and began to write a letter. As I sat there alone, listening to the tramping overhead—the sailors weighing anchor—I heard a saloon door clap, and some one came over and took a seat directly opposite me, with the evident intention of sharing the saloon inkstand. I am rather near-sighted, and peered across the table over my spectacles, and saw a strikingly handsome man, who was deliberately opening his writing-case. Dark, with regular features, black hair and moustache, and slender hands. He looked at me searchingly. His eyes were the keenest I ever saw; rather narrow, but piercing as cold steel. We both wrote away industriously for some time in dread silence, and then he addressed me with some little civility about the ink. He had a well-bred voice, and a slightly foreign accent. We discussed the dust of the journey, the beauty of the night—for I am not of the usual order of ancient British matrons, and when I am spoken to politely, I reply in kind. This gentleman was more than polite; he was absolutely fascinating. From Genoa we drifted to India, but he and I had never been in the same parts, and, after all, we had not much in common beyond Bombay.
“You know India well?” he inquired insinuatingly.
“I cannot say that,” I rejoined; “but I have been in India for many years. I know it superficially, and from the European standpoint.”
I fished clumsily, and in vain, to discover what he was. An officer? no, he was not like one. A civilian? a traveller? but he parried all my queries with an ease and politeness that was actually amusing. How clever he was! I felt myself a mere child in his hands. In a few moments, he had extracted from me my husband’s position, residence, length of service, prospects. I believe that, if he had chosen to ask, I would have told him the amount of our ages, income, and savings. He was so very agreeable, and so exceptionally interested in me and my affairs, that I was led away to forget that I was now a stout elderly woman of forty-five, and, alas! no longer the station belle I once had been. Presently brisk voices and steps were heard descending the companion ladder. Enter Charles, looking blue with cold, but in an excellent temper. I saw it in his eye. He has met Buffer, the Sudder Judge, of Kuloo, a first-rate whist-player—whist is Charles’s passion—and they are going to have a split whisky peg between them, as they discuss assessment of land—Charles’s hobby. Mrs. Sharpe, an old neighbour of mine, a plain but clever little woman, and known as “Becky,” sidled into a place beside me, and took a good long look at my opposite neighbour. The tables were filling fast, and people were calling for lemonade and soda-water, for it was after nine o’clock. In the lamplight I recognized a good many familiar faces. The Brownes of Dodeypore; the Goodwins of Punea; Major Caraway of the Pioneers (with a bride). How smart every one looked, especially the young girls and young married women! What a change it makes in some of my friends, a run home! Where is the old jacket, the joke of the station? Where is Mrs. Mills’ celebrated black hat? I would hardly recognize her. She wears a fringe; she has had something done to her teeth; she has quite a pretty figure! Who would believe she was the dowdy creature I saw at Cheetapore last July? Besides these well-known faces, are many strange ones—globe-trotters, Americans, French, and English, going out to stay with friends, or to do the cold weather in India. Those who sit at our table are no doubt impressed by our intimacy and jargon. Mrs. Sharpe always interlards her conversation with Hindostani, and speaks of her children at school as “my butchas”; “and as to going home again for only three months, as you, Mrs. Paulet” (to me), “persuaded me into doing, cubbi-nay, cubbi-nay, cubbi-nay,”—i.e. “never, never, never again.”
The dark stranger opposite looked amused, and then she said, “What do you think! I hear there is a native prince on board, enormously wealthy, and travelling with part of his Zenana, and all his jewels!”
The dark stranger still kept his eyes on her, but the expression of amusement died out of his face, and he suddenly resumed his writing.
“Who told you so?” I asked.
“My maid,” she answered triumphantly. “You know I am taking one out; I really found that I could not exist without a European servant.”
“You will have to do so, all the same,” I rejoined, “for if she is at all good-looking, and under fifty, she is bound to marry a soldier.”
“Oh, Dobbs would not look at a soldier!” retorted her mistress indignantly; “she is much too grand!”
“Wait till you see,” I replied. “I have had two, and they were two too many; so particular about their meals, always complaining of native servants and of want of society, insisting on going to sergeants’ balls, and finally wheedling me out of a wedding breakfast. No, give me an honest elderly ayah, with no family and followers.”
“Who wears tight calico trousers, and smokes a huka,” she sneered.
“And welcome to both, my dear, as long as I never see them,” I answered, as I rose and said good night.
The next morning I went on deck before breakfast; there was a faint fresh breeze, but the sky and water were both blue, the latter as smooth as a lake. We were passing quite close to the beautiful coast of Italy, and meeting various fishing-boats and small coasting steamers. As I turned to search for my deck-chair, I was saluted by the stranger, as I mentally called him.
And now, in the full broad daylight, instead of the dim swinging lamps, I saw, with the eye of an old Qui Hye, that he was undoubtedly a native of India. Yes, although possibly fairer-skinned than thousands of the inhabitants of the shores we were passing, he was an Asiatic, without question; very handsome also, without doubt, with perfectly chiselled features, and a broader chest and shoulders, and a finer physique than one generally sees.
“A lovely morning; may I bring your chair under the awning?” he inquired, in a most deferential manner.
“Yes, and a lovely scene,” I responded, as I seated myself.
“It is. I am very fond of Italy; are not you?”
“I am sure I should be, if I knew it well, but all my travelling has been in India. When my husband retires we hope to see something of Europe.”
“I have what is called ‘done’ Europe—France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Spain.”
“And to what country do you give the palm?”
“For country, Italy; as a city, Paris. London is too foggy, too straggling.”
“Then you will enjoy a winter in India.”
“Yes, it is three years since I was there.” He pronounced his w’s as v’s, the only way in which you could have discovered that he was a foreigner.
“How well you speak English!” I remarked.
“Then you have detected that I am not an Englishman,” he said, with evident surprise.
“Of what country do you think I am a native?”
“Asia—possibly India, or Persia,” I ventured.
“Why?—why not a Spaniard, an Italian, a South American, or a Greek?”
“Yes, you might be a Greek, or an Armenian, but all the same I think you were born further East.” I had not been nineteen years in India for nothing!
“You are right,” he admitted with an indulgent smile. “My mother was a Persian, but I have been much in Europe. I was partly educated in England.”
I was scarcely listening to him; my attention was riveted on a lovely girl, who had just reached the top of the companion-ladder, and was looking timidly about. Suddenly she caught sight of my new acquaintance, and came towards us, with short hurried steps.
She appeared to be about twenty years of age, was slight, and of middle height, and wore an elaborately made white dress and a sailor hat, underneath which was the prettiest face I had ever seen. Her complexion was simply marvellous—pure milk and roses; her eyes, the colour of the sky, with long black lashes; her hair was really fair, with flaxen and golden shades through it. I could not take my eyes off her. As she came up to my companion, she said with an apologetic glance—
“You see, I found my way on deck myself.”
“Yes, so I see,” he answered, in a not particularly genial tone.
“The cabin was so stuffy, and I longed for a breath of the sea air,” she continued, with pleading eyes.
“Madam,” he said, suddenly turning to me, “may I introduce my wife—Mrs. Raymond?”
His wife? I was so taken aback, that for a second I was speechless with astonishment, and then I said, as I held out my hand—
“How do you do, Mrs. Raymond? Your first trip to India, I suppose? “
“Yes,” she replied, with rather a tremor in her voice; “it is the first time I have ever been from home.”
“Ah, and I dare say you are a little homesick.”
“It is not so bad as being sea-sick,” remarked her husband, unsympathetically. “She has never experienced that yet.”
“Oh yes, once—long ago on the Clyde—I was awfully sick,” she protested.
Now that I came to look closely at Mrs. Raymond, and to hear her speak, I was aware that, although she was a strikingly beautiful girl, she was not quite a lady; something in her voice and her carriage was wanting. She held herself badly; her hands were large, though adorned by superb diamond rings. Yes, I, Louisa Paulet, who rather prided myself on my diamond rings, had not one that could compare with the least of those on this girl’s ugly fingers.
“Do you think it will be like this all the way?” she asked, nervously twisting these fingers.
“I hope so, for my own sake and yours; but at any rate, let us make the best of the present moment. There is the breakfast bell at last!”
As cheerful, hungry crowds came flocking to the different tables (where they had previously placed their visiting cards), I was rather surprised to see the Raymonds take seats almost opposite to me. He had been beforehand with Major and Mrs. Barker, of the Nizam’s horse, and the Barkers had to go among the Americans at table number two—outcasts from the congenial society of their Anglo-Indian friends.
I considered Mr. Raymond’s manoeuvre was rather pushing. Surely he might have seen that we had made up a party, and that he would be de trop. And all tables were alike to him—so I thought then. This was the humdrum married people’s table; number two was American and French; number three was surrounded by gay bachelors, grass widows, and brides and bridegrooms. There was more “go” about it than the other two put together. Why had not Mr. Raymond established himself there?
I received his advances with mustard, sugar, butter, and salt with marked coldness, and in my most freezing “Burra mem Sahib” manner. But who could be stiff with a pair of piteous forget-me-not blue eyes wistfully appealing to them? The Raymonds were a strikingly handsome couple; he with his dark resolute face, she with her wonderful fair beauty. She had already been noted, for many heads were bent forward, and glances sent in her direction, and whispered comments made. They both joined in conversation, he particularly, and showed himself to be a clever, agreeable, well-informed man. There was apparently no topic on which he had not formed an opinion—from the Irish question, and the new magazine rifle, down to the last style of dressing the hair. She did not talk much, and seemed perplexed at the menu, especially the “anti-pasto.” I saw her skin an olive and taste it, and make a face; she scraped her plate with her knife, and drank with her spoon in her cup. No, no, no, she was not a lady. I noticed that she looked behind her, and up and down the table rather furtively, and seemed transparently pleased to be one of such a large and lively community. Possibly she had never been in such good society in all her life.
The weather was perfect, the sea like a millpond, as we coasted down to Naples. The Raymonds kept very much to themselves. They would sit side by side for hours in their two chairs, with the same rug across their knees, whilst she read or did fancy-work, and he dozed and smoked. After dinner they paced the deck arm-in-arm, and only mixed with their fellow-passengers at meals. They seemed quite a devoted couple, and when I remarked this to Becky Sharpe, that lively lady exclaimed, “Devoted! Where are your dear old eyes? She is the acknowledged belle on board, though I can’t see myself what all the men are raving about. She reminds me exactly of one of those coloured pictures on a chocolate box—very pink cheeks, very blue eyes, very yellow hair. He is as jealous as a Turk. No man dare approach her. He never leaves her by herself for one second; they sit half the day under a big umbrella, and at table are flanked and faced by old married people. He won’t allow her to join in any games after dinner, poor girl, and packs her off to her cabin at eight o’clock. Do you mean to say you have not noticed this? Why, it is the talk of the ship!”
I had not noticed it, but I now began to see that there was something in Mrs. Sharpe’s remarks, even allowing for her exaggeration. I never saw a man speak to Mrs. Raymond, I never saw her husband quit her side, and I observed that, although he was in the saloon of an evening, playing whist and other games, she was not there; and once she said to me at table—
“Do all the ladies go to their cabins at eight o’clock, so as to leave the saloon for the gentlemen?”
“No, certainly not,” I answered. “I never think of leaving till ten. I like my game of whist, and we generally have some music.”
That same evening she came up to me and said, “My husband says I may stay up too, if you will allow me to sit beside you. Please do, Mrs. Paulet; it is so dreadfully dull in my cabin. I cannot go to sleep at eight o’clock, like a little child.”
“Of course you may sit beside me,” I answered.
I glanced over, and saw Mr. Raymond’s keen, piercing eyes on me and her. We were all an elderly party; no one among us was likely to rouse his jealousy. She, poor girl, seemed delighted to have so much liberty, and chattered away, as I had never heard her, to Mrs. Sharpe, and Charlie, and the Barkers. Every evening she established herself beside me, work in hand, and thus it came to pass that I became Mrs. Raymond’s chaperone!
It was evident that Mr. Raymond was rich; he had the air of a man who had never had to think of money. It was whispered that he and the Mexicans and Americans played very high, and that when he lost he laughed and paid up. Mrs. Raymond’s dresses were Parisian, more costly than tasteful. She came out in a set of Russian sables one cold evening, that made the other women respect her as they had never respected her previously, and her diamond bangles, brooches, and earrings caused even the American ladies to exclaim. All her belongings were in keeping, for one day she called me into her cabin to show me a picture, and I noticed the luxuries with which she was surrounded. The silver-mounted looking-glass and brushes, gold-topped scent-bottles, the cabin and its valuable contents, including her jewel-case, were all left in charge of Mr. Raymond’s Mahomedan servant, a stern-faced, elderly man, with a square-cut beard, who stood outside the door with folded arms, as motionless and rigid as a statue. I had had plenty of Mahomedan servants of my own, and I must say that I did not take a fancy to Ahmed Khan. He never salaamed to any one but his own master, and there seemed to me a sort of scarcely repressed insolence in his stolid glance. He was devoted to Mr. Raymond, more like a dog than a human being; he slept on the mat outside his cabin by night, and obeyed his merest glance by day.
“To see Naples and die” is a very fine expression. I have seen Naples harbour with dirty brownish waves, seen Vesuvius covered with snow, the streets covered with mud and slush, and have very nearly died of cold and seasickness after an awful passage from Messina, in the very teeth of a gale; but now, en route out, Naples looked gay and bright—but not a bit more beautiful in my perhaps prejudiced eyes than Bombay—and, as the steamer was to wait twenty hours, we all took boat and went ashore. Charles and I had been to Pompeii, had seen the cathedral, so we merely drove about shopping, and along the Ciaja; and almost everywhere we went we encountered the Raymonds, with Ahmed Khan in attendance. She looked radiant. We saw them in photographers’ shops, in milliners’, in jewellers’, and she whispered to me “that he had given her loads of pretty things, and that she was sending presents home, and had had her photograph taken.” I had never seen her in such spirits, for she was generally rather quiet, not to say depressed. At the Museum we met them again, and, as we were poking about among the wonderful remains from Pompeii, two young men came in, talking in the loud voices of the British tourists abroad.
One was a tall nice-looking man, with dark grey eyes; the other was smaller and plainer, but had a certain air of distinction about him, and any one could see at a glance that they were both officers in the British Army. They went round together, audibly discussing and admiring all they saw, and then they evidently caught sight of us—or, more properly, of Mrs. Raymond, who was examining a vase with Charles. I was a good deal surprised to hear one say to the other in Hindustani—
“Did you ever see such a lovely girl? I wish I was going to stay in Naples.”
“Maybe it is just as well you are not,” rejoined the other, with a laugh; “her father looks a stern old gentleman.”
Charles to be called an old gentleman, and to be taken for Mrs. Raymond’s father! The very idea gave me quite a shock. I glanced hastily at Mr. Raymond: had he heard too? Apparently not; if he had, he had an admirable command over his expression, for he was examining a quaint mosaic with a smile on his face. When I turned round the young men had departed.
It was getting dusk and chilly, and we set our faces towards the harbour, and after being nearly upset by rival boatmen, found ourselves once more safely in the lamp-lit saloon, which had quite a home look, with its three long tables covered with flowers, fruit, and Italian pastry, and duly punctuated by bottles of red country wine. Six new passengers had arrived, and, to my great consternation, they included the two young men whom I had seen in the Museum. Mrs. Sharpe told me that they were officers in the Prancing Lancers, on their way to join their regiment at Mhow. The tall one was Captain Fuller, and the short one was the Honourable Guy Warneford. They made a valiant effort to secure seats at our table, on the strength of a slight acquaintance with Mrs. Sharpe; but even this did not avail them, for there was no room, and they were forced to sit elsewhere. All the same, they attached themselves closely to our set, and soon had scraped acquaintance with Mr. Barker, the Borrodailes, and the Raymonds—especially Mrs. Raymond. They were, however, not prepared for her husband’s persistent presence. Was she leaning over the bulwarks, he was sure to be at her side; sitting, reading, walking, it was ever the same, and he generally monopolized the entire conversation. The only time that Mrs. Raymond was free from his ever-haunting presence was when she sat beside me, after dinner, and they made the very most of this! We landed at Messina, and of course they annexed themselves to our party. They saw quite plainly that their company was distasteful to Mr. Raymond, and redoubled every effort—the combined efforts, of two audacious young men—to enjoy his wife’s society, partly because they admired her, and partly because it made him secretly and politely furious; it was a capital game, and they resolved to play it all the way to Bombay. Mrs. Raymond was no flirt, but she was young, pretty, and liked admiration; her exquisite blue eyes were childlike in their innocence—not like Mrs. Swift’s dark orbs, whose one glance was a whole three-volume novel! Mrs. Swift was decidedly fast, and her husband allowed her to do as she pleased. He was never on duty. This lady was also recently married, had a plain face, good figure, pretty feet—which she displayed liberally, and in six different pairs of shoes a day; she dressed admirably, was excessively amusing and self-possessed. She was generally surrounded by a crowd of admiring young men, as she smoked cigarettes, bringing the smoke out of her ears or down her nostrils at pleasure. She talked slang, and behaved herself more like a schoolboy than a lady. Often have I caught Mr. Raymond’s black eyes fixed upon her, with anything but a pleasant expression; and, indeed, I could not wonder that he did not approve of this remarkably frisky matron. Ladies, as a rule, did not admire Mrs. Raymond, She was stupid, and had no style, and was not a person of good birth; now Mrs. Swift, with all her fastness, was well born (and much was forgiven her on this account). Mrs. Raymond was inclined to boast in a mild way of her diamonds, and of her husband’s wealth, of the lovely horses she would drive, and the tribes of servants she was to have in India.
“My dear good girl!” exclaimed Mrs. Sharpe, impatiently, “we are all on the same footing out there. We have all lovely horses, and tribes of servants; it’s our only compensation! If I had been you, I’d have made your rich husband stay at home. Whereabouts are you going to live?”
“It is not quite settled yet,” she answered rather grandly. “My husband has a good deal of property in the Punjaub, I believe. I am not sure where that is.”
“But what will be your station?”
“I really have never heard him mention it. I don’t think we have a station.”
“How strange! Well, you will know soon enough; and if it’s a dull little out-of-the-way hole, you must make him take you down to Calcutta in the cold weather, and up to Simla in the hot season, and to Lucknow for the races. Don’t let him hide you and make a Purdah Nashin of you,” she added with a laugh.
“What is a Purdah Nashin?” inquired Mrs. Raymond, giggling and displaying her little white teeth.
“You may well ask! It’s a type you don’t come across in England. A woman who is kept secluded from the world in her husband’s house, who lives and dies there, and never uncovers her face when out-of-doors, and never sees or speaks to any man but her husband, or her father, or her sons.”
“Poor creatures! Are there many of them in India?” she asked with an air of deep compassion.
“Yes, thousands; they lead an uncommonly dull life, I fancy, these domestic prisoners. Even when she drives out, the grand lady has all the carriage blinds pulled down, just as the common woman sits behind the drawn curtains of an humble ekka. When they travel by rail, as they do on a pilgrimage, there is such a fuss; they are carried into the station in a dooly, and when they get into their compartment there is quite a high screen round them. It is so funny, and most of them are hideous old hags, as ugly as sin; but I suppose they like the commotion.”
“Don’t they ever peep? I’m sure I should,” she said with a merry, girlish laugh.
“If you were young and pretty you would not get the chance. There is generally some lynx-eyed old grandmother, who is worse than ten jailors. As she was kept down in her youth, and shut away from all the delights of the world, she now avenges herself on others. She rules the Zenana with a rod of iron. You have everything to learn about India, I suppose?”
“Yes, I know nothing about housekeeping and servants or anything; I should be greatly obliged to you if you would give me a few hints.”
There was nothing Mrs. Sharpe liked better; it made her so important. “Get a piece of paper and a pencil, my dear, and I’ll give you no end of information; there is nothing like beginning the right way. Of course,” as the girl sat down, pencil in hand, “much depends on your presidency. I suppose it will be Bengal?”
“Yes, I suppose so,” she answered with hesitation.
Mr. Raymond. had drawn near in a stealthy way he had, and was leaning against a boat, listening. They could not see him, but he stood facing me, and not an expression of his escaped me.
“Well, you must first secure a good house, with large and lofty rooms, and a pucka roof; not a thatched house—be sure of that. Then you will want a whole retinue of good servants. Your husband will please himself, but I prefer Hindoos; Mahomedans are such fanatics and thieves, and have such an undisguised contempt for our sex. You will require a good khansamah, and cook under him, a bearer, two khitmagars, an ayah—an old woman for choice. Your number of syces depends on your horses.”
“Mr. Raymond has promised me two lovely Arabs for my carriage. I have never ridden, and he says he does not wish me to learn.”
“No? Well, as he is a rich man, you will have to allow your servants to fleece you to a certain extent. You won’t get grain, and meat, and poultry, as cheap as others; but be sure and settle your accounts with the cook weekly—never let them run on. Be very particular about this!”
“Yes, I’ll remember.”
“Then about society. You have to call first on all the old residents—married people, I mean; but the bachelors, of course, come and call on you.”
Here Mr. Raymond’s face was a study.
“The visiting hours are between twelve and two, the hottest time of the day—and awful in the plains—but every one goes out in the evening, riding or driving, and the young men are playing cricket or polo, so it’s the only time you find people in.”
“And who returns the young men’s visits?”
“Your husband—or you ask them to dinner; I dare say they like that better, especially if the hostess is a pretty woman, and has a good cook. I hope my little hints will come in useful. I have no doubt you will have a very gay time.”
“Do you think so?” beaming as she spoke.
“Yes, it’s a pity you do not ride; but of course you dance, and there will be lots of balls and partners for you, and tiffins, and dinners, and tennis; and you will find that your partners will often drop in and look you up in the afternoons. It civilizes young men to have afternoon tea, and I suppose your husband won’t mind?”
From the glimpse I obtained of Mr. Raymond’s countenance, it struck me that there would not be a warm welcome for his wife’s partners, much less any invigorating refreshments.
We were nearing Port Said, and there was a talk of getting up a fancy ball in the Canal, the night the steamer was “tied up”; an energetic lady—there is always one among the passengers—managed it, and cleverly evolved costumes out of almost nothing. There were Indians, Chinese, Japanese, Britannias draped with flags; lazy people who were merely poudré, and clowns, playing cards, demons, and witches. The passengers of a P. and O. (anchored close by) came on board, and there—with the silent desert stretching away at either side—was enacted a scene of revelry, and all went merry as a marriage bell. Our ship gave the supper, the men the champagne. Mrs. Raymond was not allowed to dress in costume, or to dance; though it had been suggested that she should go as “Beauty,” and her husband as the “Beast,” or as the “Princess Baldrabadoura,” and her husband as the “Magician.” I fancy she had had a struggle to be present at all, for she looked rather pale, and her eyes were decidedly red, as she came and sat near me. I was only a spectator, a withered old wallflower.
“Can you not dance?” I asked, as she steadily refused partner after partner.
“Oh yes, I can, and I am so fond of it, too; but Mr. Raymond does not think married ladies ought to dance.”
“I go further,” he said—coming nearer as he spoke—“I don’t think any ladies ought to dance; they lower themselves by doing so. They should leave all this display to nautch-girls; it is only fit for such! Look at that lady,” pointing to Mrs. Swift, in a very short dress, “and look at that one,” indicating another in an exceedingly low body, “and you call them civilized and refined? I call them no better than savages! They are on a par with a negro woman, who dances round a fetish.”
“You would shut them up, if you had anything to say to them?” I remarked sarcastically.
“I would—in their graves,” was the startling reply.
“I agree with you, that there is dancing and dancing, and I cannot admire these frantic polkas, or the kitchen lancers.”
“Ah, if you European ladies were not so prejudiced, you would allow that our Zenana system was a sound one.”
“No, never; I should never go to that extreme,” I maintained indignantly.
“But listen to me. Do our women romp about with other men—half clothed, too!—and shame their husbands who stand looking on? You saw those ladies racing round the deck yesterday for a gold bangle; what sort of an exhibition did you call it?”
I called it an exhibition of stockings, but I held my tongue. There was something in what he said. Some ladies, I knew, might be eliminated from society with much advantage to womankind in general.
“You think our women have no liberty,” he pursued, gesticulating with his thin brown hands.
“I am sure they have not,” I answered emphatically.
“Another mistake! They have far more than in English families. Although the world does not see them, our mothers and wives pull all the strings from behind the purdah. No family matter is settled without them; be it weddings, purchase of land or jewels, all those affairs are generally arranged by them; they are far more deferred to in money matters than European women, who are often beaten, and almost always neglected or ignored where business is in question. An old lady like you, were she of my people, would have great authority. And they have ample variety; they drive about from one Zenana to another, and hear all the news, and drink coffee with their friends. Nor are they debarred from male society; they see their husbands and brothers and uncles. Once a woman is married, why should she desire to see another man than her husband? There is where the great mistake is made in your country; were your ladies kept in strict seclusion, there would be no disgrace, none of those shocking scandals that become more common every day.”
“Have you never any?” I demanded in my tartest tone.
“Rarely, rarely, very rarely.”
“And when one is discovered, what happens?”
“Do not ask me too much,” was his mysterious reply. “I maintain here to you, an enlightened English lady, who knows India, and knows the world, that our Zenana life, our women’s lives, is infinitely superior to yours. Where women smoke and drink, and shoot and hunt, and have their liberty, and make a very bad use of it—ours have sufficient liberty, but no licence.”
“And yet many cannot read or write, and spend their days playing childish games, dressing dolls, quarrelling, or eating sweets; their minds are a blank.”
“Better so than be full of wickedness.”
“And yet you read French novels yourself; you have had a good education; you have seen the world. A woman is to be shut up between four walls, spending her days like some wound-up mechanical toy. Is she not as much a human being as you are? “
“No; she is an inferior,” was his astounding statement.
“Thank you,” I replied, with an arctic bow.
“But she is well watched and cared for,” he calmly proceeded, “and is very happy in her home, and has enormous influence.”
“And yet she may not sit in her husband’s presence; and when he enters a room, must stand with her face to the wall!”
“That is seldom done now; these customs are going out of fashion.”
“Yes, like the bow-string and the sack!” I retorted, with a spice of temper.
At this moment some one came and offered to take me down to supper, and I was not sorry to leave Mr. Raymond; there was an odd glitter in his eyes, and a repressed tone in his speech, that I did not altogether relish. He had not been pleased with my thrust about the sack and bow-string, and for my part I had not fancied being so plainly informed that I was “an old woman.” We were never such good friends after that night, and I think he had an insane idea that I—I, strait-laced Louisa Paulet—encouraged those two light-hearted officers in their fluttering round his wife!
Captain Fuller took me into his confidence one evening, and said—
“What can have persuaded that lovely girl to marry that horrible man? Did he pass himself off as an Italian, or a Greek, or what? Handsome, I suppose he is, but what an expression! And it strikes me, that the nearer he approaches his native shores, the more native he becomes—even in his dress. He has dropped his smart tweed suit for white duck, his deerstalker for a fez, and the fine new gloss of his European manners has worn down. He would like to poison me, and I should be delighted to kick him—to kick him for half an hour.”
“Well, I sincerely hope you will keep the peace; we have only seven days more. We sight Perim to-night,” I added consolingly.
“Seven days more! Yes, I wonder what sort of a life that wretched girl will lead. She is very simple, and as ignorant in some ways as a child.”
“She will have carriages and horses, and servants, and lovely diamonds.”
“And do you think they will make her happy?”
“I am sure I don’t know; it satisfies some women.”
“Yes, but not when they are married to a native of India, with whom they can have but little in common, and who has an uncivilized temper. Where is she to live?” he inquired, with undissembled interest.
“I do not know,” I returned, with a shake of my head. “She is rather vague about it herself.”
“But surely you can find out? You have been very kind to her, and I am certain that to feel she has one friend of her own sex in the country, would make her happier. Give her your address; you might drop her a line, and ask how she is getting on. It would be an act of charity; for, to tell you the truth, I have my doubts of that fellow. I would not trust him as far as I could throw him.”
I seemed (I suppose because I am stout and motherly-looking) to be the general repository of people’s confidences, for one afternoon, before dinner, Mrs. Raymond came and took Charles’s chair—her husband was deep in a game of chess. He glanced up for a second, but he evidently considered that she was safe with me, and resumed his play. I looked at her closely; she had been crying. This was the second time I had seen her with red eyes. She moved her chair, so that she sat with her back to the chess-players, and said—
“I have not had a talk with you for a long time, Mrs. Paulet.”
“No, my dear; but we can have a good chat now. You are not looking yourself; have you a headache?”
“I—I feel the heat; oh, I do hope we are not going to a very hot place.”
“I hope not,” I answered cheerfully.
“And in six more days I shall know! Mrs. Paulet, I wonder if I shall ever see you again. Oh, I hope I shall!”
“Perhaps some day you will come and pay me a little visit at Tamashabad?”
“How I should love to stay with you, but——”
“My husband would not let me go, I am sure. Oh, dear Mrs. Paulet, I feel so safe when I am near you!” and her eyes filled with tears.
“What does the girl mean?” I asked impatiently.
“I mean”—lowering her voice, two tears now rolling slowly down her cheeks—“that my marriage has been a terrible mistake. I am afraid of Mr. Raymond, I am—indeed. Oh, why did I ever leave my home?”
To hear a bride of a few weeks talk in this way gave me a most unpleasant sensation.
“Nonsense, my dear girl! you are only a little bilious; it is the sea air. If you had not liked the man, I’m sure you would not have married him.”
“It was all my mother’s doing,” she rejoined in a choked voice. “You see—I need not tell you—that I am not a lady by birth like you, and it was a grand match for the likes of me.”
“Tell me where you met him, and how it all came about. You may be sure I shall keep whatever you relate to myself.”
“I met him up in the lake country, where my mother keeps a little inn—The Trout and Fly. She is a widow and has three daughters; I am the youngest—and best looking.”
“Yes, go on.”
“I was always a bit spoiled, I suppose on account of my looks, and I was sent to quite a genteel boarding-school in Carlisle, where I learnt French and the piano, and when I came home I was never asked to help in the housework like Lizzie and Susan, or to wash dishes or cook; mother could not bear me to soil a finger, and so I used to sew and do a little millinery and that. She never allowed me, even in the busy time, to set foot in the bar or coffee-room, or to come across visitors at all; but one day I met Mr. Raymond on the stairs.” She paused, sighed, and then added in a most melancholy tone, “And that began it all!”
“I suppose so,” I acquiesced sympathetically.
“Yes, he stayed and stayed, and he hung about, till he met me and spoke to me. He was very rich and handsome, and had such beautiful clothes and rings—so different from any of the village people. He took a fancy to me, he told mother, and asked if he might walk out with me; and of an evening we used to walk together, and he told me lovely stories, and was very attentive, and gave me a gold watch and chain; and people talked in a horrid way, but mother shut them up fine! He was a real grand gentleman, and he was going to marry me; he and she had settled it, she said. If I had had to choose, and he had had the same as young Joe the boatman, my own cousin, I’d have married young Joe. However, we were married very quietly, and he carried me off to London, and bought me splendid dresses, and took me to the theatres and parks, and we had a fine hired carriage of our own. Then we went to Paris, and I liked that; and oh! he bought me such lovely diamonds. I never wished for a thing that I did not get it. Just like in a fairy tale. But though he was very kind to me, I never could bring him to speak to me of his relations, his religion, or his home, and I know no more about them now than I did then,” she said with a little sob, “and here we are within four days of Bombay. I have a presentiment that something is going to happen, and I cannot sleep for thinking of it, my heart does palpitate so!” As she spoke, her whole frame quivered.
“Indigestion, my dear! Pray, what could happen to you?” I asked.
“I don’t know; but sometimes Mr. Raymond is very angry with me, and he frightens me. He cannot endure me to speak to any one, scarcely even to you; and he told me that if I ever spoke to Captain Fuller again he would lock me up in my cabin. He is quite capable of it. Ah! what would I not give to be at home? Shall I ever see our dear hills and lakes again?”
“Of course you will,” I hastily rejoined; “and meanwhile you will see a very interesting new country, where I hope you will be very happy.”
“God grant it, Mrs. Paulet!” she returned gravely. “But sometimes I feel that I shall never be happy again,” and she gave a little dry sob.
“You should have reflected well before you married. You are very young; you could hardly know your own mind.”
“Yes; but you see mother is a strong-minded woman, and manages us all. I never chose a dress for myself, let alone a sweetheart. And he was very liberal to mother; he bought her a lease of the house, and poor mother was just dazzled. Oh, if I was only back again, sitting over the fire in the little parlour, with Susan and Lizzie, I’d never ask to see a diamond, or a horse, or a silk dress, as long as I lived! Yes, it’s getting much warmer.”
I looked round to see the meaning of this irrelevant remark, and discovered Mr. Raymond close to us, regarding our confidences with a pair of most suspicious eyes.
The next morning he blandly informed us at breakfast that “Mrs. Raymond was not well, and was going to remain in her cabin—a touch of fever, a mere nothing.”
I volunteered to go and see her, to take her quinine, eau de cologne, oranges. My offer was stiffly declined. “His wife had everything she required; all she needed was repose.” We did not see her that day, nor the following one, nor could we gain access to her cabin by fair means—or even by foul—for when I surreptitiously tried the door (having left Mr. Raymond on deck), I found Ahmed Khan on duty as sentry, and he assured me with a scowl that “Mem Sahib sota hye” (Mem Sahib asleep).
Mrs. Sharpe came to me next morning, and said excitedly, “Louisa, you always say I am finding mares’ nests, but I am certain there is something wrong about those Raymonds; we have not seen her for three days—not since Monday night.”
“No, but that proves nothing. She has not been looking well latterly—she has fever.”
“The doctor has not been called in. He waits on her himself; and when he is card-playing, and on deck, the door is locked.”
“Pray, how do you know?” I demanded judicially.
“I watched and tried it, and then I knocked, and she said, ‘Come in, please;’ but I saw Ahmed, and he sent me away. ‘Sahib’s hookum; missus sick, could see no Mem Sahib.’ Then I can tell you something more. Her cabin is next Miss Lacy’s, and Miss Lacy says she hears dreadful sobbing and crying. What is to be done? Shall we speak to the captain?” concluded Mrs. Sharpe.
“No; a man’s cabin is his castle, and his wife is his private property. We cannot break in, and see her against his will.”
“The thing is to communicate with her.”
“Yes, but how?” I inquired.
“I have thought it all out. This evening, when he is playing cards, I shall slip away, and go into Miss Lacy’s cabin and knock on the partition, at the back of Mrs. Raymond’s berth. Don’t you go; he may suspect you, but he won’t miss me.”
“Well?” I said breathlessly, as I entered her cabin that night, “what success?”
“He was much too clever for me,” she replied. “I had barely knocked and said, ‘Mrs. Raymond.’ And she said, ‘Oh, who is it?’—‘Mrs. Sharpe, from Mrs. Paulet. Are you better?’—‘I am quite well. I never was ill. Hush!’ And I heard her cabin door opened, and he came in; he did not talk at first, but I knew he was there. After a time he said, ‘I have brought your sleeping draught.’ I had my ear to the berth. ‘Oh, please, please no,’ she cried; ‘I don’t want it, and the other made me so heavy for two days. Oh, anything but the sleeping draught!’ and she began to sob. ‘Take it!’ you should have heard his voice; it actually frightened me through the boards. And then I crept stealthily away, feeling quite queer and shaky, not to say guilty.”
“We get in to-morrow at nine o’clock,” I said. “Of course we shall see her then. We will watch and waylay them. Poor girl! what does he mean by shutting her up and drugging her?”
The steamer arrived in dock at six—three hours before her time, and before we were up. What a bustle there was! After our seven-o’clock chotah hazree, packing our small parcels and wraps, receiving our letters and friends—we are a selfish world—it was breakfast-time ere I thought of the poor prisoner. I went to the cabin door and knocked; no answer. I turned the handle; the door opened, the cabin was empty!
“How is this?” I said to the stewardess Theresa, a fat, oily-tongued Italian.
“Oh, the signora was very, very sick, and the good signor was so attentive, he waited on her himself (he had given Theresa a handsome tip—that I could see). He was so anxious about her, that as soon as we were in dock, he carried her on deck in his arms, well wrapped up. There was a doolie waiting with eight bearers. He placed her in it with his own hands, and she was taken away.”
On further inquiry, a doolie and eight bearers, accompanied by a respectable elderly servant, had been seen going towards the city, and there all trace of the Raymonds was lost.
Raymond was, of course, a fictitious name. The unhappy girl, and the mysterious stranger, had totally disappeared; none of their fellow-passengers ever heard of them again. They were both engulfed in that wide and extremely vague address known as “Up country.” To this day, Mrs. Sharpe and I, when we meet, shake our heads together over a certain little mutual intrigue, and jointly wonder what has become of Mrs. Raymond.
“Whence and what art thou, execrable shape?”
Perhaps you have seen them more than once on railway platforms in the North-West Provinces. A shabby, squalid, weary-looking group, sitting on their battered baggage, or scrambling in and out of intermediate compartments; I mean Jackson, the photographer, and his belongings. Jackson is not his real name, but it answers the purpose. There are people who will tell you that Jackson is a man of good family, that he once held a commission in a crack cavalry regiment, and that his brother is Lord-Lieutenant of his county, and his nieces are seen at Court balls. Then how comes their kinsman to have fallen to such low estate—if kinsman he be—this seedy-looking, unshorn reprobate, with a collarless flannel shirt, greasy deerstalker, and broken tennis shoes? If you look into his face, who runs may read the answer—Jackson drinks; or his swollen features, inflamed nose, and watery and uncertain eye greatly belie him.
Jackson was a mauvais sujet from his youth upwards, if the truth must be confessed. At school he was always in trouble and in debt. At Oxford his scrapes were so prominent that he had more than one narrow escape of being sent down. Who would believe, to look at him now, that he had once been a very pretty boy, the youngest and best-looking of a handsome family, and naturally his mother’s darling? Poor woman! whilst she lived she shielded him from duns and dons, and from his father’s wrath; she pawned her diamonds and handed over her pin-money to pay his bills; she gave him advice—and he gave her kisses. By the time he had joined his regiment, this reckless youth had lost his best friend, but his bad luck—as he termed it—still clung to him and overwhelmed him. His father had a serious interview with his colonel, paid up like a liberal parent, and agreed to his son’s exchange into a corps in India. “India may steady him,” thought this sanguine old gentleman; but, alas! it had anything but the desired effect. In India the prodigal became more imprudent than ever. Cards, racing, simpkin, soon swallowed up his moderate allowance, and he fell headlong into the hands of the soucars—a truly fatal fall! Twenty per cent. per month makes horrible ravages in the income of a subaltern, and soon he was hopelessly entangled in debt, and had acquired the disagreeable reputation of being “a man who never paid for anything, and always let others in, when it was a question of rupees.” Then his name was whispered in connection with some very shady racing transaction, and finally he was obliged to leave the service, bankrupt alike in honour and credit. His father was dead, his brothers unanimously disowned him, and for twenty years he fell from one grade to another, as he roamed over India from Peshawar to Madras, and Rangoon to Bombay. He had been in turn planter, then planter’s clerk, house agent, tonga agent; he had tried touting for a tailoring firm and manufacturing hill jams; and here he was at fifty years of age, with a half-caste wife, a couple of dusky children, and scarcely an anna in his pocket. Undoubtedly he had put the coping-stone on his misfortunes when he took for his bride the pretty, slatternly daughter of a piano-tuner, a girl without education, without energy, and without a penny.
Ten years ago Fernanda Braganza had been a charming creature (with the fleeting beauty of her kind), a sylph in form, with superb dark eyes, fairy-like feet, and a pronounced taste for pink ribbons, patchouli, and pearl-powder. This vision of beauty, who had gushed to Jackson with her soul in her exquisite eyes, and who was not insensible to the honour of marrying a gentleman, was she the selfsame individual as this great fat woman, in carpet slippers, and a bulging tweed ulster, who stood with a sallow, hungry-looking child in either hand? Alas! she was.
The Jacksons had come to try their fortunes at Panipore—a small up-country station, where there were two European regiments and half a battery of Artillery—for is not Tommy Atkins ever a generous patron to an inexpensive photographer? The finances of the family were at a very low ebb that February afternoon, as they stood on the platform collecting their belongings, a camera and chemicals, a roll of frowsy bedding, a few cooking things, a couple of boxes, also a couple of grimy servants—in India the poorest have a following, and third-class tickets are cheap. Jackson had a “three-finger” peg at the bar, although there was but little in his pocket besides a few cards and paper posters, and thus invigorated proceeded to take steps respecting the removal of his family.
Poverty forbade their transit in a couple of ticca gharries, and pride shrank from an ekka; therefore Jackson left his wife in the waiting-room whilst he tramped away in the blinding sun and powdery white dust to see if there was accommodation at the dâk bungalow. It proved to be crammed, and he had not yet come down to the Serai, or native halting-place. He was (when sober) a man of some resource. He made his way up to the barracks and asked questions, and heard that the station was in the same condition as the dâk bungalow, quite full. Even Fever Hall and Cholera Villa were occupied, and the only shelter he could put his head into was the big two-storied bungalow in the Paiwene road. It had been empty for years; it was to be had at a nominal rent—say two rupees a week—and there was no fear of any one disturbing him there! It was large and close to the barracks, but greatly out of repair. With this useful intelligence, Mr. Jackson rejoined his impatient circle, and, with their goods in a hand-cart, they started off for this house of refuge without delay.
Past the native bazaar, past the officers’ mess. past the church, then along a straight wide road where the crisp dead leaves crackled underfoot, a road lined with dusty half-bare trees, whose branches stood out in strong relief against a hard blue sky, whilst a vast tract of grain country, covered with green barley and ripe sugar-cane, stretched away on the right. On the left were a pair of great gaunt gate piers, leading by a grass-grown approach to the two-storied bungalow—an imposing-looking house that was situated well back from the highway amid a wilderness of trees, and rank and rotting vegetation. Distance in this case certainly had lent enchantment to the view! When the little party arrived under the wide, dilapidated portico, they found all the doors closed, the lower windows stuffed with boards, matting, and even paper in default of glass; weeds and creepers abounded, and there was a dangerous fissure in the front wall. After knocking and calling for about ten minutes, an ancient chowkidar appeared, looking half asleep. At first he thought it was merely a party from the station, wishing, as was their eccentric custom, “to go over” the haunted house, the Bhootia Bungalow; but he soon learnt his mistake from the voluble, shrill-tongued mem-sahib.
This family of shabby Europeans, who had arrived on foot, with all their belongings in a “tailer” from the station, had actually come to stay, to sleep, to live on the premises! Grumbling to himself, he conducted them up an exceedingly rickety, not to say dangerous, staircase—for the lower rooms were dark and damp—to three or four large and cheerful apartments, opening on a fine verandah. Mrs. Jackson was accustomed to pitching her tent in queer places, and in a very short time she had procured from the bazaar a table, a few chairs, and a couple of charpoys, and furnished two rooms—she had but little to unpack—whilst Kadir Bux, the family slave, vibrated between cooking and chemicals. Meanwhile Mr. Jackson, having washed, shaved, and invested himself in his one linen collar and black alpaca coat, set forth on a tour of inspection, to stick up posters and distribute cards. His wife also made her rounds; the upper rooms were habitable, and the verandah commanded a fine view; it overlooked the park-like but neglected compound, intersected with short cut paths, and which, despite its two grand entrance gates, was now without hedge or paling, and quite open to the road, a road down which not a few ladies and gentlemen in bamboo carts or on ponies were trotting past for their evening airing. Below the suite Mr. Jackson had chosen were the dismal vault-like rooms, the chowkidar with his charpoy and hukka, and beyond, at the back of the bungalow, the servants’ quarters and stables, both roofless. Behind these ruins stretched an immense overgrown garden (with ancient, dried-up fruit trees, faint traces of walks and water-channels, and a broken fountain and sundial) now abandoned to cattle. On the whole, Mrs. Jackson was pleased with her survey. She had never as yet inhabited such a lordly-looking mansion, and felt more contented than she had done for a long time, especially as Jackson was on his best behaviour—he had no friends in the place, and scarcely any funds.
In a short time Mr. Jackson had acquired both. His good address, his gentlemanly voice, and the whisper of his having once been an officer who had come to grief—who had been unfortunate—went far in a military station. With extraordinary discretion he kept his belongings entirely out of sight; he also kept sober, and consequently received a number of orders for photographs of groups, of bungalows, and of polo ponies. He had the eye of an artist and really knew his business, and although some were startled at the strength of the pegs which he accepted, he had a large and lucrative connection in less than no time, and rupees came flowing in fast. As he and the invaluable Kadir worked together, he talked glibly to portly field-officers and smooth-faced subalterns, of men whom he had known, men whose names at least were familiar to them—distinguished veterans, smart soldiers, and even celebrated personages. He attended church, and sang lustily out of a little old Prayer-book, and looked such a picture of devout, decayed gentility, that the tender-hearted ladies pitied him and thought him quite romantic, and hastened to order photographs of all their children, or, children being lacking, dogs. Little did they know that Mr. Jackson’s shabby Prayer-book would have been sold for drink years previously, only that he found it an absolutely unmarketable article.
Meanwhile Mrs. Jackson was convinced that she was positively about to be “a lady at last.” She purchased frocks for her sallow girls, a dress and boots for herself; she set up a rocking-chair and a cook, and occasionally drove to the bazaar in a ticca gharry, where she looked down with splendid dignity on the busy bargaining wives of Tommy Atkins. The chaplain’s lady had called upon her, also the barrack-sergeant’s wife, who lived in a small bungalow or quarters beyond the garden. She had haughtily snubbed this good woman at first, but subsequently had thawed toward her, for several reasons. Jackson, having been uproariously drunk, and unpleasantly familiar to an officer, had now fallen back on the sergeants’ mess for his society, and on private soldiers for his patrons. He was still doing a roaring trade, especially in cartes-de-visite at six rupees a dozen. He bragged and talked, and even wept, to his listeners in the barrack-rooms, and in the can- teen: listeners who thought him an uncommonly fine fellow, liberal as a lord, flinging his coin right and left. They little guessed the usual sequel, or of how the Jackson family were wont to steal out of a station by rail in the grey dawn of an Indian morning, leaving many poor natives, who had supplied their wants in the shape of bread and meat, coffee, and even clothes, to bewail their too abrupt departure. Jackson was “on the drink,” as his wife frankly expressed it, never home before twelve o’clock at night, and then had to be helped upstairs, and Mrs. Jackson found these evenings extremely wearisome. She rarely read, but she did a little crochet and not a little scolding; she slept a good deal; and, as long as her coffee and her curry were well and punctually served, she was fairly content, for she was naturally lethargic and indolent. But still she liked to talk, and here she had no one with whom to exchange a word. She pined for the sound of another female tongue, and accordingly one afternoon she arrayed herself in her new hat with scarlet cock’s feathers, also her yellow silk gloves, and with the cook as a body-servant and to carry her umbrella, she sallied forth to return the visit of the barrack-sergeant’s wife. She had not far to go—only through the garden and across the road. The barrack-sergeant’s wife was knitting outside in her verandah, for the weather was “warming up,” when Mrs. Jackson, all-gorgeous in her best garments, loomed upon her vision. Now, Mrs. Clark “had no notion of the wives of drunken photographers giving themselves hairs. And don’t go for to tell her as ever that Jackson was a gentleman! A fellow that went reeling home from the canteen every night!” But she dissembled her feelings and stood up rather stiffly, and invited her visitor into her drawing-room, a small apartment, the walls coloured grey, furnished with cheap straw chairs, covered in gaudy cretonne, further embellished by billowy white curtains, tottering little tables, and a quantity of photographs in cotton velvet frames—a room of some pretensions, and Mrs. Clark’s pride. Its unexpected grandeur was a blow to Mrs. Jackson, as was also the appearance of two cups of tea on a tray, accompanied by a plate of four water-biscuits. It seemed to her that Mrs. Clark also set up for being quite the lady, although her husband was not a gentleman. The two matrons talked volubly, as they sipped their tea, of bazaar prices, cheating hawkers, and the enormities of their servants. “My cook,” was continually in Mrs. Jackson’s mouth. They played a fine game of brag, in which Mrs. Jackson, despite her husband who had been an officer, of her cook, and of her large house, came off second best.
“I can’t think,” she said, looking round contemptuously, “how you can bear to live in these stuffy quarters. I am sure I couldn’t; it would kill me in a week. You should see the splendid rooms we have; they do say it was once a palace, and built by a nabob.”
“May be so,” coolly rejoined her hostess. “I know it was a mess-house, and after that an officers’ chummery, fifteen or twenty years ago; but no one would live there now, unless they had no other roof to cover them, and came to a place like a parcel of beggars!”
“Why, what’s up with it?” inquired Mrs. Jackson, suddenly becoming of a dusky puce, even through her pearl-powder.
“Don’t you know—and you there this two months and more? “
“Indeed I don’t; what is there to know?”
“And haven’t you seen him?” demanded Mrs. Clarke, in a key of intense surprise—“I mean the Khitmatgar?”
“I declare I don’t know what you are talking about,” cried the other, peevishly, “What Khitmatgar?”
“What Khitmatgar? Hark at her! Why, a short, square-shouldered man, in a smart blue coat, with a regimental badge in his turban. He has very sticking-out, curling black whiskers, and a pair of wicked eyes that look as if they could stab you, though he salaams to the ground whenever you meet him.”
“I believe I have seen him, now you mention it,” rejoined Mrs. Jackson; “rather a tidy-looking servant, with, as you say, a bad expression. But bless you! we have such crowds of officers’ messengers coming with chits to my husband, I never know who they are! I’ve seen him now and then, of an evening, I’m sure, though I don’t know what brought him, or whose servant he is.”
“Servant!” echoed the other. “Why, he is a ghost—the ghost what haunts the bungalow!”
“Ah, now, Mrs. Clark,” said her visitor, patronizingly, “you don’t tell me you believe such rubbish?”
“Rubbish!” indignantly, “is it? Oh, just you wait and see. Ask old Mr. Soames, the pensioner, as has been here this thirty year—ask any one—and they will all tell you the same story.”
“Story, indeed!” cried Mrs. Jackson, with a loud, rude laugh.
“Well, it’s a true story, ma’am—but you need not hear it unless you like it.”
“Oh, but I should like to hear it very much,” her naturally robust curiosity coming to the front. “Please do tell it to me.”
“Well, twenty years ago, more or less, some young officers lived in that bungalow, and one of them in a passion killed his Khitmatgar. They say he never meant to do it, but the fellow was awfully cheeky, and he threw a bottle at his head and stretched him dead. It was all hushed up, but that young officer came to a bad end, and the house began to get a bad name—people died there so often; two officers of delirium tremens; one cut his throat, another fell over the verandah and broke bis neck—and so it stands empty! No one stays a week.”
“And why?” demanded the other, boldly. “Lots of people die in houses; they must die somewhere.”
“But not as they do there!” shrilly interrupted Mrs. Clark. “The Khitmatgar comes round at dusk, or at night, just like an ordinary servant, with pegs or lemonade and so on. Whoever takes anything from his hand seems to get a sort of madness on them, and goes and destroys themselves.”
“It’s a fine tale, and you tell it very well,” said Mrs. Jackson, rising and nodding her red cock’s feathers, and her placid, dark, fat face. “There does be such in every station; people must talk, but they won’t frighten me.”
And having issued this manifesto, she gave her hostess a limp shake of the hand and waddled off.
“She’s jealous of the grand big house, and fine compound, fit for gentry,” said Mrs. Jackson to herself, “and she thinks to get me out of it. Not that she could get in! for she has to live in quarters; and she is just a dog in the manger, and, anyways, it’s a made-up story from first to last!”
As she reached her abode, and called “Qui hai! buttie lao!” a figure came out from the passage, salaamed respectfully, and, by the light of a two-anna lamp on the staircase, she descried the strange Khitmatgar, whose appearance was perfectly familiar to her—a short, square, surly-looking person. No doubt he was one of Kadir’s many friends; the lower rooms were generally overrun with his visitors.
“Send Kadir!” she said imperiously, and went upstairs, and as she spoke the man salaamed again and vanished.
The wife of his bosom had a fine tale to tell Mr. Jackson the next morning, as, with a very shaky hand, he was touching up some plates in his own room.
“A Khitmatgar that offers free pegs!” he exclaimed, with a shout of laughter. “Too good to be true. Why, I’d take a whisky and soda from the devil himself—and glad to get it. My mouth is like a lime-kiln at this moment—Qui hai! whisky-pani do!”
Many days, warm and sweltering days, rolled on; the hot winds blew the crackling leaves before them, blew great clouds of red dust along the roads, blew ladies up to the hills, and dispersed many of Jackson’s patrons. But he did not care; he had made a good many rupees; he had more than one boon-companion, and he drank harder than ever. “Why not?” he demanded; he had earned the money, and had the best right to spend it. He was earning none now. When customers came, Kadir always informed them the sahib was sota (asleep). Yes, sleeping off the effects of the preceding night. Mrs. Jackson was accustomed to this state of affairs, and what she called his “attacks.” She rocked herself, fanned herself and dozed, and did a little crochet, whilst the two children played quietly in a back room, with old photographs and bits of cardboard. When her husband did awake, and enjoy a few hours’ lucid interval, it was only to recall bills and duns, and flashes of his old life: the cool green park at home, the hunting-field, reviews at Aldershot, his pretty cousin Ethel. Then the chill reality forced itself upon his half-crazy brain. The park was this great, barren, scorched compound, with the hot winds roaring across it; the figure in the verandah was not Ethel in her riding-habit, but Fernanda in carpet slippers and a greasy old dressing-gown. Was this life worth living?
Mrs. Jackson had seen the Khitmatgar several times; once she noticed him looking down at her as she ascended the stairs, once he had appeared in answer to her call, carrying a tray and glasses, but she had boldly waved him away, and said, “Send Kadir; why does he allow strangers to do his work?” There was something far too human about the appearance of the man for her to give a moment’s credence to the ghost-story.
One still hot night, a night as bright as day, Mrs. Jackson found the air so oppressive that she could not sleep. She lay tossing from side to side on her charpoy, looking out on the moon-flooded verandah, and listening to the indefatigable brain-fever bird, when suddenly she heard her husband’s familiar call, “Qui hai, peg lao!” He had been drinking as usual, and had fallen into a sodden sleep in his own room.
After an unusually short interval, steps came up the stairs, shoes were audibly slipped off, and there were sounds of the jingling of a glass and bottle.
The door of Mrs. Jackson’s apartment opened into the verandah and stood wide, on account of the intense breathless heat of that Indian night. In a few moments some one came and paused on the threshold, tray in hand, some one who surveyed her with a grin of Satanic satisfaction. It was the strange Khitmatgar! There was a triumphant expression in his eyes that made her blood run cold, and whilst she gazed, transfixed with horror, he salaamed and was gone. In a second she had jumped out of bed; she ran into the verandah. Yes, the long verandah was empty—he had disappeared. She called excitedly to her husband; no answer. She rushed into his room, to unfold her experience. Jackson was sitting at the table, or rather half lying across it, his hands clenched, his features convulsed, his eyes fixed—quite dead.
He had swallowed one of his chemicals, a fatal poison. Of course, there was the usual ephemeral excitement occasioned by a tragedy in the station, the usual inquest and verdict of temporary insanity, and then a new nameless grave in the corner of the cantonment cemetery.
Jackson’s fate was generally attributed to whisky—or filthy country liquor. “Poor fellow! his position preyed on his mind, and he drank himself to death.”
This was the universal opinion in mess-room, barrack-room, and bazaar. But there were one or two people, including his wife and Mrs. Clark, who thought otherwise, and who gravely shook their heads and whispered—“The Khitmatgar.”
“When shall these phantoms flicker away,
Like the smoke of the guns on the wind-swept hill;
Like the sounds and colours of yesterday,
And the soul have rest, and the air be still?”
—Sir A. Lyall
“And so you two young women are going off on a three days’ journey, all by yourselves, in a bullock tonga, to spend Christmas with your husbands in the jungle?”
The speaker was Mrs. Duff, the wife of our deputy commissioner, and the two enterprising young women were Mrs. Goodchild, the wife of the police officer of the district, and myself, wife of the forest officer. We were the only ladies in Karwassa, a little up-country station, more than a hundred miles from the line of rail. Karwassa was a pretty place, an oasis of civilization amid leagues and leagues of surrounding forest and jungle; it boasted a post-office, public gardens (with tennis courts), a tiny church, a few well-kept shady roads, and half a dozen thatched bungalows surrounded by luxuriant gardens. In the hot weather all the community were at home, under the shelter of their own roof-trees and punkahs, and within reach of ice—for we actually boasted an ice machine! During these hot months we had, so to speak, our “season.” The deputy commissioner, forest officer, police officer, doctor, and engineer were all “in,” and our gaieties took the form of tennis at daybreak, moonlight picnics, whist-parties, little dinners, and now and then a beat for tiger, on which occasions we ladies were safely roosted in trustworthy trees. It is whispered that in small and isolated stations the fair sex are either mortal enemies or bosom-friends. I am proud to be in a position to state that we ladies of Karwassa came under the latter head. Mrs. Goodchild and I were especially intimate; we were nearly the same age, we were young, we had been married in the same year and tasted our first experiences of India together. We lent each other books, we read each other our home letters, helped to compose one another’s dirzee-made costumes, and poured little confidences into one another’s ears. We had made numerous joint excursions in the cold season, had been out in the same camp for a month at a time, and when our husbands were in a malarious or uncivilized district, had journeyed on horseback or in a bullock tonga and joined them at some accessible spot, in the regions of dâk bungalows and bazaar fowl.
Mrs. Duff, stout, elderly, and averse to locomotion, contented herself with her comfortable bungalow at Karwassa, her weekly budget of letters from her numerous olive-branches in England, and with adventures and thrilling experiences at secondhand.
“And so you are off to-morrow,” she continued, addressing herself to Mrs. Goodchild. “I suppose you know where you are going?”
“Yes,” returned my companion promptly, unfolding a piece of foolscap as she spoke; “I had a letter from Frank this morning, and he has enclosed a plan copied from the D.P.W. map. We go straight along the trunk road for two days, stopping at Korai bungalow the first night and Kular the second, you see; then we turn off to the left on the Old Jubbulpore Road and make a march of twenty-five miles, halting at a place called Chanda. Frank and Mr. Loyd will meet us there on Christmas Day.”
“Chanda—Chanda,” repeated Mrs. Duff, with her hand to her head. “Isn’t there some queer story about a bungalow near there—that is unhealthy—or haunted—or something?”
Julia Goodchild and I glanced at one another significantly. Mrs. Duff had set her face against our expedition all along; she wanted us to remain in the station and spend Christmas with her, instead of going this wild-goose chase into a part of the district we had never been in before. She assured us that we would be short of bullocks, and would probably have to walk miles; she had harangued us on the subject of fever and cholera and bad water, had warned us solemnly against dacoits, and now she was hinting at ghosts.
“Frank says that the travellers’ bungalows after we leave the main road are not in very good repair—the road is so little used now that the new railway line comes within twenty miles; but he says that the one at Chanda is very decent, and we will push on there,” returned Julia, firmly. Julia was nothing if not firm; she particularly prided herself on never swerving from any fixed resolution or plan. “We take my bullock tonga, and Mr. Loyd’s peon Abdul, who is a treasure, as you know; he can cook, interpret, forage for provisions, and drive bullocks if the worst comes to the worst.”
“And what about bullocks for three days’ journey—a hundred miles if it’s a yard?” inquired Mrs. Duff, sarcastically.
“Oh, the bazaar master has sent on a chuprassie and five natives, and we shall find a pair every five miles at the usual stages. As to food, we are taking tea, bread, plenty of tinned stores, and the plum-pudding. We shall have a capital outing, I assure you, and I only wish we could have persuaded you into coming with us.”
“Thank you, my dear,” said Mrs. Duff, with a patronizing smile. “I’m too old, and I hope too sensible to take a trip of a hundred miles in a bullock tonga, risking fever and dacoits and dâk bungalows full of bandicoots, just for the sentimental pleasure of eating a pudding with my husband. However, you are both young and hardy and full of spirits, and I wish you a happy Christmas, a speedy journey and safe return. Mind you take plenty of quinine—and a revolver;” and, with this cheerful parting suggestion, she conducted us into the front verandah and dismissed us each with a kiss, that was at once a remonstrance and a valediction.
Behold us the next morning, at sunrise, jogging off, behind a pair of big white bullocks, in the highest spirits. In the front seat of the tonga we had stowed a well-filled tiffin basket, two Gladstone bags, our blankets and pillows, a hamper of provisions, and last, not least, Abdul. Julia and I and Julia’s dog “Boss” occupied the back seat, and as we rumbled past Mrs. Duff’s bungalow, with its still silent compound and closed venetians, we mutually agreed that she was a silly old thing, that she would have far more enjoyment of life if she was as enterprising as we were.
Our first day’s journey went off without a hitch. Fresh and well-behaved cattle punctually awaited us at every stage. The country we passed through was picturesque and well wooded; doves, peacocks, and squirrels enlivened the roads; big black-faced monkeys peered at us from amid the crops that they were ravaging within a stone’s throw of our route. The haunt of a well-known man-eating tiger was impressively pointed out to us by our cicerone Abdul—this beast resided in some dense jungle that was unpleasantly close to human traffic. Morning and afternoon wore away speedily, and at sundown we found ourselves in front of the very neat travellers’ bungalow at Korai. The interior was scrupulously clean, and contained the usual furniture: two beds, two tables, four chairs, lamps, baths, a motley collection of teacups and plates, and last, not least, the framed rules of the establishment and visitors’ book. The khansamah cooked us an excellent dinner (for a travellers’ bungalow), and, tired out, we soon went to bed and slept the sleep of the just. The second day was the same as the first—highly successful in every respect.
On the third morning we left the great highway and turned to the left, on to what was called the Old Jubbulpore Road, and here our troubles commenced. Bullocks were bad, lame, small, or unbroken; one of Mrs. Duff’s dismal prophecies came to pass, for after enduring bullocks who lay down, who kicked and ran off the road into their owners’ houses, or rushed violently down steep places, we arrived at one stage where there were no bullocks at all. It was four o’clock, and we were still sixteen miles from Chanda. After a short consultation, Julia and I agreed to walk on to the next stage or village, leaving Abdul to draw the neighbourhood for a pair of cattle and then to overtake us at express speed.
“No one coming much this road now, mem sahib,” he explained apologetically; “village people never keeping tonga bullocks—only plough bullocks, and plenty bobbery.”
“Bobbery or not, get them,” said Julia with much decision; “no matter if you pay four times the usual fare. We shall expect you to overtake us in half an hour.” And having issued this edict we walked on, leaving Abdul, a bullock-man, and two villagers all talking together and yelling at one another at the top of their voices.
Our road was dry and sandy, and lay through a perfectly flat country. It was lined here and there by rows of graceful trees, covered with wreaths of yellow flowers; now and then it was bordered by a rude thorn hedge, inside of which waved a golden field of ripe jawarri; in distant dips in the landscape we beheld noble topes of forest trees and a few red-roofed dwellings—the abodes of the tillers of the soil; but, on the whole, the country was silent and lonely; the few people we encountered driving their primitive little carts stared hard at us in utter stupefaction, as well they might—two mem sahibs trudging along, with no escort except a panting white dog. The insolent crows and lazy blue buffaloes all gazed at us in undisguised amazement as we wended our way through this monotonous and melancholy scene. One milestone was passed and then another, and yet another, and still no sign of Abdul, much less the tonga. At length we came in sight of a large village that stretched in a ragged way at either side of the road. There were the usual little mud hovels, shops displaying, say, two bunches of plantains and a few handfuls of grain, the usual collection of gaunt red pariah dogs, naked children, and unearthly-looking cats and poultry.
Julia and I halted afar off under a tree, preferring to wait for Abdul to chaperon us, ere we ran the gauntlet of the village streets. Time was getting on, the sun was setting; men were returning from the fields, driving bony bullocks before them; women were returning from the well, with water and the last bit of scandal; at last, to our great relief, we beheld Abdul approaching with the tonga, and our spirits rose, for we had begun to ask one another if we were to spend the night sitting on a stone under a tamarind tree without the village.
“No bullocks,” was Abdul’s explanation. The same tired pair had come on most reluctantly, and in this village of cats and cocks and hens it was the same story—“no bullocks.” Abdul brought us this heavy and unexpected intelligence after a long and animated interview with the head man of the place.
“What is to be done?” we demanded in a breath.
“Stop here all night; going on to-morrow.”
“Stop where?” we almost screamed.
“Over there,” rejoined Abdul, pointing to a grove of trees at some little distance. “There is a travellers’ bungalow; Chanda is twelve miles off.”
A travellers’ bungalow! Sure enough there was a building of some kind beyond the bamboos, and we lost no time in getting into the tonga and having ourselves driven in that direction. As we passed the village street, many came out and stared, and one old woman shook her hand in a warning manner, and called out something in a shrill cracked voice.
An avenue of feathery bamboos led to our destination, which proved to be the usual travellers’ rest-house, with white walls, red roof, and roomy verandah; but when we came closer, we discovered that the drive was as grass-grown as a field; jungle grew up to the back of the house, heavy wooden shutters closed all the windows, and the door was locked. There was a forlorn, desolate, dismal appearance about the place; it looked as if it had not been visited for years. In answer to our shouts and calls no one appeared; but, as we were fully resolved to spend the night there, we had the tonga unloaded and our effects placed in the verandah, the bullocks untackled and turned out among the long rank grass. At length an old man in dirty ragged clothes, and with a villainous expression of countenance, appeared from some back cook-house, and seemed anything but pleased to see us. When Abdul told him of our intention of occupying the house, he would not hear of it. “The bungalow was out of repair; it had not been opened for years; it was full of rats; it was unhealthy; plenty fever coming. We must go on to Chanda.”
Naturally we declined his hospitable suggestion.
“Was he the khansamah—caretaker of the place?” we inquired imperiously.
“Yees,” he admitted with a grunt.
“Drawing government pay, and refusing to open a government travellers’ bungalow!” screamed Julia. “Let us have no more of this nonsense; open the house at once and get it ready for us, or I shall report you to the commissioner sahib.”
The khansamah gave her an evil look, said “Missus please,” shrugged his shoulders and hobbled away—as we hoped, to get the key; but after waiting ten minutes we sent Abdul to search for him, and found that he had departed—his lair was empty. There was nothing for it but to break the padlock on the door, which Abdul effected with a stone, and as soon as the door moved slowly back on its hinges Julia and I hurried in. What a dark, damp place! What a smell of earth, and what numbers of bats; they flew right in our faces as we stood in the doorway and tried to make out the interior. Abdul and the bullock-man quickly removed the shutters and let in the light, and then we beheld the usual dâk sitting-room—a table, chairs, and two charpoys (native beds), and an old pair of candlesticks; the table and chairs were covered with mould; cobwebs hung from the ceiling in dreadful festoons, and the walls were streaked with dreary green stains. I could not restrain an involuntary shudder as I looked about me rather blankly.
“I should think this was an unhealthy place!” I remarked to Julia. “It looks feverish; and see—the jungle comes right up to the back verandah; fever plants, castor-oil plants, young bamboos, all growing up to the very walls.”
“It will do very well for to-night,” she returned. “Come out and walk down the road whilst Abdul and the bullock-man clean out the rooms and get dinner. Abdul is a wonderful man—and we won’t know the place in an hour’s time; it’s just the same as any other travellers’ bungalow, only it has been neglected for years. I shall certainly report that old wretch! The idea of a dâk bungalow caretaker refusing admittance and running away with the key! What is the name of this place?” she asked, deliberately taking out her pocket-book; “did you hear?”
“Yes; I believe it is called Dakor.”
“Ah, well! I shall not forget to tell Frank about the way we were treated at Dakor bungalow.”
The red, red sun had set at last—gone down, as it were, abruptly behind the flat horizon; the air began to feel chilly, and the owl and the jackal were commencing to make themselves heard, so we sauntered back to the bungalow, and found it indeed transformed: swept and garnished, and clean. The table was neatly laid for dinner, and one of our own fine hurricane lamps blazed upon it; our beds had been made up with our rugs and blankets, one at either end of the room; hot water and towels were prepared in a bath-room, and we saw a roaring fire in the cook-house in the jungle. Dinner, consisting of a sudden-death fowl, curry, bread, and pâté de foie gras, was, to our unjaded palates, an excellent meal. Our spirits rose to normal, the result of food and light, and we declared to one another that this old bungalow was a capital find, and that it was really both comfortable and cheerful, despite a slight arrière pensée of earth in the atmosphere!
Before going to bed we explored the next room, a smaller one than that we occupied, and empty save for a rickety camp table, which held some dilapidated crockery and a press. Need you ask if we opened this press? The press smelt strongly of mushrooms, and contained a man’s topee, inch-deep with mould, a tiffin basket, and the bungalow visitors’ book. We carried this away with us to read at leisure, for the visitors’ book in dâk bungalows occasionally contains some rather amusing observations. There was nothing funny in this musty old volume! Merely a statement of who came, and how long they stayed, and what they paid, with a few remarks, not by any means complimentary to the khansamah: “A dirty, lazy rascal,” said one; “A murderous-looking ruffian,” said another; “An insolent, drunken hound,” said a third—the last entry was dated seven years previously.
“Let us write our names,” said Julia, taking out her pencil; “‘Mrs. Goodchild and Mrs. Loyd, December 23rd. Bungalow deserted, and very dirty khansamah.’ What shall we say?” she asked, glancing at me interrogatively.
“Why, there he is!” I returned with a little jump; and there he was sure enough, gazing in through the window. It was the face of some malicious animal, more than the face of a man, that glowered out beneath his filthy red turban. His eyes glared and rolled as if they would leave their sockets; his teeth were fangs, like dogs’ teeth, and stood out almost perpendicularly from his hideous mouth. He surveyed us for a few seconds in savage silence, and then melted away into the surrounding darkness as suddenly as he appeared.
“He reminds me of the Cheshire cat in ‘Alice in Wonderland,’” said Julia with would-be facetiousness, but I noticed that she looked rather pale.
“Let us have the shutters up at once,” I replied, “and have them well barred and the doors bolted. That man looked as if he could cut our throats.”
In a very short time the house was made fast. Abdul and the bullock-man spread their mats in the front verandah, and Julia and I retired for the night. Before going to bed we had a controversy about the lamp. I wished to keep it burning all night (I am a coward at heart), but Julia would not hear of this—impossible for her to sleep with a light in the room—and in the end I was compelled to be content with a candle and matches on a chair beside me. I fell asleep very soon. I fancy I must have slept long and soundly, when I was awoke by a bright light shining in my eyes. So, after the ridiculous fuss she had made, Julia had lit the candle after all! This was my first thought, but when I was fully awake I found I was mistaken, or dreaming. No, I was not dreaming, for I pinched my arm and rubbed my eyes. There was a man in the room, apparently another traveller, who appeared to be totally unaware of our vicinity, and to have made himself completely at home. A gun-case, a tiffin basket, a bundle of pillows and rugs—the usual Indian traveller’s belongings—lay carelessly scattered about on the chairs and the floor. I leant up on my elbow and gazed at the intruder in profound amazement. He did not notice me, no more than if I had no existence; true, my charpoy was in a corner of the room and rather in the shade, so was Julia’s. Julia was sound asleep and (low be it spoken) snoring. The stranger was writing a letter at the table facing me. Both candles were drawn up close to him, and threw a searching light upon his features. He was young and good-looking, but very, very pale; possibly he had just recovered from some long illness. I could not see his eyes, they were bent upon the paper before him; his hands, I noticed, were well shaped, white, and very thin. He wore a signet-ring on the third finger of the left hand, and was dressed with a care and finish not often met with in the jungle. He wore some kind of light Norfolk jacket and a blue bird’s-eye tie. In front of him stood an open despatch-box, very shabby and scratched, and I could see that the upper tray contained a stout roundabout bag, presumably full of rupees, a thick roll of notes, and a gold watch. When I had deliberately taken in every item, the unutterable calmness of this stranger, thus establishing himself in our room, came home to me most forcibly, and clearing my throat I coughed—a clear decided cough of expostulation, to draw his attention to the enormity of the situation. It had no effect—he must be stone-deaf! He went on writing as indefatigably as ever. What he was writing was evidently a pleasant theme, possibly a love-letter, for he smiled as he scribbled. All at once I observed that the door was ajar. Two faces were peering in—a strange servant in a yellow turban, with cruel, greedy eyes, and the khansamah! Their gaze was riveted on the open despatch-box, the money, the roll of notes, and the watch. Presently the traveller’s servant stole up behind his master noiselessly, and seemed to hold his breath; he drew a long knife from his sleeve. At this moment the stranger raised his eyes and looked at me. Oh, what a sad, strange look! a look of appeal. The next instant I saw the flash of the knife—it was buried in his back; he fell forward over his letter with a crash and a groan, and all was darkness. I tried to scream, but I could not. My tongue seemed paralyzed. I covered my head up in the clothes, and oh, how my heart beat! thump, thump, thump—surely they must hear it, and discover me. Half suffocated, at length I ventured to peer out for a second. All was still, black darkness. There was nothing to be seen, but much to be heard—the dragging of a heavy body, a dead body, across the room; then, after an appreciable pause, the sounds of digging outside the bungalow. Finally, the splashing of water—some one washing the floor. When I awoke the next morning, or came to myself—for I believe I had fainted—daylight was demanding admittance at every crevice in the shutters; night, its dark hours and its horrors, was past. The torture, the agony of fear, that had held me captive, had now released me, and, worn out, I fell fast asleep. It was actually nine o’clock when I opened my eyes. Julia was standing over me and shaking me vigorously, and saying, “Nellie, Nellie, wake; I’ve been up and out this two hours; I’ve seen the head man of the village.”
“Have you?” I assented sleepily.
“Yes, and he says there are no bullocks to be had until to-morrow; we must pass another night here.”
“Never!” I almost shrieked. “Never! Oh, Julia, I’ve had such a night. I’ve seen a murder!” And straightway I commenced, and told her of my awful experiences. “That khansamah murdered him. He is buried just outside the front step,” I concluded tearfully. “Sooner than stay here another night I’ll walk to Chanda.”
“Ghosts! murders! walk to Chanda!” she echoed scornfully. “Why, you silly girl, did I not sleep here in this very room, and sleep as sound as a top? It was all the pâté de foie gras. You know it never agrees with you.”
“I know nothing about pâté de foie gras,” I answered angrily; “but I know what I saw. Sooner than sleep another night in this room I’d die. I might as well—for such another night would kill me!”
Bath, breakfast, and Julia brought me round to a certain extent. I thought better of tearing off to Chanda alone and on foot, especially as we heard (per coolie) that our respective husbands would be with us the next morning—Christmas Day. We spent the day cooking, exploring the country, and writing for the English mail. As night fell, I became more and more nervous, and less amenable to Julia and Julia’s jokes. I would sleep in the verandah; either there, or in the compound. In the bungalow again—never. An old witch of a native woman, who was helping Abdul to cook, agreed to place her mat in the same locality as my mattress, and Julia Goodchild valiantly occupied the big room within, alone. In the middle of the night I and my protector were awoke by the most piercing, frightful shrieks. We lit a candle and ran into the bungalow, and found Julia lying on the floor in a dead faint. She did not come round for more than an hour, and when she opened her eyes she gazed about her with a shudder and displayed symptoms of going off again, so I instantly hunted up our flask and administered some raw brandy, and presently she found her tongue and attacked the old native woman quite viciously.
“Tell the truth about this place!” she said fiercely. “What is it that is here, in this room?”
“Devils,” was the prompt and laconic reply.
“Nonsense! Murder has been done here; tell the truth.”
“How I knowing?” she whined. “I only poor native woman.”
“An English sahib was murdered here seven years ago; stabbed and dragged out, and buried under the steps.”
“Ah, bah! ah, bah! How I telling? this not my country,” she wailed most piteously.
“Tell all you know,” persisted Julia. “You do know! My husband is coming to-day; he is a police officer. You had better tell me than him.”
After much whimpering and hand-wringing, we extracted the following information in jerks and quavers:—
The bungalow had a bad name, no one ever entered it, and in spite of the wooden shutters there were lights in the windows every night up to twelve o’clock. One day (so the villagers said), many years ago, a young sahib came to this bungalow and stayed three days. He was alone. He was in the Forest Department. The last evening he sent his horses and servants on to Chanda, and said he would follow in the morning after having some shooting, he and his “boy”; but though his people waited two weeks, he never appeared—was never seen again. The khansamah declared that he and his servant had left in the early morning, but no one met them. The khansamah became suddenly very rich; said he had found a treasure; also, he sold a fine gold watch in Jubbulpore, and took to drink. He had a bad name, and the bungalow had a bad name. No one would stay there more than one night, and no one had stayed there for many years till we came. The khansamah lived in the cook-house; he was always drunk. People said there were devils in the house, and no one would go near it after sundown. This was all she knew.
“Poor fellow, he was so good-looking!” sighed Julia when we were alone. “Poor fellow, and he was murdered and buried here!”
“So I told you,” I replied, “and you would not believe me, but insisted on staying to see for yourself.”
“I wish I had not—oh, I wish I had not! I shall never, never forget last night as long as I live.”
“That must have been his topee and tiffin basket that we saw in the press,” I exclaimed. “As soon as your husband comes, we will tell him everything, and set him on the track of the murderers.”
Breakfast on Christmas morning was a very doleful meal; our nerves were completely shattered by our recent experiences, and we could only rouse ourselves up to offer a very melancholy sort of welcome to our two husbands, when they cantered briskly into the compound. In reply to their eager questions as to the cause of our lugubrious appearance, pale faces, and general air of mourning, we favoured them with a vivid description of our two nights in the bungalow. Of course, they were loudly, rudely incredulous, and, of course, we were very angry; vainly we re-stated our case, and displayed the old topee and tiffin basket; they merely laughed still more heartily and talked of “nightmare,” and gave themselves such airs of offensive superiority, that Julia’s soul flew to arms.
“Look here,” she cried passionately, “I laughed at Nellie as you laugh at us. We will go out of this compound, whilst you two dig, or get people to dig, below the front verandah and in front of the steps, and if you don’t find the skeleton of a murdered man, then you may laugh at us for ever.”
With Julia impulse meant action, and before I could say three words I was out of the compound, with my arm wedged under hers; we went and sat on a little stone bridge within a stone’s throw of the bungalow, glum and silent enough. What a Christmas Day! Half an hour’s delay was as much as Julia’s patience could brook. We then retraced our steps and discovered what seemed to be the whole village in the dâk bungalow compound. Frank came hurrying towards us, waving us frantically away. No need for questions; his face was enough. They had found it.
Frank Goodchild had known him—he was in his own department, a promising and most popular young fellow; his name was Gordon Forbes; he had been missed but never traced, and there was a report that he had been gored and killed in the jungle by a wild buffalo. In the same grave was found the battered despatch-box, by which the skeleton was identified. Mr. Goodchild and my husband re-interred the body under a tree, and read the Burial Service over it, Nellie and I and all the village patriarchs attending as mourners. The khansamah was eagerly searched for—alas! in vain. He disappeared from that part of the country, and was said to have been devoured by a tiger in the Jhanas jungles; but this is too good to be true. We left the hateful bungalow with all speed that same afternoon, and spent the remainder of the Christmas Day at Chanda; it was the least merry Christmas we ever remembered. The Goodchilds and ourselves have subscribed and placed a granite cross, with his name and the date of his death, over Gordon Forbes’s lonely grave, and the news of the discovery of the skeleton was duly forwarded to the proper authorities, and also to the unfortunate young man’s relations, and to these were sent tho despatch-box, letters, and ring.
Mrs. Duff was full of curiosity concerning our trip. We informed her that we spent Christmas at Chanda, as we had originally intended, with our husbands, that they had provided an excellent dinner of black buck and jungle fowl, that the plum-pudding surpassed all expectations: but we never told her a word about our two nights’ halt at Dakor bungalow.
“Here’s my hand.
And mine, with my heart in’t.”
Tom Galway (of the Princess’s Own Pea Green Pioneers) had evidently some weighty matter on his mind, as he lounged in a long chair in his verandah, nursing a veteran fox-terrier, and puffing furiously at a “Trichy” cheroot. Perhaps Tom was endeavouring to accustom himself to his new honours? His step was in that day’s Gazette, and for the last four hours he had been entitled to write “captain” at either end of his signature. He was a broad-shouldered, well set-up young man of eight-and-twenty, with sleepy-looking grey eyes, closely-cropped black hair, and a luxuriant moustache; his countenance was more remarkable for placid contentment than for brilliant intelligence. To tell the honest truth, Tom was not particularly sharp; he had only scraped through his examinations and mastered the drill-book by what he called “the skin of his teeth”, and with extraordinary (and to him) exhaustive mental exertions. His best friend never thought Tom Galway clever, but he was sporting, good-natured, and good-tempered. He never made a joke at any one’s expense—possibly because he could not—and he never said an ill word of mortal; he was slow, his thoughts moved languidly and took some time to grasp a subject; his blunders, literary and social, were the delight of the mess; but he was a reliable officer, a keen sportsman, and “Old Tom” was one of the most popular fellows in the “Princess’s Own Pioneers”. Tom was in the unfortunate condition common to a few other subalterns—Tom was impecunious; he did not gamble, bet, or drink; he kept no stud beyond a gaunt old caster, who enjoyed the appropriate name of “Barebones”; his clothes were latterly—tell it not in Gath—manufactured in his own verandah. Where the money went to was one of the desperate problems that frequently puzzled poor Tom; not that there was so much to go—two hundred and fifty rupees a month. Innocent British reader, if you like to do a nice little mental sum, a rupee is one shilling and threepence. Alas! alas! for the good old days, when the beloved coin was worth two shillings; woe, woe to those who have to remit money home. Luckily, Tom Galway was spared this harrowing experience. Of what was Tom thinking so earnestly? Of the burning currency question? Of his debts? Of his new responsibilities? Whatever his thoughts were, they suddenly culminated in action, for he cast away his cheroot, flung down the dog, went into the interior of his bungalow, dragged out a well-preserved leather writing-case and sat himself down before it. At this moment another young man, riding a lean chestnut pony, and dressed in cricket flannels and a gaudy striped coat, galloped up under the porch, as if he was being hotly pursued by a pack of wolves. Throwing the reins to a panting syce, he shouted—
“Hullo, Tom, so there you are! I’ve just come from the mess. I’ve told them to put the champagne in ice for to-night.”
“For what?” asked Tom, with a vacant look.
“Why, man alive, you’ve got to stand it! What are you mooning about? Did you not get your company to-day?”
“Oh! of course; of course, to be sure,” assented Tom, eagerly.
“What are you about; aren’t you coming down to rackets?”
“No; it’s mail day,” protested Tom rather sheepishly.
“Bosh! Why, you know you never write a letter, you old humbug.”
“Well, any way, I’m going to write one now, so clear.”
“To our mutual tailor? Give him my kind regards, and tell him that he will be paid in the coming by-and-by, and meanwhile to send you a couple of new suits.”
“I don’t owe him a penny,” said Tom, biting the end of his pen. “I’ve cleared him off, thank goodness.”
“Wish I could say the same,” said his comrade, hitching himself up on the corner of the table. “Maybe you are thinking of another kind of suit? I see my brilliant wit is thrown away on you! but you’ve heard of a law suit, eh, and of a love suit? He’s blushing, I declare—he can’t look me in the face. By Jove, he’s in love!”
“Look here, Jack,” said Tom, who certainly had become a shade redder, “can you stop your tomfoolery for once, and listen to me rationally for five minutes? I’m—ahem—I’m—thinking—of—getting married!”
At this announcement, Jack bounded off the table, rushed to the door, and placing both hands to his mouth, gave a wild view halloa that made the neighbouring compounds ring, and threw “Topper,” the terrier, into a paroxysm of excitement.
Having thus relieved his feelings, he turned quite gravely to his friend, drew up a chair, and leaning both elbows on the table, said—
“Tell us all about it, old chappie, but break it to me very gently, if it’s one of our Blazapore spins.”
“No, no; no fear—she is at home.”
“I suppose your new-made honours have put this into your head?” said Jack, surveying his chum with gaping half-contemptuous amazement.
“No—it has been in my head this long time; but, you see, I could not afford to marry.”
“Has she no coin?”
“Not a penny.”
“Come! that’s bad—and mind you, a captain’s pay is not a mine of wealth.”
“She is not extravagant—neither am I—we shall do as well as our neighbours.”
“I hope so,” said the other, dubiously; “but who is she?”
“First of all, promise that you won’t go tearing round the station telling every one.”
“Am I a cackling old woman!” demanded Jack, indignantly.
“Well, you remember when we were quartered at Baymouth—you recollect the two Miss Brownes?”
“Yes, to be sure I do—aunt and niece; aunt, rather ancient, voice like a peacock, smart frocks, pots of money; niece, pretty, and of course, penniless.”
“It’s the niece,” said Tom, almost in a whisper.
“So I should hope. I am glad to find that I have cultivated your taste to some purpose. I wish she had a few thousands and I would give you my consent, and maybe, a wedding present.”
“Your consent is not going to be asked for.”
“And how long has this been going on, you sly dog? Are you engaged to her?”
“No such luck. I could not well invite her to share a subaltern’s pay. She is not married yet, I know, and I’m going to write to her this mail, and ask her to be——”
“Mrs. Galway! Hooroo, hooray! And owner of Bungalow No. 25, two cane chairs, one camp table, one fox-terrier dog, aged, ditto bay horse, deaf and blind——”
“Shut up, will you, you young idiot?” said his friend, impatiently. “I know that her aunt leads her a devil of a life, and to come out to a home of her own would be a merciful release. You see she is companion, ladies’ maid, gooseberry, and scapegoat. Poor girl, she has had hard lines.”
“I remember Miss Brown, Senior—she was at every ball and tennis-party in the place,” observed Jack Murray, thoughtfully. “The niece was always kept well in the background. I was rather interested in the niece myself, but her aunt declared she hated society and had other engagements.”
“Her other engagements were sitting at home, darning stockings or crying her eyes out,” said Captain Galway. “Her aunt is a Tartar, if ever there was one. A soured, ill-natured, hypocritical old cat.”
“All the same she is a well-gilt old cat. Has heaps of coin. I wonder if she will give her niece a dowry?”
“If she gives her her passage money I shall be agreeably surprised,” was the prompt reply.
“Well, now, I suppose you want to write the letter, and I won’t disturb you,” said Jack Murray, rising, “unless I can be of any assistance? Eh?”
“No, thank you”—very gruffly.
“Mind you say what you mean, and don’t make a mull of the whole concern. ’Pon my word, I think you had better let me draft you a copy.”
For an answer his comrade took up a volume of the Queen’s Regulations and shied it at Jack, who, ducking his head, just evaded the missile, and, with another ear-splitting screech, mounted his barrack tat, and gleefully decamped.
Jack was a merry subaltern, whose gaiety never knew a cloud, whose face was never overcast, and who found existence intensely amusing, thoroughly enjoyed life, and the pleasures, excitements, duties, and diversions that it brought him.
It was no easy matter to Tom Galway to indite any letter—much less a love-letter. (His departed friend could have knocked off a billet-doux in less than five minutes.) How he bit the end of his pen, how he tore up sheet after sheet of the best crested regimental notepaper, how he wished he had taken Jack Murray’s offer, I will not linger to relate. In the end, he contrived to concoct and finish a missive, and was so completely exhausted and done up, that he was obliged to relieve his flagging faculties with a stiff whisky and soda.
“A letter like that takes it out of a fellow frightfully!” muttered Tom, mopping his forehead. “However, it’s done, and off my mind.”
He was a person of slow mental evolution; he had been deliberating over this step for months, and he had taken it at last. He dressed, carried the letter over to the mess, saw it placed in the post-bag and started on the first stage of its long journey. He stood and looked after the letter-corporal with an unusually solemn face. Would he recall the epistle if he could? No, no; ten thousand times, no. Nevertheless, between the important invitation just despatched and the responsibility of being actually captain of F company, our hero was considerably sobered, and that night at mess his silence and abstraction, despite several beakers of his own champagne, was the subject of unlimited remark and chaff. He did not fire up at the news of a polo scurry, nor join a tug-of-war with one of the punkah ropes, nor even jump at the proposal to put a buffalo calf into Major Pratt’s bed! [N.B.—Major Pratt was dining elsewhere. He was a little, lean, hungry-looking man, with a sharp nose and red moustache, adored by his regiment, and the idol of the fair sex—according to his own account. A less partial view was taken by the world, but is not that generally the case? Men who had a good opportunity of knowing the major, said that he was as deep as a draw-well; that he shirked his work; that he funked riding, and that he was a regular little screw! The fair sex said—but no matter! it is enough for me to chronicle that they did not accept him at his own valuation.]
Weeks rolled by, and then one happy, happy day the post-office peon, with his tri-coloured turban, brought Captain Galway a telegram, that had come all the way from England! It was brief, to the point, and most satisfactory, and said—
“Yes—letter follows.—L. Browne.”
Tom showed this precious document to Jack Murray with undisguised triumph, for Jack had been dubious of the answer, and when his chum had talked, in foolishly sanguine moments, of “doing up the garden” and “buying a piano, which was going a dead bargain,” Jack had thrown cold water on these designs, and said, “I would not be so dead sure that she will come, my Thomas! It strikes me that you are counting your chickens before they are hatched.”
Tom never argued the point, but frequently refreshed his hopes by contemplating a certain photograph and a withered bunch of forget-me-nots that lay hidden in the recesses of his battered old desk, and said to himself, “She will come right enough.”
Undeniably men are vain creatures.
After this auspicious telegram, Jack was silenced. His friend was magnanimous, and did not say, “I told you so,” but he laboured diligently in the garden, he bought the piano, he took his colonel’s wife into his confidence, and he talked so incessantly of “her”—of “Lily”—that Jack was seriously thinking of dissolving partnership and moving into another bungalow. Of course, when it was noised abroad that Tom Galway—Tom Galway! who did not know “God save the Queen” from the “Dead March” in Saul—had purchased a piano, and that the instrument was actually on view, in his barn-like abode, there was no need for Tom to make any further announcement to his brother officers or the station. It was plain that Tom was going to be married! Naturally he was the legitimate object of any amount of chaff, which chaff he bore with his usual phlegmatic good humour and a broad grin of ridiculous complacency.
He had now received two precious letters from Lily; she announced that she was making arrangements for coming out with some friends immediately, as it was a good opportunity that might not occur again. She had taken her passage in the P. and O. Chusan, and would be in Bombay early in November.
A portion of this was imparted to Jack, but bits were skipped here and there, in a highly suspicious manner.
“I suppose she says nothing of the aunt?” inquired Mr. Murray sarcastically.
“Not a word. The letters are short.”
“Short and sweet, eh? Well, the only drawback that I see is old Miss Browne! She will be worse than a mother-in-law.”
“Not with the seas between us,” retorted Tom emphatically.
“She might come out,” suggested Jack. “By Jove! do you know that I used to think she was rather sweet on you herself, eh?”
“Bosh,” said Tom, reddening. The same idea had once occurred to his slower intelligence, only to be angrily repudiated. “She might be my mother, you young donkey.” All the same, he had vivid recollections of when he would fain have sauntered round the gardens with Lily—it was the aunt who had held him in agreeable dalliance; it was she who picked flowers and placed them in his button-hole with her own white fingers and a girlish simper; it was she who asked for his photograph, who kept him a prisoner in close tête-à-tête at tennis-parties and dances, whilst his whole mind was on the rack to know what had become of Lily. At first he had thought Miss Browne a harmless, vain, loquacious old maid; but subsequently he overheard sharp, bitter speeches to her niece; he had seen Lily’s tears, her constant humiliations; had contrasted her dowdy old dresses with her aunt’s brilliant toilettes, and had come to the conclusion that Miss Browne was a selfish, scheming vixen, and that he could not endure the sight of her. As time went on, Bungalow 25 became quite transformed, thanks to Mrs. Cornwall, the wife of the colonel of the regiment, who gave not only sympathy and useful hints, but practical assistance: pretty furniture was picked up and covered with new cretonne, curtains were hung in doorways, new matting was laid down, pictures were disposed on the walls, a pony cart, side saddle, cook and ayah, were figuratively laid in. Miss Browne was to be received by Mrs. Cornwall, and married from her house; in the monotonous cantonment life at Blazapore, the arrival of Captain Galway’s pretty young bride was awaited with extraordinary interest.
Miss Browne, Senior (Christian name, Lavinia), had been a beauty in her day, and still possessed some remains of her former good looks; she was now upwards of forty, but, with a youthful figure, well-cut gowns, and smart little bonnets, might be taken for five-and-thirty—especially in a veil, or with her back to the light. Many people wondered that she was not married, and no one was more astonished at this omission than Miss Browne herself. Of course, she had refused scores of offers—fifty-nine altogether—and had had two heart-breaking disappointments. This she imparted to her friends, naturally in the strictest confidence. She also informed them that nothing would induce her to marry now; her affections were in the grave, and all she had to live for was her niece—a strange, eccentric, impassive girl, who detested society. Now, Miss Browne herself was ordered “cheerful surroundings” by her medical man, and to be a great deal in the open air, with lively, pleasant associates, and to take moderately active exercise; as, for instance, tennis-playing and dancing, and to indulge in change of scene, and the best and soundest Burgundy. She was rather partial to the military, and made no secret of her taste. Her solid-looking, comfortable detached house was always open to the officers (unmarried) of the garrison; not merely for miserable little afternoon teas, but good substantial luncheons and well-cooked dinners. At these Miss Browne presided in ravishing toilettes, and with the airs of a belle of twenty. She was generally supported by one or two mature matrons, but her niece was never present—to tell the honest truth, she was marshalling the dishes in the back hall, or occupied in the kitchen.
One autumn morning Miss Browne came down to breakfast, unlocked the post-bag, and took out the letters. She was not in a genial humour. It was a raw kind of day, and her dressmaker’s bill had been a disagreeable surprise. What was this thin epistle, an Indian letter?
“Miss Browne, The Grove”
Her face became rather red; then she tore it open, and after glancing at the signature, proceeded to devour it. It ran as follows:—
“Dear Miss Browne,
“I wish I might put my dear Miss Browne, but I hope the answer to this letter will give me that delightful privilege” (Tom had thought this a very neat and effective opening). “I have not seen you for nearly two years, but I have heard of you through the Covingtons, and that you are still unmarried. Absence has made the heart grow fonder in my case. I trust it has been the same in yours—at least, that you have not forgotten me, and those jolly days we spent together the year before last. I have just got my company, and I write the same day to ask you to be my wife. I can now offer you a comfortable home, and I am sure you would like India. If you could come out this cold weather, and marry me in Bombay, I should esteem it an honour.”
This sentence seemed somewhat cold and commonplace to Tom, so he added—
“Darling Miss Browne, you knew that I adored you, but dared not speak sooner; if you love me, come out as soon as ever you can, and make Blazapore a paradise—For yours most faithfully,
“P.S.—I have the forget-me-nots still.”
Miss Browne perused this effusion with a very high colour, and equally mingled portions of emotion, astonishment, and rapture! Now and then she paused to re-read a sentence, as if she could not believe her eyes. An offer of marriage! To go to India to be Mrs. Tom Galway! Her brain was in a whirl. What an unexpected summons! What would the Robinsons say, and the Fishers, and the Smiths? What bliss! what triumph! Visions of a superb trousseau, of India, elephants, palm trees, wedding-cake, and a sea voyage, all flashed through her mind. Suddenly she looked over at her pretty, pale niece, who was pouring out the coffee, and said rather sharply—
“Yes, aunt?” lifting a pair of lovely brown eyes.
“You remember an officer who was here the summer before last; he was in the Pioneers, and paid me a great deal of attention—Tom Galway?”
Lily nodded; she had now become extremely red.
“I have just had a letter from him.”
“A letter!” she echoed in a faint voice.
“Yes—containing an offer of marriage.”
“For——” began the girl, and then she stopped.
“For me, of course,” said her aunt, suddenly standing up and dusting the crumbs off her apron. “Who else do you suppose?”
Poor Lily! the colour sank quickly from her cheeks, she was now as white as the table-cloth. Miserable girl! her little love idyll had been brief, uncertain, and uncomfortable—guiltily snatched moments of conversation—secret gifts of flowers—stealthy promises—incoherent farewells. She liked Tom Galway, good-looking, good-tempered, stupid Tom—her one hope had been that he would return and claim her when he got his company. He had not said so—in so many words—but somehow it was understood, and when they parted she had given him a little bunch of forget-me-nots, and he—he had kissed her hand! but then, of course, Tom was notoriously stupid. He had certainly paid court to her aunt; he had been obliged to walk and talk with her, to gain a footing in the Grove at all, and in this Tom displayed unusual craft. Now all the time he had been in earnest, as regarded Aunt Lavinia!—for she was rich and he was poor—and he had only been amusing himself with her. Oh, faithless—faithless—mercenary Tom!
“Well, have you nothing to say?” demanded Miss Browne rather shrilly. “How different you are to other girls! Why don’t you come round and kiss me, and congratulate me, eh?”
Lily rose—certainly Lily was a stoic—and came and laid a marble cheek against her aunt’s highly artistic skin.
“I—I—I—hope you will be happy. Aunt Lavinia,” she faltered.
“I’m sure I shall. Captain Galway is good-tempered, handsome, and passionately attached to me. You may make your mind quite easy about my future. Why do you look so white and odd? Is there one drawback? Come—speak out!”
“Don’t you—don’t you—think he is rather—rather——”
“What?” she snapped explosively.
“Young! Why he is past thirty, nearly my own age.” (Oh, come! Miss Browne.) “Young! Rubbish. The Queen was older than Prince Albert. Well, I can’t stay here talking all day. I must send off a telegram. I must run across and tell the Smiths and Joneses, and call in at Miss Tuck’s about the trousseau. You might go round and look up that woman who comes out sewing by the day. By-the-by, what’s to be done with you? Tom never thought of that—foolish fellow! he is so taken up with me. I’ll send you to board in some respectable quiet family—or a finishing school—or somewhere.”
Then Miss Browne, Senior, set about her preparations with inconceivable promptitude, and despatched the telegram and letters which threw Tom Galway into such a transport of happiness.
The Chusan arrived in Bombay two days before her time, and “Miss Browne” was among the passengers; her toilettes were Parisian, and her airs and assumption of youth were more ridiculous than ever. She displayed Tom’s photograph in dead secrecy to about fifteen different ladies, who marvelled at this handsome young man’s infatuation, and subsequently nodded, and giggled among themselves and said, “Money.”
The yearly inspection was in full swing at Blazapore, so Tom had not the smallest chance of getting leave to meet his fiancée at Bombay. She was expected to arrive in three days’ time, and all preparations for her reception were nearly completed. Tom had had a long spell at musketry on the ranges, and was resting himself in his own verandah when Jack Murray arrived at a gallop.
“I say, Tom! Look alive!” he began breathlessly. “She’s come!”
“Who? Who has come?” said Tom, jumping to his feet.
“Why, she—Lily—Miss Browne. She drove up to the Cornwalls’ just now—a strange lady, pretty figure, thick white gauze veil. So hurry up! Hurry up!”
No need to repeat this injunction; Tom was already in his own apartment, tearing off his dusty uniform, and shouting to his chokra for his boots, his best suit, and a clean shirt. It was almost dusk when he arrived at his colonel’s bungalow and was met by Mrs. Cornwall in the verandah.
“She will be in the drawing-room directly,” she whispered mysteriously. “She has had a cup of tea, and is taking off her hat; the Chusan came in before her time.”
“What do you think of her, Mrs. Cornwall?” asked Tom impulsively, colouring as he spoke. “Isn’t she the prettiest girl you ever saw?”
Mrs. Cornwall coughed nervously, and replied, “Never mind all that now. Go into the drawing-room. I shall not intrude. Mind, you are to come to dinner.”
Tom passed onward without another word. The drawing-room was darkish, but he made out a slim white figure, that rose quickly at his entrance; ere he could distinguish more she was folded in his arms.
“Oh, Tom! dear Tom!” she exclaimed rapturously.
What voice was this? He drew back instinctively, and met Miss Brown’s cold grey eyes smiling up into his face; he glanced sharply round the room and faltered out, “Where—where is she—where is Lily?”
“Why, dearest? What an odd question! She is at home, of course, at Clifton.”
“Not—not—coming?” he stammered. As the awful situation assumed a mental shape his very blood seemed turned to ice.
“No—certainly not. We shall be far happier by ourselves, dear, and you said nothing about her—never named her.”
“Never named her?” Was he going stark staring mad?
“By-and-by we will have her out, and get her married, if we can!” and she laughed as much as to say, “Easier said than done!”
It was dusk—the expression of amazement, horror, and dismay which passed over Tom’s features during this remarkable scene were completely lost on Miss Browne. Happy Miss Browne!
“Tom,” she said, “how odd you are! But you were always rather silent and undemonstrative. Are you not glad to see me? Think of the thousands of miles I have come to see you.” And as she spoke she laid her head confidingly against his shoulder.
“I—I—was out in the sun to-day, and my head feels queer,” he said, drawing back.
Poor Tom was going through the most awful moment of his life, and surely an unrivalled experience. But Tom was a gentleman, and could not bring himself to divulge the real truth.
“You must be tired,” he stammered with a desperate effort. “I’ll see you again, at dinner.” And without further remark he walked hastily out of the room.
“Hullo! What’s this?” inquired Jack Murray, as to his intense amazement he discovered his friend sitting in his bedroom, before his dressing-table. “Back already! Why are you not sunning yourself in the smiles of beauty?”
Then he caught a glimpse of his friend’s face. It was ghastly white. And, lo! on the table before him were arranged a revolver, and a case of razors!
“I’m taking my choice,” said Tom in a hoarse voice. “It must be one or the other.”
Jack Murray was justly alarmed at the expression of his eye, but did not lose his head for a second.
“What is it?” he asked coolly, reaching over and pocketing the razors. “The sun, acting on confirmed softening of the brain? or have you had a row already?”
“Row! Listen to me, Jack. I went over to see Lily, as I thought——”
“Yes, and as I thought,” echoed Jack.
“Well, she was not there; but the aunt was. There’s been some infernal mistake, and she has come out to marry me.”
When Jack Murray heard this appalling statement, he stared for a second, and then threw himself on his friend’s camp cot, and gave vent to a succession of yells of laughter.
“Yes,” said his comrade, very sternly, “play to you, and death to me.”
After another violent paroxysm. Jack sat up, dried his eyes on his coat-cuffs, and said quite seriously—
“You are in a tight place this time, and no mistake. What on earth are you to do?”
“Shoot myself!” was the brief reply.
“Rubbish! Stop a moment, I have an idea!”
“What good is an idea?” said Tom, scornfully.
“Promise to place yourself in my hands, and I’ll guarantee to get you out of this business alive!”
“Nonsense! the woman is here; cake, trousseau, and all complete. Lily, of course, is done with me. When the story is known I shall be the laughing-stock of India. If I don’t marry her she will bring an action, as sure as fate. No, no. My idea is, a touch of the sun. Grove, the doctor, is a good chap. He’ll say it was that. I’ve been on the ranges all day—a touch of the sun, and this,” taking up the revolver as he concluded.
“Put it down,” said his friend, angrily. “Listen to me. We must go over there to dinner, and tomorrow you shall go on the sick list, and stay there. All I want is time.”
Jack dared not leave his friend alone in his present condition (suicidal), and after a long and exciting altercation he prevailed on him to accompany him over to the colonel’s. Tom looked white, haggard, and miserable; anything but the impersonation of a happy lover. He sat beside his bride-elect, nobly representing “the death’s-head at the feast”—his bride, who was dressed in a marvellous French toilette of white brocade, whose ears, throat, and fingers glittered with diamonds, and who was in exuberant spirits. The company were greatly surprised at Tom Galway’s idea of “a pretty girl of nineteen”, but politely dissembled their amazement. Possibly Tom was more worldly wise than they had supposed. “The old girl”—such was their profane definition—had evidently lots of money; but Tom was a deadly failure as a lover; however, if Miss Browne was satisfied, there was no more to be said!
After dinner there was a little music. Tom sat beside his fiancée on a conspicuous sofa, and looked as if he was awaiting execution, or was thinking of all his dead relations. Jack played the banjo, and sang, “Mary had a Little Lamb”, and various other silly songs, and presently the guests went away. Mrs. Cornwall thoughtfully manoeuvred so as to leave the lovers to make their adieux alone. Unhappy Tom! He walked abruptly over to “the wrong Miss Browne”, held out a limp hand, and said good night, whereupon she rose, and looked as if she was going to fall on his neck, and he turned precipitately and fled.
The next day Tom was in high fever—in real earnest. A touch of the sun on the ranges. His head was shaved, and an hospital nurse procured. Of course Miss Browne was tenderly anxious, and very much grieved and concerned, but she saw no reason to sit in sackcloth and ashes. She had seen other specimens of the officers of the Pioneers, and began to think she was rather throwing herself away upon Tom Galway! She had met Major Pratt at a dinner-party at the general’s—quite a little impromptu affair—and he had noted the new arrival with interest. Her income (trebled) had been casually imparted to him by Jack Murray as a profound secret. Three thousand a year! What luck for Tom Galway! If he had only had such a chance—and the money was undoubtedly there, for she talked intelligently of funds, shares, and mortgages. Her diamonds were valuable, her dresses costly, She was not half bad-looking either. He affected deep sympathy for her and Tom. “Lucky Tom!” he exclaimed; “what envy, hatred, and malice he had stirred up in Blazapore!” He sat close to her, and administered neat little speeches and sugared compliments, and entreated her to look out for a wife for him, and when she went away he squeezed her hand. The next day he called, and the next day he called and brought a bouquet, and the next day he called and brought a book, and the following day a tiger-skin. He damned Tom Galway with the faintest praise. “He was good-looking. Yes! but—now she must not fly at him—heavy, good-natured, but densely stupid. Rather a butt, you know, and indeed only for him (Major Pratt) would have got into one or two very nasty scrapes.” The major had made up his mind to marry Miss Browne, and was calmly confident of his ultimate success. Tom Galway was hors de combat, and all is fair in love and war, and in the end it came to pass that Major Pratt prevailed and carried off the prize. The little Miss Browne had seen of Tom had not impressed her favourably; his shaven head, long bony hands, shabby clothes, and gaunt appearance afforded a painful contrast to the spruce, agreeable little major. Moreover, he was a field officer and not a junior captain, and a far more suitable match in every respect. In an incredibly short time Jack Murray’s anticipations were realized. A few honeyed speeches, a few drives with the major in Jack’s dog-cart, a few bouquets and cheap but judicious presents, and Miss Browne had exercised her sex’s privilege and changed her mind! She wrote a long letter of apology to Tom, deploring her own cruelty and his broken heart, praying that time would alleviate his misery, and pleading, as extenuating circumstances, Major Pratt’s irresistible fascinations and her woman’s weakness. That same evening she and the major ran away together. No one gave chase, and they were ultimately married by special licence in Madras.
Jack lost no time in bearing the great news to his friend. All Blazapore was quivering with the shock. That mercenary little wretch the major had carried off Tom Galway’s heiress. Unlucky Tom!
“It’s all right, Tom; here’s your release,” holding up the letter that cried “Peccavi.” It had been consigned to Jack as a matter of course, he being the major’s chief adviser and confidant. “She’s in the regiment. I could not help that; we had to sacrifice some one, and the major deserved it.”
“Oh, Jack,” said his friend, wringing his hand till the tears stood in Jack’s eyes, “you have saved my reason, and my life.”
“Rubbish! If you had allowed me to draft the first letter there would have been none of this bother. Served you jolly well right for addressing it to Miss Browne.”
“She might have known,” stammered Tom. “She could not have thought that I meant her.”
“There’s no saying. No fool like an old one. You wrote again last mail, did you not? Wrote to the right one! I’ll take good care to see you turned off myself this time. In a couple of months your hair will have grown, and you’ll be fit to be seen, and then you can go down to Bombay and marry the other Miss Browne.”
And he did.
“I heard a voice across the press,
Of one who called in vain.”
—Barrack Room Ballads
Daniel Gregson, Esq., B.S.C., political agent to the Rajah of Oonomore (a child of seven years of age), and Percy Goring, his junior assistant, were travelling from their own state to attend the great Delhi durbar. Mr. Gregson was a civilian of twenty-five years’ standing, short of neck, short of stature, and short of temper. His red face, pale prominent eyes, and fierce bushy brows had gained for him the nickname of “The Prawn”; but he was also known as a marvellously clever financier, ambitious, shrewd, and prompt in action; and by those who were under him, he was less loved than feared. Young Goring was just twenty-six, and much more eager to discuss good shooting, or a good dance, than the assessment of land, the opium trade, or even acting allowances.
The pair journeyed with due ceremony on the native state line, and in the little Rajah’s own gilt and royal carriage. He was laid up in the palace with chicken-pox, and had wept sorely because he had been unable to accompany his guide, philosopher, and friend to the grand “Tamasha”, to wear his new velvet coat, and all his jewels, and to hear the guns that would thunder in his honour. Child as he was, he was already keenly sensitive respecting his salute.
Meanwhile the agent and his subordinate got on capitally without him, travelling at the leisurely rate of ten miles an hour, that fine November afternoon, surrounded with tiffin-baskets, cigarettes, ice-boxes, and other luxurious accompaniments. About four o’clock the train came to a sudden standstill—there was no station to account for this, merely a country road, a white gate, and a mud hut. The halt resolved itself into a full stop; Mr. Gregson thrust his red face out of the window, and angrily inquired the reason of the delay.
“Beg your pardon, sir,” said the Eurasian guard, “there has been a break on the line—bridge gone—and we can’t get forward nohow.”
Mr. Gregson glanced out on the prospect—the dusty cactus hedge, the white telegraph posts, the expanse of brownish grass, black goats, and jungle.
“Any village, any dâk bungalow?” demanded the political agent, who might have known better than to ask.
“I’m afraid not, your honour. If your honour will wait here, we will send a messenger to the next station on foot, and tell them to telegraph for another train from the junction. This will arrive at the other side of the break, and take you on about twelve o’clock to-morrow.”
“And meanwhile we are to sit here!” cried Mr. Gregson, indignantly. “A pretty state of affairs! I’ll send a memo to the railway engineer that will astonish him,” he said, turning to Goring. “It’s four now, and we shall be here till twelve o’clock to-morrow, if we don’t mind. We shall be late for the durbar, and I shall have to wire, ‘unavoidably absent.’”
“I wonder if there is any sport to be had?” said Goring, descending from the carriage, and stretching his long legs. “Any shooting, any black buck?” looking at the guard interrogatively.
“Ah, that reminds me!” exclaimed Mr. Gregson. “The Rajah has a hunting box somewhere in these parts—Kori; we can go there for the night.”
“Yes, your honour,” assented a listener, with profound respect; “but it is four koss from here—a ‘Kutcha’ road—and a very poor part of the state.”
“I vote we stop here,” said Goring. “We can shoot a bit, and come back and dine, and sleep in the train. We shall be all right and jolly; twice as comfortable as in some tumble-down old summer-house.”
“I shall go to Kori, at any rate,” rejoined his superior officer, who resented opposition. “The place is kept up, and I’ve never seen it. This will be a capital opportunity to inspect it.”
“But it’s four koss away; and how are we to get our baggage, and bedding, and grub over?”
“Coolies,” was the laconic rejoinder. “Get them ready to start at once”—to his head servant, with an imperious wave of his hand.
“There is no way of transport for your majesty,” said his obsequious bearer with a deep salaam. “No ponies, not even an ekka—unless the Protector of the Poor would stoop to a country cart?” (Which same is a long rude open basket, between two round wooden wheels, and drawn by a pair of bullocks.)
“I really think it is hardly worth while to move,” urged Goring, as he cast a greedy eye in the direction of a promising snipe jheel. “It will be an awful fag, and you know you hate walking!”
“You can please yourself, and stay here,” said Mr. Gregson, with immense dignity, who, if he hated walking, liked his own way.
As the whole suite (not to mention the commissariat) were bound to accompany him, Goring was compelled to submit; he dared not run counter to his arbitrary companion, who, rejecting with scorn the lowly vehicle that had been suggested, set out for Kori on foot, whither a long string of coolies had already preceded him. The sandy country road wound over a barren, melancholy-looking tract, diversified with scanty pasture and marshy patches (or jheels), pools of water, tall reeds, and brown grasses. It was dotted with droves of lean cattle, paddy birds, milk-white herons, and cranes—especially the tall sirius family, who danced to one another in a stately, not to say solemn, fashion.
Truly a bleak, desolate-looking region, and, save one or two miserable huts and some thorn bushes, there was no sign of tree or human habitation. At last they came in sight of a wretched village—the once prosperous hanger-on of the now deserted hunting palace—that showed its delicate stone pinnacles behind a high wall; apparently it stood in an enclosure of vast extent, an enclosure that must have cost lakhs of rupees. Two sahibs were naturally an extraordinary sight in this out-of-the-way district; the fame and name of Mr. Gregson, a Burra-Burra sahib, had been spread before him by the coolies, therefore beggars and petitioners swarmed eagerly round this great and all-powerful personage.
Mr. Gregson liked to feel his own importance at a durbar, or an official dinner, but it was quite another matter to have it thrust upon him by a gang of clamouring paupers—the maimed, the halt, the blind—crying out against taxation, imploring alms, and mercy. He was a hard man, with a quick, impatient temper. An aged blind beldame got in his way, and he struck her savagely with his stick. She shrank back with a sharp cry, and Goring, who was ever known as “a sahib with a soft heart,” spoke to her and gave her a rupee—a real rupee; it was years since she had felt one!
“Although she is blind, sahib, beware of her,” said an officious youth, with his hair in a top-knot, “She has the evil eye!”
“Peace, dog!” she screamed; then to Goring, “I am a lone old woman; my kindred are dead—I have lived too long. I remember the former days—rich days; but bad days. Sahib, if you would be wise, go not to the palace Khana.”
Goring was moving on when the hag hastily clutched him by the sleeve, and added in a rasping whisper—
“If you see her face—you die!”
“She is mad,” he said to himself, as he hastened to join Mr. Gregson, who had arrived at the great iron-studded gates in a state of crimson fury.
“You say we have land—true!” shouted a haggard, wild-eyed ryot; “but what is land without crops? What is a remission of five per cent, to wretches like us? It is but as a caraway seed in a camel’s mouth! The wild beasts take our cattle and destroy our grain, and yet we must work and pay you, and starve! Would that the Rajah was a man grown! Would that you were dead!”
Mr. Gregson hurried inside, and banged the great gate violently in the face of the importunate crowd.
“It is a very poor district, and much too heavily assessed,” said Goring to himself. “There is not even a pony in the place. The very Bunnia is in rags; the deer eat the crops, such as they are, since the deer are preserved, and there is no one now to shoot them. It is abominable!”
The palace was a pretty, light stone building, two stories in height, with a tower at either end, and a double verandah all the way round. In front of it a large space was paved with blocks of white marble, which ran the whole length of the building, and it was surrounded by the most exquisite gardens, kept up in perfect order—doubtless by the taxes wrung from the wretched creatures outside its gates—a garden that was never entered by its proprietor or enjoyed by any one from year’s end to year’s end, save the mallee’s children and the monkeys. The monkeys ate the fruit, the roses and lilies bloomed unseen, the fountains dripped unheeded; it was a paradise for the doves and squirrels, like a garden in a fairy tale.
The chokedar and head mallee (he was a rich man) received their great guest with every expression of humble delight. Dinner was prepared with much bustle in the hall of audience, whilst Mr. Gregson and his junior explored. There were long shady walks paved with white marble, immense bushes of heliotrope and myrtle, delicate palms, fine mango trees, peach trees, and orange trees. It was truly an oasis in the desert when one contrasted it with the bare, desolate, barren country that lay outside its walls.
“I shall bring the little chap here,” said Mr. Gregson, pompously. “We will have a camp here at Christmas.” And then he strolled back to the palace, and made an excellent dinner of roast turkey, and asparagus, and champagne.
After this repast he got out his despatch-box and his cigarette-case, and set about writing an official, whilst Goring took a chair, and adjourned to the marble pavement outside the palace.
It was an exquisite night; a low moon was peering over the wall—the air was heavy with the scent of syringa and orange blossoms; there was not a sound, not a voice to be heard, not a soul in sight, save Mr. Gregson, who, illuminated by two wax candles, bent eagerly over his pen, as he sat in the open hall of audience.
Goring, as he smoked, thought of many things; of the half-famished villagers; of the splendid shooting that was going to waste; of the grand bag he could make, and would make, at Christmas. Then he began sleepily to recall some stories—half-told stories—about this very place; tales of hideous atrocities, and crimes that had been done here, in the days of the Tiger Rajah, the present ruler’s grandfather. He was gradually dozing off, when he was aroused by the sounds of distant tom-toms playing with extravagant spirit. The drumming came slowly nearer and nearer; it actually seemed to be in the garden—louder and louder—with a whispered murmuring and low applause, and as it were the footsteps of a great multitude. But there was nothing whatever to be seen, and it was as light as day. He moved uneasily in his chair, and gazed behind him; no! nothing to be seen but his senior steadily covering sheets of foolscap. He turned his head, and was aware of an unexpected sight—as startling as it was uncanny! Two twinkling little brown feet, dancing before him on the marble pavement! exquisite feet, that seemed scarcely to touch the ground, and that kept perfect time to the inspiriting sounds of the tom-toms; they were decked with massive golden anklets, which tinkled as they moved, and above them waved a few inches of the heavy yellow gold-embroidered skirt of the dancing-girl. No more was visible. Round and round the fairy feet flitted, in a very poetry of motion; faster and faster played the tom-toms. Such dancing, such nimble feet, it had never been young Goring’s lot to behold! Yes—but where was the rest of the body?
As he gazed in half-stupefied amazement, he suddenly recalled the old hag’s warning, with an unpleasant thrill—
“If you see her face—you die!”
At this instant there was a scraping sound, of the pushing back of a chair, of slow footsteps on the marble, of a loud cry, and a heavy fall.
Goring jumped up, and beheld Mr. Gregson lying prone on his face. He rushed to his assistance, and raised him with considerable difficulty. His eyes were fixed with an expression of unutterable horror. He gave one or two shuddering gasps, his head drooped forward on his breast, and he expired.
Goring looked round apprehensively. The feet had disappeared; the tom-toms had ceased.
He shouted for help, and immediately a vast crowd of dismayed retainers assembled around him, and Babel ensued.
“The Burra sahib dead! Well, well, it was ever an evil place. Ah, bah! Ah, bah! It was the nautch-girl, without doubt.”
They further informed Goring that the old Rajah had once tortured a dancing-girl on that very spot, and inhumanly disfigured her face. More than one had seen her since, and perished thus.
That morning, at sunrise, the dead body of Mr, Gregson was placed in a native cart, similar to the one he had so scornfully rejected, and taken by slow stages to the nearest station and back to the city, accompanied by Goring.
The doctors, European and native, declared with one consent that Mr. Gregson had died in a fit—an apoplectic seizure.
Goring—wise man—said nothing.
“Who is whispering and calling through the rain?
Far above the tempest crashing,
And the torrent’s ceaseless dashing,
I hear a weary calling, as of pain.”
“If any one can help you, it will be Captain Blane.”
This sentence was uttered by a smart young clerk in a shipping office in Rangoon, who, clothed in cool white drill, leant his elbows confidentially on the desk, and concluded his speech with a reassuring nod.
I was en route from Upper Burmah to Singapore, in order to attend my sister’s wedding. Our flat river-boat was late, and when I presented myself at the booking-office of the P. and O., I found to my dismay that the steamer for the Straits had sailed at dawn, and that their would not be another for a week. I was therefore bound to miss the wedding, and waste my precious leave in Rangoon, thanks to the leisurely old tub that had dawdled down from Mandalay.
I turned my eyes expectantly on Captain Blane, a short-necked, weather-beaten sailor, in a blue serge coat with gilt buttons, and a peaked cap. He surveyed me steadily, with a pair of small keen eyes, and evidently did not receive the suggestion with enthusiasm.
“We don’t carry passengers,” he announced in a gruff voice. “My ship is only a cargo-boat, a tramp; and we have no accommodation whatsoever.”
“No accommodation!” echoed the clerk, incredulously. “Oh, I say, come!”
“Why, you know very well that all the cabins are chock-full of cargo; and we have never carried a passenger since I took command.”
“If there was any hole or corner where you could stow me, I don’t mind how I rough it,” I urged; “and I’ll pay full first-class fare.”
“Oh, there’s lots of holes and corners,” admitted the captain. “And you’d just get the ship’s rations, same as the officers and myself; no soups and entrées—plain roast and boiled.”
“I’m not particular; I’m ready to eat salt junk and sea biscuit. I’ll do anything, short of swimming, to get to Singapore by next Wednesday.”
“Is it so very important?” demanded Captain Blane.
“A wedding. No—no,” in answer to his commiserating stare, “not my own—but I’ve to give away the bride.”
“Well, well, I suppose I must try and stretch a point. Mind! I’ll take you at your word about the passage money. ‘Never refuse a good offer,’ is my motto; so, Mr.——?” and he paused interrogatively.
“Lawrence is my name.”
“Mr. Lawrence, if you’ll be down at Godwin’s Wharf to-morrow, at nine o’clock, with your baggage and bedding and servant, we will lie off a bit, and any sampan will put you aboard in five minutes. Ask for the Wandering Star;” and with a nod between the clerk and myself, he turned his back and stumped out.
“He is not very keen about passengers, eh?” remarked the clerk with a laugh. “I wonder why?”
“I suppose because she is a dirty old cargo-boat. But any port in a storm, or rather, any ship, in this crisis, for me!”
“Ah,” said the clerk, rubbing his chin reflectively, “I’ve a sort of idea—though perhaps I dreamt it—that there is something rum, or out of the way, about this Wandering Star.”
“Well, whatever it is, I’ll risk it,” I answered with a laugh, as I followed the captain’s example, and took my departure.
Punctually at nine o’clock next morning I embarked in a sampan, and was rowed down the swift Irrawaddy.
“That cannot be my steamer,” I protested, as the boatman made for a long, low, raking craft, a craft of considerable pretensions. She looked like one of the smaller vessels of the P. and O. fleet.
But sure enough the boatman was right, for as we passed under her stern, I read in yellow letters the name—Wandering Star.
A closer inspection showed her to be simply what her commander had stated—a tramp; she was dirty, rusty, and travel-stained. When I clambered aboard, I found no snowy decks, or shining brasses, but piles of cargo, bustling coolies, and busy blue-clad lascars. I was immediately accosted by the captain, who presented me to the chief officer, and to a fellow-traveller, a sallow, lanky youth of nineteen, going to join his friends in the Straits.
“I thought he would be company for you,” explained the sailor. “We are off in half an hour,” pointing to the Blue Peter at the fore. “And we’re loaded to the hatches. Mr. Kelly here will show you your quarters.”
As I followed the chief officer, I was astonished at the dimensions of the Star; it was a considerable distance from the captain’s snug cabin, near the bridge, to the poop. We made our way below, into a long saloon with tables and seats intact, but the aft part piled high with bales. There was a strange, musty, mouldy smell; it felt damp and vault-like, and afforded a sharp contrast to the blazing sun and cobalt sky on deck.
As my eye became used to the gloom, I noticed the lavish carving, the handsome mahogany and brass fittings, the maple-wood doors and panels—the remains of better days!
My cabin contained two bunks, and in one of these my servant, a Madras butler, called “Sawmy”, had already arranged my bedding.
“I wonder you don’t carry passengers?” I remarked to Mr. Kelly. “What a fine saloon! I should have thought it would have paid well.”
“She carried hundreds in her day,” he said complacently. “You see there is where the piano was hitched, and there the swinging lamps, and bookcase; but, all the same, it would never pay us to take passengers;” and he laughed—an odd sort of laugh. “We are not a regular liner, you know, trading between two ports. Regular liners look on us as dirt; but lots of ’em would give a good deal for our lines, and our engines. There’s some of them I would not send my old boots home in! We pick up cargo as we find it; one time we run to Zanzibar, another to Hong Kong, another to the Cape, or maybe Sydney. I’ve not been home this three years. I hope you’ll find your bunk comfortable; the youngster is opposite, just across the saloon—you know your way back!” and having done the honours, he left me.
Certainly, the Star was much above her present business, and bore the remains of having seen better days. Even my marble washstand was not in keeping with a cargo-steamer. I opened the next cabin; it was crammed to the door with freight—bird-cages in this instance. Every cabin was no doubt similarly packed. I was not sorry to exchange the earthy, chill atmosphere below for the bright sunshine on deck. Soon we had weighed anchor, and were moving smoothly down the rapid Irrawaddy, between high banks of tawny grass, gradually losing sight of the shipping, then of the golden Pagoda, then of Elephant Point; finally the Star put her nose straight out, to cross the Gulf of Martaban. The sea was calm, we were well fed and found, and made a pleasant party of six; the captain, first and second officers, the chief engineer, and two passengers. I slept like a top that night, and awoke next morning, and found we were anchored off Moulmein, with its hills covered with pagodas and palms. From Moulmein we put to sea, and still the weather once more favoured us. The captain was a capital companion, full of anecdotes and sea-stories; the chief engineer was a first-rate chess-player, and I began to think I had done rather a smart thing in securing a passage in this stray steamer. As the captain concluded a thrilling yarn apropos of a former ship in which he had been third officer, I suddenly recalled the shipping clerk’s hint, and asked—
“Are there no stories about this one? has she no history?”
Captain Blane looked at the chief officer with a knowing grin, and then replied—
“History?—of course she has. What do you call the log-book? That’s her history. I suppose that chap at the office told you she was considered an unlucky ship? Eh? Come, now, own up!”
“No; but he said he had an idea that there was something queer about her—he could not remember what it was.”
“Well, I’ve been in command of her now four years, and I’ve seen nothing to complain of. What do you say, Kelly?” appealing to the first officer.
“I say that I never wish to put foot on a better sea-boat, and there’s nothing wrong with her, as far as I know.”
But Sawmy, my Madras boy, entertained a totally different opinion of the Star. When I asked him why he did not sleep outside my door in the saloon, he frankly replied—
“Because plenty devil in this ship; the chief Serang” (head of the Lascars) “telling me that saloon plenty bad place.”
We were now within forty-eight hours of Singapore, when the weather suddenly changed, as it frequently does in those treacherous seas. The awning was taken down—sure presage of a bad time coming. The ports were closed, and all was made ready for a blow; and we were not disappointed—it came. We had a rough night, but I was not in the least inconvenienced; I slept like a dormouse rocked in the cradle of the deep.
In the morning my fellow-passenger (whose name, by the way, was Mellish, and who had evidently “suffered,” to judge by his ghastly appearance) accosted me timidly and said—
“Did you get up and walk about last night?”
“Do you ever walk in your sleep?” he continued.
“Not to my knowledge—why?”
“Because last night some one came and hammered on my cabin door, and shouted, ‘The ship’s aground.’ What do you think it can have been?” he asked with a frightful face.
“I think there is no doubt that it was the hot tinned lobster you had for supper,” I answered promptly.
“No, no, no, it was not a dream—it woke me,” he returned. “I thought it was you. Then I tried to think it was a nightmare, and had almost brought myself to believe it, and was dropping off to sleep, when a cold, cold wet hand was passed slowly across my face;” and he shuddered violently.
“Lobster!” I repeated emphatically.
“No, no. Oh, Mr. Lawrence, I heard moaning and whispering and praying. I’m afraid to sleep in that cabin alone; may I come and share yours?”
“There is no room,” I answered, rather shortly. “The top berth is crammed full of my things.”
At breakfast there was a good deal of movement, and now and then a loud splash upon the deck. The captain, who had been tapping the barometer, looked unusually solemn, and said—
“We are in for a bit of dirty weather; unless I’m mistaken, there’s a cyclone somewhere about. I don’t think we shall do more than touch the edge of it, and this is a stout craft, so you need not be uneasy.”
This was vastly reassuring, when the sky to the west changed from a lowering grey to an inky black. The wind rose with a whimper, that increased to a shriek; it lashed the sea with fury, lashed it into enormous waves, and, laden as we were, we began to roll, at first majestically, then heavily, then helplessly. We took in great green seas over the bows, tons of water discharged themselves amidships, and made us stagger and groan, but still through it all the engines thumped doggedly on.
We seized our dinner anyhow; sitting, standing, kneeling, adapting ourselves to the momentary angle of the vessel. It was a miserable evening, wet and cold, and Mellish and I went to bed early.
The dead-lights were down, the hatchway closed behind us; we were entirely cut off from the rest of our shipmates for the night, and the saloon smelt more vault-like than ever. I turned away from Mellish’s grey frightened face and stammering, piteous importunities, shut myself into my cabin, bolted the door, went to bed, and fell asleep. Meanwhile the storm increased to a hurricane, the motion was tremendous. I was flung violently out on the floor, as the Star made one awful plunge, and then righted herself. I was, needless to state, now thoroughly awake, and scrambling back into my berth, and clinging to the woodwork with both hands, lay listening to the roaring of the tempest, which rose now and then to a shrill shriek that had a terribly human sound; my heart beat fast, as my ears assured it that I was not merely listening to the raving of the gale, but actually to the piercing screams of women, and the hoarse shouts of men! Just as I had arrived at this amazing conclusion, the door of the cabin was burst open, and an elderly man, in his shirt-sleeves, was hurled in.
“She’s going down,” he bawled excitedly, “and the hatches are fast.”
I sprang up, and the next lurch shot us both out into the saloon. And what a scene did I behold by three lamps that swung violently to and fro! Their fitful light showed me a large number of half-dressed strangers, in the last extremity of mortal fear; there was the horrible, selfish pushing and struggling of a panic-stricken crowd, fighting their way towards the companion-ladder; the wild frenzied distraction people exhibit when striving to escape from some deadly peril; the tumult, the cries and shrieks of frightened women making frantic appeals for rescue—cries heart-rending to hear.
Besides the dense struggling block at one end of the cabin, battling fiercely for escape, there were various groups, apparently resigned to their impending fate. A family at prayer; two men drinking raw brandy out of tumblers; an ayah beating her head upon the floor, and calling on “Ramasawmy”; an old lady, with a shawl over her head and a Bible on her knee; a young man and a girl, hand locked in hand, whispering last words; a pale woman, with a sleeping child in her arms. I saw them all. I saw Mellish clinging to the saloon hand-rail, his eyes glazed with horror, and gibbering like an idiot.
The crash of broken crockery, the shrieks of despair, the roaring of the wind, the sullen thundering of the seas overhead, combined to make up the most frightful scene that could possibly be imagined.
Then all at once, a beautiful girl, with long dark hair streaming over a white gown, rushed out of a cabin, and threw herself upon me, flinging her arms round my neck; she sobbed—
“Oh, save me—save me! Don’t let me die—don’t let me die!”
Her wild agonized face was pressed closely to mine; her frantic clasp round my neck tightened like a band of steel—closer, closer, closer. I was choking. I could not move or breathe. She was strangling me, as she shrieked in my ear—
“It is coming now! This is death!”
There was one awful lurch, a grinding crash, a sinking sensation, a vice-like grip about my throat—and outer darkness.
I was aroused in broad daylight by Sawmy, who had brought my tea and shaving-water. I was lying on the floor of the saloon, and he was stooping over me, with a frightened expression on his broad, brown countenance.
“At first I thinking master dead!” was his candid announcement. “Me plenty fraiding. Why master lying here and no in bed?” Why indeed!
A plunge of my head into cool water, and a cup of tea, brought me to myself, and then I flung on my dressing-gown, and hurried across the saloon to see what had become of the miserable Mellish.
He was stretched in his berth, with a life-belt beside him, rigid and cold, and in a sort of fit.
With brandy, burnt brown paper, and great difficulty, Sawmy and I brought him round. As soon as he had come to his senses, and realized that he was still in the land of the living, he sat up and turned on me quite ferociously, and said—
“And that’s what you call lobster!”
The weather had moderated considerably, and though I had no great appetite, I was able to appear at breakfast. Mellish was too shattered to join us, and lay in a long chair in the deck-house, sipping beef-tea, and hysterically assuring all inquirers that “he would never again set foot in the saloon—no, he would much rather die!”
“I suppose you got knocked about a bit last night?” inquired the captain, with a searching glance.
“Not exactly knocked about; 1 did not mind that so much, but——” and I hesitated.
“But you were disturbed?” he added significantly.
“Yes, very much so; I hope I shall never be disturbed in such a way again.”
“Then I take it you’ve seen them - the former passengers? They are generally aboard, they say, in dirty weather.”
“Whatever they were, I trust in God I may never witness such another scene.”
“You don’t wonder now that we are not free of offering cabin accommodation, eh? Not that I ever saw anything myself.”
“But you admit that there is something.”
“So they say”—nodding his head with a jaunty air.
“And what is the explanation? What do they say?” I asked impatiently.
“Just this. The Wandering Star was once the Atalanta, a fine passenger steamer, and, coming out her last trip, she fell in for the tail of a cyclone, and came to grief off the Laccadives; blown out of her course, engine-fires put out, went on a rock, and sank in ten fathoms; every soul on board went down, except a steward and a fireman, who got off on a hen-coop. It was an awful business—sixty-nine passengers, besides officers and crew. She sank like a stone, no time to get battered to pieces, and so she was right well worth her salvage. A company bought her cheap; she was but little damaged—they raised and sold her. She was intended for the pilgrim traffic, from Bombay to Mecca, and in fact she did make a couple of trips; but somehow she got a bad name; the pilgrims said she was possessed of devils—ha! ha!—and so the owners put her into the wheat and rice and general cargo trade, and we have no complaints. She has been at it these five years, and is, as I take you to witness, a grand sea-boat, and has fine accommodation betweendecks as well as aft; it’s only in real dirty weather that there is anything amiss, and that in the saloon. They say,” lowering his voice to a hoarse whisper, “they kept the passengers below, battened down; they got no chance for their lives. It was a mistake; they were all drowned like rats in their holes. Mind you, I’ve seen nothing, and I’m not a superstitious man.”
“Would you sleep in the saloon?” I sternly demanded.
“No; for in a blow my place is on the bridge. But I’ll not deny that a second officer, who has left us, tried a bunk down there once, out of curiosity, and did not repeat the experiment; he was properly scared;” and the captain chuckled at the recollection.
“I suppose we shall get in to-night?” I remarked, as we paced the deck together.
“Yes, about eleven o’clock. We are doing our twelve knots, dirty-looking old hooker as we are!”
“So much the better,” I answered, “for you will not be surprised to hear that I’m not anxious to occupy my berth again.”
I am thankful to relate that I slept on land that same night, and was not “disturbed”.
I often glance at the shipping lists, to see if there is any news of the Wandering Star. I note that she is still tramping the ocean from China to Peru, and I have not the smallest doubt but that, on stormy nights, the saloon is still crowded with the distracted spectres of her former passengers.
“Frailty, thy name is woman!”
People said they were from the north—even from beyond Peshawar—the two tall men, with fair skins and long brown hair, but no one had time to ascertain their name or business, for between the sunset and dawn both had fallen a prey to that horrible throat disease that seizes its victims by the gullet, and strangles them almost on the spot. Thus they died in the great serai at Hassanpur—leaving behind them three stout Kabuli ponies, two rolls of bedding, and one little boy; also, it was whispered in the bazaar, a considerable sum of money in excellent Government notes; but this, the policeman in charge of the serai swore by the soul of his father, was a black lie, and, with the sanction of the authorities, be made over the child and three ponies to the keeping of his maternal uncle, Ibrahim Khan (the same who lives at the corner of the road as you go to the sugar-works). Ibrahim sold the ponies to his satisfaction to officers in the cantonments, and suffered the child to share his roof, and also his extremely frugal fare. An Indian community is never slow to talk, and it was breathed from ear to ear that the traders had been wealthy, and that Nubbi Bux, the policeman, and Ibrahim, his kinsman, had divided the spoil between them. One thing was manifest: nought had descended to Kareem, the rightful heir.
He was a fair-skinned little fellow, with dancing dark eyes, who ran about the roads almost naked, with an old flat copper amulet tied round his neck by a piece of string; he was about four years of age, as pretty as a bronze Cupid; the women petted him for his good looks, and he found many congenial playfellows among the narrow alleys and courtyards of the swarming burra bazar. Ibrahim, Kareem’s adopted grandfather, was an avaricious old person, with a hooked nose, pendulous underlip, and frowsy turban, who sat all day long in a shop like a niche—it looked no bigger than a wardrobe—lined with empty jars, bottles, broken lamps, cracked cups and saucers, and battered odd volumes of worthless books. He did not sell much, but he served market people with pulls at a huka, at a fixed price; and he was reputed to lend money at enormous interest.
If you know the city of Hassanpur, where it lies between two capricious rivers and surrounded by a vast grain country, you must be familiar with the long red bridge over the Kanat, on the parapet of which a mendicant sits, who rests not from dawn till dusk calling, “Blind man—blind man.” Just at the foot of the bridge is the great serai, or wayside house, for travellers, with its lofty walls, spacious inclosure, and entrance gate worthy of a mosque—both it and the bridge were built by a rich native, who wished his name to go down to posterity; but to thousands who cross the one, and hundreds who halt at the other, it is unknown—no doubt they imagine both to be the work of the all-powerful and ever-active Sircar (Government).
Kareem’s tastes did not lean to trade; far from it. He had no aptitude in bargaining for kid skins, empty bottles, and kerosene oil tins. On the other hand, he had an uncontrollable passion for horses, and when he grew too old to build houses in the dust, and play baby games, he used to hang about the serai and haunt the society of camel-drivers and horse-dealers. He soon became acquainted with the manners and customs of the divers kinds of beasts that crowded the inclosure; camels, ekka ponies, buffaloes, mules, elephants, and squealing country-breds. He knew all their peculiarities, and was not afraid of one of them. Many and many a time, he played truant from the munshi and his lessons, and many a time his angry grandfather sought him with a stick, and drove him forth with blows and curses; but now—Kareem was a smart lad of eighteen, and useful to traders and travellers. Moreover he earned money, and Ibrahim viewed his visits to the serai with extreme complacency. Within the last ten years he had become a well-known and popular character. New arrivals and regular habitués immediately shouted for “Kareem, Kareem.” He was a person of far more importance than the sleepy policeman in charge—not his original patron, who had picked him up from between two dead men, and placed him out in the world.
One hot April evening, as Kareem squatted idly at the serai entrance, enjoying a huka and a “bukk” with a lad of his own age, he noticed a cloud of white dust whirling down the bridge. No—it was not driven by the wind, but caused by a wild runaway. In a second he had recognized the collector’s little boy, on his chestnut pony, racing towards him at break-neck pace—a huge lumbering camel carriage had frightened the overfed, pampered Tattoo, and he was making for home at a mad gallop. Kareem stood up and dashed into the road; he was lithe and active as a hunting leopard. As the pony passed, he sprang at it, like a starving beast of prey, clung to its neck, and ran alongside until he had effectually checked its career, but only just in time—only just before it turned the sharp corner into the bazaar. The collector now rode up; his face grey with fear. He knew too well what would have been the child’s fate, had the fiery little animal bolted through those narrow streets, impassable with ekkas and bullock carts, and he shuddered as he wiped the perspiration from his face, and tendered Kareem his tremulous thanks. But empty thanks were not to be his sole portion. As he attached a leading rein from the pony’s bridle to the collector’s shaking hand, that gentleman said, “Let me see you to-morrow morning at nine o’clock,” and then the pair trotted soberly away.
Mr. Colebrook, the collector, lived in a fine square flat-roofed bungalow, about two miles from the city, in the civil lines. It stood in a spacious compound studded with fine trees, and was approached by a winding gravelled avenue. Kareem went up this avenue, slowly and doubtfully; he was not in the habit of frequenting such grand dwellings, and presently he came to a dead halt, and sat down at a respectful distance, under a cork tree; and here the collector saw him, and beckoned him from his office verandah.
“Yes,” said Mr. Colebrook to himself, “a fine frank face, and surely not a native of these parts.”
In answer to a question, Kareem replied—
“No, your worship, I am from the north—so they say.”
“They say?” echoed the gentleman. “What do you mean?”
“My father died in the serai fifteen years ago, your honour; no one knew his name or country; and old Ibrahim took me; he says I am a Kabuli or a Kashmeri. God knows.”
“And what is your occupation?”
“By your honour’s favour, I work in the serai, and earn from one rupee to four rupees a month, according to the season.”
“Then you understand horses.”
“Oh!”—his face lighting up—“by your favour, yes; and I can ride.”
“Then, I will take you on as syce for my son’s pony—the one you caught yesterday.”
Kareem salaamed to the very matting.
“Your pay will be seven rupees a month and clothes.”
Now, six rupees is a man’s pay, and Kareem was but eighteen. Kareem’s heart was too full for words; he was almost overcome, and on the very verge of tears. All his comrades knew that he was an odd, excitable boy, and laughed and cried like a woman. His feet seemed scarcely to touch the ground; he sped along as if they had wings, and he was a second Mercury carrying home the great news—first over the wide white roads, then across the railway, and finally he plunged into the bazaar.
Kareem ran along at a sling trot, hustling and thrusting his slim body through the densely-packed thoroughfares; at last he arrived at home and panted out his marvellous tidings to old Ibrahim. That patriarch received the intelligence with so many exclamations of “Oh, ye fathers!” and so much clawing of his beard, that Kareem felt assured that he had been handsomely launched in life, and was indeed a man of considerable importance; he lost no time, that same evening, in hurrying to the bridge (a kind of local Rialto) and there expounding his success to a curious and envious crowd of listening friends. Among the crowd was Pera, Ibrahim’s grand-niece, Kareem’s former playmate—and present idol. She was four years younger than him by months and days, but thirty years his senior in experience, in worldly wisdom, and in wickedness. Undoubtedly she was extremely pretty, with wondrously-traced arched brows, red lips, and eloquent black eyes. Nevertheless her grand-uncle detested her, and most of her own sex bore her unconcealed animosity; they declared, “She was as false as the devil, deep as the pit, and as dangerous as a snake with a head at both ends.” People hinted that Abdool, her father, was in debt to his uncle Ibrahim; and also that Pera was promised in marriage to Mindoo, her cousin, a handsome hawk-eyed man with a scar on his cheek and minus one finger. There was some mystery about Mindoo. Once, he had been absent for three whole years, and it was an unexplained absence; for it was mere foolishness for his brothers to say that he had joined a horse-dealer and had gone down to Allahabad. Does it take three years to sell a dozen ponies?
Mindoo was a stalwart, taciturn man, and somewhat feared; therefore no one called him a budmash to his face, or even in the ears of his kindred. He worked with a carpenter who mended ekkas and gharries, and was clever with the chisel and the saw. Nevertheless, people whispered that he had never learnt this trade at Hassanpur in his youth—but in Allahabad jail khana.
Pera was among Kareem’s audience, and listened, with unaffected interest, to the particulars of his rise in life. He had been her slave ever since she could speak, and now most of his scanty earnings went to gratify her taste for cocoanut-sweets and coloured glass bangles. “You will not scorn me now, Pera,” he pleaded, as they loitered together near the tamarind tree. “Behold, I am in the collector sahib’s service. I am to have seven rupees and clothes. I have as much wages as Mindoo!” But Pera only peeped coquettishly round the corner of her orange saree, laughed saucily, and ran away.
Kareem was soon installed in his new post, and wearing a smart blue suit and gorgeous red turban, felt the sense of personal importance accruing from new garments, when he encountered his old friends. His duties proved to be trifling in comparison to his drudgery in the serai, though, now and then, he had enjoyed the fierce, mad delight of mounting some unbroken colt, and galloping it bare-backed over the bridge, away along the Lucknow road, between the waving elephant grass, past little brown houses with pumpkins on the roof, past pools half filled with hideous blue buffaloes, scattering children, pariah dogs, and goats, as if he was mounted on a whirlwind, and riding on the storm.
Here, he had merely to groom and feed an irritable little chestnut pony, no bigger than a calf; to lead out the “lal Tattoo”, as Harry Sahib called it, with its master on its back, of a morning over the dewy maidans and along the shady roads. He ran with it as it cantered, and even galloped, though once or twice he was suddenly obliged to stop, and lean against a tree, his face grey and drawn, and groan aloud with agony (he had, though he knew it not, advanced disease of the heart); he would earnestly beseech Harry Sahib not to tell the collector, and, as a bribe, would hold Harry Sahib in the saddle, whilst he piloted him over tiny nullahs, to that young gentleman’s huge delight. The little boy spoke Hindustani as his native tongue, and soon he and his syce became sworn and intimate friends. Harry Sahib had no mother, only a lazy, elderly European nurse, who liked her beer, her slumbers, and her ease, and was secretly thankful to Kareem for taking the brat off her hands. Otherwise, Harry Sahib might not have spent so many happy hours about the stables, whilst his unsuspecting papa was absent at Cutcherry. One day, whilst he was romping with his playmate, and rolling over and over with him in piles of “bedding straw,” he suddenly snatched at a cord round his neck, and a copper amulet came off in his hand. They fought for it for fully five minutes. Harry held it tight in his little fist, and screamed and kicked and even hit, but refused to release it; in the struggle the amulet was broken, and a small piece of parchment fell out, which Kareem instantly pounced on. It was about two inches long by one wide, and was covered on both sides with closely-written quaint characters. Kareem, with much abuse and slippering, had learned to read the Koran and part of the Gulistan of Sadi, but never such letters as these!
“What is it?” inquired Harry Sahib, impatiently.
“I cannot say, Hazoor. I never knew it opened.”
“Oh, I’ll get it mended, the brass thing; but can you read the chit inside?”
“No, not this writing.”
“Let me show it to father; he can read anything!”
“Yes, his honour is a learned pundit, but I will not trouble him,” said Kareem, independently.
He thought he would rather take it, and have it explained by a Moulvi in a bazaar, nearer home. But in all the city quarter, was not found one man who could translate it, though passed from hand to hand, and learned patriarchs in horn spectacles pored over it, peered into it, turned it backwards and forwards, and upside down, and decided that it was in some dead tongue, and doubtless was a charm against Jadoo (Magic) or the Evil Eye. Finally, Kareem fell back on his young master’s advice, and, with much salaaming and many apologies, submitted the little scrap to the collector. Mr. Colebrook examined it carefully through his glasses, and then by means of a microscope, and asked Kareem how he came by it.
“Protector of the Poor, it is all I possess, and was round my throat as an infant.”
The collector was very busy just at this time and said, “As soon as I have any leisure, Kareem, I will see what I can make of this,” and Kareem withdrew with profuse thanks. For so long did his master ponder over the parchment, that Kareem’s hopes faded away, and he had almost forgotten the amulet, and believed its contents to be a myth. But one day, at the end of the rains, he was summoned into the collector’s office. That gentleman was alone, and, rising, closed the door, and beckoning to Kareem to come near, said rather mysteriously, “I have had great difficulty in making it out”—showing the writing. “Indeed I had nearly given it up; but at last I got a clue, and I have read it!”
“Yes, your highness.”
“You must keep what I am going to read to you a secret”—Kareem’s eyes sparkled. “It is for your own good, and now listen,” lowering his voice to a whisper. “This”—displaying the scrap—“is in ancient Persian characters, and relates to a treasure that has been buried for more than three hundred years.” Kareem endeavoured to speak, but failed to articulate. “Yes—apparently some of the spoils of Mahommed of Guznee, who took and conquered the Punjab, and made twelve raiding expeditions into Hindustan. Doubtless this is some loot that the victors failed to carry off and concealed—possibly they were hotly pursued.
“It says”—now taking off his glasses and applying a microscope to his eye and reading very slowly—“‘Eighty koss north from Hassanpur, on the edge of the Goomptee river, that is within fifty paces, near the great bridge and between milestone and saal tree, I, Fateh Din, bury a rich store of jewels and gold, by reason of one camel being sorely wounded and the enemy pressing on fast. May Allah preserve it for me and mine!’”
The syce’s eyes seemed double their usual size, his face worked with emotion, he could not speak; he could only gasp and sob as the collector went on—
“This is the catalogue, only a partial one apparently,” turning and reading the reverse of the parchment.
“‘Two khantas (necklaces) of rubies and pearls. very large. Four sirpech (forehead ornaments) of diamonds. Twelve bazahands (armlets) of choice emeralds. Five turals (plumes) of great brilliants. One coat embroidered in seed pearls, five gold stirrups.’
“You must keep silent as the grave, Kareem,” said his master, laying down the microscope. “It is possible that there is a quantity of gold coin as well as jewels. The list seems broken off suddenly; it remains entirely with yourself to be a rich man, and if you would be wealthy, be silent. I am going into that part of the district this cold weather. Can you hold your tongue for two months?”
“I can, sahib,” faltered Kareem, who was trembling all over.
“I think I know the place—the bridge was destroyed forty years ago, but its piers are still standing; the old road, too, has fallen into disuse since we have the railway and canal, but I believe I can put my hand on the very spot, between the saal tree and the milestone.”
"And will all this treasure be mine?” whispered Kareem.
“Yes, since you claim it by the writing, which has doubtless been in your family for many generations. Possibly your father was in search of this treasure when he died.”
“Yes, most true, your highness.”
“Only for this paper in your possession, it would be claimed and recovered by Government.”
“May I tell my grandfather, Ibrahim Khan?”
“I suppose you may—that is, if he is a cautious man; but mind this, Kareem, to no one else; above all, to no woman.”
“No fear, your honour; I know that a slip of the tongue is worse than a slip of the foot.”
“You are young to have learnt that lesson; bear it well in mind. And now you can go.”
Old Ibrahim heard the splendid news that same night, as he and his adopted grandson sat on the rug in the middle of the shop, with the oil-lamp swinging between them; heard it with puckered face, twitching claw-like fingers, and glittering eyes. What was the store he had buried beneath the floor in comparison to this? Two camel-loads of gold and jewels! Oh! if he had only taken the worthless-looking amulet when he appropriated the ponies and the money; it was the richest prize of all; but alas! he was ever unfortunate.
“Let us go forth and seek it now,” he panted; “we will arise and take two ekkas with strong ponies, and spades, and sacks, and start. I will aver that we are gone to a marriage at Aligarh.”
“You would not be believed,” returned Kareem scornfully; “and how would you get the ekkas, or buy spades, without raising suspicion? The place is full of robbers and budmashes, and the distance is too long for an old man like you; we would both be murdered. No, I will wait and go with the collector sahib; he will lend carts, and we need have no fear—we shall have the protection of the Sircar.”
“Oh yes, but you are a young man,” whined Ibrahim, twisting his hands convulsively, “and in two months I may be dead! Oh! and I know so well where to sell gold and precious stones; where we shall get a great price quietly, and without question or dispute.”
“You will surely live two months,” rejoined Kareem. “At any rate, I have given my word to the sahib, and it must be as he wills.”
From this time forward, a great change came over Kareem; he no longer laughed and gesticulated and showed his teeth—white as the slit of a cocoanut; he no longer gossiped in the serai, or gambled below the bridge; he found his secret very burdensome, and his veins seemed filled with a burning fever of restlessness; his eyes looked large and his cheeks hollow; his song was no longer on his lips.
As for old Ibrahim, he now cared nought for his trade; and what, asked the neighbours, had he and Kareem in common that they were so often together, conferring earnestly in low whispers?
Kareem was much at home, too, and people began to marvel; he seemed preoccupied and strange and proud; he refused to gamble; he took no interest in kite-flying; instead of which, ho was constantly muttering into the ear of his grandfather. “Why? What were they talking about? What was their secret?”
Kareem was recounting the list of spoil for the hundredth time, and Ibrahim was bestowing much sage advice on his protégé.
“My son, above all keep the secret from a woman—from Pera; do not let her mischievous eyes draw you into her snare. She is bad, she is insolent to you; may her hair take fire!”
“But you know the proverb, a blow in the mouth from the hand of her we love is sweeter than raisins,” argued the youth.
“And you love her?” shrieked the old man.
Kareem nodded his head.
“Oh, ye fathers!” exclaimed Ibrahim; “but she will marry that budmash Mindoo.”
“She cares not for him, and I shall be rich.”
“Yes; and who has money in the scales, has strength in his arms. He who has no money is destitute of friends. Hearken, my son; Pera will spend your riches like flowing water.”
“Time enough to talk of spending when I possess them,” rejoined the lad, prudently.
“Fair son of my old age, give me your promise to keep the news from her; swear it by the beard of the Prophet.”
“I swear by the soul of my father; am I a child or a fool?” he demanded angrily.
“Alas! in her hands you are both.”
Kareem’s altered manner was not lost on Pera, and she smilingly promised her immediate circle to probe his secret, and that they should all speedily learn why he gave himself airs like a Nawab.
She drew him on, and encouraged the infatuated boy, and gained her old ascendency over him in less than two days. He entirely forgot Ibrahim’s solemn warnings, and what chance has a wrinkled ugly old man against the charms and the mocking words, and bright glances, of a Circe of sixteen? She asked Kareem many searching questions, and flouted him, ridiculed him, flattered him. One evening, as they leant over the bridge together, she inquired—
“Why had he given away his kite? Why was he not at Buldoo’s wedding feast? Why did he mope like a sick fowl? What secret was in his mind?”
His tardy answers were vague and confused, and all at once the truth broke upon Pera with one lightning flash.
The scroll had been deciphered.
“Kareem, I see you no longer care for me,” she whimpered tearfully.
“I do,” he rejoined; “but to what avail? You are to marry Mindoo, the dacoit.”
“He is no dacoit; neither am I to marry him. If you say so, I will strike you on the mouth with my shoe,” rejoined this fiery lady.
“Nevertheless, both my words are true,” persisted Kareem, doggedly.
“They are not; Mindoo is old. Ah bah! thirty years old! he lacks one finger; he has a hideous mark on his cheek, whilst you——” she paused and smiled in his face expressively and said, “Oh, Kareem, what an owl you are! And now shall I tell you what ails you?”
“Yes, if you can,” he answered with an incredulous laugh.
“You have found out what was written in the little scroll.”
Kareem started perceptibly.
“Yes, I see it is true,” and here she made a wild shot. “I’ll wager my gold nose-ring that it relates to money.”
Kareem grew very pale, and cast down his eyes.
“To a treasure: look at me, Kareem.”
He looked, impelled by the influence of her eyes, looked and was lost—his face told everything.
“Pera,” he exclaimed tremulously, “you are a witch.”
“Kareem,” she rejoined, leaning her cool smooth cheek against his (truly she was a bold, forward minx), “you are an owl; you always were an owl. Once you had no secrets from me.—Now begin and tell me all about it.”
“I can tell you nothing,” withdrawing his eyes from those dazzling black orbs, and gazing fixedly into the river.
“Oh, Kareem, alas! my first word was true, you no longer care for me;” and her eyes filled with pure crocodile’s tears.
“I do, I do, beyond any treasure in the world,” he protested eagerly.
“Yes” (so there was a treasure), “but you only pretend to love me; it is all from the mouth, like idle words.”
“No, it is from my heart and soul; but you in your heart care not for me, you care for Mindoo. You laughed the day I came home in my syce’s clothes—you laughed when Hiram’s white Arab nearly killed me.”
“Pooh”—snapping her fingers playfully—“what is a laugh? I always laugh! See, I still wear your blue glass bangles. I love finery; I love laughing—and I love you. Oh, foolish Kareem, how shall I prove it to you, since you doubt my word? Speak!”
“Marry me in two moons’ time,” - was his prompt answer.
“Yes,” after a long pause, “but I must also prove you; I swear by Allah to marry you, but first you must tell me your secret.”
And she looked up into his face and smiled, and he, gazing at her parted red lips and glistening, eager eyes, wavered. She saw her advantage, and instantly pressed it home.
Oh! miserable youth! why did you not attend to that cry of warning in your ears—“Blind man, blind man, blind man”?
The sun hung low in a crimson sky, everything was defined and glorified as in a golden light, from the curves of the shining river, to where the flat horizon touched the glowing heavens. The couple on the bridge, fair as another Paul and Virginia, stood out in black relief against the yellow haze; as they leant upon the stone parapet, talking in whispers, passers-by laughed and said, “Behold, Pera makes a fool of Kareem again.” When at length they raised themselves up, and came slowly homewards, there was a new, ecstatic, and triumphant expression in Pera’s eyes—she knew. Nevertheless she had sworn by a most solemn oath, never to reveal the secret of the amulet. It was already arranged that she was to have a palki-gharri and two horses—just like a mem-sahib—and a string of large pearls, and gold necklets, such as would make the Bunnia’s wife poison herself from envy; for she and Kareem were to be married by the first moon in December—and to live happy ever after.
A month later, the collector’s camp was pitched within two miles of the banks of the Goomptee. He had arrived there by slow marches, and was within easy reach of the spot indicated in the parchment. Mr. Colebrook set out on foot in the afternoon, with Kareem to carry his fishing-rod, and to disarm suspicion. They walked for some distance along the edge of the river in single file, till round a sharp bend the old broken bridge appeared in view; the setting sun was shining between the massive piers, as the Goomptee came swirling between them. A pair of paddy-birds were having a mortal combat in the rushes, a serious-looking blue kingfisher was perched on a stone, following his avocation. Enormous fish (rohu) splashed about like porpoises; no wonder they were so thriving! the Goomptee is a sacred river; on the sand on the far bank lay a bleached white skeleton, and here, among the tangled water-plants, was an old charpoy, legs upward, on which some corpse had once been committed to the holy stream.
But naturally Kareem had no interest in these things; though his master, a man of dreamy moods, paused for a moment, and in his mind’s eye surveyed the great bridge as it once had been, covered with a multitude of horsemen and camel- drivers—a predatory horde—flying northward, with their spoils, and their streaming horse-tail standards.
He was sharply aroused from his reverie by a piercing cry, and turning, he saw that Kareem had already made his way to the great milestone (shaped like a gigantic thimble); there, too, was an ancient saal tree; and his treasure-seeking syce was standing on the verge of an enormous, recently dug, and perfectly empty hole. Miserable Kareem, the world seemed to swim before his eyes; the tree, the milestone, and the sky went round and round, as he turned a ghastly face and pair of wild eyes on his master, and pointed to the cavity at his feet; it was all that he could do.
“Yes,” cried Mr. Colebrook, “it is gone, no doubt of that, and gone within a week; see the freshly-turned earth, the wheel-tracks. Oh, you young fool! How many have you taken into your confidence besides old Ibrahim? You see they have robbed you. Whom have you told?”
“But one,” stammered Kareem, in a hoarse voice.
“Look,” continued the collector, “they were in a great hurry”—poking the earth with his stick as he spoke. “See, they left the spade; here are bits of iron clamps; here are two gold coins, the boss of a silver bit, and—yes, a trace of the thieves—and of course there was a woman in it,” as, stooping, he picked up something, and held it towards Kareem. “Here is half of a blue glass bangle.”
Kareem stared, with great distended eyes; as he stood, he became of a dull greyish colour, his lips were livid, and his face twisted out of all recognition, with some spasm of horrible agony.
“It is Pera’s” he shouted, with a wild, despairing scream, and flung himself full-length on the ground, digging his hands into the sandy soil.
“They have a whole week’s start, I am afraid,” said Mr. Colebrook, who was still turning over the earth, “and will make forced marches; but we may catch them. I shall send you off at once, on the young bay horse, with a note to the joint magistrate; he will telegraph, and I believe we will get them yet; they have too heavy a load to travel rapidly. Kareem, don’t be a woman! Get up and listen to me, Kareem! Do you hear me?” and he shook him gently. But Kareem would never hear anything again in this world—Kareem was dead.
At first Mr. Colebrook could not, and would not, realize the truth; he put his hand across the cold mouth; he laid his ear against the still heart; it was no faint. Alas! no.
The shock had proved fatal to Kareem. To lose his fortune and his beloved, in one and the same moment, was too crushing a blow for his frail organization. Pera’s treachery had broken his heart.
When the collector had at last grasped the tragic fact that the active, bright-faced boy, who had started from the camp hardly an hour ago, full of life and hope, was really dead, he was deeply concerned, and he felt an unusual dimness in his eyes, as he stood gazing at this unhappy heir of long-buried riches.
Then seeing a chuprassi in the distance, who had followed (unbidden) afar off, he shouted to him to approach. The chuprassi came and looked, and was amazed out of his usual impassive demeanour; and in an extraordinarily short time a little crowd had assembled—what mystic force is it that draws people to a tragedy, whether in a London street, or an Indian jungle? Here were lean brown fishermen from the river-banks; here were turtle-spearers, and half a dozen ryots, who had abandoned their herds of gaunt white cattle—all come to look at a dead lad.
The distance made it impossible to carry Kareem back to Hassanpur, and bury him formally in the Mohammedan cemetery. “In the place where the tree falleth there shall it be,” and he must find a resting-place in the forest. Mr. Colebrook left two men to watch the body, whilst he hurried to camp to make arrangements for the interment, and to break the heavy tidings to Harry Sahib. The funeral obsequies were solemnly conducted by Kareem’s fellow Mohammedan servants, and early next day the collector was surprised to hear that Kareem had already been laid to rest. The great hole, which for three centuries had contained his lost family treasure, of gold and rubies, pearls and emeralds, now received instead, their unfortunate and defrauded heir—and proved his convenient grave. Harry Sahib shed many hot tears upon it, and even brought the “lal Tattoo” to see the place where poor Kareem was buried.
The collector instituted an immediate search for Pera, daughter of Abdool, but she and Mindoo, the dacoit, had suddenly disappeared—“the very day that his honour himself had gone into the district; no one could tell what had become of them.” After a long and wholly useless investigation, the following facts were elicited: Pera and Mindoo had had accomplices in their flight; they had gone south; but few beyond Mr. Colebrook were in possession of the third and most important detail, viz. that with them, they had carried the secret of the amulet.