Talbot Mundy was an English writer during the early 20th century who wrote historical and sci-fi novels that proved very influential on subsequent generations, including writers like Robert E. Howard and Leigh Brackett. Like his most famous work King of the Khyber Rifles, Mundy used British occupied India as a backdrop for many of his stories, giving the setting a heavy dose of intrigue, romance, and mystery.
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Copyright © 2016 by Talbot Mundy
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Howrah City bows the knee
More or less to masters three,
King, and Prince, and Siva.
Howrah City pays in pain
Taxes which the royal twain
Give to priests, to give again
(More or less) to Siva.
THAT was no time or place for any girl of twenty to be wandering unprotected. Rosemary McClean knew it; the old woman, of the sweeper caste, that is no caste at all,—the hag with the flat breasts and wrinkled skin, who followed her dogwise, and was no more protection than a toothless dog,—knew it well, and growled about it in incessant undertones that met with neither comment nor response.
“Leave a pearl of price to glisten on the street, yes!” she grumbled. “Perhaps none might notice it—perhaps! But her—here—at this time—” She would continue in a rumbling growl of half-prophetic catalogues of evil—some that she had seen to happen, some that she imagined, and not any part of which was in the least improbable.
As the girl passed through the stenching, many-hued bazaar, the roar would cease for a second and then rise again. Turbaned and pugreed—Mohammedan and Hindoo—men of all grades of color, language, and belief, but with only one theory on women, would stare first at the pony that she rode, then at her, and then at the ancient grandmother who trotted in her wake. Low jests would greet the grandmother, and then the trading and the gambling would resume, together with the under-thread of restlessness that was so evidently there and yet so hard to lay a finger on.
The sun beat down pitilessly—brass—like the din of cymbals. Beneath the sun helmet that sat so squarely and straightforwardly on the tidy chestnut curls, her face was pale. She smiled as she guided her pony in and out amid the roaring throng, and carefully refused to see the scowls, her brave little shoulders seconded a pair of quiet, brave gray eyes in showing an unconquerable courage to the world, and her clean, neat cotton riding-habit gave the lie and the laugh in one to poverty; but, as the crowd had its atmosphere of secret murmuring, she had another of secret anxiety.
Neither had fear. She did not believe in it. She was there to help her
father fight inhuman wrong, and die, if need be, in the last ditch. T
a two-hundred-million crowd, held down and compelled by less than a
hundred thousand aliens. And, least of all, had the man who followed
her at a little distance the slightest sense of fear. He was far more
conversant with it than she, but—unlike her, and far more than the
seething crowd—he knew the trend of events, and just what likelihood
there was of insult or injury to Rosemary McClean being avenged in a
He caused more comment than she, and of a different kind. His rose-pink pugree, with the egret and the diamond brooch to hold the egret in its place—his jeweled sabre—his swaggering, almost ruffianly air—were no more meant to escape attention than his charger that clattered and kicked among the crowd, or his following, who cleared a way for him with the butt ends of their lances. He rode ahead, but every other minute a mounted sepoy would reach out past him and drive his lance-end into the ribs of some one in the way.
There would follow much deep salaaming; more than one head would bow very low indeed; and in many languages, by the names of many gods, he would be cursed in undertones. Aloud, they would bless him and call him “Heaven-born!”
But he took no interest whatever in the crowd. His dark-brown eyes were fixed incessantly on Rosemary McClean’s back. Whenever she turned a corner in the crowded maze of streets, he would spur on in a hurry until she was in sight again, and then his handsome, swarthy face would light with pleasure—wicked pleasure—self-assertive, certain, cruel. He would rein in again to let her draw once more ahead.
Rosemary McClean knew quite well who was following her, and knew, too, that she could do nothing to prevent him. Once, as she passed a species of caravansary—low-roofed, divided into many lockable partitions, and packed tight with babbling humanity—she caught sight of a pair of long, black thigh boots, silver-spurred, and of a polished scabbard that moved spasmodically, as though its owner were impatient.
“Mahommed Gunga!” she muttered to herself. “I wonder whether he would come to my assistance if I needed him. He fought once—or so he says—for the British; he might be loyal still. I wonder what he is doing here, and what—Oh, I wonder!”
She was very careful not to seem to look sideways, or seek acquaintance with the wearer of the boots; had she done so, she would have gained nothing, for the moment that he caught sight of her through the opened door he drew back into a shadow, and swore lustily. What he said to himself would have been little comfort to her.
“By the breath of God!” he growled. “These preachers of new creeds are the last straw, if one were wanting! They choose the one soft place where Mohammedan and Hindoo think alike, and smite! If I wanted to raise hell from end to end of Hind, I too would preach a new creed, and turn good-looking women loose to wander on the country-side!—Ah!” He drew back even further, as he spied the egret and the sabre and the stallion cavorting down the street—then thought better of it and strode swaggering to the doorway, and stood, crimson-coated, in the sunlight, stroking upward insolently at his black, fierce-barbered beard. There was a row of medal ribbons on his left breast that bore out something at least of his contention; he had been loyal to the British once, whether he was so now or not.
The man on the charger eyed him sideways and passed on. Mahommed Gunga waited. One of the prince’s followers rode close to him—leaned low from the saddle—and leered into his face.
“Knowest not enough to salute thy betters?” he demanded.
Mahommed Gunga made a movement with his right hand in the direction of his left hip—one that needed no explanation; the other legged his horse away, and rode on, grinning nastily. To reassure himself of his superiority over everybody but his master, he spun his horse presently so that its rump struck against a tented stall, and upset tent and goods. Then he spent two full minutes in outrageous execration of the men who struggled underneath the gaudy cloth, before cantering away, looking, feeling, riding like a fearless man again. Mahommed Gunga sneered after him, and spat, and turned his back on the sunshine and the street.
“I had a mind to teach that Hindoo who his betters are!” he growled.
“Come in, risaldar-sahib!” said a voice persuasively. “By your own showing the hour is not yet—why spill blood before the hour?”
The Rajput swaggered to the dark door, spurs jingling, looking back across his shoulder once or twice, as though he half-regretted leaving the Hindoo horseman’s head upon his shoulders.
“Come in, sahib,” advised the voice again. “They be many. We are few. And, who knows—our roads may lie together yet.”
Mahommed Gunga kicked his scabbard clear, and strode through the door. The shadows inside and the hum of voices swallowed him as though he were a big, red, black-legged devil reassimilated in the brewing broth of trouble; but his voice boomed deep and loud after he had disappeared from view.
“When their road and my road lie together, we will travel all feet foremost!” he asserted.
Ten turnings further away by that time, Rosemary McClean pressed on through the hot, dinning swarm of humanity, missing no opportunity to slip her pony through an opening, but trying, too, to seem unaware that she was followed. She chose narrow, winding ways, where the awnings almost met above the middle of the street, and where a cavalcade of horsemen would not be likely to follow her—only to hear a roar behind her, as the prince’s escort started slashing at the awnings with their swords.
There was a rush and a din of shouting beside her and ahead, as the frightened merchants scurried to pull down their awnings before the ruthless horse-men could ride down on them; the narrow street transformed itself almost on the instant into a undraped, cleared defile between two walls. And after that she kept to the broader streets, where there was room in the middle for a troop to follow, four abreast, should it choose. She had no mind to seek her own safety at the expense of men whose souls her father was laboring so hard to save.
She got no credit, though, for consideration—only blame for what the swordsmen had already done. One man—a Maharati trader—half-naked, his black hair coiled into a shaggy rope and twisted up above his neck—followed her, side-tracking through the mazy byways of the bewildering mart, and coming out ahead of her—or lurking beside bales of merchandise and waiting his opportunity to leap from shadow into shadow unobserved.
He followed her until she reached the open, where a double row of trees on each side marked the edge of a big square, large enough for the drilling of an army. Along one side of the square there ran the high brick wall, topped with a kind of battlement, that guarded the Maharajah’s palace grounds from the eyes of men.
Just as she turned, just as she was starting to canter her pony beside the long wall, he leaped out at her and seized her reins. The old woman screamed, and ran to the wall and cowered there.
Very likely the man only meant to frighten her and heap insults on her, for in ‘56, though wrath ran deep and strong, men waited. There was to be sudden, swift whelming when the time came, not intermittent outrage. But he had no time to do more than rein her pony back onto its haunches.
There came a clatter of scurrying hoofs behind, and from a whirl of dust, topped by a rose-pink pugree, a steel blade swooped down on her and him. A surge of brown and pink and cream, and a dozen rainbow tints flashed past her; a long boot brushed her saddle on the off side. There was a sickening sound, as something hard swished and whicked home; her pony reeled from the shock of a horse’s shoulder, and—none too gently—none too modestly—the prince with the egret and the handsome face reined in on his horse’s haunches and saluted her.
There was blood, becoming dull-brown in the dust between them. He shook his sabre, and the blood dripped from it then he held it outstretched, and a horseman wiped it, before he returned it with a clang.
“The sahiba’s servant!” he said magnificently, making no motion to let her pass, but twisting with his sword-hand at his waxed mustache and smiling darkly.
She looked down between them at the thing that but a minute since had lived, and loved perhaps as well as hated.
“Shame on you, Jaimihr-sahib!” she said, shuddering. A year ago she would have fallen from her pony in a swoon, but one year of Howrah and its daily horrors had so hardened her that she could look and loathe without the saving grace of losing consciousness.
“The shame would have been easier to realize, had I taken more than one stroke!” he answered irritably, still blocking the way on his great horse, still twisting at his mustache point, still looking down at her through eyes that blazed a dozen accumulated centuries’ store of lawless ambition. He was proud of that back-handed swipe of his that would cleave a man each time at one blow from shoulder-joint to ribs, severing the backbone. A woman of his own race would have been singing songs in praise of him and his skill in swordsman-ship already; but no woman of his own race would have looked him in the eye like that and dared him, nor have done what she did next. She leaned over and swished his charger with her little whip, and slipped past him.
He swore, deep and fiercely, as he spurred and wheeled, and cantered after her. His great stallion could overhaul her pony in a minute, going stride for stride; the wall was more than two miles long with no break in it other than locked gates; there was no hurry. He watched her through half-closed, glowering, appraising eyes as he cantered in her wake, admiring the frail, slight figure in the gray cotton habit, and bridling his desire to make her—seize her reins, and halt, and make her—admit him master of the situation.
As he reached her stirrup, she reined in and faced him, after a hurried glance that told her her duenna had failed her. The old woman was invisible.
“Will you leave that body to lie there in the dust and sun?” she asked indignantly.
“I am no vulture, or jackal, or hyena, sahiba!” he smiled. “I do not eat carrion!” He seemed to think that that was a very good retort, for he showed his wonderful white teeth until his handsome face was the epitome of self-satisfied amusement. His horse blocked the way again, and all retreat was cut off, for his escort were behind her, and three of them had ridden to the right, outside the row of trees, to cut off possible escape in that direction. “Was it not well that I was near, sahiba? Would it have been better to die at the hands of a Maharati of no caste—?”
“Than to see blood spilt—than to be beholden to a murderer? Infinitely better! There was no need to kill that man—I could have quieted him. Let me pass, please, Jaimihr-sahib!”
He reined aside; but if she thought that cold scorn or hot anger would either of them quell his ardor, she had things reversed. The less she behaved as a native woman would have done—the more she flouted him—the more enthusiastic he became.
“Sahiba!"—he trotted beside her, his great horse keeping up easily with her pony’s canter—"I have told you oftener than once that I make a good friend and a bad enemy!”
“And I have answered oftener than once that I do not need your friendship, and am not afraid of you! You forget that the British Government will hold your royal brother liable for my safety and my father’s!”
“You, too, overlook certain things, sahiba.” He spoke evenly, with a little space between each word. With the dark look that accompanied it, with the blood barely dry yet on the dusty road behind, his speech was not calculated to reassure a slip of a girl, gray-eyed or not, stiff-chinned or not, borne up or not by Scots enthusiasm for a cause. “This is a native state. My brother rules. The British—”
“Are near enough, and strong enough, to strike and to bring you and your brother to your knees if you harm a British woman!” she retorted. “You forget—when the British Government gives leave to missionaries to go into a native state, it backs them up with a strong arm!”
“You build too much on the British and my brother, sahiba! Listen—Howrah is as strong as I am, and no stronger. Had he been stronger, he would have slain me long ago. The British are—” He checked himself and trotted beside her in silence for a minute. She affected complete indifference; it was as though she had not heard him; if she could not be rid of him, she at least knew how to show him his utter unimportance in her estimation.
“Have you heard, sahiba, of the Howrah treasure? Of the rubies? Of the pearls? Of the emeralds? Of the bars of gold? It is foolishness, of course; we who are modern-minded see the crime of hoarding all that wealth, and adding to it, for twenty generations. Have you heard of it, sahiba?”
“Yes!” she answered savagely, swishing at his charger again to make him keep his distance. “You have told me of it twice. You have told me that you know where it is, and you have offered to show it to me. You have told me that you and your brother Maharajah Howrah and the priests of Siva are the only men who know where it is, and you lust for that treasure! I can see you lust! You think that I lust too, and you make a great mistake Jaimihr-sahib! You see, I remember what you have told me. Now, go away and remember what I tell you. I care for you and for your treasure exactly that!” She hit his charger with all her might, and at the sting of the little whip he shied clear of the road before the Rajah’s brother could rein him in.
Again her effort to destroy his admiration for her had directly the opposite effect. He swore, and he swore vengeance; but he swore, too, that there was no woman in the East so worth a prince’s while as this one, who dared flout him with her riding-whip before his men!
“Sahiba!” he said, sidling close to her again, and bowing in the saddle in mock cavalier humility. “The time will come when your government and my brother, who—at present—is Maharajah Howrah—will be of little service to you. Then, perhaps, you may care to recall my promise to load all the jewels you can choose out of the treasure-house on you. Then, perhaps, you may, remember that I said ‘a throne is better than a grave, sahiba.’ Or else—”
“Or else what, Jaimihr-sahib?” She reined again and wheeled about and faced him—pale-trembling a little—looking very small and frail beside him on his great war-horse, but not flinching under his gaze for a single second.
“Or else, sahiba—I think you saw me slay the Maharati? Do you think that I would stop at anything to accomplish what I had set out to do? See, sahiba—there is a little blood there on your jacket! Let that be for a pledge between us—for a sign—or a token of my oath that on the day I am Maharajah Howrah, you are Maharanee—mistress of all the jewels in the treasure-house!”
She shuddered. She did not look to find the blood; she took his word for that, if for nothing else.
“I wonder you dare tell me that you plot against your brother!” That was more a spoken thought than a statement or a question.
“I would be very glad if you would warn my brother!” he answered her; and she knew like a flash, and on the instant, that what he said was true. She had been warned before she came to bear no tales to any one. No Oriental would believe the tale, coming from her; the Maharajah would arrest her promptly, glad of the excuse to vent his hatred of Christian missionaries. Jaimihr would attempt a rescue; it was common knowledge that he plotted for the throne. There would be instant civil war, in which the British Government would perforce back up the alleged protector of a defenseless woman. There would be a new Maharajah; then, in a little while, and in all likelihood, she would have disappeared forever while the war raged. There would be, no doubt, a circumstantial story of her death from natural causes.
She did not answer. She stared back at him, and he smiled down at her, twisting at his mustache.
“Think!” he said, nodding. “A throne, sahiba, is considerably better than a grave!” Then he wheeled like a sudden dust-devil and decamped in a cloud of dust, followed at full pelt by his clattering escort. She watched their horses leap one after the other the corpse of the Maharati that lay by the corner where it fell, and she saw the last of them go clattering, whirling up the street through the bazaar. The old hag rose out of a shadow and trotted after her again as she turned and rode on, pale-faced and crying now a little, to the little begged school place where her father tried to din the alphabet into a dozen low-caste fosterlings.
“Father!” she cried, and she all but fell out of the saddle into his arms as the tall, lean Scotsman came to the door to meet her and stood blinking in the sunlight. “Father, I’ve seen another man killed! I’ve had another scene with Jaimihr! I can’t endure it! I—I—Oh, why did I ever come?”
“I don’t know, dear,” he answered. “But you would come, wouldn’t you?”
‘Twixt loot and law—’tween creed and caste—
Through slough this people wallows,
To where we choose our road at last.
I choose the RIGHT! Who follows?
HEMMED in amid the stifling stench and babel of the caravansary, secluded by the very denseness of the many-minded swarm, five other Rajputs and Mahommed Gunga—all six, according to their turbans, followers of Islam—discussed matters that appeared to bring them little satisfaction.
They sat together in a dark, low-ceilinged room; its open door—it was far too hot to close anything that admitted air—gave straight onto the street, and the one big window opened on a courtyard, where a pair of game-cocks fought in and out between the restless legs of horses, while a yelling horde betted on them. On a heap of grass fodder in a corner of the yard an all-but-naked expert in inharmony thumped a skin tom-tom with his knuckles, while at his feet the own-blood brother to the screech-owls wailed of hell’s torments on a wind instrument.
Din—glamour—stink—incessant movement—interblended poverty and riches rubbing shoulders—noisy self-interest side by side with introspective revery, where stray priests nodded in among the traders,—many-peopled India surged in miniature between the four hot walls and through the passage to the overflowing street; changeable and unexplainable, in ever-moving flux, but more conservative in spite of it than the very rocks she rests on—India who is sister to Aholibah and mother of all fascination.
In that room with the long window, low-growled, the one thin thread of clear-sighted unselfishness was reeling out to very slight approval. Mahommed Gunga paced the floor and kicked his toes against the walls, as he turned at either end, until his spurs jingled, and looked with blazing dark-brown eyes from one man to the other.
“What good ever came of listening to priests?” he asked. “All priests are alike—ours, and theirs, and padre-sahibs! They all preach peace and goad the lust that breeds war and massacre! Does a priest serve any but himself? Since when? There will come this rising that the priests speak of—yes! Of a truth, there will, for the priests will see to it! There is a padre-sahib here in Howrah now for the Hindoo priests to whet their hate on. You saw the woman ride past here a half-hour gone? There is a pile of tinder ready here, and any fool of a priest can make a spark! There will be a rising, and a big one!”
“There will! Of a truth, there will!” Alwa, his cousin, crossed one leg above the other with a clink of spurs and scabbard. He had no objection to betraying interest, but declined for the present to betray his hand.
“There will be a blood-letting that will do no harm to us Rajputs!” said another man, whose eyes gleamed from the darkest corner; he, too, clanked his scabbard as though the sound were an obbligato to his thoughts. “Sit still and say nothing is my advice; we will be all ready to help ourselves when the hour comes!”
“It is this way,” said Mahommed Gunga, standing straddle-legged to face all five of them, with his back to the window. He stroked his black beard upward with one hand and fingered with the other at his sabre-hilt. “Without aid when the hour does come, the English will be smashed—worn down—starved out—surrounded—stamped out—annihilated—so!” He stamped with his heel descriptively on the hard earth floor. “And then, what?”
“Then, the plunder!” said Alwa, showing a double row of wonderful white teeth. The other four grinned like his reflections. “Ay, there will be plunder—for the priests! And we Rajputs will have new masters over us! Now, as things are, we have honorable men. They are fools, for any man is a fool who will not see and understand the signs. But they are honest. They ride straight! They look us straight between the eyes, and speak truth, and fear nobody! Will the Hindoo priests, who will rule India afterward, be thus? Nay! Here is one sword for the British when the hour comes!”
“I have yet to see a Hindoo priest rule me or plunder me!” said Alwa with a grin.
“You will live to see it!” said Mahommed Gunga. “Truly, you will live to see it, unless you throw your weight into the other scale! What are we Rajputs without a leader whom we all trust? What have we ever been?” He swung on his heels suddenly—angrily—and began to pace the floor again—then stopped.
“Divided, and again subdivided—one-fifth Mohammedan and four-fifths Hindoo—clan within clan, and each against the other. Do we own Rajputana? Nay! Do we rule it? Nay! What were we until Cunnigan-bahadur came?”
“Ah!” All five men rose with a clank in honor to the memory of that man. “Cunnigan-bahadur! Show us such another man as he was, and I and mine ride at his back!” said Alwa. “Not all the English are like Cunnigan! A Cunnigan could have five thousand men the minute that he asked for them!”
“Am I a wizard?—Can I cast spells and bring dead men’s spirits from the dead again? I know of no man to take his place,” said Mahommed Gunga sadly.
He was the poorest of them, but they were all, comparatively speaking, poor men; for the long peace had told its tale on a race of men who are first gentlemen, then soldiers, and last—least of all—and only as a last resource, landed proprietors. The British, for whom they had often fought because that way honor seemed to lie, had impoverished them afterward by passing and enforcing zemindary laws that lifted nine-tenths of the burden from the necks of starving tenants. The new law was just, as the Rajputs grudgingly admitted, but it pinched their pockets sadly; like the old-time English squires, they would give their best blood and their last rack-rent-wrung rupee for the cause that they believed in, but they resented interference with the rack-rents! Mahommed Gunga had had influence enough with these five landlord relations of his to persuade them to come and meet him in Howrah City to discuss matters; the mere fact that he had thought it worth his while to leave his own little holding in the north had satisfied them that he would be well worth listening to—for no man rode six hundred miles on an empty errand. But they needed something more than words before they pledged the word that no Rajput gentleman will ever break.
“Find us a Cunnigan—bring him to us—prove him to us—and if a blade worth having from end to end of Rajputana is not at his service, I myself will gut the Hindoo owner of it! That is my given word!” said Alwa.
“He had a son,” said Mahommed Gunga quietly.
“True. Are all sons like their fathers? Take Maharajah Howrah here; his father was a man with whom any soldier might be proud to pick a quarrel. The present man is afraid of his own shadow on the wall—divided between love for the treasure-chests he dare not broach and fear of a brother whom he dare not kill. He is priest-ridden, priest-taught, and fit to be nothing but a priest. Who knows how young Cunnigan will shape? Where is he? Overseas yet! He must prove himself, as his father did, before he can hope to lead a free regiment of horse!”
“Then Cunnigan-bahadur’s watch-word ‘For the peace of India,’ is dead-died with him?” asked Mahommed Gunga. “We are each for our own again?”
“I have spoken!” answered Alwa. As the biggest clan-chief left on all that countryside, he had a right to speak before the others, and he knew that what he said would carry weight when they had all ridden home again, and the report had gone abroad in ever-widening rings. “If the English can hold India, let them! I will not fight against them, for they are honest men for all their madness. If they cannot, then I am for Rajputana, not India—India may burn or rot or burst to pieces, so long as Rajputana stands! But—” He paused a moment, and looked at each man in turn, and tapped his sabre-hilt, “—if a Cunnigan-bahadur were among us—a man whom I could trust to lead me and mine and every man—I would lend him my sword for the sheer honor of helping him hack truth out of corruption! I have nothing more to say!”
“One word more, cousin!” said Mahommed Gunga. “I was risaldar in Cunnigan-bahadur’s regiment of horse. There was more than mere discipline between us. I ate his salt. Once—when he might have saved himself the trouble without any daring to reproach him—he risked his own life, and a troop, and his reputation to save a woman of my family from capture, and something worse. There was never a Rajput or any other native woman wronged while he was with us.”
“I am no friend of Christian priests—of padres. But—”
“She who rode by just now? What, then?”
“I ride northward now, and then very likely South again. I can do nothing in the matter, yet—were he in my shoes, and she a native woman at the mercy of the troops—Cunnigan-bahadur would have assigned a guard for her.”
“Ho! So I am thy sepoy?” sneered Alwa, standing sideways—looking sideways—and throwing out his chest. “I am to do thy bidding, guarding stray padres” (he spoke the word as though it were a bad taste he was spitting from his mouth), “and herding women without purdah, while thou ridest on assignations Allah knows where? Since when?”
“I have yet to refuse to guard thy back, or thy good name, Alwa!” Mahommed Gunga eyed him straight, and thrust his hilt out. “The woman is nothing to me—the padre-sahib less. It is because of the debt I owe to Cunnigan that I ask this favor.”
“Oh. It is granted! Should she appeal to me, I will rip Howrah into rags and burn this city to protect her if need be! She must first ask, though, even as thou didst.”
Mahommed Gunga saluted him, bolt-upright as a lance, and without the slightest change in his expression.
“The word is sufficient, cousin!”
Alwa returned his salute, and raised his voice in a gruff command. A saice outside the window woke as though struck by a stick—sprang to his feet—and passed the order on. A dozen horses clattered in the courtyard and filed through the arched passage to the street, and Alwa mounted. The others, each with his escort, followed suit, and a moment later, with no further notice of one another, but with as much pomp and noise as though they owned the whole of India, the five rode off, each on his separate way, through the scattering crowd.
Then Mahommed Gunga called for his own horse and the lone armed man of his own race who acted squire to him.
“Did any overhear our talk?” he asked.
“Not the saice, even?”
“No, sahib. He slept.”
“He awoke most suddenly, and at not much noise.”
“For that reason I know he slept, sahib. Had he been pretending, he would have wakened slowly.”
“Thou art no idiot!” said Mahommed Gunga. “Wait here until I return, and lie a few lies if any ask thee why we six came together, and of what we spoke!”
Then he mounted and rode off slowly, picking his way through the throng much more cautiously and considerately than his relatives had done, though not, apparently, because he loved the crowd. He used some singularly biting insults to help clear the way, and frowned as though every other man he looked at were either an assassin or—what a good Mohammedan considers worse—an infidel. He reached the long brick wall at last—broke into a canter—scattered the pariah dogs that were nosing and quarreling about the corpse of the Maharati, and drew rein fifteen minutes later by the door of the tiny school place that Miss McClean had entered.
FOR SERVICE TRULY RENDERED, and for duty dumbly done—For men who neither tremble nor forget—There is due reward, my henchman. There is honor to be won. There is watch and ward and sterner duty yet.
No sound came, from within the schoolhouse. The little building, coaxed from a grudging Maharajah, seemed to strain for light and air between two overlapping, high-walled brick warehouses. Before the door, in a spot where the scorching sun-rays came but fitfully between a mesh of fast-decaying thatch, the old hag who had followed Rosemary McClean lay snoozing, muttering to herself, and blinking every now and then as a street dog blinks at the passers-by. She took no notice of Mahommed Gunga until he swore at her.
“Miss-sahib hai?” he growled; and the woman jumped up in a hurry and went inside. A moment later Rosemary McClean stood framed in the doorway still in her cotton riding-habit, very pale—evidently frightened at the summons—but strangely, almost ethereally, beautiful. Her wealth of chestnut hair was loosely coiled above her neck, as though she had been caught in the act of dressing it. She looked like the wan, wasted spirit of human pity—he like a great, grim war-god.
“Salaam, Miss Maklin-sahib!”
He dismounted as he spoke and stood at attention, then stared truculently, too inherently chivalrous to deny her civility—he would have cut his throat as soon as address her from horseback while she stood—and too contemptuous of her father’s calling to be more civil than he deemed in keeping with his honor.
“Salaam, Mohammed Gunga!” She seemed very much relieved, although doubtful yet. “Not letters again?”
“No, Miss-sahib. I am no mail-carrier! I brought those letters as a favor to Franklin-sahib at Peshawur; I was coming hither, and he had no man to send. I will take letters, since I am now going, if there are letters ready; I ride to-night.”
“Thank you, Mahommed Gunga. I have letters for England. They are not yet sealed. May I send them to you before you start?”
“I will send my man for them. Also, Miss Maklin-sahib” (heavens! how much cleaner and better that sounded than the prince’s ironical “sahiba”!)
“If you wish it, I will escort you to Peshawur, or to any city between here and there.”
“I saw Jaimihr. I know Jaimihr.”
“And—this is no place for a padre, or for the daughter of a padre.”
What he said was true, but it was also insolent, said insolently.
“Mahommed Gunga-sahib, what are those ribbons on your breast?” she asked him.
He glanced down at them, and his expression changed a trifle; it was scarcely perceptible, but underneath his fierce mustache the muscles of his mouth stiffened.
“They are medal ribbons—for campaigns,” he answered.
“Three-four-five! Then, you were a soldier a long time? Did you—did you desert your post when there was danger?”
He flushed, and raised his hand as though about to speak.
“Or did people insult you when you chose to remain on duty?”
“Miss-sahib, I have not insulted you!” said Mahommed Gunga. “I came here for another purpose.”
“You came, very kindly, to ask whether there were letters. Thank you, Mahommed Gunga-sahib, for your courtesy. There are letters, and I will give them to your man, if you will be good enough to send him for them.”
He still stood there, staring at her with eyes that did not blink. He was too much of a soldier to admit himself at a loss what to say, yet he had no intention of leaving Howrah without saying it, for that, too, would have been unsoldierly.
“The reason why your countrymen have found men of this land before now to fight for them—one reason, at least—” he said gruffly, “is that hitherto they have not meddled with our religions. It is not safe! It would be better to come away, Miss-sahib.”
“Would you like to say that to my father? He is—”
“Allah forbid that I should argue with him! I spoke to you, on your account!”
“You forget, I think,” she answered him gently, “that we had permission from the British Government to come here; it has not been withdrawn. We are doing no harm here—trying only to do good. There is always danger when—”
“I would speak of that,” he interrupted—"You will not come away?”
She shook her head.
“Your father could remain.”
She shook her head again. “I stay with him,” she answered.
“At present, Jaimihr is the danger, Miss-sahib; but I think that at present he will dare do nothing. The Maharajah dare do nothing either, yet. Should either of them make a move to interfere with you, it would not be safe to appeal to the other one. You will not understand, but it is so. In that event, there is a way to safety of which I would warn you.”
“Thank you, Mahommed Gunga. What is it?”
“There are men more than a day’s ride away from here who are to be depended on—by you, at least—under all circumstances. Is that old woman to be trusted?”
“How should I know?” she smiled. “I believe she is fond of me.”
“That should be enough. I would like, if the Miss-sahib will permit, to speak with her.”
At a word from Miss McClean the old hag came out into the sun again and blinked at the Rajput, very much afraid of him. Mahommed Gunga saluted Miss McClean—swore at the old woman—pointed a wordless order with his right arm—watched her shuffle half a hundred yards up-street—followed her, and growled at her for about five minutes, while she nodded. Finally, he drew from the pocket of his crimson coat a small handful of gold mohurs—fat, dignified coins that glittered—and held them out toward her with an air as though they meant nothing to him—positively nothing—Her eyes gleamed. He let her take a good look at the money before replacing it, then tossed her a silver quarter-rupee piece, saluted Miss McClean again—for she was watching the pantomime from the doorway still—and mounted and rode off, his back looking like the back of one who has neither care nor fear nor master.
At the caravansary his squire came running out to hold his stirrup.
“Picket the horse in the yard,” said Mahommed Gunga, “then find me another servant and bring him to me in the room here!”
“Another servant? But, sahib—”
“I said another servant! Has deafness overcome thee?” He used a word in the dialect which left no room for doubt as to his meaning; it was to be a different servant—a substitute for the squire he had already. The squire bowed his head in disciplined obedience and led the horse away.
An hour later—evening was drawing on—he came back, followed by a somewhat ruffianly-looking half-breed Rajput-Punjaubi. The new man was rather ragged and lacked one eye, but with the single eye he had he looked straight at his prospective master. Mahommed Gunga glared at him, but the man did not quail or shrink.
“This fellow wishes honorable service, sahib.” The squire spoke as though he were calling his master’s attention to a horse that was for sale. “I have seen his family; I have inquired about him; and I have explained to him that unless he serves at thee faithfully his wife and his man child will die at my hands in his absence.”
“Can he groom a horse?”
“So he says, sahib, and so say others.”
“Can he fight?”
“He slew the man with his bare hands who pricked his eye out with a sword.”
“Oh! What payment does he ask?”
“He leaves that matter to your honor’s pleasure.”
“Good. Instruct him, then. Set him to cleaning my horse and then return here.”
The squire was back again within five minutes and stood before Mahommed Gunga in silent expectation.
“I shall miss thee,” said Mahommed Gunga after five minutes’ reflection. “It is well that I have other servants in the north.”
“In what have I offended, sahib?”
“In nothing. Therefore there is a trust imposed.”
The man salaamed. Mahommed Gunga produced his little handful of gold mohurs and divided it into two equal portions; one he handed to the squire.
“Stay here. Be always either in the caravansary or else at call. Should the old woman who serves Miss Maklin-sahib, the padre-sahib’s daughter come and ask thy aid, then saddle swiftly the three horses I will leave with thee, and bear Miss Maklin-sahib and her father to my cousin Alwa’s place. Present two of the gold mohurs to the hag, should that happen.”
“But sahib—two mohurs? I could buy ten such hags outright for the price!”
“She has my word in the matter! It is best to have her eager to win great reward. The hag will stay awake, but see to it that thou sleepest not!”
“And for how long must I stay here, sahib?”
“One month—six months—a year—who knows? Until the hag summons thee, or I, by writing or by word of mouth, relieve thee of thy trust.”
At sunset he sent the squire to Miss McClean for the letters he had promised to deliver; and at one hour after sunset, when the heat of the earth had begun to rise and throw back a hot blast to the darkened sky and the little eddies of luke-warm surface wind made movement for horse and man less like a fight with scorching death, he rode off, with his new servant, on the two horses left to him of the five with which he came.
A six-hundred-mile ride without spare horses, in the heat of northern India, was an undertaking to have made any strong man flinch. The stronger the man, and the more soldierly, the better able he would be to realize the effort it would call for. But Mahommed Gunga rode as though he were starting on a visit to a near-by friend; he was not given to crossing bridges before he reached them, nor to letting prospects influence his peace of mind. He was a soldier. He took precautions first, when and where such were possible, then rode and looked fate in the eye.
He appeared to take no more notice of the glowering looks that followed him from stuffy balconies and dense-packed corners than of the mosquitoes to and the heat. Without hurry he picked his way through the thronged streets, where already men lay in thousands to escape the breathlessness of walled interiors; the gutters seemed like trenches where the dead of a devastated city had been laid; the murmur was like the voice of storm-winds gathering, and the little lights along the housetops were for the vent-holes on the lid of a tormented underworld.
But he rode on at his ease. Ahead of him lay that which he considered duty. He could feel the long-kept peace of India disintegrating all around him, and he knew—he was certain—as sometimes a brave man can see what cleverer men all overlook—that the right touch by the right man at the right moment, when the last taut-held thread should break, would very likely swing the balance in favor of peace again, instead of individual self seeking anarchy.
He knew what “Cunnigan-bahadur” would have done. He swore by Cunnigan-bahadur. And the memory of that same dead, desperately honest Cunningham he swore that no personal profit or convenience or safety should be allowed to stand between him and what was honorable and right! Mahommed Gunga had no secrets from himself; nor lack of imagination. He knew that he was riding—not to preserve the peace of India, for that was as good as gone—but to make possible the winning back of it. And he rode with a smile on his thin lips, as the crusaders once rode on a less self-advertising errand.
“You have failed!” whispered Fate, and a weary civilian
Threw up his task as a matter of course.
“Failed?” said the soldier. He knew a million
Chances untackled yet. “Get me a horse!”
THAT was a strange ride of Mahommed Gunga’s, and a fateful one—more full of portent for the British Raj in India than he, or the British, or the men amid whose homes he rode could ever have anticipated. He averaged a little less than twenty miles a day, and through an Indian hot-weather, and with no spare horse, none but a born horseman—a man of light weight and absolute control of temper—could have accomplished that for thirty days on end.
Wherever he rode there was the same unrest. Here and there were new complaints he had not yet heard of, imaginary some of them, and some only too well founded. Wherever there were Rajputs—and that race of fighting men is scattered all about the north—there was ill-suppressed impatience for the bursting of the wrath to come. They bore no grudge against the English, but they did bear more than grudge against the money-lenders and the fat, litigious traders who had fattened under British rule. At least at the beginning it was evident that all the interest of all the Rajputs lay in letting the British get the worst of it; even should the British suddenly wake up and look about them and take steps—or should the British hold their own with native aid, and so save India from anarchy, and afterward reward the men who helped—the Rajputs would stand to gain less individually, or even collectively, than if they let the English be driven to the sea, and then reverted to the age-old state of feudal lawlessness that once had made them rich.
Many of the Hindoo element among them were almost openly disloyal. The ryots—the little one and two acre farmers—were the least unsettled; they, when he asked them—and he asked often—disclaimed the least desire to change a rule that gave them safe holdings and but one tax-collection a year; they were frankly for their individual selves—not even for one another, for the ryots as a class.
Nobody seemed to be for India, except Mahommed Gunga; and he said little, but asked ever-repeated questions as he rode. There were men who would like to weld Rajputana into one again, and over-ride the rest of India; and there were other men who planned to do the same for the Punjaub; there were plots within plots, not many of which he learned in anything like detail, but none of which were more than skin-deep below the surface. All men looked to the sudden, swift, easy whelming of the British Raj, and then to the plundering of India; each man expected to be rich when the whelming came, and each man waited with ill-controlled impatience for the priests’ word that would let loose the hundred-million flood of anarchy.
“And one man—one real man whom they trusted—one leader—one man who had one thousand at his back—could change the whole face of things!” he muttered to himself. “Would God there we a Cunnigan! But there is no Cunnigan. And who would follow me? They would pull my beard, tell me I was scheming for my own ends!—I, who was taught by Cunnigan, and would serve only India!”
He would ride before dawn and when the evening breeze had come to cool the hot earth a little through the blazing afternoons he would lie in the place of honor by some open window, where he could watch a hireling flick the flies off his lean, road-hardened horse, and listen to the plotting and the carried tales of plots, pretending always to be sympathetic or else open to conviction.
“A soldier? Hah! A soldier fights for the side that can best reward him!” he would grin. “And, when there is no side, perhaps he makes one! I am a soldier!”
If they pressed him, he would point to his medal ribbons, that he always wore. “The British gave me those for fighting against the northern tribes beyond the Himalayas,” he would tell them. “The southern tribes—Bengalis of the south and east—would give better picking than mere medal ribbons!”
They were not all sure of him. They were not all satisfied why he should ride on to Peshawur, and decline to stay with them and talk good sedition.
“I would see how the British are!” he told them. And he told the truth. But they were not quite satisfied; he would have made a splendid leader to have kept among them, until he—too—became too powerful and would have to be deposed in turn.
His own holding was a long way from Peshawur, and he was no rich man who could afford at a mere whim to ride two long days’ march beyond his goal. Nor was he, as he had explained to Miss McClean, a letter-carrier; he would get no more than the merest thanks for delivering her letters to where they could be included in the Government mail-bag. Yet he left the road that would have led him homeward to his left, and carried on—quickening his pace as he neared the frontier garrison town, and wasting, then, no time at all on seeking information. Nobody supposed that the Pathans and the other frontier tribes were anything but openly rebellious, and he would have been an idiot to ask questions about their loyalty.
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