Chapter VI

When Would the Time of Vengeance Come?

While Dr. Stainton with grave face was sitting by Dick’s bed, puzzled by symptoms in the young man’s stupor which he had a difficulty in diagnosing, a very different scene was being enacted in the palace at Bithoor. Nana Sahib, like Dick Heron, was also lying prostrate. Indolence, sensuality, self-indulgence, pampered vanity were written in his pallid, unwholesome-looking, puffy cheeks, his dull, sleepy eyes, his limp mouth.

The Maharajah was embedded in soft cushions. Reclining by his side was Adala, his favourite dancing-girl. Azimoolah Khan was sitting cross-legged in front, his alert, wily face presenting a strong contrast to that of the gross voluptuary, who, with drooping eyelids, had been listening languidly to Azimoolah’s story, how Dick Heron had been lured into the palace, and how the scheme of influencing him through the arts of Hooseinee Khanum had failed.

“Hooseinee is too old,” said the Nana with a yawn.

“Adala would have done better, but she would not consent,” returned the Mahomedan, shrugging his shoulders, “and had she consented Your Highness would have been angry.”

“Adala is mine. Have I not spent a king’s ransom upon her?” said the Nana, turning his fishy eyes on the girl. “Have I spoken truly, Adala?”

The girl bent her head low, and lifting the hem of the Nana’s robe, she raised it to her lips.

Azimoolah Khan watched the proceeding with a sneer. He knew well enough that Adala was no better than the rest of the army of parasites, fawning on the Maharajah, for what they could squeeze out of him.

“Send for Hooseinee Khanum. I would question her,” said the Nana presently.

The woman was summoned. She marched in defiantly, and salaamed in the usual fashion, but there was contempt in the gesture. The Nana inspired no respect.

“You boast of your arts, Hooseinee,” said he. “Why did you not conquer the Englishman?”

“How do I know? Englishmen are not like our race. They are cold, bloodless.”

“You gave him sweetmeats?”

“Yes.”

“And he ate?”

“Yes, he ate. He was angry with me. It was Adala he expected to see. We quarrelled. He flung me to the ground. He hates me.”

“And you, Hooseinee?”

“I hate him.”

“That is well,” drawled the Nana, after a pause. “You may go. You are not to blame.”

The woman salaamed and departed. The Maharajah sank into the silken cushions, exhausted by the call his questioning had made upon his brain. Azimoolah waited a few minutes for his master to recover himself, and went on:

“My lord sees now that his servant was right. I have told you the truth. What could Hooseinee Khanum have fooled the young Englishman into telling? He has no secrets. You could have heard no more from him than you knew already. The time has come to strike. Why do you delay?”

“I would like to be certain. You say there are but few Englishmen left in their own country. Do you swear that is the truth?”

“I swear by Allah it is so. The English have no soldiers but those in India. The bones of the rest are whitening in the land of the Russians. Gold and blood have been wasted in the Crimea. England has been stabbed to the heart. She is crippled. Has not England treated you with injustice? Has she not robbed you of your rights, and trampled upon the laws of our fathers? I pleaded in vain for you in London. The Company refused to listen to my prayer. There is nothing left for you but revenge. Never was there a more fitting time for vengeance than now. It is the will of Allah, and with his help we will sweep our land free of the accursed dogs!”

The Mahomedan in his excitement had sprung to his feet, and with his long arms waving and his slim body slightly arched, he was not unlike a bird of evil omen. His voice was no longer soft and silky, but harsh and guttural.

Azimoolah’s vehemence, so unusual in one who had such complete command over himself, the sinister light in his eyes, roused the flaccid nerves of the Maharajah, like the lash of a whip. But he was not entirely convinced.

“That may be so, Azimoolah Khan,” said he in a wavering tone, “but Captain Howar Kendrith has said differently.”

By Howar Kendrith the Nana meant Howard Kendrick. The natives of India have a peculiar faculty in the alteration of the names of Europeans to suit their own methods of pronunciation. Azimoolah Khan was an exception. He had passed a considerable time in England; he had a gift for acquiring languages, and he had conquered the difficulties of English speech.

“And what has Captain Howard Kendrick said?” asked Azimoolah scornfully.

“That there are thousands of soldiers in England; that they have many ships and much treasure. The English will never let our people go,” cried the Nana, with something like energy, so much so that Adala thought it necessary to wave her fan of peacocks’ feathers about his face.

“Howard Kendrick is a liar. Did he not a year ago promise to intercede on your behalf with his father, the director of the Company? What has come of it? Nothing. Yet you have loaded him with rupees. How much of your money has he not thrown away on horse racing, on cards, on women?”

It was true. Howard Kendrick had been particularly friendly with the Nana, had made the adopted son of Bajee Rao believe he could do great things, and he had dipped freely into the Nana’s purse, but with no result, and latterly the Nana had received him coldly.

The reason Kendrick had given that very day why he would not be present at the officers’ mess was false. He had no intention of buying a horse, and his journey was not for that purpose, but to borrow money from the Maharajah. He had ridden to the palace, and to his disgust had been refused an audience. The refusal was couched in the most respectful terms, and accompanied by profuse apologies, but Kendrick was not deceived. He rode away in a towering passion, for he had set his heart upon obtaining a sum large enough, not only to pay the most pressing of his debts, but also to be in a position to dazzle Ruth Armitage with an idea of his wealth.

Azimoolah saw that his arguments were having weight with the credulous Maharajah, and he pushed home his advantage.

“I have news for your lordship​—​great news,” said he, going back to his tone of insinuating confidence. “I had deferred it until you had seen for yourself that Hooseinee Khanum could do nothing. The 19th regiment at Barrackpore has, as you already know, begun to show the way. The English think by disarming and disbanding they have removed the danger. We know differently. Some of the 19th are now in the lines at Cawnpore. These men are Brahmins; they have talked to others of their own caste here; they have told of things which have happened at Barrackpore, of the insults to their sacred religion, of the more insults to come. The chupatty is passing from hand to hand; the people are already saying among themselves ‘Sub lal hoga hi’ (everything is to become red). We are ready. We are only waiting your lordship’s commands. The astrologers everywhere are prophesying that this year, the hundredth from the battle of Plassy, will see the end of the red coats. And you, my lord, will be at Delhi, uncountable riches at your feet, the omnipotent ruler of this mighty land, freed from the vultures of John Company, freed from the bayonets of England. You have seen the English maidens here. They are more beautiful than the girls of Cashmere. They can be made to love our race. Have I not told you of the ladies of Belgravia, of Mayfair​—​every word is true. You have seen their letters to me when I was in London. And you, yourself, Maharajah, do you not admire the English rose of Cawnpore​—​Ruth Armitage?”

“I must have time, Azimoolah, to think over this,” interposed the Nana, much disturbed. “The English are strong. I must be sure that others are with us before I act. When I do so, there will be no going back. Have I not sworn that my wrongs can be righted only in blood? Not a man, not a woman, not a child shall escape. My vengeance shall be complete when the time comes. Leave me, Azimoolah, to my thoughts. Adala, summon the musicians.”

Azimoolah salaamed low. He knew thoroughly the man with whom he was dealing. He had but to excite the Nana’s cupidity, his vanity, his passions, his lust for blood. He had laid the train, now let the fuse smoulder.

For the next hour the Nana permitted himself to be amused by his nautch girls, headed by Adala, all of them beautiful, with soft, dark eyes and flowing raven hair. They sang as they danced to the dreamy monotones of stringed instruments; some of them played by a bow, others with the fingers. The bangles on their wrists and ankles jingled, the bells on their ornaments tinkled in time with the music; they glided, they twined their bodies, they curved their arms, each movement of the dance having its meaning​—​love, hope, jealousy, hatred, defiance. From their figures was wafted a perfume; sweet-scented flowers were intertwined with their hair, their jewels were dazzling, their raiment gorgeous.

The dance, alternately soothing and exciting, failed to help the Maharajah to make up his mind; it simply lulled him into a state of voluptuous stupor. In imagination he saw himself at Delhi, living very much the life of Shah Alum, the old Mogul Emperor, who came under the protection of the British in 1803, when Lord Lake obtained possession of the city of Delhi. The Palace of Delhi at that time was a centre of sensuality and crime. One who wrote with knowledge, obtained at first hand, describes how wrestlers, jesters, dancing-girls, musicians, forgers, swindlers, thieves, receivers of stolen property, distillers of spirits, compounders of sweetmeats and opium, all formed a part of the palace community.

Sensual intrigue was rife. Wives intrigued against wives, mothers against sons, men and women scoured the country far and wide for beautiful girls to sell as slaves within the palace. In such a hotbed of villainy any conspiracy was possible. Assassinations were frequent, and the silent river was close at hand to bear away all traces of the victim. The Bithoor palace was not so steeped in vice as that of Delhi, but in its hidden recesses it ran it very close.

The languorous dance ended, the twanging and scraping of the instruments ceased. His Highness was in the mood for sleep. His heavy eyelids drooped; dreams of the revenge over which in the waking hours of the day he was continually pondering, succeeded to his visions of self-indulgence and unbounded wealth.

Revenge was rarely absent from the Nana’s thoughts. The men of the hated race whom he entertained so sumptuously, the women be smiled upon and loaded with costly presents, saw nothing in him but the harmless victim of pleasure. How they would have been undeceived could they have penetrated his actual thoughts!

The fat, lazy sensualist’s hatred of England was actuated by motives as base as his own nature. The Nana was, as already mentioned, the eldest son, by adoption, of Bajee Rao, the last of the Mahratta kings. By the Hindoo Shasters, or scriptures, there is a fearful doom awarded to those who die childless; and in order to avert a terrible fate, the system of adoption “when natural issue fails,” is permitted. Seereek Dhoondoo Punth, who, some say, was the son of a Poonah corn merchant, while others assert his father was a ryot living in an obscure village near Bombay, was given the rights and privileges of a naturally born heir. Bajee Rao died in 1851, and Dhoondoo Punth inherited all the landed property, houses, and jewels of the deposed king. But this did not content the rapacious Dhoondoo; he wanted also Bajee Rao’s pension of £80,000, which Lord Dalhousie had stopped. Dhoondoo sent a memorial to the Governor of the North West Province, and this being unsuccessful, he dispatched Azimoolah Khan to England to plead his cause with the East India Company and the Government.

Azimoolah, who had risen from the position of a khitmutgar to that of a teacher in the Government School in Cawnpore, was a man of considerable attainments and inordinate ambition. He could speak English and French; his manners were polished, and in London fashionable ladies swarmed round him. Successful as he was in society, he failed both with the Company and the Government. Disappointed and enraged, he returned to Cawnpore with a tale that his non-success was due to the Company bribing the English Government.

The lie would not have mattered much; what did matter was his belief that the power of England was broken. This belief was based on what he had seen and heard in Constantinople, through which city he had come on his journey home. In Constantinople, at that time, it was the opinion that the English army would meet its fate in the Crimea as the French army half a century before had at Moscow. It was Azimoolah’s object to possess the Nana also with this belief. The crafty Mahomedan knew if he could set up the puppet Nana as ruler of India that unlimited gold would roll into the pockets of his prime minister. Hence he was untiring in his insidious counsels. The Nana’s rights had been ignored by these dogs of Englishmen. Vengeance should be his.

When would the time of vengeance come? That was the question the Maharajah was impatient to solve. If he could only be sure that Azimoolah spoke the truth when he said the power of England was crippled! At that very moment the crafty mind of Azimoolah Khan, whose craving for revenge was more intense and deadly than that of his master, was planning how he could spur the indolent Nana up to the striking point. Hooseinee Khanum had failed with Dick Heron; some other plan must be tried; some other Englishman selected. Azimoolah fixed upon Howard Kendrick for his next attempt.