Chapter I

Azimoolah Khan

One fine morning in the early spring of 1857, an open carriage, drawn by a couple of superb horses, was proceeding at a slow pace along the Mall, towards St James’s Palace. In it were seated two ladies and a man, unmistakably an Oriental, even had he not been wearing the characteristic Hindoo headdress.

The man’s dark velvety eyes were fixed admiringly on the fresh fair face of the younger of the two ladies​—​a graceful girl with large tender eyes, and masses of dark brown hair. The mouth was mobile and sensitive, the chin small and firmly rounded, the forehead broad, and the brows strongly marked.

The lady at her side, who was twice her age, was of a totally different type. Handsome, certainly, but weak and vain, possibly frivolous.

“And so you are about to visit my country, Miss Atherton,” said the Oriental, addressing the younger lady, with a bow.

“Yes,” she answered. “I’m going to live with my father. He will meet me at Calcutta, and we shall continue the journey together up the Ganges to Ghazeepore. It will be so strange​—​so wonderful to me. Of course it’s familiar enough to you, Prince Azimoolah.”

“Oh yes. Ah, you will like Ghazeepore​—​the centre of the rose garden of India. Your roses in England are nothing like those of Ghazeepore, though you, Miss Atherton, can compare with any rose that India can boast.”

The compliment so direct would have sounded vulgar and commonplace but for the smooth, liquid voice in which it was expressed​—​a voice which, for all its softness, sometimes uttered a jarring guttural note which suggested that Azimoolah Khan could on occasion speak in very different tones.

“How nice of you, Prince, to say that!” exclaimed the elder lady laughingly. “Don’t you feel flattered, Jean?”

Jean Atherton’s brown eyes had lowered beneath the ardent gaze of the Oriental. She did not receive the flattery in very good part.

“I’d rather not be flattered, Lady Constance,” said she. “Flattery is not always sincere.”

“I agree with you,” said the man, bending slightly forward, his eyes fixed on the girl’s face. “What I said was not intended to be flattery. I hope, Miss Atherton, it is not a crime to express admiration of what is beautiful. The women of my race——”

Prince Azimoolah suddenly stopped. The blare of trumpets had cut his honeyed speech in two. Then followed the shrill note of the fife, the peremptory rattle of the side drum.

The startled horses reared, but were soon soothed by the coachman, who drew the carriage on one side of the road. A company of footguards was approaching from St James’s Palace. It was coming from the ceremony of the trooping of the colours.

The soldiers, many of them Crimean warriors, swept by, their bayonets gleaming in the sunshine, their coats and bearskins suggesting a moving solid structure of red surmounted by a parapet of black.

“How grandly they march!” cried Jean, forgetting in her enthusiasm her momentary irritation.

“And do they fight as grandly as they walk?” inquired the Prince.

Azimoolah may not have intended the sneer in his voice, but intentionally or not it was there.

“Your countrymen ought to be able to answer that question,” was the quick answer.

Prince Azimoolah laughed softly, but there was no mirth in the eyes. Their velvety aspect was gone, and a fierce glitter occupied its place.

The drums and fifes ceased for a minute or so, and nothing was heard but the tramp of feet, as even and as regular as the sound of a great machine. Then the band burst into a joyous triumphant strain. The tone of the brass was pleasant enough, but not so weird, not so barbaric as that of the shrill fife, and the musketlike rattle of the side drums.

The carriage proceeded towards St James’s Palace. Azimoolah Khan ceased to pay compliments​—​ceased his flow of small-talk. His eyes were fixed on the patch of red and black, gradually becoming less and less in the distance.

Jean Atherton felt constrained to follow his gaze. She too watched the departing soldiers. Their regular tread could no longer be heard, though the band had stopped. A brief silence followed. Why should that silence suggest to Jean’s imagination something vaguely sinister? Her heart seemed to beat more slowly, but only for a few seconds. The next minute the ear-piercing fife penetrated the air again, shrill, insistent, not wailing. It was like a woman’s call to arms, to be answered by the drums.

The sounds died away. The carriage passed out of the park into Pall Mall. The windows of some of the clubhouses were open. At one was a group of retired Anglo-Indian officers, pensioned East India Company’s officials, and others, tempted from the study of the newspapers to enjoy the fresh spring air and bright sunlight.

“What’s this trouble about the greased cartridges in India?” said an old gentleman, a county magnate up in town with his wife and daughter, for the presentation of the latter at Court. “You’ve got Indian matters at your fingers’ ends, General Patterson, I’d like to be posted up in the subject. Is the thing likely to become serious, as some of the newspapers seem to fear?”

“English newspapers know nothing about India. At the same time, the business must be handled carefully. I’ll give you the story in a nutshell. You’ve heard about the new Enfield rifle of course. The top of the cartridge for this rifle has to be bitten off before insertion into the barrel. Now it’s got about that bullocks’ fat is used in the preparation of these cartridges, and as it’s a grievous sin for the Hindoo to touch bullocks’ fat, you can imagine the hubbub among the sepoys.”

“Very absurd all these religious prejudices,” said the county magnate pompously. “I thought our missionaries were knocking that nonsense out of the natives.”

“My dear Hubbard, when you knock a Hindoo’s religion out of him, you knock out his life as well. His religion is part of his life. You in England who save your religion up for Sundays don’t understand that.”

“That’s true,” said a yellow-faced, shrivelled-up old gentleman, a director of the Honourable East India Company. “Now that we’re on the subject, I’d like to read you an extract from a letter as to how the greased-cartridge trouble began. A soldier walking to his cooking place to prepare his food was met by a low caste man. The sepoy had with him his lopah, or brass pot, full of water​—​and the low caste fellow asked for a drink. The soldier was a Brahmin. Said he: ‘I have scoured my lopah. You will defile it by your touch.’ The refusal annoyed the other, and he replied jeeringly: ‘You think much of your caste, but wait a little. The sahib-log [the masterman] will make you bite cartridges soaked in fat, and then where will your caste be?’ That’s how the story goes, Mr Hubbard. Of course I don’t know if it’s true, but my correspondent says everybody in Calcutta is talking about it.”

“And is fat really used in making these cartridges?” asked the county magnate.

“I don’t think that matters a rap,” cut in the General impatiently. “If the fellows once get the idea into their heads, it’ll be deuced hard to drive it out. I’m afraid there’s something afoot deeper than greased cartridges. If my suspicions are correct, anything will do for an excuse to bring the discontent to a head.”

“Surely, General, you don’t dread a revolt!” exclaimed the startled magnate.

“A British soldier dreads nothing, sir,” returned the General, a little nettled. “At the same time, he ought to look matters fairly in the face. I’m not in the Company’s service now, but I thought it my duty to lay my views before the directors the other day, and you know how I was received, Sir Oliver.”

“My dear General,” rejoined the yellow-faced gentleman, “you were quite right to give us the benefit of your advice, but you’re an alarmist, you know. A revolt amongst the native troops is unthinkable. We’ve read ’em too many lessons in the past for that.”

“The past isn’t the present,” retorted the General. “The forward policy of Lord Dalhousie, with which of course I agree, though I don’t like the way it was carried out, has placed a tremendous responsibility on the small British army which the East India Company has hitherto found sufficient. The addition of the kingdom of Oudh has made an enormous difference. There’s a good deal of sullen dissatisfaction. It’s known to exist in Lucknow. The failure of the King of Oudh to get any redress when he visited England last year hasn’t done us any good with the natives​—​but there, I won’t be a prophet of evil. We shall pull through all right no doubt.”

“I should think so, indeed,” said a retired Commissioner. “This cartridge business will soon die out. We shall hear no more of it in a month or two’s time. In any case, we haven’t anything to be afraid of in the sepoys. What do you think, General?”

“Left to themselves, sir, they’re not much. Officered by our fellows, they make splendid soldiers. I’m not afraid of the sepoys. I believe the majority are absolutely faithful. But behind them​—​the subtle intriguers​—​the silent plotters​—​the—— Well​—​by Jove!”

Everyone stared at the white-haired General. The transition in tone, in manner, was so sudden What had happened? He was staring into the street at the occupants of an open carriage. The carriage containing Prince Azimoolah, Lady Constance Harwood, and Jean Atherton had stopped opposite the clubhouse. Lady Constance had recognised a friend, a young man on the pavement, and he was standing at the side of the carriage talking to her.

Azimoolah had his eyes turned towards the clubhouse. The rage of the old soldier seemed to amuse him mightily. He stared insolently into the open window.

“Gad​—​d’you see that black rascal?” stormed the General. “I’ve a mind to drag him out of the carriage and give him a thrashing. Surely those women can’t know who he is.”

“Eh​—​what?” exclaimed the magnate. “Surely you don’t mean Prince Azimoolah. Why——”

“Prince? He’s no more a prince than you are, sir,” burst out the irate warrior.

“Well, but he was introduced to me as Prince Azimoolah and by the very lady who’s sitting in that carriage​—​Lady Constance Harwood.”

“Then if Lady Constance doesn’t know better, someone ought to tell her. Look here, the last time I saw that fellow he was a khitmutgar. If you don’t know what a khitmutgar is, Mr Hubbard, I’ll tell you. A khitmutgar’s a waiter at table, a fellow you’d kick if he didn’t attend to you properly. He’s a devilish clever rascal, mind you​—​knows English and French thoroughly, and somehow became a teacher in the Cawnpore Government schools. I’d heard a Prince Azimoolah was in London two years ago, on behalf of that Seereck Dhoondoo Punth who now dubs himself Nana Sahib but I hadn’t the least idea this so-called prince was Azimoolah Khan. Were you aware of it, Sir Oliver?”

“Not I,” rejoined the director. “All I know is that when Nana Sahib aired his grievance against the Company, he sent yonder man to lay his case before the directors, and very well the fellow did it. Whether he’s a prince or a khitmutgar, it can’t affect the merits of the question.”

“Perhaps not,” retorted the General, “but he’s an impostor, and it’s time he was exposed. I’ve heard of him buzzing about in the best society with the women actually running after him. By George, it’s too bad. Look at Lady Constance. If the rascal were the Emperor of the French, she couldn’t be more languishing. The girl sitting opposite the fellow doesn’t seem so impressed​—​thank goodness!”

The carriage by this time had moved, Azimoolah never shifting his insolent glance so long as he could look without trouble to himself.

The talk about Nana Sahib of Cawnpore continued. Sir Oliver Markham, as a director of the East India Company, of course was well up in the history of the man whose name was afterwards to become a synonym for all that is ferocious and bloodthirsty.

Nana Sahib, he explained, was the son of a corn-dealer of Poona. Bajee Rao, the last of the Mahratta kings, who was childless, adopted him as his heir. The British Government dethroned Bajee Rao and liberally pensioned him. When Bajee Rao died, Nana Sahib expected the pension would be continued. According to the Hindoo law, he was entitled to claim this, notwithstanding that he was not the son of the late King. The East India Company ignored the Hindoo law, and cut off the pension; hence the object of Azimoolah Khan’s visit to London.

“And you say he argued the case well?” asked the General.

“Very well indeed. We all thought he was exceedingly plausible. Certainly his manners were charming. His first visit to England was soon after the death of Lord Raglan in the Crimea. I should like to know what’s brought Azimoolah here again. We’ve seen nothing of him in Leadenhall Street. But of course he knows it’s of no use coming. We refused to grant Nana Sahib his pension two years ago, and we certainly sha’n’t reopen the question.”

The curiosity of Sir Oliver Markham as to the object of Azimoolah Khan’s second visit to London was natural. Azimoolah Khan pretended it was the attractions of England, especially the attractions of the English ladies, which had brought him to London a second time. This was a falsehood. The failure of his negotiations with the East India Company had embittered him against England, and he returned to India breathing vengeance.

He journeyed back to India via Constantinople, arriving there just when the prospects of the Crimean War were gloomy, and when the opinion was gaining ground in the East that the struggle with Russia had crippled the resources of England.

On his arrival, he comforted the Nana for his disappointment by telling him the English were ruined, and that one decisive blow would destroy their rule in the East. And then he set to work to foment rebellion.

Meanwhile Lady Constance Harwood’s carriage stopped in front of a house in Lowndes Square, and Azimoolah Khan assisted the ladies to alight.

“You’ll stay to lunch, Prince?” said Lady Constance.

A glance full of meaning shot from her pale blue eyes.

Azimoolah bowed assent.

“How nice it is you’re not a Hindoo,” went on the lady. “I shouldn’t know in the least what to give you to eat. And if I did, I suppose you’d lunch and dine by yourself?”

Azimoolah’s white teeth gleamed for an instant. He laughed grimly. He was a Mohammedan.

It was clear Azimoolah received the invitation with intense pleasure. At lunch he was most agreeable, even fascinating. Jean Atherton was compelled to own this.

But his charm of manner did not overcome her innate dislike of the man, and when Lady Constance rose she rose also.

A frown went over her ladyship’s insipid face.

“Don’t leave the Prince. He’ll think it so rude,” she whispered sharply.

“But he’s your friend, not mine,” returned Jean. “I’ve no end of letters to write this afternoon, and I want to catch to-night’s mail.”

“Oh, very well​—​as you like.”

The acidity in the lady’s voice crept in very easily. She was subject to what she called “nerves.” She was readily irritated, and could not help showing her irritation.

Jean’s excuse was no fictitious one. She had been at boarding school until she was eighteen, and had hosts of friends among her schoolfellows.

“Finishing” schools were an institution of the fifties. The very superior ladies who presided over these establishments had very superior ideas. As a rule they bowed down to rank and only tolerated wealth when it had not been acquired by shopkeeping. Mr Atherton, a widower, had to trust his daughter to the care of the Misses Dunkerley of Clapham and without a doubt these amiable if somewhat narrow-minded ladies fulfilled the trust faithfully, according to their lights.

After Jean’s stay at the “finishing” school, it was necessary to find someone to chaperon her. The period was that of the “young person.” The “young person” has ceased to exist, and to-day Jean would have gone to a boarding house without any fuss or bother.

Not so in the fifties. Girls of nineteen were supposed to be unable to look after themselves, so, in accordance with Mr Atherton’s instructions, the Misses Dunkerley sought for some lady who for an “honorarium” would consent to take charge of Jean until the time of her departure arrived.

The simple-minded ladies, firmly believing that anyone belonging to the aristocracy must necessarily possess all the virtues, thought themselves highly fortunate in securing the services of Lady Constance Harwood. No one could deny that she was the daughter of the Earl of Rockingham. If the Earl ran through his fortune and ended by breaking his neck in the hunting field, leaving little more than his entailed estates to represent his worldly possessions that was not the fault of Lady Constance Harwood. But it was the reason why she condescended to take care of Jean Atherton. The lady might have had the bluest of blood, but she also had the slenderest of purses.

Of course dear good Misses Dunkerley had not the slightest idea that Lady Constance Harwood was an inveterate gambler. Love of play ran in the blood of the Harwoods, and her ladyship, when luck went against her, had to live on her wits.

Jean was not long in making this discovery, and it was always a puzzle to her how her ladyship contrived to secure the best of everything, even when there was not the least prospect of paying for it. Whatever the solution of the problem might be, Lady Constance kept it to herself.

Perhaps Azimoolah Khan could have thrown a little light on the mystery, in so far as the last six months were concerned. It was Lady Constance who introduced him into society. He was the lion she was only too glad to exhibit. She procured him invitations to balls, concerts, fêtes, and the assemblies which served as “At Homes” half-a-century ago.

Azimoolah Khan found Lady Constance very useful. The Nana had supplied him with unlimited funds, and Lady Constance for once in her life had the pleasurable experience of handling money, and of knowing that she could get more by asking for it.

Her ladyship was always wanting more, so much so that Azimoolah Khan was beginning to show signs of reluctance. Lady Constance, anxious to keep the Indian in good humour, tried all she could to make use of Jean to this end. So shrewd a woman was not likely to be blind to the evident admiration Azimoolah had for the fresh young English girl. To-day her manoeuvres to leave Jean alone to entertain the Prince had failed. When after her defeat she returned to Azimoolah, her lips were white with rage.

“You’re disturbed, Lady Constance,” said Azimoolah smoothly.

“Yes. You saw what happened. Why didn’t you come to my assistance? I’m doing my best for you with her, but of course I dare not let her suspect anything. I thought you men of the East were rapid in your conquests.”

“Yes,” returned Azimoolah, a hard glitter in his eyes, “when the time comes for conquest. We lay our plans beforehand, and we wait​—​oh, for a long while, till we are quite ready.”

“And while you’re waiting, someone intervenes. In six weeks’ time Jean will start for India.”

“And I also.”

“You?” cried Lady Constance angrily. “But you told me the other day you intended to stay in England for quite three months more.”

“So I thought. But my plans are altered. I shall travel in the same steamer as Miss Atherton. Do you understand?”

He smiled. Lady Constance bit her lips. Her sources of income were coming to an end sooner than she expected.

“I suppose,” she went on, a little ironically, “you would rather that Jean didn’t know of your intention. It would come better as a surprise, would it not?”

“Yes​—​as a pleasant surprise.”

“Then I musn’t tell her.”

The Indian fixed his eyes upon the lady. His penetrating gaze confused her. It was as much as to say, “How much do you want for holding your tongue?”

“No, you musn’t tell her,” said he presently. “I fear you’ve been put to a great deal of trouble and expense in my interest lately. May I venture to acknowledge your services in some way?”

“Really, Prince, already you’ve been most generous,” said the lady deprecatingly.

Azimoolah shrugged his shoulders. He took from his pocket-book a bundle of banknotes and passed them to her across the table.

It would have been bad taste to unfold them. Lady Constance contented herself with thanking Azimoolah, and left the notes on the table where he had placed them.

The Indian rose to go.

“It is understood​—​silence?”

“Why, of course.”

The next Indian mail brought a letter from Mr Atherton to his daughter in which he said:

“I shall be in Calcutta earlier than I expected, and you must come by the first steamer after you receive this letter.”

The letter arrived within a week after Lady Constance Harwood’s compact with Azimoolah Khan. Lady Constance at once called at Azimoolah’s hotel, to find that he had gone a journey. The hotel people believed he was at Brighton, but were not sure. At any rate he left no address and they did not know when he would return.

Lady Constance waited three days, and during that time did all in her power to delay Jean. But the girl was determined. She was only too glad to get away from her ladyship and from Azimoolah Khan. The next P. & O. steamer left Southampton the following week, and she determined to go by it. Nothing could turn her from her purpose. Lady Constance was almost angry at her obstinacy, but for the lady’s anger Jean cared but little. She put it down to the fact that Lady Constance would lose her income by her departure. Her ladyship accompanied the girl to Waterloo Station, and parted from her there with an effusiveness more fashionable than sincere.

The following day Azimoolah Khan returned to the hotel. He found awaiting him a letter from Lady Constance Harwood, scolding him for leaving London at the very time when his presence was most needed.

“I believe Jean Atherton is really inclined favourably towards you,” wrote the lady. “You don’t understand English girls. They are brought up to say no when they mean yes. You’ve lost your chance of becoming her compagnon de voyage. I helped you all I could, but I can’t do impossibilities. You must follow up your conquest in India.”

At the end of the letter was a postscript:

“I open this to tell you I have just heard that the steamer with Jean on board was delayed at Falmouth for a couple of days. Something wrong with the engines. By travelling via Marseilles, I’m told, you may join her at Cairo. But you must start at once.”

He did not need her ladyship’s hint. There were other motives besides the pursuit of Jean Atherton which hastened Azimoolah Khan’s departure from England. The time was fast approaching when the long meditated blow which was to shake the English rule in India to its very foundations was to be struck.

He hurried away; to reach Cairo the day after Jean had departed.