Red Revenge

Chapter I

After a “Heavy” Night with the Nana

A lamp was burning dimly in the sitting-room of the bungalow. The smoky light did little more than show indistinctly the outlines of the bare, clumsy table in the centre, the half-dozen chairs, all of different shapes and more or less rickety, an ugly, comfortless couch, a long cane chair of native manufacture, and a nondescript cabinet or cupboard, some three feet high, on the top of which were tumblers, a bottle of brandy, and sundry bottles of pale ale.

Pictures cut from the Illustrated London News decorated the walls, and in the place of honour over the spindle-legged writing-table at the side hung a framed water-colour portrait of a lady, whose hair in side curls, dominated by a high comb at the back, and whose dress with its leg-of-mutton sleeves and broad lace collar unmistakably denoted the very early Victorian fashions. On the spindle-legged table were newspapers by the last post from England, a few books, writing materials, and a bundle of official-looking documents. A rifle and pig-sticking spear were in the angle formed by the table and the wall.

The night was not a time of continuous silence​—​it hardly ever is in India. The irritating whirr of innumerable insects, the hoarse barks of distant pariah dogs, strange sounds of laughter from a group of grass-cutters squatting round a fire cooking chupatties, or wheaten cakes, were only a few of the noises that broke the stillness.

Then came a sound much more pronounced and definite​—​the tramp of horses’ feet. The sahib of the bungalow attended by his servant had come home. The sahib, Lieutenant Dick Heron, swung his leg over the saddle and dropped to the ground, not with his usual springy alertness, but with the air of a man who was dead beat. He stood for a few seconds motionless, his arm resting on his horse’s neck, then straightening himself he mumbled an order in Hindustani to the sleek, dark-skinned soldier behind him, and walked with a somewhat unsteady gait towards the bungalow, dazzlingly white in the cold moon rays.

“In for a ‘head’ to-morrow, by Jove,” he groaned, a little shiver, the foretaste of trial and tribulation, passing over him. “I’m not seasoned to this kind of fun yet, like the Major, Captain Cardross, Walker, Kendrick, and the rest, and I don’t know that I want to be seasoned. It means a leather liver, I guess. Anyhow, if you’ve got to see life, see it and forget the business as soon as possible.”

Lieutenant Heron was in a penitent mood​—​not an uncommon sequitur to a “heavy” night; and the function at the Nana’s palace at Bithoor had been unusually heavy. He advanced in a somewhat zigzag fashion towards the bungalow.

Dick Heron, slim, pallid​—​a little more so than usual, thanks to the Nana’s champagne, brandy, and full-flavoured cheroots​—​was very much in looks what ladies nowadays would call “a nice boy.” He had come straight from Addiscombe to India, and before he had been six months in the country influence bestowed a lieutenancy upon him. He was gaining a little experience of native ways and customs under the guidance of Seereek Dhoondoo Punth, better known as Nana Sahib, whose professions of friendship for the English officers at the Cawnpore station were never-ending. Outside the Nana’s profuse hospitality and his own regimental duties Dick Heron knew very little. At present he saw everything through the spectacles of Anglo-Indian routine and tradition, and if he thought of anything at all it was that he was having a good time. He had, in fact, like all “griffins,”​—​as newly arrived unfledged English officers were then called​—​“gone the pace.”

Dick stumbled up the steps leading to the verandah which ran round three sides of the squat one-storeyed building, and in the doorway leading to his rooms fell over an inanimate huddled-up object, at which he did his best to swear in Hindustani. The effort, however, was too great, and he relapsed into English. The object, his chokadar or watchman, grovelled at the Sahib’s feet in Eastern fashion, mumbled abject apologies to “my lord,” and crawled away to sleep in a less inconvenient place than a passage.

Meanwhile “his lordship” stumbled into the sitting-room. The light had attracted myriads of winged creatures; the air was like a hot blast. It was the dry season, and everyone was praying for the speedy arrival of the monsoon. Two white bundles, disturbed by the Sahib’s noisy entrance, unfolded themselves into human beings. One glided hurriedly to his place at the punkah to escape his lordship’s wrath, and began working the clumsy apparatus vigorously. The other, with many salaams, busied himself in assisting the Sahib to undress.

A door on the right opened into the bedroom. In the middle of the room was a bedstead, its legs standing in pans of water to check the invasion of undesirable creeping things, the upper part enclosed by mosquito curtains. On the mattress was a rush mat, pillow, and light coverlet. Dick Heron was too drowsy and fatigued to do much more than growl at his servant; and, clad in shirt and pyjamas of Delhi silk, he threw himself helplessly on his bed and dropped almost immediately into a heavy sleep to the accompaniment of the creaking punkah.

He had been dead to the world but five minutes when he awoke, bathed in perspiration, gasping for breath, his mouth and throat dry as the parched earth outside. He thought he had been asleep five hours. The brilliant moonrays stealing into the room through the khuss tatties, or grass mats at the windows, he mistook for the break of day. He expected every moment to hear the hated sound of gunfire announcing that another day of monotony had begun, and reminding him that in half an hour he must present himself on the parade ground.

He lay quietly for a couple of minutes trying to endure his splitting headache, and inwardly cursing his bearer for not bringing him the customary cup of tea, when he became conscious of two things, firstly, that the silvery light which cast such inky shadows could hardly indicate the misty yellow dawn, and secondly, that the punkah was motionless. No wonder the close, heavy air was insufferable.

In a burst of irritation he started up, seized his slippers (kept on the bed to prevent appropriation by giant ants or maybe a snake), thrust in his feet, switched back the mosquito curtains, and flung at the punkah-wallah his stock of opprobrious Hindustani epithets, finishing by hurling a boot in the direction of the slumberer. The admonition was effectual. The punkah resumed its creaking and swinging, but in a fashion too energetic to last; Dick filled a tumbler with water from a porous earthenware pitcher, hoping to cool his burning throat.

“Pooh​—​beastly tepid stuff,” he growled, and once more rolled on to his bed.

Sleep was impossible. He tossed from side to side. His brain was simmering. A dozen grotesque pictures chased each other across the retina struggling for mastery. Gorgeous colours, brilliant lights, the flash of jewels were mingled in chaotic confusion; a subtle perfume, sweet, yet pungent, haunted him, and with it came the vision of a woman with the smile of a Delilah in her eyes of midnight, her lips parted alluringly; her small even teeth crimson with betel nut. She was waving her long, round, snake-like arms with slow, graceful motions; every muscle of her sinuous body appeared to keep time with the monotonous tap-tap, the drone, and the soft twanging of native instruments. Each movement, each gesture of the slim serpentine form had its meaning​—​and the meaning lingered in the senses of the lad. Adala, the dancing-girl, whose slightest whim was law at the Palace of Bithoor, had much to do with spoiling the rest of the young subaltern, fresh to the fascination, the mystery of India, and the practised, insidious arts of her women.

Another figure hovered in the background of Dick Heron’s mental picture​—​a man, gross and unwieldy in form; his face sallow, sleek, inane, slightly pock-marked; his eyes expressionless and singularly set, suggesting those of a puppet; his clean shaven chin and head denoting the Mahratta. This was Seereek Dhoondoo Punth, Nana Sahib, the adopted son of the dead Bajee Rao, the Peishwa of Poonah, and the last monarch of the Mahratta dynasty in Central India, deposed by us in the forties and exiled to his palace at Bithoor to live luxuriously on the eighty thousand a year assigned to him. Round and round within Dick’s fevered brain went this picture, like a squirrel in a cage, gradually becoming dimmer until he dropped into unconsciousness out of sheer exhaustion.

He was aroused by his khitmutgar with tea, and his head splitting fit to burst, he struggled back into life, the repulsive duty of the morning inspection on the hot, dusty parade-ground uppermost in his mind. He staggered sleepily into his bath-room, a little low-walled enclosure, paved with rough brick; a jar of cold water dashed over his seething body somewhat restored him; he struggled into his regimentals with the assistance of his servant, and managed to put in an appearance on the parade ground in time to escape a wigging from the colonel.

Then came the inspection of arms and accoutrements​—​a part of his daily duty he had grown to loathe. He hated the long rows of dusky faces more than ever this morning. He thought the sepoys looked very ridiculous in their ill-cut, ill-fitting, English uniforms. Perhaps the sepoys thought so too, for every morning directly they were dismissed, they rushed to their huts, discarded the incongruous garments, and put on their native dress.

Dick Heron was in a bad temper, and to his disturbed vision everything seemed out of gear. He grumbled at his men, his irritation increased by a kind of supercilious insolence which he fancied he noticed in their demeanour. He wound up by nagging at the havildar, or native sergeant, before his men, and with the perversity and arrogance of youth went on heedless of the flash of anger that leaped to the man’s eyes and was reflected in those of the rank and file.

At last, somewhere about eight o’clock the welcome signal for dismissal was heard, and Dick strolled bark to his bungalow for breakfast, a second toilet, and an hour’s study of the language of the natives with his teacher. To be able to write the letters “P.H.,” passed in Hindustani, after his name was a stepping-stone to promotion. About noon he sauntered into the breakfast club for a chat with his comrades, and possibly to linger over tiffin if he could summon sufficient appetite.

Half a dozen men were lolling in bamboo chairs in the verandah, smoking and sipping the inevitable brandy pawnee. They greeted Dick Heron with grins and uproarious applause. He looked at them in amazement, and drew himself up a little stiffly. One young fellow, Captain Howard Kendrick, whom Dick had known at Addiscombe, rose and with an air of mock deference pointed to the chair he had just vacated.

“Don’t be an ass, Kendrick,” growled Dick. “Perhaps you’ll kindly explain why you’re all bent upon making yourselves idiots this morning.”

“My dear fellow, we’re only desirous of showing our sense of your superiority,” said Kendrick, bowing and waving his hand towards the empty chair.

“Superiority in what​—​common sense?”

“Anything but that, dear boy​—​anything but that! What do you say, gentlemen?”

A roar of laughter was the response. Dick was angrier than ever.

“Set of jays,” he muttered, under his breath.

Kendrick was distinguished at Addiscombe for his cool impudence and his fertile imagination. Just now he was bent upon displaying both.

“We want to compliment you, old chap, on your conquest. By Jove, I’ve seen nothing like it since I’ve been stationed here, and I’ve had a year’s experience of this detestable spot. Your love-making was superb.”

“My love-making?” faltered Dick.

Howard Kendrick nodded gravely. The others, taking their cue from the imaginative young captain, nodded in much the same fashion. Dick Heron was beginning to feel goaded beyond endurance.

“What Kendrick wants to tell you​—​only he’s such a confounded long time about it​—​is that you went at a devil of a pace last night at the Nana’s dinner-party and——”

“Please don’t interrupt, Dalrymple,” said Kendrick loftily. “I’ve sat on too many court-martials not to know how to conduct an inquiry. Don’t you recollect, Dick, how when that dusky witch Adala made eyes at you and finished up her fetching performance by kneeling at your feet, that you insisted upon her sitting by your side? By Gad, and she did it, too, and in a jiffy your arm went round her waist. You should have seen the Nana’s codfish eyes flare up. It was a risky thing to do. The Maharajah’s spent a fortune on his pet dancing-girl. Those heavy bangles on the artful jade’s arms are worth more than a sub’s pay for a twelve-month.”

“I don’t remember anything of the kind,” stammered Dick. “I couldn’t have been such a fool.”

“Why not? Those girls can twist any man they want round their fingers. They’ve been at the game for hundreds of years. The women of Paris can’t teach them anything they don’t know in that way. I only hope you haven’t made the Nana jealous. Not that it would matter very much​—​he’s too lazy and good-natured to bother about such a trifle. Besides, he’s awfully fond of the English. Look at the presents some of our fellows have had from him, and I dare say if you cut him out he won’t mind very much. He’s only to send to Cashmere and get half a dozen girls as handsome as Adala, though not, I grant you, so bewitching.”

“Stop your silly chaff, Kendrick,” exclaimed Dick, now really angry. “I’ll leave you to make to the others the apology you owe me for those fairy tales of yours. I’m off to the billiard-room. I’m drawn to play Jack Hurst in the subs’ handicap.”

He turned brusquely away, but had not gone half a dozen paces before he heard hasty steps behind him, and a hand descended on his shoulder. Howard Kendrick had followed him.

“I haven’t really riled you, have I, Dick?” said he.

“I don’t know about being riled. I can only say it was beastly bad form to say what you did before the other fellows. I saw Sam Chaffins taking it all in. He’s the busybody of the regiment, as you know well enough. He’s certain to make the most of it, and if it reaches the ears of Colonel Waring——”

“And Ruth Armitage?” put in Kendrick in his drawling way.

“And Ruth Armitage if you like,” rejoined Dick fiercely. “Anyhow, it’s bound to do me no good.”

“My dear Dick, you take things too seriously. It’s nothing for a fellow to have a fancy for a dancing-girl.”

“Well, I haven’t. I’d like to run straight. I’ve no money to fool away, and as soon as I get my P.H. I want to get an appointment away from the army and settle down.”

“That’s the ambition of all of us, so we needn’t discuss it. I’d like to make it clear about Adala. There really wasn’t so much exaggeration in what I said as you seem to imagine. You dipped pretty deeply into the Nana’s champagne, and you’ve forgotten a good deal.”

Dick Heron made no reply. He knew it was so, but he felt sure he had not behaved so stupidly as Kendrick would have him believe.

“If you like, I’ll tell you exactly what happened,” went on Kendrick.

“You needn’t trouble,” said Dick coldly. “My memory’s good enough, thank you.”

He wheeled round abruptly, and entered the billiard-room. He was glad to get away from Kendrick. There was something in the latter’s manner which jarred on his nerves. It was almost as though he wanted to force a quarrel upon him.