Chapter III

A Message from the Dancing-Girl

Dick Heron was not master of himself. Everything that day had been a cause of irritation. The intensely dry heat, the suffocating air, had affected his nerves, and at the moment he was at war with the world. He jumped into his buggy, hardly giving his servant time to mount, and drove furiously to head-quarters. He burned to come face to face with Kendrick, but before doing anything he must have a “peg.”

Arrived at head-quarters, he threw the reins to his servant and hastened to the smoking-room. He had made up his mind that if Kendrick were there he would tackle him on the spot. But no Kendrick could be seen, and Dick had his “peg” of brandy, and then another and another. There was, he found, not much chance of meeting Howard Kendrick until perhaps late at night. Kendrick, so he was told, had gone a journey of some five miles to look at a horse he thought of buying, and would most likely dine with the vendor.

Dick’s inquiries naturally led the conversation in the direction of Kendrick, and two or three men were not sorry to discuss him freely. They had reason to do so, for Kendrick had not paid the bets he had lost over the last races.

“How did he use you, Heron?” asked one man.

“I had nothing on with him,” said Dick shortly. “He already owed me money, and I didn’t care to give him the chance of increasing the debt. It isn’t money matters I want to see him about.”

Dick flung himself into a long cane chair, lit a cheroot and gloomily smoked. The others went on gossiping; and from their gossip it was pretty clear that the general opinion was that Kendrick had not of late been running straight.

Although Dick Heron and Kendrick were at Addiscombe at the same time, they were not much together. They were in different “sets,” and Kendrick left a year before Heron. He was generally spoken of as “that Kendrick,” which would seem to imply he was not held in high favour; but Dick knew nothing definitely against him, and when they met at Cawnpore, Dick Heron, a stranger, was glad enough to fraternise with some one with whom he could compare notes about old Addiscombe times.

The mess dinner was not served until seven, and in the meantime Dick, having steadied his nerves with the assistance of “pegs,” discovered that he had pretty well forgotten his troubles and took his share in the frivolous talk that followed.

When the talk languished, some one proposed “fly loo,” as a diversion for the final half hour before dinner, and Dick made one in the pastime​—​probably the simplest form of gambling known to man. All that one had to do was to sit with a little heap of sugar on the table before you and wait patiently until a fly chose to settle on the dainty. You were at liberty to bet what you liked, within a limit, on your chance, and you either received the stakes all round, or paid according to whether the fly preferred your heap or that of one of your neighbours.

Dick lost half a sovereign at this excitement before dinner was announced, and having cheerfully paid up, sauntered with the others into the mess-room. He had gone through this routine until he was sick of it; but there was nothing else to be done, and so far as he knew, nothing else ever would be done.

The chatter during dinner was of the orthodox aimless kind​—​the chances of promotion, the probabilities of the next horse race, the billiard handicap, the latest scandal. Apparently, in the general aspect of things there was nothing different to-night from any other night, but somehow everybody was conscious that the gaiety was feverish and artificial. The decanter was passed round with more than customary frequency, the voices were louder, the stories more of the barrack-room class than usual. Suddenly came in a stentorian voice the words:

“I tell all of you fellows straight, that the niggers mean to drive us into the ‘black water,’ if they once get the chance. You’re as blind as bats​—​the whole lot of you. I know, and you don’t.”

The voice was that of Captain Tom Ingram, who had spent half his life in India, who knew almost as much about the natives as the natives themselves, yet had never advanced in rank beyond his captaincy. He was a splendid soldier, but no disciplinarian, as discipline understood by the orthodox, and he was far too blunt and outspoken to please his superiors. Moreover he had a leaning towards “pegs.” Maybe this tendency stood in the way of his advancement.

Ingram’s words fell like a bombshell. The frivolity was checked, a curious silence followed.

The man to whom Ingram was talking, Major Parry​—​an honest fellow enough, but narrow-minded and inclined to be “goody-goody;” he never missed going to church every Sunday, and believed in the possibility of Christianising the whole of India​—​murmured something about the “beneficence of the English rule,” and the efforts of the missionaries.

“Christianity is all-powerful. I can’t think the native army would turn against their friends,” said he. “Once let this unfortunate matter of the greased cartridges——”

“For Heaven’s sake, Parry, don’t talk rot,” burst out Ingram, springing to his feet. “I’m sick of the cartridge business. It’s only the outward and visible sign of what’s been simmering unsuspected for years. Listen to me. I was in Lucknow five years ago, in the time of Shah Wazid Ali, the last king of Oudh. He’d a notion of reorganising his army, but that didn’t suit the British Resident, who was curious to know his game. He hadn’t any game. He was simply hungering for something to do. ‘Oh,’ said the Resident, ‘if you think you’re not safe you’d better employ British troops.’ Well​—​but I’m boring you. What’s the good of my talking?”

Ingram flopped into his seat and filled his glass with an unsteady hand, bestowing a liberal quantity on the table. There was a chorus of “Go on​—​go on.” Ingram had unconsciously brought to the surface the undercurrent of thought which had been surging beneath the frivolity. Ingram might be addicted to “pegs” and “brandy pawnees,” but when he chose to speak earnestly, he knew what he was talking about.

“Oh, it’s ‘go on,’ is it?” said he, once more rising, clutching the edge of the table and swaying slightly. “All right. The continuation of the story is that Shah Wazid finding himself snubbed, chucked up soldiering for nautch girls, and went the pace. Practically, the king took a back seat, and Rajah Dursham Sing came along. This nabob had three sons​—​Buktour Sing, Durshin Sing, and Cholawka Sing. The king let them do just what they damn please, and they did it with a vengeance. Durshin Sing was a horse leech to the backbone, and grabbed every inch of land in Fyzabad he could lay hold of. But he went further. There was a mosque near Fyzabad which he annexed with other property; and his sons, strict Brahmins, refused to allow the ‘Arjan’​—​that’s the call to prayer, you know​—​to be sounded from the mosque. Pass the decanter, Parry.”

Talking always made Tom Ingram dry. He refreshed himself. Meanwhile Dick Heron sat with glistening eyes fixed on the stalwart captain. The wine Dick had drunk, following the brandy, had set his nerves quivering. Ruth’s anger, and his suspicions that Kendrick had slandered him were still rankling. He was ready to pick a quarrel with anybody. He felt intensely vainglorious, and was quite prepared to stand up against the world for the invincibility of England. Ingram’s opening words had irritated him, and he was burning to interrupt.

“Now, then, see what sprang out of this piece of oppression,” continued Ingram. “A travelling Moulvie came along, and, knowing nothing of Durshin Sing’s orders, went into the mosque to say his prayers after the fashion of his kind, and sounded the ‘Arjan.’ The fat was in the fire at once; the Brahmins gave the Moulvie a thrashing; off went the Moulvie to the kind for redress; one thing led to another; there was a jolly shindy between the Brahmins and Mahomedans, with the upshot we were called in to adjust matters. Of course, we did it in our usual fashion, and put an end to the row by deposing the king of Oudh and collaring his kingdom.”

“And why shouldn’t we?” shouted Dick furiously​—​he had got the opening he had been waiting for. “Aren’t the niggers much better off under our rule than under their own?”

Dick’s tone was aggressive, and a look of apprehension was apparent in the faces of some of the men. Dick’s nearest neighbour gripped the young lieutenant’s arm and told him to “shut up.” Ingram could be very quarrelsome when he liked, and when he was quarrelsome he was dangerous. To everybody’s surprise, however, he remained perfectly unmoved by the outburst. Indeed, he regarded Dick’s eager, boyish face somewhat pityingly.

“You’re a youngster,” he returned, “and you only repeat like a parrot what you’ve heard. You’d better let me finish. Oudh became ours last year, and what happened? Why, thousands of men who had been in the King’s service were thrown out of employment. They had never done anything in their lives but fight, and finding themselves stranded they’ve gone to swell the swarms of budmash (riffraff), who are only waiting for the signal to plunder. I don’t care what you fellows think; I only say that if I were a native of Oudh, I should consider the annexation a gross piece of injustice, and I should rebel against it.”

Dick sprang up in spite of the efforts of his neighbour to restrain him.

“You’ve no right to say such things, Captain Ingram. It’s as good as treason,” he cried, “to talk like that in the hearing of those niggers.”

Dick pointed to two khitmutgars, or waiters, who were moving noiselessly at the end of the room apparently indifferent to everything but their duties.

“Oh, you’re right,” said Ingram with a shrug of the shoulders, and subduing his voice slightly.

“It sounds like treason; at the same time, it’s common sense. Bundle those fellows out, and you chaps draw closer. Now that I’m on this business I’d better finish it. It’s no good living in a fool’s paradise.”

There was something strangely serious in Ingram’s voice and manner, and the men around the table obeyed him; most of them conscious of a sudden disquieting sensation of insecurity. There was not one there who did not know that the safety, nay, that the lives, of the few thousand English men and women in India depended entirely on the fidelity of the native troops. Ingram went on:

“You all know that the 19th and 34th were stationed at Lucknow, but what you don’t know is that directly Oudh passed into our hands there were signs that something had gone wrong with both regiments. No one knew exactly what it was; the fellows were too cunning to show their hands, you bet. Anyhow, when the annual change of troops came about at the beginning of this year, and the 19th were sent to Berhampore, and the 34th to Barrackpore, the authorities at Lucknow were jolly glad to get rid of them, and hoped by sending them away and separating them that the mischief was stopped. They’re wrong. It’s only just beginning. You’ll see.”

Ingram’s forebodings were listened to with incredulity. His comrades expected something much worse. What was the insubordination of two regiments worth in the face of the staunchness of the great body of native troops? It was not strange that the 19th and 34th, fresh from Lucknow, with her new masters and smarting under the loss of her king, should be disaffected, but the matter was not likely to go further. Nearly every man present was of one opinion on this point. Ingram was unanimously voted to be a prophet of evil, and the younger officers were the loudest in expressing their condemnation of his rash speculations.

The talk became excited, the fiery sherry and the sweet champagne went round, men shouted one against the other, and the only silent one of the company was Tom Ingram himself. He sat smoking a big cheroot, apparently indifferent to what was going on. He’d said all he cared to say, and that was enough for him.

The air was insufferable, and the monotonous din of voices had probably had a soporific effect on the punkah wallahs, for the ventilating apparatus moved but languidly. Dick and two or three of his chums went for coolness outside the bungalow.

There was no moon, but the pale sky was spangled with stars, and to Dick’s excited fancy the scene was tinged with romance. His senses were exalted. A good deal of nonsense had been talked during the last hour about the wonderful deeds of Clive, Cornwallis, Wellesley, Baird, and the rest who had led the English troops to victory in the early days of the conquest of India; and what with brandy and sherry and champagne, he felt warlike and reckless. He longed for adventure. It can hardly be said he had forgotten either Ruth Armitage or Howard Kendrick, but when he thought of them it was with the sense of having been slighted, and he was eager to show both that he was not the boy they apparently thought he was.

The men he was with were typical young Englishmen of the period; they could only talk shop and scandal. Dick was in the mood for neither.

“I’m off,” said he, abruptly.

“Aren’t you staying for vingt-et-un? We shall have a round presently,” said one.

“No, thanks. I’m going for a quiet stroll. Shall turn in early. I’m done up. It was a bit thick last night.”

“At the Nana’s? Yes, I heard about it. Jolly lucky beggar you were to have an invite. I say, what are his dancing-girls like? I’m told the one called Adala is a ripping beauty. Did you see her?”

“I suppose I did. I don’t know,” returned Dick shortly.

He wheeled round, said good night, and strode away muttering, “I wish Lambert hadn’t reminded me of Adala. I’d like to forget her.”

So prudence told him, but he found it difficult in his present state of mind to check his thoughts. He hurried along, hoping exercise would quiet his nerves. He was nearing the main street when he felt his arm lightly touched. He turned, on his guard instantly, for Cawnpore swarmed with miscreants who would as lief murder as rob. He saw a tall woman, veiled in native fashion, close to him.

“Sahib, sahib,” she whispered rapidly. “Fortune smiles upon you. I am the bearer of good news. I have been waiting. If I had not seen you to-night I should have come to-morrow; and if I was not lucky to-morrow, the next night, and the next.”

“What are you talking about? Who are you?” demanded Dick.

“You don’t remember me. I am Hooseinee Khanum, Adala’s hand-maiden. I saw you last night at Bithoor.”

She shifted her veil slightly, and he recognised her face. The features were very regular and not unpleasing, save as to the mouth. The lips were very full, clearly cut, and sphinx-like in their entire absence of expression. They were like those of the Hindoo god Siva, as he is pictured, implacable, relentless, blood-thirsty.

“Well, what is it?” asked Dick hesitatingly.

“Adala wants you,” she returned, her lips parting with a swift motion, showing her red, betel-stained teeth. “You must come. She sends you this token. You must never part with it.”

She held out a blood-red ruby set in gold and attached to a fine gold chain. Dick took the trinket wonderingly. She went on to whisper insinuatingly that Adala had something of the utmost importance to say to him, and that it must be said as soon as possible, that night preferably.

“A carriage is at hand,” said she. “I can take the Sahib to Adala in half an hour.”

It was not late, scarcely ten o’clock. The promise of an adventure, the sense of mystery, the charm and fascination of Adala herself​—​all were attractive, especially so in the mood in which he then was. But he hesitated.

“What does Adala want to tell me?” he asked.

“How should Hooseinee know? She is but a lowly servant. She is not worthy to be entrusted with Adala’s secrets.”

Dick Heron could not be but conscious of the subtle influence of this woman. The liquid voice, the large mystic eyes, the supple body, swathed in the picturesque one garment which the Eastern woman winds about her so deftly and artistically, the faint perfume, sweet yet pungent, she exhaled, formed a combination of allurements difficult to withstand. Even the mouth and the scarlet teeth, repulsive and suggestive of savagery when regarded separately, had their influence in accentuating and imparting piquancy to her charms.

“Come,” she breathed softly; and the light of devilry danced in her eyes as she beckoned him. There was temptation in the curves of her arm, in the jingle of her bangles.

He capitulated​—​not in words, but in obeying her summons to follow her. She covered her face and silently took her way to a road leading in the direction of the Ganges Canal. Here a carriage, which Dick knew belonged to Nana Sahib​—​the Maharajah affected everything English, and he had had this carriage made in London​—​was in waiting.

Hooseinee Khanum gathered up her drapery, shrank into her corner of the carriage, and sat, a veiled, mysterious figure, motionless as a statue. She was perfectly silent, and Dick construed her silence to mean that having fulfilled her mission she had no further interest in him. Dick did not attempt to disturb the stillness; he allowed his mind to dwell on mystery and romance, and his thoughts were not unpleasant, for whatever might be the end of the adventure, up to the present it was gratifying to his vanity.

The carriage was of light construction; it was drawn by a couple of powerful horses, which the driver put to the top of their speed. Hooseinee Khanum talked about taking him to their destination in half an hour, the half hour soon passed, and still the horses were tearing along the dusty road. Dick was not surprised. If he were being conveyed to the Nana’s palace at Bithoor he hew the journey could not be done in half an hour.

The time went by quickly; Dick was conscious of a strange feeling of lethargy not altogether unpleasant, of an indifference to everything, even to the risks he was running, not only to his personal safety, but to his reputation if the escapade became known. Some such thoughts had crossed his mind when he first entered the carriage, but he had crushed them, or had allowed them to be crushed by the spell cast about him by Hooseinee Khanum.