Chapter IV

Hooseinee Khanum’s Sweetmeats

The carriage entered the compound of the Bithoor Palace, and stopped, not at the principal entrance, but at a mean-looking door stuck in the side of the house. Dick and his companion alighted, and on seeing where he had been brought suspicions of treachery flashed across the young soldier’s mind.

“I believe you’re tricking me, you jade,” he exclaimed angrily.

“If you think so, kill me. Here is my dagger!” cried Hooseinee Khanum, flinging back her head in defiance, her hand going swiftly to her girdle. By this time the moon had risen, and its light flashed on the blade. Hooseinee forced its jewelled hilt into his hand.

“I have been told Englishmen are as brave in love as they are fearless in war. Do those who say this lie?” she asked sarcastically. “What enemies have the English within the Nana’s palace? Does Adala hate them? See, Sahib, I will walk first, and if there is treachery, bury the knife in my heart. There is no danger but what a coward might imagine.”

She marched proudly in front of him to the door. The sting in her words galled him.

“Take your dagger. I don’t want it,” said he huskily. “Lead on; I’ll follow you​—​to the devil if you like.”

She turned, fell at his feet and accepted the dagger humbly.

“You are a brave​—​you are a warrior, Sahib,” she cried. “This entrance is not worthy your lordship, but do you not understand? It is Adala who wishes to see you​—​not the Nana.”

Hooseinee placed her finger to her lips in token of secrecy, and accompanied the words with a glance of meaning from her glistening eyes. There was, in her look and gesture, temptation combined with danger. Dick might have resisted the first, but the second provoked him to defiance. She saw the battle was won, and rising, disappeared within the dark doorway. Dick followed her.

The passage was straight and narrow, and a hanging lamp enabled Dick to see that he and his companion were alone, but who could say enemies were not awaiting them? In the event of an attack he had but his fists with which to defend himself. It would have been more prudent to have retained possession of the dagger. But it was too late for regrets. Whatever might be the consequences, he must battle through them.

Hooseinee Khanum dragged apart the heavy curtains at the end of the passage; beyond was a kind of lobby with a dome-shaped roof. On the walls were Eastern weapons of ancient date, matchlock guns, swords, broad and narrow bladed, spears, shields, suits of flexible chain-armour going back to the days of Akbar and Suraja Dowla.

There was no furniture; only a few mats were on the floor, and the apartment was probably used as a waiting-room for servants. Curtains concealed a narrow deep recess, in reality a doorway, for on the woman touching the spring of the mechanism which locked the door it slid back into a groove in the wall.

The room into which this sliding door opened was spacious, sumptuously decorated, and furnished in Eastern fashion. The hangings, the cushions, the divans were of the finest silk; the embroideries were of golden thread; costly rugs covered the floor. Treasures in the way of inlaid cabinets and bric-à-brac were abundant.

The purely Indian surroundings of the apartment surprised Dick, for the most characteristic feature of the Nana’s palace​—​that portion at least where he received his European guests and gave his dinner-parties and entertainments​—​was its English aspect, or, rather, its affectation of what the Nana imagined an English interior was like, for he had never seen one​—​not even the imitations dear to the hearts of the wives of the officers and civilians high in authority. The Nana was profuse in his own hospitality, but he could not be induced to accept any in return. None of the English at Cawnpore had ever received the Maharajah under their roofs.

Dick’s experience of the Nana’s dinner-parties had been very much that of the writer who described his sitting down at what had once been the mess table of a cavalry regiment covered with a tablecloth of the finest damask, with the accompaniment of bedroom towels for serviettes. The soup was served in a trifle dish, bought at the sale of an English officer’s effects, and ladled into odds and ends of crockery, among which was a broken teacup of the old willow pattern. The incongruities were numberless. Huge silver dishes were mingled with common stoneware plates, bone-handled knives were side by side with silver spoons and forks, there were not two vegetable dishes alike; pudding was served on a soup-plate, and the guests ate their cheese out of glass dishes. The champagne glasses were richly cut and the tumblers for beer were cheap and clumsy.

All was muddle and untidiness, and it was the more extraordinary because, if rumour spoke the truth, the Nana’s treasurer and confidential adviser, Azimoolah Khan, had, during a lengthened stay in London, been received with the greatest favour by titled ladies, and by them petted and pampered and lionised, as was the fashion in the forties and fifties, and he might be expected to advise the Nana on such household points as the English regarded as important.

The contrast between the dirt and slovenliness of the reception-rooms of the Bithoor Palace, and the magnificence and order to be seen in what were evidently the Maharajah’s private apartments, impressed itself on Dick’s mind, notwithstanding his bewilderment. The moment, however, was not one for speculation. His guide had thrown aside her head covering, and begged him to seat himself, while she announced his arrival to Adala.

“But first you must eat,” said she. “Here are sweetmeats,” and she fetched a tray from a side table.

The tendering of sweetmeats, Dick well knew, was a high favour to pay a guest; for all that he hesitated, though he was aware a refusal would give mortal offence. But if the sweetmeats should chance to be poisoned? Such “accidents” were not unknown in the annals of Indian crime.

Hooseinee Khanum must have guessed what was in his mind. She broke a sweet in two, ate one piece herself, and handed the other to Dick. She was a Mahomedan; had she been a Hindoo the laws of her caste would have prohibited such a thing. Dick could not refuse the dainty. He hated the luscious confections the natives delighted in, and he had to force the stuff down his throat.

“I will tell Adala the Sahib has come. It will please her,” said the woman, her heavy lips for the first time suggesting a smile.

No sooner was Dick left to himself, than he was conscious of a feeling of languor and lassitude stealing over him. His inclination was to throw himself on one of the soft cushions, and, if not sleep, indulge in roseate waking dreams.

“It’s that cursed sweetmeat,” he muttered. “I ought not to have touched the stuff. I could but have chanced giving offence. Pah! I was an ass to listen to that confounded woman. Why did I do it?”

This was the puzzle. Now that she was gone the magnetic influence that drew him onward was gone too. And Adala? Did he in his heart want to see the dancing-girl? Was she really so beautiful as the night before he imagined she was? He was not so sure. The glamour of romance with which he had invested her was merely due to a clouded brain and overwrought nerves.

“Folly​—​folly,” he exclaimed. “I’ve simply justified every lie that cad Kendrick told about me. What did I do it for? I’d better clear out while I’ve got the chance. I shall appear as a fool and a coward in the eyes of the woman here, I suppose, but I can’t help that.”

He was staggering across the room to the door leading to the lobby, when for the first time his glance fell upon the pictures on the walls. When he entered he was too much impressed by the general aspect of Eastern luxury to notice details. Slowly these details were revealing themselves like the development of a photographic plate.

The picture he first caught sight of made him turn away with a gesture and an exclamation of disgust. All that the foulness of a depraved Oriental imagination could suggest was there depicted. The other pictures were as bad, or worse. He had heard stories of a mysterious den of dark infamy possessed by the Nana, but had looked upon them as idle tales. He knew now that they were true. Shuddering, he hastened to the door. It was locked, but doubtless if he could but find the spring he could open it.

He failed to discover anything. The surface of the door, which was of great solidity, was perfectly smooth. Resolving not to waste any time, he went at once towards one of the windows. Before he reached it, however, he heard Hooseinee Khanum’s voice. She moved quicker than he, and the next moment she gripped his arm. Evidently she did not guess his intention, for she said apologetically:

“I cannot find Adala. The Sahib must not be angry with his slave. I am not to blame.”

Dick seized upon this as a good reason for escaping from the horrible place, but he thought it policy not to anger the woman. Doubtless she would open the door now that there was no reason why he should remain.

“Of course you’re not to blame,” said he lightly. “I’ll get back to Cawnpore. I suppose you can find me a horse.”

“The Sahib is not going?” she cried with sudden vehemence.

“By Jove, but the Sahib is. Open the door, please. Here’s the love-token you gave me. I don’t want it.”

“No; I will not let you go.”

Hooseinee Khanum flung her arms about him, as he threw the jewel on the cushions, and clasped her hands behind his back. The woman had changed her costume; she was now but lightly clad, her arms were bare, enabling her to cling to him with a tenacity which almost took his breath away.

“Don’t be a fool. What have you to do with me?” he gasped angrily.

“I love you, and you shall not go.”

The Siva-like mouth hardened, and the eyes glittered. The glitter might have been that of love, but it was more suggestive of disappointment and baulked desire.

“I don’t want to hurt you, but if I do you’ll only have yourself to blame. By Heaven——”

Directly he tried to release himself, her sinuous grasp tightened and before he was aware of her intention she had pressed her full lips on his. The contact maddened him. Writhing in her embrace he strove to get free, but in vain. She was like a snake twined about him, and her grip had pinned his arms to his sides. She would have kissed his lips again, but he wrenched his face round, and her mouth touched his cheek.

“Shall I tell you the truth, Sahib Heron?” she breathed rapidly between her kisses. “Adala did not send me. It was I who wanted you​—​only I, Hooseinee Khanum. But your lordship has no eyes for the lowly handmaiden. Hooseinee Khanum is not beautiful like Adala, but she can love better​—​far better than the dancing-girl. That was why I lured you here, that is why I will not let you go. My lord​—​my love​—​I am your slave. Beat me​—​kill me, if you like, but do not leave me. I want you to tell me about your wonderful land​—​about your people​—​about——”

Her words died away in guttural sounds. Failing to loosen her frenzied grasp by his struggle to free his imprisoned arms, he had by a sudden jerk of his body swung her off the ground. He was possessed by savage determination; he whirled her once round; the pressure on his arms relaxed, he was able to use his hands, and he clutched her arms above the elbows and strove to tear himself from her by main force.

He was amazed at her virile strength. But Hooseinee Khanum was no slim weakling of a Hindoo girl, brought up on a vegetable diet. She was a mature Mahomedan woman, with the blood of the old wiry dwellers of the desert in her veins. She was approaching her thirtieth year, and her raven hair was streaked with silver. The force of her embrace was overwhelming, and it was only when in the twisting and twinings her elbow struck with great violence the sharp edge of an ebony cabinet, sending a quiver through her whole body, that her clenched hands gave way, and she dropped on the inlaid floor as though she had been felled by a blow from his fist.

She remained curled in a huddled heap. After the impact there was hardly any movement, and she did not utter the slightest sound. Horrified, the excited lad bent over her, fearing she was dead. He was soon undeceived. Her chest was heaving; the hands and feet were shivering as though they were icy cold; her face he could not see, covered as it was by her masses of hair uncoiled in the struggle.

“I hope I haven’t hurt you,” he panted; “I couldn’t help it if I have. If you’re not going to show me how to leave this accursed trap decently by the door, I shall look after myself.”

The woman made no reply. Perhaps she was unable to speak, not having recovered from the shock of her fall; possibly, too, she was exhausted by the frantic struggle. Dick waited a few seconds. Faint, choking sounds could now be heard. She was recovering.

“Did you hear what I said?” he went on presently.

Again there was silence, and Dick determined to waste no more time, but carry out his intention of escaping by the window. He dashed across the room, and had his hand on the khuss tatti, when he heard his name called out, not in Hooseinee Khanum’s voice, but in deeper tones.

He turned, and saw standing near the door leading to the interior of the Palace, a man whom he knew extremely well​—​Azimoolah Khan, the Nana’s treasurer.

“I hope, Lieutenant Heron, I’m not intruding. I apologise. I was seeking Hooseinee Khanum. I was not aware she had a visitor.”

The voice was veiled; the manner soft and silky. The English language was pronounced with a perfect accent and with the ease of one who had not only mastered its difficulties, but was accustomed to use it. The words were harmless enough, but the tones were sinister.

For a moment or two Dick was taken aback. He did not how how to account for his presence in the Nana’s palace. The position was both equivocal and embarrassing. A note of gravity was added by the sight of the prostrate woman. She was alive, but for anything Dick knew she might be seriously injured.

“I’m afraid appearances are against me, Azimoolah,” he stammered. “Of course I ought to explain; but further than assuring you I was induced to come here under the impression some one in the Palace wished to make some important communication to me, I hardly know what to say.”

“There is no need for an explanation,” said Azimoolah smoothly. “I presume the Maharajah is not aware of your visit. If his highness knew, he would, I am sure, give orders for a reception more worthy of your exalted rank.”

Dick felt the sarcasm, but he dared not resent it. Nor could he say that the person who had sent him the enticing message was Adala, the Nana’s favourite dancing-girl. The consequences might be terrible to her. Dick knew well enough that the princes of India, whether of royal birth or adoption​—​as was the case with Nana Sahib​—​were swift and fierce to revenge themselves when their jealousy was excited. There was only one thing Dick could do, and that was to throw the responsibility of his presence on Hooseinee Khanum. After all, it was practically the truth. He made the plunge.

“The Maharajah, so far as I am aware, is ignorant that I’m here,” said he. “Only Hooseinee Khanum, who brought me, knows. I had reason to think she had deceived me. I desired to leave the palace; she tried to detain me; we had an altercation​—​a struggle​—​and she fell. I hope she’s not hurt.”

“It is of no consequence. I regret you have been put to so much inconvenience. You would desire to return to Cawnpore? Permit me to offer you my services.”

He bowed low, his gesture suggesting a mingling of the stiff courtesy of England with the humility and self-depreciation of the East.

“Thank you​—​but​—​but I should like to be sure the woman has come to no harm,” returned the lad hesitatingly.

Azimoolah shrugged his shoulders, contemptuously inserted the point of his foot beneath Hooseinee Khanum’s body and turned her sufficiently to bring her face into view, speaking to her harshly in a language Dick did not understand. It did not sound like Hindustani; most likely it was one of the many dialects in use in Oudh.

Dick could not help thinking that the woman’s previous unconsciousness was assumed, for she answered Azimoolah readily enough. Apparently she was justifying herself. The talk did not last long. Hooseinee Khanum slowly rose and stalked haughtily away with an air which suggested she was Azimoolah Khan’s equal.

Azimoolah went to the door, opened it, and stood in a deferential attitude. When Dick Heron approached Azimoolah preceded him into the lobby as though to give an assurance that he need fear no foul play.

In the open air Dick’s giddiness increased. The reaction had set in after the prolonged excitement. That sweetmeat? Had it contained anything deleterious? He fancied Azimoolah looked at him inquiringly, very much as a doctor does when he is diagnosing the condition of a patient. Whether or not he felt that if he rode home on horseback he would have some difficulty in maintaining his seat in the saddle.

“You would prefer a carriage perhaps?” suggested Azimoolah.

Dick nodded. He was rapidly becoming worse. He could hardly speak. Azimoolah took his arm and walked with him to the corner of the building, in front of which was a verandah. Here a couple of chowkedahs (watchmen) were squatting. Azimoolah sent one man to the stables, and remained with Dick who, almost in a state of collapse, was leaning against the wall, his cheeks as white as the stone.

Ten minutes later Dick Heron was speeding towards Cawnpore, indifferent to all things earthly. Arrived at his bungalow, he was lifted from the carriage by the frightened servants, and placed on his bed looking like death itself. The servants held a consultation. What was everybody’s business was nobody’s business. They all knew the Sahib was ill, maybe dead; but who was to fetch the doctor?

Somehow the matter was settled, and an hour afterwards a buggy stopped at the bungalow, and a well-set-up, business-like man stepped out​—​Francis Stainton, one of the regimental doctors.