Chapter I

The Rajah’s Dinner-Party

It is the spring of 1851. In the Delhi plains the mornings are close and muggy, a yellow, jaundice-like haze hangs over the levels, the winds are hot and dry, a foretaste of the scorching months of May and June. The animal and vegetable worlds show signs of the approaching season. Sheep find little to tempt them in the dry grass, and bleat mournfully; crows and minahs open their beaks and gasp. Myriads of curled bundles of vegetation are transformed in twenty-four hours into fully expanded leaves, flowers bloom rapidly and die as rapidly. Society ladies begin to look pale and languid, and are too indifferent to all things earthly to find any enjoyment in flirtation. The one thought of every Anglo-Indian Delhi resident is to get away to the Simla hills as soon as possible.

The air in the banqueting-chamber of Dakhur Palace, some five miles out of Simla, is warm, close, and heavy with perfumes, pungent and sweet, mingled with the scent of cheroots. The punkahs disturb the atmosphere, but the heat remains. The lamps throw a subdued, rosy light on the richly decorated walls, the gorgeously coloured rugs, the silken hangings, and on a dais at one end of the spacious apartment sits the sleepy-eyed, olive-tinted, fat-faced Rajah, corpulent, easy-going, good-natured, popular among the English residents and visitors of Simla and an especial favourite of the English officers, who are always sure of good, if risky sport, when it is known that the Rajah is about to set out on a hunting expedition.

On the day when the Rajah was entertaining his friends, the Simla season had only just commenced, and his highness had not been called upon to exercise his hospitality on so large a scale as he might find necessary later on. But the limited number of the company had its advantage. There was more room for the dancing-girls to sway and curve their bodies, to move their small feet in circling motion, to wave their graceful arms, and to jingle their golden ornaments on their wrists and ankles.

The Rajah had provided dancing-girls for the amusement of his guests as a matter of course. For centuries a dancing-girl had been indispensable at any Indian function. She was everywhere. It was she, to use the words of a native writer, “who crowned the merriment at all times. If it were marriage, she gave the finishing stroke to the gaieties of the occasion. If one began to occupy a house newly built, the ceremony of the day was only brought to a conclusion when the house rang to the noise of her anklets.” Native princes had nautches at their palaces almost every evening; the Hindus rivalled the Mahommedans in their devotion to the dance and the dancing-girl.

The military friends of the Rajah of Dakhur, ranged to the right and left of their host, were of every rank, from the newly-fledged, smooth-faced sub to the fussy, self-important adjutant and the choleric colonel. In the old John Company days officers remained on the active list long past the time at which they are now compelled to retire, and in the semi-circle, in the centre of which the dancing-girls undulated their bodies, and cast languishing glances from velvety eyes, and crooned a wild love-song to the monotonous scraping, the twanging and the tum-tumming of the squatting musicians, was more than one white-headed septuagenarian. It would not be far from the truth to say that to these old gentlemen​—​most of whom had dipped deeply into the Rajah’s excellent wine​—​the dancing of the Nautch girls was more attractive than it was to the young ones. Not a few of the latter looked a little bored.

“I say, Horsford,” whispered a youth, whose cheeks had not quite lost the ruddiness he had brought with him from England, “would it be bad form if I slipped away? I’m getting jolly well sick of this fun. We’ve had two hours of lackadaisical turning and twisting. I’m beginning to know what it feels like to be a teetotum. That stuff they call music​—​nothing but the same twang-twang, scrape-scrape, and tom-tom over and over again​—​makes the business ten times worse. If this is the Nautch dancing I’ve heard so much about, I call it a beastly fraud.”

“Most things in India are either beastly or frauds. At least, that’s the conclusion our fellows soon come to. If you’ve had enough of Nautch dancing, cut it, by all means. It’ll go on to past midnight, and you’re not likely to have anything different.”

Cornet Anson’s eyes wandered once more to the Nautch girls. If they would only do something with their arms other than what seemed to him like an attempt to swim! From his boyish point of view there was nothing that was fascinating in the women who smiled mechanically, and whose betel-stained teeth almost made him shudder. Moreover, the dancers were no longer girls. One was thirty at least. Nor were they handsome. As for their figures, he could not see them. Their dresses were rich in colour and material, but they were so numerous the lines of the body were lost. All that could be seen were brown arms bare to the shoulder, and bare feet and ankles, a shade browner than the arms. The movements were harmonious enough, but they soothed rather than excited. Cornet Anson found himself yawning, and an interval occurring when sweetmeats were handed round, he disappeared to find solace in the club billiard-room at Simla.

Guy Horsford was half inclined to follow young Anson’s example. He was thinking of Clare Stanhope, to whom he had given a half promise that some time during the evening he would call upon her. She had said she would be in the verandah of her uncle’s bungalow as the clock struck ten, looking out for him. He told her that the only man she was likely to see was the man in the moon. Both spoke lightly, but there was unconscious meaning beneath their gaiety.

Guy Horsford looked at his watch. It was a quarter past nine. His buggy would take him easily to Dr. Stanhope’s bungalow on the road to Jakoo Hill by ten. He was undecided. He had always regarded his flirtation with Clare Stanhope as mere sport to pass away an idle hour, and he was pretty sure Clare looked at the matter in the same light. This was Clare’s first season in the Hills, but she had shown herself skilful in the chief occupation of Simla society​—​the art of make-believe love-making.

“You’re not going, Horsford, are you?” said fat, pursy, red-faced Major Ormerod at his elbow.

“Why not? Where’s the temptation to stay?”

“Not very much up to the present, I admit. These hussies aren’t first chop, are they? Those I’ve seen in the southern provinces beat ’em to fits. I’ve been chaffing the old Rajah and telling him he ought to import some of the Paris grisettes to put a little life into his Cashmeer girls. What do you think he said?”

“How the deuce should I know?”

“Why, that a little girl’s going to dance to-night who has all the Parisian vivacity. He hinted that she has our blood in her veins.”

“English? By Jove, what an insult to us! Ormerod, it mustn’t be permitted,” exclaimed Horsford angrily.

“Don’t be a fool. Lots of our fellows have fancied native women, and some have made them their wives.”

“That isn’t the point. You know as well as I do what most of the dancing girls really are. Their dancing’s one thing, their lives another. Call them daughters of the horseleech, and you have their character at once.”

“What of it? India must be taken as it is, and not looked at with English eyes. Anyhow, if the Rajah likes to pay this Eurasian girl to dance, why shouldn’t he? What’s it got to do with us? You don’t mean to abuse his hospitality by kicking up a row, do you? As for Eurasians, you know as well as I do that in John Company’s early days we did nothing but snub them, and the snubbing hasn’t died out. I can’t see why you should make a fuss about a girl that no English lady in Simla, or anywhere else in India for the matter of that, would give house room to.”

Horsford bit his lip. He knew how much truth there was in Ormerod’s words. Suddenly the current of his thoughts was diverted by the Rajah clapping his hands. A curtain concealing a door was flung back with a clang of its rings, and a young girl, charmingly perfect in the harmony of every limb, entered, with a low salaam to the fat Rajah and his friends. She could hardly have been more than eleven, and her large innocent eyes were lowered timidly beneath the bold stare of the men.

Her childish beauty was strangely fascinating. She had not the set smile of the professional dancer; indeed, the expression of her face was inclined to melancholy. Her skin was lovely​—​a pale olive which crimsoned charmingly under excitement. Nature sometimes played strange freaks with the Eurasian. Their complexions varied from a dusky hue, which could not be distinguished from that of the Asiatic, to that of one born of English parents. But it was rare that the eyes failed to show their Eastern origin. “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,” sings the poet, and maybe Nature has ordained that no product of the two shall ever be so distinct that one or the other shall not be evident.

If such a thing were possible, the beautiful child, at the sight of whom the lobster eyes of plethoric Colonel Chowden lost their vacuous gaze and the sleek, impassive face of the Rajah lightened into something like vitality, was the exception. Yet no one who saw her quiet, graceful movements​—​the movements of some beautiful feline animal​—​in which every muscle and nerve played their part, her slim, round arms, the symmetrically moulded shoulders, her small, shapely head, and the cast of her features, could doubt that the strain of the East lurked within her.

The eyes were unmistakably of the West​—​an exception to the general rule. In some lights they were blue; in others they were grey. They were fringed with long, dark, silky lashes, and one could fancy they might at times flash with the fire of the East. But that fire would come with womanhood.

Her dress was admirably chosen to show the gracefulness of her lithe body. Her form was not hidden by coloured petticoats and trousers, or by the wrapping of shawls. She wore a sari​—​the robe which the Hindu woman disposes so deftly and with so much art​—​of pale, rose-coloured silk, bordered with gold. Its multitudinous folds passed over her head, the warm colour enhancing the beauty of the dark glossy hair, and accentuating the fairness and purity of her skin. An end of the sari hung over one round shoulder, and the robe itself came down just below the knee. The delicately formed feet and ankles and the curves above were perfect.

As to her ornaments and trinkets, they seemed to be endless. Gold armlets, gold anklets, jingled with every movement; flowers and jewels were mingled within her hair, a perfume, sweet, pungent, mysterious, so faint as to be little more than a suggestion, hovered about her. She must have been instructed, and dressed, and watched over, by a mistress of the art of fascination and allurement. Evidently she was a dancer of no common order, for she was attended by her own musicians, three handsome young women, one with hair that was beginning to go grey, though she probably had not reached her thirtieth year. This woman played the saringhee or native violin, and played it exceedingly well. She was clearly a born musician, and with wonderful skill could vary the strain from passionate fervour to plaintive melancholy, though the melody itself changed but little.

“By Jove, Horsford, the Rajah’s picked up a little treasure,” whispered Ormerod. “I wonder where she hails from, and who was her father? Good blood, I’ll swear. She has all the dignity of a little English aristocrat, eh?”

Horsford made no reply. It was doubtful if he heard what Ormerod was saying. His gaze and his thoughts were fixed on the girl. Ormerod shrugged his shoulders. He attributed Horsford’s absorbed looks to a fascination of the senses. He turned to Captain Martin, his neighbour on his other side, and made some chaffing remark.

“Gad, one would think Horsford was a green griffin at his first Nautch,” returned Martin. “He’s no eyes or ears for anything but the pretty little wench. How long has he been out here?”

“Eleven years at least. He started deuced early. Wasn’t eighteen when he carried the colours. He was with Napier all through the Scinde business. He got an ugly cut at Moodkee from a tegha, that brutal, short, crooked sword the Sikhs know how to handle so confoundedly cleverly, and was invalided and sent to Delhi, where there wasn’t any fighting, and not likely to be any. That was in 1845​—​six years ago. Delhi’s not the best place for a man with too much energy and nothing to use it upon, eh? Satan finds some evil work for idle hands to do​—​what do you say, Martin?”

“You can answer that question for yourself, Ormerod,” rejoined Captain Martin. “You’ve had as much acquaintance with the old gentleman as most of us.”

Major Ormerod chuckled at the implied compliment, and settled himself to enjoy the dancing, for by this time he had come to the conclusion that he was going to see somebody different from the ordinary sleepy, mechanical tuwaif.

The girl began her dance with a gliding movement, so slow as to be almost imperceptible. The hands, stretched out, kept time with the feet. The intention was allurement, temptation. There was a mesmeric influence in every gesture. The spectator’s eye was fascinated almost to the point of stupefaction. One saw nothing but the swaying body, the waving, beckoning hands, sometimes bent back until they almost touched the curved arms​—​a proof not only of flexibility, but of the accomplishments of the little dancer.

She sang in a sweet, timorous voice, the saringhee supplying the passion the song needed for its full expression. Now and again at certain passages, when the wild music swelled and wailed despairingly, the dancer varied the swimming, circling motion with spasmodic starts which, by contrast with the gliding movements, had a singularly weird effect. Then, as the melody became ecstatic, the whirlings increased in speed; the drapery assumed fantastic forms, the jewels and the gold embroidery glittered, the bangles tinkled, all was barbaric, seductive. The imagination was inflamed, and one was no longer in the prosaic nineteenth century, in the year of universal peace, of the vainglorious great Palace of Glass in Hyde Park​—​built to symbolize the triumph of commerce, industry, and the arts over warfare and rapine​—​but back in the remote days of Tamerlane, of Genghis Khan, of the slave kings of Delhi, of Alexander the Conqueror. Salome might have captured the heart of Herod with such another dance.

The dancer herself was transformed by the spirit and poetry of rhythmic movement into a sprite of almost unearthly beauty. The warm blood showing beneath the glossy and transparent skin gave a richer warmth to her complexion; the eyes did not shine with the lustre of languorous suggestiveness as did those of the ordinary Nautch girl, but with intelligence, with pure and innocent delight. The girl had no thought save enjoyment in her wild abandonment of self. The grey orbs expanded under the excitement, the small, full, red lips were parted slightly, showing her white, even teeth unstained by betel; the delicate nostrils quivered; she had danced herself into a condition bordering upon hysteria, and was oblivious to everything but the mystery of music and the dance. As she whirled faster and faster she was unable to continue her song; she panted for breath, her eyes became glassy in their brightness. Then the vivid scarlet of her cheeks suddenly died out.

“My God​—​she’s fainting. Out of the way, you black devil!” was heard above the scraping of the saringhee, the thrum-thrum of the sitar, and the tapping of the tom-tom.

A white-robed servant was suddenly flung a couple of yards; Guy Horsford dashed into the arena, and caught the slender waist of the girl who, white as a sheet, had dropped seemingly lifeless into his arms.