Chapter XV

Mistress and Maid

The steamer Indus was slowly making its way up the Hooghly. It was sunset and the passengers crowded to the side of the vessel to admire the gorgeous colouring of the western sky. To the north-east Fort William, opposite which the vessel would shortly be moored, loomed sombre and grey, save where the walls caught the glory of the sinking sun. Those whose eyes for the first time lighted upon a Calcutta sunset​—​one of the few picturesque pictures the city presents​—​were loudly expressing their admiration. But two of the gazers were silent​—​Clare and Nara.

Nara, leaning her elbows on the taffrail and cradling her chin in her hands, her eyes dilated, her lips slightly parted, drank in with delight the varied tints, from a golden brown to the palest of green, changing continually but so gradually that one was hardly conscious of any movement. The instincts of her mother’s blood were moving within her, but she did not know it. She was quite content to watch the picture without troubling about the source of the deep sense of pleasure, of content, of rest, of longing at last satisfied.

With Clare it was otherwise. There was no rest for her active brain, for her fevered heart. She had been the life and soul of the saloon during the voyage, and her gaiety was the theme of admiration, especially among the subalterns who were going out to join their regiments, not a few of them, poor fellows, to their speedy death. But at night a hundred gloomy thoughts oppressed her, and more than once she reproached herself bitterly for her folly in yielding to what she sometimes called a caprice, but which she knew was nothing of the kind. It had been a settled conviction with her for some time past that she would never be happy until she had come face to face with Guy Horsford once more. If fate were only kind enough to gratify her, she might even return to her husband, and, outwardly at least, allow herself to be reconciled.

“A word​—​a look will do that,” she told herself scornfully.

Caprice or not, here she was at Calcutta, and if Horsford were there she determined not to leave the city until she had seen him.

The passengers disembarked. Some of the ladies were stopping for a few weeks in Calcutta, where they had friends and connections; and to avoid remark in the future as to her reason for remaining in Calcutta Clare adopted the suggestion of a lady who, after her stay in Calcutta, was going on to Cawnpore that they should put up at the same boarding-house for the sake of companionship. This settled, then came the question of Nara. Clare had never overcome her feeling of antipathy towards the girl, but she had not a word to say against her. However, she had taken Mrs. Ormerod’s hint about engaging her for the voyage only, and one day, after she had been in Calcutta a week, she brought up the subject.

“You know as much about English ways as I do, Nara, so I suppose you’re aware that I can, if I like, discharge you without notice.”


“You remember then what was said when I engaged you?”

“Oh, yes.”

A look of annoyance crept into Clare’s face. It seemed to her that since she had landed the girl was not so respectful as she had been on board the steamer.

“What do you wish yourself? Do you care to stay on?”

“I want to get to Delhi.”

“So you told me. I may be going there shortly, but I don’t know when. I suppose you’re in no hurry?”

“I will stay with you for a little. I should like to be engaged by the week.”

“Oh, very well,” said the lady haughtily, “let it be so. It’s fair for one as for the other. That will do.”

Nara waited in case her mistress had need of her, but Clare threw herself back on the couch, and took up a book as a sign that she had said all that was necessary, and Nara glided away. The look of annoyance on Clare’s face deepened.

“The girl’s like all the rest. East or West they’re just the same,” she burst out angrily. “Directly they think you can’t do without them they begin to give themselves airs. I was in two minds to pack her off there and then. She would like to be engaged by the week! Indeed! What next, I wonder? I suppose I’m experiencing something of the disrespect that those people from Allahabad were talking about at dinner last night. They were saying that the native servants were becoming almost offensive in their behaviour towards their masters and mistresses. I certainly shan’t endure any insulting conduct from Nara. Just to punish her I won’t take her to Delhi with me​—​that is,” she added hastily, “if I do go. It was all very well on board the steamer to have a maid who looks half English​—​and even then the thing wasn’t without embarrassment​—​but in India​—​well, I don’t want to be mixed up in any scandal. It’s a great mistake when girls in a low class of life have pretty faces. It would be much better for themselves and for other people if they were born plain and grew up ugly.”

It was certainly true that the captain of the Indus had asked Mrs. Meldrum to keep an eye on her handsome maid. He had not a word, he told Clare, to say against the girl, who was as quiet and as well-behaved as a lady, but she could not prevent men looking at her and falling in love with her. Already there had been a serious fight between two of the petty officers on her account, and he was not going to have the discipline of the ship upset by a pair of enticing eyes. Clare had not forgotten the episode, nor was she blind to the fact that the male portion of the saloon passengers had no eyes for herself when Nara was with her.

The nearer the steamer approached the land of the sun the more pronounced became the evidence of the girl’s Asiatic descent. This evidence was difficult to define. It might have been something in the free and graceful carriage of the figure, it might have been the steadfast, wistful look in the shining, dark eyes​—​such a look as one sees in the eyes of a faithful dog​—​nobody could say exactly what it was, but all were conscious of it, especially the men, who in the unfettered smoking-room often discussed Clare and her attractive ayah.

The gradual change irritated Clare. In some subtle, irrational way she chose to regard the admiration Nara excited as a personal slight to herself, and she was often intensely snappish in consequence, to the surprise of the girl, who could not understand what offence she had committed. The truth was, though neither was aware of it, the antagonism of race was asserting itself. “Cursed be Canaan, a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren,” cried Noah in the bitterness of his wrath, and the memory has never died out, nor will it ever do so as long as black is black and white is white. The spirit of the ancient prophecy was lurking in Clare’s mind, unsuspected, when she rose from the couch and rang her bell sharply. Nara presented herself.

“I’ve been thinking, Nara, that as you’re now in your native land it would be better if you went back to your native dress. What you are wearing now is neither one thing nor the other. I’ve tolerated it hitherto because under the circumstances allowances had to be made for you, but if you left me you would hardly be able to obtain another situation unless you looked like an ordinary ayah. The sooner you make the change and get back to your proper station in life the more advantageous it will be for you. No doubt Mrs. Brampton was very indulgent, but you mustn’t expect in India to be as you were in England.”

“I don’t expect it​—​but​—​but​—​I should like to look like an English girl a little longer.”


Nara drooped her eyes and nervously twisted her fingers.

“I cannot tell you why.”

“It’s all nonsense,” returned Clare brusquely; “you must have some reason. What is it?”

The girl made no answer, but went on twisting her fingers.

“We needn’t argue the point. You will please do as I say, and as soon as possible. Don’t let us have any misunderstanding. You had better go and see about it at once.”

Nara went slowly from the room, and Clare, throwing herself back on the couch with her arms thrown above her shoulders and her head resting in the hollows of her clasped hands, relapsed into her favourite pastime of building castles in the air. Gradually her irritation passed away. She had been invited to a reception at Government House the following week, and she was not only anxious to go but equally anxious to look her best, and no one could dress and adorn her like Nara. While she remained in Calcutta Nara’s services were indispensable. One especial reason of her desire to be present was that at Government House, the centre of English rule, she would hear the latest news, military and civil. The talk was certain to be mainly of a personal nature, and she might learn something of Guy Horsford’s movements. Up to the present she had not been able to find out whether he had returned from Burma.

Meanwhile Nara was walking slowly down the main street towards the native quarter. It was of no use defying her mistress unless she wished to break with her entirely, and she was not prepared to do this yet. Ever since she had been in Calcutta she had taken every opportunity of going out and wandering in the direction of Government House in the hopes of seeing “Sahib Horsford,” and had even had the courage to ask one of the sentries if he could tell her anything. Mr. Atkins would have replied to her surlily had she been old or ugly, but being what she was he suggested she should meet him when he was off duty, a proposal which she answered by walking away at once. Like Clare, she could get no information, and like her also she meant to stay in Calcutta until she was successful.

Nara’s object just now was not so much to pursue her search as to purchase a native dress, and this could not be done so well in the fashionable shops patronised by European ladies as in the bazaars of the native quarter. Her motive for retaining her English attire was both definite and romantic. She understood perfectly well​—​Mrs. Mowatt had indeed taken considerable trouble to impress it on her mind​—​that Sahib Horsford was anxious that she should become English, both in her ways and appearance, and that his hope was she would always remain in England. She knew she had disobeyed his wishes in returning to India, and she thought it would conciliate him if, should they chance to meet, he saw her in her English frock.

She reached a squalid, narrow turning, full of natives, jabbering, laughing, quarrelling. The roadway was filthy, the smell none too pleasant. The bazaars of Calcutta are less interesting than those of any other city in India. They are not picturesque, and the admixture of very questionable people from other parts of the world does not add to their attractiveness.

An English girl would have been frightened to mingle with the jostling crowd, but Nara entered the bazaar without hesitation. The noise was disturbing, the sight of some of the men was repulsive, but she was not deterred. The customs, the prejudices, the likes and dislikes of the East were rapidly coming back to her, and she knew that the majority of the crowd looked upon her as immodest for appearing in the street with her face unveiled. But nobody was surprised. They could see she was an Eurasian, and a daughter of the East and West might well be degenerate. Besides they were used to Indo-Europeans; there were any number in Calcutta.

Nara lingered at a shop which was little better than a stall. Some stuff had taken her fancy, and she prepared for hard bargaining. The shopkeeper, after the manner of his kind, asked six times as much as he would take in the end. The customer knew this quite well, and the merchant knew that she did, but the pleasure of chaffering was too keen to be easily relinquished.

While the girl was beating down the shopkeeper to her price voices could be heard on the other side of the gaily coloured woollen hangings which divided the shop from the rest of the premises. For some little time Nara did not heed the sounds, but suddenly a few words struck a chord in her memory and carried her back to the days of her nomadic wanderings as a dancing-girl. And not only were the words familiar, but also the voice of one of the speakers. Over five years had gone by since she had heard those shrill, harsh tones, but they were not to be mistaken. The voice, she was sure, was that of Sundra Bai, the proprietress of the dancing troupe, generally known as the “Begum,” though she had not the slightest claim to the title.

For a moment Nara was paralysed with fear. She was tempted to pay the shopkeeper his price and escape with her purchase but for one word uttered by the shrill voice. It was softened after the Indian fashion, but unmistakable.

“Sahib Horsford.”

This was enough for the girl. She resumed her bargaining, talking very much at random, her ears fixed on what was going on behind the hangings.

“You must do what I tell you,” snarled the shrill voice. “It is Zeenut Mehal’s orders. I dare not disobey them. She will pay you well.”

“Yes​—​yes, but I​—​I fear. There are others I must think of. If they approve​—​well——”

“Others? What others? Who is it who raises his will against Zeenut Mehal’s?”

“I must not say. You who are in one of Zeenut Mehal’s secrets ought to know this one. If I do what you ask me it will put the Sahib-logues on their guard. We are not ready yet. We must wait the signal, and that will not happen until the fatal day of Plassy draws near.”

“You are talking in riddles, Muza Khan. I know nothing of your fatal days. I only know the will of Zeenut Mehal and my own righteous vengeance. Bhowanee will not allow the death of Hoosein Khan to go unpunished.”

“Bhowanee,” repeated the other in a hushed voice, “the goddess of murderers​—​of the thug.”

“Yes. Hoosein Khan was Mahommedan, but he had been a thug when he was young, and Bhowanee protects the thug whatever his faith may be. You know how I was taking Nara, the cleverest, the most enticing, the fairest of all my tuwaifs, to Zeenut Mehal. The Begum had set her heart upon getting her. Her boy Jewan Bukht, the apple of her eye, had once seen Nara dance and asked his mother for her. It was enough. The girl must be had at any price. She would have loaded me with gold had I brought Nara to her safely, but I was robbed of the child​—​yes, robbed, Muza​—​and Hoosein Khan was murdered. I swore by Siva I would never rest, while life was in my body, until I had my revenge on the accursed Feringhee, the thief of Nara​—​the assassin of Hoosein Khan.”

“Is this true?” faltered Muza.

“I swear it. Zeenut Mehal set her spies to work, and I warrant you it was not long before they found out that Azeena’s father, Kulloo Bux, the grain dealer of Delhi, had a hand in the plot. Kulloo Bux was seized, taken to the Palace and tortured. In the agonies of death he confessed. Azeena and Sahib Horsford strangled Hoosein Khan. Sahib Horsford stole the girl and sent her across the Black Water, the Sahib himself fled to Burma to escape Zeenut Mehal’s wrath. He has returned; he is now in Calcutta. Doubtless he thinks Zeenut Mehal no longer cares​—​that I have forgotten. A daughter of Siva never forgets. You must kill him, Muza. What now of the others you talk about? Why should they come between me and my vengeance?”

“I will tell you, but you must be dumb​—​breathe not a word. It might mean your death and mine too. Great things, noble things are promised before the next monsoon. Our people have been patient and their patience will be soon rewarded. A hundred years ago next June the fate of our country was sealed by the battle of Plassy. It was a shameful fight. Thousands of our fighting men covered themselves and our land with dishonour​—​they yielded to a mere handful of the Feringhees. We have seen chains heaped upon us year after year since the Feringhees hungered for our country; and that is not enough​—​they now hunger for our religion. Why has the Sahib Dalhousie gone? The Sahib was a great warrior and he took our lands, but he respected our faiths, and that was why he was not permitted to remain. The Sahib Canning has been sent to destroy our religion​—​the religion of our forefathers. We are to be made Christians​—​you will be forced to eat the flesh of oxen, of pigs. Yes, unless we fight now for our faith we are doomed. Do you understand?”

The man’s voice suggested suppressed passion in its quivering tones. A long silence followed. Nara, in the shop, pretended to be interested in other goods nearer the curtain, and moved thither to hear better. She was not concerned with the man’s talk about what was to happen during the year. She knew nothing about Plassy, about Lord Dalhousie, about Lord Canning. Very little history was taught at Mrs. Granger’s seminary for young ladies. To be able to repeat in parrot fashion the dates of the reigns of the English kings and queens was considered quite enough for any young-lady to know. But, in spite of her ignorance, Nara felt that what she overheard meant trouble. But this was overshadowed by her anxiety concerning Horsford. Sundra Bai’s appearance in Calcutta was fully accounted for, and Nara shuddered. She knew the cruel, the venomous nature of the “Begum”​—​no one better. There was danger to herself if she were recognised, but she cared nothing for this so that she could find Horsford and warn him.

The talk began again, but it was carried on in low tones, and all that Nara could make out was that the execution of Sundra Bai’s vengeance was to be deferred until the plans of the “others” were ready to be carried out. Directly Nara was satisfied that the compact was settled she closed the bargain with the shopkeeper and fled. She was only just in time, for the next minute the hangings parted and the old “Begum,” fat as a porpoise, and more evil-looking than ever, waddled into the shop.