Chapter XVIII

Nara’s Warning

“Slight concussion,” said the surgeon. “I don’t apprehend any danger, but she’ll probably be unconscious for some hours. A very pretty girl. English father, I should think, eh? Who is she?”

“I haven’t the slightest notion. As you say, doctor, she’s extremely pretty, and possibly Eurasian,” said Horsford slowly.

His eyes were fixed on the pallid, harmonious face, quite Eastern now that it was in repose. The doctor’s words “English father” had sent his memory back five years.

The pillow was too high, the doctor thought, and the nurse lifted the patient’s head to withdraw the bolster from beneath the pillow. The sari was loose, and the portion which had served to veil the girl’s face had fallen about her neck. The nurse, after putting the head in a comfortable position, began arranging the folds of the sari, and in so doing dragged out the locket which Nara treasured so jealously.

“Let me look at that, nurse,” said Horsford quickly. One glance was enough.

“Doctor!” he exclaimed, a little agitatedly, “I believe I know the poor girl. If I’m right she is the daughter of an old comrade who died at Moodkee. Bring the lamp nearer, nurse.”

The nurse obeyed, and he looked long and steadfastly at the beautiful face. Really, it had changed very little. She might almost have been the child who had fainted after the exhausting dance before the Rajah of Dakhur and his guests. Her Eastern origin was visible enough in the small, sleek head and the full lips. The influence of her mother had become more pronounced now that she was on the threshold of womanhood.

“Yes,” said Horsford, drawing a long breath, “it is she. How she comes to be in Calcutta I can neither explain nor understand.”

“Come into my room,” said the doctor, “and we’ll have a chat over a cigar. Nothing very much can be done just now for the girl. We must trust to Nature and her own vitality.”

Christopher Pentreath was a good fellow, besides being a good doctor. He had not lost the ruggedness of Cornwall. He was blunt and plain-speaking, and a man to be trusted. Horsford instinctively felt this, and he had no hesitation about opening his heart freely.

“Humph,” said the doctor, after Horsford had told his story. “Let me tell you, Colonel Horsford, that you did a devilish risky thing, and you were devilish fortunate in pulling it off as well as you did. What became of the ayah who could handle the roomal as well as the saringhee?”

“She died of cholera during the voyage to England​—​so the lady who had the child in charge wrote me in the letter I told you I had had from her.”

“That was a bit of bad luck,” said the doctor, shrugging his shoulders. “If the story should leak out people will never believe a woman would have strength enough to do what she did. I guess the old rascal, despite his age, was tough and wiry. You’d have some difficulty in clearing yourself.”

“You forget that I was disguised. No one knew I was an Englishman. Anyhow, it’s five years ago, and in all probability the affair’s forgotten.”

“I hope you’re right, but when it comes to a matter of revenge, the Easterns have plaguy long memories. Anyhow, the romance as it stands is a very pretty one. I only hope there won’t be a sequel. Adventure​—​mischief​—​God or the devil knows what​—​follows a girl with a face like hers. It haunts one. Wait till the lips are red once more and she can use her eyes.”

“I know quite well what they’re like. I haven’t forgotten,” rejoined Horsford drily. “By Jove,” he added, looking at his watch, “it’s two o’clock, and I’ve an appointment with Lord Canning at eight this morning.”

Horsford walked to his hotel with the air of one whose mind was absorbed by some deep anxiety. Had he not been so preoccupied he might have noticed that a man, tall, thin-faced, long-bearded, in the filthy rags of a mendicant, followed him wherever he went. This man had been in the crowd when the accident happened, and had shadowed the little procession to the hospital, outside which he remained until Horsford reappeared. He now loitered near the hotel for a time, as if to make sure the Sahib was staying there, and not merely paying a visit, and then made his way to the native quarter of the city.

Though the hour was late, and though he was fatigued, Horsford wrote to Meldrum before he went to bed. His letter was polite, even conciliatory, despite its military brevity. All he considered necessary was an emphatic repetition of his verbal statement that his meeting with Clare was purely accidental. He declared solemnly that he had not held the slightest communication with Mrs. Meldrum since he quitted Simla five years ago, and he wound up by demanding a withdrawal of the offensive and grossly false insinuation Meldrum had used towards him. What would follow, supposing Meldrum refused, Horsford did not bother to think. He was not one to meet troubles half way.

He despatched the letter about seven o’clock the next morning, and at eight presented himself at Government House. There he found an anxious conclave.

It was the first week in March, 1857. Lord Canning, succeeding Lord Dalhousie, had been Governor-General exactly a year, and though nothing definite had happened to cause anxiety there were disquieting rumours of discontent, especially in Oudh and in Delhi. The episode of the Brahmin, who at the Dum-Dum cantonments spread the story of the intention of the British Government to issue cartridges smeared with beef fat and hog’s lard, was now some six weeks old, and the panic it created among the Hindu Sepoys had by no means subsided. Oudh was in a state of simmering rebellion, but Sir Henry Lawrence had been despatched to Lucknow, and it was believed that so firm and wise an administrator would soon restore order. All was quiet in Delhi, but with such a mistress of intrigue as Zeenut Mehal at the head of affairs anything might happen.

The conference to which Horsford had been invited was called to consider a very important and unpleasant item of news which had just come from Burhampore. It was reported that the 19th Infantry had shown signs of gross insubordination on February 27. Lord Canning announced that it was decided to disband the regiment, and that orders had been sent to march the troops for that purpose to Barrackpore, where the 34th were quartered.

These two regiments had formerly been stationed at Lucknow, but after the deposition of the King of Oudh in 1856 they became so disaffected that it was considered prudent to separate them. One regiment was accordingly sent to Burhampore and the other to Barrackpore. It was hoped that the disbanding of the 19th would stop further trouble, but Lord Canning, like a good many other men with more experience of India than he had, did not realise the storm that was gathering. No one, of course, could have foreseen that on March 29 a sepoy of the 34th regiment and a religious enthusiast, Mungul Pandy by name, would, when intoxicated, run amok and unintentionally set light to the torch of rebellion that before six weeks were passed would be waved from the Punjaub to Bengal.

The conference lasted two hours, and the chief subject of discussion was the position of affairs in Delhi. However much men of Indian experience differed in regard to British rule, they all agreed on one point: that whoever held Delhi held also India. Throughout the terribly anxious months of the Mutiny this was the central thought of every Englishman in India. So when it was known in the early part of ’57 that Zeenut Mehal’s emissaries were moving stealthily from province to province, the authorities felt that if it was necessary to be watchful anywhere, the city of Shah Jahan was the place. Information had in some way reached Lord Canning that Guy Horsford had intimate knowledge of Delhi, its court and its people, which would be invaluable during the uncertainty which prevailed, and after much talk Horsford left the conference entrusted with an important mission. He was to start at once for Delhi and make a secret and independent report of the state of affairs, especially in regard to Zeenut Mehal’s doings. As for her husband, the aged King, Bahadur Shah, he was of no account; he was but a pawn in the game.

The mission was one quite to Horsford’s taste. It was full of risk, it demanded tact and adroitness, and it might necessitate all his powers of dissimulation and disguise. But there was one serious drawback. He was required to start at once, and there was so much which ought to detain him at Calcutta. Until the embarrassment concerning Clare was settled Meldrum would be certain to put a wrong construction upon his hasty departure. It might be said that he had gone because he was afraid. Such a possibility was unthinkable. Then there was Nara! What was he to do about her? Never was a man so torn by the antagonism between his personal responsibilities and his duty as a soldier; but the matter was not one to be argued, and whatever might be thought and said about him he must carry out his orders.

Full of this determination he went to the railway station to ascertain the time of the trains. Raniganj was as far as he could travel by rail; he would have to pursue the rest of the journey to Delhi by dâk. He found the morning train had gone, and the next started at six o’clock that evening. He determined to go by this, and after sending a telegram to the dâk agent at Raniganj to have runners and palanquin in readiness, he set out to return to his hotel, resolving to call at the hospital on his way.

It was the busiest time of the morning and the streets were thronged. The ragged mendicant who had dogged Horsford’s footsteps the previous evening and at an early hour that morning, had no difficulty in following the Englishman wherever he went. He had posted himself in the street where Horsford’s hotel was situated as soon as day broke; he had seen Horsford come out, and he had shadowed him to Government House and thence to the railway station. Had he been Horsford’s double he could not have pursued him closer or more persistently.

At the hospital Horsford met Dr. Pentreath and anxiously inquired after Nara.

“Better,” was the reply. “Brain gradually becoming normal. The nurse says that when she told her you’d come to-day the prettiest smile ever seen came into her face. You’ll have to be careful, Colonel Horsford,” went on the doctor chaffingly. “Nurse Barton swears the girl’s in love with you. I dare say she’s right. Women are deuced sharp in reading one another’s secrets in that direction.”

Horsford bit his lips in vexation. Everything seemed to be conspiring against him. Apparently it was his fate to be plagued by the eternal feminine. Strange for one who cared so little for women! So he had often told himself. He had hoped that he might have been able to set out on his journey without any fresh embarrassment on Nara’s account. He could not but believe that the girl was in charge of English people in Calcutta​—​friends it might be of her aunt​—​and that she would be properly looked after.

The doctor had been called away, and Horsford had time to argue the matter with himself. A step was heard. Dr. Pentreath bustled into the room.

“I’ve had a look at your protégée, Colonel Horsford. She is awake and, everything considered, fairly strong. Strangely worried about you, though, but brightened up amazingly when I said you were here and waiting to see her.”

Horsford shrugged his shoulders with an air of resignation. What was the use of fighting against fate? Resolutions and plans were powerless in the face of the force of circumstances, of coincidences, of the unexpected.

“Very well,” said he, “I’ll stay a minute or two. I’ve a tremendous lot to do to-day. I leave Calcutta this evening for Delhi.”

“The deuce! That’s quick work. You haven’t been more than three days in Calcutta, you told me.”

“Quite true. I’d not the least idea last night my stay would be short.”

“Nothing amiss, eh?” said the doctor, dropping his voice.

“No; nothing beyond the Burhampore trouble.”

“I hope that won’t be followed by anything else. I can’t explain it, but there seems to be great uneasiness everywhere. India is a queer country. One has forebodings here totally unknown in any other part of the world. What I mean is that if anything evil is about to happen, it throws its shadow before in some uncanny fashion. Have you ever noticed that?”

“Yes. India is the land of fate​—​or to put the matter in another form, in India one becomes a fatalist.”

“If you mean, Colonel, that apprehensive of coming misfortunes you must sit down and do nothing, I don’t agree with you.”

“I should never suggest anything so absurd. Anyhow, for the moment we’re talking in the clouds, so we needn’t pursue the subject. As you’ve told the girl I’m here, I’d better see her and get it done with.”

“All right. I can see you’re steeled against the magic of a romantic face,” said the doctor laughingly. “Come along. You may be trusted​—​especially as you’re going away.”

Long before Horsford reached the ward where Nara was lying she knew he was coming, and in spite of the nurse’s remonstrances she insisted upon sitting up in the bed. Her beauty was enhanced by the sparkle of her eyes and the faint glow in her cheeks, signs of excitement which increased the nurse’s concern. But Nara would listen to nothing. She had caught sight of Horsford and she extended her hands imploringly.


Her voice died away in a throb. She sank back panting and quivering.

“I told you what would happen if you got excited,” whispered the nurse a little angrily. “You’re doing yourself no good. What will the Sahib think?”

The last admonition probably had its effect. Nara suddenly became calm. But the nervous twitching of her lips showed that the tempest of emotion had not passed away. When Horsford reached her she was lying quietly. He had not seen her momentary excitement, her outstretched hands, her flushed face. He sat down by her bedside and rested his hand on hers.

“I knew you would come,” she whispered. “Oh, I have thought of you many​—​many times.” She drew a deep breath and went on. “I have prayed night and morning that we might meet again and felt that my prayers would come true. God has sent me here to save you. Sahib​—​Sahib​—​I want to tell you something​—​bend your head, please. No one else must hear.”

Her yearning eyes, her vibrating voice, in which it seemed to him there was a note of terror, affected Horsford strangely. He obeyed her.

“You are in terrible danger, Sahib,” she whispered agitatedly. “You have bitter, treacherous enemies. I overheard them talking about you but they did not see me. Oh, I was thankful I understood their language. It was what some of the girls with​—​with Sundra Bai used to speak, and I learned it of them.”

Nara told her story brokenly, and Horsford listened in amazement.

“So I’m tracked, am I?” he muttered, his lips tightening, “thanks to Kulloo Bux. Poor beggar! I’m sorry, but it’s not wonderful the torture was too much for him.”

It was all serious enough, but the gravest part of the story was that which inferred the existence of a plot in which the maintenance of the English supremacy in India was concerned. It was disappointing that Nara could tell him so little on this point; but certainly it was definite enough that Sundra Bai’s revenge on him was to be delayed until after something had happened in June. His duty, however, was clear; he must go straight to Lord Canning and convey what he had heard. He would have risen from his chair by the bedside, but Nara guessed his intention and convulsively clasped his hand between both hers.

“Sahib​—​Sahib,” she cried imploringly, “don’t leave me. If you go I shall be wretched. It would break my heart if anything happened to you. You don’t know the wickedness of Sundra Bai. I do. I’ve seen it many and many a time. She never forgives. No​—​no——”

He was trying to withdraw his hand, but her fingers had twined round it like little snakes. He succeeded in getting free, however, and she sank back exhausted.

“You’re frightening yourself without a cause, Nara,” said Horsford gently. “I’m not afraid of a hundred Sundra Bais. I shall come and see you again.”

“When​—​when——” she burst out.

“Very soon. This afternoon, perhaps. While I am away I must see what I can do to make sure that you return to England. It’s the only place of safety for you.”

“No. I shall not go,” she cried, with sudden desperation. “I hate England. I was so unhappy there. I only want to be where you are, Sahib,” she went on, sinking her voice.

“You mustn’t be foolish. Can’t you see that what you ask is impossible? You must be good, Nara, and do as I say.”

“Yes​—​yes​—​I will try,” she murmured.

“Very well then, rest quietly until I return. I suppose you don’t want to go back to Sundra Bai and dancing?”

“No​—​no. God forbid!” she cried.

“Good! Then I’ll see what I can do for you when I come back.”

His voice softened. It was useless to attempt to be harsh with her. He saw she was anxious to please​—​to obey him. He was turning away when a moment of weakness seized him. He could not resist the yearning, beseeching look in the big eyes. He bent down and kissed her. There was no harm. He was twelve years older than she, and though she was seventeen she was but a child. No, there was no harm, he told himself. For all that he walked quickly away, as though he had done something for which he ought to be sorry.

Horsford was fortunate in finding Lord Canning disengaged. The Governor-General heard what he had to say but did not seem to attach much importance to the story. It came to him as no novelty. He had heard rumours of something which was intended to take place somewhere near the date of the centenary of the battle of Plassy, but there was nothing definite, nor was any particular locality indicated as a centre of danger. He saw no reason to alter his plans about Horsford’s mission to Delhi.

“But two of the plotters are in Calcutta​—​ought they not to be discovered and watched?” objected Horsford. “I would respectfully suggest that this woman Sundra Bai be arrested, or at least detained while inquiries are being made.”

“By all means, if she can be discovered. It’s some days, you tell me, since the Eurasian girl saw her​—​she may have left Calcutta by this time. Anyhow, you had better see the officer who has such matters in charge.”

The Governor-General scribbled a few lines on a slip of paper which he gave to Horsford. The paper contained instructions for the secret inquiry department to take Colonel Horsford’s information and act upon it if necessary.

“You will start for Delhi just the same, Colonel Horsford,” said Lord Canning. “Possibly Sundra Bai means to return to Zeenut Mehal and report. Evidently she’s one of the Queen’s spies. It’s as well that you know her​—​you will be forewarned in case you run across her in Delhi.”

The interview with the secret inquiry officer did not have any important result. The official decided that he ought to have Nara’s story from her own lips before he could do anything. To this Horsford could make no reasonable objection. Probably Nara had more to tell if she were skilfully questioned. Horsford went away, by no means satisfied in his mind, and that which troubled him most was that duty compelled him to leave the girl to her fate.

It was past midday. Horsford meant to visit the hospital again, but in the meantime he decided to go to his hotel, pack up a few necessaries, and have them sent to the railway station. The manager of the hotel met him in the entrance hall.

“A lady is waiting to see you, sir,” said the manager. “She would not tell me her name.”

“Clare​—​for a thousand pounds,” muttered Horsford, biting his lips. “How horribly imprudent of her. What’s happened now? I’m in a confoundedly awkward coil​—​a coil that for the moment I don’t see how to get out of. Where is the lady?” he asked aloud.

“In your rooms, sir.”

“In my rooms!” cried Horsford, staggered. “What on earth made you show her there?”

“The lady insisted, sir. She said she was a very old friend of yours.”

A doubt crossed Horsford’s mind. Perhaps it was not Clare after all. He asked the manager to describe her.

“Well, I can’t. She had her veil down. I could just see that she was fair.”

Horsford shrugged his shoulders. The meagre description was reminiscent of Clare. He strode on, prepared for the worst. He had faced the enemy with less misgivings than he felt now.