Chapter II

Jack Folliott’s Little Girl

Instantly there was confusion and uproar. The curtains parted, and the manager of the dancing troupe, a repulsive-looking old man, slightly deformed, rushed to Horsford, shrieking and gesticulating. If anything happened to Nara, the light of his eyes, the pearl of his possessions, he would be ruined! By the beard of the prophet, the maiden was worth Heaven alone knew how many thousand rupees! She was incomparable, she could never be replaced! What had he, Hoosein Khan, honest and always most respectable, done that Allah had permitted so terrible a misfortune to descend upon him? Hoosein Khan thought the dancing-girl was dead, and from her looks he was justified in thinking so.

“Keep back, you mercenary old scoundrel,” growled Horsford. “If you want to be of any use fetch water. Bring it to the verandah. Quick!”

He carried the girl​—​in his strong arms she was no heavier than a lotus flower​—​out of the warm, sickly-scented air. Ormerod and others followed. The servants stood awaiting the Rajah’s orders. The Rajah sat immovable; quite content that the Sahib-logue should do everything. Dancing-girls belonged to a low caste. Why should he trouble?

Horsford laid the girl gently on a mat. She looked, in the silver moonrays, like a beautiful figure of alabaster. The gold and jewels about her glittered with a pale light, the crushed flowers in her hair sent forth a perfume, sweet enough in the cool air. Her sari had become disarranged, her throat and the upper part of her chest were bare, and disclosed a thin chain of gold round the base of the neck with a locket attached. The locket fell on her shoulder, face upwards, as Horsford drew the sari round her. Almost as quickly as he caught sight of the locket he had it in his hands.

For an instant he forgot the girl. The portrait had taken him back to the fierce fight at Moodkee, where the Sikh’s tegha had dealt him what would have been his death-blow but for the sabre of his comrade, Jack Folliott, who the next minute was shot through the heart.

The face in the locket reminded Horsford, too, of something earlier than the battle of Moodkee​—​of a beautiful Mahommedan girl​—​of a picture of happiness​—​of her devotion to her lord the Sahib-logue, the father of her child​—​of her passionate grief when he took leave of her to join the expedition against the Sikhs.

Jack Folliott had had strange forebodings. He could not rid himself of the idea that he was about to fight his last fight, and if it should be so, he begged his friend to take charge of his little child, his Nara. Horsford gave his word, but he had never been able to keep it. After he was brought back to Delhi his wound stretched him on his back for two months, and when he was able to move about and make inquiries he found that the heart-broken young mother, on hearing of the Sahib’s death, had flung herself into the Jumna, and the child had disappeared, no one knew whither.

These thoughts were mingled in a series of vivid pictures, revived by the sight of Jack Folliott’s handsome face enshrined in the locket! There could be no doubt about it; the dancing-girl was Jack’s daughter. As Guy Horsford gazed at the miniature it seemed to him that dear old Jack, the best of comrades, the most faithful of friends, was reminding him of his solemn oath.

He was spirited back to actualities by the sound of Hoosein Khan’s squeaking tones. The old man had brought a lotah filled with water, and was holding it out with trembling, skinny hands. Guy snatched the copper vessel and dashed its contents in the girl’s face. The long, dark eyelashes quivered, the delicate nostrils twitched, a sigh escaped the white lips. Then the tremulous eyelids were slowly raised, and a vague, wistful, troubled, timorous gaze stole from beneath. A pair of steady, fearless blue eyes were looking into hers. They were eyes a woman might trust​—​eyes that showed the strong, unflinching nature within​—​eyes that told as plainly as eyes could speak that Guy Horsford’s word was his bond.

“Nara​—​is that your name? Do you understand me?”

He whispered the words in English as a test. He called her Nara at a venture because that was the name of Jack Folliott’s little girl. A faint smile curved the beautiful mouth at the sound of his voice.

“Yes, Sahib.”

Every doubt was removed. She had answered in English, her pronunciation softening the hissing sound of the monosyllable after the fashion of the natives of India.

Before Horsford could say more the old Mahommedan’s shrill voice broke in with angry threats. The child trembled and made an effort to rise. Down came Horsford’s hand heavily on Hoosein Khan’s arm; and he spun the man round so that they came face to face.

“See here, you dog. I’ve something to say about this girl. I’m not going to talk out here, but where you and I won’t be interrupted. Meanwhile she’s not going back into your care. Do you understand that?”

“My lord​—​my lord​—​she is my own flesh and blood. She is my own grand-daughter. She——”

“Hold your tongue. I believe you’re lying. Let us go to the Rajah.”

The guests had crowded into the verandah and looked on, puzzled and wondering. Hoosein Khan gesticulated, jabbered, and squeaked; Horsford, his shoulders set and square, had drawn the frightened girl closer to him and was looking down contemptuously at the black object grovelling at his feet.

“What mad fool’s game are you up to?” growled Ormerod uneasily. “What’s the good of kicking up a row? If you’ve taken a fancy to the girl I daresay the old rascal’s open to an offer. It’ll cost you a pretty penny, though. I know something about Cashmeer girls, and that one’ll fetch a tip-top price.”

Horsford turned from Ormerod with a gesture of impatience. Ormerod took things as he found them, and his coarse nature saw nothing repulsive in slavery, for such, practically, was the condition of dancing-girls.

“What’s your name?” said Horsford to the Mahommedan.

“Hoosein Khan, my lord​—​I am your lordship’s humble servant​—​I am but dust beneath your lordship’s feet.”

“Of course. That’s understood. Come with me to the Rajah. Don’t be frightened, Nara. I’m going to look after you now,” Horsford whispered to the girl.

Taking her hand, he led her into the hall, Hoosein Khan following close behind, scowling and muttering. The door at the side of the hall was ajar, and in the opening could be seen a group of the other dancing-girls, curiosity written in their eyes. Among them was the tall, handsome woman who played the saringhee with such expression. She was trembling, and her face was troubled. The curtains over a gallery at the end were drawn slightly, and here and there could be seen a veiled head. In this gallery were the ladies of the Rajah’s zenana. Unseen by the company below, they had been witnesses of the performance, and doubtless saw the child faint.

Horsford approached the stolid Rajah and solicited the favour of an audience of his highness in a private chamber. His request was acceded to, and the great man, with much ceremony, and accompanied by a train of officials, proceeded to an inner room, where he seated himself on a divan, and Hoosein Khan and the girl having prostrated themselves before him, he listened to the case with the utmost gravity.

Guy Horsford went straight to the point. The dancing-girl, he asserted, was the daughter of his old friend and comrade; he had bound himself in honour to protect her, and he asked to be allowed to take her from the life she was leading, which could but end in one way.

“There’s no need to remind your highness what that way is,” said Horsford. “I don’t say there are not dancing-girls who are not what is called respectable, but they’re difficult to find. At the best they’re exposed to horrible temptations. I must save Nara from these. It’s part of my oath. English blood is in her veins. I stand by my country-woman.”

“What have you to say to this, Hoosein Khan?” asked the Rajah, without any comment on Horsford’s speech.

“It does not become a worm like myself to say aught against the Sahib. What is my word compared to his? But my lord forgets that the girl​—​blessed be Allah!​—​is of the blood of the faithful. Her mother was a true daughter of Allah. Who gives most to the offspring​—​the mother or the father? It is the mother, highness, is it not so?”

The Rajah stroked his beard and nodded gravely.

“Mashallah. And moreover I am the child’s grandfather. Am I to lose my rights​—​the rights of blood and relationship?”

“Don’t tell lies,” burst out Horsford angrily, for he saw the Rajah was inclined to favour his co-religionist. “Are you, with a hang-dog face, with greed and vice written in every crease, of royal lineage? Come​—​answer me.”

Hoosein Khan looked terribly embarrassed. If he made a claim to be descended from a line of kings, and it was proved to be false, it would lay him open to severe punishment. If dancing-girls were looked down upon, the infamous men and women who trafficked in them and grew rich out of the hire and sale of the poor creatures were despised. They were useful to voluptuaries, but they were scorned all the same.

“Why do you not reply to the Sahib?” asked the Rajah, frowning. “What is your family?”

“Your servant does not understand the lord Sahib,” he faltered. “Your servant’s family is most respectable. I can bring references. My patrons speak well of me, and you yourself, Highness, have done so.”

The Rajah cast a puzzled look at Horsford. He did not understand the purport of the Englishman’s reference to royal lineage. Horsford soon enlightened him. Jack Folliott once told him that Nara’s mother was descended from Shah Jahan, the great Moghul King, whose name is indissolubly associated with Delhi. There were papers and old jewels in existence to prove it, but Horsford had no evidence of this beyond Folliott’s word.

Jack Folliott, however, swore he had seen these things, and once, when walking with Horsford southward from Delhi, he took his friend into a little cemetery, long ago a village known as Arb-Ke-Sarai, and showed him the grave of Princess Jahanara, “the poor in spirit,” the beloved daughter of Shah Jahan. The dancing-girl’s mother had given her child the name of this far-famed lady, from one of whose brothers the mother herself claimed to be descended. The Princess Jahanara’s mother was the celebrated Arjmand Bānu Begam, over whose grave the bereaved husband built the most magnificent monument in the world, the far-famed Taj Mahal at Agra.

Horsford did not go into the details concerning Jahanara’s tomb. He confined himself to all that related to his assertion that the girl Nara was descended from the family of the good and virtuous Princess.

“Does not your highness see,” he cried indignantly, “the shame of allowing a descendant of the illustrious Shah Jahan to become a common tuwaif, of permitting her to associate with harlots if not becoming one herself, of compelling her to sell her beauty to the highest bidder? Is it not disgraceful​—​humiliating?”

“You speak with much reason, Sahib,” the Rajah was pleased to say. “But is it true? Is the girl of the line of the great kings of Delhi?”

“No​—​no,” burst in Hoosein Khan. “Her mother was a tuwaif like herself. I can bring a hundred witnesses to prove it.”

“Liar!” thundered Horsford. “I knew Nara’s mother. She was not a tuwaif, but the daughter of a Delhi merchant, who was ruined by grasping Mahajans (money-lenders). Since you know so much, rascal, who was Nara’s father?”

“How can I tell, Sahib? My daughter, Nara’s mother, had many lovers.”

The words had no sooner left his lips than Horsford’s fist shot out and swiftly followed a sullen thud and a howl. Hoosein Khan was writhing on the floor, felled by as straight a blow as a boxer’s fist ever delivered.

“I apologise to your highness for losing my temper, but the scoundrel deserved all he got. Let him defame his own womenkind if he likes, but not that of this poor child,” cried Horsford hotly.

“It is of no consequence,” said the Rajah suavely. “I regret the Sahib has given himself the trouble of thrashing the wretch. Hassan”​—​ he turned to one of his attendants​—​“remove that man. See that he does not escape. I will consider his punishment.”

At these words Hoosein Khan, who was still grovelling, sprang to his feet and begged by all that was holy not to be separated from his grand-child. The Rajah took no notice of his appeals, and Hassan and two others were advancing towards the old man when the latter sprang forward, and coming within a couple of paces of the Rajah, began talking rapidly in a low voice. Horsford could not hear what was said, but he saw the Rajah’s flabby face change. Then Hoosein suddenly stopped and watched the effect of his words.

“This man has given me good reasons to show that he did not intend to insult the Sahib,” said the Rajah after a pause to Horsford. “He desires to apologise to the Sahib.”

“The Sahib doesn’t care a hang about his intentions,” rejoined Horsford shortly. “His reasons are different. May I ask your Highness what they were?”

“Very trifling,” said the Rajah hastily. “They are not worthy the Sahib’s benign consideration.”

“For all that the Sahib would like to hear them,” muttered Horsford to himself. “There’s something here I don’t like, but it’s no good rowing the Rajah. He’s not a bad sort, but I reckon he’ll stick to his race. I shall get nothing out of him, but that doesn’t matter so long as I save Jack Folliott’s little girl.”

“I hope,” said he aloud, “that your highness has decided that I may take possession of my countryman’s daughter.”

“I cannot give you my decision now. I must think. It is a matter of grave importance. I must consult others. But be not disturbed. The child will be quite safe. She shall not go back to Hoosein Khan, but shall be kept within the Palace under keeping of my own guards.”

“And when will your highness deign to pronounce your decision? To-morrow?” said Horsford, in a tone of disgust which he did not attempt to disguise.

“Too soon, Sahib. There is no need for hurry. The girl is safe​—​quite safe.”

And for the moment Guy Horsford had to be satisfied. But when his glance fell on the girl and saw her piteous, helpless expression and her big eyes fixed on him, had prudence not restrained him he would have caught her up in his arms and borne her away, despite the Rajah and his guards.

But such an act might have had far-reaching consequences although India was at that time in tranquillity​—​as Indian tranquillity went. There had been no war since the Sikhs surrendered in 1849, no uneasiness from the time when Sir Charles Napier disbanded the 66th Native Infantry the year after for mutinous conduct in refusing to take part in the Burmese war then impending; all the nations of the world were preaching peace, and envoys from the four quarters of the globe were journeying to Hyde Park to demonstrate by their presence in the glass building of industry that cutting throats and pistollings were out of fashion and that martial glory was a thing of the past.

“Craft must be met by craft,” thought Horsford. “I’ll keep my promise to Jack, come what may. Good-bye, little one​—​for the present,” said he in a low voice.

The girl meanwhile had been standing motionless as a statue, her arms hanging limply by her sides, her eyes alternately watching Guy Horsford and the Rajah. Her remembrance of her father’s tongue was probably very hazy, and it was hardly likely that she understood all that was going on, but that she realised its purport was certain, for when Horsford bade her good-bye her face became inexpressibly sad, and she raised her arms impulsively as though she would have embraced him.

“You will not leave me,” she whispered plaintively in Hindustani.

“I swear I won’t. I shall come for you wherever you may be. Keep a brave heart. You are not going with Hoosein Khan.”

“But when shall I see the Sahib? Nara will be wretched while he is away. He is the light of her eyes,” she whispered anxiously.

“Look for me to-morrow​—​or the next day at farthest.”

They could talk no longer. Hassan had called to one of the female servants of the zenana, a tall, strapping, Rajput woman, who evidently understood why she had been summoned. She was to act as guardian, or perhaps gaoler, of the dancing-girl, whom she looked upon with the greatest contempt, because of Nara’s profession.

“Go, thou daughter of wickedness​—​through yonder door,” said she harshly, pointing with commanding gesture to the end of the room.

Nara obeyed with a meekness and resignation which seemed to tell Guy Horsford that the childish spirit within her was crushed. He ground his teeth to think that Jack Folliott’s daughter should be subjected to such humiliation, treated like a slave and held in contempt even by menials. But for the moment he could do nothing.

Unless Horsford was prepared to act, to show resentment would do more harm than good. He must bow to Indian customs and etiquette, and with elaborate compliments to the Rajah, and expressing his entire faith in the wisdom and in the supreme sense of justice of his highness, he strode from the room.

One of the Rajah’s numerous retinue conducted Horsford from the audience chamber, and led him through a network of passages into a wide entrance hall, where a host of servants were in attendance. Whether there was any motive in this Horsford did not trouble; he was too glad not to encounter his friends and be pestered with questions. His syce was among the servants in the hall, and he sent the man for his buggy.

Within the next ten minutes he was speeding down the steep road skirting the Elysium Hill and leading to Simla, high walls of black on either side looking solid as rock at night but in the daytime resolving themselves into forests of deodar. The metallic sound of his horse’s hoofs set up in his brain cells a jingle of monotonous strains​—​a sort of drone base to the weird, plaintive melody of the saringhee which still lingered in his memory. The picture of the child whirling to the music, the glittering gold, the sparkling jewels, the undulations of her supple body, her appealing eyes; the story of her descent from the far-off Shah Jahan​—​it was all fantastic, unreal, mystic; romance instinct with the wild traditions of ancient India. The past confronted the present. The East and the West had united for a brief space. In love or in hate? Who could say?