Chapter VII

In the Heart of Delhi

It was the early morning when the palanquins came within sight of the cantonments on the Ridge overlooking Delhi. The dusty levels and the endless fields of the industrious ryot gave place to large, well-laid out gardens and woodland slopes. Delhi lay a mile or so to the south, bathed in the glory of the rising sun, a city of crimson and white. The three marble domes of the Jama Masjid or “great mosque” stood out in cold stateliness against the morning sky​—​in their massiveness a striking contrast to the graceful minarets of striped white and pink at the corners. The grim, solid fort of Salim-garh to the east of the city suggested all that was sinister and merciless. The red sandstone walls, the towers, surmounted by kiosks, of the wondrous palace of Shah Jahan, symbolized an ancient dynasty and the greatness and magnificence of a past age, which were now but shadows, albeit in Bahadur Shah there still reigned a descendant of the old Moghul kings.

Lazily lapping the base of Fort and Palace the blue waters of the Jumna flowed, placid, clear, and sparkling. For centuries the river had served as the repository of countless tragic secrets. It was the last resting place of thousands of Mussulmen and Hindus massacred in the narrow streets of the city, or slain in fierce fights outside its walls. Sorrowing widows, in accordance with their marriage vows, had sought solace beneath its smiling surface. Faithless wives, dancing-girls, deluded maidens, had been hurled from the convenient walls and windows of the Palace. The Jumna’s sinister reputation was such that though the natives bathed in its limpid waters they never, knowingly, allowed a drop to pass their lips.

To the left, between the Ridge and the city, was a mansion of considerable size standing within its own grounds. This house belonged to Hindu Rao, a rich Mahratta Chief, and was destined to figure largely in the memorable siege of 1857. In 1851 Hindu Rao was alive and very popular. Had not Horsford been anxious to get to Delhi without any one knowing of his arrival he would have called on the old gentleman, whom he knew exceedingly well, and he would have been certain of a warm welcome. Hindu Rao died in 1854, and for weeks after his death nothing was talked of in Delhi but his gorgeous funeral. Amid much solemnity his corpse, attired in his most magnificent costume, the arms encircled with jewelled bracelets, and costly necklaces of pearls and diamonds descending to the waist, was carried through the streets of Delhi sitting bolt upright in a chair of state, just as he was accustomed to appear in life, to the banks of the Jumna, when the body was burnt and the ashes thrown into the river.

The bearers of Horsford’s palanquin took the eastern road from the Ridge leading to the Cashmeer Gate. To the left was the mansion known as Metcalfe House and to the right the Flagstaff Tower, of no particular significance in 1851, but ordained by fate to be memorable, six years later, as the place of refuge for the few who escaped from the city of massacre. Horsford knew Metcalfe House well enough. He had been to many of the magnificent receptions given by the Resident in the great house, built on the site of gloomy memory, for tradition has it that the building covers the grave and tomb of the foster father of the Emperor Akbar, stabbed while at prayers by his rival Adam Khan.

Soon the Cashmeer Gate with its double arches was in sight, but before this was reached Horsford had taken leave of Mrs. Mowatt. The residence of her son, the Delhi Bank official, was outside the city, in the neighbourhood of the beautiful Kudsia Gardens on the banks of the river, and not far from Ludlow Castle, where lived Mr. Commissioner Fraser, who afterwards was one of the first victims of the Delhi upheaval in ’57.

During the journey Horsford had become great friends with Mrs. Mowatt, who, he found, was a plain-spoken woman of energy and resource. She had come to India on a visit to her son with the idea of staying permanently if she thought she could settle down. But she found the climate very trying, besides being, as she declared, too old to change the ways of the West for those of the East. The multiplicity of servants bewildered her, and she was not used to being waited on hand and foot. She told Horsford that she was returning to England via Bombay, and her words started a train of thought in his mind. He had decided that Jack Folliott’s daughter must not remain in India. He was sure Mrs. Mowatt was a woman to be trusted, and this conviction suggested a way out of the difficulty. He told her everything. She was immensely interested and promised to help him.

“But I’m starting for Bombay within a week of reaching Delhi and I can’t wait. My son has made all the arrangements for the journey, and the Bank’s agent in Bombay has instructions to book my passage to England. If you can only succeed in placing the child in my hands all right​—​I’ll take care of her​—​but it must be done at once.”

“You’re a true friend,” said Horsford. “But please don’t imagine it’s an easy matter you’re undertaking. It may involve you in some embarrassment, so I want to make it perfectly clear what the thing means, and though you’ve promised to help me I oughtn’t to consider the promise binding. You must first hear everything, and then decide.”

Jack Folliott had well-to-do sisters in England, one the wife of a retired general once in the company’s service, and the other the wife of an Indian Commissioner, also retired. Horsford had been introduced to both ladies on his arrival in India, fresh from Addiscombe, and while not caring very much for Mrs. General Brampton, who was inclined to be pompous and patronising, he liked the Commissioner’s wife, Mrs. Spicer. She was very kind and sympathetic and made young Guy Horsford, then a lad of eighteen, exceedingly welcome, because of his being the chum of their favourite brother. Both the General and the Commissioner retired on their liberal pensions soon after Guy Horsford obtained his lieutenancy, and neither they nor their wives knew anything of Captain Folliott’s attachment to a native girl. Horsford’s plan was to despatch Nara to the keeping of Mrs. Spicer​—​he had more faith in her than in her sister​—​and trust to fate for the rest.

“Part of my duty, then, is to hand the child over to her aunts,” said Mrs. Mowatt. “So far I see no embarrassment. You’ll write to them beforehand, of course?”

“Yes, the mail goes out to-morrow. My letter will reach Mrs. Spicer about a fortnight before you​—​that is if you start from Bombay directly you arrive there. As you say, no embarrassment is likely to arise, it’s the preliminaries about the deportment of Eurasians that may be a little troublesome. I don’t know whether the old regulations are in force. I shall have to inquire. Anyway, it’s only a matter of money.”

Horsford was thinking of the objection the East India Company had in the old days to the transmission of native orphans to England. The directors had very decided notions on the sex question, and rather than encourage marriage with native women they were prepared to wink at what in England would be called “questionable relations.” The Company appeared to regard itself as called upon, under certain circumstances, to act in loco parentis, and no native of India was allowed to be taken as a passenger on board any vessel proceeding to England without a deposit of 500 rupees, or security to that amount, “lest the party should become a burden to the Company.” Captains of Indiamen did not care to take children, whether native or English, as passengers, and few were willing to do so for less than 800 rupees, and even then some attendant must be provided, whose passage would probably amount to as much more. Horsford therefore was quite aware he was incurring a considerable pecuniary liability in what he was doing. He explained all this to Mrs. Mowatt.

“The question of the ayah,” he continued, “presents no difficulty. Azeena would give her life for the girl, and though I expect a little opposition when she learns that she’ll have to cross the ‘black water,’”​—​most native women are horribly afraid of the sea​—​“I’m sure her love for Nara will carry everything before it. You know what Azeena is by this time and you tell me you don’t dislike her.”

“Oh, well,” said blunt Mrs. Mowatt, “I think she’s about the best of all the native servants I’ve had to do with. In England, you know, I wouldn’t put up with one of them for a minute. What I don’t like is they can be frightfully rude without saying a word. Azeena seems a faithful, docile creature and better than the rest​—​better, anyway, than those Portuguese ayahs. I’ve come across one or two specimens, horrid, stuck-up creatures I wouldn’t give house-room to. I’m told the Portuguese ayahs are becoming fewer and fewer, and a good thing too, I should say. But what about Azeena in the meantime? Is she to come with me?”

“I think she’d better go to her people. Her father’s a very old man​—​a dealer in grain or something of that kind. Keeps a store in a dirty lane just off the Chandi Chauk. I may want her assistance at any moment and she ought to be handy. Besides, things may happen​—​I can’t say what​—​and I don’t want to compromise you in any way.”

“You talk, Captain Horsford, as if there was danger. Hadn’t you better think twice before you go further in the matter? It’s too romantic to be safe. One never knows where romance ends. It’s not like business; you can stop a speculation when things are going wrong, and you can generally see a bit ahead. But with romance​—​or love​—​no.”

Horsford was not disposed to dispute the truth of this. It had been so in Jack Folliott’s case, it was likely to be so in the enterprise in which he had been so suddenly plunged. But if one could see the end of a romance, romance would cease to exist. The unknown was its charm.

“There’s no going back,” said he. “I’ve already sacrificed something, and to stop because there might be danger would be cowardly.”

“Oh, that’s nonsense,” retorted Mrs. Mowatt. “I always say there are two sorts of fools​—​those who are never anything else but foolish, and those who are fools by accident and continue to be so through obstinacy.”

“And the second are more troublesome and dangerous than the first, I guess. My dear lady, there’s something more than foolishness in what I’m doing. I should never forgive myself if I failed in my oath, now that I’ve the chance of carrying it out. If there’s danger all the more reason why I should face it.”

Mrs. Mowatt twisted her wedding ring and a tender, thoughtful look crept into her eyes. Her memory had gone back five-and-twenty years to the wreck of the East Indiaman Cornwallis, of which Captain Henry Mowatt was the master. She had kepi the newspaper records of the time eulogising the heroism of her husband, who had gone down with his ship rather than jump into the boat already weighted down to the water’s edge and so imperil the lives of others. Was there business in this bravery? Did it not belong to romance? Some might even say that it was foolish.

“You’re right, Captain Horsford, and I’m wrong,” said she in a soft, almost humble tone. “Don’t say any more but reckon upon me to help you all I can.”

She put out her hand between the curtains of the palanquin​—​the talk had taken place while the men were resting​—​Horsford grasped it warmly. He felt that if Nara were with this kindly woman she would be safe.

They parted, and Horsford, telling Azeena he would call at her father’s shop after nightfall and give her further instructions, proceeded towards the Cashmeer Gate.

At the Cashmeer Gate Horsford discharged the palanquin runners and entered the city on foot, passing through the lofty archway of the Gate, leaving St. James’ Church to the right, its commonplace architecture contrasting, to its detriment, with that of the majestic Jama Masjid, dazzling in the sun now fully risen. The founder of the English Church was Colonel Skinner, in whose veins, as well as in those of his wife, ran Indian blood. East and West must have warred at times within the old soldier’s heart, and maybe he was trying to reconcile the two forces when, not contented with paying tribute to the Christian half of his nature, he built a mosque out of regard for the other half.

After crossing the Delhi canal Horsford entered the Chandi Chauk, or Street of Silver, the main artery of the city, running from the King’s Palace on the east to the Lahore Gate on the west. The day’s business had just begun, and he had some difficulty in pushing his way through the motley and, in many respects, repulsive crowd. The street, bordered by private houses, intermingled with shops in all the picturesqueness and variety of the East, was crammed with merchandise and buyers and sellers. Here and there it was blocked up by bags of grain, bales of cotton stuff, native and foreign, the obstructions further added to by carts loaded and empty, tethered oxen, and country produce of various kinds piled in front of the shops while itinerant merchants, mingled with lepers and beggars, strove to out-yell each other.

The equipages were confusing in their incongruity. Carriages of English origin, but altered to suit the requirements of the East, rolled by; elephants and camels lumbered along; palanquins and bullock carts and strange shaped conveyances from remote country districts jostled each other in the never ending line of traffic. Cheetahs and hunting leopards were being led for exercise or for sale, and tall, athletic men from Cashmeer slowly sauntered by, on the lookout for purchasers of the Persian cats under their arms and the Persian greyhounds following at their heels.

The houses were wonderfully varied and the architecture decidedly mixed. Grecian piazzas, porticoes, and pediments were joined to houses originally of Moslem or Hindu construction; signs were hanging from some of the shops, and the striped pundahs or curtains, which supplied the place of doors in many cases, and the variegated, highly coloured screens shading the shop windows, added to the life and animation of this wonderful street. For the most part the houses were whitewashed, and the carpets and shawls, the strips of cloth of every hue, the scarves and coloured veils, the saris and other drapery hung out over the verandahs or on the tops of the houses to purify in the sun, imparted a colour and an aspect of gaiety altogether unknown in any European capital.

But whatever pleasure there was to the eye was counterbalanced by the drawbacks peculiar to the city, more pronounced sixty years ago than they are to-day. Now and again came whiffs of noisome smells suggesting a visitation of the much dreaded “Delhi boil”; the air was full of clouds of irritating, stinging flies; the scorching sun blistered the face, and the swarms of filthy mendicants, fakirs, and nondescripts in rags and dirt made one shudder.

Horsford paid little attention to the tears and anguish of the beggars who beset him, and their appeals on behalf of their starving families, and elbowed his way to the Delhi bank. He had two objects in calling at the bank​—​one was to report to Mr. Mowatt the arrival of his mother, and the second to make known to him what Mrs. Mowatt had promised to do, and to make arrangements for securing sufficient funds to defray the necessary expenses.

He did not tell Mowatt more than he had told the lady, if indeed as much, and the risk and danger he was about to incur he kept to himself. The financial arrangement with the bank concluded satisfactorily, the next step was to write a letter to Mrs. Spicer​—​a somewhat difficult and delicate business. He discovered that the mail was going out that afternoon, and as the letter would want some thinking over Mowatt offered him the use of his private office, an offer which Horsford was glad to accept. He did not for the present care to go to his bungalow near the cantonments, north of the city, as, until he had accomplished the object on which he had set his heart, he preferred not meeting any of his brother officers.

Before he was half through the letter he decided to address it to Mrs. Brampton. The General’s wife was Jack Folliott’s eldest sister. She liked to rule, and it occurred to him that she would consider herself slighted if she were not the first to be consulted.

“I expect she won’t like the girl being suddenly planted upon her, but what’s to be done? After all, both the women were devoted to poor Jack, and for his sake they’ll be drawn to the child. But​—​that confounded marriage tie! There’s the stumbling-block. Poor Nara’s royal blood won’t go for much in the absence of the parson’s formula. I mustn’t let out the truth. The women must think what they like. Think what they like​—​indeed, by Jove! they’d think a lot if they knew she’d been a dancing-girl.”

Guy threw down his pen in despair. Suppose his contemplated escapade got wind? Suppose it ended in disastrous failure? Suppose the sharp swords of the Rajah’s warriors put an end to the whole business, himself included? Suppose——

“Bah! you idiot,” he muttered fiercely, “don’t meet troubles half-way. You’ve got to do the thing, and you’d better take your tip from the hunting field. When you’ve got an ugly jump throw your heart over first, and your horse will follow, old Squire Merry used to tell me when I was a youngster. I’ll fancy I’m a Hindu, that I’ve consulted the astrologer, and that the omens are favourable.”

At last the letter was finished, sealed, and despatched, and once more Horsford was in the noise and turmoil of the Chandi Chauk. He went in the direction of the Lahore Gate, turned into a narrow, ill-smelling lane, and ploughed his way through the black mud and refuse. Never did Delhi seem to him more a city of violent contrasts than at that moment; he had but to lift his eyes from the offal of the roadway, the ragged, evil-looking swarms of budmash and the squalid shops, to see towering in front of him the majestic Jama Masjid, rosy red and dazzling white in the blazing sun.

Suspicious eyes glanced at the stalwart Englishman as he strode along. The sight was an unusual one in that low quarter of the town, but no one attempted to molest him. He stopped at a low-pitched shop, its entire breadth and height open to the street. Bags of grain loaded the floor, and in the narrow passage way between two stacks was Kulloo Bux, Azeena’s father, chaffering with a customer. Kulloo Bux was a man over sixty, grey-headed, grey-bearded, and wearing enormous goggles. He and his customer were shouting at the top of their voices, and by their gesticulations one would think they were about to fly at each other’s throats. In reality they were the best of friends. The apparent quarrel was only the usual Eastern preliminary to a bargain.

Azeena had warned her father that the Sahib was coming. Kulloo Bux salaamed low, and apologising profusely for his humble dwelling, begged his lordship to condescend to honour him by entering, at the same time raising a curtain which divided the front of the shop from the back. Horsford obeyed and heard the swish of drapery as he stepped into the dark interior. He knew what the flutter meant. The womenfolk of the household had hurried out of sight. They rarely show themselves to Europeans in their own dwellings.

The place smelt horribly close and the air was not improved by being flavoured with garlic from some mess in a cooking-pot on a charcoal stove. The visitor was not sorry when the voices outside the curtain suddenly dropped, and the clinking of money indicated that the deal was completed. Soon after Kulloo Bux appeared, more apologetic than ever.

Horsford knew all about Kulloo Bux. The grain dealer, some ten years previous, had been a chokadar in the service of the colonel of the regiment to which both Jack Folliott and Guy Horsford belonged, and bore an excellent character.

“Azeena has told you what has brought her home?” asked Horsford.

“Yes, yes, my lord. The coming of my daughter has been to mine eyes as the rain after a drought. Seven years have gone since she left my roof. I thought her dead and the child too. The omens were bad​—​they have never been otherwise. The astrologer who cast the mother’s nativity foretold woe. He was right. The Sahib Folliott was killed, and she took her own life. And the child​—​ah, the child!”

“Well, did he prophesy the truth about her?” asked Horsford ironically. “If he did he must have been an uncommonly clever old boy, considering she wasn’t born at the time he cast the mother’s horoscope.”

“The Sahib does not know the wisdom Allah has conferred on the astrologer,” cried the old man excitedly.

“Perhaps not. It doesn’t matter. I’ve come to talk about other things. We’ll let the astrologer alone for the present.”

The two fell into an earnest conversation. Horsford had formulated his plans, which he laid before Kulloo Bux. They frightened the old man. If they failed it meant that he would lose his life, though the Sahib might escape.

“I swear to you, Kulloo Bux, by your own Allah, that you shall run no risk that I don’t share. I don’t ask you to do anything but take me, a respectable Mahajan (money-lender), as your passenger in your cart. Azeena will travel with you, and if it chances that a fourth passenger in the way of a child joins us, why, where’s the harm?”

In the way Guy Horsford put the case it sounded innocent enough, but the old grain dealer was not satisfied. He wanted to know where the child was coming from, and how she was to be obtained. The people who had her might be more powerful than the Sahib. If the Sahib were overcome, what would happen to poor Kulloo Bux? He represented that Zeenut Mehal showed no mercy when she was enraged, and there were ways of punishing offending persons not dreamed of by the Sahib. The walls of the King’s Palace were thick, and it was full of secret passages, secret chambers, and what not, where deeds of vengeance could be enacted and no one outside be the wiser.

“I know what you mean​—​the slicing of eyes as though they were lemons​—​thrusting a bag of hot ashes over one’s head and patting the back to make the victim take a good sniff​—​etc., etc. I’ve heard of these diabolical ingenuities. Don’t you be afraid, Kulloo Bux. I’ll see that our people look after you. As for the Sahib being overcome, that’s all moonshine. It’s not the Sahib’s way. And see​—​you’ll put money in your pocket. You’ll not need to sell a single bag of grain for a whole year.”

The last argument was all powerful. Half an hour afterwards Kulloo Bux left his shop and strolled leisurely down the lane towards the Chandi Chauk, gossiping to his neighbours as he went, and giving out he was going to call upon his nephew, who was a khidmutgar in the service of a Sahib-logue at the cantonments. But when Kulloo Bux reached the Chandi Chauk he turned to the east and passed through the gate leading to the network of lanes round the Palace. This was certainly not the way to the cantonments.

The day wore on. The sweltering heat passed, and with the approach of darkness came the coldness of the Indian night.

A clean-shaven man with stooping shoulders, limping feebly with the assistance of a staff, and looking like a respectable native, issued from the house of Kulloo Bux and, like Kulloo Bux, took the road to the King’s Palace. Following him also from the grain dealer’s house came a woman. They both made their way to the bridge of boats crossing the Jumna from the Calcutta gate, and until they reached the other side of the river the two did not draw near each other.

It was a moonless night, but the stars gave sufficient light to show the river flowing smoothly and as noiseless as oil. The fields stretching away to the east, the north, and the south were vast, unbroken, black expanses. To the west the white marble domes of the Jama Masjid were alone visible.

The respectable man with the limp waited for the woman to join him.

“All right up till now, Azeena,” he whispered. “Do you know the spot where your father promised to meet us?”

“Yes, Sahib, by the well outside the village. We must walk a mile.”

“Good; that’s nothing, so long as we’re not disappointed when we get there.”

“My father is an honourable man, Sahib. He keeps his word. Everybody knows that,” protested Azeena.

“I don’t doubt it, and I daresay he’ll get the cart, but he may have some difficulty in hiring a pony, but we must hope for the best. Let’s push on.”

Guy Horsford, the respectable native, did not consider it necessary to be lame now that he was outside Delhi, and he followed Azeena, who, leaving the main road, struck across a sandy patch and entered upon a path leading to corn fields; beyond was the village, as Horsford could tell by the barking of dogs. In due time they reached the well, but there was no cart, no pony, no Kulloo Bux.

“What did I say, Azeena!” exclaimed Horsford, angrily. “Has that father of yours gone off with the money I gave him?”

“No, no, Sahib. He would not do such a wicked thing. He has never robbed any one in his life.”

“I hope he hasn’t, but, seeing he had at least six hours’ start of us, it’s strange he’s not done what he promised. Anyhow, he ought to be here to tell us why he’s failed.”

Azeena could say nothing but repeat her protest that her father was an honourable man. Horsford paid no attention, but paced about impatiently, and strained his eyes into the darkness. Suddenly Azeena ran to him.

“He is coming,” she cried excitedly. “I hear cart wheels.”

The ayah was right. In a minute or so Horsford heard creaking also, and he advanced cautiously to meet the coming vehicle. It proved to be an ordinary covered cart, drawn by a pony, somewhat ungainly, but strong. Walking at the pony’s head was Kulloo Bux. The grain dealer was beginning, after his usual manner, to apologise, but Horsford stopped him.

“It’s all right now you’re here. What about the pony? Can he go? He won’t have a fit of kicking or biting, will he?”

“I warrant him, Sahib. Hiring the pony was the delay. A Melá (a fair) begins to-morrow ten miles away on the banks of the river and everybody has gone. Only the old people are left in the village. I could find no horses or ponies, and I had to walk five miles to the house of the zemindar. I had to pay him more than I told you, but the pony is worth the money.”

Horsford shrugged his shoulders. He attributed the excuse to the desire of Kulloo Bux to put a little more coin in his pocket. The news about the fair was not displeasing. It would clear the road of beggars, fakirs, and goojurs, who are always sure of a harvest of some kind at fairs and festivals.