Chapter VIII

Sundra Bai, the “Begum”

Soon they were jolting on their way. Kulloo Bux had not overpraised the pony. It had occasional spells of obstinacy, but on the whole it behaved itself fairly well. During the journey Horsford anxiously questioned Azeena about Nara’s history. He learned that when the news of Jack Folliott’s death reached the girl’s mother all the traditions of centuries were roused. The young mother was not a Hindu, but she felt, as Hindu widows do, that, bereft of their husbands, life for them had come to an end. Suttee it was true had been abolished, but the penance custom and religion imposed upon the poor widow was almost worse than death. She begged Azeena to take care of the child, warning her that Nara’s Mahommedan relatives were her enemies, because of her mother’s love for an infidel, and the next morning the poor woman’s body was found floating in the Jumna.

The warning as to Nara was not unnecessary, for within a month ayah and charge were borne away by armed men, and the ayah threatened with death if she betrayed them to any of Sahib Folliott’s friends. Nara’s relatives were very wicked, said Azeena, and sold her to an infamous old woman who, in partnership with Hoosein Khan, owned the troupe of dancing-girls. They would have separated the child from her only friend, but Nara, with a spirit beyond her years, frantically declared that if they did so she would kill herself.

“And Nara would have kept her word, Sahib,” whispered the woman. “She does not know what fear is. If her spirit could have been broken that would have happened long, long ago. The other girls hate her, and many a time has the vile woman Sundra Bai, the ‘Begum,’ as she likes to be called, savagely beaten her. The ‘Begum’ was a famous dancer when she was young, and was a favourite of Shah Alum.”

“The deuce she was,” growled Horsford. “Then I’ll bet she learned something.”

“I have heard tales​—​horribly wicked tales of poisonings, of lingering deaths, of terrible torturings in those days in the Palace. I cannot speak of them to you, Sahib.”

Azeena shuddered and buried her face in her hands. Horsford understood her. He had also heard grim stories of the Palace when Shah Alum was king, stories with which was associated all that was debased and brutal in human nature.

“The ‘Begum’ has been useful many a time to Zeenut Mehal,” went on Azeena in a hushed voice. “She can compound secret poisons. She can mingle death with the scent of the roses. She can make the most delicious sweetmeats that are sweet and refreshing in the mouth and bring on horrible diseases after they are swallowed, diseases that are incurable, diseases that end in raving madness!”

Azeena went on to dilate upon Sundra Bai’s craft and wickedness until Horsford’s blood boiled. Had he any doubt that he was not justified in rescuing Nara from the clutches of the terrible old woman and her infamous associate Hoosein Khan, what he had learned that night would have decided him.

“Yes, the ‘Begum’ is a wicked woman, but not so wicked as Hoosein Khan​—​may dogs defile his grave! May he be accursed for ever! May——”

Rage choked the woman’s voice. Her sudden burst of anger sent her body quivering. Some terrible recollection had come into her mind at the mention of Hoosein Khan.

“He is the vilest of wretches. He would have strangled me because I protected poor Nara from his hideous, his loathsome persecution, but for Sundra Bai. But, Sahib, it was not for love or pity that the ‘Begum’ stayed his hand. All she loves is money. No one could play the saringhee as I played it. She asked higher prices because of me. The tuwaifs are hers. Hoosein Khan has no power. He only pretends he has. The ‘Begum’ takes the money and gives him a small share. She hates Nara, but the girl is too valuable to be let come to harm. Zeenut Mehal knows all about Nara; that is why she is willing to pay a high price for her. For a common tuwaif she would give but a paltry sum. They can be had by the dozen. But Nara​—​you saw her dance, Sahib. Did you ever see one so graceful, so enchanting? Ah! she knows all the arts. The ‘Begum’ taught her.”

Azeena’s words made Horsford the more determined to carry out his designs, whatever might be the consequences. It was clear for what purpose the child had been so carefully trained, and he growled out his opinion of the infamy of the thing in good plain Saxon, expressive enough to Azeena so far as sounds went, but otherwise unintelligible.

Morning broke, and Kulloo Bux made a halt for breakfast at the usual resting place for travellers​—​a well. By this time fifteen miles had been covered. Meanwhile no conveyance coming towards Delhi had been encountered. All were going the other way: to the Melá. Close by their halting place were cross-roads, east and west, and that to the west was thronged with foot passengers, with horsemen, with all kinds of vehicles. The rich were as eager as the poor to take part in the gaiety, and these were mounted on elephants and camels. All the women were dressed in their best and decked with ornaments. Some, even, were unveiled, for at Melás a certain amount of freedom is allowed.

Horsford would have continued the journey after the meal, but Kulloo Bux urged that the pony needed rest. Horsford did not contest the point. He was quite aware of the importance of not over-working the animal. Resuming his limp and his staff, he strolled along the road, with plenty to occupy his attention in the motley gathering that streamed past him.

A quarter of a mile or so from where he had left Azeena and her father he came upon a party encamped in the shade of a mango grove. Four bahlees​—​large, heavy, tilted, two-wheeled carts​—​had their yokes propped up by struts to keep the bodies of the vehicles level, and from behind the drawn curtains of three of the vehicles came the laughter and chatter of women. The fourth bahlee was loaded with luggage, and a dozen oxen were doing their best to feed on whatever green stuff they could find within the length of their tethers. A score or so of men were squatting round a savoury and substantial meal​—​a large dish of appetising kabobs​—​lumps of meat stuck on a skewer and roasted. Most of the men were native soldiers in the service of some prince or chief. Their spears and swords and shields were on the ground near one of the bahlees.

Slackening his pace to a crawl, Horsford limped by on purpose to inspect them closely, and to listen to what they were saying. A rather excited discussion was going on. The majority of the men wanted to visit the Melá, two or three were doubtful. There broke in upon the confused talk a shrill, querulous voice from a man whom Horsford had not hitherto seen, hidden as he had been behind the burly forms of a couple of the warriors. The owner of the voice bent forward with vehement gesticulation, and Horsford recognised the yellow, wrinkled face, the ragged, grey beard and gleaming, avaricious eyes of Hoosein Khan. He was violently protesting against the proposed delay.

“Are you not paid to guard us until the girl is safe in the King’s Palace?” he asked. “If you go to the Melá, you will spend your money and waste your time, and who will suffer for the delay? Not you, but I, Hoosein Khan. What say you, Nur Singh? You are responsible for your men. Do you command them or do they command you?”

The leader apparently had not given his opinion. He made it known now. He had taken a fancy to one of the dancing-girls, and had promised her a treat at the fair. Nur Singh having spoken to this effect, some of his men followed suit and the truth came out. The girls had set their hearts on taking part in the gaiety of the Melá, and the warriors had pledged themselves to gratify their wishes. Hoosein Khan lifted up his hands and his voice in bitter protest. In vain he cried out that he would be ruined; that some of the girls might never return​—​that Melás were full of dangers and attended by goojurs and all kinds of bad characters​—​and in any case if he failed in his mission to Delhi it might be as much as his life was worth.

“What can hurt you by delay? Who is the enemy you fear?” asked the leader.

“I have told you​—​the Sahib who covets the pet lamb of the flock,” screamed Hoosein Khan wildly.

“One man​—​and he now at Simla,” rejoined the warrior contemptuously.

“How know you that? You have not fought the Feringhee. He has not the craft of our race, but he never lets go his hold. His Highness the Rajah may try and deceive the Sahib, but he will not succeed.”

Hoosein Khan’s arguments failed to shake the determination of the leader. He thought of Adala’s melting eyes, and of her anger if he disappointed her. However, he was willing to compromise the matter. He offered to leave three of the most redoubtable of his warriors behind, and with this Hoosein Khan was forced to be content. But when he saw Nur Singh picked out the three oldest​—​men whose youthful fire had departed, and who had not attracted the admiration of any of the houris within the bahlees​—​his discontent rose afresh. Nur Singh, enraged at the aspersions cast on his soldiers by a man of low origin, who had never in his life faced an enemy, settled the matter by bringing the flat of his sword smartly on Hoosein Khan’s back, and the discontented one groaningly submitted.

The discussion had been so excited, and the men had been so absorbed by thoughts of the Melá, that they paid no attention to the lame man with the staff. Unobserved, Horsford took up a position some little distance within the grove, and watched the preparations for departure. The luggage bahlee and one other was left behind, and the gay party set out in the remaining carts, leaving Hoosein Khan glum and angry, and the three old soldiers squatting in the shade, gravely smoking.

Horsford crept away to formulate his plans. Kulloo Bux was asleep, and Azeena, seated in the cart, her head bent and her body swaying, was crooning the wild, plaintive melody Horsford had heard her play on the saringhee.

“Azeena​—​Azeena, she’s found!” whispered Horsford. “We needn’t go a step further.”

“Is my lord jesting with his servant?” cried the ayah, trembling.

“Not he. It’s true enough. Most of the soldiers have gone to the Melá with the girls. Nara and Hoosein Khan and three of the men have been left behind.”

“And Sundra Bai?” asked Azeena anxiously.

“I know nothing about her. Perhaps she’s gone to the Melá too.”

Azeena shook her head.

“She would not leave Nara. It is she who decides everything. Hoosein Khan has to do what he is told. He has to give her every rupee he gets for the dancing, and she pays him out of it. Old as she is, Sundra Bai is as strong and fierce as a tiger, but Hoosein Khan​—​no. He is a coward; he has the heart of a rabbit. You must be wary, Sahib. The ‘Begum’ is crafty.”

“Thanks for the warning, Azeena. When we start operations, I’ll make sure of the old cat first.”

“What will you do, Sahib? Shall I wake my father?”

“No. Let him sleep on and you do the same. We shall want all our strength, but nothing can be done until night.”

“Ah, Sahib, I shall not sleep now that I know my dearest is near,” cried the woman excitedly. “I long to see her​—​to fold my arms about her.”

“You shall do that in good time, but you must be patient.”

“I will try, Sahib, I will try.”

Azeena twined her long, thin, brown hands together in the effort to control her emotion and broke into her favourite melody, but singing it so softly it was little more than a whisper.

Horsford himself followed the advice he had given Azeena; he went to sleep until the afternoon was well advanced. He found Kulloo Bux drawing water from the well. Azeena had told her father everything, so that the two had nothing to do but to arrange their plans.

Night drew on apace. At dusk Kulloo Bux, taking advantage of the hideous noise made by a gang of gipsies thumping tom-toms and half jabbering, half yelling, their wild songs, cautiously shifted his cart close to the mango grove, and not a dozen yards from Sundra Bai’s bahlee.

Half an hour after the gipsies had passed the road was quiet, and the only sound that broke the stillness was an occasional bellow from one of the tethered oxen. Horsford crept forward to reconnoitre, but in the blackness beneath the mangoes hardly anything was visible. However, he made out the bahlee, thanks to its white tilt, and crawling past could just discern the crouching form of Hoosein Khan squatting on the yoke and puffing solemnly at his hookah. The three soldiers could not be seen, and remembering that there was a serai or inn not far from the entrance to the grove, and thinking it was most likely the men had gone there, Horsford went towards the place.

The serai, instead of being a scene of confusion, as native inns usually were, was comparatively dull. Everybody was gone to the Melá, and two of the women innkeepers, either on account of the dullness of trade, or because they were debarred from tasting the delights of the fair, were quarrelling and abusing each other’s relatives for several generations back. The three warriors, evidently glad of the break in the monotony, were watching the quarrel with much interest. Horsford saw that they were absorbed, and he hastened back to the bahlee. He cannoned against some one in the darkness. It was Azeena.

“Sahib​—​Sahib,” she whispered excitedly, “Sundra Bai is in the cart. She——”

Azeena stopped abruptly, and her finger went to her lips. Hoosein Khan’s rasping voice was heard.

“Who’s there? Is it thou, Devendra Doshi?”

The old man’s eyes, accustomed to the darkness, had apparently discovered the two moving forms.

“Azeena,” Horsford said under his breath, “be ready to do what I told you.”

The ayah nodded. Her eyes were dilating and gleaming like those of a cat. Horsford limped towards Hoosein Khan, who had slipped from his seat on the yoke and was peering into the darkness.

“Brother, am I on the right road to the Melá?” said the supposed lame man.

“I know nothing about the Melá,” snarled Hoosein Khan. “I——”

His words were cut short as though by a knife. A pair of long, sinewy hands, holding between them a silk scarf stretched tightly, had descended over the man’s head. The hands were Azeena’s. Horsford had told her to gag Hoosein Khan. At the same moment Horsford grasped the old man’s wrists, and in a twinkling bound them together with the cord he had in readiness. He did not trouble about Azeena’s proceedings, he was sure she would do her work effectually. He did not expect Hoosein Khan would yield without a struggle, but beyond a slight convulsive writhing there was no movement, save a bending of his body backwards, probably due to the force with which Azeena had drawn the scarf.

“Is the knot secured?” whispered Horsford.

“Yes, Sahib,” came huskily over the old man’s shoulder.

Horsford laid the old man gently on the ground, and was about to raise himself from his stooping position, satisfied that Hoosein Khan, effectually gagged, could not interfere with the next operation, when he saw there was no handkerchief over the mouth. The lips were swollen and parted. The eyes were open.

“My God, she’s strangled him!” he muttered.

Azeena was standing where she had let go the body. The handkerchief was lying at her feet. She was covering her eyes with her hands. Horsford was by her side in an instant.

“What made you do it?” he demanded sternly.

“It had to be done, Sahib, it had to be,” he heard her gasp out. “It was so easy. Hoosein Khan himself taught me. The vile wretch was a Thug when he was a young man. He has strangled many and many a traveller going to Melás on this very road. He boasted of it. He deserved death. Remember what I told you of his wickedness.”

Horsford did not doubt Azeena’s word. At the same time it was not pleasant to be associated with such a deed. But it was not a moment for scruples. There was other work to be done.

“Go round to the back of the bahlee and be ready to take the child. You know what to do. Hurry her into the cart and tell your father to drive his hardest to Delhi.”

“And you, Sahib?”

“If all goes well I may have time to join you. If not​—​well, I can look after myself.”

Azeena, without a word, obeyed, and Horsford mounted the projecting ledge in front of the bahlee. He looked into the interior through the slit of the curtains beneath the tilt. The old woman was lying huddled on soft cushions near the place for the driver. Nara was by her side in the corner. To get the girl to the back of the bahlee she would have to be lifted over the woman. The latter was in a heavy sleep, as was evident by her discordant snuffles, and there was just the chance she would not wake. Horsford put his head close to the girl’s ear.

“Nara,” he whispered.

She opened her eyes almost immediately.

“You know me, don’t you? Do you remember​—​at the Rajah’s Palace? You fainted, and I carried you to the verandah. I have come to take you from these wicked people. Azeena is waiting for you outside. You’re quite safe if you keep quiet and do what I tell you.”

Long before he said these words Nara recognised him. A smile lit her eyes, and she put out her hand to greet him.

“Get up,” he went on, “but mind you don’t touch the Begum and wake her.”

The girl raised her slim form, and gathering up the folds of her sari lest it might touch the woman’s face, she stepped lightly from the huddled form by her side, Horsford meanwhile keeping himself ready to seize the Begum and stifle any cry she might raise.

Nara accomplished her task successfully, but at the very moment she was jumping from the back of the bahlee the “Begum” awoke with a start. Before Sundra Bai could hurl herself after the girl muscular fingers gripped her and held her fast. Struggle as much as she liked she could not release herself, but there was nothing to prevent her shrieking, and shriek she did. Horsford brought his disengaged hand down heavily over her mouth, but to no purpose. She snapped at him like a dog; her teeth met in one of his fingers, and she uttered a volley of screams.

“You devilish she-cat!”

The words wrung from him by the savage bite were involuntarily uttered in English. The savage old hag let so his finger and stared fixedly at him. Horsford did not wait for the result of her inspection, but started to spring from the narrow ledge in front of the cart on which he had been standing. In turning, however, one of his feet slipped, and he fell backwards. His head and shoulders struck the yoke and he fell violently to the ground, where he lay for a second or two slightly stunned.

He soon recovered, and as he was about to rise he saw a long, deadly-looking matchlock gun protruding from the tilt of the bahlee, and instead of springing to his feet as he intended he crept away on all fours. An Indian matchlock is not the readiest of weapons to handle, and before Sundra Bai could fire he had slipped to the back of the bahlee. Azeena and the girl had disappeared. He started to run when a new danger overtook him. The soldiers, hearing screams, had sped from the serai by a short cut, and their yells proclaimed that they had caught sight of him.

“You devils,” he muttered, “I’ll have to stay and fight. The longer start Kulloo Bux has the better.”

Horsford had not the slightest fear of the soldiers, excellent swordsmen though they might be. The “she-cat” in the bahlee with her matchlock was a more formidable foe, but he cared as little for the woman with her matchlock as he did for the men with their swords and spears. Matchlocks were as erratic in their behaviour as the Brown Bess of the British Army.

The yells of the soldiers and the flaring of a torch put the old woman on the qui vive. She jumped from the bahlee and with the matchlock gun trailing after her came running, or rather waddling​—​for she was very fat​—​towards him, shrieking as she ran. Horsford backed a couple of paces so as to keep the trunk of the mango between him and Sundra Bai’s weapon and waited until the soldiers were within a dozen yards or so of where he was standing. Then​—​ping!​—​went his heavy, double-barrelled pistol, pointed at their legs. Two of the men fell to the ground, the third, either amazed at what must have appeared to him like magic, or, more likely imagining that he was attacked by enemies in ambush, turned tail and vanished, in spite of the bitter reproaches hurled at him by the infuriated old woman.

Horsford now had no fear of pursuit. The torch thrown to the ground was extinguished, and the “Begum” could see no one to aim at. For all that she fired the matchlock and a fearful clatter it made, but none of its contents hit the retreating Horsford. In a couple of minutes he had reached the spot where Kulloo Bux had been waiting with his cart. It was gone.

“Good,” muttered Horsford. “Now for a sprint. I once did a mile in five minutes at Addiscombe. I shan’t do that now, but I’ll have a try.”

It was not easy running along the soft, sandy road, and there was a risk of attracting attention by going at racing speed, but he chanced this. Dressed as he was in native clothes he might well be taken for a messenger. Luckily he met but very few persons, and after proceeding about three quarters of a mile he overtook the cart. He found Kulloo Bux trembling with fright and urging on his pony as much for his own sake as for Nara’s.