Chapter IX

“I Want You”

Horsford did not climb into the cart but kept up a jog trot by its side, and contented himself by assuring Kulloo Bux that he had nothing to worry about. But not until the bridge of boats was reached was the old man satisfied.

Here the next part of the programme was carried out. Horsford had arranged everything. During the journey Azeena and Nara had changed their dresses for others the ayah had brought with her. Kulloo Bux was to return the cart he had hired, and Horsford, the woman, and the girl, were to cross the bridge and enter the city on foot.

All went well. It was dark, and nobody paid the slightest attention to them. Azeena and Nara were disguised as poor workers in the fields, and Horsford might well have passed for a beggar with his torn garments covered with dust and dirt. Horsford did not say a word to the child. He was quite contented to see how she clung to Azeena and her evident joy at being once more with her faithful companion.

It wanted an hour of daybreak when they reached Mr. Mowatt’s bungalow. Horsford determined to leave to Azeena the task of explaining things to Mrs. Mowatt. Well as he could act the part of a native, he might make some slip which would betray him. Azeena, however, was quite mistress of the situation and knew how to talk to the servants. At the entrance to the compound Horsford stopped, and the child, shifting the scarf​—​she, like the ayah, was veiled​—​so that she could see him better, looked up into his face. From his height of six feet she seemed quite a dot.

“Are you not coming with me, Sahib?” said she timidly, in the soft, liquid tongue of her mother’s race.

“No​—​I must change my clothes. As I look now the chokadars won’t believe I’m Sahib. When next you see me I shall be like your father in the picture.”

“Oh, yes​—​yes, with the gold on your shoulders?” she cried delightedly.

“Not quite that. You shall see me in my finery some other time. Remember that you’re quite safe with Azeena and that you must like the mem-sahib. She will love you if you are good.”

“I promise you. Nara will keep her word,” said the girl proudly.

“I’m sure of that. Good-bye for the present, little one. Don’t forget that you’re going to be happy now that you’re with your father’s people.”

Nara’s eyes, at first sad and doubtful, brightened at Horsford’s words. She slid her little hand into his.

“You will come soon, Sahib, won’t you? I shall be wretched till I see you.”

“Yes​—​yes. I shan’t be long away,” rejoined Horsford hastily. He dared not tell her that she was to be sent away across the “black water” to England. It would be time enough for her to know this when kindly old Mrs. Mowatt had gained her confidence, and this he was sure would not take long.

He watched the two until they entered the verandah, where a white-robed chokadar, hearing their approach, roused himself, and a few words passed between him and Azeena. The woman’s explanation was apparently satisfactory, for the man ushered her and Nara into the bungalow. Then Horsford hastened back to the shop of Kulloo Bux in the lane near the Chandi Chauk. Here he had left his European dress. Dawn was breaking when he reached the house, and the muezzin was sounding from the Jama Masjid. Kulloo Bux had preceded him by a few minutes, and at that moment was on his knees jabbering a long prayer. Horsford did not disturb him, but waited patiently until the recital was ended.

While the excitement of the flight was on, and while he was jogging by the side of the cart, mile after mile along the dusty road, Horsford had never given a thought to Hoosein Khan. But with the strain taken off his mind his memory went back to that ghastly, dusky face, the parted, swollen lips, the sightless eyes. He wondered what would be thought when the body was found. Thuggism as a system of wholesale murder and robbery had been suppressed nearly twenty years, but the methods of the thug had not been forgotten, and there must be still living many who had used the roomal, the fatal handkerchief with which the thug strangled his victim. The marks of Azeena’s sinewy knuckles on Hoosein Khan’s throat could hardly fail to tell their tale should an English doctor be called in. The procedure of the thug was simplicity itself. The hands holding the roomal, with five or six inches’ space between the two thumb joints, swiftly dropped over the head from behind, the handkerchief was pressed tightly against the throat, the thumb joints jerked violently into each side of the windpipe, and the deed was done.

“Confoundedly awkward,” thought Horsford. “If it’s once believed that Thuggism is about again, our officials won’t rest till they’ve probed the business to the bottom. Mrs. Mowatt doesn’t know the facts, but she knows enough to put the Delhi magistrate on the scent if she opens her mouth. But will she? I don’t think so. The chances are that nothing will come of the affair. Goojurs by scores and budmash by hundreds always crowd to the Melás. Everybody knows that. I doubt if the thing will reach the magistrate’s ears​—​the natives are pretty certain to think it was an affair of the ordinary professional thief. There’s the ‘Begum’ though​—​what will be her opinion? Did she see Azeena? No, she was asleep and snoring too, or she would have had that devilish long shooter of hers out in a jiffy. Whatever may be said of the ugly job it was done in perfect silence.”

By this time Kulloo Bux had lifted his head from the ground, and Horsford asked him whether everything had gone well. Kulloo Bux gave a sigh of satisfaction. He had returned the cart and pony, he had paid for the hire, and he had nothing to report. No one had interfered with him, and he had entered the city free from the gaze of suspicion. He hoped he had earned the Sahib’s praise.

“You’ve done first-rate. Did Azeena tell you how the child was secured?”

“Yes, surely, Sahib,” said the old man, with an air of surprise.

“And​—​about Hoosein Khan?”

“She said nought of him, Sahib.”

“Humph! that’s as well,” muttered Horsford. “Look here, Kulloo Bux,” he went on aloud, “the best thing you can do is to forget last night’s work as soon as possible. It won’t trouble you any more. Take that as my farewell gift.”

The eyes of Kulloo Bux glistened. The Sahib had already treated him very liberally, and this farewell gift was wholly unexpected. The old man’s brown hands clutched the money, and he invoked Allah to shower blessings on his lordship’s head.

By this time Horsford had done a quick change, and nodding to the grain dealer, he set out to return to Mrs. Mowatt’s bungalow. He had several arrangements to make before it could be said he had fulfilled the trust imposed upon him. The girl must have an outfit, and he determined her dress should be English. She must be taught to forget her old life as soon as possible. Mrs. Mowatt would have to be consulted about this.

“To be quite satisfied in my mind, I ought to accompany the old lady to Bombay, and see the girl on board. I shall want leave of absence to do this, and I’ll have to make out a good case at headquarters to get it. Under the awkward circumstances I can hardly tell them the story. If it hadn’t been for Azeena’s roomal I’d have found a soft corner in the official heart for poor Jack Folliott. But Hoosein Khan’s dead body has sealed my lips​—​for the moment certainly. I can’t explain that without rounding on the woman. I must spin a yarn about ‘urgent private affairs.’”

Fate, however, determined otherwise. Scarcely had he passed through the Cashmeer Gate than he met his adjutant. The latter reined in his horse and hailed him.

“Where the deuce did you spring from, Horsford? I thought you were dining and wining, waltzing and flirting at Simla.”

“Well, that was something of my programme a week ago, but I had to run away on business. In fact,” he added, telling a convenient fib, “I’m on my way now to headquarters to get leave to go to Bombay.”

“Bombay,” said the adjutant, with a grunt. “That isn’t the road to Burma.”

Burma? What on earth was Adjutant Sinclair talking about? The adjutant must have seen the look of surprise in Horsford’s face. He went on to say:

“I thought by finding you here that, in some wonderful fashion, you’d got to know that your application for service in Burma had been accepted. We’ve got the instructions​—​the usual pile of red tape papers​—​and there’s an official letter for you. It would have been dispatched to Simla by special messenger to-day, but now that you’re here we’ll be saved the trouble.”

Burma! Already his pulses quickened at the prospect of active service. But Nara? Well, he had made her safe. All he need do was to arrange details with Mrs. Mowatt, provide for the necessary expenses, and leave the future of the child in the hands of her English aunts.

“It’s lucky that business brought you to Delhi,” went on the adjutant. “Your orders are to start without delay, and by being here you’ve saved time. I shall see you later on in the day perhaps. I’m off to Metcalfe House.”

The adjutant waved his hand, his horse broke into a trot, and Horsford went on to the cantonments to report himself. Two hours were spent here in routine matters and in gossiping with his brother officers, most of whom were anxious to know the latest news from Simla, where the wives and daughters of several were staying. But at last he got away, and borrowing a comrade’s buggy, he drove to Mowatt’s bungalow.

“She is a sweet child,” said the old lady enthusiastically, “but so quiet and so sad. Of course she doesn’t talk much English, but she’s very quick and already she knows a few more words. I’m sure before she gets to England she’ll speak just like an English child. But you must tell me all about your adventures last night. I can get nothing out of Azeena. What’s the matter with her? She’s not the same woman she was. She sits with her eyes fixed on the ground, and she’ll hardly speak even to Nara. The poor child’s greatly distressed.”

Thus Mrs. Mowatt, running on without waiting for an answer. However she came back to what was the most important question​—​how had the girl been rescued?​—​a question which Horsford found some difficulty in answering. He had to do it by suppressing all reference to Hoosein Khan and the fight with the soldiers, and somehow he satisfied Mrs. Mowatt’s natural curiosity without enlightening her. Then followed prosaic details. Mrs. Mowatt was starting in three days’ time, and Horsford decided that he would delay his departure for Burma until the lady and her charge were safely out of Delhi.

Those three days were days of great anxiety. Hoosein Khan had been murdered. Even an ignorant person could tell this. Was a crime to be perpetrated and no notice taken of it? What of the wounded soldiers? Did they intend to remain silent? Two days went over and no news came. The Delhi Gazette appeared, and Horsford searched its columns but found nothing. What had the “Begum” been doing? Had she sent tidings of the loss of Nara to Zeenut Mehal? Had she dreaded the wrath of the Queen and kept silence? The girls were her property, her income. She was not the one to see her money slipping through her fingers and look on quietly.

On the third day Horsford rode to the mango grove. The Melá was nearly over; the road was thronged with returning patrons, the bahlees were gone from the grove. He called at the serai. He knew that the sojourn of the “Begum” and her dancing-girls would be talked about, and that he could make inquiries concerning them without exciting suspicion. Indeed the subject was one in which a sahib-logue would be certain to be interested. He learned that the girls had come back from the Melá and that they had gone on with the “Begum” to Delhi. But not a word did he hear about Hoosein Khan.

Horsford returned to the city relieved in his mind. He came to the conclusion that the old woman had her reasons for hushing up the business, and that the body of Hoosein Khan had been buried in the sand and nothing said. He regarded the incident as closed, and the next morning he went on to Mowatt’s bungalow to bid the child and her good-natured protector farewell. He found the dâk in readiness and the runners squatting in the shade until they received the order to start. As he traversed the pretty garden Azeena suddenly stole from behind a thicket and confronted him.

“Sahib​—​Sahib,” she whispered agitatedly, “you are in danger. Zeenut Mehal suspects. I have heard news from the Palace. The ‘Begum’ arrived there with her girls, and the Queen was furious when she heard about Nara. She has had letters from his Highness the Rajah, and she knows about you and what happened at the banquet. She will never rest until she is revenged, and you may be sure the ‘Begum’ will help her.”

“Zeenut Mehal can do what she likes. Everything has gone well. In a short time you and Nara will be at Bombay, and by to-morrow I shall be miles on my way to Calcutta.”

“Allah be praised!” cried the woman. Then a shiver seemed to pass over her, and Horsford heard her murmur, “If I had not the blood of Hoosein Khan to answer for! Yet Allah knows I was but an instrument in His hands!”

“Of course you were,” said he. “The old scoundrel was not fit to live. In England, where you are going, I might take a different view of matters, but here what you did was but justice. You’ve nothing to fear. Nobody knows what happened. I rode out yesterday to the serai and could learn nothing. You are quite safe. Forget everything but your love for Nara and for Nara’s mother. Watch over her. When you are in England Mrs. Mowatt will take leave of you and you will be with Nara’s relations, and then your troubles will end.”

Guy Horsford’s conscience pricked him as he said this. The whole thing was pure assumption. He had not the least idea how Nara’s aunts would receive her. But he had faith in Mrs. Mowatt, and if the girl’s relatives refused to have anything to do with her she would not be without a friend. Mrs. Mowatt would not be at any expense, for he had provided her with ample funds, though he had impoverished himself considerably in doing it.

Azeena glided away, and Horsford went on to the bungalow. Five minutes later he was escorting the old lady and Nara, now in the orthodox flounces, the ribbons and the straw hat of the little English maiden. She looked pretty​—​nothing could spoil her charm​—​but she was not so picturesque. She had not got used to the shoes with straps, and she walked very cautiously and quite without the old freedom. The girl’s eyes were filled with tears. The costume had taken years from her. She looked now the child that she was.

“You will not forget me,” she whispered, when Horsford bent down to say good-bye.

“Forget you? Not likely, little one,” he returned.

“But will you come and see me?”

“Yes, of course.”

It was more probable they would never meet again, but how could he tell her this?

“When​—​when? I shall be wretched until you come.”

“Oh, it will be a long time, but you mustn’t be wretched. Kind friends are waiting you in England.”

“I don’t want them. I only want you, Sahib,” she burst out tremulously.

“You must be patient. I shall see you again. Now you must go. Promise me not to grieve.”

“I​—​I will try.”

The voice was choking, the head bowed so that the Sahib should not see her swimming eyes. He took her hand; it lay limply in his for a couple of seconds and then suddenly clasped his fingers.

“Good-bye, my dear,” he whispered.

Her reply was a sob and a convulsive pressure of his hand. He lifted her into the palanquin, then he assisted Mrs. Mowatt to follow.

“I would like to have accompanied you to Bombay, but it’s impossible. I start for Calcutta to-night to join General Godwin’s force.”

“I understand. I wish you every good fortune. You will come back a Colonel.”

“Or stay behind as I am,” rejoined Horsford, with a shrug of the shoulders. He was silent for a minute or so, and went on:

“If there’s any difficulty about Nara’s aunts don’t hesitate to tell me. Write to me at Calcutta. I may be hung up there for some time, as there’s nothing definitely settled about Burma. Good-bye, and thank you sincerely for all the trouble you’re taking.”

The last good-byes were said; the dâk-men lifted the palanquin and moved away. Horsford stood watching it for some time, saw a little hand waving a bright coloured ribbon from between the curtains as the bearers turned a corner, and the palanquin disappeared.

He walked slowly back to headquarters. All his preparations were made, and he had nothing to think about save his adventures of the last few days. But even these were beginning to fade. They seemed strangely remote. Nara’s big, childish eyes, full of wonderment, innocence, and affection, were the most vivid things in his memory. He would never forget them, even though he never saw the girl again. He entered the officers’ bungalow and sauntered into the mess-room. Some of the officers had just come from morning parade and were breakfasting.

“A letter for you, Horsford,” said one man. “You’ll find it on the notice board.”

Horsford went to the green baize-covered board and took the letter from the crossed tapes under which it had been stuck. The writing was unmistakably a lady’s​—​in the fifties women had not begun to write like men. The postmark was Simla. In a flash Nara’s dark eyes vanished from his mental vision. He hesitated to open the letter. It had brought back embarrassing recollections of Clare Stanhope.

“Impossible! She would never write. She’s far too proud,” he muttered. “Whether it was her fault or mine that we broke away, doesn’t matter. It’s just as well, perhaps. We were bound to quarrel sooner or later.”

He persuaded himself the letter was not from Clare Stanhope. For all that he was in no hurry to open it. He stared at the spidery loops, the acute angles, the up and down strokes, the one as thin as the other, and fancied he saw in the hand-writing a resemblance to that of another Simla young lady.

“It’s from Millie Daintree,” he thought.

Millie had certainly flung herself at the head of Guy Horsford. She was of the “gushing” type, insipid and artificial, and Horsford had received her blandishments very coolly. She was quite capable of pursuing him with letters. At last he tore open the envelope. His lips twitched as his eyes fell on the contents.

“Why did you go away? I want you. Come.”


This was all. Had the letter been a long one, full of reproaches, it would not have appealed to him, as he considered he was not the offender. But Horsford saw in those few words the passionate side of Clare Stanhope’s nature. They meant that whatever might be his view of the matter, she had not broken with him.

Nara’s farewell wish, uttered in her soft, plaintive voice, still haunted him. “I only want you, Sahib.” The words were almost identical with Clare’s passionate appeal. Was the coincidence a forerunning of rivalry? He dismissed the question with a shrug. Nara was but a child who for a brief space had come into his life and had vanished almost as quickly as she had appeared. In all likelihood he would never see her again. No, there was not any rivalry. Besides, had not Clare also gone out of his life? And then​—​he might be destined to find his last resting place in Burma.

Still he could not straighten out the thing to his satisfaction. The feeling that he was bound to Clare haunted him. If she had not written, or had written in a different strain, he should have set out that night for Calcutta with a clear conscience. But his conscience was not clear. He had acted hastily in taking Clare at her word.

“It didn’t seem so at the time,” he thought, “but of course my request was an unreasonable one and she was right in refusing. All the same, I shall have to answer her letter.”

Clare’s direct appeal had come straight from her heart. He could not doubt it. Until that fateful night when his horse stopped of its own accord at Dr. Stanhope’s bungalow, Clare had been to him little more than an amusing companion, with the piquancy of sex which makes all the difference between a man and a woman chum. And had he not had the provocation of the dancing incident at the Rajah’s, and of the Rajah’s wine, the sound of Andrew Meldrum’s voice would not have stirred the devil within him. Well, what had happened had happened, and he must take the consequences, but how to reply to Clare was the most embarrassing task he had ever undertaken. There was, it is true, one way of getting over the difficulty: he was about to depart on a campaign from which he might not return; it would be excusable if he put off writing until he reached Calcutta.

“That strikes me as cowardly,” he decided. “I’d better write and get it over, but what the deuce am I to say? Shall I take the olive branch Clare is holding out? If I do will things be as they were before we agreed to differ? And​—​what then?”

A clock from within the bungalow struck. In half an hour the men would arrive with the palanquin. He sat down at a table and commenced to write desperately.