The Tremendous Adventures of Major Gahagan, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER IV.

The Indian Camp — The Sortie from the Fort.

HEAD-QUARTERS, MORELLA, Oct. 3, 1838.

It is a balmy night. I hear the merry jingle of the tambourine, and the cheery voices of the girls and peasants, as they dance beneath my casement, under the shadow of the clustering vines. The laugh and song pass gayly round, and even at this distance I can distinguish the elegant form of Ramon Cabrera, as he whispers gay nothings in the ears of the Andalusian girls, or joins in the thrilling chorus of Riego’s hymn, which is ever and anon vociferated by the enthusiastic soldiery of Carlos Quinto. I am alone, in the most inaccessible and most bomb-proof tower of our little fortalice; the large casements are open — the wind, as it enters, whispers in my ear its odorous recollections of the orange grove and the myrtle bower. My torch (a branch of the fragrant cedar-tree) flares and flickers in the midnight breeze, and disperses its scent and burning splinters on my scroll and the desk where I write — meet implements for a soldier’s authorship! — it is CARTRIDGE paper over which my pen runs so glibly, and a yawning barrel of gunpowder forms my rough writing-table. Around me, below me, above me, all — all is peace! I think, as I sit here so lonely, on my country, England! and muse over the sweet and bitter recollections of my early days! Let me resume my narrative, at the point where (interrupted by the authoritative summons of war) I paused on the last occasion.

I left off, I think —(for I am a thousand miles away from proof-sheets as I write, and, were I not writing the simple TRUTH, must contradict myself a thousand times in the course of my tale)— I think, I say, that I left off at that period of my story, when, Holkar being before Futtyghur, and I in command of that fortress, I had just been compelled to make away with his messenger; and, dressed in the fallen Indian’s accoutrements, went forth to reconnoitre the force, and, if possible, to learn the intentions of the enemy. However much my figure might have resembled that of the Pitan, and, disguised in his armor, might have deceived the lynx-eyed Mahrattas, into whose camp I was about to plunge, it was evident that a single glance at my fair face and auburn beard would have undeceived the dullest blockhead in Holkar’s army. Seizing, then, a bottle of Burgess’s walnut catsup, I dyed my face and my hands, and, with the simple aid of a flask of Warren’s jet, I made my hair and beard as black as ebony. The Indian’s helmet and chain hood covered likewise a great part of my face and I hoped thus, with luck, impudence, and a complete command of all the Eastern dialects and languages, from Burmah to Afghanistan, to pass scot-free through this somewhat dangerous ordeal.

I had not the word of the night, it is true — but I trusted to good fortune for that, and passed boldly out of the fortress, bearing the flag of truce as before; I had scarcely passed on a couple of hundred yards, when lo! a party of Indian horsemen, armed like him I had just overcome, trotted towards me. One was leading a noble white charger, and no sooner did he see me than, dismounting from his own horse, and giving the rein to a companion, he advanced to meet me with the charger; a second fellow likewise dismounted and followed the first; one held the bridle of the horse, while the other (with a multitude of salaams, aleikums, and other genuflexions), held the jewelled stirrup, and kneeling, waited until I should mount.

I took the hint at once: the Indian who had come up to the fort was a great man — that was evident; I walked on with a majestic air, gathered up the velvet reins, and sprung into the magnificent high-peaked saddle. “Buk, buk,” said I. “It is good. In the name of the forty-nine Imaums, let us ride on.” And the whole party set off at a brisk trot, I keeping silence, and thinking with no little trepidation of what I was about to encounter.

As we rode along, I heard two of the men commenting upon my unusual silence (for I suppose, I— that is the Indian — was a talkative officer). “The lips of the Bahawder are closed,” said one. “Where are those birds of Paradise, his long-tailed words? they are imprisoned between the golden bars of his teeth!”

“Kush,” said his companion, “be quiet! Bobbachy Bahawder has seen the dreadful Feringhee, Gahagan Khan Gujputi, the elephant-lord, whose sword reaps the harvest of death; there is but one champion who can wear the papooshes of the elephant-slayer — it is Bobbachy Bahawder!”

“You speak truly, Puneeree Muckun, the Bahawder ruminates on the words of the unbeliever: he is an ostrich, and hatches the eggs of his thoughts.”

“Bekhusm! on my nose be it! May the young birds, his actions, be strong and swift in flight.”

“May they DIGEST IRON!” said Puneeree Muckun, who was evidently a wag in his way.

“O-ho!” thought I, as suddenly the light flashed upon me. “It was, then, the famous Bobbachy Bahawder, whom I overcame just now! and he is the man destined to stand in my slippers, is he?” and I was at that very moment standing in his own! Such are the chances and changes that fall to the lot of the soldier!

I suppose everybody — everybody who has been in India, at least — has heard the name of Bobbachy Bahawder: it is derived from the two Hindustanee words — bobbachy, general; bahawder, artilleryman. He had entered into Holkar’s service in the latter capacity, and had, by his merit and his undaunted bravery in action, attained the dignity of the peacock’s feather, which is only granted to noblemen of the first class; he was married, moreover, to one of Holkar’s innumerable daughters: a match which, according to the Chronique Scandaleuse, brought more of honor than of pleasure to the poor Bobbachy. Gallant as he was in the field, it was said that in the harem he was the veriest craven alive, completely subjugated by his ugly and odious wife. In all matters of importance the late Bahawder had been consulted by his prince, who had, as it appears, (knowing my character, and not caring to do anything rash in his attack upon so formidable an enemy,) sent forward the unfortunate Pitan to reconnoitre the fort; he was to have done yet more, as I learned from the attendant Puneeree Muckun, who was, I soon found out, an old favorite with the Bobbachy — doubtless on account of his honesty and love of repartee.

“The Bahawder’s lips are closed,” said he, at last, trotting up to me; “has he not a word for old Puneeree Muckun?”

“Bismillah, mashallah, barikallah,” said I; which means, “My good friend, what I have seen is not worth the trouble of relation, and fills my bosom with the darkest forebodings.”

“You could not then see the Gujputi alone, and stab him with your dagger?”

[Here was a pretty conspiracy!] “No, I saw him, but not alone; his people were always with him.”

“Hurrumzadeh! it is a pity; we waited but the sound of your jogree (whistle), and straightway would have galloped up and seized upon every man, woman, and child in the fort: however, there are but a dozen men in the garrison, and they have not provision for two days — they must yield; and then hurrah for the moon-faces! Mashallah! I am told the soldiers who first get in are to have their pick. How my old woman, Rotee Muckun, will be surprised when I bring home a couple of Feringhee wives — ha! ha!”

“Fool!” said I, “be still! — twelve men in the garrison! there are twelve hundred! Gahagan himself is as good as a thousand men; and as for food, I saw with my own eyes five hundred bullocks grazing in the court-yard as I entered.” This WAS a bouncer, I confess; but my object was to deceive Puneeree Muckun, and give him as high a notion as possible of the capabilities of defence which the besieged had.

“Pooch, pooch,” murmured the men; “it is a wonder of a fortress: we shall never be able to take it until our guns come up.”

There was hope then! they had no battering-train. Ere this arrived, I trusted that Lord Lake would hear of our plight, and march down to rescue us. Thus occupied in thought and conversation, we rode on until the advanced sentinel challenged us, when old Puneeree gave the word, and we passed on into the centre of Holkar’s camp.

It was a strange — a stirring sight! The camp-fires were lighted; and round them — eating, reposing, talking, looking at the merry steps of the dancing-girls, or listening to the stories of some Dhol Baut (or Indian improvisatore) were thousands of dusky soldiery. The camels and horses were picketed under the banyan-trees, on which the ripe mango fruit was growing, and offered them an excellent food. Towards the spot which the golden fish and royal purdahs, floating in the wind, designated as the tent of Holkar, led an immense avenue — of elephants! the finest street, indeed, I ever saw. Each of the monstrous animals had a castle on its back, armed with Mauritanian archers and the celebrated Persian matchlock-men: it was the feeding time of these royal brutes, and the grooms were observed bringing immense toffungs, or baskets, filled with pine-apples, plantains, bandannas, Indian corn, and cocoa-nuts, which grow luxuriantly at all seasons of the year. We passed down this extraordinary avenue — no less than three hundred and eighty-eight tails did I count on each side — each tail appertaining to an elephant twenty-five feet high — each elephant having a two-storied castle on its back — each castle containing sleeping and eating rooms for the twelve men that formed its garrison, and were keeping watch on the roof — each roof bearing a flag-staff twenty feet long on its top, the crescent glittering with a thousand gems, and round it the imperial standard — each standard of silk velvet and cloth-of-gold, bearing the well-known device of Holkar, argent an or gules, between a sinople of the first, a chevron, truncated, wavy. I took nine of these myself in the course of a very short time after, and shall be happy, when I come to England, to show them to any gentleman who has a curiosity that way. Through this gorgeous scene our little cavalcade passed, and at last we arrived at the quarters occupied by Holkar.

That celebrated chieftain’s tents and followers were gathered round one of the British bungalows which had escaped the flames, and which he occupied during the siege. When I entered the large room where he sat, I found him in the midst of a council of war; his chief generals and viziers seated round him, each smoking his hookah, as is the common way with these black fellows, before, at, and after breakfast, dinner, supper, and bedtime. There was such a cloud raised by their smoke you could hardly see a yard before you — another piece of good luck for me — as it diminished the chances of my detection. When, with the ordinary ceremonies, the kitmatgars and consomahs had explained to the prince that Bobbachy Bahawder, the right eye of the Sun of the universe (as the ignorant heathens called me), had arrived from his mission, Holkar immediately summoned me to the maidaun, or elevated platform, on which he was seated in a luxurious easy-chair, and I, instantly taking off my slippers, falling on my knees, and beating my head against the ground ninety-nine times, proceeded, still on my knees, a hundred and twenty feet through the room, and then up the twenty steps which led to his maidaun — a silly, painful, and disgusting ceremony, which can only be considered as a relic of barbarian darkness, which tears the knees and shins to pieces, let alone the pantaloons. I recommend anybody who goes to India, with the prospect of entering the service of the native rajahs, to recollect my advice and have them WELL-WADDED.

Well, the right eye of the Sun of the universe scrambled as well as he could up the steps of the maidaun (on which in rows, smoking, as I have said, the musnuds or general officers were seated), and I arrived within speaking-distance of Holkar, who instantly asked me the success of my mission. The impetuous old man thereon poured out a multitude of questions: “How many men are there in the fort?” said he; “how many women? Is it victualled? Have they ammunition? Did you see Gahagan Sahib, the commander? did you kill him?”

All these questions Jeswunt Row Holkar puffed out with so many whiffs of tobacco.

Taking a chillum myself, and raising about me such a cloud that, upon my honor as a gentleman, no man at three yards’ distance could perceive anything of me except the pillar of smoke in which I was encompassed, I told Holkar, in Oriental language of course, the best tale I could with regard to the fort.

“Sir” said I, “to answer your last question first — that dreadful Gujputi I have seen — and he is alive: he is eight feet, nearly, in height; he can eat a bullock daily (of which he has seven hundred at present in the compound, and swears that during the siege he will content himself with only three a week): he has lost in battle his left eye; and what is the consequence? O Ram Gunge” (O thou-with-the-eye-as-bright-as-morning and-with-beard-as-black-as-night), “Goliah Gujputi — NEVER SLEEPS!”

“Ah, you Ghorumsaug (you thief of the world),” said the Prince Vizier, Saadut Alee Beg Bimbukchee —“it’s joking you are;"— and there was a universal buzz through the room at the announcement of this bouncer.

“By the hundred and eleven incarnations of Vishnu,” said I, solemnly, (an oath which no Indian was ever known to break,) “I swear that so it is: so at least he told me, and I have good cause to know his power. Gujputi is an enchanter: he is leagued with devils; he is invulnerable. Look,” said I, unsheathing my dagger — and every eye turned instantly towards me —“thrice did I stab him with this steel — in the back, once — twice right through the heart; but he only laughed me to scorn, and bade me tell Holkar that the steel was not yet forged which was to inflict an injury upon him.”

I never saw a man in such a rage as Holkar was when I gave him this somewhat imprudent message.

“Ah, lily-livered rogue!” shouted he out to me, “milk-blooded unbeliever! pale-faced miscreant! lives he after insulting thy master in thy presence! In the name of the prophet, I spit on thee, defy thee, abhor thee, degrade thee! Take that, thou liar of the universe! and that — and that — and that!”

Such are the frightful excesses of barbaric minds! every time this old man said, “Take that,” he flung some article near him at the head of the undaunted Gahagan — his dagger, his sword, his carbine, his richly ornamented pistols, his turban covered with jewels, worth a hundred thousand crores of rupees — finally, his hookah, snake mouthpiece, silver-bell, chillum and all — which went hissing over my head, and flattening into a jelly the nose of the Grand Vizier.

“Yock muzzee! my nose is off;” said the old man, mildly. “Will you have my life, O Holkar? it is thine likewise!” and no other word of complaint escaped his lips.

Of all these missiles, though a pistol and carbine had gone off as the ferocious Indian flung them at my head, and the naked scimitar fiercely but unadroitly thrown, had lopped off the limbs of one or two of the musnuds as they sat trembling on their omrahs, yet, strange to say, not a single weapon had hurt me. When the hubbub ceased, and the unlucky wretches who had been the victims of this fit of rage had been removed, Holkar’s good humor somewhat returned, and he allowed me to continue my account of the fort; which I did, not taking the slightest notice of his burst of impatience: as indeed it would have been the height of impoliteness to have done for such accidents happened many times in the day.

“It is well that the Bobbachy has returned,” snuffled out the poor Grand Vizier, after I had explained to the Council the extraordinary means of defence possessed by the garrison. “Your star is bright, O Bahawder! for this very night we had resolved upon an escalade of the fort, and we had sworn to put every one of the infidel garrison to the edge of the sword.”

“But you have no battering train,” said I.

“Bah! we have a couple of ninety-six pounders, quite sufficient to blow the gates open; and then, hey for a charge!” said Loll Mahommed, a general of cavalry, who was a rival of Bobbachy’s, and contradicted, therefore, every word I said. “In the name of Juggernaut, why wait for the heavy artillery? Have we not swords? Have we not hearts? Mashallah! Let cravens stay with Bobbachy, all true men will follow Loll Mahommed! Allahhumdillah, Bismillah, Barikallah?”12 and drawing his scimitar, he waved it over his head, and shouted out his cry of battle. It was repeated by many of the other omrahs; the sound of their cheers was carried into the camp, and caught up by the men; the camels began to cry, the horses to prance and neigh, the eight hundred elephants set up a scream, the trumpeters and drummers clanged away at their instruments. I never heard such a din before or after. How I trembled for my little garrison when I heard the enthusiastic cries of this innumerable host!

12 The Major has put the most approved language into the mouths of his Indian characters. Bismillah, Barikallah, and so on, according to the novelists, form the very essence of Eastern conversation.

There was but one way for it. “Sir,” said I, addressing Holkar, “go out to-night and you go to certain death. Loll Mahommed has not seen the fort as I have. Pass the gate if you please, and for what? to fall before the fire of a hundred pieces of artillery; to storm another gate, and then another, and then to be blown up, with Gahagan’s garrison in the citadel. Who talks of courage? Were I not in your august presence, O star of the faithful, I would crop Loll Mahommed’s nose from his face, and wear his ears as an ornament in my own pugree! Who is there here that knows not the difference between yonder yellow-skinned coward and Gahagan Khan Guj — I mean Bobbachy Bahawder? I am ready to fight one, two, three, or twenty of them, at broad-sword, small-sword, single-stick, with fists if you please. By the holy piper, fighting is like mate and dthrink to Ga — to Bobbachy, I mane — whoop! come on, you divvle, and I’ll bate the skin off your ugly bones.”

This speech had very nearly proved fatal to me, for when I am agitated, I involuntarily adopt some of the phraseology peculiar to my own country; which is so uneastern, that, had there been any suspicion as to my real character, detection must indubitably have ensued. As it was, Holkar perceived nothing, but instantaneously stopped the dispute. Loll Mahommed, however, evidently suspected something, for, as Holkar, with a voice of thunder, shouted out, “Tomasha (silence),” Loll sprang forward and gasped out —

“My lord! my lord I this is not Bob —”

But he could say no more. “Gag the slave!” screamed out Holkar, stamping with fury: and a turban was instantly twisted round the poor devil’s jaws. “Ho, furoshes! carry out Loll Mahommed Khan, give him a hundred dozen on the soles of his feet, set him upon a white donkey, and carry him round the camp, with an inscription before him: ‘This is the way that Holkar rewards the talkative.’”

I breathed again; and ever as I heard each whack of the bamboo falling on Loll Mahommed’s feet, I felt peace returning to my mind, and thanked my stars that I was delivered of this danger.

“Vizier,” said Holkar, who enjoyed Loll’s roars amazingly, “I owe you a reparation for your nose: kiss the hand of your prince, O Saadut Alee Beg Bimbukchee! be from this day forth Zoheir u Dowlut!”

The good old man’s eyes filled with tears. “I can bear thy severity, O Prince,” said he; “I cannot bear thy love. Was it not an honor that your Highness did me just now when you condescended to pass over the bridge of your slave’s nose?”

The phrase was by all voices pronounced to be very poetical. The Vizier retired, crowned with his new honors, to bed. Holkar was in high good humor.

“Bobbachy,” said he, “thou, too, must pardon me. A propos, I have news for thee. Your wife, the incomparable Puttee Rooge,” (white and red rose,) has arrived in camp.”

“My WIFE, my lord!” said I, aghast.

“Our daughter, the light of thine eyes! Go, my son; I see thou art wild with joy. The Princess’s tents are set up close by mine, and I know thou longest to join her.”

My wife? Here was a complication truly!

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 19:07