Then she let them down by a cord through the window; for her house was upon the town-wall, and she dwelt upon the wall.
— Joshua ii. 15.
Lalun is a member of the most ancient profession in the world. Lilith was her very-great-grandmamma, and that was before the days of Eve as every one knows. In the West, people say rude things about Lalun’s profession, and write lectures about it, and distribute the lectures to young persons in order that Morality may be preserved. In the East where the profession is hereditary, descending from mother to daughter, nobody writes lectures or takes any notice; and that is a distinct proof of the inability of the East to manage its own affairs.
Lalun’s real husband, for even ladies of Lalun’s profession in the East must have husbands, was a big jujube-tree. Her Mamma, who had married a fig-tree, spent ten thousand rupees on Lalun’s wedding, which was blessed by forty-seven clergymen of Mamma’s church, and distributed five thousand rupees in charity to the poor. And that was the custom of the land. The advantages of having a jujube-tree for a husband are obvious. You cannot hurt his feelings, and he looks imposing.
Lalun’s husband stood on the plain outside the City walls, and Lalun’s house was upon the east wall facing the river. If you fell from the broad window-seat you dropped thirty feet sheer into the City Ditch. But if you stayed where you should and looked forth, you saw all the cattle of the City being driven down to water, the students of the Government College playing cricket, the high grass and trees that fringed the river-bank, the great sand bars that ribbed the river, the red tombs of dead Emperors beyond the river, and very far away through the blue heat-haze, a glint of the snows of the Himalayas.
Wali Dad used to lie in the window-seat for hours at a time watching this view. He was a young Muhammadan who was suffering acutely from education of the English variety and knew it. His father had sent him to a Mission-school to get wisdom, and Wali Dad had absorbed more than ever his father or the Missionaries intended he should. When his father died, Wali Dad was independent and spent two years experimenting with the creeds of the Earth and reading books that are of no use to anybody.
After he had made an unsuccessful attempt to enter the Roman Catholic Church and the Presbyterian fold at the same time (the Missionaries found him out and called him names, but they did not understand his trouble), he discovered Lalun on the City wall and became the most constant of her few admirers. He possessed a head that English artists at home would rave over and paint amid impossible surroundings — a face that female novelists would use with delight through nine hundred pages. In reality he was only a clean-bred young Muhammadan, with pencilled eye-brows, small-cut nostrils, little feet and hands, and a very tired look in his eyes. By virtue of his twenty-two years he had grown a neat black beard which he stroked with pride and kept delicately scented. His life seemed to be divided between borrowing books from me and making love to Lalun in the window-seat. He composed songs about her, and some of the songs are sting to this day in the City from the Street of the Mutton–Butchers to the Copper–Smiths’ ward.
One song, the prettiest of all, says that the beauty of Lalun was so great that it troubled the hearts of the British Government and caused them to lose their peace of mind. That is the way the song is sung in the streets; but, if you examine it carefully and know the key to the explanation, you will find that there are three puns in it — on ‘beauty,’ ‘heart,’ and ‘peace of mind,’— so that it runs: ‘By the subtlety of Lalun the administration of the Government was troubled and it lost such and such a man.’ When Wali Dad sings that song his eyes glow like hot coals, and Lalun leans back among the cushions and throws bunches of jasmine-buds at Wali Dad.
But first it is necessary to explain something about the Supreme Government which is above all and below all and behind all. Gentlemen come from England, spend a few weeks in India, walk round this great Sphinx of the Plains, and write books upon its ways and its works, denouncing or praising it as their own ignorance prompts. Consequently all the world knows how the Supreme Government conducts itself. But no one, not even the Supreme Government, knows everything about the administration of the Empire. Year by year England sends out fresh drafts for the first fighting-line, which is officially called the Indian Civil Service. These die, or kill themselves by overwork, or are worried to death or broken in health and hope in order that the land may be protected from death and sickness, famine and war, and may eventually become capable of standing alone. It will never stand alone, but the idea is a pretty one, and men are willing to die for it, and yearly the work of pushing and coaxing and scolding and petting the country into good living goes forward. If an advance be made all credit is given to the native, while the Englishmen stand back and wipe their foreheads. If a failure occurs the Englishmen step forward and take the blame. Overmuch tenderness of this kind has bred a strong belief among many natives that the native is capable of administering the country, and many devout Englishmen believe this also, because the theory is stated in beautiful English with all the latest political colour.
There be other men who, though uneducated, see visions and dream dreams, and they, too, hope to administer the country in their own way — that is to say, with a garnish of Red Sauce. Such men must exist among two hundred million people, and, if they are not attended to, may cause trouble and even break the great idol called Pax Britannic, which, as the newspapers say, lives between Peshawur and Cape Comorin. Were the Day of Doom to dawn tomorrow, you would find the Supreme Government ‘taking measures to allay popular excitement’ and putting guards upon the graveyards that the Dead might troop forth orderly. The youngest Civilian would arrest Gabriel on his own responsibility if the Archangel could not produce a Deputy Commissioner’s permission to ‘make music or other noises’ as the license says.
Whence it is easy to see that mere men of the flesh who would create a tumult must fare badly at the hands of the Supreme Government. And they do. There is no outward sign of excitement; there is no confusion; there is no knowledge. When due and sufficient reasons have been given, weighed and approved, the machinery moves forward, and the dreamer of dreams and the seer of visions is gone from his friends and following. He enjoys the hospitality of Government; there is no restriction upon his movements within certain limits; but he must not confer any more with his brother dreamers. Once in every six months the Supreme Government assures itself that he is well and takes formal acknowledgment of his existence. No one protests against this detention, because the few people who know about it are in deadly fear of seeming to know him; and never a single newspaper ‘takes up his case’ or organises demonstrations on his behalf, because the newspapers of India have got behind that lying proverb which says the Pen is mightier than the Sword, and can walk delicately.
So now you know as much as you ought about Wali Dad, the educational mixture, and the Supreme Government.
Lalun has not yet been described. She would need, so Wali Dad says, a thousand pens of gold and ink scented with musk. She has been variously compared to the Moon, the Dil Sagar Lake, a spotted quail, a gazelle, the Sun on the Desert of Kutch, the Dawn, the Stars, and the young bamboo. These comparisons imply that she is beautiful exceedingly according to the native standards, which are practically the same as those of the West. Her eyes are black and her hair is black, and her eyebrows are black as leeches; her mouth is tiny and says witty things; her hands are tiny and have saved much money; her feet are tiny and have trodden on the naked hearts of many men. But, as Wali Dad sings: ‘Lalun is Lalun, and when you have said that you have only come to the Beginnings of Knowledge.’
The little house on the City wall was just big enough to hold Lalun, and her maid, and a pussy-cat with a silver collar. A big pink and blue cut-glass chandelier hung from the ceiling of the reception room. A petty Nawab had given Lalun the horror, and she kept it for politeness’ sake. The floor of the room was of polished chunam, white as curds. A latticed window of carved wood was set in one wall; there was a profusion of squabby pluffy cushions and fat carpets everywhere, and Lalun’s silver huqa, studded with turquoises, had a special little carpet all to its shining self. Wali Dad was nearly as permanent a fixture as the chandelier. As I have said, he lay in the window-seat and meditated on Life and Death and Lalun — specially Lalun. The feet of the young men of the City tended to her doorways and then — retired, for Lalun was a particular maiden, slow of speech, reserved of mind, and not in the least inclined to orgies which were nearly certain to end in strife. ‘If I am of no value, I am unworthy of this honour,’ said Lalun. ‘If I am of value, they are unworthy of Me.’ And that was a crooked sentence.
In the long hot nights of latter April and May all the City seemed to assemble in Lalun’s little white room to smoke and to talk. Shiahs of the grimmest and most uncompromising persuasion; Sufis who had lost all belief in the Prophet and retained but little in God; wandering Hindu priests passing southward on their way to the Central India fairs and other affairs; Pundits in black gowns, with spectacles on their noses and undigested wisdom in their insides; bearded headmen of the wards; Sikhs with all the details of the latest ecclesiastical scandal in the Golden Temple; red-eyed priests from beyond the Border, looking like trapped wolves and talking like ravens; M. A.‘s of the University, very superior and very voluble — all these people and more also you might find in the white room. Wali Dad lay in the window-seat and listened to the talk.
‘It is Lalun’s salon’ said Wali Dad to me, ‘and it is electic — is not that the word? Outside of a Freemason’s Lodge I have never seen such gatherings. There I dined once with a Jew-a Yahoudi!’ He spat into the City Ditch with apologies for allowing national feelings to overcome him. ‘Though I have lost every belief in the world,’ said he, ‘and try to be proud of my losing, I cannot help hating a Jew. Lalun admits no Jews here.’
‘But what in the world do all these men do?’ I asked.
‘The curse of our country,’ said Wali Dad. ‘They talk. It is like the Athenians — always hearing and telling some new thing. Ask the Pearl and she will show you how much she knows of the news of the City and the Province. Lalun knows everything.’
‘Lalun,’ I said at random — she was talking to a gentleman of the Kurd persuasion who had come in from God-knows-where —‘when does the 175th Regiment go to Agra?’
‘It does not go at all,’ said Lalun, without turning her head. ‘They have ordered the 118th to go in its stead. That Regiment goes to Lucknow in three months, unless they give a fresh order.’
‘That is so,’ said Wali Dad without a shade of doubt. ‘Can you, with your telegrams and your newspapers, do better? Always hearing and telling some new thing,’ he went on. ‘My friend, has your God ever smitten a European nation for gossiping in the bazars? India has gossiped for centuries — always standing in the bazars until the soldiers go by. Therefore — you are here today instead of starving in your own country, and I am not a Muhammadan — I am a Product — a Demnition Product. That also I owe to you and yours: that I cannot make an end to my sentence without quoting from your authors.’ He pulled at the huqa and mourned, half feelingly, half in earnest, for the shattered hopes of his youth. Wali Dad was always mourning over something or other — the country of which he despaired, or the creed in which he had lost faith, or the life of the English which he could by no means understand.
Lalun never mourned. She played little songs on the sitar, and to hear her sing, ‘O Peacock, cry again,’ was always a fresh pleasure. She knew all the songs that have ever been sung, from the war-songs of the South that make the old men angry with the young men and the young men angry with the State, to the love-songs of the North where the swords whinny-whicker like angry kites in the pauses between the kisses, and the Passes fill with armed men, and the Lover is torn from his Beloved and cries, Ai, Ai, Ai! evermore. She knew how to make up tobacco for the huqa so that it smelt like the Gates of Paradise and wafted you gently through them. She could embroider strange things in gold and silver, and dance softly with the moonlight when it came in at the window. Also she knew the hearts of men, and the heart of the City, and whose wives were faithful and whose untrue, and more of the secrets of the Government Offices than are good to be set down in this place. Nasiban, her maid, said that her jewellery was worth ten thousand pounds, and that, some night, a thief would enter and murder her for its possession; but Lalun said that all the City would tear that thief limb from limb, and that he, whoever he was, knew it.
So she took her sitar and sat in the window-seat and sang a song of old days that had been sung by a girl of her profession in an armed camp on the eve of a great battle — the day before the Fords of the Jumna ran red and Sivaji fled fifty miles to Delhi with a Toorkh stallion at his horse’s tail and another Lalun on his saddle-bow. It was what men call a Mahratta laonee, and it said:——
Their warrior forces Chimajee
Before the Peishwa led,
The Children of the Sun and Fire
Behind him turned and fled.
And the chorus said:—
With them there fought who rides so free
With a sword and turban red,
The warrior-youth who earns his fee
At peril of his head.
‘At peril of his head,’ said Wali Dad in English to me. ‘Thanks to your Government, all our heads are protected, and with the educational facilities at my command’— his eyes twinkled wickedly —‘I might be a distinguished member of the local administration. Perhaps, in time, I might even be a member of a Legislative Council.’
‘Don’t speak English,’ said Lalun, bending over her sitar afresh. The chorus went out from the City wall to the blackened wall of Fort Amara which dominates the City. No man knows the precise extent of Fort Amara. Three kings built it hundreds of years ago, and they say that there are miles of underground rooms beneath its walls. It is peopled with many ghosts, a detachment of Garrison Artillery and a Company of Infantry. In its prime it held ten thousand men and filled its ditches with corpses.
‘At peril of his head,’ sang Lalun again and again.
A head moved on one of the Ramparts — the gray head of an old man — and a voice, rough as shark-skin on a sword-hilt, sent back the last line of the chorus and broke into a song that I could not understand, though Lalun and Wali Dad listened intently.
‘What is it?’ I asked. ‘Who is it?’
‘A consistent man,’ said Wali Dad. ‘He fought you in ‘46, when he was a warrior-youth; refought you in ‘57, and he tried to fight you in ‘71, but you had learned the trick of blowing men from guns too well. Now he is old; but he would still fight if he could.’
‘Is he a Wahabi, then? Why should he answer to a Mahratta laonee if he be Wahabi — or Sikh?’ said I.
‘I do not know,’ said Wali Dad. ‘He has lost, perhaps, his religion. Perhaps he wishes to be a King. Perhaps he is a King. I do not know his name.’
‘That is a lie, Wali Dad. If you know his career you must know his name.’
‘That is quite true. I belong to a nation of liars. I would rather not tell you his name. Think for yourself.’
Lalun finished her song, pointed to the Fort, and said simply: ‘Khem Singh.’
‘Hm,’ said Wali Dad. ‘If the Pearl chooses to tell you the Pearl is a fool.’
I translated to Lalun, who laughed. ‘I choose to tell what I choose to tell. They kept Khem Singh in Burma,’ said she. ‘They kept him there for many years until his mind was changed in him. So great was the kindness of the Government. Finding this, they sent him back to his own country that he might look upon it before he died. He is an old man, but when he looks upon this country his memory will come. Moreover, there be many who remember him.’
‘He is an Interesting Survival,’ said Wali Dad, pulling at the huqa. ‘He returns to a country now full of educational and political reform, but, as the Pearl says, there are many who remember him. He was once a great man. There will never be any more great men in India. They will all, when they are boys, go whoring after strange gods, and they will become citizens —“fellow-citizens”—“illustrious fellow-citizens.” What is it that the native papers call them?’
Wali Dad seemed to be in a very bad temper. Lalun looked out of the window and smiled into the dust-haze. I went away thinking about Khem Singh who had once made history with a thousand followers, and would have been a princeling but for the power of the Supreme Government aforesaid.
The Senior Captain Commanding Fort Amara was away on leave, but the Subaltern, his Deputy, had drifted down to the Club, where I found him and enquired of him whether it was really true that a political prisoner had been added to the attractions of the Fort. The Sub-altern explained at great length, for this was the first time that he had held Command of the Fort, and his glory lay heavy upon him.
‘Yes,’ said he, ‘a man was sent in to me about a week ago from down the line — a thorough gentleman whoever he is. Of course I did all I could for him. He had his two servants and some silver cooking-pots, and he looked for all the world like a native officer. I called him Subadar Sahib; just as well to be on the safe side, y’know. “Look here, Subadar Sahib,” I said, “you’re handed over to my authority, and I’m supposed to guard you. Now I don’t want to make your life hard, but you must make things easy for me. All the Fort is at your disposal, from the flagstaff to the dry ditch, and I shall be happy to entertain you in any way I can, but you mustn’t take advantage of it. Give me your word that you won’t try to escape, Subadar Sahib, and I’ll give you my word that you shall have no heavy guard put over you.” I thought the best way of getting at him was by going at him straight, y’know; and it was, by Jove! The old man gave me his word, and moved about the Fort as contented as a sick crow. He’s a rummy chap — always asking to be told where he is and what the buildings about him are. I had to sign a slip of blue paper when he turned up, acknowledging receipt of his body and all that, and I’m responsible, y’know, that he doesn’t get away. Queer thing, though, looking after a Johnnie old enough to be your grandfather isn’t it? Come to the Fort one of these days and see him?’
For reasons which will appear, I never went to the Fort while Khem Singh was then within its walls. I knew him only as a gray head seen from Lalun’s window — a gray head and a harsh voice. But natives told me that, day by day, as he looked upon the fair lands round Amara, his memory came back to him and, with it, the old hatred against the Government that had been nearly effaced in far-off Burma. So he raged up and down the West face of the Fort from morning till noon and from evening till the night, devising vain things in his heart, and croaking war-songs when Lalun sang on the City wall. As he grew more acquainted with the Subaltern he unburdened his old heart of some of the passions that had withered it. ‘Sahib,’ he used to say, tapping his stick against the parapet, ‘when I was a young man I was one of twenty thousand horsemen who came out of the City and rode round the plain here. Sahib, I was the leader of a hundred, then of a thousand, then of five thousand, and now!’— he pointed to his two servants. ‘But from the beginning to today I would cut the throats of all the Sahibs in the land if I could. Hold me fast, Sahib, lest I get away and return to those who would follow me. I forgot them when I was in Burma, but now that I am in my own country again, I remember everything.’
‘Do you remember that you have given me your Honour not to make your tendance a hard matter?’ said the Subaltern.
‘Yes, to you, only to you, Sahib,’ said Khem Singh. ‘To you because you are of a pleasant countenance. If my turn comes again, Sahib, I will not hang you nor cut your throat.’
‘Thank you,’ said the Subaltern gravely, as he looked along the line of guns that could pound the City to powder in half an hour. ‘Let us go into our own quarters, Khem Singh. Come and talk with me after dinner.’
Khem Singh would sit on his own cushion at the Subaltern’s feet, drinking heavy, scented anise-seed brandy in great gulps, and telling strange stories of Fort Amara, which had been a palace in the old days, of Begums and Ranees tortured to death — aye, in the very vaulted chamber that now served as a Mess-room; would tell stories of Sobraon that made the Subaltern’s cheeks flush and tingle with pride of race, and of the Kuka rising from which so much was expected and the foreknowledge of which was shared by a hundred thousand souls. But he never told tales of ‘57 because, as he said, he was the Subaltern’s guest, and ‘57 is a year that no man, Black or White, cares to speak of. Once only, when the anise-seed brandy had slightly affected his head, he said: ‘Sahib, speaking now of a matter which lay between Sobraon and the affair of the Kukas, it was ever a wonder to us that you stayed your hand at all, and that, having stayed it, you did not make the land one prison. Now I hear from without that you do great honour to all men of our country and by your own hands are destroying the Terror of your Name which is your strong rock and defence. This is a foolish thing. Will oil and water mix? Now in ‘57 —’
‘I was not born then, Subadar Sahib,’ said the Subaltern, and Khem Singh reeled to his quarters.
The Subaltern would tell me of these conversations at the Club, and my desire to see Khem Singh increased. But Wali Dad, sitting in the window-seat of the house on the City wall, said that it would be a cruel thing to do, and Lalun pretended that I preferred the society of a grizzled old Sikh to hers.
‘Here is tobacco, here is talk, here are many friends and all the news of the City, and, above all, here is myself. I will tell you stories and sing you songs, and Wali Dad will talk his English nonsense in your ears. Is that worse than watching the caged animal yonder? Go tomorrow, then, if you must, but today such and such an one will be here, and he will speak of wonderful things.’
It happened that To-morrow never came, and the warm heat of the latter Rains gave place to the chill of early October almost before I was aware of the flight of the year. The Captain commanding the Fort returned from leave and took over charge of Khem Singh according to the laws of seniority. The Captain was not a nice man. He called all natives ‘niggers,’ which, besides being extreme bad form, shows gross ignorance.
‘What’s the use of telling off two Tommies to watch that old nigger?’ said he.
‘I fancy it soothes his vanity,’ said the Subaltern. ‘The men are ordered to keep well out of his way, but he takes them as a tribute to his importance, poor old wretch.’
‘I won’t have Line men taken off regular guards in this way. Put on a couple of Native Infantry.’
‘Sikhs?’ said the Subaltern, lifting his eyebrows.
‘Sikhs, Pathans, Dogras — they’re all alike, these black vermin,’ and the Captain talked to Khem Singh in a manner which hurt that old gentleman’s feelings. Fifteen years before, when he had been caught for the second time, every one looked upon him as a sort of tiger. He liked being regarded in this light. But he forgot that the world goes forward in fifteen years, and many Subalterns are promoted to Captaincies.
‘The Captain-pig is in charge of the Fort?’ said Khem Singh to his native guard every morning. And the native guard said: ‘Yes, Subadar Sahib,’ in deference to his age and his air of distinction; but they did not know who he was.
In those days the gathering in Lalun’s little white room was always large and talked more than before.
‘The Greeks,’ said Wali Dad who had been borrowing my books, ‘the inhabitants of the city of Athens, where they were always hearing and telling some new thing, rigorously secluded their women — who were fools. Hence the glorious institution of the heterodox women — is it not? — who were amusing and not fools. All the Greek philosophers delighted in their company. Tell me, my friend, how it goes now in Greece and the other places upon the Continent of Europe. Are your women-folk also fools?’
‘Wali Dad,’ I said, ‘you never speak to us about your women-folk and we never speak about ours to you. That is the bar between us.’
‘Yes,’ said Wali Dad, ‘it is curious to think that our common meeting-place should be here, in the house of a common — how do you call her?’ He pointed with the pipe-mouth to Lalun.
‘Lalun is nothing but Lalun,’ I said, and that was perfectly true. ‘But if you took your place in the world, Wali Dad, and gave up dreaming dreams —’
‘I might wear an English coat and trouser. I might be a leading Muhammadan pleader. I might be received even at the Commissioner’s tennis-parties where the English stand on one side and the natives on the other, in order to promote social intercourse throughout the Empire. Heart’s Heart,’ said he to Lalun quickly,‘the Sahib says that I ought to quit you.’
‘The Sahib is always talking stupid talk,’ returned Lalun with a laugh. ‘In this house I am a Queen and thou art a King. The Sahib’— she put her arms above her head and thought for a moment —‘the Sahib shall be our Vizier — thine and mine, Wali Dad — because he has said that thou shouldst leave me.’
Wali Dad laughed immoderately, and I laughed too. ‘Be it so,’ said he. ‘My friend, are you willing to take this lucrative Government appointment? Lalun, what shall his pay be?’
But Lalun began to sing, and for the rest of the time there was no hope of getting a sensible answer from her or Wali Dad. When the one stopped, the other began to quote Persian poetry with a triple pun in every other line. Some of it was not strictly proper, but it was all very funny, and it only came to an end when a fat person in black, with gold pince-nez, sent up his name to Lalun, and Wali Dad dragged me into the twinkling night to walk in a big rose-garden and talk heresies about Religion and Governments and a man’s career in life.
The Mohurrum, the great mourning-festival of the Muhammadans, was close at hand, and the things that Wali Dad said about religious fanaticism would have secured his expulsion from the loosest-thinking Muslim sect. There were the rose-bushes round us, the stars above us, and from every quarter of the City came the boom of the big Mohurrum drums. You must know that the City is divided in fairly equal proportions between the Hindus and the Musalmans, and where both creeds belong to the fighting races, a big religious festival gives ample chance for trouble. When they can — that is to say when the authorities are weak enough to allow it — the Hindus do their best to arrange some minor feast-day of their own in time to clash with the period of general mourning for the martyrs Hasan and Hussain, the heroes of the Mohurrum. Gilt and painted paper presentations of their tombs are borne with shouting and wailing, music, torches, and yells, through the principal thoroughfares of the City, which fakements are called tazias. Their passage is rigorously laid down beforehand by the Police, and detachments of Police accompany each tazia, lest the Hindus should throw bricks at it and the peace of the Queen and the heads of Her loyal subjects should thereby be broken. Mohurrum time in a ‘fighting’ town means anxiety to all the officials, because, if a riot breaks out, the officials and not the rioters are held responsible. The former must foresee everything, and while not making their precautions ridiculously elaborate, must see that they are at least adequate.
‘Listen to the drums!’ said Wali Dad. ‘That is the heart of the people — empty and making much noise. How, think you, will the Mohurrum go this year? I think that there will be trouble.’
He turned down a side-street and left me alone with the stars and a sleepy Police patrol. Then I went to bed and dreamed that Wali Dad had sacked the City and I was made Vizier, with Lalun’s silver huqa for mark of office.
All day the Mohurrum drums beat in the City, and all day deputations of tearful Hindu gentlemen besieged the Deputy Commissioner with assurances that they would be murdered ere next dawning by the Muhammadans. ‘Which,’ said the Deputy Commissioner, in confidence to the Head of Police, ‘is a pretty fair indication that the Hindus are going to make ‘emselves unpleasant. I think we can arrange a little surprise for them. I have given the heads of both Creeds fair warning. If they choose to disregard it, so much the worse for them.’
There was a large gathering in Lalun’s house that night, but of men that I had never seen before, if I except the fat gentleman in black with the gold pince-nez. Wali Dad lay in the window-seat, more bitterly scornful of his Faith and its manifestations than I had ever known him. Lalun’s maid was very busy cutting up and mixing tobacco for the guests. We could hear the thunder of the drums as the processions accompanying each tazia marched to the central gathering-place in the plain outside the City, preparatory to their triumphant re-entry and circuit within the walls. All the streets seemed ablaze with torches, and only Fort Amara was black and silent.
When the noise of the drums ceased, no one in the white room spoke for a time. ‘The first tazia has moved off,’ said Wali Dad, looking to the plain.
‘That is very early,’ said the man with the pince-nez.
‘It is only half-past eight.’ The company rose and departed.
‘Some of them were men from Ladakh,’ said Lalun, when the last had gone. ‘They brought me brick-tea such as the Russians sell, and a tea-urn from Peshawur. Show me, now, how the English Memsahibs make tea.’
The brick-tea was abominable. When it was finished Wali Dad suggested going into the streets. ‘I am nearly sure that there will be trouble to-night,’ he said. ‘All the City thinks so, and Vox Populi is Vox Dei, as the Babus say. Now I tell you that at the corner of the Padshahi Gate you will find my horse all this night if you want to go about and to see things. It is a most disgraceful exhibition. Where is the pleasure of saying “Ya Hasan, Ya Hussain,” twenty thousand times in a night?’
All the processions — there were two and twenty of them — were now well within the City walls. The drums were beating afresh, the crowd were howling ‘Ya Hasan! Ya Hussain!’ and beating their breasts, the brass bands were playing their loudest, and at every corner where space allowed, Muhammadan preachers were telling the lamentable story of the death of the Martyrs. It was impossible to move except with the crowd, for the streets were not more than twenty feet wide. In the Hindu quarters the shutters of all the shops were up and cross-barred. As the first tazia, a gorgeous erection ten feet high, was borne aloft on the shoulders of a score of stout men into the semi-darkness of the Gully of the Horsemen, a brickbat crashed through its talc and tinsel sides.
‘Into thy hands, O Lord?’ murmured Wali Dad profanely, as a yell went up from behind, and a native officer of Police jammed his horse through the crowd. Another brickbat followed, and the tazia staggered and swayed where it had stopped.
‘Go on! In the name of the Sirkar, go forward!’ shouted the Policeman; but there was an ugly cracking and splintering of shutters, and the crowd halted, with oaths and growlings, before the house whence the brickbat had been thrown.
Then, without any warning, broke the storm — not only in the Gully of the Horsemen, but in half a dozen other places. The tazias rocked like ships at sea, the long pole-torches dipped and rose round them while the men shouted: ‘The Hindus are dishonouring the tazias! Strike! Strike! Into their temples for the faith!’ The six or eight Policemen with each tazia drew their batons, and struck as long as they could in the hope of forcing the mob forward, but they were overpowered, and as contingents of Hindus poured into the streets, the fight became general. Half a mile away where the tazias were yet untouched the drums and the shrieks of ‘Ya Hasanl Ya Hussain!’ continued, but not for long. The priests at the corners of the streets knocked the legs from the bedsteads that supported their pulpits and smote for the Faith, while stones fell from the silent houses upon friend and foe, and the packed streets bellowed: ‘Din! Din! Din!’ A tazia caught fire, and was dropped for a flaming barrier between Hindu and Musalman at the corner of the Gully. Then the crowd surged forward, and Wali Dad drew me close to the stone pillar of a well.
‘It was intended from the beginning!’ he shouted in my ear, with more heat than blank unbelief should be guilty of. ‘The bricks were carried up to the houses beforehand. These swine of Hindus! We shall be gutting kine in their temples to-night!’
Tazia after tazia, some burning, others torn to pieces, hurried past us and the mob with them, howling, shrieking, and striking at the house doors in their flight. At last we saw the reason of the rush. Hugonin, the Assistant District Superintendent of Police, a boy of twenty, had got together thirty constables and was forcing the crowd through the streets. His old gray Police-horse showed no sign of uneasiness as it was spurred breast-on into the crowd, and the long dog-whip with which he had armed himself was never still.
‘They know we haven’t enough Police to hold ’em,’ he cried as he passed me, mopping a cut on his face. ‘They know we haven’t! Aren’t any of the men from the Club coming down to help? Get on, you sons of burnt fathers!’ The dog-whip cracked across the writhing backs, and the constables smote afresh with baton and gun-butt. With these passed the lights and the shouting, and Wali Dad began to swear under his breath. From Fort Amara shot up a single rocket; then two side by side. It was the signal for troops.
Petitt, the Deputy Commissioner, covered with dust and sweat, but calm and gently smiling, cantered up the clean-swept street in rear of the main body of the rioters. ‘No one killed yet,’ he shouted. ‘I’ll keep ’em on the run till dawn! Don’t let ’em halt, Hugonin! Trot ’em about till the troops come.’
The science of the defence lay solely in keeping the mob on the move. If they had breathing-space they would halt and fire a house, and then the work of restoring order would be more difficult, to say the least of it. Flames have the same effect on a crowd as blood has on a wild beast.
Word had reached the Club and men in evening-dress were beginning to show themselves and lend a hand in heading off and breaking up the shouting masses with stirrup-leathers, whips, or chance-found staves. They were not very often attacked, for the rioters had sense enough to know that the death of a European would not mean one hanging but many, and possibly the appearance of the thrice-dreaded Artillery. The clamour in the City redoubled. The Hindus had descended into the streets in real earnest and ere long the mob returned. It was a strange sight. There were no tazias — only their riven platforms — and there were no Police. Here and there a City dignitary, Hindu or Muhammadan, was vainly imploring his co-religionists to keep quiet and behave themselves — advice for which his white beard was pulled. Then a native officer of Police, unhorsed but still using his spurs with effect, would be borne along, warning all the crowd of the danger of insulting the Government. Everywhere men struck aimlessly with sticks, grasping each other by the throat, howling and foaming with rage, or beat with their bare hands on the doors of the houses.
‘It is a lucky thing that they are fighting with natural weapons,’ I said to Wali Dad, ‘else we should have half the City killed.’
I turned as I spoke and looked at his face. His nostrils were distended, his eyes were fixed, and he was smiting himself softly on the breast. The crowd poured by with renewed riot — a gang of Musalmans hard-pressed by some hundred Hindu fanatics. Wali Dad left my side with an oath, and shouting: ‘Ya Hasan! Ya Hussain!’ plunged into the thick of the fight where I lost sight of him.
I fled by a side alley to the Padshahi Gate where I found Wali Dad’s house, and thence rode to the Fort. Once outside the City wall, the tumult sank to a dull roar, very impressive under the stars and reflecting great credit on the fifty thousand angry able-bodied men who were making it. The troops who, at the Deputy Commissioner’s instance, had been ordered to rendezvous quietly near the fort, showed no signs of being impressed. Two companies of Native Infantry, a squadron of Native Cavalry and a company of British Infantry were kicking their heels in the shadow of the East face, waiting for orders to march in. I am sorry to say that they were all pleased, unholily pleased, at the chance of what they called ‘a little fun.’ The senior officers, to be sure, grumbled at having been kept out of bed, and the English troops pretended to be sulky, but there was joy in the hearts of all the subalterns, and whispers ran up and down the line: ‘No ball-cartridge — what a beastly shame!’ ‘D’you think the beggars will really stand up to us?’ ‘‘Hope I shall meet my money-lender there. I owe him more than I can afford.’ ‘Oh, they won’t let us even unsheathe swords.’ ‘Hurrah! Up goes the fourth rocket. Fall in, there!’
The Garrison Artillery, who to the last cherished a wild hope that they might be allowed to bombard the City at a hundred yards’ range, lined the parapet above the East gateway and cheered themselves hoarse as the British Infantry doubled along the road to the Main Gate of the City. The Cavalry cantered on to the Padshahi Gate, and the Native Infantry marched slowly to the Gate of the Butchers. The surprise was intended to be of a distinctly unpleasant nature, and to come on top of the defeat of the Police who had been just able to keep the Muhammadans from firing the houses of a few leading Hindus. The bulk of the riot lay in the north and north-west wards. The east and south-east were by this time dark and silent, and I rode hastily to Lalun’s house for I wished to tell her to send some one in search of Wali Dad. The house was unlighted, but the door was open, and I climbed upstairs in the darkness. One small lamp in the white room showed Lalun and her maid leaning half out of the window, breathing heavily and evidently pulling at something that refused to come.
‘Thou art late — very late,’ gasped Lalun without turning her head. ‘Help us now, O Fool, if thou hast not spent thy strength howling among the tazias. Pull! Nasiban and I can do no more! O Sahib, is it you? The Hindus have been hunting an old Muhammadan round the Ditch with clubs. If they find him again they will kill him. Help us to pull him up.’
I put my hands to the long red silk waist-cloth that was hanging out of the window, and we three pulled and pulled with all the strength at our command. There was something very heavy at the end, and it swore in an unknown tongue as it kicked against the City wall.
‘Pull, oh, pull!’ said Lalun at the last. A pair of brown hands grasped the window-sill and a venerable Muhammadan tumbled upon the floor, very much out of breath. His jaws were tied up, his turban had fallen over one eye, and he was dusty and angry.
Lalun hid her face in her hands for an instant and said something about Wali Dad that I could not catch.
Then, to my extreme gratification, she threw her arms round my neck and murmured pretty things. I was in no haste to stop her; and Nasiban, being a handmaiden of tact, turned to the big jewel-chest that stands in the corner of the white room and rummaged among the contents. The Muhammadan sat on the floor and glared.
‘One service more, Sahib, since thou hast come so opportunely,’ said Lalun. ‘Wilt thou’— it is very nice to be thou-ed by Lalun —‘take this old man across the City — the troops are everywhere, and they might hurt him for he is old — to the Kumharsen Gate? There I think he may find a carriage to take him to his house. He is a friend of mine, and thou art — more than a friend — therefore I ask this.’
Nasiban bent over the old man, tucked something into his belt, and I raised him up, and led him into the streets.
In crossing from the east to the west of the City there was no chance of avoiding the troops and the crowd. Long before I reached the Gully of the Horsemen I heard the shouts of the British Infantry crying cheeringly: ‘Hutt, ye beggars! Hutt, ye devils! Get along! Go forward, there!’ Then followed the ringing of rifle-butts and shrieks of pain. The troops were banging the bare toes of the mob with their gun-butts — for not a bayonet had been fixed. My companion mumbled and jabbered as we walked on until we were carried back by the crowd and had to force our way to the troops. I caught him by the wrist and felt a bangle there — the iron bangle of the Sikhs — but I had no suspicions, for Lalun had only ten minutes before put her arms round me. Thrice we were carried back by the crowd, and when we made our way past the British Infantry it was to meet the Sikh Cavalry driving another mob before them with the butts of their lances.
‘What are these dogs?’ said the old man.
‘Sikhs of the Cavalry, Father,’ I said, and we edged our way up the line of horses two abreast and found the Deputy Commissioner, his helmet smashed on his head, surrounded by a knot of men who had come down from the Club as amateur constables and had helped the Police mightily.
‘We’ll keep ’em on the run till dawn,’ said Petitt. ‘Who’s your villainous friend?’
I had only time to say:’ The Protection of the Sirkar!’ when a fresh crowd flying before the Native Infantry carried us a hundred yards nearer to the Kumharsen Gate, and Petitt was swept away like a shadow.
‘I do not know — I cannot see — this is all new to me!’ moaned my companion. ‘How many troops are there in the City?’
‘Perhaps five hundred,’ I said.
‘A lakh of men beaten by five hundred — and Sikhs among them! Surely, surely, I am an old man, but — the Kumharsen Gate is new. Who pulled down the stone lions? Where is the conduit? Sahib, I am a very old man, and, alas, I— I cannot stand.’ He dropped in the shadow of the Kumharsen Gate where there was no disturbance. A fat gentleman wearing gold pince-nez came out of the darkness.
‘You are most kind to my old friend,’ he said suavely. ‘He is a landholder of Akala. He should not be in a big City when there is religious excitement. But I have a carriage here. You are quite truly kind. Will you help me to put him into the carriage? It is very late.’
We bundled the old man into a hired victoria that stood close to the gate, and I turned back to the house on the City wall. The troops were driving the people to and fro, while the Police shouted, ‘To your houses! Get to your houses!’ and the dog-whip of the Assistant District Superintendent cracked remorselessly. Terror-stricken bunnias clung to the stirrups of the cavalry, crying that their houses had been robbed (which was a lie), and the burly Sikh horsemen patted them on the shoulder, and bade them return to those houses lest a worse thing should happen. Parties of five or six British soldiers, joining arms, swept down the side-gullies, their rifles on their backs, stamping, with shouting and song, upon the toes of Hindu and Musalman. Never was religious enthusiasm more systematically squashed; and never were poor breakers of the peace more utterly weary and footsore. They were routed out of holes and corners, from behind well-pillars and byres, and bidden to go to their houses. If they had no houses to go to, so much the worse for their toes.
On returning to Lalun’s door I stumbled over a man at the threshold. He was sobbing hysterically and his arms flapped like the wings of a goose. It was Wali Dad, Agnostic and Unbeliever, shoeless, turbanless, and frothing at the mouth, the flesh on his chest bruised and bleeding from the vehemence with which he had smitten himself. A broken torch-handle lay by his side, and his quivering lips murmured, ‘Ya Hasan! Ya Hussain!’ as I stooped over him. I pushed him a few steps up the staircase, threw a pebble at Lalun’s City window and hurried home.
Most of the streets were very still, and the cold wind that comes before the dawn whistled down them. In the centre of the Square of the Mosque a man was bending over a corpse. The skull had been smashed in by gun-butt or bamboo-stave.
‘It is expedient that one man should die for the people,’ said Petitt grimly, raising the shapeless head. ‘These brutes were beginning to show their teeth too much.’
And from afar we could hear the soldiers singing ‘Two Lovely Black Eyes,’ as they drove the remnant of the rioters within doors.
Of course you can guess what happened? I was not so clever. When the news went abroad that Khem Singh had escaped from the Fort, I did not, since I was then living this story, not writing it, connect myself, or Lalun, or the fat gentleman with the gold pince-nez, with his disappearance. Nor did it strike me that Wali Dad was the man who should have convoyed him across the City, or that Lalun’s arms round my neck were put there to hide the money that Nasiban gave to Khem Singh, and that Lalun had used me and my white face as even a better safeguard than Wali Dad who proved himself so untrustworthy. All that I knew at the time was that, when Fort Amara was taken up with the riots, Khem Singh profited by the confusion to get away, and that his two Sikh guards also escaped.
But later on I received full enlightenment; and so did Khem Singh. He fled to those who knew him in the old days, but many of them were dead and more were changed, and all knew something of the Wrath of the Government. He went to the young men, but the glamour of his name had passed away, and they were entering native regiments of Government offices, and Khem Singh could give them neither pension, decorations, nor influence — nothing but a glorious death with their backs to the mouth of a gun. He wrote letters and made promises, and the letters fell into bad hands, and a wholly insignificant subordinate officer of Police tracked them down and gained promotion thereby. Moreover, Khem Singh was old, and anise-seed brandy was scarce, and he had left his silver cooking-pots in Fort Amara with his nice warm bedding, and the gentleman with the gold pince-nez was told by those who had employed him that Khem Singh as a popular leader was not worth the money paid.
‘Great is the mercy of these fools of English!’ said Khem Singh when the situation was put before him. ‘I will go back to Fort Amara of my own free will and gain honour. Give me good clothes to return in.’
So, at his own time, Khem Singh knocked at the wicket-gate of the Fort and walked to the Captain and the Subaltern, who were nearly gray-headed on account of correspondence that daily arrived from Simla marked ‘Private.’
‘I have come back, Captain Sahib,’ said Khem Singh.
‘Put no more guards over me. It is no good out yonder.’
A week later I saw him for the first time to my knowledge, and he made as though there were an understanding between us.
‘It was well done, Sahib,’ said he, ‘and greatly I admired your astuteness in thus boldly facing the troops when I, whom they would have doubtless torn to pieces, was with you. Now there is a man in Fort Ooltagarh whom a bold man could with ease help to escape. This is the position of the Fort as I draw it on the sand —’
But I was thinking how I had become Lalun’s Vizier after all.
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Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10