Story 1 | Chapter III | Begumbagh, a Tale of the Indian Mutiny

Story 1—Chapter III.

Now, after what I’ve told you about Measles’ listing for spite, you will easily understand that the fact of his calling any one a lunatic did not prove a want of common reason in the person spoken about; but what he meant was, that the people coming up were half-mad for travelling when the sun was so high, and had got so much power.

I looked up and saw, about a mile off, coming over the long straight level plain, what seemed to be an elephant, and a man or two on horseback; and before I had been looking above a minute, I saw Captain Dyer cross over to the colonel’s tent, and then point in the direction of the coming elephant. The next minute, he crossed over to where we were. “Seen Lieutenant Leigh?” he says in his quick way.

“No, sir; not since breakfast.”

“Send him after me, if he comes in sight. Tell him Miss Ross and party are yonder, and I’ve ridden on to meet them.”

The next minute he had gone, taken a horse from a sycee, and in spite of the heat, cantered off to meet the party with the elephant, the air being that clear that I could see him go right up, turn his horse round, and ride gently back by the side.

I did not see anything of the lieutenant and, to tell the truth, I forgot all about him, for I was thinking about the party coming, for I had somehow heard a little about Mrs Maine’s sister coming out from the old country to stay with her. If I recollect right, the black nurse told Mrs Bantem, and she mentioned it. This party, then, I supposed contained the lady herself; and it was as I thought. We had had to leave Patna unexpectedly to relieve the regiment ordered home; and the lady, according to orders, had followed us, for this was only our second day’s march.

I suppose it was my pipe made me settle down to watch the coming party, and wonder what sort of a body Miss Ross would be, and whether anything like her sister. Then I wondered who would marry her, for, as you know, ladies are not very long out in India without picking up a husband. “Perhaps,” I said to myself, “it will be the lieutenant;” but ten minutes after, as the elephant shambled up, I altered my mind, for Captain Dyer was ambling along beside the great beast, and his was the hand that helped the lady down—a tall, handsome, self-possessed girl, who seemed quite to take the lead, and kiss and soothe the sister, when she ran out of the tent to throw her arms round the new-comer’s neck.

“At last, then, Elsie,” Mrs Colonel said out aloud. “You’ve had a long dreary ride.”

“Not during the last ten minutes,” Miss Ross said, laughing in a bright, merry, free-hearted way. “Lieutenant Leigh has been welcoming me most cordially.”

“Who?” exclaimed Mrs Colonel, staring from one to the other.

“Lieutenant Leigh,” said Miss Ross.

“I’m afraid I am to blame for not announcing myself,” said Captain Dyer, lifting his muslin-covered cap. “Your sister, Miss Ross, asked me to ride to meet you, in Lieutenant Leigh’s absence.”

“You, then—”

“I am only Lawrence Dyer, his friend,” said the captain, smiling.

It’s a singular thing that just then, as I saw the young lady blush deeply, and Mrs Colonel look annoyed, I muttered to myself, “Something will come of this,” because, if there’s anything I hate, it’s for a man to set himself up for a prophet. But it looked to me as if the captain had been taking Lieutenant Leigh’s place, and that Miss Ross, as was really the case, though she had never seen him, had heard him so much talked of by her sister, that she had welcomed him, as she thought, quite as an old friend, when all the time she had been talking to Captain Dyer.

And I was not the only one who thought about it; else why did Mrs Colonel look annoyed, and the colonel, who came paddling out, exclaim loudly: “Why, Leigh, look alive, man! here’s Dyer been stealing a march upon you. Why, where have you been?”

I did not hear what the lieutenant said, for my attention was just then taken up by something else, but I saw him go up to Miss Ross, holding out his hand, while the meeting was very formal; but, as I told you, my attention was taken up by something else, and that something was a little, dark, bright, eager, earnest face, with a pair of sharp eyes, and a little mocking-looking mouth; and as Captain Dyer had helped Miss Ross down with the steps from the howdah, so did I help down Lizzy Green, her maid; to get, by way of thanks, a half-saucy look, a nod of the head, and the sight of a pretty little tripping pair of ankles going over the hot sandy dust towards the tent.

But the next minute she was back, to ask about some luggage—a bullock-trunk or two—and she was coming up to me, as I eagerly stepped forward to meet her, when she seemed, as it were, to take it into her head to shy at me, going instead to Harry Lant, who had just come up, and who, on hearing what she wanted, placed his hands, with a grave swoop, upon his head, and made her a regular eastern salaam, ending by telling her that her slave would obey her commands. All of which seemed to grit upon me terribly; I didn’t know why, then, but I found out afterwards, though not for many days to come.

We had the route given us for Begumbagh, a town that, in the old days, had been rather famous for its grandeur; but, from what I had heard, it was likely to turn out a very hot, dry, dusty, miserable spot; and I used to get reckoning up how long we should be frizzling out there in India before we got the orders for home; and put it at the lowest calculation, I could not make less of it than five years. But there, we who were soldiers had made our own beds, and had to lie upon them, whether it was at home or abroad; and, as Mrs Bantem used to say to us, “Where was the use of grumbling?” There were troubles in every life, even if it was a civilian’s—as we soldiers always called those who didn’t wear the Queen’s uniform—and it was very doubtful whether we should have been a bit happier, if we had been in any other line. But all the same, government might have made things a little better for us in the way of suitable clothes, and things proper for the climate.

And so on we went: marching mornings and nights; camping all through the hot day; and it was not long before we found that, in Miss Ross, we men had got something else beside the children to worship.

But I may as well say now, and have it off my mind, that it has always struck me, that during those peaceful days, when our greatest worry was a hot march, we didn’t know when we were well off, and that it wanted the troubles to come before we could see what good qualities there were in other people. Little trifling things used to make us sore—things such as we didn’t notice afterwards, when great sorrows came. I know I was queer, and spiteful, and jealous, and no great wonder that for I always was a man with a nastyish temper, and soon put out; but even Mrs Bantem used to shew that she wasn’t quite perfect, for she quite upset me, one day, when Measles got talking at dinner about Lizzy Green, Miss Ross’s maid, and, what was a wonderful thing for him, not finding fault. He got saying that she was a nice girl, and would make a soldier as wanted one a good wife; when Mrs Bantem fires up as spiteful as could be—I think, mind you, there’d been something wrong with the cooking that day, which had turned her a little—and she says that Lizzy was very well, but looks weren’t everything, and that she was raw as raw, and would want no end of dressing before she would be good for anything; while, as to making a soldier’s wife, soldiers had no business to have wives till they could buy themselves off, and turn civilians. Then, again, she seemed to have taken a sudden spite against Mrs Maine, saying that she was a poor, little, stuck-up, fine lady, and she could never have forgiven her if it had not been for those two beautiful children; though what Mrs Bantem had got to forgive the colonel’s wife, I don’t believe she even knew herself.

The old black ayah, too, got very much put out about this time, and all on account of the two new-comers; for when Miss Ross hadn’t got the children with her, they were along with Lizzy, who, like her mistress, was new to the climate, and hadn’t got into that dull listless way that comes to people who have been some time up the country. They were all life, and fun, and energy, and the children were never happy when they were away; and of a morning, more to please Lizzy, I used to think, than the children, Harry Lant used to pick out a shady place, and then drive Chunder Chow, who was the mahout of Nabob, the principal elephant, half-wild, by calling out his beast, and playing with him all sorts of antics. Chunder tried all he could to stop it, but it was of no use, for Harry had got such influence over that animal that when one day he was coaxing him out to lead him under some trees, and the mahout tried to stop him, Nabob makes no more ado, but lifts his great soft trunk, and rolls Mr Chunder Chow over into the grass, where he lay screeching like a parrot, and chattering like a monkey, rolling his opal eyeballs, and shewing his white teeth with fear, for he expected that Nabob was going to put his foot on him, and crush him to death, as is the nature of those great beasts. But not he: he only lays his trunk gently on Harry’s shoulder, and follows him across the open like a great flesh-mountain, winking his little pig’s eyes, whisking his tiny tail, and flapping his great ears; while the children clapped their hands as they stood in the shade with Miss Ross and Lizzy, and Captain Dyer and Lieutenant Leigh close behind.

“There’s no call to be afraid, miss,” says Harry, saluting as he saw Miss Ross shrink back; and seeing how, when he said a few words in Hindustani, the great animal minded him, they stopped being scared, and gave Harry fruit and cakes to feed the great beast with.

You see, out there in that great dull place, people are very glad to have any little trifle to amuse them, so you mustn’t be surprised to hear that there used to be quite a crowd to see Harry Lant’s performances, as he called them. But all the same, I didn’t like his upsetting old Chunder Chow; and it seemed to me even then, that we’d managed to make another black enemy—the black ayah being the first.

However, Harry used to go on making old Nabob kneel down, or shake hands, or curl up his trunk, or lift him up, finishing off by going up to his head, lifting one great ear, saying they understood one another, whispering a few words, and then shutting the ear up again, so as the words shouldn’t be lost before they got into the elephant’s brain, as I explained, because they’d got a long way to go. Then Harry would lie down, and let the great beast walk backwards and forwards all over him, lifting his great feet so carefully, and setting them down close to Harry, but never touching him, except one day when, just as the great beast was passing his foot over Harry’s breast, a voice called out something in Hindustani—and I knew who it was, though I didn’t see—when Nabob puts his feet down on Harry’s chest, and Lizzy gave a great scream, and we all thought the poor chap would be crushed; but not he: the great beast was took by surprise, but only for an instant, and, in his slow quiet way, he steps aside, and then touches Harry all over with his trunk; and there was no more performance that day.

“I’ve got my knife into Master Chunder for that,” says Harry to me, “for I’ll swear that was his voice.” And I started to find he had known it.

“I wouldn’t quarrel with him,” I says quietly, “for it strikes me he’s got his knife into you.”

“You’ve no idea,” says Harry, “what a nip it was. I thought it was all over; but all the same, the poor brute didn’t mean it, I’d swear.”