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

Story 1—Chapter VIII.

Chunder didn’t like the looks of Harry, I suppose, so he walked off, turning once to spit and curse, like that turncoat chap, Shimei, that you read of in the Bible; and we two walked off together towards our quarters.

“I ain’t going to stand any of his nonsense,” says Harry.

“It’s bad making enemies now, Harry,” I said gruffly. And just then up comes Measles, who had been relieved, for his spell was up now; and another party were on, else he would have had to be in the guard-room.

“There never was such an unlucky beggar as me,” says Measles. “If a chance does turn up for earning a bit promotion, it’s always some one else gets it. Come on, lads, and let’s see what Mother Bantem’s got in the pot.”

“You’ll perhaps have a chance before long of earning your bit of promotion without going out,” I says.

“Ike Smith’s turned prophet and croaker in ornary,” says Harry, laughing. “I believe he expects we’re going to have a new siege of Seringapatam here, only back’ards way on.”

“Only wish some of ’em would come this way,” says Measles grimly; and he made a sort of offer, and a hit out at some imaginary enemy.

“Here they are,” says Joe Bantem, as we walked in. “Curry for dinner, lads—look alive.”

“What, my little hero!” says Mrs Bantem, fetching Harry one of her slaps on the back. “My word, you’re in fine plume with the colonel’s lady.”

Slap came her hand down again on Harry’s back; and as soon as he could get wind: “Oh, I say, don’t,” says Harry. “Thank goodness, I ain’t a married man.—Is she often as affectionate as this with you, Joe?”

Joe Bantem laughed; and soon after we were all making, in spite of threatened trouble and disappointment, an uncommonly hearty dinner, for, if there ever was a woman who could make a good curry, it was Mrs Bantem; and many’s the cold winter’s day I’ve stood in Facet’s door there in Bond Street, and longed for a plateful. Pearls stewed in sunshine, Harry Lant used to call it; and really to see the beautiful, glistening, white rice, every grain tender as tender, and yet dry and ready to roll away from the others—none of your mesh-posh rice, if Mrs Bantem boiled it—and then the rich golden curry itself: there, I’ve known that woman turn one of the toughest old native cocks into what you’d have sworn was a delicate young Dorking chick—that is, so long as you didn’t get hold of a drumstick, which perhaps would be a bit ropey. That woman was a regular blessing to our mess, and we fellows said so, many a time.

One, two, three days passed without any news, and we in our quarters were quiet as if thousands of miles from the rest of the world. The town kept as deserted as ever, and it seemed almost startling to me when I was posted sentry on the roof, after looking out over the wide, sandy, dusty plain, over which the sunshine was quivering and dancing, to peer down amongst the little ramshackle native huts without a sign of life amongst them, and it took but little thought for me to come to the conclusion that the natives knew of something terrible about to happen, and had made that their reason for going away. Though, all the same, it might have been from dread lest we should seek to visit upon them and theirs the horrors that had elsewhere befallen the British.

I used often to think, too, that Captain Dyer had some such feelings as mine, for he looked very, very serious and anxious, and he’d spend hours on the roof with his glass, Miss Ross often being by his side, while Lieutenant Leigh used to watch them in a strange way, when he thought no one was observing him.

I’ve often thought that when people are touched with that queer complaint folks call love, they get into a curious half-delirious way, that makes them fancy that people are nearly blind, and have their eyes shut to what they do or say. I fancy there was something of this kind with Miss Ross, and I’m sure there was with me when I used to go hanging about, trying to get a word with Lizzy; and, of course, shut up as we all were then, often having the chance, but getting seldom anything but a few cold answers, and a sort of show of fear of me whenever I was near to her.

But what troubled me as much as anything was the behaviour of the four Indians we had shut up with us—Chunder Chow, the old black nurse, and two more—for they grew more uppish and bounceable every day, refusing to work, until Captain Dyer had one of the men tied up to the triangles and flogged down in a great cellar or vault-place that there was under the north end of the palace, so that the ladies and women shouldn’t hear his cries. He deserved all he got, as I can answer for, and that made the rest a little more civil, but not for long and, just the day before something happened, I took the liberty of saluting Captain Dyer, after he had been giving me some orders, and took that chance of speaking my mind.

“Captain,” I says, “I don’t think those black folks are to be trusted.”

“Neither do I, Smith,” he says. “But what have you to tell me?”

“Nothing at all, captain, only that I have my eye on them; and I’ve been thinking that they must somehow or another have held communication outside; and I don’t like it, for those people don’t get what we call cheeky without cause.”

“Keep both eyes on them then, Smith,” says Captain Dyer, smiling, “and, no matter what it is—if it is the most trivial thing in any way connected with them, report it.”

“I will, sir,” I says; and the very next day, much against the grain, I did have something to report.