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

Story 1—Chapter IX.

The next morning was hotter, I think, than ever, with no prospect either of rain or change; and, after doing what little work I had to get over, it struck me that I might as well attend to what Captain Dyer advised—give two eyes to Chunder and his friends; so I left Mrs Bantem busy over her cooking, and went down into the court.

All below was as still as death—sunshine here, shadow there, but, through one of the windows, open to catch the least breeze that might be on the way, and taking in instead the hot, sultry air, came now and then the silvery laughter of the children—that pleasant cheery sound that makes the most rugged old face grow a trifle smoother.

I looked here, and I looked there, but could only see old Nabob amusing himself with the hay, a sentry on the roof to the east, and another on the roof to the west, and one in the gateway, broiling almost, all of them, with the heat.

The ladies and the children were seldom seen now, for they were in trouble; and Mrs Maine was worn almost to skin and bone with anxiety, as she sat waiting for tidings of the expedition.

Not knowing what to do with myself I sauntered along by where there was a slip of shade, and entered the south side of the palace—an old half-ruinous part; and after going first into one, and then into another of the bare empty rooms, I picked out what seemed to be the coolest corner I could find, sat down with my back propped against the wall, filled and lit my pipe, and then putting things together in my mind, thoroughly enjoyed a good smoke.

There was something wonderfully soothing in that bit of tobacco, and it appeared to me cooling, comforting, and to make my bit of a love-affair seem not so bad as it was. So, on the strength of that, I refilled, and was about halfway through another pipe, when things began to grow very dim round about me, and I was wandering about in my dreams, and nodding that head of mine in the most curious and wild way you can think of. What I dreamed about most was about getting married to Lizzy Green; and in what must have been a very short space, that event was coming off at least half-a-dozen times over, only Nabob, the elephant, would come in at an awkward time and put a stop to it. But at last, in my dreamy fashion, it seemed to me that matters were smoothed over, and he consented to put down the child, and, flapping his ears, promised he’d say yes. But in my stupid, confused muddle, I thought that he’d no sooner put down the child with his trunk than he wheeled round and took him up with his tail; and so on, backwards and forwards, when, getting quite out of patience, I caught Lizzy’s hand in mine, saying: “Never mind the elephant—let’s have it over;” and she gave a sharp scream.

I jumped to my feet, biting off, half swallowing a bit of pipe-shank as I did so, and then stood drenched with perspiration, listening to a scuffling noise in the next room; when, shaking off the stupid confused feeling, I ran towards the door just as another scream—not a loud, but a faint excited scream—rang in my ears, and the next moment Lizzy Green was sobbing and crying in my arms, and that black thief Chunder was crawling on his hands and knees to the door, where he got up, holding his fist to his mouth, and then he turned upon me such a look as I have never forgotten.

I don’t wonder at the people of old painting devils with black faces, for I don’t know anything more devilish-looking than a black’s phiz when it is drawn with rage, and the eyes are rolling about, now all black flash, now all white, while the grinning ivories below seem to be grinding and ready to tear you in pieces.

It was after that fashion that Chunder looked at me as he turned at the door; but I was then only thinking of the trembling, frightened girl I held in my arms, trying at the same time to whisper a few gentle words, while I had hard work to keep from pressing my lips to her white forehead.

But the next minute she disengaged herself from my grasp, and held out her little white hand to me, thanking me as sweetly as thanks could be given.

“Perhaps you had better not say a word about it,” she whispered. “He’s come under pretence of seeing the nurse, and been rude to me once or twice before. I came here to sit at that window with my work, and did not see him come behind me.”

I started as she spoke about that open window, for it looked out upon the spot where I sometimes stood sentry; but then, Harry Lant sometimes stood just in the same place, and I don’t know whether it was a strange impression caused by his coming, that made me think of him, but just then there were footsteps, and, with his pipe in his mouth, and fatigue-jacket all unbuttoned, Harry entered the room.

“Beg pardon; didn’t know it was engaged,” he says lightly, as he stepped back; and then he stopped, for Lizzy called to him by his name.

“Please walk back with me to Mrs Maine’s quarters,” she said softly; and once more holding her hand out to me, with her eyes cast down, she thanked me; and the question I had been asking myself—Did she love Harry Lant better than me?—was to my mind answered, and I gave a groan as I saw them walk off together, for it struck me then that they had engaged to meet in that room, only Harry Lant was late.

“Never mind,” I says to myself; “I’ve done a comrade a good turn.” And then I thought more and more of there being a feeling in the blacks’ minds that their hour was coming, or that ill-looking scoundrel would never have dared to insult a white woman in open day.

Ten minutes after, I was on my way to Captain Dyer, for, in spite of what Lizzy had said, I felt that, being under orders, it was my duty to report all that occurred with the blacks; for we might at any time have been under siege, and to have had unknown and treacherous enemies in the camp would have been ruin indeed.

“Well, Smith,” he said, smiling as I entered and saluted, “what news of the enemy?”

“Not much, sir,” I said; what I had to tell, going, as I have before said, very much against the grain. “I was in one of the empty rooms on the south side, when I heard a scream, and running up, I found it was Miss Ross.”

“What!” he roared, in a voice that would have startled a stronger man than I.

“Miss Ross’s maid, sir, with that black fellow Chunder, the mahout, trying to kiss her.”

“Well!” he said, with a black angry look overspreading his face.

“Well, sir,” I said, feeling quite red as I spoke, “he kissed my fist instead—that’s all.”

Captain Dyer began to walk up and down, playing with one of the buttons on his breast as was his way when eager and excited.

“Now, Smith,” he said at last, stopping short before me, “what does that mean?”

“Mean, sir?” I said, feeling quite as excited as himself. “Well, sir, if you ask me, I say that if it was in time of peace and quiet, it would only mean that it was a bit of his black— I beg your pardon, captain,” I says, stopping short, for, you see, it was quite time.

“Go on, Smith,” he said quietly.

“His black impudence, sir.”

“But, as it is not in time of peace and quiet, Smith?” he said, looking me through and through.

“Well, sir,” I said, “I don’t want to croak, nor for other people to believe what I say; but it seems to me that that black fellow’s kicking out of the ranks means a good deal; and I take it that he is excited with the news that he has somehow got hold of—news that is getting into his head like so much green ’rack. I’ve thought of it some little time now, sir; and—it strikes me that if, instead of our short company being Englishmen, they were all Chunder Chows, before to-morrow morning, begging your pardon, Captain Dyer and Lieutenant Leigh would have said ‘Right wheel’ for the last time.”

“And the women and children!” he muttered softly: but I heard him.

He did not speak then for quite half a minute, when he turned to me with a pleasant smile.

“But you see, though, Smith,” he said, “our short company is made up of different stuff; and therefore there’s some hope for us yet; but—Ah, Leigh, did you hear what he said?”

“Yes,” said the lieutenant, who had been standing at the door for a few moments, scowling at us both.

“Well, what do you think?” said Captain Dyer.

“Think?” said Lieutenant Leigh contemptuously, as he turned away—“nothing!”

“But,” said Captain Dyer quietly, “really I think there is much truth in what he, an observant man, says.”

There was a challenge from the roof just then; and we all went out to find that a mounted man was in sight; and on the captain making use of his glass, I heard him tell Lieutenant Leigh that it was an orderly dragoon.

A few minutes after, it was plain enough to everybody; and soon, man and horse dead beat, the orderly with a despatch trotted into the court.

It was a sight worth seeing, to look upon Mrs Maine clutching at the letter enclosed for her in Captain Dyer’s despatch. Poor woman! it was a treasure to her—one that made her pant as she hurriedly snatched it from the captain’s hand, for all formality was forgotten in those days; and then she hurried away to where her sister was waiting to hear the news.