He caught sight of me at the same moment, and a fierce scowl passed across his brow.
"Whom have you got there, Tim?" he called out, standing up in the boat to get a view of me.
"Mr. Ford, sir, purser's assistant of his Majesty's ship Talisman."
At that moment the boat came alongside and my cousin leaped on to the deck, followed by four or five of the crew. He surveyed me with a glance of bitter hatred, mingled with triumph.
"So, cousin, I did not kill you after all! Never mind, I am glad you have remembered your old articles and are come to join us once more. We have lacked a cabin-boy since your desertion, and if his Majesty can spare you, we shall be glad of your services."
I was too confounded to reply, or to take much heed of this mocking harangue. I had as firmly believed Rupert to be dead as, it seems, he had believed me. The truth, as I gathered it by degrees afterwards, seemed to be this: At the moment of my casting him out of the boat in which we had fought, the other boat was returning to find out what had been the result of the battle. They had first picked up Rupert out of the water, when he was on the point of death, and had then found me senseless, and to all appearance mortally wounded, where I had fallen. They carried us both back with them, and finding Rupert revived, had concealed him on the Fair Maid till she should sail. The boatswain, out of a kindness for me, and knowing the other's vindictive nature, had persuaded him that it was impossible for me to recover, and so they had left me.
As soon as I was able to collect myself I demanded to have speech with Mr. Sims, the captain.
"You will meet with Mr. Sims where you are going," retorted Rupert. "In the meantime any business you have with the captain of this vessel may be transacted with me."
"Then I insist that you put me ashore instantly," I said, with resolution. "Would you kidnap me under the very guns of his Majesty's fleet?"
"Not so fast," returned Rupert, keeping his temper, as he could afford to do, having the upper hand. "You have forgot your indentures, by which you are bound apprentice to the good ship Fair Maid, sailing under his Majesty's letters of marque and commission."
"Under a forged commission," I retorted hotly. "I refuse to be bound by indentures to a pirate!"
This outburst was, no doubt, what my cousin had been waiting for, to set the opinion of the crew against me. He now turned to his followers, very stern.
"Take this youth down to the forecastle and put him in irons. If he repeats his scandalous aspersions, I will bring him to trial as a deserter and mutineer."
I had no means of resistance, and his orders were carried out, the scoundrel who had tricked me into waiting for Rupert's return, taking especial pleasure to see that my irons were made secure. I scorned to question the dirty rascals further as to how my cousin came to be in command, but I guessed there had been some foul work on board since the vessel had left Yarmouth; and the next morning I learnt the whole story.
Old Muzzy, my firm friend, had been ashore all that night, very drunk, but soon after dawn he came off to the ship, and hearing of my plight, at once betook himself to where I was imprisoned. He embraced me very heartily, and as soon as I had satisfied him as to my recovery and subsequent adventures, he disclosed to me the situation of the Fair Maid.
"You see it's like this, my boy. Mr. Sims is a good seaman, no one can't say he's not, but he's too much of a lawyer to handle a craft like this. Now that cousin of yours, though he be a bloodthirsty, revengeful beast, as you should know by this time, yet he's no lawyer. Captain Sims, there, he was all for letters of marque and such, but then, once a peace breaks out, where's your letters of marque? They ain't no more use than so much ballast. Now when we came out here, the lieutenant he says, 'Let's go into Gheriah, and join the pirates there'—though according to him they aren't what you may call pirates, being under a king of their own, who has as much right to give them commissions as King George himself. But Captain Sims he wouldn't hear of it, the more so as there was a British squadron under Commodore Porter had been out from Bombay in the spring, and knocked some of their forts about their ears for them. But, you see, unless we joined them, we had nothing to do till such time as the war began again, unless we chose to take the risk of standing up and down the coast, as you may say, on our own hook. So the crew they sided with the lieutenant, that's your cousin, and the end of it was there was a sort of a mutiny, and Captain Sims he was carried ashore at Gheriah and given up to the pirates, leastways to their king, and the lieutenant took his place."
"Then the long and short of it is that this is a pirate ship," was all I could say.
"Well, we are, and, in a manner of speaking, we aren't. When we want to come into Bombay here we sail under King George's flag, and when we're in company with the pirates we fly theirs. Any way, we've taken two Dutch ships and an English one since we got out here, and that's put money in our pockets, which is more than Captain Sims would have done with his lawyering."
"And I suppose I am to be carried to Gheriah and given up to the pirates, like Mr. Sims," I said bitterly.
But this the boatswain swore with many oaths he would not permit. Nevertheless I could see that he was strongly attached to my cousin's interest, and not disposed to venture anything openly against him. Indeed, he tried very hard to persuade me to come into their plans, offering to reconcile me with Rupert if I would consent to do this. To these proposals, however, I would by no means consent, being more experienced by this time than when I had joined them at Yarmouth, and having a pretty shrewd notion of how Mr. Clive would regard my former comrades if they should fall into his hands. Finally, I besought the boatswain for news of Marian.
He drew a grave face at this name.
"Athelstane, lad, I would rather you'd ask me any other question than that. Plague take the girl, she was the cause of all the mischief between you and the lieutenant! Forget her, lad, forget her, she's not worth your troubling after."
But he might as well have pressed me to forget who I was, and the situation into which my eagerness to hear of Marian had brought me.
Finding me resolute to know about her, he told me this much:—
"She came aboard while the Fair Maid was in the river, to nurse your cousin as he lay ill of his wounds. But I believe he had been tempting her before that to come out to the Indies with him, and she held back for him to go to church with her first, and this he didn't care enough for her to do. Anyhow, it ended in his getting round her to trust herself with him, and he swore he would carry her straight to Calcutta and hand her over to her people there. When we got out here, and she found he had no such purpose, but meant to keep her in the fortress as long as it suited his pleasure, there was a terrible business betwixt them. But you know what the lieutenant is, and that it ain't a few tears from a woman that'll turn him from anything he has a mind to do. So he just set her ashore by force, and there she is, as much a prisoner as Mr. Sims himself."
I was overcome with the horror of this news, though I suppose it was what I should have expected from my cousin's character.
"Good heavens!" I cried out in my distraction. "Do you mean that she is in the hands of the pirates at Gheriah?"
"That's about what it comes to. And the sooner you give up all thoughts of her the better for you, says I."
Before I could frame any answer—and, indeed, I know not what answer I could have made—there was a great noise and trampling upon deck, and a man came down to tell us that the vessel was about to weigh anchor, and that the boatswain was wanted to attend to the service of the ship. Whereupon he left me, in the company of bitterer thoughts than a man can have more than once in his life.
I pass over the dreary time spent by me in that dismal confinement during our voyage. Old Muzzy visited me pretty often, and once Rupert himself came down and made offers towards a reconcilement.
"Say that you will join us honestly, and I will take off the irons, and rate you as one of the crew. And when occasion serves, I will cause you to be made lieutenant under me," he promised, "for after all you are my own kinsman, and blood is thicker than water."
Whether he was sincere in this, or was compelled to it by my friend the boatswain, I do not know. But I had only one reply to give him.
"And Marian, what of her?" I said indignantly.
A dark look came on his brow.
"Leave that business alone," he said. "It were better for you, I warn you fairly. That woman is mine, and I will not suffer the Almighty Himself to come between us."
At this blasphemous avowal I turned my back on him, and would entertain no further proposals. However, I knew from the boatswain that Rupert was first for throwing me overboard; and when Muzzy, who had much authority with the crew, would not consent to that, he was for putting me into the castle at Gheriah, along with the late captain. But this my sturdy champion also opposed, and the end of it was that I was left in my present quarters when the Fair Maid arrived in the pirates' harbour, and brought them the news that a British squadron was on its way to besiege the place.
This intelligence Rupert had acquired before leaving Bombay, and it was this which had caused him to set sail with so much haste. Becoming very busied in preparations for the defence, I luckily slipped somewhat out of his mind, and the boatswain took advantage of this to soften the rigour of my imprisonment, allowing me to take the air on deck, and even going so far as to release me from my irons.
I was thus enabled to gain some idea of the place I had been brought to. When I first came up from below, after so long a time passed in obscurity, the daylight proved too much for my eyes, and I was obliged to close them, and accustom myself to the glare by degrees. As soon as I was able to look about me, however, I perceived that the Fair Maid was lying in a very spacious river, not far from the mouth, and over against a sort of rocky islet or peninsula, joined to the left bank of the river by a strip of sand. On the rock there was built a very strong castle, having a double wall and towers to protect it, but the cannons of rather poor calibre. Alongside of us lay the fleet of the pirates, composed of strange-looking vessels, having for the most part two masts, one very much in the stern, and rigged with a huge sail, the peak of which came much above the top of the mast. The prows of these vessels stretched a great way forward out of the water having the appearance of a bird's beak. The larger of these vessels, of which there were about ten, are called grabs, and the smaller, of which I counted upwards of sixty, gallivats. These latter are managed with oars as well as sails, and when there is no wind they are employed to tow the grabs behind them, so that in light weather it is easy for them to overtake the ship of which they are in pursuit. They were all armed with cannon, the grabs carrying as many as twenty or thirty 12-pounders, and the gallivats swivel-guns of 6 or 9 pounds.
We had lain in this position for more than a month, and I was beginning to be afraid that Admiral Watson had altered his intention of coming to reduce the pirates' stronghold, when one evening, as I sat on the deck, just at the time that the wind changed and began to blow in from the sea, I discerned a great commotion on shore in the fortress, and turning my eyes towards the river's mouth I beheld a most welcome sight, namely, a fleet of no less than fourteen ships, arranged in two lines, with the Talisman at their head, sailing proudly in, with the British flag flying at their peaks, and their tops all full of men, their guns run out through their portholes, and their decks cleared for action.
As silently and as orderly as if they were in mid-ocean without a foe in sight, they came sweeping up the river, doubled the rocky point, and anchored one after the other, within two hundred yards of the north wall of the fort.
THE SIEGE OF GHERIAH
Hardly had the fleet taken up its position, when I saw on the land side a great army of Indians march down to the edge of the river and pitch their camp at the end of the sandy neck, so as to cut off all chance of escape from the defenders of the fort.
These, as I found out, were Morattoes, the king of that country, though not friendly to the English, having agreed to join them in this enterprise. Indeed, it appeared that the pirates themselves were revolted subjects of this king, having their origin in the treachery of one Angria, the Morattoe admiral, who cast off his allegiance and seized and fortified divers strong places along the coast, where he set up an independent power. For this reason the Morattoes had despatched an army under their principal general, Ramagee Punt, to assist in extirpating the pirates and regaining their former dominions.
As soon as the ships had swung to their anchors I saw a boat put off, bearing a flag of truce, to summon the pirates to yield up their fastness. But this proposal evidently miscarried, for the boat returned shortly, without any motions being made towards a surrender. At the same time I saw the gate on the landward side of the fortress opened and a chieftain wearing a rich dress come forth, accompanied by a train of attendants, and cross over the sand spit into the Morattoes' camp, from which he did not return that night.
This looked to me like a piece of treachery, as though the pirates were seeking to make terms with their fellow-countrymen behind the backs of the English. No doubt this transaction bore the same look to those on board the fleet, for when I came up on deck in the morning to see if any change had taken place during the night, I was astonished to see the space between the Morattoes' camp and the sand spit covered with tents, in which were about two thousand troops newly landed from the fleet, the last of the boats that had put them ashore being then half-way back, and rowing right round the grabs and gallivats, which were moored altogether close in under the walls of the fortress. It was not difficult for me to guess that this bold exploit was the work of Colonel Clive, who had thus placed himself between his treacherous allies and the enemy, effectually putting a stop to all underhand communications between them. And I learned afterwards that but for this determined action on his part, the fortress would have been delivered up to Ramagee Punt that very morning, and the English excluded from all share of the prize.
I saw some messengers pass to and fro between the ships and the land, but nothing seemed to come of it, and finally, about ten o'clock I saw a signal run up on the Talisman, and immediately the side of every ship drove forth a vast cloud of smoke across the water, and the air was shaken by the discharge of at least three hundred guns.
Now the cowardice of the pirates was made manifest, for instead of manning their own fleet, which might have given much trouble if well handled, they left it exposed to the British fire, and withdrew behind the walls of their fort, from which they made a feeble reply to the broadsides of the squadron. The consequence was that before long one of the shells from the fleet set fire to a large grab, and the whole of the pirates' vessels, being made fast side by side, caught fire together, and were burnt to the water's edge, amid a continual noise of explosions every time the flames reached a loaded cannon or a powder barrel. Thus was destroyed in a few hours a navy which had for fifty years been the terror of the Malabar coast, and had preyed upon the commerce of every nation trading in those seas.
So taken up was I in watching this scene of destruction that I did not at first notice what was happening to the Fair Maid. Being anchored some way off the other vessels, and further up towards the sand spit, we escaped the damage that had been done to them, but now we attracted the attention of the British Fleet, and those on board naturally considering us as a prize captured by the pirates, one of the ships began to open fire on us, and sent a ball clean through the deck.
Up to this time the crew had lain inactive, taking no part in the fight. My cousin had gone ashore into the fort the night before, taking a part of the ship's company with him, and had not returned. The boatswain was left in command, with about twenty men under him, and these now began to see that they were in a trap, being too few to fight the ship to any purpose, while any attempt to land would expose them to a destructive fire either from the fleet or from Mr. Clive's troops, which would come along the sand spit to cut them off.
In this extremity old Muzzy took what was perhaps the boldest resolution any man could have come to. He decided to set sail, and pass right between the fort and the ships, running the gauntlet of the whole squadron, and thus escape down the river and out to the open sea. The breeze blowing out to sea, as it always does for the first half of the day on this coast, the plan seemed a good one, if once they could pass through the fire of the squadron.
This course commending itself to the crew, the sails were hoisted accordingly, I lending a hand, for I had no desire either to take refuge with the pirates or to be sunk where we were; and having slipped our cable the Fair Maid got under weigh. This proceeding must have struck surprise into those who were watching us, for the frigate which had commenced to bombard us at once stopped fire, and waited to see what we would do. As we had no colours flying, it was difficult for them to know what we would be at, or whether we did not mean to surrender. Had we been only concerned with the fleet, our best course might have been to hoist the Union Jack; but in that case we had to fear the guns of the fort, close under which we meant to pass.
In this way we got along till we were right in the range of fire between the ships and the fort, and here for a minute all seemed over with us and I had fairly given myself up for lost. A whole broadside of thirty guns was fired right across us, and the only thing that saved us from being sunk instantly was our lying so low on the water that the bullets, being aimed at the walls of the fort, passed over our heads. As it was they did great damage to the rigging. The main topmast was shot away, the shrouds were torn to threads, and the gaff of the fore-topsail was badly wounded. Luckily for us the next vessel of the squadron had discharged its broadside just before we came into the line of fire, and the third merely signalled to know if we would surrender. Old Muzzy refused to answer the signal, and his conduct in this, and in not using the Fair Maid's own guns, clearly puzzled those on board the fleet.
By this time we had begun to round the corner of the rock, and paying away before the wind to go down the river, presented our stern to the remaining ships of the squadron. One of them gave us a broadside, but it was ill-directed, and only three balls took effect. They had aimed this time at the hull, luckily for the Fair Maid, as she could ill have stood another discharge at her rigging, and though the tiller was shot away, and some damage was done to the stern, it was not serious enough to cripple her.
But just as we were beginning to breathe we were dismayed at suddenly receiving a bullet from one of the guns of the fort, which ploughed right into the deck within two feet of where I stood. I looked up astonished, and beheld my cousin Rupert, with the match still in his hand, looking over to watch the effect of his shot. The other men on board caught sight of him at the same moment, and a howl went up at this act of cold-blooded treachery. One of the fellows snatched up a loaded musket which lay on the deck, and discharged it at him, and I had the satisfaction to see him fall back swiftly, but whether actually struck by the bullet or no I could not tell.
Distracted by this unlooked-for attack, we had not noticed a fresh danger from the fleet. But now we perceived that the launch of the Admiral's own ship, the Talisman, had been manned, and was bearing right down on us, the men on board coming with great coolness and daring right past the guns of the fort. In this they were fortunately protected by the fact that the gunners were all engaged in replying to the fire of the fleet, which lay anchored above, and we being now past the direct line of fire, and out on the middle of the river, the garrison paid no attention to us. However, the launch would have had no chance of overtaking us but for the unlucky accident to the tiller, which had made the Fair Maid unmanageable for the moment, and caused her to come up to the wind. They were thus able to draw very near us before the man at the helm had contrived to rig up a makeshift tiller out of a splinter off the gunwale. Just as he began to get the ship's head round again the launch approached within hailing distance, and bade us surrender.
Old Muzzy strictly forbidding any reply, they fired a bullet at us from a small swivel gun in the bows. Thereupon one of the crew—the same man who had fired at Rupert—wanted to discharge the Fair Maid's stern gun at them; but this the boatswain would not permit.
"If we're caught running away, they may let us off," he said prudently; "but if we're caught after firing on the king's uniform, it's hanging for every mother's son of us."
The men saw the wisdom of this, and now the sails began to draw again, and give a fair chance of leaving the launch behind. No sooner did this happen, than I experienced a keen feeling of regret. I had aided heartily in our escape so far, believing it to be the only thing I could do, but now I thought I saw a chance of being restored to my ship I could not resist the temptation. I measured the distance between the Fair Maid and the launch with my eye, and, though a poor swimmer, considered I might manage to keep afloat till the launch should pick me up. I turned round, shook hands with old Muzzy, and before he knew what I had in mind, plunged over the side into the water.
I heard a cry go up from the crew, who at first thought it was an accident, my zeal in helping to work the ship having put it out of their minds that I was merely a prisoner. However, they had too much to do in looking after their own escape to give much thought to me; and in the end they got very fairly away, and disappeared outside the river's mouth.
In the meantime the launch came on towards me, and then a thing happened which I may truly say brought my heart into my mouth. For one of the marines in her, looking on me no doubt as one of the pirates, raised his musket and aimed it directly at my head. The sun was behind me, but fell full upon his face, and I could see the narrowing of his eye as he took aim, also the flash of the sunlight along the barrel. I had made up my mind that I was a dead man, and was even hoping that my death would be too swift for me to feel the pain of the wound, when I saw the gun struck up and heard the voice of Irish Mick crying out in a mixture of terror and laughter—
"Sure, don't you know him? It's the little purser!"
The recognition came almost as near killing as saving me, for in their amazement the men of the launch ceased rowing, and as in my expectancy of death I had lost all power of motion I was like to have been drowned. However, they rescued me just in time, and welcomed me on board with a heartiness which did much to make amends for the suffering I had gone through since I had left their company.
I told them my story, and had to tell it again to Mr. Griffiths and the purser when I reached the ship. Mr. Sanders received me coldly, and pronounced that I had been rightly served for hankering after my former evil companions, but the lieutenant spoke to me more kindly, and praised me for my refusal to join myself to the privateers, or rather pirates, for such they were now openly become.
I claimed his promise to let me take part in the fighting, to which he willingly consented; though, indeed, there was but little glory to be gained, as the pirates were now so cowed as to have pretty well ceased to return our fire, and before night they had made some fresh attempts towards a capitulation.
It fell through, however, and our bombardment was renewed the following day. The castle was so strong, the walls being hewn in many places out of the solid rock that we were unable to make much impression, but luckily if their walls were strong, the hearts of the pirates were too weak to prolong the defence, and it became merely a question of whether they should surrender to us or to Ramagee Punt. The Morattoes struggled hard, but Colonel Clive stood at his post like a wall between them and the fort, and after two days the pirates saw that they had met their master, and opened the gates to him.
As soon as I knew that Mr. Clive's force would be the first to enter, I took Mr. Griffiths aside, and explained to him that there was an Englishwoman, in whom I was interested, inside the fortress, and after I had related the whole story to him he sent me ashore to the camp to lay the case before Mr. Clive.
That brave man—who was good enough to express his pleasure at seeing me safe again—heard me with great attention. As soon as I had told my story he turned to his secretary.
"Mr. Scrafton, you have heard what this young man says. I desire you will send at once for Angria's envoy, and tell him that if I find one hair of this girl's head has been injured I will hang him from his own walls."
He spoke this in a stern and terrible manner, which imparted some fear even to me. Within an hour the message came back from the pirates' chief that the Colonel's orders should be strictly obeyed.
This was while the negotiations for the surrender were still in progress. By the end of the second day's bombardment all was over, and Colonel Clive marched into the place at the head of 800 English and 1,000 Indian soldiers, who formed his whole army. I was allowed to enter at the same time.
We found the pirates drawn up inside to the number of several thousands. In so vast a crowd I could not distinguish the faces of any of the Fair Maid men, nor was there a sign to be seen of my cousin Rupert. Out of a feeling of shame I had concealed from Colonel Clive that this villain was among the pirates, but I made a strict search for him presently all through the place, without any result. I could only conclude that he must have been killed during the siege, unless he had made his escape in some way not easy to guess.
As soon as we had passed through the ranks of the pirates, whom Mr. Clive ordered to be disarmed and handed over to their Morattoe countrymen, we came into the inner court of the place, where we found Angria himself, surrounded by his chief men. He was a tall, handsome Indian, with a fierce, threatening countenance, surmounted by a crimson turban, which blazed with rich gems. His whole treasure lay beside him, and amounted, when it came to be reckoned up, to L120,000, which was divided among the fleet and army, I getting L6 for my own share. It was considered a paltry booty by the men, and some hinted that the officers had taken more than their portion. There was also a dispute between the two services as to the amount of Mr. Clive's share, which the army insisted should be equal to a rear-admiral's, while the navy would not allow it to be more than a post-captain's. In order to settle the matter Admiral Watson very handsomely offered to make up the difference out of his own share, which the Colonel with equal handsomeness declined; and so the affair passed off.
But the greatest prize we gained in that action, to my thinking, was the woman whom I found crouched in terror upon the floor of a dark, stifling hut, built against one of the walls of the castle, and expecting every moment to find herself in the clutches of some savage enemy. For Rupert had cruelly forborne to tell her that the fortress was besieged by an English fleet, and when I entered the place where she was confined, she no doubt believed me to be some marauder of the same stamp as those among whom she had been kept a prisoner.
I stepped up beside her with a bursting heart, and laid a hand upon her shoulder.
"Marian," I said, "I am Athelstane Ford, who has come to set you free."
She trembled all over as she gave a quick look up at me, and then rose tottering on to her feet. And when I saw her face, how it was all shrunken from its former roundness, and the colour had gone from her cheeks, and the brightness from her eyes, as she stood there before me, with her dress all dishevelled, and her beautiful long hair ragged and wild, the tears started to my eyes, and I swore a deep oath that if my cousin Rupert ever met me face to face again he should not depart alive.
"Athelstane," she said presently, when we had stood gazing at each other like that for above a minute, "that detestable villain who is your kinsman has cruelly used me and betrayed me; but I believe you are a true man. Take me to my father, and I will bless the day that I ever saw you first." And before I knew what she would be at, she had knelt down and kissed my hand, with a passion of weeping, that proud, beautiful creature whom I had last seen in all the glory of her youth and loveliness, the jewel of her native town.
I raised her up tenderly, and drew her forth out of that vile place. A week later the Admiral carried his fleet back to Bombay; but I had got my discharge, and was with Marian on board the sloop Thetis, of twenty-six guns, bound for the river Hooghley with despatches.
IN THE COMPANY'S SERVICE
And now I must pass quickly over that time of my life on which I should most love to linger, those halcyon hours when, with Marian by my side and the prospect bright before us, we voyaged through those Indian seas, down the long coast of Malabar and up the long coast of Coromandel, past the Isle of Serendib, and the reefs and foaming seas, to where the tangled banyan roots overgrow the muddy mouth of the Hooghley.
Being, as we were, the only two idle persons on board that ship, we were thrown upon each other's company day after day, and in the long talks we had together she gave me her account of the injuries which she had suffered at the hands of my cousin Gurney. And what pleased me most in these conversations was not to hear her kind and loving professions towards myself, so much as that bitterness which she now manifested against Rupert, for whom, she told me, she cherished a hatred as strong as her former liking and attachment.
"You are not to think," she said, "that I ever held your cousin in that regard which he was vain enough to believe and boast of. It is true we were good friends, and had been such before I had yet made your acquaintance. But he was a man for whom I had a strong distrust, and that in spite of his swaggering airs and gallant speeches, fit to turn the head of some silly, vain girl who knew nothing of the world."
"How came you to put yourself in that villain's hands," I asked, with some reproachfulness, "by venturing on board the Fair Maid?"
"I own that was a wrong, foolish act," she answered, "of which the wrongs I have suffered in consequence are sufficient proof. But when I first yielded to Rupert Gurney's solicitations to take my passage in that ship, I looked to the fact that Captain Sims was her commander, and it was him I relied on to afford me protection. Can you not understand how tired I was of my life in Yarmouth, in that old, dreary inn; and how I wished to be abroad and see the great world, and also to embrace my own parents, from whom I have been separated these twelve years?"
Thus she made her defence. Nor was I like to gainsay it, loving her as I did, with the same folly and blindness as of old, and ready to see and to hear just as she bade me, so that I might only be let hug myself in the belief that I had her affection in return.
"For the first part of our voyage," she told me further, "all went well enough, until your cousin recovered of those wounds you had given him. Then he began to take a tone with me which I could ill brook; and you may imagine my uneasiness when I perceived that he had greater interest with the men than Mr. Sims, and that I was fairly in his power. As soon as we had got out in these seas he threw off all pretence of taking me to Fort William; and when I implored him at least to set me ashore in Bombay, where I might find another ship, he flatly refused, and told me plainly that I was nothing more than his prisoner. I applied to Mr. Sims for protection, but he answered that it was none of his business, and since I had come aboard freely there was nothing penal in detaining me. This man, I could see, was afraid of Gurney, who shortly after raised a mutiny against him, put him in irons, and carried him into Gheriah."
I had forgotten to say that when we took the pirates' castle, Captain Sims was found among the prisoners, who, producing his papers, and making out a long tale about his being an innocent merchant skipper, fallen into the hands of the Moors, not only got his freedom, but a handsome compensation out of the plunder of the place, with which he took passage home to England.
Marian told me that her complaints and anger at last drove Rupert to put her ashore, where he gave her, like Sims, into Angria's custody.
"And the horrors of that prison," she said, "are not to be described, nor even conceived by one who has not had experience of it. I was locked into a small cell, with scarce room to move or breathe, and the insufferable heat was such that I was forced to strip naked and lie on the floor, with scarce a rag to cover me. What would have happened to me if the fort had not been taken I dare not think. I must have gone mad or died."
"Do not let us speak of it," I said, soothing her. "All those horrors are passed, and not likely to return. Where we are going, in Calcutta, you will find friends and English customs; and your faithful servant, if you will have him as such, Athelstane Ford, will stand guard over you with his life."
This was the nearest approach which I made to a declaration of my love, choosing rather to drift by force of circumstances into the position of Marian's accepted lover than hazard all I had gained by seeking to pluck the fruit before it was ripe. It was sufficient for me in the meantime to elicit from her those expressions of abhorrence towards my cousin (and late rival), which assured me that she was effectually cured of her unhappy tenderness for that villain.
"Thank heaven, you are not likely to be troubled with any further sight of him," I said, to clinch the matter. "After these events Master Rupert will be no such fool as to endanger his neck by trespassing on the Company's territories."
"I wish never to see him, nor so much as to hear of him again," Marian answered warmly.
With such assurances she satisfied me. Perhaps my hopes played me false, and made me take gratitude for something dearer; or it may be that Marian, who knew well enough what were my feelings towards her, did return me some fondness at this time, and was resigned to accept my suit. Even if I deceived myself, I will not repent it. For I know that this life of ours is but a series of illusions, where we stand like children at a peepshow in a fair, beholding pictures which we mistake for real things. So that I say that he who falsely thinks himself beloved is just as well off for that time as he who really is beloved. Yet so far as I was concerned, if any man had said to me then that Marian did not love me, I should have scorned him.
Of my love for her I must not speak at all, or I shall never have done. Long before we reached the Hooghley she had recovered from the ill effects of her imprisonment, and moved about the ship with that command which her beauty gave to her. Her charm was such as I have never seen in any other woman: compared with them she seemed like a bright child among old, sleeping men, almost like a living body among the withered tenants of the tombs. And before we had been upon our voyage above a fortnight the commander and both lieutenants of the Thetis were at her beck and call, while as for the little midshipmen, down to one youngster of twelve, they swore by her as if she were a goddess, and fought duels about her in the cockpit with their dirks.
Before we arrived in Bengal she talked to me much about her parents, who had been settled at Fort William for nearly twenty years. It was a long time since she had had news of them, she told me, but when she last heard her father was prospering in his business, which was that of a drug factor, not in the civil service of the East Indian Company, but trading under their licence, and shipping his merchandise in their bottoms. So much she knew, but nothing besides, and it was with as much curiosity as myself that she saw the Sunderbunds drawing near, and our sloop anchoring off Falta to wait for a pilot up the river.
The Hooghley, famous as it is, is only one of the mouths of that great river the Ganges, sacred and renowned throughout Indostan. Yet it is upwards of forty miles long, for so great was the distance which separated us from our destination. By means of a fair wind we accomplished this difficult navigation, dangerous on account of the numerous shoals, in a very few hours, passing on our way the fort of Budge-Budge, where the Company kept a small garrison.
The scene along the banks of the river was most strange to me at this time, and made an impression not easy to be effaced. The trees which overhung the most part of the banks, of a character quite unlike those we have in Norfolk, were gloomy and forbidding in the extreme; but when we came to one of the people of the country's villages, and saw the men dressed in gay turbans, the women walking about with curious earthen vessels on their heads, and the stark naked black children playing in the water, I was altogether bewildered, and could scarcely credit that I, who saw these things and had come to dwell amongst them, was the same boy who had been bred up so peacefully in that English village among the flat meadows bordered by the shallow broad.
However, we came at last to that place since so celebrated, though then considered only as the third among the Company's settlements in the East; I mean Fort William. The fort itself was at this date of no great size or consequence; but in the neighbourhood along the river bank were many fine warehouses erected by the English. In the rear of these was built the native town, which the Moors call Calcutta. Here the houses are generally mean and dirty; but some of the rich Indians lived in very noble style, having fine gardens round their houses, ornamented with fountains and groves of tulip trees and mangoes.
Marian and I were put ashore in the ship's gig, having first bid adieu to the officers, and set about inquiring the way to Mr. Rising's house. In this at first we were unsuccessful, but at last I found an obliging person on the quay who directed his native servant to guide us to it.
This man, to whom I gave a handful of pice, conducted us through some narrow streets of the town, very ill-paved, and full of a most evil smell, to a lonely neighbourhood on the side of the river further up, where there was a house built in the Moorish fashion, and enclosed in a wild garden much overrun with weeds. All round this garden was a high wall, conformable to the jealous disposition of these people. The entrance was by a narrow gate, and there was a miserable dwelling crouched against the wall inside, the door of which stood open. Some black children were playing in front of this hovel, who cried out when they saw us, and ran indoors. An Indian came out, very gaunt and fierce, who demanded in English what we did there.
"We are come to see Mr. Rising," I told him, using his own language which Mr. Scrafton had taught me. "Is this his house?"
"It is, my lord," says the fellow, much surprised, and giving a low bow, which they call a salawm.
With that I dismissed our conductor, and Mr. Rising's gardener—for such he was—brought us to the house. We now saw that though originally a fine mansion it was sadly decayed. The walls should have been white, but excessive heat had cracked and blistered them, and turned everything to a yellowish hue. The Indian brought us inside, and into a long, low-ceilinged room with a great window opening on to the river. This room had no furniture except two small tables; but all round the walls was a covered settee, very broad, such as the Moors are used to sit on with their legs tucked up beneath them. To a European it is uncomfortable at first, but by degrees I grew accustomed to it. In this room presently Marian's father came to us.
The first sight of Mr. Rising gave me a shock, and must, I think, have given a worse one to my companion. He was, as I knew, a man of middle age, yet he looked very, very old, being bent down and much wrinkled, with his hair nearly white. Moreover, his eyes wandered as if he were uncertain which way to look, and while he spoke his fingers worked strangely up and down his bosom, as if groping over the strings of some musical instrument.
"Well, sir," he said in a thin, halting voice, seeming to find each word an effort, "what is your pleasure with me?"
"I have come here, sir," I said, "with one whom you will rejoice to see. This is Mistress Marian Rising, your daughter, who has come out from England in my company."
For at Marian's prayer I had strictly promised to say nothing about the manner of her voyage, which might have done her some discredit with the Calcutta folk.
As I pronounced the above words the girl herself sprang forward and cast her arms about her father's neck.
"Father!" she said. "Don't you know me—your little Marian, who has come home!" And she wept on his bosom.
Then it was a pity to see that ancient, stricken man wakening, as it seemed, out of his trance, and gradually making sure who it was that embraced him.
"My child! My child! Why have you come here?" he said presently. And then shed some tears himself, and clasped her to him, and kissed her.
"Where is my mother?" asked Marian, as soon as she had raised her head.
"Poor child! Your mother has been dead these eighteen months," he answered sadly. "I should have written to tell you of it, but I was preparing for my passage home—indeed, I don't know why I have not started before this."
He gazed round him as he spoke, so as to convince me that indeed he did not know, and had lost the power—poor man!—to understand his circumstances or to take any resolution whatsoever.
I came away from that strange scene terrified, not so much by what I saw, as by an instinct I had that this man's dreadful wreck was only a sign of that great and abiding horror which lay like a shadow all over the land; just as in the fable the glimpse of one monstrous foot was sufficient to warn the spectator that a giant came along. Which feeling in my mind was rather confirmed than dispelled when I came to learn, as I soon did, that Mr. Rising's sad condition was brought about by the drug called opium, a staple of this country, the magical properties of which herb seemed to me then of a piece with the frightful sorceries and dark secret practices of the people, as I afterwards came to know them, and which, with their abominable idolatrous superstitions, used often to make me wonder that the Almighty did not destroy them with His plagues of fire and brimstone, like those wicked Cities of the Plain. Yet one good result of my observance of these people's horrid customs was to inspire me with a becoming and devout gratitude that I had been born a citizen of Christian England, a blessing which we should the more prize since Providence has seen fit to deny it to so many millions of His creatures, and to bestow it upon a few. Sad it is that even among those few there should be found multitudes unmindful of their opportunities, who give themselves up to dissolute lives, or who turn away from the blessed truths of Scripture to hanker after liturgies and Romish inventions.
* * * * *
And now, having arrived safe in Calcutta, I looked forward to a period of rest and security not only for Marian, but myself, after the rough taste we had both had of fortune in her cantankerous mood. As soon as I had seen Marian lodged in her father's house, I sought out Mr. Holwell, one of the principal Company's servants in Calcutta, and commissioner over the police of the town. To this gentleman I brought a letter from Mr. Scrafton, to recommend me to his good offices, and having read it he at once received me very civilly and promised me his friendship.
He asked me many questions about the taking of Gheriah, and also about Mr Robert Clive, whose character stood high in the estimation of every one in Bengal, even the Moors having bestowed on him the name of Sabat Jung, signifying the daring in war.
"We had heard of this affair before you came," Mr. Holwell told me. "The man Angria was famous in these parts, and supposed to be invincible, so that his sudden destruction by our armament has given the natives here an altogether new idea of the English power. It will be well if this doesn't do us more harm than good, for the Moors are a jealous, suspicious race. Our agent in the neighbourhood of Moorshedabad, the Nabob's capital, has warned us that the English have many enemies at the Court, who seek to poison the Nabob's mind against us. I believe there are some spies come down here to examine our defences and the strength of our garrison."
"What!" I said. "Do you think the Nabob intends anything against us?"
"No, I don't say that," Mr. Holwell answered. "The present Nabob, Allaverdy Khan, has always been our good friend. But he is old and sick, and his nephew, who is likely to succeed him, is a dangerous young man, puffed up with pride and conceit. If he should come to the throne he is only too likely to find some pretext for harassing the Company."
To these forebodings I paid but little attention at the time, though I was soon to learn that they were not idle fears. Mr. Holwell, after having ascertained that I was acquainted with the Gentoo language, offered to procure me employment under the Company in one of their counting-houses, as interpreter, which offer I gladly accepted for the time. I was to receive a salary of 200 rupees by the month, in addition to which Mr. Holwell undertook to procure me a dustuck from the Governor, enabling any merchandise I chose to trade in to pass through the province of Bengal free of taxes or duties to the Nabob's government.
I soon found out that this privilege of trading on their own account proved, together with the presents they received from native merchants who did business with the Company, the most valuable part of the livelihood of the Company's servants. Their salaries were so wretchedly small as to be insufficient for the necessities of life in this climate, where the poorest European is obliged to keep half a dozen black servants in his pay. For my part, I did not embark in trade myself, having no capital, but I accepted the offer of a Gentoo merchant to lend him the use of my dustuck to cover his goods, for which he paid me handsomely.
These Gentoos, as they are called in that part of India, are the original natives of the country, who follow the idolatrous religion taught by their Bramins, practising human sacrifices and other rites too vile for description. Over them the Moors have established their empire by force, but being a military race, incapable of business, they commit the details of their government to certain of the Gentoos, who collect their revenues, and amass great fortunes. They are very dishonest scoundrels, as I discovered, and at first, finding me new to the Company's business, I have no doubt they overreached me. At the same time I received many handsome gratifications from them, so that I came to consider myself ill-used when I did not pocket a hundred or two rupees over a transaction involving some thousands. But in the course of a few weeks, as I began to understand the trade better, and to cut down their exorbitant demands, these men marvellously abated their complaisance. Some of them, even, who had professed to know no English, suddenly showed themselves to be conversant with it, and chose to conduct their negotiations with some other servant of the Company.
During this time I was lodged, upon Mr. Holwell's recommendation, in the house of a respectable, God-fearing widow, Mrs. Bligh, whose son had recently gone up country to our factory at Cossimbuzar. Every day I attended at the counting-house, where I was placed under the orders of the Honourable Robert Byng, brother of the ill-fated admiral of the same name, and who managed the business of the Company's investment in rice, one of the principal branches of their trade. The Gentoo merchants came to us there to make contracts for the provision of such quantities as we required, after which they travelled about Bengal, purchasing the crops, and sending the grain down the river in barges, to be shipped at Calcutta for England.
Another staple of the Company's commerce, and the most valuable of all, is silk. The Bengalee Indians are renowned for this manufacture, yet they have no regular places set apart for it, but in their villages scattered up and down the country, every man works for himself in his own hut, doing no more—such is the natural laziness of this people—than just sufficient to support him. The merchants are consequently obliged to travel about from place to place, collecting the stuff, which they do chiefly at the country fairs, where the peasantry assemble once a year, bringing their work to be disposed of. It is these customs of the people which have made it necessary for us to set up an establishment in their country, like the Dutch at Chinsurah and the French at Chander Nugger; for unless there were some English on the spot to collect this merchandise and have it ready against the arrival of the Company's fleet, the ships would often return empty, or be obliged to pay extravagant prices to the native monopolists of the trade.
While I was thus employed in the daytime, I seldom allowed an evening to pass without visiting Marian at her father's house. Here I was most kindly received, and for a time my hopes ran high. But, I cannot tell how it was, I began presently to discover a change in Marian for which I could not account. While her friendship towards me was in no way lessened, but if possible increased, I gradually became aware that I did not possess her entire confidence. She would sometimes look up disturbed, I had nearly said frightened, at my entrance. At other times when we were in the midst of conversation her attention seemed to wander, and her expression became troubled, as if she had some secret anxiety preying on her mind. I cannot say how unhappy I was made by these symptoms, though I was far indeed from guessing at their cause.
Suddenly, in the midst of these private disquietudes, an event happened which cast a shadow over the whole community of Calcutta. Intelligence arrived that Allaverdy Khan was dead, and his nephew Surajah Dowlah proclaimed Nabob of Bengal.
So many accounts have been written of the events which took place in Bengal about this time, that I shall omit as much as possible of the public transactions in which I was concerned, dealing rather with my own particular adventures in the midst of them.
Of Surajah Dowlah, at the time of his accession, I knew only what was reported about him by common rumour in the settlement, which was that he was a young man of cruel and vicious propensities, ill-disposed towards the English in his country, and greedy for plunder. This was enough to make me share the uneasiness about his intentions towards us, which I found to prevail in the minds of Mr. Holwell, Mr. Byng, and other prudent persons. On the evening of the day on which I heard this news, therefore, I went round to Mr. Rising's house, to speak with Marian about her situation.
It was not quite dusk when I arrived, being the month of April. To my surprise I found the outer gate leading into the garden close shut, and it was not till after knocking and shouting for many minutes that the Indian porter condescended to come and open it. Being angry with the man for this unreasonable delay, I cuffed him as I passed in—for without some severities of this kind there is nothing to be done with the natives of Bengal. The fellow, instead of cringing before me as is the wont of these people, gave me a black look, and muttered sullenly—
"The lord is harsh to his servant, but another may be harsher to the lord."
Not knowing at this time the wonderful intelligence which prevails among the Indians, so that news of all kinds travels about among them by underground channels of which Europeans are not permitted to know, I did not sufficiently understand the gravity of this threat. Dismissing it as a mere piece of insolence, however unusual, I walked up to the house and opening the door for myself, came into the room where Marian usually received me and which was the same I have already described.
I found her sitting alone by the open window, in the dusk, looking out into the river. As I walked in she turned with the uneasy start I had remarked on former occasions, and rising hurriedly, came to meet me.
"Good evening, Marian," I said, taking her by the hand. "I should have been here sooner but for that surly gardener of yours, who kept me waiting at the gate."
"I will speak to him about it," she answered.
It was not light enough for me to see her face, but I observed that she spoke in a tone of indifference, as if scarcely heeding what she said. At the same time she took her seat on the divan, and asked me to sit by her.
"Is your father well?" I asked, putting the question out of courtesy, for by this time we both knew that the poor man was ruined by his dreadful habit, from which it was impossible he should ever be released.
"Yes, I think so. I have not seen him lately," she said, still with the same distracted air.
I will confess, plainly, that I had begun to have fears for her, lest either the ravages of the climate, or the sufferings she had undergone, had wrought upon her mind.
"I come to bring you bad news," I went on. "The Nabob has died."
"So I have understood," Marian replied in the same listless way. Then, seeming to recollect herself, she added quickly—"I learnt the news this afternoon from a friend."
Since her arrival I knew that some of the ladies of the settlement had shown Marian some kindness, inviting her to their houses occasionally. One of these ladies, I concluded, had been beforehand with me in my intelligence.
"I am glad to see you so easy under the circumstances," I said, feeling perhaps a little jealous. "I suppose you know that the new Nabob is no friend to the Company, and that we may have trouble with him before many months are past."
"I suppose it may be so. But though Surajah Dowlah may have grounds for complaint against the Council here, I can't think he will carry his resentment so far as to injure the peaceable inhabitants of Calcutta."
I turned towards her, amazed.
"What do you say?" I cried. "You speak as though you were in the Nabob's interests! Have you been listening to the talk of some Moor or other? If so, let me tell you that they are nothing but liars and traitors, every mother's son of them!"
"You needn't be so fierce!" she returned, more warmly than she had yet spoken. "I have had no conversation with any Moor, or Gentoo either, upon the subject. Surely I may have leave to think as I choose, without being bound to take my opinions from Mr. Athelstane Ford!"
"Oh Marian, Marian!" I exclaimed bitterly, wounded by these unkind words. "What have I done to forfeit your confidence? Have I not been faithful and true to you from the first hour of our acquaintance till now? You know that I am the best friend you have, and one who would die to serve you. Yet these several days past you have behaved to me as if you had plans which you wished to keep from me. Do you doubt of my being ready to do anything you should bid me, even if it were to go to Moorshedabad and enlist with Surajah Dowlah himself? Why are we not to be open with each other? You know I love you; I have told you so often enough before we ever came out to this dreadful land; and I think I have shown myself ready to prove it as well. Even now I have come here simply to provide for your safety. In a few days the unfavourable monsoon will set in, after which no ship can leave the coast, but this week there is a vessel sailing for Madras, on which I am able to secure a passage for you, and for Mr. Rising as well, if he will go. I have come to offer you this opportunity, and entreat you to accept of it. And if there are any who would persuade you to remain, depend upon it, they are your enemies and not your friends."
She heard me out, sitting quite still and showing no sign of impatience. But when I had finished she said—
"I thank you, Athelstane, for your kind intentions, and for your goodness in the past, of which I do not need to be reminded. As for what you say about your love for me, since you have spoken so plainly, I must needs tell you that I am not able to return it. I have tried, both on the voyage hither and since; and I have failed. Your loving friend I am, and hope to remain always, no matter what may happen to part us for a time. Nevertheless, I don't share your fears of what the Moors may do against us, and I will not leave Calcutta, though I thank you for your offers."
She seemed as if about to say more, but stopped abruptly. Of the deep distress which I felt to hear her declare that my love for her was hopeless, I say nothing, for what can be said? There are some to whom that great prize, the chief that life affords, namely the love of the woman they have chosen, is granted, but to most men, I suppose, it is denied; and I but shared the common lot. These things are the most important in our lives, they leave bruises whose marks are never quite effaced; yet all passes secretly; the business of life goes on, the world sees our actions, our outward triumphs and losses, and knows of nothing else. There was not a soul in Calcutta who ever knew what had passed between Marian and me on this occasion, and yet those few words were a worse grief to me than all the other sufferings I had to endure; and in that single hour I was changed from a boy into a man.
After this I dared not press her again on the subject of leaving Calcutta. With a heavy heart I watched the last ship go down the Hooghley on the way to England, and the very day after it had gone I received a message in writing from Mr. Holwell, in these words—
"Haste to the Council meeting, and ask for me. We are in receipt of threatening letters from Moorshedabad, and need your services."
Not a little agitated, I thrust the letter into my pocket, and hastened round to Mr. Drake's, the Governor's house, where the Council was assembled, he being confined indoors by an illness. I sent in my name to Mr. Holwell, who immediately came out and fetched me into the room where they were met.
Mr. Drake lay on a couch against one of the windows, while the other gentlemen were seated around in a circle, facing him. He was a stout man with a red face, who had spent many years in the East Indies, and by dint of an important manner and never having been placed in any situation of real difficulty, had passed down to this time for a very prudent and capable person. On my entrance he spoke to me rather peremptorily—
"You are Mr. Ford, are you not?"
"I am told that you speak the Indostanee language. Is that so?"
"Yes, sir," I said. "Mr. Holwell and Mr. Byng are aware of it."
"Very good." He nodded his head once or twice. "Those gentlemen have recommended you to the Council as a discreet, intelligent young man, which I do not doubt you are. There is an employment which I have to propose to you, one which calls for those qualities, and also for courage. The question is, young man"—he fixed his eyes on me very sternly—"do you think you possess courage?"
"I don't know," I answered bluntly, not much liking his manner of questioning me.
"Ha!" He gave a sort of sniff, and looked about him scornfully.
"But I have fought one duel, and am ready to fight another with any one who doubts me," I said, speaking in a modest voice. And some of the gentlemen laughed and clapped their hands.
The Governor frowned severely.
"I believe, Mr. Ford, that you intend no disrespect to this Council by your answer?" To this challenge I made no response. "Very good, I daresay you may be equal to the commission we have to offer you. You must know that we have received letters from the newly proclaimed Nabob of Bengal, complaining of certain improvements we have made in our defences. Those improvements were made in the prospect of the French war, but the Nabob chooses to regard them as directed against him. Now the point is this, that we believe information has been supplied to Surajah Dowlah by some person in this town, not one of the Indians, but a European, who must have some means unknown to us of coming to and fro. We have set a watch, but are unable to detect him. Mr. Holwell has suggested that you might undertake this task, and by reason of your ability to communicate with the Gentoos in their own language, succeed in discovering this person; in which case we are prepared to pay you a very handsome reward."
I did not feel much inclined to this proposal at the first blush, considering that it carried little honour with it. But Mr. Holwell, who no doubt divined my objections, set himself to remove them.
"You will render the Company and the whole settlement a great service if you are able to effect this, Ford," he said. "The fact is that the presence of a European spy, most probably a Frenchman, is a source of very great danger. There are many weak points in the fort, for instance, which would be overlooked by a Moor, but of which fatal advantage may be taken if they are communicated to an enemy by an intelligent observer. I think it is your plain duty to assist the Council if you can."
"That is enough, sir; I will do my best," I replied.
The Governor then dismissed me, and the Council broke up. I believe letters were sent to Surajah Dowlah, to explain the circumstances which had awaked his suspicions, but without any good effect. Meanwhile Mr. Holwell carried me to his house, where we laid our plans for the detection of the spy.
It was settled that I should assume the dress of a Moor, and in that character should pass my time about the fort and adjacent grounds, that being the place to which a person seeking information would be most likely to repair. Mr. Holwell provided me with a turban, jacket, and blue trousers, and I stained my face with a pigment which he assured me would not easily come off. At the same time I wore a scymetar in my belt, and put a pair of pistols in my bosom. Thus disguised I went out for a walk through the bazaars, and had the satisfaction to observe that I was everywhere taken for a Moor. But when I spoke I was not so successful, my practise in the language not being sufficient to impose upon the Indians.
As soon as I had satisfied myself by this experiment that my disguise was accurate, I returned towards the fort, and commenced walking about it, observing the persons who came in and out on their business. But though my suspicions were once or twice attracted to different ones, yet I found nothing to go upon. In this way not only one day passed, but several others, and I began to despair of success.
On the fourth day of my watch, however, about seven o'clock in the evening, as I happened to be looking abroad of the river, which is here pretty wide, and contained a good deal of small shipping, I noticed a man in a boat, which he rowed himself, who appeared to be lurking about for no very honest purpose. Instead of either landing or going off in some fixed direction, this man plied to and fro, close under the wall of the fort, which he seemed to examine very closely from time to time. As well as I could make out he was a Moor, and my instructions were to watch for a Frenchman, yet I was rendered so uneasy by the movements of this individual that I resolved to go out on the water, and examine him more closely. Accordingly I left the place where I was, near the north gate of the fort, and strolled down to a small flight of stairs on the river bank, where some boats lay for hire. Stepping into one of these, I cast off, and taking the oars, which I had learned to handle during my term of service on board the Talisman, rowed slowly out towards the spy, as I believed him to be.
When he saw me coming towards him, he at first pulled a few strokes as if to make away, but being, as I suppose, reassured by the sight of my costume, he ceased rowing and waited for me to come up alongside. Glancing round from time to time as I drew near, I soon perceived that I had no Frenchman to deal with, or at least that, if I had, he had taken the same precaution as myself in assuming the dress of the country. Feeling desirous to test him, I hailed as soon as I came up, in the native tongue.
"Does my lord seek for anything that his servant may procure him?" I said, using their fulsome style.
He at once replied, in what was evidently a phrase learnt by rote—
"I cannot speak your language, but I am a friend of Omichund."
Now this Omichund was a great, rich Gentoo, a banker and merchant who, having made huge profits as a broker in the matter of the Company's investment for many years, had recently had his services dispensed with, and was believed to be disaffected on that account, and in correspondence with the Moorish Court. I needed no more to convince me that this was most likely the man whom I had been employed to apprehend. Not daring to speak English, and it being useless to address him in the Indostanee, I made signs that he should follow me, and commenced to row to the shore.
But here I was disappointed, for the fellow, instead of following me, at once began to move off in the opposite direction. Seeing this I at once turned, shouting after him, and pointing where I would have him go. He merely grinned and rowed further off, nor was it any better when I showed him one of my pistols, for he then merely increased his speed, so that I was obliged to pick up my oars again pretty quickly in order to pursue him.
Seeing that it was become a race between us, he bent to his oars, and I did the same, so that the two boats flew down the river, one about twelve lengths behind the other. But taking advantage of a string of barges which lay anchored out in the stream, he presently dodged me, running in round the tail of the line, and so altering his course up the stream. If I had not turned my head constantly to watch him, I should soon have lost him among the shipping, and these frequent turnings hindered my rowing, so that I could not gain on the other boat so fast as I should otherwise have done. For I soon perceived that I was the better rower of the two, or else had the quicker boat; and the spy seemed to perceive it too, for after taking me some distance up the middle of the river, he suddenly struck off towards the bank, rowing hard for a house which had come in sight, standing on the river's edge.
As we approached this house I could just see (for it was growing dark) a large window standing open, not above a man's height from the water. To this my fellow rowed, and having brought his boat beneath it, threw down his oars, stood up on the gunwale, and with a desperate leap which nearly sunk the boat, gained the sill of the window and disappeared inside.
But I was close behind, running up against the side of his boat at the moment when he passed in at the window, so that by imitating his tactics I was able to leap through immediately after him. I stumbled in alighting, picked myself up, and glanced round, to perceive the man I had been pursuing standing over against me with a pistol in his hand. The next moment I had recognised the room, and there was Marian standing up with a distressed face, one hand on her bosom and the other stretched out between us.
"Stand back!" shouted the spy to her in English, in a voice that I could have recognised anywhere in the world. "This is a damned Indian spy, whom I will kill as soon as I have questioned him."
"You lie, Rupert Gurney," says I, quite calm and cold, as I drew out my own pistols and stood facing him. "'Tis you are the spy, in the service of a vile, treacherous, Moorish tyrant, to whom you would betray your countrymen."
I do not think I have ever seen a man so overwhelmed as was Rupert by those words, though the surprise of this encounter must in reality have been less to him than it was to me, since Marian had of course told him of my being in Calcutta. His jaw dropped, and he ceased to present his pistol at me, no doubt being well aware that I would not take him at a disadvantage.
"Yes," I continued, "not satisfied with your piracies and murders, for which you are justly afraid to show your face in any English community, you are now become a traitor and a public enemy. You have hired yourself out to that bad man, Surajah Dowlah, and go about to deliver your fellow Christians into the hands of Mussalmans and heathen."
"Not so fast, young man," says Rupert, resuming his natural insolence. "Your reproaches are unfair in one particular at least. I am no longer a Christian, having exchanged that religion for the more convenient and profitable one of the Alcoran."
He added a coarse jest which I am ashamed to write down, and which a year or two before I believe he would have been ashamed to utter. I have heard that residence in the East Indies has this effect upon some men, to change their characters to evil, so that when they return to Europe they are no longer fit for the decent society of their own country. And though my cousin Gurney was an unscrupulous and daring young man before ever he left Norfolk, yet I believe he was altered for the worse after his visiting those parts.
Marian, standing terrified between us, now interfered to say—
"Be silent, Rupert, if you please. And you, Athelstane, since you perceive your cousin is here under my father's roof, I entreat you to retire as you came."
"I cannot, Marian," says I, very firm. "I am charged to take that traitor and villain, and I will do it, dead or alive."
In spite of his bravado I could see Gurney wince under these words, though he affected to make light of them.
"Leave us together, girl," he said to Marian. "I will tame this young cockerel, as I would have done before if he had fought me fairly, with the weapons agreed to be used by us."
My blood boiled to hear this shameful taunt.
"You coward!" I cried, "I spared your life once, as you well know, and then you would have murdered me in cold blood because the cutlass broke that I had of a Jew! But I will fight you now with sword, pistol, or both, and this time I swear that you shall not escape with your life."
But Marian would not consent to this.
"You are not to fight," she exclaimed. "Do you hear me, Athelstane Ford? Your cousin wants nothing but to be allowed to go away in safety; and would you be the one to deliver your own blood up to justice? For shame!"
"Shame, indeed!" I retorted bitterly, all the anguish that was pent up in my heart breaking out. "Shame that I who have loved and served you, and delivered you out of the prison where this very man had put you, should be asked to spare him now by you, whom he has never truly loved, whom he has betrayed and slighted, and is ready to betray again. I know not, though I can guess, by what wheedling tale he has cozened you to forgive him, and to lend him shelter and protection in his base designs; but do you think, Marian, that that villain standing there will care for you one moment longer than you can be of use to him, and that he will not leave you to a worse fate than before when he has done with you, and that without the least compunction? I have loved you a long time, Marian, but I have never understood you, and if this is your intention then I think you cannot be in your true mind."
I looked to see her break out and weep, but she did not. She cast her eyes to the ground, and said, when I had finished, speaking low—
"I think you are right, and that perhaps I am not in my true mind. For there are times when I know and see all the falsehood and wickedness of this man's heart as well as ever you can tell it me, and yet I tell you, to my own bitter shame, that I love him so that if he bids me follow him into any disgrace or crime, God help me, I cannot refuse!"
Rupert, when he heard those words of Marian, gave a laugh, and advanced a step towards me.
"There now, you see how it is," he said, "as I told you long ago in Yarmouth; but you wouldn't believe me. Come, why need we keep up our quarrel any longer, when the girl tells you to your face that she prefers me? After all, we are of the same blood, good Norfolk dumplings both; and if I have done you any injury in the past, I am here ready to tender my best amends for it."
He spoke this with a brave air, and I believe was going to offer me his hand. I must confess that I was a little touched with compunction at that mention of Norfolk, where I was born. Something, too, of that old superiority and fascination which this man had exercised over me in my boyhood revived as he spoke. But the memory of his subsequent treacheries and crimes was too strong for me to feel more than a momentary inclination towards yielding. I drew back from him, therefore, and shook my head.
"If we are related, it is a thing I cannot help, though it is to my shame," I answered him. "But I will have no more part nor lot with you, were you the last of my kin left on earth. Do not suppose that, because Marian is so far bewitched that she has forgiven you your wicked treatment of her, I shall do the same. What are you now but a traitor to your countrymen, and a spy in the service of a bloody Indian tyrant? Rupert Gurney, I must tell you that I hold you for a detestable villain and a coward, and I will pursue you without truce and without rest till I have rid the earth of such a wretch. And I am here now ready to begin."
My anger against him gathered and swelled as I spoke, recalling his base actions, so different from his words. He immediately let me see that his behaviour was not changed, for before I had well done speaking he suddenly raised his pistol and discharged it in my face; after which he turned and ran out through the doorway, without waiting to see the result of his shot. To do my cousin justice, I believe he had plenty of natural courage, being of the right Ford strain, as he said. But after that great combat which we had in the boat off Yarmouth river, he never faced me again without a certain reluctance and blenching, as though his conscience misgave him.
I was very little hurt on this occasion, for the ball entered my mouth sideways, merely depriving me of two teeth, and issuing again through the left cheek. But the sudden pain and bleeding incommoded me so far as to hinder my pursuit of Rupert, so that he got clear away and left the town that night, it seems, for Moorshedabad.
I reported the affair to Mr. Drake, merely concealing some details, as that this was my kinsman; and he was so well satisfied to have got rid of him that he promised me I should receive half the reward offered for his capture. But the subsequent events doubtless put it out of his mind, for I never received anything. And on the whole I was satisfied with this, not wishing to make a profit, as it were, out of the treachery of one of my own family, however unworthy.
Even had I succeeded in taking Gurney, and had he been executed, it was now too late to have altered the course of events. Every day brought fresh intelligence confirming the hostility of the Nabob towards the English. One day he sent to demand the levelling of Fort William to the ground, the next he threatened the withdrawal of the Company's privileges, and in particular the dustucks, which he said were abused by being lent to Gentoos, his own subjects. Finally word came that Surajah Dowlah had marched out of Moorshedabad with his army, and had sat down before Cossimbuzar, where we had a factory and a small fort.
All this time the Governor and others of the Council had refused to believe that anything was intended beyond extorting a sum of money from the Company. But the wiser and more prudent ones, among whom were Messrs. Byng and Holwell, took a different view, which they made me share. Now at last Mr. Drake seemed to rouse from his supineness, and gave orders for the town and fort to be prepared against attack. Before these orders could be carried out, however, arrived the news that Mr. Watts, chief of the Cossimbuzar party, was a prisoner in the Nabob's hands, that the place was surrendered, and plundered by the Moors, and that our garrison, though promised security, had been so barbarously used by them that Mr. Elliott, the commanding officer, had taken his own life.
And now men began to tell each other fearful stories of Surajah Dowlah and his career. It was said that when he was a child his favourite pastime had been the torturing of birds and animals, from which, while still in his boyhood, he had passed to mutilating slaves; that not only had he given himself from his earliest years to every species of oriental lust—some too vile to be named—but he was even a drunkard, a vice forbidden by the Alcoran and foreign to the manners of Indostan. To his great-uncle, the late Nabob, who doted on him to distraction, he had shown, it was said, the basest ingratitude, insolently taking advantage of the old man's affection to accomplish his crimes and murders with impunity, and, if restrained in any of his desires, to withdraw from the Court and threaten rebellion, knowing that his uncle would yield anything rather than endure the absence of his darling. At the present moment, it was affirmed, he had quarrelled with and set aside all the wisest and principal men in his dominions, and was governed by minions of his own, buffoons and such creatures, sprung from the lowest class and promoted to high stations as a reward for their participation in his guilty orgies. Such was the young man, incapable of reason or mercy, and passing from one transport of passion to another, who was now in full march with all his force against Calcutta, having sworn to exterminate the English from Bengal.
Immediately I found there was talk of resistance and fighting, I went to Mr. Byng and begged to be allowed to serve with the garrison. This offer he thankfully accepted, and in the course of a day or two every other Englishman in the town either volunteered or was pressed into the same service. Our regular garrison consisted of only two hundred European troops, to which were added some Topasses, a mixed breed of Indians and Portuguese, very suitable to be used as mercenaries, and about a thousand of the black natives armed as buxerries, or matchlock men. Out of regard to my having been the first to volunteer and to my former service on board a man-of-war, I was presently appointed a sergeant, and put in charge of a party of twelve men, assigned to the defence of the rope-walk which joins the main east road from the fort to the Morattoe ditch.
Besides this ditch, begun to be dug many years before at a time when the Morattoe armies were invading Bengal, and never finished, there was no fortification of any kind round the town; so that barricades had now to be thrown up, and guns planted in the streets at whatever points seemed most favourable for intercepting the advance of the enemy. The plan of defence, so far as any plan was adhered to in the confusion and panic which prevailed, was to defend these outposts as long as possible, then to retire into Fort William itself and stand a siege, and when the fort could be maintained no longer to take to the ships which lay in the river, and drop down the stream out of reach of the enemy.
My own post was, as I have said, at the rope-walk. At one end of this place, on the main road into the town, was a battery under the command of a captain, so disposed as to check any advance. But in case the enemy should try to creep round through some side streets and take the battery in flank, our little party of twelve was stationed at the other end of the rope-walk, ready to detect and resist any such attempt.
The first notice we had of the arrival of the Moors' army was by a cannon fired on the north side of the town, at a place where the Morattoe ditch joined the river Hooghley. This being the direct way for an army coming from Moorshedabad to enter Calcutta, the Moors here made their first attack, and all that day the sound of cannon and musketry came to us on the breeze, without our seeing the enemy or knowing how the fortune of the day was turning. But with evening came the good news that the enemy had been repulsed and had drawn off to the other side of the ditch.
That night we did not dare to retire to rest indoors, but slept at our post, under a shed put up over some wheels on which the twine was wound. At four in the morning we were up and eating some bread and cold meat sent to us from the fort for our breakfast, when suddenly we heard a fearful rattle and crash of musketry close at hand. The enemy had been informed of the gap in the Morattoe ditch further south, had swarmed across it, and were now attacking our outposts all along the line.
Leaving our meal half-eaten, we sprang to our feet and took our weapons. I ordered the men not to expose themselves more than was needed, an order which one or two of them obeyed so zealously as to place themselves where they could neither see nor be seen by the enemy, and where all they did was to load their muskets and discharge them into the air in the direction from which the attack seemed to come. However, I found some braver than that, and as the Moors seemed much afraid of our fire we held them at bay well enough. Their own fire was more frightening than dangerous, the noise being out of all proportion to the number of persons hit. So much was this the case that after some hours had gone by without a single ball taking effect on any member of our party, their first fears wore off and all began to expose themselves in a very reckless manner.
There was a wall forming the side of the rope-walk, about four feet high, and behind this wall we stood and fired at the Moors as they showed themselves in any of the streets commanded by our position. I cannot describe how interested and excited I got in this cruel sport, for such it resembled. I chose for myself a long, narrow street leading to the southward, with about a dozen lanes crossing it from east to west. Loading my gun and resting it on the coping of the wall with the muzzle pointed down this street, I kept my eyes on the various openings. Every quarter of an hour, perhaps, a small party of soldiers in bright silk turbans, with glittering arms and armour, would pass out from one of the lanes into this street, either crossing it or moving up or down. Each time I would wait till a whole group emerged, so as to have a bigger target, and then discharge my piece. Almost invariably a man would fall, and the whole party, terrified and not understanding the smallness of our force, would run into one of the lanes adjoining, leaving a wounded or dead man lying in the deserted street. This went on till, I think, fifteen or twenty bodies lay at different points along the roadway, besides those who, being slightly hurt, had crawled away into shelter.
In the end I suppose the Moorish leader in this part of the attack must have had notice of our proceedings; for presently a force of some thirty or forty Indians emerged suddenly from a corner very near the rope-walk and advanced towards us at a run, firing freely as they came. Now it was that one of our men was hit for the first time, a Company's servant named Parkes, a young lad who had arrived in Bengal only six weeks before from England. A ball struck him under the right eye, and he died in a few minutes.
This accident caused the rest of us to take more care. Nevertheless, we managed to get off a good volley before the enemy could arrive as far as the wall, wounding several. The rest wavered, and would, perhaps, have fled but for the action of their leader, a tall, fine man, having a great scymetar in his hand, with which he struck his men violently on the shoulders to urge them forward. Seeing them resume their rush at our position, I looked round at my own men, and to my disgust found several preparing to desert their places and retire further back.
"Stop!" I shouted angrily. "Let us show these black villains we are not afraid of them! Fix bayonets! Forward! Charge!"
With these words I leaped over the wall and ran at the enemy, followed by my whole party, except one man, who actually threw down his piece and fled, not stopping till he reached the fort. But he need not have done this, for had he stood a moment he would have seen the whole party of Moors break and fly without waiting to close with us, so much were they terrified by the way in which we sprang over the wall to come at them. And this is, indeed, the nature of all the natives of Indostan—to give way instantly that they meet an enemy who is more bent on fighting than they are themselves.
The only person to stand his ground was the leader of the party, who waited for us to come up, and then, singling me out, aimed a blow at me with his scymetar. Up to this moment I had been too busy to observe his face, and my rage knew no bounds when I discovered that I had to do with my renegade kinsman himself, who, it appears, had been searching for me from the very beginning of the battle. How it would now have gone between us I cannot say, for several of my men closing in round us almost immediately, Rupert saw his danger and ran off, and my duty to defend the rope-walk forbade me from following.
For the rest of that day we were not much disturbed, except by the continual pattering of bullets, which seemed to come from all quarters of the compass. When night came, being anxious to learn how the siege had progressed in other quarters, I sent a messenger to the fort, who brought back word that the enemy had made no very great impression so far, but that everything was in such a state of confusion and dismay at the headquarters that it was impossible we could hold out much longer.
Not to dwell on these particulars, the next day saw the end of this unhappy affair. Early in the forenoon the Moors made a very hot attack on the battery at the far end of our rope-walk, and at the same time a fresh party, headed by my wicked cousin, assailed our position. I restrained my men from discharging their muskets till the Indians were within a few paces of us, with the result that we did great execution, nearly a dozen of them falling. The rest fell back for a moment, but Gurney urging them on, they rushed up and made a desperate attempt to clamber over the wall.
While we were hard at work keeping them off with our bayonets, I heard a tremendous crash and shouting in the rear, from the point where the battery was placed. This noise seemed greatly to encourage our assailants, several of whom managed to get over the wall and engage in hand to hand conflicts with the men under me. Nevertheless, I stirred up my fellows to continue their resistance, and myself beat back two Moors, one of whom I ran through the body with my bayonet. So absorbed was I that I did not observe the approach of a young ensign from the battery, who came running along the rope-walk, shouting out—
"Fall back! fall back! The battery is abandoned to the enemy, and they will cut off your retreat."
At this the men with me began to slacken their exertions, and some fairly took to their heels. However, I had just caught sight of Rupert advancing towards me and did not feel inclined to budge.
"Come back, you fool!" shouted the little ensign, pale and breathless. "We are beaten, don't you hear?"
I turned my head and scowled at him.
"You seem to be beaten, sir," I said. "For my part, I am very comfortable where I am, and intend to go on fighting."
With these words I turned to defend myself from Rupert, who was coming at me eagerly enough, as it seemed. The ensign fled without further parley, and I believe saved his life. So also did most of my companions, though two others were badly wounded, and unable to stir. For my part I was resolved to sell my life dearly, but this privilege was denied me. For Gurney, as soon as he saw how the land lay, and that I was left there alone, instantly drew back and ordered his men to take me a prisoner, which, being by this time about thirty or forty against one, they effected, whether I would or not.
My cousin's exultation was very great when he thus had me for the second time in his power.
"Now, Master Athelstane," he cried, "we shall see whether you get off as lightly as you did at Gheriah. You are not likely, I think, to be rescued by a fleet this time. But perhaps you will be glad that I should take you without more ado before the Nabob. He has a high opinion of the English, and no doubt will be glad to take you into his service and give you many handsome rewards."
"Rupert Gurney," I answered, "in mocking at one who is your prisoner, owing to no valour of yours, you merely show yourself to be a coward as well as a traitor. I care nothing for what the Nabob may do to me; and this I know, that I would rather he put me to death outright than enjoy his favour by such services as yours."
"Thank you, cousin," says Rupert, who was able to keep his temper now that he had the better of me. "I am glad to learn that you will not seek to undermine my credit with his Highness. But now, if you are sufficiently rested, let us proceed."
Speaking these mocking words, he made his men bind my wrists together with a cord, and conducted me out of the streets of the town towards Surajah Dowlah's camp.
The tent of the Nabob was a fine great pavilion of yellow and crimson cloth. All about the entrance stood his guards, very handsomely dressed, with silver and gold ornaments, and armed with all sorts of curious weapons, some of which I had not seen before. Inside, when we were presently admitted, the spectacle was still more striking. The Nabob sat on a high cushion, called the musnud, placed on a dais which was raised several feet above the ground. On the dais beside him stood three of his principal courtiers, in silk robes and turbans incrusted with gems, while others of inferior rank stood below the steps of the dais. A slave beat the air with a fan of peacock's feathers over the Nabob's head.