I gazed with great curiosity and awe upon this young prince, who was now making his name terrible through Bengal. I was amazed to see that he was extremely young, scarce older than myself, with a face, I think, the handsomest of any Indian's I ever saw: yet his face was marred, and his youthfulness made unnatural by the ugly traces of his passions. His skin appeared coarse and blotched, his lips were thick and purple-coloured, and his teeth—an unusual thing among Moors—very black and dirty, when he spoke. He lay back somewhat on his throne, with his chin leaning on his breast and his heavy eyes turned to the ground. In spite of the waving of the fan, the heat seemed to oppress him; or else it was the weight of his turban, for he passed his hand over his brow every now and then as if he would have lifted it off. His fingers, I noticed, were much encumbered with rings, besides which he wore bracelets, and ear-rings in his ears. But when he lifted his eyes from the floor and looked at me, I was appalled by the expression in them, which was not that of common ferocity, but rather dreadful despair, like a lost soul that is goaded on to assuage its own pangs by the torture of others.
"Who is this dog?" he asked in a husky, soddened tone, as I was brought up to the foot of his dais.
"It is one of the ungrateful wretches who have dared to resist the slaves of your sublime Highness," was the answer. Rupert had come in with me, so as to take the credit of my capture, but the conversation with the Nabob was carried on by one of the Indians, who seemed to be the lieutenant of the party.
"Is he one of the English?" demanded Surajah, casting an angry glance at me.
"Your exalted wisdom has said the word. Undoubtedly he belongs to that vile nation, whom the breath of your anger has even now destroyed."
"Ask him why his people have dared to resist my commands. Who is he? Is he one of their principal men? Ask him where is their treasure?"
Before the Indian could translate these questions I answered them in the same language.
"I am an interpreter in the service of the Company, may it please your Highness. I am but newly arrived in your country, and know nothing of the other matters you have asked about."
The Nabob gave a sullen frown.
"Take the wretch away out of my sight. He is a worthless capture," he said.
But one of the three men on the dais, a young, handsome Gentoo, with a cruel, cunning face—I afterwards heard he was Lal Moon, the Nabob's chief favourite—bent over his master and whispered something in his ear. Instantly Surajah Dowlah sat up, furious.
"You have lied to me!" he screamed. "You speak our language, and yet you say you are but newly arrived. That must be a lie!"
He looked round at his courtiers, and there was a murmur of admiration at his sagacity.
"Your Highness is mistaken," I said, keeping cool. "I learned the Indostanee language on my way out to the East Indies, from the secretary of Colonel Clive."
As I pronounced this name I saw a movement among those present. The Nabob stared, not understanding to whom I referred; but an older man, with a proud, discontented, and yet apprehensive air, who also stood on the dais, and was, I found out, Meer Jaffier, Surajah Dowlah's uncle, and commander of his armies, this man, I say, spoke in explanation—
"The youth means that he came on the ship with Sabat Jung."
No sooner did the Nabob hear this than he changed colour.
"Are you a friend of Sabat Jung's? Is he coming to Bengal?" he asked, with scarcely concealed anxiety.
"Sabat Jung is my protector," I replied, putting on a bolder air. "If he hears that any wrong has been done to the English in Calcutta, he will surely come here and avenge them."
The courtiers exchanged looks of amazement at these words of defiance, doubtless expecting to see me led to instant execution. But I have an instinct which tells me when a man is afraid of me, and I could see that, for the time, Surajah Dowlah was cowed.
My cousin Gurney seized this opportunity to attract the Nabob's attention, and take credit for his exploit. He stepped towards me and said, in such Indostanee as he could command—
"Silence, wretch! Sabat Jung is in the Carnatic, nor would he dare to come into Bengal without the permission of the Lord of the English, Surajah Dowlah. When he hears of the conquest of Cossimbuzar and Fort William the heart of Sabat Jung will become as water."
I gave him a scornful look.
"If his Highness judges of the English by you he will be deceived," I said. "If you were ever to show your face in any place where Sabat Jung was he would have you hanged, as you very well know."
I kept my eyes fixed on the young Nabob's face as I spoke, and was pleased to see that I had made an impression. He looked uneasily from one to the other of us, and then, before Rupert could reply, ordered us both from his presence.
I found myself kept a close prisoner for that night and a part of the next day in the house of a rich Indian, which stood beside the Morattoe ditch. From this place I could hear some noise of guns occasionally, and was obliged to conjecture how the fight was going on. There was something very trying and painful in being near enough to a battle-field to share its anxieties without being allowed to join in the work. But I had a pretty sure presentiment that the affair would end badly for us, and so indeed it proved; for about four in the afternoon there was a great commotion outside the place where I was confined, and my guards came in to fetch me, telling me with cruel pleasure that Fort William had surrendered, and I was to be brought there to join the other prisoners.
I will not stay to describe the confused spectacle of the streets through which we passed on our way to the fort. What struck me most, and put a deep depression upon my spirits, was to see the fierce exultation of the native Indians in our discomfiture. In this hour of our overthrow these men, who had lived unmolested beneath our government, and thriven by means of our commerce, openly revealed all that vehement malice and hatred toward us which is, I suppose, part of their nature, and not to be eradicated by any fairness of dealing. I should be ashamed to relate the vile things they said, and their gross behaviour, as I was led along a prisoner. I thank God I have since walked through those same streets in a different trim, and had those same wretches bowing and grovelling on the earth as I passed.
When I arrived at the fort I was horrified to find gathered there a large company of other English prisoners, to the number of about a hundred and fifty. Among them were both the Honourable Robert Byng and Mr. Holwell, who received me with surprise, having been assured by those men who had fought under me that they had seen me slain. Immediately after my joining them Mr. Holwell, who had become the chief of the party, was sent for by the Nabob to be examined. While he was away Mr. Byng told me the miserable circumstances of the capture of the fort, and how the Governor, Mr. Drake, had shamefully fled away overnight in a boat to the ships on the first alarm of the enemy's approach. Not content with this, he had carried off the whole of the shipping down the river to Govindpore, thus rendering hopeless the case of the English who had not escaped along with him, and that although it would have been easy to rescue them by sending a few boats to the shore. Of this, which I believe to be the most signal act of cowardice ever heard of, I forbear to write, lest I should fall into the use of opprobrious language. Yet I have often marvelled that those who had poor Mr. Byng—I mean the Admiral—shot on his own quarterdeck for his failure at Minorca, should have refused a gallows and a hempen noose to one who so richly deserved it as Governor Drake.
While Mr. Holwell was with the Nabob the rest of us stood under a strong guard in the courtyard of the fort, where we began to find the heat very burdensome, the more so as it was difficult to get anything to eat or drink. While we were thus situated I saw my cousin Rupert go by, wearing a rich new turban, to wait upon the Nabob. At this period he appeared to be in high favour at the Court. No doubt he had acquired influence with Surajah Dowlah by flattering his superiority to the English.
Mr. Holwell presently returned with the news that Surajah Dowlah was very much incensed against him, on account of the small sum found in the treasury of the fort, which amounted only to 54,000 Rs. The prince was firmly persuaded that the Company had somewhere concealed a vast treasure, which had been his principal motive to push the attack of the place. He had threatened Mr. Holwell very severely unless this treasure were found, and dismissed him to consult with his fellow-prisoners. This was bad news, for it was evidently impossible to persuade Surajah Dowlah that there was no such treasure, and he would therefore be inclined to look upon Mr. Holwell's failure to discover it as mere obstinacy.
We were discussing our prospects very gloomily when a party of Moors arrived, bringing two fresh prisoners. I felt a sudden sickness when I recognised that these were none other than Marian herself with her father. Old Mr. Rising seemed to be dazed, and unconscious of what was happening to him, but Marian was suffering from visible terror. I hastened to her side, exclaiming—
"Marian, what do you do here? Why are you not gone with the other women?"—for all the Englishwomen and children had been put aboard the ships as soon as the Moors arrived outside the town.
Marian looked surprised and a little comforted to meet me in the same situation as herself.
"So you are a prisoner too!" she cried. "I confess I do not understand what has happened to my father and me, for Rupert especially enjoined and urged us to remain in our house, assuring us that his credit with the Nabob would serve not merely to protect us, but to secure high places and rewards for himself, which he intended I should share."
She said this with a certain shame, but I was too anxious for her safety to retain my feelings of jealousy at such a moment.
"I will send for Gurney to come here," I said. "I have just seen him go into the Nabob's presence."
I called one of the men who kept guard over us, and bade him go instantly and fetch my cousin. The Moor showed some disinclination to obey me, but I repeated my command in a tone so firm that he gave way, and sullenly complied.
In a minute or two Rupert came out, looking bewildered, and, I thought, somewhat alarmed. As soon as he saw who it was that had sent for him, however, his assurance returned, and he came to us with a jaunty air.
"Ha! Marian," he said, taking no notice of me, "so you have found your way here, have you? I am pleased to greet you; but if you have sent for me to ask me to procure the release of your other admirer, whom I took prisoner yesterday, I must tell you fairly that I am not the least inclined to do it."
"Nay, Rupert," she answered, "I am ashamed to say that I had not thought of asking you anything on your cousin Athelstane's behalf. 'Tis I and my father who are now prisoners, in spite of your pledges to us. Surely you will not suffer this!"
Thus she spoke to him, but, ah! not in the old self-confident strain, but with a certain mournful submission which wrung my very heartstrings.
"What do you say? You amaze me, Marian! This is a gross breach of the Serdar's own promise to me, but I doubt not that it will at once be righted. As for your father, I do not say; it may be that the old man would be better off in captivity. But I take it on myself that you shall be released without delay. I will go straight and speak about it."
He said all this so readily that I could not feel sure he was not sincere. Marian, poor girl, gladly believed him, and gave me a look which was plainly meant to protest against my entertaining evil thoughts of Rupert. He hurried away, as he had said, and at the same time Mr. Holwell was sent for again to the Nabob.
By this time it was getting to be near evening. The sun was dropping down on the other side of the river, and the long shadows of the palm trees rocked on the water. From where we stood we could see the soldiers going to and fro getting ready their evening meal, and hear an occasional shot in the town, where some Indian was letting off his musket by way of triumph for the victory. It was still hot, but a little breeze began to move up the river and flutter some pieces of linen that hung out drying in the lower courtyard, yesterday having been washing day in the fort.
Mr. Holwell and Rupert returned together, the former more cheerful, but Gurney very sulky, and making a show of being much annoyed.
"I have spoken to the Serdar, Marian, and could do nothing for to-night. He says that you are to remain with the other English till he can take the Nabob's pleasure, who is now getting drunk, and difficult to deal with."
Mr. Holwell confirmed the story, adding—
"Surajah Dowlah may scarce be spoken to. His looks are dreadful. Yet he has sworn to me on the faith of a soldier that no hair of any of our heads shall be injured."
"That is right," quoth Rupert. "So you see, Marian, it is but staying here with your other friends"—he gave me a jeering smile as he said this—"till to-morrow morning, when I will speak to the Nabob myself, at all hazards, and have you released."
Poor Marian glanced at him in despair.
"Rupert, you won't desert me!" she cried. "You don't mean to leave me as you did in Gheriah in that horrid cell, from which I scarcely escaped alive?"
"Pooh, pooh, girl! No," he answered lightly, "I shall be at hand. It is nothing. What is one night's captivity? The soldiers will have orders to find you some comfortable room in the fort. I will see about your accommodation myself."
With this promise on his lips he disappeared, and returned no more.
THE BLACK HOLE
I have now to tell how we passed through that night, the memory of which to this day moves me to tremble and sicken like a man in strong fear.
At sunset the Moorish soldiers who had charge of the prisoners marched us all together into a covered gallery or verandah that ran along one side of the courtyard, from which it was screened off by a row of arches. While we waited here a part of the soldiers ran to and fro, as if looking for accommodation for us. Surajah Dowlah's promises, reported to us by Mr. Holwell, had so far raised our spirits that some of the prisoners made merry at the difficulty the guard seemed to be in. One man asked if we were to pass the night in that gallery. Another, who stood near me, observed in jest—
"They don't seem to know of the Black Hole."
"I'm afraid we shouldn't all go into that," replied another, laughing.
"What place do you mean?" I asked out of curiosity.
"It is the cell where they confine the soldiers of the garrison," explained the person next me. "It won't hold more than one or two persons."
Hardly had he given me this information before the officer in charge of our guard came hurrying up. He gave some directions to his men, who commenced pushing and urging us along the gallery to a small door in the wall at our back. This they threw open, and beckoned to the prisoners to enter.
"By heaven, it is the Black Hole!" exclaimed some one in the throng.
There was a murmur of disbelief, followed by one of indignation, as those who were in front looked in. The room was barely seven paces across each way, and very low. The only openings it contained, beside the doorway, were two small windows giving, not on to the open air, but merely on to the covered passage in which we had been standing.
"But this is absurd!" cried Mr. Holwell, remonstrating with the soldiers. "There is not even standing-room for a hundred and fifty persons in there."
"They cannot intend that we are all to go in. We should be suffocated," said another.
The soldiers beginning to show anger, some of the company walked in to demonstrate how restricted the space was. Nevertheless the Moors continued to press us towards the doorway, and seeing that they were in earnest, I whispered to Marian to give me her arm, and went in with the first. By this means I was just in time to secure Marian a place at the corner of one of the windows, where she would have a chance to breathe. I took up my position next to her, and we were quickly surrounded and closely pressed on by those who followed. Before we had well realised what was happening to us, the whole of the prisoners had been thrust into the cell, and the door, which opened inwards, pulled to with a slam and locked.
The moment this happened I found myself bursting out into a most prodigious sweat—the water running out of my skin as though squeezed from a sponge—by the mere press of people in that confined space; and near as I stood to the window I soon began to experience a difficulty in breathing, so foul did the air immediately become. The sufferings of those further back in the apartment must of course have been much worse. The door was no sooner closed than those next to it began to make frantic efforts to open it again; but we were so closely packed that, even if the door had not been locked, it would have been scarcely possible to open it wide enough to allow of any persons going through. Every mind seemed to become at once possessed with a sense of our desperate situation, and the groans and cries for mercy became heartrending.
Mr. Holwell, having been the first to enter, had been fortunate enough to secure a place at the other window. He now exerted himself, as the leader of the party, to calm the tumult.
"Gentlemen," he said earnestly, "let me urge you to keep still. The only hope for us in this emergency is to behave quietly, and do what we can to relieve each other's sufferings. I will use my endeavours with the guard to procure our release, and in the meantime do you refrain from giving way to despair."
It was now dark within the room, but outside some of the guards had lit torches, by whose light I distinguished one old man, a Jemautdar, who appeared a little touched with pity for our distress. To this man Mr. Holwell appealed, through the window, offering him large rewards if he would have us transferred to some more tolerable prison. At first the old Moor merely shook his head, but finally, when Mr. Holwell offered him a thousand rupees if he would remove even half the prisoners to another room, he shrugged his shoulders, muttered that he would see what could be done, and walked off.
During the few minutes which had already elapsed since our coming into the cell, the heat had increased to that degree as to be no longer tolerable. My skin and throat felt as though scorched by fire, and the atmosphere was so noxious that it became painful to breathe. I looked at Marian. She was very white, and stood moving her lips silently as though praying. Being the only female among us, those immediately round the window showed some desire to respect her weakness, but the pressure from behind was such that they were driven against her, in spite of themselves, and I had hard work to defend her from being crushed against the wall.
But when I glanced back into the room the sights revealed by the flickering torchlight convinced me that our sufferings were almost light in comparison with those of others. I saw one man, a few paces behind me, turn purple in the face, as if some one were strangling him. Two or three others had already fainted from the heat, and I heard some one whisper that they had fallen to the ground.
The Jemautdar presently returned, shaking his head, and said to Mr. Holwell—
"I can do nothing. It is by the Nabob's orders that you are locked up, and I dare not interfere."
"But we are dying, man!" cried Mr. Holwell. "The Nabob swore that he would spare our lives. Listen! I will give you two thousand rupees—anything—if you will procure us some relief!"
The old man went off once more, and hope revived for a moment. While we were thus waiting some one at the back of the room suddenly said aloud—
"Let us take off our clothes!"
Hardly were the words out of his mouth than in an instant, as it seemed, nearly every one was stark naked. They tore their things off furiously and cast them to the ground. I resisted the contagion as long as I could, but when I saw even Mr. Holwell, though nearer the air than myself, stripped to his shirt, I could not resist following his example; and in our dreadful extremity my unhappy companion was presently forced to do the same, hiding her face with her hands and choking down great sobs.
When the Jemautdar returned for the second time he made it appear that our case was hopeless.
"No one dares help you," he said, speaking with evident compunction. "Surajah Dowlah is asleep, and it is as much as any man's life is worth to awake him."
As soon as the meaning of these words was understood by the hundred and fifty miserable wretches inside, a pitiful, low wail went up. Then commenced that long, dreadful agony which so few were to survive, and which I only remember in successive glimpses of horror spread over hours that were like years.
One of the last things we did, before all self-control was lost, was to try and make a current of air by all sitting down together, and then suddenly rising; but unhappily by this time several had grown so weak that, having once gone down, they proved unequal to the effort of getting up again, and fell under the feet of their companions. Among these unfortunates was Marian's father, Mr. Rising, who had come in with us, and stood a little way off in the press. Although preserving his dazed, unconscious air in the midst of these calamities, he had exhibited many symptoms of physical distress. He now remained sitting helpless on the floor, and while I was trying to contrive some means of assisting him, I saw the next man behind him very coolly step over his body, spurning it with his foot. Poor Mr. Rising fell on his back, groaning, and was instantly trodden out of sight.
My first impulse was to spare Marian the knowledge of her father's shocking fate. Turning round hastily, I whispered—
"Don't look behind you, for God's sake!"
The words came too late. She turned her head, saw what had happened, and shrieked aloud.
That shriek was the signal for fifty others, like wild beasts answering each other in a wood, as the manhood of that tortured mob suddenly forsook it, to be succeeded by brute despair. Some began to hurl themselves against the door, others broke into frantic prayers and imprecations. The clamour died down, rose again, and finally settled into a monotonous, incessant cry for water.
All this time I had preserved my self-control very well, but when this cry for water was raised, either the excessive pain I endured, or else the mere example of so many persons around me, so shook me that I could no longer command my motions, and I found myself screaming the words in Indostanee at the old Jemautdar as though I would have torn him in pieces.
The old man seemed to be really moved by our sufferings. He sent two or three of the soldiers to fetch water, and they presently came to the windows bearing it in skins.
It was a fatal act of mercy. The mere sight of the water instantly overthrew the reason of half the unhappy wretches behind us. A wild howl went up, and a frantic struggle commenced to get to the windows. Those who a few minutes before had been rational Christian beings were now to be seen fighting and striking each other as they leaped and plunged to climb over those in front. Marian, terror-stricken by the outburst, put her hands before her eyes, and would have been swept away from her place like a leaf if I had not set my back to hers and fought furiously against the lunatics behind. I can see now the dark, flushed face of one man, his parched tongue dropping out of his mouth, and his eyes rolling horribly, quite mad, as he flung himself upon me and tried to tear me down. To add to the horror, the Indian soldiers brought their torches to the windows in order to gloat on this scene. I heard them laugh like devils as the red light flashed on the naked heap of infuriated Englishmen writhing and fighting in that narrow hell.
After ten minutes the struggles began to die down through sheer exhaustion, and then those of us who stood next the windows were allowed to drink from the skins; after which we filled hats with the water and passed them into the back of the apartment. In this way every one obtained some, but no good effect was wrought thereby. So far as I was concerned, the heat and drought were so fearful that no sooner had I swallowed my share of the fluid than my throat became as dry as it had been before—the momentary relief served only to aggravate my torments.
Then as the fever gained upon me, my thoughts broke bounds, and there danced confusedly through my brain odd scraps of memories and pictures of other scenes. For whole moments together I lost the knowledge of where I was; those dark walls and haggard faces passed, and in their stead came visions of the pleasant places I used to know, the ruffling of the wind upon the Breydon Water and the dykes, the stir among the reeds and rushes, and the cattle browsing in the Norfolk fields. Instead of the swarthy Indian soldiers with their torches I saw the friendly, homely figures of the carters as they rode their horses to the pool at sundown after the day's work was over, and the familiar groups of villagers, and the face of little Patience Thurstan as she looked up at me, ready to weep, that time I said goodbye to her on my last day at home; and there rose before me the likeness of the dear old homestead, the gables and the crooked chimney, and the porch with jasmine growing over one side and boys' love on the other; and I saw my father and my mother where they sat and faced each other across the hearthplace, and thought, maybe, of their son, so that there came over me a great and miserable longing to return to them; and, like the prodigal son when he ate husks among the swine, I repented of my rebellion and running away, and in that hour I took a resolution that if I ever outlived the night I would leave the wicked land of India for ever, and go back to my own country, and ask my father to forgive me, as I knew my mother had forgiven me long ago.
Such were the thoughts that, by fits and starts, passed through me during the first hours of the death struggle; but the worst horror of that awful night came presently. In the recesses of the chamber, furthest from the windows, a harder evil than the heat was the intolerable foulness of the air. Even where I was standing it had become an excruciating pain to breathe, and my breast felt as though laced about with iron bands. In the interior many had by this time dropped down, not so much suffocated as poisoned by the fetid gas they were compelled to inhale. And now at length I detected a new, indescribably nauseous odour, added to the acrid smell of the place. At first I tried to conceal even from my own mind what this was. But not for long. In a very few minutes the secret was known to all there. The unhappy man I had seen trodden down had been dead for about half an hour, and his body was already corrupt.
Then that whole den of madmen broke loose, raving and cursing; some imploring God to strike them dead, others casting the most foul and savage insults at the guards without, if by that means they might tempt them to fire in through the windows and put an end to what they endured. They struck at one another, they clutched each other's hair, surging and trampling one another down to gain an inch nearer the miserable air-holes which afforded the only chance of life. The floor was choked with corpses, among which the survivors were entangled in one seething mass. As for me, I became light-headed, and had only one blind instinct left, to strike down any man who attempted to thrust Marian from her breathing ground. I was aware that she had lost her senses and sunk down between me and the wall; yet I went on battling, as in some dreadful nightmare, with the furious forms that rose up and loomed out of the darkness. When I could no longer make out their faces I still struck out blindly, and heard them go down heavily upon the pile of bodies behind which I stood entrenched. Hour after hour that ghastly combat raged, till the corpses were thrice and four times more numerous than those who still breathed; and at last an awful lethargy settled down over the scene, broken only when one of the survivors roused himself for an expiring effort that sent a quiver through the dead and dying heap.
After that I know no more, for when the morning broke, and the officers came to release the handful left alive, the energy that had held me up so long forsook me, and I sank down unconscious.
RUPERT IN A NEW LIGHT
When I came to my senses again I was lying on the ground under the gallery. The door of that Gehenna was standing open, twenty paces from me, and the stench from the corpses piled within tainted the air of the whole court.
My first thought was of Marian. I looked round as well as I was able, but could see no signs of her. The great weakness in which I found myself was such as to prevent me from standing on my feet, but I lifted myself up so far as to lean on one elbow, and in that posture glanced round over the little group of those who survived.
I counted twenty-two in all, less than one-sixth of the number of those who had been promised the mercy of Surajah Dowlah on the evening of yesterday. Close beside me lay Mr. Holwell, seeming to breathe painfully, as he laboured to gain his self-command. I heard afterwards that this worthy gentleman had been found unconscious and almost lifeless, on the floor; and that a lane had had to be cleared through the dead to bring out the twenty-three of us that remained alive.
But, look where I would, Marian was not there, and my heart misgave me that that beautiful form was lying in the loathsome charnel-house whence I had so hardly come out. A man near me, who appeared to have preserved his strength better than most of us, presently observing my trouble, and guessing its cause, undertook to enlighten me.
"You look for Mistress Rising?" he said. "She was among the survivors; I saw her brought out immediately before you. But she is not here; one of the Moors' officers led her away out of the fort, no doubt to bestow her in safe keeping somewhere in the town."
This intelligence served to remove my worst apprehensions, yet it left me not a little uneasy as to what next might befall Marian among those in whose hands we were still captives. At the moment of which I speak, however, I was too ill to pursue the inquiry as to what had become of her. The fever I had taken during the night was still strong upon me, indeed we were all in a very pitiful state, scarce able to move or speak, and looking more like ghosts than men. It was not till above a week had passed that I began to shake off the effects of those few hours' torture; and I sometimes think that I have never yet wholly recovered from them.
Nor must I spare to mention those other changes which were wrought in me by that night, passed, I may say, in the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Up to this time, I perceived on looking back over my previous adventures, I had been no better than a mad young fool, following after a will-o'-the-wisp to my own hurt and destruction. And though I cannot say that that ill-starred and calamitous love of mine for Marian, which had haunted me since I first saw her in the tavern of the "Three-decker" at Yarmouth, was abated at this time, yet I think I did now begin to perceive how evil an influence it had exerted over my life, and to gradually bring myself to a manlier frame of mind. So that I no longer hugged myself with false and pernicious hopes of what could never be brought to pass, but set myself resolutely to uproot this my besetting weakness, and thus to transfer Marian, as it might be, from the place of a mistress to that of an old and dear friend.
In all which resolves and efforts at amendments I found myself greatly helped and encouraged by the recollection of those better thoughts which had come to me in my distress, when my eyes were opened to the wickedness of which I had been guilty towards my parents. And from this time on, through all the vicissitudes I was yet to encounter, I looked forward steadily to the day when I should turn my feet once more towards home, and behold my father and my mother, and the simple, loving face of little Patience Thurstan.
But before that day came there were many things to be done, nor would I have willingly left the land of Indostan till I had seen the blood of the English he had so barbarously murdered revenged upon Surajah Dowlah's head. How this was to be brought about I did not then know, yet I had a confidence that it would be so, which sustained me. For I felt that I had witnessed, and been partly victim of, a most heinous and devilish crime, scarcely to be matched in the annals of mankind, and such as scarce any punishment within the power of man to inflict could wholly purge. It was as if there had been revealed to me, in the light of those flaring torches thrust in mockery between the bars of our prison windows, a whole secret hell of cruelty and darkness, such as our Christian land knows nothing of, which we can never understand, but which for ever lies waiting for the moment to burst forth, under the obsequious and servile behaviour of the natives of India. Since that time, I confess, I have never regarded, nor can regard, them as my fellow-beings; I look upon all faith or mercy shown to them as wasted, and were it possible for the English to overthrow every one of their governments, and to reduce the whole peninsula into slavery, I should not think enough had been done to extinguish the memory of that one misdeed.
The cup of the Nabob's cruelty was even yet not full. In the morning, as soon as we had partaken of a little food and wine, merely enough to give us strength to stand up, our miserable remnant was ordered to come before him, to be questioned again.
We found Surajah Dowlah enthroned in the principal apartment of the fort, in even greater state than I had before seen him in, flushed with all the triumph of a conqueror. He looked to have just awakened from sleeping off a debauch, and glanced at us, as we came in, with a heavy, lowering eye. The supple, handsome Lal Moon was standing beside his master as usual, and close behind the favourite I saw my kinsman, with a countenance somewhat discomposed. He turned a very scrutinising look on our party, frowned when he caught sight of me, and was evidently disturbed at not perceiving Marian amongst the rest.
The Nabob, instead of displaying any interest in our condition, or pretending any regret for the massacre of our fellow prisoners, at once addressed Mr. Holwell in a very peremptory manner.
"Now, English dog, you have had a night to consider," he said insolently, "are you disposed to behave more civilly to me in the matter of the treasure?"
Poor Mr. Holwell had scarce strength enough to answer him. He said feebly—
"I can only repeat what I told you last night. Your Highness has been deceived. There is no treasure here of the Company."
"You are a liar, and the son of a liar!" returned Surajah fiercely. "Do you think I am a fool to believe that the English come all the way from your country here to amass a paltry sum of fifty thousand rupees? Such a sum would not pay the expense of your establishment here. I know well that you have a treasure somewhere hidden; but you are resolved to keep it from me, the rightful master of this country. I swear I will teach you that it is safer to stand in the path of a mad elephant than to disobey the least command of Surajah Dowlah!"
He rolled his eyes savagely as he made these threats, which struck dismay into the stoutest of us. Mr. Holwell attempted no further answer, and presently the Nabob rose in a fury and marched out of the hall, giving no orders concerning our disposal.
As soon as he was gone the general of his army, Meer Jaffier, came down off the dais and approached us. He began offering some expressions of sympathy to Mr. Holwell, and assured him that he would use his influence with his nephew to procure our release.
While Meer Jaffier was talking to Mr. Holwell, I saw my cousin slowly approaching me. I turned my back, so loth was I to hold intercourse with him, but he came up, and persisted in addressing me.
"Athelstane, what has become of Marian Rising?" he asked abruptly.
"Nay, I leave that to you to find out, who delivered her to Surajah Dowlah to be tortured and killed," I answered bitterly.
"See here, cousin," he said, infusing a touch of natural feeling into his voice, "I swear to you, on the faith of a Ford, that I had not so much as the least suspicion of the horrid treachery about to be practised on you last night by these damned black devils. If I could have had any notice of what was going forward, I would have returned last night at all hazards, and delivered you. As regards Marian, I had the most sacred pledges from both Meer Jaffier and Lal Moon that not one hair of her head should be injured. I swear it."
"You swear very plentifully, it appears to me," I returned, preserving a tone of mere contempt and hatred; "but I know not how your oaths can serve you at the present time. Thanks to your evil persuasions, the woman for whom you have many times pretended affection was last night brought to the very door of death, and is now ill and captive among the Moors. Me, your cousin, whom you first tempted to leave his home and friends, and have since betrayed and misused and many times attempted to slay, you see before you, in the power of those black fiends, as you call them, who appear to be your good friends. Had you not better prevail with them to put us both to death, and thus make an end of it?"
"No, by G——, Athelstane, you are wrong!" he exclaimed very earnestly. "I bear you no malice, nor ever should have done, had you not set yourself up as my rival and thwarted me on several occasions—and I am a man that will not brook opposition. As it is, if I have ever attempted anything against you, it was in hot blood, and had I hated you ten times worse than I did, yet last night's business would have been too much for me to stomach."
I gazed at him, doubtful whether to believe in his sincerity or no. It was difficult for me to refrain from some softening towards him as he thus spoke, and yet I asked myself whether these fair words were not the prelude to some new piece of knavery or treachery, for which he stood in need of my assistance.
He continued urging me.
"Have you forgot all those ties that are between us—our blood, and bringing-up in the same country, and the pleasant times we have had together when you were a youngster, and I was used to ride over to your house from Lynn, for my holidays? You were then content enough to call yourself your cousin Rupert's little squire, and if it were a question of robbing orchards or taking bird's-nests, you grudged to be left out. Can you not overlook the differences that have since arisen between us, and let us return to our former good comradeship and affection?"
Now I well knew that this man was a most accomplished villain, and an hour before I should have no more thought of sparing or making terms with him than with a speckled snake. Yet no sooner did he thus begin to wheedle me, than I found my just anger and hatred against him insensibly desert me.
"Why do you hold this language to me?" I said, as sullen as I could, so as to hide my secret relenting. "What need have you of me now? What fellowship can there be between a miserable prisoner in the Indians' power, and you, their trusted friend and servant?"
He gave me a significant glance, and then stooped towards me, whispering—
"No, cousin, you are mistaken there, I tell you again. Either these Moors have all along meant to play me false, or else they consider themselves betrayed by me in the matter of the treasure which they expected to find. Instead of now enjoying their confidence, I find I am looked upon with distrust. They tell me nothing, and no longer consult with me about their dealings with the English. I tell you fairly, I am uneasy to find myself so much in their power as I am, and if I could I would gladly make my peace with my fellow-countrymen, and enter the service of the Company."
This confession sounded to me sufficiently probable to be believed. I could now see plainly enough what was Rupert's object in thus seeking to be reconciled with me. It was because I was the only witness against him in the English camp, able to denounce the crimes and treasons which he had committed, to the governor and his council. It was evidently necessary for him to have some person to answer for him, in case he should seek service with the Company, and for this reason, I concluded, he had decided that it would be of more profit to him to have my friendship than to get rid of me altogether.
With these thoughts I suffered myself to entertain his proposals. But there was another question of more importance to me than Rupert Gurney's friendship or enmity.
"What of Marian?" I demanded. "Were you not the person who came for her this morning, and led her out of the fort?"
"No!" he cried, much disturbed. "Do you know what has happened to her? I have inquired everywhere, and been unable to gather the smallest information. It is this which has convinced me that I no longer possess the confidence of those about the Nabob. And I fear——"
He stopped, biting his lips, and looked at me, as if he would know what I suspected. I returned his look with interest.
"And I, too, fear," I answered solemnly. "And pray heaven that my fear is unfounded, for if it should turn out otherwise, after your persuading her to trust in your protection, I tell you plainly, Rupert Gurney, that I will never rest till I see you dead at my feet."
Though I thus threatened him, nevertheless I believed that he was really at a loss and anxious to find out what had become of Marian. He presently said to me—
"I will go now and make a further search, and if I hear any news, will let you know. And do you, on your part, trust me. If in the meantime I can do anything to effect your release, I will."
With that he went off. About the same time an order arrived for our removal, and we were carried away to another part of the fort.
Whether in consequence of my cousin's representations or of Meer Jaffier's, as is more probable, Surajah Dowlah suddenly decided to release all his English prisoners, except three or four of the principal ones, including Mr. Holwell. This intelligence was brought us about supper time, and an officer shortly after attended, to make the selection of those who were to be continued in captivity.
Not apprehending that any importance could be attached to me, I rose joyfully to go out with those who were being dismissed, when, to my surprise, the officer told me in their language, very sharply, to keep my place.
"But why do you seek to detain this young man?" inquired Mr. Holwell. "He is not a person of any consequence among us."
The Moor shook his head.
"This youth is to be kept in the Nabob's hands because he is a friend of Sabat Jung's," he answered.
It may be imagined how mortified I was to find my boasting of the friendship of Colonel Clive thus turned against me. There was no help for it, however. With a heavy heart we saw our fellow-prisoners depart, some of them to examine their houses in Calcutta, others to take refuge with the English fleet, which about this time dropped down the river to Fulta, where it lay.
I heard afterwards that when the refugees arrived on board, and told the woeful tale of what had followed on the capture of Fort William, Mr. Drake and those with him bitterly repented of their cowardice and desertion. Messengers, that is to say, Indian spies, had already been despatched by land to Madras, the voyage thither being impossible at this time on account of the prevalent monsoon. Others were now sent after them, with letters recounting the whole of these transactions, and urgently entreating the Madras council to despatch succour at the earliest possible moment.
In the meanwhile, to pass over the next few days, Surajah Dowlah, finding no further mischief to execute in Calcutta, after he had plundered all the principal merchants, placed a force there under the command of an officer named Monichund, and marched back to Moorshedabad, carrying me in his train. My fellow prisoners, consisting of Mr. Holwell and two other gentlemen, named Walcot and Court (for poor Mr. Byng had been among those who perished in that cell of death), were despatched separately in irons, by a boat up the river.
If I had been traversing this strange, and in many parts beautiful, country under other circumstances I might have found much to interest me. But being, as I was, still weak and wretched from the effects of the night passed in the Black Hole, and, moreover, very anxious and troubled in mind about the fate of Marian (besides my own), I heeded little of it. The country was extremely flat, and much overgrown with trees, particularly mangoes, which tree hath a most delicious fruit, very grateful after toiling along the barren roads in the intolerable heat of this climate. Travelling in company with an army, we were not able to see much of the country people, who feared the Nabob's character, and for the most part deserted their villages and retired into the woods while we passed. One day we lay without the walls of Chander Nugger, the French settlement in Bengal. These Frenchmen had managed to propitiate Surajah by aiding him with a supply of ammunition when he was on his march against Calcutta. To this they now added a large sum of money, and by this means prevailed on him to pass on without entering their town. They no doubt rejoiced, like true Frenchmen, at the misfortunes which had overtaken the English, not foreseeing at this time the happy revolution in our affairs which was to make them sing to another tune.
Our progress through the country was so gradual that it was about three weeks before we at last reached the Nabob's capital. During our long march I had not once seen my cousin, nor did I know what had become of him, nor whether he had stayed behind in Calcutta or attached himself to the Moors' army.
Moorshedabad is a great, rich place, very oriental in character, there being no foreigners resident in it, except a few Armenians, a race of thieves and pedlars, worse than Jews, who also infested Calcutta. But I had little opportunity of exploring its bazaars and palaces at this time, being conveyed straight to a filthy hut, formerly used as a cowshed, standing outside the Nabob's palace, where I found my companions already arrived, and where I was forced to lie on straw, and not allowed to move abroad.
In this miserable place, guarded by sentries, we lay for some days, being all of us too feeble to contrive any plan of escape. Each morning Surajah Dowlah sent a messenger to us, to ask if we were yet prepared to disclose the truth about the treasure. We were informed that he was deeply incensed at the failure of his raid on Fort William, to which it seems he had looked to bring enormous sums into his treasury.
On the third or fourth night, just as I was settling myself to sleep on a rude heap of straw which I had gathered together against the wall of the shed, the door softly opened and a man entered. As soon as he spoke I knew him at once to be my cousin Rupert.
"Which of you is named Ford?" he asked, speaking in the Indian language; for it was too dark for him to see my face.
"I am," I answered in English, sitting up.
He placed his finger to his lips, and stepped across the hut to where I was, while my three companions raised themselves eagerly on their elbows, to know what passed.
Rupert, who still wore his Moor's dress, kneeled down on the straw beside me, and whispered in my ear—
"Hist! I am come to arrange for your escape, but you must say no word to these others, lest they should want to join you, which would only serve to ruin our chance."
"In that case," said I, answering him aloud in English, for I mistrusted him, "it is useless to proceed. I will entertain no project to escape which does not include these gentlemen here with me."
Rupert ground his teeth, cursing me beneath his breath for a fool. But Mr. Holwell promptly rebuked me.
"You are not to act like that, Ford," he said. "Neither I, nor, I am sure, either of these other gentlemen would consent that you should refuse any offer of escape merely because it is not extended to us also."
My cousin, seeing that I was resolved not to have the conversation private between us two, now addressed himself to the others.
"I heartily wish it were in my power to deliver you all, gentlemen, but unfortunately that is what I can't do. I have secured a means by which I may carry off my young kinsman here, though at great danger to myself. But if it comes to the four of you, then I confess I must abandon the scheme."
On this Mr. Holwell renewed his protestations, urging me by no means to neglect Rupert's offer.
"But how is it, sir," he added, speaking not unkindly, "that I find you, an Englishman, and a relation of young Mr. Ford, in these parts, and apparently in a position of influence with the natives?"
"Oh, as to that, it is an old story," replied my cousin, coolly. "I came to Bengal first by land from the Malabar coast, in the time of the late Nabob, and for that reason I was not at first included in the hatred which Surajah Dowlah bore to the English on the Hooghley. However, the efforts which I made to restrain the Nabob's vindictive proceedings, and the disgust which I showed at his late barbarities, have greatly weakened my credit with him. I believe he knows or suspects that I am merely casting about for an opportunity to quit his service, and has set spies on me accordingly. I have at last devised measures for making my way down to the coast, to our fellow-countrymen, and have bribed your gaolers to allow my cousin Ford to escape with me to-night, if he will."
So earnestly did Gurney tell this tale that I could see Mr. Holwell and the others were very favourably impressed, and took him for an honourably behaved man. As for me, I felt my cheeks burn with shame as I sat and listened, yet I neither felt inclined to admit to these gentlemen that I was cousin to a villain and a traitor, nor did I consider it to be my duty to denounce my own blood.
I therefore held my peace, while the conversation went on between the others. Mr. Holwell insisted that I should take Rupert's offer, and be the means of conveying news to our friends of where the other three lay. I demurred, and should perhaps have rejected the invitation in the end, had not my cousin taken advantage to slyly whisper in my ear—
"Don't you understand, fool? I have news of Marian, and want your aid to carry her off from Surajah Dowlah's harem!"
A NIGHT ADVENTURE
As soon as I had heard that name from Rupert's lips, all my hesitation was at once overcome, as he no doubt foresaw would be the case.
"Come," I said, springing upon my feet with an energy I had not felt for some time, "let us be going, then."
My fellow prisoners looked not a little astonished at this sudden change in my resolution. However, they offered me their good wishes for the journey, and Mr. Holwell in particular entrusted me with some messages to Mr. Drake, in case I should succeed in penetrating to him. We had no certain information at this time as to the whereabouts of the English ships, but supposed them to be lying somewhere about the mouth of the Hooghley. It was judged best that I should carry no writing.
We two then crept softly out of the hut, my cousin going first, and I following. There was no moon abroad, but a sufficiency of light was afforded us by the extraordinary brilliancy of the stars, which appear much bigger, as well as thicker in the sky, in these latitudes than in England. At a short distance from the door of the shed I could perceive the sentinel, seated with his back towards us, his hands resting on his matchlock.
"This way," whispered Rupert in my ear. And turning in the opposite direction from the sentry, he stooped down and ran along under the shadow of a high wall which bordered a winding road.
The wall was about eight feet high, and enclosed a garden. Here and there it was overhung by branches of trees, whose foliage I failed to distinguish in the darkness, but I once or twice thought I smelt the fragrance of lemons. Within the garden behind the wall we could hear the tinkle of a fountain and a noise like the singing of some bird.
"What is this place?" I asked in a whisper, as I ran along by Rupert's side.
"Hush!" he answered crossly. "We shall be overheard. This is the Nabob's garden, where are the pavilions of his women."
We ran on in silence for some little time longer, when we arrived at the end of the garden, and plunged into a narrow and dark lane that led out of the town. This passage we followed till we came out upon a deserted nook immediately under the walls of Moorshedabad, which were here much damaged, and matted with ivy and other weeds.
"Now," said Rupert, as he flung himself panting on the ground, in a little grassy place, "we can talk over our plans without fear of being disturbed."
I sat down beside him, inly marvelling at that great transformation which had so quickly converted us from deadly enemies seeking each other's lives, into allies, if not friends. After all our hostilities against each other in Great Yarmouth, at Gheriah, and in Calcutta, we were now in Moorshedabad, bound together by a common purpose, and that purpose concerned with her who had originally been the cause of our enmity.
I have often thought since that the change which took place in my cousin's behaviour about this time was due, not so much to any tardy pricks of conscience, as to a sort of dizziness of mind, brought about by the spectacle of the prodigious crimes of Surajah Dowlah. His own spirit, however bold and wicked, was daunted in the presence of this being who, though so much younger in years, was so greatly superior in evil; so that he shrank back, like one brought suddenly to the edge of a precipice. Perhaps he had a secret apprehension of his coming fate; at all events, it is certain that for a short time he manifested a hearty longing to return to the society of honest men.
As soon as we were seated his first act was to pluck off the turban he wore on his head, and cast it to the ground.
"Faugh!" he exclaimed. "What an intolerable thing to wear! If it were not for their turbans and their abstinence, I declare Mahometanism would suit me well enough."
I gazed at him in horror.
"Do you mean, Rupert, that you have really embraced that idolatrous sect?" I demanded.
"You need not look so scandalised, cousin," he retorted. "In the first place you are quite wrong to call it idolatrous, images of every kind being strictly forbidden by the Alcoran. In the second place it is a very decent, respectable religion, as religions go, and extremely convenient for seafaring men who sometimes need an excuse for overhauling a Christian cargo."
"Rupert Gurney," I replied sternly, "you have within the hour brought me away out of prison, and for that I thank you. But I will neither listen to your blasphemous talk, nor suffer it, and rather than consent to do so I will go back to the place from which you took me but now."
"Fair and softly, young Athelstane," he answered grinning. "I see you are as fierce a Puritan as ever, and as I have lost the wish to quarrel with you I will endeavour to refrain from saying anything offensive to your delicacy. But do you, on your part, abstain from flying into a passion at every word that does not happen to sound to your liking; for patience is a virtue recommended, as I believe, by your religion as well as mine, and it seems to me that your stock of it is rather scant."
I cannot say how deeply mortified I was by this rebuke, which, coming from one whose evil life I held in just detestation, wrought more conviction in me than all the sermons I had heard from good Mr. Peter Walpole of Norwich, when I was a boy. I discovered, as though by a flash of light, how unchristian was the temper I had too often shown in my dealings, not only with my cousin, but with other persons, and from that moment I set an earnest watch on myself in this respect.
Forcing myself to acknowledge my error at once, though much against the grain, I said—
"I ask your pardon, Rupert, if I spoke harshly. But let us leave these questions, and come to the business in hand. What of Marian, and how do you propose that we should effect her escape?"
He looked at me surprised.
"Why, Athelstane, my boy, give me your hand!" he exclaimed, in a more cordial tone than I had ever heard him use before. "Curse me if I don't heartily wish we had never quarrelled!" I gave him my hand with some reluctance, and he proceeded. "You saw that garden which we passed on our way to this spot? The girl is detained a prisoner in one of the Nabob's summer-houses which stand within it. I have found means to corrupt one of the eunuchs who is a friend of mine, and anxious to stand well with the English. For I must tell you, Athelstane, that all is not working smoothly in the government here. Surajah Dowlah, by his arrogance and violence, has made many enemies, among whom are his own uncle, Meer Jaffier, and Roy Dullub, the most important of the Gentoos. These men have a just apprehension of the vengeance which the English may take for the late invasion of their settlements, and moreover they stand in dread of the young Nabob's reckless temper, sometimes bordering on insanity. So that we have more friends than we know of in the Court. This eunuch, then, as I was going to say, has agreed to introduce me into the garden to-night, in about an hour's time through a small postern in the wall of which he has the key. He is going to conduct me to the summer-house where Marian is. There it may be necessary to use force to overpower the eunuchs in charge of the place, but if we succeed in doing that, as I think there is little doubt we shall, we have nothing to do but to carry her off and retire by the way we came. I have provided a safe retreat afterwards to the coast."
I fell in heartily with this scheme, which seemed to present a tolerable chance of success. Rupert went on to explain to me the means by which he hoped that we might afterwards be able to pass through the country without being stopped. He proposed that we should give it out that we were a party of Mahometan pilgrims bound for the mouth of the river, to take ship for Mecca; and he told me he had three horses already hired, with a driver, waiting for us in a certain place. In order that this scheme might be carried through it was necessary that I should be disguised to pass for a Moor, like himself. He now produced from his bosom a brown pigment, such as he had already used with good enough success on his own complexion, and carefully stained the skin of my face, also my feet and hands.
"Remember, above all," he said, while he was thus engaged, "if you would be taken for a Mahometan, never to wash your hands without washing your feet at the same time, for this custom is inveterate with them, and is, I think, the principal point of difference between the two religions."
When he had finished, I asked—
"And now what shall I do for a suitable dress?"
For I was still clad in the garments of rough canvas which the Moors had given to us on the morning after our release from the Black Hole.
"By the Lord Harry, I don't know what you can do!" cried Rupert. "I had overlooked that part of it. Unless you were to cut down one of these black rascals in the dark, and exchange suits with him?"
I declined to do what I thought would amount to committing a murder, although it were to be done upon an Indian; whereupon my cousin offered to kill the man, if I would wear the clothes. At last we agreed to procure the dress by peaceful means, if that should be possible, and set out on our return to the centre of the town.
Sure enough we had not gone a great way when we met a man of the city, a Gentoo, wearing a loose woollen robe and white turban, which we thought would pass, and which he agreed very easily to part with for five rupees. I offered him my canvas suit into the bargain, but this he rejected with disdain, on account of his religion, and walked off from us stark naked, but for a loin-cloth.
It was now time that we should repair to the meeting appointed by the eunuch. We found the postern without any difficulty, and as soon as my cousin had knocked twice in a peculiar manner the eunuch came and admitted us. This eunuch appeared to be a very civil, worthy person, very different to most of his kind, whom I have found to be full of spite and malice, and untrustworthy in all their dealings.
As soon as we were entered in the garden the eunuch conducted us through an orchard and down a grove of persimmons, to where there was a fountain, and close by it a square marble tank bordered by roses in white marble boxes. Here he left us for a moment, while he went forward to examine the summer-house, if there were any one stirring within. While we were waiting I took an interest in gazing at the clear water of the tank, and picturing the scene when the Nabob's women came thither to bathe, as I heard was their daily custom.
Presently the eunuch returned, and beckoned to us.
"The Sahibs may go forward now," he said. "The cage is shut and the birds are asleep."
We followed him, and he brought us out upon an open space, and in the midst of it a small pavilion, like a temple, built in white stone or marble, in two storeys, very elegantly, with small pillars before it and a dome above, the whole covered over with fantastical designs of trees and flowers, curiously wrought in the stone.
The door of the pavilion was closed. In the upper storey I saw several lattices open, but no lights.
"What are we to do in the next place?" I asked of the eunuch.
He gave me an expressive look out of his black eyes, and silently delivered to me a scymetar which he carried.
"Let the Sahib knock, and when they who keep the door put forth their heads, let the Sahib strike them off," he said, seeing me hesitate.
It had been well for us, as it turned out, if I had done as he bid me, for the squeamishness which we feel about shedding blood is not understood amongst Indians, and they despise us for it. However, before I could say anything further, my cousin stepped up to the door and knocked boldly.
There was a commotion inside. I drew my scymetar, and Rupert did the same. As soon as the door was unfastened from within, without waiting to parley, we flung ourselves through the opening, striking out blindly in the dark.
Instantly there went up a howl for mercy, and the eunuchs inside—for there were two of them, both well-armed—cast themselves down writhing on the floor, evidently in the expectation that they were immediately to be put to death. Rupert aimed a deadly blow at one of them, but I, like a fool, struck up his weapon.
"Stay," I said, using the Gentoo language purposely that they might understand, "it may save us trouble to spare their lives, on condition that they strictly obey our instructions."
The wretches hearing this, instantly broke into all sorts of grovelling entreaties and oaths of fidelity. Quite disgusted by their slavish cowardice, I said to them—
"Hold your tongues! You have in this house a prisoner, an Englishwoman, whom we have come to carry away. Let one of you go at once and bring her here."
The eunuch furthest in from the door immediately leaped to his feet and made off down the passage. But Rupert, who knew more about these sort of creatures than I did at this time, strode after him, calling out—
"Stay! I will go with you!"
But the fellow, without turning his head, sprang up a narrow staircase at the end, and darting into the first room he came to above, slammed the door to, and had it fastened before Rupert could catch him up. In another moment we heard him yelling and squalling out of the window for assistance to come and take the murderers and ravishers that were broken into the garden.
My cousin came jumping down the stairs three steps at a time.
"This comes of your cursed softness!" he growled out savagely. "As though it were not a Christian act to cut the throats of as many of these hell-hounds as possible!"
He fetched a slash at the man who lay whining at our feet that nearly severed his head from his trunk.
"Now we must save ourselves if we can!" he muttered. And indeed it was time. The screams of the eunuch overhead had brought the whole place about our ears. As we stepped out of the pavilion again, we saw lights glittering through the trees all round us, and heard shouting and the running of feet. Our friendly eunuch had taken to flight, and we were left to extricate ourselves as best we could.
"We must not stay here or we shall be surrounded," cried Rupert. "Which way is the gate?"
I strove to recollect, and then, taking what I thought to be the direction, we started off at a run.
Instantly that fiend who had betrayed us, leaning further out of the window to discover which way we fled, redoubled his cries. Looking back for a moment as we ran, I saw him pointing, and at the same time there was a movement of one of the other lattices, and I caught a glimpse of a white face and two hands thrust out with a despairing gesture, and knew that Marian was aware of our enterprise and that we had failed. Then the clamour on all sides grew louder, and men bearing lanterns and armed with swords and matchlocks burst out from the trees around the pavilion, and ran hither and thither, some towards the building, others searching for our track.
We ran like deer, bending down so as not to be seen, and dodging in among the trees and bushes. By this means we preserved ourselves from immediate capture, but soon missed our way, and found ourselves wandering about in the garden, stealing from one patch of cover to another; while every now and then a party of our pursuers would go past, so close that we could hear them speak, and see the sparks of lantern-light drip off the naked blades of their weapons as they thrust them into the bushes.
After several close escapes of this kind, when we at last stumbled on the postern, more by luck than skill, we found it barred and locked, and the key removed. Before we could decide what next to do, on a sudden a party of four gigantic blacks burst out upon us, brandishing their weapons at our heads and calling on us, by all manner of filthy names, to surrender. I believe they expected us to prove an easy prey, but I was now grown desperate, and rushed so fiercely on him that came first and carried a lantern, that I fairly bore him to earth at the first shock. And when I looked round for another I found all three in full flight, one of them leaving his right hand behind, which Rupert had managed to slice off at the wrist with the first blow. They ran for their lives, shouting out that they had to do with two demons from the pit. Rupert, seeing the man I had struck down move, stepped over to him, quite cool, drew his blade across the poor wretch's throat, and wiped it on his turban. After this we lost no time in shifting our ground before the rest of the pursuers came up.
With the chase so hot after us, it had become plain that we must be taken before long, unless we could hit upon some means of escaping from the garden. In this strait I bethought myself of the trees whose boughs I had noticed from outside overhanging the wall, when we passed it earlier that night. I reminded Rupert of this, who exclaimed joyfully—
"Well done, cousin, I declare you have saved us now! I believe I can find that part of the garden easily enough, when it will be a simple matter to climb the trees and drop down on the other side of the wall."
We set out at once, Rupert leading the way, and turning from side to side as we heard the Moors shouting after us. They now felt pretty sure of our whereabouts, and began discharging their pieces where we went, so that the balls tore the leaves off the trees all round us, but luckily without doing us any damage. We arrived at the wall, and seeing a tree suitable for our purpose, made for it, but just as we reached it one of those black rascals we had put to flight espied us. He raised the cry, and instantly we found ourselves surrounded by the whole band, at least twenty of them rushing at us out of the dark, and all with the most murderous looks I have ever seen.
I now gave up all for lost, and planting myself with my back against the tree prepared to sell my life dear. Not so Rupert, who was already off the ground, climbing like a cat up the smooth trunk. He was out of sight among the branches directly, and in another minute would have been safely over the wall, when at a signal from their leader, about a dozen of the Moors who had firearms discharged them all together into the tree. I heard a groan and a sound of scrambling above, and presently Rupert dropped, falling heavily straight on to the ground, where he lay quite still.
When I saw what had happened, I abandoned all further thoughts of resistance, and throwing away my weapon bade them do what they would with me. Even then, so great was the awe we had struck into them, that they advanced slowly, narrowing their circle all round, till at length the foremost took courage to lay his hand on my shoulder. They then led me away, jabbering the most horrid threats in my ear, while others picked up my unfortunate cousin, and carried him after, groaning miserably.
We were brought into a sort of guard-house, situated, as well as I could judge, in the centre of the garden, and there kept till morning, to await the Nabob's pleasure. Poor Rupert, who had broken his leg, tossed and moaned till daybreak, but I was so much exhausted that I could not keep awake, and fell into a sleep on the floor. In the morning, to my astonishment, I was offered some food, after which my captors dragged me pretty roughly into the palace. I said farewell to my cousin, doubting greatly whether I should ever see him again.
Surajah Dowlah, contrary to his custom, had me brought into him in his private apartments, there being present besides only some of the minions and low buffoons he kept by him to amuse him. He rolled his bloodshot eyes on me, as I was led in, looking as though he could have bit me, and played with a sharp, crooked knife which he had in his hand.
After overwhelming me with a torrent of imprecations which I should be ashamed to write down, he ordered me to tell him how I had got into his garden. Being well assured that nothing could make my position worse than it already was, and having some experience of the Nabob's character by this time, I resolved on defying him. I therefore answered boldly—
"I got into the garden by means which I have, and which I shall not disclose. Your Highness may rest assured that you cannot keep me out of any place into which I choose to penetrate. Nevertheless I intended no outrage on you. You hold prisoner a countrywoman of mine, whom I intended to deliver out of your hands; and let me warn your Highness that whatever you may order to be done with me, the English will never leave you in peace till you have set that woman free."
I was scarce prepared for the effect which these words produced on the intoxicated youth. He rose half way from his seat, raging like a fiend, then fell back again white and crouching, as if I had been about to deal him a blow, then passed into a fresh paroxysm of rage, and so from one state of mind to another in a way at once alarming and pitiful to behold.
"Do you know in whose presence you stand, infidel?" he shrieked. "Do you know that I am lord and Subhadar of Bengal, of Behar, and Orissa; and that I have a million men who would die at my bidding? I will have you torn piecemeal, I will have your eyes picked out with knives and your flesh torn by hot pincers! I will plunge this knife into you, I will rip you up as I would a wild boar, I will strew your entrails on the earth, I will give your heart to dogs to devour!"
He went on in this terrifying manner till he was out of breath. During the whole time I stood regarding him with a cool, undismayed expression which, I believe, disconcerted him more than any words I could have used. Then I said—
"Surajah Dowlah, your words are the words of a boaster, who is bold only when he sees his enemy before him disarmed. Beware of what you do; you are walking in the dark! Do you believe the paltry handful of English whom you drove out of Calcutta count for anything in the strength of our nation? If so, let me tell you there are men about you, men who have your trust, who could teach you otherwise. You are being deceived if your spies have not already told you of the armament which he whom you call Sabat Jung is already preparing to invade your dominions, when every hair of an Englishman's head that you have injured will have to be reckoned for. And it will be well for you if, among all those who crouch before you, you find any to fight for you in that day."
The servile crew that stood round the tyrant here began to cry out at me, and drown my voice. But I was satisfied with the impression I had made on the mind of their master. He listened, hanging his head, and casting meaning glances at me, as if doubtful how far I had authority for what I said. Finally he ordered me to be kept under a strong guard, and I was conveyed back to the same prison I had escaped from overnight.
IN A STRANGE LAND
I have now come to a period which was in many respects the strangest of my whole life, so that I often look back on it with wonder; and sitting here at the open window, framed in honeysuckle and sweetbriar, with the sounds of the farm in my ears and the prospect of the peaceful broad in front of me, I ask myself if I be truly that adventurous youth who once dwelt in captivity for many months in the court of an Indian prince, half victim and half plaything, one day caressed and loaded with rich gifts, the next threatened with death and torture.
Yet so it was. After the attempt whose miscarriage I have just related, the demeanour of the Nabob underwent a singular change. He relented from his severity towards us, and in fact a few days after, riding past our place of imprisonment one morning, he stopped at the door and calling Mr. Holwell out to him, bade him and his two companions betake themselves where they would, since he desired never to hear of them again.
However, in this dismissal he did not include me, choosing to put me on a different footing from the other prisoners he had taken at Fort William, and to hold me as a hostage—for so I am sure he considered me—for the friendship of Colonel Clive. He offered me the choice between being kept in chains or giving him my parole not to leave Moorshedabad without his consent. The Moors do not accept each other's parole, but they trust that of a European, than which there can be no stronger proof of the dishonesty of their whole nation. I chose to comply with the Nabob's condition, as I considered that I ought not to quit the place without having effected something for Marian. And by giving my parole I trusted to obtain opportunities for communicating with her, as well as with my luckless cousin Gurney, whom I had not seen since the morning after our adventure.
Whether Surajah Dowlah suspected my designs, and took particular measures for baffling them, I cannot say. But during the time that now followed, try as I would, I never succeeded in so much as hearing the smallest news of either of the two persons whom I knew to be in Moorshedabad. So close is the secrecy maintained by Orientals that they might have both been carried off into the recesses of Tartary, and yet not been more utterly out of my reach than they were, abiding in the same city.
Neither was I able to gain any certain tidings of my fellow countrymen. I only knew that the Nabob, intoxicated with the pride of his victory at Fort William, had neglected to take measures for pursuing the refugees and driving them from his country. So that they lay all together at Fulta, very miserably, wishing for succour to arrive from Madras, and passed the time, as I have since understood, in recriminations upon each other, for the misconduct and weakness which had brought about the fall of Calcutta. What were the real feelings of Surajah Dowlah towards myself I found it then, and find it still, very difficult to estimate. On many occasions he behaved towards me with the greatest kindness, and as though he had a real affection for me. He would send for me sometimes, when he was sober, and question me about the various kingdoms of Europe, particularly the French, English, and Dutch, those being the three nations which had factories in his dominions. It was plain that he did not believe very much of what I told him, supposing no doubt that I exaggerated in order to astonish him. I told him that the French were the most powerful military nation on the continent of Europe, but that we were their masters, having several times invaded and conquered their country. And I said that at sea the English had ever been reckoned the first of all nations, so much so that no foreign warship was allowed to pass through our seas without striking her topsails to any British vessel she might meet. When I spoke in this manner he would mock, and ask whether I supposed that a Frenchman would confirm these accounts, to which I made answer that such was scarcely to be expected, the French being a vain people, and given to boasting of their greatness.
When the Nabob had exhausted his questions—and he seldom asked me about any but military affairs—he would bestow on me a jewel, or a rich dress, and dismiss me with every mark of kindness. But on the very next day, perhaps, being sent for again, I found him in a drunken rage, ready to curse my nation and myself, and threatening to have my tongue pulled out for having abused him with lies and inventions about my miserable country. On these occasions I often heard him declare that the whole of Europe did not contain ten thousand men, and that as for King George, he was only fit to be a dewan or zamindar under himself.
It did not take me long to discover that the Nabob was entirely governed by those about him. When he could be prevailed on to listen to his uncle, Meer Jaffier, or to his aunt, the widow of Allaverdy Khan, his behaviour was rational enough; but more often he fell under the influence of his detestable Gentoo favourite Lal Moon, and other scoundrels of that stamp, when he became little more than a drunken sot. I felt during this period as though I was shut in the same cage with a capricious tiger, who one moment purred and fawned on me and the next showed his teeth with horrid snarls, nor was there ever a day on which I could feel secure that I should not be delivered to the executioner before the sun set.
Through all these changes of demeanour I adhered to the firm conduct I had at first taken up, and by never permitting the tyrant to see that I feared him, succeeded time after time in damping his frenzy. At the same time I acquired the friendship and esteem of some of the most considerable persons of his Court, particularly Roy Dullub, the dewan already mentioned, and the famous Meer Jaffier. My hold on the friendship of this distinguished Moor was strengthened by an incident which I am about to relate.
As soon as the rainy season was over, which lasted till the month of October, Surajah Dowlah marched out with his army into the country of Purneah, for the purpose of attacking his cousin, who was Phouzdar of that territory. The young Nabob bore a great hatred to this relation of his, and had frequently announced his intention of destroying him as soon as the weather should permit of his moving against him. At the head of the army, as usual, was the general, Meer Jaffier, and at my earnest request I was allowed to accompany him as one of his train.
We arrived at length, after a tedious march, at the foot of some hills, on the slope of which the Phouzdar's army lay encamped. Our own force was much more numerous, but the Phouzdar's position being a very strong one the Meer judged it not prudent to make an attack till he had had an opportunity of thoroughly examining the ground. With this view he chose out a small party, of whom I was one, and departed secretly from the camp at sunset, to explore the enemy's neighbourhood.
The distance between the two armies was not very great; as near as I could judge it was about three miles. But we had no guide to direct us, and lost our way in the darkness, getting entangled first in the wood, and afterwards among a network of small, deep streams, too broad to jump, and dangerous to wade on account of the steepness of their banks and the slippery boulders with which their beds were strewn. So long did it take us to extricate ourselves out of these difficulties that when the sun rose we found ourselves close to the Phouzdar's camp, and within full view of his army. We turned to retreat, but at the same time a loud halloo was raised behind us, and a troop of horsemen, with waving ensigns and steel accoutrements shining in the sun, dashed out from the enemy's ranks and rode down upon us.
Meer Jaffier at once gave the order to face round, and form into a solid body to receive their onset. As they approached there was a tall young man in a high turban that blazed with diamonds, mounted on a noble white horse, who spurred swiftly in front, and rode straight for where our commander was posted, with me beside him. The Meer, who did not want courage, perceiving that this young man sought him out, instantly galloped forward to meet him, and cast his javelin. The javelin passed by the young man's ear; he pulled up his horse, and threw his own in return with such good aim that he struck Meer Jaffier on the shoulder, who reeled and fell off his horse on to the ground. The other instantly rode up and leaped off his white horse to despatch his enemy, but I was on the spot just in time, and without dismounting, succeeded in striking the young man on the neck with my scymetar with such force that he fell down dead.
No sooner did they see him fall than the whole troop of the enemy's horse turned round and went off, casting away their banners as they rode. Meer Jaffier, who had merely been stunned for the moment, came to himself directly afterwards, and on looking at the dead man's face recognised him to be no other than the Phouzdar of Purneah himself. We were informed afterwards that he had mistaken us for the Nabob's own bodyguard, and had come out to attack the Nabob himself.
This lucky accident put an end to the campaign, the whole country at once submitting to Surajah Dowlah. The ungrateful young tyrant chose to resent my action, declaring that it was his design to have put his cousin to death with his own hand, but Meer Jaffier expressed himself very handsomely about the service I had rendered him, and presented me with the white horse which the Phouzdar had ridden.
As soon as we were returned to Moorshedabad Surajah Dowlah marked his sense of resentment against me by withdrawing my liberty on parole, and ordering me into close confinement again. I thus learnt how dangerous is the path of those who would advance themselves at courts where everything depends on the personal favour of the monarch, and not, as in our own happy country, where the power is distributed among the Houses of Parliament and great Ministers, so that no man hath it in his power unduly to depress another. However, I had not lain in my new prison very long before I had reason to rejoice at the Nabob's caprice, which had restored to me the right of plotting my escape from him. For one evening, when it began to be dusk, the door of my cell was suddenly opened, and the gaolers ushered in a person closely veiled and disguised, who, as soon as we were left alone, removed the wrappings from his face and showed himself to be none other than the Meer Jaffier in person.
"My son," he said to me, regarding me with a look of some concern, "there has this day arrived at the palace a messenger from Monichund, who brings tidings that Sabat Jung, with a great armament of ships and men, has arrived in the mouth of the Hooghley, breathing vengeance against our lord Surajah Dowlah. And this news has so infuriated him against the whole English nation that, unless you can contrive to get away from Moorshedabad to-night you are like to forfeit your life on the morrow."
Now whether this distinguished Moor was moved to this action by gratitude for my former service to him, or whether, as some of my friends think, he was already aiming at the treaty into which he afterwards entered with the English, and therefore wished to show his good will to us; yet of this I am sure, that he preserved my life on this night, an action for which I must always hold him in grateful remembrance. Under his directions I collected together my property, consisting chiefly of the gems which the Nabob had given me, and which I secreted on my person. He then brought me out of the prison, past the gaolers, whom he had bribed and dismissed, and took me by a back way to his own house. Here I found the beautiful white horse he had given me, which was named Ali, ready saddled and bridled for a journey. I had for some months been accustomed to wear the Moorish dress, so that I wanted nothing in the shape of disguise, save another application of my cousin Rupert's paint, which was not to be had.
"Mount," said the Meer, "and I will myself ride with you as far as the gate of the city and see you safely on your way."
Accordingly he had his own horse made ready, a small, powerful, black mare, like a jennet, and on this led the way through the streets of the city, now nearly empty, to the southern gate. As we rode along together he gave me advice as to how I should proceed.
"You may now pass well enough among the Mahometans," he said, "for you have learned a good deal of our manners, and if you had been willing to forsake your degrading idolatry, and embrace the true worship of Allah, you might have attained to a high position among us. But now you are to pass through the country parts of Bengal, in which there are few or no Moors, but only Gentoos, of whom I would have you beware. For the secret hatred of these people for us, their rulers and governors, is very great, so that though you should pass among them for a Moor, you would fare little better than if they knew you to be a Christian and a foreigner. Above all, beware of their Bramins, a faithless, perjured race, given over to all kinds of vile, heathen practices, such as you have no notion of. Let a Bramin once raise his finger against you among these people and you are lost, for by means of their manifold sorceries they have reduced the whole Gentoo population to be their slaves."
He gave me some directions as to the road I was to travel, telling me I should have to make a circuit so as not to pass through Calcutta, which lay directly in the way to Fulta. The whole distance he estimated as a little more than two hundred miles, and he advised me to ride only at night, and conceal myself in the jungle during the day. I asked him what I should do to procure food.
"That will require some address," he answered, "but you must avoid entering a village. You will have to keep your eyes open as you ride along, and when you come to some hut standing by itself with no others near, enter boldly and demand provisions for yourself and your horse. Beware of offering any money in payment, or they will suspect you to be a fugitive and fall upon you; but if you hold yourself towards them with pride and sternness, giving them only curses and blows, they will respect and grovel before you, for such is the nature of the Bengalese."
As soon as we were arrived at the gate of the town Meer Jaffier bade me farewell.
"When you come before Sabat Jung you may salute him privately from me," he said at parting. "Tell him that my nephew's violence towards the English is far from commanding the approval of the elder and more prudent among us, and that we earnestly desire to see your factories restored and trade once more flourishing."
In these last expressions I knew him to be sincere. For since the destruction of the English factories there had been a great falling off in the revenues of Bengal, so much so that even the Nabob himself was now inclined to repent of his action.
I thanked and saluted my protector, and giving the rein to my willing steed, galloped forth into the night. And now it would be easy for me to make a long story of those four days and nights which I spent in travelling through the unknown parts of Bengal, riding along dark forest paths with nothing to guide me but the stars, under mighty trees whose boughs arched overhead like caverns and grew downwards into the earth again, past sleeping Indian villages, where the dogs bayed behind prickly fences, swimming dark rivers on whose surface the reflections of strange idol temples rose and fell, and creeping through thick jungles where my ears were stunned by the screams of trooping jackals, and where my heart would sometimes come into my mouth as I saw the brown grass bend and shake with the passage of some great beast, and caught a glimpse of dark red stripes moving behind the reeds, and heard the heavy padding of its paws. But only once during this journey did I come into real danger, and that through a neglect of the wise advice given to me by my good friend at starting.
For though Meer Jaffier had so strictly warned me against the Indians, and particularly the Bramins, yet on the third night after my flight, beginning to feel somewhat confident by having got so far in safety, nothing would do but I must thrust my head into the lion's den, by which I mean venture into one of their temples, at the very time they were busy about a great religious ceremony. I had been on my way since sundown, and had made very good progress, so that I supposed myself to have got over the greater part of my journey, when towards the middle of the night I came unexpectedly upon a great building, standing by itself on the edge of a stream, which building I at once knew to be a temple of the Gentoo religion.