Having passed several places of the same kind already I should not have taken much notice of this one, perhaps, if my attention had not been attracted by a peculiar drumming noise which seemed to proceed from the inside, and sounded very strange and awful in the darkness. I rode up as near as I dared, and then stopped, listening. The drumming grew louder and louder, and I presently began to distinguish a purpose in it. The sounds rose and fell in a certain regular order, very unlike the melody of our musical instruments, but yet very impressive to the ear. I found myself affected by a feeling of suspense as I listened, which quickly passed into one of fear, and at the same time I noticed that my horse had begun to shiver and sweat violently. The only effect of this was to fill me with a burning curiosity to know what this music was for. I tethered poor Ali to a tree, and though he seemed to be greatly distressed at being left alone, plunged into the undergrowth that surrounded the sides of the temple.
The whole place appeared to be in darkness. I groped my way at last to the foot of a flight of steps leading up to the front, and finding nobody on guard climbed up softly on all fours, only staying now and then to breathe deeply, and to try and still the excessive beating of my heart. The drums continued to sound, the notes becoming harsher and more distinct as I approached. At the top of the steps I found myself before a little stone doorway, through which a very faint dusky glimmer emerged. I passed in, treading on tiptoe, and came along a narrow stone passage, down which the sound of the drumming made a dismal echo. At the further end of the passage the way was closed by a thick curtain made of a substance that felt like stiff leather, and was, I believe, the hide of an elephant. I pushed this back far enough to let me through, and passed straight into the midst of the place.
As I did so the beating of the tom-toms broke on my ears with such vehemence that I was well-nigh stunned, and a waving dance of torches and cressets bewildered my eyes. I stood on the edge of a range of steps looking down upon an amphitheatre crowded with men. On the other side, over against me, rose a hideous idol, as high as the roof, with many heads, each grinning horribly, whilst from its body there protruded a monstrous array of clutching arms and hands, with other disfigurements too loathsome to be set down. The persons underneath me were all leaping and whirling round, with many gestures of homage to the idol, and they uttered cries and screams which were drowned by the noise of the drums.
In the midst of their frenzy I saw a man dart out stark naked, prostrate himself for a moment at the idol's feet, and then inflict a terrible gash on himself with a knife which he had in his hand. Instantly the yellings and drummings were redoubled, the mass of worshippers whirled themselves round more furiously than ever, and then another and another man leaped forward and cut himself, each one more savagely than his fellow. Though I have never known what it is to be faint or sick in battle at the sight of wounds, nor even in a hospital, the spectacle of these ghastly mutilations offered up by these Indians in their madness to the idol turned me cold. I stood there watching them, and saw the stones of the temple all bloody like a shambles, and the dark faces of the worshippers distorted like maniacs, amid the smoke and flare of the torches, and a din like that of the pit; and remembering the different worship in which I had been brought up, and the pious services conducted by good Mr. Walpole, I thanked the Almighty who had granted me the blessed privilege of being born in a Christian land.
And with this prayer in my heart I was turning to go when all at once I was aware that I had been spied; the noise of the tom-toms and the screaming dropped as if by magic, the torches were extinguished as though a wind had suddenly passed through the place, and as I turned and fled I heard the pattering of innumerable naked feet behind me on the stones.
THE COMING OF SABAT JUNG
If ever I felt afraid in my life it was when I fled out of the Indian temple with the whole swarm of devil-worshippers in full pursuit. I never thought I should have escaped alive, yet by the aid of Providence I did so, leaping down the steps by great bounds, finding my horse and unloosing him in the nick of time, and galloping off out of their reach. They kept up the pursuit for at least a mile, running with extraordinary swiftness, and tracking me like wolves; nevertheless in the end I got clean away.
This adventure served as a wholesome lesson to me to beware of meddling with the ways of strange peoples in a strange land. By dint of following Meer Jaffier's wise and prudent directions I got over the rest of my journey without hindrance, and as day was breaking at the end of the following night I rode down on to the shore of the Hooghley.
There the first thing that met my eyes was the pennant of my old commander, Admiral Watson, flying from the main truck of his Majesty's ship Kent, where she lay in the river, surrounded by a fleet, comprising the Tyger, Salisbury, Bridgewater, and a number of merchantmen. I gloated over this welcome sight almost with tears, as I realised that I was restored to my countrymen once more, after all my perils and wanderings. It did not take me long to reach the English camp on the edge of the river, where the spectacle of a turbaned Moor riding in on a white horse excited no small commotion.
I inquired for Colonel Clive, and was quickly brought to the door of his tent, where my kind friend Mr. Scrafton came out to speak to me. I was on the point of offering him my hand, but observing that he had no suspicions as to who it was I merely told him in Indostanee that I came from Moorshedabad, with a message from the Meer Jaffier, and suffered him to bring me in to Mr. Clive.
The famous Sabat Jung sat writing at a small table, from which he looked up as we entered, and cast a sharp glance over me. Mr. Scrafton spoke in English.
"Colonel, here is a Moor from the Nabob's capital, with a message from his general to you."
Mr. Clive laid down his pen.
"Tell him to deliver it," he said.
Before Mr. Scrafton could interpret this command, which he was about to do, I interposed, addressing Mr. Clive in English.
"The Meer Jaffier bade me salute you privately, sir. Is it your pleasure that Mr. Scrafton should be present?"
The Colonel and his secretary stared at each other, as they well might.
"Who are you, man?" demanded Mr. Clive. "And how do you know this gentleman's name?"
"I know his name very well, sir," said I, "and I think he knows mine, unless by this time he has forgot his former pupil, Athelstane Ford."
"By the Lord, if it isn't my little purser!" exclaimed Colonel Clive.
And this great man was pleased to rise from his chair and shake me very warmly by the hand, declaring himself pleased to see me safe and sound again. Mr. Scrafton did the same, after which they made me sit down and tell the history of my adventures. They questioned me very closely about the character of Surajah Dowlah and the strength of his government, and after I had expressed my opinions, Mr. Clive told me that he believed he understood the Nabob's character, and had written him a letter such as would send his heart into his boots.
"And that the whole of Indostan may know what I think of the young monster, I mean to send the letter open to his lieutenant, Monichund," he said. "These barbarous nations shall be made to learn the English are their masters, and that every outrage upon an Englishman shall cost them dear."
So at last there had come a man able to deal with the bloodthirsty savage Moors and their prince as they deserved; and a new page was turned over in the history of Bengal. And but for the anxiety that continually harassed my mind as to the fate of those two whom I had left in Moorshedabad, I mean Marian and my cousin, who, in spite of many crimes, had at last done something to atone for his past misconduct; but for this, the time which followed would have been full of satisfaction. For I was now to witness the closing acts of that great historic drama of which I have already chronicled the commencement. I was to assist at the execution of justice on a great malefactor, and to see his victims repaid a hundredfold for the injuries they had suffered at his hands.
I had arrived in the English camp just in time to take part in the first of those celebrated operations by which the disgraceful surrender of Fort William was to be redeemed, and the English name was to be so signally advanced throughout the East Indies. Colonel Clive had despatched the letter he spoke of, to demand redress from the Nabob, but its language was so high and peremptory that Monichund, the Nabob's governor in Fort William, returned it, saying that he dared not transmit it to his master. Thereupon Mr. Clive, not sorry to have an excuse for hostilities, ordered an immediate advance on Calcutta.
The total number of troops employed on this memorable expedition was a little more than two thousand, of whom the most part were Telingies, or Sepoys, the English troops being between six and seven hundred. Most of these were Company's soldiers, though we had about one hundred men of Adlercron's regiment from Madras. We had also two field-pieces; the rest had been lost through the unfortunate grounding of the Cumberland outside the river. To this force was afterwards added a body of three hundred seamen from the ships, as I shall presently relate. This little army under Colonel Clive marched slowly up the bank of the Hooghley, while Admiral Watson followed and escorted us with his fleet.
On the second afternoon we lay at a place called Mayapore, between which and Calcutta, on the river's edge, stood the strong place of Budge-Budge, or Buz-Buzia as it is written by the learned. The Admiral had announced his intention of sailing up to attack this fort on the next day with the guns of the ships, and in order to prevent the garrison escaping Mr. Clive decided to march round during the night, and lay an ambush in the rear of the fort.
Accordingly we marched out of Mayapore about sunset, and were conducted by some Indian guides inland through a part of the country much broken up by swamps and watercourses, which made our progress so excessively tedious that it was not till the following sunrise that we arrived at the place appointed for the ambush. This was a hollow in the plain, where there was a deserted village, the hollow being surrounded by banks covered with thickets which, it was supposed, would conceal our presence from the enemy. The troops by this time being quite worn out, Colonel Clive gave them leave to lay down their arms and repose themselves, and so eagerly was the permission availed of that not a single sentinel was posted to give notice of the enemy's approach.
I was with Mr. Clive himself, who had allowed me to accompany him as a sort of military secretary, Mr. Scrafton not being a soldier. We lay down side by side, and I for one had no sooner closed my eyes than I fell asleep. But the very next moment, as it seemed to me, I awoke with a start, to the sound of a battle going on around me.
I sprang to my feet and took in the whole scene. A whole Indian army appeared to have surrounded the sleeping camp. The banks of the hollow were lined with swarthy troops, armed with matchlocks, from which they poured a steady fire upon our bewildered men, just roused from slumber, and groping in confusion after their arms. On an eminence a short way behind I espied an officer, whom I took to be Monichund himself, seated on an elephant, issuing orders to his troops. Our two field-pieces stood deserted in the way of the enemy, who advanced to take them, while the terrified artillerymen ran for shelter among the troops of the line. Our position looked desperate, and I turned anxiously to Colonel Clive to see what he would do.
Mr. Clive had sprung to his feet at the same moment with myself. For a moment he stood in an attitude of stern attention, his hands clenched, his lips compressed, and his eyes darting from point to point over the field. The next instant his voice rang out like the sound of a trumpet.
"Steady! Form in line! Face this way! Captain Campbell, form your men on the right. Captain Coote, take yours to the left. Where is Kilpatrick?"
He sprang forward among the disordered troops, rattling out commands and words of encouragement, and infusing a new spirit into them by his very presence and the air of cool resolution with which he moved and spoke. Like magic the little force disposed itself under his orders, and began to return the enemy's fire. Astonished by this sudden transformation, the Moors halted in their attack, and seemed contented to hold the rest of the ridge. Colonel Clive instantly detected their hesitation, drew up two small detachments opposite the points where the enemy seemed to be in the greatest numbers and ordered them to charge. They dashed forward with a ringing cheer, gained the bank, and drove the enemy back into the village.
Taking advantage of this success, Mr. Clive turned his attention to the two field-pieces, which had been surrounded by a party of Monichund's force.
"Go," he said to me, "order up the volunteers, and rescue those guns."
Elated by this commission I darted towards a little squad composed of some fifty of the Company's civil servants who had volunteered before we left Fulta.
"Come on," I shouted, "and take the guns!"
They responded with an answering shout, we charged on the Indians at the double and drove them off. The artillerymen came up, turned the guns on the village, and began to shell out the enemy. A minute afterwards a loud cheer announced a general advance of our whole force, and Monichund, turning his elephant, fled, followed by all his men.
While this was taking place the thunder of guns from the direction of the river told us that the fleet had come up, and was already at work silencing the artillery of the fort. Colonel Clive called back his men from the pursuit, and then, finding them utterly exhausted, he deferred the assault on the fort till the next day, and we again betook ourselves to repose.
The result of this affair was greatly to encourage us, while we afterwards learned that it had as much disheartened the Moors. That presumption which they had felt ever since the fall of Calcutta was now exchanged for a different feeling, so much so that it may not be too much to say that the fate of Bengal was decided by that morning's work. The admiration which I felt for Mr. Clive's conduct on this occasion emboldened me to offer him my congratulations on his victory, but he rebuked me for doing do.
"I will tell you what it is, young gentleman," he said to me, "I deserved to have been defeated for my carelessness in letting the beggars surprise me. It is true we beat them off, but that is no defence. A general should not allow himself to be caught napping in that fashion, and you may depend on it I shall say as little as possible about this day's work in my despatches to the Directors."
In this confidential way he was pleased to talk with me, a freedom which it was his habit to indulge in with all those of his subordinates whom he really liked. For this hero, as I must have leave to call him, was not one of those little great men who find it necessary to keep up their authority by a show of reserve and pompousness, but feeling that confidence in himself which would enable him to rely upon his actions as the proofs of his greatness, he despised the arts of inferior minds.
And now there happened an event, not only singular in itself, but interesting to me as bringing me back the company of an old friend whom I had never looked to see again. In the evening of this same day, while the soldiers were at supper, a party of sailors were landed from the ships, being the force I have already mentioned, to be ready to take part in the assault the next day. Thinking it possible that some of my old comrades from the Talisman might be among them, about eight o'clock I strolled down to their quarters, where I found them all drinking together, without much appearance of discipline.
I walked past several groups without recognising any face that I knew, and was about to give up the quest, when I noticed a group of half a dozen who were straying in the direction of the silent fort. This seemed to me a very dangerous proceeding, and as I could see none of their officers near, I determined to follow and remonstrate with them. Accordingly I hastened after them as fast as I could go. By the way in which they walked, or rather staggered along, I saw they had been drinking pretty freely. Presently they set off at a run, paying no heed to my shouts, and I was obliged to follow till they stopped on the very edge of the ditch which went round the fort. Here I caught up with them, greatly surprised that the garrison had shown no signs of life. But before I could speak, or even distinctly see their faces, the tallest of the party, a man of great frame, began rolling down into the ditch, which was nearly dry.
I dared not call out for fear of drawing the attention of those in the fort, and watched him breathlessly as he plunged through the mud at the bottom of the ditch and scrambled up the opposite side.
"What is he doing?" I demanded in a whisper of the man who appeared to be the most sober of the group.
"It's a bet," he answered; "we bet him a quart of rum he wouldn't get to the top of the wall."
I stared at the fellow, hardly able to believe in such recklessness. Then I turned my eyes to the huge seaman on the opposite side of the ditch. He had just made good his footing on the top of the bank, and now he began climbing up the masonry like a cat, till at last his herculean figure stood out clear on the summit.
The next moment we saw him draw his cutlass and brandish it over his head, and a loud shout came across to us in a voice I knew full well.
"Come on, you beggars, I've taken the —— fort!"
It was old Muzzy, the boatswain of the Fair Maid.
Not for long did we hesitate, but rushing down into the ditch after him we were speedily in the fort. There our shouts roused first a company of Sepoys, and finally the whole force, who came trooping in, to find the place deserted, and the garrison fled secretly under cover of the darkness to Calcutta.
While this was going on I had approached my old friend, for so I cannot but call him. Indeed, in spite of his evil character and manifold breaches of the laws of God and man, the old fellow had shown me much kindness, for which I was not ungrateful, and this perhaps inclined me to look with an unduly lenient eye on his misdeeds. Going up to him, I clapped him on the back, and cried out—
"How goes it, old Muzzy? and what of the Fair Maid and the rest of her crew?"
The boatswain gave a great start, and turned round to me with a look of astonishment which quickly passed into one of delight.
"Why, drown me, if it ain't that young cockerel again!" he exclaimed.
And before I knew what he would be at, he cast his arms around me, and gave me a most evil-smelling kiss, fragrant of rum and tobacco. Then, still holding me firmly with his great hairy hands, as though he feared I should vanish into air, he put me back far enough for him to gaze at my face.
"Stab my vitals if I didn't think as you was suffocated in that there Black Hole!" He garnished his speech with many other expressions which I am ashamed to remember, far less to write here. "So we all heard aboard the ship. But you're alive, ain't ye now?" he added. "It's not the rum as makes me think I sees you?"
"I am Athelstane Ford," I answered, trying to shake myself free from his grasp, "and not a little glad to meet you again. But how did you come to be on a King's ship? Is the Fair Maid——"
"Hist!" He interrupted me with a warning frown, and cast an apprehensive glance behind him. "Not a word about her! It might be a hanging matter if it was known I had been in the boat that escaped from Gheriah. I'll tell you all about it by our two selves."
I took advantage of this offer to lead the way out of the fort. We walked back to the British lines together, old Muzzy still clutching me with one hand, and as soon as we had reached a quiet spot out of earshot we sat down and he commenced his tale.
"You see, it's this way. Arter what happened when we was coming out of the river, where we lost you overboard, I come to the conclusion that that cousin o' yours warn't what I calls a honest man. Nobody can't say as how I'm one of your squeamish sort, 'cause I ain't. As fur as a bit o' smuggling goes, or a bit of privateering, or even a bit o' piracy, in a general way, I don't say nothin', but when it comes to taking and firing a culverin at your own ship, with your own mates aboard of her, why, d'ye see, I don't call that honest. And when I find out as a man ain't what I calls honest, I don't sail in his company. Mind you, I'm not the man to deny that Captain Gurney has his good points; he ain't no lawyer, that I'll admit, and he's as free with his rum-cask as any man I ever wish to sail under. But arter that business what I've mentioned, me and my mates swore we wouldn't have nothing more to do with him.
"Well, when we got outside the river, we pointed her head for the nor'ard, and by keeping pretty close along the shore, though we hadn't a soul on board that could navigate, we managed to bring the old Fair Maid safe into port—that's Bombay. You may strike me blind as I set here, when I tells you that no sooner did we bring up in the harbour than who should we see carmly settin' on the quay a-waiting for us but that eternal cousin of yourn! How on earth he got there's a mystery, but there he was; and as soon as he sights the Fair Maid he comes off in a boat as cool as you please and takes the command again."
"Why did you let him?" I asked, with a touch of my old resentment against Rupert. "Why didn't you refuse to take him on board?"
Old Muzzy gave me a reproachful look and shook his head gravely.
"No, no, boy, we couldn't go for to do that. That would ha' been flat mutiny; and remember his name was on the ship's books as first officer, and he might have pistolled us every one and had the law on his side. We didn't dare leave him neither, 'cause that would ha' been desertion, d'ye see, and he might have got out a warrant and had us brought on board again in irons."
"What did you do, then?" I demanded as he paused, and a smile of deep cunning slowly overspread his face.
"I'll tell you what we did, Athelstane, my hearty. We got ourselves pressed!"
"Took by the crimps, you understand, and pressed to serve King George. Oh, but it was a rare spree to see them crimps a-laying in wait for us, and enticing us into their dens, and filling us up with rum till we nearly bust where we sat, so that they could go and bring the pressgang down upon us. And us all the time asking nothing better, and ready to serve of our own accord, only it might ha' looked suspicious, d'ye see, it being agin natur for a honest seaman to want to go on board a man-o'-war."
The boatswain began to quiver and roll to and fro with spasms of inward laughter at the recollection of his strategy.
"And you should ha' seen your cousin's face when he stood all alone on the deck of the Fair Maid, and saw a boatload of us being rowed past him to the Tyger, every man jack of us in irons, and laughing in his face as we went by! And so that's how it is as I'm in King George's uniform, and right glad I am to find you in company again. For if ever I took a fancy to a young feller, I took one to you from the moment I first clapped eyes on you, and says I to myself, 'I'll make that lad a tight sailor yet,' I says, and I'd ha' done it, my boy, but for that scrub of a cousin of yours. And I've taken a blessed fort to-night for King George; and I'll tell 'em you was with me, and in command of the party, and they'll put your name in the despatches, and make you an admiral yet, or my name ain't Muzzy!"
A BATTLE IN THE DARK
With some difficulty I persuaded my zealous friend to change his intention of ascribing to me the capture of Budge-Budge. It was well I did so, for Mr. Clive, when he heard the particulars of the affair, chose to resent the breach of discipline on the part of the sailors more than he approved of their reckless enterprise. So that old Muzzy, to his surprise, instead of being rewarded for his achievement, found himself lucky to get off with nothing worse than a reprimand for his drunkenness and disobedience to orders.
* * * * *
The next day we marched upon Calcutta.
The ships went before us to clear the way, but they met with no resistance, all the Indian forces retiring before our advance. In the affair before Budge-Budge it seems that one of the shots from the guns had passed close to the turban of Monichund, and this had so terrified him that he never halted in his retreat till he came to Moorshedabad, all the way communicating his own fears to the garrisons he passed. When we entered the town of Calcutta, therefore, we saw the English colours already flying again from the fort, Admiral Watson having sent a party ashore to take possession.
I am sorry to say that some bad blood arose between the gallant Admiral and Mr. Clive over this incident. In fact there had been already several jealousies between the two services, the Admiral and his officers affecting to regard the Company's forces as on an inferior footing to themselves. This feeling was heightened by the fact that Mr. Watson's rank in the navy was higher than that of Colonel Clive in the army, which gave him the precedence, though everybody knew that the real leader and director of the campaign was the Colonel.
I was with Mr. Clive when he came up to the entrance to the fort, and can still see the stern look on his face when the sentinel stationed there by Captain Coote refused him admission.
"Do you know who I am, fellow?" he cried. "I bid you let me pass this instant, or I will have you court-martialled as sure as my name is Robert Clive!"
The sentinel drew back, and we passed in, but were immediately met in the courtyard by Mr. Coote himself.
"What is the meaning of this performance, sir?" the Colonel asked him sternly. "Are you aware that I hold his Majesty's commission as lieutenant-colonel, and that you and all your men are therefore under my commands?"
"I am very sorry sir," replied the other, beginning to blench a little, "but I was put into possession of this place by Admiral Watson, who has given me his commission as governor, and bid me hold it on his behalf till the arrival of Mr. Drake."
"Then, Captain Coote," retorted Mr. Clive, turning pale, "I order you to give up this fort to me, as your superior officer on land, failing which I shall order you to be arrested."
The Captain gave way at this threat, but contrived to despatch a message to Mr. Watson of what had occurred. The Admiral, whose spirit was as high as Mr. Clive's, at once sent on shore to say that unless Mr. Clive instantly quitted the fort, leaving Captain Coote in possession, he should open fire on it from the Kent.
In the end, however, a compromise was effected, by virtue of which the Admiral was to hold the fort for the remainder of that day, in compliment to his services in having taken it, but at the end of that period he was to deliver it up to Mr. Clive as the military representative of the Company.
Such were some of the difficulties with which this distinguished man had to contend. He would sometimes say to me, in his moments of confidence—
"I declare to you, Ford, that if I had known how I was to be vexed and thwarted by those whose duty it is to assist me, I would never have undertaken this command. After ruining their own affairs these Bengal gentlemen criticise and hamper every step I take to restore them; and Admiral Watson is more zealous in maintaining what he considers the honours due to his profession, than he is in beating the Moors."
But in spite of this occasional bitterness, the Colonel entertained a great respect for Mr. Watson's courage and abilities as a seaman, more especially after the celebrated affair of Chander Nugger. Whilst Mr. Clive, with the other members of the committee, was engaged in settling the affairs of Calcutta, some spies came in with the news that the town of Hooghley lay very open to attack, the garrison being greatly dismayed and ready to give up the place on very slight provocation. Accordingly the Admiral sailed up the river against it with his fleet, and some troops under Major Kilpatrick and Captain Coote, attacking it on the land side, it was taken with very little loss on our side, and destroyed. But as I was not present on this occasion, so I shall say little about it, except to remark that it served to yet further impress the Indians with a sense of our power, and put Surajah Dowlah on marching from Moorshedabad to crush us with all his force.
The state in which we found Calcutta was indeed pitiable. The native quarter, especially that inhabited by the meaner sort of people, was not much injured, but all the English mansions and factories lay in ruins. The unfortunate servants of the Company, although thus restored to their former home, found themselves without shelter or money, the traffic having, of course, entirely ceased. It was fortunate for me that I had been able to bring away the jewels which Surajah Dowlah had given me in his fits of maudlin friendship, for these fetched a good price among the Gentoo merchants, and procured me as much money as I had occasion for. But with most of the others, from Mr. Drake downwards, it was different; and if the plunder of Hooghley had not brought in about a lac and a half of rupees, about this time, into the Company's coffers, I scarce know what they would have done.
News arrived from Aleppo, shortly after these transactions, that war had again broken out in Europe between us and the French. This raised the prospect of a fresh peril for us, it being feared that the French in Chander Nugger would join forces with the Nabob. So seriously did Colonel Clive regard this outlook, that he consented to send proposals for an accommodation to Surajah, who was now in full march to the southward. To these proposals the Nabob pretended to return a favourable answer, nevertheless he continued advancing, and in order to be prepared against him Mr. Clive fortified an entrenched camp just outside the Morattoe ditch, to the northward, by which the Moors would have to pass before they could attack the town.
Things were in this position when one morning about the beginning of February, rising at daybreak, and strolling outside the camp, I saw the whole horizon to the northward lit with the flames of burning villages. I hastened to rouse Mr. Clive, and he came out and stood beside me, watching, while from a cloud of dust along the road the van of the approaching army emerged, one blaze of gorgeous uniforms and tossing spears, marching towards the Morattoe ditch.
For some time we stood in silence, as troop after troop came on, crowding along the high road, and casting fierce looks towards our encampment as they passed. A frown gathered on the Colonel's brow, and he began to think aloud, as was his custom sometimes, when we were alone.
"Shall I attack them now? I might cut off their vanguard, and again I might be caught between two fires. The rest of the army cannot be far behind—better wait and ascertain their numbers. Besides, it is too soon to say whether or no the Nabob means to play me false. An attack now would hazard everything; I am bound to wait and give them time to show their true inclinations."
He raised his head, and looked at me.
"Go round the town, Ford, rouse the outposts everywhere, and bid them stand on the defensive. If the Moors attempt to cross the ditch and enter the town, they are to beat them back, and send me word, but not to follow them. Then return to me."
I hastened away to execute these orders, which were duly carried out. In one or two places the Moors attempted incursions, but were speedily checked. This contented them for that day. On the following morning the main army, accompanied by Surajah Dowlah in person, debouched on the plains, and proceeded to spread itself round the threatened town.
In the afternoon Mr. Clive summoned me to him. I found him in the tent with Mr. Scrafton, and he held a letter in his hand.
"The Nabob has sent to me," he said, "desiring me to appoint some persons to treat with him of the peace, and I have chosen Mr. Scrafton and you as my deputies. What do you say, Ford? Are you ready to trust your head in the tiger's jaws again, after your late adventures?"
"If you think fit to send me, sir, I am ready at all times to obey any orders I may receive from Colonel Clive."
He smiled, well pleased.
"Well said, my lad. I knew you were something better than a purser, and as soon as this business is over I will see to it that you get a commission in the Company's forces, if that will serve your turn."
I thanked him, and Mr. Scrafton and I at once set out for Surajah's quarters, which we were informed were at a place called Nabob-gunge. But on arriving there we found that the treacherous Moor had pursued his march towards the town and when we at last overtook him, late in the evening, we found him with his headquarters established in a house belonging to the Gentoo merchant Omichund, which house lay actually within the Morattoe ditch, and was therefore included in the territories of Calcutta.
We were here received by Roy Dullub, the Dewan, who instantly recognised me, and manifested some alarm at my thus appearing in the character of Colonel Clive's emissary. He glanced over us both with an air of suspicion, and desired to know whether we had pistols concealed in our dress.
Mr. Scrafton laughed in his face.
"We are not assassins," he said severely. "We do not deal with our enemies in that way. If our employer, Mr. Clive, desires to kill the Nabob, rest assured he will come in broad daylight, at the head of his army, and do it that way."
Roy Dullub gave way after this rebuke, and led us into the presence of his master. The Nabob was seated in full durbar, with all his officers round him and the evil Lal Moon crouched like a snake beside his ear. All the way round the walls of the apartment was placed a row of huge guards, men of formidable size and ferocious countenances, who, to appear still more dreadful, had their dresses stuffed out and their turbans of twice the common size. Throughout the audience they kept their eyes fixed on us with a most bloodthirsty expression, as though expecting the signal to fall upon and slay us.
Surajah Dowlah was little changed from when I had last seen him. His features still preserved that aspect of ruined handsomeness and marred and minished glory, which is ascribed to the fallen archangel by our great poet Milton—whom I, for one, will never stoop to compare with your writer of lascivious stage-plays and sonnets, after whom all the world is now running frantic. Roy Dullub handed the paper which we had brought containing our proposals to the Nabob, who read it over before he condescended to glance at us.
No sooner did he see me, however, than his face changed. He turned his head, and whispered something to his favourite, pointing to me at the same time. Then he addressed us, with smooth civility, pretending to ignore our previous acquaintance.
"I will desire my ministers to consider your proposals," he said. "The Dewan shall confer with you, and let you know my pleasure."
"That is not enough for us," replied Mr. Scrafton. He naturally took it on himself to speak, as my elder and superior. "Your Highness has committed a breach of good faith in crossing the English boundary while negotiations are in progress."
"You need have no fear about that," the Nabob responded. "My intentions towards the English are friendly. I come among you simply as a guest. Tell Sabat Jung that he may lay down his sword and confide in my goodwill."
To this Mr. Scrafton replied by a fresh remonstrance, but he soon saw that nothing was to be got from Surajah, whose answers were evidently being inspired by his secret adviser, Lal Moon. At length the Nabob dismissed us, and we retired from the durbar.
As we were passing out we saw, standing in the doorway, the Gentoo Omichund, whose house we were in. This man, well known in Bengal, possessed large interests in Calcutta, as well as in other parts of the Nabob's territories. For this reason he had long played a double game between the Moors and English, seeking to keep in with both sides. Now, as we came past, he fixed a significant look upon us, and whispered in English in my ear—
"Take care of yourself!" Then, as I stood still for an instant he added in the same sly tone, "Does your commander know that the Nabob's cannon are not yet come up?"
Before I could answer he slipped away in the crowd. I followed on after Mr. Scrafton, and whispered to him what I had heard, as we were on our way to the Dewan's tent.
"It is my opinion," I added, "that we are to be detained as prisoners. The Nabob is merely amusing Mr. Clive till his batteries have arrived."
Mr. Scrafton was alarmed. We looked round, and finding nobody near us ordered our attendants to put out their torches. We then turned aside among the other tents, threaded our way through them in the darkness till we came out on to the road running towards the English lines, and in this way contrived to escape and get back to camp.
In order to the better understanding of what now took place, in default of a chart, I must explain how the two armies were situated. The river Hooghley, which here runs pretty straight north and south, forms, as it were, the string of a bent bow, the bow itself being represented by the Morattoe ditch of which I have so often had occasion to speak. The whole of the territory thus enclosed belonged to the Company, and measured about five miles in length, and one and a half miles in breadth at its widest part. The fort and town of Calcutta occupied only a small space in the centre, the rest of the ground being broken up into gardens with a few country residences scattered about. Of these Omichund's house, now occupied by the Nabob, lay about a quarter of the way along the ditch, from the point where it joins the river Hooghley at the north end of the enclosure. The remainder of their army lay in tents along a space of three miles, but on the outside of the ditch. Colonel Clive, as I have before explained, had entrenched his camp also on the further side, next to the river, lying between that and the Moors' encampment.
The moment we had made our report to Colonel Clive his mind was made up. Springing on to his feet, and striding up and down in the tent, he exclaimed—
"That settles it, if we are to strike a blow at all it must be now! I have done my best to procure a peace, knowing the risk I run by undertaking the attack of an army of forty thousand men with the little handful I have here under my command. But it is plain that I have to choose between that and yielding everything to the Nabob. Mr. Scrafton, write a letter in my name to the Admiral, asking him for as many seamen as he can spare; and do you, Ford, go and summon the officers here to receive their orders."
The news that an attack was intended spread like wild-fire through the little camp, and caused the greatest excitement, many regarding it as a desperate venture from which we should never return alive. Our total force was 650 Englishmen, with 800 Sepoys, and another 100 to serve the artillery. These were reinforced by 600 men from the ships, armed with matchlocks, who were put ashore secretly at midnight. Our guns were six-pounders, and as we had no horses, except one which had come with the expedition from Madras, the cannon had to be drawn by seamen.
Old Muzzy was among the party, and was given charge of one of the guns, of which there were six altogether. I went up to speak to him before he set out, and found him much discontented with the service.
"It's this way, my lad," he said, addressing me with a freedom which I could not resent, considering what he had done for me in the past, "I understand sailing on salt water, and I understand fighting, but when they puts me in charge of this here craft on wheels, with neither spars nor yet oars to work it, and tells me to navigate it, I ain't exactly sure of my soundings. It seems to me that there ought to be a windlass to draw her up. Bust my stays if I can make out how I'm to make her answer her helm!"
With these grumblings he entertained me till the signal was given to start, when I repaired to the side of Mr. Clive, who took his station in the centre of the column. We marched three abreast, four hundred of the Sepoys going in front, then the European troops, then the second half of the Sepoys, and last of all the guns escorted by the sailors. Mr. Clive's plan, so far as he permitted it to be known, was to strike right through the Nabob's army, before they were prepared to receive us, and attack the Nabob himself in Omichund's enclosure.
It was just before daybreak when the head of our little column came upon the advance guard of the enemy. These at once fled, after discharging their pieces, but one of their shots, striking a Sepoy's cartouch box, caused a slight explosion, which threw our advance into some confusion for a moment. We pressed forward, picking our way as we best could in the obscurity; for no sooner was it day than a thick fog, such as is common in this season of the year in Bengal, descended upon us, wrapping everything in darkness. We had gone perhaps half a mile without molestation, dispersing the scattered parties of the Indians as we advanced, when there broke upon our ears the sound of heavy galloping from the quarter where we supposed Omichund's house to lie. Colonel Clive at once ordered a halt; we faced to the right, whence the sound proceeded, and as soon as the dim forms of the approaching squadron loomed upon us out of the mist, the word was given to fire. The whole line delivered a volley at a distance of about thirty paces, whereupon the phantom horsemen at once turned and fled back, uttering loud cries as they were swallowed up again in the darkness.
By this time it was evident that our position had become extremely perilous. We resumed our march, as nearly as we could keep it in the former direction, and continued groping our way in the mist through the heart of the enemy's camp, firing volleys by platoons to right and left, but without knowing where our bullets went, while the men with the guns discharged single shots from time to time along the sides of the column into the darkness ahead.
After we had gone on in this fashion for some time, not receiving much interruption from the enemy, but greatly troubled by the increasing obscurity, which rendered it difficult to see so much as a yard in front, there suddenly arose a murmur from amongst the Sepoys at the head of the column. Colonel Clive sent to demand the meaning of this, and the messenger returned with the intelligence that the men had stumbled upon a causeway, crossing our line of march, and leading to the Morattoe ditch on our right. He at once gave the order that the troops should mount upon this causeway and march towards the ditch. Unfortunately, however, no notice of this change in the direction was given to the artillerymen in the rear, who continued to fire, as they supposed, to the side of the column. A cannon ball came among the Sepoys on the causeway, killing several of them. Thereupon the rest sought shelter by leaping down on the other side of the causeway, and the whole forward part of the troops was huddled together in confusion.
The darkness made it difficult to ascertain at first what had happened, but as soon as Mr. Clive understood he gave the order to cease firing, and brought the whole force across the causeway, where he strove to restore their formation. It was his intention to have advanced along the causeway, driven away the Moors stationed to defend it, and forced his way through to the English side of the ditch. But while he was engaged in restoring order among the troops, the enemy, no doubt overhearing our movements, commenced a discharge on us from some cannon loaded with langrain, which they seemed to have brought up within a few hundred yards of us. The shot striking the troops while still bundled together, did us the most damage we received that day; indeed it was a very terrifying thing to suddenly hear the roar of artillery so close at hand, and see men falling right and left from shots fired by an invisible foe.
Under these circumstances it was wonderful to see the coolness of Colonel Clive, who continued to give his orders without appearing the least dismayed, and deployed the men into line again as steadily as though we were in our own camp, and not in the midst of the Moors. Abandoning all thoughts of the causeway, he ordered the column to resume its course to the southward, so as to reach the main road into Calcutta, by which we might cross the ditch and return in safety. This necessitated our leaving the wounded, about twenty in number, who broke into grievous cries at the prospect of being deserted to the cruelty of the Moors.
Among the voices raised in complaint I heard one which I believed I knew. I hastened to look among the figures on the ground, and presently made out the form of old Muzzy himself, who lay with his right leg doubled up under him.
"Is that you?" I exclaimed, bending over him. "Where have you been hurt? Is it serious?"
"Athelstane!" He looked up, turning his eyes on me with an appeal which went to my heart. "They've riddled my leg with their cursed heathenish small shot, curse them! If it had been a Christian bullet, now, I shouldn't ha' minded so much. Give me a hand, my boy, and I'll see if I can stand up."
I put my arms round him and lifted him partly from the ground, while he clutched at me with both hands. The next instant a groan broke from his clenched teeth.
"It's no good, lad, I can't do it. Go, and save yourself if you can; and leave old Muzzy to take his rating below decks at last!"
A MISSION OF DANGER
I got up and called to some sailors who were falling into the rear of the now departing column.
"Here, my men, here's a comrade wounded and unable to walk. Will you leave him to be butchered by the Indians?"
They stopped, and cast hesitating looks at the old boatswain, where he lay groaning.
"There's a-many of 'em about," observed one man. "We can't save them all, sir."
"But this is an old friend of mine, who has saved my life before now," I pleaded. And seeing them undecided, I went on, "What do you say; I will give you a hundred rupees—two hundred—apiece if you carry him safe into Calcutta?"
They brisked up when they heard this offer. A small tree with dark green leaves stood close by, from which they tore some branches, and quickly made out a rude litter. On to this they lifted my poor old friend, and so carried him off, renewing his groans at every step.
I marched alongside till we caught up with the rear of the column. Luckily we were not molested, for which I blessed the fog, though it was now showing signs of lifting away. Our progress was here extremely slow, the ground being broken up into a number of small rice-fields, separated by mud walls or mounds of earth, over which the field-pieces had to be lifted with infinite trouble, and in fact two of them were abandoned altogether, the sailors being too exhausted to draw them further. During this time I forbore to rejoin Colonel Clive, but used my freedom as a volunteer to remain with the sailors bearing old Muzzy, where I found my presence and encouragement very necessary to induce them to persevere in their task. As it was I was obliged to raise my offer to three hundred rupees before we had got to the high road.
The fog gradually clearing, we beheld parties of the enemy's horse from time to time, threatening us, but they were easily dispersed by a few discharges of musketry, and gave us far less annoyance than the impediments of the ground. At the end of another hour of this toilsome work we at length arrived at the road, where we found a considerable body of horse and foot posted in front of the bridge across the Morattoe ditch into the Company's territories, to prevent our passing.
At the same time the fog finally broke, and disclosed another numerous squadron coming down against our rear. The sailors at once faced about to defend the artillery, and I took my place among them, bidding the men with the litter press on towards the centre of the column. The Moors rode up with great determination, notwithstanding our fire, and one of them got near enough to me to aim a cut at my helmet, which I only avoided by bending my head to one side. At the same time I thrust my bayonet into his groin, and had the satisfaction of seeing him reel and fall from his horse as it turned and galloped off.
This charge being repulsed, we turned about again and rejoined our comrades, who had quickly dislodged the force opposed to them in front. The whole column then crossed the ditch, in broad daylight, and marched without further mishap into the town, where we arrived about midday, having been on the march for more than six hours, through the midst of a great army.
Such was this extraordinary exploit, to which, as I am assured, a parallel is scarcely to be found in the history of any age or nation. Nevertheless, at the moment its effect was to cast a gloom over the spirits of the troops. The officers, who could never forgive Colonel Clive for not having been, like themselves, regularly bred to the military profession, grumbled at and criticised his action, which they described as that of a mere braggadocio, who knew nothing of war. The fact was that the rules of war contained no prescription for the conquest of an army of forty thousand men by one of barely two thousand; and though the hero who led us was ever ready to attempt impossibilities, he could not always perform them.
As soon as I had seen old Muzzy safely bestowed in the hospital, where the surgeons declared that it would be necessary to amputate his leg, I hastened to report myself to my commander. He received me with kindness and no little surprise, having fully believed that I was killed. Indeed he told me that a soldier of Adlercron's regiment had assured him he had seen me fall. However, he fully approved of what I had done in rescuing my old comrade, only regretting it had not been in his power to save the rest of the wounded.
I found him much dispirited with the result of the morning's work.
"I have done nothing, Ford," he declared, "nothing. I have marched into the Nabob's camp, and marched out again, like the King of France in the nursery rhyme. And here are these gentlemen of the committee clamouring for peace, that they may get their revenues back again, and their dustucks, and I know not what else, with the Nabob and his army at their gates. You see what it is to be a commander—would to God I were back in England, enjoying my rest!"
The next day put a different complexion on our affairs. Secret messages arrived from Omichund to say that the Nabob had been terrified out of his wits, that he no longer considered himself safe even in the midst of his troops, and that we might depend on a peace being speedily concluded. Shortly afterwards a letter arrived, written by Surajah Dowlah's instructions to Colonel Clive, in which he referred to the treaty on foot between them, and complained bitterly of the attack upon his camp.
"Now, Ford," said the Colonel to me, when he had shown me this letter, "I feel a different man to what I did yesterday. Sit down and write my answer to this insolent Moor."
I took the pen, and he dictated the following letter, of which I have the draft still in my possession:—
"To his Highness Surajah Dowlah, Nabob of Bengal, Bahar, and Orissa.
"SIR,—I have received your letter, and am unable to understand what it is that you complain of. I merely marched with a few of my troops through your camp to show you of what Englishmen are capable, but I had no hostile intentions, and was careful to refrain from hurting any of your soldiers, except such as imprudently opposed me. I have been, and still am, perfectly willing to make peace with you upon proper conditions.—I have the honour to remain your Highness's obedient servant,
This bitter jest completed the effect produced by the previous day's work. That very evening we heard that the Nabob had broken up his quarters, and withdrawn to a distance of several miles from the Company's territories; and a few days later he signed a treaty granting full restitution to the Company of all that they had lost by the sack of Calcutta. This was just six weeks from the time we had started from Fulta.
During the period that followed I spent much of my time in the hospital, sitting by old Muzzy's bedside. He had borne the removal of his leg with great courage, but now that he began to mend I found him much depressed in his spirits.
"My day is over, boy," he would say, "I shall never sail salt water more. Old Muzzy is a dismasted hulk, only fit to be hauled up on the mud, and broken up for tinder. Drown me if I don't a'most wish the dogs had put a ball through my hull while they were about it, so that I could ha' gone down in deep water, with colours flying and all hands on deck, and heard the broadsides roaring over me to the last! That's the death for a British tar, my fine fellow, in action gallantly, and not to lie on the mud and rot away by inches like I'm fair to do."
I tried to cheer him up as best I could, though indeed I felt sorry enough myself to see that strong man laid helpless as a child. I thought it my duty to try and rouse him to some interest in better things, and brought a Bible to read to him.
In this I succeeded after a fashion. He listened very readily to the history of the Israelites, and expressed a huge admiration for Joshua and some of the Judges. But when I tried to pass on to the New Testament I must confess I met with more difficulties.
"No, no, don't read me that; it's too good for an old rakehelly tar like me," he persisted in saying. "Them apostles was fishermen, d'ye see, and the fishermen and longshore folk always was more peaceable and quieter-like than us deep-sea bilboes. You read me about that there fellow as slaughtered the Camelites; I understands him better. By Gosh, he gave 'em a warm time of it, on my swow, didn't he! Not much use them Camelites showing their heads when Joshua was in the offing! He swept their decks for 'em, clean, every time."
He meant the Amalekites. I could not quite approve of the spirit in which he took the sacred history, but still I felt that to get him to listen to the Scriptures at all was something, and the good seed might come up later on.
I pleased myself with these efforts to reform my poor old friend, and yet perhaps I should have been better employed in seeking to amend my own life. For though I can truly say that I lived honestly and soberly, yet all this time my heart was given up to thoughts of ambition and revenge, and the desire of riches; and the good impressions wrought upon me by my sufferings in the Black Hole had almost faded clean out of my mind.
I was not present at the taking of Chander Nugger, which was the next great event in the East Indies, and therefore forbear from describing it. But this affair served to display yet further the duplicity and shifting policy of Surajah Dowlah, whose conduct evidently changed from day to day as the passion of hatred of the English, or fear of Colonel Clive, obtained the mastery in his bosom. On one day he sent permission for us to attack the French, on the next he wrote strictly forbidding it. Colonel Clive would have gone against them without waiting for the Nabob's leave, but Admiral Watson was more scrupulous, considering that to do so would be a violation of our recent treaty. Yet he did not shrink from upbraiding the Nabob in round terms, and sent him one letter in which he threatened, with the bluntness of a seaman, to kindle such a fire in his country as all the water in the Ganges should not be able to extinguish.
Finally the Nabob gave way, induced partly by his fears of the Pitans, a savage predatory tribe on the borders of Afghanistan, who from time to time broke into the Great Mogul's dominions, and were now threatening to march as far as Behar. Accordingly a joint expedition was made, and Chander Nugger taken after a brilliant action, in which, as Colonel Clive fully acknowledged, the Admiral signalised himself by conspicuous courage and seamanship.
All this time I lay ill in Calcutta of a low fever, which I had contracted in the hospital while attending on old Muzzy. It was now his turn to nurse me, which he did most assiduously, being now recovered, and able to get about well enough by means of a wooden leg.
As I lay there sick day after day I began once more to see things in a truer light. I longed most painfully to be at home among the scenes and friends of my youth, and I resolved, once I had risen from my sick bed, to let no motives of ambition or interest detain me any further in Indostan.
I communicated these sensible resolutions to old Muzzy, who thoroughly approved of them.
"And I tell you what, Athelstane, lad, we'll make our passage home in company," he said. "I've got a tidy bit o' prize-money left somewhere, enough to take me back to England, and mayhap a bit over, to keep me out of the workhouse when I gets there."
He put his hands into his hairy bosom and drew out a small canvas bag, which he shook out upon the coverlid of the bed. The contents made a small heap of gold and silver, amounting, as near as I could judge, to about L100 or L150 in English money, though the coins were of all countries—rupees, French crowns, moidores, and many others.
The old boatswain put his head on one side, casting looks of affectionate pride on his treasure.
"There, my lad, that's my little fortin', enough to pay my freight through to Davy Jones's locker, I daresay. And if there's any of it left over, by Gosh! you shall have it, for I've neither parent nor friend in the world, nor I don't so much as know the place where I was born. And drown me if I don't love you, my young matey!"
I was so weak at the time that these hearty expressions of the old fellow fairly melted me, though I could scarce refrain from smiling at the thoughts of the legacy which I was like to inherit.
"You shall come with me and welcome," I told him. "We will start together as soon as ever I can get off this bed; and when we get to England I will bring you to my own home, and ask my parents to provide you with a shelter for my sake."
"That's right enough," he answered, "and very kind of you. But, mind, old Muzzy ain't looking for no charity. Where I goes, I takes my little fortin', and them as takes care of me will get the benefit of it, d'ye see."
He swept up the money into his bag again, and had just restored it to his bosom when there came a sound outside the door, and who should walk in but Colonel Clive!
I strove to raise myself in the bed as he entered, but this he at once prevented.
"Lie still, youngster!" he exclaimed, walking up to the bedside, followed by Mr. Scrafton. "Why, how's this; they never told me you were ill till I was on the point of starting for Chander Nugger, when I had no time to come and see you? But you are on the high road to recovery by this time, surely?"
"Thank you, sir, I am much improved," I managed to stammer out, overwhelmed by this condescension on the part of so great a man. "And are the French beaten?" I asked anxiously, for I had not heard the news.
The Colonel turned to Mr. Scrafton and laughed.
"There's my little purser all over!" he exclaimed, with evident goodwill. "The French are beaten, and driven out of Bengal, I trust for ever, and their factories are become ours. And since you were unable to be present at the action, and to share in the spoil, I have remembered my promise to you, and brought you a sword instead."
He took the weapon from the hands of Mr. Scrafton, who was carrying it, and laid it on the bed beside me. At the same time Mr. Scrafton handed me a paper, duly signed, containing my commission as an ensign in the service of the East India Company.
I could only murmur out my gratitude for these marks of consideration; while Mr. Clive went on to say—
"And now you must make haste and get about again, for as soon as you are able to travel I have an important mission for you to discharge."
"And what is that, sir?" I asked, not very heartily.
The Colonel noticed my diffidence, and gave me a searching look.
"I ought to have said it is a very dangerous mission," he observed.
I felt my cheeks turn red.
"Then sir, I think I am well enough to undertake it," I replied, with some little temper. And I sat up in the bed.
Colonel Clive burst out laughing, and seizing me by the shoulders thrust me down again.
"There, that is right; there is not so much hurry about it as to drag you out of bed just yet. But as soon as you are well enough I mean you to go to Moorshedabad."
I uttered a cry of surprise.
"I have some messages to send to Mr. Watts, who is acting there on our behalf," Mr. Clive explained. "The affair is too risky for me to trust the ordinary service, and besides, from all I hear, you have made a great impression on the Nabob, and may serve a useful purpose by remaining in Moorshedabad for awhile. But I will tell you no more till you are better able to hear it."
And with this, and many kind expressions about my health, he withdrew.
It did not take long for me to shake off the remains of my fever under these circumstances, and the moment I was able to go out of the house where I lay, I went to wait on my patron.
Colonel Clive received me in his private room in the fort, and dismissing everybody else, opened to me the nature of the mission entrusted to me. The late proceedings of his enemies against him in Parliament have made this business so notorious to the world that I shall be excused for expressing it very shortly in this place.
To be brief, the Colonel informed me that the moment for our long-delayed vengeance upon the wicked and bloodthirsty Surajah Dowlah was at length arrived. Tired with his cruelties, his own subjects had cast about for a means of getting rid of him, and overtures had been received from the principal men of the Nabob's Court inviting Colonel Clive to take part in a concerted scheme for his overthrow. A treaty had been drawn up between the parties, whereby it was provided that Colonel Clive should march against the Nabob's army with his whole force, now increased by the arrival of other ships from the Coromandel coast, and should be joined on the battle-field by Meer Jaffier, who undertook to desert from his nephew and bring over the part of the army under his command to the English side. In return for these services, supposing the victory should be obtained, the Company was to receive a crore of rupees in compensation for the injuries inflicted by the Nabob, while many millions were to be divided among Colonel Clive, the gentlemen of the Council and the officers and men of both services. Surajah Dowlah was to be deposed from the musnud, and his uncle, Meer Jaffier, elevated in his stead, the Meer binding himself to pay these sums out of the Nabob's treasure, and the payment being further guaranteed by Jugget Seet, the great banker of Moorshedabad, whose connexions extended over all parts of Indostan.
This treaty having been signed and executed by Colonel Clive and the other gentlemen of the Company, he now required me to carry it to Moorshedabad, were it was to be sworn to by Jugget Seet, the Meer Jaffier, and the other high officers of the Court who were parties to the design. At the same time he enjoined on me to observe the utmost secrecy.
"Remember," he said, "that if once Surajah Dowlah or his minion Lal Moon should get an inkling of this plot, his rage would break loose against every one concerned in it. As it is Mr. Watts has had great difficulty in lulling his suspicions, and has several times been in great peril. But I suppose you are not the man to shrink back on that account."
"Give me the treaty, sir," I replied, "and I undertake to carry it to Moorshedabad. Am I to deliver it into Mr. Watts's hands?"
"Why, yes; that is, if you find him still there when you arrive. But you must use the greatest caution in communicating with him. Above all, beware of the Gentoo Omichund, who has already once threatened to betray us. We have been obliged to provide a duplicate treaty to satisfy him, in which is included a stipulation for three millions of rupees to be paid to him on our success. But you will explain to Meer Jaffier that this is merely a trick to which we have been obliged by Omichund's knavery. He shall not have a farthing."
Mr. Clive spoke these words very sternly. At the same time he handed me the two treaties, one drawn up upon white paper and the other on red.
"The red treaty is the one to be shown to Omichund," he explained. "Both must be executed by the parties to the conspiracy in Moorshedabad, but only the white one is to be sworn to. Do you understand?"
I rolled up the two papers and put them into my pocket. I did not then feel, nor have I since been able to understand, all the indignation which has been poured on Lord Clive's head for this artifice, by which a treacherous, overreaching scoundrel was robbed of the blackmail he had tried to extort. As to the charge which has been made against that great man of having caused Admiral Watson's name to be forged to the second treaty, I can only say that it was the general opinion at the time that the gallant Admiral was fully aware of what was being done, and, since he took no steps to restrain the use of his name, it appears to be all the same as though he had affixed it with his own hand.
However, it is not my intention to dwell upon these disputes, to which I am only induced to refer by a spirit of loyalty to my old commander and friend, for such he permitted me to call him.
"Remember," the Colonel said to me at parting, "above all, to show no fear of Surajah Dowlah. Mr. Watts is too modest in his behaviour, and for that reason the young tyrant despises and ill-uses him. But I think that is not a fault you are likely to fall into; indeed, I have heard that during your former residence there you fairly awed the Nabob; so I have good hope that you will do the same again. The moment you have secured the execution of the treaties it will be time to fly, and as soon as I hear you are safe I shall put my troops on the march to Plassy."
MEER JAFFIER'S OATH
I arrived in Moorshedabad without accident, and at once repaired to the house of the Company's agent, Mr. Watts.
I found this gentleman in a state of the utmost apprehension. The air was full of suspicion. Moorshedabad swarmed with the Nabob's spies, who watched the going in and coming out of every person whom their master had reason to distrust, and carried their reports to his infamous minion, Lal Moon. Mr. Watts assured me that he did not consider his own life to be worth a day's purchase, and the Nabob had uttered such threats against him on the last occasion of his going to the palace that he dared not present himself there again.
Fortunately for me Colonel Clive had provided me with an excuse for my journey in the shape of a letter to Surajah Dowlah, in which the Colonel renewed his expressions of friendship, but demanded the withdrawal of the Nabob's army from Plassy. This was a step which the conspirators considered indispensable to their design, as they had no expectation that Colonel Clive could overcome this force of forty thousand men as long as it kept the field.
Armed with the Colonel's letter I went to wait upon the Nabob, leaving Mr. Watts to exert his utmost diligence in procuring the necessary signatures to the treaties, which I delivered to him for the purpose.
Nothing could exceed the astonishment of the Nabob's officers when I, who had fled secretly from the city six months before, presented myself before them in the character of an ambassador from Sabat Jung and boldly demanded an audience. They hastened to carry the news to the Nabob, and after a short time they returned and conducted me into his presence.
Although scarcely three months had elapsed since I had last seen Surajah Dowlah, I observed a change for the worse in his appearance. He sat on the royal musnud with the same state as formerly, clad in his gold-embroidered robes and turban sparkling with the light of many gems, surrounded by the same obsequious throng of courtiers and attended by his ferocious guards ready to take the life of any man present, at a nod from their despotic lord. Yet I discovered something in his countenance which I had not seen there before. His head hung down with an air of weariness, and his gaze, instead of darting fiercely to and fro, seemed to shift and hesitate as if with a lurking distrust of those about him. He appeared to be in ill-health, and shifted fretfully about in his seat as he talked. On my part, I regarded him with different eyes from the time when I had come before him as a captive in his hands, when I had viewed him as a powerful tyrant, invested with all the horror of his recent crimes, and especially of that never-to-be-forgotten atrocity of the Black Hole of Calcutta. Now, on the last occasion on which I was ever to confront him, I did so as the emissary of one whose power was yet greater than his own, as the agent of an intrigue that menaced his throne and perhaps his life. And beneath the surface of pomp and power and the outward show of sovereignty, I looked deeper, and beheld merely a young man, scarce older than myself—in his nineteenth year—the victim of an evil education, corrupted by the possession of despotic power, rent and exhausted by his own evil passions, and surrounded by traitors secretly scheming for his downfall. Some of the dread and hatred which I had formerly felt for him was replaced by milder sentiments, and I could have found it in my heart to pity Surajah Dowlah.
As if to strengthen these impressions in my mind, the young Nabob was in a singularly amiable mood, and appeared glad to see me.
"So it is you again!" he was pleased to say when I was introduced. "I see that you have told me the truth, and that you are a friend of Sabat Jung's. But why did you flee from me before? I regarded you with favour, and would not have put you to death."
"Sir," I answered, "I am obliged by your kind expressions, but I am an Englishman, and in my country there is no man who can put me to death unless I commit some crime against the laws; nor do I choose to live in any place where I hold my life by the favour of a prince."
A murmur ran through the throng of courtiers at this reply, some of the high officers whom I knew to be concerned in the plot pretending to be especially shocked.
Surajah Dowlah raised his head and looked at me in some surprise.
"I should not care to be king of your country if I could not put a man to death when I wished to. Allah has created kings, and has put men's lives into our hands. It is destiny. Those who fall by my hands would perish instead by pestilence or famine or wild beasts if I forbore to slay them. They die because it is the will of Allah."
I listened in consternation to this frightful profession of fatalism by which Surajah Dowlah sought to decline the responsibility of his wicked acts. In the meantime he read the letter which I had brought from Colonel Clive.
"Why does Sabat Jung so earnestly desire me to disband my troops?" he asked presently.
"Your Highness's own conscience must tell you that," I returned. "So long as you keep your army in the field, threatening Calcutta, it is impossible to believe that you are in earnest in your professions of friendship towards the English. The present state of things keeps the minds of the merchants unsettled and prevents the resumption of trade, without which our factories cannot subsist in Bengal."
"No, no," the Nabob broke out, speaking very earnestly, "I design nothing against you. But I am in fear of the Morattoes, who meditate another invasion."
"Have no fear of that, sir. Colonel Clive will protect you, if necessary, against the Morattoes. But you may depend upon it he will never believe in your friendship till your troops are withdrawn from Plassy."
The Nabob seemed to meditate upon these words for a few minutes, during which nobody ventured to speak to him. Then he looked at me again, seeming as if he would search my heart.
"And suppose I comply with this demand, what security have I that the Colonel will not advance against this city? How do I know that he is not deceiving me? There are plots—yes, there are plots in the air!"
I felt a touch of contempt for him as I answered—
"That is a matter which I must take leave not to discuss. It is for your Highness to consider whether your conduct has been such as to conciliate the affections of your subjects, or whether it has not rather been calculated to make every man your secret enemy."
Surajah Dowlah started, and sank back on his seat, terrified by this unexpected plainness, which caused little less alarm among his suite. But I soon saw that my words had been rightly judged. Being an Oriental, the Nabob could not believe that I should have spoken like that if I had really been privy to any intrigues against him. He therefore dismissed his fears, and finally promised to issue orders for his whole army to retire to Moorshedabad.
Satisfied with this success, I took my leave of him, his last words to me as I withdrew being—
"Tell the Colonel I trust him; I look upon him as my friend."
Moved by these words more than I cared to admit even to myself, I returned to Mr. Watts, and, all being now in train, we pushed forward the affair of the signatures as rapidly as we dared.
During these few eventful days I neglected no means of inquiring after the fate of those whom I had left in the Nabob's hands on my former flight from Moorshedabad. But though I questioned not merely the great officers of the Court, but also many of the eunuchs and inferior servants about the palace, I could learn nothing definite either of Marian or of Rupert. That they had not succeeded in recovering their freedom I was pretty well assured, but what had become of them, and whether they were alive or dead, was more than I could learn. The shadow and the secrecy of the East had closed like a curtain over their fates, and I was left to torment myself with miserable guesses in the darkness.
The business of signing the treaty went on as rapidly as it could be pushed. But the greed of the Gentoos at every step of the transaction was most disgusting, and the cowardice and treachery of the Moors scarcely less so. The Dewan, Roy Dullub, at first objected that all the Nabob's treasure was not enough to satisfy the gratuities provided for in the treaty, but no sooner did Mr. Watts offer to make him agent for the distribution, with a commission of five in the hundred on all sums passing through his hands, than his scruples instantly vanished.
But at last everything was settled except the swearing of the treaty by Meer Jaffier, on which the whole affair turned. The Meer was just now arrived in Moorshedabad from Plassy, where he had been in command of one division of the Nabob's army, the remainder having before been taken from him and given to Roy Dullub. It was reported that Surajah Dowlah had received his uncle very scurvily, and spoken to him with so much harshness that Meer Jaffier had at once retired to his palace, at the other end of the city, and surrounded himself with his guards. This palace resembled a fortress, having regular walls and towers, and being provided with cannons and other munitions for a siege.
Thither, on the following day, Mr. Watts went to visit him, but returned in much alarm to say that the Meer had received him in public, in the hall of audience, surrounded by his officers, and had given him no chance to refer to the subject of the treaty.
While we were discussing what this could mean an Indian arrived, who proved to be a private messenger from Meer Jaffier himself.
This man informed us that Meer Jaffier had been obliged to receive Mr. Watts as he had done to deceive Lal Moon's spies, the Nabob's suspicions causing him to watch very strictly all intercourse between his great men and the English agents. What he now proposed was that Mr. Watts should come to his palace in the evening in a curtained litter, by which means he might be introduced unsuspected into the women's apartments, and there have a private conference with the Meer.
I could see that Mr. Watts regarded this invitation with very little confidence, his experiences in the Nabob's Court having rendered him cautious to an extreme. I therefore undertook to go in his place, an offer which he gladly accepted.
As there was nothing to detain either of us in Moorshedabad after the treaty had been confirmed, and every hour that passed rendered our situation more precarious, it was further arranged that Mr. Watts should take his departure at once, leaving me to follow during the night. Accordingly he gave out that he was going on a visit to Cossimbuzar on business connected with the Company's investment, and set out the same afternoon.
I waited till it was quite dark before I got into the litter, which had been prepared for me by two Indian servants on whose fidelity I depended. They bore me through the streets on their shoulders at a great pace, and, thanks to the respect which these people have for their women, I passed undiscovered. Once, indeed, we were stopped for a moment, and there was a short discussion, in which I heard the voices of my attendants, though I could not distinguish what was said. It terminated in a laugh, and they were suffered to proceed without the curtains having been withdrawn. But it may be imagined how my heart came into my mouth during the brief halt, and what relief I experienced when the palanquin was set down within the gates of Meer Jaffier's palace and I was able to step out.
The Meer received me in the presence of his son Meeram, a youth of sixteen, who bore a strong resemblance to his cousin the Nabob, a resemblance, as I was afterwards to learn, not confined to mere looks. He sat apart, staring at me with a sullen air of dislike, while his father perused the treaty.
Its terms appeared to give Meer Jaffier perfect satisfaction. As soon as he had read it, he asked—
"How soon will Colonel Clive be ready to take the field?"
"He is ready now," I answered. "All he is waiting for is information from you as to the steps which you propose to take to support him."
Meer Jaffier looked a little uneasy.
"You are my friend, I know," he said. "You must speak good words on my behalf to Sabat Jung. Everything depends on him. Let him strike the first blow, and he will find every one prepared to join him."
I shook my head.
"I am your friend, it is true," I responded, "but I am still more the friend of Sabat Jung, and I must know the grounds on which he is to proceed. What force have you ready to bring to his assistance?"
"Do you mean what is the number of my division?"
"I mean the number on whom you can rely."
"Three thousand horsemen."
He glanced at me in some doubt as he spoke. I heard this number with dismay.
"Only three thousand! What succour is that?"
"But those are only my own men. There are several commanders who have been affronted by Surajah Dowlah, and are ready to turn their swords against him at the first opportunity. On the day of battle these will come over to us with their troops."
"What assurance have you of that?" I asked.
"I know my countrymen. They judge a man by his deeds, and there is nothing that commands their respect like daring and success. Already they fear the Colonel; let them see him boldly attacking the Nabob, with me by his side, and they will quickly join us. Tell Sabat Jung my words."
"And when do you intend to join the Colonel?" I inquired, beginning to fear that Meer Jaffier was likely to prove a broken reed to lean upon.
"I will join him as soon as the English troops come in sight of the city. Or if the Nabob keeps his army at Plassy, then I will join you as soon as the signal for battle is given. I will march over to you with a great part of the army, as many as I can persuade to join me, and the others will then take to flight. If I see an opportunity I will seize my nephew in his tent."
With these promises he beguiled me into some confidence in him. Then placing a copy of the Alcoran upon his head, and resting one hand upon the head of his son Meeram, he solemnly swore to perform all that he had undertaken. He also signed the treaty, writing these words upon it in Persian—"In the name of Allah, and of the Prophet of Allah, I swear to abide by the terms of this treaty while I have life."
As soon as this business was completed, the Meer said to me—
"And now, before you go, tell me what reward I may give you for your services in this affair?"
I hesitated. He evidently expected that I should name some large sum in rupees, such as was promised by the terms of the treaty to Mr. Watts and others of those privy to it.
"What I ask for is neither money nor jewels," I said, "but the lives of the two persons who, I believe, are now kept somewhere concealed in the palace of the Nabob."
Meer Jaffier understood me.
"You mean the Englishwoman who was brought here from Calcutta, and the Englishman who was formerly a spy in Surajah Dowlah's service?"
I nodded my head.
"It may be that the woman is, as you say, still in the Nabob's harem. But I cannot think that the man is alive. He has most probably been secretly put to death for his offence in breaking into the garden of the seraglio."
"I took part in that offence, and yet I am alive still," I answered.
"Well, what is it you ask of me?"
"I ask your promise that the moment Surajah Dowlah is overthrown, and the power has passed into your hands, you will aid me to ransack the palace of Moorshedabad in search of that woman and that man."
Meer Jaffier bowed his head.
"You shall do so. Nay, more, to convince you that I am in earnest I will write you an authority now, before you leave me, which will become of effect as soon as Colonel Clive has driven my nephew from the musnud."
A few minutes afterwards I had re-entered the palanquin, and was being conveyed back to Mr. Watts's house.
The next day, rising early, I pretended some business with Mr. Watts, and followed after him on horseback to Cossimbuzar. Here I was met by some of his native servants, who told me that he had gone hunting the evening before, and had not returned. Desiring them to show me the way he had gone, I went on till I was out of sight, and then, striking into a gallop, rode southward for my life towards the English lines.
The sun was low down in the western sky, as, riding slowly on my exhausted beast, I drew near the village of Cutwah, and espied the uniforms of the English sentries gleaming through the trees. The first men who I came up to stood in a little group together, their muskets resting on the ground, while they talked together in low tones. They looked up as I approached, and seeing the Company's uniform, saluted me, while I stopped to show them the pass which I carried. But they said nothing, and as I passed on further into the camp I was struck by the silence that prevailed. All round me I saw the men cooking their suppers, or passing to and fro with water vessels, but their heads hung down, and I heard none of the cheering and singing which generally prevailed when Colonel Clive had his troops upon the march against an enemy.
Pressing forward to the headquarters, I found the same evidences of dejection increased on all sides, till at last I met Major Coote walking with two other officers away from the commander's tent. The Major at once stopped me, and asked me how I did, but in so dull a fashion that I could see he was as dispirited as the rest.
"I am quite well, I thank you, sir," I answered him, "but a little surprised at the state of the camp. I am but this moment arrived from Moorshedabad. Can you tell me if anything untoward has taken place?"
Major Coote turned to the two young officers, and signed to them to withdraw. As soon as they were out of earshot he stepped up to the side of my horse, and laying his hand on the saddle addressed me in a low tone—
"Harkye, Ford, I know you to be a discreet youngster, and so I'll tell you my mind plainly. I don't know what news you bring from Moorshedabad, and I don't ask, but we've had such accounts from that cursed place lately that Colonel Clive has begun to believe that not a single man of them all is to be trusted, from Meer Jaffier down. He doesn't think them worth fighting for, and what's more, he doesn't think they mean to join him as they have promised. The long and short of it is, he has just called a council of war of all his officers—you would have been there if you had arrived an hour sooner, and therefore it's no breach of confidence to tell you—he called the council to decide whether we should go forward and fight, or give it up and go back. And he gave his own voice for going back, and the d—d council, two-thirds of 'em, followed suit; and the upshot of it is we're to put our tails between our legs and go back—and that's why you see the whole army ready to throw down their arms like so many children!"
I was aghast at this intelligence, hardly believing it possible that the courage of Colonel Clive should have failed him, though I was better able than most to estimate the worries and cares thrust upon his shoulders by the mingled folly and malice of those who should have given him their best support.
"Where is the Colonel?" I exclaimed. "I must see him at once! I have news that may induce him to change his mind. At all events, I'll take the liberty to persuade him."
"He wandered off by himself," Major Coote answered, brisking up a little. "He went into that grove of trees across there, as soon as the council was dismissed, and he has been there ever since."
I turned and looked at the grove. As I did so I saw some bushes parted, and the figure of my beloved chief emerged, walking with a swift, firm tread.
Instantly I flung myself from my horse, and rushed towards him. But he advanced of his own accord to where Major Coote stood watching us.
"I have altered my mind," he said briefly, with the martial ring in his voice that I had heard first on the morning of Monichund's attempted surprise before Budge-Budge. "I have come round to your opinion, Coote. To-morrow morning we march forward, and engage the enemy wherever we find him."
And now it befalls to me to relate what I saw of that famous day which changed the relations between the English and Moors throughout the whole empire of Indostan. And I think that never before nor since was such a singular engagement fought, and so little really done to effect so tremendous a result.
After I had communicated to Colonel Clive what had passed between Meer Jaffier and myself at our secret interview, he believed less than ever in the Meer's promises of assistance.
"I do not think the man means to betray me, but like all the Bengalese he is a coward, and dares not carry out his promises when the moment comes."
Such was his judgment, in which I was obliged to agree; though I confess I had a liking for Meer Jaffier, and felt much pity for him in his subsequent misfortunes.
It was one o'clock, an hour after midnight, when our little army of three thousand men arrived and took up their quarters in the grove of Plassy. Of these, two thousand were Sepoys, the remainder being European troops, with some sailors from the fleet and about one hundred Topasses: we had also eight field-pieces and two howitzers. The grove in which we encamped was enclosed in a bank and ditch, within which were mango trees, very regularly planted in straight rows, the whole place being about half a mile in length, and less than a quarter in breadth. It stood near the edge of the river, which defended it from approach on the left, where there was a small house or hunting lodge, which Colonel Clive chose as his headquarters. Facing the grove to the north was the entrenched camp where the Nabob's army had lain ever since their retreat from Calcutta. The troops had been partly withdrawn a few days before, but they were now returned; and we heard their drums and cymbals beating all night long.
Colonel Clive, who had restored me to my former position as his secretary, and kept me near him, bade me lie down and sleep in the lodge. But though I lay down, I was too excited to do more than doze off for a minute at a time, and every time that I opened my eyes I saw the Colonel either walking to and fro, as if impatient for the day to break, or sitting at a table with maps spread out before him, studying them by the light of a torch. Sometimes he went out of the lodge for a few minutes to see that all was quiet, but soon returned and resumed his meditations.
As soon as it was light enough to see, I got up, unable to lie still any longer, and joined Mr. Clive.
"Ah, Ford, so you are awake, eh!" he observed smiling. "You don't look as though you had slept very soundly. Let us get on to the roof, and perhaps we may see what those fellows are about."
We mounted together by a narrow stair leading on to a flat roof, and looked about us. On the left the mist was slowly rising from the river, on the right the foliage of the trees hid our own troops from view. But in front of us to the north we beheld spread out a scene of such magnificence that I confess I trembled, and even Colonel Clive uttered an exclamation of surprise.
The Nabob's army lay in their entrenched camp, one angle of the rampart, that nearest to us, being strengthened with a small redoubt armed with cannon. Behind and away almost as far as we could see, stretched the tents and lines of armed men, the whole just beginning to stir with the first movements of the day. In the midst rose a splendid pavilion, adorned by flags, before the door of which stood a train of horses and attendants, while lesser tents were pitched all round it, each one displaying the ensign of some great officer. Crowds of men could be seen pushing to and fro, catching up their weapons and falling into some sort of military order, while others brought up horses and elephants, the caparisons of which shone gaily with silk of many colours. So great was the throng, and so confused were their motions, that I could not even guess their numbers, but Colonel Clive, glancing over them with the eye of a veteran, declared that there must be at least fifty thousand men, of whom upwards of fifteen thousand were cavalry. Their guns I counted myself up to forty-three, and they had others which they left in the camp.
As we stood and watched, this great host began to slowly pour out from different openings in the rampart and advance on the plain, forming a sort of bow round the front and right flank of our position. The river, as I have said, protected the left, and they made no attempt to close round the rear.
"I wonder which is Meer Jaffier's division?" muttered Colonel Clive anxiously, as the array extended itself. The infantry remained for the most part between the camp and our front, while the masses of cavalry spread away to our right, forming their left wing. The army was not in one line, but seemed to advance in a number of detached bodies, the intervals between them being filled up with the guns.
This artillery was a truly formidable spectacle. Our own few guns were merely six-pounders, nor had we the means of transport for larger pieces. But many of the Nabob's cannon were of immense calibre, 24 and even 32-pounders, more suitable for siege guns than to be brought into action. They were mounted on high wooden stages, which bore not merely the cannon but the artillerymen and ammunition as well, and each of these carriages was drawn along by as many as eighty or a hundred huge white oxen, of the famous Purneah breed. Moreover, in case the oxen should not prove sufficient, an elephant walked behind each of these moving platforms, and butted it with his forehead from behind whenever it stuck from any difficulty of the ground.
Between the grove where we lay and the enemy's camp there were a couple of tanks, such as the Indians build to contain rain water. These tanks, being protected by banks of earth, served the purpose of redoubts, and we saw a small body of men, about forty or fifty, advance to the tank nearest us, dragging two light guns, with which they at once began playing on the grove.