"Those are white men!" exclaimed Colonel Clive, who had been watching this movement. "They must be Frenchmen sent from Brassy—unless they are some of those that escaped from Chander Nugger."
While he was speaking the fire from the tank was taken up by the rest of the Nabob's artillery, and a roar arose from the whole face of the advancing army. Colonel Clive watched the result closely for a few minutes.
"They are doing very little harm," he observed. "They fire too high. Most of the balls are passing over the heads of our men. But it will not do for us to stay in the shelter of the grove; they may think we are afraid of them."
He hurried down to the ground, bidding me keep near him, and went to where our men were waiting, just within the ditch which enclosed the grove. One Sepoy had been killed by the discharge from the tank, and three or four wounded, but otherwise we had not suffered.
The Colonel quickly made his dispositions, and the little force marched boldly out from its shelter and faced the enemy. At this the whole Moorish army halted, still out of point-blank range, and contented themselves with continuing their artillery fire, which we returned as best we could with our few guns. Colonel Clive passed to and fro along the line several times, noting everything that happened, and anxiously watching for some symptom of the promised desertion by Meer Jaffier. But nothing happened, the Moor's infantry remained steady in our front, and the dark masses of cavalry continued to hang threateningly on our flank.
"I have brought my men out to give Meer Jaffier his chance," said Colonel Clive to me in a low tone, "but if he is afraid to move, we are done. It is impossible to order an advance in face of that army."
He walked down the line once again, and counted our casualties. By this time we had lost ten Europeans, and about twice as many Sepoys.
"That is enough," the Colonel exclaimed sharply. "It is useless to expose the men for nothing. Retire into the grove again."
This order was executed, and the enemy, appearing to gather courage from our retreat, advanced their artillery nearer, and quickened their fire. However, their aim continued very bad, most of the shot merely struck the branches of the trees, and the men were ordered to lie down for the sake of greater safety. I was pleased to observe that all, even the Sepoys and Topasses, displayed the utmost coolness and confidence. Several powder explosions happened about this time in different places in the enemy's ranks, and this served to increase the contempt of our own men for the Nabob's forces.
About eleven o'clock Colonel Clive called some of the officers together, and communicated his plans to them.
"It is quite clear that the Nabob is afraid to attack us at close quarters," he said, "or he would have ordered a further advance before this. Still I do not consider we are justified in quitting our shelter for the present, in the absence of any demonstration from Meer Jaffier. It will be better to let the cannonade go on for the rest of the day, and then try a night attack on their camp."
Most of the officers concurred in this opinion. As the Colonel and I were walking back to the lodge he turned to me suddenly, and asked me what I thought.
"Why, sir, to be plain with you, I think the only men we have to regard are those forty Frenchmen in the tank," I answered. "As far as the rest are concerned, I very much doubt if they would stand five minutes against a charge."
The Colonel nodded.
"I shouldn't be surprised if you were right. But remember, Ford, that those nine hundred men are the only European troops in Bengal, and if I lose even two hundred of them this will be an expensive victory for me. What I want is to hold on till Surajah Dowlah's own troops desert him, and then I may win everything without loss of life."
I was much impressed by this glimpse into Mr. Clive's mind, which showed him as something very different from the reckless, hot-headed soldier some of his enemies have called him.
Just at this time a shower of rain fell, and soon after the fire of the enemy sensibly slackened, some of their powder evidently having been spoiled. Towards two o'clock a stranger thing took place, for the firing ceased altogether, and the Moors were perceived yoking their white oxen to the gun-stages again; and immediately after the whole army commenced to fall back slowly and re-enter the camp.
I was standing by myself outside the door of the lodge when this singular movement commenced, and I at once stepped inside to inform Colonel Clive. To my astonishment I found him asleep. The exhausting work of the last few days, followed by the total absence of rest on the previous night, had proved too much for him. He had fallen on to a chair, and dropped asleep unawares.
While I was hesitating whether to awaken him I heard some one approaching without. I went out softly, and found a sergeant of Major Kilpatrick's company, with a message for the Colonel.
"I will take your message, sergeant," I said, not wishing him to know of Mr. Clive's slumber.
"Faith, then, sir, it's just this," said the fellow, who was an Irishman, "that the enemy's beat, and runnin' away entirely, and Major Kilpathrick's just after starting to take the tank from those murderin' Frenchies, so as to annoy the Nabob's retreat."
I turned red at this insolent message, which did not even request Colonel Clive's permission for the movement. Dismissing the sergeant, I darted in and woke up my commander.
The Colonel was broad awake in an instant. When he heard what had happened he compressed his lips, without making any remark, and ran out of the lodge, and across the ground to where Kilpatrick was leading his company towards the tank.
"Halt!" shouted Colonel Clive, as he approached.
The Major stopped, and looked confused.
"I thought, sir, as every moment was precious——" he began, when Mr. Clive sharply cut him short.
"I will receive your apologies this evening, sir. At present my orders to you are to return and order up the whole force to support this movement which you have so rashly begun."
He waited till the discomfited officer had retired, and then turning to me, he added with a touch of glee—
"Now, Ford, you and I will take the tank!"
The word was given to double, and we advanced at a run, whereupon the Frenchmen, after one discharge, evacuated their position, and retired upon the camp.
The rest of the English force now marched out from the grove, and advanced in line, pursuing the retreating enemy. But there was one part of the Nabob's army which did not join in the movement of the rest. A large division of cavalry, one of those which had formed the threatening left wing, drew off from the rest and advanced towards our right rear.
Colonel Clive watched their movements with suspicion.
"Are these fellows trying to take our baggage?" he murmured. "Captain Grant, take three platoons and a field-piece, and see if you can fight off those horse."
The order as given was obeyed, the slight demonstration proved sufficient, and the mysterious division drew away again out of range. In the meantime our main body advanced steadily, and kept up a brisk fire on the Nabob's camp with our artillery. On this some of the retiring troops showed a disposition to come out again and renew the attack, encouraged by the example of the Frenchmen, who had got possession of the redoubt in the angle of the rampart, and were plying us well with their guns. Seeing this disposition on the part of the enemy, Colonel Clive ordered some shot to be thrown among their cumbrous artillery trains. This was done with such effect that, numbers of the oxen being killed, the trains were thrown into confusion. At the same time some of the Moorish horse made a few ineffectual offers to charge, but were easily driven off, without ever coming to close quarters.
Whatever cause had prompted the strange retreat of the enemy, it was evident that the same cause was now operating to take all heart out of their defence. The only thing that gave us pause was the attitude of the Frenchmen in the redoubt, whose spirit communicated itself to the troops in their immediate neighbourhood. While things were in this doubtful posture, I happened to glance round to see what had become of the cavalry division repulsed by Captain Grant. To my surprise I saw them retiring slowly in an opposite direction to the Nabob's camp.
Instantly I grasped the situation.
"Colonel," I whispered hurriedly, "don't you see that that must be Meer Jaffier's division!"
Mr. Clive turned and stared for a moment in the direction I pointed in.
"You are right," he responded. "Meer Jaffier, of course! Well, since he has put off his assistance so long, he shall see how little we needed it!"
A thrill of fresh energy seemed to sweep through him as he began issuing his orders for the final charge. Two columns were told off, one to clear a small eminence to the right, the other to attack the French in their redoubt, while the main body was directed to follow up in a grand attack on the whole camp. By my special request I was allowed to join the column marching against the Frenchmen. We made a dash forward—once, twice, thrice the Frenchmen fired at us as we came on, then we saw them drop their linstocks and run, and in another five minutes it was all over. The entire English force was over the ramparts together, the army which had marched out so gallantly against us that morning was suddenly become a mere herd, a wretched mob of fugitives crushing one another in their eagerness to escape from us, and we picked our way amid the plunder of Surajah Dowlah's rich pavilion, victors of Plassy, masters and law-givers of Indostan!
Although, judged by the standard of such great battles as the King of Prussia's, or the famous victories won by Marlborough over the French, this affair of Plassy may seem to be but a trifling skirmish, yet the country whose fate was decided upon that field, namely the Subahdarship of Bengal, Orissa, and Behar, is equal in magnitude to the whole of King Frederic's dominions. In fact the blow struck that day resounded throughout the entire East Indies, procuring for the English an authority in every Court of Indostan, and for Mr. Clive the rank of Omrah, with many rich presents, from the Great Mogul himself.
For eight miles we kept up the pursuit of the flying Moors, and only rested from sheer weariness. The next morning Meer Jaffier rode into our camp at Daudpore, ill at ease. But Colonel Clive received him with friendship, and caused him to be saluted as the Nabob of Bengal. From him we learned the particulars of what had taken place on the previous day in Surajah Dowlah's camp.
The night before the battle the young Nabob had some suspicions that there was treachery going on round him. When the next morning he saw his army halting at a distance from the English lines, and refusing to come to close quarters, his suspicions were confirmed. One of his generals on whom he most relied was slain soon after the artillery combat commenced, and this further terrified him. Without quitting his tent he sent for Meer Jaffier, whose division was posted on the extreme right, and implored him to save the day. He even took off his turban, than which there can be no greater humiliation for an Oriental, and cast it at his uncle's feet, bidding him defend it. Meer Jaffier left the tent, and at once despatched a message of encouragement to Colonel Clive, which, however, never reached him. Shortly afterwards the unhappy Surajah Dowlah, vanquished by his own fears, or, it may be, by the stings of his remorseful conscience, mounted a swift camel and fled, and this was the signal for that general movement of retreat which had given us the victory.
After Colonel Clive and the new Nabob had discussed the situation for a short time, it was agreed between them that Meer Jaffier should proceed at once with his force to the capital to check any attempt at rallying on the part of Surajah Dowlah. Colonel Clive, with the English army, was to follow more slowly.
The moment I heard of these arrangements, I asked the Colonel for permission to go forward in advance.
"Why, what do you desire to do?" he asked.
I showed him the written authority I had received from Meer Jaffier, and then, in as few words as possible, told him the story of Rupert and Marian, and of my resolution to deliver or avenge them.
"Go, my boy," he said when I had finished. "I will give you an order in my own name, as well as that you have from the Meer Jaffier; and God grant you may be in time to save your cousin and your sweetheart from the fury of that young tiger we have driven into his lair."
It was late at night that I came for the last time, riding on an elephant, into the city of Moorshedabad. Through the crowded streets I urged my way, escorted by a handful of Meer Jaffier's horsemen, and seeing on every hand the tokens of the anarchy which had followed upon the news of Plassy. The people were abroad, lights gleamed in every direction, men ran hither and thither, and doors stood open with no one to guard the entrance.
As we drew near to the palace of the Nabob the confusion increased. From the shouts of the crowd in answer to our questions we gathered that Surajah Dowlah had entered the city secretly after his flight from the field of battle, that he had called his parasites around him, that there had been rumours of another levy and another battle, that his heart had again failed him, that he was expected to fly once more, that he might at that very moment be making his escape before the approach of his successor.
As the palace came into view it was evident that if Surajah Dowlah were not already gone, his presence had ceased to act as a restraint on his former servants. The courtyard was crammed with a struggling throng of palace menials and robbers out of the streets, all engaged in the work of plunder. Some were staggering down the steps, entangled in the folds of brocades and sumptuous shawls, others bore tulwars and scymetars encrusted with gems, some were stripping the gold off robes, others picking rubies and sapphires out of their sockets with the points of daggers, and secreting them about their persons. The ground was strewn with plunder thrown away in favour of something more valuable, rich vessels of green jade lay broken in one place, and silken garments were trodden underfoot in another. And all this was merely the loot of the outer rooms of the palace, for the treasury was not yet touched.
At our approach the work ceased. The rioters began to escape, and the eunuchs and soldiers belonging to the palace shrank back to their quarters. Leaving Meer Jaffier's officer to deal with them, I dismounted from my elephant and pressed my way through into the deserted palace, taking with me only two men as a protection. I did not stay to explore the empty halls and dismantled chambers, but hurried as fast as I could go into the garden, and on to the well-remembered summer-house where I had caught my last glimpse of Marian on that night a year ago. I ran up to the door at which we had knocked the same night. It was standing open. I darted through, ran into each room, climbed the stair, and searched every nook and cranny above. Not a trace of her I sought was there.
Without lingering a moment I went on and explored the other buildings in the garden. In some of them I found frightened women, left alone, and expecting that I had come to slay them. But from none could I hear anything of the English captive. Here and there a frightened eunuch, dragged cowering from his hiding-place, recalled Marian's presence a year before, but could or would tell me nothing of her fate. I raved and stormed through the seraglio like one possessed, but it was all in vain.
I turned back to the main building, by this time in the hands of the new Nabob's servants, who were restoring it to some sort of order. They told me that Surajah Dowlah had got away an hour previously, having let himself down by a rope from a lattice into a boat on the river, with only two attendants. When I showed them the papers I had received from their master and also from Colonel Clive, they offered me every assistance, and even joined in the search. During several hours we ransacked every part of the palace, but found no signs of either of the English prisoners. The principal eunuchs were called and questioned. At first they declined to speak, but when one of the Moors with me threatened them with torture they became more communicative, and finally one of them asked if we had gone down into the secret dungeons.
This hint sent a cold shiver through my veins. I bade the eunuch lead the way, and he conducted us through a secret door, down a narrow winding stair into a horrible basement, constructed under the bed of the Ganges, where no light could come by day or night, except that brought by the torches of the gaolers. The place was like a maze, with branching passages and cells, almost every one of which held some victim of Oriental tyranny. But I had neither eyes nor thoughts for what was around me, as we hurried down passage after passage and opened door after door in the search for those two whom I had come to save. Finally the eunuch stopped at a certain door at the very end of the darkest passage we had yet traversed. It was opened, and I looked in.
I could not at first believe that what I beheld was a human being. Stretched out on the damp soil of the den lay a miserable, shrunken object, a thing like a skeleton wrapped in parchment, with the faint outlines of a man. On our entrance it moved and just raised its head.
"What do you want?" it asked in Indostanee. And then in English it breathed, "Is this the end?"
It was the voice of my cousin Rupert!
With a cry, I was on my knees by his side, lifting his woeful head in my arms.
"Rupert! Look! It is your cousin Athelstane!"
He moved slowly and sat up. Then a shudder went through his attenuated frame.
"Don't you see what they have done to me?" he groaned. "The devils have put out my eyes!"
And the devils had. Rupert Gurney, the bold, handsome, careless, wicked, swaggering Rupert, whom I had loved and feared and hated all my life, would never be bold nor handsome nor swaggering any more, and I should never need to fear or hate him again. His wickedness had been rewarded; his crimes had met a heavier retribution than any I had ever thought to inflict. He had fallen into the hands of one compared to whom he had been but a beginner in iniquity; one fit of Surajah Dowlah's cruel frenzy had struck upon him, and had left him branded for life.
Of Marian's fate he knew nothing. As soon as I had given directions to have him carried up out of the dungeon I renewed my search for her with a heart ready to burst at the thought of what I might find.
When we did find her I was almost relieved. After the frightful apprehensions I had entertained, it seemed to be good fortune that she should be merely wasted away, without any outward disfigurement of that face that had been my beacon in dreams and raptures for those vain years. In my own arms I bore her out of that doleful place and up into the open air, through the palace now swarming with the stir and bustle of the newly arrived Nabob's Court, into the garden where the day was breaking and the birds were beginning to sing, and laid her down, at her own desire, on a bed in that very summer-house where I had tried—ah, why had I failed?—to rescue her on the night that seemed so long ago.
There for two days I never left her. Some of the eunuchs first, and afterwards some Indian women, came and waited on us, and brought us all the food we needed—and that was not much for either of us. She lay still, saying little, and sometimes holding my hand while she slept, and then waking up to shed tears upon it, and to murmur the gratitude which I had done so little to deserve. On the second day I had Rupert brought to her. He was better by this time, though still very weak, and just able to walk across the room with his arm resting in mine. I guided him to a seat beside her, and placed their hands in one another's, and then I came out quickly. I left them together; for if I had loved Marian, he had loved her too, and if my love for her had been the stronger, so had been hers for him. And I could not feel jealousy any longer now that Marian was dying.
For this was the end of it all, the end of my stormy love and rivalry and my adventures in the Indian realms. Marian, the beautiful Marian, the woman whose fascination had led me so far, and involved me among such strange events in such unwonted scenes, was dying. I had come too late to save her, and all I had done or attempted for her sake had been in vain. And when I knew this, when I looked back over those three troubled years and saw the outcome, there came borne in upon my mind a great resignation; I beheld myself as if I had been another person, and the folly and wickedness that was in my heart stood revealed to me as they had never been even in those dreadful hours in the Calcutta dungeon, when I sank down, as I believed, to die. Standing beside that bedside of the woman I had loved and sinned for, watching the grey stain of mortality creep out upon those glorious features, the world and all its prizes and possessions became to me a mockery, and all that remained to comfort me was the memory of words I had read in that old Book at home: there, in that heathen palace, surrounded by the temples and trophies of false gods, was vouchsafed to me the light which I had refused to receive when I dwelt among Christians in a Christian land, and the Divine mercy which had followed me through so many wanderings overtook me at the last.
On the morning of the third day one of the Indian servants who waited upon us took me aside and whispered something in my ear—something which made my heart beat fiercely and sent a tingle through my veins.
I left the summer-house and took my way into the palace. Through the stately halls and along the marble pavements, amid the servile crowd that swarmed to pay homage to Meer Jaffier, I passed, and on till I came to that hideous stair up which I had brought two of Surajah Dowlah's victims such a short time before. On the way I gathered something of what had taken place.
One of Surajah Dowlah's former subjects, a man whose ears the young Nabob had barbarously cut off for some offence, had recognised him in his flight, and had betrayed him to the agents of his successor. He was brought back in chains to Moorshedabad and carried before Meer Jaffier, at whose feet he flung himself, sobbing, and beseeching that his miserable life might be spared. Meer Jaffier, partly moved by his entreaties, partly restrained by regard for Colonel Clive, had shown a wish to spare him. But in Meer Jaffier's son, young Meeram, the fallen tyrant had found a spirit as ferocious and ungovernable as his own. This boy—for he was scarcely sixteen—thirsted for his cousin's blood, and even attempted to stab him in Meer Jaffier's presence. Meer Jaffier, afraid of his son, had ordered the prisoner to be removed into the dungeons under a guard, and this was done. But the fury of Meeram was not to be appeased. In the dark hours of the night, unknown to his father, he had descended into the dungeon, bribed or overawed the guards, and——
They threw open the door. They held up their torches over a dark object lying on the ground. There, with a dozen red rents in the bosom of his tunic, with blood thickly soaked into the dye of his silk robe, with blood caked upon the rubies and emeralds in his turban, I saw Surajah Dowlah, dead!
For some minutes I stood still in the presence of this impressive retribution, recalling the brief but terrible career which had thus tragically ended. There lay the cruellest despot of his age, the practitioner of horrible debaucheries, the sworn enemy of the English name, who had driven us out of Bengal, and perpetrated the never-to-be-forgotten massacre in which I had been so nearly included. I was but newly come out of the presence of two of his victims, and here I beheld him cut off from light more surely than the man he had blinded, dead while the woman he had murdered still breathed. I gazed, and was satisfied. The evil desires of vengeance which had tormented me for so long were utterly extinguished. I beheld before me the justice of high Heaven, and I came away, not exulting, but awed and subdued.
I returned to Marian's bedside, and from that time I did not leave her till the end. Occasionally she would talk to me in a low, sweet voice, calling back memories of the old town of Yarmouth and the pleasant scenes of her youth. Once she spoke to me of myself.
"I have treated you very ill, Athelstane. I knew that I could never repay you for your love, but it made me proud to have it; I liked to count upon your devotion to me, and I deceived and tempted you."
I tried to protest, but she would have it so.
"I have been wrong in everything I did to you," she said. "I ought never to have treated you as a friend, but as a stranger. Then you would have grown out of your foolish passion, and have forgotten me; for, believe me, Athelstane, I was not fit for you, nor you for me. Beneath your hot temper and adventurous spirit, in which you resemble your cousin, you are a very different nature. You are a Puritan at bottom, and your conscience will not let you rest except in sober, honest ways of life. It is better that you should take a wife from among your own people, one whose nature is in accord with what is deepest and best in you, and not with what is worst. Forgive me, Athelstane, and forget me, as one that crossed your life by an evil chance and wrought you only harm."
But that, as I told her with tears, I never could do, nor would believe. And even now, when I look back across the years with calmer vision and a wiser judgment, I am still glad that I knew and loved Marian Rising, and never wish to root the memory of that wild romance out of my heart.
She spoke to me also of my cousin Rupert, saying that she had long ago forgiven—indeed, I think she never was really able to resent—his wrongs done towards her, and asking me to do the same. I assured her that I had long ago buried all remains of ill-will between us, and I promised her that I would take him back to England with me, and endeavour to make his peace with his father at Lynn.
Soon afterwards she became very weak, and, seeing that the last moment was approaching, I fetched Rupert in to her. He stood with his head bowed above the bed, his hair streaked with grey and the marks of the agony he had suffered on his face, while Marian caught hold of his hand, and, with the feeble remains of her strength, carried it to her lips and kissed it. In the doorway stood an Indian, gazing at the sight with solemn, unmoved visage. Outside we could hear the distant clash of the temple gongs in honour of some sacrifice, and through the lattices there was a glimpse of high white walls, with narrow slits of windows, shaded over by the dark-green foliage of a teak tree. Was it all real? I asked myself, or some vision which had come to me in the night, and from which I should awake to find myself abed in my own little room at home in Brandon?
So the hour passed, and the last minute came.
"Pray for me, Athelstane," Marian whispered to me, "for I have been a great sinner, and for myself I hardly dare to pray."
So I knelt down upon the floor, and the blind man opposite me did the same; and as I used the familiar phrases which I had learned unconsciously in my youth from many repetitions, a peace stole over the room, and Rupert's great sobs ceased to shake him, and the hand I held in my own grew very still and cold. And presently I looked up, and saw that Marian was dead.
COLONEL CLIVE'S MESSAGE
So now my career in the East Indies was over, and I set my face to return home.
The first person to whom I communicated my intention was Colonel Clive. He was at first astonished, and told me so.
"Why do you mean to leave me now, when all our affairs are prospering, and you have nothing to do but to stay on and enrich yourself? I have had it in my mind to promote you; indeed, I think you know that I am your good friend."
"I do, indeed, sir," I answered, "and I am most grateful for all your kindness to me. But it is right that I should tell you I am here in consequence of wrong-doing, which has, as I can now see, pursued my steps and caused me to be harassed with troubles and misfortunes from the very beginning to this hour."
"Why, what wrong have you been guilty of?" asked the Colonel, much interested. "I could have sworn you were the most honest young man in my company."
"I have run away from my home, sir. I have deceived and disobeyed my father and, I fear, caused great sorrow to my loving mother. I allowed myself to be tempted to leave them secretly, under cover of a falsehood, and to join a crew of privateers, who turned out to be pirates, the comrades of those whom you destroyed at Gheriah. In their company I fell into evil courses, and finally plunged into a murderous contest with one of my own flesh and blood. These things have long sat heavy on my mind. I have perceived their evil consequences, I have been visited with a bitter punishment, and I am now determined to go back to my parents and to obtain their forgiveness before it is too late."
Colonel Clive looked at me with some sympathy, mingled with wonder.
"I believe you have decided rightly," he said at last, when I had finished. "God forbid that I should keep you from making your peace with those who love you." His tone softened as he added: "My story is different to yours. I didn't run away; I was driven, pitchforked out of doors, and stuck into a miserable billet at Madras, where I nearly ate my heart out with loneliness and repining. When I returned to England it was not to ask forgiveness, but to give it, if a son can take it upon himself to forgive his parent. No matter, all that is past now, and I believe my family have found out that I am worth the love they have to give me. Look here, my boy, I have no business to talk like this to you; but, after all, we can't be always thinking of rupees and Moorish tricks. Since you are bent on going to England, you shall start in the ship which I am sending from Calcutta with the news of our late proceedings, and I will give you a letter, which you are to deliver privately into the hands of Mr. Pitt."
At this name I looked up with flushing cheeks.
"The great Mr. Pitt?" I exclaimed.
"Yes, the great Mr. Pitt," returned Colonel Clive, with a slight inflection of bitterness in his tone. "But you are right, Ford, he is a very great man, and though his battles have been won within the four walls of St. Stephen's Chapel, while we lesser men have to fight in very different scenes, far be it from me to grudge all honour to the man who was the first to do honour to me. He is fortunate in having for his theatre the senate of a great kingdom of Europe, I unfortunate in having for mine a remote country of which half Europe has never heard. Still, I recognise his merits, and it is for that reason I am addressing myself to him on a subject which is near to my heart."
The Colonel paused for a few moments.
"But I cannot have you return to England empty-handed," he resumed. "What is your share of the gratuity promised to the army I do not yet know, but I tell you what you shall do: go into the treasury, and help yourself while there is time."
I stared at this permission, but Colonel Clive merely nodded his head, and turned to write the letter he had spoken of. Perceiving that he was in earnest, I went off to the Nabob's palace, and made my way to the treasury, where I found Mr. Watts and some others busily engaged in taking an inventory of everything it contained, which was to be shipped down the river in boats to Calcutta.
I walked through the rooms looking about me. Never in my life have I seen, nor am I like to see such a sight again. So much treasure was there scattered around me, that I could scarce believe it when Mr. Watts told me that the whole was insufficient to meet the sums pledged by Meer Jaffier. In every room I feasted my eyes upon the light of countless jewels. Silver was heaped on every floor, and gold on every shelf. Great green jade jars contained nothing but uncut gems. All kinds of weapons were there, their very shapes disguised under the gold and jewel-work which loaded them. There were chairs of ivory, and a table of solid agate-stone. Massy chains of gold trailed from drawers, and bricks of silver were built up into banks along the walls. It was a confusion of magnificence, a very litter of precious things.
I informed Mr. Watts of the permission which Colonel Clive had given me to help myself, and he confirmed it.
"Take what you please," he said carelessly. "You will find the emeralds run larger than any other stone, but some of them are flawed. There is a pretty string of rubies somewhere that it might be worth while to choose. The biggest diamond is already promised, but there are several lesser ones, uncut, which I should judge to be worth from twenty to forty thousand rupees each."
He returned to his catalogue, and I to my exploration. After rejecting many necklaces and crowns that I did not deem to be of sufficient splendour, I finally fixed upon a tulwar, which I found in a box of mother-of-pearl by itself. The handle was set with an enormous sapphire, and the hilt incrusted with diamonds, some of them as big as my thumbnail. I was afterwards offered three thousand pounds for it by a Gentoo merchant in Calcutta, but preferred to bring it home with me, where it afterwards fetched more than double that sum at a goldsmith's in Covent Garden.
Nor was this all that I brought away with me, for when I went to take leave of Meer Jaffier, he presented me, as a mark of his esteem, with a very handsome dress of gold cloth, and a string of pearls, valued afterwards at a thousand pounds. So that I was now become a rich man.
We buried Marian at night, by the Nabob's permission, in a corner of the garden of the seraglio. The chaplain of the thirty-ninth regiment conducted the service, and I caused a slab of marble to be set up to mark the grave, inscribed simply with her name and the date of her death. This tomb, I have been told, still stands, and is pointed out to English visitors to Moorshedabad as the grave of the Englishwoman who was imprisoned in the Black Hole.
The following day, having received Colonel Clive's letter, and bidden him an affectionate farewell, I embarked with Rupert upon one of the barges which were carrying the treasure down to Calcutta. The fleet started in procession, and went down the river, with music playing on deck, flying flags by day, and coloured lanterns by night, till we reached the English settlement. There I found old Muzzy, patiently waiting for me, and full of pride in the victory, in which he was prone to attribute a great share to me.
Five months later we sailed up the Thames, and set foot once more on English soil.
One thing only detained me in London. This was the delivery of the letter which Colonel Clive had entrusted to me for Mr. Pitt.
It was a privilege which I could not rate too highly to be thus made the intermediary between the two greatest Englishmen of my time, men of a type that seems now to be lost among us. Since Colonel Clive we have had no victorious captain, and since Mr. Pitt, no mighty minister, and hence it is that our country, which under the rule of a Cromwell or a Pitt, hath risen to be the arbiter of Europe, and held all nations in awe, is now sunk, under the sway of feeble intellects, to a precarious position, the mock of every power, and saved only by her fleets from absolute destruction.
I do not find it easy to describe my sensations when I was ushered into the presence of the Great Commoner, and saw before me that majestic figure, with the profile of a Roman conqueror, and a glance hardly less terrible to encounter than the full blaze of the sun. When I have stood before the Nabob of Bengal, throned in the midst of his Court, I have seen in front of me nothing but a peevish, debauched young man, but when I came into the room where Mr. Pitt was I felt that I was in the presence of a ruler of men. His attitude, his commanding gestures, and the stately manner he had of slowly moving his head round upon his neck to look at you, made a most tremendous impression; and I found it easy to believe the stories of men having risen to speak against him in the House of Commons, and then shrunk back miserably into their seats at a mere look from this extraordinary person.
Mr. Pitt's manner of reading Colonel Clive's despatch further impressed me. He broke the seals, seemed to do no more than give it a few devouring glances, and then laid it aside as though he were already master of its contents.
"You are Ensign Ford?" he demanded abruptly, fixing his eye upon me.
"I am, sir."
"Colonel Clive tells me in this letter that you possess his confidence. Do you think, if I were to tell you my sentiments verbally, you could transmit them faithfully to your employer?"
"I will do my best, sir," I replied, not a little astonished at this proposal. But I have considered the matter since, and I can see that there were many things which Mr. Pitt might not wish to write with his own hand, though he had no objection to their being repeated by me.
"In this letter," he proceeded, "Colonel Clive makes a very startling proposal, which is no less than that English troops should be sent out sufficient to conquer the whole of Bengal, and that thereafter the administration of all the Indian territories should be taken out of the hands of the Company and brought immediately under the Crown. Now what I wish you to tell him from me in reply is this, that I am bound to consider his proposal not merely as it affects our situation abroad, but also as it bears upon our government at home. I am the minister, not of a despotic empire like France or Spain, but of a free people, and I must not suffer anything which may assist the Crown to encroach upon our liberties. Those liberties rest upon the necessity which our kings are under of asking us to tax ourselves for their support. Give them a foreign empire like that of Spain in the Americas, and you run a danger of rendering them independent. The wealth arising from the revenues of Indostan would enable the Crown to keep up a standing army in time of peace, without the consent of Parliament. Moreover, the administration of these territories would give occasion for the creation of great numbers of offices and pensions, by means of which our people might be fatally corrupted.
"I would have you further point out to Colonel Clive on my behalf," continued Mr. Pitt, "that those Indians, whom he proposes to make our fellow subjects, are accustomed to be the slaves of a despot, and being such, they may become dangerous instruments to make slaves of us. I should dread to see the sovereigns of this country calling themselves emperors in the Indies, and valuing that character above that of kings of Great Britain. Believe me, young man, it is not easy for a nation to play the despot abroad without losing its freedom at home; as I have frequently observed that those who had returned to this country after holding great places in the East, have shown themselves indifferent to the rights of the subject here."
All this, and much more, did Mr. Pitt say to me, of which I have preserved only these meagre recollections. But how feeble an image do the written words preserve of the eloquence with which he spoke, the enthusiasm which kindled in his eye when he touched upon our liberties, and the warning emphasis he laid upon his expressions about the power of the Crown! I felt almost as though I had been the bearer of propositions for some unnatural treason, and I was not a little relieved when Mr. Pitt finally concluded by bidding me thank Colonel Clive very heartily for his civility in writing to him, and promised to carefully consider of his suggestions.
To this he added some very high compliments to the Colonel's great abilities and military glory, all of which I transmitted in a letter to Mr. Clive shortly afterwards. And I have set down the above warning of the great patriot minister in this place, for the instruction of posterity, in case a time should ever arrive when the people of this country, in their too eager grasping after foreign conquests contrary to the nature of an island, which is to rest content within the borders of its own seas, shall find they have bartered away the priceless heritage of their own freedom, and sunk into a mere unheeded fraction of a dominion which they no longer wield.
AFTER MANY DAYS
It was about the hour of five o'clock in the afternoon, and being winter it was already dusk, when I came at last to my native place, and rode up to the gate of my father's house.
I had journeyed down as far as Norwich in company with my cousin Rupert, who was on his way to Lynn, and with my faithful friend, old Muzzy, who had sworn never to leave me, and whom I was not less loth to part with. And finding myself, as I came back into that country where I was born, utterly overmastered by a strong passion of home-sickness, I had no sooner procured comfortable lodgings for my companions in the Maid's Head Inn, of Norwich, than I got upon horseback and rode over by myself to look upon my father and mother again.
But as I came towards the house, the greater my longing was to enter it again, so much the more was I daunted by a fearful apprehension of the reception I should meet with, as well as of the changes which might have been wrought during my absence. So that at the last I dared not ride up boldly to the door, but came along softly, and dismounted and tied my horse to the outer gate. After which I slipped inside quietly, and round the side of the house to the window of the great parlour, through which I could see the warm glow of a fire illuminate the wintry mist without.
When I had come to the window I raised myself up till my head was on a level with the bottom panes, and looked within.
The room held four persons. On one side of the fire sat my father, seeming to be much older than I remembered him, in his great arm-chair, with pillows at the back. Standing up on the opposite side of the hearth was a figure which I quickly recognised for Mr. Peter Walpole, though his back was towards me. It was Saturday night, and he had plainly arrived a short time before me, from Norwich. Between the two was my mother, sitting placidly as of old, and unchanged except for a wistful sadness in her eyes, which it smote me to the heart to notice, and beside her a young woman, scarce more than a girl, with a singular sweet expression on her face, who was at first strange to me.
Mr. Walpole was speaking when I first looked in upon them.
"We are like to have more news from the East Indies. The Norwich Journal announces that a Company's ship has entered the Thames, bringing news of a great victory over the Moors of Bengal."
My mother looked round sharply, and cried out—
"Tell me at once, Mr. Walpole, if you have heard anything of our boy?"
The good old man shook his head.
"No, no, ma'am, there is no news of that sort. I fear it will be long before we hear of him. Indeed, it is but a chance that he is out in the East Indies at all. We did but hear a rumour that he had been seen in Calcutta."
My mother let her head droop upon her breast. The girl bent over to her and laid her hand upon my mother's shoulder.
"Don't let yourself think that Athelstane has come to harm," she said in a sweet, clear voice. (And if I had not recognised the face I recognised the voice. It was my little playmate, Patience Thurstan.) "I have a faith which makes me sure that he is still alive, and will some day come back to us again."
"No!" It was my father's voice I heard, coming sternly from where he sat upright in his chair. "He will not come back here. He left this house of his own free will, left it in treachery and deceit. He has cast its dust from off his feet, and this is his home no more."
My heart sank within me at these bitter words. But Patience pleaded for me still.
"Ah, but he will return, I know he will, and if he does you will forgive him, won't you, Mr. Ford? After all he was but a boy when he ran away, too young to know what he was doing. How can we tell what suffering he has gone through since, how often he has repented of what he did, and longed to come back and be forgiven."
Mr. Peter Walpole gave a groan.
"It is I was to blame, as much as the boy, come, brother Ford. Remember how I held out for that premium with him. Not but what the sum I named was just, mind you; but I loved the lad and would have taken him without a premium at all, rather than he should have gone wandering about the world, to be murdered by heathen men and cannibals."
I cannot express how surprised and touched I was to hear Mr. Walpole speak thus of me. For I had ever regarded him as a cold, hard man, with no affections beyond money and religion. I looked anxiously for my father's reply.
"Nay, you were in no wise to blame, if you considered that what you asked was your right, though to my mind it savoured of extortion. It is my unhappy son whom I cannot excuse. Had he but come to me, and told me what was in his heart, it would have gone hard but I would have provided for him in some honest career. But to let himself be enticed away by pirates, as there is little doubt they were, and to dissemble his flight with falsehood, that was unworthy of a son of mine, and cannot be atoned for."
He gave a glance, half angry, half questioning, at my mother, as he concluded. I did the same, but was surprised to observe that her face was returned to its former placid composure, and she seemed not to heed my father's stern expressions.
Poor little Patience took them more to heart, and the tears shone in her eyes.
"Don't say you won't forgive him!" she implored. "Think, for aught we know he may now be pining in a Moorish dungeon, or lying wounded on the battle-field. Oh, Mr. Ford, he was your only son, and you loved him—you must love him still!"
"Silence, girl!" cried my father, very fierce. "How dare you tell me I love a rebellious child! I should wrong my conscience, and be false to my profession as a Christian man, if I were weak enough to do what you say."
Patience turned and appealed to my mother.
"Won't you speak to him, mother? Why do you sit there so quietly? You love Athelstane as much as—as much as any one."
My mother cast a tender glance at my father.
"Hush, child! There is no need to speak. Athelstane's father forgave him long ago."
I saw my father start and tremble.
"Woman! What is it you say? What do you know?" he exclaimed. "You saw me cross his name out of the Bible with my own hand!"
"Yes, dear," my mother answered very softly, "but you wrote it in again that very night, when you thought I was asleep."
And rising out of her chair she crossed over and took down the book from where it had lain those three years and more, and opened the page where, as I have often seen it since, my name was written in again in large letters, and underneath in a shaken hand, the words, "Oh, Athelstane, my son, my son!"
Then, whether because of the flickering of the firelight, or the steam of my breath upon the pane, I ceased to see very distinctly, and came away from the window, and went round to the door, where I gave a loud knock.
The door was opened by Patience, and seeing before her, as she thought, a stranger in a uniform coat, she uttered a cry of surprise.
"Who are you, sir?"
"I am an ensign in the East India Company's service, as you see," I answered, jesting to conceal the fullness of my heart.
But I suppose there was that within her which told her more quickly than her eyes who it was, for before I had spoken two words the little silly thing fell a-sobbing and crying, and I had to take her in my arms, without more ado, and bring her in with me.
My mother has always affirmed that she knew I was to return that night, even when I was outside by the window, and that the first step I made across the threshold told her all. But instead of running out to meet me, in her beautiful wisdom she went over to where my father sat still, and leant against his chair and put her arm round his neck.
So I found them when I came in alone, leaving Patience in the hall, and walked straight over, and would have knelt down before my father. But he prevented me, and rose out of his chair with a great cry, and drew me to him, and so stood holding me in silence, while my mother wept; and presently I saw his lips moving, and found that he was whispering to himself, "This my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found."
Afterwards we all knelt down together, while Mr. Walpole offered up a prayer; and then I sat in the midst and told them the whole story of my wanderings and perils as I have written it here. And later on, noting that Patience was dressed in black, I inquired, and found that she had lost her father nearly a year before, and was become my father's ward till she should attain the age of twenty-one, or marry with his consent.
It was not for a long time after that I surprised her little secret, and discovered that depth of true affection which had been waiting for me all those years beside my own hearth, while I was pursuing phantoms far away. But being alone with her one day, and our talk turning on the riches I had brought back with me, and how I was to bestow them, I said to her—
"For one thing, I must buy you a fairing, Patience, like I used to do when we were children together. Have you forgotten, I wonder, the guinea which I gave you to spend, on the last day I ever spent at home?"
"No, indeed, I have not. I remember it very well," she answered, blushing.
"Why, is that so? And pray what did you buy with it?" I asked smiling.
"Nothing at all," said Patience shortly.
"Nothing! What then——"
"I have it by me, somewhere." She pretended to speak carelessly, but my suspicions were aroused.
"I insist on knowing where, Patience," I said in a tone of command, such as I have never known her to resist.
"You must find out for yourself, then," says she, trying to defy me. (For the first and last time, God bless her!)
I took her by the arms and held her firmly.
"Now, Patience, tell me what you have done with my guinea," I demanded, quite stern.
"I kept it—for a keepsake. Oh, Athelstane, don't laugh at me, I have it on the ribbon round my neck!"
I didn't laugh at her. But I kissed her, and—well, well!—she kissed me back. And I was surprised to find how little anybody else was surprised when they heard of it, and how they all seemed to take it as a matter of course, and my father told me quite coolly that he intended me to marry as soon as Patience should be eighteen, and to live on Abner Thurstan's farm, which she had inherited by his will.
* * * * *
Of Rupert, as well as of old Muzzy, I must briefly speak. I conducted my cousin to his father, as I had promised, and sought to reconcile them. But I found my uncle to be harsher than I had expected. He had, besides, married again, and his wife looked sourly on the blind man she was asked to entertain in her house. The upshot of it was that I told her if she would take care of Rupert till I was married I would then have him to live with me. And in our house he still abides, a much altered man, given to the hearing of sermons, and never so happy as when Patience sits down to read him a piece from the Bible or the Norwich Journal; though sometimes a flash of his old spirit returns when I sit beside him after supper and talk over our old adventures in the East.
I found it more difficult at first to befriend old Muzzy. For though the old man professed to be, and I am sure really was, anxious to reform and lead a better life, he made but a poor business of it, and his constant profane oaths and habits of rum-drinking proved a severe trial to my mother and Patience. I had told them of his many services to me, including his having saved my life, and therefore they made it a duty to show kindness to the old man, and endeavour to bear with his ways. But I think they would have failed, and I should have been obliged to find a home for him elsewhere, but for his having accidentally told them of the affair outside Calcutta. No sooner did these tender-hearted women learn that I had saved old Muzzy's life (as they chose to consider it) than they instantly conceived a strong affection for the old man, and instead of finding him a burden nothing pleased them better than to sit in his company while the boatswain related the story of my prowess, interrupting it at every minute to excuse himself for some dreadful expression which had brought the tears into their eyes. The tale lost nothing in the telling, and I am ashamed to say that he so improved upon it in course of time as to make it appear that I had marched single-handed through the Nabob's entire army, severely wounded the Nabob himself, and slain many of his principal generals, and finally emerged, carrying old Muzzy himself across my shoulders like a suckling lamb.
Peace to old Muzzy! His heart was as innocent as his life and conversation were depraved. I believe my mother used to buy tobacco for him; and I am certain I once detected my wife secretly giving him rum.
In this peaceful manner my adventures ended, and I found myself, far beyond my deserts, settled at last in the land where I was born, among those who loved me and whom I loved.
And we are so made, and this life of ours is so strange a thing, that sometimes, when I walk abroad in the evening, as I was wont to do in my boyhood, and stand beside the lonely, rippling water of the broad, and watch the reflection of the sunset upon the distant walls of Yarmouth town; sometimes, I say, I ask myself whether all this has really been as I have thus written it, or whether all these events from my first running away from my father's roof; and those nights and days in the streets of yonder town and beneath the roof of the old "Three-decker"; and the woman I loved and fought for; and my cousin Rupert's enmity; and the voyage which I took to the East Indies, and the battles and perils which I passed through; and last of all that white tomb in the seraglio garden in far-off Moorshedabad; whether they are not dreams and visions which have come to me while I have slept.
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THE TYPEWRITER GIRL. By OLIVE PRATT RAYNER.
THE DUKE AND THE DAMSEL. By RICHARD MARSH, Author of "The Beetle," &c.
THREE WOMEN AND MR. FRANK CARDWELL. By W. PETT RIDGE, Author of "A Clever Wife."
JOHN OF STRATHBOURNE. A Romance of the Days of Francis I. By R. D. CHETWODE. With eight Illustrations by ERNEST SMYTHE.
FORTUNE'S FOOTBALLS. By G. B. BURGIN, Author of "'Old Man's' Marriage," &c.
HER ROYAL HIGHNESS'S LOVE AFFAIR. By J. MACLAREN COBBAN, Author of "The Cure of Souls," &c.
THE IRON CROSS. By R. H. SHERARD, Author of "Rogues," &c.
QUEEN OF THE JESTERS. By MAX PEMBERTON, Author of "Christine of the Hills," &c., &c. With eight Full-page Illustrations.
LUCKY BARGEE. By HARRY LANDER, Author of "Weighed in the Balance," &c.
THE MARQUIS OF VALROSE. From the French of CHARLES FOLEY. Translated by ALYS HALLARD.
WHEN THE BIRDS BEGIN TO SING. By WINIFRED GRAHAM, Author of "Meresia." With sixteen Illustrations by HAROLD PIFFARD. Square crown 8vo.
THE MYSTERY OF THE "MEDEA." By ALEXANDER VAUGHAN.
KNAVES OF DIAMONDS, being Tales of the Mine and Veld. By GEORGE GRIFFITH, Author of "Virgin of the Sun," "Valdar," &c. Illustrated by E. F. SHERIE.
TANDRA. By ANDREW QUANTOCK.
LOST: A MILLIONAIRE. By AUSTIN FRYERS.
SPIES OF THE WIGHT. By HEADON HILL, Author of "The Zone of Fire," &c.
HANDS IN THE DARKNESS. By ARNOLD GOLSWORTHY.
JOCK'S WARD. By Mrs. HERBERT MARTIN, Author of "Gentleman George," "A Low Born Lass," &c.
C. ARTHUR PEARSON LIMITED, Henrietta Street, W.C.
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