In Clive's Command - A Story of the Fight for India
by Herbert Strang
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

"Ah! there's the word at last; now, mateys, here goes!"

He laid the gun, waited for the ship to rise from a roll, and then took one of the matches, gently blew its smoldering end, and applied the glowing wick to the bruised part of the priming. There was a flash, a roar, and before Desmond could see the effect of the shot Bulger had closed the vent, the gun was run in, and the sponger was at work cleaning the chamber.

As the black smoke cleared away it was apparent that the seaman had not forgotten his cunning. The shot had struck the grab on the deck of the prow and smashed into the forecastle. But the bow chasers were apparently uninjured, for they replied a few seconds later.

"Ah! There's a wunner!" said Bulger admiringly.

A shot had carried away a yard of the gunwale of the Good Intent, scattering splinters far and wide, which inflicted nasty wounds on the second mate and a seaman on the quarterdeck. A jagged end of the wood flying high struck Diggle on the left cheek. He wiped away the blood imperturbably; it was evident that lack of courage was not among his defects.

Captain Barker's ire was now at white heat. Shouting an order to Bulger and the next man to make rapid practice with the two stern chasers, he prepared to fall off and bring the Good Intent's broadside to bear on the enemy.

But the next shot was decisive. Diggle had quietly strolled down to the gun next to Bulger's. It had just been reloaded. He bade the gun captain, in a low tone, to move aside. Then, with a glance to see that the priming was in order, he took careful sight, and waiting until the grab's main, mizzen and foremasts opened to view altogether, he applied the match. The shot sped true, and a second later the grab's mainmast, with sails and rigging, went by the board.

A wild cheer from the crew of the Good Intent acclaimed the excellent shot.

"By thunder!" said Bulger to Desmond. "Diggle may be a rogue and a vagabond, but he knows how to train a gun."

Captain Barker signified his approval by a tremendous mouth-filling oath. But he was not yet safe. The second grab was following hard in the wake of the first; and it was plain that the two Indiamen were both somewhat faster than the Good Intent; for during the running fight that had just ended so disastrously for the grab, they had considerably lessened the gap between them and their quarry. Captain Barker watched them with an expression of fierce determination, but not without anxiety. If they should come within striking distance it was impossible to withstand successfully their heavier armament and larger crews. The firing had ceased: each vessel had crowded on all sail; and the brisk breeze must soon bring pursuer and pursued to a close engagement which could have only one result.

"I may be wrong, but seems to me we'd better say our prayers," Bulger remarked grimly to his gun crew.

But Desmond, gazing up at the shrouds, said suddenly:

"The wind's dropping. Look!"

It was true. Before the monsoon sets in in earnest it not unfrequently happens that the wind veers fitfully; a squall is succeeded almost instantaneously by a calm. So it was now. In less than an hour all five vessels were becalmed; and when night fell three miles separated the Good Intent from the second grab; the Indiamen lay a mile farther astern; and the damaged vessel was out of sight.

Captain Barker took counsel with his officers. He expected to be attacked during the night by the united boats of the pursuing fleet. Under cover of darkness they would be able to creep up close and board the vessel, and the captain knew well that if taken he would be treated as a pirate. His papers were made out for Philadelphia; he had hoisted Portuguese colors, but the enemy at close quarters could easily see that the Good Intent was British built; he had disabled one of the Company's vessels; there would be no mercy for him.

He saw no chance of beating off the enemy; they would outnumber him by at least five to one. Even if the wind sprang up again there was small likelihood of escape. One or other of the pursuing vessels would almost certainly overhaul him, and hold him until the others came up.

"'Tis a 'tarnal fix," he said.

"Methinks 'tis a case of actum est de nobis," remarked Diggle pleasantly.

"Confound you!" said the captain with a burst of anger. "What could I expect with a gallows bird like you aboard? 'Tis enough to sink a vessel without shot."

Diggle's face darkened. But in a moment his smile returned.

"You are overwrought, captain," he said; "you are unstrung. 'Twould be ridiculous to take amiss words said in haste. In cold blood—well, you know me, Captain Barker. I will leave you to recover from your brief madness."

He went below. The captain was left with Mr. Toley and the other officers. Barker and Toley always got on well together, for the simple reason that the mate never thwarted his superior, never resented his abuse, but went quietly his own way. He listened now for a quarter of an hour, with fixed sadness of expression, while Captain Barker poured the vials of his wrath upon everything under the sun. When the captain had come to an end, and sunk into an estate of lowering dudgeon, Mr. Toley said quietly:

"'Tis all you say, sir, and more. I guess I've never seen a harder case. But while you was speaking, something you said struck a sort of idea into my brain."

"That don't happen often. What is it?"

"Why, the sort of idea that came to me out o' what you was saying was just this. How would it be to take soundings?"

"So, that's your notion, is it? Hang me, are you a fool like the rest of 'em? You're always taking soundings! What in the name of thunder do you want to take soundings for?"

"Nothing particular, cap'n. That was the kind o' notion that come of what you was saying. Of course it depends on the depths hereabouts."

"Deep enough to sink you and your notions and all that's like to come of 'em. Darned if I ain't got the most lubberly company ever mortal man was plagued with. Officers and men, there en't one of you as is worth your salt, and you with your long face and your notions—why, hang me, you're no more good than the dirtiest waister afloat."

Mr. Toley smiled sadly, and ventured on no rejoinder. After the captain's outburst none of the group dared to utter a word. This pleased him no better; he cursed them all for standing mum; and spent ten minutes in reviling them in turn. Then his passion appeared to have burnt itself out. Turning suddenly to the melancholy mate, he said roughly:

"Go and heave your lead, then, and be hanged to it."

Mr. Toley walked away aft and ordered one of the men to heave the deep-sea lead. The plummet, shaped like the frustum of a cone, and weighing thirty pounds, was thrown out from the side in the line of the vessel's drift.

"By the mark sixty, less five," sang out the man when the lead touched the bottom.

"I guess that'll do," said the first mate, returning to the quarterdeck.

"Well, what about your notion?" said the captain scornfully. But he listened quietly and with an intent look upon his weatherbeaten face as Mr. Toley explained.

"You see, sir," he said, "while you was talking just now, I sort o' saw that if they attack us, 'twon't be for at least two hours after dark. The boats won't put off while there's light enough to see 'em; and won't hurry anyhow, 'cos if they did the men 'ud have nary much strength left to 'em. Well, they'll take our bearings, of course. Thinks I, owing to what you said, sir, what if we could shift 'em by half a mile or so? The boats 'ud miss us in the darkness."

"That's so," ejaculated the captain; "and what then?"

"Well, sir, 'tis there my idea of taking soundings comes in. The Good Intent can't be towed, not with our handful of men; but why shouldn't she be kedged? That's the notion, sir; and I guess you'll think it over."

"By jimmy, Toley, you en't come out o' Salem, Massachusetts, for nothing. 'Tis a notion, a rare one; Ben Barker en't the man to bear a grudge, and I take back them words o' mine—leastways some on 'em.

"Bo'sun, get ready to lower the longboat."

The longboat was lowered, out of sight of the enemy. A kedge anchor, fastened to a stout hawser, was put on board, and as soon as it was sufficiently dark to make so comparatively small an object as a boat invisible to the hostile craft, she put off at right angles to the Good Intent's previous course, the hawser attached to the kedge being paid out as the boat drew away. When it had gone about a fifth of a mile from the vessel the kedge was dropped, and a signal was given by hauling on the rope.

"Clap on, men!" cried Captain Barker. "Get a good purchase, and none of your singsong; avast all jabber."

The crew manned the windlass and began with a will to haul on the cable in dead silence. The vessel was slowly warped ahead. Meanwhile the longboat was returning; when she reached the side of the Good Intent, a second kedge was lowered into her, and again she put off, to drop the anchor two cables' length beyond the first, so that when the ship had tripped that, the second was ready to be hauled on.

When the Good Intent had been thus warped a mile from her position at nightfall, Captain Parker ordered the operation to be stopped. To avoid noise the boat was not hoisted in. No lights were shown, and the sky being somewhat overcast, the boat's crew found that the ship was invisible at the distance of a fourth of a cable's length.

"I may be wrong," said Bulger to Desmond, "but I don't believe kedgin' was ever done so far from harbor afore. I allers thought there was something in that long head of Mr. Toley, though, to be sure, there en't no call for him to pull a long face, too."

An hour passed after the loading had been stopped. All on board the Good Intent remained silent, speaking, if they spoke at all, in whispers. There had been no signs of the expected attack. Desmond was leaning on the gunwale, straining his eyes for a glimpse of the enemy. But his ears gave him the first intimation of their approach. He heard a faint creaking, as of oars in rowlocks, and stepped back to where Bulger was leaning against the mast.

"There they come," he said.

The sound had already reached Captain Barker's ears. It was faint; doubtless the oars were muffled. The ship was rolling lazily; save for the creaking nothing was heard but the lapping of the ripples against the hull. So still was the night that the slightest sound must travel far, and the captain remarked in a whisper to Mr. Toley that he guessed the approaching boats to be at least six cables' lengths distant.

Officers and men listened intently. The creaking grew no louder; on the contrary, it gradually became fainter, and at last died away. There was a long silence, broken only by what sounded like a low hail some considerable distance away.

"They're musterin' the boats," said Bulger, with a chuckle. "I may be wrong, but I'll bet my breeches they find they've overshot the mark. Now they'll scatter and try to nose us out."

Another hour of anxious suspense slowly passed, and still nothing had happened. Then suddenly a blue light flashed for a few moments on the blackness of the sea, answered almost instantaneously by a rocket from another quarter. It was clear that the boats, having signaled that the search had failed, had been recalled by the rocket to the fleet.

"By thunder, Mr. Toley, you've done the trick!" said the captain.

"I guess we don't get our living by making mistakes—not in Salem, Massachusetts," returned the first mate with his sad smile.

Through the night the watch was kept with more than ordinary vigilance, but nothing occurred to give Captain Barker anxiety. With morning light the enemy could be seen far astern.

Chapter 10: In which our hero arrives in the Golden East, and Mr. Diggle presents him to a native prince.

About midday a light breeze sprang up from the northwest. The two Indiamen and the uninjured grab, being the first to catch it, gained a full mile before the Good Intent, under topgallant sails, studding sails, royal and driver, began to slip through the water at her best speed. But, as the previous day's experience had proved, she was no match in sailing capacity for the pursuers. They gained on her steadily, and the grab had come almost within cannon range when the man at the masthead shouted:

"Sail ho! About a dozen sail ahead, sir!"

The captain spluttered out a round dozen oaths, and his dark face grew still darker. So many vessels in company must surely mean the king's ships with a convoy. The French, so far as Captain Barker knew, had no such fleet in Indian waters, nor had the Dutch or Portuguese. If they were indeed British men-o'-war he would be caught between two fires, for there was not a doubt that they would support the Company's vessels.

"We ought to be within twenty miles of the coast, Mr. Toley," said Captain Barker.

"Ay, sir, and somewhere in the latitude of Gheria."

"Odds bobs, and now I come to think of it, those there vessels may be sailing to attack Gheria, seeing as how, as these niggers told us, they've bust up Suwarndrug."

"Guess I'll get to the foretop myself and take a look, sir," said Mr. Toley.

He mounted, carrying the only perspective glass the vessel possessed. The captain watched him anxiously as he took a long look.

"What do you make of 'em?" he shouted.

The mate shut up the telescope and came leisurely down.

"I count fifteen in all, sir."

"I don't care how many. What are they?"

"I calculate they're grabs and gallivats, sir."

The captain gave a hoarse chuckle.

"By thunder, then, we'll soon turn the tables! Angria's gallivats—eh, Mr. Toley? We'll make a haul yet."

But Captain Barker was to be disappointed. The fleet had been descried also by the pursuers. A few minutes later the grab threw out a signal, hauled her wind and stood away to the northward, followed closely by the two larger vessels. The captain growled his disappointment. Nearly a dozen of the coast craft, as they were now clearly seen to be, went in pursuit, but with little chance of coming up with the chase. The remaining vessels of the newly-arrived fleet stood out to meet the Good Intent.

"Fetch us that Maratha fellow," cried the captain, "and hoist a white flag."

When the Maratha appeared, a pitiable object, emaciated for want of food, Captain Barker bade him shout as soon as the newcomers came within hailing distance. The white flag at the masthead, and a loud, long-drawn hail from Hybati, apprised the grab that the Good Intent was no enemy, and averted hostilities. And thus it was, amid a convoy of Angria's own fleet, that Captain Barker's vessel, a few hours later, sailed peacefully into the harbor of Gheria.

Desmond looked with curious eyes on the famous fort and harbor. On the right, as the Good Intent entered, he saw a long, narrow promontory, at the end of which was a fortress, constructed, as it appeared, of solid rock. The promontory was joined to the mainland by a narrow isthmus of sand, beyond which lay an open town of some size. The shore was fringed with palmyras, mangoes and other tropical trees, and behind the straw huts and stone buildings of the town leafy groves clothed the sides of a gentle hill.

The harbor, which forms the mouth of a river, was studded with Angria's vessels, large and small, and from the docks situated on the sandy isthmus came the busy sound of shipwrights at work. The rocky walls of the fort were fifty feet high, with round towers, long curtains, and some fifty embrasures. The left shore of the harbor was flat, but to the south of the fort rose a hill of the same height as the walls of rock. Such was the headquarters of the notorious pirate Tulaji Angria, the last of the line which had for fifty years been the terror of the Malabar coast.

The Good Intent dropped anchor off the jetty running out from the docks north of the fort. Captain Barker had already given orders that no shore leave was to be allowed to the crew, and as soon as he had stepped into the longboat, accompanied by Diggle, the men's discontent broke forth in angry imprecations, which Mr. Toley wisely affected not to hear.

No time was lost in unloading the portion of the cargo intended for Angria. The goods were carried along the jetty by stalwart Marathas clad only in loincloths, and stored in rude cabins with penthouse roofs. As Desmond knew, the heavy chests that taxed the strength of the bearers contained for the most part muskets and ammunition. The work went on for the greater part of the day, and at nightfall neither the captain nor Diggle had returned to the vessel.

Next day a large quantity of Indian produce was taken on board. Desmond noticed that as the bales and casks reached the deck, some of the crew were told off to remove all marks from them.

"What's that for?" repeated Bulger, in reply to a question of Desmond's. "Why, 'cos if the ship came to be overhauled by a Company's vessel, it would tell tales if the cargo had Company's marks on it. That wouldn't do by no manner o' means."

"But how should they get Company's marks on them?"

Bulger winked.

"You're raw yet, Burke," he said. "You'll know quite as much as is good for you by the time you've made another voyage or two in the Good Intent."

"But I don't intend to make another voyage in her. Mr. Diggle promised to get me employment in the country."

"What? You still believes in that there Diggle? Well, I don't want to hurt no feelin's, and I may be wrong, but I'll lay my bottom dollar Diggle won't do a hand's turn for you."

The second day passed, and in the evening Captain Barker, who had hitherto left Mr. Toley in charge, came aboard in high humor.

"I may be wrong," remarked Bulger, "but judgin' by cap'n's face, he've been an' choused the Pirate—got twice the valley o' the goods he's landed."

"I wonder where Mr. Diggle is?" said Desmond.

"You en't no call to mourn for him, I tell you. He's an old friend of the Pirate, don't make no mistake; neither you nor me will be any the worse for not seein' his grinnin' phiz no more. Thank your stars he've left you alone for the last part of the voyage, which I wonder at, all the same."

Next day all was bustle on board in preparation for sailing. In the afternoon a peon {messenger} came hurrying along the jetty, boarded the vessel, and handed a note to the captain, who read it, tore it up, and dismissed the messenger. He went down to his cabin, and coming up a few minutes later, cried:

"Where's that boy Burke?"

"Here, sir," cried Desmond, starting up from the place where, in Bulger's company, he had been splicing a rope.

"Idling away your time as usual, of course. Here, take this chit {note} and run ashore. 'Tis for Mr. Diggle, as you can see if you can read."

"But how am I to find him, sir?"

"Hang me, that's your concern. Find him, and give the chit into his own hand, and be back without any tomfoolery, or by thunder I'll lay a rope across your shoulders."

Desmond took the note, left the vessel, and hurried along the jetty. After what Bulger had said he was not very well pleased at the prospect of meeting Diggle again. At the shore end of the jetty he was accosted by the peon who had brought Diggle's note on board. The man intimated by signs that he would show the way, and Desmond, wondering why the Indian had not himself waited to receive Captain Barker's answer, followed him at a rapid pace on shore, past the docks, through a corner of the town where the appearance of a white stranger attracted the curious attention of the natives, to an open space in front of the entrance to the fort.

Here they arrived at a low wall cut by an open gateway, at each side of which stood a Maratha sentry armed with a matchlock. A few words were exchanged between Desmond's guide and one of the sentries; the two entered, crossed a compound dotted with trees, and passing through the principal gateway came to a large, square building near the center of the fort. The door of this was guarded by a sentry. Again a few words were spoken. Desmond fancied he saw a slight smile curl the lips of the natives; then the sentry called another peon who stood at hand, and sent him into the palace.

Desmond felt a strange sinking at heart. The smile upon these dark faces awakened a vague uneasiness; it was so like Diggle's smile. He supposed that the man had gone in to report that he had arrived with the captain's answer. The note still remained with him; the Marathas apparently knew that it was to be delivered personally; yet he was left at the door, and his guide stood by in an attitude that suggested he was on guard.

How long was he to be kept waiting? he wondered. Captain Barker had ordered him to return at once; the penalty for disobedience he knew only too well; yet the minutes passed, and lengthened into two hours without any sign of the man who had gone in with the message. Desmond spoke to the guide, but the man shook his head, knowing no English. Becoming more and more uneasy, he was at length relieved to see the messenger come back to the door and beckon him to enter. As he passed the sentries they made him a salaam in which his anxious sensitiveness detected a shade of mockery; but before he could define his feelings he reached a third door guarded like the others, and was ushered in.

He found himself in a large chamber, its walls dazzling with barbaric decoration—figures of Ganessa, a favorite idol of the Marathas, of monstrous elephants, and peacocks with enormously expanded tails. The hall was so crowded that his first confusion was redoubled. A path was made through the throng as at a signal, and at the end of the room he saw two men apart from the rest.

One of them, standing a little back from the other, was Diggle; the other, a tall, powerful figure in raiment as gaudy as the painted peacocks around him, his fingers covered with rings, a diamond blazing in his headdress, was sitting cross-legged on a dais. Behind him, against the wall, was an image of Ganessa, made of solid gold, with diamonds for eyes, and blazing with jewels. At one side was his hookah, at the other a two-edged sword and an unsheathed dagger. Below the dais on either hand two fierce-visaged Marathas stood, their heads and shoulders covered with a helmet, their bodies cased in a quilted vest, each holding a straight two-edged sword. Between Angria and the idol two fan bearers lightly swept the air above their lord's head with broad fans of palm leaves.

Desmond walked towards the dais, feeling woefully out of place amid the brilliant costumes of Angria's court. Scarcely two of the Marathas were dressed alike; some were in white, some in lilac, others in purple, but each with ornaments after his own taste. Desmond had not had time before leaving the Good Intent to smarten himself up, and he stood there a tall, thin, sunburnt youth in dirty, tattered garments, doing his best to face the assembly with British courage.

At the foot of the dais he paused and held out the captain's note. Diggle took it in silence, his face wearing the smile that Desmond knew so well and now so fully distrusted. Without reading it, he tore it in fragments and threw them upon the floor, at the same time saying a few words to the resplendent figure at his side.

Tulaji Angria was dark, inclined to be fat, and not unpleasant in feature. But it was with a scowling brow that he replied to Diggle. Desmond was no coward, but he afterward confessed that as he stood there watching the two faces, the dark, lowering face of Angria, the smiling, scarcely less swarthy face of Diggle, he felt his knees tremble under him. What was the Pirate saying? That he was the subject of their conversation was plain from the glances thrown at him; that he was at a crisis in his fate he knew by instinct; but, ignorant of the tongue they spoke, he could but wait in fearful anxiety and mistrust.

He learned afterwards the purport of the talk.

"That is your man?" said Angria. 'You have deceived me. I looked for a man of large stature and robust make, like the Englishmen I already have. What good will this slim, starved stripling be in my barge?"

"You must not be impatient, huzur {lord}," replied Diggle. "He is a stripling, it is true; slim, certainly; starved—well, the work on board ship does not tend to fatten a man. But give him time; he is but sixteen or seventeen years old, young in my country. In a year or two, under your regimen, he will develop; he comes of a hardy stock, and already he can make himself useful. He was one of the quickest and handiest on board our ship, though this was his first voyage."

"But you yourself admit that he is not yet competent for the oar in my barge. What is to recompense me for the food he will eat while he is growing? No, Diggle sahib, if I take him I must have some allowance off the price. In truth, I will not take him unless you send me from your vessel a dozen good muskets. That is my word."

"Still, huzur—" began Diggle, but Angria cut him short with a gesture of impatience.

"That is my word, I say. Shall I, Tulaji Angria, dispute with you? I will have twenty muskets, or you may keep the boy."

Diggle shrugged and smiled.

"Very well, huzur. You drive a hard bargain; but it shall be as you say. I will send a chit to the captain, and you shall have the muskets before the ship sails."

Angria made a sign to one of his attendants. The man approached Desmond, took him by the sleeve, and signed for him to come away. Desmond threw a beseeching look at Diggle, and said hurriedly:

"Mr. Diggle, please tell me—"

But Angria rose to his feet in wrath, and shouted to the man who had Desmond by the sleeve. Desmond made no further resistance. His head swam as he passed between the dusky ranks out into the courtyard.

"What does it all mean?" he asked himself.

His guide hurried him along until they came to a barn-like building under the northwest angle of the fort. The Maratha unlocked the door, signed to Desmond to enter, and locked him in. He was alone.

He spent three miserable hours. Bitterly did he now regret having cast in his lot with the smooth-spoken stranger who had been so sympathetic with him in his troubles at home. He tried to guess what was to be done with him. He was in Angria's power, a prisoner, but to what end? Had he run from the tyranny at home merely to fall a victim to a worse tyranny at the hands of an oriental? He knew so little of Angria, and his brain was in such a turmoil, that he could not give definite shape to his fears.

He paced up and down the hot, stuffy shed, awaiting, dreading, he knew not what. Through the hole that served for a window he saw men passing to and fro across the courtyard, but they were all swarthy, all alien; there was no one from whom he could expect a friendly word.

Toward evening, as he looked through the hole, he saw Diggle issue from the door of the palace and cross towards the outer gate.

"Mr. Diggle! Mr. Diggle!" he called. "Please! I am locked up here."

Diggle looked round, smiled, and leisurely approached the shed.

"Why have they shut me up here?" demanded Desmond. "Captain Barker said I was to return at once. Do get the door unlocked."

"You ask the impossible, my young friend," replied Diggle through the hole. "You are here by the orders of Angria, and 'twould be treason in me to pick his locks."

"But why? what right has he to lock me up? and you, why did you let him? You said you were my friend; you promised—oh, you know what you promised."

"I promised? Truly, I promised that, if you were bent on accompanying me to these shores, I would use my influence to procure you employment with one of my friends among the native princes. Well, I have kept my word; firmavi fidem, as the Latin hath it. Angria is my friend; I have used my influence with him; and you are now in the service of one of the most potent of Indian princes. True, your service is but beginning. It may be arduous at first; it may be long ab ovo usque ad mala; the egg may be hard, and the apples, perchance, somewhat sour; but as you become inured to your duties, you will learn resignation and patience, and—"

"Don't!" burst out Desmond, unable to endure the smooth-flowing periods of the man now self-confessed a villain. "What does it mean? Tell me plainly; am I a slave?"

"Servulus, non servus, my dear boy. What is the odds whether you serve Dick Burke, a booby farmer, or Tulaji Angria, a prince and a man of intelligence? Yet there is a difference, and I would give you a word of counsel. Angria is an oriental, and a despot; it were best to serve him with all diligence, or—"

He finished the sentence with a meaning grimace.

"Mr. Diggle, you can't mean it," said Desmond. "Don't leave me here! I implore you to release me. What have I ever done to you? Don't leave me in this awful place."

Diggle smiled and began to move away. At the sight of his malicious smile the prisoner's despair was swept away before a tempest of rage.

"You scoundrel! You shameless scoundrel!"

The words, low spoken and vibrant with contempt, reached Diggle when he was some distance from the shed. He turned and sauntered back.

"Heia! contumeliosae voces! 'Tis pretty abuse. My young friend, I must withdraw my ears from such shocking language. But stay! if you have any message for Sir Willoughby, your squire, whose affections you have so diligently cultivated to the prejudice of his nearest and dearest, it were well for you to give it. 'Tis your last opportunity; for those who enter Angria's service enjoy a useful but not a long career. And before I return to Gheria from a little journey I am about to make, you may have joined the majority of those who have tempted fate in this insalubrious clime. Horae momento cita mors yen it—you remember the phrase?"

Diggle leaned against the wooden wall, watching with malicious enjoyment the effect of his words. Desmond was very pale; all his strength seemed to have deserted him. Finding that his taunts provoked no reply, Diggle went on:

"Time presses, my young friend. You will be logged a deserter from the Good Intent. 'Tis my fervent hope you never fall into the hands of Captain Barker; as you know, he is a terrible man when roused."

Waving his gloved hand, he moved away. Desmond did not watch his departure. Falling back from the window, he threw himself upon the ground, and gave way to a long fit of black despair.

How long he lay in this agony he knew not. But he was at last roused by the opening of the door. It was almost dark. Rising to his feet, he saw a number of men hustled into the shed. Ranged along one of the walls, they squatted on the floor, and for some minutes afterwards Desmond heard the clank of irons and the harsh grating of a key. Then a big Maratha came to him, searched him thoroughly, clapped iron bands upon his ankles, and locked the chains to staples in the wall. Soon the door was shut, barred, and locked, and Desmond found himself a prisoner with eight others.

For a little they spoke among themselves, in the low tones of men utterly spent and dispirited. Then all was silent, and they slept. But Desmond lay wide awake, waiting for the morning.

The shed was terribly hot. Air came only through the one narrow opening, and before an hour was past the atmosphere was foul, seeming the more horrible to Desmond by contrast with the freshness of his life on the ocean. Mosquitoes nipped him until he could scarcely endure the intense irritation. He would have given anything for a little water; but though he heard a sentry pacing up and down outside, he did not venture to call to him, and could only writhe in heat and torture, longing for the dawn, yet fearing it and what it might bring forth.

Worn and haggard after his sleepless night, Desmond had scarcely spirit enough to look with curiosity on his fellow prisoners when the shed was faintly lit by the morning sun. But he saw that the eight men, all natives, were lying on crude charpoys {mat beds} along the wall, each man chained to a staple like his own. One of the men was awake; and, catching Desmond's lusterless eyes fixed upon him, he sat up and returned his gaze.

"Your Honor is an English gentleman?"

The words caused Desmond to start: they were so unexpected in such a place. The Indian spoke softly and carefully, as if anxious not to awaken his companions.

"Yes," replied Desmond. "Who are you?"

"My name, sir, is Surendra Nath Chuckerbutti. I was lately a clerk in the employ of a burra {great} sahib, English factor, at Calcutta."

"How did you get here?"

"That, sahib, is a moving tale. While on a visit of condolence to my respectable uncle and aunt at Chittagong, I was kidnapped by Sandarband piratical dogs. Presto!—at that serious crisis a Dutch ship makes apparition and rescues me; but my last state is more desperate than the first. The Dutch vessel will not stop to replace me on mother earth; she is for Bombay, across the kala pani {black water}, as we say. I am not a swimmer; besides, what boots it?—we are ten miles from land, to say nothing of sharks and crocodiles and the lordly tiger. So I perforce remain, to the injury of my caste, which forbids navigation. But see the issue. The Dutch ship is assaulted; grabs and gallivats galore swarm upon the face of the waters; all is confusion worse confounded; in a brace of shakes we are in the toils. It is now two years since this untoward catastrophe. With the crew I am conveyed hither and eat the bitter crust of servitude. Some of the Dutchmen are consigned to other forts in possession of the Pirate, and three serve here in his state barge."

Desmond glanced at the sleeping forms.

"No, sir, they are not here," said the Babu {equivalent to Mr.; applied by the English to the native clerk}, catching his look. "They share another apartment with your countrymen—chained? Oh, yes! These, my bedfellows of misfortune, are Indians, not of Bengal, like myself; two are Biluchis hauled from a country ship; two are Mussulmans from Mysore; one a Gujarati; two Marathas. We are a motley crew—a miscellany, no less."

"What do they do with you in the daytime?"

"I, sir, adjust accounts of the Pirate's dockyard; for this I am qualified by prolonged driving of quill in Calcutta, to expressed satisfaction of Honorable John Company and English merchants. But my position, sir, is of Damoclean anxiety. I am horrified by conviction that one small error of calculation will entail direst retribution. Videlicet, sir, this week a fellow captive is minus a finger and thumb—and all for oversight of six annas {the anna is the 16th part of a rupee}. But I hear the step of our jailer; I must bridle my tongue."

The Babu had spoken throughout in a low monotonous tone that had not disturbed the slumbers of his fellow prisoners. But they were all awakened by the noisy opening of the door and the entrance of their jailer. He went to each in turn, and unlocked their fetters; then they filed out in dumb submission, to be escorted by armed sentries to the different sheds where they fed, each caste by itself.

When the eight had disappeared the jailer turned to Desmond, and, taking him by the sleeve, led him across the courtyard into the palace. Here, in a little room, he was given a meager breakfast of rice; after which he was taken to another room where he found Angria in company with a big Maratha, who had in his hand a long bamboo cane. The Pirate was no longer in durbar {council, ceremonial} array, but was clad in a long yellow robe with a lilac-colored shawl.

Conscious that he made a very poor appearance in his tatters, Desmond felt that the two men looked at him with contempt. A brief conversation passed between them; then the Maratha salaamed to Angria and went from the room, beckoning Desmond to follow him. They went out of the precincts of the palace, and through a part of the town, until they arrived at the docks. There the laborers, slaves and free, were already at work. Desmond at the first glance noticed several Europeans among them, miserable objects who scarcely lifted their heads to look at this latest newcomer of their race. His guide called up one of the foremen shipwrights, and instructed him to place the boy among a gang of the workmen. Then he went away. Scarcely a minute had elapsed when Desmond heard a cry, and looking round, saw the man brutally belaboring with his rattan the bare shoulders of a native. He quivered; the incident seemed of ill augury.

In a few minutes Desmond found himself among a gang of men who were working at a new gallivat in process of construction for Angria's own use. He received his orders in dumb show from the foreman of the gang. Miserable as he was, he would not have been a boy if he had not been interested in his novel surroundings; and no intelligent boy could have failed to take an interest in the construction of a gallivat. It was a large rowboat of from thirty to seventy tons, with two masts, the mizzen being very slight. The mainmast bore one huge sail, triangular in form, its peak extending to a considerable height above the mast. The smaller gallivats were covered with a spar deck made of split bamboos, their armament consisting of pettararoes fixed on swivels in the gunwale. But the larger vessels had a fixed deck on which were mounted six or eight cannon, from two to four pounders; and in addition to their sail they had from forty to fifty oars, so that, with a stout crew, they attained a rate of four or five miles an hour.

One of the first things Desmond learned was that the Indian mode of ship building differed fundamentally from the European. The timbers were fitted in after the planks had been put together; and the planks were put together, not with flat edges, but rabbited, the parts made to correspond with the greatest exactness. When a plank was set up, its edge was smeared with red lead, and the edge of the plank to come next was pressed down upon it, the inequalities in its surface being thus shown by the marks of the lead. These being smoothed away, if necessary several times, and the edges fitting exactly, they were rubbed with da'ma, a sort of glue that in course of time became as hard as iron. The planks were then firmly riveted with pegs, and by the time the work was finished the seams were scarcely visible, the whole forming apparently one entire piece of timber.

The process of building a gallivat was thus a very long and tedious one; but the vessel when completed was so strong that it could go to sea for many years before the hull needed repair.

Desmond learned all this only gradually; but from the first day, making a virtue of necessity, he threw himself into the work and became very useful, winning the good opinion of the officers of the dockyard. His feelings were frequently wrung by the brutal punishments inflicted by the overseer upon defaulters. The man had absolute power over the workers. He could flog them, starve them, even cut off their ears and noses. One of his favorite devices was to tie a quantity of oiled cotton round each of a man's fingers and set light to these living torches.

Another, used with a man whom he considered lazy, was the tank. Between the dockyard and the river, separated from the latter only by a thin wall, was a square cavity about seven feet deep covered with boarding, in the center of which was a circular hole. In the wall was a small orifice through which water could be let in from the river, while in the opposite wall was the pipe and spout of a small hand pump. The man whom the overseer regarded as an idler was let down into the tank, the covering replaced, and water allowed to enter from the river. This was a potent spur to the defaulter's activity, for if he did not work the pump fast enough the water would gradually rise in the tank, and he would drown. Desmond learned of one case where the man, utterly worn out by his life of alternate toil and punishment, refused to work the pump and stood in silent indifference while the water mounted inch by inch until it covered his head and ended his woes.

Desmond's diligence in the dockyard pleased the overseer, whose name was Govinda, and he was by and by employed on lighter tasks which took him sometimes into the town. Until the novelty wore off he felt a lively interest in the scenes that met his eye—the bazaars, crowded with dark-skinned natives, the men mustachioed, clad for the most part in white garments that covered them from the crown of the head to the knee, with a touch of red sometimes in their turbans; the women with bare heads and arms and feet, garbed in red and blue; the gosains, mendicants with matted hair and unspeakable filth; the women who fried chapatis {small, flat, unleavened cakes} on griddles in the streets, grinding their meal in handmills; the sword grinders, whetting the blades of the Maratha two-edged swords; the barbers, whose shops had a never-ending succession of customers; the Brahmans, almost naked and shaved bald save for a small tuft at the back of the head; the sellers of madi, a toddy extracted from the cocoanut palm; the magicians in their shawls, with high stiff red cap, painted all over with snakes; the humped bullocks that were employed as beasts of burden, and when not in use roamed the streets untended; occasionally the basawa, the sacred bull of Siva, the destroyer, and the rath {car} carrying the sacred rat of Ganessa. But with familiarity such scenes lost their charm; and as the months passed away Desmond felt more and more the gnawing of care at his heart, the constant sadness of a slave.

Chapter 11: In which the Babu tells the story of King Vikramaditya; and the discerning reader may find more than appears on the surface.

Day followed day in dreary sameness. Regularly every evening Desmond was locked with his eight fellow prisoners in the shed, there to spend hours of weariness and discomfort until morning brought release and the common task. He had the same rations of rice and ragi {a cereal}, with occasional doles of more substantial fare. He was carefully kept from all communication with the other European prisoners, and as the Bengali was the only man of his set who knew English, his only opportunities of using his native tongue occurred in the evening before he slept.

His fellow prisoners spoke Urdu among themselves, and Desmond found some alleviation of the monotony of his life in learning the lingua franca of India under the Babu's tuition. He was encouraged to persevere in the study by the fact that the Babu proved to be an excellent storyteller, often beguiling the tedium of wakeful hours in the shed by relating interminable narratives from the Hindu mythology, and in particular the exploits of the legendary hero Vikramaditya. So accomplished was he in this very oriental art that it was not uncommon for one or other of the sentries to listen to him through the opening in the shed wall, and the head warder who locked the prisoners' fetters would himself sometimes squat down at the door before leaving them at night, and remain an interested auditor until the blast of a horn warned all in the fort and town that the hour of sleep had come. It was some time before Desmond was sufficiently familiar with the language to pick up more than a few words of the stories here and there, but in three months he found himself able to follow the narrative with ease.

Meanwhile he was growing apace. The constant work in the open air, clad, save during the rains, in nothing but a thin dhoti {a cloth worn round the waist, passed between the legs and tucked in behind the back}, developed his physique and, even in that hot climate, hardened his muscles. The Babu one day remarked with envy that he would soon be deemed worthy of promotion to Angria's own gallivat, whose crew consisted of picked men of all nationalities.

This was an honor Desmond by no means coveted. As a dockyard workman, earning his food by the sweat of his brow, he did not come in contact with Angria, and was indeed less hardly used than he had been on board the Good Intent. But to become a galley slave seemed to him a different thing, and the prospect of pulling an oar in the Pirate's gallivat served to intensify his longing to escape.

For, though he proved so willing and docile in the dockyard, not a day passed but he pondered the idea of escape. He seized every opportunity of learning the topography of the fort and town, being aided in this unwittingly by Govinda, who employed him more and more often, as he became familiar with the language, in conveying messages from one part of the settlement to another. But he was forced to confess to himself that the chances of escape were very slight. Gheria was many miles from the nearest European settlement where he might find refuge. To escape by sea seemed impossible; if he fled through the town and got clear of Angria's territory he would almost certainly fall into the hands of the Peshwa's {the prime minister and real ruler of the Maratha kingdom} people, and although the Peshwa was nominally an ally of the Company, his subjects—a lawless, turbulent, predatory race—were not likely to be specially friendly to a solitary English lad. A half-felt hope that he might be able to reach Suwarndrug, lately captured by Commodore James, was dashed by the news that that fort had been handed over by him to the Marathas. Moreover, such was the rivalry among the various European nations competing for trade in India that he was by no means sure of a friendly reception if he should succeed in gaining a Portuguese or Dutch settlement. Dark stories were told of Portuguese dealings with Englishmen, and the Dutch bore no good repute for their treatment of prisoners.

It was a matter of wonder to Desmond that none of his companions ever hinted at escape. He could not imagine that any man could be a slave without feeling a yearning for liberty; yet these men lived through the unvarying round; eating, toiling, sleeping, without any apparent mental revolt. He could only surmise that all manliness and spirit had been crushed out of them, and from motives of prudence he forbore to speak of freedom.

But one evening, a sultry August evening when the shed was like an oven, and, bathed in sweat, he felt utterly limp and depressed, he asked the Babu in English whether anyone had ever escaped out of Angria's clutches. Surendra Nath Chuckerbutti glanced anxiously around, as if fearful that the others might understand. But they lay listless on their charpoys; they knew no English, and there was nothing in Desmond's tone to quicken their hopelessness.

"No, sahib," said the Bengali; "such escapade, if successful, is beyond my ken. There have been attempts; cui bono? Nobody is an anna the better. Nay, the last state of such misguided men is even worse; they die suffering very ingenious torture."

Desmond had been amazed at the Babu's command of English until he learned that the man was an omnivorous reader, and in his leisure at Calcutta had spent many an hour in poring over such literature as his master's scanty library afforded, the works of Mr. Samuel Johnson and Mr. Henry Fielding in particular.

At this moment Desmond said no more, but in the dead of night, when all were asleep, he leaned over to the Babu's charpoy and gently nudged him.

"Surendra Nath!" he whispered.

"Who calls?" returned the Babu.

"Listen. Have you yourself ever thought of escaping?"

"Peace and quietness, sir. He will hear."


"The Gujarati, sir—Fuzl Khan."

"But he doesn't understand. And if he did, what then?"

"He was the single man, positively unique, who was spared among six attempting escape last rains."

"They did make an attempt, then. Why was he spared?"

"That, sir, deponent knoweth not. The plot was carried to Angria."


"That also is dark as pitch. But Fuzl Khan was spared, that we know. No man can trust his vis-a-vis. No man is now so bold to discuss such matters."

"Is that why we are all chained up at night?"

"That, sir, is the case. It is since then our limbs are shackled."

Desmond thought over this piece of information. He had noticed that the Gujarati was left much alone by the others. They were outwardly civil enough, but they rarely spoke to him of their own accord, and sometimes they would break off in a conversation if he appeared interested. Desmond had put this down to the man's temper; he was a sullen fellow, with a perpetually hangdog look, occasionally breaking out in paroxysms of violence which cost him many a scourging from the overseer's merciless rattan. But the attitude of his fellow prisoner was more easily explained if the Babu's hint was well founded. They feared him.

Yet, if he had indeed betrayed his comrades, he had gained little by his treachery. He was no favorite with the officers of the yard. They kept him hard at work, and seemed to take a delight in harrying him. More than once, unjustly, as it appeared to Desmond, he had made acquaintance with the punishment tank. In his dealings with his fellows he was morose and offensive. A man of great physical strength, he was a match for any two of his shed companions save the Biluchis, who, though individually weaker, retained something of the spirit of their race and made common cause against him. The rest he bullied, and none more than the Bengali, whose weaklier constitution spared him the hard manual work of the yard, but whose timidity invited aggression.

Now that the subject which constantly occupied his thoughts had been mooted, Desmond found himself more eagerly striving to find a solution of the problem presented by the idea of escape. At all hours of the day, and often when he lay in sleepless discomfort at night, his active mind recurred to the one absorbing matter: how to regain his freedom. He had already canvassed the possibilities of escape by land, only to dismiss the idea as utterly impracticable; for even could he elude the vigilance of the sentries he could not pass as a native, and the perils besetting an Englishman were not confined to Angria's territory.

But how stood the chances of escape by sea? Could he stow himself on board a grab or gallivat, and try to swim ashore when near some friendly port? He put the suggestion from him as absurd. Supposing he succeeded in stowing himself on an outgoing vessel, how could he know when he was near a friendly port without risking almost certain discovery? Besides, except in such rare cases as the visit of an interloper like the Good Intent, the Pirate did little trade. His vessels were employed mainly in dashing out on insufficiently-convoyed merchantmen.

But the train of thought once started could not but be followed out. What if he could seize a grab or gallivat in the harbor? To navigate such a vessel required a party, men having some knowledge of the sea. How stood his fellow prisoners in that respect? The Biluchis, tall wiry men, were traders, and had several times, he knew, made the voyage from the Persian Gulf to Surat. It was on one of these journeys that they had fallen into Angria's hands. They might have picked up something of the simpler details of navigation. The Mysoreans, being up-country men and agriculturists, were not likely even to have seen the sea until they became slaves of Angria. The Marathas would be loath to embark; they belonged to a warrior race which had for centuries lived by raiding its neighbors; but being forbidden by their religion to eat or drink at sea they would never make good seamen. The Babu was a native of Bengal, and the Bengalis were physically the weakest of the Indian peoples, constitutionally timid, and unenterprising in matters demanding physical courage. Desmond smiled as he thought of how his friend Surendra Nath might comport himself in a storm.

There remained the Gujarati, and of his nautical capacity Desmond knew nothing. But, mentioning the matter of seamanship casually to the Babu one day, he learned that Fuzl Khan was a khalasi {sailor} from Cutch. He had in him a strain of negro blood, derived probably from some Zanzibari ancestor brought to Cutch as a slave. The men of the coast of Cutch were the best sailors in India; and Fuzl Khan himself had spent a considerable portion of his life at sea.

Thus reflecting on the qualities of his fellow captives, Desmond had ruefully to acknowledge that they would make a poor crew to navigate a grab or gallivat. Yet he could find no other, for Angria's system of mixing the nationalities was cunningly devised to prevent any concerted schemes. If the attempt was to be made at all, it must be made with the men whom he knew intimately and with whom he had opportunities of discussing a plan.

But he was at once faced by the question of the Gujarati's trustworthiness. If there was any truth in Surendra Nath's suspicions, he would be quite ready to betray his fellows; and if looks and manner were any criterion, the suspicions were amply justified. True, the man had gained nothing by his former treachery, but that might not prevent him from repeating it, in the hope that a second betrayal would compel reward.

While Desmond was still pondering and puzzling, it happened one unfortunate day that Govinda the overseer was carried off within a few hours by what the Babu called the cramp—a disease now known as cholera. His place was immediately filled. But his successor was a very different man. He was not so capable as Govinda, and endeavored to make up for his incapacity by greater brutality and violence. The work of the yard fell off; he tried to mend matters by harrying the men. The whip and rattan were in constant use, but the result was less efficiency than ever, and he sought for the cause everywhere but in himself. The lives of the captives, bad enough before, became a continual torment.

Desmond fared no better than the rest. He lost the trifling privileges he had formerly enjoyed. The new overseer seemed to take a delight in bullying him. Many a night, when he returned to the shed, his back was raw where the lash had cut a livid streak through his thin dhoti. His companions suffered in common with him, Fuzl Khan more than any. For days at a time the man was incapacitated from work by the treatment meted out to him. Desmond felt that if the Gujarati had indeed purchased his life by betraying his comrades, he had made a dear bargain.

One night, when his eight companions were all asleep, and nothing could be heard but the regular calls of the sentries, the beating of tom toms in the town, and the howls of jackals prowling in the outskirts, Desmond gently woke the Babu.

"My friend, listen," he whispered, "I have something to say to you."

Surendra Nath turned over in his charpoy.

"Speak soft, I pray," he said.

"My head is on fire," continued Desmond. "I cannot sleep. I have been thinking. What is life worth to us? Can anything be worse than our present lot? Do you ever think of escape?"

"What good, sir? I have said so before. We are fettered; what can we do? There is but one thing that all men in our plight desire; that is death."

"Nonsense! I do not desire death. This life is hateful, but while we live there is something to hope for, and I for one am not content to endure lifelong misery. I mean to escape."

"It is easy to say, but the doing—that is impossible."

"How can we tell that unless we try? The men who tried to escape did not think it impossible. They might have succeeded—who can say?—if Fuzl Khan had not betrayed them."

"And he is still with us. He would betray us again."

"I am not sure of that. See what he has suffered! Today his whole body must have writhed with pain. But for the majum {a preparation of hemp} he has smoked and the plentiful ghi {clarified butter} we rubbed him with, he would be moaning now. I think he will be with us if we can only find out a way. You have been here longer than I; can not you help me to form a plan?"

"No, sahib; my brain is like running water. Besides, I am afraid. If we could get rid of our fetters and escape we might have to fight. I cannot fight; I am not a man of war; I am commercial."

"But you will help me if I can think of a plan?"

"I cannot persuade myself to promise, sahib. It is impossible. Death is the only deliverer."

Desmond was impatient of the man's lack of spirit. But he suffered no sign of his feeling to escape him. He had grown to have a liking for the Babu.

"Well, I shall not give up the idea," he said. "Perhaps I shall speak of it to you again."

Two nights later, in the dark and silent hours, Desmond reopened the matter. This time the conversation lasted much longer, and in the course of it the Babu became so much interested and indeed excited that he forgot his usual caution, and spoke in a high-pitched tone that woke the Biluchi on the other side. The man hurled abuse at the disturber of his repose, and Surendra Nath regained his caution and relapsed into his usual soft murmur. Desmond and he were still talking when the light of dawn stole into the shed; but though neither had slept, they went about their work during the day with unusual briskness and lightness of heart.

That evening, after the prisoners had eaten their supper in their respective eating rooms, they squatted against the outer wall of the shed for a brief rest before being locked up for the night. The Babu had promised to tell a story. The approaches to the yard were all guarded by the usual sentries, and in the distance could be heard the clanking of the warder's keys as he went from shed to shed performing his nightly office.

"The story! the story!" said one of the Marathas impatiently. "Why dost thou tarry, Babu?"

"I have eaten, Gousla, and when the belly is full the brain is sluggish. But the balance is adjusting itself, and in a little I will begin."

Through the farther gate came the warder. Desmond and his companions were the last with whom he had to deal. His keys jangling, he advanced slowly between two Marathas armed with matchlocks and two-edged swords.

The Babu had his back against the shed, the others were grouped about him, and at his left there was a vacant space. It was growing dusk.

"Hai, worthy jailer!" said Surendra Nath pleasantly, "I was about to tell the marvelous story of King Bhoya's golden throne. But I will even now check the stream at the source. Your time is precious. My comrades must wait until we get inside."

"Not so, Babu," said the warder gruffly. "Tell thy tale. Barik Allah, you nine are the last of my round. I will myself wait and hear, for thou hast a ready tongue, and the learning of a pundit {learned man, teacher}, Babu, and thy stories, after the day's work, are they not as honey poured on rice?"

"You honor me beyond my deserts. If you will deign to be seated!"

The warder marched to the vacant spot at the Babu's side, and squatted down, crossing his legs, his heavy bunch of keys lying on the skirt of his dhoti. The armed Marathas stood at a little distance, leaning on their matchlocks, within hearing of the Babu, and at spots where they could see anyone approaching from either end of the yard. It would not do for the warder to be found thus by the officer of the watch.

"It happened during the reign of the illustrious King Bhoya," began the Babu; then he caught his breath, looking strangely nervous.

"It is the heat, good jailer," he said hurriedly; "—of the illustrious King Bhoya, I said, that a poor ryot {peasant} named Yajnadatta, digging one day in his field, found there buried the divine throne of the incomparable King Vikramaditya. When his eyes were somewhat recovered from the dazzling vision, and he could gaze unblinking at the wondrous throne, he beheld that it was resplendent with thirty-two graven images, and adorned with a multitude of jewels: rubies and diamonds, pearls and jasper, crystal and coral and sapphires.

"Now the news of this wondrous discovery coming to the ears of King Bhoya, he incontinently caused the throne to be conveyed to his palace, and had it set in the midst of his hall of counsel that rose on columns of gold and silver, of coral and crystal. Then the desire came upon him to sit on this throne, and calling his wise men, he bade them choose a moment of good augury, and gave order to his servitors to make all things ready for his coronation. Whereupon his people brought curded milk, sandalwood, flowers, saffron, umbrellas, parasols, divers tails—tails of oxen, tails of peacocks; arrows, weapons of war, mirrors and other objects proper to be held by wedded women—all things, indeed, meet for a solemn festival, with a well-striped tiger skin to represent the seven continents of the earth; nothing was wanting of all the matters prescribed in the Shastras {holy books} for the solemn crowning of kings; and having thus fulfilled their duty, the servitors humbly acquainted his Majesty therewith. Then when the Guru {religious teacher}, the Purohita {hereditary priest of the royal house}, the Brahmans, the wise men, the councilors, the officers, the soldiers, the chief captain, had entered, the august King Bhoya drew near the throne, to the end that he might be anointed.

"But lo! the first of the carven figures that surrounded the throne thus spake and said: 'Harken, O King. That prince who is endowed with sovereign qualities; who shines before all others in wealth, in liberality, in mercy; who excels in heroism and in goodness; who is drawn by his nature to deeds of piety; who is full of might and majesty; that prince alone is worthy to sit upon this throne—no other, no meaner sovereign, is worthy. Harken, O King, to the story of the throne.'"

"Go on, Babu," said the jailer, as the narrator paused; "what said the graven image?"

"'There once lived,'" continued the Babu, "'in the city of Avanti, a king, Bartrihari by name. Having come to recognize the vanity of earthly things, this king one day left his throne and went as a jogi {ascetic} afar into the desert. His kingdom, being then without a head—for he had no sons, and his younger brother, the illustrious Vikramaditya, was traveling in far lands—fell into sore disorder, so that thieves and evildoers increased from day to day.

"'The wise men in their trouble sought diligently for a child having the signs of royalty, and in due time, having found one, Xatrya by name, they gave the kingdom into his charge. But in that land there dwelt a mighty jin {evil spirit}, Vetala Agni {spirit of fire}, who, when he heard of what the wise men had done, came forth on the night of the same day the young king had been enthroned and slew him and departed. And it befell that each time the councilors found a new king, lo, the Vetala Agni came forth and slew him.

"'Now upon a certain day, when the wise men, in sore trouble of heart, were met in council, there appeared among them the illustrious Vikramaditya, newly returned from long travel, who, when he had heard what was toward, said:

"'"O ye wise men and faithful, make me king without ado."

"'And the wise men, seeing that Vikramaditya was worthy of that dignity thus spake:

"'"From this day, O excellency, thou art king of the realm of Avanti."

"'Having in this fashion become king of Avanti, Vikramaditya busied himself all that day with the affairs of his kingdom, tasting the sweets of power; and at the fall of night he prepared, against the visit of the Vetala Agni, great store of heady liquors, all kinds of meat, fish, bread, confections, rice boiled with milk and honey, sauces, curded milk, butter refined, sandalwood, bouquets and garlands, divers sorts of sweet-scented things; and all these he kept in his palace, and himself remained therein, reclining in full wakefulness upon his fairest bed.

"'Then into this palace came the Vetala Agni, sword in hand, and went about to slay the august Vikramaditya. But the king said:

"'"Harken, O Vetala Agni; seeing that thy Excellency has come for to cause me to perish, it is not doubtful that thou wilt succeed in thy purpose; albeit, all these viands thou dost here behold have been brought together for thy behoof; eat, then, whatsoever thou dost find worthy; afterwards thou shalt work thy will."

"'And the Vetala Agni, having heard these words, filled himself with this great store of food, and, marvelously content with the king, said unto him:

"'"Truly I am content, and well disposed towards thee, and I give thee the realm of Avanti; sit thou in the highest place and taste its joys; but take heed of one thing: every day shalt thou prepare for me a repast like unto this."

"'With these words, the Vetala Agni departed from that spot and betook him into his own place.

"'Then for a long space did Vikramaditya diligently fulfill that command; but by and by, growing aweary of feeding the Vetala Agni, he sought counsel of the jogi Trilokanatha, who had his dwelling on the mount of Kanahakrita. The jogi, perceiving the manifold merits of the incomparable Vikramaditya, was moved with compassion towards him, and when he had long meditated and recited sundry mantras {hymns and prayers}, he thus spake and said:

"'"Harken, O King. From the sacred tank of Shakravatar spring alleys four times seven, as it were branches from one trunk, to wit, seven to the north, seven to the east, seven to the west, and seven to the south. Of the seven alleys springing to the north do you choose the seventh, and in the seventh alley the seventh tree from the sacred tank, and on the seventh branch of the seventh tree thou shalt find the nest of a bulbul. Within that nest thou shalt discover a golden key."'"

The Babu was now speaking very slowly, and an observer watching Desmond would have perceived that his eyes were fixed with a strange look of mingled eagerness and anxiety upon the storyteller. But no one observed this; every man in the group was intent upon the story, hanging upon the lips of the eloquent Babu.

"'Having obtained the golden key,'" continued the narrator, "'thou shalt return forthwith to thy palace, and the same night, when the Vetala Angi has eaten and drunk his fill, thou shalt in his presence lay the key upon the palm of thy left hand, thus—'" (here the Babu quietly took up a key hanging from the bunch attached to the warder's girdle, and laid it upon his left palm). "'Then shalt thou say to the Vetala:

"'"O illustrious Vetala, tell me, I pray thee, what doth this golden key unlock?"

"'Then if the aspect of the Vetala be fierce, fear not, for he must needs reply: such is the virtue of the key; and by his words thou shalt direct thy course. Verily it is for such a trial that the gods have endowed thee with wisdom beyond the common lot of men.

"'Vikramaditya performed in all points the jogi's bidding; and having in the presence of the Vetala laid the golden key upon the palm of his hand, a voice within bade him ask the question:

"'"O Vetala, what art thou apt to do? What knowest thou?"

"'And the Vetala answered:

"'"All that I have in my mind, that I am apt to perform. I know all things."

"'And the king said:

"'"Speak, then; what is the number of my years?"

"'And the Vetala answered:

"'"The years of thy life are a hundred."

"'Then said the king:

"'"I am troubled because in the tale of my years there are two gaps; grant me, then, one year in excess of a hundred, or from the hundred take one."

"'And the Vetala answered:

"'"O King, thou art in the highest degree good, liberal, merciful, just, lord of thyself, and honored of gods and of Brahmans; the measure of joys that are ordained to fill thy life is full; to add anything thereto, to take anything therefrom, are alike impossible."

"'Having heard these words, the king was satisfied, and the Vetala departed unto his own place.

"'Upon the night following the king prepared no feast against the coming of the Vetala, but girt himself for fight. The Vetala came, and seeing nothing in readiness for the repast, but, on the contrary, all things requisite to a combat, he waxed wroth and said:

"'"O wicked and perverse king, why hast thou made ready nothing for my pleasure this night?"

"'And the king answered: "Since thou canst neither add to my length of years, nor take anything therefrom, why should I make ready a repast for thee continually and without profit?"

"'The Vetala made answer:

"'"Ho—'tis thus that thou speakest! Now, truly, come fight with me; this night will I devour thee."

"'At these words the king rose up in wrath to smite the Vetala, and held him in swift and dexterous combat for a brief space. And the Vetala, having thus made proof of the might and heroism of the king, and being satisfied, spake and said:

"'"O King, thou art mighty indeed; I am content with thy valor; now, then, ask me what thou wilt."

"'And the king answered:

"'"Seeing that thou art well-disposed towards me, grant me this grace, that when I call thee, thou wilt in that same instant stand at my side."

"'And the Vetala, having granted this grace to the king, departed unto his own place.'"

The Babu waved his hands as a sign that the story was ended. He was damp with perspiration, and in his glance at Desmond there was a kind of furtive appeal for approval.

"Thou speakest well, Babu," said the warder. "But what befell King Bhoya when the graven image had thus ended his saying?"

"That, good jailer, is another story, and if you please to hear it another night, I will do my poor best to satisfy you."

"Well, the hour is late."

The warder rose to his feet and resumed his official gruffness.

"Come, rise; it is time I locked your fetters; and, in good sooth, mine is no golden key."

He chuckled as he watched the prisoners file one by one into the shed. Following them, he quickly locked each in turn to his staple in the wall and went out, bolting and double-locking the door behind him.

"You did well, my friend," whispered Desmond in English to the Babu.

"My heart flutters like the wing of a bulbul," answered the Babu; "but I am content, sahib."

"But say, Surendra Nath," remarked one of the Maratha captives, "last time you told us that story you said nothing of the golden key."

"Ah!" replied the Babu, "you are thinking of the story told by the second graven image in King Vikramaditya's throne. I will tell you that tomorrow."

Chapter 12: In which our hero is offered freedom at the price of honor; and Mr. Diggle finds that others can quote Latin on occasion.

Next morning, when Desmond left the shed with his fellow prisoners, he took with him, secreted in a fold of his dhoti, a small piece of clay. It had been given him overnight by the Babu. An hour or two later, happening to be for a moment alone in the tool shop, he took out the clay and examined it carefully. It was a moment for which he had waited and longed with feverish impatience. The clay was a thin strip, oval in shape, and slightly curved. In the middle of it was the impression, faint but clear, of a key. A footstep approaching, he concealed the clay again in his garment, and, when a workman entered, was busily plying a chisel upon a deal plank.

Before he left the tool shop, he secreted with the clay a scrap of steel and a small file. That day, and for several days after, whenever chance gave him a minute or two apart from his fellow workmen, he employed the precious moments in diligently filing the steel to the pattern on the clay. It was slow work: all too tedious for his eager thought. But he worked at his secret task with unfailing patience, and at the week's end had filed the steel to the likeness of the wards of a key.

That night, when his "co-mates in exile" were asleep, he gently inserted the steel in the lock of his ankle band. He tried to turn it. It stuck fast; the wards did not fit. He was not surprised. Before he made the experiment he had felt that it would fail; the key was indeed a clumsy, ill-shapen instrument. But next day he began to work on another piece of steel, and on this he spent every spare minute he could snatch. This time he found himself able to work faster. Night and morning he looked searchingly at the key on the warder's bunch, and afterward tried to cut the steel to the pattern that was now, as it were, stamped upon his brain.

He wished he could test his second model in the morning light before the warder came, and correct it then. But to do so would involve discovery by his fellow captives; the time to take them into his confidence was not yet. He had perforce to wait till dead of night before he could tell whether the changes, more and more delicate and minute, made upon his key during the day were effective. And the Babu was fretful; having done his part admirably, as Desmond told him, in working the key into his story, he seemed to expect that the rest would be easy, and did not make account of the long labor of the file.

At length a night came when, inserting the key in the lock, Desmond felt it turn easily. Success at last! As he heard the click, he felt an extraordinary sense of elation. Quietly unclasping the fetter, he removed it from his ankle, and stood free. If it could be called free—to be shut up in a locked and barred shed in the heart of one of the strongest fortresses in Hindostan! But at least his limbs were at liberty. What a world of difference there was between that and his former state!

Should he inform the Babu? He felt tempted to do so, for it was to Surendra Nath's ingenuity in interpolating the incident of the key into a well-known story that he owed the clay pattern of the warder's key. But Surendra Nath was excitable; he was quite capable of uttering a yell of delight that would waken the other men and force a premature disclosure. Desmond decided to wait for a quiet moment next day before telling the Babu of his success. So he replaced his ankle band, locked the catch, and lay down to the soundest and most refreshing sleep he had enjoyed for many a night.

He had only just reached the workshop next morning when a peon came with a message that Angria Rho {a chief or prince} required his instant attendance at the palace. He began to quake in spite of himself. Could the prince have discovered already that the lock of his fetters had been tampered with? Desmond could scarcely believe it. He had made his first test in complete darkness; nothing had broken the silence save the one momentary click; and the warder, when he unloosed him, had not examined the lock. What if he were searched and the precious key were found upon him? It was carefully hidden in a fold of his dhoti. There was no opportunity of finding another hiding place for it; he must go as he was and trust that suspicion had not been aroused. But it was with a galloping pulse that he followed the peon out of the dockyard, within the walls of the fort, and into the hall where he had had his first interview with the Pirate.

His uneasiness was hardly allayed when he saw that Angria was in company with Diggle. Both were squatting on the carpeted dais; no other person was in the room. Having ushered him in, the peon withdrew, and Desmond was alone with the two men he had most cause to fear. Diggle was smiling, Angria's eyes were gleaming, his mobile lips working as with impatience, if not anxiety.

The Pirate spoke quickly, imperiously.

"You have learnt our tongue, Firangi {originally applied by the natives to the Portuguese, then to any European} boy?" he said.

"I have done my best, huzur," replied Desmond in Urdu.

"That is well. Now harken to what I say. You have pleased me; my jamadar {head servant} speaks well of you; but you are my slave, and, if I will it, you will always be my slave. You would earn your freedom?"

"I am in your august hands, huzur," said Desmond diplomatically.

"You may earn your freedom in one way," continued Angria in the same rapid, impatient tone. "My scouts report that an English fleet has passed up the coast towards Bombay. My spies tell me that in Bombay a large force is collected under the command of that sur ka batcha {son of a pig} Clive. But I cannot learn the purpose of this armament. The dogs may think, having taken my fortress of Suwarndrug, to come and attack me here. Or they may intend to proceed against the French at Hyderabad. It is not convenient for me to remain in this uncertainty. You will go to Bombay and learn these things of which I am in ignorance and come again and tell me. I will then set you free."

"I cannot do it, huzur."

Desmond's reply came without a moment's hesitation. To act as a spy upon his own countrymen—how could Angria imagine that an English boy would ever consent to win his freedom on such terms?

His simple words roused the Maratha to fury. He sprang to his feet and angrily addressed Diggle, who had also risen, and stood at his side, still smiling. Diggle replied to his vehement words in a tone too low for Desmond to catch what he said. Angria turned to the boy again.

"I will not only set you free; I will give you half a lakh of rupees; you shall have a place at my court, or, if you please, I will recommend you to another prince in whose service you may rise to wealth and honor. If you refuse, I shall kill you; no, I shall not kill you, for death is sweet to a slave; I shall inflict on you the tortures I reserve for those who provoke my anger; you shall lose your ears, your nose, and—"

Diggle again interposed.

"Pardon me, bhai {brother}," Desmond heard him say, "that is hardly the way to deal with a boy of my nation. If you will deign to leave him to me, I think that in a little I shall find means to overcome his hesitation."

"But even then, how can I trust the boy? He may give his word to escape me; then betray me to his countrymen. I have no faith in the Firangi."

"Believe me, if he gives his word he will keep it. That is the way with us."

"It is not your way."

"I am no longer of them," said Diggle with consummate aplomb. "Dismiss him now; I shall do my best with him."

"Then you must hasten. I give you three days: if within that time he has not consented, I shall do to him all that I have said, and more also."

"I do not require three days to make up my mind," said Desmond quietly. "I cannot do what—"

"Hush, you young fool!" cried Diggle angrily in English.

Turning to the Pirate he added: "The boy is as stiff-necked as a pig; but even a pig can be led if you ring his snout. I beg you leave him to me."

"Take him away!" exclaimed Angria, clapping his hands.

Two attendants came in answer to his summons, and Desmond was led off and escorted by them to his workshop.

Angry and disgusted as he was with both the Maratha and Diggle, he was still more anxious at this unexpected turn in his affairs. He had but three days! If he had not escaped before the fourth day dawned, his fate would be the most terrible that could befall a living creature. The tender mercies of the wicked are cruel! He had seen, among the prisoners, some of the victims of Angria's cruelty; they had suffered tortures too terrible to be named, and dragged out a life of unutterable degradation and misery, longing for death as a blissful end. With his quick imagination he already felt the hands of the torturers upon him; and for all the self control which his life in Gheria had induced, he was for some moments so wholly possessed by terror that he could scarcely endure the consciousness of existence.

But when the first tremors were past, and he began to go about his usual tasks, and was able to think calmly, not for an instant did he waver in his resolve. Betray his countrymen! It was not to be thought of. Give his word to Angria and then forswear himself! Ah! even Diggle knew that he would not do that. Freedom, wealth, a high place in some prince's court! He would buy none of them at the price of his honor. Diggle was false, unspeakably base; let him do Angria's work if he would; Desmond Burke would never stoop to it.

He scarcely argued the matter explicitly with himself: it was settled in Angria's presence by his instinctive repulsion. But it was not in a boy like Desmond, young, strong, high spirited, tamely to fold his hands before adverse fate. He had three days: it would go hard with him if he did not make good use of them. He felt a glow of thankfulness that the first step, and that a difficult one, had been taken, providentially, as it seemed, the very night before this crisis in his fate. His future plan had already outlined itself; it was necessary first to gain over his companions in captivity; that done, he hoped within the short period allowed him to break prison and turn his back forever on this place of horror.

It seemed to his eager impatience that that day would never end. It was November, and the beginning of the cold season, and the work of the dockyard, being urgent, was carried on all day without the usual break during the hot middle hours, so that he found no opportunity of consulting his fellows. Further, the foremen of the yard were specially active. The Pirate had been for some time fearful lest the capture of Suwarndrug should prove to be the prelude to an assault upon his stronger fort and headquarters at Gheria, and to meet the danger he had had nine new vessels laid down. Three of them had been finished, but the work had been much interrupted by the rains, and the delay in the completion of the remaining six had irritated him. He had visited his displeasure upon the foremen. After his interview with Desmond he summoned them to his presence and threatened them with such dire punishment if the work was not more rapidly pushed on, that they had used the lash more furiously and with even less discrimination than ever. Consequently when Desmond met his companions in the shed at night he found them all in desperate indignation and rage. He had seen nothing more of Diggle; he must strike while the iron was hot.

When they were locked in, and all was quiet outside, the prisoners gave vent, each in his own way, to their feelings. For a time Desmond listened, taking no part in their lamentation and cursing. But when the tide of impotent fury ebbed, and there was a lull, he said quietly:

"Are my brothers dogs that, suffering these things, they merely whine?"

The quiet level tones, so strangely contrasting with the tones of fierceness and hate that were still ringing in the ears of the unhappy prisoners, had an extraordinary effect. There was dead silence in the shed: it seemed that every man was afraid to speak. Then one of the Marathas said in a whisper:

"What do you mean, sahib?"

"What do I mean? Surely it must be clear to any man. Have we not sat long enough on the carpet of patience?"

Again the silence remained for a space unbroken.

"You, Gulam Mahomed," continued Desmond, addressing one of the Biluchis whom he considered the boldest—"have you never thought of escape?"

"Allah knows!" said the man in an undertone. "But He knows that I remember what happened a year ago. Fuzl Khan can tell the sahib something about that."

A fierce cry broke from the Gujarati, who had been moaning under his charpoy in anguish from the lashings he had undergone that day. Desmond heard him spring up; but if he had meant to attack the Biluchi, the clashing of his fetters reminded him of his helplessness. He cursed the man, demanding what he meant.

"Nothing," returned Gulam Mahomed. "But you were the only man, Allah knows, who escaped the executioner."

"Pig, and son of a pig!" cried Fuzl Khan, "I knew nothing of the plot. If any man says I did he lies. They did it without me; some evil jin must have heard their whisperings. They failed. They were swine of Canarese."

"Do not let us quarrel," said Desmond. "We are all brothers in misfortune; we ought to be as close knit as the strands of a rope. Here is our brother Fuzl Khan, the only man of his gang who did not try to escape, and see how he is treated! Could he be worse misused? Would not death be a boon?

"Is it not so, Fuzl Khan?"

The Gujarati assented with a passionate cry.

"As for the rest of us, it is only a matter of time. I am the youngest of you, and not the hardest worked, yet I feel that the strain of our toil is wearing me out. What must it be with you? You are dying slowly. If we make an attempt to escape and fail we shall die quickly, that is all the difference. What is to be is written, is it not so, Shaik Abdullah?"

"Even so, sahib," replied the second Biluchi, "it is written. Who can escape his fate?"

"And what do you say, Surendra Nath?"

"The key, sahib," whispered the Babu in English; "what of the key?"

"Speak in Urdu, Babu," said Desmond quickly. "Don't agree at once."

Surendra Nath was quick witted; he perceived that Desmond did not wish the others to suspect that there had been any confidences between them.

"I am a coward, the sahib knows," he said in Urdu. "I could not give blows; I should die. It was told us today that the English are about to attack this fort. They will set us free; we need run no risks."

"Wah!" exclaimed one of the Mysoreans. "If the Firangi get into the fort, we shall all be murdered."

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9     Next Part
Home - Random Browse