In Clive's Command - A Story of the Fight for India
by Herbert Strang
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"There's Surendra Nath and his father," said Mr. Merriman, as they came near the steps.

His jolly face beamed when he stepped on to the ghat {landing stage}.

"Hullo, Babu!" he said, "glad to see you again."

He shook hands with both the men; the elder was much like his son, a slightly-built Bengali, with white hair and very bright eyes. Both were clad in dhotis of pure white; their legs were bare from the knee, their feet shod with sandals. When the greeting had passed between them and their master, the old man moved towards Desmond, put his hands together, and made a deep salaam.

"I have heard what the sahib did for my son. I thank the sahib," he said.

"Yes, 'twas excellent good fortune for Surendra Nath," said Mr. Merriman. "I knew you would be overjoyed to see your son again. But how is the bibi {lady}, and the chota {young} bibi?"

"They were well, sahib, when last I heard. They are on a visit to Watts Sahib, at Cossimbazar."

Merriman's face fell, but he had no time to say more, for he was accosted by a friend.

"Glad to see you back, Mr. Merriman. I've wanted your voice on the Council for some time past."

"Is anything wrong, Mr. Holwell?" asked Merriman anxiously.

"Everything is wrong. Alivirdi died a fortnight ago; Sirajuddaula has stepped into his shoes; and Drake has made a mess of everything, with Manningham's and Frankland's assistance. I want you to come and dine with me this evening; we must have a serious talk; I've asked two or three men of our sort in anticipation of your consent."

"Very well. Let me present my friend, Mr. Burke. He escaped from Gheria; you've heard that Colonel Clive captured the place?"

"Yes; we had despatches from Admiral Watson some days ago. I had heard of Mr. Burke's adventures—

"Your servant, sir; I am delighted to meet you—

"Well, Merriman, three o'clock; I will not detain you now; you'll want to get home."

Mr. Merriman's bearers were at hand with his palanquin; he got into it; the men set off at a swinging pace, warning the bystanders with their cry of "Tok! Tok!" and Desmond walked by the side of the chair, amused to watch the self-important airs of the peon who went in front. They passed the fort and the Company's house, and arrived at length at a two-story flat-roofed house with a veranda, the windows filled, not with oyster shells as at Bombay, but with thin screens of reeds.

"Here we are," said Merriman with a sigh of relief.

"Now I'll hand you over to the baniya {factotum}; he'll show you to your room. I'm vexed that my wife is not here; of course she didn't know when to expect me; and Mrs. Watts is an old friend of hers. 'Tis a relief in one way; for Mr. Watts is a shrewd fellow—he's head of our factory at Cossimbazar, and senior member of Council here—and he would have sent the ladies away if he scented danger. Sorry I shall have to leave you; I must dine with Mr. Holwell; he's our zamindar—judge of the Cutcheri court and collector of taxes: a fine fellow, the most cool-headed man on the Council. But the khansaman will give you something to eat: and I'll be back as soon as I can. You can take it easy on the veranda, and you'll find a hookah if you care to try it."

"No, thanks," said Desmond with a smile; "I've no fancy that way."

Shortly afterwards Mr. Merriman left the house in his palanquin, wearing the short white calico jacket that was then de rigueur at dinner parties. It was late before he returned. There was an anxious and worried look on his face, but he said cheerily:

"Well, how have you been getting on?"

"I've been reading, sir: I found a volume of Mr. Fielding's Amelia, and 'twas a change to read after eighteen months without setting eyes on a book. I hope you had a good dinner."

"'Pon my soul, I don't know. None of us knows, I warrant. We had too much to talk about to think about our appetites. Two or three members of Council were there, and Captain Minchin, the military commandant. Things are looking black, Desmond. Alivirdi is dead, and, as I expected, his scoundrel of a grandson, Sirajuddaula, is the new Subah. He has imprisoned one of his rivals, his aunt, and is marching against another, his cousin Shaukat Jung; and 'tis the common talk that our turn will come next."

"But why should he be at odds with us?"

"Why, to begin with, he's a native and hates us; thinks we're too rich, and though he's rich enough he would like to get what we have and turn us out. Then our president Mr. Drake has acted in the weakest possible way; the very way to encourage the Subah. Instead of siding with Sirajuddaula from the first, as he might well have done, because the rivals never had the ghost of a chance, he shilly shallied. Then he offended him by giving shelter to a fellow named Krishna Das, who came in a month ago with fifty sacks of treasure from Murshidabad; it really belonged to the Subah's aunt, but the Subah had an eye on it and he's furious at losing it. That wasn't enough. Mr. Watts at Cossimbazar had warned the Council here of the new Subah's unfriendliness; they talk at Murshidabad of our weak defenses and how easy it would be to overcome us. He advised Mr. Drake to keep on good terms with the Subah; but what must he do but turn out of the place a man named Narayan Das, the brother of the new Nawab's chief spy."

"Sure you don't allow the enemy's spies to live in Calcutta?"

"Sure we can't help ourselves. The place is full of them—spies of the Subah, and of the French too. We can't do anything. We may suspect, but if we raised a hand we should stir up a hornets' nest, as indeed Mr. Drake appears to be doing.

"But that isn't all. The Company's ship Delaware came in a fortnight ago with the news that a French fleet is fitting out under Count Lally, at Brest; 'tis supposed war will break out again and the fleet is intended to attack us here. So that we may have the Subah making common cause with the French to crush us. He'll turn against the French then, but that won't save us. On top of that comes a fakir from Murshidabad demanding in the Subah's name that we should stop work on our fortifications; the insolence of the wretch passes all bounds. Mr. Drake properly refused the demand; he said we were repairing our defenses in case we needed 'em against the French; but he undertook not to start any new works, which was a mistake.

"Altogether, Desmond, things are in a pretty mess. I'm afraid Mr. Drake is not the man to cope with a grave situation; but he has the majority of the Council with him, and we can't alter it. Now I think we had better turn in; perhaps I shall feel better after a good sleep; I am certainly far from easy in mind."

Desmond slept like a top on his light mattress, enveloped in his mosquito curtains. In the morning he accompanied Mr. Merriman to his daftarkhanah {office}, where he found a large staff under the superintendence of the muhri {chief clerk}, Surendra Nath's father. He returned to the house for tiffin, spent the afternoon indoors over his novel, and after the three o'clock dinner accompanied his host in a walk through the English quarter.

As they returned, Mr. Merriman suggested that they should walk down to Mr. Watts' house near the river to see if any news had arrived from Cossimbazar. On the way they passed a large pakka {substantial} house, surrounded by a compound and a low wall.

"We were talking yesterday about spies," said Merriman. "In that house lives a man who in my belief is a spy, and a treacherous scoundrel—actually living next door to Mr. Lyre, the keeper of our military stores. He's a Sikh named Omichand, and the richest merchant in the city. He owns half of it; he's my landlord, confound him! For forty years he was the contractor for supplying the Company with cloth, but we found out that he was cheating us right and left, and dismissed him. Yet he's very friendly to us, which is a bad sign. 'Twas he who brought Krishna Das with his treasure into the place, and my belief is, he did it merely to embroil us with the Subah. Mr. Drake is disposed to pooh-pooh the idea, but I incline to Mr. Holwell's opinion, that Omichand's a schemer and a villain, ready to betray us to French, Dutch, or Gentoos as it suits him."

"Why don't you turn him out, then?" asked Desmond.

"My dear boy, he's far too powerful. And we'd rather keep him in sight. While he's here we can tell something of what is going on; his house is pretty well watched; but if he were away he might try all manner of tricks and we should never learn anything about them. Our policy is to be very sweet to him—to make friends of the mammon of unrighteousness, as Mr. Bellamy, our padre, puts it. You're bound to see him one of these days, the hoary-headed old villain."

Though Mr. Merriman fully relied on Mr. Watts' discretion to send his visitors back to Calcutta if there were the least sign of danger, he was so anxious to have his wife and daughter with him that next day he sent a special messenger up the river asking them to return as soon as they could. He could not fetch them, public affairs not allowing him to leave Calcutta at once, but he promised to meet them somewhere on the way.

He spent the day in making himself acquainted with the business that had been done during his absence. A valuable consignment of silks, muslins, and taffeties was expected from Cossimbazar, he learned, and as soon as it arrived the Hormuzzeer would be able to sail for Penang.

"A private venture," he said to Desmond, "nothing to do with the Company."

Desmond expressed his surprise that the Company's officials were at liberty to engage in private trading.

"Why, bless you, how could we live otherwise? Do you imagine I got rich on the Company? What do you suppose my salary is as member of Council? 'Tis just forty pounds. The factors get fifteen and the writers five: Colonel Clive began at five pounds a year: so you may guess that we have to do something to keep flesh on our bones.

"And that reminds me of a proposal I wished to make to you. You have a little money from the sale of the Pirate's grab, and you'll have more by and by when the Gheria prize money is distributed. Why not put some of it into the Hormuzzeer? Let me buy some goods for you, and send 'em to Penang: they'll fetch top prices there, especially in the present state of trade. 'Twill be an excellent investment."

"Thank you, sir, I'll be glad to follow your advice."

"That's right. I'll see about it at once, and the sooner these things come from Cossimbazar the better. The delay is vexing, and I fear I'll have to change my agent there."

Mr. Merriman being so much occupied with business and public affairs, Desmond had much time to himself. He soon made friends among the junior merchants and factors, and in their company went about Calcutta.

Fort William was built near the river, the factory house in the center of the inclosure. Around it on three sides were the houses of individual merchants and officers. A wide avenue known as the Lal Bazar led from the ravelin of the fort past the courthouse to the native part of the town. On one side of the avenue was the Park or Lal Bagh, with a great tank by which a band played in the evening. Around the town was the incomplete Maratha ditch.

Desmond became the object of much kindly attention from the Company's servants and their families. Everyone was eager to hear from his own lips the story of his adventures, and invitations to dinners and routs and card parties poured upon him. He accepted one or two and politely excused himself from the rest, not from any want of sociability, but from motives of prudence. His kind host had already given him a friendly warning; some of the writers and younger servants of the Company were wild spirits, and spent more time than was good for them in cards and revels.

On the evening of the third day after his arrival he went down to the river to watch the arrival of some country vessels. There was the usual crowd at the ghat, and as Desmond gradually worked his way through it he suddenly saw, just in front of him, two men whose backs were very familiar. They were in the dress of seamen: one was tall and thin, the other broad and brawny, and Desmond did not need his glimpse of the iron hook to be sure that the men were none other than his old friend Bulger and Mr. Toley, the melancholy mate. They were standing side by side watching in silence the arrival of the boats.

Desmond edged his way to them until he was within arm's length of Bulger's hook. He stood for a moment looking at them, imagining their surprise when they saw him, wondering if their pleasure would be as keen as his own. Both appeared rather battered; Mr. Toley's expression was never merry, and he was neither more nor less melancholy than usual; but Bulger's habitual cheerfulness seemed to have left him; his air was moody and downcast.

How came they here? The Good Intent being an interloper, it was not at all likely that she had ventured to put in at Calcutta.

By and by Bulger seemed to become aware that someone was gazing at him, for he turned round slowly. Desmond could not but smile at his extraordinary change of expression. His first look of blank amazement quickly gave place to one of almost boyish delight, and taking an eager step forward he exclaimed:

"By thunder, 'tis Mr. Burke or his ghost! Bless my heart! Ho! shake hands, matey; this is a sight for bad eyes!"

"Glad to see you, Bulger," said Desmond quietly; "and you, too, Mr. Toley."

Mr. Toley had shown no surprise; but then, nothing ever surprised Mr. Toley.

"Sure I'm rejoiced," he said. "We had given you up for lost."

His hearty hand grip was more convincing than his words, though, indeed, Desmond had good reason to know the real kindliness that always lay behind his outward solemnity of manner.

"You're better in togs than when I seed you last, sir," said Bulger, gripping his hand again. "Which you look quite the gentleman; got a berth as supercargo, sir?"

"Not yet, Bulger," replied Desmond, laughing. "How's Captain Barker?"

Bulger spat out a quid of tobacco and hitched up his breeches.

"I don't know how Captain Barker is, and what's more, I don't care," he said. "Me and Barker en't friends: leastways, not on speakin' terms; which I will say, hang Captain Barker, topsy versy, any way you like; and I don't care who hears me."

"What has happened?"

"Happened! Why, sir, Mr. Toley'll tell you what happened. He knows the thus, therefore, and whereupon of it."

The good fellow was itching to tell, but as in duty bound deferred to his superior officer.

"Go on, Bulger," said the American, "you've got a looser tongue than me."

"Which I don't deny, sir. Two days ago—'twas at Chandernagore, where the Good Intent's been laid up for a matter a' weeks—the captain he went an' forgot hisself, sir; clean forgot hisself, an' lifted his hand to Mr. Toley; ay, hit him, sir. Wunst it was, sir, on'y wunst; then 'twas Mr. Toley his turn. Ah, an' I warrant Captain Barker's in his bunk today. Never did I see sich a sight all the years I've been afloat, an' that's saying something. There was captain spread out on deck, sir, with his eyes bunged up an' a tooth or two that had lost their bearin's, and all his bones wonderin' if they was ever goin' to get joined again.

"That's the why and wherefore of it, sir. Well, in course, 'twas no kiss-an'-be-friends arter that; so, bein' in a mounseer's place, Mr. Toley took French leave, which I did the same, and here we are a-lookin' for a job.

"But Lor' bless me! what's happened to you, Mr. Burke? When you didn't come aboard at that there Gheria, Captain Barker he says, 'Log that there knave Burke a deserter,' says he. But I says to Mr. Toley, 'I may be wrong, sir,' says I, 'but I lay my whiskers that Diggle has been an' sold him to the Pirate, an' that's the last we shall ever see of as nice a young fellow as ever hauled on a hawser.' How did you get out of the Pirate's den, sir?"

"That's a long story, Bulger. I'll tell you all in good time. You're looking for a job, are you? Well, I happen to know of a skipper here—a good man: maybe he'll have a berth for a seasoned salt like you. I'll present you to him, and I know he'll do what he can for you."

Before he left the men, Desmond took Mr. Toley aside.

"Mr. Toley," he said, "my friend Mr. Merriman wants a mate for one of his vessels, as I happen to know. You would be willing to sign on?"

"I would, sir. I'm a man of few words."

"Very well; come up to Mr. Merriman's house by the Rope Walk and we'll see what he says."

That same day Mr. Merriman invited the American to dinner, and engaged him, to Desmond's surprise, as first mate for the Hormuzzeer, with Bulger as bo'sun.

"Don't look so blue," he said to Desmond when Mr. Toley had gone. "He will, of course, take your place. The fact is, I've taken a fancy to you, and I think you can do better than by serving as mate on a coasting vessel. Look in at the daftarkhanah sometimes, and get Surendra Nath to explain something of our business methods."

He said no more at that time, and Desmond felt no little curiosity about his host's intentions.

One evening Desmond was sitting alone on the veranda, reading, awaiting Mr. Merriman's return from a meeting of the Council to which he had been hastily summoned. Hearing a footstep, he looked up, and was surprised to see, instead of Mr. Merriman, as he expected, Bulger hastening up with an air of excitement.

"Mr. Burke, sir, what d'you think I've seed? I could hardly believe my own eyes. I was walkin' down towards the fort when I seed two men goin' into a big house. They was Englishmen, leastways white men, and I may be wrong, but I bet my boots one on 'em was that there soft-speakin' villain Diggle."

"Diggle!" exclaimed Desmond, springing up. "You must be mistaken, Bulger."

"I may be wrong, sir, but I never remembers any time when I was."

"What house did he go into?"

"That I can't tell you, sir, not bein' sure o' my bearin's."

"But you could point it out?"

"'Course I could. Rather. Just so."

"Then I'll came along with you, and you can show me. If it is Diggle, we must have him arrested."

"True, an' I'll knot the rope for his neck."

"How long ago was this?"

"Not a quarter of an hour, sir. I comed up at once."

The two set off together. They quickly reached the house; Desmond recognized it as Omichand's. The evening was closing in, but no lights were visible through the chiks {hanging screens made of thin strips of bamboo} that covered the windows. While Desmond was considering, two figures stepped down from the veranda and walked rapidly across the compound towards the gate in the wall.

At the first glance Desmond saw that Bulger had not been mistaken. The taller of the two figures was disguised, but it was impossible to mistake the gloved right hand. It was Diggle to a certainty.

"Are you game to capture them?" said Desmond.

Bulger grunted and gave a twist to his hook.

"I'll take Diggle," added Desmond: "you go for the other man."

They waited in the shadow of the wall. The gate opened, the two men came out, and in an instant Desmond and his companion dashed forward. Taken by surprise, the men had no time to defend themselves. With his left hand Desmond caught at Diggle's sword arm, and, pointing his rapier at his heart, said:

"You are my prisoner, Mr. Diggle."

At the same moment Bulger had caught the second man by the throat, and raising his formidable hook, cried:

"Heave to, matey, or I'll spoil your mug for you."

The man uttered an exclamation in French, which ended in a wheeze as Bulger's strong fingers clutched his windpipe.

But the next moment an unlooked-for diversion occurred. Attracted by the sound of the rapid scuffle, a number of natives armed with lathis {bludgeons} rushed across the compound into the street, and came swiftly to the rescue. Desmond and his companion had perforce to release their prisoners and turn to defend themselves. With their backs against the wall they met the assailants, Desmond with his rapier, Bulger with his hook, each dexterously warding off the furious blows of the excited natives. Diggle and the Frenchman took instant advantage of the opportunity to slip away, and the Englishmen had already got home more than one shrewd blow, provoking yells of pain from the attackers, when the onslaught suddenly ceased, and the natives stood rigid, as if under a spell. Looking round, Desmond saw at the gate a bent old figure with dusky, wrinkled face and prominent eyes. He wore a turban in which a jewel sparkled, and his white garment was girt with a yellow sash.

"What is this, sahib?" he said severely in careful English, addressing Desmond.

"'Tis pretty plain what it is," said Desmond somewhat hotly; "we have been set upon by these six ruffians."

The newcomer motioned with his hand, and the men slunk away.

"I regret, sahib. The men are badmashes; Calcutta is unhappily in a disturbed state."

"Badmashes or not, they came from your house—if this is your house."

"It is my house, sahib. My name is Omichand. I must inquire how the badmashes came to be in my compound. I fear my darwan {doorkeeper} is at fault."

"And what about the two men?"

"The two men, sahib?"

"Yes, the two Europeans who came first from the house, and were protected by these ruffians?"

"You must be mistaken, sahib. English sahibs do not visit at the houses of Indian gentlemen. If the sahib had been longer in Calcutta he would know that."

A smile flickered on the Indian's face, but it was gone instantly. Desmond was nonplussed. It was useless to contradict the merchant; he was clearly not disposed to give any information; Diggle was gone. All he could do was to return and report the matter to Mr. Merriman.

"Come along, Bulger," he said, with an unceremonious gesture to Omichand. "We can do no good here."

"The old Ananias!" growled Bulger, as they walked away. "What in thunder is Diggle's game here? I'd give a year's 'baccy to have a chanst o' usin' my hook on him."

Mr. Merriman looked grave when he heard what had happened.

"To think of that villain once more escaping our clutches! The other fellow was a Frenchman, you say? There's mischief brewing. Sure if I was president I'd be tempted to arrest that wily old Omichand. Not that it would be of much use, probably. Peloti is a bold fellow to venture here. You are sure 'twas he?"

"Absolutely. His disguise was good: he has altered his face in some way, and his dress is altogether changed; but I couldn't mistake the covered hand."

"'Tis an odd thing, that mitten. Probably it conceals some defect; the man's as vain as a peacock. The mitten is a thing by which he may be traced, and I'll send my peons to start inquiries tomorrow. But I've something to say to you: something to propose. The Hormuzzeer is ready to sail, save for that consignment at Cossimbazar I mentioned. My agent there is an Armenian named Coja Solomon; I've employed him for some years, and found him trustworthy; but I can't get delivery of these goods. I've sent two or three messengers to him, asking him to hurry, but he replies that there is some difficulty about the dastaks—papers authorizing the despatch of goods free from customs duty.

"Now, will you go up the river and see what is causing the delay? I'll give you an introduction to Mr. Watts; he will do all he can for you, though no doubt his hands are full. You can take Surendra Nath with you to interpret; and you had better have some armed peons as an escort, and perhaps a number of men we can trust to work the boat if you can release the goods. Are you willing?"

"I will gladly do anything I can, sir. Indeed, I wished for an opportunity to see something of the country."

"You may see too much! I'd say beware of tigers, but Surendra Nath is so desperately timid that you can depend on him not to lead you into danger."

"The Hormuzzeer will not sail until I return?"

"Not till the goods arrive. Why do you ask?"

"I should like to take Bulger with me. He's a good companion, with a shrewd head."

"And a useful hook. I have no objection. You will be ready to start tomorrow, then. You must be up early: traveling will be impossible in the heat of the day."

"At dawn, sir."

Chapter 20: In which there are recognitions and explanations; and our hero meets one Coja Solomon, of Cossimbazar.

At sunrise next morning Desmond found his party awaiting him at the Causeway beyond the Maratha ditch. The natives salaamed when he came up in company with Mr. Merriman, and Bulger pulled his forelock.

"Mornin', sir; mornin'; I may be wrong, but 'tis my belief we're goin' to have a bilin' hot day, and I've come accordin'."

He was clad in nothing but shirt and breeches, with his coat strapped to his back, and a hat apparently improvised out of cabbage leaves. The natives were all in white, with their employer's pink ribbons. Some were armed with matchlocks and pikes; others carried light cooking utensils; others, groceries for the Englishmen's use; for their own food they depended on the villages through which they would pass.

"Well, I wish you a good journey," said Mr. Merriman, who appeared to be in better spirits than for many a day. "I'm glad to tell you, Burke, that I got a letter from Mr. Watts this morning, saying that my wife and daughter are on their way down the river with Mrs. Watts and her children. They've got Mr. Warren Hastings to escort them: trust 'em to find a handsome man! The road follows the river, and if you look out I dare say you will see them. You'll recognize our livery. Introduce yourself if you meet 'em. You have your letter from Mr. Watts? That's all right. Goodby, and good luck to you."

The party set off. The old road by which they were to travel ran at a short distance from the left bank of the Hugli, passing through an undulating country, interspersed with patches of low wood and scattered trees. The scenery was full of charm for Desmond: the rich vegetation; antelopes darting among the trees; flamingoes and pelicans standing motionless at the edge of the slow-gliding river; white-clad figures coming down the broad steps of the riverside ghats to bathe; occasionally the dusky corpse of some devotee consigned by his relations to the bosom of the holy river.

The first halt was called at Barrackpur, where, amid a luxuriant grove of palms and bamboos, stood some beautiful pagodas, built of the unburnt brick of the country, and faced with a fine stucco that gleamed in the sunlight like polished marble. Here, under the shade of the palms, Desmond lay through the hot afternoon, watching the boats of all shapes and sizes that floated lazily down the broad-bosomed stream. In the evening the march was resumed; the party crossed the river by a ford at Pulta Ghat, and following the road on the other bank came at sundown to the outskirts of the French settlement at Chandernagore. There they camped for the night. Desmond was for some time tormented by the doleful yells of packs of jackals roaming abroad in search of food. Their cries so much resembled those of human beings in dire agony that he shivered on his mattress; but falling asleep at length, he slept soundly and woke with the dawn.

He started again soon after sunrise. Just beyond Chandernagore Bulger pointed out the stripped spars of the Good Intent, lying far up a narrow creek.

"Wouldn't I just like to cut her out?" said Bulger. "But 'spose we can't stop for that, sir?"

"Certainly not. And you'd have the French about our ears."

Passing the Dutch settlement at Chinsura, he came into a country of rice fields, now bare, broken by numerous nullahs worn by the torrents in the rainy season, but now nearly dry. Here and there the party had to ford a jhil—an extensive shallow lake formed by the rains. Desmond tried a shot or two at the flights of teal that floated on these ponds; but they were so wild that he could never approach within range. Towards evening, after passing the little village of Amboa, they came to a grove of peepuls filled with green parrots and monkeys screaming and jabbering as though engaged in a competition. A few miles farther on they arrived at the larger village of Khulna, where they tied up for the night.

Next morning Desmond was wakened by Surendra Nath.

"Sahib," he said, "the bibi and the chota bibi are here."

"Mrs. Merriman?"

"Yes. They arrived last night by boat, and are pursuing their journey today."

"I should like to see them before they go. But I'm afraid I am hardly presentable."

"Believe me, sahib, you will not offend the bibi's punctilio."

"Well, send one of the peons to say that I shall have the pleasure of waiting on Mrs. Merriman in half an hour, if she will permit me."

Having shaved and bathed, and donned a change of clothes, Desmond set off accompanied by Surendra Nath to visit the ladies. He found them on a long shallow boat, in a cabin constructed of laths and mats filling one end of the light craft. The Babu made the introduction, then effaced himself.

A lady, whose voice seemed to waken an echo in Desmond's memory, said:

"How do you do, Mr. Burke? I have heard of you in my husband's letters. Is the dear man well?"

"He is in good health, ma'am, but somewhat anxious to have you back again."

"Dear man! What is he anxious about? Mr. Watts seemed anxious also to get rid of us. He was vexed that Mrs. Watts is too much indisposed to accompany us. And Mr. Warren Hastings, who was to escort us, was quite angry because he had to go to one of the out-factories instead. I do not understand why these gentlemen are so much disturbed."

Desmond saw that Mrs. Merriman had been deliberately kept in ignorance of the grounds of the Englishmen's anxiety, and was seeking on the spur of the moment for a means to divert her from the subject, when he was spared the necessity. Miss Merriman had been looking at him curiously, and she now turned to her mother and said something in a tone inaudible to Desmond.

"La! you don't say so, my dear," exclaimed the lady.

"Why. Mr. Burke, my daughter tells me that we have met you before."

His vague recollection of Mrs. Merriman's voice being thus so suddenly confirmed, he recalled, as from a far distant past, a scene upon Hounslow Heath; a coach that stood perilously near the ditch, a girl at the horses' heads, a lady stamping her foot at two servants wrestling in drunken stupidity on the ground.

"You never gave us an opportunity of thanking you," continued Mrs. Merriman. "'Twas not kind of you, Mr. Burke, to slip away thus without a word after doing two poor lone women such a service."

"Indeed, ma'am, 'twas with no discourteous intention, but seeing you were safe with your friends I—I—in short, ma'am—"

Desmond stopped in confusion, at a loss for a satisfactory explanation. The ladies were smiling.

"You thought to flee our acknowledgments," said Mrs. Merriman. "La, la, I know; I have a young brother of my own. But you shall not escape them now, and what is more, I shall see that Merriman, poor man, adds his, for I am sure he has forgiven you your exploit."

The younger lady laughed outright, while Desmond looked from one to the other. What did they mean?

"Indeed, ma'am," he said, "I had no idea—"

"That there was need for forgiveness?" said the lady, taking him up. "But indeed there was-eh, Phyllis?

"Mr. Burke," she added, with a sudden solemnity, "a few minutes after you left us at Soho Square Merriman rode up, and I assure you I nearly swooned, poor man! and hardly had strength to send for the surgeon. It needed three stitches—and he such a handsome man, too."

A horrid suspicion flashed through Desmond's mind. He remembered the scar on Mr. Merriman's brow, and that it was a scarcely healed wound when he met him with Clive on that unfortunate occasion in Billiter Street.

"Surely, ma'am, you don't mean—the highwayman?"

"Indeed I do. That is just it. Your highwayman was—Mr. Merriman. Fancy the hurt to his feelings, to say nothing of his good looks. Fie, fie, Mr. Burke!"

For a moment Desmond did not know whether embarrassment or amazement was uppermost with him. It was bad enough to have tripped Mr. Merriman up in the muddy street; but to have also dealt him a blow of which he would retain the mark to his dying day—"This is terrible!" he thought. Still there was an element of absurdity in the adventure that appealed to his sense of the ridiculous. But he felt the propriety of being apologetic, and was about to express his regret for his mistake when Mrs. Merriman interrupted him with a smile:

"But there, Mr. Burke, he bears you no grudge, I am sure. He is the essence of good temper. It was a mistake; he saw that when I explained; and when he had vented his spleen on the coachman next day he owned that it was a plucky deed in you to take charge of us, and indeed he said that you was a mighty good whip; although," she added laughing, "you was a trifle heavy in hand."

Desmond felt bound to make a full confession. He related the incident of his encounter with Merriman in London—how he had toppled him over in the mud—wondering how the ladies would take it. He was relieved when they received his story with a peal of laughter.

"Oh, mamma; and it was his new frock!" said Phyllis.

"La, so it was, just fresh from Mr. Small's in Wigmore Street—forty guineas and no less!"

"Well, ma'am, I'm already forgiven for that; I trust that with your good favor my earlier indiscretion will be forgiven."

"Indeed it shall be, Mr. Burke, I promise you. Now tell me: what brings you here?"

Desmond explained his errand in a few words. The ladies wished him a prosperous journey, and said they would hope to see him in a few days on his return. He left them, feeling that he had gained friends, and with a new motive, of which he was only vaguely conscious, to a speedy accomplishment of his business.

On the evening of the sixth day after leaving Calcutta there came into sight a church of considerable size, which Surendra Nath explained was the temple of the Armenian colony of Cossimbazar. Passing this, and leaving a maze of native dwellings and the French factory on the left, the travelers reached the Dutch factory, and beyond this the English settlement and fort.

Leaving the Babu to arrange quarters for the peons in the native part of the town, Desmond hastened on past the stables and the hospital to the factory. It was a rough oblong in shape, defended at each corner by a bastion mounted with ten guns, the bastions being connected by massive curtains. In the south curtain, windowed for the greater part of its length, was the gateway. Desmond was admitted by a native servant, and in a few minutes found himself in the presence of the chief, Mr. William Watts.

Mr. Watts was a tall man of near forty years—of striking presence, with firm chin, pleasant mouth, and eyes of peculiar depth and brilliance. He was clad in a long purple-laced coat, with ruffles at the wrists and a high stock, and wore the short curled wig of the period. He welcomed Desmond with great cordiality, and, glancing over Mr. Merriman's letter, said:

"My friend Mr. Merriman needlessly disturbs himself, I think. I apprehend no immediate difficulty with the new Subah, although 'tis true there have been little vexations. As to the goods, they are in Coja Solomon's godown; they were delivered some time ago and paid for; what the reason of the delay is I cannot tell. One thing I may mention—it appears that Mr. Merriman is ignorant of it: Coja Solomon has lately become the agent of Omichand, whose peons have been seen to visit him, then passing on to Murshidabad. I happen to know also that he has communicated with Coja Wajid: do you know anything of him?"

"No, sir; I have never heard his name."

"He's a rich Armenian trader in Hugli, and acts as agent between the Nawab and the French and Dutch. We suspect him of encouraging Sirajuddaula against us; but of course we can't prove anything. My advice to you is, be wary and be quick; don't trust any of these fellows further than you can see them. But you can't do anything tonight. You will allow me to give you a bed: in the morning you can make a call on Coja Solomon. What has become of your peons?"

"A Babu I brought with me is looking after them. But I have an English seaman also: can you tell me what to do with him?"

"Sure he can lodge with Sergeant Bowler close by—near the southeast bastion. The sergeant will be glad of the company of a fellow countryman; your man will be a change after the Dutchmen and topasses he has to do with."

Early next morning Desmond, accompanied by Surendra Nath, went to find Coja Solomon. He lived in a house not far from the Armenian church, between it and the river. The Armenian was at home. He received Desmond with great politeness, assuring him with much volubility that he had but one interest in life, and that was the business of his honorable employer, Mr. Merriman. He invited Desmond to accompany him to the godown near the river where the goods were stored—muslins of Dacca, both plain and flowered, Bengal raw silk, and taffeties manufactured in Cossimbazar.

"You have not been long in the country, sir," said Coja Solomon, with a shrewd look at Desmond, "and therefore you will find it hard to believe, perhaps, that these goods, so insignificant in bulk, are worth over two lakhs of rupees. A precious load indeed, sir. This delay is naturally a cause of vexation to my distinguished superior, but it is not due to any idleness or inattention on my part. It is caused by the surprising difficulty of getting the dastaks countersigned by the Faujdar {officer in command of troops, and also a magistrate}—Without his signature, as you know, the goods can not be removed. I dare not venture."

"But why didn't the Faujdar sign the papers?"

"That I cannot tell. I send messengers to him: they come back: the Faujdar is much occupied with the Nawab's business, but he will attend to this little matter as soon as he has leisure. He calls it a little matter; and so it is, perhaps, if we remember that the Nawab's wealth is reckoned by millions; but it is not a little matter to Mr. Merriman, and I deeply deplore the unfortunate delay."

"Well, be good enough to send another message at once. Represent to the Faujdar that Mr. Merriman's ship is prevented from sailing until the goods reach Calcutta, and that this causes great inconvenience and loss."

Here the Babu whispered in his ear.

"Yes, and add—you will know how to put it—that if the dastaks are sent off immediately, the Faujdar will receive from Mr. Merriman a suitable gratification."

The Armenian rubbed his hands and smilingly assented; but Desmond, who had had some practice in reading faces since he left Market Drayton eighteen months before, felt an uneasy suspicion that Coja Solomon was a scamp. Returning to the factory, he acquainted Mr. Watts with the result of his interview and his opinion of the agent. The chief's eye twinkled.

"You haven't been long reckoning him up, Mr. Burke. I'm afraid you're right. I'll see what I can do for you."

Calling "Qui hai {'Is there any one?'—used as a summons}!" he ordered the peon who appeared in answer to his summons to go to the black merchants' houses, a row of two-story buildings some forty yards from the southwest bastion, and bring back with him Babu Joti Lal Chatterji.

In less than ten minutes the man returned with an intelligent-looking young Bengali. Mr. Watts addressed the latter in Hindustani, bidding him hasten to Murshidabad and find out quietly what the Faujdar was doing with the dastaks. When he had gone, Mr. Watts showed Desmond over the fort, introduced him to his wife, and then took him round the English settlement.

Next day Joti Lal Chatterji returned from Murshidabad with the news that the dastaks, duly signed by the Faujdar, had been delivered to Coja Solomon a fortnight before.

"'Tis rather worse than I expected," said Mr. Watts gravely. "There is something in this that I do not understand. We will send for Coja Solomon."

No one could have seemed more genuinely surprised than the Armenian when informed of what had been learned. He had received no dastaks, he declared; either a mistake had been made, or the papers had been intercepted, possibly by some enemy who had a grudge against him and wished to embroil him with his employer. It was annoying, he agreed; and he offered to go to Murshidabad himself and, if necessary, get other dastaks signed.

"Very well," said Mr. Watts, from whose manner no one could have guessed that he suspected his visitor. "We shall look for you tomorrow."

The man departed. Nothing was heard of him for two days. Then a letter arrived, saying that he remained in Murshidabad, awaiting the return of the Faujdar, who had been summoned to Rajmahal by the Nawab Sirajuddaula. Three more days slipped by, and nothing further was heard from Coja Solomon.

Desmond became more and more impatient. Bulger suggested that they should break into the godown and remove the goods without any ceremony—a course that Desmond himself was not disinclined to adopt; but when he hinted at it to Mr. Watts that gentleman's look of horror could not have been more expressive if his consent had been asked to commit a crime.

"Why, Mr. Burke, if we acted in that impetuous way we'd have all Bengal at our throats. Trade must pass through the usual channels; to convey goods from here to Calcutta without a dastak would be a grave misdemeanor, if not high treason; and it would get us into very hot water with the Nawab. I can only advise patience."

One morning, Desmond had just finished breakfast with Mr. Watts and his wife, when Lieutenant Elliott, in command of the garrison, came unceremoniously into the room.

"Mr. Watts," he said, "the fat's in the fire. A lot of the Nawab's Persian cavalry have come into the town during the night. They have surrounded the French and Dutch factories and are coming on here."

"Don't be alarmed, my dear," said the chief, as his wife started up in a state of panic; "'tis only one of the Nawab's tricks. He has used that means of extorting money before. We'll buy them off, never fear."

But it was soon seen that the troops had come with a more serious purpose. They completely invested the factory, and next day withdrew the guards that had been placed around the French and Dutch forts, and confined their whole attention to the British. Mr. Watts withdrew all the garrison and officials behind the bastioned walls of the fort, and fearing that an attack in force would be made upon him, despatched a kasid {courier} to Calcutta with an urgent request for reinforcements.

While waiting anxiously for the reply, he took stock of his position. His garrison numbered only fifty men all told, half of them being Dutch deserters and the remainder half-caste topasses, with only two English officers, Lieutenant Elliott and Sergeant Bowler. The guns of the fort were old; and within a few yards of the walls were houses that would afford excellent cover to the enemy. Without help resistance for any length of time was impossible, and to resist at all meant a declaration of war against the Nawab, and would entail serious consequences—possibly involve the total ruin of the Company in Bengal. In this difficult position Mr. Watts hoped that an opportunity of making an arrangement with the besiegers would offer itself. Meanwhile, pending the arrival of instructions from Calcutta, he gave orders that any attempt to force an entrance to the fort was to be repelled.

But no letters came from Calcutta. Though several were despatched, none of them reached Cossimbazar. On June first Ridurlabh, in command of the besiegers, received orders from the Nawab, now at Murshidabad, to take the fort. He came to the gate and tried to force an entrance, but hurriedly withdrew when he met Sergeant Bowler's gleaming bayonet and saw the gunners standing by with lighted matches in their hands.

By and by he sent a messenger asking Mr. Watts to come out and parley. and offering a betel, the usual native pledge of safe conduct. Against the advice of Lieutenant Elliott, Mr. Watts decided to leave the fort and visit the Nawab himself. Next day, therefore, with Mr. Forth, the surgeon, and two servants, he departed, cheerfully declaring that he would make all right with Sirajuddaula. Mr. Forth returned a day later with the news that on reaching the Nawab's tent both he and Mr. Watts had had their arms bound behind their backs and been led as prisoners into Sirajuddaula's presence. The Nawab had demanded their signatures to a document binding the English at Calcutta to demolish their fortifications. Mr. Watts explained that the signatures of two other members of his Council were required, hoping that the delay would allow time for help to reach him from Calcutta. After some hesitation two gentlemen left the fort with the surgeon.

The same evening Mr. Forth once more returned to inform the garrison that the members of Council had likewise been imprisoned, and that Mr. Watts recommended Lieutenant Elliott to deliver up the fort and ammunition.

The merchants in the factory were aghast; Lieutenant Elliott fumed with indignation; but they saw that they had no alternative. Their chief had been removed by treachery; to resist was hopeless; and though such submission to a native was galling they could but recognize their helplessness and make the best of a bad situation. Desmond, besides sharing in their anger, had a further cause for concern in the almost certain loss of Mr. Merriman's goods. But the fort would not be given up till next day, and before he retired to rest he received a message that turned his thoughts into another channel and made him set his wits to work.

During the siege natives had been allowed to go freely in and out between the fort and the settlement; Ridurlabh was confident in his superior numbers and could afford to regard with indifference the despatch of messages to Calcutta. A messenger came to Desmond in the evening from Surendra Nath, to say that Coja Solomon had returned to Cossimbazar, and was now loading up Mr. Merriman's goods in petalas {cargo boats}, their destination being Murshidabad. Desmond saw at once that the Armenian was taking advantage of the disturbance to make away with the goods for his own behoof. He could always pretend afterwards that his godown had been plundered. It was pretty clear, too, that his long detention of the goods must be due to his having had a hint of the Nawab's plans.

This news reached Desmond just after Mr. Forth had brought orders for the surrender of the fort. He kept his own counsel. After his experience at Gheria he was resolved not to be made a prisoner again; but he would not be content with merely saving his own skin. Mr. Merriman's goods were valuable; it touched Desmond's self esteem to think he should be bested by a rascally Armenian. If there had been any prospect of a fight in defense of the fort he would have stayed to take his part in it; but as the factory was to be given up without a struggle he saw no reason for considering anything except the interests of Mr. Merriman and himself.

Only one thing gave him a slight qualm. The equities of the case were perfectly clear; but he had some doubt as to the issue if it should become known that he had forcibly made off with the goods. The relations between the Nawab and the Company were so strained, and the circumstances of the moment so dangerous, that such action on his part might prove the spark to a train of gunpowder. But he could not help thinking that the Nawab was in any case bent on picking a quarrel with the Company; anything that Desmond might do would be but one petty incident in a possible campaign; meanwhile the goods were worth two lakhs of rupees, a serious loss to Mr. Merriman if Coja Solomon's plans succeeded; an effort to save them was surely worth the risk, and they could only be saved if he could secure them before the Armenian's boats had started for Murshidabad.

He did not take long to decide upon a plan. Calling the native who had attended him in the fort, he sent him out to Surendra Nath with instructions to prepare his peons for instant action. Bulger was with them; he had been absent from Bowler's house when the order came to retire to the fort, and only just succeeded in joining Surendra Nath before the investment began.

From Joti Lal Chatterji, the man whom Mr. Watts had employed to make inquiries in Murshidabad, the servant was to get a dress such as would be worn by a khitmatgar {table servant}, and some material for staining the skin. In the darkness Desmond hoped that he might pass without question for a native so long as disguise was necessary. Within an hour the man returned, bringing the articles required.

Chapter 21: In which Coja Solomon finds dishonesty the worse policy; and a journey down the Hugli little to his liking.

The short twilight was thickening into darkness when Desmond, with face, legs, and arms stained brown, slipped out of the fort in native dress and walked slowly towards the houses of the native merchants. In his hand he carried a small bundle. Reaching the house where his party was staying, kept by one Abdul Kader, he almost betrayed himself by forgetting to slip off his sandals as he entered. But he bethought himself in time and was admitted without question.

He found that he was not a moment too soon. Bulger had taken up his quarters there with a very bad grace, the arrival of the Nawab's army having aroused in him the fighting spirit of the sturdy British tar. But when the news ran through the settlement that the fort was to be given up his feelings overcame him, and it was only with the greatest difficulty that Surendra Nath had persuaded him to wait patiently for orders from Desmond. Then the Babu himself had quitted the house, and Bulger was left without the restraint of anyone who could speak English. He was on the point of casting off all prudence and stalking out, like Achilles from his tent, when Desmond arrived.

"By thunder, sir!" he said, when he had recovered from his astonishment at seeing Desmond in native dress, "I en't a-goin' to surrender to no Moors, sure as my name's Bulger. 'Tis a downright scandalous shame; that's what I call it."

"Well, you can tell Mr. Watts so if ever you see him. At present we have no time to waste in talk. Where is Surendra Nath?"

"Gone to keep his weather eye on the codger's godown, sir."

"Which shows he's a man of sense. Are all the men here?"

"So far as I know, sir. I may be wrong."

"Well, they'll make their way in small parties down to the river. 'Tis dark enough now; they will not be noticed, and they can steal along the bank under the trees until they come near Coja Solomon's ghat. You must come with me."

"Very good, sir," replied Bulger, hitching up his breeches and drawing his hanger.

"But not like that. You'll have to get those black whiskers of yours shaved, my man. If they grew all over you'd pass perhaps for a Moor; but not with a fringe like that. And you must stain your face; I have the stuff in this bundle; and we'll borrow a dhoti and sandals from Abdul Kader. We'll dress you up between us."

Bulger looked aghast.

"Dash my buttons, sir, I'll look like a November guy! What would my mates say, a-seein' me dressed up like a stuffed Moor at Smithfield fair—a penny a shy, sir?"

"Your mates are not here to see you, and if you hold your tongue they'll never know it."

"But what about this little corkscrew o' mine, sir? I don't see any ways o' dressin' that up."

"You can stick it into your dhoti. Now here are soap and a razor; I give you ten minutes to shave and get your face stained; Abdul Kader will help. Quick's the word, man."

A quarter of an hour later Desmond left the house with Bulger, the latter, in spite of the darkness, looking very much ashamed of himself. The other members of the party had already gone towards the river. Walking very slowly until they had safely cleared the lines of the investing troops, the two hurried their pace and about half-past eight reached the Armenian godown. The three boats containing Mr. Merriman's goods were moored at the ghat. A number of men were on board, and bales were still being carried down by the light of torches. It appeared that Coja Solomon had no intention of leaving until the factory was actually in Rai Durlabh's hands.

Desmond had already decided that, to legalize his position, he must gain possession of the dastaks. Not that they would help him much if, as was only too probable, Coja Solomon should be backed up by the Nawab. As soon as it was discovered that the goods had been carried off, kasids would undoubtedly be sent along the banks, possibly swift boats would set off down the river in pursuit, and, dastaks or no dastaks, the goods would be impounded at Khulna or Hugli and himself arrested. It was therefore of the first importance that the loss of the boats should not be discovered until he was well on his way, and to insure this he must secure the person of Coja Solomon. If that could be done there was a chance of delaying the pursuit, or preventing it altogether.

Desmond kept well in the shelter of the palm trees as he made his observation of the ghat. He wondered where Surendra Nath was, but could not waste time in looking for him. Retracing his steps with Bulger for a little distance, he came to a spot on the river bank where the rest of his party were waiting in a boat, moored to an overhanging tree. He ordered the men to land; then, leaving Bulger in charge of them, he selected three of the armed peons and with them made his way across paddy {rice} fields toward the Armenian's house, a hundred yards or so from the bank.

Light came through the reed-screened window. Bidding the men remain outside and rush in if he called them, he left the shelter of the trees and, approaching the door, stumbled over the darwan lying across the threshold.

"Hai, darwan!" he said, with the bluntness of servant addressing servant; "sleeping again! Go and tell your master I'm here to see him: a khitmatgar from the fort."

The man rose sleepily and preceded him into the house. He made the announcement, salaamed and retired. Desmond went in.

In a little room on the ground floor Coja Solomon reclined on a divan, smoking his hubblebubble. A small oil lamp burnt on a bracket above his head. He looked up as Desmond entered; if he thought that his visitor was somewhat better set-up than the average khitmatgar, he did not suspect any disguise. The light was dim, and Coja Solomon was old.

"Good evening, Khwaja," said Desmond quietly.

The man jumped as if shot.

"No, don't get up, and don't make a noise. My business with you will not take long. I will ask you to hand over Mr. Merriman's dastaks. I know that they are in your possession. I have come to get them, and to take away the goods—Mr. Merriman's goods."

The Armenian had meanwhile removed the mouthpiece of his hubblebubble, and was bending over as if to replace it by one of several that lay on a shelf at his right hand. But Desmond noticed that beneath the shelf stood a small gong. He whipped out a pistol, and pointed it full at the merchant.

"Don't touch that," he said curtly. "I have not come unprepared, as you see. Your plans are known to me. If you value your life you will do as I wish, without delay or disturbance. My men are outside; a word from me will bring them swarming in. Now, the dastaks!"

Coja Solomon was an Armenian and a merchant; in neither capacity a fighting man. In a contest of wits he could be as cool and as ready as any man in Bengal; but he had no skill in arms and no physical courage. There was an air of determination about his visitor that impressed him; and he felt by no means comfortable within point-blank range of the pistol covering him so completely. If his thoughts had been read, they would have run somewhat thus: "Pistols have been known to go off accidentally. What will the goods profit me if such an accident happen now? Besides, even if I yield there may still be a chance of saving them. It is a long way to Calcutta: the river is low: God be praised the rains have not begun! There are shallows and rocks along its course: the boats must go slowly: and the Nawab's horsemen can soon outstrip them on the banks. The dog of an Englishman thinks he has outwitted me: we shall see. And he is only a youth: let us see if Coja Solomon is not a match for him."

Rising to his feet, he smiled and shrugged, and spread out his hands deprecatingly.

"It is true the dastaks are here," he said suavely, "but they only reached me yesterday, and indeed, as soon as I received them, I had the goods put on board the boats for transit to Calcutta."

"That is very fortunate," said Desmond. "It will save my time. As Mr. Merriman's representative I will take over the goods—with the dastaks."

"If you will excuse me, I will fetch them."

"Stay!" said Desmond, as the man moved toward the door. He had not lowered the pistol. "Where are they?"

"They are in my office beside the godown."

"Very well. It would be a pity to trouble you to bring them here. I will go with you. Will you lead the way?"

He knew it was a lie. Valuable papers would not be left in a hut of an office, and he had already noticed a curiously wrought almara {cabinet} at one end of the room—just the place to keep documents.

There was the shadow of a scowl on the Armenian's face. The man hesitated; then walked towards the door: stopped as if at a sudden recollection; and turned to Desmond with a bland smile.

"I was forgetting," he said, "I brought the papers here for safety's sake."

He went to the almara, searched for a moment, and handed two papers to Desmond.

"There, sir," he said, with a quite paternal smile; "you take the responsibility. In these unfortunate circumstances"—he waved his hand in the direction of the factory—"it is, believe me, a relief to me to see the last of these papers.

"That is well."

But Desmond, as he took the papers, felt himself in a quandary. Though he could speak, he could not read Hindustani! The papers might not be the dastaks after all. What was he to do?

The peons were not likely to be able to read. He scanned the papers. There was the name Merriman in English characters, but all the rest was in native script. The smile hovering on the Armenian's face annoyed Desmond, and he was still undecided what to do when a voice at his elbow gave him welcome relief.

"Babu Surendra Nath Chuckerbutti," announced the darwan.

The Babu entered.

"Come and tell me if these are our dastaks," said Desmond.

The Babu ran his eyes over the papers, and declared:

"Yes, sir, they are the identical papers, and I perceive the signature of the Faujdar is dated three weeks ago."

"Thank you," said Desmond.

"Now, Coja Solomon, I must ask you to come with me."

"Why, sir—" began the Armenian, no longer smiling.

"I will explain to you by and by.—

"What is it, Surendra Nath?"

The Babu whispered a word or two in his ear.

"A happy thought!" said Desmond. "Surendra Nath suggests that I should borrow that excellent robe I see yonder, Khwaja; and your turban also. They will become me better than this khitmatgar's garb, I doubt not."

Coja Solomon looked on helplessly as Desmond exchanged his meaner garments for the richer clothes of his unwilling host.

"Now we will go. You will tell the darwan that you have gone down to the ghat, so that if a question is asked he will be at no loss for an answer."

In the faint light of the rising moon the barrel of the pistol gleamed as they came into the open. The Armenian marched between Desmond and the Babu. Behind came the three peons, moving as silently as ghosts.

"The Khwaja," said Desmond to them in the Armenian's hearing, as they reached the ghat, "is coming a little way with us down the river.

"You, Kristodas Das, will go and tell Bulger Sahib that I wish him to follow the Khwaja's boats at a few yards' distance, and to be prepared to board at any moment.

"You," turning to the other two peons, "will come with me. The Khwaja will send word to his durwan that he is going to Murshidabad by river and will not return tonight; his house is to be locked up. The Khwaja will, I am sure, give these orders correctly, for Surendra Nath will understand better than I what he says."

With the Babu, the two peons, and Coja Solomon, who was now obviously ill at ease, Desmond went down the ghat to the place where the crews of the petalas were assigned to him. The man dared not depart by a jot from the words put into his mouth. One of his coolies left with the message, the rest followed their employer on board with Desmond and his companions, and in a few minutes the three boats were cast off and stood upstream. As they started Desmond saw the boat containing Bulger and his men slip from the shade of the trees and begin to creep after them.

The boats had not gone more than a couple of hundred yards upstream when Coja Solomon, at Desmond's orders, bade the men row toward the opposite shore and turn the boats' heads round, explaining that he had decided after all to convey the goods to Hugli. There was some grumbling among the crew, who had expected to go to Murshidabad, and did not relish the prospect of the longer voyage. But the Armenian, knowing that every word was overheard by Desmond's men, made haste to pacify the boatmen.

It was by no means easy work getting down the river. The boats were flat bottomed and drew very little water; but the stream being very low, they stuck fast time after time in the shallows. By day the boatmen might have picked their way more carefully, but the moon was new and shed too little light for river navigation. More than once they had to leap overboard and, wading, shove and haul until the boats came off the mud banks into practicable water again. They rowed hard when the course was clear, encouraged by promises of liberal bakshish made by their employer at Desmond's prompting. But the interruptions were so frequent that the dawn found the boats only some thirty miles from their starting-point. The river being here a little deeper, Desmond could afford to let the rowers take a much-needed rest, while the boats floated down with the stream.

But as the day wore on the river again played them false, and progress was at times reduced to scarcely more than two miles an hour. Things had been uncomfortable in the night, but the discomforts were increased tenfold in the day. It was the hottest season of the year; out of the clear sky the sun's rays beat down with pitiless ferocity; the whole landscape was a-quiver with heat; all things seemed to swoon under the oppression. The petalas, being cargo boats, were not provided with any accommodation or conveniences for passengers; and Desmond's thoughts as he lay panting on his mat, haggard from want of sleep, faint from want of food—for though there was rice on board, and the men ate freely, he had no appetite for that—reverted to the worst period of his imprisonment in Gheria, and he recalled the sufferings he had endured there.

Here at least he was free. His journey had so far been unmolested, and he hoped that the happy chance that had favored him at Cossimbazar would not fail him now.

He was in a fever of impatience; yet the men were doing their best. They passed the mud walls of Cutwa; another stage of the journey was safely completed; but twelve miles lower down there was a post at Path; and with every mile the danger grew.

Desmond talked over the situation with the Babu. Surendra Nath agreed that by nightfall, if no unforeseen delay occurred, they might hope to be in the neighborhood of Khulna, and arrive there before any messenger carrying news of the escape.

But there was little or no chance of the same good fortune at Hugli. The prize was so valuable that every effort would certainly be made to stop them. A whole day or more might pass before the reason of Coja Solomon's absence was discovered. But when the discovery was made fast runners would be sent to Khulna and Hugli, and by relays the distance between Cossimbazar and Hugli could be covered in twenty-four hours. Supposing such a messenger started at nightfall on June fifth, nearly twenty-four hours after Coja Solomon's disappearance, he might well get to Hugli long before the fugitive boats, even if they were rowed all night without cessation; and the men were already so much fatigued that such continuous exertion could hardly be expected of them.

There was a further danger. If the news of the capture of Cossimbazar Fort had preceded him, he might be stopped at any of the riverside places without any reference to Coja Solomon's abduction, pending orders from the Nawab. Desmond's anxiety would have been largely increased had he known that Sirajuddaula, before his men had actually marched into the fort, had already started with the bulk of his forces on his fateful march to Calcutta.

Desmond was still in conversation with the Babu when the little flotilla came in sight of Patli. Its approach was observed. A boat put off from the ghat, and awaited the arrival of Desmond's boat in midstream. As it came alongside an official ordered the men to cease rowing and demanded to know who was the owner of the goods on board and to see the dastaks. The Babu, to whom Desmond had intrusted the papers, showed them to the man; he scanned them, said that he was satisfied, and rowed back to the ghat.

Evidently he had no suspicions. During the short colloquy Desmond kept close beside the Armenian, who was well known to the riverside official; but Coja Solomon was thoroughly scared, and had not the presence of mind to do anything more than to acknowledge the customary salaam.

Desmond breathed freely once more now that Path was passed. But two-thirds of the journey still remained to be completed, and he dare not hope that at his slow rate of progress he would be able always to keep ahead of information from Cossimbazar. Seeing that he could not hasten his journey, he wondered whether it was possible to put pursuers off the scent. After thinking for a while he said to the Babu, out of hearing of the Armenian:

"I have an idea, Surendra Nath: tell me what you think of it. Did you not tell me as we came up that there is a gumashta {agent} of the Company at Santipur?"

"Certainly I did, sir."

"Well, as we are, I fear, sure to be cut off by water, may we not take to the land? Could not the gumashta get us a dozen hackeris {bullock carts}? We could transfer the goods to them and elude our pursuers perhaps long enough for help to arrive from Calcutta."

"That is good counsel, sir; why should we not do so?"

Accordingly, when they came to the spot where the high road crossed the river by a ford, Desmond ordered his men to row in to the left bank. Selecting two men who knew the country, he bade them land and make the best speed in carrying out instructions which he proceeded to give them.

"You, Mohun Lal," he said, "will go to Santipur, quickly, avoiding observation, and request the gumashta in Merriman Sahib's name to have twelve hackeris, or as many as he can collect, ready to receive loads two or three hours before tomorrow's dawn. He must get them from the villages, not from Khulna or Amboa, and he must not tell anyone why he requires the carts.

"You, Ishan, will go on to Calcutta, find Merriman Sahib, and ask him to send a body of armed men along the Barrakpur road towards Santipur. You will tell him what we have done, and also that Cossimbazar Fort is in the hands of the Nawab, and Watts Sahib a prisoner. He may know this already. You both understand?"

The men salaamed and started on their journey.

Chapter 22: In which is given a full, true, and particular account of the Battle of the Carts.

Desmond expected that Mohun Lal would reach Santipur shortly after nightfall. He himself might hope to arrive there, if not intercepted at Khulna or Amboa, at any time between midnight and three o'clock, according to the state of the river.

It was approaching dusk when he drew near to Khulna. The boats having been tied up to the bank, as the custom was, Desmond sent the Babu to find out from the Company's gumashta there whether news of the capture of Cossimbazar Fort had reached the bazar, and if any runner had come in from the north. In an hour the Babu returned. He said that there was great excitement in the bazar: no official messenger had arrived, but everybody was saying that the Nawab had captured the English factory at Cossimbazar, and was going to drive all the Firangi out of Bengal.

Desmond decided to take a bold course. Official news not having arrived, he might seize the moment to present his dastaks and get away before the customs officers found any pretext for stopping him. Everything happened as he hoped. He met with no more difficulty than at Path, and informing the official who examined the dastaks that he would drop down to Amboa before tying up for the night, he drew out again into the stream.

He spent some time in consultation with the serang. In a rather desolate reach of the Hugli, he learned that in the middle of the stream there was a small island, uninhabited save by teal and other waterfowl, and not known to be the haunt of tigers or other beasts of prey. Reaching this islet about ten o'clock at night, when all river traffic had ceased, he rowed in, and landed the Armenian with his crews.

"I thank you for your company, Coja Solomon," he said blandly. 'We must here part, to my regret, for I should like to have the pleasure of witnessing your meeting with Mr. Merriman. The nights are warm, and you will, I am sure, be quite comfortable till the morning, when no doubt a passing boat will take you off and convey you back to your business at Cossimbazar."

"I will not stay here," protested the Armenian, his face livid with anger.

"Believe me, you have no choice. Let me remind you that had you behaved honestly there would have been no reason for putting you to the inconvenience of this tiring journey. You have brought it on yourself."

Coja Solomon sullenly went up the shore. Desmond then paid the men handsomely: they had indeed worked well, and they were abundantly satisfied with the hire they received.

Leaving Coja Solomon to his bitter reflections, Desmond dropped down to Santipur, arriving there about two o'clock in the morning. Just before dawn ten hackeris, each yoked with two oxen, drew up near the Company's ghat. They were accompanied by a crowd of the inhabitants, lively with curiosity about the engagement of so many vehicles. The gumashta came up with the first cart, his face clouded with anxiety. He recognized the Babu at once, and said that while he had fulfilled the order he had received on Mr. Merriman's behalf, he had done it in fear and trembling. The whole country knew that Cossimbazar Fort was in possession of the Nawab, and, more than that, the Nawab had on the previous day set out with an immense army for Calcutta. Santipur was not on the high road, and the Company was respected there; yet the gumashta feared the people would make an attack on the party if they suspected that they carried goods belonging to an Englishman.

Hitherto Desmond had kept himself in the background. But now he had an idea inspired by confidence in his costume. Introducing himself to the gumashta, he asked him to give out that the party was in command of a Firangi in the service of the Nawab, and was conveying part of the Nawab's private equipage in advance to Baraset, a few miles north of Calcutta, there to await the arrival of the main army. To make the imposition more effective, he called for the lambadar of the village and ordered him in the Nawab's name to despatch a flotilla of twenty-five wollacks {barges} to Cutwa to convey the official baggage.

The trick proved effective. Desmond found himself regarded as a person of importance; the natives humbly salaamed to him; and, taking matters with a high hand, he impressed a score of the village idlers into the work of transferring his precious bales from the boats to the hackeris. The work was accomplished in half an hour.

"Bulger," said Desmond, when the loading was done, "you will consider yourself in charge of this convoy. The Babu will interpret for you. You will hurry on as fast as possible toward Calcutta. I shall overtake you by and by. The people here believe that I am a Frenchman, so you had better pass as that, too, for of course your disguise will deceive no native in the daylight."

"Well I knows it." said Bulger. "They've been starin' at me like as if I was a prize pig this half hour and more, and lookin' most uncommon curious at my little button hook. But, sir, I don't see any call for me to make out I'm a mounseer. 'T'ud make me uneasy inside, sir, the very thought of eatin' what the mounseers eat."

"My good man, there's no need to carry it too far. Do as you please, only take care of the goods."

Except Desmond and four men whom he retained, the whole party moved off with the hackeris towards Calcutta. The road was an unmade track, heavy with dust, rough, execrably bad; and at the gumashta's suggestion Desmond had arranged for three extra teams of oxen to accompany the carts, to extricate them in case of necessity from holes or soft places. Fortunately the weather was dry: had the rains begun—and they were overdue—the road would have been a slough of mud and ooze, and the journey would have been impossible.

When the convoy had set off, Desmond with three men, including the serang, returned to the empty boats. The lookers-on stared to see the craft put off and drop down the river with a crew of one man each: Desmond in the first, and the smaller boat that had contained Bulger and his party trailing behind. Floating down some four or five miles with the stream, Desmond gave the order to scuttle the three petalas, and rowed ashore in the smaller boat. On reaching land he got the serang to knock a hole in the bottom of the boat, and shoved it off towards midstream, where it rapidly filled and sank.

It was full daylight when Desmond and his party of three struck off inland in a direction that would bring them upon the track of the carts. He had a presentiment that his difficulties were only beginning. By this time, no doubt, the news of his escapade had been carried through the country by the swift kasids of the Nawab. His passing at Khulna and Amboa would be reported, and a watch would be kept for him at Hugli. If perchance a kasid or a chance traveler entered Santipur, the trick he had practised there would be immediately discovered; but if the messenger only touched at the places on the direct route on the other bank, he might hope that some time would elapse before the authorities there suspected that he had left the river. They must soon learn that three petalas lay wrecked in the stream below Amboa; but they could not satisfy themselves without examination that these were the vessels of which they were in search.

Tramping across two miles of fields newly sown with maize and sorghum, he at length descried the trail of his convoy and soon came up with it. If pursuers were indeed upon his track, only by the greatest good fortune could he escape them. The carts creaked along with painful slowness; the wheels halfway to the axles in dust; now stopping altogether, now rocking like ships in a stormy sea.

With his arrival and the promise of liberal bakshish the hackeriwallahs urged the laboring oxen with their cruel goads till Desmond, always tender with animals, could hardly endure the sight. By nine o'clock the morning had become stiflingly hot. There was little or no breeze, and Desmond, unused of late to active exercise, found the heat terribly trying. But Bulger suffered still more. A stout, florid man, he toiled along, panting, streaming with sweat, in difficulties so manifest, that Desmond, eying him anxiously, feared lest a stroke of apoplexy should bring him to an untimely end.

The country was so flat that a string of carts could not fail to be seen from a long distance. If noticed from the towers of Hugli across the river, curiosity, if not suspicion, would be aroused, and it would not take long to send over by a ford a force sufficient to arrest and capture the party. To escape observation it was necessary to make wide detours. At several small hamlets on the route Desmond managed to get fresh oxen, but not enough for complete changes of team.

So, through all the broiling heat of the day, at hours when no other Europeans in all Bengal were out of doors, the convoy struggled on, making its own road, crossing the dry beds of pools, skirting or laboring over rugged nullahs.

At nightfall Desmond learned from one of the drivers that they were still six miles short of being opposite to Hugli. The patient Bengalis could endure no more; the oxen were done up, the men refused to go farther without a rest. Halting at a hamlet some five miles from the river, they rested and fed till midnight, then set off again. It was not so insufferably hot at night, but on the other hand they were less able to avoid obstructions: and the rest had not been long enough to make up for the terrible exertions of the day.

By daybreak they were some distance past Hugli, still keeping about five miles from the river. Desmond was beginning to congratulate himself that the worst was over; Barrackpur was only about twelve miles away. But a little after dawn he caught sight of a European on horseback crossing their track towards the river. He was going at a walking pace, attended by two syces {grooms}. Attracted, apparently, by the sight, unusual at this time of year, of a string of hackeris, he wheeled his horse and cantered towards the tail of the convoy, which was under Bulger's charge.

"Hai, hackeriwallah," he said in Urdu to the rearmost driver, "to whom do these hackeris belong?"

"To the great Company, huzur. The sahib will tell you."

"The sahib—what sahib?" asked the rider in astonishment.

"The sahib yonder," replied the man, pointing to Bulger.

Bulger had been staring at the horseman, and growing more and more red in the face. Catching the rider's surprised look, he could contain himself no longer.

"By thunder! 'tis that villain Diggle!" he shouted, and rushed forward to drag him from his horse.

But Diggle was not taken unawares. Setting spurs to his steed, he caused it to spring away. Bulger raised his musket, but ere he could fire Diggle was out of range. Keeping a careful distance he rode leisurely along the whole convoy, and a smile of malignant pleasure shone upon his face as he took stock of its contents.

Meanwhile Bulger, already repenting of his hasty action, hurried forward to acquaint Desmond with what had happened. Diggle's smile broadened; he halted and took a long look at the tall figure in native dress to whom Bulger was so excitedly speaking. Then, turning his horse in the direction of the river, he spoke over his shoulder to his syces and galloped away, followed by them at a run.

"You were a fool, Bulger," said Desmond testily. "This may lead to no end of trouble."

Bulger looked penitent, and wrathful, and overwhelmed.

"We must try to hurry," added Desmond to Surendra Nath. "Promise the men more bakshish: don't stint."

For two hours longer they pushed on with all the speed of which the jaded beasts were capable. Every now and again Desmond looked anxiously back, hoping against hope that they would not be pursued. But he knew that Diggle had recognized him, and being prepared for the worst, he began to rack his brains for some means of defense.

Misfortune seemed to dog him. Two of the oxen collapsed. It was necessary to distribute the loads of their hackeris among the others. The march was delayed, and when the convoy was again under way, its progress was slower than ever.

It had, indeed, barely started, when in the distance Desmond spied a horseman cantering towards them. A few minutes revealed him as Diggle. He rode up almost within musket shot, then turned and trotted back.

What was the meaning of his action? Desmond, from his position near the foremost hackeri, could see nothing more. But, a few yards ahead of him, to the right of the track, there was a low artificial mound, possibly the site of an ancient temple, standing at the edge of a nullah, its top some ten or twelve feet above the surrounding plain. Hastening to this he gained the summit, and, looking back, saw a numerous body of men on foot advancing rapidly from the direction in which the horseman had come. In twenty minutes they would have come up with the convoy. He must turn at bay.

He glanced anxiously around. He was in the midst of an almost bare sun-baked plain, the new-sown fields awaiting the rains to spring into verdure. Here and there were clumps of trees—the towering palmyra with its fan-shaped foliage, the bamboo with its feathery branches, the plantain, throwing its immense leaves of vivid green into every fantastic form. There was no safety on the plain.

But below him was the nullah, thirty feet deep, eighty yards wide, soon to be a swollen torrent dashing towards the Hugli, but now dry. Its sides were in parts steep, and unscalable in face of determined resistance. In a moment Desmond saw the utmost of possibility.

Running back to the convoy, he turned its head towards the mound, and, calling every man to the help of the oxen, he dragged the carts one by one to the top. There he caused the beasts to be unyoked, and placed the hackeris, their poles interlocked, so as to form a rough semicircular breastwork around the summit of the mound. For a moment he hesitated in deciding what to do with the cattle. Should he keep them within his little intrenchment? If they took fright they might stampede and do mischief; in any case they would be in the way, and he resolved to send them all off under charge of such of the drivers as were too timid to remain. He noticed that the Babu was quivering with alarm.

"Surendra Nath," he said, "this is no place for you. Slip away quietly; go towards Calcutta; and if you meet Mr. Merriman coming in response to my message, tell him the plight we are in and ask him to hasten to our help."

"I do not like to show the white feather, sir," said the Babu.

"Not at all, Babu, we must have a trustworthy messenger: you are the man. Now get away as fast as you can."

The Babu departed on his errand with the speed of gladness and relief.

The ground sloped sharply outward from the carts, and the rear of the position was formed by the nullah. The last two hackeris were being placed in position when the vanguard of the pursuers, with Diggle at their head, came to a point just out of range. The party was larger than Desmond had estimated it to be at his first hasty glance. There were some twenty men armed with matchlocks, and forty with swords and lathis. All were natives.

His heart sank as he measured the odds against him. What was his dismay when he saw, half a mile off, another body following up. And these were white men! Was Diggle bringing the French of Chandernagore into the fray?

Desmond posted his twelve armed peons behind the hackeris. He gave them strict orders to fire only at the word of command, and as they had undergone some discipline in Calcutta he hoped that, if only in self preservation, they would maintain a certain steadiness. Behind them he placed twelve sturdy boatmen armed with half pikes, instructing them to take the place of the peons when they had fired. Bulger stood at the midpoint of the semicircle; his rough square face was a deep purple with a rim of black; his dhoti had become loosened, leaving his great shoulders and brawny chest bare; his turban was awry; his eyes, bloodshot with the heat, were as the eyes of Mars himself, burning with the fire of battle.

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