In Clive's Command - A Story of the Fight for India
by Herbert Strang
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The pursuers had halted. Diggle came forward, trotting his horse up to the base of the mound. The peons fingered their matchlocks and looked expectant; Bulger growled; but Desmond gazed calmly at his enemy.

"Your disguise is excellent," said Diggle in his smoothest tones; "but I believe I speak to Mr. Desmond Burke."

"Yes, Mr. Diggle," said Desmond, stepping forward.

"I am glad to have overtaken you. Sure you have encamped early. I have a message from my friend the Faujdar of Hugli. By some mistake a consignment of merchandise has been illegally removed from Cossimbazar, and the Faujdar, understanding that the goods are contained in these carts, bids me ask you to deliver them up to his men, whom you see here with me."

Desmond was anxious to gain time. He thought out his plan of action while Diggle was speaking. His impulsiveness prompted a flat defiance in few words; policy counseled a formality of utterance equal to Diggle's.

"These carts certainly contain merchandise, Mr. Diggle," he said. "It is the property of Mr. Edward Merriman, of Calcutta; I think you know him? It was removed from Cossimbazar; but not, I assure you, illegally. I have the dastaks authorizing its removal to Calcutta; they are signed by the Faujdar of Murshidabad. Has the Faujdar of—where did you say?"

"Of Hugli."

"Has the Faujdar of Hugli power to countermand what the Faujdar of the capital has done?"

"Why discuss that point?" said Diggle with a smile. "The Faujdar of Hugli is an officer of the Nawab; hoc sat est tibi—blunt language, but the phrase is Tully's."

"Well, I waive that. But I am not satisfied that you, an Englishman, have authority to act for the Faujdar of Hugli. The crowd I see before me—a rabble of lathiwallahs—clearly cannot be the Faujdar's men."

At this point he heard an exclamation from Bulger. The second body of men had come up and ranked themselves behind the first.

"And may I ask," added Desmond, with a slight gesture to Bulger to restrain himself—he too had recognized the newcomers—"since when the Nawab has taken into his service the crew of an interloping English merchantman?"

"I shall give you full information, Mr. Burke," said Diggle suavely, "when we stand together before my friend the Faujdar. In the meantime you will, if I may venture to advise, consult your interest best in yielding to superior numbers and delivering up the goods."

"And what about myself, Mr. Diggle?"

"You, of course, will accompany me to the Faujdar. He will be incensed, I make no doubt, at your temerity, and not unjustly; but I will intercede for you, and you will be treated with the most delicate attentions."

"You speak fair, Mr. Diggle," said Desmond, still bent upon gaining time; "but that is your way. What assurance have I that you will, this time, keep your word?"

"You persist in misjudging me," said Diggle regretfully. "As Cicero says in the play, you construe things after your fashion, clean from the purpose of the things themselves. My interest in you is undiminished; nay rather, it is increased and mixed with admiration. My offers still hold good: join hands with me, and I promise you that you shall soon be a persona grata at the court of Murshidabad, with wealth and honors in your grasp."

"Your offer is tempting, Mr. Diggle, to a poor adventurer like me, and if only my own interests were involved, I might strike a bargain with you. I have had such excellent reasons to trust you in the past! But the goods are not mine; they are Mr. Merriman's; and the utmost I can do at present is to ask you to draw your men off and wait while I send a messenger to Calcutta. When he returns with Mr. Merriman's consent to the delivery of the goods, then—"

The sentence remained unfinished. Diggle's expression had been becoming blacker and blacker as Desmond spoke, and seeing with fury that he was being played with he suddenly wheeled round, and, cantering back to his men, gave the order to fire. At the same moment Desmond called to his men to lie flat on the ground and aim at the enemy from behind the solid wooden wheels of the hackeris. Being on the flat top of the mound, they were to some extent below the line of fire from the plain, and when the first volley was delivered no harm was done to them save for a few scratches made by flying splinters struck from the carts.

But the crack of the matchlocks struck terror into the pale hearts of some of the hackeriwallahs. Several sprang over the breastwork and scuttled away like scared rabbits. The remainder stood firm, grasping their lathis in a manner that showed the fighting instinct to be strong, even in the Bengali.

Many anxious looks were bent upon Desmond, his men expecting the order to fire. But he bade them remain still, and through the interval between two carts he watched for the rush that was coming. The crew of the Good Intent, headed by Sunman, the cross-eyed mate, and Parmiter, had come up behind the natives. These, having emptied their matchlocks, were now retiring to reload. Diggle had dismounted, and was talking earnestly with the mate. They walked together to the edge of the nullah, and looked up and down it, doubtless canvassing the chances of an attack in the rear; but the sides were steep; there was no hope of success in this direction; and they rejoined the main body.

Evidently they had decided on making a vigorous direct attack over the carts. Dividing his troop into two portions, Diggle put himself at the head of the one, Sunman at the head of the other. Arranged in a semicircle concentric with the breastwork, at the word of command all the men with firearms discharged their pieces; then, with shrill cries from the natives, and a hoarse cheer from the crew of the Good Intent, they charged in a close line up the slope.

Behind the barricade the men's impatience had only been curbed by the quiet imperturbable manner of their young leader. But their self restraint was on the point of breaking down when, short, sharp and clear, the long-awaited command was given. Their matchlocks flashed; the volley told with deadly effect at the short range of thirty paces; four or five men dropped; as many more staggered down the slope; the rest halted indecisively, in doubt whether to push forward or turn tail.

"Blockheads! cowards!" shouted Diggle in a fury. "Push on, you dogs; we are four to one!"

He was now a very different Diggle from the man Desmond had known hitherto. His smile was gone; all languor and indolence was lost; his eyes flashed, his lips met in a hard cruel line; his voice rang out strong and metallic. That he was no coward Desmond already knew. He put himself in the forefront of the line, and, as always happens, a brave leader never lacks followers.

The whole of the seamen and many of the Bengalis surged forward after him. Behind the breastwork all the men were now mixed up—musketeers with pikemen and lathiwallahs. Upon these came the swarming enemy, some clambering over the carts, others wriggling between the wheels. There was a babel of cries; the exultant bellow of the born fighter, British or native; a few pistol shots; the scream of the men mortally hit; the "Wah! wah!" of the Bengalis applauding their own prowess.

As Diggle had said, the odds were four to one. But the defenders had the advantage of position, and for a few moments they held the yelling mob at bay. The half pikes of the boatmen were terrible weapons at close quarters, more formidable than the cutlasses of the seamen balked by the breastwork, or the loaded bamboo clubs of the lathiwallahs.

Sunman, the mate, was one of the first victims; he fell to a shot from Bulger. But Parmiter and Diggle, followed by half a dozen of the sailors, and a score of the more determined lathiwallahs and musketeers with clubbed muskets, succeeded in clambering to the top of the carts and prepared to jump down among the defenders, most of whom were busily engaged in jabbing at the men swarming in between the wheels. Desmond saw that if his barricade was once broken through the issue of the fight must be decided by mere weight of numbers.

"Bulger, here!" he cried, "and you, Hossain."

The men sprang to him, and, following his example, leaped on to the cart next to that occupied by Diggle and Parmiter. Desmond's intention was to take them in flank. Jumping over the bales of silk, he swung over his head a matchlock he had seized from one of his peons, and brought it down with a horizontal sweep. Two of the Bengalis among the crowd of lathiwallahs, who were hanging back out of reach of the boatmen's pikes, were swept off the cart. But the violence of his blow disturbed Desmond's own balance; he fell on one knee; his matchlock was seized and jerked out of his hand; and in a second three men were upon him. Bulger and the serang, although a little late, owing to want of agility in scaling the cart, were close behind.

"Belay there!" roared Bulger, as he flung himself upon the combatants.

The bullet head of one sturdy badmash cracked like an eggshell under the butt of the bold tar's musket; a second received the terrible hook square in the teeth; and a third, no other than Parmiter himself, was caught round the neck at the next lunge of the hook, and flung, with a mighty heave, full into the midst of the defenders. Bulger drew a long breath.

At the same moment Diggle, attacked by the serang, was thrown from his perch on the hackeri and fell among his followers outside the barricade. There was a moment's lull while both parties recovered their wind. Firing had ceased; to load a matchlock was a long affair, and though the attackers might have divided and come forward in relays with loaded weapons, they would have run the risk of hitting their own friends.

It was to be again a hand-to-hand fight. Diggle was not to be denied. Desmond, who had jumped down inside the barricade when the pressure was relieved by Bulger, could not but admire the spirit and determination of his old enemy, though it boded ill for his own chance of escape. He was weary; worn out by want of rest and food; almost prostrated by the terrible heat. Looking round his little fort, he felt a tremor as he saw that five out of his twenty-four men were more or less disabled. True, there were now more than a dozen of the enemy in the same or a worse plight; but they could afford their losses, and Desmond indeed wondered why Diggle did not sacrifice a few men in one fierce overwhelming onslaught.

"A hundred rupees to the man who kills the young sahib, two hundred to the man who takes him alive!" cried Diggle to his dusky followers, as though in answer to Desmond's thought.

Then, turning to the discomfited crew of the Good intent, he said: "Sure, my men, you will not be beaten by a boy and a one-armed man. There's a fortune for all of you in those carts. At them again, my men; I'll show you the way."

He was as good as his word. He snatched a long lathi from one of the Bengalis and rushed up the slope to the hackeri nearest the nullah. Finding a purchase for one end of his club in the woodwork of the wagon, he put forth all his strength in the effort to push it over the edge. Owing to the length of the lathi he was out of reach of the half pikes in the hands of the boatmen, who had to lunge either over or under the carts.

His unaided strength would have been unequal to the task of moving the hackeri, heavily laden as it was, resting on soft soil, and interlocked with the next. But as soon as his followers saw the aim of his movements, and especially when they found that the defenders could not touch him without exposing themselves, he gained as many eager helpers as could bring their lathis to bear upon the two carts.

Meanwhile the defense at this spot was weak, for the men of the Good Intent had swarmed up to the adjoining carts and were threatening at any moment to force a way over the barricade. They were more formidable enemies than the Bengalis.

Slowly the two hackeris began to move, till the wheels of one hung over the edge of the nullah. One more united heave, and it rolled over, dragging the other cart with it and splitting itself into a hundred fragments on the rocky bottom. Through the gap thus formed in the barricade sprang Diggle, with half a dozen men of the Good Intent and a score of Bengalis.

Desmond gathered his little band into a knot in the center of the inclosure. Then the brazen sun looked down upon a Homeric struggle. Bulger, brawny warrior of the iron hook, swung his musket like a flail, every now and again shooting forth his more sinister weapon with terrible effect. Desmond, slim and athletic, dashed in upon the enemy with his half pike as they recoiled before Bulger's whirling musket. The rest, now a bare dozen, Bengalis though they were, presented still an undaunted front to the swarm that surged into the narrow space. The hot air grew hotter with the fight.

To avoid being surrounded, the little band instinctively backed towards the edge of the nullah. Diggle exulted as they were pressed remorselessly to the rear. Not a man dreamed of surrender; the temper of the assailants was indeed so savage that nothing but the annihilation of their victims would now satisfy them. Yet Diggle once again bethought himself that Desmond might be worth to him more alive than dead, and in the midst of the clamor Desmond heard him repeat his offer of reward to the man who should capture him.

Diggle himself resolved to make the attempt. Venturing too near, he received an ugly gash from Desmond's pike, promising a permanent mark from brow to chin. This was too much for him. Beside himself with fury, he yelled a command to his men to sweep the pigs over the brink, and, one side of his face livid with rage, the other streaming with blood, he dashed forward at Bulger, who had come up panting to engage him.

He had well timed his rush, for Bulger's musket was at the far end of its pendulum swing, but the old seaman saw his danger in time. With a movement of extraordinary agility in a man of his bulk, he swung on his heel, presenting his side to the rapier that flashed in Diggle's hand. Parrying the thrust with his hook, he shortened his stump and lunged at Diggle below the belt. His enemy collapsed as if shot; but his followers swept forward over his prostrate body, and it seemed as if, in one brief half minute, the knot of defenders would be hurled to the bottom of the nullah.

But, at this critical moment, assailants and defenders were stricken into quietude by a tumultuous cheer, the cheer of Europeans, from the direction of the gap in the barricade. Weapons remained poised in mid air; every man stood motionless, wondering whether the interruption came from friend or foe. The question was answered on the instant.

"Now, men, have at them!"

With a thrill Desmond recognized the voice. It was the voice of Silas Toley. There was nothing of melancholy in it, nor in the expression of the New Englander as he sprang, cutlass in hand, through the gap. Slow to take fire, when Toley's anger was kindled it blazed with a devouring flame. The crowd of assailants dissolved as if by magic. Before the last of the crew of the Hormuzzeer, lascars and Europeans, had passed into the inclosure, the men of the Good Intent and their Bengali allies were streaming over and under the carts toward the open.

Diggle at the first shock had staggered to his feet and stumbled toward the barricade. As he reached it, a black boy, springing as it were out of the earth, hastened to him and helped him to crawl between the wheels of a cart and down the slope. On the boy's arm he limped toward his horse, tethered to a tree. A wounded wretch was clumsily attempting to mount. Him Diggle felled; then he crawled painfully into the saddle and galloped away, Scipio Africanus leaping up behind.

By this time his followers were dispersing in all directions—all but eight luckless men who would never more wield cutlass or lathi, and a dozen who lay on one side or other of the barricade, too hard hit to move.

Chapter 23: In which there are many moving events; and our hero finds himself a cadet of John Company.

Diggle's escape passed unnoticed until it was too late to pursue him. At the sight of Toley and his messmates of the Hormuzzeer, Bulger had let fall his musket and dropped to the ground, where he sat mopping his face and crying, "Go it, mateys!" Desmond felt a strange faintness, and leaned dizzily against one of the hackeris. But, revived by a draft from Mr. Toley's flask, he thanked the mate warmly, and wanted to hear how he had contrived to come up in time.

When Desmond's messenger arrived in Calcutta, Mr. Merriman was away up the river, engaged in very serious business. The messenger had applied to the governor, to members of the Council, to Captain Minchin and other officers, and the reply of one and all was the same: they could do nothing; it was more important that every man should be employed in strengthening the defenses of Calcutta than in going upcountry on what might prove a vain and useless errand. But Toley happened to be in the town, and learning of the difficulties and perils of his friend Burke, with the captain's consent he had hastily collected the crew of the Hormuzzeer, that still lay off the fort, and led them, under the guidance of the messenger, to support him. Meeting Surendra Nath, and learning from him that a fight was imminent, he had pushed on with all speed, the Babu leading the way.

"It was well done," said Desmond warmly. "We owe our lives to you, and Mr. Merriman his goods. But what was the business that took Mr. Merriman from Calcutta at this time of trouble?"

"Trouble of his own, Burke," said Mr. Toley. "I guess he'd better have let the Nawab keep his goods and sent you to look after his womenfolk."

"What do you mean? I left the ladies at Khulna; what has happened to them?"

"'Tis what Mr. Merriman would fain know. They've disappeared, gone clean out of sight."

"But the peons?"

"Gone, too. Nothing heard or seen of them."

This serious news came as a shock to Desmond. If he had only known! How willingly he would have let Coja Solomon do what he pleased with the goods, and hastened to the help of the wife and daughter Mr. Merriman held so dear! While in Cossimbazar, he had heard from Mr. Watts terrible stories of the Nawab's villainy, which no respect of persons held in check. He feared that if Mrs. Merriman and Phyllis had indeed fallen into Sirajuddaula's hands, they were lost to their family and friends forever.

But, eager as he was to get back to Calcutta and join Mr. Merriman in searching for them, he had a strange certainty that it was not to be. The faintness that he had already felt returned. His head was burning and throbbing; his ears buzzed; his limbs ached; his whole frame was seized at moments with paroxysms of shivering which no effort could control. Unknown to himself the seeds of malarial fever had found a lodgment in his system. While listening to Toley's story, he had reclined on the ground. When he tried to rise, he was overcome by giddiness and nausea.

"I am done up," he continued. "Mr. Toley, you must take charge and get these goods conveyed to Calcutta. Lose no time."

Surendra Nath recognized the symptoms of the disease, and immediately had a litter improvised for Desmond out of the linen covering of one of the carts and a couple of muskets. Mr. Toley at once made preparations for moving on with the convoy. The hackeriwallahs who had driven off the cattle had not gone far; they had waited in the hope of getting the bakshish promised them—if not from the young sahib, at least from the leader of the attacking party, which from its numbers they believed would gain the day.

The oxen were soon yoked up. Mr. Toley would not wait to recover the loads of the carts that had toppled into the nullah, nor would he leave men for that purpose, lest another attack should be made on them from Hugli. He set off as soon as the teams were ready. Half an hour after they started, Bulger, walking beside the litter, saw to his dismay that Desmond had lost consciousness.

It was nearly a fortnight later when Desmond came to himself in his old bunk on board the Hormuzzeer. He was alone. Lying on his back, feebly trying to adjust his thoughts to his surroundings, he heard the faint boom of guns. What was happening? He tried to rise, but all power was gone from him; he could hardly lift an arm. Even the slight effort was too much for him, and he swooned again.

When he once more recovered consciousness, he saw a figure by his side. It was Mr. Toley. Again the distant thunder of artillery fell upon his ears.

"What is happening?" he asked feebly.

"Almighty be praised!" said Toley fervently, "you're coming safe to port. Hush! Lie you still. You'll want nussin' like a babby. Never you heed the popguns; I'll tell you all about them when you're stronger. Food, sleep, and air; that's my catechism, larned from the surgeon. Bless you, Burke, I feared you was a done man."

With this Desmond had to be for the time content. But every day he heard firing, and every day, as he slowly regained strength, he became more and more anxious to know what it meant. Toley seemed to have left the ship; Desmond was tended only by natives.

From them he learned that the Nawab was attacking Calcutta. How were the defenders faring? They could not tell. He knew how small was the garrison, how weak the fortifications; but, with an English lad's unconquerable faith in his countrymen's valor, he could not believe that they could fail to hold their own.

One day, however, he heard no more firing. In the afternoon Mr. Toley came to his bunk, bringing with him Mr. Merriman himself. The merchant had his head bound up, and wore his left arm in a sling. He was pale, haggard, the shadow of his former self.

"What has happened, sir?" cried Desmond the instant he saw him. "Are the ladies safe?"

"God pity us, Desmond! I shall never see them again. My poor Dora! my sweet Phyllis! They are lost! All is lost! The Nawab has taken the fort. We are beaten, shamed, ruined!"

"How did it happen? I heard the firing. Tell me; it can not be so bad as that. Sure something can be done!"

"Nothing, nothing; we did all we could. 'Twas little; would that Drake had heeded our advice! But I am rejoiced to see you on the road to recovery, dear boy; 'twould have been another nail in my coffin to know that you had lost your life in doing a service for me. I thank God for that, from the bottom of my heart."

He pressed Desmond's hand affectionately.

"But tell me, sir; I want to know what has happened. How came you to be wounded? Sure I am strong enough to hear now; it will do me no harm."

"It cuts me to the heart, Desmond, but you shall know. I was absent when you were carried to my house—searching for my dear ones. But Dr. Gray tended you; alas! the good man is now a prisoner. I returned three days after, driven back from up the river by the advance of the Nawab's army. I was worn out, distraught; not a trace had I found of my dear wife; she had vanished; nor of my daughter; nor even of my peons; all had gone.

"And there was trouble enough in Calcutta for me and for all. 'Twas the very day I returned that the news came of Sirajuddaula's approach. And a letter from his chief spy was intercepted, addressed to Omichand, bidding him escape while there was yet time and join the Subah. That seemed to Mr. Drake clear proof that Omichand was in league with our enemies, and he had him arrested and thrown into the fort prison. But Mr. Drake never acts till 'tis too late. He gave orders next to arrest Krishna Das. The man barricaded himself in his house and beat our peons off, till Lieutenant Blagg and thirty Europeans drove in his gates. They found a vast quantity of arms collected there. They stormed Omichand's house also, where three hundred armed domestics made a stout fight against 'em. When our men got in—'tis a horrid story—the head jamadar with his own hands stabbed all his master's women and children, to prevent em falling into our hands, and then set fire to the place.

"Our men had already been driven out of Tanna fort by Manik Chand, who had come up with two thousand men and a couple of field pieces. Then came up Mir Jafar, the Nawab's bakshi {commander in chief}, and began firing from the Chitpur gate. We got all our women into the fort; the poor creatures left all they had but their clothes and their bedding. You may guess the confusion. The natives were flocking out of the town; most of our servants fled with them; all our cooks were gone, so that though we had a great stock of food we were like to starve in the midst of plenty.

"But we filled their places with some of the Portuguese who came crowding into the fort. Two thousand of 'em, men, women, and children, filled the courtyard, sitting among their bundles of goods, so that we could scarce move for 'em. The enemy was in the town; they had set light to the Great Bazaar, and were burning and plundering in the native parts. We fired the bastis to the east and south, to deprive 'em of cover; and you may imagine the scene, Desmond—the blazing sky, the tears and screams of the women, the din of guns. We wrote to the French at Chandernagore begging 'em to lend us some ammunition, for the most of ours was useless; but they sent us a genteel reply saying they'd no more than sufficient for their own needs; yet the wretches made the Nawab a present of two hundred chests of powder, 'tis said.

"Next day we were besieged in earnest. The Nawab had, we learned, nigh fifty thousand men, with one hundred and fifty elephants and camels, and two hundred and fifty Frenchmen working his artillery. Against 'em we had about five hundred in all, only half of 'em Europeans. What could so few do against so many? Our officers were all brave enough, but they've had a slack time, and few of 'em are fit for the work. Ensign Picard, sure, did wonders, and Lieutenant Smyth defended the north battery with exceeding skill; but we had not men enough to hold our positions, and step by step we were driven back.

"'Twas clear we could not hold out long, and on Friday night we held a council of war, and decided to send the women on board the ships in the river, to get 'em out of harm's way. Then by heaven! Desmond, two of the Council shamed 'emselves for ever. Mr. Manningham and Mr. Frankland, special friends of Mr. Drake, attended the ladies to the ship—'twas the Dodalay, of which they are owners—and they stayed on board with 'em—the cowards, to set such an infamous example! And well 'twas followed. 'Tis scarce credible, but Captain Minchin, our gallant commander, and Mr. Drake, our noble president, went down to the ghat and had 'emselves rowed off to the shipping and deserted us: good God! do they deserve the name of Englishmen? One of our gentlemen standing on the steps was so enraged that he sent a bullet after the cravens; others did the same, and I would to heaven that one of their shots had took effect on the wretches! We made Mr. Holwell governor in the Quaker's place; and I tell you, Desmond, had we done so before, there would have been a different story to tell this day.

"Mr. Holwell saw 'twas impossible to withstand the Nawab's hordes much longer, and spoke for an orderly retreat; but he was overrid by some of the military officers; and besides, retreat was cut off, for the ships that had lain in the river moved away, and though we hung out signals from the fort asking 'em to come back and take us off, they paid no heed; nay, they stood farther off, leaving us to our fate. What could we do? Mr. Holwell sent to Omichand in his prison and offered to release him if he would treat with the Nawab for us. But the Gentoo refused. All he would do was to write a letter to Manik Chand asking him to intercede for us. Mr. Holwell threw the letter over the wall among the enemy, and by heaven! Desmond, never did I suppose Englishmen would be reduced to such a point of humiliation.

"But 'twas of no effect. The enemy came on with the more determination, and brought bamboos to scale the walls. We drove 'em off again, but with frightful loss; twenty-five of our bravest men were killed outright and sixty wounded. 'Twas there I got my wounds, and 'twould have been all over with me but for that fine fellow Bulger; he turned aside with his hook a slashing blow from a scimitar and gave my assailant his quietus. Bulger fought like a hero, and the very look of him, black with powder and stained with blood, seemed to drive all the fight out of the Moors that came his way.

"All this time the shots of the Nawab's cannon annoyed us, not to much harm, for they were most villainously served; their fire arrows did us more mischief, flying into the thick of the crowds of screaming women and children. It made my heart sick to think of the poor innocent people suffering through the weakness and incompetence and the guilty neglect of our Council. The heat and the glare, the want of food, the uproar and commotion—may I never see or hear the like again!

"Yesterday there was a lull in the fighting about midday. The enemy were still outside the fort, though they had possession of all the houses around. They showed a flag of truce, whereupon Mr. Holwell writ a letter asking 'em for terms. But 'twas a trick to deceive us. While we were resting, waiting the result of the parley, the Moors poured out of their hiding places and swarmed upon the eastern gate of the fort and the pallisadoes on the southwest. In the interval many of our common men had fallen asleep; some, alas! were drunk, so that we had no force to resist the invaders, who scaled the roof of the godowns on the north wall with the aid of their bamboos and swept over into the fort.

"Most of us Europeans who were left collected in the veranda in front of the barracks—you know, between the great gate and the southeast bastion. Scarce a man of us but was wounded. There we were unmolested, for the enemy, as soon as they burst into our private rooms, made busy with their spoil; and, as it appeared, the Nawab had given orders that we were to be spared.

"At five o'clock he came into the fort in a gay litter and held a durbar in our Council room, Mir Jafar salaaming before him and making fulsome compliments on his great victory. Then the wretch sent for Mr. Holwell. We bade him farewell; sure we thought we should never see him more. But he returned to us presently, and told us the Nawab was vastly enraged at the smallness of the treasure he had found; the stories of the French had led him to expect untold wealth. Omichand and Krishna Das had been took out of prison, and treated with great affability, and presented by the Nawab with siropas—robes of honor, a precious token of his favor. But the Nawab. Mr. Holwell told us, had promised no harm should befall us. A guard of five hundred gunmen was set over us with matches lighted, and the sun being now nigh setting, men came with torches, though sure they were not needed, a great part of the factory being in flames, so that indeed we feared we should be suffocated. But we were shortly afterwards told to go into the barracks, nigh the veranda where we stood.

"Then it was that I, by the mercy of God, was enabled to escape. I was at the end of the veranda, farthest from the barracks. Just as I was about to move off after the rest, one of the guards came in front of me, and whispered me to hide behind the last of the thick pillars till he came for me. I recognized the man: 'twas an old peon of mine. Thank God for a faithful servant! More dead than alive I did what he said. For hours I lay there, fearing I know not what, not daring to stir lest some eye should see me, and suffering agonies from my untended wounds. At last the man came to me.

"'Sahib,' he said, 'you were good to me. I shall save you. Come, quickly.'

"I got up and stumbled after him. He led me by dark ways out of the fort, past the new godown, across the burying ground, down to Chandpal ghat. There I found Mr. Toley awaiting me with a boat, and 'tis thanks to my old peon and him I now find myself safe."

"And do you know what became of Bulger?" asked Desmond.

"He is with the rest, sorely battered, poor man."

"What will happen to the prisoners? How many are there?"

"There are nigh a hundred and fifty. The Nawab has promised they shall suffer no harm, and after a night in barracks I suppose he will let 'em go. We shall drop down the river till we reach the other vessels at Surman's, and then, by heaven! I shall see what I can do to bring Mr. Drake to a sense of his duty, and persuade him to come back and take off the Europeans.

"Sure this action of Sirajuddaula's will not go unavenged. We have already sent letters to Madras, and within two months, I hope, succor will reach us from thence, and we shall chastise this insolent young Nawab."

"Do you think he will keep his word?—I mean, to do the prisoners no harm."

"I think so. He has done no harm to Mr. Watts, whom he brought with him from Cossimbazar; and our people will be more valuable to him alive than dead. Yes; by this time tomorrow I trust Mr. Holwell and the others will be safe on board the ships, and I do not envy Mr. Drake his bitter experience when the men he has deserted confront him."

While Mr. Merriman was telling his story, the Hormuzzeer was slowly drifting down the river. At Surman's garden, about five miles south of Calcutta, it joined the other vessels belonging to British owners, and dropped anchor. Several gentlemen came on board, eager to learn what had been the last scene in the tragic drama. Mr. Merriman told them all he knew, and every one drew a long breath of relief when they learned that though prisoners, Mr. Holwell and the gallant few who had stuck to their posts had been assured of good treatment. During the day the vessel dropped still lower down the river to Budge Budge, running the gauntlet of a brisk but ineffective fire from Tanna Fort, now in the hands of the Nawab's troops.

When the Hormuzzeer lay at anchor at Budge Budge, Mr. Merriman explained to Desmond the plans he had formed for him. The vessel now had her full cargo, and would sail immediately for Penang. Mr. Merriman proposed that Desmond should make the voyage. In his weak state the climate of Fulta, where the Europeans intended to stay until help reached them from Madras, might prove fatal to him; while the sea air would complete his cure.

His share of the sale price of the Tremukji, together with the Gheria prize money, amounted to more than a thousand pounds, and this had been invested for him by his friend.

"For myself," added Merriman, "I shall remain. My wounds are not severe; I am accustomed to the climate; and though India is now odious to me, I shall not leave Indian soil until I find traces of my dear wife and daughter. God grant that by the time you return I shall have some news of them."

Desmond would have liked to remain with the merchant, but he knew that in his weakness he could do him no service, and he acquiesced in the arrangement.

That same evening the fugitives received news that made their blood run cold. Two Englishmen, Messrs. Cooke and Lushington, who had remained staunchly by Mr. Holwell's side, came from the shore in a small boat and boarded the Dodalay. Their appearance struck every one with amazement and horror. Mr. Cooke was a merchant, aged thirty-one; Mr. Lushington a writer in the Company's service, his age eighteen; but the events of one night had altered them almost beyond recognition. They said that when the order had been given to confine them in the barracks, the prisoners had all expected to pass the night in comparative comfort. What was their amazement when they were escorted to the Black Hole, a little chamber no more than eighteen feet square, which was only used as a rule for the confinement of one or two unruly prisoners. In vain they protested; their brutal guards forced them, a hundred and forty-six in number, into the narrow space, and locked the door upon them. It was one of the hottest nights of the year; there was but one small opening in the wall, and before long the want of air and the intense heat drove the poor people to fury. They trampled each other down in their mad attempts to get near the opening for air and the water which one of their jailers, less brutal than the rest, handed in to them.

The horror of the scenes that passed in that small room baffles description. Men and women in the agonies of thirst and suffocation fought like tigers. Many prayed their guards to shoot them and end their sufferings, only to meet with jeers and laughter. Some of the native officers took pity on them and would have opened the door, but none durst move without the Nawab's permission, or brave his fury if they roused him from his sleep. From seven in the evening till six in the morning the agony continued, and when at length the order came for their release, only twenty-three of the hundred and forty-six tottered forth, the ghastliest wrecks of human beings.

Mr. Holwell and three others were then conveyed as prisoners in a bullock cart to Omichand's garden, and thence to Murshidabad; the rest were bidden to go where they pleased.

The news was kept from Desmond. It was not till weeks after that he heard of the terrible tragedy. Then, with the horror and pity he felt, there was mingled a fear that Bulger had been among those who perished. The seaman, he knew, had taken a stout part in the defense of the fort; Mr. Merriman had not mentioned him as being among the prisoners; it was possible that he had escaped; but the thought that the brave fellow had perhaps died in that awful hole made Desmond sick at heart.

Though the season was now at its hottest, the fresh sea air proved a wonderful tonic to him, and he rapidly regained his strength. The voyage was slow. The Hormuzzeer beat down the Bay of Bengal against the monsoon now beginning, and it was nearly two months before she made Penang. She unloaded there: her cargo was sold at great profit, she being the only vessel that had for some time left the Hugli; and Desmond found his capital increased by nearly a hundred per cent. She then took on a cargo for Madras, where she arrived in the first week of September.

Desmond took the earliest opportunity of going on shore. The roads were studded with Admiral Watson's fleet, and he learned that Clive was in the town preparing an expedition to avenge the wrong suffered by the English in Calcutta. He hastened to obtain an interview with the colonel.

"'Tis no conventional speech when I say I am glad to see you alive and well, Mr. Burke," said Clive. "Have you come direct from Calcutta?"

"No, sir. I left there some ten weeks ago for Penang."

"Then I have later news of my friend Merriman than you. Poor fellow! He is distraught at the loss of his wife and girl. I have received several letters from him. He spoke of you; told me of what you had done at Cossimbazar. Gad, sir, you did right well in defending his goods; and I promise myself if ever I lay hands on that villain Peloti he shall smart for that piece of rascaldom and many more. Are you still minded to take service with me?"

"I should like nothing better, sir, but I doubt whether I can think of it until I see Mr. Merriman."

"Tut, man, that is unnecessary. 'Twas arranged between Mr. Merriman and me in Bombay that he would release you as soon as a vacancy occurred in the Company's military establishment. There are several such vacancies now, and I shall be glad to have a Shropshire man as a lieutenant. I trow you are not averse to taking a hand in this expedition?"

"No one who knows what happened in Calcutta can be that, sir."

"That is settled, then. I appoint you a cadet in the Company's service."

"Thank you indeed, sir," said Desmond, flushing with pleasure. "I have longed all my life to serve under you."

"You may find me a hard taskmaster," said Clive, setting his lips in the grim way that so many had cause to fear.

"When do we start, sir?"

"That I can't say. 'Tis not by my wish we have delayed so long. I will let you know when I require your services. Meanwhile, make yourself acquainted with the officers."

Desmond learned from his new comrades that there was some disagreement among the Madras Council about the command of the expedition. Clive had volunteered to lead it as soon as the news of the fall of Calcutta arrived; but he was inferior in rank to Colonel Adlercron of the Thirty-ninth Regiment, and that officer was a great stickler for military etiquette. The Council had some reason for anxiety. They were expecting to hear, from outcoming ships, of the outbreak of war between France and England; and as the French were strong in Southern India, it required much moral courage to weaken the force disposable for the defense of Madras.

One day, before the matter of the command had been definitely settled, Desmond received a summons from Clive. He found the great soldier alone.

"You have heard of the discussions in the Council, Mr. Burke," began Clive without ceremony. "I tell you this: I and no other will command this expedition. In that confidence I have sent for you. What I have heard of you speaks well for your readiness and resource, and I think you could be more useful to me in the Hugli than waiting here until our respected Council can make up their minds. The men here are not acquainted with Bengal. You are: you know the country from Calcutta to Murshidabad, at all events, and you speak Hindustani with some fluency. You can serve me best by picking up any information you can get regarding the enemy's movements. You are willing, I take it, to run some risks?"

"I'll do anything you wish, sir."

"As I expected. Well, you will go at once to Fulta. Not to Mr. Drake: I've no confidence in him and the other old women who are conducting the Company's affairs in Bengal. Major Killpatrick, an excellent officer, left here in June with a small reinforcement. He is now at Fulta. You will join him. I shall ask him to give you a free hand in going and coming and collecting information. You understand that in a sense you are on secret service. I want you to keep an eye particularly on the movements of the French. 'Tis reported that they are in league with Sirajuddaula: find out whether that's the case: and gad, sir, if it is, I'll not be satisfied till I've turned 'em neck and crop out of Bengal. You'll want money: here are five thousand rupees; if you want more, ask Major Killpatrick. Now, when can you start?"

"The Hormuzzeer is sailing in ballast tomorrow, sir. She'll go light, and aboard her I should get to Fulta as quickly as on any other vessel."

"Very well. I trust you: much depends on your work; go on as you have begun and I promise you Robert Clive won't forget it. Goodby.

"By the way, your duties will take you through the parts where Mrs. Merriman disappeared. Your first duty is to me, and through me to your king and country, remember that. But if you can get any news of the missing ladies, so much the better. Mrs. Merriman is a cousin of my wife's, and I am deeply concerned about her fate."

Next day the Hormuzzeer sailed, and by the middle of September Desmond had reached Fulta, and reported himself both to Major Killpatrick and to Mr. Merriman there.

Chapter 24: In which the danger of judging by appearance is notably exemplified.

"Sure 'tis a most pleasant engaging young man," said Mrs. Merriman, as her boat dropped down the river towards Chandernagore. "Don't you think so, Phyllis?"

"Why, mamma, it does seem so. But 'tis too soon to make up my mind in ten minutes."

"Indeed, miss! Let me tell you I made up my mind about your father in five. La, how Merriman will laugh when he hears 'twas Mr. Burke gave him that scar—

"What is the matter, Munnoo Khan?"

The boat had stopped with a jerk, and the boatmen were looking at one another with some anxiety. The serang explained that ill luck had caused the boat to strike a snag in the river, and she was taking in water.

"You clumsy man! The Sahib will be angry with you. Make haste, then; row harder."

"Mamma, 'tis impossible!" cried Phyllis in alarm. "See, the water is coming in fast; we shall be swamped in a few minutes!"

"Mercy me. 'Tis as you say! Munnoo Khan, row to the nearest ghat; you see it there! Sure 'tis a private ghat, belonging to the house of one of the French merchants. He will lend us a boat. 'Twill be vastly annoying if we do not reach home before dark."

The men just succeeded in reaching the ghat, on the left bank of the river about a mile below Chandernagore, before the boat sank. When the party had landed, Mrs. Merriman sent her jamadar up to the house to ask for the loan of a boat, or for shelter while one was being obtained from Chandernagore.

"Tell the Sahib 'tis the bibi of an English sahib," she said. "He will not refuse to do English ladies a service."

The jamadar shortly returned, followed by a tall dark-featured European in white clothes. He bowed and smiled pleasantly when he came down to the ghat, and addressed Mrs. Merriman in French.

"I am happy to be of service, Madam. Alas! I have no boat at hand, but I shall send instantly to Chandernagore for one. Meanwhile, if you will have the goodness to come to my house, my wife will be proud to offer you refreshments, and we shall do our best to entertain you until the boat arrives.

"Permit me, Madam."

He offered his left hand to assist the lady up the steps.

"I had the mischance to injure my right hand the other day," he explained. "It is needful to keep it from the air."

It was thrust into the pocket of his coat.

"The Frenchman is vastly polite," said Mrs. Merriman to her daughter, as they preceded him up the path to the house. "But there, that is the way with their nation."

"Hush, mamma!" said Phyllis, "he may understand English.

"I do not like his smile," she added in a whisper.

"La, my dear, it means nothing; it comes natural to a Frenchman. He looks quite genteel, you must confess; I should not be surprised if he were a somebody in his own land."

As if in response to the implied question, the man moved to her side, and, in a manner of great deference, said:

"Your jamadar named you to me, Madam; I feel that I ought to explain who I am. My name is Jacques de Bonnefon—a name, I may say it without boasting, once even better known at the court of his Majesty, King Louis the Fifteenth, than in Chandernagore. Alas, Madam fortune is a fickle jade. Here I am now, in Bengal, slowly retrieving by honest commerce a patrimony of which my lamented father was not too careful."

"There! What did I say?" whispered Mrs. Merriman to her daughter as Monsieur de Bonnefon went forward to meet them on the threshold of his veranda. "A noble in misfortune! I only hope his wife is presentable."

They entered the house and were shown into a room opening on the veranda.

"You will pardon my leaving you for a few moments, Mesdames," said their obliging host. "I shall bring my wife to welcome you, and send to Chandernagore for a boat."

With a bow he left them, closing the door behind him.

"Madame de Bonnefon was taken by surprise, I suppose," said Mrs. Merriman, "and is making her toilet. The vanity of these French people, my dear!"

Minutes passed. Evening was coming on apace; little light filtered through the chiks. The ladies sat, wondering why their hostess did not appear.

"Madame takes a long time, my dear," said Mrs. Merriman.

"I don't like it, mamma. I wish we hadn't come into the stranger's house."

"Why, my love, what nonsense! The man is not a savage. The French are not at war with us, and if they were, they do not war on women. Something has happened to delay Monsieur de Bonnefon."

"I can't help it, mamma; I don't like his looks; I fear something, I don't know what. Oh, I wish father were here!"

She got up and walked to and fro restlessly. Then, as by a sudden impulse, she went quickly to the door and turned the handle, She gave a low cry under her breath, and sprang round.

"Mamma! Mamma!" she cried. "I knew it! The door is locked."

Mrs. Merriman rose immediately.

"Nonsense, my dear! He would not dare do such a thing!"

But the door did not yield to her hand, though she pulled and shook it violently.

"The insolent villain!" she exclaimed.

She had plenty of courage, and if her voice shook, it was with anger, not fear. She went to the window opening on the veranda, loosed the bars, and looked out.

"We can get out here," she said. "We will walk instantly to Chandernagore, and demand assistance from the governor."

But the next moment she shrank back into the room. Two armed peons stood in the veranda, one on each side of the window. Recovering herself, Mrs. Merriman went to the window again.

"They will not dare to stop us," she said.

"Let me pass, you men; I will not be kept here."

But the natives did not budge from their post. Only, as the angry lady flung open one of the folding doors, they closed together and barred the way with their pikes. Accustomed to absolute subservience from her own peons, Mrs. Merriman saw at once that insistence was useless. If these men did not obey instantly they would not obey at all.

"I cannot fight them," she said, again turning back. "The wretches! If only your father were here!"

"Or Mr. Burke," said Phyllis. "Oh, how I wish he had come with us!"

"Wishing is no use, my dear. I vow the Frenchman shall pay dearly for this insolence. We must make the best of it."

Meanwhile Monsieur de Bonnefon had gone down to the ghat. But he did not send a messenger to Chandernagore as he had promised. He told the jamadar, in Urdu, that his mistress and the chota bibi would remain at his house for the night. They feared another accident if they should proceed in the darkness. He bade the man bring his party to the house, where they would all find accommodation until the morning.

In the small hours of that night there was a short sharp scuffle in the servants' quarters. The Merriman boatmen and peons were set upon by a score of sturdy men who promptly roped them together, and, hauling them down to the ghat and into a boat, rowed them up to Hugli. There they were thrown into the common prison.

In the morning a charge of dacoity {gang robbery} was laid against them. The story was that they had been apprehended in the act of breaking into the house of Monsieur Sinfray. Plenty of witnesses were forthcoming to give evidence against them; such can be purchased outside any cutcherry in India for a few rupees. The men were convicted. Some were given a choice between execution and service in the Nawab's army; others were sentenced offhand to a term of imprisonment, and these considered themselves lucky in escaping with their lives. In vain they protested their innocence and pleaded that a messenger might be sent to Calcutta; the Nawab was known to be so much incensed against the English that the fact of their being Company's servants would probably avail them nothing.

About the same time that the men were being condemned, a two-ox hackeri, such as was used for the conveyance of pardarnishin {literally, sitting behind screens} women, left the house of Monsieur de Bonnefon and drove inland for some five miles. The curtains were closely drawn, and the people who met it on the road wondered from what zenana the ladies thus screened from the public gaze had come. The team halted at a lonely house surrounded by a high wall, once the residence of a zamindar, now owned by Coja Solomon of Cossimbazar, and leased to a fellow Armenian of Chandernagore. It had been hired more than once by Monsieur Sinfray, the secretary to the Council at Chandernagore and a persona grata with the Nawab, for al fresco entertainments got up in imitation of the fetes at Versailles. But of late Monsieur Sinfray had had too much important business on hand to spare time for such delights. He was believed to be with Sirajuddaula at Murshidabad, and the house had remained untenanted.

The hackeri pulled up at the gate in the wall. The curtains were drawn aside; a group of peons surrounded the cart to fend off prying eyes; and the passengers descended—two ladies clad in long white saris {garment in one piece, covering the body from head to foot} and closely veiled. A sleek Bengali had already got out from a palanquin which had accompanied the hackeri; in a second palanquin sat Monsieur de Bonnefon, who did not take the trouble to alight.

With many salaams the Bengali led the ladies through the gate and across the compound towards the house. They both walked proudly erect, with a gait very different from that of the native ladies who time and again had followed the same path. They entered the house; the heavy door was shut; and from behind the screens of the room to which they were led they heard the hackeri rumbling away.

Monsieur de Bonnefon, as his palanquin was borne off, soliloquized, ticking off imaginary accounts on the fingers of his left hand; the right hand was partly hidden by a black velvet mitten. His reckoning ran somewhat as follows:

"In account with Edward Merriman:

"Credit—to the hounding out of the Company by his friend Clive: nominal: I made more outside; to scurrilous abuse in public and private: mere words; say fifty rupees; to threat to hang me: mere words again: say fifty rupees. Total credit, say a hundred rupees.

"Debit—to ransom for wife and daughter: two lakhs.

"Balance in my favor, say a hundred and ninety-nine thousand nine hundred rupees.

"In a few weeks, Mr. Edward Merriman, I shall trouble you for a settlement."

Chapter 25: In which our hero embarks on a hazardous mission; and Monsieur Sinfray's khansaman makes a confession.

On arriving at Fulta, Desmond found that the European fugitives from Calcutta were living for the most part on board the country ships in the river, while the military were cantoned in huts ashore, on a plain eastward of the town. The avenues leading to their camp were occupied by Sepoys. Desmond lost no time in making his way to Major Killpatrick's hut and presenting his credentials.

"Very glad to make your acquaintance," said the major heartily. "Oh yes, I know all about you. Mr. Merriman has told me of the way you brought his cargo through from Cossimbazar, and the plucky stand you made against odds. By Jove, sir, 'twas an amazing good piece of work. You deserved a commission if any youngster ever did, and I'm glad Mr. Clive has done the right thing. Let me tell you, Mr. Clive don't make mistakes—in military matters, that is to say. And Gheria, now: egad, sir, you must have a head on your shoulders; and that en't flattery; we soldiers en't in the habit of laying on the butter.

"You did well; and sure you'll be of the greatest use to us here. We need a few men as are able to keep their heads in a warm place: and, begad, if they'd such men in Bengal these last months we wouldn't be rotting here in this fever-haunted place. Why, I've lost thirty-two officers and men in less than a couple of months, and I'll be lucky if I've fifty fit for service by the time Mr. Clive arrives. When may we expect him, sir?"

"He couldn't tell me, sir. The Madras Council can't make up their minds who is to command the expedition, and they're waiting for ships from home."

Major Killpatrick laughed.

"Why, I know how that will end. With Mr. Stringer Lawrence laid up there is only one man fit to do this job, and that's Mr. Clive, and the sooner the gentlemen on their office stools at Madras see that, the better in the end for everybody.

"Now you're strong again, eh? Got rid of that touch of fever?"

"Yes, sir; I'm as well as ever."

"And want to be doing something, I'll be bound. Well, 'twill need some thinking, what you've to do. We're badly served with news. We've got spies, of course; but I don't set much store by native spies in this country. We've information by the bushel, but when you come to sift it out there's precious little of it you can trust. And the enemy has got spies, too—hundreds of 'em. I'll bet my boots there's a regular system of kasids for carrying news of us to Manik Chand and from him to the Nawab. If the truth was known, I dare say that rascal knows how many hairs I have on my bald crown under my wig—if that's any interest to him.

"Well, I suppose you'll join Mr. Merriman on board one of the ships. Better chance of escaping the fever there. I'll turn over a thing or two I have in my mind and send for you when I've done turning."

On the way back to the shore Desmond met the serang who had accompanied him down the river from Cossimbazar. The man explained that after the capture of Calcutta his brother Hubbo, the Company's syr serang {head boatman}, had been impressed into the service of the Nawab, and he himself had been sent by Hubbo to Fulta to assist the Council and merchants of the Company. He had there met Mr. Merriman, whom in common with many others he had believed to be dead. Mr. Merriman, having no immediate need for his services, had willingly permitted him to take his brother's place in the employment of the Company.

Mr. Merriman welcomed Desmond with quite fatherly affection, and congratulated him heartily on his appointment. The Hormuzzeer being unlikely, owing to the complete cessation of trade, to make another voyage for some months to come, he decided to take up his quarters on board, and Desmond lived with him as a matter of course.

Desmond was shocked to see the change wrought on his friend by the loss of his wife and daughter. All his gay spirits had left him; he had thinned perceptibly, and his eyes had that strained look which only a great sorrow can cause.

"I have been thinking it over, Desmond," he said as they sat in the cabin, "and I can only conclude that this is one more of Peloti's villainies. Good God! had he not done me and mine harm enough? Who else would be so dead to all sense of right, of decency, as to seize upon two helpless women? My brother was hanged, Desmond; hanging is too good for that scoundrel; but we cannot touch him; he laughs at us; and I am helpless—helpless!"

"Like you, sir, I have come to believe that you owe this terrible sorrow to Diggle—I must always call him that. Don't give up heart, sir. What his motive is, if he has indeed captured the ladies, I cannot tell. It may be to use them as hostages in case he gets into trouble with us; it is impossible to see into the black depths of his mind. But I believe the ladies are safe, and, please God, I shall learn something about them and maybe bring them back to you."

Desmond waited a couple of days in the hope of receiving a definite task from Major Killpatrick. But that officer, while an excellent soldier, was not fertile in expedients. The process of "turning things over in his mind" did not furnish him with an inspiration.

He came on board the Hormuzzeer one afternoon, and confessed that he didn't see how Desmond could possibly get up and down the river. Mr. Merriman reminded him that in the early days of the stay at Fulta, Mr. Robert Gregory had gone up with requests to the French and Dutch for assistance. Under cover of a storm he passed Tanna and Calcutta unnoticed by the Nawab's men.

"The French were very polite, but wouldn't move a finger for us," added Mr. Merriman. "The Dutch were more neighborly, and sent us some provisions—badly needed, I assure you. Mr. Gregory is still with them at Chinsura."

"If he got through, why shouldn't I?" asked Desmond.

"My dear boy," said Killpatrick, "the river is narrowly watched. The Moors know that Gregory outwitted them; sure no other Englishman could repeat the trick. And if you were caught, there's no saying how Manik Chand might serve you. He seems disposed to be friendly, to be sure: he's made governor of Calcutta now, and wants to feel his feet. But he's a weak man, by all accounts; and weak men, when they are afraid, are always cruel. If he caught an Englishman spying out the land he'd most probably treat him after oriental methods.

"In fact, the situation between him and us is such," concluded the major with a laugh, "that he'd be quite justified in stringing you up."

Major Killpatrick left without offering any suggestion. When he had gone Desmond spent an hour or two in "turning things over in his mind." He felt that the major was well disposed and would probably jump at any reasonable scheme that was put before him.

After a period of quiet reflection he sought out Hossain, the serang, and had a long talk with him. At the conclusion of the interview he went to see Mr. Merriman. He explained that Hossain wished to return to the service of a former employer, a native grain merchant in Calcutta, who did a large trade along the Hugli from the Sandarbands to Murshidabad. The consent of the Council was required, and Desmond wished Mr. Merriman to arrange the matter without giving any explanation.

The merchant was naturally anxious to know why Desmond interested himself in the man, and what he learned drew from him an instant promise to obtain the Council's consent without delay. Then Desmond made his way to Major Killpatrick's hut, and remained closeted with that genial officer till a late hour.

Six weeks later a heavily-laden petala, with a dinghy trailing behind, was dropping down the river above Hugli. Its crew numbered four. One was Hossain, the serang, who had left Fulta with Desmond on the day after his interview with Major Killpatrick. Two were dark-skinned boatmen, Bengalis somewhat stupid in appearance. The fourth, who was steering, was rather lighter in hue, as well as more alert and energetic in mien: a lascar, as Hossain explained in answer to inquiries along the river. He had lately been employed on one of the Company's vessels, but it had been sunk in the Hugli during the siege of Calcutta. He was a handy man in a boat, and very glad to earn a few pice in this time of stagnant trade. Things were not looking bright for boatmen on the Hugli; as only a few vessels had left the river from Chandernagore and Chinsura since the troubles began there was little or no opening for men of the shipwrecked crew.

The petala made fast for the night near the bank, at a spot a little below Hugli, between that place and Chinsura. When the two Bengalis had eaten their evening rice, Hossain told them that they might, if they pleased, take the dinghy and attend a tamasha {entertainment} that was being held in Chinsura that night in honor of the wedding of one of the Dutch Company's principal gumashtas. The Bengalis, always ready for an entertainment of this kind, slipped overboard and were soon rowing down to Chinsura. Their orders were to be back immediately after the second watch of the night. Only the lascar and Hossain were left in the boat.

Ten minutes after the men had disappeared from view, the serang lit a small oil lamp in the tiny cabin. He then made his way to the helm, whispered a word in the lascar's ear, and took his place. The latter nodded and went into the cabin. Drawing the curtains, he squatted on a mattress, took from a hiding place in the cabin a few sheets of paper and a pencil, and, resting the paper on the back of a tray, began to write.

As he did so he frequently consulted a scrap of paper he kept at his left hand; it was closely covered with letters and figures, these latter not Hindustani characters, but the Arabic figures employed by Europeans.

The first line of what he wrote himself ran thus:

29 19 28 19 36 38 32 20 21 39 23 34 19 29 29 35 32 38 24 38 23 32 {constructed from the cipher actually used by Mr. Watts at Murshidabad}.

The letter or message upon which he was engaged was not a lengthy one, but it took a long time to compose. When it was finished the lascar went over it line by line, comparing it with the paper at his left hand. Then he folded it very small, sealed it with a wafer, and, returning to the serang, said a few words. Whereupon Hossain made a trumpet of his hands, and, looking toward the left bank, sounded a few notes in imitation of a bird's warble. The shore was fringed here with low bushes. As if in answer to the call a small boat darted out from the shelter of a bush; a few strokes brought it alongside of the petala; and the serang, bending over, handed the folded paper to the boatman, and whispered a few words in his ear. The man pushed off, and the lascar watched the boat float silently down the stream until it was lost to sight.

Dawn was hardly breaking when Major Killpatrick, awakened by his servant, received from his hands a folded paper which by the aid of a candle he began to pore over, laboriously comparing it with a small code similar to that used by the lascar. One by one he penciled on a scrap of paper certain letters, every now and then whistling between his teeth as he spelt out the words they made. The result appeared thus:

Magazines for ammunition and stores of grain being prepared Tribeni and Hugli. Bazaar rumor Nawab about to march with army to Calcutta. Orders issued Hugli traffic to be strictly watched. Dutch phataks {gate or barrier} closed. Forth unable leave Chinsura. Tanna Fort 9 guns; opposite Tanna 6 guns; Holwell's garden 5 guns; 4 each Surman's and Ganj; 2 each Mr. Watts' house, Seth's ghat, Maryas ghat, carpenter's yard.

"Egad!" he exclaimed, on a second reading of the message, "the boy's a conjurer. This is important enough to send to Mr. Clive at once. But I'll make a copy of it first in case of accident."

Having made his copy and sealed the original and his first transcription, he summoned his servant and bade him send for the kasid. To him he intrusted the papers, directing him to convey them without loss of time to Clive Sahib, whom he might expect to find at Kalpi.

It was December thirteenth. Two months before, the fleet containing Colonel Clive and the troops destined for the Bengal expedition had sailed from Madras. The force consisted of two hundred and seventy-six king's troops, six hundred and seventy-six of the Company's, about a thousand Sepoys, and two hundred and sixty lascars. They were embarked on five of the king's ships, with Admiral Watson in the Kent, and as many Company's vessels.

Baffling winds, various mishaps, and the calms usual at this time of the year had protracted the voyage, so seriously that the men had to be put on a two-thirds allowance of rations. Many of the European soldiers were down with scurvy, many of the Sepoys actually died of starvation, having consumed all their rice, and refusing to touch the meat provided for the British soldiers, for fear of losing caste. When the admiral at length arrived at Fulta, he had only six of the ten ships with which he started, two that had parted company arriving some ten days later, and two being forced to put back to Madras, under stress of weather.

While the Kent lay at Kalpi Clive received the message sent him by Major Killpatrick, and was visited by Mr. Drake and other members of the Council, from whom he heard of the sickness among the troops. On arriving at Fulta he at once went on shore and visited the major.

"Sorry to hear of your sad case, Mr. Killpatrick," he said. "We're very little better off. But we must make the best of it. I got your note. 'Twas an excellent greeting. Young Burke is a capital fellow; I have not mistook his capacity."

"Faith, 'twas what I told him, sir. I said Colonel Clive never mistook his men."

"Well, if that's true, what you said won't make him vain. This information is valuable: you see that. Have you heard anything more from the lad?"

"Nothing, sir."

"And you can't communicate with him?"

"No, 'twas a part of his scheme never to let me know his whereabouts, in case the messages miscarried."

"So; 'twas his scheme, not yours?"

"Egad, sir, I've no head for that sort of thing," said Killpatrick with a laugh. "Give me a company, and a wall to scale or a regiment to charge, and—"

"My dear fellow," interrupted Clive, "we all know the king has no better officer. Credit where credit is due, major, and you're not the man to grudge this youngster his full credit for an uncommonly daring and clever scheme. Did you see him in his disguise?"

"I did, sir, and at a distance he took in both Mr. Merriman and myself."

"Well, he's a boy to keep an eye on, and I only hope that tigers or dacoits or the Nawab's Moors won't get hold of him; he's the kind of lad we can't spare. Now, let me know the state of your troops."

When he had sent off his note to Major Killpatrick, Desmond enjoyed a short spell on deck preparatory to turning in. Hossain was placidly smoking his hubblebubble; from the far bank of the Hugli came the mingled sounds of tom toms and other instruments; near the boat all was quiet, the wavelets of the stream lapping idly against the sides, the stillness broken only by the occasional howl of a jackal prowling near the bank in quest of the corpses of pious Hindus consigned to the sacred waters of the Ganges.

Desmond was half dozing when he was startled into wakefulness by a sudden clamor from the native town. He heard shots, loud cries, the hideous blare of the Bengal trumpets. For half an hour the shouts continued intermittently; then they gradually died away.

Wondering whether the tamasha had ended in a tumult, Desmond was about to seek his couch, when, just beneath him, as it seemed, he heard a voice—a feeble cry for help. He sprang up and looked over the side. Soon a dark head appeared on the water. With a cry to the serang to cast loose and row after him, Desmond took a header into the stream, and with a few strokes gained the drowning man's side.

He was clearly exhausted. Supporting him with one arm, Desmond struck out with the other, and being a strong swimmer he reached the stern of the boat even before the serang had slipped his moorings. With Hossain's aid he lifted the man into the boat, and carried him to the cabin. He was all but unconscious.

A mouthful of arrack {fermented liquor made from rice or the juice of the palm} from the serang's jar revived him. No sooner was he in command of his breath than he implored his rescuers for their help and protection. He had escaped, he said, from Hugli Fort, not without a gunshot wound behind his shoulder. He spoke in Bengali. Seeing that he was too much exhausted and agitated to tell his story that night, Desmond bade the serang assure him of his safety. Then they made shift to tend his wound, and, comforting him with food and drink, left him to sleep and recover.

The two Bengalis who had been to Chinsura returned before they were expected. They had been alarmed by the uproar. As soon as they were aboard Desmond decided to drop a mile or two farther down the river. The boat coming to a ghat below Chandernagore, the serang ordered the men to pull in, and tied up for the night.

In the morning the Bengalis were despatched on some errand along the bank, and the coast being clear Desmond went with the serang to the wounded man to learn particulars of the escape. The Bengali had now almost wholly recovered, and was very voluble in his gratitude for his rescue. Happening to glance towards the bank, he suddenly uttered an exclamation of fear, and begged the serang with frantic waving of the hands to leave the spot at once.

"Why, O brother, this fear?" asked Hossain.

"I will tell you. It is a great fear. Just before the coming of the rains I was at Khulna. There I was hired by the head serang of a lady traveling to Calcutta. She was the wife of a burra sahib of the great Company, and with her was her daughter. All went well until we came near Chandernagore; we struck a snag; the boat sprang a leak; we feared the bibis would be drowned. We rowed to this very ghat; a sahib welcomed the ladies; they went into his house yonder. Presently he sent for us; we lodged with his servants; but in the night we were set upon, bound, and carried to Hugli. False witnesses accused us of being dacoits; we were condemned; and I was confined with others in the prison.

"Always since then have I looked for a chance of escape. It came at last. Some of the jailers went last night to the tamasha at Chinsura. I stole out and got away. A sentry fired upon me, and hit me; but I am a good swimmer and I plunged into the river. You know all that happened then, O serang, and I beseech you leave this place; it is a dreadful place; some harm will come to us all."

Desmond's knowledge of Bengali was as yet slight, and he caught only portions of the man's narrative. But he understood enough to convince him that he was at last on the track of the missing ladies; and when, shortly afterwards, Hossain gave him in Urdu the whole of the story, he determined at once to act on the information.

On the return of the two Bengalis, he arranged with the serang to set them at work on some imaginary repairs to the boat: that pretext for delay was as good as another. Then, Hossain having reassured the fugitive, he himself landed and made his way up to the house.

It was closed. There was no sign of its being inhabited. But about a hundred yards from the gate Desmond saw a basti {block of native huts}, and from one of the huts smoke was issuing. He sauntered up. Before the door, lolling in unstudied dishabille, squatted a bearded, turbaned Mohammedan, whom from his rotundity Desmond guessed to be the khansaman of the big house.

"Salaam aleikam {peace be with you!}, khansaman!" said Desmond suavely. "Pardon the curiosity of an ignorant sailor from Gujarat. What nawab owns the great house yonder?"

The khansaman, beaming in acknowledgment of the implied compliment to his own importance, replied:

"To Sinfray Sahib, worthy khalasi."

"The great Sinfray Sahib of Chandernagore? Surely that is a strange thing!"

"Strange! What is strange? That Sinfray Sahib should own so fine a house? You should see his other house in Chandernagore: then indeed you might lift your eyes in wonder."

"Nay, indeed, I marveled not at that, for Sinfray Sahib is indeed a great man. We who dwell upon the kala pani know well his name. Is it not known in the bazaars in Pondicheri and Surat? But I marvel at this, khansaman: that on one day, this day of my speaking to you, I should meet the sahib's most trusty servant, as I doubt not you are, and also the man who has sworn revenge upon the owner of this house—ay, and on all the household."

"Bismillah! {'in the name of Allah!'—a common exclamation}" exclaimed the khansaman, spitting out his betel. He was thoroughly interested, but as yet unconcerned. "What do you mean, khalasi?"

"I parted but now, on the river, from a fellow boatman who of late has lain in prison at Hugli, put there, they say, by order of Sinfray Sahib. He is not a dacoit; no man less so; but false witnesses rose up against him. And, I bethink me, he said that the sahib's khansaman was one of these men with lying lips.

"Surely he was in error; for your face, O khansaman, is open as the sun, your lips are fragrant with the very attar of truth. But he is filled with rage and fury; in his madness he will not tarry to inquire. If he should meet you—well, it is the will of Allah: no man can escape his fate."

The khansaman, as Desmond spoke, looked more and more distressed; and at the last words his face was livid.

"It is not true," he said. "But I know the blind fury of revenge. Do thou entreat him for me. I will pay thee well. I have saved a few pice {coin, value one-eighth of a penny}. It will be worth five rupees to thee; and to make amends to the madman, I will give him fifty rupees, even if it strips me of all I have. Allah knows it was not my doing; it was forced upon me."

"How could that be, khansaman?" said Desmond, letting pass the man's contradictory statements.

"It is not necessary to explain; my word is my word."

"No doubt; but so enraged is the khalasi I speak of that unless I can explain to him fully he will not heed me. Never shall I dissuade him from his purpose."

"It is the will of Allah!" said the khansaman resignedly. "I will tell you. It was not Sinfray Sahib at all. He was at the Nawab's court at Murshidabad. He had lent his house to a friend while he was absent. The friend had a spite against Merriman Sahib, the merchant at Calcutta; and when the bibi and the chota bibi came down the river he seized them. Sinfray Sahib believes there was an attack by dacoits; but the bibi's peons were carried away by the sahib's friend: it was he that brought the evidence against them. The Angrezi Sahib induced me to swear falsely by avouching that Sinfray Sahib was also an enemy of Merriman Sahib; but when the judge had said his word the sahib bade me keep silence with my master, for he was ignorant of it all. The Angrezi Sahib is a terrible man: what could I do? I was afraid to speak."

"And what was the name of the Angrezi Sahib?"

"His name?—It was Higli—no, Digli Sahib—accursed be the day I first saw him."

Desmond drew a long breath.

"And what became of the bibi and the chota bibi?"

"They were taken away."


"I do not know."

The answer was glib; Desmond thought a little too glib.

"Why then, khansaman," he said, "I fear it would be vain for me to reason with the man I spoke of. He has eaten the salt of Merriman Sahib; his lord's injury is his also. But you acted for the best. Allah hafiz! that will be a morsel of comfort even if this man's knife should find its way between your ribs. Not every dying man has such consolation. Live in peace, good khansaman."

Desmond, who had been squatting in the oriental manner—an accomplishment he had learned with some pains at Gheria—rose to leave. The khansaman's florid cheeks again put on a sickly hue, and when the seeming lascar had gone a few paces he called him back.

"Ahi, excellent khalasi. I think—I remember—I am almost sure I can discover where the two bibis are concealed."

"Inshallah! {'please God!'—a common exclamation} That is indeed fortunate," said Desmond, turning back. "There lies the best chance of averting the wrath of this much-wronged man."

"Wait but a little till I have clad myself duly; I will then go to a friend yonder and inquire."

He went into his hut and soon returned clothed in the garments that befitted his position. Walking to a hut at the end of the block, he made pretense, Desmond suspected, of inquiring. He was soon back.

"Allah is good!" he said. "The khitmatgar yonder tells me they were taken to a house three coss {the coss is nearly two miles} distant, belonging to the great faujdar Manik Chand. It is rented from him by Digli Sahib, who is a great friend of his Excellency."

"Well, khansaman, you will show me the way to the house."

But the khansaman appeared to have donned, with his clothes, a sense of his own importance. The authoritative tone of the lascar offended his dignity.

"Who are you, scum of the sea, that you tell a khansaman of Bengal what he shall do? Hold your tongue, piece of seaweed, or by the beard of the Prophet—"

The threat was never completed, for Desmond, stepping up close to the man, caught him by the back of the neck and shook him till his teeth rattled in his head.

"Quick! Lead the way! Foolish khansaman, do you want your fat body shaken to a jelly? That is the way with us khalasis from Gujarat. Quick, I say!"

"Hold, khalasi!" panted the khansaman; "I will do what you wish. Believe me, you are the first khalasi from Gujarat I have seen—"

"Or you would not have delayed so long. Quick, man!"

With a downcast air the man set off. The sun was getting high; being fat and soft, the khansaman was soon in distress. But Desmond allowed him no respite. In about two hours they arrived at the house he had mentioned. The gate was ajar; the door broken open. Hastily entering, Desmond knew instinctively by the appearance of the place that it was deserted.

He went through the house from bottom to top. Not a living person was to be seen. But in one of the rooms his quick eye caught sight of a small hairpin such as only a European woman would use. He picked it up. In another room a cooking pot had been left, and it was evident that it had but lately been used. The simple furniture was in some disorder.

The khansaman had with much labor managed to mount the stairs.

"Allah is Allah!" he said. "They are gone!"

Chapter 26: In which presence of mind is shown to be next best to absence of body.

The khansaman's surprise was clearly genuine, and Desmond refrained from visiting on him his disappointment. Bitter as that was, his alarm was still more keen. What had become of the ladies! With all his old impulsiveness he had come to rescue them, never pausing to think of what risks he himself might run. And now they were gone! Could Diggle have suspected that his carefully-hidden tracks were being followed up, and have removed the prisoners to some spot remoter from the river? It was idle to speculate; they were gone; and there was no obvious clue to their whereabouts.

The khansaman, limp and damp after his unwonted exercise, had squatted on the floor and was fanning himself, groaning deeply. Desmond went to the window of the room and looked out over the country; wondering, longing, fearing. As he gazed disconsolately before him, he caught sight of a party of horsemen rapidly approaching. Bidding the khansaman stifle his groans, he watched them eagerly through the chiks of the window. Soon a dozen native horsemen cantered up to the front gate and drew rein.

One of them, clad in turban of gold tissue, short blue jacket lavishly decorated with gold, and crimson trousers, bade the rest dismount. He was a tall man, a handsome figure in his fine array. He wore a sword with hilt inlaid with gold, the scabbard covered with crimson velvet; and in his girdle was stuck a knife with agate handle, and a small Moorish dagger ornamented with gold and silver.

He stood for a time gazing as in perplexity at the broken gateway. His face was concealed by his turban from Desmond, looking from above. But when he directed his glance upward, Desmond, peering through the chiks, could scarcely believe his eyes. The features were those of Marmaduke Diggle. His heart thumped against his ribs. Never, perhaps, in the whole course of his adventures, had he been in such deadly peril. The appearance of the party had been so sudden, and he had been so deeply engrossed with his musings, that he had not had time to think of his own situation.

"Come, son of a pig," said Diggle at length, throwing himself from his horse and beckoning to his syce, "we will search the place. There must be something to show who the dacoits were."

He strode into the compound, followed by his trembling servant.

"Indeed, huzur," said the man in shrill tones of excuse, "we did our best. But they were many: our livers were as water."

"Chup {shut up}, pig! Wait till you are spoken to," exclaimed Diggle, turning angrily upon him.

"Achha, sahib! bahut achha, sahib {good, sahib—very good, sahib}!"

A vicious kick cut short his protestations, and the two passed out of hearing of the two watchers above, the khansaman having brought his quivering flabbiness to Desmond's side. Diggle passed into the entrance hall, the native horsemen waiting like statues at the gate.

"It is the sahib!" whispered the shaking khansaman to Desmond: "Digli Sahib. He will kill me. He is a tiger."

"Silence, fool!" said Desmond sternly: "there must be a way out.

"Jeldi jao {go quickly}! we shall be too late."

The man seemed glued to the spot with fear. The footsteps of Diggle could be heard in the rooms below. In a few minutes he would reach the upper story; then it would indeed be too late to flee. If they could gain the back staircase they might slip down and hide in the garden. But fright appeared to have bereft the khansaman of all power of movement.

Yet Desmond, for more than one reason, was unwilling to leave him. He knew what Diggle's tender mercies were; but he also knew that the khansaman, if discovered, would certainly try to purchase his safety by betraying his companion. So, without more ado, seizing him by the neck, Desmond shook him vigorously.

"Come!" he said in a fierce whisper, "or I shall leave you to face the sahib alone."

This summary treatment shocked the man from his stupor. Stepping on tiptoe he darted across the room, through the door communicating with a room beyond, into a narrow passageway at the rear of the house. Here was a second staircase leading downwards to the servants' quarters.

"Wait there," said Desmond when they were halfway down. "If you hear any one coming up, rejoin me above."

He himself crept noiselessly back to the upper floor. No sooner had he reached the top than he heard Diggle moving in the room he had recently left. He darted to a khashkas {a fragrant plant whose roots are used for making screens} curtain, through the meshes of which he could see into the two intercommunicating rooms. Diggle was carefully searching the apartment; he clearly knew it was the one lately occupied by the ladies.

As he stooped to pick up a cushion that lay on the floor beside a divan, his eye was caught by a scrap of crumpled paper. He snatched at it like a hawk and with quick fingers straightened it out—the fingers of the mittened hand that Desmond knew so well. On the paper was writing; the characters were English, but Diggle appeared to have some difficulty in making them out.

"'Your servant Surendra Nath Chuckerbutti,'" he said slowly, aloud.

"Who is Surendra Nath Chuckerbutti?" he asked his man, standing behind.

"Truly, huzur, I know not. It is a common name in Bengal—a vile Hindu; an unbeliever—"

"How did this paper come here?" cried Diggle impatiently.

"How should I know, sahib? I am a poor man, an ignorant man; I do not read—"

"Come with me and search the back of the house," said Diggle, turning away with an oath.

Desmond stepped noiselessly across the floor and joined the khansaman. They made their way out stealthily down the stairs, through the garden at the back, into a mango grove. There they remained hidden until Diggle, finding his search fruitless, remounted with his men and galloped away.

Desmond felt in a maze of bewilderment. It was clear that Diggle was ignorant of the whereabouts of the ladies; where had they been spirited to, and by whom? Apparently there had been an attack on the house, and they had been carried away: was it by friends or foes? What was the meaning of the paper found by Diggle? Had the Babu had any hand in the latest disappearance, or was it his letter that had put someone else on their track? Desmond had heard nothing of Surendra Nath or his father since the sack of Calcutta.

There was no clue to the solution of the problem. Meanwhile it was necessary to get back to Calcutta. The journey had been delayed too long already, and Hossain's employer, the grain merchant, would have good reason for complaint if he felt that his business was being neglected.

"We must go, khansaman," said Desmond in sudden determination.

The man was nothing loath. They returned by the way they had come. Desmond left the man some distance short of Sinfray's house, promising, in return for his assistance, to use his best offices with the irate manjhi {steersman} on his behalf. Then he struck off for the point lower down the river where his boat was moored. As soon as he arrived they got under way, and late that evening reached Tanna Fort, where they had to deliver their cargo of rice for the use of the Nawab's garrison.

In the dead of night they were surprised by a visit from Hubbo, the serang's brother. He had seen them as they passed from one of the sloops that lay in the river opposite the fort. Though chief in command of the Nawab's vessels at that point, he was still secretly loyal to the Company, and was anxious to serve their interests to the best of his power.

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