There was a small veranda to the house. This was wrenched away by main force. The posts and other parts of the woodwork were carried to the gateway and piled up as rapidly as possible to form a rough barricade. Scarcely was this task half accomplished when the clanking of weapons was heard in the distance, soon accompanied by the swashing of horses' hoofs on the drenched soil.
Desmond coolly ordered his men to proceed with the work. A minute later there was a sharp discharge of musketry, followed by cries, shouts, and the sound of galloping horses. The villagers scuttled away shrieking. Immediately afterward Bulger and Toley with their eight men sprang from cover and made a dash for the wall.
"Muskets first!" shouted Desmond.
The muskets were pitched over: then the men scrambled up, Desmond and his Sepoys assisting them to get across. Almost the first to drop down into the compound was Bulger, whose hook had proved, not for the first time, of more service than a sound left arm. Once over himself, he used his hook to haul the Sepoys after him, with many a vigorous "Yo, heave ho!"
"All aboard, sir," he cried, when the last of the men was within the wall. "I may be wrong, but I lay my button hook 'tis now all hands to repel boarders; and only two cutlasses among us—mine and Mr. Toley's. What ho, mateys! who cares—"
Desmond ordered four of his men to post themselves at the barricaded gateway: the rest he divided into two parties, and stationed behind the wall at each side. The wall was six feet high—too high to fire over; but as it was in a somewhat dilapidated condition there was no difficulty in knocking away several loose bricks at intervals, so as to make a rough and ready battlement. Desmond instructed the men to fire alternately through the embrasures thus made. As soon as one had fired he was to fall back and reload as fast as possible while another man took his place. By this device, Desmond hoped to deceive the enemy for a time as to the number of the defenders in the compound.
But it was not to be expected that the enemy could long be kept out, and in the last resort it would be necessary to retreat to the house. In view of the presence of the ladies this was a step to be avoided if possible. It might indeed be the wiser course to surrender, for their sakes. As the thought struck Desmond he called to the Babu, who was keeping watch on the roof.
"Babu," he said, "ask the ladies to occupy the least exposed room. Tell them that if the enemy get over the wall I will try to make an arrangement with them, rather than provoke an attack on the house."
The Babu disappeared. But a few moments later Phyllis Merriman, wearing the costume of a native lady, came running out.
"Mother bids me say, Mr. Burke," she said, "on no account let such considerations weigh with you. She says, fight to the last. We will risk anything rather than go back to captivity. You will beat them, Mr. Burke, won't you?"
"I shall do my best, Miss Merriman," replied Desmond. "But pray go back: they may be here at any moment. I need not say how glad I am to find you well. Pray tell Mrs. Merriman that we shall all do our best for her and you."
"I know you will. And my father?"
"He is distressed, of course, but clings to hope. Do, Miss Merriman, retire at once. I see the enemy coming from the grove."
"Phyllis! Phyllis!" cried Mrs. Merriman from the house; "come in at once!
"Mr. Burke, send her in. Have no mercy on the wretches, I implore you."
The girl walked back reluctantly. Unknown to Desmond, she went no farther than the doorway, where, just hidden from sight, she watched all that followed.
The enemy had clearly been nonplussed by their sudden check. There were no British troops, as far as they knew, for many miles round, and concerted resistance from the natives was unlikely. But they were now emerging from the mango grove, a hundred yards away. They came on foot, leaving their horses out of musket range.
Desmond's heart sank as he counted them. There were even more than he had supposed. They numbered fifty-four and several had no doubt been left in charge of the horses. Still, he felt that he had two advantages. The first was his position behind the wall; the second, the fact that the enemy, unless they had obtained information from the villagers, could not know what force they had to deal with. Their ignorance, of course, must be only temporary: if one of them should succeed in mounting the wall the weakness of the defense must immediately be seen.
As the enemy, tall men in the costume of native cavalry, assembled by twos and threes at the edge of the grove, Desmond noticed three Europeans leave the main body and advance some way into the open. It was with a flush of indignation and a fierce resolve to bring him at last to book that Desmond recognized one of them as Diggle. With his companions he walked at a safe distance completely round the building.
For some time they halted at the back, carefully scanning the position. Here the wall approached the house much more closely than in the front, and no one could mount it without being fully exposed to fire from the upper windows. After his examination, Diggle returned with the two men, whom from their appearance Desmond judged to be Frenchmen, to the main body, and sent off half a dozen men toward the other end of the village. While they were gone one of the Frenchmen seemed to Desmond to be expostulating with Diggle: but the latter only laughed and waved his gloved hand in the direction of the house.
The messengers soon returned, dragging with them three of the villagers. These Diggle took aside separately and questioned: it was clear to Desmond that he was ascertaining the strength of the garrison. Apparently satisfied, he divided his force into three parts; the largest, consisting of some forty men, remained at the edge of the grove; the two smaller proceeded to the right and left of the back of the house. One was in command of a Frenchman, but the Frenchman who had expostulated with Diggle had apparently refused to have anything to do with the affair: he held himself aloof, and by and by disappeared into the grove.
Diggle's evident intention was to weaken the garrison by forcing Desmond to divide his already too small force. He had to detach eight of his men—three to the windows and five to the wall—leaving only fourteen, including Bulger and Toley, to meet the rush in front.
It was not long in coming. Diggle did not wait to parley. Taking a musket from one of his men he raised it to his shoulder and fired at a Sepoy, whose head just showed above the gate. The man raised his hand to his brow and fell back with a sharp cry—a bullet had plowed a furrow through his scalp. Desmond checked his men as they were about to fire in reply: but when, in the rush that followed, the enemy came within thirty yards, he gave the word, and seven muskets flashed forth across the barricade.
The attacking party were coming forward in close order, and five of the men fell. But the rest sprang forward with shrill yells, Diggle, who was untouched, urging them on. Even the fire of Desmond's second rank failed to check them. Two or three dropped; others were soon swarming up the wall; and though the defenders with clubbed muskets struck savagely at their heads and hands as they appeared above the coping, if one drew back, another took his place: and the wall was so long that at several points there were gaps between Desmond's Sepoys where the enemy could mount unmolested.
Desmond, having discharged his two pistols, disposing of one of the assailants with each shot, was in the act of reloading when Diggle leaped into the compound, followed by two of his men. Shouting to Bulger, Desmond threw the pistols and rammer on the ground behind him, and, drawing his sword, dashed at the three intruders, who were slightly winded by the charge and their exertions in scaling the wall.
Desmond could never afterward remember the details of the crowded moments that followed. There were cries all around him: behind, the strident voice of Mr. Toley was cheering his men to repel the assault at the back of the house: at his side Bulger was bellowing like a bull of Bashan. But all this was confused noise to him, for his attention was wholly occupied with his old enemy. His first lunge at Diggle was neatly parried, and the two, oblivious of all that was happening around them, looked full into each other's eyes, read grim determination there, and fought with a cold fury that meant death to the first that gave an opening to his opponent's sword.
If motive counted, if the right cause could always win, the issue admitted of no doubt. Desmond had a heavy score to pay off. From the time when he had met Diggle in the street at Market Drayton to his last encounter with him at the Battle of the Carts, he had been the mark of his enmity, malice, spite, trickery. But Desmond thought less of his own wrongs than of the sorrow of his friend, Mr. Merriman, and the harrowing wretchedness which must have been the lot of the ladies while they were in Diggle's power. The man had brought misery into so many lives that it would be a good deed if, in the fortune of war, Desmond's sword could rid the world of him.
And Diggle, on his side, was nerved by the power of hate. Baseless as were his suspicions of Desmond's friendship with Sir Willoughby Stokes, he felt that this boy was an obstacle. Ever since their paths had crossed he had been conscious that he had to do with a finer, nobler nature than his own: and Desmond's courage and skill had already frustrated him. As he faced him now, it was with the feeling that, if this boy were killed, a bar would be removed from his career.
Thus, on either side, it was war to the death. What Desmond lacked in skill and experience he made up for by youth and strength. The two combatants were thus equally matched: a grain in the scale might decide the issue. But the longer the fight lasted the better were Desmond's chances. He had youth in his favor. He had led a hard life: his muscles were like iron. The older man by and by began to flag: more than once his guard was nearly beaten down: nothing but his great skill in swordsmanship, and the coolness that never deserted him, saved him from the sharp edge of Desmond's blade.
But when he seemed almost at the end of his strength, fortune suddenly befriended him. Bulger, with his clubbed musket and terrible iron hook, had disposed of the two men who leaped with Diggle into the compound; but there were others behind them; three men dropped to the ground close by, and, making a simultaneous rush, bore Bulger back against Desmond, hampering his sword arm.
One of Desmond's Sepoys sprang to the rescue, but he was too late to stem the tide. A blow from a musket stock disabled Bulger's right arm; he lost his footing; as he fell, his hook, still active, caught Diggle's leg and brought him to the ground, just as, taking advantage of the diversion, he was making exultantly what he intended for a final lunge at Desmond. He fell headlong, rolling over Bulger, who was already on the ground.
How the end came Desmond did not clearly see. He knew that he was beset by three of Diggle's men, and, falling back before them, he heard the voice of Phyllis Merriman close by, and felt his pistols thrust into his hands. She had slipped out of the doorway, picked up the weapons as they lay where Desmond had flung them, completed the loading, and advanced fearlessly into the thick of the fray. At one and the same moment Desmond fired upon his enemies and implored the brave girl to go back.
Then suddenly there was a lull in the uproar. Bulger was upon his feet. Diggle's men paused to gaze at their prostrate leader. Then every man of them was scrambling pell mell over the wall, yelling as the stocks of the Sepoys' muskets sped them on their flight.
"What is it?" asked Desmond.
Bulger pointed to Diggle, among the fallen.
"He've gone to his account, sir, which I may be wrong, but the Almighty have got a long black score agen him."
"How did it happen?"
Bulger lifted his hook.
"'Twas that there Diggle as was the why and wherefore o' this little ornament, sir, and 'twas only right he should be paid for what he done. We fell down, him and me; I was under. He hoisted himself on his hands to get free, and I lifted my hook, sir, and caught him a blow under the chin. If it didn't break his neck, sir, my name en't Bill Bulger, which I'm sorry for his poor wicked soul all the same."
Phyllis had her hands clasped about Desmond's arm.
"Is he dead?" she asked in a voice of awe.
"Come away," said Desmond quietly, leading her toward the house. "Let us find your mother."
Chapter 31: In which friends meet, and part: and our hero hints a proposal.
The fight was over. It was Diggle's quarrel; neither the Frenchmen nor the natives had any concern in it, and when their leader was dead they had no more interest in continuing the struggle. They drew off; the weary defenders collected the dead and attended to the wounded; and Desmond went into the house.
"God bless you, Mr. Burke!" said Mrs. Merriman, tears streaming from her eyes as she met him and clasped his hands. "You are not hurt?"
"Just a scratch or two, ma'am: nothing to trouble about."
But the ladies insisted on bathing the two slight wounds on head and arm which in the heat of the fight he had not noticed. And then Mrs. Merriman told him all that had happened since the day he left them in such merry spirits at Khulna. How they had been trapped by Diggle, pretending to be a Monsieur de Bonnefon: how he had conveyed them to the house of his friend Sinfray: how after many months their whereabouts had been revealed to Surendra Nath by one of his numerous relatives, a man who had a distant cousin among Sinfray's servants: how the Babu, displaying unwonted energy, had come with a number of friends and fallen unawares upon their captors, afterward taking them to a house of his father's in this village: how the old man and his son had both been stricken with jungle fever, and the father died, and when the Babu lay helpless and unconscious on his sickbed they had found no means of communicating with their friends.
Mrs. Merriman shuddered as she spoke of the terrors of their captivity. They had been well treated, indeed; Monsieur de Bonnefon, or Diggle, as she afterward learned to call him, had visited them several times and seen that their wants were supplied. But their enforced seclusion and inactivity, their dread of the unknown, their uncertainty as to what might have befallen Mr. Merriman, had told heavily upon their health and spirits. Rumor brought news of the tragedy of the Black Hole: they heard that the few survivors were prisoners of the Nawab; and they feared the worst. From Surendra Nath they learned that they need not despair; and since then they had lived on in the hope that, when the Babu had recovered from his illness, he would find some means of restoring them to the husband and father from whom they had so long been parted.
"Surendra Nath has a heart of gold, Mr. Burke," said Mrs. Merriman in concluding her story. "Poor man! he has been very ill. We must do something to show our gratitude for his devotion when we get back to Calcutta."
Desmond then in his turn told them all that had happened since their disappearance. When they learned of the result of the Battle of Plassey, and that Clive was marching toward Murshidabad, they were eager to set off at once.
"Yes, ma'am," said Desmond, "we shall start as soon as possible. I shall leave you to make your preparations. It may not be possible to start before night, the country being so disturbed, so that if you can sleep through the day you will be fitter for the journey."
He left them, and going into the compound, found Bulger and Toley looking with curiosity at the body of Diggle.
"Hi, sir!" said Bulger as Desmond came up to them: "this here bit o' velvet is explained at last. Mr. Toley, he slit it with his cutlass, sir, and never did I see a man so down in the mouth when he knowed what was under it. 'T'ent nothing at all, sir; just three letters; and what for he went and burnt them three letters into the back of his hand 'twould beat a Daniel to explain.
"'F u r,' sir, that's what they spells; but whether 'tis rabbit skin or fox I can't say, though 'tis most likely fox, knowing the man."
Desmond stooped and looked at the unclad right hand. The letters F U R were branded livid below the knuckles.
"He was always quoting Latin, Bulger," he said. "'Fur' is a Latin word: it means 'thief.'"
"Which I might have knowed it, sir, only I think as how the man that did the stampin' might have done it in plain English. I don't hold with these foreign lingos, sir; there allers seems something sly and deceivin' about em. No right man 'ud ever think 'fur' meant 'thief'! Thief an' all, sir, he's dead. Mr. Toley and me'll put him away decent like: and it won't do him no harm if we just says 'Our Father' over the grave."
Desmond was turning away when three of his men came into the compound, two grasping a Frenchman by the arms, the third a black boy. The former Desmond recognized as the man whom he had seen expostulating with Diggle; the latter was Scipio Africanus, looking scared and miserable.
The men explained that, pursuing the fugitives, they had captured their prisoners in the grove. The Frenchman at once addressed Desmond in broken English. He said that he had tried in vain to dissuade Diggle from his attempt to capture the ladies. The party had been sent in advance by Monsieur Law to announce his coming. He was at Patna with a considerable body of French corps designed for the support of the Nawab. As he was speaking the Frenchman caught sight of Diggle's exposed hand. He started, with an exclamation of surprise. Then in answer to Desmond's question he revealed the secret that had so long perplexed him.
Seven years before, he said, in December, 1750, there was a brilliant foreigner named Peloti among the officers of Major de la Touche, a young soldier who had been singled out by Dupleix, the French Governor of Pondicherry, as a military genius of the first order. Peloti was with the French army when, less than four thousand in number, it fell upon the vast hordes of Nadir Jang near Gingi and won the battle that set Muzaffar Jang on the throne of the Deccan and marked the zenith of Dupleix's success. The new Nawab, in gratitude to the French for the services rendered him, sent to Dupleix a present of a million rupees, and a casket of jewels worth half as much again. This casket was given to Peloti to deliver: he had abused his trust by abstracting the gem of the collection, a beautiful diamond; and the theft being accidentally discovered, Dupleix in his rage ordered the thief to be branded on the right hand with the word 'fur,' and drummed him out of the French service.
The identity of Peloti with Diggle was not suspected by the French, and when Diggle a few months back offered his services to Bussy, their commander, they were eagerly accepted, for his evident knowledge of Clive's movements and of affairs in Calcutta promised to be exceedingly valuable. None of the French then in the Deccan knew him: and though they remarked his curious habit of wearing a fingerless glove on his right hand, no one connected it with the half-forgotten story of the stolen diamond.
Desmond thanked the Frenchman for his information.
"I am sorry to keep you a prisoner, Monsieur," he said; "but I must trouble you to return with me to Murshidabad. I can promise you good treatment from Colonel Clive."
The Frenchman smiled, shrugged, and exclaimed: "Eh bien! La guerre est la guerre!"
Remembering Coja Solomon, Desmond asked Toley to search Diggle's body before burying it. But nothing was found, except a little money. The Armenian's property had evidently been left under guard in the grove, and was doubtless, by this time, far away, in the possession of one or other of Diggle's runagate followers.
At nightfall the party set off. Closed chairs had been provided for the ladies, and these were carried in the midst, Bulger on one side, Toley on the other, and Desmond behind. One person whom Desmond had expected to take with him was absent: Scipio Africanus, on seeing the dead body of his master, had uttered one heartrending howl and fled. Desmond never saw him again. He reflected that, villainous as Diggle had proved to be, he had at least been able to win the affection of his servant.
On the way they met Coja Solomon, who, on learning of the disappearance of his valuables, heaped abuse upon Desmond and went away wringing his hands. Traveling slowly, by easy stages, and only by night, it took the party three days to reach Murshidabad. Desmond found that Clive had entered the city two days before and taken up his abode at the Murda Bagh. Mir Jafar had been accepted as Nawab, and nothing had been heard of Sirajuddaula.
Desmond first sought out Major Coote.
"By George, Burke!" said that officer, "Colonel Clive is in a towering rage at your long absence; he expected your return long ago. And you ought to know that Colonel Clive in a rage is not quite as mild as milk."
"I'm afraid I must brave his anger," said Desmond. "I've found Mr. Merriman's ladies."
"Yes, and brought them back with me. And Peloti will trouble us no more: we had to fight for the ladies, and Bulger killed him. Won't Mr. Clive forgive me?"
"I can't answer for Mr. Clive; no one can say what he will do. But I tell you one thing: you'll put Warren Hastings' nose out of joint. You know he was sweet on Merriman's daughter."
"No, I didn't know it. I don't see what that has to do with me."
"Don't you, egad!" said Coote with a laugh. "Sure, my boy, you'll see it before long. Well, I won't keep you to hear your story. Go to Mr. Clive at once; and let me know what happens."
Desmond found Clive in company with Mr. Watts, and Rai Durlabh, Mr. Scrafton and Omichand. He had some difficulty in obtaining admittance; only his representation that he bore important news prevailed with the darwan. He learned afterwards that the great bankers, the Seths, had just left the meeting, after it had been decided that, owing to the depletion of the treasury, only one-half of the immense sums promised to Clive and the English in Mir Jafar's treaty could be paid at once, the remainder to follow in three years.
Desmond entered the room just in time to hear Clive say to Scrafton:
"It is now time to undeceive Omichand."
Mr. Scrafton went up to the Sikh, and said quietly in Hindustani:
"Omichand, the red paper is a trick: you are to have nothing."
Omichand stood for a moment dazed: then he fell back in a faint and was carried by his attendants from the room. The shock had unhinged the poor man's reason: he lingered insane for eighteen months and died.
At the time Desmond knew nothing of the deceit that had been practised on him; but in the light of his after knowledge he understood the strange expression that clouded Clive's face as the old man was carried away: a look of pity mingled with contempt. Catching sight of Desmond, the great soldier flashed out:
"What do you mean, sir, by absenting yourself so long? I sent you in advance because I thought you would be speedy. A snail would have gone more quickly."
"I am sorry, sir," said Desmond; "I was unexpectedly delayed. I had got nearly as far as Rajmahal when I learned the whereabouts of Mrs. Merriman. She was in hiding with Surendra Nath, one of Mr. Merriman's men. I heard that Diggle—Peloti, sir—was about to attempt her recapture, and I felt that you yourself, had you been in my place, would have tried to save the ladies."
"Go on, sir," he said.
"We found the place just in time, sir. Diggle came up with a couple of Frenchmen and a troop of native horse. We beat them off, and I have brought the ladies here."
"And forgotten your instructions?"
"No, sir. Monsieur Law was advancing from Patna: Diggle was coming ahead to inform the Nawab of his approach. But the whole country knows of your victory, and I fancy Monsieur Law will come no further."
"He was killed in the fight, sir."
"Indeed! And how many did his men muster?"
"Nearly sixty, sir."
"A score of Sepoys, sir; but I had two seamen with me: Bulger, whom you know; and Mr. Toley, an American, mate of one of Mr. Merriman's ships. They were worth a dozen others."
Clive grunted again.
"Well, go and tell Mrs. Merriman I shall be glad to wait on her. And look here, Burke: you may consider yourself a captain in the Company's service from this day. Come now, I'm very busy: go and give Mrs. Merriman my message, and take care that next time you are sent on special service you are not drawn off on any such mad expedition. Come to me tomorrow."
Desmond trod on air as he left the house. Clive's impulsiveness had never before seemed to him such an admirable quality.
As he went into the street he became aware, from the excited state of the crowd, that something had happened. Meeting a Sepoy he inquired, and learned that Sirajuddaula had just been brought into the city. The luckless Nawab had arrived in his boat close to Rajmahal, and with the recklessness that characterized him, he had gone ashore while his servants prepared a meal. Though disguised in mean clothes he had been recognized by a fakir, who happened to be at the very spot where he landed. The man had a grudge against him; his ears and nose had been cut off some time before at the Nawab's order. Hastening into Rajmahal he had informed the governor, who sent a guard at once to seize the unhappy prince and bring him to Murshidabad.
Before the next morning dawned Sirajuddaula was dead. Mir Jafar handed him to his son Miran with strict orders to guard him. Acting on a mocking suggestion of Miran, a courtier named Muhammad Beg took a band of armed men to the Nawab's room, and hacked him to death. Next morning his mutilated body was borne on an elephant's back through the streets, and it was known to his former subjects that the prince who had ruled them so evilly was no more. Such was the piteous end, in his twenty-sixth year, of Sirajuddaula.
Immediately on arriving in Murshidabad, Desmond had sent a kasid to Calcutta to inform Mr. Merriman that his wife and daughter had been found and were safe. The merchant set off at once on horseback and arrived in the midst of preparations for the return of the army to Calcutta. Desmond was present at his meeting with the ladies; the scene brought a lump into his throat; and his embarrassment was complete when one and all overwhelmed him with praise and thanks.
A few days later a long procession of three hundred boats, laden with the money, plate and jewels that had been handed over to the British, set off with colors flying, amid strains of martial music, down the river to Calcutta. Every man who had taken part in the expedition had a share of the vast treasure. Desmond found himself richer by three thousand pounds.
Calcutta was en fete when the expedition returned. Desmond was surprised to see how much had already been done to repair the ruin wrought by the Nawab. A new city was rising from the ruins. Congratulations were poured on the victors; and though now, as always, Clive had to contend with the jealousies of lesser men, there was none but had to admit that he was a great man who deserved well of his country.
Mr. Merriman at once completed the winding up of his business, begun months before. His recent troubles had much aged him; India was to him now a hateful country, and he decided to return to England immediately with his wife and daughter. He tried to persuade Desmond to accompany him, but in vain.
"'Tis very good of you, sir," said Desmond warmly; "you have done so much for me. But Mr. Clive has made me a captain: his work is not yet done; and I do not feel that I can leave him until I have done something to justify his confidence in me."
"Well, boys will be boys. I have made a fortune here: I suppose you want to do the same. 'Tis natural. But don't stay in India as long as I have. I don't want to lose sight of you. You have done me the best service man ever did: you have avenged my brother and restored to me all that I held dearest in the world. I love you as a son, Desmond; I wish you were my son, indeed, my boy."
Desmond looked a little uncomfortable.
"May I venture—" he began hesitatingly; "do you think, in some years' time, if I get on here, I might—"
"Do you think I might—in short, that I might have a chance of becoming your son, sir?"
"Eh? Is that it? Mr. Warren Hastings asked me the same question the other day, Desmond. You can't both have her, you know. What does Phyllis say?"
"I—I haven't asked her, sir."
"Quite right. You're only a boy. Well, Hastings is to remain as assistant to Mr. Scrafton, our new agent at Murshidabad. You remain as assistant—or is it rival, eh—to Mr. Clive. You're both out of the way. Phyllis may prefer Bulger."
"Yes. Didn't you know? Phyllis has taken a fancy to him; that hook of his appears to be a most fascinating feature; and he will accompany us home."
Desmond laughed a little awkwardly.
"I hope—" he began.
"He won't hook her? But there, I mustn't make sport of such a serious matter. Go on as you have begun, my dear lad, and I promise you, when you come home, that if Phyllis hasn't found someone already to her liking, you shall have all the influence I can exert with the minx."
"Thank you, sir: I couldn't ask for more. There's another thing: do you think you could do anything for Mr. Toley? He's a capital fellow."
"I know it. I have anticipated you. Toley is appointed captain of the Jane, an Indiaman that arrived the other day; her captain died of scurvy on the way out. She'll sail for England next week; we go with her; and so does that villain Barker, who'll get his deserts when he reaches London. The Good Intent is broken up; her interloping is over for good and all.
"But come, my boy, sure 'tis time we dressed: Admiral Watson likes punctuality, and I promise you he'll give us a capital dinner. A word in your ear: Phyllis is to sit between you and Hastings. You can't eat him, at any rate."
A week later Desmond went down to the Company's ghat to see the Jane sail. Mr. Toley in his brand new uniform looked more melancholy than ever, and Phyllis Merriman made a little grimace when she saw for the first time the captain under whose charge she was to sail for home.
"Don't be alarmed," said Desmond, laughing. "The sadder he looks, I believe the happier he is. Silas Toley is a fine seaman and a true gentleman.—
"I wonder if we shall ever meet again, Miss Merriman?"
"I wonder, Mr. Burke."
"I shall hear about you, I hope."
"Dear me; it is very unlikely. Father hates putting pen to paper. 'Tis far more likely I shall hear of you, Mr. Burke, doing terrible things among these poor Indians—and tigers: I am sure you must want to shoot a tiger."
"You shall have my first skin—if I may send it."
"Mamma will be charmed, I am sure; though indeed she may have too many of them, for we have the same promise from—let me see—Mr. Lushington, and Mr. Picard, and Mr. Hastings, and—"
"All aboard!" sang out a voice from the deck of the vessel.
Phyllis gave Desmond her hand, and looked at last into his eyes. What he read in hers filled him with contentment. She ran across the plank and joined her father and mother, to whom Desmond had already said his adieux. At the last moment Bulger came up puffing, a miscellaneous collection of curiosities dangling from his hook.
"Goodby, sir," he said, giving Desmond a hearty grip. Then he shut one eye and jerked his head in the direction of the vessel. "Never you fear, sir: I'll keep my weather eye open. Missy have taken an uncommon fancy to this here little fishhook o' mine, and 'tis my belief I'll keep her hanging on to it, sir, nevertheless and notwithstandin' and all that, till you comes home covered with gore and glory. I may be wrong."
He tumbled on deck. Then amid cheers, with flags flying and handkerchiefs waving, the good ship moved from the ghat into the swelling river.
Chapter 32: In which the curtain falls to the sound of wedding bells: and our hero comes to his own.
It was a mellow day in October 1760, a little more than six years since the day when Market Drayton gave rein to its enthusiasm in honor of Clive. From a flagstaff newly erected on the roof of the Four Alls on the Newport Road, a square of bunting flapped in the breeze. Inside the inn the innkeeper was drawing a pint of ale for his one solitary customer, a shambling countryman with a shock of very red hair, and eyes of innocent blue.
"There, that makes a quart, Tummus Biles, and 'tis as much as your turnip head can safely carry."
He passed the can across the bar on a hook that projected from a wooden socket in his sleeve.
"Why, now, Mr. Bulger," said Tummus, the tranter, "what fur do you go fur to miscall me like other fowk? I've been miscalled ever since that day I drove a stranger into Market Drayton six year ago. I mind me he had a red feather in his cap, and not knowing my name was plain Tummus, he called me Jehu, he did, and I never forgot it. Ay, and I tell ya what, Mr. Bulger: it took me two year to find out why he give me such an uncommon name. I mind I was sittin' by a hayrick of Mr. Burke's—that was long afore he was lamed by that terrible horse o' his—and ponderin' on that heathen name, when all at once it comed to me like a flash o' lightnin'.
"'Jehu!' says I to myself. 'I've got ya at last.' Ya see, when that stranger saw me, I were drivin' a horse. Well, I says to my horse, 'Gee-ho!' says I. Not knowing my true chrisom name, the stranger takes up my words an' fits 'em to me. 'Gee-ho!' says I; 'Gee-ho!' says he; only bein' a kind o' furriner he turns it into 'Jehu'; an' the name fits me uncommon. Hee hee!"
"I may be wrong," said Bulger, "but 'tis my belief 'Hee haw!' would fit you a big sight better. But hark! en't them the bells a-ringin'?"
The two hastened to the door, and stood looking down the road toward Market Drayton. From the distance came the faint sounds of a merry peal. By and by a four-horsed open carriage with outriders appeared on the crest of the hill. Amid the dust it raised another could be seen, and behind this a long line of vehicles. Every coachman's whip was decorated with a wedding favor. The cavalcade approached rapidly. As the first carriage drew nearer Bulger became more and more excited, and when it dashed past the inn he raised his hook and shouted "Hurray! hurray!" with the full force of his lungs.
"Give 'em a cheer, Tummus," he cried. "Hee haw will do if you knows no better. Hurray for Major Desmond Burke and his madam—the purtiest gal I ever did see, east or west. Hurray for her father and mother: there they are, with old squire an' the major's mother. And there's Mr. Clive, all alone by himself 'cos his leg's stiff wi' rheumatics; but he would come to see the deed done, which I may be wrong, but the new King George'll make him a live lord afore he's much older.
"Open your mouth, Tummus, an' if you hee haw loud enough, I'll draw you another pint for nothing."
Desmond, now a major, had returned home in company with Clive. During the three years that had passed since he witnessed the sailing of the Jane he had seen much service. He had been with Colonel Forde when that fine soldier expelled the French from the northern Sirkars. He was with the same officer when he thrashed the Dutch at Biderra. He had been in close touch with Clive when these successful operations were planned, and the nearer he saw him, the more he admired the great man's courage in taking risks, promptitude in dealing with sudden emergencies, sagacity in seeing to the heart of a difficult situation. Thus, during those three years, he gained much knowledge of the science of war, and much experience in dealing with men. He became rich also, not by questionable means, but by reaping the legitimate rewards of good and faithful service.
Before leaving India, Desmond learned of changes that had happened at home. His brother had been thrown by a young and mettlesome horse, and so badly trampled that he must remain a helpless invalid for the rest of his life. Sir Willoughby Stokes, even before he heard of the death of his nephew Peloti, had made Desmond his heir. Mr. Merriman had bought an estate near his father's old friend, and settled down to the life of a country gentleman. A year after his return, Job Grinsell, the landlord of the Four Alls, had been sentenced to a long term of imprisonment for poaching, and Mr. Merriman had no difficulty in persuading Sir Philip Chetwode to let his inn to Bulger.
After an interview with Mr. Merriman, Desmond found the courage to put to Phyllis the question which he had not ventured to ask before she left India. What the answer was may be inferred from the fact that Sir Willoughby insisted on the wedding taking place at once. It was time for the return of his old enemy the gout, he said; he was going to Buxton to end his days, and wished to see the Hall in the hands of his heir before he left.
Mr. Burslem, Desmond's old schoolmaster, performed the ceremony, and Clive, though suffering from rheumatism, came down for the occasion. The only familiar form that Desmond missed was that of old Dickon, who had died a few months after Desmond's departure from home.
Desmond settled down for a time at the Hall, cheering his mother's declining years, repaying good for ill to his invalid brother, and winning golden opinions from all his neighbors high and low. He eagerly watched the further career of his old hero, now Lord Clive; learned to admire him as statesman as well as soldier; sympathized with him through all the attacks made upon him; and mourned him sincerely when, in 1774, the great man, preyed upon by an insidious disease, died by his own hand.
Five years later he felt the East calling, bought a commission, and sailed with General Sir Eyre Coote, to take part in the "frantic military exploits," as some one called them, of Warren Hastings against Haidar Ali and Tippu in Mysore. He came home a colonel, and was made a baronet for his services in the war. Finally retiring from public life, he lived for thirty years longer on his estate, happy in the careers of his two sons, who became soldiers like himself. He died, an old man, in the year after Waterloo, at which his eldest grandson, a lieutenant in the guards, behaved with a gallantry that attracted the notice of the Iron Duke.
Visitors to Sir Desmond Burke's house were amused and interested to see a battered wooden stump with an iron hook hanging in a conspicuous place in the hall amid tigers' heads, Indian weapons, and other trophies from the East.
"That?" Sir Desmond would say, in answer to their question. "That belonged to one of the best friends I ever had, a fine old salt named William Bulger. I met him when I was sixteen, and buried him when I was forty: and my wife and I have felt ever since a blank in our lives. If you can put up with an old man's stories, I'll tell you something of what Bulger and I went through together, when I was a youngster with Clive in India."