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He'll kill half the men. The bastard will . . .

A bemused expression unexpectedly illuminated the soldier's face, a
smile with no mirth. In an instant it transmuted to disbelief, while
his raised sword clattered to the planking. As Hawksworth watched, the
Portuguese's hand began to work mechanically at his chest. Then his
helmet tumbled away, and he slumped forward, motionless but still
erect. He stood limp, head cocked sideways, as though distracted during
prayer.

Why doesn't he move? Was this all some bizarre, senseless jest?

Then Hawksworth saw the arrows. A neat row of thin bamboo shafts had
pierced the soldier's Portuguese armor, riveting him to the mast.

A low-pitched hum swallowed the sudden silence, as volleys of bamboo
arrows sang from the darkness of the shore. Measured, deadly.
Hawksworth watched in disbelief as one by one the Portuguese soldiers
around them crumpled, a few firing wildly into the night. In what
seemed only moments it was over, the air a cacophony of screams and
moaning death.

Hawksworth turned to Karim, noting fright in the pilot's eyes for the
very first time.

"The arrows." He finally found his voice. "Whose are they?"

"I can probably tell you." The pilot stepped forward and deftly broke
away the feathered tip on one of the shafts still holding the
Portuguese to the mast. As he did so, the other arrows snapped and the
Portuguese slumped against the gunwale, then slipped over the side and
into the dark water. Karim watched him disappear, then raised the arrow
to the moonlight. For an instant Hawksworth thought he saw a quizzical
look enter the pilot's eyes.

Before he could speak, lines of fire shot across the surface of the
water, as fire arrows came, slamming into the longboats as they drifted
away on the tide. Streak after streak found the hulls and in moments
they were torches. In the flickering light, Hawksworth could make out
what seemed to be grapples, flashing from the shore, pulling the
floating bodies of the dead and dying to anonymity. He watched
spellbound for a moment, then turned again toward the stern.

"Karim, I asked whose arrows . . ."

The pilot was gone. Only the English seamen remained, dazed and
uncomprehending.

Then the night fell suddenly silent once more, save for the slap of the
running tide against the hull.





BOOK TWO



SURAT - THE THRESHOLD




CHAPTER FIVE


The room was musty and close, as though the rainy season had
not passed, and the floor was hard mud. Through crude wooden shutters
they could glimpse the early sun stoking anew for the day's inferno,
but now it merely washed the earthen walls in stripes of golden light.

Hawksworth stood by the window examining the grassy square that spanned
out toward the river. The porters, in whose lodge they were confined,
milled about the open area, chanting and sweating as they unloaded
large bales of cotton from the two-wheeled bullock carts that
continually rolled into the square. He steadied himself against the
heavy wooden frame of the window and wondered if his land legs would
return before the day was out.

"God curse all Moors." Mackintosh stooped over the tray resting on the
grease-smudged center carpet and pulled a lid from one of the earthen
bowls. He stared critically at the dense, milky liquid inside, then
gingerly dipped in a finger and took a portion to his lips. He tested
the substance - tangy curds smelling faintly of spice - and his face
hardened.

"Tis damned spoilt milk." He spat fiercely onto the carpet and seized a
piece of fried bread to purge the taste. "Fitter for swine than men."

"What'd they do with the samples?" Elkington sprawled heavily in the
corner, his eyes bloodshot from the all-night vigil upriver. "With no
guards the heathens'll be thievin' the lot." He squinted toward the
window, but made no effort to move. His exhaustion and despair were
total.

"The goods are still where they unloaded them." Hawksworth revolved
toward the room. "They say nothing happens till the Shahbandar
arrives."

"What'd they say about him?" Elkington slowly drew himself to his feet.

"They said he arrives at mid morning, verifies his seal on the customs
house door, and then orders it opened. They also said that all traders
must be searched personally by his officers. He imposes duty on
everything, right down to the shillings in your pocket."

"Damn'd if I'll pay duty. Not for samples."

"That's what I said. And they ignored me. It seems to be law."
Hawksworth noticed that the gold was dissolving from the dawn sky,
surrendering to a brilliant azure. He turned, scooped a portion of
curds onto a piece of fried bread, and silently chewed as he puzzled
over the morning. And the night before.

Who had saved them? And why? Did someone in India hate the Portuguese
so much they would defend the English before even knowing who they
were? No one in India could know about King James's letter, about the
East India Company's plans. No one. Even George Elkington did not know
everything. Yet someone in India already wanted the English alive. He
had wrestled with the question for the rest of the trip upriver, and he
could think of no answers. They had been saved for a reason, a reason
he did not know, and that worried him even more than the Portuguese.

Without a pilot they had had to probe upriver slowly, sounding for
sandbars with an oar. Finally, when they were near exhaustion, the
river suddenly curved and widened. Then, in the first dim light of
morning, they caught the unmistakable outlines of a harbor. It had to
be Surat. The river lay north-south now, with the main city sprawled
along its eastern shore. The tide began to fall back, depleted, and he
realized they had timed its flow perfectly.

As they waited for dawn, the port slowly revealed itself in the eastern
glow. Long stone steps emerged directly from the Tapti River and
broadened into a wide, airy square flanked on three sides by massive
stone buildings. The structure on the downriver side was obviously a
fortress, built square with a large turret at each corner, and along
the top of walls Hawksworth could see the muzzles of cannon - they looked
to be eight-inchers - trained directly on the water. And in the waning
dark he spotted tiny points of light, spaced regularly along the top of
the fortress walls. That could only mean one thing.

"Mackintosh, ship the oars and drop anchor. We can't dock until
daylight."

"Aye, Cap'n, but why not take her in now? We can see to make a
landin'."

"And they can see us well enough to position their cannon. Look
carefully along there." Hawksworth directed his gaze toward the top of
the fortress. "They've lighted linstocks for the guns."

"Mother of God! Do they think we're goin' to storm their bleedin'
harbor with a pinnace?"

"Probably a standard precaution. But if we hold here, at least we'll
keep at the edge of their range. And we'd better put all weapons out of
sight. I want them to see a pinnace of friendly traders at sunup."

The dawn opened quickly, and as they watched, the square blossomed to
life. Large two-wheeled carts appeared through the half-dark, drawn by
muscular black oxen, some of whose horns had been tipped in silver. One
by one the oxen lumbered into the square, urged forward by the shouts
and beatings of turbaned drivers who wore folded white skirts instead
of breeches. Small fires were kindled by some of the men, and the
unmistakable scent of glowing dung chips savored the dark clouds of
smoke that drifted out across the river's surface.

Then Hawksworth first noticed the bathers that had appeared along the
shore on either side of the stone steps: brown men stripped to
loincloths and women in brilliantly colored head-to-toe wraps were
easing themselves ceremoniously into the chilled, mud-colored water,
some bowing repeatedly in the direction of the rising sun. Only the
waters fronting the stairway remained unobstructed.

When the dawn sky had lightened to a muted red, Hawksworth decided to
start their move. He surveyed the men crowded in the pinnace one last
time, and read in some faces expectation and in others fear. But in all
there was bone-deep fatigue. Only Elkington seemed fully absorbed in
the vision that lay before them.

Even from their distance the Chief Merchant was already assessing the
goods being unloaded from the carts: rolls of brown cloth, bundles of
indigo, and bales of combed cotton fiber. He would point, then turn and
gesture excitedly as he lectured Spencer.

The young clerk was now a bedraggled remnant of fashion in the powder-
smudged remains of his new doublet. The plumed hat he had worn as they
cast off had been lost in the attack downriver, and now he crouched in
the bottom of the pinnace, humiliated and morose, his eyes vacant.

"Mackintosh, weigh anchor. We'll row to the steps. Slowly."

The men bobbed alert as they hoisted the chain into the prow of the
pinnace. Oars were slipped noisily into their rowlocks and Mackintosh
signaled to get underway.

As they approached the stairway, alarmed cries suddenly arose from the
sentinels stationed on stone platforms flanking either side of the
steps. In moments a crowd collected along the river, with turbaned men
shouting in a language Hawksworth could not place and gesturing the
pinnace away from the dock. What could they want, he asked himself? Who
are they? They're not armed. They don't look hostile. Just upset.

"Permission to land." Hawksworth shouted to them in Turkish, his voice
slicing through the din and throwing a sudden silence over the crowd.

"The customs house does not open until two hours before midday," a
tall, bearded man shouted back. Then he squinted toward the pinnace.
"Who are you? Portuguese?"

"No, we're English." So that's it, Hawksworth thought. They assumed we
were Portugals with a boatload of booty. Here for a bit of private
trade.

The man examined the pinnace in confusion. Then he shouted again over
the waters.

"You are not Portuguese?"

"I told you we're English."

"Only Portuguese _topiwallahs_ are allowed to trade." The man was now
scrutinizing the pinnace in open perplexity.

"We've no goods for trade. Only samples." Hawksworth tried to think of
a way to confound the bureaucratic mind. "We only want food and drink."

"You cannot land at this hour."

"In name of Allah, the Merciful." Hawksworth stretched for his final
ploy, invocation of that hospitality underlying all Islamic life.
Demands can be ignored. A traveler's need, never. "Food and drink for
my men."

Miraculously, it seemed to work. The bearded man stopped short and
examined them again closely. Then he turned and dictated rapidly to the
group of waiting porters. In moments the men had plunged into the
chilled morning water, calling for the mooring line of the pinnace. As
they towed the pinnace into the shallows near the steps, other porters
swarmed about the boat and gestured to indicate the English should
climb over the gunwales and be carried ashore.

They caught hold of George Elkington first. He clung futilely to the
gunwales as he was dragged cursing from the bobbing pinnace and hoisted
on the backs of two small Indian men. Arms flailing, he toppled himself
from their grasp and splashed backward into the muddy Tapti. After he
floated to the surface, sputtering, he was dragged bodily from the
water and up the steps. Then the others were carried ashore, and only
Mackintosh tried to protest.

The last to leave the pinnace, Hawksworth hoisted himself off the prow
and onto the back of a wiry Indian whose thin limbs belied their
strength. The man's turban smelled faintly of sweat, but his well-worn
shirt was spotless. His dark eyes assessed Hawksworth with a practiced
sidelong glance, evaluating his attire, his importance, and the
approximate cash value of his sword in a single sweep.

Only after the porters had deposited them on the stone steps did
Hawksworth finally realize that India's best port had no wharf, that
human backs served as the loading platform for all men and goods. As he
looked around, he also noticed they had been surrounded by a crowd of
men, not identified by turbans as were the porters but uniformed more
expensively and wielding long, heavy canes. Wordlessly, automatically,
the men aligned themselves in two rows to create a protected pathway
leading up the steps and into the square. Hawksworth watched as they
beat back the gathering crowd of onlookers with their canes, and he
suddenly understood this was how the port prevented traders from
passing valuables to an accomplice in the crowd and circumventing
customs.

Then the tall bearded man approached Hawksworth, smiled professionally,
and bowed in the manner of Karim, hands together at the brow. "You are
welcome in the name of the Shahbandar, as a guest only, not as a
trader."

Without further greeting he directed them across the open square toward
a small stone building. "You will wait in the porters' lodge until the
customs house opens." As he ordered the heavy wooden door opened, he
curtly added, "The Shahbandar will rule whether your presence here is
permitted."

He had watched them enter, and then he was gone. Shortly after, the
food had appeared.

Hawksworth examined the room once more, its close air still damp with
the chill of dawn. The walls were squared, and the ceiling high and
arched. In a back corner a niche had been created, and in it rested a
small round stone pillar, presumably a religious object but one
Hawksworth did not recognize. Who would venerate a column of stone, he
mused, particularly one which seems almost like a man's organ? It can't
be the Muslims. They worship their own organs like no other race, but
they generally honor their law against icons. So it must be for the
gentiles, the Hindus. Which means that the porters are Hindus and their
overseers Moors. That's the privilege of conquerors. Just like every
other land the Moors have seized by the sword.

He glanced again at the tray and noted that the food had been
completely devoured, consumed by ravenous seamen who would have scorned
to touch milk curds six months before. After a moment's consideration,
Hawksworth turned and seated himself on the edge of the carpet. There's
nothing to be done. We may as well rest while we have the chance.

George Elkington had rolled himself in a corner of the

carpet and now he dozed fitfully. Humphrey Spencer fought sleep as he
worked vainly to brush away the powder smudges from his doublet.
Mackintosh had finished whetting his seaman's knife and now sat
absorbed in searching his hair for lice. Bosun's mate John Garway
lounged against a side wall, idly scratching his codpiece and dreaming
of the women he would soon have, his toothless smile fixed in sleepy
anticipation. The master's mate, Thomas Davies, dozed in a heap by the
door, his narrow face depleted and aged with scurvy. In a back corner
dice and a pile of coins had miraculously appeared, and the other
seamen sprawled about them on the floor, bloodshot eyes focused on the
chance numbers that would spell the longest splurge in port. Hawksworth
stretched his wounded leg once more, leaned stiffly against the front
wall, and forced his mind to drift again into needed rest.

Hawksworth was suddenly alert, his senses troubled. The sun had reached
midmorning now, and it washed the mud floor in brilliant yellow light.
He sensed that a heavy shadow had passed through its beam. He had not
specifically seen it, but somehow, intuitively, he knew. Without a word
he edged to the side of the heavy wooden door, his hand close to his
sword handle. All the others except Mackintosh were by now asleep. Only
the quartermaster had noticed it. He quickly moved to the side of the
door opposite Hawksworth and casually drew his heavy, bone-handled
knife.

Without warning the door swung outward.

Facing them was the same bearded man who had invited them ashore. The
square behind him was bright now with the glare of late morning, and in
the light Hawksworth realized he was wearing an immaculate white
turban, a long blue skirt over tightly fitting white breeches, and
ornate leather shoes, turned up at the toe in a curved point. This
time, however, he no longer bore welcome.

"Where have you anchored your ships?" The Turki was accented and
abrupt.

News travels fast, Hawksworth thought, as he tried to shove the haze
from his mind. "Where is the Shahbandar?"

"Your merchantmen were not in the bay this morning. Where are they
now?" The man seemed to ignore Hawksworth's question.

"I demand to see the Shahbandar. And I'll answer no questions till I
do."

"You do not demand of the Shahbandar." The man's black beard worked
nervously, even when he paused. "You and all your men are to be brought
to the customs house, together with your goods."

"Where is he now?"

"He is here."

"Where?"

The Indian turned and gestured quickly across the maidan, the square,
toward the large windowless stone building that sat on the water's edge
opposite the fortress. Hawksworth looked at the cluster of armed guards
and realized this must be the mint. This was the building, he now
remembered Karim telling him, where foreign money was "exchanged." All
foreign coins, even Spanish rials of eight, were required to be melted
down and reminted into rupees before they could be used for purchase.
Supposedly a protection against counterfeit or base coin, this
requirement produced months of delay. The Shahbandar gave only one
alternative to traders in a hurry: borrow ready-made rupees at
exorbitant interest.

"After he has authorized the beginning of today's work at the mint, he
will verify the seal on the door of the customs house" - he pointed to
the squat building adjoining their lodge - "and open it for today. All
goods must be taxed and receive his _chapp _or seal before they can
enter or leave India."

The men had begun to stir, and Hawksworth turned to translate. The
English assembled warily, and the air came alive with an almost
palpable apprehension as Hawksworth led them into the bustling square.

"We must wait." The tall Indian suddenly paused near the center of the
maidan, just as a group of guards emerged from the mint. Each wore a
heavy sword, and they were escorting a large closed palanquin carried
on the shoulders of four bearers dressed only in white skirts folded
about their waist. The guards cleared a path through the crowd of
merchants, and made their way slowly to the door of the customs house.
The crowd surged in behind them, blocking the view, but moments later
the tall doors of the customs house were seen to swing open, and the
crowd funneled in, behind the palanquin and the guards. Then the Indian
motioned for them to follow.

The interior of the customs house smelled of sweat, mingled with spice
and the dusty fragrance of indigo. As oil lamps were lighted and
attached to the side walls, the milling crowd grew visible. Through the
semi-dark porters were already bearing the English goods in from the
_maidan_ and piling them in one of the allotted stalls.

The tall guide turned to Hawksworth. "You and all your men must now be
searched, here in the counting room."

"I'll not allow it." Hawksworth motioned the English back. "I told you
I demand to see the Shahbandar."

"He'll receive you when he will. He has not granted an audience."

"Then we'll not be searched. Tell him that. Now."

The Indian paused for a moment, then reluctantly turned and made his
way toward a door at the rear of the large room. Elkington pressed
forward, his face strained.

"Tell the bleedin' heathen we're English. We'll not be treated like
this rabble." He motioned around the room, a bedlam of Arab, Persian,
and Indian traders who eyed the English warily as they shouted for the
attention of customs inspectors and competed to bribe porters.

"Just hold quiet. I think they know exactly who we are. And they know
about the ships."

As they waited, Hawksworth wondered what he should tell the Shahbandar,
and he again puzzled over the words of Karim. Think. What can you tell
him that he hasn't already heard? I'll wager he knows full well we were
attacked by Portugals in the bay. That we burned and sank two galleons.
Will he now hold us responsible for warfare in Indian waters? I'll even
wager he knows we were attacked on the river. And who saved us.

The large Indian was returning, striding through the center aisle
accompanied by four of the Shahbandar's guards. He motioned for
Hawksworth to follow, alone.

The door of the rear chamber was sheathed in bronze, with heavy ornate
hinges and an immense hasp. It seemed to swing open of itself as they
approached.

And they were in the chamber of the Shahbandar.

As he entered, Hawksworth was momentarily blinded by the blaze of oil
lamps that lined the walls of the room. Unlike the simple plaster walls
and pillars of the outer receiving area, this inner chamber was
forbiddingly ornate, with gilded ceilings almost thirty feet high. The
room was already bustling with clerks straightening piles of account
books and readying themselves for the day's affairs.

The room fell silent and a way suddenly cleared through the center, as
the Hindu clerks fell back along the walls. They all wore tight, neat
headdresses and formal cotton top shirts, and Hawksworth felt a sudden
consciousness of his own clothes - muddy boots and powder-smeared jerkin
and breeches. For the first time since they arrived he found himself in
a room with no other Europeans. The isolation felt sudden and complete.

Then he saw the Shahbandar.

On a raised dais at the rear of the room, beneath a canopy of gold-
embroidered cloth, sat the chief port official of India. He rested
stiffly on a four-legged couch strewn with cushions, and he wore a
turban of blue silk, narrow- patterned trousers, and an embroidered tan
robe that crossed to the right over his plump belly and was secured
with a row of what appeared to be rubies. He seemed oblivious to
Hawksworth as he cursed and drew on the end of a tube being held to his
mouth by an attending clerk. The clerk's other hand worked a burning
taper over the open top of a long-necked clay pot. The tube being held
to the Shahbandar's mouth was attached to a spout on the side. Suddenly
Hawksworth heard a gurgle from the pot and saw the Shahbandar inhale a
mouthful of dark smoke.

"Tobacco is the only thing the _topiwallahs _ever brought to India that
she did not already have. Even then we still had to

devise the hookah to smoke it properly." He inhaled appreciatively. "It
is forbidden during this month of Ramadan, but no man was made to fast
during daylight and also forgo tobacco. The morning sun still rose in
the east, and thus it is written the gate of repentance remains open to
God's servants."

The Shahbandar examined Hawksworth with curiosity. His face recalled
hard desert nomad blood, but now it was softened with ease, plump and
moustachioed. He wore gold earrings, and he was barefoot.

"Favor me by coming closer. I must see this _feringhi _captain who
brings such turmoil to our waters." He turned and cursed the servant as
the hookah continued to gurgle inconclusively. Then a roll of smoke
burst through the tube and the Shahbandar's eyes mellowed as he drew it
deeply into his lungs. He held the smoke for a moment while he gazed
quizzically at Hawksworth, squinting as though the air between them
were opaque.

"They tell me you are English. May I have the pleasure to know your
name?"

"I'm Brian Hawksworth, captain of the frigate _Discovery_. May I also
have the privilege of an introduction."

"I will stand before Allah as Mirza Nuruddin." He again drew deeply on
the hookah. "But here I am the Shahbandar." He exhaled a cloud and
examined Hawksworth. "Your ship and another were in our bay yesterday.
I am told they weighed anchor at nightfall. Do English vessels
customarily sail without their captain?"

"When they have reason to do so." Hawksworth fixed him squarely,
wondering if he was really almost blind or if he merely wanted to
appear so.

"And what, Captain . . . Hawksworth, brings you and your contentious
warships to our port? It is not often our friends the Portuguese permit
their fellow Christians to visit us."

"Our ships are traders of England's East India Company."

"Do not squander my time telling me what I already know." The
Shahbandar suddenly seemed to erupt. "They have never before come to
India. Why are you here now?"

Hawksworth sensed suddenly that the Shahbandar had been merely toying
with him. That he knew full well why they had come and had already



Online LibraryThomas HooverThe Moghul → online text (page 7 of 52)