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Thomas Hoover.

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loincloth, scavenging to find any dung cakes that had been overlooked
by the women who collected fuel. The air was dense and smelled of
earth, and its taste overwhelmed his lingering memory of the wind off
the sea.

The streets of Surat converged like the spokes of a wheel, with the
customs house and port as its hub. Just like every port town in the
world, Hawksworth smiled to himself: all roads lead to the sea.

Except here all roads lead to the customs house and the Shahbandar.

Then, as they approached the last turn in the road, just outside the
enclosure of the customs house, they were suddenly confronted by a band
of mounted horsemen, armed with long-barreled muskets. The horsemen
spanned the roadway and were probably twenty in all, well outnumbering
the Rajputs. The horsemen made no effort to move aside as Hawksworth
and his guards approached.

Hawksworth noticed the Rajputs stiffen slightly and their hands drop
loosely to the horn bows protruding from their quivers, but they did
not break their pace.

My God, they're not going to halt. There'll be bloodshed. And we're
sure to lose.

Without warning a hand threw Hawksworth sprawling against the thick
plaster side of a building, and a large, round

rhino-hide buckler suddenly was covering his body, shielding him
entirely from the horsemen.

Next came a melee of shouts, and he peered out to see the Rajputs
encircling him, crouched in a firing pose, each bow aimed on a horseman
and taut with its first arrow. The musket-bearing horsemen fumbled with
their still uncocked weapons. In lightning moves of only seconds, the
Rajputs had seized the advantage.

Not only are their bows more accurate than muskets, Hawksworth thought,
they're also handier. They can loose half a dozen arrows before a
musket can be reprimed. But what was the signal? I saw nothing, heard
nothing. Yet they acted as one. I've never before seen such speed, such
discipline.

Then more shouting. Hawksworth did not recognize the language, but he
guessed it might be Urdu, the mixture of imported Persian and native
Hindi Karim had said was used in the Moghul's army as a compromise
between the language of its Persian-speaking officers and the Hindi-
speaking infantry. The Rajputs did not move as the horseman in the lead
withdrew a rolled paper from his waist and contemptuously tossed it
onto the ground in front of them.

While the others covered him with their bows, the leader of the Rajputs
advanced and retrieved the roll from the dust. Hawksworth watched as he
unscrolled it and examined in silence. At the bottom Hawksworth could
make out the red mark of a _chapp_, like the one he had seen on bundles
in the customs house. The paper was passed among the Rajputs, each
studying it in turn, particularly the seal. Then there were more
shouts, and finally resolution. The dark-bearded leader of Hawksworth's
guard approached him and bowed. Then he spoke in Turki, his voice
betraying none of the emotion Hawksworth had witnessed moments before.

"They are guards of the governor, Mukarrab Khan. They have shown us
orders by the Shahbandar, bearing his seal, instructing that you be
transferred to their care. You will go with them."

Then he dropped his bow casually into his quiver and led the other men
off in the direction of the customs house, all still marching, as
though they knew no other pace.

"Captain Hawksworth, please be tolerant of our Hindu friends. They are
single-minded soldiers of fortune, and a trifle old-fashioned in their
manners." The leader of the guard smiled and pointed to a riderless
saddled horse being held by one of the riders. "We have a mount for
you. Will you kindly join us?"

Hawksworth looked at the horse, a spirited Arabian mare, and then at
the saddle, a heavy round tapestry embroidered in silver thread with
tassels front and back, held by a thick girth also of tapestry. The
stirrups were small triangles of iron held by a leather strap attached
to a ring at the top of the girth. A second tapestry band around the
mare's neck secured the saddle near the mane. The mane itself had been
woven with decorations of beads and small feathers. The horse's neck
was held in a permanent arch by a leather checkrein extending from the
base of the bridle through the chest strap, and secured to the lower
girth. The mare pranced in anticipation, while her coat sparkled in the
waning sun. She was a thing of pure beauty.

"Where are we going?"

"But of course. The governor, Mukarrab Khan, has staged a small
celebration this afternoon and would be honored if you could join him.
Today is the final day of Ramadan, our month-long Muslim fast. He's at
the _chaugan_ field. But come, patience is not his most enduring
quality."

Hawksworth did not move.

"Why did the Shahbandar change his order? We were going to the customs
house to fetch my chest."

"The governor is a persuasive man. It was his pleasure that you join
him this afternoon. But please mount. He is waiting." The man stroked
his moustache with a manicured hand as he nodded toward the waiting
mount. "His Excellency sent one of his finest horses. I think he has a
surprise for you."

Hawksworth swung himself into the saddle, and immediately his mare
tossed her head in anticipation. She was lanky and spirited, nothing
like the lumbering mount his father had once taught him to ride at the
army's camp outside London so many, many years ago.

Without another word the men wheeled their horses and started off in a
direction parallel to the river. Then the one who had spoken abruptly
halted the entire party.

"Please forgive me, but did I introduce myself? I am the secretary to
His Excellency, Mukarrab Khan. We were cast from the civilized comforts
of Agra onto this dung heap port of Surat together. Perhaps it was our
stars."

Hawksworth was only half-listening to the man. He turned and looked
back over his shoulder in time to see the Rajputs entering into the
compound of the customs house. The leader of the horsemen caught his
glance and smiled.

"Let me apologize again for our friends of the Rajput guard. You do
understand they have no official standing. They serve whomever they are
paid to serve. If that thief, the Shahbandar, discharged them tomorrow
and then another hired them to kill him, they would do so without a
word. Rajputs are professional mercenaries, who do battle as coldly as
the tiger hunts game." He turned his horse onto a wide avenue that
paralleled the river. The sunlight was now filtered through the haze of
evening smoke from cooking fires that was enveloping the city.

"Do Rajputs also serve the governor?"

The man laughed broadly and smoothed the braided mane of his horse as
he twisted sideways in the saddle and repeated Hawksworth's question
for the other riders. A peal of amusement cut the quiet of the evening
streets.

"My dear English captain, he might wish to hang them, but he would
never hire them. His Excellency has the pick of the Moghul infantry and
cavalry in this district, men of lineage and breeding. Why should he
need Hindus?"

Hawksworth monitored the riders carefully out of the corner of his eye
and thought he detected a trace of nervousness in their mirth. Yes, he
told himself, why use Hindus - except the Shahbandar's Hindu mercenaries
got the advantage of you in only seconds. While you and your pick of
the Moghul cavalry were fiddling with your uncocked muskets. Perhaps
there's a good reason the Shahbandar doesn't hire men of lineage and
breeding.

Hawksworth noticed they were paralleling a wall of the city, a high
brick barrier with iron pikes set along its capstone. Abruptly the wall
curved across the road they were traveling and they were facing a
massive wooden gate that spanned the width of the street. Suddenly
guards appeared, each in uniform and holding a pike. They hurriedly
swung wide the gate as the procession approached, then snapped crisply
to attention along the roadside.

"This is the Abidjan Gate." The secretary nodded in response to the
salute of the guards. "You can just see the field from here." He
pointed ahead, then urged his horse to a gallop. A cooling dampness was
invading the evening air, and now the sun had entirely disappeared into
the cloud of dense cooking smoke that boiled above the city, layering a
dark mantle over the landscape. Again Hawksworth felt his apprehension
rising. What's the purpose of bringing me to a field outside the city,
with dark approaching? He instinctively fingered the cool handle of his
sword, but its feel did nothing to ease his mind.

Then he heard cheers from the field ahead, and saw a burning ball fly
across the evening sky. Ahead was a large green, and on it horsemen
raced back and forth, shouting and cursing in several languages, their
horses jostling recklessly. Other mounted horsemen watched from the
side of the green and bellowed encouragement.

As they approached the edge of the field, Hawksworth saw one of the
players capture the burning ball, guiding it along the green with a
long stick whose end appeared to be curved. He spurred his mottled gray
mount toward two tall posts stationed at one end of the green. Another
player was hard in chase, and his horse, a dark stallion, was closing
rapidly toward the rolling ball. As the first player swept upward with
his stick, lofting the burning ball toward the posts, the second player
passed him and - in a maneuver that seemed dazzling to Hawksworth - circled
his own stick over his head and captured the ball in midair, deflecting
it toward the edge of the green where Hawksworth and his guards waited.
Cheers went up from some of the players and spectators, and the
horsemen all dashed for the edge of the green in chase of the ball,
which rolled in among Hawksworth's entourage and out of play. The
horseman on the dark stallion suddenly noticed Hawksworth and, with a
shout to the other players, whipped his steed toward the arriving
group.

As he approached, Hawksworth studied his face carefully. He was pudgy
but still athletic, with a short, well-trimmed moustache and a tightly
wound turban secured with a large red stone that looked like a ruby. He
carried himself erect, with a confidence only full vigor could impart,
yet his face was incongruously debauched, almost ravaged, and his eyes
deeply weary. There was no hint of either triumph or pleasure in those
eyes or in his languorous mouth, although he had just executed a
sensational block of an almost certain score. He reined his wheezing
mount only when directly in front of Hawksworth, sending up a cloud of
dust.

"Are you the English captain?" The voice was loud, with an impatient
tone indicating long years of authority.

"I command the frigates of the East India Company." Hawksworth tried to
keep his gaze steady. What sort of man can this be, he asked himself?
Is this the one who can demand the Shahbandar's signature and seal
whenever he wishes?

"Then I welcome you, Captain." The dark stallion reared suddenly for no
apparent reason, in a display of exuberance. The man expertly reined
him in, never removing his gaze from Hawksworth, and continued in an
even voice. "I've been most eager to meet the man who is suddenly so
interesting to our Portuguese friends. Although I have a personal rule
never to dabble in the affairs of Europeans, as a sportsman I must
congratulate you on your victory. A pity I missed the encounter."

"I accept your congratulations on behalf of the East India Company."
Hawksworth watched him for some sign of his attitude toward the
Portuguese, but he could detect nothing but smooth diplomacy.

"Yes, the East India Company. I suppose this company of yours wants
something from India, and I can easily imagine it might be profit.
Perhaps I should tell you straightaway that such matters bore me not a
little." The man glanced impatiently back toward the field. "But come,
it's growing darker as we talk. I'd hoped you might join us in our
little game. It's elementary. Should be child's play for a man who
commands at sea." He turned to one of the men standing by the side of
the field. "Ahmed, prepare a stick for Captain ... by the way, I wasn't
given your name."

"Hawksworth."

"Yes. Prepare a stick for Captain Hawksworth. He'll be joining us."

Hawksworth stared at the man, trying to gauge his impulsiveness.

"You, I presume, are the governor."

"Forgive me. I so rarely find introductions required. Mukarrab Khan,
your humble servant. Yes, it's my fate to be governor of Surat, but
only because there's no outpost less interesting. But come, we lose
precious time." He pivoted his pawing mount about and signaled for a
new ball to be ignited.

"You'll find our game very simple, Captain Hawksworth. The object is to
take the ball between the posts you see there, what we call the _hal_.
There are two teams of five players, but we normally rotate players
every twenty minutes." His horse reared again in anticipation as the
new ball was brought onto the field. "Years ago we played only during
the hours of day, but then our Moghul's father, the great Akman,
introduced the burning ball, so he could play at night. It's _palas
_wood, very light and slow-burning."

Hawksworth felt a nudge on his hand and looked down to see a stick
being passed upward by one of the attendants. The handle was sheathed
in silver, and the stick itself was over six feet long, with a
flattened curve at the bottom, like a distorted shepherd's crook.
Hawksworth lifted it gingerly, testing its weight, and was surprised by
its lightness.

"You will be playing on the team of Abul Hasan." He nodded toward a
middle-aged man with a youthful face and no moustache. "He is a _qazi_
here in Surat, a judge who interprets and dispenses law, and when he's
not busy abusing the powers of his office, he presumes to challenge me
at _chaugan_." The official bowed slightly but did not smile. His
dappled gray mare was sniffing at the governor's stallion. "He thinks
he has me at a disadvantage, since in Agra we played with only one
goal, whereas here they use two, but _chaugan _is a test of skill, not
rules. He leads the white turbans." Only then did Hawksworth notice
that the governor's team all wore red turbans.

The governor waved to his attendant. "A clean turban for the English
captain."_

_"I'd prefer to play as I am." Hawksworth saw a flash of disbelief in
the governor's eyes. It was obvious he was never contradicted. "I never
wear a hat, though it seems in India I'm still called a _topiwallah_.

"Very well, Captain Hawksworth. The _topiwallah _wears no turban." He
seemed to smile as he turned to the other players and signaled for play
to start. "Abul Hasan's team is composed of Surat officials, Captain.
You will notice, however, that I am teamed with some of our merchants -
Muslim, of course, not Hindus - something I must do to ensure challenging
opponents. The mere presence of merchants here today should give you
some idea how very tedious I find living in Surat. In Agra no merchant
would be allowed near a _chaugan _field. But here my officials enjoy
winning their money so much that I am forced to relent." And he laughed
warmly.

The burning ball was slammed toward the middle of the field, and the
players spurred their horses after it in lunging pursuit. Hawksworth
gripped the _chaugan_ stick in his right hand and the reins in the
other as his mount galloped after the others, obviously eager to begin.
The red turbans reached the ball first, with the governor in the lead.
He caught the ball on a bounce and, wielding his stick in a graceful
arc, whipped it under the neck of the dark stallion and directly toward
the _hal_, while in the same motion reining in his mount sharply to
follow its trajectory.

But a white turban had anticipated his shot and was already in position
to intercept the ball. He cut directly in front of the governor's path
and with a practiced swipe bulleted the ball back toward the center of
the field, knocking a spray of sparks across the face of the governor's
horse. Mukarrab Khan's stallion seemed scarcely to notice as he reared,
whirled, and flew in chase.

The shot had passed over the heads of the three other white turbans and
bounced off the grass a few feet behind Hawksworth, still well to the
rear. Hawksworth reined his mount about and bore down on the ball,
beginning to feel some of the exhilaration of the play. He reached the
ball on its second bounce and with a rigid arc of his arm swung the
_chaugan _stick.

The impact recoiled a dizzying shock through the wood and up his right
shoulder. He dimly heard the cheers of his teammates, seeming to
congratulate him on his stroke. But where's the ball? he wondered as he
scanned the darkened, empty expanse down the field. Then he realized he
had only deflected it, back toward the three white turbans in the
center of the field. The last white turban in the row snared the ball
with his stick, deflecting it again, but now in the direction of the
reds.

Dust was boiling from the surface of the field, increasingly obscuring
the players and the play. The darkened arena had become a jostling mob,
friend scarcely distinguishable from foe, and all in pursuit of the
only certain object, the still-glowing ball. Hawksworth's eyes seared
and his throat choked as he raced after the others - always, it seemed,
bringing up the rear, while his mount took her head and rarely
acknowledged his awkward attempts to command. He clung to the iron ring
of his saddle, content merely to stay astride.

Give me a quarterdeck any day.

The red turbans again had command of the ball, and Hawksworth watched
as the governor now raced to the lead, urged on by his teammates. He
snared the ball effortlessly and with a powerful swing sent it arcing
back toward his own _hal_.

The other red turbans rushed in pursuit, but a white turban was already
at the _hal_, waiting to deflect the play. He snared the ball in the
crook of his stick and flung it back toward the center. The reds seemed
to anticipate this, for they reined as one man and dashed back. But now
a white had control, and he guided the ball alone across the grassy
expanse, while a phalanx of other whites rode guard. Hawksworth was
still lagging in front of his own _hal_ when suddenly he saw the ball
lofting toward him, a flaming mortar in the darkened sky.

It slammed to earth near his horse's flank, spewing sparks. He cut his
mare sharply to the left and galloped in pursuit. Above the shouts he
only dimly heard the reds thundering behind him, closing in as he
reached the ball and caught it in the curve of his stick.

Roll it, he told himself, keep it on the ground . . .

The reds were on him. In what seemed a swing for the ball, Abul Hasan
brought his stick in a wide arc, its hardened crook accurately
intersecting Hawksworth's directly in the middle. Hawksworth felt an
uneven shudder pulse through his arm and heard his own stick shatter.
The lower half flew to his right, and he watched in dismay as it sailed
across the path of Mukarrab Khan's mount, just as the governor cut
inward to block Hawksworth. The hard wood caught the dark stallion
directly across its front shins, and the horse stumbled awkwardly.
Hawksworth stared at horse and rider dumbly for a moment, as the
stallion lost its stride, and he suddenly realized the governor's horse
would fall. And when it did, Mukarrab Khan would be thrown directly
below the horses thundering behind them.

He cut his mount sharply to the right and deliberately slammed into the
governor's stallion. Mukarrab Khan's dazed eyes flashed understanding
and he stretched for the center ring of Hawksworth's saddle during the
fractional second their horses were in collision. At the same instant,
he disengaged himself from his own stirrups and pulled himself across
the neck of Hawksworth's mare.

Two alert reds pulled their mounts alongside Hawksworth and grabbed the
reins of his mare. The dark stallion collapsed in the dust behind them
with a pitiful neigh. Then it rose and limped painfully toward the edge
of the field, its left foreleg dangling shattered and useless. Mukarrab
Khan lowered himself to the ground with an elaborate oath.

A cheer sounded as the whites scored the ball unmolested.

Hawksworth was still watching the governor when one of the attendants
rushed from the sidelines, seized the silver-topped fragment of his
broken stick, and thrust it toward him.

"The silver is yours to keep, Sahib. It is the custom that one whose
_chaugan_ stick is broken in play may keep its silver tip. As a token
of bravery. For you it is especially deserved." He was short, swarthy,
and dressed in a dust- covered white shirt. He bowed slightly, while
his eyes gleamed their admiration in the darkness.

"Take it, Captain. It is an honor." Abul Hasan rode up stiffly,
brushing the dust from the mane of his horse. "No _feringhi_, to my
knowledge, has ever before attempted _chaugan_, and certainly none has
earned a silver knob."

"Captain Hawksworth, you rode well." Mukarrab Khan had commandeered a
mount and also drew alongside. There was a light scratch along the
right side of his face, and the whimsical look had vanished from his
eyes as he searched the faces clustered around. "A very curious
accident. It has never happened before." He stared directly at
Hawksworth. "How was your stick broken?"

"The _feringhi_ made an unfortunate swing, Excellency," Abul Hasan
interjected. "He played superbly, for a beginner, but he has still to
fully master the stroke."

"Obviously. But he compensated by his luck - my luck - in saving me from a
fall. He rides well enough, no matter how uncertain his stroke." The
governor examined them both skeptically.

Hawksworth watched the exchange in incredulous silence. The _qazi_ may
be covering for his own accident. Or perhaps it wasn't an accident. And
if not, then he tried to kill the Mukarrab Khan in a way that would
look like it was my responsibility.

"I still maintain it was most curious." Mukarrab Khan turned to watch
as the stable-keepers prepared to shoot his favorite horse. "But tell
me now what you think of _chaugan_, Captain Hawksworth?"

"It's exhilarating. And dangerous. A seaman might say it's like taking
the whipstaff all alone in a gale, without a safety line." Hawksworth
tried unsuccessfully to decipher Mukarrab Khan's thoughts.

"A quaint analogy, but doubtless apt." He tried to smile. "You know,
Captain, there are those who mistakenly regard _chaugan _as merely a
game, whereas it is actually much, much more. It's a crucible of
courage. It sharpens one's quickness of mind, tests one's powers of
decision. The great Akman believed the same, and for that reason he
encouraged it years ago among his officials. Of course it requires
horsemanship, but in the last count it's a flawless test of manhood.
You did not entirely disappoint me. I suspect you English could one day
be worthy of our little game."

A shot rang out, and the governor's face went pale for an instant, his
eyes glossed with sadness. Then he turned again to Hawksworth.

"Deplorable waste. To think I bought him just last year especially for
_chaugan_. From a grasping Arab, a confirmed thief who sensed I fancied
that stallion and absolutely refused to bargain." The voice was calmer
now, the official facade returning. "But enough. Perhaps I could
interest you in a drink?"

He signaled toward the edge of the field, and a waiting groom ran
toward them, bearing a black clay pot with a long spout.

"The sun has set. Ramadan is finished for this year. So I will join
you. Let me show you how we drink on horseback." He lifted the pot
above his head, tilted the spout toward him, and caught the stream
effortlessly in his mouth. Then he passed it to Hawksworth. "It's
called _sharbat_. The _topiwallahs _all seem to like it and
mispronounce it 'sherbet.'"

The water was sugar sweet and tangy with bits of lemon. God, Hawksworth
thought, would we had barrels of this for the voyage home. As he drank,
drenching his beard, he first noticed the icy stars, a splendor of cold
fire in an overhead canopy. The town's smoke had been banished by the
freshening wind, and a placid silence now mantled the field. The
players were preparing to leave, and the grooms were harnessing the
remaining horses to lead them home.

"Tonight we feast to mark the end of Ramadan, Captain, our month of
fasting during daylight hours. It's an evening celebrating the return
of sensual pleasure." Mukarrab Khan stared at Hawksworth for a moment.
"By the looks of you, I'd suspect you're no Jesuit. I would be honored



Online LibraryThomas HooverThe Moghul → online text (page 9 of 52)