W. A. (William Alexander) Fraser.

Caste online

. (page 10 of 16)
Online LibraryW. A. (William Alexander) FraserCaste → online text (page 10 of 16)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

of Bhowanee."

He untangled from the posture of sitting his parch
ment-covered matter of bones, and carrying in one
hand a brocaded bag of black velvet and in the other
a staff, with bowed head and mutterings started deeper
into the jungle of cactus and slim whispering bamboo,
followed by Ajeet, Sookdee and Hunsa. Presently he
stopped, saying, "Sit you in a line, brave chiefs, facing
the great temple of Siva, which is in the mountains

164 Caste

of the East, so that the voice of Bhowanee coming
out of the silent places and from the mouth of the
jackal or the jackass, shall be known to be from
the right or the left, for thus will be the interpret

The priest took his place in front of the jamadars,
sitting with his back to them, and placed upon the
ground, first a white cloth of cotton, and then the
velvet bag, upon which rested a silver pickaxe.

When Ajeet saw the pickaxe he said angrily: "That
is the emblem of thugs; we be deceits, not stranglers,

"They are equal in honour with Bhowanee," the
Guru replied: "they slay for profit, even as you do,
and among you are those who are thugs, for I minister
to both."

Then the Guru buried his shrivelled skull in his thin
hands and drooped forward in silent listening. Ajeet
objected no more, and in the new silence they could
hear the shrill rasping of cicadse in the foliage of a
gigantic elephant-creeper, that, like a huge python,
crawled its way from branch to branch, sprawling
across a dozen stately trees. From somewhere beyond
was a steady "tonk! tonk! tonk!" like the beat of
wood against a hollow pipe of the little green-
plumaged coppersmith bird. A honey-badger came
timorously creeping, his feet shuffling the fallen leaves,
peered at the strange figures of the men, and, at the
move of an arm, fled scurrying through the stillness
with the noise of some great creature.

Suddenly the jungle was stilled, even from the

Caste 165

voice of the rasping cicadae; the leaves had ceased to
whisper, for the wind had hushed. The devotees could
hear the beating of their hearts in the strain of wait
ing for a manifestation from the dread goddess. The
white-robed figure of the Guru was like a shrivelled
statue of alabaster where the faint moon picked it out
in blotches as the light filtered through leaves above.

Sookdee gasped in terror as just above them a tiny
tree owl called, "Whoo-whoo, whoo-whoo!" as if he
jeered. But Ajeet knew that that, in their belief,
was a sign of encouragement, meaning not overmuch,
but not an evil omen. From far off floated up on the
dead night air the belling note of a startled cheetal,
and almost at once the harsh, grating, angry roar of a
leopard, as though he had struck for the throat of the
stag and missed. These were but jungle voices, not
in the curriculum of their pantheistic belief, so the
Guru and the B agrees sat in silence, and no one spoke.

Then the night carried the faint trembling moan of
a jackal, as the Guru knew, a female jackal, coming
from a distance on the left.

"Oo-oo-oo-oo-oo ! Aye-aye! yi-yi-yi-yi ! " the jackal
wailed, the note rising to a fiendish crescendo; and then
suddenly it hushed and there was only a ghastly silence
in the jungle depths.

The white-clothed, ghost-like priest sprang to his
feet, and with his lean left arm stretched high in sup-
pliance, said: "Bhowanee, thou hast vouchsafed to
thy devotees the pilsao. We will strew thy shrine with
flowers and sweetmeats."

He turned to the jamadars who had risen, saying,

166 Caste

"Bhowanee is pleased; the suspicies are favourable;
had the call of the jackal been from the right it would
have been the tibao and we should have had to wait
until the sweet goddess gave us another sign. Now
we may go back, and perhaps she will confirm this
omen as we go."

Hunsa, always possessed of a mean disposition, and
still sulky over the encounter with Ajeet, was in an
evil mood as they trudged through the jungle to their
camp. When Ajeet spoke of the priest's success in
his appeal, he snarled: "The hangman always advises
the one who is to have his neck stretched that he is
better off dead."

"What do you mean by that?" Ajeet queried.

"Just that you are not going on this mission, Ajeet;"
then he laughed disagreeably.

"If you are afraid to go Sookdee will be well with
out you," Ajeet retorted.

Before more could be said in this way, and as they
approached the camp, the lowing of a cow was heard.

"Dost hear that, Guru?" Hunsa queried. "In a
decoity is not the lowing of a cow in a village held to
be an evil omen?"

"Not so, Hunsa," the Priest declared. "It is an
evil omen if the decoity is to be made on the village
in which the cow raises her voice, but we are going to
our own camp in peace, and it is a voice of approval."

"As to that," Ajeet commented, "if Hunsa is right,
it is written in our code of omens that hearing a cow
call thus simply means that one of the party making

Caste 167

the decoity will be killed; perhaps as he was the one
to notice it, the evil will fall upon him."

"You'd like that," Hunsa growled.

"Not being given to lies, it would not displease me,
for, as the hangman said, you would be better dead."

But they were now at their camp, and the jamadars,
standing together for a little, settled it that the omens
being favourable, and the wrath of the Dewan feared,
they would take the way to the Pindari camp next day.


Dewan Sewlal had warned Hunsa and Sookdee
against their natural proclivities for making a decoity
while travelling to the Pindari camp, as the mission
was more important than loot an enterprise that
might cause them to be killed or arrested. Indeed
the Gulab had made this a condition of her going with
them. She was practically put in command. Both
Nana Sahib and the Dewan were pleased over what
they deemed her sensible acquiescence in the scheme.
As has been said, the Dewan, recognising the debased
ferocity of Hunsa, had promised him the torture when
he returned if Bootea had any cause of complaint.

The decoit, believing that Bootea was designed for
Nana Sahib's harem, knew that as one favoured in the
Prince's eyes, he would surely be put to death if he
offended her.

So, travelling with the almost incessant swift
progress which was an art with all decoits, in a few
days they arrived at Rajgar, the town to which Amir
Khan had shifted. He had taken possession of a
palace belonging to the Rajput Raja as his head-quar
ters, and his army of horsemen were encamped in tents
on the vast sandy plain that extended from both sides
of the river Nahal: the local name of this river was
"The Stream of Blood," so named because a fierce
force of Arab mercenaries in the employ of Sindhia,
many years before, had butchered the entire tribe of


Caste 169

Nahals man, woman, and child, higher up in the

As had been planned, some of the decoits had come
as recruits to the Pindari standard. This created no
suspicion, because free-lance soldiers, adventurous
spirits, from all over India flocked to a force that was
known to be massed for the purpose of loot. It was
an easy service; little discipline; a regular Moslem
fighting horde, holding little in reverence but the daily
prayer and the trim of a spear, or the edge of a sword.
Amir Khan was the law, the army regulation, the one
thing to obey. As to the matter of prayers, for those
who were not followers of the Prophet, who carried no
little prayer carpet to kneel upon, face to Mecca, there
was, it being a Rajput town, always the shrine of
Shiva and his elephant-headed son, Ganesh, to receive
obeisance from the Hindus. And those who had come
as players, wrestlers, were welcomed joyously, for,
there being no immediate matter of a raid and throat-
cutting, and little of disciplinary duties, time hung
heavy on the hands of these grown-up children.

Hunsa was remembered by several of the Pindaris as
having ridden with them before; and he also had
suffered an apostacy of faith for he now swore by the
Beard of the Prophet, and turned out at the call of
the mezzin, and testified to the fact that there was but
one god Allah. And he had known his Amir Khan
well when he had told the Dewan that the fierce
Pindari was gentle enough when it came to a matter of
feminine beauty, for Bootea made an impression.

Of course it would have taken a more obdurate male

170 Caste

than Amir Khan to not appreciate the exquisite charm
of the Gulab; no art could have equalled the inherent
patrician simplicity and sweetness of her every thought
and action. Perhaps her determination to ingratiate
herself into the good graces of the Chief was intensi
fied, brought to a finer perfection, by the motive that
had really instigated her to accept this terrible mission,
her love for the Englishman, Barlow.

Of course this was not an unusual thing; few women
have lived who are not capable of such a sacrifice for
some one; the "grand passion," when it comes, and
rarely out of reasoning, smothers everything in the
heart of almost every woman once. It had come to
Bootea; foolishly, impossible of an attainment, every
thing against its ultimate accomplished happiness, but
nothing of that mattered. She was there, waiting
waiting for the service that Fate had whispered into
her being.

And she danced divinely that is the proper word
for it. Her dancing was a revelation to Amir Kahn
who had seen nautchnis go through their sensuous,
suggestive, voluptuous twistings of supple forms, dis
figured by excessive decoration bangles, anklets, nose
rings, high-coloured swirling robes, and with voices
worn to a rasping timbre that shrilled rather than sang
the ghazal (love song) as they gyrated. But here
was something different. Bootea's art was the art that
was taught, princesses in the palaces of the Rajput
Ranas, not the bidding of a courtesan for the desire of
a man. Her dress was a floating cloud of gauzy
muslin: and her sole evident adornment the ruby-

Caste 171

headed gold snake-bracelet, the iron band of widow
hood being concealed higher on her arm. Some intui
tion had taught the girl that this mode would give
rise in the warrior's heart to a feeling of respectful
liking: it had always been that way with real men
where she was concerned.

When Amir Kahn passed an order that Bootea was
to be treated as a queen, his officers smiled in their
heavy black beards and whispered that his two wives
would yet be hand-maidens to a third, the favourite.

Hunsa saw all this, for he was the one that often car
ried a message to the Gulab that her presence was de
sired in the palace. But there were always others there;
the players and the musicians the ones who played the
sitar (guitar) and the violin; and the officers.

Hunsa was getting impatient. Every time he looked
at the handsome black-bearded head of the warrior
he was like a covetous thief gazing upon a diamond
necklace that is almost within his grasp. He had come
there to kill him and delay was dangerous. He had
been warned by the Dewan that they suspected Barlow
meant to visit the Chief on behalf of the British. He
might turn up any day. When he spoke to Bootea
about her part in the mission, the enticing of Amir
Khan to her tent so that he might be killed, she simply
answered :

"Hunsa, you will wait until I give you a command to
kill the Chief. If you do not, it is very likely that
you will be the sacrifice, for he is not one to be driven."
She vowed that if he broke this injunction she would
denounce him to Amir Khan; she would have done so

172 Caste

at first but for the idea that treachery to her people
could not be justified but by dire necessity.

Every day the Gulab, as she walked through the
crowded street, scanned the faces of men afoot and on
horseback, looking for one clothed as a Patan, but
in his eyes the something she would know, the some
thing that would say he was the deified one. And she
had told Amir Khan that there was a Patan coming
with a message for him, and that when such an one
asked for audience that he should say nothing, but
see that he was admitted.

Then one day it was about two weeks of waiting
Captain Barlow came. He was rather surprised at the
readiness with which he was admitted for an audience
with the Chief. It was in the audience hall that he
was received, and the Chief was surrounded, as he
sat on the Raja's dais, by officers.

Barlow had come as Ayub Alii, an Afghan, and as it
was a private interview he desired, he made the visit
a formal one, the paying of respects, with the usual
presenting of the hilt of his sword for the Chief to
touch with the tips of his fingers in the way of accept
ing his respects.

The Chief, knowing this was the one Bootea had
spoken of, wrote on a slip of yellow paper something
in Persian and tendered it to Barlow, saying, "That
will be your passport when you would speak with me
if there is in your heart something to be said."

Going, Barlow saw that he had written but the one

word , u y t , translated, "the Afghan."

Caste 173

Hunsa, too, had watched for the coming of Barlow.
The same whisper that had come to Boo tea's ears
that he would ride as a Patan had been told him by
the Dewan. Knowing that when Barlow arrived he
would endeavour to see the Chief in his quarters, Hunsa
daily hovered near the palace and chatted with the
guard at the gates; the heavy double teak-wood gates,
on one side of which was painted, on a white stone
wall, a war-elephant and the other side a Rajput horse
man, his spear held at the charge. This was the
allegorical representation, so general all over Mewar,
of Rana Pertab charging a Mogul prince mounted on
an elephant.

Thus Hunsa had seen the tall Patan and heard him
make the request for an audience with Amir Khan. It
was the walk, the slight military precision, that caused
the deceit to mutter, "No hill Afghan that."

And when Barlow had come forth the Bagree trailed
him up through the chowk; and just as the man he
followed came to the end of the narrow crowded way,
Hunsa saw Bootea, coming from the opposite direction,
suddenly stop, and her eyes go wide as they were fixed
on the face of the tall Patan.

"It is the accursed Sahib," Hunsa snarled between
his grinding teeth. He brooded over the advent of the
messenger and racked his animal brain for some
scheme to accomplish his mission of murder, and coun
teract the other's influence. And presently a bit of
rare deviltry crept into his mind, joint partner with
the murder thought. If he could but kill the Chief
and have the blame of it cast upon the Sahib, who,

174 Caste

no doubt, would have his interviews with Amir Khan

During the time Hunsa had been there, several
times in the palace, somewhat of a privileged character,
known to be connected with the Gulab, he had fa
miliarised himself with the plan of the marble building:
the stairways that ran down to the central court; the
many passages; the marble fret-work screen niches and
mysterious chambers.

Either Hunsa or Sookdee was now always trailing
Barlow his every move was known. And then, as if
some evil genii had taken a spirit hand in the guidance
of events, Hunsa's chance came. Barlow, who had
tried three times to see Amir Khan, one day received a
message at the gate that he was to come back that
evening, when the Chief, having said his prayers,
would give him a private audience.

Hunsa had seen Barlow making his way from the
serai where he camped with his horse toward the
palace, and hurrying with the swift celerity of a jungle
creature, he reached the gate first. His head wrapped
in the folds of a turban so that his ugly face was all
but hidden, he was talking to the guard when Barlow
gave the latter his yellow slip of passport; and as the
guard left his post and entered the dim entrance to
call up the stairway for one to usher in the Afghan,
Hunsa slipped nonchalantly through the gate and
stood in the shadow of a jutting wall, his black body
and drab loin-cloth merging into the gloom.


"Is the one alone?" Amir Khan asked when a
servant had presented Barlow's yellow slip of paper.

"But for the orderly that is with him."

"Tell him to enter, and go where your ears will
remain safe upon your head."

The bearer withdrew and Captain Barlow entered,
preceded by the orderly, who, with a deep salaam an

"Sultan Amir Khan, it is Ayub Alii who would have
audience." Then he stepped to one side, and stood
erect against the wall.

"Salaam, Chief," Barlow said with a sweep of a hand
to his forehead, and Amir Khan from his seat in a
black ebony chair inlaid with pearl-shell and garnets,
returned the salutation, asking: "And what favour
would Ayub Alii ask?"

"A petition such as your servant would make is but
for the ears of Amir Khan."

The black eyes of the Pindari, deep set under the
shaggy eyebrows, hung upon the speaker's face with
the fierce watchful stab of a falcon's.

Barlow saw the distrust, the suspicion. He unslung
from his waist his heavy pistol, took the tulwar from
the wide brass-studded belt about his waist, and
tendered them to the orderly saying: "It is a message
of peace but also it is alone for the ears of Amir


176 Caste

The Pindari spoke to the orderly, "Go thou and wait

When he had disappeared the Pindari rose from the
ebon-wood chair, stretched his tall giant form, and
laughed. "Thou art a seemly man, Ayub Alii, but
thinkst thou that Amir Khan would have fear that
thou sendst thy playthings by the orderly?"

"No, Chief, it was but proper. And you will know
that the message is such that none other may hear

"Sit on yonder divan, Afghan, and tell this large
thing that is in thy mind."

As Barlow took a seat upon the divan covered by a;
red-and-green Bokharan rug, lifting his eyes suddenly,
he was conscious of a mocking smile on the Pindari's
lips; and the fierce black eyes were watching his every
move as he slipped a well-strapped sandal from a foot.
Rising, he stepped to the table at one end of which the
Pindari sat, and placing the sandal upon it, said: "If
the Chief will slit the double sole with his knife he
will find within that which I have brought."

"The matter of which you speak, Afghan, is service,
and Amir Khan is not one to perform a service of the
hands for any one."

"But if I asked for the Chief's knife, not having

"Ins holla! but thou art right; if thou hadst asked
for the knife thou mightst have received it, and not in
the sandal," he laughed. The laugh welled up from
his throat through the heavy black beard like the
bubble of a bison bull.

Caste 177

The Pindar i reached for the sandal, and as he slit
at the leather thread, he commented: "Thou hast the
subtlety of a true Patan; within, I take it, is something
of value, and if it were in a pocket of thy jacket, or a
fold at thy waist, those who might seek it with one slit
of their discoverer, which is a piece of broken glass
carrying an edge such as no blade would have, would
take it up. But a man's sandals well strapped on are
removed but after he is dead."

"Bismillah!" The Pindari had the paper spread
flat upon the black table and saw the seal of the British
Raj. He seemed to ponder over the document as if
the writing were not within his interpretation. Then
he said: "We men of the sword have not given much
thought to the pen, employing scribblers for that pur
pose, but to-morrow a mullah will make this all plain."

Barlow interrupted the Chief. "Shall I read the
written word?"

"What would it avail? Hereon is the seal of the
Englay Raj, but as you read the thumb of the Raj
would not be upon your lip in the way of a seal. The
mullah will interpret this to me. Is it of an alliance?"
he asked suddenly.

"It is, Chief."

The Pindari laughed: "Holker would give me a
camel-load of gold rupees for this and thy head:
Sindhia might add a province for the same."

"True, Chief. And has Amir Khan heard a whisper
of reward and a dress of honour from Sindhia's Dewan
for his head?"

"Afghan, there is always a reward for the head of

178 Caste

Amir Khan; but a gift is of little value to a man who
has lost his life in the trying. Without are guards
ready to run a sword through even a shadow, and here
I could kill three."

He raised his black eyes and scanned the form of
Ayub Alii. There was a quizzical smile on his lips
as he said:

"Go back and sit thee upon the divan."

When Barlow had taken his place, the Chief laughed
aloud, saying, "Well done, Captain Sahib; thou art
perfect as a Patan; even to the manner of sitting
down one would have thought that, except for a saddle,
thou hadst always sat upon thy heels."

Barlow smiled good humouredly, saying, "It is even
so; I am Captain Barlow. And this," he tapped the
loose baggy trousers of the Afghan hillman, and the
sheepskin coat with the wool inside "was not in the
way of deceit but for protection on the road."

"It is well thought of," the Pindari declared, "for
a Sahib travelling alone through Rajasthan would be
robbed by a Mahratta or killed by a Rajput. But as
to the deceiving of Amir Khan, dost thou suppose that
he gives to a Patan the paper of admittance, or of pass
ing, such as he gave to thee. Even at the audience I
was pleased with thy manner of disguise."

Barlow was startled. "Did you know then that I
was a Sahib how did you know?"

"Because thou wert placed in my hand in the way of

Then Barlow surmised that of all outside his own
caste there could be but one, and he knew that she

Caste 179

was in the camp, for he had seen her. "It was a

"A rare woman; even I, Chief of the Pindaris and
we are not bred to softness say that she is a pearl."

"They call her the Gulab," Barlow ventured.

"She is well named the Gulab; the perfume of her
is in my nostrils though it mixes ill with the camel
smell. Without offence to Allah I can retain her for
it is in the Koran that a man may have four wives
and I have but two."

"But the Gulab is of a different faith," Barlow
objected and a chill hung over his heart.

The Pindari laughed. "The Sahibs have agents for
the changing of faith, those who wear the black coat of
honour; and a mullah will soon make a good Mussel-
mani of the beautiful little infidel. Of course, Sahib,
there is the other way of having a man's desire which
is the way of all Pindaris; they consider women as fair
loot when the sword is the passport through a land.
But as to the Gulab, the flower is most too fair for a
crushing. In such a matter as I have spoken of the
fragrance is gone, and a man, when he crushes the
weak, has conflict with himself."

"It's a topping old barbarian, this leader of cut
throats," Barlow admitted to himself; but in his mind
was a horror of the fate meant for the girl. And some
how it was a sacrifice for him, he knew, an enlargement
of the love that had shown in the soft brown eyes.
As he listened schemes of stealing the Gulab away,
of saving her were hurtling through his brain.

"And mark thee, Sahib, Amir Khan has found

180 Caste

favour with the little flower, for when I thought of an
audience with her in her own tent for to be a leader
of men, in possession of two wives, and holding strong
by the faith of Mahomet, it is as well to be circumspect
the Gulab warned me that a knife might be presented
as I slept. A jealous lover, perhaps, I think it would
not have been Ayub Alii by any chance?"

What Barlow was thinking, was, "A most subtle
animal, this." And he now understood why the
Pindari, as if he had forgotten the message, was talking
of the Gulab; as an Oriental he was coming to the
point in circles.

"It was not, Chief," Barlow answered. "A British
officer on matters of state, would break his izzat
(honour) if he trifled with women."

"Put thy hand upon thy beard, Afghan though
thou hast not one and swear by it that it was not thee
the woman meant when she spoke of a knife, for I
like thee."

Barlow put his hand to his chin. "I swear that
there was nothing of evil intent against Amir Khan
in my heart," he said; "and that is the same as our
oath, for it is but one God that we both worship."

The Chief again let float from his big throat his
low, deep, musical laugh.

"An oath is an oath, nothing more. To trust to it
and go to sleep in its guardianship, one may never
wake up. Even the gods cannot bind a heart that is
black with words. It was one of my own name who
swore on the shrine of Eklinga at Udaipur friendship
for a Prince of Marwar, and changed turbans with

Caste 181

him, which is more binding than eating opium together,

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 10 12 13 14 15 16

Online LibraryW. A. (William Alexander) FraserCaste → online text (page 10 of 16)