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had a share of the loot, and had effectually side
tracked investigation. In fact decoits always lived in
the protection of some petty raja; they were an adjunct
to the state, a source of revenue.

The Dewan had intimated that Hunsa and his men
were to wait until a messenger brought them word
where and when to make the decoity. Also if he be
trayed them, failed to keep his compact with them, it
would cause him the loss of his ugly head.

The jamadar quite believed this; it would be an
easy matter, surrounded as they were by Mahratta

So then for the next few days Hunsa and Sookdee
cautiously developed a spirit of desire for action
amongst the decoits, and a feeling of resentment against
Ajeet who was opposed to engaging in a punishable
crime so far from their refuge.

The Dewan sent for Ajeet and explained to him, as
if it were a very great honour, that Nana Sahib, having
heard of Bootea's wonderful grace, had asked her to
appear at a nautch he was giving to the Sahibs and
Hindu princes at his palace. No doubt Bootea would
receive a handsome present for this, also it would
incline the heart of the Prince to the Bagrees.

Caste 43

Ajeet was suspicious, but to refuse permission he
knew would anger the Dewan; and he was in the Min
ister's hands. His position was none too secure; there
was treachery in his own camp. He asked for a day
to consult Bootea over the matter; in reality he wanted
to consider it more fully before giving an answer.

Of course Hunsa knew about it, and he told Sookdee;
and when the matter came up in camp they professed
indignation at Ajeet's stupidity in not appreciating the
honour; dancers were only too glad to appear before
such people as the Prince and the Resident at a palace
dance, they explained.

Of course the matter of Bootea's mission to the Pin-
dari Chief had not been conveyed to Ajeet as yet;
and Hunsa felt that this affair of the nautch was a
propitious thing an inserting of the thin edge of the

Somewhat grudgingly Ajeet consented, for Bootea,
strangely enough, was quite eager over it. As Nana
Sahib had fancied the girl had taken an unexplainable
liking for Captain Barlow. Of course that, the call,
is rarely explainable on reasonable grounds it is a
matter of a higher dispensation; just two pairs of eyes
settle the whole business; one look and the thing is

The Sahib would see her in a new light in an
appealing light. In her thoughts there was nothing
of a serious intent; just that to look upon him, perhaps
to see in his eyes a friendly pleasure, would be intoxica

So Ajeet took her to the palace to dance, but, of

44 Caste

course, he had to cool his heels without the durbar
chamber smoke the hooka and chat with other natives
while the one of desire was within.

The girl had an exquisite sense of the beauty of sim
plicity both in dress and manner, and in her art; it
was as if a lotus flower had been animated given
life. Her dancing was a floaty rhythm, an undulating
drifting to the soft call of the sitar; and her voice,
when she sang the ghazal, the love-song, was soft;
holding the compelling power of subdued passion it
thrilled Barlow with an emotion that, when she had
finished, caused him to take himself to task. It was
as if he had said, "By Jove! fancy I've had a bit too
much of that champagne better look out."

Nana Sahib and the Captain were sitting side by
side, and the Gulab, when she had finished the song,
had swept her sinuous lithe form back in a graceful
curtsy in front of the two, and, as if by accident, a
red rose had floated to the feet of Captain Barlow.
Surely her soft, dark, languorous eyes had said: "For

With a cynical smile Nana Sahib picked up the rose
r,nd presented it to Barlow saying: u My dear Captain,
you receive the golden apple beauty will out."

Barlow's fingers trembled with suppressed emotion
as he took the flower and carefully slipped it into a but

Elizabeth, who sat next him, saw this by-play, and
her voice was cold as she commented: "Homage
is a delightful thing, but it spoils children."

Nana Sahib leaned across Barlow: "My dear Miss

Caste 45

Hodson, these dancers always play to the gods it
is their trade. But there is safety in caste in varna,
which is the old Brahmin name for caste, meaning
colour. When the Aryans came down into Hind they
were olive-skinned and the aborigines here were quite
black, so, to draw the line, they created caste and called
it varna, meaning that they of the light skin were of
a higher order than the aborigines which they were.
A white skin is like a shirt-of-mail, it protects morally,
socially, in India."

"Ultimately, no doubt, Prince. And, of course, a
dance-girl is one of the fourth caste, practically an
outcast an 'untouchable,' " Elizabeth commented.

Barlow knew this as a devilish arraignment of him
self, for he had felt a strong attraction. He said
nothing; but he was aware of a feeling of repulsion
toward Elizabeth; her harshness, on so slight a provoca
tion, suggested vindictiveness a narrow exaction.

Nana Sahib was filled with delight his evil soul
revelled in this discord. Then and there, if he could
have managed it, he would have suggested to the Cap
tain that he would arrange for the Gulab to meet him
might even have her sent to his bungalow. But he
had the waiting subtlety of a tiger that crouches by
a pool for hours waiting for a kill; so, somewhat re
luctantly, he let the opportunity pass. While he consid
ered Barlow to be an Englishman possessed of rather
slow perception, he knew that the Captain had a quix
otic sense of honour, and possibly such a proposal
might destroy his influence.

And Bootea went back to the camp with Ajeet, suf-

46 Caste

fused to silence by the strange thing that had hap
pened, the strange infatuation for it was that that
had so suddenly filled her heart for the handsome sahib
whose soft, brave eyes had looked through hers into
her very soul.


Nana Sahib had assumed a gracious manner toward
Ajeet Singh when Bootea had been brought to the
nautch. He had bestowed a handsome gift upon the
Chief, ten gold mohrs; and for Bootea there had been
the gift of a ruby, also ten gold mohrs.

This munificence, for Hunsa and Sookdee declared
it to be a rare extravagance, was not so much as re
ward for Bootea's nautch as a desire on the part of
the astute Prince to prepare for the greater service

The Dewan also was very gracious to Ajeet over
his compliance; but, at the same time, declared that
an order had been passed by Baptiste that if the
B agrees would not obey the command to go after
Amir Khan he would not pay them a thousand rupees
a day out of the treasury. He put all this very affably;
raised his two fat hands toward heaven declaring that
he was helpless in the matter Baptiste was the com
mander, and he was but a dewan. With a curious
furtive look in his ox-eyes he advised Ajeet to consult
with Hunsa over a method of obtaining money for the
deceits. He would not commit himself as to making a
decoity, for when they had seized upon the Chief for
the crime Ajeet could not then say that the Dewan had
instigated it; there would be only Hunsa's word for
this, and, of course, he would deny that the Minister
was the father of the scheme.


48 Caste

And in the camp Hunsa and Sookdee were clamour
ing at Ajeet to undertake a decoity for they were all in
need, and to be idle was not their way of life.

Hunsa went the length of telling Ajeet that the
Dewan would even send them word where a decoity
of much loot could be made and in a safe way, too, for
the Dewan would take care that neither sepoys nor
police would be in the way.

And then one day there came to the Bagree camp a
mysterious message. A yogi, his hair matted with filth
till it stood twisted and writhed on his head like the
serpent tresses of Medusa, his lean skeleton ash-daubed
body clothed in yellow, on his forehead the crescent of
Eklinga, in his hand a pair of clanking iron tongs,
crawled wearily to the tents where were the decoits,
and bleared out of blood-shot blobs of faded brown
at Ajeet Singh.

He had a message for the Chief from the god Bhyroo
who galloped at night on a black horse, and the mes
sage had to do with the decoits, for if they were success
ful they could make offering to the priests at the temple
of Bhowanee, for in her service decoity was an honour
able occupation and of great antiquity.

Hunsa and Sookdee had come to sit on their heels,
and as they listened they knew that the wily old Dewan
had sent the yogi so that it could not be said that he,
the Minister, had told them this thing.

A rich jewel merchant of Delhi was then at Poona
on his way to the Nizam's court. He had a wealth of
jewels pearls the size of a bird's egg, emeralds the
size of a betel nut, and diamonds that were like stars.

Caste 49

This was true for the merchant had paid the duty as
he passed the border into Mahrattaland.

Ajeet gave the yogi two rupees for food, though,
viewing the animated skeleton, it seemed a touch of

Then the jamadars considered the message so deeply
wrapped in mysticism. Hunsa unhesitatingly declared
that the yogi was a messenger from the Dewan, and if
they did not take advantage of it they would perhaps
have to fare forth on lean stomachs and in disgrace
perhaps would be beaten by the Mahratta sepoys
undoubtedly they would.

Sookdee backed up the jamadar.

"Very well," declared Ajeet, "we will go on this mis
sion. But remember this, Hunsa, that if there is treach
ery, if we are cast into the hands of the Dewan, I swear
by Bhowanee that I will have your life."

"Treachery ! " It was the snarl of an enraged animal,,
and Hunsa sprang to his feet. He whirled, and facing
Sookdee, said: "Let Bhowanee decide who is traitor
let Ajeet and me take the ordeal."

"That is but fair," Sookdee declared. "The ordeal of
the heated cannon ball will surely burn the hand of the
traitor if there is one," and he looked at Ajeet; and
though suspicious that this was still another trap, Ajeet
without cowardice could not decline.

"I will take the ordeal," he declared.

"We will take the ordeal to-night," Hunsa said; "and
we should prepare with haste the method of the de-
coity, for the merchant may pass, and we must take-
the road in a proper disguise. There is the village to

50 Caste

be decided upon where he will rest in his journey, and
many things."

Even Ajeet was forced to acquiesce in this.

Boastfully Hunsa declared: "The ordeal will prove
that I am thinking only of our success. This method of
livelihood has been our profession for generations, and
yet when we are in the protection of the powerful
Dewan Ajeet says I am a traitor to our salt."

For an hour they discussed the best manner of sally
ing forth in a way that would leave them unsuspected
of robbing. One of their favourite methods was
adopted; to go in a party of twenty or thirty as mendi
cants and bearers of the bones of relatives to the waters
of the sacred Ganges. No doubt the yogi would ac
company them as their priest, especially if well paid for
the service.

The plot was elaborated on, or rather adapted from
past expeditions. Ajeet would be represented as a
petty raja, with his retinue of servants and his guard.
The Gulab Begum would be convincing as a princess,
the wife of the raja. The wife of Sookdee could be a

As a respectable strong party of holy men, and a
prince, they would gain the confidence of the merchant,
even of the patil of the village where he would rest for
a night.

They would send spies into Poona to obtain knowl
edge of the jewel merchant's movements. The spies,
two men who were happy in the art of ingratiating them
selves into the good graces of prospective victims,
would attach themselves to the merchant's party, and

Caste 51

at night slip away and join the robber band so that
they might judge where he would camp next night;
at some village that would be a day's march.

When questioned, the yogi told them where they
would find the merchant; he was stopping with a
friend in Poona. So the two set off, and the Bagrees
prepared for their journey.

For the ordeal a cannon ball was needed and a
blacksmith to heat it. And as Hunsa had been the
father of the scheme, Sookdee declared that he must
procure these from the Mahratta camp.

Hunsa agreed to this.

The Bagrees were encamped to one side of the Mah
ratta troops in a small jungle of dhak and slim-growing
bamboos that afforded them privacy.

In negotiating for the loan of a blacksmith Hunsa
had impressed upon a sergeant his sincerity by the
gift of two rupees; and two rupees more to the black
smith made it certain that the heating of the cannon
ball would not make the test unfair to Hunsa.

A peacock perched high in the feathery top of a
giant sal tree was crying "miaow, miaow!" to the dip
ping sun when, in the centre of the Bagree camp the
blacksmith, sitting on his haunches in front of a char
coal fire in which nested the iron cannon ball, fanned
the flames with his pair of goat-skin hand-bellows.

Lots were cast as to which of the two would take the
ordeal first, and it fell to Ajeet. First seven paces
were marked off, and Ajeet was told that he must not
run, but take the seven steps as in a walk, carrying
the hot iron on a pipal leaf on his palm.

52 Caste

"This food of the cannon is now hot," the black
smith declared, dropping his bellows and grasping a
pair of iron tongs.

As Sookdee placed a broad pipal leaf upon the jama-
dar's palm, Ajeet repeated in a firm voice: "I take the
ordeal. If I am guilty, Maha Kali, may the sign of
thy judgment appear upon my flesh! "

"We are ready," Sookdee declared, and the waiting
blacksmith swung the instrument of justice from its
heat in the glowing charcoal to the outstretched hand
of the jamadar.

Hunsa's hungry eyes glowed in pleased vicious-
ness, for the blacksmith had indeed heated the metal;
the green pipal leaf squirmed beneath its heat like a
worm, as Ajeet Singh, with the military stride of a
soldier, took the seven paces.

Then dropping the thing of torture he extended his
slim small hand to Sookdee for inspection.

Hunsa's villainy had worked out. A white rime,
like a hoar frost, fretting the deep red of the scorched
skin, that was as delicate as that on a woman's palm.

Sookdee muttered a pitying cry, and Hunsa de
clared boastfully: "When men have evil in their hearts
it is known to Bhowanee; behold her sign!"

But Ajeet laughed, saying: "Let Hunsa have the
iron; he, too, will know of its heat."

"Put it again in the fire," declared Sookdee, "for
it is an ordeal in which only the guilty is punished; but
the ball must be of the same heat."

And once more the shot was returned to the char

Caste 53

Gulab Begum pushed her way rapidly to where the
jamadars stood; but Sookdee objected, saying: "When
men appeal to Bhowanee it is not proper that women
should be of the ceremony; it will indeed anger our
mother goddess."

"Thou art a fool, Sookdee," Bootea declared. "The
hand of your chief is in pain though he shows it not
in his face. Shall a brave man suffer because you
are without feeling!"

She turned to the Chief. "Here I have cocoanut
oil and a bandage of soft muslin. Hold to me your
hand, Ajeet."

"It is not needed, Gulab, star-flower," the Chief de
clared proudly.

The Gulab had poured from a ram's horn cool sooth
ing cocoanut oil upon the burns, and then she wrapped
about the hand a bandage of shimmering muslin, bound
in a wide strip of silk-like plantain leaf, saying: "This
will keep the oil cool to your wound, Chief; it will
not let it dry out to increase the heat."

There was another band of muslin passed around
the leaf, and as the Gulab turned away, she said:
"Think you, Sookdee, that Bhowanee will be offended
because of mercy. Some day, Jamadar, fire will be
put upon your face, when the head has been lopped
from your body, to hide the features of a deceit that
it may not bear witness against the tribe."

"You have delayed the ordeal," Sookdee answered
surlily, "and because of that Bhowanee will have anger."

The blacksmith, though pumping with both hands
at his pair of bellows, had felt the impress of the two

54 Caste

silver coins in his loin cloth, and, true to the bribe from
Hunsa, had adroitly doctored his fire by dusting sand
here and there so that the shot had lost, instead of
gained heat. Now he cried out: "This kabob of the
cannon is cooked, and my arms are tired whilst you
have talked."

Rising he seized his tongs asking, "Who now will
have it placed upon his palm?"

"Put it here," Sookdee said, as he laid a pipal leaf
of twice the thickness he had given Ajeet upon the
palm of Hunsa.

Then Hunsa, having repeated the appeal to Bhowa-
nee, strode toward the goal, and reaching it, cast the
iron shot to the ground, holding up his hand in triumph.
His was the hand of a gorilla, thick skinned, rough
and hard like that of a workman, and now it showed no
sign of a burning.

"What say you, Ajeet Singh?" Sookdee asked.

"As to the ordeal," the Chief answered, "according
to our faith Bhowanee has spoken. But know you this,
though the scar is in my palm, in my heart is no treach
ery. As to Hunsa, the ordeal has cleared him in your
minds, and perhaps it is true. We will go forth to the
decoity and what is to be will be. We are but servants
of Bhowanee, and if we make vow to sacrifice a buffalo
at her temple perhaps she will keep us in her protec-.

Ajeet knew that he had been tricked somehow, but
to dispute the ordeal, the judgment of the black god
dess, would be like an apostacy it would turn every
Bagree against him it would be a shatterment of their

Caste 55

tenets. So he said nothing but accepted mutely the

But Bootea's sharp eyes had been busy. She had
watched the blacksmith, to whom Ajeet had paid little
attention. In the faces of Hunsa and Sookdee she had
caught flitting expressions of treachery. She knew that
Ajeet had been guiltless of treason to the others, for
she had been close to him. Besides she had, when
roused, an imperious temper. The Bagree women were
allowed greater freedom than other women of Hindus
tan, even greater freedom than the Mahratta females
who, though they appeared in public unveiled, in the
homes were treated as children, almost as slaves. The
Bagree women at times even led gangs of decoits. Her
anger had been roused by Sookdee earlier, and now
rising from where she sat, she strode imperiously for
ward till she faced the jamadars:

"Your Chief is too proud to deny this trick that you,
Sookdee and Hunsa, and that accursed labourer of an
other caste, the blacksmith, that shoer of Mahratta
horses whom Hunsa has bribed, have put upon him in
the name of Bhowanee."

Sookdee stared in affrighted silence, and Hunsa's
bellow of rage was stilled by Ajeet, who whirling upon
him, the jade-handled knife in his grip, commanded:
"Stillyour clamour! The Gulab has but seen the truth.
I, also, know that, but a soldier may not speak as may
one of his women-kind."

There was a sudden hush. A tremor of apprehension
had vibrated from Bagree to Bagree; the jamadars
felt it. A spark, one lunge with a knife, and they

56 Caste

would be at each other's throats; the men of Alwar
against the men of Karowlee; even caste against caste,
for the Bagrees from Alwar were of the Solunkee caste,
while the Karowlee men were of Kolee caste.

And there the slim girl form of Bootea stood out
lined, a delicate bit of statuary, like something of
marble that had come from the hand of Praxiteles,
the white muslin sari in its gentle clinging folds showing
against the now darkening wall of bamboo jungle.
There was something about the Gulab, magnetic, omni
potent, that subdued men, that enslaved them; an
indescribable subtlety of gentle strength, like the
bronze-blue temper in steel. And her eyes no one
can describe the compelling eyes of the world, the
awful eyes that in their fierce magnetism act on a
man like bhang on a Ghazi or, like the eyes of Christ,
smother him in love and goodness. The karait of India
has a dull red eye without pupil, of which it is the
belief that if a man gaze into it for a time he will go
mad. To say that Bootea's eyes were beautiful was to
say nothing, and to describe their compelling force
was impossible.

So as they rested on the sullen eyes of Sookdee he
quivered; and the others stood in silence as Ajeet
took Bootea by the arm saying, "Come, my lotus
flower," led her to the tent.

There the jamadar put his sinewy arms about the
slender girl, and bent his handsome face to implant a
kiss on her red lips, but she thrust his arms from her
and drew back saying, "No, Ajeet!"

"Why, lotus why, Gulab? Often from thy lips I

Caste 57

have heard that there is no love in thy heart for any
man, even for me, but is it not a lie, the curious lie
of a woman who resents a master?"

Ajeet in a mingling of awe and anger had dropped
into the formal "thou" pronoun instead of the familiar

"No, Ajeet, it is the truth; I do not tell lies."

"But out there thou denounced those sons of de
praved parents in defence of Ajeet; thou bound up his
hand as a mother dresses the wounds of a child in her
love even mocked Bhowanee and the ordeal; then
sayest thou there is no love in thy heart for Ajeet."

"There is not; just the tie such as is between us,
that is all. I never learned love I was but a pawn,
a prize. Seest that, Ajeet?" and Bootea laid a finger
upon the iron bracelet on her arm the badge of a

Ajeet Singh sneered: "A metal lie, a "

"Stop!" The girl's voice was almost a scream of
expostulation. "To speak of that means death, thou
fool. And thou hast sworn "

Ajeet's face had blanched. Then a surge of anger
re-flushed it.

"Gulab," he said presently, "take care that the love
thou say'st is dead but which is not, for it never dies
in the heart of a woman, it is but a smouldering fire
take care that it springs not into flame at the words
of some other man, the touch of his hands, or the light
of his eyes, because then, by Bhowanee, I will kill thee."

The Gulab stamped a foot upon the earth floor of
the tent: "Coward! now I hate thee! Only the weak,

58 Caste

the cowards, threaten women. When thou art brave
and strong I do not hate if I do not love. 'Tis thou,
Ajeet, who art to take care."

Outside Guru Lai was casting holy oil upon the
troubled waters of a disputed ordeal. The wily old
priest knew well how omens and ordeals could be
manipulated. Besides, unity among the Bagree leaders,
leading to much loot, would bring him tribute for the

"It may be," he was saying to Sookdee, "that the
blacksmith, who is not of our tribe, nor of our nine
castes, but is of the Sumar caste, has sought to put
shame upon our gods by a trick. At best he was a
surly rascal of little thought. It may be that the iron
shot was made too hot for the hand of the Chief. An
ordeal is a fair test when its observance is equal be
tween men; it is then that the goddess judges and gives
the verdict her way is always just. Have not we
many times read wrongly her omens, and have mis
judged the signs, and have suffered. And Ajeet acted
like one who is not guilty."

"And think you, Guru, that Ajeet will give you
a present of rupees for this talk that is like the bray
ing of an ass?" Hunsa growled.

But Sookdee objected, saying: "Guru Lai is a holy
man of age, and his blood runs without heat, therefore
if he speaks, the words are not a matter for passion, but
to be considered. We will go upon a decoity, which
is our duty, and leave the ordeal and all else in the
hands of Bhowanee."


Perhaps it was the customs official that told Dewan
Sewlal about the Akbar Ka Dlwa, the Lamp of Akbar,
the ruby that was so called because of its gorgeous
blood-red fire, as being in the iron box of the merchant.

This ruby had been an eye in one of the two gorgeous
jewelled peacocks that surmounted the "Peacock
Throne" at Delhi in the time of Akbar to the time when
the Persian conqueror, Nadir Shah, sacked Delhi and
took the Peacock Throne and the Kohinoor, and every
thing else of value back to Persia. But he didn't get
the ruby for the Vizier of the King of Delhi stole it.
Then Alam, the eunuch, stole it from the Vizier. Its
possession was desirable, not only because of its great
value as a jewel, but because it held in its satanic
glitter an unearthly power, either of preservation to
its holder or malignant evil against his enemies.

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