W. A. (William Alexander) Fraser.

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At any rate Sewlal sent for Hunsa the night of the
ordeal and explained to him, somewhat casually, that a
jewel merchant passing through Mahrattaland had in
his collection a ruby of no great value, but a stone that
he would like to become possessed of because a ruby
was his lucky gem. The Dewan intimated that Hunsa
would get a nice private reward for this particular gem,
if by chance he could, quite secretly, procure it for

Next day was a busy one in the Bagree camp.


60 Caste

Having followed the profession of deceits and thugs
for generations it was with them a fine art; unlimited
pains were taken over every detail. As it had been
decided that they would go as a party of mendicants
and bearers of family bones to Mother Ganges, there
were many things to provide to carry out the masquer
ade stage properties, as it were; red bags for the
bones of females, and white bags for those of the males.

In two days one of the spies came with word that
Ragganath, the merchant, had started on his journey,
riding in a covered cart drawn by two of the slim,
silk-skinned trotting bullocks, and was accompanied
by six men, servants and guards; on the second night
he would encamp at Sarorra. So a start was made
the next morning.

Sookdee, Ajeet Singh, and Hunsa, accompanied by
twenty men, and Gulab Begum took the road, the
Gulab travelling in an enclosed cart as befitted the
favourite of a raja, and with her rode the wife of Sook
dee as her maid.

Ajeet rode a Marwari stallion, a black, roach-crested
brute, with bad hocks and an evil eye. The Ajeet sat
his horse a convincing figure, a Rajput Raja.

Beneath a rich purple coat gleamed, like silver tra
cery, his steel shirt-of-mail ; through his sash of red
silk was thrust a straight-bladed sword, and from the
top of his turban of blue-and-gold-thread, peeped a
red cap with dangling tassel of gold.

In the afternoon of the second day the Bagrees came
to the village of Sarorra.

"We will camp here," the leader commanded, "close

Caste 61

to the mango tope through which we have just passed,
then we will summon the headman, and if he is as
such accursed officials are, the holy one, the yogi, will
cast upon him and his people a curse; also I will
threaten him with the loss of his ears."

"The one who is to be destroyed has not yet come,"
Hunsa declared, "for here is what these dogs of vil
lagers call a place of rest though it is but an open

Ajeet turned upon the jamadar: "The one who is to
be destroyed, say you, Hunsa? Who spoke in council
that the merchant was to be killed? We are men of
decoity, we rob these fat pirates who rob the poor,
but we take life only when it is necessary to save our
own." ,

"And when a robbed one who has power, such as
rich merchants have, make complaint and give names,
the powers take from us our profit and cast us into
jail," Hunsa retorted.

"And forget not, Ajeet, that we are here among the
Mahrattas far from our own forests that we can escape
into if there is outcry," Sookdee interjected. "If the
voices are hushed and the bodies buried beneath where
we cook our food, there will be only silence till we
are safe back in Karowlee. The Dewan will not pro
tect us if there is an outcry he will deny that he has
promised protection."

The B agrees were already busy preparing the camp,
the camp of a supposed party of men on a sacred mis

It was like the locating of a circus. The tents they

62 Caste

had brought stood gaudily in the hot sun, some white
and some of cotton cloth dyed in brilliant colours, red,
and blue, and yellow. In front of Ajeet's tent a bam
boo pole was planted, from the top of which floated
a red flag carrying a figure of the monkey god, Hanu-
man, embroidered in green and yellow.

The red and white bags carrying bones, which were
supposed to be the bones of defunct relatives, were sus
pended from tripods of bamboo to preserve them from
the pollution of the soil.

And presently three big drums, Nakaras, were ar
ranged in front of the yogi's tent, and were being
beaten by strong-armed drummers, while a conch shell
blared forth a discordant note that was supposed to be
pleasing to the gods.

Some of the Bagrees issued from their tents having
suddenly become canonised, metamorphosed from
highwaymen to devout yogis, their bodies, looking curi
ously lean and ascetic, now clothed largely in ashes and

"Go you, Hunsa," Ajeet commanded, "into this de
praved village and summon the patil to come forth and
pay to the sainted yogi the usual gift of one rupee four
annas, and make his salaams. Also he is to provide
fowl and fruits for us who are on this sacred mission.
He may be a son of swine, such as the lord of a village
is, so speak, Jamadar, of the swords the Raja's guards
carry. Say nothing as to the expected one, but let
your eyes do all the questioning."

Hunsa departed on his mission, and even then the
villagers could be seen assembled between the Bagrees

Caste 63

and the mud huts, watching curiously the encamp

"Sookdee," Ajeet said, "if we can rouse the anger
of the patti"

The jamadar laughed. "If you insist upon the pay
ment of silver you will accomplish that, Ajeet."

Ajeet touched his slim fingers to Sookdee's arm:
"Do not forget, Jamadar call me Raja. But as to
the village; if we anger them they will not entertain
the merchant; they will not let him rest in the village.
And also if they are of an evil temper we will warn
the merchant that they are thieves who will cut his
throat and rob him. We will give him the protection
of our numbers."

"If the merchant is fat and when they attain wealth
they always become fat he will be happy with us,
Raja, thinking perhaps that he will escape a gift of
money the pattt would exact."

"Yes," Ajeet Singh answered, "we will ask him for
nothing when he departs."

After a time Hunsa was seen approaching, and with
him the grey-whiskered patil,

The latter was a commoner. He suggested a black-
faced, grey-whiskered monkey of the jungles. Indeed
the pair were an anthropoid couple, Hunsa the gorilla,
and the headman an ape. Behind them straggled a
dozen villagers, men armed with long ironwood sticks
of combat.

The headman salaamed the yogi and Ajeet, saying,
"This is but a poor place for holy men and the Raja
to rest, for the water is bad and famine is upon us."

64 Caste

"A liar, and the son of a wild ass," declared Ajeet
promptly. "Give to this saint the gift of silver, lest
he put the anger of Kali upon you, and call upon her
of the fiery furnace in the sacred hills to destroy your
houses. Also send fowl and grain, and think your
self favoured of Kali that you make offering to such a
holy one, and to a Raja who is in favour with Sindhia."

But the villager had no intention of parting with
worldly goods if he could get out of it. He expostu
lated, enlarged upon his poverty, rubbed dust upon
his forehead, and called upon the gods to destroy him if
he had a breakfast in the whole village for himself and
people, declaring solemnly: "By my Junwa!" though
he wore no sacred thread, "there is no food for man
or horse in the village." Then he waxed angry, asking
indignantly, who were these stragglers upon the road
that they should come to him, an official of the Peshwa,
to demand tribute; he would have them destroyed. Be
yond, not two kos away, were a thousand soldiers,
which was a gorgeous lie, who if he but sent a mes
senger would come and behead the lot, would cast the
sacred bones in the gaudy bags upon the dunghill of
the village bullocks.

"To-morrow, monkey-man, the gift will be doubled,"
Ajeet answered calmly, "for that is the law, and you
know it."

But the patil, thinking there would be little fight in
a party of pilgrims and mendicants, called to his stick-
men to bring help and they would beat these insolent
ones and drive them on their way.

"Take the yogi, Hunsa," Ajeet said, "and the men

Caste 65

that have the fire-powder and throw it upon the
thatched roof of a hut in the way of a visitation from
the gods, because this ape will not leave us in peace
for our mission until he is subdued."

In obedience as Hunsa and the yogi moved toward
the village, the patil cried, "Where go you?"

"We go with a message from the gods to you who
offer insult to a holy one."

The villagers armed with sticks, retreated slowly be
fore the yogi, dreading to offer harm to the sainted one.
Muttering his curses, his iron tongs clanking at every
step, the yogi strode to the first mud-wall huts, and
there raising his voice cried aloud: "Maha Kali! con
sume the houses of these men of an evil heart who
would deny the offering to Thee."

Then at a wave of his skeleton arm the two men
threw upon the thatched roof of a hut a grey prepara
tion of gunpowder which was but a pyrotechnical trick,
and immediately the thatch burst into flames.

"There, accursed ones unbelievers! Kali has
spoken!" the yogi declared solemnly, and turning on
his heels went back to the camp.

The headman and his men, with howls of dismay,
rushed back to stop the conflagration. And just then
the jewel merchant arrived in his cart. The curtains
of the canopy were thrown back and the fat Hindu
sat blinking his owl eyes in consternation. At sight
of Ajeet he descended, salaamed, and asked:

"Has there been a decoity in the village is it war
and bloodshed?"

Ajeet assumed the haughty condescending manner

66 Caste

of a Rajput prince, and explained, with a fair scope
of imagination that the patil was a man of ungovern
able temper who gave protection to thieves and outlaws,
that the village itself was a nest for them. That two
of his servants, having gone into the village to pur
chase food, had been set upon, beaten and robbed;
that the conflagration had been caused by the fire from
a gun that one of the debased villagers had poked
through a hole in the roof to shoot his servants.

"As my name is Ragganath, it is a visitation upon
these scoundrels," the merchant declared.

"It is indeed, Sethjee."

Ajeet had diplomatically used the "Sethjee," which
was a friendly rendering of the name "Seth," meaning
"a merchant," and the wily Hindu, not to be outdone
in courtesy, promoted Ajeet.

"Such an outrage, Maharaja, on the part of these
low-caste people in the presence of the sainted one,
and the pilgrims upon such a sacred mission to Mother
Gunga, has brought upon them the wrath of the gods.
May the village be destroyed; and the patil when he
dies come back to earth a snake, to crawl upon his

"The headman even refused to give the holy one the
gift of silver tendering instead threats," Ajeet added.

The merchant spat his contempt: "Wretches!" he
declared; "debased associates of skinners of dead ani
mals, and scrapers of skulls; Bah!" and he spat again.
"And to think but for the Presence having arrived
here first I most assuredly would have gone into the
village, and perhaps have been slain for my "

Caste 67

He stopped and rolled his eyes apprehensively. He
had been on the point of mentioning his jewels, but,
though he was amongst saints and kings, he suddenly
remembered the danger.

"We would not have camped here," Ajeet declared,
"had we not been a strong party, because this village
has an evil reputation. You have been favoured by
the gods in finding honest men in the way of protec
tion, and, no doubt, it is because you are one who
makes offerings to the deity."

"And if the Maharaja will suffer the presence of a
poor merchant, who is but a shopkeeper, I will rest
here in his protection."

Ajeet Singh graciously consented to this, and the
merchant commanded his men to erect his small tent
beneath the limbs of the deep green mango trees.

The deceits watched closely the transport of the
merchant's effects from the cart to the tent. When a
strong iron box, that was an evident weight for its two
carriers, was borne first their eyes glistened. Therein
was the wealth of jewels the flying horsemen of the
night had whispered to the yogi about.


When the merchant's tent had been erected, and
he had gone to its shelter, the jamadars, sitting well
beyond the reach of his ears, held a council of war.
Ajeet was opposed to the killing of Ragganath and his
men, but Hunsa pointed out that it was the only way:
they were either deceits or they were men of toil, men
of peace. Dead men were not given to carrying tales,
and if no stir were made about the decoity until they
were safely back in Karowlee they could enjoy the
fruits of their spoils, which would be, undoubtedly,
great. By the use of the strangling cloth there would
be no outcry, no din of battle; they of the village
would think that the camp was one of sleep. Then
when the bodies had been buried in a pit, the earth
tramped down flat and solid, and cooking fires built
over it to obliterate all traces of a grave, they would
strike camp and go back the way they had come.

Ajeet was forced to admit that it was the one
thorough way, but he persisted that they were deceits
and not thugs.

At this Sookdee laughed: "J ama dar," he said, "what
matters to a dead man the manner of his killing?
Indeed it is a merciful way. Such as Bhowanee her
self decreed in a second it is over. But with the
spear, or the sword ah! I have seen men writhe in
agony and die ten times before it was an end."

"But a caste is a caste," Ajeet objected, "and the

Caste 69

manner of the caste. We are deceits, and we only
slay when there is no other way."

Hunsa tipped his gorilla body forward from where it
rested on his heels as he sat, and his lowering eyes
were sullen with impatience:

"Chief Ajeet," he snarled, "think you that we can
rob the seth of his treasure without an outcry and if
there is an outcry, that he will not go back to those
of his caste in Poona, and when trouble is made, think
you that the Dewan will thank us for the bungling
of this? And as to the matter of a thug or a deceit,
half our men have been taught the art of the strangler.
With these," and extending his massive arms he
closed his coarse hands in a gnarled grip, "with these
I would, with one sharp in-turn on the roomal, crack
the neck of the merchant and he would be dead in the
taking of a breath. And, Ajeet, if this that is the
manner of men causes you fear "

"Hunsa," and Ajeet's voice was constrained in its
deadliness, "that ass's voice of yours will yet bring
you to grief."

But Sookdee interposed:

"Let us not quarrel," he said. "Ajeet no doubt
has in his mind Bootea as I have Meena. And it
would be well if the two were sent on the road in the
cart, and when our work is completed we will follow.
Indeed they may know nothing but that there is some
jewel, such as women love, to be given them."

"Look you," cried Hunsa thrusting his coarse hand
out toward the road, "even Bhowanee is in favour.
See you not the jackal?"

70 Caste

Turning their eyes in the direction Hunsa indicated,
a jackal was seen slinking across the road from right
to left.

"Indeed it is an omen," Sookdee corroborated; "if
on our journeys to commit a decoity that is always a
good omen."

"And there is the voice!" Hunsa exclaimed, as the
tremulous lowing of a cow issued from the village.

He waved a beckoning hand to Guru Lai, for they
had brought with them their tribal priest as an inter
preter of omens chiefly. "Is not the voice of the cow
heard at sunset a good omen, Guru?" he demanded.

"Indeed it is," the priest affirmed. "If the voice
of a cow is heard issuing at twilight from a village at
which deceits are to profit, it is surely a promise from
Bhowanee that a large store of silver will be obtained."

"Take thee to thy prayers, Guru," Ajeet commanded,
"for we have matters to settle." He turned to Sook
dee. "Your omens will avail little if there is prosecu
tion over the disappearance of the merchant. I am
supposed to be in command, the leader, but I am the
led. But I will not withdraw, and it is not the place
of the chief to handle the roomal. We will eat our
food, and after the evening prayers will sit about the
fire and amuse this merchant with stories such as
honest men and holy ones converse in, that he may be
at peace in his mind. As Sookdee says, the women
will be sent to the grove of trees we came through on
the road."

"We will gather about the fire of the merchant,"
Sookdee declared, "for it is in the mango grove and

Caste 71

hidden from sight of the villagers. Also a guard will
be placed between here and the village, and one upon
the roadway."

"And while we hold the merchant in amusement,"
Hunsa added, "men will dig the pits here, two of them,
each within a tent so that they will not be seen at

"Yes, Ajeet," Sookdee said with a suspicion of a
sneer, "we will give the merchant the consideration of
a decent burial, and not leave him to be eaten by
jackals and hyenas as were the two soldiers you
finished with your sword when we robbed the camel
transport that carried the British gold in Oudh."

"If it is to be, cease to chatter like jays," Ajeet
answered crossly.

In keeping with their assumed characters, the eve
ning meal was ushered in with a peace-shattering
clamour from the drums and a raucous blare from
conch-shell horns. Then the devout murderers offered
up prayers of fervency to the great god, beseeching
their more immediate branch of the deity, Bhowanee,
to protect them.

And at the same time, just within the mud walls of
Sarorra, its people were placing flowers and cocoanuts
and sweetmeats upon the shrine of the god of their

Just without the village gate the elephant-nosed
Ganesh sat looking in whimsical good nature across
his huge paunch toward the place of crime, the deep
shadow that lay beneath the green-leafed mango trees.

In the hearts of the Bagrees there was unholy joy,

72 Caste

an eager anticipation, a gladsome feeling toward
Bhowanee who had certainly guided this rapacious
merchant with his iron box full of jewels to their camp.
Indeed they would sacrifice a buffalo at her temple of
Kajuria, for that was the habit of their clan when the
booty was great. The taking of life was but an inci
dent. In Hindustan humans came up like flies, re
turning over and over to again encumber the crowded
earth. In the vicissitudes of life before long the
merchant would pass for a reincorporation of his soul,
and probably, because of his sins as an oppressor of
the poor, come back as a turtle or a jackass; certainly
not as a revered cow he was too unholy. In the
gradation of humans he was but a merchant of the
caste of the third dimension in the great quartette of
castes. It would not be like killing a Brahmin, a sin
in the sight of the great god.

This philosophy was as subtle as the perfume of a
rose, unspoken, even at the moment a floaty thought.
Like their small hands and their erect air of free-men,
the Rajput atmosphere, it had grown into their created
being, like the hunting instinct of a Rampore hound.

The merchant, smoking his hookah, having eaten,
observed with keen satisfaction the evening devotions
of the supposed mendicants. As it grew dark their
guru was offering up a prayer to the Holy Cow, for
she was to be worshipped at night. The merchant's ap
preciation was largely a worldly one, a business sense
of insurance safety for his jewels and nothing to pay
for security men so devout would have the gods in
their mind and not robbery. When the jamadars,

Caste 73

and some of the Bagrees who were good story tellers,
and one a singer, did him the honour of coming to sit
at his camp-fire he was pleased.

"Sit you here at my right," he said to Hunsa, for
he conceived him to be captain of the Raja's guard.

Sookdee and the others, without apparent motive,
contrived it so that a Bagree or two sat between each
of the merchant's men, engaging them in pleasant
speech, tendering tobacco. And, as if in modesty,
some of the Bagrees sat behind the retainers.

"This is indeed a courtesy," the merchant assured
Hunsa; "a poor trader feels honoured by a visit from
so brave a soldier as the captain of the Raja's guard."

He noticed, too, with inward satisfaction, that the
jamadars had left their weapons behind, which they
had done in a way of not arousing their victim's fears.

"Would not it be deemed a courtesy," the merchant
asked, "if one like myself, who is a poor trader, should
go to pay his respects to the Raja ere he retires, for
of course it would be beneath his dignity to come to his

"No, indeed," declared Hunsa quickly, thinking of
the graves that were even then being dug; "he is a
man of a haughty temper, and when he is in the society
of the beautiful dancing girl who is with him, he cares
not to be disturbed. Even now he is about to escort
her in the cart down the road to where there is a shrine
that women of that caste make offering to."

It had been arranged that Ajeet would escort Bootea,
with two Bagrees as attendants, to the grove of trees
half a mile down the road. He had insisted on this

74 Caste

in the way of a negative support to the murder. As
there would be no fighting this did not reflect on his
courage as a leader. And as to complicity, Hunsa
knew that as the leader of the party, Ajeet would be
held the chief culprit. It was always the leader of a
gang of decoits who was beheaded when captured, the
others perhaps escaping with years of jail. And Hunsa
himself, even Sookdee, would be safe, for they were in
league with the Dewan.

There was an hour of social talk; many times Hunsa
fingered the roomal that was about his waist; the
yellow-and-white strangling cloth with which Bhow-
anee had commanded her disciples, the thugs, to kill
their victims. In one corner of it was tied a silver
rupee for luck. The natural ferocity of his mind
threw him into an eager anticipation: he took pride in
his proficiency as a strangler; his coarse heavy hands,
like those of a Punjabi wrestler, were suited to the
task. Grasping the cloth at the base of a victim's
skull, tight to the throat, a side-twist inward and the
trick was done, the spine snapped like a pipe-stem.
And he had been somewhat out of practice he had
regretted that; he was fearful of losing the art, the

About the fat paunch of the merchant was a silver-
studded belt. Hunsa eyed this speculatively. Beyond
doubt in its neighbourhood would be the key to the
iron box; and when its owner lay on his back, his
bulbous eyes glaring upward to where the moon
trickled through the thick foliage of the mango tree
beneath which they sat, he would seize the keys and

Caste 75

be first to dabble his grimy fingers in the glittering

Beyond, the village had hushed the strident call of
voices had ceased. Somewhere a woman was pound
ing grain in a wooden mortar a dull monotonous
"thud, thud, swish, thud" carrying on the dead air.
Night-jars were circling above the trees, their plaintive
call, "chy-eece, chy-e-ece!" filtering downward like
the weird cry of spirits. Once the deep sonorous
bugling note of a saurus, like the bass pipe of an
organ, smote the stillness as the giant crane winged
his way up the river that lay beyond, a mighty ribbon
of silver in the moonlight. A jackal from the far side
of the village, in the fields, raised a tremulous moan.

Sookdee looked into the eyes of Hunsa and he under
stood. It was the tibao, the happiest augury of
success, for it came over the right shoulder of the

Hunsa, feeling that the moment to strike had come,
rose carelessly, saying: "Give me tobacco."

That was a universal signal amongst thugs, the
command to strike.

Even as he uttered the words Hunsa had slipped
behind the merchant and his towel was about the
victim's neck. Each man who had been assigned as
a strangler, had pounced upon his individual victim;
while Sookdee stood erect, a knife in his hand, ready
to plunge it into the heart of any one who was likely
to overcome his assailant.

Hunsa had thrown the helpless merchant upon his
face, and with one knee between his shoulder-blades

76 Caste

had broken the neck; no sound beyond a gurgling
breath of strangulation had passed the Hindu's lips.
There had been no clamour, no outcry; nothing but a
few smothered words, gasps, the scuffle of feet upon
the earth; it was like a horrible nightmare, a fantastic
orgy of murderous fiends. The flame of the camp-
fire flickered sneers, drawn torture, red and green
shadows in the staring faces of the men who lay upon
the ground, and the figures of the stranglers glowed
red in its light, like devils who danced in hell.

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