W. A. (William Alexander) Fraser.

Caste online

. (page 5 of 16)
Online LibraryW. A. (William Alexander) FraserCaste → online text (page 5 of 16)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Hunsa had turned the merchant upon his back and
his evil gorilla face was thrust into the face of his
victim. No breath passed the thick protruding lips
upon which was a froth of death.

As the jamadar tore the keys from the waist-band,
snapping a silver chain that was about the body, he
said: "Sookdee, be quick. Have the bodies carried
to the pits. Do not forget to drive a spear through
each belly lest they swell up and burst open the

"You have the keys to the chest, Hunsa?" Sookdee
said, with suspicion in his voice.

"Yes, Jamadar; I will open it. We will empty it,
and place the iron box on top of the bodies in a pit,
for it is too heavy to carry, and if we are stopped it
might be observed."

"Take the dead," Sookdee commanded the Bagrees;
"lay them out; take down the tents that are over the
pits, and by that time I will be there to count these
dead things in the way of surety that not one has
escaped with the tale.

Caste 77

"Come," he said to Hunsa, "together we will go to
the iron box and open it; then there can be no sus
picion that the men of Alwar have been defrauded."

Hunsa turned malignant eyes upon Sookdee, but,
keys in hand, strode toward the tent.

Sookdee, thrusting in the fire a torch made from the
feathery bark of the kujoor tree, followed.

Hunsa kneeling before the iron box was fitting the
keys into the double locks. Then he drew the lids
backward, and the two gasped at a glitter of precious
stones that lay beneath a black velvet cloth Hunsa
stripped from the gems.

Sookdee cried out in wonderment; and Hunsa,
slobbering gutturals of avarice, patted the gems with
his gorilla paws. He lifted a large square emerald
entwined in a tracery of gold, delicate as the criss
cross of a spider's web, and held it to his thick

"A bribe for a princess!" he gloated. "Take you
this, Sookdee, and hide it as you would your life, for
a gift to the son of the Peshwa, who, methinks, is
behind the Dewan in this, we will be men of honour.
And this" a gleaming diamond in a circlet of gold
"for Sirdar Baptiste," and he rolled it in his loin cloth.
"And this," a string of pearls, that as he laid it on
the black velvet was like the tears of angels, "This
for the fat pig of a Dewan to set his four wives at
each other's throats. Let not the others know of these,
Sookdee, of these that we have taken for the account."

Suddenly there was a clamour of voices, cries, the
clang of swords, the sharp crash of a shot, and the

78 Caste

two jamadars, startled, eyes staring, stood with ears
cocked toward the tumult.

"Soldiers!" Sookdee gasped. His hand brushed
Hunsa's bare arm as he thrust it into the chest and
brought it forth clasping jewels, which he tied in a
knot of his waistcloth. "Take you something, Hunsa,
and lock the box till we see," he said darting from the

Hunsa filled a pocket of his brocaded jacket, but he
was looking for the Akbar Lamp, the ruby. He lifted
out a tray and ran his grimy hands through the maze
of gold and silver wrought ornaments below. His
fingers touched, at the very bottom, a bag of leather.
He tore it open, and a blaze of blood-red light glinted
at him evilly where a ruby caught the flame of the
torch that Sookdee had thrown to the earth floor as
he fled.

With a snarl of gloating he rolled the ruby in a fold
of his turban, locked the box, and darted after

He all but fell over the seven dead bodies of the
merchant and his men as he raced to where a group
was standing beyond. And there three more bodies
lay upon the ground, and beside them, held, were two

"It is Ajeet Singh," Sookdee said pointing to where
the Chief lay with his head in the lap of a decoit.
"These two native soldiers of the English came riding
in with swiftness, for behind them raced Ajeet who
must have seen them pass."

"And here," another added, "as the riders checked

Caste 79

at sight of the dead, Ajeet pulled one from his horse
and killed him, but the other, with a pistol, shot Ajeet
and he is dead."

"The Chief is not dead," said the one who held his
head in his lap; "he is but shot in the shoulder, and I
have stopped the blood with my hand."

"And we have killed the other soldier," another
said, "for, having seen the bodies, we could not let
him live."

From Sookdee's hand dangled a coat of one of the

"This that is a leather purse," he said, "contains
letters; the red thing on them I have looked upon
before it is the seal of the Englay. It was here in
the coat of that one who is a sergeant the other
being a soldier."

He put the leather case within the bosom of his
shirt, adding: "This may even be of value to the
Dewan. Beyond that, there was little of loot upon
these dogs of the Englay eight rupees. The coats
and the turbans we will burn."

Hunsa stooped down and slipped the sandals from
the feet of the one Sookdee had pointed out as the

"The footwear is of little value, but we will take
the brass cooking pots of the merchant," Sookdee
said, eyeing this performance; there was suspicion in
his eyes lighted from the flare of their camp fires.

"Sookdee," Hunsa said, "you have the Englay
leather packet, but they do not send sowars through
the land of the Mahratta with the real message written

80 Caste

on the back of the messenger. In quiet I will rip
apart the soles of this footwear. Do you that with
the saddles; therein is often hidden the true writing.
In the slaying of these two we have acquired a power
ful enemy, the English, and the message, if there be
one, might be traded for our lives. Here are the keys
to the box, for it is heavy."

Into Hunsa's mind had flashed the thought that the
gods had opened the way, for he had plotted to do this
thing the destruction of Ajeet.

"Have all the bodies thrown into the pit, Sookdee,"
he advised; "make perfect the covering of the fire and
ash, and while you prepare for flight I will go and
bring Bootea's cart to carry Ajeet."

Then Hunsa was swallowed up in the gloom of the
night, melting like a shadow into the white haze of
the road as he raced like a grey wolf toward the
Gulab, who now had certainly been delivered into his

Soon his heart pumped and the choke of exertion
slowed him to a fast walk. The sandals, bulky with
their turned-up toes, worried him. He drew a knife
from his sash and slit the tops off, muttering: "If it
is here, the message of value, it will be between the
two skins of the soles."

Now they lay flat and snug in his hand as he
quickened his pace.


The Gulab heard the shot at the Bagree camp, and
Hunsa found her trembling from apprehension.

"What has happened, Jamadar?" she cried. "Ajeet
heard the beat of iron-shod hoofs upon the road, and
seeing in the moonlight the two riders knew from the
manner they sat the saddles that they were of the
Englay service; when he called to them they heeded
him not. Then Ajeet followed the two. Why was
the shot, Hunsa?"

"They have killed Ajeet," Hunsa declared; "but
also they are dead, and I have the leader's leather
sandals for a purpose. The shot has roused the vil
lage, and even now our people are preparing for flight.
Get you into the cart that I may take you to safety."
He took the ruby from his turban, saying: "And
here is the most beautiful ruby in Hind; the fat pig
of a Dewan wants it, but I have taken it for you."

But Boo tea pushed his hand away: "I take no
present from you, Hunsa."

Hunsa put the jewel back in his turban and com
manded the two men, who stood waiting, "Make fast
the bullocks to the cart quickly lest we be captured,
because other soldiers are coming behind."

The two Bagrees turned to where the slim pink-and-
grey coated trotting bullocks were tethered by their
short horns to a tree and leading them to the cart
made fast the bamboo yoke across their necks.


82 Caste

"Get into the cart, Bootea," Hunsa commanded,
for the girl had not moved.

"I will not! " she declared. I'm going back to Ajeet;
he is not dead it is a trick."

"He is dead," Hunsa snarled, seizing her by the

The Gulab screamed words of denunciation. "Take
your hands off me, son of a pig, accursed man of low
caste! Ajeet will kill you for this, dog!"

At this the wife of Sookdee fled, racing back toward
the camp. One of the men darted forward to follow,
but Hunsa stayed him, saying, "Let her go it is
better; I war not upon Sookdee."

He had the Gulab now in the grasp of both his huge
paws, and holding her tight, said rapidly: "Be still
you she-devil, accursed fool! You are going to a
palace to be a queen. The son of the Peshwa desires
you. True, I, also, have desire, but fear not for, by
Bhowanee! it is a life of glory, of jewels and rich
attire that I take you to; so get into the cart."

But Bootea wrenched free an arm and struck Hunsa
full upon his ugly face, screaming her rebellion.

"To be struck by a woman!" Hunsa blared; "not
a woman, but the spawn of a she-leopard! why should
not I beat your beautiful face into ugliness with one
of these sandals of a dead pig!"

He lifted her bodily, calling to the man upon the
ground, the other having mounted behind the bullocks.
"Put back the leather wall of the cart that I may
hurl this outcast widow of a dead Hindu within."

Caste 83

Bootea clawed at his face; she kicked and fought;
her voice screaming a call to Ajeet.

There was a heavy rolling thump of hoofs upon the
roadway, unheard of Hunsa because of the vociferous
struggle. Then from the shimmer of moonlight
thrust the white form of a big Turcoman horse that
was thrown almost to his haunches, his breast striking
the back of the decoit.

The bullocks, nervous little brutes, startled by the
huge white animal, swerved, and before the man who
sat a-straddle of the one shaft gathered tight the
cord to their nostrils, whisked the cart to the road
side where it toppled over the bank for a fall of fifteen
feet into a ravine, carrying bullocks and driver with it.

The moonlight fell full upon the face of the horse
man, its light making still whiter the face of Captain

And Bootea recognised him. It was the face that
had been in her vision night and day since the nautch.

"Save me, Sahib!" she cried; "these men are
thieves; save me, Sahib!"

The hunting crop in Barlow's hand crashed upon
the thick head of Hunsa in ready answer to the appeal.
And as the sahib threw himself from the saddle the
jamadar, with a snarl like a wounded tiger, dropped
the girl and, whirling, grappled with the Englishman.

Barlow was strong; few men in the force, certainly
none in the officers' mess, could put him on his back;
and he was lithe, supple as a leopard; and in combat
cool, his mind working like the mind of a chess

84 Caste

player: but he realised that the arms about him were
the arms of a gorilla, the chest against which he was
being crushed was the chest of a trained wrestler; a
smaller man would have heard his bones cracking in
that clutch.

He raised a knee and drove it into the groin of the
jamadar; then in the slight slackening off the holding
arms as the Bagree shrank from the blow, he struck
at the bearded chin; it was the clean, trained short-
arm jab of a boxer.

But even as the gorilla wavered staggeringly under
the blow, a soft something slipped about Barlow's
throat and tightened like the coils of a python. And
behind something was pressing him to his death. The
other Bagree springing to the assistance of Hunsa had
looped his roomal about the Sahib's throat with the
art of a thug.

Barlow's senses were going; his brain swam; in his
fancy he had been shot from a cliff and was hurtling
through space in which there was no air his lungs
had closed; in his brain a hammer was beating him
into unconsciousness.

Then suddenly the pressure on his throat ceased, it
fell away; the air rushed to the parched lungs. With
a wrench his brain cleared, and he went down; but
now with power in his arms, the arms that still clung
about the dazed Hunsa, and he was on top.

Scarce aware of the action, out of a fighting instinct,
he dragged from its holster his heavy pistol, and beat
with its butt the ugly head beneath, beat it till it was
still. Then he staggered to his feet and looked wonder-

Caste 85

ingly at the form of the Bagree behind who lay
sprawled on the road, a great red splash across the
white jacket on his breast.

In the Gulab's hand was still clutched the dagger she
had drawn from her girdle and driven home to save
the sahib who had sat like a god in her heart. With
the other hand she held out from contact with her
limbs the muslin sari that was crimsoned where the
blood of the Bagree had fountained when she drew
forth her knife.

Barlow darted forward as Bootea reeled and caught
her with an arm. Close, the face, fair as that of a
memsahib in the pallor of fright and the paling moon
light, sweet, of finer mould, more spiritual than the
Mona Lisa's, puritanically simple, the mass of black
hair drawn straight back from the low broad brow
for the rich turban had fallen in her fight for freedom
woke memory in the sahib; and as the blood ebbed
back through the girl's veins, the pale cheeks flushed
with rose, her eyelids quivered and drew back their
shutters from eyes that were like those of an antelope.

"You you, Gulab, the giver of the red rose, the
singer of the love song!" Barlow gasped.

"Yes, Captain Sahib, you who are like a god "
Bootea checked, her head drooped.

But Barlow putting his fingers under her chin and
gently lifting the face asked, "And what what?"

"You came like one in a dream. Also, Sahib, I
am but one who danced before you and you have
saved me."

"And, little girl, you saved my life."

86 Caste

He felt a shudder run through the girl's form, and
then she pushed him from her crying, "Sahib Hunsa!

For the jamadar, recovering his senses, had risen to
his knees fumbling at his belt groggily for his knife.

Barlow swung the pistol from its holster and rushed
toward Hunsa, but the latter, at sight of the dreaded
weapon, fled, pursued for a few paces by the Captain.

The girl saw the sandal soles lying upon the ground
where Hunsa had dropped them in the struggle, and
slipped them beneath her breast-belt, a quick thought
coming to her that if the Captain saw them he might
recognise them as the footwear of the soldiers. Also
Hunsa had said they were for a purpose.

Barlow followed the fleeing shadow for a dozen
strides, then his pistol barked, and swinging on his heel
he came back, saying, with a little laugh, "That was
just to frighten the beggar so he wouldn't come back."

But Bootea's eyes went wide now with a new fear;
the sound of the shot would travel faster even than
the fleeing Hunsa; and if the deceits came for already
they would be making ready for the road this beauti
ful god, with eyes like stars and a voice of music,
would be killed, would be no more than the Bagree
lying on the road who was but carrion. In her heart
was a new thing. The struggle with Hunsa, the fright,
even the horribleness of the blood upon her knife,
was washed away by a hot surging flood of exquisite
happiness. The Hindu name for love "a pain in
the heart" was veritably hers in its intensity; the
sahib's arm about her when she had closed her eyes

Caste 87

had caused her to feel as if she were being lifted to

She laid a hand on Barlow's arm and her eyes were
lifted pleadingly to his: "You must go, Sahib mount
your horse and go, because "

"Because of what?"

"There are many, and you will be killed. Hunsa
will bring others."

"Others who are they?"

But the Gulab had turned from him and was listen
ing, her eyes turned to the road up which floated from
beyond upon the hushed silence that was about them,
that seemed deeper because of the dead man lying
in the moonlight, the beat of Hunsa's feet on the
road. Once there was the whining note of wheels that
claimed a protest from a dry axle; once there was a
clang as if steel had struck steel; and on the droning
through the night-hush was a rasping hum as if voices
clamoured in the distance. This was the bee-hive stir
ring of the startled village.

"What is it, Bootea?" Barlow asked.

The eyes raised to his face were full of fright,
a pleading fright. "Sahib," she answered, "do not
ask just go, because "

"Yes, girl, why?"

"That this is dead (and her hand gestured toward
the slain Bagree) and that others are dead, is; but
you, will you mount the horse and go back the way
you came, Sahib?"

Her small fingers clutched the sleeve of the coat he
wore it was of hunting cloth, red-and-green: "Others

88 Caste

are dead yonder, and evil is in the hearts of those that
live. Go, Sahib please go."

Barlow's mind was racing fast, in more materialistic
grooves than the Gulab's. There was something about
it he didn't understand; something the girl did not
want to tell him; some horrible thing that she was
afraid of her face was full of suppressed dread.

Suddenly, through no sequence of reasoning, in fact
there was no data to go upon, nothing except that a
girl the Gulab was just that stood there afraid
through him she had just escaped from a man who was
little more than an ape stood quivering in the moon
light alone, except for himself. So, suddenly, he acted
as if energised by logic, as if mental deduction made
plain the way.

"You are right," he said: "we must go."

He laid a hand upon the bridle-rein of the grey, that
had stood there with the submission of a cavalry horse,
saying, "Come, Bootea."

Foot in stirrup he swung to the saddle; and as the
grey turned, he reached down both hands saying:
"Come, I'll take you wherever you want to go."

But the girl drew back and shook her beautifully-
modelled head, the delicate head with the black hair
smoothed back to simplicity, and her voice was half
sob: "It can't be, Sahib, I am but She checked;
to speak of the deceits even, might lead to talk that
would cause the Sahib to go to their camp, and he
would be killed: and she would be a witness to testify
against her own people, the slayers of the sepoys.

Barlow laughed, "Because you are a girl who dances

Caste 89

you are not to be saved, eh?" he said. "But listen,
the Sahibs do not leave women at the mercy of vil
lains; you must come," and his strong sun-browned
hands were held out.

Bootea, wonderingly, as if some god had called to
her, put her hands in Barlow's, and with a twist of his
strong arms she was swung across his knees.

"Put your arms about my waist, Gulab," he said, as
the grey, to the tickle of a spur, turned to the road.
"Don't lean away from me," he said, presently, "be
cause we have a long way to go and that tires. That's
better, girl," as her warm breast pressed against his

The big grey, with a deep breath, and a sniffle of sat
isfaction, scenting that his head was turned homeward,
paced along the ghost-strip of roadway in long free
strides. Even when a jackal, or it might have been a
honey-badger, slipped across the road in front, a drift
ing shadow, the Turcoman only rattled the snaffle-bit
in his teeth, cocked his ears, and then blew a breath of
disdain from his big nostrils.

In the easy swinging cradle of the horse's smooth
stride the minds of both Barlow and the Gulab relaxed
into restfulness; her arms about the strong body,
Bootea felt as if she clung to a tower of strength
that she was part of a magnetic power; and the night
mare that had been, so short a time since, had floated
into a dream of content, of glorious peace.

Barlow was troubling over the problem of the gor
illa-faced man, and thinking how close he had been to
death all but gone out except for that figure in his

90 Caste

arms that was so like a lotus; and the death would
have meant not just the forfeit of his life, but that
his duty, the mission he was upon for his own people,
the British government, had been jeopardised by his
participation in some native affair of strife, something
he had nothing to do with. He had ridden along that
road hoping to overtake the two riders that now lay
dead in the pit with the other victims of the thugs
of which he knew nothing. They were bearing to him
a secret message from his government, and he had
ridden to Manabad to there take it from them lest in
approaching the city of the Peshwa, full of seditious
spies and cutthroats, the paper might be stolen. But
at Manabad he had learned that the two had passed,
had ridden on; and then, perhaps because of converg
ing different roads, he had missed them.

But most extraordinarily, just one of the curious,
tangented ways of Fate, the written order lay against
his chest sewn between the double sole of a sandal.
Once or twice the hard leather caused him to turn
slightly the girl's body, and he thought it some case
in which she carried jewels.


They had gone perhaps an eighth of a mile when the
road they followed joined another, joined in an arrow
head. The grey turned to the left, to the west, the
homing instinct telling him that that way lay his stall
in the city of the Peshwa.

"This was the way of my journey, Bootea," Barlow
said; "I rode from yonder," and he nodded back
toward the highway into which the two roads wedged.
"It was here that I heard your call, the call of a
woman in dread. Also it might have been a business
that interested me if it were a matter of waylaying
travellers. Did you see two riders of large horses,
such as Arabs or of the breed I ride, men who rode as
do sowars?"

"No, Sahib, I did not see them."

This was not a lie for it was Ajeet who had seen
them, and because of the Sahib's interest she knew
the two men must have been of his command; and if
she spoke of them undoubtedly he would go back and
be killed.

"Were they servants of yours, Sahib these men
who rode?"

Barlow gave off but a little sliver of truth: "No,"
he answered; "but at Manabad men spoke of them
passing this way, journeying to Poona, and if they
were strangers to this district, it might be that they


92 Caste

had taken the wrong road at the fork. But if you
did not see them they will be ahead."

"And meaning, Sahib, it would not be right if they
saw you bearing on your horse one who is not a mem-

"As to that, Gulab, what might be thought by men
of low rank is of no consequence."

"But if the Sahib wishes to overtake them my burden
upon the horse will be an evil, and he will be sorry
that Bootea had not shame sufficient to refuse his

She felt the strong arm press her body closer, and
heard him laugh. But still he did not answer, did not
say why he was interested in the two horsemen. If it
were vital, and she believed it was, for him to know
that they lay dead at the Bagree camp, it was wrong
for her to not tell him this, he who was a preserver.
But to tell him would send him to his death. She
knew, as all the people of that land knew, that the
sahibs went where their Raja told them was their mis
sion, and laughed at death; and the face of this one
spoke of strength, and the eyes of placid fearlessness;
so she said nothing.

The sandal soles that pinched her soft flesh she felt
were a reproach they had something to do with the
thing that was between the Sahib and the dead soldiers.
There were tears in her eyes and she shivered.

Barlow, feeling this, said: "You're cold, Gulab, the
night-wind that comes up from the black muck of the
cotton fields and across the river is raw. Hang on
for a minute," he added, as he slipped his arm from

Caste 93

about her shoulders and fumbled at the back of his
saddle. A couple of buckles were unclasped, and he
swung loose a warm military cloak and wrapped it
about her, as he did so his cheek brushing hers.

Then she was like a bird lying against his chest,
closed in from everything but just this Sahib who was
like a god.

A faint perfume lingered in Barlow's nostrils from
the contact; it was the perfume of attar, of the true
oil of rose, such as only princes use because of its
costliness, and he wondered a little.

She saw his eyes looking down into hers, and asked,
"What is it, Sahib what disturbs you? If it is a
question, ask me."

His white teeth gleamed in the moonlight. "Just
nothing that a man should bother over that he should
ask a woman about."

But almost involuntarily he brushed his face across
her black hair and said, "Just that, Gulab that it's
like burying one's nose in a rose."

"The attar, Sahib? I love it because it's gentle."

"Ah, that's why you wore the rose that I came by
at the nautch?"

"Yes, Sahib. Though I am Bootea, because of a

1 2 3 5 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16

Online LibraryW. A. (William Alexander) FraserCaste → online text (page 5 of 16)