Click here to buy In the Court of the Ranee of Jhansi
‘What the deuce is that?’ cried the magistrate, who was driving us rapidly towards home. ‘See! That thing in the road.’ And coming up to it, he reined in the horse.
The syce (groom), who was running behind the buggy, picked up the object, at his master’s bidding. It was a cloak—a lady’s cloak—made of most costly materials—satin and silk, and wadded throughout. It had evidently fallen, unobserved, from some palanquin during the night, and an examination of the footprints showed that the last traveller who had moved along the road was journeying upward, and was then most probably staying at the dâk bungalow, at Deobund, a halting-place some twelve miles distant. The assistant magistrate, after we had breakfasted, proposed that he and I should drive to Deobund, and make inquiries. I was nothing loth, and a swift mare having been harnessed and put to the buggy, off we started, two sowars (native horsemen or mounted police) cantering behind us.
About two miles from the bungalow to which we were proceeding, we overtook a tribe of large monkeys. I should say there were as many as four hundred, and each carried a stick of uniform length and shape. They, moved along in ranks or companies, just, in short, as though they were imitating a wing of a regiment of infantry. At the head of this tribe was an old and very powerful monkey, who was no doubt the chief. It was a very odd sight, and I became greatly interested in the movements of the creatures. There could be no question that they had either some business or some pleasure on hand, and the fact of each carrying a stick led us to conclude that it was the former upon which they were bent. Their destination was, like ours, evidently Deobund, where there are some hundreds of monkeys fed by a number of Brahmins, who live near a Hindoo temple there, and perform religious ceremonies. They (this monkey regiment) would not get out of the road on our account, nor disturb themselves in any way, and my friend was afraid to drive through their ranks, or over any of them, for when assailed they are most ferocious brutes, and armed as they were, and in such numbers, they could have annihilated us with the greatest ease. There was no help for us, therefore, but to let the mare proceed at a walk in the rear of the tribe, the members of which, now that we were nearing Deobund, began to chatter frightfully. Just before we came to the bungalow, they left the road, and took the direction of the temple. Fain would we have followed them; but to do so in the buggy would have been impossible, for they crossed over some very rough ground and two ditches. My friend, therefore, requested the sowars to follow them, and report all they might observe of their actions. Meanwhile we moved off to the bungalow, in search of the owner of the cloak. The first person whom we saw was an ayah, who was sitting in the verandah, playing with a child of about five years of age.
‘Whose child is that?’ asked the assistant-magistrate of the ayah.
‘What is the mem’s name?’
‘I don’t know,’ she replied, with a smile which seemed to say that she was not warranted in being communicative. While travelling, few servants who know their business will tell strangers the name of their master or mistress.
‘What is your name?’ he then inquired of the boy, in English.
‘I don’t understand you,’ was the reply, in Hindostanee, accompanied by a shake of the head. It is wonderful how rapidly the children of Europeans in India take a cue from a native servant of either sex. Not always, but in very many cases, it is in deceit and falsehood that children are first schooled by the servants. The reader must understand that deceit and falsehood are not regarded as immoralities in the eyes of Asiatics. A man or woman who, by fraud and perjury wins a cause, or gains any other point, is not looked down upon as a rogue, but up to as a very clever fellow. Several other experiments were made in order to extract from the ayah the name of her mistress, but to no purpose. The only information we could learn was, that the lady was much fatigued, and was sleeping. We said nothing about the cloak, by the way.
The servants of the bungalow, and at Deobund (there were four of them) now came up to make their most respectful salaam to one of the lords of the district, the assistant-magistrate, on questioning them in private as to the name of the lady, we were in no way successful. All that the ayah would tell them, they said, was, that she had come from Calcutta, and was going to Simlah. ‘She is a burra beebee, however, Sahib,’ added the Khansamah; ‘for all along the road, after she left the steamer at Allahabad, until she arrived at Meerut, she was escorted by two sowars; and when she reaches the Saharunpore bungalow, she will find sowars ready. This is the only district in which she has had no escort.’
This was a mystery that my friend could not unravel: why, if other magistrates had been indented upon (as magistrates very frequently were, when ladies were nervous and travelling with only an ayah), he should be omitted; especially as his district was as dangerous to pass through as any other (not that there was much or any danger in those days), was more than he could understand; and he very naturally became all the more curious (apart from the ownership of the cloak) to know the name of the lady who had broken the link of her escort when she came into his district. ‘Perhaps,’ said he to me, ‘either I have or my chief has given her husband some offence, and, possibly, he is small-minded enough to decline asking me to do what after all is only a matter of duty, or of civility and compliment, which amounts to pretty much the same thing. However, we shall see.’
My friend now mentioned to the Khansamah, a very old but very active and intelligent man, the sight we had seen on the road—the regiment of monkeys.
‘Ah!’ exclaimed the old man, ‘it is about the time.’
‘Well, Sahib, about every five years that tribe comes up the country to pay a visit to this place; and another tribe comes about the same time from the up-country—the hills. They meet in a jungle behind the old Hindoo temple, and there embrace each other as though they were human beings and old friends who had been parted for a length of time. I have seen in that jungle as many as four or five thousand. The Brahmins say that one large tribe comes all the way from Ajmere, and another from the southern side of the country, and from Nepal and Tirhoot. There were hundreds of monkeys here this morning, but now I do not see one. I suppose they have gone to welcome their friends.’
The sowars who had been deputed to follow the tribe now rode up, and reported that in the vicinity of the old temple there was an army of apes—an army of forty thousand! One of the sowars, in the true spirit of Oriental exaggeration, expressed himself to the effect that it would be easier to count the hairs of one’s head than the number there assembled.
‘Let us go and look at them,’ I suggested, ‘and by the time we return the lady may be stirring.’
‘But we will not go on foot,’ said my friend; ‘we will ride the sowars’ horses. In the first place, I have an instinctive horror of apes, and should like to have the means of getting away from them speedily, if they became too familiar or offensive. In the second place, I do not wish to fatigue myself by taking so long a walk in the heat of the day.’
We mounted the horses, and were soon at the spot indicated by the sowars. There were not so many as had been represented; but I am speaking very far within bounds when I state that there could not have been fewer than eight thousand, and some of them of an enormous size. I could scarcely have believed that there were so many monkeys in the world if I had not visited Benares, and heard of the tribes at Gibraltar. Their sticks, which were thrown together in a heap, formed a very large stack of wood.
‘What is this?’ my friend said to one of the Brahmins; for since his appointment he had never heard of this gathering of apes.
‘It is a festival of theirs, Sahib,’ was the reply. ‘Just as Hindoos at stated times go to Hurdwar, Hajipore, and other places, so do these monkeys come to this holy place.’
‘And how long do they stay?’
‘Two or three days; then they go away to their homes in different parts of the country; then attend to their business for four or five years; then come again and do festival, and so on, sir, to the end of all time. You see that very tall monkey there, with two smaller ones on either side of him?’
‘Well, sir, that is a very old monkey. His age is more than twenty years, I think. I first saw him fifteen years ago. He was then full-grown. His native place is Meerut. He lives with the Brahmins at the Soorj Khan, near Meerut. The smaller ones are his sons, sir. They have never been here before; and you see he is showing them all about the place, like a very good father.’
Having seen enough of these ‘sacred animals,’ we returned to the bungalow; we were only just in time, for the lady was about to depart, albeit the sun was very high in the heavens, and the day, for the time of year, was extremely hot. We caught sight of her in the verandah. My friend became deadly pale, and exclaimed: ‘Is it possible!’
‘What?’ I asked him.
‘I will tell you on our way home. I must see her—speak to her—painful as our meeting must be. Only fancy, if that cloak should be hers!’
The lady, who must have learnt from the servants at the bungalow the name of my friend, the official, evidently desired to avoid an interview with him; for upon our approach she retired from the palanquin, which she was arranging, and entered hastily the room she had occupied. We (my friend and myself) went into the other room of the bungalow, which happened to be vacant. Presently we heard the voice of the ayah. She was very angry and was accusing the servants of the bungalow of being thieves. She had now, for the first time since they were lost, missed several articles, and amongst them the cloak of her mistress. She was perfectly ready to swear that she had seen them all since their arrival at the bungalow; that she had removed them from the palkees with her own hands; and if the servants had not stolen them who had?—who could have done so? Distinctly did we hear the lady command the ayah to be silent—to say nothing of the loss, and enter her palanquin; but the ayah, too much enraged to hear or to heed the command, repeated her accusation; whereupon the servants in a body rushed into the apartment in which we were standing listening, and after protesting their perfect innocence of the theft, referred to the character for honesty which every one of them had borne for many years. Strange to say, frequent as are the opportunities which the servants at these bungalows have of pilfering from travellers, they rarely or never avail themselves of such opportunities; and, whenever it has happened that a lady or gentleman has died in one of them, the money and effects have always been forthcoming, with nothing whatever missing.
The lady now forced the ayah to depart, and enter her palanquin, in which the little boy was sitting; she was about to follow, when my friend rushed into the verandah, and, seizing her by the hand, detained her. She was as agitated as he was; and quite as pale. He held her hand in his with a firm but withal a gentle grasp, and looked into her face, which must have been beautiful when she was a few years younger. As it was, she had still a charming profile and countenance, and a skin as white as snow. From the window, or rather looking through the Venetians, I beheld the scene, which reminded me of that exquisite picture of Mr. Frank Stone—The Last Appeal. There was a look of agony and despair in the face of the man; while the woman, who appeared to sympathise with his sufferings, did not for awhile raise her eyes from the ground. But at length she did so, and, looking mournfully into my friend’s face for a few seconds, burst into tears, and presently her head, involuntarily as it were, rested on his shoulder. Suddenly recollecting herself, she again attempted to take her departure; but my friend, now grown desperate seemingly, placed her arm beneath his, and walked with her to a clump of shade-giving mango trees, in front of the bungalow, and there they held a conversation which lasted some ten minutes. The lady then tore herself away from my friend, and after bidding him farewell, she threw herself into her palanquin, which was speedily lifted by the bearers and borne away, followed by the two sowars, who were commanded to escort the fair traveller to the next station. My friend, from the verandah of the bungalow, watched the procession till it was out of sight, and then, seating himself on the steps, covered his face with his hands, and wept like a child.
‘Come!’ I said, after a time, laying a hand on his shoulder. ‘I am not very impatient to know your secret, but it is time that we thought of returning. What about the cloak? You have not restored it to the owner.’
‘No, my dear fellow, and I never intend to do so. She has consented to my retaining it. That cloak has warmed her dear limbs, and the sight of it shall warm my heart till the last hour of my existence.’
On the way home my friend (who was accidentally drowned in the river Jumna, about two years ago) spoke as follows:
‘Ten years have now elapsed since that lady and I were fellow-passengers on board of a ship bound from London to Calcutta. She was then seventeen years of age, and I twenty. On the voyage we became very much attached to each other, and eventually loved each other devotedly. And, what was more, we were betrothed. It was arranged that as soon as practicable we should be married, I was compelled, on arrival, to remain at the college at Fort William for a year, to pass an examination; she was obliged to proceed to a large station in Bengal, to join her family. Her father was a member of the civil service; previous to her arrival he had promised Alice (that is her name) to an old man, a judge, who had been twice married, and who was then a widower. This old man was very rich, and had—as he still has—a great influence with the government. A brother of his was one of the lords of Leadenhall-street, and of this country. For some time after our unhappy separation we corresponded regularly; but suddenly the correspondence ceased. Her letters to me, and mine to her, were intercepted. Meanwhile, the old judge, to whom she had been promised, paid his addresses to her. She refused him. Many devices were resorted to in order to wean her affections from me. They all failed. At length they hit upon one which had the desired effect. They caused a paragraph to be inserted in one of the Calcutta journals, to the effect that I had married the daughter of a half-caste merchant. Alice was permitted to see this paper, but none of those containing my indignant denial of the truth of the announcement.
‘In disgust at my imagined faithlessness, and in despair and recklessness, Alice at length accepted the hand of the old judge. They were married. When made acquainted with this horrible fact, I became half-mad. I drank very hard, had an attack of delirium tremens, and was sent home for change of air and scene, to recruit my health. On my return to India, after an absence of eighteen months, I was sent to Dacca, where there was not the slightest chance of my ever seeing Alice. Subsequently, I was, at my own request, transferred to these provinces, but sent to Banda—a sort of penal settlement for refractory civilians; not that I ever committed any offence beyond that of loving Alice and being beloved by her. You must understand that, owing to the influence of his brother, her old husband, shortly after his marriage with Alice, became the great man he now is; and he had only to express a wish in this country, touching the appointment or disappointment of any junior in the service, to have such wish instantly realised. My only surprise is, that when it became necessary for her to pass through this district, I was not ordered away to Scinde, on some trumpery business, alleged to be special. Had there been any idea that we should meet—as by the merest chance we have met—again in this world, I should certainly have been removed, and ordered to some other station miles away. I have never seen her since we parted in Calcutta, now more than nine years ago, until this very day. But, thank Heaven! she loves me still!’
‘I was afraid, when I saw you talking to her beneath that clump of trees, that——’ I was about to make some observations.
‘Ah, no!’ he interrupted me. ‘There is no danger. Great and lasting as my love for her is, I could not bear the thought of taking the slightest advantage of her feelings; or to see her fall from the sphere in which she holds a lofty and proud position. She is not happy, neither am I. But spirits will recognise each other, and be united for ever and ever. Ours is not a solitary case; sometimes when ladies in India fall they deserve far more of pity than of blame.’