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Authors: John Masters

Nightrunners of Bengal

THE STORY-TELLERS

Nightrunners of Bengal

JOHN MASTERS

SOUVENIR PRESS

 

 

 

To

THE SEPOY OF INDIA

1695–1947

A
LTHOUGH most of the incidents in this story of the Indian Mutiny are drawn from local tradition, official reports and contemporary letters, this book is a work of fiction. My object has been to make the fictional whole present a true perspective of fact—the facts of environment, circumstance and emotion. In general, the people actually met with in the story, and the places they visit, are fictitious; the people and places that remain offstage are or were real, and notes on many of them are included in the glossary. Where I have had to use a Hindustani word I have tried to make its meaning clear in the context; the precise meaning of such words, and their pronunciation, are given in the glossary.

R
ODNEY reined back to a walk and sighed. A thin crowd, scattered round the holy man’s tree, was blocking the Pike ahead. He saw a horse tethered by its reins to an outer branch of the tree and recognized it, and sighed again; a little of Caroline Langford went a long way. He brought Boomerang to a stop and peered over the heads of the crowd. The day’s work was done, the year’s work done, and he was in no hurry to get back to his bungalow. He might as well see what was going on.

Men yawned in the washed afternoon sunlight, and stretched their arms. Brown naked children splashed in the puddles. Women glided down to the river, carrying bundles of clothes on their heads. The holy man sat on a raised earth platform, revetted by loose stones, which had been built up round the bole of the peepul tree. Miss Langford stood at the edge of the platform, facing him. She was young, and of medium height, and the severity of her grey jacket emphasized her slightness of body. A hard black hat perched on the front of her head, which was small, and she carried a riding crop in her hand; her wrists were thin and brittle-seeming. She stared steadily at the Guru, and Rodney noticed that habitual concentration had cut a frown deep into her forehead. She was so cold, so English, against the warm colours. He saw that there were a couple of sepoys of his regiment, the 13th Rifles, Bengal Native Infantry, in the crowd. He waited patiently.

The holy man faced north, sitting erect, his legs crossed under him and his hands limp at his sides. He was naked
except for a dirty loincloth well below his navel. A fresh wind blew down the river, and raindrops glistened on him. He breathed slowly, the bony face immobile but not at peace. His cavernous eyes were fully open, and Rodney, musing, imagined them as focused on something far away. They did not absorb these living greens and browns of Central India; surely they sought something beyond the curve of the plains and the cities hidden in the north—and did not find it. Perhaps their pale fires were the glitter reflected from the ice walls and fluted snow battlements of the Himalaya, the silvered trumpet-horns of a forgotten monastery?

Caroline Langford’s voice, startling in the depth of its pitch and timbre, interrupted Rodney’s reverie. She spoke slowly at the holy man, in Hindustani.

“The people say that animals understand you. Is it true? How do you do it? I wish to know the truth.”

Rodney’s eyebrows rose, and he looked at her with new respect. She was the cousin of the wife of an officer in his regiment, and a mere visitor to India. She’d been away from Bhowani for six months, as a guest of the Rajah of Kishanpur. She must have studied hard there, because that Hindustani was surprisingly good. After six years in India, Rodney’s wife Joanna knew twenty words, and could use her verbs only in the imperative mood.

Miss Langford looked up and caught his expression. Her frown deepened, and she said curtly, “Good afternoon, Captain Savage.” The sepoys glanced round then and saluted hurriedly; they were both in his company and he knew them well. He smiled back and winked slightly, in token that he disavowed the miss-sahib’s blunt inquisition.

The holy man’s body glowed in the diffused light under the tree. The rain had cut runnels in the ashes and dirt, and there the brown skin was wrinkled gold, the leprous patches smooth silver. His forearms and hands were like parts of a bright statue. The crowd waited in silence. The holy man would answer in his own good time, if he wished; and when he did, the white woman might wish he hadn’t.

The waiting and the silence became embarrassing. Rodney glowered down at the unyielding determination of her profile. She had chosen an unpredictable man to pester with her questions. There was a yogi who lived in meditation at the other end of the city; he would never break his silence to answer her, or anyone. There were charlatan fakirs who trooped up and down the Pike in naked insolence; they would beg a rupee and give her a sarcastic blessing. But this old leper was the Silver Guru of Bhowani; and he was in his way a true guru—a teacher—and might explain to her what he knew—or he might flay her with ironic praise and threats of damnation. His temper was growing noticeably worse as the years passed. The townspeople and sepoys feared him, but pointed him out to visitors with proprietary pride. His influence over Indians of every religion was enormous and widespread; as far east as Patna, as far north as Meerut, they had heard of the Silver Guru of Bhowani.

Rodney looked away over the heads of the crowd, at the steam drawn by the sun out of the decaying brick and mud walls of the city, at the terraces by the river, dotted now with brightly clothed women and scavenging pariah dogs, at the swirl of a fish under the bank, and up through the branches at the sky. Thousands of feet above the city and the river two kites planed in slow circles; a troop of minivets twinkled and stirred the leaves, and cheeped
swisweet sweet sweet
; he saw no other bird anywhere.

The Silver Guru raised one hand and turned his eyes down on Miss Langford. The minivets left the tree in a cascade of scarlet and gold sparks, and flew away. Boomerang stamped and tossed his head, and the snaffle clinked; the mare began to sweat and shiver and back up, tugging at her looped reins.

A crow landed on the earth platform, with one harsh caw and a creak of wings. It cocked its head, its eyes sharp and brown, and hopped forward. Two more joined it, then three, then another one. Rodney’s scalp tingled and he looked quickly around. To west and south black dots pockmarked
the sky, swelling out and taking shape as they came closer—crows, flying fast to the peepul tree. They landed beside the Silver Guru in fours and squadrons until they overflowed the plinth. Then they crawled on top of one another at the feet of the crowd, and in silence flapped their wings and opened their beaks. Their eyes glinted with an awful obedience. Rodney knew suddenly that at a signal the slithery wings would smother him, the dirty beaks peck his eyes out. The air under the tree stank of putrid meat.

The Guru laughed harshly and held out both silvered hands over the crows. “Many have come. Are you all, then, the ghosts of dead tyrants? … You? … And you? … And which one ruled this morning in the east, eh?”

As if his voice had hammered off invisible shackles, the crowd, so still and taut, burst into struggle. They breathed hard and fought to get away while Boomerang squealed and Rodney leaned over to hold the snorting mare. Even then the girl hesitated, looking at the Guru.

Rodney’s nerve snapped, and he shouted, “Don’t be a fool! Mount!”

She rode pale and silent beside him, and did not speak till, at the cantonment limit, she said, “I don’t understand.”

“There are many things you do not understand.”

An English girl had no business to involve herself with gurus and fakirs and the edges of magic. Besides, he had lost his nerve and she must have noticed it. He spoke curtly, and meant to be rude, but she showed no anger. Frowning intently, she did not speak again until they reached the foot of the Hatton-Dunns’ driveway. There she raised her head and said, “I will find out.”

Rodney saluted coldly and trotted on alone towards his own bungalow. His chin sank forward on his breast, and the black vision of the crows shone in the puddled road. He shivered. He did not understand either. Hadn’t old Bulstrode talked of something similar, done by a fakir up country in ’42—and the fellow saying the crows only gathered when catastrophe was in the air?

As he turned in under the bare branches of the gold-mohur tree at the entrance to the drive of his bungalow, a potbellied brown infant ran out of the bushes and stumbled howling in his path. He reined in, dismounted, and picked him up. It was the gardener’s youngest son; tears coursed through the kohl round his screwed-up eyes.

Rodney cried softly, “Ho, mighty one! Are you tired of life already? There, there, you’re all right.”

The gardener’s wife hurried down the drive and took the child away. She threw Rodney a quick shy smile before adjusting the end of the sari to cover her face. He dropped the reins on Boomerang’s withers, whispered, “Go to the stable, boy,” and walked slowly forward.

The bungalow, low and square and dull white, sprawled in the long tree shadows; a colonnaded verandah, ten feet wide and paved with red flagstones, encircled it. Short flights of stone steps, without balustrades, ran down at the front under the carriage porch and at the back under a covered passageway leading to the separate kitchen block. Rodney’s son, Robin, in a blue dress and a big straw hat, lurched across the grass on the right of the drive, yelling at the black-and-white kitten, Harlequin; the kitten skittered about like a mad thing under the spreading banyan tree, its bottle tail streaming. Moti, the ayah, waddled splay-footed along the side of the bungalow, picking at her teeth with a thorn twig, her dress sharp white against the purple bougainvillaea twined on the colonnades.

Everything was all right; he forgot the crows. He saw no carriages waiting in the compound behind the house, and whistled gently with relief. Joanna’s gossip-and-lace factory must have dispersed.

Sher Dil, the butler, tottered rheumatically out on to the front verandah and stood there in bent, dignified immobility, the general of the servant army. Lachman, the bearer, hurried down to take Rodney’s cloak. The assistant cook, the dishwasher, the water-carrier, the washerman, and the dogboy, who were smoking rolled-leaf cigarettes by the stable wall,
scrambled to their feet, bowed, and put both hands to their foreheads in salaam. From inside the kitchen the cook shouted, “The sahib has come.” The gardener, crouched two hundred feet away among a mixed bed of larkspur and pink Clarkia, straightened his back and stood in meditation. The untouchable sweeper, squatting with basket and broom on the verandah outside a bathroom door, rose and made salaam. Jewel, the bull terrier bitch, pulled her head out of an unkempt oleander, barked twice, and returned to the interesting smell.

Robin threw down his big hat and galloped erratically across the drive, shouting, “Daddy! Daddy!” Two female voices called him back, one the ayah’s shrill “
Baba! topi pher
lagao! ek dum!”
the other an English voice, nearly as high-pitched, with the same message. “Robin! Put your hat on again! At once!”

Rodney caught his son, swung him shrieking to his shoulders, and looked up. His wife, Joanna, stood at the head of the front steps, the pink and white oval of her face set in a petulant frown. The sunlight touched a golden throat locket hung against the dark blue of her dress; one hand was pushing at the masses of her golden hair.

“Rodney, put his hat on, please. He’ll get sunburnt and brown, like a subordinate’s child.”

He put the boy down, jammed the hat on his head, and went up on to the verandah. Joanna said, as she presented her cheek to be kissed, “I don’t care if the sun is nearly down. He must always wear his hat out of doors.”

She walked down the hall and into the drawing-room. Rodney shrugged, turned into the bedroom opposite, Lachman at his heels, and sat, yawning, on the edge of the bed. Lachman eased the bottle-green tunic from his back, then knelt, pulled off his spurred boots and strapped green trousers, and pushed slippers on to his feet A smoking jacket of maroon velvet hung on the back of a chair, the tasselled cap on top, the trousers underneath. Rodney looked at his watch; an hour to dinner, three or four hours before
he’d have to change for the ball—time enough to relax. Lachman held out the smoking kit for him, piece by piece. Sher Dil stood in the open doorway, supervising the operation.

In the drawing-room Rodney dropped into a high-backed armchair. The lamplighter, who was also the night watchman, sidled apologetically through the jungle of furniture to light the oil lamps. A fire burned in the grate; Rodney stretched his toes, looked into the flames, and gathered comfort from their assurance that the hot weather was not due for a few weeks yet. He felt tired and realized he had not said a word to Joanna yet, not even to ask about her salon. He couldn’t be bothered. Sher Dil had brought the brandy; the bottle stood on the table beside him. He hesitated, glanced at her, poured out a glass as silently as possible, filled it with water, and drank.

Joanna spoke, without looking up from her petit-point frame. “Did you have an interesting day in the lines, dear?”

“Not particularly—drill parade, company accounts—but …” He did not want to remind himself of the crows.

She said, “But what?”

“A rather weird thing happened on my way back …”

He told her and went on, his own mind ensnared again now that he had to try to make someone else see the reality of it “Of course I’ve heard my father and Curry Bulstrode talk about even stranger things—but that doesn’t explain them. What do you think?”

“Did you say Miss Langford wasn’t wearing gloves, or a cloak, or a veil?”

“Eh? No—yes—I mean she wasn’t. I asked what you thought about the Silver Guru and the crows.”

“Oh, it’s a trick, of course. That young lady must be spoken to. I’m surprised Lady Isobel hasn’t done it already. She must not be allowed to let us all down in front of the blacks.”

“Joanna, will you
please
remember to call Indians by their race and caste, or, if you don’t know, ‘natives’?” He became
angry, as he always did when this familiar subject came up, and he gripped the brandy glass more tightly. “God damn it, you ought to know better. We of the Company’s service
live
here all our working lives. We do our work and enjoy ourselves and lord it over the country entirely by the goodwill of the average native—especially the native soldier, the sepoy. If you even think of them insultingly, of course they know it and resent it——”

“Don’t blaspheme, please. I’m sorry. But I think you’re too sensitive about it. And haven’t you had enough to drink?”

She eyed the brandy bottle and did not look at all sorry. He poured out a peg, with deliberation.

After a pause she continued in sudden vivacity, “Wait there. I’ll show you what I’m going to wear at the ball.”

She edged between the furniture, the curve of her breasts parodied in the enormous billow of crinoline below. In a minute she came back and held up a low-topped dress, the satin slip shimmering through white tulle, three deep flounces at the left side caught up with loops of pearls.

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