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The Cobras of Calcutta


Chapter 1 - sample


T he sepoys were restless. I had noticed this on coming away from the factory, but I had been settled at Cossimbazaar two weeks only and it did not then signify with me. Men about to hunt are all of them restless, be they hard men to hounds in the green fields of Leicestershire or a platoon of sepoys gone pig-sticking on the hot plain of Bengal. I was new to them also, and young, being barely seventeen years of age, and there were among them men of fifty years and more.

‘Mr Douglas, will you take the lead till we come to the river?’

It was Mrs Watts who spoke. I daresay she saw that I needed some guidance. Her husband William, the chief of the factory, had given me charge over the hunting party but I had received no particular instructions. In truth, provisioning society and amusement for wife and family is a great trial to any factory chief upcountry, and a newly arrived writer, such as I, must have seemed a godsend at that moment to William Watts. Though he did not say it, I was the most dispensable member of his staff, a fact I knew as well as he, and though my proper business in Bengal was to serve the East India Company and make my fortune, neither did I chafe at being so lightly turned from this labour.

So now I took my horse forward and Mrs Watts and Mrs Fortescue, the boy and the two girls, followed after me, and twenty sowar cavalrymen behind, and we trotted out of sight of Cossimbazaar toward the river. I am sure I thought myself the finest fellow in the world.

After a mile we passed over the dry riverbed and then Harran Khan, the risaldar, the leader of the sowar band, rode up to me and pointed to our destination in the Chantok foothills. When we set off again, I fell back to ride alongside Mrs Watts’s buggy.

‘Harry says we shall be there in an hour.’

‘There is no hurry, Mr Douglas,’ Mrs Watts replied, not unkindly. ‘I hope you are not aggrieved that we have taken you from town.’

I assured her that I was not aggrieved, not in the slightest.

‘I am pleased to hear it. It does a young man little good to be locked in the counting house with the whole world in flower outside his door.’

Mrs Watts, I may say here, had the reputation among the company officers of a most singular woman. Having arrived in India with her husband at the commencement of his appointment, she was said never to have uttered a word in public against his superiors, never to have complained of any lack of society or amenity in her situation, and never to have urged her husband to rapaciously mint coin from the advantages of his position the sooner to return her to her rightful place in English society. In short, she was as unlike the other company wives as it was possible to be.

Her father had once been the governor of Fort St David, south of Madras, and she had been twice widowed before she married Watts. She was not yet thirty, but a certain carelessness of the tropic sun had given her a darker complexion than most of the English ladies in Bengal. She was handsome rather than pretty, and with eyes slanted down at their corners, which gave her face a thoughtful cast.

‘I’m told you were at Harrow,’ she said, and when I acknowledged the fact she mentioned some nephews of hers that were there also. I knew one of these, and so we talked of him, and also of Harrow, and then of the qualities and shortcomings of a classical education, of the rise of religious enthusiasm she detected and deplored in the recently arrived alumni of both Harrow and Eton, and from there we moved on to Pitt and the Duke of Newcastle, and the battles against the French in America. It was a conversation that might have taken place in any fashionable London drawing room, a conversation the like of which I had not had since my recent arrival in India. She smiled often as we talked, and when she did there came quick creases to the corners of her eyes. Time passed quickly in her company, she was the pleasantest woman, and within the hour we came to the pig-sticking ground.

A tent had been pitched beneath the shade of some trees close by the ruins of a Hindoo temple. While the sepoys unharnessed the horses, Mrs Watts and her party repaired to the camp chairs by the tent to take some refreshment and I took myself off to consult with Harran Khan.

The hunt, such as Harry described it to me with sweeping gestures left and right, was to take place across the flat scrubby ground just below us. Harry warned that a startled pig was unpredictable, but he felt that with the sepoys at his disposal he could put on a good show. From the vantage of the tent, he said, there should be a decent view of the sport. Until this point there had been no mention as to whether I would remain a spectator up at the tent or ride down to take part in the hunt. Now I took the opportunity to tell Harry that I would stay by him till I had seen how the pig-sticking was done. ‘Then you can give me a spear, I’ll try my own hand,’ I said with the calm and steady courage of total ignorance.

Harry said nothing to this, which I took for a sign of manly approval. I did not know Harry well at this time.

Returning to the tent, I found Mrs Watts and her party refreshed and revived. My description of the proposed hunt, however, was met with such general indifference that I forbore to elaborate the particulars of the plan as related to me by Harry. Indeed, only Mrs Watts seemed to pay my talk of the hunt the slightest heed. For the rest, the girls had taken out their sketchbooks and were busy drawing the temple ruins. The older woman, Mrs Fortescue, withdrew into the tent, reclined on the camp bed and closed her eyes, and the lad George, Mrs Watts’s boy, walked around the tent slashing at the dead grass with a stick. It was only at the news that I, too, would take part in the hunt that a real interest was finally awoken in Mrs Watts. A quick line formed in her brow.

‘Are you quite sure?’

I mentioned the packs I had hunted with in England.

‘Yes,’ she said doubtfully. ‘Even so.’

‘I’ll stay close to Harry.’

‘Please do. I should not like to have to explain to my husband how it was that I allowed one of his promising young men to break his own neck.’

‘I’ve no intention of doing so.’

‘What man does? But I will not oppose you, Mr Douglas.’ She asked for my spyglass the better to view the sport, and I gave it her.

No Hindoo ever died from too great a hurry. The heat, no doubt, is partly responsible for the lethargy that will sometimes settle over whole cities, but their religion, too, gives them a sense of time unlike that of the modern European. In this I believe they are more akin to those ancient people who made Stonehenge and the Ring of Brodgar, people to whom eternity seems to have been ever near – which is to say that the organization of the hunt proceeded with a quite unexampled tardi-ness.

Harry rattled his orders at them with proper ferocity, pausing now and then to push a knuckle over his thick grey moustache. But this rattling seemed merely a matter of form and the men went about the business of preparation in the manner of those who practise some well-rehearsed ritual. I was as impatient about this as any young man might be, but I managed to hold my tongue until the horses and weapons and men were finally in readiness, and then I rode across to the tent where chai was now being taken. Mrs Watts was not there. Her lad, George, directed me to the ruined temple. After walking through its fallen doorway I discovered the unexpected sight of Mrs Watts, the spyglass resting on the shoulder of a broken stone idol, studying the plain to the north just like some general surveying a battlefield.

‘We’re ready for the off.’

‘Very well, Mr Douglas.’ She did not set aside the spyglass.

‘Harry does not expect we will be hunting to the north.’

‘You have said.’

She did not move, and it then entered my mind that there was some particular purpose to what she did here. But before I could ask what she saw there to the north, she put aside the glass and came away from the temple. As we walked to the tent, I told her that the hunt should be over in two or three hours and that, as I had promised her husband to have everyone safely returned to Cossimbazaar before nightfall, I would be much obliged if she could keep her party from straying too far from the camp. She assented and, with a final friendly warning about the great value of my neck, she wished me good hunting.

I joined Harry and, accompanied by the beaters with their drums and flutes, and the sowar s with their spears, we rode down to the plain. And there, for two of the most exhilarating hours I have ever spent astride a horse, I forgot about Mrs Watts and the spyglass.

The first pig put up by the beaters charged straight out of the scrub directly in front of Harry and me. It saw us and veered away beneath a spray of stone and dirt, with the banshee cry of Harry Khan ringing in its ears. Harry set after the thing like a man demented, and no more thought for me than for the Emperor of China. His spurs raked the flanks of his horse and it flew after the pig, and then my horse caught the fury and bolted on after. Ahead, the swerving, racing pig; behind, a wild flurry of twisting and turning horseflesh; and somewhere off in the scrub, the raucous flutes and whistles and drums.

We chased hard till the horses were lathered, then Harry’s mount picked up a stone and the pig got away from us. The language Harry spoke then was not such as I recognized, but neither could I mistake its meaning. As he swapped his horse for another brought forward by one of the sowar s, Harry called to me, ‘Again?’ and I answered, ‘By God, yes,’ and his eyes gleamed then and he mounted up and we rode out ahead of the beaters.

We soon picked up another pig and chased and lost it, but the third was not so lucky. It took horsemanship of the very first order just to get alongside the thing with its tusks scything at the legs of our horses. But the way Harry rose out of the saddle to reach right over the swerving pig at full gallop and the force with which he struck the spear home between the pig’s shoulder-blades – it was truly prodigious. When he dismounted to retrieve his weapon, I trotted back to him and told him as much.

There was no canting modesty about Harry; he lifted his head and laughed, for his blood was up. Then the beaters ran through the scrub to join us; they inspected the stuck pig and proceeded to cut out the tusks. Harry offered me one of his own spears, and I hesitated a moment in surprise before taking it. But it was as I took it that I became aware that the busy chattering of the beaters had suddenly died. They looked past me and Harry, who was silent also, and when I turned in the saddle I saw the cause.

Not thirty yards distant a sadhu was passing. Now a sadhu, a Hindoo holy man, was not in the normal course of things an unusual sight, for in the cities and towns one saw such men daily in the streets by the temples. But out on the plain, miles from any village and in the midst of our temporary pig-sticking ground, the fellow appeared among us like the very strangest apparition.

The sadhu’s hair and beard were long and black, streaked with lines of grey. He was naked but for the grubby loincloth. His forehead was decorated with priestly white and red markings, and he carried in one hand a short metal trident, such as with us might signify Neptune, but with the Hindoo denotes the destroyer god, Shiva.

I stood in my stirrups, about to hail the man, when I felt Harry’s hand touch my leg. He shook his head, indicating I should allow the sadhu to pass undisturbed.

The man came on till really quite near to us. For all the mind he paid to us we might have been creatures of no substance. His path took him through the line of beaters and, deviating not a foot from his chosen way, he walked on by them without a glance. His dark eyes seemed fixed on some inward point, not of this world.

The beaters, once the sadhu had passed, immediately became voluble again and gathered about the stuck pig. Harry began to advise me on the proper use of the spear, of what I should do on closing with the quarry, and what I should watch for in its devilish actions. By the time the beaters went into the scrub again the sadhu was far from my mind.

We hunted for one hour more, during which time I missed two pigs while Harry stuck two. Then, on a wild chase for a boar, my horse stumbled and I very nearly succeeded in breaking my neck just as Mrs Watts had feared. As I picked myself from the ground, Harry caught the reins of my loose horse and led it back to me, and after briefly looking me over and satisfying himself that I had suffered no serious injury, he pointed to my spear which lay on the ground behind me. It had been broken in two by my fall.

‘You must release it. Throw it from you.’

‘Next time I shall.’

‘If you hold it when you fall – better not fall.’

I remounted, thoroughly chastened. Though bruised and rather shaken by the thought that I had nearly impaled myself, I still meant to go on. But then after taking some water I looked about me and was more than a little surprised to see how far we had come from our camp.

Harry gave me his spyglass and I peered over the low ripples of heat back toward the hill. I made out the ruins of the temple, and then, further along the ridge, the white tent. Faint figures were discernible up by the tent. And on the slope below the temple ruins I saw a slow-moving figure, climbing alone. Upon bringing the figure into focus, I recognized it to be the sadhu, walking now with his trident as a cane.

Behind us in the scrub the beaters began drumming. Harry was keen to return to the hunt. The other sowar s now rode up to discover what had happened to us, for they were as eager as Harry to be after the quarry. I shaded my eyes and took a quick reckoning on the sun. Then I said to Harry, ‘Hunt your way back to the river. I shall bring Mrs Watts and the others and meet you at the crossing in two hours.’

This decision being completely in accord with Harry’s wishes and those of his men, in very short order they left me. Turning my horse from the sound of the beaters, I set out for the camp at a trot.

I was perhaps a mile from the camp when I stopped to take water again and again raised Harry’s spyglass. The sadhu was by now just below the ruined temple. Moving the glass first to the tent and then back to the temple, I saw to my consternation that Mrs Watts had returned to her earlier viewing place by the idol in the ruins and that she was alone there and appeared to have no inkling of the approaching half-naked holy man.

I will not say that I feared for her, but rather that I had a sudden uneasiness at the thought of the startlement it would cause when the sadhu appeared unannounced at her side, for the temple ruin was now the man’s clear destination. Putting away the spyglass I trotted on and then, after further thought, rose to a canter.

I arrived at the temple directly and, dismounting, looked down the slope. There was no sign of the holy man. I hurried to the temple doorway and was about to call out to Mrs Watts when, through the opening, I saw her. She stood by a large stone block upon which lay the sadhu, on his back, perfectly still. She leaned over him, further-more, in such a manner that their faces were almost touching. She was listening to something he said. The sight was so peculiar that I hesitated and then I said, ‘Mrs Watts?’ and stepped in. Without turning her head she replied, ‘Bring me your flask.’

I brought it to her. She put a hand beneath the sadhu’s head and tried to raise him. She put the flask to his lips but he would not take the water; it ran down his cheek and she let his head rest again.

‘What is wrong with him?’

‘He has been poisoned.’

I looked at her in surprise, but she offered no further explanation.

She continued to regard the sadhu. After a time he whispered some words in his own tongue. She took one of his hands and placed it on his chest, and then she went around the stone block and did the same with the other hand.

‘Can he not be purged?’

‘He does not choose to live.’

‘You know this man,’ I said, for I had not yet learned to hold my thoughts close. I cannot say how I knew it, but only that it was implicit in her manner toward him and in her stillness when I had first discovered them. She made no reply to this remark and when the sadhu whispered again she put an ear close to his lips. When she next lifted her head, I said boldly, ‘We must take him with us.’

‘We shall do no such thing. I have told you, he has chosen to die.’

‘But with proper care—’

‘If you would be so kind as to keep my children and the others away from this place, Mr Douglas. I will stay here while you strike the camp. When you are prepared to depart, please come yourself to fetch me. And I would be obliged to you until then for your silence.’

It was fully an hour before the camp was struck and Mrs Watts’s party had readied themselves for the return to Cossimbazaar, and all through that hour I was in a state of constant distraction. I looked in the direction of the temple frequently, but there was no sign of either Mrs Watts or the sadhu. I could not fathom any plausible connection between such a pair, but in reflecting upon Mrs Watts’s earlier actions, first her going to the temple ruins and then how she scanned the plain with my spyglass, I could not help but wonder at the coincidence that had brought the sadhu to this uninhabited place on precisely the day of our hunt. And as to her parting injunction for silence, frankly it troubled me, and amidst the bustle of striking camp my thoughts on the matter became no clearer.

As the sepoys carried out the final loading, I went back to the temple. It was silent within the fallen walls but for the scraping and trilling of insects in the heat. The sadhu lay motionless on the stone, his trident now lying beside him. Mrs Watts sat on another stone nearby, looking out through the ruins across the plain.

I said, ‘We are ready.’

After a time she roused herself and went to the broken idol and retrieved my spyglass from by its feet. She gave me the spyglass and stepped past me while I continued to stare at the motionless figure of the sadhu. She stopped and said, ‘He is dead,’ and looking at her now I saw that she was grieved, and so, not knowing what else might be said, I told her I was sorry for it.

‘Do not be, Mr Douglas. The world can hurt him no more.’

She did not seem unsteady but there was something made me offer her my arm, and she took it, and so we came away from the temple. Nothing further was spoken between us of the sadhu, and nothing more done for the body, but we left it there and by nightfall I had returned Mrs Watts and her party to Cossimbazaar.

    Grant Sutherland