One Touch of Nature An Indian Love Story
AS Drummond dressed for polo he noticed through the transparent reed blind the stalwart figure of a native soldier in spotless undress, waiting in a corner of the veranda.
“That is Sepoy Ujagar Singh; what is his business here?” he asked his bearer.
“He wishes to make petition to your honor,” replied the servant.
“This is neither the place, nor the time, nor the manner for petitions,” snapped the young man with a frown. “However
“Well, Ujagar Singh, what is it?” he asked with some impatience, when breeched and booted he emerged on the veranda,
“I make urgent petition for leave,” said the man in a low eager voice. “It is in the matter of my marriage.”
“Now you know perfectly well,” in terrupted Drummond sternly, “that you have no right to come to me like this. The order is for you to apply to the Native officer of your company, who will bring you before me in due course. I will not listen to you.”
“Your honor, it is no use,” replied the man sullenly. “The Subadar Sahib refuses to bring me up._ He has his own reasons, and thence arises great injustice. If leave^ is not granted, I shall desert. The matter is of great urgency.”
“Don’t talk like a fool !” said Drummond sharply. “Now look here! If the Subadar Sahib does not bring you before me at Durbar to-morrow, I wiil send for
you to come shooting with me in the afternoon. Then I will listen. Enough for the present.”
For some time Drummond had had his eye on the clean, smart, good-looking young sepoy, who, in the three brief years of his service, had made himself remarked for industry, keenness and intelligence, lie had, in fact, made a mental note of him for early promotion.
At the informal orderly room held in the regimental _ lines on the followingmorning he paid rather more attention than usual to the undercurrents of affairs. It was the Hindu month of marriages, and many young soldiers were asking for leave. He saw Ujagar Singh hovering on the outskirts of the throng of applicants. He saw him once and again repulsed by the Native officer with a rough gesture and a sharp word.
“These then are all the cases for today,” he finally said to the latter with a searching glance.
“These are all, sir,” was the reply.
“There is one more thing,” added Drummond, when the business' of the hour was concluded. “I am going quail shooting this afternoon and want two men as beaters. Send that youngster from No. 4 Section, a Chauhan Rajput of Sirsa district, Ujagar Singh, I think, and another man. Let them be at mv bungalow at four o’clock.”
Drummond sent his sais and the other beaters on, and detained Ujagar Singh to carry his gun and walk beside his pony
for the two or three miles that separated them from the appointed spat outside cantonments.
“Now what is the difficulty?” he inquired kindly, when they were off and alone.
“My marriage is fixed for the last day of the month,” began the youth in troubled tones. “As our custom is, from her childhood I have been bethrothed to Rohini, daughter of Sarup Singh, headman of Khemganj. But there is a plot against us, Sahib. For the Tehsildar of the Khemganj division has cast eyes on the maiden, and would take her as second wife. Therefore Sarup Singh would gladly break his contract with us, if excuse can be found. To this end the Tehsildar has written to the Subadar of my company, who is his kinsman, that by every means he hinder my obtaining leave. Likewise Sarup Singh refuses to postpone the date, except on heavy payment, which, the old rogue well knows, my father is at present unable to make. For he indeed has had many expenses in connection with my sister’s marriage, and the promotion to Native officer of my brother in the cavalry. It is tyranny and injustice, Sahib! If I am not there by the appointed day I shall lose her. And, on the name of Kama, I will not lose her,” he added passionately, “for she is beautiful as the lotusflower!”
“Indeed ; and how can you know that?” interposed Drummond quietly. “You cannot have seen her since she was a child?”
“She was a very beautiful child,” replied the young man in obvious confusion. “Nay, Sahib, why should I deceive you? You are flesh and blood like myself, and these customs of ours are not binding to men with youth in their veins. Only last year I saw her, yea, and held her in my arms, and knew her for my bride to be. But verily, Sahib, the first time it was a stroke of chance. The Ghaggar was coming down in mighty flood when my brother and I ferried across from our homestead on the opposite bank, and delivered the whole household of Sarup Singh from the rising waters. Thereafter many evenings I crossed, and found opportunity of meeting her in the fields, all without thought of wrong. And I sav again, Sahib, I will not lose her.”
“It is not for me to blame you, Ujagar
Singh,” said Drummond gently. “But I have been looking at the company roll. You are not really entitled to leave under ordinary circumstances. The Subadar is within his rights, and must be allowed some discretion. Still I will help you all I can. You must write an application to the Deputy Commissioner of your district, that he enjoin postponement without penalty. I will have it backed by the Colonel Sahib and forwarded at once. It is a request that is sure to be granted.” “Alas, I fear not, Sahib. Will it not be handed over at once to the Tehsildar who will report that it is inadvisable? For indeed the Dipty who is now set over us is not as the Sahibs of former days, who were our father’s rulers, counsellors and friends. He does not know us, he does not come among us, he does not speak or understand our tongue, and his decrees are the decrees of the Tehsildar or of his own Munsif.* Now tell me, Sahib, of what order are these young men to whom the Government hands us over. White they may be, but assuredly not of the same jat f as the old Sahibs. Foolish folk say that there are none of the old sort left, and that therefore they can do as they will.”
“Foolishness, indeed,” replied Drummond non-committally. “You may be very sure that they would be the same if they had the chance. It is but the vogue of the moment, which would make them writers rather than rulers. But this much is certain, Ujagar Singh, that they fulfil the will of the Great Lord Sahib, and that it is neither your place nor mine to question it. There is one more thing, however, I can do for you. I will write to Tremayne Sahib, police officer of your district. He is my friend, and possibly can influence the Dipty Sahib.”
“Ah, fool that I am to have forgotten Tiramain Sahib,” exclaimed the other eagerly. “Now that is a real Sahib. And I have hopes he will remember the lad, son of Zamindar Daulat Singh, who now and again carried his gun for him. But surely my father will have approached him in the matter.”
“Well, Ujagar Singh,” pronounced Drummond finally, “this is all we can do for the present. You write your application for postponement, and Ï will write to
Tremayne Sahib. You’ve got three weeks yet, and you must have patience for a few days. I may be promising more than I can perform, but I am inclined to say that I will see you through this.” He waved aside the other’s incoherent thanks and protestations as they overtook the rest of the party, and entered on the business of the moment.
“Your protege’s account of the position is substantially correct,” ran the reply from Tremayne received within the week. “I remember the youngster well; he once at some risk saved a favorite spaniel of mine which was in difficulties in some deep and dangerous weeds. Would willingly do anything in my power to help the lad or his father—a good old chap. As regards Williams, the D.C.. I am on delicate ground. In many matters he is my superior authorty, and this is one of them. I have little doubt that, in a case like the present, he would take the word of the Tehsildar rather than mine, if I were to offer it, which I will not. He is, let us say, an irreproachable theorist, and it were best to leave it at that. Between ourselves, he never moves far from a metalled road, and thence or thereabouts he occasionally addreses those whom it may concern, or who care to listen, in flowery Urdu periods, which might just as well be so much French to ninety-nine per cent, of his charge. (You know the archaic sort of Hindi your fellows talk.) I have been told his reports are the envy and despair of the Province, and they will doubtless in due course, earn him translation to a sphere where such talents will have fitting scope.
“Now I have gone somewhat minutely into this matter. I have warned the Tehsildar, and the girl’s father that I see their game, am keeping my eye on them, and will bowl them out if I see the shadow of a chance. But as matters stand, I have no hesitation in predicting that your application for postponement will fail without the payment demanded , which I admit—and execrate—as exorbitant and unjust. Therefore I say the only alternative is to produce your candidate at the psychial moment, which, to satisfy dramatic fitness, and possibly my sense of mischief, should be the last unexpected instant.
“Of course I have no doubt your C.O. would give the man leave as a special case on your representation ; but if, as you say, you wish to avoid the appearance of interfering with the Subadar’s authority, why should not you yourself come to me on ten days’ leave and bring the youngster with you in some capacity. Thus the design need scarcely be known till your actual departure, and the news will not reach here. Meanwhile I myself will tell the boy’s father to count on consummation, and will have it conveyed to the girl.
“Dear old chap, I shall be delighted to have you with me for a few days. What a gay old time we had together during Lucknow Cup week last year! Bring a spear and a rifle; we may be able to rout out a pig together, and there are swarms of buck—some good heads, too—within an evening stroll. I have got a sort of houseboat on the Ghaggar in that neighborhood, and will send a cart to meet you at the wayside station of Kharial. Thus the bridegroom’s arrival will not be known until we wish it.
“This is quite a long screed for me, but I have taken an interest in the case, and shall delight in putting a spoke in this particular wheel. Have no doubt you’ll be able to manage your share so shall expect you during the last week of the month.”
The dusk was closing in on one of the last evenings of May, when a crawling branch train deposited Drummond and a couple of servants at a small sleepy station on the borders of Bhikalmir. Tremayne was waiting outside with a smart country-bred pony in a bamboo dog-cart, and soon had his friend seated beside him and bowling swiftly along a rough moonlit country track, while the others followed with the luggage in a more deliberate bullock wagon. A few miles away on a river bank, a spacious open tent, pitched under a clump of mango trees, revealed the twinkling lights and glistening appointments of a dinner-table laid within, while in the water below a cumbrous country boat, roughly fitted with awnings, swung at its moorings. They had finished their dinner before an insistent and crescendo creaking announced the arrival of
the baggage, and Drummond bade Ujagar Singh present iiimself.
The young sepoy stood before them in punctilious salute, but with a deprecating smile that sought for recognition in the eyes of Tremayne. A plethoric spaniel rose slowly, sniffed and wheezed at the skirts of his coat, and at last rose on her hind legs and fawned upon him.
“It appears that old Rani has not forgotten her debt to thee, Ujagar Singh,” said Tremayne with a smile. “But assuredly I should not have known thee for the Chokra* of three years gone. For lo ! thou art now a man, and soon to be head of a household.”
“By your honor’s kindness and condescension,” murmured the other.
“Rather by that of your own Sahib,” replied Tremayne. “Well, we’ve done our part, and now the stage is ready for you. Your father has warned Sarup Singh to have the marriage meats prepared, and the priest in readiness. It only remains for you to ride on the appointed day to the house of your father-in-law, to claim your bride and take her home. When you have her in your father’s house I fancy you can keep her safe, even though you have to leave her in a day or two. And now, when the Sahib can spare you, I expect you would wish to go home? You can take the small dug-out, and make your way down the river : but I should advise you to lie close till the day after to-morrow. It is not impossible that an accident might happen to you.”
The young man saluted again with a grin of gratitude, but seemed to linger still and hesitate to speak.
“I fear greatly to trespass further on your honor’s kindness,” he blurted out on encouragement; “but would your two lordships so far honor mv father and myself by riding with us to Khemganj on the day of fulfilment. It is not protection we seek,” he added proudly, “but rather to show the neighbors that the house of Zamindar Daulat Singh has still the friendship and trust of the Sahibs as of old. It is granted? Then your honors are kind indeed. T go in great obligation.”
“Well, well,” commented Tremavne wearily. “We are a couple of meddling busybodies. Old Daulat Singh asked
my influence in the matter, but I shouldn’t have seen my way to do anything if you hadn’t interested yourself. If I went in this sort of Quixotism I should have no time for anything else. Have you any idea, old chap, how many, let us say, middlemen there are in a district—excellent instruments under control, but utterly unscrupulous without it—who are ever ready to pounce on and profit by the smallest lack of supervision? Can you imagine the number of cases somewhat parallel, that never see the daylight? There are many injustices I could avert if my advice were asked. The only alternative, as in the present instance, to meet plot with counterplot, intrgue with artifice, for which I have neither temper, time, nor taste. Still, for once, the means have served to secure the happy end, and —the rest of the action passes out of our hands, and behind the scenes.”
But there was an unexpected little epilogue of which those two were the sole and select audience. With some amusement in their hearts, a dawn or two later, they had joined the rude cavalcade of relations and retainers in the triumphant progress to the house of Sarup Singh at Khemganj. The latter’s countenance had fallen at sight of Tremayne, who, before leaving, flung him an ironical pleasantry which did not altogether restore his confidence. In the course of the afternoon in camp they had caught across the water snatches of melody and merriment from the bridal procession then wending its way to the house of the bridegroom.
They had strolled with their afterdinner cheroots to a little distance from the lighted tent, when something took shape from the shadows, a handsome stripling stood before them, and spoke a rapid sentence or two in a stealthy undertone.
“Well I’m blowed! Unprecedented I The land of surprises! A denouement indeed !” were some of the muttered phrases that expressed the amazement of his hearers.
For the lad had conveyed that his brother, Ujagar Singh had got his bride in a boat below the steep bank, and wished to present her to the Sahibs, if servants could be kept out of the way.
“Neither is this one of our customs,” began the young sepoy sheepishly, as,
after approaching noiselessly across the fretted leafy tracery, he stood with radiant smile, one hand resting lightly on the shoulder of a slim, shapely, shrouded figure at his side; “but surely no Rajput before was wedded with such honor. Also it is the wish of Rohini to declare all that her heart is full of, and truly her will is mine. Unveil, therefore, beloved, and speak thy mind. That is the great Police Sahib of our district, and this is my own Sahib of the regiment.”
Such moonlight as filtered through the foliage discovered a little, oval, olive face proudly poised on a form of striking symmetry. The delicate chiselled features bore the unmistakable stamp of race, the abiding heritage of the pure Rajput and the outcome of their rigid rules of mating.
“My lords,” she began dauntlessly in a voice that struggled for boldness and rippled with laughter and tears, “knowing of your great kindness and courtesy, I take no shame, but rather honor in thus revealing myself to your presence, and avowing our obligation. And to you, Sahib, I say,” addressing Drummond,
“that my man’s life is yours, yours to spend or to spill, as is that of all the sons that shall be born to us. And so it shall be in our house until your honor be Commander-in-Chief. And ever shall I pray to Rati that when the auspicious hour comes some gracious and beautiful lady may make your life as full and fruitful as you have made mine.”
The equivalent of “bless you my children!” was pronounced in all sincerity, and as the twin forms melted into the darkness, and the dip of oars died away in the distance, the young men threw themselves back in their chairs with a little sympathetic laughter that served to stifle a sigh.
“So the only thing for us to do,” suggested Tremayne after a pause of silence only broken by the lapping of the river, “is to drink their healths in one more peg, and then to bed, if we’re going to hunt up that pig at daybreak to-morrow:
“For marriage is always somewhat sad To those outside the door:
Still, Love is only a dream, and Life Itself is little more.”