Chapter I.
 

It would be difficult to find a fairer scene. Throughout the gardens lanterns of many shapes and devices threw their light down upon the paths, which were marked out by lines of little lamps suspended on wires a foot above the ground. In a treble row they encircled a large tank or pond and studded a little island in its center. Along the terraces were festoons and arches of innumerable lamps, while behind was the Palace or Castle, for it was called either; the Oriental doors and windows and the tracery of its walls lit up below by the soft light, while the outline of the upper part could scarce be made out. Eastern as the scene was, the actors were for the most part English. Although the crowd that promenaded the terrace was composed principally of men, of whom the majority were in uniform of one sort or another, the rest in evening dress, there were many ladies among them.

At the end of one of the terraces a band of the 103d Bengal Infantry was playing, and when they ceased a band of native musicians, at the opposite end of the terrace, took up the strains. Within, the palace was brilliantly lighted, and at the tables in one of the large apartments a few couples were still seated at supper. Among his guests moved the Rajah, chatting in fluent English, laughing with the men, paying compliments to the ladies, a thoroughly good fellow all round, as his guests agreed. The affair had been a great success. There had first been a banquet to the officers and civilians at the neighboring station. When this was over, the ladies began to arrive, and for their amusement there had been a native nautch upon a grand scale, followed by a fine display of fireworks, and then by supper, at which the Rajah had made a speech expressive of his deep admiration and affection for the British. This he had followed up by proposing the health of the ladies in flowery terms. Never was there a better fellow than the Rajah. He had English tastes, and often dined at one or other of the officers' messes. He was a good shot, and could fairly hold his own at billiards. He had first rate English horses in his stables, and his turnout was perfect in all respects. He kept a few horses for the races, and was present at every ball and entertainment. At Bithoor he kept almost open house. There was a billiard room and racquet courts, and once or twice a week there were luncheon parties, at which from twelve to twenty officers were generally present. In all India there was no Rajah with more pronounced English tastes or greater affection for English people. The one regret of his life, he often declared, was that his color and his religion prevented his entertaining the hope of obtaining an English wife. All this, as everyone said, was the more remarkable and praiseworthy, inasmuch as he had good grounds of complaint against the British Government.

With the ladies he was an especial favorite; he was always ready to show them courtesy. His carriages were at their service. He was ready to give his aid and assistance to every gathering. His private band played frequently on the promenade, and handsome presents of shawls and jewelry were often made to those whom he held in highest favor. At present he was talking to General Wheeler and some other officers.

"I warn you that I mean to win the cup at the races," he said; "I have just bought the horse that swept the board on the Bombay side; I have set my heart on winning the cup, and so secured this horse. I am ready to back it if any of you gentlemen are disposed to wager against it."

"All in good time, Rajah," one of the officers laughed; "we don't know what will be entered against it yet, and we must wait to see what the betting is, but I doubt whether we have anything that will beat the Bombay crack on this side; I fancy you will have to lay odds on."

"We shall see," the Rajah said; "I have always been unlucky, but I mean to win this time."

"I don't think you take your losses much to heart, Rajah," General Wheeler said; "yet there is no doubt that your bets are generally somewhat rash ones."

"I mean to make a coup this time. That is your word for a big thing, I think. The Government has treated me so badly I must try to take something out of the pockets of its officers."

"You do pretty well still," the General laughed; "after this splendid entertainment you have given us this evening you can hardly call yourself a poor man."

"I know I am rich. I have enough for my little pleasures--I do not know that I could wish for more--still no one is ever quite content."

By this time the party was breaking up, and for the next half hour the Rajah was occupied in bidding goodby to his guests. When the last had gone he turned and entered the palace, passed through the great halls, and, pushing aside a curtain, entered a small room. The walls and the columns were of white marble, inlaid with arabesque work of colored stones. Four golden lamps hung from the ceiling, the floor was covered with costly carpets, and at one end ran a raised platform a foot in height, piled with soft cushions. He took a turn or two up and down the room, and then struck a silver bell. An attendant entered.

"Send Khoosheal and Imambux here."

Two minutes later the men entered. Imambux commanded the Rajah's troops, while Khoosheal was the master of his household.

"All has gone off well," the Rajah said; "I am pleased with you, Khoosheal. One more at most, and we shall have done with them. Little do they think what their good friend Nana Sahib is preparing for them. What a poor spirited creature they think me to kiss the hand that robbed me, to be friends with those who have deprived me of my rights! But the day of reckoning is not far off, and then woe to them all! Have any of your messengers returned, Imambux?"

"Several have come in this evening, my lord; would you see them now, or wait till morning?"

"I will see them now; I will get the memory of these chattering men and these women with their bare shoulders out of my mind. Send the men in one by one. I have no further occasion for you tonight; two are better than three when men talk of matters upon which an empire depends."

The two officers bowed and retired, and shortly afterwards the attendant drew back the curtain again, and a native, in the rags of a mendicant, entered, and bowed till his forehead touched the carpet. Then he remained kneeling, with his arms crossed over his chest, and his head inclined in the attitude of the deepest humility.

"Where have you been?" the Rajah asked.

"My lord's slave has been for three weeks at Meerut. I have obeyed orders. I have distributed chupaties among the native regiments, with the words, 'Watch, the time is coming,' and have then gone before I could be questioned. Then, in another disguise, I have gone through the bazaar, and said in talk with many that the Sepoys were unclean and outcast, for that they had bitten cartridges anointed with pig's fat, and that the Government had purposely greased the cartridges with this fat in order that the caste of all the Sepoys should be destroyed. When I had set men talking about this I left; it will be sure to come to the Sepoys' ears."

The Rajah nodded. "Come again tomorrow at noon; you will have your reward then and further orders; but see that you keep silence; a single word, and though you hid in the farthest corner of India you would not escape my vengeance."

Man after man entered. Some of them, like the first, were in mendicant's attire, one or two were fakirs, one looked like a well to do merchant. With the exception of the last, all had a similar tale to tell; they had been visiting the various cantonments of the native army, everywhere distributing chupaties and whispering tales of the intention of the Government to destroy the caste of the Sepoys by greasing the cartridges with pig's fat. The man dressed like a trader was the last to enter.

"How goes it, Mukdoomee?"

"It is well, my lord; I have traversed all the districts where we dwelt of old, before the Feringhee stamped us out and sent scores to death and hundreds to prison. Most of the latter whom death has spared are free now, and with many of them have I talked. They are most of them old, and few would take the road again, but scarce one but has trained up his son or grandson to the work; not to practice it,--the hand of the whites was too heavy before, and the gains are not large enough to tempt men to run the risk--but they teach them for the love of the art. To a worshiper of the goddess there is a joy in a cleverly contrived plan and in casting the roomal round the neck of the victim, that can never die. Often in my young days, when perhaps twelve of us were on the road in a party, we made less than we could have done by labor, but none minded.

"We were sworn brothers; we were working for Kali, and so that we sent her victims we cared little; and even after fifteen or twenty years spent in the Feringhee's prisons, we love it still; none hate the white man as we do; has he not destroyed our profession? We have two things to work for; first, for vengeance; second, for the certainty that if the white man's Raj were at an end, once again would the brotherhood follow their profession, and reap booty for ourselves and victims for Kali; for, assuredly, no native prince would dare to meddle with us. Therefore, upon every man who was once a Thug, and upon his sons and grandsons, you may depend. I do not say that they would be useful for fighting, for we have never been fighters, but the stranglers will be of use. You can trust them with missions, and send them where you choose. From their fathers' lips they have learnt all about places and roads; they can decoy Feringhee travelers, the Company's servants or soldiers, into quiet places, and slay them. They can creep into compounds and into houses, and choose their victims from the sleepers. You can trust them, Rajah, for they have learned to hate, and each in his way will, when the times comes, aid to stir up men to rise. The past had almost become a dream, but I have roused it into life again, and upon the descendants of the stranglers throughout India you can count surely."

"You have not mentioned my name?" the Rajah said suddenly, looking closely at the man as he put the question.

"Assuredly not, your highness; I have simply said deliverance is at hand; the hour foretold for the end of the Raj of the men from beyond the sea will soon strike, and they will disappear from the land like fallen leaves; then will the glory of Kali return, then again will the brotherhood take to the road and gather in victims. I can promise that every one of those whose fathers or grandfathers or other kin died by the hand of the Feringhee, or suffered in his prisons, will do his share of the good work, and be ready to obey to the death the orders which will reach him."

"It is good," the Rajah said; "you and your brethren will have a rich harvest of victims, and the sacred cord need never be idle. Go; it is well nigh morning, and I would sleep."

But not for some time did the Rajah close his eyes; his brain was busy with the schemes which he had long been maturing, but was only now beginning to put into action.

"It must succeed," he said to himself; "all through India the people will take up arms when the Sepoys give the signal by rising against their officers. The whites are wholly unsuspicious; they even believe that I, I whom they have robbed, am their friend. Fools! I hold them in the hollow of my hand; they shall trust me to the last, and then I will crush them. Not one shall escape me! Would I were as certain of all the other stations in India as I am of this. Oude, I know, will rise as one man; the Princes of Delhi I have sounded; they will be the leaders, though the old King will be the nominal head; but I shall pull the strings, and as Peishwa, shall be an independent sovereign, and next in dignity to the Emperor. Only nothing must be done until all is ready; not a movement must be made until I feel sure that every native regiment from Calcutta to the North is ready to rise."

And so, until the day had fully broken, the Rajah of Bithoor thought over his plans--the man who had a few hours before so sumptuously entertained the military and civilians of Cawnpore, and the man who was universally regarded as the firm friend of the British and one of the best fellows going.

The days and weeks passed on, messengers came and went, the storm was slowing brewing; and yet to all men it seemed that India was never more contented nor the outlook more tranquil and assured.