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- The Story of Sonny Sahib - 1/11 -


THE STORY OF SONNY SAHIB

By MRS. EVERARD COTES

(SARA JEANNETTE DUNCAN)

1894

CHAPTER I

'Ayah,' the doctor-sahib said in the vernacular, standing beside the bed, 'the fever of the mistress is like fire. Without doubt it cannot go on thus, but all that is in your hand to do you have done. It is necessary now only to be very watchful. And it will be to dress the mistress, and to make everything ready for a journey. Two hours later all the sahib-folk go from this place in boats, by the river, to Allahabad. I will send an ox-cart to take the mistress and the baby and you to the bathing ghat.'

'Jeldi karo!' he added, which meant 'Quickly do!'--a thing people say a great many times a day in India.

The ayah looked at him stupidly. She was terribly frightened; she had never been so frightened before. Her eyes wandered from the doctor's face to the ruined south wall of the hut, where the sun of July, when it happens to shine on the plains of India, was beating fiercely upon the mud floor. That ruin had happened only an hour ago, with a terrible noise just outside, such a near and terrible noise that she, Tooni, had scrambled under the bed the mistress was lying on, and had hidden there until the doctor-sahib came and pulled her forth by the foot, and called her a poor sort of person. Then Tooni had lain down at the doctor-sahib's feet, and tried to place one of them upon her head, and said that indeed she was not a worthless one, but that she was very old and she feared the guns; so many of the sahibs had died from the guns! She, Tooni, did not wish to die from a gun, and would the Presence, in the great mercy of his heart, tell her whether there would be any more shooting? There would be no more shooting, the Presence had said; and then he had given her a bottle and directions, and the news about going down the river in a boat. Tooni's mind did not even record the directions, but it managed to retain the words about going away in a boat, and as she stood twisting the bottle round and round in the folds of her ragged red petticoat it made a desperate effort to extract their meaning.

'There will be no more shooting,' said the doctor again, 'and there is a man outside with a goat. He will give you two pounds of milk for the baby for five rupees.'

'Rupia! I have not even one!' said the ayah, looking toward the bed; 'the captain-sahib has not come these thirty days as he promised. The colonel-sahib has sent the food. The memsahib is for three days without a pice.'

'I'll pay,' said the doctor shortly, and turned hurriedly to go. Other huts were crying out for him; he could hear the voice of some of them through their mud partitions. As he passed out he caught a glimpse of himself in a little square looking-glass that hung on a nail on the wall, and it made him start nervously and then smile grimly. He saw the face of a man who had not slept three hours in as many days and nights--a haggard, unshaven face, drawn as much with the pain of others as with its own weariness. His hair stood up in long tufts, his eyes had black circles under them. He wore neither coat nor waistcoat, and his regimental trousers were tied round the waist by a bit of rope. On the sleeve of his collarless shirt were three dark dry splashes; he noticed them as he raised his arm to put on his pith helmet. The words did not reach his lips, but his heart cried out within him for a boy of the 32nd.

The ayah caught up her brass cooking-pot and followed him. Since the doctor-sahib was to pay, the doctor-sahib would arrange that good measure should be given in the matter of the milk. And upon second thought the doctor-sahib decided that precautions were necessary. He told the man with the goat, therefore, that when the ayah received two pounds of milk she would pay him the five rupees. As he put the money into Tooni's hand she stayed him gently.

'We are to go without, beyond the walls, to the ghat?' she asked in her own tongue.

'Yes,' said the doctor, 'in two hours. I have spoken.'

'Hazur![1] the Nana Sahib--'

[1] 'Honoured one.'

'The Nana Sahib has written it. Bus!'[1] the doctor replied impatiently. Put the memsahib into her clothes. Pack everything there is, and hasten. Do you understand, foolish one?'

[1] 'Enough.'

'Very good said the ayah submissively, and watched the doctor out of sight. Then she insisted--holding the rupees, she could insist-- that the goat-keeper should bring his goat into the hut to milk it; there was more safety, Tooni thought, in the hut. While he milked it Tooni sat upon the ground, hugging her knees, and thought.

The memsahib had said nothing all this time, had known nothing. For two days the memsahib had been, as Tooni would have said, without sense--had lain on the bed in the corner quietly staring at the wall, where the looking-glass hung, making no sign except when she heard the Nana Sahib's guns. Then she sat up straight, and laughed very prettily and sweetly. It was the salute, she thought in her fever; the Viceroy was coming; there would be all sorts of gay doings in the station. When the shell exploded that tore up the wall of the hut, she asked Tooni for her new blue silk with the flounces, the one that had been just sent out from England, and her kid slippers with the rosettes. Tooni, wiping away her helpless tears with the edge of her head covering, had said, 'Na, memsahib, na!' and stroked the hot hand that pointed, and then the mistress had forgotten again. As to the little pink baby, three days old, it blinked and throve and slept as if it had been born in its father's house to luxury and rejoicing.

Tooni questioned the goat-keeper; but he had seen three sahibs killed that morning, and was stupid with fear. He did not even know of the Nana Sahib's order that the English were to be allowed to go away in boats; and this was remarkable, because he lived in the bazar outside, and in the bazar people generally know what is going to happen long before the sahibs who live in the tall white houses do. Tooni had only her own reflections.

There would be no more shooting, and the Nana Sahib would let them all go away in boats; that was good khaber--good news. Tooni wondered, as she put the baby's clothes together in one bundle, and her own few possessions together in another, whether it was to be believed. The Nana Sahib so hated the English; had not the guns spoken of his hate these twenty-one days? Inside the walls many had died, but outside the walls might not all die? The doctor had said that the Nana Sahib had written it; but why should the Nana Sahib write the truth? The Great Lord Sahib, the Viceroy, had sent no soldiers to compel him. Nevertheless, Tooni packed what there was to pack, and soothed the baby with a little goat's milk and water, and dressed her mistress as well as she was able, according to the doctor's directions. Then she went out to where old Abdul, the table-waiter, her husband, crouched under a wall, and told him all that she knew and feared. But Abdul, having heard no guns for nearly an hour and a half, was inclined to be very brave, and said that without doubt they should all get safely to Allahabad; and there, when the memsahib was better, they would find the captain- sahib again, and he would give them many rupees backsheesh for being faithful to her.

'The memsahib will never be better,' said Tooni, sorrowfully; 'her rice is finished in the earth. The memsahib will die.'

She agreed to go to the ghat, though, and went back into the hut to wait for the ox-cart while Abdul cooked a meal on the powder- blackened ground with the last of the millet, and gave thanks to Allah.

There was no room for Tooni to ride when they started. She walked alongside carrying the baby and its little bundle of clothes. There was nothing else to carry, and that was fortunate, for the cart in which the memsahib lay was too full of sick and wounded to hold anything more. In Tooni's pocket a little black book swung to and fro; it was the memsahib's book; and in the beginning of the firing, before the fever came, Tooni had seen the memsahib reading it long and often. They had not been killed in consequence, Tooni thought; there must be a protecting charm in the little black book; so she slipped it into her pocket. They left the looking-glass behind.

The ox-cart passed out creaking, in its turn, beyond the earthworks of the English encampment into the city, where the mutinous natives stood in sullen curious groups to watch the train go by. A hundred yards through the narrow streets, choked with the smell of gunpowder and populous with vultures, and Abdul heard a quick voice in his ear. When he turned, none were speaking, but he recognised in the crowd the lowering indifferent face of a sepoy he knew--one of the Nana Sahib's servants. Saying nothing, he fell back for Tooni and laid his hand upon her arm. And when the cart creaked out of the town into the crowded, dusty road that led down to the ghat, neither Abdul nor Tooni were in the riotous crowd that pressed along with it. They had taken refuge in the outer bazar, and Sonny Sahib, sound asleep and well hidden, had taken refuge with them.

As to Sonny Sahib's mother, she was neither shot in the boats with the soldiers that believed the written word of the Nana Sahib, nor stabbed with the women and children who went back to the palace afterwards. She died quietly in the oxcart before it reached the ghat, and the pity of it was that Sonny Sahib's father, the captain, himself in hospital four hundred miles from Cawnpore, never knew.


The Story of Sonny Sahib - 1/11

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