The Naulahka


“Heart of my heart, is it meet or wise
“To warn a King of his enemies?
“We know what Heaven or Hell may bring,
“But no man knoweth the mind of the King.
The Ballad of the King’s Jest

page 1 of 2

‘WANT to see the Maharajah.’

‘He cannot be seen.’

‘I shall wait until he comes.’

‘He will not be seen all day.’

‘Then I shall wait all day.’

Tarvin settled himself comfortably in his saddle, and drew up in the centre of the courtyard, where he was wont to confer with the Maharajah.

The pigeons were asleep in the sunlight, and the little fountain was talking to itself, as a pigeon coos before settling to its nest. The white marble flagging glared like hot iron, and waves of heat flooded him from the green-shaded walls. The guardian of the gate tucked himself up in his sheet again and slept. And with him slept, as it seemed, the whole world in a welter of silence as intense as the heat. Tarvin’s horse champed his bit, and the echoes of the ringing iron tinkled from side to side of the courtyard. The man himself whipped a silk handkerchief round his neck as some slight protection against the peeling sunbeams, and, scorning the shade of the archway, waited in the open that the Maharajah might see there was an urgency in his visit.

In a few minutes there crept out of the stillness a sound like the far-off rustle of wind across a wheat-field on a still autumn day. It came from behind the green shutters, and with its coming Tarvin mechanically straightened himself in the saddle. It grew, died down again, and at last remained fixed in a continuous murmur, for which the ear strained uneasily—such a murmur as heralds the advance of a loud racing tide in a nightmare, when the dreamer cannot flee nor declare his terror in any voice but a whisper. After the rustle came the smell of jasmine and musk that Tarvin knew well.

The palace wing had wakened from its afternoon siesta, and was looking at him with a hundred eyes. He felt the glances that he could not see, and they filled him with wrath as he sat immovable, while the horse swished at the flies. Somebody behind the shutters yawned a polite little yawn. Tarvin chose to regard it as an insult, and resolved to stay where he was till he or the horse dropped. The shadow of the afternoon sun crept across the courtyard inch by inch, and wrapped him at last in stifling shade.

There was a muffled hum—quite distinct from the rustle—of voices within the palace. A little ivory inlaid door opened, and the Maharajah rolled into the courtyard. He was in the ugliest muslin undress, and his little saffron-coloured Rajput turban was set awry on his head, so that the emerald plume tilted drunkenly. His eyes were red with opium, and he walked as a bear walks when he is overtaken by the dawn in the poppyfield, where he has gorged his fill through the night watches.

Tarvin’s face darkened at the sight, and the Maharajah, catching the look, bade his attendants stand back out of earshot.

‘Have you been waiting long, Tarvin Sahib?’ he asked huskily, with an air of great good-will. ‘You know I see no man at this afternoon hour, and—and they did not bring me the news.’

‘I can wait,’ said Tarvin composedly.

The King seated himself in the broken Windsor chair, which was splitting in the heat, and eyed Tarvin suspiciously.

‘Have they given you enough convicts from the jails? Why are you not on the dam, then, instead of breaking my rest? By God! is a King to have no peace because of you and such as you?’

Tarvin let this outburst go by without comment.

‘I have come to you about the Maharaj Kunwar,’ he said quietly.

‘What of him?’ said the Maharajah quickly. ‘I—I—have not seen him for some days.’

‘Why?’ asked Tarvin bluntly.

‘Affairs of state and urgent political necessity,’ murmured the King, evading Tarvin’s wrathful eyes. ‘Why should I be troubled by these things, when I know that no harm has come to the boy?’

‘No harm!’

‘How could harm arrive?’ The voice dropped into an almost conciliatory whine. ‘You yourself, Tarvin Sahib, promised to be his true friend. That was on the day you rode so well, and stood so well against my bodyguard. Never have I seen such riding, and therefore why should I be troubled? Let us drink.’

He beckoned to his attendants. One of them came forward with a long silver tumbler concealed beneath his flowing garments, and poured into it an allowance of liqueur brandy that made Tarvin, used to potent drinks, open his eyes. The second man produced a bottle of champagne, opened it with a skill born of long practice, and filled up the tumbler with the creaming wine.

The Maharajah drank deep, and wiped the foam from his beard, saying apologetically—‘Such things are not for political agents to see; but you, Sahib, are true friend of the State. Therefore I let you see. Shall they mix you one like this? ‘

‘Thanks. I didn’t come here to drink. I came to tell you that the Maharaj has been very ill.’

‘I was told there was a little fever,’ said the King, leaning back in his chair. ‘But he is with Miss Sheriff, and she will make all well. Just a little fever, Tarvin Sahib. Drink with me.’

‘A little hell! Can you understand what I am saying? The little chap has been half poisoned.’

‘Then it was the English medicines,’ said the Maharajah, with a bland smile. ‘Once they made me very sick, and I went back to the native hakims. You are always making funny talks, Tarvin Sahib.’

With a mighty effort Tarvin choked down his rage, and tapped his foot with his riding-whip, speaking very clearly and distinctly—‘I haven’t come here to make funny talk to-day. The little chap is with Miss Sheriff now. He was driven over there; and somebody in the palace has been trying to poison him with hemp.’

‘Bhang!‘said the Maharajah stupidly.

‘ I don’t know what you call the mess, but he has been poisoned. But for Miss Sheriff he would have died—your first son would have died. He has been poisoned—do you hear, Maharajah Sahib?—and by some one in the palace.’

page 2

‘He has eaten something bad, and it has made him sick,’ said the King surlily. ‘Little boys eat anything. By God! no man would dare to lay a finger on my son.’

‘What would you do to prevent it?’

The Maharajah half rose to his feet, and his red eyes filled with fury. ‘I would tie him to the forefoot of my biggest elephant, and kill him through an afternoon!’ Then he relapsed, foaming, into the vernacular, and poured out a list of the hideous tortures that were within his will but not in his power to inflict. ‘I would do all these things to any man who touched him,’ he concluded.

Tarvin smiled incredulously.

‘I know what you think,’ stormed the King, maddened by the liquor and the opium. ‘You think that because there is an English government I can make trials only by law, and all that nonsense. Stuff! What do I care for the law that is in books? Will the walls of my palace tell anything that I do?’

‘They won’t. If they did, they might let you know that it is a woman inside the palace who is at the bottom of this.’

The Maharajah’s face turned grey under its brown. Then he burst forth anew, almost huskily—‘Am I a king or a potter that I must have the affairs of my zenana dragged into the sunlight by any white dog that chooses to howl at me? Go out, or the guard will drive you out like a jackal.’

‘That’s all right,’ said Tarvin calmly. ‘But what has it to do with the Prince, Maharajah Sahib? Come over to Mr. Estes’s and I’ll show you. You’ve had some experience of drugs, I suppose. You can decide for yourself. The boy has been poisoned.’

‘It was an accursed day for my State when I first allowed the missionaries to come, and a worse day when I did not drive you out.’

‘Not in the least. I’m here to look after the Maharaj Kunwar, and I’m going to do it. You prefer leaving him to be killed by your women.’

‘Tarvin Sahib, do you know what you say?’

‘Shouldn’t be saying it if I didn’t. I have all the proof in my hands.’

‘But when there is a poisoning there are no proofs of any kind, least of all when a woman poisons! One does justice on suspicion, and by the English law it is a most illiberal policy to kill on suspicion. Tarvin Sahib, the English have taken away from me everything that a Rajput desires, and I and the others are rolling in idleness like horses that never go to exercise. But at least I am master there!

He waved a hand toward the green shutters, and spoke in a lower key, dropping back into his chair, and closing his eyes.

Tarvin looked at him despairingly.

‘No one man would dare—no man would dare,’ murmured the Maharajah more faintly. ‘And as for the other thing that you spoke of, it is not in your power. By God! I am a Rajput and a king. I do not talk of the life behind the curtain.’

Then Tarvin took his courage in both hands and spoke.

‘I don’t want you to talk,’ he said; ‘I merely want to warn you against Sitabhai. She’s poisoning the Prince.’

The Maharajah shuddered. That a European should mention the name of his queen was in itself sufficient insult, and one beyond all his experience. But that a European should cry aloud in the open courtyard a charge such as Tarvin had just made surpassed imagination. The Maharajah had just come from Sitabhai, who had lulled him to rest with songs and endearments sacred to him alone; and here was this lean outlander assailing her with vile charges. But for the drugs he would, in the extremity of his rage, have fallen upon Tarvin, who was saying, ‘I can prove it quite enough to satisfy Colonel Nolan.’

The Maharajah stared at Tarvin with shiny eyes, and Tarvin thought for a moment that he was going to fall in a fit; but it was the drink and the opium reasserting their power upon him.

He mumbled angrily. The head fell forward, the words ceased, and he sat in his chair breathing heavily, as senseless as a log.

Tarvin gathered up his reins, and watched the sodden monarch for a long time in silence, as the rustle behind the shutters rose and fell. Then he turned to go, and rode out through the arch, thinking.

Something sprang out of the darkness where the guard slept, and where the King’s fighting apes were tethered; and the horse reared as a grey ape, its chain broken at the waist-band, flung itself on the pommel of the saddle, chattering. Tarvin felt and smelt the beast. It thrust one paw into the horse’s mane, and with the other encircled his own throat. Instinctively he reached back, and before the teeth under the grimy blue gums had time to close he had fired twice, pressing the muzzle of the pistol into the hide. The creature rolled off to the ground, moaning like a human being, and the smoke of the two shots drifted back through the hollow of the arch and dissolved in the open courtyard.