Flood of Fire | Chapter 18 of 29

Author: Amitav Ghosh | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 4931 Views | Add a Review

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Twelve

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The Hind had advanced only a few miles downriver when Raju came running down in search of Zachary, who was in one of the cargo holds, taking inventory of Mr Burnham’s consignment of Malwa opium.

‘Mr Reid sir!’ cried the boy. ‘You’d better come up.’

‘Come where, kid-mutt?’

‘To the cabin, sir.’

The cabin that Zachary had been assigned was in the poop-deck, and, exactly as Mr Burnham had promised, it was of comfortable size. This was providential since the Hind’s holds were filled to capacity with the Bengal Volunteers’ armaments, equipment and baggage. Storage space was now so short that Zachary had been forced to stow five chests of opium in his own cabin. That was where he had left Raju, with instructions to see to it that the five chests were properly stacked and covered with tarpaulin.

‘Did you finish with the chests, kid-mutt?’

‘No, sir. I couldn’t.’

There was a note of fright in his voice which made Zachary look at him more closely. ‘What’s happened, kid-mutt?’ he said, softening his tone. ‘What’s going on?’

‘You’d better come and see, sir.’

‘All right then.’

With Raju at his heels Zachary made his way up through the innards of the ship, past the crowded, noisome chaos of the steerage deck, up to the maindeck and past the dining salon. On reaching the gangway that led to his cabin he beheld a startling sight: all his baggage, including the five chests of opium, had been shoved out.

More in surprise than indignation, Zachary turned to Raju: ‘What happened here, kid-mutt? Who did this?’

Raju made no answer but gestured mutely ahead, in the direction of the cabin. ‘I tried to stop them, sir …’

Stepping up to the cabin Zachary saw, to his astonishment, that two young lieutenants were lounging in the bunks, in full uniform, devoid only of their shakoes, with their swords strapped to their sides and their booted feet thrust against the bulkheads.

The casual brutality of this usurpation astonished Zachary and he was unable to keep his voice down: ‘What the hell’re you doing in my cabin?’

‘Your cabin?’

One of the lieutenants swung his boots off the bunk and came right up to Zachary. He was a thin, pimply youth but what he lacked in bulk he more than made up for in swagger and sneer.

‘You are mistaken, sir,’ said the lieutenant, thrusting his nose to within a few inches of Zachary’s. ‘This is not your cabin. It has been reassigned.’

‘On whose authority?’

Now suddenly another voice cut in: ‘On my authority, sir.’

Turning on his heel Zachary found himself facing another officer.

‘I am Captain Mee of the Bengal Volunteers; I am in command of the soldiers on this ship. It is on my authority that this cabin has been reassigned.’

The captain was a man of imposing build and stature: even without his gold-braided shako he towered above Zachary by at least a full head. His broad, deep chest had a yellow sash slung diagonally across it, running from his right epaulette to his waist. There was a bend in his nose that gave him a look of natural disdain; his jaw was massive and there was something about its cut that indicated a fiery temper: it was almost bristling now as he returned Zachary’s gaze with hard, unsmiling eyes.

‘You had no right to reassign my cabin, sir,’ Zachary protested. ‘Only the captain of this vessel has that authority.’

‘You are mistaken, sir,’ said Captain Mee. ‘This vessel is currently a military transport. Army personnel have priority in all matters.’

‘Sir, this cabin was allotted to me by the shipowner himself,’ said Zachary, trying to sound reasonable. ‘I am his representative and the supercargo of this vessel.’

‘Oh is that what you are?’ The captain lowered his eyes to the chests of opium, all of which bore the markings of the Ghazipur opium factory. He drew his foot back and kicked one of the chests: ‘Why, sir, I could have sworn that you were a common opium-pedlar.’

The captain’s curled lip, and the glint of contempt in his eye, made Zachary’s face burn. Controlling his voice with some difficulty, he said: ‘I am carrying a cargo, sir, that is legal by the laws of this land. I have every right to take it where I wish.’

‘And I, sir,’ retorted the captain, ‘have every right to tell you that I do not care for drug-pedlars.’

‘Then your quarrel, sir,’ said Zachary sharply, ‘is not with me but with the Honourable East India Company, whose uniform you wear – for as you can see, the seal of the Company’s factory is clearly stamped upon these chests.’

At this the captain’s scowl deepened and his hands moved towards the hilt of his sword. ‘Don’t you get gingery with me, sir,’ he growled. ‘You are insulting my uniform and I will not stand for it.’

‘What I said, sir, is no more than the truth,’ said Zachary.

‘Well here is another truth for you then,’ said Captain Mee. ‘You would do well to get yourself and your cargo out of my sight right now. And let me assure you, sir, that if it should come to my ears that you’ve been peddling your merchandise to my sepoys, I shall personally see to it that your cargo is thrown overboard. You may consider that fair warning.’

A rush of blood flooded into Zachary’s head now and he forgot about the captain’s sword. Bunching his fists he took a step in his direction – ‘Why you …’ – but only to find that someone had taken hold of his elbow and was pulling him back.

‘Reid! Haul your wind!’

It was Mr Doughty who had appeared at his side: ‘Let’s not make a goll-maul here, Reid. These military fellows will have their way, one way or another. We’ll make other arrangements, don’t worry. There’s a nice little cumra down in the steerage deck that will be ekdum theek for you. Come on now, let’s be off to freshen hawse.’

After a moment’s hesitation, Zachary allowed himself to be led away, but under protest: ‘This is all wrong, Mr Doughty. I was assured that I’d have that cabin …!’

Glancing back, Zachary saw that the three officers were observing his retreat with expressions of amused contempt. Their voices followed him as he was led away:

‘… lucky little cockquean, to get off without copping a porridge-popper …’

‘… another minute and he’d have been jawed in the fiszog …’ ‘… if anyone ever needed a fist in the frontispiece it’s that little sprig of myrtle …’

Zachary could do nothing but grind his teeth.

*

Once the Hind was on the open sea, cruising towards Singapore, Shireen became increasingly preoccupied with the prospect of meeting her husband’s unacknowledged son.

‘Tell me about Freddie, Zadig Bey. You must know him as well as anyone. What was he like as a child?’

Zadig’s hand rose to stroke his chin. As a boy, he said, Freddie had been good-natured, trusting, a little bewildered; left to himself he would probably have been content to be apprenticed to a boatman or fisherman, as was the custom with the children of Canton’s boat-people. But Bahram would not hear of this. He had nurtured many ambitions for his son: he had wanted him to grow up so that he would be able to hold his own among gentlemen of all sorts – European, Chinese and Hindustani. He had wanted him to be able to quote poetry and he had also wanted him to excel in gentlemanly sports like fencing, boxing and riding. He had hired tutors to teach him English, Classical Chinese, and many other things – no easy matter that, since there were strict rules in China about who could learn what and from whom. But with the help of his compradore Bahram was able to ensure that the boy got an education, although Freddie himself had shown little inclination for it.

Bahram had certainly meant well, said Zadig, but he hadn’t made life any easier for the boy. Freddie’s peers knew of course that his father was an ‘Achha’ – which was what Hindustanis were called in Canton – and they knew also that he was a rich merchant, of the ‘White Hat’ variety (which was what they called Parsis). This made it hard enough for Freddie to fit in, and the fact that he received lessons from tutors, and was often given expensive presents, made it harder still. At times he had felt very lonely and had even spoken of escaping to India. He had dreamt of meeting his half-sisters and stepmother, and had longed to live in Bombay, with his rich step-family; having grown up on a kitchen-boat in Canton’s floating city, the idea of a mansion, with servants and coachmen, was no doubt impossibly attractive.

But on this matter Bahram had been inflexible: indulgent though he was of Freddie he made it clear that he would not, on any account, take him to India. Bahram had been convinced that if the boy’s existence were made public a terrible scandal would ensue; that he would be destroyed, as a father, a husband and a businessman.

So Freddie had had no option but to fit in as best he could in Canton, which meant that he had drifted into the company of others like himself – the half-Chinese children of sailors, merchants and other foreigners. At a certain age Freddie had moved out of his mother’s kitchen-boat and gone off to live somewhere else: he would visit Chi-mei occasionally but when she asked what sort of work he was doing he would give evasive answers. This had led her to believe that Freddie had fallen in with one of the many criminal gangs and brotherhoods of the Canton waterfront.

At their last meeting Chi-mei had confided to Zadig that she feared for the life of her son.

Shortly afterwards Freddie had disappeared. On a subsequent visit to Canton, Zadig had learnt that Chi-mei had been murdered at about the time of Freddie’s disappearance, in the course of what appeared to be a burglary. Bahram was back in Bombay then, and Zadig had written to let him know that Chi-mei had died and Freddie was untraceable.

After that, for a long time, there was no news at all of Freddie. Both Bahram and Zadig had begun to fear that he was dead – but then he had re-surfaced again, in Singapore.

Bahram was on his way to Canton then, for what would prove to be his last visit. It so happened that Zadig was in Singapore too, en route to the same destination. They had met up and Bahram had offered Zadig a berth on his ship.

Zadig was on the Anahita one day when Vico went ashore to buy clothes at a weekly market on the outskirts of Singapore – and there, unexpectedly, Vico had run into Freddie. He was with a friend, a Bengali – this was none other than Anil Kumar Munshi, the man who would later become Bahram’s secretary.

Bahram had been overjoyed to be reunited with his son. He had invited Freddie to move to the Anahita, with his friend, and they had spent several happy days together on the ship. Freddie had seemed a changed man, mellower and more forgiving of his father. But about himself he was still reticent: when asked where he had been these last few years all he would say was that he had been travelling around the East Indies.

When the Anahita’s repairs were completed and it came time for Bahram to leave Singapore, he had asked Freddie to accompany him to Canton. But Freddie had declined, saying that he wanted instead to go to Malacca where his half-sister lived.

‘Was that the last time my husband saw him then?’

‘Yes, Bibiji. It was the last time I saw him too – more than a year and a half ago.’

‘After all this time do you think you’ll be able to find him in Singapore?’

‘Yes, Bibiji. If he’s there I should be able to trace him.’

In lieu of his cabin Zachary was allotted a cubicle in the steerage-deck: formerly a sail-maker’s closet it was sandwiched between the fo’c’sle, where the lascars were berthed, and the large cumra that was occupied by the camp-followers. The cubicle had no window and was so cramped that there was barely space for the single hammock that was strung up in it. At first glance it seemed impossible that it could accommodate a man and boy as well as eight hundred pounds of opium. But in the end, by tightening the ropes of the hammock until it was almost flat against the ceiling, Zachary was able to fit everything in. His chests and sea-trunk he stacked underneath the hammock so that they became a makeshift bunk for Raju to curl up on.

The boy made no complaint and even seemed to enjoy sleeping on the chests: he would lie there for hours, with an ear pinned to the bulkhead that separated the cubicle from the adjoining cumra.

This bulkhead was no more than a thin partition, made of a few badly fitted planks of wood. When the ship tossed or heaved, cracks would open up between the planks, providing glimpses of the adjacent cumra; sometimes the planks would rise, so that gaps opened up in the partition. Peeping through the openings, Raju saw that a squad of fifers and drummers, many of them of about his own age, had been berthed right next to the cubicle.

The banjee-boys were a high-spirited lot; to Raju even their quarrels were interesting – not least because of the way they spoke. Their argot was like some brightly coloured kedgeree, studded with nuts and raisins, but also filled with grit: chummy expressions like ‘yaar’ and ‘men’ rolled off their tongues almost as often as swear words like ‘bahenchod’ and ‘chootiya’; ‘motherfucker’ and ‘arse-hole’.

Sometimes, when the ship heaved, the partition between the cubicle and the cumra would rise clean off the deck-planks, allowing small objects to slip through. One evening, when he was alone in the cubby, Raju looked down to find that a gleaming silver-coloured pipe had appeared on his side of the divide. It had lodged itself under Zachary’s sea-trunk, in a position where it was in danger of being crushed.

Raju hurried to rescue the instrument and no sooner had he done so than a commotion broke out on the other side of the bulwark. Putting his ear to a crack in the wood, Raju realized that someone was searching frantically for the fife that he was now holding in his own hands.

How to let the boy know that his fife was safe? An idea came to Raju: he had taken music lessons and was not unfamiliar with instruments like flutes and recorders. Putting the fife to his lips he played a few notes.

The effect was exactly as he had hoped. There was a silence followed by a whispered question: Is that a fife?

Yes, said Raju. It rolled over here.

Another pause and then an entreaty: Yaar, can you meet me outside?

Raju stepped out into the narrow gangway that ran past the cubicle. Shortly afterwards a snub-nosed, brown-haired boy came running towards him.

The gangway was lit by a single, flickering lamp. In the dim light Raju saw that the fifer was not much taller than himself, although he looked much more grown up because of his uniform, with its braided epaulettes.

The fifer received his pipe gratefully and stuck out his hand: Tera naam kya hai yaar? What’s your name?

Raju. Aur tera?

Dicky.

Gesturing in the direction of the camp-followers’ compartment, the fifer added: I have to practise now but we can talk tomorrow.

The next day the boys talked briefly on the maindeck. Later, they continued their conversation below deck, whispering through cracks in the partition.

Raju was amazed to learn that the banjee-boys actually marched into battle with the sepoys. Theirs was a vital job, Dicky told him; the drummers provided the rhythm for the march, and the fifers piped the signals for the manoeuvres. Without them the sepoys would not know when to wheel from column to line; nor would they be able to form an echelon for an attack. The pitch of the fifers’ instruments was so high that they could be heard over the din of battle.

Still more amazing was the discovery that Dicky had actually been in battles himself. Dicky did not make too much of it: ‘We were fighting some Pindarees, men. Bloody buggers would always turn and run after the first volley. Junglee bastards – all beard and no balls.’

After that, when he was alone in the cubby, Raju would often talk to Dicky, whispering through cracks in the bulwark, and soon enough he was speaking exactly like his new-found friend.

Dicky’s stories mesmerized Raju: the lives of the fifers and drummers seemed impossibly glamorous; it was hard for him to believe that boys of his own age could have such exciting careers. His own existence seemed embarrasingly commonplace by comparison and he was surprised when Dicky displayed a keen interest in the dullest details of his past: had Raju studied in a school? Did he have a mother? A father? Did they eat in a mess or did his mother cook for them? Where had he learnt English?

Sometimes Raju would drop his guard and reveal a little more than he had intended – as, for example, when he borrowed Dicky’s fife and played a tune on it.

‘Where’d you learn to play like that, men?’

‘Took music lessons, no? On the recorder.’

Dicky goggled at him. ‘Arré? What kind of khidmatgar you are, men, taking music lessons and all?’

Raju had to think quickly to retrieve the situation; he did so by inventing a story about how he had once been employed by a bandmaster.

The next day one of the fifers fell ill and Dicky suggested to the fife-major that Raju be allowed to take his place for a few days. The fife-major was a short, hirsute man with a scowl permanently affixed to his face: behind his back the boys called him Bobbery-Bob, because of the exclamations and obscenities that constantly flowed off his tongue.

Raju was allowed to audition and was dismayed to learn afterwards that Bobbery-Bob had said that he’d played like he was ‘shitting the squitters’. But Dicky laughed into his crestfallen face and said that this was in fact a rare accolade: ‘What it means, bugger, is that your notes flowed really smoothly. You’re almost one of us now!’

*

Kesri, no less than the younger sepoys, was awed by the sight that greeted them when the Hind sailed into Singapore’s outer harbour. Six warships were riding at anchor there, one of them a majestic triple-decked man-o’-war.

The transport and supply vessels were moored at a slight distance from the warships. There were no fewer than twelve of them, their decks aswarm with red-coated soldiers and sepoys. The Hind dropped anchor right next to the troopship that was carrying their brother unit – the other company of Bengal Volunteers. The sepoys gathered on deck to exchange shouted greetings.

Looking around the harbour, Kesri saw that the Royal Irish Regiment had already arrived, as had the left wing of the Cameronians. The colours of the 49th Regiment could also be seen on a ship that had just sailed in from Colombo. Only the 37th Madras Regiment was still to come.

Later that day Captain Mee summoned Kesri to the quarterdeck for his daily report on the conditions below. Their business was quickly dispatched and afterwards the captain identified the warships for Kesri, rattling off their names one by one: that over there was the eighteen-gun Cruiser, and there was the ten-gun Algerine riding beside two twenty-eight-gun frigates Conway and Alligator. And towering over them all was the man-o’-war, Wellesley: she was a ship-of-the-line, said Captain Mee, armed with no fewer than seventy-four guns.

The Wellesley was the tallest sailing vessel that Kesri had ever set eyes on. He assumed that she was, if not the most powerful vessel in the Royal Navy, then certainly of their number. But Captain Mee explained that by the standards of the Royal Navy the Wellesley was but a vessel of medium size, rated as a warship of the third class. Much the same could be said of the fleet itself, the captain added – although large for Asian waters, it was small by the standards of the Royal Navy, which frequently assembled armadas of fifty warships or more.

Kesri was both chastened and reassured to learn of this. He understood from the captain’s tone that from the British perspective this expedition was a relatively minor venture and that they were completely confident of achieving their objectives. This was just as well, as far as Kesri was concerned. Heroics were of no interest to him – he had wounds enough to show for his years in service, and all that concerned him now was getting himself and his men safely back to their villages.

Later in the day Captain Mee and his subalterns went off in a longboat, to attend a meeting on the Wellesley. When they returned, several hours later, Captain Mee summoned Kesri to his stateroom for a briefing.

There had been some major changes in the expedition’s chain of command, the captain told him. Admiral Frederick Maitland, who was to have commanded the expedition, had taken ill and another officer had been given his post – Rear-Admiral George Elliot, who, as it happened, was the cousin of the British Plenipotentiary in China, Captain Charles Elliot.

Rear-Admiral Elliot was on his way from Cape Town and would join the expedition later; until then Commodore Sir Gordon Bremer would be in command, while Colonel Burrell would be in charge of operational details. The colonel had already taken some important decisions regarding the force’s stay in Singapore. One of them was that the soldiers and sepoys would remain on their ships, through the duration of the stay.

Kesri was disappointed to hear this, for he had been hoping to spend a few days on dry land. ‘Why so, sir?’

‘Singapore is a small colony, havildar, not yet twenty years old,’ said Captain Mee. ‘To set up a camp large enough to hold all of us would be difficult because the island’s forests are very dense. And there are tigers too – a couple of men were killed just this week, on the edge of town.’

‘So how long will we be here, sir?’

‘There’s no telling,’ said the captain. ‘A third or more of the force is still to arrive. I’d say it’ll take another couple of weeks, at the very least.’

‘Will there be liberty, sir? Shore leave?’

The captain shot him a glance. ‘It wouldn’t be much use to you, havildar,’ he said with a wry smile. ‘If you’re thinking of bawdy-baskets, you can put that out of your mind. Women are as scarce as diamonds in Singapore – the knocking-shops are full of travesties so you’d probably end up with a molly-dan. And if back-gammoning isn’t to your taste, then the only other diversion is chasing the yinyan.’

‘So what will the men do here, sir, for two weeks?’

The captain laughed. ‘Drills, havildar, drills! Boat drills, attack drills, bayonet drills, rocket drills. Don’t worry – there’ll be plenty to do.’

When Shireen learnt the name of the tall seventy-four-gun frigate in the harbour she gave a cry of recognition: ‘The Wellesley! Why, I know that ship – she was built in Bombay, by our friends the Wadias. I was there for the launching. They named her in honour of Sir Arthur Wellesley.’

‘The Duke of Wellington?’

‘Yes,’ said Shireen. ‘I saw him once, you know. It was just after he’d won the Battle of Assaye. He was being fêted in Bombay and the Wadias threw a big burra-khana for him at Tarala, their mansion in Mazagon, and we were invited. They allowed the girls and women to watch from a jharoka upstairs. Sir Arthur was the sternest-looking man I’ve ever seen.’

Zadig burst into laughter. ‘Bibiji, for a woman who has spent much of her life in purdah, you’ve certainly seen a lot!’

Shireen laughed too, but more out of nervousness than amusement. Zadig understood exactly what was on her mind. ‘You’re worrying about Freddie, aren’t you, Bibiji?’

Shireen bit her lip and nodded. ‘Yes I am, Zadig Bey – I can’t stop thinking about him.’

‘Would you like to come along when I go to look for him, tomorrow?’

The question threw Shireen into a panic. The prospect of meeting her late husband’s son in an unfamiliar place, without preparation, was deeply unsettling. ‘No, Zadig Bey,’ she said, ‘it can’t happen like that. You must give me time, and warning, so that I can be ready.’

‘All right, Bibiji. As you say.’

When it came time for Zadig to go ashore the next morning Shireen was on deck to see him off. Through the rest of the morning she and Rosa took it in turns to keep watch for his return.

Around noon, there was an excited knock on the door of Shireen’s stateroom.

Bibiji! said Rosa, sticking her head in. Zadig Bey is back – he’s waiting for you on the quarter-deck.

Shireen went hurrying out and found Zadig sitting on a bench, under the awning that had been rigged up to cover the quarterdeck. He rose to his feet with a smile.

‘Bibiji – good news! I found Freddie!’

‘Where, Zadig Bey? Tell me everything.’

‘Finding him was easy, Bibiji. It was he who spotted me as I was walking along Boat Quay. He came hurrying up to greet me, which was lucky, for if I had seen him in a crowd I wouldn’t have recognized him.’

‘Why is that?’

‘He is completely changed, Bibiji, in many different ways – even his way of speaking English is different now. His looks have changed too: he is very thin and has grown a beard. To be honest, he does not look well.’

‘Why do you say that?’

Clearing his throat, Zadig said: ‘There is something I haven’t told you, Bibiji.’

‘Yes? Go on.’

‘Bibiji, you should know that Freddie is an opium-smoker. This is not unusual in itself, for many people in China smoke occasionally. But Freddie is one of those who has had problems with it. I thought he had given up, but I think he has started again. This has been a difficult time for him, no doubt – Bahram-bhai’s death, especially, has been very hard on him.’

Only now did it occur to Shireen that her husband’s death, which had so powerfully affected her own life, might have had similar repercussions for his son.

‘Do you suppose he misses his father?’

‘Yes, Bibiji. Even though things were never easy between them, Bahram-bhai was like a great rock that Freddie could both rage against and shelter behind. Now that his father is gone, and his mother too, he is truly alone. It has come as a great blow to him, especially because he was not there at the end, for either of them. In his heart, you know, he is very Chinese, and it weighs on him that he was not able to put his father’s soul to rest. He seems, in a way’ – Zadig tipped his head back and looked up at the sky as though he were searching for a word – ‘haunted.’

‘Haunted?’ A shiver ran through Shireen. ‘By whom? I don’t understand, Zadig Bey. Please explain.’

‘I don’t know how to tell you this, Bibiji, but what Freddie said is that he sometimes hears Bahram-bhai’s voice and feels his presence. In fact he said that this was the reason he moved from Malacca to Singapore. He said he knew I would be coming – he’s been waiting for me.’

‘Had you written to him?’

‘No, Bibiji – I don’t know how he learnt that I was coming. It’s very strange – we can ask him about it tomorrow, when he comes to visit.’

‘Is he coming tomorrow?’ cried Shireen. ‘So soon?’

‘Yes, Bibiji,’ said Zadig, on a note of finality. ‘He will be here tomorrow morning; of course you need not meet with him, if you don’t wish to.’

Shireen passed a restless night and in the morning, when she saw Zadig on the quarter-deck, she was unable to conceal her misgivings: ‘Zadig Bey, I don’t know if it’s well-advised to meet with Freddie. What good can possibly come of it? I am beginning to feel that I made a mistake. I should not have set out to look for the boy just to indulge my curiosity.’

Zadig shook his head. ‘No, Bibiji. That is not why you have sought him out – it’s because only you can give this boy peace of mind. Only you can give him a sense of having a place in his father’s world. Very few women would have the courage to do what you are about to do, Bibiji. You must not flinch now.’

Shireen’s hands rose to her fluttering heart. ‘Oh but I’m afraid, Zadig Bey!’

‘Bibiji, you don’t have to go through with it if you don’t want to,’ said Zadig. ‘Why don’t you wait and see? I will say nothing to him until you give me a sign.’

So it was arranged between them that Shireen would watch from a distance while Zadig welcomed Freddie on board.

When Freddie’s lighter pulled up Zadig went down to the maindeck while Shireen hid herself in a corner above, on the quarterdeck. From the shelter of the balustrade she kept watch, veiled by a shawl, as Freddie stepped off the side-ladder and boarded the Hind.

He was trim in figure and of medium height, dressed in shabby European clothes: a fraying linen suit and a wide-brimmed hat. The sun was at such an angle that Shireen could not get a good look at his face, which was shaded by the hat. But then, as Zadig was leading him across the deck, they happened to run into Zachary, with whom Zadig had become acquainted in the course of the voyage. He stopped now to make introductions: ‘Mr Reid, this is my godson – Mr Freddie Lee.’

‘I am glad to meet you, Mr Lee,’ Shireen heard Zachary say as he stuck out his hand.

‘And I too, Mr Reid,’ Freddie responded. Looking a little flustered he took off his hat and held it to his chest; only now was Shireen able to get a proper look at his face.

He was skeletally thin, with sunken cheeks, hollow eyes and an unclipped beard – but none of this surprised Shireen. What startled her was that the cast of his countenance seemed completely Chinese, so much so that at first it seemed impossible that he could be Bahram’s son.

But then, as she looked on from above, Shireen slowly began to revise her first impression: the more she looked at Freddie’s face the more she saw echoes of Bahram’s – in his dark, heavy eyebrows, his full lips, and most of all, in his fine nose, with its hint of a curve. Then Freddie happened to smile – ‘You have never been in Singapore, eh Mr Reid? I would be glad to show you around, lah!’ – and for an instant it was as though she were looking at a long-ago version of Bahram himself. It amazed her now that she could have doubted for a minute that the boy was her husband’s son.

When Zadig’s eyes flickered in her direction she gave him a nod and went hurrying down to the passengers’ salon.

To her relief the salon was empty. She seated herself on a settee, facing the door, and removed the veil from her face.

Freddie entered the salon ahead of Zadig and, to Shireen’s astonishment, when their eyes met he gave her a smile and a nod, as if to say that he recognized her and knew who she was.

‘Freddie,’ said Zadig. ‘I want to introduce you to someone—’

Freddie cut him short. ‘There is no need, lah. I know who she is.’

Summoning a smile, Shireen patted the space beside her, on the settee.

‘Please … won’t you sit down?’

When he’d sat down, hat in hand, she pronounced his name experimentally – ‘Freddie’ – and extended her hand towards him. If he had put out his hand too she would perhaps have shaken it, but he didn’t, so her hand strayed towards his face and her fingertips skimmed over his eyebrows, touching his nose and chin – and suddenly it was as if Bahram had come alive and was sitting beside her. Her eyes flooded over and she pulled Freddie towards her so that his forehead sank on to her shoulder: she could tell that he too was sobbing now, just as she was.

When she looked at him again, his eyes were red and there was a kind of wildness in them: it was as if the curtains of adulthood had parted to give her a glimpse of a deep well of suffering that went back to his boyhood.

‘I’ve been waiting for you, lah,’ he said, almost on a note of accusation. ‘I was thinking when you would come, eh?’

‘But how could you know that I would come?’

He smiled. ‘Because my father tells me, ne? He always say you will come, before month of Hungry Ghosts.’

Here, seeing that Shireen had gone pale, Zadig signalled to Freddie to say no more. But Shireen would not let him stop. ‘Go on. Please. What else does your father say?’

A few minutes passed before Freddie spoke again. ‘He say that I must go with you. I must burn offerings for him and my mother, at his grave in Hong Kong.’

*

Zachary’s first impressions of Singapore were disappointing: from a distance the settlement had the appearance of a clearing in the jungle. Nor did it improve greatly on closer inspection: Boat Quay, where he had disembarked from the lighter that had brought him over from the Hind, was a muddy mess, and he had to scramble across a teetering bamboo jetty to get to the shore.

Yet, even though the port looked more like a fishing-village than a town, there was nothing sleepy about it. Stepping off the jetty, he was swept along by a crowd to an open crossroads that went by the name of Commercial Square. It was lined with saloons, shipchandling establishments, shops, brokerages, barbershops and the like.

Spotting a sign with ‘tiffin’ on it, Zachary went in and ordered some tea and mutton patties. While waiting to be served he picked up a copy of a paper that had been left behind by another customer. The paper was called the Singapore Chronicle and Zachary’s eyes went straight to a column that began: ‘In some quarters of this town, the retail price of a chest of the best Bengal opium has risen to 850 Spanish dollars.’

Zachary sat back, stunned. He had been led to expect that chests would fetch seven hundred dollars if he was lucky: this was a windfall!

Wolfing down his patties and draining his tea, he stepped outside, into the sunshine, and looked at the square with new eyes. How was it possible that a ramshackle place like this could pay such steep prices? It defied belief.

A touch on his elbow woke him from his reverie.

‘Good day, Mr Reid!’

Turning with a start, Zachary found himself face to face with the man he had met yesterday on the deck of the Hind – he could not immediately remember his name. He was dressed as he had been the day before, in a light linen suit.

‘Freddie Lee,’ said the man, extending his hand.

‘Hello, Mr Lee!’ said Zachary, giving his hand a shake. ‘Nice surprise to run into you here.’

‘Why surprise?’ said Freddie gruffly. ‘Singapore is a small place, ne? You have seen the town?’

‘No,’ said Zachary. ‘This is my first time ashore.’

‘Come – I show you around,’ said Freddie. ‘Small place; will not take long.’

Some instinct stirred within Zachary, making him hesitate. But then Freddie added: ‘Don’t worry, lah – you and I, soon we will be shipmates.’

‘Really? You’ll be travelling on the Hind?’

‘Yes. My godfather, Mr Karabedian, he invite me share his cabin. I will go with all of you to China, lah.’

Reassured, Zachary said: ‘All right then, Mr Lee. I don’t mind taking a look around.’

Falling into step beside his guide, Zachary followed him down one street and then another, taking in the sights as they were pointed out to him: this building here was the London Hotel, established just a year ago, by Monsieur Gaston Dutronquoy; that over there was the portico of St Andrew’s Church; and there in the distance was the governor’s mansion.

‘Look around you, Mr Reid,’ said Freddie. ‘Look at this town, lah, Singapore, and all fine new buildings. Look at ships in the harbour. You know why they come? Because this is “free port” – they pay no duties or taxes. So where does the city get money?’

‘Can’t tell you, Mr Lee.’

‘Opium of course – is a monopoly of British government. Opium pays for everything – hotel, church, governor’s mansion, all are built on opium.’

In a while the streets became narrower and dustier and Zachary had the sense that they had left the European part of the city behind. Then they came to a road that was little more than a dirt path, winding up a hillside; it was rutted with cart tracks and lined on both sides with shacks and huts. There were plenty of people around, but they were all Indian or Chinese, and none too reputable by the looks of them.

A twinge of apprehension shot through Zachary now, slowing his steps. ‘Thank you, Mr Lee – but it’s getting late. I think I’d better get back to my ship.’

Instead of answering Freddie nodded, as if to signal to someone behind them. Glancing over his shoulder, Zachary saw that they were being followed by two burly men. They too had slowed down.

It dawned on Zachary now that he had allowed himself to be led into some kind of trap. He came to an abrupt halt. ‘Look, Mr Lee,’ he said, ‘I don’t know what your game is, but you should know that I’ve got nothing of value on me.’

Freddie smiled. ‘Why you insulting me, eh? Don’t want your money, Mr Reid.’

‘What do you want then?’

‘Want you visit my friend, lah.’ He pointed to a door that was only a few yards away.

‘Why?’

‘My friend want to meet you, that’s all,’ said Freddie laconically.

They had reached the door now; Freddie held it open and ushered Zachary in. ‘Please, Mr Reid – step in.’

The room that Zachary stepped into was so dimly lit that he was momentarily unsighted. As he stood on the threshold, blinking his eyes, he became aware of a strong, cloying smell – the sweet, oily odour of opium smoke. When his eyes grew accustomed to the murky light he saw that he was in a large, cave-like chamber, with several couches arranged along the walls. The windows were shuttered and what little light there was came from gaps between the tiles on the roof.

In one corner a pot of raw opium was bubbling upon a ring of glowing coal. Two boys were tending the stove, one stirring and the other fanning the flames. When Zachary and Freddie stepped inside, one of the boys came over to remove their shoes. The floor was made of beaten earth; it felt cool beneath Zachary’s bare feet.

‘Come na, Mr Reid.’ Freddie ushered him towards the far end of the room, where two waist-high couches were arranged around an octagonal, marble-topped table.

Stretching himself out on one of the couches, Freddie gestured to Zachary to recline on the other. ‘Please be comfortable, Mr Reid.’

Zachary seated himself on the edge of the couch, in a stiffly upright posture.

‘Tea, eh Mr Reid?’

A boy appeared, with a tray, but Zachary was now so ill at ease that he ignored it.

Freddie reached over, picked up a cup and handed it to him: ‘Please, Mr Reid, is just tea, lah. You must allow me to welcome you properly. Two years back did not think we would meet again like this.’

It took a moment for this to sink in and when it did Zachary almost dropped his teacup. ‘What the hell do you mean, “two years ago”?’

‘Mr Reid, still you do not know who I am?’

The light was so dim that Zachary heard rather than saw him smile.

‘I don’t know what you’re getting at, Mr Lee,’ he said quietly. ‘As far as I know we met yesterday, on the deck of the Hind.’

‘No, no, Mr Reid. On another ship we met, long ago, lah. Maybe will help you remember, eh, if I call you “Malum Zikri”?’

Zachary sat bolt upright and strained to look through the dimness. ‘I don’t know what in hell you’re talkin about, Mr Lee.’

‘If you would try you would remember Malum Zikri.’ Freddie laughed. ‘It was on Ibis, ne? Remember Mr Crowle, lah? First mate’s cabin? Remember his knife? He try do something – maybe stab you, maybe worse? But something happens – you remember? Someone comes in, ne?’

Suddenly, with the vividness of a nightmare, the memories came flooding back to Zachary: he was back on the Ibis, in the first mate’s cabin, trying to steady himself against the pitching bulkheads. Mr Crowle was looming above him, holding a page torn from the crew manifest: ‘Lookit, Reid, don’t give a damn, I don’t, if ye’re a m’latter or not … y’are what y’are and it don’t make no difference to me … we could be a team the two of us … all ye’d have to do is cross the cuddy from time to time …’ Then the flash of a knife-blade, and a snarl: ‘I tell yer, Mannikin, ye’re not nigger enough to leave Jack Crowle hangin a-cock-bill …’

‘Remember, eh, Malum Zikri?’

Freddie rose to light a lamp and held it to his face. ‘See now who I am, lah?’

It was not so much his face as the manner of his movement – quick, economical, precise – that confirmed to Zachary that Freddie was indeed the convict from the Ibis. Exactly so had he appeared in the hatchway that night, armed with a marlinspike, intent on settling his own scores with Mr Crowle. And no sooner was that done, than he had vanished, like a shadow – Zachary’s last glimpse of him was on the Ibis’s longboat, with the other four fugitives, pulling away as the storm howled around them.

Zachary dug his knuckles into his eyes, in an effort to erase these images, trying all the while to hold on to everything he knew to be true: which was that the fugitives had died soon after his last glimpse of them. It was impossible for a craft like the longboat to survive a storm of such violence, he was sure of that – and besides, had he not seen proof of their drowning? The boat itself, upended, with its bottom stove in?

It struck him that the fumes from the boiling opium might have disordered his mind: everything around him seemed uncanny, hallucinatory, alien. He extended a hand towards his host, as if to make sure that he was real and not a shadow.

The figure on the couch did not flinch. ‘Yes, Mr Reid. Is me – not a ghost.’

Zachary turned away and leant back against the headrest. What did this escaped quoddie want with him? Why had he revealed his identity unasked? Surely he knew that Zachary would have to report him to the authorities? And if he did know that then there was no way, surely, that he would allow Zachary to leave that den alive? He was a practised killer after all.

Zachary’s eyes strayed towards the door. He saw nothing reassuring there: the two men who had followed them were standing guard in front of it.

Freddie seemed to guess what was going through his mind.

‘Look, Mr Reid – you must not think to leave this place just now, eh? Need time to think, or bad mistake you may make. Supposing now you will go to police and say, “Lookee here, have found prisoner who escaped from Ibis” – what you think happen next, eh? How you will prove it? There is nothing to tie me to Ibis, lah. Cannot prove anything – and even if can, what will happen then, eh? I tell them it was you helped us escape. I will tell that you yourself killed Crowle. Because he try do something to you, lah.’

Zachary shrugged. ‘No one would believe you – it’s your word against a sahib’s.’

Freddie smiled, narrowing his eyes. ‘Maybe, eh, I will even tell that Malum Zikri is not so much white as he looks. What then, eh? Maybe that will make big trouble for you among the sahibs?’

This knocked the wind out of Zachary. Knitting his fingers together, he tried to calm himself. ‘Just tell me, Mr Lee – what is it that you want from me? Why have you brought me here?’

‘Said already, ne? Friend wants to meet. Talk with you. Maybe do little business, eh?’

‘Where is your friend then?’

‘Not far.’ Freddie signalled to one of the boys, who went running to a door on the other side of the room. A moment later it opened to reveal the figure of a man dressed in a Chinese gown and cap.

The face was thin and weathered, the eyes hidden inside crevices of skin that had been burned and narrowed by the sun; the mouth was framed by a wispy, drooping moustache and the teeth were stained blood-red by betel.

‘Chin-chin, Malum Zikri!’

This time Zachary made no mistake. ‘Serang Ali? Is it you?’

‘Yes, Malum Zikri. Is me, Serang Ali.’

‘By the ever living, jumping Moses!’ said Zachary. ‘I should’a known … I guess the five of you have stuck together, haven’t you, after getting away from the Ibis?’

‘No, Malum Zikri,’ said the serang. ‘Not together – that way too easy to find, no?’

‘So where are the other three then?’

Seating himself next to Freddie, Serang Ali smiled: ‘Malum Zikri meet allo. In good time.’

Now, as he peered into the serang’s unreadable eyes, an eerie feeling went through Zachary: it was as if he were looking at something that was as implacable and elusive as destiny itself. He remembered that it was Serang Ali who had first planted in his head the ambition of becoming a malum and a sahib; he remembered also the last words he had said to him, shortly before escaping from the Ibis: ‘Malum Zikri too muchi smart bugger, no?’ Even then the words had worried Zachary, because he had suspected that the serang was taunting him. His every sense was on guard now, as he said: ‘What do you want with me, Serang Ali?’

‘Just wanchi ask one-two question.’

‘About what?’

‘How Malum Zikri come to Singapore-lah?’

‘I think you already know the answer to that,’ said Zachary warily. ‘I’ve come on the Hind, as her supercargo.’

‘Your ship carry soldier also?’

‘Yes – a company of sepoys.’

‘How many?’

Zachary narrowed his eyes. ‘Why do you want to know, Serang Ali?’

‘Hab rich friend China-side, wanchi know.’

Suddenly Zachary understood: ‘Oh so that’s the game, is it? You’re spying?’

Serang Ali had been chewing paan all this while and he paused now to empty a mouthful of spit into a brass spittoon.

‘Why Malum Zikri talkee so-fashion? We blongi friend, no? Just wanchi little help.’ Serang Ali leant forward. ‘See – Malum Zikri have too muchi chest opium, no? He answer my question; he get very good price. One thousand dollar.’ He paused to let this sink in. ‘Good, no-good, ah?’

‘You mean one thousand dollars per chest?’

‘Yes,’ said Serang Ali. ‘One thousand. In silver.’

Zachary began to chew his lip; the offer was almost too good to be true. At this price after ten chests everything else would be profit.

‘So what do you want of me then, Serang Ali?’

‘Nothing, Malum Zikri,’ said Serang Ali. ‘Just wanchi ask one-two question. Come, we shake on it.’

Serang Ali stuck out his hand but Zachary ignored it.

‘No, Serang Ali. Nothing’s settled yet, and it’s not gon’a be until I’ve sold you ten chests of opium at the price you’ve promised: a thousand silver dollars per chest. If we’re going to do any talking, it’ll be after that.’

Serang Ali’s eyes lit up. Clapping Zachary on the back, he said: ‘Good! Malum Zikri still too muchi smart bugger! So-fashion only must do busy-ness. Money down, allo straight.’

May 30, 1840

Honam

This morning I arrived at the print-shop to find Zhong Lou-si seated inside. This had never happened before so I knew something unusual was going on.

Zhong Lou-si and Compton were leafing through a stack of papers. Their faces were sombre, yet incredulous; they looked as though they had received news that they could not quite believe.

Mat liu aa? I said to Compton and he shook his head despondently. Maa maa fu fu Ah Neel – things are not so good.

What’s happened?

Ah Neel, we have received word from Singapore, he said. A British fleet has arrived there, from Calcutta. There are six warships including one that is very big, armed with seventy-four guns. There are also two steamers and twenty transport ships, carrying soldiers and stores. Many of the soldiers are Indians, some from Bang-gala and some from Man-da-la-sa, in the southern part of Yindu. The transport ships all belong to Indian merchants.

How do you know? I asked, and Compton explained that Zhong Lou-si had sent an agent to Singapore, to keep an eye on what was going on. This man is apparently a master-mariner and was once a pirate; he is said to be very well-informed.

And where were the ships heading? I asked, and Compton told me then that their destination is China. As proof of this he showed me a copy of the Singapore Chronicle that had been forwarded to Zhong Lou-si by his agent: it was clearly stated in the paper that the fleet would soon be proceeding to southern China. From there the expedition would sail northwards, to some point from which it could exert pressure directly on Beijing.

Apparently all of this is now public knowledge in Singapore.

The news has come as a great shock to both Compton and Zhong Lou-si. Despite all the warnings, in their hearts I think neither of them believed that the British would actually attack China. Commissioner Lin himself has been known to say that he does not think that it will come to war – I suspect he finds it impossible to conceive that any country would send an army across the seas to force another country to buy opium.

I asked if they knew how many soldiers had reached Singapore. They said that by their agent’s reckoning there were about three thousand, of whom about half are Indian. Zhong Lou-si has taken some reassurance from the size of the force; he thinks the British would have brought more troops if they really intended to wage war. He cannot believe that they would attempt to attack a country as large and as populous as China with such a small army. He thinks the British want only to make a show of force, as they have done twice before – in 1816 and 1823 – when they sent sepoys to Macau.

Surely, said Zhong Lou-si, if they were planning to make war they would send mostly English troops?

He finds it hard to imagine that they would depend on sepoys for something so serious – in similar circumstances the Chinese would never use yi troops.

I pointed out, as I have before, that the British have always relied heavily on Indian sepoys in their Asian campaigns – they did so in the Arakan, in Burma, in the Persian Gulf and so on. I told them also that the number of troops signified nothing: the main thrust of the attack would come from their warships, not their infantry. They would be relying on their navy to overwhelm the Chinese fleet.

Zhong Lou-si conceded that on the water it would be hard for the Chinese forces to resist the English fleet. But he added that at some point the English would also have to fight on land. There they would find themselves at a huge disadvantage in numbers. They would be taught a lesson if they made such a great mistake as to launch a ground assault.

But it appears that the British troops are preparing to do exactly that. According to the agent’s reports from Singapore, the soldiers have been conducting many drills, on land as well as water. One of their weapons has made a great impression on the townsmen because it bears a resemblance to the fireworks that light up the sky on Chinese New Year. The agent has learnt from an informer that the weapon is called a ‘Congreve rocket’ (these two words were written in English, on the margins of the letter, no doubt by the informer).

Zhong Lou-si asked if I knew anything about this weapon and I said no. He then asked if I could find out about it.

At first I was dumbfounded: where on earth was I going to find out about rockets?

But then I had an idea: I remembered hearing that there was a large library in the British Factory in Canton, with books on all manner of subjects.

The factory’s residents are all gone of course, but the building is still looked after by its Chinese servants, many of whom are employees of the merchants of the Co-Hong guild. It struck me that if prodded by Zhong Lou-si they might be able to arrange for Compton and myself to visit the library.

I put the idea to Zhong Lou-si and he was much taken with it: within a few hours we received word that the requisite arrangements had been made.

Shortly after sunset Compton and I went to the British Factory and were led through its deserted interior to the shuttered library, which is on the building’s highest floor.

The lib rary is much larger than I had thought, with comfortable leather armchairs, large desks, and rows and rows of glass-fronted bookcases. There were so many books that we were dismayed; we thought it would take us days to go through each of the shelves.

Fortunately there was a catalogue, lying on a desk. With its help I quickly located a treatise called The Field Officer’s Guide to Artillery: sure enough it contained a section on the Congreve rocket.

Turning to it, I discovered to my amazement that this rocket is actually a refinement of a weapon that was invented in India. Of course the Chinese have had rockets for centuries, but apparently they’ve only ever used them as fireworks, not for military purposes: rockets were first used as military weapons by Sultan Haider Ali of Mysore and his son Tipu, some forty years ago, during their wars with the East India Company. It was in south India, in the fortress of Bangalore, that rockets were adapted to carry explosives. Haider Ali used them to spread terror and confusion and caused the present Duke of Wellington some notable setbacks. Although the Mysore sultans were eventually defeated the British recognized the value of their innovation and sent a number of captured rockets to the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich, where one Mr William Congreve (a descendant of the playwright no doubt) then refined and improved the weapon. Since that time the British have used Congreve rockets in the Napoleonic wars and in the war of 1812. Now evidently they are planning to use them in China.

Compton and I lingered for hours in the library. We found several other ‘useful’ books – one on fortifications for example, and another on navigation – but to our disappointment there was nothing on steamships or boiler engines.

On our way out, I helped myself to a few books of my choice. It has been a long time since I last read a novel, romance or play: I scooped them off the shelves and stuffed them into my bag – Pamela, Love in Excess, Robinson Crusoe, The Vicar of Wakefield, Tristram Shandy, a translation of Voltaire’s Zadig, and a half-dozen more.

As we were about to leave my eyes fell on a book that stood out among the library’s sober tomes because of its brightly embossed spine: The Butterfly’s Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast by William Roscoe.

It was the very edition that I’d bought for Raju in Calcutta when I started teaching him English, years ago; it cost a guinea as I recall, even though it was the cheaper, American edition. I could not resist it – I pulled it off the shelf and dropped it in the bag.

When I returned to my lodgings, the first book I took out of the bag was The Butterfly’s Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast. I have read it to Raju so many times that I know it almost by heart. As I ran my eyes over the familiar illustrations, Raju’s voice filled my ears, lisping over the words:

Come take up your Hats, and away let us haste ‘To the Butterfly’s Ball …

I could feel my son’s weight on my lap and I could hear myself, correcting his pronunciation: ‘No, Raju – this is how you say it …’

The memories were so vivid that the book dropped from my hand and my eyes filled with tears.

To brood uselessly serves no purpose – that is why I do not dwell on the past; that is why I try not to think too much of Raju and Kamala. But The Butterfly’s Ball took me unawares and pierced my defences. It was as if an embankment had been swept away and I were floundering in a flood, trying not to drown in my own grief.

The eastern expedition’s fleet grew steadily larger as the days lengthened into weeks. The vessels from Madras trickled in slowly, bringing not only sepoys from the 37th Regiment but also two companies of sappers and miners and a substantial corps of engineers. But there were other ships still to come from Madras, notably the Golconda, which was carrying the regiment’s commanding officer, as well as the equipment, supplies and personnel for its headquarters establishment. The tardiness of these vessels kept the expedition at anchor in Singapore even as the men grew increasingly impatient to move on.

The month of May was almost over when Captain Mee summoned Kesri to his stateroom to tell him that the Golconda and another ship, Thetis, had been indefinitely delayed and would join the expedition later, off the China coast. There being no further reason for the fleet to tarry in Singapore, Commodore Bremer had ordered most of the fleet’s vessels to depart the next morning. They would proceed directly from Singapore to the mouth of the Pearl River.

‘How many days from here, sir?’

‘Ten to fifteen, I would say.’

The next morning, the departing ships were led out of the harbour by the Wellesley. The man-o’-war put on a splendid display, with crewmen standing erect on the cross-trees and stirrups, silhouetted against the billowing sails. The frigates followed in two rows, booming forward with their bows to the breeze, and then came the steamers, with the water frothing under their paddle-wheels. The troop-transports were the next to make sail, in groups of two and three.

On the Hind, the banjee-boys were up on the maindeck; they played a rousing tune as the ship’s sails filled with wind. Looking on from above, Zadig, Shireen and Freddie were charmed by the diminutive eleven- and twelve-year-olds, in their white uniforms. As for Raju, he did not know which way to turn – towards the band, or the Wellesley, or the steamers, or the azure waters ahead. The first thing he would tell his father, he decided, was that there was no grander sight on earth than that of a fleet setting sail.

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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