Flood of Fire | Chapter 19 of 29

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

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Thirteen

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The last leg of the Hind’s eastwards voyage was markedly different from the first. From Calcutta to Singapore, the expedition’s vessels had sailed largely on their own, occasionally sighting each other or drawing alongside, but each travelling at their preferred pace. After leaving Singapore they sailed together, cruising in convoy, with the lofty skysails of the Wellesley leading the way.

The Hind was in the thick of the fleet, far to the rear of the flagship. The waters around her were crowded with canvas, trikat and gavi, kilmi and sabar: it was as if the sea had become the sky, a blue firmament dotted with scattered clouds, all scudding in the same direction. Between the white shoals rose stacks of smoke, dark as thunderheads, spouting from the funnels of the expedition’s three steamers as they zigzagged through the convoy, delivering messages, rounding up stragglers and lending a hand where needed.

The superb seamanship and perfect trim of the Royal Navy’s warships put the merchantmen on their mettle: ‘all shipshape and Bristol fashion’ became the maxim of the day and skippers began to drive their crews like never before. Every now and then races would break out, with one ship or another attempting to overhaul the vessel ahead. Even the passengers got into the spirit of it, urging the sailors on and cheering loudly when their vessel took the shine out of another.

Until the second week of the voyage the weather was exceptionally fine but then there came a change. The wind picked up strength and soon the Hind was being battered by powerful gusts from the south-west. The skies remained clear however, so the crew kept to their routines and the passengers continued to take the air on deck, as usual.

Among the daily on-board rituals there was one that always attracted a large crowd of spectators: the slaughtering of poultry for the officers’ table.

The Hind’s chicken coop was at the foot of the mainmast. Every day, around noon, when the captain and first mate were ‘shooting the sun’, the cook who officiated as the ship’s butcher would come up to the maindeck, brandishing a shining, sharp-pointed knife. He was a big, burly man with a flair for showmanship: after beheading a bird or two he would stroll nonchalantly back to the galley with the frantically twitching carcasses clutched in one fist.

That day, despite the blustery conditions, the cook appeared as usual, just after the noon-time bell. Raju happened to be on deck at the time and he was among those who went to the coop to watch.

The knife flashed twice as two chickens lost their heads. Then the cook bestowed a toothy grin on the spectators and sauntered off as usual, holding the headless birds in his right hand and the knife in the left.

The stairwell that led to the galley was slick with spume. No sooner had the cook stepped into it than the Hind gave a mighty lurch, knocking him off his feet. He fell heavily, face forward. Then came a piercing cry, after which he somehow managed to struggle to his knees and turn around.

Raju was watching from the head of the stairwell: he saw now that the headless chickens were still clenched in the cook’s right fist, but his other hand was empty – the knife had disappeared. Then he saw where it had gone: the hilt was protruding from the man’s chest.

Slowly, disbelievingly, the cook lowered his gaze to his trunk. As if in a trance, he let go of the chickens. Fastening both hands on the hilt of the knife he wrenched out the blade in a single motion. With the dripping knife still in his hands he stared in astonishment at the blood that was now spouting, so improbably, from his body. Then his eyes rose to look directly at Raju, and he murmured, in a strangled, choking voice: Bachao mujhe! Save me!

The last syllable was still on his lips when he fell forward on his face.

For a long moment Raju could neither breathe nor move: he stood frozen to the spot, unable to tear his eyes from the macabre scene – the lifeless body, the bloody knife and the headless chickens that were now whirling around the stairwell. Then suddenly his knees buckled and the deck came flying up towards him.

At the last minute his fall was broken by a pair of hands. ‘It’s all right, kid-mutt; it’s all right.’

Zachary picked him up, threw him over his shoulder and carried him down to the cubicle.

After the shock had worn off, Raju gave Dicky a detailed account of what had happened. To his surprise, the fifer was unimpressed: with a matter-of-fact directness he said that he had seen many men die, and boys too, in even more horrible ways: ‘Why, men, in my first battle a bloody Pindaree shot the fifer next to me. Blew the bugger’s head right off, men; found his ear in my collar.’

*

Through the night the wind grew stronger and at daybreak the sky was dark with thunderheads. The fleet had scattered now, with no more than one or two sets of sail visible on the horizon. From time to time a steamer would appear, struggling to make headway, wallowing along in the trough of a swell or hoisted aloft by a wave.

The howling continued unabated through the early hours but at the end of the morning there was still no rain, so the sepoys were served their hazree on deck, as usual. The rain held off while they ate and they returned to their cumra without incident.

Zachary was on the quarter-deck with Mr Doughty when the camp-followers came straggling up for their meal. Noticing a flash of lightning, in the distance, he remarked to Mr Doughty that it looked as though the storm was about to break: it might be best to clear the deck and send the men below.

Unfortunately for Zachary, his well-intended words were overheard by Captain Mee. ‘Talk of singing psalms to the taffrail!’ he said in a tone of mocking disdain. ‘This is more cheek than I’ve heard in many a long year: a cheap-jack Yankee opium-pedlar teaching an English sea-captain his business! Who’s in charge of this ship, Mr Doughty, you or this little madge-cove?’

The subalterns burst into guffaws and Zachary went red in the face: muttering an excuse to Mr Doughty, he went down to the maindeck.

Scarcely had Zachary stepped away when the storm broke. The pelting rain set off a panicky rush among the camp-followers: dozens of men and boys began to jostle with each other in their hurry to get to the hatches. As they were milling about, whipped by wind and rain, a bolt of lightning came forking through the clouds. It struck the Hind’s mainmast about halfway up its length, snapping it in two. The top half broke off cleanly and was carried away by the gale, crow’s-nest, purwans, yardarms and all. But the purwans of the mainsail – the largest and heaviest of the crossbeams – remained attached to the stump, although only for a few more seconds. Then, with a thunderous creaking the two spars began to split away from the remains of the mast.

The camp-followers were still pushing and shoving when the purwans came crashing down, on either side of the mast. On the dawa side the purwan dropped heavily on the deck, killing a gun-lascar and severely injuring another before toppling over the bulwark and vanishing from view. The other half of the beam caused even more damage: fouled by a webbing of ropes it began to thrash about, its ten-yard length lashing the deck like a flail, battering the panicked camp-followers.

Zachary too was knocked down in the mêlée, but he regained his footing quickly and immediately spotted the problem. Crossing the deck with a couple of strides, he used the remnants of the rigging to haul himself atop the stump. It was a habit of his to carry a jack-knife in his pocket: flicking it open, he hacked at the tangled ropes until the runaway beam broke free and was blown clear of the ship.

On descending from the stump, Zachary’s first thought was for Raju. He found him prostrate in the starboard scuppers, with the breath knocked out of him but otherwise unhurt.

‘You all right, kid-mutt?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Good lad.’

Around them was a scene of utter confusion, the dead and wounded lying sprawled about on deck, the wind howling, boys screaming, men trampling each other to get to the hatches.

On the quarter-deck Captain Mee and the subalterns were struggling to keep their footing, their uniforms drenched. At the sight of them Zachary’s temper boiled over. Cupping a hand around his mouth he shouted at Captain Mee: ‘Sir! You can’t say you weren’t warned.’

The captain’s eyes narrowed as they flickered briefly in his direction. But then he looked away, pretending he hadn’t heard.

*

The storm blew over in a few hours but the toll that it exacted from the Hind, in the few minutes after the lightning strike, was very steep: dozens wounded and five dead – the fatalities were two gun-lascars, an assistant apothecary, a ‘native dresser’ and an artificer. Their bodies were consigned to the sea at sunset that very day.

The banjee-boys were among the worst hit. Of the fifers, Dicky was one of the few to escape injury; many were badly hurt in the mêlée around the hatches. One boy fell from the companion-ladder and broke his hip; another was so badly trampled that his legs were broken in several places.

Even the company’s pundit was not spared: the runaway purwan hit him square in the ribcage, breaking several bones. There were so many casualties that the Hind’s infirmary could not hold them all; the litters of the injured spilt out into the gangways and cuddies of the quarter-deck.

The sepoys escaped unscathed, having been safely ensconced in their cumra when the storm broke; it was the camp-followers and lascars who bore the brunt of it – and steep though the toll was they all knew that it would have been worse still if not for Zachary’s quickness and presence of mind. Gratitude was lavished on him in such measure that it even spilt over to Raju. To be the cynosure of the banjee-boys’ attention was a new experience for him and it turned his head a little. Bragging on his master’s behalf he launched into a long tale about Zachary’s exploits on the Ibis.

The banjee-boys were suitably impressed. ‘Really, men?’ said Dicky. ‘Bugger was involved in a mutiny?’

‘What you think, men? There was even a court hearing about “the Ibis incident”. It was in the papers and all.’

June 23, 1840

Guangzhou

Today I learnt from Compton that a fleet of British warships has appeared at the mouth of the Pearl River. Their coming has been so long heralded that we’d almost begun to think that they would never arrive. And now that they have, what next?

Actually the ships arrived a few days ago. The reason I didn’t know was that I have been ill for the last ten days. At times I was so unwell I thought I might not recover. It is something to do with the heat, I suspect; the weather has been very oppressive these last few weeks.

It was Mithu who looked after me. Every day she brought me food – scalding hot soups and a rice gruel, not unlike our panta-bhaat. Knowing how much we Bengalis love butter and ghee, she even fetched me some from the Tibetan monastery! This was fortunate in more ways than one: because of her visit, Taranathji found out that I was sick and came to see me, bringing with him a lama who is adept in Tibetan medicine. He read my pulse and said that my condition was quite serious. He prescribed all kinds of foul-smelling tonics and teas – I have no idea what they were, but they worked wonders. Mithu brought them to me, at the prescribed times: I really don’t know what I would have done without her.

A couple of days ago, when I began to recover, Mithu told me that ‘something big’ was happening in the foreign enclave: a ‘mandarin-tent’ had been set up in the Maidan, she said, and hundreds of men were flocking to it.

Today, on the way to Compton’s shop, I stopped by to look: the tent is a large pavilion-like edifice, bedecked with official banners and pennants. Inside, a half-dozen blue-button officials were presiding over what appeared to be a trial of strength – a large iron weight had to be hoisted aloft. The young men who had gathered in the Maidan were led in one by one, to try their luck. Those who succeeded were led to another part of the tent, to have their names entered in a register.

These youths were dressed as if for exercise; some were carrying staves, and some were wearing strips of cloth around their foreheads, painted with Chinese characters. Even though it was a hot day some were exercising as they waited, squaring off against one another, with bare hands or staves, bouncing lightly on their heels as they ducked, parried and feinted.

It was Compton who told me what was going on: Commissioner Lin has sent out an order for local militias to be raised across the province. The notices have brought thousands of young men flocking to recruiting centres like this one. Some belong to clubs and societies that practise the arts of traditional fighting; some are chau fei – young thugs looking to make a little money. They are known as ‘brave-young-men’.

And what was behind all this? I asked. That was when Compton told me about the arrival of the British fleet. Apparently dozens of ships are now anchored around the mouth of the Pearl River, in the stretch of coast between Hong Kong and Macau. They have transported thousands of soldiers, both English and Indian. The troops have been seen landing at some of the islands of the Pearl River estuary – Lintin, Capsingmoon, Hong Kong and so on. This has caused panic in that part of the province, but here in Canton the news is still not widely known – the authorities are none too keen to spread it about.

In Commissioner Lin’s circle there is great alarm. That is why they have started to take extraordinary measures. They know that their war-junks will not be able to oppose the British on water so they are preparing to fight them on land. But this will be no easy matter; Compton says the forces at the Commissioner’s disposal are not large – only a few thousand.

I was astonished to hear this: I’d have thought that in a country as populous as China, every province would have a huge army at its disposal. But apparently this is not the case; most of the empire’s troops are spread out along the western frontiers which are very far from Guangdong.

I suspect, in any case, that the Commissioner does not repose great faith in his military commanders. That perhaps is why he has decided to arm ordinary people instead: apparently spears, swords and other weapons are being distributed across the province. In addition thousands of boatmen are being recruited to serve as ‘water-braves’; I’m told that a week or two ago they succeeded in setting fire to several British ships that were anchored below Humen.

The Commissioner has a great belief in ordinary folk. He is convinced that it is they who will rise up and repel the British.

It strikes me that great mandarin though he is, Commissioner Lin is also, in a way, a kind of Jacobin.

Compton says a proclamation has been drawn up, offering rewards for enemy ships, officers and soldiers. For a top British officer the reward will be five thousand silver dollars if taken alive; one-third if dead; five hundred dollars less for officers of every lower rank, on a declining scale – the full sum to be paid only if they are taken alive; a third if not. For English and Parsi merchants, one hundred dollars if taken alive; one-fifth if dead. For ‘black aliens’ – sepoys and lascars, in other words – the reward is half that of white soldiers and sailors.

I didn’t know whether to be sad or angry at that.

And what about me? I asked. Should I expect that people will come hunting for me in order to claim the bounty?

Compton said that I had no cause for worry, since I am neither a lascar nor a sepoy – and in any case I am generally thought to be from the Nanyang, not Yindu.

But what about Jodu and the other lascars on the Cambridge? I asked. Would they be safe?

Compton assured me that measures have been taken to ensure their safety. At Zhong Lou-si’s insistence the provincial authorities have provided a special guard to protect them.

The day after the storm, from sunrise onwards, Zachary worked with the Hind’s carpenters, helping to rig up a jury mast. The job took many hours, under a burning hot sun. At mid-day, when Zachary returned to the cubicle to change his dripping shirt, he found Raju waiting.

‘Sir, Havildar Kesri Singh told me to give you a message.’

Zachary raised an eyebrow: ‘You mean the Indian sarjeant?’

‘Yes, sir. He wants to meet with you, in private. He’ll come here tonight at eight thirty, when the bell for the first watch is rung. He asked me not to tell anyone but you, sir. He doesn’t want others to know.’

‘What’s he want with me?’

‘It’s something about the Ibis, sir.’

‘The Ibis?’ A puzzled frown appeared on Zachary’s forehead. ‘What’s the Ibis got to do with him?’

‘I don’t know, sir,’ said Raju. ‘Yesterday I was telling the banjee-boys about you and the Ibis; he must have overheard.’

This mystified Zachary all the more: he’d had no inkling that Raju was aware of his role in the Ibis incident; the subject had never come up between them and nor would he have thought that the boy would have any interest in it.

‘Where’d you hear about the Ibis, kid-mutt?’

‘From you, sir,’ Raju blurted out. ‘In court.’

As soon as the words were spoken Raju knew he had made a terrible mistake; quite possibly he had betrayed his own identity, and perhaps his father’s too. Stricken with guilt, he made a desperate attempt to retrieve the situation.

‘I mean, sir … I heard Baboo Nob Kissin talking about it.’

Zachary’s frown deepened. ‘Why would Baboo talk to you about the Ibis? What the hell’s the Ibis got to do with you?’

Raju was now too distraught to speak: he stared wordlessly at Zachary, lips quivering.

His response puzzled Zachary; he could not understand why the boy was so upset. ‘What’s the matter, kid-mutt?’ he said in a softer voice. ‘There’s no cause to be all cabobbled. I don’t mean you no harm. You understand that, don’t you?’

The kindness of his tone only deepened Raju’s confusion. In their short time together, Zachary had so completely won his trust that he would have been glad to tell him the truth – that his father had been on the Ibis too; that he was on his way to join him now, in Macau. But Baboo Nob Kissin had admonished him not to speak of these things, on any account: there was no telling what Zachary might do if he discovered who Raju was and that his father was still alive; quite possibly he would think it his duty to report the matter to the authorities.

Zachary had only to look at the boy’s red, choking face to know that he was harbouring some kind of secret. In a quiet undertone, he said: ‘What is it, kid-mutt? Is there something you want to tell me?’

Raju shook his head forcefully, pressing his lips together.

The ineptitude of his dissembling made Zachary smile. ‘You know, kid-mutt,’ he said quietly, ‘there’s a lot about you that don’t add up: the way you speak English, your dainty ways. You can say what you like but I just don’t believe you were always a servant.’

Raju made no answer but stared back at him, tongue-tied.

Seating himself on his sea-trunk, Zachary looked into Raju’s eyes. ‘Tell me, kid-mutt,’ he said, ‘did we ever meet before that day when Baboo Nob Kissin brought you to see me? Should I have recognized you when you came to the budgerow with him?’

Mutely shaking his head, Raju mouthed the words: ‘No, sir.’

Zachary knew he would get nothing more out of the boy. With a rueful smile he said: ‘Who are you, kid-mutt? I wish I knew.’

Now suddenly tears began to trickle out of the corners of Raju’s eyes; he swallowed as if to choke back a sob.

The sight jolted Zachary. ‘Hey there, kid-mutt! There’s no call to cry and such. I’m not hollerin at you or anything …’

A twinge of remorse prompted Zachary to place a hand on Raju’s shoulder. The weight of it made Raju stumble towards him, and without quite meaning to, Zachary caught him in his arms and hugged him to his chest.

The gesture demolished Raju’s defences and his tears began to flow as if a dam had collapsed.

Since the day of his father’s arrest, two and a half years before, Raju had not once given free rein to his emotions; not wanting to add to his mother’s burdens, he had held everything in. Now it was as though all the tumult of the last two years was rising to his eyes and pouring out, on to Zachary’s shoulder.

Zachary felt the warm wetness on his skin, and it brought on a moment of panic: never before had he hugged a child to his chest in this way; never had he had to comfort a small, helplessly sobbing creature like this one. It was instinct rather than reflection that told him what to do: a hand rose, as if of itself, and stroked the boy’s head, awkwardly at first and then with increasing assurance.

‘It’s all right, kid-mutt,’ Zachary mumbled. ‘Whatever it is that’s botherin you, you don’t have to worry about it. I’ll be around if you need me. I’ll take care of you.’

The words shocked him, even as he was saying them. Never before had he told anyone that he would take care of them; nor had anyone ever uttered those words to him, except his mother. It was as if he were hugging an old version of himself; someone who was irretrievably lost to him now; a child whose absence he could not help mourning.

*

The ship’s bell had no sooner tolled than Kesri stepped out of his cabin, dressed not in his uniform but in a plain white ungah and dhoti. He reached Zachary’s cubicle just as the eighth peal was fading away. The door opened as soon as he knocked and Kesri found himself face to face with Zachary, who was in his breeches and a striped sailor’s banyan.

The cubicle was lit by a single lamp: in its light Kesri saw that a few chests had been arranged at one end, to make a seat. Facing it, at the other end of the narrow space, was a sea-trunk.

‘Come in, Sarjeant.’

Gesturing to Kesri to take the sea-trunk, Zachary seated himself on the chests.

For a minute or two they studied each other and then Kesri said: ‘Good evening, Reid-sah’b.’

‘Good evening.’

Kesri cleared his throat, trying to think of a suitable preamble; failing to find one, he came abruptly to the point: ‘Reid-sah’b, is it true you were on Ibis?’

‘Yes,’ said Zachary. ‘I was the second mate, on the voyage to Mauritius.’

‘There was one Subedar Bhyro Singh, with you, no?’

‘Yes, there was.’

‘What happened to Subedar Bhyro Singh?’

In a few words Zachary explained that Subedar Bhyro Singh had had a run-in with a coolie and had insisted that the man be flogged. The coolie was a big fellow, very powerfully built. After a dozen lashes he had broken free of his bindings and turned the whip upon his tormentor, breaking his neck with the lash. All of this had happened in a matter of seconds; later it had come to be learnt that the trouble between the two men had begun with an assault on the coolie’s wife, by the subedar.

‘The woman,’ said Kesri quickly, ‘the coolie’s wife – what was her name?’

Zachary had to scratch his head several times before the name came to him. ‘It was something like “Ditty” as I remember.’

Kesri had been holding his breath and it leaked out of him now, in a long, deep sigh. His chin sank into his chest as he absorbed what Zachary had said.

So it was all true then? Deeti had indeed run away with another man: his little sister, who had never travelled even so far as Patna had set off to escape to an island across the black water.

As all of this was sinking in, Kesri slowly raised his head. Zachary saw now that the pupils of the havildar’s eyes were grey and somehow familiar. A strange, uncanny charge shot through him and a moment later, when Kesri said, ‘That woman – she is my sister, Deeti,’ Zachary knew it to be the shock of recognition.

‘Yes of course,’ he said. ‘I see the resemblance.’

‘Where is Deeti now?’ said Kesri hoarsely. ‘Do you know?’

‘I’m sure she’s in Mauritius,’ said Zachary. ‘I heard she was allotted to a Frenchman – a farmer whose land is in the southwest of the country.’

A kind of incredulity took hold of Kesri now and he shook his head, in wonderment. Who would have imagined that this boyish-looking sahib would be able to give him news of Deeti? Who would have thought that they had been separated all this while by a few yards of timber?

‘Was Deeti all right?’ said Kesri gruffly. ‘Her health was good?’

‘Yes,’ said Zachary. ‘As far as I know, she was in good health.’

There was much more that Kesri would have liked to ask but he could hear someone calling for him, down the gangway.

‘I must go now.’

Rising from his seat, Kesri said: ‘Reid-sah’b, we will not speak of this to anyone else, no?’

‘Of course not.’

With his hand on the door Kesri stopped and turned to face Zachary again.

‘Reid-sah’b,’ he said, ‘I’m sorry how Captain Mee talks to you. He is a good man, good officer …’ Unable to find the words he wanted, Kesri began again. ‘Mee-sahib – I have known him twenty years. I was his orderly – he is a good man, but sad, in his heart …’

Zachary made no answer, so Kesri said, simply: ‘I am sorry.’

‘It’s all right, havildar,’ said Zachary. ‘It’s not your fault.’

Kesri raised his hand to his forehead. ‘My salaams, Reid-sah’b. If you ever need anything, please tell me.’

‘Thank you, havildar.’

Just as Kesri was stepping out, Zachary remembered something: ‘Oh wait, havildar. There’s one other thing.’

‘Yes?’

‘Your sister. There’s something you should know.’

‘Yes?’

‘When we reached Mauritius she was pregnant. The child must be more than a year old now.’

*

The next day, a plume of smoke was spotted on the northward horizon: the Queen, a steamer, was out searching for distressed vessels. A Congreve rocket was fired from the maindeck of the Hind and soon afterwards the steamer pulled alongside, to the accompaniment of rousing cheers.

Before taking the Hind under tow, the steamer’s captain came over to freshen hawse with Mr Doughty. They spent a good while together, exchanging news over glasses of Bristol-milk and later, when the Hind was under tow, ploughing steady northwards, Mr Doughty gave Zachary an account of what he had learnt while he was coguing the nose with his fellow skipper.

The British fleet had arrived off the China coast five days earlier, and Captain Elliot had rendezvoused with Commodore Bremer near the Ladrone Islands. After extensive deliberations the Plenipotentiary and the commodore had agreed on a strategy that required the expeditionary force to be split into two wings. The first wing, consisting of a small squad of warships and transports, would remain in the south, to enforce a blockade on the Pearl River; in the meantime the other, much larger wing, would proceed northwards, with the objective of seizing a strategically placed island called Chusan, which sat astride the sea routes to some of the most important ports of the Chinese heartland – Hangchow, Ningbo and Shanghai. In order that the powers in Beijing should know exactly why these actions had been undertaken, the expedition’s leaders would attempt to hand over a letter from Lord Palmerston to the Emperor, listing Britain’s demands and grievances.

Once Chusan had been seized, the eastern seaboard of China would be at the mercy of the expeditionary force. With the island as its operating base, the British fleet would roam the length of the coast, threatening important ports, drawing up maps and charts, and making sure that the Manchu overlords of Peking were not left in any doubt of their vulnerability. Chusan was so close to the capital that the mandarins would not be able to conceal the news of its seizure from the Emperor: he would soon realize that he had no choice but to accede to Britain’s demands for the re-opening of trade and the restitution of past losses.

Since the resumption of the opium trade was one of the main objectives of the expedition, the fleet would be accompanied by a number of merchant vessels, many of them opium-carriers. The navy would ensure that British merchants were free to approach the major ports to dispose of their cargoes as they pleased.

For Free-Traders there was much to celebrate in this strategy which was closely modelled on the plans drawn up by William Jardine. They stood to make fortunes by selling opium to markets that had previously been beyond their reach. The accrual of demand in the Chinese heartland was thought to be like that of the Yellow River before a flood: prices were expected to shoot to unheard-of heights.

‘We’re arriving in the nick of time, Reid,’ said Mr Doughty. ‘The fleet will be sailing north in two days and I’m sure Mr Chillingworth will be keen to go along. Mr Burnham’s cargo of opium will have to be transferred from the Hind to the Ibis as soon as we drop anchor.’

*

The next day the Hind’s passengers woke to find themselves in a stretch of water that seemed not quite of this earth. The colour of the sea had turned from deep blue to iridiscent turquoise, and hundreds of craggy islets had appeared, rising out of the depths like dragon’s teeth. Many of these outcrops of rock were ashen in colour, with flinty ridges; most were edged by sheer cliffs to which clung stunted trees of fantastically gnarled shapes. Every now and then, from the lee of one of these islands, an improbable-looking vessel would appear – sometimes a high-sterned fishing boat, sometimes a junk with matted sails, or a galleon-like lorcha that seemed to belong to another age.

The strangeness of the surroundings created a kind of stupor on the storm-shocked Hind: only when a cry rang out to announce the sighting of the mainland – kinara agil hai! – was the spell broken. The lookout’s shout set off a race to the maindeck; even some of the wounded, barely able to stand on their own feet, went hobbling forward to catch their first glimpse of the land of Maha-chin.

At first the coast was only a distant smudge on the horizon, but when its contours began to take shape, maps and telescopes were fetched so that the salient features could be identified. Standing by the binnacle Mr Doughty raised a fingertip and turned it in a northeasterly direction. ‘That over there, is the island of Hong Kong!’

On the starboard side of the quarter-deck, Shireen’s knuckles whitened on the gunwale as she leant forward, straining to look ahead.

‘Here.’Jogging Shireen’s elbow, Freddie held out a spyglass: ‘Here, with this you will see better, lah. Hong Kong is that one – tallest and biggest of those islands, over there.’

The distant peaks were wreathed in cloud but the slopes below were treeless, strangely barren. The island seemed to be sparsely inhabited; the only dwellings to be seen were a few clusters of houses on the shore.

A lump rose to Shireen’s throat as she stared at the windswept massif: so this was where Bahram had found his resting-place? This was where his journey had ended – this forbidding eyrie of an island, so far from his native Gujarat? The weather-battered desolation of the place created an aching melancholy in her: she tried and failed to envision Bahram’s grave, lying amidst those slopes.

She turned to Zadig Bey, who was standing beside her. ‘Do you think we’ll be able to visit my husband’s grave today?’

Zadig scratched his chin. ‘I don’t know if it’ll be possible today, Bibiji,’ he said. ‘I must first find my friend Robin Chinnery, to make sure that arrangements have been made for your accommodation in Macau. But we will go to Hong Kong as soon as possible, I promise.’

*

‘And you see that promontory, abeam of the larboard bow?’ boomed Mr Doughty, pointing in a north-westerly direction. ‘Somewhere there lies Macau!’

Down on the maindeck, Raju raised a hand to shade his eyes as he peered ahead: Macau was where his journey would end; this was where he would be reunited with his father!

Excitement and anticipation bubbled up in him until they could no longer be contained. ‘Look!’ he said to Dicky. ‘That’s where I am going – Macau! That’s where my uncle is!’

Dicky pulled a face. ‘Lucky bastard!’ he said enviously. ‘How is it that you civvy buggers have all these bloody uncles, and aunts, and fathers, and mothers?’

The fifer spat overboard, into the foam-flecked sea. ‘We Lower Orphanage fellows, we don’t have even one bloody relative.’

Although Dicky’s tone was jocular there was an edge to it that made Raju wilt: the pleasure with which he had been looking forward to leaving the ship now gave way to a guilty unease for having so joyfully welcomed the prospect of abandoning his friend. Turning away in confusion, Raju went down to the cubicle and began to gather his meagre belongings together. He was stuffing them into his ditty-bag when Zachary came in.

‘So this is it I guess, eh kid-mutt? You and I will soon be going our own ways?’

‘Yes, sir.’ Raju shyly held out his hand. ‘Thank you for bringing me with you, sir. If not for you I wouldn’t be here.’

Zachary smiled as he shook the boy’s hand. ‘You’re a good lad, kid-mutt,’ he said. ‘I hope things work out well for you.’

A minute later, the ship’s bell began to ring, announcing the sighting of the fleet.

They went racing back to the deck to find that a mass of Union Jacks had appeared on the waters ahead, at the western edge of the Pearl River estuary.

The grandeur of the landscape made the fleet look even more impressive than at Singapore: its masts, flags and pennants were so thickly bunched together that it was as if a great fortress had arisen out of the water.

Twenty warships were at anchor there, including three seventy-four-gun men-o’-war, Wellesley, Melville and Blenheim; two forty-four-gun frigates, Druid and Blonde and no fewer than four steamers. Clustered around them were twenty-six transport and supply vessels with names like Futty Salaam, Hooghly, Rahmany, Sulimany, Rustomjee Cowasjee and Nazareth Shah. And everywhere in the channel, circling ravenously around the ships of the fleet, were bumboats – hundreds of them, bedecked with a vast array of wares: vegetables, meat, fruit, souvenirs.

Guarding the fleet’s southern flank was a twenty-eight-gun frigate, Alligator. No sooner had the Hind drawn level with the frigate than her towropes were tossed off: in her present state she was in no condition to wend her way through those crowded waters to join her sister vessel, the Ibis, which was a good distance away.

Even before the Hind had dropped anchor, cutters, lighters and bumboats were converging on her from every direction.

*

The Hind’s cargo of opium was large enough that it took a good few hours to offload it into a longboat. By the time Zachary stepped into the boat, to escort the cargo to the Ibis, it was well past noon.

The air was as heavy as a hot compress: the torpid stillness of the afternoon had created a steamy haze so that the towering masts of the anchored frigates shimmered like trees in a fog.

Zachary was sitting in the stern of the longboat, facing forward: rounding the prow of a sloop-o’-war he caught sight of a large daub of orange, sitting perched in the bows of a fast-moving gig.

In a few minutes the splash of colour resolved itself into a familiar shape and form.

‘Baboo Nob Kissin?’

‘Master Zikri!’ cried the gomusta. ‘Is it you?’

The gomusta, overjoyed, made an attempt to rise to his feet, almost overturning the gig. Sinking quickly back to the bench, he cried: ‘Master Zikri, you will live a hundred years! For you only I was going to look – it is a very urgent matter!’

‘What is it, Baboo?’

‘Captain Chillingworth is laid down with severe indispositions: one day stool is like porridge next day like curds. Tongue has also become black and furry, like bandicoot’s tail. He has been evacuated to Manila. In his absence I am glad to intimate an auspicious news: in lieu of himself Mr Chillingworth has appointed you captain of Ibis!’

‘Me? Captain?’ Zachary narrowed his eyes. ‘Are you ironizing me, Baboo?’

‘Hai, hai!’ Shaking his head solemnly, Baboo Nob Kissin bit his tongue. ‘I would never treat such a matter, with levitation. Look – I can prove to you that I am not laughing in my sleeve.’ Baboo Nob Kissin drew out a sealed letter and handed it over: ‘Here is authorization-chitty, issued by Mr Chillingworth. It is most fortunate that you have arrived today. You must join duty now only. Departure has been preponed – we must set sail tomorrow.’

As Zachary was examining the letter, Baboo Nob Kissin lowered his voice and leant a little closer. ‘One secret I will impart: all this was my idea – I only told Captain Chillingworth that you are suitable for captain’s job. Now see how nicely everything has worked out? You will be able to sell your own opium and Mr Burnham’s also. Soon you will be making money, fist over wrist!’

Amazed by yet another unexpected upturn in his fortunes, Zachary was still staring at the letter. ‘Holy gollation, Baboo! I don’t know what to say.’

The gomusta in the meantime had bethought himself of another matter: ‘And what about the boy, Raju? I hope he did not create botherations?’

‘No, not at all. He’s waiting on the Hind – he’s got his things packed and is all ready to go off to his uncle.’

At this a scowl appeared on the Baboo’s face. ‘Regarding that matter unfortunately a problem has risen up. Raju’s uncle has absconded from Macau – he has gone upcountry and is not reachable. Never mind. I will explain everything to Raju.’

‘I left him on the Hind – you’ll find him there.’

As the boats were pulling apart, a thought struck Zachary and he turned around, cupping his hands around his mouth: ‘Baboo, what about the letter I sent with you? For Miss Paulette Lambert?’

‘She has received it, Master Zikri!’ the gomusta shouted back. ‘Not to worry – it has been delivered into her hands!’

*

Shortly after the Hind’s arrival Captain Mee and the subalterns left for the Wellesley, to meet with Colonel Burrell and Commodore Bremer. Kesri was not sorry to see the officers go: their departure left him free at last to give his attention to those who needed it most – the sepoys and camp-followers.

The events of the last few days – the lightning strike, the dismasting, the deaths and injuries – had reduced many of the boys and men to a state where they seemed unable to absorb, or even notice, what was happening around them. Nor did their numbness dissipate on arrival: many of them began to drift about the decks in a kind of trance, staring at the unfamiliar surroundings and listening bemusedly to the clamour that was rising from the circling bumboats.

They needed to be taken in hand, Kesri knew, but before he could do anything about it a team of surgeons and medical attendants arrived, to oversee the evacuation of the wounded, and in the confusion of the moment Kesri forgot to order the men to go below. This was an unfortunate omission; later he would curse himself for having allowed the men to witness the evacuation.

Very few of the evacuees were in a condition to use the usual facilities for debarkation. Neither the side-ladders nor even the swing-lift would serve for the seriously injured so a special crane was set up to winch them down to the waiting boats in a hanging litter.

The agonized screams of the injured fifers, as they were transferred from their pallets to the litter, were harrowing enough to listen to; worse by far was what happened when it came time for the injured punditji to be moved. He was carried out of the infirmary in an immobile condition, lying prone on a pallet. When his litter was hoisted off the deck, he sat suddenly erect, like a puppet jerked up by the tug of a string. Raking the maindeck with wild, bloodshot eyes, he uttered a bone-chilling shriek, calling out the name of the god of death, Yamaraj.

By the time his litter reached the boat the punditji was dead.

*

Soon after the Hind dropped anchor Zadig hired a sampan and went off to look for Robin Chinnery. He was gone for what seemed to Shireen an inordinately long time. But just as she was beginning to worry, he returned, full of good cheer.

Everything was settled, he told Shireen;. the house that Robin had found for Shireen, in Macau, was ready and waiting.

Shireen gave a sigh of relief. ‘That is very good news, Zadig Bey. I hope you thanked Robin for me? I was beginning to think that something had gone wrong.’

Zadig was quick to apologize: it had taken him a long time to locate the Redruth, he said, and he had found Robin in a great state – it turned out that he was preparing to sail northwards, with the British fleet.

‘But why?’ said Shireen in surprise. ‘Has he joined the navy?’

This drew a great guffaw from Zadig. ‘No, Bibiji, Robin is the least martial of men. He is actually going along as an artist. He tells me that it is quite the thing nowadays for armies to be accompanied by painters so that their exploits and victories can be recorded for posterity. A colonel has invited him and it is too good an opportunity to be refused. Robin will set sail tomorrow.’

‘What a pity,’ said Shireen in disappointment. ‘I would have liked to meet him.’

‘He would have liked to meet you too, Bibiji. In Canton, during the opium crisis, he was often at Bahram-bhai’s house. He wanted to offer his condolences but unfortunately there’s no time today. He will come to see you when he returns: in the meantime he sends you his salaams. So does his friend, Paulette.’

‘She was there too?’

‘Yes, Bibiji – and she too will come to see you some day. She was at Hong Kong you know, when Bahram’s body was found.’

‘Oh?’ said Shireen. ‘I didn’t know that. What an odd coincidence.’

‘No, Bibiji, not really. Paulette spends a lot of time on the island.’

Zadig turned to point in the direction of Hong Kong. ‘Do you see that tall mountain over there? That is where Paulette’s guardian, Mr Penrose, has set up a nursery, for his collection of plants. Since Mr Penrose is rather infirm, it is Paulette who takes care of it: she goes there every day.’

‘On her own?’

‘Yes, Bibiji, she often goes on her own. She dresses up in breeches and a jacket and no one gives her any trouble. She was up there that day when Bahram died. The nursery has a very good view of the bay and the shore: Paulette noticed a great commotion and came hurrying down to the beach below the nursery. And there she found Vico, the munshi and some lascars from the Anahita gathered around Bahram’s body.’

Shireen fell silent, resting her eyes on the looming island. ‘I would like to talk to her, Zadig Bey.’

‘I’m sure an opportunity will arise soon enough, Bibiji. She too is keen to meet you.’

*

Down in the shadows of the dimly lit cubicle, Raju listened numbly as Baboo Nob Kissin gave him the news: his father was no longer in Macau; he had gone off to Canton to take a job; he could not be contacted because the Pearl River was under blockade; even to try to send a message was fraught with risk, since it might bring down suspicion on his head – nonetheless, attempts would be made …

After listening for a while Raju broke in: Apni chithi likhechhilen na? You had written a letter to him, hadn’t you? You had told him I was coming?

Yes, of course I had, said Baboo Nob Kissin. But my letter must not have reached him. He must have left Macau before it arrived. He was gone by the time I reached the coast; I have not been able to reach him since.

The explanation was lost on Raju, who turned on Baboo Nob Kissin as though he were personally to blame: But why? Why did he leave? Why didn’t he wait?

Because he didn’t know, said Baboo Nob Kissin. It’s not his fault – how could he have imagined that you would set out in search of him? Had he known he would certainly have waited. We just have to send him word, somehow, and I am sure he will come for you.

But what am I to do till then? cried Raju in dismay. Where will I stay? With whom?

The boy’s increasingly fraught tone alarmed Baboo Nob Kissin.

Listen, Raju, he said. Tomorrow I will be leaving to go north on the Ibis – Mr Reid will be the captain. You can come with us as a ship’s boy if you want.

But I don’t want to move to another ship! cried Raju, his eyes glistening. I have friends on the Hind – why should I leave them? Isn’t it enough that my father isn’t here? Do you want me to lose my friends too?

Pierced by the note of accusation in his voice, Baboo Nob Kissin could only appeal to the heavens – Hé Gobindo; hé Gopal! Under his breath he cursed himself for having brought this calamity upon his own head: had he not sought out the boy and his mother, in Calcutta, he wouldn’t have had this problem on his hands.

As so often in his life, the decision had been made for Baboo Nob Kissin by Ma Taramony, his guiding spirit. Having long regarded Neel with a maternal eye, she had decided that it was imperative for Baboo Nob Kissin to visit his wife, on his return from China to Calcutta: it was his duty, she had told him, to tell the unfortunate woman that her husband was still alive and would return some day, to take her and Raju away from Calcutta.

Although Baboo Nob Kissin had had his reservations, he had obeyed Ma Taramony’s instructions in the belief that the matter would end there. Not for a moment had it occurred to him that he was in danger of being set upon by a wilful and headstrong boy who, on hearing the news would proceed to beg, cajole and demand that he, Baboo Nob Kissin, a mere messenger, come to his assistance in his quest to seek out his father.

Baboo Nob Kissin had protested to the best of his ability but his resistance had been hindered by an unfortunate quirk of his character: a besetting fear of children. Although more than a match for wily seths and ruthless zamindars, the gomusta was incapable of resisting the importunities of a child – not because of the softness of his heart but out of a deep dread of the terrible power of their powerlessness. When the look in their wide, expressive eyes turned to anger or disappointment, they seemed to him to be gifted with the ability to inflict all kinds of injuries. There was little he would not do to escape their maledictions – and somehow Raju had seemed to be aware of this and had turned it to his advantage, besieging him with pleas, entreaties, cajoleries and veiled threats.

Nor had the boy’s mother done anything to restrain her son; to the contrary, she had added her own pleas to her son’s: There is nothing for Raju in Calcutta; she had said. He has grown restless and I can no longer manage him. He will go to the bad if he remains here; it is best for him to fufil his heart’s desire and go off to search for his father.

So Baboo Nob Kissin had agreed to foist the boy on Zachary, fully trusting all the while that Neel was still in Macau and would be able to take charge of his son.

And now this …

Look, Raju, said Baboo Nob Kissin. I warned you at the outset that it would be difficult. It was you who were adamant that you wanted to come, no matter what. Now, you must be patient: I will arrange something, I promise, but you must wait.

At this, a look of exactly the kind that Baboo Nob Kissin most dreaded – wide, wounded and filled with disappointment – entered the boy’s eye: Wait? How long?

Flustered, the gomusta rose to his feet: I don’t know – and anyway I have to go now, to see Mr Doughty. In the meantime you should think about what you want to do.

Baboo Nob Kissin disappeared, leaving Raju huddled in a corner.

Through misted eyes the boy saw again the scene of his father’s arrest, at their family home, in Calcutta, two years before. They had been flying kites together, on a terrace, when their steward came up to say that the Chief Constable had arrived, with a squad of armed men. Raju remembered how his father had told him to wait on the terrace; he would be back in ten minutes. So Raju had stayed there, waiting, even after his father was taken away, in a carriage.

He was aware now of a cold, empty sense of abandonment – a feeling very similar to what he had felt then, except that he was two years older now and no longer trusted in promises. He knew that he could not wait for Baboo Nob Kissin or anyone else to decide his fate: until such time as he was reunited with his father he would have to take his destiny into his own hands. But to know this only made things worse – for he had not the faintest inkling of where to go next or what to do.

Then came a familiar knocking, on the planks of wood that separated the cubicle from the camp-followers’ cumra. It was followed by Dicky’s voice: ‘Arré Raju? You still there, men?’

‘Yes.’

‘What-happen? I thought you were leaving for that place – Makoo or something.’

‘No, men, can’t. Uncle has gone off somewhere.’ ‘So what you will do now?’ ‘Don’t know.’

There was a silence and then Dicky said: ‘Arré you know something, men? You can always join our squad, no? We need more fifers; I heard the fife-major talking about it only today.’

*

Daylight was fading when the officers returned from their meeting on the Wellesley. The subalterns came bounding up the Hind’s side-ladder, talking excitedly, with an exuberant young cornet leading the way.

‘Just our luck to be left out of the action …!’

‘Oh how I should have liked to bag my first slantie …’

Captain Mee came up last, but his voice was the loudest of all: ‘And you can be sure that those bloody bog-trotters of the 49th will never leave off barneying about their little adventures up north …’

Listening to them Kesri understood that the Bengal Volunteers had been spared an immediate deployment. This was welcome news: after everything they had been through lately the unit was in no condition to face another voyage, even less to go into action. He could only hope that they would soon be sent ashore, to a camp on dry land.

Later that evening, when he was summoned to Captain Mee’s cabin for a briefing, Kesri learnt that he had guessed correctly: most of the expedition’s troops would be proceeding northwards the next day, to be deployed at Chusan. But B Company was to remain where it was – on the Hind, in the general proximity of Hong Kong. Along with a detachment of Royal Marines they were to provide protection for the merchant fleet and for all British subjects in the area.

‘It’s a pity we’re going to miss the action,’ said Captain Mee. ‘But the high command has decided that we need time to recover from our voyage.’

‘Some extra time will be good, Kaptán-sah’b,’ said Kesri quietly.

Captain Mee shot him a quizzical glance. ‘Why, havildar? What’s on your mind?’

For Kesri the most worrying thing was the shortfall in camp-followers: without a full contingent of gun-lascars he knew it would be difficult to make good use of their mortars and howitzers.

‘We have lost too many followers, Kaptán-sah’b. Gun-lascars especially – more are needed.’

‘Well I don’t know that there’s anything to be done about that,’ said Captain Mee. ‘We aren’t likely to find any gun-lascars here.’

‘Sir, maybe we can recruit some sailors instead?’

‘At a pinch perhaps,’ said the captain. ‘If you see any likely fellows let me know.’

‘Yes, sir,’ said Kesri. ‘And when will we move ashore, sir? Do you know?’

Captain Mee’s answer came as a disappointment.

‘We’re to remain on the Hind for the time being, havildar. It’s up to Captain Smith of the Volage to decide – he’s been placed in overall charge of the southern sector.’

Unrolling a chart, Captain Mee pointed to their location. Kesri saw that the Pearl River estuary was shaped like an inverted funnel, with the stem pointing north. The island of Hong Kong and the promontory of Macau were at opposite ends of the funnel’s rim, forty miles apart. The Hind was currently positioned closer to Macau, but Captain Mee told him that they would soon be moving to Hong Kong Bay, where most of the British merchant fleet was at anchor.

Slowly the captain’s fingertip moved up the chart, through clusters of islands to the point where the bowl of the funnel met the stem.

‘This here is the Bocca Tigris, havildar,’ said the captain. ‘Some call it the Bogue.’

Kesri had heard of this place from lascars: they spoke of it as Sher-ki-mooh – ‘the Tiger’s Mouth’.

‘It’s a heavily fortified position,’ said Captain Mee. ‘If there’s any fighting in this sector, that’s where it’ll be.’

*

Bahram’s grave was at the far edge of a bowl-like valley, encircled by steep ridges. They rented horses and a guide at a village called Sheng Wan, where they’d got off the boat that had brought them over to Hong Kong. The guide explained to Freddie that the grave was in an area known as Wang nai Cheong or ‘Happy Valley’. They made their way there by following a coastal pathway to the eastern side of the bay. Then they turned left to climb over a ridge before descending into the valley.

The valley floor was carpeted with rice paddies, some of which were fed by a bamboo aqueduct. On one side of the valley was a nearly vertical rock-face, of weathered granite. Perched on top of this was a gigantic boulder, elliptical in shape. At the foot of the boulder lay a great heap of red paper flags and joss sticks. The guide told Freddie that the rock was known as ‘the Harlot’s Stone’, and was visited by women who wanted to bear children.

Bahram’s grave was at the other end of the valley: it was a modest stone structure, without any embellishments. The inscription on the gravestone had only the words: Bahramjee Nusserwanjee Moddie.

‘We decided not to add anything else,’ said Zadig apologetically. ‘We were not sure what the family would want.’

Shireen nodded. ‘Yes, it was for the best. We will add some verses from the Avesta when it’s possible.’

Shireen began to murmur the Srosh-Baj prayer while Freddie laid out some offerings that he had brought with him, of fruit and flowers. He had said hardly a word all day and it was not until they were on their way back to Sheng Wan that he spoke.

‘Don’t be angry, ne, Bibiji,’ he said. ‘But I will not go with you to Macau.’

‘But where will you go then?’ said Shireen in surprise.

‘I will stay here, in Sheng Wan village – there are rooms to rent, ne? Guide has told me so.’

‘But why?’

Freddie’s voice fell to a whisper. ‘He is here, my father. I can feel him. He wants me to stay.’

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

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