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A Christmas Cake in Four Quarters

Chapter I. Christmas Day in India

page 169

Chapter I. Christmas Day in India.

When we were all assembled the next afternoon, for story-telling and hearing, the first remark Jack made was to express a hope that the other Christmas Day which we were going to hear about would have been spent in a cold climate. For his part, he could not bear the idea of a broiling hot Christmas Day; it would not seem like the real thing at all unless there was snow and ice.

"I am very sorry, dear," replied Mrs. Owen. "I wish for your sake, that I had gone to the North Pole with some of our explorers; but I am afraid in the first place they would not have page 170taken me; and in the next, if they had done so, it is just possible I might not have returned to tell you about it."

"No, no, Aunt Owen," said warm-hearted Irish Nora, "we would not have had you go there on any account. We like you to be here now; and we like listening to stories about warm climates. "Why," continued Nora, appealing to the rest of the small audience, "it's so nice to hear about sunshine, and flowers, and all sorts of bright things, when it is so dark and cold outside."

"That's right, Nora," echoed Cathy; "we shall like hearing about a hot Christmas Day very much. Where was it passed this time, dear Mrs. Owen?"

"Well, I am afraid I must tell you about an Indian Christmas, the only one I ever spent in that country, for it is the next in order. I say 'afraid,' because it really was rather a hot one; though I will begin with an account of icemaking, to cool Jack if he finds my story too page 171sunny. You must know that on the Christmas Day I am going to tell you about to-night, I was living in a tent, or rather in two tents, for we had to use them on alternate days,—and I formed one of a great many people—ten thousand souls in all—who were marching up the country, from Lucknow to the Punjaub, far away to the North-west of Bengal, on what is called in India a tour of inspection. I don't know that I ever inspected anything except the shops at every station we passed, but at all events I had the honour and glory of belonging to the camp.

"Of course we saw a good deal during this gipsy journey, but I am not going to tell you about anything except the events of the Christmas Day spent in a tent. I remember thinking when I opened my eyes, and saw the blue and white striped lining of the pointed ceiling, and my saddle laid across the back of a chair outside in the verandah, that it did not feel a bit like Christmas, although it was not particularly hot; page 172but still it was so unlike a real Christmas that I felt rather melancholy until I got up and dressed, and went into the centre partition of the tent for my 'chota haseri,' or 'little breakfast.'

"There I saw a large tray heaped up with bunches of flowers, wreaths and garlands of green leaves, and sweetmeats of every description. Among the flowers lay two necklaces formed of tufts of scented cotton, made into an oval shape by silver thread wound round them, and fastened together by little rosettes of crimson silk. I felt very much surprised and delighted to see the flowers, because they were very scarce and difficult to procure in the jungle; and a bouquet was regarded as a great treasure in camp. Yet here were beautiful Gûlistan roses (the exquisitely sweet little rose from which the attar is made), and English mignonette, and sweet-scented verbena and jasmine. Evidently the native servants must have taken extra-page 173ordinary pains and trouble to procure me this treat; and my syce, or groom, had added an offering in the shape of a pair of parroquets, in a little bamboo cage. Of course they all expected return gifts, according to the Indian custom; but still I was very much touched and pleased by the attention, and felt directly much more as if it were the Blessed Day.

"There was to be no marching that day; we were to be given twenty-four hours' rest,—a great boon to the tired tent-pitchers and to the crowd of native servants, who could have had very little personal comfort during their camp life, especially as they disliked the cold of the nights and early mornings extremely. The sun in the middle of the day was intensely hot, but at the end of the year, and with our steps bent due north, the nights were cold enough to form the least light film of ice on a shallow surface of water. At first it seemed very odd to be invited to come and see 'ice made.' 'In a machine?' I naturally page 174inquired. 'Oh no; out of doors.' So upon this Christmas morning, as there was no long ride before us, and from habit I had got up and dressed as early as usual, I went to see ice made.

"I don't quite know what sort of process I imagined I should behold, but certainly it seemed very odd to be shown a field covered with straw, exactly as if bricks were being manufactured there, and among this straw were packed rows and rows of shallow brown earthenware saucers, about the size and shape of those we use at breakfast, which had been filled with water over-night Now, in the grey dawn, before the sun had risen to dissolve with his earliest beams the effects of the slight frost of the night before, hundreds of Coolies were employed in collecting these saucers, and turning out the little flat cakes of ice which had formed in them, to be rapidly re-packed in an ice-house near, which I afterwards visited.

"The ice-collectors have to be up very early, for their work must be over before sunrise, or else page 175adieu to that night's ice. It would have changed back again into a few drops of water as surely and as swiftly as Cinderella's coach returned to its pumpkin shape at the magic midnight hour.

"'Who pays these men?' I inquired.

"'The Ice Club,' answered my guide. 'At every station up country there is a club formed, whose members subscribe so many rupees a year, and this pays for the labour of collecting the ice during these few cool weeks, and storing it for summer use.'

"The ice-house was most scientifically built, with an elaborate system of drainage, and tremendously thick walls and roof; and altogether the impression conveyed to my ignorant mind was that ice had to be treated like a tiny baby, and kept very warm indeed; but the plan answered very well, and during the scorching summer months the icehouse was opened once a day, and so many seers of ice distributed to each subscriber.

"'What did we do next?' Well, I think we had page 176breakfast next, and after breakfast a full churchservice in the Commander-in-chief's tent, and then lunch, and after lunch I had my famous adventure with the Ghoorka, which I promised to tell you about.—No, Georgie dear, a Ghoorka is not a monkey; it is the name given to a very hardy mountain tribe, from which some of out best native light regiments in India are recruited.—The men of the Ghoorka race are wonderfully small, but as active and brave as wild cats, and quite as fearless. They seem to know neither fatigue nor hunger and thirst, when on duty; but have been known to march steadily for hours under a burning sun, when the men of other regiments were knocking up and falling out of the ranks one after the other. They have the reputation of being very high caste, and consequently extremely scrupulous about their religious observances; but their character in the camp stood high for good behaviour, and a quiet orderly performance of their duties. Their own encampment page 177was pitched rather to the rear of the principal tents, between them and the Highlanders' camp. I don't know whether I have ever told you how orderly these great camps in India are. After the first day or two, as soon as every one has found out his place, there is no confusion or difficulty; each soldier and each camp-follower or servant knows exactly where he is to go to: consequently the profound quiet, and absence of all fuss or hurry, is wonderful, when you consider that ten thousand people change their position to one twenty-five miles ahead, every day.

"After luncheon, or 'tiffin' as it is called in India, on Christmas Day, I felt rather at a loss to know what to do with myself; for not having had a long ride in the morning, I was not sleepy or inclined for my usual mid-day nap. I had read all the English newspapers by the last mail through and through; and as for work, if I attempted to put in a stitch, my durzie or tailor used to come with a melancholy face and ask the page 178'Protector of the Poor,' or the 'Pearl of the Universe' (to either of which titles I answered quite readily), why she needed to work when her faithful Mirza was there to save her all trouble. In vain I protested that I liked to work: the durzie stuck steadily to his point, that it was not the custom for 'Burra Mem-sahibs,' or great ladies, to sew; and he fairly tormented me into giving way and letting him do all the needlework wanted.

"Sometimes, on other days, I used to go out on the shikari elephant, and watch the sportsmen of the camp bring down red-legged partridges, hares, quails, &c, with their guns; but we felt it right to give everybody a holiday on Christmas Day, so that resource for whiling away a long afternoon was denied to me. As I lay back lazily in my dear folding-up arm-chair, which had accompanied me for so many thousand miles by land and sea, I suddenly remembered that I had long owed a visit to the wife of a Colonel, whose tent was pitched at a short distance.

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"'I will go and see her now,' I cried, jumping up: 'how glad I am I have at last thought of something to do;' and I slipped off to my own portion of the tent, to put on my shady pith hat and my gloves. Now this was very naughty and disobedient of me, and you will see by my story that it is no safer for grown-up people to disobey orders than it is for little ones. I had been expressly told that I must only return visits made to me in camp in the cool of the evening, and that I was never to go alone. I had a vivid recollection of having set out to make some calls a few afternoons before, and of being surrounded by servants as soon as my intention became known. One great white-headed man held an umbrella over my head, a second carried my card-case, whilst a third went on before to see if the ladies were at home, or if their 'door was shut.' This appeared to me, with my independent English habits, a most ridiculous and formal way of going to see my acquaintances, and I secretly resolved not to sally page 180forth again in a procession to pay visits. Consequently I rejoiced at the opportunity of getting away without being seen by any one. A minute sufficed for my toilet, and as I could see Mrs. I Urquhart's tent from the back of mine, only a couple of hundred yards away, I thought I was really quite big enough to go and visit her by myself.

"To reach that part of the camp, my path lay through the canvas stables and cooking tents, at the rear of the principal canvas street, and had to cross one corner of the Ghoorka encampment All was orderly and quiet The cooks and their numerous assistants were squatting in front of the little mud ovens in the open air, over which they prepared such wonderful and elaborate dishes for us every day. The syces, and grass-cutters, and water-carriers were lying and sitting in groups, smoking their pipes, and discussing the merits of the respective steeds under their care, whilst equal peace and quiet reigned supreme among the page 181Ghoorkas. Scarcely a man was to be seen in their encampment; and as I was going straight across country, my path led me near one of the few men of that tribe who had not betaken himself to sleep in the shade. This individual, as I heard afterwards, was of high caste, and very strict in the observance of its rites and ceremonies. At that moment he was in an extra state of purity and holiness, having performed his ablutions at his leisure, said his longest prayers, and was just preparing to eat his breakfast, which was quite ready for him in a brass lota or cooking vessel, simmering over a few bits of charcoal by his side. These people only make one meal in twenty-four hours, so it is to be presumed that the Ghoorka had a fine appetite, which the savoury smell of his curry and rice tended to increase.

"As I approached, I could not help admiring the extreme neatness of the little soldier's appearance and arrangements. His uniform was tidily folded up and laid on a clean cloth, his knapsack and page 182accoutrements were near him, and so were his weapons. He was only clad in a white cotton vest and voluminous white drawers, gathered, native-fashion, into a girdle around his waist; and his bare shaven head looked like a bronze-coloured billiard ball, so smooth and shining was it. On his forehead and cheeks he had stuck one or two wafers of red cloth, to tell all whom it concerned that he had said such and such prayers. He was so absorbed in his cooking, that he did not perceive me until I was quite near him, and then he never suspected who I was, seeing me walking alone in such undignified fashion. As I came near he called out some word of warning which I had never heard before, and took for an equivalent of 'Good day,' so I smiled and nodded and went on past his lota of food; unluckily I had never noticed that my shadow must fall across it unless I changed my course. The Ghoorka waved his hand impatiently, but I never guessed that he was telling me to keep further away; and as I page 183wanted to get to Mrs. Urquhart's tent as quickly as possible, I did not swerve from the straight path which led to it. Another rapid step or two brought me near enough to the lota and its contents for my shadow to fall completely over it.

"Up jumped the Ghoorka with a wild howl otrage and fury. He rushed at the unoffending but defiled cooking vessel, and with one vigorous kick sent it flying half-a-dozen yards off, scattering its savoury contents on the dusty sward. His next movement was towards his weapons, and in far less time than it takes me to tell you, he had drawn his long glittering knife or rather dagger from its scabbard, and, holding it high up in the air, rushed at me like a wild animal, his eyes glaring with hatred, and his thin lips drawn back from his shining white teeth, which looked as if they were going to bite me. I could not understand a word he said or rather screamed at me, but the pantomime was only too expressive. I gathered my muslin skirts closely round me page 184and prepared to fly for my life; in other words, to see which could run the fastest, the Ghoorka or I!

"Yes, it is all very well to laugh at it now, but just then it was not in the least amusing; for, although I was so surrounded by people, help there was none, for no one knew what was going on. Instead of making for Mrs. Urquhart's tent, which was close by, I turned and fled towards my own; and I well remember deciding as rapidly as thought on this course, from a dislike of making my first appearance before a strange lady pursued by a frantic Ghoorka. Luckily for me, in those long-ago days, I was a slim, active young lady, instead of the fat old woman who likes now to sit in an arm-chair and tell stories; so, having a few yards' start, I held my own very well. But when I drew near the back of the large tents my troubles began, for their ropes stretched to an immense distance, and I could not make up my mind to keep far out, which would have been the wisest page 185course, but I tried to get to them as near as I could, hoping some one would see or hear me, and run out to my help.

"Racing people say, 'It's the pace that kills,' and so I found it, especially in the steeplechase which my race soon became; for a whole line of sloping ropes stretched before me, and over these I leapt with the most wonderful agility, dreading at each jump that some of my petticoats would get entangled and throw me down, in which case there probably would have been no story-telling to-day on my part!

"After I had bounded over a few of these horrible ropes, I began to feel that my speed was slackening, and that the Ghoorka was gaining on me; another jump brought him so close to me that I could hear his panting breath, and I was fast losing all hope and courage, for my own tent was still some way off, when I saw through an uplifted purdah, or curtain-door, a group of young officers sitting smoking inside what I remembered was the page 186mess-tent, close by. I had no voice to scream, nor could I spare time to make a sign. Before they could see me, or have the least idea of what danger I was in, I darted under the purdah, and into the tent, like a swallow pursued by a hawk, and flung myself right into the arms of the biggest and strongest-looking person present. Yes, that was all I cared for—some one who could save me from my terrible enemy. I nearly knocked down the poor man into whose arms I rushed, and certainly frightened him out of his wits; but big as he was, he would not have been able to save me, if some other officers near the door had not seized the Ghoorka as he dashed in after me, and one—with more presence of mind than the rest—knocked the uplifted knife out of his hand. I did not feel safe even then, but trembled and cried like a great baby, and insisted on having the knife given to me to hold. I have it now, and there it hangs, above the Indian tulwars, over the fireplace; and I never look at it without remembering page 187how nearly my disobedience cost me my life on Christmas Day.

"Does Cathy want to know what became of the Ghoorka? That is the worst part of the story. It seems the poor man had always been a fanatic, and my insult, as he regarded it, had driven him quite mad. He knew his life would pay for mine if he had overtaken and stabbed me, but that was of small consequence in his eyes compared to the burning desire to avenge his slighted faith. For my part I shall always think that hunger made him as desperate as it does animals, for in consequence of my unlucky shadow, not only was his dinner spoiled and rendered unclean, unfit for food, but his law forbade him to prepare any more until the same time next day; so he had the prospect of forty-eight hours' fast before him.

"After he was seized he continued to invoke death and destruction on my sacrilegious head, and at the drum-head court-martial, which was hastily summoned, he boldly declared his wish page 188and intention to kill me as soon as possible. I did my best to get him off, though I had but little breath or voice in which to give my evidence; in vain I took all the blame upon myself, and entreated that he might be forgiven. The sullen prisoner would only dart vengeful fiery glances at me, and say, 'She has no business to live; she shall die.'

"Poor wretch! he was sentenced to be shot at sundown, not only for his chase after me, but on account of his mutinous language to his officers. In fact he was perfectly reckless and mad, and evidently thought he might just as well die as go without food for another day.

"But this execution would have been a very dreadful ending to my first and only Christmas Day in India, and I am happy to say that it did not take place. I enlisted every person of authority in camp on my side, or rather the prisoner's side. I cried like a baby, I believe I tore my hair; at all events I made such a fuss, page 189vowing that I should kill myself if the man were shot, for that it was all my fault, that at last some clever person thought of a technical loophole by which the Ghoorka might escape. The court assembled again; I stood outside the tent (for I could not be admitted) and sobbed all the time in the most heartrending manner; and at last, to my great joy, the sentence was altered to a long imprisonment, and the captive was marched off under a strong escort, very hungry and very revengeful, wishing that he had been shot, and assuring me that he would kill me on the first opportunity."

"Weren't you frightened lest he should get away and do it?" demanded Gerald.

"No, she had his knife," answered Georgie, who thought that possession not only meant the nine points of the law, but as many points of safety.

"I felt very unhappy, my dears, for a long time," said Mrs. Owen, "for the man's imprisonment was page 190owing to my disobedience. If I had only minded what I was told by those who knew the country better than I did, he would never have been shut up in a horrid prison, but lived free and happy among his native hills."