Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/Anglo-India from a French point of view

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Once a Week, Series 1, Volume VIII (1862-1863)
Anglo-India from a French point of view
by Laura Valentine


Few readers of fiction will deny that, in spite of the grave objections to be urged against French novels, there is an animation and interest in them which the English lack. The descendants of the old Trouvères still tell a story with inimitable grace and vivacity; perhaps because, like their romance-weaving ancestors, they are sublimely indifferent to consistency, and to geographical and national realities. Our English novelists are hampered by an innate truthfulness which struggles even with fiction. They cannot endure incorrectness of manners or national habits; they are also checked by the travelled knowledge of their readers. Not so the Trouvère, who writes in this nineteenth century. To his readers—generally untravelled—Paris is the world, French nature the only human nature.

Like our next-door neighbours in London, our near neighbours of France know very little about us. They visit us, trade with us, fight beside us, and yet prove by their writings that they see England and the English through a thick veil of misconception. The writers most friendly to us blunder about our “ways” as amusingly as those who bear the strongest prejudice against us.

We have just finished a tale by Monsieur Mery, the hero of which, a perfect preux chevalier, is an Englishman and there is scarce anything more entertainingly unlike and unreal, than himself, and the events which display his character.

Hear from Monsieur Mery what Anglo-Indian life is, and how Englishmen act in the far East.[1]

The tale begins with an animated description of a ball at Smyrna! given in celebration of the next-day nuptials of a certain Colonel Douglas, who is an officer in the East India Company’s service; and “the real, though not the titular” commander of the English army in India. This gentleman was affianced by the late Lord Byron to a beautiful Greek child whom the poet had adopted, and is bound to marry her or pay 12,000 livres as her marriage portion. Having been engaged in a mysterious war in the Nizam with the Thugs, he is sent for to Whitehall, to explain to the Prime Minister the true circumstances of the affair; is intercepted at Smyrna by the guardian of Amalia (the Greek), and called on to fulfil his engagement. Now, meantime, poor Colonel Douglas has fallen in love with a “Bramahnesse” as she is called, i.e., a Hindoo lady, the daughter of a rich trader in diamonds, and the young Greek has given her heart to a very elegant and melancholy young Pole, who is in exile at Smyrna. Nevertheless, neither makes any open objection to the mariage de convenance forced on them by the English minister, and the ball is at its height, and the civil contract of marriage to be signed before the consul the next day, when a steamer arrives from England bringing the celebrated Sir Edward Klerbbs, who breaks up the festivities with most admired disorder, by summoning Colonel Douglas (by order of Whitehall again!) to return without an hour’s delay to the Nizam, the war having broken out afresh. Amalia’s guardian, Mr. Tower, a clerk in the Foreign Office, is of course compelled to yield to the orders of his Government, but obliges Colonel Douglas to place the forfeited dowry in a banker’s hands for the benefit of his ward. The only person who objects to his departure is a certain young French widow, a Comtesse Octavie de Verzon, who being herself in love with Count Elona, the Pole, is anxious to see a formidable rival removed by the marriage of Amalia. But she tries anger and cajoleries alternately in vain, and sees the gentlemen depart, vowing an eternal hatred to Sir Edward Klerbbs. Meantime Count Elona (unable to bear the expected spectacle of Amalia’s nuptials) has begged a passage in the same vessel, and the three heroes of the tale depart for India together.

We have said the three heroes, but the hero par excellence is undoubtedly Sir Edward Klerbbs, who is evidently the beau ideal of an Englishman in a French imagination. Although he is a “dandy of Kensington Gardens,” he is possessed by a mania for travelling amongst savage nations and exploring unknown lands, so he abandons his noble mansion in Bond Street—which to English ears does not appear so great a sacrifice—to wander in India, and engage in amateur warfare in company with his friend Douglas. He is imperturbably cool, brave, and careless of peril; ruling everyone around him, and always “master of the situation.” This gallant Englishman has a faithful attendant, equally wonderful in his way—a Hindoo, whose subtilty and powers of disguising himself are something akin to magic. We are told, as to the relations between master and man, that:

Sir Edward and Nizam were so accustomed to live together and think together, that they could have dispensed with the aid of language in communicating their ideas to each other. They had raised themselves by efforts of marvellous perspicacity to the height of intelligence of the great Indian quadrupeds! which in moments of danger act with an admirable concert without requiring the letters of the alphabet. Even signs, the language of the dumb, were suppressed between them.

Of course Nizam, or Tauly, as he is called, is the good genius of the tale. He is a constant spy on the Thugs, from whose machinations he eventually delivers his master and his allies. These Thugs are by no means the secret society of thieves who used to strangle unsuspicious travellers for their gold, and were under a vow to attack no European, because of the risk of discovery (a breach of which vow led to their detection), but an army of fanatics, headed by a chief called the “Vieux Sing,” and sworn to destroy the English invaders of their country. They always attacked the English at night (hence M. Mery styles them Fantômes de nuit). They strangled their foes with their arms and hands, as well as with the noose, and the combats which took place between them and the English were studiously concealed and kept secret—everybody being assured that there were no longer any Thugs, at the very time that nightly encounters were taking place between them and the Sepoys.

We will relate the first of these combats as a specimen of a most singular style of warfare unknown to our own Indian experience, translating (with occasional abbreviations) from M. Mery.

A ladder of rope was fastened to the balcony—[the English gentlemen are quartered in the house of an Indian nabob]—Douglas and Sir Edward descended with the promptitude and audacity of men accustomed to climb to the summits of palm trees or the masts of vessels. Everywhere the high grass deadened the sound of their footsteps . . . . After two hours of furious walking they stopped on the borders of a lake skirting a forest.

“The Star of Leby has not risen on Mount Lérich,” said he to Edward. “The Thugs are still in their caves. The Thugs march only by the light of that star.”

He glanced round the country, solemnly lighted by the great Indian constellations, and said:

“My orders have been executed; Captain Moss is yonder. This palm tree, partly stripped of its leaves, tells me so; the palms are our telegraphs. We choose always the most lofty.” . . . .

The old pagoda of Miessour exhibits its honours on the borders of this lake. It is a hill of ruins, the stones of which are veiled with moss, broom, and aloes; at intervals gigantic heads of Indian gods rise from the herbage . . . . preserving still beneath the stars the hideous stillness given them by the Mahratta architect of Aurengzebe . . . This awful spot is often enlivened by black tigers, who seek a pedestal of their own colour and extend themselves on it like a sphynx . . . . In this war,” said the Colonel, in a whisper, “everything serves as a signal. The wild beasts even are our assistants. Your eyes are excellent, Edward; you have a cat-like perception of the mysteries of the night. Look earnestly at those ruins; what do you behold there?”

Sir Edward, with the nonchalance of his character, declares that he sees fine ruins in the style of a Japanese temple, and starts off into a disquisition on Oriental architecture, which would be signally out of place, if it did not prove how utterly indifferent the brave Englishman is to Thugs and tigers. Colonel Douglas interrupts him with very pardonable impatience, and directing his attention more closely to the ruins, he perceives a tiger, “making his evening toilette,” which, after admiring, Sir Edward proposes to shoot.

“Beware of doing so!” replied his friend. “That tiger is my spy.”

“Ah! that is fabulous.”

“Wait, and you will see.”

The tiger continued his toilette with a care of detail and a débonnaire composure which proved a conscience void of offence. . . . . Suddenly he shuddered the whole length of his body, and sparks darted from his fur. The caressing paw with which he was smoothing his coat stopped suddenly over his right eye. His ears bent down to his temples; his open nostrils sniffed the breeze; a booming noise was heard, prolonged and dull like the sound of an organ, the keys of which are stirred by a storm at night. If the ruins had trembled under the sudden eruption of a volcano, the tiger could not have been more startled. He rose, bounded over the ruins, and disappeared in the wood.

“Let us advance now,” said the Colonel. “Captain Moss is arriving from the other side.”

“Let us advance,” said Edward.

A strange spectacle soon fixed the attention of Edward. All along the crevices of the ruins, the tops of the tall grass trembled, as if shaken by an invasion of reptiles,—an army of boas. . . . . Several detachments of Sepoys were arriving in the ruins of the pagoda. At their head crawled Captain Moss, a young man of twenty-two, already grown old in this war, and who had twice escaped the noose of the Thugs by gliding through their hands like a slippery snake. From this moment words, whispers, even gestures were forbidden. Nevertheless the troup acted in concert wonderfully. Each soldier divined the order of his chief, or followed the sudden and infallible inspiration which fell from heaven upon the head of all.

This marvellous unity of thought impels the Sepoys to range themselves in two ranks on the earth on their faces, leaving a lane between their crouching forms, which are concealed by the high grass. At the rising of the star Leby—which was not, we confess, in our Indian astronomy—the Thugs issue from their caves, and advance towards the ruined pagoda, led by a fakir called Souniacy—a hideous savage, a skeleton in form, with waving black locks (the other Thugs are bald skeletons) and a long white beard—

Though the splendour of his eyes, the angular vigour of his temples, the convulsive agitation of his nostrils and the muscles of his throat, belied the colour of his beard, and betrayed the young man in his full strength.

His forehead and arms were painted with white bands, and he was altogether a most grotesque and unsightly devotee. He, alone, walked erect;

“the formidable pack of Thugs rolling along through the grass like reptiles led by a phantom.

As soon as the fakir “smells the breath of an Englishman,” he becomes a reptile in his turn. From that moment nothing is to be seen but grass; but the Colonel, Edward, and the soldiers, have soon very unpleasant warning of the approach of the unseen enemy.

The wild beasts, surprised by this living torrent overflowing their domains, bounded with furious springs across the herbage to escape from their tremendous enemies. The tigers, springing in prodigious leaps, in a fit of mad fear, cleared at a bound the soldiers of the ambuscade, and they—preserving their ranks motionless—reached the sublime of heroism, placed as they were between the claws of tigers and the gripe of men in the darkness of night and of the woods.

The moment had now arrived when the torrent of Thugs entered—as one may say—the river’s bed, the two banks of which were formed by the soldiers of Douglas.

A sharp hiss resounded in the solitude, and was repeated twenty times by the echos of the lake and the ruins. Three hundred men, armed with pistol and poignard, rose at this signal of their colonel. The Thugs sprang up also, uttering unearthly yells, which appeared to rise from the centre of a volcano, and a fierce struggle began which had not even the stars for witnesses; for the thick foliage of the forest floated above their heads, and the field of battle, bristling with spectres, resembled that dark cavern which is the vestibule of Hell.

The Thugs who escaped the first shock of this attack rushed desperately on their enemies to stifle them in a close embrace; to crunch their skulls with their serpents’ teeth, and to drink a little of their blood before dying; for the Thugs have not degenerated from the primitive races of India. Old Bengal has not yet enervated their souls or bodies. They are worthy sons of the giants, who overthrew and crumbled mountains, and made of them a ladder between the depths and heaven. Their arms, cast round the necks of their enemies, pressed the flesh as with fetters of bronze, and their victims, struggling in a convulsive agony, felt a hot, savage breath in their face, and beheld the monstrous grin of the demons who thus fatally caressed them. In the midst of this whirlwind of infernal combats, Edward and Douglas, exercised from infancy in feats of strength, address, and agility, never missed a blow of their robust fists, or of their poignards; the monsters fell before them, and those who arose fell again to rise no more. This horrible work of destruction was accomplished in a dull silence, unbroken even by the groans of the dying.

A single voice, a single cry resounded beneath the leafy vaults; a cry strange and even terrible, and foreign to the voice of man. It was that of the fakir Souniacy, who thus gave religious exhortation to his fanatic stranglers. When the Thugs (for a moment discouraged) heard his voice, they ground their cannibal’s teeth, stiffened their iron forms, spread their huge arms, shook their black tresses, and rushed with fresh fury on the enemy. Those who, pierced by a dagger, rolled on the grass like writhing serpents, revived at the fakir’s voice; and galvanised and blood-stained corpses clung to the feet of the soldiers and gave up their last breath tearing with their teeth the live flesh of their foes. Suddenly the voice of the fakir ceased. Then it was heard afar off, plaintive and agonised; it seemed as if the sound issued from a sepulchre on the borders of the wood. The Thugs replied by a long cry of despair; and as if the incomprehensible desertion of their fakir had suddenly deprived them of all their courage, they fled with inconceivable swiftness in the direction taken by Souniacy.

Surely this picture of Indian warfare is sufficient to discourage most candidates for Indian competitive examinations!

Douglas and Edward keep this horrible fight a profound secret, and appear at the Nabob’s breakfast table as fresh and débonnaire as if just emerged from the fabulous “Bond Street” of the tale. The Colonel—whose inopportune recall to India was a ruse devised by himself, and aided by his friend (though it had proved an unconscious prophecy, so far as the Thugs were concerned)—has meantime been wooing the Nabob’s daughter, Miss Arinda, who, having been educated in Sir William Bentinck’s house, unites the charms of a Hindoo damsel to the graces of a young lady of European civilisation. Sir Edward is delighted at this attachment, as he entertains the very un-English conviction that our worn-out British race is to acquire new life and vigour by intermarrying with the Bengalese! Miss Arinda accepts Colonel Douglas’s proposal, and they are to be married in a few weeks, Sir Edward having discovered that Count Elona is in love with the Greek Amalia, which relieves them of all uneasiness on her account. Apropos of which discovery Sir Edward observes:

At length these difficulties are clearing; a son of unhappy Poland, a daughter of unhappy Greece, two orphans of two glorious wars. . . . . It was an inevitable and most natural love. . . . It is only diplomatists who arrange impossible marriages. . . . Love is wiser than Lord Palmerston, though the noble lord calls himself Cupid!

and in this story is so remarkable a match-maker.

Colonel Douglas offers the gift of a pearl ornament to his betrothed in these words:

“One ought always to offer gifts of little value to the rich.”

Miss Arinda’s papa, be it remembered, deals in diamonds.

“Nevertheless this jewel has more than its apparent value; add to it my love! It was I who dived for these pearls in the Sea of Ceylon! I gave them to Hamlet, the king of London jewellers, who would refuse the throne of Denmark occupied by those shadows his ancestors, if it were offered him; and he put his heart in the work. . . . . He has engraved on the agrafe, which is large as a Bengali eye, his signature, HAMLET, surmounted by the touching words addressed by the Prince of Denmark to Ophelia.”

Really the heroes of chivalry sink into nothing beside these Indian officers who fight in such awful contests by night, laugh at the idea of a Thug by day, and dive for their own pearls! The formerly fashionable jeweller, also, is as mystic and sentimental as his “shadowy ancestors.”

But Colonel Douglas is not to have it all his own way. The Countess Octavie—irritated by the scandal which ensued after his abrupt departure from Smyrna—writes the whole particulars of the event, and of Amalia’s disgrace in consequence, to the “Foreign Office.” The Minister is very justly angry, and writes to Colonel Douglas, ordering him either to marry Amalie at once, or

Give up his epaulettes to Captain Moss, and quit the profession.

In order that it may be possible for him to fulfil this command, Mr. Tower is ordered to take Amalia to India, and Countess Octavie accompanies them. All this intelligence is conveyed to Colonel Douglas by a letter from that fascinating marplot the Countess Octavie herself, who is fully bent on achieving the marriage. Colonel Douglas is in despair, but the indomitable Sir Edward again comes to the rescue. He sends Count Elona to Roujah—wherever that place may be!—to meet and detain Mr. Tower and his fair companions; requesting the guardian to remain there for a fortnight, at the end of which time Douglas will be ready to fulfil his engagement. Countess Octavie is not, however, to be deceived by pretexts or delays; she determines to set out for Nerbuddah herself, and discover at once the reason of this singular request, and she hires the ubiquitous Tauly or Nizam to conduct her thither. This faithful servant—who in the heat of the late action had carried off and made prisoner the fakir Souniacy, which accounts for his miraculous disappearance—understanding from a soliloquy of the Countess that she is the enemy of Sir Edward, and that her arrival at Nerbuddah will counteract some of his master’s schemes, leads her into the middle of a forest, and there leaves her in a reservoir for rice. After three hours of solitude, Sir Edward, informed by his servant of her position, flies to her rescue, and remains to guard her from tigers during the night. We have then a picture of a tiger paterfamilias entertaining himself by sporting with his little ones and Madame Tiger in the moonlight. Scenting his human prey, however, the creature endeavours to climb the ladder leading to the rice-loft, and Sir Edward shoots him. He thus saves the Countess Octavie’s life, and behaves with so much chivalrous courtesy, that the feud between them promises to be brought to a conclusion. But other complications shortly afterwards happen, into which we have not space to enter. Mr. Tower, as a specimen of the Scot, deserves some notice. He is a diplomatic fop, divided between “routine” and self-love, and fancies every woman he sees in love with him. This impression is played on by his companions, and in reply to a compliment from Octavie, on his complexion, he answers:

“My father was Scotch, madame; my complexion is hereditary. I could show you in my little dwelling in Bond Street the portraits of my father and grandfather. At sixty years of age they had the faces of cherubim. You know, madame, my grandfather was one of the most admired of men in Scotland. There were thoughts of making a royal page of him. His Christian name was Valentine; Sir Walter Scott clearly indicated him in the Fair Maid of Perth. In London they talked of nobody but Valentine Tower. George IV. wished to see him, and he was presented at Hampton Court. At sixty-five he bet a hundred pounds that he would climb to the top of Arthur’s Seat and write his name there. It happened to be Valentine’s Day—a great festival in Edinburgh as you are aware! He gained his wager, but committing the imprudence of drinking some iced water afterwards, was seized with pleurisy, and died in two days. One may say all Edinburgh mourned for Valentine Tower.”

A most imprudent old gentleman, we must confess, who, to achieve such a perfectly English feat as cutting his name on the rock could undertake such an adventure, and add to it the insanity of drinking iced water during February!

Meantime the story goes briskly on; the Thugs take Count Elona and some Sepoys prisoners, and are about to sacrifice the Pole to the Goddess Deira, whose awful cave-temple is well described, when Tauly, speaking from the idols (disguised as one himself), forbids the deed and releases the prisoner. A final battle with the Thugs takes place, in which the English are victors, and the “Vieux Sing” is made prisoner. They imprison him in the Nabob’s house at Nerbuddah. One thing which is very amusing throughout the book is the exceeding paucity of English soldiers and commanders in the Nizam. Colonel Douglas has only a captain and lieutenant with their men at his command,—a deficiency for which he confidentially blames the English minister to Tauly. Indeed, the English can scarcely be supposed by our neighbours to be very abundant in India, as Miss Arinda for guests at her bal de noces enumerates only—“a Dutch family of three daughters and two sons; a Portuguese family of ten persons; an English family of Clarke, and an American Quaker family called Walles.” Moreover, when introduced to Amalia and the Countess, she thinks them beautiful, but too white

During a ball (with which the book concludes, as it began), the Thugs make a final attack on the English, having undermined the Nabob’s house, and entered by the opening they have thus effected. However, Sir Edward, warned of danger by Tauly, has posted soldiers outside, who, on the first alarm, are admitted, and succeed in overcoming their insidious foes, and in killing the “Vieux Sing,” whom the Thugs had released during the fearful struggle in the interior of the mansion. Sir Edward meantime places the Countess Octavie in a secure corner, and stands beside her to defend her, “for her sake” refraining from mingling in the fight. This grand act of self-denial wins her, and the volume closes with the approaching marriages of Col. Douglas and Miss Arinda, Count Elona and Amalia, Sir Edward and Octavie.

Wild and strange as is this tale, and singular as are the notions it betrays of English life in India, it is well written, animated, and quite free from the slightest shadow of those objections generally made to French novels. Certainly, Colonel Douglas and Sir Edward are deficient in that high sense of truthfulness which an English soldier would be dishonoured if he were not believed to possess, both in their conduct towards Amalia and in their singular denials of the existence of Thugs, but they are evidently intended by the friendly Monsieur Mery as the ideal of chivalrous gentlemen, and the exceedingly high opinion of the English thus incidentally betrayed is most flattering to our national vanity.

The strange notions of English life in India, the revelation of the idea which the French form of us, and the great animation and interest of the story, setting apart its improbability, make “La Guerre du Nizam” quite worth the perusal of English novel-readers.

If Sir Edward Klerbbs embodies the European notion of an Englishman, with all his faults and eccentricities, we do not wonder that the crowns of Europe, when vacant, are laid at the feet of England’s sons.

  1. “La Guerre du Nizam.” Par M. Mery.