Tales of Bengal (S. B. Banerjea)/An Outrageous Swindle

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Amarendra Babu had expected Kumodini Babu to run after him, with entreaties to return and the promise of a note of hand for Rs. 4,000. Disappointment became downright wrath when he heard that his son's prospective bride had been forthwith married to another boy. After pondering awhile on this grievance, he sent an anonymous letter to Shám Babu's employers, to the effect that their clerk was robbing them right and left and running a business of his own with their money, under a fictitious name. They had implicit confidence in his honesty, and the only action they took was to hand the scrawl to him with a remark that they hoped he would discover and prosecute the writer.

Meanwhile Amarendra Babu cast about him for a suitable match for his son. Hearing of a likely girl from the marriage-broker, he visited her parents, who accepted his overtures with alacrity. The young lady's father, Jogesh by name, was a commission agent, whose regular earnings did not exceed thirty rupees a month; but he lived in such style that his neighbours believed him to be comfortably off. Amarendra Babu, too, was deceived by appearances, while the girl, who was exhibited to him, seemed intelligent and pretty. On his side, Jogesh knew his visitor to be a house-owner of some means; and learning from him that his son was a second-year student, he gladly consented to the match. The pair next broached a delicate question, that of dowry. Amarendra Babu had learnt by bitter experience of the folly of pitching expectations too high. He told Jogesh that he should be quite satisfied with Rs. 4,001, viz., ornaments 2,000, barabharan and phulsajya Rs. 500 each, and cash Rs. 1,001. On Jogesh's expressing willingness to provide that amount, the purohit (family priest) was sent for who, after referring to a panjika (almanac), announced that Srában 20th would be an auspicious day for the marriage. They then separated with many protestations of mutual good- will.

Meantime Jogesh made minute inquiries as to Amarendra Babu's position and the health of his son. Their result was satisfactory enough; not so the fiasco related in my last chapter, which reached him with amplification, and made him resolve that Amarendra Babu should not play such tricks on him. He ordered no ornaments for his daughter, because he had little cash or credit, but simply borrowed Rs. 300 to meet absolutely necessary expenses. On the afternoon of Srában 20th he called in half a dozen city roughs, armed them with thick sticks, and plied them with spirits, telling them on no account to appear in the public apartments of his house until they received a signal agreed on.

At seven o'clock Amarendra Babu, with his son and an uncle named Rashbehari, arrived at Jogesh's house in a second-class cab. No procession attended them, partly because the last had cost so much money, partly owing to the fear that another hitch might cover them with ridicule. After exchanging hearty salutations with Jogesh, they asked him to exhibit the ornaments prepared for the bride-elect. He took them to a side room and left them there a while, presently introducing a well-dressed man as his family goldsmith. The latter unlocked a tin box which he was carrying and took out a number of glittering gold trinkets, one by one. After examining them carefully, Amarendra Babu asked him to weigh them, which he did, proving that their weight exceeded 120 bháris (forty-eight ounces), and their total value, at Rs. 20 per bhári, no less than Rs. 2,400. This was far more than he had bargained for, and Amarendra Babu was highly delighted; but his uncle insisted on sending for his own goldsmith to weigh the ornaments. Jogesh at once fell in with the suggestion, and this tradesman, on arrival, valued them at Rs. 2,700.

Rashbehari Babu's scepticism vanished, and he assented to his nephew's whispered hint that they need not ask Jogesh to produce the barabharan. He, however, insisted on satisfying them as to its worth and placed in their hands a heavy gold watch by McCabe, with an albert chain, equally ponderous; and assured them that he had paid Rs. 800 for the two. Amarendra's joy was perhaps excessive, and when the lagna (auspicious time) came round, he permitted the marriage to be celebrated. Every ceremony went off without a hitch, and the evening closed in feasting and mirth.

On the following afternoon Amarendra Babu took the bridegroom and bride with the box of ornaments to his own home, while Rashbehari Babu remained behind at Jogesh's to receive the cash. On mentioning this little formality he was assured that the sum of Rs. 1,001 had been duly counted out to his nephew; so he took his leave. When he reached home, he discovered the dirty trick that had been played by Jogesh. Amarendra stoutly denied having received any cash; and the tin box was proved to contain only fragments of brick neatly wrapped in paper, and covered with pink cotton wool.

The pair of dupes hurried to Jogesh's house for an explanation. He sat in the parlour, in evident expectation of their arrival, and asked with an air of unconcern what was the matter.

"You son of a pig!" roared Amarendra Babu, shaking his clenched fist close to Jogesh's nose. "Tell me where are the ornaments—where is the cash?"

"Why, did you not take away a box full of trinkets? and you must admit that the Rs. 1,001 were handed you in a cotton bag."

This impudence was too much. Both uncle and nephew fell upon Jogesh and belaboured him sorely with their shoes. He did not retaliate, but consoled himself with the thought that he had done his duty, to God and society, by marrying his daughter, whatever fate might await him. After vowing to bring a suit against the swindler, Amarendra Babu and his uncle left the premises and did what they would have done much earlier had they not been in such a desperate hurry to marry the lad. They made inquiries as to Jogesh's position and soon discovered that he was a man of straw, quite unworthy of powder and shot. They learned, too, that he had hired Rs. 3,000 worth of trinkets for one night from a goldsmith, who never let them out of his possession. From a wealthy neighbour he had borrowed a McCabe's watch and chain, also for one night only. His arrangements made with a gang of city roughs, in order to prevent the marriage being broken off, also came to light. Amarendra Babu saw that he had been dealing with a cunning and desperate man and prudently determined to give him a wide berth in future. But his daughter was in Amarendra Babu's clutches, and she was forced to expiate the sins of her father. The luckless girl was kept on very short commons and locked into a dark room when she was not engaged in rough household work. Contrary to custom, she was not sent to her father's house three days after the marriage; nor was the Bau-Bhát ceremony performed. But Jogesh was on the alert; he managed to communicate with her by bribing a maid-servant, and one morning Amarendra Babu's household discovered that the half-starved bird had flown.

A year passed away without news of the truants; but, one evening, Amarendra Babu was sitting in his parlour, spelling out a spicy leader in the Indian Mirror, when, to his unqualified amazement, Jogesh stepped in and unbidden took a seat. Amarendra Babu's first impulse was to shout for help and eject the intruder with every species of ignominy, but second thoughts are proverbially peaceful.

"This Jogesh," he reflected, "must be a very smart fellow, or he would never have taken us all in as he did. It is better to be on the side of the sacrificial knife than the goat that awaits its stroke. Why should I not hear what he has to say? He would not have come here without some excellent reason—perhaps he wants to pay up part of his debt to me, or maybe he has some scheme with money in it to unfold. He'll certainly try to overreach me again; but then once bitten twice shy. I'll be on my guard." Then with an attempt at irony he asked:—

"What brings you of all people to my house? Have you got another daughter to marry?"

Had Amarendra Babu observed the gleam which shot from Jogesh's shifty eyes, he would have kicked him out at once, but he waited for a reply, which came in honeyed accents:—

"Now, Babuji, please don't rake up old stories; what is done cannot be undone. You, as a father, ought to excuse little subterfuges, contrived in order to get a daughter off one's hands. I was so anxious to ally myself with your distinguished family that I did sail rather near the wind. But I have come to offer you some amends by putting you on a really good thing."

Amarendra Babu's cupidity was excited by these words. He asked with apparent indifference: "Well, let me hear more of your famous plans, and meantime I'll call for a hookah ".

Jogesh was overjoyed by the success of his manœuvres. He answered, punctuating his sentences by inhaling fragrant Bhilsi, "You have heard of Campbell & Co., the big cooly recruiters of Azimganj? Well, they have an agency in Calcutta for supplying emigrants to Mauritius, Trinidad, and other outlandish places; and it is run by one Ganesh Sen who is a close friend of mine. He tells me that a number of sub-contracts will be given out to-morrow, and I have made up my mind to apply for one. Ganesh Babu is sure to come to terms with me; and I know a very smart sardár (ganger) who will supply me with any number of coolies I want. But I shall take care to keep a large margin between the rate per head, at which they will be delivered to Campbell & Co., and that which my sardár will receive. All this will be clear profit."

"It seems a good speculation," said Amarendra Babu musingly, "but I should like to have further particulars. What do you expect to make per head delivered; and what capital will be required?" Jogesh pulled out a paper covered with calculations, and proved to his host's satisfaction that as much as Rs. 5 might be expected on each cooly. As for capital, a few hundreds would be needed in the first instance as an advance to the sardár, and other sums later, to provide outfits for the coolies according to law. Campbell & Co. settled the accounts of sub-contractors monthly, so that Amarendra would not have to wait long for his money. Jogesh concluded by urging his baibáhik (father of a son-in-law) to call with him on Messrs. Campbell & Co.'s Calcutta manager, who would corroborate his statements. Amarendra Babu thought that there would be no harm in going into matters further. He fixed 4 p.m. on the following day for a visit to 809 Strand, where Campbell & Co.'s branch offices were said to be located.

On arriving there punctually, he was met by Jogesh, who took him through a courtyard where twenty or thirty coolies were squatting, shepherded by a stalwart Mohammadan, wearing a blue turban, who was introduced as Salim Sardár, his ganger. Pushing through the little crowd, they entered a well-furnished office, where several clerks sat writing busily. One of them looked up when Jogesh said: "Ganesh Babu, I have brought you my baibáhik, who is thinking of joining me in a sub-contract ".

The manager, for such he was, received Amarendra Babu politely and said that he would gladly come to terms with them. He then produced a written contract in duplicate on stamped paper, by which the partners agreed to furnish at least 1,000 coolies monthly, during the emigration season, at rates which left a net profit of Rs. 5 per head, to be shared equally between them. After reading both documents over twice, Amarendra Babu executed them, as did Jogesh; and the former took possession of his copy. On returning home with his new partner, he entered on a discussion as to ways and means. It was agreed that he should advance Rs. 5,000 for preliminaries, which he did a week later, raising the amount on a mortgage of his Calcutta house property. Everything went swimmingly at first; Jogesh calling daily to report progress; and a month later he burst into Amarendra Babu's parlour, with a cash-book and bundle of currency notes. The latter learnt to his intense delight that his share of the profits amounted to Rs. 1268 12. 4. which was promptly paid him. Two or three days afterwards Jogesh again called to tell him that an opportunity of making Rs. 10,000 net had occurred owing to the pressing demand for cooly freight from a ship which was lying half-empty, and costing large sums for demurrage. Rs. 10,000 must be forthcoming at once for advances and perhaps special railway trucks, but Amarendra Babu might calculate on receiving 100 per cent, in three weeks at the latest. Such a chance of money-making was not to be lost. Amarendra Babu rushed off to his broker and sold nearly all his Government paper for Rs. 10,000 in cash, which he handed to Jogesh, against a formal acknowledgment.

Seeing nothing of his partner for several days, Amarendra called to inquire how the new contract fared and was thunderstruck to find Jogesh's house locked up. Hastening to Campbell & Co.'s Strand offices, he saw a notice "to let" exhibited there. This spectacle confirmed his worst fears—he had been twice swindled outrageously. His only hope lay in the scoundrel's arrest; so he laid an information at the police station, and a clever detective was told off to investigate the charge. Strange was the story which came to light. No such firm as "Campbell & Co." existed; Ganesh Babu and Salim Sardár were both accomplices of Jogesh, who had rented an office on the Strand for one month at Rs. 300 which was never paid. He had also engaged twenty or thirty loafers at 4 annas (4d.) a head to personate coolies for a couple of hours. This part of the inquiry was satisfactory enough—for the police; not so the efforts they made to trace Jogesh and his accomplices. From that day to this nothing has been heard of them.

Amarendra Babu never recovered from this crushing blow. The loss of nearly Rs. 14,000 is a very serious matter for any one of moderate means; to him it was doubly grievous, for he worshipped money and valued nothing but success. By constantly brooding on his misfortunes and folly he developed symptoms of madness and was at times so violent that his relatives were obliged to confine him in a dark room. One afternoon he eluded their vigilance and hurried to the office of "Campbell & Co." on the Strand. After gazing for several minutes at the empty building, he heaved a deep sigh, ran across the road, and sprang into the River Hughli. The undercurrent sucked his body in, and it was never recovered. Perhaps Mother Ganges was loath to keep a carcase so tainted in her bosom, and so whirled it southwards to the ocean.