Tales of Bengal (S. B. Banerjea)/True to his Salt

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Hiramani did not forget the thrashing given her by Debendra Babu for failing to cause a rupture between the Basu brothers. She took a vow of vengeance and laid in wait for an opportunity of fulfilling it. Meeting him one day in the village street, she asked with an air of mystery:—

"Have you heard the news?"

"What's that?" replied Debendra Babu carelessly.

"It concerns the woman Siráji," she whispered.

All Debendra Babu's fears revived; he exclaimed: "Speak plainly, what is the matter?"

"The matter stands thus. You know that her case was hushed up by the police? Well, I hear on good authority that the District Magistrate has received an anonymous letter relating the real cause of her death and has ordered a fresh investigation. So I am afraid you will soon be in hot water again. As I am your well-wisher in spite of the cruel treatment I have received, I think it my duty to warn you of this new danger."

Hiramani apoke in faltering accents and wiped away an imaginary tear with the corner of her cloth.

"How did you learn all this?" asked Debendra Babu in deep anxiety.

"I got the news only last night from the wife of the new Sub-Inspector who has come here on transfer. On paying my respects to her, I was told in confidence that her husband had orders to make a searching inquiry into the cause of Siráji's death."

Debendra Babu saw that his secret was at the woman's discretion. He answered in an apologetic tone: "It was certainly foolish of me to lose my temper with you, but I had some provocation. Forgive me, and let bye-gones be bye-gones. Whom do you suspect of sending the anonymous letter?"

Hiramani bit her lips; she knew the author, who was none other than herself, and replied: "It might have been written by Jadu Babu; but I suspect his brother Nalini, who is as venomous as a snake and hates you mortally".

Debendra Babu stamped his foot in annoyance and, after musing awhile, asked, "What would you advise me to do?"

Hiramani wagged her head sententiously. "Babuji, I am afraid you are in a serious scrape. The matter has gone too far to be hushed up a second time. You cannot do anything directly without increasing the suspicion which attaches to you; but I will watch events and keep you informed of all that happens at the police station. You know I have friends there."

Debendra Babu was profuse in his thanks. He pressed a couple of rupees into the old woman's willing palm, saying: "Hiramani, I see that you are really my well-wisher. Come to my house as often as you like; and if you have anything particular to say to me, I shall always be glad to hear it—and grateful too."

Then the pair separated, and Hiramani took advantage of the Babu's invitation by visiting his daughter Kámini that very evening.

She was made welcome in the inner apartment and sat down for a long chat, in the course of which she asked after Kámini's husband.

"He has gone out for a stroll," her hostess replied, "but I expect him back every minute."

The words were hardly out of her mouth ere a young man came in hurriedly and, not noticing Hiramani who sat in the shade, asked for a drink of water. Hiramani doubted not that he was Debendra Babu's son-in-law, Pulin by name, who had lately come to live with his wife's family. She introduced herself as a friend of his father-in-law's and, being very witty when she chose to exert herself, soon managed to make a favourable impression on the young man. He asked her to come again whenever she pleased, adding that he was generally at home after sunset.

Hiramani had prepared the ground for a further attack. She left the house with a certainty that she had made a good impression.

Thenceforward hardly a day passed without at least one visit to Debendra Babu's. Hiramani wormed all Kámini's little harmless secrets out of her and obtained enough knowledge of the girl's tastes and habits to serve her own designs.

One day, finding herself alone with Pulin, she threw out dark hints against his wife's character. The young man's suspicion was excited. He pressed for more explicit information, but Hiramani shook her head mysteriously without replying. Pulin insisted on being told the truth, whereon Hiramani poured out a whispered story of Kámini's intrigues, mentioning names of male relatives who were known to frequent the house. Pulin was stung to the quick. Regardless of a stranger's presence, he called Kámini into the room, abused her roundly, and declared that he would never live with her again. Then gathering up a few belongings in a bundle, he quitted the house, leaving his wife in a flood of tears. Hiramani was overjoyed by the results of her machinations. She affected sympathy with the deserted wife, who was too young and innocent to suspect her of having caused the quarrel.

Debendra Babu had a servant, Rám Harak by name, who had been in the family for nearly forty years and was treated as one of them. He had watched the growing intimacy between Hiramani and the young couple and, knowing the old woman's character well, endeavoured to counteract her evil influence. Finding this impossible he sought Debendra Babu in the parlour, salámed profoundly, and stood erect, without uttering a word. His master asked, with some surprise, what he wanted.

"Mahásay," replied Rám Harak, "have I not served you for two-score years with obedience and fidelity? Have you ever found me untrue to my salt?"

"Certainly not; I know you are a good and faithful servant."

"Then, Mahásay, you ought to protect me against enemies of your house. That odious hag, Hiramani, has abused me foully."

"Now, Rám Harak, it is you who are abusive. What have you done to offend her?"

"You are my father and mother," replied Rám Harak with his eyes full of tears. "Let me explain fully. I have long since suspected Hiramani of making mischief in this house, and have kept a close watch on her movements. The very day of Pulin Babu's departure I overheard her whispering all manner of false insinuations against my young mistress. Then came the quarrel between husband and wife, which ended in Pulin Babu's leaving your house. After he had gone I ventured to remonstrate with Hiramani for poisoning jamai (son-in-law) Babu's mind against his wife; whereon she overwhelmed me with abuse and actually threatened to get me dismissed! I want to know whether this woman is mistress of the family? Am I to have no redress?"

"Leave all this to me, Rám Harak, and go to your work. I'll speak to Hiramani myself."

"Babuji, you are treating the matter far too lightly. I would never have complained on my own account, but I cannot bear to see her plotting against your daughter's happiness, which she has, perhaps, destroyed for ever!"

Debendra Babu went into his inner apartments and, seeing Hiramani engaged in close conversation with his daughter, he asked her why she had used bad language to Rám Harak. The old woman beckoned him to come outside; and after making sure that no one was listening, she poured into his ears a long tale of Rám Harak's misdoings. He was robbing his master, she declared, taking dasturi (commission on purchases) at twice the customary rates. What was far worse, the "faithful servant" had spoken freely of Debendra Babu's relations with Siráji in the village, and it was he who instigated the anonymous letter which was about to bring the police down on his master. Though all this was the purest fiction, Debendra Babu swallowed it greedily. He shouted for Rám Harak and, on the man's appearance, charged him with fraud and unfaithfulness to his salt. Rám Harak stood silent with folded hands, not deigning to exculpate himself, which so enraged Debendra Babu that he gave the poor old man a sharp blow on the head with his shoe, bidding him begone and never to cross his threshold again. Rám Harak went to his hut, collected his possessions in a bundle, and left the house where forty years of his life had been spent. Hiramani's plans of vengeance were prospering.

Soon after these unpleasant events the new Sub-Inspector of police arrived at Debendra Babu's house with a warrant for his arrest, and took him to the station despite loud protests of innocence. There he applied for bail, which was of course refused, and he spent the night in the lock-up. Knowing well that he had a very bad case, he humbled himself so far as to send for Nalini, whom he implored with folded hands to save him from destruction. Nalini was deeply moved by his appeal. He heartily despised the fellow's unutterable baseness, but reflected that he had been an old friend of his father's. He undertook the prisoner's defence.

In due course Debendra Babu, with Abdullah, was brought before the Deputy Magistrate of Ghoria on various grave charges. The evidence established a strong primâ facie case against both, and Nalini Babu reserved his defence. They were committed for trial. When the case came before the Sessions Judge the Government Pleader (public prosecutor) adduced many witnesses proving the prisoner's guilt, the last of whom was Hiramani, who admitted on cross-examination that she had caused the anonymous letter to be sent to headquarters, which led to the charge being reopened. She protested that she had done so from a feeling that so great a crime should not be hushed up. Nalini Babu, in his turn, put forward some witnesses for the defence; but their statements were not of material advantage to the prisoner. It was, in fact, a losing game, but he played it manfully. After all evidence had been recorded, the Government Pleader was about to sum up for the prosecution, when the Court rose suddenly, as it was past five o'clock.

Nalini was going homewards in the dusk, when he felt a hand laid timidly on his shoulder. Turning sharply round, he saw an old man standing by his side. On being asked his name and business, the newcomer whispered some information which must have interested Nalini greatly for he rubbed his hands, smiled, and nodded several times. After a few minutes' talk the pair went together to a spot where a palanquin with bearers was waiting. Into it got Nalini and was carried off at a smart trot, while his companion hobbled behind.

When the Court assembled next day Nalini thus addressed the judge: "May it please your honour, I have, by the greatest good luck, obtained certain evidence which will, I think, place this case in a new light". On getting leave to adduce an additional witness, he beckoned to an old man, standing at the back of the Court, who entered the witness-box and declared that his name was Rám Harak and that he was a dismissed servant of the prisoner. This was a curious opening for a witness for the defence, and dead silence fell on the Court while Rám Harak proceeded to swear that it was he, and not Debendra Babu, who had been intimate with the deceased, and that she had poisoned herself to avoid excommunication.

"Did she tell you so herself?" asked the judge sharply.

"No, your highness; I learnt this only yesterday from Maina Bibi, Karim's own sister; Piyari Bibi, Sádhu's daughter; and Nasiban Bibi, his sister-in-law, who all lived with the deceased."

The Government Pleader at once objected to this statement being recorded, as it was hearsay. Nalini, however, assured the judge that the eye-witnesses were in attendance, and called them, one by one, to give evidence. Passing strange was their story. On the evening of Siráji's death they found her writhing in agony on the floor and, on being questioned, she gasped out that she could bear her kinsfolks' tyranny no longer. They had just told her that she was to be excommunicated for intriguing with an infidel. So she had got some yellow arsenic from the domes (low-caste leather-dressers) and swallowed several tolas weight of the poison in milk. The other women were thunderstruck. They sat down beside her and mingled their lamentations until Siráji's sufferings ended for ever. They afterwards agreed to say nothing about the cause of her death for fear of the police. But Rám Harak had come to them privately and frightened them into promising to tell the whole truth, by pointing out the awful consequences of an innocent man's conviction. Their evidence was not shaken by the Government Pleader's cross-examination, and it was corroborated by a dome, who swore that Siráji had got some arsenic from him a few days before her death, on the pretext that it was wanted in order to poison some troublesome village dogs. After consulting with the jury for a few minutes, the judge informed Nalini that his client was acquitted, and Debendra Babu left the Court, as the newspapers say, "without a stain on his character". Seeing Rám Harak standing near the door with folded hands, he clasped the good old man to his bosom, with many protestations of gratitude, and begged him to forgive the injustice with which he had been treated.

When Rám Harak found himself alone with his master at the close of this exciting day, he repeated the vile insinuations which Hiramani had made regarding the daughter's character. Debendra Babu was highly indignant and vowed that the scandal-monger should never cross his threshold again. He then implored Rám Harak to trace his son-in-law, authorising him to offer any reparation he might ask. The old man smiled, and left the house, but returned a quarter of an hour later with a Sanyási (religious mendicant) who revealed himself as the missing Pulin. Debendra Babu received him with warm embraces and many entreaties for pardon; while Pulin said modestly that he alone was to blame, for he ought not to have believed the aspersions cast on his wife by Hiramani, which led him to quit the house in disgust. He added that Rám Harak had found him telling his beads near a temple, and persuaded him to wait close at hand until he had opened Debendra Babu's eyes.

Meanwhile the whole house echoed with songs and laughter. Debendra Babu rewarded Rám Harak's fidelity with a grant of rent-free land, and publicly placed a magnificent turban on his head. He resolved to celebrate his own escape from jail by feasting the neighbours. The entire arrangements were left in the hands of the two Basus, who managed matters so admirably that every one was more than satisfied and Debendra Babu's fame was spread far and wide. When things resumed their normal aspect, he held a confab with the brothers as to the punishment which should be meted out to Hiramani, and it was unanimously resolved to send her to Coventry. They, therefore, forbade the villagers to admit her into their houses, and the shopkeepers to supply her wants. Hiramani soon found Kadampur too hot to hold her and took her departure for ever, to every one's intense relief.