Chapter Twenty Two: The Treasure of Agra

19:07





Lucknow
7 May 1868

What Rajab Ali had told me a few months ago implicated the great Hodson in a deep conspiracy. This was a vile scheme in which I was but a cog. It was his plotting and scheming that had resulted in my being an outlaw and a fugitive. Two of my friends were dead and one was missing. Rajab Ali had said that Iqbal was last traced to Lahore. It will perhaps be wise of me to follow Iqbal’s trail to find out what became of him. But before I did that, I had to visit Captain Hodson.
Numerous were his faults and flaws and he was the reason my fortune had changed. However, this was a man to whom I owed many debts. He tutored me in the ways of the sahibs, taking over from where Major Lassan had left off many years ago. This was the man who saw beyond colour of skin and trappings of race and bestowed upon me the responsibility of being his scribe. This was the officer who tuned my skills with sword, rifle and pistol, skills that saved my life more than once. This was the man who broke down the walls of Delhi with me and turned the tide of the rebellion. He died in battle the way he lived, a man of action. He died with a musket ball in his chest and blood on his lips in Lucknow. I had to take his leave before I went on my quest for Iqbal.
This morning I went through the gates of La Martiniere in Lucknow and walked over to a secluded corner. There, on a decorated dais, was a pedestal on a grave and a slab of marble that read:

Here Lies
All That Could Die
of
WILLIAM STEPHEN RAIKES HODSON
Captain & Brevet Major
IV E.B. Fusiliers
and
Commandant of Hodson’s Horse
Son of the Vcnt. George Hodson
Archdeacon of Stafford
Born
19 MARCH 1821
Fell
In the Final Assault at Lucknow
11 MARCH 1858
‘a little while’
2 Cor 1:12

I stood at the grave and gave a salute to the man who lay beneath. I spoke to him in a low tone, one last time. ‘You died well, Captain sahib. And you died far from your home. Now I have to travel far and I take your leave.’
I wanted to say more, but then I thought myself a fool for wasting my time talking to a grave. In that moment of silence and dust, my thoughts went to the many layers, conspiracies and circumstances that had led me here.

***

It started with the assault on Delhi. Two days before that, the four of us trickled out with some others. We stole out from within the lines in ones and twos and went to the English entrenchment on the ridge. The captain, a brevetted major now, listened to our reports carefully. Then he read the letters from Rajab Ali which I was carrying.
‘So you know the terrain around Cashmere Gate well?’ he asked Akbar, Iqbal and Abdullah.
They nodded.
‘This is good,’ the captain said. ‘Attach yourself to the sappers with the third column,’ he ordered. ‘Ba’az,’ he said to me, ‘go with them and cover them from a distance. Theirs is a task that can mean life or death for the assault that is coming.’
At dawn, our guns began their work on the walls of Delhi. After some time, in the lull between salvos, our column crept through the foxholes towards Cashmere Gate and waited. There were two fresh-faced sapper lieutenants leading us.
While one column charged at a section of wall south of the gate, the other made its way towards the Jumna Gate. Both columns were riddled with volleys from the walls and their ladders were smashed before they could find purchase. While they stormed and fell back in waves, our sappers with the third column did their work. The two lieutenants conducted the laying of gunpowder charge under the gates.
It was a terrifying time, with our column barely ten feet from the walls, death raining down all around us. Many sappers fell that afternoon, but the two lieutenants pressed on. Akbar, Iqbal and Abdullah stayed close and provided them cover, returning fire up the walls. I stayed behind and picked the men off the walls one by one, with my trusty Sharps rifle.
It was a beautiful American weapon that had come my way only a month before. Shot after shot flew with divine precision. I can say with certainty that dozens fell to my rifle that afternoon. The three sniping upwards from under their noses and I picking off the defenders from a distance gave the sappers the time they needed. I saw the first lieutenant – Home was his name, I think – run towards the charge to light the fuse. Before he could reach it, he fell. Then I saw the other lieutenant – I do not remember his name – follow suit. Both lay inches from the gunpowder charge, perhaps dead, perhaps alive. I saw the rest of the sappers cower under the hail of musketry. I heard the bugle calls from afar announcing it was time to withdraw. The other columns had been driven back and began the retreat.
Then I saw Akbar, Iqbal and Abdullah change the tide of battle that day. I saw them rally the column to return fire up the walls. I did my part, picking off the rissaldars who waved orders from the top of the wall. The three made a glorious charge under the crossfire. It was the quick Akbar who leapt ahead and made for the fuse. The stronger brothers Abdullah and Iqbal snatched up the wounded lieutenants. I was three hundred yards away, watching them from the corner of my eye. I was more concerned about making sure no one had an aim on them from up the walls.
The gunpowder charge exploded with a huge blast and a part of the bastion wall fell with it. The gates flew open. There was smoke and dust everywhere. For a while I could see nothing. Then I heard the bugler sound the advance. From the haze of the settling dust, I saw the redcoats swarm in through the gates.
That day, on 14 September 1857, the work of two brave English officers and three valiant men of Haider Kalan won back Delhi for the English. But it was how these men were treated after that changed everything for us.

***

‘The two officers will be decorated well,’ said Rajab Ali that day, looking at us with his one good eye. ‘As for you, this is what we have.’ He tossed a gold piece each at Akbar, Abdullah and Iqbal. The-one eyed man grinned as he said, ‘It is just too bad. But you people do not exist, you see.’
I understood what he meant. Our troops were Hodson’s left hand, doing things that could not be done by any self-respecting army consisting officers and gentlemen. We did not exist on paper for a good reason. I saw why we would never be talked of or decorated. The others, however, did not see matters with such clarity.
After a bit of grumbling, Iqbal and Abdullah appeared reconciled to their fate. Abdullah went off to look for a skin of wine. Iqbal went off to look for a nubile young girl or boy – whatever he could find in the pillaged bazaars. Akbar, however, glowered at the ridge from our vantage atop the walls which we had captured that afternoon. He cursed the universe at large and threw his coin of gold far out into the smoking earth.
‘This?’ he barked. ‘This is what we live for?’ he asked in frustration and stalked off.
The next morning, they left for Haider Kalan. They had some well-earned furlough and decided to do their brooding among their own people.
Before they left, Akbar said to me, ‘There is no honour in these men, Ba’az. They will use us as long as we serve their purpose and then cast us off.’ He spat on the ground and they trotted off.
His words kept spinning in my mind while I went about my duties as a scribe to Hodson and Rajab Ali. It was by afternoon the next day, when I was sifting through some very interesting papers, that I made up my mind about what to do.
I made my arrangements. That evening, I found a fast horse and made my way to Haider Kalan. I would have to be back quickly. I was expected to be in the camp soon.

***

I reached the village in the late hours of the evening, long after the sun had set. That was the first day I rode into Haider Kalan and I knew not the lay of the land. I asked the first person I met – a strapping young lad – where the Ahmed Ali household was. When I reached there, I was told that Akbar, Abdullah and Iqbal were not there. The heavily veiled old woman I was talking to spoke in a coarse voice,
‘Akbar will be in the new mosque, up to no good, with those louts he calls friends and that father of his.’
I trotted over to where she said the mosque was, wondering what sort of no-good activity they could possibly be up to. I found my answer as I approached the nearly finished mosque. While I was hitching my horse to a stump, I heard from within the hoarse laughter of men in a tone I was all too familiar with.
They was drinking. In a mosque, no less.
I was welcomed as if I was a long-lost brother, gone for years. A red-eyed Akbar introduced me to his venerable father. ‘Father, this is Ba’az,’ said Akbar, ‘a wolf of our own pack.’ Abdullah poured a fiery dose of arrack into an earthen cup for me.
After some revelry and some more drinking, I told them why I was there.
‘There was merit in what you said to me the other day,’ I said to Akbar. ‘The English will toss us aside when our use to them is over.’
‘And what brings about this change of heart?’ asked Akbar after a moment’s pondering. ‘I thought you were especially fond of them all.’
‘You forget, I am scribe to both Rajab Ali and Hodson sahib,’ I said. ‘I can see papers that others cannot. And this is about something I have seen and read that might be of use to us.’
The others listened as I continued. ‘For one, they intend to disband our unit in a few months. Our utility is over now that Delhi is back in the hands of the English.’
The old man spat on the ground at this and said to the other three, ‘I told you this would happen.’
‘But there is a way we can turn the tables and extract the reward they owe us, many times over. There is a treasure we can lay our hands on.’
The word ‘treasure’ caught their attention far more than the news of being disbanded. They all leaned forward.
‘The English are low on money,’ I said. ‘There is a sort of quiet desperation for actual money that their plunder of Delhi cannot fulfil. Many months of back pay are due to the troops and money is also needed to buy fresh supplies and provisions for the months that lie ahead. They need to start taking back the other cities and towns that are in the hands of the rebels.’
The others nodded, as if understanding everything. I continued, ‘The diwan of Agra has come to their aid, at a threat to his title, of course. I read the dispatches yesterday. There is apparently a large diamond – the size of a pigeon’s egg – which he has pledged to the English, in exchange for protection.’
‘Pah! That small? A pigeon’s egg is not too large,’ said Abdullah.
The old man responded, ‘Foolish boy! You think you know diamonds?’ He asked me to continue.
‘A few months ago, this diamond was shipped to a far-off place in Europe to be weighed and valued. It is being brought back to Agra in a week, under heavy guard, after which it will be given over to the bankers at Marwar, in exchange for a line of credit for the English. It is at Agra that we can take it,’ I said.
‘How would that be possible?’ asked Akbar. ‘If it is under heavy guard, how will we even get to it?’
‘That is where my scribing comes to aid, my friend,’ I said to them. ‘Tomorrow morning, the majors Sholto and Morstan reach Agra to be part of the contingent that is to receive the diamond and guard it for the next few weeks. I have taken the liberty of cancelling your furlough and putting the names of the three of you in the contingent.’ I picked up my cup and watched them, smiling. ‘Of course, I forgot,’ I said, watching the varying shades of wonder and greed on their faces, ‘I have also put you all on the sentry detail that will guard the box.’
They sat in astounded silence mixed with anticipation for a few moments. Then the old man asked, ‘You will go with them too, of course?’
‘I cannot,’ I said, shaking my head. ‘I am wanted back at the lines tomorrow.
A flicker of annoyance and suspicion crossed the old man’s face. Then he turned to his sons and asked point-blank, ‘You trust this boy?’
They said in unison, ‘With our lives.’
I felt a strange sense of pride and elation, and writing about it now fills my chest with a lump of lead. Two of those brothers of mine lost their lives because of me. And Iqbal – what would he say to me when he meets me next, if we ever meet in this lifetime?
A few hours later, the four of us left Haider Kalan on fresh horses. I headed back to Delhi. They sped to join majors Morstan and Sholto’s troop in Agra. We would meet again in two weeks was what was decided.


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