His Honor, The District Judge

by John Le Breton

A Tale of India

His Honor, Syed Mehta, the District Judge of Golampore, had dined with the Malcolms, and he was the first of the Collector's guests to leave the bungalow. He sauntered down the drive, lifting his contemplative gaze to the magnificence of the starry heavens. Behind him, the lamp-lit rooms sent long thrusts of light, sword-wise, into the hot darkness. Joan Malcolm had taken up her violin, and the sweet, wailing notes of it came sighing out on to the heavy air. Ruddy, broad-faced young Capper, of the Police, lounged by the open window, eating her up with adoring eyes.

His Honor smoked his cigar tranquilly, but at heart, he smouldered. Harrow and Lincoln's Inn backed his past, the High Courts awaited him in the future. For the present he was a Civil Servant of excellent position and recognized ability, a Mohammedan gentleman who had distinguished himself in England as well as in the land of his birth. Also, he was of less account in the eyes of Joan Malcolm than Capper, a blundering English Acting-Superintendent of Police, with a pittance of six hundred rupees per mensem.

Possibly Capper had not intended to be offensive, but it is not given to the young and the British to entirely conceal all consciousness of superiority when speaking with a native. His courtesy was that of a man who considered it to be beneath his dignity to use less ceremony. His civility was due to his respect for himself, not for the person whom he honored with his unintellectual conversation.

The Judge flipped the ash off his cigar, and his slender hand was cool and leisurely. His dark, straight-featured face was impassive as carven stone. Mentally, he was cursing Capper with curses of inexhaustible fire and venom.

Malcolm, the Collector, had a right to speak loudly, and to say this or that without cause, for he was Collector; but Capper, a mere Superintendent of the Police, a cub of twenty-three, was on a very different footing. Yet, not even as an equal had he borne himself toward a District Judge.

His Honor's bungalow was on the outskirts of the town, and as he paced along the dusty road, he came to a footpath that ran down the hill, through dense jungle, to the native village in the valley. There was a swarm of dark-skinned fellow-men down there, to whom his name stood for all that is highest in authority. They would have loaded him with gifts had he permitted them to approach him. To them, it seemed that he was placed far above as a god, holding their lives and their fate 'twixt finger and thumb, in mid-air. In the unfathomed depths of the Judge's educated, well-ordered mind stirred a craving for solace. Galled by the brutish indifference of the Englishmen, there was yet left to him the reverence of his own people. He looked sharply up and down the road before he dived into the moist heat beneath the trees. He knew all that he was risking for a mere escapade. He had never trodden that path before, excepting when he had gone on a shooting expedition with the Collector. There were strange noises in the darkness, stealthy rustlings, small, unfamiliar cries. He heard nothing but Capper's comment on his carefully reasoned prediction that the day must come when India would govern herself.

"Oh! you think so?"

Stupid, unmeaning, absurd, but—successful.

Then, immediately Capper was talking to Miss Malcolm about tennis, and she was listening, smiling and intent. The Judge was a crack tennis player. He loathed the game, but he had made himself proficient in it, because it is one of the things that people expect of a man. He was impelled to challenge Capper, and the answer was a drawled excuse.

The Judge was well down the hill now, descending the last precipitous slope, and the countless odors of the Indian village rose to his nostrils. There was a dull murmurous commotion afar off, such as bees make when they are hiving. He listened, without curiosity, as he pressed forward. Suddenly he halted. The murmur boomed out into a long, thunderous roar. Then silence, and out of the silence a single voice, deep and ringing.

"An infernal protest meeting," the Judge's British training informed him.

He went forward again, moving noiselessly, and reached the outskirts of the crowd, sheltering himself between the bushes that fringed the jungle. Torches flared, and smoked, and shed a ruddy, uncertain light on hundreds of rapt, upturned faces. The orator stood tall and straight above them, fully revealed by purposely clustered lights. He volleyed reproach and insult upon his listeners, he gave them taunts instead of persuasion. They stood enthralled by the passionate voice, and bitter words found their mark, and rankled poisonously.

"These soors of Feringhi, whom you call your masters, beat you, and they use your brothers to be their sticks. But for your brothers, who wear the uniform of the Feringhi, and carry their guns, these worthless masters would be trodden into the dust beneath your feet. The men who hedge them in with steel must turn that steel against them."

The roar of voices thundered among the trees, and died away suddenly, so that no word from the speaker might be lost.

"They are cunning, these Feringhi, my brothers. They steal the wisest from among us while yet they are children, and bear them away to their own land, and give them over to their own teachers. Thus come back your own, with power and authority to scourge you. Your sons, your brothers come back to you, learned, praised greatly, having striven against the Feringhi in their own schools, and won what they desired. Collector-sahib, Judge-sahib, yea, even padre-sahib, come they back to you—not to lift you to honor and happiness beside them, but to side with those that oppress you, to grind taxes from you who starve, to imprison you who would be free. Sons of unspeakable shame! They drink your blood, they fatten on your misery, and they have their reward. We curse, them, brothers! The Feringhis smile upon them, they eat bread and salt in their company, but they spit when they have passed by!"

Something in the scornful voice rang familiarly on the Judge's ears, and incautiously he changed his position and tried to get a clearer view of the treasonmonger. Instantly the man's bare brown arm shot out, and pointed him to public notice.

"Here is one," pealed out the trumpet-voice, "has he come as our brother? Or comes he as the slave of our masters, to spy upon our meetings, and to deal out punishment to those who dare to be free? O brother, do you walk to Calcutta, where the High Courts be, over our bodies, and the bodies of our children? Will you go to the Collector-sahib with tales of a native rising, and call up our brothers of the police to kill and maim us? Or come you to offer us a great heart?"

The Judge stood there, a motionless figure, flaring against the dark jungle in his spotless, white linen evening dress. There was a broad silk cummerband about his lean waist, and a gold signet-ring gleamed on his left hand. Half a dozen Englishmen, thread for thread in similar garb, still lounged in the Collector's drawing-room. He appeared the very symbol of Anglicized India. The brown, half-naked mob surged and struggled to look at him. The brown, half-naked orator still pointed at him, and waited for reply. Meanwhile, he had been recognized.

"Iswar Chandra—by Jove," muttered the Judge.

The last time they had met was in a London drawing-room. Iswar Chandra, the brilliant young barrister-at-law had discoursed to a philanthropic peeress upon the social future of his native land, whilst an admiring circle of auditors hung upon his words. The fate of India's women, he had said, lay at the feet of such fair and noble ladies as her Grace. The Judge remembered that people were saying that evening of Iswar Chandra that he was a fascinating and earnest man, and that he would be the pioneer of great things in the country of his birth.

The eyes of the half-naked savage challenged the Judge over the sea of moving heads, and drove away the supercilious smile from his lips.

"Brother, we claim you! You are of our blood, and we need such as you to lead us. The Feringhi have sharpened a sword to cut us down, but it shall turn to destroy them. Brother, we suffer the torments of hell—will you deliver us? Brother, we starve—will you give us food? Will you deal out to us life or death, you whose fathers were as our fathers? Choose now between great honor and the infamy that dies not! You are the paid creature of the British Raj, or you are a leader of free men. Brother, speak!"

As in a dream the Judge approached the waiting crowd. His mouth was parched, his heart beat fitfully. He wanted that piercing voice to wake the echoes again, to take up the story of the old blood-feud, to goad him into doing that which he had not the courage to do. Vanished was his pride of intellect, and of fine achievement. He was a native, and he tugged and crawled at the stretch of the British chain.

"The Feringhi are few, and we are many. Shall the few rule the many? Shall we be servants and poor while yet in the arms of our own golden mother? In their own country do the Feringhi not say that the word of the majority shall be law? So be it! We accept their word. The majority shall rule! O brother, skilled in the Feringhi craft, high-placed to administer justice to all who are brought before thee, do I not speak the truth?"

The Judge threw away the dead end of his cigar, and shouldered his way into the inmost circle.

"Peace, thou," he said, thickly; "this is folly. Ye must wait awhile for vengeance."

Chandra threw up his arms, writhing in a very ecstasy of fury.

"We have waited—have we not waited?—beside our open graves. Death to the Feringhi! Let them no longer desecrate our land. Let us forget that they ever were. They be few, and we be many. Brothers! To-night, to-night!"

The Judge was tearing off his clothes, he was trampling them beneath his feet, he was crying out in a strange, raucous voice; and all the swaying crowds were taking up his words, maddening themselves and their fellows with the intoxicating sounds.

"Death to the Feringhi! To-night, to-night! Our land for ourselves!"

All but a few torches were extinguished. Secret places were torn up, and out came old guns, old swords sharpened to razor-like edges, great pistols, clubs, skinning-knives, daggers. Then, up and up through the dark jungle they thronged, hordes of them in the grip of a red and silent frenzy. Chandra was in the forefront, but the leader was his Honor the District Judge, a glassy-eyed, tight-lipped Mussulman in a loincloth and a greasy turban.

The lights of the Collector's bungalow came in view, and the leader thought of young Capper, and rushed on, frothing like a madman, waving his sword above his head. Then he paused, and ran back to meet the laggards of a yard or two.

"Only the men!" he shouted.

Chandra mocked at him as the press bore him onward again, with scarcely an instant's halt.

"Only the men, my brother!" he echoed.

A few of the native police stood guard at the Collector's gates, but they turned and fled before the overwhelming numbers of the attacking force. Up the long drive the dark wave poured, and into the wide, bright rooms. The bungalow was deserted. Some fleet-footed servant had brought warning in time, and the British were well out of the town by the other road, with young Capper and a score of his men guarding their rear.

The mob howled with disappointment. The next instant it was screaming with triumph as it settled down to sack and burn and destroy.

The Judge went into the dining-room, and looked at the long table still decked with silver, and glass, and flowers. He looked at the chair on which he had sat, with Joan Malcolm at his side, and he picked it up and dashed it with all his might into a great ivory-framed mirror, and laughed aloud at the crash, and the ruin, and the rain of jagged splinters.

"India must pass into the hands of the Indians!"

"Oh! you think so—you think so—you think so...."

He overthrew a couple of standard lamps, and watched the liquid fire run and eat up their silken shades, and run again and leap upon the snowy curtains, and so, like lightning, spring to the ceiling, and lick the dry rafters with a thousand darting tongues. Then, he was out in the night again, the night of his life, the wonderful night that was calling for blood, and would not be denied.

There was no lack of light now to make clear the path to vengeance. The Collector's bungalow roared red to the very heavens, and flames shot up in a dozen different parts of the town. The bazaar was looted, and English-made goods were piled upon bonfires in the street. A greater mob than had entered the town poured out of it, swift on the road to Chinsurah where thousands of their brothers lay, lacking only courage and leaders.

At the midway turn of the road where the giant trees rear themselves at the side of the well, came a sudden check, and the mob fell back upon itself, and grew dead silent. Those in the rear could only wait and guess what had happened. The forefront saw that the road was barred. The moon had risen, and well out in the white light, was Capper Sahib. Some of his men were behind him. There were soldiers there, too, how many could not be seen, for they were grouped in the velvety black shadows which the trees flung across the road. There might have been only fifty—or five hundred.

Young Capper came forward with his hands in his pockets, and stared at them. They saw that he was not afraid. He spoke to them in Maharattee, bluntly and earnestly, so that some of them wavered, and looked back. He said they were fools, led by a few rotten schemers who had only personal gain in view.

"Take good advice," he said, "go to your homes while ye may. Ignorant, and greatly daring that ye are, the bandar-log, or such thievish scum among ye, drive ye with idle words and chatterings even to the brink of death. So far have ye come, but no farther——"

The Judge had snatched a villager's gun, and fired. Capper Sahib fell, unspoken words upon his lips. His fair head draggled in the dust, and a red stain showed suddenly upon the white linen over his breast.

A triumphant roar swept the mob from end to end. British rifles cracked out the answer, and the bullets went home surely, into the rioting mass. Amid shrill screams of pain and fury the leaders rallied their men, and charged forward. A second volley stopped them, before young Capper's prostrate body could be reached. Few had joined the attack, but now they were fewer, and neither of the leaders stood among them.

That was the end. Bearing their dead and wounded, the rebels returned, wailing as they went. Before daylight the townsmen were in their houses, and the villagers had passed through the jungle, and regained their homes. Arms were concealed with all haste. The dead were buried, the wounded, for the most part, were hidden. Prisoners had been taken, but only an inconsiderable number. Before daylight also, the headman of the village, and a native surgeon came stealthily from the Judge's bungalow, and went their ways. They had their order, and they went to spread it abroad. The order was—Silence! The headman had bowed himself to the earth when it was given, for he understood all that it meant. Prisoners would be brought before a brother, not only to-day, but to-morrow, and for many morrows. So much had the night given them.

At noon His Honor came stiffly into the court-room, leaning upon the arm of his native servant. The Collector, who was awaiting him there, feared that he had been injured by the rioters on the previous night; but he was quickly reassured. The Judge, it seemed, had sprained his knee shortly after leaving the Malcolm's hospitable roof. It was nothing. A mere trifle, though indisputably painful.

The Collector seated himself near the bench, and talked in a low voice. The ladies were all safe. No Europeans had been killed, and few injured. Capper had been shot by some cowardly dog while parleying with the rioters, but there were good hopes of him.

The Judge was most truly concerned to hear of the calamity which had befallen Mr. Capper—immensely thankful to know that things were no worse with him.

His Honor had heard little or nothing of what had happened during the riot, being laid by the leg, as it were, in his own room.

The first batch of prisoners was brought in. At first the Judge did not look at them. Afterward his eyes sought their gaze, and held it, and they knew him for their brother. They heard his soft voice speaking of them compassionately, as wayward children whom mercy would win over, though harshness might confirm them in their foolish resistance to authority. The Collector seemed to protest, but with gentle courtesy his objections were put aside. He leaned back in his chair, flushed and angry, as one after another, the sullen-looking rebels were fined, and having paid what was demanded, were set at liberty.

When the Judge looked up again, a single prisoner stood before him, a wounded, hawk-faced native, whose eyes blazed hate and contempt. The Collector drew his chair closer to the bench, and began to speak in gruff undertones.

"A ring-leader. Man of some education, I understand—qualified as a barrister, and has taken to journalism. Must make an example of him—eh?"

The Judge, straining in agony of mind and body, was aware of sudden relief from the pain of his wound. The bandage had slipped, and blood was cooling the torturing fire. A deathly faintness was upon him, and through it he spoke distinctly—again of mercy.

"They were all blind. The leaders were blind. The blind leading the blind. Blind—blind——"

The Collector sprang up with a startled exclamation. A thin stream of blood trickled from behind His Honor's desk, and went a twisting way down to the well of the court. He caught the Judge in his arms as he fell forward, and lowered him gently to the ground. Then it was seen that the unconscious man's clothes were saturated with blood.

Instantly the court was cleared. A military surgeon cut away the blood-stained clothing from the Judge's thigh, and laid bare the clean wound made by a British bullet. A look passed between him and the Collector, but never a word. Syed Mehta's life had ebbed with his blood, and so he passed, unawakened, from swoon to death.

The English, as their way is, betrayed nothing. It was His Honor, the District Judge of Golampore, who had died, and they gave him burial the next day with due regard to the high position which he had held in the service of H.M. the King and Emperor.