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