Remember Cawnpore, a Memoir of the Opium War–Chapter VI (The World Turned Upside Down)

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I turned Thomas onto his head, swinging him around in circles by his feet for a while.

“The world’s turned upside down!” he shrieked to the rhythm if not the tune of the popular song.

I set him down and ruffled his hair. Then I continued speaking with him about the family. Perhaps I could steal further truths from the mouths of these babes.

“So why did your parents appoint you two wee sentinels to wait for me?”

“Well, we weren’t exactly waiting for you,” said Thomas, obliviously contradicting what he’d said a moment ago. “Orchid said that we could recite our lessons outside today. We make too much noise indoors. Mama is going to have her baby any day now and has to stay in bed all the time… Besides, the parlor has been even hotter than the garden since Fuad left us.”

“Fuad?”

“The boy who swings the ceiling fan. He’s my friend, even though he is just a punkah wallah. Nanna Molly says that he’s run off. But the truth is that his parents forced him to stop coming to the Highlands. Everyone’s afraid of what will happen if the mutiny comes here… Anyway, I like being outside! Julia and me are lucky.”

“Julia and I, dummy!” she said, unable to resist the urge to correct someone.

“Who cares? It’s a holiday in the garden today instead of boring history lessons!”

“So you weren’t waiting for me?”

“Not exactly. But Christopher has been driving back and forth between here and Cawnpore ever since we heard you’d come back to India. The Grand Trunk Road is dangerous, Uncle Maxim. No one travels overland anymore—not even by bullock cart.”

This answer pleased me. At least it provided a justification for the lack of a proper reception. After all, my family couldn’t have known precisely when I’d be back. And there was a crisis afoot. For a moment, I’d almost forgotten about that. No one would take the trouble to pretend to be caught off-guard by my arrival. No one but Christopher, anyway, who would never admit that he was out looking for me every day.

Just then, I heard him humming Loch Lomond. He’d evidently settled his accounts with the bullock and was ready to join us.

“Hey baldy, where’s these children’s ayah?” I said as soon as he arrived. His nostrils flared in response to my taunt.

“You aren’t bald,” cried Julia, running to embrace him. “It’s only that you have a high forehead. You’re the most handsome man in the District. Yulan told me that everybody thinks so!”

“It’s outrageous for these children to be left alone like this,” I said. “The heat alone could kill them. I thought I saw their ayah on the verandah when I was getting out of the hackery, but she seems to have vanished.”

“Orchid says that she has a headache,” said Thomas, responding before Christopher had a chance to do so (he was still fuming, by the way; my insult had been a simple but effective one). “She always pretends to have headaches. I hate her.”

“How can you speak that way in front of a stranger?” said Julia. “And her name isn’t Orchid. It’s Yulan.”

“You’re the only one who calls her by that name. And besides, I’m just telling the truth. That’s what General Washington always did. Isn’t that right, Christopher?”

“Christopher!” said Julia, “explain to Thomas that he shouldn’t speak so rudely about Yulan. She’s wonderful. Besides, tell him that it doesn’t matter what he thinks about her. He should never let anybody know. Explain to him that he has to learn to be a better liar if he wants to be a proper English gentleman.”

“Bloody hell!” cried Christopher, sending the children into peals of laughter. “Don’t tell your mothers I said that.”

Julia was pleased that her words had managed to provoke such a scandalous reaction. She proceeded to speak with decreasing reluctance. Christopher’s being there gave her an excuse to be talkative. But she had yet to address even a single sentence to me directly.

“Yulan taught me all about English manners. She said that if there’s one thing she’s realized since leaving China, it’s that the art of being an English gentleman is the same as the art of being a good liar.”

“What jaded nonsense!” I said. “Your parents should send you both off to school in Scotland.”

“Oh never!” gasped Thomas as if I’d just wished a tumor on him.

“You need better teachers than what you can find here.” Then, I addressed Christopher with a wink. “Auntie Francis and Auntie Marie could take them in, as they did Vivian and me. Why, I wager that Thomas can’t even read.”

“I can so read!”

“And I can read too!” said Julia to Christopher, childishly eager to reclaim the interest of the group but still pointedly ignoring me. “Yulan taught me two years ago. I was so smart that I didn’t even need to be sent to Mr. Shiels’ school in Fatehgurh. And I can even read some Chinese too. Can’t I, Christopher?”

“Who cares about Chinese?” laughed Thomas. “Orchid is a Celestial, but even she speaks English.”

“Her name is Yulan!”

“I don’t care! Chinese is useless. And by the way, Julia,  by the time that we grow up everybody in the world will speak English because Britannia rules the waves! Rule, Britannia! Britannia rules the waves! Britons, never never never never never…” his boyish satisfaction intoning the song in a mechanical monotone overcame his desire to complete the verse.

“This is all horribly irresponsible,” I took the opportunity to say to Christopher, scratching Thomas playfully on his head as he continued to intone never never never. “It is scalding out here, and the baba logue are completely unsupervised.”

“Don’t repeat yourself when you have nothing interesting to say, Maxim. And anyway, what does the heat have to do with the importance of supervision?”

“Well, suppose that the little girl should faint.”

“She seems wakeful enough to me,” said Christopher as Julia tugged energetically on Thomas’ hair. Instinctively aware that she was a subject of interest again, she released her victim and threw her arms about Christopher, catching sneaking glances at me as she did so. I knew that her flirtatious playfulness with him was a way of torturing me. She resembled her mother closely.

“Oh, Christopher!”

“Yes?”

“I wish that Uncle Peter would throw a burra khana for you.”

“A burra khana for me? Aren’t there other people around here a little more deserving of the honor of a party, Julia? Someone who’s been away a long time?”

“I don’t care who he throws it for…”

“You mean, you don’t care whom he throws it for, bitch,” chimed Thomas. Then he immediately turned to me and pleaded, “Please don’t tell Nana Molly that I called her a bitch, but she’s being a great big one!”

“I want us to have a burra khana very badly,” continued Julia angrily. “It’s been a long time since we’ve had any fun in the District. I went to a burra khana thrown by Mr. Hillersdon last February in Cawnpore and wore a real taffeta gown. Mother sewed it for me, and I still have it in my wardrobe.”

“How boring!” cried Thomas. “Uncle Maxim doesn’t give a shit about taffeta gowns, do you Uncle Maxim?”

“Thomas, your language!” screamed Julia. “That’s enough.”

“He curses like a third mate on shore leave these days,” said Christopher. “Of course, Molly is livid, but Peter finds it all too amusing to really discipline him.”

“But gentlemen shouldn’t swear in the presence of ladies, should they, Thomas?” I asked in imitation of my father at his most patronizing.

“Julia’s no lady,” he laughed. “And didn’t Christopher say bloody hell? Besides, I wouldn’t ever talk like this in front of Nanna Molly or Mama or Ayah Rupee. Im not stupid. They’d box my ears.”

“Would you dance with me at a burra khana if we threw one?” continued Julia sweetly to Christopher. “I’ve been practicing the quadrille with mother, you know.”

“After the dance, maybe Uncle Christopher could do magic tricks,” said Thomas. “What he did with the cards just now is better than anything I saw at Rob’s birthday party, when we had that scary snake charmer who made me want to cry.”

“I’m afraid that you’re describing me like a professional clown.”

“You are sort of a clown with your magic tricks and red hair and tan face and blue eyes!”

I grabbed the boy and mercilessly tickled him. He squealed before squirming out of my grip.

“I was only telling you the truth, Uncle Maxim, just like General Washington always did. Uncle Maxim?

“Yes?

“What did you get me from China?”

I couldn’t believe my ears.

“Who told you that I was in China?”

“Papa. He said that you were probably a moonshee there.”

“I was in Nicaragua,” I yelped. “I was a freebooter.”

“What did you get me?”

“The deck of trick cards.”

“Is that all?”

“I’d be too afraid of catching fleas to touch any of his gifts,” said Julia.

“Who asked you?” bellowed the little boy. “Most women go mad once a month, but you’re daft every day!”

“Be quiet, or I’ll push you over!”

“Be quiet, or I’ll pull out all your hair!”

Suddenly, Julia whispered something into Thomas’ ear. She was wearing a calico dress I recalled as having once belonged to Vivian. I struggled to resurrect my memory of her mother as a child. I searched for Vivian in her daughter’s eyes and recognized the shadow of my beloved. But her mother’s complexion, I thought to myself, was even more achingly white.

“Listen, Christopher!” chirped Julia, tugging at his sleeve.  “I want to show you what a good teacher Yulan is… better than any professor in Scotland. Thomas, recite the story of the Black Hole of Calcutta.”

“I hate my history lessons!”

“Recite the story… or I’ll pinch you.”

“The blind are leading the blind,” I sighed. “Honestly, it’s like a crime to leave two kids to their own devices like this with a mutiny festering in the District. The ayah needs to learn her place.”

“I quite agree with you, Mr. Maxwell,” suddenly rang a pure English voice. “If I saw that damned Johnny, I’d slap her face.”

A young Chinese woman presently approached us, little Rob in her arms. When we first drove up to the garden, I thought that I’d seen her in the distance cooling herself on the verandah with a bone fan, but she’d disappeared by the time that I met the children. In the meantime she’d crept up on us with such suddenness that she quite startled me. I recall that she smelled of vetiver, even then. Her race blinded me to her beauty.

Remember Cawnpore, a Memoir of the Opium War–Chapter V (Children Can Be Cruel)

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The sight of the children left to their own devices just outside the house made me shudder. The irresponsibility of their ayah was beyond belief. The District was in an uproar since rumor began spreading that the East India Company had deliberately smeared the cartridges of the sepoys’ Enfield muskets with the fat of pigs and cows. This would have had the effect of forcing Moslem and Hindoo soldiers alike to compromise their faiths whenever they bit down on the cartridges – a scheme altogether too subtle and insane for the insipid minds of the East India Company to have concocted, I can assure you. But perhaps carelessness was to blame rather than design and just such ingredients were in fact assembled at some factory or another. I really couldn’t say, and don’t imagine that it makes much difference. All of this was only the pretext for the expression of deeper passions. Since its earliest days, the East India Company had relied on battalions of sepoys to guarantee the security of the country. The prospective mutiny of the native soldiers could only be cataclysmic.

Symptoms of outright mutiny first broke out at Berhampore, not far from Calcutta. In February, the 19th Native Infantry was threatened with cannon fire and then disbanded for daring to reject the Enfields. Then in late March, a sepoy by the name of Mungal Pandy did a capital job of stirring up a commotion in the nearby city of Barrackpore. He attacked his Sergeant Major with a sword before being restrained, just barely, by a quick-thinking Brigadier-General. After his hanging, his regiment, the 34th Native Infantry, was similarly disbanded.  It did little good that a handful of diplomatic Company commanders reacted to news from Barrackpore by allowing their troops to bend the rules with regard to the muskets, for example, by letting them grease the cartridges themselves with the lubricants of their choice. This only reinforced the rumor that something was wrong with the Enfields in the first place.

By May 10, hoards of native Indian soldiers in the East India Company’s employ had rebelled against their European officers in Meerut. The sepoys then rampaged on the ancient Mogul capital of Delhi, eviscerating every European they met along the way, or so rumor had it. The parlors of Anglo-India were promptly resounding with what we all prayed were exaggerations about children burned alive in their nurseries and pregnant women disemboweled by mutinous sowars. The doddering Mogul emperor Bahadur Shah, hitherto considered little more than an amateur poet and professional debauchee, was proclaimed the puppet ruler. Masses of discontented mercenaries were soon vying for prominence in the newly resurrected court of the Peacock Throne. Gossip suggested that an all-out revolution against British rule was about to break out in Bengal. The sepoys of Fatehgurh and Cawnpore remained loyal, however temporarily. The pathetically kept secret was that mutiny was expected among them any day, and the local landholding zamindars and their ryots would probably rise alongside them. The best that we could hope for was that the sepoys would march on Delhi and spare the century-old European community of Cawnpore and its environs.

I knew that it would be a chore, a ludicrous effort to pantomime optimism when I reunited with my family. The motives for my homecoming were tortured enough as it was. Now I would be distracted from my purpose by the machinations of unscrupulous strangers who hoped to profit from bloodshed. They whispered that the sepoys’ European commanders were plotting to call them all out on parade and slaughter them with cannon fire. Then, baptisms would be forced across the subcontinent on Musselmen and Hindoos alike. The entire length of the sacred Ganges would be mutilated with irrigation ditches. Women would be forced to break purdah, paraded about in public, and, worst of all, formally educated. Rumor went so far as to claim that the Company would begin paying its employees in tanned strips of cowhide rather than rupees, though that claim always seemed particularly ridiculous to me. But preposterous suggestions mated with half-truths to conceive murderous sentiments in the hearts of the oppressed and the self-righteous. At any rate, truth itself has never been an impediment to the spread of rumors in any time or place. And as I’d soon learn, even the most heinous crimes can be readily sanctified by persecuted imaginations.

Thomas presently  scrambled across the garden to greet me. Because I hadn’t seen him since his infancy, I supposed that his older cousin must have whispered my identity to him. Or rather, I suppose it now—at the time, I was intoxicated by the ganja and somewhat befuddled.

“Uncle Maxim!” he screamed, leaping into my arms with such force that I nearly toppled over.

“Oh, what a fat little boy! Climb down and let me take a look at you before you give me a hernia.”

He was a stout child with lively eyes, the type of boy to be hiding a slingshot or some sort of dead varmint in his back pocket.

“Look at this!” I cried with perhaps greater eagerness than was becoming. I was eager to impress someone again, I suppose. I produced a deck of cards and shuffled it with professional dexterity.

“Pick any card. I won’t look.”

Thomas obliged.

“Was it the Queen of Hearts?”

“No.”

“Rubbish. I’m not wrong.”

“It was the Queen of Clubs.”

“No, it wasn’t.”

“It was.”

“It wasn’t.”

“It was.”

“It wasn’t!”

“Yes, it was. What sort of a magician are you?”

“Look kid, the entire bloody deck is nothing but Queens of Hearts!”

“Got you to admit your trick, didn’t I, Uncle Maxim? And got you to swear!”

I had to chuckle at that.

“Perhaps he uses the deck to trick travelers out of their money at caravanserais,” offered Julia suddenly. “He looks like a dacoit.

I was too shocked to reply to her directly, so I turned to the boy and said,

“The deck’s a gift for you, Thomas. That’s why I brought it. Do you think that I randomly tramp about with trick sets of cards? Now enjoy your little present, and don’t be so cynical. Believe in magic a bit. I’d also brought a kitten for a certain little girl, but I got hungry along the way and decided to eat it.”

“Thomas, let’s go inside,” ordered Julia with chilling authority for a child of eight. Her surliness reminded me of her father. I hoped for her sake that his broad forehead was the only other feature that she inherited from him. There it was, unmistakable, persistently wrinkled in forethought whenever she was speaking or preparing to speak. This was a girl who would never enjoy the pleasures of polite conversation, I thought to myself. She would always be too busy planning her next move to ever really listen to anybody else.

“Aren’t you going to say hello to Uncle Maxim?” shrieked Thomas.

Julia obliged by glaring at me. Perhaps the child was simply afraid. But at the time, I was quite taken aback. What had her mother and grandmother been telling her about me to inspire this sort of contempt? Thomas improvised as best he could.

“Don’t mind Julia. Papa says that women go mad once a month. It’s our lot as gentlemen to forbear them with patience.”

I roared with laughter, and not only because Julia was prepubescent. Thomas was a perfect parrot of his father Peter, who was always groaning on about “forbearing things with patience.” It was a stock phrase of his since his adolescence.

“Thomas, let’s go inside!” Julia ordered. “We have to feed Ms. Google.”

“I won’t go inside, I won’t!” Then, in a suddenly sweet voice: “I missed you Uncle Maxim! It’s not true the sepoys are going to attack us, is it?”

“God forbid.”

“Of course not. Nothing exciting ever happens around here. Well, anyway, I’m glad that you’re back! It seems like everybody but Christopher is worried and serious these days. But I knew that you’d be different. Ayah Rupee tells us stories about when you were a little boy, so I feel like I know you. And… we’ve been waiting for you to arrive all morning.”

“Have you?”

“The ryots said you reached Cawnpore last week, overland from Calcutta. Gossip travels fast around here. Uncle Maxim?”

“Yes?”

“What’s overland?”

“What does it sound like it means, Thomas? Now come inside!”

“No, Julia! You’re not my bloody mother, and Papa says that only parents have the right to order anyone about. Why are you being so mean to Uncle Maxim?”

“He is no uncle of mine.”

I actually smiled at this. I remembered that I’d worn rags with specific ends in mind. If my appearance so disgusted the girl, it could only mean that my costume was effective. And instinctually, I knew that I couldn’t blame Julia for her haughtiness. I imagined that her fervency that I was no blood relation stemmed from Vivian’s similar insistence, because her mother was in love with me, undoubtedly, and close-minded people would think that since she was my stepmother’s daughter, her affection was unnatural. I told myself that she distanced herself from me as much as possible in conversations with her daughter to justify her love and remove it from the unspeakable taboo of incest in her heart of hearts. I knew that Vivian was being dishonest when she insisted that she felt nothing but a sister’s ardor for me on a certain horrible night. She arched her eyebrows in odd ways when she lied. And as for the anger in her daughter’s voice, well, I’d left the Highlands after I was disinherited, hadn’t I? Perhaps Vivian resented me for leaving her, as I knew that Christopher did.

But something was odd. Thomas had said that I was expected at the Highlands, which meant that Vikram and Ayah Rupee’s acquaintances must have spread the word. Why no entourage, then, to greet me? I suddenly realized that everything was stagecraft. Even Christopher was a liar, divulging nothing about his knowledge that I’d returned. Here was yet another reason to fantasize about punching him in the face. Would everyone else similarly pretend to be taken by surprise, or would they be honest that they knew I was coming but didn’t even care enough to come outside and greet me? Whatever was about to happen, I was prepared for just this sort of theatre.  I was costumed for the part.