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The Last Dickens: A Novelby Matthew Pearl
Chapter 1 ... Bengal, India, June 1870
Neither of the young mounted policemen fancied these subdivisions of the Bagirhaut province. Neither of them fancied jungles where all manner of things could happen unprovoked, unseen, as they had a few years before when a poor lieutenant was stripped, clubbed, and drowned in the river for trying to collect licensing taxes.
The officers clamped the heels of their boots tighter into their horses’ flanks. Not to say they were scared—only careful.
“You must be careful always,” said Turner to Mason as they ducked the low branches and vines. “Be assured, the natives in India do not value life. Not even as the poorest Englishman does.”
The younger of the two policemen, Mason, nodded thoughtfully at the words of his impressive partner, who was nearly twenty-five years old, who had two brothers also come from England to be in Indian Civil Service, and who had fought the Indian rebellion a few years before. He was an expert if ever one was.
“Perhaps we should have come with more men, sir.”
“Well, that’s pretty! More men, Mason? We shan’t need any more than our two heads between us to take in a few ragged dacoits. Remember, a high-mettled horse stands not for hedge nor ditch.”
When Mason had arrived in Bengal from Liverpool for his new post, he accepted Turner’s offer to “chum,” pooling incomes and living expenses and passing their free time in billiards or croquet. Mason, at eighteen, was thankful for counsel from such an experienced man in the ranks of the Bengal police. Turner could list places a policeman ought never to ride alone because of the Coles, the Santhals, the Assamee, the Kookies, and the hill tribes in the frontiers. Some of the criminal gangs among the tribes were dacoits, thieves; others, warned Turner, carried axes and wanted English heads. “The natives of India value life only as far as they can kill when doing so,” was another Turner proverb.
Fortunately, they were not hunting out that sort of bloodthirsty gang in these wasting temperatures this morning. Instead they were investigating a plain, brazen robbery. The day before, a long train of twenty or thirty bullock carts had been hit with a shower of stones and rocks. In the chaos, dacoits holding torches tipped over the carts and fled with valuable chests from the convoy. When intelligence of the theft reached the police station, Turner had gone to their supervisor’s desk to volunteer himself and Mason, and their commander had sent them to question a known receiver of stolen goods.
Now, as the terrain thinned, they neared the small thatched house on the creek. A dwindling column of smoke hovered above the mud chimney. Mason gripped the sword at his belt. Every two men in the Bengal police were assigned one sword and one light carbine rifle, and Turner had naturally claimed the rifle.
“Mason,” he said with a slight smile in his voice after noticing the anxious look on his partner’s face. “You are green, aren’t you? It is highly likely they have unloaded the goods and fled already. Perhaps for the mountains, where our elaka—that is like ‘jurisdiction,’ Mason—where our elaka does not extend. No matter, really, when captured, they lie and say they are innocent peasants until the corrupt darkie magistrates release them. What do you say to going tiger shooting upon some elephants?”
“Turner!” Mason whispered, just then, interrupting his partner.
They were coming upon the thatched-roof house where a bright red horse was tied to a post (the natives in these provinces often painted their horses unnatural colors). A slight rustle at the house drew their eyes to a pair of men fitting the description of two of the thieves. One of them held a torch. They were arguing.
Turner signaled Mason to stay quiet. “The one on the right, it’s Narain,” he whispered and pointed. Narain was a known opium thief against whom several attempts at conviction had failed.
The opium poppy was cultivated in Bengal and refined there under English control, after which the colonial government sold the drug at auction to opium traders from England, America, and other nations. From there, the traders would transport the opium for sale to China, where it was illegal but still in great demand. The trade was enormously profitable for the British government.
Dismounting, Turner and Mason split up and approached the thieves from two sides. As Mason crept through the bushes from around the back, he could not help but think about their good fortune: not only that two of the thieves were still at the suspected ?confederate’s house but also that their argument was serving as distraction.
As Mason made his way around the thick shrubbery he jumped out at Turner’s signal and displayed his sword at the surprised Narain, who put up two trembling hands and lay flat on the ground. Meanwhile the other thief had pushed Turner down and dashed into the dense trees. Turner staggered to his feet, aimed his rifle, and shot. He fired a wild second shot into the jungle.
They tied the prisoner and traced the fugitive’s path but soon lost the trail. While searching up and down the curve of the rough creek, Turner lunged at something on the ground. Upon reaching the spot, Mason saw with great pride in his chum that Turner had bludgeoned a cobra with his carbine. But the cobra was not dead and it rose up again as Mason approached and tried to strike. Such was the peril of the Bengalee jungle.
Abandoning the hunt for the other thief, they returned to the spot where they’d left Narain tied to a tree and freed him, leading him as they took the horses they’d borrowed back to the police outpost. There, they boarded the train with their prisoner in tow to bring Narain to the district of their station house.
“Get some sleep,” Turner said to Mason with a brotherly care. “You look worn out. I can guard the dacoit.”
“Thank you, Turner,” said Mason gratefully.
The eventful morning had been exhausting. Mason found an empty row of seats and covered his face with his hat. Before long he fell into a deep sleep beneath the rattling window, where a slow breeze made the compartment nearly tolerable. He woke to a horrible echoing scream—the kind that lived sometimes in his nightmares of Bengal’s jungles.
When he shook himself into sensibility he saw Turner standing alone staring out the window.
“Where’s the prisoner?” Mason cried.
“I don’t know!” Turner shouted, a wild glint in his eyes. “I looked the other way for a moment, and Narain must have thrown himself out the window!”
They pulled the alarm for the train to stop. Mason and Turner, with the help of an Indian railway policeman, searched along the rocks and found Narain’s crushed and bloody body. His head had been smashed open at impact. His hands were still tied together with wire.
Solemnly, Mason and Turner abandoned the body and reboarded the train. The young English officers were silent the remaining train ride to the station house, except for some unmusical humming by Turner. They had almost reached the terminal when Turner posed a question.
“Answer me this, Mason. Why did you enroll in the mounted police?”
Mason tried to think of a good answer but was too troubled. “To raise a little dust, I suppose. We all want to make some noise in the world.”
“Stuff!” said Turner. “Never lose sight of the true blessings of public service. Each one of us is here to turn out a better civilization in the end, and for that reason alone.”
“Turner, about what happened today . . .” The younger man’s face was white.
“What’s wrong?” Turner demanded. “Luck was with us. That cobra might have done us both in.”
“Narain . . . the suspected dacoit. Well, shouldn’t we, I mean, to collect up the names and statements of the passengers for our diaries so that if there is any kind of inquiry . . .”
“Suspected? Guilty, you meant. Never mind, Mason. We’ll send one of the native men.”
“But, won’t we, if Dickens, I mean . . .”
“What mumbling! You oughtn’t chew your words.”
“Sir,” the younger officer enunciated forcefully, “considering for a moment Dickens—”
“Mason, that’s enough! Can’t you see I’m tired?” Turner hissed.
“Sir,” Mason said, nodding.
Turner’s neck had become stiff and veiny at the sound of that particular name: Dickens. As though the word had been rotting deep inside him and now crawled back up his throat.
From the Hardcover edition.Copyright © 2009 by Matthew Pearl
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