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   Chapter 6 BEGUM SUMRO.

Told by the Death's Head By Mór Jókai Characters: 13867

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


The next morning Hugo resumed his confession:

I hope the honorable gentlemen of the court will pardon me, and not imagine I wish to prolong this hearing, if I mention what may seem trifling details. They are absolutely necessary to render intelligible the recital of my most serious transgressions: idolatry, polygamy, and regicide-

"All of which you will prove to have been so many praiseworthy acts!" interpolated the chair.

To begin with-continued the prisoner, paying no heed to the chair's interpolation-from one of the upper windows of a tall tower that stands on the left bank of the Ganges, in the neighborhood of Benares, projects a bamboo pole as thick as a man's waist; and from it depends, by an iron chain, a large iron cage. A man is confined in this cage. His food is conveyed to him from the window of the tower, through a long hollow pipe of bamboo. The cage hangs over a large pool of water that is fed by an arm of the river, and swarms with voracious crocodiles.

It is a horrible sight, in the late afternoon, to see these ferocious brutes lift their heads from the water, and grin at the man in the cage. If he should break the iron bars which confine him in his airy prison, and attempt to escape by leaping into the pool, the hungry monsters would devour him skin and hair.

"Who is the man?" queried the chair.

"No less a personage than his royal highness, Shah Alum, the heir to the throne of the great Mogul."

"Why is he confined in the cage?"

"Because he extended the hospitalities of his roof to his highness, Mir Cossim, the nabob of Bengal, whom the English banished from his territory, after the battle of Patna. Later, after the battle at Buxar, Shah Alum himself fell into the power of the English; and Mir Cossim was obliged to flee to the protection of the nabob of Andh, whose commander-in-chief was the General Sommer, of whom Mynheer Ruissen had told me. The English demanded of the nabob of Andh, that he deliver to them Mir Cossim and Sommer: whom they wanted to cage, and hang beside Shah Alum, to keep him from getting lonely! But the nabob of Andh allowed Sommer to escape; and he fled across the Jumna, where he organized another army. He was again defeated by the English, and fled to Joodpoor, where he placed himself under the protection of Prince Radspoota. Here he organized troops after the manner of those in Europe, and vanquished the rajahs of Chitore, and Abeil. Again he was compelled by the English to flee-but not by the force of arms this time; his enemies intimidated the prince, his protector; and, in order not to cause his highness any inconvenience, Sommer went to Delhi, the chief city in India, where he sought the protection of Najuf Khan. The full name of this ruler is: 'Mirza Nujuf Khan Zülfikar al Dowlah, commander-in-chief to the Great Mogul.' From him Sommer received a hearty welcome."

"This Sommer," observed the chair, "seems to have been a vagrant like yourself."

"I consider that a great compliment, your honor, and thank you for it!" returned the prisoner. Then he resumed his confession: Sommer had an opportunity the very first day to prove his gratitude for the friendly reception accorded him by Najuf Khan. The mutinous Mahrattas made a sudden attack that night on the residence of the Khan, and would have assassinated him, had not Sommer hastened with the loyal Mahrattas to the rescue, and vanquished the mutineers. And they were fine fellows-devilish fine fellows, too-those mutinous Mahrattas! The crack troop of the imperial army! They had once compelled a former commander-in-chief, who had failed, for some reason or other, to pay the troops, to sit, bound hand and foot, and with bare head in the scorching sun, until he gave orders to have them paid.

("I think it will be well to keep that episode from the ears of our troops," observed the prince with a meaning smile.)

In gratitude for his rescue, Najuf Khan charged Sommer with the organization of his army; and in a short time he, Sommer, got together a force of natives, and Europeans, sufficient to conquer a neighboring province, the chief city of which is Agra; he also captured the so-called impregnable citadel of Drig, in which rock-fortress he imprisoned nabob Nevil Szig.

In reward for this victorious campaign, the emperor of Delhi appointed Sommer king of the conquered province of Sardhana. Thus, the son of a grocer in Treves became the sovereign of an East Indian province.

I trust the honorable gentlemen of the court have received this somewhat prolix preface with favor. I believed it necessary, in order to familiarize you with the marvelous changes, which are worked by a mysterious fate in that tropical clime, where alone such changes are possible.

If I could but delineate approximately the peculiarities of that region, of the atmosphere I breathed, the ground I trod, I believe the honorable gentlemen would say: "Arise, and go your way in peace. You are not to blame for what you have done. Your transgressions are but the fruits of the soil which produces also the boa and the upas tree."

The province of Sardhana is ten times as large as the grand-duchy of Treves; and the revenue of its sovereign four times that of the grand duke.

It is a very fruitful country, rich in grain, wool, and tobacco. Sommer built a fort near his residence; and with the aid of his troops kept the neighboring provinces under subjection. He forced a passage through the forests of Mevas, into which, until then, none of the foreign conquerors had been able to penetrate; which had formed an impassable barrier for the great Alexander on his triumphal march; baffled the hordes of Djingis Khan, whose inhabitants sallied forth only when they desired to levy tribute on a neighboring tribe.

After vanquishing these savages, Sommer directed his attention toward the inhuman Balluken, who offered the blood of young girls in sacrifice to their gods, and in a very short time succeeded in dislodging them from their rocky retreat. Ultimately, he undertook to subdue the royal Pertaub Singh, which he accomplished-but not through the force of arms: by his powers of persuasion, which he possessed to a marvelous degree.

Sommer's patron, as was natural, wished to bestow on his successful commander-in-chief a new reward for all these conquests. There was a beautiful young girl, named Zeib Alnissa (the Hindoo for "ornament of her sex"), the daughter of one of the most influential princely families in Delhi, and this girl the emperor sought in marriage for his favorite.

Sommer informed his patron that he would espouse the beautiful Zeib Alnissa if she would adopt the Christian faith.

"Why," exclaimed the emperor, "can't you love a woman who worships Brahma?"

"Oh, yes, your imperial highness," responded Sommer; "it is because I should love her very much, that I want her to belong to my faith. I am not a young ma

n any more, and I have a profligate son whom I have been forced to disown. If I should die, my wife, according to the Brahminical custom, would be burned alive with my body. If she becomes a Christian, she will not have to ascend the funeral pyre, but my throne, where she will reign as Begum, and prevent my kingdom from falling into the hands of my worthless son."

The emperor conceded that Sommer's argument was just; and permitted the foreign missionaries to convert the lovely young princess to the Christian faith. This was a concession never before granted to a European in India.

Zeib Alnissa adored her husband. She accompanied him on every expedition he undertook; watched over him; guarded him from the secret enemies and treachery which encompass every East Indian sovereign. The successful commander-in-chief had many enemies and rivals. The English company had long ranked among his opponents. Not infrequently he was rescued as by a miracle from great danger by the watchful care of his devoted wife.

Ultimately, however, his enemies succeeded in their attempts on his life; and the brave commander-in-chief succumbed to the poison secretly administered to him. He died in the arms of the faithful Zeib Alnissa, just about the time I arrived in Sardhana, to take command of his artillery.

His widow, under the title of Sumro Begum, ascended the throne, thus preventing, as her husband had desired, her step-son from inheriting it.

This son was a truly immoral and wicked fellow. I saw him for a few minutes after the Begum's accession to the crown, and after she had confirmed my appointment as commander of the fort. He actually had the effrontery to try to bribe me to betray the Begum into his power; and, on finding that his efforts were useless, he threatened to revenge himself on me when he should come into possession of the throne.

"Very well," I retorted. "When that time comes I shall become a regicide."

How little I dreamed then, that my words were prophetic!

Meanwhile, Sumro Begum grasped with a firm hand the reins of government. She increased her army, and added several pieces of ordnance to the artillery.

Seated on a spirited battle-horse, or elephant, she inspected the manoeuvers in person.

Her neighbors in the adjacent provinces very soon learned to fear and respect her; even the emperor gave her credit for great prudence and wisdom. Indeed, so great was the influence she wielded, that her voice frequently decided the issue in the discussions at court.

Those East Indian dignitaries are a jealous folk. When Gholam Kadir found that his influence at the imperial court was secondary to that of Sumro Begum, he marched with his troops on the capital, and began to bombard the palace. Sumro Begum, however, heard the thunder of the cannonading, and hastily summoning her troops, joined her forces to those of Prince Ivan Buk, and drove the jealous Gholam Kadir back to his province.

The revolt in the interior of his empire concluded, the emperor was at liberty to turn his attention to the foreign invader. Kuli Khan had captured the fortress of Ghokal Gur. This valuable stronghold had to be recaptured; and troops were not lacking, but leaders were. Sommer's loss was most keenly felt; but Sumro Begum was still to the fore, and she was worth a dozen ordinary generals.

The imperial troops had been trying for three weeks to recapture the fortress of Ghokal Gur. They had become tired of the continued ill-success of their undertaking, and had abandoned themselves to feasting and carousing. One night, after all tipsy heads had been laid to rest, Kuli Khan, with his Mongolian cavalry, surprised the imperial camp, and began to slaughter the stupefied troops. The enemy in the fortress could see by the light of the burning tents the horrible butchery going on outside the walls, and decided to take a hand in it. The emperor's tent was riddled with bullets; two of his palanquin bearers were killed, and he was obliged to seek flight on his own feet. But, whither to turn he knew not, as he was in the center of a furious cross-fire.

It is quite certain that he would have been destroyed, together with his entire army, had not Sumro Begum hastened to the rescue, with her admirably disciplined troops, officered by Europeans.

On hearing of the emperor's danger the heroic Begum summoned her body-guard-hardly one hundred men-entered her palanquin, and hastened, with the battery under my command, toward the thickest of the fight.

When she saw that the enemy from the fortress was taking part in the massacre of the half-sober imperial troops, she called to me:

"Follow my example!"

Then, she sprang from her palanquin, mounted a horse, and at the head of her body-guard, charged upon the enemy.

I knew very well what was expected of me! I placed my battery in such a position that the guns would clear a way for the Begum.

In a very short time the valiant enemy, who had sallied forth from the fortress to take a hand in slaughtering their beleaguerers, were in a wild retreat toward it. Sumro Begum met them at the draw-bridge, took the commander prisoner, and, with him in chains at her side, entered the fort, of which she took possession in the name of the emperor. She left all but ten of her men to guard the fort, and returned to the assistance of the emperor, whose troops, taking courage from the example of the brave Begum, plucked up heart, turned upon their butchers, and after a severe struggle gained the mastery.

The rising sun witnessed the annihilation of the enemy.

The fort was again in the possession of the emperor, who, in face of his entire army, embraced Sumro Begum, and called her his "dear daughter." He did not hesitate to declare, in the presence of his commanding officers, that he owed his life, the lives of six imperial princes, his empire, and the rescue of his army, to the brave woman.

To this the Begum, with a modest blush, made reply: "Not to me alone is due all this praise, your imperial highness. The greater portion belongs to my commander of artillery. This is he"-she drew me forward and presented me to the emperor. "To him must be given a fitting reward for the great service he has done your imperial highness."

The answer to this was:

"Let yourself be the brave man's reward!"

With his own imperial hand he placed the lady's hand in my own, and betrothed her to me with a ring from his own finger. At the same time he appointed me co-regent of Sardhana, under the name of Maharajah Kong. Thus, I became-not a captain, but a maharajah.

"And all this really happened?" inquired the chair.

"Yes, your honor, and more too-as you may read in the court chronicles at Delhi."

"We will hear the rest tomorrow," observed the prince. "It is enough for one day to have heard how the son of an Andernach tanner became assistant sovereign of a province in India."

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