Chapter 7 – Confrontation
Priya looked out her office window and watched her retreating relative as he walked away from the club gate. She sighed and was about to sit when she remembered her promise to Matilda Sheffield-John a short while ago. Wearily she retraced her steps and looked around the club reading room puzzled that the Major was not in his usual chair with a crowd of similar army retirees gathered around swapping stories of past experiences. Then she spied him sitting by himself in one of the darker corners of the room. She motioned one of the waiters to accompany her and headed for his table.
“Can we get you something Major?” The lilting English words surprised him and he turned to face Priya shaking his head mournfully.
Priya motioned for the waiter to leave them.
“I can remember you sitting me on your knee and telling me stories when I was a child, do you mind if I sit and relax here? I’ve been quite busy this morning and could use a rest! Priya smiled at the old man.
The Major jumped to his feet and invited her to sit. He smiled ruefully as he cast his mind back to those happier days.
“I hope you didn’t believe every story I told you?” he said brightening at having someone to talk to.
His wife Matilda and her friend Florence watched from the veranda outside with interest. Matilda had told her friend about her discussion with Priya and Florence had nodded in approval at Matilda’s change of attitude.
Priya laughed! “No Uncle, I didn’t believe all your stories but I used to look forward to them.”
Uncle was a term of endearment used by Indians for those they were familiar with older than them regardless of whether related or not.
The Major sighed.” Those were better days!”
Priya decided to get to the problem in the round-about way commonly used by the Indian community and hoped it worked with English people in this case.
“I’ve such a job dealing with the club servants,” she lied. “They can be troublesome at times!”
To her surprise the old man poured out his problems in a torrent of words, and to her further surprise he laid the blame squarely on his own shoulders.
“I drank too much, and do you know why I drink so much?”
Priya was too shocked to reply and sat at attention wondering what was to follow and feeling uncomfortable the older man was opening up in this way. It would be unheard of in the Indian community.
The Major studied her for a moment, then turned away and began to unfold the history of his life.
“You know me as the Major. I was born Henry Sheffield-John to aristocratic parents. My father had served as an officer in the army, and his father before him. He was hard on us. My sisters were married off young to army officers and my elder brother was of a similar nature to my father. Harsh at times! My father prepared him for succession when he’d passed along. You have to be tough to survive in this world he’d be frequently heard to say when punishing me. My Mother often was the recipient of his rage and so she turned to me as the youngest for her emotional support. This infuriated my father and elder brother.
So when my father passed away my elder brother took his revenge by purchasing an officer’s position for me in the army and had me posted to India far away from my mother. It was not my choice. I hate killing and brutality of army life necessary or not and soon found refuge in the comfort of alcohol. It helped me cope with my duty and my marriage.”
Priya’s discomfort increased as she listened to things which should never have been shared with a younger person. But her quick brain began to understand this rough and sometimes unruly man had been dealt a bitter blow in life. Perhaps he’d have been happier in a different role should that have been his allotted path? Perhaps it would be possible to fix the mess he and Matilda were in with careful thought and planning.
She reached out and touched his shoulder lightly. “Perhaps I can help you with your servant problem,” she said. “Let me see what I can do!”
The Major grasped her hand gratefully. “Bless you child, you are a credit to the London family!”
Priya’s spirits lifted considerably as she thought of the Major’s words. Perhaps she’d been written off by her Mother’s family, but she was a member of the London family and felt their love and acceptance. It was so reassuring for one who was caught between two cultures to know that.
She whispered to two of the waiters. Business was a bit slack that morning so she sent them on an errand to find out where the Major’s servants had secluded themselves. She knew she could penetrate the wall of silence that protected them when any were in trouble with the sahibs. She was accepted and trusted. Within an hour the servants had been located and Priya was on her way to talk with them personally. The key to a solution would of course be Sivaraj.
But Sivaraj had been greatly wounded and the other servants who’d trekked to his room to listen to Priya waved their hands and shouted their anger at what had happened. Priya touched the feet of this proud servant and he recoiled in surprise and dismay.
Priya as the memsahib shouldn’t do that! It was the work of a servant to show that kind of respect! But the old man’s heart melted at this act of humility and the other servants too shocked to speak stood nervously watching for Sivaraj’s reaction.
Priya talked softly about the importance of Sivaraj’s work over the years as he’d served the sahib in their army wanderings. His heart swelled with pride as he remembered the deference other servants had given him because of his elevated position as servant to the chief sahib. Happy memories flooded into his mind but these were again spoiled by the insult.
“Perhaps the sahib was drunk and unable to think clearly? Perhaps he was very sorry for his outburst? Perhaps the sahib wanted to apologize to Sivaraj personally and send him on his way with a blessing for his good fortune?” Priya continued in a soothing tone.
The servants looked at Sivaraj hopefully and fidgeted. They needed work to support their own families and were becoming interested in a possible return to their work.
Finally Sivaraj agreed to meet the sahib to receive his blessings before he made his way north. But the prospects of returning home were beginning to look less attractive as Priya continued her soothing words.
Priya spirited Sivaraj back into the club issuing a warning to the workers not to attempt to interfere. She dressed him in a waiter’s uniform as a precaution and told him to wait in her office, then moved quickly to the Major’s table before Sivaraj had a chance to think it over and flee.
“Do you want to have your servant problem solved?” Priya addressed the Major respectfully.
The startled Major, mouth wide open nodded his head and looked at her hopefully.
Then perhaps you may agree to come to my office and apologize to Sivaraj personally? He is only expecting your blessing on him as he heads north to his village, but if you handle this carefully I think you can have them all back by this evening!”
The Major followed Priya to the office and he and his companion of many years faced each other doubtfully.
Then Henry Sheffield-John threw his arms around his old companion, an act that surprised the both of them in its spontaneity and said softly. “I’m sorry Sivaraj”
Sivaraj stepped back and surveyed the Major and then touched his feet in respect.
That evening a happy household of servants greeted the Sheffield-John’s as they arrived home by carriage. Dinker the chalane vala proudly helped them alight from their carriage.
And while Priya had been thus engaged there was a huge tamasha at the London compound. Sepoys had rushed to the bungalow as soon as summonsed by Sahib London and were secreted around the compound waiting for a whistle blow that would bring them out of hiding.
Unaware they’d been expected a frightened boy slowly went to his Mother’s bungalow with the rough sailors close behind. With tears he told her of the confrontation with his father, the demands made and the men who stood threatening with hands on dagger pouches urged them to hurry up and come with them.
Mother screamed, whistles were blown and an angry Uncle with platoon of sepoys surrounded the house. Grabbing the boy and placing a dagger to his throat the rough sailors emerged demanding to be free to leave. A few rifle shots in the air removed their bravado quickly and they meekly surrendered pleading for their lives. They were tied and marched to the nearby army lock up by two sepoys while James, accompanied by the platoon leader and his men hastened to confront the boy’s father.
However the cunning father not trusting his sailors had watched their slow progress to the London compound from a distance and was alarmed to observe what happened.
He fled to the docks and soon other crew members were rowing him quickly to the newly arrived ship in the harbour. Cargo was not yet completely transferred to shore and sufficient food and water for the forward journey not taken on board, so when their frightened captain ordered them to take up anchor and move out of the harbour there was instant rebellion. None of them wanted to die of starvation or thirst on a long journey in spite of the captain’s rage.
Fights broke out on deck, some supporting the captain and some against. During the melee that followed sepoys boarded, fired shots in the air to gain everyone’s attention and then arrested the captain posting guards on the ship to make sure it didn’t leave harbour until permitted to do so.
Later in custody the father fell on his knees in front of James London asking for mercy. Authorities examined the ship and its documents and determined it was legitimately owned. James was consulted to see what charges would be laid.
He departed to counsel with his sister and her family promising to give his decision on what charges were to be lodged next day.
To be continued.
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