From the northernmost borders of icy Kashmir to the shark- infested shores of the Malabar Coast, Major William Russell, the Resident of the princely state of Rajpore, was renowned for being a man of unshakeable habit.
Each morning, as regularly as clockwork, he rose at the stroke of six. After taking a tepid cup of Earl Grey to settle his humors, as the first smoky slivers of dawn began to color the distant horizon, he would change into his jodhpurs and set out to exercise his favorite horse, a dun gelding of fine pedigree named Cicero. On most days, it was his custom to ride toward the deep ravine that separated the British Lines from the native town, cantering onward until the sweltering heat became unbearable and sent him galloping back to the shelter of the Residency.
Upon returning to his quarters, he would invariably spend the better part of an hour perusing the latest dispatches from Calcutta as his valet, Ghanshyam, shaved him and trimmed his sandy whiskers. At nine-thirty precisely, Major Russell dressed for the day in a lightweight linen safari suit and his customary wide-brimmed pith helmet before hurrying through a small breakfast of one-half boiled egg accompanied by a healthy help- ing of kedgeree. After this abstemious repast, he would be driven to his offices at the City Palace. Once there, he heard petitions through the day, pausing only for a brief spot of tiffin around noon before pushing on till three, when he returned home to enjoy a siesta under the watchful gaze of the punkah-wallah whose onerous duty it was to fan him as he rested.
At fifteen minutes past four, not a moment later, he would rise refreshed from this brief slumber and dress for dinner, an austere meal that was almost always the same: cold mutton and suet pudding accompanied by fresh salad and perhaps a jug of apple cider, after which on most evenings he liked to ride across to the Rajpore Gymkhana and indulge in a game of billiards and perhaps a rubber or two of bridge before returning home to retire for the night.
This was the routine from which the Major rarely ever varied. Perhaps once or twice every month he accepted an invitation to dinner or chose to make a social call, or was compelled by duty to leave the comfort of the city and take a tour of the more rural districts of Rajpore.
That is what made it so unusual when on this, the inaugural morning of the year 1909, Major Russell failed to rise at his prescribed hour. When his valet, Ghanshyam, knocked on the bedroom door, he found it securely bolted from within.
“Sahib,” he said, “I have brought your chota hazri,” but received no reply. Bewildered, Ghanshyam waited patiently outside the door for almost half an hour, knocking sporadically but to no avail, after which he retreated to the kitchen and gulped down the tea and biscuits himself, thinking that perhaps the Resident Sahib had tired himself out a little too much at the New Year’s Ball the night before.
But then, as the morning withered and the sun climbed to its fiery zenith above the City Palace, Major Russell’s dewan, Munshi Ram Dev, began to worry.
The Sahib would never miss an occasion as auspicious as the first darbar of the year, he thought anxiously, scratching at his bald skull. It is not in his nature to be so tardy. Suddenly stricken by the certainty that something dreadful had happened to his master, Munshi Ram arrived at a decision. Briskly, he marched out of the Resident’s office and commanded the grumbling, restless throng of petitioners gathered in the waiting room to disband, informing them brusquely that the Burra Sahib would not be accommodating any visitors that day.
At first, the mob of supplicants refused to leave peaceably. Many of them had arrived well before dawn and waited patiently for hours, having traveled to Rajpore from great distances to seek an audience with the Resident Sahib. As a result, when they found themselves treated to such a summary dismissal, they surrounded the Munshi, arguing and complaining at the top of their collective voices.
Nonplussed, the Munshi summoned a native watchman with a shout and ordered him to make sure that the crowd was dispersed immediately. The watchman set about this task with great gusto, waving his rattan cane as if herding a throng of unruly cattle, and in a matter of minutes, after cracking a few recalcitrant hands and shins, managed to drive the angry multitude away.
His unease growing with each passing moment, Munshi Ram waited impatiently till the last of the grumbling petitioners had departed, after which he thanked the watchman with a half-anna tip and hurriedly bolted and locked the Resident’s office. Then, grasping his spotless white dhoti in one wrinkled hand so that its immaculately embroidered hem would not drag in the dust, he set off with the utmost haste.
It was a distance of several kilometers from the City Palace to the Resident’s bungalow, but the Munshi made the journey in record time. His apprehension continued to swell as he bustled along until, by the time he finally reached his destination, he was breathless with foreboding, shaking like a leaf in a hurricane. Upon arriving, he found that the Resident’s bedroom door was still firmly shuttered, and that the Major himself had not yet emerged from within, even though it was well past midday. “Sahib, it is I, your faithful servant,” the Munshi croaked, rapping his knuckles upon the door’s obdurate face politely. “Are you feeling quite well?”
Leaning forward, he pressed his ear to the smooth surface of the wood, hoping for some reply, however feeble. To his dismay, he detected no discernible answer, naught but a silence so absolute that it seemed to magnify the dull thump of his own heartbeat, resounding deeply through his wizened frame like the beating of an ominous jungle drum.
Decidedly unnerved, Munshi Ram scurried off to question the Resident’s valet, Ghanshyam. He found the boy in the stables, eating peanuts and spitting out the shells indolently as he watched Gurung the syce curry the horses and polish the Resident’s number one saddle.
“Ghanshyam,” the Munshi asked urgently, “did Russell Sahib take his exercise this morning…?”
“No, he did not.” With a sly smile, the valet lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper, so that his words would not carry to the syce’s ears. “I think, Munshiji, that perhaps the Burra Sahib is drunk.”
“Nonsense,” Munshi Ram snorted. “You know as well as I that Russell Sahib does not take hard liquor.”
But even as he said those words, a tremor of doubt clawed at his ancient chest. What if the Sahib was indeed intoxicated? Although he had never known the Resident to imbibe to excess before, perhaps he had chosen to partake of a burra peg or two the night before amidst the revelry of the Rajpore Club’s annual celebration. What am I to do…? He wrung his hands in despair. How was he expected to make sure that Russell Sahib was well? It would be unseemly, even indecent for him to barge into the Sahib’s room, for though the Resident was a confirmed bachelor, the old clerk was understandably reluctant to intrude upon his privacy.
It took Munshi Ram several minutes to make up his mind, but then, with a sigh, he turned to Ghanshyam, beckoning the boy to follow his lead “Come,” he said, “we must go see the Captain Sahib. He will know what is to be done.”
With that brusque command, off the Munshi went at a vigorous trot, his leather slippers crunching like bone on the gravel of the curving driveway. The valet trailed in his wake, hobbling after the old man as he made his way towards the adjoining bungalow, where the Commandant of Cavalry, Captain Fletcher, was billeted.
Marching up to the verandah, Munshi Ram called out for the Captain’s manservant, who was taking a catnap nearby beneath the shade of a freshly washed bed-sheet.
Yawning, the boy sat up with a groggy curse.
“Kya hai?” He snapped, “What do you want, heh, disturbing my sleep like a barking pie-dog?”
“Fetch the Captain immediately,” the Munshi commanded brusquely in Hindi.
“I cannot, Munshiji,” the servant replied ruefully. Being the Resident’s personal clerk, the Munshi was a man of some distinc- tion amongst the native community of Rajpore, and accordingly, the Captain’s servant, a gangly pock-faced teen named Govinda, moderated his tone with measured respect.
“The Sahib is painting, and he has left strict instructions that he is not to be disturbed.”
“Nevertheless,” Munshi Ram insisted, “you must disturb him.
It is a matter of the utmost urgency.”
“I cannot,” Govinda whined. “He will whip me if I do.”
Ignoring these protestations, the Munshi frowned and clapped his hands impatiently.
“Jaldi karo,” he declared imperiously. “Go quickly, and call him. I will take the responsibility.”
Grumbling beneath his breath, the Captain’s boy obeyed without offering any further argument. He hurried away to return a few minutes later, followed by his master, a short, gray-whiskered cavalryman with the perpetually bowed legs of a horse soldier.
“What is the meaning of this?” The Captain’s face had flushed a deep scarlet to match the red velvet smoking jacket in which he was clad, glowering at this unannounced intrusion. “What on earth do you want?”
“Huzoor,” Munshi Ram apologized with an obsequious half-bow, “I am sorry to disturb you, but I fear something terrible has happened to Russell Sahib. He has locked himself into his bedroom and will not emerge.”
Captain Fletcher, a career soldier who had known the Resident long enough to be well aware of the regularity of his habits, responded immediately. Without stopping to change into more suitable attire, he snatched up a battered terai hat and commanded the two men to follow closely as he strode towards the Resident’s bungalow.
The Munshi struggled to keep up as the Captain dashed through the front door and hurried up the stairs two at a time. Raising one calloused fist, he started to pound at the bedroom door as hard as he could, a staccato of impatient hammer-blows. “Russell, dear boy, are you quite well in there?” Fletcher shouted hoarsely.
There was no response from within. The Captain, an earnest man who far preferred action to deep thought, wrapped one hand around the doorknob and rattled it as mightily as he could, but the door was solid Burma teak and refused to budge, not even when he threw his shoulder against it with a grunt.
It took two more feeble and altogether fruitless attempts that almost managed to dislocate his clavicle before he realized that he was not going to be able to break the door down by himself. Scowling, he turned to Ghanshyam and snapped out a terse string of orders, dispatching him to the bungalow’s gatehouse to fetch a burly sergeant and two sepoys with the greatest possible haste. Upon the arrival of these reinforcements, under Captain Fletcher’s supervision, the soldiers fashioned a crude ram from a sturdy kitchen-bench, and set about at battering down the intractable door. Once, twice, thrice, they swung the heavy bench back and forth until at last the thick teak splintered with a resounding crack.
Hastily, Captain Fletcher barged in through the resultant gap as if it were a breach in Seringapatam’s walls, followed closely by Munshi Ram’s slight figure.
A moment later, a shrill scream rang out, alarming the crows dozing in the skeletal trees and sending them fluttering up into the sky, a murder of ominous black that seemed to block out the sun itself. The District Magistrate, The Somewhat Honorable Mr. Lowry, as he was known in local circles, was out walking his basset hound, Bluebell, on the town maidan when he heard this terrifying shriek. Without a moment’s delay, he slipped the dog from its leash. Bluebell raced away, dashing uphill towards the Resident’s bungalow in great, leaping bounds. Somewhat more sedately, the Magistrate hobbled after her, holding desperately to his feathered Tyrolean hat, huffing and puffing as he struggled to keep up, for he was a plump man rather too fond of sugared drinks and chocolate éclairs from Flury’s.
As they crested the narrow rise atop the hill and turned to enter the wrought-iron gate that guarded the Residency, Bluebell gave a yelp of surprise, colliding headlong with Munshi Ram, who was staggering down the driveway drunkenly, his turban unwinding behind him like a bride’s train.
When the old clerk saw the Magistrate he collapsed to his knees and began to weep. Mr. Lowry came stumbling to a halt. Frowning, he glared down at the old man, his fleshy face purpling in disbelief at this utter breach of good manners.
“What is it, Moonshee?” He pulled the old man to his feet roughly, his voice stiff with disapproval. “What has happened?” “He is dead, Lowry-ji,” Munshi Ram declared breathlessly, gazing up at the Magistrate with tear-stained eyes. “The Resident Sahib…he has been murdered.”