More than a hundred years ago, in a great battle fought near Delhi,
an Indian Prince rode fifty miles after the day was lost
with a beggar-girl, who had loved him and followed him in all his camps,
on his saddle-bow. He lost the girl when almost within sight of safety.
A Maratta trooper tells the story: —
The wreath of banquet overnight lay withered on the neck,
Our hands and scarfs were saffron-dyed for signal of despair,
When we went forth to Paniput to battle with the Mlech, —
Ere we came back from Paniput and left a kingdom there.
Thrice thirty thousand men were we to force the Jumna fords —
The hawk-winged horse of Damajee, mailed squadrons of the Bhao,
Stark levies of the southern hills, the Deccan’s sharpest swords,
And he the harlot’s traitor son the goatherd Mulhar Rao!
Thrice thirty thousand men were we before the mists had cleared,
The low white mists of morning heard the war-conch scream and bray;
We called upon Bhowani and we gripped them by the beard,
We rolled upon them like a flood and washed their ranks away.
The children of the hills of Khost before our lances ran,
We drove the black Rohillas back as cattle to the pen;
‘Twas then we needed Mulhar Rao to end what we began,
A thousand men had saved the charge; he fled the field with ten!
There was no room to clear a sword — no power to strike a blow,
For foot to foot, ay, breast to breast, the battle held us fast —
Save where the naked hill-men ran, and stabbing from below
Brought down the horse and rider and we trampled them and passed.
To left the roar of musketry rang like a falling flood —
To right the sunshine rippled red from redder lance and blade —
Above the dark Upsaras flew, beneath us plashed the blood,
And, bellying black against the dust, the Bhagwa Jhanda swayed.
I saw it fall in smoke and fire, the banner of the Bhao;
I heard a voice across the press of one who called in vain: —
“Ho! Anand Rao Nimbalkhur, ride! Get aid of Mulhar Rao!
Go shame his squadrons into fight — the Bhao — the Bhao is slain!”
Thereat, as when a sand-bar breaks in clotted spume and spray —
When rain of later autumn sweeps the Jumna water-head,
Before their charge from flank to flank our riven ranks gave way;
But of the waters of that flood the Jumna fords ran red.
I held by Scindia, my lord, as close as man might hold;
A Soobah of the Deccan asks no aid to guard his life;
But Holkar’s Horse were flying, and our chiefest chiefs were cold,
And like a flame among us leapt the long lean Northern knife.
I held by Scindia — my lance from butt to tuft was dyed,
The froth of battle bossed the shield and roped the bridle-chain —
What time beneath our horses’ feet a maiden rose and cried,
And clung to Scindia, and I turned a sword-cut from the twain.
(He set a spell upon the maid in woodlands long ago,
A hunter by the Tapti banks she gave him water there:
He turned her heart to water, and she followed to her woe.
What need had he of Lalun who had twenty maids as fair?)
Now in that hour strength left my lord; he wrenched his mare aside;
He bound the girl behind him and we slashed and struggled free.
Across the reeling wreck of strife we rode as shadows ride
From Paniput to Delhi town, but not alone were we.
‘Twas Lutuf-Ullah Populzai laid horse upon our track,
A swine-fed reiver of the North that lusted for the maid;
I might have barred his path awhile, but Scindia called me back,
And I — O woe for Scindia! — I listened and obeyed.
League after league the formless scrub took shape and glided by —
League after league the white road swirled behind the white mare’s feet —
League after league, when leagues were done, we heard the Populzai,
Where sure as Time and swift as Death the tireless footfall beat.
Noon’s eye beheld that shame of flight, the shadows fell, we fled
Where steadfast as the wheeling kite he followed in our train;
The black wolf warred where we had warred, the jackal mocked our dead,
And terror born of twilight-tide made mad the labouring brain.
I gasped: — “A kingdom waits my lord; her love is but her own.
A day shall mar, a day shall cure for her, but what for thee?
Cut loose the girl: he follows fast. Cut loose and ride alone!”
Then Scindia ‘twixt his blistered lips: — “My Queens’ Queen shall she be!
“Of all who ate my bread last night ’twas she alone that came
To seek her love between the spears and find her crown therein!
One shame is mine to-day, what need the weight of double shame?
If once we reach the Delhi gate, though all be lost, I win!”
We rode — the white mare failed — her trot a staggering stumble grew, —
The cooking-smoke of even rose and weltered and hung low;
And still we heard the Populzai and still we strained anew,
And Delhi town was very near, but nearer was the foe.
Yea, Delhi town was very near when Lalun whispered: — “Slay!
Lord of my life, the mare sinks fast — stab deep and let me die!”
But Scindia would not, and the maid tore free and flung away,
And turning as she fell we heard the clattering Populzai.
Then Scindia checked the gasping mare that rocked and groaned for breath,
And wheeled to charge and plunged the knife a hand’s-breadth in her side —
The hunter and the hunted know how that last pause is death —
The blood had chilled about her heart, she reared and fell and died.
Our Gods were kind. Before he heard the maiden’s piteous scream
A log upon the Delhi road, beneath the mare he lay —
Lost mistress and lost battle passed before him like a dream;
The darkness closed about his eyes — I bore my King away.