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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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
“Get some sleep,” Turner said to Mason with a brotherly
care. “You look worn out. I can guard the
“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
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
“Answer me this, Mason. Why did you enroll in the mounted
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
“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
“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.
Excerpted from THE LAST DICKENS © Copyright 2010 by Matthew
Pearl. Reprinted with permission by Random House. All rights