IN THE RAJAH’S PALACE
A rambling, many-storied building, a jumbled mass of no particular design or style of architecture, with blue-washed walls and close-latticed windows, an insanitary rabbit-warren of intricate passages, unexpected courtyards, hidden gardens, and crazy tenements kennelling a small army of servants, retainers, and indefinable hangers-on—such was the palace of the Rajah of Lalpuri. Here and there, by carved doors or iron-studded gates half off their hinges, lounged purposeless sentries, barefooted, clad in old and dirty red coatees, white cross-belts and ragged blue trousers. They leant on rusty, muzzle-loading muskets purchased from “John Company” in pre-Mutiny years, and their uniforms were modelled on those worn by the Company’s native troops before the days of Chillianwallah.
The outer courtyard swarmed with a mob of beggars, panders, traders, servants, and idlers, through which occasionally a ramshackle carriage drawn by galled ponies, their broken harness tied with rope, and conveying some Palace official, made its way with difficulty. Sometimes the vehicle was closely shuttered or shrouded with white cotton sheets and contained some high-caste lady or brazen, jewel-decked wanton of the Court.
On one side were the tumble-down stables, near which a squealing white stallion with long, red-dyed tail was tied to a peepul tree. Its rider, a blue-coated sowar, or cavalryman, with bare feet thrust into heelless native slippers, sat on the ground near it smoking a hubble-bubble. A chorus of neighing answered his screaming horse from the filthy stalls, outside which stood foul-smelling manure-heaps, around which mangy pariah dogs nosed. In the blazing sun a couple of hooded hunting-cheetahs lay panting on the bullock-cart to which they were chained.
The Palace stood in the heart of the city of Lalpuri, a maze of narrow, malodorous streets off which ran still narrower and fouler lanes. The gaudily-painted houses, many stories high, with wooden balconies and projecting windows, were interspersed with ruinous palm-thatched bamboo huts and grotesquely decorated temples filled with fat priests and hideous, ochre-daubed gods, and noisy with the incessant blare of conch shells and the jangling of bells. Lalpuri was a byword throughout India and was known to its contemptuous neighbours as the City of Harlots and Thieves. Poverty, debauchery, and crime were rife. Justice was a mockery; corruption and abuses flourished everywhere. A just magistrate or an honourable official was as hard to find as an honest citizen or a virtuous woman.