Matter Of Heritage

Entry by: percypop

12th March 2015

William Talbot grew up at Standforth Priory in the north Riding of Yorkshire.
He was a lively man with good looks and an income of four thousand a year. Everyone liked him for his sense of humour and his bright charm.
He joined the army at the age of twenty one and saw action in the 1797 war against France. At twenty nine he was a captain in an Indian regiment holding the frontier against the Pathans and other frontier tribes.
It was this experience that must have changed him because he returned to England and gave up his commission. He no longer spent the summer months at Standforth enjoying the shooting and social life as in former times. He rarely visited his estate and paid no attention to the duties normally accepted by wealthy landowners.
Some time in 1808 he disappeared from sight. His estate was neglected and rents uncollected but his relatives found that his monthly remittances were collected regularly from a bank in Calcutta. Enquiries there were met with blank refusal, so the family and his friends gave up the task of contacting him.
I was in Calcutta as British consul in 1831. My job was a simple one, that is to say, to appease the local Indian princes when they had a grievance to make. It was at one of these meetings that a strange event occurred. A report from one of the villages in Rajput told of a mad mullah who had terrified the people with prophecies and strange magic.The peculiar aspect of this tale was that the mullah was white and spoke in a strange tongue. I promised to look into it and set off with a soldier escort to visit the place.

It was thirty miles from Calcutta through heavy jungle with nothing but a mud track leading to it. We took one whole day to get there and found nowhere to stay when we arrived. Setting up camp I sent for the headman and questioned him about the mullah.
He was evasive “I have heard strange things but I see no bad thing here”
“Who has seen this man?” I asked
“Only the women and children Sahib”
I realized that he was frightened and did not want to be implicated in any search which involved himself.
We visited every hut in the village but no one would speak of the mullah.
As we left, a man appeared and followed us some way out of the village. He was about seventy years old and walked with a stick. I noticed his frightened eyes with their flickering gaze.
“One moment my lord” he shouted “I have signs for your gracious self”
I stopped and assumed the greeting was for me.
He came close to me and whispered in my ear. His breathe smelled of hashish and his voice was like the creak of an old door.
“The white mullah lives in Gadkur” he whispered “but your life is in peril if you approach him.”
“Why ?”
“Because he is full of wicked spells and spirits”
“Can you take me to him?” I countered
“Never- I have said too much” and he shuffled away towards the village.

We located Gadkur which was some ten miles distant and went directly.
Of all the villages and cantons I have visited in India nothing I knew resembled this
place. The pathway into the village was overgrown with palm and Baboa trees which spread their vines overhead making a tunnel of the pathway. There was a smell of jasmine in the air and no breeze. The huts appeared to be deserted but the straw roofs were well kept and the paths clean. Monkeys ran riot everywhere chattering and quizzing us like impudent children.
Cautiously moving among the buildings we searched each one finding no one but plenty of signs of occupation. Fires lit, cooking pots and coconut mats in place so it was evident they had fled in alarm as we approached.
Just as we were about to set out to find them, a figure of a man appeared from the jungle. He was more than six feet tall wearing a faded yellow turban which concealed his hair. He was dressed in a long drab dhobi tied at the waist with a snakeskin belt. His dark face fringed with an unkempt beard was scarred and pitted with smallpox. In his right hand he cradled a sabre and I recognized it as cavalry sabre of the British Army. Tucked into his belt were two pistols and his left hand rested lightly upon the stock of one of them.
“Stand where you are” I commanded “Take your hand from your pistol and drop your sword.”
He looked at me with hooded eyes and a look of malevolence which struck me with a force I cannot easily describe except to say that I flinched from his gaze.
“You command me Sir?” he smiled in a sardonic way” Permit me to remind you that this is my Territory and I am master here”

He spoke in simple English but it was obvious he used it on few occasions.
I introduced myself but did not repeat my order since it was clear that would create a situation where risk of injury to someone was high.
He asked me what my business was and I told him that I came to discover the truth about complaints made by some of the natives. I mentioned the topic of magic and his eyes widened with interest as I gave some details of the allegations. His only response was a look and a grunt as he turned away from me to look at the indian escort I had brought with me. He spoke loudly to them in a dialect I did not know and the effect was instant. They dropped their rifles and fell to their knees bowing their heads towards him. I shouted an order to them but not a body stirred, it was as if they had been drugged with mandragora like the fakirs in the markets. He looked at me with an amused and arrogant stare but he said not a word.
I blustered some threat of reprisal along the lines of imprisonment and confiscation but he continued to stare at me with his black piercing eyes and I began to feel some strange power engulfing me like a wave. It was as if I had dreamt the incident and was about to awake in a different world. All energy left me and I felt as if I was watching my own body from above. How long this lasted is impossible to tell but when I came to the figure had gone and my troops were stirring as if from a sleep. Villagers began to wander back to the huts. We questioned them about the mullah and they told us that he was their master who lived outside the village but they obeyed him as a God. He directed their work and protected them from enemies.

My troop sergeant informed me that none of the escort would approach the mullah.
My commands were useless so I decided that I must go on alone.
The house where he lived was strangely familiar, built of wood beams and lath and plaster like an Elizabethan house. Mullioned windows and oak doors completed the picture of a manor house such as you might find in Yorkshire or any of the large counties .As I approached two red setters ran to greet me with a cheerful bark and I could see the mullah at the door. He was still dressed in the indian garb but his expression had changed.
“You may come in if your mission is peaceful” he said in his stiff English.
I promised that it was, since my curiosity was stronger than any duty at that point.
He waved me to a library chair in the hall and clapped his hands to call a servant for tea.
“ You have penetrated the borders of my property without permission” he gave a brief smile “but you have grasped the fact that I have protection from surprise”
I nodded and then I put the question I had come for “Tell me who are you ? and how did you come to set up here ?
The mullah sank back into his chair and drank deeply from his cup.
“ I came to India to escape the formalities of English country life. I had given enough of my life and body to the Empire in blood and money but for what ? A commission in the army and a mound of debts! I found the life banal and my heritage was just a burden on my shoulders. I met a master guru in my travels and spent two years in his ashram. Now I have most of his powers at my command and am protected”
He smiled in an assured way and I again felt the power of his penetrating gaze.

It was then that he told me he was William Talbot of Standforth.
“This is my Heritage” he smiled “and no one shall take it from me”

When I returned to England on leave I felt obliged to report what I knew to his family. His uncle received me at his home in Lowndes Square. I passed on what I knew of his nephew and he nodded in a rueful way as I recounted the life in that far off Indian village.
“ Yes, I understand” he said “ You see he changed after he killed his brother”
He went on “His brother enlisted in a different regiment using a false name but he went to India as did William. They ended up in the same area fighting the Pathans.
Robert disguised himself as a native to scout the enemy encampment. That was the night that William’s battalion attacked them. William stormed the walls ahead of his troop and fired at the first native he saw. It was only two weeks later that he learnt of his dreadful mistake and the senseless death of his brother.
From that day he rejected England and lived a native life.”
I left the house and never returned.
After my leave I went back to Calcutta as usual but there was no point in contacting Talbot –The white Mullah. He was content to command his new heritage and I for one do not blame him.