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On the Streets of Secunderabad

(A story about Nicholas and Susie Hiebert)

by Anna Hiebert


Nicholas and Susie

A young man dressed in the white suit worn by most Europeans and Americans in the late 1800's and wearing a bulky topee or sun helmet walked along the crowded road leading to the market gate, gazing about him with fascinated interest. It was almost a year now since he and his wife Susie had come to India to open up a mission work. "This is my parish," he said to himself--"this and all the vast city of Hyderabad." Then, as the immensity of the field and his own inadequacy struck him with new force, he groaned inwardly. "How can I reach all these people?"

He stopped for a moment, his quick dark eyes darting here and there. The street was lined with cloth shops open clear across the front, displaying shelves upon shelves of material, dhotis, saris, towels and blankets. Gaily-printed saris hung like banners above the entrances.

"Doragaru! Ayya! Please come into my shop. I have exactly what you want." The loud voice called the missionary back from his reverie. He looked towards the owner of the voice, a Hindu sitting cross-legged and comfortable on the worn and rather soiled white rug that covered the floor of his shop. A number of pillows lay conveniently at his back. "Ayya, come in. Sit down. What do you wish? I can supply you."

As he spoke, the merchant nimbly pulled out several bolts of material, unrolling the goods deftly and flinging them dramatically across the carpet to display them to best advantage. The missionary, absorbed in his problem, stared absently at the lovely cottons and silks. "Thank you, but I don't want any cloth today." He turned to walk on.

A bell shrilled close behind him. As he stepped quickly aside to avoid a quickly-trotting horse pulling a jutka, he narrowly missed a bicycle whose driver swerved expertly and pedaled on. In the middle of the road a cart drawn by two underfed oxen creaked along, the beasts oblivious to the incessant bells, the angry protests and the confusion around them.

Everywhere there were people--people hurrying to do the day's marketing before the cool of the morning gave way to the stifling heat of the late April noonday, cooks on their way home to prepare the noonday meal for their masters, followed closely by coolies balancing on their heads baskets piled high with potatoes, cabbages, okra, onions and bananas, people come to buy new saris or blankets wandering from shop to shop looking, fingering, dickering for lower prices. The missionary sighed. There were millions of them in Secunderabad and even more in Hyderabad. It was true, there were a number of missions in the cities, but what could they do among so many?

Suddenly from among the many voices and noises around him, a voice caught his attention--the voice of a child raised in pain or fear. There, just turning into the main road from a side street, came a man dragging a girl child perhaps eight years of age. The man's unkempt hair and straggly beard, his dirty shirt and threadbare pancha gave him the look of embodied evil. The dark eyes of the child were wide with terror. She pulled back, trying to escape the vice-like grip of the man, her feet struggling for a foothold against his relentless strength.

The young missionary, suddenly alert, looked about, expecting someone to rush to the rescue of the child. A few turned their heads to see the cause of the disturbance, then went stolidly on their way, not caring. After all, what business was it of theirs? Her father maybe, or an uncle. They shrugged and passed on.

It was apparent that no one would intervene to help the child. After a moment of angry indecision, the missionary darted across the road, dodging in and out among the carts and cycles and coming to an abrupt stop in front of the evil-looking man. "Ayya! Who is the girl? Where are you taking her?" he demanded angrily.

The girl's tormentor stopped short at this unexpected attack from a white man. He stared insolently at the pale young face, resenting the interruption. He turned sharply to shoulder his way past the missionary, tightening his hold on the child's hand. A quick move and the missionary was again blocking his path, insisting, pleading, even threatening.

"Perhaps he doesn't understand my Telugu," the missionary thought in desperation. On an impulse he plunged his hand into his trouser pocket and drew out his wallet. From it he drew five one-rupee notes. He saw the gleam of greed spring up in the man's eyes. "I'll give you five rupees for the child," he offered, pointing to the girl, then to himself, holding out the money.

Again the evil man turned to leave, jerking the child impatiently. He spat on the ground contemptuously. "Five rupees? Why, she is worth a hundred. But I'll let you have her for fifty."

The missionary laid a detaining hand on the man's arm. "Ten rupees I'll give," he said hopefully.

"Forty-five rupees and not a nayapie less." Again the man turned to go.

The missionary hesitated a moment. Then he opened his wallet and drew out the remaining paper money and a few odd coins. "Fifteen rupees and these few annas and pies is all I have," he said slowly, sadly, not daring to look at the child..a child he might have saved had he had the forty-five rupees with him. Poor child! He glanced quickly at the girl as if to ask forgiveness for not being able to help. How thin was her brown little body, covered with only a torn and ragged piece of skirt. Her face, that should have been a happy child's face, was twisted and contorted with fear and apprehension. Sick at heart, he remembered his own little girl, safe at home with his wife, well cared for, his little Mary just three months old. Of one thing he was sure: this little unhappy brown waif cowering beside her tormentor was just as precious to God as his own innocent little one.

Silently he stood, holding out the money--waiting, praying.

Then, unexpectedly, the man thrust out his right hand for the money, pushing the child towards the white man with his left. "Partuko! Grab her!" he rasped harshly, relinquished his hold and hurried away.

The moment she was released, the child made a quick move to escape, and had it not been for the man's warning, would soon have been lost in the crowd. The missionary's hand shot out and held her, and the child, realizing the futility of resistance, submitted in silence.

As they walked along, the white man stole a glance at the docile figure beside him. "She is afraid of me too!" he mused, perplexed and confused, not understanding. A sweet stall caught his eye, and in sudden inspiration he thrust his hand into his pocket. There was not even a copper there. His coat pockets proved equally empty of cash. Regretfully he passed the stall.

To his relief he noticed an empty tonga idling along, the driver looking anxiously for a fare. "Driver, take us to the mission house in Hyderabad, near the Police Parade Ground." There was just room for him and the child on the narrow tilting seat facing backward. He lifted her onto the seat and climbed in beside her, never letting go of her hand.

The jutka driver shipped up his thin little horse and they were off, jolting along the uneven road. It was necessary to hold on to the back of the seat and brace one's feet against the backboard to keep from being suddenly precipitated into the street. They drove in silence, the white man vaguely aware of life as it flowed by them, of men and women and children walking, of carts and cycles twisting in and out, and buffaloes plodding their serene way through the maze. The joy and exultation he felt in having been able to rescue the child was tinged with uneasiness. What if she ran away? They could not lock her in or hold her indefinitely against her will.

Engrossed in thought, he had not noticed they were nearing home until the cart creaked its noisy way across the gateway into the compound. "Wait here. I'll get the money to pay you," he promised the driver as he lifted the girl in his arms and started up the steps and into the house.

"Susie!" he called. "I have a surprise for you. Where are you?"

"I'm here in the bedroom with the baby. I'll be there in a minute," Susie called back.

But he could not wait. Still carrying the child, he strode into the bedroom. He smiled at the amazement in his wife's face. "This is our new daughter. I bought her for fifteen rupees from an old wicked man who was dragging her along the street. Here--you take her. She'll need a bath and new clothes." Putting the girl down and releasing her hand, he thrust her towards his wife.

Like a flash, before they realized what was happening, she darted off and scrambled under the big bed. Hastily the missionary closed all the doors. On their knees they peered under the bed--she was cowering in the farthest corner. They coaxed the child in loving tones to come out.

"Maybe she is hungry," suggested Susie. "I think the rice and curry is ready by now." Before long she was back with a plate of steaming rice topped by a curry of meat and vegetables. She pushed the plate towards the child under the bed. They withdrew to a little distance, waiting, watching. There was no movement, no sound. The missionary went out to pay the jutka driver and came back.

Susie could stand it no longer. "Now look what you have done, Nikolaus! You brought this poor child home only to starve under our bed. She is terrified of us. What shall we do?"

Vainly they tried again and again to coax the child out of her hiding place. They sent the cook for jilebies--that delectable sweet beloved by all children. There was no response. They called the Indian ayah, but the child only stared as before with those big black eyes. "O God, what shall we do?" cried the missionary, tears coursing down his face.

Just then a cry from the crib, a cry of hunger perhaps, or anger at being so long neglected, startled them. Susie picked up the baby and hushed it, pacing back and forth. The missionary watched her as she walked by him again and again, and slowly the answer came to him.

Without a word he went up to his wife and took the baby from her. "Pull away the bed," he directed. Fearfully, Susie did as he asked. The cowering child was too frightened to move. Only her eyes stared hopelessly. Slowly, silently, the missionary lowered his arms, holding out the baby towards the girl. For a long moment the child remained motionless. Then slowly, oh, so slowly, she crept forward and reached out her thin little arms for the baby. She held it close to her bare little body, and the tears that stole down her cheeks washed out all trace of fear and terror, leaving only a great wonder and a dawning love and trust.

Very gently she laid the baby back into its father's arms. Then she threw herself at the missionary's feet, touching his feet with her little hands and bringing them back to her lips in a gesture of complete surrender and love.

Nikolaus remembered the words of Jesus, "God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son...," and he wept for joy.