THOUSANDS OF WELL-ARMED NATIVES circle the British, besieged for months now in their makeshift fort, waiting against hope for the relief column. More dangerous than bullets is the cholera. Day after day the sun beats down, and the vultures hover. When the sun does not beat down, and the vultures do not hover, it rains --God, does it rain! For this is India of the Gangetic plain, where the monsoon arrives with hurricane force. The shot- torn Union Jack droops. The Raj is in trouble. Suddenly, it happens: Oh, they listened, looked, and waited,

Till their hope became despair;

And the sobs of low bewailing

Filled the pauses of their prayer.

Then up spake a Scottish maiden,

With her ear unto the ground:

"Dinna ye hear it?--dinna ye hear it?

The pipes o' Havelock sound!" Yes, the Scottish governess hears the regimental pipes of the relief column before anyone else, and soon General Havelock and the Queen's Own have the natives in hand and the map is pink again, and wider still and wider shall the bounds be set. Quickly, hand me my topee, it is another historical novel about British India!

The famous incident of the pipes of Lucknow (set to verse by Whittier, not Kipling) is not to be found in Valerie Fitzgerald's deeply romantic novel, Zemindar, but no matter. We breathlessly read on, just as we devoured John Masters' Nightrunners of Bengal and J. G. Farrell's The Siege of Krishnapur, which deal with the same bloodcurdling and exotic subject, the Indian Mutiny of 1857.

Fitzgerald's version is quite different from its predecessors. Zemindar is a melodramatic love story narrated by a shrewd liberal (in the old-fashioned Whig sense) who evidently has read a lot of Jane Austen and thus writes like Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice. The combination is breezy, felicitous, charming and utterly addictive. Despite cardboard characters and a long, drawn-out love affair which culminates in a chaste kiss near the end of its 800 pages, Zemindar leaves us panting for the sequel.

A young Englishwoman, Laura Hewitt, takes passage to India as companion to her cousin Emily, newly married to Charles Flood, whom Laura secretly loves. Charles has entered a trading firm in London and journeys to India to learn the firm's commercial operation first-hand and to look up a long-lost half-brother, Oliver Erskine. Oliver is the Rhett Butler of this Gone With the Hind; he is darkly handsome and fabulously wealthy. In fact, he is a "zemindar," a revenue-collector overlord of multiple villages whose inheritance has been confirmed by the king of Oudh, the ruler of the area halfway between Delhi and Calcutta. Oliver lives at Hassanganj, a baronial mansion far more grand than the bungalows most English live in; stuffed with the finest of English furniture, silver and paintings, it is rivaled only by the viceregal glories of Government House in Calcutta and the palaces of the native rulers. The punkahs fan well at Hassanganj.

But Oliver is a bit of a black sheep. He has the quaint notion that his mission in life is to uplift the Indians, rather than to exploit them. There are rumors of a native mistress. Knowing the language, Oliver is disturbed by rumblings of anti-British feeling, to which he is sympathetic. This is not pukka enough for Charles, and the half-brothers fall out. Meanwhile, Oliver falls in love with Laura, who is still pining for Charles. Emily decides she hates Charles, and loves Oliver.

All this is fascinating enough in a gossipy way. What really animates Zemindar, however, as in the very best novels about India written by the English--Kim, A Passage to India, The Raj Quartet--is the presence of the vast, teeming subcontinent itself, with its dramatic changes of weather, its strange wildlife and flora, the magic of bazaar and fakir and rajah and beggar, of limitless riches and the most squalid poverty, against which the mosaic of religions seems not the fanciful beliefs of heathens but the most sublime efforts of humanity to cope with a hopeless present.

Fitzgerald, like The Far Pavilions' M. M. Kaye a daughter of a British Army family, grew up a mem sahib East of Suez. Like Kaye, she has a real feel for the splendors and miseries of an ancient land. Beneath the framework of her conventional romance, she paints a picture of a pre-nationalistic India that will educate readers who know nothing of the administrative chaos that enabled the British to grasp power in the twilight of the Mughal empire. Zemindar is a first-rate historical novel, because it makes history come alive.

Back to the plot. It gradually dawns on Laura that Charles is a wimp. Oliver does seem more manly. Then all hell breaks loose; the Mutiny erupts. Emily gives birth to a child. The servants run away. Oliver's mistress warns of treachery and is herself slain. Oliver and Laura, Charles and Emily and the baby and two Gunga-Din stereotypes flee in disguise to the British residency at Lucknow, which will undergo a five-months siege.

The awful events of the summer of 1857 occupy a place in the annals of British imperialism somewhat similar to Lt. Col. George Custer's spectacular demise on the Little Big Horn in the minds of Americans, at least of 19th-century Americans. In each case, whites were caught off guard and defeated by subject races.

The Mutiny was larger, longer, more geographically dispersed and punctuated by unspeakable atrocities. It began when India was a commercial fief of the East India Company and the company's native troops, or Sepoys, rebelled because dietary laws sacred to both Muslim and Hindu were violated. At Meerut the whites were massacred when a Sepoy regiment broke ranks on Sunday parade. At Cawnpore hundreds of disarmed white men were shot, and their wives and children hacked to death. Had the uprising been repeated in south India, around Madras or Bombay, and had the Muslims and Hindus joined forces, the shattered British would have been hurled into the sea. But other Sepoy regiments remained loyal, and British regulars were dispatched from home. Retribution was savage: at Delhi the sons of the last Mughal emperor were stripped naked and shot outside the city gates, at Cawnpore captured Hindu mutineers were forced to lick the dried blood of their victims before their execution, thereby losing caste in a next life, and the Meerut rebels were tied to the mouths of cannon and literally blown to pieces. Back in England, the East India Company's charter was revoked, and the British government assumed direct rule.

How Oliver and Laura come through the Mutiny, declare their mutual love and decide whether or not to stay on in India consumes the last half of Zemindar. It is a rattling good story, and also defines the other, extra- educational, purpose of a good historical novel: it is the most perfect form of escapism, better even than television. You'll see why the mugger-crocodile in Kipling's The Second Jungle Booksmacks his lips in remembering 1857, the year the extraordinary number of bodies floated down the Gangesy