Chapter X

The First Day of the Siege

The siege of Lucknow was maintained with extraordinary energy. The rebels were no doubt sanguine of success. They knew that their numbers were overwhelming, and that the British were not only isolated but beyond the reach of help.

The mutineers had not the pluck to cross the Gumti by the iron and stone bridges, the guns of the redan battery commanding the first, and those of the Mutcheebhawun the second; but numbers of the cavalry entered the city by fording the river lower down, out of the range of fire and many of the infantry followed. Guns were brought over, while cannon was very soon placed in position on the other side. The eight-inch howitzer captured at Chinhut was placed in a battery which opened fire upon the Residency buildings. Before many hours were over the position was completely invested. The nearest houses were rapidly loopholed, and from there came a hot musketry fire.

The unfortunate day at Chinhut precipitated everything, and many of the fortifications planned by Sir Henry were rendered impossible. The provisioning, too, was incomplete. No one had dreamt of the isolation of the Residency. It never seemed possible that they would eventually be unable to communicate with the city, as was now the case. Scores of families had brought in their native servants, but many of these were shut out on the first day. All attempts to return to the Residency were useless. The musketry fire was unceasing, and they would have been shot down either by friend or foe.

But though the servants who were outside could not get back, those inside were able to run away, and many succeeded in doing so, taking with them all the portable property they could lay their hands upon. These desertions were not to be wondered at. Many of the natives were without places of shelter, and they preferred seeking safety among their fellows to remaining with their masters exposed to shot and shell.

Owing to the absence of servants a tremendous state of confusion arose in the streets, lanes and open spaces intervening between the various houses within the fortifications. The commissariat and battery bullocks had no attendants to look after them, and went wandering all over the place searching for food. They tumbled into wells, and were afterwards shot down in numbers by the enemy.

All this subsequently added greatly to the labour which fell on the garrison. Fatigue parties of civilians and officers, after being in the defences all day repelling the enemy’s attack, were often employed six or seven hours burying cattle killed during the day, which from the excessive heat became offensive and dangerous in a few hours.

The artillery and other horses were commonly to be seen loose, fighting and tearing at one another, driven mad for want of food and water. The garrison was too busily employed in the trenches to be able to secure them.

For two or three days, consequently, the interior of the Residency fortifications was a perfect pandemonium. Nor was it wonderful that panic should seize the natives. The depression among the European soldiers and civilians was great, and sad and anxious looks met one on all sides.

Sir Henry, throughout the trying time of the first two days, was seen everywhere. He visited every post, however exposed its position, however hot the fire directed against it. The danger was excessive. The enemy’s artillerists, trained by our best instructors, were excellent marksmen. With incredible rapidity, with remarkable ingenuity and with indomitable perseverance, the rebels, in the very first week, made batteries in positions where one would have thought their erection impossible. Heavy artillery was moved to the tops of houses and other guns placed most cleverly in places where the British batteries could not effectually open fire upon them.

It was the morning after the siege had begun The ladies had passed a terribly anxious night. They were conscious that if the enemy succeeded in breaking through the defences and storming the place, death in its most horrible form awaited every member of the garrison. Half way through the night an incessant musketry fire was kept up, and not one of the occupants of the Residency rooms closed her eyes. Then came a sudden silence. This in itself was alarming. Who could tell that it might not be the precursor of something terrible?

At daylight the firing recommenced. It sounded some little distance away, but the women dared not go to the windows to see. From its exposed position the Residency became from the very first moment the principal object of attack.

At last Jean could no longer restrain her anxiety. She ventured to the window commanding a view of the Baillie Guard Gate. A great commotion met her eager anxious gaze.

“They’re attacking the gate!” she cried suddenly.

A thrill of terror went through the crowded room. The women had not yet got used to attacks and repulses. Despite the danger of her position, Jean could not tear herself away. She felt a horrible fascination in the sight. The bravery and tenacity with which the fight was being maintained by a mere handful of defenders excited her admiration.

She could see through the gateway. Apparently the sepoys had succeeded in mounting a gun which commanded the position. From protected situations on the roofs of the surrounding houses a murderous fire was being poured against the gateway. All this was preparatory to a determined attack.

Suddenly she caught sight of a mass of sepoy caps through the smoke. They seemed to be coming nearer and nearer the gateway. From her elevated position she could see how they were pressing onwards. In another minute they would be through the gateway.

She clasped her hands in fright. If that seething mass once made its way through, what force was there inside to prevent it coming straight to the Residency? What a feeble fire, too, seemed to be returned by the defenders.

“Oh, why do not more men go and help them?” she murmured, half aloud.

Suddenly there was a slackening in the enemy’s fire. It was clear they did not want to hit their own men, and this there was some danger of doing now that they were so near the gateway. The crowd of dusky soldiers pressed forward. They were already three parts of the distance through the big stone gateway.

Then, as though someone had given the signal, a fierce fire opened upon the gateway from the inside. Harmless-looking walls and windows were dotted with the flash and smoke of muskets. In every direction these buildings had been loopholed and to some purpose.

All at once an English cheer awoke the echoes, and from unseen quarters​—​Jean could not see whence​—​a score or more brave fellows ran out, and, headed by one whose activity enabled him to outstrip the rest, charged the gateway, bayonet in hand. She could not see what happened, but she knew by the unmistakable English shouts that the rebels had been driven back. The figure of the leader seemed familiar to her. It was that of Jack Hawke.

In less than five minutes the gallant little band returned​—​not, alas! as they went, for two or three were being borne by their comrades​—​but victorious.

The first attack of the enemy on the Baillie Guard Gate had failed.

The fire from the outside had almost ceased, and twenty or thirty men ran forward​—​not to fight, but to dig the soft earth within the enclosure, and shovel it into the gateway. Foot by foot the heap rose, the men every now and then beating it with their shovels, and soon a substantial barrier was in evidence, which only wanted sandbags on the top for loopholes to make a formidable fortification. Never again would the rebel army have such a chance of storming the Residency as they had that day and missed.

The band of soldiers who had so bravely defended the gateway, after leaving the wounded at the hospital, came towards the Residency.

An hour after the repulse of the rebels at the gate, a dreadful thing happened, showing in the most terrible way how unsafe the Residency was. Indeed, with the exception of the tyekhana in the basement, no building could have been less calculated for purposes of defence, for the numberless lofty windows in its two upper storeys offered unopposed entrance to the missiles of the foe.

The daughter of Colonel Palmer (Colonel Palmer was in command at the Mutcheebhawun), was sitting in one of these upper rooms of the Residency when a roundshot struck her, and nearly carried off her leg. Amputation was immediately had recourse to; but on the following day the poor girl died. She was only seventeen, and engaged to be married to a young officer then in Lucknow.

The incident caused the utmost distress and alarm, alarm which was increased when the rumour was spread abroad that Sir Henry Lawrence had had a narrow escape almost at the same time.

Sir Henry occupied a room on the first storey of the most exposed angle of the building, and while engaged in writing with his secretary, Mr Cowper, an eight-inch shell fell and burst close to them, but injured neither.

The whole of the staff entreated Sir Henry to leave the Residency, or at least to choose a different apartment. He refused, observing, with a quiet smile, that another shell would certainly never be pitched into that small room.

And so he remained, depending, unhappily, on the doctrine of chances​—​a doctrine which, before twenty-four hours had gone by, played him false.

But while indifferent to his own safety, he was not less solicitous concerning the safety of others. Half-an-hour after the accident to Miss Palmer, he entered the ladies’ quarters. At once he was surrounded by the frightened women.

“You must all get ready to remove to the tyekhana,” said he. “It is the only safe place in the Residency. No shot or shell can reach you there.”

“And you, Sir Henry?” Jean asked.

“I remain where I am, my dear Miss Atherton,” said he.

“But is your room safe? Is not your life more important than anyone else’s?”

“We have all to live our time. I must take my chance like the rest.”

Sir Henry’s orders to remove were instantly obeyed. Nearly every lady had to be her own porter. The servants had gone, and none of the men could be spared for the work. For some two or three hours there was nothing but a continual procession up and down the stairs to and from the tyekhana, which, it will be remembered, was practically a subterranean apartment. It was well adapted for the purpose to which it was to be devoted.

As Jean was staggering down the staircase under the weight of a heavy load, she felt it suddenly lifted from her.

“Let me carry it for you,” said a voice in the gloom. “It’s too heavy for your arms. I’m rather a sweep just now, so please don’t look at me.”

And Jack Hawke insisted upon retaining the load he had lifted from Jean’s hands.

He spoke the truth when he said he was rather a sweep. His face and hands were blackened with gunpowder; he was in his shirt-sleeves, which were rolled up almost to his shoulders, showing the fine muscular development of his arms.

“You’re quite well now, Captain Hawke, I hope?” said Jean. She thought she had not seen him since he raised his cap as he was riding to the fatal field of Chinhut. But she was mistaken.

“Yes; and I was lucky enough to come through the Chinhut business without a scratch.”

Something in the twist of his shoulders reminded her of the man who led the repulse at the Baillie Guard Gate.

“Were you not out early this morning at the Gate?” she asked.

“Did you see that rough-and-tumble affair? The beggars won’t show their noses in that gateway again in a hurry, I fancy.”

“It was very brave of you!” cried Jean, with sparkling eyes.

“You know I would do anything for you and the other ladies,” he returned.

Jean cast down her eyes. The vibration in his voice, the sudden lowering of the tone, seemed dangerously full of meaning.

She was walking by his side. He had possessed himself of her burden in a sort of masterful way heedless of her protests.

“Is it really true we were so badly defeated yesterday?” she asked, in order to give the conversation a less personal turn.

“Too true. It’s a wonder we were not cut to pieces, a marvel that anyone got back here with a whole skin. The Pandies were led better yesterday than ever they were before. Do you know why?”

“No. We have heard so few details. The men have something better to do than gossip with women.”

“What! hasn’t Lennard told you anything? He’s a great friend of yours, isn’t he?”

They were in the full glare of a window when he said this. His fiery eyes seemed to devour her face. What he had seen in the Residency garden, and what he had heard, dwelt continually in his mind. Though she had certainly refused Dr Lennard, she might have concealed her real feelings.

“Women are all born actresses,” he muttered to himself; “though why on earth they should be so fond of going a mile round instead of taking the straight road I never for the life of me could understand.”

If he thought to catch her he was mistaken. Her face did not show the least confusion, and this composure was to him a great relief.

“Oh, he is very kind. Dr Lennard is a great friend of papa’s,” said she. “But tell me about the battle. You were saying——”

“Ah, the battle yes. The leader of the rebels is a European. I’d give a thousand pounds to bury my sword in the scoundrel’s heart.”

“Is it really possible any European can be so wicked as to support the sepoys against us?” cried Jean.

“It looks like it. There’s been no end of talk about the villain. He commanded the cavalry at Chinhut, and one of our fellows saw him this morning laying the eight-inch howitzer we had to leave behind, and bringing it to bear on the Residency.”

At that moment an officer cannoned against Hawke.

“By Jove​—​Hawke!” exclaimed the new-comer. “You’re the very man I’ve been looking for. Excuse me, Miss Atherton, if I rob you of your luggage-bearer.”

“Oh, he’s given me all the assistance he can. I release him with my thanks,” said Jean.

Hawke bent his eyes to her face, and his lips moved as if he were about to say something. However, he uttered no sound. He deposited the package on the floor of the tyekhana, held the door open for Jean, and bowed as she passed.

“I wish you’d come at any other time, Robson!” he growled.

“I’m sorry. I hate to spoil sport. But we’ve got other things to think of besides doing light porters’ work for girls.”

“And don’t I know that as well as you?” retorted Hawke angrily. “Were you at the Baillie Guard Gate this morning?”

“No, I wasn’t, but don’t row me, old fellow; I meant nothing.”

“Very well, what is it you want?”

“I’ve just heard that Sir Henry has decided to abandon the Mutcheebhawun. He’s convinced that with the crowd of howling devils round us he can’t maintain the two places.”

“Of course he can’t! Well?”

“The difficulty is how to communicate with Colonel Palmer, who’s in command. Gubbins has had a message from Palmer to the effect that ammunition and provisions are both running short; but Gubbins hasn’t been able to communicate with Palmer. He’s sent two or three messengers, but he knows they’ve never reached the colonel. You see, the guns of the rebels sweep the ground intervening between the Residency entrenchments and the Mutcheebhawun.”

“And does Sir Henry want a volunteer to take a message to Palmer?” said Hawke, with a grim smile.

“No, not quite that; but something almost as risky. He wants the telegraph rigged up on the top of the Residency roof.”

This had been previously arranged by the engineer in concert with the one on the Mutcheebhawun. It simply consisted of a post with a bar on the top, from which were suspended in one row black stuffed bags, each having its own pulley to work it. By the signalling of those black bags, messages were sent. The contrivance was not in good order, and if it had been, there was no other means of manipulating it save by standing on the roof. The operator practically served as a target for the enemy’s marksmen.

“And you thought I might like to do it, eh?” said Hawke, with a peculiar expression on his face.

“I didn’t know. You’re such a dare-devil; nothing seems to come amiss to you. It wants a cool head, and you’ve got that when you’re in danger of losing it.”

“Humph!”

Just at that moment the door opened and Jean came out.

“Robson’s right,” he muttered. “Cool enough when my head’s in danger, but not when the danger lies near my heart. Yes, I’ll go; but this girl? If I peg out, I’d like her to know that she is the only being in this world I’d be sorry to leave.”

Jean was passing him with a slight bow. If he hesitated, the opportunity would be gone.

“Robson,” said he hurriedly, “cut away to Sir Henry and tell him I’m following you. Quick, old chap!”

He half pushed Robson in front of Jean, delaying her progress somewhat, and watched the young officer spring up the stairs three at a time.

“Miss Atherton,” said he, a grim smile lighting up his face. “If I were never to see you again, would you be very sorry?”

“Certainly. Why not? I suppose we ought to be sorry for each other, seeing our terrible position,” said Jean quietly, although she was not unconscious of a sudden flutter of the heart.

“That’s all very well; but it isn’t quite what I mean. Let me put it another way. If you were to die, I should simply rush among those rascals outside and get my death as quickly as I could. Do you understand that feeling?”

Jean’s heart went pit-a-pat. The vehemence, the fierce passion of this man, frightened her. She could not mistake his meaning. He was madly in love with her, and yet he had never mentioned love. The situation was embarrassing. To say that she did understand him would be to hasten a confession she did not want to hear.

“When death is so near to all of us,” at last she answered slowly, “isn’t it folly to say what we should or should not do?”

To persist in assuming that his remark applied generally was perhaps the best reply she could make.

“Maybe you’re right. Anyhow, my time isn’t come yet,” he continued, suddenly changing his tone. “Good-bye, Miss Atherton. We may meet again, after all.”

He put out his hand, and she could not refuse hers. He raised her fingers to his lips, and then, turning, ran up the stairs after Robson to obtain his instructions from Sir Henry Lawrence.

Sir Henry had been for some time that day in conference with Jean’s father, whom he had placed in a responsible post in connection with the provisioning of the various garrisons. With his business methods and power of organisation, Mr Atherton had proved himself invaluable. Atherton had not left the old chief when Hawke entered the room. Captain Fulton of the Engineers and Mr G. H. Lawrence, Sir Henry’s nephew, were also with Sir Henry.

“Captain Hawke,” said Sir Henry, “Fulton tells me you have volunteered to help him and my nephew to reopen the telegraph. You know the risk, of course.”

“Yes, sir. It’s not worth thinking about. Sepoy bullets don’t trouble me save for one reason, and that’s my affair.”

“Very well, then good luck go with you.”

Hawke saluted, and with Fulton and young Lawrence, quitted the room. To look at their unmoved faces, no one would have imagined they might be going to their deaths.

“Hawke’s a singularly plucky chap,” said Atherton, after a pause, when he was again alone with Sir Henry. “He seems to delight in being in danger. It almost suggests that he has no desire to live.”

“Luck’s been against him, I’m afraid. Hawke’s one of those easy-going fellows who people say are nobody’s enemy but their own.”

“That’s true. I always liked Hawke, in spite of his follies. I verily believe that if in his young wild days fate hadn’t thrown him against an unprincipled woman, he would have been as exemplary an officer as any in the service. His men idolised him. If bravery is any atonement for sins, Hawke has certainly wiped out his.”

“That’s true. Well, I hope he’ll get through this dangerous business all right and live to make some good woman happy,” rejoined Sir Henry.

Meanwhile the three gallant volunteers had ascended to the roof by means of the spiral staircase in the octagonal dome-crowned tower at one of the angles of the building. They had been at work five minutes repairing the apparatus, before they were spied by the sharpshooters posted in some of the tall houses near.

Rifle balls rained upon the gallant workers, principally from the top of the gaol. Some of the ropes of the bags were actually cut by the bullets, but the men went on coolly. After three hours’ hard work under a broiling sun and a heavy fire, the transfer of messages was at last completed​—​a plucky piece of work indeed.

Then came the sending of the all-important message to Colonel Palmer. It ran thus:

“Spike the guns well, blow up the fort, and retire at midnight!”

The safety of the three men and the success of their mission were at once reported to Sir Henry, and Atherton descended to convey the news to the ladies’ quarters. Jean, he could not help noticing, was quite agitated​—​an unusual thing with her​—​when he announced that not one of the brave trio was hurt. She suddenly paled even to her lips, swayed once or twice and would have fallen had not her father caught her. She was faint, but she never lost consciousness.

“My dear child!” exclaimed her father anxiously “You’re not well. Lennard’s not far off. Someone here will go for him, I’m sure.”

“No​—​no. Please don’t. There’s nothing the matter with me. I’m all right again. See.”

She tried to smile and succeeded fairly well, but her father was somewhat doubtful, while her evident distress at the suggestion of sending for Lennard was certainly puzzling.

For days past Atherton had had every minute of his time occupied. When he was not looking after the commissariat, he had a rifle in his hand, and he had not had an opportunity of talking to Lennard about Jean. He had, however, hoped that the young doctor had spoken, and that the answer had been favourable. At the same time it had struck him as strange that Lennard on the two or three occasions when they had met, had been silent on a subject which could not but be very dear to his heart.

Jean’s disinclination to see the doctor seemed to indicate that all was not right. Had they quarrelled? Mr Atherton asked himself. But for the moment he said nothing. He would wait until Jean was more herself.

Soon she was laughing and romping with some of the little ones, and it did not appear as though her faintness had left any ill effects. Her father seized his opportunity when she sat down, hot and flushed, to rest, and he drew a chair close to her.

“Let us have a little talk, my dear,” said he. “We don’t get many chances of exchanging ideas, do we?”

“No indeed. Poor father,” she rejoined laughingly. “I can hardly recognise my neat, trimly dressed papa, who once never did anything for himself, and who now has to work hard not only for himself but for other people as well.”

Mr Atherton smiled. He was like the rest, beginning to look somewhat ragged in his attire.

“We’re all equals now, Jean, and everyone must take his share of what there is to do, and without grumbling. But never mind about that. I wanted to talk to you about yourself​—​and Ernest Lennard.”

Jean flushed slightly and her hands trembled. It was evident her nerves were not quite under control.

“Why do you couple our names?” she asked, with a sudden catching of the breath.

“My dear child, the terrible position into which we have been forced makes life seem but a trivial thing. Hours, days, weeks, months are but minutes with us. There’s no time to waste in misunderstandings. You see that, don’t you?”

“Yes, yes,” she replied in a low voice. “That is why I did not want to have any misunderstanding with Ernest Lennard.”

“Ah,” cried her father. “Then he has spoken?”

“Yes. He asked me to be his wife. It was painful for me to say no. I like Dr Lennard very much, father, but I never could love him. I​—​I had to say this. What was the use of being anything but honest? I was so sorry for him, but what could I do?”

The keen-eyed magistrate had not studied human nature for nothing. Jean’s confusion told him that her refusal of Lennard was not based so much on her assertion that she could not love him as that her love was given elsewhere. He forebore questioning her; at the same time he was grievously disappointed at Lennard’s failure. But who can read the secrets of a woman’s heart, or understand the motives that lead her to accept one man and reject another?

At that moment Atherton unexpectedly had an answer to the question which delicacy prevented him putting to his daughter. Hawke had entered the room and was immediately surrounded by the women, who commenced heaping congratulations and compliments upon him. Hawke appeared quite indifferent to their admiration. His eyes were fixed on Jean, and her father saw the tell-tale colour in the girl’s cheeks and the sudden sparkle in her eyes.

The discovery was a revelation to Atherton, yet he could not find it in his heart to blame his daughter, The time was one when heroism, endurance and contempt for death could not fail to appeal to an imaginative and sympathetic girl. No, it was not wonderful that Jean should fall in love with the reckless, the picturesque, the plucky Jack Hawke. whom everybody liked and for whom everybody was sorry.

The magistrate’s eyes shone with love and pity as he drew his daughter to him and kissed her.

“I think I understand, my poor Jean,” he whispered. “I pray God you may be happy.”

He passed from the room. Fate ordained that father and daughter should never meet again, for within a week the brave and devoted Atherton was destined to answer the roll call of death. The end came in a merciful form, the bullet that struck him in the forehead killing him instantly. Many days passed before the news was brought to Jean, and by that time much had happened.