Chapter XV

The Royal Talisman of Oudh

The failure of the assault had its effect on the rebels. For two days they scarcely fired a shot. It was a welcome relief to the sorely tried garrison to be able to go out into the open without risk. Even the women took courage and ventured out, Edith Ross one of the first.

The spaces between the Residency and the various batteries and fortified buildings showed traces of the recent conflict. Outside in the battery ditches the rebels’ dead lay in heaps. Inside, here and there, was the body of a sepoy who had paid for his temerity with his life.

The sight caused Edith Ross no repugnance. Like the others, both men and women, she had become inured to the sight of blood. She was on her way to the Cawnpore battery, where the fight had been hottest. Lennard was there, she knew, and she was anxious to see him.

As she passed an angle of the wall the sound of a groan made her pause. Then to her amazement she heard her own name uttered in soft Hindoo accents. A man was lying grievously wounded. The film of death was rapidly gathering in his eyes. She remembered the man. He had been one of her servants. His right hand was struggling feebly inside his vest. Just as he extricated his fingers a spasm went over his frame. The next moment he was dead.

At first Mrs Ross imagined he had called to her by name simply out of recognition. Then she caught sight of something glittering in the hand which had been withdrawn from the vest. Instantly she bent over the body and snatched from his fingers a piece of gold, fashioned delicately in the shape of a fish, the eyes formed of rubies.

Mrs Ross at once recognised the ornament. It was well known throughout Oudh as the symbol of kingly power, and anciently it was regarded as a talisman. The person who held it was believed to be in the confidence of the king, and trusted by him with important and delicate negotiations. It was true there were no longer any kings of Oudh, but the symbol in some curiously subtle way retained a good deal of its old influence. No doubt it was in the possession of the man to enable him to travel unmolested.

As Edith Ross gazed upon the jewelled piece of precious metal, the spirit of her Eastern ancestors​—​ancestors of princely lineage​—​seemed to animate her. At that moment​—​with her lithe, sinuous frame, her long, rounded, snakelike arms, her olive complexion, her firmly chiselled lips, just parted sufficiently to show the small, regular, gleaming teeth, her burning, passionately sensuous eyes​—​she was the embodiment of the East.

“This man bears a message,” she whispered to herself. “But from whom and to whom?”

Then she saw protruding from his vest the corner of a letter. The Hindoo was probably trying to extract this at the moment death overtook him. It was strange the man should carry letters openly when all the messengers to and from the garrison only ventured to take letters rolled so small they could swallow them if need be.

However trustworthy a man might be, it was scarcely possible for him to enter the Residency position in consequence of the extreme vigilance of the enemy. Posts had been carefully established by them in the houses all round, from which strict watch and lookout were kept. Beyond these, again, were other posts and pickets; and all the principal thoroughfares of the cities and suburbs were observed and all passers-by challenged and examined.

It was, therefore, a service of extreme danger and difficulty either to leave the position with letters or to bring letters in, and the only man who had effected this was Mr Gubbins’ scout Ungad.

The despatches delivered and brought by Ungad were written on small pieces of thin paper, sometimes in Greek characters. They were tightly rolled up and inserted in a quill, which was then closed at either end with sealing-wax. Whenever despatches were found upon any person he was put to death, and many were kept in confinement on mere suspicion of their being “cossids” (native spies.)

But in the case of this man now lying dead there was, as Mrs Ross, from her acquaintance with the traditions of the East, well knew, a special reason why the precautions taken by the rebels did not concern him. He was protected by the possession of the golden fish​—​the royal talisman of Oudh.

Rapidly Mrs Ross pulled out the letters​—​there were more than one​—​and examined them. To her surprise she found they were unfastened. The writing on the envelope was small and delicate​—​in the fine Italian sloping hand which ladies affected in the forties and the fifties. The ink was very faint.

The woman’s eyes glittered as she read the inscription, “Prince Azimoolah Khan, Hooper’s Hotel, Bond Street.”

“Azimoolah Khan! Ah, he has kept his word. This man comes from him,” she cried.

Edith Ross trembled with excitement​—​so much so she could scarcely withdraw the letters from their envelopes.

Eagerly she perused the contents. One was an invitation of Lady Constance Harwood, anxious to secure the presence of Prince Azimoolah at her ball, at which a lovely young debutante would be present. “Jean Atherton is a most charming and accomplished girl,” wrote the lady, “and as she is shortly to proceed to Lucknow to join her father, she will possess an additional attraction in your eyes.”

Mrs Ross’s dark eyes blazed. This was better than she expected.

She opened the second letter and read it eagerly It was clear Azimoolah had accepted the invitation had seen Jean Atherton, and had been greatly taken with her.

“I was glad,” wrote Lady Constance, in her second letter, “to read your enthusiastic letter. Your admiration of English beauty is so different from that of our cold-blooded countrymen. I understand you intend to return to India soon. What a pity Jean can’t hasten her arrangements so that you might travel together. You say she was very nice to you. How encouraging! I think you are to be envied, my dear Prince, on your conquest.”

The letter then went into trivialities which need not be given.

Then came the letter in which Lady Constance suggested Azimoolah should join Jean at Cairo.

“Ah, Miss Atherton!” hissed the woman. “I have you completely in my power. So you were nice to the ‘Prince’! Nice to an ex-khitmutgar of low birth! Oh, you’ll have to be very ingenious to explain that away. If I could only discover whether Azimoolah did join you at Cairo. Anyhow, he made a ‘conquest’ of you, did he.”

Lady Constance Harwood’s use of the word “conquest” was horribly unjust, but she had a motive. She wanted to flatter Azimoolah Khan for her own personal gain. She little thought, of course, the letter would fall into the hands of Jean’s bitterest enemy.

Edith Ross’s object in bargaining with Azimoolah was perfectly plain. She thought if she could once get hold of these letters, she could destroy Hawke’s belief in Jean’s purity and innocence.

Mrs Ross knew​—​no one better​—​what was going on in Hawke’s mind. Hawke had the notion which sometimes, in his moments of repentance, comes to the most hardened reprobate, that if he could meet the true, pure, devoted, sympathetic woman of his youthful dreams, it would be an easy matter, through her influence, to cast off his evil ways. The injustice of imposing the task of their reformation on the imaginary good angel does not seem to occur to these prodigal sons.

Hawke, like many another man from Adam downwards, attributed his ruin to the influence of women​—​the women who play with men’s hearts as if they were toys. He had told Edith Ross so more than once. She met him with ironical laughter, but all the same remembered his words.

She knew well enough that Jean’s attraction in Hawke’s eyes was the contrast she presented to herself.

“I’ve but to show Jack that the girl’s in no way different from me, and his illusion is dispelled at a blow.”

She folded the letters, and was about to place them with the golden fish in her pocket, when she paused. She meant both Lennard and Hawke to see the letters, but it would be much better for Lennard to find them. He might not believe her story how they came into her possession.

Thrusting back the letters within the man’s vest, she retained the golden fish and hastened to the Cawnpore battery. The officer in command was amazed to see her. Throughout the whole of the siege, never had a woman come to the battery.

“You, Mrs Ross?” he exclaimed. “How terribly rash!”

“Is it? One place is as safe or as unsafe as another, Captain Saltmarsh. Is Dr Lennard here?”

“Yes. I’ll fetch him for you.”

The inquiry for Lennard explained everything. No doubt the doctor was wanted urgently elsewhere. Saltmarsh returned in a couple of minutes with Ernest Lennard.

“What’s the matter?” cried the latter, a little agitatedly. The thought crossed his mind that Jean was ill, or worse​—​wounded. Mrs Ross read his thoughts.

“Don’t be alarmed,” said she, with a cold smile. “It’s nothing very serious, and nothing that concerns you. A puzzle​—​that’s all. You’ve seen something like this before, haven’t you?”

She held out the golden fish.

“Yes, certainly. It is the sign of one whom we should call in England a Queen’s Messenger.”

“Exactly. The man who was carrying it is lying at death’s door. He was holding up the fish to me as I passed. I didn’t stay to inquire what he had to say, but ran to you with the sign. You’d better come.”

Lennard knew the importance of the symbol of the fish. He accompanied Mrs Ross to where the man was lying.

“I can do nothing,” said he quickly. “The fellow was doubtless a spy. And——”

Lennard caught sight of the letters, purposely placed by Mrs Ross so that he should see them. Instantly they were in his hand, and he was reading the name and address on one of the envelopes.

“Prince Azimoolah Khan!” he cried angrily. “What prince? The detestable rascal who is the right hand of that monster Nana Sahib is no prince. ‘Hooper’s Hotel’! I don’t see what it means. How comes this man to have these letters in his possession?”

“Don’t you think they have been entrusted to him by Azimoolah?” suggested Mrs Ross, her eyes bent down. “For what purpose, who can say? But why not read the letters?”

Lennard hesitated​—​he knew not why. He had a strange reluctance. He would much prefer to place the letters unread in the hands of Colonel Inglis, and he said so.

But this did not suit the ideas of Mrs Ross. Colonel Inglis might keep the contents to himself, and this she did not want.

“What nonsense!” she exclaimed brusquely. “The envelopes are unfastened. It’s not as if they were sealed. There may be something inside which demands instant action. How can you tell? Our desperate condition warrants anything. If you have any scruples about reading them I haven’t.”

And hastily she snatched the letter from Lennard’s hand, and pretended to read it.

“It contains nothing of importance. Simply a woman’s letter. Read it for yourself while I look at the others.”

She handed it back. Mechanically Lennard cast his eye over the contents, unconscious that Mrs Ross, while apparently looking at one of the other letters, was keenly watching his face.

“Did you see this?” he cried suddenly.

“See what?”

“The reference to Miss Atherton. It’s incredible she can have made the acquaintance of that scoundrel Azimoolah!”

“You astonish me. I was nervous and anxious I confess, and didn’t read the letter attentively Why——” and the woman gave an admirably simulated start of surprise​—​“her name is mentioned here too. There seems to have been some arrangement by which in her journey out here Miss Atherton was to be joined at Cairo by Azimoolah.”

This was a grossly unfair interpretation of the letter. But it was Mrs Ross’s desire to suggest a line of thought in Lennard’s mind. She knew the importance of little inaccuracies.

“Of course there mayn’t be much in it, but anyway I shouldn’t like to have my name connected in this intimate fashion with that of such an infamous creature as Azimoolah Khan.”

Lennard frowned. The manner even more than the words of Mrs Ross jarred horribly upon him.

“There’s no reflection upon Miss Atherton in these letters,” said he impatiently.

“Oh, none at all, unless​—​unless she met Azimoolah at Cairo.”

Mrs Ross dropped out her words hesitatingly, as though she were anxious to defend Jean, while launching insinuations against her.

“And supposing she did?” cried Lennard angrily. “She couldn’t prevent him joining the steamer at Cairo, I presume. Besides, at that time Azimoolah had not exhibited himself in his true colours. He had passed himself off as a prince, and had deceived many people in England who ought to have known better​—​particularly the lady who writes these letters, and who is responsible for introducing him to Jean. It sounds very horrible now, of course; but at that time there was nothing in the introduction, especially as Azimoolah had all the plausibility necessary to deceive the unsuspecting.”

“Yes,” said Mrs Ross, with half a sigh, “that’s the worst of it. The fellow’s so clever and fascinating, and girls are impulsive, and fond of admiration.”

“What has that to do with Miss Atherton?” cried Lennard angrily. But he winced nevertheless. Every phrase Mrs Ross let fall seemed to have poison in it.

“Oh, nothing, of course. It’s odd, though, Lady Constance Harwood should have used the word ‘conquest.’ That looks as if he had made some impression on Jean, doesn’t it?”

Lennard did not reply. The discovery that Jean was acquainted with the detestable Azimoolah was rankling. Mrs Ross continued to add fuel to the fire.

“The question, after all,” said she, “is what brought the native here? I wonder whether he has a letter addressed to anybody in the Residency. If not, it’s curious he should have Azimoolah’s letters in his possession. Of course Azimoolah may have for some purpose entrusted them to him, but——”

“More likely he has met Azimoolah in battle, killed the rascal, and found the letters on him,” broke in Lennard.

“I don’t think that at all,” answered Mrs Ross quickly. “The death of so important a man would be known at once. We should have heard it through our own Sikhs.”

It is a curious fact that throughout the siege the Sikhs, of whom a number remained faithful to us, were always the first to learn the news of anything going on outside. No doubt they had friends outside with whom they in some sort held communication. These friends must have been staunch. It is certain they never betrayed to the rebel sepoys the real condition of the garrisons.

“Well, while the man cannot speak it’s useless to discuss the question,” retorted Lennard. “In the meantime, I shall hold to my theory that——”

He stopped and turned. He could hear footsteps. Mrs Ross heard them also, and her face lighted up. Hawke and Fulton were approaching.

“I’m glad to see Captain Fulton,” whispered Mrs Ross to Lennard. “He’ll have to take the responsibility of this painful business. I’m sorry for Miss Atherton, but she has only herself to blame. Captain Fulton will have to decide if this man is a spy.”

Lennard turned from Edith Ross with irritation. Her continual reference to Jean annoyed him. It looked remarkably like malice. He went towards Fulton and told him what had happened. He would have liked to take Fulton apart so that Hawke should not hear, but this would only have excited Hawke’s suspicions. Hawke said not a word while the two were talking.

“Have you read the letters?” asked Fulton.

“Yes. The envelopes were not sealed. I may say that they were written in England some months ago, on private matters,” returned Lennard, in a somewhat embarrassed way. “I am bound to give them to you, but I do so only on the condition that they’re handed over to the person concerned. I pledge you to secrecy, Fulton.”

Before Fulton could answer, Mrs Ross interposed. Secrecy was the last thing she wanted.

“What nonsense, Dr Lennard. I’ve read the letters also, and I say emphatically there’s nothing in them to demand secrecy.”

“I beg to differ from you, Mrs Ross,” retorted Lennard.

“I quite understand your desire to protect ‘the person concerned,’ to quote your own words. But surely I’m right in thinking that anything relating to Azimoolah Khan must be of importance.”

The bomb exploded, as Edith Ross meant it should. Hawke started, and he was about to utter some violent ejaculations expressive of his sentiments towards Azimoolah, but was restrained by a warning look from Mrs Ross. She bent forward and whispered rapidly:

“You’d better clear out, Jack, before you hear something you won’t like. Take my advice. I’m speaking for the sake of your own peace of mind.”

She couldn’t have said anything better calculated to detain him.

“My peace of mind,” he returned, with a shrug of the shoulders. “How considerate! Quite refreshing​—​from you.”

Hawke turned abruptly. Fulton was speaking.

“Is it true, Lennard, that these letters are addressed to Azimoolah Khan?” said he.

“Yes,” answered Lennard, intensely vexed at Mrs Ross’s persistency, the reason of which he could not understand. “It’s true; but, as I’ve already said, the letters were written months before the Mutiny broke out.”

“I must see the letters before I bind myself to anything,” said Fulton. “You’ve no object in keeping their contents to yourself, I suppose?”

“No, except​—​well, to be quite frank with you, I have an objection. In the letters the name of a lady now within the Residency is mentioned. I had a reluctance in handing them over to you on account of that circumstance. But you’re a gentleman, Fulton. Take the letters. I trust to your honour to let no eye but yours​—​Colonel Inglis’ excepted​—​rest upon them.”

“I appreciate your delicacy, Lennard,” said Fulton gravely; “but, as I said before, until I see what the letters are about, I can make no promise. My duty in regard to the safety of the garrison is above everything.”

“Yes, yes, I know that,” said Lennard. “When you’ve read the letters, I think you’ll agree with me that my request isn’t an unreasonable one.”

Hawke, who had been gradually working himself into a ferment, broke out at this point.

“Do you include me in the outside mob who are not to be allowed to look upon these sacred epistles?” he exclaimed furiously.

“I would rather you didn’t,” said Lennard.

“But I tell you I’ve a right! Do you know who this unhanged rascal Azimoolah Khan really is? Do you know that he was once in my service, and that if he hadn’t cleared out in a hurry I’d have broken every bone in his body?”

This was news to Lennard, and uncomfortable news, too. It made his objection to Hawke reading the letters all the more forcible.

“I wasn’t aware of it, Jack,” said he; “but, allowing it to be true, I don’t see it makes any difference.”

All this while Fulton had been reading the letters, and had paid no attention to what was going on between Lennard and Hawke.

“You’re quite right, Lennard,” said he. “These letters tell us nothing. They are absolutely trivial, save that they throw a little light on the scoundrel’s doings in London. I quite agree with you it would be extremely unpleasant for the lady whose name is mentioned to have it known that she was once on terms of friendship with the atrocious ruffian for whose head I’d willingly give a year’s pay out of my own pocket. This unlucky acquaintance doesn’t really touch the lady in the least, but you know what a hotbed of gossip and scandal we live in. Even now, when the houses are almost tumbling about our ears with shot and shell, the women must talk just in the old style. I’d like to suggest a new reading of a familiar line, and say that Satan finds some evil things for idle tongues to say.”

“Then you’re of opinion that no notice need be taken of these letters?” said Lennard eagerly.

“No, I don’t say that. We must have the body searched. There may be something else we shall find to throw a light on the matter.”

“In the meantime, Fulton,” broke in Hawke, “if the letters are innocent, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t look at them, considering that I know more about that scoundrel Azimoolah than anybody else in the Residency.”

“For the life of me I can’t see the objection,” said Fulton, “providing you undertake as I do to be silent as to the lady referred to.”

“There’s no need for me to give any undertaking. It’s almost an insult to require one,” was Hawke’s answer.

Lennard saw the uselessness of further protest. He had done his best and had failed. Events must take their course. Fulton handed the letters to Hawke. The latter began to read.

Lennard expected an explosion. A dead silence followed instead. But it was clear Hawke was intensely moved. His face was white, his lips bloodless. The hand that held the paper trembled slightly. He nerved himself, and, folding the letters, handed them to Fulton, and with a characteristic swing of his broad shoulders strode away. Mrs Ross followed him.

Fulton put the letters and the jewelled fish in his pocket, and, asking Lennard to accompany him, the two went off to Colonel Inglis to report the affair.