Chapter XVI

Jean Atherton’s Daring

Jack Hawke, mad with rage, to which he surrendered himself in his rough animal fashion without the least attempt at self-control, made his way towards Dr Fayrer’s house. He thought he was alone, and he cursed himself aloud. Mrs Ross, following him cautiously, heard every word.

She knew Hawke’s impulsive, ungovernable nature thoroughly. The tempest would be succeeded by a period of depression. Then would be her time to exercise her influence. Hidden by a heap of debris close to the verandah of the main building, or, rather, what had been the verandah​—​it was now a ruin​—​she waited quietly.

Hawke walked to and fro for ten minutes or so, like some unquiet animal, and then sat down on a big stone, his passion exhausted, his elbows resting on his knees, his forehead buried in his hands. Edith Ross stole forward and laid her hand lightly on his shoulder. He started and looked up.

“Go away,” said he harshly. “I’m in no mood to listen to your song of triumph. Leave me to myself.”

And again he plunged his head in his hands. Mrs Ross laughed silently. The torture of this big helpless man was to her a secret joy. But she had no intention of triumphing over him, outwardly at least.

“Poor Jack!” said she softly. “I’m awfully sorry for you.”

“Keep your sorrow to yourself. I don’t want it. I’m going to ferret out the truth of this business. No beating about the bush for me. I’ll go straight to Miss Atherton and——”

“You great fool!” interposed Mrs Ross. “As if you were likely to obtain any information that way.”

“How then? Why don’t you talk sense?”

Hawke’s passion was rising again. The woman’s jealousy and spite were also in the ascendant.

“I’ll try,” she returned sarcastically. “What shall I say? That Jean Atherton has a right to love anyone she likes? That she’s quite free to bestow her heart on Azimoolah Khan if she chooses?”

“By God​—​I tell you it’s not true!”

“My dear Jack, anybody but you would see at once that these letters solve the mystery, and ought to put you out of your misery.”

He shook her touch from his arm roughly, and stared at her.

“Solve the mystery?” he repeated wildly.

“Yes. No doubt Azimoolah made the running when he was in London, and you can depend upon it he joined her at Cairo, and they came on together to Calcutta. Jack, you may lay your life that your rival is your old servant, the wily, unscrupulous, bloodthirsty, fascinating Azimoolah Khan. Poor Jack!”

She threw back her head slightly, and, looking into his bloodshot eyes, a soft, low ripple of laughter escaped her lips.

“Go on. Laugh away,” exclaimed Hawke savagely. “It’ll make no difference to me. I’m going to hear the story from Jean’s own lips.”

“Jack,” said Mrs Ross sarcastically, “you’re a fool if you imagine you’ll get at the truth that way. What right have you to cross-question Miss Atherton?”

At that moment a roundshot, evidently fired into the air, descended about the centre of the intervening space between the Begum Kothee and Dr Fayrer’s house, and ploughed up the soft ground, spattering them both with earth.

The rebels were evidently recovering from their defeat. The bombardment was about to recommence.

Her narrow escape from death shook the nerves of Edith Ross a little, and, trembling violently, she leaned against the woodwork of the verandah.

It was well she did so, for the shot was followed by a hot musketry fire, which swept over the compound like hail.

“By Jove!” shouted Hawke. “What does that mean?”

His voice was almost inaudible in the discharge of cannon. Evidently the rebels had opened a new battery. The shot from this battery was a new departure for the enemy. Hitherto their gun practice had been very bad. Indeed, they never, except at the end of the siege, possessed an effective battery or maintained a continuous fire, or attempted to breach the defences with their artillery.

They kept their guns in isolated and sheltered nooks and fired them at random, hitting mainly the upper parts of the buildings and defences, their shots going in large numbers clean over the entrenchments, and plunging into their own posts beyond.

Besides these fixed guns they had two good light field-batteries of twelve guns, and the terrible eight-inch howitzer. These they moved about from place to place, and used when the desire seized them. Their stores of ammunition for these guns were small, and after a while they had no shells to use for the howitzer except those that, thrown from the Residency mortars, had failed to burst.

But this gun which caused Mrs Ross so much alarm was of a different make altogether. It was a heavy gun, planted in the street leading southward from the iron bridge, in a place where it could range in a diagonal line through the centre of the Residency positions. It was, in fact, the only gun that did serious harm, and the first time it was fired was on the occasion just mentioned.

It was subsequently the cause of much damage, and the shot generally hit Innes’ post (its nearest object), the Residency, Dr Fayrer’s house, or the post-office.

It did the most mischief at the Residency. One case there, as General Innes has recorded, was very singular. The shot, making its way into one of the rooms, caught the end of the punkah fringe, tore down most of it, was checked while doing so, and then, getting a circular motion, whirled round a young officer of the 32nd, its eventual impact breaking his leg and causing his death.

At the post-office it played pranks and did serious damage. One of its shots broke the leg of a chair on which a lady was sitting, brought her to the ground, got caught in her dress, and then unrolled itself out and along the floor without doing her further harm. Another grazed the forehead​—​or rather the temples​—​of a young engineer as he lay asleep, breaking the skin, and plunging against a treasure-chest beyond, but doing no further harm, while one cut through the pillows on which an officer of the 1st Fusiliers was lying asleep, and then broke the leg of the bedstead next him.

No wonder the shot coming in a direction quite unprecedented puzzled Jack Hawke. Hitherto the space between the Begum Kothee and Dr Fayrer’s house had been comparatively safe, excepting when the sepoys directed a musketry fire towards it.

A bullet had struck the verandah a foot from where they were standing, and was flattened out against the woodwork.

At this they hastened inside the house, where all was excitement. Hitherto Dr Fayrer’s house had escaped damage from the heavy guns. It was a new experience for the inmates to find it bombarded. One of the shots from the enemy’s new battery had already struck the corner, and brought down a quantity of the stonework, though it had not penetrated the building.

For some days past the mutineers had been depending chiefly on their muskets. Apparently their supply of shot had dwindled, and they had been firing all kinds of queer missiles, not infrequently logs of wood shod with iron. It was clear their stock had been replenished from some source. It was now roundshot that at intervals struck the house, smashing through brick and stone, and shaking it to its foundations.

Edith Ross and Jack Hawke were but half way across the entrance hall when they heard a hurried footstep behind. Lennard, panting with running, joined them. The word had been sent for help. He and Fulton had been met on their way to Colonel Inglis, and the surgeon had turned back to take his place with the rest.

“Look sharp, Hawke!” he shouted. “We haven’t too many men to keep those devils at bay!”

Lennard was quite right. But the defenders were not dismayed. At every available loophole a man was posted, and rarely was a shot wasted. Hawke quitting Mrs Ross, who remained below with the other women, hastened to the top of the house and took his stand in a sort of turret at one of the angles of the building. It was an exposed position, but it had the advantage of commanding the battery of the enemy. His first shot brought down one of the sepoy gunners.

He had fired only half-a-dozen times, when he was joined by a private of the 32nd, an Irishman.

“Dr Lennard, sir, wants to know if you’ve any cartridges to spare.”

“I’ve no more than I can get rid of. You’re not short of ammunition are you, Moloney?”

“Begorrah, sir, we are thot!”

“The devil! Send to the next garrison for some. I want all I’ve got. The beggars haven’t been able to fire their gun since I’ve been here. I must keep them in check.”

“Faith, you’re right, sir!”

Away went the private with the message to Lennard.

“One of us must go across to the Begum Kothee!” exclaimed the surgeon. “It’s the nearest house.”

“Oi’ll do it, sir,” said Moloney.

“You’re a brave fellow, Moloney. Go, and good luck go with you.”

Moloney went into the verandah and looked across to the Begum Kothee. He had a terribly dangerous task before him. Bullets were whistling in all directions. He hesitated, and no wonder.

“Bedad! the longer Oi look at it the less Oi like it,” he muttered. “Here goes!”

Ducking his head, he ran in a crouching attitude over the ground. He was untouched until he arrived within a couple of yards of the Begum Kothee. Here a bullet struck him in the knee. Even then he was undaunted, for he hopped the remainder of the distance, and fell within the portico, sick with the excruciating pain. He yelled for the door to be opened.

His fear was lest he should not be heard, and his journey prove to be in vain. The plucky fellow never thought about help for himself.

His shouts might have been disregarded had not Jean chanced to be in the lower part of the house. The rest of the occupants were on the flat roof, which was protected by a timber palisading, through the loopholes of which they were firing. They dared not show their heads above the woodwork, and so Moloney had not been observed.

“What is it, my good fellow?” cried the girl. “You’re wounded.”

“Faith, miss, it’s nothing to trouble about. It’s the cartridges Oi’m wanting. Oi’ve come from the docthor’s house yonder. The bhoys are hard pressed, an’ soon there won’t be a blessed cartridge to lay their hands upon. For the love of heaven, miss, tell the captain. Don’t mind me​—​Oi can crawl inside.”

There was no time for delay. Even had there been time, it occurred to Jean that the captain in command of the post might hesitate about sending a man away, for she knew how strict were the regulations.

The defence of the Residency was unlike any other, not only in the number of separate garrisons, but in the fact that these garrisons were never relieved, because there were no men to relieve them. The only man who quitted his post was the man who went in the morning to fetch the day’s rations. It was thoroughly understood by all that there was no retreat; that all must die at their posts; and that, whatever casualties might occur, vacant places could not be filled.

A daring idea flashed through the girl’s mind. She knew where the ammunition was stored. She would take the cartridges to the beleaguered post herself.

“Yes, yes,” she exclaimed rapidly, “crawl inside.” Turning, she vanished.

In two or three minutes she reappeared, bearing in her arms a bag which she had filled with as many cartridges as she could carry.

Moloney, as brave as a lion where his own body was concerned, was terror-stricken when he saw this slim, delicate girl staggering under her burden. He guessed her intention.

“No, no, miss​—​you sha’n’t! It’s meself that’ll thry and creep across.”

He made an effort to rise, but his knee was shattered. He sank back groaning.

“A man can’t be spared,” she said swiftly. “If I’m killed​—​well, it doesn’t much matter.”

The next moment she plunged into the path of death, and in the few moments she took to cross, the soldier, in watching her, forgot his pain.

By a miracle she arrived in safety. But the strain on her nerves was terrible. She tottered across the verandah, and sank down within the doorway. The next moment Lennard’s arms were round her. Anxious about Moloney’s mission, he had, when the man started, handed his gun to his nearest neighbour and left his post for a few minutes while he watched the soldier run through the storm of bullets. He saw him fall, and witnessed the appearance of Jean on the scene; but never could he have imagined that she would be the return messenger.

He was horror-stricken at the sight, the more so as he was powerless to assist her. He shouted frantically, but in vain. His voice was drowned by the noise of the firing.

When Lennard ran forward to meet Jean, and she fell into his arms, he at first thought she was wounded; but her unconsciousness was only momentary, and her first words were to assure him she was unhurt.

“Thank heaven!” he cried. “There’s no one in the whole garrison braver than you, Jean. You deserve the Victoria Cross for this.”

She smiled faintly.

“I’m afraid there was more desperation than courage. If I’d stopped to think I should never have done it.”

Lennard lifted the bag, and was amazed at its weight. The urgency of the occasion had lent unnatural strength to the girl. No wonder she was exhausted at the end of the journey.

The joy of the little garrison was intense at the arrival of the supply of cartridges; and when Lennard led Jean forward, and told how she had daringly run the gauntlet of fire, a loud cheer burst from the men.