Chapter XVII

The Craft of Mrs Ross

Meanwhile Hawke, in the upper room, and the rest of the men were busy at their posts. Each man had three muskets, and these were loaded for them by the women or by the inferior marksmen.

This loophole warfare had grown to be quite an art. One of the peculiarities of the siege was that the assailants and the assailed were quite close together. The distance which separated them was in many points not greater than the average width of a street such as Fleet Street. No man on either side dared, therefore, expose himself in the open to discharge his musket. Every loophole was a target, and within the Residency houses care was taken in boring a loophole that the background should be dark, so that it should not betray its presence to the enemy, because, the hostile parties being so close together, it was sometimes easy to discover the bearings of particular loopholes and avoid them.

The object of the besieging sepoys was to find out points not commanded by the loopholes of the besieged, and here they posted men to fire on any defender who might incautiously show himself. After a while the garrisons came to understand these tactics, and were quite equal to them.

First of all the besieged would encourage the assailants to occupy such a point, and have confidence in it. The new position was noted accurately, and in the night holes were bored in that particular direction. In the morning the enemy would come up by twos and threes to occupy their chosen post, or the garrison would do something to attract them there. Then the muskets would be discharged from the new loopholes. This method of outwitting the enemy was tried again and again, and generally with success.

Captain Fulton was one whom the enemy had reason to fear most. He was a crack shot, and if the enemy had been worrying any particular post he would go there and fire several rounds into the opposite line of loopholes. The lesson was always effectual.

At the commencement of the siege the officers and men fired continuously and recklessly; but at the end of about ten days they found out that this was a mistake. The fatigue was not only very great, but the continuous recoil of the piece made the men’s shoulders sore and painful. After this they became sparing of their shots, and no one fired unless he could cover a foe.

The curious effect of this economy of force was that nothing tended to daunt the enemy more than the perfect stillness which used to prevail in the entrenchments during the night.

The insistence of loophole firing, the stern suppression of needless exposures and aimless sorties, the enforced restriction of the men to the posts to which they belonged, and the stoppage of all unauthorised wandering over the more open and exposed positions, account for the astonishingly small number of casualties during the siege, when the almost ceaseless fire of the enemy and the actual encounters with them are remembered.

For three days it was impossible to stir from Dr Fayrer’s house, the firing was so incessant. Jean had, of course, to remain where she was. The women were kept so busy, she and Mrs Ross had not met. They were stationed in different rooms.

During those three days, Mrs Ross had been loading for the captain of the post, but at length the enemy’s fire slackened, and she was released from her duty. Of course she had heard of Jean’s arrival and daring exploit, and she at once sought the girl, for she could now put into execution her scheme of finding out the extent of her acquaintance with Azimoolah Khan.

Jean was sitting by one of the ladies. Edith Ross softly approached, and took a vacant seat by her side. Edith sat listening quietly, and, when there was a pause in the conversation, congratulated Jean in silken tones on her courage in carrying the ammunition under fire, adding, “There’s not another woman in the garrison who would have dared to do such a thing.”

“I think you’re wrong,” said Jean emphatically. “There are plenty, I’m sure, who would have done the same had they been in my place.”

“Well, I couldn’t.”

“And yet I’ve heard Dr Macpherson say you’ve wonderful nerve.”

“Yes, in hospital cases. That’s a different matter. I’m in no danger there. Talking of patients, you haven’t inquired after my latest.”

“Who is he?”

“Ah, I forgot. You know nothing of what has taken place here, although we’re so very few yards apart.”

“You mean the man they call the spy, don’t you, Mrs Ross?” said the lady to whom Jean had been talking.

“Yes. I called him a patient just now, but that isn’t quite correct. The man died before I could get Dr Lennard. If he wasn’t a patient it’s pretty certain he was a spy​—​and a spy in the service of Azimoolah Khan.”

“Azimoolah Khan,” cried Jean, starting.

“Ah, I thought the name would be familiar to you,” said Mrs Ross, suddenly dropping her voice so that Jean alone heard her words. “I’ve something to say to you, dear, but I don’t want to talk before all these people. I’m going into the next room. Will you follow me shortly?”

Jean’s dark eyes looked at the woman troublously. What could she have to say that demanded so much mystery?

When they again met, Mrs Ross’s gaze was bent on the floor, as if she were pondering something. She seemed to be unconscious of Jean’s presence.

“What is it you wish to say to me?” asked Jean.

“I spoke to you just now of Azimoolah Khan. It wasn’t without a reason. It appears you’re intimately acquainted with this monster of infamy.”

Her silkiness of tone had disappeared. Every word seemed barbed with venom.

“I don’t understand what you mean, Mrs Ross,” said Jean.

“Really. It’s fortunate for you that we’re divided into so many distinct communities, and that gossip can’t spread from one to another. In this garrison​—​Dr Fayrer’s​—​rumour has been pretty busy with you. I can imagine nothing more horrible than having one’s name linked with that of Azimoolah Khan​—​Azimoolah, the man who ordered the butchery of the women and children at Cawnpore.”

“My name linked with Azimoolah! How can you assert anything so terrible?” cried Jean, trembling with indignation.

“It’s common talk here,” said Mrs Ross, her merciless eyes never moving from the girl’s convulsed face. “There’s not such a wide gulf between English and Anglo-Indian society as you imagine. The latest arrival from London usually brings some interesting information, which shows how very small the world is. It’s no secret how you met Azimoolah​—​he called himself a prince then​—​at a ball given by one of the leaders of London fashionable society; how you danced several times with him; how he hurried to Cairo on purpose to travel with you on board the steamer which brought you to Calcutta.”

“That’s an infamous falsehood. If he did, as you say, come to Cairo for that purpose, he failed. I have never seen him since I left London.”

“I’m glad to hear you say so, though I fear you’ll find it difficult to convince other people,” said Mrs Ross, in a pitying tone. “Still, you may be sure I shall do all I can to defend you.”

Stung to her very soul, Jean drew back a step. The girl, who but an hour since had defied death itself, quivered under the poisoned shafts of this woman, whose manner, whose look, whose voice said as plainly as possible, “I hate you, and I want to see you suffer.”

“Thank you,” Jean forced herself to say. “I will not put you to the trouble. All I ask is, give me the names of any persons you have heard speak of me in connection with this man​—​a man whose fawning manner and fulsome flattery were repulsive even when I did not suspect anything wrong.”

“I’m anxious to believe all you say,” retorted Mrs Ross. “But it certainly strikes me as exceedingly curious, when everybody was talking of this atrocious villain, that you should have been perfectly silent as to your acquaintance with him.”

“Can’t you imagine,” cried Jean vehemently, “the horror I felt at the possibility of the man whom I met in London being this Azimoolah Khan, at whose name everyone shudders? Wouldn’t you have shrunk from acknowledging that you’d once had any acquaintance with so cold-blooded a fiend?”

“I prefer not putting myself in your place, Miss Atherton,” said Mrs Ross, with icy politeness. “It’s a little too awkward for my taste. By the way,” she added, as if the thought had just occurred to her, “you were engaged to someone in London, were you not?”

“I refuse to answer any of your questions, Mrs Ross,” exclaimed Jean, with tears in her eyes. “They’re meant to be insulting.”

“You foolish girl. Can’t you see that I want to be your friend?”

“No. You’re my enemy. Why I know not.”

“Nor do I, so dismiss that ridiculous notion. You’d better answer. It would be to your interest to do so.”

There was no reply. The idea of laying bare the secrets of her heart to this woman, who had for her own purposes tortured her, was horribly repugnant. Jean turned, with the intention of leaving, when Mrs Ross seized her wrist.

“Stay,” and Mrs Ross’s voice took a sinister tone. “I’ll answer the question myself. Yes; you were engaged, and the man you promised to marry was Azimoolah Khan.”

Had the matter not been of tragic importance Jean must have laughed. There was really something inconceivably absurd in the idea. But it did not seem absurd then​—​Mrs Ross was too terribly in earnest.

“Oh, you’re mad​—​mad to imagine such a thing,” Jean exclaimed.

“And that’s the only reply you will give me?”

“The only reply.”

Jean’s rejoinder was to walk out of the room. She was wrought upon and felt sick at heart. She wanted to be alone and think.

Directly Jean was gone, the face of the woman left behind lighted up with an exultant smile of malignancy.

“A good day’s work,” she laughed. “I’ve punished Jack Hawke for his stupidity in falling in love with this girl, and I’ve given the girl herself a bad quarter of an hour. How everything has played into my hands! If these letters are made public they’ll only confirm what I told her, excepting as to her engagement with Azimoolah Khan. That was a beautiful creation of my own. I daresay she spoke the truth concerning him; but what does that matter?”

Trembling with suppressed emotion​—​it had cost her a tremendous effort to maintain her calmness in Mrs Ross’s presence​—​Jean descended the dark staircase. The day had been excessively hot. The air was stifling and oppressive. The firing on both sides had ceased for a time, and the silence after the din and crash of musketry and artillery was strange and unnatural.

Gasping for breath, Jean slowly went down stair by stair, guided only by the glimmerings of light which came through the chinks in the shutters. She felt she could no longer remain in Dr Fayrer’s house. For some hours not a shot had been fired by the enemy, and there was now an opportunity to get back to the Begum Kothee.

Telling one of the ladies where she was going, Jean slipped out and reached the Begum Kothee in safety. It was a relief to be away from Edith Ross. Her face burned when she thought of the vile insinuations flung at her. Mrs Ross’s evident malice was as puzzling as the source of her information about Azimoolah Khan. In what way had she angered the woman? Jean could not imagine.

Worse than the malice of Edith Ross was her assertion that both Ernest Lennard and Captain Hawke knew of Jean’s acquaintance with Azimoolah. There was absolutely nothing in that acquaintance, but, as Mrs Ross had shown, it could be twisted by a slanderous tongue into something very damaging.

The odd thing was that Jean was more concerned about Captain Hawke’s opinion of the matter than she was about Ernest Lennard’s. She liked Lennard extremely. True, she had said no when he asked her to be his wife, but the fact that he had asked her made her regard him with a certain tenderness. But there was no passion. Lennard was not the man to inspire passion. He had not the insistence, the recklessness, the fighting qualities of Jack Hawke.

Lennard was the man of thought, Hawke the man of action. If Lennard had brushed away her refusal, she would have liked him better. He had been too ready to accept her hesitation as a sign that he had no chance. He had come to the conclusion too readily that she had formed a prior attachment in London. She had never said so​—​never even hinted, at such a thing. Lennard had chosen to assume this was the case, and to escape from her embarrassment and to let him down gently, she had allowed the impression to remain. She thought it better so. It occurred to her that if he imagined she was free he might repeat his offer, and she would have to go through the pain of refusing him again.

But with Jack Hawke it was different. She was conscious of a strange thrill when she thought of him​—​of a flutter of the heart at the remembrance of the feel of his strong arms when he bore her out of danger.

He had told her straight out he loved her and​—​she had not said no. How eloquently he had pleaded. His confession that he was a black sheep showed his sincerity. He had told her she was his good angel. It was sweet to hear him​—​she thought so at the time. Afterwards she wondered if she had not been wrong, in not checking his passionate words. Wrong or not, she had listened, and she could not bring herself to wish them unsaid.

“He would die for me,” she murmured. “Ah, and so, too, would Ernest Lennard. One is as brave as the other,” she went on, remorse stealing over her at the thought that she had done Lennard an injustice.

Jean buried her flushed face in her hands. She felt that, should her last moment come, death would lose its sting if she could die in Jack Hawke’s arms.

Then followed swiftly the bitter reflection that he must despise her if he believed she had encouraged the attentions of Azimoolah Khan. Nay, the slander went beyond mere “encouragement.” According to Mrs Ross, the talk was that she was actually “engaged” to this fomenter of rebellion, and that it was on account of her “engagement” she had refused Dr Lennard.

Slowly it dawned upon her she had made a mistake in leaving Dr Fayrer’s house. She ought to have stayed and sought for an explanation from both Lennard and Hawke. Lennard, she was sure, would listen to her and would tell her more than Mrs Ross had let out. The scandal must have some origin, unless Edith Ross had invented it. But it was not all invention. How had the malicious woman found out about her knowing Azimoolah? Jean wished she had not been so reticent about him. If she had only told her father it would have been something. Her silence lent colour to Mrs Ross’s malice.

She felt she could speak frankly to Lennard, but about Hawke, whose good opinion she most prized, she was not so sure. A strange timidity seized her. It was not from a fear that Hawke would not believe her version of the matter, but because she had an intuition that to speak to him would lead to a renewal of his love, and if this happened, what would she say? Could she resist him?

These scruples deterred her from obeying her impulse to “face the music.” That night the firing of the rebels commenced with renewed vigour, and her opportunity of returning to Dr Fayrer’s was lost.