Chapter XVIII

Hawke’s Secret Mission

For days the chief topic of conversation in all the garrisons had been Havelock and the army of relief.

After the arrival of Ungad, the native messenger, on the 25th of July, with the letter from Colonel Tytler stating that Havelock would be in Lucknow in five or six days, the garrisons were in the highest spirits. But when the six days went over, and nothing was heard of Havelock, the old anxiety returned.

In the meantime, Ungad, one dark night, left the Residency with a plan showing the position occupied by Colonel Inglis, and of the roads approaching it. More than a fortnight went over and no Ungad reappeared. Then it was that hope gradually began to die out.

Many a time during this anxious fortnight the men posted on the “lookout” of the Residency and of the post-office​—​the two highest buildings​—​glanced long and anxiously down the Cawnpore road; but they saw no signs of the much-wished-for relief force advancing.

At a very early date an organised system of lookouts had been established. It was carried out in this way:

At daybreak an officer, accompanied by a sepoy was detailed to take post in the highest tower on the roof of the Residency. From holes made in this tower, the officer watched all the movements of the foe. He had slips of paper with him, and one of these he sent down by the sepoy whenever necessary.

A precisely similar watch was maintained from the roof of the post-office, and in this manner Colonel Inglis was made acquainted with all that was going on outside, so far as could be seen.

It was the proud boast of the gallant defenders that throughout that long siege the British flag never ceased to wave defiance to the enemy. Nothing infuriated the rebels more, and the flag was the constant aim of their sharpshooters.

Again and again were the halyards severed, the flag riddled, the mast cut through by bullets. But as soon as darkness permitted, a new mast, new halyards, were supplied. Patched and darned as it was, the flag continued to scorn its assailants.

Every day when the officer who had charge of the distribution of the rations appeared at each garrison he was eagerly questioned as to whether Ungad had been seen; but the answer was invariably “No.” But at last, on 6th of August, news came​—​not through Ungad, but through Aodhan Singh, one of the officers’ orderlies, who had undertaken to act as spy.

He brought no letter, but the dispiriting news by word of mouth that Havelock’s force had fought two successful engagements on the Lucknow side of the Ganges, but had been obliged to halt at Mungulwar owing to cholera and other causes.

Naturally this intelligence was very disheartening to the garrison, and the more despondent began to take a very gloomy view of the situation. Havelock, with his small army, they said, could never possibly fight his way through the tremendous force of sepoys who now held the city.

Others, however, contended that the check was no more than was reasonably to be expected; still, the most hopeful, with their spirits depressed by constant watching and want of rest, had to admit that the situation was very serious.

Four days later​—​the 10th of August​—​the second assault of the enemy began. About ten o’clock that morning a body, numbering perhaps sixteen hundred, was seen to be massing in the trenches.

The meaning of the movement was understood, and the word was passed that an assault was impending. Instantly everyone was on the alert.

The signal was given half-an-hour later by a shell bursting within the Begum Kothee. It came through the roof into a room luckily unoccupied, but caused great alarm; and Jean and the other ladies were immediately ordered to remove into the ground floor.

The enemy began their attack in their usual manner by springing a mine. The effect was terrible. The greater portion of one of the houses bordering the fortifications was blown in, the palisades and defences for thirty feet along were destroyed. A breach was made through which a couple of regiments could have easily marched; but the sepoys were not made of the stuff to charge in the face of a withering fire.

Still, they came on with more resolution than they had hitherto shown, and for a few seconds made an effort to enter the breach. But the front and flank fire from the garrison, chiefly composed of officers many of them first-rate shots, paralysed the enemy and they ran back, all but about thirty more daring than the rest, who penetrated into the ditch of the battery. A hand grenade dispersed them, and, so far as this attack was concerned, it was over.

But the programme of the enemy was that a general assault should be made, and at two or three other posts mines were exploded, followed by a mad rush of sepoys, who were repulsed just as their comrades had been.

The attack was renewed several times, and the various garrisons were occupied the whole day. The losses of the enemy were enormous​—​far more than on the occasion of the assault on the Redan.

Since the finding of Lady Constance Harwood’s letters to Azimoolah, on the body of the dead Hindoo, Jack Hawke and Lennard had become close friends once more. But by some mutual yet unexpressed understanding the subject was never mentioned. Both felt the matter was one to be dealt with by the general in command.

There was little doubt the dead man was a spy, but why he should be in possession of the letters was a puzzle. His clothing was searched; all that was found on him was some native money. Whether he had confederates within the garrison it was impossible to say. He had probably made his way inside the fortifications by influencing one of the native servants through the golden fish of Oudh.

The question was the disposal of the letters. Colonel Inglis and Captain Fulton discussed the matter. Fulton thought they ought to be given up to Jean as the person concerned.

“There’s certainly no one else interested in the matter,” said Captain Fulton. “Stay. I’m wrong. There is someone else​—​Captain Hawke.”

“What has he to do with it?” asked Colonel Inglis.

“Just this. He’s in love with Miss Atherton. It came to him like a blow between the eyes when he read those letters. It so happens that Azimoolah Khan was his servant in the old days, and had, so I understand, something to do with the scandal that smashed up Jack Hawke, so far as Lucknow society is concerned.”

“Is that so? Unlucky for the girl if she’s fond of Hawke. The letters are awkward to explain, and if they fell into other people’s hands might be still more awkward. I shall give them to Miss Atherton and suggest that she destroy them.”

“I agree with you and——”

At that moment an orderly, after knocking, entered the room and delivered a message to Colonel Inglis. Captain Hawke wished to see the colonel.

“The man we were talking of,” said Colonel Inglis. “Shall we let him know the decision we’ve arrived at about the letters?”

“Not unless he asks.”

“Very well. Tell Captain Hawke I’ll see him.”

The orderly saluted and retired. Hawke strode in. He commenced abruptly.

“I want your permission, sir, to leave the garrison. I think I can make my way through the enemy’s lines in safety, and get some news of Havelock’s movements. Everywhere the disappointment’s doing far more harm than the Pandies’ bullets.”

“That’s so, Hawke, but your suggestion’s absurd. You’ll never get through Lucknow alive, and we shall lose a man we can ill spare,” said Inglis.

“If I thought I should fail I wouldn’t go, but I’m certain to succeed. It’s not the first time I’ve masqueraded as a native, and, if you’ll let me have that golden fish talisman, I’ll bet anything I’ll pull the thing off all right.”

This put a different complexion on the matter. It was well known that Jack Hawke spoke half-a-dozen different dialects, that he’d studied the native and his peculiarities like a book, and armed with the talisman the venture, though full of risk, was not hopeless.

“You’re a plucky chap, Jack Hawke. Here’s the precious talisman. Make your own arrangements. Go, and good luck go with you.”

Hawke took the golden fish, and without another word departed.

“I expected he would have said something about the letters,” said Colonel Inglis, when Hawke was gone.

“Jack Hawke always does the unexpected,” said Fulton, shrugging his shoulders.

That night, Hawke, disguised in native costume, his hair dyed, his bronzed face, hands, arms, feet and legs darkened, stole from the southern fortifications into the city. He had purposely made himself up to look like a ruffian, and he really could easily be taken for one of the Lucknow budmash.

He threaded the narrow streets, which he knew by heart, in safety, and reached the road to Cawnpore. Here a native joined him, and, in spite of Hawke’s short answers, persisted in keeping him company. As the fellow put two or three questions which sounded suspicious, Hawke took a bold step. He showed the man the talisman and told him frankly he had come from the Residency, where he had been employed as a servant.

The fellow’s manner changed directly he saw the talisman. Hawke represented that the defenders of the Residency were nearly at an end of their resources. Their only hope was in Havelock.

“And their hope will soon be despair,” said the man, who said his name was Hasun Khan, jeeringly. “Havelock and his army have had to retreat. They will never reach Lucknow. If they do, they will be shot dead one by one in the streets. Every day we are becoming stronger. Good tidings came yesterday. The talookdars of Oudh are about to join us.”

This was a grave piece of news. The >talookdars were the most powerful class in Oudh. They were mostly the hereditary representatives of Rajpoot clans, and, without having a right of property in the villages they controlled, yet had nearly all the privileges of the property owners. The term “talookdar” means holder of a talook or collection of villages, and the talookdars were really tax-collectors, engaging to pay the state a certain sum, and collecting a higher amount from the villagers than they paid in; the difference constituting their remuneration.

Hitherto the talookdars had given no support to the mutineers. A few of them were first seen in the rebel army which Havelock, before his retreat to Cawnpore, defeated at Bussorah Gunge, but the majority took no active part, and it was thought those men who did were a few isolated men who had been coerced by the sepoys. But this was not so. Ultimately the talookdars went over to the enemy.

Hawke knew the importance of the information, and he did not doubt that it was true.

“Yes,” continued the spy, who was a Mohammedan, “ere long you will see the green flag of the faith floating over the Residency, and it will be done with your help and mine, brother.”

Hawke could hardly conceal his anxiety to hear more. His self-possession was not equal to the task of controlling his emotion perfectly; but the darkness was his friend. Hasun Khan could not see the change which came over his features.

“Our assaults have failed twice,” said Hasun Khan. “The third time we shall succeed. In three weeks’ time you will see. Do you know the Lutkun Durwaza? It is a gateway opposite the Baillie Guard. There we shall have two heavy guns. We shall mine as near as we can to the Baillie Guard, and you will then see the end of the Residency, and all within it.”

“That is well,” said Hawke, keeping his voice steady. “But, as you say, we’ve failed twice. How do you know we shall not fail again?”

“What!” cried the Mohammedan, suddenly changing his tone. “Have you not received your instructions from Azimoolah?”

Hawke could not repress a start. He had forgotten that the dead spy from whom the golden fish had been taken must have come from Azimoolah, and that the latter had most likely given him the talisman. Hasun Khan of course believed that Hawke was also one of Azimoolah’s men.

“Oh yes,” said Hawke in a confident tone; “I’ve received my instructions. They’re the same as yours, brother.”

“I am glad. Azimoolah has not told me of you; but I did not expect him to do so. We​—​you and I, brother​—​are to guide a number of the braves through the passage of Fyzabad. Once inside the Residency walls there will be no chance for the sahibs and the mem-sahibs.”

Hawke started. This was indeed important information. But what did the secret passage of Fyzabad mean? He had never heard of it.

“Ay, and more,” continued the Mohammedan; “but that is my business and mine alone​—​mine, and afterwards Azimoolah’s. Aha!”

The two were squatting by the roadside, resting. Hasun Khan’s knees were gathered to his dusky, wrinkled face, upon which a ray of moonlight fell, tinging it a ghastly green. What could Hasun Khan’s business be? Personal to himself or to Azimoolah?

“Brother, it’s enough that you are Azimoolah’s friend,” went on Hasun Khan. “Azimoolah’s will is your will. Maybe it is no secret to you that Azimoolah loves a woman shut up in the Residency​—​a handsome baba logue​—​one he met across the black water, in England.”

The blood rushed to Hawke’s brain. He quivered in every nerve. But he dared not trust himself to say a word. He wanted to hear more.

The grotesque figure squatting on the ground, looking more like a hideous idol out of some temple than a man, uttered a guttural chuckle.

“You must help me in this, brother. You can find out better than I can where this baba logue is. When the braves have come safely through the passage it is my task to conduct a chosen score or so to the house where the girl is to be found.”

“And then?” demanded Hawke, in a low, hoarse voice.

“And then? Will she not be cared for? The others will be put to the sword, but she​—​the chosen one​—​will be guarded by Azimoolah as the apple of his eye.”

“Yes, yes!” interrupted Hawke, in a fever of impatience. “And her name?”

“Her name? Her name is Atherton​—​Jean Atherton!”

Hasun Khan pronounced “Jean Atherton” in his own fashion, but there could be no doubt it was she he meant.

Hawke felt inclined to strangle the man, and he could easily have done so, but what was the use? Azimoolah was the villain on whose throat he longed to lay his hand. A very worrying question faced him. Did this hideous design of Azimoolah Khan confirm or contradict the assertions contained in Lady Constance Harwood’s letter? Reluctantly he came to the conclusion that there was nothing in it at variance with these assertions.

Hawke and his companion slept till daybreak. When dawn broke Hawke had an opportunity of studying Hasun Khan’s face more minutely than he had been able to do in the darkness, for it was night when the fellow forced his company upon him.

“I’ve seen that scoundrel before, I’ll swear,” he muttered. “I believe he was once one of my own servants.”

It was difficult to settle the point by memory alone, for in the days of his prosperity he had so many servants he could not be expected to know each one much less remember their names. He would have to get at it by a roundabout method.

Cautiously he led the man to talk about himself and what his past had been. By degrees, Hawke verified his suspicions. Hasun Khan had been a khitmutgar in his service. This was how he had become acquainted with Azimoolah Khan, who was also one of Hawke’s servants.

“This looks like Fate,” thought Hawke. “It drags up the old business of Agnes and George Holcombe. Hasun Khan and Azimoolah were as thick as thieves, and when Azimoolah disappeared after the delivery to Agnes of the anonymous letters attributed to me Hasun disappeared too. By heaven, if this rascal could be made to open his mouth he might throw some light on the mystery. But I must wait. News of Havelock first.”

The danger of discovery was doubled now that he had recognised Hasun Khan, but Hawke never hesitated. He wanted to learn more of Azimoolah’s plans, and as Hasun Khan was evidently in Azimoolah’s confidence Hawke made no attempt to drop his acquaintance. Azimoolah, he learnt, was busy massing a body of rebels at Bithoor to oppose Havelock, and it might be that if he pushed on he would even come face to face with the miscreant himself.

It was the 16th of August when Hawke and Hasun Khan set out at daybreak to plod along the road towards Cawnpore, then some fifty miles distant. On 29th July Havelock beat the rebels badly at Onao and Busseerutgunge, but the two battles had used up in killed and wounded one-sixth of his European fighting men. Others were down with sickness. In front were places to be stormed stronger than those he had encountered. On his left was a force watching for an opportunity to strike him a blow, behind numbers of the enemy had covered the Ganges and were consolidating themselves.

Lastly, as he himself wrote, “There were still thirty-six miles between me and Lucknow. As the enemy fell back they approached their resources; as we advanced ours became less and less available.”

Havelock did not hesitate where his judgment convinced him he was right. Only a man of strong will and strong convictions could have taken the painful and disappointing step which the circumstances forced upon him. He saw clearly his two victories availed him nothing, and the next day the order to fall back to Mungulwar was given to the troops, and received with amazement and muttered grumblings.

Yet he was right. The sick and wounded were sent back to Cawnpore, where Neill was commanding; and Havelock waited for reinforcements at Mungulwar. Neill was furious at the news of the retreat, and wrote Havelock a dictatorial, insubordinate epistle, which the general characterised as “the most extraordinary letter he had ever received.” The answer was a merited rebuke. “A consideration of the obstruction that would arise to the public service alone prevents me from taking the stronger step of placing you under arrest,” wrote Havelock indignantly.

The effect of Neill’s letter was unfortunate. Havelock’s sensitive spirit could not bear reproach, and on the 4th of August he once more moved from Mungulwar, though the obstacles to be encountered were now more formidable than before. On the 5th he again beat the enemy at Busseerutgunge; but this time they carried off their guns, and fell back upon Nawabgunge, a position as strong as that which they had been forced to evacuate.

Once more Havelock had to hesitate. Between his position and Lucknow the entire line was dotted with difficult posts, each of them very strong. His losses before reaching Lucknow would reach three hundred men, leaving him with less than seven hundred to force his way through entrenched and barricaded streets, defended by a disciplined army. He held a council of war with Tytler, his quartermaster-general, Crommelier, his chief engineer, and his own son, who served as adjutant-general.

“The only three staff officers whom I ever consult confidentially,” wrote Havelock to the commander-in-chief, “but in whom I entirely confide, are unanimously of opinion that an advance on the walls of Lucknow involves the loss of this force. In this I concur.”

With bitter feelings the force retired a second time to Mungulwar, to wait for reinforcements and recruit its strength. While there, Havelock received an appeal for help from Neill, who was threatened by four thousand men assembling at Bithoor. Reluctantly Havelock left his position, beat the rebels a third time at Busseerutgunge, crossed the Ganges, and on the 15th re-entered Cawnpore.

This was the retreat the news of which caused such disappointment and consternation in Lucknow.

But though Cawnpore was reached, the fighting was not over. The rebels had to be driven out of Bithoor.

Hasun Khan knew all about the defeats at Onao, Busseerutgunge and Bithoor. These were nothing, he considered, in comparison to Havelock’s retreat to Cawnpore.

“He has now to reckon with Azimoolah,” chuckled the man. “Azimoolah is in command at Bithoor. We shall see victory, brother. Do you say that too?”

“Yes, I say that,” returned Hawke, adding to himself, “Not victory to you dogs though, if I know anything of Havelock.”

They trudged on ten miles, till Hawke felt the fiery sun almost unendurable. But he dared not show signs of fatigue. Luckily, Hasun Khan proposed a rest in the shade. They had scarcely thrown themselves down when a cloud of dust in the distance sent them on their feet again. A horseman was approaching, galloping at full speed.

As soon as he came near enough it was plain to be seen he was the bearer of ill news. He was a sepoy belonging to the 48th Native Infantry on the way with the tidings to Lucknow.

“We are beaten,” he yelled, as he went by. “Havelock is on the march.”

On he galloped, scattering dust from his horse’s hoofs.

“We must return,” said Hasun Khan in alarm. “If I’m captured the feringhees will blow me from the cannon’s mouth, and you too, brother.”

“Thanks,” muttered Hawke.

He concealed his joy and willingly tramped back to Lucknow. He thought of the brave patient hearts in the garrison and what a ray of sunshine his news would be. If all went well he ought to be back in the Residency within twenty-four hours.