Chapter XIX

Kismet!

When Hawke set out on his daring enterprise the siege had entered upon its third stage. After their last unsuccessful assault the rebels, utterly disappointed at their failure, contented themselves with mining, and it required all the skill and vigilance of Captain Fulton and Major Anderson, the chiefs of the engineering staff, to discover and defeat the incessant efforts to blow up the various posts.

By this time, what with the cannonading and the heavy rains, many of the buildings were in a terribly tottering condition. The Residency was nearly uninhabitable, and a large part of it had fallen in.

On 12th August the Cawnpore battery, which had borne the brunt of the attack from the very first, and had always suffered severely from its exposed position, was silenced. This was due to the oversight of the party who drove out the occupants of Johannes’ House and killed “Bob the Nailer,” in omitting to blow up the building. The sepoys soon after reoccupied the house, and it became a thorn in the side of the garrison.

The 18th of August​—​the day on which Havelock and Outram at Cawnpore were arranging their plans for the advance​—​was a notable date. It was the only day on which the rebels set foot within the fortifications. This third assault was preceded in the customary manner by the explosion of a mine, worked by the enemy with sharp and noiseless tools, not the slightest sound reaching the officers at the post. The explosion made a breach of twenty feet in the defences, and hurled two officers and three sentries into the air.

One of the rebel officers dashed forward, and waving his sword called upon his men to follow. In a moment a bullet laid him low. His place was instantly taken by another, who as quickly fell. Aghast at the fate of their leaders, the storming party melted away, and never again did they get within the defences.

The following day the heaviest cannonade the garrison had yet sustained opened upon the posts to the north-east, and under its cover the mutineers made an attempt to burn down the gates of the Baillie Guard, but failed.

They were soon to discover that two could play the game of mining. Captain Fulton had hitherto been content with foiling the attempts of the enemy to blow up the various posts; but he now determined to take the offensive in mining. It was the only instance during the siege.

The continual damage inflicted by the guns and musketry firing from Johannes’ House was no longer to be borne. The silencing of the Cawnpore battery had enraged the British officers and soldiers beyond endurance. Johannes’ House could not be taken by a sortie. The enemy held it in overwhelming force. There was only one resource, and that was to mine under it.

Meanwhile the sepoys were exulting over their success in silencing the Cawnpore battery. When there was a lull in the firing the strains of “God save the Queen,” and “Rule, Britannia,” played in mockery by the rebel bands, came floating over the fortifications from the city.

That exultation was destined to be short-lived. For three days the miners, under the direction of McLeod and Innes, had been industriously constructing an underground passage fifty feet long towards Johannes’ House. The operation was kept a profound secret, and only the skilled Cornish miners of the 32nd were employed. All had orders to work with as little noise as possible. From a fifty-feet gallery two branches extended right and left, and at the ends of these branches were chambers where the charges of powder were to be laid. Thus the house was being mined in two places. By the 20th of August the work was completed.

It was arranged that on the mine being exploded two sorties should be made; and in the early dawn of the 21st a fierce fire was opened on the doomed house so as to mislead the enemy.

The mining had been carried on so noiselessly that the rebels suspected nothing, and at the sound of the musket shots they swarmed into Johannes’ House and the surrounding buildings.

“We’ve got them like rats in a trap,” said Fulton grimly. “Look at the beggars crowding in, sergeant.”

“The more the merrier, sir,” returned the sergeant.

The two men were peeping through a couple of loopholes. They could see the dusky forms of the sepoys moving about, and in a very short time lights began to appear at the windows.

For a minute or so the men remained silent. The eastern sky was just tinged with gold, the sun itself was not yet sufficiently high to be seen. Scores, maybe hundreds, of the men who were rushing hither and thither, like ants in a disturbed nest, had gazed upon the sun for the last time.

“What time, sir, is the mine to be fired?” asked the sergeant, after a pause.

“At four o’clock,” returned the captain.

“And it’s now five minutes to.”

Five minutes! It seemed like five hours, so slowly did the time pass.

Suddenly there was a low rumble, the earth trembled; then, simultaneously with a vast upheaval, there came a terrific report, and the four walls of Johannes’ house​—​a big building fifty feet long​—​parted and fell outwards.

One huge cloud of smoke and dust obliterated everything. Before it cleared away the two sortie parties were across the intervening space, and were attacking the adjoining buildings.

The rebels were wholly demoralised. Practically there was no resistance. They fled for their lives. The assailants had brought with them charges of powder, and one by one the dwellings adjacent were levelled to the ground.

A ringing cheer went up when it was seen that henceforth the Cawnpore battery could not be molested. The once commanding structure from the roof of which a deadly fire could be poured on the unprotected gunners was a mass of ruins. Before sunset the guns in the battery were manned, and were never again silenced.

Previous to the explosion there had come a strange, an ominous silence. The firing on both sides had ceased. Jean for two days had been waiting her opportunity to cross to Dr Fayrer’s house. She had become impatient to see Hawke. She burned to make it straight with him about Azimoolah. Desperation had seized her. She did not care if Hawke renewed his fierce love-making or not.

She had no difficulty in slipping away unnoticed. The Begum Kothee, situated in the very centre of the position, was in no danger of being surprised. Indeed, this house was not garrisoned by military now, but left in charge of civilians. Jean had no sentries to challenge her on her way to the open air.

She hurried along, keeping close to the various houses. For the moment there seemed to be no danger. Suddenly she heard the unmistakable rattle of musketry towards the south. She trembled, and for a few paces her footsteps faltered; for though by habit the women got used to guns and musketry, the firing never ceased to cause a chill at their hearts when it ushered in another day.

Jean involuntarily turned in the direction of the firing. She saw nothing for a few seconds; then a column of fire shot into the air, succeeded by a dense cloud of smoke. It was not the first time Jean had seen a mine exploded; but hitherto all the mines had been the work of the enemy, and she took it for granted that this was one of the series.

A horrible feeling of terror seized her. What if this explosion was succeeded by a successful onslaught by the enemy? Only three days before, one daring sepoy had set foot within the fortifications. He was shot down, it is true. But what of that? Others might succeed where he had failed.

She was midway between the Begum Kothee and the hospital, and she knew not whether to go on or return. The explosion had evidently taken the inmates of the other posts by surprise. She could see heads peeping above the parapet of the roof of the nearest house.

Then came a pause in the firing​—​a silence. This was when the sortie followed the blowing up of Johannes’ House. The silence was more alarming even than the sound of musketry.

Her strength seemed to leave her, and she crept within a doorway to rest for a minute or two and recover herself.

She sat down upon the broad stone step, leaned against the inner wall of the doorway, and closed her eyes.

“Miss Atherton! Good heavens! Is it you?”

She looked up. Ernest Lennard was standing in front of her, a look of mingled astonishment and pity in his eyes.

The faint colour rose to her cheeks. It was embarrassing for her to explain​—​and above all, to Ernest Lennard.

“Are you ill?” he inquired gently.

“No, I am quite well. I——”

She scarcely knew what to say. However, she rose to her feet as if to justify her assertion that she was not unwell, and stood a moment or two perfectly silent. She longed to ask him what news he had of Jack Hawke, but she dared not.

Just then a cheer burst from the roofs of the houses. The men stationed there could see what was going on now that the smoke had cleared away.

“What does that mean?” she cried. “I heard the sound of an explosion just now, and I was afraid something serious had happened. I was frightened and so I crept here.”

“I’m not surprised at your fright,” said he. “Only two or three were in the secret. I heard last night an attempt was to be made to blow up Johannes’ House, and I gather from the cheering the attempt has been successful. But​—​forgive my inquisitiveness​—​how is it you’re here? Of course you’re going back to the Begum Kothee? May I accompany you?”

“I’m not going back there​—​at least, not just yet. I’m going to Dr Fayrer’s. I have special reasons for seeking an interview with Captain Hawke.”

“It’s a risky journey undertaken for nothing,” said the doctor.

“Do you mean I sha’n’t see him?” she repeated slowly, her voice sinking almost to a whisper. “Has anything happened——”

Her face suddenly became as white as a sheet, and she pressed her hands convulsively over her heart. Her attitude, her expression, the slightly parted, tremulous lips, the grief-stricken eyes came as a revelation to Lennard. No woman, unless her nature was wrung by intense love suddenly bereft, could look as Jean did at that moment.

“Speak!” she cried wildly. “Why are you silent? O God! I understand. He’s dead, and you’re afraid to tell me. Dead! Dead!”

She threw her hands above her head, clutched the pillar of a verandah near which she was standing, and her face slowly sank on her arm.

Her terrible grief shocked and distressed the surgeon, though it assisted in his enlightenment.

“You’re mistaken,” said he gently. “Hawke isn’t dead. Forgive me for misleading you. He is not in the garrison. He has gone on a dangerous mission​—​disguised as a native​—​among the enemy​—​to learn news of General Havelock.”

“Ah! how brave,” she cried, with sparkling eyes. “And you’ve heard news of him?”

“No. It’s hardly possible. We shall know nothing until he returns. How long that will be no one can say. He’s now been gone five days.”

Jean made no reply. Her eyes were cast down. A strange calmness had come over her. Lennard realised that her feelings for Captain Hawke were of a much deeper nature than mere friendship, and he added:

“I’ve great faith in Captain Hawke’s fertility of resource and his knowledge of Indian customs and ways, and I think he’ll return safely. And now that I’ve learned your feelings towards him, Miss Atherton, I hope you will not have to wait long before you see him.”

Jean raised her eyes. They were moist and shining.

“You’re the most generous of men, Dr Lennard,” said she softly, almost humbly. “I’m ashamed I was so weak just now. I ought to have had more courage​—​more control over myself. You forgive me, don’t you?”

“There’s no forgiveness needed. It was as well you said what you did. Life is here too short​—​too uncertain for secrets. If you really love Jack Hawke——”

He stopped confusedly. Jean intuitively guessed the cause of his hesitation. It was not extraordinary, for the same thought was in the minds of both. She came to his rescue.

“You’re thinking of that scandalous, malicious gossip about Azimoolah Khan,” said she, quite quietly.

“Yes,” said he, in a tone of sudden relief. “The story then has reached your ears. You’ve seen Colonel Inglis, I suppose, and he has given you the letters.”

“I’ve not seen Colonel Inglis, and I’ve seen no letters. I don’t know anything about letters. Mrs Ross was my informant. She told me what she said was common talk in Dr Fayrer’s house. So kind of her to let me know, wasn’t it?” said the girl ironically, “especially as there was any amount of falsehood and misrepresentation.”

Lennard stared at Jean in amazement.

“Do you mean to say that Mrs Ross never explained that letters from a Lady Constance Harwood to Azimoolah Khan, in which letters you were mentioned, were found on the body of a native believed to be one of Azimoolah’s spies?” he cried.

“Not a word. It’s the first time I’ve heard of these letters. Who found them?”

“Mrs Ross fetched me to see the man. He was dead. She and I saw the letters together.”

“And you read them,” cried Jean hotly. She was stung to the quick. The dissimulation, the treachery of Mrs Ross were at the bottom of her resentment, but she was angry with Lennard as well. Lennard saw this plainly enough. He had done nothing to justify Jean’s anger, at the same time he felt as though he were in a false position.

“Yes, but you forget that the letters were addressed to Azimoolah Khan, the bitter, the crafty traitor, the fiend of Cawnpore,” he rejoined quietly.

“But why was I kept in the dark ? You at least, Dr Lennard, might have told me about these letters​—​especially after you had made yourself acquainted with the contents,” cried Jean, her indignation rising.

“How was it possible? You left Dr Fayrer’s house. You were at the Begum Kothee. For the last three days it was certain death to go from one to the other.”

Jean was silent for a brief space. The argument was just, but her anger had not cooled.

“Did anyone else have the pleasure of reading Lady Constance Harwood’s correspondence?” she went on.

“Captain Fulton was on the spot, and it was of course his duty not only to read the letters but to take them to Colonel Inglis, and he did so.”

Not a word did Lennard say about Jack Hawke. After Jean’s unpremeditated confession of love for Hawke, he would not breathe a syllable to wound her. It occurred to him that if she knew Hawke had read the letters it would add to her unhappiness. The chances were she would never see Hawke again. The latter had undertaken a hazardous mission. It was hardly possible he would return. If he fell, it was better that Jean should think he had died in ignorance of the scandal.

“Let us go to Colonel Inglis. Until I see for myself what Lady Constance wrote, I sha’n’t be able to rest.”

“You can’t go now,” cried Lennard. “It would be madness. Wait at least till this evening after sunset.”

“I won’t wait a minute,” she returned doggedly. “Dr Lennard, if you really feel that friendship towards me you talked about just now, you’d help me. But it doesn’t matter. I’ve come from the Begum Kothee by myself. I suppose I can find Colonel Inglis by myself.”

Lennard could see she was overwrought​—​that opposition to her will was useless. He also could guess the reason of her determination. It was to be able to set herself right in the eyes of the man she loved​—​Jack Hawke.

“Very well,” said Lennard calmly. “Then let us go.”

He extended his hand, and she laid her soft fingers in his. How the contact thrilled him! Yet, as his hand grasped hers, he felt as though he were signing his own death-warrant.

He gazed at her glowing face. Her eyes met his. She started at the expression of mingled love and despair she saw written there. She almost shuddered. The look seemed to presage misfortune.

“Dr Lennard,” said she suddenly. “We’re friends now, so you must obey me. Tell me where I shall find Colonel Inglis. I’ll go alone.”

“Colonel Inglis is at the Residency; but if you go I shall accompany you.”

“I would rather you didn’t.”

“Why?”

“I can’t tell you. No, you mustn’t.”

She laid her hand on his arm and looked pleadingly in his face. He drew a deep breath, and was conscious of a fluttering at his heart. She had never appeared more beautiful, more lovable, than at that moment. All the doubt and distrust which had so tortured him for the past three days disappeared. What did it matter that it was her love for Jack Hawke that had so transformed her.

He raised her hand to his lips.

“I’ve given you my word that I’ll help you to the last. I’m not the one to withdraw at the first approach of danger. You misjudge me now as I fear you’ve misjudged me for some time past.”

“Don’t say that. At any rate, if I’ve done so, forget it,” said she softly.

“I will​—​I do. Let us go.”

She looked at him wistfully. It was strange that within a brief quarter of an hour there should have been such a revulsion of feeling. Never had she been drawn so near to Ernest Lennard as now. Yet it was not love. There was not an atom of the senses in the feeling with which she regarded him at that moment. It was pity​—​had she then been capable of defining her feelings. Yet why should she pity him, save for the reason that she was not able to love him?

They started on the journey. In the distance could be seen little flashes of light, a puff of blue smoke following each flash. Occasionally came the whistle of a bullet close to their ears.

They had walked about a dozen yards, when Jean suddenly stopped.

“I’d rather go by myself, Dr Lennard, believe me,” said she.

“I can see what you imply,” said he, in a pained tone. “You doubt my courage.”

“No, no, no!” she cried vehemently. “Dear friend,” she continued, her voice modulating into a tenderness which found a responsive echo in Lennard’s breast, “stay here. Don’t go any farther, I entreat you.”

“And after speaking to me like that, you think I shall obey?” said he reproachfully. “Don’t let us argue the matter. I’m not to be persuaded. Sometimes I’m as obstinate as​—​as you are.”

She smiled, but it was a melancholy smile.

“Very well,” she answered, “it shall be as you say.”

They were at that moment crossing the space between Dr Fayrer’s house and the hospital. The Residency was to the direct west of the hospital, and the nearest way would have been in a diagonal direction; but when the bullets were flying thick and fast it was wise to seek any shelter, and their intention was to take a right-angled path, thus creeping along the southern wall of the hospital.

Between the western wall of the hospital and the nearest point of the Residency was a distance of something like two hundred yards, and this was where the danger was. The guns of the enemy and their muskets commanded this open space.

They reached the hospital wall in safety. They crept along to the angle. Then they hesitated for a moment, waiting for a lull in the firing.

At last it came.

“Here’s our chance,” whispered Lennard.

He held out his hand, and she accepted it. They were about to start, when he stopped her.

“How horribly impolite of me!” said he lightly. “Do you see, I’ve given you my right hand instead of my left.”

“What does it matter? But you’re not impolite. The right hand is the proper one, if there be any choice.”

However, he had already moved round, and they set out hand in hand.

They crossed quite half the distance in safety. Half-a-dozen random shots went by, and no more. Then, apparently, they became visible to the sharpshooters, for the firing suddenly increased.

“Let us make haste,” cried Jean.

It seemed to her that her companion was slackening his pace.

“Yes, yes,” she heard him say, “let us make haste.”

His face was of a dusky pallor, his eyes were dull; the pressure of his fingers upon hers suddenly tightened, and as suddenly relaxed.

Before she could say a word his knees gave way; he staggered a couple of yards, and fell.

There was no need for Jean to ask what had happened. He was shot. Had they proceeded as they originally started, she would have received the bullet by which he had been struck!

Conscious of this, she knelt by his side and frantically asked what she could do.

“Nothing,” he gasped. “My time has come.”

“And you died for me!” she wailed.

“Why not? I​—​I love you, Jean.”

He could only whisper the words. He had been shot through the lungs. The bullet had entered his chest and lodged there.

She leaned over him and put her lips to his, which already were icy cold.

A tender, loving smile lighted up his glassy eyes for a moment and then died away. As a loud sob burst from the girl, he breathed his last.

In an agony of grief, Jean gazed at him. She could scarcely believe he was dead. It was not the first time she had seen death come without warning; but, let it come as often as it would, its terror, its mystery, never altered.

What could she do? She was helpless, stunned. Only five minutes before she had rejoiced in her reconciliation with Ernest Lennard, and now​—​well, after all, there was something in the creed of the fatalist. Kismet​—​it was to be!