Chapter XX

In the Secret Passage

Under the scorching sun, Hawke and Hasun Khan trudged along the dusty Cawnpore road, on their way back to Lucknow. The only shade was that furnished by a clump of trees about two miles from where the sepoy met them. Hawke would have lingered here till evening, but Hasun Khan was in an agony of fear. His imagination conjured up pursuit.

“No, no, brother, there’s safety nowhere but in Lucknow,” he muttered through his chattering teeth. “On​—​on!”

Hawke saw it was no use protesting. Indeed, it would have been imprudent. It might have raised the man’s suspicions. He could have separated himself from the Mohammedan and gone on to Havelock, but nothing was to be gained by this. It was more important for him to hasten back to the Residency with the news of Azimoolah’s defeat at Bithoor. Besides, he did not intend losing sight of Hasun Khan until he knew more about the secret passage from the city to the Residency, which the fellow had said was known only to him and Azimoolah.

On their second day’s tramp, several stragglers from the fight at Bithoor overtook them. They confirmed the mounted sepoy’s story, and brought later news. Azimoolah had collected the remnant of his forces and was hastening back to Lucknow by a roundabout road.

More important was the tidings that Havelock was unable to continue the pursuit. His men, exhausted by an eight hours’ march under a broiling sun, followed by a fiercer battle than they had hitherto fought, could do no more. Havelock had no alternative but to retreat to Cawnpore.

This was bitter news to Hawke.

“My God!” he muttered. “Havelock’s delay may seal the doom of the Residency.”

Hawke would have been still more despondent had he known the tidings which were awaiting the heroic general on his return to Cawnpore. Opening a copy of The Calcutta Gazette, Havelock saw that he had been superseded in his command by his old friend and commander in Persia, General Outram.

At that time the full extent of Havelock’s marvellous campaign was not known, or the command would never have been taken from him. Extending only from the 12th of July, when he started from Allahabad, to the 16th of August, this campaign has no parallel in the military history of British India. On no former occasion had European troops been required to march and fight in circumstances so adverse, under a deadly sun or amidst torrents of rain, often fasting for twenty-four hours, and generally without tents, with no bed after their victories but the saturated ground, and no shelter but that which the trees afforded, carrying with them their sick and their wounded, and all their supplies, and suffering more from pestilence than from the weapons of the enemy.

It was under all these disadvantages that, in this brief period of five weeks, they had fought nine actions against overwhelming odds, with troops disciplined, and for the most part armed like themselves, and had been everywhere victorious without a single check.

A large portion consisted of raw recruits, who had never before heard the whistle of an enemy’s bullet; but such marching and such fighting had turned the survivors into hardy veterans, ready for any emergency.

So great was the confidence the men had acquired in themselves, in their comrades, and in their leader, that they never dreamed of a defeat, and never marched to action without feeling certain of victory.

Such were the men, who, as “Havelock’s Ironsides,” have earned immortality for themselves.

This is all now a matter of history. At the time news came so slowly, and was so confusing when it did come, only those with Havelock could fully realise the stupendous difficulties he surmounted. But men like Hawke, who had served under Havelock, knew and believed in him, and it was as well Hawke was in ignorance of the injustice which had been done.

Hasun Khan’s delight that the English had been checked was unbounded.

“Aha,” he grinned. “The next fight will be under the walls of Lucknow. What then​—​eh, brother, what then?”

Hawke shrugged his shoulders and forced a laugh.

That night the two entered Lucknow. Azimoolah had not arrived, but there were scores of men from his command. They were coming in every hour and from all directions eastward. Azimoolah was expected the next day.

“Allah be praised, we shall then see him,” cried Hasun Khan. “You will return the golden fish and tell him what you have done and what you have learned in the Residency.”

Hawke had made out to Hasun Khan that he had been sent as a spy to the besieged garrison.

“Oh, I’m expected to give up the talisman, am I,” thought Hawke. “I know a trick worth two of that. I’m not going to take the risk of an interview with the scoundrel. One of two things will happen​—​either he’ll spot me or I shall lose my temper and betray myself.”

“I shall not wait to see Azimoolah,” said Hawke. “I must obey his orders. I was to return to the Residency if I could not join him at Bithoor.”

“How did you know he was at Bithoor?” demanded Hasun Khan suspiciously. “Was it not I who told you?”

“Yes,” returned Hawke, his eyes blazing. “You had a long tongue. You did not know me, yet you betrayed to me Azimoolah’s secrets.”

“Betrayed!” faltered Hasun Khan. “How? Did you not have the royal talisman​—​the golden fish of Oudh?”

“And did you know how I came by the talisman? Might I not have murdered Azimoolah’s spy and robbed him? I allowed you to talk and you told me everything. What if I were to let Azimoolah know of your faithlessness, your indiscretion?”

Hasun Khan trembled from head to foot. Jack Hawke’s acting was splendid. It was his intention to frighten the Mohammedan, and he succeeded. He went on to reduce the man to a state of absolute submission.

“No harm has been done, but I shall report to Azimoolah that you are not worthy of his confidence,” he continued haughtily.

“No​—​no​—​you say I have done no wrong,” whimpered Hasun Khan, suddenly throwing himself on the ground.

“I said you had done no harm​—​fortunately. But you are not to be trusted. You talk too much. Azimoolah suspected this. He instructed me to watch you. I have done it. Until we both meet Azimoolah face to face, you will obey me​—​yes, by virtue of this which no man of Oudh has ever refused to honour.”

He flashed the golden emblem before the eyes of the grovelling wretch. The whole thing was a pure piece of bluff. It answered its purpose. The effect was heightened by Hawke’s fingers toying with the hilt of the native sword dangling from his waistband.

“What does my lord desire?” mumbled the Mohammedan.

“I have told you my orders are to return to the Residency. I escaped from the Cawnpore battery to Johannes’ House. I can’t go back that way. Johannes’ House is now a heap of ruins. It’s certain death night or day to cross in front of the feringhee rifles. That secret passage of yours​—​the passage known only to you and Azimoolah​—​take me to it.”

“I​—​I have sworn to Azimoolah never to betray where it is,” stammered Hasun Khan.

“Dog!” thundered Hawke. “Do you refuse? Has not Azimoolah handed me his power by virtue of this symbol? By Allah, you are not fit to live——”

Hawke’s sword flashed from its scabbard. It was enough. Hasun bowed his head and poured out a string of abject apologies. Hawke condescended to be appeased.

“It is enough. Come​—​the passage. At once!”

The Mohammedan was effectually cowed. He rose from his knees and without another word led the way through the narrow, noisome lanes to the north of the city, eventually emerging on the marshy ground bordering the river Gumti. The sullen roar of cannon, the fitful fire of musketry from besieged and besiegers, followed them.

Skirting the Residency, Hasun Khan plodded towards a little native village some two miles away to the east.

The ground surrounding the village was very broken and stony. Here and there were deep excavations. These excavations​—​quarries, they might almost be called​—​yielded the peculiar stone of which the houses in Oudh are built.

Keeping a watchful eye on Hasun Khan, Hawke followed him to a distant part of the excavations, where the work had evidently ceased for many years. Here was virtually a jungle. The two men pushed through the dense vegetation and entered a species of ravine.

The walls of this ravine became higher the farther they went, and soon towered over their heads. Suddenly the Mohammedan stopped and pointed to a narrow opening in the rock.

“That is the beginning of the passage. You must be careful when you have gone about a quarter of a mile. Here the passage splits into two. One way leads to Fyzabad——”

“Are you telling me a lie?” broke in Hawke roughly. “Fyzabad is fifty miles away. Fifty miles underground! I can’t believe it.”

“Why not? When our princes ruled, what was time​—​money​—​labour? They said, let a thing be done, and it was done.”

Hasun Khan did not exaggerate. The passage was constructed by one of the kings of Oudh, at the time when Fyzabad was the capital and Lucknow comparatively unknown. It was said that the secret of its whereabouts was known only to the ruling monarch.

“Very well. I take it you’re speaking the truth,” went on Hawke, in the brusque tone he had used before. “One way leads to Fyzabad. Go on.”

Hasun Khan glanced uneasily at Hawke. The latter no longer spoke after the manner of the native, but the Mohammedan dared not say anything: Hawke at that moment looked particularly aggressive.

“It led to Fyzabad once. It no longer does so. The roof fell in many years ago, and the passage is blocked up. The other way will take you where you want to go​—​beneath the Residency. Good luck be with you. I shall report to Azimoolah where you have gone. You will come back to him with your news.”

Hasun Khan made a gesture of farewell, and was about to turn when Hawke’s hand descended heavily upon him.

“So you’d like to sneak away, would you? You’ll do nothing of the kind.”

The face of Hasun Khan went a sickly yellow. Hawke had spoken in his natural voice, and​—​in English! Again the Mohammedan went on his knees, and in abject terror mumbled an appeal for mercy.

“You shall have as much mercy as you deserve. We’ll talk about that later on. Just now the most important thing is a lamp. Jack Hawke doesn’t travel in the dark with such scum as you.”

“Sahib Hawke——” stammered the terrified man.

“I guess you haven’t forgotten me​—​nor my foot either. Get up, and thank Allah I don’t hurry your movements with this.”

Hawke tapped the hilt of his sword significantly.

Hasun Khan stood tremblingly awaiting Hawke’s orders. They returned to the village, and the Mohammedan borrowed a lamp and oil from an old man, who had not the slightest suspicion Hawke was not a native.

Once more Hawke and Hasun Khan were at the opening in the ravine. The Mohammedan submissively obeyed Hawke’s orders. He had a wholesome respect for the Englishman’s muscles, the strength of which he had experienced in the old days.

Lighting the lamp, Hasun Khan squeezed his way into the passage, Hawke, with his stalwart form, having to go sideways for some two or three yards. The passage then widened and soon became a cavern of probably forty feet in length. At the extreme end the roof gradually sloped downward, until they were unable to stand upright, and finally were obliged to crawl on their hands and knees. Once more they were in a passage, much wider than that which formed the entrance, but so low pitched that their crawling became little more than a wriggle.

The heat was great, the air stifling, but Hawke took no heed. He had done too much mining for his surroundings to have any effect on him. Nevertheless he was glad enough when he was able once more to stand upright.

“Give me the lamp,” said Hawke. “Go on in front. I’ll let you have plenty of light.”

For anything he knew, the Mohammedan might lead him into a trap, and he was determined not to be taken by surprise. He made Hasun Khan therefore walk quite a yard in front of him.

The ground was uneven. It was strewn with loose pieces of stone, over which they now and again stumbled. The air became more stifling the farther they went. The lamp smelt vilely and added its odour to that of the earth.

Soon mouth and throat became parched with thirst. Their feet raised clouds of suffocating dust. This was caused by the soft limestone called kunkur, the only form in which lime is found in Oudh for building purposes and road pavements. It is usually met with in large lumps, in the centre of which is a nucleus of flint.

They had been in the passage probably an hour, when all at once Hasun Khan stopped.

“Do you hear, sahib?” said he huskily.

Sounds of tapping, regular and mechanical, could be distinctly heard. Hawke knew the noise.

“Sapping, by Jove!” he muttered. “Our men or the rebels?”

His life depended on which way the question was answered. Nevertheless he determined to push on. Not so Hasun Khan. The man was in a cleft stick. If the sappers were English, it meant his death. If they were his own countrymen, his doom would be equally sealed. It would not be believed that he was not a traitor who had betrayed to his companion, an Englishman, the existence of the secret passage. He begged abjectly to be allowed to return. He had kept faith with “his lordship”​—​would not his lordship release him?

“His lordship will do nothing of the kind,” said Hawke coolly. “I and you, Hasun Khan, are going on to the bitter end​—​whatever that end may be.”

Hasun Khan wrung his hands and whimpered. His entreaties, his terror, had no effect. Hawke threatened to put a bullet through him if he refused to go on. He had to obey.

The noises became more distinct. First came the stroke, followed by the rattling of hard soil. It was clear the miners were drawing very near.

“Stop,” commanded Hawke.

They were opposite the place where the sappers were working. Hawke’s injunction came just in time. A crash, blinding, choking dust, and a heap of limestone blocked farther progress. To the right was a big jagged gap.

“By Jove, the devils have been before us!” cried a voice, which Hawke had no difficulty in deciding was Fulton’s.

Fulton naturally took the passage to be the work of rebel sappers. The light of the lamp Hawke was carrying was luckily so feeble, and the air so thick with dust, Fulton was ignorant anybody was in the passage. Otherwise his revolver would have been at work.

“Hullo​—​hullo——!” yelled Hawke. “Bravo, Fulton! Glad to find you busy.”

“Who the devil is that?” was Fulton’s reply.

“Jack Hawke.”

The next moment the two had grasped hands.

“My dear old Jack! What news?” cried Fulton. “What about Havelock?”

“Havelock’s doing just what you might expect​—​pegging away. But——”

“What does that ‘but’ mean?”

“After thrashing Azimoolah and the rascals under him, at Bithoor, he’s had to return to Cawnpore to recoup. That’s the story latest to hand. I don’t vouch for its truth, mind. It’s likely, anyhow, and——”

Hawke jerked himself round. He had, in the excitement of meeting Fulton, forgotten Hasun Khan. The latter was nowhere to be seen. He had taken advantage of the situation to escape. Hawke did not intend that he should, and to the astonishment of Fulton plunged into the darkness.

In less than five minutes he reappeared, dragging with him the wretched Mohammedan.

“Put this man in irons, Fulton,” he cried. “He’s Azimoolah’s spy! Treat him well. He’s likely to be useful​—​to me as well as to the garrison. I must see General Inglis at once. Will you come with me, Fulton?”

Within the next hour the three​—​General Inglis Fulton and Hawke​—​were closeted together, and Hawke went over his adventures. The two most important points discussed were, firstly, Havelock’s victory at Bithoor and his compulsory delay, and the contemplated attack on the Residency by Azimoolah Khan, for which, according to Hasun Khan, preparations were being made.

“By Jove!” exclaimed Fulton, “I can see now the meaning of that battery the enemy have been constructing opposite the Baillie Guard, at what they call the Lutkun Durwaza Gate. They’ve mounted two confoundedly heavy guns there, but I think, when they open fire, we shall give them an effective retort with our counter battery on the left of the Baillie Guard. A present it’s masked. Aitken’s sepoys hold it, and hold it well. The question is, when will the beggars begin the attack? I suppose Hasun Khan didn’t tell you that?”

“No; and it’s doubtful whether he knows. It all depends how soon Azimoolah reaches Lucknow. He won’t lose any time, I’ll bet,” returned Hawke. “He must know that Havelock will be soon on the march.”

Captain Fulton determined to survey the city and endeavour to ascertain from what point the attack was likely to come.

He and Hawke ascended to the top of the tower of the Residency. All they could settle was that a number of men were tramping towards the city along the eastern and southern roads.

“Those must be some of the Bithoor rabble coming in,” said Fulton. “Ungad says the Nana’s escaped and is now in Lucknow.”

“Then if the Nana’s here, Azimoolah isn’t far off.”

Ungad, whose services as a messenger were invaluable, arrived a few hours before Hawke, and had brought a letter from Havelock in the usual receptacle, a quill sealed at both ends.

It ran as follows:

“I have your letter of the 16th instant. I can only say, do not negotiate, but rather perish sword in hand. Sir Colin Campbell, who came out at a day’s notice to command, upon the news arriving of General Anson’s death, promises me fresh troops, and you will be my first care. The reinforcements may reach me in from twenty to twenty-five days, and I will prepare everything for a march on Lucknow.”

Nothing could be gained by remaining any longer on the tower, and the two men descended. Both were struck by the unusual quietude which prevailed. It seemed to be a foreboding of disaster. It was a curious fact that, so accustomed had the garrison become to the constant, unceasing crack of the enemy’s musketry, that they felt uncomfortable if they did not hear it.

A quiet day was generally the precursor of a mine explosion or of an assault. And here, too, was another noticeable fact. On the quiet days more men were lost than on the fighting days. The explanation was simple. During the fighting days the men were careful to keep under cover, and to kill without, if possible, exposing themselves to being killed. But when there was no absolute fighting a few well-aimed shots from the late king’s African retainers, and other first-rate sharpshooters, often deprived the besieged of three, four, and even more stout English hearts.

All that night the garrisons were on the alert. Not a sound was heard, but early in the morning large masses of men were seen moving about the city.

At ten o’clock great alarm was caused by the loud explosion of a mine in the direction of the bastion of Gubbins’ battery.

The report was so close and loud, and the air was at the moment so darkened by smoke and by the numerous weighty fragments of earth which were falling and crashing everywhere about and over the house, that all believed the bastion had been blown up.

A mine had, indeed, been exploded close to it, but an error in calculating the distance was sufficiently great to prevent injury. The sepoys were industrious miners, but the blunders they made in the direction of the mines were incredible.

The mine had been a large one, as was evidenced by the size of the gap in the earth, and the shock it gave to all the houses throughout the position.

The enemy soon came out in force against Gubbins’ battery, and, fixing a huge ladder, with double rows of rungs so as to allow of two or more men mounting abreast, at the mouth of the 18-pounder embrasure, attempted to escalade. But it was an attempt only. They did not show their faces, but thrust the muzzles of their muskets into the embrasure and fired.

They were speedily dislodged by Major Apthorpe and the men of the 32nd with hand grenades and musket shots, while the sharpshooters kept up a heavy fire upon them.

The loss of the enemy was very great, while that of the defenders was exceedingly trifling.

While the attack on Gubbins’ was going on, another mine was sprung at the middle of the brigade mess, and no doubt the one at the Financial Commissioner’s post would have been exploded as well but for Fulton’s vigilance. He was at work all night and destroyed it.

But the enemy were not discouraged; and, putting up with the failure of their mines, they opened out with their newly constructed battery at the Lutkun Durwaza. Crash came shot after shot at the Baillie Guard Gate. Very little damage was done. The stonework of the gate itself was massive, and the gateway had been filled up with an enormous mound of earth, in which the roundshot buried itself harmlessly.

“All right, my lads,” said Aitken, who was in charge of the masked battery, “we’ll return the compliment now we know where you are.”

He gave the order. The 18-pounder and the 24-pounder howitzer, of which the battery consisted, suddenly belched forth fire and death, to the consternation of the enemy’s gunners.

Azimoolah’s efforts at the Lutkun Durwaza had failed, and the rebel troops, which had been massed waiting for the opening, were drawn up uselessly. From that day the rebels never attempted an assault nor a close attack on any single post.

The result was that, while the enemy’s efforts had become feeble, the defence was practically assured.