Chapter XXII

At Last

A fortnight went over​—​a fortnight of intense anxiety. Only one question was in everybody’s mind​—​how long would Havelock and rescue be? No one doubted that the general would try his utmost to keep his word, but divided councils might delay him. Ungad had brought news that Havelock’s command had been handed over to Outram, and it was not known that on 16th September Outram had issued his historic order, chivalrously waiving his rank and position and handing over to Havelock the command of the relief operations.

On the 19th the second relief expedition, consisting of 2799 British troops and 400 natives, crossed to the left bank of the Ganges, and on the 21st began its march to Lucknow in rain and tempest.

Meanwhile the besiegers renewed their activity, and Hawke, stationed at the Cawnpore battery, had enough to do. It was clear the rebels were straining every nerve to force the garrison to surrender before the arrival of Havelock.

Then suddenly came a prolonged lull. Either the besiegers were convinced of the failure of their efforts, or had thought it wise to draw off their forces to meet the advancing Havelock. Whatever might be the cause, Hawke was released from duty for a brief space.

All this time Hawke had not seen either Jean Atherton or Edith Ross. Jean was at the Begum Kothee, and Mrs Ross transferred herself to Dr Fayrer’s house, no doubt, Hawke thought, because she did not want to meet him.

But there was another reason why she disappeared. She knew very well that Hawke would discuss the matter of the letters to Azimoolah with General Inglis, and that the truth would come out.

This indeed happened. The general told Hawke he had given the letters to Jean Atherton, as the one entitled to have them, and went on to question Hawke about his share in the scandal.

“My share, sir?” cried Hawke, amazed. “I swear to you I had no share. I don’t know what you mean.”

“It’s just this, and it’s only right you should know. There were four persons, other than myself, who read those letters​—​Lennard, Fulton, Mrs Ross and yourself.”

“Well?”

“The matter was one which ought to have been kept secret. It wasn’t. It became common talk. The poor girl was sent to Coventry by the women. Women are so charitable towards their own sex, aren’t they?” said the general, shrugging his shoulders. “It was too bad. Miss Atherton told me the story of her acquaintance with Azimoolah Khan. It was very slight, so far as she was concerned. He pursued her, anyway, and she repulsed him. Miss Atherton was perfectly candid and outspoken, and I believe her. But you know what a scandal is out here​—​you’ve had a taste of that same yourself. It grows like a snowball and nothing can thaw it.”

For the moment Hawke was tempted to tell the general of Hasun Khan’s confession, but what good would it have done? The death of Hasun Khan was a fortnight old. The man had been buried without the slightest medical examination. How or why he died was not worth a moment’s consideration. Hawke could hardly stir up the matter. It must rest between him and Edith Ross to the bitter end.

“The responsibility of starting that scandal about the girl rests on someone. Lennard and Fulton, poor fellows, are dead​—​only you and Mrs Ross remain. Either you or she must have tittle-tattled.”

“My God!” cried Hawke fiercely. “Do you suppose I should be such a blackguard?”

“No, I don’t. Moreover you went away to learn news of Havelock almost immediately after the letters were found. We needn’t say who originated the slander. I daresay both of us can guess. Take my advice, Jack Hawke, let the thing alone. It can only add to the poor girl’s distress to rake it up.”

Hawke said nothing. His white lips were pressed tightly together. The malevolence of Edith Ross was too patent. But at that moment it was not so much of the jealous woman of whom he was thinking as of her victim, Jean Atherton. His suspicions had vanished. How cruelly had he misjudged her. He quitted the general with the firm resolve to seek Jean at once.

But the resolve could not be carried out. A fierce cannonade began with the suddenness the rebels observed throughout the siege, and Hawke was once more in the thick of work.

In the meantime all kinds of rumours reached the anxious defenders. Their hopes were continually being raised, only to be dashed. But at last there was no doubt that Havelock was near the city.

This was on the morning of 23rd September. The weather had cleared and the sound of artillery in the direction of Cawnpore was distinctly heard. At two in the afternoon the reports became quite frequent and loud. At five P.M. another cannonade was heard, which lasted for half-an-hour. It appeared much louder than the former sounds, and excitement began to run high.

All was now exultation and joy within the garrison. The natives were at last thoroughly convinced that succour was at hand. No one was more excited than Ungad. He literally danced for joy, snapping his fingers, and exclaiming at each shot, “Humara kumpoo agua!”​—​“Our troops have come!” Then he scoffed and laughed at his hitherto incredulous comrades, crying out: “Who is the liar now? Who has been inventing tales and telling lies about Havelock sahib and Tytler sahib and Neill sahib and Barrow sahib?”

On the morning of the 25th the guns of the relieving army were heard again, and by ten o’clock became louder. At half-past eleven the firing ceased, and soon after numbers of the city people were observed flying over the bridges, carrying bundles of property on their heads. The city seemed terribly disquieted, and the bridge of boats, seen through a telescope, was crowded with a confused crowd, chiefly women, all hurrying to seek safety out of Lucknow. An hour later the flight became more general, and many sepoys, matchlockmen, and irregular cavalry troops crossed the river in full flight, many by the bridge, but more throwing themselves into the river and swimming across it.

The guns of the Redan battery, and those of the other posts commanding the river, opened fire upon the fugitives, and this was the signal for a retaliation of a fiercer character than the garrison had ever before experienced. On every side came a perfect hurricane of shot and shell. Fragments of iron and lead missiles were falling everywhere, and the interior of the much-battered Residency was visited by roundshot in places which had never been previously reached.

Strict orders were given that no one was to stir outside the various posts, but Jean could not restrain her impatience. She managed to elude the guard of the Begum Kothee, and stole forth to the Residency. It was not so much that she would be able to see better what was going on in the city as that she might be under the same roof as Jack Hawke.

At four P.M. a report came that some officers, dressed in shooting coats and solah caps, a regiment of Europeans in blue pantaloons and shirts, and a bullock battery were approaching the Motee Mahal. At five P.M. volleys of musketry, rapidly growing louder, were heard in the city.

Five minutes later, and the troops were seen fighting their way through one of the principal streets; and though men fell at almost every step, yet nothing could withstand their headlong gallantry.

In a few hours all doubts and fears were ended. The garrison’s long pent-up feelings of anxiety and suspense burst forth in a succession of deafening shouts. From every pit, trench, and battery, from behind the sandbags piled on shattered houses, from every post, rose cheer on cheer​—​even from the hospital. Many of the wounded crawled forth to join in that glad chorus of welcome to those who had so bravely come to the assistance of the besieged, so long and so sorely tried. It was a moment never to be forgotten.

It was immediately after the garrison caught sight of their rescuers that Neill fell. Then guns came up and once more the brave fellows pushed on through the narrow street which led up to the Baillie Guard of the Residency. The Highlanders came first, Brasyer’s Sikhs followed next. Havelock and Outram, with the staff officers, headed the advance.

In all that fierce fighting nothing was seen like the savagery with which the soldiers were met. The natives knew that upon their beating back the relieving force everything depended, and they fought like demons. From the side streets, from the front, from every window and balcony, from the top of every house, poured an incessant hailstorm of bullets, to which there was no possibility of reply. There was one thing to do and one only, to press onwards, onwards, onwards.

The natives, sepoys, and townspeople, crouching on the flat roofs, crept forward, fired down into the street, and hastily drew back to load. The women even, shrieking in their passion, seized muskets; others hurled down on the passing soldiery stones and missiles of various kinds.

Deep trenches had been dug across the road to hinder their advance and detain them under fire. The road was studded with all manner of obstacles​—​palisades, guns, stockades, barricades. From every side street poured a withering volley. The carnage was terrible. Desperate at their frightful losses, the men rushed to the loopholes within their reach and fired into them. They could do nothing else.

Instances of individual heroism abounded. A Highlander, Sandy McGrath, was shot through the back and fell; but, wounded as he was, he crawled on a hundred yards before a second bullet laid him low for ever.

Glandell and McDonough were two staunch comrades. McDonough’s leg was shattered by a bullet. In an instant Glandell raised his wounded chum on his back and trudged on. Nor while doing this did he forgot to fight. When the chance offered to fire a shot, Glandell propped his wounded comrade against some wall, and potted one of the enemy; and then he picked up McDonough again, and staggered on till shelter was reached.

Nor were the Sikhs behindhand. They were ordered to storm a gateway, and they went at it with a rush. This gateway opened, in the usual Hindoo manner, by the withdrawal of a big wooden bolt operated from a round hole in the gate. A Sikh thrust his right hand through to slide back the bar, and it was instantly cut off by some rebel inside. The fearless soldier immediately put in his other hand and opened the gate.

For nearly three-quarters of a mile this passage of death was endured, and it seemed never-ending; but suddenly those in the rear heard a sound which thrilled them and inspired fresh courage. The foremost men could see the battered Baillie Guard Gate, and could hear the frenzied shouts of welcome, not only from the men inside, but the women too.

With a final rush the head of the column reached the Baillie Guard Gate; but there was no entry there, for the gateway had long since been filled up with earth.

But at the side of the gate they found an entrance, battered by shot and shell, yet mounting the gun with which Captain Aitken had many a time dealt death and destruction, still sound and stable.

Directly “Jock” Aitken and his gunners saw the head of the column approaching, with Outram on his Australian horse​—​which strangely enough, in spite of its size, had come through the fire scathless​—​they raised a stentorian cheer, and commenced hauling back the gun.

Outram and his Highlanders shouted in response, and Outram rode at the embrasure; but the big horse did not like the look of the rough ascent. But there were a hundred willing arms near, and somehow, amid deafening shouts, man and horse were pushed, dragged​—​who can tell how it was done?​—​up the rugged incline, and the next minute were inside the Residency lines of defence.

The Residency was relieved, the garrison saved!

Havelock and his men were not long in following. The entrance was widened with pick and shovel and in swarmed the frantic soldiers, half drunk with excitement, not with liquor, for very little had they had to drink that perilous day.

There they were, dusty, black with powder, their uniforms torn, many of them with blood-stained rags round their arms, their legs, their heads.

But there was no thought of self at that moment. They had cut their way into the Residency; they had reached the dearly bought goal at last! The Highlanders were half mad with joy. They clasped the hands outstretched to meet them, exclaiming: “God bless you!” “We thought to have found only your bones!” “And the children are living, too!” The enthusiastic fellows were almost incoherent with delight, and stopped all they met to shake hands and ply them with questions.

Then they were taken to Dr Fayrer’s house, into which Havelock and Outram had entered. The ladies of the garrison, with their children, were assembled in the outside porch when the Highlanders approached. There was another scene of enthusiasm. The rough and bearded warriors shook the ladies by the hand, took the children up in their arms, and, fondly caressing them, passed them from one to another to be caressed in turn, kissing them, with tears rolling down their cheeks, and thanking God they had come in time to save them from the fate of those at Cawnpore.

The sorely tried, enfeebled men and women of the garrison were not less touched and overcome. There were gaunt, pallid men, whose hollow eyes shone weirdly in the torchlight, and whose thin hands trembled with weakness in the sinewy grasp of the Highlanders. Many had crawled up from the hospital to greet their rescuers.

The women, ever thoughtful of others, when the first greetings were over, busied themselves rushing about to give the poor wearied soldiers drinks of water, for they were now perfectly exhausted; and tea was made in the tyekhana of Dr Fayrer’s house, of which a large party of officers gratefully partook. There was no milk, no sugar, and there was nothing to give them to eat; but this did not matter. Everyone’s tongue seemed going at once, with so much to ask and to tell, and the faces of utter strangers beamed upon each other like those of dearest friends and brothers.

The garrison, it is true, was not in that starving condition which Havelock feared; still, the food was meagre and of the coarsest description. But there were a few delicacies left, and these were brought out in honour of Havelock and Outram.

Havelock was the guest of Mr Gubbins, and was regaled, as he himself wrote, “not only with beef cutlets, but with mock-turtle soup and champagne.”

Outram and his chief of staff, Colonel Napier​—​afterwards Lord Napier of Magdala​—​both wounded, became inmates of the house of their old friend Dr Fayrer, the Residency surgeon, who placed them in beds opposite each other in the long room of his residence.

The loss Havelock’s force had suffered was terrible, but far less than might have been expected, considering the circumstances. Yet it might have been still less had Havelock awaited the return of Lieutenant Moorsom, who had been sent out to see if the thoroughfares were open by the side of the Chuttee Menzil Palace.

Moorsom was too late to prevent Havelock’s advance with the Highlanders and Sikhs, but he saved the other regiments from slaughter. Under his guidance​—​for he knew every inch of the ground​—​the column altered its direction, and he led it in comparative immunity by a sheltered yet more direct route past the palace straight to the Baillie Guard Gate, which the head of the column reached while the Highlanders were still fraternising with the garrison.

By midnight most of the infantry and some of the guns constituting the column which had followed Moorsom were inside the Residency defences, with scarcely any mishap to bewail.

The news of the entry of Havelock and Outram flashed like lightning through the various posts, and, for the first time since the siege, friend could greet friend without danger. No longer cooped up for fear of the enemy’s bullets, the occupants of the batteries rushed out in all the joy of freedom.

Hawke, no longer wanted at the Cawnpore battery, ran to the Begum Kothee. Almost the first person he met was Jean Atherton. She blushed rosy red and then went deadly white. He thought she was about to faint, and instantly his arm went round her.

It was the best thing he could have done. The slight barriers of restraint were snapped. Both were eager for frank explanation.

“I thought I should never see you again,” said Jean agitatedly. “I went in search of you. You were gone. I​—​I wanted to tell you about those terrible letters.”

Hawke looked down into her clear brown eyes.

“Why tell me anything?” he whispered. “Let us forget all about them. I only want to think of you as you are. What does anything else matter ? I love you, Jean​—​and you love me. Yes, you do. Confess it.”

There was triumph in his voice. He drew her closer and closer, his lips were pressed to hers. She did not repulse him. Hawke was right. She loved him.

A heavy step was heard in the corridor without. A soldier was in search of Hawke. The man had brought a written message from the general. Hawke was ordered to go out into the streets of Lucknow, with a search party, to bring in the wounded. It was hard luck the order came at such a moment. It was grand luck it did not come a few moments before. Hawke straightened himself. He was the soldier once again.

Then​—​a convulsive sob​—​a tender embrace​—​Jean was alone.