Chapter XXIII

Retribution

Hawke’s mission bristled with danger. In his old disguise as a native he presented himself to Lieutenant Johnson, one of Havelock’s officers, who was in command of the party. A few words sufficed to explain.

The moon was shining brilliantly as the little column issued through the Baillie Guard gateway, from which the block of earth had now been removed. Each man led a horse, on which a wounded man could be placed. Silently they tramped along the street which but a few short hours since had been a path of blood.

Everyone was astonished at the disappearance of the enemy. The natives appeared to be paralysed at the heroic feat performed by our men. Not a shot was fired. Johnson and his little force might have traversed the whole city in safety. The sepoys and the townsmen were thoroughly cowed.

The streets were strewn with corpses, and among them were many of the wounded soldiery. These were placed on the horses; and taken back to the Residency. The rest of the force proceeded till they were brought to a halt by the high walls of the Chuttee Menzil Palace.

The Chuttee Menzil consisted of a number of very handsome, lofty buildings, the chief structure imposingly situated on the banks of the Gumti. The palace was conspicuous, especially on account of its chuttee, an umbrella-shaped dome, which, covered with gold, glittered in the sun at a great height above the buildings. The entire palace was surrounded by a high masonry wall.

“I shall go no farther,” said Johnson. “The rearguard’s in possession of the Motee Mahal. Its duty is to look after the wounded on the other side of the Chuttee Menzil.”

“But why shouldn’t the rearguard take its wounded to the Residency now? There’s no opposition, and the task will be an easy one,” exclaimed Hawke.

“I’ve no orders. I daren’t go beyond my instructions,” answered Johnson.

“But, hang it, man! If we allow daylight to show the enemy the smallness of our numbers, they’ll renew the attack.”

But Johnson was not to be persuaded. He had no orders.

“Then I shall go on alone,” Hawke declared.

“Very well; do as you like.”

The lieutenant shouted the word of command, and his men wheeled round.

“Good luck to you, old chap!” said Johnson.

They shook hands, and Hawke went on alone.

His journey along those silent streets was ghastly enough. When accompanied by the steady tramp of disciplined soldiers the horror was lessened, but now that he was alone the sights he saw sickened him. The slaughter must have been terrible.

The silence and the emptiness impressed him as much as anything. It might have been a city of the dead for anything one knew to the contrary.

Suddenly he saw in the distance a figure emerge, as it seemed, from the wall of the Chuttee Menzil Palace. Doubtless there was a door which was not observable from the spot where he was.

The figure was that of a man​—​a native and a Mohammedan, by his beard and moustache. He turned towards Hawke. In a minute or two they must meet.

They came face to face. Indeed, the street was so narrow they could hardly help doing so, unless each touched against the opposite wall. As though obeying the same impulse, they stopped and looked each other in the eyes.

In an instant all the blood in Hawke’s body seemed to rush to his brain. That wily face, the glittering, snake-like eyes, the cruel, treacherous, sensual mouth​—​they were photographed in his memory. He saw before him the bloodthirsty fiend whose mind conceived and whose tongue commanded the massacre of the women and children at Cawnpore​—​it was Azimoolah Khan!

“Dog! Devil!” yelled Hawke.

The Mohammedan started, bounded back, and the next moment the blade of his sword, keen as a razor, was seen flashing in the moonlight.

Hawke, with his teeth set, and his eyes flashing, dashed at his adversary. The Mohammedan was a skilled swordsman, but he could not withstand the fury of the Englishman’s attack. In the second of two rapid thrusts, Hawke’s sword went through his adversary’s neck, and pinned him against the wall. His right arm made an effort to raise his sword, but fell nerveless. His dark face, writhing in the death agony, was hideous. A spasm, followed by a rush of blood, and all was over. The infamous Azimoolah Khan, whose black deeds there is no word to adequately characterise, was dead.

One glance to make sure he had done his work thoroughly, and Hawke rushed on. He had no time to lose. The Motee Mahal was quite half-a-mile away on the outskirts of the city. Between were gardens, isolated buildings situated in compounds, and walled squares.

We need not follow in detail the terrible story of the rearguard in their attempts to reach the Residency; of the fatal mistake of their guide, who missed his direction and led them to disaster; of the heroism of the little band and of their ultimate rescue by the relieving force from the Residency, in all the experiences of which Jack Hawke took a characteristic part. Suffice it to say that, having joined the rearguard, he was one of that devoted band who, cooped up in a square bordered by sheds, went through the ordeal of one of the most savage and determined onslaughts recorded in the history of the siege. Driven into these sheds, which afforded them their only shelter, most of the gallant defenders had given themselves up for lost. Danger, however, made no difference to Hawke, and with that recklessness which was part of his nature he coolly went outside to reconnoitre, indifferent to the risk he ran. No doubt his native dress protected him, for he stood there watching quite calmly. The square was half deserted by the sepoys. Here and there were the charred remains of the dhoolies, some of them still smoking. The smell was intolerable. Near the archway a large fire was burning, and the archway itself was blocked up with a crowd of armed men. The tramp of many feet could be heard in the distance.

Suddenly from the shed arose a shout of “Europeans! Europeans!” and then the poor fellows gave one loud cheer. They made sure a relief force was advancing, and they wanted their rescuers to know where they were imprisoned.

The crowd of men in the archway parted. There was a smothered cry, an exchange of angry words in Hindustani, and a woman in native dress burst from the grasp of those who sought to detain her, and ran into the square. She looked about her in a bewildered fashion, and then, seeing Hawke, ran towards him and flung her arms about his neck. It was Edith Ross.

“At last!​—​at last!” she breathed gaspingly. “I may not live. Will you let me die at your side?”

“You?” said he. But there was no reproach in his voice.

“I never thought to find you alive. The soldiers from the Residency are coming. I knew where you were. I have been on your footsteps since you started.”

In her fierce exultation at finding him alive, she thought not of the bullets of the enemy. She clung to him convulsively, as if to be certain it was he, and not his ghost.

One man slinking past caught the sound of English voices. It was enough. In a moment his piece was at his shoulder. Hawke’s back was towards him. The woman saw the danger. She uttered a warning shriek, and flung herself round, receiving the bullet which was meant for the man whom she thought she hated, but whom she had never ceased to love.

Her pallid lips moved.

“I had thought to die with you, but it is for you after all,” she murmured. “Hold me close to you​—​close. Oh, my God, forgive​—​forgive​—​for——”

The sound died away in a sigh, the eyelids opened wide; the eyes, fixed on Hawke’s face, momentarily brightened; a look of unutterable yearning flashed into them; and then they grew dull.

In spite of her wickedness, Hawke’s heart was wrung with pity. He read in those yearning filmy eyes her last desire. He raised her and kissed her lips; and with that kiss her spirit was wafted away.

Gently Hawke laid the woman down, and looked round for the sepoy who had fired the fatal shot. The latter was breathing his last, pierced through the heart. Into the square were crowding scores of British soldiers, cheering as they came, gallant Lieutenant Moorsom at their head. The sorely tried little band of heroes who had so long withstood the attack of hundreds was saved.

***

With the advent of Havelock, the siege of Lucknow virtually, if not actually, ended. It is true the reinforced garrison dared not assume the offensive, but they extended their boundaries, strengthened their defences, and, blockaded for seven weeks, waited patiently the arrival of Sir Colin Campbell. As for the enemy, they were powerless to inflict any serious injury.

On the 16th November Sir Colin entered the Residency. He decided that the position was a false one; and on the 22nd the garrison moved out to the Dilkoosha Palace and the Alumbagh.

Havelock, stricken with a mortal illness, had been carried out in a litter two days before; and on the 24th, when the march back to Cawnpore began, he died. He was carried in the litter in which he died as far as the Alumbagh, where he was buried in the enclosure under a mango-tree, on the bark of which was cut the letter “H.”

The whirligig of time brings about strange revenges. Jack Hawke, the old scandal forgotten, came to be honoured among the honoured, and it was a proud moment for him when he, Major Hawke, V.C., amid the enthusiastic congratulations of friends and comrades, led from the cathedral church of Calcutta his bonnie Jean.