Chapter V

A Lull in the Storm

As dawn approached, Sir Henry gradually grasped the extent of the danger by which he was surrounded. On only one point was he unsatisfied. No information had come in concerning the 7th Cavalry. The lines of this regiment were at Mudkheepore, about three miles from the cantonments. It was a hazardous task for a messenger to get through the latter, with the bungalows blazing and lawless marauders in possession of the ground. Some of the 7th had accompanied the 32nd, being in the cantonments at the time of the outbreak. Of these Sir Henry felt pretty certain.

At the first streak of morning light, a party of horsemen were seen by the picket on guard in the direction of the Mudkheepore road. They proved to be a detachment of the 7th​—​all who had remained faithful out of those stationed in the lines. The men had been called out immediately the red glare in the sky told what was happening in the cantonments; but before the line could be formed some forty of them dashed off at full speed towards the cantonments, the rest patrolled during the night and at length found their way to headquarters.

Sir Henry was much relieved in his mind when he saw them; and after day had fairly broken he resolved to take the field. The 7th Cavalry were directed to move towards Mudkheepore, where the officers’ houses and the troopers’ lines had been seized and fired by the mutineers, who had gone up from the cantonments in great numbers, hoping to win over the cavalry. Two companies of the 32nd were ordered to support the cavalry, the rest being left behind to guard the approaches to the city.

Just as the force, with Sir Henry Lawrence in person leading, were about to advance, Mr Martin Gubbins, the commissioner of Oudh, rode in from Lucknow. He reported the city to be violently agitated, but that no outbreak had taken place.

“Nothing could be better than your arrangements, Sir Henry,” said he. “I left some 6000 of the budmash howling and yelling, and ripe for any villainy, the other side of the Gumti. They dared not cross the bridge in face of your troops. But for that they would by this time have joined the mutineers.”

“And the Residency​—​the women and children?” asked Sir Henry anxiously.

“They are quite safe.”

“Poor things!” said Sir Henry, in a tone of compassion. “There will be many an aching heart within those walls before long. But this isn’t the time for sympathy; sterner work lies before us. I’m off for Mudkheepore.”

“And I am with you,” said Mr Gubbins.

The word was given, and in the pale light of dawn the 32nd moved forward with the steady swing of the British soldier.

Had Jean been present, it might have reminded her of the trooping of the colours and that spring morning in the Mall, and of Azimoolah’s question: “Do they fight as grandly as they march?” The sequel proved that Jean’s retort was the right one, and that Azimoolah’s countrymen could best answer his impatient sneer.

There was not a man there who was not burning to avenge the murder of the old brigadier, of Lieutenant Grant, and of the young officer who died in defence of the treasury bungalow. There was no singing, none of the light-heartedness of men on the march. Their faces were set, their eyes had in them the angry concentrated look of revenge.

At four o’clock Sir Henry and his little army reached Mudkheepore. The fort was occupied by the enemy in force, over a thousand men having fled thither from the cantonments. When they saw the British soldiers advancing, they rushed out in disorderly masses, without any attempt at forming in line. Apparently they had no leader.

Meanwhile the 32nd had been halted, awaiting the artillery to take up its position. Immediately the guns were unlimbered occurred one of those sudden and curious revulsions of feeling without warning, without premeditation, of which the Indian Mutiny furnishes so many instances. A horseman rode from the rebel ranks, and waved his sword before the yet loyal cavalry. Instantly there was a movement of disturbance. The troopers seemed agitated by some irresistible impulse which attacked them simultaneously. There was no appearance of a concerted arrangement.

The four guns attached to the force were stationed to the extreme right of the cavalry, and the officer in command was in a position to see what was going on. He acted with terrible promptness.

The guns were loaded and pointed towards the distant line. The gunners were at their posts.

“Fire!” said he.

The sullen roar of the cannon awoke the echoes, and at the same moment the wavering 7th Cavalry, with the exception of about thirty, raised a fearful yell and galloped over to the enemy, who turned and fled.

“Will the rest of your troopers follow you?” asked Sir Henry quietly of Colonel Fielden.

“Yes,” answered Fielden promptly.

“I doubt it. Offer them 100 rupees for every mutineer taken or slain.”

The colonel galloped up to his men, who were still occupying their ground and taking no part in the pursuit, and repeated Sir Henry’s words. The troopers made no answer, and evidently obeyed the order to advance with reluctance.

The guns were moved slowly with the infantry, but it was clear the cavalry could not be trusted, and that pursuit was impossible; and after proceeding a few miles the design was abandoned.

The scene was like the disturbance of an ants’ nest. In every direction men and women were seen running with bundles on their heads​—​villagers and camp followers making off with booty obtained in the cantonments during the preceding night.

About thirty prisoners were taken, some being seized by Commissioner Gubbins, who, with his own orderly and three of Fisher’s horse, got detached from the rest of the cavalry; but the odd thing was, the commissioner did not know what to do with the fellows.

“We had not,” said he afterwards, grimly, “yet learned to kill in cold blood.”

While Sir Henry was clearing the air outside Lucknow, the city itself was in a seething ferment. The streets were teaming with the Lucknow budmash and shoda​—​the very scourings of the city. Every man was armed with his tulwar, and hundreds swaggered along with their shields of buffalo-hide and their matchlocks and pistols.

The rabble reached the stone bridge, to find that Sir Henry Lawrence had forestalled them. The British soldiers and a half-battery of guns were between the bridge and the cantonments. Budmash and shoda had not the least desire for a conflict with regular troops, and they swarmed back to their lairs. Here they commenced a disturbance, promptly suppressed by the police, assisted by a few faithful companies of the irregular infantry.

Within the Residency confusion and alarm still reigned. The flat roof was crowded with men, women and children. When the musketry fire told them the critical moment had come, all save those who were ill ran to the highest points. With terror in their eyes and fluttering hearts they watched the fires blazing one after the other in the cantonments. The musketry, sometimes in volleys, sometimes in dropping shots, kept their nerves quivering. No intelligence as to what was going on had reached them; for aught they could tell, the mutineers might have repeated the horrors of Meerut and Delhi.

The appearance of Lennard, calm and collected, gladdened every heart. The doctor looked with pity on the white faces of the ladies who crowded round him. It was now three o’clock in the morning, and they had been watching the lurid sky northward since nine the previous night. They were haggard and worn with anxiety. Four-fifths had husbands, brothers, lovers, in the little force which was opposed to such fearful odds.

Lennard did his best to answer and soothe, but his eyes did not meet those he most wanted to see. At last he managed to disengage himself from the groups of persistent and half-weeping women. He went in search of Jean Atherton.

He found her seated on a wicker chair. She had a shawl drawn over her head, and the pale light of dawn gave an almost unearthly beauty to her face.

“I could hear what you were saying, Dr Lennard,” said Jean quietly, “so I didn’t seek to monopolise you. There are so many here who have a much greater claim on you than I. I’ve no personal friends or relatives among those brave men who are fighting for us out yonder.”

“Personal feelings often disappear when we’re face to face with a terrible crisis like this. A common danger draws us closer to each other. Enemies may even become friends in the face of peril,” rejoined Lennard.

“What has become of Captain Hawke?” said Jean suddenly.

A footstep caused Lennard to look round.

It was Mrs Ross.

Mrs Ross seemed a little disconcerted at being discovered, and moved away a pace or two. Lennard bowed in acknowledgment of her presence, but did not speak to her.

He went on to reply to Jean.

“I can say little about Hawke. We parted soon after the outbreak. He went off to the cantonments, and I made the best of my way here. But you may depend upon it, Miss Atherton, that where the fiercest fighting is, Jack Hawke won’t be far off.”

“That’s true,” said a voice suddenly.

Mrs Ross had crept nearer to them. Why was she so anxious to join in the conversation?

“I’m glad to hear you say that, Mrs Ross,” said Lennard a little coldly.

“Oh, I’m not unjust,” answered the lady in a peculiar tone. “I can even be glad to hear that Jack Hawke is safe.”

“I didn’t say anything about his safety,” said Lennard. “There’s not a man over yonder who can hold his life as his own for a single minute. It’s more than four hours since I parted from Hawke. Much may have happened since then.”

“Very likely. But men of Hawke’s stamp aren’t the first to get shot. Providence seems to take remarkably good care of the scoundrels.”

She glided away. The bitterness of her speech impressed Jean painfully.

“Why does Mrs Ross hate Captain Hawke?” said she. “She’s been warning me against him. I should have thought that at such a dreadful time as this, as you said just now, all private enmity would be forgotten.”

“Mrs Ross isn’t one to forget anything,” said Lennard shortly. “But don’t let us talk about her,” he went on, suddenly altering his tone. “You must be in need of rest. There’s nothing to fear to-night.”

“Are you sure?” she inquired anxiously.

“Yes, indeed. Our men are drawn up between the cantonments and the city. The mutineers can’t pass over the stone bridge, nor can the budmash get out to join them. Ah, here’s your father. He’ll tell you the same thing.”

Mr Atherton had come in search of his daughter. He had been out in the streets to gather news, and also to do his best, with the assistance of the police, to preserve order.

“There’s yet hope,” said he. “The men haven’t got out of hand. I met Colonel Palmer with a loyal remnant of the 48th Native Infantry coming from the iron bridge. He told me that although mutiny had broken out, and murder and fire and pillage had begun, yet Sir Henry was more than holding his own.”

For a few minutes Lennard and Atherton compared notes, Jean listening anxiously the while, and her face growing white as the doctor told how old Brigadier Handscomb had met his death.

“Poor old fellow,” said Atherton with a sigh. “It was his fate. Well, he’s beyond the reach of trouble and anxiety. I wish we could all say the same. Come, Jean, let’s take a little rest while we can. I’ve been on my legs for the last three hours and I’m dead beat.”

Jean turned, and put out her little soft hand to the young doctor.

Au revoir, Dr Lennard,” said she, with a grateful smile.

Au revoir. I’m glad you say that. Good-bye is too ominous.”

“Ah, you think that because you’re not one of the scoundrels, to whom, according to Mrs Ross, Providence is so kind,” said she lightly. “I believe she was unjust if she was alluding to Captain Hawke.”

“You’re quite right, Miss Atherton,” said Lennard with emphasis. “Hawke is no scoundrel.”

Hawke’s words, “If you should never see me again, say a good word for me to that brown-eyed little girl,” were fresh in Lennard’s mind. Well, if he had taken leave of Jack Hawke for ever, he had kept his word.

As morning crept on apace the angry light of the still smouldering bungalows disappeared. Wreaths of curling smoke alone were visible. The musketry shots had long since ceased. A faint and confused murmur of voices came from the busy quarters of the centre of the city.

Lennard’s thoughts were not of Lucknow​—​not even of the mutiny. Jean’s sad face and large tender eyes haunted his memory.

“‘As though I’d been seeking her all my life, and had at last found her,’” said Lennard. “Confound it! How many more of Jack Hawke’s words am I going to quote to-night ? He used not to be very quotable. Well, she’s not for me nor for him either. Some other lucky beggar perhaps has won her. Who? No one in Lucknow, I’ll swear. We’re both luckier than he, after all. We can die for her, he can only grieve.”

“Dr Lennard,” whispered soft tones in his ear. He at once recognised Mrs Ross’s voice.

Mrs Ross seemed to be hovering about him like a ghost. What did she want now?

He turned towards her. He was struck with the look of intense anxiety in her large, dark, lustrous eyes. Usually they wore a cold, disdainful expression. Now they were liquid and almost soft.

“You spoke doubtfully just now, Dr Lennard​—​about Jack​—​I mean Captain Hawke. You said much might happen in four hours. What has happened? Tell me!”

“I don’t quite understand you, Mrs Ross. I spoke generally, of course.”

“Then Jack’s safe?”

“I don’t know. We parted, as I told you. Since then I haven’t seen or heard of him.”

“Ah!”

A sound like a suppressed sigh escaped the woman’s white lips.

She drew her shawl tightly about her.

“Thank you, Dr Lennard,” she breathed, and glided away.

“What does that mean​—​love or hate?” thought Lennard. “That woman has always been an enigma. But I suppose much may be forgiven her. Hereditary taint, temperament, climate and opportunity explain a good deal. Her father, General D’Arcy, to the day of his death, was a hard liver, and he never troubled about his two girls. They certainly followed his example in the way of getting as much enjoyment out of life as possible. Was it enjoyment? What about Mrs Ross’s life when she was Edith D’Arcy? Unlimited flirtation, a continual round of gaiety, engaged to be married three times​—​bah, she played with men’s hearts as though they were skittles. One man shot himself because of her, another was hounded away in disgrace. Her life ended in a marriage with a rich man who, in spite of her scorn of him, left her all his money. But has her life ended?”

And with this question hovering in his brain he went to snatch a few hours’ sleep.