Chapter XXII

The Fiendish Woman

There were some among the poor prisoners who knew this woman with the hard, glittering eyes and the hair streaked with grey.

“The begum​—​Hooseinee Khanum,” they whispered.

The woman’s glance went rapidly over the faces of the huddled crowd.

“Where is the baba logue (girl of the master race), Ruth Armitage?” said she.

Ruth heard the question. The sight of one of her own sex among the enemies gave her courage. Surely woman would be merciful to woman. She boldly showed herself.

“Ruth Armitage is my name. What is it you want?”

Hooseinee Khanum made no reply, but stared at her insolently for some little time.

“You are lucky, baba logue,” at last she said in sneering tones.

“What do you mean?” cried Ruth, her heart failing, for the glance the begum bestowed upon her was anything but friendly.

“You will see.”

And without another word she glided away, and was seen no more for some days. When she next appeared it was to order every woman to come out into the enclosure. Though this order might be the prelude to some dreadful deed the poor creatures gladly obeyed. It was a boon to breathe pure air and see the bright sunshine. Adjoining the compound which surrounded their prison was a house called the Old Cawnpore Hotel, and seats were placed for the captives opposite the hotel, and here they were told to sit down. They obeyed, wondering what this act of politeness meant.

The veranda of the hotel was empty, but soon after they had seated themselves, a stout, ungainly man with a vacuous expression on his round fat face waddled from the door leading into the house. He was richly dressed, and was accompanied by a bearded man with keen, piercing eyes. Ruth trembled when she saw these men, for the first was Nana Sahib, and the second Azimoolah Khan.

Nothing happened. The two simply sat and stared, now and then exchanging a word. There were many ladies among the prisoners to whom both men three short months before had paid obeisance, and despite the changes which privation and pain and misery had effected, these ladies must have been recognised, but their captors made no sign.

This ordeal was the precursor of others, and for several evenings the prisoners were allowed to promenade outside the building, and the Nana and his brothers sat and glared at them from the veranda of the hotel. All were surprised when he ordered a little milk to be given to the children; and on one occasion meat, cooked by men hired for the purpose, was sent in. But this concession was not repeated, and their meals generally consisted of a small quantity of dhal and chupatties. Clean clothes were also issued, and for this boon the captive women were deeply grateful.

Every day after the first “parade,” Hooseinee Khanum visited the compound and spoke to one, and then to another, insinuating that it all depended upon themselves whether their lives would be spared.

One morning, after the poor creatures had been shut up about a fortnight, she came in and went from group to group, scanning them with her bright, serpent-like eyes. At last she stopped in front of Ruth.

Baba logue,” said she, “why do you stay here when you might be free and live in a beautiful house, and have lovely jewels, diamonds, and rubies?”

“What do you mean?” said Ruth.

The woman laughed.

“Do you not understand? You are fair in the eyes of Azimoolah Khan. Away from this place, and with servants to dress your hair and to wait upon you hand and foot, you would be more handsome than you are now. Azimoolah would save your life. You have but to say ‘Yes.’”

Ruth’s eyes flashed, and her pale cheeks reddened with indignation.

“Tell Azimoolah Khan that I’ve always despised him, and that I despise him more than ever!” she cried.

“You are a fool!” answered the woman composedly. “Do you not know that the English will be killed​—​yes, all of them? The Nana’s soldiers are now on their way to meet the English troops. Not one will escape. Ah, you are brave, you English women, but you are foolish,” said Hooseinee Khanum, with a sneer, and walked away.

For the next three days permission was not given for the captives to promenade as usual. The heat of the flat-roofed house, crowded as it was, became insufferable, and the poor things endured intolerable torture. About noon on July 15 they heard in the distance the clanging of native instruments and the beating of drums​—​the procession of the Nana at the head of his men, who were going out to meet Havelock, for news had arrived not only that the latter had beaten the rebels twice, but that he was rapidly advancing towards Cawnpore.

The tidings of the second defeat struck terror into the camp at Cawnpore​—​the more so as Bala Rao, the Nana’s brother, had been severely wounded in the shoulder. Every fresh intelligence they received from the seat of war was discouraging​—​every manœuvre proved futile. The British were now within twenty miles of Cawnpore, and there was no resisting them.

Early on the morning of the 15th a few troopers, their horses covered with foam, galloped in.

“The English,” they said to the Nana, “are coming like mad horses and mad dogs. They care neither for cannon nor musketry. It is the women and children here that are making them rush on. Kill the >maime! (women). Kill the baba logues! (girls). Tell the English what you have done and you will find they will be discouraged, and go back, for they are but a handful in number.”

The Nana was not taken with this proposition, but it was different with Azimoolah. For personal reasons he had a spite against the English women, and he resolved to gratify it. So he warmly approved the idea of the massacre, and persuaded the Nana that the troopers were right in believing the British force were advancing simply for the sake of rescuing the women, and that if these were killed the expedition would be abandoned, as was really the case at Jhansi.

A hurried conference was held by the Nana and his friends, including a large number of persons who by loans of money and otherwise, had committed themselves to the rebel cause, which they intended to desert. These persons were well aware that ultimately the English would gain the upper hand, and, thinking only of their own safety, considered it would be well if all chance of evidence of their connection with the previous massacres were destroyed.

And so the bloody work was determined upon. The Nana troubled himself no further, but with all pomp and ceremony went out at the head of a strong force to witness, as he expected, the total rout of the British. Azimoolah Khan was left behind to arrange the details of the butchery.

Within a few hours of the Nana’s departure, Hooseinee Khanum made her appearance.

Mem-sahibs,” she cried in her guttural tones, “you have but a few hours to live. The Nana has ordered you to be killed.”

A thrill of horror ran through the emaciated frames of the poor victims. Huddled together as they were, they crept yet closer, as though for mutual protection. One woman among the number refused to be terrorised. It was Ruth Armitage.

“I do not believe it!” she cried, in clear, resolute tones. “You are lying, Hooseinee Khanum. Yousouf Khan,” she continued, turning to the jemidar of the guard, “you and your men would not do such a wicked thing, I am sure.”

“No,” said the jemidar, “we will not hurt the maime and the baba logues.

“Do you say that, Yousouf Khan?” said the begum, her lips parting with the fiendish sneer which curled them. “We will see.”

She said no more, but hastily left the bungalow, a low wail of terror from the poor doomed women pursuing her.

No sooner had Hooseinee Khanum left than the jemidar followed her. He was not absent more than five minutes, and when he came back he went straight to where Ruth was standing leaning against the wall, her face averted.

“Missee,” said the jemidar, “the Nana would see you. If you went to him, you might do some good.”

Ruth wavered. It was the only chance. She might induce him to be merciful. Who could tell? She did not know that the Nana had gone from Cawnpore, and had left the begum with supreme power.

“Yes,” she replied, “I will go.”

“No, no!” cried half a dozen women imploringly, “do not leave us. He means you harm.”

“He cannot hurt me,” said Ruth in a low, firm voice. “I can protect myself. Heaven will give me courage. It is no sin to die by one’s own hand.”

As she spoke she pressed the bosom of her dress. Here she had concealed a small dagger.

“Yousouf Khan, you were in my father’s regiment. He treated you kindly. For his sake you would not deceive me.”

“I swear by Allah I will not.”

“Dear friends,” cried the poor girl, her large, sympathetic eyes seeming to take in all the imploring glances which were turned towards her, “do not despair. There is yet hope.” And she followed the jemidar.

She did not return. Soon the poor anxious souls within heard gruff voices outside mingled with the shrill tones of Hooseinee Khanum. The infamous woman was urging the soldiers to enter the house and begin the work of slaughter. The cavalry refused. Bloodthirsty as some had shown themselves to be, they would not do this. Neither would the infantry. Then the woman ran back to Azimoolah Khan for instructions. A message was sent to the sepoy on guard that if they refused they would be blown to pieces by artillery. Upon this the soldiers reluctantly entered the house, fired once wildly at the ceiling and rushed out.

“We will have nothing to do with such devilish work!” they cried.

Once more Hooseinee Khanum went away and returned with five men, of whom two were butchers and two were villagers. They were brutal, bestial-looking creatures. One of the butchers was a tall, stout, dark man, much pock-marked, with a small beard; the fifth fellow was short and stout, with great hairy hands.

A native drummer who was standing fifteen paces off saw the murderers enter the house at six o’clock. It was then sunset. He could see the lady standing nearest the doorway cut down; then the murderers disappeared inside.

***

A man ran from the place of slaughter panting, his eyes swollen, his face demoniacal. In one big hairy hand he held a sword, its blade broken in half. He went to the Cawnpore Hotel and returned with another. Once more the same man appeared. The second sword had broken. He fetched a third.

Night closed in; the murderers came out. The door was fastened after them. All was over​—​save the horror, to come the next day​—​the horror of the well. On that crowning scene of the unspeakable tragedy let the curtain swiftly fall.