Chapter XXIV

Vengeance is Mine!

The discovery of that morning, the thoughts of that horrible massacre and the awful well, hovered over every one like a thick, impenetrable mist. Then came the blankness, the reaction after the excitement and deadly strain of the past three days, and worse than all, the sickening feeling that the labour, the suffering, the loss of life, had been in vain!

Depression gave place to devilment. The men broke bounds, and, finding quantities of spirits in many of the houses, were for the time being converted into raging demons. Here had come in the fiendish cunning of Azimoolah Khan. The wretch knew human nature well, and lie was pretty certain what would happen when our men entered the city, if he could put the means in their way. So before leaving Cawnpore he took care to plant in dozens of the deserted houses stores of rum and other spirits, and the soldiers swallowed the vile stuff without ceasing.

Meanwhile, Philip Heron searched high and low throughout Cawnpore. He had not the shadow of a hope that either Dick or Ruth was alive; but to be inactive was torture, and on, on, he went, hour after hour.

Now and again he picked up scraps of the pitiful story, and among other things, learned of the Nana’s palace at Bithoor. Attaching himself to Barrow’s horse, which towards evening set out for Bithoor, Heron proceeded thither.

An hour’s ride brought them within sight of the building, and Heron rode ahead to reconnoitre. So far as he could tell, no preparations had been made for defence. On came the little troop of horsemen, not knowing whether from some hidden battery shot and grape would be suddenly poured upon them. But all was silent. Barrow and Heron entered the palace, and were met by a native, who fell on his face before them. This man was Narrain Rao, whose father had been in the service of the old Bajee Rao, whose adopted son was Nana Sahib.

“Where’s your villainous master?” demanded Heron, his revolver a couple of inches from the trembling man’s head.

“Fled my lords, to Delhi or Lucknow. Your servant does not know which. It is the truth he is telling your lordships.”

Leaving Barrow to deal with the man, Heron stepped to one of the windows and saw that earthworks had been thrown up near the house, and guns mounted. “You had prepared us a welcome, I see,” said he, pointing to the guns.

“Ah, Sahib, I had to do that to satisfy the Nana,” said the man through his chattering teeth.

Whether this was the truth is difficult to say. Certain it is that Narrain Rao was of great assistance to General Neill when the latter arrived at Cawnpore a few days later, and it was said he was on bad terms with the Nana. Probably he saw it was to his advantage to remain in the palace, and pretend to be friendly towards the British, for he took care to appropriate as many valuables as he could lay his hands upon.

While Barrow was talking with Narrain Rao, a tremendous shouting outside announced the arrival of a detachment of Madras “Lambs” and Sikhs. When it was discovered there was no fighting to be done, the soldiers scattered themselves over the building to loot, riot, smash, and finally to burn.

Barrow disappeared to restore order if possible, but his endeavours were of little avail. The men were raging through the luxurious rooms like maniacs, the British soldiers, with their muskets clubbed, smashing everything within reach, and the Sikhs busily looting. Not a sepoy or servant was to be seen. Narrain Rao had vanished. Had he remained, he would have received but short shrift.

His quest unsatisfied, Philip Heron hurried from room to room. The interior of the palace was like a maze, with its multitudinous apartments, its bewildering corridors, passages, antechambers and staircases, arranged without order or convenience.

By this time the sunset was well-nigh over, and the light was dim, yet Philip had not explored all the rooms. He had found himself in an apartment to which apparently there was but one door. He was about to return to the passage from which he had entered the room, when amid the distant yells of the infuriated soldiery he fancied he heard a voice quite near. He listened breathlessly. The sound appeared to come from a side of the room fitted with panels, richly inlaid with sweet-scented w o s of varied hues. He crept close and listened. The words were in Hindustani, but their meaning was plain to the listener.

“You will never leave this place alive,” the voice was saying​—​whether a man or woman was speaking, Philip could not determine​—​“Your countrymen have reached the Nana’s palace. They will not find the Nana, but they may find you​—​dead! Do you understand?”

There was no answer. The voice went on:

“You could have been killed like the rest, but I wanted to see you die. I hate you, because I hated the young hoozer (English officer) who loved you, and who scorned my love. Hooseinee Khanum never forgets​—​never forgives. It was I who fired at him when he was with you. I would have had him drop dead at your feet.”

Again there was a pause.

“Azimoolah would have made you his slave, but your beauty was gone. He cared no more for you when your cheeks were white and wasted and your eyes were dull. I begged you​—​the baba logue from him. ‘Do what you like with her,’ he said. ‘I want to see her die,’ I told him. Azimoolah laughed.”

Then the other​—​the victim, the rival spoke.

“Why do you not kill me then? I don’t want to live. Kill me quickly. Oh! Dick, Dick, why did I not die with you!”

Philip Heron started. The lament was uttered in English! The next moment he hurled himself against the panelled wall. The woodwork was but frail, and gave way with a crash and a splintering.

The last rays of the setting sun shone full on the lancet-shaped window, and suffused the room with a crimson light. A girl was tied hand and foot to a pillar in the centre supporting the vaulted roof. At the end of the room near the window crouched a woman, whose dusky face., with its repulsive, cruel lips, was distorted with rage, hatred, and jealousy. She was feeling for the catch of the window to escape from the vengeance which she knew was pursuing her.

Heron wasted no time on the woman; he dashed to the girl, and in a trice cut her bonds with his sword. At the same moment the window was thrown open and Hooseinee Khanum, climbing upon the sill, was lowering herself to a ledge beneath, along which she intended to crawl. Then came a terrific explosion, a snake-like tongue of flame darted past the window, illuminating the room for a second, and was followed by dense clouds of acrid, suffocating smoke. There were heard yells, shouts of derisive triumph, mingled with cheers from a score of British throats. The palace had been set on fire!

Suddenly the cheers ceased as though cut by a knife. Hooseinee Khanum, the Jezebel of the House of Massacre​—​had fallen headlong from the ledge on which she had taken refuge, and was dashed upon the pavement below. The infamous woman had met the fate of her prototype!

***

Hooseinee Khanum’s thirst for revenge had recoiled upon itself. But for this Ruth must have shared the fate of the rest, and to find herself in the arms of the man whom she secretly loved, whom she had never forgotten, but whom she had never thought to have seen again, was like a glimpse of heaven. Hooseinee spoke with jealous spite when she said Ruth’s beauty was gone. True, her cheeks were thin and wan, her form wasted, but her eyes were more lustrous than ever. They shone with the light of the courage and endurance which had never failed her throughout those never-to-be-forgotten horrors.

The first shot fired into the entrenchment was on June 6, the tragedy of the House of Massacre was enacted on July 15​—​some five weeks only! To Ruth these weeks were so many years of intolerable torture. Strange would it have been if such a frightful strain upon her vitality had not left indelible traces behind.

The time came when all that Ruth had gone through seemed vague, shadowy, unreal, for memories of misery are fleeting; those of happiness enduring. Only one link with terrible Cawnpore remained unbroken​—​her remembrance of poor Dick; and for her husband to know that his brother had loved her, made her more precious in his sight. Many a time in the peace and quietude of their English home, when the prattle of their children had ceased, and the house was still, did they wander hand in hand in their pretty garden by the river, while the sun went down and the shadows lengthened, and talk in low voices of Dick. Only those who have suffered and have made sacrifices know the nobility, the undying romance of pure love; and though it would have sounded selfish to have said in so many words that for them Dick had not died in vain, yet both felt it was the truth. Even death has its compensations.