Chapter IX

A Danger Signal

It was the 12th of May. The day had been one of excessive heat even for the hottest month in the year in India. From morn till night punkahs had been kept swinging, without making much apparent difference in the stifling atmosphere. The English residents were limp and nerveless, the natives moved silently, stealthily.

The welcome sunset came, and the fiery red of the western sky changed to a bluish, opalescent tint. With the cool evening, life seemed to return to the exhausted Europeans. Lights began to appear here and there; the whirr of myriads of insects was heard; carriages containing ladies dressed in the height of fashion rattled by; and the “Street of Silver” was crowded with sauntering natives, their white clothing looking ghostly in the pale light.

One of the principal bungalows in the outskirts was brilliantly illuminated. From the open windows came the sound of a piano, and of a girlish voice sweet and clear. The song was a simple one, a popular ballad in the fifties. It would be called slow and sickly sentimental nowadays, but at that time it was listened to with delight.

This evening it was destined to cause a sensation. The singer had nearly reached the end of the third verse when the voice trembled, the birdlike tones ceased, and suddenly she burst into tears. A lady with a kindly face immediately went to the girl, who had risen from the piano, her breast heaving convulsively, her eyes moist and shining.

“Dearest Ruth,” whispered the lady soothingly, “come with me and sit in the verandah. The cool air will refresh you. This terribly suffocating day has been too much for your nerves.”

The girl made no reply. She had repressed her sobs, and allowed her friend, Mrs. Ewart, to lead her through the French windows to the bamboo chairs outside.

The incident, trifling as it was, threw a sadness over the party, though, to be sure, they were not in particularly high spirits before it happened. Still, they did their best to drive away the feeling of gloom. Colonel Waring, tall, soldierly, erect as a dart, just then entered with an open newspaper in his hand.

“Good news,” said he cheerily. “The Bombay Gazette has just come. Here is what it says: ‘India is quiet throughout.’ We’ve been alarming ourselves without a cause.”

“What is the date of the paper?” asked one of the party, Standridge, the Deputy-Commissioner.

“May 1st,” was the Colonel’s reply.

“Eleven days ago. Much may have happened since then,” retorted the Deputy-Commissioner.

“Don’t take such a pessimistic view of things, Standridge,” returned Colonel Waring a little sharply. Then looking round the room he noticed Ruth’s absence, and asked where she was. He was told what had occurred, and he went into the verandah.

“You’re not ill, I hope, Ruth my dear?” he inquired with concern.

“No, indeed. I’m much better now. I don’t know how I came to break down. I suddenly felt sad and nervous and​—​and something in the music​—​I can’t tell you what it was​—​oppressed me.”

“I think she’s all right now, Colonel Waring,” said Mrs. Ewart.

“Are you sure?” The old soldier looked anxiously at the girl’s white face. Ruth seemed very fragile at that moment; she had crept close to the lady as though to seek her protection from some indefinable danger.

“I’m half sorry I didn’t postpone this little party, especially as Mrs. Waring is away,” went on the Colonel, taking a seat on the other side of Ruth. “It seems to me we are none of us in the humour for pleasuring. Yet it would have been absurd to put it off. It isn’t Ruth’s fault that to-day she’s twenty-one,” he continued, smiling pleasantly.

“I don’t see you’ve any occasion for regret,” said Mrs. Ewart. “It’s true we’re all a little troubled; but the clouds will soon pass away. Don’t you think so?”

“Yes; no doubt​—​no doubt.”

But the Colonel spoke in rather a half-hearted manner. Perhaps Ruth’s attack of indisposition had depressed him.

“Have you heard how Mrs. Waring is progressing on her journey?” said Mrs. Ewart presently, by way of breaking an embarrassing silence.

“Oh yes. The party she’s travelling with have been very lucky. In spite of the irregularity of the dâk service they managed to secure conveyances, and, of course, when they reach Raneegunge they’ll take the railway, and there’ll be no more difficulty.”

“A good many people have been leaving, I’m told,” continued Mrs. Ewart. “I don’t think they’re doing a wise thing. My husband doesn’t believe there’s the slightest danger.”

“I know Colonel Ewart’s opinions thoroughly. I only hope he’s right,” said Waring hastily.

Colonel Ewart, of the 51st Native Infantry, was one who had faith in the fidelity of the troops until towards the end of May, when his views altered.

Meanwhile Ruth sat with her head resting lightly on Mrs. Ewart’s shoulder, and her hand in that of her sympathetic friend. Her tears had ceased, and her large, dark, tender eyes were gazing thoughtfully into the night.

“You’re better now?” said Mrs. Ewart.

“Oh yes, thank you,” she murmured.

The moon was rising, and soon the whole landscape would be flooded with a pure soft light, and all things be as visible as in the day. There was an enclosure in front of the bungalow prettily laid out with shrubs and flowers. Beyond could be seen the moving forms of natives. It was light enough to see that many were sepoys.

Colonel Waring rose, and was saying he would tell his guests that nothing serious ailed Ruth, when a harsh, raucous voice was heard in the distance. The Colonel stood and listened. An uneasy expression stole over his face.

“What’s the meaning of that? What’s the fellow calling out? Can either of you ladies distinguish the words?”

But neither could, and the Colonel came to the conclusion that some drunken fellow was creating a disturbance. Soon a man came in sight. lie was tall and gaunt, he had long white hair and beard, and was walking very rapidly. He looked neither to the right nor left, and he did not seem to be drunk, for he kept a straight line in the centre of the road. The people fell back to allow him to pass. The little group in the verandah of the bungalow watched him till, turning round by a large building, he was lost to view.

Whatever this man had been shouting, it had the effect of stopping the traffic for some little time. The natives crowded together; they were seen to be talking earnestly and gesticulating. What did it mean?

“Strange that none of us could make out what the fellow was saying,” muttered the Colonel uneasily. “I’d better send Jhundoo to inquire.”

Jhundoo was the colonel’s confidential servant, and a man who had always been found trustworthy.

For some days indefinable, mysterious, and alarming apprehensions had prevailed in Cawnpore. Many had fears they could not combat, that something dreadful was impending, but none could suggest grounds for such a supposition. There certainly was nothing definite. The native troops went about their duties in the usual way, and even the uncomfortable greased cartridge question appeared to have subsided. But the cloud of doubt and uneasiness refused to disperse.

Ruth and Mrs. Ewart sat quietly talking, awaiting the return of the Colonel. One or two of the ladies came into the verandah to inquire after Ruth, and finding her quiet and composed went back to the room, and the music was resumed. In a quarter of an hour Colonel Waring returned, but he did not go into the verandah; he remained talking with the officers who were of the party.

“Let us go to the Colonel,” said Ruth suddenly. “I don’t know why, but I feel terribly anxious.”

She and Mrs. Ewart entered the room and threaded their way among the guests, Ruth being stopped every now and then to answer friendly inquiries as to her health. At last they reached Colonel Waring.

“What does Jhundoo say?” whispered Ruth anxiously.

“Oh, he was told the fellow was a religious fanatic. Don’t think any more about it,” rejoined Colonel Waring, with an air of indifference.

Ruth was not deceived. In the time of danger woman’s perception is quickened, and the girl could see a suggestion of anxiety under the Colonel’s apparent carelessness.

“Dear Colonel Waring,” she continued entreatingly, “I don’t believe you’re telling me all that Jhundoo said.”

“My dear child, I’ve told you all that’s necessary,” he answered with unwonted gravity.

“No, you haven’t. Something’s on your mind. Do you suppose I’m afraid? Have you forgotten who was my father?”

Her words seemed to strike a tender chord in the old man’s heart.

“You’re right,” he returned in a low voice. “I can trust you, my dear, but this isn’t the place to tell you much. I don’t want to create a scare. All I can say is that the fellow we heard shouting is a messenger of evil. Jhundoo would only tell me as much as this. Whether he knows more, and is keeping it back, I can’t say.”

“Then the messenger has brought bad news?”

“No. He simply uttered one word, which means that the people are to prepare themselves for something. But it may be utterly meaningless. You know what these Indian fanatics are.”

This conversation took place near the door where Colonel Waring and Ruth were standing, they having withdrawn a little from the rest in order to talk quietly, and the Colonel had hardly finished speaking, when Ruth’s ayah was seen approaching hurriedly. The girl’s eyes looked wild and terror stricken. She whispered something to Ruth, who, without answering, turned and repeated to Colonel Waring what the girl said. Then the three went out together. Colonel Waring and Ruth were absent about ten minutes. On their return both were disturbed in looks and manner. A hush fell upon the company when the Colonel strode into the centre of the room.

“Dear friends,” said the old soldier in a low, deep voice, and speaking very slowly, “the brother of Miss Armitage’s ayah has just arrived from Delhi, with terrible​—​very terrible​—​news. The troops have mutinied, and have taken possession of the city. They have been joined by rebels from Meerut, where, I fear, disaster has also happened, but of this the man could tell me nothing. I’ve sent Captain Angelo to Sir Hugh Wheeler to ascertain if he also has heard anything. The whole thing’s so frightful that I hope there may be some mistake.”

All listened with breathless, with painfully strained attention. Fright was written in every woman’s face, and one poor old lady gasped hysterically “My son’s in Delhi,” and burying her face in her hands, sobbed aloud.

A strange light had leaped to the eyes of the men. Their faces were set and stern. If the intelligence were true, their own lives might ere long be in danger, and as for their wives, their sisters, their daughters, their sweethearts​—​oh, it was heart-rending to think of.

All that could be done in that agonising moment was to hope for the best. The men tried to restore the courage of the women and comfort them, and it was pitiful to see how the latter struggled to keep calm. Meanwhile Colonel Waring and his brother officers conferred together as to the best course to take in the event of the bad news being confirmed.

At last Angelo returned. Men and women pressed round him. There was no need to ask questions. His sad face told the tidings.

“The news is too true,” he said simply​—​“and worse. It is feared that many of our friends are dead.”

He could with truth have said butchered, but he softened his language for the sake of the women. Then he turned to Colonel Waring, and told him that the General wished to see him at once. There was to be a meeting of the officers at head-quarters. The party was hastily broken up. Those men who were not soldiers left with their wives and daughters, and saw other ladies to their homes. But several of the women stayed behind; they were anxious to know what General Wheeler would do. Among those who remained was Mrs. Ewart. Ruth was very fond of her, and the two sat hand in hand through a weary two hours.

Then the sound of feet was heard outside. Colonel Waring and the other officers had returned. Their calm demeanour soothed the agitation of the ladies. They had thoroughly discussed the position with the General, and all had come to the conclusion that no immediate danger was to be apprehended.

“Our troops will reach Delhi in a few days, and these rascals will receive such a lesson as they have never had before,” said Colonel Waring.

This was Waring’s firm conviction, as it was the conviction also of the vast majority of his brother officers; but despite his confidence that all was well, and that there were no signs of disaffection among the troops, the night was an anxious one, and all were glad to see the sun rise upon the undisturbed and placid streets.

Although there was nothing like a panic, several of the Europeans prepared to leave the station. Some set out for Agra, travelling by dâk, despite the rumour that a very large body of thieving goojurs were coming down from Delhi. Others hired boats, and ordered them to be kept in readiness, intending to leave for Allahabad directly there was the slightest sign of an outbreak. The more timid did not wait for this, but departed at once for Calcutta.

The European officers and soldiers were kept continually on the alert. They, whatever might be their lot, would have to stick to their posts, and their wives and families must share their fate. But not one uttered a murmur.