Chapter XII

Hawke Tries His Luck

The group of buildings known in those days as the Residency included a number of houses built for ordinary domestic use originally separated from each other by small plots of ground, and subsequently joined together for defensive purposes by mud walls and trenches​—​the mud walls for defence from outer attack, the trenches for protection against the enemy’s shells. To pretend that these defences were fortifications in the proper sense of the term is to overstate the case. All that can be said is that the walls of the houses were thick, that the bricks were small and compact, and that happily they were cemented together by the toughest of mortar, yet through these barriers the roundshot and shell of the enemy again and again ploughed their way.

Most of the garrisons were virtually isolated, and the inmates of one scarcely knew how the inmates of the others fared. It was impossible to go outside many of the houses without being seen and fired at. Persons passing on duty from one post to another were constantly wounded.

The numerous points of resistance formed by the isolated buildings had one advantage. They divided the attack of the enemy. They were, in addition, confusing. Had the rebels been commanded by a real leader he might have risen to the occasion, and the end of the siege of Lucknow might have come about very speedily, but there were divided counsels, and all this was to the advantage of the beleaguered garrison.

During the first days of the siege, and especially after the death of Sir Henry Lawrence, the enemy maintained almost continually day and night a storm of roundshot and musketry upon some of the most exposed positions​—​such as the Residency, the Baillie Guard, the post-office, the Sago and Financial garrisons, and the Cawnpore battery.

The ingenuity of the enemy in finding out the weak places of the fortifications was remarkable. Hawke swore that no native had brains enough, and that it was due to the European leader, whoever he was.

However this may be, it is certain that while in order to get at the taller and more exposed positions the muskets were pointed very high, in the case of the Cawnpore battery, at the south-east angle of the entrenchment, the bullets, which were at first aimed high, gradually came lower, and on the 4th of July, the day on which Sir Henry Lawrence died, several poor fellows were shot.

Just outside the entrenchment wall, and separated from the Cawnpore battery by a wide road, was an unoccupied house known as Johannes’ House. Had there been time this house would have been demolished, as likely to afford cover for the enemy; but the Chinhut affair hastened everything, and the house was left standing.

At first it remained empty, as the natives were afraid it was undermined, a rumour to that effect having been circulated before the siege began; but in two or three days the sepoys obtained possession of it and it soon became the greatest possible annoyance to the Cawnpore battery.

Johannes’ House was surmounted by a turret, and here a party of the enemy’s riflemen were posted, under the command of an African negro, formerly in the employ of the ex-King of Oudh. This man was a splendid shot, and rarely did he fire without killing or wounding.

In consequence of the fire from this turret, the Cawnpore battery was rendered almost useless. Bullets swept down the main street to the west of the Cawnpore battery, and leading northward to the Residency and hospital, frequently entering the windows of the last-named building. By one of these the Rev. Mr Polehampton, one of the two chaplains, was severely wounded on the 7th of July.

The Cawnpore battery throughout the siege occupied a peculiar position. It was constructed of earth and palisades, and armed with one eight and two nine pounder guns. The battery was so entirely commanded by the enemy’s works that when under a heavy fire it could not be defended. For this reason the commandant of the post was constantly changed. To be in charge of it for several days meant certain death. Whoever took command of the Cawnpore battery, even for a short time, bade good-bye to his friends.

Many valuable lives were lost in defending the battery. It might have been abandoned without much loss, for had it been taken by the enemy it would have been of little use to them, as it was entirely commanded by the houses behind it within the fortifications. But it served the purpose of warding off an attack upon the houses it guarded, and so was maintained.

Owing to the forethought of Sir Henry, there was no lack of provisions. Of wine and champagne a more than ample store had been laid in.

After the siege began, and the commissariat arrangements got into working order, rations were regularly issued of grain, bullock beef, or mutton, with flour and rice, and all on a fixed scale. Most of the residents had provided themselves privately with a stock of luxuries in the way of preserved provisions, and these proved welcome additions whenever a visitor ventured to make a call.

The greatest want was bread. The bakers had, without exception, deserted; and no one during the siege seems to have taken up the art of bread-making. The substitute for bread was the chupatty​—​flour kneaded with water, and beaten thin and flat by clapping it between the hands. These were baked on iron plates over the fire, and were not particularly wholesome nor palatable.

There was no sort of regular meal, save for the ladies. The men usually took their breakfast standing at their loopholed windows watching the enemy, their right hands grasping their rifles, the left occupied with a chupatty or a cup of tea.

Meanwhile, amid all the distracting anxiety and ever-haunting sense of danger​—​and even the nearness of death itself, incident to such circumstances​—​the current of human passions​—​love, jealousy and hate​—​continued to flow undisturbed by the storm which was raging round about.

Edith Ross was delayed in the pursuit of her policy of finesse and intrigue. The fierce attack outside, and the burden of work thrown upon every man within, frustrated her plans. For two days after the death of Sir Henry Lawrence she had not seen Jack Hawke, and did not know where he was stationed. Neither had she seen Jean, who was lodged in the house of Commissioner Gubbins, at the south-west angle of the fortifications. Mrs Ross was in Dr Fayrer’s garrison, near the centre, considered one of the safest places within the walls.

Accident however intervened and effected what design had not been able to accomplish. It brought about a meeting between Jean and Hawke. The latter arrived at Gubbins’ house on the morning of the 6th, with stores from the commissariat The enemy’s fire at that moment was unusually fierce, and it was marvellous that Hawke had escaped unhurt.

When he arrived, all the men were on the roof and at the barricaded upper windows, picking off any of the rebels who might dare to show themselves and so offer opportunity. Some of the women were doing their best to cook under very adverse circumstances, and others​—​among them Jean​—​were attending upon a couple of wounded men. It was no longer a question of moving the wounded to the general hospital. Each garrison had its own infirmary, and the doctors did their best to make daily rounds.

Jean had gone into one of the lower rooms to get water, and was alone when Hawke entered.

Neither expected to see the other, and both were surprised. Hawke’s eyes lighted up with a fierce and unrestrained pleasure.

“I’m in luck this morning, Miss Atherton,” said he. “I didn’t expect to see you here. I heard that most of the ladies had left the Residency, but I didn’t know how you had been distributed. I am glad you’re with Mr Gubbins. You’ll be comfortable​—​and safe, I hope. As safe, that is,” he added, “as we can expect to be in this trap, with all those raging devils round us.”

“Yes, you’ve all been very good to us poor women, Captain Hawke. When I think what you alone have done, and what you’ve gone through, it almost seems as if you bore a charmed life.”

His bronzed cheeks glowed at her words. His heavy brow lifted; a change came over his face.

“You think of me sometimes, then?” said he quickly. “That’s kind indeed.”

His eyes sought hers, but they were cast down, Four or five days had passed over since he had seen her, and he noticed how her face​—​always delicate and refined​—​had become, so to speak, etherealised. Anxiety and trouble, and constant contact with suffering, had accentuated the pure, womanly qualities in her nature; and while she was not less lovely, sympathy, tenderness, and rare courage transfigured her beauty.

“I’ve prayed for all of you. What else can we do?” she replied.

It was as if he did not expect her to reply, for he went on without a pause:

“If we can’t say what we mean and speak the truth now, we never shall. No, no​—​don’t leave me! You shall not! Ah, my God——”

His glance for a moment had wandered through the window. The next instant he had caught her in his arms and rushed with her to a remote corner.

An explosion within the room deafened them. The black acrid smoke was suffocating. A shell had burst. When the atmosphere became somewhat clearer, it could be seen that a table close to which they had been standing in the centre of the room was shivered to fragments. Had they remained three seconds longer both must have been killed.

“Close shave!” said Hawke grimly.

“You are hurt!” she cried, trembling convulsively.

“Am I? Yes; you’re right. Only a scratch, though. Lend me your handkerchief, Jean.”

It was the first time he had called her by her Christian name. She did not resent it. How could she? Hawke had just saved her life. Not only had he snatched her up as the shell was approaching the window but he stood in front of her when it exploded. The splinter which grazed his left arm, but for his intervention, must have struck her.

With agitated fingers she bound up his arm with her handkerchief, he meanwhile holding her close to him, with his right hand around her waist.

“This is one of my lucky days!” he cried exultantly.

“What do you mean?” she faltered.

“Ah, can’t you understand ? Can’t you see that I love you​—​that I’d give my life for you?”

She was so agitated she knew not what to say. She vainly strove to release herself. The shock caused by the explosion made her as helpless as a child.

“Won’t you give me one word of encouragement?” he whispered hoarsely.

“What can I say?” she cried piteously. “Oh, why did you tell me that that you loved me?”

She covered her face with her hands.

“Why not? You don’t despise me, do you? You didn’t do so when you had reason​—​that is, if you believed what you were told; and why should you now? I know I’ve done a good many stupid things, and maybe a few wicked ones; but I have never done anything mean or shabby. I came here a bit of a black sheep, but none of the fellows and few of the women turn their backs on me now. I’ve won over even the sour dowagers, who looked daggers at me when I first entered the Residency. What is it that has kept me straight? Only the thought that some day you might think me worthy of your love. I thank those howling demons outside. They’ve made the moments so precious we can’t afford to lose one of them. My darling——”

“I can’t​—​I won’t listen to you, Captain Hawke!” she cried. “It’s cruel to force me to do so.”

“Cruel!” he repeated blankly. “Why? Is it a crime for me to love you? Are you not free? Give me a little hope​—​the hope that nerves a man’s hand and steels his heart; the hope that the woman he loves, loves him in return.”

“Oh, I cannot​—​I cannot!” she exclaimed brokenly. “Don’t think that I am wanting in gratitude, or that I do not admire your bravery, but——”

“Gratitude​—​admiration!” he burst out passionately. “It’s your love I want​—​your love​—​your love! Your love alone!”

Jean shrank from him. He had made not a request but a demand. What right had he to impose his will upon hers? She admitted the fascination of his personality, but love? She couldn’t tell.

She turned and would have escaped had he not caught her by the wrist.

“Do not leave me,” he said. “We may have but a few hours to live. Why waste those few brief hours?”

“You speak for yourself alone, and that’s selfish. I didn’t think it of you. Let me go.”

A savage look came into his eyes.

“Tell me why you refuse me. Is there another more fortunate than I?”

“You have no right to question me,” cried Jean with heaving bosom. “Let me go!”

He relinquished her hand, and in a moment she was gone. His heavy brows were drawn together till they almost met; the lines about his mouth were deep and rigid; the veins in his temples stood out like cords.

He stood looking awhile at the shattered contents of the room in a stupefied, dazed kind of way. Then his broad chest rose and fell; a deep sigh escaped him.

Kicking the debris out of his path, he crossed the room and went out of the house, taking the direction of the Cawnpore battery, which was about seven hundred yards distant.

Hawke was next seen by some of the men in the house nearest to the Cawnpore battery walking leisurely along, as though he were strolling in St James’s Park.

“Look at that fellow Hawke!” exclaimed Lieutenant Dawson, in command of the battery for the day. “Did you ever see such a cool hand?”

“By Jove!” cried a young ensign admiringly, “why, he doesn’t even trouble to walk in the shelter of the walls. Fancy him choosing the middle of the road, where the Pandies can see him!”

“Humph!” said an old sergeant-major. “With all respect to you, sir, I call that foolhardiness. He’d better not come within the range of ‘Bob the Nailer,’ or he’ll never take another stroll.”

“Bob the Nailer” was the name given by the soldiers to the negro marksman in the turret of Johannes’ House.

“Bob” must have been off duty just then, for Hawke walked without interruption to the house from which the men were watching him, while the bullets flew past him harmlessly.

“What the devil did you do that for?” exclaimed Dawson, half angrily.

“Do what?” said Hawke, scowling.

“Tempt death in that absurd fashion. It’ll come soon enough, I reckon, without going to meet it.”

“Very likely,” said Jack indifferently. “I want a drink, boys, about a couple of ‘pegs.’”

“You can’t have one. There’s not a drop of brandy in the battery. I’m not sorry for it, either, for your sake, Jack. You’ve kept yourself splendidly in hand since you’ve been here. Don’t slide back, for God’s sake.”

“Go to the devil! I’m dry, I tell you. What’s in these bottles?”

“Hock. That won’t hurt you.”

“Not for me. I can see something that’ll suit me better.”

He crossed the room and seized a case of champagne. He broke the neck off a bottle and, pouring some of the contents into a mug, almost emptied it at a draught. The house belonged to a brave Frenchman named Duprat, a merchant who did good suit and service throughout the siege. He was possessed of a large stock of wine, of which he made generous use.

“That’s better!” exclaimed Hawke, setting down the mug with a thump. “Hand me an Enfield, Dawson, and I’ll go up aloft and try conclusions with ‘Bob the Nailer.’ I’d give something to be able to put a bullet through his ugly black skull.”

“You won’t do that,” returned Dawson. “The scoundrel’s far too knowing. He’s winged five of our fellows this morning. By the way, what’s brought you here? You’re not on duty to-day.”

“I know that as well as you do. But I suppose I may as well pot a Pandy or two from the roof of Duprat’s house as anyone else.”

He seized a rifle, provided himself with a stock of cartridges, and disappeared.

“Something’s gone wrong with Hawke,” muttered Dawson, when he was gone. “I know him of old. Looks as if he were going to break out again. By Jove! he’s like a tiger when he gets a little drink in him. The odd thing is, he’s been quiet for so long. What’s kept him sober, I wonder?”

The gunners who had been serving the eight and nine pounders in the battery came off duty for a brief space at this moment. They brought in one of their comrades mortally wounded. The poor fellow breathed his last in about a quarter of an hour.

“That cursed nigger’s work again!” growled one of the artillery men. “We ought to make a rush for that house, and blow it to the devil! I’m game to make one for a try.”

“You’ll have a chance, Joe Garret, before long,” said his commanding officer encouragingly.

In half-an-hour’s time Hawke made his reappearance. He leaned his rifle against the wall with an air of disgust.

“Dawson,” said he, “this is beastly slow work. I’m not in the mood for playing hide-and-seek behind chimneypots. I want waking up. What do you say to walking over to Johannes’ House and driving the beggars out?”

“Don’t be a fool! Look here, old chap,” said Dawson, suddenly lowering his voice, “if you’ll keep your mouth shut, I’ll let you into a secret. Sam Lawrence, Green, and Studdy are coming over here at midnight. We’ve settled upon a sortie at daybreak, and you can join us.”

“Good! I’m your man. Pass me that bottle of champagne.”

“You’ve had enough, you fool!”

“Enough or not, I’m going to empty that bottle.”

And empty it he did, with an air of stubbornness which showed that opposition was useless.

“I can’t do much good here,” said he, “I’m off to the Residency. I’m in the humour for hard work. I hear they’re mining near the Water Gate. Two or three hours with the pick would suit me just now. You’ll see me here again at midnight.”

“Right. But, Hawke, for heaven’s sake don’t breathe a word about the sortie. It doesn’t do to open one’s mouth too wide. Those scoundrels outside get to know all our business somehow almost before we know it ourselves.”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t know what I do mean exactly, but I know this​—​there are any number of spies inside the fortifications, and you can’t be too careful.”

“Oh, I’ll be careful enough. Spies? I should like to meet one. He’d spy no more.”

Hawke threw on his cap, with a reckless, devil-may-care air. The effect of the Champagne was beginning to show itself. He stalked off, humming a snatch of song, but with an angry glare in his eyes belying his apparent joyousness.

The lieutenant was quite right in warning Hawke to be cautious as to what he said about the intended sortie. Already an uneasy feeling had arisen in more than one of the garrisons that there was treachery at work somewhere, and, strange to say, it was not merely the natives who were suspected. No doubt the idea that there were Europeans who sided with the rebels arose from the undoubted fact that a European officer led the native cavalry in the affair at Chinhut.

When Dawson warned Hawke the uneasiness was only just beginning. It increased from day to day.

Hawke reached the Residency in safety. He did not trouble to avail himself of the protection the walls of the houses afforded, but as his road lay through the centre of the fortifications he was not much exposed to the fire of the enemy. His object was to see Colonel Inglis, who was now in command.

To get to the Residency he had to pass Dr Fayrer’s house, and here at one of the windows sat Edith Ross, watching. It was her only chance of seeing the object of her infatuation. Directly she caught sight of him, she flew down to the entrance and ran out panting.

“Jack​—​Jack!” she cried excitedly. “Don’t go by without speaking to me. I’ve been worrying lest something should have happened. I’ve heard nothing of you for two days!”

Hawke looked at her in a dazed sort of way. He was in no mood to be thwarted. And yet Edith Ross at that moment looked unusually attractive to a man of an excitable temperament. Her mobile lips were slightly parted, her dark lustrous eyes scintillated with abnormal brilliancy. Her olive cheeks were tempered by a warmth of tint rarely seen upon them.

“Your anxiety is flattering,” he said, with a covert sneer, “but you have no need to worry upon my account.”

A gleam of malice shot into her eyes for a moment, and then as quickly disappeared.

“You’re not yourself, Jack,” she said. “What is the matter?” And then a bow drawn at a venture, a bolt from the blue​—​“Has Jean Atherton refused you?”

Hawke staggered back a pace.

“What if she has, it is no concern of yours, and I have not done with her yet!”

“Fool!” she said, with scorn and contempt in her voice. “Can you not see that she loves another?”

“Another!” he gasped. “Who is he and where may he be found?”

“In London, to be sure​—​an early love, a love that the sea cannot drown nor time alter.”

He turned from her roughly, but she clung to him and implored him to stay; he flung her from him and strode off with an unsteady gait, the storm and passion within him harmonising with the rage and fire without.

Some hours of sapping duty tamed and sobered him, a short interval of sleep refreshed him, and at midnight he was to time at Mr Duprat’s house.