Chapter II

Signs of the Coming Storm​—​The Mysterious Chupatties

The scene was the deck of a Ganges steamer, protected from the scorching rays of the sun by a substantial roof of wood. The picture beneath that roof was a pretty one, both in form and colour.

A slim, graceful English girl, dressed in white, her little slippered feet resting on an Eastern rug of gorgeous tints and grotesque design, was resting in a deck-chair, an open book upon her lap.

The man sitting at her side one could see at a glance was her father. He had the same refined features, the same deep-set, shining eyes, the same pitch of the voice.

“Shall we reach Ghazeepore in good time do you think, papa?”

“Yes; we ought to unless we get stuck on a sandbank​—​a not at all unlikely thing. It’s a pity we have to travel at this season of the year, or we might have gone straight up the Hooghly into the Ganges. As it is, we must go through the channels of the Sunderbunds and that will make a difference of nearly a thousand miles. But it doesn’t much matter, everything moves slowly here.”

The Sunderbunds comprise the vast labyrinth of small islands, intersected by lagoons, that form the delta of the Ganges.

For six days the cumbrous steamer, dragging behind it a flat loaded with cargo, had been threading tortuous streams steaming from one lagoon into another, until the eye became tired of the monotony of the perpetual verdure to be seen on either side. On the seventh day the vessel entered the Ganges. Hills were just visible in the distance, but the river itself glided through a dead level of country​—​so level, indeed, that it was almost difficult to tell which way the current flowed.

The cool breezes which swept over the vessel when it left Calcutta had long since died away. Now and again came the breath of the “hot wind,” an ominous precursor of what was to follow later on. This “hot wind” was a new experience to Jean. It seemed to scorch everything it touched, and was loaded with a fine dust, filling eyes, ears, nostrils, and even pockets. The verdure of the delta gave place to long, wide stretches of white sand, looking in the glaring sunshine almost like snow.

The river journey had, indeed, become terribly trying. What with the stifling heat and the attentions of the mosquitoes, it was almost impossible to sleep.

From Patna to Ghazeepore, the journey was extremely tedious. It occupied nearly a week, the steamer grounding several times, and each time lying obstinately on its sandbank for hours.

At Ghazeepore, where they landed, came a welcome change of scene from the eternal river and the narrow confines of the steamer. They were now in the district famed for its rose-water. Hundreds of acres of rose bushes were just bursting into flower, the air was pure and sweet, and there were not quite so many mosquitoes and flies.

Jean Atherton was in good spirits, and quite ready for her new experience​—​travelling by dak to Lucknow.

At Ghazeepore they stayed at the house of Mr Gibson, a representative of the East India Company, and an old colleague of Mr Atherton, and it did not need much shrewdness on the part of Jean to note the sense of anxiety which seemed to pervade the household. Her father’s manner was no longer that of the placid, well-to-do official, secure in the receipt of a large salary, and assured of a comfortable pension for his declining days. He held long conversations in an undertone with his host; but of the nature of the talk Jean knew or understood nothing.

Mr Atherton had had six months’ leave of absence from Lucknow, and much had taken place in the interim.

On the day following their arrival at Ghazeepore a curious circumstance transpired. Jean was out walking with her father and Mr Gibson in the early morning, when she saw a native accost another and place something formally in his hand. At the same moment Mr Gibson suddenly stopped speaking, in the middle of a sentence, and, stepping quickly across the road, passed close to the two natives. The natives immediately separated, and in a minute or two Mr Gibson rejoined Jean and her father.

“Atherton,” said Gibson abruptly, “did you see that?”

“I did,” returned Mr Atherton, in a low voice. “Was it the passing of the chupatties?”

“Yes. That fellow who handed the chupatty does not belong to Ghazeepore. He is a chowkedar [village policeman] of Buxar. I heard him say to one man: ‘Make ten more, and give two each to the nearest chowkedars, with the same orders.’”

“I don’t like that,” said Mr Atherton uneasily.

“Like it?” exclaimed Gibson emphatically. “It’s dam—— I beg your pardon, Miss Atherton​—​deuced bad. I hope it doesn’t mean mischief.”

Jean looked from one to the other. She saw alarm written in the faces of the two men.

“Has anything happened, papa?” she asked anxiously.

“Oh no; and nothing may happen. Those things which you saw the one man hand to the other were little unleavened cakes, called chupatties. They are eaten by every native from one end of India to the other. When there is something unusual imminent and the people have to be warned to be in readiness, these cakes are passed from hand to hand as you observed just now. These chupatties are only used by the civilians. In the case of soldiers, a lotus leaf is employed.”

“But I don’t understand,” said Jean. “You say the people are warned to be in readiness. In readiness for what?”

“Ah,” returned her father, drawing a long breath, “if we only knew! Gibson,” said he, turning to his friend, “we must lose no time in getting to Lucknow. Sir Henry Lawrence ought to be told of this.”

“You’re quite right, old friend. The dak shall be in readiness to-morrow morning.”

Mr Gibson was as good as his word, and the next day Jean found herself jolting towards Lucknow in a kind of palanquin running on four high wheels, and drawn by a single horse.

Mr Atherton judged it prudent to disguise the truth no longer from his daughter, and for the first time Jean learned that all the Europeans in the stations and cities of the North-West Provinces were becoming conscious that grave trouble was impending, though from what quarter it would first proceed it was impossible to foresee.

Jean and her father reached Lucknow in little more than a week. The journey should not have taken them so long, but the roads were bad, and the horses in ill condition. In spite of the benedictions maledictions, persuasions, and commands of the drivers, supplemented with a liberal application of whip-cord, not more than five and twenty miles could be covered in a day, and Jean was heartily sick of travelling by dak by the time the towers of the palaces and the minarets of the mosques of Lucknow came in view.

It was a gorgeous afternoon in the early part of May when they arrived in the capital, and at that season of the year the climate is very trying to Europeans. All the day the scorching rays of the sun had been terribly oppressive, and the wind seemed as though it had passed through a furnace.

They approached the city from the south-east, skirting the beautiful park which surrounds Dilkoosha, the magnificent hunting-box, or country seat, built by Saadat Ali Khan, King of Oudh. The sun had already begun to decline, and the white stone of the distant palaces, so dazzling in midday, was bathed in a crimson glow. The towers and pinnacles cast long, frowning shadows upon the ground.

“In half-an-hour we shall be at home,” said Mr Atherton. The heat of the day was over, and he was walking by the side of Jean’s carriage.

The girl started. It seemed so strange that henceforth her home should be in this glowing Oriental city, where the life of to-day was so strangely tinged by the poetry, the romance, the tradition, and the mysticism of the past.

“Do you see that building on the right, with the tall column in front? That is called ‘La Martinière,’ after the name of its founder, General Claude Martin, who eighty years ago was in the service of the King of Oudh,” said Mr Atherton.

The dak was stopped for a few moments, that Jean might view the building the better. Superb and impressive it certainly was, for the distance concealed the details of its fantastic and grotesque architecture. In front of the building, rising from the placid waters of the lake, was a lofty column, quite plain in its ornamentation in comparison with the barbaric luxuriance of the structure behind.

The setting sun dyed the waters of a blood-red, the column threw a rigid shadow, black as ink, across the crimson. There was something sinister in the startling contrast of colour. Jean was strangely impressed. A feeling of uneasiness, almost of foreboding, crept over her.

Presently they crossed the Dilkoosha bridge, spanning the canal. This canal, she noticed, had no water in it. It was simply a gigantic ditch with a sandy bed.

“Ah,” said her father, “that canal is a type of a good many things in India. It was commenced in the reign of one of the old kings of Oudh, and was intended to run from the Ganges for the purpose of irrigating the country between Lucknow and Cawnpore. Only a few miles had been excavated when funds failed. The fact was, the contractors simply took all the money they could lay their hands upon and decamped. Honest, wasn’t it? And so you see the reason of that dry ditch, which, so far as I know, is good for nothing.”

They were now in the city of Lucknow. The streets, long and narrow, were teeming with life. The picturesque costumes gave a wonderful animation and picturesqueness to the scene. Unlike the Bengalese, the men of Oudh are often tall and stalwart, and the women graceful and of noble carriage. There were many of these, and mingling with them were beggars of the vile and squalid aspect peculiar to the East.

No city is more remarkable for the variety of its inhabitants and the mixed character of its architecture than Lucknow, and at every turn were scenes glowing with real Oriental vividness of colouring.

Mr Atherton’s house was not far from the Residency, the headquarters of the Chief Commissioner, Sir Henry Lawrence. It was a bungalow of considerable size. When the carriage drew up in front of the verandah a host of servants, squatting in the shade, came forward with low salaams, and with noise and gesticulation began to unpack the luggage.

“There’s the household​—​or at least a part of it,” said Mr Atherton laughingly. “You must do your best to govern them, Jean. Hitherto I fancy they’ve governed me. You’ll find they like their own way better than anything else in the world.”

Jean looked with dismay at the row of dusky faces, some grave, some smiling, and wondered how she should get on. Though she could speak a little Hindustani, she could scarcely say she was at home in the language.

When at eight o’clock she went down to dinner the moon was shining with that clear, pale, silvery light seen only in the East. The lamps had not been lighted, for fear of attracting the mosquitoes and other pests of Indian life. Jean went into the verandah where her father was slowly pacing to and fro, his hands clasped behind him, his head bent in thought.

She touched his arm. He started.

“I haven’t frightened you, have I, papa?”

“Frightened me? Of course not, my dear,” he replied a little hesitatingly. “Come,” said he, suddenly changing his tone, “let us go into dinner. Our first meal in our own house must be a happy one.”

Atherton drew his daughter’s hand within his arm, and led her into the room. It was flooded with moonlight and everything was almost as distinct as in the daytime.

Whether from the strangeness of the scene, or the vague feeling of unrest which seemed to permeate the very atmosphere, or from her own sense of inexperience and insufficiency for the duties that awaited her, the fair girl sighed deeply as she seated herself for the repast, and her father, who read his own meaning into the wordless expression, looked down lovingly upon her, and seeing her mother in her face, stooped and kissed it with feelings which hovered betwixt hope and fear.

A dinner by moonlight is an unnatural sort of thing. On Atherton clapping his hands, half-a-dozen servants, all barefooted, came in. While one man lit the lamps, others pulled down the blinds and drew the gauze curtains across the windows.

Mr Atherton was full of talk during the dinner, but it seemed to the keen perception of his daughter that his gaiety was forced. Whenever there was a pause in the conversation, his eyes became uneasy and were fixed upon her with a look in them she had never seen before.

She knew her father had been in the Residency since their arrival, and she wondered if he had heard any disquieting news. She hardly dared to ask him.

“We ought to take stock of our domestics, and see how many we have really got,” said he. “Just before I left for Calcutta I tried to reckon up. I found I had a head-bearer, a mate-bearer, six under-bearers, a cook, a gardener, a khansaman, or butler, three khitmutgars, a water-carrier, a washerman, a tailor, a coachman, two grooms, two grass-cutters, and two messengers. I fancy others have been added since. I must leave you to appoint your own women staff.”

“The ayah I brought from Calcutta ought to be enough for me, papa. I hate being fussed over by a host of servants,” said Jean.

Her father laughed.

“My dear, you’ll have to get used to that. The Hindoo believes firmly in a division of labour. The bearer​—​the man, you know, who pulls the punkah​—​won’t take a plate off the table for love or money; and no power on earth will induce the khitmutgar, or waiter, to pull the punkah. So what are you to do?”

Just then the sound of wheels and the tramp of a horse was heard outside. A khitmutgar brought in a card.

“Dr Lennard,” exclaimed Mr Atherton. “Yes, show the doctor in.”

A young man, with a refined and intellectual rather than a handsome face, entered hastily. He paused a moment when he saw Jean, and bowed low.

“My daughter Jean​—​Dr Lennard,” said Mr Atherton.

“Why didn’t you come earlier, Lennard, and dine with us?” he continued, when the introduction was complete.

“I’d no intention of calling; but, visiting a patient near here, he told me you had just arrived, so I thought I’d look you up.”

“That’s right; you’ll be able to tell us the latest news. Jean must be posted up in Lucknow fashionable gossip. She knows nobody yet. You’re the first resident to whom she’s been introduced.”

“I esteem it an honour,” said the young man, with his grave eyes fixed earnestly on Jean’s handsome face. “I could have wished that Miss Atherton had arrived at any time but the present​—​though, of course, the loss would have been ours.”

“It’s very nice of you to say that, Dr Lennard,” said Jean smilingly; “but may I ask what is the matter with the present time? Papa’s convinced that all fear of a disturbance is at an end, aren’t you?”

She turned suddenly upon her father, and once more saw the uneasy expression which she had noticed before in his eyes.

“All fear? Yes, I think so​—​I hope so,” replied her father slowly. Then, with an abruptness which seemed to indicate that something was brooding in his mind, he said: “Lennard, what’s this story about Dr Wells? I was at the Residency just now, and heard one or two men speaking of it, but couldn’t get at the facts.”

“It’s rather a serious business​—​more serious than some seem to think. Dr Wells, as I daresay you know, is the surgeon of the 48th Native Infantry, and unintentionally he did what was rather an unfortunate thing. Having occasion to visit the medicine store of the hospital, and feeling at the time indisposed, he incautiously applied to his mouth a bottle containing a carminative. This bottle was taken from the hospital medicines and the regimental apothecary saw the act.”

“Put it to his mouth?” cried Mr Atherton. “How confoundedly thoughtless!”

“You see, Miss Atherton,” continued Lennard, turning to the girl, “this act was a defiance of the rules of Hindoo caste. No high-caste Hindoo could afterwards have partaken of the medicine contained in the polluted bottle. Under ordinary circumstances the incident might have been passed over as accidental, but just now everything is twisted to support the unlucky belief which has got abroad that we want to upset the Hindoo religion. It so happened, too, that the native apothecary who attended Dr Wells was unfortunately on bad terms with him, and immediately went and blurted out the thing among the sepoys in the hospital. Well, of course, there was a terrible bother.”

“And what was done?” said Mr Atherton, rising from his chair and pacing up and down the room.

“First of all there was an outcry, and not a patient would touch any medicine. Upon that Colonel Palmer assembled the native officers, and in their presence destroyed the bottle which Dr Wells had put to his lips, besides giving him a severe rebuke.”

“Colonel Palmer could hardly do more.”

“True: but the offence had been committed. The men took their physic; but what happened? Dr Wells’ bungalow a few nights after was burnt down, and everything inside destroyed. Wells himself narrowly escaped with his life.”

“How wicked and revengeful!” exclaimed Jean indignantly. “Were not the men who set fire to the house punished?”

“Their guilt could never be brought home to them. It was well known the incendiaries belonged to the 48th Regiment; but as no proofs could be obtained, no punishment could be inflicted. They know in India how to keep secrets,” said the young doctor, with a grim smile.

“It’s terrible! Why, no one’s life is safe if so small a thing as this can lead to such frightful consequences,” said the girl, fixing her large, liquid eyes on Lennard’s face. “I shall have to be very careful I don’t offend any of the servants; they might burn this house down.”

“Oh, it’s not quite so bad as that. You mustn’t alarm yourself unnecessarily. Perhaps I ought not to have mentioned this matter before you.”

“Why not?” cried Jean impulsively. “There can be no good in keeping me in the dark. I know it’s the fashion for men to believe that women cannot bear misfortune, and that directly bad news comes we go into hysterics. They’re wrong.”

“I am sure they are in your case!” rejoined Lennard, with emphasis.

Jean coloured slightly at the glance of admiration which the doctor had directed towards her. The conversation had taken an unexpectedly personal turn.

“You don’t think, then, Dr Lennard, that women are cowards?”

“My experience has taught me just the reverse. In the majority of cases they bear pain better than men, and I believe in times of real danger they display a courage and heroism quite equal; when peril assails anyone they love, women will sometimes dare more than men.”

“Is that really your opinion?” cried Jean, her eyes glistening.

“Yes. I only hope events won’t put my opinion to the proof.”

The young doctor’s manner, always earnest, took a solemnity of tone which was strangely impressive. It seemed to bring to Jean’s mind all the forebodings and disquieting presentiments which at times weighed so heavily on her spirits. Lennard noticed her pensive expression.

“I’ve made you sad, Miss Atherton. I didn’t intend to play the part of the raven.”

“Lennard,” said Mr Atherton, suddenly breaking into the conversation, “come to my room. I want to talk things over with you. You can amuse yourself while we are away, can’t you, Jean? There’s the piano I had sent from Calcutta on purpose for you. See whether it’s in decent tune.”

“Mr Atherton,” said Lennard, in a low voice, “is it a private matter you wish to speak to me about?”

“In a way, yes; but not precisely so. I want to get from you some idea of the exact position of affairs here. You move about a good deal, you go among the natives, and you probably know more than the military authorities. I heard some very ugly rumours at the Residency this evening.”

“Very likely. I’ll give you my candid opinion. Can’t we talk here?”

“You forget Jean is fresh from England, and I don’t want to frighten her.”

“You won’t do that. I think Miss Atherton ought not to be left in the dark.”

“Eh? Well, perhaps you’re right,” said Mr Atherton, after a pause. He was looking at Jean as he spoke, and noted her bright, eager, expressive, intelligent face. Before her arrival at Calcutta he had not seen his daughter for five years, when he spent his last leave of absence in England. In the interval she had, from a slim slip of a girl, blossomed into all the glory and grace of womanhood. Possibly when he suggested a private conversation with Dr Lennard, he had Jean in his mind as she had been. He was not yet accustomed to the Jean that was.

“Jean dear,” said he quietly, “Dr Lennard’s about to tell us what has happened in Lucknow during the last few weeks.”

“I’m sorry that what I have to say isn’t more pleasant,” began Lennard, his eyes fixed upon Jean’s eager face. “I’ll put the story as briefly as I can. First came the episode of the medicine bottle. After this Sir Henry Lawrence began to take precautions, and these he now continues. The arrangements for the English troops were horribly inconvenient and unsafe. Sir Henry has altered all that, and, besides concentrating his forces, he is making the Residency defensible in the event of the worst. You noticed, Mr Atherton, I daresay, how all the huts and outbuildings close to the house have been cleared away.”

“Oh yes. I wondered what it meant.”

“That’s to give sharpshooters no chance of cover. The astute old chap has been slaving from morning till night. He has laid in stores and ammunition, arranged for a constant water supply and had the treasure from the city and outlying stations moved to the Residency, and outworks are gradually being thrown up all round. Of course everything has to be done cautiously. The sepoys are terribly suspicious. In spite of the care taken, things came to a head on the 3rd of May, when the 7th Regiment of Oudh Irregular Infantry broke out. They first refused to bite the new cartridges. Then, after brooding over their grievances for a couple of days, they arrived at the amiable conclusion that they must kill their European officers. By Jove! Nothing but the coolness of Adjutant Mecham averted a horrible catastrophe.”

“Good heavens!” cried Atherton.

“It was this way. The men were all on the parade ground, and the officers were arguing with them, when Mecham was taken unawares by the mutineers, and told to prepare to die. ‘Very well,’ said he pluckily, ‘you may kill me; but what good will my death do to you? Another adjutant will take my place, and you will be subjected to the same treatment you receive from me.’ They seemed to be struck with the force of the reasoning, didn’t injure him, and returned to their lines, but refused to lay down their arms. Of course this insubordination couldn’t be tolerated. So that very night the 7th were ordered up by Sir Henry, and told to give up their weapons. They were surrounded by the 32nd Foot and a European battery, and they saw the wisdom of obeying. The next day the ringleaders were arrested. Now to-morrow Sir Henry holds a durbar, when rewards will be given to those native officers who have given him information as to what is going on. That’s all I can tell you.”

At that moment the voices of the servants suddenly broke into the conversation, and a khitmutgar ran in, his arms upraised, and crying:

“Sahib! Sahib! Bad news!”

“What do you mean? What has happened?”

“Dhoonah Rah has just come from the bazaar. He’s been told the soldiers at Meerut have risen and murdered their officers. The mem-sahibs, the children have been killed.”

“The women and the children. Impossible! Dhoonah Rah is either telling you lies, or has himself been deceived!” cried Atherton.

The khitmutgar salaamed in a deprecatory manner. He was too polite to contradict his master, but it was evident he believed the story.

“It can’t be true! It’s too horrible! Lennard, what do you think?”

Lennard glanced at Jean, whose face had suddenly grown white.

“No,” said he stoutly; “I don’t believe the soldiers would be guilty of such atrocities. Besides, Meerut is two hundred miles away; the news could scarcely reach us in so short a time.”

“I don’t know that,” said Atherton, a little agitatedly. “The native runners are fleet of foot. Intelligence is conveyed from village to village with incredible swiftness. There’s but one thing to be done. You and I must go to the Residency and see Sir Henry. You don’t mind being left alone for half-an-hour, Jean?”

“No, papa,” said the girl courageously. “You’ve said there’s nothing to fear.”

Mr Atherton kissed his daughter, and hurried away with Dr Lennard.

What a lifetime to Jean that short half-hour seemed! She could settle down to nothing. She tried the piano. The sounds jarred upon her nerves. She took up a book. The letters danced before her eyes.

Then she went into the verandah. Lucknow, stretching six miles along the banks of the Ganges, lay before her. The city seemed an endless vista of towers, pinnacles, cupolas, turrets, roofs of every size and shape sharply cutting the pale blue sky. The white stone, wherever the moonbeams fell upon it, looked like snow, the shadows were black as ebony.

But save the whir of insects all was still. There was nothing to cause her the least fear. Yet she dared not leave the verandah. Somehow it seemed safer there than inside the house. She could see across the compound. If anyone approached, it could not be without her knowledge.

And so the minutes passed till she saw, to her relief, the tall, spare form of her father, side by side with Lennard’s more robust figure.

She could not restrain her impatience. She ran to meet them.

“Is the news true?” she cried anxiously. “Ah, I can see by your faces it is!”

Mr Atherton paused before he answered. Then drawing a deep breath, he said:

“Too true​—​unhappily, too true. It’s time we in Lucknow looked to ourselves. To-morrow, by Sir Henry Lawrence’s orders, all the European women and children are to take up their quarters in the Residency. We must make our preparations for moving to-night. But don’t frighten yourself, my dear,” he added hastily. “It doesn’t follow from this order that we have anything to fear. Sir Henry is cautious, and likes to be prepared for emergencies. Take all the rest you can. We needn’t start before daybreak, and that’ll be in four hours’ time.”

“And what will you do, papa?” said she, placing her hand in his.

“I shall sit here. I feel too restless to sleep.”

“Shall I stay, Atherton?” asked Lennard. “I’d better see you to the Residency. I don’t apprehend any danger, but I might be of service in case anything should happen.”

“Thanks, Lennard, you’re a good fellow,” rejoined Atherton heartily.

The doctor’s face brightened, not so much at the words of Mr Atherton as at the grateful look of thanks in the eloquent eyes of his daughter.