Chapter XXI

Captain Fulton, the Real Defender of Lucknow

Not until it was quite certain the Baillie Guard was safe did Hawke trouble about anything else but fighting. What his ex-khitmutgar Hasun Khan could tell about the old scandal which drove Hawke out of Lucknow society could wait​—​Edith Ross could wait​—​even Jean Atherton could wait.

But now that there was a chance of a few hours’ rest, Hawke’s mind went back to his own affairs.

When he came off duty he looked a somewhat dilapidated object, but he was no worse than any of the rest. As time went on, both men and officers became veritable scarecrows. Clothes had worn out, and there was no means of procuring others.

Many of the officers were to be seen in shirts, trousers, and slippers only. One gallant civilian stripped the Residency billiard-table of its green cloth, and contrived to make himself a sort of loose coat out of it, while an officer wore a shirt made out of a floorcloth.

Some time before the siege began, the use of white outer clothing had been discontinued, and the light coats and trousers of the officers and men had been dyed of a light brown dust colour, which came into general use throughout the siege.

The privates learned to make the dye by mixing together the black and red inks with which the various officers were well supplied. So many raids were made upon the inks that very little remained for legitimate purposes when the end of the siege came. The superintendent of Mr Gubbins’ department thought he had preserved his stock by locking it up in a cabinet; and having occasion to want some ink he discovered that the panels of the cabinet had been removed and then carefully replaced. All his cherished stock of ink had disappeared.

But though the ordinary necessities of life were scarce, money was plentiful, as was shown by the prices paid for what had come to be looked upon as luxuries.

On the 27th of August small cakes of chocolate realised from three to four pounds; a ham seven pounds ten shillings; a bottle of honey, four pounds ten shillings, a bag of coarse flour one shilling; a bottle of brandy one pound fourteen shillings, and a small chicken two pounds. Sugar, had there been any for sale, would have commanded almost any price. A new flannel shirt fetched four pounds, whilst five old ones realised eleven pounds four shillings.

Hawke was on his way to the tyekhana, where Hasun Khan was imprisoned in an improvised cell. On one of the staircases he met a young officer who had been wounded in the assault on the Baillie Guard.

“Who’s looking after you​—​Lennard?” said Hawke, glancing at the other’s bandaged arm.

“Lennard! Haven’t you heard? The poor fellow’s gone the way of scores of our best and staunchest comrades.”

“My God! not dead surely?”

“Shot a week ago. He was coming here from the Begum Kothee with Miss Atherton when the bullet struck him. She was the only one with him when he died. Hard lines for the poor girl if she was attached to him. It’s said he was sweet on her.”

Hawke made no reply. He turned away fiercely. The death of his old friend was a terrible shock, but he crushed his grief. What was the use of grieving when his own turn might come next?

He went on to the tyekhana, found the cell, and entered. There was sufficient light for the two men to see each other, and Hasun Khan shrank back. Hawke looked at him sternly for several seconds without speaking.

“Well, you scoundrel?” at last he exclaimed wrathfully.

Hasun Khan dropped his head. He could not place his hands on his breast, in the deprecatory manner of the Oriental, simply because his arms were secured.

“Hasun Khan is your lordship’s servant,” he mumbled.

“Is he?” said Hawke ironically. “I remember he was once, till he took himself off with a still greater blackguard, Azimoolah Khan.”

The amount of humility Hasun Khan contrived to throw into the bend of that supple neck of his was wonderful. Hawke stood and silently watched him.

“Yes, you scoundrel,” he continued slowly, “you are certain to be shot unless——”

He paused, and Hasun Khan’s convulsed face was upturned eagerly to his.

“Ah,” screamed Hasun, “the sahib is good and kind. He can save poor Hasun’s life if he chooses to do so.”

“If he chooses,” repeated Hawke. “You’re not far from the mark, my crafty friend​—​if he chooses. Supposing the sahib did choose, what would you do in return?”

“Anything​—​everything. My lord might command his poor slave Hasun for the rest of his life.”

“Not good enough. His lordship doesn’t want the bother. Look here, Hasun, I’m going to speak plain. I can, by simply holding up my finger, save you from being shot. It can be done, if you’ll do as I tell you.”

“Yes, yes! Tell me, sahib​—​tell me,” replied the man, in trembling accents.

“I’m going to take your memory back to the time when you and Azimoolah were in my service. First, then, answer me this question. Who gave that letter to Azimoolah to take to Mrs Holcombe the day he and you disappeared?”

Mrs Holcombe, it will be remembered, was Mrs Ross’s sister Agnes, to whom Hawke was once engaged. The engagement was broken off, chiefly, as Hawke always believed, through the machinations of her sister Edith Ross, then Edith D’Arcy. After Holcombe’s marriage with Agnes, her husband received the anonymous letter, written apparently in Hawke’s hand, and certainly delivered by his servant Azimoolah Khan. This letter reflected on Mrs Holcombe, and the malicious did not hesitate to whisper that it had been sent by Hawke out of revenge for being jilted.

Hasun Khan’s eyes glistened maliciously at the question.

“A mem-sahib paid Azimoolah to deliver the letter. She gave it to him. We both promised to go away so that we should not be found, and we kept our word.”

“A mem-sahib!” shouted Hawke. “What mem-sahib?”

“The tall, dark mem-sahib D’Arcy.”

Hawke started as though he had been stung.

The “tall, dark mem-sahib D’Arcy” could be no other than Edith. He knew Edith to be unscrupulous, but he never suspected her capable of such black treachery. He had always put down the letter to some man who was jealous of him. There were several in the regiment. If Hasun Khan spoke the truth, Edith Ross had ruined him in the eyes of the world.

For a moment the discovery overwhelmed him. Had the woman been near he would have struck her down mercilessly, and rejoiced in so doing. That she would ever confess it was her hand which had blighted his career he did not believe. She would simply swear that Hasun Khan lied.

He knew well enough that Edith had been madly in love with him; that it was jealousy of her sister Agnes which led her to plot till his engagement with Agnes was broken off. Jealousy to this point was conceivable, but to carry it to the pitch of injuring him irreparably seemed unnatural. It was not the act of a woman, but of a devil.

Hawke was mad with impatience to have the thing thrashed out. He would go at once in search of Edith Ross and face her with Hasun Khan. He turned to the Mohammedan.

“Do you swear what you say about mem-sahib D’Arcy is true? Remember, your life depends upon it.”

“I swear before Allah every word is true!” said Hasun Khan humbly.

Hawke went off to find Mrs Ross, but before he could do so he was met by an officer who told him more serious work was expected at Gubbins’ battery.

“You can be of use there with Lieutenant Alexander,” said the officer, and hastened away.

Hawke’s personal business must again be put off, and he dismissed Edith Ross from his mind in the face of what was of much more importance.

The state of things at Gubbins’ battery was just then very peculiar. The enemy’s guns commanded it, but owing to the lack of shot the rebels made very little headway. Latterly, however, they had begun to use a very odd kind of missile. For some time past they had been employing logs of wood shod with iron, and a still more injurious projectile was that which they now devised. It consisted of hollow cylinders of thin iron filled with an inflammable composition, and wrapped up in strong canvas. On reaching the ground the apparatus burst, and the fine cylinders spouted forth fire without any further explosion. This, perhaps, was the most curious and complicated projectile that had yet been devised.

The south-west battery of Gubbins’ garrison was opposed to four guns of the enemy, and Major Apthorpe, who commanded the post, had repeatedly urged that those guns should be silenced. But the apprehension of supplying the enemy with roundshot prevailed, and the only reply to the enemy was a weak and desultory fire. An artillery officer used to visit the post for two hours every day, and then, after firing one shot every twenty minutes, left it again.

This, of course, produced no effect on the enemy’s battery, while the over-economy of shot had a disastrous consequence to the besieged.

The enemy’s battery consisted of an upper and a lower one, and as the heavy shot of the former did a great deal of damage, Major Apthorpe at last obtained permission to try the effect of a continuous cannonade, which Lieutenant Alexander was deputed to carry into effect.

He was an excellent artillerist, and with twenty shots he knocked to pieces the enemy’s embrasure, and damaged the carriage of a 24-pounder, so that it could be seen, muzzle in the air, abandoned by the enemy.

On that afternoon Captain Fulton dined at the post, and he was delighted with Alexander’s success.

“If we could only smash up the lower battery as well!” said Mr Gubbins. “Not a stick of it has yet been knocked down, and the beggars have got the distance​—​240 yards​—​so accurately their fire comes into our embrasures with the greatest precision.”

“Well,” said Fulton gaily, “we must put Alexander on to this battery as well. I’ll go down and see what he has done and what he has yet to do.”

Fulton rose, and so did half-a-dozen others, and they went down to examine the effect of Alexander’s cannonade.

Presently Major Apthorpe returned to those who remained sitting at the table, and, with horror in his countenance, told them that Fulton had been killed.

It appeared that while examining the battered embrasure of the enemy with his glass Captain Fulton had discovered some of the enemy at work there, and had called to Alexander to come with him and resume his fire.

Fulton himself proceeded on to the bastion, and entered it before the rest. He approached the embrasure, and at the moment when he reached it one of the guns of the lower battery unhappily opened fire, and the ball, entering the embrasure, struck Captain Fulton, carrying off the top of his head. Death must have been instantaneous.

Thus fell George Fulton, whose untiring exertions had mainly contributed to success during the dark days of the defence, of which he was not permitted to see the brighter ending. He was the life and soul of all that was persevering, chivalrous and daring. He was ever full of hope, and the flagging in spirit and the despondent always renewed their courage after a word or two from cheery Captain Fulton. Not without good reason has he been called the real defender of Lucknow.

Hawke heard the news on his way to the battery. Tears were in the eyes of the man who told him, and Hawke felt a choking in his throat too.

“Why doesn’t a bullet take me?” he muttered. “I’m not worth much. But Fulton​—​it’s too cruel!”

After such a disaster as this, what was the value of anything? All was small, paltry. He rushed to the battery, and no one in the whole garrison fought harder and exposed himself more recklessly than did Jack Hawke during the next two days and nights. He never sought an interval of rest. But nature had its revenge. He dropped asleep at his post, worn out by sheer fatigue. A couple of soldiers laid him on some rush mats, and for a time he was dead to the world.

It was like the coming back of life when Hawke awoke. At first he could hardly realise where he was and what had happened. Then gradually his brain resumed its functions, and events arranged themselves in their proper sequence. His secret journey disguised as a native, the meeting with Hasun Khan, the latter’s revelations concerning the designs of Azimoolah, the return through the underground passage, the story of Edith Ross’s malignant treachery he had extracted from the lips of the prisoner, the death of Fulton​—​all was clear.

Fulton’s death had interfered with his desire to find Mrs Ross and confront her with Hasun Khan. There was nothing now in the way to prevent Hawke from gratifying that desire. For the moment his services were not wanted. One of the periods of stillness which were ever the puzzle of the besieged had come about. The rebels had ceased to fire a shot. Why was best known to themselves. At first these mysterious silences were alarming, and indeed were preludes to fierce cannonade and volleys of musketry, but towards the end of the siege they led to nothing, and the garrison became used to them.

Hawke languidly asked the news of the man who was at the loophole, rifle in readiness should any sepoy unguardedly show his head. Things were just the same, he was told.

“How long have I been asleep?”

“A good ten hours, sir. Major Trafford’s been here and saw you lying there just as if you were dead. He said you were to be let alone, but when you awoke you were to see the general. It was about that fellow who came with you. I guess he’ll be hanged for a spy, won’t he? P’raps the hanging’s come off already.”

Hawke was on his feet in a moment. If Hasun was dead, good-bye to his chance of righting himself in the eyes of his comrades.

But if not​—​if he could confront Mrs Ross with the spy and force her to confess her treachery! This would be a victory indeed. He could then go with a clear conscience and clean hands to Jean Atherton.

Hawke was admitted to the Residency. He ascertained at once that Hasun Khan was still in the flesh. He also found that Mrs Ross was lodging in the Residency.

Hawke hastened up the staircase leading to the rooms where the few ladies in the Residency were lodging. Their quarters were in the centre of the building, safe from shot and shell.

He was passing along a corridor when a door to the right opened suddenly and as quickly closed again. Short as the interval was, it was long enough for him to see that the person who opened the door was the woman he had at that moment in his mind.

The next moment he was in the room. The only occupant was Edith Ross. Maybe she suspected she was seen, and that Hawke was anxious to speak with her, for she was standing motionless in the centre of the apartment, and made no attempt to move when he entered. He was never on equal terms with Mrs Ross, because he could not control his temper; while she, however excited she might feel, always maintained her coolness. It was so now. The sight of her calm, mask-like face sent him into a fury.

“You’re true to your serpent-like nature!” he burst out passionately. “Thank heaven, I’m beginning to see you in your true colours!”

“And what are they?” she asked. “My dear Jack, don’t let us beat about the bush, get out of temper, and call each other names.”

“You’re right. If I called you by your true name it might be unpleasant for you to hear.”

“Thank you for the implied insult, Jack. May I say your manners don’t improve,” said she, quite coolly.

“I want you to come with me. I wish you to listen to something a certain man has to say. It has to do with you​—​it has to do with me.”

He was as hot as she was cold.

“You’re referring to that lying scoundrel Hasun Khan, I presume.”

Hawke started. He was not aware that the imprisonment of the spy, his name, the circumstances under which he was brought in by Hawke himself, were matters of common gossip in the Residency.

“Yes,” cried Hawke. “How did you know I was referring to him?”

“Because I’ve seen the rascal, and he told me a good deal that was interesting,” said Mrs Ross looking Hawke full in the face.

“About yourself?”

She laughed lightly. “Oh dear, no; about you. My dear Jack, it’s a case of crying quits. I know what he told you concerning me——”

“And you confess it? I see you do,” he broke in savagely. “You own yourself to be a liar, a slanderer, a forger! You employed this man as your Indian ancestors employed assassins to stab those they hated. I don’t know but what your crime is worse than theirs. If you were a man I should know what to do; but you’re a woman, and that’s your protection.”

She came close to him. An unearthly light shone in her eyes.

“Why don’t you kill me, Jack?” said she, in a voice vibrating with passion. “I deserve it. No matter that I was mad when I injured you; no matter that I’ve suffered years of torture and remorse. Kill me! Kill me!”

She twined her arms about his neck, her brilliant eyes were fixed upon his, her lithe, supple form seemed to have lost all muscular power. It clung helplessly to his.

He stood rigid, unbending; but for her hands clasped convulsively round his neck she would have fallen. The flood of agonised passion which swept over her did not make her less conscious that he repelled her.

“Why don’t you speak?” she cried. “Ah, if you knew how I’m torn! I know not if I hate or love you more.”

“I care as little for your hate as for your love. It’s all one to me,” he retorted. “I’ve come upon the truth, but I’ll act fair. I’ll give you a chance. Come with me, and we’ll have Hasun Khan’s story from his own lips in your presence.”

“With you​—​the one most interested​—​as the judge! And you call that acting fair!”

“Come,” he reiterated, taking no further notice of her words, “unless you’re afraid.”

The taunt went home. Mrs Ross drew herself up scornfully.

“That’s a coward’s argument. I’m ready to face an army of liars and spies. Yes, I’ll go with you.”

No sentry was posted to guard Hasun Khan. A man could not be spared. The Mohammedan was loaded with irons and put under lock and key. Escape was impossible.

Leaving Mrs Ross at the head of the staircase leading to the tyekhana, Hawke went in search of the officer who had charge of the key of Hasun Khan’s cell. The officer was Colonel Champneys, who had grown grey in the company’s service, and in fact had retired when the Mutiny broke out. Some called him a doddering old man.

“The key?” mumbled the veteran. “Here it is. I hope I sha’n’t be bothered with it much longer. The rascal ought to have been hanged right away. Means another mouth to feed. Too much fuss has been made over the scoundrel. Edith D’Arcy​—​I beg her pardon, Edith Ross​—​know her best as Edith D’Arcy; General D’Arcy was an old comrade of mine​—​pestered me early this morning to let her see the fellow. His father was a trusted servant of the general, she said. She got her own way​—​always did, the baggage​—​and I let her have the key. She wasn’t a bit afraid​—​the D’Arcys never were afraid of anything, and Edith’s the pluckiest of the lot.”

Hawke took the key and hastened back to Mrs Ross.

They reached the dark corridor of the tyekhana, and having unlocked the door Hawke drew back to allow Mrs Ross to enter first. He noticed she did so reluctantly.

Dark as was the corridor, darker still was the little low-ceilinged room, the only window of which was a long, slit-like aperture. Hasun Khan was lying motionless on his mat in a corner.

“Hasun!” called out Hawke.

There was no response. The man must have been sleeping very heavily. He made no sign when Hawke touched him with his foot.

Hawke bent over the prostrate man and felt his hand and wrist. Both were icy cold. Then he caught sight of a silk scarf tied round the neck. Here was the explanation. Hasun Khan was dead​—​strangled.

Hawke said not a word but undid the scarf. It was not nearly so tightly tied as it appeared to be. A finger could be easily inserted between it and the throat.

Hawke went to the door. Mrs Ross shrank more into the gloom.

“I’m going to fetch a lamp,” said he, in passing her.

Hawke was away about five minutes. When he returned, Edith Ross was in the corridor. Taking no notice of her, Hawke entered the cell and held the lamp close to the dead man’s throat. There were no creases, as would have been the case had he been strangled by the scarf. On either side the windpipe was a slight discoloration, hardly noticeable owing to the Mohammedan’s dark skin. The windpipe itself was a little swollen. Hawke knew what these signs meant.

Hasun Khan had been strangled by someone well acquainted with the methods practised by the Thugs. Nothing could well be more speedy and effective. All one had to do was to stand behind the victim, grasping a silk handkerchief tightly with both hands placed about two inches apart. The victim taken unawares, the hands were swiftly put over the head, dropped down in front of the neck, the centre of the space between the hands over the windpipe. Then the hands were pressed back with a jerk so that the bent joints of the thumbs were forced against the windpipe on either side. In a few seconds all was over.

Hawke raised his eyes towards Mrs Ross, who was still in the corridor. Her face was livid, her attitude suggested terror.

He said not a word, but tied the scarf round the dead Hasun Khan’s throat more tightly than before. Then he rose to his feet. The terrible conviction forced itself upon his mind that the author of Hasun Khan’s death stood before him!

He passed out. The swish of a skirt told that Mrs Ross was walking behind. The two ascended the first staircase, bringing them to a point where corridors branched off to the right and left. The first led to Colonel Champneys’ quarters, the second to the room provided for the women. Hawke pointed to the left.

“That’s your way,” said he, with cold politeness.

Edith Ross remained for a few moments quite motionless. She was standing as though she did not hear him. Hawke bent slightly towards her, and lowering his voice, said:

“Hasun Khan, I presume, spoke the truth?”

The significance of Hawke’s words could not be misunderstood. She roused herself, alert, defiant.

“Hasun Khan will never speak again,” was the swift answer.

“Quite true, but there is yet Azimoolah.”

“I refer you for information about him to his friend, Jean Atherton.”

Her thin lips curved and parted, the white teeth gleamed. She turned and fled up the staircase.

If any doubt existed in Hawke’s mind as to Edith Ross’s feelings towards him, it was now cleared away. When she made the appeal to him to kill her it was her last attempt to win him back. Whether she was sincere or not she had failed, and it was certain, much as she had once loved Jack Hawke, she now hated him with all the force of her passionate, her savage nature.

A sudden apprehension took possession of Jack Hawke. The vengeance of Edith Ross was a thing to be feared. What of Jean Atherton? For the present, having returned to the Begum Kothee, Jean was out of Edith’s reach, but who could fathom the craft of a jealous woman thirsting for revenge?