Chapter X

Azimoolah Shows His Hand

A week went over since the news of the mutiny at Meerut reached Cawnpore, and most of the English here thought the native soldiers would remain loyal. Yet there were many sinister and unfortunate incidents. Ill-luck, indeed, seemed to hover over the English, for it so happened that a large supply of wheaten flour arrived by boat from the upper Ganges, and was sold off very cheaply. The flour was old and musty, and disagreeable in flavour. Instantly a rumour spread, that the British Government, wishing to break down the caste of the natives, had purposely sent down this flour, mixed up with the ground bones of cows and pigs.

On the 19th the European residents were seized with a vague and indefinable alarm. No one knew what to do, and no one could ascertain what cause there was for apprehension. Yet there were plenty of rumours. One was that mutiny was about to break out; another, that the “goojurs” from Delhi were coming to plunder Cawnpore.

What added to the general disquietude was that there was no place for safety. The officers and military residents had previously removed to new and partly finished barracks to the east of the Ganges Canal, for the reason that the native infantry were stationed there. The building of these barracks​—​not brick buildings, such as we see in England, but a series of huts, each man having his own, where he lodged his family​—​was unfortunate. The sepoys grumbled at having to change to incomplete buildings, while those they had vacated were standing empty. It was a grievance that they were not allowed to remain in their old quarters until the new ones were quite ready. Excepting in regard to position, the military were well provided for, but the only shelter for civilians was the magazine on the banks of the river. This building had a high wall round it, and a spacious compound, with several large, roomy buildings, and was suitable for refuge; but then it was a long distance​—​five miles​—​from the new native infantry cantonments just mentioned, and the general did not think it safe to leave the troops to themselves at so great a distance. So for the moment should there be an outbreak, it was quite uncertain what the residents would do.

A deputation of merchants waited upon General Wheeler to ask his advice. The General was of opinion that there was no immediate cause for alarm, but suggested that every non-military man should arm himself. As for the ladies and children, they might take shelter in two long barracks within the city. This the civilians did not think satisfactory; but they resolved, in case of any sudden danger, that if there was not time to go to the barracks, they would assemble in the shop of Mr. Hay, one of the principal merchants. In the meantime, Sir Hugh Wheeler was making his preparations by ordering an earth wall to be thrown up round some of the new barracks near the quarters of the native infantry, never dreaming that by so doing he was sealing the doom of his countrymen and women.

For two days Ruth had not left the house, but in the cool of the evening of the 20th she was tempted to stroll with her ayah beyond the compound. They passed a group of soldiers, and Ruth noticed that they had not their customary quiet and respectful demeanour. They were talking and laughing loudly. They glanced boldly and impudently at her, and she resolved to return to the bungalow at once. But before she did so, she observed a curious circumstance. Something was being passed from one to another. To Ruth it appeared to be a leaf. Every member of a group handled this, whatever it was; then it was taken to the next group, and the same process was gone through. Clearly it meant some secret sign. She asked the ayah if she could explain, but the ayah either did not know or would not say.

Greatly troubled, Ruth hurried back, and to her relief found that Colonel Waring had just come in from General Wheeler. She at once told him what she had seen. The troubled look which crept into his face frightened her.

“Ruth, my dear,” said he slowly, “the time we have all dreaded has come. You must make instant preparations for moving to the cantonments. Not a moment is to be lost. What you saw was the passing of the lotus leaf. The same thing was noticed before the insubordination at Barrackpore, and before the outbreak at Meerut. My dear girl, I fear the worst! It will be a hard time for all of us. But don’t meet troubles half way. We shall pull through all right. I’m glad​—​very glad my wife went away.”

Ruth, curious to know the significance of the passing of the lotus leaf, put some questions about it. She had heard about the passing of the chupatty, but the lotus leaf was new to her.

“I can’t explain exactly what the difference is,” returned the Colonel hastily. “The fact is, no one knows the meaning of these distributions save that they imply a secret signal of some kind. The lotus is only used among the soldiers, for the ordinary natives the chupatty is employed. I’ve been told that the passing of the chupatty is not necessarily an ill-omen, but has its origin in some vow. It’s all very well to say that, but to my mind it doesn’t make the matter any better​—​it all depends upon the nature of the vow. But don’t let your thoughts dwell upon the thing, child. India is full of puzzles, and some of these puzzles when their significance is discovered are childish enough.”

Then the Colonel, with a look of preoccupation on his face, hurried away, leaving Ruth to puzzle out the meaning of the mystery and romance conveyed in his words as best she could. The lotus had always attracted her, and she had been content to admire the gigantic leaf, smooth and shining, the tall and quivering stem, and the majesty with which it towered above its humbler companions; but after Colonel Waring’s words, the blood-red flowers of the variety grown in Bengal seemed to have a sinister aspect. Ruth’s ayah, who was full of Hindoo traditions, had told her how the lotus was the symbol of the great god Vishnu, who in many of the temples is represented as seated upon the lotus in the midst of waters. The flower was dedicated to Laksmi, the wife of Vishnu; it was regarded by the Hindoos as an emblem of the world, the whole plant signifying both the earth and its two principles of fecundation. It was a favourite offering at the temples, and its poetic side was the legend that the red lotus was dyed by the blood of Siva, that flowed from the wound inflicted by the arrow of Kavina, the Indian god of love. The ayah was never tired of repeating love-stories in which the lotus figured in all the wealth of Oriental imagery.

Ruth was pondering troublously on the lotus and its associations, when her thoughts were rudely broken into by guttural voices heard from without. The hoarse sounds were at first like the distant roar of an angry sea. Then they rose to shrill shouts, to sink afterwards to sullen whispers. Ruth dared not go into the verandah to find out the cause of the disturbance, but ran agitatedly in search of the Colonel. She found him buckling on his sword.

“Don’t be alarmed,” said he quietly. “I’m going to see what this hubbub means.”

“No, no,” cried the girl, with a sudden burst of fear. “You must not go!”

“Nonsense; it’s my duty! Besides, I’m convinced there’s no actual danger. I believe the troops in Cawnpore are thoroughly faithful, and will resist the attempts which are being made to corrupt them. I’d stake my existence on the loyalty of my own regiment.”

“Yes, yes; I know that the men love you​—​and so they ought; but who can tell what may happen when——”

She stopped. The room was suddenly illumined by a dull, reddish light.

Quickly disengaging himself from the frightened girl, Colonel Waring hastened out of the room to the compound. The sky in the direction of the lines of the 1st Native Infantry was broken by the glare of fire, with here and there tongues of flame shooting upwards. It was from this quarter that the sounds of voices were proceeding. Crushing her fears Ruth ran into the verandah.

The moon was shining brightly. The whole landscape was flooded with a pale, silver light, save where the fire had broken out. Ruth could see yellow flames and myriads of red sparks in the midst of clouds of smoke. The fire, she thought, was not spreading, indeed, short as the time was since its outbreak, it seemed already to be dying down.

All at once the girl was seized with a disquieting sensation that she was not alone. Yet she could not see any one, for the panic-stricken servants had fled, nobody could say whither. Suddenly, though she had heard no footstep, not even the rustle of a garment, she saw a man standing close to her​—​so close, indeed, that he had but to stretch his arm, to touch her. She involuntarily recoiled, as much through the sudden and mysterious appearance of the man as by the personality of the man himself.

She recognised Azimoolah Khan, the treasurer, the right hand, the governing spirit of Nana Sahib. The Hindoos called him the Nana’s vakeel. Despite his courtly and insinuating manners, Ruth hated the man.

“I have not frightened you, I trust, Miss Armitage,” said he in his smooth, oily voice, and with a deferential inclination of the head.

“No,” Ruth answered coldly. “Still, I should prefer to have had your coming announced.”

“Ah! there is no time for ceremony.”

“What do you mean?”

In spite of her desire not to appear timid before Azimoolah, she could not prevent her voice trembling slightly.

“I dare not tell you all. I can only say that I have come here to save you. Before many days are over, something terrible will happen. You know, perhaps, what has taken place at Meerut, and Delhi, and Futtehpore——”

“Futtehpore?” cried the girl. “No bad news has come from Futtehpore. Why, it was but the other day that the Oudh Cavalry were marched there, and Lieutenant Ashe, with a battery, was ordered to follow yesterday.”

“Lieutenant Ashe will get there too late. The Oudh Cavalry have murdered their officers. Captain Hayes and Captain Carey are dead.” Azimoolah bent his head and whispered the words in her ear.

All the blood seemed to rush to Ruth’s heart, and leave the surface of her body icy cold. It was only within the last few days she had met both Hayes and Carey at a dance given by Lady Wheeler. They were then full of life and gaiety; and now​—​but she could not think of the contrast. It was too appalling.

“You tremble, Miss Armitage,” continued the Mussulman, in a soft, purring voice. “It is only natural; but you at least have nothing to fear if you trust me. At Bithoor shelter and safety await you. Nay, if Colonel Waring chooses to avail himself of the Nana’s hospitality, as he and his friends have often done before, he is welcome.”

The man’s words roused all the girl’s spirit. She could only look upon an invitation to Nana Sahib’s palace at Bithoor as an insult. The Nana was rarely visited by English ladies.

“Go back to your master, Azimoolah Khan, and tell him I desire neither his friendship nor his shelter. I mistrust both.”

“Aha,” said he, “you are not like the English officers, Miss Armitage; they trust the Nana. Has he not offered to General Wheeler his assistance to guard the treasury at Nawabgunge?”

“I heard so,” returned Ruth hurriedly; “but it makes no difference in my opinion.”

“Think well before you refuse,” said Azimoolah Khan slowly, and with emphasis. “You know not what is coming. England is growing weaker; we in India are becoming stronger. You have taught us to use your weapons; you have shown us how you conquered our land, and we may turn the lesson to good account.”

“This comes well from you, Azimoolah Khan,” she cried, with indignation. “You have been in England, and you know something of us. You, like Nana Sahib, have always said you were friendly to the English.”

“Yes, I have said so,” interposed the Mussulman smoothly.

“Why then do you not exert yourself to influence your countrymen?”

“It is useless. Who can fight against the decrees of fate? When the floodgates of passion, of revenge——”

“Revenge! What have you to revenge? What have we done?”

“Oh, I only put the case as thousands look at it. For myself, I have received many kindnesses from English men, and from”​—​he laughed slily​—​“English women too. But I am powerless. I know what is in store for your countrymen in India, Miss Armitage. They will be driven into the ‘black water.’ Not a soul will remain on Indian soil. But I would save those of the English whom I love, and that is why I beg you to come with me while there’s yet time.”

“Come​—​with you?” repeated Ruth slowly, and as though she had not heard aright.

“It is your only chance of life​—​of life, remember. Before long even I may not be able to save you.”

He was now quite close to her. He would have grasped her wrist, but she retreated. She was seized with an uncontrollable horror of this man, with his velvety voice and snake-like manner. Yet she had heard women​—​English women​—​talk admiringly of his fascinations.

“My answer is, No!” she cried. “Not even to save my life would I go to Bithoor.”

“Very well then, there is another way,” said he rapidly. “The Nana shall not know that you have refused his offer. I will charge myself with your safety. You need not go to Bithoor. Come to the river. I have a boat in readiness, and I will take you to Allahabad.”

“No. Come when Colonel Waring is here, and talk to him.”

“Colonel Waring? What can he do? Maybe you’ll never see him again.”

There was something in his tone which set her nerves vibrating, her senses on the alert.

“Ah, I see,” she cried. “This is a trick​—​it is treachery! If anything happens to Colonel Waring it will be at your instigation.”

“How unjust you are, Miss Armitage. Is it possible I could wish harm to any friend of yours? Ah, Miss Armitage——”

He stopped suddenly. His quick ear had caught the sound of a footstep. It had the effect upon him of an electric shock. He clapped his hands sharply. Instantly the gardens became alive with dusky forms running from behind the thickets.

“You see I have laid my plans,” hissed Azimoolah.

The next moment Ruth was surrounded by his followers​—​some of the worst of the many ruffians in the pay of the Nana. But it was only for a second.

“You scoundrels​—​you devils,” shouted an English voice, and right and left went a couple of the budmash to the ground, felled like bullocks. Fright seized the rest; they took to their heels, and apparently Azimoolah among them, for he was nowhere to be seen.

Ruth, white as a lily, and trembling from head to foot, found herself faced by Dick Heron, flushed and panting. He had his revolver in readiness, but he had not fired it for fear of hitting Ruth; now, however, he sent a bullet after the fugitives.

“Thank God I’m in time,” cried Dick brokenly. “The villains haven’t hurt you, have they?”

“No, Dick. I——”

She could say no more. To hear himself called by the old name of their days of friendship, sent Dick’s heart bounding. It was as much as he could do to explain that, hearing of the disturbance, he had sprung from his bed, leaped on a horse, half dressed as he was, and had galloped straight to Colonel Waring’s bungalow.

“How good of you, Dick​—​and you so ill too,” cried Ruth, clasping her hands.

“That’s nothing. I’m nearly well. I met the Colonel, and he told me to hurry here and take you to General Wheeler’s entrenchment. The bungalows in the cantonments aren’t safe any longer, for you and the other ladies.”

“But what has happened? Is Colonel Waring——?”

She could not continue. Azimoolah’s ominous words were fresh in her mind.

“He’s quite safe; but he’s unable to come to you just now. Don’t be alarmed. The fire’s almost extinguished. It broke out in the lines of the 1st Native Infantry. Our fellows ran down six guns, and I guess the sight was enough. Anyhow, the men are obeying orders, and it may be the fire was accidental. In the hubbub, Colonel Waring was struck by a stone​—​oh it’s nothing much, I assure you——”

“The poor Colonel!” cried Ruth agitatedly. “I must go to him at once. You’ll take me, won’t you?”

She turned her swimming eyes imploringly upon the lad. He longed to kiss her tears away.

“I can’t,” said he quickly. “The Colonel’s orders are imperative. I wasn’t to lose a moment in escorting you to the entrenchment. There’s all the more reason to hurry after what happened just now. I thought I saw that slimy scoundrel Azimoolah among the mob who were round you. Was I right?”


“The first time I meet the rascal I’ll give him the soundest thrashing man ever had. But we won’t talk about him. Run indoors and get a few things together. You may want them.”

There was an air of authority about Dick Heron, which sat well on the lad. Ruth never liked him so much as now. She obeyed without a word, and returned in about ten minutes, accompanied by her ayah, who was carrying a light portmanteau. Dick Heron took Ruth’s arm and they set out to walk to the cantonments. The latter were quite distinct from the city, and were spread over an extent of six miles in a semicircular form along the banks of the Ganges.

The three reached the border of the cantonments without anything untoward happening. They were now in a road bordered by trees. Before them lay the plain, and they could see in the distance the wall of sandy earth which had been hastily thrown up, forming the entrenchment.

“Five minutes’ walk beyond those trees,” said Dick encouragingly, “and we shall be inside the——”

At that moment a musket was fired not four yards from them. Then came a piercing scream from her ayah, and Ruth felt Dick’s grasp suddenly relax. She turned swiftly, but was unable to save him from falling. He was lying at her feet motionless, and blood was trickling down his cheek. The next moment she was kneeling on the ground, holding Dick Heron’s wrist.

“I can feel no pulse,” she cried piteously. “Oh if——”

Her words died away in a mournful cry. She could see nothing, think of nothing but the poor lad so treacherously struck down. She was unconscious of the gleaming eyes, the cruel pouting lips of the woman who was peering at her through the foliage. But Nadia saw the sinister face and recognised it.

“Hooseinee Khanum!” whispered the ayah in terror-stricken tones, and in an instant the woman disappeared.

“Come away, Missee Ruth​—​come away,” cried Nadia, shaking from head to foot.

Nadia turned and fled, and Ruth never saw the girl again. She was not long alone, for the sentry on guard at the earthworks had given the alarm, and the picket was hastening towards her, while inside the entrenchment a sudden activity had arisen, for no one could tell that the shot might not be the signal for the attack. The officer in command of the picket knew Ruth, and she told him rapidly what had happened.

“By Jove, this looks like an attempt at assassination from private motives. I don’t think it has anything to do with revolt,” he returned in a low voice. “Poor Heron! Hard luck to be shot without a chance of defending oneself. Let me take you inside the fort, Miss Armitage. This is no sight for you.”

“No no, I won’t leave him,” she returned doggedly.

The officer allowed her to do as she pleased. The picket improvised a litter, and the unconscious Dick was carried inside the entrenchment, and the surgeon summoned.

“He’s not dead,” said the doctor. “A narrow shave though. The bullet hasn’t entered the skull; it’s merely a graze. The lad’s a bit run down, that’s why he fainted.”

It was a relief to hear this, and Ruth allowed herself to be taken to the friends who had preceded her in seeking the shelter of the entrenchment. While sympathising with her, the ladies could not resist their own feelings of alarm. To what terrible tragedy was this attack destined to be the prelude? So far as they knew, Dick was the first one in Cawnpore to be struck by a hostile bullet. How many would follow? The trembling women dared not ask this question of each other, yet it was in the minds of all.

Morning dawned, and with the bright sun came fresh hope. Nothing had happened within the city, and it was settled that the fire was purely accidental. Ruth hoped and expected to see Colonel Waring, but he sent word that he must remain with his men, as all the other officers were doing.

It was now May 21. At dawn women and children crowded into the barracks, according to orders, and the accommodation began to be limited.

“What the place will be like if the wives and families of the civilians come here too, I can’t imagine,” said Mrs. Ewart.

“Are they coming, then?” asked Ruth.

“They must. There’s no other shelter,” answered the lady. “It’s a pity the magazine was not chosen instead of this entrenchment; but I suppose General Wheeler had his reasons.”

Sir Hugh Wheeler’s selection of the spot for his entrenchment has been severely criticised. It was in an exposed situation; its breast-high earthwork provided but a feeble protection, and gave little or no shelter. Moreover, the soil was dry and scrubby, thanks to its being the dry season, and offered little more resistance than a sieve.

On the morning of this day, the sergeant-major’s wife of the 53rd, a Eurasian by birth, went marketing to the native bazaar, when she was accosted by a sepoy out of regiment dress.

“You will some of you not come here much oftener,” were his sinister words. “You will not be alive another week.”

She came back in great alarm, and told Ruth and one or two other ladies; and though they were much frightened they prudently kept the story from the rest, telling only the General what they heard.

“Do not worry yourselves, ladies,” said the old General. “I think I know the sepoys as well as any man in India, and you may depend upon it, this is all bombast.”

And acting according to his firm belief, General Wheeler visited the lines daily, chatted with the sepoys, and tried to invite their confidence, but could get no certain knowledge of anything like plotting, except in the case of one of the 56th Native Infantry, who was actually given up by some of the sepoys for attempting to spread sedition, and was sentenced to be hanged, though it was considered prudent not to carry out the sentence.

On the 22nd there was a welcome arrival in the shape of a detachment of H.M. 32nd Regiment, sent from Lucknow by the chivalrous Sir Henry Lawrence, though he could ill spare them, and this accession of strength brought confidence with it. As the flight to the hastily-thrown-up entrenchment was having a bad effect on the sepoys, all who had taken shelter there went back to their homes.

Ruth was very anxious about Dick, but in the hurry and confusion of the removal she did not see him. Perhaps it was as well, for in her agitation of mind she might have revealed her suspicion, namely, that Azimoolah Khan was at the bottom of the attempt to assassinate him.

Meanwhile, though outwardly everything had quieted down, there was an undercurrent of excitement among the troops, so much so that it was not considered advisable to fire the usual salute on the Queen’s birthday, May 24. About this date the Nana carried into effect the offer he had made to Sir Hugh Wheeler, which the latter with inconceivable fatuity accepted. This was the “proof” of his friendly disposition towards the English mentioned to Ruth by Azimoolah Khan; and moving to a bungalow near the treasury with about 500 armed men of his own, and two small guns, the Nana took charge of the place and of the treasure. Virtually Sir Hugh had delivered himself into the hands of the rebels; and when, some little time afterwards, he removed into his entrenchment, leaving the magazine, its guns and its stores of ammunition for the benefit of the enemy, he crowned his misplaced confidences with an act of folly for which the infirmity of years​—​he was seventy-four​—​is the only excuse.