Chapter XI

“For God’s Sake Send Us Troops!”

Quick as the voyage was​—​quick, at least, for those days​—​it seemed far too slow for Philip Heron’s impatience, and the pilot brigs, tossing to and fro on the crested waves at the mouth of the Hooghly, were to him the most welcome sight in the world.

An soon as the steamer entered the treacherous channel of the river, she took up a pilot, and there was a stoppage for half an hour at Kedgeree, where dispatches from Calcutta were brought on board. Letters were rapidly distributed, and Heron looked with envy at his fellow-passengers, who were eagerly devouring the contents of the epistles written by their expectant friends.

There was no letter for him​—​how could there be? No one knew he was coming. It is true he had written to Dick on the eve of his departure, but his letter was at that moment lying in a mail-sack which would not be landed until the steamer reached Calcutta. He imagined this his letter would anticipate his arrival at Cawnpore by a few days only.

Heron asked for an Indian newspaper, but there was none to be had. Usually a number of copies were brought to Kedgeree, but not on this occasion. Others like himself were disappointed, and could not understand the reason. How could they tell that since they had left England, events had followed thick and fast, and that at that very moment Calcutta was convulsed with the news of a disaster in comparison with which the disaffection at Barrackpore and Dum-Dum was a mere trifle? No wonder all the newspapers in Calcutta had been eagerly bought up!

As he paced up and down the deck, watching the various readers, Heron was struck with the fact that the faces of those who had received letters bore the same expression. Everybody was absorbed. Each eye had a strange glitter of suppressed excitement. He passed a group gathered round one man, who was reading his letter aloud. He evidently regarded the contents as public property, and it was no breach of good manners on Heron’s part to stop and listen. “At first,” wrote the reader’s correspondent, “we could not believe the terrible news, and we anxiously looked for a contradiction. But instead of contradiction came confirmation, and the facts are a good deal worse than the rumour. There is no doubt that Colonel Finnis and a number of his officers have been shot by their men. Ladies have also been murdered. How horrible to think of! It seems that nothing was done to stop the progress of the outbreak, and the mutineers rushed away to Delhi, and now hold possession of the city. This Meerut affair occurred on May 11, and the news reached Calcutta three weeks ago. Lord Canning is doing all he can to hurry up reinforcements, for all kinds of rumours are afloat about the safety of Cawnpore and Lucknow, but there are but few troops here, and travelling is terribly slow. A welcome arrival came two days ago, in the shape of Colonel Neill with his Fusiliers from Madras. We are terribly anxious.”

Then the letter passed on to private details.

At first the effect was paralysing. The passengers looked at each other dazed and stunned. Mutiny? Why, it was incredible! Then it seemed slowly to dawn upon them that they had friends and relatives at Meerut, at Delhi, at Allahabad, at Lahore, at Cawnpore, at Lucknow. A lady who was about to join her husband in Delhi burst into tears; another, whose son was an officer stationed at Meerut, fainted. Others, for whom there was no relief in the shape of tears, sat with white, drawn faces​—​they seemed to have aged ten years in five minutes.

Heron went from one group to another seeking news, but got little beyond what he had heard at first. No one, at all events, could tell him any recent intelligence concerning Cawnpore. The correspondent of one lady, indeed, wrote from Cawnpore, but her letter was dated quite a fortnight before the outbreak at Meerut. Her letter was a mere record of gaiety, concerts, balls, dinner-parties, and a little gossip about the latest scandal. One item, however, interested Heron.

“The new Lucknow Commissioner, Sir Henry Lawrence,” wrote the lady, “seems to be a great success. He is immensely popular, and has great influence with the natives. I should think it quite impossible for any disturbance to happen in Lucknow while Sir Henry is there. I hope he’ll be able to help Cawnpore if help is wanted, though that isn’t likely. No man in India knows and understands the natives better than he does. Lady Wheeler, you know, is a native of India——”

“No news is good news,” thought Heron, and he comforted himself with the reflection that Cawnpore at present appeared to be quite safe, and he tried to interest himself in the scenery on either side of the noble river, for the steamer was now proceeding up the Hooghly as rapidly as the pilot would permit.

The picturesque groves of cocoanuts reached to the water’s edge, and their bending boughs threw a grateful shade on the stream. The river was full of native boats of endless variety, some skimming the surface like sea-birds, others hugging the shore and creeping lazily along in the shadow of the trees. Then as the vessel neared Garden Reach the groves of cocoanuts gave place to shrubberies and large stretches of grass-land, beautifully kept. On nearing Calcutta, the progress was very slow, for the centre of the channel, carefully marked out with buoys, had to be strictly kept. Fort William, looking squat and ugly and almost diminutive, was passed, and soon after the steamer was moored.

Heron congratulated himself on his prudence in bringing so little luggage. He was able at once to go ashore with all his belongings. He jumped into a running jetty conveyance, and was taken to an hotel, where he deposited his property. Then he hastened to report himself to Lord Canning at Government House.

Though the hour was so early, the narrow streets were crowded. The air was full of the hum of talk​—​soft, musical accents, with now and then a shrill laugh. The people, in their snow-white dresses reaching just below the knee, their turbans of varied colours, and their dusky faces looked picturesque to the eye, but in Heron’s present frame of mind he regarded them with suspicion.

Just as he emerged from the native quarter, he heard sounds which stirred every nerve in his body. It was the warlike notes of the Highland pipers. Philip Heron had not heard them since that memorable day when Sir Colin Campbell led his brigade up the heights of Alma. Five minutes’ walk brought him within sight of a detachment of the 78th Highlanders, in their national dress, marching with that springy, elastic step he had seen and admired so often. Heron had many friends among the 78th, and he could not resist the impulse to run forward and ascertain if he could recognise any of his old chums.

He halted when he was twenty or thirty yards ahead, and waited for the men to approach. On they came like a solid wall. They would pass where Heron was standing by but a couple of yards or so. The first two ranks had scarcely gone by, when he heard his name shouted in a voice which suggested the moors and the heather of Scotland.

“Eh, man! but ye’ll be Phil Heron, or may I never know what the taste of whisky is again!”

It was Captain Donald Macintyre, the noisiest, the most reckless, the best-hearted fellow that ever breathed; a giant in stature, and with hair as fiery as his own nature.

“I’d swear I was Philip Heron, even if that wasn’t my name, rather than that your intimate acquaintance with whisky should cease, old fellow,” shouted Heron.

“Weel, that’s spoken like a friend.”

The next moment their hands were clasped.

“And what are ye doing here, man?”

Heron told him in a few breathless words.

“Laddie, ye’re the man for us. We start for Raneegunge in two hours. A company of the 64th go with us, just to make the party not too Scottish, ye see,” said Macintyre, with a grin. “Now run away to the Government House and see Lord Canning. It’s a pity ye’re not a Scotsman; but ye’re Yorkshire, and that’s not so far away from the border.”

“But where are you going?”

“First to Benares, then to Allahabad, then to Cawnpore, and maybe to Lucknow, if we’re wanted. Colonel Jack Neill with his ‘Lambs’——”

“Colonel Neill?” cried Heron. “Not Colonel Neill who was in the Crimea?”

“The very man. He reached Calcutta a fortnight ago, with nine hundred of his Fusiliers, and they’re now on their way. If there’s any fighting to be done, Jack Neill’s the lad to do it.”

Donald Macintyre was quite right. Neill was an Ayrshire man, and the hereditary fierceness of his ancestors still lingered in him. No fitter nature for the task of retribution which he had to perform could be found. He was not one to temper justice with mercy. Philip Heron remembered him well as an energetic officer of the Turkish contingent in the Crimea. Lord Canning, at his wits’ end for troops, had telegraphed to Madras, and Colonel Neill, with “the Lambs,” as the 1st Madras Fusiliers were called, and of which he was the commander, lost not one instant in bringing his men up to Calcutta.

“What time do you set out, Macintyre?” asked Heron hurriedly.

“My men are ready now, but the 64th haven’t shown up. They only landed yesterday, ye see, from Rangoon. The train’s timed to start at six, but I’m thinking we’ll not be on the road before eight. I’m dying to see the long face that pock-pudding of a station-master will pull when he finds his blitherin’ time-table of nae guid. Eh. What a lesson John Neill gave him! But I’ll tell you that another time. Run to his Excellency as fast as your legs can carry ye.”

Heron took the kindly Scot’s advice. In less than twenty minutes he was at the Government House, waiting for an audience, and impatiently kicking his heels in a waiting-room, together with a dozen men all anxious to see the Governor-General on important business. Luckily, Heron had a letter of introduction from an East India Company’s director, also his War Office credentials; and within a quarter of an hour he was admitted to the presence of his Excellency, greatly to the chagrin of others who had been waiting a longer time than he had.

Lord Canning’s kindly, amiable face looked worn and worried, as well it might, for his dominion in India was beginning to tremble in the balance. The Governor was in possession of the latest information, and this showed that the rebellion was spreading fast.

The news from the districts north of Allahabad was alarming. Between May 25 and 30 the sepoys at Ferozepoor, Allyghur, Etawah, and Bolundshun had mutinied. Regiments had been disbanded at Lahore, martial law had been proclaimed in the North-west provinces by Mr. Colvin, the Lieutenant-Governor. Great fears were being entertained as to the safety of Cawnpore, Lucknow, and Agra. Delhi was still in the hands of the rebels. Everywhere the cry was, “For God’s sake, send troops!”

Only a fortnight before, on May 30, Lord Canning had dispatched this telegram to General Anson, in command of the British forces then besieging Delhi:

“I have heard to-day that you do not expect to be in Delhi before the 9th. In the meantime, Cawnpore and Lucknow are severely pressed, and the country between Delhi and Cawnpore is passing into the hands of the rebels. It is of the utmost importance to prevent this, and to relieve Cawnpore; but nothing but rapid action will do it. Your force of artillery will enable you to dispose of Delhi with certainty; I therefore beg that you will detach one European infantry regiment and a small force of European cavalry to the south of Delhi, without keeping them for operations there, so that Allyghur may be recovered, and Cawnpore relieved immediately. It is impossible to over-rate the importance of showing European troops between Delhi and Cawnpore. Lucknow and Allahabad depend upon it.”

But Lord Canning did not know when he wrote this that General Anson had been dead three days; nor did he conceive that the Mogul capital was not to be so easily disposed of, for instead of being entered on June 9, it was not captured until September 20.

When Philip Heron entered Lord Canning’s room, all this was in the impenetrable future. June 9 had come and gone, and Delhi had not been won. The news of General Anson’s death had arrived, and also the intelligence that not a single man could be spared. Allahabad, Cawnpore, Lucknow, Benares, were at the mercy of the native army. The outlook was black, and little wonder that Lord Canning was depressed.

“You wish to join Colonel Neill’s force?” said he, inquiringly.

“I want to get to Cawnpore as soon as I can, your Excellency,” replied Heron. “I have pressing reasons.”

“If you join the column you must act under orders. Colonel Neill is to take his men to Cawnpore. No doubt, if Lucknow is in need of help, he will send a detachment there; but I cannot guarantee that you won’t be one of the party. There is such a thing as chance, and chance just now seems to dominate everything. It is quite impossible to forecast the future.”

Heron had to admit the truth of this. Now that he was face to face with actualities, and could see that rules, regulations, and routine must be thrown aside in view of the terrible emergencies, it occurred to him that he should carry out his plan of reaching Cawnpore sooner if he were not attached to the force regularly. Might he not volunteer? Lord Canning demurred to this.

“You had better wait till the new Commander-in-Chief, Sir Patrick Grant, arrives. He should be here from Madras with Colonel Havelock in two or three days’ time.”

Philip Heron had never heard of Colonel Havelock. Few people had in England, beyond the friends of his family and some of his old Carthusian schoolmates. Yet before many weeks were over, the mere mention of the name of Havelock sent a thrill of pride and admiration through the heart of every one, whether rich or poor, who heard it.

“I cannot wait,” Heron broke out impatiently. “I have a brother​—​quite a youngster​—​in Cawnpore. I can’t explain to your lordship my strange yearning to see him and . . . but I mustn’t bore you with my private affairs, and can only beg of you to grant my request.”

Needless to say that Ruth as well as Dick was in Phil’s mind, and it was his anxiety concerning her that gave him the eager manner which impressed Lord Canning, who took a sheet of paper, wrote a few lines, folded and placed the paper in an envelope.

“Take that to Major Stirling, of the 64th. He may be able to accede to your wishes.”

Heron warmly thanked the Governor-General, and hurried away to find Major Stirling. The latter had already left his quarters with his men, and was on the road to the railway station, Heron hastened after him, and found him in conference with a grizzled warrior, the grand old fighting Colonel Walter Hamilton, the commander of the 78th, and better known among his men as “Wattie.” Heron waited until the conversation was over, and then, catching old Wattie’s eye, saluted him. Heron well remembered the veteran in the Crimea. Wattie remembered him, too, for his eye sparkled, and striding towards Heron, clapped him on the shoulder.

“I ken ye, laddie. Whaur is’t that I’ve seen ye?”

“The last time we met, Colonel, was just after Balaclava. I was being carried to the surgeon when you passed me, and gave me a sup from your whisky-flask.”

“Eh, mon, but ye’re richt. Gie me your han’.”

And the next moment Heron’s fingers were clasped with a force that left them bloodless and numbed. “Wattie” was thorough in everything he did.

The encounter was a lucky one, for if Major Stirling had any scruples about accepting Heron’s services, the latter knew he should have Colonel Hamilton’s good word. And so it proved. The colonel of the Ross-shire Buffs, as the 78th were called, introduced him to the Major, and the matter was arranged.

“We are off in half an hour,” said Major Stirling. “You’re ready, I suppose?”

“The sooner the better, sir. Yet, with your permission, I would like to run to my hotel. It’s close handy. I shall be back in a quarter of an hour.”

The Major nodded. Heron did not think of taking any luggage, but his sword was very precious. It had served him well on the field of Balaclava, and to lose it would be like losing a trusty friend. He rushed to the hotel, secured his sword, a brace of revolvers, and a brandy-flask; asked the landlord to take charge of his portmanteau and trunk, and, if it was his fate never to return, to dispose of them and their contents for his own benefit. Then he hastened to the railway-station.

Heron could only take the clothes in which he stood upright. They were not suitable for the climate, consisting as they did of the ordinary undress uniform of the Hussar regiment to which he belonged. But in this respect he was no worse off than the Highlanders, for they fought every battle of the fierce campaign begarbed in their woollen doublets.

Heron found the carriages crowded with men, laughing, talking, and occasionally swearing. But every now and then a fierce, stern look crept into their eyes, telling of the wild yearning in their hearts to avenge the murders at Meerut and Delhi.

Heron was about to enter a carriage when he heard his name yelled out. Macintyre, the Highland red-haired giant, was howling and gesticulating at him three carriages away.

“Come in here!” he shouted. “Shame on us if we can’t find room for a Balaclava boy!”

Heron managed to squeeze himself into the closely packed carriage, and the next minute was shaking hands right and left. The 78th and the 64th were mixed up, but, as Macintyre said, they would be able to sort themselves when they got to Raneegunge. Some of the officers of the 64th were in the carriage, and with them Heron speedily made friends.

“See that spalpeen of a station-master?” cried Major Tim Cassidy, pointing to an official who was standing, watch in hand, a little distance away. “It’s meself that would like to see him start the thrain before he has his orders.”

What had this official done to make himself so objectionable? Heron soon learnt. When Colonel Neill and the first detachment of his “Lambs” arrived, this official had an idea that the time-table of the railway company, and not the suppression of the Mutiny, was the all-important thing. In a very pompous way he went to Neill and told him that if his men were not ready the train must start without them, as time was up, and the train could not be kept waiting.

“Leave me to make my own arrangements, sir!” said Neill sternly. “When my men are in the train the train will start, and not before!”

“Excuse me, Colonel Neill,” said the official pertly, “you may command your regiment, but you don’t command the railway!”

Neill made no reply to the fellow, but beckoned to a sergeant.

“Take that man into custody,” said he.

The next moment the astonished railway official found himself roughly handled by a couple of “the Lambs,” and he shrieked aloud for assistance. Guards, stokers, and porters came running up eager to help their superior; but, when they attempted to do so, in a twinkling they were stuck up against the wall, each with a man with fixed bayonet standing over him. And in this way Neill brought the station-master to reason.

The troops reached Raneegunge by the afternoon, but here their troubles began. From Raneegunge the journey would be by the Grand Trunk Road, which runs from Calcutta to Delhi, a distance of some nine hundred miles. This road was made by the East India Company, and remains one of the few memorials of their attempts to improve the communications of India.

At Raneegunge the energetic transport officer was doing his best to push on men, stores, and ammunition; but he had almost a superhuman task. Had the Company furthered the construction of railways, how easy it would have been! But the official minds of the old days cared little for India. “India for the Civil Service,” was their motto. So long as they drew their salaries, India might take care of itself. Railways, irrigation works, improvements of roads, all were pooh-poohed.

The officials worked like Trojans. Every available horse and bullock along the line had been purchased by the Government; every cart and carriage secured for the conveyance of troops. The road was one incessant stream of traffic​—​men in all kinds of conveyances, ammunition-wagons, rumbling artillery-trains, drawn by teams of bullocks, urged on by gesticulating and yelling drivers; camels and elephants were also pressed into the service. The river steamers were carrying men and stores; but they moved too slowly, for, apart from the windings of the Ganges, it was the dry season. The stream was perpetually varying in depth, and there was constant danger of a vessel grounding on a sandbank.

But with all the energy and lavish expenditure of money, the transport service was miserably inadequate. The distance between Raneegunge and Benares could be traversed in five days, it is true, in a carriage drawn by horses; but how many men could be thus conveyed? Only eighteen to twenty-four every day! At this rate it would take forty-two days to transport 1,000 men to Benares only! How much longer to Cawnpore and Lucknow? What an answer to the despairing cry, “For God’s sake, send us British troops!”

So, while horsed carriages were used as much as possible, the bulk of the relieving force were dispatched in bullock-wagons, which were able to take a hundred men a day; and although the time occupied was double that of the horsed carriages, yet in the long run they were quicker. But when Heron saw the long teams of bullocks, many of them weak and wretchedly underfed, painfully plodding along the dusty road, one sometimes falling, and delaying the whole train of wagons for half an hour and more, he almost groaned aloud, for he knew how those imprisoned at Cawnpore and Lucknow must be wearily longing for the help which alone could be their salvation. He ventured to ask Colonel Hamilton what he thought were the prospects at Cawnpore.

“Sir Hugh Wheeler is alone worth a thousand men,” said he. And then he added, with Scotch caution: “But I’ll nae be sure Sir Hugh wad not rather ha’e the men.”

Major Stirling was more communicative.

“Lord Canning thinks Cawnpore and Lucknow are safe,” said he. “I saw Neill’s instructions, and one passage was this, ‘My object is to place at Sir Hugh Wheeler’s disposal a force with which he can leave his entrenchments at Cawnpore, and show himself at Lucknow or elsewhere.’”

This dispatch, Heron subsequently learned, was withdrawn on June 10, at the very moment when Sir Hugh Wheeler was surrounded by thousands of black, howling demons, when shot and shell were crashing through the flimsy defences of his entrenchment, when death was rapidly diminishing his little force, when the women and children in his charge were suffering bodily and mental agony such as it is scarcely possible for the mind to conceive, much less to realise.

“Then,” said Heron, “we shall first proceed to Cawnpore?”

“Undoubtedly, unless sufficient troops are sent up to enable us to divide our forces. There’s some talk of a movable column being formed. If so, I hope the command will be given to the man who’s daily expected to arrive from Madras with the new Commander-in-Chief, Sir Patrick Grant.”

“Ah! and who is he?”

“Every inch a soldier​—​Colonel Henry Havelock. Ask Colonel Hamilton what he thinks of Havelock. They were together at Bushire. The Persian War gave Havelock little to do. It was over too soon. The Ross-shire Buffs will be glad to see him. He led them at Mohunera, where the Persians fled at the sight of our fellows. Havelock is emphatically the man for this business. No one understands the science of war better than he does, no one knows India so well.”

Major Stirling’s words were prophetic. Within five days of Philip Heron’s departure from Calcutta, the Fire Queen brought Sir Patrick Grant and Havelock into the Hooghly. They reached Calcutta on June 17, and Sir Patrick hastened to present Havelock to Lord Canning. His words of introduction were curt and to the purpose:

“Your Excellency, I have brought you the man,” said he. And Lord Canning had the wisdom to think so, too.

Those few words saved India. But it was not for many months afterwards that Heron heard of them. At the moment they were being uttered he was jogging along in a villainous conveyance, the springs of which threatened to break at every jolt, vainly trying to summon a patience which he knew very well he did not possess.