Chapter XII

The Hand that Fired the Fuse

For some days previous to the first alarm which sent the frightened residents hurrying into the entrenchment, Howard Kendrick had been going from bad to worse, and at the time of the incendiary fires, he was quite oblivious to the hubbub and confusion in the city. The plan of shutting himself in his bungalow under the plea of illness, instead of helping on his scheme of leaving Cawnpore retarded it. He had drunk so hard during his solitude that Dr. Rogers, easy-going as he was, put his foot down, and declared that the “invalid” was not in a fit state to undertake the long and arduous journey to Calcutta.

But apart from the effects of continuous “pegs” of brandy, something else happened which kept Kendrick in Cawnpore. It fell to the lot of Colonel Waring to perform a very unpleasant duty. This duty arose out of a letter he had received from Kendrick’s father, the East India Company’s director. Had the young man kept himself sober, he might have got away before the letter arrived; as it was, it descended upon him like a thunderbolt.

Sir Oliver Kendrick’s letter reached Colonel Waring shortly after the retirement on the 21st from the barracks within the entrenchment, and when he, with many others, hoped the disturbance had blown over. In the afternoon of the 24th his buggy was at Howard Kendrick’s bungalow, and the Colonel, his kindly face unwontedly stern, alighted. The real cause of Kendrick’s indisposition had oozed out, and Colonel Waring was well aware what was the matter. But it was not this which made him stern. So many officers gave way to drink that an occasional excess was regarded as a venial fault.

Dr. Rogers chanced to be with the captain when Waring called, and the surgeon received the visitor in the sitting-room.

“I’m afraid, sir,” said he apologetically, “that Captain Kendrick’s not in a fit state to carry on a connected conversation.”

“I can judge of that for myself, I presume,” said the old colonel grimly; “the business which has brought me here must be cleared up at once.”

Rogers raised no further opposition, but ushered Waring into the bedroom. The man on the bed turned his bloodshot eyes on the unwelcome visitor. A remnant of discipline still clung to him; the sight of the colonel had a sobering effect, and he made a strenuous effort to pull himself together.

“Au’f’ly good of you to call, sir,” he mumbled.

“Glad you think so, Captain Kendrick. I won’t say what’s uppermost in my mind as to your folly, and the disgraceful example you’re setting to the youngsters at this time when we want men who are level-headed, and have some respect for themselves and the Service, because I’ve something more serious to say than to express my personal opinion of your conduct. I’ve had a letter from your father. I hope your mind’s not too muddled to understand its purport. I’m going to read it to you.”

These words fell on Howard Kendrick’s brain like little hammers. He raised himself on his elbow, and glared at the old soldier, who went on remorselessly from the beginning to the end of the letter. Sir Oliver, it appeared, had received a communication from the manager of the bank at Cawnpore, stating that Captain Kendrick had considerably overdrawn his account and wishing to how what was to be done. Sir Oliver had replied that the bank must take its own course, as he had washed his hands of his son.

“I am writing to you to the same effect,” the Colonel went on to read, “so that you may understand Howard’s exact position. I see no reason to alter my resolve, and for the present, at all events, he must expect no assistance from me.”

“On receiving this letter,” continued Colonel Waring, “I called at the bank and inquired what instructions they had had from Sir Oliver, and I was told they had heard nothing from him beyond the reply to their letter, which reply confirmed what your father has written here. But”​—​and Colonel Waring’s voice took a deeper note​—​“they informed me that a large sum had been placed to your credit, and that this money had come through Azimoolah Khan. Its source is evident. The Nana is supplying you with funds. For what purpose?”

The Colonel fixed his eyes on Kendrick, whose lips were nervously twitching in the endeavour to make some kind of answer.

“No harm, I s’pose,” at last he jerked out, “in . . . Nana lending . . . money. Lots of our fellows . . . done . . . same thing . . . borrows.”

“If there’s no harm, why did you let it be spread about that you’d made up your differences with your father? Why did you insinuate he had supplied you with funds? Damn it, sir, you told a confounded lie.”

Kendrick could only gaze helplessly at the irate Colonel. He was unable to say anything.

“While you’ve been drinking your brains away, worries outside have been gathering, and by George, we’ve had a narrow escape of a repetition of Meerut, Delhi, and the latest terrible business at Futtehpore,” went on Colonel Waring.

Kendrick knew nothing of the outbreaks at these places. He was in a drunken stupor on the 20th, when the news arrived.

“Meerut​—​Delhi? What’s been going on there, sir?” mumbled Kendrick.

“Murder​—​slaughter​—​massacre! Don’t ask me. You ought to have known. Look here, Kendrick, I’ve only one thing to say to you. Unless you drop that poison”​—​Colonel Waring pointed to the brandy bottle​—​“you’ll be cashiered. I leave you to think over it.”

The Colonel rose, stiff and uncompromising, and stalked into the next room, where he gave Rogers something remarkably like a wigging. Then he departed, angry, distressed, and puzzled. Waring was not like Sir Hugh Wheeler; he had no faith in Nana Sahib, and as for Azimoolah, he detested him. Ruth had told him everything, and how she suspected Azimoolah had had a hand in the attempted assassination of Dick Heron, and the Colonel agreed with her.

“I know Azimoolah’s record,” muttered the Colonel, as he drove back to his bungalow. “He was nothing but a charity boy. Then he was a khitmutgar, and afterwards a munshi to Brigadier Scott, who made him over to Brigadier Ashburnham, who kicked him out on finding he had been guilty of bribery and corruption. He’s the knave, and the Nana’s the fool. By Jove, a precious pair. And these are the rascals Kendrick’s so thick with. What the devil does it mean?”

The Colonel might well ask the question, but not even Howard Kendrick could answer it, though his conscience might supply the key now that he knew of the tragedies at Meerut and Delhi.

Whatever effect the interview may have had on Kendrick’s mind, he paid no heed to his colonel’s warning, and when Rogers next entered the room he found that his patient had helped himself to the brandy and had drunk quite half a tumbler full neat. The spirit had whipped his flagging nerves for a brief space into something like action, and he was walking unsteadily about the room muttering and gesticulating. The surgeon noticed a change had come over the man. It looked as if a crisis were approaching.

“Get back to bed,” commanded Rogers.

“Mind your own business. Let me alone,” retorted Kendrick. He stopped his pacing abruptly, and growled out: “What’s this business at Meerut and Delhi? Why the devil didn’t you tell me?”

Rogers would have avoided the subject, but Kendrick insisted upon knowing, and thinking it might bring the man to a better state of mind the surgeon related the terrible story. Kendrick listened moodily, and, to the doctor’s surprise, showed no excitement or even emotion. Rogers imagined his brain was so enfeebled that he did not realise the nature of the catastrophe.

This was not the case: cause and effect were slowly evolving themselves in his mind. Howard Kendrick’s thoughts were black. He saw himself as the one who had applied the torch to the materials which were only too ready for combustion. It was becoming evident to the wretched man that whatever were the doubts that had held the Nana back, they had been dispelled by the fatal talk which had enriched him, Howard Kendrick.

Then Kendrick wanted to know what had been going on in Cawnpore, and Rogers told him how fires had broken out, that the English residents had fled in panic to the entrenchment, and how they had returned when nothing more serious than the musket shot which wounded Dick Heron had happened.

Kendrick made no comment, and Rogers, thinking he might safely be left, went to call on another patient. He was absent some hours, and on his return he found a crowd of excited sepoys and natives outside Kendrick’s bungalow, and Kendrick himself behaving like a madman. What had occurred was this: Kendrick, armed with a musket, had wandered out into the darkness, had been challenged by a cavalry patrol, and had fired at the man, fortunately missing him. This untoward circumstance hastened events. The sowar made his complaint; a court-martial was held on Kendrick, who was acquitted, on the ground of his condition at the time, and it was held that his musket must have gone off by accident.

The decision gave mortal offence to the troopers of the Second Cavalry, who had long been looked upon as active in the work of discontent, and angry mutters were heard that maybe it wouldn’t be very long before their weapons went off by mistake too.

Two days after this Kendrick’s body was found floating in the Ganges Canal.

The consternation the discovery caused was terrible. Some tried to find comfort in the supposition that the wretched man had, in a fit of mania, committed suicide, but the general feeling was that the curtain was about to rise upon revolt and bloodshed. Yet up to May 30 all was calm, and Sir Hugh Wheeler was so sure he could command the situation, that he actually passed on to Lucknow a part of the detachment of the 84th, which had been sent from Benares. As rank and file crossed the bridge and marched towards the capital of Oudh, there was many a malicious smile on the faces of the dusky crowd, watching the redcoats depart.

Early in the evening of June 4 Ruth was sitting in a corner of the verandah of Colonel Waring’s bungalow, her heart full of dire misgiving, when a native stealthily approached, and slipped a note into her hand. He immediately glided away.

The note ran thus:​—​

“This is the last chance, Miss Armitage. The lives of the English​—​men, women, and children​—​are numbered, but I can yet save you. If you accept my offer, be at the wall of the entrenchment near the road leading to the canal at nightfall.”

The note could be from no other than Azimoolah; the angry blood rushed to her pale cheeks, and she crushed the note in her nervous fingers. She was about to tear the paper into fragments, when it occurred to her the General ought to see it. It might convey to him a warning.

She instantly went to head-quarters. The General was not there. He had gone to pass the night, as usual, near his men of the 53rd. There was no one high in command. Apparently, some event was near at hand, or why should all the principal officers be absent? Even Colonel Waring, though his hurt was not well, was away.

“I dare not take it to the General,” said the old sergeant-major to whom she had spoken. “But I’ll get a messenger. Ha! What’s this? Something amiss?”

A dozen​—​fifty​—​a hundred pistol shots were heard. The reports were not simultaneous, but came in clusters so to speak. The firing was in the direction of the quarters of the 2nd Cavalry, and the next moment was heard the thud, thud of horses’ hoofs, and the shouting of men. Then a column of fire shot in the air. One loud report awoke the echoes, and reverberated with sullen thunder.

“Great Heavens, what is that?” cried Ruth, tremblingly.

“The garrison alarm gun, miss. We’re in for it now. The devils have broken loose!”