Chapter II

The Girl with the Madonna Face

The billiard-room was insufferably hot. Two limp cadets were struggling through a languid game. Dick Heron’s match was not to come off until the evening, and he had no object in coming to the billiard-room other than to escape from the embarrassing chaff of Kendrick and the rest.

Three men were talking in low voices at the end of the room. One of these was Jack Hurst. Dick approached the group, and Hurst catching sight of him disengaged himself from his friends.

“I’m glad you’ve looked in. I wanted to see you,” said Hurst hurriedly. “We shall have to postpone our match to-night. I’m off to Benares on special service.”

Jack Hurst was on Sir Hugh Wheeler’s staff, and one could hardly say there was anything strange in this sudden mission. But the look of seriousness on Hurst’s good-humoured countenance struck Dick Heron with a sense of uneasiness.

“Anything wrong?” said he.

“No​—​that is, it’s as well to look into things.”

The other men of the group were arguing, and raised their voices.

“I tell you, Standridge, your fears are all moonshine,” said one, Captain Rippon of the 2nd Light Cavalry, a native regiment of horse stationed at Cawnpore. “I’ve passed twenty years in India, and I’d trust my men anywhere. They’re absolutely loyal. There’s not a sowar who wouldn’t lay down his life for me.”

“Glad you think so, Rippon. I’m not so sure. This Barrackpore business has a very ugly look.”

“I know​—​I know; but General Hearsey nipped the thing in the bud. We shall hear no more of it,” broke in Rippon impatiently.

“But the greased cartridge grievance——”

“Oh, damn the greased cartridges. A great deal too much has been made of the wretched affair. All we have to do is to be firm and the thing will die away.”

“You may find it easy to be firm with your men, Rippon, but you’re an exception. The trouble is that the sepoys no longer regard our ‘firmness.’ The infantry do as they like. They’re openly indifferent, and things which in Madras or Bombay would be punished are passed over in Bengal. I was on the parade ground this morning, and could not help seeing the sneers on the faces of the men when a youngster of a subaltern was wigging a havildar of twice his age.”

Dick Heron jerked his head over his shoulder towards the speaker. Without a doubt he himself was the “youngster” referred to.

“Whether the havildar had or had not committed any offence, and whether the lieutenant was right or wrong isn’t the point,” went on Deputy-Commissioner Standridge. “What I contend is that the majority of sepoys haven’t the same respect for their officers they had years ago. They’ve been spoiled, pampered, allowed to have their own way​—​and if a crisis ever comes it’s very doubtful if we can rely upon them.”

“You’re an alarmist, Standridge. You see things with the eye of a civilian. You don’t mix among the men as we do. You don’t know their attachment to us and their loyalty to the Company.”

The voices dropped, and Dick Heron no longer heard distinctly. That which had reached him, however, excited his curiosity, and increased his vague uneasiness.

“What’s this Barrackpore affair?” he asked Hurst abruptly.

“Nothing of very great importance; but there’s no harm in your knowing so long as you keep your knowledge to yourself. I’ll swear the news has long since reached the rank and file and is buzzed about in their bazaars, of course more or less exaggerated. Those bazaars are hotbeds of lies and intrigue, and it would be all the better for English rule in India if they could be stamped out.”

Hurst was talking nonsense, and he knew it. He might as well have demanded the stamping out of the religions of the natives as the stamping out of their bazaars. At Cawnpore the military bazaars were numerous, and their reputation was very bad. Each regiment had its own bazaar; and the goojurs​—​otherwise highway robbers; budmash​—​as the riffraff are called; dacoits, and even Thugs mingled freely with the dealers in necessities and dainties. Not less than 40,000 persons out of the 50,000 which constituted the population of Cawnpore​—​the majority of them beggars, thieves and worse​—​congregated in these dens.

“The business that takes me to Benares concerns the Barrackpore outbreak,” said Hurst. “General Wheeler’s anxious to know what Spottiswoode, who’s in command there, thinks. He may have some more information than we possess. The facts, so far as they’ve reached us, are these. About six weeks ago the 19th Bengal Native Infantry at Berhampore refused to obey orders; the regiment was disarmed and marched down to Barrackpore, a hundred miles or so away, and there disbanded. Apparently this was the end of the affair, but it wasn’t so. Soon after the men were at Barrackpore a fellow named Mungul Pandy, of the 34th, ran amok in front of the lines, yelling ‘Come out, you blackguards! The Europeans are upon us! From biting these cartridges we shall become infidels! Get ready! Turn out, all of you!’”

“By Jove,” cried Heron excitedly, “I hope the rascal was shot down.”

“It was the other way about. He shot and wounded the adjutant and sergeant-major, who tried to secure him. The Colonel came on the scene, but rather muffed the business. The men began to be excited, took no notice of his orders, and things were looking ugly when General Hearsey rode on to the ground and ordered the guard to secure the fellow. Hearsey’s son went with them, pistol in hand, and Mungul Pandy caved in​—​shot himself. He’s in the hospital, and I guess when he’s well enough he’ll be hanged. Seven companies of the 34th were disbanded, and that’s the story​—​whether it’s going to be continued in our next I’d rather not say.”

“What do you think?” asked Dick. “Do you side with Captain Rippon or with Standridge?”

“I’ll tell you when I come back from Benares. If the niggers really think their religion is going to be attacked by the compulsory use of those confounded greased cartridges, we shall find it out at Benares, the Hindoos’ holy city. Good-bye, old chap. I haven’t any time to spare.”

Hurst hurried away. Dick would have questioned Captain Rippon and Standridge, but both were gone, and having no interest in the two languid “griffins” at the billiard table, Dick sauntered out, avoiding Kendrick and his set purposely. He could hear their voices in the mess-room, accompanied by the popping of soda-water corks, and in the penitent mood of the moment he was in no mind to join them either in talking or drinking.

The club-house was on the west side of the Ganges canal running south from the river. To the east were the native cantonments, extending some six miles along the bank of the Ganges. Dick strolled towards the English church, which, with its white tower in the midst of a cluster of trees is about the most conspicuous object in Cawnpore. Converted into a purely military station by the East India Company, Cawnpore has no ancient temples and palaces like Delhi and Lucknow. It is and was distinguished for nothing but its manufactories of saddles and other leather goods.

Jack Hurst’s sinister piece of news had obliterated the impression of Kendrick’s unpalatable badinage, and with the possibility of native disturbances there came into Dick Heron’s mind the picture of a girl who was beginning to be regarded as the belle of the station, greatly to the dissatisfaction of the reigning beauties.

Ruth Armitage, the daughter of Colonel Waring’s comrade, Captain Armitage, killed at the siege of Mooltan nine years before, and the Colonel’s ward, had always been very “nice” to Lieutenant Dick Heron. They were much of an age, and there was a further link between them in the discovery they had made, that they had acquaintances in the same circle in London, though the two had never met in England, where Ruth, according to custom, had been sent to be educated. Indeed, Ruth had met Philip Heron, Dick’s elder and only brother, just after he returned from the Crimea, and Dick’s eyes sparkled when the girl spoke enthusiastically of the handsome dashing hussar, and of the share he had had in the memorable Balaclava charge. Ruth had stayed a short time with Amy, Dick’s sister, and so it came about that not long after their introduction they began to feel that they were old friends.

Dick sauntered along the Chandun Choke, or “Street of Silver,” as the main highway of Cawnpore is called, pursuing the train of thought set in motion by Standridge’s words.

“It would be awful if … what nonsense. It’s ridiculous to think of rebellion in India, in spite of Standridge’s croakings​—​it was like his dashed impudence to criticise me and the wigging I gave my havildar this morning. What the deuce does a deputy-commissioner know about military matters? The officers who mix with the men every day of their lives are, as Rippon says, likely to be the best judges. I admit I was a little ‘rusty’ with Kulloo Bux, but as for the sneers​—​Standridge imagined he saw them. The sepoys are all right; if mischief happens it will come from the budmash. The gaols are crowded with the scum.”

Dick was half tempted to loiter among the native shops and try to ascertain the views of the proprietors on the vexed question of the cartridges, about which ugly rumours had spread that hog’s fat had been used in the manufacture, but he recollected Captain Rippon’s warning, that too much fuss had already been made about the business, and he decided that he might do more harm than good by talking, especially as his stock of Hindustani was limited, and he was likely to misunderstand anything that might be said.

So he sauntered along the Delhi road in the direction of his quarters, noting all the signs of the solidity and permanence of the British rule, in the theatre, the assembly rooms, the stores of the English merchants, the club-houses, and in the distance the compounds of the officers and the officials of the Anglo-Indian Civil Service, where fruit and vegetables, European as well as native varieties, grew in profusion and without much labour in their culture.

There were not many English to be seen in the streets, but this was nothing. It was the hottest part of the day, and those who could do so kept within the shade and coolness of their bungalows. All was placid; the usual air of indolence prevailed.

Dick reached his bungalow, strove to whet his appetite with a curry, went to sleep for a couple of hours, awoke not very much refreshed, had a bath, and finally dressed himself in the orthodox white linen jacket, highly starched, ditto trousers, and cummerbund. Then he ordered his buggy and set out to kill time till dinner at the mess.

Dick’s penitent mood still lingered. The dregs of the mad time at the Nana’s palace the previous night had not subsided. He would like to chase his black thoughts away by allowing them to dwell on something that was pure and innocent. He had a reluctance in facing Ruth Armitage in his present state of mind; but what influence was like hers? Yes, he would call on Colonel Waring, or rather on Mrs. Waring; he was justified in so doing even as a matter of form, seeing that it was the hour when the officers’ wives received their friends.

As Dick Heron neared Colonel Waring’s bungalow, he saw a buggy driving away in the opposite direction. The dazzling sun, and the hot air quivering as though it had come from the mouth of a furnace distorted the vision, and Dick could not distinctly see the occupant of the vehicle.

“Who is that, Hazaree Lall?” he asked his servant.

“Sahib Kendrick,” was the reply.

Dick pinched his lips. He was conscious of an odd pang of annoyance. It was very absurd, for Kendrick surely had a perfect right to call on Mrs. Waring and Ruth Armitage.

Dick descended from his buggy and walked through the compound, gay with the gorgeous flowers of the East, to the verandah, beneath the canopy of which half a dozen white-turbaned dusky figures were squatting. One rose, salaamed, and took in Dick’s name. The prattle and laughter of women could be heard from within, mingled with the strains of Thalberg’s “Home, sweet home.” Dick Heron loathed the piece. He had heard Miss Cummings, the “crack” pianist of Cawnpore, struggle with its serpentine wanderings times out of number.

The servant ushered him in, and soon he was in Mrs. Waring’s drawing-room, threading the maze of spindle-legged tables, loaded with curios, and making his way towards a group of ladies in muslin dresses, ample in skirt and flounced almost up to the waist.

Mrs. Waring, a tall, fragile-looking, willowy woman, with the languid, faded air of the middle-aged Anglo-Indian lady, shook hands with the young man, and inclined her swan-like neck condescendingly and coldly, Dick thought. As a rule she was very gracious and smiling. To-day her smile was decidedly acid. One of the ladies standing by her looked at Dick inquiringly, and evidently with approval. Unless Mrs. Waring wished to be rude she could hardly avoid introducing him. She did so, and the lady froze instantly. Dick was perfectly conscious of her changed demeanour, and stood somewhat mystified and embarrassed. An interchange of a few commonplaces, and he was left to amuse himself with the photographic albums which were then indispensable for the entertainment of one’s guests.

Photographs did not interest him in the least; his eyes were roaming in search of the girl he had come to see. She was not there; no doubt she was one of the audience listening to Miss Cummings’s pounding, twiddling, and her rocket-like scales. For the moment Dick was evidently a person of no importance, and he had no difficulty about slipping away in search of his divinity.

Once more he threaded the maze of furniture and knick-knacks, and was about to cross the passage to the music-room when a girl, slim and graceful as a fawn, suddenly emerged from the doorway on the other side. She was rather below the middle height; perfectly proportioned, the soft gauzy Indian muslin clinging to her shoulders and arms accentuating their curves. Her dark chestnut hair was arranged in smooth shining bands each side of her forehead, coming down rather low, but not so low as to conceal the small well-shaped ears. The fashion suited her regular features and gave her a Madonna-like aspect, the more attractive because of its modesty.

Directly she saw Dick Heron she stopped, and would have withdrawn into the room behind her, but for his crossing the passage in a couple of strides, holding out both hands. He could be demonstrative now without remark; the Hindoo servants did not count.

“Ruth!” he exclaimed.

If Mrs. Waring was cold, Ruth Armitage was colder. She did not appear to notice his outstretched hand, and she remained within the draped doorway to which she had retreated.

“I did not expect to see you, Mr. Heron,” she faltered.

Mr. Heron”; and until that afternoon it had always been Dick!

“You did not expect,” he repeated, almost as agitated as the girl. “Why not?”

“Please don’t ask me. There’s no need. Surely you must know.”

Her embarrassment was slowly giving place to anger. The even, creamy tint of her complexion was heightened by the spot of crimson blazing in her cheeks. Dick Heron’s nerves were unstrung. The slightest thing going awry just then was sufficient for him to lose his control. Ruth’s manner, her words, stung him to the quick.

“I don’t know,” he returned curtly, “or I shouldn’t have asked. But it’s very clear I’m not welcome, so I wish you good evening, Miss Armitage.”

He bowed stiffly and turned. He never saw the sudden quiver of the finely cut lips, the remorseful, yearning look in the eyes, the fading of the crimson in the cheeks. He stalked away, cool outwardly, but inwardly thrilling with passion.

“I said I didn’t know,” he muttered, “nor do I, but I’m not such an ass that I can’t guess what’s amiss. Something’s got wind about that stupid business of last night. Kendrick’s at the bottom of it, the cad! He was a sneak at Addiscombe, and once a sneak, always a sneak. I’ll have it out with him, by Heaven I will! He must have been spreading his lies this afternoon. He took jolly good care to clear out before I showed up.”