Chapter XX

The Beginning of the End

A dâk palanquin was traversing the hard, white road straight as an arrow, crossing the dry and dusty plain to the east of Delhi, and terminating in the bridge of boats over the Jumna. Dusk was creeping on rapidly. The traveller had but to shut his eyes and open them slowly to find that the darkness of night had already gathered. The solid walls of the King’s Palace, the parapets and towers but a few seconds before crimsoned by the setting sun were almost lost in the universal greyness; the grim Salim-garh Fort was a shapeless lump of shadow.

The occupant of the palanquin was Guy Horsford who, ever since he had left Cawnpore, had been chafing at his slow progress. The runners, not merely one party, but every party, were apparently overcome by laziness. Nothing he could say or do hurried them, and at last he resigned himself to his fate.

He had been much longer on the journey from Calcutta than he had anticipated. The railway only took him a little more than a hundred miles. Even by the iron horse the travelling was very leisurely, but by dâk along the Grand Trunk road it was intolerable. The height of the hot season was approaching, and early morning and evening were the only times the men would work.

Moreover Horsford had considered it advisable to tarry a brief space at Benares, Allahabad, and Cawnpore to pick up news and to get some idea of the state of feeling. The authorities at these centres were quite sure there was no danger to be apprehended, but they admitted to an impression of unrest. At Cawnpore Horsford made a detour, hired horses and rode to Lucknow, where he interviewed Sir Henry Lawrence. He returned with a conviction that the far-seeing statesman had a profound grasp of the causes underlying the simmering discontent, and that he by no means shared the confidence of General Wheeler at Cawnpore and others. The conclusion Horsford had come to was that so well expressed by one of the many historians of the Mutiny, who wrote that at this time “the minds of the natives were troubled; they either knew more or understood better than the Europeans. They felt something dreadful was at hand. Those who had money hid it in the earth, and fear was in the hearts of all; the jackals were heard to howl more dismally at night; the dogs to weep round the villages; and voices came from the jungle crying, ‘Mar, Mar’ (smite, smite).”

It was now the second week in April, but nothing had happened since the carrying out of Lord Canning’s order for the disbanding of the 19th, which was done on the last day of March, and, says the historian already quoted, “the sepoys returned to their homes, spreading sedition in every station on the way.”

Gloom clouded Horsford’s mind. He could not put his finger on anything definite which it could be said deepened his worries, but he was unable to get rid of a vague sense of disquietude and impending trouble. In one respect the foreboding he had on leaving Calcutta had not been realised​—​there were no signs of the danger against which Nara had warned him. Latterly he had ceased to regard the plot against himself as of any importance. His thoughts were divided between Nara and Clare and the strange workings of fate which had brought them together. He had acted for the best towards both, and in the face of his mission he could hardly have done more. Pentreath, he was sure, would look after Nara, and as for Clare, he had made what arrangements at Raniganj he could to secure her a safe journey the rest of the way. It could hardly be said that outwardly the country was unsettled or that the roads were unsafe. He had certainly heard or seen nothing of dacoits or goojurs, the stormy petrels of troubles ahead.

At last the bridge of boats was crossed; the palanquin was through the Calcutta Gate and was being borne towards the cantonments on the ridge north of the city. The night was unusually brilliant. Myriads of stars spangled the sky, and their diffused light was safer than the direct illumination of the moon. The walls, the angles of frowning masonry, the deep doorways cast no inky shadows wherein assassins might lurk.

That strange, vague sensation of remoteness, of ancient dynasties, habits, manners, faiths, which Delhi, more than any other city in India, always suggests, came upon Horsford directly he was within its precincts. The narrow, tortuous lanes between sullen walls, the noisome smells, the black, viscid mud, were all Delhi. The palanquin crossed one of the many courtyards of the Palace​—​there was a glimpse of imposing architecture, of massive columns, arches, ornamentation, luxuriant and severe by turns​—​all Delhi. After the palanquin emerged from the Cashmeer Gate, and Horsford’s eyes fell on the villas and the bungalows, and a long string of oxen-drawn carts, laden with stores for the cantonments, countless ages seemed to be left behind. The city walls enclosed the poetry, the mystery of antiquity; beyond were the bustle, the actuality, the prose of modern life.

Horsford was not sorry to be back among his old chums and in his old quarters, if only to enjoy the luxury of a bed. A long and heavy sleep, and he was ready for the difficult, the intricate business with which he had been entrusted. He discovered a tone of uneasiness in the talk of his brother officers. Much discussion was indulged in concerning the vexed question of the greased cartridges; conjectures were hazarded as to the meaning of the mysterious distribution of the chupatties. Nobody had been able to discover for what purpose these harmless flat cakes had been passed from hand to hand. Not even the natives seemed to know​—​they certainly would not or could not give any explanation. It was assumed that they were intended as a signal to be prepared for some great event, and this in itself was disquieting. Lastly there was Zeenut Mehal and her intrigues. No one could say definitely what they were or for what object they were designed. All was vague and uncertain. But the majority of the officers were optimistic. An old Colonel, grown white in the Company’s service, declared emphatically that the English in India would always be supreme.

“And what about Delhi?” asked Horsford. “If that goes from us everything goes.”

The Colonel stared, and spluttered out:

“Delhi go from us? What do you mean? At the first hint of danger here we should at once have assistance from Meerut and Ambala.”

“Oh possibly, but in the meantime Delhi might be lost, and if so, with its seven miles of walls we should want a much bigger army than we possess to get it back. At the present moment, thanks to our so-called conciliatory policy, we’ve no English troops in Delhi, and yet we’ve chosen to place there the biggest magazine in India. What would happen in the case of a rising? All the disaffected would flock to Delhi, and if we’d desired to make things easy for them, we couldn’t have gone a better way about it.”

Horsford spoke with unwonted heat, and his violence gave great offence to some of his seniors. They were willing to admit that Horsford had once been well qualified to speak about Delhi, but this was five years ago. He had been absorbed in Burma since then, and things had changed in Delhi. The King was old and infirm. He could not live much longer, and the moment he was dead the Moghul dynasty would be dead too, and Delhi would commence a new life under British Government.

Horsford listened but was not convinced, and soon after left, as a busy day was before him. He had conferences with Sir Theophilus Metcalfe, the Resident; with Mr. Commissioner Fraser; with Brigadier Graves. All agreed that there was no immediate cause for alarm, and Horsford determined to see things for himself. In the dress of a native he set out for Delhi, and purposely taking a long detour, entered the city by the Lahore Gate, from which the Chandi Chauk runs in almost a straight line to the Palace. At about three-quarters of its length from the Lahore Gate is the road leading to the Jama Masjid, and thither he turned his footsteps, but he did not proceed direct to the mosque, preferring instead the maze of noisome lanes north of the great temple of prayer.

He mingled with the crowd; he lingered at some of the stalls, ostensibly to bargain but in reality to listen to the gossip going on around, and nothing escaped him which could in any way give the slightest information. But so far as he could tell the people were interested only in their own private affairs. Then he approached the Jama Masjid.

About twenty yards ahead he saw a crowd gathered in front of a placard posted on the red sandstone walls. There was no excitement, only quiet, profound attention. Many of the passers-by stopped, but apparently were unable to read what was on the placard, and asked the others. Then one man spoke in a low voice, and the rest listened intently. Without showing any curiosity Horsford strolled to the group. The man had finished his explanation, and those who had heard it went on quickly. Horsford sidled his way into the crowd, and started when he read what was on the placard. It was an announcement to the effect that the King of Persia was coming to drive the infidels out of India!

“The devil he is!”

Thoughtlessly Horsford had uttered his exclamation aloud and in English. One or two of the natives within earshot turned and stared at him. He cursed his folly, but it was too late. At the same time it was by no means certain the men who heard the words understood them. The strangeness of the tongue was sufficient to make them stare at a stranger.

He passed northward, back to the Chandi Chauk, with the intention of going direct to the Resident. It was not at all likely Sir Theophilus Metcalfe knew of the placard which, so Horsford found from the gossip, had only been posted that morning. Before he reached the Chandi Chauk, however, he discovered that he was being followed by a tall, thin, grey-bearded man. He pretended to take no notice, and did not even quicken his pace. All he could do was to double upon his shadower, and he turned into a nest of lanes in the direction of the Palace. Thanks to dexterous twinings and twistings, dodging among crowds, and taking advantage of any vehicle in the roadway to cover his movements, he at last thought he had shaken off his pursuer, and he tried to hark back to the broad Chandi Chauk, where he knew he would be safe.

Unfortunately he was in a part of the city to which he was an entire stranger, and the lanes were so devious that it was impossible to tell in what direction they ran. More than once, after walking for some five minutes, he discovered himself almost at the spot from which he had started. He had nothing to guide him, and taking his chance, he entered a lane more promising than the rest; so much of it as he could see was fairly straight.

After walking a dozen yards or so he saw that a little farther on the lane took a sharp turn, almost indeed at right angles. He reached the corner, and then saw that he was in a cul de sac. Blind alleys were by no means uncommon in Delhi, and Horsford, though disgusted, was not surprised.

He wheeled round. Peril, dire and unexpected, faced him in the shape of half a dozen savage, wiry, semi-naked men. They were armed with sticks. Barefooted, they had followed noiselessly, and uttering wild yells they rushed upon him before there was time to draw his pistol, hindered as he was by the folds of the native dress. His fists shot out right and left, and the two foremost went down like ninepins. The lane was narrow; the bodies of the two prostrate men choked it. Escape at the rear there was none. The rest of the fellows, trusting in their numbers and in their sticks, which it was clear to Horsford they knew how to use, instantly surrounded him, and rained a shower of blows upon his head and shoulders.

The men were skilled fencers, and though Horsford managed to plant a crashing blow between the eyes of the foremost, he could do little more. As a last effort he dashed at one of his assailants and attempted to wrest the weapon from his grasp. He gripped the man’s wrist, but failed to hold it, for the simple reason that the fellow had greased his arm. Before he could recover himself the sticks of the others descended with murderous force, he knew no more.


“Is he dead, Muza Khan?”

The voice was of discordant, guttural shrillness, the speaker a gross, unwieldy old woman, whose face suggested a dried yellow skin stretched over a skull.

“I​—​I do not think so, Sundra Bai,” stammered the thin, grey-bearded man who was holding the lamp so that its smoky light fell on the huddled figure lying on the damp, slimy stones. Then he knelt down, placed the lamp on the ground, and laid his hand over the prostrate man’s heart.

“I can feel it throb,” said he at last. “He has been lying here for forty-eight hours without attention.”

“That was not my wish,” exclaimed the old woman angrily. “Let him be seen to by the King’s physician. He must be restored to health. I want my vengeance to be long. I would see him die slowly​—​slowly: days​—​weeks​—​months​—​of torture. Do you understand, Muza Khan?”

“Yes, yes,” muttered the man. “Your orders shall be obeyed, Sundra Bai.”

“See to it then. Hold the lamp nearer.”

The man obeyed, and the vindictive old hag let her glassy eyes rest on the pallid, impassive face, streaked with blood. After a lapse of a few minutes Sundra Bai, with a haughty gesture, made a sign to her companion to lead the way with the lamp, and stalked across the dungeon, her uncouth shadow flitting on the ground, the walls, the vaulted roof becoming more and more grotesque till the receding light buried it in the surrounding darkness.

The King’s physician came, and Horsford recovered consciousness, to find himself not only as weak as a rat, but attacked with fits of shivering and dry heat which he knew were the forerunners of fever. His condition was not wonderful. He was lying in one of the noisome dungeons of the grim Salim-garh fort. His prison had a slit of a window in the thick wall, not more than a few feet above the river Jumna. It was the dry season, the river was low, and its sandy bank was the receptacle of fever-breeding refuse. The narrow opening faced the east, and when Horsford had thrown off the fever​—​a process of some three weeks​—​the rising sun was the only means he had of knowing how the days came and went.

What was to be his fate he could not conjecture. Evidently he was not to be allowed to die, or why was the physician so constant in his attentions? But these speculations did not occupy him long. With returning strength came one all-absorbing desire​—​escape. The slit of an opening only served to throw a pencil of light on one particular spot. Everywhere else the floor, the roof, the walls was black. He made his way to the door by feeling round the walls. This door was of sturdy timbers studded with iron. Nothing short of a battering ram or an explosive would shatter it.

Horsford returned to the spot where a mat had been thrown for his bed, by the side of which was a lotah of water. He dragged the mat to the patch of light, and tried to steady his thoughts to take in the situation and its possibilities. The dungeons of the Salim-garh, he was quite sure, were strong enough to resist any attempt at escape. If he had hammer and chisel he might perhaps chip his way through the stone in some six months’ time, if he were permitted to work uninterruptedly. But he had nothing. He had been thoroughly searched, and everything, from his pistol to his purse, taken from him.

Of course he would be missed by his brother officers, but his disappearance would cause no alarm. He was on a mission which demanded secrecy, he had a free hand, and it might well be they would imagine that he had good reasons for leaving Delhi.

“No help from that source,” he muttered.

He could think of nothing but attacking the men who brought him food. The plan was full of risk; he had no weapon of any kind, and could only trust to his fists. If he escaped their tulwars, keen as razors, he would have to run the gauntlet of the guard outside. Still​—​the boldness, the energy, the courage of Englishmen had in India been successful against heavy odds times out of number, and when he was less weak he would make the attempt.

That evening a change was made in his diet. Hitherto it had been very spare, but now his gaolers brought in a mess of savoury curry and rice, with kabobs, as a concession to the taste of the Englishman for meat. Convalescence had brought with it an unbounded appetite, and he ate the curry voraciously. Drowsiness followed as a matter of course, and he curled himself on his mat like a dog, and fell into a heavy sleep.

He awoke, after how long an interval it was impossible to say. It was night, and his prison was in that impenetrable darkness which in itself had a mysterious effect upon the nerves. He had a sense of overpowering weight, and he at first put down his sensations to some kind of nightmare. He managed to move one hand slightly, and his fingers grasped something cold and hard. In an instant the truth flashed across his mind, and sent his body into a clammy sweat. He was chained to the wall. He now saw the reason of the savoury, enticing curry. It had been drugged.

The discovery was appalling. He remained for a long time numbed, overwhelmed. His plan of escape by attacking his gaolers was foiled. Maybe something of the kind had been anticipated. He struggled to his feet. He could hardly move a pace. Directly he stood upright giddiness, faintness, seized him; he dropped down, a chain clanking hideously, and fell into a kind of stupor until daybreak. Then he heard the sounds of bolts drawn back, of bars lifted. He did not trouble. For the moment nothing seemed to matter.

Sundra Bai, the fat “Begum,” waddled in. She was attended by the tall, thin, grey-bearded man, Muza Khan. Sundra Bai was unveiled. Her eyes were lit with hatred, with the terrible joy of vengeance about to be realised. Her lips, parted and stretched, showed her betel-stained teeth, even as they were in the days when she could smile alluringly and tempt men to their destruction.

Something in her fiendish gaze roused Horsford’s dormant energy. He did not know who she was, for he had only seen her in the gloom of the covered cart on the fateful evening of the abduction of Nara, but he had his suspicions. He pulled himself together and with a violent effort raised himself once more to his feet and leaned against the edge of the embrasure sloping towards the slit of a window. Evidently the old woman did not expect he would show so much vigour; she drew back hurriedly towards Muza Khan.

“You need not fear, Sundra Bai,” said Horsford ironically. “I won’t hurt you.”

“No,” she screamed, “I know that. I have cut your claws, Sahib aha!​—​and neither you nor any of your accursed race can harm us. I have come to tell what is happening. It will please you. Listen.”

It was Sunday evening. The wind was from the west and blew the sound of the chimes of the English church towards the dungeon. The sonorous, almost harsh clang was easily distinguishable from the silvery tinkle which called the faithful to the mosques.

“This is the last time you will hear the bells of your church.”

Horsford shrugged his shoulders. He took her words to mean that he had not long to live. He understood everything now. The danger Nara had warned him against had come to pass. The presence of Sundra Bai explained the mystery of the attack made upon him, of his imprisonment in that loathsome prison.

“And not you alone, Sahib Horsford,” she hissed, coming very near to him now that she had convinced herself he was powerless, “but all the sahib-logues in Delhi, all the mem-sahibs, all the babas. To-night it may be​—​to-morrow of a certainty. The red and blue and white flag will be dragged down and torn into strips and the green flag of the true faith will be waving over Delhi. Not one of you will be left. No​—​no, I am wrong there​—​one will be spared. Do you know who that one is? You yourself, Sahib Horsford. Your accomplice, Kulloo Bux, was racked with pain before he confessed. His confession did not save him, nor will yours save you, Sahib. His tortures were nothing compared with what yours will be.”

“It is a matter of indifference to me what you do,” broke in Horsford haughtily. “Englishmen know how to die.”

“I doubt it not. Death is nothing. Bodily agony, lasting hours​—​days​—​weeks, till you beg and pray for mercy​—​that is everything. You will have some one to see you suffer​—​some one you love as your life. She shall dance and sing to you while you slowly die. And if she refuses, there is the lash for her. What have you to say?”

“Do as you please,” he rejoined doggedly. “I defy you to extract a cry from me.”

“Ah yes​—​from you​—​but from your Nara? When the whip cuts her flesh, will she be silent? Oh, if you do not beg for mercy for yourself, you will for her.”

“You lie, Sundra Bai. You think to terrify me. You won’t succeed.”

“We shall see. What if I bring your Nara as proof that I speak the truth?”

“As you please. Let it be so.”

Horsford spoke with the utmost sang-froid. He was not going to give the venomous old hag the slightest spark of gratification. But inwardly his heart was torn. The deadly vengeance foreshadowed by Sundra Bai might, for aught he could tell, be carried out in all its fiendish details.

Sundra Bai was about to throw her robe over her face when the mysterious hints she had let fall concerning the fate of the English people in Delhi​—​hints which in the talk relating to himself had dropped into the background​—​recurred to him. He knew he would get no information by asking for it direct, and he made some remark, half sneering, half defiant, in reference to her boasted supremacy of the green flag of Islam.

She turned upon him furiously.

“What do you know, dog of an infidel​—​you who have been shut from the world, from the light of the sun for a month?”

A month? Was it possible he had been imprisoned in his dungeon so long? He contradicted the woman flatly as the best way of inducing her to talk.

“You are the liar,” she shrieked. “It is now the tenth day of the fifth month. Before another twenty-four hours are gone Delhi will be in the hands of the Faithful and you English will be swept away. The soldiers that you imagined loved you so much they would defile themselves with bullock’s fat, with hog’s grease to please you, have risen against their masters at Meerut. The sahib-logues are shot, the mem-sahibs are killed, the soldiers are on their way to Delhi. Before long you will hear them shouting, ‘Deen, Deen!’”

Trembling with passion, Sundra Bai flung the end of her sari over her head and stalked away, Muza Khan obsequiously following with the lamp.

Horsford was overwhelmed. He tried to persuade himself that the story was a concoction intended to frighten him; yet this woman spoke with an intensity of conviction and a confidence which could not be gainsaid.