Chapter XXI

The Eleventh of May

Sundra Bai’s terrible words instead of crushing Horsford’s spirit acted upon it as a counter-irritant and helped him to throw off the effect of the narcotic. But with renewed enemy came also biting suspense​—​gnawing anxiety and a sense of utter helplessness. Inaction was the thing most to be dreaded. He felt he must exert himself in some way or he would go mad.

He examined his chain. It was as antiquated as it was clumsy. The iron waistband to which it was attached was about two inches wide by nearly a quarter of an inch thick, hinged in front and fastened by some kind of mechanical contrivance behind; so at least was his impression after feeling it. The staple which held the chain was solidly fixed between two stones, and for aught he could tell had been for a century just as it was now.

He stood for some minutes pondering over his chances of freedom. They were small indeed. The only thing upon which he could congratulate himself was that the staple was near the window and he was permitted to stand in the rays of the rising sun. But this small mercy was rapidly flitting. The sun was mounting, and he sadly watched the bright patch of light depart, as one utters farewell to a friend. Then he set to work to try to loosen the staple.

For a couple of hours at least he worked the chain, hoping to crack the cement, but without any success. But he was not discouraged. All that he wanted was sufficient time and patience. Prisoners before now had done wonders with a rusty nail. But their escape had been a matter of months. Sundra Bai, he thought with a shudder, would not wait long before she would visit him again.

“The hag’s thirsting for her vengeance,” he muttered. His hands and wrists were tired with handling the chain, and he leaned against the edge of the embrasure to rest himself, his eyes fixed on the slit of daylight.

By standing on his toes he could catch a glimpse of the outer world. It appeared to him he was about six feet above the level of the Jumna. He saw a portion of its placid waters and the Trunk Road beyond. All was quiet​—​no sounds of uproar, no firing of guns such as would be sure to follow the uprising, the massacre hinted at by Sundra Bai. The aspect was so peaceful that he could not avoid coming to the conclusion that the old woman’s story was nothing but bombast intended to frighten him. His thoughts went back to his efforts to loose himself, and he had another idea. If he could but shift the iron waistband round so as to get the fastening in front he might discover how to open it.

“Not much chance, I guess,” he exclaimed bitterly. “Hardly likely the poor devils of prisoners, my predecessors, would not have thought of twisting the cursed thing​—​only to find themselves foiled.”

For all that he made the attempt. The band fitted very tightly. The prisoners it had enclosed were of smaller girth than Guy Horsford. It was a long time before he could coax it round, and when he had succeeded he could do nothing. It was fastened by some kind of mechanical device which required a key. What with his failure, his exhaustion, and the dregs of the narcotic still lurking about him he felt sick and faint and giddy. He looked for his lotah of water. He could see it, but it was beyond his reach.

“The fiends!” he gasped.

Maybe this was part of the torture. He was parched with thirst; he could see the means of quenching it without avail. Tantalus over again. He sank on the ground, weary and despairing. His lips, his tongue, his throat were scorching. He held a link of the chain within his mouth. The coldness of the iron relieved him for a few seconds but did no more. Weakness or the remains of the drug brought on drowsiness. He fell into a stupor, and when he recovered his prison was in darkness.

The sleep had done him good. The effects of the narcotic were dissipated. His brain was clearer. But the parching, the thirst, continued. As a rule his gaolers paid their visits at nightfall and brought food. Had they come while he was asleep? He groped in all directions in search of a dish, though after his last experience he felt that nothing but starvation should induce him to eat anything. His fingers encountered nothing but the hard stone floor.

“Starved to death​—​is that to be my fate?” he cried aloud.

The darkness, his dismal thoughts, his helplessness infuriated him, and despairingly he recommenced working at the staple. It was a miserable consolation seeing that his effort might end in nothing; still it was a consolation. He went on unceasingly and in a sort of mechanical way, dreading to leave off. His wearied muscles gave way only at daybreak. Then he examined the staple. He could not see that his tugging backwards and forwards had made the slightest difference. The staple had been driven in so deeply that he could get hardly any leverage. He turned away despondently, and leaning his elbows on the sill of the embrasure and resting his chin on his grimy hands, he watched the rising sun. He remained thus until the rays no longer filtered through the slit, and only the dazzling surface of the Jumna and the scorched plains and the fragment of the white road met his eyes. Now and again he could see people and could hear the rumble of country carts.

Suddenly he perceived a moving cloud of dust in the far distance. For several moments it was nothing more, for the furnace-like air seemed to be vibrating with the blaze of the sun and distorted the vision. But not for long. The outline of a couple of horsemen a little ahead of the rest became fairly distinct. Others emerged from the cloud but the cloud itself did not lessen. It seemed to stretch as far as the eye could reach.

“The devil! A stampede of cavalry!” cried Horsford. “What in the name of Heaven is the meaning of it?”

It was simply a wild, unruly mob of horsemen. Horsford had never seen anything so like a rout​—​a sauve qui peut of about fifty men. He could see but one explanation. Either they were mutineers and were being pursued by British troops or rebellion had broken out in Delhi and troops had been telegraphed for to put it down. The latter hypothesis was hardly feasible. A regiment on duty would never forget its discipline. They would at least ride in something like order. It was far more likely that the party was in full flight.

The troopers passed, and the dust began to subside. Then Horsford heard the confused thud, thud of horses’ hoofs. The horsemen were crossing the bridge of boats. He listened in painful suspense for the next sounds. They came, the firing of muskets and pistols, then the voices of a huge multitude, like the roar of an angry sea.

An hour went over; Horsford heard no more firing; the voices had subsided. He hoped whatever was the cause of the disturbance that it had been removed. Again he strained his eyes along the white road. Again he saw a moving cloud of dust, but moving so slowly that he knew the advancing host were on foot. Soon they came in sight, company after company in open column, headed by a force of cavalry at a walking pace.

“A rising in Delhi,” Horsford cried excitedly, “and these men belong to a relief force. Mutineers would never march so steadily.”

And so he was justified in thinking, for the troops strode along so evenly and kept distance so well that they might have been on the parade ground. The head of the column passed out of sight and then came shouts, not of anger but of joy. It was now nothing but the tramp of feet. The last of the force disappeared across the bridge of boats, and Horsford tried to piece out what could have brought this little army to Delhi, and why the existing force in the cantonments on the ridge of the north could not have quelled any disorder within the city walls. He could think of no adequate explanation, and the more he thought the more anxious he became.

After the troops passed into the city the cheering, which apparently their arrival had caused, changed into murmurs, shouts, yells​—​the screaming of women. Then followed reports of firearms at irregular intervals.

“My God!” cried the prisoner, “this is mutiny!”

It was too true. Some few days before a test of the new cartridge was made on the parade ground at Meerut. The 3rd Native Cavalry, believed to be thoroughly loyal, were told that General Hewitt expected them to set a good example. It was also intimated that they need not bite the cartridges, which were not different from those they had hitherto used, but that they could open them with the finger. They petitioned against the order, as they did not want to be held in derision by the other regiments, and they also asked that the parade might be delayed until the excitement over the matter had calmed down. The General refused, the parade began, and cartridges were offered to ninety carabineers made up of selections from each troop. Of this number five only obeyed orders. The rest were immediately arrested, tried by court-martial, and sentenced to ten years’ hard labour.

On May 9 a parade of all the troops at Meerut was held. They were to witness the degradation of their comrades, all men respected in the regiment, all of high caste. One deep sigh burst from the ranks when the eighty-five had been stripped of their uniforms and the irons hammered on to their wrists. This sigh, which seems to have been utterly unpremeditated, and in no sense a signal, was the only sign of emotion. The troops marched back to quarters, and General Hewitt, who throughout the melancholy business showed a fatuity almost inconceivable, thought he had settled everything satisfactorily. The next day, Sunday, a rocket went up from the Sepoy lines. It was the signal for a general revolt. The officers who tried to quell the tumult were shot; the 3rd Cavalry galloped to the gaol and released their eighty-five comrades; fourteen hundred convicts who were in the prison were set free, and the rest of the troops were rapidly approaching the crisis of rebellion. The shooting of Colonel Finnis decided the matter. Fire, robbery, slaughter of men, women, and children followed. Then the mutineers set off in hot haste for Delhi. They could have been pursued by the British troops quartered at Meerut, but General Hewitt did nothing.

Suddenly Horsford heard the sound of shooting back the bolts of his prison door. He turned at bay. If it was his fate to be killed like a dog he would die with his face to his murderers. The next moment he recoiled in amazement. He saw not the assassins he expected, but a girl who, darting through his dungeon’s gloom, appeared to his fevered brain like an angel of deliverance. He could say nothing​—​do nothing. He heard her frantic whispers, but for a second or two they seemed to convey no meaning.

“They are killing all the English people!” she gasped.

No wonder that at first he failed to realise what she was saying. It was like the creation of some hideous nightmare.

“Come, Sahib, come. I have a safe hiding-place for you,” she screamed, and seizing his arm dragged him with all her force.

The girl was Nara. After Sundra Bai’s frightful threats Horsford was not surprised to see her, but everything was overwhelmed by her terrible tidings.

“Why do you not move? I—— Oh​—​oh​—​oh!…”

The girl had caught sight of the chain of the waistband​—​of the staple in the wall. She was seized with a fit of trembling, her eyelids drooped, she reeled and would have fallen but for Horsford flinging his arms about her.

At that moment came a report which no thunderclap could equal. If it were possible to imagine the crash of worlds the effect could not have been more overwhelming. A trembling of the earth, mysterious, rumbling noises, cracking noises, pattering noises, as though the heavens were raining missiles, swiftly followed, but of these noises the two human beings clinging to each other were unconscious. The one thought crowding out every other was that they were waiting for death. They were in darkness for a few seconds, and when this disappeared and their eyes naturally sought the light of the window the air seemed to be suffused with a rosy mist.

A strange silence, in itself appalling after the terrible sounds, followed. It seemed to be the precursor of more horrors, as though nature had been exhausted by her first convulsions, and was preparing for the next effort. Words in a broken whisper reached Horsford’s ear.

“Sahib​—​Sahib​—​is this​—​death? Oh, if​—​if​—​with you.…”

Nara’s voice died away. She crept closer within his arms, her hands gripped one of his and she pressed it to her lips. The mastering emotion that he had a woman to protect seemed in some mysterious way to have the power of awakening Horsford’s numbed senses. He drew himself erect; his embrace tightened; he forgot that he was chained. He lifted her with the intention of carrying her to the door. One pace​—​a sudden jerk​—​a loud clanking of metal​—​he was free!

Without relinquishing his burden he turned to where the staple had been. Between the two stones was now a fissure about the breadth of a finger. The cement was cracked and crumbling, the staple had been dragged out by the jerk of his body and was lying on the ground still attached to the chain. There could be but one cause for this​—​an earthquake.

The discovery brought with it a terrible dread. The Salim-garh, stout as it was, might be the very worst place for shelter. Its solidity was a danger. Once its foundations were disturbed its own weight would bring it down like a house of cards. Without a word to Nara, Horsford rushed with her to the door, his chain jangling behind him on the hard stone. The door opened into a narrow, vaulted passage. A glimmer of light at the end guided him. The light came from an opening in the wall less than a foot square and strongly barred, and he could dimly discern a flight of circular stone steps.

Standing Nara all dazed on the ground, he leaned against the wall to get his breath, and gathered up his chain lest it should clank. He might still have the guard to encounter, and he asked Nara if she could tell him where it was stationed.

She had seen no guard, she said. She had escaped from the zenana in the Palace, had run across the bridge connecting the Palace with the Salim-garh, and had easily found her way to his dungeon. Sundra Bai had derisively told her it was situated in the lowest and most unhealthy part of the prison, and she had wheedled its exact whereabouts out of the old physician who had been called to Horsford.

“Every one is away in the streets​—​killing, killing,” she whispered fearfully. “Oh, it is horrible! The soldiers at Meerut mutinied last evening and shot their officers and the ladies and children, and they came into Delhi this morning.”

Nara also told Horsford that she had seen savage men with drawn swords run upstairs to the apartments within the Palace of Captain Douglas of the Palace Guards, and that she had heard shouts and screams. But there was no time for her to say more than this. Horsford had got his second wind, and he would have carried her up the circular stairs, but she protested, and so they ran together. At the top was a small chamber with a narrow, squat, arched door, which Horsford tried to open, but tried in vain.

“But I left it unlocked​—​indeed I did, Sahib,” cried Nara, “and I took the key away. I threw the key out of the barred window below. It was part of my plan to set you free.”

Horsford made a second attempt, but the door opened into the room, and he had but a small knob to grasp. He glanced at the frame and saw a crack in the wall above. It was clear what had happened. The earthquake had loosened some of the stonework, and the pressure had fixed the door. Only force on the other side could move it.

Scarcely had he arrived at this conclusion than force arrived. Some one first tried to push open the door, and then, finding it refused to budge, threw himself against it. Still it stood fast. Then angry words were shouted. The man was calling to others. “Deen! Deen!” was heard in shrill accents. The men had just come from the massacres in the streets, and were like demons. They hurled their bodies on the door, it shook under the onslaught.

Meanwhile Horsford bade Nara go down the stairs and remain out of sight. He thought that if he were killed the fellows would trouble to go no further. But she refused to leave him.

“If they kill you, Sahib, they may kill me too,” she whispered. “I am not afraid.”

Her eyes were fixed upon him with an intensity which told him every word she said was true.

“Very well,” he rejoined grimly. “Only stand a little back. I want plenty of room for this patent weapon of mine.”

Some five feet of chain was attached to his waistbelt, and this he had grasped so as to leave quite two feet free. He kept his eye on the gradually yielding door, and began swinging the chain to get the required impetus.

At last! The door was swung back with a crash. The doorway was not wide enough to allow more than one man to enter at a time, and the first one paid the forfeit. Down came the chain with merciless force on his skull. He dropped like a stone and blocked the passage-way.

The men behind, mad with the lust of blood, pressed forward, but the sight of Horsford’s tall, gaunt form, his unkempt hair, his emaciated face, and his eyes glittering with the fierce light of desperation daunted them. The gloom of the chamber lent a ghostly effect to the scene and worked upon their superstitious fears. Their nerves were in a highly electric condition. They were as ready for abject terror as for shedding blood. To their inflamed imagination that heroic figure was the avenging god of the slaughtered Englishmen and women with whose blood their hands were red, whose bodies were not yet cold; and Nara was the goddess urging him to vengeance! They were doomed men if they stayed, and with a wild yell of fright they turned and fled.

The man felled by the deadly chain was lying, his body distorted, his face turned towards the room, blood trickling down his dusky, ashen cheeks from a gaping wound in the skull. Horsford recognised the long, thin, withered face, the grey hair and beard. So, too, did Nara.

“Muza Khan​—​Muza Khan,” she exclaimed, in a low, frightened voice. “Oh, Sahib​—​Sahib, Sundra Bai will have no mercy now.”

Horsford took no notice of Nara’s words. He flung himself by the side of the old man, filled with sudden hope, and thanks to his knowledge of native dresses he went at once to where Muza Khan carried his money and valuables. He found what he wanted in a receptacle beneath his girdle​—​a key of strange, uncouth shape. He held it out to Nara.

“Quick​—​quick!” he shouted. “This accursed belt. Here’s the key. Do you understand?”

Not another word was needed. In less than a minute he was free from the hateful iron band. It had not been altogether an evil. Its chain​—​what would he have done without that?

Muza Khan was armed with a sword, and of this Horsford took possession. He felt his muscles stiffen as his hand grasped the hilt. If the worst came to the worst, he would at least die fighting like a soldier. He lifted Nara over the prostrate dead body, and together they sped along narrow passages, flights of steps leading where they knew not. They had no plan of escape, all depended on luck, and so far luck had been on their side, and continued to be so, for they did not meet a soul. There was no choice but to go forward, and eventually they found themselves on the roof.