"Is it really so reasonable when peasants and labourers go to war as soldiers? Are they really led by a conscious purpose within them? None of them has anything to gain. They are compelled by others to allow themselves to be maimed and killed, and to kill their fellow-beings. And the survivors are in no respects better off, after gaining a victory, than they were before. And the leaders themselves? In the morals of Christian faith honours, orders, and endowments are only idle toys. Let us be honest, Mrs. Baird. Did England conquer India in order to propagate the Christian gospel? No! We have shed rivers of blood solely in order to spread our commerce, and in order to increase the wealth of a few, who themselves wisely remained at a safe distance from the fray, in the possession of luxury beyond the dreams of avarice."
"It is sad to hear such words from the mouth of an Englishwoman."
The conversation was in danger of taking a critical turn, as the Colonel's wife felt seriously annoyed and wounded by Edith's words. Heideck turned the discussion into a less dangerous channel. Soon afterwards the Colonel arrived; he occupied a tent further away in the camp, and only rarely found time to look after his family.
He simulated an air of gaiety and composure which he was far from feeling, and he was too indifferent an actor to succeed in his part.
"I am sorry, but I can only stay a very short time," he said, when he had caressed and kissed the little girls, whom he loved so tenderly, with still greater affection than usual. "My chief object in coming was to instruct you, dear Ellen, what you have to do in case we have to retire."
"To retire—? For Heaven's sake—I hope there is no question of retiring!"
The Colonel smiled, though not quite naturally.
"Of course, we cannot reckon with certainty upon victory. He would be a bad general who did not consider the possibility of defeat. During the last few hours all our dispositions have been altered. We are on the point of starting to attack the Russians."
"That is right!" cried Mrs. Baird, with bright eyes. "A British army must not wait for the enemy, but go and meet him."
"We shall march out at early dawn to try and prevent the Russians from crossing the Ravi. The engineers leave to-night in advance to destroy the bridges, if it is not already too late. The army has to execute a considerable movement to the left about, in order to reach the right position. At the same time the front has to be extended and lengthened to the right. The left wing remains at Shah Dara and the pontoon bridge."
"Is it not possible for us to come out also and look on at the battle?" inquired Mrs. Baird. But her husband shook his head in decided refusal.
"For you, dearest Ellen, our trustworthy Smith will have a cart, with two strong oxen, ready here in the hotel. That is to provide for all eventualities. Should you receive news that the army is retreating upon Lahore—which the Lord forbid—you must lose not a minute, but drive as quick as possible, before the crush at the gates and in the streets begins, through the Akbari gate over the canal bridge leading to the Sadrbazar, and so to Amritsar, where you may be able to take the railway to Goordas. All other lines are closed for other than military purposes. Panic will not extend so far as that, and there, in any small hill station, you will find a safe resting-place for the present. And now, Mr. Heideck, may I trouble you by asking a great favour of you?"
"I am entirely at your disposal, Colonel."
"Stop here in the hotel—try to obtain the latest intelligence as to the course of events, and act as protector to the ladies and children until they are in security. If you will permit me to hand you a cheque—"
"Please leave that for the present, Colonel," Heideck replied. "I am provided with plenty of money and will render you an account later. I promise to protect your family and Mrs. Irwin as well as I can. But I think it would be better for me not to remain in the town, but to accompany the troops. I will return as soon as possible should events take an unfavourable turn. The anxiety of the ladies would be unnecessarily increased, and I myself should be uncertain as to what to do if we received unreliable news here in the hotel as to the position of affairs."
"You are right," said the Colonel, after a moment's hesitation. "Already now the most absurd rumours are flying about. Leaflets have been distributed amongst our Mohammedan troops inciting them with the maddest and most deceitful promises to desert from the British army. A few persons, taken whilst distributing such leaflets, have been already shot without more ado. I leave everything to your circumspection and decision. In any case, it will be best for you to keep as near to the Commander-in-Chief as possible. My permit will open the road to you everywhere. I will thank you later on."
He shook Heideck's hand warmly, and embraced his wife and his children once more, and the two men turned to leave. The dull foreboding that it was a parting for ever lay heavily upon all of them.
As Heideck returned to the camp, the road was lit up by the red glare of innumerable fires. On the wide plain, stretching between the town and river, work was going on in feverish haste. Rations and ammunition were being dealt out, and long lines of beasts of burden were in motion. Thousands of hands were busily employed in trying to facilitate the passage of the troops across the shallow tributary of the Ravi. The boggy places were made firm by a covering of palm branches and leaves; and logs of wood were got ready in hot haste for the artillery. Heideck could not help wondering why it was that the army had not been concentrated from the first at the point the battle was to take place. The approach through the difficult tract of land, in connexion with the contemplated movement to the left, made calls upon the endurance of the troops that could not but have the most detrimental effect upon the issue of the battle.
He met his Indian boy, evidently in great excitement, in front of his tent.
"When we start to-morrow we shall leave the tent with everything in it," said Heideck. "You will ride my horse and I shall take yours."
Morar Gopal was a Hindu from the south, almost as black as a nigger, a small, agile little man, weighing scarcely eight stone. It was in order to save his own horse for the later exertions of the day that Heideck wanted his boy to ride him at first.
Only now he perceived that his servant, contrary to his usual habit, was armed. He carried a sword buckled round his waist, and when asked the reason, the Indian answered, with a certain amount of pathos—
"All Hindus will die to-morrow, but I at least will defend myself bravely."
"What makes you believe that all Hindus must die to-morrow?"
"Oh, sahib! me know it well. The Mohammedans hate the Hindus, and they will kill all of us tomorrow."
"But this is nonsense. Mohammedans and Hindus will unite as one man to fight the Russians to-morrow."
The Indian shook his head.
"No, sahib! The Russians also are Mohammedans."
"Whoever told you so lied. The Russians are Christians, like the English."
But however great his confidence in his master might be in general, this time Morar Gopal evidently did not believe him.
"If they are Christians, why, then, should they wage war against other Christians?"
Heideck saw that it would be impossible to explain these things, that were beyond his own comprehension, to the dark-skinned lad. And only a few hours of the night still remaining for sleep, he despatched him to bed.
The first rays of the sun had begun to quiver over the wide plain when the forward march commenced. Heideck, already before dawn of day, was in the saddle, and found time to exchange a few words with Colonel Baird before setting out.
The Colonel occupied that day a position of great importance and responsibility. He commanded a brigade, consisting of two English and one sepoy regiments, the lancers, and a battery. In addition, he was in command of the auxiliaries sent by the Maharajah of Chanidigot, and led by Prince Tasatat, consisting of one thousand infantry, five hundred cavalry, and one battery. The Prince rode out magnificently attired and armed; the hilt and scabbard of his sword sparkled with precious stones, and a cockade of valuable diamonds flashed from his turban. The bridling and caparison of his mount, a splendid chestnut, represented alone a small fortune. His troops were also splendidly equipped, and displayed great confidence. The horsemen carried long pikes, like the English lancers, and wore red turbans, striped with blue. But many had been obliged to enter the lines of infantry in spite of their heavy boots, since a great number of horses, of the Mohammedan as well as the English cavalry, had died in consequence of bad fodder and over-exertion.
The movement of the British army was rather complicated. The English forces were massed in two divisions between Shah Dara and the park of Shalimar. The first comprised the Indian troops, officered by Englishmen; the second the English regiments. In this way seventy-five thousand Indians were to be prevented from running away. Should the first division be compelled to fall back, it would be checked by the twenty-five thousand English. The advance march was commenced in such fashion that the right half of the line of battle, sweeping far round to the right, executed a left wheel, and in this way lengthened the front by about one-third; this was done in order to fill up the gap caused in the centre. The second division was pushed forward into the first, and now formed the centre of the line of battle. At the same time a new second division was formed by leaving in reserve troops of the advancing divisions and massing them behind the left wing of the entire position; the English considered their left wing to be most threatened. Colonel Baird, with his brigade, occupied the centre of the front line of the main position.
Heideck watched many Indian regiments march past, and he could not help perceiving the difference of mood and carriage of Mohammedans and Hindus. Whilst the first maintained a very energetic and very frequently cheerful attitude, the latter allowed the ends of their turbans to hang loose, as a sign of their despair, and marched dejectedly forward, face and head covered with ashes. Morar Gopal's conception of the fate in store for all Hindus evidently was shared by all.
The wide plain was covered with marching columns of infantry, hosts of cavalry, and heavy, thudding artillery. Whilst the English foot soldiers, in their yellow-brown khaki dress, were hardly distinguishable from the colour of the ground, the cavalry regiments and the troops of the Indian princes looked like gaily coloured islets in the vast and surging sea of the army as it advanced in two divisions.
In obedience to the Colonel's wish, Heideck kept close to the side of the Commander-in-Chief, whose numerous staff and retinue of servants, horses, and carriages allowed him to mix in the crowd without attracting attention. But the General did not remain long with the centre. In order to gain a clearer survey of the entire movement, and to be able to observe the Russian approach, he rode with his staff and a strong cavalry escort towards the Ravi river. Heideck, accompanied by his faithful servant, attached himself to the escort, and thus was soon far in advance of Colonel Baird's brigade.
Nothing was as yet to be seen of the Russians, and about three hours might have passed since the beginning of the advance march, when lo! the dull, rumbling thunder of the first cannon-shot rolled over the wide field.
The General reined in, and directed his field-glasses upon the left wing, where the cannonade increased in violence each minute. Another half-hour and the sharp rattle of infantry fire mixed with the heavy rumbling of big guns. No doubt, on the left wing, by Shah Dara, the battle had commenced. Advancing towards the right bank of the Ravi, the Russians threatened to attack Lahore.
The Commander-in-Chief despatched two orderly officers to the right wing and the centre, with the order to accelerate the march. Then he returned with his suite to his former position.
But Heideck could not at once make up his mind to follow. From the moment the first shot had been fired the battle fever had seized him; he was only a soldier now.
He was irresistibly attracted by a building a short distance away, with a slender minaret, from which he hoped to obtain a better view. It was the half-decayed mausoleum of some saint, and Heideck had some trouble to climb up to the top of the minaret, a height of about twenty feet, whilst his servant waited with the horses down below. But the exertion was fully rewarded. He overlooked the flat plains. The sinuous Ravi river was hardly half an English mile distant. Its banks were covered with high grass and thick jungle growth; on the other side of the river immense thickly-packed masses of troops appeared—the advancing Russian army.
Both armies must soon come into collision by the river, for single English cavalry regiments and horse artillery batteries, advancing in a long line, were already in its immediate neighbourhood.
Heideck had seen sufficient to be able to judge of the position of the battle. He climbed down the minaret and mounted his fresh steed, whilst Morar Gopal sprang into the saddle of his own horse. They quickly arrived amongst the British cavalry, deploying in advance of their main army. The advance march was now executed with greatest rapidity. The English batteries dashed forward at the fastest pace the soft ground would permit, unlimbered, and opened fire. Large masses of infantry marched towards the jungle. But from the other side of the river the lively English fire was but feebly returned. Only from the direction of the left English wing, invisible from this point, did the artillery and infantry fire rage with unabated violence.
In consequence, considerable reinforcements were sent to the apparently hard-pressed left wing, and a distinct weakening of the centre took place, without a clear idea having been formed as to the intention of the Russians. Heideck's conviction was that such probably had been the Russian tactics. He was of opinion that they probably raised a great battle din by Shah Dara, in order to direct the attention of the English to that point, and then deliver their main attack against the centre. He was right; the main forces of the Russians were opposed to Colonel Baird.
Another circumstance he could not explain was the curious fact that the English as well as the Indian infantry regiments halted before the jungle instead of pushing forward to the river. Not even riflemen were sent into it, although the bush was by no means too thick for a chain of riflemen to take cover. The prickly bushes on the river's bank were sparse enough, and the high grass reaching up to the mens' shoulders would have made a splendid hiding-place.
By-and-by the English army had executed the movement to the left, and now stood facing the Russian front. One new regiment after the other was drawn from the second division and placed on the left wing, which was believed to be most threatened. The English guns thundered without interruption, but their position might have been better; many fired without being able to see the enemy at all through the thick jungle, and threw away their ammunition prematurely.
The sun shone brightly in the cloudless sky. A slight north-westerly breeze coming from the far distant hills blew the smoke of the powder in clouds back on the English army.
The enemy being thus completely shrouded from view, the infantry stood motionless. A sullen expectation brooded over the colossal forces, who realised danger, but were yet condemned to a torturing inactivity. Suddenly the wild roar of thousands of voices rose from the river, and hosts of cavalry, which before could have been held back by English infantry, broke through the jungles like immense swarms of locusts. Thousands of wild Afghans and warriors from Bukhara, Samarcand, Khiva, and Semiryechensk, combined in the Turkestan divisions, had crossed the river and, wildly crying "Allah! Allah!" hurled themselves upon the English battalions and batteries. Splendidly trained at firing from the saddle, they were terrible foes indeed.
Although the English returned the unexpected attack with crackling volleys, and did not recoil a hair's breadth from their positions, the Russian lines suffered but small losses in consequence of their open order. One new swarm after the other broke through the jungle, and rushed like an army of devils upon the batteries. A few of these were silenced; the men who served them were killed before they were able to turn their guns against their assailants, so wildly rapid had been this surprise rush of the bold horsemen.
The English cavalry, advancing to a magnificent attack, arrived too late; the weight of the shock was lost, the enemy having already dispersed in all directions. These men understood how to manage their small, rapid horses in a marvellous manner. They seemed like centaurs, and the rapidity with which they broke up their squadron, in order immediately after to close up again at another place in dense masses, rendered a counter attack on the part of the serried ranks of their adversaries almost impossible.
At one time, Heideck, with that part of the staff to which he had attached himself, had been drawn into the shock of battle. He had been obliged to shoot an Afghan, who attacked him, down from his horse, and he would probably, a moment afterwards, have been laid low by the sabre of another, had not the faithful Morar Gopal, who displayed extraordinary courage, just at the right moment made the horseman harmless by a well-directed blow of his sword. The cavalry engagement was still undecided, when lo! in the grass before the jungle were seen a number of glittering sparks. The sharp crack of shots was heard, and their destructive effect showed how admirably the Russian riflemen, who were gradually advancing against the British army, knew how to handle their rifles. The British infantry kept on discharging volleys indefatigably, but no practical result of all this waste of ammunition was apparent. Their targets were too small and too scattered, and the mechanical volleys fired at the word of command had but little effect. Besides this, the Russians had admirable cover, with the variegated jungle as a background, whilst the English stood out sharply against the horizon, and presented an excellent mark. According to their plan, the Russians first of all directed their fire against the men who were serving the batteries. Their well-directed shooting decimated the English artillery to a terrible degree. Scarcely two minutes had elapsed before the order was given to fall back with the guns. As far as was possible, the English harnessed up, and galloped off to take up their position between the infantry battalions, and from there again to open fire. The advance of the English artillery, which had taken place contrary to orders, and which was a result of their over-hasty forward movement, thus showed itself to have been a most disastrous step.
An even stronger and more damaging effect than that of the attack itself, was produced by the ceaseless cries of "Allah! Allah!" which proceeded from the Afghans and the Turkestan cavalry, and penetrated to the Mohammedans who stood in the British lines. Heideck saw quite clearly that, here and there, the Indian soldiers ceased firing as if in obedience to a word of command, and could distinguish how English officers in their excitement struck the men with the flat of the sword and threatened them with the revolver. Obviously, the leaders had lost all influence over the foreign elements under their command. Close to the Commander-in-Chief an English captain was bayoneted by an Indian soldier, and there could be no doubt that similar cases of open mutiny took place amongst the other Indian troops.
The men, who had only followed the orders of the foreign tyrants with the utmost reluctance, evidently believed the moment had come for shaking off the hated yoke, and at the same time the old enmity between the Mohammedans and Hindus, the rivalry between the two religions, which often in times of peace occasioned bloody feuds, burst into open flames. In the midst of the British army duels to the death were fought out between the irreconcilable adversaries. Thus it was unavoidable that the entire discipline became shaken and destroyed.
The battlefield was an awful spectacle. Before the front innumerable wounded, crying out for help, where no help was possible, were writhing in agony, for the retreat of the English artillery had had to be executed without thought of those left behind; wounded horses, wildly kicking to free themselves from their harness, increased the horror of the terrible scene, whilst stray divisions of English cavalry riding amongst them were fired upon by their own infantry out of fear of the advance of the Russian riflemen. Although in war all battlefields present a spectacle of the utmost horror, so that only the excitement of the moment enables human beings to endure it, yet the picture this battle of the advanced lines presented surpassed all imagination. The want of discipline amongst the English lines increased more and more, and the English officers had to fix their whole attention upon their own troops, instead of upon the movements of the enemy. The necessity for this was soon evident.
Prince Tasatat was the first to leave Colonel Baird with his entire force, and openly to march over to the enemy. His example was decisive for the Indians who were still hesitating, and the number of those going over to the enemy increased from minute to minute.
A uniform control of the line of battle had long since become impossible. Colonel Baird gave orders for his guns to open fire upon Prince Tasatat's company, and, like him, many other commanders fought their own individual battle just as their own judgment prompted. Indian regiments dispersed in all directions, because the men cared less for fighting than for getting booty from the prisoners and wounded. There were hand-to-hand fights in many parts of the battlefield, which, owing to the fanatical rage of the combatants, degenerated into horrible butchery. Those falling into the hands of the Afghans were most to be pitied. For these devils in human shape cut off the heads of all their prisoners and all wounded, whether Mohammedans, Hindus, or English, without any further ado, and in their rapacity tore the valuables from the bodies of the dead and wounded.
A line of fugitives, like an immense stream, passed the English regiments, which still stood firm in serried ranks, making for the plain of Lahore, in order to find protection behind the walls of the fortified city.
In Heideck's opinion the day was lost to the English, and he prepared himself to die a soldier's death, together with the brave men surrounding him. With feelings of sincerest admiration he confessed how great was the bravery, and how admirable the discipline that animated the English-born troops. Those regiments and batteries in which no native elements were mingled, stood calm and unshaken amongst all the terrible confusion, and thanks to their bravery, the battle, which opened in such disorder, began to present clear features, like those of the sharp peaks of a chain of mountains appearing above the mist, as it rolls down.
Instead of the semibarbarous horsemen that had opened the attack, new Russian batteries and colossal masses of infantry, with compact companies of riflemen, as well as several regiments of dragoons, now faced the English troops.
The Commander-in-Chief, with about 6,000 men and two batteries, was with the second English division, which had been greatly reduced in numbers. It was evidently his object to retire in good order towards Lahore, and to cover the retreat with his best troops.
He succeeded in withdrawing two smaller bodies from the right and left wing respectively by despatching orderlies. But the first division was so closely engaged with Russian infantry that an orderly retreat was almost impossible.
Notwithstanding this, the Commander was bent on making the attempt to withdraw also the first division of his army. He despatched one of his adjutants to Colonel Baird, who still had perhaps about 2,000 men under his command, with the order to break off the battle and to retire. The young officer saluted with grave face, drew his sword, and galloped away. But he had only traversed a small part of his dangerous journey, a distance of about a mile, when he fell a victim to the call of duty, being attacked and hurled from the saddle by a body of Cossacks mounted on small, rough-haired, but very swift steeds.
The General appeared undecided whether to stake another young life on this hopeless test. Heideck rode up to him and lifted his hand to his helmet.
"Will Your Excellency allow me to ride? I am a friend of Colonel Baird and should be glad of the opportunity of showing him my gratitude for his kindness to me."
The General sharply scrutinised the gentleman who was unknown to him, who looked like an officer, though not wearing the prescribed uniform; but he did not take the time to question him.
"Ride!" he said shortly. "The Colonel is no longer to hold out; he is to march to the right and retreat towards Lahore—if possible."
Heideck saluted and turned his horse. He had replaced his revolver in his belt, and returned his sword to its sheath.
Not by the aid of weapons, but solely by the rapidity of his horse could he hope to reach his goal. He gave his steed its head, and encouraged it by calling to it. The animal did not disappoint the hopes placed upon it. It seemed to fly, rather than run over the trampled ground. The Cossacks, who attempted to intercept this single horseman, were unable to reach him. And of all the shots aimed at the bold rider not one reached its mark.
The volunteer orderly reached the brigade without harm. But he was too late; almost at the same moment the collision with the Russian infantry, which, in spite of their losses, had advanced steadily to the attack, took place. In order to sell his life and those of his brave troops as dearly as possible, Colonel Baird had given orders to form a square, in the midst of which the horsemen and the guns were placed. Many officers, leaving the saddle, had picked up the rifles and cartridge-boxes of those that were killed, and, levelling their bayonets, had taken their places in the front rank of the square. Breathing heavily, and covered with perspiration Heideck stopped before the Colonel and made his report.
But the brave Englishman pointed with his hand towards the Russians.
"Impossible," he said. "We are destined to die upon this spot."
Then he also dismounted and seized a rifle. From a thousand British throats a loud "Hurrah!" broke forth, for the Russians had reached the square, and a hand-to-hand combat took place.
The horror of this terrible struggle at close quarters, the English fighting with the struggle of despair against a foe outnumbering them many times, impressed itself indelibly upon the memory of the young German. He, too, had drawn his sword, but in spite of his personal relations, his political sympathies were not on the English side.
Suddenly he heard, close to him, a hoarse cry of rage, and, on turning round, perceived to his boundless surprise the face of Captain Irwin, terribly distorted by hatred and fury. He had supposed him to be with the depot in Chanidigot, but Irwin must have found an opportunity of getting away from that command. Indeed, under the existing circumstances, it must have seemed equivalent to a severe censure, and Irwin had attached himself to the troops taking the field. He was now fighting in this death-struggle, rifle in hand, like a private soldier. The red blood staining the point of his bayonet bore eloquent testimony to his bravery. But in this supreme moment his country's enemies were forgotten in the sight of the mortal foe, the object of his personal hate, by whose courageous action the dastardly plot against Edith had been frustrated. Here were place and opportunity offered for satisfying the thirst for revenge, which consumed him. What mattered the death of a single unit in the midst of this great holocaust?
Before Heideck could divine the intention of the wretched man he was attacked by his bayonet. It was solely the rearing of a frightened horse that saved the Captain's life; the thrust of the bayonet grazed the animal's neck. At the same moment the terrible sword-cut of a Russian fell upon Irwin's unprotected neck (for he had lost his helmet), and with such force that, with a hollow cry, he fell on his face.
Suddenly the curiously altered, now hoarse voice of the Colonel struck Heideck's ear: "What are you still doing here? Ride, for Heaven's sake! Ride quickly! If you should see them again, take my last loving messages to my poor wife and children! Stay by them!"
The blood from a deep wound on his forehead was pouring over his face, and Heideck saw that only by the greatest exertion of will could he keep himself on his legs. He wanted to reply, but the Colonel had already again hurled himself into the tangled throng of fighters, and a few seconds later fell under the butt-end blows and sabres of the Russians.
Then Hermann Heideck turned his horse and galloped off.
IN THE PANIC-STRICKEN CITY
As on his ride to Colonel Baird's brigade, so also was Heideck on his return threatened by manifold forms of death. Although he successfully and happily avoided all compact bodies of troops on his way across the bloody battlefield, yet single Russian horsemen came up close to him and more than once he heard the shrill whistle of bullets as they whizzed past his head. But in the battle-fever that had seized him he had no thought of danger: all his thoughts were solely occupied with the question as to how he should contrive to arrive at Lahore, in order to fulfil the last request of the Colonel.
Bleeding from several wounds, his brave stallion put forth his utmost efforts to carry his rider safely away from the turmoil of battle. The wounded animal was still able to travel a considerable distance at full gallop. But suddenly he began to slacken his pace and to stumble, and Heideck perceived that his strength was exhausted. He dismounted in order to examine the injuries the horse had sustained, and at once perceived that he could not expect further exertion from the poor brute. In addition to a bayonet-thrust on the neck, it had also a bullet-hole on the left hind flank, and it was from this wound that the blood was principally streaming. In stertorous panting the poor beast laid his head on his master's shoulder, and Heideck stroked and patted his forehead. "Poor chap—you have done your duty, and I must leave you here behind." And now, for the first time, the anxious dread overcame him that he, too, would not escape with his life from this battlefield, for he perceived a horseman in Indian uniform approaching him, waving a sword. Heideck drew his revolver from his belt in order to protect himself against his assailant. But he immediately recognised in his supposed enemy his faithful boy, Morar Gopal, who beamed with joy at having by chance again found his master, whom he had believed to be dead. He wanted at once to leave Heideck his horse, and to attempt to make his own way on foot. But the German officer would not accept this unselfish sacrifice on the part of his servant; but he was relieved of the necessity of again separating from his faithful henchman by the fortuitous circumstance that, at that very moment, an English officer's riderless charger came in sight. The animal, a beautiful chestnut, was uninjured, and allowed itself to be caught without trouble. They were now in a position to continue their flight together, and Heideck resolved to turn towards the left English wing, because, as it appeared to him, the action was there proceeding with less ill-fortune than at other parts of the now totally defeated British army. This was certainly not the shortest way to reach Lahore, but it would have been a foolhardy enterprise to join the wild throng of fleeing troops and their pursuers which was already pouring along the road towards Lahore.
The far-stretching plantations of Shah Dara, lying on both banks of the Ravi, with the bridge of boats connecting them, were, as a matter of fact, still occupied by English troops, who had until now maintained their positions without any severe loss; but they had been, of course, in superior numbers to the Russians confronting them. For the attack upon Shah Dara, with which the battle had opened, had in the main been only a feint; its object being to force the English centre, against which the main attack was to be directed, to send out reinforcements, and thereby fatally to weaken itself. Heideck had seen with his own eyes how completely this plan had succeeded. Now, however, when the victory they had gained made their forces in other positions available for the work, the Russians commenced to attack this position also in superior numbers. Russian battalions from the reserves were being hurried up at the double, and new batteries made their appearance, ready to open fire upon Shah Dara and the mausoleum of Shah Jahangir, which lay to the south of it.
The English on their side were prudent enough not to engage in a hopeless battle of sheer desperation, but began their retreat, whilst they had still time to carry it out in tolerable order.
When Heideck had reached the southern end of the plantations, a regiment of Bengal cavalry was just crossing the pontoon bridge, and Heideck joined it. A Russian shell, which burst right in the middle of the troop, without, however, despite the severe losses it had caused, interrupting the formation, was a clear proof that the situation was here also quite untenable.
With comparatively few losses and without having once been drawn into an engagement, the regiment drew up close under the citadel, which, in the north of Lahore, lies inside the outer works.
But, with dismay, the hapless lancers perceived that the murderous shot and shell were pursuing them even here. Yet the bullets were not intended for them, but for the treacherous Indian troops and the irregular Russian cavalry, which surged up, in wild panic, against the walls. The effect of the fire was, however, none the less disastrous on that account. The English garrison which had remained in the city had closed all the gates, and appeared to have made up their minds to let no one in, either friend or foe. All the same, the commander of the Bengal regiment drew his men together and with irresistible weight forced his way right through the confused, huddling mass of men engaged in hand-to-hand combat beneath the walls. He made straight for one of the gates, and those within happily understood and anticipated his intentions. Confident that the weighty blows and thrusts of the cavalry would beat off the enemy and prevent them from forcing their way in with them, the garrison opened the gate at the critical moment, and, together with his regiment, Heideck and his faithful companion managed to enter the city. The lancers made their way into the citadel, and Heideck and Morar Gopal, who had followed him like his shadow, turned their steps towards the Charing Cross Hotel. It was, however, far from easy to get there; for the streets were packed with an impenetrable mob of howling and gesticulating natives, who were manifestly in the greatest state of excitement. The news that the English had lost the battle had long since reached the city, and the apprehensions which had long been entertained that such tidings could not fail to have a disastrously disquieting effect upon the Indian population, were only too soon seen to be justified. In all the brown faces which he saw directed towards him Heideck clearly read detestation and menace. They naturally regarded him as an Englishman, and it was only his decided manner and the naked sword in his hand that prevented the rabble from venting in a personal attack their rage against one of the hated race of their oppressors.
The door of the hotel was closed, probably because an attack was feared on the part of the natives; but as soon as a white man, who was at once regarded as an English officer, demanded admittance, it was opened. Heideck found most of the officers' wives and children, who were living in the hotel, assembled in the hall and the dining-room which led from it. The foreboding of a terrible disaster and the fear of coming events, which was perpetually increased by the noise in the streets, did not allow the poor creatures to rest longer in their rooms. Mrs. Baird and Edith Irwin were not, however, among those who thronged round Heideck and, in a hundred confused questions, hoped to obtain from the dust-begrimed man, who had evidently come from the battlefield, news as to how matters stood. Heideck said nothing more than that the army was retreating, bravely fighting the while. It would have been useless cruelty to increase the terror and despair of these unhappy creatures by a detailed account of the whole truth. He had almost to tear himself away by force from this close knot of inquirers, in order to go up to Mrs. Baird's room. It was the first joyous feeling that he had experienced throughout this disastrous day, when in the friendly "Come in," in answer to his knock, he recognised Edith Irwin's voice. The fear that something might have happened to her during his absence had unceasingly tortured him during the last few hours, and for a moment he forgot all the terrors that surrounded her in the rapture which, as he entered, her incomparable beauty awoke in him.
She had risen from the sofa in the middle of the room and stood with a serious, but perfectly composed face, and with bright eyes, which appeared prepared for even the extremest danger. Mrs. Baird was, with her two little girls, in a corner on her knees. So completely was she absorbed in her religious devotions that she had not heard Heideck's entrance into the room. It was only when Edith exclaimed, "Here is Mr. Heideck, dear friend; I knew he would come," that she sprang up in great excitement.
"Thank God! You have come from my husband? How have you left him? Is he alive?"
"I left the Colonel, as he was defending himself at the head of his brave troops against the enemy. He bade me give you his love." He had endeavoured to give a firm tone to his voice. But the sharp feminine instinct of the unhappy woman guessed what was behind his words, intended to give comfort.
"Why don't you tell me the truth? My husband is dead!"
"He was wounded, but you need not give up the hope of seeing him again alive."
"If he is wounded, I will go to him. You will conduct me, Mr. Heideck! There must be a possibility of getting to him."
"I earnestly beseech you, my dear Mrs. Baird, to compose yourself. It is quite natural that your heart should draw you to your husband's side; but it is quite impossible for you to carry out your intention. The night is drawing on, and even if it were broad daylight nobody would be able to get through the confusion of the retiring army to the place where your husband must be sought."
"The battle is then lost? Our army is in full retreat?"
"The treachery of the Indian troops is to blame for this disaster. Your countrymen, Mrs. Baird, have fought like heroes, and as a lost battle does not yet mean a lost campaign, they will perhaps soon retrieve to-day's disaster."
"But what is to become of us? The wounded will be brought in here, won't they? Therefore I shall not think of leaving before I see my husband again."
Her determination to remain in the panic-stricken city would certainly have been impossible to shake by any art of persuasion, but Heideck did not dream of attempting to dissuade Mrs. Baird from her resolve. It was his firm conviction that the flight to Amritsar, which the Colonel had advised in case of a defeat, was, under the present circumstances, quite impracticable. As a matter of fact, there was scarcely anything else possible but to remain in the hotel and patiently await the development of events.
It was now quite impossible for white women and children to trust themselves in the streets in the midst of the excited populace; but Heideck believed that they were, for the present, quite safe in the house, thinking that the fanaticism of the natives would not culminate in an attack upon the hotel so long as any considerable body of English soldiers remained in the town. But only too soon he was compelled to admit that he had under-estimated the seriousness of the situation. A ruddy, flickering flame, which suddenly lit up the room which had been filled by the dying evening glow, caused him to rush to the window, when, to his horror, he perceived that one of the houses on the opposite side of the street was on fire, and that in the adjacent building the tongues of flame had caught the wooden pillars of the verandah. There was no doubt but that the hotel would, within a few minutes, be involved in the conflagration.
Under these circumstances it was impossible to think of remaining longer in the hotel. Its massive walls could, perhaps, withstand the fire for a time, but the biting volumes of smoke, which had already taken Heideck's breath away when he had opened the window for a moment, would soon render it impossible for human beings to stay longer in the heat. All at once came a heavy knocking at the door, and Morar Gopal, who had been looking for Heideck everywhere in the hotel, entreated his master to make his escape as quickly as possible.
The German officer was fully convinced that he had now to exchange one danger for a peril perhaps even greater. But there was no time for delay or consideration.
"We are in the midst of a fire, Mrs. Baird," he said. "No one in the general confusion will attempt to stay the raging element, and if you do not wish to be stifled with your children, you must follow me. I hope to be able to bring you, without harm, into the citadel or into some other place of safety."
Edith Irwin had already taken one of the little girls into her arms; and when the Colonel's wife was looking about her with a wild expression, as if she wished to try and save some of her precious valuables, Edith emphatically insisted upon her hurrying. "There is nothing more precious than the life of your children. Let everything go, in God's name!"
The poor woman, whose senses now began to fail her in the terrors of the moment, quietly obeyed the calm instructions of her young friend. The other residents in the hotel had almost all already fled; only a few unhappy women, who had completely lost their heads, wandered about the lower rooms holding all manner of valueless objects, from which they would not part, in their hands. Heideck called to them to follow him. But they hardly understood him, and he had no more time to trouble about the unfortunate creatures.
With a bare sabre in his hand the faithful Hindu endeavoured to make for his master and those under his protection a path through the crowd which was surging around the burning houses. It was now quite dark, and only the red flames weirdly lit up the hideous nocturnal scene. The raging fanaticism of the crowd appeared during the last half-hour to have increased in vehemence. These men, at other times so modest, submissive, and amiable, had suddenly become metamorphosed into a horde of barbarians. Bare sabres and daggers flashed their menaces on every side, and the air was rent by a deafening din. Never before had Heideck seen human beings in such a state of frenzy. With wild gesticulations these dark-skinned fellows were tossing their arms and legs; they gnashed their teeth like wild beasts, and inflicted wounds on their own breasts and limbs in order to intensify their lust of blood by the sight of it.
The two men, by dint of peremptory commands and vigorous blows with the naked sword, forced their way step by step through the crowd. But after a lapse of ten minutes they had scarcely progressed more than a hundred yards. The surging mob around them became even denser and more threatening in its attitude, and Heideck saw it would be impossible to reach the citadel.
With anxious care for the precious human lives entrusted to his protection, he looked about for another place of safety. But the Europeans had firmly barricaded their houses, and none of them would have opened to admit the poor fugitives. On a sudden the wild cries that had almost terrified the crying children to death rose to appalling shrieks and ravings, and a mob of demons, incited by their fanatic passions almost to frenzy, rushed from a side street straight upon Heideck. They had somewhere on their way been joined by a large number of other female fugitives; and the sight of these unhappy creatures made the German officer's blood run cold in his veins.
The women, among whom were two girls yet on the borders of childhood, had had their clothes torn from their bodies, and they were now being hustled along under such constant ill-usage that they were bleeding from numerous wounds.
Unable further to curb the wrath that rose within him at the sight of this brutality, Heideck took his revolver from his belt, and with a well-aimed shot sent one of the howling, fanatic devils to the ground.
But his action was not well-advised. Although his martial appearance had up till then kept this cowardly crew away from acts of violence against himself and his party, the furious rage of the mob now knew no bounds.
In the next moment the small party found itself hemmed in by a knot of raging black devils, and Heideck was no longer in doubt that it was only a question of bravely fighting to the death. The foremost of the more violent of their assailants he was able to keep off by firing at them the last five shots that remained in his revolver. The last shot snuffed out the light of a black-bearded fellow just at the very moment when he was attacking Edith Irwin with his brutal fists. Then Heideck threw his revolver, useless in that he could not load it afresh, into the face of one of the grinning fiends, and clasping his left arm, which was now free, round Edith, and pressing her tightly to him, carried on a desperate struggle with his sword.
For Mrs. Baird and her children he could do nothing further. Now that he had seen his faithful Morar Gopal fall under the blows of some Mohammedans he felt that they were irretrievably lost. He had seen how the Colonel's wife had had her clothes torn in shreds from her body; he heard the heartrending cry of anguish with which, under the blows and thrusts of her inhuman torturers, she called for her children. But at all events he was spared the agony of seeing with his own eyes the end of the innocent little girls. They disappeared from his view in the terrible confusion, and as they were besides already half dead from terror, Providence would, at all events, have the pity not to let them feel the tortures of the death which their unfeeling butchers had prepared for them.
And what of Edith?
She was not in a faint. In her features one could read nothing of the anguish of horror that overcomes even the bravest in the face of death. One might imagine that all that was going on around her had lost its terrors since Heideck's arm held her fast.
But the moment was not favourable for allowing Heideck to feel the pleasurable bliss of her love. His strength was at an end and, although with the exception of a slight injury on the shoulder he was unwounded, he yet felt it intolerably hard to wield the sword whose heavy blows had hitherto kept their assailants (with the exception of some adventuresome spirits, who had paid dearly for their impudence) at a respectful distance. At the very moment that fatigue compelled him to drop his weapon, Edith and he would be given over helpless to the devilish cruelty of this horde of human beasts. That he knew full well, and, therefore, although before his eyes there floated, as it were, a blood-red mist, he collected the last remnant of his strength to postpone this terrible moment yet for a little—All of a sudden something unexpected, something wonderful, happened—something that in his present condition he could not understand at all; innumerable cries of terror and alarm mingled with the frenzied, triumphant howlings of the rage-intoxicated Indians. With the irresistible force of a wave the whole thickly packed swarm of human beings surged forwards and against the houses on both sides of the street. The trotting of horses, loud words of command, the sound of slashing blows were heard, and the bodies of bearded cavalrymen were visible above the heads of the crowd.
It was a squadron of Cossacks which was mercilessly hewing its way through the crowd. The town was then actually in the hands of the Russians, and orders had evidently been given, the better to prevent further massacre and incendiarism, to clear the street of the fanatic mob.
So the fierce-looking horsemen then swept the way before them clear of all obstacles. And they did their business well; for nothing could withstand the blows from the whips fitted at the end of the lash with thin hard sticks, which in their hands became terrible instruments of punishment.
Heideck suddenly saw himself free of his assailants, and as he with Edith pressed against the wall of a house, they remained happily safe from the horses' hoofs as well as from the blows of the knout which were being dealt out wildly around him.
But the keen eyes of a Cossack officer had perceived the little group amid the great heap of dead and wounded. He rode up to them, and as he thought he recognised in Heideck's khaki dress the English uniform, he gave certain orders to his men, the meaning of which was soon apparent to them both, for they were at once placed between the horses of two Cossacks, and without knowing whither they were being taken, passed through the streets lit up by the flames of the burning houses.
The mausoleum of Anar Kali, a great octagonal building in the gardens to the south of the town, was the place whither the Russian prisoners were taken. Heideck and Edith Irwin were not the first that had found quarters there; for, besides about a hundred officers, there were already there numberless English ladies and children whose saviours had appeared in time to rescue them from the horrible fate of Mrs. Baird and her children. At the open door of the apartments reserved for the women Heideck and Edith Irwin had to part. They were not allowed a long time to take leave. But even if they had been altogether alone they would at this moment have been scarcely able to find much to say; for after all the exertions and excitements of the terrible day just ended such heavy fatigue and exhaustion had overcome them that they could only mechanically make use of their limbs; and so, instead of the passions, hopes, and fears, with which they had been moved but a short time previously, there was now only a dull void in their brains as in their hearts.
"Au revoir, to-morrow." That was all that passed between them. Then, as soon as they had conducted him into the room assigned to him, Heideck threw himself down, as he was, upon the tiles of the floor, and fell instantaneously into a deep, dreamless sleep.
The glorious Indian sun, which shone through the round opening in the ceiling down upon his face, woke him the next morning.
His limbs were stiff from his uncomfortable couch, but the short sleep had invigorated him, and his nerves had completely regained their old freshness and vigour.
His room-mates must have been taken away early to some other place, for he found himself quite alone in the lofty room which was only lighted by the window in the ceiling. The rays of the sun fell opposite to him upon a tomb of the purest, whitest, marble quite covered with illegible hieroglyphics. Whilst he was still engaged in looking at the apparently ancient memorial tablet, he heard suddenly behind him the light rustling of a woman's dress, and when he turned round he gazed with pleasurable surprise into Edith Irwin's pale, fair face.
"How delighted I am to find you still here," she said with a happy expression. "I was afraid that you had been taken away with the other prisoners."
"As it seems, it was out of consideration for my well-deserved slumber," he replied, with a slight trace of humour. But then, remembering the terrible seriousness of the situation, he continued in altered and hearty tones—
"How have you passed the night, Mrs. Irwin? It appears to me as if all that I have gone through since my return to Lahore has only been a dream."
With a painful quiver of the lips she shook her head.
"Unfortunately, there is no room for doubt that it has been hideous reality. Poor, poor Mrs. Baird! One must almost consider it a happy dispensation of Providence that her husband did not live to see the terrible fate of his family."
"What, have you news from the field of battle? Do you then know that the Colonel is dead?"
"The Colonel is dead; my husband is dead; Captain McGregor, and many of my friends from Chanidigot, have been left on the field."
She said it calmly; but he read in her eyes the deep sadness of her soul.
Much affected by her heroic strength of character, he bent his head and kissed her hand. She let him have his way for a moment, but then withdrew her thin, cool fingers with a beseeching look, the meaning of which he full well understood.
"The Commander-in-Chief and his staff reached the railway station," she continued; "they travelled to Delhi with the last train that left Lahore, just at the eleventh hour; for immediately afterwards the Russians entered the town. The wreck of the army is now marching to Delhi, but their pursuers are close at their heels. God alone knows what will be the fate of our poor defeated army."
He did not ask her where she had obtained all this information; but that it was quite correct he was firmly convinced, judging by his own experience. He did not know what to say to her to encourage her, he who never had been able to toy with empty phrases. A short while they remained silent, and their eyes simultaneously fell upon the sunlit marble tomb before them.
"Have you seen this cenotaph before?" the young lady suddenly asked, to Heideck's surprise. On his answering in the negative, she went on—
"This is the famous tomb of Anar Kali, the beloved wife of Sultan Akbar, who, on account of her beauty, was given the name of 'Pomegranate Blossom.' She probably departed this life in the same way that we should have done if the daggers of the murderers yesterday had reached us. She, perhaps, was just as little conscious of what was happening to her, as we should have been in this past night."
"Can you read the inscription?" asked Heideck.
"No, but I have had it interpreted to me; for it is one of the most famous inscriptions in India. The beautiful Anar Kali was once so foolish as to smile when the son of her lord and master entered the harem. And in the selfsame hour the jealous sultan had the unhappy woman executed. But he must have loved her very dearly, for he erected to her this beautiful memorial, which should hand down to generations yet unborn the name of Anar Kali. So full of insoluble riddles is the poor, foolish heart of man."
Jingling footsteps were heard on the flagstones outside, and the next moment an officer appeared at the door accompanied by several soldiers. In abrupt, peremptory tones he ordered Heideck to follow him.
Now, for the first time, the Captain saw in Edith Irwin's face something like an expression of terror.
"What is the meaning of this?" She turned hastily to the Russian. "This gentleman is not an Englishman."
The Russian did not understand the question in English; but when Heideck asked in Russian what they were about to do with him, he replied, shrugging his shoulders—
"I do not know. Follow me."
"They only want me to prove my identity," said Heideck composedly, in order to calm the young lady. "I hope that they will let me free after examining my passports."
"Certainly they must let you go!" she cried, almost passionately. "It would be against all the laws of nations if they were to do you any harm. But how shall I endure the uncertainty as to your fate?"
"I shall come back here at once, as soon as it is possible for me to do so."
"Yes, yes! I beseech you, do not leave me a second longer than you are obliged. I have not as yet had time to thank you."
The Russian officer showed such manifest signs of impatience that Heideck no longer hesitated to follow him.
The way that he had to go was not long. He was taken to a house close by, over whose gate the words "School of Arts" were sculptured in the stone. He had only to wait a short while in the hall, when before him there opened the door of a room on the ground floor, adorned with sculptures, in which a number of officers sat at a long table. To Heideck it was at once clear that he was to be tried before a court-martial. A few very downcast-looking men had just been led out. The officer who presided turned over the papers which lay before him, and then, casting a sharp look at Heideck, spoke a few words with his comrades.
"Who are you?" he asked in English, with a decided Russian accent, which was difficult to understand.
Heideck, who also spoke in English, answered shortly and clearly, and laid his passport, which he always carried in the breast-pocket of his coat as his most valuable possession in ease of emergency, before the Colonel.
As soon as he had read it, the President said in perfect German—
"You are, then, no Englishman, but a German? What are you doing here in India?"
"I am travelling for the firm of Heideck, in Hamburg."
"In business? Really? Is it part of your business to fight against Russia?"
"No! and I have not done so."
"You deny, then, that you took part in yesterday's battle?"
"As a combatant, yes! There were other reasons which led me to the battlefield."
"You only went as a spectator? Didn't it occur to you that, under the circumstances, this might be very dangerous for you?"
"I have personal relations with several gentlemen in the English army, and these relations made it necessary for me to visit them during the battle."
The Colonel turned to a young officer standing a little distance away—
"Lieutenant Osarov, is it true that you recognised in this man, when he was brought in here last night, a person whom you saw in an English square during the progress of the battle?"
"Yes, Colonel, I did!" was the decided reply. "I recognise him now quite clearly. He was riding a black horse, and dashed off when we broke into the square."
Heideck perceived that it would be useless to deny the fact, in the face of this direct evidence, and his military honour would, in any case, not have permitted him to do so.
"What the lieutenant has said is quite correct," he answered, anticipating the Colonel's question; "but I did not take part in the fighting. As a friend of Colonel Baird, who was killed, I kept as long as possible close to him, so as to be able to bring his relations, who were left behind in Lahore, tidings of his fate and of the issue of the battle."
"You, a foreigner, were armed in the English square. Since you confess this much, we need not trouble ourselves with further proceedings. You, gentlemen, will all agree that we should treat him, according to martial law, as a traitor?"
The last words were addressed to the other judges, and, with a silent bow, they declared their assent.
"Since you, a citizen of a nation not at war with us, have fought in the ranks of our enemies, the Court must therefore sentence you to death. The judgment of the Court will be at once carried into effect. Have you anything to say?"
Heideck was as though stunned. It appeared to him as though a black veil was drawn across the world; and a sharp pang of grief shot through him as he reflected that he would never see Edith again, and that she would in vain wait for him for ever.
Then his pride was roused. No one should call him cowardly or timid.
"Is it possible to appeal against the judgment of this court-martial?" he asked, looking firmly at the Colonel.
"Then I must, of course, submit to your sentence, but I protest both against the procedure of the Court and against the judgment you have pronounced."
His protest evidently did not make the slightest impression.
"Have you drawn up the execution warrant?" the Colonel said, turning to the secretary. He then appended his signature and handed it to one of the attendant Cossacks.
"Lead the prisoner away."
Two of the soldiers took Heideck between them, and he followed them with a proud, erect bearing, without saying a word more. Amidst the rain of bullets on the battlefield he had not felt the least trace of fear; but the thought of being led like an animal to the slaughter-house, filled him with horror. All the same a power he had hitherto not discovered, sustained him. The new danger awoke in him new vigour of soul and spirit.
The Cossacks conducted him a long way on the road which leads from Anar Kali to the Meean Meer cantonment. Heideck looked about him and observed the changes that had taken place in Lahore, just like a traveller who already in spirit lives in the new world that he intends to visit and who looks upon familiar objects as something strange. Everywhere he saw small detachments of cavalry, who were preserving order. Only faint clouds of smoke still marked the place of the fire in the city, which had evidently been extinguished. The splendid gardens of Donald Town, through which their way led, the agricultural plantations, and Lawrence Park wore the same aspect as in the time of profoundest peace.
Heideck was not chained, but the Cossacks who walked beside him had their carbines presented, ready to fire should he attempt to escape. But how could he escape? Everywhere round and about, outposts of the Russian cavalry were discernible; behind him a body of Cossack horse escorted a whole troop of Indians. Probably they were incendiaries and robbers who were, like him, being led out for execution; and it did not improve his frame of mind to find himself on his last road in the company of such a crew.
After a long march they at length reached the encampment which had been occupied by the English, the barracks and tents of which were now filled with Russian troops. It was only with difficulty that his escort could make their way through the crowd that had assembled; the report that a number of criminals were being brought into camp must have arrived here before them, for soldiers of all arms pressed forward inquisitively from all sides, in order to have a close view of the poor wretches.
Suddenly, Heideck felt the clutch of a small but firm hand upon his arm.
"Oh, master, what is this? Why are they bringing you here like a prisoner?"
At the first word Heideck recognised the soft voice, that in the excitement had assumed its natural feminine tones. In the same fantastic page's livery in which he had last seen him in Chanidigot, the pretended servant of his friend Prince Tchajawadse here stood quite unexpectedly before him, as though he had suddenly sprung from the earth, while the most pained consternation showed itself in his fair, expressive face.
"Is it you, Georgi?" exclaimed Heideck, into whose sadness of heart the sight of the Circassian brought a faint gleam of hope; "and your master—the Prince? Is he also close at hand?"
But the Cossacks did not seem inclined to permit their prisoner any further private conversation.
"Be off with you, young fellow!" one of them exclaimed to the supposed page; "this is a spy, who is to be shot on the spot; and no one is allowed to speak to him."
He made a movement as though with a slight motion of his powerful fist to thrust the slender lithe figure aside, when Georgi fearlessly pushed back his arm and glared at him with flashing eyes.
"Hold your blasphemous tongue, you liar! You are a thousand times more of a spy than this gentleman. If you do not leave go of him at once, you will have a knouting that you will not forget until the end of your life!"
The Cossacks looked at him and laughed. It was only the handsome face and the aristocratic bearing of the bold young fellow that prevented their seizing him.
"Take care, little fellow, that you do not first get the stick," one of them said good-humouredly; "and be off with you, before we, by accident, crush you between our finger and thumb."
"Go now, Georgi," Heideck now said, in his turn, on perceiving that the Circassian was not inclined to obey their orders; "if your master is near by, go and tell him that I am about to be shot against all the rules of international law. But tell him to make haste, if he wants to see me again alive; for it looks as though his comrades intend to make short work of me."
He did not doubt that the beautiful, hot-blooded daughter of the mountains had completely understood him. At all events he saw how she suddenly turned like a flash of lightning, and with the lithe rapidity of a slender lizard threaded her way through the crowd of rough soldiers.
A new hope awoke in Heideck's breast, and he felt himself once more fettered in a thousand bonds to life, which he just before thought he had entirely parted from. He endeavoured to walk more slowly, in order to gain time. But the Cossacks, who had until now treated him with a certain amount of consideration, appeared to have become irritated by the scene with the page, for one of them urged the prisoner in commanding tones to greater haste, while the other raised his fist in his face with a menacing gesture.
Perhaps he would even have struck him; but the German officer looked into his face with such a proud, commanding glance that he let his raised arm sink to his side. The sullen-looking fellow felt at once that he was not here dealing with an ordinary spy, and from this moment neither curses nor abuse passed his lips.
The rattle of a rifle volley struck Heideck's ear, and although he was sufficiently accustomed to the crack of shots, a cold shiver passed over him. The bullets that had just been fired had—he knew it well without anyone telling him—been the portion of some poor devil who had been in the same position as himself. That was why these rifle shots were so full of a significance for him, quite different from that caused yesterday by the rattle and the crash of the raging battle. Truly, one need not be a coward to feel an icy shudder at the thought of ten or twenty rifle barrels directed at one's own breast.
And now they had reached the fatal spot which was to be the goal of all his earthly wanderings. The parade at the rear of the barrack camp had been selected for the place of execution, and so summarily was the punishment being dealt out, that no time had been found to cart away separately the corpses of those who had been shot. They simply left them lying in the trench before which the delinquents were posted, probably because burial in a common grave was more convenient.
An officer was handed the execution warrant, which had been issued by the President of the court-martial, and handed over the prisoner to a non-commissioned officer, who, regarding him with an expression of pity, bade him in an almost apologetic tone to follow him.
Only a few minutes after his arrival on the parade ground, Heideck also was standing before the fatal ditch, and saw a company of infantry, with their arms at attention, drawn up before him.
He had now abandoned all hope. Since the verdict of the court-martial only a miracle could have saved him; and this miracle had not happened. For a few short minutes he had, after the accidental meeting with the Circassian, been foolish enough to entertain new hopes of life, but now even those had vanished. Even had she been animated by the keenest desire to save him, what, after all, could she do to make the impossible possible? He was sorry now that he had not confined himself to begging the Prince through her to allow him decent burial and to send word to the German General Staff. These last wishes would, perhaps, have not been impossible of fulfilment, and he did not doubt that his amiable Russian acquaintance would have gladly rendered him this trifling service.
The word of command rang out, and the soldiers posted opposite to him had already, with clank and rattle, shouldered arms, when from the other side a loud peremptory shout reached Heideck's ear, and he saw a horseman in Russian dragoon's uniform dashing up, in whose dark red face he immediately recognised the Prince Tchajawadse.
Close before Heideck he reined in his dripping charger and sprang from the saddle.
"Little brother! little brother!" he cried, quite breathless from his ride in such hot haste, clasping, with genuine Russian impetuosity, his friend, whom he had found again under such strange circumstances, to his breast. "By all the saints—I should think it was quite time that I came!"
Then, turning to the astonished officer commanding the firing squad—
"There must be a mistake here. No harm must happen to this gentleman, for he is not only a personal friend of my own, but he is also a comrade, an officer of the allied German army."
The lieutenant shrugged his shoulders.
"I have to carry out my orders, Colonel! I can undertake no responsibility for any mistakes on the part of my superior officers or of the court-martial."
"I take, then, all the responsibility on my own shoulders for preventing you from carrying out your instructions, lieutenant! This gentleman will accompany me, and I give my guarantee for him."
He gave his horse to one of the soldiers, linked his arm in that of Heideck, and took him off to the tent he occupied in the camp, giving the while most exuberant expression to his delight at having seen him again. The breakfast, from which Georgi's message had startled him, was still on the table, and Heideck needed not much encouragement to partake of it; for only now he properly realised how much he was in want of bodily sustenance. Prince Tchajawadse would not hear of any thanks for what he had done; but when Heideck asked him if he had really correctly understood that the Prince had spoken of an alliance between the Russian and German armies, the latter was not slow to give all information on this head.
"Yes! yes!—it is the fact! The German Empire is hand-in-hand with us. The first piece of good news that I heard on reaching the army was that William II. had declared war upon England. The world is in flames. Only Austria and Italy are neutral."
"And I had no notion of it! But, after all, that is easy enough to explain. All the telegraph cables are in the hands of the English, and it was easy for them to suppress every unwelcome despatch. The Indian newspapers are only allowed, of course, to publish what is agreeable to the Government; but I am burning with curiosity to learn more. Do you perhaps know how matters have developed as yet, and in what way Germany thinks of carrying on the war?"
"It appears that an invasion of England is contemplated. Germany has mobilised one half of her army, and has occupied Holland. The French troops, on the other hand, have entered Belgium, so that the two Powers control the whole coast opposite England."
"And has any action taken place at sea as yet?"
"No; at least down to the present no news has reached us of a naval battle having been fought. Things are evidently still in the stage of preparation, and nothing has been heard about the movements of the German and French fleets. However, the latest intelligence that I have is now fairly old. We with the army only learn the news that the Cossacks bring us."
Heideck struck his forehead.
"I feel utterly astonished. To comprehend and digest at one time all that you have told me almost passes the capacity of a single brain. But pardon me, Prince, if I trouble you, who have already done so much for me to-day, with a further request. I am in great anxiety about a lady, the widow of an English officer who fell in yesterday's battle, and who was committed to my care. I only left her this morning early, when I was arrested to be taken before the court-martial, at the mausoleum of Anar Kali, where she had been interned with other prisoners. Advise me what to do, in order to send the lady, whose welfare is nearest my heart, a reassuring message as to my fate, and at the same time shield her from annoyance and discomfort."
"That is a very simple matter. Do you object to giving me the name of the lady?"
"Not at all. It is Mrs. Edith Irwin, the widow of Captain Irwin, whom you also perhaps met in Chanidigot."
"I think I have some recollection. There was something about a gambling affair, with which he was not very creditably connected—wasn't it so? Well, then, while you take a good sound sleep in my tent here I will ride over to Anar Kali, visit the lady, and find out how she is situated. Be quite sure that no unpleasantness shall happen to her, if only I succeed in finding her."
"Your kindness puts me quite to shame, Prince. I—"
"You would do precisely the same if fate had happened to have exchanged our roles. Why, then, waste words about it? I cannot, unfortunately, offer you a more comfortable couch than my camp-bed there. But you are a soldier, and I think both of us have, before now, had a worse shakedown. So, then, pleasant dreams, my friend! I will take care that you are not disturbed for the next two hours."
Hurriedly, as though to escape all further expressions of gratitude, the Prince left the tent.
Sound though Heideck's sleep was, the confused din that penetrated through the sides of the tent would have recalled an unconscious person to life. Confused and drowsy as he was, he hurried out just in time to prevent a wild-looking, dark-skinned Indian from dealing a heavy blow with a thick staff, which he held in his right hand, upon a thin, black-garbed gentleman, who was surrounded by a whole band of natives. The European, with his emaciated, beardless face, looked like a clergyman, and all the greater was Heideck's surprise that none of the Russian non-commissioned officers and soldiers, who were spectators of the assault, raised a hand to protect him. It was certainly not his duty to act in this place as one in authority, but the danger in which he perceived this perfectly defenceless man to be, made him forget all personal considerations. With a menacing shout he drove off the excited Indians, and, taking the stranger's arm, led him into the tent.
None of the Russian military prevented his doing so. He had been seen in confidential conversation with the Colonel, and his position as a friend of the Prince procured him respect.
The stranger, half dead from fear, gratefully accepted the glass of wine which Heideck poured out for him, and, having recovered somewhat, thanked his protector in simple, but cordial terms. He introduced himself as Professor Proctor, of Acheson College, and explained that he had come to the camp to look after a relation who had probably been seriously wounded. He had on a sudden found himself threatened by a band of excited Indians, who were probably misled by his dress to take him for a cleric.
"You, also, are no Russian, sir. Judging from your accent, I should take you for a German."
Heideck assented, and narrated his history in a few words. Having done so, he could not help expressing his amazement at the attack of which the Professor had been the victim.
"Never during my whole stay in India have I ever before observed any outburst of hatred on the part of the Indian natives against the English clergy," he said.
To this the Professor replied: "Even a few days ago not one of them would, I should think, have had anything to fear; but in the face of such terrible upheavals as are now taking place all ideas are thrown into confusion, all slumbering passions are unfettered. I do not venture to think of the horrors that will take place throughout the whole of India now that the bridle that curbed the people has been rent asunder; and the worst of all is that we have only ourselves to blame."
"Do you mean on account of the carelessness with which the defence of the country was organised?"
"I do not mean that alone. Our fault is that we have ignored an eternal truth, the truth that all political questions are only the external expression, the dress, so to say, of religious questions."
"Pardon me, but I do not quite follow the sense of your words."
"Please consider the slow, steady advance of the Russians in Asia. Every land that they have brought under their sway—all the immense territories of Central Asia have become their assured, undisputed possessions. And why? Because the Russians have known how to win over the hearts of their subject races, and how to humour their religious views. The victors and the vanquished thus better assimilate. The English, on the other hand, have governed India purely from the political side. The hearts of the various races in India have remained strange and hostile to us."
"There may be some truth in what you say. But you must allow that the English have in India substituted a new civilisation in return, that inculcates a spirit of intellectual progress, and I conceive that no nation can for any length of time remain blind in the face of higher ideals. All history forms a continuous chain of evidence for the truth of this statement."
"The word 'civilisation' has various significations. If it is only a question of investigating whether the government and administration of the country have improved, the answer is that the civilisation we brought to India has, beyond all doubt, made enormous strides, in comparison with the conditions that obtained in former centuries. We have broken the despotism of the native princes, and have put an end to the endless sanguinary wars which they waged with each other and with their Asiatic neighbouring despots. We have laid down roads and railways, drained marshes and jungles, constructed harbours, won great tracts of lands from the sea, and built protecting dams and piers. The terrible mortality of the large cities has considerably decreased. We have given them laws assuring personal security and guaranteeing new outlets for trade and commerce. But the aspirations of our English Government have been purely utilitarian, and as regards the deeper-lying current of development no progress is anywhere perceivable."
"And, pray, what do you exactly mean by this?"
"Your views in this matter are possibly divergent. I discern in most of our achievements in India only another manifestation of that materialism which has ever proved the worst obstacle to all real development."
"It appears to me, Mr. Proctor," Heideck interrupted, with a smile, "that you have become a Buddhist, owing to your sojourn in India!"
"Perhaps so, sir, and I should not be ashamed of such a creed. Many a one, who on first coming here regarded India with the eyes of a Christian, has, on nearer acquaintance, become a Buddhist. Greek wise men once expressed the wish that kings should be chosen from among the philosophers. That may possibly be an unrealisable hope, but I do not believe that a ruler who has a contempt for philosophy will ever properly fulfil the high duties of his station. A policy without philosophy is, like an unphilosophical religion, not established on firmer ground than those houses there on the river Ravi, whose existence is not safe for a single day, because the river at times takes it into its head to change its course. A government that does not understand how to honour the religious feelings of its people, does not stand more securely than one of those huts. The fate that has now overtaken the English is the best proof of what I say. We are the only power in Asia that has not founded its political sway upon the religion of the people. In our folly we have destroyed the habitual simplicity of a nation, which, until our coming, had been content with the barest necessities of life, because for thousands of years past it cared more about the life after death than for its earthly existence. We have incited the slumbering passions of this people, and by offering to their eyes the sight of European luxury and European over-civilisation, have aroused in them desires to which they were formerly strangers. Our system of public instruction is calculated to disseminate among all classes of the Indian race the worthless materialistic popular education of our own nation. Of all the governors and inspectors of schools who have been sent hither by England not a single one has taken the trouble to penetrate beneath the surface of the life of the Indian people and to fathom the soul of this religious and transcendentally gifted race. What contrasts are not the result! Here a holy river, priests, ascetics, yogis, fakirs, temples, shrines, mysterious doctrines, a manifold ritual; while side by side, without any transition, are schools wherein homely English elementary instruction is provided, a State-supported university with a medical school and Christian churches of the most varied confessions."
"But how would it have been possible to combine in a school modern scientific education with Indian fanaticism?"
A superior smile flitted across the professor's intellectual face.
"Compare, I pray you, the tiresome trivialities of English missionary tracts with the immortal masterpieces of Indian literature! Then you will understand that the Indian, even when he approves Christianity as a system of morals, demands a deeper and wider basis of these morals, and inquires as to the origin of the Christian doctrine; and then he very soon finds that all light which has come to Europe started from Asia. Ex oriente lux."
"I am not sufficiently well informed to be able to answer you on this point. It may very well be that even Christianity was not the offspring of Judaism alone, but of Buddhism. It may also be the case that the teachings of our missionaries of to-day are too insipid for the Indians. But the metaphysical needs of a people have, after all, little to do with sound policy and good laws. Think of Rome! The Roman state had most excellent laws, and a magnificent political force which for centuries kept it in its predominant position among the nations of the world. But what of religion and philosophy in Rome? There was no state religion whatsoever; there was no priestly hierarchy, no strict theological codex, but only a mythology and worship of gods, which was of an eminently practical character, and it was owing to their practical common sense—or, as you would prefer to call it, materialism—that the Romans were enabled to found an organised society upon purely human needs and aspirations. And why should what they were enabled to achieve be impossible again for other nations who have succeeded them in their world-power? The spirit of the age is ever changing, yet it is only a regularly recurring return of the same conditions, just as the planets in the heavens, ever again in their orbit, come back to their old positions."
"And supposing the 'Zeitgeist,' like many planets, does not move in a circle but in a spiral line? The British world-sovereignty has, as we see, taken a higher flight than did the Roman. Could not this British world-power, by permeating wise diplomacy with the profound idea of Indian philosophy, have attained to a great reformation of the whole of the human race? It would have been a glorious idea, but I have here learnt how far they were from its realisation."
"All the same, I do not think that the English army would have been defeated by the Russian, had they not fought in accordance with the rules of antiquated tactics."
"Oh, sir, if the Indian troops had fought with their whole soul for England we should never have sustained this defeat."
"As a soldier, I am inclined to dispute that. The Indians will never be a match for a well-disciplined European army. The race is wanting in too great a measure in military qualities."
"The Indian people is, by nature, it is true, gentle and good-hearted. In order to render it wild and bloodthirsty it must be wounded in its most sacred feelings."
"Perhaps you judge it rather too mildly. Decided traces of barbarism still linger in this people, even in its highest circles. Here is a case in point that I am able to quote of my own personal knowledge. An Indian prince, before the outbreak of the war, attempted to carry off, by his servants, an English lady from her home, and bribed an assassin to poison the English resident, who rebuked him for his conduct."
The Professor was astounded.
"Is it possible? Can such things be? Have you not perhaps been deceived by an exaggerated report?"
"I myself was close at hand, and observed all that took place, and can give you, the names. The lady upon whom this dastardly attempt was made is Mrs. Edith Irwin, who had followed her husband, a captain in the lancers, to the camp of Chanidigot."
The astonishment of the Professor visibly increased.
"Mrs. Edith Irwin? Is it possible? The daughter of my old friend, the excellent Rector Graham? Yes, beyond doubt, it must be the same, because she was married to a captain in the lancers."
"Since yesterday she is this officer's widow. He fell in the battle of Lahore, and she herself is among the prisoners interned in Anar Kali."
"Then I must endeavour to find her, for she has a claim, for her father's sake, upon my assistance. But, certainly, for the moment," he observed, with a somewhat melancholy smile, "I am myself in the greatest need of protection."
"I believe you may be perfectly easy in your mind as to this lady. My friend, Prince Tchajawadse, has just now ridden over to Anar Kali in order, at my request, to look after the lady."
He had not concluded the sentence when the tall form of the Prince made its appearance at the entrance of the tent. His downcast face presaged no good news. He advanced to Heideck and shook his hand.
"I am not, unfortunately, the bearer of any good news, comrade. I have not discovered the lady whose guardian you are."
"What! Has she left? And you could not learn whither she is gone?"
"All that I have been able to elicit is that she was driven off in an elegant carriage, in the company of several Indians. An English lady who saw the occurrence told me this."