"You robbed me of my man, sahib, by about a sabre's breadth!" laughed Alwa.
"And you left your squadron leaderless without my permission!" answered Cunningham. "You too! Mahommed Gunga!"
"Do you prefer to argue or obey?"
Mahommed Gunga flushed and rode back. Alwa grinned and started after him. Cunningham, without another glance at the dead Prince, rode up to Rosemary McClean, who was picking herself up and looking bewildered; she had watched the duel in speechless silence, lying full length in the dust, and she still could not speak when he reached her.
"Put your foot on mine," he said reassuringly; "then swing yourself up behind me if you can. If you can't, I'll pick you up in front."
She tried hard, but she failed; so he put both arms under hers and lifted her.
"Am I welcome?" he asked. And she nodded.
Fresh from killing a man—with a man's blood on his broken sword and the sweat of fighting not yet dry on him—he held a woman in his arms for the first time in his life. His hand had been steady when it struck the blow under Jaimihr's ribs, but now it trembled. His eyes had been stern and blazing less than two minutes before; now they looked down into nothing more dangerous than a woman's eyes and grew strangely softer all at once. His mouth had been a hard, tight line under a scrubby upper lip, but his lips had parted now a little and his smile was a boy's—not nervous or mischievous—a happy boy's.
She smiled, too. Most people did smile when young Cunningham looked pleased with them; but she smiled differently. And he, with that blood still wet on him, bent down and kissed her on the lips. Her answer was as characteristic as his action.
"You look like a blackguard," she said—"but you came, and I knew you would! I told Jaimihr you would, and he laughed at me. I told God you would, and you came! How long is it since you shaved? Your chin is all prickly!"
They were interrupted by a roar from the three waiting squadrons. He had ridden without caring where he went, and his mare had borne the two of them to where the squadrons were drawn up with their rear to the great gap in the wall. The situation suited every Rangar of them! That was, indeed, the way a man should win his woman! They cheered him, and cheered again, and he grinned back, knowing that their hearts were in the cheering and their good will won. Red, then, as a boiled beet, he rode over to the six-horse carriage and dismounted by her father—picked him up—called two troopers—and lifted him on to the rear seat of the great old-fashioned coach.
"Get inside beside him!" he ordered Rosemary, examining the missionary's head as he spoke. "It's a scalp wound, and he's stunned—no more. He's left off bleeding already. Nurse him!" He was off, then, without another word or a backward glance for her—off to his men and the gap in the wall that waited an investigation.
The amazing was discovered then. The treasure—the fabled, fabulous, enormous Howrah treasure was no fable. It was there, behind that wall! The jewels and the bullion in marketable bars that could have bought an army or a kingdom—the sacred, secret treasure of twenty troubled generations, that was guarded in the front by fifty doors and fifty corridors and three times fifty locks—the door of whose secret vault was guarded by a cannon, set to explode at the slightest touch—was hidden from the public road at its other side, its rear, by nothing better than a five-foot wall of ill-cemented stone! Cunningham stepped inside over the dismantled masonry and sat down on a chest that held more money's worth than all the Cunninghams in all the world had ever owned, or spent, or owed, or used, or dreamed of!
"Ask Alwa and Mahommed Gunga to come to me here!" he called; and a minute later they stood at attention in front of him.
"Send a hundred men, each with a flag of truce on his lance, to gallop through the city and call on Jaimihr's men to rally to me, if they wish protection against Howrah!"
"Good, sahib! Good!" swore Alwa. "Howrah is the next danger! Make ready to fight Howrah!"
"Attend to my orders, please!" smiled Cunningham, and Alwa did as he was told. Within an hour Jaimihr's men were streaming from the four quarters of the compass, hurrying to be on the winning side, and forming into companies as they were ordered.
Then Cunningham gave another order.
"Alwa-sahib, will you take another flag of truce, please, and ride with not more than two men to Maharajah Howrah. Tell him that I want him here at once to settle about this treasure."
Alwa stared. His mouth opened a little, and he stood like a man bereft of reason by the unexpected.
"Are you not still pledged to support Howrah on his throne?"
"I am, bahadur."
"Would plundering his treasure be in keeping with your promise to him?"
"Nay, sahib. But—"
"Be good enough to take my message to him. Assure him that he may come with ten men without fear of molestation, but guarantee to him that if he comes with more than ten—and with however many more—I will fight, and keep his treasure, both!"
Friends I have sought me of varying nations, Men of all ranks and of different stations; Some are in jail now, and some are deceased. Two, though, I found to be experts at sundering Me from my revenue, leaving me wondering Which was the costlier—soldier or priest.
A LITTLE more than one hour later, Howrah—sulky and disgruntled, but doing his level best to appear at Ease—faced young Cunningham across a table in the treasure-vault. Outside was a row of wagons, drawn by horses and closely guarded by a squadron of the Rangars. Behind Cunningham stood Alwa and Mahommed Gunga; behind the Maharajah were two of his court officials. There were pen and ink and the royal seal between them on the table.
"So, Maharajah-sahib. They are all scaled, and each chest is marked on the outside with its contents; I'm sorry there was no time to weigh the gold, but the number of the ingots ought to be enough. And, of course, you'll understand it wasn't possible to count all those unset stones—that 'ud take a week; but your seal is on that big chest, too, so you'll know if it's been opened. You are certain you can preserve the peace of your state with the army you have?"
"Yes," said Howrah curtly.
"Don't want me to leave a squadron of my men to help you out?"
"No!" He said that even more abruptly.
"Good. Of course, since you won't have to spare men to guard the treasure now, you'll have all the more to keep peace in the district with, won't you? Let me repeat the terms of our bargain—they're written here, but let's be sure there is no mistake. I agree to deliver your treasure into safe keeping until the rebellion is over, and to report to my government that you are friendly disposed toward us. You, in return, guarantee to protect the families and property of all these gentlemen who ride with me. It is mutually agreed that any damage done to their homes during their absence shall be made good out of your treasure, but that should you keep your part of the agreement the treasure shall be handed back to you intact. Is that correct?"
"Yes," said Howrah shifting in his seat uneasily.
"Is there anything else?"
"One other thing. I am outmaneuvered, and I have surrendered with the best grace possible. That agreement stands in my name, and no other man's?"
"The priests of Siva are not parties to it?"
"I've had nothing whatever to do with them," said Cunningham.
"That is all, then, sahib. I am satisfied."
"While we're about it, Maharajah-sahib, let's scotch those priests altogether! McClean-sahib has told me that suttee has been practised here as a regular thing. That's got to stop, and we may as well stop it now. Of course, I shall keep my word about the treasure, and you'll get it back if you live up to the bargain you have made; but my government will know now where it is, and they'll be likely to impose a quite considerable fine on you when the rebellion's over unless this suttee's put an end to. Besides, you couldn't think of a better way of scoring off the priests than by enforcing the law and abolishing the practice. Think that over, Maharajah-sahib."
Howrah swore into his beard, as any ruling potentate might well do at being dictated to by a boy of twenty-two.
"I will do my best, sahib," he answered. "I am with the British—not against them."
"Good for you!—er, I mean, that's right!" He turned to Alwa, and looked straight into his eyes. "Are you satisfied with the guarantee?" he asked.
"Sahib, I am more than satisfied!"
"Good! Oh, and—Maharajah-sahib—since we've fought your battle for you—and lost a few men—and are going to guard your treasure for you, and be your friends, and all that kind of thing—don't you think you'd like to do something for us—not much, but just a little thing?"
"I am in your power. You have but to command."
"Oh, no. I don't want to force anything. We're friends—talking as friends. I ask a favor."
"It is granted, sahib."
"A horse or two, that's all."
"How many horses, sahib?"
"Oh, not more than one each."
The Maharajah pulled a wry face, but bowed assent. It would empty his stables very nearly, but he knew when he could not help himself. Mahommed Gunga clapped a hand to his mouth and left the vault hurriedly.
"You understand this is not a demand, Maharajah-sahib. I take it that you offer me these horses as an act of royal courtesy and as additional proof of friendliness?"
"My men will be very grateful to you. This will enable them to reach the scene of action with their own horses in good shape. I'm sure it's awfully good of you to have offered them!"
Outside, where the late afternoon sun was gradually letting things cool down, Mahommed Gunga leaned against the wall and roared with laughter, as he explained a few details to the admiring troopers.
"A horse or two, says he! How many? Oh, just a horse or two, Maharajah-sahib—merely a horse apiece! Fifteen hundred horses! A horse or two! Oh-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ho! Allah! But that boy will make a better soldier than his father! As a favor, he asked them—no compulsion, mind you—just as a favor! Allah! What is he asking now, I wonder! Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ho-ho-ho!"
And inside, with a perfectly straight face and almost ghastly generosity, young Cunningham proceeded to impose on Howrah the transferred, unwelcome, perilous allegiance of Jaimihr's reassembling army. The mere keeping of it in subjection, it was realized by donor and recipient alike, would keep the Maharajah's hands full.
"Are you satisfied that your homes will be safe, now?" he asked Alwa. And Alwa looked him in the eyes and grinned.
Now, fifteen hundred, horse and man, Reel at the word of one! Loosed by the brazen trumpet's peal— Knee to knee and toe on heel— Troop on troop the squadrons wheel Outbrazening the sun!
WITHIN a fortnight of the outbreak of the mutiny, men spoke with bated breath about the Act of God. It burst at the moment when India's reins were in the hands of some of the worst incompetents in history. A week found strong men in control of things—the right men, with the right handful behind them.
Some of the men in charge went mad, and were relieved. Some threw up their commands. Some of the worst incompetents were killed by the mutineers, and more than one man who could have changed the course of history for the worse were taken sick and died. Instead of finding themselves faced by spineless nincompoops, the rebels reeled before the sudden, well-timed tactics of real officers with eyes and ears and brains. The mask was off on both sides, and the sudden, stripped efficiency of one was no less disconcerting than the unexpected rebellion of the other.
Byng-bahadur—"Byng the Brigadier"—was in command of a force again within three days of the news of the first massacre; and because he was Byng, with Byng's record, and Byng's ability to handle loyal natives, the men who succeeded to the reins packed him off at once with a free hand, and with no other orders than to hit, hit hard, and keep on hitting.
"Go for them, Byng, old man. Live off the country, keep moving, and don't let 'em guess once what your next move's going to be!"
So Byng recruited as he went, and struck like a brain-controlled tornado at whatever crossed his path. But irreparable damage had been done before the old school was relieved, and Byng—like others—was terribly short of men. Many of his own irregulars were so enraged at having been disbanded at a moment's notice that they refused to return to him. Their honor, as they saw it, had been outraged. Only two British regiments could be spared him, and they were both thinned by sickness from the first. They were Sikhs, who formed the bulk of his headquarterless brigade, and many of them were last-minute friends, who came to him unorganized and almost utterly undrilled.
But Byng was a man of genius, and his bare reputation was enough to offset much in the way of unpreparedness. He coaxed and licked and praised his new men into shape as he went along; within a week he had stormed Deeseera, blowing up their greatest reserve of ammunition and momentarily stunning the rebellion's leaders. But cholera took charge in the city, and two days later found him hurrying out again, to camp where there was uncontaminated water, on rising ground that gave him the command of three main roads. It was there that the rebels cornered him.
They blew up a hundred-yard-long bridge behind him at the one point where a swiftly running river could be crossed, and from two other sides at once mutinied native regiments and thousands from the countryside flocked, hurrying to take a hand in what seemed destined to be Byng's last action. The fact that so many swaggering soldier Sikhs were cornered with him was sufficient in itself to bring out Hindoo and Mohammedan alike.
The mutinous regiments had all been drilled and taught by British officers until they were as nearly perfect as the military knowledge of the day could make them; the fact that they had killed their officers only served to make them savage without detracting much from their efficiency. They had native officers quite capable of taking charge, and sense enough to retain their discipline.
So Byng intrenched himself on the gradual rise, and sent out as many messengers as he could spare to bring reinforcements from whatever source obtainable. Then, when almost none came, he got ready to die where he stood, using all the soldier gift he had to put courage into the last-ditch loyalists who offered to die with him. He had counted most on aid from Cunningham and Mahommed Gunga, but that source seemed to have failed him; and he gave up hope of their arrival when a body of several thousand rebels took up position on his flank and cut off approach from the direction whence Cunningham should come.
The sun blazed down like molten hell on sick and wounded. Rotting carcasses of horses and cattle, killed by the rebels' artillery-fire, lay stenching here and there, and there was no possibility of disposing of them. A day came very soon, indeed, when horse, or occasional transport bullock, was all there was to eat, and a night came when Govind Singh, the leader of the Sikhs, came to him and remonstrated.
The old man had to be carried to Byng's tent, for a round shot had disabled him, and he had himself set down by the tent-door, where the General sat on a camp-stool.
"General-sahib, I have not been asked for advice; I am here to offer it."
The huge black dome of heaven was punctuated by a billion dots of steely white that looked like pin-pricks. All the light there was came from the fitful watch-fires, where even the wagons were being burned now that the meagre supply of rough timber was giving out. The rebels, too, were burning everything on which they could lay their hands, and from between the spaced-out glow of their bonfires came ever and again the spurt of cannon-flame.
"Speak, Govind Singh!"
"Sahib, we have no artillery with which to answer them. We have no food; and the supply of ammunition wanes. Shall we die here like cattle in a slaughter-house?"
"This is as good as any other place" said Byng.
"Nay, sahib!" "How, then?"
"In their lines is a better place! Here is nothing better than a shambles, with none but our men falling. They know that our food is giving out—they know that we lose heavily—they wait. They will wait for days yet before they close in to finish what their guns have but begun, and—then—how many will there be to die desperately, as is fitting?"
"We might get reinforcements in the morning, Govind Singh."
"And again, we might not, sahib!"
"I sent a number of messengers before we were shut in."
"Yes, sahib—and to whom? To men who would ask you to reinforce them if they could get word to you! Tomorrow our rear will be surrounded, too; they have laid planks across the little streams behind us, and are preparing to drag guns to that side, too. Now, sahib, we have fire left in us. We can smite yet, and do damage while we die. Tomorrow night may find us decimated and without heart for the finish. I advise you to advance at dawn, sahib!"
That advice came as a great relief to Byng-bahadur. He had been the first to see the hopelessness of the position, and every instinct that he had told him to finish matters, not in the last reeking ditch, but ahead, where the enemy would suffer fearfully while a desperate charge roared into them, to peter out when the last man went down fighting. Surrender was unthinkable, and in any event would have been no good, for the mutineers would be sure to butcher all their prisoners; his only other chance had been to hold out until relief came, and that hope was now forlorn.
A Mohammedan stepped out of blackness and saluted him—a native officer, in charge of a handful of irregular cavalry, whose horses had all been shot.
"Well—what is it?"
"This, sahib. Do we die here? I and my men would prefer to die yonder, where a mutineer or two would pay the price!"
A Ghoorka officer—small as a Japanese and sturdy-looking came up next. The whole thing was evidently preconcerted.
"My men ask leave to show the way into the ranks ahead, General-sahib! They are overweary of this shambles!"
"We will advance at dawn!" said Byng. "Egan—" He turned to a British officer, who was very nearly all the staff he had. "Drag that table up. Let's have some paper here and a pencil, and we'll work out the best plan possible."
He sent for the commanding officers of the British regiments—both of them captains, but the seniors surviving—and a weird scene followed round the lamp set on the tiny table. British, Sikh, Mohammedan, and Ghoorka clustered close to him, and watched as his pencil traced the different positions and showed the movement that was to make the morrow's finish, their faces outlined in the lamp's yellow glow and their breath coming deep and slow as they agreed on how the greatest damage could be done the enemy before the last man died.
As he finished, and assigned each leader to his share in the last assault that any one of them would take a part in, a streak of light blazed suddenly across the sky. A shooting-star swept in a wide parabola to the horizon. A murmur went up from the wakeful lines, and the silence of the graveyard followed.
"There is our sign, sahib!" laughed the Mohammedan. The old Sikh nodded and the Ghoorka grinned. "It is the end!" he said, without a trace of discouragement.
"Nonsense!" said Byng, his face, too, turned upward.
"What, then, does it mean, sahib?"
"That—it means that God Almighty has relieved a picket! We're the picket. We're relieved! We advance at dawn, and we'll get through somehow! Join your commands, gentlemen, and explain the details carefully to your men—let's have no misunderstandings."
The dawn rose gold and beautiful upon a sleepless camp that reeked and steamed with hell-hot suffering. It showed the rebels stationary, still in swarming lines, but scouts reported several thousand of them moving in a body from the flank toward the British rear.
"What proportion of the rebel force?" asked Byng. "New arrivals, or some of the old ones taking up a new position?"
"The same crowd, sir. They're just moving round to hem us in completely."
"So much the better for us, then! That leaves fewer for us to deal with in front."
As he spoke another man came running to report the arrival of five gallopers, coming hell-bent-for leather, one by one and scattered, with the evident purpose of allowing one man to get through, whatever happened.
"That'll be relief at last!" said Byng-bahadur. And, instead of ordering the advance immediately, he waited, scouring the sky-line with his glasses.
"Yes—dust—lance-heads—one—two—three divisions, coming in a hurry."
Being on rising ground, he saw the distant relieving force much sooner than the rebels did, and he knew that it was help for him on the way some time before the first of the five gallopers careered into the camp, and shouted:
"Cunnigan-bahadur comes with fifteen hundred!"
"Fifteen hundred," muttered Byng. "That merely serves to postpone the finish by an hour or two!"
But he waited; and presently the rebel scouts brought word, and their leaders, too, became aware of reinforcements on the way for somebody. They made the mistake, though, of refusing to believe that any help could be coming for the British, and by the time that messengers had hurried from the direction of the British rear, to tell of gallopers who had ridden past them and been swallowed by the shouting British lines, three squadrons on fresh horses were close enough to be reckoned dangerous.
"Is that a gun they've got with them?" wondered Byng. "By the lord Harry, no,—it's a coach and six! They're flogging it along like a twelve-pounder! And what the devil's in those wagons?"
But he had no time for guesswork. The desultory thunder of the rebel ordnance ceased, and the whole mass that hemmed him in began to revolve within itself, and present a new front to the approaching cavalry.
"Caught on the hop, by God! The whole line will advance! Trumpeter!"
One trumpet-call blared out and a dozen echoed it. In a second more a roar went up that is only heard on battle-fields. It has none of the exultant shout of joy or of the rage that a mob throws up to heaven; it is not even anger, as the cities know it, or the men who riot for advantage. It is a welcome ironically offered up to Death—full-throated, and more freighted with moral effect on an enemy than a dozen salvoes of artillery.
The thousands ahead tried hard to turn again and face two attacks at once; but, though the units were efficiently controlled, there were none who could swing the whole. Byng's decimated, forward-rushing fragment of a mixed brigade, tight-reined and working like a piece of mechanism, struck home into a mass of men who writhed, and fell away, and shouted to each other. A third of them was out of reach, beyond the British rear; fully another third was camped too far away to bring assistance at the first wild onslaught. Messengers were sent to bring them up, but the messengers were overtaken by a horde who ran.
Then, like arrows driven by the bows of death, three squadrons took them on the flank as Cunningham changed direction suddenly and loosed his full weight at the guns. Instead of standing and serving grape, the rebel gunners tried to get their ordnance away—facing about again too late, when the squadrons were almost on them. Then they died gamely, when gameness served no further purpose. The Rangars rode them down and butchered them, capturing every single gun, and leaving them while they charged again at the rallying hordes ahead.
The strange assortment of horsed wagons and the lumbering six-horse coach took full advantage of the momentary confusion to make at a gallop for the British rear, where they drew up in line behind the Sikhs, who were volleying at short range in the centre.
Byng detached two companies of British soldiers to do their amateur damnedest with the guns, and, for infantry, they did good service with them; fifteen or twenty minutes after the first onslaught the enemy was writhing under the withering attention of his own abandoned ordnance. But the odds were still tremendous, and the weight of numbers made the ultimate outcome of the battle seem a foregone conclusion.
From the British rear heads appeared above the rising ground; the deserted camp was rushed and set alight. The tents blazed like a beacon light, and a moment later the Ghoorkas retaliated by setting fire to such of the rebel camp as had fallen into British hands.
It was those two fires that saved the day. From the sky-line to the rebel rear came the thunder of a salvo of artillery. It was the short bark of twelve-pounders loaded up with blank—a signal—and the rebels did not wait to see whether this was friend or foe. Help from one unexpected source had reached the British; this, they argued, was probably another column moving to the relief, and they drew off in reasonably decent order—harried, pestered, stung, as they attempted to recover camp-equipment or get away with stores and wagons, by Cunningham, Alwa, and Mahommed Gunga.
In another hour the rebel army was a black swarm spreading on the eastern sky-line, and on the far horizon to the north there shone the glint of bayonets and helmet spikes, the dancing gleam of lance-tips, and the dazzle from the long, polished bodies of a dozen guns. A galloper spurred up with a message for Byng.
"You are to join my command," it ran, "for a raid in force on Howrah, where the rebels are supposed to have been concentrating for months past. The idea is to paralyze the vitals of the movement before concentrating somewhere on the road to Delhi, where the rebels are sure to make a most determined stand."
As he read it Mahommed Gunga galloped up to him, grinning like a boy.
"Cunnigan-sahib's respects, General-sahib! He asks leave to call his men off, saying that he has done all the damage possible with only fifteen hundred."
"Yes. Call 'em off and send Cunningham to me. How did he shape?"
"Like a son of Cunnigan-bahadur! General-sahib-salaam!"
"No. Here, you old ruffian—shake hands, will you? Now send Cunningham to me."
Cunningham came up fifteen minutes later, with a Rangar orderly behind him, and did his best to salute as though it were nothing more than an ordinary meeting.
"Oh! Here you are. 'Gratulate you, Cunningham! You came in the nick of time. What kept you?"
"That 'ud take a long time to tell, sir. I've fifteen hundred horses about ten miles from here, sir, left in charge of native levies, and I'd like permission to go and fetch them before the levies make off with them."
"Splendid! Yes, you'd better go for them. What's in the wagons."
"The Howrah treasure, sir!"
"The whole of the Howrah treasure, sir! It's held as security. Howrah guarantees to keep the peace and protect the homes of my men. I guaranteed to hand him back the treasure when the show's over, less deductions for damage done!"
"Well, I'm—Who thought of that? You or Mahommed Gunga?"
"Oh, I expect we cooked it up between us, sir."
"H-rrrr-umph! And what's in the six-horse coach?"
"A lady and her father."
"The deuce they are!"
Byng rode up to the lumbering vehicle, signing to Cunningham to follow him.
"General Byng," said Cunningham. "Miss McClean, sir."
A very much dishevelled and very weary-looking young woman with a wealth of chestnut hair leaned through the window and smiled, not at the General but at Cunningham. Byng stared—looked from one to the other of them—and said "Hu-rrrr-umph!" again.
"It was she who made the whole thing possible, sir."
"The very deuce it was!" It began to be evident that Byng was not a ladies' man!
"This is Mr. McClean, sir—Rosemary's father. He helped her put the whole scheme through."
Byng nodded to the missionary and looked back at Rosemary McClean—then from her to Cunningham again.
"Hu-rrrr-umph! Christian names already! More 'gratulations, eh?"
Rosemary's head and shoulders disappeared and Cunningham looked foolish.
"Well! Send Mahommed Gunga for the horses. Ride over there to where you see General Evans's column and tell him the whole story. Take a small escort and the treasure with you. And—ah—er—lemme see—take this carriage, too. Oh, by the bye—you'd better ask General Evans to make some arrangements for Miss McClean. Leave her over there with the treasure. I want you back with my brigade, and I want you to be some sort of use. Can't have love-making with the brigade, Mr. Cunningham!"
The Brigadier rode off with a very perfunctory salute.
"Isn't he a rather curmudgeony sort of officer?" asked Rosemary the moment that his back was turned.
"Oh, no!" laughed Cunningham. "That's Byng-bahadur's little way, that's all. He's quite likely to insist on being best man or something of that sort when the show's all over! Wait here while I fetch the escort."