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HOME > Short Stories > Rujub, the Juggler > CHAPTER XVII.
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 The men on descending from the roof found all the ladies engaged in writing, the Major having told them that there was a chance of their letters being taken out. Scarce one looked up as they entered; their thoughts at the moment were at home with those to whom they were writing what might well be their last farewells. Stifled sobs were heard in the quiet room; mournful letters were blurred with tears even from eyes that had not before been dimmed since the siege began. Isobel Hannay was the first to finish, for her letter to her mother was but a short one. As she closed it she looked up. Captain Forster was standing at the other side of the table with his eyes fixed on her, and he made a slight gesture to her that he wished to speak to her. She hesitated a moment, and then rose and quietly left the room. A moment later he joined her outside.
“Come outside,” he said, “I must speak to you;” and together they went out through the passage into the courtyard.
“Isobel,” he began, “I need not tell you that I love you; till lately I have not known how much, but I feel now that I could not live without you.”
“Why are you going away then, Captain Forster?” she asked quietly.
“I don't want to go alone,” he said; “I cannot go alone—I want you to go with me. Your uncle would surely consent; it is the only chance of saving your life. We all know that it is next to hopeless that a force sufficient to rescue us can be sent; there is just a chance, but that is all that can be said. We could be married at Allahabad. I would make for that town instead of Lucknow if you will go with me, and I could leave you there in safety till these troubles are over; I am going to take another horse as well as my own, and two would be as likely to escape as one.”
“Thank you for the offer, Captain Forster,” she said coldly, “but I decline it. My place is here with my uncle and the others.”
“Why is it?” he asked passionately. “If you love me, your place is surely with me; and you do love me, Isobel, do you not? Surely I have not been mistaken.”
Isobel was silent for a moment.
“You were mistaken, Captain Forster,” she said, after a pause. “You paid me attentions such as I had heard you paid to many others, and it was pleasant. That you were serious I did not think. I believed you were simply flirting with me; that you meant no more by it than you had meant before; and being forewarned, and therefore having no fear that I should hurt myself more than you would, I entered into it in the same spirit. Where there was so much to be anxious about, it was a pleasure and relief. Had I met you elsewhere, and under different circumstances, I think I should have come to love you. A girl almost without experience and new to the world, as I am, could hardly have helped doing so, I think. Had I thought you were in earnest I should have acted differently; and if I have deceived you by my manner I am sorry; but even had I loved you I would not have consented to do the thing you ask me. You are going on duty. You are going in the hope of obtaining aid for us. I should be simply escaping while others stay, and I should despise myself for the action. Besides; I do not think that even in that case my uncle would have consented to my going with you.”
“I am sure that he would,” Forster broke in. “He would never be mad enough to refuse you the chance of escape from such a fate as may now await you.”
“We need not discuss the question,” she said. “Even if I loved you, I would not go with you; and I do not love you.”
“They have prejudiced you against me,” he said angrily.
“They warned me, and they were right in doing so. Ask yourself if they were not. Would you see a sister of yours running the risk of breaking her heart without warning her? Do not be angry,” she went on, putting her hand on his arm. “We have been good friends, Captain Forster, and I like you very much. We may never meet again; it is most likely we never shall do so. I am grateful to you for the many pleasant hours you have given me. Let us part thus.”
“Can you not give some hope that in the distance, when these troubles are over, should we both be spared, you may—”
“No, Captain Forster, I am sure it could never be so; if we ever meet again, we will meet as we part now—as friends. And now I can stay no longer; they will be missing me,” and, turning, she entered the house before he could speak again.
It was some minutes before he followed her. He had not really thought that she would go with him; perhaps he had hardly wished it, for on such an expedition a woman would necessarily add to the difficulty and danger; but he had thought that she would have told him that his love was returned, and for perhaps the first time in his life he was serious in his protestation of it.
“What does it matter?” he said at last, as he turned; “'tis ten thousand to one against our meeting again; if we do, I can take it up where it breaks off now. She has acknowledged that she would have liked me if she had been sure that I was in earnest. Next time I shall be so. She was right. I was but amusing myself with her at first, and had no more thought of marrying her than I had of flying. But there, it is no use talking about the future; the thing now is to get out of this trap. I have felt like a rat in a cage with a terrier watching me for the last month, and long to be on horseback again, with the chance of making a fight for my life. What a fool Bathurst was to throw away the chance!”
Bathurst, his work done, had looked into the hall where the others were gathered, and hearing that the Doctor was alone on watch had gone up to him.
“I was just thinking, Bathurst,” the Doctor said, as he joined him, “about that fight today. It seems to me that whatever comes of this business, you and I are not likely to be among those who go down when the place is taken.”
“How is that, Doctor? Why is our chance better than the rest? I have no hope myself that any will be spared.”
“I put my faith in the juggler, Bathurst. Has it not struck you that the first picture you saw has come true?”
“I have never given it a thought for weeks,” Bathurst said; “certainly I have not thought of it today. Yes, now you speak of it, it has come true. How strange! I put it aside as a clever trick—one that I could not understand any more than I did the others, but, knowing myself, it seemed beyond the bounds of possibility that it could come true. Anything but that I would have believed, but, as I told you, whatever might happen in the future, I should not be found fighting desperately as I saw myself doing there. It is true that I did so, but it was only a sort of a frenzy. I did not fire a shot, as Wilson may have told you. I strove like a man in a nightmare to break the spell that seemed to render me powerless to move, but when, for a moment, the firing ceased, a weight seemed to fall off me, and I was seized with a sort of passion to kill. I have no distinct remembrance of anything until it was all over. It was still the nightmare, but one of a different kind, and I was no more myself then than I was when I was lying helpless on the sandbags. Still, as you say, the picture was complete; at least, if Miss Hannay was standing up here.”
“Yes, she rose to her feet in the excitement of the fight. I believe we all did so. The picture was true in all its details as you described it to me. And that being so, I believe that other picture, the one we saw together, you and I and Isobel Hannay in native disguises, will also come true.”
Bathurst was silent for two or three minutes.
“It may be so, Doctor—Heaven only knows. I trust for your sake and hers it may be so, though I care but little about myself; but that picture wasn't a final one, and we don't know what may follow it.”
“That is so, Bathurst. But I think that you and I, once fairly away in disguise, might be trusted to make our way down the country. You see, we have a complete confirmation of that juggler's powers. He showed me a scene in the past—a scene which had not been in my mind for years, and was certainly not in my thoughts at the time. He showed you a scene in the future, which, unlikely as it appeared, has actually taken place. I believe he will be equally right in this other picture. You have heard that Forster is going?”
“Yes; Wilson came down and told me while I was at work. Wilson seemed rather disgusted at his volunteering. I don't know that I am surprised myself, for, as I told you, I knew him at school, and he had no moral courage, though plenty of physical. Still, under the circumstances, I should not have thought he would have gone.”
“You mean because of Miss Hannay, Bathurst?”
“Yes, that is what I mean.”
“That sort of thing might weigh with you or me, Bathurst, but not with him. He has loved and ridden away many times before this, but in this case, fortunately, I don't think he will leave an aching heart behind him.”
“You don't mean to say, Doctor, that you don't think she cares for him?”
“I have not asked her the question,” the Doctor said dryly. “I dare say she likes him; in fact, I am ready to admit that there has been what you may call a strong case of flirtation; but when a young woman is thrown with an uncommonly good looking man, who lays himself out to be agreeable to her, my experience is that a flirtation generally comes of it, especially when the young woman has no one else to make herself agreeable to, and is, moreover, a little sore with the world in general. I own that at one time I was rather inclined to think that out of sheer perverseness the girl was going to make a fool of herself with that good looking scamp, but since we have been shut up here I have felt easy in my mind about it. And now, if you will take my rifle for ten minutes, I will go down and get a cup of tea; I volunteered to take sentry work, but I didn't bargain for keeping it all night without relief. By the way, I told Forster of your offer of your horse, and I think he is going to take it.”
“He is welcome to it,” Bathurst said carelessly; “it will be of no use to me.”
“Now, look here,” the Doctor said shortly; “just put Miss Hannay out of your head for the present, and attend to the business on hand. I do not think there is much chance of their trying it on again tonight, but they may do so, so please to keep a sharp lookout while I am below.”
“I will be careful, Doctor,” Bathurst said, with a laugh; but the Doctor had so little faith in his watchfulness that as soon as he went below he sent up Wilson to share his guard.
At twelve o'clock the sandbags were removed sufficiently to allow a horse to pass through, and Forster's and Bathurst's animals were led out through the breach, their feet having been muffled with blankets to prevent their striking a stone and arousing the attention of the enemy's sentinels. Once fairly out the mufflings were removed and Forster sprang into his saddle.
“Goodby, Major,” he said; “I hope I may be back again in eight or nine days with a squadron of cavalry.”
“Goodby, Forster; I hope it may be so. May God protect you!”
The gap in the defenses was closed the instant the horses passed through, and the men stood in the breach of the wall listening as Forster rode off. He went at a walk, but before he had gone fifty paces there was a sharp challenge, followed almost instantly by a rifle shot, then came the crack of a revolver and the rapid beat of galloping hoofs. Loud shouts were heard, and musket shots fired in rapid succession.
“They are not likely to have hit him in the dark,” the Major said, as he climbed back over the sandbags; “but they may hit his horses, which would be just as fatal.”
Leaving two sentries—the one just outside the breach near the wall, the other on the sandbags—the rest of the party hurried up on the roof. Shots were still being fired, and there was a confused sound of shouting; then a cavalry trumpet rang out sharply, and presently three shots fired in quick succession came upon the air.
“That is the signal agreed on,” the Major said: “he is safely beyond their lines. Now it is a question of riding; some of the cavalry will be in pursuit of him before many minutes are over.”
Forster's adieus had been brief. He had busied himself up to the last moment in looking to the saddling of the two horses, and had only gone into the house and said goodby to the ladies just when it was time to start. He had said a few hopeful words as to the success of the mission, but it had evidently needed an effort for him to do so. He had no opportunity of speaking a word apart with Isobel, and he shook her hand silently when it came to her turn.
“I should not have given him credit for so much feeling,” Mrs. Doolan whispered to Isobel, as he went out; “he was really sorry to leave us, and I didn't think he was a man to be sorry for anything that didn't affect himself. I think he had absolutely the grace to feel a little ashamed of leaving us.”
“I don't think that is fair,” Isobel said warmly, “when he is going away to fetch assistance for us.”
“He is deserting us as rats desert a sinking ship,” Mrs. Doolan said positively; “and I am only surprised that he has the grace to feel a little ashamed of the action. As for caring, there is only one person in the world he cares for—himself. I was reading 'David Copperfield' just before we came in here, and Steerforth's character might have been sketched from Forster. He is a man without either heart or conscience; a man who would sacrifice everything to his own pleasures; and yet even when one knows him to be what he is, one can hardly help liking him. I wonder how it is, my dear, that scamps are generally more pleasant than good men?”
“I never thought about it, Mrs. Doolan,” Isobel said, roused to a smile by the earnestness with which Mrs. Doolan propounded the problem; “and can give no reason except that we are attracted by natures the reverse of our own.”
Mrs. Doolan laughed.
“So you think we are better than men, Isobel? I don't—not one bit. We are cramped in our opportunities; but given equal opportunities I don't think there would be anything to choose between us. But we mustn't stay talking here any longer; we both go on duty in the sick ward at four o'clock.”
The enemy's batteries opened on the following morning more violently than before. More guns had been placed in position during the night, and a rain of missiles was poured upon the house. For the next six days the position of the besieged became hourly worse. Several breaches had been made in the wall, and the shots now struck the house, and the inmates passed the greater part of their time in the basement.
The heat was terrible, and, as the firing was kept up night and day, sleep was almost impossible. The number of the besiegers had considerably increased, large numbers of the country people taking part in the siege, while a regiment of Sepoys from Cawnpore had taken the place of the detachment of the 103d Bengal Infantry, of whom, indeed, but few now remained.
The garrison no longer held the courtyard. Several times masses of the enemy had surged up and poured through the breaches, but a large number of hand grenades of various sizes had been constructed by the defenders, and the effects of these thrown down from the roof among the crowded masses were so terrible that the natives each time fell back. The horses had all been turned out through the breach on the day after Captain Forster's departure, in order to save their lives. A plague of flies was not the least of the defenders' troubles. After the repulse of the assaults the defenders went out at night and carried the bodies of the natives who had fallen in the courtyard beyond the wall. Nevertheless, the odor of blood attracted such countless swarms of flies that the ground was black with them, and they pervaded the house in legions.
The number of the defenders decreased daily. Six only were able now to carry arms. Mr. Hunter, Captain Rintoul, and Richards had died of fever. Farquharson had been killed by a cannon ball; two civilians had been badly wounded; several of the children had succumbed; Amy Hunter had been killed by a shell that passed through the sandbag protection of the grating that gave light to the room in the basement used as a sick ward. The other ladies were all utterly worn out with exhaustion, sleeplessness, and anxiety. Still there had been no word spoken of surrender. Had the men been alone they would have sallied out and died fighting, but this would have left the women at the mercy of the assailants.
The work at the gallery had been discontinued for some time. It had been carried upwards until a number of roots in the earth showed that they were near the surface, and, as they believed, under a clump of bushes growing a hundred and fifty yards beyond the walls; but of late there had been no talk of using this. Flight, which even at first had seemed almost hopeless, was wholly beyond them in their present weakened condition.
On the last of these six days Major Hannay was severely wounded. At night the enemy's fire relaxed a little, and the ladies took advantage of it to go up onto the terrace for air, while the men gathered for a council round the Major's bed.
“Well, Doctor, the end is pretty near,” he said; “it is clear we cannot hold out many hours longer. We must look the matter in the face now. We have agreed all along that when we could no longer resist we would offer to surrender on the terms that our lives should be spared, and that we should be given safe conduct down the country, and that if those terms were refused we were to resist to the end, and then blow up the house and all in it. I think the time has come for raising the white flag.”
“I think so,” the Doctor said: “we have done everything men could do. I have little hope that they will grant us terms of surrender; for from the native servants who have deserted us they must have a fair idea of our condition. What do you think, Bathurst?”
“I think it probable there are divisions among them,” he replied; “the Talookdars may have risen against us, but I do not think they can have the same deadly enmity the Sepoys have shown. They must be heartily sick of this prolonged siege, and they have lost large numbers of their men. I should say they would be willing enough to give terms, but probably they are overruled by the Sepoys, and perhaps by orders from Nana Sahib. I know several of them personally, and I think I could influence Por Sing, who is certainly the most powerful of the Zemindars of this neighborhood, and is probably looked upon as their natural leader; if you approve of it, Major, I will go out in disguise, and endeavor to obtain an interview with him. He is an honorable man; and if he will give his guarantee for our safety, I would trust him. At any rate, I can but try. If I do not return, you will know that I am dead, and that no terms can be obtained, and can then decide when to end it all.”
“It is worth the attempt anyhow,” the Major said. “I say nothing about the danger you will run, for no danger can be greater than that which hangs over us all now.”
“Very well, Major, then I will do it at once, but you must not expect me back until tomorrow night. I can hardly hope to obtain an interview with Por Sing tonight.”
“How will you go out, Bathurst?”
“I will go down at once and break in the roof of the gallery,” he said; “we know they are close round the wall, and I could not hope to get out through any of the breaches.”
“I suppose you are quite convinced that there is no hope of relief from Lucknow?”
“Quite convinced. I never had any real hope of it; but had there been a force disposable, it would have started at once if Forster arrived there with his message, and might have been here by this time.”
“At any rate, we can wait no longer.”
“Then we will begin at once,” Bathurst said, and, taking a crowbar and pick from the place where the tools were kept, he lighted the lamp and went along the gallery, accompanied by the Doctor, who carried two light bamboo ladders.
“Do you think you will succeed, Bathurst?”
“I am pretty............
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