A Christmas Cake in Four Quarters
Chapter II. Christmas Day in India (continued)
Chapter II. Christmas Day in India (continued).
"By the time the excitement caused by the Ghoorka had died away, and the man had actually been sent off on the first stage of his journey to Umballah under a strong guard (for it was not considered safe to keep him in camp that night), it was getting time for us to think of dressing for dinner. We were all invited to dine with the Commander-in-chief, and a very pleasant Christmas dinner we had, only I need not describe it to you, for boys and girls do not care to hear about a dinner-party unless something dreadful happened at it—some accident to the plum-page 192pudding, or some catastrophe among the servants. But the 'Jungy-Lord-Sahib' or Mr. Fighting-Lord's domestic arrangements were in too good order for anything funny to happen in his establishment, and the dinner went off without any particular incident After coffee had been served our host proposed that we should adjourn to a large open pavilion in front of the tent, and listen to the music of the band of one of the native regiments who were marching with us.
"It promised to be a delightful ending to a delightful evening, so we all proceeded thither, each person (except the few ladies) carrying his own chair, for there was no such thing in camp as a spare chair. We always took our own seats with us, and expected our guests to bring theirs, to any of the numerous parties which took place during our sociable, pleasant camp life.
"How well I remember the whole scene! Before us stretched out the principal street of large White tents, guarded at each end by a double row of page 193sentries, from whose musket-barrels the bright moon-rays glimmered, shining in slender, glistening lines of light amid the gloom. Beyond these slowly pacing figures lay a perfectly flat, open country, its monotony broken here and there by a clump of bushes or a grove of mango-trees. To right and left, at the rear of the wide canvas street, were dotted, in seeming confusion, hundreds of smaller tents of various sizes and shapes, but they were mostly hidden from our sight as we sat under the large square canopy called the Pavilion. Not only was the scene thoroughly strange, but even the distant sounds told how far away we were from home. Every now and then a wretched pariah or wild dog would come near a sentry, gaining courage if the man stood still for a few moments, to dart back again into the jungle with a snarl or a yelp when the soldier moved. In the pauses of the music we could plainly hear the horrid joyless laugh of the hyæna or the distant howl of a prowling wolf. The gurgle of the camels, or the sudden page 194trumpeting of an elephant afflicted by nightmare, broke in upon the familiar tunes which recalled our distant homes to many of us, and we were fast becoming a silent, if not a sad, little group, when one of the officers present, whose wife was in England, drew out of his pocket a case of ornaments and showed it to us, saying that he had been amusing himself all day by thinking of her pleasure when she received this Christmas gift.
"'It will be nearly Midsummer when she gets it,' he admitted; 'but still I consider it a Christmas present all the same.'
"We admired to his heart's content the magnificent golden bangles with the jewelled dragons' heads; and then we began to talk about the native ornaments. Delhi had been one of our latest encampments, and we had all been buying pretty things in the tempting Chandnee Chowk—the street of gold and silver. One lady showed us her set of amethyst studs, beautifully carved in Oordoo characters; and we compared each page 195other's purchases, deciding that the husbands whose wives were away had shown the softest hearts towards the Delhi jewellers, and had bought more from them for their absent dear ones than those gentlemen whose wives were on the spot to restrain their extravagance.
"During our gay chatter, one lady of the party remained quite still and silent, neither looking at glittering bracelets and brooches, nor taking any interest in the discussion. She wore no ornament herself, except her wedding-ring; no locket nor earring, nor trinket of any kind, smartened her quiet toilet. Of course we could not venture to ask her any questions about this severe simplicity, which was the more remarkable as her husband was a very rich man, and well known to be. as generous as he was brave. Perhaps she felt instinctively how much, puzzled we all must be to account for her unfeminine indifference to pretty things, for she said, half apologetically—
"'I used to be very fond of buying ornaments, page 196or rather of Tom's buying them for me, and he often wants to give me heaps of lovely trinkets now, but I lost all mine in such a sad way that I shall never care to possess any more.'
"I think I may say that the same idea occurred instantly to everyone of Mrs. Burton's hearers, and that idea was, that we should like to hear how she lost her jewels; yet we hesitated to ask her boldly, only turning such beseeching faces towards her that she guessed what we wished, and said—
"'It is quite too sad a story to tell on Christmas Day; we ought not to revive those dreadful recollections of the Mutiny at this season of peace and goodwill.'
"Now, if there was one thing more than another for which I had a passion at that time, it was for listening to stories about the Mutiny, and I often lamented in secret over the difficulty I found in inducing anyone to tell them to me. Looking back, it is easy to see how painful such recollections must have been to the actors in those page 197terrible scenes, but in those days I was only too apt to think of what I wanted at the moment, like other young people of my acquaintance—ahem!
"At all events, I must have cast very imploring glances at Mrs. Burton's kind face, for she addressed herself to me and asked—
"'Do you mean to say, you bright little creature, that you would like to be told a long, rambling story of old hardships and dangers to-night, when we are all sitting here so comfortably and quietly?'
"I should certainly have said 'Yes,' but there was no time for me to speak; every lady, knowing that Mrs. Burton was the queen of story-tellers, said, as if there was but one voice amongst them—
"'Oh, please let us hear all about it.'
"'Well, if I must, I must,' said Mrs. Burton;' but I warn you, it is not at all a suitable story for Christmas Day.'
"'Any story is suitable,' proclaimed one of her listeners,'so long as it is interesting.'page 198
"'I don't even know whether this is interesting to others; of course, I can never forget it; but, at all events, you shall hear it, since you wish to do so.
"'Colonel Burton's regiment had been quartered at Meerut ever since our marriage; and as I had known no other station in India, I had grown to be very fond of my first foreign home. Our bungalow was a nice cool one, and all our pretty wedding presents, and new furniture and books, gave it a thoroughly English and comfortable appearance. After Harry was born we made a point of getting away to the hills every hot season, and I was beginning to think of packing up for our usual summer visit to Nynee Thal, when Tom horrified me by suggesting that if I went at all I must go without him, as he did not like to leave his regiment. He was evidently ill at ease about the state of affairs all through the country, and often said he could not imagine how the other commanding officers could take so little notice of page 199things which he considered sure signs of a coming outbreak.
"'I need not explain to all of you gentlemen what were the signs which alarmed him, and the ladies would not understand the importance, in a native's eyes, of what we call trifles. As the hot season approached there seemed less likelihood than ever of our getting away; for, in spite of Harry's pale cheeks and failing spirits, I could not make up my mind to set out and leave Colonel Burton behind at Meerut. Early in May I remember there was some talk of our misunderstanding with the Sepoys having been removed, and that the poor fellows were more loyal and devoted to their officers than ever; but Tom was not deceived by this lull before the storm. One evening, after a grand parade, where the native non-commissioned officers had been hearing and making affectionate speeches, and had been allowed to come up to the carriages where the ladies and the little children were seated and speak to page 200them, Tom took me into our garden and showed me a ruinous well, hidden by tangled creepers, and half choked up with fallen stones and rubbish. He looked carefully round to see that no one was watching us, and, stooping down, removed the dense thorny covering of matted, trailing branches which effectually concealed the brickwork.
"'"Do you think you and Harry could get down here?" he asked.
"'"No, certainly not!" I cried. "Why should I get into such a horrid place? It is probably full of snakes and animals of all kinds. I would not get into it for the world!"
"'"Don't be childish," Tom answered very gravely; 'it is a capital hiding-place; and I have been looking out for some hole which you could creep into on a pinch for the last month. I can tell you I thought myself in luck when I found this. There are no snakes, and the jump won't hurt you, or you could even get down this way if you liked better;" and Tom stepped cautiously on a stone page 201which projected from the side, and then, on the loop of a vine, reached the bottom easily.
"'I think I see his face now,' continued Mrs. Burton, covering her own with her hand,' so pale and haggard, yet trying to smile at me. I noticed, for the first time as I looked down on him, how old he was beginning to look, quite grey and worn.'
"'Come, come,' chimed in the Colonel, who was among the listeners, 'if you are going to make personal remarks I had better get out of the way, for one doesn't like to hear one's wife calling attention to any little defects in one's appearance. Perhaps you intend to inform the company the exact date at which you first observed that I was getting rather bald;' and the Colonel held down his bare and shining pate for the better inspection of its smooth, hairless surface.
"'Yes, go away, Tom, there's a dear,' said Mrs. Burton; 'I never can tell a story properly if you are by.' So great, big, good-natured Colonel Tom walked off to finish his cheroot during his stroll page 202up and down the grassy street which laid so quiet before us in the moonlight.
"'We were afraid to remain a moment longer at that neglected part of the garden, lest our servants should suspect anything unusual, but as we strolled towards the house Tom bade me notice exactly where the mouth of the well was hidden, in case I wanted to find it suddenly, or in the half darkness of an Indian night. He urged me not to give way to foolish nervousness, saying, "Remember, you will have Harry's life to take care of as well as your own." That thought made me brave and strong directly, and I listened attentively whilst my husband told me exactly what to do in case of danger. He knew enough of the native character to be sure that if any outbreak took place, it would be at a moment when the officers must be away from their homes on duty at the barracks or elsewhere; so he took great pains to explain to me how I was to act when the hour of danger struck.
"'We were obliged to be very careful not to page 203allow our servants to suspect that we had the least anxiety on our minds; and the most dreadful part of all that time was the acting which went on. We parted every day feeling that we might never meet again, and yet Tom's last words—spoken for the servants to hear—were always of some gay project which we pretended to have on hand. By his directions, I carefully stole, one at a time, and day by day, the trinkets out of my dressing-case, wrapping up bits of wood and stones in their place. Tom collected every rupee he could lay his hands on, without his bearer's or valet's knowledge (for the bearer always keeps the purse in India), and we packed our money and small valuables in a little leather bag, which I always wore under my dress like a pocket.
"'How long those first ten days of May seemed! each wearily dragging its hot hours along with leaden feet, as we thought; and yet the terrible moment was hurrying towards us all too soon, before we were half ready. Sunday came at last, page 204and among its blessed comforts one of the greatest to me was that we were all together on that day. I always felt safer on Sunday than on any other day, and it was a great disappointment to me when on this, the second Sunday in May, I awoke in the morning with such a headache that I could not go to church. Tom stayed at home with me, saying he had to attend a church parade with his regiment at sunset. I remember how grave and anxious he was all day, and when I, thinking he was uneasy about my headache, tried to make light of it, he told me he was not unhappy about so slight an ailment.
"'"I am sure that the end is not far off," he said, "or rather the beginning. Remember, the moment it comes, at whatever hour of the day or night, snatch up Harry in your arms, don't stop for anything on earth, but go straight to that well in the garden. Hide yourself in it, and wait there for me. If I am alive, I will come and look for you in that spot within twelve hours. If I am killed, why then you page 205are better there than anywhere else. But don't stir out of it till I come for you."
"'My head grew worse and worse as the hot stifling day passed on. Towards the evening the pain became so bad that I resolved as soon as Tom started for the barracks to go to bed, and the moment he left the house I went into my room and undressed; but feeling easier I thought I would try if an hour's sleep on the sofa would do me any good. I must tell you that I had never parted from my precious bag, day or night, for many weeks; but the heat of that Sunday was so insupportable that instead of fastening it round my waist I put it under the pillow of the sofa and laid down in my white muslin dressinggown, to go to sleep if I could. But to sleep was not an easy matter in these anxious times. I felt easier and more rested lying there, but I could not sleep until I knew that Tom had returned home. I listened to the distant sound of the band playing in chorus out of the "Elijah" page 206as it marched to church, and the time seemed long as I waited to hear the sunset gun which I knew would be fired about the time that service was over; then Tom would come home, and I should feel secure for a few hours longer.
"'Although it was not a dark evening, the servants commenced bringing in lamps earlier than usual. I sent for the Khansamah or butler, and asked why the house was lighted up before dark. He assured me it was the ordinary hour, and entreated me to let the men do their usual duty, or else in future they would make excuses for being late with the lamps. I thought it odd, but as Tom had specially charged me to avoid all fault-findine with the servants, I pretended to be satisfied and gave up the point, thinking that Tom would say the house looked as if a ball was going on in it, when he saw, a long way off, such an illumination through the open windows and doors.
"When I looked up I saw the Ayah with the most extraordinary expression of face I had ever seen."—p. 207
"'In a second I was wide awake, and, thrusting my bare feet into my slippers, followed her into the nursery. There I found Harry, flushed indeed, but sleeping soundly and with no trace of fever about him. I told the ayah I thought there was nothing the matter with the child—he was about two years old then—but she persisted that he had a rash. I stooped down over the crib, and examined him carefully. When I looked up I saw that the ayah had collected all the candlesticks in the room on one table near which she was standing, with the most extraordinary expression of face I had ever seen. It was solemn and awe-stricken, but her dark eyes gleamed with intense watchfulness and anxiety. I gazed at her page 208in silent surprise as she stood there looking so unlike, in her excitement, to her usual apathetic self wrapped in calm indifference. She had nursed Harry ever since he was born, and the little fellow loved her with all his heart, but I never could tell whether she returned his affection; for although perfectly kind to the child, she did not make as much fuss about him as the other servants did.
"'Somehow I could not speak, but stood silently by Harry's bedside watching the ayah, who was not looking at us, but gazing eagerly out of the window, as if she were looking for a signal And so she was, poor faithful creature! She had not dared to warn me sooner, but had devised the false alarm of Harry's pretended feverishness in order to bring me to his side at that awful moment. Through the fast-gathering darkness, through the profound stillness and repose of that Sunday afternoon, came the long-looked-for signal. The sunset gun boomed out sharp and sudden page 209through the heavy silent air, one instant's pause succeeded the report, and then the great Mutiny had broken out, and there arose a wild yell from thousands of dusky throats, and the whole place was alight with a hideous dawn from the burning bungalows, barracks, churches, every dwelling which could act as a torch. In a second, in less time than it takes me to tell you, the ayah had blown out the lights so as to secure that one spot of darkness amid my brilliantly lighted house, and I felt her muslin drapery brush by me as she passed, only pausing to whisper in my ear, "Take the child and go—he will sleep sound."
"'I had snatched poor little Harry up from his crib even as she spoke, and holding him tightly clasped in my arms reached the back door of the nursery by the time she had opened it. I would fain have lingered to thank and bless the good creature for her devotion and courage, but she pushed me out into the garden, and I heard her lock the door behind me and take out the key. page 210From that moment to this I have never heard or seen anything of her.
"'It seems strange to me, looking back on it, how little alarm or doubt I felt now that the worst had come. There was the shelter of the friendly well, and I held Harry in my arms. It seemed to me therefore that I was quite well provided for and comfortable, as I softly picked my way among the tangled shrubs and rubbish of that neglected part of the garden, stooping down as low as I could, until I reached the cover afforded by a few yards of wall. Then I ran swiftly on until I saw—for my eyes were gradually becoming accustomed to the dim twilight out of doors—that I was near the opening Tom had shown me. Holding Harry with one arm, I knelt on the rough earth, and, removing the branches from the mouth of the well, slipped down, I know not how, into its cool shelter. I looked round to see where I had best seat myself, and then, before settling down with Harry, cautiously drew the page 211displaced creepers and vines back to their places from whence I had disturbed them, and, sitting down on the highest part of the rubbish heap, prepared to wait for my husband. As I moved Harry's head to a more comfortable position I noticed how profoundly he was sleeping, and the ayah's words flashed back into my memory. She had evidently given the child some opiate, knowing that he was easily disturbed, and that a sudden cry or sound from his lips would bring death on both our heads. I remembered also that I had left my precious little bag under the pillow of the sofa where I had been lying, but I could not feel the least regret for the loss of any of its contents except a little locket with my dead father's hair and portrait. When I thought that I should never see that precious possession again, my eyes filled with tears; but Harry moved and moaned, and all except the extremity of the moment was forgotten. I could see nothing as I crouched in my blessed shelter, page 212but I heard volleys of musketry, sharp single shots, ringing out with horrible distinctness, amid the yells and howls of the people, the crackling of the burning houses, and wild confusion everywhere. Still I am amazed to think of the certainty, which I was mercifully permitted to feel, that Tom was safe and would come to me. I prayed for him as I sat there, and I felt positively happy—yes, composed and happy. I knew he would be preserved to me, and I had nothing to do but wait in quiet thankfulness. The time did not even seem long, though in reality it was past midnight when I heard the branches overhead rustling and saw his face, or rather the outline of his head, as he looked into the well and whispered, "Are you both there?"
"'"Yes, here we are, Harry and I, quite safe," I answered.
"'"Thank God!" he said briefly, and in another moment he had crept down through the opening. and stood beside me, safe and sound.page 213
"'One of the first questions he asked me was whether any of the rebels had been near our hiding-place. Not very near, I told him; but near enough for their shouts and cries to have awakened Harry if the ayah had not provided for the danger by giving him a sleeping draught There was no need for him to tell me what had happened.
"'"It had broken out," he only said, adding with that sob which is so terrible to hear from a man when his eyes are tearless, "they are all gone—Fenwick and Pratt, and all of them, shot down just as the regiment was forming on parade after church. I had dropped one of my gloves, and stayed to look for it in the pew. I heard the gun fire, and a yell and a volley, and I knew then it had come. My first idea was to go out, but I saw through the open window the Sepoys rushing about like demons and firing right and left, so I knew I could do no good, and thought of you and Harry waiting here for me, and hid away, page 214and have made my way here, running from cover to cover as best I could, sometimes stopping an hour in one place before the coast was clear."
"'We debated for a long time what was the best thing to do. Tom said we must get away before daylight, into the jungle or anywhere, and he suddenly remembered that within a mile or two lived a native Prince, whom the English had always protected, and who might feel inclined to succour us in that hour of need. At all events his palace lay on our road to the nearest military station, where we might hope to find shelter and protection; so, as there was no other course opened to us, we crept out of our hiding-place, Tom going first to reconnoitre, and, amid more frights and perils than I can stop to tell you of now, found our way to poor old Abdullah's house. Never was such a scene of confusion; it was about three o'clock in the morning, but every one was awake and up, and everybody speaking at once. The Prince sat on a divan in a large hall, sur-page 215rounded by excited natives clamouring for the lives of the English residents who had escaped the general massacre, and who, like ourselves, had come to seek and claim the protection they had so often extended.
'"What a forlorn little band we looked as we stood there: the ladies just as they had rushed out of their houses, some in dinner-dress, some half-dressed, but none more dishevelled than I, bareheaded, in my muslin dressing-gown and bare feet thrust into old slippers. Yet I felt proud of the dignity and fortitude of my fellow-countrymen as they stood there, full of anxiety, but self-possessed and calm. Our composure evidently awed the natives around: the old instincts of submission could not, fortunately for us, be shaken off in an hour; so it came to pass that, although the poor Prince could not guarantee us the shelter and safety we sought, he undertook to give us some food and send us as far as he could through the jungle towards a fortified page 216station about fifty miles off. His protection was not of much use, however, though we owe our last good meal of tea and chupatties to his hospitality. Before we had travelled—closely packed in country carriages drawn by oxen—five miles from the palace, at the entrance to a thick jungle—our unwilling drivers bundled us out of the carriages, snatched at whatever they fancied which had been saved out of the wreck, and left us at daybreak to wander about the roads as best we could. Their last mocking words were an assurance that we should be all murdered as soon as ever it was light enough to see our accursed white faces, so that we should not have long to wait for our doom.
"'One of the party possessed a little toy compass, more precious than diamonds or rubies at that moment By its help we ascertained where our destination lay, and boldly struck into the jungle, where alone we could find shelter and concealment, determined to try and make our way page 217through its tangled undergrowth towards the fort. I will not stop to tell you now of the miseries and hardships of those weary days and nights of burning sunshine and heavy dews. We had for food the crusts and fragments of bread and meat which we had each managed to secrete from the native Prince's table, and once or twice we had some game which the gentlemen managed to knock down or snare, but the danger of lighting a fire to cook it by was too great to be often incurred. I tore a strip of muslin off the skirt of my dressing-gown and made myself a turban to keep the sun from my head, and Harry's headdress was made of our pocket-handkerchiefs and large leaves. Poor child! he was very patient and good, though his sufferings from mosquitoes and flies biting his blistered skin were great indeed.
"'As this is Christmas Day I will not dwell too long on the hardships which have been already forgotten, or only remembered as one remembers a hideous dream, when the blessed light and com-page 218fort of day returns; but I will try to make you laugh at the recollection of those comic incidents which I have always found mixed up with the most serious events of life—just as if we saw some tragic Muse surrounded by a bevy of little teasing elfs and imps, whose antics force us to smile, in spite of the sad aspect of the stately, mournful dame.
"'You can easily understand that what was a real misery at the time looks a trifling inconvenience when it has drifted away into the distant Past, and even I can almost laugh now as I recollect my horror and dismay at the loss of Harry's solitary garment before our dreadful journey was half over. We used to travel at night for the sake of the cooler air, and during the day we crouched under bushes and slept as well as we could for heat and insects. One morning we camped by a jheel or pond in the very heart of the jungle, and had quite a good breakfast off wild-fowls' eggs, which we found page 219among the reeds and rushes on the bank. I felt so much stronger and better after this unusually good food that I thought I would wash little Harry's night-shirt, hang it on a bush whilst he slept, and that it would then, be cleaner and more comfortable for the poor child to put on when we set out again. Accordingly I took it off, and his father kept him quiet and amused under the shade of a clump of shrubs whilst I scrubbed and rinsed the small garment to the best of my ability. As soon as I had finished I joined the others, having spread Harry's nightshirt on a bush hard by, and taking him in my arms we laid down to get what sleep we could. The flies teased the poor child so much that he kept constantly crying for his little shirt, and when I thought it would be dry I went to fetch it There was no shirt to be seen, and we never were able to find it. Not a breath of wind stirred the heavy air, so it could not have been blown away, and our only conjecture page 220is that some solitary low-caste native, making his way through the jungle, had watched our movements, stolen the shirt, and made off with it. I confess the idea of any of the dreaded race hovering about us was much worse than the loss of poor Harry's only garment.
"'I had nothing I could spare from my own scanty and insufficient clothing, for a week's wandering among the thorny jungle had torn my dressing-gown and solitary muslin petticoat into ribbons, which were held together by thorns instead of pins, on the curative principle, I suppose, of "a hair of the dog that bit you."
"'At length we saw the towers of the fort not far off at daybreak one blessed morning. The rest of the party pushed on to reach its shelter as soon as possible; but weary and wayworn as I was I persuaded Tom to linger at the outskirts of the jungle until nightfall, for I was too much ashamed of my scanty rags to venture into civilized haunts in daylight.page 221
"'When the friendly darkness had settled over the land, we glided like ghosts through the silent streets, for it was a quiet, out-of-the-way place, safer far than a populous town; and I remember taking up a crouching position in one corner of the verandah of the Commandant's house! Harry lay on my lap, but I could not spare any of my insufficient drapery to cover him. There I sat, and no inducement would persuade me to move. The Colonel commanding was soon aroused by Tom, and proved a most kind and sympathetic host. He came out to speak to me in the dark, told me his house was perfectly full of refugees from Meerut and other places, but that the stable was much at our service. Into this we went, and thought ourselves lucky to get to its friendly shelter; but first I must tell you of my toilet difficulties.
"'Mrs. Smith—for that was the name of the Colonel's wife—came out to see me in the early dawn after I had spent the night sitting in the page 222verandah. I cannot say she was very gracious or hospitable. Indeed she eyed me as if I had really been the disreputable tramp I looked.
"'"What do you want?" were the first words she said.
"'"Want! I want everything," I cried; "first a good bath, and then some clothes for myself and the child;" and I held up poor naked little Harry, quite like a professional beggar.
"'Mrs. Smith grumbled something about my requiring a bath, and added, "I have really no clothes to give you—I have given away almost all mine; but there is the pink calico of the dressing-table which would do for a petticoat if you could make it." Well, this did not sound very promising, but I went into her room and had a bath (good heavens! what a luxury it was to Harry as well as me), and came out to breakfast in the petticoats belonging to the dressing-table, basted up into a gown, and very odd I must have looked! The worst of it was that every piece of stuff page 223except pink and blue calico, had been bought up out of the native bazaars; so Harry and I had to wear the crackly gaudy material for several weeks, until we could get to a town which was larger and better supplied. Tom went off to fight the mutineers as soon as he had placed Harry and me in safety; but we made our way to Calcutta, and so home to England as soon as ever we could, not the worse for our hardships, and deeply grateful for our merciful preservation. Harry is now at school in England; and there is Tom walking up and down with Major Leslie; and here am I,' concluded fat, jolly Mrs. Burton, laying her hand on my shoulder, 'only I do not care about having any more ornaments, and now you know why I dislike the sight of them.'"