"Vivid details of scarlet soldiering." —The Tatler
The Cannons of Lucknowby V. A. Stuart
Cawnpore is retaken, but they have come too late to stop the slaughterthe relieving British soldiers can only stare at the ill-sited, poorly-defended entrenchment and shake their heads, wondering why. One of only two survivors, Colonel Alex Sheridan is numb. His wife and newborn son lie dead. But now he must join General Havelock's force of barely a thousand
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Cawnpore is retaken, but they have come too late to stop the slaughterthe relieving British soldiers can only stare at the ill-sited, poorly-defended entrenchment and shake their heads, wondering why. One of only two survivors, Colonel Alex Sheridan is numb. His wife and newborn son lie dead. But now he must join General Havelock's force of barely a thousand men as they fight their way through to the besieged garrison at Lucknow.
Read an Excerpt
The Cannons of Lucknow
The Alexander Sheridan Adventures, No. 4
By V. A. Stuart
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1974 V. A. Stuart
All rights reserved.
On the afternoon of Sunday, 19th July, a detachment of the Madras European Fusiliers, Ferozepore Sikhs, and Volunteer Cavalry reached Bithur after a march of sixteen miles from Cawnpore.
The message from Narayan Rao, which had caused the British troops to be summoned from their Church Parade during the reading of the Lesson by General Havelock, had stated that Bithur was denuded of rebels, the palace abandoned and unguarded, and the Nana dead by his own hand. This — although, as the son of the late Peishwa's dewan, Narayan Rao's loyalty to the British cause was open to doubt — appeared at first sight to be the truth. The palace had been plundered of virtually everything of value save for sixteen serviceable brass guns and, after giving instructions for the guns to be hitched to bullock teams and sent back to Cawnpore, the officer commanding the detachment, Major Lionel Stephenson, ordered his Fusiliers to burn down the Nana's residence.
Returning from a tour of inspection with two other officers of the Volunteer Cavalry, Alexander Sheridan reined in his horse to watch, with oddly conflicting emotions, as the "Blue Caps" went about their business and smoke and flames began to rise from one after another of the pink- and white-washed stone buildings. He remembered the palace as it had been on one of his previous visits, before the sepoys had mutinied, when he — then a captain in the Bengal Light Cavalry — had been treated to dinner by the self-styled Maharajah of Bithur, together with other civil and military members of the Cawnpore garrison.
General Sir Hugh Wheeler and his gentle Indian wife had been amongst the party, Alex recalled with a sharp stab of pain. The old general, and Charles Hillersdon, the collector and chief magistrate, with Mrs. Hillersdon and, of course, his own beloved wife, Emmy ... all of them now dead. The long table at which they had been seated — with its fine damask cloth and the incongruous mixture of priceless gold plate and cheap glass and silverware, set out for his British guests — had been smashed in an orgy of wanton destruction by the mob that had come here after witnessing the Nana's disappearance. And they, no doubt, had stolen the gold, for there had been no trace of it anywhere in the palace. The vast, echoing rooms were empty, stripped bare of their Persian carpets, their tapestry hangings, and their crystal chandeliers. Even the zenana had been ransacked by the mob; not only its rich furnishings but also the Nana's courtesans and dancing girls had vanished, together with the host of ayahs and other servants employed to wait on them.
The sole occupant of the once-luxurious women's quarters had been a pregnant Anglo-Indian girl, with her throat cut, left to die there — presumably on the Nana's instructions — and later identified as the wife of the lodge-keeper, an Englishman named Carter, whose fate was as yet unknown.
Alex's mouth tightened as he felt anger well up inside him. Leaving his companions, he walked his horse slowly in the direction of the river. Disappointed by the small amount of plunder left in the palace, the Sikhs, he saw, were now ranging further afield among the outbuildings and godowns on the riverbank, unrebuked by their formidable, white-bearded commander, Lieutenant Brasyer, who was watching them with an indulgent smile, like a father amused by the antics of his wayward children. Encouraged by this, a few of the older Fusiliers slipped away from their fire- lighting in twos and threes to follow in the wake of their Sikh comrades, keeping a wary eye on their own commanding officer, lest they be ordered to return to their duties. But, like Jeremiah Brasyer, Major Stephenson offered no rebuke, seemingly blind to his men's temporary defection, as he superintended the despatch of the bullock train and the guns started on their ponderous way along the dusty, rutted road to Cawnpore.
Alex silently applauded his forbearance, understanding the reasons which had prompted it. The spoils of victory were for the victors and these men, both Sikh and European, had earned their victory, although few spoils had come their way. Under the lash of monsoon rain and in the remorseless heat of the Indian summer, they had marched 126 miles in nine days and nights, slept tentless on the bare ground, and fought four actions against odds which, in normal circumstances, any strategist would have deemed impossible. Because they knew that some two hundred British women and children were being held hostage in Cawnpore, they had gone without food, charged, and taken enemy guns at the point of the bayonet and risked their lives again and again in order that there might be no delay in reaching their goal in time to effect a rescue. In the last battle, after marching fifteen miles under a blazing sun, a scant eight hundred men had faced as many thousand mutineers, driving them from their entrenched positions by the sheer fury and courage of their assault.
When they entered Cawnpore the following day, their triumph had dimmed when they learned that the hostages had been brutally butchered in a final act of betrayal by the fleeing Nana. Many of them had, like himself, seen the ghastly evidence of this in a small, single-story building in the heart of the city, known as the Bibigarh, and in the well adjoining that terrible house of slaughter. To a man, they had been eager to exact retribution from those who, if they had not committed, had quite certainly connived at the murders, but General Havelock had sternly forbidden reprisals against the civil population by his outraged soldiers. He had also issued orders that the city was not to be looted, which had angered them all — and the Sikhs in particular — although it had been a wise precaution, as Alex was aware. The bazaar contained large stocks of liquor, much of it champagne and bottled beer stolen during the siege, and liquor had always been the downfall of European troops, however well disciplined, when there was a lull in the fighting.
One or two officers had protested, Brasyer among them, but the dapper little general, who had asked so much of his troops in battle and driven them so relentlessly on the march, turned a deaf ear to their objections. A devout Christian and a lifelong teetotaller, he had made it abundantly clear that he would tolerate neither drunkenness nor the indiscriminate persecution of native civilians by the force under his command.
"Any soldier found guilty of looting is to be hanged in his uniform, gentlemen," he informed his assembled officers, adding crisply, before any of them could voice their dismay, "Mutineers, civilian traitors, and miscreants shall, I give you my word, be brought to swift and merciless justice — but barbarism must not be met by barbarism. Punishment is to be meted out to all deserving of it, but only in accordance with martial law and after a fair and properly constituted trial."
The savage vengeance taken by Colonel Neill in Benares and Allahabad — and, on his orders, by the advance force on the march to Fatepur, under Renaud — had shocked General Havelock profoundly. He made no secret of his disapproval of Neill's arbitrary method of quelling mutiny — and rightly so, Alex reflected grimly, although he himself thirsted for revenge as bitterly as any man, with more reason than most. Retribution must be reserved for proven traitors, and the Blue Caps' Colonel had not been too particular as to the guilt of those he hanged or blew from the mouths of cannon. On the admission of his own officers, many innocent villagers and harmless merchants had been victims of his wrath, a fact which, on sober consideration, might well have influenced the Nana's decision to put his British hostages to death.
It was perhaps unjust to question whether Neill's preoccupation with the punishment of mutineers at Allahabad had delayed the relief column he had been ordered to lead, at all costs, to Cawnpore but ... Alex sighed, in weary frustration. He had questioned it many times since his escape from Edward Vibart's leaking boat after the massacre at the Suttee Chowra Ghat in which his beloved Emmy had perished, with close on three hundred others. And ... he repeated his sigh. He had questioned it during the long, anxious days of waiting behind the crumbling walls of General Wheeler's entrenchment, when Neill's name had been on everyone's lips, including his own. Starving, desperate, dying under incessant attack, the garrison had clung to the hope that Neill was leading a relief column to their aid, but when day followed day and the telescopes sweeping the road from Allahabad revealed only reinforcements for the mutineers, even this hope had had to be abandoned ... and it had been the last hope any of them had had.
There were, of course, numerous sound military reasons for the delay — lack of transport and of supplies, the disruption of communications, the need to secure Allahabad and the road south to the railhead before the relief column could leave its base. James Neill had had only his regiment, a single steamer, and a few drafts which had struggled upcountry from Calcutta. Whatever might be said of his reign of terror in Allahabad, Neill was a good soldier and a brave man; no lack of courage could be imputed to him. It would therefore be the height of injustice to lay the blame solely at his door without full knowledge of the circumstances which had dictated his actions and caused him to wait for Havelock's reinforcements before attempting to reach Cawnpore. Havelock, God knew, with twice as many troops as Neill had had at his disposal, had been compelled to fight every mile of the way. Yet for all that ...
"Sheridan, my dear fellow — see what I have looted!" Grateful for any distraction from his own thoughts, Alex turned, recognising the voice of Henry Willock, one of the displaced civil servants who had joined the ranks of the Volunteer Cavalry after their districts had mutinied. Cradled in his arms was a tiny Waneroo monkey with a jewelled collar about its neck. "Poor, pretty little creature," Willock said pityingly, stroking the monkey's wizened, half-human face with a gentle hand. "I found her in a cage in one of the godowns by the river, frightened out of her life. That foul swine of a Nana must have kept a good many pets when he was endeavouring to play the role of a British country gentleman. Two of our fellows have found a pair of pedigree bulldogs, if you please! And there are a number of zoo animals, locked in cages, as well as some very fine Arab horses."
"Arabs?" Alex exclaimed, with interest. "You mean —"
"They've all been taken, I'm afraid," Willock told him regretfully, forestalling his question. "If you were hoping to replace yours, you've left it a trifle late. Although I daresay you could purchase one — the Fusiliers are selling them to the highest bidder. Poor devils, they've no other chance to enrich themselves; everything else has gone. The Nana's own people have made a remarkably clean sweep of the place. His Brahmin priests and holy men, by all accounts, as well as the villagers and, I don't doubt, some of his murderous sepoys before they took to their heels. There's no liquor, of course, as Stephenson foresaw — even the Sikhs haven't found any." He laughed. "Poor old Brasyer's quite put out. He was hoping for great things here, when he realised that the general had omitted to include Bithur in his prohibition against looting."
He rode on, the gibbering little monkey perched on his shoulder and clinging to him, as if her very life depended on remaining close to her rescuer.
Alex smiled and trotted without haste back to the road, making no attempt to seek out the new owners of the Nana's Arabs. He had no money and, indeed, possessed only the clothes he stood up in — a makeshift uniform, consisting of a borrowed white cotton tunic, with regulation black pouch and cartouche belt, and the native- made boots and pantaloons in which he had escaped, worn with a pith helmet and puggree, also borrowed. If he wanted to buy himself a horse, he would have to seek out the paymaster and arrange for credit, but until now there had been no time to think of anything save practical necessities. In any event, the sowar's country-bred mare he was riding had served him well, despite her wound — Arab stallions, with long pedigrees, belonged to another life, another world. He patted the mare's scrawny neck and, seeing Captain Lousada Barrow — until the mutiny, commissioner of an Oudh district and now in command of the twenty-strong Volunteer Cavalry — crossed over the road to join him.
"Ah, Alex ... just the man I was looking for. What do you think of all this, eh? Can you believe that the Nana would have abandoned his palace and all the treasure he's reported to have amassed, if he's not dead? Or" — he gestured to the guns, filing slowly past them behind their teams of plodding bullocks — "those cannon? Damn it, they're in first-rate condition! Maude will be delighted when he sees them, I'm quite sure ... so why did they leave them for us, for God's sake? One thing these blasted Pandies never seem to suffer from is lack of ammunition. Why didn't they defend the palace? Surely it must prove that the Nana kept his vow and drowned himself, as he said he would if we defeated him and recaptured Cawnpore?"
"I don't know," Alex confessed. Lousada Barrow was an old friend and had been his mentor when he had first been seconded to the Political Service. He added, with feeling, "To be honest, I hope he isn't dead."
"You hope he's not?" Barrow stared at him in astonishment. "In heaven's name, why?"
"Because I had promised myself the satisfaction of being the one to bring him to justice, Lou. But if he has gone to meet his Maker, then I can only pray that the mills of God will grind exceeding small in his particular case." Conscious that his scarred face reflected more of his pent-up bitterness than he had intended to reveal, even to Lousada Barrow, Alex controlled himself and went on flatly,"I may be this garrison's only survivor — apart from Shepherd, who is a clerk — which leaves me with a debt to pay for all those who are no longer here to demand settlement. My wife and son among them."
"You are not alone, Alex," Lousada Barrow assured him. "By heaven you're not! After what was done to those poor innocents in the Bibigarh, none of us can rest until the debt is paid. And I don't imagine that any of us will forget what we saw here for as long as we live. But ..." he broke off in sudden consternation. "Oh Lord, I'm sorry! I'm a thoughtless idiot, but there's been so damned little time to talk since you joined us. I ... were your wife and son ... that is, were they —"
"No." Alex shook his head. He had himself under stern control now, although it took a considerable effort of will to shut his mind to the memories his own words evoked." They were spared that ultimate horror, for which I thank God with all my heart. The child, who was only an infant, died during the siege and Emmy ... my wife was shot when they attacked us at the landing ghat. She died in my arms."
Barrow grunted his relief. He waved to the line of guns, as the last of the sixteen pieces lumbered past them and shouted out an order to his volunteer cavalrymen to form up as escort. "I told Lionel Stephenson that we would see our prizes safely delivered. Ride with me, Alex, if you would — I want to talk to you."
He set spurs to his big chestnut and Alex followed him through clouds of choking dust to the head of the column, where both reined in, slowing their pace to match that of the labouring bullocks. "Do you really suppose," Barrow went on, as if there had been no break in their conversation, "that you and the clerk — what's his name? — Shepherd are the only survivors of the garrison, Alex? Shepherd left the entrenchment before it was evacuated, did he not?"
Excerpted from The Cannons of Lucknow by V. A. Stuart. Copyright © 1974 V. A. Stuart. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
V. A. Stuart wrote several series of military fiction and numerous other novels under various pseudonyms. Her settings span history and the globe, from the Napoleonic wars of Europe to India under the British Raj. Born in 1914, she was in Burma with the British Fourteenth Army, became a lieutenant, and was decorated with the Burma Star and the Pacific Star.
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