The Sepoy Mutinyby V. A. Stuart
The sepoys, native soldiers serving in the British army, are massing in response to a prophecy predicting the end of the reign of the British East India Company. Alexander Sheridanin command of a scratch cavalry force of civilian volunteers, unemployed officers and loyal Indian soldiers stands against atrocities on both sides of the conflict, judging all by
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The sepoys, native soldiers serving in the British army, are massing in response to a prophecy predicting the end of the reign of the British East India Company. Alexander Sheridanin command of a scratch cavalry force of civilian volunteers, unemployed officers and loyal Indian soldiers stands against atrocities on both sides of the conflict, judging all by their merit rather than by the color of their skin or the details of their religion.
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The Sepoy Mutiny
The Alexander Sheridan Adventures, No. 2
By V. A. Stuart
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1964 V. A. Stuart
All rights reserved.
"SAHIB!" A hand grasped his shoulder, shaking it gently, and Alex Sheridan sat up, taut nerves jerking him to instant wakefulness. Then, remembering where he was, he let himself relax. "Is it time, Partap Singh?"
"It wants an hour to dawn, Sahib," his Sikh orderly told him in a sibilant whisper. "There is tea, as you commanded, awaiting you and shaving water also in the ghusl-khana."
He withdrew as silently as he had entered the bedroom and Alex rose, careful not to disturb his wife, still sleeping peacefully in the bed beside his own. Anxious to let her sleep for as long as possible and thus postpone — for her, at least — the agony of parting, he picked up the oil lamp his orderly had brought for him to dress by and carried it into the adjoining bathroom. He gulped down two cups of milkless tea as he shaved, finding the task as irksome and difficult with his left hand as he always did, yet persisting with it — again as he always did — obstinately determined to overcome the disability which had resulted from the loss of his right arm at the elbow.
He had lost the arm two and a half years ago, in the Crimea, when a Cossack sabre had all but severed it in the shambles which had followed the Light Cavalry Brigade's charge at Balaclava. He bared his teeth in a mirthless smile, mocking his image in the mirror propped up in front of him.
Who was he to complain of the loss of an arm, when over two hundred and forty of the six hundred men who had charged the Russian guns with him had failed to return from what had since been called "The Valley of Death," he asked himself grimly. For God's sake, he was one of the fortunate few! In any case, he had learned to do most things with his left hand now and with reasonable efficiency — he could ride a horse, write a fair letter, fire a pistol, dress himself. Shaving was the only task that caused him the slightest trouble and Emmy, bless her, aware of his difficulty, often performed it for him. No doubt she would reproach him, when she wakened, for not having called her so that she might do so today but ... Alex swore softly, feeling the blade nick his cheek.
There was a muffled sound from the room he had left and he heard Emmy call his name. Her voice held an underlying note of fear as if, glimpsing his empty bed, she sought to reassure herself that he was still there. Before he could call out to stop her, she came running to him in her bare feet, without waiting to don a dressing gown over her thin muslin nightdress.
"Oh, Alex! I thought, I was afraid —"
"That I would attempt to slip away without bidding you farewell?" he accused, setting down the bloodied razor.
She clung to him, hiding her face against his chest.
"Well, yes. To spare me the pain of watching you go."
He caught her to him hungrily, conscious of the swelling contours of her slim body as it pressed against his own. The child they both wanted so much was not due for another two months and he wondered how long it would be before he saw his firstborn. Certainly he would not be with her when her time came; if that which he feared happened and the Bengal army rose up in open mutiny, it might well be six months or a year before he could hope to make the journey to Calcutta to join her. But it was best that she should go there; she would be safe in Calcutta with her sister and brother-in-law.
As if guessing his thoughts, Emmy raised her small, elfin face to his and asked, her tone flat and devoid of hope, "I suppose it is no use begging you to change your mind at this late hour?"
Alex shook his head. "Darling, I dare not — for your sake and the child's. You must go. Harry's appointment to the Bodyguard will come through in a few days and he'll have to go ... I want you to travel with him, with Anne to look after you. It's a devilishly trying journey at the best of times, as you very well know, but at least with them, you'll travel in more comfort than I'd be able to provide. The steamer will take you to Benares and it will only be by dak from there to the railhead. You —"
"I know, I know," she interrupted, with weary impatience. "We've been through it all so many times. I know it is the sensible thing to do — but when was I ever sensible, Alex?"
"Very seldom," he agreed, laughing. "You have never grown up, my love, and I doubt if you ever will! Not that I would have you any different." He smiled down at her tenderly and then spun her around, sending her from him with a playful but admonitory tap on her rounded, thinly clad rump. "Back to bed with you now and let me finish shaving. It's bad for that child of yours to stand here without a wrap or slippers. There's tea still left in the pot — I'll carry the tray in for you."
Emmy did not respond to his attempt at jocularity, but she obediently went back to bed, carrying the tea-tray herself. When, booted and spurred but still in his shirtsleeves, Alex rejoined her, he saw with concern that the tea stood untouched and that she was weeping silently, her head buried in her two outstretched hands and her shoulders shaking.
"Oh, come now, darling, this isn't like you." He went to her, smoothing the ruffled dark hair which cascaded over her face. "You mustn't take it so hard. We've been parted before and I've always come back to you. I shan't stay away an instant longer than I must, believe me, dearest, because this time it will not only be you I'll be coming back to, it will be the child — our child — as well, Emmy. Don't you realize that I —"
She cut him short. "I think I almost hate the child," she told him fiercely. "It is on the child's account that I must leave you. If there had been no child you —"
"Darling, I should still have jumped at the chance of your going to Calcutta with Anne and Harry," Alex answered gravely. "This is a serious situation and, when it comes to a head — as I fear it must — it will be dangerous. I shudder to think how dangerous for those who cannot defend themselves."
"But you would have let me stay if you had still been in Adjodhabad," Emmy persisted, her tear-bright eyes reproaching him.
Perhaps he would, Alex thought, because in Adjodhabad he would have been in a position to take effective action to avert the danger. As district commissioner, he would have had the power to compel even men as blind and pig-headed as old Colonel Chalmers to disarm his recalcitrant sowars before the plots they were hatching had had time to come to fruition. But it had, of course, been on this account that he had been relieved of his post; "Bay" Chalmers had influence in high places and he had used it, in order to save his beloved regiment from what he conceived to be the ultimate dishonor. Even when offered proof that his men were intriguing with the fakirs who visited them secretly, Colonel Chalmers had refused to listen ... and there were others like him. There were far too many others, in the Army of Bengal, for any attempt to be made to avert disaster until it was too late. He smothered a sigh as Emmy went on, "Other women aren't being sent away. The wives here in Cawnpore are remaining with their husbands — even those who are pregnant and it's the same in Lucknow and most of the other stations, I've been told. Very few have gone or are thinking of going and, naturally, they are keeping their children with them. They're not afraid or —"
"More's the pity," Alex said, with genuine regret. "Because if the sepoys rise, they may impede their husbands more than they will help them. No fighting man can give of his best when there are women and children to be considered — that has been proved, time and again."
"Perhaps so, but" — Emmy remained unconvinced — "you cannot be sure that the sepoys will rise."
"Every scrap of evidence points to it, Emmy."
"I know that some of the regiments are disaffected," she conceded. "But only a few and surely they can be disbanded and sent back to their villages, like the 19th were? And if, as they say he has, Lord Canning has ordered those wretched greased cartridges to be withdrawn, what reason can the sepoys have to mutiny?"
"Reasons for revolt are still not lacking," Alex told her. "In any case, the cartridges were more a means to an end than a reason — an excuse to stir up trouble, their importance deliberately exaggerated by ..." he broke off, reluctant to tell her too much, and reached for his jacket. "Time's marching on, my love."
"But, Alex ..." Emmy caught at his arm. "Every officer I've spoken to here has assured me that his men are loyal, and General Wheeler says that it is wrong to show mistrust or to —"
"I heard what General Wheeler said," Alex put in, an edge to his voice. "The general has a Hindu wife and a misguided trust in the friendship of the Nana Sahib. I spent most of the evening listening to his views and I can only tell you that I wish to heaven I could share his confidence. Alas, I cannot. The Nana has no love for us — he's bitterly resentful because the Company refused him a pension when his adoptive father died."
"Why did they refuse him?"
"Probably to save money, darling." Alex spoke dryly. "The official reason is because Baji Rao had no legitimate son to succeed him. The Nana — his real name is Dundoo Punth — was adopted, and the Company lawyers decreed that he had no right to the pension which Baji Rao enjoyed or to the title of Peishwa."
"But he is a maharajah, is he not?" Emmy questioned uncertainly. "They speak of him as such."
Alex shrugged. Thinking to distract her from the grief of parting, he went into details. "Oh, he calls himself the Maharajah of Bithur but he has no legitimate claim to that title either, although he did inherit his adoptive father's personal fortune — which was considerable — and the palace of Bithur. Rumor has it that he's now heavily in debt and in the hands of the money-lenders. Small wonder, considering the state in which he lives, with his own army and some fifteen thousand retainers to support! And he entertains the garrison right royally, I'm told, giving dinners and hunting parties and picnics, as well as presents of silks and jewels to the officers' ladies. The general is a frequent guest at the palace and, as I said, trusts him implicitly."
"But surely he's trying to be friendly," Emmy defended. "Yet you condemn him for it. Would you rather he exhibited hostility towards the garrison?"
"Yes, in his case, I think I would. The Nana is a Mahratta, you see, and —"
"What difference does that make?"
Alex completed the buttoning of his stable-jacket and came to sit on the edge of the bed. "All the Mahrattas, as Sir Henry Lawrence once said, are adept at deceit, my love. It's part of their character and they are most to be feared when — like the Greeks — they come bearing gifts and professing friendship. Yet General Wheeler told me, quite seriously, last night that if his native regiments do give trouble, he intends to appeal to the Nana Sahib for aid. He intends to guard the Magazine and the Treasury with men of the Nana's bodyguard and, if he deems it necessary, to confide the British women and children to his care at Bithur! If that is not an act of madness, then I do not know what is — as well let a pack of wolves into a sheepfold as place such an opportunity in the Nana's reach!"
"Not everyone thinks as you do, Alex," his wife said, a catch in her voice. "You know what they called you in Adjodhabad, do you not?"
"I could hardly help knowing, when I was called a fearmonger to my face!" Alex answered harshly. "I had hoped, though, that they might have spared you their opinion of me." Seeing the pain in Emmy's dark eyes, he took her hand in his and asked gently, "Which of them told you?"
She looked down at their two linked hands, avoiding his gaze. "Most of the wives, at some time or other ... and Colonel Chalmers lectured me once concerning your — your attitude to the tired and trusted sowars of his regiment. I suppose he hoped that I might try to change your attitude."
"But you didn't try, did you?"
"Since you never discussed it with me," Emmy said, with a hint of bitterness, "I couldn't, could I?"
"Darling, I wanted to spare you," Alex began and was startled when she rounded on him, in a rare flash of temper.
"When did I ever ask you to spare me? We are husband and wife, Alex, and I ... I love you! My place is by your side, not hundreds of miles away in Calcutta. Please, Alex, if you love me, don't send me away. I beg you to let me stay."
"But I cannot take you with me to Meerut," Alex protested, dismayed. "In your condition, my love, it is out of the question. For God's sake, it's two hundred and fifty miles and I shall be traveling light and fast, without tents or baggage camels. You —"
She silenced his protests, a finger pressed against his mouth. "I'm not asking to go with you to Meerut; I know that isn't possible. But it is by no means certain that you will have to go there, is it?"
Alex stared at her. "Not certain? My darling, I've been ordered to rejoin my regiment in Meerut — you know that. I have to go!"
"Your orders could be changed or revoked, could they not?"
"Of course they could, Emmy, if circumstances required it. You don't need me to tell you that."
"No," she acknowledged. "Alex, you intend to call on Sir Henry Lawrence in Lucknow on your way, do you not?"
"I told you I did — at his invitation. I imagine he wishes me to make my report on Adjodhabad to him in person and I shall welcome the opportunity because I —"
"Because," Emmy interrupted quickly, "you hope that he may offer to reinstate you in Adjodhabad or, failing that, perhaps, that he may give you another district in Oudh." It was more a statement of fact than a question and Alex reddened guiltily. He had been careful to make no mention of the reason for his visit to Sir Henry, to her or to anyone else, and he wondered how she had guessed the truth.
"What makes you think so?" he evaded.
"Oh, Alex my dearest, I know you! You cannot bear to leave a task unfinished and you feel a responsibility for the people in Adjodhabad in spite of everything that happened, in spite of what they did to you. But why didn't you tell me? Were you afraid" — her tone was accusing — "that I'd refuse to be packed off to Calcutta if I knew that there was any chance of your staying in Oudh?"
"Yes, I suppose I was," he confessed reluctantly. "And it is only a faint chance, Emmy. Sir Henry may have no desire to avail himself of my services in Adjodhabad or anywhere else. I was not a conspicuous success in the political service, was I? Sir Henry may consider me fit only for regimental soldiering."
"He has sent for you, has he not?" Emmy countered. "And it was Mr Jackson who had you relieved, not Sir Henry Lawrence. Oh, please, Alex" — her eyes pleaded with him, suddenly filled with hope, "if you are reinstated, won't you take me with you?"
Alex shook his head and saw the newly kindled hope in her eyes fade into despair. "I'm sorry, darling, I dare not take the risk. If there were no alternative, I should have to but Harry has offered an alternative and —"
"And there is the child," she finished for him, her lower lip trembling. "Well, if you will not take me with you, could I not stay here, where at least I should be nearer you?"
"Stay in Cawnpore — under the Nana Sahib's protection?" Alex recoiled in horror. "No! In God's name, no, Emmy — that is quite out of the question."
"Then in Lucknow — Doctor and Mrs Fayrer would offer me hospitality, I am sure, if you asked them, or the Polehamptons. And there are British troops in Lucknow, a whole regiment of them. Alex, I beg you!"
He almost weakened — it went against the grain to refuse her anything — but finally he repeated his headshake, unable to trust himself to speak. If the nightmare fears which had haunted him for so long became reality, there would be few places in Oudh where any white woman would be safe, for Oudh, he knew, would be the center of the revolt — if, indeed, it were not the cause of the outbreak. The sepoys of Oudh, scattered throughout the length and breadth of Northern India and laboring under a bitter sense of injustice since the annexation of their ancient kingdom, were the ones from whom the spirit of sedition had sprung. It was they who plotted betrayal, they who whispered of treason to their less volatile comrades and it seemed logical, therefore, that when the blow fell, it would fall first in Oudh.
Emmy expelled her breath in a quick, unhappy sigh and Alex braced himself but, to his heartfelt relief, she did not argue. "At least," she said tonelessly, "send me a message, after you have seen Sir Henry, so that I shall know whether or not you will be returning to Adjodhabad."
Excerpted from The Sepoy Mutiny by V. A. Stuart. Copyright © 1964 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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