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Windrush - Cry Havelock

Windrush - Cry Havelock

Book excerpt

Prelude

'Jack Baird Windrush.' The words whispered through the night. 'Do your duty, Jack Baird Windrush.'

When the words faded, a bearded face leered at him with hate in its eyes.

Jack started up with tight beads of sweat already formed on his forehead and streaming in rivulets down his back. Looking into the darkness, he struggled to control his breathing. Jack had never liked confined spaces. Living in the open air was best for him, and here he was in claustrophobic darkness surrounded by nightmares. He took a deep breath. Where was he? Under the ground; he was under the ground somewhere, and there was great danger of a kind he had never encountered before, together with some new and terrible sorrow.

Jack closed his eyes, opened them again; nothing had changed. There was darkness and confinement and danger. He reached out, feeling the earth under his fingers. He was underground. Why was he underground? He struggled backwards, trying to escape back to the open air. Where was he?

The call of a jackal awakened him, and he lay sweat-sodden and scared. Oppressive heat pressed down on him and the high-pitched hum of insects reminded him where he was.

India. He was back in the land of his birth after an absence of twenty-two years. That voice echoed in his head as he swung his legs over the side of the bed and stood up. 'Jack Baird Windrush.'

Nobody had called him that for many years; he had never informed anybody of his full name. Opening the door of his bungalow, he peered outside. The configuration of the stars was familiar, although he had not seen it since his early childhood.

'I'm home again,' Jack said and shivered. India was in his blood; something of him belonged here. Even the distant howl of a jackal was strangely reassuring; it was part of the land, as natural as the nocturnal croak of frogs and the smell of spices that permeated every native village and town. He was in India, timeless, friendly, familiar and home.

'Jack Baird Windrush.' He reached for a memory that lived in the shadows of his mind. He couldn’t grasp it; the voice was female and elusive, yet comforting. Wondering from which part of his childhood it had come, he reached for a cheroot, lit it and inhaled calming smoke deep into his lungs. Something momentous was about to occur; there had been good and bad in that dream. Well, let it happen. He was Captain Jack Windrush of the 113th Foot, a veteran of Burma and the Crimea and he was alone in the world, rejected by his family and with nobody outside the regiment to care a damn for him. Well then, in that case, why should he care for anybody outside the 113th?

Damn them.

Damn them all.

Chapter One

'Don't you ever feel the heat, Jack?' Elliot dragged the back of his hand across his forehead, leaving a temporary dry track that perspiration soon refilled. 'This is unbearable.'

Jack took a breath of the perfumed air. 'It will get a lot worse before it gets better. It's only April; wait until June, and we'll really know about it.'

'I forgot.' Elliot threw him a glance that combined jealousy with admiration. 'You were born in this country, weren't you?'

'So I've been told.' Jack straightened his uniform. The details of his early life were so confused and contradictory he had never worked them out. 'I don't remember much about it; I was young at the time.'

'That explains it then.' Elliot adjusted the crimson cord on his shoulder. 'God, I miss the old uniform. This one is so dull in comparison.'

Brushing an inquisitive insect from his single-breasted scarlet tunic, Jack gave Elliot a final glance over and nodded. 'This new uniform is a bit more practical than the old; easier to keep clean.' He forced a smile. 'You'll do, Arthur. You're fit to fight the French.'

'Or the Russians.' Elliot pulled back his shoulders. 'You'll pass fit to muster too, Jack.' He took a drink from a small silver flask and replaced it inside his tunic. 'Scotch courage. Right then, let's go; God knows what this will be like and Jeffreys has invited some guests along too.' He sighed. 'I miss the old days; things were never this formal when old Colonel Maxwell was in charge.'

'Life has changed,' Jack agreed, 'and not for the better.'

The officer's mess stood on its own within a rectangle of impeccably cropped grass, kept free of leaves or other litter by an industrious native gardener. With so many new men in the regiment to replace the losses of the Crimea, Jack was not surprised he didn’t know either of the sentries at the door. He acknowledged their salutes by lifting a hand to his shako.

'Here we go, then,' Elliot murmured and stepped aside. 'After you, sir.'

'Quite right too,' Jack said. 'I am the senior officer here.'

'Rank before beauty,' Elliot responded.

Stout and red-faced, Major Snodgrass greeted them formally, looked them up and down, made unnecessary adjustments to Jack's jacket, frowned irritably at Elliot's nervous grin and ushered them in. 'Don't forget,' he said quietly, 'Colonel Jeffreys likes things done properly. He will allow none of the lax ways of his predecessor.'

'Yes, sir,' Jack said.

'And there are East India Company guests,' Snodgrass said. 'Don't let the regiment down.'

'We won't, sir.' Jack noted the Victoria Cross prominent on Snodgrass's chest. He had been awarded the medal after supposedly killing a prominent Cossack officer at Inkerman. Jack knew that Charlotte Riley, wife of Sergeant Riley, had shot the Cossack – but Snodgrass had accepted the credit.

'Deep breath, Jack,' Elliot murmured as an immaculate Pathan servant opened the door into the dining hall.

They walked into a wall of noise and conversation with the officers of the 113th Foot standing in small groups, nursing glasses and puffing on cheroots or cigars. The uniforms of the guests shone among them; the two native infantry regiments and the native cavalry regiment who shared the Gondabad cantonment with two companies of the 113th. Snatches of conversation drifted to Jack as the officers spoke to each other or issued sharp orders to the soft-footed servants. As was to be expected the John Company – East India Company – officers were far more fluent in the native languages.

'Hey, brandy and water and quick about it.'

'Mero lagi pani!'

'Not quite like England is it? This heat is insufferable!'

'Queen's officers eh? They know nothing about India and like to parade their ignorance at every opportunity.'

'I thought we had a punkah-wallah to keep the place bearable. The old duffer must have fallen asleep. I'll give him toco and wake him up.'

'Blasted John Company wallahs; they think they know everything about this damnable country.'

Amidst the casual conversation, Jack heard snatches of what they called shop-talk as men discussed their respective regiments.

'Your Queen's soldiers fought well in the Crimea, I heard,' a tall, bronzed lieutenant in the uniform of the Bengal Native Infantry said. 'You'll find things different here. Our men would have given the Ruskies the right-about turn, I can tell you.'

An ensign of the 113th with the peeling red face of a griffin gave a snort. 'Your sepoys? They'd hardly be a match for white troops.'

'Oh, I wouldn’t agree,' the Company lieutenant said. 'Given the opportunity, my boys are second to none in the deadly charge, the skirmish and the escalade. Military ardour is bright in my sepoys.'

'Don't they run when they meet European troops?' the ensign sneered. 'Just a rabble of blacks, aren't they?'

The lieutenant's face closed into a frown. 'There is no army in the whole of Europe in which military discipline is better maintained; there are no soldiers more faithful, braver or more strongly attached to their Colours and their officers than those of the Bengal Army.'

The ensign laughed. 'I heard that blacky is as deceitful as his colour is black and as selfish as he is double-faced.' He saw Jack listening. 'Don't you agree, sir? These sepoys have all the faults of Irishmen and none of the courage.'

Jack grunted. 'They fought well enough in Burma,' he said, 'and the Sikhs gave us hard knocks a-plenty. I suggest you read your regimental history Mr.… What's your name?'

'Shearer, sir. John Sebastian Shearer of the Hertfordshire Shearers.'

'Indeed, Mr. John Sebastian Shearer of the Hertfordshire Shearers,' Jack said. 'Well, you'll learn, no doubt – or cholera or the Sikhs will teach you.' He dismissed Shearer with a sharp inclination of his head.

Down the centre of the room, the table dominated. A splendid array of bone china, silver cutlery and sparkling crystal almost hid the white linen table cloth and proclaimed the 113th was now fit to take its place alongside any regiment in the British Army.

'Colonel Jeffreys shelled out for most of this.' As always, Elliot had all the gossip and most of the knowledge.

Jack remembered the canvas tent they’d used as the officer's mess during much of the Crimea campaign. 'We are living like lords of Gondabad,' he said.

'Lords of Gondabad,' Elliot repeated with a small laugh. 'I may enjoy this cantonment after all.'

Standing proudly in the centre of the table were two huge brass mortar cases, inscribed with the regimental number and the slogan: Captured at Sebastopol 1855. Now they did duty as bottle holders and served to remind new officers of the recent history of the regiment.

'You lack battle honours,' a splendidly whiskered captain of the Bengal Native Infantry pointed out. 'My men have been winning battles since Plassey.'

'Oh?' Elliot raised his eyebrows. 'In the 113th we don't rely on history. We make our own. Inkerman and Sebastopol, don't you know?'

The memory of the letter that pressed against his breast tempered Jack's small smile of satisfaction.

Helen!

He heard loud laughter from Major Snodgrass as somebody admired his medal and saw Shearer in light conversation with a young cornet of Bengal Native Cavalry.

The atmosphere altered as Lieutenant-Colonel James Jeffreys entered the room and the officers of all regiments stiffened to attention. The servants, efficient and impassive, seemed to vanish into the background.

'Good evening, sir.' As the senior major, it was the duty of Snodgrass to greet the colonel and ensure everybody present behaved correctly.

'Good evening, Major Snodgrass.' Jeffreys returned the formal salute and gazed around the room. Tall and slender, he stood as erect as a Guardsman and noted the name, rank and bearing of every man present. 'Take your places, gentlemen.' Jeffreys stepped to the head of the table and stood beside his seat until all the officers were ready. He sat down slowly.

'We cannot sit until his Majesty is comfortable on his throne.' Elliot intended his whisper only for Jack's ears, but in the hush, it was audible to at least half the officers present. Snodgrass glared at him.

'Did you have something to say, Lieutenant Elliot?' Jeffreys' voice was acidic.

'No, sir,' Elliot said.

'Then kindly keep quiet until a senior officer speaks to you. Junior officers should learn there is a time and place for conversation.'

Behind each diner, an Indian servant waited. Dressed in white and adorned with a scarlet cummerbund, they could have been carved from marble.

The officers ate in strained silence except for the music of the regimental band outside the building. Jack tried to recognise each tune and hoped to avoid the colonel's eye. He wondered which was worse: advancing against Russian artillery or enduring a full mess dinner under the gaze of Colonel Jeffreys and Major Snodgrass. Each required a different form of courage, active and passive, yet each was draining.

Thankfully, the evening wore on and after an eternity of courses while sweat soaked the back of Jack's tunic the servants replaced the water glasses with wine glasses. Decanters of whisky, Madeira, port and sherry appeared, to circulate clockwise around the table and empty at an astonishing speed. Jack knew he was no drinking man and pressed the side of his foot against Elliot's, to warn him not to imbibe too deeply.

'Careful, Arthur.'

Elliot shifted away, filled his glass with whisky, drained it in a succession of quick swallows and filled it again before passing the decanter on to the next man. Only when each officer's glass was fully charged did the colonel lift a small brass bell and ring it softly. The sound seemed to echo around the quiet room.

Colonel Jeffreys rose to his feet and lifted his glass. 'Gentlemen,' he said crisply. 'The Queen.'

The assembled officers stood up as one and lifted their glasses in salute. 'The Queen.'

On cue, the music outside halted and after a few tense seconds, the strains of God Save the Queen crashed out. Jack stood in silence, glass in hand as he pretended to have noble and patriotic thoughts. Instead, he felt the letter in his breast pocket and remembered the contents which he had read a score of times and still refused to accept.

The tune stopped abruptly and Colonel Jeffreys sat down. He lifted his glass again.

'Gentlemen of the 113th! We drink to the regiments whose officers have graced us with their presence. The native regiments of the Bengal Army of the Honourable East India Company!'

The officers of the 113th stood up and lifted their glasses to their guests. Once again Jack barely sipped at his and frowned at Elliot, who drained his glass in a single swallow.

The Company officers responded in kind, with toast following toast so within an hour, Jack felt light-headed and wondered if drinking to excess might not be a bad idea after all.

'Now gentlemen,' Jeffreys' tone had altered from crisply officious to benignly paternal. 'You may relax. Light up, smoke and talk for this is your home.'

Jack looked around as a buzz of conversation began. On the wall behind the colonel, a portrait of Queen Victoria hung below the cased Colours of the 113th. He remembered these Colours standing above the remnants of his shattered company at Inkerman, when the Russian dead lay piled before them in the drifting mist and his men robbed corpses for ammunition. Now, they presided in mute splendour, a memory of past suffering and glory. Every morning and every night the youngest ensign in the regiment had the duty of dusting the Queen's portrait and ensuring the Colours were safe.

'Gentlemen.' The colonel spoke again, his voice cutting through the conversation as smoothly as a bayonet through a straw-stuffed target. 'This regiment, our regiment, has been given a bad name in the past. We have suffered from poor morale and low-quality men.'

There was silence as the officers of the113th Foot – the Baby Butchers, –waited to hear what their new colonel had to say. Becoming aware of a slight drumming, Jack looked down to see his fingers beating a rapid tattoo on the table-top. He withdrew them hurriedly, hoping the Colonel had not noticed. The officers of John Company listened in respectful silence, smugly aware that their regiments were blessed with excellent reputations.

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