(See Chapter XIV, Footnote 4.)
The 9th Native Infantry, to which Captain Donald Stewart belonged, was divided between Aligarh, Mainpuri, Bulandshahr, and Etawa, Stewart being with the Head-Quarters of the regiment at Aligarh.
The news from Meerut and Delhi had caused a certain amount of alarm amongst the residents at Aligarh, and arrangements had been made for sending away the ladies and children, but, owing to the confidence placed in the men of the 9th, none of them had left the station. Happen what might in other regiments, the officers were certain that the 9th could never be faithless to their salt! The Native officers and men were profuse in their expressions of loyalty, and as a proof of their sincerity they arrested and disarmed several rebel sepoys, who were making for their homes in Oudh and the adjoining districts. As a further proof, they gave up the regimental pandit for endeavouring to persuade them to mutiny. He was tried by a Court-Martial composed of European and Native officers, found guilty, and sentenced to be hanged. The sentence was carried out that same afternoon. It was intended that the regiment should witness the execution, but it did not reach the gaol in time; the men were therefore marched back to their lines, and Stewart, in his capacity of Interpreter, was ordered to explain to them the purpose for which they had been paraded. While he was speaking a man of his own company shouted out something. Stewart did not hear the words, and no one would repeat them. The parade was then dismissed, when the same man, tearing off his uniform, called upon his comrades not to serve a Government which had hanged a Brahmin. A general uproar ensued. The Commanding Officer ordered the few Sikhs in the regiment to seize the ringleader; they did so, but not being supported by the rest they released him. The Subadar Major was then told to arrest the mutineer, but he took no notice whatever of the order. This Native officer had been upwards of forty years in the regiment and was entitled to his full pension. He had been a member of the Court-Martial which tried the pandit, and, though a Brahmin himself, had given his vote in favour of the prisoner being hanged; moreover he was a personal friend of all the officers. Stewart, who had been for many years Adjutant, knew him intimately, and believed implicitly in his loyalty. The man had constantly discussed the situation with Stewart and others, and had been mainly instrumental in disarming the sepoys who had passed through Aligarh; and yet when the hour of trial came he failed as completely as the last-joined recruit.
The British officers went amongst their men and tried to keep order, but the excitement rapidly spread; some of the young soldiers began to load, and the older ones warned the officers that it was time for them to be off. The sepoys then plundered the treasury, broke open the gaol doors, released the prisoners, and marched in a body towards Delhi.
Stewart, being thus left without a regiment, attached himself to the magistrate of the district, and took command of a small body of volunteers sent from Agra by the Lieutenant-Governor of the North-West Provinces, to aid the civil authorities in restoring order. Not caring for this work, and thinking he might be more usefully employed, Stewart made up his mind to find his way to Delhi; his idea was to try and get there viâ Meerut, but before deciding on the route, he went to Agra, where he had been invited by the Lieutenant-Governor. At the interview, Mr. Colvin advised Stewart to travel viâ Muttra, as the safer of the two routes, and told him that despatches had been received from the Government in Calcutta for the Commander-in-Chief, then understood to be with the army before Delhi. At the same time the Lieutenant-Governor impressed upon Stewart that he was not giving him any order to go, and that if he undertook to carry the despatches it must be a voluntary act on his part, entailing no responsibility on the Government of the North-West Provinces.
Stewart accepted the duty, and took his leave of Mr. Colvin as the sun was setting on the 18th June, delighted at the chance of being able to join the army before Delhi. He reached Muttra, thirty-five miles distant, without mishap. The streets of this city were crowded with men, all carrying arms of some sort; they showed no signs of hostility, however, and even pointed out to Stewart the house of which he was in search. The owner of this house, to whose care he had been commended by the Agra authorities, was a Brahmin holding an official position in the town. This Native gentleman behaved with civility, but did not attempt to conceal his embarrassment at the presence of a British officer, or his relief when Stewart announced his intention of resuming his journey an hour or so before daybreak.
The Brahmin provided him with two sowars belonging to the Raja of Bhartpur with orders to accompany him as far as Kosi. They were cut-throat-looking individuals, and Stewart felt rather inclined to dispense with their services, but, thinking it unwise to show any signs of distrust, he accepted them with the best grace he could.
After riding fifteen or sixteen miles, Stewart's horse fell from exhaustion, on which his so-called escort laughed uproariously, and galloped off, leaving our poor traveller to his own devices.
Believing the horse could not recover, Stewart took off the saddle and bridle and tramped to the nearest village, where he hoped to be able to buy or hire an animal of some kind on which to continue his journey. No one, however, would help him, and he was forced to seize a donkey which he found grazing in a field hard by. About sunset he reached Kosi, thirty-seven miles from Muttra. The tehsildar received him courteously, and gave him some bread and milk, but would not hear of his staying for the night. He told him that his appearance in the town was causing considerable excitement, and that he could not be responsible for his safety. Stewart was much exhausted after his hot ride, but as the tehsildar stood firm there was nothing for him to do but to continue his journey, and he consented to start if he were provided with a horse. The tehsildar promptly offered his own pony, and as soon as it was dark Stewart set out for the Jaipur camp. His progress during the night was slow, and it was not until eight o'clock the next morning that he reached his destination, where he was hospitably received by the Political Agent, Major Eden, who introduced him to the Maharaja's Wazir. This official at first promised to give Stewart a small escort as far as Delhi, but on various pretexts he put him off from day to day. At the end of a week Stewart saw that the Wazir either could not or would not give him an escort, and thinking it useless to delay any longer, he made up his mind to start without one.
There were several refugees in the camp, and one of them, Mr. Ford, collector and magistrate of Gurgaon, offered to join Stewart in his venture.
Stewart and his companion left the Jaipur camp on the afternoon of the 27th June, and reached Palwal soon after dark. Ford sent for the kotwal, who was one of his own district officials, and asked him for food. This was produced, but the kotwal besought the sahibs to move on without delay, telling them that their lives were in imminent danger, as there was a rebel regiment in the town, and he was quite unable to protect them. So they continued their journey, and, escaping from one or two threatened attacks by robbers, reached Badshahpur in the morning. Here they rested during the heat of the day, being kindly treated by the villagers, who were mostly Hindus.
The travellers were now not far from Delhi, but could hardly proceed further without a guide, and the people of Badshahpur declined to provide one. They pleaded that they were men of peace, and could not possibly leave their village in such evil times. Suddenly a man from the crowd, offered his services. His appearance was against him, and the villagers declared that he was a notorious cattle-lifter, who was strongly suspected of having set fire to the collector's (Mr. Ford's) office at Gurgaon, in order that the evidences of his offences might be destroyed. Not a pleasant compagnon de voyage, but there was nothing for it but to accept his offer.
As soon as it was dark a start was made, and at daybreak on the 29th the minarets of Delhi rose out of the morning mist, while an occasional shell might be seen bursting near the city.
On reaching the Hansi road, the guide, by name Jumna Das, who, in spite of appearances, had proved true to his word, stopped and said he could go no further. He would not take any reward that it was then in the power of Stewart or Ford to offer him, but he expressed a hope that, when the country became settled, the slight service he had performed would not be forgotten. They gratefully assured him on this point, and thanked him cordially, giving him at the same time a letter testifying to his valuable service. Stewart then went to the nearest village, and for a small reward found a man who undertook to conduct them safely to one of our piquets.
One curious circumstance remarked by Stewart throughout the ride was that the peasants and villagers, though not generally hostile to him, had evidently made up their minds that the British raj was at an end, and were busily engaged in rendering their villages defensible, to meet the troubles and disturbances which they considered would surely follow on the resumption of Native rule.
It is difficult to over-estimate the pluck and enterprise displayed by Stewart during this most adventurous ride. It was a marvel that he ever reached Delhi. His coming there turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to him, for the qualities which prompted him to undertake and carried him through his dangerous journey, marked him as a man worthy of advancement and likely to do well.
[Footnote 1: While the regiment was in the act of mutinying one of the sepoys left the parade-ground, and running round to all the civilians' houses, told the occupants what had happened, and warned them to make their escape. He asked for no reward, and was never seen again.]
[Footnote 2: Native magistrate.]
[Footnote 3: City magistrate.]