Story 1 | Chapter XI | Begumbagh, a Tale of the Indian Mutiny

Story 1—Chapter XI.

An hour of council, and then another—our two leaders not seeming to agree as to the extent of the coming danger. Challenge from the west roof: “Orderly in sight.”

Sure enough, a man on horseback riding very slowly, and as if his horse was dead beat.

“Surely it isn’t that poor fellow come back, because his horse has failed? He ought to have walked on,” said Captain Dyer.

“Same man,” said Lieutenant Leigh, looking through his glass; and before very long, the poor fellow who had gone away at daybreak rode slowly up to the gate, was admitted, and then had to be helped from his horse, giving a great sobbing groan as it was done.

“In here, quick!” I said, for I thought I heard the ladies’ voices; and we carried him in to where Mrs Bantem was, as usual, getting ready for dinner, and there we laid him on a mattress.

“Despatches, captain,” he says, holding up the captain’s letter to Colonel Maine. “They didn’t get that. They were too many for me. I dropped one, though, with my pistol, and cut my way through the others.”

As he spoke, I untwisted his leather sword-knot, which was cutting into his wrist, for his hacked and blood-stained sabre was hanging from his hand.

“Wouldn’t go back into the scabbard,” he said faintly; and then with a harsh gasp: Water—water!

He revived then a bit; and as Captain Dyer and Mrs Bantem between them were attending to, and binding up his wounds, he told us how he had been set upon ten miles off, and been obliged to fight his way back; and, poor chap, he had fought; for there were no less than ten lance-wounds in his arms, thighs, and chest, from a slight prick up to a horrible gash, deep and long enough, it seemed to me, to let out half-a-dozen poor fellows’ souls.

Just in the middle of it, I saw Captain Dyer start and look strange, for there was a shadow came across where we were kneeling; and the next instant he was standing between Miss Ross and the wounded man.

“Pray, go, dear Elsie; this is no place for you,” I heard him whisper to her.

“Indeed, Lawrence,” she whispered, “am I not a soldier’s daughter? I ought to say this is no place for you. Go, and make your arrangements for our defence.”

I don’t think any one but me saw the look of love she gave him as she took sponge and lint from his hand, pressing it as she did so, and then her pale face lit up with a smile as she met his eyes; the next moment she was kneeling by the wounded trooper, and in a quiet firm way helping Mrs Bantem, in a manner that made her, poor woman, stare with astonishment.

“God bless you, my darling,” she whispered to her, as soon as they had done, and the poor fellow was lying still—a toss-up with him whether it should be death or life; and I saw Mrs Bantem take Miss Ross’s soft white hand between her two great rough hard palms, and kiss it just once.

“And I’d always been abusing and running her down for a fine madam, good for nothing but to squeak songs, and be looked at,” Mrs Bantem said to me, a little while after. “Why, Isaac Smith, we shall be having that little maid shewing next that there’s something in her.”

“And why not?” I said gruffly.

“Ah, to be sure,” says she, with a comical look out of one eye; “why not? But, Isaac, my lad,” she said sadly, and looking at me very earnestly, “I’m afraid there’s sore times coming; and if so, God in heaven help those poor bairns! Oh, if I’d been a man, and been there!” she cried, as she recollected what the trooper had told us; and she shook her fist fiercely in the air. “It’s what I always did say: soldiers’ wives have no business to have children; and it’s rank cruelty to the poor little things to bring them into the world.”

Mrs Bantem then went off to see to her patient, while I walked into the court, wondering what would come next, and whether, in spite of all the little bitternesses and grumbling, everybody, now some of the stern realities of life were coming upon us, would shew up the bright side of his or her nature and somehow I got very hopeful that they would.

I felt just then that I should have much liked to have a few words with Lizzy Green, but I had no chance, for it was a busy time with us. Captain Dyer felt strongly enough his responsibility, and not a minute did he lose in doing all he could for our defence; so that after an anxious day, with nothing more occurring, when I looked round at what had been done in barricading and so on, it seemed to me, speaking as a soldier, that, as far as I could judge, there was nothing more to be done, though still the feeling would come home to me that it was a great place for forty men to defend, if attacked by any number. Captain Dyer must have seen that, for he had arranged to have a sort of citadel at the north end by the gateway, and this was to be the last refuge, where all the ammunition and food and no end of chatties of water were stowed down in the great vault-place, which went under this part of the building and a good deal of the court. Then the watch was set, trebled this time, on roof and at window, and we waited impatiently for the morning. Yes, we all of us, I believe, waited impatiently for the morning, when I think if we had known all that was to come, we should have knelt down and prayed for the darkness to keep on hour after hour, for days, and weeks, and months, sooner than the morning should have broke as it did upon a rabble of black faces, some over white clothes, some over the British uniform that they had disgraced; and as I, who was on the west roof, heard the first hum of their coming, and caught the first glimpse of the ragged column, I gave the alarm, setting my teeth hard as I did so; for, after many years of soldiering, I was now for the first time to see a little war in earnest.

Captain Dyer’s first act on the alarm being given was to double the guard over the three blacks, now secured in the strongest room he could find, the black nurse being well looked after by the women. Then, quick almost as thought, every man was at the post already assigned to him; the women and children were brought into the corner rooms by the gates, and then we waited excitedly for what should follow. The captain now ordered me out of the little party under a sergeant, and made me his orderly, and so it happened that always being with or about him, I knew how matters were going on, and was always carrying the orders, now to Lieutenant Leigh, now to this sergeant or that corporal; but at the first offset of the defence of the old place, there was a dispute between captain and lieutenant; and I’m afraid it was maintained by the last out of obstinacy, and just at a time when there should have been nothing but pulling together for the sake of all concerned. I must say, though, that there was right on both sides.

Lieutenant Leigh put it forward as his opinion that short of men as we were, it was folly to keep four enemies under the same roof, who were likely at any time to overpower the one or two sentries placed over them; while, if there was nothing to fear in that way, there was still the necessity of shortening our defensive forces by a couple of valuable men.

“What would you do with them, then?” said Captain Dyer.

“Set them at liberty,” said Lieutenant Leigh.

“I grant all you say, in the first place,” said the captain; “but our retaining them is a sheer necessity.”

“Why?” said Lieutenant Leigh, with a sneer; and I must say that at first I held with him.

“Because,” said the captain sternly, “if we set them at liberty, we increase our enemies’ power, not merely with three men, but with scoundrels who can give them the fullest information of our defences, over and above that of which I am afraid they are already possessed. The matter will not bear further discussion—Lieutenant Leigh, go now to your post, and do your duty to the best of your power.”

Lieutenant Leigh did not like this, and he frowned but Captain Dyer was his superior officer, and it was his duty to obey, so of course he did.

Now, our position was such, that, say, a hundred men with a field-piece could have knocked a wing in, and then carried us by assault with ease; but though our enemies were full two hundred and fifty, and many of them drilled soldiers, pieces you may say of a great machine, fortunately for us, there was no one to put that machine together, and set it in motion. We soon found that out, for, instead of making the best of things, and taking possession of buildings—sheds and huts—here and there, from which to annoy us, they came up in a mob to the gate, and one fellow on a horse—a native chief, he seemed to be—gave his sword a wave, and half-a-dozen sowars round him did the same, and then they called to us to surrender.

Captain Dyer’s orders were to act entirely on the defensive, and to fire no shot till we had the word, leaving them to commence hostilities.

“For,” said he, speaking to all the men, “it may be a cowardly policy with such a mutinous set in front of us, but we have the women and children to think of; therefore, our duty is to hold the foe at bay, and when we do fire, to make every shot tell. Beating them off is, I fear, impossible, but we may keep them out till help comes.”

“Wouldn’t it be advisable, sir, try and send off another despatch?” I said; “there’s the trooper’s horse.”

“Where?” said Captain Dyer, with a smile. “That has already been thought of Smith; and Sergeant Jones, the only good horseman we have, went off at two o’clock, and by this time is, I hope, out of danger.—Good heavens! what does that mean?” he said, using his glass.

It was curious that I should have thought of such a thing just then, at a time when four sowars led up Sergeant Jones tied by a piece of rope to one of their saddle-bows, while the trooper’s horse was behind.

Captain Dyer would not shew, though, that he was put out by the failure of that hope: he only passed the word for the men to stand firm, and then sent me with a message to Mrs Colonel Maine, requesting that every one should keep right away from the windows, as the enemy might open fire at any time.

He was quite right, for just as I knocked at Mrs Maine’s door, a regular squandering, scattering fire began, and you could hear the bullets striking the wall with a sharp pat, bringing down showers of white lime-dust and powdered stone.

I found Mrs Maine seated on the floor with her children, pale and trembling, the little things the while laughing and playing over some pictures. Miss Ross was leaning over her sister, and Lizzy Green was waiting to give the children something else when they were tired.

As the rattle of the musketry began, it was soon plain enough to see who had the stoutest hearts; but I seemed to be noticing nothing, though I did a great deal, and listened to Mrs Bantem’s voice in the next room, bullying and scolding a woman for crying out loud and upsetting everybody else.

I gave my message, and then Miss Ross asked me if any one was hurt, to which I answered as cheerfully as could be that we were all right as yet; and then, taking myself off, Lizzy Green came with me to the door, and I held out my hand to say “Good-bye,” for I knew it was possible I might never see her again. She gave me her hand, and said “Good-bye,” in a faltering sort of way, and it seemed to me that she shrank from me. The next instant, though, there was the rattling crash of the firing, and I knew now that our men were answering.