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

Story 1—Chapter XII.

As I went down into the court-yard, I found the smoke rising in puffs as our men fired over the breastwork at the mob coming at the gate. Captain Dyer in the thick of it the while, going from man to man, warning them to keep themselves out of sight, and to aim low.

“Take care of yourselves, my lads. I value every one of you at a hundred of those black scoundrels.—Tut, tut, who’s that down?”

“Corporal Bray,” says some one.

“Here, Emson, Smith, both of you lend a hand here: we’ll make Bantem’s quarters hospital.—Now then, look alive, ambulance party.”

We were about lifting the poor fellow, who had sunk down behind the breastwork, all doubled up like, hands and knees; and head down; but as we touched him, he straightened himself out, and looked up at Captain Dyer.

“Don’t touch me yet,” he says in a whisper. “My stripes for some one, captain. Do for Isaac Smith there. Hooray!” he says faintly; and he took off his cap with one hand, gave it a bit of a wave—“God save the Quee—”

“Bear him carefully to the empty ground floor, south side,” says Captain Dyer sternly; “and make haste back, my lads: moments are precious.”

“I’ll do that, with Private Manning’s wife,” says a voice; and turning as we were going to lift our dead comrade, there was big, strapping Mrs Bantem, and another soldier’s wife, and she then said a few words to the captain.

“Gone?” says Captain Dyer.

“Quarter of an hour ago, sir,” says Mrs Bantem; and then to me: “Poor trooper, Isaac!”

“Another man here,” says Captain Dyer.—“No, not you, Smith.—Fill up here, Bantem.”

Joe Bantem waved his hand to his wife, and took the dead corporal’s place, but not easily, for Measles, who was next man, was stepping into it, when Captain Dyer ordered him back.

“But there’s such a much better chance of dropping one of them mounted chaps, sir,” says Measles grumbling.

“Hold your tongue, sir, and go back to your own loophole,” says Captain Dyer; and the way that Measles kept on loading and firing, ramming down his cartridges viciously, and then taking long and careful aim, ah! and with good effect too, was a sight to see.

All the while we were expecting an assault, but none came, for the mutineers fell fast, and did not seem to dare to make a rush while we kept up such practice.

Then I had to go round and ask Lieutenant Leigh to send six more men to the gate, and to bring news of what was going on round the other sides.

I found the lieutenant standing at the window where I caught Chunder, and there was a man each at all the other four little windows which looked down at the outside—all the others, as I have said, looking in upon the court.

The lieutenant’s men had a shot now and then at any one who approached; but the mutineers seemed to have determined upon forcing the gate, and, so far as I could see, there was very little danger to fear from any other quarter.

I knew Lieutenant Leigh was not a coward, but he seemed very half-hearted over the defence, doing his duty but in a sullen sort of way; and of course that was because he wanted to take the lead now held by Captain Dyer; and perhaps it was misjudging him, but I’m afraid just at that time he’d have been very glad if a shot had dropped his rival, and he could have stepped into his place.

Captain Dyer’s plan to keep the rabble at bay till help could come, was of course quite right; and that night it was an understood thing, that another attempt should be made to send a messenger to Wallahbad, another of our corporals being selected for the dangerous mission.

The fighting was kept on, in an on-and-off way, till evening, we losing several men, but a good many falling on the other side, which made them more cautious, and not once did we have a chance of touching a man with the bayonet. Some of our men grumbled a little at this, saying that it was very hard to stand there hour after hour to be shot down; and could they have done as they liked, they’d have made a sally.

Then came the night, and a short consultation between the captain and Lieutenant Leigh. The mutineers had ceased firing at sundown, and we were in hopes that there would be a rest till daylight, but all the same the strictest watch was kept, and only half the men lay down at a time.

Half the night, though, had not passed, when a hand was laid upon my shoulder, and in an instant I was up, piece in hand, to find that it was Captain Dyer.

“Come here,” he said quietly; and following him into the room underneath where the women were placed, he told me to listen, and I did, to hear a low, grating, tearing noise, as of something scraping on stone. “That’s been going on,” he said, “for a good hour, and I can’t make it out, Smith.”

“Prisoners escaping,” I said quietly.

“But they are not so near as that. They were confined in the next room but one,” he said in a whisper.

“Broke through, then,” I said.

Then we went—Captain Dyer and I—quietly up on to the roof, answered the challenge, and then walked to the edge, where, leaning over, we could hear the dull grating noise once more; then a stone seemed to fall out on to the sandy way by the palace walls.

It was all plain enough: they had broken through from one room to another, where there was a window no bigger than a loophole, and they were widening this.

“Quick, here, sentry,” says the captain.

The next minute the sentry hurried up, and we had a man posted as nearly over the window as we could guess, and then I had my orders in a minute: “Take two men and the sentry at their door, rush in, and secure them at once. But if they have got out, join Sergeant Williams, and follow me to act as reserve, for I am going to make a sally by the gate to stop them from the outside.”

I roused Harry Lant and Measles, and they were with me in an instant. We passed a couple of sentries, and gave the countersign, and then mounted to the long stone passage which led to where the prisoners had been placed.

As we three privates neared the door, the sentry there challenged; but when we came up to him and listened, there was not a sound to be heard, neither had he heard anything, he said. The next minute the door was thrown open, and we found an empty room; but a hole in the wall shewed us which way the prisoners had gone.

We none of us much liked the idea of going through that hole to be taken at a disadvantage, but duty was duty, and running forward, I made a sharp thrust through with my piece in two or three directions; then I crept through, followed by Harry Lant, and found that room empty too; but they had not gone by the doorway which led into the women’s part, but enlarged the window, and dropped down, leaving a large opening—one that, if we had not detected it then, would no doubt have done nicely for the entrance of a strong party of enemies.

“Sentry here,” I said; and leaving the man at the window, followed by Harry Lant and Measles, I ran back, got down to the court-yard, crossed to where Sergeant Williams with half-a-dozen men waited our coming, and then we were passed through the gate, and went along at the double to where we could hear noise and shouting.

We had the narrow alley to go through—the one I have before mentioned as being between the place we had strengthened and the next building; and no sooner were we at the end, than we found we were none too soon, for there, in the dim starlight, we could see Captain Dyer and four men surrounded by a good score, howling and cutting at them like so many demons, and plainly to be seen by their white calico things.

“By your left, my lads, shoulder to shoulder—double,” says the sergeant.

Then we gave a cheer, and with hearts bounding with excitement down we rushed upon the scoundrels to give them their first taste of the bayonet, cutting Captain Dyer and two more men out, just as the other two went down.

It was as fierce a fight that as it was short; for we soon found the alarm spread, and enemies running up on all sides. It was bayonet-drill then, and well we shewed the practice, till we retired slowly to the entrance of the alley; but the pattering of feet and cries told that there were more coming to meet us that way; when, following Captain Dyer’s orders we retreated in good form in the other direction, so as to get round to the gate by the other alley, on the south side.

And now for the first time we gave them a volley, checking the advance for a few seconds, while we retreated loading, to turn again, and give them another volley, which checked them again; but only for a few seconds, when they came down upon us like a swarm of bees, right upon our bayonets; and as fast as half-a-dozen fell, half-a-dozen more were leaping upon the steel.

We kept our line, though, one and all, retiring in good order to the mouth of the second court, which ran down by the south side of the palace; when, as if maddened at the idea of losing us, a whole host of them came at us with a rush, breaking our line, and driving us anyhow, mixed up together, down the alley, which was dark as pitch; but not so dark but that we could make out a turban or a calico cloth, and those bayonets of ours were used to some purpose.

Half-a-dozen times over I heard the captain’s voice cheering us on, and shouting: “Gate, gate!” Then I saw the flash of his sword once, and managed to pin a fellow who was making at him, just as we got out at the other end with a fierce rush. Then I heard the captain shout, “Rally!” and saw him wave his sword; and then I don’t recollect any more, for it was one wild fierce scuffle—stab and thrust, in the midst of a surging, howling, maddened mob, forcing us towards the gateway.

I thought it was all over with us, when there came a cheer, and the gate was thrown open, a dozen men formed, and charged down, driving the niggers back like sheep; and then, somehow or another, we were cut out, and, under cover of the new-comers, reached the gate.

A ringing volley was then given into the thick of the mutineers as they came pouring on again; but the next moment all were safely inside, and the gate was thrust to and barred; and, panting and bleeding, we stood, six of us, trying to get our breath.

“This wouldn’t have happened,” says a voice, “if my advice had been taken. I wish the black scoundrels had been shot. Where’s Captain Dyer?”

There was no answer, and a dead chill fell on me as I seemed to realise that things had come now to a bad pass.

“Where’s Sergeant Williams?” said Lieutenant Leigh again; but it seemed to me that he spoke in a husky voice.

“Here!” said some one faintly, and, turning, there was the sergeant seated on the ground, and supporting himself against the breastwork.

“Any one know the other men who went out on this mad sally?” says the lieutenant.

“Where’s Harry Lant?” I says.

There was no answer here either, and this time it was my turn to speak in a queer husky voice as I said again: “Where’s Measles? I mean Sam Bigley.”

“He’s gone too, poor chap,” says some one.

“No, he ain’t gone neither,” says a voice behind me, and, turning, there was Measles tying a handkerchief round his head, muttering the while about some black devil. “I ain’t gone, nor I ain’t much hurt,” he growled; “and if I don’t take it out of some on ’em for this chop o’ the head, it’s a rum un; and that’s all I’ve got to say.”

“Load!” says Lieutenant Leigh shortly; and we loaded again, and then fired two or three volleys at the niggers as they came up towards the gate once more; when some one calls out: “Ain’t none of us going to make a sally party, and bring in the captain?”

“Silence there, in the ranks!” shouts Lieutenant Leigh; and though it had a bad sound coming from him as it did, and situated as he was, no one knew better than I did how that it would have been utter madness to have gone out again; for even if he were alive, instead of bringing in Captain Dyer, now that the whole mob was roused, we should have all been cut to pieces.

It was as if in answer to the lieutenant’s order that silence seemed to fall then, both inside and outside the palace—a silence that was only broken now and then by the half-smothered groan of some poor fellow who had been hurt in the sortie—though the way in which those men of ours did bear wounds, some of them even that were positively awful, was a something worth a line in history.

Yes, there was a silence fell upon the place for the rest of that night, and I remember thinking of the wounds that had been made in two poor hearts by that bad hour’s work; and I can say now, faithful and true, that there was not a selfish thought in my heart as I remembered Lizzy Green, any more than there was when Miss Ross came uppermost in my mind, for I knew well enough that they must have soon known of the disaster that had befallen our little party.