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

Story 1—Chapter XIII.

Whatever those poor women suffered, they took care it should not be seen by us men, and indeed we had little time to think of them the next day. We had given ourselves the task to protect them, and we were fighting hard to do it, and that was all we could do then; for the enemy gave us but little peace; not making any savage attack, but harassing us in a cruel way, every man acting like for himself, and all the discipline the sepoys had learned seeming to be forgotten.

As for Lieutenant Leigh, he looked cold and stern, but there was no flinching with him now: he was in command, and he shewed it; and though I never liked the man, I must say that he shewed himself now a brave and clever officer; and but for his skilful arrangement of the few men under his charge, that place would have fallen half-a-dozen times over.

We had taken no prisoners, so that there was no chance of talking of exchange; though I believe to a man all thought that the captain and files missing from our company were dead.

The women now lent us their help, bringing down spare muskets and cartridges, loading too for us; so that when the mutineers made an attack, we were able to keep up a much sharper fire than we should have done under other circumstances.

It was about the middle of the afternoon, when, hot and exhausted, we were firing away, for the bullets were coming thick and fast through the gateway, flying across the yard, and making a passage in that direction nearly certain death, when I felt a strange choking feeling, for Measles says to me all at once: “Look there, Ike.”

I looked and I could hardly believe it, and rubbed my eyes, for just in the thickest of the firing there was the sound of merry laughter, and those two children of the colonel’s came toddling out, right across the line of fire, turned back to look up at some one calling to them from the window, and then stood still, laughing and clapping their hands.

I don’t know how it was, I only know that it wasn’t to look brave, but, dropping my piece, I rushed to catch them, just at the same moment as did Miss Ross and Lizzy Green; while, directly after, Lieutenant Leigh rushed from where he was, caught Miss Ross round the waist, and dragged her away, as I did Lizzy and the children.

How it was that we were none of us hit, seems strange to me, for all the time the bullets were pattering on the wall beyond us. I only know I turned sick and faint as I just said to Lizzy: “Thank God for that!” and she led off the children; Miss Ross shrinking from Lieutenant Leigh with a strange mistrustful look, as if she were afraid of him; and the next minute they were under cover, and we were back at our posts.

“Poor bairns!” says Measles to me, “I ain’t often glad of anything, Ike Smith, but I am glad they ain’t hurt. Now my soul seemed to run and help them myself, but my legs seemed as if they couldn’t move. You need not believe it without you like,” he added in his sour way.

“But I do believe it, old fellow,” I said warmly, as I held out my hand. “Chaff’s chaff, but you never knew me make light of a good act done by a true-hearted comrade.”

“All right,” says Measles gruffly. “Now, see me pot that sowar.—Missed him, I declare!” he exclaimed, as soon as he had fired. “These pieces ain’t true. No! hit him! He’s down! That’s one bairn-killer the less.”

“Sam,” I said just then, “what’s that coming up between the huts yonder?”

“Looks like a wagin,” says Measles. “’Tis a wagin, ain’t it?”

“No,” I said, feeling that miserable I didn’t know what to do; “it isn’t a wagon, Sam; but— Why, there’s another. A couple of field-pieces!”

“Nine-pounders, by all that’s unlucky,” said Measles, slapping his thigh. “Then I tell you what it is, Ike Smith—it’s about time we said our prayers.”

I didn’t answer, for the words would not come; but it was what had always been my dread, and it seemed now that the end was very near.

Troubles were coming upon us thick; for being relieved a short time after, to go and have some tea that Mrs Bantem had got ready, I saw something that made me stop short, and think of where we should be if the water-supply was run out, for though we had the chatties down below in the vault under the north end, we wanted what there was in the tank, while there was Nabob, the great elephant, drawing it up in his trunk, and cooling himself by squirting it all over his back!

I went to Lieutenant Leigh, and pointed it out to him; and the great beast was led away; when, there being nothing else for it, we opened a way through our breastwork, watched an opportunity, threw open the gate, and he marched out right straight in amongst the mutineers, who cheered loudly, after their fashion, as he came up to them.

There was no more firing that night, and taking it in turns, we, some of us, had a sleep, I among the rest, all dressed as I was, and with my gun in my hand, ready for use at a moment’s notice; and I remember thinking what a deal depended on the sentries, and how thoroughly our lives were in their hands; and then my next thought was how was it possible for it to be morning, for I had only seemed to close my eyes, and then open them again on the light of day.

But morning it was; and with a dull, dead feeling of misery upon me, I got up and gave myself a shake, ran the ramrod down my piece, to see that it was charged all right, looked to the cap, and then once more prepared for the continuation of the struggle, low-spirited and disheartened, but thankful for the bit of refreshing rest I had had.

A couple of hours passed, and there was no movement on the part of the enemy; the ladies never stirred, but we could hear the children laughing and playing about, and how one did seem to envy the little light-hearted, thoughtless things! But my thoughts were soon turned into another direction, for Lieutenant Leigh ordered me up into one of the rooms commanding the gateway, and looking out on the square where the guns were standing, and came up with me himself.

“You’ll have a good look-out from here, Smith,” he said; “and being a good shot—”

He didn’t say any more, for he was, like me, taken up with the movement in the square—a lot of the mutineers running the two guns forward in front of the gate, and then closing round them, so that we could not see what was going on; but we knew well enough that they were charging them, and there seemed nothing for it but to let them fire, unless by a bold sally we could get out and spike them.

Just then, Lieutenant Leigh looked at me, and I at him, when, touching my cap in salute, I said, “Two good nails, sir, and a tap on each would do it.”

“Yes, Smith,” he said grimly; “but who is to drive those two nails home?”

I didn’t answer him for a minute, I should think, for I was thinking over matters, about life, and about Lizzy, and now that Harry Lant was gone, it seemed to me that there might be a chance for me; but still duty was duty, and if men could not in such a desperate time as this risk something, what was the good of soldiers?

“I’ll drive ’em home, sir,” I says then quietly, “or they shall drive me home!”

He looked at me for an instant, and then nodded.

“I’ll get the men ready,” he says; “it’s our only chance; and with a bold dash we may do it. I’ll see to the armourer’s chest for hammers and spikes. I’ll spike one, Smith, and you the other; but, mind, if I fail, help me, as I will you, if you fail; and God help us! Keep a sharp look-out till I come back.”

He left the room, and I heard a little movement below, as of the men getting ready for the sally; and all the while I stood watching the crowd in front, which now began hurrahing and cheering; and there was a motion which shewed that the guns were being run in nearer, till they stopped about fifty yards from the gate.

“What makes him so long?” I thought, trembling with excitement; “another minute, perhaps, and the gate will be battered down, and that mob rushing in.”

Then I thought that we ought all who escaped from the sortie, in case of failure, to be ready to take to the rooms adjoining where I was, which would be our last hope; and then I almost dropped my piece, my mouth grew dry, and I seemed choked, for, with a loud howl, the crowd opened out, and I saw a sight that made my blood run cold—those two nine-pounders standing with a man by each breech, smoking linstock in hand; while bound, with their backs against the muzzles, and their white faces towards us, were Captain Dyer and Harry Lant!

One spark—one touch of the linstock on the breech—and those two brave fellows’ bodies would be blown to atoms; and, as I expected that every moment such would be the case, my knees knocked together; but the next moment I was down on those shaking knees, my piece made ready, and a good aim taken, so that I could have dropped one of the gunners before he was able to fire.

I hesitated for a moment before I made up my mind which to try and save, and the thought of Lizzy Green came in my mind, and I said to myself: “I love her too well to give her pain,” when, giving up Captain Dyer, I aimed at the gunner by poor Harry Lant.

“Don’t fire,” said a voice just then, and, turning, there was Lieutenant Leigh. “The black-hearted wretches!” he muttered. “But we are all ready; though now, if we start, it will be the signal for the death of those two.—But what does this mean?”

What made him say that, was a chief all in shawls, who rode forward and shouted out in good English, that they gave us one hour to surrender; but, at the end of that time, if we had not marched out without arms, they would blow their prisoners away from the mouth of the guns.

Then, for fear we had not heard it, he spurred his horse up to within ten yards of the gate, and shouted it out again, so that every one could hear it through the place; and, though I could have sent a bullet through and through him, I could not help admiring the bold daring fellow, riding up right to the muzzles of our pieces.

But all the admiration I felt was gone the next moment, as I thought of the cruelties practised, and of those bound there to those gun-muzzles.

There was nothing said for a few minutes, for I expected the lieutenant to speak; but as he did not, I turned to him and said: “If all was ready, sir, I could drop one gunner; and I’d trust Measles—Sam Bigley—to drop the other, when a bold dash might do it. You see they’ve retired a good thirty yards, and we should only have twenty more to run than they; while the surprise would give us that start. A good sharp jack-knife would set the prisoners free, and a covering-party would perhaps check the pursuit while we got in.”

“We shall have to try it, Smith,” he said, his breath coming thick and fast with excitement; and then he seemed to turn white, for Miss Ross and Lizzy came into the room.