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

Story 1—Chapter XVI.

I daresay you who read this don’t know what the sensation is of having one arm-bone shivered, and the dead limb swinging helplessly about in your sleeve, whilst a great miserable sensation comes over you that you are of no more use—that you are only a cracked pitcher, fit to hold water no more, but only to be broken up to mend the road with. There were all those women and children wanting my help, and the help of hundreds more such as me, and instead of being of use, I knew that I must be a miserable burden to everybody, and only in the way.

Now, whether man—as some of the great philosophers say—did gradually get developed from the beast of the field, I’m not going to pretend to know; but what I do know is this—that, leave him in his natural state, and when he, for some reason or another, forgets all that has been taught him, he seems very much like an animal, and acts as such.

It was something after this fashion with me then, for feeling like a poor brute out of a herd that has been shot by the hunters, I did just the same as it would—crawled away to find a place where I might hide myself and lie down and die.

You’ll laugh, I daresay, when I tell you my sensations just then, and I’m ready to laugh at them now myself; for, in the midst of my pain and suffering, it came to me that I felt precisely as I did when I was a young shaver of ten years old. One Sunday afternoon, when everybody but mother and me had gone to church, and she had fallen asleep, I got father’s big clay-pipe, rammed it full of tobacco out of his great lead box, and then took it into the back kitchen, feeling as grand as a churchwarden, and set to and smoked it till I turned giddy and faint, and the place seemed swimming about me.

Now, that was just how I felt when I crawled about in that place, trying not to meet anybody, lest the women should see me all covered with blood; and at last I got, as I thought, into a room where I should be all alone.

I say I crawled; and that’s what I did do, on one hand and my knees, the fingers of my broken arm trailing over the white marble floor, with each finger making a horrible red mark, when all at once I stopped, drew myself up stiffly, and leaned trembling and dizzy up against the wall, trying hard not to faint. For I found that I wasn’t alone, and that in place of getting away—crawling into some hole to lie down and die, I was that low-spirited and weak—I had come to a place where one of the women was, for there, upon her knees, was Lizzy Green, sobbing and crying, and tossing her hands about in the agony of her poor heart.

I was misty, and faint, and confused, you know; but perhaps it was something like instinct made me crawl to Lizzy’s favourite place, for it was not intended. She did not see me, for her back was my way; and I did not mean her to know I was there; for in spite of my giddiness, I seemed to feel that she had learned all the news about our sortie, and that she was crying about poor Harry Lant.

“And he deserves to be cried for, poor chap,” I said to myself, for I forgot all about my own pains then; but all the same something very dark and bitter came over me, as I wished that she had been crying instead for poor me.

“But then he was always so bright, and merry, and clever,” I thought, “and just the man who would make his way with a woman; while I— Please God, let me die now!” I whispered to myself directly after, “for I’m only a poor, broken, helpless object, in everybody’s way.”

It seemed just then as if the hot weak tears that came running out of my eyes made me clearer, and better able to hear all that the sobbing girl said, as I leaned closer and closer to the wall; while, as to the sharp pain every word she said gave me, the dull dead aching of my broken arm was nothing.

“Why—why did they let him go?” the poor girl sobbed, “as if there were not enough to be killed without him; and him so brave, and stout, and handsome, and true. My poor heart’s broken. What shall I do?”

Then she sobbed again; and I remember thinking that unless help soon came, if poor Harry Lant died of his wounds, she would soon go to join him in that land where there was to be no more suffering and pain.

Then I listened, for she was speaking again.

“If I could only have died for him, or been with, or—Oh, what have I done, that I should be made to suffer so?”

I remember wondering whether she was suffering more then than I was; for, in spite of my jealous despairing feeling, there was something of sorrow mixed up with it for her.

For she had always seemed to like poor Harry’s merry ways, when I never could get a smile from her; and she’d go and sit with Mrs Bantem for long enough when Harry was there, while if by chance I went, it seemed like the signal for her to get up, and say her young lady wanted her, when most likely Harry would walk back with her; and I went and told it all to my pipe.

“If he’d only known how I’d loved him;” she sobbed again, “he’d have said one kind word to me before he went, have kissed me, perhaps, once; but no, not a look nor a sign! Oh! Isaac, Isaac! I shall never see you more!”

What—what? What was it choking me? What was it that sent what blood I had left gushing up in a dizzy cloud over my eyes, so that I could only gasp out once the one word “Lizzy!” as I started to my feet, and stood staring at her in a helpless, half-blind fashion; for it seemed as though I had been mistaken, and that it was possible after all that she had been crying for me, believing me to be dead; but the next moment I was shrinking away from her, hiding my wounded face with my hand for fear she should see it, for leaping up, hot and flush-cheeked, and with those eyes of hers flashing at me, she was at my side with a bound.

“You cowardly, cruel bad fellow!” she half-shrieked; “how dare you stand in that mean deceitful way, listening to my words! Oh, that I should be such a weak fool, with a stupid, blabbing, chattering tongue, to keep on kneeling and crying there, telling lies, every one of them, and— Get away with you!”

I think it was a smile that was on my face then, as she gave me a fierce thrust on the wounded arm, when I staggered towards her. I know the pain was as if a red-hot hand had grasped me; but I smiled all the same, and then, as I fell, I heard her cry out two words, in a wild, agonised way, that went right to my heart, making it leap before all was blank; for I knew that those words meant that, in spite of all my doubts, I was loved.

“O Isaac!” she cried, in a wild frightened way, and then, as I said, all was blank and dark for I don’t know how long; but I seemed to wake up to what was to me then like heaven, for my head was resting on Lizzy’s breast, and, half-mad with fear and grief, she was kissing my pale face again and again.

“Try—try to forgive me for being so cruel, so unfeeling,” she sobbed; and then for a moment, as she saw me smile, she was about to fly out again, fierce-like, at having betrayed herself, and let me know how she loved me. Even in those few minutes I could read it all: how her passionate little heart was fighting against discipline, and how angry she was with herself; but I saw it all pass away directly, as she looked down at my bleeding face, and eagerly asked me if I was very much hurt.

I tried to answer, but I could not; for the same deathly feeling of sickness came on again, and I saw nothing.

I suppose, though, it only lasted a few minutes, for I woke like again to hear a panting hard breathing, as of some one using great exertion, and then I felt that I was being moved; but, for the life of me, for a few moments I could not make it out, till I heard the faint buzz of voices, when I found that Lizzy, the little fierce girl, who seemed to be as nothing beside me, was actually, in her excitement, carrying me to where she could get help, struggling along panting, a few feet at a time, beneath my weight, and me too helpless and weak to say a word.

“Good heavens! look!” I heard some one say the next moment, and I think it was Miss Ross; but it was some time before I came to myself again enough to find that I was lying with a rolled-up cloak under my head, and Lizzy bathing my lips from time to time, with what I afterwards learned was her share of the water.

But what struck me most now was the way in which she was altered: her sharp, angry way was gone, and she seemed to be changed into a soft gentle woman, without a single flirty way or thought, but always ready to flinch and shrink away until she saw how it troubled me, when she’d creep back to kneel down by my side, and put her little hand in mine; when, to make the same comparison again that I made before, I tell you that there, in that besieged and ruined place, half-starved, choked with thirst, and surrounded by a set of demons thirsting for our blood—I tell you that it seemed to me like being in heaven.