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

Story 1—Chapter XVII.

I don’t know how time passed then; but the next thing I remember is listening to the firing for a while, and then, leaning on Lizzy, being helped to the women’s quarters, where, in spite of all they could do, those children would keep escaping from their mother to get to Harry Lant, who lay close to me, poor fellow, smiling and looking happy whenever they came near him; and I smiled too, and felt as happy when Lizzy, after tending me with Mrs Bantem as long as was necessary, got bathing Harry’s forehead with water and moistening his lips.

“Poor fellow,” I thought, “it will do him good;” and I lay watching Lizzy moving about afterwards, and then I think I must have gone to sleep, or have fallen into a dull numb state, from which I was wakened by a voice I knew; and opening my eyes, I saw that Miss Ross, pale and scared-looking, was on her knees by the side of Harry Lant, and that Captain Dyer was there.

“Not one word of welcome,” he said, with a strange drawn look on his face, which deepened as Miss Ross rose and went close to him.

“Yes,” she said; “thank God you have returned safe.—No, no; don’t touch me,” she cried hoarsely. “Here, take me away—lead me out of this!” she said, for at that moment Lieutenant Leigh came quietly in, and she put her hands in his. “Take me out,” she said again hoarsely; and then like some one muttering in a dream: “Take me away—take me away.”

I said that drawn strange look on Captain Dyer’s face seemed to deepen as he stood watching whilst those two went out together; then he passed his hand over his eyes, as if to ask himself whether it was a dream; and then, with a groan, he leaned one hand against the wall, feeling his way out from the room, and something seemed to hinder me from calling out to him, and telling him what I knew. For I was reasoning with myself what ought I to do? and then, sick and faint I seemed to sleep again.

But this time I was waked up by a loud shrieking, and a rush of feet, and, confused as I was, I knew what it meant: the hole where the blacks escaped—Chunder and his party—had not been properly guarded, and the mutineers had climbed up and made an entrance.

The alarm spread fast enough, but not quick enough to save life; for, with a howl, half-a-dozen sepoys, with their scarlet and white coatees open, dashed in with fixed bayonets, and two women were borne to the ground in an instant, while a couple of wretches made a dash at those two children—Little Cock Robin and Jenny Wren, as we called them—standing there, wondering like, by Harry Lant’s bed on the floor, whilst the golden light of the setting sun filled the room, and lit up their little angels’ faces.

But with a howl, such as I never heard woman give, Mrs Bantem rushed between them and the children, caught a bayonet in each hand, and held them together, letting them pass under one arm, then with a spring forward she threw those great arms of hers round the black fellows’ necks as they hung together, and held them in such a hug as they never suffered from before.

The next moment they were all rolling together on the floor; but that incident saved the lives of those poor children, for there came a cheer now, and Measles and a dozen more were led in by Lieutenant Leigh, and—

There, I am telling you too many horrors. They beat them back step by step, at the point of the bayonet; and a fierce struggle it was, a long fight kept up from room to room, for our men were fierce now as the mutineers, and it was a genuine death-struggle; and the broken window being guarded, not a man of about a dozen mutineers who gained entrance lived to go back and relate their want of success.

And can you wonder, when two of those who fought had found their wives bayoneted Grainger was one of them and when the fight was over, during which, raging like a demon, he had bayoneted four men, the poor fellow sat down by his dead wife, took her head first in his lap, then to his breast, and rocked himself to and fro, crying like a child, till there was a bugle-call in the court-yard, when he laid her gently in a corner, carrying her like as if she had been a child, kneeled down, and said ‘Our Father’ right through by her side, kissed her lips two or three times, and then covered her face with a bit of an old red handkerchief; and him all the while covered with blood and dust and black of powder. Then, poor fellow, he got up and took his gun, and went out on the tips of his toes, lest he should wake her who would wake no more in this world.

Perhaps it was weakness, I don’t know, but my eyes were very wet just then, and a soft little hand was laid on my breast, and Lizzy’s head leant over me, and her tears, too, fell very fast on my hot and fevered face.

I felt that I should die, not then, perhaps, but before very long, for I knew that my arm was so shattered that it ought to be amputated just below the elbow, while for want of surgical assistance it would mortify; but somehow I felt very happy just then, and my state did not give me much pain, only that I wanted to have been up and doing; and at last Lizzy helping me, I got up, my arm being bandaged—and in a sling, to find that I could walk about a little; and I made my way down into the court-yard, where I got near to Captain Dyer, who, better now, and able to limp about, was talking with Lieutenant Leigh, both officers now, and forgetful apparently of all but the present crisis.

“What wounded are there?” said Captain Dyer, as I walked slowly up.

“Nearly every man to some extent,” said Lieutenant Leigh; “but this man and Lant are the worst.”

“The place ought to be evacuated,” said Captain Dyer; “it is impossible to hold it another day.”

“We might hold out another day,” said Lieutenant Leigh, “but not longer. Why not retreat under cover of the night?”

“It seems the only thing left,” said Captain Dyer. “We might perhaps get to some hiding-place or other before our absence was discovered; but the gate and that back window will be watched of course: how are we to get away with two severely wounded men, the women, and children?”

“That must be planned,” said Lieutenant Leigh; and then the watch was set for the night, as far as could be done, and another time of darkness set in.

It was that which puzzled me, why a good bold attack was not made by night; why, the place must have been carried again and again; but no, we were left each night entirely at rest, and the attacks by day were clumsy and bad. There was no support; every man fought for himself and after his own fashion, and I suppose that every man did look upon himself as an officer, and resented all discipline. At all events, it was our salvation, though at this time it seemed to me that the end must be coming on the next day, and I remember thinking, that if it did come to the end, I should like to keep one cartridge left in my pouch.

Then my mind went off wandering in a misty way upon a plan to get away by night, and I tried to make one, taking into consideration, that the quarters on the north side of us now, and only separated by ten feet of alley, were in the hands of the mutineers, who camped in them, the same being the case in the quarters on the south side, separated again by the ten feet of alley through which we returned when Captain Dyer and Harry Lant were taken. While on the east was the market plain or square, and on the west a wilderness of open country with huts and sheds. I felt, do you know, that a good plan of escape at this time was just what I ought to make, every one else being busy with duty, and me not able to either fight or stand sentry, so I worked on hard at it that night, trying to be useful in some way; and after a fashion, I worked one out.

But I have not told you what I meant to do with that last cartridge in my pouch; I meant that to be pressed to my lips once before I contrived with one hand to load my rifle, and then if the worst came to the very worst, and when I had waited to the last to see if help would come, then, when it seemed that there was no hope, I meant to do what I told myself it would be my duty, as a man and a soldier, to do, if I loved Lizzy Green—do what more than one man did, during the mutiny, by the woman for whom he had been shedding his heart’s best blood; and in the dead of that night I did load that gun, after kissing the bullet; and a deal of pain that gave me, mental as well as bodily, but I don’t think that I need to tell you what that last cartridge was for.