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

Story 1—Chapter XVIII.

I think by this time you pretty well understand the situation of our palace, and how our stronghold was on the north side, close to which was the gate, so hardly fought for: if you don’t, I’m afraid it is my fault, and not yours.

At all events, being at liberty, I went over it here and there, and from floor to roof, as I tried to make out which would be the best way for trying to escape; but somehow I couldn’t see it then. To go out from the gate was impossible; and the same related to the broken-out window, as both places were thoroughly watched.

As for the other windows about the place, they were such slips, that without they were widened, any escaping by them was impossible. To have let ourselves down, one by one, from the flat roof by a rope, might have done, but it was a clumsy unsuitable way, with all those children and women, so I gave that up, and then sat down as I was by a little window looking out on to the north alley.

Wearied out at last, I suppose that a sort of stupor came over me, from which I did not wake till morning, to find myself suffering a dull numb pain; but when I opened my eyes I forgot that, because of her who was kneeling beside me, driving away the flies that were buzzing about, as if they knew that I was soon to be for them to rest on, without a hand to sweep them away.

At last, though, as I lay there wondering what could be done to save us, the thought came all at once, and struggling to my feet, I held Lizzy to my heart a minute, and then went off to find Captain Dyer.

It quite took me aback to see his poor haggard face, and the way in which he took the trouble, for it was plain enough to see how he was cut to the heart by Miss Ross’s treatment of him. But for all that, he was the officer and the gentleman; he had his duty to do, and he was doing it; so that, if even now, after losing so many men, and with so many more half disabled, if the enemy had made a bold assault now, they would have won the place dearly, though win it they must.

That did not seem their way, though they wanted the place for the sake of the great store of arms and ammunition it contained, but all the same they wanted to buy it cheap.

I found Captain Dyer ready enough to listen to my plan, though he shook his head, and said it was desperate. But after a little thought, he said: “There are some hours now between this and night—help may come before then; if not, Smith, we must try it. My hands are full, so I leave the preparations with you: let every one carry food and a bottle of water—nothing more—all we want now is to save life.”

I promised I’d see to it; and I went and spoke cheerfully to the women, but Mrs Maine seemed quite hysterical. Miss Ross listened to what I had to say in a hard strange way; and really, if it had not been for Mrs Bantem putting a shoulder first to one wheel and then the other, nothing would have been done.

The next person I went to was Measles, who, during a cessation of the firing, was sitting, black and blood-smeared, with his head tied up, wiping out his gun with pieces he tore off the sleeves of his shirt.

“Well, Ike, mate,” he says, “not dead yet, you see. If we get out of this, I mean to have my promotion; but I don’t see how we’re going to manage it. What bothers me most is, letting these black fellows get all this powder and stuff we have here. Blow my rags if we shall ever use it all! I’ve been firing away till my old Bess has been so hot that I’ve been afraid to charge her; and I’ll swear I’ve used twice as many cartridges as any other man. But I say, Ike, old fellow, do you think it’s wrong to pot these niggers?”

“No,” I said—“not in a case like this.”

“Glad of it,” he says sincerely; “because, do you know, old man, I’ve polished off such a thundering lot, that, I’ve got to be quite narvous about getting killed myself. Only think having forty or fifty black-looking beggars rising up against you in kingdom come, and pointing at you, and saying: ‘That’s the chap as shot me!’”

“I don’t think any soldier, acting under orders, who does his duty in defence of women and children, need fear to lie down and die,” I said.

I never saw Measles look soft but that once, as, laying down his ramrod, he took my hand in his, and looked in my face for a bit; then he shook my hand softly, and nodded his head several times.

“How’s Harry Lant?” he says at last.

“Very bad,” I said.

“Poor old chap. But tell him I’ve paid some of the beggars out for it. Mind you tell him—it’ll make him feel comfortable like, and ease his mind.”

I nodded, and then told him about the plan.

“Well,” he said, as he slowly and thoughtfully polished his gun-barrel, “it might do, and it mightn’t. Seems a rum dodge; but, anyhow, we might try.”

“I shall want you to help make the bridge,” I says.

“All right, matey; but I don’t, somehow, like leaving the beggars all that ammunition;” and then he loaded his piece very thoughtfully, but only to rouse up directly after, for the mutineers began firing again; and Captain Dyer giving the order, our men replied swift and fast at every black face that shewed itself for an instant.

That was a day: hot, so that everything you went near seemed burning. The walls even sent forth a heat of their own; and if it hadn’t been for the chatties down below, we should have had to give up, for the tank was now completely dried, and the flies buzzing about its mud-caked bottom. But the women went round from man to man with water and biscuit so that no one left his post, and every time the black scoundrels tried to make a lodgment near the gate, half were shot down, and the rest glad enough to get back into shelter.

Towards that weary slow-coming evening, though, after we had beaten them back—or, rather, after my brave comrades had beaten them back half a score of times—I saw that something was up; and as soon as I saw what that something was, I knew that it was all over, for our men were too much cut up and disheartened for any more gallant sorties.

I’ve not said any more about the guns, only that we spiked them, and left them standing in the market plain, about fifty yards from the gates. I may tell you now, though, that the next morning they were gone, and we forgot all about them till the night I’m telling you of, when they were dragged out again, with a lot of noise and shouting, from a building in the far corner of the square.

We didn’t want telling what that meant.

It was plain enough to all of us that the scoundrels had drilled out the touch-holes again, and that during the night they would be planted, and the first discharge would drive down all our defences, and leave us open to a rush.

“We must try your plan, Smith,” says Captain Dyer with a quiet stern look. “It is time to evacuate the place now.”

Then he knelt down and took a look at the guns with his glass, and I knew he must have been thinking of how he stood tied to the muzzle of one of them, for he gave a sort of shudder as he closed his glass with a snap.

Just then, Miss Ross came round with Lizzy and Mrs Bantem, with wine and water, and I saw a sort of quiet triumph in Lieutenant Leigh’s face, as, avoiding Captain Dyer, Miss Ross went up to him, as he half-beckoned to her, and stood by him like a slave, giving him bottle and glass, and then standing by his side with her eyes fixed and strange-looking; while, though he fought against it bravely, and tried to be unmoved, Captain Dyer could not bear it, but walked away.

I was just then drinking some water given me by Lizzy, whose pale troubled little face looked up so lovingly in mine that I felt half-ashamed for me, a poor private, to be so happy—for I forgot my wounds then—while my captain was in pain and suffering. And then it was that it struck me that Captain Dyer was just in that state in which men feel despairing, and go and do desperate things. I felt that I ought before now to have told him all about what I had heard, but I was in hopes that things would right themselves, and always came to the conclusion that it was Miss Ross’s duty to have given the captain some explanation of her treatment; anyhow, it did not seem to be mine; but when I saw the poor smitten fellow go off like he did, I followed him softly till I came up with him, my heart beating the while with a curious sense of fear.

There was nothing to fear, though: he had only gone up to the root and when I came up with him he was evidently calculating about our escape, for he finished off by pulling out his telescope, and looking right across the plain, towards where there was a tank and a small station.

“I think that ought to be our way, Smith,” he said. “We could stay there for half an hour’s rest, and then on again towards Wallahbad, sending a couple of the stoutest men on for help. By the way, we’ll try and start a man off to-night, as soon as it’s dark. Who will you have to help you?”

“I should like to have Bigley, sir,” I said.

“Will one be sufficient?”

“Quite, sir,” I said; for I thought Measles and I could manage it between us.

Half an hour after, Measles was busy at work, fetching up muskets, with bayonets fixed, from down in the store, and laying them in order on the flat roof; taking care the while to keep out of sight; and I went to the room where the women were, under Mrs Bantem’s management, getting ready for what was to come, for they had been told that we might leave the place all at once.