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

Story 1—Chapter XX.

I could just make out the great looming figure of an elephant, as we marched slowly on, when I was startled by a low sort of wimmering noise, followed directly after by a grunting on my right.

“What’s that?” says Captain Dyer. Then in an instant: “Threes right!” he cried to the men, and they faced round, so as to cover the women and children.

There was no further alarm, though, and all seemed as silent as could be; so once more under orders, the march was continued till we were out from amidst the houses, and travelling over the sandy dusty plain; when there was another alarm—we were followed—so said the men in the rear; and sure enough, looming up against the darkness—a mass of darkness itself—we could see an elephant.

The men were faced round, and a score of pieces were directed at the great brute; but when within three or four yards, it was plain enough that it was alone, and Measles says aloud: “Blest if it isn’t old Nabob!”

The old elephant it was; and passing through, he went up to where Harry Lant was calling him softly, knelt down to order; and then climbing and clinging on as well as they could, the great brute’s back was covered with women and children—the broad shallow howdah pretty well taking the lot—while the great beast seemed as pleased as possible to get back amongst his old friends, rubbing his trunk first on this one and then on that; and thankful we were for the help he gave us, for how else we should have got over that desert plain I can’t say.

I should think we had gone a good eight miles, when Measles ranges up close aside me as I walked by the elephant, looking up at the riding-party from time to time, and trying to make out which was Lizzy, and pitying them too, for the children were fretful, and it was a sad time they had of it up there.

“They’ll have it hot there some time to-morrow morning, Ike,” says Measles to me.

“Where?” I said faintly, for I was nearly done for, and I did not take much interest in anything.

“Begumbagh,” he says. And when I asked him what he meant he said: “How much powder do you think there was down in that vault?”

“A good five hundredweight,” I said.

“All that,” says Measles. “They’ll have it hot, some of ’em.”

“What do you mean?” I said, getting interested.

“Oh, nothing pertickler, mate; only been arranging for promotion for some of ’em, since I can’t get it myself I took the head out of one keg, and emptied it by the others, and made a train to where I’ve set a candle burning; and when that candle’s burnt out, it will set light to another; and that will have to burn out, when some wooden chips will catch fire, and they’ll blaze a good deal, and one way and another there’ll be enough to burn to last till, say, eight o’clock this morning, by which time the beauties will have got into the place; and then let ’em look out for promotion, for there’s enough powder there to startle two or three of ’em.”

“That’s what you wanted the matches for, then?” I said.

“That’s it, matey; and what do you think of it, eh?”

“You’ve done wrong, my lad, I’m afraid, and—” I didn’t finish; for just then, behind us, there was a bright flashing light, followed by a dull thud; and looking back, we could see what looked like a little fire-work; and though plenty was said just then, no one but Measles and I knew what that flash meant.

“That’s a dead failure,” growled Measles to me as we went on. “I believe I am the unluckiest beggar that ever breathed. That oughtn’t to have gone off for hours yet, and now it’ll let ’em know we’re gone, and that’s all.”

I did not say anything, for I was too weak and troubled, and how I kept up as I did, I don’t know to this day.

The morning broke at last with the knowledge that we were three miles to the right of the tank Captain Dyer had meant to reach. For a few minutes, in a quiet stern way, he consulted with Lieutenant Leigh as to what should be done—whether to turn off to the tank, or to press on. The help received from old Nabob made them determine to press on; and after a short rest, and a better arrangement for those who were to ride on the elephant, we went on in the direction of Wallahbad, I, for my part, never expecting to reach it alive. Many a look back did I give to see if we were followed, but it was not until we were within sight of a temple by the roadside, that there was the news spread that there were enemies behind; and though I was ready enough to lay the blame upon Measles, all the same they must have soon found out our flight, and pursued us.

The sun could never have been hotter nor the ground more parched and dusty than it was now. We were struggling on to reach that temple, which we might perhaps be able to hold till help came; for two men had been sent on to get assistance; though of all those sent, one and all were waylaid and cut down, long before they could reach our friends. But we did not know that then; and in the full hope that before long we should have help, we crawled on to the temple, but only to find it so wide and exposed, that in our weak condition it was little better than being in the open. There was a building, though, about a hundred yards farther on, and towards that we made, every one rousing himself for what was really the last struggle, for not a quarter of a mile off, there was a yelling crowd of bloodhounds in eager pursuit.

It was with a panting rash that we reached the place, to find it must have been the house of the collector of the district; but it was all one wrack and ruin—glass, tables, and chairs smashed; hangings and carpets burnt or ragged to pieces, and in one or two places, blood-stains on the white floor, told a terrible tale of what had taken place not many days before.

The elephant stopped and knelt, and the women and children were passed in as quickly as possible; but before all could be got in, about a dozen of the foremost mutineers were down upon us with a savage rush—I say us, but I was helpless, and only looking on from inside—two of our fellows were cut down in an instant, and the others borne back by the fierce charge. Then followed a desperate struggle, ending in the black fellows dragging off Miss Ross and one of the children that she held.

They had not gone many yards, though, before Captain Dyer and Lieutenant Leigh seemed to see the peril together, and shouting to our men, sword in hand they went at the black fiends, well supported by half-a-dozen of our poor wounded chaps.

There was a rush, and a cloud of dust; then there was the noise of yells and cheers, and Captain Dyer shouting to the men to come on; and it all acted like something intoxicating on me, for, catching up a musket, I was making for the door, when I felt an arm holding me back, and I did what I must have done as soon as I got outside—reeled and fainted dead away.