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

Story 1—Chapter XXI.

It was a couple of hours after when I came to, and became sufficiently sensible to know that I was lying with my head in Lizzy’s lap, and Harry Lant close beside me. It was very dim, and the heat seemed stifling, so that I asked Lizzy where we were, and she told me in the cellar of the house—a large wide vault, where the women, children, and wounded had been placed for safety, while the noise and firing above told of what was taking place.

I was going to ask about Miss Ross, but just then I caught sight of her trying to support her sister, and to keep the children quiet.

As I got more used to the gloom, I made out that there was a small iron grating on one side, through which came what little light and air we got; on the other, a flight of stone steps leading up to where the struggle was going on. There was a strong wooden door at the top of this, and twice that door was opened for a wounded man to be brought down; when, coolly as if she were in barracks, there was that noble woman, Mrs Bantem, tying up and binding sword-cuts and bayonet-thrusts as she talked cheerily to the men.

The struggle was very fierce still, the men who brought down the wounded hurrying away, for there was no sign of flinching; but soon they were back with another poor fellow, who was now whimpering, now muttering fiercely. “If I’d only have had—confound them!—if I’d only had another cartridge or two, I wouldn’t have cared,” he said as they laid him down close by me; “but I always was the unluckiest beggar on the face of the earth. They’ve most done for me, Ike, and no wonder, for it’s all fifty to one up there, and I don’t believe a man of ours has a shot left.”

Again the door closed on the two men who had brought down poor Measles, hacked almost to pieces; and again it was opened, to bring down another wounded man, and this one was Lieutenant Leigh. They laid him down, and were off back up the steps, when there was a yelling, like as if some evil spirits had broken loose, and as the door was opened, Captain Dyer and half-a-dozen more were beaten back, and I thought they would have been followed down—but no; they stood fast in that doorway, Captain Dyer and the six with him, while the two fellows who had been down leaped up the stairs to support them, so that, in that narrow opening, there were eight sharp British bayonets, and the captain’s sword, making such a steel hedge as the mutineers could not pass.

They could not contrive either to fire at our party, on account of the wall in front, and every attempt at an entrance was thwarted; but we all knew that it was only a question of time, for it was impossible for man to do more.

There seemed now to be a lull, and only a buzzing of voices above us, mingled with a groan and a dying cry now and then, when I quite forgot my pain once more on hearing poor Harry Lant, who had for some time been quite off his head, and raving, commence talking in a quiet sort of way.

“Where’s Ike Smith?” he said. “It’s all dark here; and I want to say good-bye to him.”

I was kneeling by his side the next minute, holding his hand.

“God bless you, Ike,” he said; “and God bless her. I’m going, old mate; kiss her for me, and tell her that if she hadn’t been made for you, I could have loved her very dearly.”

What could I do or say, when the next minute Lizzy was kneeling on his other side, holding his hand?

“God bless you both,” he whispered. “You’ll get out of the trouble after all; and don’t forget me.”

We promised him we would not, as well as we could, for we were both choked with sorrow; and then he said, talking quickly: “Give poor old Sam Measles my tobacco-box, Ike, the brass one, and shake hands with him for me; and now I want Mother Bantem.”

She was by his side directly, to lift him gently in her arms, calling him her poor gallant boy, her brave lad, and no end of fond expressions.

“I never had a bairn, Harry,” she sobbed; “but if I could have had one, I’d have liked him to be like you, my own gallant, light-hearted soldier boy; and you were always to me as a son.”

“Was?” says Harry softly. “I’m glad of it, for I never knew what it was to have a mother.”

He seemed to fall off to sleep after that, when, no one noticing them, those two children came up, and the first I heard of it was little Clive crying: “Ally Lant—Ally Lant, open eyes, and come and play wis elfant.”

I started, and looked up to see one of those little innocents—his face smeared, and his little hands all dabbled with blood, trying to open poor Harry Lant’s eyes with his tiny fingers.

“Why don’t Ally Lant come and play with us?” says the other; and just then he opened his eyes, and looked at them with a smile, when in a moment I saw what was happening, for that poor fellow’s last act was to get those two children’s hands in his, as if he felt that he should like to let his last grasp in this world be upon something innocent; and then there was a deepening of that smile into a stern look, his lips moved, and all was over; while I was too far off to hear his last words.

But there was one there who did hear them, and she told me afterwards, sobbing as though her heart would break.

“Poor Harry, poor light-hearted Harry,” Mother Bantem said. “And did you see the happy smile upon his face as he passed away, clasping those two poor children’s hands—so peaceful, so quiet, after all his suffering; forgetting all then, but what seemed like two angels’ faces by his dying pillow, for he said, Ike, he said—”

Poor Mother Bantem broke down here, and I thought about what Harry’s dying pillow had been—her faithful, old, motherly breast. But she forced back her sobs, and wiped the tears from her rough, plain face, as she said in low, reverent tones: “Poor Harry! His last words: ‘Of such is the kingdom of Heaven.’”

Death was very busy amongst our poor company, and one—two—three more passed away there, for they were riddled with wounds; and then I saw that, in spite of all that could be done, Lieutenant Leigh would be the next. He had received his death-wound, and he knew it too; and now he lay very still, holding tightly by Miss Ross’s hand, while she knelt beside him.

Captain Dyer, with his eight men, all left, were still keeping the door; but of late they had not been interfered with, and the poor fellows were able to do one another a good turn in binding up wounds. But what all were now suffering for want of, was water; and beyond a few drops in one or two of the bottles carried by the women, there was none to be had.

As for me, I could only lie there helpless, and in a half-dreamy way, see and listen to all that was going on. The spirit in me was good to help; but think of my state—going for days with that cut on the face, and a broken arm, and in that climate.

I was puzzling myself about this time as to what was going to happen next, for I could not understand why the rebels were so quiet; but the next minute I was watching Lieutenant Leigh, and thinking about the morning when we saw Captain Dyer bound to the muzzle of the nine-pounder.

Could he have been thinking about the same thing? I say yes, for all at once he started right up, looking wild and excited. He had hold of Miss Ross’s hand; but he threw it from him, as he called out: “Now, my lads, a bold race, and a short one. We must bring them in. Spike the guns—cut the cords. Now, then—Elsie or death. Are you ready there? Forward!”

That last word rang through the vault we were in, and Captain Dyer ran down the steps, his hacked sword hanging from his wrist by the knot. But he was too late to take his messmate’s hand in his, and say farewell, if that had been his intention, for Lieutenant Leigh had fallen back; and that senseless figure by his side was to all appearance as dead, when, with a quivering lip, Captain Dyer gently lifted her, and bore her to where, half stupefied, Mrs Colonel Maine was sitting.