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

Story 1—Chapter VI.

But it was always the same; and though time was when I could have laughed as merrily as did that little Jenny Wren of the colonel’s at Harry’s antics, I couldn’t laugh now, because, it always seemed as if they were made an excuse to get Miss Ross and her maid out with the children.

A party of jugglers, or dancing-girls, or a man or two with pipes and snakes, were all very well; but I’ve known clever parties come round, and those I’ve named would hardly step out to look; and my heart, I suppose it was, if it wasn’t my mind, got very sore about that time, and I used to get looking as evil at Harry Lant as Lieutenant Leigh did at the captain.

But it was a dreary time that, after all, one from which we were awakened in a sudden way, that startled us to a man.

First of all, there came a sort of shadowy rumour that something was wrong with the men of a native regiment, something to do with their caste; and before we had well realised that it was likely to be anything serious, sharp and swift came one bit of news after another, that the British officers in the native regiments had been shot down—here, there, in all directions; and then we understood that what we had taken for the flash of a solitary fire, was the firing of a big train, and that there was a great mutiny in the land. And not, mind, the mutiny or riot of a mob of roughs, but of men drilled and disciplined by British officers, with leaders of their own caste, all well armed and provided with ammunition; and the talk round our mess when we heard all this was, How will it end?

I don’t think there were many who did not realise the fact that something awful was coming to pass. Measles grinned, he did, and said that there was going to be an end of British tyranny in India, and that the natives were only going to seize their own again; but the next minute, although it was quite clean, he takes his piece out of the rack, cleans it thoroughly all over again, fixes the bayonet, feels the point, and then stands at the “present!”

“I think we can let ’em know what’s what though, my lads, if they come here,” he says, with a grim smile; when Mrs Bantem, whose breath seemed quite taken away before by the way he talked, jumped up quite happy-like, laid her great hand upon his left side, and then, turning to us, she says: “It’s beating strong.”

“What is?” says Bantem, looking puzzled.

“Measles’ heart,” says Mrs Bantem: “and I always knew it was in the right place.”

The next minute she gave Measles a slap on the back as echoed through the place, sending him staggering forward; but he only laughed and said: “Praise the saints, I ain’t Bantem.”

There was a fine deal of excitement, though, now. The colonel seemed to wake up, and with him every officer, for we expected not only news but orders every moment. Discipline, if I may say so, was buckled up tight with the tongue in the last hole; provisions and water were got in; sentries doubled, and a strange feeling of distrust and fear came upon all, for we soon saw that the people of the place hung away from us, and though, from such an inoffensive-looking lot as we had about us, there didn’t seem much to fear, yet there was no knowing what treachery we might have to encounter, and as he had to think and act for others beside himself, Colonel Maine—God bless him—took every possible precaution against danger, then hidden, but which was likely to spring into sight at any moment.

There were not many English residents at Begumbagh, but what there were came into quarters directly; and the very next morning we learned plainly enough that there was danger threatening our place by the behaviour of the natives, who packed up their few things and filed out of the town as fast as they could, so that at noonday the market-place was deserted, and, save the few we had in quarters, there was not a black face to be seen.

The next morning came without news; and I was orderly, and standing waiting in the outer court close behind the colonel, who was holding a sort of council of war with the officers, when a sentry up in the broiling sun, on the roof, calls out that a horseman was coming; and before very long, covered with sweat and dust, an orderly dragoon dashes up, his horse all panting and blown, and then coming jingling and clanking in with those spurs and that sabre of his, he hands despatches to the colonel.

I hope I may be forgiven for what I thought then, but, as I watched his ruddy face, while he read those despatches, and saw it turn all of a sickly, greeny white, I gave him the credit of being a coward; and I was not the only one who did so. We all knew that, like us, he had never seen a shot fired in anger; and something like an angry feeling of vexation came over me, I know, as I thought of what a fellow he would be to handle and risk the lives of the four hundred men under his charge there at Begumbagh.

“D’yer think I’d look like that?” says a voice close to my ear just then. “D’yer think if I’d been made an officer, I’d ha’ shewed the white-feather like that?” And turning round sharp, I saw it was Measles, who was standing sentry by the gateway; and he was so disgusted, that he spat about in all directions, for he was a man who didn’t smoke, like any other Christian, but chewed his tobacco like a sailor.

“Dyer,” says the colonel, the next moment, and they closed up together, but close to where we two stood—“Dyer,” he says, “I never felt before that it would be hard to do my duty as a soldier; but, God help me, I shall have to leave Annie and the children.” There were a couple of tears rolling down the poor fellow’s cheeks as he spoke, and he took Captain Dyer’s hand.

“Look at him! Look there!” whispers Measles again; and I kicked out sharp behind, and hit him on the shin. “He’s a pretty sort of a—”

He didn’t say any more just then, for, like me, he was staggered by the change that took place.

I think I’ve said Colonel Maine was a little, easy-going, pudgy man, with a red face; but just then, as he stood holding Captain Dyer’s hand, a change seemed to come over him; he dropped the hand he had held, tightened his sword-belt, and then took a step forward, to stand thoughtful, with despatches in his left hand. It was then that I saw in a moment that I had wronged him, and I felt as if I could have gone down on the ground for him to have walked over me, for whatever he might have been in peace, easy-going, careless, and fond of idleness and good-living—come time for action, there he was with the true British officer flashing out of his face, his lips pinched, his eyes flashing, and a stern look upon his countenance that I had never seen before.

“Now then!” I says in a whisper to Measles. I didn’t say anything else, for he knew what I meant. “Now then—now then!”

“Well,” says Measles then, in a whisper, “I s’pose women and children will bring the soft out of a man at a time like this; but, why I what did he mean by humbugging us like that!”

I should think Colonel Maine stood alone thoughtful and still in that court-yard, with the sun beating down upon his muslin-covered forage-cap, while you could slowly, and like a pendulum-beat, count thirty. It was a tremendously hot morning, with the sky a bright clear blue, and the shadows of a deep purply black cast down and cut as sharp as sharp. It was so still, too, that you could hear the whirring, whizzy noise of the cricket things, and now and then the champ, champ of the horse rattling his bit as he stood outside the gateway. It was a strange silence, that seemed to make itself felt; and then the colonel woke into life, stuck those despatches into his sword-belt, gave an order here, an order there, and the next minute—Tantaran-tantaran, Tantaran-tantaran, Tantaran-Tantaran, Tantaran-tay—the bugle was ringing out the assemblée, men were hurrying here and there, there was the trampling of feet, the court-yard was full of busy figures, shadows were passing backwards and forwards, and the news was abroad that our regiment was to form a flying column with another, and that we were off directly.

Ay, but it was exciting, that getting ready, and the time went like magic before we formed a hollow square, and the colonel said a few words to us, mounted as he was now, his voice firm as firm, except once, when I saw him glance at an upper window, and then it trembled, but only for an instant. His words were not many; and to this day, when I think of the scene under that hot blue sky, they come ringing back; for it did not seem to us that our old colonel was speaking, but a new man of a different mettle, though it was only that the right stuff had been sleeping in his breast, ready to be wakened by the bugle.

“My lads,” he said, and to a man we all burst out into a ringing cheer, when he took off his cap, and waved it round—“My lads, this is a sharp call, but I’ve been expecting it, and it has not found us asleep. I thank you for the smart way in which you have answered it, for it shews me that a little easy-going on my part in the piping times of peace has not been taken advantage of. My lads, these are stern times; and this despatch tells me of what will bring the honest British blood into every face, and make every strong man take a firm gripe of his piece as he longs for the order to charge the mutinous traitors to their Queen, who, taking her pay, sworn to serve her, have turned, and in cold blood butchered their officers, slain women, and hacked to pieces innocent babes. My lads, we are going against a horde of monsters; but I have bad news—you cannot all go—”

There was a murmur here.

“That murmur is not meant,” he continued; “and I know it will be regretted when I explain myself. We have women here and children: mine—yours—and they must be protected,” (it was here that his voice shook). “Captain Dyer’s company will garrison the place till our return, and to those men many of us leave all that is dear to us on earth. I have spoken. God save the Queen!”

How that place echoed with the hearty “Hurray!” that rung out; and then it was, “Fours right. March!” and only our company held firm, while I don’t know whether I felt disappointed or pleased, till I happened to look up at one of the windows, to see Mrs Maine and Miss Ross, with those two poor little innocent children clapping their hands with delight at seeing the soldiers march away; one of them, the little girl, with her white muslin and scarlet sash over her shoulder, being held up by Lizzy Green; and then I did know that I was not disappointed, but glad I was to stay.

But to shew you how a man’s heart changes about when it is blown by the hot breath of what you may call love, let me tell you that only half a minute later, I was disappointed again at not going; and dared I have left the ranks, I’d have run after the departing column, for I caught Harry Lant looking up at that window, and I thought a handkerchief was waved to him.

Next minute, Captain Dyer calls out, “Form four-deep. Right face. March!” and he led us to the gateway, but only to halt us there, for Measles, who was sentry, calls out something to him in a wild excited way.

“What do you want, man?” says Captain Dyer.

“O sir, if you’ll only let me exchange. ’Taint too late. Let me go, captain.”

“How dare you, sir!” says Captain Dyer sternly, though I could see plainly enough it was only for discipline, for he was, I thought pleased at Measles wanting to be in the thick of it. Then he shouts again to Measles, “’Tention—present arms!” and Measles falls into his right position for a sentry when troops are marching past. “March!” says the captain again; and we marched into the market-place, and—all but those told off for sentries—we were dismissed; and Captain Dyer then stood talking earnestly to Lieutenant Leigh, for it had fallen out that they two, with a short company of eight-and-thirty rank and file, were to have the guarding of the women and children left in quarters at Begumbagh.