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

Story 1—Chapter VII.

It seemed to me that, for the time being, Lieutenant Leigh was too much of a soldier to let private matters and personal feelings of enmity interfere with duty; and those two stood talking together for a good half-hour, when, having apparently made their plans, fatigue-parties were ordered out; and what I remember then thinking was a wise move, the soldiers’ wives and children in quarters were brought into the old palace, since it was the only likely spot for putting into something like a state of defence.

I have called it a palace, and I suppose that a rajah did once live in it, but, mind you, it was neither a very large nor a very grand place, being only a square of buildings, facing inward to a little court-yard, entered by a gateway, after the fashion of no end of buildings in the east.

Water we had in the tank, but provisions were brought in, and what sheep there were. Fortunately, there was a good supply of hay, and that we got in; but one thing we did not bargain for, and that was the company of the great elephant, Nabob, he having been left behind. And what does he do but come slowly up on those india-rubber cushion feet of his, and walk through the gateway, his back actually brushing against the top; and then, once in, he goes quietly over to where the hay was stacked, and coolly enough begins eating!

The men laughed, and some jokes were made about his taking up a deal of room, and I suppose, really, it was through Harry Lant that the great beast came in; but no more was said then, we all being so busy, and not one of us had the sense to see what a fearful strait that great inoffensive animal might bring us to.

I believe we all forgot about the heat that day as we worked on, slaving away at things that, in an ordinary way, we should have expected to be done by the niggers. Food, ammunition, wood, particularly planks, everything Captain Dyer thought likely to be of use; and soon a breastwork was made inside the gateway; such lower windows as looked outwards carefully nailed up, and loop-holed for a shot at the enemy, should any appear; and when night did come at last, peaceful and still, the old palace was turned into a regular little fort.

We all knew that all this might be labour in vain, but all the same it seemed to be our duty to get the place into as good a state of defence as we could, and under orders we did it. But, after all, we knew well enough that if the mutineers should bring up a small field-piece, they could knock the place about our ears in no time. Our hope, though, was that, at all events while our regiment was away, we might be unmolested, for, if the enemy came in any number, what could eight-and-thirty men do, hampered as they were with half-a-dozen children, and twice as many women? Not that all the women were likely to hamper us, for there was Mrs Bantem, busy as a bee, working here, comforting there, helping women to make themselves snug in different rooms; and once, as she came near me, she gave me one of her tremendous slaps on the back, her eyes twinkling with pleasure, and the perspiration streaming down her face the while. “Ike Smith,” she says, “this is something like, isn’t it? But ask Captain Dyer to have that breastwork strengthened—there isn’t half enough of it. Glad Bantem hasn’t gone. But I say, only think of that poor woman! I saw her just now crying, fit to break her poor heart.”

“What poor woman?” I said, staring hard.

“Why, the colonel’s wife. Poor soul, it’s pitiful to see her! it went through me like a knife.—What! are you there, my pretties!” she cried, flumping down on the stones as the colonel’s two little ones came running out. “Bless your pretty hearts, you’ll come and say a word to old Mother Bantem, won’t you?”

“What’s everybody tying about?” says the little girl in her prattling way. “I don’t like people to ty. Has my ma been whipped, and Aunt Elsie been naughty?”

“Look, look!” cries the boy excitedly; “dere’s old Nabob!” And toddling off, the next minute he was close to the great beast, his little sister running after him, to catch hold of his hand; and there the little mites stood close to, and staring up at the great elephant, as he kept on amusing himself by twisting up a little hay in his trunk, and then lightly scattering it over his back, to get rid of the flies—for what nature could have been about to give him such a scrap of a tail, I can’t understand. He’d work it, and flip it about hard enough; but as to getting rid of a fly, it’s my belief that if insects can laugh, they laughed at it, as they watched him from where they were buzzing about the stone walls and windows in the hot sunshine.

The next minute, like a chorus, there came a scream from one of the upper windows, one from another, and a sort of howl from Mrs Bantem, and we all stood startled and staring, for what does Jenny Wren do, but in a staggering way, lift up her little brother for him to touch the elephant’s trunk, and then she stood laughing and clapping her hands with delight, seeing no fear, bless her! as that long, soft trunk was gently curled round the boy’s waist, he was drawn out of his sister’s arms; and then the great beast stood swinging the child to and fro, now up a little way, now down between his legs, and him crowing and laughing away all the while, as if it was the best fun that could be.

I believe we were all struck motionless; and it was like taking a hand away from my throat to let me breathe once more, when I saw the elephant gently drop the little fellow down on a heap of hay, but only for him to scramble up, and run forward shouting: “Now ’gain, now ’gain;” and, as if Nabob understood his little prattling, half-tied tongue, he takes him up again, and swings him, just as there was a regular rush made, and Mrs Colonel, Miss Ross, Lizzy, and the captain and lieutenant came up.

“For Heaven’s sake, save the child!” cries Mrs Maine.—“Mr Leigh, pray, do something.”

Miss Ross did not speak, but she looked at Captain Dyer; and those two young men both went at the elephant directly, to get the child away; but in an instant Nabob wheeled round, just the same as a stubborn donkey would at home with a lot of boys teasing it; and then, as they dodged round his great carcass, he trumpeted fiercely, and began to shuffle off round the court.

I went up too, and so did Mrs Bantem, brave as a lion; but the great beast only kept on making his loud snorting noise, and shuffled along, with the boy in his trunk, swinging him backwards and forwards; and it was impossible to help thinking of what would be the consequence if the elephant should drop the little fellow, and then set on him one of his great feet.

It seemed as if nothing could be done, and once the idea—wild enough too—rushed into my head that it would be advisable to get a rifle put to the great beast’s ear, and fire, when Measles shouted out from where he was on guard, “Here’s Chunder coming!” and, directly after, with his opal eyeballs rolling, and his dark, treacherous-looking face seeming to me all wicked and pleased at what was going on, came the mahout, and said a few words to the elephant, which stopped directly, and went down upon its knees. Chunder then tried to take hold of the child, but somehow that seemed to make the great beast furious, and getting up again, he began to grunt and make a noise after the fashion of a great pig, going on now faster round the court, and sending those who had come to look, and who stood in his way, fleeing in all directions.

Mrs Maine was half fainting, and, catching the little girl to her breast, I saw her go down upon her knees and hide her face, expecting, no doubt, every moment, that the next one would be her boy’s last; and, indeed, we were all alarmed now, for the more we tried to get the little chap away, the fiercer the elephant grew; the only one who did not seem to mind being the boy himself though his sister now began to cry, and in her little artless way I heard her ask her mother if the naughty elephant would eat Clivey.

I’ve often thought since that if we’d been quiet, and left the beast alone, he would soon have set the child down; and I’ve often thought too, that Mr Chunder could have got the boy away if he had liked, only he did nothing but tease and irritate the elephant, which was not the best of friends with him. But you will easily understand that there was not much time for thought then.

I had been doing my best along with the others, and then stood thinking what I could be at next, when I caught Lizzy Green’s eye turned to me in an appealing, reproachful sort of way, that seemed to say as plainly as could be: “Can’t you do anything?” when all at once Measles shouts out: “’Arry, ’Arry!” and Harry Lant came up at the double, having been busy carrying arms out of the guard-room rack.

It was at one and the same moment that Harry Lant saw what was wrong, and that a cold dull chill ran through me, for I saw Lizzy clasp her hands together in a sort of thankful way, and it seemed to me then, as Harry ran up to the elephant that he was always to be put before me, and that I was nobody, and the sooner I was out of the way the better.

All the same, though, I couldn’t help admiring the way Harry ran up to the great brute, and did what none of us could manage. I quite hated him, I know, but yet I was proud of my mate, as he went up and says something to Nabob, and the elephant stands still. “Put him down,” says Harry, pointing to the ground; and the great flesh-mountain puts the little fellow down. “Now then,” says Harry, to the honour of the ladies, “pick him up again;” and in a twinkling the great thing whips the boy up once more. “Now, bring him up to the colonel’s lady.” Well, if you’ll believe me, if the great thing didn’t follow Harry like a lamb, and carry the child up to where, half fainting, knelt poor Mrs Maine. “Now, put him down,” says Harry; and the next moment little Clive Maine—Cock Robin, as we called him—was being hugged to his mother’s breast. “Now go down on your knees, and beg the ladies’ pardon,” says Harry laughing. Down goes the elephant, and stops there, making a queer chuntering noise the while. “Says he’s very sorry, ma’am, and won’t do so no more,” says Harry, serious as a judge; and in a moment, half laughing, half crying, Mrs Maine caught hold of Harry’s hand, and kissed it, and then held it for a moment to her breast sobbing hysterically as she did so.

“God bless you! You’re a good man,” she cried; and then she broke down altogether; and Miss Ross, and Mrs Bantem, and Lizzy got round her, and helped her in.

I could see that Harry was touched, for one of his lips shook; but he tried to keep up the fun of the thing; and turning to the elephant, he says out loud: “Now, get up, and go back to the hay; and don’t you come no more of those games, that’s all.”

The elephant got up directly, making a grunting noise as he did so.

“Why not?” says Harry, making-believe that that was what the great beast said. “Because, if you do, I’ll smash you. There!”

Officers and men, they all burst out laughing, to see little Harry Lant—a chap so little that he wouldn’t have been in the regiment only that men were scarce, and the standard was very low when he listed—to see him standing shaking his fist at the great monster, one of whose legs was bigger than Harry altogether—stand shaking his fist in its face, and then take hold of the soft trunk and lead him away.

Perhaps I did, perhaps I didn’t, but I thought I caught sight of a glance passing between Lizzy Green, now at one window, and Harry, leading off the elephant; but all the same I felt that jealous of him, and to hate him so that I could have quarrelled with him about nothing. It seemed as if he was always to come before me.

And I wasn’t the only one jealous of Harry, for no sooner was the court pretty well empty, than he came slowly up towards me, in spite of my sour black looks, which he wouldn’t notice; but before he could get to me, Chunder Chow, the mahout, goes up to the elephant, muttering and spiteful-like, with his hook-spear thing, that mahouts use to drive with; and being, I suppose, put out, and jealous, and annoyed at his authority being taken away, and another man doing what he couldn’t, he gives the elephant a kick in the leg, and then hits him viciously with his iron hook thing.

Well! Bless you! it didn’t take an instant, and it seemed to me that the elephant only gave that trunk of his a gentle swing against Chunder’s side, and he was a couple of yards off, rolling over and over in the hay scattered about.

Up he jumps, wild as wild; and the first thing he catches sight of is Harry laughing fit to crack his sides, when Chunder rushes at him like a mad bull.

I suppose he expected to see Harry turn tail and run; but that being one of those things not included in drill, and a British soldier having a good deal of the machine about him, Harry stands fast, and Chunder pulls up short, grinning rolling his eyes, and twisting his hands about, just for all the world like as if he was robbing a hen-roost, and wringing all the chickens’ necks.

“Didn’t hurt much, did it, blacky?” says Harry coolly. But the mahout couldn’t speak for rage; and he kept spitting on the ground, and making signs, till really his face was anything but pretty to look at. And there he kept on, till, from laughing, Harry turned a bit nasty, for there was some one looking out of a window; and from being half-amused at what was going on, I once more felt all cold and bitter. But Harry fires up now, and makes towards Mr Chunder, who begins to retreat; and says Harry: “Now I tell you what it is, young man; I never did you any ill turn; and if I choose to have a bit of fun with the elephant, it’s government property, and as much mine as yours. But look ye here—if you come cussing, and spitting, and swearing at me again in your nasty heathen dialect, why, if I don’t—No,” he says, stopping short, and half-turning to me, “I can’t black his eyes, Isaac, for they’re black enough already; but let him come any more of it, and, jiggermaree, if I don’t bung ’em!”