In Times of Peril by G. A. Henty
Chapter X. Treachery.
Of all the names connected with the Indian mutiny, Cawnpore stands out conspicuous for its dark record of treachery, massacre, and bloodshed; and its name will, so long as the English language continues, be regarded as the darkest in the annals of our nation. Cawnpore is situated on the Ganges, one hundred and twenty-three miles northwest of Allahabad, and was at the time of our story a large straggling town, extending nearly five miles along the river. It stands on a sandy plain, intensely hot and dusty in summer, and possesses no fort or other building such as proved the safety of the Europeans in Agra and Allahabad. The force stationed there at the first outbreak of the mutiny consisted of the First, Fifty-third, and Fifty-sixth Native Regiments, the Second Regiment of Bengal Cavalry, and about fifty European invalid artillerymen. When the news of the revolt at Meerut reached Cawnpore, and it was but too probable that the mutiny would spread to all the native regiments throughout the country, Sir Hugh Wheeler, who was in command, at once set to work to prepare a fortified position, in which to retire with the European residents in case of necessity. To this end he connected with breastworks a large unfinished building intended as a military hospital, with the church and some other buildings, all standing near the center of the grand parade, and surrounded the whole with an intrenchment. Within these lines he collected ammunition, stores and provisions for a month's consumption for a thousand persons, and having thus, as he hoped, prepared for the worst, he awaited the event.
Although there was much uneasiness and disquietude, things went on tolerably well up to the middle of May. Then Sir Hugh Wheeler sent to Lucknow, forty miles distant, to ask for a company of white troops, to enable him to disarm the Sepoys; and he also asked aid of Nana Sahib, Rajah of Bithoor, who was looked upon as a stanch friend of the English. On the 22d of May fifty-five Europeans of the Thirty-second Regiment, and two hundred and forty native troopers of the Oude irregular cavalry, arrived from Lucknow, and two guns and three hundred men were sent in by the Rajah of Bithoor.
Nana Sahib was at this time a man of thirty-two years of age, having been born in the year 1825. He was the son of poor parents, and had at the age of two years and a half been adopted by the Peishwa, who had no children of his own. In India adoption is very common, and an adopted son has all the legal rights of a legitimate offspring. The Peishwa, who was at one time a powerful prince, was dethroned by us for having on several occasions joined other princes in waging war against us, but was honorably treated, and an annuity of eighty thousand pounds a year was assigned to him and his heirs. In 1851 the Peishwa died, leaving Nana Dhoondu Pant, for that was the Nana's full name, his heir and successor. The Company refused to continue the grant to Nana Sahib, and in so doing acted in a manner at once impolitic and unjust. It was unjust, because they had allowed the Peishwa and Nana Sahib, up to the death of the former, to suppose that the Indian law of adoption would be recognized here as in all other cases; it was impolitic, because as the greater portion of the Indian princes had adopted heirs, these were all alarmed at the refusal to recognize the Nana, and felt that a similar blow might be dealt to them.
Thus, at this critical period of our history, the minds of the great Indian princes were all alienated from us, by what was in their eyes at once a breach of a solemn engagement, and a menace to every reigning house. Nana Sahib, however, evinced no hostility to the English rule. He had inherited the private fortune of the Peishwa, and lived in great state at Bithoor. He affected greatly the society of the British residents at Cawnpore, was profuse in his hospitality, and was regarded as a jovial fellow and a stanch friend of the English. When the mutiny broke out, it proved that he was only biding his time. Nana Sahib was described by an officer who knew him four years before the mutiny, as then looking at least forty years old and very fat. "His face is round, his eyes very wild, brilliant and restless. His complexion, as is the case with most native gentlemen, is scarcely darker than that of a dark Spaniard, and his expression is, on the whole, of a jovial, and indeed, somewhat rollicking character." In reality, this rollicking native gentleman was a human tiger.
On the very night that the men of the Thirty-second came in from Oude, there was an alarm of a rising, and the ladies and children of the station took refuge in the fortified post prepared for them; and from that time the sufferings of the residents commenced, although it was not for a fortnight afterward that the mutiny took place; for the overcrowding and the intense heat at once began to affect the health of those huddled together in ill-ventilated rooms, and deprived of all the luxuries which alone make existence endurable to white people in Indian cities on the plains during the heats of summer. Scarce a day passed without news of risings at other stations taking place, and with the receipt of each item of intelligence the insolence displayed by the Sepoys increased.
A few English troops arrived from Allahabad and at midnight upon the 4th of June, when the natives broke into revolt, there were in the intrenchments of Cawnpore eighty-three officers of various regiments, sixty men of the Eighty-fourth Regiment, and seventy of the Thirty-second, fifteen of the First Madras Fusiliers, and a few invalid gunners; the whole defensive force consisting of about two hundred and forty men, and six guns. There were under their charge a large number of ladies and children, the wives and families of the officers and civilians at the station, sixty-four women and seventy-six children belonging to the soldiers, with a few native servants who remained faithful. The total number of women, children, and non-effectives amounted to about eight hundred and seventy persons.
During the night of the 4th of June the whole of the native troops rose, set fire to all the European residences outside the intrenchments, and marched to Nawabgunge, a place four miles away. A message was sent by them to Nana Sahib, to the effect that they were marching to Delhi, and inviting him to assume the command. This he at once assented to, and arrived at Nawabgunge a few hours later, with six hundred troops and four guns; and his first act was to divide the contents of the English treasury there, which had been guarded by his own troops, among the mutineers.
Having destroyed the European buildings, the force marched to Kulleanpore, on its way to Delhi; but on its reaching this place the same evening, Nana Sahib called together the native officers, and advised them to return to Cawnpore and kill all the Europeans there. Then they would be thought much of when they arrived at Delhi. The proposal was accepted with acclamation, and during the night the rebel army marched back to Cawnpore, which they invested the next morning; the last message from Sir Hugh Wheeler came through on that day, fighting having begun at half-past ten in the morning.
The first proceeding of the mutineers was to take possession of the native town of Cawnpore, where the houses of the peaceable and wealthy inhabitants were at once broken open and plundered, and many respectable natives slaughtered.
The bombardment of the British position began on the 6th, and continued with daily increasing fury. Every attempt to carry the place by storm was repelled, but the sufferings of the besieged were frightful. There was but one well, in the middle of the intrenchments, and upon this by night and by day the enemy concentrated their fire, so that it might be said that every bucket of water cost a man's life. After four or five days of incessant bombardment, the enemy took to firing red-hot shot, and on the 13th the barracks were set on fire, and, a strong wind blowing, the fire spread so rapidly that upward of fifty sick and wounded were burned. The other buildings were so riddled with shot and shell that they afforded scarcely any shelter. Many of the besieged made holes in the ground or under the banks of the intrenchments; but the deaths from sunstroke and fever were even more numerous than those caused by the murderous and incessant fire.
In the city a reign of terror prevailed. All the native Christians were massacred, with their wives and families; and every white prisoner brought in--and they were many--man, woman, or child, was taken before the Nana, and murdered by his orders.
Day by day the sufferings of the garrison in the intrenchments became greater, and the mortality among the woman and children was terrible. Every day saw the army of the Nana increasing, by the arrival of mutineers from other quarters, until it reached a total of over twelve thousand men, while the fighting force of the garrison had greatly decreased; yet the handful of Englishmen repulsed every effort of the great host of assailants to carry the fragile line of intrenchments.
When Ned and Dick Warrener, having carried out the instructions given by the ranee, arrived next morning at her house at Cawnpore, Ahrab at once led them to a small apartment.
"I have much news to tell you. The fighting is over here. The Nana sent in a messenger to the English sahibs, to say that if they would give up the place, with the guns and treasure, he would grant a free passage for all; and the Nana and his Hindoo officers have sworn the sacred oath of our religion, and the Mohammedans have sworn on the Koran, that these conditions shall be observed. Boats are to be provided for them all. They leave to-morrow at dawn. Her highness the ranee will shelter you here if you like to stay; but if you wish it you can go at daybreak and join your countrymen."
With many thanks for the ranee's offer, the boys at once decided to join their countrymen; and accordingly next morning after a kind farewell from their protectress, they started before daybreak under charge of their driver of the day before, and, still in their disguises of native women, made their way to a point on the line of route outside the town. There were but few people here, and, just as day broke the head of the sad procession came along. The women and children, the sick and wounded--among the latter Sir H. Wheeler, the gallant commander of the garrison--were in wagons provided by the Nana; the remnant of the fighting men marched afterward. Hastily dropping their women's robes, the boys slipped in among the troops, unnoticed by any of the guards of Nana's troops who were escorting the procession.
A few words explained to their surprised compatriots that they were fugitives who had been in shelter in the town, and many a word of welcome was muttered, and furtive handshakes given. In return the boys were able to give the news of the arrival of the British before Delhi, and the commencement of the siege, all of which was new to the garrison, who had been for twenty-two days without a word from the outer world. At last the column reached the ghat, or landing-place, fixed upon for their embarkation.
Here seventeen or eighteen boats were collected. The way down to the river was steep, for the bank of the Ganges is here rather high, and covered with thick jungle. At the top of the ghat is a small Hindoo temple. The wounded and sick were carried down the bank and placed in the boats, the ladies and children took their places, the officers and men then followed. When all was ready, the Nana's officer suddenly called the native boatmen to come ashore to receive their wages for the passage down to Benares.
Then, as if by magic, from out the thick jungle on both sides of the path to the ghat, hundreds of Sepoys rushed; while at the same moment lines of bushes fell to the ground, and showed a number of cannon, all placed in position. In a moment a tremendous fire was opened upon the unhappy fugitives. Numbers of them were at once killed in the boats; some jumped into the water, and, pushing the boats afloat, made for the opposite shore; while others leaped into the river on the deeper side and tried to escape by swimming. But upon the other shore were enemies as bloodthirsty as those they left behind, for there the Sepoys of the Seventeenth Native Regiment, who had mutinied at Azimghur, were posted, and these cut off the retreat of the fugitives there. Then all the boats, with the exception of two or three which had drifted down stream, followed by bands of Sepoys with cannon on either bank, were brought back to the starting-place, which is known, and will be known through all time, as "the slaughter ghat." There all the men still alive were taken on shore and shot; while the women and children, many of them bleeding from wounds, were taken off to a house formerly belonging to the medical department of the European troops, called the Subada Khotee.
Dick and Ned Warrener were in one of the boats which were still ashore when the treacherous Sepoys burst from their hiding-place. "The scoundrels!" burst from Ned indignantly; while Dick, seeing at a glance the hopelessness of their position, grasped his brother's arm.
"We must swim for it, Ned, Take a long dive, and go under again the moment you have got breath."
Without an instant's delay the brothers leaped into the water, as dozens of others were doing; and although each time their heads came up for an instant the bullets splashed around them, they kept on untouched until they reached the center of the stream. They were still within musket range, but the distance was sufficient to render them pretty safe except against an accidental shot. They looked back and saw the Sepoys had many of them entered the river up to their shoulders, to shoot the swimmers: others on horseback had ridden far out, and were cutting down those who, unable to swim far, made again toward shallow water; while cannon and muskets still poured in their fire against the helpless crowds in the boats.
"Look, Ned, it is of no use making for the other shore," Dick said; "there is another body of the wretches there; we must simply float down the stream in the middle. If we keep on our backs, and sink as low as we can, so as to show only our noses and mouths above water, they may fire for a week without hitting us. There, give me your hand, so that we may float together; I will look up from time to time to see that we are floating pretty fairly in the middle, I will do it quickly, so as not to be seen, for if we lie still on our backs they won't watch us after a time, but will take us for two drifting dead bodies. Now, old boy!" So saying, the lads turned on their backs, and occasionally giving a quiet stroke with their legs, or paddling with their hands, drifted down stream, showing so little of their faces above water that they could scarcely have been seen from the shore.
Both the lads were good swimmers, but Dick was perfectly at home in the water; and Ned, knowing his own inferiority in this respect, left himself entirely in his brother's hands. Soon Dick, in his quick glances to note their position, perceived that three boats alone of all the number had got fairly away down stream--that their occupants had got out oars and were quickly coming up to the swimmers; but he saw, too, that on both banks the Sepoy guns kept abreast of them, and that a fire of artillery and musketry was maintained. For a moment he thought of being taken on board; but their chance of escaping the fire centered upon them seemed hopeless, and he judged it was better to keep on in the water. He accordingly paddled himself out of the center of the stream, so as to give the boats a wide berth, trusting that the attention of the enemy would be so much directed at the boats that the floating bodies would be unnoticed. As to keeping afloat for any time, he had no fear whatever. The water of Indian rivers in the heat of summer is so warm that swimmers can remain in them for many hours without any feeling of chill or discomfort.
An hour later Dick lifted his head and looked forward. The firing was two miles ahead now. But one boat of the three still floated, and Dick congratulated himself that he had decided not to join his fate to that of those on board. Hour after hour passed, and still the boys floated on, until at last the sun went down, dusk came and went, and when all was dark they turned on their faces and swam quietly down the stream. For many hours, alternately swimming and floating, they kept their course down the river, until toward morning they gently paddled ashore, crept into the thick jungle of the bank, and fell asleep almost instantly.
It was dusk again before they awoke. They were desperately hungry, but they agreed to spend one more night in the river before searching for food, so as to put as much distance as possible between themselves and Cawnpore. They had been twenty hours in the water before, and allowing two miles an hour for the current, and something for their swimming, they calculated that Cawnpore must be forty-six or forty-seven miles behind. Eight hours' more steady swimming added twenty to this, and they landed again with a hope that Nana Sahib's ferocious bands must have been left behind, and that they had now only the ordinary danger of travel in such times, through a hostile country, to face.
It yet wanted an hour or so of daybreak, and they struck off at right angles to the river, and walked till it became light, when they entered a small wood near to which was a hut. Watching this closely, they saw only an old man come out, and at once made to it, and asked him for food and shelter. Recovered from his first surprise, he received them kindly, and gave them the best which his hut, in which he lived alone with his wife, afforded. A meal of cakes and parched grain greatly revived them, and, after a long sleep, they started again at nightfall, with enough food for the next two days' supply. That they were not ahead of all their foes was certain, from the fact that the peasant said that he had heard firing on the river bank on the previous day. They knew by this also that the one boat ahead of them had at any rate escaped its perils of the first day.
For two more nights they walked, passing one day in a thick wood, the other in a ruined temple, their hopes rising; for, as they knew, the further they got from Cawnpore the loss likely the country people were to be hostile.
The third morning they again entered a hut to ask for food.
"I will give you food," the peasant said, "but you had better go to the rajah's, his house is over there, half an hour's walk. He has four Englishmen there who came from the river, and he is the friend of the Feringhees."
Delighted at the news, the boys went forward. As they entered the courtyard of the house they were greeted with a hearty salutation in English, and their hands were clasped a moment afterward by Lieutenant Delafosse, an officer who had greatly distinguished himself in the defense of Cawnpore, and was one of the few survivors. He took them in to the rajah, who received them most kindly, and after they had been fed Lieutenant Delafosse told them how he and his three comrades had escaped.
The boat had, although many on board had been hit by rifle balls, escaped the first day. She was crowded, and very low in the water, having on board most of those who had been in the two boats sunk by the enemy. The next day they were again fired at without effect by artillery, infantry accompanying the boat all day, and keeping up an incessant fire. On the third day the boat was no longer serviceable, and grounded on a sand-bank. Then the enemy's infantry fired so heavily that those still able to carry arms, fourteen in number, made for the shore and attacked their foes. These fell back, and the handful of Englishmen followed them. Great numbers of the enemy now came up, and the English took refuge in a little temple; here they defended themselves till the enemy piled bushes at the entrance, and set them on fire. Then the English burst through the flames, and made again for the river. Seven out of the twelve who got through the fire reached the river, but of these two were shot before they had swum far. Three miles lower down, one of the survivors, an artilleryman, swimming on his back, went too near the bank and was killed. Six miles lower down the firing ceased, and soon afterward the four survivors were hailed by natives, who shouted to them to come ashore, as their master, the rajah, was friendly to the English. They did so, and were most kindly received by him.
An abundant meal and another good sleep did wonders for the young Warreners, and the next morning they determined to set out to join their countrymen at Allahabad, where they expected to find their father and his troops. The rajah and their fellow-countrymen endeavored in vain to dissuade them, but the former, finding that they were determined, gave them dresses as native women, furnished them with a guide, and sent them across the river in a boat--for they were on the Oude side--with a message to a zemindar there to help them forward.