In Times of Peril by G. A. Henty
Chapter XII. Dangerous Service.
On the morning of the 17th of July the troops rose with light hearts from the ground where they had thrown themselves, utterly exhausted, after the tremendous exertions of the previous day. Cawnpore was before them, and as they did not anticipate any further resistance--for the whole of the enemy's guns had fallen into their hands, and the Sepoys had fled in the wildest confusion at the end of the day, after fighting with obstinacy and determination as long as a shadow of hope of victory remained--they looked forward to the joy of releasing from captivity the hapless women and children who were known to have been confined in the house called the Subada Khotee, since the massacre of their husbands and friends on the river.
Just after daybreak there was a dull, deep report, and a cloud of gray smoke rose over the city. Nana Sahib had ordered the great magazine to be blown up, and had fled for his life to Bithoor. Well might he be hopeless. He had himself commanded at the battle of the preceding day, and had seen eleven thousand of his countrymen, strongly posted, defeated by a thousand Englishmen. What chance, then, could there be of final success? As for himself, his life was a thousandfold forfeit; and even yet his enemies did not know the measure of his atrocities. It was only when the head of the British column arrived at the Subada Khotee that the awful truth became known. The troops halted, surprised that no welcome greeted them. They entered the courtyard; all was hushed and quiet, but fragments of dresses, children's shoes, and other remembrances of British occupation, lay scattered about. Awed and silent, the leading officers entered the house, and, after a glance round, recoiled with faces white with horror. The floor was deep in blood; the walls were sprinkled thickly with it. Fragments of clothes, tresses of long hair, children's shoes with the feet still in them--a thousand terrible and touching mementos of the butchery which had taken place there met the eye. Horror-struck and sickened, the officers returned into the courtyard, to find that another discovery had been made, namely, that the great well near the house was choked to the brim with the bodies of women and children. Not one had escaped.
On the afternoon of the 15th, when the defeat at Futtehpore was known, the Nana had given orders for a general massacre of his helpless prisoners. There, in this ghastly well, were the remains, not only of those who had so far survived the siege and first massacre of Cawnpore, but of some seventy or eighty women and children, fugitives from Futteyghur. These had, with their husbands, fathers and friends, a hundred and thirty in all, reached Cawnpore in boats on the 12th of July. Here the boats had been fired upon and forced to put to shore, when the men were, by the Nairn's orders, all butchered, and the women and children sent to share the fate of the prisoners of Cawnpore.
Little wonder is it that the soldiers, who had struggled against heat and fatigue and a host of foes to reach Cawnpore, broke clown and cried like children at that terrible sight; that soldiers picked up the bloody relics--a handkerchief, a lock of hair, a child's sock sprinkled with blood--and kept them to steel their hearts to all thoughts of mercy; and that, after this, they went into battle crying to each other:
"Remember the ladies!" "Remember the babies!" "Think of Cawnpore!" Henceforth, to the end of the war, no quarter was ever shown to a Sepoy.
One of the first impulses of the Warreners, when the tents were pitched in the old cantonments, and the troops were dismissed, was to ride with their father to the house of the ranee. It was found to be abandoned-as, indeed, was the greater part of the town--and an old servant, who alone remained, said that two days previously the ranee had left for her country abode. Major Warrener at once drew out a paper, saying that the owner of this house had shown hospitality and kindness to English fugitives, and that it was therefore to be preserved from all harm or plunder; and having obtained the signature of the quartermaster-general in addition to his own, he affixed the paper to the door of the dwelling. The next day he rode out with his sons and twenty of his men to the house where the boys had first been sheltered. The gates were opened at his summons by some trembling retainers, who hastened to assure them that the ranee, their mistress, was friendly to the English.
"Will you tell her that there is no cause for alarm, but that we desire an interview with her?" the major said, dismounting.
In a minute the servant returned, and begged the major to follow him, which he did, accompanied by his sons. They were shown into a grand reception room, where the ranee, thickly veiled, was sitting on a couch, surrounded by her attendants, Ahrab standing beside her.
The ranee gave a little cry of pleasure on recognizing the boys, and Ahrab instantly signed to the other attendants to retire. Then the ranee unveiled, and the major, who had remained near the entrance until the attendants had left, came forward, the boys kissing the hands that the ranee held out to them.
"I have mourned for you as dead," she said. "When the news of that horrible treachery came, and I thought that I had let you go to death, my heart turned to water."
"This is our father, dear lady," Ned said; "he has come to thank you himself for having saved and sheltered us."
The interview lasted for half an hour; refreshment being served, Ned recounted the particulars of their escape. Major Warrener, on leaving, handed the ranee a protection order signed by the general, to show to any British troops who might be passing, and told her that her name would be sent in with the list of those who had acted kindly to British fugitives, all of whom afterward received honors and rewards in the shape of the lands of those who had joined the mutineers. Then, with many expressions of good-will on both sides, the major and his sons took their leave, and, joining the troops below, rode back to Cawnpore.
For three days after his arrival at Cawnpore General Havelock rested his troops, and occupied himself with restoring order in the town. Numbers of Sepoys were found in hiding, and these were, as soon as identified, all hung at once. On the third day Brigadier-General Neil arrived, with the two hundred and twenty men of the Eighty-fourth, who had been hurried forward-a most welcome reinforcement, for Havelock's force was sadly weakened by loss in battle, sunstroke, and disease. On the 20th the army marched against Bithoor, every heart beating at the thought of engaging Nana Sahib, who, with five thousand men and a large number of cannon, had made every preparation for the defense of his castle. At the approach of the avenging force, however, his courage, and the courage of his troops, alike gave way, and they fled without firing a shot, leaving behind them guns, elephants, baggage, men, and horses, in great numbers. The magazine was blown up, and the palace burned, and the force, with their captured booty, returned to Cawnpore.
During the advance to Cawnpore the zeal and bravery of the young Warreners had not escaped the notice of the general, who had named them in his official report as gentlemen volunteers who had greatly distinguished themselves. On the return from Bithoor, on the evening of the 20th, he turned to them as he dismounted, and said, "Will you come to my tent in two hours' time?"
"Young gentlemen," he said, when they presented themselves, and had at his request seated themselves on two boxes which served as chairs, "in what I am going to say to you, mind, I express no wish even of the slightest. I simply state that I require two officers for a service of extreme danger. I want to send a message into Lucknow. None of the officers of the English regiments can speak the language with any fluency, and those of the Madras Fusiliers speak the dialects of Southern India. Therefore it is among the volunteers, who all belong to the northwest, that I must look. I have no doubt that there are many of them who would undertake the service, and whose knowledge of the language would be nearly perfect, but there are reasons why I ask you whether you will volunteer for the work. In the first place, you have already three times passed, while in disguise, as natives; and in the second, your figures being slight, and still a good deal under the height you will attain, render your disguise far less easy to be detected than that of a full-grown man would be. If you undertake it, you will have a native guide, who last night arrived from Lucknow with a message to me, having passed through the enemy's lines. You understand, young gentlemen, the service is one of great honor and credit if accomplished, but it is also one of the greatest risk. I cannot so well intrust the mission to the native alone, because I dare not put on paper the tidings I wish conveyed, and it is possible, however faithful he may be, that he might, if taken and threatened with death, reveal the message with which he is charged. I see by your faces what your answer is about to be, but I will not hear it now. Go first to your father. Tell him exactly what I have told you, and then send me the answer if he declines to part with you--bring it me if he consents to your going. Remember that in yielding what I see is your own inclination, to his natural anxiety, you will not fall in the very least from the high position in which you stand in my regard. In an hour I shall expect to hear from you. Good-night, if I do not see you again."
"Of course father will let us go," Dick said when they got outside the tent. Ned did not reply.
"Dick, old boy," he said presently, as they walked along, "don't you think if I go alone it would be better. It would be an awful blow to father to lose both of us."
"No, Ned," Dick said warmly, "I hope he will not decide that. I know I can't talk the lingo as you can, and that so I add to your danger; still sometimes in danger two can help each other, and we have gone through so much together--oh, Ned, don't propose that you should go alone."
Major Warrener--or Colonel Warrener as he should now be called, for General Havelock had given him a step in rank, in recognition of the most valuable service of his troop during the battles on the road to Cawnpore-- heard Ned in silence while he repeated, as nearly as possible word for word, the words of the general. For some time he was silent, and sat with his face in his hands.
"I don't like you both going, my boys," he said huskily.
"No, father," Dick said, "I feared that that was what you would say; but although in some respects I should be a hindrance to Ned from not speaking the language, in others I might help him. Two are always better than one in a scrape, and if he got ill or wounded or anything I could nurse him; and two people together keep up each other's spirits. You know, father, we have got through some bad scrapes together all right, and I don't see why we should not get through this. We shall be well disguised; and no end of Sepoys, and people from Cawnpore, must be making their way to Lucknow, so that very few questions are likely to be asked. It does not seem to me anything like as dangerous a business as those we have gone through, for the last thing they would look for is Englishmen making their way to Lucknow at present. The guide who is going with us got out, you know; and they must be looking out ten times as sharp to prevent people getting out, as to prevent any one getting in."
"I really do not think, father," Ned said, "that the danger of detection is great-certainly nothing like what it was before. Dick and I will of course go as Sepoys, and Dick can bind up his face and mouth as if he had been wounded, and was unable to speak. There must be thousands of them making their way to Lucknow, and we shall excite no attention whatever. The distance is not forty miles."
"Very well, boys, so be it," Colonel Warrener said. "There is much in what you say; and reluctant as I am to part with you both, yet somehow the thought that you are together, and can help each other, will be a comfort to me. God bless you, my boys! Go back to the general, and say I consent freely to your doing the duty for which he has selected you. I expect you will have to start at once, but you will come back here to change."
General Havelock expressed his warm satisfaction when the boys returned with their father's consent to their undertaking the adventure. "I understand from Colonel Warrener," he said, addressing Ned, "that you are intended for the army. I have deferred telling you that on the day of the first fight I sent your name home, begging that you might be gazetted on that date to a commission in the Sixty-fourth. Your name will by this time have appeared in order. There are only two ensigns now in the regiment, and ere I see you again there will, I fear, be more than that even of death vacancies, so that you will have got your step. I will do the same for you," he said, turning to Dick, "if you like to give up your midshipman's berth and take to the army."
"No, thank you, sir," Dick said, laughing. "By the time this is over, I shall have had enough of land service to last my life."
"I have already sent down a report to the admiral of your conduct," General Havelock said; "and as a naval brigade is coming up under Captain Peel, you will be able to sail under your true colors before long. Now for your instructions. You are to inform Colonel Inglis, who is in command since the death of Sir H. Lawrence, that, although I am on the point of endeavoring to push forward to his rescue, I have no hope whatever of success. Across the river large forces of Oude irregulars, with guns, are collected, and every step of the way will be contested. I must leave a force to hold Cawnpore, and I have only eleven hundred bayonets in all. With such a force as this it is impossible, if the enemy resists as stubbornly as may be expected, for me to fight my way to Lucknow, still more to force my way through the city, held by some ten or fifteen thousand men, to the Residency, I may say that I have no hope of doing this till I am largely reinforced. Still, my making a commencement of a march, and standing constantly on the offensive, will force the enemy to keep a large force on the road to oppose me, and will in so far relieve the Residency from some of its foes. You see the importance of your message. Did the enemy know my weakness, they would be able to turn their whole force against the Residency. Tell our countrymen there that they must hold out to the last, but that I hope and believe that in a month from the present time the reinforcements will be up, and that I shall be able to advance to their rescue. Colonel Inglis says that their stores will last to the end of August, and that he believes that he can repel all attacks. The native who goes with you bears word only that I am on the point of advancing to the relief of the garrison. So if the worst happens, and you are all taken, his message, if he betrays it, will only help to deceive the enemy. You will start tonight if possible. I leave it to you to arrange your disguises, and have ordered the guide to be at your father's tent at nine o'clock--that is, in an hour and a half's time--so that if you can be ready by that time, you will get well away before daybreak. There is a small boat four miles up the river, that the guide crossed in; he hid it in some bushes, so you will cross without difficulty; and even if you are caught crossing, your story that you are Sepoys who have been hiding for the last few days will pass muster. Now, good-by, lads, and may God watch over you and keep you!"
Upon their return to Colonel Warrener's tent they found their friends Captains Dunlop and Manners, and two or three of the officers most accustomed to native habits and ways, and all appliances for disguise. First the boys took a hearty meal; then they stripped, and were sponged with iodine from head to foot; both were then dressed in blood-stained Sepoy uniforms, of which there were thousands lying about, for the greater portion of the enemy had thrown off their uniforms before taking to flight. Ned's left arm was bandaged up with bloody rags, and put in a sling, and Dick's head and face were similarly tied up, though he could not resist a motion of repugnance as the foul rags were applied to him. Both had a quantity of native plaster and bandages placed next to the skin, in case suspicion should fall upon them and the outside bandages be removed to see if wounds really existed; and Dick was given a quantity of tow, with which to fill his mouth and swell out his cheeks and lips, to give the appearance which would naturally arise from a severe wound in the jaw. Caste marks were painted on their foreheads; and their disguise was pronounced to be absolutely perfect to the eye. Both were barefooted, as the Sepoys never travel in the regimental boots if they can avoid it.
At the appointed time the guide was summoned, an intelligent-looking Hindoo in country dress. He examined his fellow-travelers, and pronounced himself perfectly satisfied with their appearance.
Outside the tent six horses were in readiness. Colonel Warrener, and his friends Dunlop and Manners, mounted on three, the others were for the travelers; and with a hearty good-by to their other friends in the secret, the party started.
Half an hour's riding took them to the place where the boat was concealed in the bushes; and with a tender farewell from their father, and a hearty good-by from his companions, the three adventurers took their places in the boat and started.
Noiselessly they paddled across the Ganges, stepped out in the shallow water on the other side, turned the boat adrift to float down with the stream, and then struck across the country toward Lucknow.
They were now off the main road, on which the Oude mutineers collected to oppose the advance of General Havelock were for the most part stationed. Thus they passed village after village, unchallenged and unquestioned, and morning, when it dawned, found them twenty miles on the road toward Lucknow. Then they went into a wood and lay down to sleep, for even if any one should enter accidentally and discover them, they had no fear of any suspicion arising. They were now near the main road, and when they started--just as it became dusk--they met various parties of horse and foot proceeding toward Cawnpore; sometimes they passed without a question, sometimes a word or two were said, the guide answering, and asking how things went at Lucknow.
The subject was evidently a sore one; for curses on the obstinate Feringhee dogs, and threats as to their ultimate fate, were their only reply.
Eighteen miles' walk, and a great black wall rose in front of them.
"That is the Alumbagh," the guide said; "the sahibs will have a big fight here. It is a summer palace and garden of the king. Once past this we will leave the road. It is but two miles to the canal and we must not enter the city--not that I fear discovery, but there would be no possibility of entering the Residency on this side. Our only chance is on the side I left it; that is by crossing the river. We must work round the town."
"How far are we from the Residency now? I can hear the cannon very clearly;" and indeed for the last two hours of their walk the booming of guns had been distinctly audible.
"It is about five miles in a straight line, but it will be double by the route we must take."
Turning to the right after passing the dark mass of the Alumbagh, the little party kept away through a wooded country until another great building appeared in sight.
"That is the Dilkouska," the guide said. "Now we will go half a mile further and then sleep; we cannot get in to-night."
In the afternoon they were awake again, and took their seats on a bank at a short distance from any road, and looked at the city.
"What an extraordinary view!" Ned said. "What fantastic buildings! What an immense variety of palaces and mosques! What is that strange building nearest to us?" he asked the guide.
"That is the Martiniere. It was built many years ago by a Frenchman in the service of the king of Oude. Now it is a training college. All the pupils are in the Residency, and are fighting like men. Beyond, between us and the Residency, are several palaces and mosques. That is the Residency; do you not see an English house with a tower, and a flag flying over it, standing alone on that rising ground by the river?"
"And that is the Residency!" the boys exclaimed, looking at the building in which, and the surrounding houses, a handful of Englishmen were keeping at bay an army.
"That is the Residency," their guide said; "do you not see the circle of smoke which rises around it? Listen; I can hear the rattle of musketry quite distinctly."
"And how are we to get there?" the boys asked, impatient to be at work taking part in the defense.
"We will keep on here to the right; the river is close by. We will swim across after it gets dark, make a wide sweep round, and then come down to the river again opposite the Residency, swim across, and then we are safe."