In Times of Peril by G. A. Henty
Chapter XIV. The Besieged Residency.
The Warrener's were taken to Gubbins' house, or garrison, as each of these fortified dwellings was now called; and the distance, short as it was, was so crowded with dangers and disagreeables that they were astonished how human beings could have supported them for a month, as the garrison of Lucknow had done. From all points of the surrounding circle shot and shell howled overhead, or crashed into walls and roofs. Many of the enemy's batteries were not above a hundred yards from the defenses, and the whistling of musket-balls was incessant.
Here and there, as they ran along, great swarms of flies, millions in number, rose from some spot where a bullock, killed by an enemy's shot, had been hastily buried, while horrible smells everywhere tainted the air.
Running across open spaces, and stooping along beneath low walls, the Warreners and their conductor, Captain Fellows, reached Gubbins' house. Mr. Gubbins himself--financial commissioner of Oude, a man of great courage and firmness--received them warmly.
"You will find we are close packed," he said, "but you will, I am sure, make the best of it. I am glad to have you, for every man is of value here; and after the bravery you have shown in coming through the enemy's lines you will be just the right sort of men for me. I think you will find most room here; I lost two of my garrison from this room on the 20th, when we had a tremendous attack all round."
The room was small and dark, as the window was closed by a bank of earth built against it on the outside. It was some fourteen feet by eight, and here, including the newcomers, eight men lived and slept. Here the Warreners, after a few words with those who were in future to be their comrades, threw themselves down on the ground, and, in spite of the din which raged around them, were soon fast asleep.
It was nearly dark when they awoke, and they at once reported themselves to Mr. Johnson--a police magistrate, who was the senior officer of the party in the room--as ready to begin duty.
"You will not be on regular duty till to-night," he replied. "Altogether, there are about forty men in the garrison. Eight are always on duty, and are relieved every four hours. So we go on every twenty hours. Only half our set go on duty together, as that gives room for those who remain. Two came off duty at eight this morning, four are just going on. You will go on with the two who came off this morning, at midnight. Besides their sentry work, of course every one is in Readiness to man the walls at any moment in case of alarm, and a good deal of your time can be spent at loopholes, picking off the enemy directly they show themselves. One of the party, in turn, cooks each day. Besides the fighting duty, there is any amount of fatigue work, the repairing and strengthening of the defenses, the fetching rations and drawing water for the house, in which there are over fifty women and children, the burying dead cattle, and covering blood and filth with earth. Besides defending our own post, we are, of course, ready to rush at any moment to assist any other garrison which may be pressed. Altogether, you will think yourself lucky when you can get four hours' sleep out of the twenty-four."
"Are our losses heavy?" Ned asked.
"Terribly heavy. The first week we lost twenty a day shot in the houses; but now that we have, as far as possible, blocked every loophole at which a bullet can enter, we are not losing so many as at first, but the daily total is still heavy, and on a day like the 20th we lost thirty. The enemy attacked us all round, and we mowed them down with grape; we believe we killed over a thousand of them. Unfortunately, every day our losses are getting heavier from disease, foul air, and overcrowding; the women and children suffer awfully. If you are disposed to make yourselves useful when not on duty, you will find abundant opportunity for kindness among them. I will take you round the house and introduce you to the ladies, then you can go among them as you like."
First the Warreners went to what, in happier times, was the main room of the house, a spacious apartment some thirty-five feet square, with windows opening to the ground at each end, to allow a free passage of air. These, on the side nearest the enemy, were completely closed by a bank of earth; while those on the other side were also built up within a few inches of the top, for shots and shell could equally enter them. The Warreners were introduced to such of the garrison as were in, the greater part being at work outside the house repairing a bank which had been injured during the day. Then Mr. Johnson went to one of the rooms leading off the main apartment. A curtain hung across it instead of a door, and this was now drawn aside to allow what air there was to circulate.
"May I come in?" he asked.
"Certainly, Mr. Johnson," a lady said, coming to the entrance.
"Mrs. Hargreaves, let me introduce the Messrs. Warreners, the gentlemen who have so gallantly come through the enemy's lines with the message. They are to form part of our garrison."
The lady held out her hand, but with a slight air of surprise.
"I suppose our color strikes you as peculiar, Mrs. Hargreaves," Ned said, "but it will wear off in a few days; it is iodine, and we are already a good many shades lighter than when we started."
"How silly of me not to think of that," Mrs. Hargreaves said; "of course I heard that you were disguised. But please come in; it is not much of a room to receive in, but we are past thinking of that now. My daughter, Mrs. Righton; her husband is with mine on guard at present. These are my daughters, Edith and Nelly; these five children are my grandchildren. My dears, these are the Messrs. Warreners, who brought the news from General Havelock. Their faces are stained, but will be white again in time."
The ladies all shook hands with the Warreners, who looked with surprise on the neatness which prevailed in this crowded little room. On the ground, by the walls, were several rolls of bedding covered over with shawls, and forming seats or lounges. On the top of one of the piles two little children were fast asleep. A girl of six sat in a corner on the ground reading. There were two or three chairs, and these the ladies, seating themselves on the divan, as they called the bedding, asked their visitors to take.
Mrs. Hargreaves was perhaps forty-five years old, with a pleasant face, marked by firmness and intelligence. Mrs. Righton was twenty-five or twenty-six, and her pale face showed more than that of her mother the effects of the anxiety and confinement of the siege. Edith and Nelly were sixteen and fifteen respectively, and although pale, the siege had not sufficed to mar their bright faces or to crush their spirits.
"Dear me," Nelly said, "why, you look to me to be quite boys; why, you can't be much older than I am, are you?"
"My dear Nelly," her mother said reprovingly; but Dick laughed heartily.
"I am not much older than you are," he said; "a year, perhaps, but not more. I am a midshipman in the Agamemnon. My brother is a year older than I am, and he is gazetted to the Sixty-fourth; so you see, if the times were different, we should be just the right age to be your devoted servants."
"Oh, you can be that now," Nelly said. "I am sure we want them more than ever; don't we, mamma?"
"I think you have more than your share of servants now, Nelly," replied her mother. "We are really most fortunate, Mr. Johnson, in having our ayah still with us; so many were deserted by their servants altogether, and she is an admirable nurse. I do not know what we should do without her, for the heat and confinement make the poor children sadly fractious. We were most lucky yesterday, for we managed to secure a dobee for the day, and you see the result;" and she smilingly indicated the pretty light muslins in which her daughters were dressed. "You see us quite at our best," she said, turning to the boys. "But we have, indeed," she went on seriously, "every reason to be thankful. So far we have not lost any of our party, and there are few indeed who can say this. These are terrible times, young gentlemen, and we are all in God's hands. We are exceptionally well off, but we find our hands full. My eldest daughter has to aid the ayah with the children; then there is the cooking to be done by me, and the room to be kept tidy by Edith and Nelly, and there are so many sick and suffering to be attended to. You will never find us all here before six in the evening; we are busy all day; but we shall always be glad to see you when you can spare time for a chat in the evening. All the visitors we receive are not so welcome, I can assure you;" and she pointed to three holes in the wall where the enemy's shot had crashed through.
"That is a very noble woman," Mr. Johnson said, as they went out. "She spends many hours every day down at the military hospital where, the scenes are dreadful, and where the enemy's shot and shell frequently find entry, killing alike the wounded and their attendants. The married daughter looks after her children and the neatness of the rooms. The young girls are busy all day about the house nursing sick children, and yet, as you see, all are bright, pleasant, and the picture of neatness, marvelous contrasts indeed to the disorder and wretchedness prevailing among many, who might, by making an effort, be as bright and as comfortable as they are. There are, as you will find, many brilliant examples of female heroism and self-devotion exhibited here; but in some instances women seem to try how helpless, how foolish a silly woman can be. Ah," he broke off, as a terrific crash followed by a loud scream was heard, "I fear that shell has done mischief."
"Mrs. Shelton is killed," a woman said, running out, "and Lucy Shelton has had her arm cut off. Where is Dr. Topham?"
Mrs. Hargreaves came out of her door with a basin of water and some linen torn into strips for bandages just as the doctor ran in from the Sikh Square, where he had been attending to several casualties.
"That is right," he nodded to Mrs. Hargreaves; "this is a bad business, I fear."
"All hands to repair defenses!" was now the order, and the boys followed Mr. Johnson outside.
"The scoundrels are busy this evening," he observed.
"It sounds like a boiler-maker's shop," Dick said; "if only one in a hundred bullets were to hit, there would not be many alive by to-morrow morning."
"No, indeed," Mr. Johnson replied; "they are of course firing to some extent at random, but they aim at the points where they think it likely that we may be at work, and their fire adds greatly to our difficulty in setting right at night the damage they do in the daytime."
For the next four hours the lads were hard at work with the rest of the garrison. Earth was brought in sacks or baskets and piled up, stockades repaired, and fascines and gabions mended. The work would have been hard anywhere; on an August night in India it was exhausting. All the time that they were at work the bullets continued to fly thickly overhead, striking the wall of the house with a sharp crack, or burying themselves with a short thud in the earth. Round shot and shell at times crashed through the upper part of the house, which was uninhabited; while from the terraced roof, and from the battery in the corner of the garden, the crack of the defenders' rifles answered the enemy's fire.
By the time that the work was done it was midnight, and the Warreners' turn for guard. They had received rifles, and were posted with six others in the battery. There were three guns here, all of which were loaded to the muzzle with grape; three artillerymen, wrapped in their cloaks, lay asleep beside them, for the number of artillerymen was so small that the men were continually on duty, snatching what sleep they could by their guns during the intervals of fighting. The orders were to listen attentively for the sound of the movement of any body of men, and to fire occasionally at the flashes of the enemy's guns. The four hours passed rapidly, for the novelty of the work, the thunder of cannon and crackling of musketry, all round the Residency, were so exciting that the Warreners were surprised when the relief arrived. They retired to their room, and were soon asleep; but in an hour the alarm was sounded, and the whole force at the post rushed to repel an attack. Heralded by a storm of fire from every gun which could be brought to bear upon the battery, thousands of fanatics rushed from the shelter of the houses outside the intrenchments and swarmed down upon it. The garrison lay quiet behind the parapet until the approach of the foe caused the enemy's cannon to cease their fire. Then they leaped to their feet and poured a volley into the mass. So great were their numbers, however, that the gaps were closed in a moment, and with yells and shouts the enemy leaped into the ditch, and tried to climb the earthwork of the battery. Fortunately at this moment the reserve of fifty men of the Thirty-second, which were always kept ready to launch at any threatened point, came up at a run, and their volley over the parapet staggered the foe. Desperately their leaders called upon them to climb the earthworks, but the few who succeeded in doing so were bayoneted and thrown back into the ditch, while a continuous musketry fire was poured into the crowd. Over and over again the guns, charged with grape, swept lines through their ranks, and at last, dispirited and beaten, they fell back again to the shelter from which they had emerged. The Thirty-second men then returned to the brigade messroom, and the garrison of the fort were about to turn in when Mr. Gubbins said cheerfully:
"Now, lads, we have done with those fellows for to-day, I fancy. I want some volunteers to bury those horses which were killed yesterday; it's an unpleasant job, but it's got to be done."
The men's faces testified to the dislike they felt for the business; but they knew it was necessary, and all made their way to the yard, where, close by the cattle, the horses were confined. The boys understood at once the repugnance which was felt to approaching this part of the fort. The ground was covered deep with flies, who rose in a black cloud, with a perfect roar of buzzing.
Lucknow was always celebrated for its plague of flies, but during the siege the nuisance assumed surprising proportions. The number of cattle and animals collected, the blood spilled in the slaughter-yard, the impossibility of preserving the cleanliness so necessary in a hot climate, all combined to generate swarms of flies, which rivaled those of Egypt. The garrison waged war against them, but in vain. Powder was plentiful, and frequently many square yards of infected ground, where the flies swarmed thickest, would be lightly sprinkled with it, and countless legions blown into the air; but these wholesale executions, however often repeated, appeared to make no impression whatever on the teeming armies of persecutors.
Their task finished, the fatigue party returned to their houses, and then all who had not other duties threw themselves down to snatch a short sleep. In spite of a night passed without rest, sleep was not easily wooed. The heat in the open air was terrific, in the close little room it was stifling; while the countless flies irritated them almost to madness. There was indeed but the choice of two evils: to cover closely their faces and hands, and lie bathed in perspiration; or to breathe freely, and bear the flies as best they might. The former alternative was generally chosen, as heat, however great, may be endured in quiet, and sleep may insensibly come on; but sleep with a host of flies incessantly nestling on every exposed part of the face and body was clearly an impossibility.
That day was a bad one for the defenders of Gubbins' garrison, for no less than twelve shells penetrated the house, and five of the occupants were killed or wounded. The shells came from a newly erected battery a hundred and fifty yards to the north. Among the killed was one of Mrs. Righton's children; and the boys first learned the news when, on rising from a fruitless attempt to sleep, they went to get a little fresh air outside. Edith and Nelly Hargreaves came out from the door, with jugs, on their way to fetch water.
The Warreners at once offered to fetch it for them, and as they spoke they saw that the girls' faces were both swollen with crying.
"Is anything the matter, Miss Hargreaves?" Ned asked.
"Have you not heard," Edith said, "how poor little Rupert has been killed by a shell? The ayah was badly hurt, and we all had close escapes; the shells from that battery are terrible."
Expressing their sorrow at the news, the boys took the jugs, and crossing the yard to the well, filled and brought them back.
"I wish we could do something to silence that battery," said Dick;" it will knock the house about our ears, and we shall be having the women and children killed every day."
"Let's go and have a look at it from the roof," replied Ned.
The roof was, like those of most of the houses in the Residency, flat, and intended for the inmates to sit and enjoy the evening breeze. The parapet was very low, but this had been raised by a line of sandbags, and behind them five or six of the defenders were lying, firing through the openings between the bags, in answer to the storm of musketry which the enemy were keeping up on the post.
Stooping low to avoid the bullets which were singing overhead, the Warreners moved across the terrace, and lying down, peered out through the holes which had been left for musketry. Gubbins' house stood on one of the highest points of the ground inclosed in the defenses, and from it they could obtain a view of nearly the whole circle of the enemy's batteries. They were indeed higher than the roofs of most of the houses held by the enemy, but one of these, distant only some fifty yards from the Sikh Square, dominated the whole line of the British defenses on that side, and an occasional crack of a rifle from its roof showed that the advantage was duly appreciated.
"What do they call that house?" Ned asked one of the officers on the terrace.
"That is Johannes' house," he answered. "It was a terrible mistake that we did not destroy it before the siege began; it is an awful thorn in our side. There is a black scoundrel, a negro, in the service of the king of Oude, who has his post there; he is a magnificent shot, and he has killed a great number of ours. It is almost certain death to show a head within the line of his fire."
"I wonder we have not made a sortie, and set fire to the place," said Ned.
"The scoundrels are so numerous that we could only hope to succeed with considerable loss, and we are so weak already that we can't afford it. So the chief sets his face against sorties, but I expect that we shall be driven to it one of these days. That new battery is terribly troublesome also. There, do you see, it lies just over that brow, so that the shot from our battery cannot touch it, while it can pound away at our house, and indeed at all the houses along this line."
"I should have thought," Dick said, "that a rush at night might carry it, and spike the guns."
"No; we should be certain to make some sort of noise, however quiet we were. There are six guns, all loaded at nightfall to the muzzle with grape; we know that, for once they fancied they heard us coming, and they fired such a storm of grape that we should have been all swept away; besides which, there are a large number of the fellows sleeping round; and although sometimes the battery ceases firing for some hours, the musketry goes on more or less during the night."
The Warreners lay wistfully watching the battery, whose shots frequently struck the house, and two or three times knocked down a portion of the sandbag parapet--the damage being at once repaired with bags lying in readiness, but always under a storm of musketry, which opened in the hopes of hitting the men engaged upon the work; these were, however, accustomed to it, and built up the sandbags without showing a limb to the enemy's shot.
"There were two children killed by that last shot," an officer said, coming up from below and joining them; "it made its way through the earth and broke in through a blocked-up window."
"We must silence that battery, Ned, whatever comes of it," Dick said in his brother's ear.
"I agree with you, Dick; but how is it to be done? have you got an idea?"
"Well, my idea is this," the midshipman said. "I think you and I might choose a dark night, as it will be to-night. Take the bearings of the battery exactly; then when they stop firing, and we think the gunners are asleep, crawl out and make for the guns. When we get there we can make our way among them, keeping on the ground so that the sentry cannot see us against the sky; and then with a sponge full of water we can give a squeeze on each of the touchholes, so there would be no chance of their going off till the charges were drawn. Then we could make our way back and tell Gubbins the guns are disabled, and he can take out a party, carry them with a rush, and spike them permanently."
"Capital, Dick; I'm with you, old boy."
"Now let us take the exact bearings of the place. There was a lane, you see, before the houses were pulled down, running along from beyond that corner nearly to the guns. When we get out we must steer for that, because it is comparatively clear from rubbish, and we ain't so likely to knock a stone over and make a row. We must choose some time when they are pounding away somewhere else, and then we shan't be heard even if we do make a little noise. We will ask Mrs. Hargreaves for a couple of pieces of sponge; we need not tell her what we want them for."
"And you think to-night, Dick?"
"Well, to-night is just as likely to succeed as any other night, and the sooner the thing is done the better. Johnson commands the guard from twelve to four, and he is an easy-going fellow, and will let us slip out, while some of the others wouldn't."