In Times of Peril by G. A. Henty
Chapter XV. Spiking the Guns.
As soon as night fell a little procession with three little forms on trays covered with white cloths, and two of larger size, started from Gubbins' house to the churchyard. Mr. and Mrs. Hargreaves, and Mrs. Righton and her husband, with two other women, followed. That morning all the five, now to be laid in the earth, were strong and well; but death had been busy. In such a climate as that, and in so crowded a dwelling, no delay could take place between death and burial, and the victims of each day were buried at nightfall. There was no time to make coffins, no men to spare for the work; and as each fell, so were they committed to the earth.
A little distance from Gubbins' house the procession joined a larger one with the day's victims from the other parts of the garrison--a total of twenty-four, young and old. At the head of the procession walked the Rev. Mr. Polehampton, one of the chaplains, who was distinguished for the bravery and self-devotion with which he labored among the sick and wounded. The service on which they were now engaged was in itself dangerous, for the churchyard was very exposed to the enemy's fire, and-- for they were throughout the siege remarkably well-informed of what was taking place within the Residency--every evening they opened a heavy fire in the direction of the spot where they knew a portion of the garrison would be engaged in this sad avocation. Quietly and steadily the little procession moved along, though bullets whistled and shells hissed around them. Each stretcher with an adult body was carried by four soldiers, while some of the little ones' bodies were carried by their mothers as if alive. Mrs. Hargreaves and her daughter carried between them the tray on which the body of little Rupert Righton lay. Arrived at the churchyard, a long shallow trench, six feet wide, had been prepared, and in this, side by side, the dead were tenderly placed. Then Mr. Polehampton spoke a few words of prayer and comfort, and the mourners turned away, happily without one of them having been struck by the bullets which sang around, while some of the soldiers speedily filled in the grave.
While the sad procession had been absent, the boys had gone to Mrs. Hargreaves' room. The curtain was drawn, and they could hear the girls sobbing inside.
"Please, Miss Hargreaves, can I speak to you for a moment?" Ned said. "I would not intrude, but it is something particular."
Edith Hargreaves came to the door.
"Please," Ned went on, "will you give us two good-sized pieces of sponge? We don't know any one else to ask, and--but you must not say a word to any one--my brother and myself mean to go out to-night to silence that battery which is doing such damage."
"Silence that battery!" Edith exclaimed in surprise. "Oh, if you could do that; but how is it possible?"
"Oh, you dear boy," Nelly, who had come to the door, exclaimed impetuously, "if you could but do that, every one would love you. We shall all be killed if that terrible battery goes on. But how are you going to do it?"
"I don't say we are going to do it," Ned said, smiling at the girl's excitement, "but we are going to try to-night. We'll tell you all about it in the morning when it is done; that is," he said seriously, "if we come back to tell it. But you must not ask any questions now, and please give us the pieces of sponge." Edith disappeared for a moment, and came back with two large pieces of sponge.
"We will not ask, as you say we must not," she said quietly, "but I know you are going to run some frightful danger. I may tell mamma and Carrie when they come back that much, may I not? and we will all keep awake and pray for you tonight--God bless you both!" And with a warm clasp of the hands the girls went back into their room again.
"I tell you what, Ned," the midshipman said emphatically, when they went out into the air, "if I live through this war I'll marry Nelly Hargreaves; that is," he added, "if she'll have me, and will wait a bit. She is a brick, and no mistake. I never felt really in love before; not regularly, you know."
At any other time Ned would have laughed; but with Edith's farewell words in his ear he was little disposed for mirth, and he merely put his hand on Dick's shoulder and said:
"There will be time to talk about that in the future, Dick. There's the battery opening in earnest. There! Mr. Gubbins is calling for all hands on the roof with their rifles to try and silence it. Come along."
For an hour the fire on both sides was incessant. The six guns of the battery concentrated their fire upon Gubbins' house, while from the walls and houses on either side of it the fire of the musketry flashed unceasingly, sending a hail of shot to keep down the reply from the roof.
On their side the garrison on the terrace disregarded the musketry fire, but, crowded behind the sandbags, kept up a steady and concentrated fire at the flashes of the cannon; while from the battery below, the gunners, unable to touch the enemy's battery, discharged grape at the houses tenanted by the enemy's infantry. The Sepoys, carefully instructed in our service, had constructed shields of rope to each gun to protect the gunners, but those at the best could cover but one or two men, and the fire from the parapet inflicted such heavy losses upon the gunners that after a time their fire dropped, and an hour from the commencement of the cannonade all was still again on both sides. The Sepoy guns were silenced.
It was now ten o'clock, and the Warreners went and lay down quietly for a couple of hours. Then they heard the guard changed, and after waiting a quarter of an hour they went out to the battery, having first filled their sponges with water. There they joined Mr. Johnson.
"Can't sleep, boys?" he asked; "those flies are enough to drive one mad. You will get accustomed to them after a bit."
"It is not exactly that, sir," Ned said, "but we wanted to speak to you. Dick and I have made up our minds to silence that battery. We have got sponges full of water, and we mean to go out and drown the priming. Then when we come back and tell Mr. Gubbins, I dare say he will take out a party, make a rush, and spike them."
"Why, you must be mad to think of such a thing!" Mr. Johnson said in astonishment.
"I think it is easy enough, sir," Ned replied; "at any rate, we mean to try."
"I can't let you go without leave," Mr. Johnson said.
"No, sir, and so we are not going to tell you we are going," Ned laughed. "What we want to ask you is to tell your men not to fire if they hear a noise close by in the next few minutes, and after that to listen for a whistle like this. If they hear that they are not to fire at any one approaching from the outside. Good-by, sir."
And without waiting for Mr. Johnson to make up his mind whether or not his duty compelled him to arrest them, to prevent them from carrying out the mad scheme of which Ned had spoken, the Warreners glided off into the darkness.
They had obtained a couple of native daggers, and took no other arms. They did not take off their boots, but wound round them numerous strips of blanket, so that they would tread noiselessly, and yet if obliged to run for it would avoid the risk of cutting their feet and disabling themselves in their flight. Then, making sure that by this time Mr. Johnson would have given orders to his men not to fire if they heard a noise close at hand, they went noiselessly to the breastwork which ran from the battery to the house, climbed over it, and dropped into the trench beyond.
Standing on the battery close beside them, they saw against the sky the figure of Mr. Johnson.
"Good-by, sir," Ned said softly; "we will be back in half an hour if we have luck."
Then they picked their way carefully over the rough ground till they reached the lane, and then walked boldly but noiselessly forward, for they knew that for a little way there was no risk of meeting an enemy, and that in the darkness they were perfectly invisible to any native posted near the guns. After fifty yards' walking, they dropped on their hands and knees. Although the guns had been absolutely silent since their fire ceased at ten o'clock, a dropping musketry fire from the houses and walls on either side had, as usual, continued. This indicated to the boys pretty accurately the position of the guns. Crawling forward foot by foot, they reached the little ridge which sheltered the guns from the battery in Gubbins' garden.
The guns themselves they could not see, for behind them was a house, and, except against the sky line, nothing was visible. They themselves were, as they knew, in a line between Gubbins' house and any one who might be standing at the guns, so that they would not show against the sky. They could hear talking among the houses on either side of the guns, and could see the light of fires, showing that while some of their enemies were keeping up a dropping fire, others were passing the night, as is often the native custom, round the fires, smoking and cooking. There was a faint talk going on ahead, too, beyond the guns; but the enemy had had too severe a lesson of the accuracy of the English rifle-fire to dare to light a fire there.
Having taken in the scene, the boys moved forward, inch by inch. Presently Ned put his hand on something which, for a moment, made him start back; an instant's thought, however, reassured him; it was a man, but the hardness of the touch told that it was not a living one. Crawling past it, the lads found other bodies lying thickly, and then they touched a wheel. They had arrived at the guns, and the bodies were those of the men shot down a few hours before in the act of loading.
Behind the guns a number of artillerymen were, as the boys could hear, sitting and talking; but the guns themselves stood alone and unguarded. A clasp of the hand, and the boys parted, one going, as previously arranged, each way. Ned rose very quietly by the side of the gun, keeping his head, however, below its level, and running his hand along it until it came to the breech. The touch-hole was covered by a wad of cloth to keep the powder dry from the heavy dew. This he removed, put up his hand again with the wet sponge, gave a squeeze, and then cautiously replaced the covering.
Dick did the same with the gun on the right, and so each crept along from gun to gun, until the six guns were disabled. Then they crawled back and joined each other.
A clasp of the hands in congratulation, and then they were starting to return, when they heard a dull tramp, and the head of a dark column came along just ahead of them. The boys shrank back under the guns, and lay flat among the bodies of the dead. The column halted at the guns, and a voice asked:
"Is the colonel here?"
"Here am I," said a voice from behind the guns, and a native officer came forward.
"We are going to make an attack from the house of Johannes. We shall be strong, and shall sweep the Kaffirs before us. It is the order of the general that you open with your guns here, to distract their attention."
"Will it please you to represent to the general that we have fought this evening, and that half my gunners are killed. The fire of the sons of Sheitan is too strong for us. Your excellency will see the ground is covered with our dead. Bring fire," he ordered, and at the word one of the soldiers lighted a torch made of straw, soaked in oil, which threw a lurid flame over the ground. "See, excellency, how we have suffered."
"Are they all dead?" asked the officer, stepping nearer.
The boys held their breath, when there was a sharp cracking of musketry, the man with the torch fell prostrate, and several cries arose from the column. The watchers on the roof of Gubbins' house had been quick to discern their enemy.
"Move on, march!" the officer exclaimed hastily, "double. Yes, I see, it is hot here; but when we have attacked, and their attention is distracted, you may do something."
So saying, he went off at a run with his regiment.
The boys lost no time in creeping out again, and making the best of their way back; once fairly over the crest, they rose to their feet and ran down toward the intrenchment. As they neared this Ned whistled twice. The whistle was answered, and in a minute hands were stretched down to help them to scramble over the earthwork.
"All right," Ned said to Mr. Johnson; "the guns are useless, and weakly guarded. There are lots of infantry on both sides, but some of them will be drawn off, for they are going to make an attack from Johannes' house. Where is Mr. Gubbins?"
"He has just made his rounds," Mr. Johnson said; "I will take you to him."
Mr. Gubbins was astonished when he heard from the boys that they had been out, and rendered the guns temporarily useless. "You were wrong to act without orders," he said, "but I can't scold you for such a gallant action. We must act on it at once. I would send for a reinforcement, but we must not lose a moment. If the attack from Johannes' house begins before our attack, the artillerymen will prepare for action, and may discover that the breeches of their guns are wet. Call up every man at once, Mr. Johnson, and let them fall in on the battery; and do you," he turned to another, "run down to the Sikh Square and Martiniere garrison, and warn them that a great attack is just going to be made. Tell them that we are making a sortie, and ask them to bring every rifle to bear on the houses to the left of the guns, so as to keep down the infantry fire there."
In two minutes every man of the garrison was assembled in the battery, even those from the roof being called down.
"Bring a dark lantern," Mr. Gubbins said; "it may be useful. Now, lads, we are going to spike the guns; they have been rendered useless, so we have only got to make a dash for them. The moment they are in our possession, you, Mr. Johnson, with ten men, will clear the house immediately behind it, and look for the magazine. Mr. Leathes, you, with fifteen men, will move to the right a little; and you, Mr. Percival, with your command, to the left. Do not go far, but each carry a house or two, set them on fire, and fall back here when you hear the bugle. I have got the hammer and spiking nails. Now, as quietly as you can till you hear that we are discovered, and then go with a rush at the guns."
In fact, they had gone very few paces before there was a shout in the enemy's line. The noise of so many men stumbling over the debris of leveled houses was heard in an instant in the night air.
"Forward!" Mr. Gubbins shouted; "don't fire, give them the bayonet."
At a charge the little party rushed along. They were in the lane now, and were able to run fast. The shout had been followed by a shot, then by a dozen others, and then a rapid fire broke out from the houses and walls in front.
They were still invisible, however, and the balls whistled overhead. They heard the voice of the officer at the guns shout to his men:
"Steady; don't fire till they are on the crest, then blow them into dust."
They topped the crest and rushed at the guns.
"Fire!" shouted the officer, but a cry of dismay alone answered his words, and in a moment the British rushed on to the guns, and bayoneted the astonished and dismayed enemy.
Then they separated each to the work assigned to them, while Mr. Gubbins, with a man with the lantern, went from gun to gun and drove a nail down the touchhole of each. Then he followed into the house behind. Here a short but furious fight had taken place. The Sepoys lodged there fought desperately but unavailingly. A few leaped from the windows, but the rest were bayoneted. The fight was stern and silent; no words were spoken, for the Sepoys knew that it was useless to ask for quarter; the clashing of sabers against muskets, an occasional sharp cry, and the sound of the falling of heavy bodies alone told of the desperate struggle.
It ended just as Mr. Gubbins entered.
"Look about," he said; "they must have a magazine somewhere here; perhaps a large one."
There was a rapid search.
"Here it is," Ned said, as he looked into a large outhouse behind the building. "There are some twenty barrels of powder and a large quantity of shot and shell."
"Break open a barrel, quick!" Mr. Gubbins said. "Mr. Johnson, I will do this with the Warreners. Do you line that low wall, and keep back the pandies a minute or two; they will be on us like a swarm of bees. Run into the house," he said to Dick, as Mr. Johnson led his men forward to the wall, "you will see a bucket of water in the first room. Bring it here quick. Now then," he said, "empty this barrel among the others; that's right, smash in the heads of three or four others with this hammer. That's right," as Dick returned with the water. "Now fill your cap with powder."
Dick did so, and Mr. Gubbins poured some water into it, stirred them together till the powder was damped through, and with this made a train some five feet long to the dry powder.
The party at the wall were now hotly engaged with a mass of advancing enemy.
"Fall back, Mr. Johnson, quickly. Sound the retreat, bugler. Go along, lads; I'll light the train."
He waited until the last man had passed, applied a lighted match to the train, which began to fizz and sputter, and then ran out and followed the rest, shutting the door of the magazine as he went out, in order that the burning fuse should not be seen.
By this time the houses on either side were alight, and the whole party were returning at a double toward the intrenchments.
As they neared the lines the enemy swarmed out from their cover, and the head of the reinforcements were pouring out through the house into the battery, when the earth shook, a mighty flash of fire lit the sky; there was a roar like thunder, and most of the retreating party were swept from their feet by the shock, while a shower of stones and timber fell in a wide circle. They were soon up again, and scrambled over the earthworks.
For a minute the explosion was succeeded by a deathlike stillness, broken only by the sound of the falling fragments; then from the whole circle of the British lines a great cheer of triumph rose up, while a yell of fury answered them from the enemy's intrenchments.
"Any loss?" was Mr. Gubbins' first question.
"No one killed," was the report of the officers of the three sections.
Four of the men stepped forward; two were slightly wounded only; two were seriously hit, but a glance showed that the wounds were not of a nature likely to be fatal.
"Hurrah! my lads," Mr. Gubbins said cheerily; "six guns spiked, our garrison freed from that troublesome battery, a lesson given to the enemy, and I expect a few hundred of them blown up, and all at the cost of four wounded."
"Well done, indeed," a voice said; and General Inglis, with two or three of his officers, stepped forward. "Gallantly done; but how was it that the guns were silent? you could hardly have caught them asleep."
"No, sir," Mr. Gubbins said; "the gentlemen who brought in the message from General Havelock, two days ago, went out on their own account, and silenced the guns by wetting the priming."
A suppressed cheer broke from the whole party; for until now only Mr. Johnson and those on guard with him knew what had happened, and the silence of the guns had been a mystery to all.
"Step forward, young gentlemen, will you?" General Inglis said. "You have done a most gallant action," he went on, shaking them by the hand, "a most gallant action; and the whole garrison are greatly indebted to you. I shall have great pleasure in reporting your gallant conduct to the commander-in-chief, when the time comes for doing so. I will not mar the pleasure which all feel at your deed by blaming you for acting on your own inspiration, but I must do so to-morrow. Good fortune has attended your enterprise, but the lives of brave men are too valuable to allow them to undertake such risks as this on their own account. And now that I have said what I was obliged to say, I ask you all to give three cheers for our gallant young friends."
Three hearty cheers were given, and then the general hurried off to superintend the preparations for the defense of the quarter threatened by the attack from Johannes' house, if indeed that attack should not be postponed, owing to the discouragement which the blow just inflicted would naturally spread. Surrounded by their comrades, the Warreners re-entered the house.
"What was that terrible explosion?" "What has happened?" was asked by a score of female voices as they entered.
"Good news," Mr. Gubbins said; "you can sleep in peace. The guns of the battery which has annoyed us are all spiked, and their magazine blown up, and all this without the loss of a man, thanks to the Warreners, who went out alone and disabled all the guns, by wetting the primings. All your thanks are due to them."
There was a general cry of grateful joy; for since the battery had begun to play upon the house, no one had felt that his own life or the lives of those dearest to him were safe for a moment. All were dressed, for in these times of peril no one went regularly to bed; and they now crowded round the boys, shaking them by the hand, patting them on the shoulders, many crying for very joy and relief.
Mrs. Hargreaves was standing at the door, and the boys went up to her. She drew back the curtain for them to enter; for, sure that the boys intended to carry out some desperate enterprise, none of her family had even lain down. Mr. Hargreaves and Mr. Righton followed them in.
"We were all praying for you," she said simply, "as if you had been my own sons; for you were doing as much for me and mine as my own could have done;" and she kissed both their foreheads.
"I think, Mrs. Hargreaves," said Dick, with the demure impudence of a midshipman, "that that ought to go round."
"I think you have fairly earned it, you impudent boy," Mrs. Hargreaves said, smiling.
Mrs. Righton kissed Dick tearfully, for she was thinking that, had the battery been silenced only one day earlier, her little one would have been saved. Edith glanced at her mother, and allowed Dick to kiss her; while Nelly threw her arms round his neck and kissed him heartily, telling him he was a darling boy.
Ned, who possessed none of the impudence of his brother, and who was moreover at the age when many boys become bashful with women, contented himself with shaking hands with Mrs. Righton and Edith, and would have done the same with Nelly, but that young lady put up her cheek with a laugh.
"I choose to be kissed, sir," she said; "it is not much kissing that we get here, goodness knows."