In Times of Peril by G. A. Henty
Chapter XVI. A Sortie and Its Consequences.
The night passed off without the expected attack from Johannes' house, the rebels being too much disconcerted by the destruction of the battery, and the loss of so many men, to attempt any offensive operations. The destruction of the house behind the guns, and of all those in its vicinity, deterred them from re-establishing a battery in the same place, as there would be no shelter for the infantry supporting the guns; and after the result of the sortie it was evident to them that a large force must be kept in readiness to repel the attacks of the British.
For a few days life was more tolerable in Gubbins' garrison; for although shot and shell frequently struck the house, and batteries multiplied in the circle around, none kept up so deadly and accurate a fire as that which they had destroyed.
The Warreners took their fair share in all the heavy fatigue work, and in the picket duty in the battery or on the roof; but they enjoyed their intervals of repose, which were now always spent with Mr. Hargreaves' family.
Mr. Hargreaves was collector of a district near Lucknow, and was high in the Civil Service. He was a fit husband for his kindly wife; and as Mr. Righton was of a cheerful and hopeful disposition, the boys found themselves members of a charming family circle. Often and often they wished that their father, sister, and cousin could but join them; or rather, as Ned said, they could join the party without, for no one could wish that any they loved should be at Lucknow at that time.
One evening late they were sitting together in a group outside the house, the enemy's fire being slack, when Mr. Johnson came up from the battery to Mr. Gubbins, who formed one of the party.
"I am afraid, sir, they are mining again; lying on the ground, we think we can hear the sound of blows."
"That is bad," Mr. Gubbins said; "I heard this afternoon that they believe that two mines are being driven from Johannes' house in the direction of the Martiniere, and the brigade messhouse; now we are to have our turn, eh? Well, we blew in the last they tried, and must do it again; but it is so much more hard work. Now, gentlemen, let us see who has the best ears. Excuse us, Mrs. Hargreaves, we shall not be long away."
On entering the battery they found the men on guard all lying down listening, and were soon at full length with their ears to the ground. All could hear the sound; it was very faint, as faint as the muffled tick of a watch, sometimes beating at regular intervals of a second or so, sometimes ceasing for a minute or two.
"There is no doubt they are mining," Mr. Gubbins said; "the question is, from which way are they coming."
None could give an opinion. The sound was so faint, and seemed to come so directly from below, that the ear could not discriminate in the slightest.
"At any rate," Mr. Gubbins said, "we must begin at once to sink a shaft. If, when we get down a bit, we cannot judge as to the direction, we must drive two or three listening galleries in different directions. But before we begin we must let Major Anderson, of the Royal Engineers, know, and take his advice; he is in command of all mining operations."
In ten minutes Major Anderson was on the ground.
"The fellows are taking to mining in earnest," he said; "this is the third we have discovered to-day, and how many more there may be, goodness only knows. I think you had better begin here," he said to Mr. Gubbins. "You have got tools, I think. Say about six feet square, then two men can work at once. I will be here the first thing in the morning, and then we will look round and see which is the likeliest spot for the fellows to be working from. Will you ask your sentries on the roof to listen closely to- night, in order to detect, if possible, a stir of men coming or going from any given point."
Picks and shovels were brought out, the garrison told off into working parties of four each, to relieve each other every hour, and the work began. Well-sinking is hard work in any climate, but with a thermometer marking a hundred and five at night, it is terrible; and each set of workers, as they came up bathed in perspiration, threw themselves on the ground utterly exhausted. Mr. Hargreaves and a few of the elders of the garrison were excused this work, and took extra duty on the terrace and battery.
The next day it was decided that the enemy were probably working from a ruined house near their former battery, and a gallery was begun from the bottom of the shaft. This was pushed on night and day for three days, the workers being now certain, from the rapidly increasing sound of the workers, that this was the line by which the enemy was approaching. The gallery was driven nearly twenty yards, and then three barrels of powder were stored there, and the besieged awaited the approach of the rebels' gallery.
The Sepoys had now erected batteries whose cross fire swept the ground outside the intrenchments, so that a sortie could no longer be carried out with any hope of success. Had it been possible to have attempted it, a party would have gone out, and driving off any guard that might have been placed, entered the enemy's gallery and caught them at their work. A sentry was placed continually in the gallery, and each hour the sound of the pick and crowbar became louder.
On the fifth day the engineers judged that there could not be more than a yard of earth between them. The train was laid now, and a cautious watch kept, until, just at the moment when it was thought that an opening would be made, the train was fired. The earth heaved, and a great opening was made, while a shower of stones flew high in the air. The enemy's gallery was blown in, and the men working destroyed, and a loud cheer broke from the garrison at the defeat of another attempt upon them.
The month of August began badly in Lucknow. Major Banks, the civil commissioner named by Sir Henry Lawrence to succeed him, was shot dead while reconnoitering from the top of an outhouse. The Reverend Mr. Polehampton, who had been wounded at the commencement of the siege, was killed, as were Lieutenants Lewin, Shepherd, and Archer.
On the 8th large bodies of Sepoys were observed to enter the city, and on the 10th a furious attack was made all round the British line. Every man capable of bearing arms stood at his post, and even the sick and wounded crawled out of hospital and took posts on housetops wherever they could fire on the foe. The din was prodigious--the yells of the enemy, their tremendous fire of musketry, the incessant roar of their cannon, but they lacked heart for close fighting.
Frequently large bodies of men showed from behind their shelter, and, carrying ladders, advanced as if with the determination of making an assault. Each time, however, the withering fire opened upon them from the line of earthworks, from the roof of every house, and the storm of grape from the batteries, caused them to waver and fall back. Each fresh effort was led by brave men, fanatics, who advanced alone far in front of the rest, shrieking, "Death to the infidel!"
But they died, and their spirit failed to animate their followers. Only once or twice did the assailing parties get near the line of intrenchments, and then but to fall back rapidly after heavy loss.
Day after day the position of the besieged grew more unendurable. The buildings were crumbling away under the heavy and continued fire; and as one after another became absolutely untenable, the ladies and children were more closely crowded in those which still offered some sort of shelter. Even death, fearful as were its ravages, did not suffice to counteract the closeness of the packing. Crowded in dark rooms, living on the most meager food--for all the comforts, such as tea, sugar, wine, spirits, etc., were exhausted, and even the bread was made of flour ground, each for himself, between rough stones--without proper medicines, attendance, or even bedding; tormented by a plague of flies, sickened by disgusting smells, condemned to inaction and confinement, the women and children died off rapidly, and the men, although better off with regard to light and air, sickened fast. Half the officers were laid up with disease, and all were lowered in health and strength.
On the 18th, as the Warreners had just returned from a heavy night's work, strengthening the defenses, and burying horses and cattle, a great explosion was heard, and one of those posted on the roof ran down shouting:
"To arms! they have fired a mine under the Sikh Square!"
Every man caught up his rifle and rushed to the spot. The mine had carried away a portion of the exterior defense, and the enemy, with yells of triumph, rushed forward toward the opening. Then ensued a furious melee; each man fought for himself, hand to hand, in the breach; Mussulmen and Englishmen struggled in deadly combat; the crack of the revolver, the thud of the clubbed guns, the clash of sword against steel, the British cheer and the native yell, were mingled in wild confusion. While some drove the enemy back, others brought boxes and beams, fascines and sandbags, to repair the breach. The enemy were forced back, and the British poured out with shouts of triumph.
Our men's blood was up, and they followed their advantage. Part of the engineers, ever on the alert, joined the throng with some barrels of powder, and the enemy were pushed back sufficiently far to enable some of the houses, from which we had been greatly annoyed by the enemy's sharpshooters, to be blown up.
This success cheered the besieged, and on the 20th, when it was discovered that the enemy were driving two new mines, a fresh sortie was determined upon.
The garrison of Gubbins' house had now less cover than before, for the building had been reduced almost to a shell by the enemy's fire, and all the women and children had the day before been removed to other quarters. The Residency itself was a tottering mass of ruins, and this also had been emptied of its helpless ones, who were crowded in a great underground room in the Begum Khotee. It is difficult to form an idea of the storm of shot and shell which swept the space inclosed within the lines of defense, but some notion may be obtained from the fact that an officer had the curiosity to count the number of cannon balls of various sizes that fell on the roof of the brigade messhouse in one day, and found that they amounted to the almost incredible number of two hundred and eighty. Living such a life as this, the Warreners were rejoiced when they received orders, with ten of the other defenders of the ruins of Gubbins' house, to join in the sortie on the 20th of August. About a hundred of the garrison formed up in the Sikh Square, and at the word being given dashed over the stockade and intrenchment, and made a charge for Johannes' house. This had throughout the siege been the post from which the enemy had most annoyed them, the king of Oude's negro in particular having killed a great many of our officers and men. It was from this point that the mines being driven, and it was determined at all hazards to destroy it.
The rush of the British took the enemy by surprise. Scarce a shot was fired until they had traversed half the distance, and then a heavy fire of musketry opened from all the houses held by the enemy. Still the English pushed on at full speed, without pausing to return a shot. With a cheer they burst into the inclosure in which the house stood, and while half the party entered it and engaged in a furious combat with those within, the others, in accordance with orders, pressed forward into the houses beyond, so as to keep the enemy from advancing to the assistance of their friends, thus caught in a trap. The Warreners belonged to the party who advanced, and were soon engaged in a hand-to-hand fight with the enemy. Scattering through the houses, they drove the Sepoys before them. The Warreners were fighting side by side with Mr. Johnson, and with him, after driving the enemy through the next house, they entered an outhouse beyond it.
Mr. Johnson entered first, followed by Ned, Dick being last of the party. Dick heard a sudden shout and a heavy blow, and rushed in. Mr. Johnson lay on the ground, his skull beaten in with a blow from the iron-bound staff of a dervish, a wild figure with long hair and beard reaching down to his waist. Dick was in time to see the terrible staff descend again upon Ned's head. Ned guarded it with his rifle, but the guard was beaten down and Ned stretched senseless on the ground. Before the fakir had time to raise his stuff again, Dick drove his bayonet through his chest, and the fakir fell prostrate, his body rolling down some steps into a cellar which served as a woodstore.
As he fell Dick heard a fierce growl, and a bear of a very large size, who was standing by the fakir, rose on his hind legs. Fortunately Dick's rifle was still loaded, and, pointing it into the fierce beast's mouth, he fired, and the bear rolled down the wooden steps after his master. Throwing aside his rifle, Dick turned to raise his brother. Ned lay as if dead.
Dick leaped to his feet, and ran out to call for succor. He went into the house, but it was empty. He rushed to the door, and saw the rest of the party in full retreat. He shouted, but his voice was lost in the crackle of musketry fire. He ran back to Ned and again tried to lift him, and had got him on his shoulders, when there was a tremendous explosion. Johannes' house had been blown up.
Following close upon the sound came the yells of the enemy, who were flocking up to pursue the English back to their trenches. Escape was now hopeless. Dick lowered Ned to the ground, hastily dragged the body of Mr. Johnson outside the door, and then, lifting Ned, bore him down the steps into the cellar into which the fakir and the bear had fallen. He carried him well into the cellar, took away the wooden steps, and then, with great difficulty, also dragged the bodies of the fakir and the bear further in, so that any one looking down into the hole from the outside would observe nothing unusual.
Then, as he lay down, faint from his exertions, he could hear above the tread of a great number of men, followed by a tremendous musketry fire from the house. Once or twice he thought he heard some one come to the door of the outhouse; but if so, no one entered.
Beyond rubbing Ned's hands, and putting cold stones to his forehead, Dick could do nothing; but Ned breathed, and Dick felt strong hopes that he was only stunned. In a quarter of an hour he showed signs of reviving, and in an hour was able to hear from Dick an account of what had happened, and where they were.
"We are in a horrible fix this time, Dick, and no mistake; my head aches so, I can hardly think; let us be quiet for a bit, and we will both try to think what is best to be done. There is no hurry to decide. No one is likely to come down into this place, but we may as well creep well behind this pile of wood and straw, and then we shall be safe."
Dick assented, and for an hour they lay quiet, Ned's regular breathing soon telling his brother that he had dropped off to sleep. Then Dick very quietly crept out again from their hiding-place.
"It is a grand idea," he said to himself; "magnificent. It's nasty, horribly nasty; but after three weeks of what we have gone through in the Residency one can see and do things which it would have made one almost sick to think of a month back; and as our lives depend upon it we must not stand upon niceties. I wish, though, I had been brought up a red Indian; it would have come natural then, I suppose."
So saying, he took out his pocket-knife, opened it, and went to the body of the dead fakir. He took the long, matted hair into his hand with an exclamation of disgust, but saw at once that his idea was a feasible one. The hair was matted together in an inextricable mass, and could be trusted to hang together.
He accordingly set to work to cut it off close to the head; but although his knife was a sharp one it was a long and unpleasant task, and nothing but the necessity of the case could have nerved him to get through with it.
At last it was finished, and he looked at his work with complacency.
"That's a magnificent wig," he said. "I defy the best barber in the world to make such a natural one. Now for the bear."
This was a long task; but at last the bear was skinned, and Dick set to to clean, as well as he could, the inside of the hide. Then he dragged into a corner and covered up the carcass of the bear and the body of the fakir, having first stripped the clothes off the latter, scattered a little straw over the bear's skin, and then, his task being finished, he crept behind the logs again, lay down, and went off to sleep by the side of Ned. It was getting dark when he awoke. Ned was awake, and was sitting up by his side. Outside, the din of battle, the ceaseless crack of the rifle, and the roar of cannon was going on as usual, without interruption.
"How do you feel now, Ned?" Dick asked.
"All right, Dick. I have got a biggish bump on the side of my head, and feel a little muddled still, but that is nothing. I can't think of any plan for escaping from this place, Dick, nor of getting hold of a disguise; for even if we could get out of this place and neighborhood we must be detected, and in this town it is of no use trying to beg for shelter or aid."
"It is all arranged," Dick said cheerfully. "I have got two of the best disguises in the world, and we have only to dress up in them and walk out."
Ned looked at Dick as if he thought that he had gone out of his mind.
"You don't believe me? Just you wait, then, two minutes, till I have dressed up, and then I'll call you;" and without waiting for an answer, Dick went out.
He speedily stripped to the waist, rubbed some mud from the damp floor on his arms, wound the fakir's rags round his body with a grimace of disgust, put the wig on his head--his hair, like that of all the garrison, had been cut as close to the head as scissors would take it--shook the long, knotted hair over his face and shoulders--behind it hung to the waist-- took the staff in his hand, and called quietly to Ned to come out. Ned crept out, and remained petrified with astonishment.
"The fakir!" he exclaimed at last. "Good heavens, Dick! is that you?"
"It's me, sure enough," Dick said, taking off his wig. "Here is a wig in which the sharpest eyes in the world could not detect you."
"But where--" began Ned, still lost in surprise.
"My dear Ned, I have borrowed from the fakir. It was not quite a nice job," he went on, in answer to Ned's astonished look, "but it's over now, and we need not say any more about it. The hair and rags are disgustingly filthy, there is no doubt about that. Their late owner never used a comb, and was otherwise beastly in his habits; still, old man, that cannot be helped, and if you like, when we once get out of the town, we can put them in water for twenty-four hours, or make a sort of oven, and bake them to get rid of their inhabitants. Our lives are at stake, Ned, and we must not mind trifles."
"Right, old boy," Ned said, making a great effort to overcome his first sensation of disgust. "As you say, it is a trifle. You have hit upon a superb idea, Dick, superb; and I think you have saved our lives from what seemed a hopeless scrape. But what is your other disguise?"
"This," Dick said, lifting the bear's skin. "I can get into this, and if we travel at night, so that I can walk upright, for I never could travel far on all-fours, I should pass well enough, as I could lie curled up by your side in the daytime, and no one will ask a holy fakir any troublesome questions. I don't think you could get into the skin, Ned, or I would certainly take the fakir for choice; for it will be awfully hot in this skin."
"I don't mind doing the fakir a bit," Ned said. "Fortunately the sun has done his work, and the color of our skins can be hidden by a good coat of dirt, which will look as natural as possible. Now let us set about it at once."
It took an hour's preparation; for, although Ned's toilet was quickly made, needing in fact nothing but a coating of mud, it took some time to sew Dick up in the skin, the opening being sewn up by means of the small blade of the knife and some string. It was by this time quite dark, and the operation had been completed so perfectly that once Ned was dressed they had no fear whatever of interruption.
"Now, Ned, before we go I will set fire to the straw. I don't suppose any one will go down and. make any discoveries, but they may be looking for wood, so it's as well to prevent accidents. We will throw that big piece of matting over the opening in the floor, so the light won't show till we get well away."
He ran down the ladder, struck a match, lit the straw, and then ran quickly up again. The mat was dragged across the opening, and then the boys went boldly out into the yard, Ned striding along, and Dick trotting on all-fours beside him. The night was dark, and although there were many men in the yard, sitting about on the ground round fires, no one noticed the boys, who, turning out through a gateway, took the road into the heart of Lucknow.