In Times of Peril by G. A. Henty
Chapter XVII. Out of Lucknow.
One hundred yards or so after starting the disguised fakir and his bear entered a locality teeming with troops, quartered there in order to be close at hand to the batteries, to assist to repel sorties, or to join in attacks. Fortunately the night was very dark, and the exceedingly awkward and unnatural walk of the bear passed unseen. Over and over again they were challenged and shouted to, but the hoarse "Hoo-Hac," which is the cry of the fakirs, and the ring of the iron-bound staff with its clanking rings on the ground, were a sufficient pass.
Ned guessed, from the fact of their having been met with so close to the fort, that the fakir and his bear would be well known to the mutineers; and this proved to be the case.
Several of the men addressed him, but he waved his arm, shook his head angrily, and strode on; and as fakirs frequently pretend to be absorbed in thought, and unwilling to converse, the soldiers fell back. Beyond this, the streets were deserted. The most populous native quarter lay far away, and few of the inhabitants, save of the lowest classes, cared to be about the streets after nightfall.
The instant that they were in a quiet quarter Dick rose on to his feet.
"My goodness," he whispered to Ned, "that all-fours' work is enough to break one's back, Ned."
They now struck sharply to the left, presently crossed the wide street leading from the Cawnpore Bridge, and kept on through quiet lanes until they came to the canal. This would be the guide they wanted, and they followed it along, taking nearly the route which General Havelock afterward followed in his advance, until they came to a bridge across the canal. Once over, they were, they knew, fairly safe. They kept on at a rapid walk until well in the country, and then sat down by the roadside for a consultation as to their best course of proceeding. The lads were both of opinion that the dangers which would lie in the way of their reaching Cawnpore would be very great. This road was now occupied by great numbers of troops, determined to bar the way to Lucknow against General Havelock. They had advanced without question, because it was natural that Sepoys should be making their way from Cawnpore to Lucknow; but it would not be at all natural that a fakir should at this time be going in the opposite direction. Moreover--and this weighed very strongly with them-- they knew that General Havelock would advance with a force wholly inadequate to the task before him; and they thought that even should he succeed in getting into Lucknow, he would be wholly unable to get out again, hampered, as he would be, with sick, wounded, women, and children. In that case he would have to continue to hold Lucknow until a fresh relieving force arrived, and the lads had already had more than enough of the confinement and horrors of a siege such as that of Cawnpore.
Animated by these considerations, they determined to push to Delhi, where they hoped that they might arrive in time to see the end of the siege, at whose commencement they had been present.
No suspicion would be likely to be excited by their passage through that line of country, which, indeed, would be found altogether denuded of the enemy's troops, for all the regiments that had mutinied along this line had marched off, either to Delhi or Lucknow, and the country was in the hands of the zemindars, who would neither suspect nor molest a wandering fakir. It certainly was unusual for a fakir to be accompanied by a bear, but as the fakir they had killed had a bear with him, it was clearly by no means impossible. Dick protested that it was absolutely essential that they should walk at night, for that he would be detected at once in the day.
"I vote that we walk all night, Ned, and make our thirty-five or forty miles, then turn in, hide up all day. In the evening when it gets quite dusk, we can go into the outskirts of a village. Then you will begin to shout, and I will lie down, as if tired, by you. They will bring you lots of grub, under the idea that you will give them charms, and so on, next day. When the village is asleep, we will go on. You can easily ask for cloth--I am sure your rags are wretched enough--and then I can dress at night, after setting out from each village, in native dress, for it would be awful to walk far in this skin; besides, my feet are as uncomfortable as possible."
This plan was agreed upon, and they struck across country for the main Delhi road, Dick slipping out of his bear's skin, and simply wearing it wrapped loosely round him.
The Warreners had been accustomed to such incessant labor at Lucknow that they had no difficulty in keeping going all night. As day was breaking they retired into a tope of trees and threw themselves down, Dick first taking the precaution to get into the bear's skin and lace it up, in case of surprise. It was of course hot, but at least it kept off flies and other insects; and as it was quite loose for him, it was not so hot as it would have been had it fitted more tightly. The lads were both utterly fatigued, and in a very few minutes were fast asleep.
It was late in the afternoon before they awoke, and although extremely hungry, they were forced to wait until it became dusk before proceeding on their way.
At the first village at which they arrived they sat down near the first house, and Ned began to strike his staff to the ground and to shout "Hoo- Hac" with great vehemence. Although the population were for the most part Mussulmen, there were many Hindoos everywhere scattered about, and these at once came out and formed a ring round the holy man. Some bore torches, and Dick played his part by sitting up and rocking uneasily, in the manner of a bear, and then lying down and half-covering his face with his paw, went apparently to sleep.
"The servant of Siva is hungry," Ned said, "and would eat. He wants cloth;" and he pointed to the rags which scarce held together over his shoulder. Supplies of parched grain and of baked cakes were brought him, and a woman carried up a sick child and a length of cloth. Ned passed his hand over the child's face, and by that and the heat of her hand judged that she had fever. First, after the manner of a true fakir, he mumbled some sentence which no one could understand. Then in silence he breathed a sincere prayer that the child might be restored to health. After this he bade the mother give her cooling drinks made of rice water and acid fruit, to keep her cool, and to damp her hands and face from time to time; and then he signified by a wave of his hand that he would be alone.
The villagers all retired, and the lads made a hearty meal; then taking what remained of the food, they started on their night's journey, pausing in a short time for Dick to get out of his skin, and to wrap himself from head to foot in the dark blue cotton cloth that the woman had given.
"I felt like an impostor, getting that cloth under false pretenses, Dick."
"Oh, nonsense," Dick said. "The woman gave it for what the fakir could do, and I am sure your advice was better than the fakir would have given, so she is no loser. If ever we come on one of these sort of trips again we will bring some quinine and some strong pills, and then we really may do some good."
Dick took no pains about coloring his face or hands, for both were burned so brown with exposure to the sun that he had no fear that a casual glance at them at night, even in torchlight, would detect that he was not a native.
"Now, Ned, I promised to stop for twenty-four hours, if you liked, to soak that head of hair in a pond; what do you say?"
"No," Ned said; "it is terribly filthy, but we will waste no time. To- morrow, when we halt, we will try and make an oven and bake it. I will try to-morrow to get a fresh cloth for myself, and throw these horrible rags away. Even a fakir must have a new cloth sometimes."
They made a very long march that night; and had the next evening a success equal to that of the night before. Another long night-tramp followed, and on getting up at the end of the day's sleep Ned collected some dry sticks and lit a fire. Then he made a hole in the ground, and filled it with glowing embers. When the embers were just extinct he cleared them out, took off his wig, rolled it up, and put it into the hot oven he had thus prepared, and covered the top in with a sod. Then carefully looking to see that no natives were in sight, he threw away his old rags, and Dick and he enjoyed a dip in a small irrigation tank close to the wood. After this Ned again smeared himself over with mud, and sat down in the sun to dry. Then he dressed himself in the cloth that had been given him the night before, opened his oven, took out the wig, gave it a good shake, and put it on, saying, "Thank God, I feel clean again; I have had the horrors for the last three days, Dick."
In the three nights' journey the boys had traveled a hundred and eleven miles, and were now close to Ferruckabad, a town of considerable size. They pursued their usual tactics--entered it after dusk, and sat down near the outskirts. The signal calls were answered as before, and a number of the faithful gathered round with their simple offerings of food.
As they began stating their grievances, Ned as usual warned them off with a brief "to-morrow" when he saw outside the group of Hindoos two or three Mussulman troopers.
These moved closely up, and contemplated the wild-looking fakir, with his tangled hair and his eyes peering out through the tangle. One of them looked at the bear for some time attentively, and then said:
"That is no bear; it is a man in a bear's skin."
Ned had feared that the discovery might be made, and had from the first had his answer ready.
"Fool," he said in a loud, harsh voice, "who with his eyes in his head supposed that it was a bear? It is one who has sinned and is under a vow. Dogs like you know naught of these things, but the followers of Siva know."
"Do you call me a dog?" said the Mussulman angrily, and strode forward as if to strike; but Ned leaped to his feet, and twirling his staff round his head, brought it down with such force on the soldier's wrist that it nearly broke the arm. The Hindoos began to shout "Sacrilege!" as the Mussulman drew his pistol. Before he could fire, however, his comrades threw themselves upon him. At this time it was the policy of Hindoos and Mussulmans alike to drop all religious differences, and the troopers knew that any assault upon a holy fakir would excite to madness the Hindoo population.
The furious Mohammedan was therefore dragged away by his fellows, and Ned calmly resumed his seat. The Hindoos brought a fresh supply of food for the holy man expiating his sin in so strange a way, and then left the fakir to his meditation and his rest.
Half an hour later the Warreners were on their way, and before morning congratulated themselves upon having done more than half of the two hundred and eighty miles which separate Lucknow from Delhi. The remaining distance took them, however, much longer than the first part had done, for Dick cut his foot badly against a stone the next night, and was so lamed that the night journeys had to be greatly shortened. Instead, therefore, of arriving in eight days, as they had hoped, it was the 3d of September-- that is, thirteen days from their start--before they saw in the distance the British flag flying on the watch tower on the Ridge. They had made a long detour, and came in at the rear of the British position. On this side the country was perfectly open, and the villagers brought in eggs and other produce to the camp.
Upon the 25th of August the enemy had sent a force of six thousand men to intercept the heavy siege train which was on its way to the British camp from the Punjaub. Brigadier-General Nicholson, one of the most gallant and promising officers of the British army, was sent out against them with a force of two thousand men, of which only one-fourth were British. He met them at Nujufghur and routed them, capturing all their guns, thirteen in number. A curious instance here occurred of the manner in which the least courageous men will fight when driven to bay. The army of six thousand men had made so poor a fight that the British loss in killed and wounded amounted to only thirty-three men. After it was over it was found that a party of some twenty rebels had taken shelter in a house in a village in the British rear. The Punjaub infantry was sent to drive them out, but its commanding officer and many of its men were killed by the desperate handful of mutineers. The Sixty-first Queen's was then ordered up, but the enemy was not overpowered until another officer was dangerously wounded and many had fallen. Altogether the victory over this little band of men cost us sixteen killed and forty-six wounded--that is to say, double the loss which had been incurred in defeating six thousand of them in the open. The result of this engagement was that the road in the rear of the British camp was perfectly open, and the Warreners experienced no hindrance whatever in approaching the camp.
Dick had, after crossing the Oude frontier, left his bear's skin behind him, and adopted the simple costume of a native peasant, the blue cloth and a white turban, Ned having begged a piece of white cotton for the purpose. Traveling only at night, when the natives wrap themselves up very much, there was little fear of Dick's color being detected; and as he kept himself well in the background during the short time of an evening when Ned appeared in public, he had passed without attracting any attention whatever.
The Warreners' hearts leaped within them on beholding, on the afternoon of the 3d of September, a party of British cavalry trotting along the road, two miles from camp.
"It is the Guides," Ned said. "We know the officer, Dick. Keep on your disguise a minute longer; we shall have some fun."
Ned accordingly stood in the middle of the road and shouted his "Hoo-Hac!" at the top of his voice.
"Get out of the way, you old fool," the officer riding at its head said, as he drew up his horse on seeing the wild figure, covered with shaggy hair to the waist, twirling his formidable staff.
Ned stopped a moment. "Not a bit more of an old fool than you are yourself, Tomkins," he said.
The officer reined his horse back in his astonishment. He had spoken in English unconsciously, and being answered in the same language, and from such a figure as this, naturally petrified him.
"Who on earth are you?" he asked.
"Ned Warrener; and this is my brother Dick;" and Ned pulled off his wig.
"By Jove!" the officer said, leaping from his horse; "I am glad to see you. Where on earth have you come from? Some one who came up here from Allahabad had seen some fellow there who had come down from Cawnpore, and he reported that you had gone on into Lucknow in disguise, and that news had come you had got safely in."
"So we did," Ned said; "and as you see, we have got safely out again. We left there on the night of the 20th."
"And what was the state of things then?" Lieutenant Tomkins asked. "How long could they hold out? We know that it will be another three weeks before Havelock can hope to get there."
"Another three weeks!" Ned said. "That is terrible. They were hard pushed indeed when we left; the enemy were driving mines in all directions; the garrison were getting weaker and weaker every day, and the men fit for duty were worked to death. It seems next to impossible that they could hold out for another four or five weeks from the time we left them; but if it can be done, they will do it. Do you happen to have heard of our father?"
"The man that brought the news about you said he was all right and hearty, and the troop was doing good work in scouring the country round Cawnpore. Now will you ride back and report yourself to General Wilson?" So saying, he ordered two of the troopers to dismount and walk back to camp.
Ned had thrown down the wig when he took it off; but before mounting Dick picked it up, rolled it up into a little parcel, and said:
"It is my first effort in wig-making, and as it has saved our lives I'll keep it as long as I live, as a memento; besides, who knows? it may be useful again yet."
Quite an excitement was created in the camp behind the Ridge by the arrival of the Guide cavalry with two Englishmen in native dress, and the news that they were officers from Lucknow quickly spread.
The cavalry drew up at their own lines, and then dismounting, Lieutenant Tomkins at once sent an orderly to the general with the news, while the boys were taken inside a tent, and enjoyed the luxury of a bath, and a message was sent round to the officers of the regiment, which rapidly resulted in sufficient clothes being contributed to allow the boys to make their appearance in the garb of British officers.
A curry and a cup of coffee were ready for them by the time they were dressed, and these were enjoyed indeed after a fortnight's feeding upon uncooked grain, varied only by an occasional piece of native bread or cake. The hasty meal concluded, they accompanied Lieutenant Tomkins to the general's tent.
They were most cordially received by General Wilson; and omitting all details, they gave him an account of their having been cut off during a successful sortie from Lucknow, and having made their way to Delhi in disguise. Then they proceeded to describe fully the state of affairs at Lucknow, a recital which was at once interesting and important, inasmuch as though several native messengers had got through from Lucknow to General Havelock, as none of them carried letters--for these would have insured their death if searched--they had brought simply messages from General Inglis asking for speedy help, and their stories as to the existent state of things in the garrison were necessarily vague and untrustworthy.
The most satisfactory portion of the boys' statement was, that although the garrison were now on short rations, and that all the comforts, and many of what are regarded as almost the necessaries of life, were exhausted, yet that there was plenty of grain in the place to enable the besieged to exist for some weeks longer.
"The great fear is that some essential part of the defense may be destroyed by mines," Ned concluded. "Against open attacks I think that the garrison is safe; but the enemy are now devoting themselves so much to driving mines that however great the care and vigilance of the garrison, they may not be always able to detect them, or, even if they do so, to run counter-mines, owing to the numerical weakness of our force."
"Thanks for your description, gentlemen; it throws a great light upon the state of affairs, and is very valuable. I will at once telegraph a resume of it to the central government and to General Havelock. The pressing need of aid will no doubt impress the Calcutta authorities with the urgent necessity to place General Havelock in a position to make an advance at the earliest possible moment. He will, of course, communicate to Colonel Warrener the news of your safe arrival here. You have gone through a great deal indeed since you left here, while we have been doing little more than hold our own. However, the tide has turned now. We have received large reinforcements and our siege train; and I hope that in the course of a fortnight the British flag will once again wave over Delhi. In the meantime you will, at any rate for a few days, need rest. I will leave you for a day with your friends of the Guides, and will then attach you to one of the divisional staffs. I hope that you will both dine with me to- day."
That evening at dinner the Warreners met at the general's table General Nicholson, whose chivalrous bravery placed him on a par with Outram, who was called the Bayard of the British army. He was short of staff officers, and did not wish to weaken the fighting powers of the regiments of his division by drawing officers from them. He therefore asked General Wilson to attach the Warreners to his personal staff. This request was at once complied with. Their new chief assured them that for the present he had no occasion for their services, and that they were at liberty to do as they pleased until the siege operations began in earnest. The next few days were accordingly spent, as Dick said, in eating and talking.
Every regiment in camp was anxious to hear the tale of the siege of Lucknow, and of the Warreners' personal experience in entering and leaving the besieged Residency; and accordingly they dined, lunched, or breakfasted by turns with every mess in camp. They were indeed the heroes of the day; and the officers were much pleased at the simplicity with which these gallant lads told their adventures, and at the entire absence of any consciousness that they had done anything out of the way. In fact, they rather regarded the whole business as two schoolboys might regard some adventure in which they had been engaged, Dick, in particular, regarding all their adventures, with the exception only of the sufferings of the garrison of Lucknow, in the light of an "immense lark."
In the meantime, the troops were working day and night in the trenches and batteries, under the directions of the engineer officers; and every heart beat high with satisfaction that, after standing for months on the defensive, repelling continual attacks of enormously superior numbers, at last their turn had arrived, and that the day was at hand when the long- deferred vengeance was to fall upon the bloodstained city.