Chapter XXIII. A Desperate Defense.
 

In an instant the door was closed and bolted, and the four set to work to pile barrels and boxes against it. Not a word was spoken while this was going on. By the time they had finished the uproar without had changed its character; the firing had ceased, and the triumphant shouts of the mutineers showed that their victory was complete. Then came a loud thundering noise at the door.

"We have only delayed it a few minutes," Colonel Warrener said. "We have fought our fight, boys, and our time has come. Would to God that I had to die alone!"

"Look, father," Dick said, "there is a small door there. I noticed it last night. No doubt there is a staircase leading to the terrace above. At any rate, we may make a good fight there."

"Yes," Major Dunlop said, "we may fight it out to the last on the stairs. Run, Dick, and see."

Dick found, as he supposed, that from the door a narrow winding staircase led to the terrace above, from which the dome rose far into the air. The stairs were lit by an occasional narrow window. He was thinking as he ran upstairs of the ideas that had crossed his brain the night before.

"It is all right," he said, as he came down again. "Look, father, if we take up barrels and boxes, we can make barricades on the stairs, and defend them for any time almost."

"Excellent," the colonel said. "To work. They will be a quarter of an hour breaking in the door. Make the top barricade first, a few feet below the terrace."

Each seized a box or barrel, and hurried up the stairs. They had a longer time for preparation than they expected, for the mutineers, feeling sure of their prey, were in no hurry, and finding how strong was the door, decided to sit down and wait until their guns would be up to blow it in. Thus the defenders of the tomb had an hour's grace, and in that time had constructed three solid barricades. Each was placed a short distance above an opening for light, so that while they themselves were in darkness, their assailants would be in the light. They left a sufficient space at the top of each barricade for them to scramble over, leaving some spare barrels on the stairs above it to fill up the space after taking their position.

"Now for the remains of our supper, father," Dick said, "and that big water jug. I will carry them up. Ned, do you bring up that long coil of thin rope."

"What for, Dick?"

"It may be useful, Ned; ropes are always useful. Ah, their guns are up."

As he spoke a round shot crashed through the door, and sent splinters of casks and a cloud of flour flying.

"Now, Ned, come along," Dick said; and followed by Colonel Warrener and Major Dunlop, they entered the little doorway and ran up the narrow stairs.

At the first barricade, which was some thirty steps up, the officers stopped, and proceeded to fill up the passage hitherto left open, while the boys continued their way to the terrace.

"Let us have a look round, Ned; those fellows will be some minutes before they are in yet; and that barricade will puzzle them."

Day was breaking now, and the lads peered over the parapet which ran round the terrace.

"There are a tremendous lot of those fellows, Dick, four or five thousand of them at least, and they have got six guns."

"Hurrah, Ned!" Dick said, looking round at the great dome; "this is just what I hoped."

He pointed to a flight of narrow steps, only some twelve inches across, fixed to the side of the dome, which rose for some distance almost perpendicularly. By the side of the steps was a low hand-rail. They were evidently placed there permanently, to enable workmen to ascend to the top of the dome, to re-gild the long spike which, surmounted by a crescent, rose from its summit, or to do any repairs that were needful.

"There, Ned, I noticed these steps on some of the domes at Lucknow. When the worst comes to the worst, and we are beaten from the stairs, we can climb up that ladder--for it's more like a ladder than stairs--and once on the top could laugh at the whole army of them. Now, Ned, let us go down to them; by that cheering below, the artillery has broken the door open."

The mutineers burst through the broken door into the great hall with triumphant yells, heralding their entrance by a storm of musketry fire, for they knew how desperately even a few Englishmen will sell their lives. There was a shout of disappointment at finding the interior untenanted; but a moment's glance round discovered the door, and there was a rush toward it, each longing to be the first to the slaughter. The light in the interior was but faint, and the stairs were pitch dark, and were only wide enough for one man to go up with comfort, although two could just stand side by side. Without an obstacle the leaders of the party stumbled and groped their way up the stairs, until the first came into the light of a long narrow loophole in the wall. Then from the darkness above came the sharp crack of a revolver, and the man fell on his face, shot through the heart. Another crack, and the next shared his fate. Then there was a pause, for the spiral was so sharp that not more than two at a time were within sight of the defenders of the barricade.

The next man hesitated at seeing his immediate leaders fall; but pressed from behind he advanced, with his musket at his shoulder, in readiness to fire when he saw his foes; but the instant his head appeared round the corner a ball struck him, and he too fell. Still the press from behind pushed the leaders forward, and it was not until six had fallen, and the narrow stairs were impassable from the dead bodies, that an officer of rank, who came the next on the line, succeeded by shouting in checking the advance. Then orders were passed down for those crowding the doorway to fall back, and the officer, with the men on the stairs, descended, and the former reported to the leader that six men had fallen, and that the stairs were choked with their bodies. After much consultation orders were given the men to go up, and keeping below the spot at which, one after another, their comrades had fallen, to stretch out their arms and pull down the bodies. This was done, and then an angry consultation again took place. It was clear that, moving fast, only one could mount the stairs at a time, and it seemed equally certain that this one would, on reaching a certain spot, be shot by his invisible foes. Large rewards and great honor were promised by the chief to those who would undertake to lead the assault, and at last volunteers were found, and another rush attempted.

It failed, as had the first. Each man as he passed the loophole fell, and again the dead choked the stairs. One or two had not fallen at the first shot, and had got a few steps higher, but only to fall back dead upon their comrades. Again the assault ceased, and for two or three hours there was a pause. The officers of the mutineers deliberated and quarreled; the men set-to to prepare their meal. That over, one of the troopers went in to the officers and proposed a plan, which was at once approved of, and a handsome reward immediately paid him. Before enlisting he had been a carpenter, and as there were many others of the same trade, no time was lost in carrying out the suggestion. Several of the thick planks composing the door remained uninjured. These were cut and nailed together, so as to make a shield of exactly the same width as the staircase, and six feet high; on one side several straps and loops were nailed, to give a good hold to those carrying it; and then with a cheer the Sepoys again prepared for an attack. The shield was heavy, but steadily, and with much labor, it was carried up the stairs step by step, by two men, others pressing on behind.

When they reached the loophole the pistol shots from above again rang out; but the door was of heavy seasoned wood, three inches thick, and the bullets failed to penetrate. Then the shield ascended step by step, until it reached the barrier. There it stopped, for the strength that could be brought to bear upon it was altogether insufficient to move in the slightest the solid pile, and after some time spent in vain efforts, the shield was taken back again, as gradually and carefully as it had been advanced, until out of the range of the pistols of the defenders.

"What will be the next move, I wonder?" Colonel Warrener said, as the little party sat down on the stairs and waited for a renewal of the attack.

"I don't like that shield," Major Dunlop remarked; "it shows that there is some more than usually intelligent scoundrel among them, and he will be up to some new trick."

An hour passed, and then there was a noise on the stairs, and the shield was again seen approaching. As before, it advanced to the barrier and stopped. There was then a sort of grating noise against it, and the door shook as this continued.

"What on earth are they up to now?" Major Dunlop exclaimed.

"Piling fagots against it," Dick said, "or I am mistaken. I have been afraid of fire all along. If they had only lit a pile of damp wood at the bottom of the stairs, they could have smoked us out at the top; and then, as the smoke cleared below, they could have gone up and removed the barricade before the upper stairs were free enough from smoke for us to come down. There, I thought so! Make haste!" and Dick dashed up the stairs, followed by his friends, as a curl of smoke ascended, and a loud cheer burst from the Sepoys below.

Quickly as they ran upstairs, the smoke ascended still more rapidly, and they emerged upon the terrace half-suffocated and blinded.

"So ends barricade number one," Major Dunlop said, when they had recovered from their fit of coughing. "I suppose it will be pretty nearly an hour before the fire is burned out."

"The door would not burn through in that time," said Major Warrener; "but they will be able to stand pretty close, and the moment the fagots are burned out they will drag the screen out of the way, and, with long poles with hooks, or something of that sort, haul down the barricade. Directly the smoke clears off enough for us to breathe, we will go down to our middle barricade. They may take that the same way they took the first, but they cannot take the last so."

"Why not, father?" Ned asked.

"Because it's only ten steps from the top, Ned; so that, however great a smoke they make, we can be there again the instant they begin to pull it down."

It was now past midday, and the party partook sparingly of their small store of food and water. The smoke continued for some time to pour out of the door of the stairs in dense volumes, then became lighter. Several times the lads tried to descend a few steps, but found that breathing was impossible, for the smoke from the green wood was insupportable. At last it became clear enough to breathe, and then the party ran rapidly down to their second barricade. That, at least, was intact, but below they could hear the fall of heavy bodies, and knew that the lower barricade was destroyed.

"I don't suppose that screen of theirs was burned through, father, so very likely they will try the same dodge again. Of course they don't know whether we have another barricade, or where we are, so they will come on cautiously. It seems to me than if you and Dunlop were to take your place a bit lower than this, stooping down on the stairs, and then when they come were boldly to throw yourselves with all your weight suddenly against the shield, you would send it and its bearers headlong downstairs, and could then follow them and cut them up tremendously."

"Capital, Dick! that would be just the thing; don't you think so, Dunlop? If they haven't got the shield, we can shoot them down, so either way we may as well make a sortie."

"I think so," Major Dunlop said. "Here goes, then."

Halfway down they heard the trampling of steps again. The Sepoys had extinguished the fires with buckets of water, had put straps to the door again, and were pursuing their former tactics. The two officers sat down and awaited the coming of their foes. Slowly the latter ascended, until the door was within two steps of the Englishmen. Then the latter simultaneously flung all their weight against it.

Wholly unprepared for the assault, the bearers were hurled backward, with the heavy shield upon them, knocking down those behind them, who, in turn, fell on those below. Sword in hand, Colonel Warrener sprang upon the hindmost of the falling mass, while, pressing just behind him, and firing over his shoulder, Major Dunlop followed.

Shrieks of dismay rose from the Sepoys who crowded the stairs, as the bodies of those above were hurled upon them; flight or defense was equally impossible; turning to descend, they leaped upon their comrades below. A frightful scene ensued--such a scene as has sometimes been seen on the stairs of a theater on fire. What was the danger above, none thought; a wild panic seized all; over each other they rolled, choking the stairs and obstructing all movement, until the last twenty feet of the stairs were packed closely with a solid mass of human beings, lying thickly on each other, and stifling each other to death. On reaching this mass Colonel Warrener and his friend paused. There was nothing more to be done. Over fifty human beings lay crushed together; those on the top of the heap were shot, and then the officers retraced their steps. Many lay on the stairs, but Major Dunlop had passed his sword through their bodies as he passed them. Four muskets were picked up, and all the ammunition from the pouches; and then, with the boys, who had followed closely behind them, they again ascended to the terrace and sat down.

"We are safe now for some time," Colonel Warrener said. "It will take them a long time to clear away that heap of dead, and they won't try the shield dodge again."

It was indeed late in the afternoon before the Sepoys made any fresh move against the defenders of the stairs. The time, however, had not passed idly with the latter. One of them keeping watch at the barrier, the others had maintained a steady musketry fire through the open work of the parapet upon the enemy below. The Sepoys had answered with a scattering fire; but as the defenders were invisible behind the parapet, and could move from one point to another unobserved, there was but little fear of their being hit; while their steady fire did so much execution among the throng of Sepoys that these had to move their camping ground a couple of hundred yards back from the tomb.

It was nearly dark, when several men, bearing large bundles of straw and bamboos, ran across the open ground and entered the mosque, and the besieged guessed that another attempt was to be made to smoke them out. There had been much consultation on the part of the enraged mutineers, and this time two men, with their muskets leveled at their shoulders, led the advance. Very slowly they made their way up, until a pistol shot rang out, and one of the leaders, discharging his musket before him, fell. Then there was a halt. Another Sepoy, with fixed bayonet, took the place in front, and over the shoulders of him and his comrade those behind threw bundles of straw mixed with wet leaves; a light was applied to this, and with a sheet of flame between themselves and the besieged, they had no fear. Now they pressed forward, threw on fresh straw, and then, knowing that the besieged would have fled higher, reached through the flames with a pole with a hook attached to it, and hauled down the barricade. The moment the fire burned a little low, two men lighted fresh bundles, and, stamping out the fire, advanced up the stairs, carrying before them the blazing bundles like torches, the volumes of smoke from these of course preceding them.

The party on the terrace had noticed the smoke dying down, and had prepared to descend again, when a fresh addition to the smoke convinced them that the enemy were still piling on bundles, and that there was nothing to fear. So they sat, quietly chatting until Ned, who was sitting next to the door, exclaimed:

"Listen! They are pulling down our top barricade."

Sword in hand, he rushed down, the others closely following him. Just as he turned the spiral which would bring him in sight of the upper barricade a musket was fired, and Ned would have fallen forward had not Major Dunlop seized him by the collar, and pulled him backward.

"Hold the stairs, colonel!" he said; "they are at the barricade, but are not through yet; I will carry Ned up. He's hit in the shoulder."

Major Dunlop carried Ned to the platform, and, laying him down, for he had lost consciousness, rushed back to assist to hold the stairs, for the crack of Colonel Warrener's and Dick's revolvers could be heard. The advantage, however, was so great with them, standing above the others, and so placed as to be able to fire the instant that their foes came round the corner, that the Sepoys, after losing several of their number, ceased their attack.

The defenders hurried up to Ned, confident that the enemy would not renew the assault again for the moment, as they could not tell whether there was yet another barrier to be stormed. Dick stood sentry at the door, and the colonel and Major Dunlop examined Ned's wound. It was a serious one; the ball had entered the chest below the collarbone; had it been fired from a level it would have been fatal; but the Sepoy having stood so much below it had gone out near the neck, smashing the collar-bone on its way. Ned had become unconscious from the shock to the system.

"We must take to the dome at once," Colonel Warrener said. "The next assault those fellows will gain the terrace. I will carry Ned up."

"No, colonel, I will take him," Major Dunlop said. "I can carry him over my shoulders as easily as possible."

"Well, Dunlop, you are the younger man, so I will hand him over to you. I will put this coil of rope round my neck, and will take the water and food. It is so dark now that they will not see us from below. If those fellows had but waited half an hour we could have gained the top without this sad business. Will you go first, Dunlop?"

Major Dunlop, who was a very powerful and active man, lifted Ned on his shoulders, and began to ascend the narrow steps to the dome. It was hard work at first, but as he got on the ascent became less steep, and the last part was comparatively easy. Colonel Warrener mounted next, also heavily laden. Dick remained on guard at the door until he saw his father pass the shoulder of the dome, out of sight from those on the terrace; he then slung two muskets and cartridge pouches on his shoulders, briskly climbed the steps, and was soon by his father.

In three minutes the party were gathered round the central spike of the dome. Suddenly a loud cheer was heard from below.

"They are out on the terrace," Dick said. "I will go down a bit to guard the steps; you will be more use with Ned than I should."

The shouts on the terrace were answered by a great cheer of exultation from the Sepoy host around, who had been chafed almost to madness at the immense loss which was being caused by three or four men, for they knew not the exact strength of the party. The shouts of exultation, however, were silenced when, rushing round the terrace, the Sepoys found that their foes had again evaded them. There was no other door, no hiding-place, nowhere, in fact, that the besieged could have concealed themselves; but the ladder-like steps soon met the eye of the searchers. A yell of anger and disappointment arose. Not even the bravest among them thought for a moment of climbing the stairs, for it Would indeed have been clearly impossible for men forced to climb in single file to win their way against well-armed defenders, who would simply shoot them down from above as fast as a head appeared over the shoulder of the dome.

The position was indeed practically impregnable against assault, although exposed to artillery fire, and to distant musketry. It was for this reason that the defenders of the stairs had not taken to it at once. They felt confident in their ability to defend the stair all day, and to inflict heavy loss upon the enemy; whereas, by climbing up the dome in daylight, they would have been a target to all those below while climbing, and would have been exposed all day to a distant fire. That they would have to support it for two or three days was nearly certain, but clearly the less time the better.

The enemy, consoling themselves with the thought that on the morrow their cannon would finish the contest which had thus far cost them so dearly, placed a guard of fifty men on the terrace at the foot of the steps, lighted a large fire there, in order that they could see any one attempting to descend long before he reached the level, and then retired below.

By this time Ned had recovered consciousness, and having taken a drink of water, was able to understand what had happened. His father had cut his uniform off his shoulder and arm, and having also cut off one of his own shirt sleeves, had soaked it in water, and applied it as a bandage on the wound.

"I am very glad we had agreed that only Dick should go," Ned said, "otherwise I should have blamed myself for keeping you here."

"No, we could not have gone in any case," Colonel Warrener said, "as there would have been no one to have lowered the rope here; besides which, it is only a sailor or a practiced gymnast who can let himself down a rope some eighty feet."

"When will Dick try?"

"As soon as the camp gets quiet. The moon will be up by twelve o'clock, and he must be off before that. Are you in much pain, old boy?"

"Not much, father; I feel numbed and stupid."

"Now, Dunlop," Colonel Warrener said, "will you relieve Dick on guard at the steps? You may as well say good-by to him. It is about eight o'clock now, and in a couple of hours he will be off. After he has gone I will relieve you. Then a four hours' watch each will take us to daylight; there won't be much sleeping after that."

By ten o'clock the noise in the rebel camp had nearly ceased. Groups still sat and talked round the campfires, but the circle was pretty large round the tomb, for the Sepoys had fallen back when the musketry fire was opened upon them from the parapet, and had not troubled to move again afterward.

"Now," Dick said, "it is time for me to be off. I have got a good seventy miles to ride to Lucknow. It is no use my thinking of going after the column, for they would be some fifty miles away from the place where we left them by to morrow night. If I can get a good horse I may be at Lucknow by midday to-morrow. The horses have all had a rest to-day. Sir Colin will, I am sure, send off at once, and the troops will march well to effect a rescue. They will make thirty-five miles before they halt for the night, and will be here by the following night."

"We must not be too sanguine, Dick. It is just possible, dear boy, that if all goes well you may be back as you say, in forty-eight hours, but we will make up our minds to twice that time. If you get here sooner, all the better; but I don't expect that they will hit us, and after tiring a bit the chances are they will not care to waste ammunition, and will try to starve us out."