In Times of Peril by G. A. Henty
Chapter XXIV. Best After Labor.
With a tender farewell of his father and brother, the midshipman prepared for his expedition. One end of the rope had been fastened round the large mast which rose from the dome. Holding the coil over his shoulder, Dick made his way down the dome, on the side opposite that at which they had ascended, until it became too steep to walk; then he lay down on his back, and paying the rope out gradually, let himself slip down. The lower part of the descent was almost perpendicular; and Dick soon stood safely on the terrace. It was, as he expected confidently that it would be, quite deserted on this side. Then he let go of the rope, and Major Warrener, who was watching it, saw that the strain was off it, pulled it up a foot to make sure, and then untied the knot. Dick pulled it gently at first, coiling it up as it came down, until at last it slid rapidly down. He caught it as well as he could, but he had little fear of so slight a noise being heard on the other side of the great dome; then he tied the rope to the parapet, lowered it carefully down, and then, when it was all out, swung himself out over the parapet, and slid down the rope. The height was over eighty feet; but the descent was a mere nothing for Dick, accustomed to lark about in the rigging of a man-o'-war.
He stood perfectly quiet for a minute or two after his feet touched the ground, but outside everything was still. Through the open-carved stonework of a window he could hear voices inside the tomb, and had no doubt that the leaders of the enemy's force were there.
From the parapet, in the afternoon, he had gained an accurate idea of the position of the cavalry, and toward this he at once made his way. He took off his boots and walked lightly until he approached the enemy's bivouac. Then he went cautiously. The ground was covered with sleeping figures, all wrapped like mummies in their clothes; and although the night was dusk, it was easy in the starlight to see the white figures. Even had one been awake, Dick had little fear, as, except near a fire, his figure would have been indistinguishable. There was no difficulty, when he neared the spot, in finding the horses, as the sound of their pawing the ground, eating, and the occasional short neigh of two quarreling, was clearly distinguishable.
Their position once clear, Dick moved round them. He had noticed that four officers' horses were picketed further away, beyond the general mass of the men's, and these could therefore be more easily removed, and would, moreover, be more likely to be fast and sound. They had, too, the advantage of being placed close to the road by which the English force had marched on the day before.
Dick was some time in finding the horses he was on the lookout for; but at last he heard a snorting at a short distance off, and on reaching the spot found the horses he was in search of. They were all saddled, but none had bridles. It would be, Dick knew, useless to look for them, and he felt sure that the halter would be sufficient for well-trained horses.
Before proceeding to work he reconnoitered the ground around. He found the way to the road, which was but twenty yards distant, and discovered also that the syces, or grooms, were asleep close by the horses; a little further off were a party of sleeping troopers. Dick now cut off the heel ropes by which two of the horses were picketed, and then, leading them by the halters, moved quietly toward the road. To get upon this, however, there was a ditch first to be passed, and in crossing it one of the horses stumbled.
"What is that?" exclaimed one of the syces, sitting up. "Halloo!" he continued, leaping up; "two of the horses have got loose."
The others leaped to their feet and ran in the direction whence came the noise which had awakened them, thinking that the horses had drawn their picket pegs.
By this time Dick was in the saddle, and giving a kick with his heels to the horse he was on, and striking the other with the halter which he held in his hand, dashed off into a gallop.
A shout burst from the syces, and several of the troopers, springing to their feet and seizing their arms, ran up to know what was the matter.
"Some thief has stolen the colonel's horse," exclaimed one of the syces.
The troopers did not like to fire, as it would have alarmed the camp; besides, which a random fire in the darkness would be of no avail; so, grumbling that the syces would have to answer for it in the morning, they went off to sleep again; while the men in charge of the two horses which had been taken after some consultation decided that it would be unsafe to remain to meet the anger of the officers in the morning, and so stole off in the darkness and made for their native villages.
Dick, hearing that he was not pursued, pulled up in a half a mile, and gave a loud, shrill "cooey," the Australian call. He knew that this would be heard by his father, sitting listening at the top of the dome, and that he would learn that so far he had succeeded. Then he set the horses off again in a hand gallop and rode steadily down the road. Every hour or so he changed from horse to horse, thus giving them a comparative rest by turns. Occasionally he allowed them to walk for a bit to get their wind, and then again rode on at a gallop. It was about eleven o'clock when he started on his ride. By four in the morning he was at the spot where the party had separated from the column, having thus made forty miles. After that he went more slowly; but it was a little past nine when, with his two exhausted horses, he rode into the camp at Lucknow, where his appearance created quite an excitement.
Dick's story was briefly told; and the two horses, which were both splendid animals, were taken off to be fed and rubbed down; while Dick, accompanied by the colonel of the cavalry regiment where he had halted, went at once to the camp of the commander-in-chief.
Sir Colin listened to Dick's story in silence.
"This will be the band," he said, "that Colonel Lawson's column went to attack; they must have altered their course. Something must be done at once. There shall be no delay, my lad; a force shall be ready to start in an hour. I suppose you will want to go with them. I advise you to go back to Colonel Harper's tent, get into a bath, and get a couple of natives to shampoo you. That will take away all your stiffness. By the time that's over, and you have had some breakfast, the troops will be in readiness."
Dick left Sir Colin, but delighted at the readiness and promptness of the fine old soldier; while Sir Colin called his military secretary, and at once arranged for the dispatch of a body of troops.
"There must be no delay," the commander-in-chief said. "If possible--and it is possible--these scoundrels must be attacked at daylight to-morrow morning. They will see the rope the lad escaped by, but they will not dream of an attack so early, and may be caught napping. Besides, it is all important to rescue those officers, whom they will have been making a target of all day, especially as one is badly wounded, and will be in the full blaze of the sun. See that a wagon and an ambulance accompany the column. Send a regiment of Punjaub horse, three field guns, and three hundred infantry in light marching order. Let gharries be got together at once to take the infantry forty miles, then they will start fresh for a thirty-mile march. The cavalry and guns can go on at once; let them march halfway, then, unsaddle and rest. If they are off by half-past ten, they can get to their halting-place by five. Then if they have five hours' rest they will catch the infantry up before daybreak, and attack just as it gets light. Those light Punjaub horse can do it. Now, which regiments shall we send?"
A quarter of an hour later bugles were blowing, and by ten o'clock three hundred British infantry were packed in light carts, and the cavalry and guns were drawn up in readiness. Dick took his place in the ambulance carriage, as, although greatly refreshed, he had had plenty of riding for a time, and in the ambulance he could lie down, and get through the journey without fatigue. Sir Colin himself rode up just as they were starting, and shook hands with Dick, and expressed his warm hope that he would find his friends safe at the end of the journey, and then the cavalry started.
Dick has always asserted that never in his life did he make such a short journey as that. Worn out by the excitement and fatigue of the preceding thirty hours, he fell fast asleep in the ambulance before he had gone a mile, and did not awake until the surgeon shook him by the shoulder.
"Halloo!" he cried, leaping up; "where are we?"
"We are, as far as we can tell, about half a mile from the tomb. I would not wake you when we halted, Warrener. I thought you wanted sleep more than food. We have been halting half an hour here, and the cavalry have just come up. It is about an hour before daybreak. The colonel wants you to act as guide."
"All right," Dick said, leaping out; "just to think that I have been asleep for eighteen hours!"
A hasty council was held, and it was determined that as the country was somewhat wooded beyond the tomb, but perfectly open on that side, the cavalry and artillery should remain where they were; that the infantry should make a detour, and attack at daybreak from the other side; and that as the enemy fell back, the artillery and cavalry should deal with them:
Not a moment was lost. The infantry, who were sitting down after their long tramp, got cheerily on to their feet again, for they knew that they were going to attack the enemy; and Dick led them off the road by a considerable detour, to come upon the enemy from the other side. By the moonlight the tomb was visible, and served as a center round which to march; but they were too far off to enable Dick to see whether any damage had been done to the dome.
Day was just breaking when the infantry gained the desired position; then throwing out two hundred men in skirmishing order, while the other one hundred were kept in hand as a reserve, the advance began. It was not until they were within three hundred yards of the enemy that they were perceived by the sentries. The challenge was answered by a musket shot, and as the rebels sprang to their feet a heavy fire was poured in upon them. In an instant all was wild confusion. Taken completely by surprise, and entirely ignorant of the strength of the enemy, the natives, after a wild fire in the direction of the advancing foe, fled precipitately. Their officers tried to rally them, and as the smallness of the force attacking them became visible, the Sepoys with their old habit of discipline began to draw together. But at this moment the guns, loaded with grape, poured into their rear, and with a cheer the Punjaub cavalry burst into their midst.
Thenceforth there was no longer any idea of fighting; it was simply a rout any a pursuit. The rebels' own guns fell at once into the hands of the infantry, and were quickly turned upon the masses of fugitives, who, mown down by the fire of the nine guns, and cut up by the cavalry who charged hither and thither among them, while volleys of musketry swept through them, threw away their arms and fled wildly. Over a thousand of them were left dead on the plain, and had not the horses of the cavalry been too exhausted to continue the pursuit, a far greater number would have fallen.
Dick took no part in their fighting; a company, fifty strong, with an officer, had been told off to attack and carry the tomb, under his guidance. Disregarding all else, this party with leveled bayonets had burst through the throng, and made straight for the door of the tomb. Many of the enemy's troops had run in there, and for a minute or two there was a fierce fight in the great hall; then, when the last foe had fallen, Dick led the men to the stairs, up which many of the enemy had fled.
"Quick," he shouted, "follow them close up!"
Some of them were but a few steps ahead, and Dick, closely followed by his men, burst on to the terrace at their very heels. It was well that he did so; for the guard upon the terrace, seeing that all was lost below, were preparing to sell their lives dearly, and to make a long resistance at the top of the stairs. Dick and his men, however, rushed so closely upon the heels of their own comrades from below that they were taken completely by surprise. Some turned at once to fly, others made an effort to oppose their enemy; but it was useless. Two or three of the Sepoy leaders, calling to their men to follow them, made a rush at the British, and Dick found himself engaged in a hand-to-hand contest with Aboo Raab, the rebel leader. He was a powerful and desperate man, and with a swinging blow he beat down Dick's guard and inflicted a severe wound on his head; but Dick leaped forward and ran him through the body, just as the bayonet of one of the British soldiers pierced him in the side.
For a minute or two the fight was fierce, but every moment added to the avenging force, and with a cheer the soldiers rushed at them with the bayonet. In five minutes all was over. Many of the Sepoys leaped over the parapet, and were dashed to pieces, preferring that death to the bayonet; while on the terrace no single Sepoy at the end of that time remained alive.
When all was over Dick gave a shout, which was answered from above.
"Are you all right, Dunlop?"
"Yes, thank God; but Ned is delirious. Send some water up at once."
Dick was too much shaken by the severe cut he had received in the head to attempt to climb the ladder, but the officer in command of the company at once offered to ascend. Several of the men had a little water left in their water-bottles, and from them one was filled, and slung over the officer's neck.
"I have some brandy in my flask," he said, and started up the steps.
In a few minutes he descended again.
"Your brother is wildly delirious," he said; "they have bound his injured arm to his side with a sash, but they cannot leave him. How is he to be got down?"
"There is plenty of rope and sacking down below," Dick said, after a moment's thought. "I think that they had better wrap him up in sacking, so that he cannot move his arms, tie a rope round him, and lower him down close by the side of the steps, my father coming down side by side with him, so as to speak to him and tranquillize him."
A soldier was sent below for the articles required, and with them the officer, accompanied by a sergeant to assist him in lowering Ned from above, again mounted. In a few minutes Dick's plan was carried out, and Ned was lowered safely to the terrace. Then four soldiers carried him below, and he was soon laid on a bed of sacks in the great hall, under the care of the surgeon, with cold-water bandages round his head.
Then Dick had time to ask his father how the preceding day had passed.
"First tell me, Dick, by what miracle you got back so soon. To-morrow morning was the very earliest time I thought that relief was possible!"
Dick told his story briefly; and then Colonel Warrener related what had happened to them on the dome during the day.
"As soon as day broke, Dick, they opened a heavy musketry fire at us, but they were obliged to go so far off to get a fair view of us that the smooth-bore would hardly carry up, and even had we been hit, I question if the balls would have penetrated, though they might have given a sharp knock. Half an hour later the artillery fire began. We agreed that Dunlop and I should by turns lie so as to command the stairs, while the other kept with Ned on the other side of the dome. The enemy divided their guns, and put them on each side also. Lying down, we presented the smallest possible mark for them; but for some hours it was very hot. Nine out of ten of their shot, just went over the dome altogether. The spike was hit twenty or thirty times, and lower down a good many holes were knocked in the dome; but the shots that struck near us all glanced and flew over. They fired a couple of hundred shot altogether, and at midday they stopped--for dinner, I suppose--and did not begin again. I suspect they were running short of ammunition. Once, when the firing was hottest, thinking, I suppose, to catch us napping, an attempt was made to climb the ladder; but Dunlop, who was on watch, put a bullet through the first fellow's head, and by the yell that followed I suspect that in his fall he swept all the others off the ladder. Anyhow, there was no repetition of the trial. The heat was fearful, and Dunlop and I suffered a good deal from thirst, for there was not much water left in the bottle, and we wanted that to pour down Ned's throat from time to time, and to sop his bandages with. Ned got delirious about eleven o'clock, and we had great trouble in holding him down. The last drop of water was finished in the night, and we should have had a terrible day of it if you had not arrived. And now let us hear what the surgeon says about poor Ned."
The doctor's report was not consoling; the wound was a very severe one, the collar-bone had been smashed in fragments; but the high state of fever was even a more serious matter than the wound.
"What will you do, father?"
"I must carry out my orders, Dick. Dunlop and I must go on to Agra, and then on to join our regiment. Ned will, of course, be taken back to Lucknow, and you must give up your trip, and stay and nurse him. Of course, if he gets over it, poor boy, he will be invalided home, and you can travel with him down to Calcutta. I shall send the girls home by the first opportunity. India will be no place for ladies for some time. We shall have months of marching and fighting before we finally stamp out the mutiny. There will be sure to be convoys of sick and wounded going down, and a number of ladies at Meerut who will be leaving at the first opportunity. It is very sad, old boy, leaving you and Ned at such a time; but I must do my duty, whatever happens." The British force encamped for that day and the next around the tomb which had been the scene of so much fierce fighting; for the animals were so much exhausted by their tremendous march that it was thought better to give them rest. Ned continued delirious; but he was more quiet now, as his strength diminished. Fortunately, the ambulance was well supplied; and cooling drinks were given to him, and all was done that care and attention could suggest. There were three other wounded in addition to Dick, all men who had taken part in the fight on the terrace; none had been killed. Elsewhere no casualty had happened in the force.
Early on the third morning the column was again in motion. The forty miles to the crossroads were done in two days, and here Colonel Warrener and Major Dunlop parted from Dick, going on with a small escort of cavalry to Agra.
It was a sad parting; and it is doing no injustice to Dick's manhood to say that he shed many tears. But his father promised that if the Lucknow jewels turned out to be real, he would leave the service, and come back to England at the end of the war.
The gharries were all in waiting at the crossroad, and another day brought them to Lucknow, where the news of the defeat and dispersion of the rebel force had already been sent on by a mounted orderly.
For a week Ned lay between life and death; then the fever left him, and the most critical point of his illness was reached. It was for days a question whether he had strength left to rally from his exhaustion. But youth and a good constitution triumphed at last, and six weeks from the day on which he was brought in, he started in a litter for Calcutta.
Dick had telegraphed to Captain Peel, and had obtained leave to remain with his brother, and he now started for the coast with Ned. He himself had had a sharp attack of fever--the result of his wound on the head and the exertion he had undergone; but he was now well and strong again, and happy in Ned's convalescence.
The journey was easy and pleasant. At Benares they went on board a steamer, and were taken down to Calcutta. By the time they reached the capital, Ned was sufficiently recovered to walk about with his arm in Dick's. The use of his left arm was gone, and it was a question whether he could ever recover it.
At Calcutta the Warreners had the delight of meeting their sister and cousin, who had arrived there the week previous. The next four days were happy ones indeed, and then there was another parting, for the girls and Ned sailed in a Peninsular and Oriental steamer for England. Dick remained a fortnight at Calcutta, until a sloop-of-war sailed to join the China fleet, to which his ship was now attached.
It was two years later when the whole party who had been together in the bungalow at Sandynuggher when the mutiny broke out met in London, on the return of Dick's ship from the East. The Lucknow jewels had turned out to be of immense value; and Messrs. Garrard, to whom they had been sent, had offered one hundred and thirty thousand pounds for them. The offer had been at once accepted; and the question of the division had, after an endless exchange of letters, been finally left by Colonel Warrener to the boys. They had insisted that Colonel Warrener should take fifty thousand pounds, and the remainder they had divided in four equal shares between themselves, their sister and cousin, whom they regarded as one of themselves. This had enabled the latter to marry, without delay, Captain Manners, whose wound had compelled him to leave the service; while Miss Warrener had a few months later married Major Dunlop.
Ned, too, was no longer a soldier. He had, when he arrived in England, found that his name had been included in the brevet rank bestowed upon all the captains of his regiment for distinguished service. He had a year's leave given him; but at the end of that time a medical board decided that, although greatly recovered, it would be years before he thoroughly regained his strength; and he therefore sold his commission and left the service.
Dick had passed as a lieutenant, and had immediately been appointed to that rank, with a fair prospect of getting his commander's step at the earliest possible date, as a reward for the distinguished services for which he had been several times mentioned in dispatches at the time of the mutiny.
General Sir Henry Warrener--for he received a step in rank, and knighthood, on retiring from the service--had renewed his acquaintance with Mrs. Hargreaves immediately on his return to England; and Dick, to his intense astonishment and delight, on arriving home--for he had received no letters for many months--found his old friend installed at the head of his father's establishment as Lady Warrener.
The daughters were of course inmates of the house; and Dick was not long in getting Nelly to acknowledge that so far she had not changed her mind as expressed at Cawnpore. More than that he could not get her to say. But when, three years later, he returned with commander's rank, Nelly, after much entreaty, and many assertions that it was perfectly ridiculous for a boy of twenty-one to think about marrying, consented; and as Ned and Edith had equally come to an understanding, a double marriage took place.
General Warrener and his wife are still alive. Major Warrener has a seat in Parliament; and Captain Warrener, who never went to sea after his marriage, lives in a pretty house down at Ryde, where his yacht is known as one of the best and fastest cruisers on the coast.
At Christmas the whole party--the Dunlops, Manners and Warreners--meet; and an almost innumerable troop of children of all ages assemble at the spacious mansion of General Warrener in Berkeley Square, and never fail to have a long talk of the adventures that they went through in the Times of Peril.