In Times of Peril by G. A. Henty
Chapter III. The Flight.
The young Warreners and their cousin, hurrying on, soon gained the thick bush toward which they were directing their steps. As they cowered down in its shelter the girls pulled their shawls over their heads, and with their hands to their ears to keep out the noise of the awful din around them, they awaited, in shuddering horror, their fate. The boys sat, revolver in hand, determined to sell their lives dearly. Ned translated the jemadar's speech, and at his order to search the compound both felt that all was over, and, with a grasp of each other's hand, prepared to sally forth and die. Then came Saba's act of noble self-sacrifice, and the boys had difficulty in restraining themselves from rushing out to avenge her.
In the meantime the night was hideous with noises; musket shots, the sharp cracks of revolvers, shouts, cries, and at times the long shrill screams of women. It was too much to be borne, and feeling that for the present Saba's act had saved them, the boys, laying down their weapons, pressed their hands to their ears to keep out the din. There they sat for half an hour, stunned by the awful calamity, too horror-stricken at what had passed, and at the probable fate of their father, to find relief in tears.
At the end of that time the fire had burned itself out, and a few upright posts still flickering with tongues of fire, and a heap of glowing embers marked where the pretty bungalow, replete with every luxury and comfort, had stood an hour before.
Dick was the first to move; he touched Ned's arm.
"All is quiet here now, but they may take it into their heads to come back and search. We had better make for the trees; by keeping close to that cactus hedge we shall be in shadow all the way."
The girls were roused from their stupor of grief.
"Now, dears, we must be brave," said Ned, "and carry out our orders. God has protected us thus far; let us pray that He will continue to do so."
In another five minutes the little party, stealing cautiously out from their shelter, kept along close to the wall to a side door, through which they issued forth into the open. Ten steps took them to the cactus hedge, and stooping low under its shelter, they moved on till they safely reached the clump of trees.
For some time the little party crouched among the thick bushes, the silence broken only by the sobs of the girls. Ned and Richard said nothing, but the tears fell fast down their cheeks. The crackling of the flames of many of the burning bungalows could be distinctly heard; and outside the shadow of the trees it was nearly as light as day. Yells of triumph rose on the night air, but there was no firing or sounds of conflict, and resistance was plainly over. For a quarter of an hour they sat there, crushed with the immensity of the calamity. Then Ned roused himself and took the lead.
"Now, dears, the fires have burned down, and we must be moving, for we should be far away from here before morning. No doubt others have hidden in the woods round this place, and those black fiends will be searching everywhere to-morrow. Remember what our orders are;" and he paused for a moment to choke down the sob which would come when he thought of who had given the order, and how it was given. "We were to make for Meerut. Be strong and brave, girls, as father would have had you. I have gone over the course on the district map, and I think I can keep pretty straight for it. We need not change our clothes now; we can do that when we halt before daylight. We must walk all night, to be as far as possible away before the search begins. We know this country pretty well for some miles round, which will make it easier. Come, girls, take heart; it is possible yet that some of the officers have cut their way out, and our father may be among them. Who can say?"
"I knew that he had talked over with Dunlop and Manners the very best course to take whenever they might be attacked," Dick said in a more cheerful tone, "so they were sure to keep together, and if any one has got away, they would." Neither of the boys had at heart the least hope, but they spoke as cheerfully as they could, to give strength and courage to the girls. Their words had their effect. Kate rose, and taking her cousin's arm said:
"Come, Rose, the boys are right. There is still some hope; let us cling to it as long as we can. Now let us be moving: but before we go, let us all thank God for having saved us from harm so far, and let us pray for His protection and help upon the road."
Silently the little group knelt in prayer, and when they rose followed Ned--who had naturally assumed the position of leader--out into the open country beyond the grove, without a word being spoken. The moon was as yet quite young, a favorable state for the fugitives, as it afforded light enough to see where they were going without giving so bright a light as to betray them to any one at a distance.
"The moon will be down in a couple of hours," Ned said; "but by that time we shall be beyond where any sentries are likely to have been placed on the road, so we can then trust ourselves on that till it begins to get daylight. We must keep in the fields till we are past Nussara, which is five miles by the road; then we can walk straight on. There is a nullah a few yards on; we had better keep in that for a quarter of a mile; it does not go quite the way we want, but it will be safer to follow it till we are well out of sight of any one who may be watching the plain."
They scrambled down into the bed of the nullah. Then Kate said, "Walk on as fast as you can, Ned; we can keep up with you, and if we hurry on we shan't be able to think."
"All right," Ned answered; "I will go fast for a bit, but you must not knock yourselves up; we have a long journey before us."
Walking fast, however, was impossible at the bottom of the nullah, for it was pitch dark between its steep banks, and there were bowlders and stones lying here and there. After half an hour's walking Ned scrambled up and looked back.
"It is quite safe now," he said; "let us make as straight as we can for Nussara."
Kate Warrener and Rose Hertford have never been able to recall any incidents of that night's walk. Mechanically, as in a dreadful dream, they followed Ned's guidance, stumbling across little watercourses, tramping through marshy rice-fields, climbing into and out of deep nullahs, now pausing to listen to the barking of a village dog, now making their way through a thick clump of trees, and at last tramping for hours--that seemed ages--along the dead flat of the highroad. This at the first faint dawn of morning they left, and took refuge in a thick grove a quarter of a mile from the highway. Before throwing themselves down to rest, the girls, at Ned's earnest request, tried to eat a piece of biscuit, but tried in vain, they, however, each sipped a little wine from the bottles, and then, utterly worn out and exhausted, soon forgot their misery in a deep and heavy sleep.
The sun was upon the point of setting when their companions aroused them, and they woke up to their sorrows and dangers. The day had passed quietly; the boys, after both sleeping for some four or five hours, had watched by turns. No one had approached the wood; but a party of four Sepoys, mounted on horses, had passed from Sandynugghur; and a larger party had, later in the afternoon, come along in the other direction. From this the boys guessed that a successful revolt had also taken place at Nalgwa, the next station to Sandynugghur.
"Now, girls, the first thing to do is to eat. Here are biscuits for some days, and the two bottles of wine, which we must be sparing of. Dick and I have eaten lots of biscuits, and have had some water from a well at a little distance behind the wood. There was a large gourd lying by it which we have taken the liberty of borrowing. You can drink some water if you like, but you must each take a glass of wine. You must keep up your strength. There is no one in sight, so if you like you can go to the well and have a wash. Don't be longer than you can help; it would be ruin to be seen before we have changed our clothes. While you are away washing, Dick and I will put on our dresses, and when you come back you can do the same. We can stain our faces and hands afterward."
The girls chose to have their wash first and their meal afterward, and felt refreshed and brighter after they had done so. Then they dressed in the clothes Saba had provided for them, and could, at any other time, have laughed at the comicality of their aspect, muffled up in white, with only their eyes visible. The awkward shoes were the only part of the costume to which they objected; but the sight of European boots below the native dress would have betrayed them instantly; however, they determined to adopt them for walking in at nights, or when crossing the fields, and to put the native shoes in a bundle, to be worn in public.
The boys presently joined them, Ned in the dress of a young Mussulman zemindar, Dick as his follower.
"I should not have known you in the least," Rose said; "as far as appearances go, I think we are all safe now."
When it was quite dark they again started, regained the road, and kept steadily along it. After two hours' walking they approached a village. After some consultation it was decided that Dick, whose dress was the darkest and least noticeable, should steal forward and reconnoiter. If every one was indoors they would push boldly through; if not, they would make a circuit round it. In ten minutes he returned.
"Ned, there are two troopers' horses standing before the largest house of the place. I suppose they belong to some of the men of the cavalry regiment at Nalgwa. If we could but steal them!"
"Splendid, Dick; why should we not? I can get on one, you on the other; one of the girls can sit behind each of us, with her arms round our waists. What do you say, girls? With our dress it would be natural for us to be on horseback, and no one would ask any questions. We are pretty safe, because if they come out there are but two of them, and we are more than a match for them with our pistols."
"It seems a terrible risk to run, Ned; but I do think it would be our best plan. What do you say, Rose?"
"I think we had better try, Kate."
"Now let us settle everything before we start," said Ned. "We must mount first, I think, that we may be able to help you more easily; and you would have less risk of falling off if you get up in front of us. We can change when we have gone half a mile. Will you stand close to Dick, Kate, when he mounts; Rose, you keep close to me. The moment we are fairly in the saddle, and have got the reins in our hands, you put your foot on mine, and take hold of my hand, and climb up in the saddle in front of me. Put your arms round our necks and hold us, because we shall want one hand for the reins, the other for a pistol."
"Let us cut a stick, Ned, to give them a lick and make them start at a gallop."
Very gently, and with bated breath, they stole up the village. The horses were still standing with their reins thrown over a hook in the wall. Very quietly the boys unhooked the reins, but the horses moved uneasily, and objected to their mounting them, for horses accustomed to natives dislike to be touched by Europeans. However, the boys had just managed to climb into their seats when a shutter of the house opened, and a voice said in Hindostanee, "What is fidgeting the horses?" Then a head looked out.
"Some one is stealing the horses," he shouted.
"Quick, girls, up with you," Ned said; and the girls, as light as feathers, sprang up. "Go along," the boys cried, bringing down their sticks on the animals' sides. Dick's at once leaped forward, but Ned's horse only backed. Ned gave his stick to Rose and seized his pistol, which was cocked and ready for use. As he did so a native trooper rushed from the house. As he came out Ned fired, and the man fell forward on his face.
Startled by the shot, the horse darted off after his companion. For a few minutes they went forward at a gallop, the boys holding on as well as they could, but expecting every moment to be thrown off. For awhile shouts and cries were heard from the village, and then all was quiet again. The two boys reined in their horses.
"That was awful," Dick said; "I would rather sit on the yardarm in a storm than ride on that beast any further at the pace we have been going."
The girls had not spoken a word since they started, and they now slipped to the ground. It was not an easy thing for them to get up behind, and several slips were made before their attempts were successful. Once seated, they were more comfortable, and they again went on, this time at an easy canter. After half an hour's ride they came to a crossroad, and turned up there, going now at a walk. After awhile they took a well-marked path running in a parallel direction to the road; this they followed for some time, passing fearlessly through one or two small villages.
Then, feeling by the flagging walk of their horses that they were becoming fatigued, they plunged deep into a thick wood, dismounted, and prepared for the night. Attached to the saddle of each horse was a nose-bag with some forage. These were put on, the horses fastened up, and the little party were soon asleep again.
Before starting next morning the first care of the boys was to take off the embroidery of the horse-cloths, and as much of the metal work on the bridles as could be possibly dispensed with, in order to conceal the fact that the horses had belonged to a British cavalry regiment; then they mounted, with the girls behind them, and rode quietly forward, taking care not to travel by the main road, as the news of the carrying off the horses would have been generally known there.
They passed through several villages, attracting but little attention as they did so, for there was now nothing unusual in the appearance of a Mohammedan zemindar and follower riding with two closely-veiled women en croupe. Late in the afternoon they stopped at a village store, and Ned purchased, without exciting any apparent suspicion, some grain for the horses. That night they slept as usual in a wood, and congratulated themselves on having made fully twenty-five miles of their journey toward Meerut.
The next morning, after two miles' riding, they entered a large village. As they were passing through it a number of peasants suddenly rushed out into the road, and shouted to them to stop. They were armed with sticks and hoes, and a few had guns. Looking behind, Ned saw a similar body fill up the road behind them, cutting off their escape.
"Look, Ned, at that old fellow with the gun; that's the man who sold us the grain last night," Dick said.
"We must charge them, Dick; there's nothing else to do. Hold tight, girls. Now for your revolver, Dick! Now!"
And, digging their heels into their horses' side, the boys rode at the crowd of peasants. There was a discharge of guns, and Dick felt as if a hot iron had been drawn suddenly across his cheek; then they were in the midst of the crowd, emptying their revolvers with deadly effect among them; some fell, and the horses dashed forward, followed by the yells of their assailants. A minute later three or four more guns were discharged, the rear party having now joined the other, and being therefore able for the first time to fire.
Dick heard a little startled cry from Kate.
"Are you hurt, darling?" he cried in alarm.
"Nothing to speak of, Dick. Ride on."
In a quarter of a mile they drew rein, and found that a ball had passed through the upper part of Kate's arm, as it went round Dick's body. Fortunately it had gone through the flesh only, without touching the bone. Dick was bleeding copiously from a wound across the cheek.
"Another two inches to the right," he said, "and it would have taken me fairly in the mouth. It's well it's no worse."
Kate's arm was soon bandaged up, and a handkerchief tied round Dick's face. Ned proposed that for Kate's sake they should make a halt at the first wood they came to, but Kate would not hear of it.
"On the contrary, Ned, we ought to press forward as hard as we can, for it is very possible that at that village where we were recognized--I suppose because they had heard about the horses--they may have dispatched people to the main road, as well as further on to stop us here; and we may be pursued at any moment, if there happens to be any native cavalry upon the road. Evidently they are very much in earnest about catching us, and have sent word to look after four people on two horses all over the country, or they could not have known about it at the village yesterday evening."
"I am afraid you are right, Kate; if we could turn off this road I should not fear, but the river cannot be far to our right, and the main road is to our left. There is nothing for it but to press straight on. Fortunately, the country is not thickly populated, and there is a good deal of jungle. If the worst comes to the worst, we must leave our horses and go on foot again. I fear that is more fatiguing for you, but we can hide ourselves a good deal better."
It was late in the afternoon when Rose cried. "They are coming, Ned; there is a party of cavalry behind!"
Ned looked round; and far back, along the straight road, he saw a body of horsemen.
"They are a long distance behind," he said; "now for a race!"
The boys plied their sticks, and the horses sprang on at full gallop.
"How much are they gaining, Rose?" he asked, after twenty minutes' hard riding.
"They are nearer, Ned--a good deal nearer; but they have not gained half their distance yet."
"The sun set fully ten minutes ago," Ned said; "in another half-hour it will be dark. Their horses must be done up, or they would gain faster on us, as ours have to carry double, and are getting terribly blown; but there is a wood, which looks a large one, a couple of miles ahead. If we can get there five minutes before them, we are safe."
By dint of flogging their horses they entered the wood while their pursuers were half a mile behind.
"Another hundred yards," Ned said, "and then halt. Now, off we get."
In an instant they leaped off, and gave a couple of sharp blows with their sticks to the horses, who dashed off at a gallop down the road.
It was already perfectly dark in the wood, and the fugitives hurried into the thickest part. In five minutes they heard the cavalry come thundering past.
"We must push on," Ned said; "fortunately, we have done no walking, for we must be far away by to-morrow morning. They will come up with the horses before very long, and will know we are in the wood, and they will search it through and through in the morning."
A quarter of a mile, and the wood grew thicker, being filled with an undergrowth of jungle.
"If you will stop here, Ned, I will push on through this jungle, and see how far it goes. The girls can never get through this. I think we are near the edge of the wood; it looks lighter ahead."
In ten minutes he came back.
"Ned, we are on the river; it is not fifty yards from here."
This was serious news.
"What a pity we did not take to the left instead of the right when we left the horses. However, they won't know which way we have gone, and must watch the whole wood. We must push forward, and, by keeping as close as we can to the river, shall most likely pass them; besides, they will be some time before they decide upon forming a chain round the wood, and as there are only about twenty of them they will be a long way apart. There! Do you hear them? They are coming back! Now let us go on again!"
In ten minutes they reached the edge of the wood. They could see nothing of the horsemen. Keeping in the fields, but close to the line of jungle that bordered the river, they walked onward for upward of an hour. Then they came upon the road. The river had made a bend, and the road now followed its bank.
"Shall we cross it, and keep in the open country, or follow it, girls?"
"Follow it as long as we can keep on walking," Kate said. "It is in the right direction, and we can go on so much faster than in the fields. If we hear them coming along we can get into the jungle on the bank."
"Listen, Kate," Rose said a few minutes afterward; "they are following!"
"I expect," Ned said, "they find that the wood is too big to be watched, and some of them are going on to get some help from the next garrison, or, perhaps, to rouse up a village and press them in the work. Trot on, girls; the jungle is so thick here you could hardly squeeze yourself in. We have plenty of time; they won't be here for five minutes yet."