In Times of Peril by G. A. Henty
Chapter IV. Broken Down.
They ran at the top of their speed, but the sound of the horses' feet grew louder.
"There is a path leading to the river," Ned said; "let us turn down there; we can hide under the jungle on the bank."
Breathlessly they ran down to the river.
"Hurrah! here is a boat, jump in;" and in another minute they had pushed off from the bank, just as they heard a body of cavalry--for that they were troops they knew by the jingling of their accouterments--pass at a gallop. The stream was strong; and the boys found that with the rude oars they could make no way whatever.
"We had better land again, and get further from the river," Ned said. "We will push the boat off, and it will be supposed that we have gone off in it."
This was soon done, and having regained the road, they crossed it and struck over the fields.
The moon, which had been hitherto hidden under a passing cloud, was soon out fully, and for some time they kept across the country, carefully avoiding all villages. These were here more thinly scattered; patches of jungle and wood occurred more frequently; and it was evident that they were getting into a less highly cultivated district. It was long before daybreak that Rose declared that she was too fatigued to go further, and they entered a large wood. Here they lay down, and were soon fast asleep. It was broad daylight when the Warreners woke. Rose still slept on.
Presently Kate came to her brothers. "I am afraid Rose is going to be ill. She keeps talking and moaning in her sleep; her face is flushed, and her hands as hot as fire."
As they were looking sadly at her she opened her eyes.
"Is it time to get up?" she asked. "Oh, my head! it is aching terribly. Is the trap at the door?"
Then she closed her eyes again, and went on talking incoherently to herself.
"She has fever," Kate said, "and we must get her under shelter, at whatever risk."
"I heard a dog bark not far off, just as I went to sleep," Ned said. "I will go and reconnoiter. Dick, you had better stay here."
Dick nodded, and Ned advanced cautiously to the edge of the wood. There he saw a farmhouse of a better class than usual. Three peons were just starting for work, and an elderly man with a long beard was standing at the door. Then he went in, and after a few minutes reappeared with a long staff in his hands, and went out into the fields. He did not, however, follow the direction which the peons had taken, but took a line parallel with the edge of the wood. "He looks a decent old fellow," Ned said to himself; "I can but try; at any rate, at the worst I am more than a match for him."
So saying, he stepped out into the field. The farmer started with surprise at seeing a young Mussulman appear before him.
"I am English," Ned said at once. "I think you are kind by your face, and I tell you the truth. There are two English girls in the wood, and one is ill. We can go no further. Will you give them shelter?"
The old man stood for some time in thought.
"I have no complaint against the Feringhees," he said; "in my fathers time the country was red with blood, but all my life I have eaten my bread in peace, and no man has injured me. Where are the English ladies?"
Ned led the way to the spot where Rose was still lying. The old man looked at her flushed face, and then at Kate, and said:
"The English ladies have suffered much, and can have done harm to no one. I will shelter them. My wife and daughter will nurse the sick one. They will be in the women's chamber, and my servants will not know that there is a stranger there. I believe that they would be faithful, but one who knows nothing can tell no tales. On the other side of the wood there is a shed. It is empty now, and none go near it. The English sahibs can live there, and each day I will bring them food. When their sister is well they can go on again."
Ned translated the old man's words, and Kate, who was kneeling by Rose, caught his hand and kissed it in her gratitude. He patted her head and said, "Poor child!"
"How are we to carry Rose? I don't think she can walk," Kate asked.
The farmer solved the difficulty by motioning them to stay where they were. He then went off, and in ten minutes returned, bearing a dried bullock's skin. On this Rose was laid. The Hindoo took the two ends at her feet, the boys each one of those by her head, and then, slung as in a hammock, Rose was carried to the house, where the wife and daughter of their host, prepared by him for what was coming, received them with many expressions of pity, and she was at once carried into the inner room. The farmer then placed before the boys two bowls of milk and some freshly made chupatties, and then gave them some food for the day. With an expression of fervent gratitude to him, and a kiss from Kate, who came out to tell them that Rose would be well nursed and cared for, the boys started for the hut in the direction the Hindoo pointed out to them. It was a small building, and had apparently been at some time used as a cattle shed. The floor was two feet deep in fodder of the stalks of Indian corn. Above was a sort of rough loft, in which grain had been stored.
The boys at once agreed that, to prevent suspicion, it was safer to occupy this, and they soon transferred enough of the fodder from below to make a comfortable bed. Then, feeling secure from discovery, even if by chance some passer-by should happen to glance into the shed, they were soon deep in a sounder sleep than they had enjoyed since they left Sandynugghur.
The next day, when the old man came to see them, he was accompanied by Kate. She looked pale and wan.
"How is Rose?" was their first question.
"She is as bad as she can be, dears. She has been delirious all night, and is so this morning. I did not like to leave her for a moment. But this kind old man wanted me to go with him, as I think he has something to say to you."
"Have you any news?" Ned asked him.
"My servants tell me that the Sepoys are searching the whole country, some of the officers have escaped from Sandynugghur, and also from Nalgwa, where the troops rose on the same night; some of the residents have escaped also. There is a reward offered for them alive or dead, and any one hiding them is to be punished with death. The white lady is very ill. She is in the hand of God; she may get better, she may die. If she gets better it will be weeks before she can go through the hardships of the journey to Meerut. I think it better that you should go on alone; the white ladies will be as my daughters. I have told my servants that my daughter is ill, so that if they hear cries and voices at night they will think that it is she who is in pain. You can do no good here. If the woods are searched you may be found; if you are found they will search everywhere closely, and may find them. I will hide them here safely. The orders are, I hear, that the captives taken are to be carried to Delhi; but if they should be found I will myself journey to Meerut to bring you the news. You will give me your names, and I will find you; then you may get help and rescue them on the way."
Ned translated the old man's opinion and kind offer to his brother and sister, and said that he was very unwilling to leave the girls--a sentiment in which Dick heartily joined.
Kate, however, at once expressed her warm approval of the plan.
"It will be weeks, dears, before Rose can walk again, and I shall have an anxious time with her. It would add greatly to my anxiety if I knew that you were near, and might at any time be captured and killed. If dear papa has escaped he will be in a terrible state of anxiety about us, and you could relieve him if you can join him at Meerut, and tell him how kindly we are treated here. Altogether, boys, it would be so much better for you to go; for if the Sepoys do come, you could not defend us against more than two or three, and they are sure to come in a stronger party than that."
In spite of their disinclination to leave the girls without such protection as they could give them, the boys saw that the course advised was the best to be pursued, and told their Hindoo friend that they agreed to follow his counsel, thanking him in the warmest terms for his kindness.
He advised them to leave their Mohammedan dresses behind, and to dress in the simple costume of Hindoo peons, with which he could supply them. They would then attract far less attention, and could even by day pass across the fields without any comment whatever from the natives at work there, who would naturally suppose that they belonged to some village near at hand. "Englishmen could not do this," he said; "too much leg, too much arm, too much width of shoulders; but boys are thinner, and no one will notice the difference. In half an hour I will come back with the things." Ned gave him the rest of the berries, which they had preserved, and asked him to boil them up in a little water, as they would now have to color their bodies and arms and legs, in addition to their faces.
It was a sad parting between Kate and her brothers, for all felt that they might never meet again. Still the course decided upon was, under the circumstances, evidently the best that could be adopted.
In an hour the Hindoo returned. The boys took off their clothes, and stained themselves a deep brown from head to foot. The farmer then produced a razor and a bowl of water and some soap, and said that they must shave their hair off their heads, up to a level with the top of the ears, so as to leave only that which could be concealed by their turban. This, with some laughter--the first time they had smiled since they left Sandynugghur--they proceeded to do to each other, and the skin thus exposed they dyed the same color as the rest of the body. They then each put on a scanty loincloth, and wrapping a large piece of dark blue cotton stuff first round their waists and then over one shoulder, their costume was complete, with the exception of a pair of sandals and a white turban. The old Hindoo surveyed them gravely when their attire was completed, and expressed his belief that they would pass without exciting the slightest suspicion. Their pistols were a trouble. They were determined that, come what might, they would not go without these, and they were finally slung behind them from a strap passing round the waist under the loin-cloth; the spare ammunition and a supply of biscuit were stowed in stout cotton bags, with which their friend provided them, and which hung by a band passing over one shoulder. Their money and a box of matches they secured in a corner of their clothes. A couple of stout staves completed their outfit.
Bidding a grateful farewell to their friendly Hindoo, the boys started on their journey. The sandals they found so difficult to keep on that they took them off and carried them, except when they were passing over stony ground. They kept to bypaths and avoided all villages. Occasionally they met a native, but either they passed him without speech, or Ned muttered a salutation in answer to that of the passer. All day they walked, and far into the night. They had no fear of missing their way, as the road on one hand and the river on the other both ran to Meerut; and although these were sometimes ten miles apart, they served as a fair index as to the line they should take. The biscuits, eked out with such grain as they could pluck as they crossed the fields, lasted for two days; but at the end of that time it became necessary to seek another supply of food.
"I don't know what to ask for, Dick; and those niggers always chatter so much that I should have to answer, and then I should be found out directly. I think we must try some quiet huts at a distance from the road."
The wood in which they that night slept was near three or four scattered huts. In the morning they waited and watched for a long time until one of the cottages was, as far as they could judge, deserted, all its inmates being gone out to work in the fields. They then entered it boldly. It was empty. On hunting about they found some chupatties which had apparently been newly baked, a store of rice and of several other grains. They took the chupatties, five or six pounds of rice, and a little copper cooking- pot. They placed in a conspicuous position two rupees, which were more than equivalent to the value of the things they had taken, and went on their way rejoicing.
At midday they sat down, lit a fire with some dried sticks, and put their rice in the pot to boil. As Ned was stooping to pick up a stick he was startled by a simultaneous cry of "Look out!" from Dick, and a sharp hiss; and looking up, saw, three or four feet ahead of him, a cobra, with its hood inflated, and its head raised in the very act of springing. Just as it was darting itself forward Dick's stick came down with a sharp tap on its head and killed it.
"That was a close shave, Ned," the boy said, laughing; "if you had stooped he would have bit you on the face. What would have been the best thing to do if he had bitten you?"
"The best thing is to suck the wound instantly, to take out a knife and cut deeply in, and then, as we have no vesuvians, I should break up half a dozen pistol cartridges, put the powder into and on the wound, and set it alight. I believe that that is what they do in some parts of Eastern Europe in the case of the bites of mad dogs; and this, if no time is lost after the bite is given, is almost always effectual in keeping off hydrophobia."
"Well, Ned, I am very thankful that we had not to put the virtue of the receipt to a practical test."
"Would you like to eat the snake, Dick? I believe that snake is not at all bad eating."
"Thank you," Dick said, "I will take it on trust. We have got rice; and although I am not partial to rice it will do very well. If we could have got nothing else we might have tried the snake; but as it is, I had rather not. Two more days, Ned, and we shall be at Meerut. The old Hindoo said it was a hundred miles, and we go twenty-five a day, even with all our bends and turns to get out of the way of villages."
"Yes, I should think we do quite that, Dick. We walk from daylight to sunset, and often two or three hours by moonlight; and though we don't go very fast, we ought to get over a lot of ground. Listen! There is music!" Both held their breath. "Yes, there are the regular beats of a big drum. It is on the highroad, I should say, nearly abreast of us. If we go to that knoll we shall have a view of them; and there cannot be the least danger, as they must be fully a mile away."
Upon gaining the rise in question they saw a regiment in scarlet, winding along the road.
"Are they mutineers, Dick, or British?"
It was more than any one could say. Mounted officers rode at the head of the regiment; perfect order was to be observed in its marching; there was nothing that in any way differed from its ordinary aspect.
"Let us go back and get our rice and lota, Dick. We can't afford to lose that; and if we go at a trot for a couple of miles we can get round into some trees near the road, where we can see their faces. If the mounted officers are white it is all right; if not, they are mutineers."
Half an hour's trot brought them to such a point of vantage as they desired. Crouched in some bushes at the edge of a clump of trees, not fifty yards from the road, they awaited the passage of the regiment. They had not been in their hiding-place five minutes when the head of the column appeared.
"They march in very good order, Ned; do you think that they would keep up such discipline as that after they had mutinied?"
"I don't know. Dirk; but they'll want all their discipline when they come to meet our men. For anything we know we may be the two last white men left in India; but when the news gets to England there will be such a cry throughout the land that, if it needed a million men to win back the country, I believe they would be found and sent out. There! There are two mounted officers; I can't see their color, but I don't think they are white."
"No, Ned; I am sure they are not white; then they must be mutineers. Look! Look! Don't you see they have got three prisoners? There they are, marching in the middle of that column; they are officers; and oh! Ned! I do think that the middle one's father." And the excited boy, with tears of joy running down his cheeks, would have risen and dashed out had not Ned forcibly detained him.
"Hush! Dick! and keep quiet. Yes! It is father! and Dunlop and Manners. Thank God!" he said, in deep gratitude.
"Well, let's go to them, Ned; we may as well be all together."
"Keep quiet, Dick," the elder said, holding him down again; "you will destroy their chance as well as ours. We must rescue them if we can."
"How, Ned, how?"
"I don't know yet, Dick; but we must wait and see; anyhow, we will try. There goes the bugle for a halt. I expect they have done their day's march. Come on, Dick; we must get out of this. When they have once pitched their tents they will scatter about, and, as likely as not, some will come into this wood. Let us get further back, so as to be able to see them pitch their tents, and watch, if we can, where they put the prisoners."
The regiment piled arms, and waited until the bullock-carts came up with the tents. These were taken out and pitched on the other side of the road, and facing the wood. The ground being marked out, the men were told off to their quarters, and the poles of the tents aligned with as much regularity and exactness as could have been used when the regiment possessed its white officers.
Near the quarter-guard tent--that is, the tent of the men engaged upon actual duty--a small square tent was erected; and into this the three officers, who were handcuffed, were thrust; and two sentries, one in front, the other at the back of the tent, were placed.
"Now, Dick, we know all about it; let us get further away, and talk over how it is to be managed."
The task was one of extreme difficulty, and the boys were a long time arranging the details. Had there been but one sentry, the matter would have been easy enough: but with two sentries, and with the quarter guard close at hand, it seemed at first as if no possible scheme could be hit upon. The sentry at the back of the tent must be the one to be disposed of, and this must be done so noiselessly as not to alarm the man in front. Each marched backward and forward some eight paces to the right, and as much to the left, of the tent, halting occasionally. When both marched right and left at the same time, they were in sight of each other except during the time of passing before and behind the tent; when they walked alternately, the tent hid them altogether from each other.
"I suppose there is no chance of our being able to gag that fellow, Ned? It's horrid to think of killing a man in cold blood."
"There is no help for it, Dick. If he were alone, we might gag him; as it is, he must be killed. These scoundrels are all mutineers and murderers. This regiment has, no doubt, like the others, killed its officers, and all the men, women, and children at the station. I would not kill the man unless it could be helped, but our father's life depends upon it; and to save him I would, if there were no other way, cut the throats of the whole regiment while they were asleep! This is no ordinary war, Dick; it is a struggle for existence; and though I'm sure I hate the thought of it, I shall not hesitate for an instant."
"I shan't hesitate," the midshipman said; "but I wish the fellow could make a fight of it. However, as he would kill me if he had a chance, he mustn't grumble if I do the same for him. Now, Ned, you tell me exactly what I am to do, and you may rely on my doing it."
Every minute detail of the scheme was discussed and arranged; and then, as the sun set, the boys lit a fire in a nullah and boiled some rice, and ate their food with lighter hearts than they had done since they left Sandynugghur, for the knowledge that their father had escaped death had lifted a heavy burden from their hearts. As to the danger of the expedition that they were about to undertake, with the happy recklessness of boys they thought but little of it.
Across the plain they could see the campfires, but as the evening went on these gradually died away, and the sounds which had come faintly across the still night air ceased altogether. As patiently as might be, they waited until they guessed that it must be about ten o'clock. The night was, for the country, cold--a favorable circumstance, as the natives, who are very chilly, would be less likely to leave their tents if they felt restless. The moon was now half full and shining brightly, giving a light with which the boys could well have dispensed.
"Now, Dick, old boy, let's be moving. May God help us in our night's work!"
They made a considerable detour to approach the camp in the rear, where they rightly judged that the Sepoys, having no fear whatever of any hostile body being near, would have placed no sentries.
"Listen!" Dick said, as they were pausing to reconnoiter; "that sounded like a cannon in the far distance."
There was no doubt of it; faintly, but quite distinct, across the air came the sound of heavy cannon fired at regular intervals.
"Those cannon must be fired as a salute to some great chief newly arrived at Delhi--we should not fire so late, but I suppose they are not particular," Ned said; "we calculated it was not more than twenty-five miles off, and we should hear them at that distance easily. We had better wait a few minutes to see if any one comes out to listen to it."
But there was no movement among the white tents. Then they stole quietly into the camp.
The tents of the Indian native regiments are large, oblong tents, with two poles, holding thirty men each. They are manufactured at the government prison at Jubbalpore, and are made of thick cotton canvas, lined with red or blue cotton. In the daytime they open right along one side, the wall of the tent being propped outward, with two slight poles, so as to form a sort of veranda, and shade the inside of the tent while admitting the air. At night-time, in the cool season, this flap is let down and the tent closed. In front of the tents the muskets of the men inside are piled.
Into one of these tents Dick crawled, Ned watching outside. When Dick first entered it was so dark that he could see nothing; but the moonlight penetrated dimly through the double cotton, and he was soon able to discover objects around. The ground was all occupied by sleeping figures, each wrapped up from head to foot in his blanket, looking like so many mummies. Their uniforms were folded, and placed between their heads and the wall of the tent. Six of these, with the same number of caps, and six ammunition pouches and belts, and a uniform cloak, taken carefully off one of the sleepers, Dick collected and passed out through the door of the tent to Ned. Not a sleeper stirred while he did so, and he crept quietly out, with the first part of his task accomplished. Gathering the things together, the boys made all speed back to a clump of trees half a mile in the rear of the camp. Here Ned put on one of the uniforms and the cloak, and they then started back again for the camp.
The sentries upon the prisoners' tent were changed at twelve o'clock, and a few minutes later the sentry at the rear of the tent saw one of his comrades come out of one of the large tents close to the end of his beat. He was wrapped in his blanket, and his face was tied up with a cloth. Coughing violently, he squatted himself in front of his tent, and rocked himself to and fro, with his hands to his face, uttering occasional groans. This was all so natural--for the natives of India suffer much from neuralgia in the cold weather--that the sentry thought nothing of the matter. He continued to pace his beat, turning back each time when within a yard or two of the sufferer. The third time he did so the figure dropped off his blanket, and, with a sudden bound, threw himself on the sentry's back; at the same moment a Sepoy in uniform darted out from the tent. One hand of the assailant--in which was a damp cloth--was pressed tightly over the mouth and nostrils of the sentry; the other grasped the lock of his musket, so that it could not be discharged. Thrown backward off his balance, taken utterly by surprise, the sentry was unable even to struggle, and in an instant the second antagonist plunged a bayonet twice into his body, and he fell a lifeless mass on the ground. It was the work of an instant to drag the body a yard or two into the shadow of the tent, and before the other sentry appeared from the opposite side of the prisoner's tent the native was rocking himself as before; the sentry, wrapped in his cloak, was marching calmly on his beat. The whole affair had lasted but twenty seconds, and had passed as noiselessly as a dream.
The next time the sentry in front was hidden from view the native started from his sitting position and stole up behind the tent. Cautiously and quietly he cut a slit in the canvas and entered. Then he knelt down by the side of one of the sleepers, and kissed him. He moved in his sleep, and his disturber, putting his hand on his mouth to prevent sudden speech, shook him gently. The major opened his eyes.
"Father, it is I--Richard; hush! do not speak."
Then, as the bewildered man gradually understood what was said, his son fell on his neck, kissing him with passionate delight.
After the first rapturous joy of the recognition was over, "Ned and the girls?" Major Warrener asked.
"The girls are at present safe," Dick said; "Ned is outside behind. He is the sentry. Now, father, wake the others, and then let us steal off. Take off your boots; the men's tents are only ten yards behind; once there, you are safe. I will let Ned know when you are ready, and he will occupy the sentry. We can't silence him, because he is within sight of the sentry of the quarter-guard."
Major Warrener aroused his sleeping companions, and in a few whispered words told them what had happened. In silence they wrung Dick's hand, and then taking off their boots, stole one by one out of the tent. As Ned passed he exchanged a silent embrace with his father. The next time the sentry in front was passing before the tent, a heavy stone, hurled by Ned, crashed into a bush upon the other side of the road. The sentry halted instantly, and, with gun advanced, listened, but he could hear nothing, for his comrade was at that instant seized with a fit of coughing.
After standing in a listening attitude for three or four minutes the Sepoy supposed that the noise must have been caused by some large bird suddenly disturbed in the foliage.
"Did you hear anything?" he asked Ned, as their path crossed.
"Nothing," Ned answered, continuing his march.
For another quarter of an hour he passed backward and forward, his only fear being that the sentry might take it into his head to open the tent and look in to see if the prisoners were safe. In a quarter of an hour he knew that the fugitives would have gained the trees, and would have time to put on the Sepoy uniforms before he reached them; and also, by the aid of a couple of large stones, have got rid of their handcuffs, lie might therefore be off to join them.
Waiting till the sentry was at the other end of his beat, he slipped round the tent, stripped off his cloak, lay down his musket and belt--for Dick had arranged that they should carry off five muskets in their retreat-- threw off the Sepoy jacket, and in light running order, darted through the tents. He calculated that he should have at least a couple of minutes start before his absence was discovered, another minute or two before the sentry was sufficiently sure of it to hail the quarter-guard and report the circumstance. Then would follow the discovery of the escape of the prisoners; but by that time he would be far out on the plain, and even if seen, which was unlikely, he was confident that he could outrun any native.
His anticipations turned out correct; he was already some distance off when he heard the call of the sentry to the quarter-guard, followed almost immediately by a still louder shout, that told that he had discovered the flight of the prisoners; then came the sound of a musket shot, a drum beat the alarm, and a babel of sounds rang on the still air. But by this time Ned was halfway to the clump of trees, and three minutes later he was in his father's arms. There was no time to talk then. Another coat was hurried on to him, an ammunition belt and pouch thrown over his shoulder, and Captain Manners carrying his musket until he should have quite recovered breath, the five went off at a steady trot, which after a quarter of an hour broke into a walk--for there was no fear of pursuit--in the direction in which they knew Delhi to lie.