In Times of Peril by G. A. Henty
Chapter V. Back Under the Flag.
"How far is it to Delhi? We heard the guns there just now."
"Not thirty miles."
"Have you heard how things are going on there?" Dick asked.
"According to the Sepoy reports, fresh regiments are pouring in from all quarters; and they boast that they are going to drive us out of the country. Our troops are still at Meerut, and a force is gathering at Umballah; but they are after all a mere handful."
"Do you think there is any chance of help coming to us?"
"None for the present. The Sepoys say that every station has gone down except Agra, Allahabad, and Benares, and that these are soon to go too. Cawnpore and Lucknow have risen."
"Are all the whites killed everywhere?"
"I am afraid they are all killed where there are no white troops; but there, we must hope that they are making a stand. We shall be a long time before we know anything. It is but a week yet since our station went; seven days longer since Delhi rose."
"It seems ages ago," Ned said. "You don't mean to try and get to Meerut to-night, I hope; we could walk as far if it were absolutely necessary, but we have done a long day's walk already."
"No, no, Ned. I only want to get well away from our late camp. To-morrow we will get near the river, hide all next day, and cross after nightfall. There is a clump of trees; we will pass the night there; I think we are safe enough now. The mutineers are too anxious to be at Delhi to spend much time in looking for us. Now, first of all, let us get a fire."
"We have never had a fire at night," Dick said, "since we started; we have been too much afraid of being seen."
"There is not much chance of its being observed in a wood; especially if the bushes are thick. We are four miles at least from the camp, and we are all wet through with dew. Now for sticks."
The whole party soon collected a pile of sticks; and the major was about to scatter some powder among the dead leaves, when Ned said, "We have matches, father."
"Oh, that's all right, Ned. There we are, fairly alight. Yes, we have chosen the place well; there are bushes all around. Now," he said, when the fire had burned up brightly, "let us hear the full story of what has passed; you gave us a short account when we first got free. Now let us hear all about it."
Ned and Dick told the story--sometimes one taking it up, sometimes the other. There were many questions from their auditors, and expressions of warm approval of their conduct; and Captain Dunlop threatened under his breath that if he ever had a chance he would not leave one cake of mud upon another in the village where Kate was wounded. He and Captain Manners proposed that they should go back, and afford what protection they could to the girls. But Major Warrener at once negatived this idea.
"If they could come straight back with us, I should say yes," he said, "for with us five we might hope to get them through safely; but even that would be very risky, for the larger the party is, the more easily it attracts attention, and the whole country is alive with rebels marching to Delhi. But as Rose cannot be fit to travel for weeks, we have no choice in the matter. They must remain where they are, and we can only hope and pray for their safety. Our duty lies clearly at Meerut, where every man who can sight a rifle will be wanted most urgently. Now let us be off to sleep; the fire has burned low, and in another hour or two it will be daybreak; however, there will be no reveille, and we can sleep on with lighter hearts than we have had for some time."
"What figures you are in those uniforms!" Dick said, laughing, next morning; "you can scarcely move in them, and they won't meet by eight or nine inches. It does not seem to me that they are any disguise at all. Any one could see in a moment that they were not made for you."
"They are wretchedly uncomfortable, Dick." his father said; "and, as you say, any one could see they were not made for us. But they are useful. As we go along, any one who saw us at a distance would take us for a straggling party of mutineers making our way to Delhi; while the bright scarlet of our own uniform would have told its tale miles off."
"I shall be glad enough to get rid of mine, Dick; I feel as if I had got into a boy's jacket by mistake. Jack Sepoy has no shoulders to speak of; as far as height goes he is well enough; but thirty Sepoys on parade take up no more room than twenty English. I had to take my jacket off last night and lay it over my shoulders; I might as well have tried to go to sleep in a vise. There! major; do you hear the music? These rascals are on the march again."
The strains of music came very faintly to the ear, for the bivouac was nearly a mile from the road.
"That is all right," the major said. "Now they have gone by, we can be moving. We must give them an hour's start."
"Now, father, we have not heard your adventures yet; please tell us all about them."
"Well, we have not had so much variety as you, but we have gone through a good deal. You know we had talked over the best possible course to take in case of an attack, come when it might. We had arranged what each should do in case of a night attack, or of a rising upon parade; and we had even considered the probability of being set upon when gathered in the messroom. We had all agreed that if taken by surprise, resistance would mean certain death; they would shoot us down through the doors and windows, and we should be like rats in a cage. We agreed, therefore, that in case of an attack, a simultaneous attempt to break out must be made, and we had even settled upon the window by which we should go. The married men were, of course, to make for their bungalows, except where, as in my case, I had made other arrangements; and the rest to various bungalows agreed upon, where traps were to be in readiness. Dunlop, Manners, and myself had agreed to make for Dunlop's, as it was the nearest, and his trap was to be ready that evening.
"There were not many who believed in a mutiny that night. The villains, only in the morning, having sworn to be faithful, deceived most of us, for it was very hard to believe they could be capable of such diabolical treachery. Swords and pistols were, of course, taken off, but instead of being left in the anteroom, were brought into the messroom. Some fellows put theirs in a corner, others against the wall behind them. I was sitting between Dunlop and Manners, and we were, as it happened, at the corner nearest the window fixed upon for the bolt. Things went on all right till dinner was over, There was an insolent look about some of the servants' faces I did not like, but nothing to take hold of. I pointed it out to Dunlop, and we agreed that the plan arranged was the best possible; and that, as resistance would be of no use, if at each of the eight large windows and the two doors a stream of musketry fire were being poured in, we would make a rush straight for the window. Presently the colonel rose and gave 'The Queen.' We all rose, and as if--as I have no doubt it was-- the toast was the signal, there was a sudden trampling in the veranda outside, and at every window appeared a crowd of Sepoys, with their arms in their hands. I shouted, 'To the window for your lives!' and without stopping to get my sword, I dashed at the Sepoys who were there. Dunlop and Manners were with me, and before the scoundrels had time to get their guns to their shoulders, we were upon them. We are all big men; and our weight and impetus, and the surprise, were too much for them; we burst through them, standing as they did four or five deep, as if they had been reeds. They gave a yell of rage and astonishment as they went down like ninepins; but we scarcely saw it, for as we went through them the musketry fire broke out round the messroom.
"Whether any of the others tried to follow us, we don't know. I think most of them forgot their arrangement, and rushed to their arms: certainly some of them did so, for we heard the crack of revolvers between the rifle shots. We made straight across the parade for Dunlop's bungalow, with musket balls flying in all directions, as soon as the fellows we had gone through recovered from their first astonishment; but they are not good shots at the best, and a man running at his top speed is not an easy mark by moonlight. We heard yells and musket shots all round, and knew that while a part of the regiment was attacking us, parties were told off to each bungalow. By the time we had got over the few hundred yards to Dunlop's, the whistling of the bullets round us had pretty well ceased, for the fellows had all emptied their muskets; besides, we were nearly out of range. None of them were near us, for they had stopped in their run to fire; they were too much interested in the massacre going on inside, and we seemed pretty safe; when, just as I entered the gate of the compound, a stray bullet hit me on the head, and down I went like a log.
"Happily, the syce had proved faithful; he had been with Dunlop ever since he joined the regiment, and Dunlop once risked his life to save him from a tiger. There was the syce with the trap. He had not dared bring it out till the first shot was fired, lest his fellow-servants, who were all traitors, should stop it; but the instant it began, he came round. They ran the horse up to where I was lying, lifted me in, and jumped in, and drove out of the gate as a score of fellows from the mess-house came making toward the bungalow. We had fifty yards' start, but they fired away at us, a ball passing through the syce's leg as he scrambled up behind. The horse went along at a gallop; but we were not safe, for parties were carrying on their hellish work in every bungalow, Dunlop and Manners were maddened by the screams they heard; and if it had not been for having me under their charge, and by the thoughts of the girls, I believe they would have jumped out and died fighting. A few of the black devils, hearing wheels, ran out and fired; but we kept on at a full gallop till we were well out of the place. A mile further Dunlop found the horse begin to slacken his speed, and to go very leisurely. He jumped out to see what was the matter, and found, as he expected, that the horse had been hit. He had one bullet in the neck, another in the side. It was evident that it could not go much further. They lifted me out and carried me to a patch of bushes thirty yards from the road. The syce was told to drive on quietly till the horse dropped. Dunlop gave him money and told him to meet us at Meerut."
"Why did you not keep him with you? he would have been very useful?" Dick asked.
"You see I wanted to get the trap as far away as possible before the horse fell," Captain Dunlop said. "We did not know how severely wounded the major was; indeed, we both feared he was killed; but the mutineers, when they found the dead horse in the morning, were certain to make a search in its neighbourhood, and would have found your father had he been close by laid up with a wound."
"Happily I now began to come to," the major went on, continuing his story. "The ball was nearly spent, and had given me a nasty scalp wound, and had stunned me, but I now began to come round. The instant I was able to understand where I was or what had happened, Dunlop and Manners, who were half-wild with excitement and grief, made me promise to lie quiet, while they went back to see what had become of you all. Of course I consented. They were away about three hours, for they had to make a circle of the cantonments, as our bungalow was quite at the other end. They brought cheering news. They had first been to the house, and found it utterly destroyed as they expected. That told them nothing; for if you had been killed, your bodies would probably have been burned with the house. Then they went out to the tope of trees where it was agreed that you should, if possible, first fly. Here they found a pocket-handkerchief of Rose's; and going round to the other side, found by the marks upon the soil that four of you had started together. With hearts immensely lightened by the discovery that you had, at any rate, all escaped from the first massacre, they hurried back to gladden me with the news. I was past understanding it when they arrived, for the intense pain in my head and my terrible anxiety about you had made me delirious. It would have been certain death to stay so near the road, so they dipped their handkerchiefs in water, and tied them round my head; and then supporting me, one on each side, they half- dragged, half-carried, me to a deserted and half-ruinous cottage, about a mile away.
"Next day I was still feverish, but fortunately no one came near us. Dunlop and Manners went out at night, and got a few bananas. Next morning our regiment marched away; and Dunlop then appealed to an old cottager for shelter and food for us all. He at once promised to aid us, and I was removed to his cottage, where everything in his power was done for me. I was now convalescent, and a day later we were talking of making a move forward. That night, however, the cottage was surrounded--whether the peasant himself or some one else betrayed us, we shall never know--but the men that we saw there belonged to a regiment of mutineers that had marched in that afternoon from Dollah. We saw at once that resistance was useless, and we were, moreover, without arms. Had we had them, I have no doubt we should have fought and been killed. As it was, we were bound and marched into the camp at Sandynugghur. It was resolved to take us in triumph into Delhi; and we were marched along with the regiment till you saw us. We had talked over every conceivable plan of escape, and had determined that we would try to-night, which will be the last halt before they get to Delhi. It is very unlikely that we should have succeeded, but it was better to be shot down than to be taken to Delhi and given over to the mob to torture before they killed us. I am convinced we had no chance of really getting off, and that you have saved our lives, just as Dunlop and Manners saved mine, at the risk of their own, on that first night of our flight. And now let us be on the march."
They had not gone far before the three officers found that it was impossible to walk in their Sepoy jackets. They accordingly took them off, and slung them from their muskets. Ned and Dick were fairly fitted. They halted for the night near the river, about ten miles above Delhi. In the morning they were off early. By nine o'clock they stood on the bank of the river, five miles higher up.
The river is wide, or rather the bed of the river is wide, half a mile at least; this in the rainy season is full to the brim, but at other times the stream is not more than half that width. After crossing the river they would have fifteen miles still to traverse to arrive at Meerut; and it was probable that the whole intervening country was in the hands of the Sepoys.
"Had we not better keep this side of the river for a bit, father?" Ned asked.
"No, my boy; we will cross here after dark, and make straight for Meerut. If we can't find a boat, we will each cut a large bundle of rushes, to act as a lifebuoy and carry your guns and ammunition, and so swim across after it is dark."
"Well, major, as the sun is getting awfully hot, I vote we get into the shade of those stunted trees, and have a nap till the afternoon. It won't do to begin even to make the raft till the sun is down."
Captain Dunlop's proposition was carried into effect; but it is questionable whether any of the party slept much, for they were excited by the thought that in a few hours they would be with friends, once more soldiers instead of fugitives, with power to fight in defense of their sovereign's dominions, and of the helpless women and children exposed to the fury of the atrocious mutineers. With these thoughts mingled the anxiety which was wearing them all, although each refrained from talking about it, as to the safety of the girls, whose lives wore dependent upon the fidelity of a native and his servants.
Over and over again, since they met the boys, had they regretted that they had not gone back to watch over them; but the fact that Rose might be weeks before she was able to stand, and that, as their protector had said, the presence of Europeans near them might be detected, and would be a source of constant danger, convinced them that they had taken the proper course. They knew, too, that in acting as they had done they were performing their duty; and that at a moment when the fate of British India trembled in the balance, the place of every soldier was by the side of the British troops who still maintained the old flag flying in the face of increasing numbers of the enemy. Still, although they knew that they were doing their duty, and were, moreover, taking the wisest course, the thoughts of the girls alone in the midst of danger, with one of them down with fever, tried them terribly, and they longed with a fierce desire for the excitement of work and of danger to keep them from thinking of it.
"Here, boys, is a ear of Indian corn apiece; eat that and then get to work."
The frugal meal was soon over, and they then set to work, cutting down, breaking off, and tearing up large reeds with which to make floats. The boys had knives, but the others had been stripped of everything they had at the time of their capture. In about an hour, however, five bundles were made, each some six feet long and nearly three feet thick. The muskets and ammunition pouches were fastened on these, and soon after it was quite dark they entered the water.
"There are no crocodiles, I hope," Dick whispered to Ned.
"Nothing to fear in these large rivers; the chances of meeting one are very small."
"All right," Dick said. "Of course we've got to risk it. But they're as bad as sharks; and sharks, as the Yankee said, is pison. Well, here goes."
When the bundles were placed in the water they were lashed side by side with long trailing creepers which grew abundantly among the rushes; and they were thus secured from the risk of turning over from the weights on the top. Upon the raft thus formed their clothes were placed, and then, side by side, pushing it before them, the party shoved off from shore. In twenty minutes they touched ground on the other side. They dressed, examined their muskets to see if they were in good order, and then started in the direction in which they knew Meerut to be. Several times they paused and listened, for they could occasionally hear the noise of galloping men, and it was evident that there were troops of some kind or other moving about.
They walked for some hours until they thought that they could not be far from their destination, and had begun to congratulate themselves upon being near their friends, when the sound of a strong body of men was heard sweeping along the level plain across which they were now passing.
"There is a small building ahead," the major said; "run for that; they are coming across here."
They were seen, for a shout of "Who goes there?" in Hindostanee was heard.
"Give me your musket, Dick," Captain Dunlop exclaimed. For the lad, with the weight of his musket and ammunition, could hardly keep up with the others.
Just in time they reached the building in front of them, rushed in, and closed the door as the cavalry swept up. It was a small temple; a building of massive construction, with one little window about six inches square, and on the same side a strong door.
"Pile everything against the door," the major cried. "Dunlop, fire at once at them. Our only chance is to hold out with the hope that we may be heard, and that some of our fellows may come to the rescue."
Captain Dunlop fired just as the troopers dashed up to the door.
"Now, Manners, steady, pick off your man," the major said, as, aided by the boys, he jammed a beam of wood between the door and the wall, at such an angle that, except by breaking it to pieces, the door could not be forced.
"Now," he said, "it's my turn;" and he fired into the enraged enemy. "Now, Ned, steady. Are you loaded again, Dunlop?"
"Yes, major; just ready."
"Dick, you follow; take good aim."
The cavalry answered their fire, every shot of which was taking effect, by a confused discharge of their pistols at the door and window.
"Draw off!" their leader shouted; "rear-rank men hold the horses, front- rank men dismount and break in the door."
The order was obeyed; and the troopers rushed forward on foot, and were met by a steady fire, to which the straggling return of their pistols was but an inefficient answer. Vainly the mutineers hacked at the door with their sabers and struck it with their pommels.
"Throw yourselves against it, all at once," cried their leader; and a dozen men sent themselves against the door; it creaked and strained, but the beam kept it in its place.
"You keep up the fire through the window," said the major; "the boys and I will fire through the door."
Yells and shrieks followed each shot through the door, and after three or four minutes the troopers drew off.
"Any one hurt?" the major asked.
"I have got a bullet in my shoulder," said Captain Dunlop.
But that was the only reply. There was a shout outside, and Manners exclaimed: "Confound the fellows, they have got a big log of wood that will soon splinter the door."
"We must stop them as long as we can," said the major, as he fired among the men who were advancing with the log.
Several Sepoys fell before they got up to the house, but they pressed on, and, at the first blow given by the battering-ram driven by the men, the door split from top to bottom.
"Fix bayonets," the major said. "Now, Manners, you and I will hold them back. Not more than two can come at once, and their swords are of no use against bayonets in a narrow space. Dunlop, will you stand in reserve? you have still got your right hand; use your bayonet as a dagger if a rush comes. Boys, you go on loading and firing; put in four balls each time. If they get in, of course use your bayonets; there goes the door!"
A shout burst from the natives as the last portion of the door dropped from its hinges, and the doorway was open. There was, however, no inclination betrayed to make a rush.
"Forward! Death to the infidel dogs!" shouted their officer.
"Suppose you lead us," said one of the troopers; "the officers always show the way."
"Come, then," cried an old officer, on whose breast hung several medals; "follow me!"
Drawing his sword, he rushed forward, followed by twenty of his men. But as he passed over the threshold he and the trooper next to him fell beneath the bayonet thrusts of Major Warrener and his companion. The next two, pushed forward by their comrades, shared the same fate; while, as they fell, the muskets of Ned and Dick sent their contents into the mass. The rest recoiled from the fatal doorway, while the defenders set up a cheer of triumph. It was drowned in a crash of musketry, mingled with a cry of surprise and despair from the natives, as a body of British soldiers leaped from the wood, and followed their volley by an impetuous charge. The cavalry on the plain turned and fled at a gallop; and in five minutes, but for a few dark figures prostrate on the plain, not an enemy was in sight.
"Well, gentlemen, you have made a stout defense," the officer in command said, as he returned to the shrine, outside which the little party had gathered. "It seems as if you could have done without my help. Who are you, may I ask? And where have you sprung from?"
"Why, Sibbold, is it you? You haven't forgotten Warrener? And here are Dunlop and Manners."
"Hurrah!" shouted the officer. "Thank God, old fellows, you are saved; we fancied that you had all gone down. I am glad;" and he shook hands enthusiastically with his friends; while two of the officers, coming up, joined in the hearty greeting.
"Do those two men belong to your regiment?" Captain Sibbold asked. "If so, they are wonders; for I don't know a case as yet where any of the men proved true when the rest mutinied."
"They are my sons," Major Warrener answered.
"What?" exclaimed the other, laughing--believing that the major was joking.
"It's a fact, as you will see when they have got rid of the stains on their faces," he replied; while Captain Dunlop added, "and two as fine young fellows as ever stepped. Do you know that we three were prisoners, and that these lads rescued us from the middle of a pandy regiment. If they hadn't we should have been dead men before now. And now have you got anything to eat at Meerut, for we are famishing? In the next place, I have got a bullet in my shoulder, and shall enjoy my food all the more after it has been taken out. Our stories are long and will keep. How go things here?"
"Not very brightly, Dunlop; however, that will keep, too; now let us be off. Have we any casualties, sergeant?" he asked a non-commissioned officer who came up for orders.
"What is the enemy's loss?"
"There are fifteen which can be fairly counted to us, sir, and nineteen here."
"That's a respectable total. Fall in, lads," he said to the men who had gathered round, "and let us get back. You will be glad to hear that these officers have escaped from the massacre at Sandynugghur."
There was a hearty cheer of satisfaction from the men, for Englishmen were knit very closely together in those terrible days. Then, falling in, the two companies of the Sixtieth Rifles marched back again to their cantonments at Meerut.