In Times of Peril by G. A. Henty
Chapter VI. A Dashing Expedition.
On arriving at the cantonments, the party were soon surrounded by the troops, who had been called under arms at the sound of distant firing, but had been dismissed again on the arrival of a message to the effect that the enemy had fled. The news had spread rapidly that some fugitives had escaped from Sandynugghur, where it was supposed that the massacre had been general; and officers pressed forward to shake their hands, and the men uttered words of kindly congratulation and welcome. The greeting swelled into a cheer as the detachment fell out, and, scattering among their comrades, told of the desperate defense, and of the slaughter inflicted upon the enemy by this handful of men. The fugitives were, of course, taken first to the messroom, Captain Dunlop being, however, carried off by the surgeon to his quarters, to have his wound examined and attended to.
It seemed almost like a dream to the worn and weary party, as they sat down again to a table laid with all the brightness and comfort of civilization, and felt that they were indeed safe among friends. Many were the questions asked them by officers who had friends and acquaintances among the military and civilians at Sandynugghur; and the fugitives learned that they were, so far as was known, the only survivors from the massacre. The story of their escape, and the safety of the girls, was told briefly, and listened to with eager interest; and very deep and hearty were the congratulations which the boys received for their share in the history. In return, Major Warrener learned what had taken place in the last ten days.
The story was not reassuring; tidings of evil were coming from all parts. As yet the number of stations where risings had taken place was comparatively small; but the position was everywhere critical. In Agra, Allahabad, and Benares, the attitude of the native troops and population was more than doubtful. At Lucknow and Cawnpore every precaution was being taken, but a rising was regarded as inevitable. In fact everywhere, save in the Punjab, trouble had either come or was coming. General Anson was collecting in all haste a force at Umballah, which was intended to advance upon Delhi--where the ex-king had been proclaimed Emperor of India--but his force would necessarily be an extremely small one; and no help could possibly arrive up country for many weeks. There was therefore only the Punjab to look to for aid. Happily, the troops of the Madras and Bombay presidencies had so far remained faithful.
"I suppose you have a good many men from Delhi, civilians and military, as well as from other places?"
"Oh, yes, we are crowded; every bungalow has been given up to the ladies, and we all sleep under canvas."
"I intend to ask leave to get up a troop of volunteers," Major Warrener said; "in the first place to go out and bring in my daughter and niece, and afterward to do any scouting or other duty that may be required."
"There has already been a talk of forming the unattached officers and civilians into a sort of irregular cavalry, so I should think that you will get leave; but it will be a hazardous business to make your way eighty miles through the country, especially as the mutineers are marching in all directions toward Delhi."
The next morning Major Warrener obtained permission, without difficulty, to carry out his scheme; and the news no sooner was known through the cantonments that a body of irregular horse was to be formed for scouting and general purposes, and that unattached officers might, until they received further orders, join it, than the tent which had been assigned to Major Warrener was besieged by men anxious to join a corps which seemed likely to afford them a chance of striking an early blow at the mutineers.
Hitherto, the officers who had escaped from Delhi and other stations, those who had come in from police duties in isolated districts, and civilians, both merchants and government officials, had been fretting that they could not be doing something to aid the great work of holding India, and punishing those who had murdered their friends and relations. Major Warrener's Light Horse, as it was to be called, afforded the opportunity desired, and by the next morning eighty-five volunteers had enrolled themselves. Some thirty-five of these were officers, the rest civilians. Many of them had ridden in, others had driven, so that most of them were already provided with horses. An appeal was made to the officers of the Meerut garrison, and to the civilians resident there, to give up any horses they might be able to spare for the public service, while others were bought from friendly zemindars. In a week the troop were all mounted, and during this time they had worked hard to acquire a sufficient amount of cavalry drill to enable them to perform such simple evolutions as might be necessary. Major Warrener divided the squadron into two troops, each with a captain and subaltern; all these officers being cavalrymen, as were the officers who did duty as sergeants. Thus Major Warrener had the general command, each troop being maneuvered by its own officers. In the ranks as simple privates were two majors and a dozen captains--among these latter, Captain Manners. Captain Dunlop was for the present in the surgeon's hands; but he was resolved that when the time came for a start for the rescue of the girls he would take his place in the ranks. The boys of course formed part of the troop. The uniform was simple, consisting simply of a sort of Norfolk jacket made of karkee, a kind of coarse brown holland of native make. Each man carried a revolver, and sword belt of brown leather. Their headgear was a cap of any kind, wrapped round and round with the thick folds of a brown puggaree. Beyond the Norfolk jacket and puggaree there was no actual uniform. Most of the men had hunting breeches, many had high boots, others had gaiters; but these were minor points, as were the horses' equipments.
Nothing had been said as to the intended expedition to bring in the fugitives, as native spies might have carried the news to the rebels, and so caused a renewed search to be made for their hiding-place. There was, therefore, a deep feeling of satisfaction, as well as of surprise, when, on the tenth day after the formation of the corps, the men were told, on being dismissed from morning parade, that the squadron would parade for duty at evening gunfire; that each man was to be provided with a blanket and a haversack, with cooked food sufficient for four days, and a bag with twenty pounds of forage for his horse, each horse to be well fed before coming on parade.
Had the route been free from enemies, the distance might have been done in two long night marches; but it would be necessary to make a detour on starting, so as to avoid striking the main road, as on the way out it was all-important to avoid detection, as the enemy might muster in such strength that their return would be difficult and dangerous in the extreme. The girls once in their hands, the return journey would be easy, as they could avoid any infantry, and had no fear of being able to cut their way through any body of cavalry whom they might accidentally come across, especially as they would have all the advantage of a surprise. Half an hour after sunset the squadron rode out from the lines at Meerut, amid a hearty cheer from the many troops at the station, who, hearing that Warrener's Light Horse were off on an expedition against the mutineers, had assembled to see the start. Major Warrener rode at the head of the squadron, with Captain Kent, who commanded the first troop, by his side, and behind them came two native guides well acquainted with the country. These had been dressed in the uniform of a native cavalry regiment, in order that if they passed any village and were challenged, they could ride forward and represent the troop as a body of native cavalry sent out from Delhi on a mission to a friendly rajah. The precaution was unnecessary. During two long night marches, with occasional halts to rest the horses, they rode without interruption. They passed through several villages; but although the tramp of the horses and the rattle of sabers must have been heard by the inhabitants, none stirred, for the mutineers took what they wanted without paying, and were already behaving as masters of the country; and even thus early the country people were beginning to doubt whether the fall of the English Raj, and the substitution of the old native rule, with its war, its bloodshed, and its exactions, was by any means a benefit, so far as the tillers of the soil were concerned. Just before morning, on the third day, the troop halted in a thick grove, having watered their horses at a tank a half-hour before. They had ridden some seventy miles, and were, they calculated, about fifteen miles from the place where they had left the girls. It might have been possible to push on at once, but the day was breaking, and it would have been inexpedient to tire out the horses when they might want all their speed and strength on the return journey. Very slowly passed the day. Most of the men, after seeing to their horses and eating some food, threw themselves down and slept soundly. But Major Warrener, his sons, and Captains Dunlop and Manners were far too anxious to follow their example, for some time. It was more than a fortnight since the boys had left the ladies, and so many things, of which they hardly dare think, might have happened since.
"Don't let us talk about it any more," Major Warrener said at last; "we only add to each other's anxiety. Now, Dunlop, you must positively lie down; you know Johnson said it was mad in you to get on horseback till your bone had set firmly, and that it was ten to one in favor of inflammation coming on again. You have much to go through yet."
Gradually sleepiness overcame excitement, and with the exception of ten men told off as sentries and to look after the horses, the whole party slept quietly for some hours. It had been determined to start in time to arrive at the farmhouse before it was dark, as the boys required daylight to enable them to recognize the locality; besides which it was advisable to get as far back upon the return journey as possible before daybreak. The boys were now riding in front with their father.
"That is the wood," Ned said presently. "I know by those three palm trees growing together in a clump, at a short distance in advance. I noticed them particularly."
"Where is the house?" Major Warrener asked.
"We ought to see the house," Dick said, and he looked at his brother apprehensively.
"Yes," Ned said; "we certainly ought to see it."
"You are sure you are not mistaken in the locality?" their father asked.
"Quite sure," the boys answered together; "but the house----"
"Let us gallop on," Major Warrener said, catching the fear which was expressed in each of his sons' faces.
Five minutes' riding, and they drew up their horses with a cry of dismay. A large patch of wood ashes marked the spot where the house had stood. No words were needed; the truth was apparent; the fugitives had been discovered, and the abode of their protectors destroyed. Their two friends joined the little group, and the rest of the troop dismounted at a short distance, respecting the deep pain which the discovery had caused to their leader.
"What is to be done?" Major Warrener asked, breaking the deep silence.
For a moment no one answered; and then Dick said:
"Perhaps we may find some of the farmer's people in the hut where we slept, and we may get news from them."
"A capital thought, Dick," said Major Warrener. "We must not give up hope; there are no bodies lying about, so the farm people are probably alive. As to the girls, if they are carried off we must rescue them. Where is the hut?"
A few minutes' walking brought them to it. Even before they reached it it was evident that it was inhabited, for two or three peons were squatted near the door. These rose on seeing the group of Englishmen, but made no attempt at flight. They entered the hut without ceremony, and Ned and Dick hurried to the side of an old man lying on a heap of straw, while some females standing near hastily veiled themselves at the entrance of the strangers.
"Where are the girls? what has happened? are you hurt?" were the three questions poured out rapidly by Ned, as the boy seized the old man's hands.
"Is it you, sahibs? I am glad, indeed. I did not break my promise to come and tell you; but as you see," and he pointed to the bandage which enveloped his head, "I was wounded, and am still ill."
"But the girls?" asked Ned.
"They have been carried off by the troops of the Rajah of Nahdoor."
"How long since?"
"How far off is Nahdoor?"
"Ten miles, sahib."
Major Warrener now took up the interrogation.
"How is the one who was ill?"
"She was better, and was getting stronger again when they carried her off."
"Do you think they are still at Nahdoor? or that they have been sent into Delhi?"
"They are still there," the Hindoo said. "I have sent a man each day to watch, so that directly I got better I might be able to tell you the truth of the matter. My servant has just returned; they had not left at three o'clock, and they would be sure not to start after that hour. The rajah will go with his troops in a few days to pay his respects to the emperor; he will probably take the mem sahibs with him."
"Thank God for that," Major Warrener said. "If they have not yet been taken to that horrible den of murder we will save them. I am the father of one, and the other is my niece," he said to the zemindar; "and I owe their lives so far to you. The debt of gratitude I can never pay to you--or to your wife and daughter," he added, turning to the women, who, their first impulse of alarm over, had now, in the presence of friends, uncovered their faces, for it is only the higher class of Hindoo women who closely veil--"for your care in nursing my niece, and for giving them shelter, when to do so was to risk your lives. This debt I can never pay; but the losses you have sustained in the destruction of your house, and the loss of animals, I can happily more than replace. And now tell me how it happened."
"It was late in the afternoon," the Hindoo said, "when a body of horse galloped across the field to my door. Their captain rode up to me. 'Are there any Feringhees hid here, old man?' he asked. 'I have seen no man of the white race since the troubles began,' I said; and you know I spoke not falsely. 'I must search the house,' he said; 'there are a party of fugitives hiding somewhere in this district, and the orders from Delhi are strict that every Feringhee is to be hunted down and sent there.' 'You will find no one here,' I said, 'but my women, one of whom is sick.' 'I must see them,' he said; and he knocked loudly at the door of the women's room, and ordered them to come out. My wife and daughter came to the door. 'Where is the one who is said to be sick?' he said; 'I must see her too.' Then, seeing that he was determined to enter, the young mem sahib came to the door. The captain gave a shout of pleasure; calling in his men, he entered the room, and, in spite of the entreaties of her sister, brought the one who was sick out also. She was able to walk, but, as we had agreed between us should be done if discovery was made, she pretended that she was almost at the point of death. Some poles were got; a hammock was made; and borne by four bearers, she was carried away, her sister being placed on a horse closely guarded. As he turned to ride off the captain's eye fell upon me. 'Ah! old traitor!' he said; 'I had forgotten you!' and he drew a pistol and fired at me. I know no more; his men put fire to the barn and granaries, and drove off our cattle and horses. When he had ridden off my servants--who thought I was dead--by order of my sorrowing wife carried me here. Happily, however, by the will of Brahma, the bullet, instead of going through my skull, glanced off, and I was only stunned. I had lost much blood, but I determined to set out as soon as I could walk to bring you the news, and in the meantime have had a watch kept upon Nahdoor."
Major Warrener and his sons thanked the old peasant and his family in the warmest terms for what they had done, and the former pressed upon the farmer a sum of money which would cover all the losses he had sustained.
"Your conduct," he said, "will be reported to the government, and you will find when these troubles are over that England knows how to reward those who proved faithful when so many were faithless. Now we will say adieu. When the war is over the ladies you have so kindly treated will themselves return to thank you."
In a few minutes the troop was in the saddle again, and directed its march toward Nahdoor.
On the way Major Warrener questioned his guide as to the strength and position of the fortress, which lay away from the main road, and had not been visited by any of the troop--as the major had ascertained before starting. The account was not reassuring. The guide reported that it stood on a rock, which rose perpendicularly some eighty or a hundred feet from the plain; the only access being by a zigzag road cut in the face of the cliff, with a gateway defended by a gun, and loopholed walls at each turn, and with a very strong wall all round the edge of the rock. The garrison, they had learned from the persons at the farm, was some three hundred strong, the ordinary number of retainers being at present increased by many fighting men, who had within the last few days joined the rajah, on hearing that he was going to march to Delhi to fight under the emperor against the Feringhees.
The troop halted in a wood three miles from Nahdoor; as the guide said that there was no place nearer where they could be concealed without a certainty of discovery.
Before morning Major Warrener and his second in command put on native clothes, which the former bad brought with him, in case it should be necessary to open communication with the girls, and left the wood with one of the native guides. The disguises were not meant to deceive close investigation, and no attempt was made to change the color of the skin, but they were sufficient to enable the wearers to pass without exciting suspicion by any one who only saw them at a distance.
When morning broke they stood within half a mile of the fortress, which answered exactly to the description they had received of it. Gradually-- keeping always at a distance, and availing themselves as far as possible of cover--they made a circuit of the place, and then returned to the troop, who were anxiously awaiting their report.
"It is a very hard nut to crack," Major Warrener said to his sons. "There is no possibility of climbing the rock anywhere, or of attacking in any way except by the regular ascent. There are eight gateways to be forced before arriving at the main entrance through the walls. We should require petards to blow in gates, and ought to have field guns to drive them out of the gate-houses. I do not say it would be absolutely impossible, because before now British troops have done what seemed impossible in India; but the difficulties would be so enormous, the risk of failure so great, and the loss certainly so crushing, that I should not be justified in undertaking such a desperate adventure on my own responsibility, and for my own private ends. We have no right, boys, to cause the loss of some thirty or forty of these fine young fellows, even to rescue the girls. An attack by surprise is the only possibility. At present we don't see the way, but something may turn up to help us. Failing that, our only plan is to wait till the rajah starts with his following and the girls for Delhi, and then to attack them on their way. The drawback to this is that he may not leave for days, and that at any moment we may be discovered. Besides, there is the difficulty of feeding the horses and ourselves. Now, boys, you know as much as I do. Think it over while I have a talk with Dunlop and Manners."
"Manners is at the other end of the wood, father, half a mile away. We found, after you had gone, that the main Delhi road ran through the further skirts of the wood, so Manners suggested to Lieutenant Simmons that he should go with ten men and hide there, so that they could see who went along the road and perhaps intercept some messenger between Delhi and Nahdoor."
"A capital idea," Major Warrener said.
Two hours later Captain Manners returned with his party, bringing in two prisoners.
"Who have you there, Manners?" Major Warrener asked.
"Two of the rascally Third Cavalry, who mutinied at Meerut. This fellow, as you see, is a native officer; there were two of them and two sowars, but they showed fight when we surrounded them, and tried to ride through us, so we had to shoot two of them. They are bearers of a letter from the Delhi prince to the rajah. Here it is."
Major Warrener looked sternly at the prisoners, who were still wearing their British uniform, and then ordered them to be taken away and hung at once.
"What did you do with the others, Manners?"
"We hid their bodies under some bushes at a distance from the road."
"You must go back," the major said, "with another; take Larkin with you. You must strip off the uniforms and bring them here."
Half an hour later Major Warrener summoned the captains of his two troops, and took them into council.
"Nothing could be more fortunate than this capture," he said; "it seems to clear the way for us altogether. What I propose to do is this: that two of the best linguists of the troop, with the two native guides, should dress in the uniforms of these scoundrels. They can then go boldly in with the letter from the prince. They will of course be well received, and will stay for the night. The two who go as officers will be entertained by the rajah, and will learn the plan of the state apartments; the other two will be made welcome by the retainers. When all is quiet at night they must steal out and wait on the wall. That projecting watch-tower that overhangs the cliff on the other side would be the best. We will be below. Then a rope must be lowered. We have two long picketing ropes, either of which would be long enough, but they would be too bulky to carry in without suspicion. Our native guides, however, will soon tear up some cloth, and twist a rope not much thicker than string, but strong enough to hold the rope. Then the string can be twisted round the body without fear of detection, and when the time comes lowered, with a stone at the end. We shall be below with a strong rope ladder, made with the picket-ropes and bamboo staves; and once fixed, we shall be up in no time. I leave it to you to decide who are the best linguists. They must of course be asked if they are willing to undertake it. I will speak to the guides. What do you think of the general plan?"
"Excellent," the officers said. "It might be as well," one suggested, "that each of the party should have a light rope wound round him, so that if one, two, or even three could not slip away, the fourth could still carry out the plan."
Some other details were arranged, and then the officers went to pick out the two men who could best pass as natives. There was no difficulty upon this score, for two of the troop, who had for years commanded large police districts, spoke the language as perfectly as natives, and these, upon being asked, readily accepted the duty. The work of making the rope ladders, and the light ropes for hauling them up, was entered upon, and by sunset all were ready for the expedition.
It was fortunate that they had no longer to stay in the wood, for during the day five or six natives who came in to gather wood had to be seized and bound, and it was certain that a search would be set on foot there next morning. Fortunately a large field of Indian corn bordered one side of the wood, and from this both man and horse had satisfied their hunger.
Every detail of the plan was carefully considered and discussed, so that no mistake could occur; and each of the principal actors in the piece had his part assigned to him. The two native guides, who had themselves served as soldiers in native regiments, consented willingly to perform their parts, and just at sunset the two officers and men rode off to Nahdoor, bearing the letter from the prince of Delhi to the rajah.
There was high feasting in Nahdoor that night. The rajah had received with all honor the officers from Delhi. The letter from the prince had promised him a high command in the army which was to exterminate the last infidel from the land. It had thanked him for the capture of the white women, and had begged him to bring them on with him to Delhi, and to come at once with his own force. From the officers the rajah had heard how the mutiny was everywhere a success, and that at Lucknow and Cawnpore the troops would rise in a day or two and massacre all the whites. The evening ended early, for the officers from Delhi were fatigued with their long ride, and being shown into a little square marble-lined room off the great hall where they had supped, were soon apparently asleep on the cushions and shawls spread for them. The rajah retired to his apartments, and his officers to their quarters; and although for another hour talking and laughing went on round the little fires in the courtyard, presently these too were hushed, and a profound stillness fell upon Nahdoor. Then, barefooted, the officers from Delhi stole out of their apartment and made for the outer wall. As they had anticipated, they found no one about; beyond a sentry at the lower gate there would be no watch kept, and they reached the watch-tower on the wall without the slightest interruption. Here two other figures had already arrived, and after throwing down some small stones as a signal, which was answered by a faint whistle, the ropes were lowered without delay. One of them was soon seized from below, and the others being also found and fastened to the rope ladder, the weight of which was considerable, those above began to draw up. Everything succeeded admirably. One by one fifty men appeared at the top of the wall. Quietly they made their way down to the courtyard, and broke up into parties, taking their places at the entrance to the various buildings; then, all further need for concealment being at an end, a bugle call sounded loud in the air. It was answered by another down upon the plain near the gate. The rajah himself was one of the first to rash out. He was seized and disarmed before he was aware of what had happened.
"Tell your men to throw down their arms and surrender," Major Warrener said to him, "or we will put you and every soul here to the sword. The place is surrounded, and there is no escape. Do you not hear our bugles on the plain?"
It needed not the rajah's order; the garrison, taken utterly by surprise, and finding the castle captured by an enemy of unknown strength, threw down their arms as they came out of their quarters. Orders were sent by the rajah to the men at the various gates on the hill to come up and lay down their arms, and the sentry at the lowest of all was to open it to the troops there. A bugler and ten men were left below, and the rest joined the party in the castle.
Long ere they had arrived, the joyful meeting of the captives and their friends had taken place. Rose and Kate had awoke at the sound of the bugle, but had heeded it little, believing that it was only a Sepoy call. Even the stir and commotion outside had not disturbed them, and they had lain quiet until they heard a loud knocking at the door of the women's apartments, followed by screams from the women, and then--they could scarcely believe their ears--their names shouted in Major Warrener's voice. With a cry of delight both sprang up, and seizing shawls, rushed to the door, and in another moment Kate was in the arms of her father.
"We are all here, dear," he said, after the first wild greeting--"the boys, and Dunlop, and Manners. Hurry on your clothes, darlings; they are longing to see you."
The garrison of the castle were all collected in one of the smaller courts, where twenty troopers, revolver in hand, kept guard over them. The whole of the arms found in the castle were broken to pieces and thrown over the walls, and the cannon planted there were first spiked and then pitched over. The guns on the gates were similarly rendered useless, and the stores of gunpowder all wetted. The rajah and his two sons, boys of six and eight, were then told to prepare to accompany the troops, and warning was given that they would be shot in case an attack was made upon the force as it returned to Meerut.
"Tell your followers this," Major Warrener said, "and order them to give no alarm, or to spread the news; for if we are caught your life and that of your sons will pay forfeit. As it is, you may hope for clemency. You have as yet taken no part in the insurrection; and although there is no doubt of your intention, your good conduct in the future may, perhaps, wipe out the memory of your faults."
It needs not to say anything of the rapturous greeting of the girls and their brothers and lovers, or the happy half-hour which was spent together in the great hall while the preparations for the departure were being made outside. Captain Kent saw to all that there was to be done, leaving the major free to join the happy party within.
"Are you strong enough to ride, Rose?"
"Oh, I think so, uncle; I have been shamming ill, and they thought I could not walk; but I am pretty strong, and if I can't ride by myself I must be tied on to some one else."
"I dare say my horse will carry double," Captain Manners said, laughing.
"Have the women here been kind?" Major Warrener asked.
The girls shook their heads:
"Not very, papa; they have been talking of Delhi;" and Kate shuddered.
The major frowned; he could guess what they must have suffered. He went to the door.
"Kent, order the women out of the zenana into one of the other rooms. Tell them that they will all be searched as they come out, and that if one brings out an ornament or a jewel with her she will be put to death. Of course you will not search them; but the threat will do. Let no insult be offered them. Then let Rivers take four men, and go in, and take all the loot you can find. The jewels we will divide among the men when at Meerut. Tell off another party to loot the rest of the rooms, but only take what is really valuable and portable. We cannot cumber ourselves with baggage. It would serve the rajah right if I were to burn his castle down; he may think himself lucky to get off with his life."
The girls pleaded for the women. "We bear them no ill-feeling," they said. "They are very ignorant; they only acted as they were taught."
"Well, well," said the major, "we will take the jewels alone; they are a fair loot."
Another hour and the troops were already well on their way on the Delhi road. The good luck which had attended them so far followed them to the end. Anxious to avoid an encounter with the enemy, they took an even more circuitous route than that by which they had come, and on the fourth afternoon after leaving rode into Meerut, where their arrival after the long and successful expedition created quite an excitement. A comfortable house was found for the girls, with some old friends of the major, who resided permanently at Meerut; as for the major and his troops, they prepared to accompany the column which was on the point of marching against Delhi.