In Times of Peril by G. A. Henty
Chapter VIII. A Desperate Defense.
"Well, major, what do you think of the situation?" one of the senior captains asked, after the pipes had begun to draw.
"It looks rather bad, Crawshay. There's no disguising the fact. We shall have the country up in force; they will swarm out like wasps from every village, and by to-morrow night we shall have, at the very least, ten thousand of them round us. Against a moderate force we could defend the village; but it is a good-sized place, and we have only twenty-five men for each wall, and a couple of hundred would be none too little."
"But surely, major, we might prevent their scaling the walls. It is not likely that they would attack on all sides at once, and without artillery they could do little."
"They will have artillery," said Captain Wilkins, an officer, who had served for some time in Oude. "These talookdars have all got artillery. They were ordered to give it up, and a good many old guns were sent in; but there is not one of these fellows who cannot bring a battery at the very least into the field. By to-morrow night, or at the latest next day, we may have some thirty or forty pieces of artillery round this place."
"It will not do to be caught like rats in a trap here," Major Warrener said. "For to-night it is a shelter, after that it would be a trap. But about Bithri; I don't like to give up the idea of rescuing our country- people there. Still, although the matter has been left to my discretion, I cannot risk losing the whole squadron."
"What is the castle like, Warrener? have you heard?" Captain Crawshay asked.
"A square building, with high walls, and a deep moat. Beyond the moat is another wall with a strong outwork and gate. There are believed to be a couple of guns on the outwork, and eight on the inner wall."
"Do you think they will attack us to-morrow, Wilkins? You know these Oude fellows."
"They will muster strong, no doubt, and be prepared to attack us if we sally out; but I should think if we remain quiet they would wait till next day, so as to gather as many men and guns as possible."
"Then you think we ought to be out of this early?" Major Warrener asked.
"I don't say we ought to be, major; I only say we ought to be if we intend to get off without having to fight our way through them. I suppose the Bithri man is sure to come out to attack us?"
"Oh, no doubt," Major Warrener answered; "he has openly declared against us."
"The thing would be to pop into his place, just as he is thinking of popping in here," Captain Dunlop said, laughing.
"That's a good idea, Dunlop--a capital idea, if it could be carried out. The question is, is it possible?"
Then gradually the plan was elaborated, until it finally was definitely arranged as afterward carried into execution.
The night passed quietly, but fires could be seen blazing in many directions over the plain, and occasionally a distant sound of drums, or a wild shout, came faintly on the still air. Next morning Major Warrener started early, with half a troop, to reconnoiter the country toward Bithri. The party got to a spot within two miles of the castle, and had a look at it and its surroundings, and were able to discern that a great deal of bustle was going on around it, and that considerable numbers of horse and footmen were gathered near the gate. Then they rode rapidly back again, having to run the gantlet of several bodies of natives, who fired at them. One party indeed had already placed themselves on the road, about a mile from the village; but Captain Kent, seeing with his glass what was going on, rode out with his troop to meet the little reconnoitering party, and the enemy, fearing cavalry on the open, fell back after a scattering fire, but not quickly enough to prevent the horse from cutting up their rear somewhat severely.
At eight o'clock large bodies of men could, be seen approaching the village. These, when they arrived within gunshot, discharged their long matchlocks at the walls, with much shouting and gesticulation. Major Warrener's order was that not a shot should be returned, as it was advisable to keep them in ignorance as to the long range of the Enfield carbine.
"Let all get their breakfasts," he said, "and let the horses be well groomed and attended to; we shall want all their speed to-morrow."
At eleven some elephants, surrounded by a large body of horse, could be seen across the plain.
"Here come some of the talookdars," Captain Wilkins said. "I suspect those elephants are dragging guns behind them."
"Yes, the fun will soon begin now," Captain Dunlop answered. "Now, Dick," he went on to young Warrener, "you are going to see a little native artillery practice. These fellows are not like the Delhi pandies, who are artillerymen trained by ourselves; here you will see the real genuine native product; and as the manufacture of shell is in its infancy, and as the shot seldom fits the gun within half an inch, or even an inch, you will see something erratic. They may knock holes in the wall, but it will take them a long time to cut enough holes near each other to make a breach. There, do you see? there are another lot of elephants and troops coming from the left. We shall have the whole countryside here before long. Ah! that's just as we expected; they are going to take up their position on that rising ground, which you measured this morning, and found to be just five hundred yards off. Our carbines make very decent practice at that distance, and you will see we shall astonish them presently."
The two forces with elephants reached the rising ground at the same time, and there was great waving of flags, letting off of muskets, and beating of drums, while the multitude of footmen cheered and danced.
By this time the greater portion of the little garrison were gathered behind the wall. This was some two feet thick, of rough sun-dried bricks and mud. It was about fourteen feet high. Against it behind was thrown up a bank of earth five feet high, and in the wall were loopholes, four feet above the bank. At the corners of the walls, and at intervals along them, were little towers, each capable of holding about four men, who could fire over the top of the walls. In these towers, and at the loopholes, Major Warrener placed twenty of his best shots. There was a great deal of moving about on the rising ground; then the footmen cleared away in front, and most of the elephants withdrew, and then were seen ten guns ranged side by side. Close behind them were two elephants, with gaudy trappings, while others, less brilliantly arrayed, stood further back.
Major Warrener was in one of the little towers, with his second in command, and his two sons to act as his orderlies.
"Run, boys, and tell the men in the other towers to fire at the howdahs of the chief elephants; let the rest of them fire at the artillery. Tell them to take good aim, and fire a volley; I will give the word. Make haste, I want first shot; that will hurry them, and they will fire wild."
The boys started at a run, one each way, and in a minute the instructions were given. The major glanced down, saw that every carbine was leveled, and gave the word:
The sound of the volley was answered in a few seconds by a yell of dismay from the enemy. One of the state elephants threw up its trunk, and started at a wild gallop across the plain, and a man was seen to fall from the howdah as it started. There was also confusion visible in the howdahs of the other elephants. Several men dropped at the guns; some, surprised and startled, fired wildly, most of the balls going high over the village; while others, whose loading was not yet complete, ran back from the guns. Only one ball hit the wall, and made a ragged hole of a foot in diameter.
"That's sickened them for the present," Captain Dunlop said, "I expect they'll do nothing now till it gets a bit cooler, for even a nigger could hardly stand this. Ah, we are going to give them another volley, this time a stronger one."
Fifty carbines spoke out this time, and the wildest confusion was caused among the elephants and footmen, who were now trying to drag the guns back. Again, a third volley, and then the garrison were dismissed from their posts, and told to lie down and keep cool till wanted again.
Half an hour later another large train of elephants, ten of them with guns, came from the direction of Bithri, and proceeded to a tope at about a mile from the village. There the elephants of the first comers had gathered after the stampede, and presently a great tent was raised in front of the tope.
"Bithri is going to do it in style," Dick laughed to his brother. "I shouldn't mind some iced sherbet at present, if he has got any to spare."
"Look, Dick, there is a movement; they are getting the guns in position on that knoll a little to the right, and a hundred yards or so in front of their tent."
Dick took the field-glass which his brother handed him.
"Yes, we shall have a salute presently; but they won't breach the wall this afternoon at that distance."
Twenty guns opened fire upon the village, and the shot flew overhead, or buried themselves in the ground in front, or came with heavy thuds against the wall, or, in some instances, crashed into the upper parts of the houses. After an hour's firing it slackened a little, and finally died out, for the heat was tremendous.
At three o'clock there was a move again; ten of the guns were brought forward to a point about a thousand yards from the wall, while ten others were taken round and placed on the road, at about the same distance, so as to command the gate. Again the fire opened, and this time more effectually. Again the men were called to the loopholes. The greater portion of them were armed, not with the government carbines, but with sporting rifles, shortened so as to be carried as carbines; and although none of the weapons were sighted for more than six hundred yards, all with sufficient elevation could send balls far beyond that distance. Ten of the best-armed men were told off against each battery of artillery, and a slow, steady fire was opened. It was effective, for, with the field- glasses, men could be seen to fall frequently at the guns, and the fire became more hurried, but much wilder and even less accurate, than it had hitherto been. The rest of the men, with the exception of ten told off for special duty, were dispersed round the walls, to check the advance of the footmen, who crept daringly to within a short distance, and kept up a rolling fire around the village.
At five o'clock half of the men were taken off the walls, and several were set to build a wall four feet high, in a semicircle just inside the gate, which had been struck by several shots, and showed signs of yielding. Two or three of the nearest huts were demolished rapidly, there being plenty of native tools in the village, and a rough wall was constructed of the materials; a trench five feet deep and eight feet wide was simultaneously dug across the entrance. At six o'clock, just as the wall was finished, an unlucky shot struck one of the doorposts, and the gate fell, dragging the other post with it. A distant yell of triumph came through the air.
The gates fell partly across the trench. "Now, lads, push them back a bit if you can; if not, knock the part over the ditch to pieces; it's half- smashed already."
It was easier to knock the gate, already splintered with shot, to pieces, than to remove it.
"Now, Dunlop, fetch one of those powder-bags we brought for blowing up the gates; put it in the trench, with a long train. You attend to the train, and when I give the word, fire it. Bring up those two big pots of boiling water to the gate-towers. Captain Kent, thirty men of your troop will hold the other three walls; but if you hear my dog-whistle, every man is to leave his post and come on here at a run. Thirty men more will man this front wall and towers. They are to direct their fire to check the crowd pushing forward behind those immediately assaulting. The remaining forty will fire through the loopholes as long as possible, and will then form round the breastwork and hold it to the last. One man in each gate-tower, when the enemy reach the gate, will lay down his carbine, and attend to the boiling water. Let them each have a small pot as a ladle. But let them throw the water on those pressing toward the gate, not on those who have reached it. Those are our affair."
In five minutes every man was at his post, and a sharp fire from the seventy men along the front wall opened upon the masses of the enemy, who came swarming toward the gate. The effect on the crowd, many thousand strong, was very severe, for each shot told; but the Mussulmen of Oude are courageous, and the rush toward the gate continued. Fast as those in front fell, the gaps were imperceptible in the swarming crowd. Major Warreners band of forty men were called away from the loopholes, and were drawn up behind the ditch; and as the head of the assaulting crowd neared the gate volley after volley rang out, and swept away the leaders, foremost among whom were a number of Sepoys, who, when their regiments mutinied, had returned to their homes, and now headed the peasantry in their attack upon the British force. When the dense mass arrived within thirty yards of the gate Major Warrener gave the word, and a retreat was made behind the breastwork. On, with wild shouts, came the assailants; the first few saw the trench, and leaped it; those who followed fell in, until the trench was full; then the crowd swept in unchecked. The defenders had laid by their carbines now, and had drawn their revolvers. They were divided into two lines, who were alternately to take places in front and fire, while those behind loaded their revolvers. The din, as the circle inclosed by the low wall filled with the assailants, was prodigious; the sharp incessant crack of the revolver; the roll of musketry from the walls; the yells of the enemy; the shrieks, which occasionally rose outside the gate as the men in the towers scattered the boiling water broadcast over them, formed a chaos. With the fury and despair of cornered wild beasts, the enemy fought, striving to get over the wall which so unexpectedly barred their way; but their very numbers and the pressure from behind hampered their efforts.
If a man in the front line of defenders had emptied his revolver before the one behind him had reloaded, he held his place with the sword.
"The wall's giving from the pressure!" Dick exclaimed to his father; and the latter put his whistle to his lips, and the sound rang out shrill and high above the uproar.
A minute later the front of the wall tottered and fell. Then Major Warrener held up his hand, and Captain Dunlop, who had stood all the time quietly watching him, fired the train. A thundering explosion, a flight of bodies and fragments of bodies through the air, a yell of terror from the enemy, and then, as those already rushing triumphantly through the breach stood paralyzed, the British fell upon them sword in hand; the men from the other walls came rushing up, eager to take their part in the fray, and the enemy inside the gate were either cut down or driven headlong through it!
The crowd beyond, already shaken by the murderous fire that the party on the walls kept up unceasingly upon them, while they stood unable to move from the jam in front, had recoiled through their whole mass at the explosion, and the sight of the handful of their comrades flying through the gate completed the effect. With yells of rage and discomfiture, each man turned and fled, while the defenders of the gateway passed out, and joined their fire to that of their comrades above on the flying foe.
"Thank God, it is all over!" Major Warrener said; "but it has been hot while it lasted. Have we had many casualties?"
The roll was soon called, and it was found that the besieged had escaped marvelously. One young fellow, a civil servant, had been shot through the head, by a stray ball entering the loophole through which he was firing. Thirteen of the defenders of the gateway were wounded with pistol shots, or with sword cuts; but none of the injuries were of a serious character.
It was now rapidly becoming dark, and Major Warrener mounted one of the towers to have a last look.
The enemy had rallied at a distance from the walls, and two fresh bodies of troops, with elephants, were to be seen approaching from the distance.
"That is all right," he said. "They will wait, and renew the attack to- morrow."
An hour afterward it was night. The moon had not risen yet, and Major Warrener had a huge bonfire lighted outside the gate, with posts and solid beams from the fallen gates and from the houses.
"That will burn for hours," he said, "quite long enough for our purpose."
Lights could be seen scattered all over the side of the plain on which the tents were erected, some of them coming up comparatively close to the walls. On the road in front, but far enough to be well beyond the light of the fire, voices could be heard, and occasionally a shout that they would finish with the infidel dogs to-morrow rose on the air. Evidently by the low buzz of talk there were a large number here, and probably the guns had been brought closer, to check any attempt on the part of the little garrison to dash through their enemies. The blazing fire, however, throwing as it did a bright light upon the empty gateway through which they must pass, showed that at present, at least, the besieged had no idea of making their escape.
At nine o'clock the whole of the garrison stood to their horses. Not only had their feet been muffled with the leather shoes, but cloths, of which there were plenty in the village, had been wound round them, until their footfalls would, even on the hardest road, have been noiseless. Then Major Warrener led the way to the spot where ten men had been at work during the afternoon.
At this point, which was on the side furthest from that upon which was the main camp of the enemy, a clump of trees and bushes grew close to the wall outside; behind them a hole in the wall, wide enough and high enough for a horse to pass through easily, had been made, and the ditch behind had been filled up with rubbish. There was no word spoken; every one had received his orders, and knew what to do; and as silently as phantoms the troop passed through, each man leading his horse. Once outside the bushes, they formed fours and went forward, still leading their horses-as these were less likely to snort with their masters at their heads.
Ten minutes' walking convinced them that they had little to fear, and that no guards had been set on that side. It was regarded by the enemy as so certain that the English would not abandon their horses and fly on foot, only to be overtaken and destroyed the next day, that they had only thought it necessary to watch the gateway through which, as they supposed, the British must, if at all, escape on horseback.
The troop now mounted, and trotted quietly away, making a wide detour, and then going straight toward Bithri. The moon had risen; and when, about a mile and a half in front, they could see the castle, Major Warrener, who with Captain Kent and the native guides was riding ahead, held up his hand. The troop came to a halt.
"There are some bullock-carts just ahead. Take the mufflings off your horse's feet and ride on by yourself," he said to one of the native guides, "and see what is in the wagons, and where they are going."
The man did as ordered, but he needed no questions. The wagons were full of wounded men going to Bithri. He passed on with a word of greeting, turned his horse when he reached a wood a little in front, and allowed them to pass, and then rode back to the troop.
"Four bullock-carts full of wounded, sahib."
"The very thing," Major Warrener exclaimed; "nothing could be more lucky."
Orders were passed down the line that they were to ride along until the leaders were abreast of the first cart, then to halt and dismount suddenly. The drivers were to be seized, gagged, and bound. The wounded were not to be injured.
"These men are not mutinous Sepoys, with their hands red with the blood of women," Major Warrener said; "they are peasants who have fought bravely for their country, and have done their duty, according to their light."