In Times of Peril by G. A. Henty
Chapter IX. Save by a Tiger.
The drivers of the bullock-carts were startled at the noiseless appearance by their side of a body of horsemen; still more startled, when suddenly that phantom-like troop halted and dismounted. The rest was like a dream; in an instant they were seized, bound, and gagged, and laid down in the field at some distance from the road; one of them, however, being ungagged, and asked a few questions before being finally left. The wounded, all past offering the slightest resistance, were still more astonished when their captors, whom the moonlight now showed to be white, instead of cutting their throats as they expected, lifted them tenderly and carefully from the wagons, and laid them down on a bank a short distance off.
"Swear by the Prophet not to call for aid, or to speak, should any one pass the road, for one hour!" was the oath administered to each, and all who were still conscious swore to observe it. Then with the empty wagons the troops proceeded on their way. At the last clump of trees, a quarter of a mile from the castle, there was another halt. The troop dismounted, led their horses some little distance from the road, and tied them to the trees. Twenty men remained as a guard. Four of the others wrapped themselves up so as to appear at a short distance like natives, and took their places at the bullocks' heads, and the rest crowded into the wagons, covering themselves with their cloaks to hide their light uniforms. Then the bullocks were again set in motion across the plain. So careless were the garrison that they were not even challenged as they approached the gate of the outworks, and without a question the gate swung back.
"More wounded!" the officer on guard said. "This is the third lot. Those children of Sheitan must have been aided by their father. Ah, treachery!" he cried, as, the first cart moving into the moonlight beyond the shadow of the gateway, he saw the white faces of the supposed wounded.
There was a leap from the nearest driver upon him, and he was felled to the ground. But the man at the open gate had heard the cry, and drew a pistol and fired it before he could be reached. Then the British leaped from the carts, and twenty of them scattered through the works, cutting down those who offered resistance and disarming the rest. These were huddled into the guardroom, and five men with cocked revolvers placed at the door, with orders to shoot them down at the first sign of movement.
The garrison in the castle itself had been alarmed by the shots; and shouts were heard, and loud orders, and the sentries over the gate discharged their muskets. There was little time given them to rally, however; for Captain Kent, with four of his men, had, on leaping from the cart, made straight across the drawbridge over the moat, for the gateway, to which they attached the petards which they had brought with them. Then they ran back to the main body, who stood awaiting the explosion. In a few seconds it came, and then with a cheer the troops dashed across the drawbridge, and in through the splintered gate. There was scarcely any resistance. Taken utterly by surprise, and being numerically inferior to their assailants--for nearly all the fighting men had gone out with their lord--the frightened retainers tried to hide themselves rather than to resist, and were speedily disarmed and gathered in the courtyard.
Major Warrener, informed by the bullock drivers of the quarter in which the Europeans were confined, followed by a dozen men, made his way straight to it, and had the delight of being greeted by the voices of his countrymen and women. These were, as reported, three officers and five ladies, all of whom were absolutely bewildered by the surprise and suddenness of their rescue.
There was no time for explanation. The stables were ransacked and eight of the rajah's best horses taken. Then, when all was ready for starting, Major Warrener proceeded to the door of the women's apartments. Here, in obedience to the order he had sent her, the wife of the talookdar, veiled from head to foot, and surrounded by her attendants, stood to await the orders of her captor.
"Madam," said Captain Wilkins, who spoke the dialect in use in Oude, "Major Warrener, the British officer in command, bids me tell you that this castle, with you and all that it contains, are in his power, and that he might give it to the flames and carry you off as hostage. But he will not do this. The Rajah of Bithri is a brave man, but he is wrong to fight against fate. The English Raj will prevail again, and all who have rebelled will be punished. We treat him as a brave but mistaken enemy; and as we have spared his castle and his family, so we hope that he in turn will behave kindly to any Englishman or woman who may fall into his hands or may ask his aid. Lastly, let no one leave this castle till daybreak, for whoever does so we will slay without mercy."
Then, turning round again, Warrener and his companions returned to the courtyard. The moment the castle was entered and opposition quelled, half the troops had run back for the horses, and in twenty minutes from the arrival of the bullock-carts at the gateway of Bithri the last of its captors filed out from its walls and trotted off into the darkness. Day broke before any of the inhabitants of Bithri dared issue from its walls. Then a horseman took the news on to the camp. The artillery, increased now to thirty-six guns, had already opened upon the village ere he reached the great tent on the plain. The rajah could not credit the intelligence that the enemy had escaped, that his castle had been attacked and carried, and the white prisoners released; but his surprise and fury were overpowered by the delight he felt at the news that his women and children were safe and his ancestral dwelling uninjured. "The English are a great people," he said, stroking his beard; then, issuing from his tent, he told the news. Like wildfire it ran through the camp, and as none of the thousands gathered there had his feelings of gratitude and relief to soften their anger and disappointment, the fury of the multitude was unbounded.
With a wild rush they made for the gate-almost blocked with their dead- scoured the little village, and soon discovered the hole through which the besieged had escaped. Then with wild yells three thousand horsemen set off in pursuit; but it was six o'clock now, and the fugitives had got seven hours' start. The Rajah of Bithri's contingent took no part in the pursuit. On issuing from his tent he had, after telling the news, briefly given orders for his tents to be struck and for all his troops to return at once to the castle, toward which he himself, accompanied by his bodyguard, set out on his elephant of state.
Major Warrener and his troops had no fear of pursuit. New foes might be met; but with horses fresh and in good condition, and six hours' start-- for they were confident that no pursuit could commence before daybreak at the earliest--they felt safe, from the enemy who had just attacked them, especially as these could not know the direction which they were pursuing, and would believe that their aim would be to return with their rescued friends to Delhi, instead of proceeding through the heart of Oude. The party whom they had found at Bithri consisted of Mr. Hartford, a deputy commissioner, with his wife and two daughters; of a Mrs. Pearson and her sister, the former the wife of a district magistrate, who had been absent on duty when the rising at the little station at which they lived took place; and of Captain Harper and Lieutenant Jones, who were the officers of the detachment there. The men, native cavalry, had ridden off without injuring their officers, but the fanatical people of the place had killed many of the residents and fired their bungalows. Some had escaped on horseback or in carriages; and the present party, keeping together, had, when near Bithri, been seized and brought in to the chief, who intended to take them with him to Lucknow, when--an event of which he daily expected news--the little body of English there were destroyed by the forces gathering round them. The captives had heard what was doing, both at Lucknow and Cawnpore. At the latter place not only had the native troops mutinied, but the Rajah of Bithoor, Nana Sahib, whom the English had regarded as a firm friend, had joined them. Sir Hugh Wheeler, with the officers of the revolted regiments the civilians of the station, and forty or fifty white troops, having some eight hundred women and children in their charge, were defending a weak position against thousands of the enemy, provided with artillery.
When after riding thirty miles, the party stopped at daybreak at a ruined temple standing in its grove at a distance from the main road, Major Warrener called his officers into council, to determine what was the best course to adopt under the circumstances. Should they dash through the lines of the besiegers of Cawnpore, or should they make for Agra, or endeavor to join the force which was being collected at Allahabad to march to their relief?
Finally, and very reluctantly, the latter course was decided upon. It was agreed--and the truth of their conclusion was proved by the fact that throughout the mutiny there was no single instance of the rebels, however numerous, carrying a position held by any body of Englishmen--that Sir Hugh Wheeler and his force could probably hold the intrenchments against any assault that the enemy could make, and that if forced to surrender it would probably be from want of supplies. In that case the arrival of a hundred men would be a source of weakness rather than of strength. The reinforcement would not be of sufficient strength to enable the garrison, incumbered as it was with women and children, to cut its way out, while there would be a hundred more mouths to fill. It was therefore resolved to change their course, to avoid Cawnpore, and to make direct for Allahabad, with the news of the urgent strait in which Sir Hugh Wheeler was placed, and of the necessity for an instant advance to his relief.
Cawnpore was now but forty miles away, and Lucknow was about the same distance, but in a different direction; and as they stretched themselves on the ground and prepared for sleep, they could distinctly hear the dull, faint sounds that told of a heavy artillery fire. At which of the stations, or if at both, the firing was going on, they could not tell; but in fact it was at Cawnpore, as this was the 25th of June, and the siege of the Lucknow Residency did not begin in earnest until the 30th of that month.
The course had now to be decided upon, and maps were consulted, and it was determined to cross the river at Sirapore. It was agreed, too, that they should, at the first village they passed through that evening, question the inhabitants as to the bodies of rebels moving about, and find out whether any large number were stationed at any of the bridges.
At nine o'clock in the evening they were again in the saddle, and an hour later halted at a village. There several of the men were examined separately, and their stories agreed that there were no large bodies of Sepoys on the line by which they proposed to travel, but that most of the talookdars were preparing to march to Lucknow and Cawnpore, when the British were destroyed. Having thus learned that the bridge by which they intended to cross was open to them, the troop again proceeded on their way, leaving the village lost in astonishment as to where this body of British horse could have come from.
Upon this night's ride Ned and Dick Warrener were on rearguard--that is to say, they rode together some two hundred yards behind the rest of the squadron.
An hour after leaving the village, as they were passing through a thick grove of trees some figures rose as from the ground. Ned was knocked off his horse by a blow with the butt-end of a gun; and Dick, before he had time to shout or make a movement in his defense, was dragged from his horse, his head wrapped in a thick cloth, and his arms bound. Then he could feel himself lifted up and rapidly carried off. After a time he was put on his legs and the covering of his head removed. He found Ned beside him; and a word of congratulation that both were alive was exchanged. Then a rope was placed round each of their necks, and surrounded by their captors, two of whom rode their horses, they were started at a run, with admonitions from those around them that any attempt to escape or to shout would be punished with instant death.
For full two hours they were hurried along, and then the party halted at the edge of a thick jungle, lighted a fire, and began to cook. The prisoners were allowed to sit down with their captors. These were matchlock-men, on their way to join the forces besieging the Residency at Cawnpore, toward which town they had been making their way, as the boom of the guns sounded sharper and clearer every mile that they traveled. Ned gathered from the talk that their capture was the effect of pure accident. The party had sat down in the wood to eat, when they heard a troop of horsemen passing. A word or two spoken in English as the leaders came along sufficed to show the nationality of the troop, and the band lay quiet in the bushes until, as they supposed, all had passed. They had risen to leave when the two last horsemen came in view, and these they determined to capture and carry off, if possible, hoping to get a considerable reward from Nan a Sahib on their arrival at Cawnpore.
Nana Sahib's name had not as yet that terrible history attached to it which rendered it execrated wherever the English tongue is spoken; but the boys had heard that after pretending to be the friend of the whites, he was now leading the assault against them, and that he was therefore a traitor, and fighting as it were with a rope round his neck. At the hands of such a man they had no mercy to expect.
"It is of no use trying to make a bolt, Ned?"
"Not the least in the world. The two fellows next to us are appointed to watch us. Don't you see they are sitting with their guns across their knees? We should be shot down in a moment."
There was a debate among the band whether to push on to Cawnpore at once; but they had already made a long day's journey, and moreover thought that they could create a greater effect by arriving with their prisoners by daylight. The fire was made up, and the men wrapped themselves in their cloths--the native of India almost invariably sleeps with his head covered, and looking more like a corpse than a living being. Anxiously the boys watched in hopes that their guards would follow the example. They showed, however, no signs of doing so, but sat talking over the approaching destruction of the English rule and of the restoration of the Mohammedan power.
Two hours passed; the fire burned low, and the boys, in spite of the danger of their position, were just dropping off to sleep, when there was a mighty roar--a rush of some great body passing over them--a scream of one of the natives--a yell of terror from the rest. A tiger stood with one of the guards in his mouth, growling fiercely, and giving him an occasional shake, as a cat would shake a mouse, while one of his paws held down the prostrate figure of the other.
There was a wild stampede--men tumbled over and over each other in their efforts to escape from the terrible presence, and then, getting to their feet, started off at full speed. For a moment the boys had lain paralyzed with the sudden advent of the terrible man-eater, and then had, like the rest, darted away.
"To the jungle!" Ned exclaimed; and in an instant they had plunged into the undergrowth, and were forcing their way at full speed through it. Man- eating tigers are rarely found in pairs, and there was little fear that another was lurking in the wood; and even had such been the case, they would have preferred death in that form to being murdered in cold blood by the enemy. Presently they struck on a track leading through the wood, and followed it, until in five minutes they emerged at the other side. As they did so they heard the report of firearms in the direction of their last halting-place, and guessed that the peasants were firing at hazard, in hopes of frightening the tiger into dropping his prey. As to their own flight, it was probable that so far they had been unthought of. The first object of the fugitives was to get as far as possible from their late captors, who would at daybreak be sure to organize a regular hunt for them, and accordingly they ran straight ahead until in three-quarters of an hour they came into a wide road. Then, exhausted with their exertions, they threw themselves down, and panted for breath.
Dick was the first to speak. "What on earth are we to do now, Ned? These uniforms will betray us to the first person we meet, and we have no means of disguise."
"We must get as far away as we can before daylight, Dick, and then hide up. Sooner or later we must throw ourselves on the hospitality of some one, and take our chance. This is evidently the main road to Cawnpore, and, judging from the guns, we cannot be more than ten or twelve miles away. It will not do to go back along this road, for the fellows we have got away from may strike it below us and follow it up. Let us go forward along it till we meet a side road, and take that."
Ten minutes' walking brought them to a point where a side road came in, and, taking this, they walked steadily on. They passed two or three villages, which the moonlight enabled them to see before they reached them; these they avoided by a detour, as the dogs would be sure to arouse the inhabitants, and it was only in a solitary abode that they had a chance of being sheltered. Toward morning they saw ahead a building of considerable size, evidently the abode of a person of consequence. It was not fortified; but behind it was a large inclosure, with high walls.
"I vote we climb over that wall, Ned; there are several trees growing close up to it. If they hunt the country round for us they will never look inside there; and I expect that there is a garden, and we are sure to find a hiding-place. Then, if the owner comes out, we can, if he looks a decent chap, throw ourselves on his hands."
"I think that a good idea, Dick; the sooner we carry it out the better, for in another half-hour day will be breaking."
They made a detour round to the back of the building, and after some search found a tree growing close enough to the wall to assist them. This they climbed, got along a branch which extended over the top of the wall, and thence dropped into the garden. Here there were pavilions and fountains, and well-kept walks, with great clumps of bushes and flowering shrubs well calculated for concealment. Into one of these they crept, and were soon fast asleep.
It was late in the afternoon when they awoke, roused by the sound of laughter, and of the chatter of many voices.
"Good gracious!" Ned exclaimed; "we have got into the women's garden."
In another minute a group of women came in sight. The principal figure was a young woman of some twenty-two or twenty-three, and with a red wafer- like patch on her forehead, very richly dressed.
"She is a Hindoo," Ned whispered; "what luck!"
There are indeed very few Hindoos in Oude, and the Mohammedan being the dominant race, a Hindoo would naturally feel far more favorably inclined toward a British fugitive than a Mohammedan would be likely to do, as the triumph of the rebellion could to them simply mean a restoration, of Mohammedan supremacy in place of the far more tolerant British rule.
Next to the ranee walked an old woman, who had probably been her nurse, and was now her confidante and adviser. The rest were young women, clearly dependants.
"And so, Ahrab, we must give up our garden, and go into Cawnpore; and in such weather too!"
"It must be so indeed," the elder woman said. "These Mohammedans doubt us, and so insist on your highness showing your devotion to the cause by taking up your residence in Cawnpore, and sending in all your retainers to join in the attack on the English."
The ranee looked sad.
"They say there are hundreds of women and little children there," she said, "and that the English who are defending them are few."
"It is so," Ahrab said. "But they are brave. The men of the Nana, and the old regiments, are fifty to one against them, and the cannon fire night and day, and yet they do not give way a foot."
"They are men, the English sahibs."
While they were speaking the two chief personages of the party had taken their seats in a pavilion close to the spot where the young Warreners were hidden.
Ned translated the purport of the talk to Dick, and both agreed that the way of safety had opened to them.
Seeing that their mistress was not in the humor for laughter and mirth, and would rather talk quietly with her chief friend and adviser, the attendants gradually left them, and gathered in a distant part of the garden.
Then Ned and Dick crept out of their hiding-place, and appeared suddenly at the entrance to the pavilion, where they fell on one knee, in an attitude of supplication, and Ned said:
"Oh, gracious lady, have pity upon two fugitives!"
The ranee and her counselor rose to their feet with a little scream, and hastily covered their heads.
"Have pity, lady," Ned went on earnestly; "we are alone and friendless; oh, do not give us up to our enemies."
"How did you get here?" asked the elder woman.
"We climbed the wall," Ned said. "We knew not that this garden was the ladies' garden, or we might not have invaded it; now we bless Providence that has brought us to the feet of so kind and lovely a lady."
The ranee laughed lightly behind her veil.
"They are mere boys, Ahrab."
"Yes, your highness, but it would be just as dangerous for you to shelter boys as men. And what will you do, as you have to go to Cawnpore to- morrow?"
"Oh, you can manage somehow, Ahrab--you are so clever," the ranee said coaxingly; "and I could not give them up to be killed: I should never feel happy afterward."
"May Heaven bless you, lady!" Ned said earnestly; "and your kind action may not go unrewarded even here. Soon, very soon, an English army will be at Cawnpore to punish the rebels, and then it will be well with those who have succored British fugitives."
"Do you say an English army will come soon?" Ahrab said doubtfully. "Men say the English Raj is gone forever."
"It is not true," Ned said. "England has not begun to put out her strength yet. She can send tens of thousands of soldiers, and the great chiefs of the Punjab have all declared for her. Already Delhi is besieged, and an army is gathering at Allahabad to march hither. It may be quickly; it may be slowly; but in the end the English rule will be restored, her enemies will be destroyed, and her friends rewarded. But I know," he went on, turning to the ranee, "that it needs not a thought of this to influence you, and that in your kind heart compassion alone will suffice to secure us your protection."
The ranee laughed again.
"You are only a boy," she said, "but you have learned to flatter. Now tell us how you got here."
"Your highness," Ahrab interrupted, "I had better send all the others in, for they might surprise us. Let these young sahibs hide themselves again; then we will go in, and I will call in your attendants. Later, when it is dusk, you will plead heat, and come out here with me again, and then I can bring some robes to disguise the sahibs; that is, if your highness has resolved to aid them."
"I think I have resolved that, Ahrab," the ranee said. "You have heard, young sahibs; retire now, and hide. When the sun has set we will be here again."
With deep assurance of gratitude from Ned, the lads again took refuge in the shrubs, delighted with the result of their interview.
"I do hope that the old one will bring us something to eat, Ned. I am as hungry as a hunter! That ranee's a brick, isn't she?"
Two hours later a step was heard coming down the garden, and a woman came and lit some lamps in the pavilion, and again retired. Then in another ten minutes the ranee and her confidante made their appearance. The former took her seat on the couch in the pavilion, the latter remained outside the circle of light, and clapped her hands softly. In a minute the boys stood before her. She held out a basket of provisions, and a bundle of clothes.
"Put these wraps on over your uniforms," she said; "then if we should be surprised, no one will be any the wiser."
The boys retired, hastily ate some food, then wrapped themselves in the long folds of cotton which form the principal garment of native women of the lower class, and went forward to the pavilion.
The ranee laughed outright.
"How clumsy you are!" she said. "Ahrab, do arrange them a little more like women."
Ahrab adjusted their robes, and brought one end over their heads, so that it could, if necessary, be pulled over the face at a moment's notice.
The ranee then motioned to them to sit down upon two cushions near her; and saying to Ahrab, "It is very hot, and they are only boys," removed the veil from her face. "You make very pretty girls, only you are too white," she said.
"Lady, if we had some dye we could pass as natives, I think," Ned said; "we have done so before this, since the troubles began."
"Tell me all about it," the ranee said. "I want to know who you are, and how you came here as if you had dropped from the skies."
Ned related their adventures since leaving Delhi, and then the ranee insisted upon an account of their previous masquerading as natives.
"How brave you English boys are," she said. "No wonder your men have conquered India. Now, Ahrab, tell these young sahibs what we propose."
"We dare not leave you here," Ahrab said. "You would have to be fed, and we must trust many people. We go to Cawnpore to-morrow, and you must go with us. My son has a garden here; we can trust him, and he will bring a bullock-cart with him to-morrow morning. In this will be placed some boxes, and he will start. You must wait a little way off, and when you see him you will know him, because he will tie a piece of red cloth to the horns of the bullock; you will come up and get in. He will ask no questions, but will drive you to the ranee's. I will open the door to you and take you up to a little room where you will not be disturbed. We shall all start first. You cannot go with us, because the other women will wonder who you are. Here is some stuff to dye your faces and hands. I will let you out by a private door. You will see a wood five minutes along the road. You must stop there to-night, and do not come out till you see the ranee and her party pass. There is a little hut, which is empty, in the wood, where you can sleep without fear of disturbance. The ranee is sorry to turn you out to-night, but we start at daybreak, and I should have no opportunity of slipping away and letting you out."
Everything being now arranged, the ranee rose. Ned reiterating the expression of the gratitude of his brother and himself, the ranee coquettishly held out a little hand whose size and shape an Englishwoman might have envied; and the boys kissed it--Ned respectfully, Dick with a heartiness which made her laugh and draw it away.
"You are a darling," Dick said in English, with the native impudence of a midshipman, "and I wish I knew enough of your lingo to tell you."
"What does he say?" she asked of Ned.
"He is a sailor," Ned said; "and sailors say things we on shore would not venture to say. My brother says you are the flower of his heart."
"Your brother is an impudent boy," the ranee said, laughing, "and I have a good mind to hand him over to the Nana. Now good-by! Ahrab will let you out."