Chapter XVI.
 

The next four days made a great alteration in the position of the defenders in the fortified house.

The upper story was now riddled by balls, the parapet round the terrace had been knocked away in several places, the gate was in splinters; but as the earth from the tunnel had been all emptied against the sandbags, it had grown to such a thickness that the defense was still good here. But in the wall, against which one of the new batteries had steadily directed its fire, there was a yawning gap, which was hourly increasing in size, and would ere long be practicable for assault. Many of the shots passing through this had struck the house itself. Some of these had penetrated, and the room in the line of fire could no longer be used.

There had been several casualties. The young civilian Herbert had been killed by a shot that struck the parapet just where he was lying. Captain Rintoul had been seriously wounded, two of the natives had been killed by the first shot which penetrated the lower room. Mr. Hunter was prostrate with fever, the result of exposure to the sun, and several others had received wounds more or less severe from fragments of stone; but the fire of the defenders was as steady as at first, and the loss of the natives working the guns was severe, and they no longer ventured to fire from the gardens and shrubberies round the walls.

Fatigue, watching, still more the heat on the terrace, was telling heavily upon the strength of the garrison. The ladies went about their work quietly and almost silently. The constant anxiety and the confinement in the darkened rooms were telling upon them too. Several of the children were ill; and when not employed in other things, there were fresh sandbags to be made by the women, to take the place of those damaged by the enemy's shot.

When, of an evening, a portion of the defenders came off duty, there was more talk and conversation, as all endeavored to keep up a good face and assume a confidence they were far from feeling. The Doctor was perhaps the most cheery of the party. During the daytime he was always on the roof, and his rifle seldom cracked in vain. In the evening he attended to his patients, talked cheerily to the ladies, and laughed and joked over the events of the day.

None among the ladies showed greater calmness and courage than Mrs. Rintoul, and not a word was ever heard from the time the siege began of her ailments or inconveniences. She was Mrs. Hunter's best assistant with the sick children. Even after her husband was wounded, and her attention night and day was given to him, she still kept on patiently and firmly.

"I don't know how to admire Mrs. Rintoul enough," Mrs. Hunter said to Isobel Hannay one day; "formerly I had no patience with her, she was always querulous and grumbling; now she has turned out a really noble woman. One never knows people, my dear, till one sees them in trouble."

"Everyone is nice," Isobel said. "I have hardly heard a word of complaint about anything since we came here, and everyone seems to help others and do little kindnesses."

The enemy's fire had been very heavy all that day, and the breach in the wall had been widened, and the garrison felt certain that the enemy would attack on the following morning.

"You and Farquharson, Doctor, must stop on the roof," the Major said. "In the first place, it is possible they may try to attack by ladders at some other point, and we shall want two good shots up there to keep them back; and in the second, if they do force the breach, we shall want you to cover our retreat into the house. I will get a dozen rifles for each of you loaded and in readiness. Isobel and Mary Hunter, who have both volunteered over and over again, shall go up to load; they have both practiced, and can load quickly. Of course if you see that the enemy are not attacking at any other point, you will help us at the breach by keeping up a steady fire on them, but always keep six guns each in reserve. I shall blow my whistle as a signal for us to retire to the house if I find we can hold the breach no longer, so when you hear that blaze away at them as fast as you can. Your twelve shots will check them long enough to give us time to get in and fasten the door. We shall be round the corner of the house before they can get fairly over the breastwork. We will set to work to raise that as soon as it gets dark."

A breastwork of sandbags had already been erected behind the breach, in case the enemy should make a sudden rush, and a couple of hours' labor transformed this into a strong work; for the bags were already filled, and only needed placing in position. When completed, it extended in a horseshoe shape, some fifteen feet across, behind the gap in the wall. For nine feet from the ground it was composed of sandbags three deep, and a single line was then laid along the edge to serve as a parapet.

"I don't think they will get over that," the Major said, when the work was finished. "I doubt if they will be disposed even to try when they reach the breach."

Before beginning their work they had cleared away all the fallen brickwork from behind the breach, and a number of bricks were laid on the top of the sandbags to be used as missiles.

"A brick is as good as a musket ball at this distance," the Major said; "and when our guns are empty we can take to them; there are enough spare rifles for us to have five each, and, with those and our revolvers and the bricks, we ought to be able to account for an army. There are some of the servants and syces who can be trusted to load. They can stand down behind us, and we can pass our guns down to them as we empty them."

Each man had his place on the work assigned to him. Bathurst, who had before told the Major that when the time came for an assault to be delivered he was determined to take his place in the breach, was placed at one end of the horseshoe where it touched the wall.

"I don't promise to be of much use, Major," he said quietly. "I know myself too well; but at least I can run my chance of being killed."

The Major had put Wilson next to him.

"I don't think there is much chance of their storming the work, Wilson; but if they do, you catch hold of Bathurst's arm, and drag him away when you hear me whistle; the chances are a hundred to one against his hearing it, or remembering what it means if he does hear it."

"All right, Major, I will look to him."

Four men remained on guard at the breach all night, and at the first gleam of daylight the garrison took up their posts.

"Now mind, my dears," the Doctor said, as he and Farquharson went up on the terrace with Isobel and Mary Hunter; "you must do exactly as you are told, or you will be doing more harm than good, for Farquharson and I would not be able to pay attention to our shooting. You must lie down and remain perfectly quiet till we begin to fire, then keep behind us just so far that you can reach the guns as we hand them back to you after firing; and you must load them either kneeling or sitting down, so that you don't expose your heads above the thickest part of the breastwork. When you have loaded, push the guns back well to the right of us, but so that we can reach them. Then, if one of them goes off, there won't be any chance of our being hit. The garrison can't afford to throw away a life at present. You will, of course, only half cock them; still, it is as well to provide against accidents."

Both the girls were pale, but they were quiet and steady. The Doctor saw they were not likely to break down.

"That is a rum looking weapon you have got there, Bathurst," Wilson said, as, after carrying down the spare guns and placing them ready for firing, they lay down in their positions on the sandbags. The weapon was a native one, and was a short mace, composed of a bar of iron about fifteen inches long, with a knob of the same metal, studded with spikes. The bar was covered with leather to break the jar, and had a loop to put the hand through at the end.

"Yes," Bathurst said quietly; "I picked it up at one of the native shops in Cawnpore the last time I was there. I had no idea then that I might ever have to use it, and bought it rather as a curiosity; but I have kept it within reach of my bedside since these troubles began, and I don't think one could want a better weapon at close quarters."

"No, it is a tremendous thing; and after the way I have seen you using that pick I should not like to be within reach of your arm with that mace in it. I don't think there is much chance of your wanting that. I have no fear of the natives getting over here this time."

"I have no fear of the natives at all," Bathurst said.

"I am only afraid of myself. At present I am just as cool as if there was not a native within a thousand miles, and I am sure that my pulse is not going a beat faster than usual. I can think of the whole thing and calculate the chances as calmly as if it were an affair in which I was in no way concerned. It is not danger that I fear in the slightest, it is that horrible noise. I know well enough that the moment the firing begins I shall be paralyzed. My only hope is that at the last moment, if it comes to hand to hand fighting, I shall get my nerve."

"I have no doubt you will," Wilson said warmly; "and when you do I would back you at long odds against any of us. Ah, they are beginning."

As he spoke there was a salvo of all the guns on the three Sepoy batteries. Then a roar of musketry broke out round the house, and above it could be heard loud shouts.

"They are coming, Major," the Doctor shouted down from the roof; "the Sepoys are leading, and there is a crowd of natives behind them."

Those lying in the middle of the curve of the horseshoe soon caught sight of the enemy advancing tumultuously towards the breach. The Major had ordered that not a shot was to be fired until they reached it, and it was evident that the silence of the besieged awed the assailants with a sense of unknown danger, for their pace slackened, and when they got to within fifty yards of the breach they paused and opened fire. Then, urged forward by their officers and encouraged by their own noise, they again rushed forward. Two of their officers led the way; and as these mounted the little heap of rubbish at the foot of the breach, two rifles cracked out from the terrace, and both fell dead.

There was a yell of fury from the Sepoys, and then they poured in through the breach. Those in front tried to stop as they saw the trap into which they were entering, but pressed on by those behind they were forced forward.

And now a crackling fire of musketry broke out from the rifles projecting between the sandbags into the crowded mass. Every shot told. Wild shrieks, yells, and curses rose from the assailants. Some tried madly to climb up the sandbags, some to force their way back through the crowd behind; some threw themselves down; others discharged their muskets at their invisible foe. From the roof the Doctor and his companion kept up a rapid fire upon the crowd struggling to enter the breach. As fast as the defenders' muskets were discharged they handed them down to the servants behind to be reloaded, and when each had fired his spare muskets he betook himself to his revolver.

Wilson, while discharging his rifle, kept his eyes upon Bathurst. The latter had not fired a shot, but lay rigid and still, save for a sort of convulsive shuddering. Presently there was a little lull in the firing as the weapons were emptied, and the defenders seizing the bricks hurled them down into the mass.

"Look out!" the Major shouted; "keep your heads low--I am going to throw the canisters."

A number of these had been prepared, filled to the mouth with powder and bullets, and with a short fuse attached, ropes being fastened round them to enable them to be slung some distance. The Major half rose to throw one of these missiles when his attention was called by a shout from Wilson.

The latter was so occupied that he had not noticed Bathurst, who had suddenly risen to his feet, and just as Wilson was about to grasp him and pull him down, leaped over the sandbag in front of him down among the mutineers. The Major gave a swing to the canister, of which the fuse was already lighted, and hurled it through the breach among the crowd, who, ignorant of what was going on inside, were still struggling to enter.

"Look out," he shouted to the others; "mind how you throw. Bathurst is down in the middle of them. Hand up all the muskets you have loaded," he cried to the servants.

As he spoke he swung another canister through the breach, and almost immediately two heavy explosions followed, one close upon the other.

"Give them a volley at the breach," he shouted; "never mind those below."

The muskets were fired as soon as received.

"Now to your feet," the Major cried, "and give them the brickbats," and as he stood up he hurled two more canisters among the crowd behind the breach. The others sprang up with a cheer. The inclosure below them was shallower now from the number that had fallen, and was filled with a confused mass of struggling men. In their midst was Bathurst fighting desperately with his short weapon, and bringing down a man at every blow, the mutineers being too crowded together to use their unfixed bayonets against him. In a moment Captain Forster leaped down, sword in hand, and joined Bathurst in the fight.

"Stand steady," the Major shouted; "don't let another man move."

But the missiles still rained down with an occasional shot, as the rifles were handed up by the natives, while the Doctor and Farquharson kept up an almost continuous fire from the terrace. Then the two last canisters thrown by the Major exploded. The first two had carried havoc among the crowd behind the breach, these completed their confusion, and they turned and fled; while those in the retrenchment, relieved of the pressure from behind, at once turned, and flying through the breach, followed their companions.

A loud cheer broke from the garrison, and the Major looking round saw the Doctor standing by the parapet waving his hat, while Isobel stood beside him looking down at the scene of conflict.

"Lie down, Isobel," he shouted; "they will be opening fire again directly."

The girl disappeared, and almost at the same moment the batteries spoke out again, and a crackle of the musketry began from the gardens. The Major turned round. Bathurst was leaning against the wall breathing heavily after his exertions, Forster was coolly wiping his sword on the tunic of one of the fallen Sepoys.

"Are either of you hurt?" he asked.

"I am not hurt to speak of," Forster said; "I got a rip with a bayonet as I jumped down, but I don't think it is of any consequence."

"How are you, Bathurst?" the Major repeated. "What on earth possessed you to jump down like that?"

"I don't know, Major; I had to do something, and when yon stopped firing I felt it was time for me to do my share."

"You have done more than your share, I should say," the Major said; "for they went down like ninepins before you. Now, Wilson, you take one of his hands, and I will take the other, and help him up."

It needed considerable exertion to get him up, for the reaction had now come, and he was scarce able to stand.

"You had better go up to the house and get a glass of wine," the Major said. "Now, is anyone else hurt?"

"I am hit, Major," Richards said quietly; "a ball came in between the sandbags just as I fired my first shot, and smashed my right shoulder. I think I have not been much good since, though I have been firing from my left as well as I could. I think I will go up and get the Doctor to look at it."

But almost as he spoke the young fellow tottered, and would have fallen, had not the Major caught him.

"Lend me a hand, Doolan," the latter said; "we will carry him in; I am afraid he is very hard hit."

The ladies gathered round the Major and Captain Doolan as they entered with their burden. Mary Hunter had already run down and told them that the attack had been repulsed and the enemy had retreated.

"Nobody else is hit," the Major said, as he entered; "at least, not seriously. The enemy have been handsomely beaten with such loss that they won't be in a hurry to try again. Will one of you run up and bring the Doctor down?"

Richards was carried into the hospital room, where he was left to the care of the Doctor, Mrs. Hunter, and Mrs. Rintoul. The Major returned to the general room.

"Boy, bring half a dozen bottles of champagne and open them as quickly as you can," he said; "we have got enough to last us for weeks, and this is an occasion to celebrate, and I think we have all earned it."

The others were by this time coming in, for there was no chance of the enemy renewing the attack at present. Farquharson was on the roof on the lookout. Quiet greetings were exchanged between wives and husbands.

"It didn't last long," Wilson said; "not above five minutes, I should say, from the time when we opened fire."

"It seemed to us an age," Amy Hunter replied; "it was dreadful not to be able to see what was going on; it seemed to me everyone must be killed with all that firing."

"It was sharp while it lasted," the Major said; "but we were all snug enough except against a stray bullet, such as that which hit poor young Richards. He behaved very gallantly, and none of us knew he was hit till it was all over."

"But how did Captain Forster get his bayonet wound?" Mrs. Doolan asked. "I saw him go in just now into the surgery; it seemed to me he had a very serious wound, for his jacket was cut from the breast up to the shoulder, and he was bleeding terribly, though he made light of it."

"He jumped down into the middle of them," the Major said. "Bathurst jumped down first, and was fighting like a madman with a mace he has got. We could do nothing, for we were afraid of hitting him, and Forster jumped down to help him, and, as he did so, got that rip with the bayonet; it is a nasty cut, no doubt, but it is only a flesh wound."

"Where is Mr. Bathurst?" Mrs. Doolan asked; "is he hurt, too? Why did he jump down? I should not have thought," and she stopped.

"I fancy a sort of fury seized him," the Major said; "but whatever it was, he fought like a giant. He is a powerful man, and that iron mace is just the thing for such work. The natives went down like ninepins before him. No, I don't think he is hurt."

"I will go out and see," Mrs. Doolan said; and taking a mug half full of champagne from the table, she went out.

Bathurst was sitting on the ground leaning against the wall of the house.

"You are not hurt, Mr. Bathurst, I hope," Mrs. Doolan said, as she came up. "No, don't try to get up, drink a little of this; we are celebrating our victory by opening a case of champagne. The Major tells us you have been distinguishing yourself greatly."

Bathurst drank some of the wine before he replied.

"In a way, Mrs. Doolan, I scarcely know what I did do. I wanted to do something, even if it was only to get killed."

"You must not talk like that," she said kindly; "your life is as valuable as any here, and you know that we all like and esteem you; and, at any rate, you have shown today that you have plenty of courage."

"The courage of a Malay running amuck, Mrs. Doolan; that is not courage, it is madness. You cannot tell--no one can tell--what I have suffered since the siege began. The humiliation of knowing that I alone of the men here am unable to take my part in the defense, and that while others are fighting I am useful only to work as a miner."

"But you are as useful in that way as you would be in the other," she said. "I don't feel humiliated because I can only help in nursing the sick while the others are fighting for us. We have all of us our gifts. Few men have more than you. You have courage and coolness in other ways, and you are wrong to care nothing for your life because of the failing, for which you are not accountable, of your nerves to stand the sound of firearms.. I can understand your feelings and sympathize with you, but it is of no use to exaggerate the importance of such a matter. You might live a thousand lives without being again in a position when such a failing would be of the slightest importance, one way or the other. Now come in with me. Certainly this is not the moment for you to give way about it; for whatever your feelings may have been, or whatever may have impelled you to the act, you have on this occasion fought nobly."

"Not nobly, Mrs. Doolan," he said, rising to his feet; "desperately, or madly, if you like."

At this moment Wilson came out. "Halloa, Bathurst, what are doing here? Breakfast is just ready, and everyone is asking for you. I am sure you must want something after your exertions. You should have seen him laying about him with that iron mace, Mrs. Doolan.. I have seen him using the pick, and knew how strong ho was, but I was astonished, I can tell you. It was a sort of Coeur de Lion business. He used to use a mace, you know, and once rode through the Saracens and smashed them up, till at last, when he had done, he couldn't open his hand. Bring him in, Mrs. Doolan. If he won't come, I will go in and send the Doctor out to him. Bad business, poor Richards being hurt, isn't it? Awfully good fellow, Richards. Can't think why he was the one to be hit."

So keeping up a string of talk, the young subaltern led Bathurst into the house.

After breakfast a white flag was waved from the roof, and in a short time two Sepoy officers came up with a similar flag. The Major and Captain Doolan went out to meet them, and it was agreed that hostilities should be suspended until noon, in order that the wounded and dead might be carried off.

While this was being done the garrison remained under arms behind their work at the breach lest any treacherous attempt should be made. The mutineers, however, who were evidently much depressed by the failure, carried the bodies off quietly, and at twelve o'clock firing recommenced.

That evening, after it was dark, the men gathered on the terrace.

"Well, gentlemen," the Major said, "we have beaten them off today, and we may do it again, but there is no doubt how it must all end. You see, this afternoon their guns have all been firing at a fresh place in the wall; and if they make another breach or two, and attack at them all together, it will be hopeless to try to defend them. You see, now that we have several sick and wounded, the notion of making our escape is almost knocked on the head. At the last moment each may try to save his life, but there must be no desertion of the sick and wounded as long as there is a cartridge to be fired. Our best hope is in getting assistance from somewhere, but we know nothing of what is going on outside. I think the best plan will be for one of our number to try to make his way out, and go either to Lucknow, Agra, or Allahabad, and try and get help. If they could spare a troop of cavalry it might be sufficient; the mutineers have suffered very heavily; there were over a hundred and fifty bodies carried out today, and if attacked suddenly I don't think they would make any great resistance. We may hold out for a week or ten days, but I think that is the outside; and if rescue does not arrive by that time we must either surrender or try to escape by that passage."

There was a general assent.

"Bathurst would be the man to do it," the Doctor said. "Once through their lines he could pass without exciting the slightest suspicion; he could buy a horse then, and could be at any of the stations in two days."

"Yes, there is no doubt that he is the man to do it," the Major said. "Where is he now?"

"At work as usual, Major; shall I go and speak to him? But I tell you fairly I don't think he will undertake it."

"Why not, Doctor? It is a dangerous mission, but no more dangerous than remaining here."

"Well, we shall see," the Doctor said, as he left the group.

Nothing was said for a few minutes, the men sitting or lying about smoking. Presently the Doctor returned.

"Bathurst refuses absolutely," he said. "He admits that he does not think there would be much difficulty for him to get through, but he is convinced that the mission would be a useless one, and that could help have been spared it would have come to us before now."

"But in that case he would have made his escape," the Major said.

That is just why he won't go, Major; he says that come what will he will share the fate of the rest, and that he will not live to be pointed to as the one man who made his escape of the garrison of Deennugghur."

"Whom can we send?" the Major said. "You are the only other man who speaks the language well enough to pass as a native, Doctor."

"I speak it fairly, but not well enough for that; besides, I am too old to bear the fatigue of riding night and day; and, moreover, my services are wanted here both as a doctor and as a rifle shot."

"I will go, if you will send me, Major," Captain Forster said suddenly; "not in disguise, but in uniform, and on my horse's back. Of course I should run the gauntlet of their sentries. Once through, I doubt if they have a horse that could overtake mine."

There was a general silence of surprise. Forster's reckless courage was notorious, and he had been conspicuous for the manner in which he had chosen the most dangerous points during the siege; and this offer to undertake what, although a dangerous enterprise in itself, still offered a far better chance of life than that of remaining behind, surprised everyone. It had been noticed that, since the rejection of his plan to sally out in a body and cut their way through the enemy, he had been moody and silent, except only when the fire was heavy and the danger considerable; then he laughed and joked and seemed absolutely to enjoy the excitement; but he was the last man whom any of them would have expected to volunteer for a service that, dangerous as it might be, had just been refused by Bathurst on the ground that it offered a chance of escape from the common lot.

The Major was the first to speak.

"Well, Captain Forster, as we have just agreed that our only chance is to obtain aid from one of the stations, and as you are the only volunteer for the service, I do not see that I can decline to accept your offer. At which station do you think you would be most likely to find a force that could help us?"

"I should say Lucknow, Major. If help is to be obtained anywhere, I should say it was there."

"Yes, I think that is the most hopeful. You will start at once; I suppose the sooner the better."

"As soon as they are fairly asleep; say twelve o'clock."

"Very well. I will go and write a dispatch for you to carry, giving an account of the fix we are in here. How will you sally out?"

"I should think the easiest plan would be to make a gap in the sandbags in the breach, lead the horse till fairly outside, and then mount."

"I think you had better take a spare horse with you," the Doctor said; "it will make a difference if you are chased, if you can change from one to the other. Bathurst told me to say whoever went could have his horse, which is a long way the best in the station. I should fancy as good as your own."

"I don't know," Forster said; "led horses are a nuisance; still, as you say, it might come in useful, if it is only to loose and turn down a side road, and so puzzle anyone who may be after you in the dark."

The Major and Forster left the roof together.

"Well, that is a rum go," Wilson said. "If it had been anyone but Forster I should have said that he funked and was taking the opportunity to get out of it, but everyone knows that he has any amount of pluck; look how he charged those Sepoys single handed."

"There are two sorts of pluck, Wilson," the Doctor said dryly. "There is the pluck that will carry a man through a desperate action and lead him to do deeds that are the talk of an army. Forster possesses that kind of pluck in an unusual degree. He is almost an ideal cavalryman--dashing, reckless; riding with a smile on his lips into the thickest of the fray, absolutely careless of life when his blood is up.

"There is another sort of courage, that which supports men under long continued strain, and enables them, patiently and steadfastly, to face death when they see it approaching step by step. I doubt whether Forster possesses that passive sort of courage. He would ride up to a cannon's mouth, but would grow impatient in a. square of infantry condemned to remain inactive under a heavy artillery fire.

"No one has changed more since this siege began than he has. Except when engaged under a heavy fire he has been either silent, or impatient and short tempered, shirking conversation even with women when his turn of duty was over. Mind, I don't say for a moment that I suspect him of being afraid of death; when the end came he would fight as bravely as ever, and no one could fight more bravely. But he cannot stand the waiting; he is always pulling his mustache moodily and muttering to himself; he is good to do but not to suffer; he would make a shockingly bad patient in a long illness.

"Well, if any of you have letters you want to write to friends in England I should advise you to take the opportunity; mind, I don't think they will ever get them. Forster may get through, but I consider the chances strongly against it. For a ride of ten miles through a country swarming with foes I could choose no messenger I would rather trust, but for a ride like this, that requires patience and caution and resource, he is not the man I should select. Bathurst would have succeeded almost certainly if he had once got out. The two men are as different as light to dark; one possesses just the points the other fails in. I have no one at home I want to write to, so I will undertake the watch here."