Chapter XIV

In the Midst of Death there is Love

For two days General Wheeler’s stronghold had been besieged. The Nana imagined that a couple of hours’ sharp firing, with heavy guns, would destroy the British garrison, and entire possession of the entrenchment would follow. So impressed was he with the idea of his invincibility, that he made a vow not to alight from his horse until the English had surrendered!

He was convinced of his mistake on the very first day; and when evening arrived, and no sign appeared of defeat or surrender, he was obliged to descend from the saddle; and ordering a carpet to be spread in a deep ditch near one of his batteries, there he passed the night. On the following morning, finding little or no hope of success, he removed into Duncan’s Hotel, about three quarters of a mile from the entrenchment, and on the outskirts of the native city.

To the besieged it was soon evident the question of the commissariat would speedily become one of vital importance. Either in consequence of the deception of the native agents who had been engaged to send in supplies, or because Sir Hugh Wheeler had only arranged for the support of the military, the stock of provisions was ridiculously insufficient.

Nor was this the worst oversight. The place of storage for the casks of beer which had been brought in was so unfortunately selected that within twenty-four hours the greater part of these casks were tapped by the enemy’s shot, and deep were the lamentations of the men at the loss of so much valuable liquor. While the dainties, tinned and otherwise, lasted they were equally divided without regard to rank; and odd indeed was the assortment which went to make up each one’s allowance.

“What’s the bill o’ fare to-day?” asked a private meeting a comrade coming from the stores, where Captain Williamson had been serving out the rations.

“I’m in luck, laddie​—​a mug o’ champagne, a tin o’ preserved ’errings, an’ half a pot o’ jam,” said Tommy.

“My! I hope as how that’ll be my luck too.”

But this was not possible. However, Tommy’s comrade did very well with tinned salmon, rum, and a box of sweetmeats. The first two he kept for himself, and the third he gave to the children, and piteous it was to see the poor little things trying to make themselves happy, while shots every now and then crashed through the frail walls of the barracks, and the hideous sounds of bursting shells and volleys of musketry drowned their feeble voices.

The mixed and luxurious fare soon came to an end. After the dainties were exhausted, the rice and flour were reserved for the women and children, and soon even these were reduced to the monotonous and scanty allowance of one meal a day, consisting of a handful of split peas and a handful of flour​—​scarcely more than half a pint together for a daily ration.

On this scanty fare the devoted little band of defenders had to perform incessant labour under a tropical sun, in the hottest part of the day. Many of the civilians had never been accustomed to go out in the hot winds, except in a covered conveyance, and they suffered severely when on sentry duty, some covering up their heads with cloths dipped in water, others putting up a temporary shelter of empty boxes, sheets, baskets, or anything their ingenuity could suggest.

The first three days were terrible. Fatalities were numerous, and a portion of the thatched barrack was transformed into a hospital, and thither the dead and dying were carried. The women were never tiring in their attentions to those who were struck down, and the surgeons worked incessantly, but their means and appliances were very limited, and the small stock of linen clothing was speedily reduced in supplying bandages.

It is impossible to imagine the terrible effect the sudden bursting of large shells in the verandah, and elsewhere in close proximity to the barracks, had upon the tenderly reared ladies and children. In one or two cases the shock was so great as actually to cause death. The casualties were as appalling as they were unexpected. On the third day of the firing, seven servants took shelter under the verandah. They were leaning against the wall, when a shell falling outside bounded in their midst, and burst with tremendous effect, causing instant death to five, and wounding the sixth. The seventh escaped unhurt.

What added to the horror was that the dead had to remain unburied until the night. No one dared to perform the last offices to loved ones and friends in the daytime, when a continual shower of shot and shell and a hailstorm of bullets were pouring over the devoted place.

Sadly and silently were these funerals performed. At first the mourners attempted to dig graves, but they soon abandoned the task; there had been no rain for months, the ground was too hard, and there was great danger of being shot, for at intervals all through the night came harassing volleys of musketry, fired as much with the idea of destroying rest as with the intention of killing.

So, after a time, outside the mud wall of the entrenchment, and near a block of unfinished barracks, an enclosure was parted off and converted into a cemetery, and there within three weeks were laid two hundred and fifty men, women, and children. Sad was their fate, but at least it was a happier one than that of those they left behind.

On the fourth day of the siege Ruth was coming from the hospital, where she had been doing her best to tend the wounded. She was weary and worn, and the effect of semi-starvation was asserting itself in her face, which had already lost its roundness. Two little children​—​orphans of but twelve hours’ date, the father a private, having been killed by a musket ball, and the mother having died of sunstroke​—​came running towards her. They were crying bitterly. She took the youngest, a curly-headed boy of four, in her arms and kissed and soothed him.

The heat and the foul atmosphere of the interior of the barracks were unbearable, and she stepped into the verandah with the child in her arms. The enemy’s fire was at that moment directed towards the other side of the entrenchment. She could just see over the low wall, and while looking she was startled by an unexpected sight​—​an English officer galloping over the plain near the sepoy lines!

Hope sprang within her heart. Surely this solitary horseman must be the pioneer of a relieving force. She darted into the barrack wild with excitement.

“They’re coming! They’re coming!” she cried.

At first the poor women thought she was alluding to the sepoys, and they shrank back in terror; but a second look at her radiant face reassured them.

“Our soldiers are coming!” she gasped. “We’re saved! saved!”

She returned to the verandah followed by a group of excited women, and they too, saw the single horseman, and, breathless with excitement, watched him run the gauntlet of a deadly fire. He bore a charmed life, for not a bullet touched him. But where was the advancing force whose approach he was supposed to be heralding? Not a man was to be seen.

The sepoys at a distance yelled and screamed and fired at random, but they dared not pursue the daring rider. They had a wholesome fear of the accuracy of the fire from behind the entrenchment’s rampart.

Urging on his exhausted horse, the gallant soldier rode straight as an arrow towards the entrenchment, and a loud hurrah burst from a hundred English throats as the animal made its final effort, and, clearing the wall, fell a struggling heap of man and horse the other side. A dozen volunteers, Dick Heron among the number, heedless of sepoy bullets, rushed to the assistance of the fugitive.

“My God, Bolton, is it you?” cried Dick, grasping both hands.

The two were old comrades. Bolton was a lieutenant in the 7th Cavalry, which had been encamped at Choubeypore, a few miles to the north-west of Cawnpore.

Bolton shook himself free from his stirrups and struggled to his feet, but he was too exhausted either to speak or walk. He looked like a man who had seen unspeakable things. He was assisted into the barracks, and taken to General Wheeler’s quarters. A little brandy​—​there was not much left in the medical stores​—​revived him. The old white-headed General looked sadly enough at the young officer.

“You bring bad news, Bolton. I can read disaster in your face,” said General Wheeler.

“Disaster indeed, sir. The 7th have mutinied and murdered all their officers. I alone have escaped.”

Bolton’s voice was low and stern. He seemed to speak with difficulty. The tones were hollow and broken. The memory of the scenes he had witnessed was at that moment too vivid for description. Nor did General Wheeler ask for details. When death was all around what did it matter how others died? The old man’s hands were clenched tightly. It was the only sign of emotion he showed. Presently he said, in an ordinary voice and maimer, as though he were asking the time of day:

“When did this happen?”

“Yesterday evening. I’ve been riding all night. I found all the main roads blocked by rebels, but I reached the city somehow, and there heard a worse story than that of the deaths of my poor comrades. Three boats with some thirty men, the same number of ladies, and about sixty children, arrived the day before yesterday from Futteghur. They had not heard what had happened at Cawnpore, and they hoped to find shelter here.”

“Shelter in Cawnpore!” muttered the general with a groan, “Poor creatures! poor creatures!”

“It’s too awful for words,” returned Bolton, his voice quivering. “They got to within a mile of the magazine, when the boats grounded. The cowardly fiends opened fire upon them, and the fugitives rushed for protection into the long grass on the banks of the river. The wretches then set fire to the grass, and two of the ladies and some of the children were burnt to death. What could the rest do but surrender?”

“And then?”

The old General spoke almost mechanically; his lips twitched for an instant, then were firm once more.

“And then​—​my God, it’s too horrible to think! The men were bound together and driven like a flock of sheep to the slaughter. The women and children, many of them without shoes, dragged themselves along with cut and bleeding feet. No food was given them, and very little water. Yesterday they were taken before the Nana, and some say that the villain was inclined to show mercy, but that his brother Bala and the troopers of the 2nd Cavalry were thirsting for blood. However this may be, at three o’clock yesterday afternoon the captive men, women, and children were driven into a heap, and this devil Bala sat upon a big stone in the plain, and gave the word to fire. After discharging two rounds of shot the wretches fell upon the poor victims with swords and bayonets, and completed the slaughter.”

The two men, one full of years, the other just past the threshold of manhood, looked at each other. The fire of righteous vengeance flashed in the eyes of both. The General brought down his hand heavily upon the little table in front of him.

“If I am spared,” he cried, “if​—​but it is a waste of words to say what one would do with these human tigers. What happened to the poor souls from Futteghur yesterday may happen to us to-morrow. Bolton,” said he, suddenly breaking off, “not a word of this massacre to any one. It mustn’t get to the ears of the women. They’ve behaved nobly. One would expect nothing else from English women. Heaven alone knows their terrible trials, their anguish of mind, their agony of body. Don’t let us add a single pang to their misery.”

“You may depend upon me, sir,” cried the young lieutenant with emphasis.

At that moment a step was heard outside the door of the little room set apart for the use of General Wheeler; and Captain Moore, one of the many heroic men who fought like lions throughout that terrible time till death overtook them, entered. His face and hands were dirt-begrimed, his beard was of a week’s growth, his clothes were soiled and tattered, one of his arms was in a sling.

“What is it, Moore?” asked Sir Hugh.

“It’s getting too hot in barrack No. 4, sir. Heberden, Latouche, and Miller are doing splendid work, but it is wearing them out. The black devils dare not show themselves, but they’re only waiting their time. We ought to spare a dozen men for barrack No. 4.”

“Can we do it?”

“Yes, sir. Captain Jenkins is ready with a detachment. You’ve only to say the word. The barrack ought to be held at all costs.”

“Very well, Moore. Let the men go.”

These barracks, of which No. 4​—​referred to by Captain Moore​—​was one, played a very important part in the defence of the entrenchment. They consisted of a series of nine unfinished detached buildings intended for the accommodation of the native infantry. They were in course of erection when the siege began, and were of red brick, each being about 200 ft. in length. They were situated outside the entrenchment, and ran in a line nearly north and south.

Of these buildings only one​—​No. 4​—​had a roof, and that was only of a temporary character. None of them had any floor, and heaps of bricks and building materials were strewn about. Captain Moore saw the importance of these barracks when the construction of the entrenchment was commenced, and before a shot was fired took possession of them. Commanding the entrenchment as they did, they afforded admirable cover for an enemy, who from a shelter could harass the besieged from innumerable loopholes, and be themselves in perfect safety.

Unfortunately, the force at General Wheeler’s disposal was not large enough to allow the whole of these barracks to be occupied. Only two could be held, and the rest fell into the hands of the rebels. The two exceptions were Nos. 2 and 4. No. 4 was defended by the three gallant men just mentioned, Heberden, Latouche, and Miller, railway engineers and surveyors; and valiantly these brave fellows fought, though their first (and last) military experience was here. Their profession had sharpened their sight; they were admirable judges of distance, and they never raised their rifles but a sepoy bit the dust.

No. 2 was under the charge of Captain Mowbray Thomson, destined to be one of the survivors of the heroic garrison. He had erected a sort of crow’s nest inside the barrack with the building materials he found, and here a man was stationed, who, as soon as he saw any sign of movement among the sepoys in No. 1 barrack, gave the signal to his comrades below, and any sepoy who ventured out never went back. Captain Stirling, a splendid shot, never missed his man, and from first to last must have killed many scores of the enemy.

The task of relieving barrack No. 4 was one of great difficulty, and attended with considerable danger, quite two hundred yards separating the barrack from the rampart of the entrenchment. Captain Jenkins got his men together, and they were about to dash across the intervening space, when a shell burst near them, and so terribly wounded one poor fellow that he died the same evening. Dick Heron volunteered to fill the man’s place.

Captain Jenkins looked at Dick’s thin, eager face, pale, delicate, more boyish than ever, and hesitated.

“Do you realise what this means, Heron?” said he. “You may never come back.”

“I can take my chance with the rest, I suppose,” returned Dick. “It’s not much more dangerous than staying here.”

“That’s true. Very well, I’ll take you.”

In one sense the delay caused by the bursting shell, apart from the loss of a valuable man, was fortunate. It was discovered that by an oversight sufficient ammunition had not been served out. It was intended that each man should have as much as he could carry. This was very important, for there was no store in the barrack, and when the defenders were short of cartridges, a man had to run across to the entrenchment and take the chance of being shot on the way.

The serving out of the ammunition was likely to take some little time, and while it was being done Dick glanced at the thatched barrack where the women were lodged. He had an intense longing to see Ruth Armitage before he set out. If he were never to see her again! He could not resist the impulse, and dashed across to the verandah. He had caught sight of her as she was about to enter the barrack. When he reached her, he saw she had been crying.

“Good-bye, Miss​—​no, I can’t call you Miss Armitage. It’s Ruth now, isn’t it?”

He held out his hand and she took it a little shyly.

“Good-bye?” said she, ignoring his words about calling her by her Christian name. “Where are you going?”

“Across to No. 4 barrack. I thought that you​—​that I might​—​dash it all, I can’t say what I want to say! Ah, how cruel it all is!”

A look of pain and despair crept into the eyes of the poor young fellow. When death came, it would be sweeter if he were to die with the girl he loved; and this was what he wanted to tell her. Ruth could say nothing. She knew that he loved her, and she was very sorry for him.

Dick held Ruth’s hand tightly. He wanted to remember that clasp. At that moment life was divided from death by a thread, which might snap without warning: there was no time for emotion, and his voice was quite steady when he next spoke.

“I may never see you again, Ruth. That’s why I said good-bye.”

Ruth was not so calm as he. Dick felt her hand go cold as ice.

“You are better off than we are,” she stammered. “At least you will die fighting, but we poor women——”

Something seemed to rise in her throat and choke her utterance. It was much the same with Dick. The two were silent for a few seconds, and during those few seconds the horrors around them were unseen, the boom of shot and shell, the crack of bullets were unheard. The moments were flying; soon he must tear himself away. Dick forced himself to speak.

“I want to ask a favour of you,” he went on huskily. “May I have something of yours​—​I don’t care how trifling​—​to cheer me? I’m a stupid fool, I know, and I suppose if things were different from what they are, it would be no good telling you that​—​that​—​Heaven help me, I can’t keep it to myself any longer​—​I love you. There, it’s out! Don’t be angry with me.”

“Angry?” faltered Ruth. “Why should I be angry? What does it matter​—​now?”

“True, what does it matter?” he replied, drawing a deep breath. “Still, if I thought that you had a little love for me​—​if you only liked me very much——”

“Don’t say any more,” interrupted Ruth agitatedly. “How can women help loving men who are sacrificing their lives as you are all doing? I know, every woman knows, that but for us you would march out and cut your way through the ring of fire. Many would fall, but some would escape, while if you stay there is but one doom for every one. Yes, I love you for your bravery.”

She put out her hands and clasped his frankly.

“Ah, I don’t mean that,” he cried. “Who wouldn’t be brave with such as you to guard?”

“Heron, we’re ready. Hurry!” was heard the voice of Captain Jenkins through the din.

“Dear Ruth​—​if​—​I’m spared, I——”

He could say no more. At that supreme moment words, no matter how eloquent, were meaningless. He raised her hand and pressed it to his lips, and then something in her eyes told him that such a cold, formal leave-taking was childish. He threw formality to the winds, took her in his arms and kissed her passionately. He felt the warm pressure of her lips in return. He released her, pale and weeping. She had intense pity for the poor young fellow, and would have uttered words of comfort if she could.

“Take this,” she whispered hurriedly, dragging a silk handkerchief from round her neck. He seized it eagerly, his face mantling with pleasure.

“God bless and save you, darling,” he cried. “Your gift is my mascotte!”

His eyes bright and jubilant he thrust the handkerchief in his vest, and waving his cap rushed away. Ruth, her heart panting the while, watched him join the party, who by this time were scaling the low rampart, and running one by one to No. 4 barrack.

Throughout the mutiny, not only at Cawnpore, but elsewhere, nothing succeeded so well as audacity. The very daring of our men had the effect of paralysing the sepoys, and though hardly one of that little party of forlorn hope ought to have reached the barrack alive or unwounded, there was not a casualty. The gallant band of engineers, exhausted as they were, summoned strength to give their relievers a hearty English cheer.

That day the fire of the enemy was unusually fierce, and it was rumoured that on the morrow, June 11, a grand attempt to storm the entrenchment would be made, and that the attack would be led by Nana Sahib in person. The defenders of No. 2 barrack were on the alert, but nothing unusual happened. Just before nightfall they saw a man cautiously lower himself over the rampart, and dart across the intervening space. This man was brave Captain Moore.

“Boys,” cried Moore breathlessly, as soon as he entered the barrack, “now’s the time to give the rascals a lesson. Who’s game for a dash to spike their guns? We ought to know how to do it,” he added grimly, “for they’re our own.”

The group around Moore volunteered to a man.

“Sorry,” said he, “I can’t have you all. Six must remain behind to throw the scoundrels off the scent with a hot fire.”

The three engineers, greatly to their disappointment, and three of the relief party were selected to stay in the little fort. Moore pointed out that the utmost activity was needed, and the engineers were too worn out for the demand likely to be made on their strength.

When it was fully dark, Moore and his party set out, creeping along the sandy bed of what, in the wet season, was a water course. A couple of big guns had that day been dragged by the rebels from the magazine, and Moore had spotted the place where they had been planted.

Like snakes the men wound their way along, not one breathing a word though they might have talked with perfect safety, for the incessant firing would have drowned their voices. Anxiety and strained nerves kept them silent.

“Heron,” whispered Moore, “I’ve seen you sprint on the running-ground. Now’s your chance to show what your best is like. We two will do the spiking, and the others will keep off any of the devils who may spot us.”

Dick felt a sudden glow pass over him. He could have rushed on to the work at that moment, but Moore restrained him.

“Wait till I give the word,” the Captain whispered.

Moore issued his orders to the men who were following, and crept on, Dick keeping close by his side.

“Halt! We’re near the spot now,” said Moore, under his breath.

The bank of the nullah was very low at this point, and Moore paused for a moment to reconnoitre.

“There are the guns,” he breathed; “about a hundred yards ahead, a little to the right. Now for it.”

They climbed the bank. On reaching the top, a couple of sepoys caught sight of them, crouching though they were, and with a yell of terror took to their heels. They had seen Moore’s face, and maybe recognised him. Probably they imagined he was at the head of an attacking force, and they rushed away to give the alarm.

“Quick, Heron, they mustn’t reach the tents!” muttered Moore from between his set teeth.

His revolver was in readiness, and he shot one dead. The other, who was some distance in advance, ran his hardest, but the champion sprinter of Cawnpore was pursuing him. He had scarcely covered twenty yards when Dick cut him down. His death must have been almost instantaneous. The next moment Dick found Captain Moore by his side.

“That was well done,” Dick heard Moore whisper. “Better than a pistol shot. On, my lad, before they’ve time to guess what we’re at.”

They could see the guns looming in the darkness, and, running at the top of their speed, they succeeded in spiking a couple of the largest. They then crept back to the nullah. Just as they reached it a volley was fired close to them. It was doubtful, however, whether those who fired knew that the little band of Englishmen were near. The muskets must have been fired at random out of pure nervousness, for not one of the party was hit.