Chapter XVII

No Surrender!

June 14 came and went, and the poor, half-starved, wounded, rapidly diminishing garrison knew nothing of Neill’s movements, nor the cause of his delay.

On the evening of that day General Wheeler wrote to Sir Henry Lawrence at Lucknow describing his position. He said: “The whole Christian population is with us in a temporary entrenchment, and our defence has been noble and wonderful, our loss heavy and cruel. We want aid​—​aid! If we had 200 men we could punish the scoundrels and aid you.”

Pathetic and simple words, but the hope they expressed was vain. Sir Henry Lawrence was himself at that moment sorely pressed, the mutiny having broken out in Lucknow.

General Wheeler’s letter, however, was sent, and it may be wondered how, when hemmed in by a merciless and vigilant enemy, he could contrive to dispatch letters. Communications, however, continued to be conveyed until June 24, when Lieutenant-Colonel Wiggins wrote the last letter received from Cawnpore by messengers retained by Mr. Martin Gubbins, the financial commissioner for Oudh. What answer Sir Henry returned to General Wheeler’s appeal for aid is not known. Whatever it was, it must have filled the brave old man with despair. Sir Henry Lawrence, writing to Mr. Tucker, the Commissioner of Benares, on June 16, said:

“I would risk the absence of so large a portion of our small force, could I see the prospect of its being able to succour Sir Hugh Wheeler. But no individual here cognisant of facts​—​except Mr. Gubbins​—​thinks that we could carry a single man across the river, as the enemy holds all the boats, and completely commands the river. May God Almighty defend Cawnpore, for no help can we afford!… I have sent the pith of this to Colonel Neill to urge him to relieve Cawnpore, if in any way possible.”

The words, “The enemy holds all the boats, and completely commands the river,” were of terrible significance, as will be seen later on, but at the time Sir Henry wrote he only had regard to the conveyance of troops. But they meant more​—​far more​—​than this.

It was of course very early recognised that the river was of supreme importance, and on hearing of the outbreak at Cawnpore, Sir Henry directed Captain Evans, the officer stationed at Onao (twelve miles from Cawnpore), to secure all the boats he could. But the mutineers had forestalled us by breaking up the bridge at Cawnpore, and taking possession of the boats which had composed it, as well as those at other ferries on the farther side of the stream. Thus it will be evident that there was not a gleam of hope anywhere? Forlorn indeed was the state of the Cawnpore garrison, and heavy the thoughts of Sir Hugh Wheeler.

Every day the position became more terrible, for, failing in their attempts to take the entrenchment by storm, the rebels brought more heavy guns from the magazine (if this magazine had been blown up as the gallant Willoughby blew up the magazine at Delhi!), and formed several most formidable batteries under cover of the night, as close as they could to the earthworks.

Eventually there were no fewer than seven of these batteries, in addition to a nullah a short distance to the north-west of the entrenchment, from which the enemy pushed on a sap, whence they poured in a near and deadly fire, and from this network of attack the rebels kept up their fire day and night; the heaviest cannonading being for about two hours in the morning, and the same in the evening, when each gun would throw between twenty and thirty shots an hour. The aim, too, was rapidly improving, especially as to the shells, which rarely overshot the mark.

June 13, the day before the expected succour by Neill, was a memorable and fatal one in the history of the siege. The enemy, failing to fire the barracks by means of incendiaries, began to use heated shells. At 5 p.m., when the hopes of relief were highest, a shell fired by a one-eyed soubadah of artillery took effect. The marksman was a pensioner of the British, but he had no gratitude, and he complacently pocketed ninety rupees, which the Nana gave him for bringing about the worst calamity which had yet befallen the besieged, for the shell set fire to the thatched roof, and, fanned by a strong breeze, spread with appalling rapidity.

When Colonel Waring saw the column of fire shoot upwards, followed by a roar and a crackle, and the screams of the terrified women and children, he was at the ramparts. Duty demanded that he should remain at his post, but the thought that a frightful fate awaited Ruth was too much for the old man. Flinging down his rifle, and, feeble as he was, he hurried to the blazing barrack. Those inmates who could move were endeavouring to escape through the only opening​—​a narrow doorway. They were panic-stricken, and one woman had fainted, blocking the way. The shrieks of those trying to force their way out were heart-rending.

The old officer dashed at the huddled mass, and seizing the woman nearest to hand dragged her out. Then he went for another and another, and by this time he had assistance​—​a slim active figure in a tattered shirt and trousers, his face and hands begrimed with powder. At last the entrance was cleared, and those behind had now a chance to escape.

“Quick! quick!” shouted the Colonel.

He stood at one side of the door, so as not to obstruct the outward rush; his newly arrived companion stood at the other, and they did their best to drag out the helpless ones. As Colonel Waring laid hold of each new-comer, he cast a hasty glance at her face. The one he sought he could not find. Then his firmness gave way.

“My God!” he gasped, “if she is to die, I will die with her.”

Frenziedly he made a dash for the interior, to be stopped at the doorway by the man on the other side, who flung his arms round the Colonel’s waist, and hurled him backwards.

“Who are you?” shouted Waring. “Let me go, or by Heaven I’ll——”

His disengaged hand went to his belt. But he had not time to seize his revolver. His assailant, with the adroitness of the expert wrestler, gave the old colonel a Cumberland “backheel,” and in a second the latter was lying perfectly unhurt on the ground, and before he had time to rise his assailant had disappeared within the burning building. Here he showed, could any one have seen him, method in his madness. In a flash he had torn off one of his tattered shirt sleeves, and holding the rag to his nose and mouth, he crept farther and farther into the hot, choking atmosphere. The barrack was alight at the end away from the door. The flames enabled him to see dimly the shapeless forms of the poor victims who had been unable to escape, and who had died​—​mercifully, a painless death​—​of suffocation.

One woman was lying about a couple of yards from where he was swaying under the effects of the foul, poisonous air. He fancied he saw a slight movement of the prostrate form, and holding the rag tighter to his face with his left hand, he stretched out his right arm as far as he could reach, lying down his full length to do so. His fingers clasped an arm thin and delicate as that of a child. He dared not stand upright for fear of fainting, and that would mean death to him and to the girl or woman whose wrist he was grasping. He slid backwards, propelling himself by his left elbow, and by his knees and feet, with a wriggling motion. His right hand never let go its hold, and gently he drew the woman towards the door. Whether he had succeeded in reaching the opening he did not know. A curious sensation of drowsy faintness, in which all things earthly seemed crumbling into chaos, crept over him. He knew no more.

But rescue was near at hand, though he was unconscious of it. When he opened his eyes, there was stout and tender-hearted John MacKillop of the Civil Service kneeling by his side, and moistening his forehead with a cloth dipped in a pitcher of water.

“Where am I?” came from his white lips.

“Whaur are ye? In the devil’s den I’m thinking, puir laddie. I would I could say ye were anywhere else,” said John sadly.

“But she​—​I had hold of some one’s arm! Is she saved too?”

“Aye, aye, the puir lassie, though ye’d better ha’eletherbide. It’s only waking to more misery.”

“You’re right; but tell me who is she?”

“Who is she? Who but Miss Ruth Armitage, an’​—​”

Dick Heron’s eyes glistened.

“Thank Heaven,” he muttered. “At least I’ve shown her that I’d die for her.”

MacKillop caught the words and looked at him pityingly.

“Weel, we’re a’ doing much the same for each other, I’m thinking.”

Yes, that was true, and no one had a better right to say so than John MacKillop. It was the duty of the brave fellow to fetch water from the well in the centre of the entrenchment, the only water-supply the garrison had. The well was also a target for the enemy’s artillery, so that the appearance of a man with a pitcher by day and by night, and the creaking of the tackle were signals for a shower of grape. Many times had MacKillop carried his life in his hands until the journey came from which he never returned. Just now, despite the hailstorm of bullets​—​for the firing of the barrack had sent the rebels into devilish joy​—​John MacKillop had once more gone to the well, and brought water, to the salvation of Ruth Armitage and Dick Heron.

But what was the safety of two lives in the face of the appalling tragedy of that brief half hour? Death had hitherto been contented with single victims; but now there had been a wholesale immolation. Panic did its work, many of the wounded and sick could not be removed, and about forty were left to their fate.

There was no time for thought of oneself. Personal emotions, feelings, inclinations, love, were crushed. Self-sacrifice was the one thought uppermost. Dick, assured that Ruth was safe, did not seek to see her​—​indeed, he could not. As soon as he had pulled himself together he went to the earthworks to take his share at the guns or rifle.

The fateful day on which Neill was so confidently expected​—​June 14​—​was marked by a fiercer attack than the besieged had hitherto experienced. On this day reinforcements arrived, and the object evidently was to take the entrenchment by storm. Its capture was to be the sequel to the firing of the barracks, but the rebels failed, as they had failed before. Again and again they tried to approach the feeble rampart, but were each time met with a vigorous fire from the batteries within, and at nightfall they gave up the attempt.

All through the frightful time General Wheeler, incapable of much active work, was thoughtful and kind. He could do but little, yet when the poor oppressed women saw his spare, worn, shrunken figure near them, they felt cheered, though they knew not why. He had taken his post with the others in the defence, and shared in the privations. There was no difference between his lot and that of the private soldier. After the fire the terrified women and children were huddled together behind a couple of wagons, and a heap of debris​—​packing cases, broken furniture and rubbish from the barracks​—​and here Sir Hugh found them. Like those of every one else, Sir Hugh Wheeler’s clothes were dirty and torn, his face and hands were grimy, and he looked more like a vagrant who had tramped miles on a dusty road than a General in the British Army.

“There’s only one place where at the moment you can go​—​the trenches in the south corner,” said he to the women. “The attack just now is on the north and east. You’ll be safe there. When night comes you shall be moved to one of the barracks outside.”

The women heard this without a murmur, though they knew it meant exposure to the pitiless sun for two or three hours. Ruth was lying on a mat in the shadow cast by a wagon, Mrs. Widdowson, the sturdy wife of a private of the 32nd, fanning and moistening her forehead with a damp rag. The General stopped and looked pityingly at her.

“Poor child,” said he compassionately. He sighed deeply when he thought of his own daughters, who were also in the entrenchment.

The girl was in a half-unconscious state, but the voice of the General roused her. She struggled into a sitting position, and, pushing back her hair, which was streaming over her face, she cast a wild glance of entreaty at the gallant old soldier as he was moving away.

“Sir Hugh,” she cried faintly, “do not go yet. I want to speak to you.”

The General turned and sat down on a box by her side, so that she should not exhaust her strength by having to speak loudly. It was like his kindliness.

“Sir Hugh,” said she, fixing her large, sad eyes upon him, “how long is this horror to last?”

“Why ask me, my dear? I am certain that if our countrymen can reach us they will.”

“Yes, yes; but they don’t know how we are situated.”

“That’s the worst of it​—​they don’t know. Colonel Neill ought to be at Allahabad before this. If we could only send a messenger to him!”

“Yes; I’ve been thinking of that, General Wheeler. Let me go!”

“Go? Go where?”

“To Allahabad. I can disguise myself as a native woman. I can speak Hindustani as I can my native tongue. Let me go!”

“Madness, my girl. You don’t know what you’re saying. No woman can make her way through that camp of tigers. You think because you know the Hindustani language that you also know the native manners and customs​—​customs which have been handed down from generation to generation. No, no; it would never do.”

Ruth made no reply. She felt the old General was right.

“Neill ought to be here to-morrow​—​at the latest within a week,” went on General Wheeler.

“And if not?”

“If not——” Sir Hugh drew a long breath. “You are able to answer that question quite as well as I can.”

Again Ruth was silent, and the General was about to rise from his seat when the girl grasped his arm convulsively.

“I don’t believe help will ever reach us, Sir Hugh​—​not, at least, before we are starved to death.”

“We must hope for the best,” was all the General could say.

“Many of us are past hope. We would gladly welcome death. I’ve been thinking there’s one way which might help us. You’re quite right in saying I could not get to Allahabad​—​I feel I haven’t the strength. But I might go to Bithoor​—​to Azimoolah Khan.”

“Great Heavens! That man​—​that devil, I ought to say! What are you talking about?”

Ruth heard him unmoved. Her manner was the manner of one who had made a vow, and had sternly resolved to keep that vow. Without the slightest quiver in her voice, she told simply, almost mechanically, the story of Azimoolah Khan’s offer, before the siege began, to save her.

“But,” exclaimed the General, “is it possible you don’t know what this offer meant?”

“I can guess,” said Ruth faintly, and with downcast eyes. “I should probably not have gone to Allahabad, as Azimoolah promised, but to Bithoor​—​to the Nana’s palace.”

“Yes,” said Sir Hugh with emphasis.

“I’ve been thinking that if I now accepted Azimoolah’s offer he and the Nana might be induced to draw away their forces and let you and the others go free.”

“And do you imagine that I, an English soldier, would consent to such a negotiation?” cried Sir Hugh agitatedly. “No; our liberty shall not depend upon such a sacrifice.”

“What does my life matter when the lives of so many others would be saved?”

“Your life?” asked the old man, with a keen and searching look.

“Yes,” returned the girl, with a sad ghost of a smile flitting over her brave face. “I should but deceive Azimoolah and dupe the Nana. When you were safely away I should kill myself. It would be very easy.”

“Never​—​never​—​never,” cried Sir Hugh. “My girl, if it be so willed that we die, the sooner death comes the better. Dismiss such thoughts from your mind.”

The General spoke sternly, almost angrily. He thoroughly grasped the meaning of Ruth’s suggestion, and he purposely roughened his tone to repress what he knew was the outcome of despair.

“Do not mention such a thing again,” said he, as he turned away, “or”​—​and a grim smile lighted up his eyes and his tone softened​—​“I shall have to order you tinder arrest, and I can ill spare anybody for this purpose.”

“Poor girl​—​poor girl!” he muttered to himself. “How will this terrible business end?”

That was the question all those devoted men and women were asking themselves. They had been shut up in the entrenchment nine days, and the time had been an eternity. The thousand souls had been reduced by at least one-fourth.

In her hurried talk with the General Ruth had lighted upon the keynote of all the trouble​—​the pangs of hunger and of thirst. The two things together were gradually driving the poor creatures mad.

Scarcely had the women and children (mostly the wives and families of the privates of the 32nd regiment) been removed to the trenches​—​almost the only places of shelter left​—​than one poor woman, who was in a wretched state, bordering on starvation, was seen to go out of the protection of the mud wall with a child in each hand, and stand where the fire was heaviest, hoping that some bullet might relieve her and her little ones from the troubles they were enduring. She was brought back, poor thing, to die a more tedious death.

In the barracks outside the entrenchment they were worse off than inside the walls. To fetch food from within the entrenchment meant courting death, and after a time the gallant little band endeavoured to depend upon foraging outside the earthworks.

Now and then the larder was strengthened by the addition of some horse-soup when the enemy’s cavalry came near enough to be “potted.” It was of more importance to secure the horse than the rider, and the latter might go scot free so that the former was captured. Once a Brahmin bull strolled within range. He was floored at once, but he had to be brought in, and that was the difficulty.

A volunteer party was instantly formed, and Captain Moore, who was always present where any daring work was to be done, led the foragers. They took with them a strong rope, fastened it round the hind legs and between the horns of the beast, and in the midst of cheers from behind the mud wall, and a sharp fusillade from tile rebels, mingled with round shots, they accomplished their object. Two or three ugly wounds were not thought too high a price to pay for this contribution to the commissariat.

Once the defenders of No. 2 barrack saw the sepoys bring a nine-pounder drawn by half a dozen bullocks up to No. 6 barrack. Captain Mowbray Thompson’s men would have given a right arm for a good cut out of the sides, and not a few of their officers would have bartered a letter of credit on the Army agents for the same privilege.

But in vain; the sepoys managed to get the bullocks under cover without coming into range. Just as everybody was anathematising all the bullocks and all the sepoys in creation, a weedy horse belonging to one of the irregular cavalry was spotted. In an instant half a dozen Enfield rifles were levelled at the animal, and in less than five minutes he was down, brought into the barracks, and cut up. There was no skill wasted. Lump, thump, whack, went nondescript pieces on to the fire, and there was not one man there did not think roast horse the most savoury meal he had ever tasted. The two pickets, thirty-four in number, disposed of the horse in two meals. The head and some mysteries of the body were stewed, and the soup sent into the entrenchments as a present to the ladies.

Amid all this, death was ever present. Captain Halliday, who had come from the entrenchments to visit Captain Jenkins. was going back with some of the horse-soup for his wife, when he was shot down between the stone roof and the mud wall.

Once a stray dog wandered from the sepoy barrack, and every possible blandishment was employed by our men to tempt the canine adventurer into the soup-kettle. He yielded to the temptation, and was served up steaming hot. It was not every one, in spite of the pangs of hunger, who could be induced to touch the dish.

The tortures of thirst were worse than those of hunger. The well in the entrenchments, as already mentioned, was one of the greatest points of danger, as the enemy invariably fired grape upon the spot the instant any person made his appearance there to draw water. Even in the dead of night the darkness afforded but little protection, as the sepoys could hear the creaking of the bucket; and at this well-known sound they instantly opened fire.

MacKillop was the chief volunteer for the fetching of water, but there were also paid men. These were chiefly privates, who got as much as eight or ten shillings a bucket. Poor fellows! their earnings were of little avail to them; and to their credit it must be said that when towards the last days of the siege money had lost its value, they were not less willing to incur the risk of drawing for the women and the children. And wearisome work it was, for the water was between sixty and seventy feet from the surface of the ground, and the mechanism was simply the primitive method of hand-over-hand.

On the 15th, when night came on, the onslaught recommenced with renewed ferocity. The enemy rushed onwards in hundreds, tinder cover of the darkness, with the evident intention of surrounding Ashe’s battery, and taking it by storm. But Captain Ashe was far too old a soldier to be caught napping.

“Let them come,” he muttered between his teeth, “the more the merrier. No, no!” he called out softly to his men, “not yet. Wait till I give the word.”

The sepoys could be seen in the gloom, stealing along like savage animals in search for their prey. The ground was literally covered with them.

“Not a word,” breathed Ashe in a whisper, which his men heard, but which never went over the earthworks.

The rebels were allowed to crawl within sixty or eighty yards of the wall before a gun was fired or a movement made to show that they were seen. Just as they imagined their plan was successful, and they rose to their feet to make the charge, a nine-pounder, loaded with grape, was discharged with appalling effect. The scattering shot went right into their midst, and was followed by a withering musketry fire, every available man and gun having been concentrated on this spot. With a howl of disappointment and rage, the sepoys fell back. Their loss amounted to some hundreds, and they had no heart to renew the combat that night.

On the following day occurred an untoward incident, which did more than anything else to hurry the tragedy to its climax. It happened in this way: To the west of the entrenchment were three buildings. One of these buildings was the quarter-guard, which, after the burning of the thatched barrack, was used for a hospital for sick and wounded. The other two were sheds, called “go-downs,” and in these were sheltered some of the wives and children of the soldiers. Now, the quarter-guard was also used as a prison, and here some half-dozen sepoys (men who were under trial previous to the outbreak, and who had been brought into the entrenchment) were confined. Later on, had such men (they were undoubted traitors) been made prisoners, they would have been shot without loss of time; but General Wheeler was a humane man, and mistaken mercy was shown them.

The fellows had been handcuffed and placed in charge of a sentry, but when the attack of the enemy grew fierce, this man had to take his turn at the earthworks, and the prisoners were left to be guarded by those wounded who were able to move about. The result may be anticipated. Three nights after the barrack was re-occupied three men escaped, and the consequence was very serious, for they immediately went to the Nana, and gave him every information as to the distressed state of the garrison, and on the following day, the 17th, the enemy’s batteries commenced firing, not only on the burnt barrack, but also on the quarter-guard and the two go-downs.

Meanwhile it seemed almost as though the Fates were determined to prove of what British pluck and British endurance are capable. Not one bit of good luck did the besieged have all the way though, while the sepoys, on the other hand, were aided by persistently favourable fortunes.

Thus, on the 17th the enemy began to run short of percussion caps, and all the master smiths and native gunmakers were seized to turn the percussion locks into flint ones. Had this state of things continued, the assault with musket shot must gradually have slackened, greatly to the advantage of the besieged. But some malignant power of spite and cruelty seemed to be watching over the mutineers, and just at the right moment for them a fleet of about twenty boats, laden with magazine stores and ammunition, reached Cawnpore.

These stores were intended to reinforce the British supplies, but the conductor on duty unfortunately was not aware of what was going on at Cawnpore till he came within four days’ journey of that station, when the zemindars (native farmers) and others, seized the boats and sent them to the Nana. The two Europeans (conductor and sergeant in charge) were murdered without delay by order of the Nana, and the stores taken into the magazine. The water route up country is always very tedious, especially in the hot season, when the river is generally very low. Thus it must have taken nearly a month for this fleet to come up from Allahabad to Cawnpore.

So, with this accession to the supplies, the rebels renewed the attack with redoubled ferocity. And no help had come to the beleaguered garrison, nor was there any likelihood of any. But if Neill had only known! That was the cruel part of the business. He had succeeded in restoring order in Allahabad on June 17, and had he had the slightest idea of the state of affairs at Cawnpore, he would have pushed on. He waited for Havelock. It was then too late​—​too late!