Chapter XX

The Massacre of the Boats

The distance from the entrenchment to the ghaut on the Ganges, where lay the boats which the released garrison expected were to convey them in safety to Allahabad, was about two miles. After much painful labour​—​for the heat was great, and many were so weak they could scarcely walk​—​the sad procession reached the wooden bridge over a ravine which at this point runs into the Ganges. Proceeding along the road; they turned aside into another ravine which led to the Suttee Choura Ghaut. Here they found the boats awaiting them; but, alas, with but few exceptions these boats had been hauled into the shallows.

“These boats have been shifted!” exclaimed Captain Turner angrily. “They’re not where they were when we saw them. Does it mean treachery?”

The officer he addressed glanced at the boats and returned no answer. Meanwhile a vast multitude of natives had gathered in order to see the English depart, and the embarkation began, but it progressed with the utmost difficulty. The officers and men standing in the water helped the wounded and the ladies and children into the boats, and even some of the more friendly disposed natives came down and assisted.

“It is a thousand pities the boats are not in deeper water!” exclaimed Captain Moore. “Yet I cannot think they have been placed here purposely. Look at that trooper. Would he stand here if there was treachery?”

This trooper was a Government camel sowar from Agra, who had brought and safely delivered a dispatch from that station for General Wheeler the previous evening. The man was talking to the elephant driver who had brought Lady Wheeler, and both seemed perfectly unconcerned.

The ill-luck of the garrison continued. While they were in the entrenchments they dreaded the approach of the rains, as the wall would have been washed away. Now they had to mourn the absence of rain, for the Ganges was at its lowest.

“Hurry! hurry!” called out Captain Moore. “It’s no use preserving order. Get in how you can. For Heaven’s sake, push off quickly, and get to the other side. I will then give you further instructions.”

The scene was one of terrible confusion. Dick Heron searched everywhere for Ruth, but in vain. He had once caught sight of her during the painful journey to the river, but he had been ordered with others to form a little rearguard in case of treachery, and speech between them was impossible. At the banks he hoped to exchange a word. A “God bless you” from her dear lips would give him inexpressible comfort. The boat under the charge of Major Vibart was the first one to fill, but among the sad, hollow-eyed, haggard-faced women, whom Dick was assisting into the frail craft, he could not see Ruth.

“Enough,” shouted Vibart; “the boat won’t take any more.”

It was deep in the water; its human freight threatening a new danger owing to the lowness of the river. Dick turned to prevent those behind from crowding in and adding to the risk, and came face to face with the girl for whom he yearned.

“At last!” he whispered eagerly. “I wanted to see you once more. You must go in the next boat. Major Vibart’s is full.”

She could say nothing. The ghost of a sad smile flitted across her wan face. She was very weak, and she let him take her in his arms and carry her to the second boat.

“You are coming too,” Dick heard her murmur.

“Not yet. I want to help the others.”

“No, no . . . you must come.”

He was standing knee deep in the water close to the edge of the boat. He suddenly felt her arms round him. For an instant both forgot everything but themselves. Their lips were pressed in one long, fervent, farewell kiss.

“God bless you, dear​—​dear Dick,” he heard her breathe faintly.

The fulfilment of his wish! He did not care now if death came. And indeed it was nearer than he imagined.

While their arms were entwined a flag was seen to wave from behind a group of natives on the bank, and the rowers in Vibart’s boat jumped out and waded to the shore.

“You rascals!” shouted the Major.

He whipped out his revolver and promptly fired into the crowd of traitors, and two or three of the soldiers in the boat followed suit. “Those who are able, jump in the water and push the boat off!” cried Vibart, and instantly all who were not severely wounded sprang over the side. Dick heard the Major’s appeal, and gently disengaged himself from Ruth’s loving embrace.

“Good-bye, darling, my own love!” he cried passionately. He rushed away waving something above his head. It was the handkerchief she had given​—​his mascotte!

A sob escaped Ruth’s lips, but Dick never heard it. Happiness irradiated his wasted face, and he rushed to the boat in front and lent his strength to those already at work.

Scarcely had they moved the boat a foot when a bugle note awoke the echoes, and at the signal a deadly fire was opened upon the defenceless people from an ambush all along the banks. Among those who fell first was brave Dick Heron. God was merciful to him. Shot through the heart, he died a painless death.

The musketry firing was commenced by some troopers, and was taken up by the infantry concealed in the ruined buildings near the river, on the heights, and behind stacks of timber. Then succeeded the roar of cannon.

Amidst this frightful scene and hideous din, the proverbial coolness and intrepidity of Englishmen did not fail them. The fire of their foes was at once returned from the fourth boat on the line, and every exertion made to get clear; but most of the boats were unable to move. They simply became easy targets for the cowardly demons, most of whom kept themselves concealed.

The diabolical scheme of Azimoolah was complete indeed!

Unmindful of the Nana’s oath and promise, a conference had been held in the Nana’s tent between Azimoolah, the Nana’s brother, and others, and the wretches decided that the British should be massacred on the banks of the river. Orders were issued accordingly for the destruction of the doomed garrisons.

At an early hour in the morning some five hundred mutineers, with two guns, marched to the Suttee Choura Ghaut, off which the boats were moored. One gun and a party of sepoys were placed in the ruins of a house which, being built on a height, commanded the whole line of boats.

Another party of twenty-five men were secreted in a nullah, or ditch. A third party was drawn up behind some stacks of timber, and lower down the river a number of troopers under the command of Tantia Topee, who subsequently led the rebels in the field against Havelock, were posted. Still lower down was a second gun and a large band of sepoys, and eight hundred yards below this was a third gun, with its attendant party. Two of the guns commanded the river for some distance, both above and below the little flotilla, and could easily rake the boats as they lay at the Suttee Ghaut, as also any that might succeed in getting away and floating down the stream.

But this was not all. The infernal mind of Azimoolah left nothing unthought of. On the Oudh, or north side of the river (Cawnpore lies on the south of the Ganges) the 17th Native Infantry, the 13th Native Cavalry, and two guns were concealed behind a sandy ridge, the former to intercept any fugitives attempting to escape towards Lucknow, and the latter to fire upon any of the unhappy victims seeking shelter on the outer or river side of the boats. A party of horse and foot were also told off to follow the garrison, and on their reaching the wooden bridge already mentioned as leading to the Suttee Choura Ghaut, to form up there in line as a firing party.

Thus every avenue of escape was guarded with fiendish acuteness, and the doomed band completely hemmed in by their bloodthirsty and cowardly foes.

It is not possible to describe the terror of the poor women when the fierce, murderous fire opened upon them on all sides. The brave, the heroic Moore, the dauntless Lieutenant Ashe, Lieutenant Bolton, who had entered the entrenchment by leaping his horse over the mud wall after escaping a hundred deaths, were all killed in attempting to push off Major Vibart’s boat. One lady was standing up in the stern soon after the boat was floated, and having been struck by a round shot, fell overboard and sank immediately. Her poor little boy, six years old, came up to Captain Mowbray Thomson with tears in his eyes, and said:

“Mamma has fallen overboard!”

Captain Thomson endeavoured to comfort him, but the poor little fellow cried out:

“Oh, why are they firing upon us? Did they not promise to leave off?”

The horrors of the lingering hours of that day seemed as if they would never cease. There was no food on the boats, and scarcely one of the fugitives had eaten before starting. The water of the Ganges was all that passed the lips of that devoted band, save prayers and shrieks and groans. The wounded and the dead were often entangled together at the bottom of the boat.

And yet another horror was at hand. On board Major Vibart’s boat it fell to Ruth’s lot to be the first to discover it.

“Captain Lawrence! Captain Lawrence!” she cried in agonised tones, “the roof is burning!”

It was too true. Before jumping overboard the miscreants of boatmen had contrived to conceal burning charcoal in the thatch. The straw was like tinder; the motion of the boat, slow as it was, had disturbed the hot air sufficiently to fan the smouldering thatch into a flame. In a few minutes the fire was crackling fiercely, and thick clouds of suffocating smoke were blinding the poor creatures. Some tried to hurl the burning roof into the river, but the thatch had purposely been made exceedingly thick, and the disturbance only increased the flames.

“Jump into the river!” shouted Lawrence, who was in command, in a despairing voice. “It is our only chance. We can but die.”

But, alas! the wounded could not stir. Their cries were agonising, but they were beyond the reach of human aid. Unable to move, they were burnt to death. Mercifully, the volumes of smoke veiled the terrible scene.

Those who had leaped into the water sought shelter from the fierce storm of grape and musketry on the outer or river side of the boats. It was a vain hope. The fiends who had planned. the hideous massacre were prepared for this. Guns and infantry were posted on the Oudh side of the river for this contingency, and they opened a murderous fire.

Ruth was among those who were the last to seek refuge in the river. She was a splendid swimmer, and she went half a dozen yards under the water before she came to the surface. So long as she had life she would cling to it, and after taking breath, she once more dived, hoping to reach the bank, which, she thought, would afford her a little shelter. She reached the spot she had marked out, and here she crouched.

Meanwhile, when the Nana’s treachery became apparent, the boat which General Wheeler was about to enter with his family, cut its cable and dropped down the river, followed by two companies of infantry and two guns. The brave old man stood for a moment gazing at the scene of carnage, and while remaining helpless and defenceless, one of the troopers rushed at him and made a cut at him with his sword. His head was severed and fell with the body into the river.

Major Vibart’s boat was a little lighter draught than the rest, and got away first, drifting down the stream. Those who had hurled themselves in the water rather than be burnt alive swam after it, but it dared not stop, and but for its grounding the swimmers would never have reached it.

The nearest party of sepoys immediately opened fire with their muskets, and attempted to commence a cannonade. They had two guns, but the larger of these they did not know how to manage, as they could not work the elevating screw, so they loaded the smaller one with grape tied up in bags, and the infantry discharged their muskets. Yet even in that supreme hour the heroic men, worn and defenceless, never lost their courage. They responded with their rifles so effectively that they actually drove off the sepoys.

The boat was terribly crowded, for one of the other boats which got away from the ghaut was struck by a round shot below the watermark, and was rapidly filling when she came alongside Major Vibart’s boat. Many were drowned, but the survivors were taken on board, leaving but little room to work her.

She was soon, indeed, in a pitiable state. Her rudder was shot away, there were no oars, and the only implements which could be brought into use were a spar or two and such pieces of wood as could be safely torn from her sides. Grape and round shot flew about from both banks of the river, and shells burst constantly. But about midday she got out of range of the big guns, and these could no longer be shifted, for the sandy bed of the river bank had disabled the artillery bullocks; but the sepoys were on the pursuit the whole day, firing volleys of musketry incessantly.

Six miles was all that was accomplished during the entire day. At 5 p.m. the boat stranded, and the united efforts of those on board to move her were useless. There was nothing for it but to wait. The sepoys, they knew, were far too cowardly to venture near. But in the morning the enemy would be reinforced, and then the end would come. Everybody in the doomed craft was fully prepared to face death.

The sun had gone down red and angry. The air was insufferably close. The atmosphere above the river was like a vapour bath; a mist hung over the face of the waters. Distant musketry fire could be heard at intervals, with here and there a dropping shot. Their pursuers had fallen away. Whither? Who could say? Possibly to take part in the butchery which it was certain awaited those whose boats had not succeeded in getting away.

Just as night was falling the man who was on the look-out called to Major Vibart:

“Look there, sir. What is that? Shall I fire?”

A shadowy figure was crawling along the strip of sand between the water and the bank. So slowly did it move, one could hardly say there was any motion at all.

“Shall I fire, sir?” repeated the man.

“Not yet. It may be one of our own party. Great Heaven, it is a woman!”

He sprang out of the boat, and so did another officer who heard his words. They ran to the dim outline​—​it was scarcely more. The last ounce of strength was expended, the figure was prostrate. They raised her. A faint sound escaped her pallid lips, so faint it could scarcely be called a groan.

“Do you see who it is?” said Vibart in a compassionate tone. “Poor Ruth Armitage, the pluckiest little woman in the entrenchment, and that is saying a good deal where all were plucky.”

“Poor thing! I fear it is all over,” said the other.

“It would be cruel to wish otherwise,” said Vibart in a low voice. “I’m heartily sick of it. I care not how soon my hour comes.”

How many times during that terrible three weeks had not that wish been uttered!

They took her to the boat and laid her down. She seemed to be scarcely conscious, and they imagined her brain had been wandering. It would not have been extraordinary, for she had undergone a terrible ordeal. Hidden among the tall weeds, she had undergone a thousand risks of being shot, yet not one bullet had touched her. She saw Major Vibart’s boat go by, but dared not come from her hiding-place.

She was sufficiently near the landing-place to know what had happened​—​how all those who were not shot, or burnt, or drowned, were hurried by the brutal soldiery to land. Then some cause, she knew not what, seemed to draw the sepoys, the gunners, and the troopers from their posts. However, it was clear to her that the river was left unguarded, and she moved from her hiding-place and swam down with the current. Her weakness prevented her going very far, and every now and then she had to creep to the bank and rest, always choosing a spot where she could conceal herself.

It was a miracle she reached the boat. But for the fact that it was grounded she would never have succeeded, and must have died of exhaustion. As it was, nothing could be done to restore her strength, for there was neither bite nor sup. And so she remained quietly lying like a poor bruised lily, her life apparently ebbing away.

All through the night incessant efforts were made to get the boat afloat, and at last the fugitives were successful. But they were not let alone by the rebels. The latter took to shooting arrows with live coal fastened to them, to ignite, if possible, the thatched roof, and this fiendish device might have been successful, had not the officers and soldiers pulled the roofing to pieces and thrown it overboard.

Thus, when the boat again started it was without any protection from the scorching sun and the bullets of the sepoys.