Chapter XIV

A Hot Attack​—​the Crisis of the Siege

As Hawke entered the timber and mud shelter​—​it was little better​—​of the Redan battery, Captain Fulton, dusty and grimy, met him.

“You’re just the man I want, Jack,” exclaimed Fulton. “Those devils, I am sure, are at work, and I haven’t found out where.”

“If you can’t discover, Fulton, no one can,” said Hawke.

“I’ve been three hours on the watch, and I feel played out. I want you to take my place, because you know something of mining. I’d rather not send a new hand on so important a job.”

Fulton was quite right. It is not a very easy matter for one unpractised in the work to reach the end of a mine where he is to be stationed. The shaft of a Lucknow mine was generally not less than twelve feet deep. On reaching the bottom the sapper had to crawl on his hands and knees till the narrowing of the passage compelled him to stretch himself at full length, and he had to wriggle on worm fashion as best he could.

Having arrived at the end, the sapper remained perfectly still and would probably hear a faint noise which, if he were a novice, would, to his inexperienced and bewildered ear, sound suspicious. Then he would hastily wriggle out of the mine to report his observations, much to the disgust of a more practised hand, who, of course, would be immediately sent down, to return with the report that there was nothing going on. Such noises simply existed in the imagination.

“Very well,” said Hawke carelessly. “How long is my ‘turn’ to last?”

“I can’t give you less than two hours.”

“Oh, all right. I’m entitled to a drink, I suppose, before I go on duty?”

“You can have a bottle of beer,” said Fulton impatiently; “but if I were you I’d have it afterwards.”

“Yes​—​but you’re not me, old fellow. I’ll take it now, please.”

Some five or ten minutes were over before Hawke was ready to descend. He had stripped himself to his shirt and trousers, and had just laid hold of the rope tied to a beam in the roof, preparatory to lowering himself, when Lennard hastily entered.

“I’ve come straight from Gubbins’,” said he, with unwonted excitement in his manner.

Hawke let go the rope and turned towards the surgeon.

“What is it?” he exclaimed. “Has anything happened to​—​to any of the women?”

“No, thank heaven, they’re all safe.”

“But you have some news?”

“Yes. Ungad, Gubbins’ messenger, has just come from Cawnpore. He brings a letter from Colonel Tytler. Havelock has fought his way to Cawnpore. He has force enough with him to defeat the rebels. His troops are crossing the river, and he hopes to be in Lucknow in five or six days. Think of it!”

In a moment all was joy and excitement. The men shook hands with each other, one or two threw up their caps, and Fulton shouted a stentorious hurrah that might have been heard a quarter of a mile away.

Hawke alone was silent. The intelligence did not cheer him. It suddenly flashed across his mind that if the siege were raised, and the defenders rescued, Jean would be separated from him. His only chance of gaining her lay in the abnormal circumstances in which they were placed. The terrors of the situation, the common danger to which they were exposed, the suffering and privation, had put all upon an equality. Even that which divides class from class​—​money​—​was gone.

This was not the worst. The old state of things restored, once more he would be Jack Hawke the reprobate, the dissolute fellow with a shady reputation. A dark cloud stole over his face as he thought of it.

In the general exultation no one noticed his abstraction. He stood apart, his arms folded, his eyes bent on the ground.

Meanwhile Lennard was relating to a little crowd of eager listeners how Ungad had arrived. The sepoy, with great daring, had, it appeared, penetrated the lines of the besiegers, and made his way to Gubbins’ house. He was received into a low room on the ground floor, with a single light, carefully screened on the farther side lest it should attract the bullets of the enemy. Here he was surrounded by the anxious men, while at the farther end were the indistinct, shadowy forms of the women, who had stolen from their beds to listen to the glad tidings. Welcome as was the news of Havelock’s advance, and the prospect of speedy rescue, it was saddened by the terrible narrative of the final Cawnpore tragedy, the massacre of the women and children. Information of this had been also brought by Ungad. The women shuddered at the ghastly story, the men set their teeth and burned for revenge.

It was not until Lennard had finished answering the questions with which he was plied by his excited audience that he noticed Hawke. The light from the hanging lamp fell on his moody face, its heaviness the more marked by reason of its contrast with the elation all round. The two friends had not seen each other for some days​—​not, indeed, since Lennard’s rejection by Jean.

Lennard held out his hand, and the other took it, but with no great show of cordiality, and very few words passed between them. Then Hawke turned abruptly and, seizing the rope, swung himself into the black depths of the shaft and was lost to view.

Hawke’s two hours’ duty over, he came up and reported himself to Captain Fulton.

“I don’t believe the beggars are mining in that direction at all,” said he.

“But if they’re bent upon doing us any mischief they must come that way,” persisted Fulton.

“That’s true; but why shouldn’t they blunder?”

Fulton was silent for a moment.

“Hawke,” said he, “we’ll carry that mine some ten or twelve feet farther.”

“Very well.”

“And we’ll start upon the work at once. The Pandies will have heard of Havelock’s coming, and they’ll strain every nerve to be beforehand with him.”

Armed with pick and spade the two men descended the shaft, and for three hours went steadily at their task, one breaking down the dry, hard soil, and the other shovelling the debris to the shaft, where it was drawn up in buckets by those at the mouth.

When thoroughly exhausted, Captain Fulton gave the word of command to knock off work. The party crawled from the mine, and were about to start for the headquarters of Colonel Inglis when a loud explosion was heard outside the battery. It was not the firing of ordnance. No cannon, however large, would make the same kind of noise. Fulton’s experienced ear told him in a moment what it was.

“By heavens,” he cried, “the devils have exploded a mine!”

Leaving Hawke in charge of the guard, he ran across the enclosure to the fortifications, where the guns were in readiness. He expected to see them destroyed, and a breach gaping in the earthworks; but no damage had been done.

In two or three minutes he came running back excitedly.

“Come along, my lads!” he shouted, “to the battery!”

In a very few seconds each man was assigned his post, and, with his musket or rifle thrust through a loophole, was ready, when the dense smoke should clear away, to open fire upon the enemy.

The latter, it was clear, had been mining, as Fulton suspected, with the object of blowing up the Redan. The rebels had, however, miscalculated the distance, and, the smoke hindering them from seeing, they imagined the explosion had been successful in making a breach in the fortifications. They could be seen in all directions advancing to the attack with fixed bayonets. Little did they expect the reception they would meet.

“Steady, boys!” cried Fulton, with the light of battle in his eyes. “Now then, let ’em have it!”

Almost at the same moment the guns in the battery and every barrel at the loopholes opened fire. The rebels were taken by surprise, and staggered back.

In a few minutes they rallied, and again advanced to the attack, disregarding the fierce fire that made tremendous havoc in their ranks.

One of their officers was, unlike the majority of his followers, a brave man. Waving his sword, on the point of which he had stuck his cap, he shouted: “Come on, my braves!” and led his men almost up to the earthworks.

They were met by a murderous fire; but they were confident in their numbers, and the gaps in their ranks were instantly closed up. One man leaped upon the earthworks, which were not more than four feet high. He was met by a thrust in the chest from a bayonet, and rolled back a corpse. Others succeeded, to meet with a similar fate.

The enemy swarmed, and the sepoy officer who led the attack saw that his men were gaining the advantage slightly. With a yell of exultation he rushed, followed by a fresh batch of reinforcements, to where the defence seemed weakest.

He made his way straight for Fulton, as though he knew him to be the leader; but he never reached the gallant captain of the engineers. At the moment when Fulton, hardly pressed by three or four fellows, was almost defenceless against a fresh attack, Hawke’s sword swept through the air and cut the man’s neck clean through.

The loss of the sepoy leader made the assailants waver, and, assistance arriving at that moment from another battery, the rebels were driven back with great slaughter. A howitzer immediately after opened upon them with grape, and this completed their rout.

A more persistent attack upon the fortifications than this was not made throughout the siege. The rebels strained every nerve and made a simultaneous assault on the east and south, but without avail.

One of the bravest bits of work done that day was at Innes’ house. The garrison here consisted only of twelve men of the 32nd Foot, twelve of the 13th Native Infantry, and a few non-military official men. The whole were commanded by Ensign Loughnan, the plucky young officer who, at the very outbreak of the Mutiny at Lucknow, saved the treasure.

The explosion of the enemy’s mine at the Redan gave the signal for the attack, and against this handful of men, cooped up in the weak defences of Innes’ house, the sepoys pressed in large numbers, and made their way to within ten yards of the palisade.

A rolling fire sent them back. They came on again and again and again; but always with the same result. Loughnan was young in years, but cool, wary, determined and resolute. Not a shot was wasted, and at last he forced the enemy to desist from their attempts to storm the post, and to content themselves with a heavy musketry fire from a safe distance.

While these fierce combats were going on at the Redan and Innes’ house the rebels made a desperate attempt on their favourite point of attack​—​the Cawnpore battery.

The column was led by its standard-bearer, who, undeterred by the fire from every loophole, jumped into the battery ditch. But he forgot he had to reckon with men who never lost their nerve and precision of aim. A well-directed bullet stopped his farther progress, and his followers became disheartened and fell back.

Leaving the Cawnpore battery alone, they rushed northwards to join their comrades, who were making a determined assault on Anderson’s garrison, distant some two hundred yards from the Cawnpore battery. The besiegers had provided themselves with scaling-ladders; but they were as unsuccessful here as elsewhere, and, thoroughly dispirited, they retreated, and did not renew the attack.

It was now two o’clock in the afternoon. Since an early hour the defenders had been kept at work at all points. Although everywhere repulsed, the enemy for two hours after continued to pour in a heavy fire, and even attempted to effect a lodgment in one of the brick-built cook-houses close to the outer defences.

But the real attack was over. Made in great force, and with considerable resolution, it had been defeated by the British with a loss of but four killed and twelve wounded.

As a feat of arms this repulse is scarcely to be surpassed by any feat in history. After three weeks of incessant pounding with shot and shell, the enemy had tried to overwhelm the besieged by an assault at all points, and had failed signally everywhere.

Yet the rebels had every advantage. They had sprung their mine; they had covered the forward movement of their infantry by a fierce artillery fire; their infantry had advanced to within a few yards of the defences, but not a single place had they been able to penetrate. Had they not miscalculated the distance of the mine at the Redan the result might have been very different. As it was, they were thoroughly disheartened, while the spirits of the defenders rose in an equal proportion. Well might they from that day look forward with more hope to the future.