Chapter XIII

The Flight to the Entrenchments

The much-dreaded explosion had come. In a flash the news had spread that the 2nd Cavalry had mutinied, and having set fire to the riding-master’s bungalow, had fled, carrying off with them horses, arms, colours, and the regimental treasure chest.

Alarmed by the sound of the signal gun crowds of civilians​—​men, women and children, in a pitiable state of fright​—​came pouring into the entrenchments for shelter. Up to this time they had been lodged in tents, in the soldiers’ church of St. John, and in other buildings. Made uneasy by the threatening state of affairs, they had left their houses and bungalows, quite a week previous, and had taken up their quarters as best they could.

Four guns were placed in position inside the entrenchment, manned by European artillerymen, who in strange headgear, nightcaps and wideawakes, and side-arms looked like melodramatic buccaneers. A seething crowd of every colour, sect, and profession filled up the barracks, and every five minutes buggies, palki-gharries, vehicles of all sorts, drove up and discharged cargoes of writers, tradesmen, and a miscellaneous mob of every complexion​—​white and tawny​—​all in a state of terror.

Ladies were sitting down at the rough mess tables in the barracks with their ayahs and swarms of frightened children; and upon this scene of scare and crowding the Indian sun poured down its scorching rays, and the air, undisturbed by punkah or cooled by wet mats, was stifling, foetid, intolerable.

Through all the scene of confusion, and despite the gathering fears of the women, the brave old General was cheery and calm. Yet even he had come to the conclusion that the danger could not be averted. The crowding of the Europeans into the entrenchment had increased the distrust of the sepoys. Confidence was at an end.

The barracks, simply a long building with a thatched roof and a verandah, situated at the south-west corner of the entrenchment, became terribly crowded, and the scene was very painful. Every one was full of dire apprehensions as to what was about to happen, and it was this ignorance of the future and the vague presentiment of coming evil which made the suspense so agonising.

Men held their wives’ hands, and tried to whisper words of comfort and hope; women clasped their weeping children to their bosoms, and soothed their fears. The only portion of happy humanity in that seething multitude were the babies, who smiled in their mothers’ frightened eyes in all the happiness of ignorance and innocence. In the midst of this distress came the sound of distant musketry and artillery, while the pale dawn was heralded by a crimson light in the direction of the 2nd Cavalry lines in the south, where barracks and bungalows were blazing.

When Ruth returned to the thatched barrack from the General’s quarters, she found the little space near the verandah which had been assigned to her, invaded by two ladies and their children.

“We are are so sorry to inconvenience you,” said one of the ladies apologetically, “but we don’t know where to go, and——” a sob stopped her utterance.

“You need not be sorry,” said Ruth gently, “we must do our best to share each other’s burdens. Have you just come?”

“About an hour ago. We had arranged for carriages, but hearing of the outbreak of the cavalry, we thought they might stop us, and so we walked. This is my sister”​—​pointing to the other lady​—​“and my husband is somewhere about. These are my children. We were very frightened when we got to the canal bridge, for we saw a number of sepoys armed with muskets, apparently lying in wait for somebody. On seeing us, some pretended to be washing their hands, and others drinking water, but all looked quite confused. It was terribly alarming, for the place was very solitary, and it was almost dark. We turned and ran, and got to the entrenchment by a roundabout road, and we are very thankful indeed we reached here safely.”

“And you know nothing of what has happened?”

“No; we only heard the guns firing.”

Ruth did her best to comfort the agitated women, but it was not much that she could do. She was oppressed by a terrible feeling of helplessness, and how that terrible night of suspense passed, she scarcely knew. However, in spite of the suffocating heat, her anxiety, and the distress around her, fatigue at last overcame her, and she fell into an uneasy slumber.

The sun was already hot when she was awakened the tramp of footsteps on the verandah. Half a dozen soldiers were bringing in an improvised ambulance of bamboo, on which was lying a grey-bearded native soldier, his head enveloped in bandages. The wounded man, Ruth was afterwards told, was the gallant old soubadah-major of the mutinous 2nd Cavalry​—​the solitary instance of any native belonging to that regiment who retained his fidelity. When the men broke out, they ordered him to accompany them on pain of immediate death. The faithful old fellow steadily refused, and said he would neither go with them himself, nor sanction their doing so. The ringleaders then fell upon him, and he defended the colours of the treasure which were in the quarter-guard as long as he could, and at last fell covered with wounds. The fellows left him for dead, but when found by our men, he was still alive, and brought into the entrenchment, where he died after a few days.

All that morning the women and children were huddled together, not one daring to go out. The heat was intense, and the punkah which was rigged up did not seem to make much difference The musketry firing continued for some hours, and then was suddenly succeeded by the sullen boom of artillery. What did this portend​—​victory or further disaster? Who could tell?

At ten o’clock there was a terrible scare inside the barrack. It was the first shot fired by the mutineers at the entrenchment. It came from a nine-pounder on the north-west, struck the mud wall, and glided out into the barrack. A large party of ladies and children were at the time outside, and the consternation was indescribable. The bugle call sent every man instantly to his post, many of them carrying in their ears for the first time the peculiar whizzing of round shot, with which they were soon to become familiar.

The intention of the mutineers was probably to unsteady the nerves of those within the entrenchment​—​a favourite method in the East of preparing for an attack​—​for in a short time the artillery fire ceased, and a group of officers were seen approaching the barrack. Among them, Ruth recognised Colonel Waring. She could not restrain her impatience. She knew he would be longing to be assured of her safety, and heedless of the blazing sun, she ran across the compound to meet him. He took both her hands and kissed her.

“Cheer up, my dear girl,” whispered the old colonel. “At least we have not been taken by surprise. We know now our friends from foes. We shall hold our own, never fear. Come into the shade. I don’t want my Ruth to have sunstroke.”

They entered the verandah, and were immediately surrounded by an anxious crowd, eager to hear the tidings.

It seemed that an hour or two after the flight of the cavalry the 1st Native Infantry also bolted, leaving their officers untouched upon the parade ground. Indeed, before going away they begged of their officers (who, like those of the other regiments, had for some time been in the habit of sleeping in the quarter-guard) to leave them. As to the two other regiments​—​the 53rd and the 56th​—​what had precisely happened was not very clear. The accounts differed.

“It was like this,” said a young officer. “At seven o’clock this morning Major Lampson, Captain Attnell, and Captain Lawford rode out after the beggars, who had gone off to reconnoitre, and Ashe’s battery was ordered to pursue. They got as far as the canal, when suddenly came an order for the guns to be brought back, as it looked as if the 53rd and 56th were about to break out. Whether that was so or not, I cannot tell. Anyhow, I know that the 56th went off, and that about half-past nine nearly the whole of the native commissioned officers of the 53rd reported to Sir Hugh that their remonstrances were no good. The men were determined to go. Then the General ordered Ashe’s battery to open fire on them. I don’t see what else he could have done,” added the speaker, in an apologetic tone.

“It was a mistake​—​a horrible mistake!” exclaimed Colonel Waring, with emphasis, “and a mistake for which we may suffer bitterly. The General was misinformed. The men were peacefully occupied in their lines cooking; no signs of mutiny had appeared in their ranks; they had refused all the solicitations of the deserters to accompany them, and seemed quite steadfast, when Ashe’s battery opened fire upon them by Sir Hugh Wheeler’s command, and they were literally driven from us by nine-pounders. It was inexcusable.”

“Well sir, I can’t say anything about that. The officers of the 53rd are certainly all right, and they’ve been ordered to occupy the Artillery Hospital for the present,” said the young fellow.

All that day carts were going and coming, laden with the baggage of those who had taken refuge in the entrenchment. Every now and then a fresh blaze showed where the mutineers had set fire to a bungalow; but up to this time, with the exception of the murderous outrage on the soubadah-major, they had not taken the life of any one​—​certainly of no English person. At least those in the entrenchment were congratulating themselves that this was the case. That very afternoon they were undeceived.

About two o’clock the corpse of a European was brought into the entrenchment in a cart by some natives, and it was at once recognised as that of Mr. Murphy, of the East Indian Railway. The poor fellow had started to go to his bungalow on the railway line, and seeing some mutineers in the distance, shouted for his horse to be brought. He mounted, and galloped towards the entrenchment; but a volley was fired, and he was shot in the back and head.

After this there could be no mistaking the intentions of the mutineers, and within a few minutes the bugle was heard sounding the assembly for a general muster in the open space in front of the thatched barrack. Hither hurried all the men, civil as well as military, every one indeed, within the entrenchment capable of bearing arms. They were divided into sections, and officers appointed, and then arms and ammunition were served out from a pile of weapons brought away from the sepoy lines.

Danger was rapidly approaching, and it was clear that the handful of Englishmen would soon be fighting for their lives, and for the lives of those most dear to them, the news coming that evening that the native artillery attached to Ashe’s Oudh Horse Battery had become mutinous. The men who belonged to this battery, after being disarmed, were turned out of the entrenchment.

Just before night came on sentries were appointed, and the new military part of the garrison who had just been enrolled took their turn in the trenches. Hours of intense anxiety were passed, but nothing happened to cause alarm. All that the sentries had to report was the continual burning of bungalows in every direction.

The next morning was June 7, and great excitement was caused by the arrival of a messenger from the Nana. He was at once taken to General Wheeler. The old General, who spoke Hindustani as fluently as he spoke English, received the man coldly, hardly acknowledging his low salaam. The two presented a remarkable contrast​—​the white-headed, somewhat diminutive (Sir Hugh Wheeler was a little man) English soldier, upright as a dart, and the cringing, dusky Oriental, who happened to be above the average stature of the Hindoo.

“Well?” said the General stiffly, “and what says Seereek Dhoondoo Punth?”

It was significant of the General’s feelings that he no longer used the Nana’s courtesy title but called him by his real name.

“I have a letter from the Maharajah,” said the man, bending low.

General Wheeler broke the seal, and as he read his brows contracted till the white eyebrows stood out stiff and bushy. The man slyly watched the General’s face, and after a long pause, said obsequiously:

“What answer am I to convey to his Highness?”

“There is no answer! Go!” was the stern reply. “Burdon,” he added rapidly, in English, to a young lieutenant who was acting as his secretary, “hurry this fellow away. He may want to delay and spy out our defences. When he is gone, summon all the officers here.”

Within five minutes the General was surrounded by a group of resolute men, every one of whom he could trust to the last drop of their blood.

“Gentlemen,” said Sir Hugh curtly. “I have just received this letter from the Nana, in which he is good enough to express his intention of attacking us at once. You are Englishmen and know what to do. I need say no more.”

“The infamous traitor,” shouted Colonel Waring.

The old General shrugged his shoulders and made no reply. No one had believed more in the honesty of the Nana than General Wheeler. Doubts had been thrown on the fidelity of the Mahratta, and Sir Hugh had even been warned against him; but alas! with no effect.

It was no use wasting time over vain regrets, and the General at once proceeded to discuss the best way of utilising the little force at his disposal. Meanwhile native messengers who could be relied upon were dispatched in hot haste to the cantonments to bring in those officers who had not yet vacated their houses. Not a minute was lost in obeying the order. Goods and chattels of every kind were left to fall a prey to the rebel sepoys and goojurs, who, after appropriating everything they fancied, set fire to the bungalows.

The day was Sunday, and the thoughts of all went to peaceful England. The poor women could in imagination hear the church bells ringing, and tears filled their eyes.

What kind of place was it that these doomed men, women, and children​—​numbering in all about a thousand souls, of whom 225 were women, and 320 children​—​had gathered in for protection? It consisted of two long hospital barracks, one (already mentioned) with a thatched roof, and the other wholly of masonry. They were single-storied buildings, with verandahs running round them, and with the usual outhouses attached. These two buildings were some 120 ft. apart, and between them was a well, the only source of water-supply, wholly unprotected from the fire of the enemy.

The shape of the entrenchment was, roughly speaking, an oblong of about 800 ft. by 500 ft. enclosing the two barracks, and consisted simply of a mud wall, at no place higher than 4 ft., and not even bullet proof at the crest, for the scorching sun had crumbled the surface to powder. The apertures for the artillery exposed both the guns and the gunners, whilst an enemy in the buildings adjacent to the earthworks outside could find ample cover.

Around the entrenchment the guns were placed, three on the north-east and three on the south, to range the plain which separated the officers’ cantonments from the city. A small three-pounder which had been rifled some time before, was also placed in position; but it could only be used for grape, as there was no conical shot in store. In addition, there was Lieutenant Ashe’s half-battery of horse artillery, consisting of two nine-pounders and a twenty-four pounder howitzer. These ten guns were all the artillery which could be brought to the position, and they constituted the garrison’s sole means of defence by artillery, the poor little mud wall being the only bulwark. Ammunition was plentiful, there being in the field magazines two thousand pounds of powder, with ball cartridges and round shot in abundance.

At half-past ten on this day, June 8, the enemy opened fire, and the bugle inside the entrenchment sounded “All hands to arms!” Immediately every man proceeded to the earthworks, and nearly all day, exposed to the hot winds and scorching rays of the fierce Indian sun, awaited the attack of the foe. There was a difference of opinion as to when this attack would come. No one knew if the rebels had any recognised leaders, and without leaders the native troops would not be very eager to try conclusions with their late masters.

“They haven’t got the pluck to come on by themselves,” cried Dick, who with an Enfield was making good practice at the dusky figures moving about, as they imagined, out of range of the rifles.

“That was a good shot of yours, Heron. It’s sent the cowards to the shelter of that building. Look how they’re running! Mind that round shot, it’s coming our way. Move, McQuin,” shouted Colonel Waring to a gunner who was standing close by.

The man evidently saw the shot, but he stood rooted to the spot in a kind of fatal fascination. He could have got away, but he did not attempt to do so, and he was killed instantly. This was the first death within the entrenchment.

As the day advanced, the fire of the enemy grew hotter, and the range better, but only a few balls struck the barracks. But few as they were, they caused the utmost tenor. All through that terrifying day the shrieks of the women and children were heard, and their wailings were at times heart-rending; but after the initiation of the first day, they learned silence, and never uttered a sound, except when groaning from the horrible pain and suffering they had to endure.

No musketry was fired by the sepoys for some hours. The idea evidently was to batter down the earthworks first, and this they thought would not take long. Here they were totally mistaken. They did not know the bulldog tenacity of the British. When night fell, however, incessant volleys of musketry began. Rest was utterly impossible. Waiting the assault supposed to be impending, not a man closed his eyes in sleep, and throughout the whole siege snatches of troubled slumber under the cover of the wall constituted the sole relief the poor weary men could obtain. It was still worse for the women, who, shut up in the stifling barracks, could only endure; and endure they did, with a patience and courage that have rarely been equalled and never surpassed.

When morning broke on the second day, it revealed a terribly painful sight in the groups of jaded women and children, many of them so wan and helpless in appearance as almost to suggest death itself. A few were lying on mattresses, others were on rugs and mats, but many had nothing but the bare boards to rest upon.

Ruth shared her corner with the two ladies and the children already mentioned and, like the others, scarcely slept for five consecutive minutes. Apart from the rattle of muskets, the moaning of the children, who suffered intensely with thirst, was enough to keep her awake. When she saw the little ones, with large, staring, tearful eyes and flushed cheeks, crying vainly for water to cool their parched throats, her heart went out to them in pity.

“I will see what can be done,” said she. “Where is Dhoolah Singh?”

She went in search of this man, who was one of Mrs. Waring’s servants. He was not to be found​—​nor were any of the others. All the servants had slipped away during the night. The commencement of hostilities was sufficient for them.

Thrown on her own resources, Ruth tried to find a water vessel not exhausted, but she failed. All the skins for containing water were empty, and so were the buckets.

“This is terrible!” she said to a tall, stout, good-natured woman named Widdowson, the wife of a private in the 32nd Regiment, who afterwards distinguished herself in a remarkable way. “The poor little dears are parched, and they won’t believe me when I tell them there’s no water.”

“My God!” cried the woman. “They’d be a good deal happier if they were dead. It’s hard to see ’em suffer so.”

“Where’s the well?” asked Ruth suddenly.

“Over yonder, just in front of the barracks​—​worse luck.”

It was about a hundred feet away, and exposed to the fire of the enemy.

“Give me a bucket. I’ll go and get some water.”

“You!” exclaimed the horrified woman. “Why, my dear, good young lady, it’s as much as your life is worth.”

“Some one must do it,” said Ruth desperately.

The woman would have detained her, but Ruth was too quick. Seizing a bucket, she threaded her way amidst the groups of recumbent figures, and reached the verandah. For one instant she paused. With the dawn, the sepoy artillery had reopened fire. The aim was very bad, but this in no way lessened her risk. As Ruth stood hesitating, a round shot passed close to the well. Had she been drawing water at the time, it must have killed her.

Then it occurred to her that the chances were against a shot going over that precise spot a second time, within a few minutes, and without waiting another instant, she dashed forward, and reached the well in safety, returning with a bucket full of water. It was a daring deed, and one she was never permitted to repeat.