Chapter XVI

Why Help did not come to Cawnpore

Meanwhile Colonel Hamilton with his small army of relief, and with Philip Heron attached to his staff, was pushing his way to Benares, the Holy City of the Brahmins, with as much speed as the innumerable obstacles would permit.

The troops travelled along the Grand Trunk Road, which, nine hundred miles in length, runs from Calcutta to Delhi. It is one of the few noteworthy results of the East India Company’s rule, and in parts is a very fine piece of engineering work. The difficulty was the deficiency of traction power. The supply of horses broke down three days after leaving Raneegunge; bullocks were not to be thought of, and it was only by a mixture of persuasion and threats that natives were induced to drag the dâk carriages.

They reached the river Soane, about a hundred miles from Benares, to find that the river was nearly dry, and that to ferry across was impossible. The coolies refused to go any farther, and bullocks had to be hired. Seven mortal hours were spent in crossing the river-bed, the animals occasionally sinking above their knees in the wet sand, and refusing to move.

The native drivers plied the whip remorselessly; they poured out benediction and malediction with equal volubility. The animals were their children, their sons, their brothers, their good uncles, their esteemed brothers-in-law. They were gentlemen; they were pigs; they were princes; they were dogs, and so were their ancestors for several thousands of years. Macintyre cursed them in Gaelic, Major Tim Cassidy addressed them in the vernacular of the Dublin slums. Heron tried the effect of a little of the Turkish slang he had heard used in the Crimea. The bullocks were impervious to all.

“Begorrah, if we only had a Welshman among us now,” exclaimed Cassidy. “I’m tould that there’s no animal breathing can stand being sworn at in Welsh.”

The officers had plenty of time during that intermediate passage of the river to sketch the romantic fortress of Rhotasghur, which, with a grim picturesqueness of its own, stands out a notable landmark on the river-bank; but not one was in the mood for sketching. Vague rumours had reached them from Benares. Neill, it was asserted, had been compelled to stay there instead of pushing on to Cawnpore. The news came from a Company’s agent at one of the refreshment bungalows​—​a solitary instance of a man who had not deserted his post.

These refreshment bungalows had been built by the Indian Government for the accommodation, at fixed rates, of the higher grades of travellers. A bungalow of this kind generally contained two separate suites of apartments​—​a dining, sitting, and bedroom, a dressing- and a bath-room​—​the last not being the least valued by the dusty traveller. The furniture was not more than a bed, a table, two or three chairs, and the bathing-room apparatus. The establishment of servants consisted of a khansuman, or steward, a bearer, a cook, and a sweeper.

But with the exception of the one mentioned, all the refreshment bungalows were desolate. The soldiers ransacked one or two in the hopes of finding something in the larders, but they were literally empty. Not even a chicken, the invariable adjunct of these bungalows in peaceful times, was to be found. The custodians, panic-stricken, had fled. There were other ominous signs of revolt. Bad news must have come from Benares, for the villages along the line of route were peopleless. Tired of the snail-like progress of the bullocks, Colonel Hamilton sent out a foraging party in search of natives to draw the dâk carriages, and, thanks to the high pay offered, this effort was successful.

Philip Heron saw by the appearance of the men that he was really in the North-West Provinces. The natives of the Doab were fine, stalwart fellows​—​very different from the slim and undersized Bengalis. Their clothes, too, were better. In place of the dirty whity-brown rags of the Lower Provinces, they wore coloured garments gracefully adjusted.

The nearer the party got to Benares the more confirmatory was the evidence that the mutiny must have broken out there. Still they could get no definite news. It was not until they saw in the pale light of the dawn the temples and cupolas of the famous Brahminical city that they learnt what had happened.

During the heat of the day the dâk carriages were used. In the early morning and in the evening, until far into the night, the men walked, and so lightened the labour and hastened the progress. Travelling by dâk is a process of locomotion only now to be seen in remote parts of India. A dâk may be described roughly as a large palanquin running on four big wheels. Round the roof is a railing for the more secure accommodation of such luggage as cannot be packed outside. The interior is lined with strong woollen stuff; the dâk carriage is of considerable length, and there is space in it for a great many odds and ends.

Some ten miles from Benares, Heron, with Cassidy and Macintyre, were tramping ahead of the main body, when they saw a horseman cantering along the dusty road, followed by a dozen or so mounted men. The leader shouted, waved his hand, and put his horse to a gallop.

“Hurrah!” he called out heartily, when he was near enough. “Welcome, Ross-shire Buffs! I’m Jim Ellicott, of the ‘Lambs.’”

“Bedad! more tiger than lamb, I’ll go bail,” said Tim. “You may as well know us by name. Here’s Donald Macintyre, the best fellow that ever breathed​—​ye’d say so, too, if you saw Donald with a dhrop of whisky inside of him​—​t’other is Phil Heron, a Balaclava boy; and I’m meself​—​that is, I’m Tim Cassidy, of the 64th. What’s up at Benares?”

“Nothing just now but hanging niggers and burning villages,” rejoined Ellicott, with a grim smile. “We’ve had a sharp time of it; but Neill hasn’t got a tender hand, and the pandies are finding it out.”

“And where’s the Colonel?” asked Macintyre.

“Gone to Allahabad. Started over a fortnight ago with forty-three of the Fusiliers.”

“And has he reached there safely?”

“You bet,” answered Ellicott​—​better known as “big Jim Ellicott”​—​in a confident tone. “If there’s a way to do a thing, John Neill’s the man to find out that way. Mind you, we’ve heard no news of him since he started; but he’s all right, I’ll swear.”

“Eh, man, but is all quiet at Allahabad?” asked Macintyre. “It’s the most important military station on the Ganges, ye see, and the wurrst protected.”

“That’s so,” said Ellicott. “Anyhow, we’d heard that nothing was very wrong when Neill set out; but, to tell you the truth, the sepoys have done their work of interrupting the communications better than usual.”

This was quite true, as Heron afterwards discovered. The telegraph wire between Allahabad and Benares had been cut, and the dâk carriages smashed into fragments by the mutineers. Later on the “lightning dâk,” as the natives called the telegraph, was made use of in a fashion never dreamt of by its original constructors. Some of the more ingenious of the sepoys discovered that the hollow iron posts which supported the wires would make a good substitute for guns, and that the wire cut up in pieces could be fired instead of lead.

“Do you think Neill is making his way to Cawnpore?” said Heron.

Big Jim shrugged his shoulders.

“I should think not. He’s left more than half his force at Benares. What can he do with forty-three men? They can’t spare a man at Allahabad. No; he won’t move a step till we push up from Benares. It’s a good thing you fellows have come; it’ll relieve the work a bit.”

“Have you heard from Cawnpore?” went on Heron anxiously.

“Not a word. How could we? Haven’t I told you that communications have been cut off for nearly three weeks?”

Three weeks! What might not happen in three weeks? The reports already received showed that wherever the rebellion broke out it spread with lightning-like rapidity. It was not a question of days, but of hours. It seemed to Heron of far more importance to push on to Cawnpore than to linger at Benares, where Neill’s stern reprisals had already had their effect.

“Yes, I know,” exclaimed Ellicott impatiently, when Heron pointed this out. “But I can only obey orders. The Colonel’s made me hangman in ordinary, and, by Heaven, I’m doing my duty. What do you think of a row of three gibbets with three ropes to each? Wholesale, isn’t it?” And stern Jim Ellicott rode away to meet Colonel Hamilton and Major Stirling, and left the others to go on towards Benares.

Just as the party had come in view of the famous ghauts, which, the river being low, seemed of a towering height, another officer from Benares, Captain Jervis, met them, and told what had happened during the past fortnight. It seemed that when Neill arrived at Benares, he intended starting with a detachment for Cawnpore on the following afternoon; but shortly before the appointed time, intelligence was received from Lieutenant Palliser (who had been sent to Azimgurrh, fifty-six miles east of Benares, to bring away the treasure there) of an outbreak in this place.

The story was exaggerated, but it had the effect of causing much uneasiness at Benares. Brigadier Ponsonby consulted with Neill, and, doubts being entertained by the brigadier as to the loyalty of the 37th Native Infantry, he proposed that their muskets should be taken from them, leaving them, however, their side-arms. The Sikhs and the 13th Native Infantry, also stationed at Benares, were believed to be staunch. Neill was not in favour of this half-and-half course. He urged immediate and complete disarmament, and eventually the brigadier gave way.

At 5 p.m. Neill was on the ground with 150 of Her Majesty’s 10th, sixty Madras Fusiliers, three guns, and thirty men. At this time no intimation had been received by any officer that the corps was disposed to mutiny. On the contrary, Colonel Spottiswoode, the commanding officer of the 13th, declared that his European non-commissioned staff “observed nothing doubtful in the conduct of the men, but that up to the last moment every man was most obedient and civil to all authorities.”

“What happened exactly,” said Jervis, “I don’t quite know, and I don’t believe anybody else does. It was an awful muddle, that’s all I can tell. Brigadier Ponsonby was attacked with sunstroke, and Colonel Spottiswoode and Colonel Neill did not seem of the same mind; so what with one and what with the other, the sepoys were driven wild with panic. I hope I may never see such a sight again. And the worst of it is, I don’t believe the beggars intended to mutiny. The fact was, we made too much fuss about the disarmament, and they thought we were all in a funk, and intended to shoot the lot.”

“But ye haven’t told us yet what they did, man?” said Macintyre, with the quiet persistency of the Scotchman.

“It was this way. The 37th were drawn up in front of their lines, with the cannon pointed at them. Our fellows were posted within musket range, and the Sikhs and 13th Cavalry within sight. You see, the 37th, finding themselves hemmed in with musketry and artillery, of course thought they were going to be blown to pieces, and all that the officers could do didn’t remove the impression. That was the beginning of the business.”

“And then?” said Heron.

“Well, the men were ordered to put their arms into the little stone buildings which we call kotes, and they obeyed. It was all right up to that time; but when they saw the 10th marching to the kotes to secure the muskets, they went into a sort of frenzy, and made a rush for the kotes. Our fellows ran, too, and it was neck and neck for a time; but somehow the pandies got there first, and then it was like putting a match to a magazine. They opened fire upon their own officers, kneeling and taking deliberate aim. Just think of it! Yet, upon my soul, I believe ten minutes before they hadn’t the slightest intention of doing anything of the kind.”

“They just ran amuck, ye mean?” said Macintyre.

“That’s it. Major Barrett, who thought they had been unfairly treated, shouted that he would remain with them, and share their fate. It made no difference. Their blood was up, and while some fired upon Barrett, others attacked him with their bayonets. The same with the sergeant-major. They were only saved by a guard of faithful sepoys, who got them away. While this was being done, poor Captain Guise, of the 13th Cavalry, was riding across the parade-ground, and fell riddled with bullets.”

“The scoundrelly blaiguards!” cried Tim Cassidy, his moustache bristling. “I knew poor Guise, and, by Heaven, I’ll avenge his death!”

“You needn’t trouble, major,” said Jervis quietly, “his loss has long since been requited in Hindoo blood. Dodgson, who was appointed in Guise’s place, very nearly met the same fate. When he told the troopers he’d been sent to command them, they broke into a low murmur and flashed their swords. ‘God!’ I exclaimed to Ellicott, ‘the cavalry are turning traitors!’ The words were scarcely out of my mouth, when one of the fellows raised a pistol and fired at Dodgson. The bullet grazed the funny-bone of his sword-arm, and his hand dropped as if it were paralysed. Then the rascal who fired the pistol rushed to cut him down; but another man got in the villain’s way, and Dodgson just escaped by the skin of his teeth.”

“But what in the name of Heaven were our men doing all this time?” exclaimed Heron.

“Why, returning the fire of the mutineers. It was a confoundedly unfair fight, for our men were in the open, while the rebels were skulking behind the kotes, and firing from these shelters. But our turn was to come. When the cavalry broke loose, the Sikhs were seized with the contagion, and rushed madly on the guns. Captain Olpherts was ready. He wheeled round his guns splendidly, and poured a shower of grape into the beggars. This staggered ’em a bit, but they came on again with fiendish yells, and this time they were joined by the cavalry and the 37th. R-r-r-rh! went Olpherts’ guns a second time, and this was enough. The sum total was that the 37th were utterly smashed, and the cavalry and the Sikhs frightened out of their wits. The whole lot turned tail and went off.”

“Where to?” said Heron.

“Ah, there’s the worst of it! I’m afraid they’ve gone to Allahabad to spread the rebellion, and from Allahabad they may make a dash for Cawnpore and Lucknow. I call this Benares business most unfortunate. I’m sure it might have been avoided.”

This was indeed disquieting. It was no satisfaction to any one to know that Neill had been flogging and hanging without stint at Benares. If Jervis was right in his opinion that the sepoys at Benares had been forced by misapprehension into mutiny, what a responsibility might rest upon those who had blundered! Yet who could have foretold the appalling consequences of that fatal delay at Benares? The fierce outbreak at Allahabad​—​an outbreak marked by one of the most cold-blooded acts of atrocity that that terrible time could show​—​was perhaps a natural sequel; but no one could conceive the horror of Cawnpore, the dastardly treachery of the Nana, and his still more treacherous lieutenant, Azimoolah Khan.

The little body of troops entered Benares in something like a procession. The European residents turned out to meet them. The natives, who swarmed in the narrow streets, looked sullenly upon the men of the 64th, and wonderingly at the Highlanders. The dress of the latter puzzled them not a little.

In spite of the anxious thoughts which were ever present in his mind, Philip Heron could not help being impressed by the picturesqueness, the wealth of glowing colour, the teeming life of Benares. It was still the early morning when the party reached the interior, yet the city was all astir. They threaded lanes and alleys so narrow that they could hardly force their way through the crowd; high buildings lined these lanes on each side, and, judging from the squalor and filth of the thoroughfares, no one would imagine that these high buildings concealed stately gardens and spacious quadrangles.

Looking from the tall, slender minarets of Aurungzebe’s mosque, the city is seen to spread itself out like a map, divided into sections by thin, tortuous lines. In the broad spaces between the lines are the secluded retreats, hidden by the high buildings and walls bordering the narrow streets. Some of these retreats are remarkably beautiful, surrounded by stone cloisters decorated with a profusion of ornament and flanked by high towers. The smaller ones are laid out in parterres of flowers, with fountains in the centre, and all are tenanted by numerous birds of the brightest plumage.

When passing through the gate leading into the city they heard a sound strange to English ears​—​the voice of a priest calling the muezzin. To Benares, the “Holy City,” come shoals of pilgrims, and crowds of beggars of every description blocked up the entrances to the various sacred buildings. Many of these mendicants were most hideous and repulsive. Maimed and distorted figures, their injuries mostly sell-inflicted, jostled against the visitors, begging for alms. Numbers of these miserable wretches had no covering whatever, except a coating of mud and chalk; while their long, untrimmed beards and hair were matted with filth.

“Begorrah!” exclaimed Cassidy, with a shudder of disgust, “let’s get out of this. Ugh, you beast. Hang me it you’re not too disgusting for even the point of my toe to touch you, or I’d kick you out of the way!” This was to a particularly objectionable fakir, who suddenly protruded an indescribably horrible hand, the nails of which extended inches beyond the finger-tips.

Quarters were assigned to the new-comers, and they were not sorry to sit down in a roomy bungalow to breakfast​—​the first good meal they had had since they had left Calcutta. Of course, they soon fraternised with the officers of Her Majesty’s 10th, and naturally the talk was of nothing but what had happened in the city. Then the all-important question came. Were they to push on to Allahabad, or should they be ordered to remain at Benares? To Heron the decision was of vital moment, and he impatiently awaited the return of Macintyre, who was attending upon Colonel Hamilton. Old “Wattie” and Major Stirling were in conference with Colonel Spottiswoode. Macintyre joined his comrades in the afternoon, and was immediately surrounded. His resolute face was decidedly gloomy.

“We’ve got to stay here, laddies, among the filthy pilgrims. The Fusiliers are moving as rapidly as they can up to Allahabad. We’re to follow them, but not until Havelock arrives.”

“And when will that be?” Heron asked.

No one could say. It was indeed useless at the moment to hazard an opinion upon anything dependent upon time. Fate, with persistent malignancy, seemed to be pursuing the military and civilians shut up in Cawnpore, and everything went wrong.

Thus Colonel Neill with a good portion of his men arrived at Benares on June 3, the day before the Cawnpore sepoys broke out into open mutiny. Neill had intended starting for Cawnpore the afternoon of the day after reaching Benares. Had he done so the horrors of the Cawnpore tragedy would never have occurred.

But for this delay Neill was not in the least to blame. According to the latest news from the doomed city, there did not appear to be any immediate danger. True, on May 27 General Wheeler wrote: “All quiet; but I feel by no means confident it will continue so”; but this was no more than might be expected, and it did not appear to warrant any urgent necessity for pushing on to Cawnpore in view of the unrest at Benares itself, where, as already related, Neill within two days after his arrival had his hands full.

It was strange, in spite of over a century of British rule in India, that we knew so little of the inner workings and life of the native, whether Hindoo or Mahomedan. The rapid transmission of news from village to village, from city to city, was one of the mysteries never solved. There seemed to be a secret mail, but of its mechanism Europeans knew nothing. It is indisputable that outbreaks occurred within a few hours in places many miles distant from each other. One outburst seemed to precipitate a second and a third, yet the intervals of time were so brief as to preclude the possibility of news being conveyed by ordinary means.

The closeness of the dates of the various revolts would indicate something more than a mere coincidence. On May 30 the troops at Lucknow and Bareilly mutinied; on the 31st they broke out at Budaon, and Shahjehanpore. On the 3rd occurred the butchery of the officers and residents at Seetapore; on the 4th the outbreaks at Cawnpore and Benares. On the very day when the “loyal” 6th were murdering their officers at Allahabad the sepoys at Jhansi were revelling in massacre. On that day also Nana Sahib, with a politeness truly fiendish in its irony, intimated by letter to Sir Hugh Wheeler his intention of opening fire upon the entrenchments!

This coincidence of attack argues in favour of a well-thought-out and carefully arranged scheme of rebellion, but of such a scheme there is very little direct evidence. Even allowing there must have been a plan, the details must have been upset by the premature outbreak at Meerut. But excepting at Cawnpore, where the Maharajah had a definite grievance, and had for years been whetting his appetite for vengeance, it is difficult to find a well-founded case of a definite policy on the part of the mutineers. However this may be, it is certain that the rebels when defeated at one place knew well enough where to hasten to assist other revolting centres.

After Neill had done his best to quell disorder at Benares, he had the rising at Allahabad to cope with, and here his difficulties were tremendous. He found that the authorities had done nothing. They had laid in no supplies; they had made no preparation for the transport of troops to Cawnpore and Lucknow, where help was so sorely needed. They had not even attempted to open communication with Cawnpore, and knew nothing of the terrible straits to which the devoted garrison was reduced. Yet Cawnpore was but 120 miles distant, and this fact makes it more poignant to think of the heroism of the men, and the patience and endurance of the women during that ghastly three weeks of bloodshed and terror from the 6th to the 27th, and of that dark and unspeakable tragedy of July 16.

Again we say no fault can be laid at the door of Neill. He worked like a Trojan; and had he known of the state of affairs at Cawnpore, he would have made a dash for the beleaguered garrison, small and inadequate as his force was. When tidings at last reached him he vigorously engaged in preparations for sending a relief force, and he wrote to Sir Henry Lawrence on the 18th, and also on the 23rd, telling him he was about to dispatch immediately 400 Europeans and 300 Sikhs to the assistance of Cawnpore.

Once more the Fates intervened. Cholera broke out in Allahabad. The supply of medicine and medical appliances was, like everything else in the city, very deficient; and when Neill was in a position to make a definite move it was discovered that there were but sixteen dhoolies or litters available, although a considerable number of these was a primary essential for the projected expedition, and that all materials for making others were wanting, as well as workmen. Neill had to telegraph to head-quarters for a supply, and, cruel irony of Fate, the order was given at Calcutta on the very day of the capitulation of Cawnpore!