Chapter XVIII

The End of the Siege

Towards the latter part of the siege the guns had to be served by volunteers, the original fifty-nine artillerymen having all been killed or wounded. The guns themselves were terribly battered. One howitzer was completely knocked off its carriage; two had their sides driven in, and a fourth was without a muzzle. At last there were only two which by any ingenuity could be made to carry grape, and these were loaded in a most eccentric manner.

In consequence of the irregularity of the bore of the guns, through the damage inflicted, the canister could not be driven home. But woman’s wit was equal to the necessity. They took off their stockings, and the contents of the canisters were emptied into the stockings, which were thus converted into a species of cartridge, novel but effective.

Every contrivance that experience could suggest, or ingenuity devise, was made use of. A small gun in barrack No. 1 in possession of the enemy, was particularly objectionable to Lieutenant Delafosse, who, being compelled to load his nine-pounder with six-pound shot, could never be sure of his mark. Delafosse did not know what fear was, and whenever the gun was fired, he always jumped upon the heel of the carriage to satisfy himself that his shot had done some damage. Scores and scores of times he showed himself above the wall, but he seemed to bear a charmed life, for he not only surveyed the horrors of the siege, but ultimately escaped. At length the enemy’s little gun exhausted his patience.

“Confound it!” he exclaimed angrily, when for about the thirteenth time his shot went wide of the mark, “I’ll silence that little beast, or be silent myself ever after.”

He gave his worn-out gun a monster charge, consisting of three six-pound shots and a stockingful of grape, all well rammed down. The faithful old gun did not burst, as might reasonably have been expected; the grape went straight to its destination, and the troublesome little antagonist was heard of no more.

But this piece of success was due to skill, and not to good luck. All the good luck went to the rebels, and all the bad to the British. Even the very elements seemed to have a deadly spite against the cooped-up garrison. This year the “hot wind” was of exceptional intensity. At times it was like the continuous blast of a heated furnace, and loaded as it was with a fine irritating dust, the torture, especially to the sick and wounded, was indescribable.

At night every one who was at all capable of moving had to turn out into the trenches. Here they were divided into watches, and did their best to sleep when they were relieved. It seems almost incredible that amid the incessant rattle and thunder of musket and cannon, they could do so, but their fatigue and exhaustion were so great that they no sooner laid down on their hard beds than slumber mercifully came to their rescue. In many instances that slumber was their last, for throughout the night the rebels kept up the bombardment, and the shells continually found their victims.

The morning of June 21 was destined to usher in a most terrible day. The suspicion got abroad that a fierce attack was contemplated, and this suspicion was soon fully confirmed. Shortly after daybreak a vast mob was seen approaching the entrenchment from all sides. They were sepoys from various regiments, dressed in odds and ends of uniforms. A number of Oudh soldiery, once in the service of the deposed King Wazid Ali, ragged ruffians all of them, had joined the rebel forces, and at the lowest computation the enemy was not less than six thousand strong. Among other odd scraps of information, obtained through spies, was one that the leader of this fresh attack, a newly created soubadah-major, had sworn upon the “Ganga Jal” (Ganges water) either to take the entrenchment or die.

The assault commenced with the enemy’s batteries opening simultaneously a tremendous iron storm from all quarters. The attack was the only one where the rebels had a recognised commander​—​the soubadah-major, already mentioned, a man of more than ordinary stature, and of enormous strength. The day is also noteworthy in another respect; the natives went back to primitive modes of battle. Throwing large bales of cotton before them, they lay behind, and endeavoured to advance under cover, about a hundred sepoys succeeding in this way in approaching to within 150 yards of the entrenchment wall. This was intended as a preliminary to the attack, for shortly after the men in the rear of the advance guard, uttering frightful yells, sprang upon the walls, led by the soubadah-major. The attack was a complete failure. At the very first discharge of our musketry the soubadah fell dead, and the rest went no farther.

Shortly after the rout a most daring deed was done by gallant Lieutenant Delafosse. About midday one of the ammunition wagons in the south-east corner was blown up by the enemy’s shell, and whilst it was blazing the rebel batteries opened fire upon it. The men were frightfully exhausted with the morning’s work, and with almost every artilleryman either killed or wounded, assistance was not at hand, and the fire was endangering the other wagons. Delafosse never hesitated a moment. Flinging himself under the burning wagon, he pulled away from it whatever loose timber he could get hold of, meanwhile throwing earth on the flames. He was then joined by two soldiers, who had brought with them a couple of buckets of water which was very dexterously thrown about by the lieutenant, and in spite of the cannonading the fire was extinguished, and Delafosse escaped unhurt.

It was on this day, the 21st, that the last letter sent from the doomed stronghold was written by Major Vibart, and dispatched to Lucknow. He wrote:

“Any aid to be effective must be immediate. In the event of rain falling our position would be untenable. According to telegraphic dispatches received previous to the outbreak, 1,000 Europeans were to have been here on the 14th. This force may be on its way up. Any assistance you can send might co-operate with it. We have lost about a third of our original number. The enemy are strongest in artillery. They move their guns with great difficulty on account of the unbroken hillocks. The infantry are great cowards, and are easily repulsed.”

This brief, comprehensive, soldier-like epistle was dated “Sunday night, 12 p.m.” It does not breathe of surrender; and we may be sure there was no thought of anything of the kind in the mind of the gallant soldier when he penned this last appeal; but ill fortune dogged the hapless men and women. Surrender had to come.

As already mentioned, it has always been thought that June 23, the centenary of the battle of Plassy, was to have been the date of a simultaneous outbreak, had not the rising been hastened by the precipitation shown at Meerut. However this may be, a renewal of the great preparations which had so signally failed on the 21st was intended to mark the date of the 23rd.

Captain Thomson anticipated something of the kind, and he was not surprised when on the night of the 22nd he and his gallant little band in No. 2 barrack were threatened by a storming party from No. 1. The look out could see the sepoys gathering to this position from all parts, and fearing his men would be overpowered by numbers, Thomson sent Dick Heron to Captain Moore for more men.

“Not one can be spared,” was the answer, not unexpected. Shortly afterwards, however, Moore came across with Delafosse.

“Thomson,” said Moore, “I’ve a notion of a new dodge. Suppose we go out into the open, and I give the word of command as though we were heading a party of attack? We might give the niggers a scare and do some damage.”

The idea was approved, and Moore with a sword, and Delafosse and Heron with muskets, forthwith sallied out.

“Number one to the front!” shouted Moore in his loudest tones, “Number two right about. Steady, my lads, and fire at the word of command!”

The effect was electrical. Hundreds of ammunition pouches rattled on the bayonet sheaths as the frightened foes vaulted from the cover afforded by heaps of rubbish, and rushed helter-skelter into the safe quarters presented by the barrack walls. Thomson’s men followed them up with a vigorous salute; and as they did not show fight there was a hearty laugh at the ingenuity which had devised the successful ruse, and the courage with which it had been executed.

Moore was always full of daring. Soon after the burning of the thatched barrack a party, headed by this brave fellow, went out at midnight towards the church compound, where they spiked two or three guns. Then they crept away to the mess-house, killed several of the native gunners, whom they found asleep at their posts, blew up one of the 24-pounders, and spiked another. The pity of it was that this dashing exploit availed the besieged but little, for the next day fresh guns were brought into position, while of Moore’s party engaged in the spiking enterprise one private was killed and four wounded.

All through the night of the 22nd came a series of attacks which were not meant to lead to anything beyond keeping the defenders in a constant state of suspense, and not a man left his post for a second. Toward dawn, when there was a little cessation, Mainwaring, a cavalry cadet, one of Captain Thomson’s pickets, volunteered to keep a sharp look-out with Dick Heron, while their commander took a little rest. Thomson was only too glad of the offer, but had scarcely closed his eyes before Mainwaring shouted:

“Here they come!”

The assailants advanced close up to the doorway of No. 2 barrack, which had no door, but was protected by a line of brickwork about breast high. Never had the enemy shown so much pluck. No doubt they relied upon the besieged being utterly exhausted. They were soon undeceived. Mainwaring’s revolver dispatched two or three; Dick was equally lucky; Stirling, with his unerring Enfield, shot one and bayoneted another, and Thomson emptied his double-barrelled gun, and not in vain. The men inside the barrack numbered seventeen, and the enemy left eighteen corpses outside when they retreated.

While the barrack was being attacked a determined onslaught was made upon the entrenchment. The sepoys swarmed like flies. They surrounded the wall on all sides, and in every style of uniform, together with horse and bullock batteries of field artillery sent out as skirmishers. Their attack was ruined by their ignorance. They did not know what to do with their forces. Their cavalry started at once for the charge, but whether through their impetuosity or the incompetence of their leader, the troopers came all the way at a hurried gallop, so that when they reached the entrenchment their horses were winded: a round of artillery threw their ranks into hopeless confusion, and all who did not bite the dust wheeled round and went off helter-skelter.

This day was intended to bring the siege to an end. The men had started with the idea of killing every soul or dying in the attempt. Oaths of solemnity had been taken; but all their vows came to nought so soon as one of the British batteries lodged a charge in their midst.

About three o’clock in the afternoon, the sting of the attack of the enemy having been thoroughly taken out, the firing of the pickets of the outside barracks abated. Indeed, for two hours the rebels scarcely fired a shot, and the defenders were much puzzled by their inactivity. Dick Heron was for the time being the look-out man in the crow’s nest erected by Captain Thomson in No. 2 barrack. Suddenly he shouted:

“There’s a woman coming across!”

One of the pickets thought she was a spy, and would have shot her, but Captain Thomson knocked down his arm and saved her life. The woman had a child at her breast, but was so imperfectly clothed as to be without shoes and stockings. Captain Thomson lifted her over the barricade in a fainting condition, and to his amazement recognised her as Mrs. Greenway, a member of a wealthy family who had resided at Cawnpore.

Mrs. Greenway was the widow of the proprietor of the Cawnpore Gazette. The family, on the appearance of the Mutiny, fled to Nuzzuffghur, where they had a factory, in the belief that their own villagers would be quite able to protect them from any serious injury. These precautions were, however, utterly useless, as they fell into the Nana’s hands. One of the members of this family paid the Nana three lacs of rupees if he would spare the lives of the entire household: the unprincipled monster took the ransom, but murdered all the Greenways, as already related, with the exception of the aged lady who so unexpectedly appeared to Captain Thomson.

The poor woman was in a fainting condition when she arrived, and it was some time before she could speak. When she was able to do so, she handed Captain Thomson a letter with this superscription:

“To the Subjects of Her Most Gracious Majesty Queen Victoria.”

Captain Thomson opened the letter and read the following: “All those who are in no way connected with the acts of Lord Dalhousie, and are willing to lay down their arms shall receive a safe passage to Allahabad.”

He handed the letter to General Wheeler.

“We cannot recognise this,” said the old General. “There’s no signature attached. The writing is clearly Azimoolah’s, but that’s not enough. It may be a ruse.”

There was ample cause for General Wheeler’s suspicions. Only a few days before, great excitement was caused by the arrival in the entrenchment of a native spy, who came in the garb of a bhistee, or water-carrier. This fellow declared himself to be a friend, and said he had brought good news. And good news indeed it would have been had it been true.

“Two companies of European soldiers are on the other side of the river,” said he. “They have brought a couple of guns from Lucknow, and they are about to cross the Ganges. To-morrow you will see them.”

A present was made him, and he was sent out to get more particulars. The next day he came again and told General Wheeler that the European soldiers were prevented crossing the stream by the rising of the river, but that they were constructing rafts, and might be looked for in a day or two.

The tidings spread, and lighted some flickering rays of hope, even in the bosoms of the most despairing, although there were not a few who doubted the man’s story, for the rainy season, though near at hand, had not commenced, and how could the river rise? Time proved they were right. Days rolled on, and the delusion was dispelled like the mirage. This pretended friend was in fact one of the Nana’s spies, and the tidings he conveyed back of the pitiable condition of the defenders must have caused the eyes of his atrocious employer to gleam with malignant joy.

While Mrs. Greenway was on her mission, the guns of the rebel batteries remained inactive, and in a little time the lady was safely brought from the barracks to General Wheeler’s quarters. In spite of her age, her courage was unabated.

“This paper is not signed, Mrs. Greenway,” said the General. “How can we act upon it?”

“It was given me by Azimoolah Khan. I will take it back to him and tell him what you say,” replied the old lady undauntedly.

“No, no; it is too terrible a risk. The scoundrel, out of mere spite, may kill you.”

“I am not afraid of death​—​I have been too near it so many times,” said the brave woman. “Give me the paper, and let me go.”

General Wheeler grasped Mrs. Greenway’s hand, and Captain Moore and Captain Whiting escorted her to the entrenchment wall. Here a white flag was hoisted, and the anxious men watched her disappear into the mutineers’ camp.

When she was gone, the message from the Nana was the only subject upon which the poor creatures could think or talk. The men, wasted spectres as they were, preferred taking their chance, and, as a last resource, cutting their way through, when the remains of their miserable fortification no longer afforded them any protection. But how could they leave the women and children?

On the other hand, it was certain that, unless help arrived within a couple of days or so, they must, if they remained within the entrenchments, inevitably be slaughtered. There was also another calamity shadowing them​—​the rainy season. The cooped-up defenders dreaded nothing so much as the setting in of the rain, which was expected daily. In the first place, the holes dug in the trenches for the protection of the women and children would be filled up. In the second place, the barracks, which, though thoroughly riddled, still afforded some shelter, would be in danger of coming down, for the soddened walls would no longer hold together. Then, again, the muskets would be rendered useless, for there were a great many of them, and the men were quite unable to clean them all. Lastly, there was the mud wall itself. A few tropical showers would wash it away.

While Mrs. Greenway was gone, General Wheeler consulted with his officers how to act. He was reluctant to surrender, and so were the younger officers, but Captain Moore took a different view. No one could question Captain Moore’s courage, much less his fortitude, and what he said undoubtedly had great weight. Besides, he was the very life and breath of the beleaguered band, and had sustained them many a time when they were tempted to despair.

“Think of the women,” said he, his voice vibrating with emotion. “Are they not almost maddened by suffering? At least half of our fighting force are gone. Of our fifty-nine artillery men, not six remain. What hope is there for us?”

The argument was irresistible.

“Very well,” said Sir Hugh slowly, after a pause. “What must be, must. If Mrs. Greenway returns with a properly signed message, we will treat with the Nana.”

In evening Mrs. Greenway returned with another letter, and this was taken to the General.

“Impossible!” he exclaimed, knitting his white brows. “The Nana requires us to evacuate the entrenchments to-night.”

An answer was returned to the effect that the departure must be delayed until the morrow, upon which came back a peremptory message, that the Nana had made up his mind, and that if there were any hesitation on the part of Sir Hugh Wheeler he would open fire once more. He added that he was fully acquainted with the impoverishment of the garrison, and that he knew their guns were shattered. Moore refused to be intimidated. He replied that he was not afraid of the sepoys entering the entrenchments, as the latter had always been beaten back, but if they did succeed, there were men ready at the magazine to blow up the defenders and the enemy. This argument convinced the Nana. He agreed to wait until the following morning.

The preliminaries settled, the General, Moore and the other officers, arranged the terms of the treaty. They ran thus: “That the garrison should give up their guns, ammunition, and treasure; should be allowed to carry their muskets and sixty rounds of cartridges with them; that the Nana should provide carriages for the sick, wounded, women, and children, to the river’s bank, where boats should be in readiness to convey all to Allahabad.”

The next morning two men were seen coming from the Nana’s camp. One of the men was Juwallah Pershawd, brigadier of the Nana’s cavalry, and the other was Azimoolah Khan. Juwallah was one of the Nana’s retinue, and was Azimoolah’s confidential ally. When they reached a distance of about 200 yards from Captain Thomson’s barracks, they made signs, and Captain Moore went to meet them, and brought them into the barracks. They were followed by some of the Mussulman troopers of the 32nd Light Cavalry.

“Shall we talk in English, Captain Moore?” asked Azimoolah Khan, in silky tones.

“As you please,” returned Moore, coldly.

At this the troopers began to murmur. They did not understand English, so they said. Accordingly, the negotiations were conducted in Hindustani, and Azimoolah finally departed with the treaty. The same afternoon the document came back unsigned, accompanied by the verbal message that the Nana agreed to the terms. Sir Hugh Wheeler, however, insisted upon the Nana’s signature being affixed, and Mr. Todd, a civilian, volunteered to take the document to the Secundah Kothi, the Nana’s head-quarters. In half an hour he came back, reporting that he had been courteously received, and that the Nana had signed the treaty without hesitation.

Then the preparations for the evacuation began, and the poor creatures who had suffered such tortures, both mental and bodily, felt that at last the black pall which had enshrouded them for so long was about to be lifted. They were allowed to walk freely out of the entrenchments; and that evening, and before sunset, the shattered guns which had worked such fearful havoc among the rebels were handed over to the Nana, and a company of native artillery stood over them the whole night​—​men who had been in the service of the Company, and who had been drilled at these very guns.

A committee of three was appointed to go down to the ghaut to see if the boats were in readiness, and all the necessary preparations made, and in their exchange three native officials were sent as hostages. Among them was Juwallah Pershawd. He was taken to Sir Hugh Wheeler, and in a smooth voice began to express his sympathy at seeing him, at his time of life, and a general officer, too, in such a sad condition.

“You need not trouble yourself concerning me,” said the General curtly.

Sir Hugh was sitting in the shadow of the barracks. His daughters and his wife and Ruth were with him. It went to his heart to see the native artillery men standing guard over the guns which had done such good service; but the brave old man scorned to betray his feelings before the Nana’s envoys. His face was like flint. The obsequious Oriental bowed deferentially, and without noticing the rebuff, went on to say that he should take special care no harm came to him.

“Or to the mem-sahibs either,” he added, his dark, treacherous eyes resting for a moment on the women.

Finding Sir Hugh indisposed to talk, the man rose after a while, and as he passed Ruth stopped for a moment, and looked fixedly at her.

“You are Miss Ruth Armitage?” said he suddenly, and in perfect English.

“And what then?” answered the girl.

“You, at least, have nothing to fear,” said he, dropping his voice to a whisper. “That is Azimoolah’s message of peace to you.”

“Azimoolah is nothing to me,” retorted Ruth, her pallid face a little flushed.

“Aha!” smiled the man, “we will see!”

The terrible scenes Ruth had gone through, the absence of rest, the want of food, and continual strain on the nerves, had not weakened the girl’s spirit. Flashing a look of scorn at the obsequious Juwallah, she left him and went in search of Colonel Waring, who had that morning been stricken down by a slight attack of sunstroke, and had been taken to the apology for a hospital. Now that the firing had ceased, the remains of the thatched barrack could be utilised, and here the old man had been conveyed.

For the first time for three weeks Ruth was able to cross from one barrack to the other without the risk of being shot. Round the well, to reach which so many men had sacrificed life and limb, was clustered a thirsty group. Never did nectar taste so delicious as those draughts of water, cloudy though it was with the bricks and mortar disturbed by shot and shell and precipitated into the spring. The poor people never seemed able to drink their fill, and down went the buckets times out of number that day.

As Ruth reached the shattered verandah she met one of the surgeons coming out of the doorway.

“How is Colonel Waring, Dr. Sargeant?” she inquired anxiously.

The surgeon took her hand in his, and looked kindly and pityingly in her eyes.

“Colonel Waring is more fortunate than the rest of us. He is at peace, Miss Armitage.”

“Dead?” she cried.

The surgeon bowed his head.

“I don’t think we should mourn his fate,” said he gently.

“No, no,” she repeated hurriedly. “No one here can wish for life, and yet we struggle for it.”

She tried to speak calmly, but the effort was beyond her strength. She leant against the support of the verandah, and covering her face with her hands, wept bitterly. The surgeon gazed at her with tender sympathy in his grave eyes, and moved softly away. What could he do to cheer or comfort her?

But it was not so much grief at the death of the brave old colonel which so oppressed her. He was past all human suffering now, and was really to be envied. It was the horrible sense of being utterly desolate and forlorn which filled her with dark despair. What was to be her own fate? That was the terrible problem ever before her eyes.