Chapter XIX

A Sad Exodus

It was now June 26, and the following day was appointed for the departure. The firing had ceased on June 24, and it was wonderful to see what a change had already taken place in the look of the poor creatures. Worn and emaciated and weak they were still, but they had been able to wash~~the first time since the guns of Nana Sahib opened fire on the 6th of June. Some had managed to secure a change of clothes, but most of them wore their old tattered garments. As for food, there was no variation save a double ration of chupatties and dhal. Captain Moore disdained to ask the enemy for assistance in this direction, and none was proffered.

Ruth met the daughters of General Wheeler just outside the barracks. The two girls were greatly attached to each other, and their devotion to their father and mother throughout the siege never slackened. The prospect of a speedy release had put them in good spirits.

“We ought to be at Allahabad within a week!” exclaimed the eldest. “It will be terribly hot on the river, but I shall not mind that in the joy of getting free from this dreadful place!”

“Aren’t you glad, Ruth?” said her sister.

“Yes, indeed. If only poor Colonel Waring had lived——”

“Ah, he is gone then!” said the girl gently, but in no way surprised. They were so used to hear of deaths.

“Yes,” answered Ruth in a dull, stunned way.

“I am so sorry for you, dear. You will keep with us, won’t you?”

“Oh, yes.”

“We leave here to-morrow. You know that, Ruth, of course. The committee went down to the river this morning, and we expect them back before sunset,” said Miss Wheeler.

Captain Athill Turner and Lieutenants Delafosse and Good were the committee appointed to inspect the arrangements made by the Nana for the reception of the British. They proceeded to the ghauts attended by an escort of native cavalry, and examined the boats. Forty craft were moored off the bank, and the committee saw nothing to excite their suspicions.

Some of these boats were open, and others were roofed, some with wood and others with thatch. Those which were open were in course of being roofed​—​a very important matter, as to travel under the rays of the fierce sun would simply mean death to the men and women already exhausted by fatigue and starvation. They were about thirty feet long and twelve broad, and were ordinary up-country craft. On board some of the boats provisions were being conveyed, and the coolies were apparently working with zeal. How could the committee tell that when their backs were turned all these stores would be taken ashore again?

The officers finished their inspection and prepared to return to the entrenchment. The banks were lined with sepoys, mostly belonging to the 50th Native Infantry, and the three Englishmen could not help noticing the sinister expression on the faces of many.

“Did you hear that?” suddenly asked Captain Turner of Lieutenant Good.

“Hear what?”

“What that man said. I am sure the word was kuttle” (massacre).

Good listened, but without appearing to do so. He, too, heard the ominous word spread like a low hiss from man to man.

“You’re quite right,” returned Good. “I don’t like it. We must keep a sharp look-out, though what we can do now Heaven alone knows!”

The committee reported to Sir Hugh Wheeler and Captain Moore the result of their visit, and also mentioned what they had heard. To neither the General nor to his second in command did it convey anything sinister. The men might have been talking about some other massacre.

“I hope it is so,” said Captain Turner, “but I have my doubts.”

“Whether or not,” said Sir Hugh Wheeler, “we can only depend on our muskets. Our guns are gone.”

The poor General sighed, and no wonder. To surrender artillery is the bitterest sacrifice a General can make. Yet what else could he do? Meanwhile the rebels had been greatly concerned at the delay in the departure of the garrison. They said:

“Now that the Europeans have washed and dressed, and have had time to rest, they will not go away at all. They have held out so long now they will be able to hold out longer.”

But the cause of the delay was not the fault of the English, who were only too anxious to take their departure. No one knew, no one suspected, that Bala Rao, Nana Sahib’s brother, and Azimoolah Khan were then deliberating over an act of fiendish treachery and that they required time to mature their plans. Even the sepoys were not aware of this, and it was to satisfy them that the guns and the treasure were taken away on the morning of the 26th.

The three officers, on leaving General Wheeler, were surrounded by the ladies, anxious to know their opinion as to the state of affairs.

“Do you think it will be all right to-morrow?” asked Mrs. Ewart.

“I have no reason to think otherwise,” said Captain Turner, guardedly.

He did not say anything about overhearing the word “kuttle.”

“But will they really let us go down to Allahabad in safety?” asked Ruth.

Somehow she had a presentiment that they had not seen the last of their terrible trials.

“I hope so​—​I really believe so,” answered Turner.

And with this the poor things had to be satisfied.

That was the last night they spent in the entrenchment, and they slept soundly​—​oh, so soundly! The stillness, in contrast to the continual uproar to which they had been subjected, seemed unnatural. The silence was profound, oppressive​—​ominous.

Yet it did not pass without one interruption. Juwallah Pershawd had caused a strong guard of cavalry and infantry to be placed all round, with the plausible excuse of guarding the place​—​though, in reality, it was done to prevent the possibility of any one escaping during the night. Suddenly a musket shot from No. 1 barrack awoke the echoes. It was enough for the enemy. They immediately opened fire on the entrenchment. The force within stood perfectly quiet, and never returned a shot. In spite of all they had gone through, their faculties were completely under command. They knew that the least piece of rashness on their part would convert the men outside into savages. Meanwhile, Juwallah went to the barrack, and discovered the cause. A sleepy sepoy had dropped his musket, and it had gone off. Explanations were sent, and after this all was quiet again.

From this time to dawn the only sounds which broke the stillness were the growling of the jackals and the shrieks of the vultures and adjutant birds. Every night these scavengers of the earth had been on the watch, but the noise of the guns kept them at a distance. Now they were permitted to ravage undisturbed.

Early in the morning of Saturday June 27 all was astir. The evacuation was to commence at six; and though many of the women and children had to be awakened, not one grudged the loss of sleep, though they had to be roused forcibly, so heavy was their slumber.

At sunrise a number of carts, palanquins, dhoolies, and elephants arrived. They had been sent by the Nana for the transport of the women, the sick, and the wounded. The elephant generally used by General Wheeler, with its howdah and driver, was brought and was occupied by Lady Wheeler and her two daughters and Ruth Armitage, while the General, not feeling disposed to look conspicuous, rode on horseback.

Slowly the party filed out between the ranks of sepoys who looked on​—​with what thoughts, who can tell? Over a thousand souls were shut up within on June 4; not more than 450 came out on the 27th. All the rest had perished.

It was a truly sad spectacle. That noble little band, worn to shadows, had, for twenty long days, in the hottest season of the year, kept at bay a blood-thirsty foe to be numbered by thousands; their sole defence a low wall, barely four feet high, with a shallow ditch, not worthy the name of an entrenchment. They had yielded not through any submission of their will or weakness of their brave hearts, but out of compassion to the weak and to the helpless, and with the vain hope of shortening suffering.

Slowly and painfully the procession toiled along. Many of the women had brought with them little articles of property, some intrinsically worthless, others of considerable value, but all endeared by memorials of love to the various owners. Tattered and torn, weak and wounded, they hastened on with eager steps and beating hearts to the cruel fate awaiting them, all unconscious of the base treachery which was being planned by Azimoolah Khan and Bala Rao, with or without the consent of the Nana.

The whole of the rebel army had assembled to see the English depart, and no sooner was the last man out than, with a fiendish yell, they rushed into the entrenchment, swarming in crowd after crowd, till nearly 8,000 men were jostling each other within the mud wall. They were eager for loot, but very little worth taking did they find in the skeleton barracks. In the hurry of departure, and for want of sufficient carriages, some twelve helpless patients were left behind, not with the intention of being abandoned, but to be sent for as soon as the dhoolies could be spared. These hapless creatures were dragged out into the centre of the entrenchment, and after being abused and mocked, were cruelly butchered.

Meanwhile the sepoys outside urged on the fugitives with encouraging cries.

“Come to the boats! All is ready!” they shouted.

The able-bodied men loaded themselves with as much ammunition as they could carry, and walked down indiscriminately after the advance guard. This guard consisted of some men of the 32nd, led by the brave Captain Moore. The women and children were put on the elephants and into bullock carts, while the sick and disabled were conveyed in the dhoolies and palanquins. Never, surely, was there such an emaciated, ghostly party of human beings.

Soon the waters of the Ganges could be seen gleaming in the distance. The tops of the roofed boats were also visible, and, gladdened by the sight, the poor creatures hastened onwards. Happy, perhaps, were they that the future was a sealed book. Could they have pictured what was to take place within the next few hours, what indescribable mental torture would have been theirs!