Chapter XXI

The Last Stand

When morning broke not a sign of pursuit was to be seen, and the poor souls began to indulge in hopes that their merciless enemies had given up the chase. Yet the boat was but a short distance from Cawnpore; for, owing to the absence of proper oars, they had during the whole of the night gone only four miles.

Ruth was lying in a semi-conscious state at the bottom of the boat, with wet rags over her forehead. She was still terribly exhausted, but had revived a little with resting. If only food could be procured, she might yet recover strength.

“Our sole chance of getting something to eat is from a friendly native,” said Major Vibart, “but some of you fellows will have to forage. I’m helpless,” said he, with a melancholy smile.

The gallant officer had been shot through both arms, and indeed there was not one of the men who had not been terribly wounded. Captain Athill Turner had both his legs smashed; Lieutenant Quin was shot through the arm, Captain Seppings through the arm, Lieutenant Harrison was shot dead. With so many disabled​—​for, of course, the privates and non-coms. were in the same condition​—​the boat went along at a snail’s pace, and even then it was only with the greatest care she was prevented from grounding. About eight a.m. one of the soldiers called out that he could see some natives bathing a little distance ahead.

Upon this Captain Thomson spoke to a native drummer who was in the boat, and persuaded him to go and talk with them, and induce them to get some food. The drummer took with Mm five rupees, and came back with the welcome news that one of the bathers had promised to obtain some food, and also, if possible, the help of some native boatmen. The man left his lotah, or cooking-pot, as a guarantee of fidelity, but never returned, and so the hope which had been kindled died away.

This man also gave the drummer some unpleasant information. Orders, so he said, had been sent to Nuzzuffghur, two miles farther, to seize the boat, and that a powerful zemindar, or farmer, on the Oudh side had undertaken to see that not one of the occupants of the boat should leave his territory.

“It’s all up!” exclaimed Captain Whiting despairingly. “Pass me that bottle.”

“What are you going to do?” said a brother officer. The bottle was an empty one, and for the moment he thought Whiting had taken leave of his senses.

“I want to write our last dying speeches and confessions,” said Whiting, with a gloomy attempt at a jest.

Somebody had a scrap of lead pencil, and somebody else had a scrap of paper, and Captain Whiting wrote a brief statement of the position of affairs, and how all hope had been abandoned. Then he added as many names of those who were alive as he could cram into the paper: the bottle was closed up and cast into the river, there to take its chance. What became of it was never known.

Half an hour afterwards some fellows appeared on the bank dragging a small gun. Just as it was pointed the rain poured down in torrents. It was fired only once, and then the men went away. There was no further molestation until sunset, when a hideous shouting and yelling told of the presence of pursuers. About fifty or sixty sepoys were in a boat, which was being rowed by a dozen native rowers. They had come from Cawnpore with orders to destroy the fugitives. So exultant were they at the prospect of murder, that they stood up in the boat, loading the English with abuse, and the rowers, turning round to look at the boat in advance, ran their own craft on to a sandbank. There it stuck.

“Boys,” cried Vibart, “we’ll die fighting. Let us go for them.”

In spite of their exhaustion, all the gallant fellows who could move jumped overboard, and rushing through the shallow water, threw themselves on the grounded boat. In spite of their superiority in numbers and in strength, the sepoys made but a feeble resistance, and when the victorious little band returned, each had killed his man, and more. There was a quantity of ammunition in the boat, and this Vibart appropriated. But, alas! there was no food, and when the poor women asked eagerly if anything to eat had been found, they could only be answered by a mournful shake of the head.

That evening was a terrible one. Again was the boat fast set on a sandbank, and it seemed as if, indeed, the end of their journey had come. Overcome with faintness and weariness, the poor creatures sank down and allowed slumber to seize them, wishing they might never wake again. They were so indifferent and despondent that they did not even post sentries. About midnight came on a terrific hurricane, and two or three of the lightest sleepers were aroused.

“God be thanked!” exclaimed one, “we’re rocking! We must be afloat again.”

And so indeed it proved. But though hopes began to rise, they were dashed when daylight broke.

“Ill-luck pursues us to the bitter end!” cried Vibart. “Do you see where we are, Sinclair?”

“I do indeed,” replied the man addressed. “We’ve drifted out of the navigable channel, and I doubt if we shall ever get back. There, did you hear that?”

A significant grating sound at the bottom of the boat told what had happened. The boat was again stranded, and this time it was not only immovable, but had no chance of being moved, for it was in a small tributary of the Ganges, where the water was low and the current sluggish. Men and women looked at each other in mute despair. What could they do but wait for death?

“And death will come quickly enough,” muttered Vibart savagely between his teeth. “I can see a party of the devils over yonder. It won’t be long before we are discovered.”

He was quite right. With a fierce yell of triumph a score of sepoys, the advance-guard of others, opened fire upon the unprotected boat remaining on the bank, a fixed, immovable target which could not well be missed. But to sit quietly and be shot at is not the way with Britons.

“Thomson,” exclaimed Major Vibart, “take Delafosse, Sergeant Grady, and as many as you can get together, and do your best to drive off the scoundrels. It’s our only chance. We smashed up the others, and we may do the same with these. While you’re gone we’ll try and get the boat afloat.”

Every one seemed to realise that now the last moment had really come. Some of the women shed tears silently; others, with dry eyes, sat staring, vaguely, into space, their faculties dazed and paralysed. In spite of the absence of food, Ruth had gained a little strength. As for her courage it was indomitable.

“Can we not help you, Major Vibart?” she asked.

“What can you do? We can hardly help ourselves, my dear,” said the Major bluntly.

Thomson and Delafosse had gone off on their plucky expedition, and Vibart and a dozen or so more were in the water nearly up to their waists preparing for an effort to move the boat.

“If we cannot fight, we can use our arms in other ways. Let us,” she went on, turning towards the women, “get out of the boat and assist Major Vibart.”

There was something inspiring in Ruth’s voice. It seemed to breathe of steadfastness and hope. It roused the others, and, encouraged by her example, they jumped into the water, and added their efforts, feeble as they were, to those of the men.

Meanwhile Captain Thomson and his comrades, maddened by desperation, charged the crowd of sepoys and drove them back some distance, until they were thoroughly surrounded by a mingled party of natives, armed and unarmed. Cutting and slashing, they forced their way through their foes, received more wounds, but without the loss of a man. The sepoys fled, and the brave fellows turned their faces once more to the boat. Again they were surrounded, and again they fought their way through to the spot where they had landed, only to find the boat gone.

At first they thought it had been moved, and was farther down the stream, and so they ran by the side of the river some little way. But there was no sign of any boat or any indication of any conflict, and there was nothing left but to do the best they could for themselves. So they turned from the river, and never did they set eyes on the boat or its occupants again.

What had happened was this: Captain Mowbray Thomson and his men had not been gone more than ten minutes before a couple of boats were seen coming up from the Ganges into the side-stream, where they were stranded.

“Into the boat, all of you!” called out Vibart.

The poor creatures scrambled back just as a fierce musketry fire was opened. Vibart was killed on the spot, and half a dozen others mortally wounded. One or two tried to fire their muskets, but the torrents of rain had ruined their ammunition. Resistance was useless. The sepoys saw this, and came on with a rush. Surrounded as the little band was, and half dead with fatigue, there was nothing left but surrender. Then the firing ceased. The prisoners were transferred to two other boats, and the one they left was broken up. The pieces floated down the stream into the Ganges, and this is why when Mowbray Thomson returned he could see no sign of the boat.

The fugitives received no ill-usage from their captors, but this was because the latter were anxious to make a good show before the Nana, to whom the poor prisoners were to be delivered, and about a mile from Cawnpore they were landed and placed in carts. It was then July 3. When they arrived at Cawnpore the men were separated from the women, and ordered to be shot. Among the doomed men was Captain Seppings, of the 2nd Cavalry, and a few of his troopers begged as a special favour that his life might be spared.

“No, no,” said the others; “he must be killed.”

They were Mahomedans who said this, and as they uttered these words a crowd collected round Captain Seppings and commenced repeating a Persian verse, the meaning of which was:

“To extinguish the fire and leave the spark, to kill a snake and preserve its young, is not the wisdom of men of sense.”

It was the custom of the Mahomedans when a request was made to spare a male child​—​and many of the natives were desirous of getting some European child to adopt​—​to gather round and chant in a monotone the verse of which the above is a translation. Sometimes they carried their beliefs further. It often happened whenever a Mahomedan found the lifeless body of a European or Christian lying anywhere, he immediately drew out his sword with a “bismillah,” and made a gash in the corpse. This act was considered by them to be equivalent to killing an infidel, and added to their claim for entering Paradise after death.

Not one man received mercy that day. The victims knelt down in prayer​—​the last prayer their mouths would ever utter​—​and a volley of musketry opened upon them. Several were killed at once; those who were not dead were dispatched by the sword.

The poor women sat awaiting their fate, but their time had not yet come. They were ordered to march in the direction taken by their guard, and first their destination was the Servada House, near the place of the massacre. Afterwards they were taken to a small, flat-roofed house, whither the miserable women who had been excepted from the massacre of the boats on June 27 had preceded them. The meeting was a terribly sad one. The poor creatures compared notes, and sad indeed were their stories.

When Ruth saw the wretched hole into which her companions were thrust she shrank back appalled. It was simply an outbuilding divided by a small compound from the bungalow to which it belonged. This outbuilding stands out in the history of the Mutiny as does no other place. It cannot be thought of without a shudder.

It comprised two principal rooms, each about twenty feet long, and ten broad, with four dark closets, rather than rooms, at the corners. These four little prisons were but ten feet long by eight feet wide. They were all very low pitched; the roof was flat, and the doors and windows were all secured by strong wooden bars.

Attached to this building was a brick well, about the distance of forty or fifty feet towards the east, around which grew a number of large, shady trees. Mercifully, the poor creatures did not suspect the use to which this well was afterwards put.

Here in this suffocating place, without even the relief of a punkah, the women were cooped up, and after they had been imprisoned some hours the door opened, and they saw standing on the threshold a native woman, whose eyes were glaring maliciously into the darkness of the interior.