That these were of a perplexing nature was evident from his movements. Allowing his eyes to resume their ordinary aspect, he looked round him with a troubled expression, while his fingers played slowly with the loose earth that still covered his legs. Then he shook his head, after that he scratched it, and put on his fez, which had fallen off. Finding, apparently, that meditation was of no avail, he finally heaved a deep sigh, rose, shook off the dust, picked up his rifle and marched away.
He had not gone far when he came upon Lancey, who, having fled with such haste that he could scarcely breathe, had been fain to lie down and rest for a few minutes. Hearing a step behind him, he started up. One glance sufficed. The dead Turk again! With another horrific howl he plunged headlong into the nearest thicket and disappeared.
A humorous smile stole over the features of Ali Bobo as he began to understand the situation. He searched the thicket, but his late companion was not to be found. Continuing his march, therefore, he travelled all night. Next morning he found his detachment, and introduced himself to his friend Eskiwin, whose astonishment, I need scarcely say, was great, but his joy was greater.
Ali Bobo's wounds turned out after all to be slight, and were not permitted by him to interfere long with his service in the field.
LANCEY GETS EMBROILED IN TROUBLES, AND SEES SOME PECULIAR SERVICE.
Meanwhile Jacob Lancey, impressed with the belief that the Turkish detachment had taken to the mountains, travelled as rapidly as possible in that direction.
Next morning at daybreak he found himself so thoroughly exhausted as to be unable to proceed. With difficulty he climbed a neighbouring eminence, which, being clear of bushes, gave him a view of the country around. There was a small village, or hamlet, within a stone's throw of him. The sight revived his drooping spirits. He descended to it at once, but found no one stirring—not even a dog. Perceiving a small outhouse with its door ajar, he went to it and peeped in. There were a few bundles of straw in a corner. The temptation was irresistible. He entered, flung himself on the straw, and fell sound asleep almost immediately.
The sun was shining high in the heavens when he was awakened by a rude shake. He started up and found himself in the rough grasp of a Bulgarian peasant.
Lancey, although mentally and morally a man of peace, was physically pugnacious. He grappled at once with the Bulgarian, and being, as we have said, a powerful fellow, soon had him on his back with a hand compressing his windpipe, and a knee thrust into his stomach. It would certainly have fared ill with the Bulgarian that day if a villager had not been attracted to the hut by the noise of the scuffle. Seeing how matters stood, he uttered a shout which brought on the scene three more villagers, who at once overwhelmed Lancey, bound him, and led him before the chief man of the place.
This chief man was a Turk with a very black beard. Lancey of course expected to receive severe punishment without trial. But, on hearing that he had merely attacked a Bulgarian, the Turk seemed rather inclined to favour the prisoner than otherwise. At all events, after ascertaining that he could not communicate with him by any known language, he sent him to his kitchen to obtain a meal, and afterwards allowed him to depart, to the evident indignation of the Bulgarian and his friends, who did not, however, dare to show their feelings.
For some time Lancey wandered about endeavouring to make friends with the people, but without success. As the day advanced, the men, and most of the women, went to work in the fields. Feeling that he had not obtained nearly enough of sleep, our wanderer took an opportunity of slipping into another outhouse, where he climbed into an empty loft. There was a small hole in the loft near the floor. As he lay down and pillowed his head on a beam, he found that he could see the greater part of the village through the hole, but this fact had barely reached his brain, when he had again fallen into the heavy slumber of an exhausted man.
His next awakening was caused by shouts and cries. He raised himself on one elbow and looked out of his hole. A large body of Russian soldiers had entered the village, and were welcomed with wild joy by the Bulgarians, while the Turkish inhabitants—those of them who had not been able or willing to leave—remained quiet, but polite. The column halted. The men swarmed about the place and "requisitioned," as the phrase goes, whatever they wanted—that is, they took what they chose from the people, whether they were willing or not. To do them justice, they paid for it, though in most cases the payment was too little.
There was a good deal of noisy demonstration, and some rough treatment of the inhabitants on the part of those who had come to deliver them, but beyond being "cleaned out," and an insufficient equivalent left in money, they were not greatly the worse of this visit from the regulars.
The loft where Lancey had ensconced himself did not attract attention. He felt, therefore, comparatively safe, and, while he watched the doings of the soldiery, opened his wallet and made a hearty meal on the debris of his rations.
Before he had finished it the trumpets sounded, the troops fell in, and the column left the place.
Then occurred a scene which astonished him not a little. No sooner were the troops out of sight than the Bulgarian population, rising en masse, fell upon their Turkish brethren and maltreated them terribly. They did not, indeed, murder them, but they pillaged and burned some of their houses, and behaved altogether in a wild and savage manner. Lancey could not understand it. Perhaps if he had known that these Bulgarians had, for many years, suffered horrible oppression and contemptuous treatment from the Turks under whose misrule they lay, he might have felt less surprise, though he might not have justified the act of revenge. If it be true that the worm turns on the foot that crushes it, surely it is no matter of wonder that human beings, who have long been debased, defrauded, and demoralised, should turn and bite somewhat savagely when opportunity offers!
It had occurred to Lancey, when the Russians had arrived, that it would be well for him to descend and join these troops, so as to get out of his present predicament; but, remembering that he had actually accepted service with the Turks, and that, being clothed in a semi-Turkish costume, he might be taken for a spy, he resolved to remain where he was. The riot in the village after the Russian column had left confirmed him in his intention to remain quiet.
"Your wisest plan, Jacob," he soliloquised, "is to 'old on and bide your time. Don't 'urry yourself on any account."
Scarcely had he made this resolve when, looking through his hole of observation, he observed a body of spearmen galloping along the road that led to the village. The inhabitants also observed them with some anxiety, for by that time they had come to know the difference between regular and irregular troops.
The horsemen proved to be Cossacks. The Bulgarians, of course, regarded them as friends. They formed a portion of the army of deliverers from Turkish misrule. As such they were received with cheers. The cheers were returned heartily—in some cases mingled with laughter—by the gay cavaliers, who had also come to make "requisitions." Their mode of proceeding, however, was quite different from that of their "regular" brethren. Leaping from their saddles, they set about the business without delay. Some went to the fields and cut grain for fodder. Others entered the houses and carried off victuals and wine, while many chased and caught pigs and poultry.
They were evidently in a hurry. So much so, that they had no time to put off in making payment! It was obviously to be regarded as an outstanding debt against them by the villagers. As the rear-guard passed out of the place, the corporal in command observed a fat young pig in the middle of a by-road. He turned aside sharply, charged, picked the pig neatly up on the point of his lance, and galloped after his friends, accompanied by a tune that would have done credit to a Scotch bagpipe.
All this did Lancey see from his secret point of observation, and deeply did his philosophic mind moralise on what he saw.
The village in which he had sought shelter was in the very heart of the district swept by the wave of war. The panorama of incidents commenced to move again at an early hour.
When morning light had just begun to conquer night, Lancey was once more awakened from a refreshing sleep by a noise in the room below. He looked down and saw an old, old woman, with bent form, tottering step, and wrinkled brow. She was searching for something which, evidently, she could not find. Scraping various things, however, and tasting the ends of her thin fingers, suggested that she was in search of food. Lancey was a sympathetic soul. The old woman's visage reminded him of his own mother—dead and gone for many a day, but fresh and beautiful as ever in the memory of her son.
He descended at once. The old woman had flung herself down in despair in a corner of the hovel. Lancey quickly emptied the remnants of food in his wallet into her lap.
It would have saddened you, reader, to have seen the way in which that poor old thing hungrily munched a mouthful of the broken victuals without asking questions, though she glanced her gratitude out of a pair of large black eyes, while she tied up the remainder in a kerchief with trembling haste.
"No doubt," soliloquised Lancey, as he sat on a stool and watched her, "you were a pretty gal once, an' somebody loved you."
It did not occur to Lancey, for his philosophy was not deep, that she might have been loved more than "once," even although she had not been a "pretty gal;" neither did it occur to him—for he did not know—that she was loved still by an old, old man in a neighbouring hut, whose supper had been carried off by the Cossacks, and whose welfare had induced her to go out in search of food.
While the two were thus engaged their attention was attracted by a noise outside. Hastening to the door Lancey peeped out and beheld a band of Bashi-Bazouks galloping up the road. The Turks of the village began to hold up their heads again, for they regarded these as friends, but scant was the courtesy they received from them. To dismount and pillage, and to slay where the smallest opposition was offered, seemed the order of the day with these miscreants. For some time none of them came near to the hut where Lancey and the old woman were concealed, as it stood in an out-of-the-way corner and escaped notice.
While the robbers were busy, a wild cheer, accompanied by shots and cries, was heard some distance along the road. The Bashi-Bazouks heard it and fled. A few minutes later Lancey saw Turkish soldiers running into the village in scattered groups, but stopping to fire as they ran, like men who fight while they retreat. Immediately after there was a rush of men, and a column of Turkish infantry occupied the village in force. They were evidently hard pressed, for the men ran and acted with that quick nervous energy which denotes imminent danger.
They swarmed into the houses, dashed open the windows, knocked out loop-holes in the walls, and kept up a furious fusillade, while whistling balls came back in reply, and laid many of them low.
One party of Turks at last made a rush to the hut where Lancey sat with the old woman. There was no weapon of any sort in the hut, and as Lancey's arms had been taken from him when he was captured, he deemed it the wisest policy to sit still.
Leaping in with a rush, the Turks shut and barred the door. They saw Lancey, but had evidently no time to waste on him. The window-frame was dashed out with rifle-butts, and quick firing was commenced by some, while others made loop-holes in the mud walls with their bayonets. Bullets came pinging through the window and brought down masses of plaster from the walls. Suddenly a terrible yell rang in the little room, and the commander of the party, raising both hands above him, dropped his sword and fell with a terrible crash. He put a hand to his side and writhed on the floor in agony, while blood flowed copiously from his wound. The poor fellow's pain lasted but a moment or two. His head fell back suddenly, and the face became ashy pale, while his glaring eyeballs were transfixed in death.
No notice was taken of this except by a man who sat down on the floor beside his dead commander, to bandage his own wounded arm. Before he had finished his task, a shout from his comrades told that danger approached. Immediately the whole party rushed out of the hut by a back door. At the same instant the front door was burst open, and a soldier leaped in.
It was evident to Lancey that, in the midst of smoke and turmoil, a mistake had been made, for the man who appeared was not a Russian but a Turk. He was followed by several companions.
Casting a savage piercing look on Lancey, and apparently not feeling sure, from his appearance, whether he was friend or foe, the man presented his rifle and fired. The ball grazed Lancey's chest, and entering the forehead of the old woman scattered her brains on the wall.
For one moment Lancey stood horror-struck, then uttered a roar of rage, rose like a giant in his wrath, and seized a rifle which had been dropped by one of the fugitive soldiers. In an instant the bayonet was deep in the chest of his adversary. Wrenching it out, he swung the rile round and brought the butt down on the skull of the man behind, which it crushed in like an egg-shell. Staggered by the fury of the onslaught, those in rear shrank back. Lancey charged them, and drove them out pell-mell. Finding the bayonet in his way, he wrenched it off, and, clubbing the rifle, laid about him with it as if it had been a walking-cane.
There can be no question that insanity bestows temporary and almost supernatural power. Lancey was for the time insane. Every sweep of the rifle stretched a man on the ground. There was a wavering band of Turks around him. The cheers of victorious Russians were ringing in their ears. Bullets were whizzing, and men were falling. Shelter was urgently needful. Little wonder, then, that one tall sturdy madman should drive a whole company before him. The Russians saw him as they came on, and cheered encouragingly. He replied with savage laughter and in another moment the Turks were flying before him in all directions.
Then Lancey stopped, let the butt of his rifle drop, leaned against the corner of a burning house, and drew his left hand across his brow. Some passing Russians clapped him on the back and cheered as they ran on to continue the bloody work of ameliorating the condition of the Bulgarian Christians.
Nearly the whole village was in flames by that time. From the windows of every house that could yet be held, a continuous fire was kept up. The Russians replied to it from the streets, rushing, in little bands, from point to point, where shelter could be found, so as to escape from the withering shower of lead. Daring men, with apparently charmed lives, ran straight up in the face of the enemy, sending death in advance of them as they ran. Others, piling brushwood on a cart, pushed the mass before them, for the double purpose of sheltering themselves and of conveying combustibles to the door of the chief house of the town, to which most of the inhabitants, with a company of Turks, had retired.
But the brushwood proved a poor defence, for many of those who stooped behind it, as they ran, suddenly collapsed and dropped, as men are wont to do when hit in the brain. Still, a few were left to push the cart forward. Smoke disconcerted the aim of the defenders to some extent, and terror helped to make the firing wild and non-effective.
Against the town-house of the village some of the Russians had already drawn themselves up so flat and close that the defenders at the windows could not cover them with their rifles. These ran out ever and anon to fire a shot, and returned to reload. Meanwhile the brushwood was applied to the door and set on fire, amid yells of fiendish joy.
Lancey had followed the crowd almost mechanically. He had no enemy—no object. The Turk, as it happened, was, for the time being, his friend.
The Muscovite was not, and never had been, his foe. After the first deadly burst of his fury on seeing the innocent old woman massacred had passed, his rage lost all point. But he could not calm his quivering nerves or check the fierce flow of his boiling blood. Onward he went with the shouting, cheering, yelling, and cursing crowd of soldiery, his clothes cut in many places with bullets, though flesh and bone were spared.
Close to the town-house stood the dwelling of the Turk who had released him, and shown him hospitality when he was seized by the inhabitants. The door of the house was being burst open by clubbed rifles. The memory of a "helping hand," however slight, was sufficient to give direction to the rage of the madman, for such he still undoubtedly was at the moment—like many another man who had become sane enough the following day when the muster-roll was called.
Up to that moment he had been drifting before the gale. He now seized the helm of his rage, and, upsetting two or three of the men who stood in his way, soon drew near to the front. As he came forward the door gave way. A tremendous discharge of fire-arms laid low every man in advance; but of what avail is it to slay hundreds when thousands press on in rear?
Lancey sprang over the dead and was met by the points of half a dozen bayonets,—the foremost man being his deliverer with the black beard.
Grounding his rifle with a crash, and holding up his left hand, he shouted—"A friend!"
At the same moment he was thrown down and leaped over by the soldiers behind, who were stabbed by the Turks and fell on him. But Lancey staggered again to his feet, and using his superior strength to push aside and crush through those in front, he gained an empty passage before the others did, and rushed along towards a door at the end of it.
Opening the door and entering he was arrested by the sight of a beautiful Turkish girl, who stood gazing at him in horror. Before he had time to speak or act, a door at the other end of the room opened, and the Turk with the black beard entered sword in hand. The girl rushed into his arms, with a cry of joy. But this was changed into alarm as the Turk flung her off and ran at Lancey.
There was no time for explanation. The Russians were already heard coming along the passage by which he had reached the apartment. Lancey felt intuitively that a brave man would not stab him in the back. Instead of defending himself he dropped his rifle, turned, and hastily shut and bolted the door, then, turning towards the Turk, held aloft his unarmed hands. The Turk was quick to understand. He nodded, and assisted his ally to barricade the door with furniture, so that no one could force a passage for a considerable time. Then they ran to the other door, which had not yet been menaced. They were almost too late, for shouts and tramping feet were heard approaching.
Lancey caught up his rifle, stepped out of the room, shut the door, and, locking it on the Turk and his daughter, commenced to pace calmly up and down in front of it like a sentinel. Another moment and the Russians rushed up, but halted and looked surprised on beholding a sentinel there, who did not even condescend to stop in his slow measured march, or to bring his arms to the charge to stop them.
One of them advanced to the door, but Lancey grasped his waist with one hand, gently, almost remonstratively, and shook his head. As the man persisted, Lancey gave him a throw which was peculiarly Cornish in its character—he slewed his hip round under the Russian's groin and hurled him back heels over head amongst his comrades, after which feat he resumed the sedate march of a sentinel.
By this time he had been recognised as the man who had routed a whole Turkish company, and was greeted with a laugh and a loud cheer, as the men turned away and ran to effect some other work of destruction.
"Now, my fine fellow," said Lancey, opening the door and entering. "You'll 'ave to defend yourself, for I'm neither a friend o' the Turk nor the Rooshian. They're fools, if not worse, both of 'em, in my opinion; but one good turn desarves another, so now you an' I are quits. Adoo!"
Hurrying out of the house, Lancey picked up a Russian cap and greatcoat as he ran, and put them on, having a vague perception that they might help to prevent his being made prisoner.
He was right. At all events, in the confusion of the moment, he passed through the village, and escaped unnoticed into a neighbouring thicket, whence he succeeded in retiring altogether beyond the range of the assailed position.
IN WHICH SOME DESPERATE ENTERPRISES ARE UNDERTAKEN.
At this time the Russians had taken up a strong position in the Balkan mountain range, and entrenched themselves within a short distance of the enemy.
After a night and a day of aimless wandering, Jacob Lancey found himself at last in a rocky defile between the hostile lines. How he got there he could not tell, but there he was, in a position of imminent danger, with the sentinels of the belligerent armies on either side of him.
Evening was setting in when he made this discovery, and recoiled, happily without having been seen, into a narrow rocky place where the fast-failing light had already deepened into gloom. A cold white fog was slowly creeping up from the valleys and covering the hill-sides.
It is in such places and circumstances that men conceive and execute designs, which, according to their nature, are deeds of recklessness or of heroism. Two such ventures were afoot that night.
In the Russian camp preparations were being made for a night attack on a village in possession of the Turks, and out of which, with a view to future movements, it was deemed necessary to drive them. In this village there dwelt a youth, an intimate friend of Dobri Petroff. The two had played with each other in childhood, had roamed about the country together in boyhood, and, when they reached man's estate, had become faster friends than ever, being bound by the ties of intellectual as well as physical sympathy. When this friend, Petko Borronow, left Yenilik at the death of his mother, it was to take charge of the little farm in the Balkan mountains,—the desolate home where his sister Giuana, an invalid, and a beautiful girl, was now left in solitude.
In his capacity of scout, Petroff was always in the neighbourhood of headquarters, and was frequently summoned to the tent of the general commanding, to be interrogated. Thus he chanced to overhear occasional remarks and hints which, when pieced together by his intelligent mind, showed him pretty clearly what was pending.
He sat by the camp-fire that night, buried in meditation, with a series of troubled wrinkles on a brow that was usually open and unclouded. Many a time did he light his pipe and forget to smoke it, and relight it, and again let it die out, until his comrades were impressed by his absence of mind. Well did the scout know by that time the certain fate of a village which was to be fought for by contending armies. To warn his friend Borronow in time to remove his sister from the doomed village became to the scout a duty which must be performed at all hazards, but how to do this without deserting his post, and appearing to go over to the enemy, was the difficulty.
"Something troubles you," said his young friend Andre Vanovitch, who had for some time sat smoking quietly at his side, gazing into the fire, and thinking, no doubt, of the girl with the auburn hair, far away in the land of the Muscove.
"Yes, I'm troubled about friends," was the scout's laconic answer.
"Oh! they're all right, you may be sure, now that our fellows have crossed the Danube in such force," said Andre, supposing that the other referred to his family.
"Perhaps!" returned Petroff, and relapsed into silence.
Suddenly it occurred to him that he had overheard some expression among the officers around the General of a desire to know more particularly about the disposition of the Turkish force, and the suggestion that a spy should be sent out. His brow cleared at once; with almost a triumphant look on his countenance, he turned sharply to Andre, and seized his arm.
"Well, Dobri," said the latter, with a smile and look of surprise, "I have had perfect faith in the strength of your grip without requiring positive proof."
"Listen," said the scout earnestly. "I have a job to do, and a risk to run."
"That is obvious to every one in the division," returned Andre, with a touch of the smile still curling his young moustache.
"Ay, but I mean a private job, and a great risk—the risk of being shot as a traitor or a spy, and I want you, Andre, to clear my character with the Russians if it fares ill with me."
Petroff's unwonted energy of action and earnestness of look and tone produced their effect on the young dragoon. He listened intently while his friend told him of his intended plan.
"But why go into the enemy's lines without permission?" objected Andre. "Why risk being thought a deserter when you have only to go and ask leave? It seems to me they would be only too glad to accept your services as a spy."
"I'm not certain that they would accept them," replied the scout, with a return of the perplexed look; "and if they chanced to refuse leave, my case would be hopeless, because I could not and would not dare to act in opposition to positive orders; whereas, if I go off without leave, I shall only be blamed for undertaking a foolish or reckless act; that is, if I return in safety. If I don't return at all, it won't matter what is said or done, but I should count on you, Andre, explaining that I did not desert."
"But," returned Andre, "if you merely go to warn and save your friends, I think the General won't think much of your spying."
"You do me injustice, lad," said Petroff quietly. "I shall enter the enemy's lines as a real spy. I will visit every point of his position, ascertain the number of his troops, count his guns, and bring in such information as will make the General wink, I hope, at my having acted without orders. It would please me better to go with permission, but I cannot allow the lives of my friends to hang upon the chance humour of a Russian general. You must remember, Andre, that I am not a Russian soldier, and may therefore take upon me to exercise a little more personal liberty than you can. Why, you know," continued the scout, with a touch of humour in his glance, as he rose and made some preliminary preparations, "I might refuse to lead you Russians, or might lead you to your destruction."
"You would be shot if you did," returned the dragoon quietly.
"And what if I am willing to be shot in a good cause? I should be no greater hero than every man in your armies. But now, Andre, one more shake of your hand. We may never meet again, and I won't part without saying I've taken a fancy to you."
"God knows I can truly say the same to you," cried Andre, leaping up with enthusiasm, and seizing the scout's hand with a grasp as powerful as his own.
"And don't be angry," added Petroff, in a gentle tone, as he tightened his belt, "if I again urge you to keep the locket always in remembrance. You're not likely ever to forget the auburn hair, but you may, lad, you may, for there is no perfection in this world, and soldiering is a dangerous life."
Andre smiled half-contemptuously. He felt that the advice was needless. Petroff also smiled kindly, for he knew that it might be needful.
Neither of these men was very deeply impressed with the fact that keeping before the mental eye the Maker of the "auburn hair," and of all other blessed human influences, was a better and safer refuge. But what matter? Does not our Creator in all His dealings make use of means? Does He not lead us step by step from a lower to a higher level? There are no ready-made human angels in this life, male or female, with full-grown wings to bear them over the troubles of earth to a state of sudden sanctification. We are in a rebel world, and, when lifted from the pit by a Saviour's hand, the steps by which the Spirit of God leads us upwards are numerous as well as varied, including sometimes—I write without irreverence—such footholds as "auburn hair."
Disguised as a Bulgarian rustic, Dobri Petroff left the Russian camp, passed the outposts, and, under cover of the fog, gained the neutral ground between the two armies.
Of course the sentries on both sides were numerous as well as vigilant— especially so on such a night. It therefore behoved him to advance with extreme caution. Creeping from mound to rock, and bush to knoll, he reached a small clump of bushes, into which he entered for the purpose of resting a few minutes and considering well his future movements.
A thrill of excitement ran through his frame when he discovered that he was not alone in this thicket. A man sat there leaning against a tree as if asleep. The scout crouched and drew a revolver. A moment sufficed to show that his arrival had not been observed. No wonder, for his approach had been like that of a cat! He was now in great perplexity. The man was evidently not a sentinel of either belligerent—that was plain, but it was equally plain that he was armed. To shoot him would be impossible without putting the sentries of both sides on the alert. To pass him in so small a thicket, without attracting attention, would be difficult. To draw back would necessitate a long detour, involving loss of precious time and increase of risk. A thought occurred to him. Many a time had he hunted among these mountains, and well accustomed was he to glide with serpentine caution towards his game. He would stalk him! Petroff seldom thought twice in cases of emergency. He unbuckled his sword quietly and hung it on a branch, and leant his carbine against a tree, resolving to trust to his great personal strength alone, for he did not mean to sacrifice life if he could avoid it. In case of being driven to extremity, his knife and revolver would suffice.
Then, sinking down until he became lost among the deep shadows of bush and brake, he began the slow, laborious, and silent process of gliding towards his unconscious victim.
This was one of those ventures to which we have referred as being afoot on that foggy night. The other venture had some points of similarity to it, though the end in view was different.
Let us turn aside for a little to the Turkish camp.
There, round one of the watch-fires, a considerable distance to the rear, stood a group of Turkish soldiers chatting and smoking. Although not so noisy as the Russians round their camp-fires, these Turks were by no means taciturn. There was a touch, now and then, of dry humour in the remarks of some, and a sedate chuckle occasionally. Among them stood Eskiwin and his resuscitated friend Ali Bobo. The latter, although not naturally boastful, had been so nettled by a big comrade underrating his courage and muscular power, in regard to which latter he, Bobo, was rather vain, that he vowed he would prove both by going to the front and bringing in, single-handed, a live Russian sentinel!
The big comrade laughed contemptuously, whereupon Ali Bobo rose to carry out his threat, but was warned by his mates of the danger of being shot by his own commander for going on such an errand without leave. Bobo replied that his captain would forgive him when he presented his Russian prisoner. As it was clear that the angry little man was in earnest, his friend Eskiwin vowed he would go with him, and the big comrade agreed to regard the deed as a sufficient proof of Ali Bobo's strength and prowess if a Russian should be brought in by the two of them. Bobo would have preferred to go alone, but Eskiwin would take no denial.
Accordingly the two adventurous fellows went off and were soon lost in the fog. In a short time they reached the front, and began to move with excessive caution in order to pass their own sentries unobserved.
Ali Bobo, it must be remarked, had not originated this idea of stalking sentinels. Some Albanians in the army had already done so with great success; but these ferocious murderers had done it for the mere pleasure of killing their enemies, without any other end in view. Their method was to creep towards a wearied sentinel, which they did with comparative ease, being expert mountaineers. Each man on reaching his victim sprang on him from behind, clapped a hand on his mouth, crushed his neck, after the manner of garrotters, with his strong left arm, and drawing a long keen knife thrust it into his heart.
But our adventurers had no such murderous design as this. To capture a live Russian was their aim.
The front reached, and the Turkish line of sentries safely passed in the fog, they came unexpectedly on two Russian horsemen who were cautiously riding towards the Turkish lines. These horsemen were Sergeant Gotsuchakoff and Corporal Shoveloff. They had been visiting the outposts, and, before returning, were making a little private reconnaissance of the enemy's disposition, for Gotsuchakoff and Shoveloff were enthusiasts in their way, and fond of adventure.
The ground at the spot being much broken, and affording facility for concealment, especially to men on foot, Eskiwin and Ali Bobo crept unseen upon a low cliff, and lay down behind a mass of rocks.
The Russians chanced to select the same spot as a point of observation, but, instead of riding to the top of the eminence, where they would have been rather conspicuous, they rode under the cliff and halted just below,—not far distant from the spot where the Turks lay, so that Eskiwin, craning his long neck over the rocks, could look down on the helmets of the Russian cavaliers.
For some minutes the sergeant and corporal conversed in whispers. This was exceedingly tantalising to the friends above! The hiss of their voices could be distinctly heard. Eskiwin's long arm could almost have reached them with a lance. Presently the corporal rode slowly away, became dim in the fog, and finally disappeared, while the sergeant remained immoveable like an equestrian statue.
"This," whispered Ali Bobo solemnly, "is more than I can stand."
Eskiwin whispered in reply that he would have to stand it whether he could or not.
Bobo didn't agree with him (not an unusual condition of mind with friends). He looked round. A huge stone lay at his elbow. It seemed to have been placed there on purpose. He rose very slowly, lifted the stone, held it in a position which is familiar to Scotch Highlanders, and hurled it with tremendous force down on the head of Sergeant Gotsuchakoff.
The sergeant bowed to circumstances. Without even a cry, he tumbled off his horse and laid his helmet in the dust.
The Turks leaped down, seized him in their powerful arms, and carried him away, while the frightened horse bolted. It followed, probably, an animal instinct, and made for the Russian lines.
The corporal chanced to return at that moment. The Turks dropped their burden and lay flat down beside it. Seeing that his friend was gone, and hearing the clatter of his retreating charger, Corporal Shoveloff put spurs to his steed and followed.
The Turks then rose, tied the legs of the sergeant with his own sword-belt, lest he should recover inopportunely, and bore him to a neighbouring thicket which loomed darkly through the fog.
"Fate smiles upon us," whispered Ali Bobo, as the comrades entered the bushes and laid their burden down.
If Bobo had known that he had laid that burden down within ten yards of the spot where Dobri Petroff was preparing, as I have described, to stalk the figure he had discovered in the same thicket, he might have recalled the sentiment in reference to Fate. But Bobo did not know.
Suddenly, however, he discovered the figure that Petroff was stalking. It was leaning against a tree. He pointed it out to Eskiwin, while the scout, interrupted in his plans, sank into darkness and watched the result with much curiosity and some impatience.
Just then the figure roused itself with a heavy sigh, looked sleepily round, and, remarking in an undertone, "It's an 'orrible sitooation," turned itself into a more comfortable position and dropped off again with another sigh.
But Ali Bobo did not allow it to enjoy repose. He glided forward, and, with a spring like that of a cat, laid his hand upon its mouth and threw it violently to the ground. With the aid of Eskiwin he pinned it, and then proceeded to gag it.
All this Dobri Petroff observed with much interest, not unmingled with concern, for he perceived that the new-comers were Turks, and did not like the idea of seeing a man murdered before his eyes. But the thought of his friend Petko Borronow, and what he had at stake, restrained him from action. He was however at once relieved by observing that, while the short Turk kneeled on the prisoner's chest and kept his mouth covered, so as to prevent his crying out, the tall Turk quickly tied his legs and hands. It was thus clear that immediate death was not intended.
The scout's interest, to say nothing of surprise, was increased by what followed. When the short Turk, pointing a revolver at the prisoner's head, removed his hand so as to admit of speech, that prisoner's first utterance was an exclamation of astonishment in tones which were familiar to Petroff's ear. This was followed by exclamations of recognition from the Turks, and the short man seizing one of victim's tied hands shook it warmly.
At that moment the scout's eyes were opened still wider with amazement, for the unfortunate Sergeant Gotsuchakoff—who, as I have said, had been laid down a few yards from him, and whom he had almost forgotten—began to recover consciousness and growled something in an undertone about its being "far too soon to turn out."
Petroff recognised the well-known growl of the sergeant. In an instant he glided to his side, laid his hand on his mouth, and whispered—
"Gotsuchakoff, be still for your life! I am Dobri Petroff. Do you understand?"
He looked close to the sergeant's eyes, and saw that he was understood. At once he removed his hand, and untied the belt which fastened the sergeant's feet.
Gotsuchakoff was too well used to war's alarms to give way to unreasonable curiosity. He instantly perceived that the scout required of him the utmost circumspection for some reason or other, and, in the spirit of a true soldier, awaited orders in total silence, ready for prompt action.
This was well, because there was little time to spare. When Petroff directed the sergeant's attention to the Turks they were busy undoing the bonds of their prisoner.
Without saying another word, the scout glided swiftly forward. He was promptly followed by the sergeant. Next moment both men leaped on the Turks and had them by their throats.
Eskiwin was no match for Gotsuchakoff, who bore him back and held him like a vice. As for Ali Bobo, strong though he was, he felt himself to be a perfect baby in the grasp of the scout. The two men submitted at once, and while Petroff ordered them in a low tone to keep silence, enforcing the order with the touch of a revolver's muzzle, the sergeant quickly bound their arms behind them.
The scout turned to the prisoner, who was sitting on the ground with eyes dilated to the uttermost, and mouth wide open. He sat perfectly speechless.
There was just light enough to make darkness visible. Petroff looked close in to the face of the man whom he had been about to stalk.
"Lancey!" he exclaimed.
"Dobri Peterhuff," gasped the other.
"Why, where did you come from?" asked the scout in Turkish, which he was aware Lancey had been attempting to learn.
"Dobri, my friend," replied the other solemnly, in English, "if this is a dream, it is the most houtrageous dream that I've 'ad since I was a babby. But I'm used to 'em now—only I do wish it was morning."
The scout smiled, not because of what was said, which of course he did not understand, but because of the Englishman's expression. But time pressed; too much had already been lost. He therefore contented himself by giving Lancey a friendly slap on the shoulder and turned to the sergeant.
"Gotsuchakoff," said he, "I'm out on special service, and have already been delayed too long. This man," pointing to Lancey, "is an Englishman and a friend—remember that. The others are Turks. You know what to do with them. I cannot help you, but you won't need help."
"Just so," replied Gotsuchakoff, with an intelligent nod, "only lend a hand to tie them together and then be off about your business."
"Lancey," said Ali Bobo, while the operation was being performed, "zat big Bulgar beast he say you's his friend."
"Big he is, a beast he's not, and a friend he was," replied Lancey, with a dazed look.
Further conversation was cut short by the sergeant ordering the trio to move on. He led them towards the Russian lines by a cord passed round Bobo's neck, and carried a revolver in his right hand. Dobri Petroff immediately disappeared in the opposite direction.
At a later hour that night he entered the cottage of young Borronow. Giuana, Petko's sister, reclined on a rude but comfortable couch. She was singularly pretty and innocent-looking, but very delicate and young. Her friends called her Formosa Giuana or Pretty Jane. Petko had been seated beside her, talking about the war, when his friend entered with a quick stealthy motion and laid a hand on his shoulder.
"Dobri!" exclaimed the youth.
"Petko, there is danger at hand. Mischief is in the air. Time is precious. I may not say what it is, but you know me—I am not easily alarmed. You must promise me to quit this village with your sister within one hour."
"But, Dobri, why?—what?—"
"Petko, no questions. More than that, no remarks," interrupted the scout earnestly and firmly. "Another time I will explain. At present I ask you to trust, believe, and obey your friend. If you would save your life and that of Giuana leave this village within an hour. Go where you will, but leave it."
"I will both trust and obey you, Dobri," said Petko, returning the squeeze of his friend's hand, which he had not yet let go.
"I said that time pressed, Petko; God be with you! Farewell."
The scout turned, stooped to kiss Giuana on her pale cheek, and before either could utter another word was gone.
By midnight Dobri Petroff had made his rounds—now as a carter gruffly and clumsily driving a cart and horse of which he had managed to possess himself; anon as a stupid countryman belonging to the village on the height, noisily wanting to know why the Turks had robbed him of the said cart and horse, which he had conveniently tipped over a precipice, and vowing that he would carry his complaint against the army to the Sultan himself; once he was fain to act the part of a drunk man, almost incapable of taking care of himself.
During his perambulations he ran frequent risk of being shot by irascible Bashi-Bazouks or wearied Albanians; was more than once looked on with suspicion, and frequently suffered rough treatment, but he acted his part well. Nothing could draw from him a word or look beyond average intelligence.
No indignity could rouse him to more than the warfare of abuse, and the result was that long before dawn he found himself once more close to the front.
But fortune seemed inclined to fail him here. He was creeping cautiously among a heap of rocks when a sentinel of the advanced line of the Turks discovered and challenged him. Petroff knew well that escape by running would be impossible, for he was only six yards distant. He made therefore no reply, but sank on the ground, keeping his eye, however, sharply on the advancing sentinel. His only cause of anxiety was that the Turk might fire at him, in which case his doom would have been sealed. The Turk, however, preferred to advance and thrust his bayonet into him.
Petroff had calculated on and was prepared for this. He caught the bayonet and checked its progress between his ribs. Another moment and the Turk lay on his back with the stock of his own rifle broken over his skull. The scuffle had attracted the next sentry, who ran to his comrade's assistance. The scout instantly made the best use of his legs. He was as fleet as a mountain deer, but the rifle-ball was fleeter. He felt a sharp pain in his left arm, and almost fell. The alarm was given. Sentries on both sides fired, and another bullet grazed his temple, causing blood to flow freely down his face. Still he ran steadily on, and in a few minutes was safe within the Russian lines.
He was seized, of course, by those who first met him, and, not being known to them, was at once carried before a captain of dragoons, who knew him.
By the captain he was sent to the tent of the General—the younger Skobeleff,—to whom he related the important information which he had obtained at so great risk.
"Thank you, my fine fellow," said the General, when Petroff had finished; "you have done good service—are you badly wounded?"
"No—nothing worth mentioning," replied the scout, but as he spoke a feeling of giddiness oppressed him. He fainted and fell as he left the General's tent, and was carried on a stretcher to the rear.
Before the grey dawn had dissipated the mists of morning, the village on the height was fought for, lost, and won; its dwellings were reduced to ashes, and those of its inhabitants who had escaped massacre were scattered like sheep among the gorges of their native hills; but Petko and Giuana Borronow were safe—at least for the time—with a kinsman, among the higher heights of the Balkan range.
TREATS OF ONE OF OUR GREAT IRONCLADS.
While these stirring events were taking place among the mountains, I had made arrangements to quit the hospitals at Sistova and proceed with a detachment of Russian troops to the front.
The evening before my departure I received a most unexpected and interesting letter from my friend U. Biquitous, the effects of which were so surprising, and I may add unparalleled, that I cannot forbear quoting it. After a few of those sage reflections in which Biquitous is prone to indulge, he went on to say:—
"You will be surprised to hear that there is some probability of my meeting you shortly, as I have become a special correspondent, like yourself. My paper, however, is an illustrated one, an Irish weekly of some merit, named the Evergreen Isle, which will now, it is expected, advance to the front rank of such periodicals. I purpose using the pencil as well as the pen, and, unlike you, and subject to no restrictions of any kind. I have carte-blanche, in fact, to draw what I like, write what I please, go where I feel inclined, stay as long as I may, and quit when I must. Veracity is no object. I am told to keep as many servants and as large a retinue as I find convenient, and to spare no expense. For the duties of this situation I am to receive no salary, but am at liberty to pay my own expenses. The honour of the thing is deemed more than sufficient compensation.
"In virtue of this appointment I went recently to see and take notes of Her Majesty's famous ironclad turret-ship, the Thunderer. Knowing how much you are interested in the navy of England, I will relate a little of what I saw, premising, how ever, that although strict veracity is not required of me, I am, as you know, a man of principle, and therefore impose it on myself, so that whatever I say in this letter in regard to this splendid man-of-war may be relied on as absolutely true.
"Well, then, the gallant captain of the Thunderer, who is said to be one of the best disciplinarians in the service, and to have done many a deed of daring in the course of his adventurous career, received me very kindly. He is every inch a sailor, and as there are full seventy-three inches of him, I may be excused for styling him a splendid specimen. In consequence of my being a friend of a friend of his, the captain invited me to spend several days on board. During my stay I inhabited the captain's 'fighting cabin,'—and this, by the way, reminds me that I was introduced to a young lieutenant on board, named Firebrand, who says he met you not long ago at Portsmouth, and mortally offended your mother by talking to her about the Thunderer's crinoline! The 'fighting cabin' is so styled because it may be inhabited in safety while the ship is in action, being within the ship's tremendous armour plating. In times of peace the captain occupies a large handsome cabin on the deck, which, although made of iron capable of resisting winds and waves, and beautifully furnished, is nevertheless liable to be swept bodily into the sea if hit by the giant shot of modern days. A corresponding cabin on the port side of the ship constitutes the ward-room. This also might be blown to atoms, with the officers and all their belongings, if a shell were to drop into it. But the officers also have places of refuge below while in action.
"A large proportion of what meets the eye above the water-line of this ironclad, and looks solid enough, is of this comparatively flimsy build; not meant to resist shot or shell; willing, as it were, to be blown away, if the enemy can manage it, though proof against rifle-bullets. There is a huge central erection, styled the 'flying' or 'hurricane' deck, from which enormous davits project with several boats pendent therefrom. Out of this flying structure rise the great iron mast—with a staircase inside leading to the 'top'—and the two smoke-funnels of the engines. In the heart of it rises 'the fighting tower,' an armoured core, as it were, from which the captain and officers may survey the aspect of affairs while fighting, steer, and, by means of electricity, etcetera, work the monster guns of the ship. If all the flimsy work about the vessel were blown into the sea, her vitality would not be affected, though her aspect would indeed be mightily changed for the worse, but the Thunderer in her entirety, with her low-armoured hull, her central fighting-tower, her invulnerable turrets with their two 35-ton and two 38-ton guns, and all her armament and men, would still be there, as able and ready for action as ever.
"Very simply yet very tastefully arranged did the captain's fighting cabin seem to me as I lay down on its narrow but comfortable bed, the first night of my visit, and looked around me. Besides a commodious little chest of drawers, there were on one wall telescopes, swords, and naval caps; on another a compact library. Above my head, stretching diagonally across the bed, was an object which caused me no little surprise and much speculation. In appearance it resembled a giant flute with finger holes that no man of mortal mould could have covered. Not till next morning did I discover that this tube was part of a system of air-distributing pipes, supplied by fanners worked by steam, whereby fresh air is driven to every part of the vessel.
"'So,' said I to myself, turning to the prettily-painted wall at my side, and giving it a slight tap, 'the proverbial two-inch plank between me and death is here increased to somewhere about thirty inches.'
"In this soliloquy I referred to the Thunderer's armour-plates, of from ten to twelve inches thick, which are affixed to a timber backing of eighteen inches in two layers. With such a backing of solid comfort between me and 'death,' I felt soothed, and dropped asleep.
"It was Saturday night. On Sunday morning I was awakened by a rushing of water so furious that I fancied the sea must have proved more than a match for the 12-inch armour and 18-inch backing; but a moment or two of attentive reflection relieved me. Your friend Firebrand's voice was audible. I listened. He muttered something, and yawned vociferously, then muttered again—'Splend—propns—a—yi—a—ou!'
"'Splendid proportions!' he resumed again, after a pause, during which the rush of water became more alarming, sundry gasps and much hard breathing being mingled with it,—'Mag-nificent,' continued Firebrand in the low calm tone of a contemplative connoisseur; 'couldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it. Quite Herculean!'
"From all this I came gradually to understand that some of the officers were performing their morning ablutions with sponge and towel, while Firebrand was looking languidly over the edge of his hammock, indulging in a critical commentary.
"Just then I was surprised to hear a muffled thunderous bang! It was the big drum, and, next moment, the ship's band announced itself with a single bar, excellently played, of 'God Save the Queen.'
"Every Sunday, I found, was begun by a careful and minute inspection of the crew and ship. After breakfast the captain, followed by all his chief officers, went through every hole and corner of the mighty iron fabric. I followed in his wake. At first the thought did not occur to me, but after all was over it struck me that this act was somewhat appropriate to the day. The great Thunderer had, as it were, gone into a condition of introspection.
"It was a species of self-examination on the part of the great war-ship, through the medium of its mind—the captain. Here was the father of a tremendously large family going the rounds on Sunday morning to observe whether his moral precepts and personal example during the week had been attended with appropriate results—to see that his 'boys' were neat and clean, and ready for church, and that they had arranged their rooms before breakfast.
"First of all, the men were mustered (by bugle) on the upper deck,— marines on one side, blue-jackets on the other. Then we walked slowly along the front ranks and down the rear, with critical eyes. I observed a crooked collar; the captain observed it too, and put it straight: I saw an ill-put-on belt; the captain also saw it, pointed and referred to it in an undertone. A hole in a pair of trousers I did not observe, but the captain saw it, and commented on it in a somewhat severer manner. Nothing was passed over. Every brawny, powerful, broad-shouldered blue-jacket there was, in nautical phraseology, overhauled from stem to stern. A comment here, a word of approval there, or a quiet reprimand, was all that passed, but, being uttered to the attentive ears of the responsible officers, this was sufficient. After inspection, the men were dismissed, and the captain with his following descended to the interior of the ship. It would take reams of paper, my dear Jeffry, to refer to all that was said and done. I must give you but a brief outline. We went along the sides of the vessel, where the arms were ranged, and any speck of rust or appearance of careless treatment of the polished and glittering weapons was noted, and the responsible officer called then and there to account. So was it in every department. The Thunderer lies low, as I have said; much of her is below water, therefore light is scarce and valuable. During our perambulation we came to some machinery and bulkheads, etcetera, which were dingy in colour. 'Paint them white,' said the captain to the officer of each department; 'I don't point out details, but use as much white paint as you can. It makes the ship look light and cheerful.' Every order given was emphatic yet considerate; given to the officer in whose department the hitch occurred, and retailed by him to subordinates who knew well that they would come to grief if they did not make a note of it. Many of the 'departments' were so well managed that no fault at all could be found, and it was evident that the captain, in such cases, found a pleasure in 'giving honour to whom honour was due.'
"'Some men,' said Firebrand, who chanced to be close to me, and to whom I commented on the advantage of thorough obedience, 'some men, however, carry this quality a little too far. I knew of a man once, named Billy Ewart, who prided himself greatly on the care with which he fulfilled every part of his duty, so that it was impossible for the strictest disciplinarian to find fault with him. He had charge of the main deck. One day the Admiral inspected the ship, and took occasion to praise Billy Ewart for cleaning so well the main deck and everything connected with it. "The only dirty things I see," he said, pointing to a hen-coop, "are the legs of your geese." This was, of course, a joke, but it preyed on Billy's mind, and at next inspection he had the geese whitewashed and their legs and bills blackleaded. Poor Billy had no peace after that; even at the theatres, when he chanced to be observed there by his mates, one would call to another, "I say, Jack, who whitewashed the geese!"'
"As Firebrand concluded, we had completed the inspection of the main deck, and descended to the lower deck, where the men lived and messed, and where a clean and trim blue-jacket—'cook of the mess' for the day—stood at the head of each table. The tables and cans and tins and platters and men were required to be as clean and bright as a new pin. Then on we went to the berth of the warrant-officers, and after that down still lower to the engine-room. There the chief engineer came to the front and became responsible for the mighty cranks and gigantic cylinders and awe-inspiring beams, and complicated mazes of machinery, which raised him, in my mind, to little short of a demigod—for you must know that I, like yourself, am full of admiration and ignorance in regard to engineering forces. Next we went to the lowest depths of all, among the boilers, which appeared to me like an avenue—a positive street, sir—in Pandemonium. It was here that the tremendous explosion occurred in July 1876, when upwards of forty men were killed and many wounded, the captain himself (who was in the engine-room at the time) having narrowly escaped suffocation. Thereafter, the magazines of shot and shell were visited, and, in short, every hole and corner of the ship, and thus in an hour or so it was ascertained that the Nelsonian demand, and England's expectation, had been fulfilled,—'every man' had done 'his duty,' and the great ironclad was pronounced to be in a healthy, Sabbatic state of mind and body.
"In this satisfactory frame we finally went to the fore part of the ship, where we found the crew assembled, and where, standing at the capstan, the captain read the Church of England service, the responses being effectively rendered by the stalwart crew. In regard to this service I will only remark that I observed the introduction of a prayer which was entirely new to me, namely, that for the blessing of God on the ship, its crew, its duties, and its destination, to which I could and did, with all heartiness, respond 'Amen,' because as long as God's blessing rests on the Thunderer she will not be sent out to do battle in an unrighteous cause.
"Next morning I had an opportunity of witnessing the big-gun turret drill.
"It was an imposing spectacle, a fine display of the power of mind over matter. Force, might, weight, appeared to have attained their culminating exemplification here, and yet the captain said to me that his 35-ton and 38-ton guns are mere pistols to the things which are being prepared for vessels of our navy yet to come.
"My dear fellow, do you know what a 38-ton gun means? Have you ever seen one? Can you appreciate the fact that its weight is equal to thirty-eight carts of coals? Did you ever see the powder with which it is fed? One grain of it was given to me as a great favour, by the chief gunner's mate—I think that is his correct title, but am not quite sure. He presented it in a cardboard box. I now send you its portrait."
[Facsimile of a grain of powder for the 38-ton guns of the Thunderer—actual size.]
"Here it is, as large as life—really so, without a touch of exaggeration. I have measured it carefully with a tape foot-rule, and I find the dimensions to be five inches and a quarter in circumference.
"It is a solid cube of gunpowder. The cartridge which holds this powder is a pillow, an absolute bolster, of some three feet in length and twelve inches in diameter. It had need be, for the shell which it is meant to propel is the size of a small boy and the weight of an average ox, namely 814 lbs. The length of each 38-ton gun is nineteen feet, and its range about 6000 yards. Just try to imagine an ox being propelled through space, between three and four miles, at a rate which I don't recollect, and which doesn't signify. Try also to remember that each gun costs between 2000 pounds and 3000 pounds, and that, every time a turret lets fly a shot from one of her guns, the expense is 12 pounds, 10 shillings. The 80-ton guns which are to supersede these will, it is said, cost upwards of 10,000 pounds each. This will enable you to form some idea of England's 'greatness.'
"The drill and working of these guns is magnificent. Nearly everything in the fore-turret is worked by steam and hydraulic power, so that comparatively few men are required to move the iron monsters. Let me ask you to imagine the men at their stations. Some are inside the turret, and as guns and turret move in concert the men inside move with them. Those outside the turret stand at its base, and are therefore below the iron deck and protected by the iron sides of the ship. The insiders revolve, aim, and fire the gun; the outsiders load. The first lieutenant, standing at the base of the tower, close to the hole by which it is entered, so that he may be heard by both out and insiders, shouts, 'Close up,' in the voice of a Stentor. At this some men grasp levers, others stand by wheels which let on respectively hydraulic power and steam. The captain of the tower, seated on an elevated position, puts his head through a man-hole in the roof of the turret, which hole is covered with a bullet-proof iron hood, having a narrow opening in front. He surveys the supposed enemy, and his duty is to revolve the tower, take aim, and let go the firing machinery, i.e. pull the trigger. The outsiders stand by the locking bolt, levers, shot-racks, etcetera. Then, in the attitude of ready-for-action, all become motionless attentive statues—a regular tableau-vivant.
"Stentor again shouts, 'Cast loose.' To my ignorant eye energetic confusion ensues. The captain of the turret is causing it to revolve this way and that, with its crew and guns, by a mere touch of his finger. Lever and wheel-men do their duty; the guns are run in (or out when required) with the ease of pop-guns, till certain marks on carriages and slides correspond; then they are laid, firing-gear is cleared and made ready, while the outsiders take out the tompion, open the port and scuttle of the gun about to be loaded, bring forward a bolster of powder (or a representative mass of wood), and place a giant shot on a 'trolly,' which is just a little railway-carriage to convey the shot on rails from its rack to the gun. Meanwhile the captain of the turret gives the order, 'Starboard (or port) loading position,' turns the turret until the gun is opposite its 'loading-hole,' and then depresses its muzzle to the same point, jams it against the hole, and the turret is 'locked.'
"'Sponge and load,' is now given—but not by Stentor. The forces at work are too great in some cases to be left to the uncertain human voice. A piece of mechanism, called a 'tell-tale,' communicates with infallible certainty that the monster is quite ready to feed! A hydraulic ramrod thereupon wets his whistle with a sponge, on the end of which is a small reservoir of water. The monster is temperate. This withdrawn, a wad is placed on the end of the ramrod. Three men shove a bolster of powder into the gun's mouth. The huge shot is then hydraulically lifted to the muzzle. No mortal man could move that shot a hair's-breadth in the right direction, but the hydraulic ram is brought to bear, and shoves the delicious morceau not down but up his throat with an ease that would be absurd if it were not tremendous. The tell-tale now intimates to the insiders, 'Gun loaded.' The captain of the turret gives the order, 'Run out.' Hydraulic at work again. In a few seconds the gun muzzle is raised, and projects through its port-hole. When the object and distance are named, the captain of the turret takes aim, and then follows, in more or less rapid succession, 'Elevate,' 'Depress,' 'Extreme elevation,' or the reverse, 'Ready!'—'Fire!' when the Thunderer is shaken to her centre, and twelve pounds ten shillings sterling go groaning uselessly into the deep, or crashing terrifically through the armour-plates of an unfortunate enemy.
"My dear fellow, this gives you but a faint outline of it, but time and paper would fail me if I were to tell in detail of the mode by which all this can be done by the captain of the Thunderer himself, by means of speaking-tubes and electricity and a 'director,' so that he can, while standing in the fighting tower, aim, point, and fire, as if with his own hand, guns which he cannot see, and which are forty feet or so distant from him. Would that I could relate to you a tithe of what I have seen!—the day, for instance, when the blue-jackets, to the number of one hundred and fifty, had a field-day on shore, and went through infantry drill—skirmishing and all—as well, to my unpractised eye, as if they had been regular 'boiled lobsters,' to say nothing of their manoeuvres with the Gatling gun. This latter weapon, perhaps you don't know, is simply a bundle of gigantic muskets which load and fire themselves by the mere turning of a handle—a martial barrel-organ, in short, which sends a continuous shower of balls in the face of an advancing or on the back of a retreating foe. The greater involves the less. No one can deny that, and it is my opinion that in the British navy the sailor now includes the soldier. He is, as it were, a bluejacket and a boiled lobster rolled into one tremendous sausage—a sausage so tough that would be uncommonly difficult for any one, in Yankee phrase, to 'chaw him up.'
"Then there is the Whitehead torpedo.
"'A thing of beauty,' says the poet, 'is a joy for ever.' The poet who said it was an—no, I won't go that length, but it is clear that he had not seen a Whitehead torpedo. That delicate instrument is indeed a thing of beauty, for it is elegantly formed of polished steel, but when it happens to stick its head into a ship's stern, it is not a 'joy' even for a moment, and it effectually stops, for ever, all consideration of its qualities by those who chance to feel them. It is shaped like a fish, and has a tail. Its motive power is in its tail, which is a screw propeller. It has lungs, consisting of a tank for holding compressed air. It has a stomach, composed of a pair of pneumatic engines which drive it through the water. Its body is fourteen feet long, more or less. Its head contains an explosive charge of 110 pounds of wet gun-cotton, with a dry disc of the same in its heart. It goes off by concussion, and could sink our largest ironclad—there is no doubt whatever about that. Its cost is between four and five hundred pounds sterling. One of the peculiarities of this celebrated torpedo is, that it can be regulated so as to travel at a given depth below water. This is not so much to conceal its course, which is more or less revealed by the air-bubbles of its atmospheric engine, as to cause it to hit the enemy ten or twelve feet below her waterline. What the effect of this new war-monster shall be is at present in the womb of futurity. I hope sincerely that the world may suffer no greater loss from it than its cost.
"By the way, I must not forget to tell you that I have grown at least an inch since I saw you last, in consequence of having been mistaken for the captain of the Thunderer! That the mistake was made by a pretty, innocent, sweet, ignorant young girl, with intensely blue eyes, does not abate my vanity one jot. That such a mistake should be made by anybody was complimentary. It happened thus:—I was seated alone in the captain's cabin, writing for the Evergreen Isle, when a party of ladies and gentlemen passed the door and looked in. They were being shown over the ship. 'That,' said the blue-jacket who conducted them, 'is the captain's cabin.' 'And is that,' whispered blue-eyes, in the sweetest of voices, 'the captain?' My heart stopped! U. Biquitous the captain of the Thunderer! I felt indignant when blue-jacket replied, with a contemptuous growl—'No, miss, 'taint.' They passed on, but I could not rest. I rose and followed blue-eyes about the ship like a loving dog, at a respectful distance. I tried to find out her name, but failed—her address, but failed again. Then they left, and she vanished from my sight—for ever.
"But enough of this. Adieu, my dear Jeffry, till we meet.—Yours affectionately, U.B.
"P.S.—I mentioned you to the captain as a friend of mine, and an enthusiastic torpedoist. Be sure you call on him if you should ever find yourself in the neighbourhood of the mighty Thunderer."
DESCRIBES A STIRRING FIGHT.
It was late when I folded this letter, about the surprising effects of which I have yet to speak.
Having been very much overwrought in the hospitals that day, I flung myself on my bed and fell into a sound sleep, having previously cautioned my assistant, who occupied a couch opposite mine, not to disturb me except in a case of necessity.
It could not have been long afterwards when I was awakened by him violently, and told that a telegram had just arrived summoning me home! I sprang up and read it anxiously. There was no explanation. The telegram was simple but urgent. My mother, my sister, Nicholas, illness, death, disaster of some sort, filled my mind as I huddled on my clothes and made hurried preparations to obey the summons. Of course no inquiries could be made. The telegram was peremptory. I crushed a few things into a portmanteau, and, obtaining permission, left the hospital without a moment's delay.
The distance to the coast was considerable, but I had ample means, and found no difficulties in the way. It is always so in this life—at least in regard to ordinary things—when one possesses unlimited means.
Now I must pause at this point, and beg the reader to bear with me while I relate a few things that may appear at first sight overdrawn. Let judgment be suspended until all has been told.
There was no difficulty whatever, I repeat, in reaching Varna. From thence to Constantinople was merely a matter of a few hours' in an ordinary steamer. My personal acquaintance with several European ambassadors enabled me to pass the lines and travel in the enemy's country without obstruction or delay. My position as occasional war-correspondent of the Scottish Bawbee would have procured me interviews with many celebrities, but anxiety prevented my taking advantage of this.
In process of time I arrived at Besika Bay, and here I found the British fleet at anchor. Of course I had been aware of its presence there, and felt some pleasure in contemplating a visit to some of the ships, in several of which I had friends. It was with great surprise that I found the Thunderer among the war-ships assembled in the Bay. I had never heard of her having left England, though I had been told that her sister-ship the Devastation was at Besika.
Remembering the injunction of my friend Biquitous, I went on board the Thunderer, and was hospitably received by the captain. He had only time, however, to shake hands and beg me to make myself at home. There was obviously something of importance about to happen, for great activity prevailed among officers and men. It seemed to my untutored eye as if they were getting up steam and preparing for some sort of expedition. The captain did not invite me to accompany them; nevertheless I went. It was not long before the object of the expedition was revealed. A monster Russian ironclad, it was said, lay somewhere "outside." We were sent to observe her. In the evening we sighted her. There was another Russian war-ship—a frigate—close to her. The ironclad was similar to ourselves: a long low hull—a couple of turrets with a central "flying" structure or "hurricane-deck." We made straight towards her. The bugle sounded and the crew was called to quarters.
"My dear sir," said I to the captain, "has war been declared between England and Russia?"
The captain made no reply. On repeating the question anxiously he merely said—
I was surprised, almost hurt, and greatly perplexed, for the captain was noted for politeness and urbanity, but of course I retired at once.
Next moment I saw a puff of smoke burst from the side of the Russian ironclad, and a shot leaped towards us. Its size was such that we could trace it from the muzzle of the gun. Describing, as I thought (for strange is the power of thought), a rather high trajectory, it passed over us and plunged into the sea with a swish that sent hundreds of tons of water like an inverted cascade into the air. A gush of indignation filled my breast. That the warship of a nation with which we were at peace should fire at us without provocation was more than I could endure.
"Are you going to stand that, captain?" I asked, with an uncontrollable gush of indignation at the Russian's audacity.
The captain gave one sardonic laugh, and a shrug of his shoulders, but vouchsafed no reply.
Hearing one of the officers give some order about Whitehead torpedoes, I ran to the room where these monsters were kept. I was just in time to see one lifted on to a species of carriage and wheeled to the side of the ship. Here a powerful air-pump was set to work, and the torpedo's lungs were filled almost to the bursting point. Its deadly head— brought from the magazine—was at the same time attached to its body. Another instant and a port was thrown open in the Thunderer's side, through which the Whitehead was launched. It went with a sluggish plunge into the sea. While it was in the act of passing out a trigger was touched which set the pneumatic engines agoing. The screw-propelling tail twirled, and the monster, descending ten feet below the surface, sped on its mission. I rushed on deck. The air-bubbles showed me that the engine of destruction had been aimed at the Russian frigate. In a few seconds it had closed with it. I could see that there was terrible consternation on board. Next moment a fountain of foam shot from the deep and partially obscured the frigate. I saw men leaping overboard and spars falling for a few moments, then the frigate lurched heavily to port and went head foremost to the bottom.
I stood gazing in a species of horrified abstraction, from which I was recalled by some of our men running to the side of the vessel. They were about to lower the steam-launch. It was to be sent out as a torpedo-boat, and young Firebrand, whom I now observed for the first time, took command.
Just then a torpedo-boat was seen to quit the side of the Russian. We were ready for her. Our largest Gatling gun had been hoisted to that platform on our mast which is styled the "top."
When within range this weapon commenced firing. It was absolutely horrible. One man turned a handle at the breech, another kept supplying the self-acting cartridge-box. As the handle was turned the cartridges dropped into their places and exploded. Six or nine tubes, I forget which, were thus made to rain bullets without intermission. They fell on the screen of the advancing torpedo-boat like hail, but quite harmlessly. Then I heard a voice within the fore-turret give a command which sounded like "Extreme depression." It was quickly followed by "Fire!" and the Thunderer quivered from keel to truck under the mighty explosion. The great 38-ton gun had been splendidly served, for the monster ball hit the boat amidships and crushed the bow under water, at the same instant the stern leaped into the air, and she went down with a dive like a Greenland whale.
Hearty cheers burst from the men in the "top." These were echoed with a muffled sound from the men shut up in the armoured hull below—for it must be remembered that not a soul had been visible all this time on the Thunderer except the men in the "top" and those who had been sent to lower the steam-launch.
Apparently rendered savage by this event, the Russians let fly a volley from their four great-guns, but without serious result. They had been admirably pointed, however, for the two outer shots hit our turrets, deeply indented them, and glanced off, while the inner shots went slap through the flying structure as if it had been made of pasteboard, leaving clean-cut holes, which, of course, only made the place more airy.
Night had now fallen. The danger of attack by torpedo-boats having been recognised, both ironclads had let down their crinolines. But the captain of the Thunderer had resolved on a—a—what shall I call it?— a "dodge," which would probably deceive the enemy. He had an electric light on board. Every one knows nowadays that this is an intense light, which, being thrown on a given point, illuminates it with a glare equal, almost, to that of day. After dark the captain shot this light from his mast-head straight at the enemy, and in the full glare of it our steam-launch or torpedo-boat was sent out!
I was amazed beyond measure. Forgetting myself for a moment, I exclaimed, "Captain, you are mad!"
As might have been expected, the captain made no reply.
The steam-launch carried two torpedoes, each containing 100 pounds of powder.
"Be careful to sheer off quickly after exploding," said the captain to Firebrand quietly.
Firebrand replied, "Yes, sir," respectfully, but I heard him distinctly add, in a low tone, to himself, "I'll run slap into her and blow her to atoms as well as myself. Somebody must fail in every action. It's a forlorn hope at sea, that's all.—Full steam!" he added aloud to the engineer.
As the boat rushed away in the blaze of the electric light, the captain's ruse suddenly dawned on my mind. The Russian at once saw the boat, and, with naturally nervous haste, knowing the terrible nature of such boats, made preparations to thwart her. Close in the wake of the boat the Thunderer followed with the intent to run the Russian down with her ram, which is a tremendous iron beak projecting, below water, from her bow. The "dodge" was to dazzle the enemy with the electric light, and, while her attention was concentrated on the torpedo-boat, to "ram" her!
"Steady!" said Firebrand, in a deep voice.
Something else was replied by somebody in a deeper voice.
The boat ploughed on its way like a furious hornet.
"Fire!" shouted the Russians.
Instantly, from turret, bulwark, and mast-head leaped livid flames of fire, and the sea was torn up by bullets, while fearful spouts were here and there raised by shots from the heavy guns. Everything was concentrated on the torpedo-boat. It was obvious that the dazzling light at the mast-head of the Thunderer had blinded her adversary as to her own movements.
I heard the order of the Russian captain as distinctly as if I had been on board his own ship, and was somewhat surprised at its being given in slang English.
The result was a rain of musketry, which rattled on the iron armour of the launch's protecting screen as the sticks rattle on a kettle-drum.
"Ready!" said Firebrand, with suppressed intensity.
As the boat drew near the Russian small shot was tearing up the sea like a wintry storm. The order having been given, the torpedo-spars were lowered, so that each torpedo sank ten feet under water.
"Fire!" yelled Firebrand.
Electricity was applied, both torpedoes exploded, and the launch sheered off gallantly in cataracts of foam.
At the same moment the Russians observed us not ten yards distant, coming stem on at full speed. Her turret guns were concentrated and fired; so were ours. The crash was indescribably hideous, yet it was as nothing compared with that which followed a few seconds later. Our ram, entering the Russian fairly amidships, cut her almost in two. We backed out instantly, intending to repeat the operation. Well was it for us that we did so. We had just backed a few hundred yards astern, and given the order to go ahead full steam, when the Russian's magazine exploded. Our charge had somehow fired it. Instantly there was a crashing roar as if heaven and earth had met in chaotic conflict. The air was darkened with bursting clouds of blackest smoke, in the midst of which beams, guns, pistons, boilers, armour-plates, human limbs and heads were seen hurling about like the debris of a wrecked universe. Much of this came down upon our iron deck. The clatter was appalling. It was a supreme moment! I was standing on the flying structure beside one of the officers. "Glorious!" he muttered, while a pleasant smile played upon his lips. Just then I chanced to look up, and saw one of the Russian fore-turret 85-ton guns falling towards me. It knocked me off the flying structure, and I fell with an agonising yell on the deck below.
"Hallo!" exclaimed a familiar voice, as a man stooped to raise me.
I looked up. It was my hospital-assistant. I had fallen out of bed!
"You seem to have had a night of it, sir—cheering and shouting to such an extent that I thought of awaking you once or twice, but refrained because of your strict orders to the contrary. Not hurt, I hope?"
"So, then," I said, with a sigh of intense relief, as I proceeded to dress, "the whole affair has been—A DREAM!"
"Ah!" thought I, on passing through the hospital for the last time before quitting it, and gazing sadly on the ghastly rows of sick and wounded, "well were it for this unfortunate world if war and all its horrors were but the phantasmagoria of a similar dream."
TREATS OF WAR AND SOME OF ITS "GLORIOUS" RESULTS.
In process of time I reached the front, and chanced to arrive on the field of action at a somewhat critical moment.
Many skirmishes, and some of the more important actions of the war, had been fought by that time—as I already knew too well from the hosts of wounded men who had passed through my hands at Sistova; and now it was my fate to witness another phase of the dreadful "game."
Everywhere as I traversed the land there was evidence of fierce combats and of wanton destruction of property; burning villages, fields of produce trodden in the earth, etcetera. Still further on I encountered long trains of wagons bearing supplies and ammunition to the front. As we advanced these were met by bullock-trains bearing wounded men to the rear. The weather had been bad. The road was almost knee-deep in mud and so cut up by traffic that pools occurred here and there, into which wagons and horses and bullocks stumbled and were got out with the greatest difficulty. The furious lashing of exhausted and struggling cattle was mingled with the curses and cries of brutal drivers, and the heartrending groans of wounded soldiers, who, lying, in many cases with undressed wounds, on the hard, springless, and jolting vehicles, suffered excruciating agony. Many of these, unable to endure their sufferings, died, and thus the living and the dead were in some cases jolted slowly along together. The road on each side was lined with dead animals and men—the latter lying in a state of apparent rest, which called forth envious looks from the dying.
But a still sadder spectacle met my eye when, from another road which joined this one, there came a stream of peasantry, old men, women, and children, on foot and in country carts of all kinds, flying from the raging warriors who desolated their villages, and seeking, they knew not where—anywhere—for refuge. Too often they sought in vain. Many of these people had been wounded—even the women and little ones—with bullet, sword, and spear. Some carried a few of their most cherished household articles along with them. Others were only too glad to have got away with life. Here an old man, who looked as if he had been a soldier long before the warriors of to-day were born was gently compelled by a terror-stricken young woman with a wounded neck to lay his trembling old head on her shoulder as they sat on a little straw in the bottom of a native cart. He had reached that venerable period of life when men can barely totter to their doors to enjoy the sunshine, and when beholders regard them with irresistible feelings of tenderness and reverence. War had taught the old man how to stand erect once more—though it was but a spasmodic effort—and his poor fingers were clasped round the hilt of an old cavalry sabre, from which female hands had failed to unclasp them. There, in another cart, lay an old woman, who had been bed-ridden and utterly helpless for many a year, but war had wrought miracles for her. It had taught her once again to use her shrunken limbs, to tumble out of the bed to which she had been so long accustomed, and where she had been so lovingly nursed, and to crawl in a paroxysm of terror to the door, afraid lest she should be forgotten by her children, and left to the tender mercies of Cossack or Bashi-Bazouk. Needless fear, of course, for these children were only busy outside with a few absolute necessaries, and would sooner have left their own dead and mangled bodies behind than have forgotten "granny"! Elsewhere I saw a young woman, prone on her back in another cart, with the pallor of death on her handsome face, and a tiny little head pressed tenderly to her swelling breast. It was easy to understand that war had taught this young mother to cut short the period of quiet repose which is deemed needful for woman in her circumstances. Still another cart I must mention, for it contained a singular group. A young man, with a powerfully-made frame, which must once have been robust, but was now terribly reduced by the wasting fires of a deadly fever, was held forcibly down by a middle-aged man, whose resemblance to him revealed his fatherhood. Two women helped the man, yet all three were barely able to restrain the youth, who, in the fury of his delirium, gnashed with his teeth, and struggled like a maniac. I knew nothing about them, but it was not difficult to read the history of one who had reached a critical period in a fell disease, who had, perchance, fallen into a long-desired and much-needed slumber that might have turned the scale in his favour, when the hope of parents and the chances of life were scattered suddenly by the ruthless trump of war. War had taught him how to throw off the sweet lethargy that had been stealing over him, and to start once again on that weary road where he had been grappling in imagination with the brain-created fiends who had persecuted him so long, but who in reality were gentle spirits compared with the human devils by whom he and his kindred were surrounded.
On this journey, too, I met many brethren of the medical profession, who, urged by the double motive of acquiring surgical skill and alleviating human woe, were pressing in the same direction. Some had been fortunate enough, like myself, to obtain horses, others, despising difficulties, were pushing forward through the mud on foot. I need scarcely add that some of us turned aside from time to time, as opportunity offered, to succour the unfortunates around us.
At last I reached the front, went to headquarters, presented my credentials, and was permitted to attach myself to one of the regiments. At once I made inquiries as to the whereabouts of Nicholas Naranovitsch, and was so fortunate as to find him. He was in the act of mounting his horse as I reached his quarters.
It is impossible to describe the look of surprise and delight with which he greeted me.
"My dear fellow!" said he, turning at once to his girths and stirrups after the first hearty squeeze, "what breeze of good fortune has blown you here? Any news from home?"
"Yes, all well, and a message—by the way, I had almost forgot it," fumbling in my pocket, "for you."
"Almost forgot it!" echoed Nicholas, looking round with a smile and a glance which was meant for one of withering rebuke.
"Here it is," I exclaimed, handing him a three-cornered note, which had come in my mother's letter. He seized it eagerly and thrust it into the breast-pocket of his coat.
"Now look here, Jeff," he said, having seen to the trappings of his steed, "you know what war is. Great things are at stake. I may not delay even to chat with you. But a few words will suffice. Do you know anything about your servant Lancey?"
"Nothing. I would give anything to hear that the poor fellow was alive. Have you—"
"Yes, I have seen him. I chanced this very morning, while galloping across country with an order from the General, to see him among the camp-followers. Why there I know not. To search for him now would be like looking for a needle in a haystack, but I observed that he was in company with our Bulgarian friend the scout Dobri Petroff, who is so well known that he can easily be found, and will probably be able to lead you to him. Now, only one word for myself: don't forget a message to Bella—say—say—bah! You English are such an undemonstrative set that I don't like to put it in words, but—you ought to know what to say, and when you've said it, just add, like a good fellow, that I would have said a great deal more if I had had the saying of it myself. D'you understand?"