For several days the garrison had enjoyed perfect tranquillity. The colonel kept up the spirits of all the party by assuring them that relief would come, and urging them to bear patiently the hardships they were now called on to endure. Violet showed herself a true heroine, by ever wearing a cheerful countenance, by her constant attention to the sick and wounded, and by trying to keep up the spirits of the other ladies. Nuna imitated her example.
Their trials, however, were not over. Intelligence sufficient to alarm the most stout-hearted came in: that a force of upwards of twenty thousand men was marching on Allahapoor, with the intention of occupying that city, and that they threatened to take the fort and destroy its garrison before doing so.
Colonel Ross did not conceal the information he had received. "We must hold out, as before, as long as our ammunition lasts; and that failing, we must place the ladies and wounded in our midst, and cut our way through the foe."
All swore to fight as long as they had arms to wield their swords.
Two days passed away, when about noon, as the hot air quivered over the plain, the blue and red uniforms of the enemy's cavalry appeared in sight. They approached, a vast horde thronging up in the distance. Column after column of infantry appeared following the cavalry, with numerous pieces of artillery. The rebels were evidently intent on the utter destruction of the fort. The lesson given by the mutineers at Delhi, Cawnpore, and many other places, warned the English and their allies against any attempt at negotiation. As the fort had before resisted with so small a garrison as it then possessed, now, when they had several pieces of artillery and were reinforced with Burnett's horse, they had good reason to hope that they should be able to resist the fiercest attack the mutineers were likely to make. At length came the awful question, Will the powder hold out? Colonel Ross had calculated the hours it would do so. It would encourage the enemy were he not to return their fire with vigour, and dishearten the natives of his own party should they discover the short time they would have the means of resisting their sanguinary foes.
The enemy's guns at length drawing near, opened fire, without any attempt at throwing up breastworks, their only shelter being such as the ground afforded. Had they not been supported by so large a body of cavalry and foot, Burnett declared that nothing would have been easier than to capture them; as it was, he waited for an opportunity which he thought might occur. Most of the shot, as before, struck the earthworks; for the Enfield rifles prevented the guns from being brought near enough to do much damage. The rear of the fort, it must be remembered, was protected by rugged heights, to the summit of which no native engineers were capable of carrying up even the smallest guns; indeed, they were inaccessible to the most nimble mountaineers. Thus there were only two sides of the fort to be protected; the valley which ran down on the left being so completely commanded by the fort, that a hostile party attempting to enter it would have been instantly destroyed.
Night on this occasion brought no cessation of firing, and it soon became apparent that the enemy intended to storm the fort. Two guns were moved so as to command the valley, up which, during the darkness of night, they might possibly attempt to steal. Every man was at his post. After the firing had continued for some time it suddenly ceased. Many thought the enemy were retiring; but it was like the lull before the storm. A few seconds only had passed away, when three dark columns were discerned by the garrison creeping up towards them. On they came in overwhelming numbers, the artillerymen in the plain firing over their heads, while the British guns began blazing away with canister, sending destruction amid their ranks. Column after column had advanced, but were driven back in confusion; not a man ever reached the lines. Sometimes the cavalry galloped up, but they were quickly forced to retire.
All night long the battle raged, but the dauntless courage of Colonel Ross and his band of heroes prevailed, and when morning dawned the enemy were seen retiring with their guns. Had they gone altogether, or would they return? was the question. It was too probable that, instigated by the mutineers in Allahapoor, they would renew the attack.
Two more days passed by, allowing the garrison to repair their fortifications. Once more, as day was declining, the enemy was seen approaching; with the intention, probably, of making an assault during the night. Still hour after hour went by; every man remained at his post, and yet no enemy came near them. The campfires, however, burning in the distance, showed that they were still there; and as morning approached, Colonel Ross, who was ever on his guard, warned the officers to be as watchful as at first, and ready at any moment to repel an attack.
He was right. It was still dark when the heads of several columns were seen emerging from the gloom, and already close upon the fort. On came the rebels, as soon as they were aware that they must be seen, giving utterance to the most savage shouts and cries. At the same moment they opened a heavy fire. They were met, as before, with showers of grape and well-directed volleys of musketry, which quickly drove back those who had not fallen,—with the exception of a party of desperate fanatics, who attempted to force their way over the entrenchments. Some succeeded and were cut down, others were shot in the ditch, and not one escaped. The garrison had scarcely breathing time before another similar attack was made, which was repulsed in the same way.
"How much longer can we stand out?" asked Reginald of Colonel Ross.
"Another attack like the last will exhaust the whole of our powder, when our only resource will be to abandon the fort—for to hold it will then be impossible," was the answer.
The day passed by. Anxiously was the arrival of the scouts who came over the hills looked for with the expected intelligence of the movements of the British. Flying columns of the avenging army were sweeping the enemy before them; but they were, it was supposed, yet a long way off. Still the colonel endeavoured to keep up the courage of those he commanded; and the officers, following his example, did their utmost to encourage the men to prepare for another assault. The strictest watch was kept, for it was thought that should the enemy again venture to attack the fort, it would be by night.
The garrison were not mistaken. Two days more had passed, when again the columns were espied by the watchful sentinels. The troops flew to their arms, the artillerymen to their guns.
Reginald and Burnett, when relieved from their duty in the evening, had snatched a few minutes from the rest they so much required to pay a visit to Violet and Nuna. They talked hopefully of the future, and both expressed a wish, as soon as the rebellion was quelled, to leave India and reside in England.
"Oh, that must be a happy country," cried Nuna, "where there are no wars or disputes, where the rich do not oppress the poor, and the latter are happy and contented, and everybody lives in friendship with each other!"
Burnett smiled. "I am afraid only a part of your picture is true. England has numberless advantages over this country, and I hope ere long to take you there; but I am sorry to say that the English people quarrel and dispute with each other as much as the natives of other lands, though they do not fly to arms on all occasions. You must not expect to find a paradise in England, or in any other part of the world."
Unwillingly, the two friends had at length to bid the ladies goodnight and return to their posts at the batteries. Just as they reached them, the signal was made that the enemy was approaching, and the silence which had hitherto reigned in the fort was suddenly broken by the loud report of the guns as they sent forth their doses of canister, scattering death amid the advancing columns. The musketry opened at the same time; and now the rebels, finding that they were again disappointed in their expectation of surprising the fort, began firing away in return. As gun after gun was discharged, Colonel Ross knew that their slender store of powder was becoming more nearly exhausted. It might hold out till the enemy took to flight; but they might persevere longer than usual—and if so, finding that the guns no longer thundered forth, they would in all probability storm the fort.
He at length sent for Burnett and Reginald. "My friends," he said, speaking quite calmly, "if in half an hour more the enemy are not beaten, we must fight our way out through their midst, unless we can hope to defend our position with our swords and bayonets."
Burnett proposed making a sortie with his cavalry, in the hope of creating a panic by the suddenness of his attack. But from this Colonel Ross dissuaded him. He could scarcely hope to produce any material effect, and would only weaken his strength by the loss of several of his men.
Rapidly that half-hour went by; when, just as it was found that the last charge of powder had been expended, the cry arose, "They run! They run!" On this Burnett ordered his bugler to sound the call "to horse;" and in less than two minutes every man of his troop was mounted, and, following their leader, had dashed out in pursuit of the retreating foe. Immediately he had gone, Colonel Ross ordered every animal in the camp to be prepared for carrying the sick and wounded. Horses had been kept for the use of the ladies,—who, having been warned of the possible emergency, were quickly ready. Not a word of alarm or anxiety was expressed. The whole force was quickly drawn up in close column: Reginald's cavalry, with the ladies in the centre, leading; the trained villagers following, guarding the wounded; the British soldiers and Reginald's guards on either flank; while the other native troops brought up the rear.
The instant the scouts returned with the satisfactory report that they had seen the enemy moving off, the order was given to advance, and the little army, after spiking all the guns in the fort, commenced their perilous march. Silently they moved, to avoid being discovered by any of the enemy's scouts, or the report of their march being carried to the rebels by the inhabitants of the villages near which they might pass. Happily the enemy had made their attack early in the night, and the retreating party had thus an advantage of several hours, which would enable them to get to a considerable distance before they were likely to be discovered. For the remainder of the night, therefore, they moved on; and not till the sun had already risen was a halt called, that they might take that rest which was absolutely necessary to enable them to continue their flight. The scouts sent out now reported that no enemy was near, and they were thus able to remain encamped for several hours; after which, greatly refreshed, they again moved on. Colonel Ross was sensible that his force could not successfully engage with any large body, but he hoped that, by avoiding all places where any rebels were likely to be collected, and by advancing chiefly at night, to prevent any information of his movements from reaching the enemy.
Violet, who was a good horsewoman, bore the fatigue of the march well, and even Nuna and the other ladies kept up their spirits and did not complain. The poor wounded men were the greatest sufferers; though they preferred the shaking to which they were exposed, to being left behind to the tender mercies of the natives.
Before another night's march had been accomplished, a sowar who had been sent out as a scout overtook them with the intelligence that the enemy had heard of their retreat, and were following with a large force, threatening their complete destruction. Colonel Ross, on hearing this, resolved—as there was no place at hand into which they could throw themselves and defend it against the enemy—to continue the march, for the purpose of keeping ahead of their pursuers as much as possible, and only to halt and fight where a strong position could be taken up with some hope of offering an effectual resistance. On they marched; but in vain did the colonel look out for ground of the kind he desired. Their scouts came hurrying in from the rear with the announcement that the enemy were close upon them. There could be little doubt that the rebels, burning with revenge at the defeats they had suffered, would immediately commence an attack. The country was level for miles on every side; the colonel was therefore glad to find a spot where he could halt, with a deep and broad stream on one side, and a thick jungle in the rear, which neither the enemy's infantry nor artillery could penetrate. He accordingly halted here: the infantry drawn up in the centre, and the cavalry on either flank, ready to charge the guns of the enemy, should they have brought any with them.
In silence the little force waited the expected attack. The rebels at length appeared. Colonel Ross ordered the infantry to fire as they came within range; and then, at a preconcerted signal, Reginald and Burnett, leading on their troopers, desperately charged the rebel forces. Many on both sides went down, but the rebels, relying on their numbers, and knowing the weakness of the force opposed to them, refused to give way. The moon afforded sufficient light to enable the combatants to continue the fight, and Reginald could not help fearing that, after all the efforts of his party, they might be defeated. Again and again he led his men to the charge—when the sound of English bugles reached his ears. Just at that moment a bullet struck him and he fell to the ground, his steed galloping off unperceived by his followers. He lay amid a heap of slain, unable to move, while his horsemen followed up the charge. The fight continued raging around him for some time. Then he heard the heavy tramp of cavalry, and the rattling sound of artillery, followed closely by the roar of the guns as they opened fire. Lifting up his head, he saw a dark red line, with bayonets glittering in the moonlight, emerging from behind the wood. The enemy also saw them, and poured in on them as they approached a round of musketry; but not a moment did they stop to receive the charge made by the British regiment, which, advancing at the double, drove them like chaff before the wind. Reginald saw no more; his head sank back, and he lay like the clods of the earth around him.
The British troops had had a hard day's march, for, receiving intelligence of the near vicinity of a large rebel force, they had pushed on to attack them before they could escape. The remainder of the English column coming up, tents were pitched, while the cavalry pursued the flying foe, cutting down all they overtook, no quarter being asked or offered.
Dawn was breaking, when a sentinel at his post caught sight, at some distance, of a large animal lying on the ground, which after some little scrutiny he discovered to be a tiger. "The horrid brute is feeding on the dead," he exclaimed. "If it was not against orders to fire, I'd quickly teach it better manners." Just then a man, who, from his nautical appearance, might have been called a "horse-marine," rode up on a small country pony. He had a long sabre by his side, a haversack on his back, and a brace of pistols in his belt; and while huge boots encased his legs, he wore a seaman's broad-brimmed hat and loose jacket,—making him look altogether not a little peculiar.
"What's that you say, mate?" he asked.
The sentry pointed to the animal he had seen. "Though I mayn't fire, do you put a bullet though that brute's head."
"That's more than I'll do," answered the seaman, who was no other than our friend Dick Thuddichum. "That animal has more sense than many a human being; and it's my belief that my honoured master, whom she's followed faithfully for many a day, and whose life she has saved more than once, is not far off. Just you hold my horse, while I go ahead and have a look round. If I'm right, I'll shout to some one to come and help me."
Saying this, Dick tumbled off his steed, and hastily stalked over the ground, carefully avoiding the corpses with which it was strewed. He was right Faithful, in spite of his strange costume, uttered a cry of welcome, and sprang forward to meet him. There, as he expected, lay his beloved master. "O Master Reginald! O my lord, do speak to me, and tell me if you are alive!" exclaimed Dick, as he threw himself on the ground by Reginald's side. "Yes, yes; he's still got life in him!" he cried out; and shouting to the sentinel to send help, he lifted his master in his arms and bore him towards the tents. Reginald was speedily carried into one of the nearest, set aside as an hospital, where his wound was examined by a surgeon,—Dick standing anxiously by to hear his opinion.
"It's pretty severe, but is not likely to prove fatal," said the surgeon. "He has fainted from loss of blood, but a stimulant will soon restore him."
"Thank Heaven!" exclaimed Dick. "I should have wellnigh died, and so, to my mind, would Faithful, and another person I know of, if he'd been killed. But do your best to bring him about, sir, and I will bless you all the days of my life."
Reginald, as the doctor had hoped, soon recovered sufficiently to speak. He warmly greeted Dick, and expressed his delight at seeing him—having greatly feared that he had been murdered by the rebels. He then immediately ordered a messenger to go to Colonel Ross and inform him and Miss Ross of his safety. And before long Burnett, whose horsemen were bivouacked not far off, made his appearance. Happy indeed was the meeting between the two friends. A palanquin was quickly procured for Reginald's conveyance, as his wound was not so severe as to prevent his being moved. It was arranged that he, with the ladies of Colonel Ross's party, should be escorted to the banks of the Ganges, from whence they could proceed down the river to Calcutta. Dick having had enough of campaigning, begged that he might accompany his master, and look after Faithful, who was not likely to obey any one else. Reginald, with much regret, bade farewell to his faithful Indian friends, whom he strongly recommended to the authorities for the fidelity they had shown to the English; but he intended to reward them still further as soon as he had the power.
Colonel Ross, whose health was giving way, owing to the anxiety he had so long endured, accompanied his daughter and Nuna to Calcutta, where they remained till the mutiny was effectually quelled, and Burnett was able to join them. The two marriages shortly afterwards took place, and the young couple at once carried out their intention of leaving for England. Of course Dick Thuddichum embarked with them, with Faithful in charge.
Violet, before leaving Calcutta, begged to have a portrait of the noble creature which had so often saved her husband's life, and persuaded Reginald to have his own likeness taken at the same time in the nautical costume which he wore on being first introduced to her; he himself confessing that he infinitely preferred it to the magnificent dresses he had been compelled to wear during his short reign in Allahapoor. That city had been quickly captured by the English, and, much to Reginald's satisfaction, had become, with its surrounding territory, an integral part of British India.
It is sad to have to relate that poor Faithful never reached the free shores of Old England. Whether it was, as Dick Thuddichum thought, that the sea-air did not agree with her constitution, or that she was deprived of her usual allowance of half a sheep a day, she sickened, and gradually grew worse and worse; her last fond gaze being at the face of her beloved master. She attempted to lick his hand, but the effort was vain. Her head sank on the deck—the tigress was dead.
Her skin was preserved; and Faithful, with an almost lifelike look, ornaments the entrance hall in Hamerton Castle.
Reginald had no difficulty, with the documents he had recovered, in obtaining possession of his hereditary title and estates. While attending to his English tenantry he did not forget his faithful Indian friends, or the benighted inhabitants of that country, and has ever been among the most zealous and munificent supporters of those true soldiers of Christ who go forth to spread the Gospel of Peace in the dark places of the world.