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The Heroic Garrison
The Alexander Sheridan Adventures, No. 5
By V. A. Stuart
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1975 V. A. Stuart
All rights reserved.
It was barely light when the first small party of volunteers left the Lucknow Residency to make their way cautiously through the Terhee Kothee and Furhut Baksh Palaces and from there, along the river bank, to the position held by the rear-guard of Havelock's force in the Moti Mahal.
Alex Sheridan, leading his horse a little way behind the rest, was almost asleep on his feet, stumbling blindly on the rubble-strewn ground, still littered with the debris of the previous day's battle. He had snatched less than an hour's sleep after entering the beleaguered Bailey Guard gate in the wake of the gun-limber bearing Brigadier General James Neill's body, eaten a frugal meal and then — informed of a call for anyone familiar with Lucknow's geography to volunteer to assist in bringing in wounded — had answered the call. For what remained of the night, he had gone, with a surgeon named Greenhow and Lieutenant Johnson of the Irregular Cavalry and twenty of his sowars, as far as the Khas Bazaar, returning with wounded Highlanders and Sikhs slung across their saddles or clinging, limping, to their stirrupirons.
Lousada Barrow, commander of the Volunteer Cavalry, had also fared forth on a similar mission, along the street leading to the Paeen Bagh and — thanks to the prompt action of the commander of the Bailey Guard, Lieutenant Aitken, who had led a party of his defenders to secure the adjacent buildings — neither party had been fired on by the enemy. Indeed, Alex thought, rousing himself to look about him, the rebels were conspicuous by their continued absence, content, it appeared, to abandon both palaces at the river's edge and their walled enclosures to British occupation. Only ahead of them, in the neighborhood of the Moti Mahal three quarters of a mile away, were the Begum's guns in action ... and there, according to a report received from Colonel Campbell, of Her Majesty's 90th Light Infantry, who was in command, the position was one of considerable peril. The rear-guard, which consisted of a hundred men of his regiment, was surrounded and under continuous bombardment. Hampered by the column's baggage train and by its wounded — now numbering over two hundred, in doolies — and with one of Major Eyre's heavy guns jammed in a narrow passageway and out of action, Campbell stated that he could not advance, although he was so far holding his own. He had asked for reinforcements and, as a matter of urgency, for assistance to evacuate the wounded, many of whom were dying, due to the inability of his handful of surgeons to care for them adequately under such conditions.
The reinforcements — two companies of H.M.'s 5th Fusiliers, under Major Simmons, and a company of Jeremiah Brasyer's Sikhs — had been ordered out by General Outram, Alex was aware, before his own party had left the Residency, but they had been held up by the necessity to clear and occupy the Chutter Munzil garden before proceeding to their objective. When a young civil service officer, Bensley Thornhill — who was well acquainted with Lucknow's tortuous maze of streets and palace courtyards — had offered to guide a party along a path by the river bank, at the rear of the Chutter Munzil, and bring the wounded back by the same route, his offer had been accepted thankfully by General Havelock and agreed to by Sir James Outram.
Havelock's son Harry, deputy assistant adjutant-general to the Oudh Field Force, had been shot down after the attack on the Char Bagh bridge the day before and he was known to be among the wounded. The little general, despite his stoic efforts not to betray his personal feelings, was beside himself with anxiety on his son's account and Thornhill, who was related to the Havelocks by marriage, was eager to assuage his anxiety. His offer, however, had been confidently made and his route very carefully planned; it was evident to Alex, as the young civilian strode unhesitatingly ahead of his party of volunteers, that he knew the locale as well as he had claimed to know it.
"We're skirting the Chutter Munzil now," he called back softly. "Heads down and keep close to the wall, if you please."
Outside, under the towering wall of the palace, the shadows were deep and the path deserted. To their left, the River Goomti followed its winding course, its murky waters touched with a faint pink radiance as the new day dawned. On the far bank, the lights that had flickered through the darkness like fireflies went out, one by one, but, aside from this indication that the citizens of Lucknow were starting to wake, there was no sign of untoward activity on the part of the rebel troops. All their efforts were concentrated on the destruction of Colonel Campbell's hard-pressed rear-guard, the thunder of cannon and the crackle of musketry bearing witness to the ferocity of their assault.
A guard of Fusiliers, posted in a walled garden overlooking the river, challenged and brought the volunteer party to a halt. Thornhill gave the password of the day and one of the Fusiliers, gesturing ahead with his Minié rifle, told him that the main body of the reinforcements, under Major Simmons, had advanced through the king's stables and the godowns beyond, making for Martin's House. They were retracing the route by which the column had advanced yesterday, Alex's tired brain registered, but this time, seemingly, without meeting anything like yesterday's opposition.
"We'll keep close to the river," Bensley Thornhill said, as they moved forward again. "Until we're opposite Martin's House. Then we'll have to leg it across three hundred yards of dangerous ground, exposed to enemy fire. Perhaps, Colonel Sheridan, as you are mounted, you and your sowars could give us cover?"
"Certainly," Alex assented. He had two native cavalrymen with him, men who had accompanied him on one of his earlier sorties to bring in wounded from the Khas Bazaar area, and he glanced at them inquiringly, wondering if they had understood Thornhill's request, which had been made in English. He was about to repeat it in Hindustani when one of the sowars, who had a daffadar's stripes on his tattered uniform, gave vent to a startled exclamation.
"Sheridan Sahib ... you are Sheridan Sahib? Allah forgive me, I was not sure. In the darkness I did not see the sahib's face and, in truth, I believed you dead, Colonel Sahib — in Cawnpore, with all the others!" The man's voice shook and Alex checked his stride, to subject him to a puzzled scrutiny. The lined, dark face, with its graying beard was vaguely familiar and so was the voice but ... his tired eyes glimpsed the medals pinned to the ragged tunic. Ghuznee and the Sutlej campaign ... of course, it could be no one else! Pleasure and relief overcame his weariness and he turned, his hand extended.
"Ghulam Rasul — Daffadar Ghulam Rasul!"
"The same, Sahib." The old daffadar was beaming as he clasped the proffered hand.
"My wits are woolly from lack of sleep," Alex apologized. "I should have recognized you, daffadar-ji."
"We have all changed, Colonel Sahib." Ghulam Rasul gestured to Alex's scarred face. "You bear the scars of Cawnpore and I those of Lucknow."
"Have you been with the Lucknow garrison throughout the siege?" Alex asked him, resuming his slow, stumbling walk. Ghulam Rasul inclined his turbaned head.
"Ji-han ... since the day when the Colonel Sahib sent me back from Cawnpore with Partap Singh, the Sahib's orderly. He, alas, is dead — he was killed many weeks ago, when serving a gun. But the Sahib's fine horse is yet living ... the black Arab, Sultan. I have taken the best care of him that I could, Colonel Sahib, but like the rest of us, he is skin and bone."
Deeply moved by his loyalty, Alex thanked him, his throat tight. Ghulam Rasul had been one of the eighty-five sowars of the 3rd Light Cavalry sentenced by court martial to ten years' penal servitude, prior to the outbreak of the mutiny, for refusing the suspect Enfield cartridges. With the rest of his condemned comrades, he had been fettered and had his medals and his uniform stripped from him at the infamous punishment parade, ordered by the obese and senile General Hewitt in Meerut on May 9. Moved to pity by the plight of the eighty-five — and, in particular, by that of the old daffadar, whose twenty years of loyal service had earned no mitigation of his sentence — Alex had picked up his medals from the dust of the parade ground and had gone to the jail to restore them to their owner. Ghulam Rasul had not forgotten that small act of compassion. Liberated, with the other prisoners, when, the following evening, the Native Infantry regiments and the Light Cavalry had mutinied and broken into the jail, he had ridden with the rest to Delhi but then, sickened by the orgy of arson and slaughter in which the mutineers had launched their revolt, he had returned. He owed his life to the daffadar's providential return, Alex recalled. The old man had searched for and found him, in the corn field in which he had been left for dead, and it was thanks to his devotion and gallantry that he had reached Meerut safely, with the orphaned Lavinia Paterson.
"I am too old a dog to learn new tricks, Sahib," the daffadar said softly, as if reading his thoughts and Alex smiled, remembering. He had asked the man why he stayed, and Ghulam Rasul had replied with those words, adding in explanation, "I have served the Company for twenty years and I have taken pride in my service. I am too old to learn what I should have to learn, were I to remain in Delhi.The men I commanded have become arrogant madmen, seeking only to kill like butchers, not as soldiers. They rode through the Darya Ganj sabering every white passer-by they could see — women, children, even babes in their mothers' arms. I have no stomach for such slaughter, Sheridan Sahib. I will stay with you, if you will permit this, and serve you. If need be, I will die with you ..."
He had kept his word. He and perhaps thirty others — native officers and N.C.O.'s — of the 3rd Light Cavalry had remained true to their salt. Alone of the men whom General Hewitt had so savagely punished, Daffadar Ghulam Rasul, veteran of Ghuznee and Sobraon, had assisted in the defense of Lucknow and, on this account, could still take pride in his service.
Alex started to tell him so, but the old daffadar apologetically cut him short. "We have reached the dangerous ground of which Thornhill Sahib spoke. It is time to mount our horses, Colonel Sahib."
He was right, Alex saw. Ahead he could see the bulk of the Moti Mahal — the Pearl Palace — rising above the trees, dazzling white in the glow of the sunrise, the graceful, pearl-shaped dome, from which it had taken its name, appearing above a pall of black, swirling cannon smoke. It was under heavy bombardment still, with round shot thudding against its walls from a heavy gun battery sited, as nearly as he could judge, in the Kaiser Bagh to his right. Savage volleys of musketry were coming from the Khoorsheyd Munzil — the Palace of the Sun, which had been the mess house of the 32nd Regiment — firing at much closer range, and swarms of rebel infantry could be seen in the loopholed, mud-walled houses to the left and right of it. But from the south side of the enclosure held by the British rear-guard, a spirited fire was being returned, and one, at least, of Major Eyre's twenty-forpounders was still in action, together with a howitzer, throwing a stream of shot and shell over the intervening trees and buildings, in the direction of the Kaiser Bagh.
"We have to cross a nullah," Thornhill warned, having to shout to make himself heard above the uproar. "But there's our objective," he pointed, "Martin's House. We'll keep under cover of its compound wall, halt to get our breath, and then cross over the last forty yards of exposed ground to gain the south-west side of the palace. Major Simmons' force are in position, they're occupying the compound of Martin's House, and they'll give us covering fire when I give the signal." He rose, a torn white handkerchief held above his head, which he waved vigorously. Receiving an answering signal, he said, "Right — off we go!"
The small party — probably because it was small, Alex decided — attracted only a few ill-aimed shots and reached the comparative safety of the Moti Mahal Palace without suffering any casualties. But it would be a very different matter, he knew, when the open ground had to be crossed by a long line of hospital doolies containing badly injured men, and when there were several hundred native bearers — of the noncombatant coolie caste — to protect and control, the majority of whom would drop their burdens and take flight if they came under heavy attack. However, once this first hazard had been negotiated, the rest of the journey along the narrow riverside path would be screened from enemy fire and could be taken slowly, so as not to cause the wounded any unnecessary discomfort.
A harassed ensign, with bloodshot blue eyes and a filthy scrap of cloth serving as a bandage for a head wound, conducted the new arrivals to Colonel Campbell. The rear-guard commander looked even more harassed and exhausted than his subaltern. He was limping from a wound in the right leg, but he received Thornhill's proposals for the evacuation of the wounded with a heartfelt "Thank God!" and proceeded to implement the plans he had obviously prepared earlier.
"I've two surgeons I can send with you, Mr. Thornhill," he said. "Dr. Home and Dr. Bradshaw ... the third was killed, alas, half an hour ago. As to an escort — dammit, I can't spare any of my men, and, in any case, they're too done up to be of much use to you. Major Simmons' fellows are fresher — we'll see what he can offer you. Preston, pass the word to the major, if you please — he's in the hospital, I fancy, having his hand dressed and —"
"I'll find him myself, sir," Thornhill put in, as Ensign Preston prepared wearily to go in search of the 5th Fusiliers' commander. "I promised the general I'd make sure that his son was safe."
"Harry Havelock?" A smile lit Campbell's smoke-blackened face. "Oh, we've taken good care of him, don't worry. He's taken a musket-ball in the arm, but the surgeons have cleaned and dressed it for him, and they don't think that amputation will be necessary. He's in good spirits." Thornhill went off under the guidance of young Preston, and the colonel, after peering at him uncertainly, recognized Alex. "You're Sheridan, aren't you, of Barrow's Horse?"
"Yes, sir," Alex acknowledged.
"Wonderful fellows, yours," the Queen's officer said, with genuine admiration." Still, so they should be, with lieutenant colonels serving in their ranks! Tell me, Colonel Sheridan, how did it go with the leading regiments yesterday evening — the Highlanders in particular? We have only heard rumors here but one of the rumors concerned General Neill. It's not true, is it, that he was killed?"
"I am sorry to say he was, sir. I was within a few yards of him when he fell — to a sniper's bullet." Alex gave details of casualties and then, the memory of it still vivid in his mind, described the entry into the Residency. Colonel Campbell sighed when Sheridan came to the end of his recital.
"General Havelock saved the garrison," he said. "But, dear heaven, Sheridan ... at what cost! It will break the poor old gentleman's heart to have lost so many — and of his beloved Highlanders, too. Still, it had to be done. We could not permit another Cawnpore, and we really needed a force of ten thousand, instead of three, to do the job properly. We — excuse me ..." he broke off, as his regimental surgeon came toward him. "Well, Tony, how goes it in your department? This, by the way, is Colonel Sheridan of the Volunteer Horse — Dr. Home."
Excerpted from The Heroic Garrison by V. A. Stuart. Copyright © 1975 V. A. Stuart. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
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