AN INCIDENT OF THE SEPOY MUTINY
The incident on which this tale is founded occurred at Mount Abu, where an Irish doctor, since dead, and fifteen convalescents saved the station during the Sepoy mutiny. They received no recognition of their pluck.
A GREAT flock of fleecy white clouds were browsing up the steep hill-side like sheep, and hiding part of the great map of India which lay spread out five thousand feet below one of the isolated peaks which rise, in sheer masses of granite, from the dusty deserts of Rajputana.
Now, their dustiness wore a faint tinting of green, since the seasonal rains had begun. For the moment, however, the deluge had ceased, giving place to one of those brilliant monsoon days—fine with the fineness of gentian skies and snowdrift clouds—which remind Indian exiles of the cold, crisp North.
But already these same clouds were beginning to sink earthwards, sure sign that the break in the rains was at an end. Still, here—in the little station beside the lake which looks as if the least tilt would make it brim over and send it rolling like quicksilver to the sun-dry plains below—the sky was all the clearer because of the steady increase of those fleecy flocks among the glens and ravines, which spread outwards, downwards, ray-like, star-shaped, from the summit.
The increase was so steady that the flocks coalesced after a time, and took the likeness of a rolling sea, through whose waves the knolls and peaks rose like islands; until the whole scene, lake and all, showed as a clustered coral reef shows in the Pacific Ocean—still, dream-like, utterly peaceful.
There was no peace, however, on the face of the Englishman in undress uniform, who was sitting at an office table in the verandah of a thatched, high-perched bungalow which was fenced in perfunctorily from a sheer precipice on three sides by a frail trellis of bamboo solidified by morning glories.
"If I could get reliable information," he muttered irritably, "I could be prepared. But I can hear nothing of Lawrence, and it is quite impossible for me to predicate the movements of the mutineers; yet without this it is difficult to know how to receive them." His voice rose as he went on, for a yawn and a stir from a lounge-chair set in the shade told him he had a listener.
"Not the laste bit difficult, me dear bhoy," came with the yawn; "sure, we've got to kill them somehow."
The first speaker looked up angrily from the map he was studying. "Perhaps if I were only directly responsible for fifteen convalescents, as you are, Tiernay, I should be content to—to be in a fog! But I am the Station Staff Officer, and in the absence on duty of the Commanding Officer and, I regret to say, all but a mere handful of native troops, I am responsible for the safety of a hundred and thirty-five helpless women and and children—their lives and deaths——"
He was interrupted by Dr. Tiernay's laugh and high-pitched "Not at all! Loife and death's my business from wan year's end to the other. There's responsibility for yez! And I kill as many as I cure, as all we pill-boxes do. Sure, we haven't a fair chanst; for any fool can live healthy without a doctor. It's when he thinks of dyin' he comes to us—an' nine toimes out of ten we can't help him. For, talk of bein' in a fog! Be jabers! it's nothing to the British Pharmacopœia. When I write a prescription I always put 'D.V.'—'weather permittin'—at the tail-end of it."
The Station Staff Officer looked at the dishevelled, lazy figure, so different from his own, distastefully. "Well! I prefer a clearer conception of my line of treatment. Now, if this portion of the Nosseerabad rebels which, there seems little doubt, are making for us here"—his finger followed a red line he had marked—"elect to proceed——"
"Elect, is it? interrupted the doctor. "Sure, they won't elect to do anything. It will come to them widout their knowing how, like fayver or catarrh. An' it's no manner of use beginning to physic a patient till ye know what disease fancies him. So lave off wid worrying, me dear boy, and just get out the salts and senna——"
"Salts and senna!" echoed the Station Staff angrily. "Really, Tiernay, considering you are the only other man in the place—for I don't count your miserable convalescents, of course, and my handful of natives is more an anxiety than a help—I do think you might talk sense——"
Dr. Tiernay rose, yawned, and walked over to the office table—a tall, lank figure, with a reckless, whimsical face, alert now to the uttermost.
"An' isn't it sinse? Salts and senna is what's generally wanted to begin with. Well, I've collected every lethal weapon I can lay hands on, including the dintistry case and the horse-pistols with which me grand uncle MacTurk, of Turksville, shot his wife's brother—so me salts and senna's ready; and, on me conscience! I'll exhibit it, too, whin the patient comes along. Trust Micky Tiernay for that. But till he does"—here his face took a sudden, almost serious gravity—"ah! just quit cultivating omniscience, and lave the fog alone! Sure, only the divil himself could say what the blackguards will do."
"But Hoshyari Mull, the banker, thinks——"
"Is it that fat, oily brute? Oh, don't belave him! Don't belave what anybody says. They don't know; not even what they'll be at themselves if the mutineers do come. There's only wan thing certain—there's but wan straight road from Nusseerabad up the hill to us. That's the tail end of it yonder through the break in the mist. Oh! I've been kaping an eye on it, I tell yez, even in my sleep. Well, if they come, they'll come that way."
"But Koomar, the priest——"
Dr. Tiernay looked, across the placid, still sun-bright levels of the little lake, at the wonderful Jain temples which made this hilltop one of the holiest spots in all India, and shook his head. "Don't trust him, either, for all his white robes and his piety. He means well; but he's more in a fog than we are, for we know that we don't want the mutineers to come, and he isn't sure. How can he be? I'd just throuble ye to imagine his mental position, if ye can!"
So saying he took up his battered helmet, which looked as if someone had been playing football with it, and strolled over to the hospital. It was perched on another knoll close by, yet between it and him the mist now lay almost level; for the curved waves had given place, like the fleecy flocks, to a new formation of fog. This, far as the eye could see, was a flat plain of cotton wool, luminous, on which the knolls, the temples, the glittering lake, showed like jewels.
He dipped into the fog as it lay soft in the hollow, and out of it again, ere entering the hospital verandah, where a man in the loose uniform of a dresser rose from his task of polishing a pair of horse-pistols, and saluted—a trifle unsteadily, for he, though the best of the bunch of convalescents, was somewhat of a cripple. Had he not been so, he would not have been left behind when every man who could hold a rifle had tramped down the hill to do the work that had to be done in the plains, if not only Englishwomen, but England's power in India, were to be saved.
"Parade will be a bit short to-day, sir," he said with cheerful regret, "for Corporal Flanagan 'e 'ave 'ad to 'ave a hemetic, sir; and the fly-blister on Private MacTartan's chest is has big has a hostrich's hegg."
"Dear, dee-ar," commented the doctor in long-drawn sympathy, as he passed in to where a dozen or more of men in grey flannel dressing-gowns were lounging about in their cots or out of them. They were an unshaven, haggard-looking lot, though one or two were beginning to show that air of alertness which tells that soul and body are coming back to the bustle of life. One or two others lay cuddled into their pallets with that other hospital expression—impatient patience. Most, however, were between these two extremes, and one of them asked eagerly—
"Any news of the brutes to-day, sir? It would be just my luck, when I'm down with another bad turn."
"Bad turn! What's a bad turn?" retorted Dr. Tiernay, with a reassuring smile. "News of the varmint would have more therapeutic powder than every drug I possess, an' a galvanic batthery wouldn't be in it wid the first shot. Faix! even if I'd killed ye, ye'd come to loife again to spite me! Oh, Flanagan, there ye are! A bit white about the gills, me bhoy, but's it's a foine thing to be in light marching order. An' as for you, MacTartan, sure, you've the illigantest protective pad ever a man wore above his heart. Is there any more of you would like wan?"
Yet as he made merry the doctor's eyes had wandered to where that tail end of the upward road had shown for a second between a rift in the fog blanket. Then he went on to dress the leg of a cripple on crutches. He was in the middle of bandaging it, when an excited voice called him by name from the verandah, and he rushed out, bandage and all, so that his patient remained attached to him by a fluttering ribbon.
He found the Station Staff on his pony. There was news at last. The mutineers were coming, but not by the road. They had been seen on the old footpath to the north, so they evidently meant to steal a march in the rear.
"What made ye come and tell?" asked the doctor suddenly, in Hindustani, to the naked figure which had brought the news. It was that of a Jain ascetic, with a muslin cloth bound about his mouth so as to prevent the destruction even of the unseen life around him.
The set brown sanctity of the face wavered. "They come to kill, and I kill nothing," came as answer.
Dr. Tiernay turned on the heel and faced the man on crutches, who, after vainly begging to be told what was happening, had come crawling on all fours to the verandah; where Dr. Tiernay began, as it were, to haul him in by rolling up the bandage. "Who on earth tould ye to move, Tompkins?" he said. "Come in at wanst and let me finish the job."
"But, doctor——" protested the Station Staff.
The doctor swung round again at the appeal. "Don't believe his saintship," he said—"don't, for Heaven's sake! If it's killing he objects to, sure, isn't he helping us to kill them? That sort of thing doesn't work. See you—he says there are five hundred of them. Sainted Cecilia! if that's so, an' they mean to come and kill us, why come up the back stairs?"
"But he says—and Koomar also, and even Hoshyari Mull——"
"Well, I'd rather trust the fat little banker, if it comes to trustin'," interrupted the doctor; "for, see you, I owe him money, and if I'm killed he won't get it. But if I were you, I'd trust none of them. Even Hoshyari, compound interest at a hundred and fifty per cent. to boot, does not know what he'll be at; so take my advice and sit tight where ye are."
The Station Staff did sit very tight and square on his pony. "I'm sorry you don't agree with me, Dr. Tiernay," he said stiffly; "and, of course, being in independent medical charge of this convalescent depôt, you can remain behind if you choose. Indeed, I think it would, in a way, be wiser, since your fellows would be of little use——"
Dr. Tiernay looked round on the contingent of crippledom which had crowded and crawled to the verandah to listen. "Faix!" he said, "their hearts are whole, anyhow, and that's half the battle. But what's your plan?"
"I have thought out this eventuality before, and am certain that our defence must be at the defile—you know—about four miles from here. I shall take every soul I can—it's better to give everyone something to do."
The doctor nodded. "That's sound, anyhow. 'Satan finds——' Then I'll stay here."
"If—if I fail, you will do what you can for the women and children. I shan't give the alarm now; so—so you might tell my wife by and by—if necessary."
Mike Tiernay walked back and patted the pony's neck. "I'll tell her; and ye may be right—ye can't tell—it's just the fog. Anyhow, the cripples will do what they can for the ladies and the babies: though wanst those murderin' villains set foot on the summit, it's all up. So—so I'll keep an eye on the road for ye. Well, good-bye, me dear bhoy, and good luck to ye!"
The sun, that was still shining brightly above the mists, shone on the men's clasped hands for a moment.
After that Dr. Tiernay finished Tompkins's leg. It was rather a long job, as it had to be done all over again. Then there were minor hurts to arms and hands, so that an hour must have passed before the doctor, wiping his hands with the curiously minute care of the surgeon who knows what risks he runs, suddenly dropped the towel and said—
"Sainted Sister Anne! They're coming?"
Yes! The rift for which he had been watching, with the carelessness which comes with custom, had showed that tail end of the road for a moment, and revealed men and horses, the flashing of bayonets and spear-points.
Ten minutes after the man on crutches was the only one left in the hospital, and he was sitting on the edge of his cot sobbing like a child disappointed of his holiday. But Mike Tiernay had left him the horse-pistols by way of consolation, with instructions to hold the fort as long as he could, and prevent the rascals from touching even the drugs.
"Ye'll have the best of it, after all, I tell ye," had been the doctor's farewell; "for sure, ye'll be sittin' at your ease shootin' straight long after we've been silenced; and a last shot is always a last shot!"
Then he had led his company of cripples through the hollow of mist which lay between the hospital and the head of that road whose tail had shown the upward gleam of bayonets.
As yet, however, everything was peaceful. The lake, the temples, the isolated houses set on their knolls, even the lower cluster of the bazaar, were all bathed in sunshine, with the curious translucent brilliance which only Indian sunshine can give. Only between them, clinging to every hollow, lay the thick, luminous, white fog. Mike Tiernay took off his helmet, wiped his forehead, and looked around.
"It's no good in loife making the poor things anxious," he muttered to himself; "an' if we can keep the divils at bay, he will be back to tell his own story; but I'll just give a look round to hearten them up—there's plenty of toime, for I can catch up to the cripples in a jiffy."
So, bidding his men march slowly down the road—saving themselves as much as possible, since their work would be cut out for them afterwards—until he rejoined them, he set off with swinging strides to the semi-fortified houses in which, more for the name of safety than for the hope of it, the helpless women and children had been gathered during the last few days.
"Any news, doctor?" asked the Station Staff Officer's wife, coming out to meet him, her six months baby in her arms. "Dick isn't back from office yet, and it's such weary work—waiting—waiting!"
Dr. Tiernay bent rather abruptly to look at the fretful child, which was teething badly. One or two other women, pale-faced, anxious, their little ones clinging round them, had gathered to listen, and he spoke as it were to all.
"Well, it can't be long now, any more than it can't be long before Dick comes back, or before that troublesome eye-tooth comes through. If all goes well, me dear madam, all the worry will be over by to-morrow——"
"And if it isn't you will come with your lancet, won't you?" asked the mother pleadingly.
Dr. Tiernay frowned portentously. "It's against me principles, madam, but I'll use—well—some kind of lethal weapon, I promise you. An' tell your husband when ye see him that my cripples did as well—as well as could be expected—considerin' the fog."
"Did as well?" she asked. "What have they done?"
"Gone for their first walk down the road," he replied with a cheerful laugh, "an' I must be afther them, to stop them from overtiring themselves. So good-bye—Dick'll maybe bring good news."
"How cheerful he is always!" said one pale-faced mother to another. "I always feel safer when I've seen him; and you know, he can't really think there is any immediate danger, or he wouldn't have talked of coming to lance the baby's gums, would he?"
Whatever Dr. Tiernay might have thought, he was by this time beginning to realise that in the fog it was impossible to know anything—even the positions of his own cripples. "Are ye all there, wid as many legs an' arms as ye have whole?" he called, after he had given the order for them to fall in; "for, sure's I live, I must take ye on trust—ye might be anybody."
He paused—his eyes lit up suddenly—he gave a wild "Hooroosh!—I have it, men!"—he shouted suddenly: "Let's play the fog on the divils, an' smash 'em. They can't see us, so let's take them in flank at the zigzag. Smith! out wid yer engineer's eye, and tell me what's the length of the zigzag—wan zig of it, I mane."
Smith, in the fog, thought for a moment or two. "Close on a mile, sir, more or less, and there's four of them."
"Say three-quarters. An' we are sixteen—no, it's fifteen, for we had to leave poor Tompkins wid his crutches an' the horse-pistols—Tompkins absent."
"Beg pardin', sir," came a voice from the fog, "Tompkins present. Come a-all fours down the short cut, quite easy!"
"Sixteen," corrected the doctor calmly, "sixteen into twelve hundred yards. Faix! it'll have to be open order. …" He paused for an odd catch in his breath, something between a laugh and a sob. "See here, ye gomerauns!—English, Irish, Scotch, whatever ye are!—that's our game—we're not sixteen—we're sixteen hundred——!!"
The cripples out of the fog broke into a faint cheer. "You've got it, Mick Tiernay!" they assented wildly; "you've got it, doctor, dear! The fog's our game!"
"We're sixteen hundred strong, an' we're each of us a hundred men an' two officers," called the doctor back. "Now, d'ye understand, men? Open order it is—wan hundred yards or thereabouts, at the top zigzag—an' chargin' down on the divils in flank—an' a gift of tongues—an' Donnybrook Fair! hooroosh, Pat! Come on, lads!"
The next moment they were hirpling, hobbling downward, unseen even of each other, until sometimes a jostle would bring a low-toned witticism: "Now, then, cap'n, keep your regiment orf mine, will ye?" Or, "I'll throuble you, sorr, to respect me formation."
So the cripples made their way towards their forlorn hope; and despite the witticisms, their haggard, lean faces, hidden like all else in the fog, were stern and strained. Men's faces are apt to be so when each man has to find place in his body for a hundred souls—not including two officers.
"Quiet's the word. Let them come on almost to the turn," was the doctor's last injunction as he posted his men—the strongest at the narrowest end of the zigzag, because they would the soonest come upon the enemy, and so on in varying gradations of convalescence, till the line of the supposed battalion stopped at the widest end with Tompkins, who was given as much ammunition as they could spare, and told to fire freely, regardlessly.
The doctor himself, with MacTartan close beside him, "so as to increase the illushion," were at the extreme angle, the unseen road below them not fifty yards off. Below that again, the doctor knew, was an almost precipitous grass slope down to the next zig.
"We must start them on that short cut if we can, till death stops 'em," he said to his supporter, "an', if we do, they'll rowl and row! and rowl to perdition." So they waited, the jest forgotten in the earnest.
Then suddenly through the fog came a jingle. "'Tention, B Company," whispered the man who had had a bad turn, to himself, and steadied his shaking hands on his musket as he listened. Another jingle. A sound of voices first, then, as suddenly as the jingle had come, came a thud of many feet—thud, thud, thud!
Then all along the hillside, all along that three-quarters of a mile or more, ran a volley—not of rifles, but orders—orders familiar to those below, orders suggestive of colonels and majors, regiments and wings and companies, suggestive of all the pomp and panoply of war. Finally, at the narrowest end came a call to fire and charge, a reckless volley into the fog, and then two reckless figures flinging themselves into that uttermost void. Heaven knows how, Heaven knows where, save that it was downwards on that climbing foe. MacTartan first, remembering his Highland corries, half burst his lungs in his effort to give the Highland yell of a whole regiment. Yet beneath the grim joke a grimmer earnest lay, as, in the fog, he and his bayonet found something.
"Hech, now! Is that you?" he said grimly, and the something was a man no more.
"Steady, men! Follow me!" shouted Dr. Tiernay. Once more the mist produced something, and two men in deadly earnest hacked at each other with swords.
"Go on, brothers! Run! They are behind us! Run! Go back, brothers! They are ahead!" came the cries, and above them rose those orders, a dropping fire, and, from the far end—Tompkins's end—quite a respectable volley.
"Come on! come on! and let them have the bayonet!" shouted the doctor again, and one or two more men grew from the mist into sight upon the one side of the climbing road. But the men who had been on the road first were fast disappearing into the fog on the other side—disappearing down the grass slope to the next zag. Only at the turn, where the doctor and MacTartan fought side by side, the difficulty of escape made resistance fierce from a knot of troopers; till, recklessly, MacTartan caught one horse by the bridle and deliberately backed it over the edge; but not before, in his desperate effort to be strong as he once had been, he had stumbled and fallen before the flash of a sabre that passed in mad flight downwards. "Gorsh me! I've spoilt myself," he murmured sadly, as he rose with difficulty.
"What is it, man? Are you wounded?" cried the doctor, rushing up.
"Bruk me blister, sir" replied MacTartan, stolidly reaching for his bayonet and going on.
That upper zigzag was clear now, but below in the fog lay another, and another, and another, where the fugitives might be caught. So the battalion charged again, and again, while Tompkins, coming down quite easy "a-all fours," fired volleys steadily.
The jest and the earnest of it, what pen can tell? Till through the fog rang a faint "Hurrah!" For the last of the zigzags had been reached, and neither on it, nor far or near upon the hillside down which the battalion had charged in open order, was foe—not to be seen, but felt. The uttermost void was void indeed!
"We've got no doolys, men," said Dr. Tiernay, wiping his forehead once more, "so the wounded must crawl back to hospital as best they can."
So they crawled, all but Tompkins. The doctor insisted upon carrying him pickaback, on the ground that he, the doctor, was the only whole man in the battalion, and was bound to double work—the work of two hundred men and four officers. In truth, he had done it bravely.
So the next morning, when he went his rounds, he stood for a minute or two beside a fretful baby, and then took out in lancet.
"It's against me principles, me dear madam," he said, with a shrug of his shoulders; "for there's a toime for everything and everything in its toime, and no one—not even a tooth—knows what it would be at till that toime comes; but as I said all the throuble would be over, and the rest of it is, why, I'll keep me word."
And it was over; for a message saying he was close on the heels of his messenger had come from George Lawrence.
The fog had lifted by this time—lifted for steady rain. So the English troops coming up found the foes more easily than the battalion had done. But the foes were dead. Those random shots, those reckless charges from nothingness to nothingness, had done some work.
And part of it was on the naked body of a Jain ascetic with a bit of muslin swathed about his mouth, lest, inadvertently, he should bring death to the smallest of God's creatures.
- Copyright in the United States and Canada by the Perry Mason Company.