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HOME > Short Stories > In Times of Peril A Tale of India > CHAPTER XV. SPIKING THE GUNS.
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 As soon as night fell a little procession with three little forms on trays covered with white cloths, and two of larger size, started from Gubbins' house to the churchyard. Mr. and Mrs. Hargreaves, and Mrs. Righton and her husband, with two other women, followed. That morning all the five, now to be laid in the earth, were strong and well; but death had been busy. In such a climate as that, and in so crowded a dwelling, no delay could take place between death and burial, and the victims of each day were buried at nightfall. There was no time to make coffins, no men to spare for the work; and as each fell, so were they committed to the earth.  
A little distance from Gubbins' house the procession joined a larger one with the day's victims from the other parts of the garrison—a total of twenty-four, young and old. At the head of the procession walked the Rev. Mr. Polehampton, one of the chaplains, who was distinguished for the bravery and self-devotion with which he labored among the sick and wounded. The service on which they were now engaged was in itself dangerous, for the churchyard was very exposed to the enemy's fire, and—for they were throughout the siege remarkably well-informed of what was taking place within the Residency—every evening they opened a heavy fire in the direction of the spot where they knew a portion of the garrison would be engaged in this sad avocation. Quietly and steadily the little procession moved along, though bullets whistled and shells hissed around them. Each stretcher with an adult body was carried by four soldiers, while some of the little ones' bodies were carried by their mothers as if alive. Mrs. Hargreaves and her daughter carried between them the tray on which the body of little Rupert Righton lay. Arrived at the churchyard, a long shallow trench, six feet wide, had been prepared, and in this, side by side, the dead were tenderly placed. Then Mr. Polehampton spoke a few words of prayer and comfort, and the mourners turned away, happily without one of them having been struck by the bullets which sang around, while some of the soldiers speedily filled in the grave.
While the sad procession had been absent, the boys had gone to Mrs. Hargreaves' room. The curtain was drawn, and they could hear the girls sobbing inside.
"Please, Miss Hargreaves, can I speak to you for a moment?" Ned said.
"I would not intrude, but it is something particular."
Edith Hargreaves came to the door.
"Please," Ned went on, "will you give us two good-sized pieces of sponge? We don't know any one else to ask, and—but you must not say a word to any one—my brother and myself mean to go out to-night to silence that battery which is doing such damage."
"Silence that battery!" Edith exclaimed in surprise. "Oh, if you could do that; but how is it possible?"
"Oh, you dear boy," Nelly, who had come to the door, exclaimed impetuously, "if you could but do that, every one would love you. We shall all be killed if that terrible battery goes on. But how are you going to do it?"
"I don't say we are going to do it," Ned said, smiling at the girl's excitement, "but we are going to try to-night. We'll tell you all about it in the morning when it is done; that is," he said seriously, "if we come back to tell it. But you must not ask any questions now, and please give us the pieces of sponge." Edith disappeared for a moment, and came back with two large pieces of sponge.
"We will not ask, as you say we must not," she said quietly, "but I know you are going to run some frightful danger. I may tell mamma and Carrie when they come back that much, may I not? and we will all keep awake and pray for you tonight—God bless you both!" And with a warm clasp of the hands the girls went back into their room again.
"I tell you what, Ned," the midshipman said emphatically, when they went out into the air, "if I live through this war I'll marry Nelly Hargreaves; that is," he added, "if she'll have me, and will wait a bit. She is a brick, and no mistake. I never felt really in love before; not regularly, you know."
At any other time Ned would have laughed; but with Edith's farewell words in his ear he was little disposed for mirth, and he merely put his hand on Dick's shoulder and said:
"There will be time to talk about that in the future, Dick. There's the battery opening in earnest. There! Mr. Gubbins is calling for all hands on the roof with their rifles to try and silence it. Come along."
For an hour the fire on both sides was incessant. The six guns of the battery concentrated their fire upon Gubbins' house, while from the walls and houses on either side of it the fire of the musketry flashed unceasingly, sending a hail of shot to keep down the reply from the roof.
On their side the garrison on the terrace disregarded the musketry fire, but, crowded behind the sandbags, kept up a steady and concentrated fire at the flashes of the cannon; while from the battery below, the gunners, unable to touch the enemy's battery, discharged grape at the houses tenanted by the enemy's infantry. The Sepoys, carefully instructed in our service, had constructed shields of rope to each gun to protect the gunners, but those at the best could cover but one or two men, and the fire from the parapet inflicted such heavy losses upon the gunners that after a time their fire dropped, and an hour from the commencement of the cannonade all was still again on both sides. The Sepoy guns were silenced.
It was now ten o'clock, and the Warreners went and lay down quietly for a couple of hours. Then they heard the guard changed, and after waiting a quarter of an hour they went out to the battery, having first filled their sponges with water. There they joined Mr. Johnson.
"Can't sleep, boys?" he asked; "those flies are enough to drive one mad. You will get accustomed to them after a bit."
"It is not exactly that, sir," Ned said, "but we wanted to speak to you. Dick and I have made up our minds to silence that battery. We have got sponges full of water, and we mean to go out and drown the priming. Then when we come back and tell Mr. Gubbins, I dare say he will take out a party, make a rush, and spike them."
"Why, you must be mad to think of such a thing!" Mr. Johnson said in astonishment.
"I think it is easy enough, sir," Ned replied; "at any rate, we mean to try."
"I can't let you go without leave," Mr. Johnson said.
"No, sir, and so we are not going to tell you we are going," Ned laughed. "What we want to ask you is to tell your men not to fire if they hear a noise close by in the next few minutes, and after that to listen for a whistle like this. If they hear that they are not to fire at any one approaching from the outside. Good-by, sir."
And without waiting for Mr. Johnson to make up his mind whether or not his duty compelled him to arrest them, to prevent them from carrying out the mad scheme of which Ned had spoken, the Warreners glided off into the darkness.
They had obtained a couple of native daggers, and took no other arms. They did not take off their boots, but wound round them numerous strips of blanket, so that they would tread noiselessly, and yet if obliged to run for it would avoid the risk of cutting their feet and disabling themselves in their flight. Then, making sure that by this time Mr. Johnson would have given orders to his men not to fire if they heard a noise close at hand, they went noiselessly to the breastwork which ran from the battery to the house, climbed over it, and dropped into the trench beyond.
Standing on the battery close beside them, they saw against the sky the figure of Mr. Johnson.
"Good-by, sir," Ned said softly; "we will be back in half an hour if we have luck."
Then they picked their way carefully over the rough ground till they reached the lane, and then walked boldly but noiselessly forward, for they knew that for a little way there was no risk of meeting an enemy, and that in the darkness they were perfectly invisible to any native posted near the guns. After fifty yards' walking, they dropped on their hands and knees. Although the guns had been absolutely silent since their fire ceased at ten o'clock, a dropping musketry fire from the houses and walls on either side had, as usual, continued. This indicated to the boys pretty accurately the position of the guns. Crawling forward foot by foot, they reached the little ridge which sheltered the guns from the battery in Gubbins' garden.
The guns themselves they could not see, for behind them was a house, and, except against the sky line, nothing was visible. They themselves were, as they knew, in a line between Gubbins' house and any one who might be standing at the guns, so that they would not show against the sky. They could hear talking among the houses on either side of the guns, and could see the light of fires, showing that while some of their enemies were keeping up a dropping fire, others were passing the night, as is often the native custom, round the fires, smoking and cooking. There was a faint talk going on ahead, too, beyond the guns; but the enemy had had too severe a lesson of the accuracy of the English rifle-fire to dare to light a fire there.
Having taken in the scene, the boys moved forward, inch by inch. Presently Ned put his hand on something which, for a moment, made him start back; an instant's thought, however, reassured him; it was a man, but the hardness of the touch told that it was not a living one. Crawling past it, the lads found other bodies lying thickly, and then they touched a wheel. They had arrived at the guns, and the bodies were those of the men shot down a few hours before in the act of loading.
Behind the guns a number of artillerymen were, as the boys could hear, sitting and talking; but the guns themselves stood alone and unguarded. A clasp of the hand, and the boys parted, one going, as previously arranged, each way. Ned rose very quietly by the side of the gun, keeping his head, however, below its level, and running his hand along it until it came to the breech. The touch-hole was covered by a wad of cloth to keep the powder dry from the heavy dew. This he removed, put up his hand again with the wet sponge, gave a squeeze, and then cautiously replaced the covering.
Dick did the same with the gun on the right, and so each crept along from gun to gun, until the six guns were disabled. Then they crawled back and joined each other.
A clasp of the hands in congratulation, and then they were starting to return, when they heard a dull tramp, and the head of a dark column came along just ahead of them. The boys shrank back under the guns, and lay flat among the bodies of the dead. The column halted at the guns, and a voice asked:
"Is the colonel here?"
"Here am I," said a voice from behind the guns, and a native officer came forward.
"We are going to make an attack from the house of Johannes. We shall be strong, and shall sweep the Kaffirs before us. It is the order of the general that you open with your guns here, to distract their attention."
"Will it please you to represent to the general that we have fought this evening, and that half my gunners are killed. The fire of the sons of Sheitan is too strong for us. Your excellency will see the ground is covered with our dead. Bring fire," he ordered, and at the word one of the soldiers lighted a torch made of straw, soaked in oil, which threw a lurid flame over the ground. "See, excellency, how we have suffered."............
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