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HOME > Short Stories > In Times of Peril A Tale of India > CHAPTER XXIII. A DESPERATE DEFENSE.
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 In an instant the door was closed and bolted, and the four set to work to pile barrels and boxes against it. Not a word was spoken while this was going on. By the time they had finished the uproar without had changed its character; the firing had ceased, and the triumphant shouts of the mutineers showed that their victory was complete. Then came a loud thundering noise at the door.  
"We have only delayed it a few minutes," Colonel Warrener said. "We have fought our fight, boys, and our time has come. Would to God that I had to die alone!"
"Look, father," Dick said, "there is a small door there. I noticed it last night. No doubt there is a staircase leading to the terrace above. At any rate, we may make a good fight there."
"Yes," Major Dunlop said, "we may fight it out to the last on the stairs. Run, Dick, and see."
Dick found, as he supposed, that from the door a narrow winding staircase led to the terrace above, from which the dome rose far into the air. The stairs were lit by an occasional narrow window. He was thinking as he ran upstairs of the ideas that had crossed his brain the night before.
"It is all right," he said, as he came down again. "Look, father, if we take up barrels and boxes, we can make barricades on the stairs, and defend them for any time almost."
"Excellent," the colonel said. "To work. They will be a quarter of an hour breaking in the door. Make the top barricade first, a few feet below the terrace."
Each seized a box or barrel, and hurried up the stairs. They had a longer time for preparation than they expected, for the mutineers, feeling sure of their prey, were in no hurry, and finding how strong was the door, decided to sit down and wait until their guns would be up to blow it in. Thus the defenders of the tomb had an hour's grace, and in that time had constructed three solid barricades. Each was placed a short distance above an opening for light, so that while they themselves were in darkness, their assailants would be in the light. They left a sufficient space at the top of each barricade for them to scramble over, leaving some spare barrels on the stairs above it to fill up the space after taking their position.
"Now for the remains of our supper, father," Dick said, "and that big water jug. I will carry them up. Ned, do you bring up that long coil of thin rope."
"What for, Dick?"
"It may be useful, Ned; ropes are always useful. Ah, their guns are up."
As he spoke a round shot crashed through the door, and sent splinters of casks and a cloud of flour flying.
"Now, Ned, come along," Dick said; and followed by Colonel Warrener and Major Dunlop, they entered the little doorway and ran up the narrow stairs.
At the first barricade, which was some thirty steps up, the officers stopped, and proceeded to fill up the passage hitherto left open, while the boys continued their way to the terrace.
"Let us have a look round, Ned; those fellows will be some minutes before they are in yet; and that barricade will puzzle them."
Day was breaking now, and the lads peered over the parapet which ran round the terrace.
"There are a tremendous lot of those fellows, Dick, four or five thousand of them at least, and they have got six guns."
"Hurrah, Ned!" Dick said, looking round at the great dome; "this is just what I hoped."
He pointed to a flight of narrow steps, only some twelve inches across, fixed to the side of the dome, which rose for some distance almost perpendicularly. By the side of the steps was a low hand-rail. They were evidently placed there permanently, to enable workmen to ascend to the top of the dome, to re-gild the long spike which, surmounted by a crescent, rose from its summit, or to do any repairs that were needful.
"There, Ned, I noticed these steps on some of the domes at Lucknow. When the worst comes to the worst, and we are beaten from the stairs, we can climb up that ladder—for it's more like a ladder than stairs—and once on the top could laugh at the whole army of them. Now, Ned, let us go down to them; by that cheering below, the artillery has broken the door open."
The mutineers burst through the broken door into the great hall with triumphant yells, heralding their entrance by a storm of musketry fire, for they knew how desperately even a few Englishmen will sell their lives. There was a shout of disappointment at finding the interior untenanted; but a moment's glance round discovered the door, and there was a rush toward it, each longing to be the first to the slaughter. The light in the interior was but faint, and the stairs were pitch dark, and were only wide enough for one man to go up with comfort, although two could just stand side by side. Without an obstacle the leaders of the party stumbled and groped their way up the stairs, until the first came into the light of a long narrow loophole in the wall. Then from the darkness above came the sharp crack of a revolver, and the man fell on his face, shot through the heart. Another crack, and the next shared his fate. Then there was a pause, for the spiral was so sharp that not more than two at a time were within sight of the defenders of the barricade.
The next man hesitated at seeing his immediate leaders fall; but pressed from behind he advanced, with his musket at his shoulder, in readiness to fire when he saw his foes; but the instant his head appeared round the corner a ball struck him, and he too fell. Still the press from behind pushed the leaders forward, and it was not until six had fallen, and the narrow stairs were impassable from the dead bodies, that an officer of rank, who came the next on the line, succeeded by shouting in checking the advance. Then orders were passed down for those crowding the doorway to fall back, and the officer, with the men on the stairs, descended, and the former reported to the leader that six men had fallen, and that the stairs were choked with their bodies. After much consultation orders were given the men to go up, and keeping below the spot at which, one after another, their comrades had fallen, to stretch out their arms and pull down the bodies. This was done, and then an angry consultation again took place. It was clear that, moving fast, only one could mount the stairs at a time, and it seemed equally certain that this one would, on reaching a certain spot, be shot by his invisible foes. Large rewards and great honor were promised by the chief to those who would undertake to lead the assault, and at last volunteers were found, and another rush attempted.
It failed, as had the first. Each man as he passed the loophole fell, and again the dead choked the stairs. One or two had not fallen at the first shot, and had got a few steps higher, but only to fall back dead upon their comrades. Again the assault ceased, and for two or three hours there was a pause. The officers of the mutineers deliberated and quarreled; the men set-to to prepare their meal. That over, one of the troopers went in to the officers and proposed a plan, which was at once approved of, and a handsome reward immediately paid him. Before enlisting he had been a carpenter, and as there were many others of the same trade, no time was lost in carrying out the suggestion. Several of the thick planks composing the door remained uninjured. These were cut and nailed together, so as to make a shield of exactly the same width as the staircase, and six feet high; on one side several straps and loops were nailed, to give a good hold to those carrying it; and then with a cheer the Sepoys again prepared for an attack. The shield was heavy, but steadily, and with much labor, it was carried up the stairs step by step, by two men, others pressing on behind.
When they reached the loophole the pistol shots from above again rang out; but the door was of heavy seasoned wood, three inches thick, and the bullets failed to penetrate. Then the shield ascended step by step, until it reached the barrier. There it stopped, for the strength that could be brought to bear upon it was altogether insufficient to move in the slightest the solid pile, and after some time spent in vain efforts, the shield was taken back again, as gradually and carefully as it had been advanced, until out of the range of the pistols of the defenders.
"What will be the next move, I wonder?" Colonel Warrener said, as the little party sat down on the stairs and waited for a renewal of the attack.
"I don't like that shield," Major Dunlop remarked; "it shows that there is some more than usually intelligent scoundrel among them, and he will be up to some new trick."
An hour passed, and then there was a noise on the stairs, and the shield was again seen approaching. As before, it advanced to the barrier and stopped. There was then a sort of grating noise against it, and the door shook as this continued.
"What on earth are they up to now?" Major Dunlop exclaimed.
"Piling fagots against it," Dick said, "or I am mistaken. I have been afraid of fire all along. If they had only lit a pile of damp wood at the bottom of the stairs, they could have smoked us out at the top; and then, as the smoke cleared below, they could have gone up and removed the barricade before the upper stairs were free enough from smoke for us to come down. There, I thought so! Make haste!" and Dick dashed up the stairs, followed by his friends, as a curl of smoke ascended, and a loud cheer burst from the Sepoys below.
Quickly as they ran upstairs, the smoke ascended still more rapidly, and they emerged upon the terrace half-suffocated and blinded.
"So ends barricade number one," Major Dunlop said, when they had recovered from their fit of coughing. "I suppose it will be pretty nearly an hour before the fire is burned out."
"The door would not burn through in that time," said Major Warrener; "but they will be able to stand pretty close, and the moment the fagots are burned out they will drag the screen out of the way, and, with long poles with hooks, or something of that sort, haul down the barricade. Directly the smoke clears off enough for us to breathe, we will go down to our middle barricade. They may take that the same way they took the first, but they cannot take the last so."
"Why not, father?" Ned asked.
"Because it's only ten steps from the top, Ned; so that, however great a smoke they make, we can be there again the instant they begin to pull it down."
It was now past midday, and the party partook sparingly of their small store of food and water. The smoke continued for some time to pour out of the door of the stairs in dense volumes, then became lighter. Several times the lads tried to descend a few steps, but found that breathing was impossible, for the smoke from the green wood was insupportable. At last it became clear enough to breathe, and then the party ran rapidly down to their second barricade. That, at least, was intact, but below they could hear the fall of heavy bodies, and knew that the lower barricade was destroyed.
"I don't suppose that screen of theirs was burned through, father, so very likely they will try the same dodge again. Of course they don't know whether we have another barricade, or where we are, so they will come on cautiously. It seems to me than if you and Dunlop were to take your place a bit lower than this, stooping down on the stairs, and then when they come were boldly to throw yourselves with all your weight suddenly against the shield, you would send it and its bearers headlong downstairs, and could then follow them and cut them up tremendously."
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