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- In Times of Peril - 6/55 -
if their old nurse had any information as to any intended outbreak she would let them know; but she heard nothing. She was known to be so strongly attached to the major's family that, had the other servants known anything of it, they would have kept it from her.
The hour for the mess-dinner was eight, and the young Warreners had finished their evening meal before their father started.
"God bless you, my children, and watch over and protect us all till we meet again!" such was the solemn leave-taking with which the major and his children had parted--if only for half an hour--since the evil days began.
For an hour and a half the young Warreners and their cousin sat and read, and occasionally talked.
"It's time for tea," Kate said, looking at her watch; and she struck a bell upon the table.
Usually the response was almost instantaneous; but Kate waited two minutes, and then rang sharply twice. There was still no reply.
"He must be asleep," she said, "or out of hearing; but it is curious that none of the others answer!"
Dick went out into the veranda, but came in again in a minute or two:
"There is no one there, Kate; and I don't hear any of them about anywhere."
The four young people looked at each other. What did this mean? Had the servants left in a body? Did they know that something was going to happen? Such were the mute questions which their looks asked each other.
"Girls!" said Ned, "put your dark shawls round you. It may be nothing, but it is better to be prepared. Get the bundles out. Dick, put a bottle of wine in your pocket; and let us all fill our pockets with biscuits."
Silently and quietly the others did as he told them.
"There is that great biscuit-tin full," Ned said when they had filled their pockets; "let us empty it into that cloth, and tie it up. Now, if you will put your shawls on I will look in at the stables."
In a couple of minutes he returned.
"The horses are all unharnessed," he said, "and not a soul is to be seen. Ah, is that Saba?"
The old nurse had been found asleep in her favorite place outside the door of her young mistresses' room.
"Do you know what is the matter, Saba? All the servants are gone!"
The old nurse shook her head. "Bad news; no tell Saba."
"Now, Saba, get ready to start," for the nurse had declared that she would accompany them, to go into the villages to buy food; "Dick, come with me; we will put one of the horses into the dogcart."
They were leaving the room when they heard the sound of a rifle. As if it were the signal, in a moment the air rang with rifle shots, shouts, and yells. The boys leaped back into the room and caught up the bundles.
"Quick, for your lives, girls! some of them are not fifty yards off! To the bushes! Come, Saba!"
"Saba do more good here," the old nurse said, and seated herself quietly in the veranda.
It was but twenty yards to the bushes they had marked as the place of concealment; and as they entered and crouched down there came the sound of hurrying feet, and a band of Sepoys, led by one of the jemadars, or native officers, rushed up to the veranda from the back.
"Now," the jemadar shouted, "search the house; kill the boys, but keep the white women; they are too pretty to hurt."
Two minutes' search--in which furniture was upset, curtains pulled down, and chests ransacked--and a shout of rage proclaimed that the house was empty.
The jemadar shouted to his men: "Search the compound; they can't be far off; some of you run out to the plain; they can't have got a hundred yards away; besides, our guards out there will catch them."
The old nurse rose to her feet just as the Sepoys were rushing out on the search.
"It is of no use searching," she said; "they have been gone an hour."
"Gone an hour!" shouted the enraged jemadar; "who told them of the attack?"
"I told them," Saba said steadily; "Saba was true to her salt."
There was a yell of rage on the part of the mutineers, and half a dozen bayonets darted into the faithful old servant's body, and without a word she fell dead on the veranda, a victim to her noble fidelity to the children she had nursed.
"Now," the jemadar said, "strip the place; carry everything off; it is all to be divided to-morrow, and then we will have a blaze."
Five minutes sufficed to carry off all the portable articles from the bungalow; the furniture, as useless to the Sepoys, was left, but everything else was soon cleared away, and then the house was lit in half a dozen places. The fire ran quickly up the muslin curtains, caught the dry reeds of the tatties, ran up the bamboos which formed the top of the veranda, and in five minutes the house was a sheet of flame.
The young Warreners and their cousin, hurrying on, soon gained the thick bush toward which they were directing their steps. As they cowered down in its shelter the girls pulled their shawls over their heads, and with their hands to their ears to keep out the noise of the awful din around them, they awaited, in shuddering horror, their fate. The boys sat, revolver in hand, determined to sell their lives dearly. Ned translated the jemadar's speech, and at his order to search the compound both felt that all was over, and, with a grasp of each other's hand, prepared to sally forth and die. Then came Saba's act of noble self-sacrifice, and the boys had difficulty in restraining themselves from rushing out to avenge her.
In the meantime the night was hideous with noises; musket shots, the sharp cracks of revolvers, shouts, cries, and at times the long shrill screams of women. It was too much to be borne, and feeling that for the present Saba's act had saved them, the boys, laying down their weapons, pressed their hands to their ears to keep out the din. There they sat for half an hour, stunned by the awful calamity, too horror-stricken at what had passed, and at the probable fate of their father, to find relief in tears.
At the end of that time the fire had burned itself out, and a few upright posts still flickering with tongues of fire, and a heap of glowing embers marked where the pretty bungalow, replete with every luxury and comfort, had stood an hour before.
Dick was the first to move; he touched Ned's arm.
"All is quiet here now, but they may take it into their heads to come back and search. We had better make for the trees; by keeping close to that cactus hedge we shall be in shadow all the way."
The girls were roused from their stupor of grief.
"Now, dears, we must be brave," said Ned, "and carry out our orders. God has protected us thus far; let us pray that He will continue to do so."
In another five minutes the little party, stealing cautiously out from their shelter, kept along close to the wall to a side door, through which they issued forth into the open. Ten steps took them to the cactus hedge, and stooping low under its shelter, they moved on till they safely reached the clump of trees.
For some time the little party crouched among the thick bushes, the silence broken only by the sobs of the girls. Ned and Richard said nothing, but the tears fell fast down their cheeks. The crackling of the flames of many of the burning bungalows could be distinctly heard; and outside the shadow of the trees it was nearly as light as day. Yells of triumph rose on the night air, but there was no firing or sounds of conflict, and resistance was plainly over. For a quarter of an hour they sat there, crushed with the immensity of the calamity. Then Ned roused himself and took the lead.
"Now, dears, the fires have burned down, and we must be moving, for we should be far away from here before morning. No doubt others have hidden in the woods round this place, and those black fiends will be searching everywhere to-morrow. Remember what our orders are;" and he paused for a moment to choke down the sob which would come when he thought of who had given the order, and how it was given. "We were to make for Meerut. Be strong and brave, girls, as father would have had you. I have gone over the course on the district map, and I think I can keep pretty straight for it. We need not change our clothes now; we can do that when we halt before daylight. We must walk all night, to be as far as possible away before the search begins. We know this country pretty well for some miles round, which will make it easier. Come, girls, take heart; it is possible yet that some of the officers have cut their way out, and our father may be among them. Who can say?"
"I knew that he had talked over with Dunlop and Manners the very best course to take whenever they might be attacked," Dick said in a more cheerful tone, "so they were sure to keep together, and if any one has got away, they would." Neither of the boys had at heart the least hope, but they spoke as cheerfully as they could, to give strength and courage to the girls. Their words had their effect. Kate rose, and taking her cousin's arm said:
"Come, Rose, the boys are right. There is still some hope; let us cling to it as long as we can. Now let us be moving: but before we go, let us all thank God for having saved us from harm so far, and let us pray for His protection and help upon the road."
Silently the little group knelt in prayer, and when they rose followed Ned--who had naturally assumed the position of leader--out into the open country beyond the grove, without a word being spoken. The moon was as yet
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