At Cawnpore Sir Hugh Wheeler was commander. When he saw the danger coming he sent to Sir Henry Lawrence at Lucknow for help. But Sir Henry himself had few enough soldiers, and could spare only fifty men. Then Sir Hugh asked an Indian prince, called the Nana Sahib, to help him.
The Nana was the adopted son of the last Peshwá of the Maráthás, to whom, you remember, the Company paid a yearly sum of money, after he had given up his kingdom to them. When the Peshwá died, the company thought there was no need to go on paying the money, for the Nana was not really his son, and had not true right to it. This made Nana angry, for he thought that he should have had the money. Still, he pretended to be friends with the British. Now he promised to help Sir Hugh, and he came to Cawnpore with some soldiers. But as soon as the mutiny had fairly broken out, his men joined with the mutineers against the British.
At Cawnpore the sepoys broke open the jail, sacked the treasury and magazine, and burned and plundered everywhere. But they did not attack the white people. Having finished their work of destruction, they started to join the other rebels at Delhi. But this did not please the Nana. He called them back, and the siege of Cawnpore began.
The place where the white people were gathered for refuge was poorly protected. It was an old hospital. Round it was a crumbling mind wall not four feet high. Within it were gathered nearly a thousand people, but scarcely three hundred were soldiers, and nearly four hundred were women and children. Without the wall there swarmed thousand upon thousands of sepoys, well drilled and well armed, for they had all the heavy guns and ammunition of the magazine. It needed only courage for them to overleap the poor weak wall, and put every white man and woman to death.
But courage failed them. They knew of what stern stuff their white masters were made, and they dared not overleap that wall. So they raged and yelled without, and night and day the flash and roar of guns, and the scream and crash of shells, continued with no pause.
"The boats stuck in the mud and were an easy mark."
Again Sir Hugh sent to Sir Henry Lawrence begging for help. But this time Sir Henry, with a breaking heart, was forced to refuse. He could not spare a man. So without rest, or pause, or shadow of relief, the siege went on. The sepoys aimed with deadly sureness. The low mud wall gave little shelter, and day-by-day the ranks of the defenders grew thinner and thinner. Yet in hunger, thirst, and weariness, they fought on. Food began to fail. A handful of flour and a handful of split peas a day was all each man received. Water was more precious still. It could only be had from a well within the fire of the enemy's guns. And many man laid down his life to bring a bucket of water to still the wailing of a child or the groans of a dying comrade.
Three weeks passed, weeks of sleepless horror amid unceasing noise, and constant hail of bullets. The June sun blazed from brazen sky. The air was heavy with smoke, and bitter with the taste and smell of gunpowder, the heat wellnigh unbearable. Women and children drooped and faded. Men set their teeth, and, gaunt and grim, fought on.
At length the Nana Sahib proposed terms. He promised, the do the British would give him, he would send them all in safety down the river to Alláhábád.
There was not a man within the walls who would not rather have fought to the last. But they thought of the sad-eyed women, and the little listless children, and they gave in.
So early one morning, a dreary procession of weary women and children, of hopeless, wounded men, made their way to the river.
There, some native boats awaited them, covered with thatch to keep off the heat of the sun. The wounded were lifted in. Men, women, and children followed. Then suddenly from the banks the sound of a bugle was heard.
Throwing down their oars the native rowers leaped from their places and made for the shore. Almost at the same moment the thatched roofs burst into flames, and from the banks are roar of guns was heard, and a hail of bullets burst upon the boats.
The boats, stuck in the mud, were an easy mark. Leaping into the river the white men tried to push them off, but in vain. One boat alone got free, and of its crew only four lived to tell the tale. The others were murdered where they stood. Not a man escaped, and those of the women and children, who were still alive, were led back to the terrible town from which they had just been set free. There they were shut up in a place called the Savada house. Later they were taken to another called the Bibigarh. Here they were treated as slaves, and made to grind the corn for the Nana. And so in slavery and imprisonment the terrible weeks dragged on.
Meanwhile, through the burning heat of an Indian summer, a British army was toiling on towards Cawnpore. It was led by General Havelock, as brave a soldier and as good a man as ever lived. Like Cromwell, he taught his men both to fight and to pray, and "Havelock's Saints" were as well known as Cromwell's Ironsides had been.
When the Nana Sahib heard that they were coming, he made up his mind to complete his work. So he ordered the sepoys to fire upon the women and children through the windows of the Bibigarh. But even the sepoys turned from such cruel work, and they fired upon the roof and did little or no hurt to the women within the house. But the Nana could always find people cruel enough to do his bidding. In the evening five men went into the house armed with long knives. For a little time terrible screams were heard. Then all was still. The men came out, and the bodies of the poor women and children were thrown into a well.
Outside Cawnpore the British met the Indian troops. After a desperate fight the Nana was defeated. His army was scattered, and he, struck at last with terror, galloped wildly away through the darkness, and was seen no more.
It is supposed that he died miserably in the jungle.
The day after the battle the British marched entrance into Cawnpore but when they saw the ghastly Bibigarh and the still more ghastly grave of those they had come to save, these war-worn men burst into sobs and wept like children.
These things happily are now long past. An angel guards that once awful spot, and a garden blooms where those poor women died.