George Fenn.

George Alfred Henty: The Story of an Active Life



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The Punjab Pioneers seem to have been a splendid regiment, and their services under their gallant major proved to be most valuable during the expedition, for their leader divined the spots where water ought to be found, and it was dug for until a gushing supply of the precious necessary was forthcoming.

Chapter Eighteen.
King Theodore at Bay

At last the spot was reached where the army could take up its position to look across at Magdala, which appeared like a three-topped mountain with almost perpendicular sides. And here the whole force rested and girded up their loins for the final struggle.

The advance had been long and wearisome; but as soon as the men were refreshed by a rest all was excitement, and the next morning the troops were again in motion. Henty started early in the full conviction that something would take place, while the men in his neighbourhood, who had been suffering after their last march the night before from want of water, were looking eagerly forward to reaching the welcome stream that could be seen flowing at the bottom of the ravine below.

Here, however, came a disappointment. There was abundance of water in a river eighty yards wide, and waist deep; but it was the colour of coffee with milk, and nearly opaque with mud. In fact, it was like a dirty puddle in a London street just after being churned up by an omnibus. However, there was nothing for it. All had a drink, and then the men filled their canteens before they prepared to wade across.

Later, the heat was terrible. Everyone was devoured with a burning thirst, and any money would have been given cheerfully for a drink of pure water. When, that afternoon, a storm passed over, and they caught just the tail end of the rain which fell, Henty was glad to spread out his waterproof sheet, and he caught nearly half a pint of what he declared was the most refreshing draught he had ever tasted.

Matters now grew very exciting. Henty and his colleagues could see with their glasses the enemy’s guns upon the fortifications, with artillerymen passing from gun to gun and loading them in succession.

Behind the spectators the troops were still advancing. The Naval Rocket Brigade emerged from the flat below and were joining the Punjabis, when, almost at the same moment, a dozen voices proclaimed that a large force was coming down the road from the fortress. Glasses were turned in that direction, and a large body of horse and footmen were seen hurrying down pell-mell. The question arose, did this mean a peaceful embassy or fighting?

All doubt was soon at an end: a gun boomed, and a thirty-two pound shot struck the ground in front of the Indian troops. It was war, then – defiance. King Theodore meant to fight, but not within the walls of Magdala; he was coming out to engage the British forces in the open.

The fight had begun; a steady fire was kept up from the fortress guns, and Henty says: “A prettier sight is seldom presented in warfare than that of the enemy’s advance.

Some were in groups; some were in twos and threes; here and there galloped chiefs in their scarlet cloth robes. Many of those on foot were in scarlet and silk, and they came on at a run, the whole force advancing across the plain with incredible and alarming rapidity.” It was for some time doubtful whether they would not reach the brow of the little valley, along which the Rocket train was still coming in a long single file, before the infantry could arrive to check them. After a few minutes, however, the infantry came up at the double, all their fatigue and thirst having vanished at the thought of a fight.

Almost immediately the enemy had their first answer to the guns of the fortress in the shape of a rocket whizzing out upon the plain, for Jack was alive, and a cheer rang out as other rockets followed in rapid succession, making the Abyssinians stop short in utter astonishment at this novel way of making war. But the chiefs urged them forward, and they advanced again, being now not more than five hundred yards from where Henty and his colleagues stood watching them.

With his glass he could distinguish every feature, and as he looked at them advancing at a run with shield and spear, he could not help feeling pity for them, knowing what a terrible reception they were about to meet with; for in another minute our line of skirmishers had breasted the slope and opened a tremendous fire.

The enemy, taken completely by surprise, paused, discharged their firearms, and then slowly and doggedly retreated, increasing their speed as they felt how hopeless was the struggle against antagonists who could pour in ten shots to their one.

Meanwhile the infantry regiment advanced rapidly, driving the retreating men before them. The native regiment followed up, and the lookers-on could see the battle was almost won, for the troops advanced so rapidly that the Abyssinians could not regain the road to the fortress, but, chased by the rockets, were driven to the right, away from Magdala.

All this time the guns from the fortress kept up their fire upon the advancing line, but most of the shot went over the men’s heads. So bad was the aim of the king’s gunners, that he himself was nearly killed while superintending the working of one of his big guns by his German prisoners.

In another portion of the field a more desperate fight was being carried on by the defenders, and step by step Sir Robert Napier’s forces were developing the attack. The mountain train of steel guns got into position and sent in a terrific fire, speedily stopping the head of another of the enemy’s columns, while the Punjabis poured in a withering fire and afterwards charged with the bayonet. As a result King Theodore suffered a crushing defeat, for upwards of five thousand of his bravest soldiers had sallied out to the attack, while scarcely as many hundreds returned.

All this took place in the midst of a tremendous thunderstorm, with the deep echoing roar of the thunder completely drowning the heavy rattle of musketry, the crack of the steel guns, and the boom of the enemy’s heavy cannon upon the heights.

A tremendous cheer rose from the whole British force as the enemy finally retired, and thus terminated one of the most decisive skirmishes which had perhaps ever occurred; it was memorable, too, as being the first encounter in which British troops ever used breech-loading rifles.

Chapter Nineteen.
The Fall of the Curtain

The eventful day was now closing in, and everyone was glad to wrap himself in his wet blanket and to forget hunger and thirst for a while in sleep. Strong bodies of troops were thrown out as pickets, and the men were under arms again at two in the morning, lest Theodore should renew his attack before daybreak.

Then news was brought in that there was plenty of water to be had in a ravine near at hand, and the Indian bheestees were sent down with the water-skins, in company with soldiers with their canteens. But the water was worse than any they had drunk before, for the place had been a camp of Theodore’s army. Numbers of animals, mules and cattle, had been slaughtered there; the stench was abominable, and the water nearly as much tainted as the atmosphere. Still, there was no help for it; all had to drink the noxious fluid. After obtaining a little food, Henty rode over to where he could leave his horse and go down into the ravine. Here fatigue parties were engaged in the work of burial; and in plain simple words Henty describes the scene as shocking – certainly his picture is too dreadful to be dwelt upon.

In good time that morning there was a tremendous burst of cheering, for two of the prisoners had come in with proposals from the king; and the embassage reported that Theodore had returned after the battle to say to them with a noble simplicity: “My people have been out to fight yours. I thought I was a great man and knew how to fight. I find I know nothing. My best soldiers have been killed; the rest are scattered. I will give in. Go you into camp and make terms for me.”

There was something almost Scriptural in the tone of resignation these words breathed – words which invited the sympathy of all thinking men for the conquered. But this feeling was deadened directly news arrived of the horrors that had taken place in Magdala on the very day before the arrival of the British. Theodore had ordered all the European captives out to be witnesses of what he could do, and before their eyes he put to death three hundred and forty prisoners, many of whom he had kept in chains for years. These included men, women, and little children. They were brought out and thrown upon the ground, with their heads fastened down to their feet, and the brutal tyrant went among the helpless group and slashed right and left until he had killed a score or so. Then, growing tired, he called out his musketeers and ordered them to fire upon the crowd, which they did until all were despatched, when their bodies were thrown over a precipice. His usual modes of execution were the very refinement of cruelty, the sufferers being tortured and then left to die.

With this knowledge Sir Robert Napier declined to grant any conditions whatever, demanding an instant surrender of the whole of the European prisoners and of the fortress, promising only that the king and his family should be honourably treated.

The two captives who had borne the king’s message returned with this answer, to come back in the afternoon with a message from Theodore begging that better terms might be offered him; but the general felt obliged to refuse, and the ambassadors departed once more amid the sorrowful anticipations of the camp.

To the great joy of all, however, Mr Flad, one of the messengers, again came to camp with the joyful news that all the captives would be with them in an hour. This proved correct, and with the exception of Mrs Flad and her children the whole of the captives were released.

Meanwhile the king was allowed till noon the next day to surrender Magdala, otherwise the place would be stormed, and the making of scaling-ladders was begun; long bamboo dhooly poles were utilised for the sides, and handles of pickaxes for the rungs.

Within the next few days Mrs Flad and her children were brought into camp, and several of the principal chiefs came in and showed that Theodore’s strength was crumbling away, for they declared their willingness to surrender; but the king held out. The storming parties were arranged, and the cavalry were sent out to cut off the tyrant’s retreat. Meanwhile a great exodus of the people was going on, the fortress being cleared of the non-combatants.

During the attack which followed, while the garrison kept up a scattered fire with bullets, none of which reached our troops, there were not wanting signs to indicate the despair of the partly-forsaken monarch. Driven frantic by his position, the wretched man could be plainly seen galloping about with some half a dozen of his chiefs in a sort of aimless frenzy.

At last the storming party advanced, the defenders of the gate were cleared away after a feeble defence, and the fighting was over, with no killed on the British side and only fifteen wounded. The remaining inhabitants, rejoicing that the days of the tyranny were over, crowded out to offer the conquerors refreshing drink, while Theodore was discovered lying dead.

Henty’s task was done, and not choosing to wait for the slow return of the troops, he, together with three others, making with the ten servants, syces and mule-drivers, a formidable and well-armed little company, started on the way down. It was a bold undertaking, nevertheless, for they had to pass through a disturbed country where convoys were being constantly attacked and muleteers murdered, and where scarcely a day passed without outrages being committed by the Gallas, the inhabitants of Northern Abyssinia, who were always upon plunder bent.

Their servants were all armed with spears, the baggage mules were kept in close file, and Henty and another rode in front, the two others in the rear, with cocked rifles and revolvers ready to hand. Owing to their state of preparedness, and the fierce look of the well-armed English leader, though they passed a party or two of sixty of the Gallas, equipped with spears and shields, and a desire to use the former if they had the chance, these rogues sneaked off among the bushes, and the war correspondent and his colleagues reached the depot and port in peace. But not entirely, for, to use Henty’s own words, “When coming down country from the Abyssinian business the Gallas stopped us on one occasion and proposed to loot the entire caravan, but I was able to half-choke the life out of the gentleman who tackled me personally.” In fact, the party had ample opportunity of realising the risk and danger to which a war correspondent is exposed.

Chapter Twenty.
The Suez Canal

Upon Henty’s return from the Abyssinian campaign in 1868 his active busy mind incited him to take a calm home rest from his warlike labours by writing one of his first books, based upon his correspondent letters, and entitled, The March to Magdala. This, published towards the end of the year, was full of vigorous description, and as an epitome of the war it achieved a very fair success. In addition it served to make the reading public better acquainted with a name already familiar to the newspaper world.

Very shortly after this essay now, he wrote and sent out through the same publishers, Messrs Tinsley Brothers, his second three-volume novel, All but Lost. This was in 1869, and long before the days when he devoted himself to the young readers of his works of adventure.

At the end of the year he undertook another expedition. This, however, was of a peaceful nature, to wit, the task of describing the epoch-marking inauguration of M. Ferdinand de Lesseps’s magnum opus, the Suez Canal. It was a pleasant duty, for the correspondent was practically a privileged visitor, and one of the representatives of civilisation who had come to partake of Ismail Pasha’s munificent hospitality, in company with other guests who may fairly be classed as representing “the world.”

He wrote a series of letters full of vivid word-painting, descriptive of Cairo en f?te, of ball and banquet, of the illuminations, and of the state of the ancient city – of the Egypt where of old the children of Israel were enslaved, and helped to build the monuments which still remain. He also touched on the homes which were raised and built with the straw-mingled clay that ages ago crumbled into dust, and is now being excavated and basket-borne to spread upon the agricultural land as an extra fertiliser of the almost too fertile earth.

Henty had a great opportunity here for his descriptive pen, and his letters abound with pictures of the Aladdin-like state of the place, of the way in which money was lavished to provide a grand reception for empress and emperor, viceroy and prince, and the rest of the distinguished guests whom the Khedive delighted to honour. Cairo presented such a scene, that the writer felt that he could readily imagine himself transported into the times of the Arabian Nights as it might have been on the occasion of the marriage of Aladdin to the princess of his heart, one Badroulboudour. The illuminations in the soft transparency of an Egyptian atmosphere presented a fairy-like aspect. Flags of all nations hung perfectly still in the soft air, side by side with lanterns and decorations of a more national kind. There were fireworks everywhere; rockets ascended with a hiss and roar in rapid succession, while dazzling fires of every hue that chemistry has won from earth’s minerals threw broad floods of colour like nocturnal rainbows, only more iridescent in their mingling, along the street and across the square. Noise was not wanting, for petards exploded with unpleasant frequency; and as the salvoes died out there was constantly arising the peculiar dull subdued roar of the thronging multitude in ecstasy at the unwonted sight.

In the side streets the crowd was strangely novel to the eyes of the foreign visitor, and as carriages crowded with spectators made their way slowly through the throng of the ordinary Egyptian city dwellers, strongly reinforced by the inhabitants from all the country round, the eyes of the stranger were constantly attracted by the silent, solemn-looking, white-turbaned Mussulman, and the dark, blue-robed, muffled, and yashmak-wearing women – all eyes for the looker-on. It was a strange and constant change from light to darkness in the generally ill-lit city. One minute the spectator would be traversing a street that presented the appearance of a long ball-room, with lines of chandeliers running down the centre only a few paces apart. From these hung festoons and garlands of coloured lamps, while several lines of lanterns ran along the houses on either side. Then a few steps and the visitor plunged into a narrow way, sombre, suggestive, and gloomy, possibly illumined only by the glowworm-like rays of a single lamp, with a few slippered people hurrying softly, almost shadow-like, as they made their way towards the line of illuminations.

In the brightly lighted streets the looker-on from any elevation gazed down upon a perfect sea of turbans and also at a long line of carriages, each preceded by its wand-bearing runners shouting boisterously to the crowd to clear the way. It was one long festival for rich and poor alike, and the variety of the scene was wondrous. The occupants of the carriages, whose drivers forced their way through the good-tempered crowd, were often the closely-veiled inhabitants of the harems of the rich, not as a rule the harem of the Eastern story, the word harem now more truly meaning simply the ordinary home. But in many cases these were guarded jealously by attendant eunuchs, and preceded by runners bearing braziers or cressets of flaming wood.

But the houses on either side were not occupied merely by flaming lamps, for from the latticed windows over the shops the female inhabitants of the city, eagerly throwing off the customary reserve, peered down upon the passing throng. Colour in the lighted streets and diversity were everywhere in company with rampant irregularity, for each decorator had worked according to his own sweet will. No two streets were alike either in occupants or in decoration. Sombre and sordid buildings crowded close upon palaces, and while one street was dark and empty, with its sporadic lamps, the next was crowded with a dense mass listening to the plaintive music of the native bands discoursing wild and, possibly to the hearers, delicious strains, but strains containing too much bagpipe and cymbal for the foreign ear. In another, as if it were some gigantic old-world fair, the merry-featured, strangely robed throng was clustering round a knot of dancing girls, Egyptian Terpsichoreans. These displayed their ideas of the poetry of motion in a singularly wild and picturesque manner, and were evidently frantically admired by the holiday-keeping lookers-on.

By way of change, after hours of wandering through the crowded and illuminated streets, Henty describes one of the palaces where the principal guests were accommodated by the Khedive. This was reached after a quiet drive to its site, a short distance from the town. Here in the soft darkness of the Egyptian night the illuminations were superb, and the description exemplifies the lavish recklessness of the host on behalf of his guests. In front of the palace was a space forming a parallelogram of considerably over a quarter of a mile long by some three hundred yards wide. This was surrounded by an arched trellis-work, resembling somewhat in its detail the delicate tracery of a cathedral cloister. The wooden structure was literally covered upon both sides with illumination lanterns, and looked like some gnome or fairy fabric of fire. Round it was a carriage drive which passed between it and the palace, and against the walls of the palace itself glittering lights were fixed in the same order as upon the wooden framework, so that to the spectator it was as if he gazed down a vista of two interminable walls of fire connected by arches of coloured lamps. The effect was exquisite, heightened as it was by the ascending rockets which burst and showered down coloured stars in constant succession. Pyrotechnic fires burned here and there, and threading as it were the falling stars, the strains of band after band of music blended their enchantment with the beauty of the scene.

This is but a slight description of one of the many sights embraced by the enormous f?te provided for the Khedive Ismail’s world-invited guests, and picture after picture Henty painted of these scenes by night and by day. He also visited the various points of interest in the neighbourhood, notably the Pyramids, going by the road to these ancient monuments which had been slave-constructed by order of the Khedive, as if in a fit of lavish recklessness he had determined to emulate the doings of some Pharaoh of old, so that his French empress visitor should have a special way made smooth across the desert to the old world-famous pyramidal tombs. Visitor and special correspondent Henty was, but he spoke out as the quiet, thoughtful Englishman in translating the words of the wise old Orientals who thoughtfully shook their heads and added their quiet Cui bono? over the thriftless wanton expense. There was banqueting and feasting, and all at a time when the treasury was depleted, when the civil and military forces had their payments in arrear, and when national debt heaped upon national debt. All this could only end in the bankruptcy which too surely came.



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