Page:Littell's Living Age - Volume 127.djvu/762

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

"Counter-attack!" said Kirke bitterly, as he received the message; "much they look like attacking anybody, don't they? However, orders must be obeyed. Thank God, here come some guns to help us;" and as he spoke half a troop of horse-artillery came galloping up round the edge of the grove; and, taking up a position on the right of Kirke's men, unlimbered and opened fire on the walls with shell and shrapnel. This diverted the attention of the enemy, who turned one gun on their assailants, but kept one still going on the cavalry, now serving it with grape. The distance was about eight hundred yards, and the gun badly served; but the ground was perfectly smooth and level; eighteen-pounder grape under such conditions was a formidable thing to face; and it was difficult to avoid wincing as the shot came crashing along with the angry growl peculiar to the missile, tearing up the ground, and making a little cloud of dust. Kirke kept the regiment drawn up in line, to render the mark as thin as possible, but almost every discharge took effect, and the pause between each was spent in moving the disabled men into doolees and sending them to the rear, or in disengaging riders from their dead horses.

Presently the brigadier rode up. Twenty-three men killed and wounded, reported Kirke, and thirty-five horses, in these few minutes, and there would be plenty more if they stopped in that place. "I don't like to lose my fellows in this way to no purpose."

It could not be helped, Tartar said; the orders were positive to hold the ground and keep the flank secure.

"I think I could make the flank pretty secure, sir, if you would let me advance and threaten their flank. Those fellows yonder only want a little encouragement to skedaddle, but this long bowls is just the game they like." But Tartar said the general would not allow any forward movement of the cavalry to be made without his orders.

"I wish the general would come here and see things for himself," replied Kirke; "we should be just as useful under cover behind the trees, instead of in front of them."

"It won't last long," said the other; "the town will be carried presently." Then the brigadier with his brigade-major joined Kirke in riding slowly up and down before the line, their orderlies behind them. They tried to talk unconcernedly, but it was not easy to keep up the conversation when the puff of white smoke arose behind the wall, to be followed immediately by the angry growl of the grape as it rushed towards them along the level ground.

Suddenly the brigadier and his horse rolled over. Kirke and the brigade-major jumped down to his assistance, but he soon got up unhurt; his horse, however, had been killed.

"A bad look-out," said Tartar, looking at the poor beast which lay in its last convulsions; "what shall I do for a mount?"

"No difficulty about that, sir," said Kirke, pointing to his orderly's horse, which stood riderless behind them, the man having fallen dead by a grapeshot from the same discharge; and, indeed, the brigadier was fain to disengage his saddle from his own charger, and put it on the native orderly's trooper.

Thus passed the minutes which seemed like hours; the gunners were busy in replying to the enemy's fire, but the cavalry had no occupation, and plenty of time for reflection. At last there was a sudden cessation of the deadly game, explained almost immediately by the appearance of some European soldiers on the house-tops, firing with musketry on the group of men serving the two guns. The town had been carried; and the occupants of the part of it opposite Kirke's regiment, being thus taken in flank, soon disappeared in flight to the rear. Now would have been the time for the cavalry to make a circuit of the walls and cut in upon the fugitives; but no orders came to move, and there only remained the melancholy occupation of counting up the casualties, and fitting spare men to spare horses. Seventy-six men, or nearly one-sixth of the strength of the regiment present on the field, had been killed and wounded, the latter for the most part badly, and eighty-seven horses were disabled; so that Kirke's Horse figured handsomely in the account of the battle, and readers of the Gazette might have supposed, from the general's reference to its distinguished conduct and severe loss, that the regiment had spent the day in desperate hand-to-hand fighting, instead of having been uselessly sacrificed for a stupid precaution. The officers of the regiment, on comparing notes afterwards, were agreed that it had been the most serious duty any of them had gone through, active fighting under excitement being far less trying than standing up in cold blood to be fired at without power of retaliation. But their usual good luck had attended