Read CHAPTER XXIV - A FORTUNATE STORM of Jack Archer, free online book, by G. A. Henty, on ReadCentral.com.

The fog seemed to get thicker and thicker as the day went on.  At nightfall, when it became evident that no move could be made before morning, they gave a biscuit to each of their ponies, cut some grass and laid it before them, and then, wrapping themselves in the Cossack cloaks to keep off the damp fog, were soon asleep.  At day-break the fog was still thick, but as the sun rose it gradually dispersed it, and they were shortly able to see up the valley.  They found that in their wandering in the mist they must have moved partly in a circle, for they were still little more than a quarter of a mile from the point where they had left it to ascend to the chateau.  Round this they could see many soldiers moving about.  Looking up the valley, they perceived lines of horses, picqueted by a village but a few hundred yards away.

“Those were the voices I thought I heard, no doubt, when we first came here,” Jack said.  “It’s lucky we found these trees, for if we had wandered about a little longer, we might have stumbled into the middle of them.  Now, sir, we had better finish the biscuits we put aside for breakfast, and be off.  It is quite evident the direct way to the camp is close to us.”

Saddling up their horses, and putting on the Cossack black sheepskin caps and long coats, and taking the lances and carbines, the latter of which were carried across the saddle before them, they mounted their ponies and rode off, quitting the wood at such a point that it formed a screen between them and the cavalry in the distance, until they had gone well down the valley.  They were unnoticed, or at any rate, unchallenged by the party at the chateau, and, issuing from the valley, rode out into the open country.

Far out in the plain they saw several Russians moving about, and judged that these were occupied in searching those who had fallen in the cavalry fight of the preceding day.  They did not approach them, but turning to the right, trotted briskly along, skirting the foot of the hills.  They passed through two or three Tartar villages whose inhabitants scarcely glanced at them, so accustomed were they to the sight of small parties of Cossacks riding hither and thither.

In one, which stood just at the mouth of the valley which they had determined to enter, as a road running up it seemed to indicate that it led to some place, perhaps upon the sea-shore, they found several Russian soldiers loitering about.  Lieutenant Myers would have checked his pony, but Jack rode unhesitatingly forward.  An officer came out of one of the cottages.

“Any news?” he asked.

“None,” Jack said.  “The enemy’s horse came out yesterday, through the Baida valley, but we beat them back again.”

“Where are you going?” the Russian asked.

“Down towards the sea,” Jack answered, “to pick up stragglers who land to plunder.  A whole sotina is coming down.  They will be here presently,” so saying, with a wave of his hand, he resumed his way up the valley, Lieutenant Myers having ridden on, lest any questions should be addressed to him.  The road mounted steadily, and after some hours’ riding they crossed a brow, and found themselves at the head of a valley opening before them, and between the cliffs at its end they could see the sea.

They could scarcely restrain a shout of joy, and, quickening their speed, rode rapidly down the valley.  Presently they perceived before them a small village lying on the sea-shore, to the left of which stood a large chateau, half hidden among trees.

“Do you think it’s safe to ride in?” Mr. Myers asked.

“Most of these villages have been found deserted, sir,” Jack said, “by our fellows when they landed.  I’m afraid we are beyond the point to which they come, for I should think we must be twenty miles from Balaklava.  However, there are not likely to be any troops here, and we needn’t mind the Tartars.”

They found, as they expected, that the village was wholly deserted, and, riding through it, they dismounted at the chateau.  The doors were fastened, but, walking round it, they perceived no signs of life, and, breaking a window, they soon effected an entrance.

They found that the house, which was of great size and evidently belonged to a Russian magnate, was splendidly furnished, and that it had so far not been visited by any parties from the ships.  Some fine pictures hung on the walls, choice pieces of statuary were scattered here and there, tables of malachite and other rare stones stood about, and Eastern carpets covered the floors.

“We are in clover now, sir,” Jack said, “and if we could but charter a ship, we should be able to make a rich prize.  But as our ponies can only carry us, I’m afraid that all these valuables are worthless to us.”

“I’d give the whole lot of them,” the lieutenant said, “for a good meal.  At any rate, we are sure to find something for the ponies.”

In the stables behind the house were great quantities of forage and the ponies soon had their fill.

The officers, taking some corn, of which also there was an abundance, hammered a quantity between two flat stones, and moistening the rough flour so obtained, with water, made two flat cakes, with which, baked over a wood fire, they satisfied their hunger.  A consultation was held while they ate their meal, and it was agreed that as the place was evidently beyond the range of boats from Balaklava, they had better ride along the cliffs till they reached some village, where, as they would find from the state of the houses, parties were in the habit of coming.

After a couple of hours’ stay to give the horses time to rest, they again saddled up and took the road along the coast.  After riding two miles along the edge of the cliffs, they simultaneously checked their horses, as, upon mounting a slight rise, they saw before them the tents of a considerable party of Russian soldiers.  As they had paused the moment their heads came above the level, they were themselves unobserved, and turning, they rode back to the chateau they had quitted, where, having made their ponies comfortable, they prepared to pass the night.  There were plenty of luxurious beds, and they slept profoundly all night.  In the morning they went down to the sea.  Not a vestige of a boat was to be seen, and they began to question whether it would not be possible to make a small raft, and to paddle along the foot of the cliffs.

“We need not trouble about that now,” Lieutenant Myers said, “for, unless I am mistaken, we’re going to have a regular Black Sea gale in an hour or two.  The wind is freshening fast, and the clouds banking up.”

The lieutenant was not mistaken.  In an hour the wind was blowing in furious gusts, and the sea breaking heavily in the little bay.

Having nothing to do, they sat under the shelter of a rock, and watched the progress of the gale.  The wind was blowing dead along the shore, and grew fiercer and fiercer.  Three hours passed, and then Lieutenant Myers leaped to his feet.

“See,” he said, “there is a boat coming round the point!”

It was so.  Driving before the gale was a ship’s boat, a rag of sail was set, and they could see figures on board.

“She is making in here!” the lieutenant exclaimed.  “Let us run down and signal to them to beach her at that level spot just in front of the village.  No doubt it is some ship’s boat which came out to picnic at one of the villages near Balaklava, and they have been blown along the coast and have been unable to effect a landing.”

The boat’s head was now turned towards shore, the sail lowered, and the oars got out.  So high was the sea already, that the spectators feared every moment she would be swamped, but she was well handled, and once in the little bay the water grew smoother, and she soon made her way to the spot where the officers were standing.  The latter were astonished when the men leaped out instantly, and, without a word, rushed at them, and in a moment both were levelled to the ground by blows of stretchers.  When they recovered from the shock and astonishment, they found the sailors grouped round them.

“Hallo!” Jack exclaimed in astonishment, “Mr. Simmonds, is that you?  What on earth are you knocking us about like that for?”

“Why, Jack Archer!” exclaimed the officer addressed, “where on earth did you come from? and what are you masquerading as a Cossack for?  We saw you here, and of course took you for an enemy.  I thought you were up at the front.”

“So we were,” Jack replied, “but, as you see, we are here now.  This is Lieutenant Myers, of the ‘Tartar.’”

“I’m awfully sorry!” Mr. Simmonds said, holding out his hand, and helping them to their feet.

“It was not your fault,” Mr. Myers answered.  “We forgot all about our Cossack dresses.  Of course you supposed that we were enemies.  It is fortunate indeed for us that you came here.  But I fear you must put to sea again.  There is a Russian camp two miles off on the hill, and the boat is sure to have been seen.”

“It will be awkward,” Lieutenant Simmonds said, looking at the sky, “for it is blowing tremendously.  I think, though, that it is breaking already.  These Black Sea gales do not often last long.  At any rate, it would be better to take our chance there than to see the inside of a Russian prison.”

“If you send a man along the road to that crest,” Lieutenant Myers suggested, “he will see them coming, and if we all keep close to the boat, we may get out of gunshot in time.”

A sailor was accordingly despatched up the hill.  The instant he reached the top he was seen to turn hastily, and to come running back at full speed.

“Now, lads,” Mr. Simmonds said, “put your shoulders to her.  Now, all together, get her into the water, and be ready to jump in and push off when Atkins arrives.”

When the sailor was still a hundred yards away the head of a column of Russian infantry appeared over the crest.  When they saw the boat they gave a shout, and breaking, ran down the hill at full speed.  Before they reached the village, however, Atkins had leaped into the boat, and with a cheer the men ran her out into the surf, and scrambled in.

“Out oars, lads, and row for your lives!” Mr. Simmonds said, and, with steady strokes the sailors drove their boat through the waves.

The Russians opened fire the instant they reached the beach, but the boat was already 150 yards away, and although the bullets fell thickly round, no one was hit.

“I think, Mr. Myers,” Lieutenant Simmonds said, “we had better lay-to, before we get quite out of shelter of the bay.  With steady rowing we can keep her there, and we shall be out of range of the Russians.”

Mr. Myers assented, and for two hours the men, rowing their utmost, kept the boat stationary, partly sheltered by the cliffs at the mouth of the bay.  The Russians continued to fire, but although the boat was not wholly beyond their range, and the bullets sometimes fell near, these were for the most part carried to leeward by the wind, and not a single casualty occurred.

“The wind is falling fast,” Lieutenant Simmonds said.  “We could show a rag of canvas outside now.  We had best make a long leg out to sea, and then, when the wind goes down, we can make Balaklava.”

For four or five hours the boat was buffeted in the tremendous seas, but gradually, as the wind went down, these abated, and after running twenty miles off the land, the boat’s head was turned, and she began to beat back to Balaklava.  It was eleven o’clock that night before they reached the “Falcon,” officers and men completely worn out with their exertions.

Jack found to his satisfaction that no report of his being missing had been received by the captain, and next morning at daybreak he and Lieutenant Myers walked up to camp, regretting the loss of their ponies, which would, however, they were sure, be found by the Russians long ere they finished the stores of provender within their reach.

Upon reaching camp they found that their absence had not been noticed until the afternoon of the second day of their absence.  They had been seen to ride away together, and when in the evening they were found to be absent, it was supposed that they had gone down to Balaklava and slept there.  When upon the following day they were still missing, it was supposed that the admiral had retained them for duty on board ship.  The storm, which had scattered everything, had put them out of the thoughts of the commanding officer, and it was only that morning that, no letter respecting them having been received, he was about to write to their respective captains to inquire the cause of their absence.  This was now explained, and as they had been detained by circumstances altogether beyond their control, they escaped without a reprimand, and were indeed warmly congratulated upon the adventures they had passed through.

In the meantime the cannonade had been going on very heavily in front.  The Russian outworks were showing signs of weakness after the tremendous pounding they were receiving.  The French were pushing their trenches close up to the Malakoff, and upon both sides the soldiers were busy with pick and shovel.  On the night of the 30th August a tremendous explosion took place, a Russian shell exploding in a French ammunition wagon, which blew up, killing and wounding 150 officers and men.

On the following night the naval brigade astonished the camp by giving private theatricals.  The bill was headed “Theatre Royal, Naval Brigade.  On Friday evening, 31st August, will be performed, ’Deaf as a Post,’ to be followed by ‘The Silent Woman,’ the whole to conclude with a laughable farce, entitled ‘Slasher and Crasher.’  Seats to be taken at seven o’clock.  Performance to commence precisely at eight.  God save the Queen.  Rule Britannia.”  The scenes were furnished from H.M.S.  “London.”  The actors were all sailors of the brigade, the ladies’ parts being taken by young boatswains’ mates.  Two thousand spectators closely packed were present, and the performance was immensely enjoyed in spite of the fact that the shell from the Russian long-range guns occasionally burst in the neighborhood of the theatre.

The French had now pushed forward their trenches so far that from their front sap they could absolutely touch the abattis of the Malakoff.  On the 3d the Russians made a sortie, and some heavy fighting took place in the trenches.  The time was now at hand when the last bombardment was to commence.  The French began it early on the morning of the 5th.  They had now got no less than 627 guns in position, while the English had 202.  The news that it was to commence was kept a profound secret, and few of the English officers knew what was about to take place.  Our own trenches were comparatively empty, while those of the French were crowded with men who kept carefully out of sight of the enemy.

Suddenly three jets of earth and dust sprung into the air.  The French had exploded three mines, and at the signal a stream of fire three miles in length ran from battery to battery, as the whole of their guns opened fire.  The effect of this stupendous volley was terrible.  The iron shower ploughed up the batteries and entrenchments of the Russians, and crashed among the houses far behind.  In a moment the hillside was wreathed with smoke.  With the greatest energy the French worked their guns, and the roar was continuous and terrible.

For a time the Russians seemed paralyzed by this tremendous fire; lying quietly in their sheltered subterranean caves, they had no thought of what was preparing for them, and the storm which burst upon them took them wholly by surprise.  Soon, however, they recovered from their astonishment, and steadily opened fire in return.  The English guns now joined their voices to the concert, and for two hours the storm of fire continued unabating on both sides.

After two hours and a half the din ceased, the French artillery-men waiting to allow their guns to cool.  At ten o’clock the French again exploded some mines, and for two hours renewed their cannonade as hotly as ever.  The Russians could be seen pouring troops across the bridge over the harbor from their camps on the north side, to resist the expected attack.  From twelve to five the firing was slack.  At that hour the French again began their cannonade as vigorously as before.

When darkness came on, and accurate firing at the enemy’s batteries was no longer possible, the mortars and heavy guns opened fire on the place.  The sky was streaked with lines of fire as the heavy shells described their curves, bursting with heavy explosions over the town.  Presently a cheer rose from the spectators who thronged the crest of the bill, for flames were seen bursting out from one of the Russian frigates.  Higher and higher they rose, although by their light the Russians could be perceived working vigorously to extinguish them.  At last they were seen to be leaving the ship.  Soon the flames caught the mast and rigging, and the pillar of fire lit up the whole town and surrounding country.  Not a moment did our fire slacken, but no answering flash now shot out from the Russian lines of defence.  All night the fire continued, to prevent the enemy from repairing damages.

The next morning the English played the principal part in the attack, our batteries commencing at daylight, and continuing their fire all day.  The Russians could be seen to be extremely busy.  Hitherto they had believed that the allies would never be able to take the town; but the tremendous fire which the allies had now opened, and the close approach of the French to the Malakoff, had clearly shaken their confidence at last.

Large quantities of stores were transported during the day to the north side, and on the heights there great numbers of men were seen to be laboring at fortifications.  The Russian army in the field was observed to be moving towards Inkerman, and it was believed that it was about to repeat the experiment of the Tchernaya and to make a desperate effort to relieve the town by defeating the allied armies in the field.

All that night the bombardment continued without intermission, the troops in the trenches keeping up a heavy musketry fire upon the enemy’s works, to prevent them from repairing damages in the dark.

The next day was a repetition of those which had gone before it.  The Russians replied but seldom, and occasionally when the smoke blew aside, it could be seen that terrible damage was being inflicted on the Russian batteries.  At dusk the cannonade ceased, the shell bombardment took place, and at eleven a tremendous explosion occurred in the town.

The Russians from time to time lit up the works with fire-balls and carcasses, evidently fearing a sudden night attack.  During the day a great council of war was held; and as orders were sent to the surgeons to send all the patients in the hospital down to Balaklava, and to prepare for the reception of wounded, it was known that the attack would take place next day.

Although the Russian fire in reply to the bombardment had been comparatively slight, from the 3d to the 6th we had three officers and forty-three men killed; three officers and 189 men wounded.

During these days Jack had been on duty in the batteries, and the sailors had taken their full part in the work.

There was some disappointment that night in the naval camp when it was known by the issue of the divisional orders that the sailors were not to be engaged in the assault.  Jack, however, aroused the indignation of his tent-mates by saying frankly that he was glad that they were not going to share in the attack.

“It is all very well,” he said, “to fight when you have some chance of hitting back, but to rush across ground swept by a couple of hundred guns is no joke; and to be potted at by thousands of fellows in shelter behind trenches.  One knows what it was last time.  The French send 12,000 men to attack a battery, we try to carry an equally strong place with 1000.  If I were ordered, of course I should go; but I tell you fairly, I don’t care about being murdered, and I call it nothing short of murder to send 1000 men to attack such a position as that.  We used to say that an Englishman could lick three Frenchmen, but we never did it in any battle I ever heard of.  Our general seems to think that an Englishman can lick ten Russians, although he’s in the open, and they’re behind shelter, and covered by the fire of any number of pieces of artillery.”

“But we’re certain to get in to-morrow, Jack.”

“Are we?” Jack questioned; “so every one said last time.  It’s all very well for the French, who are already right under the guns of the Malakoff, and have only twenty yards to run.  When they get in and drive the Russians out, there they are in a big circular fort, just as they were in the Mamelon, and can hold their own, no matter how many men the Russians bring up to retake it.  We’ve 300 yards to run to get into the Redan, and when we get in where are we?  Nowhere.  Just in an open work where the Russians can bring their whole strength down upon us.  I don’t feel at all sure we’re going to take the place to-morrow.”

“Why, Archer, you’re a regular croaker!” one of the others said.  “We shall have a laugh at you to-morrow evening.”

“I hope you will,” Jack said; “but I have my doubts.  I wish to-morrow was over, I can tell you.  The light division are, as usual, to bear the brunt of it, and the 33d will do their share.  Harry has had good luck so far, but it will be a hotter thing to-morrow than anything he has gone into yet, unless indeed the bombardment of the last three days has taken all heart out of the Russians.  Well, let’s turn in, for its bitterly cold to-night, and I for one don’t feel disposed for talking.”