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Short stories : Gunpowder Perils by Charlotte M. Yonge

Charlotte Mary Yonge-1 Engraving of Charlotte Mary Yonge English novelist Charlotte Mary Yonge-Portrait12

Gunpowder Perils
by Charlotte M. Yonge


The wild history of Ireland contains many a frightful tale, but also many an action of the noblest order; and the short sketch given by Maria Edgeworth of her ancestry, presents such a chequerwork of the gold and the lead that it is almost impossible to separate them.

At the time of the great Irish rebellion of 1641 the head of the Edgeworth family had left his English wife and her infant son at his castle of Cranallagh in county Longford, thinking them safe there while he joined the royal forces under the Earl of Ormond. In his absence, however, the rebels attacked the castle at night, set fire to it, and dragged the lady out absolutely naked. She hid herself under a furze bush, and succeeded in escaping and reaching Dublin, whence she made her way to her father’s house in Derbyshire. Her little son was found by the rebels lying in his cradle, and one of them actually seized the child by the leg and was about to dash out his brains against the wall; but a servant named Bryan Ferral, pretending to be even more ferocious, vowed that a sudden death was too good for the little heretic, and that he should be plunged up to the throat in a bog-hole and left for the crows to pick out his eyes. He actually did place the poor child in the bog , but only to save his life; he returned as soon as he could elude his comrades, put the boy into a pannier below eggs and chickens, and thus carried him straight though the rebel camp to his mother at Dublin. Strange to say, these rebels, who thought being dashed against the wall too good a fate for the infant, extinguished the flames of the castle out of reverence for the picture of his grandmother, who had been a Roman Catholic, and was painted on a panel with a cross on her bosom and a rosary in her hand.

John Edgeworth, the boy thus saved, married very young, and went with his wife to see London after the Restoration. To pay their expenses they mortgaged an estate and put the money in a stocking, which they kept on the top of the bed; and when that store was used up, the young man actually sold a house in Dublin to buy a high-crowned hat and feathers. Still, reckless and improvident as they were, there was sound principle within them, and though they were great favorites, and Charles II. insisted on knighting the husband, their glimpse of the real evils and temptations of his Court sufficed them, and in the full tide of flattery and admiration the lady begged to return home, nor did she ever go back to Court again.

Her home was at Castle Lissard, in full view of which was a hillock called Fairymount, or Firmont, from being supposed to be the haunt of fairies. Lights, noises, and singing at night, clearly discerned from the castle, caused much terror to Lady Edgeworth, though her descendants affirm that they were fairies of the same genus as those who beset Sir John Falstaff at Hearne’s oak, and intended to frighten her into leaving the place. However, though her nerves might be disturbed, her spirit was not to be daunted; and, fairies or no fairies, she held her ground at Castle Lissard, and there showed what manner of woman she was in a veritable and most fearful peril.

On some alarm which caused the gentlemen of the family to take down their guns, she went to a dark loft at the top of the house to fetch some powder from a barrel that was there kept in store, taking a young maid-servant to carry the candle; which, as might be expected in an Irish household of the seventeenth century, was devoid of any candlestick. After taking the needful amount of gunpowder, Lady Edgeworth locked the door, and was halfway downstairs when she missed the candle, and asking the girl what she had done with it, received the cool answer that ‘she had left it sticking in the barrel of black salt’. Lady Edgeworth bade her stand still, turned round, went back alone to the loft where the tallow candle stood guttering and flaring planted in the middle of the gunpowder, resolutely put an untrembling hand beneath it, took it out so steadily that no spark fell, carried it down, and when she came to the bottom of the stairs dropped on her knees, and broke forth in a thanksgiving aloud for the safety of the household in this frightful peril. This high-spirited lady lived to be ninety years old, and left a numerous family. One grandson was the Abbe Edgeworth, known in France as De Firmont, such being the alteration of Fairymount on French lips. It was he who, at the peril of his own life, attended Louis XVI. to the guillotine, and thus connected his name so closely with the royal cause that when his cousin Richard Lovell Edgeworth, of Edgeworths-town, visited France several years after, the presence of a person so called was deemed perilous to the rising power of Napoleon. This latter Mr. Edgeworth was the father of Maria, whose works we hope are well known to our young readers.

The good Chevalier Bayard was wont to mourn over the introduction of firearms, as destructive of chivalry; and certainly the steel-clad knight, with barbed steed, and sword and lance, has disappeared from the battle-field; but his most essential qualities, truth, honor, faithfulness, mercy, and self-devotion, have not disappeared with him, nor can they as long as Christian men and women bear in mind that ‘greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friend’.

And that terrible compound, gunpowder, has been the occasion of many another daring deed, requiring desperate resolution, to save others at the expense of a death perhaps more frightful to the imagination than any other. Listen to a story of the King’s birthday in Jersey ‘sixty years since’–in 1804, when that 4th of June that Eton boys delight in, was already in the forty-fourth year of its observance in honor of the then reigning monarch, George III.

All the forts in the island had done due honor to the birthday of His Majesty, who was then just recovered from an attack of insanity. In each the guns at noon-day thundered out their royal salute, the flashes had answered one another, and the smoke had wreathed itself away over the blue sea of Jersey. The new fort on the hill just above the town of St. Heliers had contributed its share to the loyal thunders, and then it was shut up, and the keys carried away by Captain Salmon, the artillery officer on guard there, locking up therein 209 barrels of gunpowder, with a large supply of bombshells, and every kind of ammunition such as might well be needed in the Channel islands the year before Lord Nelson had freed England from the chance of finding the whole French army on our coast in the flat-bottomed boats that were waiting at Boulogne for the dark night that never came.

At six o’clock in the evening, Captain Salmon went to dine with the other officers in St. Heliers and to drink the King’s health, when the soldiers on guard beheld a cloud of smoke curling out at the air-hole at the end of the magazine. Shouting ‘fire’, they ran away to avoid an explosion that would have shattered them to pieces, and might perhaps endanger the entire town of St. Heliers. Happily their shout was heard by a man of different mould. Lieutenant Lys, the signal officer, was in the watch-house on the hill, and coming out he saw the smoke, and perceived the danger. Two brothers, named Thomas and Edward Touzel, carpenters, and the sons of an old widow, had come up to take down a flagstaff that had been raised in honor of the day, and Mr. Lys ordered them to hasten to the town to inform the commander-in-chief, and get the keys from Captain Salmon.

Thomas went, and endeavored to persuade his brother to accompany him from the heart of the danger; but Edward replied that he must die some day or other, and that he would do his best to save the magazine, and he tried to stop some of the runaway soldiers to assist. One refused; but another, William Ponteney, of the 3rd, replied that he was ready to die with him, and they shook hands.

Edward Touzel then, by the help of a wooden bar and an axe, broke open the door of the fort, and making his way into it, saw the state of the case, and shouted to Mr. Lys on the outside, ‘the magazine is on fire, it will blow up, we must lose our lives; but no matter, huzza for the King! We must try and save it.’ He then rushed into the flame, and seizing the matches, which were almost burnt out (probably splinters of wood tipped with brimstone), he threw them by armfuls to Mr. Lys and the soldier Ponteney, who stood outside and received them. Mr. Lys saw a cask of water near at hand; but there was nothing to carry the water in but an earthen pitcher, his own hat and the soldier’s. These, however, they filled again and again, and handed to Touzel, who thus extinguished all the fire he could see; but the smoke was so dense, that he worked in horrible doubt and obscurity, almost suffocated, and with his face and hands already scorched. The beams over his head were on fire, large cases containing powder horns had already caught, and an open barrel of gunpowder was close by, only awaiting the fall of a single brand to burst into a fatal explosion. Touzel called out to entreat for some drink to enable him to endure the stifling, and Mr. Lys handed him some spirits-and-water, which he drank, and worked on; but by this time the officers had heard the alarm, dispelled the panic among the soldiers, and come to the rescue. The magazine was completely emptied, and the last smoldering sparks extinguished; but the whole of the garrison and citizens felt that they owed their lives to the three gallant men to whose exertions alone under Providence, it was owing that succor did not come too late. Most of all was honor due to Edward Touzel, who, as a civilian, might have turned his back upon the peril without any blame; nay, could even have pleaded Mr. Lys’ message as a duty, but who had instead rushed foremost into what he believe was certain death.

A meeting was held in the church of St. Heliers to consider of a testimonial of gratitude to these three brave men (it is to be hoped that thankfulness to an overruling Providence was also manifested there), when 500l. was voted to Mr. Lys, who was the father of a large family; 300l. to Edward Touzel; and William Ponteney received, at his own request, a life annuity of 20l. and a gold medal, as he declared that he had rather continue to serve the King as a soldier than be placed in any other course of life.

In that same year (1804) the same daring endurance and heroism were evinced by the officers of H.M.S. Hindostan, where, when on the way from Gibraltar to join Nelson’s fleet at Toulon, the cry of ‘Fire!’ was heard, and dense smoke rose from the lower decks, so as to render it nearly impossible to detect the situation of the fire. Again and again Lieutenants Tailour and Banks descended, and fell down senseless from the stifling smoke; then were carried on deck, recovered in the free air, and returned to vain endeavor of clearing the powder-room. But no man could long preserve his faculties in the poisonous atmosphere, and the two lieutenants might be said to have many deaths from it. At last the fire gained so much head, that it was impossible to save the vessel, which had in the meantime been brought into the Bay of Rosas, and was near enough to land to enable the crew to escape in boats, after having endured the fire six hours. Nelson himself wrote: ‘The preservation of the crew seems little short of a miracle. I never read such a journal of exertions in my life.’

Eight years after, on the taking of Ciudad Rodrigo, in 1812, by the British army under Wellington, Captain William Jones, of the 52nd Regiment, having captured a French officer, employed his prisoner in pointing out quarters for his men. The Frenchman could not speak English, and Captain Jones–a fiery Welshman, whom it was the fashion in the regiment to term ‘Jack Jones’–knew no French; but dumb show supplied the want of language, and some of the company were lodged in a large store pointed out by the Frenchman, who then led the way to a church, near which Lord Wellington and his staff were standing. But no sooner had the guide stepped into the building than he started back, crying, ‘Sacre bleu!’ and ran out in the utmost alarm. The Welsh captain, however, went on, and perceived that the church had been used as a powder-magazine by the French; barrels were standing round, samples of their contents lay loosely scattered on the pavement, and in the midst was a fire, probably lighted by some Portuguese soldiers. Forthwith Captain Jones and the sergeant entered the church, took up the burning embers brand by brand, bore them safe over the scattered powder, and out of the church, and thus averted what might have been the most terrific disaster that could have befallen our army. [Footnote: The story has been told with some variation, as to whether it was the embers or a barrel of powder that he and the sergeant removed. In the Record of the 52d it is said to have been the latter; but the tradition the author has received from officers of the regiment distinctly stated that it was the burning brands, and that the scene was a reserve magazine– not, as in the brief mention in Sir William Napier’s History, the great magazine of the town.]

Our next story of this kind relates to a French officer, Monsieur Mathieu Martinel, adjutant of the 1st Cuirassiers. In 1820 there was a fire in the barracks at Strasburg, and nine soldiers were lying sick and helpless above a room containing a barrel of gunpowder and a thousand cartridges. Everyone was escaping, but Martinel persuaded a few men to return into the barracks with him, and hurried up the stairs through smoke and flame that turned back his companions. He came alone to the door of a room close to that which contained the powder, but found it locked. Catching up a bench, he beat the door in, and was met by such a burst of fire as had almost driven him away; but, just as he was about to descend, he thought that, when the flames reached the powder, the nine sick men must infallibly be blown up, and returning to the charge, he dashed forward, with eyes shut, through the midst, and with face, hands, hair, and clothes singed and burnt, he made his way to the magazine, in time to tear away, and throw to a distance from the powder, the mass of paper in which the cartridges were packed, which was just about to ignite, and appearing at the window, with loud shouts for water, thus showed the possibility of penetrating to the magazine, and floods of water were at once directed to it, so as to drench the powder, and thus save the men.

This same Martinel had shortly before thrown himself into the River Ill, without waiting to undress, to rescue a soldier who had fallen in, so near a water mill, that there was hardly a chance of life for either. Swimming straight towards the mill dam, Martinel grasped the post of the sluice with one arm, and with the other tried to arrest the course of the drowning man, who was borne by a rapid current towards the mill wheel; and was already so far beneath the surface, that Martinel could not reach him without letting go of the post. Grasping the inanimate body, he actually allowed himself to be carried under the mill wheel, without loosing his hold, and came up immediately after on the other side, still able to bring the man to land, in time for his suspended animation to be restored.

Seventeen years afterwards, when the regiment was at Paris, there was, on the night of the 14th of June, 1837, during the illuminations at the wedding festival of the Duke and Duchess of Orleans, one of those frightful crushes that sometimes occur in an ill-regulated crowd, when there is some obstruction in the way, and there is nothing but a horrible blind struggling and trampling, violent and fatal because of its very helplessness and bewilderment. The crowd were trying to leave the Champ de Mars, where great numbers had been witnessing some magnificent fireworks, and had blocked up the passage leading out by the Military College. A woman fell down in a fainting fit, others stumbled over her, and thus formed an obstruction, which, being unknown to those in the rear, did not prevent them from forcing forward the persons in front, so that they too were pushed and trodden down into one frightful, struggling, suffocating mass of living and dying men, women, and children, increasing every moment.

M. Martinel was passing, on his way to his quarters, when, hearing the tumult, he ran to the gate from the other side, and meeting the crowd tried by shouts and entreaties to persuade them to give back, but the hindmost could not hear him, and the more frightened they grew, the more they tried to hurry home, and so made the heap worse and worse, and in the midst an illuminated yew-tree, in a pot, was upset, and further barred the way. Martinel, with imminent danger to himself, dragged out one or two persons; but finding his single efforts almost useless among such numbers, he ran to the barracks, sounded to horse, and without waiting till his men could be got together, hurried off again on foot, with a few of his comrades, and dashed back into the crowd, struggling as vehemently to penetrate to the scene of danger, as many would have done to get away from it.

Private Spenlee alone kept up with him, and, coming to the dreadful heap, these two labored to free the passage, lift up the living, and remove the dead. First he dragged out an old man in a fainting fit, then a young soldier, next a boy, a woman, a little girl–he carried them to freer air, and came back the next moment, though often so nearly pulled down by the frantic struggles of the terrified stifled creatures, that he was each moment in the utmost peril of being trampled to death. He carried out nine persons one by one; Spenlee brought out a man and a child; and his brother officers, coming up, took their share. One lieutenant, with a girl in a swoon in his arms, caused a boy to be put on his back, and under this double burthen was pushing against the crowd for half and hour, till at length he fell, and was all but killed.

A troop of cuirassiers had by this time mounted, and through the Champ de Mars came slowly along, step by step, their horses moving as gently and cautiously as if they knew their work. Everywhere, as they advanced, little children were held up to them out of the throng to be saved, and many of their chargers were loaded with the little creatures, perched before and behind the kind soldiers. With wonderful patience and forbearance, they managed to insert themselves and their horses, first in single file, then two by two, then more abreast, like a wedge, into the press, until at last they formed a wall, cutting off the crowd behind from the mass in the gateway, and thus preventing the encumbrance from increasing. The people came to their senses, and went off to other gates, and the crowd diminishing, it became possible to lift up the many unhappy creatures, who lay stifling or crushed in the heap. They were carried into the barracks, the cuirassiers hurried to bring their mattresses to lay them on in the hall, brought them water, linen, all they could want, and were as tender to them as sisters of charity, till they were taken to the hospitals or to their homes. Martinel, who was the moving spirit in this gallant rescue, received in the following year one of M. Monthyon’s prizes for the greatest acts of virtue that could be brought to light.

Nor among the gallant actions of which powder has been the cause should be omitted that of Lieutenant Willoughby, who, in the first dismay of the mutiny in India, in 1858, blew up the great magazine at Delhi, with all the ammunition that would have armed the sepoys even yet more terribly against ourselves. The ‘Golden Deed’ was one of those capable of no earthly meed, for it carried the brave young officer where alone there is true reward; and all the Queen and country could do in his honor was to pension his widowed mother, and lay up his name among those that stir the heart with admiration and gratitude.


Charlotte Mary Yonge

Charlotte Mary Yonge by George Richmond


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