Chapter 5 | Our Soldier Boy

Chapter Five.

That long, deep draught of sweet, cool water seemed to send fresh life through Dick, and he rose up, thinking that it would be easy now to get down to the track and find his way back to his friends, but he shook his head.

No, he said, the Frenchmen would be about, and he might lose his way in the dark. Better wait a bit.

But it was so horribly lonely, and the stillness made him shiver as if he were cold, and obeying a natural instinct to be near something, he climbed back to where the dead mule lay, dragged a blanket from where the French soldiers had tossed it, and threw it over him. Then he crept close to the mule’s side, to sit watching the light die out on the tops of the mountains and the stars begin to come out. His head began to sink sidewise, nodded once or twice, and in spite of the darkness and the horror of his situation he fell fast asleep, to begin dreaming of Mother Beane, of the camp-fire and the cooking, and Tom Jones the bugle boy making a horrible noise on his copper horn, as he would sometimes in play: and then he started into wakefulness, to crouch there listening, for the hoarse sound sounded again from somewhere below.

The boy shuddered, for he knew it was not the note of the bugle, but a horrible long-drawn cry, faint and strange, and the cold drops began to gather on his forehead, for it sounded like the howling of a wolf, such a cry as he had heard Mother Beane talk about when telling him and Tom Jones about her adventures over the camp-fire. He listened and shuddered as the cry came again out of the darkness: and then the frightened feeling passed away.

“’Tisn’t a wolf,” he said, and he started to his feet. “Where are you?” he shouted, wishing that he had not spoken in his excitement, for he felt that it might be a French soldier. Then he began to feel his way slowly through the bushes, for it was no enemy who replied, but someone English calling out from the thick darkness of the night that terribly stirring word,—Help.

Dick had only one thought then, a thought which overmastered fear. Someone was in trouble and wanted help. It must be a wounded soldier, some one of his many friends who had chatted to him as he rode, for everyone in the regiment had a kind word to say.

“Hoi! Where are you?” he shouted, and the voice answered from very near: but the bushes were thick, the rocks many, and the darkness deep, so that it was some time before Dick could reach the spot and pass his hands over someone lying there.


That was the only answer to his question, “Who is it?”

Dick remembered the terrible thirst brought on by his own excitement, and the delicious draught of water from the little pool, as he eagerly turned away, wondering whether he could find the water again in the dark.

“Of course I can,” he said to himself the next minute, for he had only to listen to the musical trickling sound, and find the way by his ears. But the next trouble was not so easy to get over. What was he to fetch the water in?

He laughed softly to himself. The mule had been loaded with things belonging to the corporal’s mess, and he felt certain that he could find a tin.

But he had first of all to find out where the dead mule lay, no easy task in a strange place, and in the dark: but he tried and tried again, twice over finding himself near the pool, and it was not until he had passed near it over and over again that he kicked against something thrown away by the French soldiers, and the rest was easy. The next minute he was upon his knees searching about among the tumbled-together things, till to his great joy he touched the very article he wanted, and armed with this he sought for and found the little pool, filled the tin, and started upon the difficult task of carrying the water down a slope amongst rocks and trees and roots and creepers which seemed to be frying to trip him up.

At last after trying for long enough he stopped short in despair, feeling completely lost. Half the water had been spilt, and he had called again—“Where are you?” but there was no reply. And now a terrible feeling of dread came over him again, as the thought took possession of his mind that the wounded man was dead. So strong was this that it took away all the courage which had helped him so far, and in the poor fellow’s misery and despair he felt that the only thing to do now was to sit down and let the tears run while he waited till it was morning.

But that was not to be, for just when his courage was at its lowest ebb he started and nearly dropped the tin, for from out of the darkness close by there was a piteous moan, and as he sought cautiously for the place from whence it came, he was helped by a low muttering as of someone saying a prayer very slowly. And it was, for he heard the words, “Thy will be done,” and sank upon his knees by the sufferer’s head without spilling another drop.

Dick did not speak, but waited for the prayer to be finished: but there was no farther sound, and he whispered gently: “I’ve brought the water.”

Still there was no sound, and the boy began to think that he had come too late.

He spoke again and again, but there was no reply, and after feeling about a little he dipped his fingers in the tin and let a few drops fall upon the poor fellow’s dry lips. Then more and more, as he found they moved. Then he scooped up as much as his little hand would hold, guided it carefully and held it there so that a few drops trickled between the man’s lips and the others ran over his face and neck, with a strangely reviving effect. For there was a low sigh or two, and he could hear the sound repeated of his patient trying to swallow, after which his mouth opened widely, so that he was able to pour in more water, which now was swallowed with avidity.

All this had such a reviving effect that suddenly to Dick’s great delight there was a hoarse whisper—

“More—more. Water—water.”

This was responded to at once, and after a few more tiny portions had been poured between the sufferer’s lips a hoarse voice said:—

“Heaven bless you, it has saved my life.”

“Can you sit up a little and drink?” said Dick eagerly.

“I don’t know—I’ll try.”

There was a faint rustling, a piteous groan of pain, and then:—

“Now quick. I can do no more. Water.”

By touch Dick found that his companion had raised himself on one elbow, and he guided the tin to his lips with one hand, passing the other round the poor fellow’s head to try and support him, as he drank eagerly till the last drops were drained from the tin.

“Like life—like life,” was sighed, and Dick felt his patient sink down again with a sigh of content.

“Shall I fetch some more?” said the boy.

“Not yet. Tell me. Who are you? Is it a woman?”

Dick laughed in his great joy at hearing the words.

“No,” he said: “it’s only me.”

“You? Who are you?”

“Dick. Mrs Corporal Beane’s Dick.”

“Oh, my boy, my boy, you have saved my life,” moaned the sufferer, catching the little fellow’s hand and pressing it to his fevered lips.

“But who are you?” said the boy. “I don’t know your voice.”

“Don’t you, my brave little fellow? Yes, you do—the Colonel, Colonel Lavis.”

“Oh,” said Dick wonderingly, “and did somebody shoot you?”

“Yes. I was hit twice. I crawled away among the bushes and rocks after I fell, and then all was dark, and I was trying to creep to where I could hear water. But tell me, my brave lad. They drove the Frenchmen off?”

“No,” said Dick sadly, and as he told all he knew the Colonel groaned again and again and to Dick’s horror he heard him mutter to himself:—

“Better that I had died—better that I had died than suffer this. The defeat—the shame.”

Then all was still in the darkness, the fear began to creep into Dick’s breast again, and he gently stretched out his hand to touch the Colonel’s, when to his great joy his hand was seized: then another hand touched it, and he felt it kissed and then held fast, drawing him forward so that he half lay across the wounded man’s breast, and could feel the beating of his heart, lying thinking there till he heard a low sigh or two, followed by a steady regular breathing as if he slept.

And at last, utterly wearied out, sleep came to the boy as well, and he lay dreaming there, keeping what might have been the chill of death from a brave man’s breast, till the sun rose again and was beating down warmly upon the back of Dick’s head, when he opened his eyes to stare wonderingly at the stained and blackened face so close to his.

Dick did not dare to stir for fear of awakening the Colonel again: but he was not asleep, for after a time he opened his eyes and smiled pleasantly.

“The fortune of war, little comrade,” he said.

“Yes, sir,” said Dick, and he stared at him, wondering that the stern, fierce officer who ordered the men about so could look so pleasant.

“That’s right,” said the Colonel: “we have been successful many times. But let’s see, Dick, you were brought into camp wounded.”

“Yes,” said Dick. “My head was very bad.”

“Of course. I remember all about it. How was it you were injured?”

Dick shook the head that had been hurt.

“You don’t know? But you speak well. Who are your father and mother?”

“Corporal Beane and Mrs Corporal.”

The Colonel looked at the boy curiously.

“Yes,” he said at last: “so I remember hearing. Well, Dick, you were wounded, and we helped you: now it is my turn and you have helped me.”

“Yes,” said Dick.

“I am thirsty, my boy: will you fetch me some water?”

“Yes,” said Dick, seizing the tin.

“But look carefully round: the enemy may be holding the ground.”

“Would they kill us if they saw us, sir?”

“I hope not, boy: but if I can bear my wounds I’ll keep in hiding, for my brave lads must make an effort to find us soon.”

“I’ll mind,” said Dick, and he took a long look round, and then crept on hands and knees to the spring, looked at it longingly, but forebore to drink, and filling the tin he bore it to the Colonel, who lay just as he had left him.

“Can you lift my head, boy?” he said. “Set down the tin.”

Not an easy thing to do without spilling the water, but Dick succeeded, and then managed with the Colonel’s help to raise him a little so that he could reach the water, of which he drank with avidity and was once more lowered back, to lie faint and giddy for a few minutes, but he recovered soon and said he was better, speaking so freely and kindly to the boy that Dick took courage.

“I say,” he said: “you’ve got such a dirty face.”

“Have I, Dick?” said the Colonel, smiling. “Yes, it’s all over gunpowder, and all bloody. Shall I wash it?”

“Please, Dick, my boy,” said the Colonel, and Dick took the tin to the spring as carefully as before, after looking up and down the great ravine, filled it, and this time had a good draught himself, and felt hungry as he took the refilled tin back, set it down by the Colonel’s head, and then began to purse up his lips and think what he should do.

He was not long making up his mind, and tearing the lining out of his damaged sleeve to soak in the water and use for a sponge.

“But I haven’t a towel,” he said.

“There’s a clean handkerchief in the breast pocket of my coat,” said the Colonel, smiling. “Take it out.”

“That hurt you?” said Dick, after unbuttoning the uniform and taking out the carefully folded handkerchief just as Mrs Corporal Beane had brought it to him from the wash.

“Yes, but not very much,” said the Colonel. “Go on, it will be cool and refreshing.”

He was in great pain, but he lay smiling with a very kindly, fatherly look at the clever little fellow, as Dick carefully washed away the stains, having to go over the officer’s face twice before it was quite clean, after which he dried it, and knelt there looking at the bright sword which was hanging by its golden knot to the Colonel’s right arm.

“Shall I take that off before I wash your hands?” The Colonel nodded and smiled in the same fatherly way as the boy unloosed the sword-knot, laid the weapon close by and then washed and dried the wounded man’s hands.

“I say,” said Dick then, “I can tear this handkerchief when it’s dry. Shall I tie up your cuts?”

“No,” said the Colonel sadly: “they must wait till the Doctor comes, Dick, if he ever does. They are not cuts, my boy, but bullet-holes, and they have ceased to bleed. Now what is to be done next?”

“Get up, and let’s find the men.”

“No, boy,” said the Colonel sadly. “I could not move. We must wait. But you are hungry. Were there any rations on the mule?”

“No,” said Dick, shaking his head: “they were on the other mule. We must wait: but I am so hungry. Aren’t you?”

“No,” said the Colonel sadly, and his eyes wandered round, but he looked in vain. They were in a wild ravine, and not so much as a berry was in sight.

“We must wait, Dick,” he said at last. “Surely they will come in search of us soon.”