Chapter 12 | A Rustle Among the Trees | !Tention

Chapter Twelve.

“Asleep!” cried Pen, starting up and hurrying to the door.

“Yes; I have been watching ever so long. I woke up hours ago, all in a fright, thinking that gal had come back; and I seemed to see her come in at the door and look round, and then go again.”

“Ah, you saw her!” said Pen, looking sharply to right and left as if in expectation of some trace of her coming.

“No,” said Punch, “it’s no use to look. I have done that lots of times. Hurt my shoulder, too, screwing myself round. She ain’t been and left nothing.”

“But you saw her?” cried Pen.

“Well,” said Punch, in a hesitating way, “I did and I didn’t, like as you may say. She seemed to come; not as I saw her at first—I only felt her, like. It was the same as I seemed to see things when I have been off my head a bit.”

“Yes,” said Pen, “I understand.”

“Do you?” said Punch dreamily. “Well, I don’t. I didn’t see her, only it was like a shadow going out of the door; but I feel as sure as sure that she came and stood close to me for ever so long, and I think I saw her back as she went out; and then I quite woke up and lay and listened, hoping that she would come again.”

“I hope it was only a dream, Punch,” said Pen; “but I had no business to go to sleep like that.”

“Why not? You waren’t on sentry-go; and there was nothing to do.”

“I ought to have kept awake.”

“No, you oughtn’t. I was jolly glad to see you sleep; and I lay here and thought of what a lot of times you must have kept awake and watched over me when I was so bad, and— Here, whatcher going to do?”

“Going away till you have done talking nonsense.”

“Oh, all right. I won’t say no more. You are such a touchy chap. Don’t go away. Give us a drink.”

“Ah, now you are talking sense,” said Pen, as he made for the shelf upon which the little wooden vessel stood. “Here, Punch,” he said, “you mustn’t drink this. It has turned sour.”

“Jolly glad of it. Chuck it away and fetch me a good drink of water. Only, I say, I’d give it a good rinse out first.”

“Yes,” said Pen dryly, “I think it would be as well. Now, you don’t think that I should have given you water out of a dirty pail?”

“Well, how should I know?” said the boy querulously. “But, where are you going to get it from?”

“Out of the pool just below the waterfall.”

“Ah, it will be nice and cool from there,” said the boy, passing his tongue over his dry lips. “I was afraid that you might get it from where the sun had been on it all day.”

“Were you?” said Pen, smiling.

“Here, I say, don’t grin at a fellow like that,” said the boy peevishly. “You do keep catching a chap up so. Oh, I am so thirsty! It’s as if I had been eating charcoal cinders all day; and my wound’s all as hot and dry as if it was being burnt.”

“Yes, I had no business to have been asleep,” said Pen. “I’ll fetch the water, and when you have had a good drink I will bathe your wound.”

“Ah, do; there’s a good chap. But don’t keep on in that aggravating way, saying you oughtn’t to have gone to sleep. I wanted you to go to sleep; and it wasn’t a dream about her coming and looking at me while I was asleep. I dessay my eyes were shut, but I felt somebody come, and it only aggravates me for you to say nobody did.”

“Then I won’t say it any more, Punch,” cried Pen as he hurried out of the door. “But you dreamt it, all the same,” he continued to himself as he hurried along the track in the direction of the fall, keeping a sharp lookout the while, partly in search of danger, partly in the faint hope that he might catch sight of their late compassionate visitor, who might be on the way bearing a fresh addition to their scanty store.

But he encountered no sign of either friend or enemy. One minute he was making his way amongst the gnarled cork-trees, the next he passed out to where the soft, deep, lulling, musical sound of the fall burst upon his ears; and soon after he was upon his knees drinking deeply of the fresh, cool water, before rinsing out and carefully filling the wooden seau, which he was in the act of raising from the pool when he started, for there was a movement amongst the bushes upon the steep slope on the other side of the falls.

Pen’s heart beat heavily, for, fugitive as he was, the rustling leaves suggested an enemy bent upon taking aim at him or trapping him as a prisoner.

He turned to make his way back to the hut, and then as the water splashed from the little wooden pail, he paused.

“What a coward I am!” he muttered, and, sheltering himself among the trees, he began to thread his way between them towards where he could pass among the rocks that filled the bed of the stream below the falls so as to reach the other side and make sure of the cause of the movement amidst the low growth.

“I dare say it was only goats,” he said. “Time enough to run when I see a Frenchman; but I wish I had brought my piece.”

Keeping a sharp lookout for danger, he reached the other side of the little river, and then climbed up the rocky bank, gained the top in safety, and once more started violently, for he came suddenly upon a goat which was browsing amongst the bushes and sprang out in alarm.

“Yes, I am a coward!” muttered the lad with a forced laugh; and, stepping back directly, he lowered himself down the bank, recrossed the stream, filled the little pail, and made his way to where his wounded companion was waiting for him impatiently.

“Oh, I say, you have been a time!” grumbled the boy, “and I am so thirsty.”

“Yes, Punch, I have been a while. I had rilled the pail, when there was a rustle among the trees, and I thought one of the Frenchies was about to pounce upon me.”

“And was it?”

“No, only a goat amongst the bushes; and that made me longer. There, let me hold you up—no, no, don’t try yourself. That’s the way. Did it hurt you much?”

The boy drank with avidity, and then drew a long breath.

“Oh, ’tis good!” he said. “Nice and cool too. What, did it hurt? Yes, tidy; but I ain’t going to howl about that. Good job it wasn’t a Frenchy. Don’t want them to find us now we are amongst friends. If that gal will only bring us a bit to eat for about another day I shall be all right then. Sha’n’t I, comrade?”

“Better, I hope, Punch,” said Pen, smiling; “but you won’t be all right for some time yet.”

“Gammon!” cried the boy. “I shall. It only wants plenty of pluck, and a wound soon gets well. I mean to be fit to go on again precious soon, and I will. I say, give us a bit more of that cake, and—I say—what’s the Spanish for butter?”

Pen shook his head.

“Well, cheese, then? That will do. I want to ask her to bring us some. It’s a good sign, ain’t it, when a chap begins to get hungry?”

“Of course it is. All you have got to do is to lie still, and not worry your wound by trying to move.”

“Yes, it is all very fine, but you ain’t got a wound, and don’t know how hard it is to lie still. I try and try, and I know how it hurts me if I do move, but I feel as if I must move all the same. I say, I wish we had got a book! I could keep quiet if you read to me.”

“I wish I had one, Punch, but I must talk to you instead.”

“Well, tell us a story.”

“I can’t, Punch.”

“Yes, you can; you did tell me your story about how you came to take the shilling.”

“Well, yes, I did tell you that.”

“Of course you did, comrade. Well, that’s right. Tell us again.”

“Nonsense! You don’t want to hear that again.”

“Oh, don’t I? But I do. I could listen to that a hundred times over. It sets me thinking about how I should like to punch somebody’s head—your somebody, I mean. Tell us all about it again.”

“No, no; don’t ask me to do that, Punch,” said Pen, wrinkling up his forehead.

“Why? It don’t hurt your feelings, does it?”

“Well, yes, it does set me thinking about the past.”

“All right, then; I won’t ask you. Here, I know—give us my bugle and the bit of flannel and stuff out of the haversack. I want to give it a polish up again.”

“Why, you made it quite bright last time, Punch. It doesn’t want cleaning. You can’t be always polishing it.”

“Yes, I can. I want to keep on polishing till I have rubbed out that bruise in the side. It’s coming better already. Give us hold on it.”

Pen hesitated, but seeing how likely it was to quiet his patient’s restlessness, he placed the bright instrument beside him, and with it the piece of cloth with which he scoured it, and the leather for a polisher, and then sat thoughtfully down to watch the satisfied look of intentness in the boy’s countenance as he held the copper horn so close to his face that he could breathe upon it without moving his head, and then go on polish, polish, slowly, till by degrees the movement of his hand became more slow, his eyes gradually closed, his head fell sideways, and he sank to sleep.

“Poor fellow!” said Pen thoughtfully. “But he can’t be worse, or he wouldn’t sleep like that.”

Pen rose carefully so as not to disturb the sleeper, and cautiously peered outside the hut-door, keeping well out of sight till he had assured himself that there was no enemy visible upon the slopes of the valley, and then, taking a few steps under the shelter of the trees, he scanned the valley again from another point of view, while he listened intently, trying to catch the sound of the tramping of feet or the voice of command such as would indicate the nearness of the enemy.

But all was still, all looked peaceful and beautiful; and after stepping back to peer through the hut-door again to see that Punch had not stirred, he passed round to the back, where he could gaze in the direction of the fall and of the track by which the peasant-girl had hurried away.

“I wonder whether she will come back again,” thought Pen; and then feeling sure that they would have another visit from their new friend, he went slowly back to the hut and seated himself where he could watch the still-sleeping boy and think; for there was much to dwell upon in the solitude of that mountain valley—about home, and whether he should ever get back there and see England again, or be one of the unfortunates who were shot down and hastily laid beneath a foreign soil; about how long it would be before Punch was strong enough to tramp slowly by his side in search of their own corps or of some other regiment where they would be welcome enough until they could join their own.

These were not inspiriting thoughts, and he knew it must be weeks before the poor fellow’s wound would be sufficiently healed. Then other mental suggestions came to worry him as to whether he was pursuing the right course; as a companion he felt that he was, but as a soldier he was in doubt about the way in which his conduct would be looked upon by his superiors.

“Can’t help it,” he muttered. “I didn’t want to skulk. I couldn’t leave the poor fellow alone—perhaps to the wolves.”

The day went by very slowly. It was hot, and the air felt full of drowsiness, and the more Pen forced himself to be wakeful the more the silence seemed to press him down like a weight of sleep to which he was forced to yield from time to time, only to start awake again with a guilty look at his companion, followed by a feeling of relief on finding that Punch’s eyes were still closed and not gazing at him mockingly.

Slow as it was, the evening began to approach at last, and with it the intense longing for the change that would be afforded by the sight of their visitor.

But the time glided on, and with it came doubts which were growing into feelings of surety which were clinched by a sudden movement on the part of the wounded boy, whose long afternoon-sleep was brought to an end with an impatient ejaculation.

“There! I knew how it would be,” he said. “She won’t come now.”

“Never mind, Punch,” said Pen, trying to speak cheerily. “There’s a little more bread, and I will go now and see if I can find the goat, and try and get some milk.”

“Not you,” said the boy peevishly. “She will know you are a stranger, and won’t let you try again. I know what them she-billy goats are. I have watched them over and over again. Leave the bread alone, and let’s go to sleep. We shall want it for breakfast, and water will do. I mean to have one good long snooze ready for to-morrow, and then I am going to get up and march.”

“Nonsense, Punch,” cried Pen. “You can’t.”

“Can’t I?” said the boy mockingly. “I must, and, besides, British soldiers don’t know such a thing as can’t.”

“Ah!” cried Pen excitedly, as he started up and made for the door, for there was the rustling sound of feet amongst the bushes; and directly after, hot and panting with exertion, the peasant-girl appeared at the opening that was growing dim in the failing light.