Chapter 18 | War's Horrors | !Tention

Chapter Eighteen.

But the morning brought not only the horizontal rays of the great sun which lit up the hut with its sad tale of death and suffering, but likewise a renewal of the fight of the previous day, and this time the tide of battle swept much nearer to the encampment of the wounded.

Punch started out of a state of dreamy calm, and wondered why the noise he heard had not roused up his sleeping comrade, for from apparently quite near at hand came the boom of artillery, a sound which for the moment drowned all others, even the hoarse, harshly uttered words of command, as large bodies of men swung past the doorway of the hut, and the fitful bugle-calls which a minute before had fallen on his ear.

“Ah,” he muttered, “it’s a big fight going on out there. I wonder if those are our guns;” and once more the air was rent by the dull, angry roar of artillery. “Pen! Pen! Oh, I can’t let him sleep! Why doesn’t he wake up? Here, I say, comrade!”

“Eh, what is it?” And Pen opened his eyes, to gaze wonderingly at Punch’s excited face.

“Don’t you hear?”

“Hear? Yes, yes,” And the dreamy look vanished from the other’s eyes.

The two lads waited, listening, and then Punch put his lips close to Pen’s ear.

“I am sure we are winning,” he said. “Hear that?”

“How can I help hearing it?”

“Well, it’s English guns, I know.”

“Think so?”

“Yes, and they will be here soon.”

Pen shook his head.

“Afraid not,” he said; “and— Ah, all right.—Punch, lad, I’m wanted.” For just then a man came hurriedly into the hut and made him a sign.

“What does he want?” grumbled Punch.

“It’s the surgeon,” said Pen, and he hurried away.

For some hours—long, hot, weary hours—Punch saw little of his fellow-prisoner, the morning wearing on and the atmosphere of the hovel becoming unbearably close, while all the time outside in the brilliant sunshine, evidently just on the other side of a stretch of purple hilly land, a battle was in progress, the rattle of musketry breaking into the heavy volume of sound made by the field-guns, while every now and again on the sun-baked, dusty stretch which lay beyond the doorway, where the shadows were dark, a mounted man galloped past.

“Wish my comrade would come back,” he muttered; and it was long ere his wish was fulfilled. But the time came at last, and Pen was standing there before him, holding in his hands a tin drinking-cup and a piece of bread.

“Take hold,” he said hoarsely, looking away.

“Where you been?” said Punch.

“Working in the ambulance. I—I—” And Pen staggered, and sat down suddenly on the ground.

“What’s the matter? Not hit?”

“No, no.”

“Had anything yourself?”

“Bother!” said Pen. “Make haste. Toss off that water. I want the cup.”

“Had anything yourself?” repeated Punch firmly.

“Well, no.”

“Then I sha’n’t touch a drop until you have half and take some of that bread.”


“It’s no good, Pen. I sha’n’t and I won’t—so there!”

Pen hesitated.

“Very well,” he said; “half.” And he drank some of the water. “It’s very good—makes one feel better,” and he ate a morsel or two of bread. “I had a job to get it.”

“What did that fellow want?” asked Punch as he attacked his share.

“Me to help with the wounded,” said Pen huskily. “So you thought me long?”

“Course I did. But the wounded—are there many?”

“Heaps,” said Pen. “But don’t talk so loudly.”

“Poor chaps,” said Punch, “they can’t hear what we say. How are things going? There, they are at it again.”

“I think the French are giving ground,” said Pen in a whisper.



“What, mayn’t I say hooray?”

“No, you mayn’t. I have picked up a little since I went away. I fancy our men have been coming on to try and take this village, but I couldn’t make out much for the smoke; and, besides, I have been with that surgeon nearly all the time.”

“Yes,” said Punch. “Well, will they do it?”

Pen shook his head.

“Don’t think so,” he said. “They have tried it twice. I heard what was being done. Our people were driven back, and—”

He said no more, but turned to the door; and Punch strained his eyes in the same direction, as from away to the right, beyond a group of cottages, came a bugle-call, shrill, piercing, then again and again, while Punch started upright with a cry, catching Pen’s arm.

“I say, hear that? That’s our charge. Don’t you hear? They are coming on again!”

The effort Punch had made caused a pain so intense that he fell back with a groan.

“You can leave me, Pen, old chap,” he said.

“Don’t mind me; don’t look. But—but it’s the English charge. Go to them. They are coming—they are, I tell you. Don’t look like that, and—and— There, listen!”

The two lads were not the only ones in that hut to listen then and to note that the conflict was drawing nearer and nearer.

Punch, indeed, was right, and a short time after Pen crouched down closer to his companion, for now, quite close at hand, came volley after volley, the zip, zip of the ricochetting bullets seeming to clear the way for the charge.

Then more volleys.

The dust was ploughed up, and Punch started as a bullet came with a soft plug in the hut-wall, and Pen’s heart felt ready to stop beating as there was a hoarse command outside, and half-a-dozen French infantry dashed into the building, to fill the doorway, two lying down and their comrades kneeling and standing.

“Don’t speak,” whispered Pen, for the boy had wrenched himself round and was gazing intently at the backs of the soldiers. “Don’t speak.”

Silence, before a grim happening. Then a roar from outside, exultant and fierce, and in the wide-open space beyond the hut-door the two lads saw a large body of the enemy in retreat before the serried ranks of British infantry who came on at the double, their bayonets flashing in the sun’s rays, and cheering as they swept onward.

The muskets in the doorway flashed, and the hut was filled with smoke.

“Pen, I must whisper it—Hooroar!”

There was a long interval then, with distant shouting and scattered firing, and it was long ere the cloud of smoke was dissipated sufficiently for the two lads to make out that now the doorway was untenanted except by a French chasseur who lay athwart the threshold on his back, his hand still clutching at the sling of his piece.

“Think we have won?” whispered Punch, looking away.

“Don’t know,” muttered Pen; but the knowledge that was wanted came soon enough, for an hour later it became evident that the gallant attempt of the British commander to take the village had been foiled.

The British cheer they had heard still echoed in their ears, but it was not repeated, and it was speedily apparent that the fight had swept away to their left; and from scraps of information dropped by the members of the bearer-party who brought more wounded into the already crowded hut, and took away the silent figure lying prone in the entrance, Pen made out that the French had made a stand and had finally succeeded in driving back their foes.

In obedience to an order from the grim-featured surgeon, he left Punch’s side again soon after, and it was dark ere he returned, to find the boy fast asleep. He sank down and listened, feeling now but little fatigue, starting up, however, once more, every sense on the alert, as there came a series of sharp commands at the hut-door, and he realised that he must have dropped off, for it was late in the evening, and outside the soft moonlight was making the scene look weird and strange.