Chapter 19 | Another Breakdown | !Tention

Chapter Nineteen.

Punch heard the voices too, and he reached out and felt for his comrade’s hand.

“What is it?” he whispered. “Have they won? Not going to shoot me, are they?”

“No, no,” said Pen, “but”—and he dropped his voice—“I think we are all going on.”

He was quite right, and all through that night the slow business of setting a division on the march was under way, and the long, long train of baggage wagons drawn by the little wiry mules of the country began to move.

The ambulance train followed, with its terrible burden heavily increased with the results of the late engagement, while as before—thanks to the service he had been able to render—Pen was able to accompany the heavily laden wagon in which Punch lay.

“So we were beaten,” said the boy sadly—as the wheels of the lumbering vehicle creaked loudly, for the route was rough and stony—and Pen nodded.

“Beaten. Yes,” And his voice was graver than before at the thought of what he had seen since they had been prisoners.

On, on, on, through the dark hours, with Punch falling off every now and again into a fitful sleep—a sleep broken by sudden intervals of half-consciousness, when Pen’s heart was wrung by the broken words uttered by his companion: “Not going to shoot me, are they? Don’t let them do that, comrade.” While, as the weary procession continued its way on to the next village, where they were about to halt, Pen had another distraction, for as he trudged painfully on by the side of the creaking wagon a hand was suddenly placed on his arm.

He turned sharply.

“Eh, what?” he cried.

“Well?” said a half-familiar voice, and in the dim light he recognised the features of the young French captain who had listened to his appeal to save the bugler’s life.

“Rough work, sir,” said Pen.

“Yes. Your fellows played a bold game in trying to dislodge us. Nearly succeeded, ma foi! But we drove them back.”

“Yes,” said Pen.

“How’s your friend?” asked the captain.


“That’s well. And now tell me, where did you learn to speak French so well?”

“From my tutor,” answered Pen.

“Your tutor! And you a simple soldier! Well, well! You English are full of surprises.”

Pen laughed.

“I suppose so,” he said; “but we are not alone in that.”

The French captain chatted a little longer, and then once more Pen was alone—alone but for the strange accompaniment of sounds incident to the night march: the neighing of horses, the scraps of quick talking which fell on his ear, along with that never-ceasing creak, rumble, and jolt of the wagons, a creaking and jolting which seemed to the tired brain as though they would go on for ever and ever.

He was aroused out of a strange waking dream, in which the past and the present were weirdly blended, by a voice which called him by name, and he tried to shake himself free from the tangle of confused thought which hemmed him in.

“Aren’t you there?” came the voice again.

“Yes, Punch, yes. What is it?”

“Ah, that’s all right! I wanted to tell you that I feel such a lot better.”

“Glad to hear it, Punch.”

“Yes, I feel as if I could get out of this now.”

“You had better not try,” said Pen with a forced laugh. “I think—I think—” And then the confusion came again.

“What do you think?” said Punch.

“Think?” cried the other. “I—what do you mean?”

In the darkness of the heavy vehicle, Punch’s face betrayed a feeling of alarm, and he tried to figure it out. Something in Pen’s voice frightened him.

“He is not the same,” he muttered; and his impression was substantiated when a halt was called just about the time of dawn, for Pen dropped like a log by the wagon-side; and when Punch, with great pain to himself, struggled into a sitting position, and then clambered down to his comrade, he found to his horror that his worst fears were realised.

Pen’s forehead was burning, and the poor lad was muttering incoherently, and not in a condition to pay heed to the words of his companion.

“Gray, Gray! Can’t you hear? What’s wrong?”

The village which was the new headquarters was higher up in the mountains; and whether it was the fresher air operating beneficially, or whether the period of natural recovery had arrived, certain it was that Punch found himself able to move about again; and during the days and weeks that followed he it was who took the post of nurse and attended to the wants of Pen—wants, alas! too few, for the sufferer was a victim to something worse than a mere shot-wound susceptible to efficient dressing, for the most dangerous, perhaps, of all fevers had laid him low.

The period passed as in a long dream, and the thought of rejoining the British column had for a time ceased to animate Punch’s brain.

But youth and a strong constitution rose superior in Pen’s case to all the evils of circumstance and environment, and one afternoon the old clear look came back to his eyes.

“Ah, Punch,” he said, “better?”

“Better?” said the boy. “I—I am well; but you—how are you now?”

“I—have I been ill?”

“Ill!” cried Punch, and he turned and looked at an orderly who was hurrying past. “He asks if he has been ill!—Why, Pen, you have had a fever which has lasted for weeks.”

Pen tried to sit up, and he would have dismally failed in the attempt had not Punch encircled him with his arm.

“Why—why,” he said faintly, “I am as weak as weak!”

“Yes, that you are.”

“But, Punch, what has been happening?”

“I don’t know. I can’t understand what all these people say; but they let me fetch water for them and attend to you; and to-day there has been a lot going on—troops marching past.”

“Yes,” said Pen; “that means there has been another fight.”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Why not?”

“Because I have heard no firing. But hadn’t you better go to sleep again?”

Pen smiled, but he took the advice and lay back.

“Perhaps I had,” he said faintly; and as Punch watched him he fell into a restful doze.

So it was during the days that followed, each one bringing back more strength to the invalid, and likewise each day a further contingent of the wounded in the battle of a month before being passed as fit for service again and drafted to the front; while each day, too, Pen found that the strength that used to be his was returning little by little, and he listened eagerly one night when Punch bent over him and whispered something in his ear.

“You know I have been talking about it to you,” said the boy, “for several nights past; and when I wasn’t talking about it I was thinking of it. But now—now I think the time has come.”

“To escape?” cried Pen eagerly. “You mean it?”

“Yes; I have been watching what has gone on. We are almost alone here, with only wounded and surgeons. The rest have gone; and—and behind this village there is a forest of those scrubby-barked oak-trees.”

“Cork-trees,” said Pen.

“Oh, that’s it!” And the boy drew himself up. “But do you think you are strong enough yet?”

“Strong enough? Of course.” And Pen rose, to stand at his companion’s side. “Do you know the way?”

“Yes,” And Punch felt for and took his companion’s hand, trying to see his face in the pitchy darkness. “It is to the right of the camp.”

“Then let’s go.”

“Wait,” said Punch, and he glided off into the blackness, leaving Pen standing there alone.

But it was not for long. In a minute or two the boy was back once more, and this time he held something in his arms.

“Ready?” he asked in a whisper.

“Yes. What for?”

“Stoop.—That’s it. I watched, and took them—not English ones, but they will shoot, I expect,” And softly he slipped the sling of a musket over Pen’s shoulders, following that by handing him a cartouche-box and belt. “I have got a gun for myself too. Better than a bugle. There!” And in the darkness there was the sound of a belt being tightly drawn through a buckle. “Are you ready?”

“Yes,” said Pen.

“Where’s your hand?”


“Right!” And the younger lad gripped his friend’s extended palm. “Now, it’s this way. I planned it all when you were so ill, and said to myself that it would be the way when you got better. Come along.”

Softly and silently the two slipped off in the darkness, making for the belt of forest where the gloomy leafage made only a slight blur against the black velvet sky.