Chapter 22 | Unlucky Beggars | !Tention

Chapter Twenty Two.

“If one wasn’t in such trouble,” said Punch to himself, as he lay in the growing darkness beneath the great chestnut-tree, “one would have time to think what a beautiful country this is. But of all the unlucky beggars that ever lived, Private Pen Gray and Bugler Bob Punchard is about the two worst. Only think of it: we had just got out of all that trouble with my wound and Gray’s fever, then he gets hit and I got to nurse him all over again. Well, that’s all clear enough.—How are you now, comrade?” he said aloud, as after cautiously gazing round in search of danger, he raised his head and bent over his wounded companion.

There was no reply, and Punch went on softly, “It’s my turn now to say what you said to me. Sleepy, are you? Well, go on, and have plenty of it. It’s the best thing for you. What did you say? Nature sets to work to mend you again? No, he didn’t. I forget now, but that’s what he meant. Now, I wonder whether it’s safe for me to go away and leave him. No, of course it isn’t, for I may tumble up against the French, who will make me a prisoner, and I sha’n’t be able to make them understand that my comrade is lying wounded under this tree, and if I could I don’t want to. That’s one thing. Another is that if I start off and leave him here I sha’n’t be able to find him again. Then, what am I going for? To try and find water, for my throat’s like sand, and something to eat better than these chestnuts, for I don’t believe they are anything like ripe. Oh dear! This is a rum start altogether. I don’t know what to do. This is coming to the wars, and no mistake! There never was really such unlucky chaps as we are. It will be dark before long. Then I shall seem to be quite alone. To be all alone here in a great wood like this is enough to make any fellow feel scared. It’s just the sort of place where the wolves will be. Well, if they do come, we have got two muskets, and if it isn’t too dark I will have two wolves, and that will keep the others off as long as they have got the ones I shot to eat.—Did you speak, comrade?” he whispered, as he once more bent over Pen. “No, he’s fast asleep. Wish I was, so as to forget all about it, for the sun’s quite down now, and I don’t know how I am to get through such a night as this. However, here goes to try. Ugh! How cold it is turning!”

The boy shivered as the wind that came down from the mountains seemed bitterly cold to one who had been drenched in perspiration by the exertion and excitement that he had passed through.

“Poor old Private Gray!” he muttered. “He will be feeling it worse than me if he don’t turn feverish.”

The boy hesitated for a few moments, and then, stripping off his jacket, he crept as close to his wounded companion as he could, and then carefully spread the ragged uniform coat over their breasts.

“Ought to have got his off too,” he muttered, “but I mustn’t. Must make the best of it and try and go to sleep, keeping him warm. But no fellow could go to sleep at a time like this.”

It was a rash assertion, for many minutes had not passed before the boy was sleeping soundly the sleep of utter weariness and exhaustion; and the next time he unclosed his eyes as he lay there upon his back, not having moved since he lay down, it was to gaze wonderingly at the beautiful play of morning light upon the long, glossy, dark-green leaves over his head; for the sun had just risen and was bronzing the leaves with ruddy gold.

The birds were singing somewhere at the edge of the forest, and all seemed so wonderful and strange that the boy muttered to himself as he asked the question, “Where am I?”

So deep had been his sleep that it seemed to be one great puzzle.

He knew it was cold, and he wondered at that, for now and then he felt a faint glow of warm sunshine. Then, like a flash, recollection came back, and he turned his head to gaze at his companion, but only to wrench himself away and roll over and over a yard or two, before sitting up quickly, trembling violently. For he was chilled with horror by the thought that his companion had passed away during the night.

It was some minutes before he dared speak. “Pen!” he whispered, at last. “Gray!” He waited, with the horror deepening, for there his companion lay upon his back motionless, and though he strained his neck towards him he could detect no movement of his breath, while his own staring eyes began to grow dim, and the outstretched figure before him looked misty and strange.

“He’s dead! He’s dead!” groaned the poor fellow. “And me lying sleeping there, never taking any notice of him when he called for help—for he must have called—and me pretending to be his comrade all the time! ’Tain’t how he treated me. Oh, Pen! Pen Gray, old chap! Speak to me, if it’s only just one word! Oh, if I had not laid down! I ought to have stood up and watched him; but I did think it was to keep him warm. No, you didn’t!” he cried angrily, addressing himself. “You did it to warm yourself.”

At last, recovering his nerve somewhat, the boy began to crawl on hands and knees towards the motionless figure, till he was near enough to lay his hand upon his companion’s breast. Then twice over he stretched it out slowly and cautiously, but only to snatch it back, till a feeling of rage at his cowardice ran through him, and he softly lowered it down, let it rest there for a few moments, and then with a thrill of joy he exclaimed, “Why, it’s all fancy! He is alive.”

“Yes, what? Who spoke?”

“I did,” cried Punch, springing to his feet. “Hooray, comrade! It’s all right. I woke up, and began to think— Pst! pst!” he whispered, as he dropped down upon hands and knees again. For there was a rush of feet, and a patch of undergrowth a short distance beyond the spread of the great chestnut boughs was violently agitated.

“Why, it’s only goats,” muttered Punch angrily. “I scared them by jumping up. Wish I had got one of their young uns here.”

“What is it? Who’s that? You, Punch?”

“Yes, comrade; it’s all right. But how are you? All right?”

“Yes—no. I have been asleep and dreaming. What does it all mean, Punch? What’s the matter with my leg?”

“Can’t you recollect, comrade?”

Pen was silent for a few moments, and then: “Yes,” he said softly, “I understand now. I was hurt. Why, it’s morning! I haven’t been to sleep all the night, have I?”

“Yes, comrade, and,”—Punch hesitated for a moment, and then with an effort—“so have I.”

“I am glad of it,” sighed Pen.

Then he winced, for he had made an effort to rise, but sank back again, feeling faint.

“Help me, Punch,” he said.

“Whatcher want?”

“To sit up with my back against the tree.”

Punch hesitated, and then obeyed.

“Ah, that’s better,” sighed Pen. “I am not much hurt.”

“Oh yes, you are,” said Punch, shaking his head.

“Nonsense! I recollect all about it now. Can you get me some water?”

“I’ll try,” was the reply; “but can you really sit up like that?”

“Yes, of course. We shall be able to go on again soon.”

“Wha-at!” cried Punch. “Oh yes, I dare say! You can’t go on. But I know what I am going to do. If the French are gone I am going to hunt round till I find one of them cottages. There must be one somewhere about, because I just started some goats. And look there! Why, of course there must be some people living near here.” And the boy pointed to a dozen or so of pigs busily rooting about amongst the dead leaves of the forest, evidently searching for chestnuts and last year’s acorns shed by the evergreen oaks.

“Now, look here,” continued the boy. “Soon as I am sure that you can sit up and wait, I am just off to look out for some place where I can carry you.”

“I can sit up,” replied Pen. “I have got a nasty wound that will take some time to heal; but it’s nothing to mind, Punch, for it’s the sort of thing that will get well without a doctor. But you must find shelter or beg shelter for us till I can tramp again.”

“But I can carry yer, comrade.”

“A little way perhaps. There, don’t stop to talk. Go and do the best you can.”

“But is it safe to leave you?” protested Punch.

“Yes; there is nothing to mind, unless some of the French fellows find me.”

“That does it, then,” said Punch sturdily. “I sha’n’t go.”

“You must, I tell you.”

“I don’t care; I ain’t going to leave you.”

“Do you want me to starve, or perish with cold in the night.”

“Course I don’t!”

“Then do as I tell you.”

“But suppose the French come?”

“Well, if they do we must chance it; but if you are careful in going and coming I don’t think they will find me; and I don’t suppose you will be long.”

“That I won’t,” cried the boy confidently. “Here goes, then—I am to do it?”


“Then here’s off.”

“No, don’t do that,” cried Pen.

“Why not? Hadn’t I better take the muskets?”

“No. You are more likely to get help for me if you go without arms; and, besides, Punch,” added Pen, with a faint smile, “I might want the muskets to defend myself against the wolves.”

“All right,” replied the boy, replacing the two clumsy French pieces by his comrade’s side. “Keep up your spirits, old chap; I won’t be long.”

The next minute the boy had plunged into the thicket-like outskirts of the forest, where he stopped short to look back and mentally mark the great chestnut-tree.

“I shall know that,” he said, “from ever so far off. It is easy to ’member by the trunk, which goes up twisted like a screw. Now then, which way had I better go?”

Punch had a look round as far as the density of the foliage would allow him, and then gave his head a scratch.

“Oh dear!” he muttered, “who’s to know which way to go? It’s regular blind-man’s buff. How many horses has your father got? Shut your eyes, comrade. Now then. Three! What colour? Black, white, and grey. Turn round three times and catch who you may.”

The boy, with his eyes tightly closed and his arms spread out on either side, turned round the three times of the game, and then opened his eyes and strode right away.

“There can’t be no better way than chancing it,” he said. “But hold hard! Where’s my tree?”

He was standing close to a beautifully shaped ilex, and for a few moments he could not make out the great spiral-barked chestnut, till, just as he began to fancy that he had lost his way at once, he caught sight of its glossy bronzed leaves behind the greyish green ilex.

“That’s all right,” he said. “Now then, here’s luck.”

It was a bitter fight with grim giant despair as the boy tramped on, and time after time, faint with hunger, suffering from misery, he was about to throw himself down upon the earth, utterly broken in spirit, but he fought on bravely.

“I never saw such a country!” he muttered. “There ought to be plenty of towns and villages and people, but it’s all desert and stones and scrubby trees. Any one would think that you couldn’t walk anywhere without finding something to eat, and there’s nothing but the goats and pigs, and as soon as they catch sight of you away they go.”

Over and over again he climbed hillsides to reach spots where he could look down, in the full expectation of seeing some village or cluster of huts. But it was all the same, there was nothing to be seen; till, growing alarmed lest he should find that he had lost touch with his landmarks, he began to retrace his steps in utter despair, but only to drop down on his knees at last and bury his face in his hands, to give way to the emotion that for a few moments he could not master.

“There,” he muttered, recovering himself, “I could not help it, but there was no one to see. Just like a silly great gal. It is being hungry, I suppose, and weak with my wound; and, my word, it does sting! But there’s some one at last!”

The boy looked sharply round.

“Why, you idgit!” he gasped, “you’ve lost him again. No, it’s all right,” he cried, and he started off at a trot in the direction of a short, plump-looking figure in rusty black, who, bent of head and book in hand, was slowly descending a slope away to his right.