Chapter 32 | A Cavernous Breakfast | !Tention

Chapter Thirty Two.

“I say, comrade,” whispered Punch; “are we going to begin soon?”

The boys were seated upon a huge block of stone watching the coming and going of the contrabandistas, several of whom formed a group in a nook of the natural amphitheatre-like chasm in which they had made their halt.

This seemed to be the entrance to a gully, down which, as they waited, the lads had seen the smuggler-leader pass to and fro several times over, and as far as they could make out away to their left lay the track by which they had approached during the night; but they could not be sure.

That which had led them to this idea was the fact that it seemed as if sentries had been stationed somewhere down there, one of whom had come hurriedly into the amphitheatre as if in search of his chief.

“I say, comrade,” said Punch, repeating his question rather impatiently, “aren’t we going to begin soon? I feel just like old O’Grady.”

“How’s that, Punch?”

“What he calls ‘spoiling for a fight, me boy.’”

“Oh, you needn’t feel like that, Punch,” said Pen, smiling.

“Well, don’t you?”

“No. I never do. I never want to kill anybody.”

“You don’t? That ain’t being a good soldier.”

“I can’t help that, Punch. Of course, when one’s in for it I fire away like the rest; but when I’m cool I somehow don’t like the feeling that one has killed or wounded some brave man.”

“Oh, get out,” cried the boy, “with your ‘killed or wounded some brave man!’ They ain’t brave men—only Frenchies.”

“Why, Punch, there are as brave men amongst the French as amongst the English.”

“Get out! I don’t believe that,” said the boy. “There can’t be. If there were, how could our General with his little bit of an army drive the big army of Frenchies about as he does? Ask any of our fellows, and they will tell you that one Englishman is worth a dozen Frenchies. Why, you must have heard them say so.”

“Oh yes, I have, Punch,” said Pen, laughing, as he nursed his leg, which reminded him of his wound from time to time. “But I don’t believe it. It’s only bluster and brag, of which I think our fellows ought to be ashamed. Why, you’ve more than once seen the French soldiers drive our men back.”

“Well, yes,” said Punch grudgingly. “But that’s when there have been more of them.”

“Not always, Punch.”

“Why is it, then?”

“Oh, when they have had better positions and our officers have been outflanked.”

“Now you are dodging away from what we were talking about,” said Punch. “You were saying that you didn’t like shooting the men.”

“Well, I don’t.”

“That’s because you don’t understand things,” cried the boy triumphantly. “You see, although I am only a boy, and younger than you are, I am an older soldier.”

“Are you, Punch?” said Pen, smiling.

“Course I am! Why, you’ve only been about a year in the regiment.”

“Yes, about a year.”

“Well,” cried the boy triumphantly, “I was born in it, so I’m just as old a soldier as I am years old. You needn’t mind shooting as many of them as you can. They are the King’s enemies, and it is your duty to. Don’t the song say, ‘God save the King?’ Well, every British soldier has got to help and kill as many enemies as he can. But I say, we are going to fight for the Spanish King, then? Well, all right; he’s our King’s friend. But where is he now? I haven’t seen anything of him this morning. I hope he hasn’t run away and left us to do the fighting.”

“Oh no,” said Pen, “I don’t think so. Our smuggler friend said we were surrounded by the French.”

“Surrounded, eh?” cried Punch. “So much the better! Won’t matter which way we fire then, we shall be sure to bring some one down. Glad you think the Spanish King ain’t run away though. If I was a king I know what I should do, comrade,” continued Punch, nursing his musket and giving it an affectionate rub and pat here and there. “Leg hurt you, comrade?”

“No, only now and then,” said Pen, smiling. “But what would you do if you were a king?”

“Lead my army like a man.”

“Nonsense! What are the generals for?”

“Oh, you would want your generals, of course, and the more brave generals the King has—like Sir Arthur Wellesley—the better. I say, he’s an Irishman, isn’t he?”

“Yes, I believe so,” replied Pen.

“Yes,” continued Punch after a minute. “They are splendid fellows to fight. I wonder whether he’s spoiling for one now. Old O’Grady would say he was. You should hear him sometimes when he’s on the talk. How he let go, my boy, about the Oirish! Well, they are good soldiers, and I wish, my boy, old O was here to help. O, O, and it’s O with me, I am so hungry! Ain’t they going to give us anything to eat?”

“Perhaps not, Punch, for it’s very doubtful whether our friends keep their provisions here.”

“Oh, I say!” cried the boy, with his face resembling that of the brave man in Chevy Chase who was in doleful dump, “that’s a thing I’d see to if I was a king and led my army. I would have my men get a good feed before they advanced. They would fight ever so much better. Yes, if I was a king I’d lead my own men. They’d like seeing him, and fight for him all the better. Of course I wouldn’t have him do all the dirty work, but— Look there, comrade; there’s Mr Contrabando making signals to you. We are going to begin. Come on!”

The boy sprang to his feet, and the companions marched sharply towards the opening where the group of smugglers were gathered.

“Bah!” ejaculated Punch contemptuously. “What a pity it is! I don’t believe that they will do much good with dumpy tools like them;” and the boy literally glared at the short carbines the smugglers had slung across their shoulders. “Of course a rifle would be best, but a good musket and bayonet is worth a dozen of those blunderbusters. What do they call them? Bell-mouthed? Why, they are just like so many trumpet-things out of the band stuck upon a stick. Why, it stands to reason that they can’t go bang. It will only be a sort of a pooh!” And the boy pursed up his lips and held his hand to his mouth as if it were his lost bugle, and emitted a soft, low note—poooooh!

Déjeuner, mes amis!” said the smuggler, as the boys advanced; and he led the way past a group of his followers along the narrow passage-like opening to where it became a hewn-out tunnel which showed the marks of picks, and on into a rock-chamber of great extent, in one corner of which a fire was blazing cheerfully, with the smoke rising to an outlet in the roof. Directly after the aromatic scent of hot coffee smote the nostrils of the hungry lads, as well as the aroma of newly fried ham, while away at one side to the right they caught sight of the strangers of the past night, Pen recognising at once the now uncloaked leader who had presented a pistol at his head.

“Here, I say,” whispered Punch excitedly, “hold me up, comrade, or I shall faint.”

“What’s the matter?” said Pen anxiously. “You feel that dreadful pain again? Is it your wound?”

“Pain? Yes,” whispered Punch; “but it ain’t there;” and he thrust his hand into his pocket to feel for his knife.

It was a rough meal, roughly served, but so abundant that it was evident that the smugglers were adepts in looking after the commissariat department. In one part of the cavern-like place the King and his followers were being amply supplied, while right on the other side—partly hidden by a couple of stacks piled-up in the centre of the great chamber, and formed in the one case of spirit-kegs, in the other of carefully bound up bales that might have been of silk or velvet—were grouped together near the fire some scores of the contrabandistas who seemed to be always coming and going—coming to receive portions of food, and going to make place for others of the band.

And it was beyond these stacks of smuggled goods that their contrabandista friend signed to the lads to seat themselves. One of the men brought them coffee and freshly fried ham and cake, which the captain shared with them and joined heartily in the meal.

“I say, Pen,” whispered Punch, “do tell him in ‘parlyvoo’ that I say he’s a trump! Fight for him and the King! I should just think we will! D’ye ’ear? Tell him.”

“No,” said Pen. “Let him know what we feel towards him by what we do, Punch, not what we say.”

“All right. Have it your own way,” said the boy. “But, I say, I do like this ham. I suppose it’s made of some of them little pigs we see running about in the woods. Talk about that goat’s mutton! Why, ’tain’t half so good as ours made of sheep, even though they do serve it out and call it kid. Why, when we have had it sometimes for rations, you couldn’t get your teeth into it. Kid, indeed! Grandfather kid! I’m sure of that. I say, pass the coffee, comrade. Only fancy! Milk and sugar too! Oh no, go on; drink first. Age before honesty. I wonder whether this was smuggled.—What’s the matter now?”

For in answer to a shrill whistle that rang loudly in echoes from the roof, every contrabandista in the place sprang up and seized his carbine, their captain setting the example.

“No, no,” he said, turning to the two lads. “Finish your breakfast, and eat well, boys. It may be a long time before you get another chance. There’s plenty of time before the firing begins, and I will come back for you and station you where you can fight for Spain.”

He walked quickly across to where the King’s followers had started up and stood sword in hand, their chief remaining seated upon an upturned keg, looking calm and stern; but at the same time his eyes wandered proudly over the roughly disguised devoted little band who were ready to defend him to the last.

Pen watched the contrabandista as he advanced and saluted the dethroned monarch without a trace of anything servile; the Spanish gentleman spoke as he addressed his sovereign in a low tone, but his words were not audible to the young rifleman. Still the latter could interpret them to himself by the Spaniard’s gestures.

“What’s he a-saying of?” whispered Punch; and as he spoke the boy surreptitiously cut open a cake, turned it into a sandwich, and thrust it into his haversack.

“I can’t hear, Punch,” replied Pen; “and if I could I shouldn’t understand, for he’s speaking in Spanish. But he’s evidently telling him that his people may finish their breakfast in peace, for, like us, they are not wanted yet.”

As Pen spoke the officers sheathed their swords, and two or three of them replaced pistols in their sashes. Then the contrabandista turned and walked sharply across the cavern-like chamber to overtake his men, and as he disappeared, distant but sharp and echoing rap, rap, rap, came the reports of firearms, and Punch looked sharply at his companion.

“Muskets, ain’t they?” he said excitedly.

“I think so,” replied Pen.

“Must be, comrade. Those blunderbusters—trabookoos don’t they call them?—couldn’t go off with a bang like that. All right; we are ready. But, I say, a soldier should always make his hay when the sun shines. Fill your pockets and haversack, comrade.—There they go again! I am glad. It’s like the old days once more. It will be ‘Forward!’ directly—a skirmishing advance. Oh, bad luck, as old O’Grady says, to the spalpeen who stole my bugle! The game’s begun.”