Chapter 44 | Before the Aquiline | !Tention

Chapter Forty Four.

Three days in the English camp, and the two lads had pretty well recovered; but they were greatly disappointed to find that during the absence of the dragoons on vedette duty the —th and another regiment had been despatched for a reconnoitring expedition, so that the lads had encountered no old friends.

“Well, I suppose we oughtn’t to grumble, comrade,” said Punch, “for every one makes no end of a fuss over us, and are always beginning to ask questions and set one telling them about all we did after we were left behind.”

“Yes; I am rather tired of it,” said Pen. “I shall be only too glad when we are able to join the regiment.”

“Oh, I shall be glad enough,” said Punch. “I want to see old O’Grady, me boy; and, I say, do you think, if I was to make a sort of petition like, the colonel would put me in one of the companies now? Of course I used to be proud enough of being bugler, but I want to be full private.”

“Well, you have only got to wait till you get bigger,” said Pen, smiling.

“Bother bigger!” cried the boy. “Why, I am growing fast, and last time I was measured I was only an inch shorter than the little chap we have got; and what difference does an inch make when a fellow can carry a rifle and can use it? You can’t say that I ain’t able, though it was only a musket.”

“No, Punch; there isn’t a man in the regiment could have done better than you did.”

“There, then!” cried the boy, with his eyes sparkling. “Then I’m sure if you would speak up and say all that to the colonel he would let me go into one of the companies. I want to be in yours, but I would wait for my chance if they would only make me a full private at once.”

The boys were sitting talking together when an infantry sergeant came up and said, “Here, youngsters, don’t go away. Smarten yourselves up a bit. You are to come with me to the officers’ tent. I will be back in about ten minutes.”

The sergeant went off in his quick, business-like way, and Punch began to grumble.

“Who’s to smarten himself up,” he cried petulantly, “when his uniform is all nohow and he’s got no proper boots? These old uns they’ve give me don’t fit, and they will be all to pieces directly; and yours ain’t much better. I suppose they are going to question us again about where we have been and what we have done.”

“Yes,” said Pen wearily, “and I am rather tired of it. It’s like making a show of us.”

“Oh, well, it don’t hurt. They like to hear, and I dare say the officers will give orders that we are to have something to eat and drink.”

“Punch, you think of nothing but eating and drinking,” said Pen again.

“Well, after being starved as we have, ain’t it enough to make anybody think that a little more wouldn’t do them any harm? Hallo, he’s soon back!” For he caught sight of the sergeant coming.

“Now, boys,” he said, “ready?”

“Yes,” said Pen; and the keen-looking non-com looked both of them over in turn.

“That the best you can do for yourselves?” he said sourly. “Well, I suppose it is. You are clean, and you look as if you had been at work. You, Punchard, can’t you let those trousers down a little lower?”

“No, sir; I did try last night. They have run up through being in the river when we were half-drowned.”

“Humph! Perhaps,” said the sergeant. “I believe it was the growing so much.”

Punch turned sharply to his comrade and gave him a wink, as much as to say, “Hear that?”

“Now then, forward!” said the sergeant. “And look here, put on your best manners, boys. You are going before some of the biggest officers, so mind your p’s and q’s.”

A few minutes later the sergeant stopped short at the largest tent in the camp, stated his business to the sentry who was marching to and fro before a flag, and after waiting a few minutes a subaltern came out, spoke to the sergeant, and then told the boys to follow him.

Directly after, the pair were ushered into the presence of half-a-dozen officers in undress uniform, one of whom, a keen-looking, aquiline-nosed man, gave them in turn a sharp, searching look, which Punch afterwards said went right through him and came back again. He then turned to a grey-haired officer and said shortly, “Go on. I will listen.”

The grey-haired officer nodded and then turned to the two lads.

“Look here, boys,” he said, “we have heard something about your adventures while you were away from your regiment. Now, stories grow in telling, like snowballs. Do you understand?”

“Oh yes, sir,” said Punch, “I know that;” and, apparently not in the slightest degree abashed by the presence in which he found himself, the boy eagerly scanned each officer in turn, before examining every item within the tent, and then letting his eyes wander out through the open doorway.

“And you, my lad?” continued the officer, for Pen had remained silent.

“Yes, sir,” said the lad quietly.

“Well,” said the officer, “we want the plain, simple account of where you have been, without any exaggeration, for I am afraid one of you—I don’t know which, but I dare say I shall make a very shrewd guess before we have done—has been dressing up your adventures with rather a free hand.”

“I beg your pardon, sir,” said Pen quietly, “my comrade here, Punchard, has told nothing but the simple truth, and I have only answered questions without the slightest exaggeration.”

“Without the slightest exaggeration?” said the officer, looking searchingly at Pen, and there was a touch of irony in his tone. “Well, that is what I want from you now.”

Pen coloured and remained silent while the officer asked a question or two of Punch, but soon turned to the elder lad, who, warming as he went on, briefly and succinctly related the main points of what they had gone through.

“Very well said! Well spoken, my lad,” said the aquiline-nosed officer; and Pen started, for, warming in his narration, Pen had almost forgotten his presence. “How long have you been a private in the —th?”

“A year, sir.”

“Where were you before you enlisted?”

“At Blankton House School.”

“Oh, I thought they called that College.”

“Yes, sir, they do,” said Pen, smiling; “but it is only a preparation place.”

“Yes, for the sons of gentlemen making ready for the army?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And how come you to be a private in his Majesty’s Rifle-Regiment?”

Pen was silent.

“Speak out, comrade,” put in Punch. “There ain’t nothing to be ashamed of.”

“Silence, sir!” cried the officer. “Let your comrade speak for himself.” Then turning to Pen, “Your comrade says there was nothing to be ashamed of.”

“There is not, sir,” said Pen gravely.

“Well, then, keep nothing back.”

“It was this way, sir,” said Pen. “I was educated to be an officer, and then by a death in my family all my hopes were set aside, and I was placed in a lawyer’s office to become a clerk. I couldn’t bear it, sir.”

“And you ran away?”

“No, sir. I appealed again and again for leave to return to my school and finish my education. My relative refused to listen to me, and I suppose I did wrong, for I went straight to where they were recruiting for the Rifle-Regiment, and the sergeant took me at once.”

“H’m!” said the officer, looking searchingly in the lad’s eyes. “How came you to join so quiet-looking a regiment?”

Pen smiled rather bitterly.

“It was because my relative, sir, always threw it in my teeth that it was for the sake of the scarlet uniform that I wanted to join the army.”

“H’m!” said the officer. “Now, look here, my lad; I presume you have had your eyes about you during the time that you were a prisoner, when you were escaping, and when you were with the contrabandista and had that adventure with the Spanish gentleman whom you suppose to be the King. By the way, why did you suppose that he was the King?”

“From the behaviour of his followers, sir, and from what I learned from the smuggler chief.”

“H’m. He was a Spaniard, of course?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Do you speak Spanish?”

“No, sir. We conversed in French.”

“Do you speak French fluently?”

“Pretty easily, sir; but I am afraid my accent is atrocious.”

“But you should hear him talk Latin, sir!” cried Punch eagerly.

“Silence, boy!” snapped out the grey-haired officer; and the chief gave him a look and a smile.

“Well, he can, sir; that’s quite true,” cried Punch angrily. “He talked to the old father, the padre, who was a regular friend to us.”

“Silence, boy!” said the aquiline-nosed officer sternly now. “Your comrade can say what he has to say modestly and well. That is a thing you cannot do, so do not interrupt again.”

“All right, sir. No, sir; beg pardon,” said Punch.

“Well,” continued the officer, looking keenly and searchingly at Pen, “you should have been able to carry in your mind a pretty good idea of the country you have passed through.”

“He can, sir,” cried Punch. “He has got it all in his head like a map.”

“My good boy,” said the officer, biting his lip to add to the severity of his aspect, “if you interrupt again you will be placed under arrest.”

Punch closed his lips so tightly that they formed a thin pink line right across the bottom of his face.

“Now, Private Gray, do you think that you do carry within your recollection a pretty good idea of the face of the country; or to put it more simply and plainly, do you think you could guide a regiment through the passes of this wild country and lead them safely to where you left the French encamped?”

“I have not a doubt but that I could, sir.”

“In the dark?”

“It would be rather harder in the dark, sir,” replied Pen, “but I feel confident that I could.”

“May I take it that you are willing to try?”

“I am the King’s servant, sir, and I will do my best.”

“That’s enough,” said the chief. “You can return to your quarters and hold yourself in readiness to do what I propose, and if you do this successfully—”

The speaker stopped short, and Pen took a step towards him.

“What were you going to say?” said the officer.

“Let me try first, sir,” said the lad, with his pale face, worn by what he had gone through of late, flushing up with excitement.

“That will do,” said the officer, “only be ready for your duty at any moment.—Well, what do you wish to say?”

Pen stretched out his hand and laid it upon Punch’s shoulder, for the boy had been moving his lips almost continuously during the latter part of the conversation, and in addition making hideous grimaces as if he were in pain.

“Only this, sir,” said Pen; “my companion here went through all that I did. He was keenly observant, and would be of great assistance to me if at any turn I were in doubt.”

“Then you would like to have him with you?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And you feel that you could trust him?”

“Oh yes, sir,” replied Pen. And the boys’ eyes met—their hands too, for Punch with his lips still pressed together took a step forward and caught Pen by the hand and wrist.

“Take him with you, then,” said the officer.

“Oh, thank— Hooray! hooray!” cried Punch, wildly excited now, for he had caught the tramp of men and seen that which made him dash towards the open tent-door.

“Bring back that boy!” cried the officer; and the sergeant, who was waiting outside, arrested Punch and brought him before the group of officers.

“How dare you, sir!” cried the chief wrathfully. “You are not to be trusted. I rescind that permission I was about to give.”

“Oh, don’t do that, sir! ’Tain’t fair!” cried the boy. “I couldn’t help it, sir. It was our fellows, sir, marching into camp—the —th, sir—Rifles, sir. Ain’t seen them, sir, since I was shot down. Don’t be hard on a fellow, sir! So glad to see them, sir. You might have done the same. I only wanted to give them a cheer.”

“Then go out and cheer them, sir,” said the officer, frowning severely, but with a twinkle of mirth in his eye.—“There, Pen Gray, you know your duty. It is an important one, and I have given it to you in the full belief that you will well serve your country and your King.”