Chapter 5 | Hard Work | !Tention

Chapter Five.

It was like coming back to life. In an instant Pen felt full of energy and excitement once more. The pangs of hunger supplemented those of thirst; and, almost raging against them now, he felt that he must fight, and he rose with an effort to his feet, with the tingling numbness feeling for the moment worse than ever, but only to prick and spur him into action.

“Ah!” he ejaculated, “it is like life coming back.” Turning to where his comrade lay breathing heavily, he snatched off the leafy twigs with which he had sheltered him.

“Asleep, Punch?” he said; but he was only answered by a low sigh.

“Poor boy!” he muttered; “but I must.”

He snatched off, full of energy now, his jacket and overcoat, and resumed them. Then, picking up his rifle, he slackened the sling and passed it over his shoulder. In doing this he kicked against the bugle, and slung the cord across the other shoulder. Then, tightening the strap of his shako beneath his chin, he drew a deep breath and looked first in the one direction and then in another in search of the vedettes; but all was darkness for a while, and he was beginning to feel the calm of certainty as regarded their being perfectly free from observation, when, from the nearest point where he had made out the watchers, he suddenly became aware of how close one party was by seeing the faint spark of light which the next minute deepened into a glow, and the wind wafted to his nostrils the odour of coarse, strong tobacco.

“Ah, nearer than I thought,” said the lad to himself, and, looking round once more, he made out another faint glow of light; and then, bending over his comrade, he felt about for his hands and glided his own to the boy’s wrists, which felt dank and cold, as he stood thinking for a moment or two of the poor fellow’s condition.

“I can’t help it. My only hope is that he is quite insensible to pain. He must be, or he couldn’t sleep like this. It must be done.”

Pen’s plans had been carefully laid, and he had not anticipated any difficulty.

“It’s only a matter of strength,” he said to himself, “and I feel desperate and strong enough now to do anything.”

But it meant several failures, and he was checked by groan after groan before he at last managed to seat himself with his back to the wounded boy, after propping him up against one of the gnarled little oak-trunks amongst which they had been lying.

Again and again he had been hindered by the rifle slung across his back. More than once, too, he had despairingly told himself that he must cast it aside, but only to feel that at any cost a soldier must hold to his arms. Then it was the cartouche-box; this, drawn round before him, he was troubled by the position of his haversack, and ready to rage with despair at the difficulties which he had to overcome.

At last, though, he sat there shivering, and listening to try and make out whether the poor boy’s moanings had been heard, before drawing a deep breath and beginning to drag the poor fellow’s wrists over his shoulders. Then, making one tremendous heave as he threw himself forward, he had Punch well upon his back and staggered up, finding himself plunging down the slope headlong as he struggled to keep his feet, but in vain; for his balance was gone, and a heavy fall was saved by his going head first into the tangled branches of a scrub oak, where he was brought up short with his shako driven down over his eyes.

Penton regained his balance and his breath—to stand listening for some sound of the enemy having taken the alarm, but all was quite still—and, freeing his rifle, he began to use it in the darkness as a staff of support, and to feel his way amongst the shrubs and stones downward always, the butt saving him from more than one fall, for he could not take a step without making sure of a safe place for his feet before he ventured farther.

It was a long and tedious task; but in the silence of the night the sound of the rushing water acted as a guide, and by slow degrees, and after many a rest, he felt at last that he must be getting nearer to the river.

But, unfortunately, the lower he plunged downwards the deeper grew the obscurity, while the moisture from the rushing stream made the tangled growth more dense. Consequently, he had several times over to stop and fight his way out of some thicket and make a fresh start.

At such times he took advantage more than once of some low-growing horizontal oak-boughs, which barred his way and afforded him a resting-place, across which he could lean and make the bough an easy support for his burden.

It had seemed but a short distance down to the stream from where he scrutinised his probable path overhead, and doubtless without burden and by the light of day half an hour would have been sufficient to carry him to the river’s brink; but it was in all probability that nearer three hours had elapsed before his farther progress was checked by his finding himself in the midst of a perfect chaos of rocks, just beyond which the water was falling heavily; and, utterly exhausted, he was glad to lower his burden softly down upon a bed of loose shingle and dry sand.

“There’s nothing for it but to wait for day,” he said half-aloud, and then—after, as best he could in the darkness, placing the wounded boy in a comfortable position and again covering him with his outer garments—he began to feel his way cautiously onward till he found that every time and in whatever direction he thrust down the butt of his rifle it plashed into rushing water which came down so heavily that it splashed up again into his face, and in spite of the darkness he could feel that he was standing somewhere at the foot of a fall where a heavy volume of water was being dashed down from a considerable height.

Pen’s first proceeding now was to go down upon his knees as close to the torrent as he could get, and there refill his water-bottle, before (after securing it) he leaned forward and lowered his face until his lips touched the flowing water, and he drank till his terrible thirst was assuaged.

This great desire satisfied, he rose again, to stand listening to the heavy rush and roar of the falls, which were evidently close at hand, and whose proximity produced a strange feeling of awe, suggestive, as it were, of a terrible danger which paralysed him for the time being and held him motionless lest at his next step he should be swept away.

The feeling passed off directly as the thought came that his comrade was insensible and dependent upon him for help; and it struck him now that he might not be able in that thick darkness to find the spot where he had left him.

This idea came upon him with such force as he made a step first in one direction and then in another that he began to lose nerve.

“Oh, it won’t do to play the coward now,” he muttered. “I must find him—I must! I must try till I do.”

But there is something terribly confusing in thick darkness. It is as if a natural instinct is awakened that compels the one who is lost to go wrong; and before Pen Gray had correctly retraced his steps from where he had lain down to drink he had probably passed close to his insensible companion at least a score of times, while the sense of confusion, the nearness of danger and a terrible death, grew and grew till in utter despair and exhaustion he staggered a few steps and sank down almost breathless.

“It is no good,” he groaned to himself. “I can do no more. I must wait till daylight.”

As he lay stretched out upon his back, panting heavily from weakness, it seemed to him that the roar of the falling water had redoubled, and the fancy came upon him that there was a tone of mocking triumph over his helplessness. In fact, the exertion which he had been called upon to make, the want of sleep, and possibly the exposure during many hours to the burning sun, had slightly affected his brain, so that his wild imagination conjured up non-existent dangers till all was blank, for he sank into the deep sleep of exhaustion, and lay at last open-eyed, wondering, and asking himself whether the foaming water that was plunging down a few yards away was part of some dream, in which he was lying in a fairy-like glen gazing at a rainbow, a little iris that spanned in a bridge of beauty the sparkling water, coming and going as the soft breeze rose and fell, while the sun sent shafts of light through the dew-sprinkled leaves of the many shrubs and trees that overhung the flowing water and nearly filled the glen.

Sleep still held him in its slackening grasp, and he lay motionless, enjoying the pleasant sense of coolness and rest till his attention was caught by a black-and-white bird which suddenly came into sight by alighting upon a rock in the midst of the rushing stream.

It was one of many scattered here and there, and so nearly covered by the water that every now and then, as the black-and-white bird hurried here and there, its legs were nearly covered; but it seemed quite at home, and hurried away, wading easily and seldom using its wings, till all at once, as Pen watched, he saw the little creature take a step, give its tail a flick, and disappear, not diving but regularly walking into deep water, to reappear a few yards away, stepping on to another rock, running here and there for a few moments, and again disappearing in the most unaccountable way.

“It is all a dream,” thought Pen. “Ducks dive, but no bird could walk under water like that. Why, it’s swimming and using its wings like a fish’s fins. I must be asleep.”

At that moment the bird stepped on to another rock, to stand heel-deep; and as it was passing out of sight with a quick fluttering of its wings, which did not seem to be wetted in the least, Pen made an effort to raise himself on his elbow, felt a dull, aching sensation of strain, and lost sight of the object that had caught his attention. He found, however, that it was no dream, for across the little torrent and high up the steep, precipitous bank before him he could see a goat contentedly browsing upon the tender green twigs of the bushes; while, at his next movement, as he tried to raise himself a little more, there within touch, and half behind him, lay the companion whose very existence had been blotted out of his mind; and he uttered a cry of joy—or rather felt that he did, for the sound was covered by the roar of the falling water—and dragged himself painfully to where he could lay one hand upon the bugle-boy’s breast.

“Why, Punch,” he felt that he cried, as the events of the past hours came back with a rush, “I thought I’d lost you. No, I fancied—I— Here, am I going mad?”

He felt that he shouted that question aloud, and then, sending a pang through his strained shoulder, he clapped his hands to his forehead and looked down wildly at the still insensible boy.

“Here, Punch! Punch!” he repeated inaudibly. “Speak—answer! I—oh, how stupid!” he muttered—“I am awake, and it is the roar of that water that seems to sweep away every other sound. Yes, that must be it;” for just then he saw that the goat had raised its head as it gazed across at him, and stretched out its neck.

“Why, it’s bleating,” he said to himself, “and I can’t hear a sound.”

The efforts he had made seemed to enable him to think more clearly, and his next act was to rise to his knees stiffly and painfully, and then begin to work his joints a little before bending over his companion and shrinkingly laying his hand upon his breast.

This had the desired effect—one which sent a strange feeling of relief through the young private’s breast—for the wondering, questioning eyes he now met looked bright and intelligent, making him bend lower till he could speak loudly in the boy’s ear the simple question, “How are you?”

He could hardly hear the words himself, but that they had been heard by him for whom they were intended was evident, for Punch’s lips moved in reply, and the next moment, to Pen’s delight, he raised one hand to his parched lips and made a sign as of drinking.

“Ah, you are better!” cried Pen excitedly, and this time he felt that he almost heard his own words above the deep-toned, musical roar.