Chapter 8 | The King's Shilling | !Tention

Chapter Eight.

“Ha, ha, ha, ha!” A bright, ringing specimen of a youth’s laugh, given out by one who is healthy, strong, and fairly content, allowing for drawbacks, with the utterer’s position in life.

“Whatcher laughing at?” followed in the querulous tones of one who was to a great extent at the opposite pole of life.

“You, Punch.”

“I don’t see nothing to laugh at, sick and weak as I am.”

“Yes, you are weak enough, and don’t know the difference as I do.”

“Difference! There ain’t no difference. I’m a regular invalid, as they calls them, and just as bad as some of our poor chaps who go back to live on the top of a wooden leg all the rest of their lives.”

“Stuff and nonsense, Punch! You are getting better and stronger every day.”

“I ain’t. Look at that arm; it’s as thin as a mop-stick.”

“Well, it is thin, certainly; but a chap of your age, growing fast, generally is thin.”

“Ya! Growing! How can a fellow grow with a hole in his back?”

“You haven’t got a hole in your back. It’s healing up fast.”


“Yes, it is. You haven’t seen it, and I have every day. I say it’s healing beautifully.”

“Ah, you’ll say next that I ain’t weak.”

“No, I shan’t.”

“Well, that’s because you are always trying to make me think that I am better than I am.”

“Well, what of that? I don’t want to put you out of heart.”

“No, but you needn’t gammon me. I know I ain’t as weak as a rat, because I am ten times weaker. I have got no wind at all; and I do wish you wouldn’t be always wallacking me down to that big waterfall. I’m always pumped out before I get half-way there, and quite done up before I get back. What’s the good of going there?”

“Beautiful place, Punchy, and the mountain air seems to come down with the water and fill you full of strength.”

“Does you perhaps, but it don’t do me no good. Beautiful place indeed! Ugly great hole!”

“’Tisn’t; it’s lovely. I don’t believe we shall ever see a more beautiful spot in our lives.”

“It makes me horrible. I feel sometimes as if I could jump in and put myself out of my misery. Just two steps, and a fellow would be washed away to nowhere.”

“Why, you have regularly got the grumps to-day, Punch; just, too, when you were getting better than ever.”

“I ain’t, I tell you. I had a look at myself this morning while you were snoring, and I am as thin as a scarecrow. My poor old mother wouldn’t know me again if ever I got back; and I sha’n’t never see our old place no more.”

“Yes, you will, Punch—grown up into a fine, manly-looking British rifleman, for you will be too big to blow your bugle then. You might believe me.”

“Bugle! Yes, I didn’t give it a rub yesterday. Just hand it off that peg.”

Pen reached the bugle from where it hung by its green cord, and the lines in Punch’s young forehead began to fade as he gave the instrument a touch with his sleeve, and then placed the mouthpiece to his lips, filled out his sadly pale, hollow cheeks, and looked as if he were going to blow with all his might, when he was checked by Pen clapping his hand over the glistening copper bell.

“Whatcher doing of?” cried the boy angrily.

“Stopping you. There, you see you are better. You couldn’t have attempted that a while ago.”

“Ya! Think I’m such a silly as to bring the enemy down upon us?”

“Well, I didn’t know.”

“Then you ought to. I should just like to give the call, though, to set our dear old lads going along the mountain-side there skirmishing and peppering the frog-eating warmints till they ran for their lives.”

“Hurrah!” shouted Pen. “Who’s trying to bring the enemy down upon us now, when we know there are some of them sneaking about in vedettes as they hold both ends of the valley. Now you say you are not better if you dare.”

“Oh, I don’t want to fall out,” grumbled the invalid. “You think you know, but you ain’t got a wound in your back to feel when a cold wind comes off the mountains. I think I ought to know best.”

“But you don’t, Punch. Those pains will die out in time, and you will go on growing, and keeping thin perhaps for a bit; but your muscles will fill out by-and-by, same as mine do in this beautiful air.”

“Needn’t be so precious proud of them,” said the boy sourly.

“I’m not. There, have another fish.”

“Sha’n’t. I’m sick to death on them. They are only Spanish or Portuguee trout, and not half so good as roach and dace out of a good old English pond.”

Pen laughed merrily again.

“Ah, grin away! I think I ought to know.”

“Yes—better than to grumble when I have broiled the fish so nicely over the wood embers with sticks I cut for skewers. They were delicious, and I ate till I felt ashamed.”

“So you ought to be.”

“To enjoy myself so,” continued Pen, “while you, with your mouth so out of taste and no appetite, could hardly eat a bit.”

“Well, who’s to have a happetite with a wound like mine? I shall never get no better till I get a mug of real old English beer.”

“Never mind; you get plenty of milk.”

“Ya! Nasty, sickly stuff! I’ll never touch it again.”

“Well then, beautiful sparkling water.”

“Who wants sparkling water? ’Tain’t like English. It’s so thin and cold.”

“Come, come; you must own that you are mending fast, Punch.”

“Who wants to be mended,” snarled the poor fellow, “and go through life like my old woman’s cracked chayney plate with the rivet in it! I was a strong lad once, and could beat any drummer in the regiment in a race, while now I ought to be in horspital.”

“No, you ought not. I’ll tell you what you want, Punch.”

“Oh, I know.”

“No, you don’t. You want to get just a little stronger, so as you can walk ten miles in a day.”

“Ten miles! Why, I used to do twenty easy.”

“So you will again, lad; but I mean in a night, for we shall have to lie up all day and march all night so as to keep clear of the enemy.”

“Then you mean for us to try and get out of this wretched hole?”

“I mean for us to go on tramp as soon as you are quite strong enough; and then you will think it’s a beautiful valley. Why, Punch, I have crept about here of a night while you have been asleep, so that I have got to know the place by heart, and I should like to have the chance of leading our fellows into places I know where they could hold it against ten times or twenty times their number of Frenchmen who might try to drive them out.”

“You have got to know that?” said Punch with a show of animation that had grown strange to the poor fellow.

“Yes,” cried Pen triumphantly.

“Well, then, all I have got to say is you waren’t playing fair.”

“Of course it wasn’t. Seeing you were so weak you couldn’t walk.”

“There now, you are laughing at a fellow; but you don’t play fair.”

“Don’t I? In what way?”

“Why, you promised while I have been so bad that you would read to me a bit.”

“And I couldn’t, Punch, because we have got nothing to read.”

“And then you promised that you would tell me how it was you come to take the king’s shilling.”

“Well, yes, I did; but you don’t want to know that.”

“Yes, I do. I have been wanting to know ever since.”

“Why, boy?”

“Because it seems so queer that a lad like you should join the ranks.”

“Why queer? You are too young yet, but you will be in the ranks some day as a full private.”

“Yes, some day; but then, you see, my father was a soldier. Yours warn’t, was he?”

“No-o,” said Pen, frowning and looking straight away before him out of the hut-door.

“Well, then, why don’t you speak out?”

“Because I don’t feel much disposed. It is rather a tender subject, Punch.”

“There, I always knew there was something. Look here; you and me’s friends and comrades, ain’t we?”

“I think so, Punch. I have tried to be.”

“So you have. Nobody could have been better. I have lain awake lots of times and thought about what you did. You haven’t minded my saying such nasty things as I have sometimes?”

“Not I, Punch. Sick people are often irritable.”

“Yes,” said the boy eagerly, “that’s it. I have said lots of things to you that I didn’t mean; but it’s when my back’s been very bad, and it seemed to spur me on to be spiteful, and I have been very sorry sometimes, only I was ashamed to tell you. But you haven’t done anything to be ashamed of?” Pen was silent for a few moments.

“Ashamed? No—yes.”

“Well, you can’t have been both,” said the boy. “Whatcher mean by that?”

“There have been times, Punch, when I have felt ashamed of what I have done.”

“Why, what have you done? I don’t believe it was ever anything bad. You say what it was. I’ll never tell.”

“Enlisted for a soldier.”

“What?” cried the boy. “Why, that ain’t nothing to be ashamed of. What stuff! Why, that’s something to be proud of, specially in our Rifles. In the other regiments we have got out here the lads are proud of being in scarlet. Let ’em. But I know better. There isn’t one of them who wouldn’t be proud to be in our dark-green, and to shoulder a rifle. Besides, we have got our bit of scarlet on the collar and cuffs, and that’s quite enough. Why, you are laughing at me! You couldn’t be ashamed of being in our regiment. I know what it was—you ran away from home?”

“It was no longer home to me, Punch.”

“Why, didn’t you live there?”

“Yes; but it didn’t seem like home any longer. It was like this, Punch. My father and mother had died.”

“Oh,” said the boy softly, “that’s bad. Very good uns, waren’t they?”

Pen bowed his head.

“Then it waren’t your home any longer?”

“Yes and no, Punch,” said the lad gravely.

“There you go again! Don’t aggravate a fellow when he is sick and weak. I ain’t a scholar like you, and when you puts it into me with your ‘yes and no’ it makes my head ache. It can’t be yes and no too.”

“Well, Punch,” said Pen, smiling, “it was mine by rights, but I was under age.”

“What’s under age?”

“Not twenty-one.”

“Of course not. You told me months ago that you was only eighteen. Anybody could see that, because you ain’t got no whiskers. But what has that got to do with it?”

“Well, I don’t see why I should tell you all this, Punch, for it’s all about law.”

“But I want to know,” said the boy, “because it’s all about you.”

“Well, it’s like this: my father left my uncle to be executor and my trustee.”

“Oh, I say, whatcher talking about? You said your father was a good un, didn’t you?”

“I did.”

“Well, then, he couldn’t have left your uncle to be your executioner when you hadn’t done nothing.”

“Executor, Punch,” said the lad, laughing.

“Well, that’s what I said, didn’t I?”

“No; that’s a very different thing. An executor is one who executes.”

“Well, I know that. Hangs people who ain’t soldiers, and shoots them as is. Court-martial, you know.”

“Punch, you are getting in a muddle.”

“Glad of it,” said the boy, “for I thought it was, and I don’t like to hear you talk like that.”

“Then let’s put it right. An executor is one who executes the commands of a person who is dead.”

“Oh, I see,” said the boy. “Dead without being executed.”

“Look here, Punch,” said Pen, laughing, “you had better be still and listen, and I will try and make it plain to you. My uncle was my father’s executor, who had to see that the property he left was rightfully distributed.”

“Oh, I see,” said Punch.

“And my father made him my trustee, to take charge of the money that was to be mine when I became twenty-one.”

“All right; go on. I am getting it now.”

“Then he had to see to my education, and advise me till I grew up.”

“Well, that was all right, only if I had been your old man, seeing what a chap you are, I shouldn’t have called in no uncle. I should have said, ‘Young Penton Gray has got his head screwed on proper, and he will do what’s right.’ I suppose, then, your uncle didn’t.”

“I thought not, Punch.”

“Then, of course, he didn’t. What did he do, then?”

“Made me leave school,” said Pen.

“Oh, well, that don’t sound very bad. Made you leave school? Well, I never was at school but once, but I’d have given anything to be made to come away.”

“Ah, perhaps you would, Punch. But then there are schools and schools.”

“Well, I know that,” said the boy irritably; “but don’t tease a fellow, it makes me so wild now I’m all weak like.”

“Well, then, let’s say no more about it.”

“What! Leave off telling of me?”

“Yes, while you are irritable.”

“I ain’t irritable; not a bit. It’s only that I want to know.”

“Very well, then, Punch; I will cut it short.”

“No, you don’t, so come now! You promised to tell me all about it, so play fair.”

“Very well, then, you must listen patiently.”

“That’s what I’m a-doing of, only you will keep talking in riddles like about your executioners and trustees. I want you to tell me just in plain English.”

“Very well, then, Punch. I was at a military school, and I didn’t want to be fetched away.”

“Oh, I see,” cried the boy. “You mean one of them big schools where they makes young officers?”


“Like Woolwich and Addiscombe?”


“You were going to be a soldier, then—I mean, an officer?”

“An officer is a soldier, Punch.”

“Of course he is. Oh, well, I don’t wonder you didn’t want to be fetched away. Learning to be an officer, eh? That’s fine. Didn’t your uncle want you to be a soldier, then?”

“No. He wanted me to go as a private pupil with a lawyer.”

“What, and get to be a lawyer?” cried the boy excitedly. “Oh, I say, you weren’t going to stand that?”

“No, Punch. Perhaps I should have obeyed him, only I knew that it had always been my father’s wish that I should go into the army, and he had left the money for my education and to buy a commission when I left the military school.”

“Here, I know,” cried the boy excitedly; “you needn’t tell me no more. I heard a story once about a wicked uncle. I know—your one bought the commission and kept it for himself.”

“No, Punch; that wouldn’t work out right. When I begged him to let me stay at the military school he mocked at me, and laughed, and said that my poor father must have been mad to think of throwing away money like that; and over and over again he insisted that I should go on with my studies of the law, and give up all notion of wearing a red coat, for he could see that that was all I thought about.”

“Well?” said the boy.

“Well, Punch?”

“And then you punched his head, and ran away from home.”

“No, I did not.”

“Then you ought to have done. I would if anybody said my poor father was mad; and, besides, your uncle must have been a bad un to want to make you a lawyer. I suppose he was a lawyer too.”


“There, if I didn’t think so! But he must have been a bad un. Said you wanted to be a soldier so as to wear the uniform? Well, if you did want to, that’s only nat’ral. A soldier’s always proud of his uniform. I heard our colonel say that it was the king’s livery and something to be proud on. I am proud of mine, even if it has got a bit raggy-taggy with sleeping out in it in all sorts of weather, and rooshing through bushes and mud, and crossing streams. But soldiers don’t think of that sort of thing, and we shall all have new things served out by-and-by. Well, go on.”

“Oh, that’s about all, Punch.”

“You get on. I know better. Tain’t half all. I want you to come to the cutting off and taking the shilling.”

“Oh, you want to hear that?”

“Why, of course I do. Why, it’s all the juicy part. Don’t hang fire. Let’s have it with a rush now. Fix bayonets, and at them!”

“Why, Punch,” said Pen, laughing, “don’t you tell me again that you are not getting better!”

“I waren’t going to now. This warms a fellow up a bit. I say, your uncle is a bad un, and no mistake. There, forward!”

“But I have nearly told all, Punch. Life got so miserable at home, and I was so sick of the law, that I led such a life with my uncle through begging him to let me go back to the school, that he, one day—”

“Well, whatcher stopping for?” cried the boy, whose cheeks were flushed and eyes sparkling with excitement.

“I don’t like talking about it,” replied Pen. “I suppose I was wrong, for my father had left all the management of my affairs in his brother-in-law’s hands.”

“Why, you said your uncle’s hands just now!”

“Yes, Punch; in my mother’s brother’s hands, so he was my uncle.”

“Well, go on.”

“And I had been begging him to alter his plans.”

“Yes, and let you go back to the school?”

“And I suppose he was tired out with what he called my obstinacy, and he told me that if ever I dared to mention the army again he would give me a sound flogging.”

“And you up and said you would like to catch him at it?” cried Punch excitedly. “No, Punch; but I lost my temper.”

“Enough to make you! Then you knocked him down?”

“No, Punch, but I told him he was forgetting the commands my father had given him, and that I would never go to the lawyer’s office again.”

“Well, and what then?”

“Then, Punch? Oh, I don’t like to talk about it. It makes me feel hot all over even to think.”

“Of course it does. It makes me hot too; but then, you see, I’m weak. But do go on. What happened then?”

“He knocked me down,” said the lad hoarsely.

“Oh!” cried the boy, trying to spring up from his rough couch, but sinking back with the great beads of perspiration standing upon his brown forehead. “Don’t you tell me you stood that!”

“No, Punch; I couldn’t. That night I went right away from home, just as I stood, made my way to London, and the next day I went to King Street, Westminster, and saw where the recruiting sergeants were marching up and down.”

“I know,” cried the boy, “with their canes under their arms and their colours flying.”

“Yes, Punch, and I picked out the one in the new regiment, the —th Rifles.”

“Yes,” cried Punch, “the Rifle green with the red collars and cuffs.”

Pen, half-excited by his recollections, half-amused at the boy’s intense interest, nodded again.

“And took the king’s shilling,” cried Punch; “and I know, but I want you to tell me—you joined ours just to show that uncle that you wanted to serve the king, and not for the sake of the scarlet coat.”

“Yes, Punch, that was why; and that’s all.”