Miles soon found that he was destined to fill his old post of runner in front of Mohammed, his new master. This seemed to him unaccountable, for runners, he understood, were required only in towns and cities, not on a march. But the hardships attendant on the post, and the indignities to which he was subjected, at last convinced him that the Mahdi must have set the mind of his kinsman against him, and that he was now undergoing extra punishment as well as unique degradation.
The force that took the field on this occasion was a very considerable one—with what precise object in view was of course unknown to all except its chiefs, but the fact that it marched towards the frontiers of Egypt left no doubt in the mind of any one. It was a wild barbaric host, badly armed and worse drilled, but fired with a hatred of all Europeans and a burning sense of wrong.
"What think ye now, Miles?" asked Armstrong, as the captives sat grouped together in the midst of the host on the first night of their camping out in the desert.
"I think that everything seems to be going wrong," answered Miles, in a desponding tone. "At first I thought that Mohammed was our friend, but he has treated me so badly that I can think so no longer."
"Don't you think he may be doing that to blind his followers as to his friendship?" said Moses; "for myself, I can't help thinkin' he must be grateful for what you did, Miles."
"I only wish you had not touched my rifle that day," said Rattling Bill, fiercely—being fatigued and out of temper—"for the blackguard would have bin in 'Kingdom come' by this time. There's no gratitude in an Arab. I have no hope at all now."
"My hope is in God," said Stevenson.
"Well, mate, common-sense tells me that that should be our best ground of hope," observed Molloy; "but common experience tells me that the Almighty often lets His own people come to grief."
"God never lets 'em come to grief in the sense that you mean," returned the marine. "If He kills His people, He takes them away from the evil to come, and death is but a door-way into glory. If he sends grief and suffering, it is that they may at last reach a higher state of joy."
"Pooh! according to that view, nothing can go wrong with them that you call His people," said Simkin, with contempt.
"Right you are, comrade," rejoined Stevenson; "nothing can go wrong with us; nothing can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our lord; and you may be one of 'us' this minute if you will accept God's offer of free salvation in Christ."
Silence followed, for Simkin was too angry, as well as worn out, to give his mind seriously to anything at that time, and the others were more or less uncertain, as to the truth of what was advanced.
Sleep, profound and dreamless, soon banished these and all other subjects from their minds. Blessed sleep! so aptly as well as beautifully styled, "Tired Nature's sweet restorer." That great host of dusky warriors—some unquestionably devout, many cruel and relentless, not a few, probably, indifferent to everything except self, and all bent on the extermination of their white-skinned foes,—lay down beside their weapons, and shared in that rest which is sent alike to the just and to the unjust, through the grand impartiality, forbearance, and love of a God whom many people apparently believe to be a "respecter of persons!"
A few days later the little army came to the edge of a range of hills, beyond which lay the plains of the vast Nubian desert. At night they encamped at the base of the hill-country, through which they had been travelling, and the captives were directed to take up their position in front of an old ruined hut, where masses of broken stones and rubbish made the ground unsuitable for camping on.
"Just like them!" growled Simkin, looking about for a fairly level spot. "There's not a place big enough for a dog to lie on!"
Supper made Rattling Bill a little more amiable, though not much more forgiving to his foes. A three-quarters moon soon afterwards shed a faint light on the host, which, except the sentries, was sound asleep.
Towards midnight a solitary figure moved slowly towards the place where the captives lay and awakened Miles, who sat up, stared, winked, and rubbed his eyes two or three times before he could bring himself to believe that his visitor was no other than the chief of the host— Mohammed!
"Rise. Com. I speak small Engleesh."
Miles rose at once and followed the chief into the ruined hut.
"Clear de ground," he said, pointing to the centre of the floor.
Our hero obeyed, and, when the loose rubbish was cleared away, the moonbeams, shining through the ruined roof, fell on a ring bolt. Being ordered to pull it, he raised a cover or trap-door, and discovered beneath what appeared to be a cellar.
"Now," said Mohammed, "listen: you an' friends go down—all. I shut door and cover up—rubsh. When we all go 'way, com out and go home. See, yonder is home."
He pointed to the north-eastward, where a glowing star seemed to hang over the margin of the great level desert.
"You are generous—you are kind!" exclaimed Miles, with a burst of enthusiasm.
"Me grateful," said Mohammed, extending his hand in European fashion, which Miles grasped warmly. "Go, wake you comerads. Tell what me say, and com quick!"
Miles was much too well-disciplined a soldier to hesitate, though he would have liked much to suggest that some of the troops might, before starting, take a fancy to explore the ruin, and to ask how long they should remain in the cellar before venturing out. Quietly awaking all his comrades, and drawing their surprised heads together, he whispered his tale in their wondering ears. After that they were quite prepared to act, and accompanied him noiselessly into the ruin.
"Is the cellar deep?" asked Miles, as he was about to descend.
"No; not deep."
"But what about grub—whittles, meat, an' water—you know," said Molloy, with difficulty accommodating his words to a foreigner. "We'll starve if we go adrift on the desert with nothin' to eat or drink."
"Here—food," said Mohammed, unslinging a well-filled haversack from his shoulders and transferring it to those of the sailor. "Stop there," he continued, pointing to the cellar, "till you hears guns—shoot—noise. I have make prep'rations! After that, silence. Then, com out, an' go home." Once again he pointed towards the glowing star in the north-east.
"Mohammed," exclaimed Molloy, becoming suddenly impressed with the generous nature of the Arab's action, "I don't know as you're a descendant o' the Prophet, but I do know that you're a brick. Give us your flipper before we part!"
With a grave expression of kindliness and humour the chief shook hands with the seaman. Then the captives all descended into the hole, which was not more than four feet deep, after which the Arab shut the trap, covered it as before with a little rubbish, and went away.
"Suppose he has bolted the door!" suggested Moses.
"Hold your tongue, man, and listen for the signal," said Miles.
"I forget what he said the signal was to be," observed Simkin.
"Guns—shoot—noise—after that silence!" said Armstrong. "It's a queer signal."
"But not difficult to recognise when we hear it," remarked Miles.
The time seemed tremendously long as they sat there listening—the cellar was too low for them to stand—and they began to fancy that all kinds of horrible shapes and faces appeared in the intense darkness around them. When they listened intensely, kept silent, and held their breath, their hearts took to beating the drums of their ears, and when a sudden breath or sigh escaped it seemed as if some African monster were approaching from the surrounding gloom.
"Is that you, Simkin, that's breathin' like a grampus?" asked Molloy, after a long pause.
"I was just goin' to ask you to stop snorin'," retorted the soldier.
"Hush! There's a shot!"
It was indeed a distant shot, followed immediately by several more. Then a rattle of musketry followed—nearer at hand.
Instantly, as if the earth had just given birth to them, the host of dusky warriors sprang up with yells of surprise and defiance, and, spear in hand, rushed in the direction of the firing. For a few minutes the listeners in the cellar heard as it had been a mighty torrent surging past the ruined hut. Gradually the force of the rush began to abate, while the yells and firing became more distant; at last all sounds ceased, and the listeners were again oppressed by the beating on the drums of their ears.
"They're all gone—every mother's son," said Molloy at last, breaking the oppressive silence.
"That's so," said Rattling Bill; "up wi' the trap, Miles. You're under it, ain't you? I'm suffocating in this hole."
"I'm not under it. Molloy came down last," said Miles.
"What if we can't find it?" suggested Stevenson.
"Horrible!" said Moses, in a hoarse whisper, "and this may be a huge cavern, with miles of space around us, instead of a small cellar!"
"Here it is!" cried the sailor, making a heave with his broad back. "I say—it won't move! Ah, I wasn't rightly under it. Yo! heave-o!" Up went the door with a crash, and the soft moonlight streamed in upon them.
A few seconds more and they stood outside the hut—apparently the only living beings in all that region, which had been so full of human life but a few minutes before.
"Now we must lose no time in getting away from this place, and covering as much of the desert as we can during the night," said Miles, "for it strikes me that we'll have to lie quiet during the day, for fear of being seen and chased."
They spoke together in whispers for a few minutes, deciding the course they meant to pursue. Then Molloy shouldered the provision bag, Miles grasped his official lance—the only weapon they had among them,—and off they set on their journey across the desert, like a ship entering on an unknown sea, without the smallest idea of how far they were from the frontier of Egypt, and but a vague notion of the direction in which they ought to go.
CHAPTER TWENTY EIGHT.
A Horrible Situation.
All that night our fugitives walked steadily in the direction of their guiding-star, until the dawn of day began to absorb its light. Then they selected a couple of prominent bushes on the horizon, and, by keeping these always in their relative positions, were enabled to shape their course in what they believed to be the right direction. By repeating the process continuously they were enabled to advance in a fairly straight line.
Molloy, as we have said, carried the provision bag, and, although it was a very heavy one, he refused to let his comrades relieve him of it until breakfast-time. Then it was discovered that inside of the large bag there were rolled tight up four smaller bags with shoulder-straps to them.
"A knowin' feller that Mohammed is," said Jack Molloy, as he handed a bag to each; "he understands how to manage things. Let's see what sort o' grub he has. Corn-cakes, I do believe, an' dates, or some sort o' dried fruit, an'—water-bottles! well, that is a comfort. Now then, boys, go ahead. We can't afford to waste time over our meals."
The others so thoroughly agreed with their friend on this point that they began to eat forthwith, almost in silence. Then, the provisions having been distributed, they resumed their march, which was almost a forced one, so anxious were they to get as far away as possible from the Arab army.
Coming to a large mimosa bush in the course of the morning they halted and sat down to rest a little, and hold what the sailor called a "palaver."
"You see, boys," he said, "it'll be of no manner of use our scuddin' away before the wind under a press o' canvas like this, without some settled plan—"
"Ain't our plan to git away from the Arabs as fast as we can?" said Moses Pyne, who sat on a stone at the sailor's feet.
"Yes, Moses, but that's only part of it," returned Molloy. "We must keep away as well as get away—an' that won't be quite so easy, for the country is swarmin' wi' the dark-skinned rascals, as the many tracks we have already passed shows us. If we was to fall in wi' a band of 'em— even a small one—we would be took again for sartin', for we've got nothin' to fight wi' but our fists."
"These would offer but poor resistance to bullet and steel," said Armstrong, "and that lance you're so fond of, Miles, wouldn't be worth much."
"Not much," admitted Miles, surveying the badge of his late office, "but better than nothing."
"What if the Arabs should change their course and fall in with us again?" asked Moses.
"No fear o' that, seein' that Mohammed himself gave us our sailin' orders, an' laid our course for us; but it would never do to fall in wi' other bands, so I proposes that we cast anchor where we are, for there's pretty good holdin' ground among them bushes, keep quiet all day, an' travel only at night. I've got the krect bearin's just now, so w'en the stars come out we'll be able to fix on one layin' in the right direction, and clap on all sail, slow and aloft—stu'n s'ls, sky-scrapers, an' all the rest on it."
"A good plan, Jack," said Armstrong, "but what if it should come cloudy and blot out the stars?"
"Besides," added Miles, "you forget that men of the desert are skilled in observing signs and in following tracks. Should any of them pass near this little clump of bushes, and observe our footsteps going towards it, they will at once come to see if we are still here."
Molloy put his head on one side and looked perplexed for a moment.
"Never mind. Let 'em come," he said, with a sudden look of sagacity, "we'll circumwent 'em. There's nothin' like circumwention w'en you've got into a fix. See here. We'll dig a hole in a sandbank big enough to hold us all, an' we'll cut a big bush an' stick it in front of the hole so as they'll never see it. We can keep a bright look-out, you know, an' if anything heaves in sight on the horizon, down we go into the hole, stick up the bush, an there you are—all safe under hatches till the enemy clears off."
"But they will trace our footsteps up to the hole or the bush," said Miles, "and wonder why they can trace them no further. What then?"
Again the seaman fell into perplexed meditation, out of which he emerged with a beaming smile.
"Why, then, my lad, we'll bamboozle 'em. There's nothin' like bamboozlement w'en circumwention fails. Putt the two together an' they're like a hurricane in the tropics, carries all before it! We'll bamboozle 'em by runnin' for an hour or two all over the place, so as no mortal man seein' our footprints will be able to tell where we comed from, or what we've bin a-doin' of."
"You don't know the men of the desert, Jack," rejoined Miles, with a laugh. "They'd just walk in a circle round the place where you propose to run about and bamboozle them, till they found where our tracks entered this bit of bush. Then, as they'd see no tracks leaving it, of course they'd know that we were still there. D'you see?"
"That's a puzzler for you, Jack," remarked Moses, as he watched the perplexed expression looming up again like a cloud on the sailor's face.
"By no manner o' means," retorted Molloy, with sudden gravity. "I sees my way quite clear out o' that. You remember the broad track, not half a mile off from where we now sit?"
"Yes; made I suppose by a pretty big band o' some sort crossin' the desert," said Moses.
"Well, lad, arter runnin' about in the bush to bamboozle of 'em, as aforesaid, we'll march back to that track on the sou'-west'ard—as it may be—an' then do the same on the nor'-west'ard—so to speak—an' so lead 'em to suppose we was a small party as broke off, or was sent off, from the main body to reconnoitre the bit o' bush, an' had rejoined the main body further on. That's what I call circumwentin', d'ee see?"
While this palaver was going on, Stevenson and Bill Simkin were standing a short way off taking observation of something in the far distance. In a few minutes they ran towards their comrades with the information that a band of men were visible on the horizon, moving, they thought, in an opposite direction to their line of march.
"It may be so," said Miles, after a brief survey, "but we can't be sure. We must put part of your plan in force anyhow, Jack Molloy. Away into the scrub all of you, and stoop as you go."
In saying this, our hero, almost unintentionally, took command of the little party, which at once tacitly accorded him the position. Leading them—as every leader ought—he proceeded to the centre of the clump of bushes, where, finding a natural hollow or hole in the sand, at the root of a mimosa bush, three of them went down on hands and knees to scoop it out deeper, while the others cut branches with Molloy's clasp-knife.
Using flat stones, chips of wood, and hands as shovels, they managed to dig out a hole big enough to conceal them all, the opening to which was easily covered by a mass of branches.
It is doubtful whether this ingenious contrivance would have availed them, if "men of the desert" had passed that way, but fortune favoured them. The band, whether friends or foes, passed far off to the westward, leaving them to enjoy their place of fancied security.
To pass the first day there was not difficult. The novelty of the position was great; the interest of the thing immense. Indefinite hopes of the future were strong, and they had plenty to say and speculate about during the passing hours. When night came, preparation was made for departure. The provision bags were slung, a moderate sip of water indulged in, and they set forth, after a very brief prayer by Stevenson, that God would guide them safely on their way. There was no formality in that prayer. The marine did not ask his comrades to kneel or to agree with him. He offered it aloud, in a few seconds, in the name of Jesus, leaving his hearers to join him or not as they pleased.
"See that you lay your course fair now, Molloy," said Miles, as they sallied out upon the darkening plain.
"Trust me, lad, I've taken my bearin's."
It was very dark the first part of the night, as the moon did not rise till late, but there was quite enough light to enable them to proceed with caution, though not enough to prevent their taking an occasional bush or stump for an advancing foe. All went well, however, until dawn the following morning, when they began to look about for a suitable clump of bushes, in which to conceal themselves. No such spot could they find.
"Never mind, lads," said the inexhaustible Molloy, "we'll just go on till we find a place. We're pretty tough just now, that's one comfort."
They were indeed so tough that they went the whole of that day, with only one or two brief halts to feed. Towards evening, however, they began to feel wearied, and, with one consent, determined to encamp on a slight eminence a short way in advance, the sides of which were covered with low scrub.
As they approached the spot an unpleasant odour reached them. It became worse as they advanced. At last, on arriving, they found to their surprise and horror that the spot had been a recent battle-field, and was strewn with corpses and broken weapons. Some days must have elapsed since the fight which strewed them there, for the bodies had been all stripped, and many of them were partially buried, while others had been hauled half out of their graves by those scavengers of the desert, hyenas and vultures.
"Impossible to halt here," said Armstrong. "I never witness a sight like this that it does not force on me the madness of warfare! What territorial gain can make up for these lost lives—the flower of the manhood of both parties?"
"But what are we to do?" objected Molloy. "Men must defend their rights!"
"Not necessarily so," said Stevenson. "Men have to learn to bear and forbear."
"I have learned to take advantage of what luck throws in my way," said Rattling Bill, picking up a rifle which must have escaped the observation of the plunderers who had followed the army.
The body of the poor fellow who had owned it was found concealed under a bush not far off. He was an English soldier, and a very brief inspection showed that the battle had been fought by a party of British and Egyptian troops against the Soudanese.
It seemed as if the plunderers had on this occasion been scared from their horrible work before completing it, for after a careful search they found rifles with bayonets, and pouches full of ammunition, more than sufficient to arm the whole party.
"There are uniforms enough, too, to fit us all out," said Simkin, as they were about to leave the scene of slaughter.
"No dead men's clo'es for me," said Moses Pyne, with a shrug of disgust.
Jack Molloy declared that he had become so used to loose cotton drawers, and an easy-fittin' sack, that for his part he had no desire to go back to civilised costume! and as the rest were of much the same opinion, no change was made in the habiliments of the party, except that each appropriated a pair of boots, and Miles exchanged his green tippet for a flannel shirt and a pith helmet. He also took a revolver, with some difficulty, from the dead hand of a soldier, and stuck it in his belt.
Thus improved in circumstances, they gladly quitted the ghastly scene, and made for a bushy hillock a few hundred yards in advance.
On the way they were arrested by the sound of distant firing.
"Mohammed must have met our countrymen!" exclaimed Molloy, with excited looks, as they halted to listen.
"It may be so, but there are other bands about besides his," said Miles. "What's that? a cheer?"
"Ay, a British cheer in the far distance, replied to by yells of defiance." Molloy echoed the cheer in spite of his better judgment.
"Let's run an' jine 'em!" he exclaimed.
"Come along, then!" cried Miles, with the ardour of inexperienced youth.
"Stop! are ye mad?" cried Stevenson. "Don't it stand to reason that the enemy must be between us an' Suakim? and that's the same as sayin' they're between us an' our friends. Moreover, the cheerin' proves that our side must be gettin' the best of it, an' are drivin' the enemy this way, so all we've got to do is to hide on that hillock an' bide our time."
"Right you are, comrade," cried Rattling Bill, examining his cartridges, and asserting with an oath that nothing would afford him greater pleasure than a good hand-to-hand fight with the black, (and something worse), scoundrels.
"Don't swear at your enemies, Simkin," said the marine quietly; "but when you get the chance fire low!"
Agreeing with Stevenson's advice to "bide their time," the little band was soon on the top of the hillock, and took up the best position for defending the place, also for observing the fight, which, they could now see, was drawing gradually nearer to them.
They were not kept waiting long, for the natives were in full flight, hotly pursued by the English and Indian cavalry. A slight breeze blowing from the north carried not only the noise, but soon the smoke of the combat towards them. As they drew nearer a large detachment of native spearmen was seen to make for the hillock, evidently intending to make a stand there.
"Now comes our turn," said Armstrong, examining the lock of his rifle to see that all was right.
"'England expec's every man,' etceterer," said Molloy, with a glance at Miles. "Capting, you may as well let us know your plans, so as we may work together."
Miles was not long in making up his mind.
"You'll fire at first by command," he said quickly, but decidedly; "then down on your faces flat, and load. After that wait for orders. When it comes to the push—as it's sure to do at last—we'll stand back to back and do our best. God help us to do it well! Don't hurry, boys— especially in square. Let every shot tell."
He had barely concluded this brief address when the yelling savages reached the hillock. Miles could even see the gleaming of their teeth and eyes, and the blood of the slightly wounded coursing down their black skins as they rushed panting towards the place where he and his little party were crouching. Then he gave the word: "Ready—present!"
The smoke, fire, and death to the leading men, which belched from the bushes, did not check the rush for more than a moment. And even that check was the result of surprise more than fear. A party of those Arabs who were armed with rifles instantly replied, but the bullets passed harmlessly over the prostrate men.
Again the voice of Miles was heard: "Ready—present!" and again the leading men of the enemy fell, but the rushing host only divided, and swept round the hillock, so as to take it on both sides at once.
"Now—form square! and pick each man," cried Miles, springing up and standing back to back with Armstrong. Molloy stood shoulder to shoulder with him and backed Bill Simkin, while Stevenson did the same for Moses Pyne. The bushes did not rise much above their waists, and as the dusky host suddenly beheld the knot of strange-looking men, whose bristling bayonets glistened in the setting sunshine, and whose active rifles were still dealing death among their ranks, they dashed at the hill-top with a yell of mingled rage and surprise. Another moment and spearmen were dancing round the little square like incarnate fiends, but the white men made no sound. Each confined himself to two acts—namely, load and fire—and at every shot a foremost savage fell, until the square became encircled with dead men.
Another moment and a party of Arab riflemen ran to the front and took aim. Just then a tremendous cheer was heard. The defenders of the hillock made a wild reply, which was drowned in a furious fusillade. The entire savage host seemed to rush over the spot, sweeping all before it, while smoke rolled after them as well as lead and fire. In the midst of the hideous turmoil, Miles received a blow which shattered his left wrist. Grasping his rifle with his right hand he laid about him as best he could. Next moment a blow on the head from behind stretched him senseless on the ground.
The return of our hero to consciousness revealed to him that he was still lying on the battle-field, that it was night, and that an intolerable weight oppressed his chest. This last was caused by a dead native having fallen across him. On trying to get rid of the corpse he made the further discovery that nearly all his strength was gone, and that he could scarcely move his right arm, although it was free, and, as far as he could make out, unwounded. Making a desperate effort, he partially relieved himself, and, raising his head, tried to look round. His ears had already told him that near to him wounded men were groaning away the little of life that remained to them; he now saw that he was surrounded by heaps of dead men. Excepting the groans referred to, the night was silent, and the moon shone down on hundreds of up-turned faces—the bloodless grey of the black men contrasting strangely with the deadly pallor of the white, all quiet and passionless enough now— here and there the head of a warrior resting peacefully on the bosom or shoulder of the foe who had killed him!
A slight noise on his right caused Miles to turn his head in that direction, where he saw a wounded comrade make feeble efforts to raise himself, and then fall back with a deep groan. In other circumstances our hero would have sprung to his assistance, but at that moment he felt as if absolutely helpless; indeed, he was nearly so from loss of blood. He made one or two efforts to rise, but the weight of the dead man held him down, and after a few brief attempts he fainted.
Recovering again, he looked round, attracted by the sound of a struggle on his right. One of those fiends in human form, the plunderers of a battle-field, had, in his ghoulish progress, come across the wounded man who lay close to Miles, and the man was resisting him. The other put a quick end to the strife by drawing a knife across the throat of the poor fellow. A horror of great darkness seemed to overwhelm Miles as he saw the blood gush in a deluge from the gaping wound. He tried to shout, but, as in a nightmare, he could neither speak nor move.
As the murderer went on rifling his victim, Miles partially recovered from his trance of horror, and anxiety for his own life nerved him to attempt action of some sort. He thought of the revolver for the first time at that moment, and the remembrance seemed to infuse new life into him. Putting his right hand to his belt, he found it there, but drew it with difficulty. Doubting his power to discharge it by means of the trigger alone, he made a desperate effort and cocked it.
The click made the murderer start. He raised himself and looked round. Our hero shut his eyes and lay perfectly still. Supposing probably that he must have been mistaken, the man resumed his work. Miles could have easily shot him where he kneeled if he had retained power to lift his arm and take an aim. As it was, he had strength only to retain the weapon in his grasp.
After a short time, that seemed an age to the helpless watcher, the murderer rose and turned his attention to another dead man, but passing him, came towards Miles, whose spirit turned for one moment to God in an agonising prayer for help. The help came in the form of revived courage. Calm, cool, firm self-possession seemed to overbear all other feelings. He half closed his eyes as the murderer approached, and gently turned the muzzle of the revolver upwards. He even let the man bend over him and look close into his face to see if he were dead, then he pulled the trigger.
Miles had aimed, he thought, at the man's breast, but the bullet entered under his chin and went crashing into his brain. A gush of warm blood spouted over Miles's face as the wretch plunged over him, head first, and fell close by his side. He did not die at once. The nature of the ground prevented Miles from seeing him, but he could hear him gradually gasp his life away.
A few minutes later and footsteps were heard ascending the hillock. Miles grasped his revolver with a hand that now trembled from increasing weakness, but he was by that time unable to put the weapon on full cock. Despair had well-nigh seized him, when a familiar voice was heard.
"This way, lads. I'm sure it was hereabouts that I saw the flash."
"Macleod!" gasped Miles, as the big Scotsman was about to pass.
"Losh me! John Miles, is that you? Are ye leevin?"
"Scarcely!" was all that the poor youth could utter ere he became again insensible.
A fatigue party tramped up with a stretcher at the moment. Macleod with a handkerchief checked the ebbing tide of life, and they bore away from the bloody field what seemed little more than the mortal remains of poor Miles Milton.
CHAPTER TWENTY NINE.
DESCRIBES A FEW MEETINGS AND SEVERAL SURPRISES.
The fight described in the last chapter was only one of the numerous skirmishes that were taking place almost daily near Suakim at that time. But it turned out to be a serious occasion to our hero, for it cost him one of his hands, and put an end to his soldiering days for ever.
On being taken to the British lines the surgeons saw at once that amputation a little above the wrist was absolutely necessary. Of course Miles—although overwhelmed with dismay on hearing the fiat of the doctors—could offer no objection. With the informal celerity of surgical operations as practised in the field, the shattered limb was removed, and almost before he could realise the full significance of what was being done our poor hero was minus his left hand! Besides this, he was so cut and battered about, that most of his hair had to be cut off, and his head bandaged and plastered so that those of his old comrades who chanced to be with the troops at the time could recognise him only by his voice. Even that was scarcely audible when he was carried into Suakim.
At this time the hospitals at Suakim were overcrowded to such an extent that many of the wounded and invalids had to be sent on by sea to Suez and the hospitals at Ramleh. Miles was sent on along with these, and finally found rest at Alexandria.
And great was the poor fellow's need of rest, for, besides the terrible sufferings and hardships he had endured while in captivity, the wounds and bruises, the loss of blood and of his left hand, and the fatigue of the voyage, his mind was overwhelmed by the consideration that even if he should recover he was seriously maimed for life. In addition to all this suffering, Miles, while at Suakim, had received a blow which well-nigh killed him. A letter came informing him of the sudden death of his father, and bitter remorse was added to his misery as he lay helpless in his cot on the Red Sea.
The consequent depression, acting on his already exhausted powers after he reached Alexandria, brought him to the verge of the grave. Indeed, one of the nurses said one day to one of her fellows, with a shake of her head, "Ah! poor fellow, he won't last long!"
"Won't he!" thought Miles, with a feeling of strong indignation. "Much you know about it!"
You see Miles possessed a tendency to abstract reasoning, and could meditate upon his own case without, so to speak, much reference to himself! His indignation was roused by the fact that any one, calling herself a nurse, should be so stupid as to whisper beside a patient words that he should not hear. He did not know that the nurse in question was a new one—not thoroughly alive to her duties and responsibilities. Strange to say, her stupidity helped to render her own prophecy incorrect, for the indignation quickened the soldier's feeble pulse, and that gave him a fillip in the right direction.
The prostration, however, was very great, and for some time the life of our hero seemed to hang by a thread. During this dark period the value of a godly mother's teaching became deeply impressed on him, by the fact that texts from God's Word, which had been taught him in childhood, and which he seemed to have quite forgotten, came trooping into his mind, and went a long way to calm and comfort him. He dwelt with special pleasure on those that told of love and mercy in Jesus to the thankless and undeserving; for, now that strength, health, and the high hopes of a brilliant career were shattered at one blow, his eyes were cleared of life's glamour to see that in his existence hitherto he had been ungodly—not in the sense of his being much worse than ordinary people, but in the sense of his being quite indifferent to his Maker, and that his fancied condition of not-so-badness would not stand the test of a dying hour.
About this time, too, he became desperately anxious to write to his mother, not by dictation, but with his own hand. This being impossible in the circumstances, he began to fret, and his power to sleep at length failed him. Then a strange desire to possess a rose seized him—perhaps because he knew it to be his mother's favourite flower. Whatever the cause, the longing increased his insomnia, and as he did not say, perhaps did not know, that the want of a rose had anything to do with his complaint, no one at first thought of procuring one for him.
He was lying meditating, wakefully, about many things one day when one of the nurses approached his bed. He did not see her at first, because his head was so swathed in bandages that only one eye was permitted to do duty, and that, as Molloy might have said, was on the lee-side of his nose—supposing the side next the nurse to represent the wind'ard side!
"I have been laid up a long time," said a lady, who accompanied the nurse, "and have been longing to resume my visits here, as one or two patients whom I used to nurse are still in hospital."
The heart of Miles gave a bound such as it had not attempted since the night he witnessed the murder on the battle-field, for the voice was that of Mrs Drew.
"This is one of our latest arrivals," remarked the nurse, lowering her voice as they advanced. "A poor young soldier—lost a hand and badly wounded—can't sleep. He has taken a strange longing of late for a rose, and I have asked a friend to fetch one for him."
"How lucky that we happen to have one with us!" said Mrs Drew, looking back over her shoulder where her daughter stood, concealed from view by her ample person. "Marion, dear, will you part with your rose-bud to a wounded soldier?"
"Certainly, mother, I will give it him myself."
She stepped quickly forward, and looked sadly at the solitary, glowing eye which gazed at her, as she unfastened a rose-bud from her bosom. It was evident that she did not recognise Miles, and no wonder, for, besides the mass of bandages from out of which his one eye glowed, there was a strip of plaster across the bridge of his nose, a puffy swelling in one of the cheeks, and the handsome mouth and chin were somewhat veiled by a rapidly developing moustache and beard.
Miles did not speak—he could not speak; he scarcely dared to breathe as the girl placed a red rose-bud in his thin hand. His trembling fingers not only took the rose, but the hand that gave it, and pressed it feebly to his lips.
With a few words of comfort and good wishes the ladies passed on. Then Miles drew the rose down under the bed-clothes, put it to his lips, and, with a fervently thankful mind, fell into the first profound slumber that he had enjoyed for many days.
This was a turning-point. From that day Miles began to mend. He did not see Marion again for some time, for her visit had been quite incidental, but he was satisfied to learn that she was staying at the Institute with her mother, assisting the workers there. He wisely resolved to do and say nothing at that time, but patiently to wait and get well, for he had a shrewd suspicion that to present himself to Marion under existing circumstances would be, to say the least, injudicious.
Meanwhile, time, which "waits for no man," passed on. As Miles became stronger he began to go about the hospital, chatting with the convalescent patients and trying to make himself generally useful. On one of these occasions he met with a man who gave him the sorrowful news that Sergeant Hardy was dead, leaving Miles his executor and residuary legatee. He also learned, to his joy, that his five comrades, Armstrong, Molloy, Stevenson, Moses, and Simkin, had escaped with their lives from the fight on the hillock where he fell, and that, though all were more or less severely wounded, they were doing well at Suakim. "Moreover," continued his informant, "I expect to hear more about 'em to-night, for the mail is due, and I've got a brother in Suakim."
That night not only brought news of the five heroes, but also brought themselves, for, having all been wounded at the same time, all had been sent to Alexandria together. As they were informed at Suakim that their comrade Miles had been invalided home, they did not, of course, make further inquiry about him there.
While they stayed there, awaiting the troop-ship which was to take them home, they made Miss Robinson's Institute their constant rendezvous, for there they not only found all the comforts of English life, but the joy of meeting with many old comrades, not a few of whom were either drawn, or being drawn, to God by the influences of the place.
It chanced that at the time of their arrival Mrs Drew and her daughter had gone to visit an English family living in the city, and did not for several days return to the Institute; thus the invalids failed to meet their lady friends at first. But about this time there was announced a source of attraction in the large hall which brought them together. This attraction—which unites all creeds and classes and nationalities in one great bond of sympathy—we need hardly say was music! A concert was to take place in the great hall of the Institute for some local charity, we believe, but are not sure, at which the elite of Alexandria was expected, and the musical talent of Alexandria was to perform—among others the band of the somethingth Regiment. And let us impress on you, reader, that the band of the somethingth Regiment was something to be proud of!
This brought numerous friends to the "Officers' House," and great numbers of soldiers and Jack-tars to the various rooms of the Institute.
In one of these rooms, towards evening, our friend Stevenson was engaged, at the request of the Superintendent, in relating to a number of earnest-minded men a brief account of the wonderful experiences that he and his comrades had recently had in the Soudan, and Jack Molloy sat near him, emphasising with a nod of his shaggy head, or a "Right you are, messmate," or a slap on his thigh, all the marine's points, especially those in which his friend, passing over second causes, referred all their blessings and deliverances direct to his loving God and Father. In another room a Bible-reading was going on, accompanied by prayer and praise. In the larger rooms, tea, coffee, etcetera, were being consumed to an extent that "no fellow can understand," except those who did it! Games and newspapers and illustrated magazines, etcetera, were rife elsewhere, while a continuous roar, rather the conventional "buzz," of conversation was going on everywhere. But, apparently, not a single oath in the midst of it all! The moral atmosphere of the place was so pure that even bad men respected—perhaps approved—it.
Just before the hour of the concert our friends, the five invalids, sat grouped round a table near the door. They were drinking tea, and most of them talking with tremendous animation—for not one of them had been wounded in the tongue! Indeed it did not appear that any of them had been very seriously wounded anywhere.
While they were yet in the midst of their talk two lady-workers came down the long room, followed by two other ladies in deep mourning, the younger of whom suddenly sprang towards our quintet, and, clasping her hands, stood speechless before them, staring particularly at Jack Molloy, who returned the gaze with interest.
"Beg pard'n, Miss Drew," exclaimed the sailor, starting up in confusion, and pulling his forelock, "but you've hove me all aback!"
"Mr Molloy!" gasped Marion, grasping his hand and looking furtively round, "is it possible? Have you all escaped? Is—is—"
"Yes, Miss, we've all escaped, thank God, an' we're all here—'cept John Miles, in coorse, for he's bin invalided home—"
"He's no more invalided home than yourself, Jack," said a seaman, who was enjoying his coffee at a neighbouring table; "leastwise I seed John Miles myself yesterday in hospital wi' my own two eyes, as isn't apt to deceive me."
"Are ye sure o' that, mate?" cried Molloy, turning in excitement to the man, and totally forgetting Marion.
"Mother, let us go out!" whispered the latter, leaning heavily on Mrs Drew's arm.
They passed out to the verandah—scarcely observed, owing to the excitement of the quintet at the sailor's news—and there she would have fallen down if she had not been caught in the arms of a soldier who was advancing towards the door.
"Mr Miles!" exclaimed Mrs Drew, as she looked up in amazement at the scarred and worn face.
"Ay, Mrs Drew, through God's mercy I am here. But help me: I have not strength to carry her now."
Marion had nearly fainted, and was led with the assistance of her mother to a retired part of the garden, and placed in an easy-chair. Seeing that the girl was recovering, the other ladies judiciously left them, and Miles explained to the mother, while she applied smelling-salts to Marion, that he had come on purpose to meet them, hoping and expecting that they would be attracted to the concert, like all the rest of the world, though he had scarcely looked for so peculiar a meeting!
"But how did you know we were here at all?" asked Mrs Drew in surprise.
"I saw you in the hospital," replied Miles, with a peculiar look. "Your kind daughter gave me a rose!"
He pointed as he spoke to a withered bud which was fastened to his coat.
"But—but—that young man had lost his hand; the nurse told us so," exclaimed Mrs Drew, with a puzzled look.
Miles silently pointed to the handless arm which hung at his left side.
Marion had turned towards him with a half-frightened look. She now leaned back in her chair and covered her face with both hands.
"Mr Miles," said the wise old lady, with a sudden and violent change of subject, "your friends Armstrong and Molloy are in the Institute at this moment waiting for you!"
Our hero needed no second hint. Next minute he dashed into the entrance hall, with wonderful vigour for an invalid, for he heard the bass voice of Molloy exclaiming—
"I don't care a button, leave or no leave, I'll make my way to John Mi— Hallo!"
The "Hallo!" was caused by his being rushed into by the impetuous Miles with such force that they both staggered.
"Why, John, you're like the ram of an iron-clad! Is it really yourself? Give us your flipper, my boy!"
But the flipper was already in that of Willie Armstrong, while the others crowded round him with congratulations.
"Wot on airth's all the noise about in that there corner?" exclaimed a Jack-tar, who was trying hard to tell an interminable story to a quiet shipmate in spite of the din.
"It's only that we've diskivered our captin," cried Molloy, eager to get any one to sympathise.
"Wot captin's that?" growled the Jack-tar.
"Why, him as led us on the hillock, to be sure, at Suakim."
When acts of heroism and personal prowess are of frequent occurrence, deeds of daring are not apt to draw general attention, unless they rise above the average. The "affair of the hillock," however, as it got to be called, although unnoticed in despatches, or the public prints, was well-known among the rank and file who did the work in those hot regions. When, therefore, it became known that the six heroes, who had distinguished themselves on that hillock, were present, a great deal of interest was exhibited. This culminated when a little man rushed suddenly into the room, and, with a wild "hooroo!" seized Molloy round the waist—he wasn't tall enough to get him comfortably by the neck—and appeared to wrestle with him.
"It's Corporal Flynn—or his ghost!" exclaimed Molloy.
"Sure an' it's both him an' his ghost togither!" exclaimed the corporal, shaking hands violently all round.
"I thought ye was sent home," said Moses.
"Niver a bit, man; they tell awful lies where you've come from. I wouldn't take their consciences as a gift. I'm as well as iver, and better; but I'm goin' home for all that, to see me owld grandmother. Ye needn't laugh, you spalpeens. Come, three cheers, boys, for the 'heroes o' the hillock!'"
Most heartily did the men there assembled respond to this call, and then the entire assembly cleared off to the concert, with the exception of Miles Milton. "He," as Corporal Flynn knowingly observed, "had other fish to fry." He fried these fish in company with Mrs and Marion Drew; but as the details of this culinary proceeding were related to us in strict confidence, we refuse to divulge them, and now draw the curtain down on the ancient land of Egypt.
Once more we return to the embarkation jetty at Portsmouth.
There, as of old, we find a huge, white-painted troop-ship warping slowly in, her bulwarks and ports crowded with white helmets, and eager faces gazing at the equally eager but anxious faces on shore.
Miss Robinson's coffee-shed shows signs of life! Our friend Brown is stimulating the boiler. The great solitary port-hole has been opened, and the never-failing lady-workers are there, preparing their ammunition and getting ready for action, for every troop-ship that comes to Portsmouth from foreign shores, laden with the bronzed warriors of Britain, has to face the certainty of going into action with that unconquerable little coffee-shed!
We do not, however, mean to draw the reader again through the old scene, further than to point out that, among the many faces that loom over these bulwarks, five are familiar, namely, those of our friends Miles Milton, William Armstrong, Moses Pyne, Stevenson, and Simkin. Jack Molloy is not with them, because he has preferred to remain in Egypt, believing himself to be capable of still further service to Queen and country.
A feeling of great disappointment oppresses Miles and his friend Armstrong, for they fail to recognise in the eager crowd those whom they had expected to see.
"My mother must be ill," muttered Miles.
"So must my Emmy," murmured his friend.
There was a very anxious little widow on the jetty who could not manage to distinguish individuals in the sea of brown faces and white helmets, because the tears in her eyes mixed them all up most perplexingly. It is not surprising that Miles had totally failed to recognise the mother of old in the unfamiliar widow's weeds—especially when it is considered that his was a shrinking, timid mother, who kept well in the background of the demonstrative crowd. Their eyes met at last, however, and those of the widow opened wide with surprise at the change in the son, while those of the son were suddenly blinded with tears at the change in the mother.
Then they met—and such a meeting!—in the midst of men and women, elbowing, crowding, embracing, exclaiming, rejoicing, chaffing, weeping! It was an awkward state of things, but as every one else was in the same predicament, and as all were more or less swallowed up in their own affairs, Miles and his mother were fain to make the best of it. They retired under the partial shelter of a bulkhead, where block-tackles and nautical debris interfered with their footing, and tarry odours regaled their noses, and there, in semi-publicity, they interchanged their first confidences.
Suddenly Mrs Milton observed a tall young fellow standing not far off, looking wistfully at the bewildering scene, apparently in deep dejection.
"Who is that, Miles?" she asked.
"Why, that's my comrade, chum, and friend, whom I have so often written about, Willie Armstrong. Come. I will introduce you."
"Oh! how selfish of me!" cried the widow, starting forward and not waiting for the introduction; "Mr Armstrong—I'm so sorry; forgive me! I promised to let you know that your wife waits to meet you at the Soldiers' Institute."
The difference between darkness and light seemed to pass over the soldier's face, then a slight shade of anxiety clouded it. "She is not ill, is she?"
"No, no, quite well," said Mrs Milton, with a peculiar smile; "but she thought it wiser not to risk a meeting on the jetty as the east wind is sharp. I'm so sorry I did not tell you at once, but I selfishly thought only—"
"Pray make no apology, madam," interrupted Armstrong. "I'm so thankful that all is well. I had begun to fear that something must be wrong, for my Emmy never disappoints me. If she thinks it wiser not to meet on the jetty, it is wiser!"
A crowd of men pushed between them at this moment. Immediately after, a female shout was heard, followed by the words, "There he is! Och, it's himsilf—the darlint!"
Mrs Flynn had discovered the little corporal, and her trooper son, Terence, who had come down with her, stood by to see fair-play while the two embraced.
Drifting with a rather rapid tide of mingled human beings, Miles and his mother soon found themselves stranded beside the coffee-shed. Retiring behind this they continued their conference there, disturbed only by wind and weather, while the distribution of hot coffee was going on in front.
Meanwhile, when leave was obtained, Armstrong made his way to the Institute, where the old scene of bustle and hilarity on the arrival of a troop-ship was going on. Here, in a private room, he discovered Emmy and the cause of her not appearing on the jetty.
"Look at him—Willie the second!" cried the little woman, holding up a bundle of some sort. The soldier was staggered for a moment—the only infantry that had ever staggered him!—for his wife had said nothing about this bundle in her letters. He recovered, however, and striding across the room embraced the wife and the bundle in one tremendous hug!
The wife did not object, but the bundle did, and instantly set up a howl that quite alarmed the father, and was sweetest music in the mother's ears!
"Now tell me," said the little woman, after calming the baby and putting it in a crib; "have you brought Miles Milton home all safe?"
"Yes, all right, Emmy."
"And is he married to that dear girl you wrote about?"
"No, not yet—of course."
"But are they engaged?"
"No. Miles told me that he would not presume to ask her while he had no home to offer her."
"Pooh! He's a goose! He ought to make sure of her, and let the home look after itself. He may lose her. Girls, you know, are changeable, giddy things!"
"I know nothing of the sort, Emmy."
The young wife laughed, and—well, there is no need to say what else she did.
About the same time, Mrs Milton and her son were seated in another private room of the Institute finishing off that interchange of confidences which had begun in such confusion. As it happened, they were conversing on the same subject that occupied Emmy and her husband.
"You have acted rightly, Miles," said the mother, "for it would have been unfair and selfish to have induced the poor girl to accept you until you had some prospect of a home to give her. God will bless you for doing the right, and trusting to Him. And now, dear boy, are you prepared for bad news?"
"Prepared for anything!" answered Miles, pressing his mother's hand, "but I hope the bad news does not affect you, mother."
"It does. Your dear father died a bankrupt. I shrank from telling you this when you were wounded and ill. So you have to begin again the battle of life with only one hand, my poor boy, for the annuity I have of twenty pounds a year will not go far to keep us both."
Mrs Milton tried to speak lightly on this point, by way of breaking it to her son, but she nearly broke down, for she had already begun to feel the pinch of extreme poverty, and knew it to be very, very different from what "well-off" people fancy. The grave manner in which her son received this news filled her with anxiety.
"Mother," he said, after pondering in silence for a few moments, and taking her hand in his while he slipped the handless arm round her waist, "the news is indeed serious, but our Father whom you have trusted so long will not fail us now. Happily it is my right hand that has been spared, and wonders, you know, may be wrought with a strong right hand, especially if assisted by a strong left stump, into which spoons, forks, hooks, and all manner of ingenious contrivances can be fitted. Now, cheer up, little mother, and I'll tell you what we will do. But first, is there nothing left? Do the creditors take everything?"
"All, I believe, except some of the furniture which has been kindly left for us to start afresh with. But we must quit the old home next month. At least, so I am told by my kind little lawyer, who looks after everything, for I understand nothing."
"Your mention of a lawyer reminds me, mother, that a poor sergeant, who died a short time ago in Egypt, made me his executor, and as I am painfully ignorant of the duties of an executor I'll go and see this 'kind little lawyer' if you will give me his address."
Leaving Miles to consult his lawyer, we will now turn to a meeting—a grand tea-fight—in the great hall of the Institute, that took place a few days after the return of the troop-ship which brought our hero and his friends to England. Some telling incidents occurred at this fight which render it worthy of notice.
First, Miss Robinson herself presided and gave a stirring address, which, if not of much interest to readers who did not hear it, was a point of immense attraction to the hundreds of soldiers, sailors, and civilians to whom it was delivered, for it was full of sympathy, and information, and humour, and encouragement, and, above all, of the Gospel.
Everybody worth mentioning was there—that is, everybody connected with our tale who was in England at the time. Miles and his mother of course were there, and Armstrong with Emmy—ay, and with Willie the second too—who was pronounced on all hands to be the born image of his father. Alas for his father, if that had been true! A round piece of dough with three holes punched in it and a little knot in the midst would have borne as strong a resemblance to Miles as that baby did. Nevertheless, it was a "magnificent" baby! and "so good," undeniably good, for it slept soundly in its little mother's lap the whole evening!
Stevenson was also there, you may be sure; and so were Moses and Sutherland, and Rattling Bill Simkin and Corporal Flynn, with his mother and Terence the Irish trooper, who fraternised with Johnson the English trooper, who was also home on the sick-list—though he seemed to have a marvellous colour and appetite for a sick man.
"Is that the 'Soldiers Friend?'" asked Simkin, in a whisper, of a man who stood near him, as a lady came on the platform and took the chair.
"Ay, that's her," answered the man—and the speaker was Thomas Tufnell, the ex-trooper of the Queen's Bays, and the present manager of the Institute—"Ay, that's the 'Soldier's Friend.'"
"Well, I might have guessed it," returned Simkin, "from the kindly way in which she shook hands with a lot of soldiers just now."
"Yes, she has shook hands with a good many red-coats in her day, has the 'Soldier's Friend,'" returned the manager. "Why, I remember on one occasion when she was giving a lecture to soldiers, and so many men came forward to shake hands with her that, as she told me herself, her hand was stiff and swelled all night after it!"
"But it's not so much for what she has done for ourselves that we're grateful to her," remarked a corporal, who sat on Simkin's right, "as for what she has done for our wives, widows, and children, through the Soldiers' and Sailors' Wives' Aid Association. Lookin' arter them when we're away fightin' our country's battles has endeared her to us more than anything else."
Thus favourably predisposed, Simkin was open to good impressions that night. But, indeed, there was an atmosphere—a spirit of good-will—in the hall that night which rendered many others besides Simkin open to good impressions. Among the civilians there was a man named Sloper, who had for some time past been carefully fished for by an enthusiastic young red-coat whom he had basely misled and swindled. He had been at last hooked by the young red-coat, played, and finally landed in the hall, with his captor beside him to keep him there—for Sloper was a slippery fish, with much of the eel in his nature.
Perhaps the most unexpected visitors to the hall were two ladies in mourning, who had just arrived from Egypt by way of Brindisi. Mrs and Miss Drew, having occasion to pass through Portsmouth on their way home, learned that there was to be a tea-fight at the Institute, and Marion immediately said, "I should like so much to see it!"
However much "so much" was, Mrs Drew said she would like to see it as much, so away they went, and were conducted to the front row. There Miles saw them! With his heart in his mouth, and his head in confusion, he quietly rose, bade his wondering mother get up; conducted her to the front seat, and, setting her down beside the Drews, introduced them. Then, sitting down beside Marion, he went in for a pleasant evening.
And it was a pleasant evening! Besides preliminary tea and buns, there were speeches, songs, recitations, etcetera,—all being received with immense satisfaction by a crowded house, which had not yet risen to the unenviable heights of classical taste and blaseism. As for Miles and Marion, nothing came amiss to them! If a singer had put B flat in the place of A natural they would have accepted it as quite natural. If a humourist had said the circle was a square, they would have believed it—in a sense—and tried to square their reason accordingly.
But nothing is without alloy in this life. To the surprise of Miles and his mother, their "kind little lawyer" also made his appearance in the hall. More than that, he insisted, by signs, that Miles should go out and speak with him. But Miles was obdurate. He was anchored, and nothing but cutting the cable could move him from his anchorage.
At last the "kind little man" pushed his way through the crowd.
"I must have a word with you, my dear sir. It is of importance," he said.
Thus adjured, Miles unwillingly cut the cable, and drifted into a passage.
"My dear sir," said the little man, seizing his hand, "I congratulate you."
"You're very kind, but pray, explain why."
"I find that you are heir to a considerable fortune."
Miles was somewhat interested in this, and asked, "How's that?"
"Well, you remember Hardy's will, which you put into my hands a few days ago?"
"Yes; what then? That can't be the fortune!"
"Indeed it is. Hardy, you remember, made you his residuary legatee. I find, on inquiry, that the old cousin you told me about, who meant to leave all his money to build a hospital, changed his mind at the last and made out a will in favour of Hardy, who was his only relative. So, you see, you, being Hardy's heir, have come into possession of something like two thousand a year."
To this Miles replied by a whistle of surprise, and then said, "Is that all?"
"Upon my word, sir," said the 'kind little lawyer,' in a blaze of astonishment, "you appear to take this communication in a peculiar manner!"
"You mistake me," returned Miles, with a laugh. "I don't mean 'is that all the fortune?' but 'is that all you have to say?'"
"It is, and to my mind I have said a good deal."
"You certainly have. And, believe me, I am not indifferent or unthankful, but—but—the fact is, that at present I am particularly engaged. Good-bye, and thank you."
So saying, Miles shook the puzzled old gentleman heartily by the hand, and hurried back to his anchorage in the hall.
"I've done it, mother!" whispered Miles, two days thereafter, in the privacy of the Institute reading-room.
"Miles!" said the startled lady, with a reproachful look, "I thought you said that nothing would induce you—"
"Circumstances have altered, mother. I have had a long consultation with your 'kind little lawyer,' and he has related some interesting facts to me."
Here followed a detailed account of the facts.
"So, you see, I went and proposed at once—not to the lawyer—to Marion."
"And was accepted?"
"Well—yes. I could hardly believe it at the time. I scarcely believe it now, so I'm going back this afternoon to make quite sure."
"I congratulate you, my darling boy, for a good wife is God's best gift to man."
"How do you know she is good, mother?"
"I know it, because—I know it! Anybody looking in her face can see it. And with two thousand a year, why—"
"One thousand, mother."
"I thought you said two, my son."
"So I did. That is the amount of the fortune left by the eccentric old hospital-for-incurables founder. When poor Hardy made out his will he made me residuary legatee because the trifle he had to leave—his kit, etcetera,—was not worth dividing between me and Armstrong. If it had been worth much he would have divided it. It is therefore my duty now to divide it with my friend."
But in our anxiety to tell you these interesting facts, dear reader, we have run ahead of the tea-fight! To detail all its incidents, all its bearings, all its grand issues and blessed influences, would require a whole volume. We return to it only to mention one or two gratifying facts.
It was essentially a temperance—that is, a total-abstinence, a blue-ribbon—meeting, and, at the end, the "Soldiers' Friend" earnestly invited all who felt so disposed to come forward and sign the pledge. At the same time, medals and prizes were presented to those among the civilians who had loyally kept their pledge intact for certain periods of time. On an average, over a thousand pledges a year are taken at the Institute, and we cannot help thinking that the year we are writing of must have exceeded the average—to judge from the numbers that pressed forward on this particular night.
There were soldiers, sailors, and civilians; men, women, and children. Amongst the first, Rattling Bill Simkin walked to the front—his moral courage restored to an equality with his physical heroism—and put down his name. So did Johnson and Sutherland—the former as timid before the audience as he had been plucky before the Soudanese, but walking erect, nevertheless, as men do when conscious that they are in the right; the latter "as bold as brass"—as if to defy the world in arms to make him ever again drink another drop of anything stronger than tea.
Moses Pyne also "put on the blue," although, to do him justice, he required no protection of that sort, and so did Corporal Flynn and Terence and their mother—which last, if truth must be told, stood more in need of the pledge than her stout sons.
Among the civilians several noted personages were influenced in the right direction. Chief among these was sodden, blear-eyed, disreputable Sloper, whose trembling hand scrawled a hieroglyphic, supposed to represent his name, which began indeed with an S, but ended in a mysterious prolongation, and was further rendered indecipherable by a penitent tear which fell upon it from the point of his red, red nose!
Some people laughed, and said that there was no use in getting Sloper to put on the blue-ribbon, that he was an utterly demoralised man, that he had no strength of character, that no power on earth could save him! They were right. No power on earth could save him—or them! These people forgot that it is not the righteous but sinners who are called to repentance.
Time passed away and wrought its wonted changes. Among other things, it brought back to Portsmouth big, burly Jack Molloy, as hearty and vigorous as he was when being half-hanged in the Soudan, but—minus a leg! Poor Jack! a spent cannon-ball—would that it had been spent in vain!—removed it, below the knee, much more promptly than it could have been taken off by the surgeon's knife. But what was loss to the Royal Navy was gain to Portsmouth, for Jack Molloy came home and devoted himself, heart and soul, to the lending of "a helping hand" to his fellow-creatures in distress—devoting his attentions chiefly to the region lying round Nobbs Lane, and causing himself to be adored principally by old women and children. And there and thus he probably works to this day—at least, some very like him do.
When not thus engaged he is prone to take a cruise to a certain rural district in the south of England, where he finds congenial company in two very tall, erect, moustached, dignified gentlemen, who have a tendency to keep step as they walk, one of whom has lost his left hand, and who dwell in two farm-houses close together.
These two gentlemen have remarkably pretty wives, and wonderfully boisterous children, and the uproar which these children make when Molloy comes to cast anchor among them, is stupendous! As for the appearance of the brood, and of Jack after a spree among the hay, the word has yet to be invented which will correctly describe it.
The two military-looking farmers are spoken of by the people around as philanthropists. Like true philanthropists, whose foundation-motive is love to God, they do not limit their attentions to their own little neighbourhood, but allow their sympathies and their benefactions to run riot round the world—wheresoever there is anything that is true, honourable, just, pure, lovely, or of good report to be thought of, or done, or assisted.
Only one of these acts of sympathy and benefaction we will mention. Every Christmas there is received by Miss Robinson at the Soldiers' Institute, Portsmouth, a huge hamper full of old and new garments of all kinds—shoes, boots, gowns, frocks, trousers, shawls, comforters, etcetera,—with the words written inside the lid—"Blessed are they that consider the poor." And on the same day come two cheques in a letter. We refuse, for the best of all reasons, to divulge the amount of those cheques, but we consider it no breach of confidence to reveal the fact that the letter containing them is signed by two old and grateful Blue Lights.