Chapter 5 | A Young Hero

Chapter Five.

The sun was high when Phil woke next morning, to find the weary Doctor sleeping still; but he started up at a touch, and hearing them about, their hostess came and tapped at the door to say that breakfast was ready, and later on when they stepped out she looked sadly at them, for she had news.

“I woke at daylight,” she said. “There were guns firing, and the fighting has been going on ever since. Quick! Come and eat your breakfast and go. It is not safe for that little fellow to be staying here.”

Phil had no appetite to finish that breakfast. Before it was half done he had started to his feet, to run to the door, full of dread for his father, for one after the other came the reports of heavy guns in the distance, and from much nearer the rattle of musketry, telling that instead of leaving the terrible encounters far behind, either they had marched right amongst it or the opposing armies had suddenly turned in their direction.

There was no time to waste. The Doctor pressed money upon their kind hostess, but she refused it angrily, and hurried them from the house.

“Go that way!” she said, pointing towards where the sky looked light and clear, for away behind the house clouds were rising like to those in a storm; but they were clouds of smoke slowly gathering above a city miles away, and the gloom increased.

But Phil’s hostess had not let him go away empty-handed.

“You’ll want something to eat by and by,” she said, and then the little fellow looked at her wonderingly, her parting word sounded to his English ears so strange, for she said “adieu” and not “good-bye.”

“Walk fast, boy,” said the Doctor, almost harshly; “we must rest by and by.”

They hurried on for quite two hours, and then, hot and weary, the old man suffering as hardly as the boy, they slackened their pace, and once more making for a patch of woodland, rested for a while in the shade. But not for long.

“I can’t hear the guns now,” whispered Phil, after a long silence.

“No,” said the Doctor, “I have not heard a sound for quite half-an-hour.”

“But where are we going now?”

The Doctor smiled sadly and shook his head.

“Where fate leads us, Phil,” he said; “anywhere to be out of this terrible work.”

He had hardly spoken before the crash of many guns made them start to their feet, Phil beginning to run out in the open in his sudden alarm, but only to turn back directly and catch at the Doctor’s hand.

“Ah!” cried the old man, drawing him in amongst the trees; “that was running into fresh danger. Look!”

Phil was already looking at a line of men who seemed to have suddenly started out of the ground a hundred yards away.

At the same moment the Doctor threw himself down amongst the thick growth, dragging his companion with him.

“Lie close,” he whispered, and it was well that they were both lying flat, for there was a flash of light, a long line of smoke, and in response to a sharp pattering sound a little shower of twigs and leaves came dropping around.

This was answered by firing evidently from the other side of the wood again and again, the reports each time sounding more and more distant, while as Phil lay flat upon his face he could hear trampling and the sounds of men hurrying among the trees right past them, two coming so near that the boy wondered that they were not seen.

“Don’t speak, my boy,” whispered the Doctor, as he held Phil’s hand, though the words were not needed, for the boy’s attention was so taken up by the exciting events that surrounded him that he was all eyes and ears for the next thing that should happen.

For the soldiers that passed on, firing as they went, seemed to receive a check, and were driven back, filling the wood with smoke, which hung low and seemed to cling to the lower branches of the trees. But the men recovered their ground and passed on once more, the firing growing more distant.

“Now,” said the Doctor, at last, “let’s try again, boy.”

A sharp volley from another direction was followed by the pattering down of more twigs and leaves, and the Doctor uttered a groan and laid his hand upon Phil’s head to press it closer to the ground.

“Are you hurt, Dr Martin?” whispered the boy, raising himself suddenly in the fear that he now felt for the first time.

“No, no, my child. Lie still. We must not stir yet.”

It was not till nightfall that they could venture to leave the wood, and it was by guesswork, for the stars were clouded over, that the Doctor made for what he believed to be the south, but not to go far in the darkness, on account of the twinkling fires which shone out here and there as if all around them. That night they slept in another pine wood, to keep on starting up from time to time during the night, awakened now by a shot, and twice over by the sound of a bugle, which came from the direction of the watch fires.

There was no further engagement during the next day, but every attempt to get out of the wood in which they sheltered was in vain; for they were surrounded by the troops dotted here and there, as if watching for the next attack.

They had not come away empty-handed, but the food given to them by their French hostess had come to an end, and at a word from the Doctor, as evening fell, Phil sprang to his feet.

“Yes,” he cried, “they won’t see us now. Oh, how I wish I was different, Dr Martin! But I can’t help it.”

“Different?” said the old man, pressing his shoulder. “In what way? Why?”

“I keep on getting so hungry and wanting to eat, when I know I ought to be patient and wait.”

“Poor boy,” said the Doctor, with a little laugh. “How strange that you should be perfectly natural, Phil, eh? There, we’ll make a brave effort to get right away now, and perhaps we shall find another French friend whose husband is away in the fight.”

“And then we could sleep in a bed once more,” said Phil after a long silence, during which they had been pressing on, with the bushes through which they passed rustling loudly.

“Yes, after a splendid supper,” replied the Doctor, in French.

“Oui!” cried Phil, joyously, and then his heart seemed to stand still, for from just in front, where all looked dark, there was the rattle of muskets and a voice shouted in plain English:

“Halt! Who goes there?”