Chapter 1 | Our Soldier Boy

Chapter One.

“You, Tom Jones, let that pot-lid alone.”

It was a big brown-faced woman who said that crossly, and a big rough-looking bugler, in the uniform of the 200th Fusiliers, with belts, buttons and facings looking very clean and bright, but the scarlet cloth ragged and stained from the rain and mud, and sleeping in it anywhere, often without shelter, who dropped the lid as if it were hot and shut in the steam once more, as the iron pot bubbled away where it hung from three sticks, over a wood fire.

It was in a lovely part of Portugal, and the regiment was halting among the mountains after a long weary tramp; fires had been lit for cooking, and the men were lying and sitting about, sleeping, cleaning their firelocks, pipeclaying their belts, and trying to make themselves look as smart as they could considering that they were all more or less ragged and torn after a fortnight’s tramp in all weathers in pursuit of a portion of the French army which had been always a few hours ahead.

But it was easy enough to follow their steps, for everywhere they had plundered, and destroyed; villages and pleasant homes were burned; and blackened ruins, cut-up gardens and vineyards met the soldiers’ eyes wherever the enemy had been.

There had been a straggling little village by the side of the mountain stream, where the 200th had halted at midday after their long march under a burning sun, at a spot where there was plenty of fresh water, and it was the pot over one of these cooking fires whose lid Tom Jones had lifted off.

“On’y wanted to smell what was for dinner,” he said. “What have you got, Mother Beane?”

“Never you mind. Rare ohs for meddlers, and pump-handle sauce, perhaps; and look here, you sir, you come when we halt to-night and I’ll mend some of them rags. You’re a disgrace.”

“Ain’t worse than the rest of the fellows,” said Tom, grinning. “The Colonel’s horse went down ’s morn’.”

“Oh, dear, dear!” cried the woman excitedly; “is he hurt?”

“Broke both his knees, and bled ever so.”

“The Colonel?”

“Now-w-w! His horse. Colonel only went sliding down ’mong the stones, and ripped his jacket sleeve right up.”

“Oh, that’s a blessing,” said the woman. “You go to him when we camp, and say Mrs Corp’ral Beane’s dooty and she’s got a needle and silk ready, and may she mend his jacket.”

“All right, but you might tell us what’s for dinner.”

“Wait and see. And why don’t you go and forage about and see if you can’t find a bit o’ fruit or some vegetables?”

“’Tarn’t no good. Old Frog-soups clears everything.”

“Yes,” said the woman, with a sigh, as she re-arranged her battered old straw bonnet cocked up as if it were a hat, and took off the old scarlet uniform tail coat she wore over her very clean cotton gown, before going to the pot, wooden spoon in hand, to raise the lid and give the contents a stir round.

“Oh, I say, Mother Beane, it does smell good! What’s in it?”

“Shoulder o’ goat,” said the woman.

“Yah! Don’t care much for goat,” said the boy. “Arn’t half so good as mutton.”

“You must take what you can get, Tom. Two chickens.”

“Why, that they ain’t. I see ’em: they was an old cock and hen as we chivied into that burnt house this mornin’, and Corp’ral shot one, and Mick Toole run his bay’net through the other. Reg’lar stringies.”

“Never mind. I’m cooking ’em to make ’em taste like chicken, and it’s time they were all back to mess. Which way did my old man go?”

“Climbed up yonder. Said he knowed there’d be a house up somewheres there.”

“And why didn’t you go with him, sir?” said Mrs Corporal Beane. “Might have found a melon or some oranges.”

“Not me,” grumbled the boy. “Frenchies don’t leave nothing: hungry beggars. Murd’rin’ wermin. Wish we could ketch ’em.”

“Ah, so do I, and it makes my heart bleed to see what we do.”

“Ah, but you wait a bit. We shall ketch ’em one o’ these days.”

“You won’t. You’re too lazy.”

“That I ain’t. I’d ha’ gone foraging ’s morning, and there’s an old boot nail made a hole in one foot, and t’other’s all blisters.”

“Oh, my poor boy! And I haven’t finished that pair of stockings I was knitting for you. Look here, you go and sit down till the men come back, and bathe your feet in the stream.”

“Did,” said the boy, with a chuckle.

“Ah! Where abouts? Not above where we get our drinking water?”

“Course I didn’t,” said the boy scornfully. “I ain’t a Frenchy.”


The hail came from high up in a woody ravine far above their heads, and the boy shaded his eyes and said excitedly—“Here, look. It’s Joe Beane, and he’s found something good. Got it on his shoulder.”

“What is it?” cried Mrs Beane. “A kid?”

“No, it’s a bag o’ something. It’s—no, he’s hid among the trees again. It was a bag, though—looked whitish.”

“It’s flour,” cried Mrs Beane triumphantly. “Oh, Tom! We’ll have cakes to-night, and you shall carry some to the officers’ mess.”

“Give us one if I do, Mother Beane?”

“Ah, pig! I never saw such a boy to eat.”

“Well, how can I help it? I get so holler,” grumbled the boy. “It’s ’cause I’m growing.”

Five minutes later a tall manly-looking soldier came down the rugged track, with his face and hands torn and bleeding, and dropped upon his knees before his astonished wife and a group of half a dozen men who hurried up.

“Oh, Joe,” cried the woman, “what have you got there?”

“Young shaver,” panted the man. “Found big house yonder, half burnt. Five dead folk, and this here.”

“Oh, Joe!” cried the woman, taking her husband’s burden from him, sinking upon her knees, and laying the head of a handsome little fellow of about eight against her breast, to begin rocking herself to and fro and sobbing bitterly. “Oh, the wicked cruel wretches! To go and murder a poor little boy like this! Look at his face! Look at his hair, half burned off, and the rest all blood. Oh! If you were men you’d ketch and kill some of ’em for this.”

A low growl arose from the soldiers around, and Tom Jones sniffed, drew his bugle round from where it hung at his back, and dropped two silent tears in its mouth.

“You Tom,” cried Mrs Beane, “don’t stand sniffing and snivelling there like a great bull calf. Take the tin dipper and fetch it full of clean water. Oh, Joe, Joe! It’s too late. The poor little darling’s dead.”

“Warn’t when I fun’ him,” said the corporal. “He’d crep’ away a bit, and he moved one hand.”

“Yes, and he’s warm still,” cried the woman excitedly. “Here, you men, clear off. You go and serve out the mess, Joe. Never mind me.”

“But you’ll want a bit o’ dinner, missus; and I found two ripe melons up in the garden there, but I left ’em behind.”

“Don’t talk to me about melons and dinners,” cried the woman angrily. “Go and get your own, all of you; and how much longer’s that boy going to be?”

Not many minutes before he appeared, not with the tin dipper but a whole bucketful of clear cold water, forgetting all about his sore feet; and while the men went and sat round the iron pot of savoury hotch-potch, Tom Jones stayed behind to help bathe and bandage the head of the handsome little fellow upon whose sunburned face more than one hot tear fell, as loving hands made him up a temporary bed of great-coats in the shade.

“Oh, Tom, Tom!” sobbed the big rough coarse woman, as she knelt there at last after doing all she could, “many’s the time that I’ve prayed that I might have a little boy to call my own; but Heaven knows best, and he might have lived to die like this.”

“He ain’t a-going to die,” said Tom, sniffing again.

“He is—he is; and no doctor near!”

“No,” said Tom, with another sniff; “he’s miles away, along o’ them poor wounded chaps we left behind.”

“I can do nothing, nothing more—and he’s somebody’s bairn!”

“Yes,” said the boy hoarsely, “and the Frenchies killed ’em, for Joe Beane telled the men as the sight he see was horrid.”

“Hush! Ah, look,” whispered the woman, and she bent over the poor little victim, who wailed faintly, “Oh, don’t—don’t—Ah!”

Then he lay silent and motionless, as his rough nurse softly laid her hand upon the fire-scorched forehead.

“Why, that there ain’t Portygeeze,” whispered Tom, staring.

“Well, old gal, what about him now?”

“Oh, I don’t know, Joe; I don’t know. He just spoke a little.”

“Poor little nipper. All right, my gal; you’ll bring him round.”

Tom had ceased sniffing and had turned to give a long stare at the men grouped round the pot, to see that they had done eating and were lighting their pipes.

“Might ha’ arxed a pore chap to have had a bit, corporal,” he said.

“Ay, we might, lad; but then you see we was all so hungry we mightn’t, and you’re only a boy.”

“Yes, that’s it,” grumbled Tom, wrenching his bugle round and giving it a vicious polish with his sleeve. “Allus the same; on’y a boy; just as if I could help that!”

“And such a hungry sort o’ boy; holler all through. It’s a waste to give you good food. That there stoo was evvinly.”

Joe turned away from Tom’s sour puckered face, to bend over the insensible little patient with a look full of pity, as he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

“I should just liked to have been there, missus, with my bay’net fixed when they cut that little fellow down. Here, I’ll sit and have a pipe and keep the flies off him, while you go and pick a bit. The boys wouldn’t touch a morsel till I’d put aside some for you and Tom.”

That night the 200th was still marching on where they were to camp in the mountains, while on a rough kind of litter formed of a long basket strapped upon the back of a mule, with a couple of great-coats and a blanket for bed, lay the poor child whose life Mrs Beane was trying to save.

It was a long and a weary forced march, for scouts had brought in news which made the officers hope to come in touch of the retreating army before morning, for the news had spread, and during the night the Colonel and officers found opportunities for coming and asking Mother Beane about her little patient.

But there was always the same reply, and Colonel Lavis did not have his uniform mended, neither were any stitches added to Tom Jones’s new worsted stockings, for the corporal’s wife had all her work to do to try and save her patient’s life, and the shake of the head she gave at daybreak told more forcibly than words or the bitter tears she shed, that she had given up all hope.