Chapter 26 | Going Under Fire | The Young Castellan

Chapter Twenty Six.

Roy ran out of the room, leaving the old housekeeper, who was waiting outside, to close the door, and dashed down the few stairs and out into the court-yard, where the greater part of their little force was drawn up on either side of the gate-way, looking very serious and troubled; but as soon as he appeared they burst into a cheer, to which Roy answered by waving his hand.

“The game has begun,” he cried.

“Yes, sir,” said one of the troopers, who with Farmer Raynes was in command of the men; “first shot struck the tower full, and splintered down some stone. Better mind how you cross the gate-way.”

“Yes,” said Roy, quickly; “I will.” And he ran across to the door-way at the foot of the big spiral, reaching it just as a shot came whizzing overhead, and a heavy report followed.

“Third, and not one from us,” muttered Roy, as he hurried up the stairway to reach the platform at the top, and found Ben Martlet and the troop-corporal from his father’s regiment, each busy with one of the guns, arranging wedges under the breeches, and assisted by the men told off to work each piece, while two more now came to the turret door-way, bearing fresh charges ready when wanted.

Ben looked up and smiled grimly as Roy appeared, and the boy cried, excitedly—

“Three shots from them, and you doing nothing.”


Roy ducked down his head, for the rushing noise seemed to be close over him; and as he raised it again, flushing with shame and glancing sharply round to see what impression his flinching had made on the men around, Ben said, quietly—

“Four, sir; and you see on’y one hit us; the earthwork has thrown all the others upward. That last one was nigh to a hundred foot overhead.”

“A hundred feet! and I flinched,” thought Roy. “But why don’t you fire?” he cried, aloud.

“Thought I’d wait for you, sir, and that you’d like the first shot.”

“Yes, of course,” cried the boy, excitedly.

“And we haven’t wasted time, sir; corp’ral and me’s been pretty busy, getting what we thinks about the right depression of the muzzles, for you see we’re a good height up here. I don’t know that we shall be right, but we can soon get the range; and if you’ll begin now, sir, I’d like you to try my gun first.”

“Ready!” cried Roy, whose heart began to thump heavily.

“Like to take a squint along her, sir, first?” said Ben.

“No; I’ll trust to your aim.”

“Then, stand fast there!” cried Ben; and taking the port-fire from the man who held it, he presented it to the young castellan, who glanced at the earthwork, where he could see men busy, and a couple of squadrons of troopers drawn up some distance back on either side; and then, setting his teeth hard, he let the sparkling fuse fall softly on the touch-hole of the gun.

There was a flash, a great ball of smoke, the gun rushed backward, and the report seemed to stun Roy, whose ears rang, and a strange singing noise filled his head.

Ben said a few words, and leaned over the battlement, sheltering his eyes to watch the effect of the shot, as the smoke rose and began to spread. Then he turned and shouted something; but what it was Roy could not hear, neither could he catch a word that was uttered by the trooper-corporal, though the movement of his lips suggested that he was speaking.

“Can’t hear you,” shouted Roy, as loudly as he could; and the man smiled, and pointed to the port-fire and the second gun.

That was clear enough to understand; so Roy took a couple of steps towards the breech, and as the men stood drawn up in regular form on either side, he once more touched the priming.

Another flash, puff, and deafening roar, which he heard quite plainly; and oddly enough it seemed to have had the effect of restoring his ears to their customary state, for, in spite of the tremendous singing and cracking going on, he heard the order given to the men to stop the vents, sponge, and begin to reload.

“Just a shade more up,” said Ben; “and yours wants a bit more than mine, corporal.—See where the shot hit, sir?”

“I? No,” said Roy.

“Both on ’em just in front of their works, and covered ’em with earth and stones. They all bolted out. Look, they’re coming back again, and they’ll give us something directly.”

“Yes,” said the corporal, as the men went on loading; “and those shots have shown ’em what we can do. Look, sir.”

“Why, they’re drawing off those two troops of horse.”

“Yes, sir,” said the corporal; “and if Sir Granby Royland had been in command they’d never have been there.”

“No,” said Ben, with his lips pinched together; “we could have bowled over two or three of ’em with the guns, but I thought the captain would like to have a try at the earthwork first.—For they’re not soldiers, Master Roy.—Are they, corporal?”

The trooper laughed.

“Just a mob of men scratched together, and put into jerkins and headpieces, and with swords stuck in their fisties. Why, there aren’t many of ’em as can ride,” continued Ben.

The thought occurred to Roy that his own garrison was composed of extremely raw material, but he said nothing, and Ben went grumbling on:

“I don’t say but what they could be made into decent soldiers in time; but they don’t seem to have anybody much over them.”

Just then a couple of shots were fired by the enemy, one of which struck the tower with a tremendous crash, sending splinters of stone flying, and a tiny cloud of dust rose slowly. The other shot went whizzing overhead.

“I wouldn’t get looking over the edge, Master Roy, sir,” whispered Ben. “Some of those chips of stone might give you an ugly scratch. But that just shows what I say’s right. They haven’t got the right man there or he’d soon change things. You see they’ve brought up their guns with orders to batter down our drawbridge and smash the portcullis, thinking they’ll make you surrender. Don’t seem to come into their thick heads that if they did manage to smash the bridge, they’d be no nearer to us than before, because we should soon pile up a good breastwork, and pitch every man back into the moat who swam across. But, as I was going to say, they’ve got their orders to batter down the bridge, and they keep at it. We’ve been hit up here, but only by accident; they never fired straight at us. Now, if you were in command out there, sir, you’d do something different.”

“I should fire straight up here, Ben, and try to silence these guns.”

“Of course you would, sir; just as you’re going to silence theirs.”

“And the sooner the better, Ben. They’re nearly ready again.”

“Are they, sir? I can’t see. My eyes are not so young as yours. Well, we’re quite ready; and if you orders, we’re going to give it ’em in earnest.”

“Go on, then,” said Roy, “and see if you can’t stop their firing.”

Ben smiled grimly, and bent down to regulate the aim he took, while the same was done with the other gun. The result was that the corporal’s shot went right through the embrasure of the piece to the left, while Ben’s went over.

As the smoke cleared away, a scene of confusion was visible; but the gun on the right was fired directly after, and the shot plunged into the bank of earth raised the previous night.

“Ah!” grumbled Ben; “you’ve got the best gun, my lad; there must be a twist in mine, for she throws high.”

“Like to change?” said the corporal.

“No. I’m going to get used to mine and make her work better.”

Shot after shot was fired from the gate tower, the men warming to their work, and the results were very varied; for, in spite of the care exercised and the rivalry between Ben and the corporal, the clumsily cast balls varied greatly in their courses, so that at the end of an hour’s firing very little mischief was done on either side. The enemy had had their earthen parapet a good deal knocked about, and some men had been injured; but all the advantage they had obtained was the battering down of some scraps of stone, which lay about the front of the great gate-way.

“Soon clear that away with a broom,” growled Ben; “but I’m a bit disappointed over these guns, captain. We ought from up here to have knocked theirs off the carriages by this time.”

“We shall do it yet,” said Roy; and during the next few shots he himself laid the guns, taking the most careful aim.

“As I said afore, your eyes are younger and better than mine, Master Roy, but you don’t shoot any more true.—Hullo! what are they doing there?”

He looked earnestly at the battery, where the men seemed to be extra busy, and at a solid mass of troops marching on from some hundreds of yards behind, straight for the castle.

“They’re never mad enough to come and deliver an assault; are they, corp’ral?” cried Ben, excitedly.

“Seems like it, sergeant.”

Ben turned to Roy with an inquiring look, and he nodded.

“Do what you think best,” he said.

What Ben thought best was to withdraw the great wedge which depressed the muzzle of his gun, the corporal doing the same; and then, after a careful aim-taking, both pieces roared out a salute to the coming infantry, which was marching forward in steady array.

The balls went skipping along after striking the ground a hundred yards or so beyond the enemy’s battery, and, ricochetting, darted right for the solid moving mass of men. The effect was ludicrous, for in an instant they could be seen from the tower to be in a terrible state of confusion, breaking and running in all directions, and, as it were, melting away.

“First time they’ve ever faced cannon-ball,” said Ben, with a smile. “I’ve seen better men than they after more training do the same. They won’t do it next time, though.”

As far as could be seen, few people were hurt; but the shots had their effect, for the men, as they were restored to something like order, were marched back behind a patch of woodland, and the duel between the two pairs of guns was recommenced with a couple of shots from the battery, both of which struck the tower high up.

“Aha!” cried Ben, with another of his grim smiles; “got tired, then.”

“Does not seem like it, Ben,” said Roy.

“Tired of plumping balls into our earthwork, and doing what they ought to have begun with.—Come, corporal, it’s time we did better.”

“Let’s do it, then,” said the man, sternly.

“Look here, Master Roy,” said Ben, in a low tone; “they’ve just sent out two parties of horse to right and left, and it strikes me they’re going to try something on the other side of us when they meet. Will you take a round of the ramparts, and see as all’s right, and keep the lads on the lookout?”

“Let me fire these two shots first,” said Roy.

He fired both guns, and there was a tremendous mass of earth sent flying; but that seemed to be the only mischief done; and then as Ben superintended the reloading, which began to be carried out now with a fair amount of speed, he said, in a low tone—

“Now, capt’n, will you take a look round? You ought to be everywhere at once now.”

At that moment a shot just grazed one of the crenelles, and hurtled away close overhead, making the men wince, as it gave them a better idea of the enemy’s powers than they had had before.

“Yes, that’s why you want me to go, Ben,” whispered Roy. “You think it is getting dangerous here. Thank you; I’ll stay. I daresay the men are all right.”

“Well, sir, I did think something of the kind; but it’s real truth. You ought to be everywhere, and you must really give a look round and tell ’em to fire at any of the enemy who come too near, specially at the troops of horse; it’ll teach ’em to keep their distance.”

Another shot struck the tower, and the splinters of stone rattled down, making Roy hesitate to leave. But he felt that the old sergeant was right, and, descending to the ramparts, he visited the south-west tower, where the men in charge of the guns awaited orders to join in the fray. Then the north-west tower was reached, and here Roy encountered Master Pawson.

“I am glad you’ve come,” he cried. “There’s a strong body of horse gathering over at the foot of the hill to the north.”

“Whereabouts?” said Roy, hurrying through. “Anywhere near the old ruins?”

“Ruins? ruins?” said the secretary, looking at him in a peculiar manner. “Ah, I see now: you mean those old stones on the top. No; they are on the level ground below. Hadn’t we better fire?”

“As soon as they come within reach, send a ball at them. Let the gun be well elevated, so as to fire over their heads. We want to scare them off, and not to destroy.”

As he spoke, Roy ascended with the secretary to the platform, and there, well within range, saw a strong squadron of horse approaching; while Roy’s keen eyes detected a flash or two as of the sun from steel in amongst the trees at the foot of the hill.

“They have infantry there,” he said. “And these horse must be coming to feel their way for them, and to see if we are prepared.”

The men at the guns watched their young captain eagerly; and as soon as he gave orders for one of the guns to be used as he had directed, he was obeyed with an alacrity which showed how eager the people were to join in the fray commenced on the other side of the castle.

A shot soon went whizzing overhead, and caused a general movement among the horsemen; but they steadied again, and advanced. Upon a second shot being fired directly with the muzzle depressed, a little cloud of dust was seen to rise in front of the advancing squadron, which was suddenly thrown into confusion; and directly after the body of cavalry divided into two and began to retire, leaving an unfortunate horse struggling upon the ground; while after a close scrutiny Roy made out the fact that two men were riding upon one horse in the rear of the right-hand troop.

The men on the tower gave a loud cheer, trifling as their success had been, and were eager to fire again; but Roy was content to show the enemy that the defenders were well prepared let them advance where they would, for he knew that the slaying of a few men by a lucky shot would not have much influence on his success.

He stayed till the men had disappeared beyond the trees on the hill slope; and then, enjoining watchfulness, completed his visit to the other towers, descended to report how matters were progressing to his mother, who announced that her patient slept, and lastly hurried back to where the enemy were pounding away at the gate-way, and Ben and his men steadily replying.

“Hurt?” he cried excitedly, as he saw that one of the men had a rough bandage about his arm. “You had better go below at once.”

“What! for that, sir?” said the man, staring; “it’s only a scratch from a bit of stone.”

The injury was very slight; but during Roy’s absence the enemy had managed to send one shot so truly that it had struck the front corner of the embrasure of the corporal’s gun, and splintered away a great piece of the stone, many fragments still lying about on the platform.

“Yes, sir; they’re shooting better than we are, or their guns are more true. Our powder’s good, old as it is; but it doesn’t matter how carefully we aim, we can never tell to a foot or two where the shot will hit. They won’t go where we want ’em.”

“Well, theirs will not either, Ben,” said Roy, “or they would have done more mischief to us than this.”

“That’s true, sir,” grumbled the old soldier; “and after all said and done, I don’t think much of big guns. If you could get ’em close up to the end of a ridgement, and the men would stand still, you could bowl a lot of ’em over like skittles; but there’s a lot of waste going on with this sort of firing, and if it warn’t for the show we make, and which keeps ’em off, we might as well sit down and smoke our pipes, and watch where the balls went that they send.”

“But you must keep on, Ben. You may have a lucky shot yet.”

“Oh, we aren’t done so very badly since you went, sir! Soon as they’d done that bit o’ damage to the top there, as’ll cost Sir Granby a lot o’ money to repair, the corporal sent ’em an answer which made ’em carry away four men to the rear.”

“Killed?” said Roy, excitedly.

“Ah! that’s more than we can say, sir. They didn’t send us word. He’s got the best gun, you see, sir; and I don’t take so well to this sort of work. I want a good horse between my knees, and your father ahead of me to lead. Why, if he was here with his ridgement, he’d take us along like a big brush, and sweep this mob o’ rebels off the country, as clean as one of the maids would do it with a broom. I say, sir; try your luck. The men like to see you have a shot or two. You boys are so lucky.”

Roy tried and tried again as the day wore on, and the duel between tower and battery went on, but tried in vain. The men were relieved, and the fresh relay kept up a steady fire, shot for shot with the enemy; but nothing was done beyond knocking the earth up in all directions; while as fast as the face of the battery was injured, they could see spades and baskets at work, and the earth was replaced by more. A demonstration was made by the enemy on the sides of the castle, as if to try what was to be expected there; but a shot or two from the corner towers forced the horsemen to retire; and night was approaching fast when Ben and the corporal relieved the men who had been firing all the afternoon, and Roy was with them just as the old soldier took aim for his first shot.

“I’ve given her an extra charge of powder, sir,” he said. “I’d ha’ give her a double dose, on’y it would be a pity to burst her. Like to run your eye along before she’s fired, sir?”

“No; you try this time, Ben.”

As Roy spoke, there was a tremendous crash, followed by the report of the enemy’s gun; and the rattling down of the splintered stone told how heavy the impact of the shot had been.

“More damage,” growled Ben. “They’re a-shooting ever so much better than us, corporal.”

The next minute he applied the port-fire, and the gun sprang back, as a tremendous report followed.

“Made her kick quite savage, sir,” said Ben, with a chuckle. “She says it’s more powder than she likes.”

He stepped to the embrasure as the smoke slowly rose, and gazed out at the enemy’s battery.

“Come and look, Master Roy,” he said, with a grim smile.—“I say, corporal, that’s one to me.”

The men raised a tremendous cheer, for plainly enough seen in the dim evening light, the interior of the battery was in confusion; and as the smoke quite cleared away, they saw that one of the guns was lying several feet back behind the shattered carriage, and at right angles to its former position.

“Give ’em yours now, my lad,” growled Ben; and the corporal fired; but his shot went right over the battery and struck up the earth twenty yards behind.

“Depress the muzzle, man!” cried Roy.

“I did, sir, more than usual,” said the corporal, rather sulkily.

“Yes, sir,” said Ben; “he’s a better gunner than me. Mine was on’y a bit o’ luck, for I raised mine this time.”

While the guns were being reloaded, Roy and his lieutenant watched the proceedings in the battery, waiting to withdraw when the enemy seemed to be about to fire.

But no further shot was sent roaring and whizzing against the tower, and, night falling, it soon became impossible to see what was going on.