Ernest Hornung.

Denis Dent: A Novel



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"Stand up, stand up!" cried a sergeant with a cheese-cutter on the back of his red head. "You're not in the trenches now, and that's sugar-plums to what you're goin' to get. Look over there!"

On the plain beneath the high plateau occupied by the three companies, the Russian cavalry could be seen below the rising fog, advancing obliquely on the northern heights, preceded by a cloud of skirmishers. Nothing threatened the outpost of Guards; no more shot or shell fell among them; and word came for them to march back to camp in order to draw cartridges and exchange their dripping muskets for dry.

It was no welcome order to the picket, already further from the action than their gallantry could bear. Heavy firing on the northern heights convinced them that the bulk of the Brigade were already hotly engaged. Yet a whole company of Grenadiers and two of the Coldstream had to start the day by turning their backs upon friend and foe and din of battle.

"Never mind, boys," cried the sergeant in the cheese-cutter. "It'll be your turn directly, and meanwhile you can say your prayers, for you'll be smelling hell before you're an hour older!"

Denis, for one, would have given a good deal to have been spared this delay before battle of which he had heard so much. He found it as trying as report maintained. He could not but think of his last words to Ralph Devenish, and as Ralph marched aloof he looked as though he might be thinking of them too. Denis began to suffer from a sort of superstitious shame: he deserved to be the one to remain upon the field. He was grateful to his rear-rank man, a Cockney, and a consistent grumbler, for a running commentary of frivolous complaint.

"I 'ope they'll give us time for a cup o' cawfee – if yer call it cawfee," said he. "Green cawfee-beans ground between stones – I call it muck. But 'ot muck's better 'n nothink w'en you've 'ad no warm grub in yer innards for twenty-four hours. But wot do you 'ave in this God-forsaken 'ole? Not a wash, not a shave, no pipe-clayin', no button-cleanin', no takin' belts or boots off by the day an' night together!"

The deserted encampment was far from an inspiriting spectacle. Denis kept outside his tent; the idea of a farewell visit was not to be resisted; but a tough biscuit munched in the open air, and a dry rifle handled as the rain ceased falling, were solid comforters. At last the companies fell in, and swung out of camp with a cheer, greatcoats and bearskins, red plumes and white, as briskly and symmetrically as through the streets of London.

"'Remember, remember, the fifth o' November!'" said the red-haired sergeant. "So you never knew Guy Fawkes was a Rooshian? You hark at 'em keepin' the day!"

Indeed, the firing was growing louder every minute. It was still nearly all in one direction, on the heights where the fog clung thickest, and whither the three companies were now tramping through the fog.

"I wish they'd remember the seventh day, an' keep it 'oly," grumbled Denis's rear-rank man.

"I s'pose you godless chaps 've forgot it's yer Sunday out? I don't forget it's mine, darn their dirty skins!"

A horse's hoofs came thudding through the fog, a scarlet coat burst through it like the sun.

"The Duke says you're to join your battalion," cried the staff-officer to Devenish. "They're hard pressed at the two-gun battery up above."

Devenish wheeled round, and his handsome face was transfigured as he waved his sword.

"They want us with the colours!" he shouted. "They can't do without us after all!"

And with a laugh and a yell the men sprang forward, the sergeant's face as red as his hair, even the grumbler pressing on Denis's heels, and perhaps only Denis himself with a single thought beyond coming at once to the rescue of the regiment and to grips with the shrouded foe. But Denis had been near Ralph when he turned, near enough to note the radiant look, to catch the smiling eye, and his country's enemy was blotted out of mind by his own. Had he done Devenish justice after all? Was his behaviour as base as it had seemed? Was that shining and fearless face the face of a bad man and a coward? Handsome, joyous, and brave, as strangely ennobled as some faces after death, could any woman have seen this one now, she might rather have forgiven it any crime!

So thought Denis to himself as he marched in chill silence among his yelling comrades. He had not been with them at the Alma. It was his first battle, and as yet it had only begun to the ear; not a man had been hit before his eyes, not a flash had penetrated the pale mist ahead upon the heights. Yet the mist was paler than it had ever been; and to the right, over the green valley of the Tchernaya, whence it had risen in patches, there was a faint round radiance in the pall. None noticed it; all eyes were straining through the haze in front of them; but of a sudden, as the bearskins breasted a ridge, the sun broke forth upon an astounding tableau.

Under a canopy of mist and smoke, belt-deep in sparkling bushes raked by the risen sun, a thin line of Guardsmen were holding their own against dense masses of the enemy. Between the Russians and the lip of the plateau in their rear, over which they were still swarming by the battalion, rose the dismantled redoubt whose empty embrasures were open doors to the attacking horde. Weight of numbers had wrested the work from the British – but that was all. Instead of pressing this advantage, the enemy had set his back to the parapet of sandbags, overlapping it in dense wings, and so standing at bay in his thousands against a few hundred Grenadiers. The lingering mist and the smoke of battle were doubtless in favour of the few; only the remnant of their own brigade, approaching obliquely from their rear, could see how few they were; and for an instant the sight appalled them. It was a hedge of bearskins and cheese-cutters against a forest of muffin-caps and cross-belts, and between them a road narrowing to a few yards at the end nearer the relieving handful. Rifles flashed and smoke floated along either line; uncouth yells were answered by hoarse curses and by savage cheers; and Guardsmen who had fired away their sixty rounds were hurling rocks and stones across a lane so narrow that there was scarcely a yard between the sprawling dead of either side.

Such was the grim gray scene upon which the three companies appeared. The rank and file were in their greatcoats almost to a man; but here and there were a scarlet tunic and a flashing sword; and in the centre of the line, in the swirl of smoke and mist, staggered a crimson standard and a Union Jack.

"Our colours!" screamed Devenish, racing ahead of his men. There was no need for him to tell them. The gray pack were yelling at his heels, and Denis saw but dimly as he ran roaring with the rest.

The thin line heard them; a couple of officers glanced over their epaulettes, saw the red plumes of the Coldstream outnumbering the white plumes of the Grenadiers, and tossed their swords in a sudden passion of jealousy. "Charge again, Grenadiers!" they roared, and leaped into the lane with the whole gray wave rolling after them. And with bayonets down and wild hurrahs the battalion drove straight into the redoubt, trampling the dead, and driving the living through the two embrasures as a green sea is emptied through lee scuppers.

Simultaneously the mass of Russians to the north of the battery were routed by a charge of the Scots Fusiliers at the far end of the line of Guards; and now the Coldstreamers blooded themselves upon the companion wing extending from the southern shoulder of the redoubt; but Devenish and his Grenadiers had followed their own into the redoubt itself, and Denis was leaning with his back against the parapet, brushing the sweat from his forehead and cleaning his bayonet in the earth.

There was no more moisture in his eyes. The emotional effect of the spectacle had yielded in an instant to the ferocious frenzy of the deed. Yet, as he leaned panting in the momentary pause, there was enough still to be seen, and more than enough to do. A quartermaster-sergeant arrived with a tray of refreshments on his shoulders, and a Grenadier in the act of helping himself was shot down as though by one of his own comrades. An officer wheeled round and fired his revolver in the air, whereupon a dead Russian came toppling from the parapet with a fearful thud almost at Denis's feet. But the fierce fellows struggling for the biscuits took no notice of either incident. Stained with powder, caked with blood, bearded, tattered, torn, they fought with their rough good-humour, for their first food since the night before, and with their mouths full rallied each other on their appearance.

"You ain't fit for Birdcage Walk," panted one. "I'd like to let them nursemaids see you now!"

"It's about time I fired a round," said another, snapping caps to dry his nipple. His bayonet was bloody to the muzzle. A third was replenishing his pouch from that of a dead comrade, with grim apologies to the corpse. There was less levity among the officers. It was at this period that Lord Henry Percy twice scaled the parapet, – a simple slope to the enemy – in order to clear it with his sword. Each time a well-aimed fragment of rock threw him backward over; the second misadventure left him senseless where he fell; and Denis, who was now reloading, sprang with others to his assistance.

"Get yourself something to eat," said a brother officer of the fallen Colonel, brushing the private aside.

"Thank you, sir, I had plenty in camp. I'm waiting for the next charge!" said Denis, with his cartridge between his teeth; and he bit off the end, dropped the powder into the muzzle of his piece, reversed and rammed home with no other thought in his heated head. He had been speaking to the gallant officer who had led him into his first action. He did not realize that it was Ralph Devenish. He had forgotten that there was such a being in the world.

CHAPTER XXX
THE SANDBAG BATTERY

Denis had not long to wait. There was a sudden agitation at the northern shoulder of the redoubt. Shouts and shots rose in an instant to the continuous din of desperate combat, as the strokes on a gong ring into one. A sulphurous cloud brooded over the struggling throng, worked its way down the inner wall of the battery, and clung to the angle of the first embrasure; inch by inch the bearskins were overborne, and between them pressed the cross-belts and the infuriate sallow faces in the peaked caps. Just then Denis saw a handful of his comrades, not actually in the path of the Russian avalanche, forming for a flank attack upon the intruders; in an instant he was one of them, and in another they had leaped upon the enemy with ball, butt, and bayonet. The Russians were pinned against the wall of the work. Those whom they had been driving rallied and drove them. Murderously assaulted in front and flank, the invading battalion turned and fled as they had come, leaving the ground thick with their dead.

Again Denis stopped to breathe. His bayonet was bent nearly double; he put his foot in the crook, detached it with a twist, and was about to replace it with the bayonet of a ghastly Grenadier when he found the butt of his own piece plastered with blood and hair. So he exchanged muskets with the dead man, but wiped his hand without a qualm. He remembered whirling his Mini? by the barrel when the bayonet bent; he could remember little else. Of his life before the fight, of his own identity, he had lost all sense; his ordinary being was in abeyance; he was a fearless and ruthless madman, smothered in blood and gasping for more.

Comparatively calm intervals he had throughout the fight, intervals in which for one reason or another, he was a momentary spectator of the scenes in progress all around him. It was these scenes that lived in his memory; even at the time they moved him more than those in which he had a hand. Once the Guards were fighting on the other side of the Sandbag Battery, between it and the long lip of the ravine; he had to wait for accounts of the battle long afterward to learn how they had got there, or what relation this phase of the action bore to the whole. At the time he was one of a handful of furious Grenadiers, fighting for their lives in the fresh fog which their powder had brought down upon them, and a moment came which Denis felt must be his last. He had tripped headlong over a dead Russian, and a quick Russian stood over him, aiming his bayonet with one hand while the other grasped the stock high above his head. But a British officer flung out his revolver within a few feet of the deliberate gray-coat, and it was the sensation of being shot from behind at such a moment that Denis anticipated more poignantly than that of being transfixed where he lay. The man fell dead on top of him. Anon he saw his friend the red-headed sergeant, being led captive down the hill by two of the enemy, suddenly wrest the carbine from one of them, club them both with it, and bayonet one after the other before they could rise. That also made Denis shudder. And yet he was biting a cartridge at the moment, having killed with his last, at arm's length, a splendid fellow who had grasped his bayonet while he poised his own.

Now the Sandbag Battery seemed out of sight, because it was quite another thing from this side, and now they were back in it, sweeping the Russians out once more. Denis did not know that the work had changed hands, half-a-dozen times before his company came into action, but even he saw the uselessness of a redoubt from which our soldiers could only see one way, and that in the direction of their own lines. The dead, indeed, now lay piled to the height of any banquette. No wilful foot was set on them. It was only the living for whom there was neither shrift nor pity on that bloody field.

This was the last that Denis saw of the Sandbag Battery; he was one of those who, led by a bevy of hot-headed officers, incontinently scaled it as one man, flung themselves upon the ousted enemy, and hunted him down-hill in crazy ecstasies. A hoarse voice in high authority screamed command and entreaty from the crest where the Grenadier colours drooped in the haze, deserted by all but a couple of hundred bearskins. It was as though the curse of the Gadarene swine had descended on this herd of inflamed Guardsmen. Down they went, if not to their own destruction, to the grave peril of the remnant up above. An officer in front of Denis was the first to recognize the error; he checked both himself and a rough score of the rank and file; and together these few came clambering back to the colours on the heights.

Breathless they gained the edge of the plateau, to swarm over as the Russians had so often done before them, and to find matters as grave as they well could be. The crimson standard and the Union Jack swayed in the centre of a mere knot of Guardsmen, already sorely beset by broken masses of the enemy. And even now a whole battalion was bearing down upon the devoted band, marching to certain conquest with a resolute swing and swagger, and yet with the deep strains of some warlike hymn rising incongruously from its ranks. In a few minutes at most the little knot of Grenadiers must be overtaken, overwhelmed, and those staggering and riddled colours wrested from them for the first time in the history of the regiment. But the officer whom Denis was now following was one of the bravest who ever wore white plume in black bearskin; and he had the handling of a team of heroes, some of whom had fought at his side against outrageous odds at an earlier stage of the battle.

"We must have a go at them, lads," said he; "we can keep them off the colours if we can't do more. Are you ready? Now for it, then!"

Denis had come to himself; here at length was certain death; and for the last moments of conscious life he had turned his back upon the battle's smoke and roar, while his eyes rested upon a clear and tranquil patch in the green valley of the Tchernaya, with tiny trees and a white farmhouse set out like toys. His thoughts were not very clear, but they were flying overseas, and as they still flew the officer's voice rang in his ears. So this was the end. A few Russians in loose order led the column; they were soon swept aside; and into the real head of the advancing multitude the twenty hurled themselves like men who could not die.

Denis never knew what happened to himself. He remembered his captain being bayoneted through the folds of his cloak, and cutting down two Russians at almost one stroke of his sword; he remembered longing for a sword of his own, as his piece was wrenched from his grasp by a dead weight on the bayonet. Yellow faces hemmed him in, their little eyes dilating with rage and malice; he remembered striking one of them with all his might, seeing the man drop, being in the act of striking another… His fists were still doubled when he opened his eyes hours later on the moonlit battle-field.

A great weight lay across his legs, so stiffly that Denis thought the dead man a log until his hand came in contact with damp clothing. His own throat and mouth were full of something hard and horrible. His moustache and beard were clotted with the same substance. One side of his face felt numb and swollen; but his sight was uninjured, and the pain not worse than bad neuralgia. He got upon his hands and knees and looked about him.

The day's haze had vanished with the smoke of battle; it was a still and clear night, brilliantly lighted by the moon. The Tchernaya lay like a tube of quicksilver along the peaceful plain whereon Denis had gazed before the end; he could see a light in the white farmhouse. The heights of Inkerman twinkled all over with scattered weapons, and all over were mounds more like graves than bodies waiting for the grave. The Sandbag Battery rose sharply against the moonlit sky. Denis was not near enough to see the fearful carnage there, but he remembered what it had been quite early in the day, and he had only to listen to hear the groaning of the wounded who had yet to be disentangled from the dead in the shadow of those ill-starred parapets. The night was so still that a groan, nay, a dying gasp, could be heard even further than sight could penetrate through the rays of that glorious moon; and yet it was so light that the glimmer of lanterns round about the fatal battery was not at first apparent to the eye.

When Denis saw the lanterns, he got up and tried to stagger toward them, but collapsed at once, and had to lie where he fell until they came to him.

"Come on, boys, I see a Rooshian!" called Linesman, holding his lantern level with his shako.

"Wait a bit, here's one of our chaps," replied a voice that Denis knew. "S' help me if it ain't our old sergeant. I'd know him by his ginger nob a mile off! And him in such a stew to get at 'em this morning! It's more'n ever I was, though I'd as lief be on that job as this … ugh!"

Denis soon attracted their attention, and in a few more moments his original rear-rank man was stooping over him.

"Why, you're stuck through the face!" he cried, screwing up his own behind the lantern. "But the glue seems set, and don't you go for to move and melt it. There's a wounded officer wants to see you."

Denis whispered something inarticulate. It was his first attempt to speak.

"What's that? Yes, it's our captain," said the other, "and he's waitin' to hear if you're alive. If you're sound below the teeth we can give you an arm apiece and take you to him in ten minutes. He's on'y in one o' the Second Division tents."

Denis could ask no questions, but he had strength enough to act upon this suggestion, and in a few minutes he was among the lighted tents. They put him vividly in mind of his first night at Ballarat. That was the last time he had spoken to Ralph Devenish until the morning of this dreadful day.

Now Ralph was lying in a military tent, a candle and a tumbler of champagne on the service trunk at his elbow, and an army surgeon on a camp-stool beside the bed.

"Is that the man you want to see?" asked the surgeon, but bundled Denis from the tent next instant, and made his conductors hold both lanterns to his face. "Don't you try to speak!" he went on to Denis. "Your wound has practically frozen; and we must keep it so as long as we can. Hold this wad to it till you come out. I oughtn't to let you go in – but he's worse than you."

The caution was repeated to Ralph; then Denis took the camp-stool, and the two were left alone.

"I am glad to have seen you again," murmured Ralph in hollow tones. "Do you know when I saw you last? I never thought of it till this moment. It was on the far side of the battery. Some fellow was going to bayonet you where you lay, and I – I was just in time."

Denis was nodding violently. He also had remembered. He stretched out a trembling hand. But Ralph drew his beneath the blanket.

"Wait a bit," he whispered. "You see, I never thought of its being you; but I'm rather glad it was. Badly hurt, I'm afraid?"



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