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The Colonel's Boy by H. Hervey

 

Marjorie had never got on well with her brother's guardian. He was a bachelor, stern and autocratic, and with no admiration for woman's ways, and she instinctively felt that he did not understand her.

His love for Miles Weyburne, the son of a brother officer who had fallen in a skirmish with an Indian frontier tribe thirteen years ago, was a thing recognised and beyond question.

Even at the age of ten the boy's likeness to his father had been remarkable. He had the same dark, earnest eyes, the same frank, winning manner, the same eager enthusiasm; he was soon to develop, to the secret pride of his guardian, the same keen interest in his profession, with a soundness of judgment and a fearless self-reliance peculiarly his own.

He had gained his star after scarcely a year's service, and had then got an exchange into his guardian's regiment.

Colonel Alleson held the command of a midland regimental district. He had the reputation of being somewhat of a martinet, and was not altogether popular with his men.

Marjorie generally spent her holidays with her aunt in the town, and the Colonel occasionally went to see her; but he was nervous and constrained, with little to say for himself, and Marjorie always did her best to show to a disadvantage when he was there. “He's such a crabby old thing,” she would say, when Miles grew enthusiastic over the grave, taciturn officer,—“besides, he hates girls, you know he does, and I'm not going to knuckle under to him.” Her brother had explained that the Colonel's ideas were old-fashioned, so she sometimes talked slang on purpose to shock him. She listened to his abrupt, awkward sentences with a half listless, half criticising air. She was a typical school-girl at the most characteristic age,—quick to resent, impatient of control, straightforward almost to rudeness. The Colonel might be a father to her brother—he never could be to her. She often thought about her father and mentally contrasted the two: she thought, too, though less often, of the mother who had died the very day that that father had fallen in action, when she herself was little more than a year old.

Miles had been spending his leave with his aunt, and the day before his return to Ireland to rejoin the battalion, he biked over to the barracks in company with his sister to say good-bye to his guardian.

“I suppose this is another of the Colonel's fads,” Marjorie remarked, glancing at the notice board as she got off her bicycle outside the gates. “What an old fuss he is, Miles.”

“Has he been giving you a lesson in manners?”

“Not he.” She tossed back her wavy, golden-brown hair as she spoke. “I should like to see him try it on.”

Miles gave a short little laugh.

“He got into an awful rage the other day because somebody came through here on a bicycle. How are you to read the notice all that way off?”

Miles was not listening to her. Hearing the sound of wheels, he had turned round and caught sight of the Colonel's dog-cart. Marjorie glanced mischievously at him, and just as the Colonel entered the gateway, she deliberately mounted her bicycle and rode through before his eyes. There was just room for her to pass. The Colonel reined in, and looked sternly round. “Stop!” he said. Marjorie obeyed. Wheeling her bicycle forward, she said in her politest manner:

“I beg your pardon. Did you want me?”

“This is quite contrary to regulations.”

“Yes, I know,” she answered, looking straight at him. “I read the notice, but I don't see the sense of it.”

There were one or two soldiers standing near, and they exchanged glances and smiled. Miles coloured up with shame and vexation. The Colonel gave the reins to his groom and got down without another word. He held out his hand to Miles as the dog-cart passed on.

“I want to speak to you,” he said shortly, and he walked on in front of them.

“I hope I shall see you again, Miles,” he began, as they ascended the steps leading to his quarters. “I have only a few minutes to spare now. Come up this evening, will you?”

“Yes, Colonel.”

Marjorie moved towards the door. The colour mounted to her cheeks as the Colonel stepped forward to open it for her. Miles, feeling that he ought to say something, waited behind a minute.

“I'm sorry about—about this,” he said. “I don't understand it.”

“I do, perfectly—well, good-bye, my boy.”

His grave, stern face softened wonderfully as he grasped Miles' hand.

“What an old crosspatch he is,” began Marjorie as her brother came up with her. “I daren't for the life of me ride through there again. Did you see, Miles, he was quite white with rage when I cheeked him? Those Tommies thought it awful sport.”

“What a little ass you are,” said Miles crossly, “to make all that row before the men.”

Marjorie looked away. “It served him jolly well right,” she said, pedalling faster.

They rode home the rest of the way in silence.

Miles was away with his battalion at the front, and Marjorie was spending a fortnight of the Christmas holidays with a school friend at Eastbourne. The two girls were hurrying down the esplanade together one bright, frosty morning in January when Marjorie suddenly found herself face to face with the Colonel. His eyes were bent down, and he passed without recognising her. With a few hurried words to her chum, she ran after him.

“How do you do, Colonel? I didn't know you were here.”

He started as she addressed him. “I only came yesterday,” he said; “I have got a few days' leave.”

“Did you hear from Miles last mail? I did.”

“Yes. He has been very regular so far.”

“You must miss him awfully. Are you going this way?”

“Yes.”

“Then I'll come a little way with you, if I may; I wanted to say something.”

Putting her hands into her jacket pockets, she looked very gravely at him.

“I am sorry I was rude that day I came into the Barracks,” she said hurriedly. “I have been thinking about it. It was horrid of me, when the soldiers were there. Will you forgive me?”

“Certainly,” he said nervously, putting his hands behind him, and walking faster.

“You see, I want to be friends with you,” she added frankly, “because of Miles. He thinks such a lot of you—the dear boy; good-bye.”

Her dark eyes, generally so mocking and mischievous, had grown suddenly earnest, and his heart warmed towards her, as he held out his hand.

“Good-bye, Marjorie,” he said, “you are very much alike, you and Miles.”

“Are we?” she said simply, flushing a little. “I didn't know. I am glad.”

She walked back to her chum with a beating heart. “He's not so bad,” she said to herself. “I wish he liked girls.”

Spion Kop had been abandoned, and the British Army was in orderly retreat, when Miles found himself cut off with the remnant of his company, by the enemy. The death of his captain had left him in command, and realising his responsibility, he made up his mind to act promptly. “We are cut off, men,” he explained briefly to his soldiers; “will you hoist the white flag, or trust to me to bring you through?”

“No surrender, and we stand by you, sir,” answered the serjeant major gruffly. “Is it agreed, boys?”

There was a general assent.

It was a gallant deed, that desperate dash to rejoin the division, though accomplished at a terrible cost. Miles, leading the forlorn hope, was soon to pay the price of his daring. They were all but through when he fell, shot by a chance bullet.

An hour later his battered troops came up with the British forces. Three or four stragglers dropped into camp as the serjeant major was making his report.

“Ah!” said the colonel, expressively—“you got through?”

“Yes, sir, beastly hard work, too.”

“Who brought you?”

“Lieutenant Weyburne, sir.”

“I thought so. He's the kind of fellow for that sort of thing. Is he in?”

“He was shot, sir.”

“Shot, poor boy. What will Alleson say?”

It was Wednesday morning, and the entire strength of the Depôt had turned out on parade. The Colonel, tall and dignified in the faultless neatness of undress uniform, was standing in his characteristic attitude, with his hands behind him and his head thrown slightly back. His blue eyes looked out, grave and watchful, from under the peak of his fatigue cap, and the tense interlocking of his gloved fingers was the only sign of his mental unrest.

Yet the vision of Miles was before him—Miles bold, earnest, high-spirited, Miles in the full joy of life and strength, with the light of affection in his eyes; Miles again with his boyish face white and drawn and his active young form still in death.

He had loved the boy, his boy as he always called him, more even than he had realised, and life seemed very blank without the hope of seeing him again.

It was two days since his name had appeared in the lists of killed and wounded, and that afternoon the Colonel went down to see Marjorie, who had returned from Eastbourne a few days before. She looked unusually pale when she came into the room, and though she ran forward eagerly enough to greet him, her eyes were tearful and her lips quivering, as she put her hand into his.

“I thought of writing to you”—began the Colonel nervously, “but——”

“I'm glad you came,” said Marjorie, “very glad. I shouldn't mind so much if we knew just how he died,” she added sorrowfully.

“We know how he would face death, Marjorie!”

She put her arms on the table, and hid her face with a stifled sob.

“He was your boy, and you'll miss him so,” she went on. “There's no one like him, no one half so dear or half so brave. If I were only a boy I might try to be like him and make you happy—but I can't, it's no use.”

She was looking up at him with those dark eyes of hers, just as his boy had looked at him when he said good-bye three months ago, and he could not trust himself to speak.

“I suppose you get used to things,” she said with a sigh.

The Colonel put his hand on her head. “Poor child,” he said in a husky voice, “don't think about me.”

“Miles loved you,” she answered softly, going up close to him. “I'm his sister. Let me love you, too.”

He drew her to him in a tender fatherly manner, that brought instant comfort to her aching, wilful little heart.

“Your father was my friend, Marjorie,” he said,—“the staunchest friend man ever had. I have often wondered why we failed to understand each other.”

“You don't like girls,” said Marjorie, “that's why.”

The Colonel smiled grimly.

“I didn't,” he said. “Perhaps I have changed my mind.”

Lord Roberts had entered Pretoria, and the Colonel sat in his quarters looking through the list of released prisoners. All at once he gave a start, glanced hastily around, and then looked back again. About half way down the list of officers, he read:

“Lieut. M. Weyburne (reported killed at Spion Kop).”

Miles was alive: there had been some mistake. The bugle sounded. It was a quarter past nine. He walked out on to the parade-ground with his usual firm step, smiling as he went. Miles was alive. He could have dashed down the barrack-square like a bugler-boy in the lightness of his heart.

People who met him that day hastened to congratulate him. He said very little, but looked years younger.

Three weeks later there came a letter from Miles, explaining how he had been left upon the ground for dead, and on coming to himself, had fallen unarmed into the hands of the Boers. He had never fully recovered from his wounds, and by the doctor's orders had been invalided home, so that his guardian might expect him about ten days after receiving his letter.

It was a happy home-coming. The Colonel went down to Southampton to meet him, and when he reached his aunt's house he found a letter from Marjorie awaiting him. “The Colonel's a dear,” she wrote; “I understand now why you think such a lot of him.”

Miles turned with a smile to his guardian.

“You and Marjorie are friends at last, Colonel,” he said.

“Yes, my boy,” he returned gravely; “we know each other better now.”

 
 
 

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