TELLS OF SOME OF THE TRIALS, UNCERTAINTIES,
DANGERS, AND DISASTERS OF WAR
Uncertain moonlight, with a multitude
of cloudlets drifting slowly across the sky so as
to reveal, veil, partially obscure, or sometimes totally
blot out the orb of night, may be a somewhat romantic,
but is not a desirable, state of things in an enemy’s
country, especially when that enemy is prowling among
But such was the state of things one
very sultry night when our hero found himself standing
in the open alone, and with thoughts of a varied and
not wholly agreeable nature for his companions.
He was on sentry duty.
It was intensely dark when the clouds
partially veiled the moon, for she was juvenile at
the time in her first quarter; and when
the veil was partially removed, the desert, for it
was little better, assumed an indistinct and ghostly-grey
Sombre thoughts naturally filled the
mind of our young soldier as he stood there, alert,
watchful, with weapons ready, ears open to the slightest
sound, and eyes glancing sharply at the perplexing
shadows that chased each other over the ground like
wanton Soudanese at play. His faculties were
intensely strung at what may well be styled “attention,”
and riveted on that desert land to which Fate as
he called his own conduct had driven him.
Yet, strange to say, his mysterious spirit found
leisure to fly back to old England and revisit the
scenes of childhood. But he had robbed himself
of pleasure in that usually pleasant retrospect.
He could see only the mild, sorrowful, slightly reproachful,
yet always loving face of his mother when in imagination
he returned home. It was more than he could
bear. He turned to pleasanter memories.
He was back again at Portsmouth, in the reading-room
of the Soldiers’ Institute, with red-coated
comrades around him, busy with newspaper and illustrated
magazine, while the sweet sound of familiar music
came from the adjoining rooms, where a number of Blue
Lights, or rather red-coats, who were not ashamed
to own and serve their Maker, were engaged with songs
Suddenly he was back in Egypt with
his heart thumping at his ribs. An object seemed
to move on the plain in front of him. The ready
bayonet was lowered, the trigger was touched.
Only for a moment, however. The shadow of a
cloud had passed from behind a bush that
was all; yet it was strange how very like to a real
object it seemed to his highly-strung vision.
A bright moonbeam next moment showed him that nothing
to cause alarm was visible.
Mind is not so easily controlled as
matter. Like a statue he stood there in body,
but in mind he had again deserted his post. Yet
not to so great a distance as before. He only
went the length of Alexandria, and thought of Marion!
The thought produced a glow, not of physical heat that
was impossible to one whose temperature had already
risen to the utmost attainable height but
a glow of soul. He became heroic! He remembered
Marion’s burning words, and resolved that Duty
should henceforth be his guiding-star!
Duty! His heart sank as he thought
of the word, for the Something within him became suddenly
active, and whispered, “How about your duty
to parents? You left them in a rage. You
spent some time in Portsmouth, surrounded by good
influences, and might have written home, but you didn’t.
You made some feeble attempts, indeed, but failed.
You might have done it several times since you landed
in this country, but you haven’t. You
know quite well that you have not fully repented even
While the whispering was going on,
the active fancy of the youth saw the lovely face
of Marion looking at him with mournful interest, as
it had been the face of an angel, and then there came
to his memory words which had been spoken to him that
very day by his earnest friend Stevenson the marine:
“No man can fully do his duty to his fellows
until he has begun to do his duty to God.”
The words had not been used in reference
to himself but in connection with a discussion as
to the motives generally which influence men.
But the words were made use of by the Spirit as arrows
to pierce the youth’s heart.
“Guilty!” he exclaimed
aloud, and almost involuntary followed, “God
Again the watchful ear distinguished
unwonted sounds, and the sharp eye wonderfully
sharpened by frequent danger perceived objects
in motion on the plain. This time the objects
were real. They approached. It was “the
rounds” who visited the sentries six times during
In another part of the ground, at
a considerable distance from the spot where our hero
mounted guard, stood a youthful soldier, also on guard,
and thinking, no doubt, of home. He was much
too young for service in such a climate almost
a boy. He was a ruddy, healthy lad, with plenty
of courage and high spirit, who was willing to encounter
anything cheerfully, so long as, in so doing, he could
serve his Queen and country. But he was careless
of his own comfort and safety. Several times
he had been found fault with for going out in the sun
without his white helmet. Miles had taken a
fancy to the lad, and had spoken seriously, but very
kindly, to him that very day about the folly of exposing
himself in a way that had already cost so many men
But young Lewis laughed good-naturedly,
and said that he was too tough to be killed by the
The suffocating heat of that night
told upon him, however, severely tough
though he was or supposed himself to be while
he kept his lonely watch on the sandy plain.
Presently a dark figure was seen approaching.
The sentinel at once challenged, and brought his
rifle to the “ready.” The man, who
was a native, gave the password all right, and made
some apparently commonplace remark as he passed, which,
coupled with his easy manner and the correct countersign,
threw the young soldier off his guard. Suddenly
a long sharp knife gleamed in the faint light and was
drawn across the body of Lewis before he could raise
a hand to defend himself. He fell instantly,
mortally wounded, with his entrails cut open.
At the same moment the tramp of the rounds was heard,
and the native glided back into the darkness from
which he had so recently emerged.
When the soldiers came to the post
they found the poor young soldier dying. He
was able to tell what had occurred while they were
making preparations to carry him away, but when they
reached the fort they found that his brief career
A damp was cast on the spirits of
the men of his company when they learned next day
what had occurred, for the lad had been a great favourite;
but soldiers in time of war are too much accustomed
to look upon death in every form to be deeply or for
long affected by incidents of the kind. Only
the comrades who had become unusually attached to
this poor youth mourned his death as if he had been
a brother in the flesh as well as in the ranks.
“He was a good lad,” said
Sergeant Gilroy, as they kept watch on the roof of
the fort that night. “Since we came here
he has never missed writing to his mother a single
mail. It is true, being an amiable lad, and
easily led through his affections, he had given way
to drink to some extent, but no later than yesterday
I prevailed upon him to join our temperance band ”
“What? become a Blue Light!”
exclaimed Sutherland, with something of a sneer in
“Ah, comrade; and I hope to
live to see you join our band also, and become one
of the bluest lights among us,” returned the
“Never!” replied Sutherland,
with emphasis; “you’ll never live to see
“Perhaps not, but if I don’t
live to see it some one else will,” rejoined
the sergeant, laying his hand gently on the man’s
“Is that you again? It’s
wishin’ I am that I had you in ould Ireland,”
growled Corporal Flynn, referring to Osman Digna, whose
men had opened fire on the neighbouring fort, and
again roused the whole garrison. “Slape
is out o’ the question wi’ such a muskitos
buzzin’ about. Bad luck to ’ee!”
“What good would it do to send
him to Ireland?” asked Simkin, as he yawned,
rolled over, and, like the rest of his comrades, loaded
“Why, man, don’t ye see,
av he was in ould Ireland he couldn’t be
disturbin’ our night’s rest here.
Moreover, they’d make a dacent man of ’im
there in no time. It’s always the way;
if an English blackguard goes over to Ireland he’s
almost sure to return home more or less of a gintleman.
That’s why I’ve always advised you to
go over, boy. An’ maybe if Osman wint
A flash of light and whistling of
bullets overhead effectually stopped the Irishman’s
discourse. Not that he was at all alarmed by
the familiar incident, but being a change of subject
it became more absorbingly interesting than the conversation,
besides necessitating some active precautions.
The firing seemed to indicate an attack
in several places along the line of defence.
At one of the posts called the New House the attack
was very sharp. The enemy could not have been
much, if at all, over three hundred yards distant
in the shelter of three large pits. Of course
the fire was vigorously returned. A colonel
and major were there on the redoubt, with powerful
field-glasses, and directed the men where to fire
until the General himself appeared on the scene and
took command. On the left, from Quarantine Island,
the Royal Engineers kept up a heavy cross-fire, and
on the right they were helped by a fort which was manned
by Egyptian troops. From these three points a
heavy fire was kept up, and continued till six o’clock
in the morning.
By that time, the enemy having been
finally driven out of the pits, a party was sent across
to see what execution had been done. It was
wonderfully little, considering the amount of ammunition
and energy expended. In the first pit one man
was found dead; a bullet had entered his forehead
and come out at the back of his head. Moving
him a little on one side they found another man under
him, shot in the same way. All round the pit
inside were large pools of blood, but no bodies, for
the natives invariably dragged or carried away their
dead when that was possible. In the other two
pits large pools of blood were also found, but no
bodies. Beyond them, however, one man was discovered
shot through the heart. He had evidently been
dragged along the sand, but the tremendous fire of
the defenders had compelled the enemy to drop him.
Still further on they found twelve more corpses which
had been dragged a short way and then left.
Close to these they observed that
the sand had been disturbed, and on turning it up
found that a dozen of bodies had been hastily buried
there. Altogether they calculated that at least
fifty of the enemy had been killed on that occasion a
calculation which was curiously verified by the friendly
tribes asking permission to bury the dead according
to the Soudanese custom. This was granted, of
course, and thus the exact number killed was ascertained,
but how many had been wounded no one could tell.
“Fifty desolated homes!”
remarked one of the men, when the number of killed
was announced at mess that day. He was a cynical,
sour-visaged man, who had just come out of hospital
after a pretty severe illness. “Fifty widows,
may-hap,” he continued, “to say nothin’
o’ child’n that are just as
fond o’ husbands an’ fathers as ours
“Why, Jack Hall, if these are
your sentiments you should never have enlisted,”
cried Simkin, with a laugh.
“I ’listed when I was drunk,” returned
“Och, then, it sarves ye right!”
said Flynn. “Even a pig would be ashamed
to do anythin’ whin it was in liquor.”
The corporal’s remark prevented
the conversation taking a lugubrious turn, to the
satisfaction of a few of the men who could not endure
to look at anything from a serious point of view.
“What’s the use,”
one of them asked, “of pullin’ a long face
over what you can’t change? Here we are,
boys, to kill or be killed. My creed is, `Take
things as they come, and be jolly!’ It won’t
mend matters to think about wives and child’n.”
“Won’t it?” cried
Armstrong, looking up with a bright expression from
a sheet of paper, on which he had just been writing.
“Here am I writin’ home to my
wife in a hurry too, for I’ve only
just heard that word has been passed, the mail for
England goes to-day. I’m warned for guard
to-night, too; an’ if the night takes after the
day we’re in for a chance o’ suffocation,
to say nothing o’ insects as you all
know. Now, won’t it mend matters that
I’ve got a dear girl over the sea to think about,
and to say `God bless her, body and soul?’”
“No doubt,” retorted the
take-things-as-they-come-and-be-jolly man, “but but ”
“But,” cried Hall, coming
promptly to his rescue, “have not the Soudanese
got wives an’ children as well as us?”
“I daresay they have some of ’em.”
“Well, does the thought of your
respective wives an’ children prevent your shooting
or sticking each other when you get the chance?”
“Of course it don’t!”
returned Armstrong, with a laugh as he resumed his
pencil. “What would be the use o’
comin’ here if we didn’t do that?
But I haven’t time to argue with you just now,
Hall. All I know is that it’s my duty
to write to my wife, an’ I won’t let the
chance slip when I’ve got it.”
“Bah!” exclaimed the cynic,
relighting his pipe, which in the heat of debate he
had allowed to go out.
Several of the other men, having been
reminded of the mail by the conversation, also betook
themselves to pen and pencil, though their hands were
more familiar with rifle and bayonet. Among these
was Miles Milton. Mindful of his recent thoughts,
and re-impressed with the word Duty, which
his friend had just emphasised, he sat down and wrote
a distinctly self-condemnatory letter home.
There was not a word of excuse, explanation, or palliation
in it from beginning to end. In short, it expressed
one idea throughout, and that was Guilty!
and of course this was followed by his asking forgiveness.
He had forgiveness though he knew it not long
before he asked it. His broken-hearted father
and his ever-hopeful mother had forgiven him in their
hearts long before even before they received
that treasured fragment from Portsmouth, which began
and ended with:
“Dearest Mother, I am sorry ”
After finishing and despatching the
letter, Miles went out with a feeling of lightness
about his heart that he had not felt since that wretched
day when he forsook his father’s house.
As it was still early in the afternoon
he resolved to take a ramble in the town, but, seeing
Sergeant Gilroy and another man busy with the Gardner
gun on the roof of the redoubt, he turned aside to
ask the sergeant to accompany him; for Gilroy was
a very genial Christian, and Miles had lately begun
to relish his earnest, intelligent talk, dashed as
it was with many a touch of humour.
The gun they were working with at
the time had been used the day before in ascertaining
the exact range of several objects on the ground in
“I’ll be happy to go with
you, Miles, after I’ve given this gun a clean-out,”
said Gilroy. “Turn the handle, Sutherland.”
“I’ll turn the handle
if it’s a’ richt,” said the cautious
Scot, with some hesitation.
“It is all right,” returned
the sergeant. “We ran the feeder out last
night, you know, and I want to have the barrels cleaned.
Thus ordered a second time, Sutherland
obeyed and turned the handle. The gun went off,
and its contents passed through the sergeant’s
groin, making a hole through which a man could have
passed his arm.
He dropped at once, and while some
ran for the doctor, and some for water, others brought
a stretcher to carry the poor fellow to hospital.
Meanwhile Miles, going down on his knees beside him,
raised his head and moistened his pale lips with water.
He could hardly speak, but a smile passed over his
face as he said faintly, “She’ll get my
presents by this mail. Write, Miles break
it to her we’ll meet again by
the side of Jesus God be praised!”
He ceased, and never spoke again.
Gilroy was a married man, with five
children. Just before the accident he had written
to his wife enclosing gifts for his little ones, and
telling, in a thankful spirit, of continued health
and safety. Before the mail-steamer with his
letter on board was out of sight he was dead!