His Chance

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His Chance  (1908) 
by Flora Annie Steel

Extracted from Windsor magazine, v. 29, 1908-09, pp. 89-93. Illustrations by F. H. Townsend omitted.



HE sat biting his nails viciously. It was not a habit of his, but, at the moment, the tangle of his nineteen years of life had been too much for him, and he sat before it helpless yet resentful.

He was trying to write a letter to his mother, his widowed mother far away over the black water in England, to tell her that he had been placed under arrest for cowardice—since that was what it came to in the end—and yet not to hurt her, not to blame her, whom every bit of his being blamed. Why had she brought him up a nincompoop? Why had she been so afraid for him? Poor little mother, whose nerves had been shattered once and for all by her hero husband's death ere her child was born. Yet that father had been brave to recklessness.

The boys head went down on his arm. Something like a sob quivered through the hot air. For it was hot, though the sun was but an hour old, in the little grass-thatched bungalow which boasted of but one room, two verandahs, and two corresponding slips of dark enclosed space: one a bathroom, the other full of saddles, corn, empty boxes—briefly, the factotum's go-down; the whole house being nothing but a square mushroom set down causelessly in a dusty plain and guarded by two whitewashed gate-pillars, one of which bore the legend on a blackboard, "Hector Olive, 1st Pioneers."

A good name, Hector Olive, and yet the boy's head was down on his arm. Why had he been such a cursed fool?

A brain-fever bird was hard at work in a far-off sirus tree. He could see it in his mind's eye—green, with its red head held high among the powder-puff flowers as it gave its incessant cry with the regularity of a coppersmith's hammer; for though he had been but one year in the country, he knew all its birds, and beasts, and flowers; aye! and had a good smattering of its lingo also—it was that partly which had made him—what was it—afraid—or—or cautious?

His brain was in such a whirl he could not tell which. And he had no one to whom he could talk; not a friend in the whole regiment, for he was shy. That was why he was living alone in this cursed shanty, where the centipedes—-and snakes, too, sometimes—(but he was not afraid of them, or of any animal, thank Heaven) fell from the cloth ceiling; and the sparrows (poor devils! after all, they were only making their nests) dropped straws over one's letters. That one had made a blot, like a tear-mark, or was it indeed——?

He cursed again under his breath, and a rigid obstinacy came to his face.

Like his name, it was a good enough face, though curiously young even for his young age. The great height of his forehead, it is true, took away from its breadth, and the short-sighted blink of the eyes set so close upon the high, narrow nose, prevented their piercing clearness from being seen. On the lower part of his face hair had scarcely begun to show itself. All was callow, immature: yet the square chin showed stiff and strong enough.

There should, at least, be no suspicion of tear-marks, so he took a fresh sheet; and then the thought struck him. He would write two letters. One to the dear little mother who had devoted herself to him—him only—ever since he was born; the other to the woman who had spoiled him and his life, whose timidity had accentuated his birth-legacy of fear. It would do him good to have it out with himself and with Fate—not with her—no—never with her!

So this was what he wrote, and left lying on the table when an orderly came to summon him to the Colonel.

"Dear Mother,—It has come at last! I always knew it must come if you would make a soldier of me, just because my father was one! Why didn't you think? Why didn't you know? Poor mother! I'm sorry to write all this. How could you dream I have felt more or less a coward all my life when he was so brave?

"And then you made me worse, you know you did. I wasn't allowed to risk things like the other boys did, because I was your only one. Ah! I don't blame you, but it was rough on me. I should have made an excellent parson, I expect. And yet I'll be hanged—this mother darling isn't really for your eyes, if I can see what good I should have done if I had ordered that Sepoy under arrest. The men wouldn't have obeyed orders. I saw murder in their eyes. I've seen it for a long time, and I haven't dared to say so—haven't dared to warn those who should be warned, for fear of being thought a coward! Isn't that cowardice in itself? Oh, mother! mother! Well, it was very simple. A Sepoy was cheeky over these cartridges; actually threatened to shoot me if I ordered him under arrest, and—I—you see, I know a lot of their lingo and I understand—I was afraid to do what I ought to have done—chanced it. Of course, it doesn't read as bare as that in the adjutant's report, but I am under arrest. Not that it matters. It must have come sooner or later, for I'm a coward—that is what I am—a coward——"

The words, still wet, stared up into the baggy cloth ceiling, and the sparrows dropped straws over them while Ensign Hector Olive was being interviewed by his Colonel. He sat stolid, acquiescing in every word of blame; and yet he was obstinate.

"I don't see, sir, what good it would have done," he began drearily, when the Colonel stopped him with a high hand.

"Now, I won't have a word of that sort, Mr. Clive," he said severely. "There is enough of that silly talk amongst civilians, and I won't have it amongst the officers of my regiment. It is as good a regiment as any in India, and I'll stake——"

Here, feeling some lack of dignity in what be was about to say, he stood up, and the lad, standing up also, overtopped his senior by many inches. Something suggestive in his still lanky length seemed to strike the Colonel. "I'll tell you what it is, Clive, you live too much alone. You're altogether too—too—why! I don't believe you even had a cup of tea before you started. There! I was sure of it. Absolute suicide! How can you expect in this climate, and with a Colonel's wigging before you? Really too foolish! My wife shall give you one now; she's in the verandah with the boy, and—and—of course, I can't promise, but you—you shall have your chance if—if—possible."

The lad—for he was but that—murmured something unintelligible. Perhaps, to his dejected mind, another chance seemed to be but another opportunity of disgracing himself.

"How very shy he is!" thought the tall, slim woman who gave a cup of tea into his reluctant hand and sent Sonnie round to him with the toast and butter. "I must get you to give my small son a lesson, Mr. Clive," she said, smiling, trying to make conversation. "He was telling me all sorts of dreadful things he has heard—so he says—from Budlu, his bearer, and that he was frightened. And I told him a soldier's son never could be frightened at anything. Isn't that true?"

Ensign Hector Clive turned deadly pale. The child standing with the plate of toast and butter looked up at him confidently, as children look always where they feel there is sympathy.

"But you are frightened, aren't you?" he asked.

There was an instant's silence; then the answer came desperately true: "Yes! I am; but, then, I'm a coward—that's what I am, a coward!"

You might have heard a pin drop in the pause. Then something in the wise, gentle face of the Colonel's wife broke down the barriers.

"Ah! you don't know——" he began; and so with a rush it all came out.

The Colonel's wife sat quite still; she was accustomed to confidences, and even when they did not come voluntarily, she had the art of beguiling them. The art also of comforting the confider; and so, when the lad's face had gone into his hands with his last words, as he sat—his elbows on his knees—the picture of dejection, she just rose gently and came over with soft step to where he was. And she laid a soft hand on either of his lank, long-fingered ones and pulled them apart. So, standing, smiled down upon him brilliantly, confidently.

"I don't believe it!" she said. "I don't believe a word of it! You'll be brave, oh! so brave when your chance comes. Now, my dear, dear boy"—she looked at him as if he had been her son—"go away and forget all this nonsense. And see! Come back at dinner-time and tell me before dinner that you've obeyed orders and haven't even thought about it."

She stood and waved her hand at him as he rode away in the blare of sunlight. Her voice echoing through the hot, dry air reached him faintly as he turned out of her garden into the dust of the world beyond. "Till dinner-time—remember!"

Remember! The memory of those words came back to her idly as she sat clasping her baby to her breast, while Sonnie, wearied out with fear, slept in her lap, and her one disengaged hand busied itself in fanning a half-delirious man who lay on a string bed set in the close darkness. Dinner-time! Yes, it must be about dinner-time, for through a chink in the door you could see the sun flaring to his death in the West.

What had happened? She shuddered as she thought of it. What had come first of all the horrors of that long, hot May day? She could not piece it together. All that she knew was that someone had taken pity on the women and the children. And that they were all huddled together in that one room waiting till darkness should give a chance of escape; for the hut was built against an old ruin through which some underground passage gave upon ground not quite so sentry-warded as the barrack-square in front. She could hear the familiar words of command, the clank of arms as they changed guard, and she shuddered again. Aye! the women and children might be safe, even if the almost hopeless stratagem failed; but what of the man—her husband—the only one, so far as she knew, of all the officers of the regiment who had escaped that massacre on the parade-ground? How had he been saved? She scarcely knew. She remembered his running back like a hare—yes! he the bravest of men—all bleeding and fainting, to gasp some words of almost hopeless directions for her safety. And then old Imân Khan—yes! it had been he—faithful old servant! Why had she not remembered before? For there he was, his bald head bereft of its concealing turban, keeping watch and ward at the door.

What a ruffian he looked so—poor, faithful Imân Khan!

Hush! a voice from outside, a reply from the bald-headed watcher within. More questions, more replies, both growing in urgency in appeal. Then a pause and retreating footsteps.

"What is it, Imân Khan?" she questioned dully, as the old man stole over to her and laid his forehead in the dust.

"What this slave has feared—has waited for all the hours," he whispered whimperingly. "They know, Huzoor"—he pointed to the bed—"or, at least, they have suspicion that a man is here. And they must search; they will search, or kill. I have sent them away to await the Huzoor's decision."

She stood up, still clasping her babe, the boy slipping half-asleep to the ground, and looked round at those other women—those other children who had lost their all. And hers, lay here——

"They must come," she said in a muffled voice. Then she bent over her husband. "Will!" she whispered, bringing him back from confused, half-restful dreams, "the Sepoys say they must search or—or kill—all. We will hide you—if we can."

If we can! Was it possible? she wondered, feeling dead, dead at heart, as the door opened wide, letting in the sunlight and showing a group of tense womanhood, a bed whereon huddled up asleep or awake lay the children deftly disposed to hide all betraying contours.

"Huzoor! salaam!" said the tall suhahdar, drawing himself up to attention, and the search-party of four followed suit.

How long that minute seemed! How interminable the sunlight! Ah! would no one shut out the light, and why did Sonnie move his hand——?

"Huzoor! salaam!"

Oh! God in heaven! were they going? Was the door closing? Was the blessed darkness coming?

It was utter darkness as, her strength giving way, she fell on her knees beside the bed, burying her face upon her children, her husband.

"Will! Will!" she whispered.

A faint sigh came from the watching women. So Fate had been kind to her—her only.

One who had seen her husband shot down before her very eyes rose slowly, and taking her baby from the bed, moved away, rocking it in her arms almost fiercely. So in the grim intensity of those first seconds, the sound of further parley at the door escaped them.

Then, in the ensuing pause, old Imân Khan's bald head was in the dust once more; his voice, scarce audible, seemed to fill the room.

"Huzoor! They have seen. He must go forth, or they will kill—all!"

The words, half heard, seemed to rouse the wounded man to his manhood. He raised himself in bed, he staggered to his feet; so stood swaying unsteadily, yet still a man. "All right, I'll go; let me out, quick—quick!"

But someone stood between him and the door. It was Hector Clive. His face was pale as death, his hands twitched nervously, but in the semi-darkness his eyes blazed, his chin looked square and set.

"No, sir," he said quietly; "this is my chance. Look here! I ran and hid in the passage-way when the others died like men. I couldn't help it. Perhaps if they had had the chance I had—but that's nothing—nothing! I heard—I understand their lingo. They don't know you're here, sir—only a man—let me be a man—for once. It is my chance!"

His eyes sought the Colonel's wife in bitter appeal.

Swift as thought she answered it. Her hand was on her husband's shoulder to hold him back, for she saw in a flash what others might not see: a martyrdom of life, soul warring with frail flesh, for this boy.

"Let him go, Will," she whispered hoarsely. "As he says, it is his chance."

There was a faint stir amongst the listeners. The Colonel shook himself free from his wife's detaining hand. The code of conventional honour was his, in all its maddening lack of comprehension.

"Stand back, please; and you, Mr. Clive, obey orders—I—I——" He reeled and would have fallen but for the bed against which he sank. His wife was on her knees beside him.

"Let him go, Will. It is his chance; give it him, give it him!"

There was no answer. Unconsciousness had come to bring the silence which gives consent, and she stood up again, stepped to the lad, and laid her lips on his forehead.

"Thank you, dear; in the name of all these, thanks for a brave deed."

The blood surged up to his face. A boyish look of sheer triumph transfigured it as he paused for an instant to throw off his coat and tighten his waistband.

"I shall have my chance, too," he cried exultantly, "for I was always a runner at school!"

Aye! A good runner indeed! With the wild whoop of a schoolboy at play he was across the barrack-square untouched. Once over that low wall in front and he would be in cover. He rose to the leap lightly, and for an instant he showed in all the pathetic beauty of immature strength, all the promise of what might lie hidden in the future, against the red flare of the sunlit sky, against the glorious farewell which is true herald of the rising of another day. Then he threw his arms skywards and fell, shot through the heart.

He had had his chance!

Copyright, 1908, by Flora Annie Steel, in the United States of America.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1927.

The author died in 1929, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 92 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.