The Great Shadow/Chapter 14

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Chapter XIV: The Tally of Death[edit]

Day was breaking, and the first grey light had just begun to steal through the long thin slits in the walls of our barn, when someone shook me hard by the shoulder, and up I jumped. I had the thought in my stupid, sleepy brain that the cuirassiers were upon us, and I gripped hold of a halbert that was leaning against the wall; but then, as I saw the long lines of sleepers, I remembered where I was. But I can tell you that I stared when I saw that it was none other than Major Elliott that had roused me up. His face was very grave, and behind him stood two sergeants, with long slips of paper and pencils in their hands.

"Wake up laddie," said the major, quite in his old easy fashion, as if we were back on Corriemuir again.

"Yes, major?" I stammered.

I want you to come with me. I feel that I owe something to you two lads, for it was I that took you from your homes. Jim Horscroft is missing."

I gave a start at that, for what with the rush and the hunger and the weariness I had never given a thought to my friend since the time that he had rushed at the French Guards with the whole regiment at his heels.

"I am going out now to take a tally of our losses," said the major; "and if you cared to come with me, I should be very glad to have you."

So off we set, the major, the two sergeants, and I; and oh! but it was a dreadful, dreadful sight! -- so much so, that even now, after so many years, I had rather say as little of it as possible. It was bad to see in the heat of fight; but now in the cold morning, with no cheer or drum-tap or bugle blare, all the glory had gone out of it, and it was just one huge butcher's shop, where poor devils had been ripped and burst and smashed, as though we had tried to make a mock of God's image. There on the ground one could read every stage of yesterday's fight -- the dead footmen that lay in squares and the fringe of dead horsemen that had charged them, and above on the slope the dead gunners, who lay round their broken piece. The Guards' column had left a streak right up the field like the trail of a snail, and at the head of it the blue coats were lying heaped upon the red ones where that fierce tug had been before they took their backward step.

And the very first thing that I saw when I got there was Jim himself. He was lying on the broad of his back, his face turned up towards the sky, and all the passion and the trouble seemed to have passed clean away from him, so that he looked just like the old Jim as I had seen him in his cot a hundred times when we were schoolmates together. I had given a cry of grief at the sight of him; but when I came to look again upon his face, and to see how much happier he looked in death than I could ever have hoped to see him in life, it was hard to mourn for him. Two French bayonets had passed through his chest, and he had died in an instant, and without pain, if one could believe the smile upon his lips.

The major and I were raising his head in the hope that some flutter of life might remain, when I heard a well-remembered voice at my side, and there was de Lissac leaning upon his elbow among a litter of dead guardsmen. He had a great blue coat muffled round him, and the hat with the high red plume was lying on the ground beside him. He was very pale, and had dark blotches under his eyes, but otherwise he was as he had ever been, with the keen, hungry nose, the wiry moustache, and the close-cropped head thinning away to baldness upon the top. His eyelids had always drooped, but now one could hardly see the glint of his eyes from beneath them.

"Hola, Jock!" he cried. "I didn't thought to have seen you here, and yet I might have known it, too, when I saw friend Jim."

"It is you that has brought all this trouble," said I.

"Ta, ta, ta!" he cried, in his old impatient fashion. "It is all arranged for us. When I was in Spain I learned to believe in Fate. It is Fate which has sent you here this morning."

"This man's blood lies at your door," said I, with my hand on poor Jim's shoulder.

"And mine on his, so we have paid our debts."

He flung open his mantle as he spoke, and I saw with horror that a great black lump of clotted blood was hanging out of his side.

"This is my thirteenth and last," said he, with a smile. "They say that thirteen is an unlucky number. Could you spare me a drink from your flask?"

The major had some brandy and water. De Lissac supped it up eagerly. His eyes brightened, and a little fleck of colour came back in each of his haggard cheeks.

"It was Jim did this!" said he. "I heard someone calling my name, and there he was with his gun against my tunic. Two of my men cut him down just as he fired. Well, well, Edie was worth it all! You will be in Paris in less than a month, Jock, and you will see her. You will find her at No. 11 of the Rue Miromesnil, which is near to the Madelaine. Break it very gently to her, Jock, for you cannot think how she loved me. Tell her that all I have are in the two black trunks, and that Antoine has the keys. You will not forget?"

"I will remember."

"And madame, your mother? I trust that you have left her very well. And monsieur, too, your father? Bear them my distinguished regards!"

Even now as death closed in upon him he gave the old bow and wave as he sent his greetings to my mother.

"Surely," said I, "your wound may not be so serious as you think. I could bring the surgeon of our regiment to you!"

"My dear Jock, I have not been giving and taking wounds this fifteen years without knowing when one has come home. But it is as well, for I know that all is ended for my little man, and I had rather go with my Voltigeurs than remain to be an exile and a beggar. Besides, it is quite certain that the Allies would have shot me, so I have saved myself from that humiliation."

"The Allies, sir," said the major, with some heat, "would be guilty of no such barbarous action."

But de Lissac shook his head, with the same sad smile.

"You do not know, major," said he. "Do you suppose that I should have fled to Scotland and changed my name if I had not more to fear than my comrades who remained in Paris? I was anxious to live, for I was sure that my little man would come back. Now I had rather die, for he will never lead an army again. But I have done things that could not be forgiven. It was I that led the party which took and shot the Duc d'Enghien. It was I ---- Ah, mon Dieu! Edie, Edie, ma chèrie!"

He threw out both his hands, with all the fingers feeling and quivering in the air. Then he let them drop heavily in front of him, and his chin fell forward upon his chest. One of our sergeants laid him gently down, and the other stretched the big blue mantle over him; and so we left those two whom Fate had so strangely brought together, the Scotchman and the Frenchman, lying silently and peacefully within hand's touch of each other, upon the blood-soaked hillside near Hougoumont.