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   Chapter 14 HALF A LEAGUE ONWARD

A Court of Inquiry By Grace S. Richmond Characters: 22113

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


The Rev. Arthur Thorndyke stirred at his desk with a vague impatience on account of a little droning sound which had been bothering him for the last ten minutes without his realizing what it was. He recognized at last that it was the boy David, in the alcove, where he had asked to be allowed to stay, promising not to bother Uncle Arthur with his work. For Uncle Arthur was very busy with his Memorial Day address. At least he was struggling desperately to be very busy with it, although so far he had succeeded only in spoiling half a dozen sheets of paper with as many inadequate introductions.

"For you see, Major," Arthur Thorndyke had explained to the boy, when he had come tap-tapping on his crutches into his uncle's study that morning, "this is such very new business to me. I'm having a pretty hard time trying to think of anything good and fine enough to say to the men in blue-and gray-and brown, for we have all sorts here, you know."

It was true that Uncle Arthur was a very boyish-looking uncle; but he was tall and big, and he had been preaching for a year now, and David thought that he preached very good sermons indeed. Besides, he had been in the Spanish War, one of the youngest privates in Uncle Stephen's company, and he ought to know all about it, even though he had really been in very few engagements.

"I guess you can do it, Uncle Arthur," said David comfortingly. "And I'll keep very still in the alcove. I would play somewhere else, only, you see, it's the only window that looks out over the square, and my playing is out there."

Uncle Arthur had not taken time to ask him what he meant, but afterward, when the little droning sound had begun to annoy him, he found out. He peeped in between the curtains of the alcove, and saw at once what was out in the square. It was the major's "regiment." To other people the square might have seemed to be a very quiet place, full of trees and May sunshine, with a few babies and nurses and placid pedestrians as its only occupants. But Uncle Arthur perceived at once, from the aspect of the major, that it was a place of wild carnage, of desperate assault, of the clash and shock of arms.

The major stood erect, supported by one crutch. The other crutch was being waved in the air, as by one who orders on a mass of fighting men. From the major's lips issued the subdued but passionate words:

"Flash'd all their sabres bare,

Flash'd as they turned in air

Sabring th' gunners there,

Charging an army, while

All th' world wonder'd:

Plunged in th' batt'ry-smoke

Right through th' line they broke;

Cossack an' Russian

Reeled from th' sabre-stroke

Scatter'd an' shunder'd.

Then they rode back, but not--"

The boy's voice wavered. Uncle Arthur saw him put up a thin hand and wipe his white little brow. Major David's plays were always intensely real to him.

"Not-the six hundred," he murmured, and sank down on the window-seat, gazing mournfully out over the square. But in a moment he was up again.

"Cannon to right of 'em," he began again, sternly. "Cannon to left of 'em--"

Uncle Arthur crept away without bidding him remember his promise. What is a Memorial Day address beside the charge of a Light Brigade?

It was only two days after this that David's mother summoned David's four uncles to a conference. David had no father. There was a granite boulder up in the cemetery which ever since David was four years old-he was ten now-had been draped once a year with a beautiful silken flag. All the Thorndyke men had been soldiers, and David's father had died at the front, where the Thorndyke men usually died. It was a matter of great pride to David every year-that silken flag.

David's four uncles were all soldiers-in a way. There was Uncle Chester; he had been breveted colonel at the close of the Civil War, and Colonel Thorndyke he was-against his will-always called still. Next came Uncle Stephen; he was a captain of artillery in the regular army, and had lately come home on a furlough, after three years' service in the Philippines. Then there was Uncle Stuart, just getting strong after an attack of typhoid fever. In a week he would be back at West Point, where he was a first classman and a cadet lieutenant. As for Uncle Arthur, David always regretted deeply that he was no longer in either volunteer or regular army, although he took some comfort from the fact that Uncle Arthur sometimes told him that he had never felt more like a soldier than he did now.

It was a hasty and a serious conference, this to which Mrs. Roger Thorndyke had summoned her dead husband's three brothers and his uncle. She felt the need of all their counsel, for she had a grave question to settle. She was a young woman with a sweet decisiveness of character all her own, yet when a woman has four men upon whom she can call for wisdom to support her own judgment, she would be an unwise person to ignore that fact.

"It's just this," she told them, when she had closed the door of Arthur's study, where they had assembled. "You know how long we've been hoping something could be done for David, and how you've all insisted that when Doctor Wendell should decide he was strong enough for the operation on the hip-joint we must have it. Well, he says a great English surgeon, Sir Edmund Barrister, will be here for just two days. He comes to see the little Woodbridge girl, and to operate on her if he thinks it best. And Doctor Wendell urges upon me that-it's my chance."

She had spoken quietly, but her face paled a little as she ended. Her youngest brother-in-law, Stuart, the cadet, himself but lately out of hospital, was first to speak.

"When does he come?"

"To-morrow."

"Great guns! The little chap's close up to it! Does he know?"

"Oh, no! I wouldn't tell him till it was all arranged. Indeed, I wasn't sure whether--"

"You'd better tell him at all? Oh, yes, you will, Helen; the major mustn't stand up to be fired at blindfold." This was from Captain Stephen, the only one of the four now in active service.

"You all think it's best to have it done?"

"Why, it's as Wendell says: now's the chance to have the best man in that line. You can rest assured the Woodbridges would never stop at anything short of the finest. Besides, the Englishman's reputation is international. Of course it must be done." This was Stuart again. The cadet lieutenant had already acquired the tone of command-he was an excellent cadet lieutenant.

But Mrs. Thorndyke looked past Stuart at her Uncle Chester, Colonel Thorndyke, Civil War veteran. It was upon his opinion that she most relied. He nodded at her.

"He's right, Nell," he said. "It's our chance. The boy seems to me in as good condition for it as he'll ever be." He spoke very gently, for to his mind, as to them all, rose the vision of a delicate little face and figure, frail with the frailty of the child who has been for six years a cripple.

So it was decided, with few words, that the great surgeon should see David upon the morrow, to operate upon him at once if he thought wise, as the local surgeon, Doctor Wendell, was confident he would. Then arose another question: Who should tell David?

"Somehow I think," said Mrs. Thorndyke, looking from one to another of the four who surrounded her, "it would be easier for him from one of you. He thinks so much of your being soldiers. You know he's always playing he's a soldier, and if-if one of you could put it to him-in a sort of military way--"

She stopped, for this time her lips were really trembling. They looked at one another, the four men, and there was not a volunteer for the task. After a minute, however, Arthur, lifting his eyes from the rug which he had been intently studying, found the others were all facing him.

"You're the one," said Captain Stephen Thorndyke.

"I think you are," agreed Colonel Chester Thorndyke.

"It's up to you, Art," declared Cadet Lieutenant Thorndyke, with his usual decision of manner.

So, although Arthur protested that he was not as fit for the mission as any of the others, they would not let him off.

"You're the one he swears by," Stephen said, and Stuart added:

"Put on your old khaki clothes, Art; that'll tickle the major so he won't mind what you tell him."

It was a suggestion which appealed to the young clergyman as he lay awake that night, thinking how he should tell the boy in the morning. It seemed to him somehow that it would take the edge off the thing if he could meet David in the old uniform which the child was always begging to see.

Just before he fell asleep he thought of his Memorial Day address. Since the morning, day before yesterday, when David's play had interrupted his first futile efforts at it, he had found no time to work on it. He had had a wedding and two funerals to attend, besides having to look after the preparation for his Sunday services. The following Saturday would be Memorial Day. Meanwhile-there was David.

The next morning Mrs. Thorndyke, on her way to Arthur's study to tell him that the doctor had telephoned that he would bring the English surgeon to the house at eleven o'clock for the preliminary examination, ran into a tall figure in a khaki uniform, a battered slouch hat in his hand.

"Why, Arthur!" she cried, then added quickly: "Oh, my dear, that's just what will please him! I'm so glad it's you who are to tell him-you'll know how."

"I don't know how," said her brother, and she saw that his eyes were heavy. "But I expect the Commander-in-Chief will show me how." And with these words he went into his study and closed the door for a moment before David should come, in order that he might get his instructions from headquarters.

When the boy came in on his crutches, he found a soldierly figure awaiting him. He saluted, and the tall corporal returned the salute. The deep eyes of the man met the clear, bright ones of the child, and the corporal said to the major:

"I am ordered to report to you, sir, that the enemy is encamped on the opposite shore, and is preparing to attack."

Half an hour afterward Mrs. Thorndyke came anxiously to the door of the study. Hearing cheerful voices within, she knocked, and was bidden to enter.

Her first glance was at little David's face. To her surprise, she saw there neither fear nor nervousness, only an excited shining of the eyes and an unusual flushing of the cheeks. The boy rose to meet her.

"I'm ready, mammy," he announced in his childish treble. "Uncle Arthur says I've got a chance to prove I'm a soldier's son and a Thorndyke, and I'm going to do it. The enemy's encamped over in the hospital, and I'm going to move on his works to-day. I'm going over with my staff. This is Corporal Thorndyke, and Colonel Chester Thorndyke and Captain Stephen Thorndyke and Lieutenant Stuart Thorndyke are my staff. And the corporal has promised that they'll go with me in uniform. I'm going to wear my uniform, too-may I?"

The oddness of the question, made in a tone which dropped sudden

ly and significantly from the proud address of the officer to the humble request of the subaltern, brought a very tender smile to Mrs. Thorndyke's lips, as she gave her brother a grateful glance. "Yes," she said, "I think you certainly ought to wear your uniform. I'll get it ready."

"I may be taken prisoner over there," the little soldier pursued, "but if I do, Uncle Ar-the corporal says that's the fortunes of war, and I must take it as it comes."

Downstairs, presently, David, under a flag of truce, met the opposing general and his staff. The bluff-looking Englishman with the kind manner made an excellent general, David thought.

They detained him only a half-hour, but when he left them it was with the understanding that his army should move forward at once and attack upon the morrow. It seemed a bit unusual, not to say unmilitary, to David, to arrange such matters so thoroughly with the enemy, but his corporal assured him that under certain conditions the thing was done.

There being no other part of the "Charge" that would fit, David said over to himself a great many times on the way to the hospital the opening lines:

"Half a league, half a league,

Half a league onward.

All in th' valley of Death

Rode th' six hundred...."

As he went up the hospital steps, tap-tapping on his crutches because he would not let anybody carry him, the situation seemed to him much better. He stopped upon the top step, balanced himself upon one crutch, and waved the other at his staff-and at the "Six Hundred," pressing on behind.

"Forward, th' Light Brigade!

'Charge for th' guns!' he said...."

"What's the little chap saying?" Uncle Chester murmured into the ear of Uncle Arthur, as the small figure hurried on.

"He's living out 'The Charge of the Light Brigade,'" Arthur answered, and there was no smile on his lips. Uncle Chester swallowed something in his throat.

It may have been a common thing for the hospital nurses and doctors to see a patient in military clothes arrive accompanied by four other military figures-the uniforms a little mixed; but if they were surprised they gave no sign. The nurse who put David to bed wore a Red Cross badge on her sleeve-hastily constructed by Doctor Wendell. This badge David regarded with delight.

"Why, you're a real army nurse, aren't you?" he asked happily.

"Of course. They are the kind to take care of soldiers," she returned. And after that there was a special bond between them.

When they had finished with David that night he was rather glad to have Corporal Thorndyke say to him that there was a brief cessation of hostilities, and that the men were to have the chance for a few hours' sleep.

"But you'll stay by, won't you, Corporal?" requested the major sleepily.

"Certainly, sir," responded the corporal, saluting. "I'll be right here all night."

The corporal at this point was so unmilitary as to bend over and kiss him; but as this was immediately followed by a series of caresses from his mother, the major thought it best not to mind. Indeed, it was very comforting, and he might have missed it if it had not happened, even though he was supposed to be in the field and sleeping upon his arms.

The next morning things happened rather rapidly.

"No rations, Major," said the Red Cross nurse, when he inquired for his breakfast.

"Commissary department left far to the rear," explained the corporal, with his salute; and of course there was nothing more to be said, although it did seem a little hard to face "the jaws of death" with no food to hearten one.

A number of things were done to David. Then Doctor Wendell came in and sat down by the high white bed, and, with a reassuring smile at his patient, gave him a few brief directions. The corporal took David's hand in his, and held it with the tight grip of the comrade who means to stand by to the last ditch.

"Forward, th' Light Brigade!

Was 'ere a man dismay'd?

Not though the soldier knew

Some 'un had blunder'd...."

"God forbid!" murmured the corporal, as the words trailed slowly out into the air from under Doctor Wendell's hand.

"Theirs not to make reply-

Theirs-not to-reason-why-

Theirs-but-to-do-an'-die--"

The corporal set his teeth. Presently he looked across the bed and met the eyes of the major's mother. "So far, so good," he said, nodding to her, as the small hand in his relaxed its hold.

"Talk about sheer pluck!" growled Captain Stephen Thorndyke, in the waiting-room, where he and Colonel Chester and Cadet Stuart were marching up and down during the period of suspense.

"It's that 'Charge of the Light Brigade' that floors me," said Stuart. "If the youngster'd just whimper a little; but to go under whispering, 'Theirs not to make reply--'" He choked, and frankly drew his gray sleeve across his eyes.

"It's the Thorndyke spirit," said Colonel Chester proudly. "He's Roger's boy, all right."

There were two or three doubtful bulletins. Then Arthur brought them the good news that the major had been brought back from the firing-line and was rallying bravely.

"But will he pull through? These successful operations don't always end successfully," said Stuart, as he and Arthur paced down the corridor together.

"That's what we've got to wait and hope and pray for," answered Arthur. "It's the 'stormed at with shot and shell' the major'd be reciting now, if he could do anything but shut his lips together and try to bear the pain. It'll be five or six days, they say, before we can call him out of danger. Hip-joint disease of Davy's form isn't cured by anything short of this grave operation, and it's taking a good many chances, of course, in the little chap's delicate condition. But-we've all his own staunch courage on our side-and somehow, well-Stuart, I've got to preach to-morrow. And next week-that Memorial address! How do you suppose I'm going to do it? The major wants me on hospital duty every hour between now and then."

That Memorial Day address! How was a distraught young clergyman to think of material for such an address when he was held captive at the bedside of a little soldier fighting for his life?

It was the fourth day before anxiety began to lessen its grip; the fifth, the sixth, before Doctor Wendell would begin to speak confidently. Through it all the words of the "Charge" beat in Arthur Thorndyke's brain till it seemed to him that if David died he should never hear anything else. For they were constantly on the boy's lips.

Finally, on the morning of Saturday, Arthur said to David: "Major, this is the day for you to say the last lines. You know this afternoon the 'Six Hundred' are going by. You'll hear the band play, and Uncle Chester and Uncle Stephen will be marching in the ranks. Stuart and I will be there, too, somewhere, and I think if we can just prop you up a little bit you'll be able to see at least the heads of the men. And you can salute, you know, even if they can't see you."

"After the procession are you going to speak to them?" asked David.

Arthur smiled. "After some sort of fashion I'm going to open my mouth," he said. "I hardly know myself what will come out. All I do know is, I never had quite so much respect for the courage that faces the cannon's mouth as now. And it's you, Major, who are the pluckiest soldier I know."

He smiled down at the white little face, its great gray eyes staring up at him.

"Uncle Arthur-but-but-I wasn't plucky-all the time. Sometimes-it hurt so I-had to cry."

The words were a whisper, but Uncle Arthur still smiled. "That doesn't count, Major," he said. "Now I must go. Watch for the band."

Away in the distance, by and by, came the music. As it approached, mingled with it David could hear the sound of marching feet. His mother and the Red Cross nurse propped his head up a very little, so that he could see into the street. Louder and louder grew the strains, then stopped; the drums beat.

"Oh, they're not going to play as they go by!" cried David, disappointed.

The tramp of the marching feet came nearer. Suddenly the band burst with a crash into the "Star-Spangled Banner." David's eyes shone with delight.

"They're halting in front of us, David," said the nurse. So they were; David could see them.

The music reached the end of the tune and stopped. A shout broke upon the air; it was a cheer. It took words, and swelled into David's room; but it was a gentle cheer, not a vociferous one. It was given by Lieutenant Roger Thorndyke's old company. And the words of it were wonderful:

"'Rah, 'rah, 'rah-comrade!"

David lay back on his pillow, his face shining with happiness. He would never forget that those soldiers of his father's regiment, the --th New York, had called him comrade. He thought of them tenderly; he murmured the closing words of the "Charge," and by them he meant the men who had stood outside his window and cheered:

"When can their glory fade?

O th' wild charge they made!

All th' world wonder'd.

Honour th' charge they made!

Honour th' Light Brigade,

Noble six hundred!"

An hour afterward they came in together, his four Thorndyke soldiers, in their uniforms-all but Uncle Arthur, who, because he was a clergyman, and had had to make a speech, had felt obliged to put on a frock coat.

"Here's the fellow who's been worrying over his Memorial Day address!" cried Uncle Stephen proudly.

"It was a rousing good one," declared Stuart.

"Never heard a better," agreed Uncle Chester. "He's gone 'half a league onward,' if the rest of us have stood still."

Uncle Arthur came round, his face rather red, and sat down beside David.

"Don't you believe them, Major," he said softly. "I could have done it much better if I could have worn my corporal's uniform."

THE END

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* * *

A COURT OF INQUIRY

BY GRACE S. RICHMOND.

This is a charming story of a group of girl and men friends and the effect of their pairing off upon the narrator and her "Philosopher." Althea, Azalea, Camellia, Dahlia, Hepatica-and their several entanglements with the Promoter, the Cashier, the Skeptic, the Judge and the Professor, form an admirable background of diverse personalities against which grows the main love story. One sees these charming groups through the eyes of the one who tells the tale-and very shrewd and delightful eyes they are, seeing life in its true perspective with much real philosophy and true feeling. Mrs. Richmond has never written anything more fresh and human and entertaining.

* * *

ALSO BY THE SAME AUTHOR:

Red Pepper Burns.

Mrs. Red Pepper.

The Indifference of Juliet.

Round the Corner in Gay Street.

With Juliet in England.

Strawberry Acres.

The Second Violin.

* * *

A. L. BURT COMPANY

Publishers,-New York

* * *

Transcriber's notes:

"Where-ever" on page 78 has been changed to "Wherever" to be consistent

with the spelling in the rest of the text.

"everbody" on page 96 has been change to "everybody".

* * *

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