'It's infernally awkward: my position is infernally embarrassing,' said he.
'Well,' said I, 'and what do you think of mine?'
This seemed to pose him entirely, and he remained gazing upon me with a convincing air of youth and innocence. I could have laughed, but I was not so inhumane.
'I am in your hands,' said I, with a little gesture. 'You must do with me what you think right.'
'Ah, yes!' he cried: 'if I knew!'
'You see,' said I, 'it would be different if you had received your commission. Properly speaking, you are not yet a combatant; I have ceased to be one; and I think it arguable that we are just in the position of one ordinary gentleman to another, where friendship usually comes before the law. Observe, I only say ARGUABLE. For God's sake, don't think I wish to dictate an opinion. These are the sort of nasty little businesses, inseparable from war, which every gentleman must decide for himself. If I were in your place-- '
'Ay, what would you do, then?' says he.
'Upon my word, I do not know,' said I. 'Hesitate, as you are doing, I believe.'
'I will tell you,' he said. 'I have a kinsman, and it is what HE would think, that I am thinking. It is General Graham of Lynedoch- -Sir Thomas Graham. I scarcely know him, but I believe I admire him more than I do God.'
'I admire him a good deal myself,' said I, 'and have good reason to. I have fought with him, been beaten, and run away. Veni, victus sum, evasi.'
'What!' he cried. 'You were at Barossa?'
'There and back, which many could not say,' said I. 'It was a pretty affair and a hot one, and the Spaniards behaved abominably, as they usually did in a pitched field; the Marshal Duke of Belluno made a fool of himself, and not for the first time; and your friend Sir Thomas had the best of it, so far as there was any best. He is a brave and ready officer.'
'Now, then, you will understand!' said the boy. 'I wish to please Sir Thomas: what would he do?'
'Well, I can tell you a story,' said I, 'a true one too, and about this very combat of Chiclana, or Barossa as you call it. I was in the Eighth of the Line; we lost the eagle of the First Battalion, more betoken, but it cost you dear. Well, we had repulsed more charges than I care to count, when your 87th Regiment came on at a foot's pace, very slow but very steady; in front of them a mounted officer, his hat in his hand, white-haired, and talking very quietly to the battalions. Our Major, Vigo-Roussillon, set spurs to his horse and galloped out to sabre him, but seeing him an old man, very handsome, and as composed as if he were in a coffee- house, lost heart and galloped back again. Only, you see, they had been very close together for the moment, and looked each other in the eyes. Soon after the Major was wounded, taken prisoner, and carried into Cadiz. One fine day they announced to him the visit of the General, Sir Thomas Graham. "Well, sir," said the General, taking him by the hand, "I think we were face to face upon the field." It was the white-haired officer!'
'Ah!' cried the boy,--his eyes were burning.
'Well, and here is the point,' I continued. 'Sir Thomas fed the Major from his own table from that day, and served him with six covers.'
'Yes, it is a beautiful--a beautiful story,' said Ronald. 'And yet somehow it is not the same--is it?'
'I admit it freely,' said I.
The boy stood awhile brooding. 'Well, I take my risk of it,' he cried. 'I believe it's treason to my sovereign--I believe there is an infamous punishment for such a crime--and yet I'm hanged if I can give you up'
I was as much moved as he. 'I could almost beg you to do otherwise,' I said. 'I was a brute to come to you, a brute and a coward. You are a noble enemy; you will make a noble soldier.' And with rather a happy idea of a compliment for this warlike youth, I stood up straight and gave him the salute.
He was for a moment confused; his face flushed. 'Well, well, I must be getting you something to eat, but it will not be for six,' he added, with a smile: 'only what we can get smuggled out.