Boy's Love by John Strange Winter

PART I

It was towards the close of the afternoon of a warm June day that a short, sturdy, fair-haired boy, wearing a dark blue uniform with a touch of scarlet here and there about it, sat down at a long desk to write a letter. It was headed, "Duke of York's School, Chelsea, S.W.," and began, "My dear Mother."

When he had got thus far, the boy paused, leaned his elbow upon the desk, and rested his head upon his hand. And then after a minute the hand slipped downward, and rubbed something out of his eyes--something hard to get rid of, apparently--for presently one bright drop after another forced its way through his fingers and fell on to the desk beneath.

And yet, truth to tell, even those bright drops did not help to get rid of the something, the something which had a firm foothold in the heart below, making it swell till it was well-nigh to bursting. This was his letter:--

"My DEAR MOTHER,--This is my last day at school. To-morrow I am going to Warnecliffe to join the 25th Dragoons; they call them the Black Horse. I am very glad to leave school and be a soldier like my father, but,"--and here the blurred writing was an evidence of the trouble in the boy's heart--"but I don't like losing my chum. You know, he is Tom Boynton, and we have been chums for more than three years. He is orderly to the dispenser, and has leave to go out almost any time. I am very fond of him, and haven't any other chum, though he has another chum besides me. I think he likes me best. I do love him, mother; and I lay awake all last night crying. Tom cried, too, a little. He is going to the Scarlet Lancers, and I don't know when I shall see him any more. I wish we were going into the same regiment.

"I got your letter on my fourteenth birthday, the day before yesterday. Tom is seven months older than me. He would have left school before if he had not been orderly to the dispenser. We both got the V.G. Jack Green is going into my regiment. I shall come home when I get my furlough--and if Tom gets his at the same time, can I bring him too? Tom hasn't any father or mother at all. This is a very long letter. I hope you are very well.

"I am your affectionate son,

EDWARD PETRES."

He read the letter over, brushing his cuff across his eyes when he came to that part of the paper which showed traces of tears, and then he folded it and directed the envelope, after which he had finished. Then he got up, took his cap, and with the letter in his hand, went forlornly out of the large room.

When he had got rid of it, he went in search of his chum, Tom Boynton, whom he met just coming away from his last service as "Dispenser's Orderly" with a heaving chest and eyes almost as red and swollen as poor Ted's own.

Ted turned back with him and took hold of his arm.

"Taken your last physic out, Tom?" said he, with a gallant attempt at manly indifference to the dreaded parting of the morrow.

"Aye," returned Tom in a choking voice and with eyes carefully averted.

The dispenser had just bade him "good-bye," and had told him in wishing him "God speed" that he was very sorry to lose him, and would most likely have to wait a long time before he again had help as efficient; and then he had given him a tip of half-a-crown, and had shaken hands with him. So Tom's heart was quite as full as Ted's, and of the two, being the older and bigger and stronger, he was far the most anxious to hide the emotion he felt.

"Have you seen Jack?" he asked, giving his head a bit of a shake and crushing his trouble down right bravely.

"Jack Green?" asked Ted shortly. He was not a little jealous of Jack Green, who was his chum's other chum.

"Aye! Where is he?"

"I haven't seen him--not all the afternoon," returned Ted curtly.

"I'll go and find him," said Tom, disengaging his arm from Ted's close grasp.

The two lads parted then, for Tom swung away in the direction of the playground, leaving Ted staring blankly after him; and there he stood for full five minutes, until, his eyes blinded with pain, he could see no longer, and then he turned away and hid his face upon his arm against a friendly sheltering wall.

But by-and-by his jealousy of Jack Green began to wear away. Perhaps, after all, he argued, Tom only wanted to hide his trouble. Tom was a big lad, and was even more ashamed than Ted of being betrayed into weeping and such-like exhibitions of weakness. So, by the time they turned in for the night--the last night--Ted had forgotten the pain of the afternoon.

"Tom," said he, going over to his chum's bed, which was next to his, "Tom, I've come to talk to you."

"Yes," whispered Tom in reply. The lights were all out then, and most of the boys were fast asleep, so big Tom drew his chum's head down to his, and put his arm round his neck.

"It's the last night, Tom," said Ted in a strangled voice.

"Yes," said Tom, in a whisper.

"We've been chums for three years and more," Ted went on, "and we've never been out of friends yet. P'raps I shall get an exchange to your reg'ment yet."

"Or me to yours," answered Tom eagerly.

"I shan't have no chum now," Ted went on, taking no notice of Tom's words.

"You'll have Jack Green," said Tom.

"Yes, there'll be Jack Green, but he ain't you," Ted answered mournfully. "He'll never be my chum like you was, Tom; but if ever I've a chance of doing him a good turn, I will, 'cause you liked him."

"Will you, Ted?" eagerly.

"Yes, I will," answered Ted steadily. "And, Tom, it's our last time together to-night--we mayn't ever get together again."

"I know," sighed Tom.

"I wish," Ted said hesitatingly--"oh, Tom," with a sorrowful catch in his voice and a great gulp in his throat, "I--I--do wish you'd kiss me--just once."

And so Tom Boynton put his other arm around his chum's neck, and the two lads, who had been friends for three years, held one another for a minute in a close embrace; an instant later Ted Petres tore himself away and sprang into his bed, dragging the clothes over his head, and burying his face in the pillow in a vain attempt to stifle his sobs. And before another day had gone over their heads they had parted, to meet again--when--and where?

PART II

Seven years had gone by. A fierce and scorching sun shone down with glaring radiance upon long stretches of arid and sandy country, covered sparsely with coarse rank grass and brushwood--the country which is called the Soudan; the country where so many brilliant lives ended, sacrificed in the cause of a crusade as hopeless as the crusade of the children--who sought to win Heaven with glory where the flower of the nations had failed--sacrificed to the death in the too late attempt to succour a gallant soldier, the noble victim of an ignoble policy.

And between the brilliant glaring sky and the sun-scorched arid earth, there hung a heavy cloud of gunpowder smoke while the flower of two races fought desperately for conquest. In the midst a square of British troops, with set white faces and sternly compressed lips, with watchful eyes well on the alert, and in each brave heart the knowledge that the fight was for life or death. And on all hands swarms of stalwart Soudanese, reckless of life and counting death their chiefest gain, shouting on Allah and the prophet to aid them, and dying happy in the certain faith of entering paradise if but one Christian dog should fall to their hand.

Oh, what a scene it was! Only a handful of men at bay, while mass after mass of the enemy came down upon them like the waves of the incoming tide upon the sea shore; and as at times a rock-bound coast gives way and falls before the encroaching advances of the ocean, so that ill-fated square gave way before the overwhelming numbers of the soldiers of the Prophet, and in a moment all chance for our men seemed over.

Ay; but the British lion can up and fight again after he has had a roll over which would crush the life out of most of his foes. And so that day, by sheer hard desperate fighting, the square closed up and was formed again, and of all the enemy who had dashed into the midst of it, not one lived to tell the tale.

But, oh! what though the enemy fell half a score to one? How many a brave life was laid down that day, and how many a bullet had found its billet was proved by the shrieks of agony which rose and rang above all the tumult of the fight.

It happened that our old friend, Ted Petres, no longer a short and sturdy boy but a fine-grown young fellow of one-and-twenty now, found himself not very far from the place where the square had been broken--found himself fighting hard to win the day and check the mad on-rush of the sons of the Prophet. As the ranks closed up once more, he, as did most others who were in the rear, turned his attention to the seething mass of blacks thus trapped, and to his horror saw his comrade, Jack Green, down on his knees, striking wildly here and there against the attacks of three Soudanese. Quick as thought--the thought that this was the first time he had ever had a chance of fulfilling his last promise to his boy's love, Tom--Ted flew to his aid, sent one shouting gentleman to paradise, and neatly disabled the right arm of a second just as the third put his spear through poor Jack's lungs.

To cleave him to the teeth was but the work of a moment, and Ted Petres accomplished it before the follower of the Prophet had time to withdraw his spear! but, alas! poor Jack's life was welling out of him faster than the sands run out of a broken hour-glass! It was no use to lift him up and look round for help; Jack Green had seen his last service, and Ted knew it. But he did his best for him in those last moments, and help came in the person of one of their officers, one D'Arcy de Bolingbroke who, though badly wounded in the arm himself, was yet able to lend a hand.

"Petres, you're a splendid fellow," he exclaimed. "I shall recommend you if we live to get out of this. You ought to get the Cross for this."

"Thank you, sir," returned Ted gratefully.

And then between them they managed to get the poor fellow to the doctors, who were hard at work behind a poor shelter of wagons and store-cases. But it was too late, for when they laid him down Jack Green was dead and at ease for ever.

One of the hospital orderlies turned from a case at hand, and Ted uttered a cry of surprise at the sight of him. "Why, Tom!" he cried, starting up to take his hand, "I didn't even know you were with us."

There was no answering gleam of pleasure on Tom Boynton's face; he stared at Ted, stared at the face of the dead man lying at their feet, then dropped upon his knees beside him. "Oh, Jack, Jack, speak to me," he cried imploringly.

"It's too late, Tom," said Ted, bending down. "I did my best, but it was too late, old man. I did my best."

Tom Boynton looked up in his old chum's face. "You let him die?" he asked.

"We were three to one," returned the other humbly.

"You did your best, and you let him die," repeated Tom blankly. "And he was my chum," he added miserably.

"Tom," cried Ted passionately, "I was your chum too."

"You!" with infinite scorn; then bending down he kissed the dead face tenderly.

Ted Petres turned away, blind with pain. He might have won the Cross, but he had lost his friend--the friend who had loved him less than that other chum of whom he had not the heart now to feel jealous.

And that was how they met again--that was the end of Tom Petres' boy's love.