Halt! by John Strange Winter
"Halt! Who goes there?" cried a man's
voice through the thick gloom of the dark night.
There was no answer save silence; and, after
listening for a moment, Private Flinders turned, and
began to tramp once more along the ten paces which
extended from his sentry-box. "I could have sworn
I heard a footstep," he said to himself. "It's curious
how one's ears deceive one on a night like this."
Ten paces one way, ten paces the other; turn,
and back again, and begin your ten paces over
again. Yes, it is monotonous, there is no doubt
of that; but it is the bounden duty of a sentry,
unless he happens to prefer standing still in his
box, getting stiff and chill, and perhaps running
the risk of being caught asleep at his post--no
light offence in a barrack, I can tell you. Ten paces
one way, ten paces the other--a rustling, a mere
movement, such as would scarcely have attracted
the attention of most people, but which caught
Private Flinders' sharp ears, and brought him up
to a standstill again in an attitude of strict
"Halt! Who goes there?" he cried again, and
listened once more. Again silence met him, and
again he stood, alert and suspicious, waiting for
the reply, "Friend."
"By Gum, this is queer," he thought, as he stood
listening. "I'll search to the bottom of it though.
I daresay it's only some of the chaps getting at
me; but I'll be even with 'em, if it is."
He groped about in rather an aimless sort of
way, for the night was black as pitch; and his eyes,
though they had grown used to the inky want of
light, could distinguish nothing of his surroundings.
"Now, where are you, you beggar?" he remarked,
beginning to lose his habitual serenity, and laying
about him with his carbine. After a stroke or
two the weapon touched something, though not
heavily, and a howl followed--a howl which was
unmistakably that of a small child. It conveyed
both fear and bodily pain. Private Flinders followed
up the howl by feeling cautiously in the part whence
the sounds had come. His hand closed upon something
soft and shrinking, and the howls were redoubled.
"Hollo! what the deuce are you?" he exclaimed,
drawing the shrieking captive nearer to him. "Why,
I'm blessed if it ain't a kid--and a girl, too. Well,
I'm blowed! And where did you happen to come from?"
The howl by this time had developed into a faint
sniffing, for Private Flinders' voice was neither harsh
nor forbidding. But the creature did not venture
"Where did you come from, and what are you
doing here?" he asked. "Do you belong to the
barricks, and has your mammy been wollopping
of you? Or did you stray in from outside?"
"Lost my mammy," the small creature burst out,
finding that she was expected to say something.
"What's your mammy's name?" Flinders asked.
"Mammy, of course," was the reply.
"And what's your name?"
"Susy. Aye, but Susy what?"
"Susy," repeated the little person, beginning to
"Where do you live?"
"At home," said Susy, in an insulted tone, as if
all these questions were quite superfluous.
"Well! blest if I know what to do with you,"
said Flinders, pushing his busby on one side, and
scratching his head vigorously. "I don't believe
you belong to the barricks--your speech haven't
got the twang of it. And if you've strayed in from
outside, Gord knows what 'll become of you. Certain
it is that you won't be let to stop here."
"Susy so cold," whimpered the mite pitifully.
"I should think you was cold," returned Private
Flinders sympathetically. "I'm none too warm
myself; and the fog seems to fair eat into one's
bones. Well, little 'un, I can't carry you back to
where you came from, that's very certain. I can't
even take you round to the guard-room. Now,
what the deuce am I to do with you? And I
shan't be relieved for over a hour."
Private Flinders being one of the most good-natured
men in creation, it ended by his gathering
the child in his arms, and carrying her up and down
on his beat until the relief came.
"Why, what's the meaning of this?" demanded
the corporal of the guard, when he perceived the
unusual encumbrance to the private's movements.
"Ah! Corporal, that's more than I can tell you,"
responded the other promptly. "This here kid
toddled along over a hour ago; and as she don't
seem to know what her name is, or where she come
from, I just walked about with her, that she mightn't
be froze to death. I suppose we'd best carry her
to the guard-room fire, and keep her warm till
"And then?" asked the corporal, with a twinkle
in his eye, which the dark night effectually hid.
"Gord knows," was the private's quick reply.
Eventually, the mite who rejoiced in the name
of Susy, and did not know whence she had come
or whither she was going, was carried off to the
guard-room and made as comfortable as circumstances
would permit--that being the only course,
indeed, at that hour of the night, or, to be quite
correct, of the morning--which could with reason
She slept, as healthy children do, like a top or
dog, and when she awoke in the morning she
expressed no fear or very much surprise, and, having
enquired in a casual kind of way for her mammy,
she partook of a very good breakfast of bread and
milk, followed by a drink of coffee and a taste or
two of such other provisions as were going round.
Later on Private Flinders was sent for to the
orderly-room, and told to give the commanding officer such
information as he was in possession of concerning the
stray mite, who was still in the warm guard-room.
Now it happened that the commanding officer
of the 9th Hussars was a gentleman to whom
routine was a religion and discipline a salvation,
and he expressed himself sharply enough as to
the only course which could possibly be pursued
under the present circumstances.
"We had better send down to the workhouse
people to come and remove the child at once.
Otherwise, we may have endless trouble with the
mother; and, moreover, if it once got about that
these barracks were open to that kind of thing,
the regiment would soon be turned into a regular
foundling hospital. Let the workhouse people be
sent for at once. What did you say, Mr. Jervis?
That the child might be quartered for a few hours
among the married people. Yes, I daresay, but if
the mother is on the look-out, which is very doubtful,
she is more likely to go to the police-station than
she is to come here. As to any stigma, the mother
should have borne that in mind when she lost the
child. On second thoughts, I think it is to the
police-station that we should send; yes, that will
be quite the best thing to do."
A few hours later the child Susy was transferred
from the guard-room to the police-station, and
there she made herself equally at home, only asking
occasionally, in a perfunctory kind of way, for
"Mammy," and being quite easily satisfied when
she was told that she would be coming along by-and-by.
During the few hours that she was at the
police-station she became quite a favourite, and made
friends with all the stalwart constables, just as
she had done with one and all of the strapping
Hussars at the cavalry barracks. She was not
shy, for she answered the magistrate in quite a
friendly way, though she gave no information as
to her belongings, simply because she had no
information to give. And the end was that she
was condemned to the workhouse, and was carried
off to that undesirable haven as soon as the
interview with the magistrate was over.
"A blooming shame, I call it, poor little kid,"
said Private Flinders that evening to a group of
his friends, in the comfortable safety of the
troop-room. "She was a jolly little lass; and if I'd
been a married man, I'd have kept her myself,
dashed if I wouldn't!"
"Perhaps your missis might 'ave 'ad a word or
two to say to that, Flinders," cried a natty fellow,
just up to the standard in height, and no more.
"Oh, I'd have made it all right with her,"
returned Flinders, with that easy assurance of
everything good that want of experience gives. "But
to send it to the workhouse--it's a blooming shame!
They treat kids anyhow in them places. Now
then, Thomson, what are you a-grinning at?
Perhaps you know as much about workhouses as I
can tell you."
"Perhaps I do, and perhaps I don't," replied
Thomson, with provoking good temper. "I wasn't
a-laughing at the workhouse; cussing them is
more like what one feels. But to think of you,
old chap, tramping up and down with the blessed
kid asleep--well, it beats everything I ever heard
tell of, blame me if it don't."
Private Flinders, however, was not to be laughed
out of his interest in the little child Susy; and
regularly every week he walked down to the
workhouse, and asked to see her taking always a
few sweeties, bought out of his scanty pay, the
cost of which meant his going without some small
luxury for himself. And Susy, who was miserably
unhappy in that abode of sorrow which we provide
in this country for the destitute, grew to look
eagerly for his visits, and sobbed out all her little
troubles and trials to his sympathetic ears.
"Susy don't like her," she confided to him one
day when the matron had left them alone together.
"She slaps me. Susy don't love her."
"But Susy will learn to be a good girl, and
not get slapped," the soldier said, with something
suspiciously like a lump in his throat. "See, I've
brought you some lollipops--you'll like them,
He happened to run up against the matron as
he walked away toward the door. "She's a tender
little thing, missis," he remarked, with a vague
kind of notion that even workhouse matrons have
hearts sometimes. And so some of them have,
though not many. This particular one was among
"She's a tender little thing, missis," he remarked.
"A very self-willed child," she remarked sharply,
"considering that she's so young. We have a great
deal of trouble with her. She does not seem to
know the meaning of the word obedience."
"She is but a baby," ventured the soldier
"Baby, or no baby, she'll have to learn it here,"
snapped the matron viciously; and then Flinders
went on his way, feeling sadder than ever, and
yet more and more regretful that he was not
married, or had at least a mother in a position to
adopt a little child.
The next time he went they had cut the child's
lovely long, curling locks, indeed, she had been
shorn like a sheep in spring-time. Flinders' soft
heart gave a great throb, and he cuddled the mite
to his broad breast, as if by so doing he could
undo the indignity that had been put upon her.
"Susy," he said, when he had handed over his
sweets and she was busily munching them up, "I
want you to try and remember something."
Susy looked at him doubtfully, but nodded her
cropped head with an air of wise acquiescence.
Flinders went on talking quietly.
"You remember before you came here--you had
a home and a mammy, don't you?"
"Yes," said Susy promptly.
"What sort of a house was it?"
"Where my mammy was?" she asked.
"Big," replied Susy briefly, selecting another
sweetie with care.
"And what was it called?"
"The house," said the child, in a matter-of-fact tone.
Flinders gave a sigh. "Yes, I dare say it was.
Don't you remember, though, what your mammy
"Why mammy, of course," said Susy, as if the
question was too utterly foolish for serious
"Yes, but other people didn't call her mammy--it
was only you did that," said Flinders desperately.
"What did other people call her? Can't you
It happened that Susy not only remembered,
but immediately gave utterance to her recollections
in such a way as fairly made the soldier
jump. "They called my mammy 'my lady,'" she
Private Flinders gave the child a great hug, and
put her down off his knee. "Gord bless you,
little 'un," he ejaculated. "And see if I don't
ferret that mammy of yours out before I'm many
days older--see if I don't."
He met the matron as he went towards the
entrance. "Missis," he said, stopping, "I've got
a clue to that little 'un's belongings. I'm off to
the police station now about it. I'd advise you to
treat her as tender as you can. It'll come home to
you, mark my words."
"Dear me," snapped the matron; "is she going
to turn out a princess in disguise, then?"
"It'll perhaps turn out a pity you was in such
a hurry to crop her hair," said Private Flinders,
In the face of that sudden recollection of the
child's, he felt that he could afford to be, to a certain
extent, stand-offish to the cold-eyed, unloving woman
"Oh, rules are rules," said the matron, with an
air of fine disdain; "and, in an institution like
ours, all must be served alike. It would be a pretty
thing if we had to spend half of every day curling
the children's hair. Good-day to you."
He felt that he had got the worst of it, and that
it was more than possible that little Susy would
pay the penalty of his indiscretion. Fool that he
had been not to hold his tongue until he had
something more tangible to say. Well, it was done now,
and could not be undone, and it behoved him to
lose no time, but to find out the truth as soon as
The inspector whom he found in charge of the
police-station listened to his tale with a strictly
"Yes, I remember the little girl coming in and
being taken to the workhouse. I remember the
case right enough. You'd better leave it to us, and
we will find out whether such a child is missing
anywhere in the country."
I need hardly say that in Private Flinders' mind
there lurked that deep-rooted distrust of a policeman
that lives somewhere or other in the heart of
every soldier. It came uppermost in his mind at
"You'll do your best?" he said, a little wistfully.
"You'll not let time go by, and--and----?"
"We shall be in communication with every
police-station in the kingdom in a few hours," returned
the inspector, who knew pretty well what was
passing in the soldier's mind. "But, all the same, you
mustn't be over-much disappointed if there proves
to be nothing in it. You see, if such a child was
being inquired for, we should have heard of it
before this. However, we'll do our best; you may be
very sure of that."
With that Private Flinders was obliged to rest
content. He made inquiries from day to day, and
eventually this advertisement appeared in the
leading daily papers:--
TO PARENTS AND GUARDIANS.--A little
girl, apparently about three years old, is in charge
of the police at Bridbrook. She says her name is Susy,
and appears to be the child of well-to-do parents. Very
fair hair, blue eyes, features small and pretty. Clothes
very good, but much soiled.--Address, POLICE STATION,
A few hours after the appearance of the advertisement,
a telegram arrived at the police-station:--
"Keep child. Will come as soon as possible.--JACKSON."
* * * * *
Less than three hours afterwards, an excited
woman rushed into the station, having precipitated
herself out of a cab, and almost flung herself upon
the astonished inspector.
"I've come for the child--the little girl," she
gasped, as if she had run at racing speed direct
from the place indicated by the telegram.
"Oh, she belongs to you, does she?" remarked
the inspector coolly. "Well, you've no call to be
in such a 'urry; you've been very comfortable about
her for the last six weeks."
"Comfortable!" echoed the excited one; "why,
I've been very near out of my mind. I thought she
was drowned, and I was so frightened, I daren't
say a word to any one about it. And my lady
"Then you're not the mother?" said the inspector
"The mother!--my goodness, no! I'm the head
nurse. My young lady's mother is the Countess of
"Then what does she say to all this, pray?" he asked.
"My lady went abroad two months ago to one
of those foreign cure places, and she doesn't know
but what Lady Susy is safe with me at this minute,"
the woman replied.
The inspector gave a prolonged whistle.
"Well, you're a pretty sort of nurse to leave in
charge of a child," he remarked. "I shouldn't
wonder if you get the sack for this. Do you know
the child's at the workhouse, and that they've
cropped her head as bare as mine?"
At this the woman simply sat down and sobbed aloud.
"Aye, you may well cry," said the inspector
grimly. "I should if I was in your shoes."
She finally told how the child had been missed;
how she had refrained from giving notice to the
police through fear of publicity, and believing she
could find her by diligent search in the locality;
how "my lady" was a widow, with only this one
little child; how she had been advised to go for
this cure; how she had consented to the nurse
taking Lady Susy to the seaside meantime, well
knowing that she would be safe and happy with her.
"Yes, you may laugh at that," she wound up;
"but my dear lamb has often called me 'mammy'
as anything else, and my lady has often said she
was quite jealous of me."
"All the same, I shouldn't wonder if you get the
sack," repeated the inspector, who was not troubled
with much sentiment.
I scarcely know how to tell the rest--how Jackson
went off to the workhouse, and enlightened the
matron and others as to the child's station in life;
how she seized her little ladyship, and almost
smothered her with kisses; how she bewailed her
shorn locks, and wondered and conjectured as to
how she could possibly have got to a place so far
from her home as Bridbrook.
But, a few weeks later, a lovely woman in mourning
came to the cavalry barracks, and inquired for
Private Flinders. She wept during the interview,
this lovely lady; and when she had gone away,
Private Flinders opened the packet she had put
into his hands, to find a cheque for a hundred
pounds, and a handsome gold watch and chain.
And at the end of the chain was a plain gold locket,
on one side of which was engraved Private Flinders'
initials, whilst on the other was written the single