I saw the boy again a few days later. I had taken a gun out alone, more to have an object for my wanderings on a fine afternoon than in the expectation of any serious sport, for the calendar declared my proper game still unassailable.
I took a brace of pigeon on the edge of one of the furthest coppices, however, and as the light began to fade, observed half-a-dozen rabbits at their evening browse on the far side of the meadow. I reloaded while calling quietly to the dogs, lest they bound off in pursuit of this legitimate canine prey, and began to move in.
Two barrels accounted for two rabbits and I sent the dogs to retrieve them. Following at my leisure, I was surprised to see them swerve away from their task towards the hedge. Then Titus raised his head and set to barking.
Crouched on the ground, under the lee of the hedge, was the boy. For an instant I was gripped with fear that I had shot him, before I saw that he was trying desperately to back through the dense and thorny hedge, while Nell and Titus stood and bayed cheerfully at him, ears flat and tails wagging.
I called them off and went closer. The lad’s eyes were wide with fright and my approach served only to make him redouble his efforts to escape.
‘Don’t be frightened!’ I called. ‘They won’t bite you! Tell me, are you hurt?’
He scrambled to his feet and shook his head, although I could see several scratches beginning to ooze a little blood. On the heels of my fear came anger.
‘You stupid boy! Didn’t you hear me firing earlier? What the devil do you mean by sneaking around like that? Don’t you know you could have been shot? You young idiot! I’ve a good mind to tell your father to give you a thrashing! I could have killed you!’
But he seemed to be beyond reason or understanding. His body trembled as if he had an ague, and when he did open his mouth no sound came out. He wore only a shabby pair of trousers, and looked to be six or seven years old at the most. ‘
Well,’ I said, ‘there’s no harm done this time. But who are you? What’s your name?’ He shook his head. ‘Your father isn’t one of my tenants, is he?’ Another shake. ‘Who’s your mother, then?’
At that he made a convulsive heave, tore himself free from the thorns and brambles and ran from me as fast as his childish legs could carry him over the rough grass, so that I could see his scratched and bloodied back.
‘Wait!’ I called, beginning to stumble towards him. ‘Are you lost? Let me help you. I can help you, but you must tell me who you are. Wait! I know you are lost. I can help you.’
Two pheasant exploded out of the wood with a cry that sounded like a dozen rifles being cocked. At the noise the dogs forgot all their training and raced after the boy. He saw them coming, stood still for one split second of true horror, turned, scrambled through the hedge, and was gone. When I at last reached the hedge myself, there was no sign of him, although I could not see where he could have gone.
I shouted for the dogs while I took the shoulder strap from my gun with shaking hands, doubled it up, and thrashed them both there and then with the metal ends, on and on, my arm aching but my anger driving me beyond all bounds of proper discipline. I only ceased when I saw blood seeping out into the sweat on Nell’s flank.
I clipped the strap back. There was a strange, ill sensation in the pit of my stomach. Battle was savage, Army life little less so. But what had I come to, that so small – so absurd – an incident could awake such savagery in me? Was that what Miss Durward had seen?
I left the dead rabbits where they lay, picked up my game bag and began to limp home, my head aching and my every limb weary, with Nell and Titus halting along behind me like frightened shadows.
It was the boy, I realised. I knew his fear as well as I knew myself. And I had wanted to help him, and he had fled.
My dear Major
It has taken a few weeks of silence, & Hetty’s confession, for me to realise that your good breeding demands that it is I who reassure you. At least, I trust it is good breeding, & not ill-wishing, that has silenced you.
No: I shall overcome my embarrassment & put the matter more bluntly. If you do not feel able to write to me, it is no more than Hetty – & I – deserve. But if you can find it in your heart to overcome what I fear may be a very natural anger, so that you may forgive Hetty for meddling, & me for being the reason for it, I should be so very grateful. I do not think that I can support many more days of life at Ixelles, without some small pieces of our former companionship to cling to. Even a paragraph on winter in the Lines of Torres Vedras, or the price you are getting for corn in Suffolk this year, would serve to preserve my reason from breakfast until dinner.
We drove to Tournai last week, & in looking out from the Cathedral tower towards Mons, I thought yet again how unimaginable it is, that this quiet Flanders landscape might be despoiled with such trenches & gun-emplacements as you described at Torres Vedras. But I would not for anything ask you to write of such things if you would not wish to. What of your life in Spain after the Peace? You have spoken little of that, although you must have found your situation congenial, to have remained so long in San Sebastian.
I must end here, for I am under orders to accompany Hetty in making calls. We begin to know our neighbours, you understand, so the delights of halting conversation, fine china, & beribboned infants await us. Hetty is advised not to travel back to England for a few weeks yet, so all my dependence is on you to alleviate the tedium, if you can find it in your heart to answer your friend