Ravenshoe, by Henry Kingsley

Chapter 54.

Charles Meets Hornby at Last.

Oh for the whispering woodlands of Devna! Oh for the quiet summer evenings above the lakes, looking far away at the white-walled town on the distant shore! ‘No more hare-shooting, no more turtle-catching, for you, my dear Charles. The allies had determined to take Sebastopol, and winter in the town. It was a very dull place, every one said; but there was a racecourse, and there would be splendid boat-racing in the harbour. The country about the town was reported to be romantic, and there would be pleasant excursions in the winter to Simpheropol, a gayer town than Sebastopol, and where there was more society. They were not going to move till the spring, when they were to advance up the valley of the Dneiper to Moscow, while a flying column was to be sent to follow the course of the Don, cross to the Yolga at Suratow, and so penetrate into the Ural Mountains and seize the gold mines, or do something of this sort; it was all laid out quite plain.

Now, don’t call this ex post facto wisdom, but just try to remember what extravagant ideas every non-military man had that autumn about what our army would do. The ministers of the King of Lerne never laid down a more glorious campaign than we did. “I will,” says poor Picrochole, “give him fair quarter, and spare his life — I will rebuild Solomon’s Temple — I will give you Caramania, Syria, and all Palestine.” “Ha! sire,” said they, “it is out of your goodness. Grammercy, we thank you.” We have had our little lesson about that kind of amusement. There has been none of it in this American business; but our good friends the other side of the Atlantic are worse than they were in the time of the Pogram defiance. Either they don’t file their newspapers, or else they console themselves by saying that they could have done it all if they had liked.

It now becomes my duty to use all the resources of my art to describe Charles’s emotions at the first sight of Sebastopol. Such an opportunity for the display of beautiful language should not be let slip. I could do it capitally by buying a copy of Mr. Russell’s “War,” or even by using the correspondence I have on the table before me. But I think you will agree with me that it is better left alone. One hardly likes to come into the field in that line after Russell.

Balaclava was not such a pleasant place as Devna. It was bare and rocky, and everything was in confusion, and the men were dying in heaps of cholera. The nights were beginning to grow chill, too, and Charles began to dream regularly, that he was sleeping on the bare hill-side, in a sharp frost, and that he was agonisingly cold about the small of his back. And the most singular thing was, that he always woke and found his dream come true. At first he only used to dream this dream towards morning; but, as October began to creep on, he used to wake with it several times in the night, and at last hardly used to go to sleep at all for fear of dreaming it.

Were there no other dreams? No. No dreams, but one ever-present reality. A dull aching regret for a past for ever gone. A heavy deadly grief, lost for a time among the woods of Devna, but come back to him now amidst the cold, and the squalor, and the sickness of Balaclava. A brooding over missed opportunities, and the things that might have been. Sometimes a tangled puzzled train of thought, as to how much of this ghastly misery was his own fault, and how much accident. And above all, a growing desire for death, unknown before.

And all this time, behind the hill, the great guns, which had begun a fitful muttering when they first ame there, often dying off into silence; now day by day, as trench after trench was opened, grew louder and more continuous, till hearing and thought were deadened, and the soul was sick of their never-ceasing melancholy thunder.

And at six o’clock on the morning of the seventeenth, such an infernal din began as no man there had ever heard before, which grew louder and louder till nine, when it seemed impossible that the ear could bear the accumulation of sound: and then suddenly doubled, as the Agamemnon and the Montebello, followed by the fleets, steamed in, and laid broadside-to under the forts. Four thousand pieces of the heaviest ordnance in the world were doing their work over that hill, and the 140th stood dismounted and listened.

At ten o’clock the earth shook, and a column of smoke towered up in the air above the hill, and as it began to hang motionless, the sound of it reached them. It was different from the noise of guns. It was something new and terrible. An angry hissing roar. An hour after they heard that twenty tons of powder were blown up in the French lines.

Soon after this, though, there was work to be done, and plenty of it. The wounded were being carried to the rear. Some cavalry were dismounted and told off for the work. Charles was one of them.

The wind had not yet sprung up, and all that Charles saw for the moment was a valley full of smoke, and fire, and sound. He caught a glimpse of the spars and funnel of a great liner above the smoke to the left; but directly after they were under fire, and the sickening day’s work began.

Death and horror in every form, of course. The wounded lying about in heaps. Officers trying to compose their faces, and die like gentlemen. Old Indian soldiers dying grimly as they had lived; and lads, fresh from the plough last year, listed at the market-cross some unlucky Satu.rday, sitting up staring before them with a look of terror and wonder: sadder sight than either. But everywhere all the day, where the shot screamed loudest, where the shell fell thickest, with his shako gone, with his ambrosial curls tangled with blood, with his splendid gaudy fripperies soiled with dust and sweat, was Hornby, the dandy, the fop, the dicer; doing the work of ten, carrying out the wounded in his arms, encouraging the dying, cheering on the living.

“I knew there was some stuff in him,” said Charles, as he followed him into the Crown battery; just at that time the worst place of all, for The Twelve Apostles had begun dropping red-hot shot into it, and exploded some ammunition, and killed some men. And they had et a naval officer, known to Hornby, wounded, staggering to the rear, who said, “that his brother was knocked over, and that they wanted to make out that he was dead, but he had only fainted.” So they went back with him. The officer’s brother was dead enough, poor fellow; but as Charles and Hornby bent suddenly over him to look at him, their faces actually touched.

Hornby did not recognise him. He was in a state of excitement, and was thinking of no one less than Charles, and Charles’s moustaches had altered him, as I said before. If their eyes had met, I believe Hornby would have known him; but it was not to be till the 25th, and this was only the 17th. If Hornby could only have known him, if they could only have had ten minutes’ talk together, Charles would have known all that we know about the previous marriage of his grandfather: and, if that conversation had taken place, he would have known more than any of them, for Hornby knew something which he thought of no importance, which was very important indeed. He knew where Ellen was.

But Charles turned his face away, and the recognition did not take place. Poor Charles said afterwards, that it was all a piece of luck — that “the stars in their courses fought against Sisera.” It is not the case. He turned away his eyes, and avoided the recognition. What he meant is this:—

As Hornby’s face was touching his, and they were both bending over the dead man, whom they could hardly believe to be dead, the men behind them fired off the great Lancaster in the next one-gun battery. “Crack!” and they heard the shell go piff, piff, piff, piff, and strike something. And then one man close to them cried out, “God Almighty!” and another cried “Christ!” as sailors will at such awful times; and they both leapt to their feet. Above the smoke there hung, a hundred of feet in the air, a something like a vast black pine tree; and, before they had time to realize what had happened, there was a horrible roar, and a concussion which made them stagger on their legs. A shell from the Lancaster had blown up the great redoubt in front of the Eedan wall, and every Russian gun ceased firing. And above the sound of the Allied guns rose the cheering of our own men, sounding amidst the awful bass, like the shrill treble of schoolchildren at play.

Charles said afterwards that this glorious accident prevented their recognition. It is not true. He prevented it himself, and took the consequences. But Hornby recognised him on the twenty-fifth in this wise:—

The first thing in the morning, they saw, on the hills to the right, Russian skirmishers creeping about towards them, apparently without an object. They had breakfast, and took no notice of them till about eight o’clock,, when a great body of cavalry came slowly, regiment by regiment, from behind a hill near the Turks. Then gleaming batteries of artillery; and, lastly, an endless, column of grey infantry, which began to wheel into-line. And when Charles had seen some five or six grey battalions come swinging out, the word was given to mount, and he saw no more, but contemplated the tails of horses. And at the same moment the guns began an irregular fire on their right.

Almost immediately the word was given to advance, which they did slowly. Charles could see Hornby just before him, in his old place, for they were in column. They crossed the plain, and went up the crest of the hill, halting on the high road. Here they sat for some time, and the more fortunate could see the battle raging below to the right. The English seemed getting rather the worst of it.

They sat there about an hour and a half; and all in a moment, before any one seemed to expect it, some guns opened on them from the right; so close that it made their right ears tingle. A horse from the squadron in front of Charles bolted from the ranks, and nearly nocked down Hornby. The horse had need to bolt, for he carried a dead man, who in the last spasm had pulled him on his haunches, and struck his spurs deep into his sides.

Charles began to guess that they were “in for it ” at last. He had no idea, of course, whether it was a great battle or a little one; but he saw that the 140th had work before them. I, of course, have only to speak of what Charles saw with his own eyes, and what therefore bears upon the story I am telling you. That was the only man he saw killed at that time, though the whole brigade suffered rather heavily by the Eussian cannonade at that spot.

Very shortly after this they were told to form line. Of course, when this manoeuvre was accomplished, Charles had lost sight of Hornby. He was sorry for this. He would have liked to know where he was; to help him, if possible, should anything happen to him; but there was not much time to think of it, for directly after they moved forward at a canter. In the front line were the 11th Hussars and the 13th Light Dragoons, and in the second were the 140th Hussars,* the 8th Hussars, and the 4th Dragoons. Charles could see thus much, now they were in line.

* If one has to raise an imaginary regiment, one must put it in an imaginary place. The 17th Dragoons must try to forgive me.

They went down hill, straight towards the guns, and almost at once the shot from them began to tell. The men of the 11th and 13th began to fall terribly fast. The men in the second line, in which Charles was, were falling nearly as fast, but this he could not remark. He missed the man next him on the right, one of his favourite comrades, but it did not strike him that the poor fellow was cut in two by a shot. He kept on wishing that he could see Hornby. He judged that the affair was getting serious. He little knew what was to come.

He had his wish of seeing Hornby, for they were riding up hill into a narrowing valley, and it was impossible to keep line. They formed into column again, though men and horses were rolling over and over at every stride, and there was Hornby before him, sailing along as gallant and gay as ever. A fine beacon to lead a man to a glorious death.

And, almost the next moment, the batteries right and left opened on them. Those who were there engaged can give us very little idea of what followed in the next quarter of an hour. They were soon among guns — the very guns that had annoyed them from the first; and infantry beyond opened fire on them. There seems to have been a degree of confusion at this point. Charles, and two or three others known to him, were hunting ome Eussian Artillerymen round their guns, for a minute or so. Hornby was among them. He saw also at this time his little friend the cornet, on foot, — and rode to his assistance. He caught a riderless horse, and the cornet mounted. Then the word was given to get back again; I know not how; I have nothing to do with it. But, as they turned their faces to get out of this horrible hell, poor Charles gave a short, sharp scream, and bent down in his saddle over his horse’s neck.

It was nothing. It was only as if one were to have twenty teeth pulled out at once. The pain was over in an instant. What a fool he was to cry out! The pain was gone again, and they were still under fire, and Hornby was before him.

How long? How many minutes, how many hours? His left arm was nearly dead, but he could hold his reins in a way, and rode hard after Hornby, from some wild instinct. The pain had stopped, but was coming on again as if ten thousand red-hot devils were pulling at his flesh, and twenty thousand were arriving each moment to help them.

His own friends were beside him again, and there was a rally and a charge. At what? he thought for an instant. At guns? No. At men this time, Eussian hussars — right valiant fellows, too. He saw Hornby in the thick of the melee, with his sword flickering about is head like lightning. He could do but little himself; he rode at a Eussian and unhorsed him; he remembers seeing the man go down, though whether he struck at him, or whether he went down by the mere superior weight of his horse, he cannot say. This I can say, though, that whatever he did, he did his duty as a valiant gentleman; I will go bail for that much.

They beat them back, and then turned. Then they turned again and beat them back once more. And then they turned and rode. For it was time. Charles lost sight of Hornby till the last, when some one caught his rein and turned his horse, and then he saw that they were getting into order again, and that Hornby was before him, reeling in his saddle.

As the noise of the battle grew fainter behind them, he looked round to see who was riding beside him, and holding him by the right arm. It was the little cornet. Charles wondered why he did so. “You’re hard hit, Simpson.” said the cornet. “Never mind. Keep your saddle a little longer. We shall be all right directly.”

His faculties were perfectly acute, and, having thanked the cornet, he looked down and noticed that he was riding between him and a trooper, that his left arm was hanging numbed by his side, and that the rooper was guiding his horse. He saw that they had saved him, and even in his deadly agony he was so far his own old conrteons self, that he turned right and left to them, and thanked for what they had done for him.

But he had kept his eyes fixed on Hornby, for he saw that he was desperately hit, and he wanted to say one or two words to him before either of them died. Soon they were among English faces, and English cheers rang out in welcome to their return, but it was nothing to him; he kept his eye, which was growing dim, on Hornby, and, when he saw him fall off his saddle into the arms of a trooper, he dismounted too and staggered towards him.

The world seemed to go round and round, and he felt about him like a blind man. But he found Hornby somehow. A doctor, all scarlet and gold, was bending over him, and Charles knelt down on the other side and looked into the dying man’s face.

“Do you know me, lieutenant?” he said, speaking thick like a drunken man, but determined to hold out; “you know your old servant, don’t you?”

Hornby smiled as he recognised him, and said, “Ravenshoe.” But then his face grew anxious, and he said, “Why did you hide yourself from me? You have ruined everything.”

He could get no further for a minute, and then he said —

“Take this from round my neck and carry it to her. Tell her that you saw me die, and that I was true to our compact. Tell her that my share of our purification was complete, for I followed duty to death, as I promised her. She has a long life of weary penance before her to fulfil our bargain. Say I should wish her to be happy, only that I know she cannot be. And also say that I see now, that there is something better and more desirable than what we call happiness. I don’t know what it is, but I suspect it is what we call duty.”

Here the doctor said, “They are at it again, and I must go with them. I can do no good here for the poor dear fellow. Take what he tells you off his neck, in my presence, and let me go.”

The doctor did it himself. When the great heavy gold stock was unbuttoned, Hornby seemed to breathe more freely. The doctor found round his neck a gold chain, from which hung a photograph of Ellen, and a black cross. He gave them to Charles, and departed.

Once more Charles spoke to Hornby. He said, “Where shall I find her?”

Hornby said, “Why, at Hackney, to be sure; did you not know she was there?” And afterwards, at the very last, “ Ravenshoe, I should have loved you; you are like her, my boy. Don’t forget.”

But Charles never heard that. They found Hornby dead and cold, with his head on Charles’s lap, and Charles looked so like him that they said, “This man is dead too; let us bury him.” But a skilful doctor there present, said, “This man is not dead, and will not die;” and he was right.

Oh, but the sabres bit deep that autumn afternoon! There were women in Minsk, in Moglef, in Tchernigof, in Jitemir, in Polimva, whose husbands were Hussars — and women in Taganrog, in Tcherkask, in Sanepta, which lies under the pleasant slate mountains, whose husbands and sons were Cossacks — who were made widows that day. For that day’s work there was weeping in the reed-thatched hovels of the Don, and in the mud-built shanties of the Dnieper. For the 17th Lancers, the Scots Greys, the 1st Royals, and the 6th Enniskillens, — “these terrible beef-fed islanders” (to use the words of the Northern Bee) — were upon them; and Volhynia and Hampshire, Renfrewshire and Grodno, Podoha and Fermanagh, were mixed together in one common ruin.

Still, they say, the Princess Petrovitch, on certain days, leaves her carriage, and walks a mile through the snow barefoot, into Alexandroski, in memory of her ight-haired handsome young son, whom Hornby slew at Balaclava. And I myself know the place where Lady Allerton makes her pilgrimage for those two merry boys of hers who lie out on the Crimean hill. Alas! not side by side. Up and down in all weathers, along a certain gravel walk, where the chalk brook, having flooded the park with its dammed-up waters, comes foaming and spouting over a cascade, and hurries past between the smooth-mown lawns of the pleasance. In the very place where she stood when the second letter came. And there, they say, she will walk at times, until her beauty and her strength are gone, and her limbs refuse to carry her.

Karlin Karlinoff was herding strange-looking goats on the Suratow hill-side, which looks towards the melancholy Volga on one side, and the reedy Ural on the other, when the Pulk came back, and her son was not with them. Eliza Jones had got on her husband’s smock frock, and was a-setting of beans, when the rector’s wife came struggling over the heavy lands and water-furrows, and broke the news gently, and with many tears. Karlin Karlinoff drove her goats into the mud-walled yard that night; though the bittern in the melancholy fen may have been startled from his reeds by a cry more wild and doleful than his own; and Eliza Jones went on setting her beans, though they were watered with her tears.

What a strange wild business it was! The extreme east of Europe against the extreme west. Men without a word, an idea, a habit or a hope in common, thrown suddenly together, to fight and slay; and then to part, having learnt to respect one another better, in one year of war, than ever they had, in a hundred years of peace. Since that year we have understood Eylau and Borodino, which battles were a puzzle to some of us before that time. The French did better than we, which was provoking, because the curs began to bark — Spanish curs, for instance; American curs; the lower sort of French cur; and the Irish curs, who have the strange habit of barking the louder the more they are laughed at, and who, now, being represented by about two hundred men among six million, have rather a hard time of it. They barked louder, of course, at the Indian mutiny. But they have all got their tails between their legs now, and are likely to keep them there. We have had our lesson. We have learnt that what our fathers told us was true — that we are the most powerful nation on the face of the earth.

This, you will see, bears all upon the story I am telling you. Well, in a sort of way. Though I do not exactly see how. I could find a reason, if you gave me time. If you gave me time, I could find a reason for nything. However, the result is this, that our poor Charles had been struck by a ball in the bone of his arm, and that the splinters were driven into the flesh, though the arm was not broken. It was a nasty business, said the doctors. All sorts of things might happen to him. Only one thing was certain, and that was that Charles Ravenshoe’s career in the army was over for ever.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 21:44