Fix Bay'nets: The Regiment in the HillsGeorge Manville Fenn
Produced by Nick Hodson of London, England
Fix Bay'nets, by George Manville Fenn.
ON THE MARCH.
Trrt--trrt--trrt. Just that little sound, as the sticks flirted withthe drumheads to keep the men in step; for Her Majesty's 404th Fusilierswere marching "easy." So it was called; and it meant with the mensmoking, and carrying their rifles as they pleased--shouldered, at thetrail, slung muzzle up or muzzle down. But, all the same, it was amiserable fiction to call it marching easy, for it was impossible tomake that march anything but hard. Why? Because of the road.
No; that is a fiction, too. It is absurd to call that stony shelf ofrock, encumbered with stones of all sizes, full of cracks and holes, aroad. It was almost in its natural state, with a smooth place here andthere where it had been polished in bygone ages by avalanches of ice orstones.
But the sun shone brightly; the scenery was glorious, and grew in placesawe-inspiring, as the regiment wound up and up the pass, and glimpses ofsnow-capped mountain and glowing valley were obtained.
To any one perched on high, as were a few scattered goats, the regiment,with its two mounted officers, its long train of mules, ambulance, andbaggage-guard, and the native attendants, must have looked like a colonyof marauding ants on their march, so wonderfully was everything dwarfed;even the grand deodar cedars growing far down the precipitous slopesbelow the track, which were stately trees, springing up to a hundred anda hundred and fifty feet, looking like groups of shrubs in the clear,pure air.
It was as much climbing as marching, and, as Bill Gedge said, "all aginthe collar;" but the men did not seem to mind, as they mounted higherand higher in the expectation of finding that the next turn of thezigzag was the top of the pass.
"Here, I say," cried the owner of the just-mentioned name, a thin,wiry-looking fellow, whom so far drill and six months in the North-westTerritory of Her Majesty's Indian dominions had not mademuscular-looking; though, for the matter of that, he did not differ muchfrom his companions, who in appearance were of the thorough East-endCockney type--that rather degenerate class of lads who look fifteen orsixteen at most when twenty. Stamina seemed to be wanting, chestslooked narrow, and their tunics covered gaunt and angular bodies, whiletheir spiked white helmets, though they fitted their heads, had ratheran extinguisher-like effect over the thin, hollow-cheeked, beardlessfaces.
Defects, all these, that would naturally die out; but at the time nowunder consideration any newspaper writer would have been justified incalling them a regiment of boys.
But, boy-like, it did not trouble them, for, apparently as fresh as whenthey had started hours before, they seemed to be revelling in thewonderful air of the mountain region, and to be as full of antics as aparty of schoolfellows out for a day. Songs had been sung, each with aroaring chorus; tricks had been surreptitiously played on the "pass iton" principle--a lad in the rear tilting the helmet of the file in frontover his eyes, or giving him a sounding spank on the shoulder with theabove admonition, when it was taken with a grin and passed on right awayto the foremost rank; while the commissioned officers seemed to bepeculiarly blind and deaf so long as their lads marched well, and therewas no falling-out of done-up fellows waiting for the ambulance toovertake them for the rest of the march.
"Here, I say," cried Private Gedge, "I ain't a-going to drop no coppersin no blessed hats when that there band comes round. They don't 'arfplay."
"Don't keep _on_," said the file on his left.
"Play? Yah! Why, we might jest as well have a dozen of themtom-tomming niggers in front saying `Shallabala' as they taps the skinswith their brown fingers."
"You are a chap, Bill," said another. "Talk about yer Syety for Crueltyto Hanimals! Why, yer orter be fined. It's all I can do to keep windenough to climb up here, let alone having to blow a brasstraction-engine, or even a fife."
"Gahn! They're used to it. They don't half play. Pass the word on for`Brish Grannydiers.'"
Bang--bang--bang--bang! Four distinct beats of the big drum, which weretaken up by the echoes and repeated till they died away in the distance,in company with volleys of notes in a spirited crash from the brassinstruments far in front, as the band struck up a rattling march, whoseeffect was to make breasts swell, heads perk up, and the lads pullthemselves together and march on, many of them beginning to hum thefamiliar melody which had brightened many a long, up-country tramp.
"Talk about telly-phoning, Billy; they heered you without."
"Yes, that's your style," cried the first speaker, bursting out with avery good imitation of Punch in one of his vocal efforts, andsupplementing it with a touch of the terpsichorean, tripping along instep with a suggestion of a nigger minstrel's jig.
Marching easy does not mean free and easy: and this was too much for oneof the sergeants of the company, a tall, gaunt, particularly bony-facedfellow, frowning and full of importance, but almost as boyish of aspectas those who bore no chevrons on their sleeves.
He came up at the double, unnoticed by the dancer, and tried to range upalongside; but the rocky shelf was for some minutes not wide enough.Consequently he had time to grow redder in the face and more angry.
At last, though, he was in a position to speak.
"Here, you, sir," he shouted; "drop that. You're not on a cellar flapnow. Recollect where you are."
Private Gedge gave a start, and squinted horribly for the benefit of hiscomrades right and left, as he pulled himself together, jerked his rifleover from one shoulder to the other, and marched on with his body stiffas a rifle-barrel.
"You're too full of these monkey-tricks, sir; and if there's any more ofthem I shall report you."
Private Gedge squinted more horribly than ever, as he marched on now asstiffly as if being drilled--too stiffly to satisfy the sergeant, whokept close behind.
"March easy, sir! march easy!" he cried importantly, and the offenderdropped his rigidity, the result being that the sergeant returned to hisplace in the rear of the company, while Private Gedge relieved hisfeelings in a whisper.
"Yah! Gee up! Gee! Who wouldn't be a sergeant? Bless his heart! Ilove him 'most as much as my mother dear--my mother dear--my gee-yentlemother deear."
He sang the last words, but in a suppressed voice, to the greatamusement of his fellows.
"Oh, I say, I wish I warn't a swaddy," he whispered.
"Why?" asked the lad on his left.
"So as to give old Gee one on the nose, and then have it out with him.I'd make him warm. It's this sort o' thing as makes me hate it all.The orficers don't mind us having a bit of a lark to make the march golight. They takes no notice so long as we're ready for 'tention and 'llfight. It's on'y chaps like Tommy Gee as has got his stripes that comesdown upon you. Why, I was singing and doing that plantation song on'yyesterday, and Mr Bracy and Cap'en Roberts come along, and they bothlaughed. Bet sixpence the Colonel would have looked t'other way.--Oh, Isay, ain't I hungry! Is it much farther?"
"I dunno," said another; "but ain't the wind cold up here?"
"Band's done again," said Gedge. "That was a short un. I s'pose if Iwas to cry `Hongcore' old Gee 'd be down upon me again."
Ten minutes later the men had something more substantial to think aboutthan music, for the shelf-like track came to an end in a great naturalamphitheatre, whose walls were dwarfed mountains streaked with rifts andravines which glistened white and sparkling as they scored the greengrassy slopes, while the floor of the great hollow was a beautiful meadthrough which a fairly rapid torrent ran.
The halt was called upon a tolerably smooth level, arms were piled, andwith the celerity displayed in a regiment on the march, the camp
kitchens were formed, the smoke of fires rose, and videttes being thrownout after the fashion observed in an enemy's country, the men were freefor a couple of hours' halt for rest and refreshment, to their greatdelight.
Pending the efforts of the regimental and camp follower cooks, some ofthe men began to roam about within bounds; and the group to whichPrivate Gedge was joined made for one of the little ravines whichglistened white in the sunshine, and the joker of the company soon madehis voice heard.
"Oh, I say," he cried. "Only look! Here yer are, then. Here's yerhoky-poky. Here's yer real 'apenny ices laid on free gratis fornothing. Here yer are, sir; which 'll yer 'ave, strorbry or rarsbry?The real oridgenal 'stablishment, kep' by Billi Sneakino Pianni Organni.Who says hoky-poky?"
"Why, 'tis real ice, Bill," said one of the men.
"Snow," said another.
"Gahn!" cried Private Gedge, scooping up a couple of handfuls. "It'shailstones, that's what it is. You on'y get snow atop o' the highmountains."
"But it is snow, my lad," said a voice from behind, and the partystarted round, to see that a couple of their officers had followed tolook at the glittering rift which ran right up hundreds of feet. "We'repretty high now."
"How high, sir?" said Gedge, saluting.
"We're at the top of the pass now," said the young officer who hadspoken; "ten thousand feet above the sea."
"Why, that's higher than the top of Saint Paul's, sir," said one of themen.
"Top o' Saint Paul's," cried Gedge scornfully. "Why, it's higher thanthe Monniment atop o' that. Higher than 'Amstead, ain't it, sir?"
"Yes," said the young officer, smiling.--"Don't straggle away, my lads.Keep close in."
The speaker strolled away back with his companion towards where thenative servants were busily preparing the mess meal, and their menlooked after them.
"Ain't them two chummy?" said one.
"They jest are," said Gedge. "That Captain Roberts aren't a bad sort;but Mr Bracy's the chap for my money. He looks as if he could fight,too, if we had a row with the niggers."
"Oh, I don't know," said another superciliously; "you can't never tell.Some o' them nice-looking dossy chaps ain't up to much. They can talk,but they talk too fast. How could he know we were ten thousand foothigh? Why, that must be miles, and that's all stuff."
"What do you know about it, stoopid?" cried Gedge fiercely. "Miles.Why, of course it is. Ain't we come miles this morning?"
"Longwise, but not uppards."
"Not uppards? Why, it's been sich a gettin' upstairs ever since westarted this morning. Don't you be so jolly ready to kick again' yourorficers. Mr Bracy's a reg'lar good sort; and if we comes to a set-towith the niggers he'll let some of yer see. I say, though, think weshall have a row?"
"You bet! I heered Sergeant Gee say we should be at it 'fore long, andthat these here--what do they call 'em?"
"Dwats," said one of the men.
"Yes, that's it," cried Gedge. "That's right. I remember, because Isaid to myself if we did we'd jolly soon give 'em Dwat for."
Just then a bugle rang out, and the men doubled back for the lines,where, thanks to the clever native cooks, a hastily prepared meal wasready and made short work of, the keen mountain air and the long marchhaving given the men a ravenous appetite.