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Blue Lights: Hot Work in the Soudan

Blue Lights: Hot Work in the Soudan

Author:R. M. Ballantyne


There is a dividing ridge in the great northern wilderness of America, whereon lies a lakelet of not more than twenty yards in diameter. It is of crystal clearness and profound depth, and on the still evenings of the Indian summer its surface forms a...
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  There is a dividing ridge in the great northern wilderness of America,whereon lies a lakelet of not more than twenty yards in diameter. It isof crystal clearness and profound depth, and on the still evenings ofthe Indian summer its surface forms a perfect mirror, which might serveas a toilet-glass for a Redskin princess.

  We have stood by the side of that lakelet and failed to note theslightest symptom of motion in it, yet somewhere in its centre there wasgoing on a constant and mysterious division of watery particles, andthose of them which glided imperceptibly to the right flowed southwardto the Atlantic, while those that trembled to the left found aresting-place by the frozen shores of Hudson's Bay.

  As it is with the flow and final exit of those waters, so is it,sometimes, if not always, with the spirit and destiny of man.

  Miles Milton, our hero, at the age of nineteen, stood at the dividingridge of his life. If the oscillating spirit, trembling between rightand wrong, had decided to lean to the right, what might have been hisfate no one can tell. He paused on the balance a short time, then heleaned over to the left, and what his fate was it is the purpose of thisvolume to disclose. At the outset, we may remark that it was notunmixed good. Neither was it unmitigated evil.

  Miles had a strong body, a strong will, and a somewhat passionatetemper: a compound which is closely allied to dynamite!

  His father, unfortunately, was composed of much the same materials. Theconsequences were sometimes explosive. It might have profited the sonmuch had he studied the Scripture lesson, "Children, obey your parentsin the Lord." Not less might it have benefited the father to havepondered the words, "Fathers, provoke not your children to wrath."

  Young Milton had set his heart on going into the army. Old Milton hadresolved to thwart the desire of his son. The mother Milton, a meek andloving soul, experienced some hard times between the two. Both loved_her_ intensely, and each loved himself, not better perhaps, but toomuch!

  It is a sad task to have to recount the disputes between a father and ason. We shrink from it and turn away. Suffice it to say that one dayMiles and his father had a Vesuvian meeting on the subject of the army.The son became petulant and unreasonable; the father fierce andtyrannical. The end was that they parted in anger.

  "Go, sir," cried the father sternly; "when you are in a better frame ofmind you may return."

  "Yes, father, I will go," cried the son, starting up, "and I will_never_ return."

  Poor youth! He was both right and wrong in this prophetic speech. Hedid return home, but he did not return to his father.

  With fevered pulse and throbbing heart he rushed into a plantation thatlay at the back of his father's house. He had no definite intentionsave to relieve his feelings by violent action. Running at full speed,he came suddenly to a disused quarry that was full of water. It hadlong been a familiar haunt as a bathing-pool. Many a time in years pasthad he leaped off its precipitous margin into the deep water, andwantoned there in all the abandonment of exuberant youth. The leap wasabout thirty feet, the depth of water probably greater. Constantpractice had rendered Miles so expert at diving and swimming that he hadcome to feel as much at home in the water as a New-Zealander.

  Casting off his garments, he took the accustomed plunge by way ofcooling his heart and brain. He came up from the depths refreshed, butnot restored to equanimity. While dressing, the sense of injusticereturned as strongly as before, and, with it, the hot indignation, sothat, on afterwards reaching the highway, he paused only for a fewmoments. This was the critical point. Slowly but decidedly he leanedto the left. He turned his back on his father's house, and caused thestones to spurt from under his heels as he walked rapidly away.

  If Miles Milton had thought of his mother at that time he might haveescaped many a day of bitter repentance, for she was as gentle as herhusband was harsh; but the angry youth either forgot her at the moment,or, more probably, thrust the thought of her away.

  Poor mother! if she had only known what a conflict between good and evilwas going on in the breast of her boy, how she would have agonised inprayer for him! But she did not know. There was, however, One who didknow, who loved him better even than his mother, and who watched andguarded him throughout all his chequered career.

  It is not improbable that in spite of his resolves Miles would haverelented before night and returned home had not a very singular incidentintervened and closed the door behind him.

  That day a notorious swindler had been tracked by a red-haired detectiveto the manufacturing city, to which Miles first directed his steps. Thebills describing the swindler set forth that he was quite young, tall,handsome, broad-shouldered, with black curling hair, and a buddingmoustache; that he was dressed in grey tweeds, and had a prepossessingmanner. Now this chanced to be in some respects an exact description ofMiles Milton!

  The budding moustache, to be sure, was barely discernible, still it wassufficiently so for a detective to found on. His dress, too, was browntweed, not grey; but of course dresses can be changed; and as to hismanner, there could not be two opinions about that.

  Now it chanced to be past one o'clock when Miles entered the town andfelt himself impelled by familiar sensations to pause in front of aneating-house. It was a poor eating-house in a low district, but Mileswas not particular; still further, it was a temperance coffee-house, butMiles cared nothing for strong drink. Strong health and spirits hadserved his purpose admirably up to that date.

  Inside the eating-house there sat several men of the artisan class, anda few of the nondescript variety. Among the latter was the red-haireddetective. He was engaged with a solid beef-steak.

  "Oho!" escaped softly from his lips, when his sharp eyes caught sight ofour hero. So softly did he utter the exclamation that it might havebeen a mere remark of appreciation addressed to the steak, from which hedid not again raise his eyes for a considerable time.

  The place was very full of people--so full that there seemed scarcelyroom for another guest; but by some almost imperceptible motion thered-haired man made a little space close to himself. The man next tohim, with a hook-nose, widened the space by similar action, and Miles,perceiving that there was room, sat down.

  "Bread and cheese," he said to the waiter.

  "Bread an' cheese, sir? Yessir."

  Miles was soon actively engaged in mechanically feeding, while his mindwas busy as to future plans.

  Presently he became aware that the men on either side of him werescanning his features and person with peculiar attention.

  "Coldish weather," remarked the red-haired man, looking at him in afriendly way.

  "It is," replied Miles, civilly enough.

  "Rather cold for bathin', ain't it, sir?" continued the detectivecarelessly, picking his teeth with a quill.

  "How did you know that I've been bathing?" demanded Miles in surprise.

  "I didn't know it."

  "How did you guess it then?"

  "Vell, it ain't difficult to guess that a young feller 'as bin 'avin' aswim w'en you see the 'air of 'is 'ead hall vet, an' 'ispocket-'ankercher lookin' as if it 'ad done dooty for a towel, not tomention 'is veskit 'avin' bin putt on in a 'urry, so as the buttonsain't got into the right 'oles, you see!"

  Miles laughed, and resumed his bread and cheese.

  "You are observant, I perceive," he said.

  "Not wery partiklarly so," returned Redhair; "but I do obsarve that yourboots tell of country roads. Was it a long way hout of town as you wasbathin' this forenoon, now?"

  There was a free and easy familiarity about the man's tone which Milesresented, but, not wishing to run the risk of a disagreement in suchcompany, he answered quietly--"Yes, a considerable distance; it was inan old quarry where I often bathe, close to my father's house."

  "Ha! jest so, about 'alf-way to the willage of Ramplin', w'ere you slep'last night, if report speaks true, an' w'ere you left the _grey tweeds_,unless, p'r'aps, you sunk 'em in the old quarry."

  "Why, what on earth do you mean?" asked Miles, with a look of suchgenuine surprise that Redhair was puzzled, and the man with the hookednose, who had been listening attentively, looked slightly confused.

  "Read that, sir," said the detective, extracting a newspaper cuttingfrom his pocket and laying it on the table before Miles.

  While he read, the two men watched him with interest, so did some ofthose who sat near, for they began to perceive that something was "inthe wind."

  The tell-tale blood sprang to the youth's brow as he read and perceivedthe meaning of the man's remarks. At this Redhair and Hook-nose noddedto each other significantly.

  "You don't mean to say," exclaimed Miles, in a tone of grand indignationwhich confirmed the men in their suspicion, "that you think thisdescription applies to _me_?"

  "I wouldn't insinivate too much, sir, though I have got my suspicions,"said Redhair blandly; "but of course that's easy settled, for if yourfather's 'ouse is anyw'ere hereabouts, your father won't object toidentify his son."

  "Ridiculous!" exclaimed Miles, rising angrily at this interruption tohis plans. The two men rose promptly at the same moment. "Of course myfather will prove that you have made a mistake, but--"

  He hesitated in some confusion, for the idea of re-appearing before hisfather so soon, and in such company, after so stoutly asserting that hewould _never_ more return, was humiliating. The detective observed thehesitation and became jocose.

  "If you'd rather not trouble your parent," said Redhair, "you've got nocall to do it. The station ain't far off, and the sooner we get therethe better for all parties."

  A slight clink of metal at this point made Miles aware of the fact thatHook-nose was drawing a pair of handcuffs from one of his pockets.

  The full significance of his position suddenly burst upon him. Thethought of being led home a prisoner, or conveyed to the police-stationhandcuffed, maddened him; and the idea of being thus unjustly checked atthe very outset of his independent career made him furious. For a fewmoments he stood so perfectly still and quiet that the detectives werethrown slightly off their guard. Then there was an explosion of somesort within the breast of Miles Milton. It expended itself in a suddenimpulse, which sent Redhead flat on the table among the crockery, anddrove Hook-nose into the fireplace among the fire-irons. A fat littleman chanced to be standing in the door-way. The same impulse, modified,shot that little man into the street like a cork out of a bottle, andnext moment Miles was flying along the pavement at racing speed,horrified at what he had done, but utterly reckless as to what mightfollow!

  Hearing the shouts of pursuers behind him, and being incommoded bypassers-by in the crowded thoroughfare, Miles turned sharply into aby-street, and would have easily made his escape--being uncommonly swiftof foot--had he not been observed by an active little man of suppleframe and presumptuous tendencies. Unlike the mass of mankind aroundhim--who stared and wondered--the active little man took in thesituation at a glance, joined in the pursuit, kept well up, thus forminga sort of connecting-link between the fugitive and pursuers, and eventook upon himself to shout "Stop thief!" as he ran. Miles endeavouredto throw him off by putting on, as schoolboys have it, "a spurt." Butthe active little man also spurted and did not fall far behind. ThenMiles tried a second double, and got into a narrow street, which asingle glance showed him was a blind alley! Disappointment and angerhereupon took possession of him, and he turned at bay with thetiger-like resolve to run a-muck!

  Fortunately for himself he observed a pot of whitewash standing near ahalf-whitened wall, with a dirty canvas frock and a soiled billycocklying beside it. The owner of the property had left it inopportunely,for, quick as thought, Miles wriggled into the frock, flung on thebillycock, seized the pot, and walked in a leisurely way to the head ofthe alley. He reached it just as the active little man turned into it,at the rate of ten miles an hour. A yell of "Stop thief!" issued fromthe man's presumptuous lips at the moment.

  His injunction was obeyed to the letter, for the would-be thief of anhonest man's character on insufficient evidence was stopped by Miles'sbulky person so violently that the whitewash was scattered all about,and part of it went into the active man's eyes.

  To squash the large brush into the little man's face, and thuseffectually complete what his own recklessness had begun, was the workof an instant. As he did it, Miles assumed the role of the injuredparty, suiting his language to his condition.

  "What d'ee mean by that, you houtrageous willain?" he cried savagely, tothe great amusement of the bystanders, who instantly formed a crowdround them. "Look wot a mess you've bin an' made o' my clean frock!Don't you see?"

  The poor little man could not see. He could only cough and gasp andwipe his face with his coat-tails.

  "I'd give you in charge o' the pleece, I would, if it wasn't that you'vepretty well punished yourself a'ready," continued Miles. "Take 'im to apump some o' you, 'cause I ain't got time. Good-day, spider-legs, an'don't go for to run into a hartist again, with a paint-pot in 'is 'and."

  So saying, Miles pushed through the laughing crowd and sauntered away.He turned into the first street he came to, and then went forward asfast as was consistent with the idea of an artisan in a hurry. Beingutterly ignorant of the particular locality into which he hadpenetrated--though well enough acquainted with the main thoroughfares ofthe city--his only care was to put as many intricate streets and lanesas possible between himself and the detectives. This was soon done, andthereafter, turning into a darkish passage, he got rid of the paint-potand borrowed costume.

  Fortunately he had thrust his own soft helmet-shaped cap into his breastat the time he put on the billycock, and was thus enabled to issue fromthe dark passage very much like his former self, with the exception of afew spots of whitewash, which were soon removed.

  Feeling now pretty safe, our hero walked a considerable distance throughthe unknown parts of the city, before he ventured to inquire the way tothoroughfares with which he was familiar. Once in these, he proceededat a smart pace to one of the railway stations, intending to leave town,though as yet he had formed no definite plan of action. In truth, hismind was much troubled and confused by the action of his conscience, forwhen the thought of leaving home and entering the army as a privatesoldier, against his father's wishes, crossed his mind, Consciencefaithfully shook his head; and when softer feelings prevailed, and thequestion arose irresistibly, "Shall I return home?" the same faithfulfriend whispered, "Yes."

  In a state of indecision, Miles found himself borne along by a humanstream to the booking-office. Immediately in front of him were twosoldiers,--one a sergeant, and the other a private of the line.

  Both were tall handsome men, straight as arrows, and with that air ofself-sufficient power which is as far removed from arrogance as it isfrom cowardice, and is by no means an uncommon feature in men of theBritish army.

  Miles felt a strong, unaccountable attraction towards the young private.He had not yet heard his voice nor encountered his eye; indeed, beingbehind him, he had only seen his side-face, and as the expression on itwas that of stern gravity, the attractive power could not have lain inthat. It might have lain in the youthful look of the lad, for albeit agoodly man in person, he was almost a boy in countenance, beingapparently not yet twenty years of age.

  Miles was at last roused to the necessity for prompt and decisive actionby the voice of the sergeant saying in tones of authority--


  "That's the way to go it, lobster!" remarked a shabby man, next in theline behind Miles.

  The grave sergeant paid no more regard to this remark than if it hadbeen the squeak of a mouse.

  "Now, then, sir, your carridge stops the way. 'Eave a'ead. Shall I'elp you?" said the shabby man.

  Thus admonished, Miles, scarce knowing what he said, repeated thesergeant's words--


  "Vy, you ain't agoin' to pay for _me_, are you?" exclaimed the shabbyman in smiling surprise.

  "Oh! beg pardon. I mean _one_," said Miles to the clerk, quickly.

  The clerk retracted the second ticket with stolid indifference, andMiles, hastening to the platform, sat down on a seat, deeply anduncomfortably impressed with the fact that he possessed little or nomoney! This unsatisfactory state of things had suddenly burst upon himwhile in the act of paying for his ticket. He now made a carefulexamination of his purse, and found its contents to be exactly sevenshillings and sixpence, besides a few coppers in his trousers-pocket.

  Again indecision assailed him. Should he return? It was not too late."Yes," said Conscience, with emphasis. "No," said Shame. False prideechoed the word, and Self-will re-echoed it. Still our hero hesitated,and there is no saying what the upshot might have been if the bell hadnot rung at the moment, and, "Now, then, take your seats!" put an end tothe controversy.

  Another minute, and Miles Milton was seated opposite the two soldiers,rushing towards our great southern seaport at the rate of forty miles anhour.