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Corporal Sam
by [?]

‘Wonder what it feels like?’

Sergeant Wilkes, not catching the meaning of this, turned about slowly. The speaker was a tall young corporal, Sam Vicary by name and by birth a Somerset lad–a curly haired, broad-shouldered fellow with a simple engaging smile. He had come out with one of the later drafts, and nobody knew the cause of his enlisting, but it was supposed to be some poaching trouble at home. At all events, the recruiting sergeant had picked up a bargain in him, for, let alone his stature–and the Royals as a regiment prided themselves on their inches–he was easily the best marksman in B Company. Sergeant Wilkes, on whose recommendation he had been given his corporal’s stripe, the day after Vittoria, looked on him as the hopefullest of his youngsters.

‘Feels like?’ echoed the sergeant, following the young man’s gaze and observing that it rested on the great breach. ‘Oh! ’tis the assault you mean? Well, it feels pretty much like any other part of the business, only your blood’s up, and you don’t have to keep yourself warm, waiting for the guns to tire. When we stormed the San Vincenty, now, at Badajoz–‘

Some one interrupted, with a serio-comic groan.

‘You’ve started him now, Sam Vicary! Johnny-raws of the Third Battalion, your kind attention, pray, for Daddy Wilkes and the good old days when pipeclay was pipeclay. Don’t be afraid, for though he took that first class fortress single-handed, you may sit upon his knee, and he’ll tell you all about it.’

‘It’s children you are, anyway,’ said the sergeant, with a tolerant smile. ‘But I’ll forgive ye, when the time comes, if ye’ll do the Royals credit–and, what’s more, I’ll never cast up that ’twas but a third battalion against a third-class place. Nor will I need to,’ he added, after a pause, ‘if the general makes a throw for yon breach before clearing the hornwork.’

‘I wasn’t thinkin’ of the assault,’ explained the young corporal, simply, ‘but of the women and children. It must be hell for them, this waitin’.’

The same voice that had mocked the sergeant put up a ribald guffaw.

‘Didn’t the general give warning,’ it asked, ‘when he summoned the garrison? “I’ve got Sam Vicary here along with me,” he said, “and so I give you notice, for Sam’s a terror when he starts to work.”‘

‘If you fellows could quit foolin’ a moment–‘ began Corporal Sam, with an ingenuous blush. But here on a sudden the slope below them opened with a roar as the breaching battery–gun after gun–renewed its fire on the sea-wall. Amid the din, and while the earth shook underfoot, the sergeant was the first to recover himself.

‘Another breach!’ he shouted between the explosions, putting up both hands like a pair of spectacles and peering through the smoke. ‘See there–to the left; and that accounts for their quiet this last hour.’ He watched the impact of the shot for a minute or so, and shook his head. ‘They’d do better to clear the horn work. At Badajoz, now–‘

But here he checked himself in time, and fortunately no one had heard him. The men moved on and struck into the rutted track leading from the batteries to camp. He turned and followed them in a brown study. Ever since Badajoz, siege operations had been Sergeant Wilkes’s foible. His youngsters played upon it, drawing him into discussions over the camp-fire, and winking one to another as he expounded and illustrated, using bits of stick to represent parallels, traverses, rampart and glacis, scarp and counterscarp. But he had mastered something of the theory, after his lights, and our batteries’ neglect of the hornwork struck him as unscientific.

As he pursued the path, a few dozen yards in rear of his comrades, at a turn where it doubled a sharp corner he saw their hands go up to the salute, and with this slight warning came upon two of his own officers–Major Frazer and Captain Archimbeau–perched on a knoll to the left, and attentively studying the artillery practice through their glasses. The captain (who, by the way, commanded B Company) signed to him to halt, and climbed down to him while the fatigue party trudged on. Major Frazer followed, closing his field telescope as he descended.