’A child ain’t no such rarity in San Sebastian that anybody need offer five pounds for one.’
‘What’s this talk about a child?’ asked Sergeant Wilkes, coming in from his rounds, and dropping to a seat by the blaze. He caught sight of Corporal Sam standing a little way back, and nodded.
’Well, it seems that, barring this child, every soul in the house has been killed. The place is pretty certain death to approach, and the crittur, for all that’s known, has been left without food for two days and more. ’Tis a boy, I’m told—a small thing, not above four at the most. Between whiles it runs to the window and looks out. The sentries have seen it more’n a dozen times; and one told me he’d a sight sooner look on a ghost.’
‘Then why don’t the Frenchies help?’ some one demanded. ’There’s a plenty of ’em close by, in the convent.’
’The convent don’t count. There’s a garden between it and the house, and on the convent side a blank wall—no windows at all, only loopholes. Besides which, there’s a whole block of buildings in full blaze t’other side of the house, and the smoke of it drives across so that ’tis only between whiles you can see the child at all. The odds are, he’ll be burnt alive or smothered before he starves outright; and, I reckon, put one against the other, ’twill be the mercifuller end.’
‘Poor little beggar,’ said the sergeant. ’But why don’t the general send in a white flag, and take him off?’
’A lot the governor would believe—and after what you and me have seen these two days! A nice tenderhearted crew to tell him, “If you please, we’ve come for a poor little three-year-old.” Why, he’d as lief as not believe we meant to eat him.’
Sergeant Wilkes glanced up across the camp-fire to the spot where Corporal Sam had been standing. But Corporal Sam had disappeared.
Although the hour was close upon midnight, and no moon showed, Corporal Sam needed no lantern to light him through San Sebastian; for a great part of the upper town still burned fiercely, and from time to time a shell, soaring aloft from the mortar batteries across the river, burst over the citadel or against the rocks where the French yet clung, and each explosion flung a glare across the heavens.
He had passed into the town unchallenged. The fatigue parties, hunting by twos and threes among the ruins of the river-front for corpses to burn or bury, doubtless supposed him to be about the same business. At any rate, they paid him no attention.
Just within the walls, where the conflagration had burnt itself out, there were patches of black shadow to be crossed carefully. The fighting had been obstinate here, and more than one blazing house had collapsed into the thick of it. The corporal picked his way gingerly, shivering a little at the thought of some things buried, or half-buried, among the loose stones. Indeed, at the head of the first street his foot entangled itself in something soft. It turned out to be nothing more than a man’s cloak, or poncho, and he slipped it on, to hide his uniform and avoid explanations should he fall in with one of the patrols; but the feel of it gave him a scare for a moment.