Slowly he picked himself up. The sky was dark now; but, marvellous to say, the house stood. The mass of it yet loomed over the laurels. Yes, and a light showed under the door at the head of the steps. He groped his way up and pushed the door open.
The light came through a rent in the opposite wall, and on the edge of this jagged hole some thin laths were just bursting into a blaze. He rushed across the room to beat out the flame, and this was easily done; but, as he did it, he caught sight of a woman’s body, stretched along the floor by the fireplace, and of a child cowering in the corner, watching him.
‘Come and help, little one,’ said Corporal Sam, still beating at the laths.
The child understood no English, and moreover was too small to help. But it seemed that the corporal’s voice emboldened him, for he drew near and stood watching.
‘Who did this, little one?’ asked Corporal Sam, nodding towards the corpse, as he rubbed the charred dust from his hands.
For a while the child stared at him, not comprehending; but by-and-by pointed beneath the table and then back at its mother.
The corporal walked to the table, stooped, and drew from under it a rifle and a pouch half-filled with cartridges.
‘Tell him we’ve been there.’ He seemed to hear the rifleman Bill’s voice repeating the words, close at hand. He recognised the badge on the pouch.
He was shaking where he stood; and this, perhaps, was why the child stared at him so oddly. But, looking into the wondering young eyes, he read only the question, ‘What are you going to do?’
He hated these riflemen. Nay, looking around the room, how he hated all the foul forces that had made this room what it was! . . . And yet, on the edge of resolve, he knew that he must die for what he meant to do . . . that the thing was unpardonable, that in the end he must be shot down, and rightly, as a dog.
He remembered his dog Rover, how the poor brute had been tempted to sheep-killing at night, on the sly; and the look in his eyes when, detected at length, he had crawled forward to his master to be shot. No other sentence was possible, and Rover had known it.
Had he no better excuse? Perhaps not. . . . He only knew that he could not help it; that this thing had been done, and by the consent of many . . . and that as a man he must kill for it, though as a soldier he deserved only to be killed.
With the child’s eyes still resting on him in wonder, he set the rifle on its butt and rammed down a cartridge; and so, dropping on hands and knees, crept to the window.
Early next morning Sergeant Wilkes picked his way across the ruins of the great breach and into the town, keeping well to windward of the fatigue parties already kindling fires and collecting the dead bodies that remained unburied.