The assault had failed. At the foot of the breach a soldier of the 4th Regiment, mad with rage, foamed out a curse upon the Royals. Corporal Sam lifted his bleeding fist and struck him across the mouth. The sergeant dragged the two apart, slipped an arm under his comrade’s, and led him away as one leads a child. A moment later the surge of the retreating crowd had almost carried them off their feet. But the sergeant kept a tight hold, and steered his friend back every yard of the way along the bullet-swept foreshore. They were less than half-way across when the dawn broke; and looking in his face he saw that the lad was crying silently—the powder-grime on his cheeks streaked and channelled with tears.
‘I don’t understand ye, lad,’ said Sergeant Wilkes.
‘Fast enough you’d understand, if you’d but look me in the face,’ answered Corporal Sam, digging his heel into the sand.
The two men lay supine on a cushion of coarse grass; the sergeant smoking and staring up at the sky, the corporal, with his sound hand clasping his wounded one behind his head, his gaze fixed gloomily between his knees and across the dunes, on the still unrepaired breach in San Sebastian.
A whole fortnight had dragged by since the assault: a fortnight of idleness for the troops, embittered almost intolerably by a sense that the Fifth Division had disgraced itself. One regiment blamed another, and all conspired to curse the artillery—whose practice, by the way, had been brilliant throughout the siege. Nor did the gunners fail to retort; but they were in luckier case, being kept busy all the while, first in shifting their batteries and removing their worst guns to the ships, next in hauling and placing the new train that arrived piecemeal from England; and not only busy, but alert, on the watch against sorties. Also, and although the error of cannonading the columns of assault had never been cleared up, the brunt of Wellington’s displeasure had fallen on the stormers. The Marquis ever laid stress on his infantry, whether to use them or blame them; and when he found occasion to blame, he had words—and methods—that scarified equally the general of division and the private soldier.
‘Fast enough you understand,’ repeated Corporal Sam savagely.
‘I do, then, and I don’t,’ admitted Sergeant Wilkes, after a pause. The lad puzzled him; gave him few confidences, asked for none at all, and certainly was no cheerful companion; and yet during these days of humiliation the two had become friends, almost inseparable. ‘I’ve read it,’ the sergeant pursued, ’in Scripture or somewhere, that a man what keeps a hold on himself does better than if he took a city. I don’t say as I understand that altogether; but it sounds right.’
‘Plucky lot of cities we take, in the Royals,’ growled Corporal Sam. He nodded, as well as his posture allowed, towards San Sebastian. ‘And you call that a third-class fortress!’