The man rose to his full height, and laid his hand heavily on the boy’s shoulder, and his eyes seemed to fade with that pitiful, weary look, which only such blue eyes show so well, “Because I canna” said he; “because, for as big as I am, I canna. But for as little as you are, laddie, ye can, and, Heaven help me, ye shall.”
That evening he called John Broom into the barrack-room where he slept. He was sitting on the edge of his bed, and had a little wooden money-box in his hands.
“What money have ye, laddie?” he asked.
John Broom pulled out three halfpence lately earned, and the Scotchman dropped them slowly into the box. Then he turned the key, and put it into his pocket, and gave the box to the boy.
“Ye’ll put what ye earn in there,” said he, “I’ll keep the key, and ye’ll keep the box yoursel; and when it’s opened we’ll open it together, and lay out your savings in decent clothes for ye against the winter.”
At this moment some men passing to the canteen shouted, “M’Alister?” The Highlander did not answer, but he started to the door. Then he stood irresolute, and then turned and reseated himself.
“Gang and bring me a bit o’ tobacco,” he said, giving John Broom a penny. And when the boy had gone he emptied his pocket of the few pence left, and dropped them into the box, muttering, “If he manna, I wunna.”
And when the tobacco came, he lit his pipe, and sat on the bench outside, and snarled at every one who spoke to him.
It was a bitterly cold winter. The soldiers drank a great deal, and John Broom was constantly trotting up and down, and the box grew very heavy.
Bottles were filled and refilled, in spite of greatly increased strictness in the discipline of the garrison, for there were rumours of invasion, and penalties were heavy, and sentry posts were increased, and the regiments were kept in readiness for action.
The Highlander had not cured himself of drinking, though he had cured John Broom. But, like others, he was more wary just now, and had hitherto escaped the heavy punishments inflicted in a time of probable war; and John Broom watched over him with the fidelity of a sheep dog, and more than once had roused him with a can of cold water when he was all but caught by his superiors in a state of stupor, which would not have been credited to the frost alone.
The talk of invasion had become grave, when one day a body of men were ordered for outpost duty, and M’Alister was among them. The officer had got a room for them in a farmhouse, where they sat round the fire, and went out by turns to act as sentries at various posts for an hour or two at a time.
The novelty was delightful to John Broom. He hung about the farmhouse, and warmed himself at the soldiers’ fire.
In the course of the day M’Alister got him apart and whispered, “I’m going on duty the night at ten, laddie. It’s fearsome cold, and I hav’na had a drop to warm me the day. If ye could ha’ brought me a wee drappie to the corner of the three roads—it’s twa miles from here I’m thinking—”