Close upon these thoughts came the jingling of the field officer’s sword, and the turn out of the guard. “Who goes there?”—“Rounds.”—“What rounds?”—“Grand rounds.”—“Halt, grand rounds, advance one, and give the counter-sign!” The familiar words struck coldly on John Broom’s heart, as if they had been orders to a firing party, and the bandage was already across the Highlander’s blue eyes. Would the grand rounds be challenged at the three roads to-night? He darted out into the snow.
He flew, as the crow flies, across the fields, to where M’Alister was on duty. It was a much shorter distance than by the road, which was winding; but whether this would balance the difference between a horse’s pace and his own was the question, and there being no time to question, he ran on.
He kept his black head down, and ran from his shoulders. The clatter, clatter, jingle, jingle, on the hard road came to him through the still frost on a level with his left ear. It was terrible, but he held on, dodging under the hedges to be out of sight, and the sound lessened, and by-and-by, the road having wound about, he could hear it faintly, but behind him.
And he reached the three roads, and M’Alister was asleep in the ditch.
But when, with jingle and clatter, the field officer of the day reached the spot, the giant Highlander stood like a watch-tower at his post, with a little snow on the black plumes that drooped upon his shoulders.
John Broom did not see the Highlander again for two or three days. It was Christmas week, and, in spite of the war panic, there was festivity enough in the barracks to keep the errand-boy very busy.
Then came New Year’s Eve—“Hogmenay,” as the Scotch call it—and it was the Highland regiment’s particular festival. Worn-out with whiskey-fetching and with helping to deck barrack-rooms and carrying pots and trestles, John Broom was having a nap in the evening, in company with a mongrel deer-hound, when a man shook him, and said, “I heard some one asking for ye an hour or two back; M’Alister wants ye.”
“Where is he?” said John Broom, jumping to his feet.
“In hospital; he’s been there a day or two. He got cold on outpost duty, and it’s flown to his lungs, they say. Ye see he’s been a hard drinker, has M’Alister, and I expect he’s breaking up.”
With which very just conclusion the speaker went on into the canteen, and John Broom ran to the hospital.
Stripped of his picturesque trappings, and with no plumes to shadow the hollows in his temples, M’Alister looked gaunt and feeble enough, as he lay in the little hospital bed, which barely held his long limbs. Such a wreck of giant powers of body, and noble qualities of mind as the drink-shops are preparing for the hospitals every day!