Raffles by E.W. Hornung
The Knees of the Gods
Corporal Connal paid the penalty of his crime before the sun was far above the hill held by the enemy. There was abundance of circumstantial evidence against him, besides the direct testimony of Raffles and myself, and the wretch was shot at last with little ceremony and less shrift. And that was the one good thing that happened on the day that broke upon us hiding behind the bushes overlooking the donga; by noon it was my own turn.
I have avoided speaking of my wound before I need, and from the preceding pages you would not gather that I am more or less lame for life. You will soon see now why I was in no hurry to recall the incident. I used to think of a wound received in one's country's service as the proudest trophy a man could acquire. But the sight of mine depresses me every morning of my life; it was due for one thing to my own slow eye for cover, in taking which (to aggravate my case) our hardy little corps happened to excel.
The bullet went clean through my thigh, drilling the bone, but happily missing the sciatic nerve; thus the mere pain was less than it might have been, but of course I went over in a light-brown heap. We were advancing on our stomachs to take the hill, and thus extend our position, and it was at this point that the fire became too heavy for us, so that for hours (in the event) we moved neither forward nor back. But it was not a minute before Raffles came to me through the whistling scud, and in another I was on my back behind a shallow rock, with him kneeling over me and unrolling my bandage in the teeth of that murderous fire. It was on the knees of the gods, he said, when I begged him to bend lower, but for the moment I thought his tone as changed as his face had been earlier in the morning. To oblige me, however, he took more care; and, when he had done all that one comrade could for another, he did avail himself of the cover he had found for me. So there we lay together on the veldt, under blinding sun and withering fire, and I suppose it is the veldt that I should describe, as it swims and flickers before wounded eyes. I shut mine to bring it back, but all that comes is the keen brown face of Raffles, still a shade paler than its wont; now bending to sight and fire; now peering to see results, brows raised, eyes widened; anon turning to me with the word to set my tight lips grinning. He was talking all the time, but for my sake, and I knew it. Can you wonder that I could not see an inch beyond him? He was the battle to me then; he is the whole war to me as I look back now.
"Feel equal to a cigarette? It will buck you up, Bunny. No, that one in the silver paper, I've hoarded it for this. Here's a light; and so Bunny takes the Sullivan! All honor to the sporting rabbit!"
"At least I went over like one," said I, sending the only clouds into the blue, and chiefly wishing for their longer endurance. I was as hot as a cinder from my head to one foot; the other leg was ceasing to belong to me.
"Wait a bit," says Raffles, puckering; "there's a gray felt hat at deep long-on, and I want to add it to the bag for vengeance. . . . Wait--yes--no, no luck! I must pitch 'em up a bit more. Hallo! Magazine empty. How goes the Sullivan, Bunny? Rum to be smoking one on the veldt with a hole in your leg!"
"It's doing me good," I said, and I believe it was. But Raffles lay looking at me as he lightened his bandolier.
"Do you remember," he said softly, "the day we first began to think about the war? I can see the pink, misty river light, and feel the first bite there was in the air when one stood about; don't you wish we had either here! 'Orful slorter, orful slorter;' that fellow's face, I see it too; and here we have the thing he cried. Can you believe it's only six months ago?"
"Yes," I sighed, enjoying the thought of that afternoon less than he did; "yes, we were slow to catch fire at first."
"Too slow," he said quickly.
"But when we did catch," I went on, wishing we never had, "we soon burnt up."
"And then went out," laughed Raffles gayly. He was loaded up again. "Another over at the gray felt hat," said he; "by Jove, though, I believe he's having an over at me!"
"I wish you'd be careful," I urged. "I heard it too."
"My dear Bunny, it's on the knees you wot of. If anything's down in the specifications surely that is. Besides--that was nearer!"
"No, to him. Poor devil, he has his specifications too; it's comforting to think that. . . . I can't see where that one pitched; it may have been a wide; and it's very nearly the end of the over again. Feeling worse, Bunny?"
"No, I've only closed my eyes. Go on talking."
"It was I who let you in for this," he said, at his bandolier again.
"No, I'm glad I came out."
And I believe I still was, in a way; for it was rather fine to be wounded, just then, with the pain growing less; but the sensation was not to last me many minutes, and I can truthfully say that I have never felt it since.
"Ah, but you haven't had such a good time as I have!"
Had his voice vibrated, or had I imagined it? Pain-waves and loss of blood were playing tricks with my senses; now they were quite dull, and my leg alive and throbbing; now I had no leg at all, but more than all my ordinary senses in every other part of me. And the devil's orchestra was playing all the time, and all around me, on every class of fiendish instrument, which you have been made to hear for yourselves in every newspaper. Yet all that I heard was Raffles talking.
"I have had a good time, Bunny."
Yes, his voice was sad; but that was all; the vibration must have been in me.
"I know you have, old chap," said I.
"I am grateful to the General for giving me to-day. It may be the last. Then I can only say it's been the best--by Jove!"
"What is it?"
And I opened my eyes. His were shining. I can see them now.
"Got him--got the hat! No, I'm hanged if I have; at least he wasn't in it. The crafty cuss, he must have stuck it up on purpose. Another over . . . scoring's slow. . . . I wonder if he's sportsman enough to take a hint? His hat-trick's foolish. Will he show his face if I show mine?"
I lay with closed ears and eyes. My leg had come to life again, and the rest of me was numb.
His voice sounded higher. He must have been sitting upright.
But it was not well with me; that was all I thought as my lips made the word.
"It's not only been the best time I ever had, old Bunny, but I'm not half sure--"
Of what I can but guess; the sentence was not finished, and never could be in this world.