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Title: Sentry No. 1
Author: Edgar Wallace
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
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Language: English
Date first posted:  Feb 2014
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Sentry No. 1

by

Edgar Wallace

Cover Image

As published in The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 9, 1924



Edgar Wallace presumably syndicated this tale to a number of magazines and news­papers, but the only copy found so far is the version published, with one illustration, in "Our Boys and Girls," the children's section of The Philadelphia Inquirer, on Sunday, November 9, 1924. In the following text obvious typographical errors have been corrected without comment. —RG.



WHEN Ferdie van Wyk was arrested for being found in the barracks of the Larkshire Regiment under suspicious circumstances, he very naturally objected to being marched through the one little street of Simon's Town by a military escort.

Ferdie was neither black nor white, being of that complexion which is described politely as "colored." He had been thrown out of Cronje's army for drunkenness and theft, and he had tasted the dread "sjambok"—that pliant length of rhinoceros hide which the backveldt Boer wields with such skill. He left, vowing vengeance upon his onetime friends, and came to the British Army at Modder River with a cock-and-bull story which secured him a post, first as transport rider, then as guide to the force. Here he was detected in the act of cruelly and unnecessarily flogging a native boy. The boy was a Fingo lad engaged as "voertrekker"—that is to say he walked ahead of an ox-team. leading them, since, as you may know, oxen are not guided by reins, and move so slowly that the "voertrekker" finds no difficulty in keeping ahead of them. For his cruelty, Van Wyk was kicked out of the British Army and carried himself to Commandant Viljoen, who was operating in the Free State. In his malice he volunteered to lead the Boers to an unprotected British post on the railway line between the Orange and the Modder Rivers.

He was so plausible with his stories of rich stores guarded only by a handful of soldiers that the commandant took his command to the attack, only to be repulsed with considerable loss. Van Wyk escaped with his life and wandered about the country, robbing isolated farmhouses and terrifying the women who had been left behind till he found himself at De Aar, in the Cape Colony, where he was suspected of having wrecked a troop train, but escaped again by smuggling himself on a southward-bound mail train.


Illustration

Van Wyk wandered about the country, robbing isolated farmhouses


He drifted to Simon's Town, filled with hatred for mankind and especially soldier-kind. It mattered little to him whether the soldier were Briton or Boer, whether he wore khaki or the cartridge belt which constituted the sole uniform of the burgher army.

A tall broad-shouldered man with a dark yellow complexion, flat nose and seamed cheeks, his sullen eyes surveyed the pretty little town hatefully. Like many other men who by their own wicked acts have brought punishment upon their heads, he blamed everybody but himself, and he blamed nobody so much as the deputy chief magistrate of Simon's Town, who, eight years before, had sentenced him to a term of imprisonment for atrocious cruelty to a dog.

It was unfortunate for Van Wyk (that was the name he adopted) that his thieving propensities should get the better of him. Thinking that the detachment of soldiers stationed in Simon's Town was engaged in manoeuvring on the hills, he made a furtive visit to the barrack-rooms, and was captured whilst he was pilfering a soldier's kit-bag.

Van Wyk scowled as he was led into the courthouse, for sitting on the bench was the same young magistrate who had sentenced him eight years before.

Mr. Gerald was not so young, but he bad scarcely altered, indeed he looked younger.

"I know your face," he said, when the evidence had been given; "aren't you Ferdie Van Wyk?"

"No," lied the prisoner, sullenly.

"I am satisfied that you are," insisted the magistrate.

"That's right, your worship," said a gaoler.

Van Wyk scowled at the official, and if a look could have killed, assuredly the gaoler would have died on the spot.

"I shall send you to Cape Town for trial," said the magistrate, and there the matter ended.

Outside the courthouse Van Wyk waited under the care of two armed guards, planning methods of escape. He saw a native nurse wheeling a baby up and down in the shade of the magistrate's garden.

"Whose child is that?" he asked in Dutch.

"The magistrate's little girl," was the reply. A malevolent gleam lit the halfbreed's eye as they marched him away to the cells.

He found himself locked up with two choice spirits, men of his own color, also awaiting trial, and both of them apparently foredoomed to long sentences.

"I wish I could take a match and blow this town off the face of the earth," said one bitterly.

"If we could set fire to the magazine," said the other.

Van Wyk, his heart filled with black hate, said nothing, but he thought of the magistrate and he thought of the gaoler.

"I have a plan, brothers," he said after a while. "At what hour does the gaoler come in the evening?"

"At seven."

"Alone?"

"Sometimes," said one of the men, "but he never enters the cell—he puts the food through, this trap," and he indicated a small wicket in the aoor.

"Where does he carry his keys?" asked Van Wyk

"On his belt."

Van Wyk thought. He was a man of tremendous strength, and his long arms, reaching almost to his knees, were more like a monkey's than a man's. He measured his arm against the door and nodded, satisfied.

At night came Crumps, the gaoler, with the evening meal. He came alone, but he felt safe enough with a door of thick oak between himself and his prisoners. He passed the bread and soup which formed the evening meal through the wicket, then as he was on the point of closing the little steel grating Van Wyk called him.

"What do you want?" asked the gaoler testily.

Van Wyk's arm shot through the wicket, and his long sinewy fingers caught the gaoler's throat. The man struggled, but was drawn to the grating, and another hand grasped him and drew him tighter to the door. He struggled madly, tore at the encircling fingers, but the assault was too sudden. He went limp and unconscious.

Van Wyk held him thus, then, gripping him by the collar with one hand, thrust his long arm through the wicket and found the keys hanging by a chain. With a wrench he tore the chain from the belt and let the inanimate figure fall to the ground.

He chose a key and reached bis arm through to its fullest extent... A minute or two later three prisoners tiptoed down the stone corridor to freedom and vengeance.

* * * * *

IT wanted a quarter to one when the sentrv on No. 1 post began his weary perambulation of the beat which extended almost from the seashore to the iittle waterfall in the kloof. Behind the square, squat magazine the hill rose steeply. Above, the sentry heard the whine and the bark of baboons at their play. It was not a cheery post, even in the broad light of the African day, when Simon's Bay, alive with grey-hulled men-of-war brought a sense of companionship: at night No. 1 was the saddest of all posts in the world. So thought Terrence Cane as he shifted his rifle from one shoulder to the other for comfort, and stepped briskly toward the town end of his beat.

There was a level width of road cut out of the hillside. On his left now the ground sloped away steeply, leading down to a brook and a score of disreputable houses which were huddled about the insalubrious streamlet.

He was half-way across the road when he stopped suddenly.

Somewhere close at hand he had heard the whimper of a baby. It came from the left, and he peered down the slope. He saw a movement, ever so slight, on the hillside and brought his loaded rifle down to his hip with a smack. "Halt! who comes here?" he challenged quickly, but there was no reply. He listened. Only the barking on the hill and the musical tinkle of the fall broke the silence of the night.

Then again came the fretful cry and again he saw a movement.

He stepped carefully down the rough slope, his bayonet glittering blue in the moonlight, then with an exclamation stooped and picked up a little bundle that lay at his feet.

It was a little baby apparently only a few months old.

He climbed back to his post, carrying rifle in one hand and the baby in the other.

"Why, you little beggar!" exclaimed Private Cane reproachfully. "What do you mean by being out so late at night?"

It was a white child, beautifully and delicately dressed in night-clothes of the finest texture. How had it come there?

Ten minutes before he had thought he heard voices coming from the direction of the brook, but that was not an ununsual circumstance. One always heard voices on No. 1 post, and before now the guard had marched to the relief of a sentry who had broken down into a nervous wreck from the strain of two hours spent on the magazine guard.

Cane walked slowly back to the magazine sentry-box. It was a warm night, but his overcoat hung there in case of rain, and he carefully wrapped the little one in its folds. She was sleeping as calmly as though she were in her beribboned cradle.

He was bending over the child when he heard a noise behind him. He turned quickly, but not quickly enough.

A billet of wood came down on his defenseless head, and he went down like a log.

"Better kill him and finish it," said Van Wyk

"What's the good," whispered the ruffian with him; "if we blow up the magazine he'll die without trouble—you were mad to leave the child on the hill."

Van Wyk turned with an oath.

"What else could we do?" he asked fiercely. "I didn't know he went so far in his walk—I didn't want to alarm him, and I can't carry a kid in mv arms whilst I'm scaling a magazine wall."

He looked at the senseless soldier at his feet, and the third man spoke.

"Let us take his rifle," he said.

"Time for that later," said Van Wyk gruffly. "Give me the matches and the shavings and help me over the wall."

But first they dragged poor Cane to a sitting position, bound him tightly with a length of cord, and forced a stick gag into his mouth. Whilst they were doing this the baby raised a fretful cry.

"Hurry up!" said Van Wyk; "if the magistrate discovers the kid has gone he'll raise the town—and besides, the sentries are relieved in half ah hour."

The three men made for the wall as the dockyard clock struck one.

"No. 2.—All-l-l's well!"

Van Wyk heard the distant cry from the barrack sentry.

"No. 3. —All-l-l's well!"

Fainter came the answer from the store guard.

He knew that the men in the guard room would be waiting for No. 1 to respond, and if he did not answer a file of the guard would come at the double to discover why.

"Hurry!" he growled.

A small baby girl who wakes from a pleasant nap in the middle of the night and finds herself in the unaccustomed surroundings of a sentry-box swathed in a soldier's great-coat may choose between yelling her indignation or investigating.

Baby Gerald investigated. She crawled from her bed and flopped alarmingly in the road. She saw a huddled man apparently asleep, and since she had seen people asleep before she was not alarmed. More to the point, she saw a very pretty object glittering on the roadway. It was a long rifle with a bayonet at its end, and she started to crawl its length, cooing cheerfully the while.

She started at the butt end and had not gone far when she stopped to investigate some highly-complicated mechanism. She did not know how complicated it was—all she realized was that it was inviting. She grasped at the polished bolt and she touched the magazine, and then her inquiring, saucy eyes saw a little projection of steel beneath tne rifle. She tugged at this, but it wouldn't come away. She turned again.

"Bang!"

Baby Gerald went backward with a terrified yell, and Van Wyk, astride of the wall, dropped quickly to the ground and ran for his life—straight into the arms of the hurrying picket.

He swung aside and darted down the slope, but the corporal of the guard was a crack shot, and Ferdie Van Wyk finished his earthly career on the slopes of Simon's Bay.

Baby Gerald is now a grown young lady, but they call her "Sentry No. 1" to this day.


THE END