All was quiet in the dugout as Stanhope stared in disbelief at Raleigh's limp body. The boy's eyes were shut tight and his mouth hung open in a small crack. Stanhope was completely unsure of what to do next; there was so much he wanted to say to Raleigh, so much he wanted to change and apologize for. Now he couldn't do it.
I killed you, he thought, pressing his hand to the boy's cold forehead and running his palm over the sweaty skin. I killed you like I killed Osborne. You were so innocent and beautiful. You weren't ready for all this. And now you're gone.
Unable to stand the sight of his dead comrade, Stanhope turned his head away in anger, stepping over to the nearby table and crashing himself on the box beside it. He held his head in his hands, trying to process the thought of going out there into battle alongside his troops while Raleigh would lie here, alone and defenceless. He breathed in and out loudly, trying to recollect himself. He would not break down. Not now. He'd been a pathetic leader in the past, and he was not going to act like that again.
Swiping a pen and a small sheet of paper from the shelves, Stanhope blinked to fight back the tears forming in his eyes, twirling the pen between his fingers. He wouldn't leave Raleigh like this. He had to do something. Breathing out another puff of air, he began to scratch words onto the paper.
I'm sorry it had to end this way for you. You have no idea how angry I am at myself, the war, everything that has happened in the last few days. I would have saved you if I could, believe me, I really would. My efforts have now come too late. I should have treated you so much better, with all the compassion and help you deserved.
You looked up to me as a child, and again when you came here. I really am amazed at how much you admire me, but to tell you the truth, Jimmy, I don't deserve it. I don't deserve any of it. This war has transformed me into a different man, one without reason, understanding or sensibility. I don't deserve your admiration; you were too special and wonderful a person to put your faith in someone like me. I sent you to your death, and I can't express how truly sorry I am for the wrong I did. It never should have ended like this.
Jimmy, I hope you can forgive me, wherever you are now, and that all you experience in your next life will be prosperous and enjoyable. I never said any of this to you before, but it's all true; I mean it. I was too much of a coward to express my feelings when I was too busy drinking my troubles and heartache away. But I realise my mistakes now. And so, before I go out onto the battlefields for possibly my last time, I want you to know that you were the most wonderful person I ever had the pleasure of meeting, and a very important person to me. I loved your sister for a while, yes. But Jimmy, she was nothing compared to you.
Take care of yourself, wherever you go, as I want you to be happy from now on.
With all the love in the world,
Stanhope dropped the pen, his hand shaking from the effort of writing. There. He'd done it. That would suffice as a last goodbye to his amazing friend. It would have been better to tell him this while he was alive, but that chance had now gone. In his heart, Stanhope knew that Raleigh would accept his apologies, despite the fact he could no longer say it in words.
He folded up the note neatly, stood up from the box and slowly returned to where Raleigh lay. Stanhope was now trembling with sobs, but he didn't try to fight them. Carefully, he placed the paper underneath the boy's head, adjusting a blanket around his delicate body so he would be comfortable. Stanhope sniffed, a sorrowful moan escaping his lips. He could feel his cheeks becoming moist now.
He leaned over Raleigh's head and planted a gentle kiss on his brow. He pressed his forehead to his, another loud breath protruding from his mouth. He felt a tear slide from his face and onto Raleigh's pale skin. The guns were sounding outside. Stanhope knew he had to leave now.
"I love you," he whispered to Raleigh softly, trying hard to control his crying. He had said it now, and it mattered, even if Raleigh could not hear him.
The soldier straightened himself up, giving the dead boy one last look, and headed out of the dugout with his equipment. The muddy room remained quiet, only the sound of the candle wax cracking as the light flickered on the wick. Raleigh lay still, undisturbed by the guns that now roared from outside, plunging the entire world into a blanket of darkness as the dugout began to crumble and fall.