The Witch's Head/Book II/Chapter XVIII
The Zulu attack on Pretoria ultimately turned out only to have existed in the minds of two mad Kafirs, who dressed themselves up after the fashion of chiefs and personating two Zulu nobles of repute, who were known to be in the command of regiments, rode from house to house, telling the Dutch inhabitants that they had an Impi of thirty thousand men lying in the bush, and bidding them stand aside while they destroyed the Englishmen. Hence the scare.
The next month was a busy one for Alston's Horse. It was drill, drill, drill, morning, noon, and night. But the results soon became apparent. In three weeks from the day they got their horses, there was not a smarter, quicker corps in South Africa, and Mr. Alston and Ernest were highly complimented on the soldier-like appearance of the men, and the rapidity and exactitude with which they executed all the ordinary cavalry manoeuvres.
They were to march from Pretoria on the 10th of January, and expected to overtake Colonel Glynn's column, with which was the General, about the 18th, by which time Mr. Alston calculated the real advance upon Zululand would begin.
On the 8th, the good people of Pretoria gave the corps a farewell banquet, for most of its members were Pretoria men; and colonists are never behindhand when there is an excuse for conviviality and good-fellowship.
Of course, after the banquet, Mr.—or, as he was now called, Captain—Alston's health was drunk. But Alston was a man of few words, and had a horror of speech-making. He contented himself with a few brief sentences of acknowledgment and sat down. Then somebody proposed the health of the other commissioned and non-commissioned officers, and to this Ernest rose to respond, making a very good speech in reply. He rapidly sketched the state of political affairs, of which the Zulu war was the outcome, and, without any opinion on the justice or wisdom of that war, of which, to speak the truth, he had grave doubts, he went on to show, in a few well-chosen, weighty words, how vital were the interests involved in its successful conclusion, now that it once had been undertaken. Finally he concluded thus:
“I am well aware, gentlemen, that with many of those who are your guests here to-night, and my own comrades, this state of affairs, and the conviction of the extreme urgency of the occasion, has been the cause of their enlistment. It is impossible for me to look down these tables, and see so many in our rough-and-ready uniform, whom I have known in other walks of life, as farmers, store-keepers, Government clerks, and what not, without realising most clearly the extreme necessity that can have brought these peaceable citizens together on such an errand as we are bent on. Certainly it is not the ten shillings a day, or the mere excitement of savage warfare, that has done this" (cries of “No, no!”); “because most of them can well afford to despise the money, and many more have seen enough of native war, and know well that few rewards and plenty of hard work fall to the lot of colonial volunteers. Then what is it? I will venture to reply. It is that sense of patriotism which is a part and parcel of the English mind” (cheers), “and which from generation to generation has been the root of England's greatness, and, so long as the British blood remains untainted, will from unborn generation to generation be the mainspring of the greatness that is yet to be of those wider Englands, of which I hope this continent will become not the least.” (Loud cheers).
“That, gentlemen, and men of Alston's Horse, is the bond which unites us together; it is the sense of a common duty to perform, of a common danger to combat, of a common patriotism to vindicate. And for that reason, because of the patriotism and the duty, I feel sure that when the end of this campaign comes, whatever that end may be, no one, be he imperial officer or newspaper correspondent, or Zulu foe, will be able to say that Alston's Horse shirked its work, or was mutinous, or proved a broken reed, piercing the side of those who leaned on it.” (Cheers.) “I feel sure, too, that, though there may be a record of brave deeds such as become brave men, there will be none of a comrade deserted in the time of need, or of a failure in the moment of emergency, my brethren in arms,” and here Ernest's eyes flashed and his strong clear voice went ringing down the great hall, “whom England has called, and who have not failed to answer the call, I repeat, however terrible may be that emergency, even if it should involve the certainty of death—I speak thus because I feel I am addressing brave men, who do not fear to die, when death means duty, and life means dishonour—I know well that you will rise to it, and, falling shoulder to shoulder, will pass as heroes should on to the land of shades—on to that Valhalla of which no true heart should fear to set foot upon the threshold.”
Ernest sat down amid ringing cheers. Nor did these noble words, coming as they did straight from the loyal heart of an English gentleman, fail of their effect. On the contrary, when, a fortnight later, Alston's Horse formed that fatal ring on Isandhlwana's bloody field, they flashed through the brain of more than one despairing man, so that he set his teeth and died the harder for them.
“Bravo, my young Viking!” said Mr. Alston to Ernest, while the roof was still echoing to the cheers evoked by his speech, “the old Berserker spirit is cropping up, eh?” He knew that Ernest's mother's family, like so many of the old Eastern County stocks, were of Danish extraction.
It was a great night for Ernest.
Two days later Alston's Horse, sixty-four strong, marched out of Pretoria with a military band playing before. Alas! they never marched back again.
At the neck of the poort or pass the band and the crowd of ladies and gentlemen who had accompanied them halted, and, having given them three cheers, turned and left them. Ernest, too, turned and gazed at the pretty town, with its white houses and rose-hedges red with bloom, nestling on the plain beneath, and wondered if he would ever see it again. He never did.
The troop was then ordered to march at ease in half-sections, and Ernest rode up to the side of Alston; on his other side was the boy Roger, now about fourteen years of age, who acted as Alston's aide-de-camp, and was in high spirits at the prospect of the coming campaign. Presently Alston sent his son back to the other end of the line on some errand.
Ernest watched him as he galloped off, and a thought struck him.
“Alston,” he said, “do you think that it is wise to bring that boy into this business?”
His friend slewed himself round sharply in the saddle.
“Why not?” he asked, in his deliberate way.
“Well, you know there is a risk.”
“And why should not the boy run risks as well as the rest of us? Look here, Ernest, when I first met you there in Guernsey I was going to see the place where my wife was brought up. Do you know how she died?”
“I have heard she died a violent death; I do not know how.”
“Then I will tell you, though it costs me something to speak of it. She died by a Zulu assegai, a week after the boy was born. She saved his life by hiding him under a heap of straw. Don't ask me particulars; I can't bear to talk of it. Perhaps now you will understand why I am commanding a corps enrolled to serve against the Zulus. Perhaps, too, you will understand why the lad is with me. We go to avenge my wife and his mother, or to fall in the attempt. I have waited long for the opportunity; it has come.”
Ernest relapsed into silence, and presently fell back to his troop.
On the 20th of January, Alston's Horse, having moved down by easy marches from Pretoria, camped at Rorke's Drift, on the Buffalo River, not far from a store and a thatched building being used as a hospital, which were destined to become historical. Here orders reached them to march on the following day and join No. 3 column, with which was Lord Chelmsford himself, and which was camped about nine miles from the Buffalo River at a spot called Isandhlwana, or the “Place of the Little Hand.” Next day, the 21st of January, the corps moved on accordingly, and following the waggon-track that runs past the Inhlazatye Mountain, by midday came up to the camp, where about twenty-five hundred men of all arms were assembled under the immediate command of Colonel Glynn. Their camp, which was about eight hundred yards square, was pitched facing a wide plain, with its back towards a precipitous, slab-sided hill, of the curious formation sometimes to be seen in South Africa. This was Isandhlwana.
“Hullo!” said Alston, as, on reaching the summit of the neck over which the waggon-road runs, they came in sight of the camp, “they are not entrenched. By Jove,” he added, after scanning the camp carefully, “they haven't even got a waggon-laager!” and he whistled expressively.
“What do you mean?” asked Ernest.
Mr. Alston so rarely showed surprise that he knew there must be something very wrong.
“I mean, Ernest, that there is nothing to prevent the camp from being destroyed, and every soul in it, by a couple of Zulu regiments, if they choose to make a night attack. How they are to be kept out, I should like to know, in the dark, when you can't see to shoot them, unless there is some barrier? These officers, fresh from home, don't know what a Zulu charge is, that is very clear. I only hope they won't have occasion to find out. Look there,” and he pointed to a waggon lumbering along before them, on the top of which, among a lot of other miscellaneous articles, lay a bundle of cricketing bats and wickets, “they think that they are going on a picnic. What is the use, too, I should like to know, of sending four feeble columns sprawling over Zululand, to run the risk of being crushed in detail by a foe that can move from point to point at the rate of fifty miles a day, and which can at any moment slip past them and turn Natal into a howling wilderness? There, it is no use grumbling; I only hope I may be wrong. Get back to your troop, Ernest, and let us come into camp smartly. Form fours—trot!”
On arrival in the camp, Mr. Alston learned, on reporting himself to the officer commanding, that two strong parties of mounted men under the command of Major Dartnell were out on a reconnaissance towards the Inhlazatye Mountain, in which direction the Zulus were supposed to be in force. The orders he received were to rest his horses, as he might be required to join the mounted force with Major Dartnell on the morrow.
That night, as Alston and Ernest stood together at the door of their tent, smoking a pipe before turning in, they had some conversation. It was a beautiful night, and the stars shone brightly. Ernest looked at them, and thought on how many of man's wars those stars had looked.
“Star-gazing?” asked Mr. Alston.
“I was contemplating our future homes,” said Ernest, laughing.
“Ah, you believe that, do you? think you are immortal, and that sort of thing?”
“Yes; I believe that we shall live many lives, and that some of them will be there,” and he pointed to the stars. “Don't you?”
“I don't know. I think it rather presumptuous. Why should you propose that for you is reserved a bright destiny among the stars more than for these?” and he put out his hand and clasped several of a swarm of flying-ants which were passing at the time. “Just think how small must be the difference between these ants and us in the eyes of a Power who can produce both. These have their homes, their government, their colonies, their drones and workers. They enslave and annex, lay up riches, and, to bring the argument to an appropriate conclusion, make peace and war. What then is the difference? We are bigger, walk on two legs, have a larger capacity for suffering, and, we believe, a soul. Is it so great that we should suppose that for us is reserved a heaven, or all the glorious worlds which people space—for these, annihilation? Perhaps we are at the top of the tree of development, and for them may be the future, for us the annihilation. Who knows? There, fly away, and make the most of the present, for nothing else is certain.”
“You overlook religion entirely.”
“Religion? Which religion? There are so many. Our Christian God, Buddha, Mohammed, Brahma, all number their countless millions of worshippers. Each promises a different thing, each commands the equally intense belief of his worshippers, for with them all blind faith is a condition precedent; and each appears to satisfy their spiritual aspirations. Can all of these be true religions? Each holds the other false and outside the pale; each tries to convert the other, and fails. There are many lesser ones of which the same thing may be said.”
“But the same spirit underlies them all.”
“Perhaps. There is much that is noble in all religions, but there is also much that is terrible. To the actual horrors and wearing anxieties of physical existence, religion bids us add on the vaguer horrors of a spiritual existence, which are to be absolutely endless. The average Christian would be uncomfortable if you deprived him of his hell and his personal devil. For myself, I decline to believe in such things. If there is a hell, it is this world; this world is a place of expiation for the sins of the world; and the only real devil is the devil of man's evil passions.”
“It is possible to be religious and be a good man without believing in hell,” said Ernest.
“Yes, I think so, otherwise my chance is a poor one. Besides, I do not deny the Almighty Power. I only deny the cruelty that is attributed to Him. It may be that, from the accumulated mass of the wrong and bloodshed and agony of this hard world, that Power is building up some high purpose. Out of the bodies of millions of living creatures Nature worked out her purpose and made the rocks, but the process must have been unpleasant to the living creatures by whose humble means the great strata were reared up. They lived, to die in billions, that tens of thousands of years afterwards there might be a rock. It may be so with us. Our tears and blood and agony may produce some solid end that now we cannot guess; their volume, which cannot be wasted, for nothing is wasted, may be building up one of the rocks of God's far-off purpose. But that we shall be tortured here for a time in order that we may be indefinitely tortured there,” and he pointed to the stars, “that I will never believe. Look at the mist rising from that hollow; so does the reek of the world's misery rise as an offering to the world's gods. The mist will cease to rise, and fall again in rain, and bring a blessing; but the incense of human suffering rises night and day for so long as the earth shall endure, nor does it fall again in dews of mercy. And yet Christians, who declare that God is love, declare, too, that for the vast majority of their fellow-creatures this process is to continue from millennium to millennium.”
“It depends on our life, they say.”
“Look here, Ernest, a man can do no more than he can. When I got to the age of discretion, which I put at eight-and-twenty—you have hardly reached it yet, my boy, you are nothing but a babe—I made three resolutions: always to try and do my duty, never to turn my back on a poor man or a friend in trouble, and, if possible, not to make love to my neighbour's wife. Those resolutions I have often broken more or less, either in the spirit or the letter, but in the main I have stuck to them, and I can put my hand upon my heart to-night and say, 'I have done my best!' And so I go my path, turning neither to the right nor to the left, and when Fate finds me, I shall meet him, fearing nothing, for I know he has wreaked his worst upon me, and can only at the utmost bring me eternal sleep; and hoping nothing, because my experience here has not been such as to justify the hope of any happiness for man, and my vanity is not sufficiently strong to allow me to believe in the intervention of a superior Power to save so miserable a creature from the common lot of life. Good-night.”
On the following day his fate found him.