The Witch's Head/Book II/Chapter XVII

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Ernest and Jeremy did not let the grass grow under their feet. They guessed that there would soon be a good deal of recruiting for various corps, and so set to work at once to secure the best men. The stamp of man they aimed at getting was the colonial-born Englishman, both because such men have more self-respect, independence of character, and “gumption,” than the ordinary drifting sediment from the diamond fields and seaports, and also because they were practically ready-made soldiers. They could ride as well as they could walk, they were splendid rifle-shots, and they had, too, from childhood, been trained in the art of travelling without baggage, and very rapidly.

Ernest did not find much difficulty in the task. Mr. Alston was well known, and had seen a great deal of service as a young man in the Basuto wars, and stories were still told of his nerve and pluck. He was known, too, to be a wary man, not rash or over-confident, but of a determined mind; and, what is more, to possess a perfect knowledge of Zulu warfare and tactics. This went a long way with intending recruits, for the first thing a would-be colonial volunteer inquires into is the character of his officers. He will not trust his life to men in whom he puts no reliance. He is willing to lose it in the way of duty, but he has a great objection to having it blundered away. Indeed, in many South African volunteer corps it is a fundamental principle that the officers should be elected by the men themselves. Once elected, however, they cannot be deposed except by competent authority.

Ernest, too, was by this time well known in the Transvaal, and universally believed in. Mr. Alston could not have chosen a better lieutenant. He was known to have pluck and dash, and to be ready-witted in emergency; but it was not those qualities only which made him acceptable to the individuals whose continued existence would very possibly depend upon his courage and discretion. Indeed, it would be difficult to say what it was; but there are some men who are by nature born leaders of their fellows, and who inspire confidence magnetically. Ernest had this great gift. At first sight he was much like any other young man, rather careless-looking than otherwise in appearance, and giving the observer the impression that he was thinking of something else; but old hands at native warfare, looking into his dark eyes, saw something there which told them that this young fellow, boy as he was, comparatively speaking, would not show himself wanting in the moment of emergency, either in courage or discretion. Jeremy's nomination, too, as sergeant-major, a very important post in such a corps, was popular enough. People had not forgotten his victory over the Boer giant, and besides, a sergeant-major with such a physique would have been a credit to any corps.

All these things helped to make recruiting an easy task, and when Alston and his son Roger, weary and bruised, stepped out of the Natal post-cart four days later, it was to be met by Ernest and Jeremy with the intelligence that his telegram had been received, the appointments accepted, and thirty-five men provisionally enrolled subject to his approval.

“My word, young gentlemen,” he said, highly pleased, “you are lieutenants worth having.”

The next fortnight was a busy one for all concerned. The organisation of a colonial volunteer corps is no joke, as anybody who has ever tried it can testify. There were rough uniforms to be provided, arms to be obtained, and a hundred and one other wants to be satisfied. Then came some delay about the horses, which were to be served out by Government. At last these were handed over, a good-looking lot, but apparently very wild. Matters were at this point, when one day Ernest was seated in the room he used as an office in his house, enrolling a new recruit previous to his being sworn, interviewing a tradesman about flannel shirts, making arrangements for a supply of forage, filling up the endless forms which the imperial authorities required for transmission to the War Office, and a hundred other matters. Suddenly his orderly announced that two privates of the corps wished to see him.

“What is it?” he asked of the orderly, testily; for he was nearly worked to death.

“A complaint, sir.”

“Well, send them in.”

The door opened, and a curious couple entered. One was a great, burly sailorman, who had been a quartermaster on board one of her Majesty's ships at Cape Town, got drunk, overstayed his leave, and deserted rather than face the punishment; the other a quick, active little fellow, with a face like a ferret. He was a Zululand trader, who had ruined himself by drink, and a peculiarly valuable member of the corps on account of his knowledge of the country in which they were going to serve. Both men saluted and stood at ease.

“Well, my men, what is it?” asked Ernest, going on filling up his forms.

“Nothing, so far as I am concerned, sir,” said the little man.

Ernest looked up sharply at the quondam tar.

“Now, Adam, your complaint; I have no time to waste.”

Adam hitched up his breeches and began:

“You see, sir, I brought he here by the scruff of the neck.”

“That's true, sir,” said the little man, rubbing that portion of his body.

“Because he and I, sir, as is messmates, sir, 'ad a difference of opinion. It was his day, you see, sir, to cook for our mess, and instead of putting on the pot, sir, he comes to me he does, and he says, 'Adam, you blooming father of a race of fools'—that's what he says, sir, a-comparing of me to the gent who lived in a garden—'why don't you come and take the skins off the ——taters, instead of a-squatting of yourself down on that there ——bed!'”

“Slightly in error, sir,” broke in the little man, suavely; “our big friend's memory is not as substantial as his form. What I said was, 'My dear Adam, as I see you have nothing to occupy your time, except sit and play a jew's-harp upon your couch, would you be so kind as to come and assist me to remove the outer integument of these potatoes?'”

Ernest began to explode, but checked himself, and said sternly:

“Don't talk nonsense, Adam; tell me your complaint or go.”

“Well, sir,” answered the big sailor, scratching his head, “if I git it a name, it is this—this here man, sir, be too infarnal sargustic.”

“Be off with you both,” said Ernest, sternly, “and don't trouble me with any such nonsense again, or I will put you both under arrest, and stop your pay. Come, march!” and he pointed to the door. As he did so he observed a Boer gallop swiftly past the house, and take the turn to Government House.

“What is up now?” he wondered.

Half an hour afterwards another man passed the window, also at full gallop, and also turned up towards Government House. Another half-hour passed, and Mr. Alston came hurrying in.

“Look here, Ernest,” he said, “here is a pretty business. Three men have come in to report that Cetywayo has sent an Impi (army) round by the back of Secocoeni's country to burn Pretoria, and return to Zululand across the high veld. They say that the Impi is now resting in the Saltpan Bush, about twenty miles off, and will attack the town to-night or to-morrow night. All these three, who have, by the way, had no communication with each other, state that they have actually seen the captains of the Impi, who came to tell them to bid the other Dutchmen to stand aside, as they are now fighting the Queen, and the Boers would not be hurt.”

“It seems incredible,” said Ernest; “do you believe it?”

“I don't know. It is possible, and the evidence is strong. It is possible; I have known the Zulus make longer marches than that. The Governor has ordered me to gallop to the spot, and report if I can see anything of this Impi.”

“Am I to go too?”

“No, you will remain in the corps. I take Roger with me—he is a light weight—and two spare horses. If there should be an attack and I should not be back, or if anything should happen, you will do your duty.”

“Yes.”

“Good-bye. I am off. You had better muster the men to be ready for an emergency;” and he was gone.

Ten minutes afterwards, down came an orderly from the officer commanding, with a peremptory order that the officer commanding Alston's Horse was to mount and parade his men in readiness for immediate service.

“Here is a pretty go,” thought Ernest, “and the horses not served out yet!”

Just then Jeremy came in, saluted, and informed him that the men were mustered.

“Serve out the saddlery. Let every man shoulder his saddle. Tell Mazooku to bring out the 'Devil' (Ernest's favourite horse), and march the men up to the Government stables. I will be with you presently.”

Jeremy saluted again with much ceremony and vanished. He was the most punctilious sergeant-major who ever breathed.

Twenty minutes later, a long file of men, each with a carbine slung to his back, and a saddle on his head, which, at a distance, gave them the appearance of a string of gigantic mushrooms, were to be seen proceeding towards the Government stables a mile away.

Ernest, mounted on his great black stallion, and looking, in his military uniform and the revolver slung across his shoulders, a typical volunteer officer, was there before them.

“Now, my men,” he said, as soon as they were paraded, “go in, and each man choose the horse which he likes best, bridle him, bring him out and saddle him. Sharp!”

The men broke their ranks and rushed to the stables, each anxious to secure a better horse than his neighbours. Presently from the stables there arose a sound of kicking, plunging, and “wo-hoing” impossible to describe.

“There will be a pretty scene soon, with these unbroken brutes,” thought Ernest.

He was not destined to be disappointed. The horses were dragged out, most of them lying back upon their haunches, kicking, bucking, and going through every other equine antic.

“Saddle up!” shouted Ernest, as soon as they were all out.

It was done with great difficulty.

“Now mount.”

Sixty men lifted their legs and swung themselves into the saddle, not without sad misgivings. A few seconds passed, and at least twenty of them were on the broad of their backs; one or two were being dragged by the stirrup-leather; a few were clinging to their bucking and plunging steeds; and the remainder of Alston's Horse was scouring the plain in every possible direction. Never was there such a scene.

In time, however, most of the men got back again, and some sort of order was restored. Several men were hurt, one or two badly. These were sent to the hospital, and Ernest formed the rest into half-sections, to be marched to the place of rendezvous. Just then, to make matters better, down came the rain in sheets, soaking them to the skin, and making confusion worse confounded. So they rode to the town, which was by this time in an extraordinary state of panic.

All business was suspended; women were standing about on verandahs, hugging their babies and crying, or making preparations to go into laager; men were hiding deeds and valuables, or hurrying to defence meetings on the market-square, where the Government were serving out rifles and ammunition to all able-bodied citizens; frightened mobs of Basutos and Christian Kafirs were jabbering in the streets, and telling tales of the completeness of Zulu slaughter, or else running from the city to pass the night among the hills. Altogether the scene was most curious, till dense darkness came down over it like an extinguisher, and put it out.

Ernest took his men to a building which the Government had placed at their disposal, and had the horses stabled, but not unsaddled. Presently orders came down to him to keep the corps under arms all night; to send out four patrols to be relieved at midnight, to watch the approaches to the town; and at dawn to saddle up and reconnoitre the neighbouring country.

Ernest obeyed these orders as well as he could; that is, he sent the patrols out, but so dense was the darkness that they never got back again till the following morning, when they were collected, and, in one instance, dug out of the various ditches, quarry-holes, etc., into which they had fallen.

About eleven o'clock Ernest was seated in a little room that opened out of the main building where they were quartered, consulting with Jeremy about matters connected with the corps, and wondering if Alston had found a Zulu Impi, or if it was all gammon, when suddenly they heard the sharp challenge of the sentry outside:

“Who goes there?”

“Whoever it is had better answer sharp,” said Ernest; “I gave the sentry orders to be quick with his rifle to-night.”

Bang!—crash! followed by loud howls of “Wilhelmina, my wife! Ah, the cruel man has killed my Wilhelmina!”

“Heavens, it is that lunatic German! Here, orderly, run up to the Defence Committee and the Government offices, and tell them that it is nothing; they will think the Zulus are here. Tell two men to bring the man in here, and to stop his howls.”

Presently Ernest's old friend of the high veld, looking very wild and uncouth in the lamplight, with his long beard and matted hair, from which the rain was dripping, was bundled rather unceremoniously into the room.

“Ah, there you are, dear sir; it is two—three years since we met. I look for you everywhere, and they tell me you are here, and I come on quick all through the dark and the rain; and then before I know if I am on my head or my heel, the cruel man he ups a rifle, and do shoot my Wilhelmina, and make a great hole through her poor stomach. O sir, what shall I do?” and the great child began to shed tears; “you, too, will weep: you, too, love my Wilhelmina, and sleep with her one night—bo-hoo!”

“For goodness' sake stop that nonsense! This is no time or place for such fooling.”

He spoke sharply, and the monomaniac pulled up, only giving vent to an occasional sob.

“Now, what is your business with me?”

The German's face changed from its expression of idiotic grief to one of refined intelligence. He glanced towards Jeremy, who was exploding in the corner.

“You can speak before this gentleman, Hans,” said Ernest.

“Sir, I am going to say a strange thing to you this night.”

He was speaking quite quietly and composedly now, and might have been mistaken for a sane man.

“Sir, I hear that you go down to Zululand to help to fight the fierce Zulus. When I hear it, I was far away, but something come into my head to travel as quick as Wilhelmina can, and come and tell you not to go.”

“What do you mean?”

“How can I say what I do mean? This I know—many shall go down to Zululand who rest in this house to-night, few shall come back.”

“You mean that I shall be killed?”

“I know not. There are things as bad as death, and yet not death.”

He covered his eyes with his hand, and continued:

“I cannot see you dead, but do not go; I pray you do not go.”

“My good Hans, what is the use of coming to me with such an old wives' tale? Even if it were true, and I knew that I must be killed twenty times, I should go; I cannot run away from my duty.”

“That is spoken as a brave man should,” answered his visitor, in his native tongue. “I have done my duty, and told you what Wilhelmina said. Now go, and when the black men are leaping up at you like the sea-waves round a rock, may the God of Rest guide your hand, and bring you safe from the slaughter!”

Ernest gazed at the old man's pale face; it wore a curious rapt expression, and the eyes were looking upwards.

“Perhaps, old friend,” he said addressing him in German, “I, as well as you, have a City of Rest which I would reach, and care not if I pass thither on an assegai.”

“I know it,” replied Hans, in the same tongue; “but useless is it to seek rest till God gives it. You have sought and passed through the jaws of many deaths, but you have not found. If it be not God's will, you will not find it now. I know you too seek rest, my brother, and had I known that you would find that only down there”—and he pointed towards Zululand—“I had not come down to warn you, for blessed is rest, and happy is he who gains it. But no, it is not that; I am sure now that you will not die; your evil, whatever it is, will fall from heaven.”

“So be it,” said Ernest; “you are a strange man. I thought you a common monomaniac, and now you speak like a prophet.”

The old man smiled.

“You are right; I am both. Mostly I am mad. I know it. But sometimes my madness has its moments of inspiration, when the clouds lift from my mind, and I see things none others can see, and hear voices to which your ears are deaf. Such a moment is on me now; soon I shall be mad again. But before the cloud settles I would speak to you. Why, I know not, save that I loved you when first I saw your eyes open there upon the cold veld. Presently I must go, and we shall meet no more, for I draw near to the snowclad tree that marks the gate of the City of Rest. I can look into your heart now and see the trouble in it, and the sad, beautiful face that is printed on your mind. Ah, she is not happy; she, too, must work out her rest. But the time is short, the cloud settles, and I would tell you what is in my mind. Even though trouble, great trouble, close you in, do not be cast down, for trouble is the key of heaven. Be good; turn to the God you have neglected; struggle against the snares of the senses. Oh, I can see now! For you and for all you love there is joy and there is peace!”

Suddenly he broke off; the look of inspiration faded from his face, which grew stupid and wild-looking.

“Ah, the cruel man; he made a great hole in the stomach of my Wilhelmina!”

Ernest had been bending forwards, listening with parted lips to the old man's talk. When he saw that the inspiration had left him, he raised his head and said:

“Gather yourself together, I beg you, for a moment. I wish to ask one question. Shall I ever——”

“How shall I stop de bleeding from the witals of my dear wife?—who will plug up the hole in her?”

Ernest gazed at the man. Was he putting all this on?—or was he really mad? For the life of him he could not tell.

Taking out a sovereign, he gave it to him.

“There is money to doctor Wilhelmina with,” he said. “Would you like to sleep here?—I can give you a blanket.”

The old man took the money without hesitation, and thanked Ernest for it, but said he must go on at once.

“Where are you going to?” asked Jeremy, who had been watching him with great curiosity, but had not understood that part of the conversation which had been carried on in German.

Hans turned upon him with a quick look of suspicion.

“Rustenburg” ('Anglicè, the town of rest), he answered.

“Indeed! the road is bad, and it is far to travel.”

“Yes,” he replied, “the road is rough and long. Farewell!” And he was gone.

“Well, he is a curious old buster, and no mistake, with his cheerful anticipations and his Wilhelmina,” reflected Jeremy aloud. “Just fancy starting for Rustenburg at this hour of the night, too! Why, it is a hundred miles off!”

Ernest only smiled. He knew that it was no earthly Rustenburg that the old man sought.

Some while afterwards he heard that Hans had attained the rest which he desired. Wilhelmina got fixed in a snowdrift in a pass of the Drakensberg. He was unable to drag her out.

So he crept underneath, and fell asleep, and the snow came down and covered them.