The Witch's Head/Book II/Chapter XX
Alston's Horse soon reached the ridge, past which the Undi were commencing to run, at a distance of about three hundred and fifty yards, and the order was given to dismount and line it. This they did, one man in every four keeping a few paces back to hold the horses of his section. Then they opened fire; and next second came back the sound of the thudding of the bullets on the shields and bodies of the Zulu warriors.
Ernest, seated up high on his great black horse “The Devil,” for the officers did not dismount, could see how terrible was the effect of that raking fire, delivered as it was, not by raw English boys, who scarcely knew one end of a rifle from the other, but by men, all of whom could shoot, and many of whom were crack shots. All along the line of the Undi companies men threw up their arms and dropped dead, or staggered out of the ranks wounded. But the main body never paused. By and by they would come back and move the wounded, or kill them if they were not likely to recover.
Soon, as the range got longer, the fire began to be less deadly, and Ernest could see that fewer men were dropping.
“Ernest,” said Alston, galloping up to him, “I am going to charge them. Look, they will soon cross the donga, and reach the slopes of the mountain, and we shan't be able to follow them on the broken ground.”
“Isn't it rather risky?” asked Ernest, somewhat dismayed at the idea of launching their little clump of mounted men at the moving mass before them.
“Risky? yes, of course it is, but my orders were to delay the enemy as much as possible, and the horses are fresh. But, my lad”—and he bent towards him and spoke low—“it doesn't much matter whether we are killed charging or running away. I am sure that the camp must be taken; there is no hope. Good-bye, Ernest; if I fall, fight the corps as long as possible, and kill as many of those devils as you can; and if you survive, remember to make off well to the left. The regiments will have passed by then. God bless you, my boy! Now order the bugler to sound the 'cease fire,' and let the men mount.”
They were the last words Alston ever spoke to him, and Ernest often remembered, with affectionate admiration, that even at that moment he thought more of his friend's safety than he did of his own. As to their tenor, Ernest had already suspected the truth, though, luckily, the suspicion had not as yet impregnated the corps. Mazooku, too, who as usual was with him, mounted on a Basuto pony, had just informed him that, in his (Mazooku's) opinion, they were all as good as ripped up (alluding to the Zulu habit of cutting a dead enemy open), and adding a consolatory remark to the effect that man can die but once, and “good job too.”
But, strangely enough, he did not feel afraid; indeed, he never felt quieter in his life than he did in that hour of death. A wild expectancy thrilled his nerves and looked out of his eyes. “What would it be like?” he wondered. In another minute all such thoughts were gone, for he was at the head of his troop, ready for the order.
Alston, followed by the boy Roger, galloped swiftly round, seeing that the formation was right, and then gave the word to unsheath the short swords with which he had insisted upon the corps being armed. Meanwhile, the Undi were drawing on to a flat plain, four hundred yards or more broad, at the foot of the mountain, a very suitable spot for a cavalry manoeuvre.
“Now, men of Alston's Horse, there is the enemy before you. Let me see how you can go through them. Charge!”
“Charge!” re-echoed Ernest.
“Charge!” roared Sergeant-Major Jones, brandishing his sword.
Down the slope they go, slowly at first; now they are on the plain, and the pace quickens to a hand-gallop.
Ernest feels his great horse gather himself together and spring along beneath him; he hears the hum of astonishment rising from the dense black mass before them as it halts to receive the attack; he glances round, and sees the set faces and determined look upon the features of his men, and his blood boils up with a wild exhilaration, and for a while he tastes the fierce joy of war.
Quicker still grows the pace; now he can see the white round the dark eyeballs of the Zulus.
“Crash!” They are among them, trampling them down, hewing them down, thrusting, slashing, stabbing, and being stabbed. The air is alive with assegais, and echoes with the savage Zulu war-cries and with the shouts of the gallant troopers, fighting now as troopers have not often fought before. Presently, as in a dream, Ernest sees a huge Zulu seize Alston's horse by the bridle, jerk it on to its haunches, and raise his assegai. Then the boy Roger, who is by his father's side, makes a point with his sword, and runs the Zulu through. He falls, but next moment the lad is attacked by more, is assegaied, and falls fighting bravely. Then Alston pulls up, and, turning, shoots with his revolver at the men who have killed his son. Two fall, another runs up, and with a shout drives a great spear right through Alston, so that it stands out a hand-breadth behind his back. On to the body of his son he, too, falls and dies. Next second the Zulu's head is cleft in twain down to the chin. That was Jeremy's stroke.
All this time they are travelling on, leaving a broad red line of dead and dying in their track. Presently it was done; they had passed right through the Impi. But out of sixty-four men they had lost their captain and twenty troopers. As they emerged, Ernest noticed that his sword was dripping blood, and his sword-hand stained red. Yet he could not at the moment remember having killed anybody.
But Alston was dead, and he was now in command of what remained of the corps. They were in no condition to charge again, for many horses and some men were wounded. So he led them round the rear of the Impi, which, detaching a company of about three hundred men to deal with the remnants of the troop, went on its way with lessened numbers, and filled with admiration at the exhibition of a courage in no way inferior to their own.
This company, running swiftly, took possession of the ridge down which the troop had charged, and by which alone it would be possible for Ernest to retreat, and taking shelter behind stones, began to pour in an inaccurate but galling fire on the little party of whites. Ernest charged up through them, losing two more men and several horses in the process; but what was his horror, on reaching the crest of the ridge, to see about a thousand Zulus drawn up, apparently in reserve, in the neck of the pass leading to the plain beyond! To escape through them would be almost impossible, for he was crippled with wounded and dismounted men, and the pace of a force is the pace of the slowest. Their position was desperate, and looking round at his men, he could see that they thought so too.
His resolution was soon taken. A few paces from where he had for a moment halted the remainder of the corps was a little eminence, something like an early British tumulus. To this he rode, and, dismounting, turned his horse loose, ordering this men to do the same. So good was the discipline, and so great his control over them, that there were no wild rushes to escape; they obeyed, realising their desperate case, and formed a ring round the rise.
“Now, men of Alston's Horse,” said Ernest, “we have done our best, let us die our hardest.”
The men set up a cheer, and next minute the Zulus, creeping up under shelter of the rocks which were strewed around, attacked them with fury.
In five minutes, in spite of the withering fire which they poured in upon the surrounding Zulus, six more of the little band were dead. Four were shot, two were killed in a rush made by about a dozen men, who, reckless of their own life, determined to break through the white man's ring. They perished in the attempt, but not before they had stabbed two of Alston's Horse. The remainder, but little more than thirty men, retired a few paces farther up the little rise so as to contract their circle and kept up a ceaseless fire upon the enemy. The Zulus, thanks to the accurate shooting of the white men, had by this time lost more than fifty of their number, and, annoyed at being put to such loss by a foe numerically so insignificant, they determined to end the matter with a rush. Ernest saw their leader, a big almost naked fellow, with a small shield and a necklace of lion's claws, walking utterly regardless of the pitiless rifle fire from group to group and exhorting them. Taking up a rifle which had just fallen from the hand of a dead trooper—for up to the present Ernest had not joined in the firing—he took a fine sight at about eighty yards at the Zulu chief's broad chest and pulled. The shot was a good one; the great fellow sprang into the air and dropped. Instantly another commander took his place and the final advance began.
But the Zulus had to come up-hill with but little cover, and scores were mown down by the scorching and continuous fire from the breech-loaders. Twice, when within twenty yards, were they driven back, twice did they come on again. Now they were but twelve paces or so away, and a murderous fire was kept up upon them. For a moment they wavered, then pushed forwards up the slope.
“Close up!” shouted Ernest, “and use your swords and pistols.”
His voice was heard above the din. Some of the men dropped the now useless rifles, and the revolvers began to crack.
Then the Zulus closed in upon the doomed band, with a shout of “Bulala umlungo!” (Kill the white man!)
Out rang the pistol-shots, and fire flew from the clash of swords and assegais; and still the little band, momentarily growing fewer, fought on with labouring breath. Never did hope-forsaken men make a more gallant stand. Still they fought, and still they fell, one by one, and as they fell were stabbed to death; but scarcely one of them was there whose death-wound was in his back.
At last the remaining Zulus drew back; they thought that it was done.
But no; three men yet stood together upon the very summit of the mound, holding six foes at bay. The Zulu captain laughed aloud when he saw it, and gave a rapid order. Thereupon the remaining Zulus formed up, and stabbing the wounded as they went, departed swiftly over the dead, after the main body of the corps, which had now vanished round the mountain.
They left the six to finish the three.
Three hundred had come to attack Alston's Horse; not more than one hundred departed from the attack. The overpowered white men had rendered a good account of their foes.
The three left alive on the summit of the little hill, were, as Fate would have it, Ernest, Jeremy, and the ex-sailor, who had complained of the “sargustic” companion, who, it happened, had just died by his side.
Their revolvers were empty; Ernest's sword had broken off short in the body of a Zulu; Jeremy still had his sword, and the sailor a clubbed carbine.
Presently one of the six Zulus dodged in under the carbine and ran the sailor through. Glancing round, Ernest saw his face turn grey. The honest fellow died as he had lived, swearing hard.
“Ah, you ——black mate,” he sang out, “take that, and be damned to you!” The clubbed rifle came down upon the Zulu's skull and cracked it to bits, and both fell dead together.
Now there were five Zulus left, and only Ernest and Jeremy to meet them. But stay; suddenly from under a corpse up rises another foe. No, it is not a foe, it is Mazooku, who has been shamming dead, but suddenly and most opportunely shows himself to be very much alive. Advancing from behind, he stabs one of the attacking party, and kills him. That leaves four. Then he engages another, and after a long struggle kills him too, which leaves three. And still the two white men stand back to back with flashing eyes and gasping breath, and hold their own. Soaked with blood, desperate, and expecting death, they were yet a gallant sight to see. Two of the remaining Zulus rush at the giant Jeremy, one at Ernest. Ernest, having no effective weapon left, dodges the assegai-thrust and closes with his antagonist, and they roll, over and over, down the hill together, struggling for the assegai the Zulu holds. It snaps in two, but the blade and about eight inches of the shaft remain with Ernest. He drives it through his enemy's throat, who dies. Then he struggles up to see the closing scene of the drama, but not in time to help in it. Mazooku has wounded his man badly, and is following to kill him. And Jeremy? He has struck at one of the Kafirs with his sword. The blow is received on the edge of the cow-hide shield, and sinks half-way through it, so that the hide holds the steel fast. With a sharp twist of the shield the weapon is jerked out of his hand, and he is left defenceless, with nothing to trust to except his native strength. Surely he is lost! But no—with a sudden rush he seizes both Zulus by the throat, one in each hand, and, strong men as they are, swings them wide apart. Then with a tremendous effort he jerks their heads together with such awful force that they fall senseless, and Mazooku comes up and spears them.
Thus was the fight ended.
Ernest and Jeremy sank upon the bloody grass, gasping for breath. The firing from the direction of the camp had now died away, and after the tumult, the shouts, and the shrieks of the dying, the silence seemed deep.
There they lay, white man and Zulu, side by side in the peaceable sunlight; and in a vague bewildered way Ernest noticed that the faces, which a few minutes before looked so grim, were mostly smiling now. They had passed through the ivory gates and reached the land of smiles. How still they all were! A little black-and-white bird, such as flies from ant-hill to ant-hill, came and settled upon the forehead of a young fellow, scarcely more than a boy, and the only son of his mother, who lay quiet across two Zulus. The bird knew why he was so still. Ernest had liked the boy, and knew his mother, and began to wonder as he lay panting on the grass what she would feel when she heard of her son's fate. But just then Mazooku's voice broke the silence. He had been standing staring at the body of one of the men he had killed, and was now apostrophising it in Zulu.
“Ah, my brother,” he said, “son of my own father, with whom I used to play when I was little; I always told you that you were a perfect fool with an assegai; but I little thought that I should ever have such an opportunity of proving it to you. Well, it can't be helped; duty is duty, and family ties must give way to it. Sleep well, my brother; it was painful to kill you—very!”
Ernest lifted himself from the ground, and laughed the hysterical laugh of shattered nerves, at this naïve and thoroughly Zulu moralising. Just then Jeremy rose, and came to him. He was a fearful sight to see—his hands, his face, his clothes, were all red; and he was bleeding from a cut on the face, and another on the hand.
“Come, Ernest,” he said, in a hollow voice, “we must clear out of this.”
“I suppose so,” said Ernest.
On the plain at the foot of the hill several of the horses were quietly cropping the grass, till such time as the superior animal, man, had settled his differences. Among them was Ernest's black stallion, “The Devil,” which had been wounded, though slightly, on the flank. They walked towards the horses, stopping on their way to arm themselves from the weapons which lay about. As they passed the body of the man Ernest had killed in his last struggle for life, he stopped and drew the broken assegai from his throat. “A memento!” said he. The horses were caught without difficulty, and “The Devil” and the two next best animals selected. Then they mounted, and rode towards the top of the ridge over which Ernest had seen the body of Zulus lying in reserve. When they were near it Mazooku got down and crept to the crest on his stomach. Presently, to their great relief, he signalled to them to advance: the Zulus had moved on, and the valley was deserted. So the three passed over the neck, that an hour and a half before they had crossed with sixty-one companions, who were now all dead. “I think we have charmed lives,” said Jeremy, presently. “All gone except us two. It can't be chance.”
“It is fate,” said Ernest, briefly.
From the top of the neck they got a view of the camp, which now looked quiet and peaceful, with its white tents and its Union Jack fluttering as usual in the breeze.
“They must be all dead too,” said Ernest; “which way shall we go?”
Then it was that Mazooku's knowledge of the country proved of the utmost service to them. He had been brought up in a kraal in the immediate neighbourhood, and knew every inch of the land. Avoiding the camp altogether, he led them to the left of the battle-field, and after two hours' ride over rough country, brought them to a ford of the Buffalo which he was acquainted with, some miles below where the few survivors of the massacre struggled across the river, or were drowned in attempting to do so. Following this route they never saw a single Zulu, for these had all departed in the other direction, and were spared the horrors of the stampede and of “Fugitive's Drift.”
At last they gained the farther side of the river, and were, comparatively speaking, safe on Natal ground.
They determined, after much consultation, to make for the little fort at Helpmakaar, and had ridden about a mile or so towards it, when suddenly the Zulu's quick ear caught the sound of firing distant to their right. It was their enemy, the Undi Corps, attacking Rorke's Drift. Leaving Mazooku to hold the horses, Ernest and Jeremy dismounted, and climbed a solitary koppie or hill which just there cropped out from the surface of the plain. It was of an iron-stone formation, and on the summit lay a huge flat slab of almost pure ore. On to this they clambered, and looked along the course of the river, but could see nothing. Rorke's Drift was hidden by a rise in the ground.
All this time a dense thunder-cloud had been gathering in the direction of Helpmakaar, and was now, as is common before sunset in the South African summer season, travelling rapidly up against the wind, set in a faint rainbow as in a frame. The sun, on the other hand, was sinking towards the horizon, so that his golden beams, flying across a space of blue sky, impinged upon the black bosom of the cloud, and were reflected thence in sharp lights and broad shadows, flung like celestial spears and shields across the plains of Zululand. Isandhlwana's Mountain was touched by one great ray which broke in glory upon his savage crest, and crowned him that day's king of death, but the battle-field over which he towered was draped in gloom. It was a glorious scene. Above, the wild expanse of sky broken up by flaming clouds, and tinted with hues such as might be reflected from the jewelled walls of heaven. Behind, the angry storm set in its rainbow-frame like ebony in a ring of gold. In front, the rolling plain, where the tall grasses waved, the broad Buffalo flashing through it like a silver snake, the sun-kissed mountains, and the shadowed slopes.
It was a glorious scene. Nature in her most splendid mood flung all her colour streamers loose across the earth and sky, and waved them wildly ere they vanished into night's abyss. Life, in his most radiant ecstasy, blazed up in varied glory before he sank, like a lover, to sleep awhile in the arms of his eternal mistress—Death.
Ernest gazed upon it, and it sank into his heart, which, set to Nature's tune, responded ever when her hands swept the chords of earth or heaven. It lifted him above the world, and thrilled him with indescribable emotion. His eyes wandered over the infinite space above, searching for the presence of a God; then they fell upon Isandhlwana, and marked the spot just where the shadows were deepest; where his comrades lay, and gazed upon the splendid sky with eyes that could not see; and at last his spirit gave way, and, weakened with emotion and long toil and abstinence, he burst into a paroxysm of grief.
“O Jeremy,” he sobbed, “they are all dead, all except you and I, and I feel a coward that I should still live to weep over them. When it was over, I should have let that Zulu kill me but I was a coward, and I fought for my life. Had I but held my hand for a second, I should have gone with Alston and the others, Jeremy.”
“Come, come, old fellow, you did your best, and fought the corps like a brick. No man could have done more.”
“Yes, Jeremy, but I should have died with them; it was my duty to die. And I do not care about living, and they did. I have been an unfortunate dog all my life. I shot my cousin, I lost Eva, and now I have seen all my comrades killed, and I, who was their leader, alone escaped. And perhaps I have not done with my misfortunes yet. What next, I wonder; what next?”
Ernest's distress was so acute, that Jeremy, looking at him and seeing that all he had gone through had been too much for him, tried to soothe him, lest he should go into hysterics, by putting his arm round his waist and giving him a good hug.
“Look here, old chap,” he said, “it is no use bothering one's head about these things. We are just so many feathers blown by the wind, and must float where the wind blows us. Sometimes it is a good wind, and sometimes a bad one; but on the whole it is bad, and we must just make the best of it, and wait till it doesn't think it worth while to blow our particular feathers about any more, and then we shall come to the ground, and not till then. Now we have been up here for more than five minutes, and given the horses a bit of a rest. We must be pushing on if we want to get to Helpmakaar before dark, and I only hope we shall get there before the Zulus, that's all. By Jove, here comes the storm—come on!” And Jeremy jumped off the lump of iron ore, and began to descend the koppie.
Ernest, who had been listening with his face in his hands, rose and followed him in silence. As he did so, a breath of ice-cold air from the storm-cloud, which was now right overhead, fanned his hot brow, and when he had gone a few yards he turned to meet it, and to cast one more look at the scene.
It was the last earthly landscape he ever saw. For at that instant there leaped from the cloud overhead a fierce stream of jagged light, which struck the mass of iron-ore on which they had been seated, shivered and fused it, and then ran down the side of the hill to the plain. Together with the lightning there came an ear-splitting crack of thunder.
Jeremy, who was now nearly at the bottom of the little hill, staggered at the shock. When he recovered, he looked up where Ernest had been standing, and could not see him. He rushed up the hill again, calling him in accents of frantic grief. There was no answer. Presently he found him lying on the ground, white and still.