The Curse of Carne's Hold: A Tale of Adventure
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"There's no doubt about his horse," the major said, "that is if he is sound. What a good-looking beast!"
"That it is, major. By Jove, I believe it's the very animal that young Boer asked us one hundred and twenty pounds for yesterday; 'pon my word, I believe it's the same."
"I believe it is," the major agreed. "What a soldierly-looking young fellow he is! I thought he was the right stamp yesterday, but I hardly expected to see him turn out so well at first."
The two officers walked up to Ronald, examined his horse, saddle, and uniform.
"That's not a regulation rifle you have got there," the major said.
"No, sir, it is one I brought from England with me. I have been accustomed to its use, and as it is the regulation bore, I thought perhaps I might carry it."
"It's a trifle long, isn't it?" the adjutant asked.
"Yes, sir, it's just two inches too long, but I can have that cut off by a gunsmith."
"Very well; if you do that you can carry it," the major said. "Of course it's much better finished than the regulation one, but not much different in appearance. Very well, we pass the horse." Ronald saluted and rode off to the stables.
"He hasn't come out penniless, anyhow," the major laughed.
"No, that's quite evident," the adjutant agreed. "I dare say his friends gave him a hundred or two to start on a farm, and when he decided to join us he thought he might as well spend it, and have a final piece of extravagance."
"I dare say that's it," the major agreed; "anyhow I think we have got hold of a good recruit this time."
"I wish they were all like him," the adjutant sighed, thinking of the trouble he often had with newly-joined recruits.
"By the way," the major said, "I have got word this morning that the draft is to be embarked to-morrow instead of next week. They took up a ship for them yesterday; it seems our men there are worked off their legs, for the Kaffirs are stealing cattle and horses in all directions, and the colonists have sent in such a strong letter of complaint to the Governor that even he thinks the police force on the frontier ought to be strengthened. Not, of course, that he admits in the slightest that there is any ground for alarm, or believes for a moment that the Kaffirs have any evil intentions whatever; still, to reassure the minds of the settlers, he thinks the troops may as well go forward at once."
"I wish to goodness," the adjutant said, bitterly, "that Sir Harry Smith would take a cottage for two or three months close to the frontier; it would not be long before his eyes were opened a little as to the character and intentions of the Kaffirs."
"It would be a good thing," the major agreed, "but I doubt if even that would do it till he heard the Kaffirs breaking in his doors; then the enlightenment would come too late to be of any service to the colony. By-the-bye, the colonel told me yesterday he should send me forward next week to see after things.He says that of course if there is any serious trouble he shall go forward himself."
The following morning the draft of Cape Mounted Rifles embarked on board a steamer and were taken down to Algoa Bay, and landed at Port Elizabeth, drenched to the skin by the passage through the tremendous surf that beats upon the coast, and were marched to some tents which had been erected for them on a bare sandhill behind the town.
Ronald Mervyn was amused at the variety of the crowd in the straggling streets of Port Elizabeth. Boer farmers, Hottentots, Malays, and Fingoes, with complexions varying through every shade of yellow and brown up to black; some gaily dressed in light cottons, some wrapped in a simple cowhide or a dirty blanket, many with but little clothing beyond their brass and copper ornaments.
The country round was most monotonous. As far as the eye could see it was nothing but a succession of bare, sandy flats, and, beyond these, hills sprinkled with bush and occasional clumps of aloes and elephant trees. Upon the following morning the troop marched, followed by a waggon containing their baggage and provisions, drawn by ten oxen. A little naked boy marched at the head of the oxen as their guide, and they were driven by a Hottentot, armed with a tremendous whip of immense length, made of plaited hide fastened to the top of a bamboo pole. After a fourteen miles' march the troop reached the Zwart Kop river, and, crossing the ford, encamped among the scattered mimosas and numerous wait-a-bit thorns. The horses were then knee-haltered, and they and the oxen were turned out to feed till night. The next day's march was a very long one, and for the most part across a sandy desert, to the Sunday River, a sluggish stream in which, as soon as the tents were pitched, the whole party enjoyed a bath.
"To-morrow we shall reach the Addoo Bush, Blunt," one of his comrades, who knew the country well, remarked. "This is near the boundary of what you may call the Kaffir country, although I don't think they have their kraals as far south as this, though there was fighting here in the last war, and may be again."
"But I thought our territory extended as far as the Kei River?"
"So it does nominally," the other said. "All the country as far as that was declared to be forfeited; but in point of fact the Kaffirs remained in possession of their lands on condition that they declared their allegiance to the Crown, and that each chief was made responsible for any cattle or other robberies, the spoor of which could be traced to his kraal. Of course they agreed to this, as, in fact, they would agree to anything, resolving, naturally, to break the conditions as soon as it suited them. Local magistrates and commissioners are scattered about among them, and there have been a lot of schools and missionary stations started. They say that they are having great success. Well, we shall see about that. In the last war the so-called Christian natives were among the first to turn against us, and I expect it will be the same here, for it's just the laziest and worst of the natives who pretend to become Christians. They get patches of land given them, and help in building their huts, and all sorts of privileges. By about half-a-day's work each week they can raise enough food to live upon, and all that is really required of them is to attend services on a Sunday. The business exactly suits them, but as a rule there are a great many more Hottentots than Kaffirs among the converts. I can give you a specimen of the sort of men they are. Not long since a gentleman was coming down with a waggon and a lot of bullocks from King Williamstown. The drivers all took it into their head to desert one day – it's a way these fellows have, one of them thinks he will go, and then the whole lot go, and a settler wakes up in the morning and finds that there isn't a single hand left on his place, and he has perhaps four or five hundred cows to be milked, and twice as many oxen and horses to look after. Well, this happened within a mile or so of the missionary station, so the gentleman rode over there and asked if some of the men would go with him down to Beaufort, a couple of days' march. Nobody would go; he raised his offers, and at last offered five times the usual rate of pay, but not one of the lazy brutes would move, and he had at last to drive the whole lot down himself, with the aid of a native or two he picked up on the way. However, there has been pretty good order along the frontier for the last two years, partly due to the chiefs having to pay for all cattle traced to their kraals, partly to the fact that we have got four hundred Kaffir police – and an uncommon smart lot of fellows they are – scattered all along the frontier, instead of being, like us, kept principally in towns. You see, we are considered more as a military body. Of course, we have a much easier time of it than if we were knocking about in small parties among the border settlements; but there is a lot more excitement in that sort of life, and I hope that if there is trouble they will send us out to protect the settlements."
"I hope so," Ronald said, cordially. "Barrack life at a dull little town is the slowest thing in the world. I would never have enlisted for that sort of thing."
"Well, if what the settlers say turns out right, you will have plenty of excitement, I can tell you. I was in the last war, and I don't know that I want to go through another, for these beggars fight a great deal too well for it to be pleasant, I can tell you. The job of carrying despatches or escorting waggons through a bush where these fellows are known to be lurking, is about as nasty a one as a man can wish. At any moment, without the least notice, you may have half-a-dozen assegais stuck in your body. And they can shoot straight, too; their guns are long and clumsy, but they carry long distances – quite as far as our rifles, while, as for the line muskets, they haven't a chance with them."
Two more days' marching and the troop arrived at Grahamstown. Here they encamped near Fort England, where a wing of the 91st Regiment was quartered, and the next fortnight was spent in constant drills. The rifles were then ordered forward to King Williamstown, where two days later they were joined by the infantry.
Before starting, the adjutant had specially called the attention of Captain Twentyman, who commanded the troop, to his last joined recruit.
"You will find that man Blunt, who joined us yesterday, a good soldier, Twentyman. It may be he has been an officer, and has got into some row at home and been obliged to leave the service. Of course you noticed his horse on parade this morning; we have nothing like it in the Corps. The farmer who owned it offered it to us yesterday afternoon, and wanted a hundred and twenty pounds for it. He said that both his sire and dam were English hunters, the sire he had bought from an English officer, and the grandsire was a thoroughbred horse. The man has a large farm, about twenty-five miles from Cape Town, and goes in for horse-breeding; but I have seen nothing before of his as good as that. I expect the young fellow has spent his last penny in buying it. Of course I don't know what he will turn out in the way of conduct; but you will find, if he is all right in that respect, that he will make a first-rate non-commissioned officer, and mounted as he is, will, at any rate, be a most useful man for carrying despatches and that sort of thing. I confess I am very much taken with him. He has a steady, resolute sort of face; looks pleasant and good-tempered, too. Keep your eye upon him."
Captain Twentyman had done so during the voyage and on the line of march, and Ronald's quickness, alacrity, and acquaintance with his duty convinced him that the adjutant's supposition was a correct one.
"By Jove, Twentyman," an officer of the 91st said as he was standing beside him when Ronald rode up and delivered a message, "that fellow of yours is wonderfully well mounted. He's a fine soldierly-looking fellow, too, and I don't know why, but his face seems quite familiar to me."
"I fancy he has been an officer," Captain Twentyman replied, "we have several in the corps – men who have been obliged for some reason or other to sell out, and who, finding nothing else to do, have enlisted with us. You see the pay is a good deal higher than it is in the regular cavalry, and the men as a whole are a superior class, for you see they find their own horses and uniforms, so the life is altogether more pleasant than the regular service for a man of that kind. Almost all the men are of respectable family."
"I certainly seem to know his face," said the officer, thoughtfully, "although where I saw it I have not the least idea. What is his name?"
"He enlisted as Harry Blunt, but no doubt that's not his real name. Very few men of his kind, who enlist in the army, do so under their own names."
"I don't know any one of that name," the officer said, "but I certainly fancy I have seen your man before; however, I don't suppose in any case he would like being recognised; men who are under a cloud don't care about meeting former acquaintances."
A week later, to Ronald's great satisfaction, a party of twenty men, of whom he was one, under Troop-Lieutenant Daniels, were ordered to march the next morning to the Kabousie River, whence the settlers had written praying that a force might be sent for their protection, as the Kaffirs in the neighbourhood were becoming more and more insolent in their manner. Many of their cattle had been driven off, and they were in daily expectation of an attack. No waggons accompanied the party, as they would erect huts if they remained in one place, and would have no difficulty in obtaining provisions from the farmers. The men chosen for the service were all in high glee at the prospect of a change from the dulness of the life at King Williamstown, and were the objects of envy to their comrades.
The start was made at daybreak, and after two days' long marching they reached their destination. The country was a fertile one, the farmhouses were frequent, most of them embedded in orchards and vineyards, showing signs of comfort and prosperity.
"This is the first place that I have seen since I reached the colony," Ronald said to the trooper riding next to him, "where I should care about settling."
"There are a good many similar spots in this part of the country," the man said, "and I believe the folks here are everywhere doing well, and would do better if it were not for these native troubles. They suffered a lot in the last war, and will, of course, bear the brunt of it if the natives break out again. There are a good many English and Scotch settlers in this part. There are, of course, some Dutch, but as a rule they go in more for cattle-farming on a big scale. Besides, they do not care about English neighbours; they are an unsociable set of brutes, the Dutch, and keep themselves to themselves as much as possible."