"To slay and eat!" Ronald repeated in surprise. "What does that mean, sir?"
"Ah, that question shows you have not been long in the colony," the settler said. "You know, the Kaffirs live at ordinary times entirely upon a vegetable diet, but it is their custom upon the approach of war to eat meat, believing that flesh gives them courage and ferocity. However, as it was only three weeks ago that the chiefs all swore to be peaceable and faithful, I hardly think that there's any danger of an outbreak for some time to come, perhaps not for some months. You see, it is just midsummer now, and my crops are nearly fit for cutting. I sent most of my cattle away a fortnight since, and when I have got my crops in I shall shut up the house and move into Grahamstown. We have many friends there, and shall stop there until we see what comes of this business, and when it is all over I shall dispose of my farm. I do not think there is any real danger here. We have always been on excellent terms with the natives, and Anta, who is chief of the tribe in this part, often comes down here and begs a bottle of Cape smoke or a pound of tobacco. He has smoked many a pipe in this room, and treacherous as the people are, I cannot think that he would allow his men to do us any harm. He generally addresses me as his white brother."
An active conversation was at the same time going on between the other guests, who were discussing the farm at which it would be best for neighbours to assemble in case of attack. The settler, whose name was Armstrong, had placed Ronald next himself, while his comrade was at the other end of the table, these being the only seats vacant at the table when they entered. Ronald and the settler chatted quietly together for some time. Mary Armstrong, who had taken her place leaning on the back of her father's chair, when she had seen the guests attended to, occasionally joined in.
Mr. Armstrong was pleased with his guest.
"I hope next time when you ride over in this direction you will call in again," he said. "I can assure you that we shall be heartily glad to see you, and, if you can get leave off duty for a night, to put you up. It is a real pleasure to me to have a chat with some one fresh from England, and to hear how things look after all these years. Why, I shall hardly know the country again, cut up as it seems to be with these railways."
After the meal was over, Ronald and his friend rode back to their quarters.
"That's a nice-looking little girl," the trooper said, as they rode away from the house; "they say her father is the richest man in these parts, and that he owns a lot of property at the Cape. If I were him I should live there instead of in this out-of-the-way place."
"I suppose he is fond of a country life," Ronald replied, ignoring the first part of the remark; "I should think that society in Cape Town is not very interesting."
"I don't know that," the other replied. "I know that if I had money enough to settle down there you wouldn't find me many hours knocking about here as a trooper."
"It's all a matter of taste," Ronald replied.
"That's a nice young fellow, Mary – that man in the Cape Rifles," Mr. Armstrong said to his daughter the same evening. "I should say he is altogether above his position, don't you think so?"
"I do not know that I thought much about it, father. Yes, I suppose he wasn't like an ordinary soldier."
"Not at all, Mary, not at all. I fancy from what I have heard that there are a good many young men of decent family serving in the corps. It's a thousand times better for a young fellow who's got neither money nor interest to come out here than to stay at home breaking his heart in trying to get something to do. Yes. I should say from his talk, and especially from the tone of his voice, that he has seen better days. It's a pity the colony can't afford to keep on foot four or five regiments of these Mounted Rifles. We should not hear much of native troubles if they did. The natives are much more afraid of them than of the soldiers; and no wonder. In the first place they are more accustomed to the country, and in the second place they are armed with weapons that will kill at a considerable distance, while Brown Bess is of no use at over a hundred yards. Well, I hope that young fellow will drop in again; I should like another chat with him. It's a pleasant change to meet any one who is willing to talk on some subject other than natives, and crops, and cattle."
A week later, Ronald was sent with a despatch to King Williamstown.
"There will be no answer, Blunt," Lieutenant Daniels said, as he handed it to him; "at least, no answer of any consequence. So you can stay a day in the town if you like."
"Thank you, sir; but as I do not care for towns, I will, if you will allow me, stop on my way back at Mr. Armstrong's. That is where the cattle were stolen the other day, and it will not be far out of my way from King Williamstown. He invited me to stay there for a day if I could get leave."
"Certainly, you can do so," the lieutenant said. "You can hear if there is any news of the Kaffirs stirring in that neighbourhood; they seem to have been a bit more quiet for the last week or so."
Two days later Ronald drew rein in front of Mr. Armstrong's house, late in the afternoon.
"I have taken you at your word, Mr. Armstrong," he said, as the farmer came to the door.
"I am glad to see you," the other said, cordially. "It is not a mere flying visit, I hope; but you will be able to stay with us till to-morrow?"
"Thank you, yes. I am not due at the station till to-morrow evening, and am my own master till then. I have been carrying a despatch to Williamstown."
"We have had some of the Kaffir police here to-day," the farmer said to him while they were at supper. "What do you think of them?"
"They seem smart fellows, and well up to their duty. So far as I can see they are just the sort of men for border police work."
"Yes," Mr. Armstrong agreed, "on any other border but this. To my mind they are much too closely related to the fellows in the bush to be trustworthy. They are all well enough for following up a trail or arresting a stray thief, and would, I dare say, be quite reliable if opposed to any tribe to which they were not akin, but I doubt whether they will stand to us if there is trouble with Sandilli, Macomo, and the rest of them. You see how powerful the influence of these chiefs is. When the order came, pretty nearly every Kaffir in this colony left instantly, many of them leaving considerable arrears of wages behind. If the tribal tie is so strong that men entirely beyond the reach of their chief come home the instant they are summoned, how can it be expected that the Kaffirs in this police force will fight against their own kindred?"
"It does not seem reasonable to expect such a thing, certainly," Ronald agreed. "I cannot think myself why they did not raise the force among the Fingoes. They are just as fine a race as the Kaffirs, and speak the same language, and yet they are bitterly hostile to them."
"Yes, it would have been better," Mr. Armstrong said. "I think that there was a prejudice against the Fingoes in the first place. They were not a powerful people like the Gaikas and Galegas and Basutos. A good many of them had escaped from the chiefs who held them in subjection, and came in and loafed about the colony. As all Kaffirs are given to thieving and drunkenness whenever they get the chance, the colonists looked down upon them more than upon the other natives. Not that there is any reason for their doing so, except that they saw more of them, for all the Kaffirs are the same in that respect."
"Do you think it is safe stopping here, Mr. Armstrong?" Ronald asked. They had been talking of the various cattle-stealing raids that had taken place at various points of the frontier.
"I still think so for the present. By New Year's Day I shall have got my crops in, and then I will go into town, as I told you I would; but in the meantime five or six of our nearest neighbours have agreed to move in here; I have the largest farm hereabout, and we could stand a stout siege."
"I am glad to hear that, Mr. Armstrong; the same thing has been done in a good many places and in that way you should be quite safe. I quite think the Kaffirs capable of coming down in small parties and attacking isolated houses, and murdering their occupants; but after their late protestations of fidelity, I cannot believe that the chiefs would permit anything like large parties to sally out to make war."
"That is my idea. But they are treacherous hounds, and there is never any trusting them."
"If you can manage to send one of your Fingoes off with news to us, you may be sure we shall be with you in the shortest possible time, and we will soon make mincemeat of them."
"Do not be too sure of that. I don't say in the open they would stand against a force of cavalry anywhere approaching their own numbers, but I can tell you that in the bush I consider they are fully a match for our troops man to man. What chance has a soldier with his clothes and fifty or sixty pounds weight on his back, who goes crashing along through the bushes and snapping the twigs with his heavy boots, against a native who can crawl along stark naked without making the slightest noise, and who gives the first intimation of his presence by a shot from behind a tree, or a stab with his spear? When I came out here I had naturally the same ideas as you have, and scoffed at the notion of naked savages standing up against a regular soldier, but I can tell you I have changed my opinion, and if the tribes under Sandilli are really in earnest, I promise you that you will want five times as many troops as we have got in the colony to tackle them."
Two days later a message arrived with orders to Lieutenant Daniels to rejoin with his detachment at once. On the 16th of December the whole of the troops in Albany and British Kaffraria were assembled and moved under the Commander-in-Chief towards the Amatolas, the object being to overawe the Gaikas without resorting to force, which was to be carefully avoided. The troops consisted of the 6th, 73rd, and 93rd Regiments and the Cape Mounted Rifles, altogether about 1,500 strong, with two divisions of the Kaffir police. The force moved in three columns. The Governor, who was with the central column, was met by a great number of the Gaikas chiefs, with about 3,000 of their men, at Fort Cox. They again expressed their desire for peace, but their bearing and attitude was not satisfactory. Sandilli and his half-brother, Anta, were declared by the Governor to be outlawed, and a reward issued for their apprehension.
A few days passed without further movement. On the evening of the 23rd, Sergeant Menzies said to Ronald, whom he met just as he had come out from Captain Twentyman's, "I have two pieces of news for you, Blunt. In the first place, as you know, Corporal Hodges has lost his stripes and has been sent back to the ranks for getting drunk. Captain Twentyman asked me who I could recommend for the stripes, and I told him I thought there was no one in the troop who would make a better non-commissioned officer than you would. He said that you were the man he had his eye upon. At ordinary times he should not have liked to give you your corporal's stripes after being such a short time in the corps, but that in the present state of things it was essential to have the best man who could be picked out, irrespective of his length of service: besides, as you have served before it makes it altogether a different thing."
"I am much obliged to you, sergeant," Ronald answered. "If it hadn't been for this trouble I should have preferred remaining in the ranks. I like a trooper's life and do not care about the extra pay one way or the other. Besides, as a non-commissioned officer one has more responsibility and less freedom. However, as it is I shall be glad of the step, for doubtless if there is fighting there will be a lot of scouting and escort work with very small detachments, and I confess I would prefer being in command of five or six men on such work as that, to being under the orders of a man who perhaps wouldn't know as well as I do what ought to be done. And now what is your next news?"
"The next is that our troop and B troop are to form part of a column, five hundred strong, that is to march to-morrow to a place where Sandilli is supposed to be concealed."
"Well, we shall see then," Roland said, "whether these fellows mean business or not."
"I was talking to the headquarter mess-sergeant. He tells me that the Governor's cock-sure there will be no fighting, but that Sandilli will either surrender at once or bolt before we get there."
"From all I can hear, sergeant, the Governor's opinions are usually wrong. However, we shall see about it to-morrow, and, at any rate, it's a good thing to have the question solved one way or the other. Nothing can be worse for the colonists and every one else than this state of suspense. The fellows will have to make up their mind one way or the other now."
In the morning the detachment, five hundred and eighty strong, under Colonel Mackinnon, marched from Fort Cox. The Kaffir police led the way, and were followed by the Cape Mounted Rifles, the infantry forming the rear. There were a good many natives about, but these shouted friendly greetings as the column passed, and it proceeded quietly until it reached the narrow rocky gorge of the Keiskamma, which could only be traversed in single file. Ronald Mervyn had been placed in orders the previous evening as corporal, and he was pleased to find by the remarks of the men that they did not grudge him his promotion, for soldiers are quick to recognise steadiness and ability, and they had long since concluded that Harry Blunt, although he never spoke about his military experiences, had served for some time, thoroughly knew his work, and had been a non-commissioned officer, if not an officer.
"I don't like the look of this place at all," he said to Sergeant Menzies as they halted at the mouth of the gorge. "If I were in command of the force moving among a population who might any moment show themselves hostile, I would not advance through this gorge till I had sent a company of infantry on ahead to skirmish among the bushes, and find out whether there is any one hidden there. On horseback as we are we should be almost at their mercy."
"The Kaffir policemen ahead ought to have done that work," the sergeant said. "Why, bless you, if there was as much as a fox lurking among the bushes they could find him."
"Yes, I have no doubt they could if they wanted to," Ronald agreed, "but the question is, do they want to? I have no faith whatever in those Kaffir police. I have been watching them for the last day or two talking to the Gaikas, and if the natives really mean mischief I would wager the police join them."
It was now their turn to enter the gorge, and as they moved along in single file, Ronald opened one of his holsters and held a revolver ready in hand, while he narrowly scanned the bushes that came down to the narrow path along which they were making their way. He drew a deep breath of relief when he emerged from the pass. As the troop reached the open ground they formed up and were about to move forward when they heard a sudden outburst of musketry – at first the deep roar of the long, heavy guns carried by the natives, and then quickly afterwards the continuous rattle of the soldiers' muskets.
A cry of rage broke from the troopers. Captain Twentyman, who was in command of the squadron, saw that cavalry could be of no use in the gorge, and that they would only add to the confusion did they try to go back to assist the infantry. He therefore spread them out in the shape of a fan in front of the entrance to the gorge, to protect it against any body of natives who might be approaching. Rifles in hand, and with eyes straining into the forest ahead of them, the cavalry sat their horses, anxiously listening to the din behind them. Presently the infantry began to emerge, and at last the whole of the force was reunited. It was found that the assistant surgeon and eleven men had been killed, and two officers and seven privates wounded. They had, however, beaten off the enemy with considerable loss.
As it was clear that, now the Kaffirs had broken into open war, it would be unsafe in the extreme with the force under him to endeavour to penetrate further, Colonel Mackinnon ordered the column to retire. The gorge was thoroughly searched by infantry before the movement began, and it was not until they had found it was completely deserted by the enemy that the column moved back. They reached camp in the evening, and the Governor, upon hearing what had taken place, immediately proclaimed martial law, and ordered a strict inquiry to be made into the conduct of the Kaffir police. In the morning, however, the encampment of the corps was found deserted, three hundred and eighty-five men, taking with them their wives, cattle, and equipments, having deserted to the enemy during the night. Two strong patrols were sent out to carry the news to the commanders of the other two columns, and to examine the state of the country. They came upon a sight that enraged the troops, even more than the attack upon themselves. A party of the 45th Regiment, consisting of a sergeant and fourteen privates, escorting waggons from Fort White to King Williamstown, had been suddenly attacked by the Kaffirs, who had murdered the whole party.
Ronald Mervyn did not hear of this unprovoked atrocity at the time.
At daybreak, six detachments – drawn from the Cape Mounted Rifles, and each composed of six men and a non-commissioned officer – were ordered to start at once to various settlements on the border, to warn the colonists of the outbreak of war. Ronald was placed in the command of one of these detachments, and was chosen to lead that which was to warn the settlers on the Kabousie River, as he was acquainted with the country there. It was hoped that these detachments would arrive in time, for it was supposed that the attack on the column had been an isolated affair, the work of the tribe in the immediate neighbourhood. Circumstances proved, however, that that action was only a part of a preconcerted plan, for on the following day, which happened to be Christmas, a simultaneous attack was made upon almost all the border settlements.
Some of these were military villages, Government having at the conclusion of the previous war given grants of land and assistance to start in their farms to a number of discharged soldiers, upon the condition of their turning out at any time for the defence of the country. A number of prosperous little villages had thus sprung up, and the settlers lived on most friendly terms with the neighbouring Kaffirs, constantly entertaining them as their guests and employing many of them on their farms. In a few cases the news of the fight at Keiskamma arrived in time for the settlers to prepare for defence, but in the great majority of cases they were taken by surprise and massacred, often by the very men who had just been sharing their Christmas dinner. Many of the villages were entirely destroyed, and in some cases not a single man escaped to tell the tale.
It needed no orders for the messengers to use speed. Ronald and his men went at a gallop, only breaking into a slower pace at times to enable the men to breathe their horses. They had a long ride before them, and anxious as he was to get on, it was necessary to spare the horses as much as possible. He arrived at the station his detachment had before occupied at about one o'clock. The inhabitants were just sitting down to dinner. A good many Kaffirs were scattered about through the village. These looked surprised at the arrival of a detachment of cavalry, and gradually disappeared, supposing that Ronald's party was but the advance guard of a larger body. As soon as the news spread, the inhabitants hurried from their houses, men, women, and children, loaded with such articles they could snatch up in their haste, and all hastened to the building which they had before decided should be used as a citadel in case of need. Boys galloped out to the fields to drive the cattle into the kraal that had been constructed within easy range of the guns of the defenders of the Fort. Men were placed on sentry, while others brought in from the houses food, bedding, and clothes, and in a short time the village was prepared for a defence.
Ronald made a stay of a few minutes only. A mouthful of food was given to the horses, as he watched the settlers collecting for defence, and then, satisfied that they were prepared against surprise here, he rode on with his men. At the isolated farmhouses he passed, horses were put into light carts as soon as his news was told. In these women and children were stowed. A bundle or two of clothes were thrown in, the men then mounted, and the whole made off at the top of their speed towards the nearest town. A few of the younger men, and those unencumbered by women and children, mounted their horses, and taking their arms, joined Ronald's party. The next village was five miles from the first, and as they approached they heard piercing screams mingled with yells. Putting spurs to their horses the little party dashed on. Round each of the five or six houses in the village were groups of Kaffirs, who were dragging the inhabitants from the houses and massacring them. One or two shots were heard as they rode up, showing that some of the men were selling their lives dearly. With a shout, the little party of horsemen, counting fifteen men, dashed in upon the Kaffirs. Taken wholly by surprise, the latter did not see their foes until they were just upon them, and it was too late to throw their assegais with effect. Pouring in a volley from their rifles the troop rode in among them, hewing right and left with their sabres, the sharp cracks of their pistols following in rapid succession. With yells of dismay the Kaffirs, although numbering upwards of a hundred, at once fled, making for the forest. The infuriated troopers and settlers followed them, cutting down or shooting numbers before they reached the shelter of the trees. In their rage they would have followed them had not Ronald called them off.