The manner in which he had led them in the attack on the Kaffirs had greatly impressed the men, and they yielded as ready and willing obedience, as if their corporal had been an officer. After the meal was over, Ronald placed a sentry on each side of the bush.
"I will relieve you at the end of an hour," he said. "Keep your ears open. I shall go out for a bit and reconnoitre, and mind you don't shoot me as I come back. I will give a low whistle, like this, when I get near you. If you hear any one approaching, and he doesn't whistle, challenge, but don't shout too loud, or you might be heard by any Kaffirs who may be in search of us. If he don't answer, challenge again, and then step into the bushes. If he comes on, and you are sure it is a man, fire; but don't fire if you have the slightest doubt, for it might be a stray animal, and your rifle might bring the Kaffirs down on us."
During the greater part of the night, Ronald moved about, keeping about a hundred yards from the clump, and returning every hour to see the sentries changed. Towards morning, having heard nothing to lead him to suppose that there were any Kaffirs in the neighbourhood, he returned to the bushes, and threw himself down for a couple of hours' sleep. At daybreak, they were in the saddle again, and approaching as near as they dared to the Fort, they concealed themselves, and presently succeeded in capturing a Kaffir woman who was out collecting sticks. One of the troop knew a little of the language, and from her they learnt that the greater part of the soldiers had marched away on the previous morning, and also gathered the direction they had taken. Keeping up a vigilant look-out, they rode in that direction, and presently met a detachment of the 91st and their own troop of the Rifles marching back to Fort Cox.
The force was under the command of Colonel Somerset, the colonel of the Cape Mounted Rifles. Captain Twentyman, to whom Ronald reported himself, rode forward at once to the colonel with the news that Fort Cox was invested by the enemy. Ronald was sent for, and questioned as to the strength of the Kaffirs. He said that owing to the position from which he had seen them, he only commanded a view of a portion of the ground. There appeared to him to be seven or eight hundred men so far as he could see, but, of course, there might have been double that force on the other side.
"Well, I think we ought to push forward at once," the colonel said to the officer commanding the infantry. "The Governor is in the Fort, and the force for its defence is a very small one. At any rate we must try to relieve him."
The troops were halted for half an hour, and as the news soon spread that the Kaffirs were beleaguering Fort Cox, and that they would probably have to fight their way through, they formed up with alacrity as soon as the order was given. The Cape Mounted Rifles went out in skirmishing order, ahead of the infantry, keeping a vigilant look-out for lurking foes.
After marching two miles, the column came to a spot where a broad belt of wood extended across the country. As the mounted men approached this, several assegais were hurled from the bushes. The cavalry replied with their rifles, and then fell back upon the infantry, who advanced with a cheer against the wood. Half the cavalry were dismounted, and, handing their horses to their comrades, advanced on foot. Ronald was one of those who remained behind. Keeping up a heavy fire at their invisible foe, the 91st advanced into the wood. The troopers with the horses listened anxiously to the sound of the fray – the rattle of musketry, the loud reports of the Kaffir rifles, and their shrill yells, amid which a British cheer could be occasionally heard.
"It's hot work in there, corporal," Lieutenant Daniels said. "Too hot to be pleasant, I should say. Judging by the yelling, the wood must be full of Kaffirs."
"I should think so too, sir," Ronald agreed. "I fancy each Kaffir is capable of doing an immense amount of yelling; but still, as you say, the wood must be full of them to make such a terrific noise as that."
A quarter of an hour passed, and then the rifles emerged from the wood. Those with the horses at once galloped forward to meet them, and soon all were in the saddle. Ronald heard Captain Twentyman, who had led the dismounted party, say to the lieutenant:
"There are too many of them, Daniels; the wood is crowded with them. Take half the troop and draw off to the right, and I will take the other half to the left. The 91st will fall back directly. As they come out, prepare to charge the Kaffirs in flank if they pursue them."
Now the redcoats began to appear at the edge of the wood. They were in pairs, and every two men were carrying a wounded comrade. Presently the main body came out in regular order with their faces to the enemy. With yells of triumph the Kaffirs poured out from the wood. The rifles fidgeted in their saddles for the order to charge, but Lieutenant Daniels had his eye upon the other wing of the troop, and Captain Twentyman did not give the order to advance until he saw that the Kaffirs were so far out upon the plain that they could not get back to the wood before he would be upon them. Then he gave the order to charge, and as his men got into motion, Lieutenant Daniels gave the same order. As he saw the cavalry sweeping down, Colonel Somerset gave the word, and the 91st poured a tremendous volley into the Kaffirs, and a moment later the two bodies of cavalry swept down on their flank. With a yell of fear the Kaffirs ran for the wood, but numbers of them were cut down before they could gain shelter. Then the cavalry fell back and joined the infantry. It was found there had been a desperate hand-to-hand struggle, bayonets against assegais. Two officers and twenty privates had been killed, and a great many of the men wounded. They afterwards learned that the Kaffir loss in killed had exceeded two hundred.
The party then fell back and rejoined Colonel Mackinnon. There was now an anxious consultation, when it was decided that as Fort Cox could probably resist all attacks of the enemy, it would be better not to attempt an advance to its relief until a junction had been effected with the other columns, which were now at a considerable distance away. On the 31st, the news reached them that that morning the Governor, with a small body of Cape Mounted Rifles, had made a dash right through the enemy, and had ridden to King Williamstown, twelve miles away, where he had at once issued a proclamation calling upon the colonists to rise en masse to assist the troops to expel the Gaikas from the Amatolas, while a force of Fingoes was at once ordered to be raised.
In the meantime, the Kaffirs were plundering and destroying all over the country. The settlers entirely abandoned their farms; and the roads to Williamstown, Grahamstown, and Beaufort were blocked with the great herds of cattle driven in. The news came that the Gaikas had been joined by the T'Slambies and Tambookies, numbering not less than 15,000 men; and it was reported that an influential chief – Kairie – who could put 10,000 men in the field, was preparing to make common cause with the rebels. The Hottentots of the London missionary station at Cat River, who had for years been fed and clothed by the Government, and put into free possession of a beautiful and fertile district, joined the Kaffirs, and took a leading part in their attacks on the settlers. Their example was speedily followed by the so-called Christian Hottentots at the missionary settlements of Shiloh and Theopolis.
Against such overpowering forces as were now leagued against him, the Governor could do nothing with the small body of troops at his disposal, and was forced to remain inactive at Williamstown until reinforcements could arrive. He contented himself, therefore, with throwing supplies into Forts Cox, White, and Hare, this being accomplished only after severe contests with the natives. Bodies of Kaffirs had now completely overrun the colony, rendering even communication between the towns dangerous in the extreme, unless sent by messengers escorted by considerable bodies of troops.
On arriving at King Williamstown, Ronald Mervyn was greatly disappointed to find that the Armstrongs had gone on to Grahamstown. He found a letter awaiting him from Mr. Armstrong, saying that he was very sorry to leave without another opportunity of thanking him for the immense services he had rendered him, "but," he said, "my daughter, now that it is all over, is terribly shaken by all she has gone through, and I think it necessary to get her to a place a little further removed from all this trouble. I shall probably leave for England before long. I hope to see you before we go, but, if not, I will write to you, giving you our address in England, and we shall both be very glad to see you if you return, as I hope you will, and that before long. We shall never forget how much we owe you."
"Perhaps it is better so," Ronald said, as he finished the letter. "It would only have made it harder for me if I had seen her again. For if there is one thing more certain than another, it is that I can never ask any woman to be my wife."
The Cape Town Rifles were before long joined by two troops from Cape Town and Elizabeth Town, and were continually employed in escorting convoys and carrying despatches. A batch of twenty recruits also came up to fill the vacancies that had already been made by the war, and to bring the troops engaged up to their full force. One of the four men who joined Captain Twentyman's troop gave a slight start of surprise as his eyes fell upon Ronald Mervyn. He looked at him several times, and a slight smile stole across his face.
"Who is that corporal?" he asked one of the troopers.
"Corporal Blunt," the man said; "and a fine fellow he is, too. He led a small detachment of our men splendidly in an affair down by the Kabousie River. Why do you ask? Have you ever seen him before?"
"No," the man said, carelessly; "but he reminded me of some one I knew at home."
"He is a first-rate soldier," the man said, "and I expect he will get the first vacancy among the sergeants. We all think he has been an officer, though he never talks about it. He's the best-tempered fellow possible, but you can never get him to talk about the past. However, that makes no difference to us."
"Not a bit," the recruit agreed. "I dare say he isn't the only one with a queer history in the regiment."
"I didn't say he had a queer history," the man replied, angrily. "He is as good a comrade, and as good a fellow as one wants to meet; there's not a man in the troop grudges his being pushed on."
"I meant no offence," the recruit said. "The man he reminded me of had a queer history, and I suppose that is what put it into my head."
"Well, if you don't want your head punched, you had better say nothing against Blunt," the trooper grumbled, "either in my hearing or out of it."
The recruit turned away and occupied himself in grooming his horse.
"This is a rum start," he said to himself. "Who would have thought of meeting Captain Mervyn out here? I saw in one of the papers, soon after I came out, the account of his trial. I wonder how I should have felt if I had been standing in his place? So he has changed his name. I suppose he arrived at the Cape when I was up the country, and must have enlisted at once, for it's nearly three months since I joined the dep?t, and a draft had only sailed the day before. At any rate it's not likely he will know me; not that he could do me any harm if he did, still it's always useful to know a man and to know something against him, especially when he doesn't know you. If I ever get into a row I can put the screw on nicely."
As the recruit, who had enlisted in the name of Jim Smith, had expected would be the case, Ronald Mervyn's eye showed no signs of recognition as it fell upon his face. He thought the new recruit was a strapping fellow, and would be a good man to have beside one in a hand-to-hand fight with the Kaffirs; but beyond this he gave him no further thought.
A considerable number of the Fingo allies had now arrived at King Williamstown. They had no idea whatever of discipline, and looked every bit as wild as their Kaffir foes. But there was no doubt they were ready to fight, for they were eager to be led against the Kaffirs, who had so long kept them in slavery. They had been armed with muskets, and each carried a heavy knobkerrie. At present they had nothing to do but to sleep and eat, to dance war dances, and to get drunk whenever they could obtain sufficient money to indulge in that luxury.
They were accompanied by their wives, who not only waited upon and cooked for them, but earned money by going out into the woods and bringing in bundles of faggots. Numbers of Hottentot women were engaged upon the same work, while the men of the same tribe looked after the great herds of cattle, furnished drivers for the waggons, helped in the commissariat stores, and, so far as their lazy nature permitted, made themselves useful.
"If I were the General," Ronald said one day to Sergeant Menzies, "I wouldn't have a Hottentot about the place. I believe that they are all in league with the enemy. Look how they all went over from the missionary stations, and the farmers tell me they left in the majority of cases on the day before the massacre. It's quite evident that the Kaffirs somehow always get information of our movements. How could they have laid that ambush for us at Keiskamma River if they had not known the column was going that way? How was it they were ready to attack the detachments that went with provisions to the Forts? It could not have been from their own people, for not a Kaffir has been near us since the troubles began. I believe it's these hateful little Hottentots."
"They are hateful," the sergeant said, "whether they are traitors or not. Except the Bushmen, I do believe that they are the most disgusting race on the face of the earth, with their stunted bodies and their yellow faces, and their filthy and disgusting ways. I don't know that I should turn them out of the camp if I were the General, but I should certainly order them to be washed. If you get half-a-dozen of them on the windy side of you, it's enough to make you sick."
"I wonder the Kaffirs didn't exterminate the little brutes," Ronald Mervyn said. "I suppose they would have done if it had not been for the Dutch first and us afterwards. The missionaries made pets of them, and nice pets they have turned out. It is just the same thing in India. It's the very dregs of the people the missionaries always pick up with."
"Sergeant Blunt, you will take a detachment of fourteen men, ride down to Port Elizabeth, and escort some waggons back here. There will be a party of native levies to come back with you, so that they, with your party, will make a pretty strong force. The dangerous point is, of course, the Addoo Bush. It is, I hear, full of these Kaffir villains. Going down you will pass through it by daylight; and, travelling fast, there is no fear of their interfering with a party like yours. Coming back the Fingoes will let you know of any danger, and I should hardly think that the natives will venture to attack so strong a party; still, as the waggons will be laden with ammunition, and these fellows always seem in some way or other to know exactly what is going on, you cannot be too careful."
"Very well, sir. I will do my best in the matter."
An hour later Ronald started with the detachment. They travelled rapidly, and reached Port Elizabeth on the third day after starting, without any adventure whatever. The waggons were not ready to start, for a heavy sea was setting in, and the boats could not continue the work of unloading the ship that had arrived with the ammunition two days before. Ronald, after seeing that the horses were well cared for, the rations served out, and the cooking commenced, strolled down to the beach to watch the heavy surf breaking on the shore.
The encampment of the native levies was on the shore, and a white officer was inspecting their arms when Ronald arrived. He stood for some time watching the motley group of Fingoes; some of them were in blankets, others in karosses of cow skin, many with feathers stuck in their hair, all grinning and highly amused at the efforts of their officer to get them to stand in regular line, and to hold their muskets at an even slope on their shoulders. Some of their wives were looking on and laughing; others were squatting about by the shelters they had erected, cooking mealies for dinner. The officer, who was quite a young man, seeing Ronald looking on, said, ruefully:
"I don't think there is any making soldiers out of these fellows, sergeant."
"I don't think they would be any the better for it if you could, sir," Ronald said. "The fellows will fight after their own fashion, and I do not think any amount of drill would improve them in the slightest; in fact, it would only puzzle and confuse them to try to teach them our discipline. They must skirmish with the Kaffirs in Kaffir fashion. When it comes to regular fighting, it must be done by the troops. All you can expect of the native levies is that they shall act as our scouts, find out where the enemy are hiding, prevent surprises, and pursue them when we have defeated them."
"Do they not try to drill them up at the front?"
"Not at all, sir. It would be quite useless to attempt it. So that they attend on parade in the right number – and their own head man looks after that – nothing more is expected of them. They march in a straggling body anyhow, and when it comes to fighting, they fight in their own way, and a very useful way it is."
"Well, I am very glad to hear you say so, sergeant. I have been doing the best I can to give them some idea of drill; but I have, as you see, failed altogether. I had no orders except to take command of these fellows, but I supposed I was expected to drill them to some extent; still, if you say they have given it up as hopeless in the front, I need not bother myself about it."
"I don't think you need, sir. I can assure you that no attempt is made to drill them in that way at the front."
The young officer, with an air of relief, at once dismissed the natives from parade.
"I am in charge of the party of Rifles going up with you to-morrow, sir, or at least as soon as the waggons are ready for you."
"Oh, is it you, sergeant? I heard that a detachment of your corps were to accompany us. I suppose you have just arrived from King Williamstown?"
"I came in about an hour ago, sir, and have just been seeing that the men were comfortable."
"Did you meet with any Kaffirs on the way down?"
"We saw no sign of them. We came through the Addoo Bush, which is the most dangerous point, at a trot. Not that there was much chance of their attacking us. The natives seldom attack unless there is something to be got by it; but we shall have to be careful as we go back. We shall be a fairly strong party, but others as strong have been attacked; and the fact of our having ammunition – the thing of all others they want – is, of course, against us."
"But how will they know that we are carrying ammunition?"
"From the Hottentots, who keep them informed of everything," Ronald said. "At least, we have no doubt whatever that it is the Hottentots. Of course, the General doesn't think so. If he did, I suppose he would keep them out of camp; but there is only one opinion in the ranks about it."
The conversation was interrupted by yells and screams from the natives, and a general rush down to the beach.
"There is something the matter," the young officer exclaimed; and he and Ronald ran down to the edge of the water.
They soon saw what was the occasion of the alarm among the natives. Some of the women and boys had been down at the edge of the surf, collecting bits of wood, as they were thrown up, for their fires. A boy of some fourteen years of age had seen a larger piece than usual approaching the shore, and just as a wave had borne it in, he made a dash into the water, eager to be the first to capture the prize. Ignorant, however, of the force of the water, he had been instantly swept off his feet by the back rush of the wave. The next roller had carried him some little distance up, and then borne him out again, and he was now in the midst of the surf. He could swim a little, but was helpless in the midst of such a sea as this. The natives on the beach were in a state of the wildest excitement; the women filled the air with their shrill screams, the men shouted and gesticulated.
"Nothing can save him," the officer said, shaking his head. Ronald looked round; there was no rope lying anywhere on the shore.
"There's just a chance, I think," he said, throwing off his belt, tunic, and boots. "Make these fellows join hand in hand, sir; I will swim out to him – he's nearly gone now – and bring him in. We shall be rolled over and over, but if the line of men can grab us and prevent the under-current from carrying us out again, it will be all right."