As soon as the encampment was reached, Kreta came up to Ronald.
"Must change clothes," he said, "and go as Kaffir." Ronald nodded his head, as he had already decided that this step was absolutely necessary.
"Must paint black," the chief went on; "how do that?"
"The only way I can see is to powder some burnt wood and mix it with a little oil."
"Yes, that do," the chief said.
"I will be with you in five minutes. I must hand over the command to the corporal."
"Corporal James," he said, when he went up to him, "I hand over the command of this detachment to you. You are, of course, to keep by the waggons and protect them to King Williamstown."
"But where are you going, sergeant?" the corporal asked, in surprise.
"I have arranged with Mr. Nolan to go away on detached duty for two or three days. I am going to try to get the unfortunate women who were carried off this morning out of the hands of the Kaffirs." The corporal looked at him as if he had doubts as to his sanity.
"I may not succeed," Ronald went on, "but I am going to try. At any rate, I hand over the command to you. I quite understand that Mr. Nolan cannot give me leave, and that I run the risk of punishment for leaving the convoy; but I have made up my mind to risk that."
"Well, of course you know best, sergeant; but it seems to me that, punishment or no punishment, there is not much chance of your rejoining the corps; it is just throwing away your life going among them savages."
"I don't think it is as bad as that," Ronald said, "although of course there is a risk of it. At any rate, corporal, you can take the convoy safely into King Williamstown. That's your part of the business."
Ronald then returned to the encampment of the native levies. A number of sticks were charred and then scraped. There was no oil to be found, but as a substitute the charcoal was mixed with a little cart-grease. Ronald then stripped, and was smeared all over with the ointment, which was then rubbed into him. Some more powdered charcoal was then sprinkled over him, and this also rubbed until he was a shiny black, the operation affording great amusement to the Fingoes. Then a sort of petticoat, consisting of strips of hide reaching half-way down to the knee and sewn to a leathern belt, was put round his waist, and his toilet was complete.
Nothing could be done as to his hair, which was already cut quite short to prevent its forming a receptacle for dust. The Kaffirs have, as a rule, scarcely any hair on their heads, and nothing could have made Ronald's head resemble theirs. As, however, the disguise was only meant to pass at night, this did not matter. When all was done, the Fingoes applauded by clapping their hands and performing a wild dance round Ronald, while the women, who now crowded up, shrieked with laughter.
The chief walked gravely round him two or three times, and then pronounced that he would pass muster. A bandolier for cartridges, of native make, was slung over his shoulder, and with a rifle in one hand and a spear in the other, and two or three necklaces of brass beads round his neck, Ronald would, at a short distance, pass muster as a Kaffir warrior.
"What do you want?" the officer asked. "The allowance for all the men has been served out already; if you haven't got yours you must speak to Kreta about it. I can't go into the question with each of you."
"Then you think I shall do very well, Mr. Nolan?"
The officer started.
"Good Heavens, sergeant, is it you? I had not the slightest conception of it. You are certainly admirably disguised, and, except for your hair, you might walk through the streets of Cape Town without any one suspecting you; but you will never be able to get through the woods barefooted."
"I have been thinking of that myself," Ronald said, "and the only thing I can see is to get them to make me a sort of sandal. Of course it wouldn't do in the daytime, but at night it would not be observed, unless I were to go close to a fire or light of some sort."
"Yes, that would be the best plan," the officer agreed. "I dare say the women can manufacture you something in that way. There is the hide of that bullock we killed yesterday, in the front waggon; it was a black one."
Ronald cut off a portion of the hide, and went across to the natives and explained to them what he wanted. Putting his foot on the hide, a piece was cut off large enough to form the sole of the foot and come up about an inch all round; holes were made in this, and it was laced on to the foot with thin strips of hide. The hair was, of course, outside, and Ronald found it by no means uncomfortable.
"You ride horse," the chief said, "back to bush. I take one fellow with me to bring him back."
Ronald was pleased at the suggestion, for he was by no means sure how he should feel after a walk of ten miles in his new foot-gear.
The corporal had already spread the news among the men of Ronald's intended enterprise, and they gave him a hearty cheer as he rode off. Mr. Nolan had advised him to keep the native who was going to fetch his horse back.
"You won't want to walk into King Williamstown in that guise," he said; "therefore you had best put your uniform into the valise, and tell the man to meet you at any point you like – I should say the nearer to the bush the better; for if you succeed in getting the young lady out of these rascals' clutches you may be pursued, and, if your horse is handy, may succeed in getting her away, when you would otherwise be soon overtaken."
Ronald thankfully accepted the suggestion, for he saw that it might indeed be of vital importance to him to have his horse ready at hand.
With a last wave of his hand he rode off, the chief and his six companions trotting alongside.
The sun had set an hour when they reached the spot at which the chief had directed his two followers to meet him. They had not yet arrived.
"Do you think they will be sure to be able to find the place?" Ronald asked the chief.
"A Fingo never loses his way," the chief replied. "Find his way in dark, all same as day."
In spite of the chief's assurance, Ronald was fidgety and anxious. He wrapped a blanket round him, and walked restlessly up and down. It was nearly an hour before the chief, who, with his companions, had thrown himself down and lighted a pipe, which passed from hand to hand, said suddenly:
"One man come!"
Ronald listened intently, but could hear nothing. A moment later a dark figure came up.
Kreta at once questioned him, and a long conversation took place between them.
"What is he saying, chief? What is he saying?" Ronald broke in impatiently several times; but it was not until the man had finished that the chief translated.
"White girl alive, incos, the other two women alive, but not live long, torture them bad. Going to take girl to Macomo."
"Thank God for that," Ronald exclaimed, fervently, for he had all day been tormented with the fear that Mary Armstrong might have met with her fate directly she was carried away.
"Where are they going to take her?"
"A lot of them go off to-night; go straight to Amatolas; take her with them."
"How many, Kreta; will there be any chance of attacking them on the way?"
The chief asked a question of his messenger.
"Heaps of them," he said to Ronald, for the natives are incapable of counting beyond very low figures. "Too many; no chance to attack them; must follow behind. They show us the way."
"But how do we know whereabouts they will come out of the wood, Kreta? It's miles long; while we are watching at one place, they may be off in another."
"That's so, incos; no use to watch the wood. We must go on to the Great Fish River. Only two places where they can ford it – Double Drift and Cornetjies Drift, one hour's walk apart. Put half one place, half the other; then when they pass, follow after and send messengers to fetch up others."
"That will do very well, chief; that's a capital idea of yours. You are sure that there's no other way they can go?"
"Heaps of ways," the chief said, "but those shortest ways – sure to go short ways, so as to pass over ground quickly."
"What are they going back for?"
"No bullock in bush, incos, eaten up all the things round, want to go home to kraals; besides hear that many white soldiers come over sea to go to Amatolas to fight."
"How far is it to these fords?"
"Three hours' march. We start now. Kaffirs set out soon. Get on horse again."
Ronald was not sorry to do so, for he felt that in the dark he should run a considerable risk of laming himself against stones or stumps, and in any case he would scratch himself very severely with the thorns.
"Tell me, chief," he said, when they had started, "how did your messenger learn this, and what has become of your other man?"
"Not know about other man," the chief said. "Perhaps they caught him and killed him; perhaps he is hiding among them and dare not venture out. This man tell he go into forest and creep and crawl for a long time, then at last he saw some Kaffirs come along; he followed them, and at last they came to place in the bush where there was a heap of their fellows. They were all gathered round something, and he heard women crying very loud. Presently some of the men went away and he could see what it was – two white women tied to trees. The Kaffirs had stripped them and cut their flesh in many places. They die very soon, perhaps to-night or to-morrow morning. Then he crawl up and lay in the bushes, very close, and listen to talk. He heard that to-night heap party go away to Amatolas and take white woman as present for Macomo; then other Kaffirs come and lie down all about, and he did not dare move out till the light go away. Then he crawl through the bushes a good piece; then he got up and ran to bring the news."
"He has done very well," Ronald said; "tell him he shall be well rewarded. Now I think he might as well go to the camp and tell the officer there from me that two of the white women have been killed; but that the other has been taken away, as I hoped she would be, and that I am going after her."
"Message no use," the chief said, after a moment's thought; "better take him with us, may be useful by-and-by; may want to send to settlement."
"Perhaps it would be as well," Ronald agreed; "and the message is of no real importance."
After three hours' fast travelling – the natives going at a run, in spite of the darkness of the night, and Ronald leaving the reins loose, and trusting to his horse to feel his way – they came to the river; after making a narrow examination of the bank, the chief pronounced the ford to be a quarter of a mile lower down, and in a few minutes they came upon the spot where a road crossed the river.
"I think this way they are most likely to take," the chief said, when they had crossed the stream. "Country more broken this way, and further from towns, not so much chance of meeting soldiers. You and I and four men will stay here; three men go on to other ford, then if they cross there, send one man to tell us; the other two follow them, and see which way they go."
"Do you know the Amatolas at all, chief?"
"Not know him, incos; never been there; travel all about these parts in last war, but never go up to Amatolas."
"Then, of course, you do not know at all where Macomo's kraal is?"
"Not know him at all. We follow men, sure enough we get there."
The three men had not started above five minutes, when the chief said in a low tone:
"They are coming," and gave an order to one of his men, who at once set off at the top of his speed to overtake the others and bring them back.
It was nearly ten minutes before Ronald could hear the slightest sound, then he became conscious of a low murmur of voices in the air, and a minute or two later there was a splashing of water at the ford, fifty yards from the spot where they had lain down under a bush. One of the natives had, at Kreta's orders, taken the horse away, the chief telling him to go half a mile off, as were it to paw the ground suddenly, or make any noise, the attention of the Kaffirs, if within hearing, would be instantly drawn to it.
Dark as the night was, the figures of those crossing the water could be dimly made out, and Ronald judged there must be fully three hundred of them. After the first few had passed they came along in such a close body that he was unable to make out whether there was a female among them. The numbers of the Kaffirs sufficed to show him there was no chance whatever of effecting a rescue of Mary Armstrong while surrounded by so large a body.
As soon as all had crossed, two of the Fingoes followed close upon their traces, five minutes afterwards another started, and scarcely had he gone when the three men who had been sent to the other ford returned with the messenger who had recalled them. They left at short intervals after each other, and then Ronald mounted his horse, which had now been fetched up, and followed with Kreta.
"There is no fear of our missing them, chief?"
"No fear of that, incos; that star over there shines over the Amatolas, they go straight for it; besides, the two men behind them can hear them talking. If they turn off one come back to tell us."
But they did not turn off, but kept on for hours in a straight undeviating line, travelling at a fast walk. Roland Mervyn kept wondering how Mary Armstrong was bearing up. She was a strong active girl, accustomed to plenty of exercise, and at ordinary times could doubtless have walked a long distance; but the events of the day, the sudden attack upon the waggons, her capture by the Kaffirs, her uncertainty as to the fate of her father, the harrowing tortures of her companions, which she had probably been compelled to witness, and the hopelessness of her own fate, might well have broken her down. He was sure that the Kaffirs would compel her to walk as long as she could drag her limbs along, but as she was destined as a present to their chief, they might, when she could go no further, carry her.
He groaned at his helplessness to aid her, and had he not had a perfect faith in the cunning of his companions, and in their ability to follow her up wherever she was taken, he would have been inclined to take the mad step of charging right in among the Kaffirs, upon the one chance of snatching her up and carrying her off from among them.
Roland Mervyn, of the Cape Rifles, was a very different man from Captain Mervyn, of the Borderers. The terrible event that had caused him to throw up his commission and leave the country had in other respects been of great advantage. He had for years been haunted by the fear of madness, and whenever he felt low and out of spirits this fear of insanity had almost overpowered him. The trial had cured him of this; he had convinced himself that had he inherited the slightest taint of the curse of the Carnes, he would have gone mad while he was awaiting his trial; that he had kept his head perfect under such circumstances seemed to him an absolute proof that he was as sane as other men, and henceforth he banished the fear that had so long haunted him.
It was in truth that fear which had held him back so long from entering into a formal engagement with his cousin Margaret. He looked upon it as an absolutely settled thing that they would be married some day, but had almost unconsciously shrunk from making that day a definite one; and although for the moment he had burst into a fit of wild anger at being as he considered thrown aside, he had since acknowledged to himself that Margaret's decision had been a wise one, and that it was better that they two should not have wedded.
He had always been blessed with good spirits, except at the times when the fit of depression seized him; but since he had been at the Cape, and been on active duty, these had entirely passed away, and his unvarying good temper under all circumstances had often been the subject of remark among his comrades.
As he rode along that night he acknowledged, what he had never before admitted to himself, that he loved Mary Armstrong. The admission was a bitter rather than a pleasant one.
"I shall never marry now," he had said to his mother, at his last interview with her. "No wife or child of mine shall ever hear it whispered that her husband or father was a murderer. Unless this cloud is some day lifted – and how it can be, Heaven only knows – I must go through the world alone," and so he thought still. It might be that as Harry Blunt he might settle down in the Colony and never be recognised; but he would always have the fear that at any moment some officer he had known, some man of his regiment, some emigrant from his own county, might recognise him, and that the news would be passed round that Harry Blunt was the Captain Mervyn who escaped, only from want of legal proof, from being hung as the murderer of his cousin.
"I didn't think I was such a fool," he muttered to himself, "as to be caught by a pretty face. However, it will make no difference. She will never know it. If her father recovers, which is doubtful, she will go back with him to the old country. If not, she will go back alone, for without friends or relatives she cannot stay here, and she will never dream that the sergeant of the Cape Rifles, who had the luck twice to save her life – that is, if I do save it – was fool enough to fall in love with her."
An hour before morning one of the Fingoes came back from the front with the news that the Kaffirs had turned off into a kloof, and were going to halt there. The party soon collected, and retired to a clump of trees a mile back. One of them was ordered to act as sentry near the kloof, and bring back word at once should any movement take place. The rest of the party, upon reaching the shelter of the trees, threw themselves upon the ground, and were soon fast asleep; even Ronald, anxious as he was, remaining awake but a few minutes after the others.
The sun was high before they awoke. As they were eating their breakfast the sentry returned, and another was despatched to take his place. The man reported that he had seen nothing of the main body of Kaffirs, but that four of them were placed on the watch near the kloof. Kreta led Ronald to the edge of the wood, and pointing to a jagged range of hills in the distance said, "Amatolas."
"How far are they away, Kreta?"
"Six hours' fast walking," the chief said. "They get to foot of hills to-night. If Macomo's kraal anywhere this side, they may get there. If not, they wait and rest a bit, and then go on. No need travel fast when get to hills; they know very well no white soldier there."
"What had we better do, do you think?"
"They have plenty of men always on look-out, sure to be some on hills. I will send two men after these fellows, and they creep and crawl through the bushes, find out the way and bring news to me; then when they come back we will start."
"But we must be there in the evening," Ronald said; "we must be there, chief; do you hear?"
"Yes, incos, but it seems to me that it do no good to throw our lives away. If you say go, Kreta will go too, but if we killed, girl will be killed too, and no good that, that Kreta can see; if we go in daytime we killed, sure enough. Not possible to get into Amatolas without being seen; all grass and smooth land at foot of hill. On hill some places trees, there we manage very well; some open spaces, there they see us."
"I don't wish to throw our lives away, chief; if I wanted to throw my own away, I have no right to sacrifice yours and your men's; but scouts on the look out would surely take us at a distance for a party of their own men returning from some plundering expedition, probably as part of the party ahead, who had hung back for some purpose on the road."
"Great many kraals, great many people in Amatolas," the chief said; "sure to meet some one. They begin to ask questions, and see very soon we not Kaffirs, see directly you not Kaffir; might pass at night very well, but no pass in day. But perhaps we have time, incos. Chiefs wander about, hold council and meet each other; perhaps Macomo not at home, very likely he away when they get there."
"Pray God it may be so," Ronald said, despairingly. "It seems the only hope we have. Well, Kreta, I put myself in your hands. You know much more about it than I do. As you say, we shall do no good to Miss Armstrong by throwing away our lives, therefore, I put aside my own plans and trust to you."
"I no say we can save her, incos, but if we can we will. You make sure of that."
The next night took them to the foot of the hills, and when the Kaffirs halted, the chief ordered two of his men to make a circuit, climb the hill, and conceal themselves in the bush before morning broke, so that when the Kaffirs moved on they could at once follow them without having to cross in daylight the grassy slopes of the foot hills. Minute instructions were given to both to follow close behind the Kaffir party, the order being that if either of them could pounce upon a solitary native, he was to stun him with his knobkerry, and force him when he recovered to give information as to the distance, direction, and road to Macomo's kraal, and that he was then to be assegaid at once. Feeling that Ronald might not altogether approve of this last item, for he was aware that the white men had what he considered a silly objection to unnecessary bloodshed, Kreta, whilst telling Ronald the rest of the instructions he had given to the spies, did not think it necessary to detail this portion of them.