"Where shall we stay till morning?" Ronald inquired of him; "the country seems perfectly flat and unbroken, their look-out will see us a long way off."
"Yes, incos, we lie down in little bush behind there. We send horse back to first wood and tell man to bring him every night to bottom of the hill, or if he sees us from a distance coming down the hill with Kaffirs after us, to come to meet us. We lie down till morning. Then when they go on, we go on too, little time afterwards, as you said, and follow as far as first wood; look-out think we belong to big party; then we hide there till one of my men come back. I told them we should be somewhere in wood, and he is to make signals as he walks along. We will push on as far as we can, so that we don't come upon kraals."
"That will do very well indeed," Ronald said, "for every inch that we can get nearer to Macomo's kraal is so much gained."
He removed the pistols from his holsters, and fastened them to his belt, putting them so far back that they were completely hidden by the blanket he wore over his shoulders, and then went with the party some little distance back, and lay down till morning. Almost as soon as it was daybreak, the Fingo who was on the watch announced that the Kaffirs were moving, and the little party at once followed. The Kaffirs had disappeared among the woods, high up on the hill side, when they began to ascend the grassy slope. They had no doubt that they were observed by the Kaffir watchmen, but they proceeded boldly, feeling sure it would be supposed that they belonged to the party ahead of them.
The path through the forest was a narrow one, and they moved along in single file. One of the party went fifty yards ahead, walking cautiously, and listening intently for suspicious sounds; the rest proceeded noiselessly, prepared to bound into the forest directly the man ahead gave the signal that any one was approaching. For upwards of a mile they kept their way, the ground rising continually; then they reached a spot where a deep valley fell away at their feet. It divided into several branches, and wreaths of smoke could be seen curling up through the trees at a number of points. Similar indications of kraals could be seen everywhere upon the hill side, and Kreta shook his head and said:
"No can go further. Heaps of Kaffir all about. Must wait now."
Even Ronald, anxious as he was to go on, felt that it would be risking too much to proceed. The kraals were so numerous that as soon as they got into the valley they would be sure to run into one, and, moreover, the path would fork into many branches, and it would be impossible for them to say which of these the party ahead had taken.
They turned aside into the wood for some little distance and lay down, one being left on the watch in the bush close to the path. The hours passed slowly while they waited the return of one of the scouts, who had been ordered to follow close upon the footsteps of the Kaffirs to Macomo's kraal.
He said a few words to the chief, and although Ronald could not understand him he saw by the expression of Kreta's face that the news was satisfactory.
"Girl got to Macomo's kraal," the chief said. "Macomo not there. Gone to Sandilli. May come back to-night. Most likely get drunk and not come back till to-morrow. Macomo drink very much."
"All the better," Ronald said. "Thank God we have got a few hours before us."
The man gave a narration of his proceedings to Kreta, who translated them to Ronald.
Directly the Kaffirs had passed the point where he and his comrade were hidden, they came out of the bush and followed closely behind them, sometimes dropping behind a little so as to be quite out of sight if any of them should look round, and then going on faster until they could get a glimpse of them, so as to be sure that they were going in the right direction. They had passed through several kraals. Before they came to each of these the men had waited a little, and had then gone on at a run, as if anxious to catch up the main body. They had thus avoided questioning.
Three hours' walking took them to Macomo's kraal, and they had hung about there until they found out that Macomo was away, having gone off early to pay a visit to Sandilli. Kreta did not translate his followers' description of the manner in which this information had been obtained, and Ronald, supposing they had gathered it from listening to the Kaffirs, asked no questions. As soon as they had learned what they wanted to know, one of them had remained in hiding near the village, and the other had returned with the news. He had been nearly twice as long coming back as he was going, as this time he had been obliged to make a circuit so as to pass round each of the kraals, and so to avoid being questioned.
"Did he see the young lady?" Ronald asked; "and how was she looking?"
Yes, he had seen her as they passed his ambush the first thing in the morning. She looked very white and tired, but she was walking. She was not bound in any way. That was all he could tell him.
"How soon can we go on, chief?" Ronald asked, impatiently. "You see, it is three hours' marching even if we go straight through."
"Can go now," the chief said. "Now we know where Macomo's kraal is we can go straight through the bush."
They went back to the path. The Fingo pointed to the exact position among the hills where Macomo's kraal was. There were two intermediate ridges to be crossed, but Ronald did not doubt the Fingo's power to follow a nearly direct line to the spot.
"Now," the chief said, "you follow close behind me. Keep your eyes always on ground. Do not look at trees or rocks, or anything, but tread in my footsteps. Remember if you tread on a twig, or make the least sound, perhaps some one notice it. We may be noticed anyhow. Fellows upon the watch may see us moving through the trees overhead, but must risk that; but only don't make noise."
Ronald promised to obey the chief's instructions, and the party, again leaving the path, took their way through the trees straight down into the valley. At times they came to such precipitous places that they were forced to make detours to get down them. One of the men now went ahead, the rest following at such a distance that they could just keep him in sight through the trees. From time to time he changed his course, as he heard noises or the sound of voices that told him he was approaching a kraal. At times they came across patches of open ground. When it was impossible to avoid these they made no attempt to cross them rapidly, as they knew that the sharp eyes of the sentries on the hill top could look down upon them. They, therefore, walked at a quiet pace, talking and gesticulating to each other as they went, so that they might be taken for a party going from one kraal to another.
It was eight o'clock in the evening, and the sun had set some time, when they approached the kraal of Macomo.
It was a good-sized village, and differed little from the ordinary Kaffir kraals except that two or three of the huts were large and beehive-shaped. There was a good deal of noise going on in the village; great fires were burning, and round these numbers of the Kaffirs were dancing, representing by their action the conflict in which they had been engaged, and the slaughter of their enemies. The women were standing round, keeping up a monotonous song, to the rhythm of which the men were dancing.
As they approached within a hundred yards of the edge of the clearing round the village, a sharp hiss was heard among the bushes. Kreta at once left the path, the others following him. They were at once joined by the other scouts.
"What is the news?"
"The white woman is still in the woman's hut next to that of Macomo."
"Are there any guards at the door?" Ronald asked. The chief put the question.
"No, no guards have been placed there. There are many women in the hut. There was no fear of her escape. Besides, if she got out, where could she go to?"
"Well, now, incos, what are we to do?" the chief asked. "We have brought you here, and now we are ready to die if you tell us. What you think we do next?"
"Wait a bit, Kreta, I must think it over."
Indeed, Ronald had been thinking all day. He had considered it probable that Mary Armstrong would be placed in the hut of one of the chief's wives. The first question was how to communicate with her. It was almost certain that either some of the women would sit up all night, or that sentries would be placed at the door. Probably the former. The Kaffirs had made a long journey, and had now doubtless been gorging themselves with meat. They would be disinclined to watch, and would consider their responsibility at an end when they had handed her over to the women. It was almost certain that Mary herself would be asleep after her fatigue of the last three days; even the prospect of the terrible fate before her would scarce suffice to keep her awake.
"Do you think two women will sit up with her all night?"
"Two or three of them, sure," Kreta replied.
"My plan is this, Kreta; it may not succeed, but I can think of no other. In the first place, I will go into the kraal. I will wait until there is no one near the door, then I will stoop and say in a loud voice, so that she may hear, that she is to keep awake at night. Macomo's women are none of them likely to understand English, and before they run out to see what it is, I shall be gone. If they tell the men they have heard a strange voice speaking unknown words, they will be laughed at, or at most a search will be made through the kraal, and of course nothing will be found. Then, to-night, chief, when everything is still, I propose that three of you shall crawl with me into the kraal. When we get to the door of the hut, you will draw aside the hide that will be hanging over it and peep in. If only two women are sitting by the fire in the centre, two of you will crawl in as noiselessly as possible. I know that you can crawl so that the sharpest ear cannot hear you. Of course, if there are three, three of you will go in; if two, two only. You will crawl up behind the women, suddenly seize them by the throat and gag and bind them. Then you will beckon to the young lady to follow you. She will know from my warning that you are friends. If she has a light dress on, throw a dark blanket round her, for many of the Kaffirs will go on feasting all night, and might see her in the light of the fire. Then I will hurry her away, and your men follow us so as to stop the Kaffirs a moment and give us time to get into the bushes if we are seen."
"Kreta will go himself," the chief said, "with two of his young men. Do you not think, incos, that there is danger in your calling out?"
"Not much danger, I think, Kreta. They will not dream of a white man being here, in the heart of the Amatolas. I think there is less danger in it than that the girl might cry out if she was roused from her sleep by men whom she did not know. She might think that it was Macomo come home."
Kreta agreed in this opinion.
"I will go down at once," Ronald said; "they're making such a noise that it is unlikely any one outside the hut would hear me, however loud I spoke, while if I waited until it got quieter, I might be heard. Take my rifle, Kreta, and one of the pistols; I want to carry nothing extra with me, in case I have to make a sudden bolt for it."
Mary Armstrong was lying apparently unnoticed by the wall of the hut, while a dozen women were chattering round the fire in the centre. Suddenly she started; for from the door, which was but three feet high, there came a loud, clear voice, "Mary Armstrong, do not sleep to-night. Rescue is at hand."
The women started to their feet with a cry of alarm at these mysterious sounds, and stood gazing at the entrance; then there was a clamour of tongues, and presently one of them, older than the rest, walked to the entrance and looked out.
"There is no one here," she said, looking round, and the greater part of the women at once rushed out. Their conduct convinced Mary Armstrong that she was not in a dream, as she at first thought, but had really heard the words. Who could have spoken them, or what rescue could reach her? This she could not imagine; but she had sufficient self-possession to resume her reclining position, from which she had half risen, and to close her eyes as if sound asleep. A minute later, one of the women appeared with a blazing brand, and held it close to her eyes.
"The girl is asleep," she said in Kaffir, which Mary understood perfectly; "what can have been the words we heard?"
"It must have been an evil spirit," another woman said; "who else can have spoken in an unknown tongue to us?"
There was a good deal of hubbub in the kraal when the women told their story; some of the men took up their weapons and searched the village and the surrounding bushes, but the greater portion altogether disbelieved the story. Whoever heard of a spirit talking in an unknown tongue to a lot of women? If he had wanted to say anything to them, he would have spoken so that they could understand. It must have been some man who had drunk too much, and who bellowed in at the door to startle them; and so gradually the din subsided, the men returned to the dance, and the women to their huts.
Had Mary Armstrong been in spirits to enjoy it, she would have been amused at the various propositions started by the women to account for the voice they had heard; not one of them approached the truth, for it did not occur to them as even possible that a white man should have penetrated the Amatolas to Macomo's kraal.
Ronald, with Kreta and two of his men, now crept down to the very edge of the bushes at a spot where they could command a view of the entrance to the hut. For a long time female figures came in and out, and it was not until long past midnight that they saw the last female figure disappear inside and the skin drawn across the entrance.
"How long shall we give them, Kreta?"
"In an hour Kreta will go see," the chief said; "but better give two hours for all to be fast asleep."
In about an hour Ronald, who had been half lying on the ground with his head on his hands, looked round and found that the chief had stolen away. He sat up and watched the hut intently. The fires were burning low now, although many of the Kaffirs were sitting round them; but there was still light enough for him, looking intently, to see a figure moving along. Once or twice he fancied he saw a dark shadow on the ground close to the hut, but he was not sure, and was still gazing intently when there was a touch on his shoulder, and, looking round, he saw the chief beside him.
"Two women watch," he said, "others all quiet. Give a little time longer, to make sure that all are asleep, then we go on."
It seemed to Ronald fully two hours, although it was less than one, before Kreta again touched him.
"Time to go, incos," he said. "You go down with me to the hut, but not quite close. Kreta bring girl to you. You better not go. Kreta walk more quietly than white man. Noise spoil everything, get all of us killed."
Ronald gave his consent, though reluctantly, but he felt it was right that the Fingo, who was risking his life for his sake, should carry out his plans in his own way. Kreta ordered one of his men to rejoin his companions, and with the other advanced towards the village.
When within forty yards of the hut, he touched Ronald and whispered to him to remain there. Then he and his companion lay down on the ground, and, without the slightest sound that Ronald could detect, disappeared in the darkness, while Ronald stood with his revolver in his hand, ready at any moment to spring forward and throw himself upon the Kaffirs.
Mary Armstrong lay awake, with every faculty upon the stretch. Where the succour was to come from, or how, she could not imagine; but it was evident, at least, that some white man was here, and was working for her. She listened intently to every sound, with her eyes wide open, staring at the two women, who were cooking mealies in the fire, and keeping up a low, murmured talk. She had not even a hope that they would sleep. She knew that the natives constantly sit up talking and feasting until daylight is close at hand; and as they had extra motives for vigilance, she was sure that they would keep awake.
Suddenly, so suddenly that she scarcely knew what had happened, the two women disappeared from her sight. A hand had grasped each tightly by the throat, another hand seized the hair, and, with a sharp jerk, pulled the head on one side, breaking the neck in a moment – a common mode among the Kaffirs of putting any one to death. The whole thing did not occupy a moment, and as the women disappeared from her sight, two natives rose to their feet and looked round. Convinced that this was the succour promised her, she sat up. One of the natives put his finger upon his lips to indicate the necessity of silence, and beckoned for her to rise and come to him. When she did so he wrapped her in a dark blanket and led her to the door. He pushed aside the hanging and went out.
Mary followed close behind him. He now put the blanket over her head and lifted her in his arms. A momentary dread seized her lest this might be an emissary of some other chief, who had sent him to carry off Macomo's new captive, but the thought of the English words reassured her; and, at any rate, even if it were so, her position could not possibly be worse than on the return of Macomo the next morning. She was carried a short distance, then she heard her bearer say in English: "Come along; I take her a bit further. Too close to Kaffir still." She was carried on for some distance. Then there was a stop, and she was placed on her feet; the blanket was removed from her head, and a moment later a dark figure seized her hand.
"Thank God, we have got you out, Miss Armstrong."
The revulsion of feeling at hearing her own tongue was so great that she was not capable of speaking, and she would have fallen had she not been clasped in the arms of the person who addressed her. Her surprise at feeling that the arms that encircled her were bare, roused her.
"Who are you, sir?" she asked, trembling.
"I am Sergeant Blunt, Miss Armstrong. No wonder you did not know me. I am got up in native fashion. You can trust yourself with me, you know."
"Oh, yes, yes," the girl sobbed. "I know I can, you saved my life once before. How did you come here? And, oh, can you tell me any news about my father?"
"He is hurt, Miss Armstrong, but I have every hope that he will recover. Now you must be strong, for we must be miles from here before morning. Can you walk?"
"Oh yes, I can walk any distance," the girl said. "Yesterday it seemed to me that I could not walk an inch further were it to save my life, and they had to carry me the last mile or two, but now I feel strong enough to walk miles."
"She can walk at present, chief," Ronald said, "let us go forward at once."
They were now on the pathway leading down to the kraal. The chief took the lead, telling Mary Armstrong to take hold of his blanket and follow close behind him, while Ronald followed on her heels, the other Fingoes keeping in the rear. The darkness beneath the trees was dense, and it was some time before Ronald could make out even the outline of the figures before him. Before approaching a kraal a halt was always made, and one of the Fingoes went on ahead to see if the fires were out and all natives inside their huts. Several times, although all the human beings were asleep, the scout returned, saying that they could not pass through the kraal, for the dogs had scented him and growled fiercely, and would set up such a barking when the party passed as to bring all the village out to see what was the matter.
Then long detours, that would have been difficult through the thick bush in daylight, but at night were almost impossible, had to be made. Each time that this had to be done, Kreta lifted Mary Armstrong and carried her, and she had now become so exhausted that she was unable even to protest. Ronald would have carried her himself, but he felt that it would be worse than useless to attempt to do so. Though unencumbered, he had the greatest difficulty in making his way through the bushes, which scratched and tore his flesh terribly; but the chief seemed to be possessed of the eyes of a bat, and glided through them, scarcely moving a twig as he passed. After going on for upwards of three hours, the chief stopped.
"It will be getting light soon. We must hide her now. Cannot get further until to-morrow night."
Although Ronald Mervyn, struggling along in the darkness, had not noticed it, the party had for the last hour turned off from the line they had before been following. They stopped by a little stream, running down the valley. Here a native refilled the gourds, and Mary Armstrong felt better after a drink of water.