"In fact, I look very pale, and ragged, and tattered."
"I am not surprised at that, Miss Armstrong. You must have gone through a terrible time, and I heartily congratulate Sergeant Blunt on the success of his gallant attempt to rescue you."
"Have you heard from my father? How is he?"
"Your father, Miss Armstrong! I have heard nothing about him since I heard from Sergeant Blunt that you had all got safely away after that attack."
"He was in the waggon, sir," Ronald explained; "he was hurt in the fight with the Kaffirs, and Mr. Nolan brought him back in the waggons."
"Oh, I heard he had brought a wounded man with him; but I did not hear the name. Nolan said he had been badly wounded, but the surgeon told me he thought he might get round. I have no doubt that the sight of Miss Armstrong will do him good."
"Perhaps, sir," Ronald said, faintly, "you will let one of the troop ride on with Miss Armstrong at once. I think I must wait for a bit."
"Why, what is it, sergeant?" the lieutenant asked, catching him by the arm, for he saw that he was on the point of falling. "You are wounded, I see; and here am I talking about other things and not thinking of you."
Two of the troop leapt from their horses and laid Ronald down, for he had fainted, overcome partly by the pain and loss of blood, but more by the sudden termination of the heavy strain of the last four days.
"It is only a flesh wound, Miss Armstrong. There is no occasion for fear. He has fainted from loss of blood, and I have no doubt but he will soon be all right again. Johnson, hand your horse over to Miss Armstrong, and do you, Williams, ride over with her to the hospital. We will have Sergeant Blunt in the hospital half an hour after you get there, Miss Armstrong."
"It seems very unkind to leave him," the girl said, "after all he has done for me."
"He will understand it, my dear young lady, and you can see him in the hospital directly you get there."
Mary reluctantly allowed herself to be lifted into the saddle, and rode off with the trooper.
"Now take his jacket and shirt off," the lieutenant said, "it's a nasty rip that he has got. I suppose he was leaning forward in the saddle when the spear touched him. It's lucky it glanced up instead of going through him."
The soldiers removed Ronald's coat. There was no shirt underneath, for he had not waited to put one on when he mounted. The troopers had heard from their comrades, on the return of the escort, that the sergeant had, before starting, got himself up as a native; and they were not therefore surprised, as they otherwise would have been, at his black skin.
"Put your hand into the left holster of my saddle," the lieutenant said. "You will find two or three bandages and some lint there; they are things that come in handy for this work. Lay the lint in the gash. That's right. Press it down a little, and put some more in. Now lift him up a bit, while I pass these bandages round his body.
Some brandy and water was poured between Ronald's lips, and he soon opened his eyes.
"Don't move, sergeant, or you will set your wound off bleeding again. We will soon get you comfortably into hospital. Ah, that is the very thing; good men," he broke off, as Kreta and the Fingoes brought up a litter which they had been busy in constructing. "Miss Armstrong has ridden on to the hospital to see her father. She wanted to stop, but I sent her on, so that we could bandage you comfortably."
"I think I can sit a horse now," Ronald said, trying to rise.
"I don't know whether you can or not, sergeant; but you are not going to try. Now, lads, lift him on to the litter."
Kreta and the two troopers lifted him carefully on to the litter; then four of the Fingoes raised it to their shoulders. Another took Ronald's horse, which now limped stiffly, and led it along behind the litter; and with the troop bringing up the rear, the party started for King Williamstown.
As soon as Mary Armstrong reached the hospital, the trooper who had accompanied her took her to the surgeon's quarters. The officer, on hearing that a lady wished to speak to him, at once came out.
"I am Mary Armstrong," the girl said as she slipped down from the horse. "I think my father is here, wounded. He came up in the waggons the day before yesterday, I believe."
"Oh yes, he is here, Miss Armstrong. I had him put in one of the officers' wards that is otherwise empty at present."
"How is he, doctor?"
"Well, I am sorry to say that just at present he is very ill. The wounds are not, I hope, likely to prove fatal, though undoubtedly they are very serious; but he is in a state of high fever – in fact, he is delirious, principally, I think, owing to his anxiety about you, at least so I gathered from the officer who brought him in, for he was already delirious when he arrived here."
"I can go to him, I hope?"
"Certainly you can, Miss Armstrong. Your presence is likely to soothe him. The ward will be entirely at your disposal. I congratulate you most heartily upon getting out of the hands of the Kaffirs. Mr. Nolan told us of the gallant attempt which a sergeant of the Cape Mounted Rifles was going to make to rescue you; but I don't think that any one thought he had the shadow of a chance of success."
"He succeeded, doctor, as you see; but he was wounded to-day just as we were in sight of the town. They are bringing him here. Will you kindly let me know when he comes in and how he is?"
"I will let you know at once, Miss Armstrong; and now I will take you to your father."
One of the hospital orderlies was standing by the bedside of Mr. Armstrong as his daughter and the surgeon entered. The patient was talking loudly.
"I tell you I will go. They have carried off Mary. I saw them do it and could not help her, but I will go now."
Mary walked to the bedside and bent down and kissed her father.
"I am here, father, by your side. I have got away from them, and here I am to nurse you."
The patient ceased talking and a quieter expression came over his face. Mary took his hand in hers and quietly stroked it.
"That's right, Mary," he murmured; "are the bars of the cattle kraal up? See that all the shutters are closed, we cannot be too careful, you know."
"I will see to it all, father," she said, cheerfully; "now try to go to sleep."
A few more words passed from the wounded man's lips, and then he lay quiet with closed eyes.
"That is excellent, Miss Armstrong," the surgeon said; "the consciousness that you are with him has, you see, soothed him at once. If he moves, get him to drink a little of this lemonade, and I will send you in some medicine for him shortly."
"How are the wounds, doctor?"
"Oh, I think the wounds will do," the surgeon replied; "so far as I can tell, the assegai has just missed the top of the lung by a hair's breadth. Two inches lower and it would have been fatal. As for the wounds in the legs, I don't anticipate much trouble with them. They have missed both bones and arteries and are really nothing but flesh wounds, and after the active, healthy life your father has been living, I do not think we need be uneasy about them."
In half an hour the surgeon looked in again.
"Sergeant Blunt has arrived," he said. "You can set your mind at ease about him; it is a nasty gash, but of no real importance whatever. I have drawn the edges together and sewn them up; he is quite in good spirits, and laughed and said that a wound in the back could scarcely be called an honourable scar. I can assure you that in ten days or so he will be about again."
"Would you mind telling him," Mary asked, "that I would come to see him at once, but my father is holding my hand so tight that I could not draw it away without rousing him?"
"I will tell him," the surgeon said. "Oh, here is the orderly with your medicine as well as your father's."
The orderly brought in a tray with a bowl of beef tea and a glass of wine. "You will take both these, if you please, Miss Armstrong, and I will have the other bed placed by the side of your father, so that you can lie down with him holding your hand. You are looking terribly pale and tired, and I do not want you on my hands too."
The tray was placed upon the table within Mary's reach, and the surgeon stood by and saw that she drank the wine and beef tea. He and the orderly then moved the other couch to the side of Mr. Armstrong's bed, and arranged it so that Mary could lie down with her hand still in her father's.
"Now," he said, "I recommend you to go off to sleep soon. I am happy to say that your father is sleeping naturally, and it may be hours before he wakes. When he does so, he will be sure to move and wake you, and the sight of you will, if he is sensible, as I expect he will be, go a long way towards his cure."
Captain Twentyman, when he returned in the afternoon from a reconnaissance that he had been making with a portion of the troop, called at once to see Ronald, but was told that he was sound asleep, and so left word that he would come again in the morning.
The news of Sergeant Blunt's desperate attempt to rescue three white women who had been carried off by the Kaffirs had, when reported by Lieutenant Nolan, been the subject of much talk in the camp. Every one admitted that it was a breach of discipline thus to leave the party of which he was in command when upon special service, but no one seriously blamed him for this. Admiration for the daring action and regret for the loss of so brave a soldier, for none thought that there was the slightest chance of ever seeing him again, overpowered all other feelings. Mr. Nolan stated that the sergeant had told him that one of the three women was the daughter of the wounded man he had brought in with him, and that he had known her and her father before, and it was generally agreed that there must have been something more than mere acquaintance in the case to induce the sergeant to undertake such a desperate enterprise. Great interest was therefore excited when, upon the return of Lieutenant Daniels' party, it became known that he had fallen in with Sergeant Blunt and a young lady, and that the sergeant was severely wounded. All sorts of questions were asked the lieutenant.
"Ten to one she's pretty, Daniels," a young subaltern said.
"She is pretty, Mellor," another broke in; "I caught a glimpse of her, and she is as pretty a girl as I have seen in the colony, though, of course, she is looking utterly worn out."
"He is a gentleman," another officer, who had just come up, said. "I have been talking to Nolan, and he tells me that Sergeant Blunt spoke of her as a lady, and said that her father had served in the army and fought as a young ensign at Waterloo."
"Mr. Armstrong is a gentleman," Lieutenant Daniels said. "He had a farm on the Kabousie River, that is where Blunt got to know him. He had the reputation of being a wealthy man. Blunt was in command of a party who came up and saved them when they were attacked by the Kaffirs on Christmas Day. So this is the second time he has rescued the young lady."
"I hope Mr. Armstrong isn't going to be a stern father, and spoil the whole romance of the business," young Mellor laughed. "One of your troopers, Daniels, however brave a fellow, can hardly be considered as a good match for an heiress."
"Blunt is as much a gentleman as I am," Lieutenant Daniels said, quietly. "I know nothing whatever of his history or what his real name is, for I expect that Blunt is only a nom-de-guerre, but I do know that he is a gentleman, and I am sure he has served as an officer. More than that I do not want to know, unless he chooses to tell me himself. I suppose he got into some scrape or other at home; but I wouldn't mind making a heavy bet that, whatever it was, it was nothing dishonourable."
"But how did he get her away from the Kaffirs? It seems almost an impossibility. I asked the head man of the Fingoes, who was with him," another said, "but he had already got three parts drunk, so I did not get much out of him; but as far as I could make out, they carried her off from Macomo's kraal in the heart of the Amatolas."
"Oh, come now, that seems altogether absurd," two or three of the officers standing round laughed, and Mellor said, "Orpheus going down to fetch Eurydice back from Hades would have had an easy task of it in comparison."
"I am glad to see that you have not forgotten your classical learning, Mellor," one of the older officers said, "but certainly, of the two, I would rather undertake the task of Orpheus, who was pretty decently treated after all, than go to Macomo's kraal to fetch back a lady-love. Well, I suppose we shall hear about it to-morrow, but I can hardly believe this story to be true. The natives are such liars there's no believing what they say."
The next morning, after breakfast, Captain Twentyman and Lieutenant Daniels walked across to the hospital. They first saw the surgeon.
"Well, doctor, how is my sergeant?"
"On the high way to recovery," the surgeon said, cheerfully. "Of course, the wound will be a fortnight, perhaps three weeks, before it is healed up sufficiently for him to return to duty, but otherwise there is nothing the matter with him. A long night's rest has pulled him round completely. He is a little weak from loss of blood; but there is no harm in that. There is, I think, no fear whatever of fever or other complications. It is simply a question of the wound healing up."
"And the colonist – Armstrong his name is, I think, whose daughter was carried away – how is he going on?"
"Much better. His daughter's presence at once calmed his delirium, and this morning, when he woke after a good night's sleep, he was conscious, and will now, I think, do well. He is very weak, but that does not matter, and he is perfectly content, lying there holding his daughter's hand. He has asked no questions as to how she got back again, and, of course, I have told her not to allude to the subject, and to check him at once if he does so. The poor girl looks all the better for her night's rest. She was a wan-looking creature when she arrived yesterday morning, but is fifty per cent. better already, and with another day or two's rest, and the comfort of seeing her father going on well, she will soon get her colour and tone back again."
"I suppose we can go up and see Blunt, and hear about his adventures?"
"Oh, yes, talking will do him no harm. I will come with you, for I was too busy this morning, when I went my rounds, to have any conversation with him except as to his wound."
"My inquiries are partly personal and partly official," Captain Twentyman said. "Colonel Somerset asked me this morning to see Blunt, and gather any information as to the Kaffirs' positions that might be useful. I went yesterday evening to question the Fingo head man who went with him, but he and all his men were as drunk as pigs. I hear that when they first arrived they said they had carried the girl off from Macomo's kraal, but of course there must be some mistake; they never could have ventured into the heart of the Amatolas and come out alive."
The three officers proceeded together to the ward in which Ronald was lying.
"Well, sergeant, how do you feel yourself?" Captain Twentyman asked.
"Oh, I am all right, sir," Ronald answered cheerfully. "My back smarts a bit, of course, but that is nothing. I hope I shall be in the saddle again before long – at any rate before the advance is made."
"I hope so, Blunt. And now, if you feel up to telling it, I want to hear about your adventure. Colonel Somerset asked me to inquire, as it will throw some light on the numbers and position of the Kaffirs; besides, the whole camp is wanting to know how you succeeded in getting Miss Armstrong out of the hands of the Kaffirs. I can assure you that there is nothing else talked about."
"There is nothing much to talk about, as far as I am concerned, sir," Ronald said. "It was the Fingoes' doing altogether, and they could have managed as well, indeed better, without me."
"Except that they would not have done it, unless you had been with them."
"No, perhaps not," Ronald admitted. "I was lucky enough down at Port Elizabeth to fish out the son of Kreta, the head man of the party, who had been washed off his feet in the surf; and it was out of gratitude for that that he followed me."
"Yes, we heard about that business from Mr. Nolan, and although you speak lightly of it, it was, he tells us, a very gallant affair indeed. But now as to this other matter."
"In the first place, Captain Twentyman, I admit that going off as I did was a great breach of duty. I can only say that I shall be willing, cheerfully, to submit to any penalty the colonel may think fit to inflict. I had no right whatever to leave my detachment on what was really private business; but even if I had been certain that I should have been shot as a deserter on my return to the regiment, I should not have hesitated in acting as I did."
"We all understand your feelings, Blunt," Captain Twentyman said, kindly, "and you have no need to make yourself uneasy on that score. To punish a man for acting as you have done would be as bad as the sea story of the captain who flogged a seaman, who jumped overboard to save a comrade, for leaving the ship without orders. Now for your story: all we have heard is that your Fingo says you carried off the young lady from Macomo's kraal, but, of course, that is not believed."
"It is quite true, nevertheless," Ronald said. "Well, this is how it was, sir," and he gave a full account of the whole adventure.
"Well, I congratulate you most heartily," Captain Twentyman said when he finished; "it is really a wonderful adventure – a most gallant business indeed, and the whole corps, officers and men, will be proud of it."
"I should be glad, sir, if there could be some reward given to Kreta and his men; as you will have seen from my story, any credit that there is in the matter is certainly their due."
"I will see to that," the officer replied. "The Fingo desires are, happily, easily satisfied; a good rifle, a few cows, and a barrel of whisky make up his ideal of happiness. I think I can promise you they shall have all these."
In the afternoon, Mr. Armstrong again dropped off to a quiet sleep. This time he was not holding his daughter's hand, and as soon as she saw that he was fairly off she stole out of the room, and finding the surgeon, asked if he would take her up to the ward where Sergeant Blunt was lying.
"Yes, I shall be happy to take you up at once, Miss Armstrong. Everything is tidy just at present, for I have had a message from Colonel Somerset that he and the General are coming round the wards. I don't suppose they will be here for half an hour, so you can come up at once."
The sick men in the wards were surprised when the surgeon entered, accompanied by a young lady. She passed shyly along between the rows of beds until she reached that of Ronald. She put her hand in his, but for a moment was unable to speak. Ronald saw her agitation, and said cheerfully: "I am heartily glad, Miss Armstrong, to hear from the doctor such a good account of your father. As for me, I shall not be in his hands many days. I told you it was a mere scratch, and I believe that a good-sized piece of sticking-plaster was all that was wanted."
"You haven't thought me unkind for not coming to see you before, I hope," the girl said; "but I have not been able till now to leave my father's room for a moment."
"I quite understood that, Miss Armstrong, and indeed there was no occasion for you to come to me at all. It would have been quite time enough when I was up and about again. I only wish that it was likely that Mr. Armstrong would be on his feet as soon as I shall."
"Oh, he is going on very well," Mary said. "I consider that you have saved his life as well as mine. I feel sure it is only having me with him again that has made such a change in him as has taken place since yesterday. The doctor says so, too. I have not told him yet how it has all come about, but I hope ere very long he may be able to thank you for both of us."
"You thanked me more than enough yesterday, Miss Armstrong, and I am not going to listen to any more of it. As far as I can see, you could not have done me any greater service than by giving me the opportunity you have. Every one seems disposed to take quite a ridiculous view of the matter, and I may look forward to getting a troop-sergeantship when there is a vacancy."
The girl shook her head. She was too much in earnest even to pretend to take a light view of the matter. Just at that moment there was a trampling of horses outside, and the sharp sound of the sentries presenting arms.
"Here is the General," Ronald said, with a smile, "and although I don't wish to hurry you away, Miss Armstrong, I think you had better go back to your father. I don't know whether the Chief would approve of lady visitors in the hospital."