A pressure of the hand which he was holding in his expressed the sympathy that she did not speak.
"What time do you march to-morrow, Ronald?"
"At eight, dear."
"Could you come round first?"
"I could, Mary; but I would rather say good-bye now."
"You must say good-bye now, Ronald, and again in the morning. Why I ask you is because I want to tell my father. You don't mind that, do you? He must know there is something, because he spoke to-day as if he would wish it to be as I hoped, and I should like him to know how it is with us. You do not mind, do you?"
"Not at all," Ronald said. "I would rather that he did know."
"Then I will tell him now," the girl said. "I should like to talk it over with him," and she rose. Ronald rose too.
"Not like that, Ronald," and she threw her arms round his neck. "Good-bye, my dear, my dear. I will always be true to you to the end of my life. And hope always. I cannot believe that you would have saved me almost by a miracle, if it had not been meant we should one day be happy together. God bless you and keep you."
There was a long kiss, and then Mary Armstrong turned and ran back to the hospital.
Father and daughter talked together for hours after Mary's return. The disappointment to Mr. Armstrong was almost as keen as to Mary herself. He had from the first been greatly taken by Harry Blunt, and had encouraged his coming to the house. That he was a gentleman he was sure, and he thought he knew enough of character to be convinced that whatever scrape had driven him to enlist as a trooper, it was not a disgraceful one.
"If Mary fancies this young fellow, she shall have him," he had said to himself. "I have money enough for us both, and what good is it to me except to see her settled happily in life?"
After the attack upon his house, when he was rescued by the party led by Ronald, he thought still more of the matter, for some subtle change in his daughter's manner convinced him that her heart had been touched. He had fretted over the fact that after this Ronald's duty had kept him from seeing them, and when at last he started on his journey down to the coast he made up his mind, that if when they reached England he could ascertain for certain Mary's wishes on the subject, he would himself write a cautious letter to him, putting it that after the service he had rendered in saving his life and that of his daughter, he did not like the thought of his remaining as a trooper at the Cape, and that if he liked to come home he would start him in any sort of business he liked, adding, perhaps, that he had special reasons for wishing him to return.
After Ronald's rescue of his daughter, Mr. Armstrong regarded it as a certainty that his wish would be realised. He was a little surprised that the young sergeant had not spoken out, and it was with a view to give him an opportunity that he had suggested that Mary should go out for a stroll on the last evening.
"It is a monstrous thing," he said, when she had finished. "Most monstrous; but don't cry, my dear, it will all come right presently. These things always work round in time."
"But how is it to come right, father? He says that he himself has not the slightest suspicion who did it."
"Whether he has or not makes no difference," Mr. Armstrong said, decidedly. "It is quite certain, by what you say, this poor lady did not kill herself. In that case, who did it? We must make it our business to find out who it was. You don't suppose I am going to have your life spoiled in such a fashion as this. Talk about remaining single all your life, I won't have it; the thing must be set straight."
"It's very easy to say 'must,' father," Mary said, almost smiling at his earnestness, "but how is it to be set straight?"
"Why, by our finding out all about it, of course, Mary. Directly I get well enough to move – and the doctor said this morning that in a fortnight I can be taken down to the coast – we will follow out our original plan of going back to England. Then we will go down to this place you speak of – Carnesworth, or whatever it is, and take a place there or near there; there are always places to be had. It makes no difference to us where we go, for I don't suppose I shall find many people alive I knew in England. We will take some little place, and get to know the people and talk to them. Don't tell me about not finding out; of course we shall be able to find out if it has been done by any one down there; and as you say that the burglar or tramp theory is quite disproved by the finding of these trinkets, it must be somebody in the neighbourhood. I know what these dunderheaded police are. Not one in ten of them can put two and two together. The fellows at once jumped to the conclusion that Mervyn was guilty, and never inquired further."
"He says he had a detective down, father, for some weeks before the trial, and that one has been remaining there until quite lately."
"I don't think much of detectives," Mr. Armstrong said; "but of course, Mary, if you throw cold water on the scheme and don't fancy it, there's an end of it."
"No, no, father, you know I don't mean that, only I was frightened because you seemed to think it so certain we should succeed. There is nothing I should like better; it will matter nothing to me if we are years about it so that we can but clear him at last."
"I have no notion of spending years, my dear. Before now I have proved myself a pretty good hand at tracking the spoor of Kaffirs, and it's hard if I can't pick up this trail somehow."
"We will do it between us, father," Mary said, catching his confidence and enthusiasm, and kissing him as he sat propped up with pillows. "Oh, you have made me so happy. Everything seemed so dark and hopeless before, and now we shall be working for him."
"And for yourself too, Miss Mary; don't pretend you have no personal interest in the matter."
And so, just as the clock struck twelve, Mary Armstrong lay down on her bed in the little ante-room next to her father's, feeling infinitely happier and more hopeful than she could have thought possible when she parted from Ronald Mervyn three hours before. Ronald himself was surprised at the brightness with which she met him, when at six o'clock he alighted from his horse at the hospital. "Come in, Ronald," she said, "we were talking – father and I – for hours last night, and we have quite decided what we are going to do."
"So you have come to say good-bye, Mervyn – for, of course, you are Mervyn to us," Mr. Armstrong said, as he entered the room, "Well, my lad, it's a bad business that my little girl was telling me about last night, and has knocked over my castles very effectually, for I own to you that I have been building. I knew you were fond of my girl; you never would have done for her what you did unless you had been, and I was quite sure that she was fond of you; how could she help it? And I had been fancying as soon as this war was over – for, of course, you could not leave now – you would be coming home, and I should be having you both with me in some snug little place there. However, lad, that's over for the present; but not for always, I hope. All this has not changed my opinion of the affair. The fact that you have suffered horribly and unjustly is nothing against you personally; and, indeed, you will make Mary a better husband for having gone through such a trial than you would have done had not this come upon you."
"I am sure I should," Ronald said, quietly; "I think I could make her happy, but I fear I shall never have a chance. She has told you what I said last night. I have been awake all the night thinking it over, and I am sure I have decided rightly. My disgrace is hard enough to bear alone; I will never share it with her."
"I think you are right, Mervyn – at least for the present. If, say in five years hence, you are both of the same mind towards each other, as I do not doubt you will be," he added, in reply to the look of perfect confidence that passed between his daughter and Ronald, "we will talk the matter over again. Five years is a long time, and old stories fade out of people's remembrance. In five years, then, one may discuss it again; but I don't mean Mary to wait five years if I can help it, and she has no inclination to wait five years either, have you, child?" Mary shook her head. "So I will tell you what we have resolved upon, for we have made up our minds about it. In the first place somebody murdered this cousin of yours; that's quite clear, isn't it?"
"That is quite clear," Ronald replied. "It is absolutely certain that it was not a suicide."
"In the next place, from what she says, it is quite clear also that this was not done by an ordinary burglar. The circumstances of her death, and the discovery that her watch and jewels were hastily thrust into the ground and left there to spoil, pretty well shows that."
"I think so," Ronald said. "I am convinced that whoever did it, the murder was a deliberate one, and not the work of thieves."
"Then it is evident that it was the work of some one in the neighbourhood, of some one who either had a personal hatred of your cousin, or who wished to injure you."
"To injure me," Ronald repeated in surprise. "I never thought of it in that way. Why to injure me?"
"I say to injure you, because it seems to me that there was a deliberate attempt to fix the guilt upon you. Some one must have put your glove where it was found, for it appears, from what you told Mary, that you certainly could not have dropped it there."
"It might seem so," Ronald said, thoughtfully, "and yet I cannot believe it; in fact, I had, so far as I know, no quarrel with any one in the neighbourhood. I had been away on service for years, and so had nothing to do with the working of the estate, indeed I never had an angry word with any man upon it."
"Never discharged any grooms, or any one of that sort?"
"Well, I did discharge the groom after I got back," Ronald replied, "and the coachman too, for I found, upon looking into the accounts, that they had been swindling my mother right and left; but that can surely have nothing to do with it. The glove alone would have been nothing, had it not been for my previous quarrel with my cousin – which no one outside the house can have known of – and that unfortunate ride of mine."
"Well, that may or may not be," Mr. Armstrong said; "anyhow, we have it that the murder must have been committed by some one in the neighbourhood, who had a grudge against your cousin or against yourself. Now, the detective you have had down there, my daughter tells me, has altogether failed in finding the clue; but, after all, that shows that he is a fool rather than that there is no clue to be found. Now, what Mary and I have settled upon is this: directly we get back we shall take a pretty little cottage, if we can get one, down at the village."
"What, at Carnesford?"
"Yes, Carnesford. We shall be two simple colonists, who have made enough money to live upon, and have fixed upon the place accidentally. Then we shall both set to work to get to the bottom of this affair. We know it is to be done if we can but get hold of the right way, and Mary and I flatter ourselves that between us we shall do it. Now that's our plan. It's no use your saying yes or no, because that's what we have fixed upon."
"It's very good of you, sir – " Mervyn began.
"It's not good at all," Mr. Armstrong interrupted. "Mary wants to get married, and I want her to get married, and so we have nothing to do but to set about the right way of bringing it about. And now, my boy, I know we must not keep you. God bless you, and bring you safely through this war, and I tell you it will be a more troublesome one than your people think. You will write often, and Mary will let you know regularly how we are getting on."
He held out his hand to Mervyn, who grasped it silently, held Mary to him in a close embrace for a minute, and then galloped away to take his place in the ranks of his corps.
The troop to which Ronald belonged was not, he found, intended to start at once to the front, but was to serve as an escort to Colonel Somerset, who had now been appointed as Brigadier-General in command of a column that was to start from Grahamstown. At eight o'clock they started, and arrived late in the afternoon at that place, where they found the 74th Highlanders, who had just marched up from Port Elizabeth. They had prepared for active service by laying aside their bonnets and plaids, adopting a short dark canvas blouse and fixing broad leather peaks to their forage caps. On the following morning the 74th, a troop of Colonial Horse, the Cape Rifles, and some native levies, marched to attack the Hottentots on the station of the London Missionary Society. Joined by a body of Kaffirs, these pampered converts had in cold blood murdered the Fingoes at the station, and were now holding it in force.
After a march of twenty miles across the plain, the troops reached the edge of the Kat River, where the main body halted for a couple of hours, the advance guard having in the course of the day had a skirmish with the natives and captured several waggons. One officer of the native levies had been killed, and two others wounded. A further march of five miles was made before morning, and then the troops halted in order to advance under cover of night against the position of the enemy, twelve miles distant. At half-past one in the morning the Infantry advanced, the Cavalry following two hours later. The road was a most difficult one, full of deep holes and innumerable ant-hills; and after passing through a narrow defile, thickly strewn with loose stones and large rocks, over which in the darkness men stumbled and fell continually, the Cavalry overtook the Infantry at the ford of the Kareiga River, and went on ahead. In the darkness several companies of the Infantry lost their way, and daylight was breaking before the force was collected and in readiness for the assault.
The huts occupied by the enemy stood on one side of a grassy plain, three-quarters of a mile in diameter, and surrounded by a deep belt of forest. The Fingo levies were sent round through the bush to the rear of the huts, and the Cavalry and Infantry then advanced to the attack. The enemy skirmished on the plain, but the Cavalry dashed down upon them and drove them into a wooded ravine, from which they kept up a fire for some time, until silenced by two or three volleys from the Infantry. The main body of the rebels was drawn up in front of their huts, and as soon as the troops approached, and the Cavalry charged them, they took to flight. A volley from the Fingoes in the bush killed several of them; the rest, however, succeeded in gaining the forest. The village was then burnt, and 650 cattle and some horses and goats, all stolen from neighbouring settlers, were recovered.
The column then marched back to their bivouac of the night before, and the following day returned to Grahamstown. There was no halt here, for the next morning they marched to join the column from King Williamstown. The road led through the Ecca Pass, where constant attacks had been made by natives upon waggons and convoys going down the road; but without opposition they crossed the Koonap River, and at the end of two days' march encamped on a ridge where the Amatola range could be seen, and finally joined the column composed of the 91st Regiment and the rest of the Cape Mounted Rifles, encamped near Fort Hare.
Two days later, the whole force, amounting to 2,000 men, advanced to the base of the Amatolas and encamped on the plains at a short distance from the hills. The attack was made in two columns; the 74th, a portion of the native levies, and of the Mounted Rifles, were to attack a formidable position in front, while the 91st were to march round, and, driving the enemy before them, to effect a junction at the end of the day with the others. The Cavalry could take no part in the attack of the strong position held by the Kaffirs, which was a line of perpendicular cliffs, the only approach to which was up the smooth grassy incline that touched the summit of the cliff at one point only. The 74th moved directly to the attack, the native levies skirmishing on both flanks. The enemy, who could be seen in large numbers on the height, waited until the Highlanders were well within range before they opened fire.
The Cavalry below watched the progress of the troops with anxiety. They replied with steady volleys to the incessant firing of the enemy, advancing steadily up the slope, but occasionally leaving a wounded man behind them. Two companies went ahead in skirmishing order, and climbing from rock to rock, exchanged shots with the enemy as they went. They succeeded in winning a foothold at the top of the cliff and drove off the defenders, who took refuge in a thick forest a few hundred yards in the rear.
As soon as the rest of the regiment had got up, they advanced against the wood, from which the enemy kept up a constant fire, and pouring in steady volleys, entered the forest and drove the enemy before them foot by foot, until the Kaffirs retreated into a thick bush absolutely impenetrable to the soldiers. On emerging from the forest the troops were joined by the other column, which had driven the enemy from their position on the Victoria heights, and had burned two of their villages. While the fighting was going on between the first division and the enemy, the second division had been engaged in another portion of the hills, and had penetrated some distance. Skirmishing went on during the rest of the day, but at nightfall the troops returned to the camp that they had left in the morning. The Kaffirs had suffered considerable loss during the day, two of their leading chiefs being amongst the slain, and Sandilli himself narrowly escaped being taken prisoner.
The Cape Mounted Rifles attached to the 74th had taken no part in the affair, for the ground had been altogether impracticable for cavalry.
The troops, when they returned, were utterly exhausted with the fatigues that they had undergone, but were well satisfied with the events of the day.
"It is well enough for a beginning," Ronald said to Sergeant Menzies; "but what is it? These hills extend twenty or thirty miles either way, at the very least – twice as far, for anything I know. They contain scores of kraals – I don't suppose I am far out when I say hundreds. We have burnt three or four, have marched a mile or two into the woods, have killed, perhaps, a hundred Kaffirs at the outside, and have lost in killed and wounded about fifty of our own men. I suppose, altogether, there are fifteen or twenty thousand Kaffirs there. They have no end of places where our fellows can't possibly penetrate. There's no holding a position when we have taken it. The columns may toil on through the woods, skirmishing all the way, but they only hold the ground they stand on. Why, sergeant, it will take a dozen expeditions, each made with a force three or four times larger than we have now, before we can produce much effect on the Amatolas."
"I am afraid it will, Blunt," the sergeant said, "before we break down the rebellion. There is one thing – they say that the Kaffirs have got twenty or thirty thousand cattle among the hills. If we can drive them off, we shall do more good than by killing Kaffirs. The chiefs care but little how much their followers are shot down, but they do care mightily for the loss of their wealth. Cattle are the one valuable possession of the Kaffirs. Shooting men has very little effect on those who are not shot; as for driving them out of one part of the country, it makes no difference to them one way or another; they can put up their kraals anywhere. The one point on which you can hit them is their cattle. A chief's consequence depends on the number of bullocks he owns. A young Kaffir cannot marry unless he has cattle to buy a wife with. Putting aside their arms and their trumpery necklaces and bracelets, cattle are the sole valuables of the Kaffirs. You will see, if we can capture their cattle, we shall put an end to the war; but no amount of marching and fighting will make any great impression upon them."
The prognostications of the two soldiers proved correct; it was only after six invasions of the Amatolas by very much larger forces, after hard fighting, in which the troops did not always have the best of it, after very heavy losses, and after capturing some 14,000 cattle, that the conquest of the Amatolas was finally achieved.
So far, Ronald had heard nothing more as to the discovery of his identity by one of the men of his troop. He thought that the man could not have mentioned it to any one else, for he felt sure that had it become generally known he must have heard of it. He would have noticed some change in the manner of the men, and it would certainly have come to the ears of Menzies or one of the other non-commissioned officers, who would, of course, come to him to inquire whether there was any truth in the report; besides, the man must have known him from the time he joined the troop, and could have mentioned it before if he had wanted to do so. Ronald supposed, then, that he had kept silence either because he thought that by originating the report to the disadvantage of a popular man in the corps he might, though it proved to be true, be regarded with general hostility, or, that the man might intend to keep his secret, thinking that some day or other he might make it useful to him. No doubt he never would have said what he did had he not been excited by liquor.