As a rule the minor wars in which this country has been from time to time engaged, have been remarkable both for the admirable way in which they were conducted and for the success that attended them. The two campaigns in South Africa, however, that followed each other with but a brief interval, were notable exceptions. In the Zulu War the blunder, made by the General in command, of dividing his army and marching away with the greater portion without troubling himself to keep up communication with the force left behind, brought about a serious disaster at Isandula. In the Boer War we also suffered two defeats, – one at Laing’s Neck, the other at Majuba Hill, – and when at last a British force was assembled capable of retrieving these misfortunes, the English government decided not to fight, but to leave the Boers in possession of the Transvaal. This unfortunate surrender has, assuredly, brought about the troubled state of things now existing in South Africa.
After having written upwards of fifty records of almost unbroken success to the British arms in almost all parts of the world, I have found it painful to describe these two campaigns in which we suffered defeat. I trust, however, that this story will prove of great interest to the reader because of the characteristic English pluck and daring of its hero.
The country round Castleton, in Derbyshire, is greatly admired by summer tourists, for it lies in the wildest part of that county; but in winter the wind whistles sharply over the bleak hills – where there are no trees to break its violence, – the sheep huddle under the shelter of the roughly-built stone walls, and even lovers of the picturesque would at that season prefer a more level and wooded country. The farm of Mr Humphreys was situated about a mile from Castleton. It consisted of 100 acres or so of good land in the bottom, and of five or six times as much upland grazing on the hills. Mr Humphreys owned as well as farmed his land, and so might have claimed, had he chosen, the title of gentleman-farmer; but he himself would have scoffed at such an idea. He was a hard-working, practical farmer, about over his ground from morning to night, save when the hounds met within easy distance in winter; then he would mount “Robin,” who served alike as hunter, or hack, or to drive in the neat dog-cart to Buxton market; and, although there were many handsomer horses in the field, Mr Humphreys was seldom far off when the fox was killed.
His family consisted of his wife and two sons, the eldest, Richard, was about fourteen years old. His brother, John, was three years younger. Both went to school at Castleton. The younger boy was fond of his books; he had always been weak and delicate, and, being unable to spend his time in active exercise out of doors, he was generally to be found reading by the fire in winter, or lying on the ground in summer under a tree in the orchard, with his chin on his hand, and the book before him.
“You will never set the Thames on fire, Dick,” his father would say to him.
“I shall never want to, father,” he would reply. “I do not see that learning will ever be much good to me.”
“That is a foolish idea, Dick. A great deal of the learning that boys get at school is of no actual value in pounds, shillings, and pence. It is not the fact of knowing Latin, and Greek, and mathematics which benefits a man; but it is the learning of them. It is the discipline to the mind, which is of benefit. The mind is like the body. There is no use in cricket, or in boating, or in hunting, but these things strengthen the body and make it active and healthy, and able to do better everything which it undertakes, and it is exactly the same thing with the mind; besides, the days are coming when farmers must farm their land with science and intelligence, or they will be left behind in the race. We are being rivalled by the farmers of America. Not only do we have to pay rent, but by the tithes and rates and taxes they put upon us government makes the English farmer pay a heavy tax upon every bushel of corn he produces, while they allow the American corn to come into the market tax-free. This may be all right, but it does not appear fair to me. However, there it is, and we have got to meet it, and if we are to keep our heads above water, it can only be by farming up to the very best lights of the day.”
“Well, father,” Dick said, “then it seems to me that when we grow up, John and I must farm together. He shall be the scientific partner; I will do the work.”
“That is all right enough, Dick, but you must have some science too, else you and he will never get on. You would want to go on in the old-fashioned groove, and would call his ideas newfangled. No, I intend you, when you get old enough, to go to Cirencester College, where you will learn the theory and science of farming thoroughly. You will get the practical part at home. As to John, he is a child yet, and, I trust, will grow up strong and active; but if his tastes remain as they now are, I do not think it likely he will take to farming, and we must find some other career for him.”
One afternoon in the beginning of December two of Dick’s school-fellows said to him —
“We are going over the hills to our uncle’s farm, Dick. Will you go with us?”
When there was nothing better to do, Dick was always ready for a walk, and he at once agreed to accompany the Jacksons. The elder boy was about his own age, the younger two years his junior.
The Jacksons called for him directly he had finished his dinner, and they started away together for a farm which was about four miles distant. They struck right across the hills, as it would have been two miles longer by the nearest road.
“I should not be surprised,” Dick said, “if it were to snow to-night; it is bitterly cold, and the clouds look very heavy.”
“I hope it won’t snow until we get back,” James, the younger of the brothers, remarked.
“I don’t know,” Dick answered, looking at the clouds. “I should not be surprised if it began at any moment.”
The wind was blowing strongly. The hills were high and steep, and, although the boys made their best speed, it was considerably over an hour before they reached the farm. They had started at two, and it was now a quarter past three. Mr Jackson was out. The boys delivered the message with which they had been charged to their aunt.
“Now,” she said, “I will cut you each a hunch of cake, and when you have eaten that and had a glass of fresh milk you had best start at once. It is bitterly cold, and we are going to have snow: The sooner you are home, the better.”
The boys now ate their cake. Mrs Jackson came to the door with them. Then she said, as the first flake of snow fell —
“I am not sure, boys, that you had not better stay here all night.”
The boys laughed.
“Why, what would they say at home? They would just be in a way about us.”
“Well, at any rate, you had better go by the road.”
“Oh, that is two miles farther at least. We should not get home until long after dark. We shan’t be an hour by the hills. We know every foot of the way.”
“Well, good-bye, then. Make as much haste as you can.”
For half a mile their way led along the road, then they scrambled over a wall and began to ascend the barren hill-side. The snow was falling fast now. Thicker and thicker it came down, and when, hot and panting, they reached the top of the hill, the wind blew the flakes so fiercely into their faces that they were half-blinded, and were obliged to turn their backs to the gale while they got breath. For half an hour they struggled on. They could scarcely see ten paces before them through the driving snow, and in every sheltered spot white patches rapidly began to form.
“How different things look in a snow-storm!” Dick said, as they stopped for breath and shelter under the lee of a wall. “I don’t know, Tom, but I am not quite sure that we are going straight; I do not know what wall this is.”
“No more do I,” Tom Jackson replied. “I felt quite sure that we were going right at first, but somehow I don’t think so now.”
“I wish the snow would stop for a minute,” Dick said, “just to let us have a look round. If I could see a hundred yards I am sure I should know where we are. What is the matter with you, James; what are you blubbering about?”
“My feet are so cold; they hurt dreadfully.”
“Oh, never mind,” Dick said. “Come, boys, push along, and we shall soon be home.”
Again they started with heads bent to face the storm.
“It is getting dark awfully fast,” Tom Jackson said.
“It is, and no mistake. Come, let us have a trot. Come on, young one.”
But, although Dick spoke hopefully, he was not as confident as he appeared. He was sure now that they had lost the way. They might not, he hoped, be far off the track; but he knew that they were not following the precise line by which they came.
It was now nearly dark. The snow was falling thicker than ever, and the ground, except upon the uplands exposed to the full force of the wind, was covered with a white mantle.
On arriving at the bottom of a steep hill, they stopped again.
“Do you know where we are, Tom?”
“Not in the least,” Tom answered.
“This ought to be the last valley,” Dick said, “and after one more climb we ought to go straight down into Castleton. Don’t you remember in that valley there were a lot of sheep in a fold, with a wall round it? If we can find that, we shall know that we are right. It is near the bottom, so we shall not miss it. Which way shall we turn, left or right?”
“Let us try the left first,” Tom said.
They walked for half a mile, gradually ascending.
“It is not this way,” Tom said at last. “We are getting to the head of the valley. What are you doing, James?” as the young boy, who had been sobbing for some time, threw himself on the snow.
“I cannot go any farther,” he murmured. “I am so cold, and so tired, and so sleepy.”
“Oh, nonsense!” Dick said. “Here, take hold of his arm, Tom, and lift him up; give him a good shake; he must go on; he would die if he stopped here.”
The two lads raised the younger boy, and half-supporting half-dragging him turned and retraced their footsteps.
It was pitch dark now, and they could not see a yard before them. For some time they continued their way.
“There is no shepherd’s hut. Certainly, this is not the valley. What on earth are we to do?”
“I don’t know,” Tom said, beginning to cry.
“Shut up, Tom Jackson. What are you thinking about? This is no time for howling like a baby; you have got to think of what is best to do. It is no use climbing the next hill, for we might be going away from home, instead of getting nearer. Besides, we should have to haul Jimmy up, for he can scarcely stand now; and, although it is bitterly cold here, it would be worse on the top of the hill. No, we have got to step here all night, that is clear.”
“We shall be dead before morning!” Tom roared.
“I will hit you in the eye, Tom Jackson, if you don’t shut up; you are as bad as a girl; I am ashamed of you. Now, what we have got to do, is to find some sort of shelter, either a wall or bush, and we must keep on until we come to something. Keep awake, Jimmy; we shan’t have much farther to go, and then you can lie down quietly.”
They went on for a bit.
“It is no use,” Dick said. “They don’t put walls across bottoms; more likely to find one either to the right or left. Now, Tom, you stop here for a minute or two, and I will look about; you keep shouting every minute, so that I can find my way back to you.”
Turning off, he began to ascend the next hill, and in two or three minutes shouted the glad news to Tom that he had found the wall; then he returned.
Jimmy, cheered at the prospect of lying down, made an effort, and they soon reached the wall.
Like most of the walls in Derbyshire, it was formed of flat stones laid without mortar, some four feet high.
“Now, Tom, set to work; get some stones off the wall on both sides, and build up two other walls against this; three feet wide inside will do, and just long enough to lie in. Here, Jimmy, you help; it will keep you awake, and, you see, the higher we make the walls the snugger it will be; we will have quite a nice house.”
The boys all set to work, and in half an hour three walls were built. At the point where the two side walls touched the other, they were three feet high, and sloped down to two at the lower end.
“Now, Jimmy, you chuck the snow out. Tom and I will go, one each way, along the wall; likely enough we may come upon some bushes – they often grow in shelter of the walls: if we can find a few sticks we will cover the house over. Lots of these stones are a couple of feet long, and we will manage a sort of roof. The snow will soon cover it, and we shall be as warm as possible.”
A quarter of an hour later the two boys returned; both had been successful and brought a bundle of sticks; these were laid across the top, interspersed with smaller twigs, the ends being kept down with stones to prevent their being blown away. The last were placed in position after the boys had crept inside. They did not attempt to roof it with stones, for the supply of sticks and brushwood was large enough to catch the snow-flakes as they fell, and these would soon form a covering, while it would have been difficult to balance the stones.
Jimmy was by this time in a state almost of lethargy; but the others were fairly warm from their exertions. They now lay down close beside the younger boy, one on each side. At first they felt the cold extremely.
“Let us keep awake as long as we can,” Dick said.
“I don’t feel inclined to sleep at all,” Tom answered; “my hands and feet feel frozen, but I am warm enough everywhere else, and the ground is precious hard and bumpy.”
“I am only afraid about Jimmy,” Dick said; “he is sound asleep, and he was so awfully cold; lie as close as you can to him, Tom, and put your arm over him and keep your legs huddled up against his.”
“It feels warmer than it did,” he went on, after a pause of half an hour; “don’t you think so, Tom?”
“A lot warmer,” Tom said. “I expect the snow has made a good thick roof.”
“Yes, and the wind does not blow through the stones as it did. I expect the snow is drifting up all round; it was getting very deep against the wall when we got in, and if it goes on all night, Tom, I should not wonder if we are covered deep before morning. The wind always sweeps it off the hills, and makes deep drifts in the bottoms.”
“What shall we do, then?”
“I don’t know,” Dick answered; “but there will be plenty of time to think of that in the morning. I think Jimmy is all right, Tom; I have just put my hand inside his waistcoat and he feels quite warm now. Say your prayers, and then let us try to get off to sleep.”
This they were not very long in doing, for the air in the little hut was soon heated by the action of their bodies. Outside the storm was still raging, and the wind, laden with swirling snow from the uplands, was piling it high in the valleys. Already the hut was covered and the wall behind it.
All night and all next day the snow continued to fall; the next day, and the next, it kept on. Old folks down in Castleton said they never remembered such a storm. It lay three feet deep in the fields, and there was no saying how deep the drifts might be in the hollows. For the first two days the wind had tried its best to keep the hills clear, but it had tired of the work, and for the last two had ceased to blow, and the great feathered flakes formed steadily and silently.
Tom was the first to wake.
“Holloa!” he exclaimed, “where are we? Oh! I remember. Dick, are you awake?”
“Yes, I am awake now,” Dick said. “What is it? It is not morning yet. I seem to have been asleep a long time, and don’t my bones just ache? Jimmy, old boy, are you all right?”
“Yes,” Jimmy grunted.
“It is quite warm,” Dick said. “It feels very close, and how still it is! The wind has quite gone down. Do you know, Tom, I think it must be morning. There seems a faint sort of light. I can see the stones in the wall behind you.”
“So it must,” Tom assented. “Oh! how stifling it is!” and he raised himself into a sitting position.
“I am afraid we are buried deep in the snow-drift. Put your hand up, Tom; don’t you feel some of these sticks are bent in the middle?”
“Ever so much; there must be a great weight on them. What are we to do, Dick; shall we try and dig a way out?”
“That will be no good,” Dick answered; “not if it is deep; and if it has been snowing all night, there is no saying how deep it may be this morning down in this bottom. This drift-snow is like dust. I remember last winter that Bill Jones and Harry Austin and I tried to make a tunnel in a deep drift, but the snow fell in as fast as we scraped it away. It was just like dry sand.”
“We are all right for warmth,” Tom said; “but it feels quite stifling.”
“Yes, we must try and get some air,” Dick said. “The roof-sticks are close together down at our feet. There were three or four left over when we had finished, so we can take them away without weakening the roof. We might shove one of them up through the snow.”
The sticks were removed carefully, but a quantity of fine snow fell in on their feet. One was then shoved up through the top, but the only effect, when it was removed, was that it was followed by some snow powdering down on their faces.
“Let us tie four of them together,” Dick said. “I have plenty of string in my pocket.”
This was done, fresh sticks being tied to the bottom as the first were shoved up through the snow.
“Now, Tom, help me to work it about a bit, so as to press the snow all round, and make a sort of tube.”
For some time a shower of little particles fell as they worked, but gradually these ceased. Then the stick was cautiously lowered, being untied joint by joint, and looking up the boys gave a shout of pleasure. At the top of the hole, which was some six inches wide at the bottom, was a tiny patch of light.
“We have only just reached the top,” Dick said; “the snow must be near fifteen feet deep.”
Small though the aperture was, it effected a sensible relief. The feeling of oppression ceased; half an hour later the hole was closed up, and they knew that the snow was still falling.
Another length of stick was added, and the daylight again appeared.
The boys slept a good deal; they had no sensation of cold whatever, the heat of their bodies keeping the air at a comfortable temperature. They did not feel so hungry as they expected, but they were very thirsty.
“I shall eat some snow,” Tom said.
“I have heard that that makes you more thirsty,” Dick remarked; “hold some in your hands till it melts, and then sip the water.”
Four days passed; then they found that the snow no longer continued to cover up the hole, and knew that the snow-storm had ceased. The number of sticks required to reach the top was six, and as each of these was about four feet long they knew that, making allowance for the joints, the snow was over twenty feet deep.
Very often the boys talked of home, and wondered what their friends were doing. The first night, when they did not return, it would be hoped that they had stayed at the farm; but somebody would be sure to go over in the morning to see, and when the news arrived that they were missing, there would be a general turn out to find them.
“They must have given up all hope by this time,” Dick said, on the fifth morning, “and must be pretty sure that we are buried in the drift somewhere; but, as all the bottoms will be like this, they will have given up all hopes of finding our bodies till the thaw comes.”
“That may be weeks,” Tom said; “we might as well have died at once.”
“We can live a long time here,” Dick replied confidently. “I remember reading once of a woman who had been buried in the snow being got out alive a tremendous time afterwards. I think it was five weeks, but it might have been more. Hurrah! I have got an idea, Tom.”
“What is that?” Tom asked.
“Look here; we will tie three more sticks – ”
“We can’t spare any more sticks,” Tom said; “the snow is up to our knees already.”
“Ah! but thin sticks will do for this,” Dick said; “we can get some thin sticks out here. We will tie them over the others, and on the top of all we will fasten my red pocket-handkerchief, like a flag; if any one comes down into this bottom they are sure to see it.”