Perils in the Transvaal and Zululand
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“Will our horses carry us across?” asked Hardy as he looked at the swollen and roaring stream, which at that point ran with extraordinary speed.
“They must,” said George. “Not our lives only, but those of our friends at Rorke’s Drift depend upon it.”
“You are right. We must cross at once.”
The horses, which had somewhat recovered their wind during the passage through the wood, were extremely unwilling to enter the stream; and it was only by sharp use of the spur that they could be compelled to breast it. For about a third of the distance the water was comparatively smooth, and they made their way, though with difficulty. But as they approached the mid-current they found its force quite irresistible. Both horses were swept down the stream, and soon lost all power of resistance. George threw himself from the saddle, and, striking out with all his force, broke clear of the current and slowly made his way to the shore, while his horse, which had ceased to struggle, was carried down the torrent. George scrambled with difficulty up the bank, and, looking round for his companion, saw him a hundred yards lower down, clinging to the long, projecting branch of a large yellowwood. His horse too had disappeared, and he himself appeared to be quite exhausted. Shouting to him to hold on to the branch, George hurried to the spot, and, climbing into the tree, was able to approach him near enough to throw one end of his belt to him, while he drew him upwards by the other. After a quarter of an hour of great peril and exertion, they both stood safe on the farther shore of the Buffalo.
“We are saved, Rivers,” said Hardy as soon as he had recovered his breath sufficiently to thank his preserver; “but I am afraid not in time to warn our friends at Rorke’s Drift. We have come direct enough so far, no doubt. But Rorke’s Drift lies some considerable distance off, and I am so much exhausted that it would take me a long time to reach it on foot. I am afraid you are not much better.”
“Hush!” said George; “I hear some one moving close at hand. We have lost our revolvers, but we still have our sabres. Can these Zulus have followed us?”
They drew cautiously back under the cover of the reeds and rushes, and listened intently. Presently the tramp of horses’ feet was distinctly heard, and two mounted volunteers came riding by at an easy trot, attended by two or three natives.
“It is some of our own fellows,” exclaimed George; “how fortunate! By all that is lucky,” he added a moment afterwards, “it is Redgy himself, and Wilhelm Baylen! Hullo, Redgy, what has brought you here? Stop a moment, and take us with you.”
Margetts reined in his horse in great surprise. “I may return your question, I think,” he said. “What brings you here? And, good heavens! what a condition you are in. You have swam the river, and are covered with blood besides! What has happened?”
“It will take a long time to tell that,” answered George, “and we must not stop here to tell it.Every moment is of incalculable importance. Give me your horse, Redgy. I think I can contrive to sit in the saddle, and Wilhelm must ride by me. You and Hardy must make your way as well as you can on foot. He will tell you all about it.”
He spurred the horse to its speed, and he and Baylen were soon lost to sight.
The morning of the 22nd of January broke calm and clear on the valley of the Buffalo. At one end of this, as the reader has heard, was situated the ford of Rorke’s Drift, to which the occurrence of that day has given a world-wide celebrity. But for the fact that there are shallows close to it, by which cavalry may almost always cross, there is nothing that could cause it to be chosen as a military station. The valley indeed is open for some considerable distance above the Drift; but below it there rise rocky hills, which would enable an enemy completely to command it. On the north bank again, which is in Zululand, the ground is level; but on the Natal side there is high land, sloping abruptly down to the river at the point where the ford is shallowest. From this point, as well as from that before mentioned, the camp could be easily attacked, and probably with disastrous effect. It could therefore only be from that contempt of the most obvious dangers, which seems to be an inevitable feature in the English character, that a military storehouse and hospital could have been built in such a situation. It must have been evident to every one that, if a Zulu invasion – a thing which had already twice occurred, and which was now again apprehended with grave reason – were really to take place, and Cetewayo pour his dusky thousands across the Buffalo, the stores and the sick men must be, at once and without hope of deliverance, at his mercy.
In any case, one would have supposed that this consideration would cause some anxiety in the minds of the slender garrison left in it, when the three British columns had passed the frontier of Zululand to attack its renowned and dreaded king. All over Natal, if not all over Southern Africa, it was considered as, at all events, very doubtful, whether he would not prove too strong – not indeed for the power of England to cope with, but for the number of troops now sent against him. And if he obtained even a temporary triumph, and forced Glyn’s column back over the river, what would all their lives be worth? Did not common prudence require the throwing up defences of some kind, which might keep the enemy off, for some time at least, until succour might arrive. The grand feat of arms, which averted a second disaster, has induced the world to disregard the strange imprudence exhibited here, as at Isandhlwana. But had the result been different, and had the garrison experienced the same fate as those who fell in the fatal battle on the morning of the same day, the outcry would in all likelihood have been quite as loud and quite as justifiable.
But no thought of danger disturbed the equanimity of the slender force left to garrison their untenable post. The men, when the necessary camp duties had been discharged, appeared to be sorely at a loss to know in what manner to employ their time. The day was warm and bright, and early in the forenoon it became oppressively hot. Some amused themselves by fishing in the adjoining river. Some strolled up and down, or sat smoking and chatting in the verandah, or under such shade as could be found.
At a little distance, in front of the Swedish pastor’s house, Vander Heyden and his sister were walking up and down, engaged in earnest conversation.
“I wish you would think better of this, Annchen,” he said. “Mr Bilderjik returns this morning to Colenso. He finds there is nothing to be done here, which the pastor himself cannot do, nor is there likely to be anything. He will take you with him to his house, and thence you will find easily enough the means of conveyance to Newcastle, where a temporary residence has been engaged. There all the waggons and the goods which were saved from the wreck at Bushman’s Drift have been conveyed. There, too, you can make the necessary preparations for the journey across the Transvaal, which cannot be made here.”
“You are resolved on settling at Pieter’s Dorf, then?”
“Have I not told you so already? Bushman’s Drift was completely destroyed by those fiends of Umbelini’s. It would take a great deal of time and money to restore it; and even were that otherwise, I could never endure the sight of the place again.”
“I know, I know,” murmured Annchen, as she laid her hand pityingly on his arm.
“And Pieter’s Dorf,” resumed Vander Heyden, “is the place at which I have always wished to live, since it came into my possession. Additions to the house and farm buildings are needed, and these Hardy, the most competent man in these parts, has promised to undertake. We shall certainly set out as soon as I am free to travel.”
“That is, as soon as Cetewayo has been put down, I suppose. But if you are to have no hand in putting him down, why wait for that?”
“I mean to have a hand in putting him down. As a soldier, I know I must obey orders, and therefore I have stayed here. But I have been promised that I shall take the place of the first officer that is killed or disabled. Every day I am expecting to hear that a battle has been fought and I am free to draw my sword. I must stay here.”
“But, Henryk, may I not be as anxious to obtain the earliest information as yourself?”
“Of the safety of Frank Moritz?” suggested her brother, turning a scrutinising look on her; “or perhaps of some one else?”
Annchen coloured. “You have no right – no reason for asking me that,” she said.
“I hope I have no reason,” he answered. “As for right, that is a different matter. Let us understand one another. It was never supposed that there was any romantic affection between you and Frank, though you liked one another well enough to marry. But I have fancied once or twice that you were getting romantic about this young Englishman, Rivers. He is a fine fellow, I allow, and I admire and like him. But you shall never marry an Englishman with my consent. And though my control over you will cease after a time, you would no longer be a sister of mine if you were to marry one.”
“I repeat you have neither right nor reason to speak thus to me,” she rejoined. “Neither Mr Rivers nor myself have said or done anything that could justify it. And I really think it would be better for me to leave Rorke’s Drift. I have no doubt Mr Bilderjik will give me permission to accompany him, and, as he means to set out very soon, I will go and prepare for my journey. Good-bye, Henryk; let us part friends.”
They took leave of one another, and not long afterwards she was seen riding off in the Swedish pastor’s company. Vander Heyden lounged up to the camp and joined some of the officers, who had gathered in a group near the storehouse, listening intently to some distant sounds borne by the wind from the eastern quarter.
“That is firing, I am sure,” said Evetts, one of the volunteers; “but it is a long way off.”
“Yes, that is firing,” said the experienced Vander Heyden; “but it is not volley firing. It is only some skirmishing, I expect. How long has it been going on?”
“I should think it began about an hour ago,” said Evetts, “but it was very faint and irregular then. It has been getting more distinct for the last twenty minutes. It is just half-past twelve now.” He looked at his watch as he spoke. “But, ha! what is that?” he added a moment afterwards, as a deep, hollow boom came across the river. “That is cannon. There is a battle going on at Isandhlwana.”
“A good job too,” said Vander Heyden; “it is time there was some fighting. People had begun to think there never was to be any.”
They continued to listen for a considerable time to the roar of the cannonade, which presently ceased, and the desultory firing was again heard.
“The action is over,” observed Evetts. “The Zulus never can face the guns very long.”
“Where is Margetts?” inquired another officer after another hour’s conversation.
“He and Baylen have ridden out to the ford on the Lower Tugela,” answered Evetts, “with some letters which were to be forwarded to Pearson’s camp. I have been on the lookout for them for some time.”
“And here they come,” said Lieutenant Bromhead, the officer in command of the garrison; “I know Margetts’ horse even at this distance.”
“It is the horse, sure enough,” said Vander Heyden, as they drew nearer, “but I don’t think it is the man. No,” he added a minute afterwards, “it is Rivers, not Margetts.”
“Rivers!” repeated Bromhead. “And so it is! He must come from Isandhlwana. Depend upon it, he brings us the news of a victory. Well, Rivers, what is it?”
“I am sorry to say, Mr Bromhead,” said George, saluting the officer in command, “we have suffered a terrible defeat. The Zulus have broken into our camp and massacred nearly the whole of the companies of the 24th, the police, and the volunteers. All the guns, ammunition, and waggons have been taken. I should fear that nearly a thousand men have been slaughtered.”
“Good Heaven! you cannot mean it!” said Evetts. “Where is Lord Chelmsford? How can it have happened?”
“It is no use asking either question now,” said George. “The Zulus are in immense force – ten or twelve thousand of them at the least. They are already, I expect, on the march to attack you. You must instantly retreat, or prepare to defend yourselves.”
“We cannot retreat,” said Bromhead. “It will be impossible to remove the wounded men, and we cannot let them fall into the hands of the Zulus. Besides, it is of the utmost importance to maintain this post, if it be possible. We must throw up what defences we can, and, rather than surrender them, die behind them.”
He was answered by a general cheer and a cry of determination to defend the place as long as there was a cartridge left, or a man to fire it.
As has already been intimated, a worse position for defence than Rorke’s Drift can hardly be imagined. The two small frail buildings were more than a hundred feet apart from one another. The walls were thin, the doors weak, the roofs thatched, and easily set on fire. On two sides there was rising ground, from which they could be completely commanded. On a third they could be approached under cover within a few yards’ distance. There was neither wall nor breastwork nor trench – nothing, in fact, to keep an enemy back. The attacking party would probably consist of some thousands of desperate and well-armed savages, flushed with victory. The defenders were one hundred and four in number (for the native contingent withdrew before the approach of the enemy), and they were cumbered with the care of thirty-five sick men.
They went to work, however, with a will, and for more than two hours employed themselves in loopholing the walls and constructing barricades between the two houses. These consisted of two waggons, which had fortunately been left at the station, and of piles of sacks filled with mealies and biscuit-boxes, the parapet thus formed being only a few feet high. It looked more like a mock fortification, put together for a schoolboy’s game, than for the purposes of a real battle. The rude defences were still incomplete, when the dark masses of the enemy were seen crowding the rising ground to the south, and the foremost lines made a sudden charge down the hill, intending to carry the place by a coup de main. But when they had approached within fifty yards, they were met by a fire so heavy, as to check even their triumphant advance. Instead of continuing their rush, they withdrew into whatever cover they could find, and fired from behind hollows in the hillside, trees and shrubs and garden wall, every now and then rushing forward and trying to force their way in, until driven back by the weapon they dreaded most of all – the British bayonet.
“These fellows fight desperately,” said George to Hardy, who had arrived an hour or two previously, as, aided by him and Vander Heyden, he drove back half a dozen Zulus, who had forced themselves half over the wall of mealie-bags; “yonder big fellow actually clutched the barrel of my musket as I fired it into him, and, though he was mortally wounded, attempted to tear it from me. If his strength hadn’t failed him pretty quickly, he’d have got it, too!”
“Well, the fighting has gone on for four or five hours,” said Redgy, who was close by, “and they have not gained an inch yet.”
“Ay, but if they were to gain an inch, it would be all up with us,” said Hardy. “Put those mealie-bags back again, Wilhelm. That last rush nearly had them down.”
“Look out, here is another lot coming!” shouted George, as he indistinctly caught sight of a dark mass advancing towards them. A moment afterwards a dozen blacks vaulted nimbly on to the parapet, but were instantly hurled back by a volley of musketry, which carried death among the assailants. Three only had made their entrance good. George shot one with his revolver, Hardy bayoneted a second, and Vander Heyden, clubbing his rifle, brained the third, all falling dead within the enclosure.
“Safe once more!” exclaimed Hardy; “but how long is this to go on?”
At this moment a shout was raised that the enemy were forcing their way into the hospital, and the sick must be moved, or they would fall into the hands of the savages. With the utmost difficulty this task was accomplished, the soldiers fighting from room to room, and guarding the doors by turns, while their sick comrades were carried out under the very eyes of a crowd of swarthy savages, pressing on them with brandished weapons and yells of fury. Presently the hospital was set on fire, and the flames, rising high and catching the thatch, lit up the terrible scene with a lurid splendour. It guided the bullets of the defenders, who continued to pour volley after volley into the midst of the dense array of their assailants, heaping the ground everywhere round the entrenchments with their corpses.
Who can relate the achievements, who can recount the horrors, of that long night of trial? It was like a succession of hideous dreams, from which the sleepers were continually being awakened, only to renew them in sleep again. About midnight the little garrison, forced back on every side by overwhelming numbers, had to retire within an inner circle, formed, like the outer one, by mealie-sacks; and here the same scenes were, hour after hour, renewed in endless succession – of black warriors pouring in to the attack, and being driven back by volleys of musketry and charges with the bayonet.
At last the dawn broke. The Zulu fire ceased, and the dense array of the enemy was seen retiring over the heights by which they had approached. The garrison, diminished still further by the casualties of the night, stood triumphant in their citadel. The scene which the rising sun revealed was one of the most terrible and striking on which the eye of man has ever rested. There were the handful of defenders, with their faces blackened with powder or clotted blood, their uniforms ragged with bullet-marks and charred by fire, leaning exhausted against the walls, or stretched on the ground; and all round the camp the bodies of the assailants, scattered singly here and there, or piled on heaps upon one another, in some places six and seven deep. There they lay, in every conceivable attitude of repose or agony, some struck with sudden and almost painless death, others torn by gaping wounds or forced into hideous contortions by acute and protracted torture.
“What a night it has been, Vander Heyden!” exclaimed George, as he leaned on the stalwart Dutchman’s arm, giddy with exhaustion. “A hundred times over I have given myself up for lost. I can hardly believe that it is over, and we are safe! It was like a horrible nightmare! – those interminable black faces and whirling spears and ferocious shouts! I think I shall never cease to hear them!”
“It has indeed been a tremendous struggle,” said the Dutchman. “Ha! what is that shout? They are not returning to the attack, are they, Mr Bromhead?” he continued, addressing that officer, as, grim with dust and blood, he passed them on his way to the flagstaff.
“No, some of our fellows are in sight, and coming this way – escaped from Isandhlwana, I suppose. They raised a cheer when they saw that our flag was still flying, and our men returned it.”
George and Vander Heyden followed him, just in time to see the remnant of Glyn’s column coming up, headed by Lord Chelmsford himself. The commander-in-chief rode forward and looked with approval and admiration on the frail and slender defences, which a handful of brave men had converted into an impregnable fortress, on the vast multitude of black corpses heaped on every side, and on the gaunt and war-stained figures of the few defenders. Then he asked, – “Where is the officer in command?” Lieutenant Bromhead advanced and saluted. “You have done nobly, sir, – you and your gallant followers, – and England owes you her warmest thanks. Your brave defence has probably averted the mischief I had feared, and saved the colony from invasion.”
The days which followed this fierce and protracted struggle were, as is usually the case, dull and inactive, the defenders being in truth too much exhausted to do more than lounge through the day and recover their strength and energies. It was some relief to George to find that Farmer Baylen had returned some time before to Horner’s Kraal, so that it was impossible to send him immediate news of Ernest’s death. Vander Heyden rode over to Colenso as soon as he was able, to break the news to Annchen that her lover had fallen at Isandhlwana. Walter Baylen was nearly convalescent, and it was agreed that as soon as he was sufficiently restored he should ride over to his father’s house and inform him of their loss. There had been at first some apprehension that, notwithstanding the repulse at Rorke’s Drift, Cetewayo might be so elated by his success at Isandhlwana as to send his dark-skinned warriors over the Tugela to overrun Natal. But the more the Zulu king learned of the event of the memorable 22nd of January, the less he felt inclined to be elated. He had killed a thousand of his enemies, no doubt, but they had probably killed nearly three times that number of his best soldiers. He had gained a battle at Isandhlwana, but he had lost one at the Inioni river; and presently he discovered that not only had another action been fought and lost at Rorke’s Drift, but that his favourite regiment, the Tulwana, had been half destroyed in it. More red soldiers, he learned, were coming up “out of the sea” to supply the place of those lost. He had no means of filling the vacancies that had been caused in his own army. It was no time for sending troops out of Zululand. He would want all he had for its defence. Day after day did the garrison look across the waters of the Buffalo towards the fatal Lion Hill, but they beheld none coming that way, except now and then a wounded soldier, who had escaped by some marvel from the fatal field, crawling slowly and painfully over the broken ground to the friendly shelter where his wounds would be cared for.
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