Perils in the Transvaal and Zululand
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As they had approached Heidelberg a few days previously, they had noticed how dull and uninteresting the landscape appeared. The ground had been rising continually for a long time past, until it had attained the height of some hundreds of feet, and then a long undulating level had succeeded, extending as far as the eye could reach, without rock or forest or scrub to break the monotony. Nor were there, for vast distances together, traces to be found of the hand of man. There were few enclosures or habitations, and even flocks of sheep were of rare occurrence. They had expected to find the country on the other side of Heidelberg very nearly the same in appearance as that which they had encountered before reaching it. But the landscape which they now beheld formed the most striking contrast to it. In place of the sparse and barren plain, varied only by dried clumps of dull vegetation and bare heaps of sand or stone, there appeared a scene which might have vied with that of fairyland. Rich forests, with a most picturesque variety of outline, were seen environing the shores of a lake whose deep blue surface was studded with verdant islets. In the foreground rose castles and abbeys and picturesque ruins, grouped with a skill that no landscape painter could have surpassed, and the distant view was closed by mountain ridges, presenting the most striking effects of light and shade.
“Pretty to look at,” remarked Matamo, who had just ridden up, as he noticed George’s admiring gaze. “Pity it is not real.”
“Not real!” returned George. “What do you mean?”
“You’ll soon see,” was the brief reply; and, sure enough, almost immediately afterwards the brilliant landscape melted away like a dissolving view in a magic lantern, and a long stretch of barren down and rock and scrub was all that could be discerned.
“A mirage!” exclaimed George. “Well, I have often heard of them, but I could not have believed the delusion was so perfect.”
“Wonderful country for cheats of that sort,” remarked Matamo; “it often looks like that before sunrise.”
The mid-day halt was made under some high cliffs, which threw a long shadow and afforded some protection from the heat. Here Vander Heyden had some conversation with the corporal, and agreed with him that, as his party could not proceed beyond a certain distance every day, all of them, except the corporal himself, being on foot, the soldiers should be allowed occasionally to change with the mounted men of Vander Heyden’s party, while the prisoners were permitted to take their seats in the waggon. Margetts uttered a hasty exclamation when this arrangement was reported to him, but he said nothing more, and everything went on prosperously till the halt took place. They sat down in three parties – the corporal and his men by the side of one waggon, Matamo, Haxo, and the Hottentots by the other, while the third, consisting of what might be termed the gentry of the party, took their places under some mimosas, on the brink of a small fountain, almost immediately under a high and steep rock.
The meal was half over, when suddenly there was heard a loud jabbering noise above, and the party, looking up, saw several hideous faces peering over the ridges of the rocks.
“Bushmen!” exclaimed Redgy.“I have been expecting to fall in with them for some time. We are not so very far from their country, I believe. Hallo up there?” he continued, as a number of large stones came rattling down from above. “Stop that, do you hear, or you’ll find two can play at it.” He raised his gun as he spoke, and pointed it at the rocks.
“It is no use talking to them,” observed Hardy, laughing; “I don’t suppose they would understand you if they were Bushmen. But they are not. They are baboons – mandrils, I believe, is their exact name. There are great numbers of them in this part of the country. I wonder we haven’t fallen in with them before.”
“Baboons, hey!” cried Redgy. “The mischievous brutes!” he added a minute or two afterwards, as another large stone passed over his head, which it very narrowly missed. “I say, I am not going to stand this sort of thing! I’ll just give them a shot or two to improve their manners.”
“Stop, Mr Margetts, don’t fire!” cried Vander Heyden. “They are the most revengeful and malicious creatures in the world, and as strong and fierce as tigers. There are hundreds of them, and they’ll attack us in a body if you provoke them.”
His warning came too late. Redgy had already fired, and a yell of pain from above announced that his aim had been successful. The next moment a dozen huge mandrils had sprung over the rocks and began to descend the cliffs, leaping from point to point as nimbly as squirrels.
“Run for it!” shouted Hardy. “Take shelter in the waggons. We may keep them off there, but it is about our only chance.”
There was no need of further warning. Matamo, Haxo, and the Hottentots, the corporal, his men, and his prisoners, though they had been too far off to hear what was passing, no sooner saw the baboons coming down the rocks, screaming and gesticulating with fury, than they became aware of the danger of the situation, and made straight for the waggons as the only haven of shelter. Nor were they a moment too soon. The front and back boards of the waggons were only just secured, when they were surrounded by a multitude of infuriated brutes, endeavouring to pull down the tilt and boards of the waggons. Others climbed on to the top and tore away the tarpaulin covering from the ribs, endeavouring to wrench out the ribs themselves with their strong, sharp claws. They became, however, in this manner an easy mark for the party inside. These at first only loaded their guns with powder, hoping to scare their assailants without further rousing their fury. But they were soon obliged to try sterner measures. The brutes, some of which were nearly five feet high and extremely strong and agile, succeeded in loosening more than one of the ribs of the waggon, and would soon have forced their way in, if the bullets which followed one another in rapid succession had not laid assailant after assailant in the dust. But undeterred apparently by the deadly shower, they continued their attack, gibbering and screaming with fury. The whole of the covering of the waggon was now torn away, and the baboons, thrusting down their long sharp claws, endeavoured to clutch their enemies within, rendering it almost impossible for them to continue to load.
“I say, George,” exclaimed Redgy, as he rid himself with difficulty from a huge baboon which had seized him by the hair, firing his revolver directly into his chest, “these brutes are worse than the Zulus. I wish I had my bayonet here. That would have been the thing for them.”
“You are right, Redgy,” answered George. “I am just going to use my wood-knife. My revolver is empty, and I have no time to reload. The knife isn’t as good as the bayonet, but it is the next best thing.”
The others followed his example – all excepting Hardy, who, with the coolness of an old campaigner, had lain himself down on the floor of the waggon out of the reach of the assailants, and from thence took aim with his revolver, bringing down one baboon after another, and always singling out those which seemed to be the most likely to break in. But, notwithstanding the vigorous resistance offered, it seemed as if the strong ribs of the roof must speedily give way, when suddenly there burst forth a volume of flame which enveloped for a minute or two the whole waggon. Screaming, not with rage now, but with fright, the mandrils leaped down and rushed away, scrambling up the sides of the rocks more quickly than they had come down. At least twenty were left on the ground, either dead or too severely wounded to effect their retreat; while several others limped in the rear of their companions, scarcely able to accomplish the ascent.
“Stop, Mr Margetts,” cried Hardy, as he saw Redgy raise his rifle; “don’t fire at them. You may provoke them to come back. Well, that was as near a thing as I remember to have seen. How did you manage it, Matamo?”
“Koboo and Utango and I had been piling a big heap of reeds to make fires of,” answered the Bechuana. “It was lucky we made the heap so large. When we saw Mr Margetts fire at the baboons, we knew what would happen, and we heaped the reeds round the waggon while the brutes were coming down the rocks. I dropped a match among the reeds as soon as they began the attack, but for a long time it wouldn’t catch. Lucky it did catch at last, or we should have been torn to pieces!”
“Well, you managed famously, Matamo,” said Hardy, “and we all owe our lives to you.”
“Yes, sir, and your dinners too. Very good eating is baboon, and there is enough for a great many dinners.”
“Eating!” repeated Redgy in great disgust. “You don’t suppose any one would eat these brutes, do you?”
“Wall, Redgy, I agree with you, – the idea isn’t pleasant,” said George. “But they can be eaten, I believe. An old messmate told me that when his ship was at Gibraltar, many years before, the colonel of one of the regiments there sent Captain Waters the haunch of a large ape, which had been shot a few days before. The captain didn’t see the haunch, but invited all the officers of the ship to dine off it. The colonel, who had only intended a joke, sent a note explaining it. But somehow it wasn’t delivered until just as the haunch was being removed from the table, having been declared to be excellent. The captain put the note into the fire, and said nothing about the matter.”
“He was a wise man,” said Hardy, “and we shall be wise to follow his example, and make a good dinner off our late enemies.”
His advice was at once followed. Fresh fuel was collected and fires lighted, and presently the cooks were busily engaged over their roasting and frying.
“Come and take a look at the soldiers,” suggested Margetts to Vander Heyden and Rivers. “I wonder how they came off in their waggon.”
“They were much luckier than we were,” said Rivers. “Either the baboons didn’t take any notice of their waggon, or they were bent, like Hardy’s elephant, on punishing the culprit who fired on them. The soldiers were not attacked at all.”
“I am very sorry, I am sure,” said Redgy; “I’ll promise to be good another time, that is all I can say. But they made their preparations against attack, I suppose.”
“Yes,” said Vander Heyden, “they took off the prisoners’ handcuffs of course. They couldn’t have left them in that helpless state to the mercy of those ferocious brutes. But I see they are going to put the handcuffs on again now.”
They moved nearer to the prisoners, and stood for a while watching the replacing of the handcuffs. Then Rivers called out to Margetts, who was standing at a short distance, and asked him and Vander Heyden to ride a little way on the road by which they had come that morning, to search for his revolver, which he must have dropped. The other two assented, and they went away together.
About half an hour afterwards, when the dinners were nearly ready, Vander Heyden and Rivers returned, looking a good deal put out.
“Corporal Sims,” said the Dutchman, riding up to the person named, “this is vexatious, but I am afraid we must stay here to-night. Mr Rivers cannot find his revolver, and thinks he must have dropped it a long way back – at the first stream which we crossed. Mr Margetts has offered to ride back, and look for it, and I am afraid we shall, in consequence, be obliged to remain here all night. As some repairs must be made to our waggon, perhaps it is not of so much consequence. But are you able to stay?”
The corporal hesitated a moment, apparently a good deal surprised. Then he answered civilly that he saw no reason why they should not remain, as there was plenty of food and a good spring of water, and there was no particular need for haste.
“Very well, then,” said Vander Heyden, riding on, “we will stay here till to-morrow.”
Nothing was said until the two horsemen were out of hearing. Then one of the prisoners said in a guarded tone, – “Do they suspect anything, do you think, Andrewes?”
“No,” answered Andrews, “I am pretty sure they do not. Why do you ask that, Bostock?”
“I have been uneasy all day,” was the answer, “lest either Rivers or Vander Heyden should recognise us. It is quite true that I am stained as dark as any Zulu in the country, and so are Gott and Sullivan. And our beards and whiskers have been shaved, and our hair frizzled and dyed black, so that we could hardly recognise ourselves in the glass. But they are both of them wide-awake fellows, and I shouldn’t like this kind of thing to go on long. I suppose our intention holds good, to make the attack to-night, doesn’t it?”
“I don’t see why not,” answered the pseudo-corporal. “It was agreed that we should, all of us, approach the waggon together as soon as the moon sets, and that will be before twelve o’clock. They keep a watch all night, I know. One of them stands sentinel at the fire near the waggon. But a rifle bullet will quiet him. Then we rush up and shoot the others. We shall have only four to deal with instead of five now. The Hottentots are sure to run off at the first shot.”
“Margetts may return,” remarked Gott.
“If he does, he’ll hardly reach the camp,” returned Bostock. “Some one had better be on the look-out for him a mile or so on the Heidelberg road. There will still be twelve of us left. That will be enough to settle four men, won’t it, even if they should not be asleep.”
“You forget the women,” said the corporal with a smirk.
“No, I don’t forget them, Andrewes,” answered Bostock angrily. “But you had better do so – forget Miss Vander Heyden, at all events. You will remember that she is to become my wife as soon as we can reach Doomberg, where the missionary has promised to marry us. You had better all keep that in your heads, or you may chance to find an ounce of lead there.”
“Well, you needn’t be so cranky about it, John Bostock,” said Sullivan. “Will Andrewes and the others have been your pals ever since we came into the country, nigh upon a twelvemonth ago, and Jem Gott and I was your pals long before. And we’ve never done nothing but please you, and we ain’t going to now.”
“Well, that’s as it should be, Sullivan. We need have no more words about that. And now dinner’s ready, I see, so we had better fall to at that.”
Meanwhile Vander Heyden and his two friends had no sooner completed their meal than they hastened to the waggon, and summoned Matamo and Haxo to assist in repairing the damage sustained. Their first step was to renew the canvas covering, which had been torn down. Then they nailed thick boards all round the lower part of the waggon, and constructed a kind of citadel in the middle, consisting of four strong boxes, about three feet high, inside which two persons might take refuge.
“I wish you would not think so much of me,” urged Annchen, from whom it had been impossible to conceal the approaching danger. “My life is of no more value than any one of yours. And you are neglecting, I am sure, your own safely. Henryk, will you not listen to me? Mr Rivers, will not you?” She blushed deeply as she spoke.
“Say no more, Annchen,” returned her brother sternly, though with evident tenderness of feeling. “We shall all do our best for ourselves as well as for you. And there is every hope that Margetts will return before these scoundrels even begin their attack. It cannot be more than a two hours’ ride to Heidelberg. I could myself do it in little more than one; but then, unfortunately, I was only on terms of distant civility with Lieutenant Evetts.”
“It will take Margetts at least two hours,” observed Hardy; “and then there may be difficulty in finding Mr Evetts and in getting his men together. It was three o’clock when Margetts rode off. If he is back by ten, it is as early as can reasonably be hoped.”
“Ten will be time enough,” remarked Rivers. “They will wait for the moon to set, or they would be an easy mark for our bullets.”
“And the moon does not set till eleven,” said Vander Heyden. “Besides, even if they do make their attack, it remains to be seen whether we cannot keep them off. It can hardly be worse than it was at Rorke’s Drift, when we three stood side by side together. But I think we have now been as long at work in the waggon as it is safe for us to be. We might awaken suspicion if it was thought that we were fortifying it. We must get out, and not return to it until after the moon has set. Annchen, I shall wish you good-bye now. You must be in your place of shelter when we return.”
He folded her in a warm embrace, and then leaped from the waggon, forgetting that George still remained, or unwilling perhaps to witness his adieux.
George took her hand and looked earnestly into her face. “This may be the last time we shall meet,” he said. “I know I can never have my wish, but I should like you to know how fondly I love you.”
The tears rose in her eyes and streamed down her face. “I do know it,” she murmured, – “I do know it, George; I prize and I return it.”
Their lips met for a moment, as if by a mutual impulse, and then Rivers leaped down and joined his companions, who had taken their places by the fire.
The night came on clear and bright, as is the night of those regions, – the moon, a dazzling globe of crystal; the stars studding the sky with brilliant specks of light. The three friends affected to converse carelessly together, intermingling their talk with bursts of merriment. But every ear was in reality strained to catch the distant tramp of horses’ feet – the more keenly because the hour had now indeed come when Margetts’ return was not only possible, but might be reasonably looked for. Anxiously they watched the moon as it sank slowly down the heaven, disappearing at last behind the distant mountain range, and comparative darkness succeeded, which under the shadow of the cliffs rendered objects even at a little distance scarcely distinguishable. Then they rose, and somewhat noisily bade the Hottentots good-night, desiring them to keep a careful watch. Moving off to their own waggon, they crept stealthily behind and round under its cover to the other which was reserved for Annchen and her attendant, and got inside, joining Matamo and Haxo, who were anxiously expecting them. They had lighted a lantern, whose light just showed the interior of the waggon.
“Hark! what was that?” exclaimed Hardy, as a sound resembling that of the discharge of a gun was heard at some distance. “Can that be Margetts’ signal?”
“It is most unlikely that he would discharge his gun,” said Rivers. “It would have the effect of putting these ruffians on their guard. He knows that we have no need to be warned.”
“True,” said Hardy; “but if he is coming at all it ought to be soon. It is nearly half-past eleven. These fellows will make their attack almost immediately now. Ha! listen! Yes, I hear them coming!”
Even as he spoke, a hand was laid on the shutter by which the back of the cart was closed, and attempt made to pull it open.
Vander Heyden put his head out. “What are you doing here?” he asked. “This is my sister’s sleeping-place.”
“I know that, Mr Vander Heyden, and I know you, and you too know me. I am Langley Cargill, of the Nassau Regiment – your equal by birth and station. I design your sister no harm, but to make her my wife. Give her up to me, and I will ensure her safety and the most honourable treatment.”
“I would as soon give her into the hands of Satan!” cried Vander Heyden fiercely. “You and your ruffians will do wisely to move off at once, or we will fire on you without mercy.”
“Then take the consequences of your own folly. Fire into the waggon, boys!” he shouted; “we’ll soon make an end of this.”
A dozen guns were discharged, and the leaden hail came rattling between the ribs of the tilt above them. It did not produce much effect, as all those within had thrown themselves on the floor, where the solid sides of the waggon, strengthened by the recent defences, prevented the bullets from penetrating. The next moment the fire was returned with more effect. Two of the pretended soldiers were shot dead on the spot, Bostock and one of his men were severely wounded.
“Rush up and smash the shutters in before they can load again?” shouted Bostock, regardless of his wound. He caught up a heavy piece of timber, which shattered the stout boards at a blow, and was about to mount to the attack, followed by his comrades, when a volley of musketry was suddenly poured in, which stretched two or three more of the banditti on the ground, and a voice was heard calling them to surrender, or no quarter would be shown.
Vander Heyden and his companions leaped from the waggon to shake hands with Margetts and Evetts, who, with a couple of dozen of his men, had now completely surrounded the robbers, nearly all of whom indeed were either killed or wounded. But the danger was not entirely at an end, as they had supposed. Bostock had been pierced by a second bullet, and it was plain that he had received his death-wound. But his fierce spirit still bore him up. He heard Evetts’ challenge with a scornful laugh.
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