Perils in the Transvaal and Zululand
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“Yes, we did, sir,” answered the corporal, “and to our cost. Half our men were killed or wounded in no time, and we couldn’t see a single Dutchman to fire at in return. The rest contrived to retreat to the camp, or there wouldn’t have been a man left alive. We were cut off by a party of mounted Boers, and offered to surrender to them. But they paid no heed, and fired on us, killing all but two or three. They are after us still, I expect. They couldn’t follow us on horseback up the mountain paths, but they are riding round, I believe, by another road. Can you shelter as?”
“I suppose in strictness we oughtn’t to,” said Margetts. “But we can’t see our countrymen shot down in cold blood; I’d rather take the chance of being shot myself. Come along with me, my lads; you can hide in the caves under Kolman’s Kop. The Boers, unless they come from this neighbourhood, won’t know anything about them; and they will hardly venture in there after you, if they do. Only we must make all possible haste.”
He mounted Hardy’s horse and rode off at a trot, the men following him as well as they were able.
Rivers and Hardy watched them as they hurried along under the side of a steep cliff, and then turned into a narrow defile.
“He is right, I suppose,” said George; “we are bound not to interfere; but if the laws of civilised warfare are set aside, as it seems they are by these Boers, they cannot expect us to observe them so rigidly as giving these poor fellows up to be shot would amount to. Don’t you think so?”
“We have only their word that the Boers would give no quarter,” said Hardy, “and it may be that they didn’t understand what our fellows said. Still, I can’t blame Margetts, if that is what you mean. But we had better make our way to Dykeman’s Hollow, hadn’t we? I suppose your friends will have gone home by this time.”
“All right!” said Rivers; “come this way.”
They began climbing the steep path, and were nearly half-way up when they heard voices calling to them, and looking down saw a party of mounted Boers, who were levelling their rifles at them and shouting to them to descend.
“What do you want with us?” called out Hardy in Dutch. “We are not soldiers, and have nothing to do with this war!”
“You are English – I can tell that by your speech,” answered the man who had hailed them. “I want to ask some questions of you, to which I mean to have an answer. You had better come down at once, or we will send some bullets to fetch you.”
This was evidently no idle threat Half a dozen Boers had already taken their aim, and the path at the point at which the Englishmen had been stopped was without shelter of any kind. There was no help for it. They had to retrace their steps, and presently found themselves face to face with the leader of the Boers, who proved to be no other than Rivers’ old acquaintance, Rudolf Kransberg.
“Ha! it is you, Mynheer Rivers?” he remarked with a scowl. “You are an English soldier, I think, though your companion said you were not.”
“I was an English soldier in the Zulu war,” returned George; “but I left the army at its conclusion, and am now a clergyman of the Church of England.”
“I don’t care for that.I want to know whether you have seen some runaways from the battle that has been fought at Laing’s Nek. We are in pursuit of them, and they must, I think, have passed this way.”
“We have told you that we are not belligerents,” replied George; “you have no right to question us.”
“Ha! I see you will not answer, because you have seen your countrymen, and know where they are. As to having no right, we will see about that. We are at war with the English, and the English are our enemies, though they may choose to say they are not. I shall make you my prisoner. And this person,” he continued, turning to Hardy, “who is he?”
“I am an Englishman, like Mr Rivers,” answered Hardy; “like him, too, not a belligerent. Your President, Mynheer Praetorius, would not, I am sure, approve your proceedings.”
“You think so, hey? Well, you may see him at Laing’s Nek, and find out how much respect he will have for your rights?”
“We are quite willing to be taken before him,” said Hardy. “We will accompany you to the camp, and answer, without objection, any questions he may put to us.”
Rudolf appeared to be somewhat puzzled by this suggestion, but saw no reason why he should not agree to it. Indeed, it had already occurred to him that George Rivers was the stepson of Ludwig Mansen, a man well known to, and respected by, the Boer leaders. Any violence used towards a near relative of his would probably be condemned by his superiors. And he further reflected that he had no kind of evidence that these two Englishmen had really encountered the soldiers, or knew where they were. It was also evidently no use to attempt any further pursuit of the runaways, every trace of whom had disappeared.
“Very well,” he said, after a few minutes of silence, “you shall go with us to Laing’s Nek, and if the President is still there, and chooses to see you, he will do so. You can ride on the saddles of two of the men, but, I warn you, you will be shot without mercy if you make the slightest attempt to escape.”
They mounted accordingly, and the party rode off. George, who understood Hardy’s manoeuvre, by which he would get access to Praetorius without attracting general attention, which it was his special object to avoid, made no demur to the arrangement. He further reflected that, as soon as he reached the Boer camp, he could ask for an interview with Vander Heyden, who would, no doubt, at once set him at liberty and grant him an escort to Dykeman’s Hollow. Nothing worse, therefore, was likely to happen to either of them than a ride to the Dutch camp and a few hours of detention there; and to this he was so far from objecting, that he was particularly anxious to learn from an authentic source what had really taken place and was likely to ensue.
They rode in profound silence, the Boers being habitually taciturn, and George and Hardy anxious under present circumstances to say as little as possible. Presently the narrow defile running between lofty rocks and along the margin of mountain streams was passed, and they entered the broken and wild country which extends between Newcastle and the border of the Transvaal. After an hour’s ride, which would have been protracted to twice that length but for the Boers’ knowledge of the ground, they reached the camp, where some five or six thousand men had established themselves. George was at once struck with the difference between it and the camps to which he had been accustomed. There was an utter absence of the military discipline to which he had been used. It bore more the appearance of a great camp meeting, at which every person provided for his own lodging and maintenance; and yet there was a readiness to carry out the orders of the general officers in command, which seemed to take the place of the regular routine of a camp. As they rode over the ground where the battle had been fought that morning, they passed numbers of men employed in the melancholy duties which follow only too surely on an armed encounter. Wounded men were being conveyed on stretchers to the farmhouses and inns, which had been turned into temporary hospitals; others, whose injuries were too severe to permit of removal, were being ministered to on the ground as well as circumstances allowed; while several parties were engaged in digging graves to receive the dead bodies which lay scattered in all directions. One of these companies was working under the direction of Henryk Vander Heyden; and the latter no sooner perceived the two Englishmen than he rode up to them, and, after a friendly salutation, inquired what had brought them to Laing’s Nek.
“This gentleman, Mynheer Kransberg, – I am not aware of his military rank, – but he has brought us here as his prisoners,” replied Rivers.
“Prisoners! You have not been – ”
“We have not been interfering in military matters at all,” interposed George. “We had given you our parole not to do so, and, I need not say, have not broken it. We told Mr Kransberg so.”
“Then how comes this, Lieutenant Kransberg?” said Vander Heyden haughtily. “Mr Rivers holds a protection which at my instance was granted to him by the President, which exempts him from all interference on the part of the military authorities.”
“He did not produce it,” said Kransberg sullenly.
“He had no time to do so,” interposed Hardy. “But if you would grant me one moment, Commandant Vander Heyden, – that, I believe, is your proper title, – I will explain why the protection was not shown to Mynheer Kransberg. It was because I wished to avail myself of his escort hither. I am the bearer of a letter from Mr Brandt, the President of the Orange Free State, to your President, Mynheer Praetorius, which he was in hopes would prevent the outbreak of war. I regret to find I have arrived too late for that.”
“I regret also, Mr Hardy, to say that you have. We have been attacked, and we have driven back our enemies with heavy loss. But we should have preferred to gain our object without spilling of blood.”
“Just so,” said Hardy; “and you would prefer to gain it now without further bloodshed?”
“Undoubtedly,” assented Vander Heyden.
“Then will you obtain me an audience with the President, at which I can still present this letter? If the terms it proposes should be acceptable to him, an armistice may be agreed on, and the question of a settlement between the English Government and that of the Transvaal may be discussed.”
“I would take you to him this instant,” returned the Dutchman, “were it in my power to do so. But he is not at present in the camp. He has to-day gone northwards on business of urgent importance, nor can I say, without inquiry, when he will return. In his absence I fear the Vice-President and the Commandant-General Joubert could not discuss – certainly could not decide – a question of this importance. But if you will come with me, I will take you to General Joubert’s quarters.”
“I will go at once; but I should like to ask Rivers what he proposes to do, or rather, what you advise so far as he is concerned.”
“He can, of course, return to Dykeman’s Hollow if he wishes it, and I will send an escort with him. But I believe they are greatly in want of clergymen to attend the sick and dying in the English camp. Perhaps, if he knew that, he would prefer going there. I need not say he will be at full liberty to do so. But we can speak to him after you have seen Mynheer Joubert. We had better lose no time in going thither.”
Hardy accordingly followed Vander Heyden across the rugged and stony ground on which the action had been fought that morning, to a tent – it was the only one in the camp – where the Commandant-General had fixed his quarters. No difficulty was made about obtaining an interview, and Hardy almost immediately found himself in the presence of the rebel leader, as well as in that of another bearded and grave-looking personage, who, he was informed, was Kruger, the Vice-President of the newly-proclaimed Republic.
Hardy looked with interest at the Boer general, who, although he had not at that time attained all the celebrity now attaching to his name, had already achieved some brilliant successes. His family, as Hardy subsequently learned, was of Huguenot extraction, having migrated to the Cape at the time of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. But intermarriages with the Dutch in succeeding generations had had their effect, and Joubert had all the appearance of a genuine Boer. Like his fathers, he had followed the calling of a farmer, and had had no experience of warfare, except with native tribes. But he was possessed of rare military ability, and if he had had the advantage of professional training, would have made a great general.
In personal appearance he was of middle height and powerful frame, with an unusually dark complexion, a beard and moustache, and features expressing intelligence and good humour. He was apparently somewhat advanced in years, though he had not passed the vigour of life. He received Hardy with civility, and, after he had heard his story, expressed his regret, as Vander Heyden had done, that the President was not in the camp, so that the matter might be immediately dealt with. Praetorius was expected back very shortly, and then instant attention should be given to it.
“Meanwhile, be assured,” he said, “that we desire peace with England, and are willing to concede everything to her, except our national independence. You may not, perhaps, be aware that when the Volksraad declared that the Transvaal Republic was again established, it passed several resolutions, which may well form the basis of negotiations with the agents of the British Government.”
“I have only just arrived in the country after an absence of several weeks,” said Hardy, “and have therefore had no opportunity of learning what those resolutions were.”
“They are soon recited,” said Joubert. “The first proclaimed a general amnesty for all past offences. The second ratified all the acts of the British Government up to the date of the proclamation, and the third declared that questions relating to foreign policy might be made matter of special discussion. I think you will allow that these resolutions are not framed in any spirit hostile to your Government.”
“I must allow that they are not,” replied Hardy. “I should certainly hope that they might form the basis of negotiations satisfactory to both parties. That was also the opinion of the President of the Orange Free State.”
“I may add, it is also the opinion of our countrymen in Holland, who have sent an urgent entreaty to the Queen of England that our national independence may be restored to us. The same sentiment has been expressed in other European countries. But I should hardly have thought that such a petition would require foreign support, when it had once been submitted to the English people. They have ever been the first, the most uncompromising of all nations in the assertion of their own liberty. Why should they grudge to others that which they value so highly themselves?”
“You speak well, sir,” said Hardy. “I am unable to deny the force of your appeal. We may hope that when the President returns, communications may be opened with the English Government which may lead to a settlement honourable and satisfactory to both parties. But meanwhile, ought not all hostile operations to be suspended? They could not facilitate any negotiations that might be set on foot, but they might seriously impede them.”
“If the English general proposes an armistice, it will certainly be agreed to,” said Joubert. “On our side we have no need to make any such proposition. If we are not attacked, we shall not ourselves make any attack. The British have only to do the same, and all fighting will be suspended. But, of course, if we are assailed, we shall repel the assault.”
Hardy bowed and took his leave. On returning to the place where he had left George Rivers, he found that the latter had already taken his departure for the British camp, where, as the reader has heard, his services were greatly needed. A few days passed without any resumption of hostilities, when, on the 8th of February, Sir George Colley unexpectedly sallied out of his camp, and the action at Hooge’s Chain, between Laing’s Nek and Newcastle, on the banks of the Ingogo, was fought, with a result as discreditable and damaging to the English arms as that of Laing’s Nek had been.
“What has come to our generals and soldiers I cannot think,” said Hardy to George, when he encountered him after the battle on the field, whither both had gone to minister to the wounded and dying. “They seem to me absolutely to court defeat. The only comfort is, that they will hardly make a third attempt after two such calamitous failures.”
Chapter Twenty Four
It seemed as if Hardy’s anticipations were going to be fulfilled. For more than a fortnight after the disaster on the banks of the Ingogo, both armies remained quietly in their camps, though both were largely reinforced. Negotiations had been opened with the English Government, which bore every appearance of an amicable solution of difficulties. On the afternoon of the 26th of February, Hardy went down to the British lines, with a white flag despatched by Joubert with him, to take some letters to George which had arrived from Dykeman’s Hollow. It was some time before he could find his friend, the whole camp being in a state of extraordinary bustle and confusion. Officers and men were hurrying about; one of the guns had been brought out, the horses already harnessed, and the gunners and drivers belonging to it were all in readiness, it appeared, for some immediate movement. Every face bore token that something of grave importance was about to take place.
“What does this mean, George?” asked Hardy as they shook hands. “Sir George Colley cannot anticipate an attack. Everything in the Boer camp, which I have only just left, is quite quiet, and the peace negotiations are proceeding prosperously.”
“I cannot tell you, Hardy, what it does mean,” answered George. “I hear vague rumours, but they are not to be trusted. One thing, however, is certain, and that is that Sir George Colley cannot get over his defeats by these Boers. I fancy he at first entertained the same contempt for them which English people generally feel. He thought that they were a race of cowards, who would shoot down helpless savages from a safe distance, but dared not face soldiers in a field of battle.”
“We have already agreed that that is a mistake,” observed Hardy. “Their mode of fighting is quite different from ours. They have no disciplined troops, as we have; and if they were to face us, as Sir George expects, on a field of battle, must inevitably suffer defeat. But they are brave and resolute men, and fight after their own fashion; which is as dangerous and disastrous to our troops as our mode of lighting would be to them.”
“Exactly,” said Rivers; “and Sir George has chosen to fight after their fashion instead of ours, and these disasters have been the consequence. But that does not reconcile him to them. He is afraid that peace will be made before he has any opportunity of redeeming his military reputation, which he thinks has been terribly damaged by Laing’s Nek and the action on the Ingogo. He wants to give them one tremendous thrashing before peace is concluded and the opportunity is lost.”
“I can well understand that,” said Hardy, “though I think he is quite wrong. But do I understand you to mean that the preparations which I see going on are for another attack on the Boers? Really I do not think that would be a defensible proceeding. If there has been no formal suspension of hostilities, there is a tacit understanding to that effect, which the Boers have most faithfully adhered to.”
“I am afraid the preparations do mean that,” answered George, “though, of course, I have made no inquiries, nor has any one volunteered the information. I think Sir George means to attack the Boer camp again, though probably he will choose a different quarter from which to assail it.”
“It is to be hoped he will, at all events,” rejoined Hardy, “unless he wishes exactly the same results to follow as before. Well, we shall soon know what is going to happen, for here come Sir George and his staff. They are evidently about to set out somewhere.”
“Come to the high ground on the west of the camp,” suggested Rivers. “You can see the whole road to the Dutch lines from it, and some of the waggons immediately under Amajuba hill.”
“Amajuba hill,” repeated Hardy. “Is that the name of that steep hill yonder, with a flattish top, which completely overlooks the camp? I wonder the Dutch have not occupied it, I must say. Sir George’s position here wouldn’t be tenable if they did. But then, to be sure, they have no cannon. Well, I may as well go with you as you propose, for, of course, if your conjecture is correct, I should not be allowed to leave the English camp.”
They took up their position accordingly, and presently saw the troops, seven or eight hundred in number, move out with the gun which Hardy had seen an hour or two before, the most complete silence being observed. The darkness was already coming on when they set out, and before long it became impossible to distinguish any object, except those close at hand.
“Sir George must intend a night attack,” said Hardy; “but, independently of all other considerations, the Boers are less likely to be thrown into confusion by that than our own troops are. They are taught to fight independently of one another. Every man takes up his own position and shifts for himself. If they are disturbed in the middle of the night, they will simply get up, – ready dressed, for they always lie down in their clothes, – take their rifles, pick out the securest spot they can find, and open fire on any enemy they see. Well, George, we had better stay here awhile and see what comes of this. If night fighting is intended, we shall soon know all about it.”
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