From Stormberg’s midnight mountain,
From Sanna’s captured Post,
Where Afric’s Magersfontein
Rails down her wounded host.
Three days and nights to s’uth’ard
‘Twixt Durban Road and Paarl—
In dust and horse-dung smothered—
There lies a cursed kraal.
ABOUT the time that Gentleman Cadet Walter Setton was posted to the 2nd Battalion of Her Majesty’s Royal Rutlandshire Regiment, the Vicar, his father, read a telegram that the Pretoria Government was searching the mines of the Rand for hidden arms. The Vicar and his wife were on their way to the Army and Navy Stores to buy Walter’s many uniforms; and the Vicar doubted that he would escape for less than two hundred pounds.
‘But we cannot repine,’ said his wife. ‘Walter’s position demands —’ She ceased for a breath. And as an officer — you see, William? We have much to be thankful for.’
The Vicar lowered the paper, remembering how the accident of a legacy had saved Walter from other fates. He and his wife had agreed to forget a terrible afternoon when Walter, aged sixteen, had been examined viva voce by a person, sent down by a friend, with a view togetting him a ‘position in the City’ at something under eighteen shillings a week. He had forgotten, too, how he and his wife were grateful for this chance. A week later, when the Vicar’s aunt was gathered to her mothers and the money was sure, they wrote a stately letter declining that post for Walter, which letter remains for a curiosity in a business man’s desk to this day.
‘Yes,’ said the Vicar, ‘we have much to be thankful for. As an officer —’ He turned down the paper.
Had he read ten lines further he would have learned that ‘much amusement has been caused in mining circles owing to the activity of the police, who are searching Thumper’s Deep, on information supplied by Mr. J. Thrupp, who asserts that two thousand stand of arms are buried at the bottom of the shaft.’
At the hour the Vicar was speculating in ‘tunics, richly laced, lined silk £6 14s. 6d.’; ‘undress trousers, blue doe or twill, £1 16s. 0d.’; ‘forage caps (badge extra), £1 Os. 6d.’, and all the other grim realities of war, Jerry Thrupp, in charge of the thirty-odd thousand pounds of modern machinery on Thumper’s Deep, was cheering a batch of perspiring Johannesburg police to break out the bottom of South Africa. Business was slack in Johannesburg by reason of a Raid, and Jerry’s ten years on the Rand taught him that the police were least dangerous when most busy. Two thousand rifles in a concrete vault, ten feet below the solid foot of the shaft, would be a great haul for the Government. That they worked in the living rock was to them a detail. The Devil had given these Uitlanders powers denied to sons of the soil; and no community in their senses would start a revolution on less than twenty thousand rifles. A scant fifteen hundred only had, so far, come to light anywhere.
‘Where you think we shall find them?’ a panting Hollander asked.
‘About the Marquesas Islands if you hold your line straight’, said Jerry, and shot up in the cage. Three minutes later he telephoned that the winding-gear was out of order and would take half a day to repair.
‘They had a very nice time,’ he explained to his professional friends. ‘They dug four feet into the bottom of the shaft before they sickened, and Patsy Gee burned a hundredweight of his precious Revolutionary Committee’s papers in my boiler fires while they were doing it. But as a revolution, if you ask me, it’s bumble-puppy. After this we shall have war.’
‘Not a bit of it,’ said Hagan of the Consolidated Ophir and Bonanza. ‘We shall be passed over to Oom Paul to play with.’
‘Never mind,’ said Jerry. ‘It’s war. Soon or late, it’s war.’
Time, Circumstance, and Necessity continued in charge of this world, of Jerry Thrupp, and Second-Lieutenant Walter Setton. To the former they brought from eight to twelve hours’ work a day—shifting, varying, but insistent. Sometimes a batch of the three hundred and twenty-four stamps in the Thumper’s Deep crushing-mills would go wrong; and Jerry must doctor them ere the output suffered. Sometimes a sick friend in charge of the cyanide process would call Jerry in to watch the health of the big vats that win the last of the gold; or a furlong or two of tram-lines would need re-laying. His winding-engines, his boilers, his crushing-tables, his dynamos, and the hundred things that men needed below the surface were always with him. For recreation Jerry consorted with fellow-engineers of the Rand, their wives, and their children; and, being energetic, found opportunities for what he called ‘overtime’. When Hagan’s ankle was crushed, thanks to a kaffir’s carelessness, Jerry carried him home; and, because Hagan’s ten-year-old son was in hospital with typhoid, Jerry, as a matter of course, visited and reported on the boy daily. He lent the Vincents the money that took them home in the terrible year ’98, when Johannesburg lost heart and business shut down, and Vincent was turned out into Commissioner Street with Mrs. Vincent seven months gone. It is even said that by bribes and threats he kept the conservancy people up to their work in his street when the typhoid that comes from neglected filth struck down three heads of families in two hundred yards of the Street.
‘After the war,’ Jerry would say as excusing himself, ‘it will be all right. We’ve got to do what we can till after the war.’
The life of Second-Lieutenant Walter Setton followed its appointed channel. His battalion, nominally efficient, was actually a training school for recruits; and to this lie, written, acted, and spoken many times a day, he adjusted himself. When he could by any means escape from the limited amount of toil expected by the Government, he did so; employing the same shameless excuses that he had used at school or Sandhurst. He knew his drills: he honestly believed that they covered the whole art of war. He knew the ‘internal economy of his regiment’. That is to say, he could answer leading questions about coal and wood allowances, cubic-footage of barrack accommodation, canteen-routine, and the men’s messing arrangements. For the rest, he devoted himself with no thought of wrong to getting as much as possible out of the richest and easiest life the world has yet made; and to despising the ‘outsider’ — the man beyond his circle. His training to this end was as complete as that of his brethren. He did it blindly, politely, unconsciously, with perfect sincerity. As a child he had learned early to despise his nurse, for she was a servant and a woman; his sisters he had looked down upon, and his governess, for much the same reasons. His home atmosphere had taught him to despise the terrible thing called ‘Dissent’. At his private school his seniors showed him how to despise the junior master who was poor, and here his home training served again. At his public school he despised the new boy — the boy who boated when Setton played cricket, or who wore a coloured tie when the order of the day was for black. They were all avatars of the outsider. If you got mixed up with an outsider, you ended by being ‘compromised’. He had no clear idea what that meant, but suspected the worst. His religion he took from his parents, and it had some very sound dogmas about outsiders behaving decently. Science to him was a name connected with examination papers. He could not work up any interest in foreign armies, because, after all, a foreigner was a foreigner, and the rankest form of outsider. Meals came when you rang for them. You were carried over the world, which is the Home Counties, in vehicles for which you paid. You were moved about London by the same means, and if you crossed the Channel you took a steamer. But how, or why, or when, these things were made, or worked, or begotten, or what they felt, or thought, or said, who belonged to them, he had not, nor ever wished to have, the shadow of an idea. It was sufficient for him and for high Heaven (this in his heart of hearts, well learned at his mother’s knee) that he was an officer and a gentleman incapable of a lie or a mean action. For the rest his code was simple. Money brought you half the things in this world; and your position secured you the others. If you had money, you took care to get your money’s worth. If you had a position, you did not compromise yourself by mixing with out siders.
And, in the fullness of time, one old gentleman who knew his own mind knocked the bottom out of Lieutenant Setton’s and Jerry Thrupp’s world. Jerry came first, unwillingly, with a few thousand others, by way of Komati Poort. He helped the women and children out of Johannesburg, the few that remained; and left his house barricaded in charge of a Hollander official.
‘Remember,’ said Jerry, ‘I advise you to look after this house. If anything happens to it you won’t be happy when I come back.’
‘We shall chase you into the sea!’ said the Hollander.
‘Shouldn’t wonder—seeing how behind-hand we are, but then we’ll chase you back again. I hope you won’t blow yourselves up before you’re shot. S’long, you four-coloured impostor.’
He climbed into a cattle-truck, where his valise was stolen, and arrived at Delagoa Bay, his shirt torn to the waist in a scuffle to get water for a sick man. His home, his business, and all his belongings were gone, but the war that men had doubted was upon them at last, and Jerry was happy. He went round to Cape Town on the deck of a crowded steamer, and disappeared into panic-stricken Adderley Street. Here he met Phil Tenbroek, ex-mine-manager, also ruined for the time being, and conferred with him about raising a corps of Railway Volunteers in event of future trouble.
Lieutenant Setton, seven thousand miles away, was scornful when he heard that some General would not undertake the war with less than seventy thousand troops. Thirty thousand, he held, was more than enough; for the Rutlandshires’ Mess would remember that the Army was not what it had been in ’81. He wished very much to see how the Boers would look after a Cavalry Brigade had boxed their ears across ten miles of open country. Except twice, near Salisbury, he had never seen anything that remotely resembled ten miles of open country in all his life. He had never seen a Cavalry Brigade, nor, indeed, a target at any greater distance than 900 yards. Having spoken, he went up to Town to see a play, pending the absorption of the Transvaal.
The Rutlandshires landed at Cape Town fairly late in the war, and, serene as hundreds before him, Lieutenant Setton, dining at the Mount Nelson, gave, in the fine clear voice he had inherited from his mother, his opinion that ‘those Colonials looked a most awful set of outsiders’. He hoped, aloud, that it would not be his fate ‘to have to work with the bounders’.
In another place, at another time, an informal after-dinner court of inquiry, with unlimited powers, sat on his irreproachable Regiment after this fashion: —
‘Are those Rutlandshires any use?’ The questioner had good right to ask.
‘Mark Two, I think. It’s the same old brand— Badajos, Talavera, Inkerman, Toulouse, Tel-el-Kebir—.’
‘Same tactics as those which were so brilliantly successful at Tel-el- Kebir,’ a bearded officer whispered as though he were quoting Scripture.
‘Ye-es. Same old catchwords — same old training. ‘Shoulder to shoulder’ — ‘up, boys, and at ’em!’ ‘Southsea, Chichester, Canterbury; with the Long Valley for a campaign. Colonel past his work; second- in-command devoutly hoping never to see a soldier again when he’s got his pension; a jewel of an Adjutant, who’s smothered his men till they can’t button their own breeches; Sergeant-Major great on eyewash, and a bit of a lawyer. The rest, the regular type — all in a blue funk of funking. They want a chance to ‘get in with the bayonet’, of course.’
‘That’s the last refuge of the lazy man,’ said a quiet-faced civilian, who had not yet spoken.
‘Oh, they’ll learn in time,’ the spade-bearded officer grunted. ‘When half the men are in Pretoria and half the rest are wounded — if that’s what you mean! I’m so sick of that ‘in time”. The Colonel will die — I wish he was dead now — ‘fighting heroically’ in some dam’- fool trap he’s walked into with his eyes open!’
‘Well, I’m going to split ’em up. They were promised they should go in — ah — shoulder to shoulder, but the hospitals are quite full enough.’
To their immense rage the Rutlandshires were rent into four or five pieces, and distributed where they could not do much harm. The Colonel, as was prophesied, died heroically, shot through the stomach in sight of four companies to whom he was explaining the cowardice of advancing in open order when the enemy were yet a mile distant. This fixed in the Second’s mind the fact that a Mauser can carry two thousand yards — wisdom which he did not live long to profit by. He went down at eleven hundred before an insignificant crack in the veldt, which happened to be lined with Boers. Thus his successor discovered that a donga is better flanked than fronted. Truly they learned.
To Lieutenant Setton, through the death of a Captain, fell the charge of two companies, which operated with an Australian contingent on a disturbed and dusty border. The men clung to him for a week expecting miracles; but he could not smite water from rocks, nor vary the daily beef-tin and dry biscuit. They learned a little rude well-sinking from their allies, and a little stealing on their own account. After this, to his relief, they abandoned him as nurse and midwife. Had he played the game with an eye to the rules, he might have profited as much as his more open-minded fellows, but his demon tempted him one clear twilight to capture a solitary horseman in difficulties with a spent horse. It was not ‘sporting’ to pot him at eight hundred yards, so Setton took horse and rode a somewhat uncertain gallop directly at the man, who naturally retreated between two steep hills, where, for just this end, he had posted four confederates. They, being children of nature and buck-hunters to boot, allowed their quarry to pass, and after twenty rounds at four hundred yards — the Boer in a hurry is not a good shot — dropped him with a broken arm. Setton was not pleased; but the five Australians who, without orders, so soon as they saw what he would be at, had galloped parallel with him behind the kopjes, were immensely gratified. They dismounted, lay down, and slew the Boer on the tired horse as he returned to join his fellow-plunderers, of whom they shot two and wounded one. They reached camp with Setton and — much more valuable — three efficient Boer ponies.
‘If you’d only told us you were goin’ to commit suicide this way,’ said a Queensland trooper, ‘we’d have rounded up the whole mob — usin’ you for bait.’
The shattered arm ended Setton’s career as a combatant officer, but in the great scarcity of sounder material they made him Station Commandant of the entirely desolate siding of Pipkameelepompfontein, which, as everyone knows:
Is on the road to Bloemfontein:
And there the Mausers
Tear your trousers
And make your horses jompfontein.
[ORG Volume 8, 8/5387 UC verse No.755B]
But the tide of war had rolled on, leaving only a mass of worrying work for the Railway Pioneer Corps which Phil Tenbroek had organised from the wreck of the mine personnel months before. Three short low bridges, little larger than culverts, but two of them built on a curve, crossed three dry shallow water-courses, and, of course, the Boers blew them up on departure. Phil, Commandant of the Railway Pioneers, busy on a bridge elsewhere, could only spare thirty men on the job, but he gave Lieutenant Hagan, late in charge of the machinery of the Consolidated Ophir and Bonanza, his choice, and Hagan took the cream. They lumbered into Pipkameelepompfontein in open trucks — thirty men — each anxious to return to the Rand; each holding more or less of property there; most of them skilled mechanicians in their own department, and all exalted, body, soul, and spirit, by a rancorous, razor-edged, personal hatred of the State that had shamed, tricked, and ruined them. They found there a Station Commandant, moved by none of their springs – a being from another planet, fenced about with neatly piled boxes of rivets and a mass of crated ironwork that was pouring up from the South, who proposed to camp them a mile from the broken bridges.
‘What, no good water?’ said Hagan.
‘Oh, no. But I expect a detachment of Regulars shortly. They must have the nearest camp.’
‘Good Lord, man! Your blessed Regulars can’t get forward till we’ve mended the bridges. We must be close to our work.’
‘I’m afraid your knowledge of the British Army is a little limited,’ said the Station Commandant.
‘I was fool enough to cross a ridge after some Regulars had reported it cleared,’ said Hagan sweetly.’ ‘Twasn’t any fault of theirs my knowledge didn’t last till the Day of Judgment. But, look here, this isn’t a question of precedence. We don’t want to live here. We want to mend the bridges and get up to the Rand again.’
After a while, but ungraciously, Setton gave way, and the Railway Pioneers went to work like beavers. The Regulars arrived ‘to protect the bridge-head’, two companies of them, fresh from home, and Setton, with unspeakable delight, found himself once more among men who talked his chosen tongue, and thought his lofty thoughts. As he wrote to his mother: ‘You can get as good hunting-talk here as you can at home.’ The Pioneers were not a seemly corps. They unstacked the accurately piled rivet-boxes, and dumped them where they could be easily handled; they dismantled an abandoned farmhouse to get at the roof-beams, because they were short of poles; they stuck a home-made furnace at the far end of the platform where it made itself a black, unlovely bed of cinders; they worked at all hours of the day and night, ate when they had leisure, and called their officers by their lesser names. Hagan asked Setton — once only — what arrangements he had made for Kaffir labour. Setton had made none, for he had no instructions. Whereupon Hagan, talking unknown tongues, made his own arrangements, and strange niggers crept out of the Marroo by scores. Setton wished to know something about them. ‘It’s all right,’ said Hagan, over his shoulder. ‘I’m responsible. It’s cheaper for us’ (he meant the Consolidated Ophir and Bonanza) ‘to pay out of our pocket than to wait for the Government to fiddle through it. I want to get back to the Rand.’
The last sentence always annoyed Setton. These voluble Johannesburg gipsies made it their dawn-song, their noon chorus, and their midnight chant. It swung girders into place, sent home rivets, and spiked nails. It echoed among the hills at twilight, when the startlingly visible night-picket of the Regulars went out to relieve its fellows, cut in black paper against the green sky-line, on the tallest kopje. It greeted every truck of new material, this drawling, nasal ‘I want to get back to the Rand.’
It helped to build the bridges, though that Setton did not notice. He did not know a spike from a chair a girder from an artesian well, a thirty-foot rail from a tie-rod. The things lumbered up the siding which he wished to keep neat. Men took them out of the trucks and did things to or with them, and the things, somehow or other, spanned the watercourses. But Lieutenant Setton would no more have dreamed of taking an interest in the manner of their fitment than at school he would have read five lines beyond the day’s appointed construe.
When the last of the three bridges was nearly finished, Hagan dashed into his office with a wire from Phil, who wanted him back at once. The big centre girder of Folly Bridge was going up, and only Hagan could take charge of that end of it which was not under Phil’s comprehending eye.
‘But the men here know exactly what’s to be done. If anything goes wrong, ask Jerry — I mean Private Thrupp. He ought to begin riveting up to-morrow, and after that they’ve only to lay the track. It’s as easy as falling off a log.’
Setton did not approve of this unbuttoned man with the rampant voice — had, indeed, withdrawn markedly from his society. Nor did Setton comprehend how a private could be in charge of anything — least of all when a Regular officer — not to mention a Station Commandant — was on the horizon. He assumed that Hagan would have told the senior non-com, of the Pioneers to come to him for orders for the day; but Hagan, eating, sleeping, and thinking bridges only, had not communicated with Sergeant Rayne — late accountant of Thumper’s Deep, and promoted because Government had insisted that the Corps must keep books. Hagan had spent his last hours at an informal committee meeting with Jerry and another private — Fulsom, ex-head of the Little North Bear’s machinery — and, under the lee of a karroo-bush, drawing diagrams in the dirt, had settled every last detail of the bridge that was to help the Corps back to their own Rand.
Brightly and briskly, then, in the diamond-clear dawn, up rose Lieutenant Walter Setton to command the station of Pipkameelepompfontein. But early as it was, the Pioneers were before him. The situation when he arrived at the bank of the third watercourse was briefly this. They were lowering, with hand-made derricks, two fourteen-foot girders, one from either bank, to meet in the middle, where Jerry and Fulsom stood ready to join them. The twenty-eight-foot girder, which should have covered the span had been sent round by Naauwport by mistake, and Jerry believed devoutly that the Cape Minister of Railways, whom he habitually alluded to as ‘the worst rebel but one of the lot’, had caused the delay on purpose. The mischief of it was that, expecting the twenty-eight foot iron, they had used the last of their wood sleepers to lay a sharp curve just before the bridge, where iron sleepers were difficult to bend and adjust. Consequently, they had no temporary cribs of sleepers in the middle of the watercourse to take the weight of the two fourteen-foot irons when these were lowered. So Jerry had extemporised a stage of rivet-boxes and lath sufficient to bear his weight and Fulsom’s, and knowing his men, trusted to rivet up the buttstrap, temporarily, at any rate, while the men on the derricks held the girders, lowering them or raising them fractionally at his signal. It was unorthodox engineering, but it would carry the line. By four in the morning the heels of the girders were neatly butted against their permanent resting-places, and their noses began to dip towards the meeting in the centre.
‘North girder!’ Jerry raised his hand and lowered it slowly.
The obedient gang at the derrick slacked away with immense care. They were not watching Private Thrupp, but Jerry of Thumper’s Deep, and Fulsom of the Little North Bear—both mighty men.
‘Ready with the rivets, now! Here she comes! Hold her! Hold her! As you are! Not another hairsbreadth. South girder—lift a shade. A fraction of a hair!’ He laid a spirit level across the half-inch gap between the two girders, and cocked his head on one side. Nobody breathed except Lieutenant Setton, who had walked some distance in a hurry. He observed that a bucket of blazing coals — stolen, of course — was slung under the belly of either ‘iron thing’. He always thought of concrete objects beyond his experience as ‘things’. Four men passed up two flat iron things — the specially designed butt-straps — one to Jerry and one to Fulsom, who faced Jerry on the other side of the girder. So close was the adjustment that the weight of the straps as they were slid between the flanges of the girder made the south girder — held by ropes, not chains — dip a fraction, and Jerry swore as only a Rand mechanician on twelve hundred a year and a bonus has a right to swear — emphatically and authoritatively.
‘What are you doing there, men?’ The voice passed Jerry like the summer wind. One hand was on the spirit-level, the other held a riveting hammer; one eye squinted at the bubble in the glass, the other, red with emotion, glared through the holes in the butt-strap, waiting till the expansion of the heated girders should bring the rivet-holes in line. Astronomers watching for an eclipse gaze not so earnestly as did Jerry and Fulsom.
‘I say, what are you men doing there without orders?’ cried Lieu- tenant Setton for the second time.
‘Hah!’ said Jerry, wagging the hammer to command silence. He was half aware now of some disturbing presence. The rivet-holes covered each other absolutely.
‘Rivets to me! Quick, McGinnies. Meet me, Fulsom.’ A man passed up the pincers with the red-hot rivet, and Jerry hammered like an artist. ‘That’ll make old —’ (he mentioned the Cape Minister of Railways by name) ‘pretty sick! Thought he’d hang us up by sending our stuff round by Naauwport, did he? Hold on! Rivet, rivet, McGinnies! What’s the use of you? Derricks, there! Hold on! What are you men doing? Oh, good Lord!’
If Jerry on the rivet-boxes was losing his temper, Lieutenant Setton by the south girder had lost his altogether.
‘You thought!’ he shouted to the amazed gang at the derrick. ‘you thought! Who in the world told you to think? D’you supposeyou’re here to do what you please? I gave no orders for the work to go on. Your orders, if you’d thought to come to my office to get them, are to clean up some of the filthy mess you’ve made round the Station.’
Then to Sergeant Rayner ‘Fall in your men at once, and march them up to the station. You’ll get your orders there.’
‘But half a mo’, sir. Half a minute, sir. We can’t let go —.’
‘Do you refuse duty, then? I warn you it’ll be the worse for you. You can’t do this — you can’t do that? Let go that rope-thing at once. It’s mutiny, by God! ‘
They let go at the south end. They fell back, not knowing the limits of Imperial power. The unsupported girder bit heavily on the single rivet that Jerry and Fulsom had put in — bit and shore through. The north gang let go an instant later. A howl of rage came out of the ravine as both girders dropped into a dolorous, open-sided V, knocked over the light staging, and twisting as they fell, scattered the fire in the coal-bucket among the dry scrub and fragments of timbering in the bed of the watercourse. They lit at once and blazed merrily. A man with a hammer erupted.
‘Who slacked away without orders?’ he demanded in a voice no private should use. One or two men had heard it before — at the time of the big dynamite explosion in Johannesburg — and straightened up.
‘Fall in your company there, and don’t talk,’ said Lieutenant Setton. He was willing to concede much to a mere Volunteer — even in time of war.
‘It was him, Jerry,’ whispered Sergeant Rayne.
Jerry turned a full mulberry-colour as he strove to control himself — he was quivering all over. Then he grew pale and rigid.
‘Ha-half a minute, please. I want to explain to you exactly how the work stands. The girders were just in position and I was riveting them up — my name is Thrupp.’
It carried some weight on the Rand, but Lieutenant Setton almost laughed aloud.
‘If you wouldn’t mind listening to me, please. It was an absolutely vital matter — absolutely vital. We were actually riveting the butt-strap when you meddled with the derrick. Let me show you! ‘ — he laid one shaking hand on the Lieutenant’s cuff — to lead him to the wreck.
‘Meddle with the derrick! What the devil do you mean by your insolence? Do you know who I am?’
‘In half an hour—in five minutes — we could have put in enough rivets to hold her. We shall have to go to work again. It means half a day’s delay, though, even if the girders aren’t twisted by the fall. . . . You can see it hung on only one rivet.’
‘Fall in with your company — for the last time.’
‘But you don’t understand — you don’t understand. Let me explain a minute, and come here ‘ —again the hand on the cuff. ‘Of course, you don’t realise what you’ve done. It was only a question of minutes — minutes — do you see? —before we should have had those two girders — those short irons down there — riveted up. Good Lord! That scrub’s burning like tinder! We must shovel earth on it, or it will twist the girders out of shape; and’ — the voice rose almost to a shriek — ‘we shall have to send down the line for duplicates. I — you – tell the men to chuck earth on that blaze, for God’s sake. The girders will buckle! They’ll be ruined.’
‘March this man to the guard-tent,’ said Lieutenant Setton, who had endured enough. It was the insolence and insubordination of the man that galled him. ‘Another time, perhaps, you’ll take the trouble to obey orders.’
‘What for? What have I done? My dear chap, this isn’t the time to fiddle about with guard-tents. The whole donga’s alight, and we shall have those girders buckling in ten minutes. You can’t be going to leave the mess as it is — you can ‘t! ‘
‘Oh, I’ve stood enough of this. Silence. Understand you’re a prisoner.’
‘Me? Oh, yes, I’m anything you please if you’ll only let me put out that fire. Where the deuce d’you think I’d want to run to? I’ll come up to the guard-tent the minute it’s out. I give you my word of honour! ‘
By this time the Railway Pioneer Corps was in two minds — some laughing and others looking very black. Only Sergeant Rayne, busy with a pocket-book, seemed to take no interest in the affair.
‘March me off? With that fire burning? We’ll be delayed a week at least. Why — why — why — ‘ again Jerry turned plum-colour. Fulsom and McGinnies, who knew his habits, closed in on him at once.
‘Come on, Jerry,’ whispered Fulsom. ‘You’ve done all you can. Come on.’
‘All that I can? What do I matter? I’m thinking about the bridge.’ He walked in a sort of stupor, looking back from time to time to watch the smoke in the donga. The Railway Pioneer Corps followed slowly to sweep up the platform of Pipkameelepompfontein.
‘Rayne has got down every word you said in shorthand,’ said Fulsom, when the prisoner reached the guard-tent. ‘And he’s going to wire Hagan now. For God’s sake, don’t open your mouth, Jerry, and we’ll get that young ass Stellenbosched in a day or two.’
‘Hung up for a week—hung up for a week! ‘ moaned Jerry. ‘Am I mad or is he? Tell Rayne to wire for spare girders. God knows where they are to come from! Perhaps Phil may have a couple at Folly Bridge. Better wire there as well. Those two will have buckled by now.’
‘He was extremely insolent, if that’s what you mean. He deliberately questioned my authority before all the men several times. He kept pawing me all over, too. I don’t suppose he really meant half he said.’
‘Didn’t he?’ Hagan gulped, but curbed himself.
‘The trouble with you Volunteers,’ said Setton, rising on one arm, ‘is that you’ve absolutely no notion of military discipline; and on active service one can’t allow that sort of thing. However, I think forty-eight hours in the guard-tent will teach him a little sense. I’ve no intention of carrying the matter any further, so we needn’t discuss it.’
Hagan stared at him with a horror that carried something of admiration, and a little — not much — pity. He had come up with Colonel Palling, R.E., and had shown him the third bridge.
‘Is this his tent?’ one cried without, and there entered a Colonel of Her Majesty’s Royal Engineers, not in a common regimental rage, but such cold fury as an overworked man responsible for a few miles of track in war-time may justly wear. He chewed his three-months’ beard, and looked at Lieutenant Setton, who stood to attention.
‘You will go,’ he whispered at last. ‘You will go back to the base by the train this morning. You will give this note to the General there.’
‘Do you know why you go?’
The Colonel’s neck-veins swelled. ‘I — I wish to speak to this officer,’ he said.
It is the first maxim of internal economy that one should never reprimand a superior in the presence of his equal or his subordinate. Hagan withdrew. A sentry a few yards away stood fast. He was a Reservist of some experience.
‘Gawd ‘as been ‘eavenly good to me,’ he said later to fifteen comrades. ‘I’ve heard quite a few things in my time. I’ve ‘eard the Dook ‘imself pass the time o’ day with an ‘Orse battery that turned up on the wrong flank in the Long Valley. I ‘eard ‘Smutty’ Chambers lyin’ be’ind an ant-‘ill at Modder getting sunstroke. I ‘eard wot General Mike said when the cavalry was too late at Stinkersdrift. But all that was ‘Let me kiss ‘im for ‘is mother’ to wot I ‘eard this mornin’. There wasn’t any common damn-your-eyes routine to it. Palling, ‘e just felt about with ‘is fingers till ‘e’d found that little beggar’s immortal soul — ‘e did. An’ then ‘e pulled it fair out of ‘im like a bloomin’ pull-through an’ then ‘e blew ‘is nose on it like a bloomin’ ‘andkerchief, an’ then ‘e threw it ‘way. Swore at ‘im? No. You chaps don’t take me. It was chronic. That’s what it was — just chronic’.
In the peaceful and loyal district of Stellenbosch — there was a subaltern, temporarily attached as supernumerary on the Accounts side of the Numdah and Bootlace Issue Department, who knew exactly how the Army ought to be reorganised. And he said: ‘It’s all very well to talk about makin’ the Army a business, like those newspaper chaps do, but they don’t understand the spirit of the Service. How can they? Well, don’t you see, if they bring in all those so-called reforms that they’re always talkin’ about, they simply fill up the Service with a lot of bounders and outsiders. They simply won’t get the class of men to join that the Army really wants. No one will take up the Service as a profession then. I know I shan’t for one’