Almost every word of this story is based on fact. The Boer War of 1899-1902 was a very small one as wars were reckoned, and was fought without any particular malice, but it taught our men the practical value of scouting in the field. They were slow to learn at the outset, and it cost them many unnecessary losses, as is always the case when men think they can do their work without taking trouble beforehand.
THE GUNS of the Field-Battery were ambushed behind white-thorned mimosas, scarcely taller than their wheels, that marked the line of a dry nullah; and the camp pretended to find shade under a clump of gums planted as an experiment by some Minister of Agriculture. One small hut, reddish stone with a tin roof, stood where the single track of the railway split into a siding. A rolling plain of red earth, speckled with loose stones and sugar-bush, ran northward to the scarps and spurs of a range of little hills—all barren and exaggerated in the heat-haze. Southward, the level lost itself in a tangle of scrub-furred hillocks, upheaved without purpose or order, seared and blackened by the strokes of the careless lightning, seamed down their sides with spent watercourses, and peppered from base to summit with stones-riven, piled, scattered stones. Far away, to the eastward, a line of blue-grey mountains, peaked and horned, lifted itself over the huddle of the tortured earth. It was the only thing that held steady through the liquid mirage. The nearer hills detached themselves from the plain, and swam forward like islands in a milky ocean. While the Major stared through puckered eyelids, Leviathan himself waded through the far shallows of it—a black and formless beast.
“That,” said the Major, “must be the guns coming back.” He had sent out two guns, nominally for exercise—actually to show the loyal Dutch that there was artillery near the railway if any patriot thought fit to tamper with it. Chocolate smears, looking as though they had been swept with a besom through the raffle of stones, wandered across the earth—unbridged, ungraded, unmetalled. They were the roads to the brown mud huts, one in each valley, that were officially styled farm-houses. At very long intervals a dusty Cape-cart or a tilted wagon would move along them, and men, dirtier than the dirt, would come to sell fruit or scraggy sheep. At night the farm-houses were lighted up in a style out of all keeping with Dutch economy; the scrub would light itself on some far headland, and the house-lights twinkled in reply. Three or four days later the Major would read bad news in the Capetown papers thrown to him from the passing troop trains.
The guns and their escort changed from Leviathan to the likeness of wrecked boats, their crews struggling beside them. Presently they took on their true shape, and lurched into camp amid clouds of dust.
The Mounted Infantry escort set about its evening meal; the hot air filled with the scent of burning wood; sweating men rough-dried sweating horses with wisps of precious forage; the sun dipped behind the hills, and they heard the whistle of a train from the south.
“What’s that?” said the Major, slipping into his coat. The decencies had not yet left him.
“Ambulance train,” said the Captain of Mounted Infantry, raising his glasses. “I’d like to talk to a woman again, but it won’t stop here. . . . It is stopping, though, and making a beastly noise. Let’s look.”
The engine had sprung a leaky tube, and ran lamely into the siding. It would be two or three hours at least before she could be patched up.
Two doctors and a couple of Nursing Sisters stood on the rear platform of a carriage. The Major explained the situation, and invited them to tea.
“We were just going to ask you,” said the medical Major of the ambulance train.
“No, come to our camp. Let the men see a woman again!” he pleaded.
Sister Dorothy, old in the needs of war, for all her twenty-four years, gathered up a tin of biscuits and some bread and butter new cut by the orderlies. Sister Margaret picked up the teapot, the spirit-lamp, and a water-bottle.
“Capetown water,” she said with a nod. “Filtered too. I know Karroo water.” She jumped down lightly on to the ballast.
“What do you know about the Karroo, Sister?” said the Captain of Mounted Infantry, indulgently, as a veteran of a month’s standing. He understood that all that desert as it seemed to him was called by that name.
She laughed. “This is my home. I was born out they-ah—just behind that big range of hills—out Oudtshorn way. It’s only sixty miles from here. Oh, how good it is!”
She slipped the Nurses’ cap from her head, tossed it through the open car-window, and drew a breath of deep content. With the sinking of the sun the dry hills had taken life and glowed against the green of the horizon. They rose up like jewels in the utterly clear air, while the valleys between flooded with purple shadow. A mile away, stark-clear, withered rocks showed as though one could touch them with the hand, and the voice of a native herd-boy in charge of a flock of sheep came in clear and sharp over twice that distance. Sister Margaret devoured the huge spaces with eyes unused to shorter ranges, snuffed again the air that has no equal under God’s skies, and, turning to her companion, said: “What do you think of it?”
“I am afraid I’m rather singular,” he replied. “Most of us hate the Karroo. I used to, but it grows on one somehow. I suppose it’s the lack of fences and roads that’s so fascinating. And when one gets back from the railway——”
“You’re quite right,” she said, with an emphatic stamp of her foot. “People come to Matjesfontein—ugh!—with their lungs, and they live opposite the railway station and that new hotel, and they think that’s the Karroo. They say there isn’t anything in it. It’s full of life when you really get into it. You see that? I’m so glad. D’you know, you’re the first English officer I’ve heard who has spoken a good word for my country?”
“I’m glad I pleased you,” said the Captain, looking into Sister Margaret’s black-lashed grey eyes under the heavy brown hair shot with grey where it rolled back from the tanned forehead. This kind of nurse was new in his experience. The average Sister did not lightly stride over rolling stones, and—was it possible that her easy pace up-hill was beginning to pump him? As she walked, she hummed joyously to herself, a queer catchy tune of one line several times repeated
|Vat jou goet en trek, Ferriera,
Vat jou goet en trek.
It ran off with a little trill that sounded like:
|Zwaar drag, alle en de ein kant;
Jannie met de hoepel bein!
“Listen!” she said, suddenly. “What was that?”
“It must be a wagon on the road. I heard the whip, I think.”
“Yes, but you didn’t hear the wheels, did you? It’s a little bird that makes just that noise, ‘Whe-ew’!” she duplicated it perfectly. “We call it”—she gave the Dutch name, which did not, of course, abide with the Captain. “We must have given him a scare! You hear him in the early mornings when you are sleeping in the wagons. It’s just like the noise of a whip-lash, isn’t it?”
They entered the Major’s tent a little behind the others, who were discussing the scanty news of the Campaign.
“Oh, no,” said Sister Margaret coolly, bending over the spirit-lamp, “the Transvaalers will stay round Kimberley and try to put Rhodes in a cage. But, of course, if a commando gets through to De Aar they will all rise——”
“You think so, Sister?” said the medical Major, deferentially.
“I know so. They will rise anywhere in the Colony if a commando comes actually to them. Presently they will rise in Prieska—if it is only to steal the forage at Van Wyk’s Vlei. Why not?”
“We get most of our opinions of the war from Sister Margaret,” said the civilian doctor of the train. “It’s all new to me, but, so far, all her prophecies have come true.”
A few months ago that doctor had retired from practice to a country house in rainy England, his fortune made and, as he tried to believe, his life-work done. Then the bugles blew, and, rejoicing at the change, he found himself, his experience, and his fine bedside manner, buttoned up in a black-tabbed khaki coat, on a hospital train that covered eleven hundred miles a week, carried a hundred wounded each trip and dealt him more experience in a month than he had ever gained in a year of home practice.
Sister Margaret and the Captain of Mounted Infantry took their cups outside the tent. The Captain wished to know something more about her. Till that day he had believed South Africa to be populated by sullen Dutchmen and slack-waisted women; and in some clumsy fashion betrayed the belief.
“Of course, you don’t see any others where you are,” said Sister Margaret, leniently, from her camp-chair. “They are all at the war. I have two brothers, and a nephew, my sister’s son, and—oh, I can’t count my cousins.” She flung her hands outward with a curiously un-English gesture. “And then, too, you have never been off the railway. You have only seen Capetown? All the schel—all the useless people are there. You should see our country beyond the ranges—out Oudtshorn way. We grow fruit and vines. It is much prettier, I think, than Paarl.”
“I’d like to very much. I may be stationed in Africa after the war is over.”
“Ah, but we know the English officers. They say that this is a ‘beastly country,’ and they do not know how to—to be nice to people. Shall I tell you? There was an aide-de-camp at Government House three years ago. He sent out invitations to dinner to Piet—to Mr. Van der Hooven’s wife. And she had been dead eight years, and Van der Hooven—he has the big farms round Craddock—just then was thinking of changing his politics, you see—he was against the Government,—and taking a house in Capetown, because of the Army meat contracts. That was why, you see?”
“I see,” said the Captain, to whom this was all Greek.
“Piet was a little angry—not much—but he went to Capetown, and that aide-de-camp had made a joke about it—about inviting the dead woman in the Civil Service Club. You see? So of course the, opposition there told Van der Hooven that the aide-de-camp had said he could not remember all the old Dutch vrows that had died, and so Piet Van der Hooven went away angry, and now he is more hot than ever against the Government. If you stay with us you must not be like that. You see?”
“I won’t,” said the Captain, seriously. “What a night it is, Sister!” He dwelt lovingly on the last word, as men did in South Africa.
The soft darkness had shut upon them unawares and the world had vanished. There was not so much breeze as a slow motion of the whole dry air under the vault of the immeasurably deep heavens. “Look up,” said the Captain; “doesn’t it make you feel as if we were tumbling down into the stars—all upside down?”
“Yes,” said Sister Margaret, tilting her head back. “It is always like that. I know. And those are our stars.”
They burned with a great glory, large as the eyes of cattle by lamp-light; planet after planet of the mild Southern sky. As the Captain said, one seemed to be falling from out the hidden earth sheer through space, between them.
“Now, when I was little,” Sister Margaret began very softly, “there was one day in the week at home that was all our own. We could get up as soon as we liked after midnight, and there was the basket in the kitchen—our food, We used to go out at three o’clock sometimes, my two brothers, my sisters, and the two little ones—out into the Karroo for all the day. All—the—long—day. First we built a fire, and then we made a kraal for the two little ones—a kraal of thorn bushes so that they should not be bitten by anything. You see? Often we made the kraal before morning—when those”—she jerked her firm chin at the stars—“were just going out. Then we old ones went hunting lizards—and snakes and birds and centipedes, and all that sort of nice thing. Our father collected them. He gave us half-a-crown for a spuugh-slange—a kind of snake. You see?”
“How old were you?” Snake-hunting did not strike the Captain as a safe amusement for the young.
“I was eleven then—or ten, perhaps, and the little ones were two and three. Why? Then we came back to eat, and we sat under a rock all afternoon. It was hot, you see, and we played—we played with the stones and the flowers. You should see our Karroo in spring! All flowers! All our flowers! Then we came home, carrying the little ones on our backs asleep—came home through the dark just like this night. That was our own day! Oh, the good days! We used to watch the meer-cats playing, too, and the little buck. When I was at Guy’s, learning to nurse, how home-sick that made me!”
“But what a splendid open-air life!” said the Captain.
“Where else is there to live except the open air?” said Sister Margaret, looking off into twenty thousand square miles of it with eyes that burned.
“You’re quite right.”
“I’m sorry to interrupt you two,” said Sister Dorothy, who had been talking to the gunner Major; “but the guard says we shall be ready to go in a few minutes. Major Devine and Dr. Johnson have gone down already.”
“Very good, Sister. We’ll follow.” The Captain rose unwillingly and made for the worn path from the camp to the rail.
“Isn’t there another way?” said Sister Margaret. Her grey nursing gown glimmered like some big moth’s wing.
“No. I’ll bring a lantern. It’s quite safe.”
“I did not think of that,” she said with a laugh; “only we never come home by the way we left it when we live in the Karroo. If any one—suppose you had dismissed a Kaffir, or got him sjamboked, and he saw you go out? He would wait for you to come back on a tired horse, and then. . . . You see? But, of course, in England where the road is all walled, it is different. How funny! Even when we were little we learned never to come home by the way we went out.”
“Very good,” said the Captain, obediently. It made the walk longer, and he approved of that.
“That’s a curious sort of woman,” said the Captain to the Major, as they smoked a lonely pipe together when the train had, gone.
“You seemed to think so.”
“Well—I couldn’t monopolize Sister Dorothy in the presence of my senior officer. What was she like?”
“Oh, it came out that she knew a lot of my people in London. She’s the daughter of a chap in the next county to us, too.”
. . . . .
The General’s flag still flew before his unstruck tent to amuse Boer binoculars, and loyal lying correspondents still telegraphed accounts of his daily work. But the General himself had gone to join an army a hundred miles away; drawing off, from time to time, every squadron, gun and company that he dared. His last words to the few troops he left behind covered the entire situation.
“If you can bluff ’em till we get round ’em up north to tread on their tails, it’s all right. If you can’t, they’ll probably eat you up. Hold ’em as long as you can.”
So the skeleton remnant of the brigade lay close among the kopjes till the Boers, not seeing them in force on the sky-line, feared that they might have learned the rudiments of war. They rarely disclosed a gun, for the reason that they had so few; they scouted by fours and fives instead of clattering troops and chattering companies, and where they saw a too obvious way opened to attack they, lacking force to drive it home, looked elsewhere. Great was the anger in the Boer commando across the river—the anger and unease.
“The reason is they have so few men,” the loyal farmers reported, all fresh from selling melons to the camp, and drinking Queen Victoria’s health in good whisky. “They have no horses—only what they call Mounted Infantry. They are afraid of us. They try to make us friends by giving us brandy. Come on and shoot them. Then you will see us rise and cut the line.”
“Yes, we know how you rise, you Colonials,” said the Boer commandant above his pipe. “We know what has come to all your promises from Beaufort West, and even from De Aar. We do the work—all the work,—and you kneel down with your parsons and pray for our success. What good is that? The President has told you a hundred times God is on our side. Why do you worry Him? We did not send you Mausers and ammunition for that.”
“We kept our commando-horses ready for six months—and forage is very dear. We sent all our young men,” said an honoured member of local society.
“A few here and a few servants there. What is that? You should have risen down to the sea all together.”
“But you were so quick. Why did not you wait the year? We were not ready, Jan.”
“That is a lie. All you Cape people lie. You want to save your cattle and your farms. Wait till our flag flies from here to Port Elizabeth and you shall see what you will save when the President learns how you have risen—you clever Cape people.”
The saddle-coloured sons of the soil looked down their noses. “Yes—it is true. Some of our farms are close to the line. They say at Worcester and in the Paarl that many soldiers are always coming in from the sea. One must think of that—at least till they are shot. But we know there are very few in front of you here. Give them what you gave the fools at Stormberg, and you will see how we can shoot rooineks.”
“Yes. I know that cow. She is always going to calve. Get away. I am answerable to the President—not to the Cape.”
But the information stayed in his mind, and, not being a student of military works, he made a plan to suit. The tall kopje on which the English had planted their helio-station commanded the more or less open plain to the northward, but did not command the five-mile belt of broken country between that and the outmost English pickets, some three miles from camp. The Boers had established themselves very comfortably among these rock-ridges and scrub-patches, and the “great war” drizzled down to long shots and longer stalking. The young bloods wanted rooineks to shoot, and said so.
“See here,” quoth the experienced Jan van Staden that evening to as many of his commando as cared to listen. “You youngsters from the Colony talk a lot. Go and turn the rooineks out of their kopjes to-night. Eh? Go and take their bayonets from them and stick them into them. Eh? You don’t go!” He laughed at the silence round the fire.
“Jan—Jan,” said one young man appealingly, “don’t make mock of us.”
“I thought that was what you wanted so badly. No? Then listen to me. Behind us the grazing is bad. We have too many cattle here.” (They had been stolen from farmers who had been heard to express fears of defeat.) “Tomorrow, by the sky’s look, it will blow a good wind. So, to-morrow early I shall send all our cattle north to the new grazing. That will make a great dust for the English to see from their helio yonder.” He pointed to a winking nightlamp stabbing the darkness with orders to an outlying picket. “With the cattle we will send all our women. Yes, all the women and the wagons we can spare, and the lame ponies and the broken carts we took from Andersen’s farm. That will make a big dust—the dust of our retreat. Do you see?”
They saw and approved, and said so.
“Good. There are many men here who want to go home to their wives. I shall let thirty of them away for a week. Men who wish to do this will speak to me to-night.” (This meant that Jan needed money, and furlough would be granted on strictly business lines.) “These men will look after the cattle and see that they make a great dust for a long way. They will run about behind the cattle showing their guns, too. So that, if the wind blows well, will be our retreat. The cattle will feed beyond Koopman’s Kop.”
“No good water there,” growled a farmer who knew that section. “Better go on to Zwartpan. It is always sweet at Zwartpan.”
The commando discussed the point for twenty minutes. It was much more serious than shooting rooineks. Then Jan went on:
“When the rooineks see our retreat they may all come into our kopjes together. If so, good. But it is tempting God to expect such a favour. I think they will first send some men to scout.” He grinned broadly, twisting the English word. “Almighty! To scoot! They have none of that new sort of rooinek that they used at Sunnyside.” (Jan meant an incomprehensible animal from a place called Australia across the Southern seas who played what they knew of the war-game to kill.) “They have only some Mounted Infantry,”—again he used the English words. “They were once a Red jacket regiment, so their scoots will stand up bravely to be shot at.”
“Good—good, we will shoot them,” said a youngster from Stellenbosch, who had come up on free pass as a Capetown excursionist just before the war to a farm on the border, where his aunt was taking care of his horse and rifle.
“But if you shoot their scoots I will sjambok you myself,” said Jan, amid roars of laughter. “We must let them all come into the kopjes to look for us; and I pray God will not allow any of us to be tempted to shoot them. They will cross the ford in front of their camp. They will come along the road—so!” He imitated with ponderous arms the Army style of riding. “They will trot up the road this way and that way”—here he snaked his hard finger in the dust — between kopjes, till they come here, where they can see the plain and all our cattle going away. Then they will all come in close together. Perhaps they will even fix their bayonets. We shall be up here behind the rock—there and there.” He pointed to two flat-topped kopjes, one on either side of the road, some eight hundred yards away. “That is our place. We will go there before sunrise. Remember we must be careful to let the very last of the rooineks pass before we begin shooting. They will come along a little careful at first. But we do not shoot. Then they will see our fires and the fresh horse-dung, so they will know we have gone on. They will run together and talk and point and shout in this nice open place. Then we begin shooting them from above.”
“Yes, uncle, but if the scoots see nothing and there are no shots and we let them go back quite quiet, they will think it was a trick. Perhaps the main body may never come here at all. Even rooineks learn in time—and so we may lose even the scoots.”
“I have thought of that too,” said Jan, with slow contempt, as the Stellenbosch boy delivered his shot. “If you had been my son I should have sjamboked you more when you were a youngster. I shall put you and four or five more on the Nek [the pass], where the road comes from their camp into these kopjes. You go there before it is light. Let the scoots pass in or I will sjambok you myself. When the scoots come back after seeing nothing here, then you may shoot them, but not till they have passed the Nek and are on the straight road back to their camp again. Do you understand? Repeat what I have said, so that I shall know.”
The youth obediently repeated his orders.
“Kill their officers if you can. If not, no great matter, because the scoots will run to camp with the news that our kopjes are empty. Their helio-station will see your party trying to hold the Nek so hard—and all that time they will see our dust out yonder, and they will think you are the rear-guard, and they will think we are escaping. They will be angry.”
“Yes—yes, uncle, we see,” from a dozen elderly voices.
“But this calf does not. Be silent! They will shoot at you, Niclaus, on the Nek, because they will think you are to cover our getting away. They will shell the Nek. They will miss. You will then ride away. All the rooineks will come after you, hot and in a hurry—perhaps, even, with their cannon. They will pass our fires and our fresh horse-dung. They will come here as their scoots came. They will see the plain so full of our dust. They will say, ‘The scoots spoke truth. It is a full retreat.’ Then we up there on the rocks will shoot, and it will be like the fight at Stormberg in daytime. Do you understand now?”
Those of the commando directly interested lit new pipes and discussed the matter in detail till midnight.
Next morning the operations began with, if one may borrow the language of some official despatches—“the precision of well-oiled machinery.”
The helio-station reported the dust of the wagons and the movements of armed men in full flight across the plain beyond the kopjes. A Colonel, newly appointed from England, by reason of his seniority, sent forth a dozen Mounted Infantry under command of a Captain. Till a month ago they had been drilled by a cavalry instructor, who taught them “shock” tactics to the music of trumpets. They knew how to advance in echelon of squadrons, by cat’s cradle of troops, in quarter column of stable-litter, how to trot, to gallop, and above all to charge. They knew how to sit their horses unremittingly, so that at the day’s end they might boast how many hours they had been in the saddle without relief, and they learned to rejoice in the clatter and stamp of a troop moving as such, and therefore audible five miles away.
They trotted out two and two along the farm road, that trailed lazily through the wind-driven dust; across the half-dried ford to a nek between low stony hills leading into the debatable land. (Vrooman of Emmaus from his neatly bushed hole noted that one man carried a sporting LeeEnfield rifle with a short fore-end. Vrooman of Emmaus argued that the owner of it was the officer to be killed on his return, and went to sleep.) They saw nothing except a small flock of sheep and a Kaffir herdsman who spoke broken English with curious fluency. He had heard that the Boers had decided to retreat on account of their sick and wounded. The Captain in charge of the detachment turned to look at the helio-station four miles away. “Hurry up,” said the dazzling flash. “Retreat apparently continues, but suggest you make sure. Quick.”
“Ye-es,” said the Captain, a shade bitterly, as he wiped the sweat from a sun-skinned nose. “You want me to come back and report all clear. If anything happens it will be my fault. If they get away it will be my fault for disregarding the signal. I love officers who suggest and advise, and want to make their reputations in twenty minutes.”
“’Don’t see much ’ere, sir,” said the sergeant, scanning the bare cup of the hollow where a dust-devil danced alone.
“No? We’ll go on.”
“If we get among these steep ’ills we lose touch of the ’elio.”
“Very likely. Trot.”
The rounded mounds grew to spiked kopjes, heart-breaking to climb under a hot sun at four thousand feet above sea level. This is where the scouts found their spurs peculiarly useful.
Jan van Staden had thoughtfully allowed the invading force a front of two rifle-shots or four thousand yards, and they kept a thousand yards within his estimate. Ten men strung over two miles feel that they have explored all the round earth.
They saw stony slopes combing over in scrub, narrow valleys clothed with stone, low ridges of splintered stone, and tufts of brittle-stemmed bush. An irritating wind, split up by many rocky barriers, cuffed them over the ears and slapped them in the face at every turn. They came upon an abandoned camp fire, a little fresh horse-dung, and an empty ammunition-box splintered up for firewood, an old boot, and a stale bandage.
A few hundred yards farther along the road a battered Mauser had been thrown into a bush. The glimmer of its barrel drew the scouts from the hillside, and here the road after passing between two flat-topped kopjes entered a valley nearly half a mile wide, rose slightly, and over the nek of a ridge gave clear view across the windy plain northward.
“They’re on the dead run, for sure,” said a trooper. “Here’s their fires and their litter and their guns, and that’s where they’re bolting to.” He pointed over the ridge to the bellying dust cloud a mile long. A vulture high overhead flickered down, steadied herself, and hung motionless.
“See!” said Jan van Staden from the rocks above the road, to his waiting commando. “It turns like a well-oiled wheel. They look where they need not look, but here, where they should look on both sides, they look at our retreat—straight before them. It is tempting our people too much. I pray God no one will shoot them.”
“That’s about the size of it,” said the Captain, rubbing the dust from his binoculars. “Boers on the run. I expect they find their main line of retreat to the north is threatened. We’ll get back and tell the camp.” He wheeled his pony and his eye traversed the flat-topped kopje commanding the road. The stones at its edge seemed to be piled with less than Nature’s carelessness.
“That ’ud be a dashed ugly place if it were occupied—and that other one, too. Those rocks aren’t five hundred yards from the road, either of ’em. Hold on, sergeant, I’ll light a pipe.” He bent over the bowl, and above his lighted match squinted at the kopje. A stone, a small roundish brown boulder on the lip of another one, seemed to move very slightly. The short hairs of his neck grated his collar. “I’ll have another squint at their retreat,” he cried to the sergeant, astonished at the steadiness of his own voice. He swept the plain, and, wheeling, let the glass rest for a moment on the kopje’s top. One cranny between the rocks was pinkish, where blue sky should have shown. His men, dotted down the valley, sat heavily on their horses—it never occurred to them to dismount. He could hear the squeak of the leathers as a man shifted. An impatient gust blew through the valley and rattled the bushes. On all sides the expectant hills stood still under the pale blue.
“And we passed within a quarter of a mile of ’em! We’re done!” The thumping heart slowed down, and the Captain began to think clearly—so clearly that the thoughts seemed solid things. “It’s Pretoria gaol for us all. Perhaps that man’s only a look-out, though. We’ll have to bolt! And I led ’em into it! . . . You fool,” said his other self, above the beat of the blood in his eardrums. “If they could snipe you all from up there, why haven’t they begun already? Because you’re the bait for the rest of the attack. They don’t want you now. You’re to go back and bring up the others to be killed. Go back! Don’t detach a man or they’ll suspect. Go back all together. Tell the sergeant you’re going. Some of them up there will understand English. Tell it aloud! Then back you go with the news—the real news.”
“The country’s all clear, sergeant,” he shouted. “We’ll go back and tell the Colonel.” With an idiotic giggle he added, “It’s a good road for guns, don’t you think?”
“Hear you that?” said Jan van Staden, gripping a burgher’s arm. “God is on our side to-day. They will bring their little cannons after all!”
“Go easy. No good bucketing the horses to pieces. We’ll need ’em for the pursuit later,” said the Captain. “Hullo, there’s a vulture! How far would you make him?”
“Can’t tell, sir, in this dry air.”
The bird swooped towards the second flattopped kopje, but suddenly shivered sideways, and wheeled off again, followed intently by the Captain’s glance.
“And that kopje’s simply full of ’em, too,” he said, flushing. “Perfectly confident they are, that we’d take this road—and then they’ll scupper the whole boiling of us! They’ll let us through to fetch up the others. But I mustn’t let ’em know we know. By Jove, they do not think much of us! ’Don’t blame ’em.”
The cunning of the trap did not impress him until later.
Down the track jolted a dozen well-equipped men, laughing and talking—a mark to make a pious burgher’s mouth water. Thrice had their Captain explicitly said that they were to march easy, so a trooper began to hum a tune that he had picked up in Capetown streets:
|Vat jou goet en trek, Ferriera,
Vat jou goet en trek;
Jannie met de hoepel bein, Ferriera,
Jannie met de hoepel bein!
Then with a whistle
|Zwaar draa—alle en de ein kant|
The Captain, thinking furiously, found his mind turn to a camp in the Karroo, months before; an engine that had halted in that waste, and a woman with brown hair, early grizzled—an extraordinary woman. . . . Yes, but as soon as they had dropped the flat-topped kopje behind its neighbour he must hurry back and report. .. A woman with grey eyes and black eyelashes. . . . The Boers would probably be massed on those two kopjes. How soon dare he break into a canter? . . . A woman with a queer cadence in her speech. . . . It was not more than five miles home by the straight road—
“Even when we were children we learned not to go back by the way we had come.”
The sentence came back to him, self-shouted, so clearly that he almost turned to see if the scouts had heard. The two flat-topped kopjes behind him were covered by a long ridge. The camp lay due south. He had only to follow the road to the Nek—a notch, unscouted as he recalled now, between the two hills.
He wheeled his men up a long valley.
“Excuse me, sir, that ain’t our road!” said the sergeant. “Once we get over this rise, straight on, we come into direct touch with the ’elio, on that flat bit o’ road there they ’elioed us goin’ out.”
“But we aren’t going to get in touch with them just now. Come along, and come quick.”
“What’s the meaning of this?” said a private in the rear. “What’s ’e doin’ this detour for? We sha’n’t get in for hours an’ hours.”
“Come on, men. Flog a canter out of your brutes, somehow,” the Captain called back.
For two throat-parched hours he held west by south, away from the Nek, puzzling over a compass already demented by the ironstone in the hills, and then turned south-east through an eruption of low hills that ran far into the reentering bend of the river that circled the left bank of the camp.
Eight miles to eastward that student from Stellenbosch had wriggled out on the rocks above the Nek to have a word with Vrooman of Emmaus. The bottom seemed to have dropped out of at least one portion of their programme; for the scouting party were not to be seen.
“Jan is a clever man,” he said to his companion, “but he does not think that even rooineks may learn. Perhaps those scouts will have seen Jan’s commando, and perhaps they will come back to warn the rooineks. That is why I think he should have shot them before they came to the Nek, and made quite sure that only one or two got away. It would have made the English angry, and they would have come out across the open in hundreds to be shot. Then when we ran away they would have come after us without thinking. If you can make the English hurry, they never think. Jan is wrong this time.”
“Lie down, and pray you have not shown yourself to their helio-station,” growled Vrooman of Emmaus. “You throw with your arms and kick with your legs like a rooinek. When we get back I will tell Jan and he will sjambok you. All will yet come right. They will go and warn the rest, and the rest will hurry out by this very nek. Then we can shoot. Now you lie still and wait.”
“’Ere’s a rummy picnic. We left camp, as it were, by the front door. ’E ’as given us a giddy-go-round, an’ no mistake,” said a dripping private as he dismounted behind the infantry lines.
“Did you see our helio?” This was the Colonel, hot from racing down from the heliostation. “There were a lot of Boers waiting for you on the Nek. We saw ’em. We tried to get at you with the helio, and tell you we were coming out to help you. Then we saw you didn’t come over that flat bit of road where we had signalled you going out, and we wondered why. We didn’t hear any shots.”
“I turned off, sir, and came in by another road,” said the Captain.
“By another road!” The Colonel lifted his, eyebrows. “Perhaps you’re not aware, sir, that the Boers have been in full retreat for the last three hours, and that those men on the Nek were simply a rear-guard put out to delay us for a little. We could see that much from here. Your duty, sir, was to have taken them in the rear, and then we could have brushed them aside. The Boer retreat has been going on all morning, sir—all morning. You were despatched to see the front clear and to return at once. The whole camp has been under arms for three hours; and instead of doing your work you wander all about Africa with your scouts to avoid a handful of skulking Boers! You should have sent a man back at once—you should have——”
The Captain got off his horse stiffly.
“As a matter of fact,” said he, “I didn’t know for sure that there were any Boers on the Nek, but I went round it in case it was so. But I do know that the kopjes beyond the Nek are simply crawling with Boers.”
“Nonsense. We can see the whole lot of ’em retreating out yonder.”
“Of course you can. That’s part of their game, sir. I saw ’em lying on the top of a couple of kopjes commanding the road, where it goes into the plain on the far side. They let us come in to see, and they let us go out to report the country clear and bring you up. Now they are waiting for you. The whole thing is a trap.”
“D’you expect any officer of my experience to believe that?”
“As you please, sir,” said the Captain hopelessly. “My responsibility ends with my report.”