For the moment the Intelligence officer could ill disguise his astonishment. Here, standing in front of him, was the girl who had taught him his first lesson in staff jurisprudence. The memory of the incidents at the farmhouse, her petulance with the Tiger, her tears for her lover, had been almost effaced by the vicissitudes of the last forty-eight hours. If he had ever thought of the girl at all, it had been in the same spirit as a mariner recalls a passing ship, whose shapely lines were barely distinguishable in the night. His surprise was such that he could only marvel that while, travel-stained and dishevelled, he had arrived at Britstown with an effort, she had already reached that goal, and, to judge from the studied neatness of her attire, had reached it with consummate ease. Her smile and attitude as she held out her hand to her visitor expressed satisfaction at the meeting—a satisfaction tempered with a determination to show a front which should declare a full measure of resistance. Taking advantage of his officer's surprise, the Tiger discreetly withdrew.
Intelligence Officer. "Miss Pretorius,—how did you get here?"
Miss Pretorius. "Quite simply. Partly on horseback, partly in a Cape cart."
I. O. (recovering somewhat) "Naturally; I did not anticipate that you had walked. But with what object?"
Miss P. (the corners of her pretty mouth sinking in defiance) "I might easily have walked, and arrived before a British column. As to my object in coming here, surely your Africander spy has informed you?"
I. O. "If you mean the Tiger, he has told me nothing!"
Miss P. "And may I also ask something,—What authority have you to put me such a question? At the institution which prided itself in teaching me—an Africander girl—the manners and customs of the English, they were emphatic upon the impertinence of asking personal questions."
I. O. "I must apologise, Miss Pretorius. But the circumstances are hardly normal. We cannot get away from the fact that we are influenced against our better natures by an unfortunate state of war."
Miss P. (petulantly) "Oh, the war! That is just like you Englishmen—you paragons of manly virtue—you make the war a cloak for all your sins. It is such an upright war, therefore in its furtherance you can do no wrong—cannot even be unmannerly. It is this that has made you so beloved in the Republics; but how does your attitude hold good with me? I am a loyal British subject, living at peace with all men in a British colony. What right, therefore, have you to catechise me as to my goings and comings? I do not even live within the legitimate area of your so-called just war. I am only exposed to its rigours—that is, as far as the insolence of those who should be our defenders affects us women—because you English, in spite of your vaunted power and military magnitude, cannot defend us, your Africander dependants, from a few simple farmers. Where is your manhood, where the courtly bearing of the Englishman, of which I have heard so much—and seen so little?"
I. O. "Really, Miss Pretorius, if I may say so, I think that you exaggerate the case. Unfortunately we are at war. You claim consideration on the score of loyalty. Are you astonished that I should have mistaken your attitude towards us? Your two brothers only yesterday were in arms against us. One is wounded, the other a prisoner in our hands. Is it surprising that I regarded you as their accomplice in rebellion?"
Miss P. "I am surprised at nothing that an Englishman may do. But why should I be compromised because my brothers have taken up arms against you. Am I not of an age to formulate opinions of my own? or is it that you consider that we poor Africander girls have no intelligence, that our opinions must of necessity be bound up in those of our men-folk, that we have no mind above the duties of the drudging hausfrau? No, sir; I am an Africander loyalist—more loyal by far than the renegade white who brought you here. And if you wish to know the reason of my presence at Britstown, I am not averse to telling you, provided you will not claim to have the information as a right."
I. O. (with a touch of penitence in his voice, which for a moment caused a smile to flicker round the corners of the girl's mouth) "Of course, Miss Pretorius, I have no right. You will persist in misunderstanding me."
Miss P. "It is a simple problem. I am loyal, as I have said; but I am a daughter and sister first, patriot later. In a fit of meaningless bravado, tempered perhaps by some compulsion from over the border, my old father and brothers had joined a rebel commando. You, with a naïveté which I had hardly expected in you, and for which I liked you, told me the objective of your column—information which meant everything to me, and perhaps to you, for you looked as if you would have liked to have bitten your tongue out after you had parted with it. I, with the honest intention of saving my father and brothers from you, rode out to them that night. I then knew nothing of Lotter's and Hertzog's men. If it had not been for the fighting, I should be now back again at Richmond Road. As it is, my poor wounded father in the next room is sufficient reason for my presence here."
I. O. (who, English-like, was all sympathy at once) "Oh, it was your father then that you brought with you in the Cape cart. I hope that he is not badly wounded. May I see him?"
Miss P. "There would be no object in your seeing him, as he is at present asleep. No; he is, not severely wounded. He is shot through the shoulder,—luckily it has missed his lung."
I. O. (with unaffected solicitude) "I am indeed sorry for you, Miss Pretorius; those last forty-eight hours have been full of trouble for you. But I doubt if you know the worst!"
Miss P. (suddenly paling, and losing for the moment her self-control) "The worst!—surely you have not burned our farm? You are not burning farms in the Colony!"
I. O. "No, not your farm; but I am afraid your sweetheart has been badly hit!"
Miss P. (with evident relief and surprise) "My sweetheart!"
I. O. "Yes; the guide whom we took from your farm. He tried to escape, and was unfortunately shot."
Miss P. (laughing outright) "Oh, Stephanus! He is no sweetheart of mine. How could he be? He is only a bywoner!"
I. O. "But you told me that he was when I first suggested taking him with me!"
Miss P. "Did I? It was not the truth, then; it was only an addition to the part I was then playing."
I. O. "How do I know that you are not still playing a part?"
Miss P. "If I am, then it is a very sad one. No; you may trust me now. I have played my part, and if anything that I could do for you would stop this dreadful war, I would gladly help you!"
I. O. "You can help me, if you will; but after what you have said about my want of manners, I am afraid to ask you a question."
Miss P. "I have forgiven you that; and now that you do not claim the right to question me, I do not mind answering you if I can!"
I. O. "How, if your object was to save your father, did it happen that Lotter was informed of our presence at Richmond Road?"
Miss P. "I expected that you would ask that. I did not tell him personally, nor would I in any circumstances have done so. But the fact that I arrived in great haste in the small hours of the morning had a peculiar meaning to the commando, and it was not necessary for me to open my mouth. I daresay to-night there will be one hundred Africander girls in the saddle in different parts of the Colony. When the urgency is great, a girl is more reliable than a Kaffir. It is one of our means of communication. There; is not that an admission worthy of a loyal Africander?"
I. O. (holding out his hand) "Good-bye, Miss Pretorius."
It would have been difficult to analyse the Intelligence officer's feelings as he strode back along the Britstown main street to keep his appointment with his brigadier. He was at a loss to understand two things,—the anomalism of his second meeting with the Pretorius girl, and the latter's attitude towards the Tiger. He could not divest himself of a feeling of suspicion that all was not quite as it appeared. There is no walk in life which breeds distrust in one's fellows so rapidly as that of military Intelligence. And although the Intelligence officer had only formed an atom in this great structure of British incompetency in South Africa for two days, yet sufficient had been borne in upon him during this period to cause him uneasiness as to the sincerity of motive in those that moved round him. It is said that the only person that a race-horse trainer will trust is his wife, and that as long as he trusts her he remains an unsuccessful man. We cannot say what truth there may be in this ancient turf adage; but we do know that administrative work successfully performed in the Intelligence Department of an army in the field leads a man to place the lowest estimate upon the integrity of his fellows. The first lesson is of an inverse nature, and compels a man, however he may dislike the procedure, to believe those who move about him to be knaves, until he has had opportunity to test their honesty. Young in his knowledge of the people against whom he had been warring for eighteen months, the Intelligence officer was exceedingly puzzled at the strange anomaly presented by the Africander girl he had just left. He could not help feeling that this daughter of a nation which he had led himself, if not to despise, at least to depreciate, had fathomed him in two short interviews, while he had penetrated little beyond the surface of her feminine attractions and lively wit. He was puzzled at the outcome of his interview, even perhaps a little alarmed at the manner in which he had been treated—shocked at the erroneous estimate which he had formed of Dutch women after eighteen months in their midst. But this rebuff had served its purpose: it had sown in him the seeds of that appreciation of our enemy which will have to generally exist if we are ultimately to live in peace and concord, united as fellow-subjects, with the people of South Africa.
It was now already dark, and the Intelligence officer had some little difficulty in finding the house in which the general had taken up his headquarters. The main street was still full of revellers, bursting with Colonial bonhomie, but strangely lacking in topographical information. In fact it seemed doubtful if the general's house would ever be found, and the weary Intelligence officer was rapidly losing his temper, when chance again came to his aid. A horseman came galloping down the street. A little man in civilian attire—all slouch-hat and gaiter. He seemed to be in a desperate hurry, as he was flogging his tired and mud-bespattered animal unmercifully with his sjambok. It was a beaten horse; and just as it came level with the Intelligence officer, it stumbled, half recovered itself, and then fell heavily in a woeful heap. The Intelligence officer pulled the little civilian on to his feet, with a soft admonition about the riding of beaten horses. The civilian shook himself, and turned to his prostrate horse with a curse. But the poor beast had no intention of rising again. It had lain down to die.
"It can't be helped; the news I bring will be worth a horse or two anyhow. I must leave it, saddle and all, until I have seen the general."
"Do you know where to find him?" hazarded the Intelligence officer. "I am looking for his house now."
Civilian. "Well, I ought to; I've not run a store in this town for five years not to know my way about. But who may you be?"
Intelligence Officer. "I'm staff officer to one of the columns which came in to-day. I've been trying to find headquarters this last ten minutes."
Civ. "Come along with me. I must get there at once. I've just come in from Houwater. I was sent out by the commandant to follow up Brand, and I have located him and Hertzog. I tell you I have come in fast—never went faster in my life. Devilish nearly got cut off. My word, I bore a charmed life to-day. Well, here we are. I shall go straight in. The new general doesn't know me, but he soon will. The commandant knows me: he knows that when I come with news there is something worth hearing."
The little civilian bounced up the steps and dived into the lighted hall of the headquarter's villa, before orderly or sentry could stop him. A tall Yeoman stepped up to the Intelligence officer, and saluting with more dignity than alacrity said, "Beg your pardon, sir; but I am the general's orderly, and he told me to tell you that he would only be a few minutes here, and that if you wouldn't mind waiting he would join you immediately."
Waiting for a general is a serious undertaking, and the Intelligence officer was tired. Moreover, he did not know where the camp was, or when he would be expected to take over from the chief staff officer of the column. But on active service all these things work out in their own time, so he just sat down on the whitewashed steps of the verandah and lit a cigarette. The tall Yeoman orderly did likewise on the far side of the entrance. The Intelligence officer smoked in silence for some time, engaged in the occupation most welcomed by tired men on service—thinking of better times—until the nightmare of the column, the orders for the morrow, the supplies and the camp, broke in upon his reverie.
Intelligence Officer. "Do you know where the camp is?"
Orderly. "Yes, sir; it is about half a mile from here."
I. O. "You can find your way there in the dark?"
Ord. "Yes, sir; it is straight down the main street, and then the first to the left. It would be impossible to miss it."
I. O. "What do you belong to?"
Ord. "I don't quite know what I belong to now. I came out originally with the 218th Company Imperial Yeomanry; but they have gone back home."
I. O. "Then what are you doing out here now?"
Ord. "Well, you see, sir, I came to the general as orderly about four months ago, and I liked being with him so much that I did not rejoin the company. As a matter of fact, we were away down in Calvinia District; I don't quite see how I could have got back to them, even if the general would have let me go. I haven't seen the company since I was wounded at Wittebergen seven months ago. I joined the general from Deelfontein Hospital!"
I. O. "I hope that your billet has been kept open for you in England."
Ord. "I sincerely trust it has, sir; but I have missed a season's hunting. I don't intend to miss another if I can help it."
I. O. "The devil you don't. What do you do at home?"
Ord. "I hunt four days a-week in the winter, and in the——"
I. O. "I mean, what is your job?"
Ord. "I haven't much of a job, sir; I'm the junior partner in an engineering firm, and as we do some very big things in contracts, there isn't much left for me to do except amuse myself!"
I. O. "Then whatever made you come out in the ranks?"
Ord. "It suits me, sir. I am not fond of responsibility: besides, if every one who could afford it had taken a commission in our company, we should have been all officers, with no one to command!"
I. O. "I call it most sporting of you."
Ord. "No; not exactly sporting. It was no idea of sport that brought me out here. It was a sense of duty. Were you out here, sir, during the Black Week—the Colenso-Magersfontein period? You were. Then you have not realised, and you never can realise, what we in England went through during that period. I went down to my stables one morning, and my groom came up to me and asked if he might leave at once. In answer to my look of surprise, he said, 'It's this way, sir: I feel that the time has come when we shall want every man who can ride and shoot to defend the country. I can do both, and the country is not going to be defeated because I can ride and shoot, and won't. I want to join the Yeomanry!' I let him go, and thought over his estimate of the situation all day. If the country's honour lay in my groom's hands, how much more must it lie in mine—the employer of labour? I made up my mind before dinner, told my wife before going to bed, and here I am, sir."
Nor was this an extraordinary case. There must have been in South Africa during the second phase of the war many hundreds of men—one might almost say thousands—actuated by the same spirit, impelled by the same feeling, as this rich contractor and his groom. Men who felt that the nation had desperate need of their services; men who voluntarily undertook the risks and perils of a soldier's life, not from any hope of preferment, not from love of adventure or mercenary advancement, but from true patriotism—a sacrifice to meet the nation's call in the hour of her need. But that day soon passed. The tide turned, and clash of arms ceased upon our own frontiers and within our own dependencies, and the din of war sounded faintly from the heart of the enemy's country. Then true patriotism failed; the men who had gone forth with their country's acclamations returned as their obligations expired. There were no patriots of the same class found to take their places. Yet the exigencies of the struggle required even more men than had been in the field when Lord Roberts made his extreme effort to retrieve the earlier misfortunes. Then it was that we committed another of those many errors in judgment which have marked the conduct of the campaign. We believed that in December 1900 the edifice of the Boer resistance was crumbling to its foundations,—that it was like a mighty smoke-stack, already mined at its base, and but requiring fuel at the dummy supports to bring the whole structure in ruins to the ground. We called for the fuel. The cry went forth for men—men—men. Any men; only let there be a sufficient quantity. The war was over. Had not the highest officials said that it was over. The recruiting-sergeant went out into the highways and hedges to collect the fuel for Lord Kitchener's final operation. It mattered not the quality—it was only quantity. The war was over. The gates of the Gold Reef City would again be open. Then the mass of degraded manhood which had fled from Johannesburg at the first muttering of thunder in the war-cloud flocked from their hiding-places on the Cape Colony seaboard and fell upon the recruiting-sergeant's neck. Mean whites that they were, they came out of their burrows at the first gleam of sunshine. Greek, Armenian, Russian, Scandinavian, Levantine, Pole, and Jew. Jail-bird, pickpocket, thief, drunkard, and loafer, they presented themselves to the recruiting-sergeant, and in due course polluted the uniform which they were not fit to salute from a distance. The war was over; there would be no more fighting, only a quick march to Johannesburg, and disbandment within reach of the filthy lucre which they coveted. And so new corps were raised, with spirit-stirring titles, while old, honoured, and existing regiments were sullied beyond recognition by association with the refuse and sweepings from the least manly community in the universe. Such fuel could not even clear the dummy supports at the base of the Boer resistance. It refused to burn. It could never have burned in any circumstances. These men had no intention of fighting. Their appearance in the field gave new life to the enemy. New confidence, and free gifts of rifles, ammunition, clothes, and horses. Men could not be found to command them, for to place confidence in their powers meant professional disgrace. These men had not come to fight. They had enlisted only to reach Johannesburg, and they refused to fight. Surrender to them brought no qualm or disgrace. They possessed no faculty sensible to shame. Then the enemy hardened his heart. And who can blame him? He had ever been told that the supply of British fighting material was limited. He found these creatures in the field against him. He stepped up to them, and disarmed them without an effort. Then he said, we have exhausted their supply of real fighting men. They are now forced to place this spurious article in the field. We will persevere just a little longer. If we persevere till disease shall further destroy their good men, we must win in the long-run. The error in judgment which allowed of the enlistment of these men has perhaps done more than anything else to prolong the war. If any doubts remain, let the curious call upon the Government for a return of arms and ammunition surrendered to and captured by the enemy between November 1900 and November 1901, and then, if the answer be justly given, judge of the necessity of arsenals for our enemy.
The brigadier had finished his interview with his superior, and the clink of glasses had shown that the general had not sent him off without a stirrup-cup. He came out upon the verandah, and called for his orderly.
Brigadier. "Hullo, Mr Intelligence; I thought you were lost. Come along here out into the road. I want to speak to you, but we must be careful not to be overheard; this place simply teems with rebels. (They advanced into the broadway, the orderly following at a respectful distance.) Now, look here, we are to have a big fight to-morrow. You saw that funny little beggar in the hat. Well, he wasn't playing at robbers, though you would never have known it. He was really bringing the good news to Ghent—killing horses all the way. He's a local Burnham, and passing good, according to the commandant. Well, he's located Brand, Pretorius, and our old friend Hedgehog at Houwater, and we are going out to give battle. More, they believe that De Wet has doubled back towards Strydenburg, and is trying to link up with these Houwater gentry, as the latter have collected horses for him. Now, our bushranging robber reports that Brand has an outpost of thirty men at a farm on the Ongers River, twelve miles from here, covering the Houwater-Britstown Road. We are to take a surprise party out to-night and round them up. If we succeed, we will run a very good chance of bringing off quite 'a show' to-morrow. So we must get along now, and get out the invitations for the tea-party. The 'Robber' is to meet us here in two hours, and the old man has lent me fifteen of Rimington's Tigers, who are 'fizzers' for this sort of shikar."
It would be an artist, indeed, who could analyse and adequately describe the feelings of a man parading for his first night-attack. The magnitude or insignificance of the enterprise is immaterial. The feelings of the young soldiers from the New Cavalry Brigade as they paraded with the hard-bitten swashbucklers, Rimington's Tigers, were identical with those of the army advancing across the desert to the assault at Tel-el-Kebir; of Wauchope's Highland Brigade blundering to disaster in the slush and bushes before Magersfontein; and Hunter Weston's handful of mounted sappers, who so boldly penetrated into the heart of the enemy's line to destroy the railway north of Bloemfontein. A night-attack must of necessity always be a delicate operation. Shrouded in the mystery of darkness, men know that their safety and the success of the enterprise is dependent upon the sagacity and coolness of one or, at the most, two men. They must be momentarily prepared to meet the unexpected. The smallest failure or miscarriage—the merest chance—may lead to irretrievable disaster. Men who can face death without flinching in the light of day often quail at the thought of it in the darkness. The mental tension is such that once men have been overwhelmed during a night attack, like the beaten ram of the arena, it must be weeks, even months, before they can be trusted to face a similar situation. No man who has ever taken part in night operations will forget his first sensations. The recurring misgivings bred of intense excitement. The misty hallucinations, outcome of abnormal tension. The awful stillness of the night. The muffled sounds of moving men, exaggerated by the painful silence of the surroundings. You long—with a yearning which can only be felt, not described—that something may happen to break the overpowering monotony of this prelude to success or disaster. Some outlet to your pent-up feelings. If only some one would shout, or the enemy surprise you, or—thank God! relief has come,—it has begun to rain!
As the little column of adventurers from the New Cavalry Brigade trudged on in ghostly silence, great drops of icy rain began to fall—harbingers of a coming storm. A shudder of satisfaction passed through the ranks, from the "Robber" leading the forlorn-hope, with the Intelligence officer and the leader of the Tigers beside him, to little Meadows and his troop of the 20th Dragoons in rear. Then, preceded by a brief ten minutes of inky darkness, the storm broke. It does not rain in South Africa—water is voided from above in solid sheets. A wall of beating rain pours down, obliterating the landscape by day, intensifying the darkness by night. The column came to a halt; the horses, unable to face the downpour, in spite of bridle, bit, and spur, swing round their tails to meet it. And before a collar can be turned or a coat adjusted every man in the column is drenched to the skin. For ten minutes perhaps the deluge lasts, then fades away as rapidly as it came. And as one by one the misty features of veldt reappear, you can hear the passing rainstorm receding from you, still churning the veldt surface into sticky pulp. The officers re-form the column, and the journey is continued. But though the respite has been short, it has been valuable; local inconvenience acts as a sedative to the nerves. Besides, there is less silence. The track that was parched and spongy has now become soft and slippery. Horses flounder and slide. Wet mackintoshes swish against the animals' flanks, and hoofs are raised with a rinsing, sucking sound. But there is man's work afoot. As the rain-mists sufficiently clear, the "Robber" is able to take his bearings. The head of the column has now reached the foot of a long low-lying ridge. The end cannot be seen; but the "Robber" explains that the farm where the Boers should be lies in a small cup at the foot of the farther end of this ridge. The column has already reached the place where it will be advisable to leave the horses. If they are taken farther along, the Boer picket, which is probably stationed on the ridge, may be disturbed. Now, even if a horse should neigh, it would be mistaken for one of the many brood-mares belonging to the farm. The march has been admirably timed; it still wants two hours to daybreak. It will take fully half this time to work along the ridge, overpower the picket if there is one, and surround the farm.
"Dismount—Number threes take over the horses." The word is passed from man to man in whispers. There is some little noise. Exaggerated by the situation, it sounds a babel. Can any enemy within a mile have failed to hear it? A rifle-butt hits against a stone. A horse, either pulled by the bit or terrified at some night-horror, backs and plunges, and disturbs the whole section. A smothered curse, as in the melée some man's foot is trampled. Surely such a noise would wake the dead! No; the men fall in at the foot of the hill. They are told to lie down and wait. The horror of that waiting! There is a sound on the side of the hill. A boulder has been shifted. The men clutch their rifles, the click of a pistol cocking is clearly audible. Then a form looms up. The "Robber" signals silence. The figure is approaching. It is only the Kaffir scout, who had been sent on in advance to locate, if possible, the picket. He comes up and hangs his head upon his hand. He has found the picket, and this is his way of demonstrating that the two Boers comprising it are asleep.
Harvey of Rimington's takes command. He issues his orders, first to his own men, then to the whole. They are simple: "Fix bayonets. I will take the Kaffir with me. When I hold up both my hands, the left section of fours will follow me. You know what to do; mind, not a shot is to be fired. The force will advance up the hill extended to two paces, and halt as soon as it reaches the summit. If we are discovered by more than the picket, Rimington's will rally on me, the 20th on their own officer. Remember, your line of retreat must be to the horses."
Then the advance began. Slowly the men toiled up. It seemed impossible to make the ascent in silence. Men must trip in darkness over rough ground—tripping men with rifles in their hands make what appears to be a fearful clatter. By hypothesis it would seem impossible to surprise even a sleeping picket. But you have only to be on picket duty once to realise how full the night is of deceptive noises. In reality the advance was made with praiseworthy silence. Just as the top was reached, the Kaffir plucked Harvey's arm. His veldt-bred eyes could see that which was still obscured from the white man. "Near, near!" he whispered in the captain's ear. Harvey raised both his hands above his head. Silently, but with the agility of cats, the four lean Colonials followed him. Six paces on, and under the shelter of a rock appear the forms of two men, asleep, and rolled in their blankets. It is not necessary to describe what followed. A leap forward by four lithe figures with shortened arms, a sinuous flash of steel, a sickening thud and gurgle, one choking wail, and all was over, and two farmer-soldiers had paid the extreme penalty for the betrayal of the trust their comrades had placed in them!
Five minutes for breathing-space. Then the little line was reformed diagonally along the table-top of the ridge. Half the game had been won. It now remained to complete the coup. If the unexpected did not happen, there was no reason why the farmhouse should not be surrounded by daybreak. But in war it is the unexpected which does happen. Slowly the thirty men worked along the plateau towards the point of the ridge. Two-thirds had been traversed, when suddenly two figures appeared against the eastern sky.
"Reliefs for the picket,—d——n!" muttered the Rimington captain, and as the truth flashed upon him came the challenge in Dutch—
"Follow me, Rimington's!" and the nearest men joined their captain in a dash to reach the men. But it was too late. Up came the Mausers. Two wild shots, and the relief had turned and was rushing down the hill towards the farm. If it had been day, all might have yet been saved by pace. But in night operations you cannot take these risks, especially when only one man in the force knows the exact position of the objective. Harvey rallied his men on the ridge, and even before he could place them in position, Mausers were popping from below, disclosing the kraals and outhouses of the farm.
"We must stop up here till daybreak. They will be gone before that. Well, there will be no surprise of Hertzog at Houwater to-day, all through a turn of rank bad luck!" and the Rimington captain commenced to fill his pipe, for his long abstinence from tobacco-smoke by reason of the night-march had been his particular grievance since the column had left Britstown.