Chapter Twenty Three.“Onward they ply—in Dreadful Race.”The Kafirs, with their spoil, had disappeared, and on the pursuers gaining the ridge, there seemed, as Hoste had suggested, a pretty good chance of losing them altogether; for the mere depression of the ground down which they were racing, narrowed and deepened into a long, winding valley, thickly overgrown with mimosa bushes and tall grass. The marauders could now be seen straining every nerve to gain this—with their booty, if possible—if not, without it. Every shouted summons to them to stand or be shot seemed only to have the effect of causing them to redouble their efforts—winding in and out among the grass and thorn-bushes with the rapidity of serpents.The pursuers were gaining. Rough and tangled as the ground now became, the speed of horses was bound to tell in the race. A few moments more and the spoil would be theirs. Suddenly, but very quietly, Eustace said:“I say, you fellows—don’t look round, but—turn your horses’ heads and ride like the devil! We are in a trap!”The amazed, the startled look that came upon the faces of those three would have been entertaining in the extreme, but for the seriousness of the occasion. However, they were men accustomed to critical situations. Accordingly, they slackened, as directed, and suddenly headed round their horses as if they had decided to abandon the pursuit.Not a minute too soon had come Eustace’s discovery and warning. Like the passing movement of a sudden gust, the grass and bushes rustled and waved, as a long line of ambushed savages sprang up on either side, and with a wild and deafening yell charged forward upon the thoroughly disconcerted and now sadly demoralised four.The Kafirs had been lying hidden in horseshoe formation. Had our friends advanced a hundred yards further their doom would have been
“Eanswyth—my darling—my love! Did you come to meet me?”“O Eustace! I had begun to think you were never coming back to me! Ah, you little know what I have gone through. Dear one, I never knew till now how my very life was wrapped up in you!” she gasped, her voice thrilling with a very volcano of tenderness and passion as she clung to him, returning his kisses again and again, as if she could never let him go.She did not look unhappy and worn now. Her eyes shone with the light of love—the beautiful lips wreathed into smiles—her whole face was transfigured with her great happiness.“Dear love, you have grown more beautiful than ever; and all for me,” he murmured in that peculiar tone of his which bound her to him with a magnetic force that was almost intoxicating. “It is all for me—isn’t it?”“Yes,” she answered without hesitation; looking him straightly, fearlessly in the eyes. Heaven help her!“And yet you doubted me!”“Eustace, darling, why did you never write to me? At least, why did you only write in that ordinary, formal and matter-of-fact way?”“Because it would have been the height of insanity, under existing circumstances, to have done otherwise. And so you doubted me? You thought that I had only been playing with you? Or that even otherwise I had only to be away from you two or three weeks and I could forget?”His tone, low and quiet, was just tinged with reproach. But it contained a subtle consciousness of power. And to her ears it sounded inexpressibly sweet, for it was this very sense of power that constituted the magnetism which drew her to him.“Yes, I will confess. I did think that,” she answered. “I can hide nothing from you. You have read my thoughts exactly. Ah, my own—my own! What have I not gone through! But you are with me again. Life seems too good altogether.”“It was our first parting, and a longish one,” he said musingly as he walked beside her towards the settlement—his horse, with the bridle over its neck, following behind with the docility of a dog. “It was good for both of us, Eanswyth, my life. Now, do you think it was exactly delightful to me.”“N-no,” she replied plaintively, pressing to her side the arm which he had passed through hers as they walked. “Though, of late, I haven’t known what to think.”“They will know what to think if you go on looking so ridiculously happy,” he said meaningly. “The gossip-loving soul of mother Hoste will be mighty quick at putting two and two together. And then?”“And then? And then—I don’t care—I’ve got you again,” she answered with a gleeful laugh. “You—do you hear? You—you—you.”He looked rather grave. A struggle seemed to be going on withinhim.“But you won’t have me very long, my dear one. I am on my way to the front. In fact, I start this very night. I, and Hoste, and Payne.”No fear of her too happy look betraying her now. It faded from her eyes like the sunlight from the surface of a pool when the black thunder-cloud sweeps over it. It gave place to a stricken, despairing expression, which went to his heart.“You have come back to me only to leave me again? O Eustace— Eustace! I am a very wicked woman, and this is my punishment. But how can I bear it!”Then he calmed her. Strong as he was, his voice shook a little as he reasoned with her, pointing out how this course was in every way the best. He could not remain away down in the Colony, he said, and he had absolutely no pretext for staying on at Komgha. Besides, in a small, crowded and gossipy place, it would be downright madness to attempt it. Their secret would be common property in a day. He was too restless
and unhappy away from her, and at present it was impossible to remain near her. The chances and excitement of the campaign offered the only way out of it. After that, brighter times were in store—brighter times, perhaps, than they dared dream of.He calmed her—by the force of his reasoning—by the very magnetism of his influence; most of all, perhaps, by the power and certainty of his love. Never again could she doubt this—never—come what might. And she was to that extent happy amid her grief.Though they were at all times the best of friends, the welcome Eustace met with at the hands of Mrs Hoste on this occasion was of doubtful cordiality. And the reason for this was twofold. First, the fact of his arrival in company with Eanswyth went to confirm her rapidly developing suspicions. Of course, it was a preconcerted arrangement. Narrowly, she scrutinised the pair, and failed not to discern traces of agitation and anxiety in the demeanour and appearance of, at any rate, one of them. Then, again, she had just learned, to her dismay, the intention of her husband to proceed to the front in a few hours. With this defection she did not hesitate to connect Eustace, and she was right. Wherefore, she regarded him as a treacherous friend at best and scrupled not to tell him as much.“It’s all very well for you, Mr Milne,” she said. “You have only got yourself to please. But others haven’t, and you ought to have more sense than to aid and abet a couple of responsible fathers of families like Mr Payne there and my stupid husband in any such folly.”“Ought he?” guffawed the stupid husband aforesaid, from another room where he was cleaning a gun. “But I say, Ada? How is he to get to the front by himself? It wouldn’t be altogether safe. So, you see, he’s absolutely dependent on our escort. Eh, Payne?”“Ja,” replied that worthy, laconically.“You should be more patriotic, Mrs Hoste,” murmured Eustace. “You see, you give us precious poor encouragement to die for our country— which process is defined by the poet as a sweet and decorous one.”“Die for your fiddlestick!” was the half-laughing, half-angry reply. “But, as I said before, it’s all very well for you. Nobody is dependent on you. Nobody cares what becomes of you.”Did they not? There was one in that room to whom his safety was dearer than a hundred lives, whose heart was well-nigh bursting with unspoken agony at the prospect of the parting which was drawing so near—that parting which should send him forth for weeks, for months perhaps, with peril and privation for daily companions. Yet she must keep up appearances—must maintain a smooth and untroubled aspect. Nobody cared for him!The three men were to start an hour before midnight, and with two more whom they were to meet just outside the settlement, reckoned themselves strong enough to cross the hostile ground in comparative safety—reckoning rather on evading the enemy than on meeting him in battle with such small numbers. And this would be easier, for the Gcaléka country had been swept from end to end and its inhabitants driven beyond the Bashi—for a time. In which process the Kaffrarian Rangers had gallantly borne their part.As the hour for starting drew near, prodigious was the fussiness displayed by Hoste over the preparations. He couldn’t find this, and he couldn’t find that—he wanted this done and that done—in short made himself a signal nuisance. Now all this was done in accordance with a crafty idea of Payne’s. “The women will be bound to turn on the waterworks. Therefore, give them plenty to do. Fuss them out of their very lives so that they won’t have time so much as to think of snivelling— until we’re gone, and then it won’t matter,” had enjoined that unprincipled philosopher—who had sent his own family down to King Williamstown some days previously.“Do you mind taking a quarter of an hour’s stroll, Eanswyth?” said Eustace in his most matter-of-fact way, shortly before they were due to start. “You see, neither Tom nor I can tell how long we may be away, and there are two or three things in connection with our joint possessions which I should like to discuss with you.”Eanswyth’s heart gave a bound. The time of parting was drawing very near, and it seemed as if no opportunity would be offered them of seeing each other alone; that their farewell must be made, even as that other farewell, in the presence of half a dozen people. But his readiness of resource had hit upon a way, while she, all unnerved as she was, could think of nothing.It was a lovely night. The thin sickle of a new moon hung in the heavens, and the zenith was ablaze with stars. Behind, the lights of the village, the sound of voices and laughter; in front, the darkness of the silent veldt. Far away against the blackness of the hills glowed forth a red fire.Thus they stood—alone—and the time seemed all too short. Thus they stood—alone beneath the stars, and heart was opened to heart in the terrible poignancy of that parting hour.“Oh, my darling, what if I were never to see you again! What if you were never to come back to me!” burst forth Eanswyth in a wail of anguish. “You are going into all kinds of danger, but oh, my loved one, think of me through it all—think of me if you are tempted to do anything foolhardy. My heart is almost broken at parting with you like this. Anything —anything more, would break it quite.”“I wish to Heaven mere danger was the only thing we had to trouble about,” he said, rather bitterly. “But let this cheer you, my sweet—cheer us both. You doubted me before—you cannot again. We are both so strong in each other’s love that beside such a possession the whole world is a trifle. And better and brighter times may be—must be, before us—”“Hallo, Milne,” shouted the voice of Hoste in the distance. “Where are you, man? Time’s up!”Both started—in each other’s embrace—at this horribly jarring and unwelcome reminder. “The fellow needn’t bawl like all the bulls of Bashan, confound him!” muttered Eustace with a frown.
“Eustace—dearest—must we really part now?” she murmured in a broken sob, clinging to him more closely. “First of all, take this,” slipping a small, flat, oblong packet into his hand. “Open it—read it—when you are on your way. I got it ready, thinking we should have no opportunity of being alone together again. And now, love—dear, dear love—good-bye. Heaven bless you—no, I must not say that, I am too wicked. It would be of no avail coming from me—”“I say, Milne! Are you coming along with us or are you not?” roared Hoste again from his front door. “Because if not, just kindly say so.”“You are under no precise necessity to cause the dead to rise, are you, Hoste?” said Eustace tranquilly, a couple of minutes later, as they stepped within the light of the windows. “Because, if you had whispered I should have heard you just as well. As it is, you have about woke up the whole of British Kaffraria, and we shall have the sentries opening fire upon the veldt at large in a minute. There—there goes the Police bugle already.”“Don’t care a hang. We are waiting to start. Here come the horses. Now—Good-bye, everyone, and hurrah for old Kreli!”A couple of native stable-hands appeared, leading three horses, saddled and bridled. Then there was a good deal of tumultuous leave-taking between Hoste and his family circle, mingled with sniffling and handkerchiefs, and of quieter farewells as concerned the rest of the party. But the torn heart of one in that group suffered in silence. Eanswyth’s sweet, proud face was marvellously self-possessed.“Extraordinary creatures, women,” said Payne, as the three men rode out of the settlement. “I believe they positively enjoy the fun of a good snivel. It’s just the same with my own crowd. When I left home I was obliged to send a note by a boy to say ‘ta-ta’ to escape it all, don’t you know.”Hoste guffawed. It was just the sort of thing that George Payne, philosopher and cynic, would do.“Some few of them are sensible, though,” went on the latter, flaring up a vesuvian to light his pipe. “Mrs Carhayes, for instance. She don’t make any fuss, or turn on the hose. Takes things as they come—as a rational person should.”Hoste guffawed again.“Now, George, who the very deuce should she make a fuss over or turn on the hose for?” he said. “You or me, for instance. Eh?”“N-no, I suppose not. Milne, perhaps. He’s a sort of brother or cousin or something, isn’t he?”If Eustace had felt disposed to resent this kind of free-and-easiness he forebore, and that for two reasons. He liked the speaker, who, withal, was something of an original, and therefore a privileged person, and again the very carelessness of the remark of either man showed that no suspicion as to his secret had found place in their minds—a matter as to which he had not been without a misgiving a few minutes back.On opening the packet which Eanswyth had put into his hand at parting, Eustace found it to consist of a little antique silver tobacco-box, beautifully chased. This contained a photograph of herself, and a letter; the last a short, hurriedly penned note, which, perused there alone, with all the desolation of the recent parting fresh upon him, was effectual to thrill his heart to the very core.“And now,” it ended—“And now, oh, my precious one, good-bye—I dare not say ‘God bless you.’ Coming from me it would entail a curse rather than a blessing. I am too wicked. Yet, is our love so wicked? Could it be so divinely, so beautifully sweet if it were? Ah, I neither know nor care. I only know that were anything to befall you—were you never to come back to me—my heart would be broken. Yes, broken. And yet, it would be only just that I should suffer through you. Good-bye, my dearest one—my only love. We may not meet again alone before you start, but I want you, in all your dangers and hardships, to have always with you these poor little lines, coming, as they do, warm from my hand and heart —”
The writing broke off abruptly and there were signs that more than one tear had fallen upon the silent, but oh, so eloquent paper.Chapter Seventeen.In the Enemy’s Country.“Hi, Hoste, Eustace! Tumble up! We are to start in half an hour.”It is dark as Erebus—dark as it can only be an hour or so before daybreak. The camp-fires have long since gone out and it is raining heavily. The speaker, stooping down, puts his head into a patrol tent wherein two sleepers lie, packed like sardines.A responsive grunt or two and Hoste replies without moving.“Bosh! None of your larks, Tom. Why, it’s pitch dark, and raining as if some fellow were bombarding the tent with a battery of garden hoses.”“Tom can’t sleep himself, so he won’t let us. Mean of him—to put it mildly,” remarks the other occupant of the tent, with a cavernous yawn.“But it isn’t bosh,” retorts Carhayes testily. “I tell you we are to start in half an hour, so now you know,” and he withdraws, growling something about not standing there jawing to them all day.Orders were orders, and duty was duty. So arousing themselves from their warm lair the two sleepers rubbed their eyes and promptly began to look to their preparations.“By Jove!” remarked Eustace as a big, cold drop hit him on the crown of the head, while two more fell on the blanket he had just cast off. “Now one can solve the riddle as to what becomes of all the played out sieves. They are bought up by Government Contractors for the manufacture of canvas for patrol tents.”“The riddle! Yes. That’s about the appropriate term, as witness the
state of the canvas.”“Oh! A dismal jest and worthy the day and the hour,” rejoined the other, lifting a corner of the sail to peer out. It was still pitch dark and raining as heavily as ever. “We can’t make a fire at any price—that means no coffee. Is there any grog left, Hoste?”“Not a drop.”“H’m! That’s bad. What is there in the way of provender?”“Nothing.”“That’s worse. Gcalékaland, even, is of considerable account in the world’s economy. It is a prime corner of the said orb wherein to learn the art of ‘doing without.’”The two, meanwhile, had been preparing vigorously for their expedition, which was a three days patrol. By the light of a tiny travelling lamp, which Eustace always had with him when possible, guns were carefully examined and rubbed over with an oil-rag; cartridges were unearthed from cunning waterproof wrappers and stowed away in belts and pockets where they would be all-ready for use; and a few more simple preparations—simple because everything was kept in a state of readiness—were made. Then our two friends emerged from the narrow, kennel-like and withal leaky structure which had sheltered them the night through.Except those who were to constitute the patrol, scarcely anybody was astir in the camp of the Kaffrarian Rangers that dark, rainy morning. All who could were enjoying a comfortable sleep warmly rolled up in their blankets, as men who are uncertain of their next night’s rest will do—and the prospect looked cheerless enough as the dawn lightened. A faint streak in the eastern sky was slowly widening, but elsewhere not a break in the clouds, and the continual drip, drip, of the rain, mingled with the subdued tones of the men’s voices, as they adjusted bit and stirrup and strapped their supplies in blanket and holster. Three days’ rations were issued, and with plenty of ammunition, and in high spirits the prevailingnot actually so, which meant that the civil law still held sway and would certainly claim its vindication to the full.For a moment or two the opposing parties stand confronting each other. The white man, seated on his horse, grips the breech of his gun convulsively, and the veins stand out in cords upon his flushed face as he realises his utter powerlessness. The Kafirs, their naked, muscular frames repulsive with red ochre, stand motionless, their savage countenances wreathed in a sneer of hate and defiance. There are scarcely ten yards between them.The train is laid. It only needs the application of a spark to cause a magnificent flare-up. That spark is applied by the tall barbarian who has first spoken.“Au umlúngu!” he cries in his great, sneering tones. “Go away. We have talked enough with you. Am I not Hlangani, a man of the House of Sarili, the Great Chief, and is not the white dog mine? Go away. Suka!” (“Get out.” Usually only employed toward a dog.)Now whether through pure accident—in other words, the “sheer cussedness” of Fate—or whether it imagines that its master’s last word was a command to itself, the white dog at this juncture gets up, and leaving the protecting shadow of its master begins to slink away over the veldt. This and the swaggering insolence of the Kafir is too much for Carhayes. Up goes his piece: there is a flash and a report. The wretched hound sinks in his tracks without even a yelp, and lies feebly kicking his life away, with the blood welling from a great circular wound behind the shoulder. The poor beast has run down his last buck.(Commonly known as Kreli—the paramount chief of all the Xosa tribes.)The train is fired. Like the crouching leopard crawling nearer for a surer spring the great Kafir, with a sudden glide, advances to the horse’s head, and makes a quick clutch at the bridle. Had he succeeded in seizing it, a rapidly followed up blow from the deadly kerrie would have stretched the rider senseless, if not dead, upon the veldt. But the latter is
too quick for him. Jerking back his horse’s head and driving in both spurs, he causes the animal to rear and plunge, thus defeating any attempt on the part of his enemies to drag him from the saddle, as well as widening the distance between himself and them.“Stand back, you curs!” he roars, dropping his piece to a level with the chest of the foremost. “The first who moves another step shall be served the same as that brute of a dog!”But the Kafirs only laugh derisively. They are shrewd enough to know that the civil law is still paramount, and imagine he dare not fire on them. A kerrie hurtles through the air with an ugly “whigge.” Blind with fury, Carhayes discharges his remaining barrel full at the tall savage, who is still advancing towards him, and whose threatening demeanour and formidable aspect seems to warrant even that extreme step in self-defence. The Kafir falls.Surprised, half cowed by this unlooked for contingency, the others pause irresolute. Before they can recover themselves a warning shout, close at hand, creates a diversion which seems likely to throw a new light on the face of affairs.Chapter Two.“You have Struck a Chief.”“Baléka (Run), you dogs!” cried Carhayes, who had taken the opportunity of slipping a couple of fresh cartridges into his gun. “Baléka, or I’ll shoot the lot of you.”He looked as if he meant it, too. The Kafirs, deeming discretion the better part of valour, judged it expedient to temporise.“Don’t shoot again, Baas! (Master.) You have already killed one man!” they said significantly.“And I’ll kill four!” was the infuriated reply. “Baléka, do you hear—quick—sharp—at once, or you’re dead men!”“Don’t do anything so foolish, Tom,” said a voice at his side, and a hand was stretched out as though to arrest the aim of the threatening piece. “For God’s sake, remember. We are not at war—yet.”“That be hanged!” came the rough rejoinder. “Anyway, we’ll give these fellows a royal thrashing. We are two to three—that’s good enough odds. Come along, Eustace, and we’ll lick them within an inch of their lives.”“We’ll do nothing of the sort,” replied the other quietly and firmly. Then, with an anxiety in his face which he could not altogether conceal, he walked his horse over to the prostrate Kafir. But the latter suddenly staggered to his feet. His left shoulder was streaming with blood, and the concussion of the close discharge had stunned him. Even his would-be slayer looked somewhat relieved over this turn which affairs had taken, and for this he had to thank the plunging of his horse, for it is difficult to shoot straight, even point blank, with a restive steed beneath one, let alone the additional handicap of being in a white rage at the time.Of his wound the Kafir took not the smallest notice. He stood contemplating the two white men with a scowl of bitter hatred deepening upon his ochre-besmeared visage. His three countrymen halted irresolute a little distance—a respectful distance, thought Carhayes with a sneer— in the background, as though waiting to see if their assistance should be required. Then he spoke:“Now hear my words, you whom the people call Umlilwane. I know you, even though you do not know me—better for you if you did, for then you would not have wounded the sleeping lion, nor have aroused the anger of the hooded snake, who is swift to strike. Ha! I am Hlangani,” he continued, raising his voice to a perfect roar of menace, and his eyes blazed like live coals as he pointed to the shot wounds in his shoulder, now black and hideous with clotted blood. “I am Hlangani, the son of Ngcesiba, a man of the House of Gcaléka. What man living am I afraid of? Behold me here as I stand. Shoot again, Umlilwane—shoot again, if you dare. Hau! Hear my ‘word.’ You have slain my dog—my white
hunting dog, the last of his breed—who can outrun every other hunting dog in the land, even as the wind outstrippeth the crawling ox-wagon, and you have shed my blood, the blood of a chief. You had better first have cut off your right hand, for it is better to lose a hand than one’s mind. This is my ‘word,’ Umlilwane—bear it in memory, for you have struck a chief—a man of the House of Gcaléka.”(Umlilwane: “Little Fire”—Kafirs are fond of bestowing nicknames. This one referred to its bearer’s habitually short temper.)“Damn the House of Gcaléka, anyway,” said Carhayes, with a sneer as the savage, having vented his denunciation, stalked scowlingly away with his compatriots. “Look here, isidenge,” (fool), he continued. “This is my word. Keep clear of me, for the next time you fall foul of me I’ll shoot you dead. And now, Eustace,” turning to his companion, “we had better load up this buck-meat and carry it home. What on earth is the good of my trying to preserve the game, with a whole location of these black scum not ten miles from my door?” he went on, as he placed the carcase of the unfortunate steinbok on the crupper of his horse.“No good. No good, whatever, as I am always telling you,” rejoined the other decisively, “Kafir locations and game can’t exist side by side. Doesn’t it ever strike you, Tom, that this game-preserving mania is costing you—costing us, excessively dear.”“Hang it. I suppose it is,” growled Carhayes. “I’ll clear out, trek to some other part of the country where a fellow isn’t overrun by a lot of worthless, lazy, red Kafirs. I wish to Heaven they’d only start this precious war. I’d take it out of some of their hides. Have some better sport than buck-hunting then, eh?”“Perhaps. But there may be no war after all. Meanwhile you have won the enmity of every Kafir in Nteya’s and Ncanduku’s locations. I wouldn’t give ten pounds for our two hundred pound pair of breeding ostriches, if it meant leaving them here three days from now, that’s all.”“Oh, shut up croaking, Eustace,” snarled Carhayes, “And by the way, who the deuce is this sweep Hlangani, and what is he doing on this sideof the river anyway?”“He’s a Gcaléka, as he said, and a petty chief under Kreli; and the Gaikas on this side are sure to take up his quarrel. I know them.”“H’m. It strikes me you know these black scoundrels rather well, Eustace. What a queer chap you are. Now, I wonder what on earth has made you take such an interest in them of late.”“So do I. I suppose, though, I find them interesting, especially since I have learned to talk with them pretty easily. And they are interesting. On the whole, I like them.”Carhayes made no reply, unless an inarticulate growl could be construed as such, and the two men rode on in silence. They were distant cousins, these two, and as regarded their farming operations, partners. Yet never were two men more utterly dissimilar. Carhayes, the older by a matter of ten years, was just on the wrong side of forty—but his powerfully built frame was as tough and vigorous as in the most energetic days of his youth. He was rather a good looking man, but the firm set of his lips beneath the thick, fair beard, and a certain shortness of the neck, set forth his choleric disposition at first glance. The other was slightly the taller of the two, and while lacking the broad, massive proportions of his cousin, was straight, and well set up. But Eustace Milne’s face would have puzzled the keenest character reader. It was a blank. Not that there was aught of stupidity or woodenness stamped thereon. On the contrary, there were moments when it would light up with a rare attractiveness, but its normal expression was of that impassibility which you may see upon the countenance of a priest or a lawyer of intellect and wide experience, whose vocation involves an intimate and profoundly varied acquaintance with human nature in all its chequered lights and shades; rarely, however, upon that of one so young.From the high ridge on which the two men were riding, the eye could wander at will over the rolling, grassy plains and mimosa-dotted dales of Kaffraria. The pure azure of the heavens was unflecked by a single cloud. The light, balmy air of this early spring day was as invigorating as wine. Far away to the southeast the sweep of undulating grass land