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Far away, sharply cutting the ether, rise the great sterile peaks and ridges. Here a stark, bare wall like a prison which shuts in a city of men forbidden the blithe world of sun and song and freedom; yonder, a giant of a lost world stretched out in stony ease, sleeping on, while over his grey quiet, generations of men pass. First came savage, warring, brown races alien to each other; then following, white races with faces tanned and burnt by the sun, and smothered in unkempt beard and hair--men restless and coarse and brave, and with ancient sins upon them; but with the Bible in their hands and the language of the prophets on their lips; with iron will, with hatred as deep as their race-love is strong; they with their cattle and their herds, and the clacking wagons carrying homes and fortunes, whose women were housewives and warriors too. Coming after these, men of fairer aspect, adventurous, self-willed, intent to make cities in the wilderness; to win open spaces for their kinsmen, who had no room to swing the hammer in the workshops of their far-off northern island homes; or who, having room, stood helpless before the furnaces where the fires had left only the ashes of past energies.
Up there, these mountains which, like Marathon, look on the sea. But lower the gaze from the austere hills, slowly to the plains below. First the grey of the mountains, turning to brown, then the bare bronze rock giving way to a tumbled wilderness of boulders, where lizards lie in the sun, where the meerkat startles the gazelle. Then the bronze merging into a green so deep and strong that it resembles a blanket spread upon the uplands, but broken by kopjes, shelterless and lonely, rising here and there like watch-towers. After that, below and still below, the flat and staring plain, through which runs an ugly rift turning and twisting like a snake, and moving on and on, till lost in the arc of other hills away to the east and the south: a river in the waste, but still only a muddy current stealing between banks baked and sterile, a sinister stream, giving life to the veld, as some gloomy giver of good gifts would pay a debt of atonement.
On certain Dark Days of 1899-1900, if you had watched these turgid waters flow by, your eyes would have seen tinges of red like blood; and following the stain of red, gashed lifeless things, which had been torn from the ranks of sentient beings.
Whereupon, lifting your eyes from the river, you would have seen the answer to your question--masses of men mounted and unmounted, who moved, or halted, or stood like an animal with a thousand legs controlled by one mind. Or again you would have observed those myriad masses plunging across the veld, still in cohering masses, which shook and broke and scattered, regathering again, as though drawn by a magnet, but leaving stark remnants in their wake.
Great columns of troops which had crossed the river and pushed on into a zone of fierce fire, turn and struggle back again across the stream; other thousands of men, who had not crossed, succour their wounded, and retreat steadily, bitterly to places of safety, the victims of blunders from which come the bloody punishment of valour.
Beyond the grey mountains were British men and women waiting for succour from forces which poured death in upon them from the malevolent kopjes, for relief from the ravages of disease and hunger. They waited in a straggling town of the open plain circled by threatening hills, where the threat became a blow, and the blow was multiplied a million times. Gaunt, fighting men sought to appease the craving of starvation by the boiled carcasses of old horses; in caves and dug-outs, feeble women, with undying courage, kept alive the flickering fires of life in their children; and they smiled to cheer the tireless, emaciated warriors who went out to meet death, or with a superior yet careful courage stayed to receive or escape it.
When night came, across the hills and far away in the deep blue, white shaking streams of light poured upward, telling the besieged forces over there at Lordkop that rescue would come, that it was moving on to the mountain. How many times had this light in the sky flashed the same grave pledge in the mystic code of the heliograph, "We are gaining ground--we will reach you soon." How many times, however, had the message also been, "Not yet--but soon."
Men died in this great camp from wounds and from fever, and others went mad almost from sheer despair; yet whenever the Master Player called, they sprang to their places with a new-born belief that he who had been so successful in so many long-past battles would be right in the end with his old rightness, though he had been wrong so often on the Dreitval.
Others there were who were sick of the world and wished "to be well out of it"--as they said to themselves. Some had been cruelly injured, and desire of life was dead in them; others had given injury, and remorse had slain peace. Others still there were who, having done evil all their lives, knew that they could not retrace their steps, and yet shrank from a continuance of the old bad things.
Some indeed, in the red futile sacrifice, had found what they came to find; but some still were left whose recklessness did not avail. Comrades fell beside them, but, unscathed, they went on fighting. Injured men were carried in hundreds to the hospitals, but no wounds brought them low. Bullets were sprayed around them, but none did its work for them. Shells burst near, yet no savage shard mutilated their bodies.
Of these was Ian Stafford.
Three times he had been in the fore-front of the fight where Death came sweeping down the veld like rain, but It passed him by. Horses and men fell round his guns, yet he remained uninjured.
He was patient. If Death would not hasten to meet him, he would wait. Meanwhile, he would work while he could, but with no thought beyond the day, no vision of the morrow.
He was one of the machines of war. He was close to his General, he was the beloved of his men, still he was the man with no future; though he studied the campaign with that thoroughness which had marked his last years in diplomacy.
He was much among his own wounded, much with others who were comforted by his solicitude, by the courage of his eye, and the grasp of his firm, friendly hand. It was at what the soldiers called the Stay Awhile Hospital that he came in living touch again with the life he had left behind.
He knew that Rudyard Byng had come to South Africa; but he knew no more. He knew that Jasmine had, with Lady Tynemouth, purchased a ship and turned it into a hospital at a day's notice; but as to whether these two had really come to South Africa, and harboured at the Cape, or Durban, he had no knowledge. He never looked at the English newspapers which arrived at Dreitval River. He was done with that old world in which he once worked; he was concerned only for this narrow field where an Empire's fate was being solved.
Night, the dearest friend of the soldier, had settled on the veld. A thousand fires were burning, and there were no sounds save the murmuring voices of myriads of men, and the stamp of hoofs where the Cavalry and Mounted Infantry horses were picketed. Food and fire, the priceless comfort of a blanket on the ground, and a saddle or kit for a pillow gave men compensation for all the hardships and dangers of the day; and they gave little thought to the morrow.
The soldier lives in the present. His rifle, his horse, his boots, his blanket, the commissariat, a dry bit of ground to sleep on--these are the things which occupy his mind. His heroism is incidental, the commonplace impulse of the moment. He does things because they are there to do, not because some great passion, some exaltation, seizes him. His is the real simple life. So it suddenly seemed to Stafford as he left his tent, after he had himself inspected every man and every horse in his battery that lived through the day of death, and made his way towards the Stay Awhile Hospital.
"This is the true thing," he said to himself as he gazed at the wide camp. He turned his face here and there in the starlight, and saw human life that but now was moving in the crash of great guns, the shrieking of men terribly wounded, the agony of mutilated horses, the bursting of shells, the hissing scream of the pom-pom, and the discordant cries of men fighting an impossible fight.
"There is no pretense here," he reflected. "It is life reduced down to the bare elements. There is no room for the superficial thing. It's all business. It's all stark human nature."
At that moment his eye caught one of those white messages of the sky flashing the old bitter promise, "We shall reach you soon." He forgot himself, and a great spirit welled up in him.
"Soon!" The light in the sky shot its message over the hills.
That was it--the present, not the past. Here was work, the one thing left to do.
"And it has to be done," he said aloud, as he walked on swiftly, a spring to his footstep. Presently he mounted and rode away across the veld. Buried in his thoughts, he was only subconsciously aware of what he saw until, after near an hour's riding, he pulled rein at the door of the Stay Awhile Hospital, which was some miles in the rear of the main force.
As he entered, a woman in a nurse's garb passed him swiftly. He scarcely looked at her; he was only conscious that she was in great haste. Her eyes seemed looking at some inner, hidden thing, and, though they glanced at him, appeared not to see him or to realize more than that some one was passing. But suddenly, to both, after they had passed, there came an arrest of attention. There was a consciousness, which had nothing to do with the sight of the eyes, that a familiar presence had gone by. Each turned quickly, and their eyes came back from regarding the things of the imagination, and saw each other face to face. The nurse gave an exclamation of pleasure and ran forward.
Stafford held out a hand. It seemed to him, as he did it, that it stretched across a great black gulf and found another hand in the darkness beyond.
"Al'mah!" he said, in a voice of protest as of companionship.
Of all those he had left behind, this was the one being whom to meet was not disturbing. He wished to encounter no one of that inner circle of his tragic friendship; but he realized that Al'mah had had her tragedy too, and that her suffering could not be less than his own. The same dark factor had shadowed the lives of both. Adrian Fellowes had injured them both through the same woman, had shaken, if not shattered, the fabric of their lives. However much they two were blameworthy, they had been sincere, they had been honourable in their dishonour, they had been "falsely true." They were derelicts of life, with the comradeship of despair as a link between them.
"Al'mah," he said again, gently. Then, with a bitter humour, he added, "You here--I thought you were a prima donna!"
The flicker of a smile crossed her odd, fine, strong face. "This is grand opera," she said. "It is the Nibelungen Ring of England."
"To end in the Twilight of the Gods?" he rejoined with a hopeless kind of smile.
They turned to the outer door of the hospital and stepped into the night. For a moment they stood looking at the great camp far away to right and left, and to the lone mountains yonder, where the Boer commandoes held the passes and trained their merciless armament upon all approaches. Then he said at last: "Why have you come here? You had your work in England."
"What is my work?" she asked.
"To heal the wounded," he answered.
"I am trying to do that," she replied.
"You are trying to heal bodies, but it is a bigger, greater thing to heal the wounded mind."
"I am trying to do that too. It is harder than the other."
"Whose minds are you trying to heal?" he questioned, gently.
"'Physician heal thyself' was the old command, wasn't it? But that is harder still."
"Must one always be a saint to do a saintly thing?" he asked.
"I am not clever," she replied, "and I can't make phrases. But must one always be a sinner to do a wicked thing? Can't a saint do a wicked thing, and a sinner do a good thing without being called the one or the other?"
"I don't think you need apologize for not being able to make phrases. I suppose you'd say there is neither absolute saintliness nor absolute wickedness, but that life is helplessly composite of both, and that black really may be white. You know the old phrase, 'Killing no murder.'"
She seemed to stiffen, and her lips set tightly for a minute; then, as though by a great effort, she laughed bitterly.
"Murder isn't always killing," she replied. "Don't you remember the protest in Macbeth, 'Time was, when the brains were out the man would die'?" Then, with a little quick gesture towards the camp, she added, "When you think of to-day, doesn't it seem that the brains are out, and yet that the man still lives? I'm not a soldier, and this awful slaughter may be the most wonderful tactics, but it's all beyond my little mind."
"Your littleness is not original enough to attract notice," he replied with kindly irony. "There is almost an epidemic of it. Let us hope we shall have an antidote soon."
There was a sudden cry from inside the hospital. Al'mah shut her eyes for a moment, clinched her fingers, and became very pale; then she recovered herself, and turned her face towards the door, as though waiting for some one to come out.
"What is the matter?" he asked. "Some bad case?"
"Yes--very bad," she replied.
"One you've been attending?"
"What arm--the artillery?" he asked with sudden interest.
"Yes, the artillery."
He turned towards the door of the hospital again. "One of my men? What battery? Do you know?"
"Schiller's! A Boer?"
She nodded. "A Boer spy, caught by Boer bullets as he was going back."
"When was that?"
"This morning early."
"The little business at Wortmann's Drift?"
She nodded. "Yes, there."
"I don't quite understand. Was he in our lines--a Boer spy?"
"Yes. But he wore British uniform, he spoke English. He was an Englishman once."
Suddenly she came up close to him, and looked into his face steadily. "I will tell you all," she said scarce above a whisper. "He came to spy, but he came also to see his wife. She had written to ask him not to join the Boers, as he said he meant to do; or, if he had, to leave them and join his own people. He came, but not to join his fellow-countrymen. He came to get money from his wife; and he came to spy."
An illuminating thought shot into Stafford's mind. He remembered something that Byng once told him.
"His wife is a nurse?" he asked in a low tone.
"She is a nurse."
"She knew, then, that he was a spy?" he asked.
"Yes, she knew. I suppose she ought to be tried by court-martial. She did not expose him. She gave him a chance to escape. But he was shot as he tried to reach the Boer lines."
"And was brought back here to his wife--to you! Did he let them"--he nodded towards the hospital--"know he was your husband?"
When she spoke again her voice showed strain, but it did not tremble. "Of course. He would not spare me. He never did. It was always like that."
He caught her hand in his. "You have courage enough for a hundred," he said.
"I have suffered enough for a hundred," she responded.
Again that sharp cry rang out, and again she turned anxiously towards the door.
"I came to South Africa on the chance of helping him in some way," she replied. "It came to me that he might need me."
"You paid the price of his life once to Kruger--after the Raid, I've heard," he said.
"Yes, I owed him that, and as much more as was possible," she responded with a dark, pained look.
"His life is in danger--an operation?" he questioned.
"Yes. There is one chance; but they could not give him an anaesthetic, and they would not let me stay with him. They forced me away--out here." She appeared to listen again. "That was his voice--that crying," she added presently.
"Wouldn't it be better he should go? If he recovers there would only be--"
"Oh yes, to be tried as a spy--a renegade Englishman! But he would rather live in spite of that, if it was only for an hour."
"To love life so much as that--a spy!" Stafford reflected.
"Not so much love of life as fear of--" She stopped short.
"To fear--silence and peace!" he remarked darkly, with a shrug of his shoulders. Then he added: "Tell me, if he does not die, and if--if he is pardoned by any chance, do you mean to live with him again?"
A bitter laugh broke from her. "How do I know? What does any woman know what she will do until the situation is before her! She may mean to do one thing and do the complete opposite. She may mean to hate, and will end by loving. She may mean to kiss and will end by killing. She may kiss and kill too all in one moment, and still not be inconsistent. She would have the logic of a woman. How do I know what I would do--what I will do!"
The door of the hospital opened. A surgeon came out, and seeing Al'mah, moved towards the two. Stafford went forward hurriedly, but Al'mah stood like one transfixed. There was a whispered word, and then Stafford came back to her.
"You will not need to do anything," he said.
"He is gone--like that!" she whispered in an awed voice. "Death, death--so many die!" She shuddered.
Stafford passed her arm through his, and drew her towards the door of the hospital.
A half-hour later Stafford emerged again from the hospital, his head bent in thought. He rode slowly back to his battery, unconscious of the stir of life round him, of the shimmering white messages to the besieged town beyond the hills. He was thinking of the tragedy of the woman he had left tearless and composed beside the bedside of the man who had so vilely used her. He was reflecting how her life, and his own, and the lives of at least three others, were so tangled together that what twisted the existence of one disturbed all. In one sense the woman he had just left in the hospital was nothing to him, and yet now she seemed to be the only living person to whom he was drawn.
He remembered the story he had once heard in Vienna of a man and a woman who both had suffered betrayal, who both had no longer a single illusion left, who had no love for each other at all, in whom indeed love was dead--a mangled murdered thing; and yet who went away to Corfu together, and there at length found a pathway out of despair in the depths of the sea. Between these two there had never been even the faint shadow of romance or passion; but in the terrible mystery of pain and humiliation, they had drawn together to help each other, through a breach of all social law, in pity of each other. He apprehended the real meaning of the story when Vienna was alive with it, but he understood far, far better now.
A pity as deep as any feeling he had ever known had come to him as he stood with Al'mah beside the bed of her dead renegade man; and it seemed to him that they two also might well bury themselves in the desert together, and minister to each other's despair. It was only the swift thought of a moment, which faded even as it saw the light; but it had its origin in that last flickering sense of human companionship which dies in the atmosphere of despair. "Every man must live his dark hours alone," a broken-down actor once said to Stafford as he tried to cheer him when the last thing he cared for had been taken from him--his old, faded, misshapen wife; when no faces sent warm glances to him across the garish lights. "It is no use," this Roscius had said, "every man must live his dark hours alone."
That very evening, after the battle of the Dreitval, Jigger, Stafford's trumpeter, had said a thing to him which had struck a chord that rang in empty chambers of his being. He had found Jigger sitting disconsolate beside a gun, which was yet grimy and piteous with the blood of men who had served it, and he asked the lad what his trouble was.
In reply Jigger had said, "When it 'it 'm 'e curled up like a bit o' shaving. An' when I done what I could 'e says, 'It's a speshul for one now, an' it's lonely goin',' 'e says. When I give 'im a drink 'e says, 'It 'd do me more good later, little 'un'; an' 'e never said no more except, 'One at a time is the order--only one.'"
Not even his supper had lifted the cloud from Jigger's face, and Stafford had left the lad trying to compose a letter to the mother of the dead man, who had been an especial favourite with the trumpeter from the slums.
Stafford was roused from his reflections by the grinding, rumbling sound of a train. He turned his face towards the railway line.
"A troop-train--more food for the dragons," he said to himself. He could not see the train itself, but he could see the head-light of the locomotive, and he could hear its travail as it climbed slowly the last incline to the camp.
"Who comes there!" he said aloud, and in his mind there swept a premonition that the old life was finding him out, that its invisible forces were converging upon him. But did it matter? He knew in his soul that he was now doing the right thing, that he had come out in the open where all the archers of penalty had a fair target for their arrows. He wished to be "Free among the dead that are wounded and that lie in the grave and are out of remembrance;" but he would do no more to make it so than tens of thousands of other men were doing on these battle-fields.
"Who comes there!" he said again, his eyes upon the white, round light in the distance, and he stood still to try and make out the black, winding, groaning thing.
Presently he heard quick footsteps.
A small, alert figure stopped short, a small, abrupt hand saluted. "The General Commanding 'as sent for you, sir."
It was trumpeter Jigger of the Artillery.
"Are you the General's orderly, then?" asked Stafford quizzically.
"The orderly's gone w'ere 'e thought 'e'd find you, and I've come w'ere I know'd you'd be, sir."
"Where did he think he'd find me?"
"Wiv the 'osses, sir."
A look of gratification crossed Stafford's face. He was well known in the army as one who looked after his horses and his men. "And what made you think I was at the hospital, Jigger?"
"Becos you'd been to the 'osses, sir."
"Did you tell the General's orderly that?"
"No, your gryce--no, sir," he added quickly, and a flush of self-reproach came to his face, for he prided himself on being a real disciplinarian, a disciple of the correct thing. "I thought I'd like 'im to see our 'osses, an' 'ow you done 'em, an' I'd find you as quick as 'e could, wiv a bit to the good p'r'aps."
Stafford smiled. "Off you go, then. Find that orderly. Say, Colonel Stafford's compliments to the General Commanding and he will report himself at once. See that you get it straight, trumpeter."
Jigger would rather die than not get it straight, and his salute made that quite plain.
"It's made a man of him, anyhow," Stafford said to himself, as he watched the swiftly disappearing figure. "He's as straight as a nail, body and mind--poor little devil.... How far away it all seems!"
A quarter of an hour later he was standing beside the troop-train which he had seen labouring to its goal. It was carrying the old regiment of the General Officer Commanding, who had sent Stafford to its Colonel with an important message. As the two officers stood together watching the troops detrain and make order out of the chaos of baggage and equipment, Stafford's attention was drawn to a woman some little distance away, giving directions about her impedimenta.
"Who is the lady?" he asked, while in his mind was a sensible stir of recognition.
"Ah, there's something like the real thing!" his companion replied. "She is doing a capital bit of work. She and Lady Tynemouth have got a hospital-ship down at Durban. She's come to link it up better with the camp. It's Rudyard Byng's wife. They're both at it out here."
"Who comes there!" Stafford had exclaimed a moment before with a sense of premonition.
Jasmine had come.
He drew back in the shadow as she turned round towards them.
"To the Stay Awhile--right!" he heard a private say in response to her directions.
He saw her face, but not clearly. He had glimpse of a Jasmine not so daintily pretty as of old, not so much of a dresden-china shepherdess; but with the face of a woman who, watching the world with understanding eyes, and living with an understanding heart, had taken on something of the mysterious depths of the Life behind life. It was only a glimpse he had, but it was enough. It was more than enough.
"Where is Byng?" he asked his fellow-officer.
"He's been up there with Tain's Brigade for a fortnight. He was in Kimberley, but got out before the investment, went to Cape Town, and came round here--to be near his wife, I suppose."
"He is soldiering, then?"
"He was a Colonel in the Rand Rifles once. He's with the South African Horse now in command of the regiment attached to Tain. Tain's out of your beat--away on the right flank there."
Presently Stafford saw Jasmine look in their direction; then, on seeing Stafford's companion, came forward hastily. The Colonel left Stafford and went to meet her.
A moment afterwards, she turned and looked at Stafford. Her face was now deadly pale, but it showed no agitation. She was in the light of an electric lamp, and he was in the shadow. For one second only she gazed at him, then she turned and moved away to the cape-cart awaiting her. The Colonel saw her in, then returned to Stafford.
"Why didn't you come and be introduced?" the Colonel asked. "I told her who you were."
"Hospital-ships are not in my line," Stafford answered casually. "Women and war don't go together."
"She's a nurse, she's not a woman," was the paradoxical reply.
"She knows Byng is here?"
"I suppose so. It looks like a clever bit of strategy--junction of forces. There's a lot of women at home would like the chance she has--at a little less cost."
"What is the cost?"
"Well, that ship didn't cost less than a hundred thousand pounds."
"Is that all?"
The Colonel looked at Stafford in surprise: but Stafford was not thinking of the coin.
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