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When Rudyard flung himself on the grey mare outside Jasmine's window at the Stay Awhile Hospital, and touched her flank with his heel, his heart was heavy with passion, his face hard with humiliation and defeat. He had held out the hand of reconciliation, and she had met it with scorn. He had smothered his resentment, and let the light of peace in upon their troubles, and she had ruthlessly drawn a black curtain between them. He was going upon as dangerous a task as could be set a soldier, from which he might never return, and she had not even said a God-be-with-you--she who had lain in his bosom, been so near, so dear, so cherished:
"For Time and Change estrange, estrange--
And, now they have looked and seen us,
Oh, we that were dear, we are all too near,
With the thick of the world between us!"
How odd it seemed that two beings who had been all in all to each other, who in the prime of their love would have died of protesting shame, if they had been told that they would change towards each other, should come to a day when they would be less to each other than strangers, less and colder and farther off! It is because some cannot bear this desecration of ideals, this intolerable loss of life's assets, that they cling on and on, long after respect and love have gone, after hope is dead.
There had been times in the past few months when such thoughts as these vaguely possessed Rudyard's mind; but he could never, would never, feel that all was over, that the book of Jasmine's life was closed to him; not even when his whole nature was up in arms against the injury she had done him.
But now, as the grey mare reached out to achieve the ground his troopers had covered before him, his brain was in a storm of feeling. After all, what harm had he done her, that he should be treated so? Was he the sinner? Why should he make the eternal concession? Why should he be made to seem the one needing forgiveness? He did not know why. But at the bottom of everything lay a something--a yearning--which would not be overwhelmed. In spite of wrong and injury, it would live on and on; and neither Time nor crime, nor anything mortal could obliterate it from his heart's oracles.
The hoofs of the grey mare fell like the soft thud of a hammer in the sand, regular and precise. Presently the sound and the motion lulled his senses. The rage and humiliation grew less, his face cooled. His head, which had been bent, lifted and his face turned upwards to the stars. The influence of an African night was on him. None that has not felt it can understand it so cold, so sweet, so full of sleep, so stirring with an underlife. Many have known the breath of the pampas beyond the Amazon; the soft pungency of the wattle blown across the salt-bush plains of Australia; the friendly exhilaration of the prairie or the chaparral; the living, loving loneliness of the desert; but yonder on the veld is a life of the night which possesses all the others have, and something of its own besides; something which gets into the bones and makes for forgetfulness of the world. It lifts a man away from the fret of life, and sets his feet on the heights where lies repose.
The peace of the stars crept softly into Rudyard's heart as he galloped gently on to overtake his men. His pulses beat slowly once again, his mind regained its poise. He regretted the oath he uttered, as he left Jasmine; he asked himself if, after all, everything was over and done.
How good the night suddenly seemed! No, it was not all over--unless, unless, indeed, in this fight coming on with the daybreak, Fate should settle it all by doing with him as it had done with so many thousands of others in this war. But even then, would it be all over? He was a primitive man, and he raised his face once more to the heavens. He was no longer the ample millionaire, sitting among the flesh-pots; he was a lean, simple soldier eating his biscuit as though it were the product of the chef of the Cafe Voisin; he was the fighter sleeping in a blanket in the open; he was a patriot after his kind; he was the friend of his race and the lover of one woman.
Now he drew rein. His regiment was just ahead. Daybreak was not far off, and they were near the enemy's position. In a little while, if they were not surprised, they would complete a movement, take a hill, turn the flank of the foe, and, if designed supports came up, have the Boers at a deadly disadvantage. Not far off to the left of him and his mounted infantry there were coming on for this purpose two batteries of artillery and three thousand infantry--Leary's brigade, which had not been in the action the day before at Wortmann's Drift.
But all depended on what he was able to do, what he and his hard-bitten South Africans could accomplish. Well, he had no doubt. War was part chance, part common sense, part the pluck and luck of the devil. He had ever been a gambler in the way of taking chances; he had always possessed ballast even when the London life had enervated, had depressed him; and to men of his stamp pluck is a commonplace: it belongs as eyes and hands and feet belong.
Dawn was not far away, and before daybreak he must have the hill which was the key to the whole position, which commanded the left flank of the foe. An hour or so after he got it, if the artillery and infantry did their portion, a great day's work would be done for England; and the way to the relief of the garrison beyond the mountains would be open. The chance to do this thing was the reward he received for his gallant and very useful fight at Wortmann's Drift twenty-four hours before. It would not do to fail in justifying the choice of the Master Player, who had had enough bad luck in the campaign so far.
The first of his force to salute him in the darkness was his next in command, Barry Whalen. They had been together in the old Rand Rifles, and had, in the words of the Kaffir, been as near as the flea to the blanket, since the day when Rudyard discovered that Barry Whalen was on the same ship bound for the seat of war. They were not youngsters, either of them; but they had the spring of youth in them, and a deep basis of strength and force; and they knew the veld and the veld people. There was no trick of the veldschoen copper for which they were not ready; and for any device of Kruger's lambs they were prepared to go one better. As Barry Whalen had said, "They'll have to get up early in the morning if they want to catch us."
This morning the Boers would not get up early enough; for Rudyard's command had already reached the position from which they could do their work with good chances in their favour; and there had been no sign of life from the Boer trenches in the dusk--naught of what chanced at Magersfontein. Not a shot had been fired, and there would certainly have been firing if the Boer had known; for he could not allow the Rooinek to get to the point where his own position would be threatened or commanded. When Kruger's men did discover the truth, there would be fighting as stiff as had been seen in this struggle for half a continent.
"Is it all right?" whispered Rudyard, as Barry Whalen drew up by him.
"Not a sound from them--not a sign."
"Their trenches should not be more than a few hundred yards on, eh?"
"Their nearest trenches are about that. We are just on the left of Hetmeyer's Kopje."
"Good. Let Glossop occupy the kopje with his squadrons, while we take the trenches. If we can force them back on their second line of trenches, and keep them there till our supports come up, we shall be all right."
"When shall we begin, sir?" asked Barry.
"Give orders to dismount now. Get the horses in the lee of the kopje, and we'll see what Brother Boer thinks of us after breakfast."
Rudyard took out a repeating-watch, and held it in his closed palm. As it struck, he noted the time.
His words were abrupt but composed. "Ten minutes more and we shall have the first streak of dawn. Then move. We shall be on them before they know it."
Barry Whalen made to leave, then turned back. Rudyard understood. They clasped hands. It was the grip of men who knew each other--knew each other's faults and weaknesses, yet trusted with a trust which neither disaster nor death could destroy.
"My girl--if anything happens to me," Barry said.
"You may be sure--as if she were my own," was Rudyard's reply. "If I go down, find my wife at the Stay Awhile Hospital. Tell her that the day I married her was the happiest day of my life, and that what I said then I thought at the last. Everything else is straightened out--and I'll not forget your girl, Barry. She shall be as my own if things should happen that way."
"God bless you, old man," whispered Barry. "Goodbye." Then he recovered himself and saluted. "Is that all, sir?"
"Au revoir, Barry," came the answer; then a formal return of the salute. "That is all," he added brusquely.
They moved forward to the regiment, and the word to dismount was given softly. When the forces crept forward again, it was as infantrymen, moving five paces apart, and feeling their way up to the Boer trenches.
Dawn. The faintest light on the horizon, as it were a soft, grey glimmer showing through a dark curtain. It rises and spreads slowly, till the curtain of night becomes the veil of morning, white and kind. Then the living world begins to move. Presently the face of the sun shines through the veil, and men's bodies grow warm with active being, and the world stirs with busy life. On the veld, with the first delicate glow, the head of a meerkat, or a springbok, is raised above the gray-brown grass; herds of cattle move uneasily. Then a bird takes flight across the whitening air, another, and then another; the meerkat sits up and begs breakfast of the sun; lizards creep out upon the stones; a snake slides along obscenely foraging. Presently man and beast and all wild things are afoot or a-wing, as though the world was new-created; as though there had never been any mornings before, and this was not the monotonous repetition of a million mornings, when all things living begin the world afresh.
But nowhere seems the world so young and fresh and glad as on the sun-warmed veld. Nowhere do the wild roses seem so pure, or are the aloes so jaunty and so gay. The smell of the karoo bush is sweeter than attar, and the bog-myrtle and mimosa, where they shelter a house or fringe a river, have a look of Arcady. It is a world where any mysterious thing may happen--a world of five thousand years ago--the air so light, so sweetly searching and vibrating, that Ariel would seem of the picture, and gleaming hosts of mailed men, or vast colonies of green-clad archers moving to virgin woods might belong. Something frightens the timid spirit of a springbok, and his flight through the grass is like a phrase of music on a wilful adventure; a bird hears the sighing of the breeze in the mimosa leaves or the swaying shrubs, and in disdain of such slight performance flings out a song which makes the air drunken with sweetness.
A world of light, of commendable trees, of grey grass flecked with flowers, of life having the supreme sense of a freedom which has known no check. It is a life which cities have not spoiled, and where man is still in touch with the primeval friends of man; where the wildest beast and the newest babe of a woman have something in common.
Drink your fill of the sweet intoxicating air with eyes shut till the lungs are full and the heart beats with new fulness; then open them upon the wide sunrise and scan the veld so full of gracious odour. Is it not good and glad? And now face the hills rising nobly away there to the left, the memorable and friendly hills. Is it not--
Upon the morning has crept suddenly a black cloud, although the sun is shining brilliantly. A moment before the dawn all was at peace on the veld and among the kopjes, and only the contented sighing of men and beasts broke the silence, or so it seemed; but with the glimmer of light along the horizon came a change so violent that all the circle of vision was in a quiver of trouble. Affrighted birds, in fluttering bewilderment, swept and circled aimlessly through the air with strange, half-human cries; the jackal and the meerkat, the springbok and the rheebok, trembled where they stood, with heads uplifted, vaguely trying to realize the Thing which was breaking the peace of their world; useless horses which had been turned out of the armies of Boers and British galloped and stumbled and plunged into space in alarm; for they knew what was darkening the morning. They had suffered the madness of battle, and they realized it at its native first value.
There was a battle forward on the left flank of the Boer Army. Behind Hetmeyer's Kopje were the horses of the men whom Rudyard Byng had brought to take a position and hold it till support came and this flank of the Farmer's Army was turned; but the men themselves were at work on the kopjes--the grim work of dislodging the voortrekker people from the places where they burrowed like conies among the rocks.
Just before dawn broke Byng's men were rushing the outer trenches. These they cleared with the wild cries of warriors whose blood was in a tempest. Bayonets dripped red, rifles were fired at hand-to-hand range, men clubbed their guns and fought as men fought in the days when the only fighting was man to man, or one man to many men. Here every "Boojer" and Rooinek was a champion. The Boer fell back because he was forced back by men who were men of the veld like himself; and the Briton pressed forward because he would not be denied; because he was sick of reverses; of going forward and falling back; of taking a position with staggering loss and then abandoning it; of gaining a victory and then not following it up; of having the foe in the hollow of the hand and hesitating to close it with a death-grip; of promising relief to besieged men, and marking time when you had gained a foothold, instead of gaining a foothold farther on.
Byng's men were mostly South-Africans born, who had lived and worked below the Zambesi all their lives; or else those whose blood was in a fever at the thought that a colony over which the British flag flew should be trod by the feet of an invader, who had had his own liberty and independence secured by that flag, but who refused to white men the status given to "niggers" in civilized states. These fighters under Byng had had their fill of tactics and strategy which led nowhere forward; and at Wortmann's Drift the day before they had done a big thing for the army with a handful of men. They could ride like Cossacks, they could shoot like William Tell, and they had a mind to be the swivel by which the army of Queen Victoria should swing from almost perpetual disaster, in large and small degree, to victory.
From the first trenches on and on to the second trenches higher up! But here the Boer in his burrow with his mauser rifle roaring, and his heart fierce with hatred and anger at the surprise, laid down to the bloody work with an ugly determination to punish remorselessly his fellow-citizens of the veld and the others. It was a fire which only bullet-proof men could stand, and these were but breasts of flesh and muscle, though the will was iron.
Up, up, and up, struggled these men of the indomitable will. Step by step, while man after man fell wounded or dead, they pushed forward, taking what cover was possible; firing as steadily as at Aldershot; never wasting shots, keeping the eye vigilant for the black slouch hat above the rocks, which told that a Boer's head was beneath it, and might be caught by a lightning shot.
Step by step, man by man, troop by troop, they came nearer to the hedges of stone behind which an inveterate foe with grim joy saw a soldier fall to his soft-nosed bullet; while far down behind these men of a forlorn hope there was hurrying up artillery which would presently throw its lyddite and its shrapnel on the top of the hill up where hundreds of Boers held, as they thought, an impregnable position. At last with rushes which cost them almost as dearly in proportion as the rush at Balaclava cost the Light Brigade, Byng's men reached the top, mad with the passion of battle, vengeful in spirit because of the comrades they had lost; and the trenches emptied before them. As they were forsaken, men fought hand to hand and as savagely as ever men fought in the days of Rustum.
In one corner, the hottest that the day saw, Rudyard and Barry Whalen and a scattered handful of men threw themselves upon a greatly larger number of the enemy. For a moment a man here and there fought for his life against two or three of the foe. Of these were Rudyard and Barry Whalen. The khaki of the former was shot through in several places, he had been slashed in the cheek by a bullet, and a bullet had also passed through the muscle of his left forearm; but he was scarcely conscious of it. It seemed as though Fate would let no harm befall him; but, in the very moment, when on another part of the ridge his men were waving their hats in victory, three Boers sprang up before him, ragged and grim and old, but with the fire of fanaticism and race-hatred in their eyes. One of them he accounted for, another he wounded, but the wounded voortrekker--a giant of near seven feet clubbed his rifle, and drove at him. Rudyard shot at close quarters again, but his pistol missed fire.
Just as the rifle of his giant foe swung above him, Byng realized that the third Boer was levelling a rifle directly at his breast. His eyes involuntarily closed as though to draw the curtain of life itself, but, as he did so, he heard a cry--the wild, hoarse cry of a voice he knew so well.
"Baas! Baas!" it called.
Then two shots came simultaneously, and the clubbed rifle brought him to the ground.
The voice followed him, as he passed into unconsciousness.
Barry Whalen had seen Rudyard's danger, but had been unable to do anything. His hands were more than full, his life in danger; but in the instant that he had secured his own safety, he heard the cry of "Baas! Baas!" Then he saw the levelled rifle fall from the hands of the Boer who had aimed at Byng, and its owner collapse in a heap. As Rudyard fell beneath the clubbed rifle he heard the cry, "Baas! Baas!" again, and saw an unkempt figure darting among the rocks. His own pistol brought down the old Boer who had felled Byng, and then he realized who it was had cried out, "Baas!"
The last time he had heard that voice was in Park Lane, when Byng, with sjambok, drove a half-caste valet into the street.
It was the voice of Krool. And Krool was now bending over Rudyard's body, raising his head and still murmuring, "Baas--Baas!"
Krool's rifle had saved Rudyard from death by killing one of his own fellow-fighters. Much as Barry Whalen loathed the man, this act showed that Krool's love for the master who had sjamboked him was stronger than death.
Barry, himself bleeding from slight wounds, stooped over his unconscious friend with a great anxiety.
"No, it is nothing," Krool said, with his hand on Rudyard's breast. "The left arm, it is hurt, the head not get all the blow. Alamachtig, it is good! The Baas--it is right with the Baas."
Barry Whalen sighed with relief. He set about to restore Rudyard, as Krool prepared a bandage for the broken head.
Down in the valley the artillery was at work. Lyddite and shrapnel and machine-guns were playing upon the top of the ridge above them, and the infantry--Humphrey's and Blagdon's men--were hurrying up the slope which Byng's pioneers had cleared, and now held. From this position the enemy could be driven from their main position on the summit, because they could be swept now by artillery fire from a point as high as their own.
"A good day's work, old man," said Barry Whalen to the still unconscious figure. "You've done the trick for the Lady at Windsor this time. It's a great sight better business than playing baccarat at DeLancy Scovel's."
Cheering came from everywhere, cries of victory filled the air. As he looked down the valley Barry could see the horses they had left behind being brought, under cover of the artillery and infantry fire, to the hill they had taken. The grey mare would be among them. But Rudyard would not want the grey mare yet awhile. An ambulance-cart was the thing for him.
Barry would have given much for a flask of brandy. A tablespoonful would bring Rudyard back. A surgeon was not needed, however. Krool's hands had knowledge. Barry remembered the day when Wallstein was taken ill in Rudyard's house, and how Krool acted with the skill of a Westminster sawbones.
Suddenly a bugle-call sounded, loud and clear and very near them. Byng had heard that bugle call again and again in this engagement, and once he had seen the trumpeter above the trenches, sounding the advance before more than a half-dozen men had reached the defences of the Boers. The same trumpeter was now running towards them. He had been known in London as Jigger. In South Africa he was familiarly called Little Jingo.
His face was white as he leaned over Barry Whalen to look at Rudyard, but suddenly the blood came back to his cheek.
"He wants brandy," Jigger said.
"Well, go and get it," said Barry sharply.
"I've got it here," was the reply; and he produced a flask.
"Well, I'm damned!" said Barry. "You'll have a gun next, and fire it too!"
"A 4.7," returned Jigger impudently.
As the flask was at Rudyard's lips, Barry Whalen said to Krool, "What do you stay here as--deserter or prisoner? It's got to be one or the other."
"Prisoner," answered Krool. Then he added, "See--the Baas."
Rudyard's eyes were open.
"Prisoner--who is a prisoner?" he asked feebly.
"Me, Baas," whispered Krool, leaning over him.
"He saved your life, Colonel," interposed Barry Whalen.
"I thought it was the brandy," said Jigger with a grin.
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