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They had left him for dead in a dreadful circle of mangled gunners who had fallen back to cover in a donga, from a fire so stark that it seemed the hillside itself was discharging myriad bolts of death, as a waterwheel throws off its spray. No enemy had been visible, but far away in front--that front which must be taken--there hung over the ridge of the hills veils of smoke like lace. Hideous sounds tortured the air--crackling, snapping, spitting sounds like the laughter of animals with steel throats. Never was ill work better done than when, on that radiant veld, the sky one vast turquoise vault, beneath which quivered a shimmer of quicksilver light, the pom-poms, the maulers, and the shrapnel of Kruger's men mowed down Stafford and his battery, showered them, drowned them in a storm of lead.
"Alamachtig," said a Rustenburg dopper who, at the end of the day, fell into the hands of the English, "it was like cutting alfalfa with a sickle! Down they tumbled, horses and men, mashed like mealies in the millstones. A damn lot of good horses was killed this time. The lead-grinders can't pick the men and leave the horses. It was a verdomde waste of good horses. The Rooinek eats from a bloody basin this day."
At the moment Ian Stafford fell the battle was well launched. The air was shrieking with the misery of mutilated men and horses and the ghoulish laughter of pom-poms. When he went down it seemed to him that human anger had reached its fullest expression. Officers and men alike were in a fury of determination and vengeance. He had seen no fear, no apprehension anywhere, only a defiant anger which acted swiftly, coolly. An officer stepped over the lacerated, shattered body of a comrade of his mess with the abstracted impassiveness of one who finds his way over a puddle in the road; and here were puddles too--puddles of blood. A gunner lifted away the corpse of his nearest friend from the trail and strained and wrenched at his gun with the intense concentration of one who kneads dough in a trough. The sobbing agony of those whom Stafford had led rose up from the ground around him, and voices cried to be put out of pain and torture. These begrimed men around him, with jackets torn by bullets, with bandaged head stained with blood or dragging leg which left a track of blood behind, were not the men who last night were chatting round the camp-fires and making bets as to where the attack would begin to-day.
Stafford was cool enough, however. It was as though an icy liquid had been poured into his veins. He thought more clearly than he had ever done, even in those critical moments of his past when cool thinking was indispensable. He saw the mistake that had been made in giving his battery work which might have been avoided, and with the same result to the battle; but he also saw the way out of it, and he gave orders accordingly. When the horses were lashed to a gallop to take up the new position, which, if they reached, would give them shelter against this fiendish rain of lead, and also enable them to enfilade the foe at advantage, something suddenly brought confusion to his senses, and the clear thinking stopped. His being seemed to expand suddenly to an enormity of chaos and then as suddenly to shrink, dwindle, and fall back into a smother--as though, in falling, blankets were drawn roughly over his head and a thousand others were shaken in the air around him. And both were real in their own way. The thousand blankets flapping in the air were the machine guns of the foe following his battery into a zone of less dreadful fire, and the blankets that smothered him were wrappings of unconsciousness which save us from the direst agonies of body and mind.
The last thing he saw, as his eyes, with a final effort of power, sought to escape from this sudden confusion, was a herd of springboks flinging themselves about in the circle of fire, caught in the struggle of the two armies, and, like wild birds in a hurricane, plunging here and there in flight and futile motion. As unconsciousness enwrapped him the vision of these distraught denizens of the veld was before his eyes. Somehow, in a lightning transformation, he became one with them and was mingled with them.
When his eyes opened again, slowly, heavily, the same vision was before him--the negative left on the film of his sight by his last conscious glance at the world.
He raised himself on his elbow and looked out over the veld. The springboks were still distractedly tossing here and there, but the army to which he belonged had moved on. It was now on its way up the hill lying between them and the Besieged City. He was dimly conscious of this, for the fight round him had ceased, the storm had gone forward. There was noise, great noise, but he was outside of it, in a kind of valley of awful inactivity. All round him was the debris of a world in which he had once lived and moved and worked. How many years--or centuries--was it since he had been in that harvest of death? There was no anomaly. It was not that time had passed; it was that his soul had made so far a journey.
In his sleep among the guns and the piteous, mutilated dead, he had gone a pilgrimage to a Distant Place and had been told the secret of the world. Yet when he first waked, it was not in his mind--only that confusion out of which he had passed to nothingness with the vision of the distracted springboks. Suddenly a torturing thirst came, and it waked him fully to the reality of it all. He was lying in his own blood, in the swath which the battle had cut.
His work was done. This came to him slowly, as the sun clears away the mists of morning. Something--Some One--had reached out and touched him on the shoulder, had summoned him.
When he left Brinkwort's Farm yesterday, it was with the desire to live, to do large things. He and Rudyard had clasped hands, and Rudyard had made a promise to him, which gave him hope that the broken roof-tree would be mended, the shattered walls of home restored. It had seemed to him then that his own mistake was not irreparable, and that the way was open to peace, if not to happiness.
When he first came to this war he had said, "I will do this," and, "I will do that," and he had thought it possible to do it in his own time and because he willed it. He had put himself deliberately in the way of the Scythe, and had thrown himself into its arc of death.
To have his own way by tricking Destiny into giving him release and absolution without penalty--that had been his course. In the hour when he had ceased to desire exit by breaking through the wall and not by the predestined door, the reply of Destiny to him had been: "It is not for you to choose." He had wished to drink the cup of release, had reached out to take it, but presently had ceased to wish to drink it. Then Destiny had said: "Here is the dish--drink it."
He closed his eyes to shut out the staring light, and he wished in a vague way that he might shut out the sounds of the battle--the everlasting boom and clatter, the tearing reverberations. But he smiled too, for he realized that his being where he was alone meant that the army had moved on over that last hill; and that there would soon be the Relief for which England prayed.
There was that to the good; and he had taken part in it all. His battery, a fragment of what it had been when it galloped out to do its work in the early morning, had had its glorious share in the great day's work.
He had had the most critical and dangerous task of this memorable day. He had been on the left flank of the main body, and his battery had suddenly faced a terrific fire from concealed riflemen who had not hitherto shown life at this point. His promptness alone had saved the battery from annihilation. His swift orders secured the gallant withdrawal of the battery into a zone of comparative safety and renewed activity, while he was left with this one abandoned gun and his slain men and fellow-officers.
But somehow it all suddenly became small and distant and insignificant to his senses. He did not despise the work, for it had to be done. It was big to those who lived, but in the long movement of time it was small, distant, and subordinate.
If only the thirst did not torture him, if only the sounds of the battle were less loud in his ears! It was so long since he waked from that long sleep, and the world was so full of noises, the air so arid, and the light of the sun so fierce. Darkness would be peace. He longed for darkness.
He thought of the spring that came from the rocks in the glen behind the house, where he was born in Derbyshire. He saw himself stooping down, kneeling to drink, his face, his eyes buried in the water, as he gulped down the good stream. Then all at once it was no longer the spring from the rock in which he laved his face and freshened his parched throat; a cool cheek touched his own, lips of tender freshness swept his brow, silken hair with a faint perfume of flowers brushed his temples, his head rested on a breast softer than any pillow he had ever known.
"Jasmine!" he whispered, with parched lips and closed eyes. "Jasmine--water," he pleaded, and sank away again intothat dream from which he had but just wakened.
It had not been all a vision. Water was here at his tongue, his head was pillowed on a woman's breast, lips touched his forehead.
But it was not Jasmine's breast; it was not Jasmine's hand which held the nozzle of the water-bag to his parched lips.
Through the zone of fire a woman and a young surgeon had made their way from the attending ambulance that hovered on the edge of battle to this corner of death in the great battle-field. It mattered not to the enemy, who still remained in the segment of the circle where they first fought, whether it was man or woman who crossed this zone of fire. No heed could be given now to Red Cross work, to ambulance, nurse, or surgeon. There would come a time for that, but not yet. Here were two races in a life-and-death grip; and there could be no give and take for the wounded or the dead until the issue of the day was closed.
The woman who had come through the zone of fire was Al'mah. She had no right to be where she was. As a nurse her place was not the battle-field; but she had had a premonition of Stafford's tragedy, and in the night had concealed herself in the blankets of an ambulance and had been carried across the veld to that outer circle of battle where wait those who gather up the wreckage, who provide the salvage of war. When she was discovered there was no other course but to allow her to remain; and so it was that as the battle moved on she made her way to where the wounded and dead lay.
A sorely wounded officer, able with the help of a slightly injured gunner to get out of the furnace of fire, had brought word of Stafford's death but with the instinct of those to whom there come whisperings, visions of things, Al'mah felt she must go and find the man with whose fate, in a way, her own had been linked; who, like herself, had been a derelict upon the sea of life; the grip of whose hand, the look of whose eyes the last time she saw him, told her that as a brother loves so he loved her.
Hundreds saw the two make their way across the veld, across the lead-swept plain; but such things in the hour of battle are commonplaces; they are taken as part of the awful game. Neither mauser nor shrapnel nor maxim brought them down as they made their way to the abandoned gun beside which Stafford lay. Yet only one reached Stafford's side, where he was stretched among his dead comrades. The surgeon stayed his course at three-quarters of the distance to care for a gunner whose mutilations were robbed of half their horror by a courage and a humour which brought quick tears to Al'mah's eyes. With both legs gone the stricken fellow asked first for a match to light his cutty pipe and then remarked: "The saint's own luck that there it was with the stem unbroke to give me aise whin I wanted it!
"Shure, I thought I was dead," he added as the surgeon stooped over him, "till I waked up and give meself the lie, and got a grip o' me pipe, glory be!"
With great difficulty Al'mah dragged Stafford under the horseless gun, left behind when the battery moved on. Both forces had thought that nothing could live in that gray-brown veld, and no effort at first was made to rescue or take it. By every law of probability Al'mah and the young surgeon ought to be lying dead with the others who had died, some with as many as twenty bullet wounds in their bodies, while the gunner, who had served this gun to the last and then, alone, had stood at attention till the lead swept him down, had thirty wounds to his credit for England's sake. Under the gun there was some shade, for she threw over it a piece of tarpaulin and some ragged, blood-stained jackets lying near--jackets of men whose wounds their comrades had tried hastily to help when the scythe of war cut them down.
There was shade now, but there was not safety, for the ground was spurting dust where bullets struck, and even bodies of dead men were dishonoured by the insult of new wounds and mutilations.
Al'mah thought nothing of safety, but only of this life which was ebbing away beside her. She saw that a surgeon could do nothing, that the hurt was internal and mortal; but she wished him not to die until she had spoken with him once again and told him all there was to tell--all that had happened after he left Brinkwort's Farm yesterday.
She looked at the drawn and blanched face and asked herself if that look of pain and mortal trouble was the precursor of happiness and peace. As she bathed the forehead of the wounded man, it suddenly came to her that here was the only tragedy connected with Stafford's going: his work was cut short, his usefulness ended, his hand was fallen from the lever that lifted things.
She looked away from the blanched face to the field of battle, towards the sky above it. Circling above were the vile aasvogels, the loathsome birds which followed the track of war, watching, waiting till they could swoop upon the flesh blistering in the sun. Instinctively she drew nearer to the body of the dying man, as though to protect it from the evil flying things. She forced between his lips a little more water.
"God make it easy!" she said.
A bullet struck a wheel beside her, and with a ricochet passed through the flesh of her forearm. A strange look came into her eyes, suffusing them. Was her work done also? Was she here to find the solution of all her own problems--like Stafford--like Stafford? Stooping, she reverently kissed the bloodless cheek. A kind of exaltation possessed her. There was no fear at all. She had a feeling that he would need her on the journey he was about to take, and there was no one else who could help him now. Who else was there beside herself--and Jigger?
Where was Jigger? What had become of Jigger? He would surely have been with Stafford if he had not been hurt or killed. It was not like Jigger to be absent when Stafford needed him.
She looked out from under the gun, as though expecting to find him coming--to see him somewhere on this stricken plain. As she did so she saw the young surgeon, who had stayed to help the wounded gunner, stumbling and lurching towards the gun, hands clasping his side, and head thrust forward in an attitude of tense expectation, as though there was a goal which must be reached.
An instant later she was outside hastening towards him. A bullet spat at her feet, another cut the skirt of her dress, but all she saw was the shambling figure of the man who, but a few minutes before, was so flexible and alert with life, eager to relieve the wounds of those who had fallen. Now he also was in dire need.
She had almost reached him when, with a stiff jerk sideways and an angular artion of the figure, he came to the ground like a log, ungainly and rigid.
"They got me! I'm hit--twice," he said, with grey lips; with eyes that stared at her and through her to something beyond; but he spoke in an abrupt, professional, commonplace tone. "Shrapnel and mauler," he added, his hands protecting the place where the shrapnel had found him. His staring blue eyes took on a dull cloud, and his whole figure seemed to sink and shrink away. As though realizing and resisting, if not resenting this dissolution of his forces, his voice rang out querulously, and his head made dogmatic emphasis.
"They oughtn't to have done it," the petulant voice insisted. "I wasn't fighting." Suddenly the voice trailed away, and all emphasis, accent, and articulation passed from the sentient figure. Yet his lips moved once again. "Ninety-nine Adelphi Terrace--first floor," he said mechanically, and said no more.
As mechanically as he had spoken, Al'mah repeated the last words. "Ninety-nine Adelphi Terrace, first floor," she said slowly.
They were chambers next to those where Adrian Fellowes had lived and died. She shuddered.
"So he was not married," she said reflectively, as she left the lifeless body and went back to the gun where Stafford lay.
Her arm through which the bullet had passed was painful, but she took no heed of it. Why should she? Hundreds, maybe thousands, were being killed off there in the hills. She saw nothing except the debris of Ian Stafford's life drifting out to the shoreless sea.
He lived still, but remained unconscious, and she did not relax her vigil. As she watched and waited the words of the young surgeon kept ringing in her ears, a monotonous discord, "Ninety-nine Adelphi Terrace--first floor!" Behind it all was the music of the song she had sung at Rudyard Byng's house the evening of the day Adrian Fellowes had died--"More was lost at Mohacksfield."
The stupefaction that comes with tragedy crept over her. As the victim of an earthquake sits down amid vast ruins, where the dead lie unnumbered, speechless, and heedless, so she sat and watched the face of the man beside her, and was not conscious that the fire of the armies was slackening, that bullets no longer spattered the veld or struck the gun where she sat; that the battle had been carried over the hills.
In time help would come, so she must wait. At least she had kept Stafford alive. So far her journey through Hades had been justified. He would have died had it not been for the water and brandy she had forced between his lips, for the shade in which he lay beneath the gun. In the end they would come and gather the dead and wounded. When the battle was over they would come, or, maybe, before it was over.
But through how many hours had there been the sickening monotony of artillery and rifle-fire, the bruit of angry metal, in which the roar of angrier men was no more than a discord in the guttural harmony. Her senses became almost deadened under the strain. Her cheeks grew thinner, her eyes took on a fixed look. She seemed like one in a dream. She was only conscious in an isolated kind of way. Louder than all the noises of the clanging day was the beating of her heart. Her very body seemed to throb, the pulses in her temples were like hammers hurting her brain.
At last she was roused by the sound of horses' hoofs.
So the service-corps were coming at last to take up the wounded and bury the dead. There were so many dead, so few wounded!
The galloping came nearer and nearer. It was now as loud as thunder almost. It stopped short. She gave a sigh of relief. Her vigil was ended. Stafford was still alive. There was yet a chance for him to know that friends were with him at the last, and also what had happened at Brinkwort's Farm after he had left yesterday.
She leaned out to see her rescuers. A cry broke from her. Here was one man frantically hitching a pair of artillery-horses to the gun and swearing fiercely in the Taal as he did so.
The last time she had seen that khaki hat, long, threadbare frock-coat, huge Hessian boots and red neckcloth was at Brinkwort's Farm. The last time she had seen that malevolent face was when its owner was marched away from Brinkwort's Farm yesterday.
It was Krool.
An instant later she had dragged Stafford out from beneath the gun, for it was clear that the madman intended to ride off with it.
When Krool saw her first he was fastening the last hook of the traces with swift, trained fingers. He stood dumfounded for a moment. The superstitious, half-mystical thing in him came trembling to his eyes; then he saw Stafford's body, and he realized the situation. A look of savage hatred came into his face, and he made a step forward with sudden impulse, as though he would spring upon Stafford. His hand was upon a knife at his belt. But the horses plunged and strained, and he saw in the near distance a troop of cavalry.
With an obscene malediction at the body, he sprang upon a horse. A sjambok swung, and with a snort, which was half a groan, the trained horses sprang forward.
"The Rooinek's gun for Oom Paul!" he shouted back over his shoulder.
Most prisoners would have been content to escape and save their skins, but a more primitive spirit lived in Krool. Escape was not enough for him. Since he had been foiled at Brinkwort's Farm and could not reach Rudyard Byng; since he would be shot the instant he was caught after his escape--if he was caught--he would do something to gall the pride of the verdomde English. The gun which the Boers had not dared to issue forth and take, which the British could not rescue without heavy loss while the battle was at its height--he would ride it over the hills into the Boers' camp.
There was something so grotesque in the figure of the half-caste, with his copper-coat flying behind him as the horses galloped away, that a wan smile came to Al'mah's lips. With Stafford at her feet in the staring sun she yet could not take her eyes from the man, the horses, and the gun. And not Al'mah alone shaded and strained eyes to follow the tumbling, bouncing gun. Rifles, maxims, and pom-poms opened fire upon it. It sank into a hollow and was partially lost to sight; it rose again and jerked forward, the dust rising behind it like surf. It swayed and swung, as the horses wildly took the incline of the hills, Krool's sjambok swinging above them; it struggled with the forces that dragged it higher and higher up, as though it were human and understood that it was a British gun being carried into the Boer lines.
At first a battery of the Boers, fighting a rear-guard action, had also fired on it, but the gunners saw quickly that a single British gun was not likely to take up an advance position and attack alone, and their fire died away. Thinking only that some daring Boer was doing the thing with a thousand odds against him, they roared approval as the gun came nearer and nearer.
Though the British poured a terrific fire after the flying battery of one gun, there was something so splendid in the episode; the horses were behaving so gallantly,--horses of one of their own batteries daringly taken by Krool under the noses of the force--that there was scarcely a man who was not glad when, at last, the gun made a sudden turn at a kopje, and was lost to sight within the Boer lines, leaving behind it a little cloud of dust.
Tommy Atkins had his uproarious joke about it, but there was one man who breathed a sigh of relief when he heard of it. That was Barry Whalen. He had every reason to be glad that Krool was out of the way, and that Rudyard Byng would see him no more. Sitting beside the still unconscious Ian Stafford on the veld, Al'mah's reflections were much the same as those of Barry Whalen.
With the flight of Krool and the gun came the end of Al'mah's vigil. The troop of cavalry which galloped out to her was followed by the Red Cross wagons.
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