"I say, Bob, what a boy you do keep!" said Lennox.
"The sweet youthfulness of my nature, lad. But, as I was telling you, the beggars wouldn't touch it, and I had to get our cook to boil it soft. Our mealie pap has just the same smell. That makes me think of being a real boy with my poultry pen: the Brahmas make me think of the young cockerels who did not feather well for show and were condemned to go to pot—that is to say, to the kitchen; and that brings up their legs and wings peppered and salted before broiling for breakfast, finished off with a sprinkle of Worcester sauce, and then—oh, luscious! oh, tender juiciness! Oh! hold me up, old man, or I shall faint. There, sniff! Can't you smell? Yes, of course; mealie pap in a tin, and—Oh, here's the colonel eating his. Roby will have to give his report now."
"Good—morning, gentlemen," said the colonel. "Just in time for breakfast. Well, what have you found?"
He had hardly asked the question before Captain Roby hurried in, to go up to his side at once and make his report.
"I'm sorry; but no more than I expected.—Here," he said, turning to his servant, after making a brave show of eating the meagre tin of Indian corn porridge; "bring me a little cocoa."
"Beg pardon, sir," said the man, bending over him from behind; "very sorry, but last of the cocoa was finished yesterday."
"Humph! Yes; I had forgotten," said the colonel, and he took up his spoon and began to play with the porridge remaining in his tin.
The breakfast was soon ended, and the officers made a show of chatting cheerfully together, while the colonel sat tapping the edge of his tin softly with his canteen spoon, looking thoughtfully into the bottom of the cleaned-out vessel the while. Then every eye was turned to him as he straightened himself up, for they judged that he was going to make some communication. They were right, for he threw down his spoon on the clothless board and said suddenly:
"Well, gentlemen, the French proverb says, Il faut manger."
"Yes," said the doctor, with a grim smile; "but it is necessary to have something in the manger."
"Quite so, doctor," said the colonel, with a good-humoured nod; "so I may as well open a discussion on the position at once, and tell you that while Roby and his company have been searching the kopje the major and I have formed ourselves into a committee of ways and means, and gone round the stores.—Tell them, major."
The gentleman addressed shrugged his shoulders.
"There is so little to tell," he replied; "only that with about quarter-rations we can hold out for another week. That's all."
"Not all," said the colonel. "We have the horses as a last resource; but they are life to us in another way, and must be left till the very end."
Dead silence reigned, every man looking down at the rough table.
"Well, gentlemen," continued the colonel, "after giving every thought to our position I come to the conclusion that at all hazards I must hold this place."
"Hear, hear!" came from every lip.
"We are keeping three commandos fully employed, and that is something."
There was a sound like a murmur of satisfaction.
"I might determine," said the colonel, "to try and reach Rudolfsberg, and somehow or another we would cut our way there; but our losses would be terrible, and we should reach safety—some of us—with the feeling that we had not done our duty by holding Groenfontein at all hazards."
"That's quite right," said the major as his chief paused, and a murmur of assent followed the major's words.
"Then, gentlemen, that brings me back again to the French proverb. We must eat, so the first thing to do is to decide on which direction a raid is to be made: that means scouting, and the discovery of the nearest Boer store of provisions, with sheep and cattle. We are quite alone here, without the possibility of my words being heard, so I can speak out freely. Scouting parties must go out at once in the direction of each of the three commandos, and on the strength of their reports the expedition will be made."
"To-night?" said the major.
"Yes," replied the colonel. "Hush! Don't cheer! Let matters go on as if nothing fresh were on the way. We cannot afford to have our proceedings carried out of the lines by Kaffir spies."
THE BOER ADVANCE.
The scouting parties went out in three different directions after a long survey from the top of the kopje, the routes being marked out for the leaders in consultation with the colonel, who, glass in hand, selected the most likely routes to be followed so that the enemy might be avoided, and the more distant country reached where two or three Boer farms were known to be situated.
Then, with three of the best mounted men in each, they set off; and the colonel took especial care that no one of the many friendly—said to be friendly—natives who hung about the camp should follow. It was a necessary precaution, for the outposts stopped no less than a dozen men stealing through the long grass on both sides of the river, and, to their great disappointment, turned them back to go and squat down sulkily in such shade as they could find.
The instructions given were that at the latest the scouts were to be back at sundown, so as to give ample time for pointing out the route to be followed and preparations made for the raid to come.
Plenty of discussion ensued when the scouts had ridden off at a walk, opening out so as not to take the attention of the Boers; and as far as could be made out by the watchers there was not a sign of an enemy upon either of the hills.
The question of the discussion was which company of the regiment would be called upon to start upon the raid, the members of each hoping to be selected; and Captain Roby maintaining loudly, in a sharp, snappish way, that without doubt his company would be chosen, and turning fiercely upon any of his brother officers who differed from him.
"He's precious cock-sure, Drew," said Dickenson later on, as they strolled together up the steep sides of the kopje; "but we had our bit of work this morning, and it is not likely that the old man will send us."
"Of course not; but it was of no use to say anything. Our failure has had a strange effect upon the poor fellow, and a word would act upon him like fire upon tinder."
"Yes; but the starvation picnic has had its effect on other people too. Who's he that he should have the monopoly of getting into a passion about nothing? I say, though, as we were up there this morning I don't see what is the use of our going up again; there'll be no shade at the top, and we shall be half-roasted."
"Don't come, then," said Lennox quietly. "I'm going up to see if I can follow the scouts with a glass."
"Don't come?" cried Dickenson sharply. "Well, I like that! Here's another one touched by the sun. Old Roby is not to have the monopoly of getting into a fantigue."
"Nonsense! I'm not out of temper," said Lennox.
"Not out of temper? Well, upon my word! But I shall come all the same. I would now if it were ten times as hot."
"Very well," said Lennox, drawing his breath hard so as to command his temper, for he felt really ruffled now by the heat and his comrade's way of talking.
They climbed slowly on, step for step, till, as they zigzagged up into a good position which displayed the sun-bathed landscape shimmering in the heat, Lennox caught a glimpse of one of the scouting parties in the distance, and was about to draw his companion's attention to it when Dickenson suddenly caught at his arm and pointed to a glowing patch of the rock in the full blaze of the sun.
"Look," he said. "Big snake."
"Nonsense!" said Lennox angrily; "there are no snakes up here."
Their eyes met the next instant with so meaning a look in them that both burst out laughing, Dickenson holding out his hand, which was taken at once.
"I forgive old Roby," he said.
"So do I," said Lennox frankly. "Heat and hunger do upset a man's temper. See our fellows out there?"
He pointed in the direction where he had seen the mounted figures, feeling for his glass the while.
"Not our men," said Dickenson, following his example, and together they produced their glasses.
"Oh yes," said Lennox. "I am certain it was they."
"And I'm as certain it was not," cried Dickenson.
Their eyes met again; but this time they felt too serious to laugh, and were silent for some moments.
Dickenson then said frankly:
"Look here, old chap, there's something wrong with us. We've got the new complaint—the Robitis; and we'd better not argue about anything, or we shall have a fight. My temper feels as if it had got all the skin off."
"And I'm as irritable as Roby was this morning. Never mind. Can you make out the mounted men now?"
"No," said Dickenson after a pause. "Can you?"
"No. They're gone behind that patch of forest. There," he continued, closing his glass, "let's get up to the top and sit in the men's shelter; there'll be a bit of air up there."
He proved to be right, for a pleasant breeze, comparatively cool, was blowing on the other side of the mountain and tempering the glare of the sunshine, while they found that there was a bit of shade behind a turret-like projection standing out of the granite, looking as if it had been built up by human hands.
There they sat and watched for hours, scanning the veldt, which literally quivered in the heat; but they looked in vain for any movement on the part of the enemy, who had been disturbed by the scouts, and at last made up their minds to go down—truth to tell, moved by the same reason, the pangs of hunger asserting themselves in a way almost too painful to be borne.
"Let's go," said Dickenson; "they've got right away in safety. I believe the Boers are all asleep this hot day, and in the right of it: plenty to eat and nothing to do."
"Yes, let's go. I'm longing for a long cool drink down below there. Pst! What's that?"
"One of the fellows round there by the gun," said Dickenson.
"No," whispered Lennox decidedly; "it was close at hand. Did you hear it?"
"Yes. Sounded like the rock splitting in this fiery sunshine."
"More like a piece falling somewhere inside—beneath our feet—and I distinctly heard a soft, echoing rumble."
"Come along down, old man," said Dickenson. "It's too hot to be up here, and if we stop any longer we shall have something worse than being hungry—a bad touch of the sun. I feel quite ready to go off my head and imagine all sorts of things. For instance, there's a swimming before my eyes which makes me fancy I can see puffs of smoke rising out yonder, and a singing and cracking in my ears like distant firing."
"Where?" cried Lennox excitedly. "Yes, of course. I can see the puffs plainly, and hear the faint cracking of the fire. Bob, my lad, then that sharp sound we heard must have been the reverberation of a gun."
"Oh dear!" groaned Dickenson. "Come along down, and let's get our heads in the cool stream and drink like fishes."
"Don't be foolish! Get out your glass."
"To drink with?"
"No! Absurd! To watch the firing."
"There is no firing, man," cried Dickenson.
"There is, I tell you."
"Oh, he has got it too," groaned Dickenson. "Very well; all right— there is fighting going on out there a couple of miles away, and I can see the smoke and hear the cracking of the rifles. But come on down and let's have a drink of water all the same; there's plenty of that."
"You're saying that to humour me," said Lennox, with his glass to his eyes; "but I'm not half-delirious from sunstroke. Get out your glass and look. The Boers are coming on in a long extended line, and they must be driving in our scouts."
"You don't mean it, do you, old chap?" cried Dickenson, dragging out his glass.
"Yes; there's no mistake about it."
Crack! went a rifle from behind the projection, a few yards away; and directly after, as the two officers began scurrying down, the bugles were ringing out in the market-square, and the colonel gave his orders for supports to go out, check the Boer advance, and bring the scouting party or parties in.
SOMETHING IN THE HEAD.
It was a narrow escape, but the nine men got safely back to quarters, but minus two of their horses. For the Boers had in every case been well upon the alert; their lines had not been pierced, and they followed up the retreating scouts till the searching fire from the kopje began to tell upon their long line of skirmishers, and then they sullenly drew back, but not before they had learnt that there were marksmen in the regiment at Groenfontein as well as in their own ranks.
"That's something, Drew," said Dickenson as he watched the slow movement of a light wagon drawn by mules. "But only to think of it: all that trouble for nothing—worse than nothing, for they have shot those two horses. Yes, worse than nothing," he continued, "for they would have been something for the pot."
Each of the scouting parties gave the same account of the state of affairs; that is to say, that though to all appearances the country round was clear of the enemy, a keen watch was being kept up, and, turn which way they would, Boers were ready to spring up in the most unexpected places to arrest their course and render it impossible to reach supplies and bring them in.
Their report cast a damp on the whole camp. For bad news travels fast, and this was soon known.
"Sounds bad," said Dickenson cheerfully, "and just like them. They are not going to run their heads into danger unless obliged. They mean to lie low and wait for us, then turn us back to starve and surrender."
"And they'll find that we shall take a great deal of starving first," replied Lennox bitterly. "But I don't agree with you altogether. I fully expect that, in spite of their failure to blow us up, it will not be long before they contrive something else."
"Well, we shall not quarrel about that, old man," said Dickenson cheerily. "If they do come on in some attack, every one here will be delighted to see them. We should enjoy a good honest fight. What I don't like is this going on shrinking and pulling the tongue farther through the buckle. If it goes on like this much longer I shall have to go to our saddler to punch a few more holes in my belt. I say, though, one feels better after that draught of water. I believe if I had stayed up yonder much longer I should have gone quite off my head, through fancying things, for it was only imagination after all."
A fresh company occupied the kopje that evening, and once more perfect silence reigned. There was one of the glorious displays of stars seen so often in those clear latitudes, when the great dome of heaven seems to be one mass of sparkling, encrusted gems.
Lennox had been standing outside his quarters for some time, enjoying the coolness, and shrinking from going in to where the hut was hot and stuffy and smelling strongly of the now extinguished paraffin-lamp, mingled with a dash of the burned tobacco in Dickenson's pipe.
"I say," said the latter, "hadn't you better come in and perch? Nothing like making your hay when the sun shines, and getting your forty winks while you can."
"Quite right," replied Lennox in a low, dreamy voice; "but it's very pleasant out here."
"That's true enough, no doubt, old man; but you'll be on duty to-morrow night out yonder, and you can go on star-gazing then. Yah! Oh—oh dear me, how sleepy I do feel!" he continued, yawning. "I'll bet a penny that I don't dream once. Regularly worn out, that's how I am. There, good-night if you won't come and lie down. I shall just allow myself half a—Oh, hang it! I do call that too bad!"
For ere he could finish his sentence a rifle cracked somewhere near the top of the kopje, followed by another and another; the bugles rang out, and from the continued firing it seemed evident that the Boers were going against their ordinary custom and making a night attack.
If they did, though, they were to find the camp ready for them, every man and officer springing to his place and waiting for orders—those given to Captain Roby being, as his men were so familiar with the spot, to take half a company and reinforce the detachment on the kopje.
They found that the firing had completely ceased by the time they were half-way up, and upon joining the officer in command there, to Captain Roby's great satisfaction, he found a similar scene being enacted to that which had taken place before him.
"Another false alarm, Roby," the officer said angrily. "Your fellows started the cock-and-bull nonsense, and it has become catching. The sentry here declares he saw a couple of figures coming down in the darkness, and he fired. The idiot! There is nothing, of course, and the colonel shall make an example of him."
Lennox was standing close up to the offender, and in spite of the darkness could make out that the man was shivering.
"Come, come," said the young officer in a half-whisper; "don't go on like that. You fancy you saw something?"
"I'm sure I did, sir," replied the sentry, grateful for a kind word after the severe bullying he had received for doing what he believed to be his duty. "I saw two of them, as plain as I can see you now. I was regularly took aback, sir, for I hadn't heard a sound; but as soon as I fired I could hear them rush off."
"You feel certain?"
"Yes, sir; and the captain says it was all fancy. If it was, sir, I know—"
"Know what?" said Lennox, impressed by the man's manner. "Speak out."
"Oh, I know, sir," said the man again, with a shudder.
"Well, speak out; don't be afraid."
"Enough to make any man feel afraid, sir," half whimpered the man. "I don't mind going into action, sir. I've shown afore now as I'd follow my officers anywhere."
"Of course you would, my lad," said Lennox, patting the young fellow encouragingly on the shoulder, for he could see that he was suffering from a shock, and, doubtless from abstinence and weakness, was half-hysterical.
"It's bad enough, sir, to be posted in the darkness upon a shelf like that over there, expecting every moment to get a bullet in you; but when it comes to anything like this, it makes a fellow feel like a coward."
"Who said coward?" said Dickenson, who had followed his companion and now came up.
"I did, sir," said the man through his chattering teeth.
"Where is he?" said Dickenson. "I should like to look at him. I haven't seen one lately."
"Here he is, sir," said the poor fellow, growing more agitated; "it's me."
"Get out!" cried Dickenson good-humouredly. "You're not a coward. There isn't such a thing in the regiment."
"Oh yes, there is, sir," whimpered the man. "It's all right, sir. I'm the chap: look at me."
"Stop a moment," said Lennox quickly; "aren't you one of the men who have been in the infirmary?"
"Yes, sir. This is the first time I've been on duty since."
"What was the matter with you?"
"Doctor said it was all on account of weakness, sir, but that I should be better back in the fresh air—in the ranks."
"And you feel weak now?"
"Yes, sir; horrid. I'm ashamed of myself for being such a coward. But I know now."
"Well, what do you know?" asked Lennox, more for the sake of calming the man than from curiosity.
"I thought I was going to get all right again and see the war through, if I didn't get an unlucky ball; but it's all over now. I've seen 'em, and it's a fetch."
"A what?" cried Dickenson, laughing.
"Don't laugh, sir, please;" said the man imploringly. "It's too awful. I see 'em as plain as I see you two gentlemen standing there."
"And who were they?" continued Dickenson; "the brothers Fetch?"
"No, sir; two old comrades of mine who 'listed down Plymouth way when I did. We used to be in the same football team. They both got it at Magersfontein, and they've come to tell me it's going to be my turn now."
"Bah!" growled Dickenson. "Did they say so?"
"No, sir; they didn't speak," said the man, shivering; "but there they were. I knew Tom Longford by his big short beard, and the other must have been Mike Lamb."
"Oh, here you are," said the captain of the company. "You can go back to quarters, and be ready to appear before the colonel in the morning."
"One moment, Captain Edwards," said Lennox gravely. "You'll excuse me for speaking. This man is only just off the sick list; he is evidently very ill."
"Oh yes, I know that, Mr Lennox," said the officer coldly; "he has a very bad complaint for a soldier. Look at him. Has he told you that he has seen a couple of ghosts?"
"Yes. He is weak from sickness and fasting, and imagined all that; but I feel perfectly certain that he has seen some one prowling about here."
"Ghosts?" said the captain mockingly.
"Psh! It's a disease the men have got. Fancy. Every fellow on duty will be seeing the same thing now. There, that's enough of it."
"Look out!" cried Lennox angrily; and then in the same breath, "What's that?"
For there was a sharp, grating sound as of stone against stone, and then silence.
"Stand fast, every man," cried Lennox excitedly, seizing his revolver and looking along the broad, rugged shelf upon which they stood in the direction from which the sound had come.
"A lantern here," cried the captain as a sharp movement was heard, and half-a-dozen men at a word from their officer doubled along the shelf for a couple of dozen yards and then stood fast, while the other end of the path was blocked in the same way.
Lennox's heart was beating hard with excitement, and he started as he felt Dickenson grip his arm firmly.
Then all stood fast, listening, as they waited for the lantern to be brought. Quite ten minutes of painful silence elapsed before a couple of dim lights were seen approaching, the bearers having to come down from the gun-platform; and when the two non-commissioned officers who bore them approached, and in obedience to orders held them up, they displayed nothing but swarthy, eager-looking faces, and the piled-up rugged and weathered rocks on one side, the black darkness on the other.
"Come this way, sergeant," said Captain Edwards, and he, as officer in command of the detachment that night, led on, followed closely by Captain Roby and the two subalterns.
They went along in perfect silence, the lanterns here being alternately held up and down so that the rugged shelf and the piled-up masses of rock which formed the nearly perpendicular side of the kopje in that part might be carefully examined.
This was done twice over, the party passing each time where their men were blocking the ends of the shelf which had been selected for one of the posts.
"It's strange," said Captain Roby at last. "I can see no loose stone."
"No," said Captain Edwards. "It was just as if a good-sized block had slipped down from above. Let's have another look."
This was done, with no better result, and once more the party stood fast in the dim light, gazing in a puzzled way.
"Can any one suggest anything?" said Captain Roby.
There was silence for a few moments, and then Lennox caught hold of Dickenson's arm and gave it a meaning pressure as he turned to the two captains, who were close together.
"I have an idea," he whispered. "Give the orders loudly for the men to march off. Take them round to the south, and wait."
"What for?" said Captain Roby snappishly.
"I should like Dickenson and me to be left behind. I'll fire if there is anything."
"Oh, rubbish!" said Captain Roby contemptuously.
"No," said his brother officer quietly. "It is worth trying." Then turning to the two sergeants who bore the lanterns, he said, "When I say put out those lights, don't do it; cover them sharply with greatcoats."
Directly after he gave his first order, when the lanterns rattled, and all was dark.
Then followed the next orders, and tramp! tramp! tramp! the men marched away like a relieving guard, Lennox and Dickenson standing fast with their backs leaning against the rugged wall of rock, perfectly motionless in the black darkness, and looking outward and down at the faint light or two visible below in the camp.
As they drew back against the rock Lennox felt for his companion's hand, which gripped his directly, and so they stood waiting.
To them the silence seemed quite appalling, for they felt as if they were on the eve of some discovery—what, neither could have said; but upon comparing notes afterwards each said he felt convinced that something was about to happen, but paradoxically, at the same time, as if it never would; and when a quarter of an hour must have passed, the excitement grew more intense, as the pressure of their hot, wet hands told, for they felt then that whatever was about to happen must befall them then, if they were not interrupted by the return of their officers.
Each tried to telegraph to his companion the intensity of feeling from which he suffered, and after a fashion one did communicate to the other something of his sensations.
But nothing came to break the intense silence, and they stood with strained ears, now gazing up at the glittering stars, and now down through the darkness at the two feeble lights that they felt must be those outside the colonel's quarters in the market-square.
"I don't know how it was," said Lennox afterwards, "but just at the last I began somehow to think of being at the back of the colonel's hut that night just after Sergeant James had put out the light upon discovering the train."
"I felt that if the business went on much longer, something—some of my strings that were all on the strain—would crack," interrupted Dickenson.
"Yes," said Lennox; "I felt so too."
And this was how he was feeling—strained—till something seemed to be urging him to cry out or move in the midst of that intense period, when all at once he turned cold all down the back, for a long-drawn, dismal, howling wail rose in the distance, making him shudder just as he had seen the sentry quiver in his horror and dread.
"Bah! Hyena," he said to himself the next moment; and then a thrill ran through him as he felt Dickenson's grip increase suddenly with quite a painful pressure.
He responded to it directly, every nerve in his body quivering with the greater strain placed upon it by what was happening, till every nerve and muscle seemed to harden into steel. For the long expected—whatever it might prove to be—the mystery was about to unfold itself, and in his intense feeling it seemed to Lennox as if the glittering stars were flashing out more light.
It was only a noise, but a noise such as Lennox felt that he must hear— a low, dull, harsh, grating noise as of stone passing over stone; and though he could see nothing with his eyes, mentally he knew that one of the great time-bleached and weathered blocks of granite that helped to form the cyclopean face of the kopje wall had begun to turn as on a pivot.
This grating sound lasted for a few seconds only, and it came apparently from a couple of yards away to his right, as he stood with his back pressed against the rugged natural stones.
Then the noise ceased as suddenly as it had begun, and he listened, now holding his breath in the vain hope that it would silence the heavy, dull beating of his heart, whose throbs seemed to echo painfully in his brain.
He pressed Dickenson's hand again, to feel from the return grip how thoroughly his comrade was on the alert.
Then all was perfectly silent again, while a dull feeling of despair began to assert itself as he felt that they were going to hear no more.
At last, with head wrenched round to the right, his revolver feeling wet in his fingers and his eyes seeming to start with the strain of gazing along the shelf at the brilliant stars before him, his nerves literally jerked and he felt perfectly paralysed and unable to stir, for here, not six feet away, he could make out against the starry sky the dimly-marked silhouette of a heavily-built man.
A STRANGE FIND.
It seemed to Drew Lennox that he was staring helplessly at the dark shadowy shape for quite a minute—but it was only a matter of a few seconds—before, snatching his left hand from his companion's grasp, he let his revolver drop to the full extent of its lanyard, and sprang open-handed at the man.
The movement warned the latter of his danger, and turning sharply round from where he was watching the direction taken by the detachment, he made a desperate effort to catch the young officer by the throat.
But Lennox was springing at him, and the weight of his impact drove the man back for a yard or two; but he recovered himself, got a grip, and then a desperate struggle commenced at the edge of the rugged shelf of rock just where the kopje went down for some fifty feet almost perpendicularly, while a pile of heaped-up fragments which had lodged after falling from above stood out ready to receive the unfortunate who fell.
Neither spoke as they gripped, but stood panting heavily as if gathering breath for the terrible struggle that threatened death to one if not both combatants. They were not well matched. Lennox seemed to be slightly the taller, but he was young, slight, and not fully knit; while his adversary was broad-shouldered, and possessed limbs that were heavily coated with hardened muscles, so that in spite of the weight brought to bear in the young officer's sprint he recovered himself where a weaker man must have been driven backward to the ground.
Dickenson sprang forward to his comrade's help, but stopped short as he realised that in that narrow space there was only room for a struggle between two, and by interfering he would be more likely to hinder his friend than help. Hence it was that he stood waiting for his opportunity, listening to the hoarse breathing of the wrestlers and watching the faintly seen struggle—for capture on the one part, for ridding himself of his adversary by pushing him off the shelf on the other.
In a very few moments Lennox had recognised the fact that he was overmatched; but this only roused the stubborn bull-dog nature of the young Englishman, and setting his teeth hard, he brought to bear every feint and manoeuvre he had learnt at his old Devon school, where wrestling was popular, and in the struggles of the football field.
But all in vain: his adversary was far too heavy for him, and, to his rage and discomfiture, in spite of all his efforts he found one great arm tightening about his ribs with crushing pressure, while the man was bending down to lift him from the shelf, evidently to hurl him off into space.
The position was desperate, and in its brief moments Lennox did all that was in his power, tightening his grasp in the desperate resolve that if so savage a plan was carried out he would not go alone.
It might have been supposed that in his emergency-he would have called to Dickenson for help, but the fact was that his adversary so filled his thoughts that there was no room for his comrade's presence, and he struggled on, straining every muscle and nerve.
But, to repeat the previous assertion, he was completely overmatched by a desperate man; and, unless Dickenson could have interfered and saved him, Lennox's fate was to be thrown from the rocky ledge out into the black shadowy air, to fall heavily, crushed and broken, upon the stones below.
But fate favoured him at the last pinch, for as his enemy by sheer weight and pressure bore him back and then lifted him from the shelf preparatory to hurling him outward, Lennox suddenly gave up resisting, loosening his grasp so as to take fast hold round his enemy's neck, when the sudden cessation of resistance had the effect of throwing the latter off his balance just when he was very near the edge where he intended to plant his foot down and check his farther progress. The result was that he put his foot down a few inches too far, his heel pressing down upon the rock where his toes should have been, and before he could recover himself his foot was down over the side, while by a frantic wrench Lennox flung himself sidewise inward.
They fell sidewise upon the shelf, Lennox uppermost, his enemy half over the edge and gliding rapidly down, his weight drawing his adversary after him slowly, inch by inch, for the hitter's position debarred his making any successful effort to escape. For the enemy not only had him tightly clasped, but, feeling his disadvantage, had wrenched his face round so that he could savagely seize hold of the young officer's khaki jacket with his teeth. And there he hung on, doubtless intending to speak and declare that if he was to fall his enemy should share his fate. But no coherent words were uttered; nothing was to be made out but a savage growling as of some fierce wild beast.
The action took less time than the telling, and, fortunately for all, now was Dickenson's opportunity.
The darkness had prevented his seeing the whole of the varying phases of the struggle; but the latter part was plain enough, and fully grasping the position and the emergency of the case, he sprang upon the contending couple just at the right moment, adding his weight, which from his position of vantage completely checked the gradual gliding movement in which Lennox was being drawn onward to his death.
"Give up, you brute!" roared Dickenson now. "Surrender!"
For response the prostrate man, who was vainly striving to find foothold below the edge of the shelf, let go with one hand and quick as thought flung it over the speaker so that he got hold tightly by the tunic, growling fiercely the while.
"Yah! That's flesh!" roared Dickenson, and in his rage and pain he struck down heavily with his doubled fist. "You brute!" he cried. "Give up, or I'll shove you down."
The prisoner gave up struggling for a moment or two, and seemed to be trying to get a hold of some projecting stone.
"There," cried Dickenson, "let go. Give up; you're a prisoner. Leave off struggling, and I'll haul you back on to the shelf. It's no good to fight any more. That's right. You surrender, then? Mind, if you try any of your confounded Boer treachery I'll send a bullet through your skull."
The shot from a revolver, and a cry of pain from Dickenson, who at the same moment realised the fact that the prisoner's last movements had meant not giving up or getting a safer position on the ledge, but an effort to get at his revolver and fire at so close quarters that the condensed flame from the pistol's muzzle burned the young man's cheek, the bullet barely touching the skin as it flew off into space.
"Beast!" cried Dickenson savagely, and he struck wildly at the revolver as it was fired again, and fortunately diverted the clumsy attempt at an aim, but at the expense of his knuckles, two of which were cut against the chambers of the revolver.
As he uttered the word the young officer was recalling the fact that this made two shots, and he felt that in all probability there were four more to come. His hand was busy as well as his head, for he struck out again and again in an effort to get hold of the pistol; but he could not prevent the firing of another shot, which struck the rock beside him with a loud pat.
"Ha!" cried Dickenson in a tone full of satisfaction; "got you!" For his efforts in the darkness had been at last rewarded by his fingers coming in contact with the barrel of the little weapon, which he clasped tightly and held on to, in spite of jerk and snatch, feeling the barrel heat as it was fired again, and again, and again, but with the muzzle forced upward so that the bullets flew harmlessly away.
"That's better," growled Dickenson. "Now, you spiteful savage, will you give up—will you surrender?"
A savage growling was the only answer.
"You brute!" muttered Dickenson. "'Pon my word, if it wasn't for poor old Drew I believe I should let you go over, and see how you liked that.—Here, Drew," he cried aloud, "how is it? What are you doing?"
"Holding his left hand down. He has got hold of my revolver."
"Bless him for a beauty! Can you stop him?"
"I don't know yet; I'm so awkwardly situated. Can you keep us from going over?"
"Oh yes, I can do that. Here, I've got at my six-shooter now; hold still, and I'll put something through his head."
"No, no; we must take him alive," cried Lennox.
"It's all very fine, but he's going to take us dead. Better let me cripple him. Shall I light a match?"
"No, no. I've got tight hold of his wrist now, so that he can't use my revolver. Ha! Look out!"
"I shall have to shoot him," cried Dickenson; for, foiled in his effort to get hold of the fresh weapon, the man began to struggle again fiercely, heaving himself up and wrenching himself to right and left in a way that threatened to result in the whole party going over into the black gulf below.
Lennox uttered another warning cry.
"Take care?" growled Dickenson. "Who's to take care in the dark? Here, tell the brute in Dutch that if he doesn't give up I'll send a bullet through his head. He doesn't seem to understand plain English."
"Yes, he does, for he spoke in English just now."
This was too true, for just then the prisoner suddenly yelled out, "Dirck! Dirck! Help! The cursed rooineks have got me down."
"Oho! Then there are more than one of you, my beauty!" cried Dickenson. "Now then, this is a gag; hold still or I'll pull the trigger."
There was a clinking sound caused by the rattling of the desperate prisoner's teeth against the barrel of the pistol which Dickenson thrust into his mouth just as he was about to speak. But he wrenched his head round and began to struggle again so desperately that Lennox's temper got the upper hand and he began to grow merciless to a degree that tempted him to bid his comrade fire.
"Look here," roared Dickenson at the same moment, "I've had enough of this, my fine fellow. Surrender, or I'll fire without mercy."
"Ha!" ejaculated Lennox in a sigh of relief, for those six shots had not been fired in vain. The prisoner had unconsciously summoned assistance to complete his capture, and Lennox's sigh had been produced by the sight of a flash of light and the sound of hurrying feet, the two sergeants with their lanterns reaching the spot first, closely followed by the officers and men, who gazed down in wonder at the human knot composed of the wondrously tied up three lying at the edge of the precipice.
"Come on," shouted Dickenson. "We've caught the ghost. Don't let him go."
"Here, hold these, some one," cried Sergeant James, and as soon as he had got rid of his lantern he made fast, as a sailor would say, to the prisoner and held on; while, to use his words, his mate pulled out the prisoner's stings, for he had three—two revolvers (one of course discharged) and a keen-bladed sheath-knife, something like an American bowie.
Five minutes later the light of the held-up lanterns fell upon a fierce-looking, much bruised and battered, black-bearded Boer, lying upon the rocky shelf, tied hand and foot, his face so smeared and disfigured by blood that it acted like a mask.
"Carry him down at once," said Captain Roby; "he is evidently badly wounded."
"Not he," growled Dickenson savagely. "He hurt me more than I hurt him. He used pistol; I only used fist and punched him in the nose."
Sergeant James smiled grimly, and drawing a roll of bandage from his wallet, tore off a bit and wiped the blood from the prisoner's face.
"Hullo!" he cried.—"Hooray, Captain Roby, sir! This is our Boer friend who tried to blow us up."
Lennox stopped forward eagerly, and signed for the lantern to be lowered.
"Yes," he cried wonderingly; "that is the man."
"And no mistake," said Dickenson. "Come, I call this a good catch."
The other officers looked down at the dark eyes scowling up at them.
"Yes," he growled fiercely, "I am the man; and I'll do it yet."
"Perhaps your precious game may be stopped now, my good fellow," said Captain Roby meaningly.
"Yes," said Captain Edwards sternly. "You were treated well and generously the first time; this time you may find that the English officers can be stern as well as generous to a beaten enemy.—Well, Captain Roby," he continued, "there was no mistake, you see, about the alarm."
"So I see," said the latter officer coldly.
"The thing is, what was he doing here?"
"Playing the spy, or hiding and waiting for a chance to get away, I suppose."
"Well, you will take him down with you, and report to the colonel," said Captain Edwards.
"Stop a bit," cried Dickenson. "You haven't got the other."
"What other?" cried the two captains in a breath.
"This fellow's comrade."
"Has he one?"
"You heard what the private said about seeing two," cried Dickenson.
"Oh, the words of a man in a scare go for nothing," said Captain Roby contemptuously.
"Perhaps not; but this fellow was in no scare when he called for his companion—Dirck, did he call him, Lennox?"
"Yes, Dirck; and he must be somewhere close at hand. Look, Bob."
He touched his comrade's arm to draw his attention to the sneering smile on the prisoner's face.
"And where do you think his friend is?" said Captain Edwards.
"In the same place as this man came from. They have a hiding-place somewhere close by."
"Yes," cried Dickenson; "one that enables them to play a regular Jack-in-the-box trick."
"But how? Where?" said Captain Edwards.
"I don't know how, and I don't know where it is," replied Lennox; "but I do know that they have a hiding-place somewhere here amongst the rocks. This Boer was not here one minute; then we heard the creaking and grinding of a stone door close at hand, and he was standing out against the sky."
"Whereabouts?" said Captain Roby.
"About here," said Lennox, stepping to the rock close at hand.—"Bring the lantern, quick."
Sergeant James stepped forward with his and held it up for his officer, who began to examine the rock; but Dickenson paid no heed. He employed himself in watching the prostrate Boer attentively, and noticed that his eyes were being blinked violently, as if the man were in a great state of excitement. But he seemed to calm down rapidly as the young subaltern walked to and fro, holding the light up, then down, and always coming back to the starting-place.
"Well, can't you find it?" said Captain Roby, with a sneer.
"No," replied Lennox frankly. "I can see no signs of it."
"And are not likely to," replied Captain Roby, with a grunt indicative of the contempt he felt. "It's all absurd. What did you expect to find? A hidden Aladdin's cave, with genii keeping the door?—Here, Dickenson, you are a gentleman of fine imagination. Go and help him. Expand your lungs, and cry Open Sesame!"
"Why don't you," said Dickenson, "as you know Persian, or whatever it is, so well?"
Captain Roby was about to make an angry retort, but Captain Edwards now interfered.
"I don't think there is any hiding-place along here," he said. "There may be a rift or cave somewhere about the kopje, but certainly there does not seem to be one in this part."
"I am not satisfied," said Lennox, who was busy still directing the light in and out among the crevices of the rocks. "It hardly seems possible, but the natural form of the granite is in blocks which look as if they had been piled-up by the hand of man. Could any one of these be a rough door?"
"No; absurd," said Captain Roby. "There, we have captured our prisoner; let's get him down to the colonel."
"But what about his calling for Dirck to help him?" said Lennox eagerly.
"I did not hear him call for Dirck to help him," said Roby contemptuously.
"No, but we did," cried Lennox, as he went on tapping the granite blocks with the butt of his revolver, curiously watched the while by the prisoner, who was in complete ignorance of the fact that Dickenson, who stood half behind, was intently watching him in turn.
"Give it up, Lennox," said Captain Roby. "You are doing no good there."
"Burning!" cried Dickenson so suddenly that every one turned and stared.
"What is burning?" cried Captain Edwards.
"Drew Lennox is."
"Hang it all, sir! have you forgotten all your childish games?" cried Dickenson impatiently. "'Hot boiled beans,' you know. Lennox is seeking, and he's burning."
"Am I?" cried Lennox excitedly, and the grim faces of the men thrown up by the lanterns grew eager and excited too.
"To be sure you are," said Dickenson.
"How do you know?"
"By my lord the prisoner's phiz here. He gave quite a twitch when you tapped that last rock but one."
"Ha!" cried Lennox; "then there is a way in here. I thought it sounded hollow."
He stepped back and began to tap the rough stone again to prove his words, every one now noticing that the rock gave out a dull, hollow tone; while, unable to contain himself, the prisoner, as he lay tightly bound upon his back, uttered a low, hissing sound as he drew in a deep breath.
"Here we are," cried Lennox, more excited than ever. "Sergeant, give some one else that lantern; take a man with you up there by the gun, and bring back a crowbar or two, and one of the engineers' picks."
The men went off at once, and while the party awaited their return Lennox went on examining the rough block of granite by which he stood, but looked in vain for any sign of hinge or fastening.
"I hope you are right, Lennox," said Captain Edwards, who had stepped to his side; and he spoke in a low voice.
"So do I," was the reply; "but I feel sure that there is, for there must be a hiding-place somewhere. Wait a bit, and we shall capture the prisoner's mate."
Lennox involuntarily glanced down at where the carefully bound Boer lay with the light shining full upon his eyes, and he could not repress a start as he saw the malignant flash that seemed to dart from them into his own. It affected him so that he ceased his examination for the moment, waiting impatiently till the distant sound of steps announced the return of the sergeant and the man bearing the implements he had sought.
"Got the crowbar?" cried Lennox eagerly.
"Then bring it here. Thrust it in under the stone at this natural crevice."
"Why?" said Captain Roby sharply.—"Here, sergeant, try higher up."
But before the words were fully uttered the sergeant had driven the chisel-edge of the iron bar into the horizontal crevice about on a level with his knees, with the result that the men cheered so loudly that they drowned the angry curse which escaped the Boer's lips. For, to the surprise of all, no sooner had the sergeant pressed down the wedged-in bar than it acted as a lever would, lifting one corner of the stone so that it slipped away, the great block turning easily upon a central pivot, and leaving an opening some four feet high and just wide enough for a man to pass through.
"The light, sergeant.—Bayonets, my lads!" shouted Lennox, springing forward; but his cry was mingled with one from the prisoner, who yelled out:
"Fire, Dirck; fire! Never mind yourself; blow them all into the air."
It was an order which was full of suggestion, coming as it did so soon after the cowardly attempt to kill the colonel and his chief officers; but not a man shrank from the task before him, nor hesitated to take the risk, whatever it might be. Lennox was in first, closely followed by the sergeant, lantern in his left hand, iron bar in his right, ready to strike down the first man who resisted, while the light was directed here and there in eager search for bag or barrel that might contain the elements of destruction.
The lantern lit up one of the typical caverns of the country, so many of which have been utilised for strongholds by the Matabele, Mashona, and other chiefs, and Lennox found himself in a rift of the stone which ran right up overhead, a vast crack which the light of the lantern was too feeble to pierce, while away to the right ran a low-roofed passage, striking off almost at right angles, but only to zigzag farther on and die away in the darkness.
"Bayonets, lads!" cried Lennox again; "the other man must be down here."
"Look out!" cried Captain Roby, who was close behind. "Mind that open lantern there. Hi, sergeant! is there any sign of powder or dynamite?"
"No, sir," cried the non-com sharply, as he held the lantern as high as he could and made its light play in every direction. "All a bam to scare us, sir. No, no!" he yelled. "Keep back, every one. Up here, sir, in this hole. There's a bag that looks like those we found. Take the lantern, Mr Lennox, sir."
"No," cried the young officer; "keep it, and light me. The other fellow can't get away; we'll have him afterwards. Here we are," he continued, reaching up to a niche and drawing out a powder-bag. "Will you have it passed out, Mr Roby?"
"Yes: take hold, one of you.—Captain Edwards."
"Here you are."
"See that the powder-bag is put well out of the prisoner's reach. He is fast bound, but he might try to play us some trick."
"Yes, all right," said the captain; and then to the two men left on guard by the prisoner, "Keep a sharp eye on this man; don't let him stir."
"No, sir," was the reply; and then the order was given for the powder to be guarded.
As the captain returned it was to meet a man bearing out another bag, and he entered the cavern in time to see Lennox draw out another, and again another, till eight had been dragged out of the place into which they had been packed and carried out into the open air.
"Why, Lennox, man," he said laughingly, "you handle those bags as if they were tea. Aren't you afraid that some of them will explode?"
"Not he," said Dickenson, who was looking on and holding up the second lantern. "No danger. I'm here. I've been watching so that he shouldn't light a cigarette."
There was a titter from the men near, and Captain Roby cried impatiently, "Why, there's enough to have blown the top off the kopje and destroyed the big gun."
"Thoroughly, I should say, wedged-in there as it was," said Dickenson. "How much more is there, Lennox?"
"That's all," was the reply. "No, no. There's a great rift here to the right, full too."
"Hand it out, then, quickly," said Captain Roby. "Be careful there with your rifles; if a man lets his off by accident we shall all be blown to atoms."
"They'll take care," said Captain Edwards; "eh, my lads?"
"Rather, sir!" said the sergeant grimly; and all worked hard and carefully avoided the lanterns, till Lennox announced that the second rift had given out its last bag.
"Yes, that's all," he said; "but I want to know how they got it up here."
"They managed to get it up in the dark," said Captain Roby. "There, you may open a lantern now. Is there any sign of a train, Lennox?"
"Not the ghost of one. But I expect our friend meant to blow up the gun and do as much damage as he could besides. We were none too soon. Now what about the other? he must be in here somewhere. Shall I lead on, sir?"
"Yes," said Captain Roby sharply. "Take the sergeant with one lantern and ten men. I'll follow with the other lantern and ten more. You, Captain Edwards, keep a guard over the powder and the prisoner. Of course your men will be ready to receive any one trying to escape after avoiding our search."
"Right," was the answer; and sword in one hand, revolver in the other, Lennox and Dickenson began their advance into the maze-like cavern, closely followed by the sergeant holding the lantern well on high so that its rays kept on flashing from the men's bayonets.
"Keep your eyes well skinned, Drew, old chap," whispered Dickenson, "and never mind your revolver. You're sure to miss in a place like this.— You behind, lads. The bayonet, mind, whenever our friend here makes a rush; he must be stopped."
There was a low murmur of assent from the men, and then, with eyes and bayonets gleaming strangely in the dancing light, the party moved steadily on into the weird darkness of the cave.
THE PLOT THAT FAILED.
The searchers' way was now a narrow crack such as might have been formed by some mighty convulsion of nature which tore apart a gigantic mass of stone, the fracture running here and there where veins of some softer material had yielded, to be separated sometimes only two or three feet, and at others opening out to form rugged chambers as much as twenty feet in extent, whose roofs ran up so high, that the dim light from the lanterns failed to reach them. Here and there were niches and crevices which were carefully searched in the expectation of their proving to be hiding-places; but the men, who forced their way in without hesitation, failed to obtain any result.
Upon reaching one which seemed to be the deepest, Dickenson, who was first to notice it, paused to shout, "Now, Dirck, old chap, come out and surrender before we fire."
"No, no," cried Lennox; "how do we know but what there may be quite a store of powder farther in?"
"But it looks such an awkward place," said Dickenson. "A fellow with a bayonet might keep a regiment at bay."
"Yes," said Lennox coolly; "it looks awkward, but come on."
As he spoke he pushed by, sword in hand, and began to explore the suspicious-looking rift.
"Oh, come; play fair," cried Dickenson. "I was first."
"Come along," said Lennox, with his voice sounding smothered.
"Oh, very well," grumbled Dickenson. "Bring the lantern, sergeant. We may as well see ourselves skewered."
He plunged in hastily, closely followed by the lantern-bearer, and as it seemed to be an extremely likely hiding-place, the rest of the party were halted ready to give assistance. But at the end of a minute the lantern had shown that it was a blind lead, and the explorers hurried back, and the advance was continued through narrow crack and rough opening, till the lights threw up the blank stone where the rift suddenly contracted.
"Why, here's the end of the cave!" cried Captain Roby. "We must have passed him somewhere."
"Then he is hiding somewhere high up on a shelf by the roof."
"No, no; look here," cried Lennox, stepping in advance. "Lantern— quick!"
Sergeant James stepped forward to where the young lieutenant was standing by a rough opening in the floor of the cavern, and upon the light being directed downward, to the surprise of all, the rugged branch of a small tree could be seen lowered down into a sloping position, with its boughs cut short off to form rough steps, their regularity suggesting that they were near akin in their growth to those of a fir, and affording good foot and hand hold to any one wishing to descend.
"We're on his track, sure enough," said Lennox, letting his blade hang from his wrist by the sword-knot, and beginning to descend quickly, the sergeant with the light closely following.
The next minute the leaders of the party were in a wide and spacious chamber, fairly level as to its floor, with the sides running into rugged niches and holes, all of which were well searched, without avail, a couple of men being left, sentry-like, at one which ran down like a sloping passage into some lower place.
Along this, as soon as the big chamber had proved to be empty, Lennox hurried. The descent was very steep and rugged, and necessitated his lowering himself down by his hands in two or three places, till a lower story, so to speak, was reached, in the shape of a vast chamber of the most irregular form, the whole party assembling about the entrance, where the lights were held-up, to show dimly what seemed to be huge, rounded lumps placed here and there upon heaps of broken stones or blocks which had fallen from the roof some ten or a dozen feet overhead, while at one end the top of the cave sloped down to join the rising floor.
"This seems to be the bottom of the cave," said Captain Roby. "Now, sharp, my lads. Keep that way out safe."
"Which?" said Dickenson. "Here's another hole in the floor. Lantern here. Yes, there's another private staircase with a flight of steps ready. This ought to be the well. Yes; come and listen. You can hear water rushing."
Sure enough, as they bent over the gloomy, mysterious-looking hole, up which a cool, moist breath of air arose, they could hear the gurgling rush of hurrying water, while the light held down showed the rugged bark of another tree ready for descent.
"Will you go down, Lennox?" said the captain.
"Oh yes, I'll go down," was the reply.
"Well, undress," said Dickenson banteringly. "It means a swim. Don't spoil your neat uniform."
"Will you go?" asked Lennox sharply.
"Oh yes, I'll go," said Dickenson.
"Thank you," replied Lennox through his set teeth.—"Here, sergeant, give me the lantern."
Catching it from the man, he planted his foot upon the first branch stump a foot below the edge of the yawning hole; but the moment he touched it a violent jerk was given to the tree-trunk, just as if it had been seized by some one below and wrenched round.
Lennox's position was so insecure, with one hand holding the lantern, that he was thrown off his balance, and he would have fallen headlong down but for the snatch he made at the sergeant, who also caught at him, slipped, and the two were nearly precipitated down the horrible place at the bottom of which the water was rushing with a hollow, echoing, whispering sound.
The tree saved them, the sergeant getting a firm hold; but between them the light of the lantern was shut off, hidden between the two men for the moment, and an attempt was made by Dickenson to reach and drag it up.
"I've got it," he cried. "Let it come. No, I haven't; mind."
For it had slipped through his fingers, and it went clattering down the rough, well-like place, striking against one of the projecting stumps of the tree-trunk, which turned it right over and threw it with an echoing crash against the wall, lit it up for a moment, and then the flame within was extinguished.
"Yah!" roared Captain Roby as the place was plunged into absolute darkness. "Here, bring up the other lantern."
There was silence, broken by panting and scuffling as of two men engaged in a struggle.
Then Sergeant James said hoarsely, "All right, sir?"
"Yes," panted Lennox, "but I thought I was gone."
"Who has got that other lantern?" asked the captain.
"It went out, sir," came in a husky tone from its bearer.
"Bah!" exclaimed Captain Roby. "Here, two of you make your way back to the top; be smart, and bring two more lanterns."
There was a low, hissing sound as of men all drawing in a deep breath at the same time, and before the captain could repeat his command a peculiar sound came up the hole.
"Look out!" cried Lennox. "Bayonets here! Some one is coming up."
Sergeant James sank upon his knees in the darkness, felt about for the edge of the hole, and then leaning over, seized hold of the tree-trunk, and whispered, "Some one's trying to drag it down, sir." Then in a stentorian voice: "Ahoy there! Fire straight down, my lads!"
There was a final jerk given to the trunk, next a grating and scratching sound against the wall, and then a rushing noise caused by the dislodging of a stone which fell with a crash, sending echoes repeating themselves far below, and after what seemed to be a measurable space of time there was a dull plosh as the stone plunged into water.
"Well," said Dickenson, breaking the silence as all about him stood breathlessly listening for the next sound, "I'm rather glad that wasn't I."
"Attention!" cried Captain Roby angrily as two or three of the men burst into a half-smothered guffaw. "Who has a match?"
"I have," said Dickenson, striking a wax vesta as he spoke, the bright flash being followed by the feeble little taper flame; "but it's nearly the last. Bring that lantern here."
There was a quick response, the bearer opening the door with fumbling fingers, and as he held the rapidly burning-down match Dickenson drew the pricker from his belt, held the light close, and began to operate on the wick of the little lamp inside the lantern.
"Only slipped down," he said. "Wick was too small. Hold the lantern still, man. That's better. I shall get it up directly."
The scratching of the sharp steel point sounded quite loudly on the socket of the lamp as the wick kept eluding the efforts made, and the faint light threw up the grim faces around in a strangely weird way, while not another sound was heard but the hissing rush of the water far below, till suddenly there was a sharp bang, the lantern was nearly knocked out of its holder's hand, and Dickenson yelled, "Oh Gemini!"
They were in utter darkness once more.
"Bah!" cried Roby. "How careless!"
"Burned down to my fingers," said Dickenson coolly out of the black darkness. "Do you know, I don't believe a bullet going into you hurts a bit more than being burned like that."
"For goodness' sake strike another match, Mr Dickenson," cried the captain angrily.
"Fumbling for it now, sir. Doesn't seem as if there are any more. Yes, here's one little joker hiding in a corner. Got him!"
Scr-r-r-itch! went the little match, and flashed into a bright flame which formed an arch in the air and disappeared down the yawning pit.
"Why, you left go!" cried Captain Roby.
"No wonder if I did, after burning my fingers so," grumbled Dickenson; "but I didn't, for I've got the wax here. Top jumped off."
Then there was a tinkling sound as he shook the little silver box he held.
"Hurrah!" he cried. "Here's one more. Ready with that lantern, my lad?"
"Take the lamp out and let me try if I can get the wick up with the pricker before I strike the match."
The men's breathing could be heard as they stood, with every nerve on the strain, listening to the scraping, scratching sound made in the excitement and dread caused by the horrible darkness; for there was not a man present, from officer to the youngest private, who had much faith that they would find the way back to the mouth of the cavern.
"For goodness' sake mind you don't drop the match, Mr Dickenson," said the captain suddenly.
"Trust me, sir," said Dickenson coolly.—"Ah, would you slip back into the paraffin. Come out," he continued, apostrophising the wick he was pricking at. "Phew! How nasty it makes one's fingers smell! Bravo! Got him at last."
"Tut, tut, tut!" ejaculated the captain impatiently.
"Wait till I've opened the wick a little more. That's it! Here, what am I to wipe my fingers on?"
"Oh, never mind your fingers, man," cried Captain Roby.
"But they're quite slippery, sir."
"Rub 'em on my sleeve, sir," growled Sergeant James.
"Thankye, sergeant, but I've just polished them on my own."
Click! click! went the lamp as it was thrust back into the lantern, and there was once more the sound of men drawing their breath hard—a sound that was checked suddenly as the last match was heard to tinkle in the silver box.
"Got him!" said Dickenson audibly as he talked to himself. "Now then, ready with the lantern?" he said aloud.
"Give me elbow-room, all of you."
There was the sound of men shrinking back.
"Now then," said Dickenson, "here goes! I hope the head won't come off this time."
Fuzz! and directly after fuzz! but no light followed the rubbing of the match.
"Why, it has got no head," cried the striker in dismay, and at this announcement the men uttered a groan. "All right," cried Dickenson cheerily. "I was rubbing its tail instead of the head."
Cr-r-r-r-r-r-ch! went the match; there was a burst of flame, followed at a trifling interval by the steady glow of the tiny taper, and the young officer's fingers were lit up and seen to bear the flame to the lantern lamp, which caught at once and blazed up, when the door was shut with a click, and the men exhaled their pent-up breath in a hearty cheer.
"Well done!" said Captain Roby. "Here, I'll lead now; or would you like to continue what you began, Mr Lennox?"
The latter looked at him, and seemed to hesitate.
"Oh, very well," said Roby rather contemptuously. "I'll lead myself."
"No, no; you misunderstood me," cried Lennox as Dickenson turned upon him wonderingly. "I want to go on."
"I don't want to rob you of your chance," said Roby.—"Here, Mr Dickenson, what two men went back to fetch those lights?"
"Corporal May and Channings tried to feel their way, sir, but they found the job hopeless."
"But I gave orders."
"Yes, sir," said Dickenson; "but they could not find their way."
"I'll speak about this later on," said Roby. "Now then, Mr Lennox, are you ready?"
"Yes, sir," was the reply as the young officer stood waiting for Sergeant James, who had slipped off his scarf, passed it through the handle of the lantern, and was securing it to his waist.
"Then forward!" cried Roby.
"Better let me lead, sir, on account of the light," half-whispered the sergeant; "then you can be ready to give point at any one who comes at me."
"No," said Lennox firmly; "I must lead. Leave your rifle, and follow me, bayonet in hand."
He stepped to the mouth of the pit, tried the ladder-like contrivance, found it fairly firm, and began to descend as fast as he could; while, risking the strength of the wood, the sergeant stepped on as soon as there was room and followed, shedding the dancing light's rays on the weird-looking walls of the place.
Dickenson went next, and the captain followed, to find those in front waiting upon a fairly wide shelf, upon which the bottom of the tree was propped, while beneath it, and sloping now, the well-like pit went down into the black darkness, up from which the hollow, echoing rush of water came in a way which made some of the stoutest present shudder.
The shelf was at the mouth of a low archway which proved, upon the lantern being held up, to be the entrance to another of the ramifications of the great series of caves with which the kopje was honeycombed. Here within a few yards lay the first lantern, which had rebounded on falling and rolled down into a narrow crack in the flooring, a rift which ran from somewhere ahead, draining the interior of the cavern passage, and bearing a tiny stream of water to join the rushing waters below, these being undoubtedly the source of the perennial stream which issued from the foot of the kopje.
One of the men pounced upon the lantern at once, to find that, though the glass was much cracked, it was perfectly ready for use; and there was a short delay while it was relit without application to the one the sergeant had just detached, one of the men having now recalled that he had a tin box of matches nearly full.
The moment this was done Captain Roby gave the order to advance. He sent the lantern-bearers forward with orders to keep to right and left; and at the end of about a hundred feet, where the cavern chamber was beginning to contract, he called aloud for them to halt.
"Now, Mr Lennox," he cried, "advance with six men abreast in a line with the lights, and make ready to fire if the man in front does not surrender. Attention!"
His orders echoed along the roof of what seemed to be quite a narrow passage in front, and the men listened till the last echoes died out, when Captain Roby spoke again.
"Hoi, there, you Boer in hiding!" he cried. "Your comrade's a prisoner, and if you wish to save your life, surrender too."
The captain waited, but there was no reply, and the word was given to advance again, when suddenly from out of the darkness beyond the range of the lights there came the sharp, clear click! click! of a piece being cocked.
"There's the answer, Mr Lennox," said the captain. "Give your orders, and clear the place."
"No, stop; I surrender," came from a hoarse voice speaking in broken English. "Tell your men not to shoot."
"Come forward," cried Lennox, "and give up your piece."
He stepped towards the spot from whence the voice had come, to see the crossing lights of the two lanterns centre upon the broad, familiar face of one of the Boers who had been captured, and who had returned with the loaded wagons and the powder-bags, of which the last portion had been secured a short time before.
The man halted, and stood with his rifle presented at the young officer's breast.
"One man can't fight against a hundred," he growled.
"Only with treachery and deceit," said Lennox sternly. "Give up your rifle, you cowardly dog."
"Not till you give your English word that I shall not be shot," replied the Boer.
"I'll give the order for you to be shot down if you don't give up your piece," cried Lennox angrily.
"You give the word that I shall only be a prisoner, or I'll shoot you through the heart," cried the Boer harshly.
"I give no word. Surrender unconditionally," cried Lennox, whose blood was up.
"Give your word, you miserable rooinek!" growled the Boer, whose teeth shone in the light, giving him the aspect of some fierce beast at bay. "Give your word. You're covered—your word of honour, or I'll fire."
"Fire!" shouted Captain Roby from behind; but the six men halted before obeying the ill-judged command. For, in response to the Boer's threat, Lennox had sprung forward to strike at the presented piece, the edge of his sword clicking loudly against the barrel of the rifle, turning it sufficiently aside to disorder the desperate man's aim, so that the bullet whistled by him and over the heads of his men, before sending a little shower of granite splinters and dust from the side of the cavern.
Before the Boer could fire again Lennox had him by the throat, and in another minute he was held up against the cavern wall by three men with their bayonets, while the sergeant wrested the rifle from his hands and tore away the man's well-filled bandolier.
"Ah!" he snarled; "cowards again. Always cowards, since the day when you ran away from us at Majuba."
"Hold your tongue, sir, before you are hurt by some of the men who know that they have one of the bravo miscreants before them who lay powder-mines ready to destroy those they dare not fight in the open field."
"Tell the dog I'll have him gagged as well as bound if he does not keep his tongue quiet," said Captain Roby, coming up.
The Boer laughed mockingly; and Captain Roby, who seemed unable to restrain the anger rising within him, turned away.
"See that he has no revolver, Lennox," he said hoarsely, "and try to find out whether he has any companions."
"He wouldn't say if he had," replied Lennox; "but we'll soon search and see. Sergeant James is making him fast. Yes, he had a revolver," he continued as he saw the sergeant take the weapon and thrust it inside his belt.
The next minute the prisoner was secure between two men, and the light-bearers went forward, to be brought to a standstill almost directly by the contraction of the cellar-like place, out of which there was no way in that direction.
Having satisfied themselves of this, the party hastened back to the tree, and stood looking about for a time, examining a few cracks and rifts, before the orders were given to mount to the upper cave—a risky and unpleasant task, for the tree-trunk was loose. The men, however, for the most part made light of it, and as soon as the big chamber was reached they proceeded to thoroughly examine that, when, to the delight of all, its real character of a hiding-place and storehouse belonging to one of the native tribes was revealed: for scores of huge woven baskets were piled-up, looking at a few yards' distance, with no better illumination than the military lamps, like masses of rock, but containing hundreds upon hundreds of bushels of hard, sweet corn, failing which there would soon have been only one chance of escape for the detachment, and that by a bold attempt to cut their way through.
The search was continued, but nothing more rewarded their efforts. There was the ample supply of corn, stored up by some tribe, and outside the bags of gunpowder hidden by the Boers, whose plan was quite evident, and thoroughly realised by all who had discovered the entrance—to blow up the great gun captured from them and destroy the stronghold that checked their advance.
Before long a sentry was marching up and down in front of that ingenious specimen of native work, the big stone entrance to the cave which ran so easily upon a pivot; while the detachment in charge of the big gun talked shudderingly of the risk they had unknowingly been running, for, given a little longer time and the right opportunity, their two crafty enemies would undoubtedly have fired their mine and blown the greater part of the kopje-top into the air.
"I was growing anxious over the long silence," said the colonel, smiling, after he had been made aware or the success attending the party that had hurried up at the alarm, and after he had examined the prisoners; "but you have done a splendid night's work—cleared away an impending danger, and secured a storehouse of com sufficient for a whole month."
"A month or more," said Captain Roby.
"Ha! Then we can hold out and wait. But about these prisoners. Here, major, what do you say?"
"Humph!" ejaculated the major. "Two of the treacherous hounds who deceived us, and whom we let go to fetch us supplies."
"And came back to blow us up," said the colonel.
"Failed in that," said Captain Roby, "and then started another cold-blooded, treacherous plan."
"Yes," said the colonel, "based upon the knowledge they must have wrung from one of the native tribes they have oppressed. Well, gentlemen, we have two of the miscreant spies. What next?"
"The fate of spies," said Captain Roby. "I think it is due to our men that they should be shot."
"Kept prisoners till we can hand them over to the general, and let him decide," said the major. "What do you say, Edwards?"
"They are prisoners, and beaten," said the captain. "Yes, I side with you."
"Two against you, Roby," said the colonel.—"Well, Lennox—and you, Dickenson—you may as well give your opinion. What do you say, Dickenson?"
"I should like to see that black-haired brute tied up and flogged, sir."
"Should you?" said the colonel, smiling. "Well, I dare say he deserves it; but it is not the punishment we can give a prisoner, so your opinion will stand alone.—Well, Lennox?"
"Oh, it's all war, sir; and the fellows are half-savage peasants who hate us like poison. You can't shoot them, sir, for fighting their best—their way."
"No, Mr Lennox, I can't shoot them; but it will be a horrible nuisance to have to keep them as prisoners. I wish they had died fighting like brave men. As it is they will have to live prisoners till the war is at an end. Now then, about where to place them."
"Here, I know, sir," said Dickenson, laughing. "Shut them up in the kopje. They'll be quite at home there."
"No," said Lennox, joining in his comrade's merriment; "don't trust them there, sir. They're malicious enough to spend their time destroying all the corn."
"Well done, Lennox!" said the colonel emphatically. "I'm glad you spoke, for before anything was said I had determined to make their hiding-place their prison. You are right. That would not do at all.— Roby, you must have your prisoners placed in the safest hut that you can find, and let a sentry share their prison, for they must never be left alone. Now, gentlemen: bed."
THE LOST MAN.
"Yes, sir, I'm very sorry, and feel that it's a great disgrace," said Colour-Sergeant James.
"Sorry!" said Captain Roby contemptuously.
"It's all I can be, sir," said the sergeant sadly. "I'm not going to defend myself."
"But how could you miss him when the roll was called?"
"I don't know, sir. I suppose it was all due to the excitement and being fagged out with what we'd gone through in that black hole."
"Black hole!" cried Roby. "You deserve the Black Hole yourself, sergeant."
"Yes, sir. I thought he answered, but the poor fellow must have lost his way somehow, and have got left behind."
"It's horrible," cried Roby. "I don't know what's to be done."
"Go in search of the poor fellow at once. It's enough to send a man out of his mind," broke in Lennox impatiently.
"I did not ask you for your opinion, Mr Lennox," said the captain coldly.—"Here, James, come with me to the colonel at once."
"Yes, sir," said the sergeant, and he followed his superior.
"What nonsense!" cried Dickenson. "Here, Drew, old man, let's go on up to the hole at once with half-a-dozen men and lanterns."
"That's what I wanted to do," said Lennox bitterly; "but I suppose it would be going against discipline."
"Going against your grandmother! Hesitate, when the poor fellow may be dying of fright? He is rather a chicken-hearted sort of a customer."
"So would you be if you lost yourself in that dismal hole."
"True, oh king! I should sit down in a fit of the horrors, and howl for my mother till I cried myself to sleep."
"No, you wouldn't, Bob. But old Roby does make me set up my bristles sometimes. I don't know what's come to him lately."
"I know what I should like to see come to him."
"A good licking."
"Yes, to be followed by court-martial."
"Not if a Boer did it," said Dickenson, chuckling.
"What are you laughing at?"
"Thoughts, dear boy. Only thinking of what a lark it would be if he began bullying one of our prisoners—say Blackbeard—and the savage old Boer slipped into him with his fists. I shouldn't hurry to help him more than I could help."
"Don't humbug," said Lennox.
"I tell you I shouldn't. Look here, Drew, old chap, you haven't found me out yet. I'm not half such a nice young angel as you think."
"Hold your row; here's James." For the sergeant came hurrying in.—"Well?"
"Search party of twenty directly, gentlemen. Colonel sends word that you two are to come with us."
"Right," cried Lennox excitedly. "What did the colonel say?"
"'Poor fellow!' sir; and then he turned on the captain, sir."
"Yes," cried Dickenson eagerly, "What did he say to him?"
"Why the something or another hadn't he gone to look for Corporal May at once?"
"Bravo!" said Dickenson; and Lennox, who was buckling on his sword hurriedly, felt better.
"But how about you, James? Are you going to be degraded for neglect?" said Dickenson as they hurried out to join the men already assembled.
"No, sir," replied the sergeant, with a broad smile spreading over his manly countenance. "The colonel heard all I had to say in defence, and he just says, 'Bad job, sergeant—accident.'—You know his short way, sir?—Then, 'Be off and get your men together; find the poor fellow as soon as you can.'"
Captain Roby was just hurrying to a group of men waiting to make the start, when Sergeant James came up, carrying all the lanterns he could muster in a bunch. "Come, gentlemen," he said sharply; "make haste, please. Have you plenty of matches, sergeant?"
"Fall in, my lads. Here, stop. No rifles; only your bayonets."
The firearms were returned to their quarters, and a couple of minutes later the search party were on their way to the kopje.
"Beg pardon, sir," said the sergeant, suddenly breaking from his place to address the captain; "wouldn't it be better to take a long rope with us?"
"What for?" said Roby angrily. "For the men to hold on by in case any one should be lost? Absurd!"
The sergeant was returning to his place, and Lennox and Dickenson exchanging glances, when the captain altered his mind.
"Yes," he said; "on second thoughts, we may as well take a coil. Hurry back and fetch one, sergeant."
The latter handed his bunch of lanterns to one of the men, and went off back to quarters at the double, while the party marched on.
"Fasting doesn't do old Cantankerous any good," said Dickenson in a half-whisper.
"Quiet! Quiet! He'll be hearing you and getting worse," said Lennox.
"Impossible!" grunted Dickenson. "He wants a week's good feeding or a fit of illness to do him good. He's going sour all over."
The sergeant did not overtake the party till they were close upon the entrance to the cave, where a sentry was pacing up and down; and now a sudden thought struck Roby.
"Here, sergeant," he cried angrily as the latter hurried up, rather breathless with his exertions. "How are we to get into the place? You haven't brought a crowbar to move the stone."
"No, sir. Left it hidden close by last night."
"Oh!" grunted Roby, halting the men; while the sergeant handed the coil of rope to one of them, who slipped it on over head and one shoulder, to wear it like a scarf; and James went on a few yards to a crack in the side of the rocky wall, thrust in his arm, drew out the bar, and trotted back to the opening, inserted the chisel, and raised the stone about an inch, when it turned upon its pivot directly.
"Wonderfully well made," said Dickenson. "One might have passed it a hundred times."
"Silence in the ranks!" cried Roby sternly; and the sergeant stepped into the dark hole at once, placed his hands one on either side of his lips, and gave a tremendous hail.
All listened to the shout, which went echoing through the passages and chambers of the cavern; but there was no reply, nor yet to half-a-dozen more hails.
"Tut, tut, tut!" ejaculated Roby. "I expected to find him waiting close to the entrance. Lanterns."
The men were already inside lighting them, eight being rapidly got ready; and once more the party began to traverse the weird place, but under far more favourable circumstances, the line of golden dots formed by the lanterns giving every one a far better opportunity of judging what the place was like.
At every turn in the crooked way a halt was called, and a fresh series of hails went echoing on before them; but not so much as a whisper of an answer greeted their ears.
"The poor fellow must have become tired out with waiting," said Captain Roby, "and dropped off to sleep."
"He sleeps pretty soundly, then," whispered Dickenson, who was in front with Lennox, following the sergeant, who carried the first lantern.
"Ought to have been woke up by that last shout, though," said Lennox. "What do you say, sergeant?"
"I'm afraid we shall come upon him soon regularly off his head, gentlemen," said the sergeant, "He isn't the pluckiest chap in his company."
"Don't talk like that, sergeant," said Lennox sharply. "It's enough to drive any poor fellow crazy to find himself shut up in a place like this and feel that he may never be found."
"Well, yes," added Dickenson, "it is; without counting all the horrors he'd conjure up about bogies and things coming after him in the dark."
"I dare say, sir," said the sergeant; "though I don't suppose there's anything worse here than bats."
"Halt! Now, all together," cried the captain from behind, and another series of shouts were given.
There was no response, and the party went spreading out and examining every nook as they passed through the echoing chambers, but found nothing.
"Is it likely that he did come out with us?" said Lennox as they neared the second well-like opening over the rushing water.
"Can't say, sir," said the sergeant. "The last I saw of him was when we were down in the lowest place, advancing to meet the second prisoner. I just had a squint of his face then by the lantern, and it looked like tallow."
"Effect of the light," said Dickenson.
"No, sir. It was the getting down that tree and hearing the water."
"That's it, sergeant," said the nearest man behind. "I never thought of it till you said that."
"Thought of what?" said the sergeant roughly.
"'Bout what Corporal May said to me."
"What was it?"
"That it was enough to scare any one getting down such a ladder as that, and if he'd known, he'd have seen the service anywhere before he'd have come."
"Yes, he looked regularly scared, gentlemen," said the sergeant; and then he stopped short, swinging his lantern over the hole before him and showing the top of the tree ladder, while the gurgling, echoing whisper of the running water seemed to fill the air with strange sounds. But these were drowned directly by a fresh burst of hails, which went echoing away.
"Forward!" said the captain at last. "Steady in front, there. Be careful how you go down, men."
"Don't be alarmed, dear Roby," whispered Dickenson. "Just as if we shouldn't be careful of our invaluable necks."
There was plenty of light now, for Lennox carried a lantern on going down after the sergeant, who had gone first, and stood at the bottom holding up his own, while four more were held over the yawning pit from the top. The men, too, were in better trim for the descent, knowing as they did the worst of what they had to encounter, so that they went down pluckily enough, in spite of the tree quivering and threatening to turn round, till it was held more steadily at both ends.
Then, as all crowded into the archway and hailed once more, their shouts seemed to return to them faintly from the arrow-shaped hollow, which from being broad at first went off nearly to a point, and more weirdly still from the continuation of the pit where the water ran.
"I'm beginning to be afraid he is not here," said the captain. "Open out, my lads, and thoroughly search every hollow and corner."
The men shouted again, with no result; and then they spread out like a fan and advanced, searching behind every stone, right on past the spot where the second Boer had been captured, and on once more till the cavern narrowed in and there was only room to creep.