"Hold the light closer, sergeant," said Lennox.
"See anything?" cried Roby from just behind him.
"Can't tell yet, sir.—What's that, sergeant?"
For answer the sergeant went down on his hands and knees and advanced, pushing his lantern before him.
"There, you needn't do that," said Roby impatiently. "The man's not here. It's a false alarm. He wasn't left behind, and we shall find him somewhere, when we get back to quarters. Come out, sergeant. I'm sick of this."
"But there's something here, sir."
"Eh? What is it?"
The sergeant thrust something behind him, and Lennox went down on hands and knees, reached into the narrow hole, which the sergeant nearly filled, and snatched the object from the man's hand.
"His helmet!" cried Lennox excitedly, and he too passed it back to where Roby and Dickenson were, and they examined the recovered headpiece.
"Oh, there's no doubt about it," said Dickenson. "Look here," he cried as Lennox and the sergeant came back; "what do you make of this?"
"Oh! it's the poor fellow's helmet, gentlemen," said the sergeant. "Look at his number, sir."
"Then where is he? Is there any opening in yonder?"
"Not room for a rat, sir. Seems as if he must have been left behind and felt his way in there to sleep. Look here, sir; I found these too."
The speaker held out a short black pipe with a little blackened, lately-smoked tobacco at the bottom, and a tin box containing plenty of matches.
"Why, he had all these and never said a word when I was so hard pushed," cried Dickenson.
"I expect he was in too much of a stoo to remember them, sir," said the sergeant. "He must have been precious queer, or he wouldn't have left these and his helmet behind."
"He was nearly off his chump, sergeant, with having to come down," said the man with the short memory.
"Then he has been here!" cried Captain Roby. "But where is he now?"
As if moved by one impulse, every one present turned sharply round to look in the direction of the archway beyond which the sloping continuation of the entrance-pit went on down to the running water. No one spoke, but all thought horrors; and Lennox acted, for, snatching a lantern from the nearest bearer, he ran as fast as the rugged floor would let him, back to the archway, took hold of the tree-trunk, and leaned over the horrible hole, swinging the light downward, while those who watched him, looking weird and strange in the distance, heard him shout loudly, and listened to hear, very faintly rising from far below, a faintly uttered, hollow moan.
FISHING WITH A ROPE.
"Forward!" cried Captain Roby loudly.
"Forward!" said a wonderfully exact echo from the pit, and the cavern chamber seemed to burst into strange, echoing repetitions of the confused trampling and rushing and thundering of feet, as, with the dancing lanterns, the men sprang forward to render help.
"He's down here," cried Lennox in excitement. "Silence, all of you!"
Captain Roby looked annoyed at the way in which his subaltern officer seemed to take the lead; but he said nothing then, only stood frowning, while in the midst of a breathless silence Lennox leaned over the dangerous-looking place and hailed again.
"Corporal! Are you down there?"
There was no response, and once more he hailed.
This time there was a piteous moan.
"Oh! there's no doubt about it," cried Lennox. "Tie a lantern to the rope and lower it down. Let's see where he is."
"Thank you, Mr Lennox," said Roby coldly. "I will give the necessary orders."
"I beg pardon, sir," said Lennox, drawing back; but as he glanced aside he saw that the sergeant was busy with the end of the rope, fastening it to the handle of one of the lanterns, and the man who had slipped it off his shoulder was rapidly uncoiling the ring.
"Anybody got a flask?" said Dickenson. "We might send him down a reviver with the light."
But there was no reply, flasks being rarities at Groenfontein, and such as there were did not contain a drop. By this time the lantern was ready, and Sergeant James glanced at the captain, who signed to him to lower away.
Directly after, the descending lantern was lighting up the sides of the gulf, which were not six feet apart; but how far the great crack-like place extended they could not see, the light penetrating but a little distance, and then all was black darkness, out of which, from far below, there came up the murmuring, gurgling rush of the running water.
As for the lantern, as soon as it was lowered down it ceased swinging, coming with a sharp tap against smooth rock which went downward in a pretty regular slope, but so steep that the lantern lay upon its side and glided down as fast as the men could pay out the rope.
"I sha'n't have length enough, I'm afraid, sir," said the sergeant, who leaned over the edge.
"Then why didn't you bring more?" cried the captain angrily.
The sergeant was silent, and grate! grate! grate! the lantern went on down over the rock face, which sparkled with moisture, for an exceedingly thin sheet of water glistened and went on wearing it down as it probably had from the time the great kopje cavern was formed.
But still there was no sign of the missing man—nothing but glistening rock, and beyond that darkness.
"How much more rope have you?" said the sergeant in a whisper.
"'Bout a dozen feet," said the man who was passing it to him from behind.
"Swing the lantern to and fro," cried the captain sharply.
"It won't swing, sir," replied the sergeant. "If I try, it will only roll over on to its face."
"Never mind; you haven't tried. Now swing it," cried Roby.
"Bottom," cried the sergeant, for the lantern stopped short, and down beneath it there was a flash and a quivering reflection, showing that it was close to the flowing water.
"What is it resting on?" said Lennox eagerly, for he had forgotten the snub he had received and was all eagerness to help. "I didn't hear it click on rock."
"Just what I was thinking, sir," replied the sergeant, lifting the suspended lantern again and letting it descend once more.
"I wish to goodness, Mr Lennox, that you would not keep on interfering," cried Captain Roby angrily.—"Now, sergeant, what do you make out?"
"Rests on something soft, sir. No; it's hit against something hard. Why, it's metal—a buckle."
"I know," cried Lennox, forgetting himself again. "You've lowered it right down on to the poor fellow, and he's above the water."
"Mr—" began the captain angrily, but his words were drowned in the hearty cheer given by the men.—"Silence!" cried Captain Roby, and leaning over, he shouted down the horrible-looking pit.—"Unfasten the rope from the lantern," he said, "and tie it tightly round your breast. Don't be frightened now: we'll soon have you out."
There was no response.
"Tut, tut, tut!" went the captain again. "Some one will have to go down. Who'll volunteer?"
"I will, sir," cried Lennox excitedly, before any one else could answer.
The captain was silent for a few moments, and then, in a way that seemed to suggest that he had been trying to find some objection to giving his consent, "Very well, Mr Lennox," he said.—"Here, sergeant, haul up the light again."
This was rapidly done, the lantern set free, and the rope tied securely just beneath the young man's arms.
"How will you have the lantern, sir?" said the sergeant.
"I will see to that, James," said the captain. "Unfasten your belt, Mr Lennox, and pass it through the ring of the lantern so that it can hang to your waist and leave your hands free."
"Just as if we didn't know!" said the sergeant to himself as he helped in this arrangement.
"Sure the knot will not slip, sergeant?" said Lennox.
"Oh, it won't come undone, sir. If it moves at all, it will be to get tighter."
"That is what I meant. I want to breathe."
"Less talking there," said the captain. "Recollect that a man's life is in danger. If you feel any compunction about going, Mr Lennox, make way for one of the men."
"Ready, sir, and waiting for your orders," said Lennox quietly.
"Very well. Now then, lower away."
The sergeant took a firm hold of the rope, and whispered "Trust me, sir," to the explorer, who nodded and looked calmly enough in the sergeant's eyes, and gave way as he felt himself lifted off the stones upon which he stood and gently lowered down till he was half-hanging, half-sitting, against the sloping side of the rock. Then a few feet of the rope glided through the sergeant's hands, and Lennox stiffened himself out, to hang rigidly, feeling his back rest against the wet rock, over which he began to glide slowly, and then faster and faster as he was let down hand over hand, seeing nothing but the black darkness lit up like a quaint halo in front of him, and going down what he felt to be a terrible depth. He fought hard against one horrible thought which would trouble him: should he ever be pulled up again? And no sooner had he mastered this than another gruesome idea forced itself as it were out of the darkness in front, the words to his excited imagination seeming to be luminous: suppose the rope should break!
It is wonderful how much thought will compress itself into a minute. It was so here, these ideas repeating themselves again and again before the young man's feet touched something soft and yielding, and upon his stretching his legs wide he felt slippery rock.
"Hold on!" he shouted, and there was what sounded like a mocking chorus of "On—on—on—on!" beginning loudly and distinctly, and going right away into a faint whisper.
Turning himself a little on one side, Lennox bent outward so that the light of the lantern flashed from a narrow stream of water which, from the bubbles and foam, he could see was rushing towards him, to pass down under the ledge of rock upon which one foot rested; but now he was able to see what he wanted, and that was the missing corporal hanging face upward, but with head and neck over the edge of a block of stone which had checked his rapid slide down into the gulf, while the next moment the light showed that the poor fellow's legs were also hanging downward, the ledge being exceedingly narrow.
"Well?" cried Captain Roby. "Found him?"
"Yes, sir. Seems to be quite insensible. I can get my arms round him and hold him if you can haul us up. Will the rope bear us both?"
"No!" came in a roar from up above, every man, in his excitement, negativing the proposal.
"Silence, men!" cried the captain angrily. Then he shouted down, "It would be too risky. Here, I'll have the rope slackened, and you can untie it and make it fast round May's chest. I'll have him hauled up, and send the rope down again for you.—Slacken away, my lads."
The pressure on the rope ceased for a moment as it was slackened, and then it tightened with a jerk, and there was a loud, echoing splash as Lennox was plunged into rushing water to the waist, the sensation being as if he had been suddenly seized and was being dragged under into some great hole.
"Hold hard!" he roared, and the echoes seized upon the last word—"Hard—hard—hard!"—running right away again till it was a whisper.
"Why, what are you about?" cried Roby.
"Trying to save the light," panted Lennox. "There is no room to stand on the ledge with the poor fellow. Haul up a little more. My face is on a level with him now. Haul! haul! The water seems to suck me down. Ha!" he gasped; "that's better," and he wrenched himself round, catching at a piece of slippery rock that was against his waist, and looking for foothold, for a few moments in vain, till he saw a way out of his difficulty.
"How are you getting on?" cried the captain excitedly.
"I'm obliged to kneel right on the poor fellow," said Lennox; "there's so little room. He's alive—I can feel his heart beating. Keep the rope tight for a few minutes."
"Tight it is, sir," shouted Sergeant James.
"Look here, Lennox," cried Roby hoarsely; "can you unfasten the rope and tie it to the corporal? We can see nothing from up here."
"That's what I'm trying to find out, sir," replied Lennox.—"Yes, I think so."
"Think! You must be sure," cried Dickenson, whose voice sounded husky and strange. "Look here, I'm going to slide down to you."
"Silence!" roared the captain. "You will do nothing of the kind.—Look here, Lennox."
"I'm all attention, sir."
"If you can't do as I say I must send for another rope."
"No, no, it would be horrible to leave the poor fellow; he'd slip off the rock."
"Then you must stay with him."
"Very well, sir," said Lennox after a short pause.
"Ha! I think I can do it now I've found room to kneel."
"Bravo!" shouted Dickenson.
"Will you be silent, Mr Dickenson?" cried the captain.—"Now, Lennox, what are you doing?"
"Trying to get this knot undone, sir; it's so tight." At the end of a minute he cried, "I can't move the knot. I'm going to pass it over my head, and then make a noose and slip it round the corporal."
"Can you do that?"
"Yes, sir, I think so. Now slacken away all you can, but keep a tight hold in case I have to snatch at it again."
"Oh yes, they'll keep a tight hold.—Do you hear, Sergeant James?"
"Oh yes, sir, I hear," growled the sergeant, whose face glistened with the perspiration that streamed down from the gathering-place—his brow.
"How are you getting on?" cried the captain.
"Don't talk to me, please," panted Lennox. "I'm doing my best." There was a pause, and then, "I've got it off, and I'm going to pass it over his neck and shoulders now. It will compress his chest, but I can't help it."
"Don't study that; only get it fast. Ready?" continued the captain after another pause.
"Not quite yet. It is hard to get the loop over. I have to bend down to reach with one hand, and hold on with the other."
"Go on," said the captain.
A strange rustling sound came up, and then it seemed as if the rope was being flapped against the rock.
"Can't you do it?" shouted the captain.
"Not yet. I'm obliged to rest a minute."
"Oh dear! oh dear me!" panted Captain Roby in a tone of voice that seemed to suggest other words which indicated his idea that the young subaltern was very awkward.
"Got it at last!" came up. "I think so. Yes, I have him tight—right past his arms; he can't slip. Now, haul!"
"Haul!" echoed Captain Roby. "Quick!"
But Sergeant James knew better than that. The rope had to pass through his cautious hands, and he raised it gently.
"All right, sir?" he asked.
"Yes; haul," cried Lennox. "You have him now. Right; you're lifting him right off. I'll hold on to the rock. Be sharp, for it's a very awkward—"
The young subaltern's words were cut short at that moment by a most horrible, unearthly-sounding yell; for the tightening of the rope about the unfortunate corporal, and the steady strain as he was lifted from where he had lain so long, had the effect of arousing his dormant energies. Not realising that he was being helped, he had no sooner uttered his cry of horror than, as if suddenly galvanised into life, he began to struggle violently, tearing, kicking, and catching at something to hold on to for dear life.
Unfortunately, and consequent upon the slow way in which the rope was being drawn up, the first thing his right hand came in contact with was one of Lennox's arms, round which his fingers fastened as if they were of steel. The next moment his right hand was joined by his left and he clung desperately, dragging the young officer from the slippery edge of rock, and before Lennox could raise a hand to help himself and hold on in turn, and cling desperately in the hope that after all perhaps the rope might bear them both, the corporal's spasmodic clasp ended as quickly as it came. Those at the top felt the strain on the rope less, and those who were gazing down unoccupied saw the light suddenly extinguished, heard a terrible, echoing splash, followed by suckings and whisperings that seemed as if they would have no end.
For Lennox did not rise again, the rush of water bearing him rapidly down into the very bowels of the cavernous mass of rock.
THE CORPORAL RELATES.
The party at the head of the cavern stood for a few moments perfectly motionless, listening to the dying away of the strange gurglings and whispering echoes which followed the heavy splash, and then Dickenson uttered a wild cry of horror and despair.
"Pull!" he shouted. "Pull up!" and, spurred into action by his order, Sergeant James and the two men behind him who helped with the rope hauled away rapidly, till the rigid-looking form of the corporal rose out of the darkness into the light shed by the lanterns, to be seized by the sergeant and dragged into safety.
"Is he dead?" said Captain Roby hoarsely. "I dunno, sir," growled the sergeant, loosening the noose around the rigid sufferer, and then with a few quick drags unfastening the knot which had troubled Lennox in his helpless state.
"Silence a moment," cried the captain, "while I hail!" and he made the place echo with his repetitions of the subaltern's name.
There were answers enough, but given only by the mocking echoes; otherwise all below was still save the weird, rushing sound of the water.
"Here, what are you doing, Dickenson?" cried the captain, who suddenly became aware of the fact that the young lieutenant had seized the sergeant and was hindering him from securing the end of the rope about his chest.
"He's not going down: I am," cried Dickenson hoarsely.
"Yes; I think I'm going to leave my friend in a hole like this?"
"Hole indeed!" thought the captain. Then aloud: "Let him go down, sergeant. Here, two lanterns this time;" and as the sergeant obeyed and began securing the rope about Dickenson, Roby seized and began unbuckling the young officer's belt, and himself passed the stiff leather through the ring-handles of a couple of lanterns, and rebuckled the belt, adjusting it so that Dickenson had a light on either side.
"Ready, sergeant?" said the young officer sharply.
"All right, sir; that'll hold you safe."
"What are you going to do, Dickenson?" said Roby, in a voice that did not sound like his own.
"I don't know," cried the young officer, with a curious hysterical ring in his voice. "Go down.—See when I get below.—Now then, quick!—Lower away.—Fast!"
He began gliding down the sharp slope directly after.
"Faster!" shouted Dickenson before he was half-way down; and the sergeant let the rope pass through his hands as quickly as he could with safety let it go, while the lanterns lit up the glistening sides with weirdly-strange, flickering rays, till the rope was nearly all out and Dickenson stopped with a sudden jerk.
"Got him?" shouted Roby.
"No!" came up in a despairing groan. "I'm on a dripping ledge. Lower me a few feet more till I call to you to stop."
The sergeant obeyed, and the call came directly after. For there was a splash and the lights disappeared—not extinguished, but they seemed to glide under a black projection that stood out plainly as a rugged edge against the light, which made the water flash and sparkle as it could be seen gliding swiftly by.
"Well?" shouted Roby again.
"Hold on with the rope," came up. "The water's close up to the foot of the lanterns. If you let it any lower they will go out."
"Right, sir," roared Sergeant James.
"Now," shouted Roby; "see him?"
"No; the water goes down here in a whirlpool, round and round, and I can feel it sucking at me to drag me below."
"Yes, sir; I can feel it along the rope. Look at my arms," growled the sergeant.
There was a quick glance directed at the sergeant, and those who were nearest could see that, while his arms jerked and kept giving a little, the rope was playing and quivering in the light.
"Can't you see anything?" cried Roby wildly.
"Place like a big well ground in the rock," came up in hollow tones; "the water all comes here, and goes down a great sink-hole. Shall I cut myself free and dive?"
"No!" came simultaneously, in a hoarse yell, from a dozen throats.
"Madness!" shouted Roby. "Look round again; he may be clinging to the rocks somewhere."
Dickenson uttered a strange, mocking laugh, so loud and thrilling that it made his hearers shudder.
"There's nothing but this hole, smoothed round by the water. I can see all round."
"Yah!" roared the sergeant. "Haul!" For suddenly his arms received a heavy jerk which bent him nearly double, and the light which glowed down by the water disappeared; while, but for the rush made to get a grip at the rope by Roby and a couple more men, the sergeant would have gone down.
As it was, the sudden snatch made dragged him back; and then, without further order, the men hauled quickly and excitedly at the rope till Dickenson's strangely distorted face appeared in the light.
"Hold on!" shouted the sergeant, and stooping down, he got his hands well under his young officer's armpits, made a heave with all his strength, and jerked him out of the horrible pit on to the hard rock.
Roby had helped by seizing the sergeant and dragging him back as soon as he had a good hold, and it was his captain's eyes that Dickenson's first met in a wild, despairing look, before, dripping with water from the chest downwards and the lights both extinguished, he sank upon his knees and dropped his face into his hands, no one stirring or speaking in the few brief moments which followed, but all noticing that the poor fellow's chest was heaving and that a spasmodic sob escaped his lips.
The silence was broken by the sergeant, who stood rubbing his wet hands down the sides of his trousers.
"Thought I was gone too," he said huskily.
His words reached Dickenson's understanding, but not their full extent. His hands dropped to his lap, and he looked up, gazing round in a strangely bewildered way, his lower lip quivering, and his voice sounding pathetically apologetic.
"Yes," he said feebly, "I thought I was gone. The water seemed to rise up round me suddenly to snatch me down. I did all I could—all I could, Roby, but it seemed to make me as weak as a child. Look at that—look at that!" he groaned, holding out one arm, which shook as if with the palsy. Then clasping his hands together he let them drop, and gazed away before him into the darkness through the arch, and said, as if to himself, "I did all I could, Drew, old lad—I did all I could."
"Dickenson," whispered Roby, bending over him. "Come, come, pull yourself together. Be a man."
The poor fellow turned his head sharply, and gazed wildly into the speaker's eyes.
"Yes, yes," he said, and drawing a deep breath, he eagerly snatched at the hand held out to him and stood up. "Bit of a shock to a fellow's nerves. I never felt like that when we went at the Boers. Thank you, sergeant. Thank you, my lads. I never felt like that."
"No," said the captain quickly. "It would have unmanned any one."
"Did me, sir," said Sergeant James. "And I never felt like that."
"Ha!" sighed Dickenson, giving himself a shake, and beginning to unbuckle his belt to get rid of the dripping lanterns. "I'm better now. Ought I to go down again, sir?"
"Go down again, man?" cried Roby. "Good heavens, no! It would be madness to send any one into that horrible pit.—Here, I had forgotten Corporal May. Where is he?"
"We laid him down in yonder, sir," said one of the men, indicating the interior of the cavern with a nod.
"No, sir, I don't think so," was the reply as the captain passed through the archway, followed by the sergeant, who snatched up a lantern; while Dickenson turned to the great pit, steadied himself by the tree-trunk which led up, and gazed into the black place.
"Poor old Drew!" he groaned softly. "If it had only been together—in some advance!"
And then, soldier-like, he drew himself up as if standing to attention, turned, and went to his duty again, walking pretty steadily after Roby to join them where the sergeant was down on one knee with his hand thrust inside the corporal's jacket.
"Heart's beating off and on, sir," growled James. "I don't think he's hurt. Seems to me like what the doctor called shock."
"Yes. What did he say?"
"I dunno, sir. Sort of queer stuff: sounded like foolishness. I'm afraid he's off his head.—Here, May—me, May, my lad. Hold up. You're all right now."
The man opened his eyes, stared at him wildly, and his lips quivered.
"What say?" he whispered.
"I say, hold up now."
"Hurts," moaned the poor fellow, beginning to rub his chest. "Have I been asleep?"
"I hope so, my lad," said Roby, "for you have been saved a good deal if you have."
"Ugh!" groaned the man, with a shiver. "Mind that light don't go out. Here," he cried fiercely, "what did you go and leave me for?"
"Who went away and left you?"
"I recklect now. It was horrid. I dursen't try and climb that tree again with the water all cissing up to get at me."
"What!" cried Roby sharply.
"It was when the orders were given to retire, sir. I kept letting first one chap go and then another till I was last, and then I stood at the bottom trying to make up my mind to follow, till the lights up atop seemed to go out all at once. Then I turned cold and sick and all faint-like, holding on by the tree, till there was a horrid rush and a splash as if something was coming up to get at me, and I couldn't help it—I turned and ran back through that archway place in the big hole, feeling sure that the water was coming to sweep me away. 'Fore I'd gone far in the black darkness I ketched my foot on a stone, pitched forward on to my head, and then I don't remember any more for ever so long. It was just as if some one had hit me over the head with the butt of a rifle."
"Where's the lump, then, or the cut?" said Sergeant James sourly.
"Somewhere up atop there, sergeant. I dunno. Feel; I can't move my arms, they're so stiff."
The sergeant raised his lantern and passed his hand over the man's head.
"Lump as big as half an egg there, sir," he said in a whisper.
"It's a bad cut, ain't it, sergeant?" said the corporal.
"No; big lump—bruise."
"Ah, I thought it was a cut; but I'd forgotten all about it when I come to again in the dark, and couldn't make it out. My head was all of a swim like, and I couldn't recklect anything about what had happened, nor make out where I was, only that I was in the dark. All I could understand was that my head was aching awful and swimming round and round, and I seemed to have been fast asleep for hours and hours, and that I had woke up. That was all."
"Well, go on," said the sergeant, in obedience to a hint from Roby.
"Yes, direckly," said the man. "I'm trying to think, but my head don't go right. It's just as if some sand had got into the works. Ah, it's coming now. It was like waking up and finding myself in the dark, and not knowing how I got there."
"Well, you said that before," said the sergeant gruffly.
"Did I, sergeant? Well, that's right; and I tried to get up, but I couldn't stand, my head swam so. Then I got on my hands and knees, and began to crawl to the ladder; and I went on and kept stopping on account of my head, till I knocked against my helmet and put it on, and began crawling again, thinking I must be where I'd lain down and gone to sleep. Then I went on again for ever so long till I could go no farther, for I was in a place where the rock came down over my head so that I could touch it; but it was all narrow-like, and I was so tired that I lay down, got out my pipe, lit up, and had a smoke."
"What next?" said the sergeant, exchanging glances with Roby and Dickenson, who were listening.
"That's all," said the man quietly. "So I'll just have a nap to set my head right. It's a touch of fever, I think."
"Stop a moment, my lad," said Roby. "Can't you recollect what came next?"
"No, sir," said the man drowsily. "Oh yes, I do. I know I began crawling again without my helmet after I'd smoked a pipe of tobacco—for the hard rim hurt my head—and went on and on for hours, till I thought I could hear water running; and then in a minute I was sure, and I made for it, for at that time I was so thirsty I'd have given anything for a drink to cool my hot, dry throat. Yes, it's all coming back now. I crept on till all at once the water falling sounded loud, and the next moment I was sinking down sidewise into a deep place where I was hanging across a stone to get at the water in the dark, and couldn't. It was just like a nightmare, sergeant, that it was, and I felt my head go down and my legs hanging till my back was ready to break, but I couldn't get away, and I lay and lay, till all at once I was snatched up, and that hurt me so that I yelled for help, and then the nightmare seemed to be gone and I was lying all asleep like till I saw you and the captain; and here I am, somewhere, and that's all."
It was all, for the corporal swooned away, and had to be lifted and carried up.
"Poor fellow!" said Captain Roby; "he'll be better when we get him out into the open air. See to him, my lads. If he cannot walk you must carry him."
The men closed round the corporal, while the captain and Dickenson walked back to where a couple of the men, looking sallow and half-scared with their task, stood holding one of the lanterns at the month of the water-chasm.
"Heard anything?" said the captain, in a low tone of voice which sounded as if he dreaded to hear his own words.
"Nothing, sir," was the reply; "only the water rushing down."
"It seems to me,"—began the other, and then he paused.
"Yes: what? How does it seem to you?" asked the captain.
"Well, sir, as we stand listening here it sounds as if the hole down there gets choked every now and then with too much water, and then the place fills up more, and goes off again with a rush."
The captain made no reply, but stood with Dickenson gazing down into the chasm till there was a difference in the sound of its running out, when the latter caught at his companion, gripping his arm excitedly.
"Yes," he whispered hoarsely; "that's how it went while I was down there. Oh Roby! can't we do anything more?"
The captain was silent for some little time, and then he half-dragged his companion to the rough ladder.
"Come up," he said; "you know we can do no more by stopping thinking till one is almost wild with horror. Here, go up first."
It was like a sharp order, but Dickenson felt that it came from his officer's heart, and, with a shiver as much of horror as of cold from his drenched and clinging garments, he climbed to the next level and stood feeling half-stunned, and waiting while the sergeant climbed up and joined them with some rings of the rope upon his arm.
"May's going to try and climb up by himself, sir," said the sergeant in a low voice, "but I've made the rope fast round him to hold on by in case he slips. We don't want another accident."
The sight of the rope, and the sergeant's words, stirred Dickenson into speaking again.
"James," he said huskily, "don't you think something more might be done by one of us going down to the water again?"
"No, sir," replied the sergeant solemnly; "nothing, or I'd have been begging the captain to let me have another try long enough ago."
"Yes, of course, of course," said Dickenson warmly. "How are we to tell the colonel what has happened?"
The young officer relapsed into a dull, heavy fit of thinking, in which he saw, as if he were in a dream, the corporal helped out of the pit by means of the rope, and then go feebly along the cavern, to break down about half-way, when four men in two pairs crossed their wrists and, keeping step, bore him, lying horizontally, to the next ladder, up which he was assisted, after which he was borne once again by four more of the men; and as Drew's comrade came last with the captain, the procession made him nearly break down with misery and despair.
For, what with the slow, regular pacing, the lights carried in front, and the appearance of the man being carried, there was a horrible suggestion in it all of a military funeral, and for the time being it seemed to him that they had recovered his comrade and were carrying him out to his grave.
NOT DEAD YET.
The entrance at last, with the glorious light of the sun shining in, man after man drawing a heavy sighing breath of relief; and as they gathered outside on the shelf where the sentries were awaiting their coming, it seemed to every one there that for a few moments the world had never looked so bright and beautiful. Then down came the mental cloud of thought upon all, and they formed up solemnly, ready to march down.
"Well, Corporal May," said the captain, "do you think you can walk?"
"Yes, sir," replied the man. "My head's thick and confused-like, but every mouthful of this air I swallow seems to be pulling me round. I can walk, sir, but I may have to fall out and come slowly."
"Yes, yes, of course," said the captain, with whom the corporal had always been a petted favourite. "Don't hurry, my lad.—Sergeant, you and another man fall out too, if it is more than he can manage."
Then turning to the rest of the party, the captain glanced along the rank at the saddened faces which showed how great a favourite the young lieutenant had been, and something like a feeling of jealousy flashed through him as he began to think how it would have been if he had been the missing man. But the ungenerous thought died out as quickly as it had arisen, and he marched on with the men slowly, so as to make it easier for the corporal, till half the slope of the kopje had been zigzagged down, when he called a halt.
"Sit or lie about in the sunshine for ten minutes, my lads," he said, and the men gladly obeyed, dropping on the hot stones and tufts of brush, to begin talking together in a low voice, as they let their eyes wander over the prospect around, now looking, by contrast with the black horror through which they had passed, as if no more beautiful scene had ever met their eyes.
"How are you, Dickenson?" said the captain after they had sat together for a few minutes, drinking in the sunlight and air.
The young lieutenant started and looked at him strangely for a few moments before he spoke with a curious catch in his voice.
"Is it all true?" he said.
The captain's lips parted, but no words came; he only bowed his head slowly, and once more there was silence, till it was broken by Dickenson.
"Poor old Drew!" he said softly. "Well, I hope when my time comes I shall die in the same way."
"What!" cried the captain, with a look of horror which brought a grim smile to the subaltern's quivering lip.
"I did not mean that," he said sadly; "by a bullet, I hope, but doing what poor old Drew was doing—saving another man's life."
He turned his head on one side, reached out his hand, and picked from the sun-dried growth close at hand a little dull-red, star-like flower whose petals were hard and horny, one of the so-called everlasting tribe, and taking off his helmet, carefully tucked it in the lining.
"Off the kopje in which he died," said Dickenson, in reply to an inquiring look directed at him by the captain. "For his people at home if I live to get back. They'll like to have it."
Captain Roby said nothing aloud, but he thought, and his thoughts were something to this effect: "Who'd ever have thought it of this light-hearted, chaffing, joking fellow? Why, if they had been brothers he couldn't have taken it more to heart. Ha! I never liked the poor lad, and I don't think he liked me. There were times when I believe I hated him for—for—for—Well, why did I dislike him? Because other people liked him better than they did me, I suppose. Ah, well! like or not like, it's all over now."
He sat thinking for a few minutes longer, watching Dickenson furtively as he now kept turning himself a little this way and that way and changed his seat twice for a fresh piece of hot stone. Suddenly at his last change he caught the captain's eye, and said quite cheerfully:
"Getting a bit drier now." Then, seeing a surprised look in his brother officer's countenance, he said quietly, "I'm a soldier, sir, and we've no time for thinking if there's another comrade gone out of our ranks."
"No," said Roby laconically, and he hold out his hand, in which Dickenson slowly laid his own, looking rather wistfully as he felt it pressed warmly. "I—I hope we shall be better friends in the future, Dickenson," said the captain rather awkwardly.
"I hope so too, sir," replied Dickenson, but there was more sadness than warmth in his tones as his hand was released.
"Yes; soldiers have no time for being otherwise.—There!"
The captain sprang up, and Dickenson stiffly followed his example.
"Fall in, my lads.—Well, corporal, how are you now?"
"Head's horrid bad, sir; but this bit of a rest has pulled me together. I should like to fall out when we get near the way down to the spring."
"Of course, my lad, of course.—Here, any one else like a drink?"
"Yes, sir," came in chorus from the rank.
"All of us, please, sir," added the sergeant.
"Very well, then; we'll fall out again for a few minutes when get down. 'Tention! Right face—march!"
The men went on, all the better for their rest, while the captain joined Dickenson in the rear, and marched step by step with him for some minutes in silence.
"What confoundedly bad walking it is down here!" he said at last. "Shakes a man all to pieces."
"I hadn't noticed it," said Dickenson, with something like a sigh.
Dickenson turned to look in the captain's face.
"Come straight to the chief with me, Dickenson. I don't like my job of telling him. He'll say I oughtn't to have let the poor fellow go down."
"I don't think he will," replied Dickenson, after a few moments' silence. "The old man's as hard as stone over a bit of want of discipline; but he's always just."
"Think so?" said the captain.
"Yes. Always just. I'll come with you, though I feel as weak as water now. But I shall be better still when we get down to the quarters; and it has got to be done."
No more was said till the bottom of the kopje was nearly reached, and at a word from the sergeant the men went off left incline down and down and in and out among the loose blocks of weathered and lichen-covered stone which had fallen from the precipices above, while, as glimpses kept appearing of the flashing, dancing water, the men began to increase their pace, till the two foremost leaped down from rock to rock, and one who had outpaced his comrade bounded down out of sight into the deep gully along which the limpid water ran.
"Oh!" exclaimed Dickenson, suddenly stopping short with his face distorted by a look of agony.
"What's the matter?" cried the captain anxiously. "Taken bad?"
"No, no. The men!" said the young officer huskily. "The water—the men are going to drink. That place in the cavern—it is, of course, where Groenfontein rises."
"Yes, of course," replied the captain; "but it is too late now."
He had hardly uttered the words before there was a yell of horror which made him stop short, for the foremost man came clambering back into sight, gesticulating, and they could see that he looked white and scared.
"Oh!" cried the captain. "It will be sauve qui peut! The Boers have surprised us, and the lads have nothing but their side-arms. Got your revolver? I've mine. Let's do the best we can. Cover, my lads, cover."
"No, no, no!" cried Dickenson in a choking voice. "I can't help it, Roby. I feel broken down. He has found poor Drew below there, washed out by the stream!"
"Come on," cried the captain, and in another few moments they were with the men, who were closing round their startled comrade.
"Couldn't help it," the poor fellow panted as his officers came within hearing. "I came upon him so sudden; I thought it was a ghost."
"Hold your tongue, fool!" growled the sergeant. "Fall in! Show some respect for your poor dead officer.—Beg pardon, gentlemen. They've found the lieutenant's body, and—thank Heaven we can—we can—Ur-r-r!" he ended, with a growl and a tug at the top button of his khaki jacket.
The men shuffled into their places and stood fast, imitating the action of their officers, who gravely doffed their helmets and stepped down into the hollow, where, upon a patch of green growth a few feet above the rippling water foaming and swirling in miniature cascades among the rocks, poor Lennox lay stretched out upon his back in the full sunshine, which had dried up the blood from a long cut upon his forehead, where it had trickled down one side of his face.
He looked pale and ghastly, and there was a discoloration about his mouth and on one cheek where he seemed to have been battered by striking against the stones amongst which he had been driven in his rush through the horrible subterranean channel of the stream; but otherwise he looked as peaceful as if he were asleep.
The captain stopped short, gazing at him, while Dickenson dropped lightly down till he was beside his comrade, and sank gently upon one knee, to bend lower, take hold of the right hand that lay across his chest, and then—"like a girl!" as he afterwards said—he unconsciously let fall two great scalding tears upon his comrade's cheek.
The effect was magical. Lennox's eyes opened wildly, to stare blankly in the lieutenant's face, and the latter sprang to his feet, flinging his helmet high over his head as he turned to the line of waiting men above him and roared out hoarsely:
"Hurrah! Cheer, boys, cheer!"
The shout that rang out was deafening for so small a detachment, and two more followed, louder still; while the next minute discipline was forgotten and the men came bounding down to group about the figure staring at them wildly as if not yet fully comprehending what it all meant, till the lookers-on began shaking hands with one another in their wild delight.
Then Dickenson saw the light of recognition dawn in his comrade's face, a faint smile appear about his mouth and the corners of his eyes, which gradually closed again; but his lips parted, and as Dickenson bent lower he heard faintly:
"Not dead yet, old man, but,"—His voice sounded very faint after he had paused a few moments, and then continued: "It was very near."
ALL ABOUT IT.
The men forgot their thirst in the excitement of the incident, and as soon as Lennox showed signs of recovering a little from the state of exhaustion in which he lay, every one volunteered to be his bearer. But before he had been carried far he made signs for the men to stop, and upon being set down he took Dickenson's arm, and, leaning upon him heavily, marched slowly with the men for the rest of the way towards the colonel's quarters.
They were met, though, before they were half-way, their slow approach being seen and taken for a sign that there was something wrong; and colonel, major, doctor, and the other officers hurried to meet them and hear briefly what had occurred.
"Why, Lennox, my lad," cried the doctor after a short examination, "you ought to be dead. You must be a tough one. There, I'll see what I can do for you."
He took the young officer in his charge from that moment, and his first order was that his patient was to be left entirely alone, and, after partaking of a little refreshment, he was to rest and sleep for as many hours as he could.
"The poor fellow has had a terrible shock," he said to the colonel.
"Of course; but one naturally would like to know how he managed to escape."
"Very naturally, my dear sir; but his eyes tell me that if his brain is not allowed to recover its tone he'll have a bad attack of fever. A man can't go through such an experience as that without being terribly weakened. I want him to be led into thinking of everything else but his escape. I dare say after a few hours he will be wanting to talk excitedly about all he felt; but he mustn't. Not a question must be asked."
As it happened, the patient did exactly what the doctor wished: he slept, or, rather, sank into a state of stupor which lasted for many hours, came to his senses again, partook of a little food, and then dropped asleep once more; and this was repeated for days before he thoroughly recovered, and then began of his own volition to speak of his experience.
It was about a week after his mishap, in the evening, when Dickenson, just returned from a skirmish in which the Boers had been driven back, was seated beside his rough couch watching him intently.
"Don't sit staring at me like that, old fellow," said Lennox suddenly. "You look as if you thought I was going to die."
"Not you! You look a lot better to-night."
"I am, I know."
"How?" asked Dickenson laconically.
"Because I've begun to worry about not being on duty and helping."
"Yes; that's a good sign," said Dickenson. "Capital. Feel stronger?"
"Yes. It's just as if my strength has begun to come back all at once. Did you drive off the enemy to-day?"
"Famously. Gave them a regular licking."
"That's right. But tell me about Corporal May."
"Oh no, you're not to bother about that."
"Tell me about Corporal May," persisted Lennox.
"Doctor said you weren't to worry about such things."
"It isn't a worry now. I felt at first that if I thought much about that business in the cave I should go off my head; but I'm quite cool and comfortable now. Tell me—is he quite well again?"
"Not quite. He has had a touch of fever and been a bit loose in the knob, just as if he had been frightened out of his wits."
"Of course," said Lennox quietly. "I was nearly the same. I did not know at the time, but I do now. He is getting better, though?"
"Fast; only he's a bit of a humbug with it. I thought so, and the doctor endorses my ideas. He likes being ill and nursed and petted with the best food, so as to keep out of the hard work. I don't like the fellow a bit. There, you've talked enough now, so I'll be gone."
"No; stop," said Lennox. "Tell me about the stores of corn we found in that cave."
"Hang the cave! You're not to talk about it."
"Tell me about the grain," persisted Lennox.
"Oh, very well; we're going on eating it, for if it hadn't turned up as it did we should have been obliged to surrender or cut our way through."
"But there's plenty yet?"
"Oh yes, heaps; and we got about thirty sheep two days ago."
"Capital," said Lennox, rubbing his hands softly. "Now tell me—where is the grain stored?"
"Where the niggers put it when they collected it there."
"No. It couldn't be in a better place—a worse, I mean. Bother the cave! I wish you wouldn't keep on thinking about it."
"Very well, I won't. Tell me about the prisoners."
"Ah, that's better. The brutes! But there's nothing to tell about them. I wish they had got their deserts, but we none of us wanted to shoot them, though they did deserve it."
"Oh, I don't know," said Lennox. "They're a rough lot of countrymen, and they think that everything is fair in war, I suppose. Where are they?"
"Number 4 tin hut, and a fellow inside with them night and day. Then there's the sentry outside. Makes a lot of trouble for the men."
Lennox was silent for a few minutes before speaking again.
"I say, Bob."
"Look at this cut on my forehead."
"I'm looking. Very pretty. It's healing fast now."
"Will it leave much of a scar?"
"I dare say it will," said Dickenson mockingly. "Add to your beauty. But you ought to have one on the other side to match it."
"I wasn't thinking about my looks," said Lennox, smiling.
"Gammon! You were."
"I suppose I must have been dashed against a block of stone."
"Good job, too. Doctor said it acted like a safety-valve, and its bleeding kept off fever."
"I suppose so. I must have been dashed against something with great force, though."
"Oh, never mind that. Will you leave off thinking about that cave?"
"No, I won't," said Lennox coolly. "I must think about it now; I can't help it."
"Then I'm off."
"Because you were getting better, and now you are trying to make yourself worse."
"Oh no, I'm not; and you are not going. Talking to you about it acts like a safety-valve, too. There, it's of no use for you to try and stop me, Bob, for if you go I shall think all the more. I've been wanting to tell you all about it for days."
"But the doctor said I was not to encourage you to talk about the horror."
"Well, you are not encouraging me; you are flopping on me like a wet blanket. I say, it was horrible, wasn't it?"
"No," said Dickenson angrily; "but this is."
Lennox was silent for a few minutes, and he lay so quiet that Dickenson leaned forward to gaze at him earnestly, "All right, Bob. I'm here, and getting awfully strong compared with what I was a week ago. I shall get up and come out to-morrow."
"You won't. You're too weak yet."
"Oh no, I'm not. I shall be on duty in two or three days, and as soon as I'm well enough I want you and the sergeant to come with me to have another exploration with lanterns and a rope."
"There, I knew it. You're going off your head again."
"Not a bit of it."
"Then why can't you leave the wretched cave alone?"
"Because it interests me. I mean to go down again at the end of the rope."
"Bah! You're mad as a hatter. I knew you'd bring it on."
"There, it's of no use. I want to tell you all about it."
"If you think I'm going to stop here and listen to a long rigmarole about that dreadful hole, you're mistaken; so hold your tongue."
"There's no long rigmarole, Bob. You know how the corporal yelled out and clutched at me."
"No; I only guessed at something of the kind," replied Dickenson unwillingly. "We could not see much."
"Well, in his horror at finding himself lifted he completely upset me. It was all in a moment: I felt myself gliding over the slimy stone, and then I was plunged into deep water and drawn right down."
"But you struck out and tried to rise?" said Dickenson, overcome now by his natural eagerness to know how his comrade escaped.
"Struck out—tried to rise!" cried Lennox, with a bitter laugh. "I have some recollection of struggling in black strangling darkness for what seemed an age, the water thundering the while in my ears, before all was blank."
"But you were horror-stricken, and felt that you must go on fighting for your life?"
"No," said Lennox quietly. "I felt nothing till the darkness suddenly turned to bright sunshine, and I have some recollection of being driven against stones and tossed here and there, till I dragged myself out of a shallow place among the rocks and up amongst the green growth. Then a curious drowsy feeling came over me, and all was blank again. That's all."
"But weren't you in agony—in horrible fear?"
"Yes, when I felt myself falling and tried to save myself."
"I mean afterwards, when you were being forced through, that horrible passage."
"What horrible passage?" said Lennox, with a faint smile.
"What horrible passage, man? Why, the tunnel, or channel, or whatever it is—the subterranean way of the stream under the kopje, in the bowels of the earth."
"I told you I was horrified for a moment, and then I was choking in the water, till all seemed blank, and then I appeared to wake in the hot sunshine, where I was knocked about till I crawled out on to the bank."
"But didn't you suffer dreadfully?"
"Didn't you think about England and home, and all that?"
"No," said Lennox quietly.
"Weren't you in fearful agony as you fought for your life?"
"Not the slightest; and I don't think I struggled much."
"Well, upon my word!" cried Dickenson in a tone of disgust. "I like this!"
"Do you, Bob? I didn't."
"You didn't? Look here, Drew, I'm disgusted with you."
"Why?" said Lennox, opening his eyes wider.
"Because you're a miserable impostor—a regular humbug."
"What! don't you believe I went through all that?"
"Oh yes, I believe you went through all the—all the—all the hole; but there don't seem to have been anything else."
"Why, what else did you expect, old fellow?"
"What I've been asking you—pains and agonies and frightful sufferings and despairs, and that sort of thing; and there you were, pop down into the darkness, pop under the kopje, pop out into the sunshine, and pop— no, I mean, all over."
"Well, what would you have had me do? Stop underneath for a month?"
"No, of course not; but, hang it all! if it hadn't been that you got that cut on your forehead and a few scratches and chips, it was no worse than taking a dive."
"Not much," said Lennox, looking amused.
"Well, I really call it disgusting—a miserable imposition upon your friends."
"Why, Bob, you are talking in riddles, old fellow, or else my head's so weak still that I can't quite follow you."
"Then I'll try and make my meaning clear to your miserably weak comprehension, sir," cried Dickenson, with mock ferocity. "Here were you just taking a bit of a dive, and there were we, your friends, from the captain down to the latest-joined private, suffering—oh! I can't tell you what we suffered. I don't mean to say that Roby was breaking his heart because he thought there was an end of you; but poor old Sergeant James nearly went mad with despair, and the whole party was ready to plunge in after you so as to get drowned too."
"Did they take it like that, Bob?"
"Take it like that? Why, of course they did."
Lennox was silent for a few moments before he said softly, "And did poor old Bob Dickenson feel something like that?"
"Why, of course he did. Broke down and made a regular fool of himself, just like a great silly-looking girl—that is," he added hastily, "I mean, nearly—almost, you know."
"I'm very sorry, Bob," said Lennox gently, and his eyes looked large as he laid his hand upon his comrade's sleeve.
"Then you don't look it, sir. I say, don't you go and pitch such a lame tale as this into anybody else's ears. Here were we making a dead hero of you, and all the time—There, I've seen one of those little black and white Welsh birds—dippers, don't they call 'em?—do what you did, scores of times."
"In the dark, Bob?"
"Well—er—no—not in the dark, or of course I couldn't have seen it. There, that'll do. Talk about a set of fellows being sold by a lot of sentiment: we were that lot."
"The way of the world, Bob," said Lennox rather bitterly; "a fellow must die for people to find out that he's a bit of a hero. But please to recollect I did nothing; it was all accident."
"And an awfully bad accident too, old chap; only I don't see why the doctor need have prohibited your talking about the affair. We've all been thinking you went through untold horrors, when it was just nothing."
"Just nothing, Bob," said Lennox, looking at him with a wistful smile on his lip.
"Well, no; I won't say that, because of course it was as near as a toucher. For instance, the hole might have been too tight to let you through, and then—Ugh! Drew, old chap, don't let us talk about it any more. It's a hot day, and my face is wet with perspiration, but my spine feels as if it had turned to ice. Yes, it was as near as a toucher. I would rather drop into an ambush of the Boers a dozen times over than go through such a half-hour as that again."
CHAPTER TWENTY ONE.
There was a splendid supply of corn in the great woven Kaffir baskets, and that and the captured flock of sheep did wonders; but there were many hungry mouths to feed, and the lookout was growing worse than ever. The Boers were fighting furiously all over the two states and keeping our men at bay, or else were flitting from place to place to be hunted down again, and keeping the British generals so busily at work that, though they tried hard, it was impossible to send help to the little detachment at Groenfontein, from which place they had received no news, neither were they able to get through a single despatch.
Many a long discussion took place amongst the soldiers about the state of affairs, in which Corporal May declared that it was a burning shame— that the generals only thought of saving their own skins, and didn't care a fig for the poor fellows on duty fighting for their lives.
Sergeant James was present, and he flushed up into a rage and bullied the corporal in the way that a sergeant can bully when he is put out. He told the corporal that he was a disgrace to the army; and he told the men that as long as a British officer could move to the help of his men who were in peril, he didn't care a snap of the fingers for his own life, but he moved.
Then it was the men's turn, and they spoke all together and as loudly as they could; but they only said one word, and that one word was "Hooray!" repeated a great many times over, with the result that Corporal May was fully of opinion that the men put more faith in the sergeant than they did in him, and, to use one of the men's expressions, "he sneaked off like a wet terrier with his tail between his legs."
Discussions took place also among the officers again and again after their miserable starvation mess, which was once more, in spite of all efforts to supplement it, reduced to a very low ebb. For the brave colonel was Spartan-like in his ways.
"I can't sit down to a better dinner than my brave lads are eating, gentlemen," he would say. "It's share and share alike with the Boers' hard knocks, so it's only fair that it should be the same with the good things of life."
"Yes, that's all very well, colonel," grumbled the major; "but where are those good things?"
"Ah, where are they?" said the colonel. "Never mind; we shall win yet. The Boers have done their worst to crack this hard nut, and we've kept them at bay, which is almost as good as a victory."
"But surely, sir," said Captain Roby impatiently, "help might have been sent to us before now. Has the general forgotten us?"
"No," said the colonel decisively. "I'm afraid that he has several detachments in the same condition as we are. That's why we do not get any help."
"Perhaps so, sir," said the captain bitterly; "but I'm getting very tired of this inaction."
"That sounds like a reproach to me, Roby," said the colonel gravely.
"Oh no, sir; I didn't mean that," said the captain.
"Your words expressed it sir. Come now, speak out. What would you do if you were in my place, with three strong commandos of the Boers forming a triangle with a kopje at each apex which they hold with guns?"
"I don't want to give an opinion, sir."
"But every one wishes that you should.—Eh, gentlemen?"
"Certainly," came in eager chorus.
"Well, if I must speak, I must, sir," said the captain, flushing.
"Yes, speak without fear or favour."
"Well, sir, all military history teaches us that generals with small armies, when surrounded by a greater force, have gained victories by attacking the enemy in detail."
"Yes, I see what you mean," said the colonel quietly. "You would have me attack and take first one kopje, then the second, and then the third?"
"Capital strategy, Mr Roby, if it could be done; but I cannot recall any case in which a general was situated as we are, with three very strong natural forts close at hand."
There was a murmur of assent, and Dickenson exchanged glances with Lennox, who was, with the exception of the scar on his forehead, none the worse for his terrible experience in the kopje cavern.
"You see, gentlemen," continued the colonel, who did not display the slightest resentment at Roby's remarks, "if the Boers were soldiers—men who could manoeuvre, attack, and carry entrenchments—they are so much stronger that they could have carried this place with ease. It would have meant severe loss, but in the end, if they had pushed matters to extremity, they must have won. As it is, they fight from cover—very easy work, when they have so many natural strongholds. I could take any of these; but while I was engaged with my men against one party, the other two would advance and take this place, with such stores as we have. Where should we be then?"
"Oh, but I'd leave half the men to defend the place, sir. Why, with a couple of companies, and a good time chosen for a surprise, I could take any of the enemy's laagers."
The colonel raised his eyebrows, and looked at the speaker curiously.
"You see, sir," continued Roby, speaking in a peculiarly excited way, "the men, as an Irishman would say, are spoiling for a fight, and we are getting weaker and weaker. In another fortnight we shall be quite helpless."
"I hope not, Mr Roby," said the colonel dryly. "Perhaps you would like to try some such experiment with a couple of companies?"
"I should, sir," cried the captain eagerly; and the other officers looked from one to the other wonderingly, and more wonderingly still when the colonel said calmly:
"Very well, Mr Roby. I will make my plans and observations as to which of the three laagers it would be more prudent to attack. If you do not succeed, you ought at least to be able to bring in some of the enemy's cattle."
That evening the colonel had a quiet council with the major, the latter being strongly opposed to the plan; but the colonel was firm.
"I do not expect much," he said, "but it will be reading the Boers a lesson, even if he fails, and do our men good, for all this inaction is telling upon them, as I have been noticing, to my sorrow, during the past three or four days. To be frank with you, Robson, I have been maturing something of the kind."
"But you will not give the command to Roby?" cried the major.
"Certainly not," said the colonel emphatically. "You will take the lead."
"Ha!" ejaculated the major.
"With Roby as second in command. I will talk with you after I have done a little scouting on my own account."
Two days elapsed, and Captain Roby had been talking a good deal in a rather injudicious way about its being just what he expected. The colonel had been out both nights with as many men as he could mount— just a small scouting party—seen all that he could as soon as it was daylight, and returned soon after sunrise each time after a brush with the enemy, who had discovered the approach to their lines and followed the retiring party up till they came within reach of the gun, when a few shells sent them scampering back.
It was on the third night that Captain Roby sat talking to his greatest intimates, and he repeated his injudicious remarks so bitterly that Captain Edwards said severely, "I can't sit here and listen to this, Roby. You must be off your head a little, and if you don't mind you'll be getting into serious trouble."
"Trouble? What do you mean, sir?" cried Roby. "I feel it is my duty to speak."
"And I feel it is not; and if I were Colonel Lindley I would not stand it."
He had hardly spoken when there was the crack of a rifle, followed by another and another. The men turned out ready for anything, fully expecting that the Boers were making an attack; but Dickenson came hurrying to the colonel with the report of what had happened.
The two prisoners had been waiting their opportunity, and rising against the sentry who shared their corrugated iron prison, had snatched his bayonet from his side and struck him down, with just enough life left in him afterwards to relate what had happened. Then slipping out, they had tried to assassinate the sentry on duty, but failed, for he was too much on the alert. He had fired at them, but they had both escaped into the darkness, under cover of which, and with their thorough knowledge of the country, they managed to get right away.
"Just like Lindley," said Roby contemptuous as soon as the alarm was over and the men had settled down again. "Any one but he would have made short work of those two fellows."
He had hardly spoken when an orderly came to the door of the hut where he, Captain Edwards, and two more were talking, and announced that the colonel desired to speak with Captain Roby directly. The latter sprang up and darted a fierce look at Captain Edwards.
"You have lost no time in telling tales," he said insolently.
"You are on the wrong track," said the gentleman addressed, angrily. "I have not seen the colonel to speak to since, and I have sent no message."
Roby turned on his heel wrathfully and went straight to the colonel's quarters, to face him and the major, who was with him.
To his intense astonishment and delight, the colonel made the announcement that the south-west laager was to be attempted by surprise that night by a hundred and fifty men with the bayonet alone, the major in command, Captain Roby second, and Captain Edwards and the two subalterns of Roby's company to complete the little force.
"When do we start, sir?" said Roby, with his heart beating fast.
"An hour before midnight," said the colonel; and the major added:
"Without any sound of preparation. The men will assemble, and every precaution must be taken that not one of the blacks gets wind of the attempt so as to warn the enemy of our approach."
"I have no more to add, Robson," said the colonel. "You know where to make your advance. Take the place if you can without firing a shot, but of course, if fire should be necessary, use your own discretion."
The whole business was done with the greatest absence of excitement. The three officers were warned at once; Captain Edwards looked delighted, but Dickenson began to demur.
"You are not fit to go, Drew," he said.
"I never felt more fit," was the reply, "and if you make any opposition you are no friend of mine."
"Very well," said Dickenson quietly; "but I feel that we're going to have a sharp bit of business, and I can't think that you are strong enough."
"I've told you that I am," said Lennox firmly. "The orders are that I go with the company, and the colonel would not send me if he did not know from his own opinion and the doctor's report that I am fit to be with the ranks."
There was a little whisper or two between Dickenson and Sergeant James.
"Oh, I don't know, sir," said the latter; "he has pulled round wonderfully during the last fortnight, and it isn't as if we were going on a long exhausting march. Just about six or seven miles through level veldt, sir, and in the cool of the night."
"Well, there is that," said Dickenson thoughtfully.
"And a good rest afterwards, sir, so as to make the advance, so I hear, just at the Boers' sleepiest time. Bah! It'll be a mere nothing if we can only get through their lines quietly. They'll never stand the bayonet; and I wouldn't wish for a smarter officer to follow than Mr Lennox."
"Nor a braver, James," said Dickenson quietly.
"Nor a braver, sir."
"If he is up to the mark for strength."
"Let him alone for that, sir," said the sergeant, with a chuckle. "I don't say Mr Lennox will be first, but I do say he won't be last; and the men'll follow him anywhere, as you know, sir, well."
"Yes," said Dickenson, drawing a deep breath; "and it's what we shall want to-night—a regular rush, and the bayonet home."
"That's it, sir; but I must go. The lads are half-mad with joy, and if I'm not handy we shall have them setting up a shout."
But of course there was no shout, the men who, to their great disgust, were to stay and hold the camp bidding good-luck to their more fortunate comrades without a sound; while more than once, with the remembrance of the dastardly murder that had just taken place, men whispered to their comrades something about not to forget what the cowardly Boers had done.
Exact to the time, just an hour before midnight, and in profound darkness—for the moon had set but a short time before—the men, with shouldered rifles, set off with springy step, Dickenson and Lennox, to whom the country was well known from shooting and fishing excursions they had made, leading the party, not a word being uttered in the ranks, and the tramp, tramp of feet sounding light and elastic as the lads followed through the open, undulating plain, well clear of the bush, there being hardly a stone to pass till they were within a mile of the little kopje where the Boers' laager lay.
There the broken country would begin, the land rising and being much encumbered with stones. But the place had been well surveyed by the major through his field-glass at daybreak two days before, and he had compared notes with Lennox, telling him what he had seen, and the young officer had drawn his attention to the presence of a patch of woodland that might be useful for a rallying-point should there be need. Captain Roby, too, had been well posted up; and after all that was necessary had been said, Lennox had joined his friend.
"Oh, we shall do it, Bob," he said. "What I wonder is, that it was not tried long enough ago."
"So do I," was the reply. "But, I say, speak out frankly: do you feel up to the work?"
"I feel as light and active as if I were going to a football match," was the reply.
"That's right," said Dickenson, with a sigh of relief.
"Just as if I were going to give the Boers a lesson and show them what a couple of light companies can do in a storming rush. There, save your breath for the use of your legs. Two hours' march, two hours' lie down, and then—"
"Yes, Bob;" said Lennox, drawing a deep breath, and feeling for the first time that they were going on a very serious mission; "and then?"
And then there was nothing heard but the light tramp—tramp—tramp— tramp of a hundred and fifty men and their leaders, not one of whom felt the slightest doubt as to his returning safe.
CHAPTER TWENTY TWO.
FOR A NIGHT ATTACK.
It was a weird march in the silence and darkness, but the men were as elastic of spirits as if they had been on their way to some festivity. There may have been some exceptions, but extremely few; and Dickenson was not above suggesting one, not ill-naturedly, but in his anxiety for the success of the expedition, as he explained to Lennox in a whisper when they were talking over the merits of the different non-commissioned officers.
"I don't believe I shall ever make a good soldier, Drew," he said.
"What!" was the reply; and then, "Why?"
"Oh, I suppose I've got my whack of what some people call brute courage, for as soon as I get excited or hurt I never think of being afraid, but go it half-mad-like, wanting to do all the mischief I can to whoever it is that has hurt me; but what I shall always want will be the cool, calm chess-player's head that helps a man to take advantage of every move the enemy makes, and check him. I shall always be the fellow who shoves out his queen and castle and goes slashing into the adversary till he smashes him or gets too far to retreat, and is then smashed up himself."
"Well, be content with what you can do," said Lennox, "and trust to the cool-headed man as your leader. You'll be right enough in your way."
"Thankye. I say, how a trip like this makes you think of your men and what they can do!"
"Naturally," said Lennox.
"One of the things I've learnt is," continued Dickenson, "how much a regiment like ours depends on its non-commissioned officers."
"Of course," replied Lennox. "They're all long-experienced, highly-trained, picked men. See how they step into the breach sometimes when the leaders are down."
"By George, yes!" whispered Dickenson enthusiastically.—"Oh, bother that stone! Hff!—And I hope we sha'n't have them stepping into any breaches to-night."
"Why! Because we don't want the leaders to go down."
"No, of course not," said Lennox, laughing softly. "But, talking about non-commissioned officers, we're strong enough. Look at James."
"Oh yes; he's as good as a colonel in his way."
"And the other sergeants too."
"Capital, well-tried men," said Dickenson; "but I was thinking of the corporals."
"Well, there's hardly a man among them who mightn't be made a sergeant to-morrow."
"Hum!" said Dickenson.
"What do you mean?" cried Lennox shortly.
"What I say. Hum! Would you make that chap Corporal May a sergeant?"
"Well, no: I don't think I would."
"Don't think? Why, the fellow's as great a coward as he is a sneak."
"Don't make worse of the man than he is."
"I won't," said Dickenson. "I'll amend my charge. He's as great a sneak as he is a coward."
"Poor fellow! he mustn't come to you for his character."
"Poor fellow! Yes, that's what he is—an awfully poor fellow. Corporal May? Corporal Mayn't, it ought to be. No, he needn't come to me for his character. He'll have to go to Roby, who is trying his best to get him promoted. Asked me the other day whether I didn't think he was the next man for sergeant."
"What did you say?"
"Told Roby that he ought to be the very last."
"Of course: right out."
"What did Roby say?"
"Told me I was a fool—he didn't use that word, but he meant it—and then said downright that fortunately my opinion as to the men's qualities wasn't worth much."
"What did you say to that?"
"'Thankye;' that's all. Bah! It set me thinking about what a moll the fellow was in that cave business. It was sheer cowardice, old man. He confessed it, and through that your accident happened. I don't like Corporal May, and I wish to goodness he wasn't with us to-night. I'm hopeful, though."
"Hopeful? Of course. I dare say he'll behave very well."
"I daren't, old man; but I'm hopeful that he'll fall out with a sore foot or a sprained ankle through stumbling over a stone or bush. That's the sort of fellow who does—"
"Pst! We're talking too much," whispered Lennox, to turn the conversation, which troubled him, for inwardly he felt ready to endorse every word his comrade had uttered.
"Oh, I'm talking in a fly's whisper. What a fellow you are! Always ready to defend anybody."
"There you go again with your Pst! Just like a sick locomotive."
"I didn't hear anything. Oh yes, I do. That howl. There it goes again. One of those beautiful hyenas. I say, Drew."
"My old people at home live in one of those aesthetic Surrey villages full of old maids and cranks who keep all kinds of useless dogs and cats. The old folks are awfully annoyed by them of a night. When I've been down there staying for a visit I've felt ready to jump out of bed and shell the neighbourhood with jugs, basins, and water-bottles. But lex talionis, as the lawyers call it—pay 'em back in their own coin. What a game it would be to take the old people home a nice pet hyena or a young jackal to serenade the village of a night!"
"There is an old proverb about cutting your nose off to be revenged upon your face. There, be quiet; I want to think of the work in hand."
"I don't," replied Dickenson; "not till we're going to begin, and then I'm on."
The night grew darker as they drew nearer to their goal, for a thin veil of cloud shut out the stars; but it was agreed that it was all the better for the advance. In fact, everything was favourable; for the British force had week by week grown less demonstrative, contenting itself with acting on the defensive, and the reconnoitring that had gone on during the past few days had been thoroughly masked by the attempts successfully made to carry off a few sheep, this being taken by the enemy as the real object of the excursions. For the Boers, after their long investment of Groenfontein and the way in which they had cut off all communications, were perfectly convinced that the garrison was rapidly growing weaker, and that as soon as ever their ammunition died out the prize would fall into their hands like so much ripe fruit.
They were thus lulled as it were into a state of security, which enabled the little surprise force to reach the place made for without encountering a single scout. Then, with the men still fresh, a halt was made where the character of the ground suddenly changed from open, rolling, bush-sprinkled veldt to a slight ascent dotted with rugged stones, which afforded excellent cover for a series of rushes if their approach were discovered before they were close up.
This was about a mile from the little low kopje where the Boers were laagered; and as soon as the word to halt had been whispered along the line the men lay down to rest for the two hours settled in the plans before making their final advance, while the first alarm of the sentries on guard was to be the signal for the bayonet-charge.
"I don't think we need say any more to the lads," whispered the major as the officers crept together for a few final words. "They all know that the striking of a match for a furtive pipe would be fatal to the expedition."
"Yes," said Captain Roby, "and to a good many of us. But the lads may be trusted."
"Yes, I believe so," said the major.
"There's one thing I should like to say, though," said Roby. "I've been thinking about it all the time we've been on the march."
"What is it, Roby?" said the major.—"Can you hear, Edwards—all of you?"
"Yes—yes," was murmured, for the officers' heads were pretty close together.
"I've been thinking," said Captain Roby, "that if we divided our force and attacked on two sides at once, the Boers would believe that we were in far greater force, and the panic would be the greater."
"Excellent advice," said the major, "if our numbers were double; but it would weaken our attack by half—oh, by far more than half. No, Roby, I shall keep to the original plan. We don't know enough of the kopje, and in the darkness we could not ensure making the attack at the same moment, nor yet in the weakest places. We must keep as we are. Get as close as we can without being discovered, and then the bugles must sound, and with a good British cheer we must be into them."
"Yes, yes, yes," was murmured, and Captain Roby was silent for a brief space.
"Very well, sir," he said coldly. "You know best."
"I don't know that, Roby," replied the major; "but I think that is the better plan—a sudden, sharply delivered surprise with the bayonet. The enemy will have no chance to fire much, and we shall be at such close quarters that they will be at a terrible disadvantage."
"Yes," said Captain Edwards as the major ceased speaking; "let them have their rear open to run, and let our task be to get them on the run. I agree with the major: no alterations now."
"No," said Dickenson in a low growl; "no swapping horses when you're crossing a stream."
"I have done," said Roby, and all settled down into silence, the officers resting like the men, but rising to creep along the line from time to time to whisper a word or two with the non-commissioned officers, whom they found thoroughly on the alert, ready to rouse up a man here and there who was coolly enough extended upon his back sleeping, to pass the time to the best advantage before it was time to fight.
Every now and then there came a doleful, despairing yelp from some hungry animal prowling about in search of prey, and mostly from the direction of the Boer laager, where food could be scented. Twice, too, from far off to their left, where the wide veldt extended, there came the distant, awe-inspiring, thunderous roar of a lion; but for the most part of the time the stillness around was most impressive, with sound travelling so easily in the clear air that the neighing of horses was plainly heard again and again, evidently coming from the Boer laager, unless, as Lennox suggested, a patrol might be scouting round. But as each time it came apparently from precisely the same place, the first idea was adopted, especially as it was exactly where the enemy's camp was marked down.
The two hours seemed very long to Lennox, who lay thinking of home, and of how little those he loved could realise the risky position he occupied that night. Dickenson was flat upon his back with his hands under his head, going over again the scene in the cavern when he was looking down the chasm and watching the movement of the light his friend had attached to his belt.
"Not a pleasant thing to think about," he said to himself, "but it makes me feel savage against that corporal, and it's getting my monkey up, for we've got to fight to-night as we never fought before. We've got to whip, as the Yankees say—'whip till we make the beggars run.' What a piece of impudence it does seem!" he said to himself a little later on. "Here we are, about a hundred and fifty hungry men, and I'll be bound to say there's about fifteen hundred of the enemy. But then they don't grasp it. They're beggars to sleep, and if we're lucky we shall be on to them before they know where they are. Oh, we shall do it;" and he lay thinking again of Corporal May, feeling like a boy once more; and he was just at the pitch when he muttered to himself, "What a pity it is that an officer must not strike one of his men!—for I should dearly like to punch that fellow's head.—Ha! here's the major. Never mind, there'll be other heads waiting over yonder, and I dare say I shall get all I want."
He turned over quickly, not to speak, but to grip his comrade's hand, for the word was being passed to fall in, and as he and Lennox gripped each other's hands hard and in silence, a soft, rustling movement was heard. For the men were springing to their feet and arranging their pouches and belts, before giving their rifles a thorough rub to get rid of the clinging clew.
"Fall in" was whispered, and the men took their places with hardly a sound.
"Fix bayonets!" was the next order, and a faint—very faint—metallic clicking ran along the lines, followed by a silence so deep that the breathing of the men could be heard.
There was no need for more, and the officers led off, with the one idea of getting as close to the Boers as possible before they were discovered, and then charging home, keeping their men as much together as they could, and knowing full well that much must be left to chance.
The next minute the men were advancing softly in double line, opening out and closing up, as obstacles in the shape of stone and bush began to be frequent. But there was no hurry, no excitement. They had ample time, and when one portion of the force was a little entangled by a patch of bush thicker than usual, those on either side halted so as to keep touch, and in this way the first half-mile was passed, the only sound they heard being the neighing of a horse somewhere in front.
CHAPTER TWENTY THREE.
The horse's neigh was hailed with satisfaction by the officers, for it proved that they were going right; and soon after, this idea was endorsed and there was no more doubt as to their being aiming exactly, for right in front the darkness seemed to be intensified, and the advancing party could dimly see the rugged outline of the kopje marked against the sky.
Lennox drew a deep breath full of relief, for from what he could see there would be no terrible blundering and fighting their way up precipitous tracks, as the Boers' stronghold was nothing more than a vast mound, easy of ascent; though he did not doubt for a moment but that wherever the ground was fairly level the lower part would be strengthened by breastworks and row after row of wagons, from behind which the Boers would fire.
The advancing force tramped on as silently as ever, in spite of the impediments in their way; but there was no alarm, no scout sitting statue-like upon his active, wiry Basuto pony, and farther on no bandolier-belted sentry, rifle in hand, shouted the alarm. They might have been approaching a deserted camp for all the hindrance they met with.
It seemed to Lennox, just as others expressed it later on, that it was too good to be true, and the young officer's heart beat fast as, revolver in one hand, sword in the other, he stepped lightly on, prepared for a furious volley from the Boer rifles, being quite certain in his own mind that they must be going right into an ambush.
But no—all was safe: and they were so near that at any moment the bugles might sound, to be followed by the rousing cheer of the men in their dashing charge.
Suddenly there was a pause, and a thrill ran along the line, for there was something in the way not five yards from Lennox's position in the line.
"A sentry!" was whispered, and the line advanced again, for a burgher was lying across the way, fast asleep, and giving warning thereof through the nose—sleeping so hard that the men stepped right over him, he as unconscious as they were that other sentries were failing as much in their wearisome duty and being passed.
"It must be now," thought Lennox, as he could dimly make out, spreading to right and left, a line of wagons, but not closed up, for there were wide intervals between; and now a low, dull, crunching sound and the odour of bovine animals plainly announced that there were spans of oxen lying close by the wagons as if ready for some movement in the early morning for which their drivers had made preparations overnight.
As it happened, the interval between two of the wagons was fairly wide just opposite the spot where Lennox was in line with his men. Dickenson was off to his left, and Roby was leading.
In a whisper the major indicated that the men should close up and pass through this opening, but in the excitement of the moment he spoke too loudly, and from somewhere close, the guard having been passed in the darkness, a man started up and shouted:
"Who comes there?"
His answer was given by the loud call of a bugle, and as he fired his warning shot the major's voice was heard shouting, "Forward—bayonets!" and with a ringing cheer the men dashed on as best they could, making for the centre of the Boers' position, shouting, cheering again and again, and driving the yelling crowd of excited Boers who were springing up in all directions before them like a flock of sheep.
The confusion was awful: rifles were being fired here and there at random, and more often at the expense of friend than of foe; while wherever a knot of the enemy clustered together it was as often to come into contact with their own people as with the major's excited line, which dashed at them as soon as an opening could be found, with such effect that the Boers, thoroughly surprised, gave way in every direction, fleeing from bristling bayonets and overturning one another in their alarm.
It was terrible work, for the attacking line was so often arrested by impediments whose nature they could not stop to grasp, that it was soon broken up into little groups led by officers commissioned and non-commissioned. But still, after a fashion, they preserved the formation of an advancing wave sweeping over the kopje, and their discipline acted magnetically with its cohesion, drawing them together, while their enemies scattered more and more to avoid the bayonet as much as to find some shelter from which such of them as had their rifles could fire.
It was panic in excelsis, and though many fought bravely, using their pieces as clubs where they could not fire, the one line they followed was that of flight for the enclosure behind, where their horses were tethered; and in less than ten minutes the major's force had swept right through the Boer laager on to open ground, where, in response to bugle, whistle, and cry, they rallied, ready for rushing the enemy wherever they could see a knot gathering together to resist, or from which firing had begun.
Another five minutes, during which there was desperate work going on near what had been the centre of the attacking line, and the beating of horses' hoofs and trampling feet told that the Boers were in full flight in the direction of the next kopje, where their friends were in all probability sleeping in as much security as had been the case where the attack was made. And now, as soon as the major could get his men in hand, they dropped on one knee to empty the magazines of their rifles into the dimly seen cloud of flying men running and hiding for their lives, the volleys completely dissipating all thoughts of rallying to meet the attacking force; in fact, not a Boer stopped till the next kopje was reached and the news announced of their utter defeat.
It was quick but terrible work, for the men's bayonets had been busy. Their blood was up, and they felt that they were avenging weeks of cruel suffering, loss, and injury. But now that the wild excitement of the encounter was at an end, and they were firing with high trajectory at their panic-stricken foes, the bugle rang out "Cease firing!" and they gathered together, flinging up their helmets and catching them on their bayonets, and cheering themselves hoarse.
The next minute they were eagerly obeying orders, with the faint light of day beginning to appear in the east, and working with all their might to collect and give first aid to the wounded, whether he was comrade or enemy: no distinction was made; everything possible was done.
But before this Major Robson had selected the best runner of his men volunteering for the duty, and sent him off to Groenfontein bearing a hastily pencilled message written upon the leaf of his pocketbook:
"Boers utterly routed—kopje and laager taken. Many wounded; send help."
For the attacking force had not escaped unhurt, several having received bullet-wounds, as where the Boers could get a chance they fired well; but as far as could be made out in the first hurried examination not a man was dangerously injured, and in most of the cases their hurts were cuts and bruises given by the butts of rifles. As to the Boers, the majority of their hurts were bayonet-thrusts, in some cases the last injuries they would receive; but quite a score were suffering from the small bullet-holes made by the Mauser rifles fired by their friends in their random expenditure of ammunition, such of them as had been shot by our men lying far out on the veldt, having received their wounds during their hurried flight and not yet been brought in.
Many of the wounded Boers—there was not a single prisoner, orders having been given not to arrest their flight—looked on in wonder to see the easy-going, friendly way in which our soldiers gave them help. For it was a cheery "Hold up, old chap!" or "Oh, this is not bad; you'll soon be all right again."
"Here, Tommy, bring this Dutchman a drink of water."
For the fierce warrior was latent once again, and now it was the simple Briton, ready and eager to help his injured brother in the good old Samaritan mode.
There was other work in hand to do as soon as it was light enough—the roll to call—and there were missing men to be accounted for; while, as the officers responded to their names, there was no answer to that of Captain Roby.
"He was fighting away like a hero, sir, last time I saw him," said Sergeant James, whose frank, manly face was disfigured by a tremendous blow on the cheek.
"Search for him, my lads; he can't have been taken prisoner," said the major. "It's getting lighter now."
"Poor fellow! I hope he hasn't got it," said Dickenson to himself as he nursed a numbed arm nearly broken by a drive made with a rifle-butt.
Lennox was called, and Dickenson's eyes dilated and then seemed to contract, for there was no reply.
"Mr Lennox.—Who saw Mr Lennox last?"
There was no answer for some seconds, and then from where the wounded lay a feeble voice said, "I saw him running round one of the wagons, sir, just in the thick of the fight."
"He must be down," said the major sadly. "Look for him, my lads; he is somewhere on the ground we came along, lying perhaps amongst the Boers."
Dickenson groaned—perhaps it was from pain, for his injury throbbed, pangs running right up into the shoulder-joint, and then up the left side of his neck.
"Oh! don't say poor old Drew's down," he said to himself. "Just, too, when I was growling at him for not coming to look me up when I was hurt."