"No," said the doctor sternly; "he hasn't much the matter with him, only a few bruises. But if he did die it would be worse still for poor Lennox."
"Because he'd leave the poison behind him. There, I'll do all I can with the colonel; but all the officers believe Roby, and that Lennox was seized with a fit of panic. There's only one way for him to clear it away."
"Exchange? How can he?"
"Exchange? Nonsense! Get strong, return to his company, and show every one that he is not the coward they think."
"There's something in that, certainly," said Dickenson sadly; "but he'll want opportunities. Suppose he had the chance to save the major's life; how do we know that he too wouldn't set it about that Lennox was more cowardly still? Saving lives doesn't seem to pay."
"Nonsense, my lad! You're speaking bitterly now."
"Enough to make me, sir. It isn't only Roby; Lennox saved Corporal May as well."
"Never mind that. You tell Lennox to try again. Third time, they say, never fails."
"Humph!" said Dickenson. "Well, we shall see."
"Yes," said the doctor; "we shall see."
CHAPTER THIRTY FOUR.
THE MUD THAT STUCK.
"It's a bad business, Mr Lennox," said the colonel sternly, some weeks later, when matters looked very dreary again in the camp, for the supplies of provisions had once more begun to grow very short, and the constant strain of petty attacks had affected officers and men to a degree that made them morose and bitter in the extreme.
"But surely, sir, you don't believe this of me?" said Lennox, flushing.
"As a man, no, Mr Lennox; but as your commanding officer I am placed in a very awkward position. The captain of your company makes the most terrible charge against you that could be made against a young officer."
"But under what circumstances? He was suffering from a serious injury to the head; he was delirious at the time."
"But he is not delirious now, Mr Lennox, and that which he accused you of in a state of wild frenzy he maintains, now that he is recovering fast, in cold blood."
"Yes, sir; it seems cold-blooded enough after what I did for him."
"Unfortunately he maintains that this is all an invention on your part."
"And my being dragged away for some distance by one of the Boers, sir?"
"Yes; he declares that he was not insensible for some time after his hurt, and that had what you say occurred he must have seen it."
"Then it is his word against mine, sir?" said Lennox.
"Unfortunately it is not, Lennox," said the colonel gravely. "If it were only that I should feel very differently situated. Your conduct during the war has been so gallant that, without the slightest hesitation, I should side with you and set down all that Captain Roby has said to a hallucination caused by the injury to his head. But, you see, there is the testimony of Corporal May, who declares that he witnessed your conduct—conduct which I feel bound to say seems, when weighed by your previous actions, perfectly inexplicable."
"Then I am to consider, sir, on the testimony of this man, that I am unworthy of holding a commission in Her Majesty's service?" said Lennox bitterly.
"Stop," said the colonel. "Don't be rash, and say things of which you may repent, Lennox."
"An innocent man defending himself against such a charge, sir, cannot always weigh his words. Look at my position, sir. I am fit now to return to my duty, and I find a marked coldness on the part of my brother officers and a peculiarity in the looks of the men which shows me plainly enough that they believe it true."
"I have noticed it myself," said the colonel, "save in two instances. Mr Dickenson is downright in his defence of you; and I freely tell you for your comfort that the bravest non-commissioned officer in the regiment, when I was speaking to him on the subject, laughed the charge to scorn, and—confound him!—he had the insolence to tell me he'd as soon believe that I would run away as believe it of you."
"Ha!" ejaculated Lennox, with his eyes brightening. "Sergeant James?"
"Yes; Sergeant James. A fine, staunch fellow, Lennox. He'll have his commission by-and-by if I can help it on."
"Well, sir," said Lennox slowly, "I suppose it is of no use to fight against fate. Am I to consider myself under arrest?"
"Certainly not," said the colonel firmly. "This is no time for dealing with such a matter. I have enough on my hands to keep the enemy at a distance, and I want every one's help. But as soon as we are relieved— if we ever are—I am bound, unless Captain Roby and the corporal retract all they have said and attribute it to delirium—I am bound, I say, to call the attention of my superiors to the matter. I shall do so unwillingly, but I must. Out of respect to your brother officers, and for your sake as well, I cannot let this matter slide. It would be blasting your career as a soldier—for you could not retain your commission in this regiment."
"No, sir," said Lennox slowly, "nor exchange into another. But it seems hard, sir."
"Yes, Lennox, speaking to you not as your colonel but as a friend, terribly hard."
"Then the sooner I am arrested and tried by court-martial, sir, the better. I was ready to return to my duty, but to go on with every one in the regiment looking upon me as a coward is more than I could bear." The colonel was silent. "Have I your leave, sir, to go back to my quarters?" said Lennox at last.
"Not yet," said the colonel. "Look here, Lennox; this wretched charge has been made, and I cannot tell my officers and men what they shall and what they shall not believe. An inquiry must take place—by-and-by. Till it is held, the task rests with you to prove to your brother officers and the men that they have misjudged you."
"And to you, sir," said Lennox coldly.
"I do not judge you yet, Lennox," said the colonel gravely. "I am waiting."
"And how am I to prove, sir, that I am not what they think me?"
The colonel shrugged his shoulders and smiled sadly.
"You need not go and publish what I say, Lennox," he replied; "but I have very good reason to believe that the Boers are heartily sick of waiting for us to surrender, and that they have received orders to make an end of our resistance."
"They have been receiving reinforcements, and the blacks bring word in that they have now two more guns. There will be plenty of chances for you to show that you are no coward, and that before many hours are past."
"Do you mean, sir, that I can take my place in the company?"
"Thank you, sir. Something within me seems to urge me to hold aloof, for the coldness I have experienced since the doctor said I was fit for service is unbearable."
"Would not standing upon your dignity, Lennox, and letting your comrades face the enemy, look worse than manfully taking your place side by side with the men who are going forward to risk wounds or death?"
"Yes, sir; much," said Lennox, flushing. "I will live it down."
"Shake hands, Lennox," said the colonel, holding out his own. "Now I feel that you have been misjudged. Those were the words of a brave man. Mind this: the matter must be properly heard by-and-by, but let it remain in abeyance. Go and live it down."
The young officer had something more to say, but the words would not come; and the colonel, after a glance at him, turned to a despatch he had been writing, and began to read it over as if in ignorance of his visitor's emotion.
"Oh, by the way, Lennox, one word before you go. About this man May. Have you ever given him any cause to dislike you?"
"No, sir, I think not. I must own to always having felt a dislike to him."
"Indeed," said the colonel sharply. "Why?"
"I would rather you did not ask me, sir."
"Speak out, man!" said the colonel sternly.
"Well, sir, I have never liked him since he obtained his promotion."
"I did not think he deserved it so well as some of the other men of his standing."
"Humph! Let me see; he was promoted on Captain Roby's recommendation."
"Yes, sir; he was always a favourite with his captain."
"Have you been a bit tyrannical—overbearing?"
"I have only done my duty by him, sir. Certainly I have been rather sharp with him when I have noticed a disposition on his part to hang back."
"Perhaps he has never forgiven you for saving his life," said the colonel, smiling.
"Oh, surely not, sir."
"I don't know," said the colonel. "But think a minute."
"I was certainly very sharp with him that time when we explored the cavern, for that was one of the occasions when he hung back as if scared. But no, no, sir; I will not suspect the man of accusing me as he has through spite. He believes he saw me run, no doubt. But I did not."
"There, Lennox, you've had a long interview, and I have my despatch to write up. I have plenty to worry my head without your miserable business. Now, no rashness, mind; but I shall expect to hear of you leading your men in the very front."
"If they will follow me, sir, I shall be there," said Lennox quietly. "If they will not, I shall go alone."
CHAPTER THIRTY FIVE.
COMPANY AT DINNER.
"Why didn't you tell me you were going to have it out with the chief?" said Dickenson, encountering his comrade directly he had left the colonel's quarters.
"Because you told me never to mention the wretched business again."
"Did I? Oh, that was when I was in a wax. Well, what does the old man say?"
"That I am to go on as if nothing had happened."
"That's good. Well, what else?"
"Take my place in my company, and wait till we're relieved, and then be ready for a court-martial."
"That's good too, for no one can prove you guilty. What else?"
"Keep well in the front, and get myself killed as soon as I can."
"If he said that, he's a brute!" cried Dickenson. "Gammon! I don't believe the old man would say such a thing. But look here, I'm precious glad. This means you're going to live it down."
Lennox nodded. "Here," he said, "let's go into our hut."
"No, not yet. I want to walk up and down in the fresh air a bit."
"But the sun is terribly hot."
"Do you good," said Dickenson abruptly. "Let's go right to the end and back three or four times."
"Bah!" said Lennox. "You want to do this so as to ostentatiously show that you mean to keep friends with me."
"Suppose I do. I've a right to, haven't I?"
"Not to give me pain. It does. Help me to live it down quietly."
"Very well; if you like it better. But I say, you'll show up in the mess-room to-night?"
"Why should I?"
"Because the place is wretched and the fare's—beastly. There, that doesn't sound nice, but I must say it."
"I had rather stay away. It would only provoke what I should feel cruelly, and I could not resent it."
"No, but I could; and if any one insults you by sending you to Coventry, I'll provoke him. I suppose I mustn't punch my superior officer's head, but off duty I can tell him what I think of him, and I'll let him have it hot and strong."
"Then I shall stay away."
"No, you sha'n't. I will instead."
"That would be worse, Bob. Look here; I want you to help me to live this charge down, to treat it with quiet contempt. If you make yourself so fierce a partisan you will keep the wound sore and prevent it from healing up."
"Very well, then; I'll give it a good chance. There, I promise you I won't show my temper a bit; only play fair."
"In what way?"
"Don't turn upon me afterwards and call me a coward for not taking your part."
"Never fear. I don't want you to get into hot water for my sake."
"My dear boy," said Dickenson, chuckling like a cuckoo in a coppice in early spring, "that's impossible."
"Because I'm in hot water now with everybody, and have been ever since."
"I am sorry."
"And I am glad—jolly glad. Oh, don't I wish there was duelling still!"
"Haven't you killed enough men to satisfy you?" said Lennox sadly.
"More than enough. I don't want to kill brother officers, only to give them lessons in manly faith. But bother that! I say: you promise to come and take your place this evening?"
"Yes; I promise," said Lennox quietly.
"Then I'll tell you something. Roby's coming too."
"Yes; for the first time since he got his wound."
Lennox was silent.
"There, I'm not going to try and teach you, old fellow," continued Dickenson; "but if I were you I should ignore everything, unless the boys do as they should do—meet you like men."
"Well," said Lennox, "we shall see."
That dinner-time came all too soon for Lennox, who had sat in his shabby quarters thinking how wondrously quiet everything was, and whether after what the colonel had hinted it was the calm preceding the storm.
"Come along," cried Dickenson, thrusting his head into the hut.
Lennox felt his heart sink as he thought of the coming meeting, for this was the first time he had approached the mess-room since the night of the attack upon the kopje. He winced, too, a little as he passed two sentries, who seemed, he thought, to look curiously at him. But the next moment his companion's rather boisterous prattle fell upon deaf ears, for just in front, on their way to the mess-room, were Roby and the doctor walking arm in arm, and then they disappeared through the door.
"Oh, won't I punish the provisions when the war is over!" said Dickenson. Sniff, sniff! "Ah! I know you, my friend, in spite of the roasting. I'd a deal rather be outside you than you inside me. And yet it's all prejudice, Drew, old man, for the horse is the cleanest and most particular of vegetable-feeding beasts, and the pig is the nastiest—cannibalistic and vile."
They passed through the door together, to find the colonel present, and the other officers about to take their places. Roby had evidently not been prepared for this, and he looked half-stunned when the doctor turned from him, advanced to Lennox, and shook hands.
"I wish we had a better dinner in honour of my two convalescents."
"This is insufferable," said Roby in a voice choking with anger.
"Let that wait, doctor," said the colonel.
"Come along, Lennox," cried Dickenson, after darting a furious glance at Roby. "Very, very glad to see you once more in your place."
No one else spoke for a few moments, and the dinner was about to be commenced, when Roby suddenly rose to his feet.
"Colonel Lindley," he said, in a husky voice full of rage, "are you aware who is present here this evening?"
"Yes, Captain Roby," said the colonel sternly. "I desired Mr Lennox, now that he is convalescent, to return to his usual place at the mess-table."
Roby's jaw dropped, and he stared at the officers around as if silently asking them whether he heard aright. But every man averted his eyes and assumed to be busy commencing the miserable meal.
"Well!" exclaimed Roby at last; and then in a tone which expressed his utter astonishment: "Well."
"Sit down, Captain Roby," continued the colonel, raising his eyebrows as he saw that his subordinate was still standing.
"I beg your pardon, sir," said Roby stiffly, after looking round in vain for something in the way of moral support from his brother officers, who all sat frowning at their portions.
"Yes?" said the colonel calmly.
"I have no wish to be insubordinate, but, speaking on behalf of all present here, I desire to say that we feel it impossible to remain at the table in company with one who—"
"That will do," said the colonel, fixing Dickenson with his eyes, for that individual had suddenly given vent to a sound that was neither sigh, grunt, ejaculation, nor snort, but something that might have been the result of all these combined.
"I beg your pardon, sir?" said Roby hotly.
"I said that would do, Captain Roby," replied the colonel. "I did not gather that you had been elected to speak for your brother officers upon a subject about which I consider myself to be the proper arbiter. Moreover, if any officer feels himself aggrieved respecting any one whom I elect to join us at the mess-table, I am always open to hear his complaint."
"But really, sir," began Roby indignantly, "this is an assembly of honourable gentlemen."
"With an exception," growled Dickenson.
"Yes," cried Roby passionately, "with an exception—I may add, two exceptions."
"Look here, Captain Roby," cried Dickenson, springing up, "do you mean this as an insult to me?"
"Silence!" cried the colonel, rising in turn. "Mr Dickenson, resume your seat."
Dickenson dropped down so heavily that the empty cartridge-box that formed his seat cracked as if about to collapse.
"Captain Roby," said the colonel, "I beg that you will say no more now upon this painful subject. Resume your seat, sir."
"Sir," said Roby, "I must ask your permission to leave the mess-table. Whatever my brother officers may choose to do, I absolutely refuse to sit at the same table with a—"
"Stop!" roared Dickenson, springing up again in a furious passion. "If you dare to call my friend Lennox a coward again, court-martial or no court-martial, I'll knock you down."
Every man now sprang to his feet as if startled by the sudden verbal shell which had fallen amongst them. Then there was a dead silence, till Lennox said huskily, "Will you give me your permission to return to my quarters, sir?"
"No, Mr Lennox," said the colonel quietly. "Take your places again, gentlemen.—Captain Roby—Mr Lennox—if we are alive and uninjured in the morning I will see you both at my quarters with respect to this painful business. To-night we have other matters to arrange. I have just received trustworthy information that another reinforcement has reached the enemy. I have doubled the number of scouts sent out, and as soon as we have dined we have all our work to do in completing our arrangements to meet what the Boers intend for their final attack. Gentlemen, sit down. Our duty to our country first; minor matters of discipline after."
There was a low buzz of excitement as every man resumed his seat, Roby alone hesitating, but dropping sharply back into his place in unwilling obedience to a sharp tug given at his tunic by the officers on either side.
"What about your promise?" said Lennox in a whisper to Dickenson.
"Hang my promise!" growled his comrade. "Do you take me for a stump?"
CHAPTER THIRTY SIX.
"WHAT A BRICK!"
Every one burst into the hurried flow of conversation that now followed the colonel's announcement, the excitement growing at the thought of the dreary siege at last coming to an end, while, to judge from the remarks, the feeling at the table was one of relief at the prospect of at last trying final conclusions with the Boers.
"Yes," said Captain Edwards to those near him, "I am heartily glad. Let them come on and give us a chance of some real fighting. All this miserable sniping and lurking behind stones has been barbarous. People say that the Boers are patriotic and brave: let them act like soldiers and give us a chance."
The conversation grew more and more exciting, till the meagre repast was at an end, when the colonel rose and walked round to the back of Dickenson's seat.
"Come to my quarters," he said quietly, and he walked out, followed by the young subaltern.
The stars were out, shining brightly, and all looked peaceful and grand as the colonel led on to his hut, with Dickenson stringing himself up for the encounter he was about to have with his chief, and growing more and more determined and stubborn as the moment approached.
"I don't care," he said to himself. "I'll tell him I'll challenge Roby, whether it's allowed or not;" and then he felt as if some one had thrown cold water in his face, for the colonel said quietly:
"What a grand night, Dickenson! I wonder what our friends are doing at home, and whether they are thinking about us."
Dickenson stared at him, but it was too dark for him to distinguish the play of his officer's countenance.
"No light," said the colonel as he turned into his quarters. "Have you a match?"
"Yes, sir," said the young officer rather gruffly, and the little silver box he took from his pocket tinkled softly as he searched for a match and struck it, the flash showing the colonel turning up the lamp wick.
"That's right," he said; "light it."
A minute later the mean-looking hut, with its camp table, lamp, and stools, was lit up, and the colonel seated himself.
"I've very few words to say, Dickenson," he said kindly, "but those are about your conduct to-night. You are young, hot-headed, and unwise."
"Can't help it, sir. My nature," said the young man shortly.
"I suppose so. But of course you are aware that you have been guilty of a great breach of etiquette, and that your conduct cannot be passed over very lightly."
"I suppose not, sir. I'm ready to take my punishment."
"Yes," said the colonel; and then, after a pause, "You seem to attach yourself more than ever to Mr Lennox since this affair."
"Yes, sir; we are very old friends. I should not be his friend if I did not stick to him now he is under a cloud."
"Rather unwise, is it not? You see, you cut yourself apart from your brother officers, who are bound to stand aloof till Mr Lennox has cleared himself."
"I'm sorry not to be friendly with them, sir," said Dickenson sturdily; "and if there is any cutting apart, it is their doing, not mine. I am ready to do my duty in every way, sir; but I must stand by my friend."
"Then you have perfect faith in his innocence?"
"Perfect, sir; and so would you have if you knew him as well as I do."
"I do know him pretty well, Dickenson," said the colonel quietly. "Well, I suppose you know that I ought to be very severe with you?"
"Yes, sir, of course."
"And that I was bound to summon you to come to my quarters?"
"Or put me under arrest, sir."
"I cannot spare any of my officers to-night, Dickenson, so I suppose it must be deferred till after the attack."
"Thank you, sir. I don't want to be out of the fight."
"I suppose not. By the way, have you seen much of Roby since he has been about again?"
"Oh yes; a great deal, sir, on purpose. I've been trying to get him into a better frame of mind."
"Well, I must say that you have not succeeded very well."
"Horribly, sir. I thought he'd think differently as his wound healed up; but he is worse than ever."
"Now then," said the colonel, "tell me frankly what you think of Captain Roby's state."
"I think he puzzles me, sir. One hour I think he is as mad as a hatter—"
"Say as mad."
"Yes, sir; one hour he's as mad as mad, and the next he's perfectly sane."
"Perfectly sane, I should say, Dickenson," said the colonel.
"Yes, sir, in all things but one, and over that he's just like that fellow in the story."
"What fellow in what story?" said the colonel coldly.
"That Mr Dick, sir, who couldn't write anything without getting King Charles's head into it."
"I see; and you think Captain Roby cannot help getting what he considers to be Lennox's cowardice into his head?"
"Humph! Well, there may be something in that. There, I have no more to say to you now. No rashness to-night, but do your best with your men. I'd rather hear that you saved one of our lads than killed half-a-dozen Boers."
"I understand, sir."
"Understand this too. If you have any conversation with your brother officers, say I have had you here to give you a severe reproof for the present, and that probably something more will follow when we have crushed the Boers. If they crush us you will get off. That will do, Dickenson. I expect our friends will visit us to-night, though more probably it will be just before daylight. Ask the major to step here as you go. By the way, you and Lennox were at school together?"
"Yes, sir; and at Sandhurst too."
"Well, I hope he has as good an opinion of you as you have of him. Good-night for the present."
"Good-night, sir," said the young man as he went out into the starlight to deliver his message.—"Well, I hope we shall win to-night, for the chief's sake! Hang it all," he muttered, "what a brick he is!"
CHAPTER THIRTY SEVEN.
TO CLEAR THE KOPJE.
As a rule, the garrison at Groenfontein after the posting of the watch settled itself down for a quiet night's rest, for experience had taught that there was very little to fear in the shape of a night attack. This was foreign at first to the Boers' idea of warfare. They knew well enough that they were strongest in defence, and acted accordingly. Every place they held was turned into a hive of cells, in which they lurked, stings ready. It was generally some kopje covered with loose stones, cracks, and crevices, while the open portions were soon made formidable with loopholed walls of loosely built-up stones. If their resting-place was in the more open country, it was a laager whose walls were the wagons, banked up and strengthened with stakes, thorn bushes, and a terrible entanglement of barbed galvanised iron wire.
Attacks had been made on the fortified village and the kopje at early morning, but never pushed home; and all through the occupation the tactics of the general in command had been the harassing of the British regiment with shell fire and clever marksmanship from cover, so constant and so dangerous that the wonder to the English officers was that the enemy had not long before fired their last cartridge away.
But upon this particular night something more was fully expected. The English scouting parties had brought in the information respecting the reinforcements to the Boer corps, so that when a Zulu, who had been a very faithful hanger-on to the British force, came in full of eagerness that afternoon to announce that the Boers meant to attack in force, the colonel, though always ready to doubt the information received and the possibility of the black spies' surmises being correct, felt that he was warranted in making every preparation; and this was set about in a calm, matter-of-fact way.
Judging that the attack would be in the form of a surprise directed at the kopje, possession of which would render the village perfectly untenable, the two field-guns posted in the most commanding position in the village were hauled up to appointed places on the kopje to strengthen the big captured gun, and the major portion of the troops were marched up to the well-fortified lines there, the colonel intending to hold the rocky elevation himself, leaving the defence of the village to the major, who was to keep the enemy who attacked in play there as long as seemed necessary, and then retire along the well-fortified path which connected village and kopje, where the principal stand was to be made.
The great natural advantages of the rocky mount had not been neglected. From the first the colonel had looked upon it as a little inland Gibraltar in which he could bid defiance to ten times the number of the enemy that had been attacking him, so long as food and ammunition lasted; and to this end he had, directly after the discovery of the entrance to the cavern, supplemented the stores found there by removing all they had from the village, and making additions from time to time whenever suitable captures were made; while, greatest prize of all, there was the inexhaustible supply of pure cold water, easily enough obtainable as soon as proper arrangements were made.
Hence it was that the little English force was always ready, the plans for the defence arranged, and nothing remained to be done but for the various defenders to march quietly to their appointed places.
Consequently, after the watch-setting, the orders were given, and party after party moved silently through the soft darkness, till by the brilliant starlight each battery was manned and the trenches which commanded the probable approaches to the kopje lined, while the same precautions were taken in the village, where wall and hut had been carefully loopholed; and then all was ready. The men lay down in their greatcoats and blankets to snatch such sleep as they could get, as it was anticipated that several hours would probably elapse before the attack—if any—was made.
"I was in hopes," said Dickenson when all was ready, "that we should be up yonder, ready to cover the gunners. It would be a treat to play Boer and show them what firing from behind stones is like. Something new for them."
"But we shall not stay here very long if they do come," replied Lennox.
"No; we understand all that. Been drilled into us pretty well. But it strikes me that, according to the good old fashion of nothing occurring so likely as the unexpected, if they do come it will not be to where we are waiting, but from somewhere else."
"Where else can they come from?" said Lennox sharply.
"Oh, don't ask me," said Dickenson, laughing. "I'm not a Boer: how can I tell? They'll have hatched out some dodge. Got a balloon all the way from Komati Poort, perhaps, and about three o'clock they'll have it right over the top of the kopje, and if we had been up there I dare say we should have found them sliding down ropes like spiders."
"Highly probable," said Lennox dryly.
"Ah, you may jest; but you see if they don't come crawling right close up like so many slugs on a wet night. The first thing we shall know will be that they are there."
"Ah, now you are talking sense."
"But I don't guarantee that it's going to be like that," said Dickenson quickly, "so don't be disappointed."
"I shall not be. I'm ready for anything."
"Good, lad. That's the way to deal with the Boers. I've learnt that: for they certainly are the trickiest fellows going. I say—"
"Hadn't you better leave off talking now?"
"Only whispering. I was going to say that the major's here with us, and has put Edwards in command of both companies."
"But Roby's with him?"
"Yes; but Edwards is boss. I shouldn't have felt comfortable with our convalescent at the head of affairs."
"You need not have minded. Roby's as brave as he is high."
"May be; but he has that bee in his bonnet still. I half believe that old Emden's wrong after all."
"In what way?"
"He said the bullet just ploughed through Roby's scalp and pressed down a bit of bone. I believe he has the bullet in his head."
"Absurd!" said Lennox.
"Oh no. Likely enough. They came buzzing along, too, like swarming bees. That would account for what he said about you."
"Be quiet," said Lennox sharply. "If the enemy comes to-night I want to tight, and not to think about that."
"All right. I hope they will come; it will be a waste of sleep if they don't. Bah!" he added after a long-drawn yawn. "They won't come—they know better. These nigger spies see a few men on ponies, and away they run to say they've seen a big commando, and hold out their hands for the pay. Take my word for it, there'll be no fighting to-night."
It seemed as if Dickenson was right in his surmise, for the time glided on, with the stars rising to the zenith and beginning to decline. The heavens had never seemed more beautiful, being one grand dome of sparkling incrustations. The atmosphere was so clear that it seemed to those who lay back watching as if the dazzling points of light formed by the stars of the first magnitude stood out alone in the midst of the transparent darkness, while the shape of the kopje was plainly marked out against the vivid sky.
"Too light for them," said Dickenson after a long pause.
"They will not come till morning.—Who's this?"
He it was, the tall figure in a greatcoat coming close up to stop and speak to Sergeant James about being watchful, and then passing on without a word to his juniors. Roby came in the same quiet, furtive manner three times over during the night, twice being in company with Captain Edwards, who stopped to have a few words with Lennox and Dickenson as to the probability of an attack; but Roby stood aloof.
"And a good job too," said Dickenson after the last occasion. "I don't want to be malicious, though it seems so, about a man who has just got over a bad hurt; but I do hope the Boers will come, and that he will be wounded again—"
"Shame!" said Lennox angrily.
"Perhaps so; but you might have let me finish—wounded again; not a bullet wound, but a good cut that will bleed well and take the bad blood out of him. We should hear no more of his fancies."
"Drop that," said Lennox sternly; and then, to change the conversation, "Surely it must be getting near daybreak."
"Oh no; not yet. Let's have another walk round, and a word with the men."
This, one of many, was carried out, the young officers finding that there were no sleepers, the men not on the watch having, from the expectation that if there were an attack it would be about daybreak, instinctively roused up, every one being fully on the alert.
Lennox winced more than ever now as he stood in the trench they expected to be the likeliest, from its position, for the attack, for its capture would give the enemy a good point for further advances; and Captain Edwards had pointed it out to the major as being likely to be rushed, with the consequence that this part was the most strongly held, and the supporting party placed near.
And now, as Dickenson began whispering to his men, Lennox felt more bitterly than ever how thoroughly Roby's charge had gone home. For whenever he spoke to one of the watch the answer was abrupt and cold, while with his companion the men were eager and ready to be questioned.
Everything possible had been done to guard against surprise, and the communication with the chain of outposts was constant; but the surprise came from where it was least expected, and just when the friends were standing together in the redoubt, with Dickenson grudgingly owning that the stars were perhaps not so bright.
"The night has passed more quickly than I expected it would," whispered Lennox. "Can't you feel what a chill there is in the air?"
"Ugh—yes!" said Dickenson, with a shiver. "It's quite frosty out here."
"And a hot cup of coffee would be a blessing," said Captain Edwards, who, with Roby, had returned again.
"Yes," said Dickenson; "a good fire would warm us up."
"There it is, then," said Captain Edwards excitedly, for without a warning from the outposts, between which the Boers had crawled in the darkness unheard, a tremendous burst of firing was opened upon the kopje, the enemy having made their way up by inches till they were well within reach of the defending lines—so close, in fact, that for the time being the big guns were useless, their fire at such close quarters being as likely to injure friend as foe.
"Stand fast, my lads!" cried Captain Edwards. "We shall have them here directly.—Now, gentlemen, you know what to do. Ah! I thought so;" for a scattering fire was opened by the outposts, who, according to their instructions, began to fall back to take their places in the line ready to resist the attack upon the village.
Lennox felt stunned by the suddenness of the attack, and ready to confess that their trained troops were in nowise equal to the enemy in the matter of cunning; for, as if by magic, the wild fire ran completely round the kopje, which, contrary to expectation, had become the main object of attack, and in a short time the flashing of the rifles and the continuous rattle told plainly enough that by their clever ruse the Boers had completely surrounded the kopje, cutting the British force in two.
Certainly a portion of them had been led between two fires—between that of the village and that from the eminence; but the British fire was hindered by the danger of injuring their friends, and in a very short time the major grasped the fact that it was waste of energy to try and defend the village, which was only lightly attacked, and quite time for him to retire and lead his men to the support of the colonel.
His orders had hardly been given to the various centres to fall back from the trenches and houses held, when the agreed-upon signal flew up from the top of the kopje in a long line of light, followed by the bursting of a rocket, whose stars lit up the cloud of smoke rising round the mount.
Everything had been so well planned beforehand that there was not the slightest confusion: the men fell back steadily to the village square, leaving the Boers still firing out of the darkness into the defensive lines; and then, as steadily as if in a review, the advance was made to cut through the investing crowd, which, facing the other way, was keeping up a tremendous fire.
The signal for the advance was given with another rocket fired from the square as a warning to the colonel to cease firing on their side; and then the men steadily commenced their arduous task, the leading company going on in rushes, seizing the shelters, pouring in volleys, and driving the Boers before them and to right and left, in spite of their determined resistance to hold that which they had surprised by rising, as it were, as Sergeant James afterwards said, right out of the earth.
The holders of the village under the major numbered pretty well half of the total force remaining to the colonel, and, led by the major himself, two companies went at the strong force of the enemy drawn across their way, like a wedge, in spite of the concentrated fire delivered by the desperate men, who had to give way. The second body was under Captain Edwards, and Roby and Lennox and Dickenson had the dangerous post of bringing on the single company that formed the rear-guard.
The start was made without a man down. Three or four had slight wounds, but in the rear-guard not a man had been hit, while for some distance after quitting the redoubt they were still exempt. But the leading company was beginning to suffer badly: men kept on falling or staggering out to seek shelter in trench, rifle-pit, or behind boulder, and for a while the battle raged fiercely and but little progress was made, a crowd of the enemy pressing up from either side to take the places of those who fell or were beaten back, till the order was given in a lull to fix bayonets.
Then for a few brief moments the firing near at hand almost ceased, so that the metallic rattle of the little daggers being affixed to the rifle muzzles was plainly heard, to be followed by a hearty British cheer given by every throat from van to rear, the men's voices sounding full of exultation as, with the bugle ringing out, they dashed forward.
There was no working forward by inch or by foot now; the Boers gave way at once, and the broad column dashed on, dealing death and destruction to all who, in a half-hearted way, opposed their progress. It was quick work, for there was less than a couple of hundred yards to cover to be through the Boer line and reach the shelter of the rough stone walls and huge boulders which formed on that side the first defences of the kopje.
In the wild excitement of those minutes Lennox was conscious of cheering his men on, as with bayonets at the ready they dashed on toward the main body, driving back the Boers who were trying to close in again after being beaten back by the first rushes. Men were trampled under foot in the half-darkness, friends and foes alike, for it was a horrible business; but the men, in their wild excitement, cheered and cheered again till they were brought up by the first rugged wall and received with another burst of cheers from the holders of the bristling line of rifles and bayonets who were lining it.
"Through with you—over with you!" shouted the major.—"Here, help those poor fellows in.—Where's Captain Edwards?"
"Here he is," panted Dickenson, as he half-carried, half-dragged his brother officer to an opening in the wall.
"Tut, tut, tut!" ejaculated the major. "Here, Captain Roby, take full lead there on the left. Captain Roby!—Who has seen Captain Roby?"
"I did," said Captain Edwards faintly. "Shot down at the same time as I was."
"Ah-h!" roared the major. Then excitedly: "Where about?"
"A hundred yards away, perhaps. Shot down leading the left company in the charge. I—I was trying to help him along when I went down too."
"Killed?" said the major.
"No; bullet through the thigh."
"We must fetch him in. Here; volunteers!"
Lennox leaped on to the wall in the pale grey light of the fast-coming day, and as he stood there, stooping ready to leap down, fully a score of rifles sent forth their deadly pencil-like balls from where to right and left the Boers were crouching.
Down he went, to pitch head first, and a sound like a fierce snarling ran along the sheltered side of the stone wall; but as the men saw him spring to his feet again and begin to run they were silent for a few moments, as if in doubt as to what their young lieutenant meant; for Dickenson sprang on to the wall, trying hard to balance himself on the loose top where bullets kept on spattering, as he roared out, with his voice plainly heard above the rattle of the Boers' rifles, "Look at the coward! Running away again! Volunteers, come on!"
There was a curious hysterical ring in his loud laugh as, with the bullets whirring and whistling about him and a cross fire concentrated upon where he stood, he too leaped down, to begin running, while a burly-looking sergeant literally rolled over the wall, followed by two more men from the rear company, all plainly seen now dashing towards where Lennox was running here and there among the dead and wounded which dotted the sloping ground, before stopping suddenly to go down on one knee and begin lifting a wounded man upon his shoulder.
"Well," cried the major, "he's the queerest coward I ever saw. I wish the colonel was here."
His words brought forth a tremendous cheer from all who heard them, but the major turned upon the men angrily.
"Shoot, you rascals, shoot!" he cried; "right and left. Keep down the savages' fire if you can."
For, unmoved by the gallant actions going on in front, brave men setting death at defiance—as scores of others had done all through the war—in the noble endeavour to save a wounded man's life, dozens of the Boers began firing at the rescue party, heedless of the fact that their bullets crossed the narrow way traversed by the little force in their dash from the village to the kopje, and now horribly dotted by the wounded and dying of both sides who had fallen in the desperate encounter.
Yells and shouts arose from both sides as the bullets took effect among friends; but in their mad hate against those whom they called the British rooineks, the Boers fired on. Fortunately, for the most part the wielders of the Mauser were not calmly lying down behind stones, with rests for their rifles, but were crowded together, nervous, agitated, and breathless with running, so that their bullets were badly aimed during the first minute or two. Directly after, they were startled by the hail poured upon them from the whole line of men behind the great wall—a hail of lead beneath which many fell never to rise again, while the greater part devoted themselves to seeking cover, crawling anywhere to get under the shelter of some stone.
The roar, then, that greeted the little party struggling back was not from British throats but from British rifles, which for the time being thoroughly kept down the enemy's fire, till Lennox and Dickenson bore the insensible form of Roby right up to the wall, followed by Sergeant James and his two companions, each carrying a wounded comrade on his back.
And now, without ceasing their firing, the line cheered till all were hoarse, while four men sprang over to Roby's help, the others being tumbled over, to be seized by willing hands.
It was quite time, for both Lennox and Dickenson were spent—the former sinking upon his knees to hold on by one of the stones; Dickenson bending forward to try and wave one hand, but dropping suddenly across Roby's knees.
"Wounded?" cried the major excitedly, as he bent over Lennox directly he was lifted in, the last of the four.
Lennox opened his fast-closing eyes and stretched out his right hand to feel for Dickenson's, in vain. Then, with a sigh, he looked up at the major and touched his left arm, his breast, and his neck. "Yes," he said faintly, "the coward has it now."
"Bearers here," cried the major, and he turned to direct his men, for he was needed.
The Boers were coming on again in short rushes, regardless of the terrific fire poured upon them in the faint light of day, and a perfect hail of bullets was flying to and fro. And not only facing the village, but all round the kopje, where the enemy had in several places secured a footing and were utilising the stone defences prepared by the colonel's men, but of course from the reverse side. It had this good effect, though; it condensed the British force, giving them less ground to defend; and for the next two hours wherever a Boer dared to show enough of himself to form a spot at which to aim, a bullet came.
The losses were terrible on both sides, for the attack was as brave as the defence; and even when the two small guns were brought into action, to send shells hurtling wherever the continually increasing enemy were seen to approach in clusters, the attack went on.
"It's of no use, major," said the colonel at last, as they stood together; "they mean to have the place."
"What!" said the latter officer fiercely. "You don't mean surrender?"
"My dear fellow, no: not while there's a cartridge left."
"Ha!" sighed the major. "You gave me quite a turn."
"I meant, if this keeps on we shall lose as many men as if we brought it to a head. Besides, they'll hold on to the parts they've got, and keep creeping nearer."
"You mean the bayonet at once?"
"Exactly," said the colonel. "Off with you; take one side and I'll take the other. We must clear the kopje before the heat comes on."
"Yes," said the major, with a grim smile; "and the lads must want their breakfast now."
The men in each trench rolled up their sleeves as they heard the order given to fix bayonets again, and, leaping over the defences, rushed forward, to be staggered a little by the enemy's fire; then, with a cheer, on they went, the sun glistening upon the line of pointed steel.
It was more than the Boers could bear; defence after defence was vacated, and, soon after, the result of charge after charge was followed by a headlong flight which soon spread into a panic. It was "Sauve qui peut," uttered in Boer Dutch; while the failure of the daring attack was completed fast by the emptying of the rifle magazines among flying men, and the shots from the three guns, which had their opportunity at last.
A stand was made in the village, which was obstinately held for a time by two big commandos which had come upon the ground too late to be of much service; but in spite of a pom-pom, a Maxim, and a heavy howitzer, the big gun on the top of the kopje silenced their fire before sundown, by which time their heaviest piece was destroyed, the village burning, and the two commandos in full flight.
Then came the flag of truce for permission to carry off the wounded and bury the many dead.
It was about this time that Doctor Emden looked to the colonel and said:
"Awful! Poor fellows! I don't know where to turn to first."
CHAPTER THIRTY EIGHT.
THE DOCTOR'S DIPLOMACY.
It was a couple of days later, when the kopje was dotted with the rough shelters that the uninjured men had worked hard to erect from the ruins of the village, the principal being for the benefit of the wounded. The position was the same, or nearly the same, as it had been before. The Boers had retreated to their laagers, which were more strongly held than ever, and the investment was kept up with more savage determination; while the defenders had only the kopje to hold now, the village being a desolation, and the colonel's forces sadly reduced.
The doctor was in better spirits, and showed it, for he had managed to get something like order in his arrangements for his wounded men. But the colonel and the major were in lower spirits, and did not show it, for matters looked very black indeed, relief seeming farther off than ever.
"My last orders were to hold this place," said the colonel to the major, "and I'm going to hold it."
"Of course! Keep on. Every day we shall be having another man or two back in the ranks. Ah! here is Emden.—Well, how are the lads?"
"Getting on splendidly. My dear sirs, I have heard people abuse the Mauser as a diabolical weapon. Nothing of the sort; it is one of the most humane. The wounds are small, cleanly cut, and, so long as a bone is not touched, begin to heal with wonderful rapidity. Come and have a look round."
"Yes; we have come on purpose," said the colonel. "By the way, though, before we go into the officers' shelter, I wish you had contrived differently about Roby and Lennox. It seemed very short-sighted, after what has occurred, to place them next to one another."
"My dear sir," cried the doctor, "I did all I could to try and save the poor fellows' lives as they were carried in to me, without thinking about their squabbles and quarrels and rank."
"Yes, yes; of course, doctor. I beg your pardon. You have done wonders."
"Thankye! Done my best, of course. But don't you worry about those two; they'll be all right. Come and see."
"But about the men? Nothing more serious, I hope."
"N-n-no. Had to take that fellow's leg off to save his life."
"What poor fellow? Oh yes—Corporal May?"
"Yes. He objected strongly, but it had to be done. He threatens to commence an action against me when he gets home—so I hear."
They had been moving towards the shelter of corrugated iron beneath which the officers lay, each of whom greeted them with a smile. They were all badly wounded, but looked restful and contented, as wounded men do who have achieved a victory.
Roby seemed to be the most cheerful, and he beckoned to the colonel to come closer, while the doctor cocked his eye rather drolly and in a way that the chief did not understand.
"Well, Roby," said the colonel, "you look better."
"Well, for a man who has had the top of his head rasped by a bullet and got a hole right through his leg, I call myself a wonder."
"Does your wound pain you much?"
"Quite enough; but there, I don't mind. We've whipped."
"Yes," said the colonel, smiling; "we've whipped, thanks to every one's gallant behaviour. You did splendidly, Roby."
"Did my best, sir," said the captain quietly. "But I'm not quite as I should like to be," he continued confidentially. "Don't take any notice. I can't quite understand about my hurt on the head."
"Indeed?" said the colonel, frowning.
"I recollect, of course, getting the stinging pain in my leg, and going down, and then it seemed to me that one of the Boers kicked me at the top of the forehead with his heavy boot, and I was trampled on. After that I fainted, and didn't come to until the firing was going on and Lennox came running through it to pick me up. Colonel, that's about the bravest thing that has been done since we've been here."
"Quite," said the colonel, watching the speaker curiously.
"I want you to promise me that you'll mention it well in your despatch about the taking of the laager."
"If I ever get a despatch to headquarters it shall contain that, I promise you."
"Thank you," said Roby warmly, and with the tears now in his eyes. "I say, colonel, I'm sorry I went down; but the doctor says the lads got back after another skirmish, with plenty of cattle and stores."
"Yes," said the colonel; "it was a splendid addition to our supplies and—"
"Stop! stop! please, colonel," said the doctor. "Roby's weak yet."
"Oh no, doctor."
"My dear fellow, I say yes; and I say," said the doctor, bending down to whisper to his patient, "Lennox and Dickenson are both very feeble. Think of them."
Roby took the doctor's hand and pressed it, accompanying the pressure with a significant look.
"Thank you for coming, colonel," he said, "and you too, major. Emden's an awful tyrant when he gets us on our backs."
"Right," said the doctor. "Nero was nothing to me.—Now, gentlemen, just a word or two with the rest of my nursery folk, and then I must order you off."
The colonel nodded, passed on to Captain Edwards, and said a word or two; the same followed at Dickenson's side, where the young officer, forgetful of his wounds, gave his chief a look full of exultation, receiving a good-humoured nod in return, and Dickenson turned his face sidewise with a sigh of content.
"Wait a bit," he said to himself. "I'll have it out with the old man as soon as I get better. He's bound to ask poor old Drew's pardon. But fancy Roby turning like this."
Meanwhile the colonel had passed on to Lennox's side, to find him far the greatest sufferer of the party present, and unable to do more than smile his thanks and lie back, extremely weak, but with a look of calm restfulness in his eyes that told that there was nothing mental to trouble him and keep him back.
"What do you think of them, colonel?" said the doctor as soon as they were outside.
"All much better than I expected," said the colonel.
"But what about Roby? He is quite delirious from his wound, is he not?"
"Perfectly calm, sir, with his mens much more Sana than his corpus. I thought he was all wrong at first, but he's only weak— pulse regular, temperature as cool as a hot iron roof will let it be." [Note: Mens sana in corpore sano.]
"But, hang it all, doctor! his head's all in a muddle about storming the little kopje and getting the cattle and stores away."
"Yes; that's the comical part of it. He's a bit mixed, and in his present state I let him think what he likes, so long as it is not likely to do him any harm."
"But really, Doctor Emden, I fail to follow your reasoning," said the colonel rather stiffly.
"Never mind, colonel; leave it. I don't follow all your military manoeuvres, so I leave them to you. Let the cobbler stick to his last. There, man, don't look mystified. Let me explain. Roby had bad concussion of the brain from that first shot. There was no fracture, but the bone was, so to speak, a little dented down, and the consequence was that, though he rapidly recovered his health bodily, he did not get his mental balance quite right at the same time."
"Then you think that charge of his against Lennox was a trifling aberration that's now over. I hope you are right, doctor; but—"
"But me no buts," said the doctor. "I stake my reputation upon it. Surely, man, you can see the proof? The poor fellow showed you that he has not the slightest recollection now of what has been going on since the expedition to the laager."
"To be sure," said the major. "I see now. That explains it. He talked as if he thought this was the result of being shot down there."
"To be sure he does. He thinks, too, that Edwards is wounded from a skirmish with the Boers during the retreat."
"Then there was no nonsense, no unreality, in his display of interest in poor Lennox?"
"Not a bit. He's delighted with the poor fellow's gallantry, and talks to me about how much he owes him."
"But his charge of cowardice?"
"Wind, my dear sir; wind. Let it blow away. If any one were to tell him of it now he would stare with astonishment and ask you if you meant to insult him. Take my word for it, the hallucination has completely passed away. The fresh wound, with its loss by haemorrhage, and the reaction, has acted antagonistically to his mental trouble. He has, so to speak, stepped mentally from the attack on the Boers to their attack on us, and as soon as he recovers his strength he'll be as good a man as ever."
"But when we tell him about his charge?" said the colonel.
"Why tell him, sir? Let it rest. If it ever comes out by accident, that's quite another thing. The trouble has settled itself, as some troubles will."
"I wish this one would," said the major, "for I'm getting very sick of being penned up here on very reduced rations. Have they quite forgotten us at headquarters?"
"No," said the colonel. "Their hands are full.—Meanwhile, doctor, our ranks are very thin, so as fast as you can send the poor lads back to the ranks, let us have them again. The Boers will not let us rest like this for long."
CHAPTER THIRTY NINE.
But the Boers had received so severe a lesson that they did leave the garrison severely alone for nearly a month, save that there were often sharp encounters between patrols and the foraging parties which made a dash whenever there was a chance of capturing something for the military larder.
It had come to the colonel holding a private council, at which the doctor was present to give his opinion how long it would be before the wounded men would be sufficiently strong to undertake a night march and then push on to try and join hands with the nearest post held by our forces.
"If we could feed the lads as they ought to be fed, in about a month," replied the doctor quietly. "Going on as we are now—never." The colonel started from his seat. "Do you mean this, Emden?" he said excitedly. "The men's appearance speaks for itself. It is all the healthy can do to keep body and soul together; the wounded are at a standstill."
"No, no," said the colonel warmly; "all of our officers, though certainly weak, have returned to their duty."
"Yes," said the doctor; "but then they all partook more of a certain essence than the men do. The poor fellows had done marvellously well, and the more educated, better-class fellows compare wonderfully well with those of a lower station; but there is that difference."
"And pray what is the wonderful essence, doctor?" said Captain Edwards, smiling.
"Esprit de corps, my dear sir," said the doctor.
"Well," cried the colonel, "then you have settled it, doctor. We are not going to surrender."
"No!" came in chorus.
"We can't go and leave our weak ones behind."
"No!" came with double the force.
"We are too much reduced in available men to run any risks." There was no reply to this, and the colonel continued: "Then there is nothing else to be done, gentlemen, but take up another hole in our belts, keep on sending messages when we can get a Kaffir runner, and wait patiently for help."
As the officers sauntered away from the rough hut which had been built in a niche for the colonel, Roby was limping along with the aid of a stick and Lennox's arm, while Dickenson was rolling up a cigarette composed of the very last dust of his tobacco, ready to hand it to the captain, who suffered a good deal still from the bullet wound, the missile having passed right through his thigh. They had to pass two of their men, seated upon a rock in a shady corner, one of them being minus his right leg, which had been removed half-way between knee and hip; the other was recovering very slowly from a bullet wound in the face, an injury which had mended very slowly and kept him low-spirited, fretful, and ready to affect the companionship of one as fretful and as great a sufferer as himself. The group of officers stopped to say a few kind words to the men, and then, having nothing hopeful to hold out for their comfort, passed on.
"See that Captain Roby?" said the one-legged man.
"Of course I do."
"Well, I did have some hopes of him as being a man, but he isn't. He's a sneak, that's what he is—a sneak."
"Better not let him hear you say so," said the other.
"Tell him if you like."
"Tell him yourself."
"You know how he let on about Mr Lennox running away in the fight?"
"Oh yes, of course; but it was all a mistake. He was off his head, Captain Roby was."
"Tchah! Not he. It was all true, but the captain wouldn't hold to it. They hang together, these officers, and make things up, so that when their turn comes to be in trouble the others back them. I was out here the other day, and old Roby came doing the civil and asking me how I was, so I rounded upon him about giving up saying Mr Lennox was a coward. What do you think he says?"
"Said you were cracked."
"Yes; only he said mad. What do you think of that?"
"That he ought to have said you were a sneak and a cur," said the man, getting up and walking away, but only to stop and turn round. "Look here, corporal," he said; "take a bit of advice. Drop that altogether, or some day the chaps may turn upon you and forget that you're a crippled man, and give you what you don't like."
"Why?" cried Corporal May wrathfully.
"Because every one of us thinks Mr Lennox is about the pluckiest fellow in the regiment, and would follow him into the hottest fire the enemy could get up."
Affairs, after gliding sluggishly along for months, began to move swiftly now. Two weeks after there was an announcement that a Kaffir, a despatch-runner, had reached the kopje, and he was hurried before the officers, to prove to be the Zulu who had brought in the warning of the last attack. He had fresh news now—that once more the Boers had been reinforced, and that they had received three heavy guns. Preparations were again made for the reception of the enemy, but the men moved about looking grave and stern. The old hopeful elasticity seemed gone. Dickenson noted this, and called Lennox's attention to it.
"Yes," he said; "but the first shouts will rouse them, and they'll fight as well as ever."
"Of course," said Dickenson. "Still, one can't help feeling dull."
There was no attack that night; but the scouts had reports to make of the advance of the enemy from all the laagers, and the next morning soon after sunrise half-a-dozen Boers rode up under the white flag—their leader being blindfolded and led into the colonel's presence, with the other officers gathered round.
"I have come from our general with a message," said the Boer officer shortly. "He knows that you are all nearly starved, and that the kopje is covered with sick and wounded. He tells me to say he does not wish to attack and shoot you all down, though you deserve it. He says he will be merciful, and gives you ten minutes to consider whether you will haul down and surrender. What am I to tell him?"
"Tell the officer who sent you that we do not want ten seconds to consider, and that we do not know how to haul down the British colours. Let him come here and drag them down himself."
"What do you mean?" said the man roughly, and opening his eyes wider than was his wont in wonder.
"War!" cried the colonel sternly, and he signalled to those who had brought the messenger to re-tie the bandage across his eyes and lead him back through the lines.
Two hours later a heavy gun began the attack, one which was to be no night surprise entailing a heavy loss to the assailants, but a slow, deliberate shelling of the gallantly defended place to destruction; while now the difficulty was felt by the garrison for the first time of how to reply, for the new guns which had come upon the scene were served with smokeless powder, and the best glasses failed to show whence the bursting shells had come.
The officers had nothing to do on the kopje but keep going about among their men in the trenches and behind the walls, to say a few encouraging words and insist upon them not exposing themselves, for it was waste of cartridges to use a rifle; while the firing from the big gun and its smaller brothers too was infrequent for the reasons above given. Hence it fell about that more than once the officers paid what may be called visits from time to time, just to exchange a few words, and on one of these occasions Captain Roby, who walked fairly well with a stick, joined Lennox and Dickenson.
"This is cheerful," he said. "Did you over know anything more exasperating?"
"Horrible!" said the two young men in a breath. "What's the chief going to do?" added Dickenson.
"I've just come from him," replied Roby. "Nothing. What can he do but hold the dogs of war in leash until the Boers think they have shelled us enough, and come on?"
"Nothing, of course," said Dickenson, carrying on the captain's simile; "but the dogs are grinding their teeth, and when the enemy does come, by Jingo! he'll find them pretty sharp."
Hour after hour the Boers kept on throwing heavy shells on to the kopje, while the shelter was so good that not a single life was lost; but the casualties from the shattering shells provided the doctor and his aids with quite sufficient work, and it was with a sigh of relief that he ceased attending to the last man brought in, for with darkness the firing ceased.
Then came the night full of alarms with the terrible anxiety and expectation of the assault which did not come. For, as it proved, the Boers had been furnished with too awful a lesson in the former attack to venture upon another surprise, with its many accidents and risks to themselves. They preferred to wait for daylight, and with the first pale streaks of dawn the bombarding began once more, and went on briskly till an hour after sunrise, when the lookouts from the top of the kopje passed the words, "Here they come."
Just about the same time the scouts came running in bearing the same warning, and now the kopje guns began to play their parts more effectively.
For from three directions, covered by their own pieces, quite a cloud of the Boers could be seen approaching fast to get within rifle-range, dismount, and then begin a careful skirmishing advance, seizing every spot that afforded cover, completely surrounding the defenders, and searching the kopje from side to side with a terrific fire.
This was vigorously replied to; but the advance was never for a moment checked, the manoeuvring of the enemy being excellent, and their skill in keeping hidden and crawling from place to place exasperating to the defenders, for in spite of careful aiming and deliberation the Boer losses were remarkably small.
"They mean it this time, Bob," said Lennox sadly.
"Yes, they mean it; and somehow I don't feel up to the work at all. I didn't know I was so weak. Feel your wounds much?"
"Horribly. I can only use my glass and watch the stubborn brutes coming on."
"Same here. I've had six shots at 'em, and then I handed the rifle back to the Tommy who lent it to me."
"How many times did you hit?" asked Lennox.
Dickenson looked round to see if either of the men could hear him, and then he whispered softly, "Not once."
Lennox took no notice, for he was resting his field-glass upon the rough top of the stone wall, looking outward over the veldt.
"Well, didn't you hear what I said?"
"Yes. Don't worry," replied Lennox shortly. "Here, quick!" he cried excitedly. "Take your glass and look straight away yonder to the left of the laager we took."
"Eh? Yes! All right. I see. Here, send word to the chief. They're coming on fast now; three clouds of them. Reinforcements. Why don't those fellows make the big gun begin to talk?"
"Because they can see what I can, Bob," cried Lennox joyously. "Look again. Lance-tips glittering in the sun. Our men. Hurrah! Strong bodies of cavalry. Why, Bob, they'll catch the enemy in the open now. The siege is up. Hush! Don't shout."
"Why, man? It will encourage the lads."
"And warn the enemy that help is coming. Five minutes more ignorance will be worth anything to the relief force. I'll go to the chief at once."
There was no need. Almost at that moment the colonel had caught sight of the lance-tips through his glass; but quite ten minutes more—minutes crowded with excitement—elapsed before the attacking party were aware of the danger in their rear, and then came the terrible reverse. Boers began running back to where their ponies were being held out of rifle-shot, but running in vain, for the British cavalry were there first, spurring their steeds and stampeding the ponies, sending them in all directions prior to charging through and through the retreating parties, and keeping up the pursuit until recalled.
Others of the relief force had meanwhile been aiming at the three laagers, into which the infantry dashed, the first warning of this received at the kopje being through the cessation of the shelling, for the guns were either silenced or put out of action, the whole of the Boer force literally melting away.
It was one of the most brilliant episodes of the war; and that night, the supplies having come up, the relief party were hoarse with cheering the men whom they dubbed British heroes, and all was festivity and joy.
No, not all; for during the long watches of that night, with the stars looking piercingly through the cold, clear air, parties were out, British and Boer, searching far and wide, and the ambulance-wagons creaked and rattled with their terrible loads, while Doctor Emden, the doctors of the relief expedition, and those working for the Boers were busy till morning.
It was Lennox and his comrade who, being still only invalids, had the forethought to make their way at sunrise to where the doctor had been working all the night, and they found him lying utterly exhausted upon an old greatcoat, fast asleep.
Lennox touched him gently, and he sprang up.
"Yes, all right," he said; "I'll come. How many this time?—Eh? What! you, my dear boys? Hurt?"
"No, no, doctor; drink this," said Lennox gently, and he held out a steaming tin.
"Coffee! Eureka!" cried the doctor. "My dear boy, I began to think I was never to taste the—ha, delicious!—infusion of the berry—again. Ha! Another? Yes, please. No; wake up and give it to that poor fellow there. He has been working with me all the night.—That's right," said the doctor, after seeing his wishes fulfilled. "Ah, it's all very well for you, my fine fellows, who have the rush and dash and wild excitement of battle, but it's horrible for us who have all the cold-blooded horrors afterwards. You have the show and credit too, and the rewards."
"But we have the wounds too, doctor," said Lennox.
"To be sure, my dear boy; to be sure. Don't take any notice of what I say. I'm worn out. We get our rewards too, in the shape of the brave fellows' thanks. But if those people at home who shout for war only knew what it means when the fight is over, they'd alter their tune. But I say, this day's work ought to bring it to an end."
It did, in the Groenfontein district; and for Colonel Lindley's battle-scarred, hunger-weakened veterans there came a time of rest and peace.
By way of postscript to this narrative of South African adventure, here is the letter received from Mark Roby by Drew Lennox soon after the voyage home and the ovation which he and his comrades had received in their march through London streets:
My Dear Lennox,—I have just seen the Gazette, and am of course delighted to find the word "Major" prefixed to my name. I do not write out of vanity; it is from the sincere desire to be one of the first to congratulate my brave old companion in arms, Drew Lennox, V.C. Bravo! You deserved it. May I live to see you a general, with a lot more orders on your breast. But there is something more I want to say. I dined with Bob Dickenson and old Sawbones last evening, and in the chat after dinner over the promotions Dickenson told me about that episode which occurred after I was bowled over by that shot and you saved my life, according to your noble custom. When Bob D. told me how I accused you of being a coward, I felt quite knocked over. Of course it is as Emden says—I was, in a way, mad as half-a-dozen hatters, and enough to make me, with a part of my something or another—I forget what the doctor called it, but he meant brain-pan—bent in on my thinking apparatus. You a coward! Why, I confess now that a petty feeling of jealousy often worried me, through every one thinking so much of you and the way in which you always came up smiling after no end of brave doings. A coward! My word! Why didn't you punch my head? There, I don't say forgive me, because I know you do one who is proud to call you his best and bravest friend. That last is what I told Bob Dickenson you were, and he looked quite proud. You will be glad to hear that my wound is quite healed up; and as to the lump on my skull, the absolute truth, honesty, and sincerity of every word in this letter must show you that there is no trouble as to my knowing what I say.—Yours always, my dear Lennox, Mark Roby. Captain Drew Lennox, V.C.