With Buller in Natal by G. A. Henty
Chapter II. A Terrible Journey
Twenty-four hours had gone, and not half the distance had yet been covered. The night had passed painfully to all those in the waggons, for though most of the women had provided themselves with wraps of one sort or another, the cold was severe. This, however, was less felt than the cramped position in which all had to sit on the floor, unable to move or to stretch their legs, the only change obtainable being by standing up. The pressure was most felt in the open waggons, where the men as well as the women were packed together so closely that even sitting down was impossible. Some slight relief had been afforded by the men on the covered waggons taking as many from the uncovered trucks as could lie down there with them; but as the latter were by far the more numerous, a comparatively small number of men could be so entertained.
For a time the rising of the sun afforded some relief, but as it gained in power the position of the fugitives became almost unbearable. The stoppages were frequent, and at all the stations the Boers from the neighbourhood had assembled, some from curiosity, but the majority to wait for the trains that were to take them to the front. Although sometimes detained for three or four hours, the passengers were not allowed to alight. The men, indeed, at times, by common impulse, sprang out, but were soon forced to take their places again, some of the Boers using their heavy whips over their heads and shoulders, while others with pointed guns prevented any attempt at retaliation. Men, and even women, crowded the platform, jeering and cursing those in the waggons, menacing them with their whips and snatching at such trinkets, and even cloaks as took their fancy. The men were all several times searched for weapons, and made to turn their pockets inside out, the contents being unceremoniously transferred to those of the Boers. Chris and his companions would have taken their places below with their friends, but these implored them not to do so, being afraid that they would be enraged beyond endurance, and might in their anger say or do something that would give an excuse to the Boers to use their rifles, which they so often pointed threateningly at women as well as men. It was only when the train was in motion that food and drink were passed up from below, as these too would assuredly, had they been seen, have been confiscated by the brutal tormentors.
When they steamed into Standerton in the afternoon, the distress of the women and children for water was so great that men determined at all costs to endeavour to get some for them. As if by one impulse, when the train came to a standstill outside the station, they jumped out and made for the little village. But here all refused to give or sell them water or food, and in a few minutes a large party of Boers rode in, and falling upon them with their whips, drove them back to the train. Had they been armed the men would assuredly have resisted till the last, although certain to be killed, so mad were they with passion. As it was, it would have been throwing away their lives, without a chance of even avenging themselves on their assailants. As they reached the waggons and climbed into their places again, several had broad blue weals across their faces, while many more were smarting from the cuts they had received on the body. Chris and his companions had got out when the others did so, but had not followed them. Their supply of water and cold tea was not yet exhausted, as most of the ladies had made preparations for a journey of two or three days, and Mrs. King and the mothers of the other lads begged them not to go.
"The Boers are only waiting for an excuse to use their firearms," Mrs. King said, "and whatever happens you had better stay here. You can do no good by going." So, reluctantly, they had again taken their places on the roofs of the carriages, and sat there with their pulses beating and their fists clenched as they heard the shouts and the cracking of the heavy whips in the village, and presently saw the men running back, pursued by their cowardly assailants. Two or three of the lads were so enraged at the sight that they would have jumped down had not Chris laid a restraining hand on them.
"Wait your time," he said in a hard voice. "We can't repay them now, but we will remember this when our turn comes."
The Boers, as they rode up, leapt from their horses, and with shouts of exultation walked along the waggons, striking at the men, hurling every epithet of contempt and hatred at them, and even spitting at them. Many of the women were also struck as well as being grossly insulted.
"And these scoundrels call themselves Christian men, and their friends speak of them as simple pious farmers! I call them, both from their appearance and their actions, as unmitigated a set of ruffians as are to be found on the face of the globe," Cairns exclaimed passionately.
They were indeed as unsavoury in appearance as they were brutal in manner. Water is scarce in the Transvaal, and is used most sparingly for all purposes of cleanliness. The Boer sleeps in his clothes, gives himself a shake when he gets up, and his toilet is completed, unless on very exceptional occasions when he goes outside the door to the water- cask, fills his hands with water, and rubs them over his face.
Four times in the year, however, the Boers indulge in a general wash before starting with their wives and families for four or five days' stay at the nearest town to attend the services of the church and to do their quarter's marketing. In dress the Boer is almost universally slovenly, his clothes hang about him stained and discoloured by long usage. In the majority of cases he is altogether without education, and very many Boers are scarcely able to sign their names. Most of them wear beards and long unkempt hair. But in point of physique they are fine men, tall and powerfully, though loosely, built, but capable of standing great fatigue if necessary, although averse to all exercise save on horseback. All are taught to shoot from boyhood, and even the women in the country districts are trained in the use of firearms, for it is not so long since they lived in dread of incursions by the Zulus and Swazis.
There was no attempt whatever at uniformity of dress. Most of the men wore high riding boots. Some of the young men from the towns were in tweed suits, the vast majority wore either shooting jackets or long loose coats; some were in straw hats, but the elder men all wore large felt hats with wide brims. They were all, however, similarly armed with rifles of the best and most modern construction. Their general appearance was that of a large band of farmers of the roughest type and wholly without regard for their personal appearance.
It was fully an hour before the train moved again. Then it was shunted on to a siding while the Boers entrained with their horses on a long line of waggons which had just come up, and which started on its way south as soon as they were on board. Then the emigrant tram crawled on again. There was another night of wretchedness, and in the morning they arrived at Volksrust, the frontier town. Here they were again closely searched for arms, and what provisions remained among them were commandeered, or as the emigrants called it, stolen. However, they knew that their troubles were now nearly over, and did not grumble when they were informed that the train would go no farther, and that they must make their way on foot to Newcastle.
They were told tauntingly that they might find some of their friends there if they had not already run away, and that if they stopped at Pietermaritzburg for a week they would have another journey down to Durban as prisoners. All were too glad to get out of the clutches of the Boers to utter complaints which they knew would be useless, and they went off at once. The prospect was not, however, a pleasant one. Newcastle was nearly thirty miles away, but they hoped that at least they might obtain shelter and rest and food for the women at some of the scattered farms. At first their progress was slow, for after being for more than two days and a half packed up like cattle, they had almost lost the use of their limbs; but gradually the pace was accelerated. Men took the little children on their shoulders, others helped the women along. Charlestown, on the British side of the frontier, was already occupied by the Boers, who hooted and abused them as they passed through. At Laing's Nek there was a Dutch commando with some guns.
Two miles on the women could go no further, and they halted at a large farmhouse which had been deserted by its owners. All the men, however, who were alone, determined to push on at once to Newcastle, and promised they would send vehicles of some sort to take them on if they could possibly be obtained. Mrs. King and the other ladies authorized them to pay any sums demanded.
Thankful indeed were the tired women when they reached the farmhouse. They found the doors unfastened, as the farmer knew that were he to lock them the Boers would certainly batter them in when they arrived, and would probably do greater damage to the furniture left behind than if they had obtained an entry without trouble. The men soon found the wood- shed, and in a short time great fires blazed in every room. The bedding had been carried away, but utterly worn out as they were, the women were only too glad to lie down on rugs and cover themselves with their cloaks. The men gathered in the lower room and talked for some time before thinking of going to sleep. There was scarce one who was not determined to join one of the volunteer corps being raised at Durban and Maritzburg, and to avenge the insults and ill-treatment to which they had been subjected. The long-smouldering animosity towards the Boers had been fanned during the past three days into a fierce fire, and even those who had not before thought of taking part in the struggle were now as eager as the others to do so.
In the morning all were astir early. Had they been supplied with food they would have waited until waggons came out from Newcastle, but these could hardly arrive until evening, and at any moment the Boer advance might commence. They therefore determined to move on early, for if they met the waggons half-way these could return with them at once to the town. It was desirable to start as soon as possible so as to get well on the way before the heat of the day was at its fullest. Accordingly by six all were in movement. The long night's rest had done them good, still more so the thought that by the end of the day they would be among friends, and they were disposed to laugh and joke over their present situation. All the men had cut themselves heavy cudgels from the stock of firewood, and the fact that they were not as before wholly defenceless was no slight gratification to them. Even the ladies spoke confidently of being able to walk the twenty miles to Newcastle should they not meet vehicles coming to fetch them. They could go ten miles now and then halt till the sun was setting, and after such a long rest could certainly go on to Newcastle.
"I am afraid, mother," Chris said as they started, "that what seems so easy now will be too much for many of the women. We started without breakfast, and unless we can get something by the way I doubt if many will reach the town to-night. Of course for the men it is nothing. Very often when I have been out on the veldt and have started early, I have had nothing till I got back late in the evening. What are you wearing that veil for, mother? I saw that you pulled it down over your face yesterday afternoon. I suppose you did it to keep the dust out of your eyes, but there is none now."
"I had a reason for doing it, but I can put it up now."
She lifted the white veil to its usual place round her hat; as she did so, Chris uttered a sharp exclamation as his eye fell on a bluish-red mark across her face.
"You don't mean to say, mother," he said in a tone of horror, "that one of those scoundrels struck you?"
"They struck a good many of us, Chris, and there was no reason why I should escape more than another."
The lad's face grew white.
"Why did you not call out? I would have--"
"I know you would," she interrupted gently, "and so of course I did not cry out. You had all had enough to try you to the utmost, and I was not going to risk your life by letting you know what had happened. It flashed across me at once that if you had seen it happen you would have been down from the roof in an instant and struck the man. Had you done so, your fate would have been sealed, you would have had half a dozen bullets in your body; therefore, I simply dropped my veil, and I can assure you that the smart of the Boer's sjambok gave me less pain when I felt that you knew nothing of it."
Chris walked along silently for a minute or two; then he said quietly: "Thank you, mother. I am sure it would have been as you said. I could not have helped it. No one could see his mother struck without interfering."
"I can understand that, dear; but it would have been a poor consolation for me had you been killed in endeavouring to right a wrong that I could very well put up with, and shall forget in a week."
"I suppose so, mother. I should not so much mind if I only knew the fellow's name, or even knew him by sight, so that I might possibly have the chance some day of settling accounts with him."
They walked on until eight o'clock, and then rested under the shade of some rocks. Fortunately there had been some rain two days before, and they had been able to quench their thirst at a little stream that came down from the hills. There were in all some thirty women and eighteen men.
"Look here, Harris," Chris said, "there is a farmhouse over there, and as I see cattle and horses, it evidently is not deserted. Let us go and see if we can get some bread and some milk for the women."
The other lads were quite ready to go also, and they walked across to the house, which stood some half a mile away. As they approached it a Boer came out. On seeing them he re-entered it, and appeared again with a rifle.
"I am afraid we shall get nothing here," Harris said. "The Dutchmen in Natal are only waiting for the Boers to advance to join them."
"Well, we will try anyhow," Chris said doggedly. "I dare say that you are right; but Boer or no Boer, if there is any food in that house I mean to get it."
They went quietly on. When they were within fifty yards the Boer shouted to them to go back.
"We have some women and children with us," Chris replied, continuing to advance. "They are exhausted from want of food and fatigue, and we have come to ask for some bread, and if you have it in the house, some milk."
"If the house was full of both you should not have a crumb of bread or a drop of milk. Halt! I say, or I will put a bullet into you."
Chris did not heed the command.
"We have plenty of money to pay you, and are willing to give ten times its fair price."
He was now within ten yards of the farmer. The latter burst into a torrent of abuse, and was in the act of raising his rifle when Chris sprang at him. The Boer, who had no idea that this lad would venture to attack him, discharged his rifle almost at random, and the ball passed through the brim of Chris's hat. An instant later his heavy stick fell on the Boer's head, and levelled him to the ground.
"Now, Harris," he shouted, "do you and the others go into the house, and first of all bring me out one of these fellows' whips. Cairns, pick up his rifle, and reload it. Sankey, do you and the others keep guard at the door, and don't let those viragoes out"--for three women had just appeared, and were cursing with a fluency that Billingsgate would have envied.
Harris had already come out with a heavy whip by the time Cairns had reloaded. Chris took it and said to the Boer, who, in view of the formidable sticks the lads carried, had thought it best to lie quiet;
"Now you can get up, you hulking ruffian. I am going to give you a lesson in civility. Oh, you won't get up? Well, it will make no difference to me," and he proceeded to give the howling Boer a tremendous thrashing. "There," he said, when his arm was tired, "you may get up and go, and I hope that the lesson will do you good. Now, Cairns, we will search the house. It is likely enough he has a lot of rifles hidden somewhere, and perhaps when we have gone he may go and fetch some more of his class. We may as well possess ourselves of them."
The seven lads went into the house, paying no further attention to the Boer. In spite of the fury of the women, they searched the house thoroughly, and in a large case in a disused room they found twelve Mauser rifles, with a thousand cartridges. They then took a basket and filled it with bread, and emptied the milk from two large pans into a pail.
"We are not thieves and robbers, like your people," Chris said to the women, as he threw five shillings on the table. "Your man has been good enough to tell us that he will be in Maritzburg with the Boers in a week's time. Therefore, as war has been declared, the muskets are lawful spoil taken from a rebel. Now, boys, let's be off."
The cartridges were divided among them; then, with the thirteen guns, the basket, and pail, they started to rejoin their friends. "Well, that is a fair capture to begin with," Chris said. "As far as we are concerned, the war has begun. The Boer has made off, I see. I should not be surprised if we hear of him and some of his friends again. However, now we are well armed they can come as soon as they like."
Great was the joy among the women and children when they returned with the much-needed refreshment.
"I was getting very anxious about you, Chris," his mother said. "We heard the man fire. But where have you got all these rifles from?"
"The owner of the farm is a Boer, mother, and as he told us, a rebel. As he began the affair by putting a bullet through my hat, and abusing us and our nation heartily, we took the liberty of searching his house, with good success. I need not say that he did not give us this bread and the pail of milk of his own free-will, but I left the money for them."
His mother had turned pale when he said that a bullet had gone through his hat, but she said nothing.
"What became of the man?" she asked. "You did not kill him, I hope?"
"No, mother; I contented myself with thrashing him with one of his own whips until my arm ached."
There was enough bread for all to have a slice. The women and children had as much milk as they could drink, the rest was divided among the men. The extra rifles were given to those who could best use them. In half an hour the women said that they were ready to go on again, and that they would rather do that than wait, for they greatly feared that the Boer might gather some of his friends and attack them. Feeling greatly strengthened and refreshed, they started at a good pace. They had gone about a mile when Sankey said to Chris:
"Look, there is a party of mounted men across the valley."
"Then we had better plant ourselves among the rocks, and let the unarmed men go on with the women and children, and take shelter a bit farther on. I don't suppose they will venture to attack us when they find, to their disgust, that we are armed with as good rifles as their own. They have a great respect for their lives."
Accordingly the seven lads and the six men with rifles at once took up a position among the rocks. The rest of the party went forward two hundred yards and then took shelter also. The Boers, feeling certain that the party was unarmed, did not trouble themselves to open fire at a distance, but rode forward in a clump at full gallop.
"They are about a thousand yards away now," one of the men said. "We may as well give them a volley."
The thirteen rifles flashed out almost simultaneously. There were, as they had counted, sixteen Boers. Five horses fell, three others galloped off riderless, and the party broke up and rode off at full speed in various directions.
"I don't think we need trouble any more about them," said Sankey's father, who, was one of the party, as he rose to his feet. "You may be sure that several of those who got away carried bullets somewhere about them."
As they turned to rejoin their friends there was a general exclamation of satisfaction, for two large waggons were seen coming along the road. In ten minutes the women and children, with all the older men, were comfortably seated and on their way to Newcastle. Chris and his party accompanied them on foot so as to form a rear-guard. "We have won our first battle," Chris laughed.
"But for you there would not have been any battle at all," Field said. "I don't think any of us would have gone forward after that fellow warned us back had you not done so."
"I was determined to get some milk for the children," Chris said, "and would have gone forward even if I had been alone. I don't think I ever felt such a satisfaction as I did in thrashing that Boer. One of them struck my mother across the face, you know, in the train, and though it was not the same man, I feel better now that I have taken it out of someone."
At Newcastle they found a small British force, and learned that there were four or five thousand troops at Dundee. Trains were still running, and after only an hour's delay at Newcastle to obtain a meal, the whole party went on. Late that evening they arrived at Colenso. Mrs. King and the ladies and gentlemen of the party had decided to sleep there, but hearing on the road that the little town was crowded with fugitives from the Transvaal and the farms near the frontier, they determined to continue the journey to the capital, which they reached the next morning. The lads had quite decided upon their course before starting, and had arranged with their parents to remain at Maritzburg. The general opinion was that the British force at the front could not possibly maintain itself, but that as soon as the invasion began in force they must fall back, as the Transvaal Boers would be able to attack them in front and on the right flank, while the Free Staters would pour down through Van Reenen and De Beers Passes and make straight for Ladysmith, and so threaten their line of retreat.
There were a few indeed who still believed that the Boers would stand entirely upon the defensive so far as Natal went. They would occupy the formidable passes through the Drakensberg and await attack there, while they would invade Cape Colony at many points and raise the Boer population. However, the general opinion was that they would advance into Natal in great force, and in that case it was doubtful, indeed, whether Sir George White could oppose them successfully north of Maritzburg. He might even, it was thought, be obliged to fall back to Durban until reinforcements arrived from England. Already there was a rush to the offices that had been opened for the volunteer corps. Many of the fugitives from the Transvaal had joined, as had most of the young farmers who had been obliged by the hostility of their Dutch neighbours to abandon their homes in the north of Natal, while numbers of all ranks in Maritzburg, Durban, and other towns were giving in their names. All the lads who had come down with Chris had some time before obtained their parents' consent to join a volunteer corps, or form one among themselves, and as it was evident that the crisis was at hand no objections were raised to their doing so at once. Mrs. King would go down to Durban with her friends, so that there was no need for her son to accompany her.
It had been agreed by the other lads that they would all meet at ten o'clock at the hotel where Chris put up, and the party mustered in greater strength than had been expected, for they found that the boys who had preceded them had all waited in the town, and were stopping at the various hotels. They too had been as badly treated by the Boers as the last arrivals, and were all eager to begin work.
"There is no getting a private room here," Chris said, "so we had better go outside the town and talk things over." As they went they chatted over their adventures on the road, and great satisfaction was felt among those who had not been present on hearing how Chris had thrashed the Boer, and had gone tip to him in spite of his threat to shoot. At their last meeting at Johannesburg they had elected him their captain, but he had at the time refused to accept the post, saying that it would be wiser to decide that afterwards, as one of the others might show himself better fitted for the position. However, their first step when they sat down by the bank of the little river outside the town was to again elect him by acclamation.
"Very well," he said, "as you all wish it I will accept the post. I suppose we are well provided with funds. Our fathers all said they would find our outfit, and money enough for all expenses." There was a general assent. "Well, we start better than we had expected, for we have thirteen rifles: twelve of them are Mausers, the other we will sell; so we shall have to buy nine others. That had better be done this morning, for we may be sure that there will be a rush to the gunsmiths' shops. In the next place we must each buy a saddle and saddlery. We have agreed that we will not have any approach to uniform; because, as we all speak Dutch, we shall be able to pass unobserved, if necessary, among them. But I have been thinking it over, and it seems to me that if we have nothing of the sort we shall run the risk of being shot by our own men."
"What are we to do, then, Chris?"
"I think that we had better get flat caps, like the fatigue caps our soldiers wear. They can be carried in our pockets inside our shirts when we are in the neighbourhood of the Boers, and when we are riding anywhere near our own troops we can put them on instead of our felt hats. It would alter our appearance altogether when riding in groups, and even at a distance we could hardly be taken for Boers."
All agreed that it would be an excellent plan.
"We shall, of course, have bandoliers for our cartridges, and haversacks for our provisions and spare packets of ammunition. Not an hour must be lost in getting these things. I hear that Captain Brookfield, who came up to Johannesburg last year and stayed a fortnight with us, has raised a corps, which he has named the Maritzburg Scouts. I will call upon him this afternoon and tell him that there are one-and-twenty of us, all somewhere about my age, and that we mean fighting; and that as we all speak Dutch we think we can do more good by scouting about on our own account than by joining any regular corps; but that at the same time we should like, if there was anything like regular fighting, to place ourselves under the orders of an officer like himself. It is rather difficult to explain, you know, but I think he will understand what we mean. We should be, in fact, a section of his troop, acting generally on independent service, either scouting, or going in among the Boers and getting intelligence, trying to blow up bridges, and engaging looting parties--for we may be sure that the Boers will be scattering all over the country plundering.
"Of course I shall say, if he won't accept us on those terms, we shall do as we best can on our own account; but that as we don't require pay, and will provide ourselves with all necessaries, we do not see that we should be any burden when we join him. I propose that we meet here again this afternoon, and I hope that by that time we shall all have got our mounts and saddlery. I hear that many of the loyal farmers north have driven their animals down here, and are only too glad to sell the horses at the usual prices. Mind, the clothes we have now won't do; we must get them of farmer fashion. Don't go together to any shop, but let each choose for himself; we don't want anything like uniformity of pattern. The stuff must be strong. We shall each want a couple of blankets; one of these, with a slit cut in the middle to slip over the head, will serve as a greatcoat. Now, let us be off! To save trouble, I should say that we had each better put a certain sum, say twenty pounds, to go into a fund for general expenditure--food and ammunition, and that sort of thing--into one of the banks, and we can draw upon that as we require it."
"I should say, Chris," Sankey said, "that we had better put all our money into the fund. Our people are all going to pay for our outfit, and you know they have agreed to give us a hundred pounds each to last us through the war. It is of no use carrying money about with us. I think we should agree to pay it all into the common fund, and that at the end of the business what remains is to be divided among those of us who go through it."
"I think that is a good plan, Sankey. Certainly we cannot all expect to come out alive, and that arrangement will save all trouble about money."
On going back into the town they learned that a large farmer had encamped two miles away, with a big drove of cattle and a couple of hundred horses, many of which were fine animals, and it was agreed at once that Sankey, Carmichael, and Peters should hire a buggy and drive over there and choose twenty-one good horses. Harris and Field undertook the purchase of the rifles, and Chris went to the office which Captain Brookfield, who had been an officer in the English army had taken. He had sent in his name, and was at once shown in.
"Well, Chris," he said cordially as he entered, "I am glad to see you. You have grown and widened out a good deal since last year. I suppose your father and mother have both come down with you?"
"My mother has come down, sir, but my father thought that he ought to remain behind to look after the mines."
"Have you come here to enlist?"
"Not exactly, sir, and yet I have to a certain extent;" and he told the officer of the little corps that had been formed among his companions at Johannesburg.
"A very good idea. Speaking Dutch, as you say they all do, they ought to do good service as scouts. But why have you come to me?"
This Chris explained.
The captain laughed. "I suppose the fact is, Chris, you think that you will be able to see and do more if you are altogether independent of other people's orders."
"Perhaps that is it, sir; but if there is any cavalry fighting we should much rather be under orders. Such a small corps would look ridiculous marching out by itself."
"Well, I don't see any reason why you should not carry out your plan. It would certainly be better that you should have some--what I may call-- official sanction. All the men in our corps are paid five shillings a day, and as your troop would serve under different conditions, you can to a certain extent dictate your own terms. I will, if you like, accept you as an independent corps, attached to my command when with me, but at other times free to scout and to act as you choose; but mind, I cannot be responsible for any scrape that you get into. You might call yourselves the Johannesburg section of the Maritzburg Scouts, maintaining yourselves at your own expense, and drawing neither pay nor rations."
"Thank you very much, sir; that is just what we want."
"Then, if you will bring your companions here this evening, I will swear you in. I shall administer a different oath to you from that which the others take, and merely pledge you, when under my orders, to obey them, with permission to withdraw from the corps when you choose. And indeed, receiving no pay or assistance from government, you would naturally be free to do so."
Leaving Captain Brookfield, Chris went and bought his clothes, bandolier and belt, and saddlery, and then returned to the hotel and told his mother how he had got on, and that a horse and rifle would, he hoped, be obtained that afternoon.
"It seems to me a terribly dangerous business, Chris; but as your father agreed to it, of course I need say no more. I have a cheque for five hundred pounds for my expenses and yours."
"Father gave me a hundred before I started, mother; that will more than pay for my outfit. I don't know what we shall do for the horses, but there will certainly not be much over."
"Yes, I know, Chris; and he told me to hand you over another hundred when I went to the bank, which I shall do this afternoon."