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CHAPTER XXXII

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    A huddled mass of fugitives—men, women, children, horses, cattle—crowded together in the dry bed of a river, seeking shelter amongst rocks and boulders and under shelving banks, subjected continually to a hurricane of shot and shell, choked by the fumes of the exploding Lyddite, poisoned by the stench of blood, saturated all through with the indescribable odour of death. Somewhere in its midst, caged like a rat, but still sulkily defiant, the peasant general fingered his switch as he looked this way and that and saw no further chance of escape. In the distance, calmly waiting the inevitable end, the little man with the weather-beaten face and the grey moustaches listened to the never-ceasing roar of his cannon demanding insistently the word of surrender that must needs come.

    Saxonstowe, lying on a waterproof sheet on the floor of his tent, was writing on a board propped up in front of him. All that he wrote was by way of expressing his wonder, over and over again, that Cronje should hold out so long against the hell of fire which was playing in and around his last refuge. He was trying to realise what must be going on in the river bed, and the thought made him sick. Near him, writing on an upturned box, was another special correspondent who shared the tent with him; outside, polishing tin pannikins because he had nothing else to do, was a Cockney lad whom these two had picked up in Ladysmith and had attached as body-servant. He was always willing and always cheerful, and had a trick of singing snatches of popular songs in a desultory and disconnected way. His raucous voice came to them under the booming of the guns.

    ‘Ow, ’ee’s little but ’ee’s wise,

    ’Ee’s a terror for ’is size,{248}

    An’ ’ee does not hadvertise:

    Do yer, Bobs?’

    ‘What a voice that chap has!’ said Saxonstowe’s companion. ‘It’s like a wheel that hasn’t been oiled for months!’

    ‘Will yer kindly put a penny in my little tambourine,

    For a gentleman in khaki ordered sou-outh?’

    chanted the polisher of tin pans.

    ‘They have a saying in Yorkshire,’ remarked Saxonstowe, ‘to the effect that it’s a poor heart that never rejoices.’

    ‘This chap must have a good ’un, then,’ said the other. Give us a pipeful of tobacco, will you, Saxonstowe? Lord! will those guns never stop?’

    ‘For the colonel’s lady and Judy O’Grady,

    Are sisters hunder their skins,’

    sang the henchman.

    ‘Will our vocalist never stop?’ said Saxonstowe, handing over his pouch. ‘He seems as unconcerned as if he were on a Bank Holiday.’

    ‘We wos as ’appy as could be, that dye,

    Dahn at the Welsh ’Arp, which is ’Endon—’

    The raucous voice broke off suddenly; the close-cropped Cockney head showed at the open flap of the tent.

    ‘Beg pardon, sir,’ said the Cockney voice, ‘but I fink there’s somethin’ ’appened, sir—guns is dyin’ orf, sir.’

    Saxonstowe and his fellow scribe sprang to their feet. The roar of the cannon was dying gradually away, and it suddenly gave place to a strange and an awful silence.{249}

    Saxonstowe walked hither and thither about the bed of the river, turning his head jerkily to right and left.

    ‘It’s a shambles!—a shambles!—a shambles!’ he kept repeating. He shook his head and then his body as if he wanted to shake off the impression that was fast stamping itself ineffaceably upon him. ‘A shambles!’ he said again.

    He pulled himself together and looked around him. It seemed to him that earth and sky were blotted out in blood and fire, and that the smell of death had wrapped him so closely that he would never breathe freely again. Dead and dying men were everywhere. Near him rose a pile of what appeared to be freshly slaughtered meat—it was merely the result of the bursting of a Lyddite shell amongst a span of oxen. Near him, too, stood a girl, young, not uncomely, with a bullet-wound showing in her white bosom from which she had just torn the bodice away; at his feet, amongst the boulders, were twisted, strange, grotesque shapes that had once been human bodies.

    ‘There’s a chap here that looks like an Englishman,’ said a voice behind him.

    Saxonstowe turned, and found the man who shared his tent standing at his elbow, and pointed to a body stretched out a yard or two away—the body of a well-formed man who had fallen on his side, shot through the heart. He lay as if asleep, his face half hidden in his arm-pit; near him, within reach of the nerveless fingers that had torn out a divot of turf in his last moment’s spasmodic feeling for something to clutch at, lay his rifle: round his rough serge jacket was clasped a bandolier well stored with cartridges. His broad-brimmed hat had fallen off, and half his face, very white and statuesque in death, caught the sunlight that straggled fitfully through the smoke-clouds which still curled over the bed of the river.

    ‘Looks like an Englishman,’ repeated the special correspondent. ‘Look at his hands, too—he hasn’t handled a rifle very long, I’m thinking.’{250}

    Saxonstowe glanced at the body with perfunctory interest—there were so many dead men lying all about him. Something in the dead man’s face woke a chord in his memory: he went nearer and bent over him. His brain was sick and dizzy with the horrors of the blood and the stink of the slaughter. He stood up again, and winked his eyes rapidly.

    ‘No, no!’ he heard himself saying. ‘No! It can’t be—of course it can’t be. What should Lucian be doing here? Of course it’s not he—it’s mere imagination—mere im-ag-in-a-tion!’

    ‘Here, hold up, old chap!’ said his companion, pulling out a flask. ‘Take a nip of that. Better? Hallo—what’s going on there?’

    He stepped on a boulder and gazed in the direction of a wagon round which some commotion was evident. Saxonstowe, without another glance at the dead man, stepped up beside him.

    He saw a roughly built, rugged-faced man, wrapped in a much-worn overcoat that had grown green with age, stepping out across the plain, swishing at the herbage with a switch which jerked nervously in his hand. At his side strode a muscular-looking woman, hard of feature, brown of skin—a peasant wife in a faded skirt and a crumpled sun-bonnet. Near them marched a tall British officer in khaki; other Boers and British, a group of curious contrasts, hedged them round.

    ‘That’s Cronje,’ said the special correspondent, as he stepped down from the boulder. ‘Well, it’s over, thank God!’

    The conquered was on his way to the conqueror.

    The End
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