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Authors: Allan Mallinson

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BOOK: Hervey 09 - Man Of War
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Sweat poured down Somervile’s brow, though the day was not hot. His hat was lost, his neckcloth gone, and his coat was fastened with but its single remaining button. But exhilaration, alarm and anger were in him combined to unusual degree: he was at once all for battle and for retreat. For this was no warfare like that he had seen in India. This was more the hunting of savage beasts, the leopard or the tiger. Or rather, the contest with beasts, for he and his escort had been the prey.

Were these men, these Bantu, Kaffirs, Xhosa – whatever their rightful name – were they cognitive, as the natives of the Indies? Or did they act merely from instinction, as the psalmist had it, like the horse, or the mule, ‘which have no understanding, whose mouth must be held in with bit and bridle’? What parley could there be with such primitives, who had not even the accomplishment of writing? Parley, though, depended first on surviving. They had beaten off one attack, but another . . .

It had been his, Somervile’s, idea to make this reconnaissance of the frontier. He had wanted to see for himself the country, and the settlers who were often more cause for annoyance to Cape Town than were the native peoples. And of course those very people – Bantu, Kaffirs, Xhosa (it would be so very useful to have these names, at least, unconfused) – about whom he had read much that was contrary, and over whom his friend Colonel Matthew Hervey had lately gained some mastery. But Hervey was not with him. He was on leave, in England, recovering from his wounds and the remittent fever, and about to marry. Somervile had not wanted to undertake the reconnaissance without him, yet he could not wait for ever on his friend’s return to duty: it was autumn, and although the winters here were nothing to those of India, the nights could be bitter chill, and the rains in the mountains of the interior could swell the rivers of the frontier into impassable torrents.

And it had begun well enough, in a quiet way – an official progress through Albany and Graaff Reinet, a pleasant ride beyond the Great Fish River to Fort Willshire, where he had inspected the little garrison of His Majesty’s 55th Foot (which regiment had so distinguished itself at Umtata with Hervey and the Mounted Rifles a few months before). And he had been most attentively escorted the while by a half troop of the 6th Light Dragoons under the command of Captain the Honourable Stafford Brereton, not long joined from the regiment in England.

Hervey had originally asked for an officer to take temporary command because he was himself occupied increasingly with the Rifles, which corps he had raised, but after his wound at Umtata, and the recurrence of the malaria, the request had proved providential, and Brereton’s early arrival a particular boon, allowing him to take home leave with rather more peace of mind. Not that he knew Brereton well, or even much at all. The younger son of the Earl of Brodsworth had joined the Sixth some five or so years earlier, but had not gone out to India, having served first with the depot troop at Maidstone before the general officer commanding the southern district had claimed him as an aide-de-camp.

Brereton had bought his captaincy via another regiment and then exchanged back into the Sixth. There was nothing unusual in such a progression, although it meant that, a dozen years after Waterloo, and with India experience in short supply, there were many regiments whose officers had never, as the saying went, been shot over. Brereton had certainly not been. He had, however (doubtless in consequence), been keen to get to the frontier, and had been especially glad when the lieutenant-governor had not insisted on any larger escort, and therefore one requiring a more senior officer from the garrison.

Somervile had not been expecting trouble, though. Halting the Zulu incursion at the Umtata River had done much to quell the unease among the Xhosa, who had been so fearful of Shaka’s depredations they had been migrating ever closer to the frontier, and frequently across it. But then, when Somervile’s party had been returning, a league or so west of the Great Fish River, which marked the border for the settled population of the Eastern Cape, word had come of the Xhosa raid to the north, a much bigger foray than the frontier had seen in some time. It took even the most hardened burghers by surprise, requiring the immediate reinforcement of Fort Willshire and a doubling of the frontier patrols. By the time Somervile’s party had re-crossed the Fish into the unsettled buffer tract – ‘to see the beggars for myself’ – the reivers were back across the Keiskama River into Xhosa territory proper.

But Xhosa raids were by their nature fissiparous affairs, and the proximity of burgher cattle to the Keiskama (against the rules of the buffer treaty), and the leafy cover which the season afforded, as well as the ease of river crossing, had evidently tempted at least one sub-party to remain in the unsettled tract.

*

Serjeant Wainwright was supporting himself on an elbow. ‘There were nothing I could do, sir; not with so many spears.’

‘Half a dozen, Jobie; half a dozen,’ replied Armstrong, bemused. ‘But there were two less when you’d done with them!’

‘Noble conduct,’ echoed Somervile. ‘Finest traditions of the cavalry.’

‘Thank you, sir. But what service a shotgun would’ve been!’

‘Indeed.’

Or even one of the double-barrelled Westley-Richards which the Cape Mounted Rifles carried, thought Armstrong; though now was not the time to question why the Rifles were not with them.

‘What do we do, Serjeant-Major?’ asked Somervile, not afraid to confess thereby that he had no certain idea of his own.

Armstrong shook his head, and sighed. ‘I don’t want to leave young Parks and Danny Allott for the vultures, or the Xhosa for that matter. They’ve a nasty way with a blade.’

Somervile was ever of the opinion that a man’s mortal remains meant nothing (nor, for that matter, did he believe there was anything
immortal
: the Parsees of Bombay put out their dead so that the vultures cold pick the body clean). But he thought not to debate the point at this exigent moment. In any case, he recognized in Armstrong’s reluctance the habitual pride of the regiment. A man who bore the numeral ‘VI’ on his shako plate was not abandoned lightly by another who bore the same.

‘Shall we carry them astride then?’

Armstrong nodded. ‘We’ve no chance of making a mile unless we’re mounted. Not if those Xhosa don’t want us to. We can get Parks and Allott across the one horse, and Jobie here fastened into the saddle. You take Danny’s trooper, sir. And I’ll have Corp. Hardy get up his carbine, and Parks’s.’

‘And the prisoner? I should like very much to interrogate him when there is opportunity.’

A bullet through the head would be the most expedient, reckoned Armstrong, but it would not serve; it had not been the way for years, not even with savages. ‘I don’t see us managing more than a trot, sir: he can keep up on his shanks.’

‘Indeed.’

Armstrong offered Wainwright the flask again. ‘You right enough for the saddle, Jobie, bonny lad?’

‘Right enough, sir,’ replied Wainwright, though shaking his head at the need of help. ‘I’ll maybe want a leg up . . .’

Piet Doorn came back down the track in the peculiar loping gait that was the Cape frontiersman’s – part jogging trot, part native bound. ‘No cattle is past this way in two days,’ he reported to Armstrong, his English heavily accented. ‘But I can smell Kaffir still. A dozen of them maybe.’

Armstrong nodded. ‘Will you ride rearguard for us, Piet?’

It was no part of a guide’s duty to ride behind, let alone to fight off attackers. But Piet Doorn relished the opportunity to reduce the odds for the burghers of the frontier, as the gamekeeper shoots vermin at every opportunity. ‘I will.’

Somervile dabbed at his brow with a red silk handkerchief. ‘But why do they attack us when there is quite evidently no cattle to be had?’

Armstrong shook his head. ‘Don’t know, sir. A mystery to me.’ Piet Doorn had a theory, however, though he shuddered at the thought of it. ‘They wants our guns. Can be no other.’

Somervile shuddered too. It was futile to suppose they wanted them merely for hunting. But if it were so, did the Xhosa intend them against the Zulu or the colonists?

‘Well they’re not having ’em unless they sign for ’em,’ said Armstrong, matter-of-factly. ‘And since these heathens can’t read or write . . .’

That half his troop couldn’t was neither here nor there. What he was saying was that he would part with firearms only – and literally – over his dead body. Others might throw down the weapons, having spiked them first, but these Xhosa, even if heathens and savages, were not incapable blacksmiths, as any who had examined their spears knew: they would soon enough fathom how to put carbines to rights again.

‘When do you ride, Serjeant-Major?’ asked Piet.

‘As soon as I can get Jobie Wainwright into the saddle.’ Armstrong turned to Somervile. ‘Sir, will you call in Corporal Hardy?’

Somervile nodded, realizing he was less use to Armstrong for the moment than was Piet Doorn. Such things were important for a man to recognize, and he was thankful he had learned the necessity of such humility in his early days in Mysore. ‘I had better despatch my mount, too. Is it safe to risk a shot d’ye think?’

Armstrong thought the word ‘safe’ hardly apt, but he saw no objection to a shot. ‘Piet?’

Piet Doorn shook his head, indicating that he too could see no reason to deny the animal a clean death.

Somervile doubled off breathily to recall the remaining able-bodied dragoon, before returning to his stricken mount. The little Arab was quietly pulling at a clump of wild ginger the other side of a bush willow tree, just out of sight of Armstrong and the others, her near foreleg off the ground, the hamstring severed. Somervile detested the business, always. For a dragoon it was, he supposed (and had indeed occasionally observed), a routine of his occupation; but for him it was somehow a debasement. He held no truck with scripture (or rather, he admired much of its poetry while disputing its authority), but he took powerfully the responsibility of dominion, and the horse was, to his mind, the noblest of ‘every living thing that moveth upon the earth’.

He took off the saddle, and then had to check his pistol (he could not remember whether he had successfully reloaded it or not), but the little mare stood obligingly. When he was sure he had got the new-fangled percussion cap on the nipple properly, he took a good hold of her reins, short, on the offside, put the pistol muzzle to the fossa above her right eye, aiming at the bottom of the left ear, closed his eyes and fired. The mare dropped like a stone onto her left side, the reins running through Somervile’s hands while his eyes were still closed, the off foreleg catching him painfully on the shin.

He returned to the others limping slightly. Armstrong was not inclined to draw too unfavourable a conclusion: he had known old hands botch a despatch, and in any case, Somervile had chosen to do it himself rather than ask another. For that he could respect a man – even one who got himself kicked by a dead horse.

‘Well done, sir. Horrible duty to perform. Such a bonny little thing an’ all.’

Somervile cleared his throat. ‘Indeed, Serjeant-Major.’ He had bought the Arab for the endurance that the breed was noted for, but also in truth for her looks. There was not a better-looking horse in Cape Town. ‘I wonder what to do with the saddle.’

It was a good leather-panelled one, worth a deal more than the military issue, but this was not the time to be changing horses, let alone saddles. ‘Sir, I think it best if you leave it be. It might just buy us a minute or so when the Xhosa come on it.’

Somervile nodded.

‘Sir, will you lash up Serjeant Wainwright’s bridle to lead him? Run a rein through the bit ’stead of the halter, though. If he passes out and the horse takes fright it’ll be a deal easier to keep a hold.’

Somervile nodded again, and made to do Armstrong’s bidding, for he understood the purpose well enough (whatever his unacquaintance with the particulars of cavalry work, he was no greenhorn when it came to horses).

He unfastened the bridoon rein on the offside, slipped it over the trooper’s head and under its chin, then back through the offside bit ring, which would leave Wainwright with the curb reins. He presented himself ready for duty with some satisfaction.

Armstrong, having replaced the compress on Wainwright’s wound and bound the barrel sash even tighter, stood up, turned to Somervile, and sighed. ‘I’m sorry, sir, I should have said: would you lead from the
nearside
please?’

Somervile looked puzzled. ‘But I cannot then use my sword and pistol arm so freely.’

‘I know, sir,’ replied Armstrong, as Corporal Hardy hauled Wainwright to his feet. ‘But, with respect, Wainwright here will be able to.’

Somervile’s jaw fell. He was being written off as worse than an invalid – all because he dropped the pistol ball.

‘It’s just, sir, that it’s Wainwright’s job, this. We’re the ones in uniform. We’re the escort.’

Somervile could scarcely credit it. Three dragoons, one of them only half-conscious, and a burgher, a part-civilian – that was what the escort amounted to. And yet Serjeant-Major Armstrong was insisting on the proprieties as if the entire regiment were on parade. Doubtless were there a trumpeter he would have him sound the advance!

But there could be no argument.

In a quarter of an hour they were ready to move, the bodies of Corporal Allott and Private Parks lashed across the saddle of Parks’s trooper, the lead rope in Armstrong’s hands, with another around the captive. Then came Somervile leading Wainwright’s mount, with Piet Doorn fifty yards behind, and Corporal Hardy scouting the same distance ahead.

It would be scarcely true scout work, though (Armstrong was only too aware of it). In any sort of country, let alone such trappy country as here, the leading scouts needed twice the space to do their work properly. The same went for the rearguard. And there were no flankers. All Hardy would be able to do, at best, was give the others a few seconds in which to take aim or throw up a guard. A few seconds. To Armstrong, however, it was better than nothing: a few seconds might allow him to get to Somervile’s side, before turning to fight off the attack. What more to it was there than that?

BOOK: Hervey 09 - Man Of War
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