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- Jess - 40/58 -
hat gone, her dress torn by bullets and the rocks, and dripping water at every step, looked an exceedingly forlorn object.
"No," she said feebly, "not very much."
He sat down on the rock in the sun, for they were both shivering with cold. "What is to be done?" he asked.
"Die," she said fiercely; "I meant to die--why did you not let me die? Ours is a position that only death can set straight."
"Don't be alarmed," he said, "your desire will soon be gratified: those murderous villains will hunt us up presently."
The bed and banks of the river were clothed with thin layers of mist, but as the sun gathered power these lifted. The spot at which they had climbed ashore was about three hundred yards below that where the two Boers and their horses had been destroyed by the lightning on the previous night. Seeing the mist thin, John insisted upon Jess crouching with him behind a rock so that they could look up and down the river without being seen themselves. Presently he made out the forms of two horses grazing about a hundred yards away.
"Ah," he said, "I thought so; the devils have off-saddled there. Thank Heaven I have still got my revolver, and the cartridges are watertight. I mean to sell our lives as dearly as I can."
"Why, John," cried Jess, following the line of his out-stretched hand, "those are not the Boers' horses, they are our two leaders that broke loose in the water. Look, their collars are still on."
"By Jove! so they are. Now if only we can catch them without being caught ourselves we have a chance of getting out of this."
"Well, there is no cover about, and I can't see any signs of Boers. They must have been sure of having killed us, and gone away," Jess answered.
John looked round, and for the first time a sense of hope began to creep into his heart. Perhaps they would survive after all.
"Let's go up and look. It is no good stopping here; we must get food somewhere, or we shall faint."
She rose without a word, and taking his hand they advanced together along the bank. They had not gone twenty yards before John uttered an exclamation of joy and rushed at something white that had lodged in the reeds. It was the basket of food which was given to them by the innkeeper's wife at Heidelberg that had been washed out of the cart, and as the lid was fastened nothing was lost out of it. He undid it. There was the bottle of three-star brandy untouched, also most of the eggs, meat, and bread, the last, of course, sodden and worthless. It did not take long to draw the cork, and then John filled a broken wineglass there was in the basket half full of water and half of brandy, and made Jess drink it, with the result that she began to look a little less like a corpse. Next, he repeated the process twice on his own account, and instantly felt as though new life were flowing into him. Then they went on cautiously.
The horses allowed themselves to be caught without trouble, and did not appear to be any the worse for the adventure, although the flank of one was grazed by a bullet.
"There is a tree yonder where the bank shelves over; we had better tie the horses up, dress, and eat some breakfast," said John, almost cheerfully; and accordingly they proceeded towards it. Suddenly John, who was ahead, started back with an exclamation of fear, and the horses began to snort, for there, stark and stiff in death, already swollen and discoloured by decomposition--as is sometimes the case with people killed by lightning--the rifles in their hands twisted and fused, their clothes cut and blown from their bandoliers--lay the two Boer murderers. It was a terrifying sight, and, taken in conjunction with their own remarkable escape, one to make the most careless and sceptical reflect.
"And yet there are people who say that there is no God, and no punishment for wickedness," said John aloud.
John, it will be remembered, left Mooifontein for Pretoria towards the end of December, and with him went all the life and light of the place.
"Dear me, Bessie," said old Silas Croft on the evening after he had started, "the house seems very dull without John"--a remark in which Bessie, who was weeping secretly in the corner, heartily concurred.
Then, a few days afterwards, came the news of the investment of Pretoria, but no news of John. They ascertained that he had passed Standerton in safety, but beyond that nothing could be heard of him. Day after day passed, but without tidings, and at last, one evening, Bessie broke into a passion of hysterical tears.
"What did you send him for?" she asked of her uncle. "It was ridiculous--I knew that it was ridiculous. He could not help Jess or bring her back; the most that could happen was that they would be both shut up together. Now he is dead--I know that those Boers have shot him--and it is all your fault! And if he is dead I will never speak to you again."
The old man retreated, somewhat dismayed at this outburst, which was not at all in Bessie's style.
"Ah, well," he said to himself, "that is the way of women; they turn into tigers about a man!"
There may have been truth in this reflection, but a tiger is not a pleasant domestic pet, as poor old Silas discovered during the next two months. The more Bessie thought about the matter the more incensed she grew because he had sent her lover away. Indeed, in a little while she quite forgot that she had herself acquiesced in his going. In short, her temper gave way completely under the strain, so that at last her uncle scarcely dared to mention John's name.
Meanwhile, things had been going as ill without as within. First of all--that was the day after John's departure--two or three loyal Boers and an English store-keeper from Lake Chrissie, in New Scotland, outspanned on the place and implored Silas Croft to fly for his life into Natal while there was yet time. They said that the Boers would certainly shoot any Englishman who might be sufficiently defenceless. But the old man would not listen.
"I am an Englishman--/civis Romanus sum/," he said in his sturdy fashion, "and I do not believe that they will touch me, who have lived among them for twenty years. At any rate, I am not going to run away and leave my place at the mercy of a pack of thieves. If they shoot me they will have to reckon with England for the deed, so I expect that they will leave me alone. Bessie can go if she likes, but I shall stop here and see the row through, and there's an end of it."
Whereon, Bessie having flatly declined to budge an inch, the loyalists departed in a hurry, metaphorically wringing their hands at such an exhibition of ill-placed confidence and insular pride. This little scene occurred at dinner-time, and after dinner old Silas proceeded to hurl defiance at his foes in another fashion. Going to a cupboard in his bedroom, he extracted an exceedingly large Union Jack, and promptly advanced with it to an open spot between two of the orange- trees in front of the house, where in such a position that it could be seen for miles around a flagstaff was planted, formed of a very tall young blue gum. Upon this flagstaff it was Silas's habit to hoist the large Union Jack on the Queen's birthday, Christmas Day, and other State occasions.
"Now, Jantje," he said, when he had bent on the bunting, "run her up, and I'll cheer!" and accordingly, as the broad flag floated out on the breeze, he took off his hat and waved it, and gave such a "hip, hip, hoorah!" in his stentorian tones that Bessie ran out from the house to see what was the matter. Nor was he satisfied with this, but, having obtained a ladder, he placed it against the post and sent Jantje up it, instructing him to fasten the rope on which the flag was bent at a height of about fifteen feet from the ground, so that nobody should get at it to haul it down.
"There," he said, "I've nailed my colours to the mast. That will show these gentry that an Englishman lives here.
"Confound their politics, Frustrate their knavish tricks, God save the Queen."
"Amen," said Bessie, but she had her doubts about the wisdom of that Union Jack, which, whenever the wind blew, streamed out, a visible defiance not calculated to soothe the breasts of excited patriots.
Indeed, two days after that, a patrol of three Boers, spying the ensign whilst yet a long way off, galloped up in hot haste to see what it meant. Silas saw them coming, and, taking his rifle in his hand, went and stood beneath the flag, for which he had an almost superstitious veneration, feeling sure that they would not dare to meddle either with him or it.
"What is the meaning of this, /Oom/ Silas?" asked the leader of the three men, with all of whom he was perfectly acquainted.
"It means that an Englishman lives here, Jan," was the answer.
"Haul the dirty rag down!" said the man.
"I will see you damned first!" replied old Silas.
Thereon the Boer dismounted and made for the flagstaff, only to find "Uncle Croft's" rifle in a direct line with his chest.
"You will have to shoot me first, Jan," he said, and thereon, after some consultation, they left him and went away.
In truth, his British nationality notwithstanding, Silas Croft was very popular with the Boers, most of whom had known him since they were children, and to whose /Volksraad/ he had twice been elected. It was to this personal popularity he owed the fact that he was not turned out of his house, and forced to choose between serving against his countrymen or being imprisoned and otherwise maltreated at the very commencement of the rebellion.
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