There is a funny side to pretty nearly every kind of tragedy if one only has the humorous edge of his nature sufficiently well developed to see it. Not that the humour is always apparent at the time--that comes later. I am led to these reflections as I watch Lieutenant "Jack" Brabant, of the Scouts, dancing a wild war dance round our little camp fire. He is a picturesque figure in the firelight, this thirty-year-old son of the renowned General Brabant, ten stone weight I should say, all whipcord and fencing wire, rather a hard-faced man; no feather-bed frontiersman this, but a tough, hard-grained bit of humanity, who has fought niggers and hunted for big game at an age when most young fellows are thinking more of poetry and pretty faces than of hard knocks and harder sport. I know him for a rattling good shot at either man or beast, a fine bushman, and a dandy horseman. He is a rather quiet fellow, as a rule, but all the quietness is out of him to-night, and he only wants to be stripped of his tight yellow jacket, cord breeches, leather gaiters, soft slouch hat with green puggaree, and then, given a coat of black paint, he would pass well for some warrior chief doing a death dance in the smoke. He is boiling with passion, his left fist, clenched hard as the head of an axe, moves up and down, in and out, like the legs of a kicking mule midst a crowd of cart-horses. In his right he swings his Mauser carbine, and a man don't need to be a descendant of a race of prophets to know that something has gone gravely wrong with the lieutenant, otherwise he would not be making a circus of himself in this fantastic fashion.
I lay my pencil aside for a minute or two to catch what he is saying, and when I have got the hang of the story I don't wonder he feels as mad as a wooden-legged man on a wet mud-bank. He had been out all day since the very break of dawn with a couple of scouts, searching the kopjes for a notorious Boer spy, whose cleverness and audacity had made him a thorn in our side. If there was a man in the British lines capable of running the "slim" Boer to earth, that man was Lieutenant Jack Brabant. It had been a grim hunt, for the spy was worthy of his reputation, and the pursuers had to move with their fingers on their triggers, and a rash move would have meant death. All the forenoon he dodged them, in and out of the kopjes, along the sluits, up and down the dongas; sometimes they pelted him at long range with flying bullets, sometimes he sent them a reminder of the same sort. And so the day wore on; but at last, towards evening, they fixed him so that he had to make a dash out across the veldt. He was splendidly mounted, and when the time came for a dash he did not waste any time making poetry. Neither did Brabant and his two men; they galloped at full speed after the fleetly flying figure, and when they saw that a broad and deep donga ran right across his track, cutting him off from the long line of kopjes for which he was making, they counted him as theirs. He only had one chance, to gallop into the donga, jump out of the saddle and fire at them as they closed in on him; and, as they rode far apart, it was a million to one on missing in his hurry in the fading light. But the gods had decided otherwise, for the whiplike crack of rifles suddenly cut the air, and the bullets fell so thick around the pursuers that the three men could almost breathe lead. Half a mile away, on the far side of the donga, appeared a squad of Yeomanry, blazing away like veritable seraphs at Brabant and his men, whilst they let the flying Boer go free. Brabant whipped out his handkerchief, and waved it frantically; but the lead only whistled the faster, and he had only one chance for his life, and that was to wheel and ride at full speed for the nearest cover, where he and his men hid until the Yeomen rode up. Then Brabant hailed them, and asked them what the devil they meant by trying to blow him and his men out of the saddle.
There was a pause in the ranks of the Yeomen, then a voice lisped through the gathering gloom, "Are you fellahs British?"
"Yes, d--n you; did you think we were springbok?"
"No, by Jove, but we thought you were beastly Booahs. Awfully sorry if we've caused you any inconvenience. What were you chasing the other fellah foah, eh?"
"Oh!" howled the disgusted backwoodsman with a snort of wrath, "we only wanted to know if he'd cut his eye tooth yet."
"Bah Jove," quoth the Yeoman, "you fellahs are awfully sporting, don't yer know."
"Yes," snarled the angry South African, "and the next time you Johnnies mistake me for a Booah and plug at me, I'll just take cover and send you back a bit of lead to teach you to look before you tighten your finger on a trigger."
Talking of the Yeomen brings back a good yarn that is going round the camps at their expense. They are notorious for two things--their pluck and their awful bad bushcraft. They would ride up to the mouth of a foeman's guns coolly and gamely enough, but they can't find their way home on the veldt after dark to save their souls, and so fall into Boer traps with a regularity that is becoming monotonous. Recently a British officer who had business in a Boer laager asked a commander why they set the Yeomen free when they made them prisoners. "Oh!" quoth the Boer, with a merry twinkle in his eye, "those poor Yeomen of yours, we can always capture them when we want them." This is not a good story to tell if you want an encore, if you happen to be sitting round a Yeoman table or camp fire.
But it is time I got back to the subject which lay in my mind when I sat down to write this epistle. The lieutenant's war dance took me off the track for a while, but I thought his story would come in nicely under the heading of "Hunting and Hunted." Camp life gets dull at times, so does camp food, the eternal round of fried flour cakes and mutton makes a man long for something which will remind him that he has still a palate, so when one of the scouts came in and told me that he had seen three herds of vildebeestes, numbering over a hundred each, and dozens of little mobs of springbok and blesbok, within ten miles of camp, away towards Doornberg, I made up my mind to ride out next day, and have a shot for luck. My friend Driscoll, captain of the Scouts, rammed a lot of sage advice into me concerning Boers known to be in force at Doornberg. I assured him that I had no intention of allowing myself to drift within range of any of the veldtsmen, so taking a sporting Martini I mounted my horse and set forth, intending to have a real good time among the "buck." At a Kaffir kraal I picked up a half-caste "boy," who assured me that he knew just where to pick up the "spoor" of the vildebeeste, and he was as good as his boast, for within a couple of hours he brought me within sight of a mob of about fifty of the animals, calmly grazing. I worked my way towards them as well as I could, leaving the "boy" to hold my horse; but, though I was careful according to my lights, I was not sufficiently good as a veldtsman to get within shooting distance before they saw me or scented me. Suddenly I saw a fine-looking fellow, about as big as a year-and-a-half-old steer, trot out from the herd. He came about twenty yards in my direction, and I had a grand chance to watch him through my strong military glasses. He looked for all the world like a miniature buffalo bull, the same ungainly head and fore-quarters, big, heavy shoulders, neat legs, shapely barrel, light loin, and hindquarters, the same proppy, ungainly gait. I unslung my rifle to have a shot at him, when he wheeled and blundered back to the herd, and the lot streamed off at a pace which the best hunter in England would have found trying, in spite of the clumsiness of their movements. The half-caste grinned as he came towards me with the horses, grinned with such a glorious breadth of mouth that I could see far enough down his black and tan throat to tell pretty well what he had for breakfast. This annoyed me. I like an open countenance in a servant, but I detest a mouth that looks like a mere burial ground for cold chicken. We rode on for a mile or two, and then saw a pretty little herd of springbok about eighteen hundred yards away on the left. Slipping down into a donga, I left the horse and crawled forward, getting within nice, easy range. I dropped one of the pretty little beauties. I tried a flying shot at the others as they raced away like magic things through the grass, which climbed half-way up their flanks, but it was lead wasted that time.
My coffee-coloured retainer gathered up the spoil, and paid me a compliment concerning my shooting, though well I knew he had sized me up as a "wastrel" with a rifle, for his shy eyes gave the lie to his oily tongue. We hunted round for awhile, and then from the top of a little kopje I saw a beautiful herd of vildebeestes one hundred and sixteen in number, lumbering slowly towards where we stood. The wind blew straight from them towards us, so that I had no fear on the score of scent. Climbing swiftly down until almost level with the veldt, I lay cosily coiled up behind a rock, and waited for the quarry. They came at last, Indian file, about a yard and a half separating one from the other, not a hundred and twenty yards from where I lay. I had plenty of time to pick and choose, and plenty of time to take aim, so did not hurry myself. Sighting for a spot just behind the shoulder, I sent a bit of lead fair through a fine beast, and expected to see him drop, but he did nothing of the kind. For one brief second the animal stood as if paralysed; then, with a leap and a lurch, he dashed on with his fellows. I fired again, straight into the shoulder this time, and brought him down; but he took a third bullet before he cried peccavi. I had a good time for pretty near the whole of that day, and was lamenting that I had not brought a Cape cart and pair of horses with me to bring home the spoil, when, happening to look into the face of my brown guide, I saw that his complexion had turned the colour of blighted sandalwood. He did not speak, but swift as thought ripped out his knife, and cut the thongs which bound the springbok and other trophies of the day's sport to his saddle, letting everything fall in an undignified heap on to the veldt. Then, without a word of farewell, or any other kind of word for that matter, he drove his one spur into the flank of his wretched nag, and fled round the bend of a kopje, which, thank Providence, was close handy, and as he went I saw something splash against a rock a dozen yards behind him. I had glanced hurriedly over the veldt the moment I caught that queer expression on the saffron face of my assistant, but as far as the eye could reach I could see nothing. Now, however, looking backwards, I saw three or four men riding out of a donga two thousand five hundred yards away.
Twenty-five seconds later I had caught and passed my fleeing servant, who was heading for some kopjes, which lay right in front, about a mile and a half away. As I passed him he yelled, "Booers, baas, Booers! Ride hard, baas, ride hard; there are three hundred in the donga." When I heard that item of news I just sat down and attended strictly to business, and I am free to wager that never since the day he was foaled had that horse covered so much ground in so short a space of time as he did by the time he reached the kopjes. My servant had adroitly dodged into a sluit which hid him from view, and I knew that he could work his way out far better than I could. Besides, if they captured him, the worst he would get would be a cut across the neck with a sjambok for acting as hunting-guide to a detested Rooitbaaitje; whilst as for me, they would in all probability discredit my tale concerning the hunting trip, and give me a free, but rapid, pass to that land which we all hope to see eventually, but none of us are anxious to start for; because a correspondent has no right to carry a rifle during war time, a thing I never do unless I am out hunting. I gave my tired horse a spell, whilst I searched the veldt with my glasses, then slipping through a gully I made my way out on to the veldt, got in touch with a donga that ran the way I wanted to travel, got into its bed, gave my horse a drink, and rode on until dark; then I made my way into camp, and religiously held my peace concerning the doings of that day, because I did not want the life chaffed out of me. A few days later I happened to call at the Colonial camp, and was asked to dine by one of the officers.
"Like venison?" he asked cheerily.
"Yes, when it comes my way," I replied.
"Got some to-day," he said. "It's nicely hung, too; not fresh from the gun."
"Shoot it yourself, eh?"
"Well, no, not exactly; was out on patrol on Monday, and saw a couple of lousy Dutchmen. They didn't think we were round, so were enjoying themselves shooting buck. We nearly got one of 'em with a long shot."
"Didn't they show fight?" I asked innocently.
"Fight?" he said, with scorn unutterable in his accent. "Not a bit of it. They dropped their game, and cleared as if a thousand devils were after them. I never saw men ride so fast."
"Positive they were Dutchmen?" I ventured.
"Yes," he laughed; "why, I'd know one of those ugly devils five miles off."
That settled me, and I said no more.