STUFF of EMPIRE
G. FREDERICK CLARKE
Author of “The Immigrant,” “Bunk,” etc.
FASTENED securely to the ammunition wagon at Durban by Private Jones, of the Royal Canadian Field Artillery, the stove had been the jest of the whole battery and its six-foot-one and-broad-in-proportion owner, the recipient of a great deal of good-natured banter.
Jones smiled and patted the tiny collapsible thing affectionately. He knew, bless you, how soon the scoffers would change their tune, and, as the months went by, there was not a man in the battery, but sang its praises as though it were a deity.
Nights on the veldt they gathered about Jones’ tent, and, as he fed the insatiable thing bits of stick and dung from time to time, and the smoke curled bravely from its three-inch, two-jointed pipe, they recited the day’s happenings or told tales of the homeland to men of other regiments.
Stories there were of the backwoods of Canada, of caribou and moose hunt, and long trails in the Hudson Bay region. There was Scott, who had served in the Royal North-West Mounted in the Yukon district; MacDonald, who, bom in Glengarry on the Ottawa, had roughed it in the woods and on the spring drives; and little Billy Simmons, the bugler, an English emigrant, as homely and good-natured a lad as ever played about the wharves at St. John and drank of adventure from the lips of the old sea-dogs who filled the port. Then there was O’Brien and Jarvis and
Foote and a score of others, who, owning allegiance to the Queen, sang o’nights of their Canadian home and the maple leaf.
Over kopje and veldt, therefore, the stove and its diminutive pipe accompanied the battery, and the battery loved it. Taking the utmost pride in its appearance, Billy Simmons and Private Jones gave it a coat of khaki paint, which though it soon burned off and gave forth an evil smell, was religiously replenished.
And all went well until the —st Highlanders joined that section of the army which was endeavoring to round up the wily and ubiquitous Cronje. It was Robin who started the mischief—a collie dog which had accompanied its master, Angus Mackay, across the seas, and over the greater part of South Africa. A great, beautiful beast, it had followed the regiment into more than one conflict and returned unscathed, and, as all men love a hero, and perhaps because the dog reminded the Scots of their own hills and dales, they loved him.
One cold rainy night Robin, returning from some pilgrimage into the open, passed through the Canadian lines. The sound of some musical instrument which pleased caused him to stop and listen. The accordion which Private Jones was playing wasn’t as inspiring as the pibroch of his own Highlanders, hut it was soothing, and, there was a fire inside the tent, he could tell by the smoke that stung his nostrils.
He nosed his way nearer, and, confident of himself, pushed open the flap and stood blinking, the centre of an ad-
miring group of Canadians gathered about the little stove, whose warmth he could feel even where he stood.
“Hullo, old fellow; come right in,’’ cried Jones. “My he’s wet! Move over there, Jarvis, and give him a chance. Come up, doggie, and get warmed. Simmons, some of that corned beef there, and a hardtack.”
Nobody knew to whom the dog belonged until MacDonald, allowing the others to exhaust their speculations, dryly volunteered the information that the beast was the “bit mascot of the Highlanders,” but lately attached to the section.
“I wouldn’t mind owning him myself,” quoth Jones, which sentiment was expressed by every one but the SeotsCanadian. Scott, once of the Royal Mounted, having driven a team of dogs in the Canadian North-West, began a panegyric on the merits and demerits of canines from Malamutes and pure Huskies to Newfoundland and Collies. Suddenly, above the stamping of horses a few yards away, above the rain and the wind came the distant skirl of the bagpipes. Robin lifted his head, half rose to his feet, then sank back beside the cozy stove. Tt was too good to leave; the night outside was bad. Here was warmth and good comradeship also.
“A wise mon will na harbor anither’s beastie,’’ suggested MacDonald, and opening the tent flap invited Robin to depart. But Robin was too well contented to move; the heat had gotten into his lames; he closed one eye and shifted more comfortably against Billy Simmons’ leg.
“Ah, let him stay,” the others chor-
used. “He’ll be all right for to-night,” added Jones, “You wouldn’t turn even a dog into this storm, MacDonald.”
The big Scot let the tent flap fall into place, but, as he drew the blankets about him grumbled, “A wise mon doesna harbour anither’s beastie wdien the owner’s door isna closed on him,” and immediately dropped into a sound sleep.
Once, a half hour later, Robin opened his eyes with a start and jumped to his feet. Did he dream, or was it in reality his master’s shrill whistle calling him? He stood a moment irresolute. Then, for the heat from the little stove was not yet exhausted, he snuggled up closer to poor, stunted Billy Simmons and snored peacefully.
“I would na give him a bite ta eat,” suggested MacDonald the next morning. “It is na wise. We have trouble enough with the Boers without bringin’ doon the enmity of a Hieland regiment.” But the others laughed him to scorn. If the collie wanted to stay he should do so they declared, and as for a few scraps of food, even a dog musn’t go hungry befere their door.
After the meal Robin took himself off, and was not seen until the next night when he again sought his new friends. This time it was bright and clear, but cold—the stars winking big in the South African sky. The little tin stove was set up outside Jones’ tent, exuding its intoxicating warmth.
“Here’s that damn dog again,” growled MacDonald under his breath. He had sounded his warning twice, and never again would he open his mouth on the subject, though he knew wTell there would harm come of it.
It did. A Scotsman dearly loves his dog. Some one told big Angus Mackay that his “beastie” was hanging about the Canadian lines, and he immediately went to investigate. He found him couched in huge contentment beside Jones’ stove, within a circle of neighborly Canucks, who at once invited Angus to partake of their cheer. He brusquely declined and -went off with the collie following dejectedly at his heels.
After that, as Angus Mackay himself said, it seemed that the dog was bewitched, or “filled with the very deil,” for night after night he would steal away to the Canadian lines, and now, despite the well-meant rebuffs of Jones and his friends, persisted in staying until called for by the irate Angus or one of his companions. Even in the daytime, too, he would be found trotting contentedly beneath the ammunition wagon on which Bugler Simmons rode, and for whom all the men declared he had formed an undying attachment.
Or again, later, when the men saw it was no use to send him away, he would sit perched on the ammunition wagon betwixt Jones and Billy Simmons, his magnificent head in the air, his eyes fixed straight ahead of the column, balancing himself to the jerks of the cumbersome thing like any old campaigner.
In action, when the khaki-clad men fed the brown guns, he would plant himself stolidly between the wheels and give vent to deep grumblings.
“I’ll buy him of you,” suggested Jones one day to Angus Mackay when the latter had marched forward and angrily called Robin to him. “We’ve done our best to get rid of him, old man, but it’s no go.” It was the only money Jones possessed in the world, but he drew the two pound six from his tunic and offered it to the Highlander.
Angus Mackay turned on his heel without a word. His big hand fumbled at his sporran and brought forth his pipe, and his strong teeth closed on the stem, grinding it to atoms.
After that there was intense ill-feeling between the regiment and the battery, and one day it almost reached a climax when Angus Mackay, seeing Billy Simmons rushing up and down the lines with Robin clamoring at his heels, caught the lad by the scruff of the neck and was about to administer a thrashing when Jones appeared on the scene.
“Better take one of your own size, Mackay, ’ ’ he said quietly.
The big Scot’s face grew crimson at the implied cowardice, and, letting go the boy, advanced on Jones, who, nowise afraid, put himself in a posture of defence. Just then, by good fortune, an officer rode past and the men saluted. Angus Mackay swore under his breath and added loud enough for Jones to hear, that “the damn colonials were na good to fight, only to pilfer.” Jones retorted as he threw his arm about Billy Simmons’ shoulder, that the word pilfer had ever been a most important and necessary one in the vocabulary of all Highlanders, and the men parted the very best of enemies.
One evening, to the intense chagrin of the battery, they lost two of the guns. They had just entered a defile when, from the surrounding hills, a bewildering rifle fire was poured in on them, killing men and horses, and throwing for a few minutes, trained minds into confusion. Chaos reigned. Amid the squealing of the horses and the groans of dying and wounded men, the shrill bugle commands—the order sent back for the rest of the battery to draw off— Private Jones was aware of a thousand gaunt forms scrambling down the rocks and that he was a prisoner with a dozen of his companions.
That night a cold, drizzly rain soaked kopje and veldt, and the Boers, camped among the hills, had long since ceased shivering about their tiny camp-fires and were enjoying a few hours’ rest. All was quiet, save for a half-dozen sentries posted here and there over the hill.
Perched on the highest kop, their brown muzzles tilted downward, were the two guns of the R.C.A., and thrown together in one tent were Private Jones and his companions, sore in body and
Jones tried to sleep, and was fairly succeeding when a wet muzzle was pushed into his hand and the shaggy body of Angus Mackay’s collie panted beside him. He patted the dog for a moment and was about to lie down again when a thought struck him, and his big form trembled for very eagerness. Here they were, unarmed it is true, but up there on the hill were the guns they
loved and took such pride in. Back on the veldt a couple of miles was the rest of the army. Jones thought of the Highlanders and of Angus Mackay’s scorn should they ever have the good fortune to be exchanged and rejoin the battery. He reached over and touched MacDonald and whispered a few moments; then the others were awakened and told of the plan which the two had formulated, namely, to try and escape and recapture the guns.
It was an admirable night for just such a mad venture. The wind sent the rain against the tents and was disagreeable enough to slacken the watch of their captors.
So Private Jones opened the tent flap and looked out through the wet murk. The lines of tents showed grey and ghostly. A sentry stood, leaning on his Mauser not a dozen feet away. Perhaps he dozed. They never knew. He was overpowered and gagged by the gigantic MacDonald before he had time to give an outcry, bundled into the tent and ordered to lie quiet.
It was Scott who led the way, creeping on his hands and knees, the others following—Scott, who had followed many a long trail in the Northland without compass or star or sun. Unerringly, making wide detours, they crept among the rocks until they had reached the other side of the kopje and were without the lines of tents.
An hour later the twelve men lay panting by the first gun, with Robin, the collie beside them, and not a dozen paces away, two of the enemy standing guard. The hearts of the Canadians thumped against their khaki tunics. Once, out of the night behind them came the shrill cry of some animal, dog or horse, they knew not, but Jones threw his arm about the collie’s neck and pressed his muzzle close to his side. For a few minutes they waited for a recurrence of the cry, but nothing happened, and releasing Robin, and giving the word, the Canadians sprang on the unsuspecting sentries. There was a grim struggle, but the odds were too great, and the brave Dutchmen were soon overpowered and their arms appropriated by the victors.
In five minutes the guns were swung into position, and the ammunition piled about the wheels. Then Jones took Billy Simmons to one side. “Over there, Billy,” he said, pointing through the dusk, “is the army. If he wants to go to the colonel. Tell him we have the guns and won’t leave them. If he wants to, he can make a night attack and we can capture the enemy. Can you find the way, boy?”
Bugler Simmons—for he was a bugler in truth now—having found his spare trumpet in one of the ammunition wagons—looked his disappointment. “I —I thought I might stay and see the bloomin’ thing through with you,” he said, but smothering his chagrin, he called the collie to him and obediently scrambled down the hillside to the plain.
An hour went by, and the men on the kopje waited in grim suspense. Suddenly, footsteps were heard and voices in Dutch declaiming the night. It was
the relief guard coming. Again there was a sharp struggle, and two more Mausers and the requisite ammunition were added and the armament of the hill. Four rifles and two eighteen-pounders and a German automatic revolver to withstand an army! Two more hours passed, while the men walked up and down to keep warm and strained their ears into the night for the approach of the British, and wondered why they didn’t come.
Dawn broke slowly, and the little company, some of them wet and wounded, but determined, stood to the guns. There was a clamoring in the Boer encampment as the men awoke to the new day. Presently, a detachment was seen coming towards the kop at a run. Scott sighted his piece, and the shell, striking the middle of the camp, threw it into confusion.
Utterly surprised and unable to comprehend the assault from the hill, the Boers were some time realizing the truth; then the bullets began to bite against the rocks about the brave defenders. Big Alec MacDonald swore in his harsh Gaelic as a Mauser bullet ploughed through his left .arm, leaving it limp and useless. A piece of flying rock cut a deep gash in Scott’s face; he laughed and aimed his gun again where the shell would do the most execution, then he began to sing in the dialect some old folk song of the Cree Indians he had learned in the North. The guns grew hot, but they were fed nevertheless, and roared and screeched on their death dealing mission.
Suddenly, up the hillside to the rear, came the sound of a bugle playing the British Grenadiers. A cheer broke from the smoke-parched throats of the little garrison. Help was come at last. Again the bugle notes, and this time, sweet and clear, drifted up the notes of the Maple Leaf. It could be none but Billy Simmons playing like that. Presently over the hill be staggered, his face and clothes cut, the tears running down bis homely, unwashed face. He was alone, save for the collie, who set up a glad howl of welcome. “I—I couldn’t find—the
bloomin’ army,” the lad cried, “I—I
got all turned ’round, so—so I come back to help.” His voice was drowned in the roar of the eighteen-pounders. Through the smoke and misty rain that hung thick over the hill he saw his comrades, powder-grimed and desperate, fighting like berserkers of old. The blood in him bounded—he was of the stuff that builds empires—and once again there drifted down to the enemy, who were in ignorance of the strength of those who topped the hill, the inspiring notes of Rule Britannia.
The defenders of the guns fought on in grim silence. It was certain death— each man was conscious of that—but each was drunk with the love of battle.
They would never give in, never, while God gave them power to work the guns. Didn’t they remember Angus Mackay’s scornful remark that “the damn Colonials were na good ta fight, only ta pilfer?” The cause of the ill-feeling between the men, Angus’ collie, was standing on a rock a few feet away, body rigid, a picture of a canine Mars, joyously scenting the smoke of battle.
The men had had nothing to eat since their coarse prison fare of the night before; unfed, wounded, powder-blackened, they worked the guns until they were almost too hot to handle, while the enemy crept ever closer. One by one the defenders were picked off. Scott, shot
through the head as he was swabbing out his gun, fell without a word. The great uncharted Canadian North would never more feel his footsteps. He had taken the last long trail. Two of the others soon followed, and Alec MacDonald, again shot through the thighs, and weal? from loss of blood, sat heavily down on a rock, and, grim stoic that he was, tried to staunch his wounds. Billy Simmons, his face almost unrecognizable with burnt powder, his eyes wild, staggered with a shell to Private Jones. “I s’y, Jones,” he cried joyously, “the bloomin’ blighters have got us, but we’ll show ’em we aren’t croakers, eh?” Defiantly he grasped his bugle cord and swung the instrument to his lips, and “Britains Never Shall Be Slaves” blared over the hillside and drifted down to the —st Highlanders, who were making all speed to the scene of action.
Suddenly, a surprised expression filled the lad's eyes, and h i s diminutive form crumpled up at Jones’ feet. The collie bounded forward and began nosing with his wet muzzle the poor, pinched little face. The little hero opened his eyes. “I—I s’y,” he began bravely—then his voice trailed off, “I s ’y, if it—ain’t the bloom in ’
d o r g. I — I thought it was— mother — you
A volley was poured in at close quarters and every man fell, dead or wounded. A cry, almost human, was wrenched from the collie as he, too, fell with his body across that of Bugler Simmons.
But now, sweet and clear came the brave skirl of the bagpipes, and up the hill, leaping from crag to crag, the Highlanders. For a while there was desperate resistance; then the enemy broke and fled.
A quarter of an hour later a group of Scots and Canadians stood with bared heads about the guns and the recumbent dead. They all admired brav ery, and here it was typified in its biggest sense. The two cannon stood with drooping muzzles as though in lament: a
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Stuff of Empire
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few shells were yet heaped about the wheels. Robin, the collie, handsome exen in death, sprawled with his forepaxvs over the body of Billy Simmons.
The tears coursed down the cheeks of Angus Mackay. He gazed on the face of Private Jones, and on the mighty MacDonald, whom he had classed as Colonial cowards. He bent and patted the head of the dead collie, and tenderly smoothed back the hair from Billy Simmons’ boyish brow, then he went and stood over the still form of Prix'ate Jones.
“I wad' ask you’re pardon gin ye could hear,” he said slowly. “Since ye canna, I will ask it of your God and mine,’’-and lifted his rugged face to the sky.