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Sons of Natal (Kindle Edition)
by Ian Carr
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Pietermaritzburg, Natal. November 1878.
Edmund Wade glared at the vapid young man in the straw boater. It was moments like these when he felt like cheerfully putting a rifle bullet through someone’s head. That would settle the argument. He had no time for this, none at all.
The man removed a silver fob watch from his pocket and tapped it with his forefinger, smiling benignly. ‘You see it’s three minutes past, old boy, I’m afraid you’re too late.’
Wade was about to order him sharply to step aside, but had to remind himself that he was no longer an officer in the British Army. ‘Look, Jenkins, I’m here to sign the volunteer roll, that’s all.’
Jenkins stared back at him, unmoved, and continued to stand sentinel over the gravel path that led to Government House, before opening his hands as if he were a country vicar beginning a sermon. ‘I’m very sorry, but it’s just not possible. The colonel’s a very busy man. You could come back at three o’clock.’
Wade contemplated barging past the bloody fool, but thought better of it. While Jenkins’ neat moustache and petite spectacles pointed to his job as an administrator, he had robust features and broad shoulders. He was also tall, matching Wade’s six feet two inches exactly. Yet despite Jenkins’ bulk, he looked a man more at home in a lounge chair rather than amidst the ruck of a rugby field; but then Wade had to admit his own muscular frame had become more than a little soft in recent months.
Wade sighed and looked away. He gazed beyond the corrugated-iron roofs of the town, to where Fort Napier stood on its hill, artillery guns peeking from behind stone ramparts. Above these symbols of British imperial might the Union Jack fluttered in the gentle breeze. ‘I must be at work in half an hour, so I can’t come back later, and I’m really not that late.’
Jenkins continued to hold up the silver watch as a testament to Wade’s tardiness. ‘Then I’m afraid you must come back tomorrow.’
Wade gritted his teeth, watched the minute hand judder to four minutes past. ‘You really can’t make an exception?’
‘No, I’m sorry. Tomorrow, between eight thirty and nine o’clock. Good day to you.’
Wade took a sharp intake of breath and exhaled irritably. ‘Fine, if I must.’
He turned quickly away before he did something he might regret and looked thoughtfully along Church Street, the broad dirt road that passed for a main thoroughfare in Pietermaritzburg, the fledgling capital of British Natal. A warm breeze continued to stir the air, carrying with it the scent of the bushveld and reminding the occupants of the town that this oasis of European civilisation was little more than three decades old, that beyond this street full of grocers, hotels, milliners and booksellers there was a vast wilderness and the kraals of a fierce Zulu nation.
Wade had gone less than three paces when he happened to glance back and see that Jenkins was now engaged in deep conversation with a servant. He smiled to himself, flicked up the brim of his slouch hat and darted towards the low wall surrounding Government House. In one agile movement he was over, scuttling down a path at the side of the building. He crept light-footed towards a half open window that was partly obscured by a climbing rose. Pushing aside the thorny blooms, he peeked inside. A tom-cat peered back at him from the pantry’s shadows, then returned to preening its flanks with listless scrapes of its tongue. Wade took hold of the window’s sash and raised it a little. It shuddered, grated against the frame, but was soon open wide enough for him to climb inside. His foot clanged against a copper kettle as he jumped down from the worktop, but he managed to steady it before it crashed to the floor and gave him away.
He slipped out through the pantry door with as much stealth as he could muster and quickly found his way to the main hallway, with its polished oak floor, mahogany grandfather clock and stately oil paintings of the English countryside. He removed his hat, ran a hand through ruffled hair and rubbed his sweaty palms on the seat of his trousers.
A maid emerged from another room clutching a pile of napkins and Wade smiled innocently. ‘Colonel Mitchell’s office?’
The maid looked uncertain for a moment, then pointed. ‘That way, boss, it’s the last office on the right.’
Wade inclined his head. ‘Obliged to you.’
At the end of a gloomy corridor crammed with filing cabinets he came to a door which declared in confident gold lettering: Lieut-Col. Charles B. H. Mitchell, RM, Colonial Secretary, Natal.
He knocked twice and waited.
There was no answer, but Wade knew this meant nothing. Men of rank revelled in keeping their inferiors waiting. It was a kind of test, assessing your patience, your subservience. He shuffled his feet and wondered why the hell he was bothering.
He was about to turn away when a voice barked at him from the other side of the door. ‘Come!’
Behind a desk stacked with official papers and files bound with red ribbon sat Colonel Mitchell, a middle-aged man with a thick beard and shapely moustache, both of which were as fastidiously groomed as his greying hair. Despite his military rank, he wore no uniform, just a crumpled suit and a cream tie. His dress appeared all the more informal when set against that of the raw-boned young officer who stood at his right. This man wore an immaculate dark blue tunic with white facings and four rows of black braid strung across the chest. His trousers were also dark blue and the white stripe that ran down the seam shone in the sunlight that streamed through the room’s only window. Wade suppressed a shudder. He had dealt with men like him before, men proud of their uniform. Too proud to get it dirty. The officer held a white pith helmet under his arm, on the front of which was a badge emblazoned with a crown and the letters: NC. He knew this stood for the Natal Carbineers, one of many local militia regiments raised to defend the colony.
On a worn rug before the fireplace Wade was surprised to see a partly assembled Maxim gun and a wooden box bristling with ammunition. It seemed the calm confidence with which the colonial administration went about its business in the face of the mounting Zulu crisis was a flimsy façade that was belied by the reality that existed behind the closed doors of Government House.
‘Name?’ The colonel’s tone was flat and he spoke without looking up.
‘Edmund James Wade, sir.’
‘Date of birth?’
‘Nineteenth of July, fifty four.’
The colonel paused. ‘Makes you twenty five, am I right?’
‘Yes, that’s right, sir.’
‘Your height and weight?’
‘Six feet two and twelve stone.’
The colonel’s gaze flicked momentarily from his notes to the clock on the wall. ‘And your occupation?’
‘Assistant manager at the Imperial Hotel on Loop Street.’
‘Indeed. So how long have you been in Africa, Mr Wade?’
‘A little over a year.’
‘I thought I could smell a new arrival to these savage shores.’ The colonel paused again while he finished making notes. ‘And how are you finding South Africa so far?’
‘Interesting, sir, very interesting.’
The colonel grunted, let a frown creep across his forehead. ‘Well, it’s going to get damnably more interesting in the next couple of months. Do you have any previous military experience?’
Wade hesitated, stared past the colonel and out of the window, where thunderclouds loomed dark and menacing above the distant hills. Natal had been in the grip of a drought for some years now and it struck him as ominous that its ending should coincide with the escalating Zulu crisis.
‘Come on, man, I haven’t got all day, it’s a simple enough question.’
Wade nodded. ‘I served in the Third Regiment of Foot, sir, First Battalion.’
‘Really?’ The colonel raised a grey eyebrow, lifted his gaze and looked at Wade properly for the first time. ‘You served with the Buffs?’
‘Yes, but –’
‘For how long?’
‘Almost seven years.’
‘Seven years, you say? Well that makes you the most experienced man on the roll so far. What rank were you?’
‘Seven years in the Buffs and an officer to boot! We are honoured indeed, Mr Wade.’ Mitchell grinned and nodded at his companion, who retrieved a file from the cabinet at his back. ‘Well, I’m telling you now, young man, you can expect at least that rank when the volunteer guards are constituted.’ The colonel scrawled notes in the file with renewed alacrity.
Wade stiffened. ‘If it’s all the same to you, sir, I’d rather remain in the ranks.’
‘What?’ The colonel searched Wade’s expression for any hint of jest. ‘Don’t be absurd, man, what on earth would possess you to want that? Why carry the trough when you can feast from it?’ When Wade didn’t reply, Mitchell grew impatient once again. ‘Confound it, man, explain yourself.’
‘I don’t know the country well enough to lead local men,’ Wade stated flatly. Though this was certainly true, up to a point, it was still an excuse, but he was not about to explain the real reasons for his reluctance to a man he had yet to form a proper opinion of. If the army had taught him one thing, it was to forgo action until decent intelligence was attained, and he had not yet learnt enough about this Colonel Mitchell.
‘Nonsense, man.’ The colonel thumped his fist on the desk. ‘So far the volunteer roll is full of fat shopkeepers and bloody Boers. We need all the military men we can get if we are to have any hope of keeping ‘em in line. Damned volunteer units are a devil to get into the field and even harder to command once there.’ The colonel glanced at his colleague. ‘That right, Lieutenant Woolmer?’
Woolmer’s expression remained impassive. ‘Indeed it is, sir.’
‘Might even consider transferring you to the Maritzburg Rifles, or perhaps to the Carbineers, once the guard is fully trained. Do you ride, Wade?’
Wade fidgeted. ‘Colonel, if it’s all the same to you I’d really rather remain in the ranks, and it’s the Town Guard I wish to join, not the Colonial Militia.’
The colonel shook his head and sighed, but to Wade’s surprise did not lose his temper. ‘Well if that’s your final word on the matter, this is a volunteer roll after all. I can’t force you to take a militia commission if it offends your sensibilities. There will be a general meeting of all the volunteers on the sixteenth, so keep an eye out for the notice in the market office. That’s all, you’re dismissed, Mr Wade.’
Once Wade had left the room, Colonel Mitchell stared down at his notes, rapping his fingers pensively on the desk as he read them through. He thought Wade a fine young man; though somewhat dark skinned, and it was his opinion that an English gentleman should seek to avoid the colourations of the working man. Although when in the field, he had to admit that it could be rather difficult for a soldier. He was clean-shaven too, and the colonel never understood a man who refused to grow at least the semblance of a moustache, but all the same, Mitchell thought to himself, he had a certain poise born of quiet self-confidence. Damn the fellow if he thought he was going to remain in the ranks. He was unlikely to be a coward, and had a look about him that suggested he could be as tough and ferocious on the battlefield as he was calm and unassuming standing before him in a suit.
Mitchell turned to his colleague. ‘So, Woolmer, what do you make of Mr – formerly Lieutenant – Wade?’
Woolmer shrugged. ‘A man with a past is hardly remarkable in Africa, sir, but if it concerns you, then my father has a contact at Horse Guards. I could write and ask him to get someone to look over his service record?’
‘Confound it, man, what would be the point of that? By the time we get a reply the war with the Zulus will be over. No, if he proves to be up to scratch then he can have his place in the volunteers, but I’m damned if he’s going to serve in the ranks if he’s officer material. These colonists are a cursed rabble and I’d rather have a proper English officer in command of them.’
‘Indeed, sir.’ Woolmer showed no sign of having taken offence at the slur against him and his fellow colonials.
‘So talk him round, man, talk him round.’
Woolmer nodded. ‘Yes, sir.’
That evening Wade leaned wearily on the reception desk of the Imperial Hotel, loosened his collar and wiped the sweat from his brow. It was quiet and Ngeme, the young doorman, was the only other member of staff in the lobby. The lounge bar and veranda at the rear of the hotel were packed with the usual crowd, though only a small number of these guests were actually staying at the hotel – the threat of war had driven most visitors back to the safety of Durban and Cape Colony – and their muted chatter was the only sound that could be heard above the constant whine of crickets.
Wade stifled a yawn. ‘Ngeme.’
‘If you want, you can go home. I’ll watch the door. It’s late and I can’t see too many guests arriving now.’
‘No, boss, but I’ll stay. Thank you anyway, boss.’ Ngeme spoke with a strong accent, but his words were well rounded and clear.
Wade admired the man’s diligence, but could see no reason for it. There would be no thanks. He watched as Ngeme reached out to adjust one of the oil lamps that cast flickering shadows on the green and gold wallpaper. His face was as rugged as any African mountain, but that ruggedness was smoothed by flawless skin and an easy smile. He may have been shorter than Wade by several inches, but he was broader by far, and that muscular frame seemed ready to burst through his claustrophobic uniform. Yet despite this robustness, Wade knew Ngeme was tired. Staff shortages meant he had been working without a break for seventeen hours. These shortages were not unique to the Imperial and were due to an exodus of black labour from the town. Many of those who fled had originally come to Natal as political exiles from Zululand, seeking British protection from the wrath of the Zulu king, Cetshwayo. Now, with the threat of a Zulu attack on the town looming, they had understandably taken to their heels.
‘You’re exhausted, man,’ Wade said. ‘Now go, before I change my mind.’
Ngeme took a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed at his glistening forehead. ‘You have been working for as long as I have, boss.’
‘Yes, but I get well paid for my trouble.’
‘And I am merely a black man.’
Wade grinned. He liked Ngeme. He was intelligent, sharp-witted, and were he white, he too would have been an assistant manager by now. ‘Just go, damn it. Do I have to make it an order?’
Ngeme bared his white teeth, and was about to reply when the hotel’s doors swung open and in walked three men. The first was middle-aged and wore the dress uniform of a colonel in the Royal Engineers. The second, also an officer – a captain – was stocky and much younger. The third man was slightly older than the colonel of engineers and wore the white dog-collar and hallowed smugness of a churchman. Wade recognised the two older men immediately.
‘Good evening, Colonel Durnford, Reverend Colenso,’ Wade said, bowing his head politely.
‘Ah, good evening, Wade.’ Colonel Durnford spoke with the smooth rounded brogue so characteristic of the Anglo-Irish.
Wade had come to know Anthony Durnford well in the short time he had been in Natal, and though he liked and respected him a great deal, he thought him an odd looking fellow, with receding hair, a wide forehead and narrow jaw, all of which gave a distinctly bulbous appearance to his head. His most striking features, however, were an extravagant moustache that fell almost to his collar and a paralysed left arm that was strapped permanently across his chest. It made this colonel of engineers unmistakable.
Colonel Durnford gave a mischievous wink as Ngeme took their coats. ‘I hope the blasted whiskey hasn’t run out.’
‘There’s always plenty of fine whiskey at the Imperial,’ Wade replied.
‘Good man.’ The colonel gestured at his younger companion. ‘May I introduce Captain Gaskill of the Third. He’s to join my staff and will be our guest tonight.’
Wade’s eyes widened at the mention of his former regiment. ‘The Buffs?’ he said without thinking.
‘That’s right,’ Durnford said. ‘You know the regiment?’
Wade didn’t reply, just stared at the familiar dragon insignia on Captain Gaskill’s cap-badge.
‘Are you all right, young man?’ Reverend Colenso had noticed the sudden unease in Wade’s manner.
‘Of course,’ Wade said, recovering himself. ‘Welcome to the Imperial, Captain Gaskill. This way, gentlemen.’
Wade showed the three men through to the bar and set about preparing their drinks, but he did so broodily. The colonel noticed, but made no mention of it. Whiskeys in hand, Durnford and his party then sauntered outside to where most of the other drinkers were gathered. The Imperial’s modest veranda was illuminated by oil lamps hung above the balustrade and a cloud of insects tumbled about them in the humid air, a cacophony of buzzing and humming.
‘Good evening, Colonel Durnford,’ said a tall man in a crisp navy-blue suit.
Durnford gave a polite nod of his head. ‘Good evening, Mr Thackeray.’
‘I hear you’ll soon be off to give the Zulus a good thrashing, eh?’
Durnford smiled courteously, but did not reply.
The other guests nodded with equal civility as the three men settled themselves into wicker chairs, all except for one man, who merely glanced with disdain at the new arrivals and continued his conversation without acknowledging them. Wade had not seen this man before tonight, and had regarded him with curiosity when he first walked through the doors of the Imperial earlier that evening. He was in his early forties but possessed a pallid, youthful face. A dark moustache, pinched with wax, cut across this vernal countenance like flint in chalk. The man carried himself with such authority and poise that his presence utterly dominated the group of wealthy men in his party. Yet it was his dress that first caught Wade’s attention, because he wore a dark green military tunic with four rows of brass buttons. A tangle of gold braid hung across his chest like a display of gold necklaces in a Bond Street jewellers. It was clearly the uniform of an officer from some volunteer militia unit, but its extravagance would hardly have looked out of place on the field of Waterloo.
Although not strictly required, it was usual etiquette for a volunteer officer to stand when a man of senior rank, such as Colonel Durnford, entered the room and Captain Gaskill immediately rose to protest at the wilful slight to his superior. But Durnford merely smiled tolerantly, shook his head and gestured for his junior to sit. A few moments later Captain Gaskill wandered back through to the bar and approached Wade, who was busy serving Mr Thackeray yet another pink gin.
Gaskill frowned as he removed a cigar from his tunic pocket. ‘Could I trouble you for a match, old boy?’
‘Of course.’ Wade struck the match and the captain leaned in to take the light.
‘Who’s that buffoon in the peacock’s uniform?’ Gaskill asked, as a cloud of smoke swirled above his head.
‘I’m afraid I don’t know.’ Wade flicked a glance at Mr Thackeray, who was making a rather unconvincing play of not listening to their conversation.
‘Some jumped up militia officer by the looks of him. I’ve a good mind to go over and teach him some manners.’
Mr Thackeray was unable to contain himself any longer. ‘That is, Captain, the honourable Sir William Bartholomew O’Connor.’
Gaskill grunted. ‘Knight of the realm or not, he’s no gentleman.’
Wade tilted his head diplomatically, said nothing and began polishing champagne glasses. Gaskill puffed away on his cigar, all the while glowering at Sir William through the row of ornate windows that separated the bar from the veranda.
‘I can’t understand what anyone could possibly have against Colonel Durnford,’ Gaskill continued, ‘the man’s reputation is legendary. You know his ability to train native levies is the talk of the mess?’
‘Sir William hasn’t spoken to Colonel Durnford for years,’ Thackeray said pointedly.
Gaskill raised an eyebrow, his interest piqued. ‘History between ‘em, eh?’
‘Haven’t you heard about Bushman’s Pass?’ Thackeray shuffled along the bar.
‘I know a little of it. A scrap during the native rebellion of seventy three, where the old man lost the use of his arm.’
Thackeray nodded, revelling in the gossip. ‘At the time Sir William was a mere lieutenant in the Natal Carbineers, and one of the officers who accompanied old Durnford to the pass, where they were set upon by those bloody savages. Durnford later accused the Carbineers of running away from the fight, leaving him and his loyal Basuto troopers to dig themselves out of trouble alone. Pietermaritzburg society has never really forgiven him for that accusation, even though he never made anything of it officially of course.’
Gaskill sucked on his cigar, blew a puff of smoke up towards the yellow-stained plaster ceiling. ‘The old man never mentioned anything about that to me. This Sir William still holds a grudge then, does he?’
Thackeray shuffled even closer, leaned in to the young captain as though about to share some grand conspiracy. ‘Well, there’s a little more to it than that. Some weeks later a rumour began circulating that suggested it was Lieutenant William O’Connor who had been responsible for spreading dissent among the ranks of the Carbineers, causing them to flee. Though as I said, Colonel Durnford never publicly accused Sir William as an individual, and apparently never mentioned a word of it in his report.’
Gaskill frowned. ‘Sounds like the man got off lightly. Should be thankful he wasn’t strung up.’
‘Well, most people think it was Durnford who made sure that Sir William never rose beyond the rank of lieutenant in the Carbineers.’
‘So why is the damned fellow a captain now, can’t be that short of gentlemen officers in Natal?’
Thackeray’s eyes glinted, relishing the intrigues of which he spoke. ‘Sir William is a very wealthy man. His father is an Irish peer who owns farms all over Natal. Several years ago Sir William left the Carbineers and formed his own volunteer unit called the Natal Mounted Rifles, funded entirely from his own pocket apparently. The unit is mostly made up of men who work for him or for his friends, so his election as captain of the unit is guaranteed.’
‘Well, I hope to God I never have to fight alongside such men in the coming weeks.’ Gaskill stubbed out his cigar, nodded politely and returned to his companions.
As the guests continued to enjoy their drinks, the hotel’s elderly waiter took up his rag and wandered out onto the veranda, where he began cleaning tables and collecting dirty glasses. Wade drummed his fingers on the bar counter, still brooding over his past. He hadn’t noticed the young officer’s regimental badge when he first walked through the door of the hotel. Even though he was aware that his former regiment was stationed somewhere in the colony, military men often drank in the bar and he paid little attention to them. This was the first time he had been introduced to an officer of his former regiment and it brought back memories that he’d spent the last year trying to suppress.
Wade’s grim thoughts were abruptly broken by the sound of shattering glass coming from the veranda, which was immediately followed by a cry of anger that pierced the still air. He peered through the ornate windows and heard the old waiter apologising profusely to Sir William.
‘What now,’ he muttered, before walking outside to see what all the fuss was about.
Sir William jumped to his feet. ‘You’re a damn fool!’
‘I’m terribly sorry, sir, terribly sorry.’ The old waiter’s hands shook as he picked shards of glass from the table.
‘You’re sorry, are you?’ Sir William held up the damp arm of his dress uniform. ‘It’s too late for sorry. Look at the state of me.’
‘Sir William, please accept the hotel’s sincere apologies.’ Wade spoke in a placatory tone. ‘Let me provide you with another drink, and I’ll have someone take care of your tunic.’
‘Take care of my tunic? Can’t you see it’s ruined, damn it!’
‘I apologise, sir; it was an accident. Mr Alnwick meant no offence. I’m sure the hotel can recompense you.’
Sir William sniffed. ‘This is not some rag from a colonial outfitters, sir, this tunic is from Saville Row.’
‘As I say, I’m sure the hotel can come to a satisfactory arrangement.’
‘No, curse you, that’s not good enough. I want this fool sacked. I’ve a good mind to beat him back to his damn hovel to boot.’
‘Sir William, please.’ Wade was used to dealing with difficult guests, having honed an ability to keep his true feelings well hidden, but it was proving increasingly difficult in this instance.
‘I want this damned peasant sacked at once, do you hear me?’
Hearing the commotion outside, Ngeme rushed out to the veranda just in time to see Sir William lift his cane and strike Mr Alnwick on the shoulder, knocking him to the floor. The waiter cried out as he cut his hand on broken glass and immediately Reverend Colenso jumped to his feet, and rushed over to the old man’s aid.
‘Sir William, what on earth do you think you are doing?’ Reverend Colenso said. ‘Get me some salt water, Ngeme; quickly now.’
‘This is none of your business, Colenso. He’s not one of your blasted flock of savages.’
‘I think you should sit down, Sir William,’ Wade said. ‘I will bring you a fresh drink and we will come to an arrangement about your tunic.’
Reverend Colenso stood to take the bowl of water that Ngeme brought over and Sir William raised his cane in anger once again. ‘Get out of here, kaffir, I will not be made a fool of!’
‘Enough!’ Wade’s voice now betrayed his own anger.
Sir William hissed in reply and turned to strike Ngeme, but before he could, Wade caught his wrist and snatched the cane from his grasp. ‘I said, that’s enough.’
‘How dare you! Take your hands off me, sir.’
Wade’s eyes narrowed. ‘I will not stand by and watch you abuse my staff.’
Sir William jerked his hand free, and with a petulant flick he knocked the bowl of water from Ngeme’s hands. ‘I will not have the likes of you and this idiot Colenso telling me which kaffirs I can and cannot beat.’
‘That’s it, I warned you.’ Wade grabbed Sir William by the scruff.
‘What do you think you’re doing?’
‘I’m throwing you out.’
‘What the hell do you mean? You can’t throw me out, get your hands off me at once!’
While Reverend Colenso tended to the waiter’s cut hand, the other guests regarded the unfolding events with a mix of horror and disbelief. Colonel Durnford, however, watched on more with amusement than anything else, as Sir William was manhandled across the veranda, through the ornate doors and into the bar. It was here that the Irishman managed to wriggle free of Wade’s grip and straight away turned to strike him. Wade jerked his head clear of the blow, and driven by pure instinct, he swung his arm and felt his fist land with a crunch.
‘My… my nose.’ Sir William’s hands trembled as he tasted blood on his lips. He staggered backwards till he felt the wall behind him and, having recovered from the initial shock of the punch, he yanked vigorously at the twisted lapels of his jacket. Then without warning, he snatched a small silver pistol from his pocket and lifted the barrel towards Wade, who stiffened immediately. Sir William snorted, slid a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed at the blood dribbling from his waxed moustache. His thumb caressed the pistol’s pearl grip and then moved slowly up to the hammer, but before he could cock the weapon, Ngeme snatched a cane from the rack by the bar and rushed forward. He slammed the stick’s brass finial against Sir William’s hand so the gun clattered to the floor and skidded away harmlessly.
Wade glowered at Sir William as he clutched his hand and squawked in pain. He didn’t like having guns pointed at him at the best of times – a curious phobia he’d picked up as a soldier – but he took special exception when it was some over-privileged bully doing the pointing. Without thinking he lunged forward and struck Sir William again, this time in the stomach and with even greater force, leaving him bent double and groaning.
Later, as Sir William and his entourage stormed from the hotel, cursing Wade and vowing to have the place closed down, Colonel Durnford and Captain Gaskill wandered over to Wade’s side.
‘You realise he will make a lot of trouble for you,’ the colonel said.
Wade shrugged. ‘Let him make it.’
Durnford frowned and gestured at Ngeme with his good hand. ‘It will be worse for your man there.’
Wade stared at the colonel for a moment, then looked over to Ngeme, who was holding a fresh bowl of water while Reverend Colenso finished dressing the waiter’s cut hand. He hadn’t considered the consequences for Ngeme. Wade might very well find himself without a job, but Ngeme could end up in more serious trouble for striking a white man, especially one of standing and influence like Sir William. ‘What will they do to him?’
‘I don’t know,’ Durnford replied, ‘but Sir William is an unpleasant fellow at the best of times, and I have known few men who are more vindictive.’
Captain Gaskill turned to Durnford and saluted. ‘I should return to my quarters, sir, as I must ride for Helpmekaar tomorrow. Thank you for a most interesting evening.’ He glanced at Wade and smiled.
Once Captain Gaskill had gone, the colonel whispered to Wade. ‘Tell Ngeme to pack a bag and come to Fort Napier tonight. I am given command of Number Two Column, and with it the Natal Native Contingent. We depart very soon for Middle Drift and it would be wise if Ngeme was under my protection.’
‘I do not think he will go.’
‘Life in the NNC will be a damn sight safer than remaining here if Sir William sets his mind on revenge, which believe me he will. See to it that he leaves for the fort tonight.’
Wade nodded and Durnford bade him good night.
The honourable Sir William Bartholomew O’Connor climbed two creaking wooden steps and laid his top hat on a table next to the lectern. Over a white dress shirt with winged collar and bow tie he wore a dark wide-lapelled tailcoat fastened low on the chest. His waistcoat was also dark, unlike the white waistcoats sported by the men who awaited his speech in the crowded hall of the Pietermaritzburg English Club that night. Sir William was proud of his fashionable new evening dress, shipped to the colony by Henry Poole & Co. of Saville Row. It had cost a small fortune to acquire the latest fashions from London, but he considered it well worth the money. After all, he was one of the men that Maritzburg high society looked to in matters both social and political; it would not do to be seen in anything other than the latest and finest attire. The only chink in his confidence came from the purple-hued bruise at the bridge of his nose and the slight swelling on his left cheek.
The after-dinner speech that Sir William O’Connor made to the members of the Pietermaritzburg English Club that evening began with a patriotic toast, and all stood, raising their port glasses to Queen Victoria’s portrait that hung over the marble fireplace. As a generous supporter of the English Club, Sir William had been asked to make the introductory speech before the guest of honour, Lieutenant General Thesiger – newly Lord Chelmsford – arose to begin his own oration. Despite their Irish-Catholic ancestry, the O’Connor family had enthusiastically served the British crown for nearly two hundred years and through that loyalty had come to own a vast swathe of prime agricultural land in Ireland. Although his eldest brother had inherited the Irish Earldom, Sir William was keen to make himself the real jewel in the family’s crown. He had originally come to the colonies for health reasons, but in the fifteen years since arriving he had increased his family’s business holdings substantially, becoming one of the richest men in South Africa.
The first part of Sir William’s address to the upper echelons of Natal society was ordinary enough. It was filled with the usual mix of calculated flattery and self-aggrandisement, punctuated with religious references and jingoistic sentiments that always went down well with a colonial audience. Yet Sir William had no intention of letting this opportunity pass without ruffling some feathers, feathers he was damned sure needed a good bit of ruffling. Pausing at the appropriate moment, he took a sip of water and turned to the last page of his notes. He glanced at the expressions of those present in the hall, just discernible amidst the thready haze of cigar smoke that hung in the air like an expensive yellow mist. Some men, those keen to ascend the social ladder, feigned interest, while others were clearly bored and sipped lethargically at their port, but most listened politely enough. The chairman of the club, Sir Randolph Simmons, was asleep as usual and the stubbly pouch of blubber that hung below his chin shuddered as he half snored, half sighed.
Sir William coughed loudly, though not loudly enough to awaken Simmons, and then began what he knew would be the most controversial part of his speech. ‘Gentlemen, honoured guests, I must now take this opportunity to speak of matters that I know are of great importance to the citizens of this colony.’ Sir William lifted his head slightly, made sure his expression conveyed the necessary gravity and continued. ‘It has for some time been clear to every loyal British subject in Natal that we are facing a profound crisis. We are surrounded on all sides by enemies, both black and white, and though action has finally been taken against the Zulu menace, it is surely time for Her Majesty’s Government to act decisively against every enemy of British paramountcy in South Africa.’
Sir William glanced at the front row where the British High Commissioner, Sir Bartle Frere, his legs crossed, sucked contentedly on a cigar. Next to him sat Lieutenant Governor Sir Henry Bulwer, his face a permanent grimace. Bulwer’s deputy sat in the next seat along and he reflected both his superior’s expression and his manner, as a young boy might imitate his father. Several chairs along from these men reclined the editors of the Maritzburg Gazette and the Cape Argus; both men sat more upright as the tone of the speech altered.
‘We have for too long been a victim of dithering by the Imperial Government,’ Sir William continued. ‘While the cabinet procrastinated, it was the people of Natal who faced the twin threats of Zulu barbarism and Boer nationalism, protected by a mere handful of British soldiers and our own brave militias. It is true that we are now able to welcome General Thesiger, who is at last to wipe away the scourge of Cetshwayo and his impis. Yet even as British soldiers finally march on Zululand, we hear rumours that our honourable Prime Minister is considering revoking the annexation of the Transvaal. He tells us we have nothing to fear from the Boers, but such words will not suffice in settling my mind. I say to you, Mr Disraeli, that we will no longer accept your flaccid imperial policies, your dithering and your indecision in matters concerning South Africa!’
Men, who a moment ago had been entirely disinterested in Sir William’s speech, now sat up and leaned forward. Some nodded, grunted their approval, while others called out: ‘Here here!’ A significant minority shook their heads in dissent, but Sir William could not think about such men – liberals, Boer sympathisers, kaffir sympathisers.
The editor of the Cape Argus finished making notes and turned to his opposite number from the Maritzburg Gazette. ‘I say, this is rather a political speech.’
The second editor nodded. ‘Sir William is a firebrand, a protégé of Sir Bartle Frere, and believes only complete confederation will secure British rule in South Africa.’
‘So not fan of the new man at the Colonial Office?’
‘Indeed not. He’s even founded his own political boys’ club aimed at achieving that very end, with the full support of Frere, no doubt. I believe they’re officially known as The Society for the Advancement and Protection of the Rights and Possessions of the Citizens of Natal, but they’re known to most as Sons of Natal. My lead writer came up with that soubriquet. Rather proud of it too.’
Sir William could see that many of the club’s members approved of him taking the opportunity to rail against the British government. He often gave voice to the frustrations of the colonists and considered himself their natural, if not their official, leader. Sir Henry Bulwer continued to glare at Sir William and his loyal deputy did likewise, but despite the fierce criticism being meted out to his political masters in London the High Commissioner, Sir Bartle Frere, remained unmoved. He merely stubbed out his cigar and reclined in his chair, a wry smile dancing below his grey moustache.
At the conclusion of the speeches several African maids dressed in powder-blue uniforms, their eyes lowered, moved in to clear the dinner tables. Most of the club’s members lit yet more cigars and ambled on to the veranda, but Sir William wandered instead to the library. The bracket clock chimed eight as he strolled over to the long window overlooking the garden. Sir Bartle Frere joined him a few moments later, watching the Irishman’s expression with interest. Sir William was smiling to himself, obviously satisfied that his speech had gone down as well as intended.
‘Excellent speech, Sir William,’ Frere said, blowing a puff of cigar smoke against the pane.
Sir William smiled, bowed his head. ‘Thank you, I do feel it is important to get one’s point across.’
Frere gazed into the darkness. ‘Indeed.’
‘It’s just a shame that old duffer, Bulwer, wasn’t able to appreciate it,’ Sir William said.
‘I imagine it was not really his cup of tea.’
Sir William pinched the tips of his moustache to a fine point. ‘No, I would say not.’
‘Your society has rather got people chattering recently,’ Frere said after a brief pause, shooting a stern glance at the preening Irishman whose dapper appearance was marred only by the bruises about his nose. Frere had heard about Sir William’s encounter at the Imperial Hotel and it only served to confirm his opinion of the man: that he was rather like a fine gelding, being possessed of all the grace, strength and arrogance of a stallion, but somewhat lacking the necessary killer instinct.
‘I would hope so.’ Sir William slid a silver cigar case from his jacket pocket. ‘That was the idea, after all.’
‘It would be wise to take a step back over the next few weeks though, don’t you agree?’ Frere offered Sir William the flame from his lighter. ‘We wouldn’t want anyone thinking you’re a troublemaker.’
‘I can’t imagine what you mean?’ Sir William took several puffs on his cigar, before waving his hand at a maid who rushed over and held up an ash tray.
Frere was used to dealing with people who understood the subtleties and nuances of politics, people who comprehended the necessarily ambiguous language that was a vital part of communication between interested parties. After all, how could one deny implicit knowledge of events if one was forced to speak openly of them? Sir Bartle Frere hated being forced to make a point openly.
‘You remember what we discussed last week, Sir William? With Lord Carnarvon no longer at the Colonial Office we must proceed with a certain delicacy. Things could get rather messy if you cause too much of a stir.’
Sir William sighed, gave a half-hearted nod, before flicking a nub of ash into the tray the maid held up for him.
‘You must understand, Sir William,’ Frere continued gravely, ‘that while Sir Alfred Greyling is sniffing around the colony it is of the utmost importance that you attract as little attention as possible. We must not jeopardise all that we have worked towards.’
Sir William sniffed. A wrinkle of disdain creased his nostril. It was clear he was unused to being told how to handle his affairs, especially by a stuffy diplomat from London, but Frere hoped he had made his point well enough.
Frere accepted a glass of port offered by another maid and spoke in a hushed tone. ‘Are your Natal Mounted Rifles mustered?’
‘Sixty six men all ranks,’ Sir William replied.
‘Excellent.’ Frere took a sip of port and nodded with quiet satisfaction. ‘And of those men, you have an idea of who can be trusted?’
‘I do, yes.’
‘Good. Now I have arranged for your contingent to be garrisoned at Fort Pine, and Lord Chelmsford has assured me that your men will not be called upon for service in Zululand. So that leaves you a free hand; a situation that should serve our purpose perfectly, I think.’
At that moment Lord Chelmsford himself wandered into the library and Frere caught his eye. The general smiled and ambled over, shaking Sir William’s hand as they were introduced. Lord Chelmsford had a long face with a luxuriant beard that significantly enlarged his jaw-line, making his narrow sloping shoulders seem all the narrower. Frere thought his manner was somewhat ponderous, but his eyes were bright and he exuded confidence, just as one would expect from the Commander-in-Chief of Her Majesty’s forces in South Africa.
‘Good to meet you at last, Sir William. I’ve heard a lot about you,’ the general said.
‘The honour is mine, my Lord.’
‘I hear we shall have the pleasure of your service too?’
Sir William tilted his head in a play of modesty. ‘I have again been elected Captain of the Natal Mounted Rifles, and so hope to serve the empire and the honour of the colony.’
Lord Chelmsford nodded. ‘I was going to have you attached to Number Three Column, but Sir Bartle pointed out that it’s probably best if we keep you away from old Durnford, considering your history, eh?’
At the mention of that name Sir William’s expression darkened, but he quickly smiled and changed the subject, much to Frere’s amusement. ‘Is it true, my Lord, that the invasion will begin very soon?’
Lord Chelmsford glanced at Frere and allowed his thin lips to curl into a half smile. ‘The columns will be in place if and when they are needed.’
Sir William adjusted his collar and puffed out his chest. ‘Then let us hope they do not have a wasted journey.’
The redcoat on sentry duty outside Wade’s cell was a nice enough chap. It was from him that he discovered that most of the second battalion of his former regiment were based at Thrings Post near the Tugela River. The Buffs were part of Lord Chelmsford’s Number One Column and should Cetshwayo refuse to meet the demands made of him by the British High Commissioner then they would soon be in action against the Zulus.
Wade had thought of little else but his former regiment since being arrested three days previously and as he paced the ten foot long cell, mulling over his past, he felt all the anger return. He stared pensively at the bare wall at the back of his cell, the blackened plaster scored with names, dates and many other anonymous scribblings. It hardly seemed any time at all since he served with the Buffs in Malaya during the Perak War, and then in the north of India as a newly promoted subaltern. Even though more than a year had passed since he was forced out of the army, the events surrounding his court-martial still festered like an open sore.
‘Wade!’ A voice barked suddenly from behind. ‘Stand to. You’ve got a visitor.’
Wade turned to face the well-preened sergeant major of the provosts who glared at him from the other side of the bars, his twisted moustache turned upwards like two coat hooks affixed below his nose.
‘I’m sorry but I couldn’t possibly see anyone at the moment, I don’t appear to have a clean shirt.’
The sergeant major’s eyes narrowed and he dismissed the sentry with a flick of his head. ‘Prisoner will keep back!’ he bellowed, before unlocking the cell door and standing aside to allow Colonel Mitchell to enter.
‘Ah, Wade,’ Mitchell said, his nose twitching as he glanced about the cell.
‘Colonel, what are you doing here?’
‘I imagine you weren’t expecting to see me, were you?’
Wade grinned. ‘No, not really.’
‘That will be all, Sergeant Major.’
‘But sir, this man…’ the sergeant major stuttered. ‘This man is –’
‘That will be all,’ the colonel repeated. Once the sergeant major had disappeared back down the corridor, Mitchell spoke again. ‘I heard you were involved in a spot of bother at the Imperial. Lost your job too, eh?’
‘I had some trouble with a guest.’
Mitchell regarded him with amusement. ‘Indeed.’
Wade stood before the colonel wearing a filthy dress shirt, creased trousers and scuffed shoes. A bow tie and his evening jacket lay on the flea-ridden bunk of his cell. He had to admit he looked an unlikely prisoner – more like a man who’d become lost in the bush after leaving a society dinner party.
Mitchell clasped his hands behind his back. ‘Colonel Durnford informed me of the circumstances of your arrest before he left this morning, said he was there when you broke Sir William’s nose. Well, it seems Sir William wants blood. Your blood, Wade.’
‘I’m sure he does. Tell him he can come and collect as much as he likes. If he dares.’
‘If I know Sir William he will get others to do his dirty work for him. He’s still fuming because that kaffir doorman of yours vanished into thin air. Says he was your accomplice, but there’s no trace of him apparently.’
‘If I’d known he was going to have me thrown in a cell then I’d have hit him harder.’
‘Did you really think there would be any other outcome? You broke his nose, man.’
Wade scowled. ‘He pulled a gun on me!’
‘But he didn’t shoot you, now did he? And you did break his nose.’
‘And I’d do it again.’
‘Good man,’ the colonel said with a grin, grey eyes sparkling. ‘Between you and me, Wade, I don’t much care for Sir William. Some say he had old Durnford’s dog killed, don’t you know? Can’t abide a man who would kill a dog.’
Wade frowned. ‘Colonel, with all due respect, why are you here? I’m not going to be much use to the Town Guard now. I’m due to be shipped off to the Cape to stand trial in a week.’
‘Yes, well, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about.’
Wade raised his eyebrows. ‘Oh, have you booked me a first class ticket?’
Mitchell ignored Wade’s flippancy. ‘When you originally signed the volunteer roll you said you weren’t keen to serve as an officer –’ the colonel paused. ‘Look, I’ll come straight to the point, I want you to sign on with the Maritzburg Rifles as their captain, and help prepare both them and the Town Guard to defend the city should Cetshwayo’s impis attack. In return I will see to it that the colonial authorities overlook your little spot of bother.’
Wade sighed and shook his head. ‘I’m sorry, Colonel, but as I told you before, I have no desire to lead men again, in training or in battle.’
‘So you would rather spend five years in a Cape Town prison, would you?’
Wade glanced at the flea-ridden bed and the half filled piss-pot in the corner.
The colonel continued, ‘The colony needs all the trained men she can get. We need to teach the Town Guard to shoot for a start. But they are to be little more than a police force to keep the natives under control if there’s any unrest. What we really need are competent officers to lead the Maritzburg Rifles.’
‘I heard that all the Natal volunteers are off to the front with the regulars. I don’t want to fight a war.’
‘You will only fight in defence of the city. I give you my word. The governor has told Lord Chelmsford that he can do as he pleases with the other volunteer units, but the Maritzburg Rifles must stay here under my command. And I want you as their captain, Mr Wade.’
‘With respect, you know nothing about me, Colonel. I wasn’t a gentleman officer; I don’t have a huge private income and none of my family are military men. I joined as a boy and was promoted to lieutenant in the field. I served as an officer for less than two years…’ Wade let his words trail away.
Colonel Mitchell hummed, regarding Wade with even more curiosity. ‘It’s not as if you’re from the gutter, man. What does your father do?’
‘He’s a doctor.’
‘There you go then. And you say you served for almost seven years in total? Run away from home to enlist did you?’ When Wade didn’t reply, the colonel grunted. ‘I take it you were forced out of the army by your fellow officers? Damnable snobs most of ‘em. The old guard have been scared to death ever since old Cardwell stopped them buying their way up the ranks. Even so, not many men can sit in the mess and drink water instead of champagne.’
‘I wasn’t forced out by the officers. Some weren’t keen on a subaltern from the ranks, but I had some good friends in the mess, and they helped me out if I needed it.’
‘That so? Always good to have friends who pay the mess bill, eh? Still, doesn’t change the fact that you were an officer and that right now I need one desperately.’
‘I could’ve been a terrible officer for all you know.’
The colonel stroked his beard, shook his head. ‘I don’t think so, otherwise why would you have been promoted in the field? I can usually tell a man’s character the first time I meet him and you’re a good man, Wade. I think you will do your duty and do it well. At any rate, I really don’t give a damn about your past. I don’t have that luxury.’
‘With respect, Colonel, you really don’t know me at all.’
The colonel growled at Wade as if he were a disobedient hunting dog. ‘I’m offering you a perfectly reasonable choice here, damn it, man! Join the Maritzburg Rifles and help us train the volunteers or else rot in a Cape hole; now which is it to be, because I don’t have all day.’
‘Even if I agreed to your request, I’ve lost my job. I shan’t easily get another if Sir William has his way, and even if I do, I doubt he will be happy that you had me released.’
‘You will not need another job because you’ll also be employed on my personal staff to manage the training of the Town Guard. You will serve as a volunteer officer in the Maritzburg Rifles as a personal favour to me; and as for Sir William O’Connor, well, you need not worry about him. My authority to offer you this proposal comes from Sir Henry Bulwer, the lieutenant governor himself. Anyway, Captain William O’Connor is presently serving with his Natal Mounted Rifles somewhere to the north.’
Wade stared at the colonel, his mind in turmoil as he considered his offer. He did not, of course, wish to spend even one year imprisoned at the Cape, but after his court-martial he had vowed to have nothing more to do with the army. Collectively the army had betrayed him, thrown him to the wolves, but worse even than that, his senior officer – a man he trusted implicitly – then failed to intervene on his behalf. That hurt cut as deep as a Rajput talwar. Even volunteering to serve in the ranks of the Town Guard was against his better judgement. But what choice did he really have? He tapped the seam of his trousers and exhaled noisily. He would do as he was asked. And when the Zulu threat receded he would leave Africa and make a new life somewhere else. Maybe save for a berth to Australia or see what Canada had to offer.
‘I’ll do it,’ Wade replied.
‘Good man.’ The colonel slapped Wade’s shoulder, before shouting for the provost.
Sergeant Major Debdale marched up the passageway, clicked his feet together and saluted. ‘Yes, sir!’
‘Get Captain Wade a proper meal, then take him up to the fort and find the quartermaster. Tell him, on my authority, that he is to be issued with some basic kit and a revolver, and see if they can’t find him a spare sword from somewhere.’
‘Sir?’ The sergeant major’s eyes widened.
‘Come on, man, it’s a simple enough order even for a provost.’ Colonel Mitchell turned back to Wade and handed him a note of paper. ‘This is a credit note. Take it to Ireland and Company on Church Street and they’ll fit you out with a uniform, then report to Captain Fullerton at the fort. He will brief you on the plans for the city’s defence and give you the names and addresses of the elected leaders of the Town Guard.’
As the colonel strode back off down the corridor, Wade grabbed his jacket and tie and turned to face the bemused sergeant major. ‘Well; jump to it.’ The sergeant major hesitated, before nodding. ‘Don’t you salute an officer in the provosts?’
The flustered sergeant major saluted quickly. ‘Yes, sir, I’m sorry, sir.’
Wade smiled, left his stinking cell behind and sauntered down the passageway and out into the harsh midday sun. He was led across the police compound’s dusty parade ground to a small office, where he waited for the paperwork authorising his release to be completed. When everything was in order he wandered back outside. Three troopers of the Natal Mounted Police were polishing their boots under the shade of the wide veranda and he stopped, glanced at the flag fluttering over the parade ground, ropes clanking rhythmically on the pole. Then he marched through the gate and out into the street.
As the hot wind caressed his skin, Wade felt excitement seethe unexpectedly in his belly. He had spurned anything even remotely to do with soldiering since he was discharged from the army, but now he suddenly felt as though he’d been reborn. Later, as he stood among the polished teak cabinets of Ireland & Co, gentlemen’s clothiers, outfitters, hatters and tailors, it seemed to him that his time working in the hotels of Cape Town and Pietermaritzburg had been a dream. A long and very dull dream.
It was eight thirty in the morning and already the day was blisteringly hot. A gusting wind blew off the hills and sent dust reeling about the streets of Pietermaritzburg, engulfing many of the tin-roofed buildings in a red cloud. The date was Sunday the 19th of January 1879, several weeks since Wade’s release and eight days since the expiration of the British ultimatum to Cetshwayo and, consequently, since the commencement of war between the British Empire and the Zulu Kingdom.
Captain Wade was in a foul mood. He strode briskly towards Government House, too deep in thought to notice that the shutters of many shops had been nailed shut and reinforced with planks of wood. The organisation and training of the Town Guard had not been going at all well; in fact it was proving to be beyond infuriating and this was the reason for his foul mood. He was used to British military discipline and so was utterly unprepared for the disputes and arguments that broke out among the volunteer militiamen over such petty issues as the taking of oaths, the election of leaders and sub-leaders, as well as countless other insignificant details. Yesterday, however, had proved to be the final straw. Along with a military training instructor, Wade had arranged the first of what he hoped would be a series of weekly shooting practices. He had only just managed to get hold of the rifles that he needed to equip the Town Guard and they had duly met at the police station at three in the afternoon, only to discover there was no ammunition for them to fire. Wade had been furious, as were the volunteers, and now he was on his way to Government House to try and sort the mess out.
Jenkins greeted Wade as usual, but this time he was not taken to Colonel Mitchell’s office. Instead he was ushered to the gardens at the rear. There, seated around a grand table under the shade of a jacaranda tree were Colonel Mitchell and Sir Henry Bulwer, the lieutenant governor. There was also another elderly gentleman he did not recognise. The three men were enjoying a breakfast of toast, pastries and coffee.
‘Ah, Captain Wade,’ Mitchell said jovially, when he noticed his junior’s arrival. ‘Damnably pleased to see you. Was about to send for you, in fact. Come and meet Sir Henry Bulwer, and also allow me to introduce General Sir Alfred Greyling.’
Wade saluted the two military men. ‘Good morning, sir, and good to meet you, General Greyling.’
‘No need to salute me, young man,’ Sir Alfred said. ‘I am well and truly retired. I’m here merely as Her Britannic Majesty’s Government’s special representative.’
Wade smiled politely and turned back to Colonel Mitchell. ‘Sir, I must speak with you about the Town Guard.’
‘All in good time, Captain Wade,’ Mitchell said.
‘Sir, the matter is most urgent. We were unable to shoot yesterday because our ammunition didn’t arrive. It’s bad enough that half the recruits are threatening to walk out over the oaths, but now their training has become a shambles too.’
‘Confound it, man, forget all that.’ Mitchell dropped his coffee cup into its saucer with a clatter. ‘There’s a matter of much greater urgency that we must discuss with you. Now please sit down, Captain.’
‘Yes, sir.’ Wade hitched up his sword and accepted a cup of coffee. The tension in the air was palpable. What were these men plotting?
‘Now, I presume you are aware that Africa is awash with adventurers, freebooters and the like?’ Mitchell said.
Wade nodded. ‘Yes, sir, of course.’
‘Well there are many such men in southern Africa in particular. Englishmen who would betray their Queen and country, as well as French, German and Dutch mercenaries, all of whom would aid the Zulus or Boars for profit given half a chance.’
Wade shrugged dismissively. ‘What can a handful of ex-soldiers and adventurers do against a British column?’
Sir Henry Bulwer rapped his fingers on the table. ‘If it were just a few men fighting for Cetshwayo, do you think we would be concerned, Captain Wade? No, this is far worse.’
‘How exactly do you mean?’ Wade asked.
‘If I may?’ Sir Alfred interjected.
‘Of course.’ Sir Henry sat back to allow the retired general to speak.
Wade swivelled in his chair to face Sir Alfred. He was a bookish sort of fellow, with sharp eyes and fuzzy side whiskers that lapped at the corner of his mouth like dishevelled terriers. But he was also robust, possessing large hands and thick wrists that emerged from his tailored morning suit like two oaks from the dark earth.
Sir Alfred cleared his throat. ‘Four weeks ago a supply train left Durban for Pietermaritzburg carrying, among other things, a thousand Martini-Henry rifles and four hundred thousand rounds of ammunition. These weapons were intended primarily for Durnford’s native contingent, as well as for the various other colonial volunteers, but on its way here the shipment went missing.’
‘Missing?’ Wade repeated. ‘You mean the Zulus ambushed the train?’
End of sample pages.