THE BATTLE OF THE PASS
It was on the third morning after this incident of the
map that Sir Henry and I started. With the exception of a small guard, all
the great host had moved on the night before, leaving the Frowning City
very silent and empty. Indeed, it was found impossible to leave any
garrison with the exception of a personal guard for Nyleptha, and about a
thousand men who from sickness or one cause or another were unable to
proceed with the army; but as Milosis was practically impregnable, and as
our enemy was in front of and not behind us, this did not so much
Good and Umslopogaas had gone on with the army, but
Nyleptha accompanied Sir Henry and myself to the city gates, riding a
magnificent white horse called Daylight, which was supposed to be the
fleetest and most enduring animal in Zu-Vendis. Her face bore traces of
recent weeping, but there were no tears in her eyes now, indeed she was
bearing up bravely against what must have been a bitter trial to her. At
the gate she reined in her horse and bade us farewell. On the previous day
she had reviewed and addressed the officers of the great army, speaking to
them such high, eloquent words, and expressing so complete a confidence in
their valour and in their ultimate victory, that she quite carried their
hearts away, and as she rode from rank to rank they cheered her till the
ground shook. And now today the same mood seemed to be on her.
'Fare thee well, Macumazahn!' she said. 'Remember, I
trust to thy wits, which are as a needle to a spear-handle compared to
those of my people, to save us from Sorais. I know that thou wilt do thy
I bowed and explained to her my horror of fighting, and
my fear lest I should lose my head, at which she laughed gently and turned
'Fare thee well, my lord!' she said. 'Come back with
victory, and as a king, or on thy soldiers' spears.'
Sir Henry said nothing, but turned his horse to go;
perhaps he had a bit of a lump in his throat. One gets over it afterwards,
but these sort of partings are trying when one has only been married a
'Here,' added Nyleptha, 'will I greet thee when ye
return in triumph. And now, my lords, once more, farewell!'
Then we rode on, but when we had gone a hundred and
fifty yards or so, we turned and perceived her still sitting on her horse
at the same spot, and looking out after us beneath her hand, and that was
the last we saw of her. About a mile farther on, however, we heard
galloping behind us, and looking round, saw a mounted soldier coming
towards us, leading Nyleptha's matchless steed -- Daylight.
'The Queen sends the white stallion as a farewell gift
to her Lord Incubu, and bids me tell my lord that he is the fleetest and
most enduring horse in all the land,' said the soldier, bending to his
saddle-bow before us.
At first Sir Henry did not want to take the horse,
saying that he was too good for such rough work, but I persuaded him to do
so, thinking that Nyleptha would be hurt if he did not. Little did I guess
at the time what service that noble horse would render in our sorest need.
It is curious to look back and realize upon what trivial and apparently
coincidental circumstances great events frequently turn as easily and
naturally as a door on its hinges.
Well, we took the horse, and a beauty he was, it was a
perfect pleasure to see him move, and Curtis having sent back his greetings
and thanks, we proceeded on our journey.
By midday we overtook the rear-guard of the great army
of which Sir Henry then formally took over the command. It was a heavy
responsibility, and it oppressed him very much, but the Queen's injunctions
on the point were such as did not admit of being trifled with. He was
beginning to find out that greatness has its responsibilities as well as
Then we marched on without meeting with any opposition,
almost indeed without seeing anybody, for the populations of the towns and
villages along our route had for the most part fled, fearing lest they
should be caught between the two rival armies and ground to powder like
grain between the upper and the nether stones.
On the evening of the fourth day, for the progress of so
great a multitude was necessarily slow, we camped two miles this side of
the neck or ridge I have spoken of, and our outposts brought us word that
Sorais with all her power was rolling down upon us, and had pitched her
camp that night ten miles the farther side of the neck.
Accordingly before dawn we sent forward fifteen hundred
cavalry to seize the position. Scarcely had they occupied it, however,
before they were attacked by about as many of Sorais' horsemen, and a very
smart little cavalry fight ensued, with a loss to us of about thirty men
killed. On the advance of our supports, however, Sorais' force drew off,
carrying their dead and wounded with them.
The main body of the army reached the neck about
dinner-time, and I must say that Nyleptha's judgment had not failed her, it
was an admirable place to give battle in, especially to a superior
The road ran down a mile or more, through ground too
broken to admit of the handling of any considerable force, till it reached
the crest of a great green wave of land, that rolled down a gentle slope to
the banks of a little stream, and then rolled away again up a still gentler
slope to the plain beyond, the distance from the crest of the land-wave
down to the stream being a little over half a mile, and from the stream up
to the plain beyond a trifle less. The length of this wave of land at its
highest point, which corresponded exactly with the width of the neck of the
land between the wooded hills, was about two miles and a quarter, and it
was protected on either side by dense, rocky, bush-clad ground, that
afforded a most valuable cover to the flanks of the army and rendered it
almost impossible for them to be turned.
It was on the hither slope of this neck of land that
Curtis encamped his army in the same formation that he had, after
consultation with the various generals, Good, and myself, determined that
they should occupy in the great pitched battle which now appeared to be
Our force of sixty thousand men was, roughly speaking,
divided as follows. In the centre was a dense body of twenty thousand
foot-soldiers, armed with spears, swords, and hippopotamus-hide shields,
breast and back plates. These formed the
chest of the army, and were supported by five thousand foot, and three
thousand horse in reserve. On either side of this chest were stationed
seven thousand horse arranged in deep, majestic squadrons; and beyond and
on either side but slightly in front of them again were two bodies, each
numbering about seven thousand five hundred spearmen, forming the right and
left wings of the army, and each supported by a contingent of some fifteen
hundred cavalry. This makes in all sixty thousand men.
Curtis commanded in chief, I was in command of the seven
thousand horse between the chest and right wing, which was commanded by
Good, and the other battalions and squadrons were entrusted to Zu-Vendis
Scarcely had we taken up our positions before Sorais'
vast army began to swarm on the opposite slope about a mile in front of us,
till the whole place seemed alive with the multitude of her spearpoints,
and the ground shook with the tramp of her battalions. It was evident that
the spies had not exaggerated; we were outnumbered by at least a third. At
first we expected that Sorais was going to attack us at once, as the clouds
of cavalry which hung upon her flanks executed some threatening
demonstrations, but she thought better of it, and there was no fight that
day. As for the formation of her great forces I cannot now describe it
with accuracy, and it would only serve to bewilder if I did, but I may say,
generally, that in its leading features it resembled our own, only her
reserve was much greater.
Opposite our right wing, and forming Sorais' left wing,
was a great army of dark, wild-looking men, armed with sword and shield
only, which, I was informed, was composed of Nasta's twenty-five thousand
'My word, Good,' said I, when I saw them, 'you will
catch it tomorrow when those gentlemen charge!' whereat Good not
unnaturally looked rather anxious.
All day we watched and waited, but nothing happened, and
at last night fell, and a thousand watch-fires twinkled brightly on the
slopes, to wane and die one by one like the stars they resembled. As the
hours wore on, the silence gradually gathered more deeply over the opposing
It was a very wearying night, for in addition to the
endless things that had to be attended to, there was our gnawing suspense
to reckon with. The fray which tomorrow would witness would be so vast,
and the slaughter so awful, that stout indeed must the heart have been that
was not overwhelmed at the prospect. And when I thought of all that hung
upon it, I own I felt ill, and it made me very sad to reflect that these
mighty forces were gathered for destruction, simply to gratify the jealous
anger of a woman. This was the hidden power which was to send those dense
masses of cavalry, flashing like human thunderbolts across the plain, and
to roll together the fierce battalions as clouds when hurricane meets
hurricane. It was a dreadful thought, and set one wondering about the
responsibilities of the great ones of the earth. Deep into the night we
sat, with pale faces and heavy hearts, and took counsel, whilst the
sentries tramped up and down, down and up, and the armed and plumed
generals came and went, grim and shadow-like.
And so the time wore away, till everything was ready for
the coming slaughter; and I lay down and thought, and tried to get a little
rest, but could not sleep for fear of the morrow -- for who could say what
the morrow would bring forth? Misery and death, this was certain; beyond
that we knew not, and I confess I was very much afraid. But as I realized
then, it is useless to question that eternal Sphinx, the future. From day
to day she reads aloud the riddles of the yesterday, of which the puzzled
wordlings of all ages have not answered one, nor ever will, guess they
never so wildly or cry they never so loud.
And so at length I gave up wondering, being forced
humbly to leave the issue in the balancing hands of Providence and the
And at last up came the red sun, and the huge camps
awoke with a clash, and a roar, and gathered themselves together for
battle. It was a beautiful and awe-inspiring scene, and old Umslopogaas,
leaning on his axe, contemplated it with grim delight.
'Never have I seen the like, Macumazahn, never,' he
said. 'The battles of my people are as the play of children to what this
will be. Thinkest thou that they will fight it out?'
'Ay,' I answered sadly, 'to the death. Content thyself,
"Woodpecker", for once shalt thou peck thy fill.'
Time went on, and still there was no sign of an attack.
A force of cavalry crossed the brook, indeed, and rode slowly along our
front, evidently taking stock of our position and numbers. With this we
did not attempt to interfere, as our decision was to stand strictly on the
defensive, and not to waste a single man. The men breakfasted and stood to
their arms, and the hours wore on. About midday, when the men were eating
their dinner, for we thought they would fight better on full stomachs, a
shout of 'Sorais, Sorais' arose like thunder from the enemy's
extreme right, and taking the glass, I was able to clearly distinguish the
'Lady of the Night' herself, surrounded by a glittering staff, and riding
slowly down the lines of her battalions. And as she went, that mighty,
thundering shout rolled along before her like the rolling of ten thousand
chariots, or the roaring of the ocean when the gale turns suddenly and
carries the noise of it to the listener's ears, till the earth shook, and
the air was full of the majesty of sound.
Guessing that this was a prelude to the beginning of the
battle, we remained still and made ready.
We had not long to wait. Suddenly, like flame from a
cannon's mouth, out shot two great tongue-like forces of cavalry, and came
charging down the slope towards the little stream, slowly at first, but
gathering speed as they came. Before they got to the stream, orders
reached me from Sir Henry, who evidently feared that the shock of such a
charge, if allowed to fall unbroken upon our infantry, would be too much
for them, to send five thousand sabres to meet the force opposite to me, at
the moment when it began to mount the stiffest of the rise about four
hundred yards from our lines. This I did, remaining behind myself with the
rest of my men.
Off went the five thousand horsemen, drawn up in a
wedge-like form, and I must say that the general in command handled them
very ably. Starting at a hand gallop, for the first three hundred yards he
rode straight at the tip of the tongue-shaped mass of cavalry which,
numbering, so far as I could judge, about eight thousand sabres, was
advancing to charge us. Then he suddenly swerved to the right and put on
the pace, and I saw the great wedge curl round, and before the foe could
check himself and turn to meet it, strike him about halfway down his
length, with a crashing rending sound, like that of the breaking-up of vast
sheets of ice. In sank the great wedge, into his heart, and as it cut its
way hundreds of horsemen were thrown up on either side of it, just as the
earth is thrown up by a ploughshare, or more like still, as the foaming
water curls over beneath the bows of a rushing ship. In, yet in, vainly
does the tongue twist its ends round in agony, like an injured snake, and
strive to protect its centre; still farther in, by Heaven! right through,
and so, amid cheer after cheer from our watching thousands, back again upon
the severed ends, beating them down, driving them as a gale drives spray,
till at last, amidst the rushing of hundreds of riderless horses, the
flashing of swords, and the victorious clamour of their pursuers, the great
force crumples up like an empty glove, then turns and gallops pell-mell for
safety back to its own lines.
I do not think it reached them more than two-thirds as
strong as it went out ten minutes before. The lines which were now
advancing to the attack, opened and swallowed them up, and my force
returned, having only suffered a loss of about five hundred men -- not
much, I thought, considering the fierceness of the struggle. I could also
see that the opposing bodies of cavalry on our left wing were drawing back,
but how the fight went with them I do not quite know. It is as much as I
can do to describe what took place immediately around me.
By this time the dense masses of the enemy's left,
composed almost entirely of Nasta's swordsmen, were across the little
stream, and with alternate yells of 'Nasta' and 'Sorais', with dancing
banners and gleaming swords, were swarming up towards us like ants.
Again I received orders to try and check this movement,
and also the main advance against the chest of our army, by means of
cavalry charges, and this I did to the best of my ability, by continually
sending squadrons of about a thousand sabres out against them. These
squadrons did the enemy much damage, and it was a glorious sight to see
them flash down the hillside, and bury themselves like a living knife in
the heart of the foe. But, also, we lost many men, for after the
experience of a couple of these charges, which had drawn a sort of bloody
St Andrew's cross of dead and dying through the centre of Nasta's host, our
foes no longer attempted to offer an unyielding front to their irresistible
weight, but opened out to let the rush go through, throwing themselves on
the ground and hamstringing hundreds of horses as they passed.
And so, notwithstanding all that we could do, the enemy
drew nearer, till at last he hurled himself upon Good's force of seven
thousand five hundred regulars, who were drawn up to receive them in three
strong squares. About the same time, too, an awful and heartshaking roar
told me that the main battle had closed in on the centre and extreme left.
I raised myself in my stirrups and looked down to my left; so far as the
eye could see there was a long dazzling shimmer of steel as the sun glanced
upon falling sword and thrusting spear.
To and fro swung the contending lines in that dread
struggle, now giving way, now gaining a little in the mad yet ordered
confusion of attack and defence. But it was as much as I could do to keep
count of what was happening to our own wing; and, as for the moment the
cavalry had fallen back under cover of Good's three squares, I had a fair
view of this.
Nasta's wild swordsmen were now breaking in red waves
against the sullen rock-like squares. Time after time did they yell out
their war-cries, and hurl themselves furiously against the long triple
ridges of spear points, only to be rolled back as billows are when they
meet the cliff.
And so for four long hours the battle raged almost
without a pause, and at the end of that time, if we had gained nothing we
had lost nothing. Two attempts to turn our left flank by forcing a way
through the wood by which it was protected had been defeated; and as yet
Nasta's swordsmen had, notwithstanding their desperate efforts, entirely
failed to break Good's three squares, though they had thinned their numbers
by quite a third.
As for the chest of the army where Sir Henry was with
his staff and Umslopogaas, it had suffered dreadfully, but it had held its
own with honour, and the same may be said of our left battle.
At last the attacks slackened, and Sorais' army drew
back, having, I began to think, had enough of it. On this point, however,
I was soon undeceived, for splitting up her cavalry into comparatively
small squadrons, she charged us furiously with them, all along the line,
and then once more sullenly rolled her tens of thousands of sword and
spearmen down upon our weakened squares and squadrons; Sorais herself
directing the movement, as fearless as a lioness heading the main attack.
On they came like an avalanche -- I saw her golden helm gleaming in the van
-- our counter charges of cavalry entirely failing to check their forward
sweep. Now they had struck us, and our centre bent in like a bow beneath
the weight of their rush -- it parted, and had not the ten thousand men in
reserve charged down to its support it must have been utterly destroyed.
As for Good's three squares, they were swept backwards like boats upon an
incoming tide, and the foremost one was burst into and lost half its
remaining men. But the effort was too fierce and terrible to last.
Suddenly the battle came, as it were, to a turning-point, and for a minute
or two stood still.
Then it began to move towards Sorais' camp. Just then,
too, Nasta's fierce and almost invincible highlanders, either because they
were disheartened by their losses or by way of a ruse, fell back, and the
remains of Good's gallant squares, leaving the positions they had held for
so many hours, cheered wildly, and rashly followed them down the slope,
whereon the swarms of swordsmen turned to envelop them, and once more flung
themselves upon them with a yell. Taken thus on every side, what remained
of the first square was quickly destroyed, and I perceived that the second,
in which I could see Good himself mounted on a large horse, was on the
point of annihilation. A few more minutes and it was broken, its streaming
colours sank, and I lost sight of Good in the confused and hideous
slaughter that ensued.
Presently, however, a cream-coloured horse with a
snow-white mane and tail burst from the ruins of the square and came
rushing past me riderless and with wide streaming reins, and in it I
recognized the charger that Good had been riding. Then I hesitated no
longer, but taking with me half my effective cavalry force, which now
amounted to between four and five thousand men, I commended myself to God,
and, without waiting for orders, I charged straight down upon Nasta's
swordsmen. Seeing me coming, and being warned by the thunder of my horses'
hoofs, the majority of them faced round, and gave us a right warm welcome.
Not an inch would they yield; in vain did we hack and trample them down as
we ploughed a broad red furrow through their thousands; they seemed to
re-arise by hundreds, driving their terrible sharp swords into our horses,
or severing their hamstrings, and then hacking the troopers who came to the
ground with them almost into pieces. My horse was speedily killed under
me, but luckily I had a fresh one, my own favourite, a coal-black mare
Nyleptha had given me, being held in reserve behind, and on this I
afterwards mounted. Meanwhile I had to get along as best I could, for I
was pretty well lost sight of by my men in the mad confusion of the moment.
My voice, of course, could not be heard in the midst of the clanging of
steel and the shrieks of rage and agony. Presently I found myself mixed up
with the remnants of the square, which had formed round its leader Good,
and was fighting desperately for existence. I stumbled against somebody,
and glancing down, caught sight of Good's eyeglass. He had been beaten to
his knee. Over him was a great fellow swinging a heavy sword. Somehow I
managed to run the man through with the sime I had taken from the Masai
whose hand I had cut off; but as I did so, he dealt me a frightful blow on
the left side and breast with the sword, and though my chain shirt saved my
life, I felt that I was badly hurt. For a minute I fell on to my hands and
knees among the dead and dying, and turned sick and faint. When I came to
again I saw that Nasta's spearmen, or rather those of them who remained,
were retreating back across the stream, and that Good was there by me
'Near go that,' he shouted; 'but all's well that ends
I assented, but I could not help feeling that it had not
ended well for me. I was sorely hurt.
Just then we saw the smaller bodies of cavalry stationed
on our extreme right and left, and which were now reinforced by the three
thousand sabres which we had held in reserve, flash out like arrows from
their posts and fall upon the disordered flanks of Sorais' forces, and that
charge decided the issue of the battle. In another minute or two the enemy
was in slow and sullen retreat across the little stream, where they once
more re-formed. Then came another lull, during which I managed to get a
second horse, and received my orders to advance from Sir Henry, and then
with one fierce deep-throated roar, with a waving of banners and a wide
flashing of steel, the remains of our army took the offensive and began to
sweep down, slowly indeed, but irresistibly from the positions they had so
gallantly held all day.
At last it was our turn to attack.
On we moved, over the piled-up masses of dead and dying,
and were approaching the stream, when suddenly I perceived an extraordinary
sight. Galloping wildly towards us, his arms tightly clasped around his
horse's neck, against which his blanched cheek was tightly pressed, was a
man arrayed in the full costume of a Zu-Vendi general, but in whom, as he
came nearer, I recognized none other than our lost Alphonse. It was
impossible even then to mistake those curling mustachios. In a minute he
was tearing through our ranks and narrowly escaped being cut down, till at
last somebody caught his horse's bridle, and he was brought to me just as a
momentary halt occurred in our advance to allow what remained of our
shattered squares to form into line.
'Ah, monsieur,' he gasped out in a voice that was nearly
inarticulate with fright, 'grace to the sky, it is you! Ah, what I have
endured! But you win, monsieur, you win; they fly, the laches. But listen,
monsieur -- I forget, it is no good; the Queen is to be murdered tomorrow
at the first light in the palace of Milosis; her guards will leave their
posts, and the priests are going to kill her. Ah yes! they little thought
it, but I was ensconced beneath a banner, and I heard it all.'
'What?' I said, horror-struck; 'what do you mean?'
'What I say, monsieur; that devil of a Nasta he went
last night to settle the affair with the Archbishop [Agon]. The guard will
leave open the little gate leading from the great stair and go away, and
Nasta and Agon's priests will come in and kill her. Themselves they would
not kill her.'
'Come with me,' I said, and, shouting to the
staff-officer next to me to take over the command, I snatched his bridle
and galloped as hard as I could for the spot, between a quarter and half a
mile off, where I saw the royal pennon flying, and where I knew that I
should find Curtis if he were still alive. On we tore, our horses clearing
heaps of dead and dying men, and splashing through pools of blood, on past
the long broken lines of spearmen to where, mounted on the white stallion
Nyleptha had sent to him as a parting gift, I saw Sir Henry's form towering
above the generals who surrounded him.
Just as we reached him the advance began again. A
bloody cloth was bound around his head, but I saw that his eye was as
bright and keen as ever. Beside him was old Umslopogaas, his axe red with
blood, but looking quite fresh and uninjured.
'What's wrong, Quatermain?' he shouted.
'Everything. There is a plot to murder the Queen
tomorrow at dawn. Alphonse here, who has just escaped from Sorais, has
overheard it all,' and I rapidly repeated to him what the Frenchman had
Curtis' face turned deadly pale and his jaw dropped.
'At dawn,' he gasped, 'and it is now sunset; it dawns
before four and we are nearly a hundred miles off -- nine hours at the
outside. What is to be done?'
An idea entered into my head. 'Is that horse of yours
fresh?' I said.
'Yes, I have only just got on to him -- when my last was
killed, and he has been fed.'
'So is mine. Get off him, and let Umslopogaas mount; he
can ride well. We will be at Milosis before dawn, or if we are not --
well, we cannot help it. No, no; it is impossible for you to leave now.
You would be seen, and it would turn the fate of the battle. It is not
half won yet. The soldiers would think you were making a bolt of it.
In a moment he was down, and at my bidding Umslopogaas
sprang into the empty saddle.
'Now farewell,' I said. 'Send a thousand horsemen with
remounts after us in an hour if possible. Stay, despatch a general to the
left wing to take over the command and explain my absence.'
'You will do your best to save her, Quatermain?' he said
in a broken voice.
'Ay, that I will. Go on; you are being left
He cast one glance at us, and accompanied by his staff
galloped off to join the advance, which by this time was fording the little
brook that now ran red with the blood of the fallen.
As for Umslopogaas and myself, we left that dreadful
field as arrows leave a bow, and in a few minutes had passed right out of
the sight of slaughter, the smell of blood, and the turmoil and shouting,
which only came to our ears as a faint, far-off roaring like the sound of