The Fugitives (15)
By: Morley Roberts | Categories: Adventure, Fiction

transvaal

HiLoBooks is pleased to serialize Morley Roberts’s 1900 novel The Fugitives, an adventure set against the backdrop of the Second Boer War (1899–1902). The author was once known for his novel The Private Life of Henry Maitland (1912), but he quickly passed into obscurity. How obscure? In a 1966 story about plagiarism (“The Longest Science-Fiction Story Ever Told”), Arthur C. Clarke attributed an 1898 sci-fi story of Roberts’s (“The Anticipator”) about the same topic to H.G. Wells; in a 1967 guest editorial in If (“Herbert George Morley Roberts Wells, Esq.”), a contrite Clarke noted that not a single Morley fan had emerged to point out this error. HiLoBooks — in conjunction with the Save the Adventure book club, which under the editorship of HiLobrow’s Joshua Glenn is issuing The Fugitives as an e-book — is rectifying this situation. Enjoy!

ALL INSTALLMENTS SO FAR

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Chapter XV: THE VELDT

The veldt, though brown enough for that season of the year, which was truly the season of the rains, that had so far been scant and unkindly, was not all brown. Here and there the grass grew green, and the bushes and thorns were bright and leafy. Flowers, red and yellow, grew in the little sheltered wrinkles of the earth, and some, on the very verge of the donga, looked down all that long day upon the two men who spent its endless hours in ceaseless apprehension that forbade rest. And how long each interminable minute was; how long each second! In each beat of the heart lay a lifetime, the seconds crawled wearily upon the long horizon of time; they lagged and dipped and disappeared no swifter than the tall ship sinks below the round waters of the sea’s far edge.

The men talked and then were languid: their sentences began and broke off, and again came quickly. They spoke of the war, and Hardy gave the news to him who, as a prisoner, had heard it mutilated and befogged and turned altogether to English disaster and disgrace. If perchance Hardy, perceiving the sad color of the prisoner’s mind, put fairer colors to the picture that he drew than facts, soberly interpreted, would have made just, he did it as a doctor may administer medicine, compounded not only of drugs, but of sweet hope as well.

“Think, after all,” said Hardy, “that this day is only a day. What of your months in Pretoria?”

But Blake denied that they were months. He and other strong men had lived long lives in jail: their previous existence was something before the day of their birth.

“What did you do?”

“Oh — we walked,” said Blake, with corrugated brows. “We — we walked!”

Hardy flinched to hear him speak. Now that the immediate excitement had died down in Blake, he saw that his intellect was like stale water; he lacked air in his mind: his quick thoughts were a little blunted, perhaps: he was half sick, half silly, and altogether overwrought.

“I can’t go back,” said Blake nervously. “I can’t go back.”

“You shan’t,” cried Hardy. “Bless you, don’t fear.”

“But I do fear,” said Blake.

He crouched low under the cut bank of the donga, and in his brown clothes on the brown earth was half invisible. But his face was white and strained.

“Are they looking for us?”

He asked it a thousand times, and as often Hardy said “No.” For his rescuer sat above him, with his head level with a bunch of brown grass, and could see the dip and rise and fall of the ground far away to the city palpitating in the heat glare. And yet it was then only ten o’clock. The city’s timepiece proclaimed the hour and brought the time to them on a hot north wind.

Then Hardy dropped down.

“Lie close,” he said, “and don’t move. I see horsemen.”

Of course they said in their minds that the riders were looking for them. And equally of course their narrow couch was no concealment, or, if it were a concealment, so much the worse. It would then be searched. And yet Hardy, who kept his head, knew that any real search would be made on the line leading the way he had come. That was the best and the most likely way; and yet here they were out on the west of the city, with a long circle of at least ten miles to make ere they could strike the railway to Portuguese territory.

But the men they saw rode past them a hundred yards away. Twice more that day they saw men riding, and they suffered the tortures of the damned in anticipation. Then they suffered thirst, not because they had no water, but because they had so little and did not know when their supply could be replenished.

It grew hotter as noon approached, and they said it could be no hotter. But as the slow sun reached the zenith and declined with such infinite slowness, the heat increased again. They moistened their lips and endured the noon, and they wore down the long hours as though they struggled for life with an impalpable opponent. They even fell asleep, and awoke after ten minutes in hideous discomfort, with their mouths foul, an oily sweat upon their necks, and with the skin peeling from their faces. For a drink and a bath it would be sweet to surrender such liberty. They wiped the perspiration and the red earth from themselves, and sat the time out till the red round sun stood above the horizon and shot its level rays over them.

“Who says it was a miracle to make the sun stand still?” groaned Blake. He shook his fist at the very orb of day.

“Keep cool,” said Hardy, with a crackle of laughter. “Isn’t that good advice? Damme, I’m like a doctor. Don’t worry, my dear sir!”

But even the end of the earth must come, and purgatory wears itself out, and so at last the torturer went down behind the glowing veldt over by Mafeking, and the striding darkness and the mother of stars came out of the cool, pale east, and they stood upon the open ground and heard their weary joints crack.

During the time of their torment Hardy had had his map out, and, in utter inability to make up his mind, had asked Blake which way they should go.

“Which way have we gone?” asked Blake.

“West.”

“Then let’s keep on.”

But now, after a drink which was like new life, they marched somewhat to the south and got well away from the neighborhood of the fort. Then at last they followed the evening star, and stumbled through thorns and over ant-hills that dotted each open space like ten thousand little earth pyramids built by pigmies in some far-off, crumbled civilization.

“As it stands, and as far as I can tell,” said Hardy, “all the railroad a little north of Mafeking is in our hands. And then again all below Kimberley is ours. What is in my mind is water, though!”

And that was in Blake’s mind, too. There are weak points in every strong man: some endure hunger well; tithers are tireless; some can do without sleep; and some easily endure thirst that breaks most down.

“Yes, water!” said Blake.

Hardy stopped.

“No, we won’t go west. It’s a dry road. Let’s go south and strike the little Hennop’s River, and then we may get on a train down to Potchefstroom and Klerksdorp, and after that we shall be on the Vaal.”

“All right,” said Blake. He would have said “yes” to any plan. They kept the evening star on their right hand.

“We ought to strike the Johannesburg road in an hour,” said Hardy, “and then we shall come to-morrow to Krugersdorp, and we can lie up for a train.”

They walked steadily, and at last got upon the main solitary road on the high veldt that led to the now silent city of Johannesburg.

“We’ll rest every hour for five minutes,” said Hardy, and they walked without speaking, or, if they said anything, neither marked the other or really replied to him. They went like machines, and became in a manner automatic, for instinct taught them that any spoken word took something out of them, and that they needed every atom of energy for the long way yet in front. Blake, indeed, became like a man walking in his sleep, and to keep him on the road Gordon Hardy put his fingers on his arm as they went.

“So our chaps got licked at Spion Kop,” said Blake, somewhere about midnight.

“Ay,” said Hardy.

And they said nothing more till the dawn grew like a cold flower in the east.

“And you are sure Clare isn’t very ill?” asked Blake.

“Ay, quite sure,” said Hardy stupidly, and he added — “not at all, to be sure.”

But as the dawn grew he woke, and at last they went off the main south road and struck for a little kopje about half a mile away. They found a tiny pool of water just under its shadow, and Blake lay down and drank from its muddy verge.

“That’s what we have orders not to let the men do,” he said, and he reeled when he stood up. And then they looked for a quiet corner out of sight of the road and away from the water, after Hardy had filled his water-bag. The moment Blake lay down he fell asleep. But Hardy found himself in a raging fever that lasted almost till broad day. Then it went as suddenly as it came. He climbed half way up the hill and saw the distant roofs of Krugersdorp, and away to the east in the hollow some of the chimneys of the western Rand mines. But now no longer did the stamps of the mines roar like the sound of great breakers upon a beach. The whole world was very still.

And once more they sweated through the intolerable fevered eternity of a day. Sometimes they talked a great deal, but it was mostly of nothing but trifles, and then Hardy got into a question-asking mood, which sometimes took him, and he plied Blake with queries as to military matters as if he were interviewing him. Then Blake suddenly got sulky and said “Damn,” and Hardy retorted “Oh, very well then,” and turned over on his stomach and smoked in silence, wishing he had never seen or heard of the man. And they wiped their faces and necks with grimy handkerchiefs, and cursed the persistent flies which came to them from a dead horse that lay a hundred yards off and made the still air malodorous. For at least two hours the two men hated each other without any reason, and then suddenly Blake said, “My dear chap,” and Hardy held out his hand, as the horizon danced through a foolish tear.

“Oh, my God,” said Blake, “what a prison, what a prison!”

And Hardy said that the Transvaal was pretty big, — in fact it was about one hundred and twenty thousand square miles.

“Plenty of room for exercise,” he added.

“Oh, damn,” said Blake. “Go down, sun, go down. Ain’t I an ass?”

“We are, we are,” said Hardy, and then he 
pitched in and told Blake all about Silvio Da
Costa. “He has a dashed fine voice and is a real 
fine chap for a Portuguese. But we have a silly
 idea that the Portuguese ——”

And he wandered on in the dreamy drivelling manner that takes men in toil and difficulty when inaction is forced upon them.

And after he had finished about Da Costa, Blake chipped in eagerly (for men change like this in such circumstances) and told him quite half of his story with Clare Middleton, and then broke off to wipe his throat and said no more. But Hardy had not the least interest in it, and said, “Oh, ah, damn the flies!”

And once more the sun condescended to go down after sitting on the horizon like a savage old cock ostrich sitting on a man who is wise enough to lie still. Then they got out upon the road again, and marched and marched and marched while Blake descanted on the proper way of protecting a convoy, till Hardy, who saw the lights of Krugersdorp in front, turned off to the southwest.

“We’ll strike the Potchefstroom railroad some
where soon,” he said, “and if we’ve any luck ——”

“Which we haven’t,” said Blake.

Then Hardy burst into a queer fury and said Blake was a damned ungrateful chap, for whom it was no pleasure to do anything.

“Perhaps you’d like to go back to Pretoria,” he said at last. And of course Blake, who in his mind really wanted to strike him, apologized and said he was sorry.

“So you well may be,” cried Hardy, who was in a terrible huff. And his temper cooled Blake down and made the man quite sane.

“I’m a silly ass,” he said, “but this is very trying!”

Then Hardy laughed and they shook hands.

“Don’t mind me,” he said. “We’ll be all right by and by. I’m on a stretch, you see, and I feel I have to bring you through.”

So Blake, who was as good a fellow as ever breathed, slipped his arm through Gordon’s and gave it a squeeze, and they knew they were friends, even if they fought. They walked on in silence that was, for that time, full of queer, mixed emotions, and with the moistening of the eyes that such emotion brings they saw each other as they were. They were both human beings, and they knew it: not the abstractions (or docketed abstracts) that one meets; not merely Blake or merely Hardy; but living creatures who said something that was in them, and could suffer and bleed, and, if need be, cry and be most infernally miserable. And yet at the same time they could be men, and could do what men might do in a world which asks a good deal more than it usually gets, after the manner of a hard taskmaster.

And when they did talk again they spoke about the two girls in England.

“How they must be suffering,” said Hardy. For the moment he forgot that he and Blake were having rather a rough time of it.

“But we’ll make it up to them,” said Blake, who just then was wider awake than Hardy. The tone of his voice suggested that twinkle in his eye which came in his moments of humor, and it made Hardy laugh a little.

“You know,” said Blake, “we are having a real good time, are we not?”

But their “real good time” was not yet over, and not yet likely to be.

NEXT INSTALLMENT | ALL INSTALLMENTS SO FAR

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RADIUM AGE SCIENCE FICTION: “Radium Age” is HiLobrow’s name for the 1904–33 era, which saw the discovery of radioactivity, the revelation that matter itself is constantly in movement — a fitting metaphor for the first decades of the 20th century, during which old scientific, religious, political, and social certainties were shattered. This era also saw the publication of genre-shattering writing by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Sax Rohmer, E.E. “Doc” Smith, Jack London, Arthur Conan Doyle, Aldous Huxley, Olaf Stapledon, Karel Čapek, H.P. Lovecraft, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Philip Gordon Wylie, and other pioneers of post-Verne/Wells, pre-Golden Age “science fiction.” More info here.

READ GORGEOUS PAPERBACKS: HiLoBooks has reissued the following 10 obscure but amazing Radium Age science fiction novels in beautiful print editions: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague, Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”), Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt, H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook, Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins, William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land, J.D. Beresford’s Goslings, E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man, Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage, and Muriel Jaeger’s The Man with Six Senses. For more information, visit the HiLoBooks homepage.

REDISCOVERED BY HILOBOOKS: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague | Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”) | Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt | H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook | Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins | William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land | J.D. Beresford’s Goslings | E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man | Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage | Muriel Jaeger’s The Man With Six Senses | Jack London’s “The Red One” | Philip Francis Nowlan’s Armageddon 2419 A.D. | Homer Eon Flint’s The Devolutionist | W.E.B. DuBois’s “The Comet” | Edgar Rice Burroughs’s The Moon Men | Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland | Sax Rohmer’s “The Zayat Kiss” | Eimar O’Duffy’s King Goshawk and the Birds | Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Lost Prince | Morley Roberts’s The Fugitives | Helen MacInnes’s The Unconquerable | Geoffrey Household’s Watcher in the Shadows | John Buchan’s Huntingtower

ORIGINAL FICTION: HiLobrow has serialized three novels: James Parker’s The Ballad of Cocky The Fox (“a proof-of-concept that serialization can work on the Internet” — The Atlantic); Karinne Keithley Syers’s Linda Linda Linda (which includes original music); and Robert Waldron’s roman à clef The School on the Fens. We also publish original stories and comics. These include: Matthew Battles’s stories “Gita Nova“, “Makes the Man,” “Imago,” “Camera Lucida,” “A Simple Message”, “Children of the Volcano”, “The Gnomon”, “Billable Memories”, “For Provisional Description of Superficial Features”, “The Dogs in the Trees”, “The Sovereignties of Invention”, and “Survivor: The Island of Dr. Moreau”; several of these later appeared in the collection The Sovereignties of Invention | Peggy Nelson’s “Mood Indigo“, “Top Kill Fail“, and “Mercerism” | Annalee Newitz’s “The Great Oxygen Race” | Charlie Mitchell’s “A Fantasy Land” | Joshua Glenn’s “The Lawless One”, and the mashup story “Zarathustra vs. Swamp Thing” | Adam McGovern and Paolo Leandri’s Idoru Jones comics | John Holbo’s “Sugarplum Squeampunk” | “Another Corporate Death” (1) and “Another Corporate Death” (2) by Mike Fleisch | Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer and Frank Fiorentino’s graphic novel “The Song of Otto” (excerpt) | “Manoj” and “Josh” by Vijay Balakrishnan | “Verge” by Chris Rossi, and his audio novel Low Priority Hero | EPIC WINS: THE ILIAD (1.408-415) by Flourish Klink | EPIC WINS: THE KALEVALA (3.1-278) by James Parker | EPIC WINS: THE ARGONAUTICA (2.815-834) by Joshua Glenn | EPIC WINS: THE MYTH OF THE ELK by Matthew Battles | TROUBLED SUPERHUMAN CONTEST: Charles Pappas, “The Law” | CATASTROPHE CONTEST: Timothy Raymond, “Hem and the Flood” | TELEPATHY CONTEST: Rachel Ellis Adams, “Fatima, Can You Hear Me?” | OIL SPILL CONTEST: A.E. Smith, “Sound Thinking | LITTLE NEMO CAPTION CONTEST: Joe Lyons, “Necronomicon” | SPOOKY-KOOKY CONTEST: Tucker Cummings, “Well Marbled” | INVENT-A-HERO CONTEST: TG Gibbon, “The Firefly” | FANFICTION CONTEST: Lyette Mercier’s “Sex and the Single Superhero”

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Morley Roberts (1857–1942) was an English novelist perhaps best remembered for The Private Life of Henry Maitland (1912). He also write science fiction (e.g., "The Anticipator"), and adventure. HiLoBooks is serializing his 1900 adventure novel The Fugitives, which will also be published as an e-book by the Save the Adventure adventure book club.