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My last letter was written after Poplar Grove, and we marched in here six days later on the 13th. Of the fighting on the way I can give you no account, as I was knocked up with a bad chill and had to go with the ambulance. Unluckily we had two nights of pouring rain, and as I had left behind my blanket and had only my Boer mackintosh (with the red lining), I fared very badly and got drenched both nights and very cold. This brought on something which the doctor described as "not real dysentery." However, whatever it was (or wasn't), it made me as weak as a baby, and I was transferred to our ambulance, in which I lay, comfortable enough, but only vaguely conscious of my surroundings.
The next day, the 10th, they fought the battle of Spytfontein. All I remember of it was some shells of the Boers falling into the long river of convoy which stretched in front of me in an endless line, and the huge bullock and mule waggons wheeling left and right and coming back across the veldt, with long bamboo whips swaying and niggers uttering diabolical screams and yells. We lost a good many men, but did fairly well in the end, as our infantry got into the enemy among some hills, where there were not supposed to be any enemy at all, and cut them up a good deal.
The following day I made the march on a bullock-waggon, which is really a very fine and imposing way of getting along. Your team of twenty strong oxen, in a long two-by-two file, have a most grand appearance, their great backs straining and the chain between taut as a bar, and the view you get over the field from your lofty perch among the piled-up kits and sacks is most commanding. There used to be an old print at home of Darius at the head of the Persian host "o'erlooking all the war" from the summit of some stately chariot or other, which much reminded me of my present position. I managed to mount my pony to ride into Bloemfontein, which we did on the 13th, and am now quite well.
This morning I sent you a wire to tell you that I had got my commission, thinking thereby to impress you with the importance of the event. The past five months of trooper life have not passed unpleasantly. There have been the inconveniences and hardships of the moment, "les petites miserès de la vie militaire," which sound trifling enough, but are rather a tax on one's endurance sometimes. The life of a trooper, and especially of a scout, is often a sort of struggle for existence in small ways. You have to care for and tend your pony, supplement his meagre ration by a few mealies or a bundle of forage, bought or begged from some farm and carried miles into camp; watch his going out and coming in from grazing; clean him when you can, and have an eye always to his interests. Your life and work depend so entirely on your pony that this soon becomes an instinct with you. Then there are your own wants to be supplied. You will be half starved often if you can't raise something to put in your pocket—eggs from a Kaffir, or a fowl, or a loaf of bread. Then there is the cooking question. Wood is scarce; unless you or your pal have an eye to this, you may go supperless for want of a fire. Another scarcity is water. Very likely there will be none nearer than a mile from camp, and this means a weary tramp after a long day. Then what about your bedding? You can carry only a blanket or greatcoat on your horse, so that, when you are away from your convoy, which is often enough, you have not much covering, and if it comes on to rain you have a poor time of it. Of clothes, too, you have only what you ride in. If wet, they dry on you; and few and far between are your chances of washing them. All these things sound and are trifles. A man would think little of them in a sporting expedition in the Himalayas; but after a long time the monotony tells. The heat tells. You are sometimes "a bit slack," and at those times the cooking of your wretched morsel of flesh, or the struggle for a drop of pea-soup coloured water becomes irksome.
The little star on your shoulder saves you from all that. You can tell the new commissioned man by the way he has of constantly looking over his shoulder. Poor fellow! he likes to catch the pretty glitter—the "twinkle, twinkle, little star"—that lifts privates' hands to him as they pass. Some one else cooks for him now, and there is the officers' mess cart with a few welcome extras and a merry gathering at meals and a batman to tend the pony (though you keep an eye on that yourself too), and extra clothes and blankets, and a shelter of some sort to sleep under, and a Kaffir boy to put out his washing things when he comes in hot and tired, and altogether life seems, by comparison, a very luxurious and pleasant affair. I am a bit of a democrat, as you know, and all for equality and the rights of man; but now I say, like Mesty, when they made him a butler, "Dam equality now I major-domo."
Bloemfontein is a pretty little place, but it takes you by surprise. The country round is, for endless leagues, so barren, a mere grassy, undulating expanse of prairie land, with a few farms at ten-mile intervals, that the appearance of a town seems incongruous. All of a sudden you come to a crowd of low bungalow-like roofs under the shadow of some flat-topped kopjes and realise the presence in this void of the Free State capital.
The place is suggestive, in its low single storey houses and pretty gardens, of quiet ease, and has a certain kindliness about it. It is pleasant to see the creeper grown fronts and flower patches, and few shady trees after our long sojourn in the veldt. But the one memorable sight of the place, the scene of a special and unique interest, is the Bloemfontein Club. This is the first time that the great army under Lord Roberts has found itself in occupation of any town, and the first time, therefore, that all its various contingents have had a chance of meeting together in one place. At the Bloemfontein Club the chance has occurred, and certainly never before, in any time or place, could you have seen such representative gatherings of the British race from all parts of the world as you will see if you stroll any day into the verandah and smoking-room and bar of the Bloemfontein Club. From the old country and from every British colony all over the world these men of one race, in a common crisis, here for one moment meet, look into each others' faces, drink, and greet and pass on; to be drawn back each to his own quarter of the globe and separated when the crisis is passed and not to meet again. But what a moment and what a meeting it is, and what a distinction for this little place. Organise your mass meetings and pack your town-halls, you never will get together such a sample of the British Empire as you will see any afternoon in this remote pothouse. What would you give for a peep at the show; to see the types and hear the talk? You would give a hundred pounds, I daresay. I wish I could take you one of these afternoons: I would do it for half the money.
You can see the great mountain of Thaba Nchu quite clearly from here, though it is forty miles away, and trace every ravine and valley in its steep sides, defined in pure blue shadows. We have been out there these last ten days on what is known as a "bill-sticking" expedition; distributing, that is, a long proclamation which Lord Roberts has just issued, in which he explains to the Free State Burghers that all their property will be respected, and they will be allowed themselves to return to their farms forthwith if they will just take a little quiet oath of allegiance to the British Crown. A few have done so and received passes, but the interest taken in the scheme seems less on the whole than one would have supposed likely. Some explain it by saying that the Boers are such liars themselves that they can't believe but what the English are lying too; while others think the move is premature, and that the Free State is not prepared yet to abandon the war or her allies.
We were by way also of endeavouring to cut off any stray parties of Boers who might be making their way north from Colesberg and that neighbourhood. Broadwood was in command of us. There was a stray party, sure enough, but it was 7000 strong. It passed across our bows, fifteen miles east of us, and we let it severely alone.
Meantime there is a general lull. In the midst of war we are in peace. I am going off to-morrow to our old original Modder River camp (having ridden in from Thaba Nchu yesterday), that cockpit where so much fighting was done and where we spent so many weary weeks watching the heights of Magersfontein, to get luggage and things left behind. It will be strange to see the old place deserted and to ride near the hills without being shot at. Buller is peacefully sleeping at or near Ladysmith; the sound of his snoring faintly reaches us along the wires. Gatacre slumbers at Colesberg. Kitchener has disappeared, no one knows exactly where; and Little Bobs has curled himself up at Government House here, and given orders that he is not to be called for a fortnight. What news can you expect in such times? There is positively none.
Bloemfontein gives one the curious impression just now of a town that has been unpacked and emptied of all its contents, and had them dumped down on the land alongside. The shops contain little or nothing. They have been bought up and have not had time to restock. But outside the town, on the veldt, a huge depot of all sorts of goods is growing larger and larger every day, as the trains, one after another, come steaming north with their loads of supplies. There is a street, ankle deep in mud, of huge marquees, each with a notice of its contents outside: "Accoutrements," "Harness," "Clothing," "Transit Store," and what not. Behind and between are vast piles of boxes, bales, bags, and casks heaped up, and more arrive every hour on loaded trucks along a branch rail from the station. It is a busy, animated scene. Orderlies run or gallop about; quartermasters and adjutants and others hurry here and there, with their hands full of papers from one marquee to another, collecting their orders; shopping as it were, but shopping on rather a large scale; and the big ox-waggons come creaking along and churning up the mud. This is where the cost of a war comes in. These are a few of the little things that our army will require on its way to Pretoria. There will be money to pay for this. We shall feel this some day, you and I.And poor unstuffed Bloemfontein lies there empty. There are all the shops, and here all the merchandise. You may guess that the tradesmen are indignant. Never has there been such a market. Here is the whole British army clamouring for all kinds of things; most furiously perhaps for eatables and drinkables, baccy and boots. All these things have long been bought up, and the poor Tommies can only wander, sullen and unsated, up and down the streets and stare hungrily in at the empty shop windows; while out of the empty shop windows the shopkeeper glares still more hungrily at them. I have heard how in the Fraser River the fish positively pack and jostle as they move up. So here; but the unhappy sportsman has nothing to catch them with. Brass coal-scuttles and duplex lamps are about all that remains in the way of bait, and these are the only things they won't rise to. He rushes off to Kitchener. "Give me a train a day. Give me a train a week." "You be d——d," growls Kitchener. Back he comes. The hungry eyes are still staring. Incarnate custom flows past. Never in all his life will such a chance recur. Poor wretch! It is like some horrible nightmare.