A couple of hours' riding, then the farm of an old field-cornet, where we off-saddled and bought a few bundles of forage for our horses. The field-cornet entered into conversation with us whilst our animals were feeding, but omitted to ask us into the house, and kept eyeing us in a puzzled manner, as though we had dropped from Mars. I know not what my companion thought of it, or if he thought at all, but I myself put the old man's strange manner down to a sort of speechless admiration, and accepted it as such. But I was mistaken.
When our friend shook hands with us he did so very limply, and as far as we went he could be seen gazing after us.
"What ails him?" I asked my comrade.
"Oh, he doesn't see men like ourselves every day," was the careless answer. How could I argue?
We kept on our way, and towards sundown reached a farm on the bank of the Vaal, simultaneously with another young fellow coming from the direction of the railway line.
It turned out that this farm belonged to his father. He himself had left home that morning with the intention of crossing the railway, but had found the line so well patrolled that he had given up the attempt. We stabled our horses and entered the small but comfortably furnished cottage, where we were presented to the other members of the family. After supper came the usual evening service. This was hardly over when we heard a loud knocking at the front door. The door was opened, and the strange-mannered old field-cornet entered.
He greeted us solemnly and sat down. Next came a thundering rap at the back door, and another Boer entered, a tall, powerful fellow, who was foaming at the mouth with suppressed excitement, and bristling with cartridge belts.
"My nephews," said the first-comer to us, "you must not take it amiss, but it is my duty to arrest you!"
"What for, uncle?"
"For being suspected of spying. You must either accompany me back to my farm, or let me take your horses there, so as to prevent your leaving here during the night."
"All right, uncle, take the horses, but don't forget to feed them well. But perhaps it would spare you trouble if you read our papers."
"It is easy to forge papers," said the old man. His companion now boiled over and broke in—
"No, no! We've got you right enough! What else can you be but cursed spies, riding about the country like this?"
"I don't wish to argue with you," I replied, angered by his brutal manner. "I'm as true a burgher as you are, to say the least, and I warn you that I shall hold you responsible for what you do or say."
"Oh! oh! Responsible? We are our own Government now. And where are your arms? Spies!"
"I see you have a gun, but perhaps that is only because you've had no chance to lay it down."
"What! Yes, I've got a gun, and I'll prove it to you!" he shouted, pointing the weapon at me.
"Just like a cowardly bully to threaten an unarmed man! But," I added gently, "you'll feel differently to-morrow."
"Will I? Why?" he asked, curiosity getting the better of his rage.
"You'll be sober then." This only incensed him the more, but he saw that he had gone too far, and contented himself with uttering a few half-intelligible threats. We then went out to the stable, gave them our horses, and went to bed.
I woke just as dawn was breaking. Before the door stood the son of the house, his gun in his hand.
"Hello, you are up early," I said. He looked rather confused.
"To tell the truth, I have been guarding you all night. But all the same, I don't believe that you are spies. Come and have some coffee."
We had just finished our coffee when we heard horses' hoofs coming along the road, and presently one of our friends from the farm near Greylingstad entered the room.
"I've brought your horses," he said, smiling merrily. "I passed the old field-cornet's this morning and told him I could certify that you are no spies."
Whilst we were saddling up the field-cornet and his companion of the night before arrived. The latter was now sober. They were profuse in apologies.
"You were angry last night because we had no rifles; you had more reason to be glad," I remarked to the field-cornet's assistant.
"Because if I had been armed I might have been imprudent enough to blow your brains out when you pointed your gun at me. And how awful that would have been!"
"Man," he said, "it's the cursed drink."
"Well," said I, "it's all over now. Good-bye!" Off we went—my comrade, myself, and the man who had brought our horses, Delange. The latter had an achter ryder and two spare horses. Towards noon we reached the farm of one of Delange's friends. My mount was now thoroughly done up, having eaten almost nothing for three days. I asked the farmer if he had a horse for sale.
"There are several in the stable," he replied, "but they belong to my son, and he is on commando; so I am sorry, but I can't sell you one."
"I tell you what we'll do," said Delange. "I'll give you one of mine for yours, which can then remain here till it gets well. Should you come round here again one day we can then change back again."
"But suppose the animal dies?"
"Oh, I'll risk that. What is one horse more or less?"
I gratefully accepted this generous offer, and soon had my new acquisition saddled. It was a lively little nag, and all my weariness passed away as I felt it bound between my knees. Delange remained here, and my comrade and I continued our journey alone, making for Vrede.
"There's a Jew a few miles from here," said the farmer as he bade us good luck, "whom we suspect of treason. You should try and trap him and take him with you to Vrede."
Towards dusk we reached the Jew's store. We rode up to the building and he came to the door, an intelligent-looking man.
"Good evening," I said in English, "are there any Boers about?" We were both dressed after the English style.
When the man's wife heard English spoken she also came to the door and stood by her husband's side.
"Well, can't you answer?" The fellow's face was a study. He and his wife looked at each other, evidently feeling that some danger was threatening them.
"Sir," he said at last, speaking with an effort, "I have seen no Boers."
"Is this the road to Vrede?"
"Yes," he faltered.
"Thanks. Good-night," and we rode away. It might be easy to shoot a traitor in cold blood, but to try and trap a man into uttering his own condemnation seemed too cruel.
The next place we came to was a miserable-looking hovel standing by the wayside. The door was opened by an old man.
"Good evening, uncle. Can you sell us a few bundles of forage?"
"Good evening. Yes, certainly. Come inside. It's a poor dwelling, but you are welcome. Johnny, take the horses and put them in the stable. Won't you join us at supper?"
Our appetites needed no stimulating, and we at once joined the family, who had just been sitting down to table when we arrived. After the meal our horses were saddled and brought to the door.
"What do we owe you for the forage?" we asked. It would be an insult under any circumstance to offer to pay a Boer for a meal, "paying guests" being still unknown to our benighted nation.
"No, my friends," he said. "I am poor, but I can't take your money. We are all working for our country, and must help each other."
"That's true, but you must really allow us to pay."
"No, no! A few shillings will make me no richer or poorer." It was only with the greatest difficulty that we managed to leave a few shillings on the table. And this in spite of the fact that he was in the direst poverty. But this is nothing unusual in South Africa, where hospitality is considered a duty and a pleasure.
We pushed on until late that night, when we reached Vrede. Here we learnt that the column which Lord Roberts had sent back from Johannesburg had just entered Reitz. The next day we turned our horses' heads towards Bethlehem, seeing a fair amount of game during the day's ride. Darkness found us still travelling onward. A few miles to our right a crimson glare lit up the heavens—a grass fire started by the British column, and an unmistakable danger-signal for us.
We were now very close to the enemy, and might expect to meet a patrol at any moment. Whilst riding along in the dense gloom we heard loud voices a few hundred yards ahead of us. Turning out of the road, we rode on the grass so as to make no noise, and carefully approached. Upon getting nearer we found it was some natives driving cattle into a kraal. Near by was a farmhouse, and thither we went. Only the womenfolk were at home. We quickly reassured them—for every stranger was taken for an Englishman—and were asked to stay for the night. Presently the farmer himself arrived—he had been out watching the enemy.
"They will pass here to-morrow," he said, "then I shall go on that hill yonder and knock over a few of them. I had a fine chance to shoot to-day, but did not want to put them on their guard."
"But don't you think it would be better to join a commando and help in making an organised resistance? You may kill a few of the enemy by hanging about in twos and threes, but what difference will that make in the end?"
"You mean us to act like the dervishes at Omdurman? I'm afraid you don't understand the affair, my son. We do belong to a commando, as a matter of fact, but we are scouts entrusted with the duty of keeping in constant touch with the enemy. If in the execution of this duty we see an opportunity to shoot a few of the enemy, are we to hold our hand because we happen to be only two or three?"
"I should think not. But the enemy call it sniping, and I have heard them say that snipers get no quarter. And if you fire on a column near here they will come and burn this house down."
"It is not for me," he replied, "to consider my own interests. I have my orders and must carry them out. What! Are we, who have lost sons, brothers, friends—are we, I say, to think of our property now? No! Let everything go, strip us to the bone, but leave us our liberty! It is not for ourselves that we battle and suffer, but for posterity. It is for the birthright of our children—freedom. We are no servile Hindoos to meekly bow beneath the foreign yoke! They have put their hands to the plough, but they will find it stubborn land, land that they will grow weary of manuring with the bodies of their sons! And all for what? To raise a crop of thistles and thorns, for that is all they'll ever get out of us!"
"And it strikes me the end of the furrow is still out of sight."
"My boy," he said earnestly, "this furrow has no end!"