"I wish you a pleasant journey," said our host the next morning, as we prepared to mount. "Have you money enough? Yes? Well, in any case, take this biltong along in your saddle-bags; it's my own make, you'll find it good. Keep a good look-out. Good-bye!"
After thanking him warmly for his kindness, we rode off. Halting but once to feed and water our horses, we reached a farm near Bethlehem towards evening, where we spent the night. We were awakened by the sound of a heavy bombardment in the direction of Bethlehem, which informed us that the British were attacking the town. With an optimism that now seems marvellous, we never for a moment doubted that the enemy would be driven back, and that we would at last be able to take a little repose, for twelve hours daily in the saddle was beginning to tell on us. Quite cheerfully we rode down to the village, listening to the music of the bursting shells and the lively rattle of the small-arms. Suddenly a cloud of Boers issued from a kopje to our right, and slowly retreated across our front. We rode up to them and learnt that they had just received orders to retire, as the place could no longer be defended. It appeared that the British general had informed De Wet that if he did not surrender the town it would be bombarded. Most of the property belonged to British subjects, so De Wet ordered all loyal inhabitants to leave the town, and then told the general to bombard as much as he liked, which the latter forthwith proceeded to do. De Wet had placed a couple of guns on the mountain overlooking the town, and this, together with Theron's hundred and fifty men—the only commando seriously engaged that day—sufficed to keep the British back for three hours. De Wet's own men were kept in reserve to meet the usual outflanking movement. The latter did not take place, however, the enemy coming straight on. Finally something went wrong with one of our two guns, and Theron being hard pressed, with the reserve too far away to render immediate help, the order was given to retire. The artillerists profited by the occasion to tumble the damaged gun down a precipice, saying that they had had enough of repairing it. Here it was found by the enemy the next day. A rush was made for the mountain passes, as it was feared the enemy might occupy them and cut off our retreat, but this was not even attempted, and we were allowed to gain our rocky fastnesses in peace. The following day was spent in climbing up and down the steep footpaths over the mountains, and that afternoon we arrived at the end of our journey, Fouriesburg, having spent something like a hundred hours on horseback during the last ten days. Our first move was towards the river, for we had not had a bath for several days. After repeated splashes in the chilly torrent we bought a few clean things, put them on, and then gravitated towards the telegraph office. Needless to say, our colleagues were surprised to see us, being under the impression that we had long since reached the Transvaal. Whilst still busy giving explanations we heard someone on the instrument calling Winburg. Now Winburg was in British hands; it could be no other than a British station calling. Wishing to gain a little information, we responded.
"Here, Bethlehem. Are you Winburg?"
"Then give the name of the officer commanding."
There was no time for hesitation, and in our haste we gave the wrong name.
"Go away," came the answer; "you're a way out. Trying to fool us, are you?"
After a while we called him up again.
"Here, Lieutenant Sherrard, R.E. What's up?"
"Here, Winburg. What's the news?"
"That you are a lot of fools for keeping on fighting and murdering your men!" came the sharp reply.
"Oh, kindly allow us to know our own business best. You'll find some method in our folly."
"Maybe. How did you like the little bits o' lyddite yesterday?"
"I believe it slightly killed one mule. How did you like the hell fire from the Nordenfeldt?"
"Never saw it. But honestly, why don't you come in and surrender?"
"But honestly, what is your real opinion of those who desert their country in her hour of need?" He preferred not to say, but disconnected the wire, and we heard no more of our friend the Royal Engineer.
"Pity they were too sharp for us this time," I said to the Postmaster.
"Oh, it doesn't matter," he replied, "we caught up their report of the engagement just after they entered the town. It seems they had a pretty severe loss. Ours was slight, but one lyddite shell burst over a group of horses and killed twenty."
"And what is the situation now?"
"Well, all our forces are here in the mountains now, and we can hold out for years. There are only two passes; they are strongly held, and the enemy will never get through them. We tried to get our prisoners to take parole, but they refused, so we have driven them over the Drakensberg into Natal. Last, but not least, the traitor Vilonel is here, waiting for his appeal to be heard."
This Vilonel, a young man of prepossessing appearance, had been one of the most promising officers, and had early been promoted to commandant. Whether through overweening ambition on his part or not I cannot say, but Vilonel, accused of insubordination, was thenceforth given the distasteful and inglorious task of commandeering. He wearied of this, and applied for active service, but in vain. Then, smarting under a sense of injustice, he took the fatal step—deserted. Not content with this, he wrote a letter out of the British camp to one of our field-cornets, urging upon the latter to surrender. The letter fell into the hands of one of our Intelligence officers, who forthwith replied in the field-cornet's name, asking Vilonel to meet him at a certain secluded spot. Vilonel kept the appointment, accompanied by a British major, and both were made prisoners, the major protesting energetically against what he was pleased to consider as a breach of the rules of warfare, but his captors begged to differ, reminding him that all's fair in love and war, especially in dealing with traitors and their associates.
Vilonel was tried at Reitz, and sentenced to five years, the judge remarking that he was lucky to get off with his life. The prisoner did not think so, and applied for leave to appeal. This was granted, but owing to the nature of the subsequent military operations the Court had not found time to sit, hardly time to pause, in fact.
When the day finally arrived for the appeal to be heard the little court-room was crowded with interested spectators. Judge Hertzog presided, assisted by two young advocates, Messrs. Hugo and Cronjé, and Advocate De Villiers represented the State. The prisoner, who conducted his own defence, asked for a postponement. This was refused. He then made an able statement, asserting his innocence of any evil intentions, pleading that he had acted as his conscience dictated, and eloquently praying the Court to reconsider his sentence. It was a painful moment when the presiding judge, after a whispered consultation with the assessors, turned to the prisoner and confirmed the sentence, adding, in his clear, incisive voice, that the name of Vilonel would remain an eternal stigma upon the fame of the Afrikander race. One could not help feeling a thrill of compassion at the tragic end of such a promising career. To-day a noble patriot, to-morrow a black traitor, despised by the lowest of his countrymen!
President Steyn's wife and family were installed in a house in this village, but the President himself preferred to camp in the veld and share the lot of his burghers.
With him were nearly all the members of the Government, if we except those who had chosen to remain behind in Bethlehem, and who, from what their delighted friends heard, had been compelled by the British to foot it all the way to Reitz. We went out to the camp, and reported ourselves. It was now bitterly cold, the snow-topped Drakensberg keeping the temperature at an uncomfortable proximity to zero. But the men were nearly all well provided with warm khaki uniforms reaped at Roodewal, the mountains were full of cattle and corn, and we felt that we could easily hold these almost inaccessible heights against the British cordon formed outside.
But it was fated otherwise. A despatch rider arrived from the Transvaal; the situation there urgently demanded the encouragement of Steyn's presence. To leave this impregnable stronghold and venture across the open plains below needed all the boldness of De Wet, all the steadfast courage of Steyn. These leaders had never been known to falter; they did not falter now. Everything was arranged in the utmost secrecy. For a few days there was a hurrying to and fro of commandoes, and then one morning De Wet's laager was seen to have disappeared.
Prinsloo was left behind over four thousand men, with orders to stand his own.