Late in the afternoon of a day in the early part of last December I had ridden out from our lines in Ladysmith towards a certain position usually occupied by a Boer outpost, trusting by my going out deliberately and unarmed to get one of the men there to have a talk, just as one of the Lancers had a few days previously. For some time we had been on short rations of "copy" as well as food. I rode along the edge of an empty spruit, into the bed of which my spurs would have propelled my horse in the unlikely event of a shot being my first greeting. The spot where I expected to see the outpost was where the veldt, from being bare, commenced to be thickly covered with mimosa trees; but there was no one there—no living thing, except a little springbuck that started up as I arrived, bounding away over the long tufted grass, its little white rump showing like the flutter of a girl's petticoat. It stopped and, turning its pretty head, regarded me with great brown frightened eyes, as if I were the first human apparition to invade its sylvan solitude. It was clear there were no Boers immediately about; equally clear that this was a great chance unexpectedly offered of having a try to get south to Clery's or Buller's force, and be the first white man to bring the news from Ladysmith out of the beleaguered town. I was already started on the shortest route to the Tugela. I went on, and for about a mile no sign whatever of the enemy, and I thought of the theory more than once put forward that we were all the time being besieged by a ridiculously small but extremely mobile force. It was not until I was well in between Bulwana and Lombard's Kop that I caught sight between the trees of a laager of miscellaneous tents on the lower slope of the latter. Dismounting and going cautiously, I passed it and passed a man cutting wood, who was fortunately too industriously intent on his work to notice me. Bearing to the right, I was soon south of Bulwana and past the Boer lines. The rest would be comparatively easy, as an open stretch of country lay before me, where darkness would soon give me cover now that I had reached the edge of the trees. While waiting, I heard a voice behind me shout something in Dutch. Looking round, I found a Boer covering me with his rifle at ten yards, and the dream of a journalistic "beat," as they call it in America, vanished as he escorted me to his field cornet's camp. After some questioning by the field cornet, they gave me supper of meat, bread, and coffee—the bread arrived down every morning by train from Dundee, where it was baked by a Frenchman at what a short time ago had been our bakery. Then, as we sat round the big tent smoking, I gradually learned from them the first news of the outer world and the war, after being five weeks cut off in Ladysmith. As a running commentary on the news, we drifted into a series of discussions on the conduct of the war, and the observance of the usages of war by both armies. Audi alteram partem, and here I was hearing it with a vengeance. Two-thirds of them spoke English, as nearly all in this laager were from Heidelberg. They had about five charges against us of unfair fighting, and there was not the slightest doubt of their complete conviction that each of these charges was well founded and true. The worst of it was that in every instance they had some circumstance, the result of mistake, misconception, or individual wrongdoing, on which to raise a formidable superstructure of generalised accusation. "We fired on the Red Cross"—they instanced Elandslaagte and the battle of Nicholson's Nek; in both instances their waggons were behind kopjes that our gunners could not possibly see through. I threw them back their similar offences—the afternoon of Nicholson's Nek and their firing on the Town Hall hospital at Ladysmith. In the first instance, they said our waggons were too far off to be distinguished, which I knew was the case; and as regards the second, they argued that we had no right to continue to fly the Red Cross over the Town Hall when they had given us a neutral hospital camp outside at Intombi. Then had we not a right to fly a Red Cross over our sick and wounded while they had to wait for the next morning's train to bring them out to hospital? I urged. "No; put them in your holes underground," was the reply. We drifted into a discussion about dum-dum bullets, which they claimed to have found in our abandoned camp at Dundee, and, from seeing our doolies bearers, had fully made up their minds that we were using Indian troops against them. I then let them have it straight about their misuse of the white flag, which they denied.
Every pause in our talk was filled by the sound of deep, loud chanting coming from a tent hard by. Presently I went out to see them at their evening service. A big tent was full of men squatting around, the short twilight was fast darkening into night outside, and the interior of the tent was lit by two candles stuck in the necks of bottles. Except a couple of old men, they were all in the prime of life, and a splendidly strong-looking set of fellows they were. They sang, without any drawl or nasal intonation, straight out from their deep chests. The chant rose and fell with a swinging solemnity. There was little of pleading or supplication in its tones; they were calling on the God of Battles; the God of the Old Testament rather than the Preacher of the Sermon on the Mount was He to whom they sang; and sometimes there was a strain of almost stern demand about it that gave it more the ring of a war-song than a prayer. Entering the door of that tent seemed like going into another century. It could not be but luminously evident to the onlooker that these men were calling on an unseen Power whose actual existence was as real to their minds as that of their Mauser rifles stacked around the tent-pole. One could not help contrasting this obvious sincerity with the perfunctory church parade on our side, and this religion with that of two-thirds or three-fourths of our army of careless agnostics. Barring a very small minority, principally Irishmen, there is no place for religion in Tommy's intellectual kit. It has just degenerated into being an old magazine from which he draws his swear-words—a sort of bandolier of blasphemy. It was hot in that tent, and the sweat made the foreheads of these deep-voiced choristers shine against the dark shadows cast behind them on the canvas. It was curious to notice how the knees and elbows of their clothes showed signs of wear from their favourite shooting attitude, and there were many with buttons missing from their waistcoats that had been scraped off by the stones on the kopjes, or with buttons of different patterns that had evidently been sewn on by the wearers in place of those worn off. All the Boers appear to give up shaving when on the warpath, which adds to the wild picturesqueness of their appearance. I found the hymns they were singing were old Dutch ones. "We keep this up every night in camp," one of them said to me, "just the same as at home." When they had finished, they all lit their pipes, and then I was put through a catechism, which was the same at every camp or with every group of Boers I met for the next week. "What did I think of the Boers?" "Did I not expect to meet a lot of savages?" "Was I not surprised to hear them speaking English?" And then they were everywhere keen to learn if we appreciated the way our prisoners were being treated in Pretoria, and equally curious to know our opinion of how they were fighting. As I thought the siege of Ladysmith, since they would not assault, had become dolorously monotonous, I suggested, so that things might be enlivened a bit, that a race meeting or a football match might be got up between teams from each army on the neutral ground at Intombi. The younger men received the idea of a football match with acclamation. "Ya, goot," said a young giant beside me, rubbing his big hands enthusiastically, "it will be the greatest football match that ever was played;" but an old burgher, with his left hand in a sling, bound up in dirty-looking bandages, interposed: "No; the only game we like to play now is the one with cannon-balls." No; these dour, stolid men take their fighting sadly and sternly; there is none of the "frolic welcome" with which our Irish Tommies, for instance, enjoy their fighting or endure the waiting for it. When I was a prisoner in Pretoria they used to keep us awake at night with fireworks after news such as that of Colenso and Magersfontein, but, except amongst the young boys, they were not given to exultation over what they had done or to any boasting. Then they talked about lyddite, and it was quite clear that it had been a terrible bogy in their minds, and that they had imagined it was to have an effect like throwing earthquakes at them, and it was equally evident that the result of actual experience had fallen short of their apprehensions.
We went out from the stuffy hot tent into the clear sharp air of a starlight night on the hills, and from a lighted tent, high above us on the slope of Lombard's Kop, came the chant of a psalm taken up by many voices outside. "Let God arise, and let His enemies be scattered," they sang, like Cromwell's soldiers at Dunbar. As I laid down in the field cornet's tent, with his son, a boy of fifteen, at one side of me, and a man over sixty on the other, I could not help thinking of the great tragedy of all that was yet before these people when they would begin to realise that they called in vain on their God, that they had no monopoly of the Almighty, that the God of their fathers fights no longer on the side of the Boers, but on that of the big battalions. This will be the desolation of downfall.