Yes, I did enjoy it! To spend twenty-four hours in a house, for since the 2nd of August I had never slept under a roof. What luxury!—a soft bed and a bath in the morning. But how numerous are the demands of civilisation! I had of course to breakfast with the family, and there the table was laid with snowy linen and neatly folded serviettes.
Ah me! How did I behave after having had to manage with my clasp-knife on the grass for so long? Still, it charmed me. The old instinct again awoke. A fork was better after all than one's fingers, and sitting on a chair in the study than on an anthill in the veld. The transformation took place with lightning rapidity. I was myself again. This was my world. Out yonder I was a stranger, but here I was at home; and it was like being rent from a part of myself when at three o'clock I once more joined the commando.
We proceeded between the kopjes that surround Vredefort on the north-west. There beautiful scenery and the scent of the thorn-tree blossoms repaid me in some measure for the comforts I had to relinquish beneath the roof of the Rev. J. A. Joubert. But when at evening the hills and thorn-trees lay behind us on the horizon, and we had to lie down to rest by a dam on particularly large tufts of grass, I could well realise that something indeed had been sacrificed for the great cause of liberty and independence.
Here on the following morning General de Wet called the burghers together and read to them a notice which he had issued for the information of the enemy. This notice was to the effect that where troops were caught in the act of burning houses, and carrying off defenceless women and children, those troops would be shot.
He then asked me to address the men, as it was that day just a year since they had been commandeered. I complied, and took as my text the words: "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning"; and presented the Israelite in his fervent patriotism as an example to them.
General de Wet immediately after left us with the commandos of Heilbron and Vrede, and we trekked away under General Botha in the direction of the Rhenoster River. Before nightfall we reached it, and found there a part of the Bethlehem Commando that had just returned from the bush veld, whither they had accompanied General de Wet. These burghers joined us, and we trekked along together, until, shortly after, they left us and proceeded to their own district. How delightful it was there in the densely wooded banks of the Rhenoster River. Great wild willows and old thorn-trees grew along the placid stream, and lent an inexpressible air of peace and rest to the place.
We stayed here for the night, lit great fires of the dry wood, and broiled meat as it can only be done on the live coals of thorn-tree wood. On the following day we departed from this beautiful spot, and soon the wide sand plains stretched around us, dreary in their monotony.
It is a wearisome thing travelling on these wilds. You see nothing but long, low, rolling undulations. In the distance there arises one like an immovable wave in an immovable sea. After an hour's ride—for a commando does not move rapidly—you have reached it, and then in the distance there is another exactly like the one behind you.
And yet, however much the wearied spirit seeks some change, and however dreary these wastes seem, they speak to the heart of him who understands their language. Abandoning oneself to their mysterious influence, one forgets that they are monotonous, as they whisper, softly as the evening breeze which wafts across their broad bosoms, of the Infinite. The mountains fill one with awe and veneration—even so the region where the horizon seems ever to be beyond one's reach.
On Friday, 5th of October, we were on the banks of the Valsch River and camped there. Some days after we trekked to the farm of Mr. B. Greyling. From there the commando went to the shop of Mr. Harvey at Otterspruit, but as it looked like rain, I accepted the kind invitation of Mr. Greyling, and remained under his roof for the night. We stopped at Harvey's shop on Sunday and Monday, and a few burghers were punished there because they had entered the shop and helped themselves to what they thought they wanted. We had a man in command who allowed no irregularities, and the discipline in the commando was perfect. Here I washed my clothes myself, as I had to do often later on. As I had no change, I had to remain at the spruit until what I had washed had got dry. I thought of the future with misgivings. "What should we eat, and what should we drink?" did not trouble me; but "wherewithal should we be clothed?" that filled me with uneasiness. We had, as we were marching along, heard occasionally that everywhere in the State the civil administration of the English had ceased. The patrols of two or three mounted police did not visit the farms any more. Nor were any taxes collected any more from the Boers on their farms or the Kaffirs in their kraals. Since the time about the taking of Ladybrand, it had begun to be impossible for small numbers of the English to go from farm to farm, and to carry out the kind of government which obtains when there is peace in a country. If they wanted now to go from district to district they could not do so otherwise than in numbers of about 1000 men, and always with cannon. This was a new proof to us that it was impossible for England to fight us on an equal footing. We were far from being conquered.
It soon became evident that we were going to come in contact with the enemy, for, not far from us upon a hillock to the south-east of Kopje Alleen, a force moved now and again out from Kroonstad. This little hill lay on our road to the railway, and it was desirable that we should not be prevented there from carrying out the object we had in view. General Botha therefore advanced in that direction on Monday evening. On the following day it was discovered that there were no English on the hill, and a patrol was left there.
In the evening the commando went to the farm of old Mr. Delport, where we remained five days, for it was General Botha's intention to begin his real work of interrupting the communications here. On the following night, therefore, he proceeded to the railway, and broke it up not far from Ventersburg Road Station.
I was glad to be able to remain here some days, because, as my son was ill, he could thus remain under the care of Mrs. Delport and her daughter. When we left he was well again. I owe much gratitude to this kind family.
On Sunday, the 14th October, a fight took place. I had held services first for the Harrismith, and then for the Kroonstad men, and had just returned from the latter when a report arrived from the patrol on the hill that a number of English had driven them away and taken possession of the kopje. General Botha immediately advanced against them, whilst a small number of burghers went with the trolleys we had to the farm of Mr. Taljaart. General Botha attacked from two sides, and after a short fight drove the English from the kopje to the camp at Ventersburg Road Station.
The loss of the English was estimated at four dead and thirteen wounded, and two were taken prisoners. We had no casualties. The following day we went to the beautiful farm of Mr. Hendrik Delport. He had created an oasis in the dreary sand flats. It was refreshing to see the green willows growing here on the wall of the dam, and to walk beneath the healthy fruit trees of the garden. We camped beside the dam wall, and enjoyed the pleasure of being protected by the shade of the willow-trees from the burning rays of the sun.
That night, whilst we were wrapped in peaceful slumbers under the trees, we were awakened by the wild sound of horses' hoofs. My first idea was that it was the enemy making a night attack upon us. I expected every moment to hear the report of rifle shots, and visions of imprisonment arose in my mind. There was a Commandant ill in a waggon which Mr. Delport had hidden between the trees. He put out his head through the waggon-flap and asked his sons—
"Children, what is this?"
It was not the enemy! It had been our own horses which had rushed panic-stricken to our laager. What it was that had frightened them nobody knew, but it was supposed to have been some game that had come to drink at the dam.
Repos ailleurs! it was not to be our lot to rest for long, or to remain for any length of time under the shade of the green willows.
The next day a report came that "Khaki"—the word was often used without an article—was coming, and some burghers again went to meet them. But it was only five or six of the enemy who were reconnoitring, and our burghers drove them back to their camp. On the day after a considerable number came out with cannon. General Botha ordered the commando to retire, which we did in the direction of Hoopstad. It was not long before the enemy attacked our rearguard, but they were driven back with a loss of fifteen dead and wounded; while, on our side, one man was wounded, and General Botha got a scratch on the hand. Our burghers, seeing the enemy retiring, became rash and charged. The results might have been disastrous for us, for reinforcements with a gun and a Maxim unexpectedly turned up, and our people were very nearly surrounded.
General Botha then had to retire. To continue the fight against superior numbers, armed, moreover, with guns, was not to be thought of, and he resolved to outwit the English. He therefore marched till far into the night in the direction of Hoopstad, and the English followed us.
What difficulty I had to get my bearings on those wide level plains, with no kopje or mountain to serve as beacons! I knew very well that we were proceeding in a north-westerly direction, yet it seemed to me as if we were going due north. What surprised me exceedingly was that the burghers never seemed to be at a loss. They always knew the direction, north, east, south, or west—they could instantly say where these lay.
"Where is east?"
"Where must we look for Harrismith?"
Just lay your map open on the grass to-morrow and see if they were not right. It is because their view has not been narrowed by maps. The four winds of heaven are their compass, the stars their beacons.
The following night we marched until it was very late, and had to wait as usual for the waggons. During these halts the men flung themselves on the ground, and invariably fell fast asleep. When the order came to mount there was sometimes a little confusion. A lad of sixteen, who was still half-asleep, mounted his horse; a thud as of something soft falling on the ground was heard. As it was very dark, we did not know what it meant; but some close by explained that the boy, poor fellow, not being well awake, instead of getting astride, had got right over his horse and landed on the other side. When we had proceeded to thirty miles from Hoopstad, we turned suddenly on the third night at such an acute angle that our route ran almost parallel with that by which we had come. On the following morning we reached the shop of Jelleman, and learned during the course of the day that the English were still persistently following up their original course. They had not then adopted the flying-column system, and went on with their encumbrance of large convoys, with an impetus very much like that of an elephant which, when charging, cannot make a short turn. This enabled General Botha to carry out his manœuvre successfully.
The following day was Sunday, the 21st of October. We were then at the farm of Mr. Singleton on the way back to the railway. It was a lovely day, and very refreshing to hold service there under the trees at a dam. Here an attack had been made on us the previous night, which we had been unable to resist. I shall describe it.
There had been a strong wind the day before with signs of rain, and we had prepared ourselves as well as we could for a wet night. But it did not rain—something else happened: an attack—oh, that the muse of Aristophanes inspire me while I record this—an attack of frogs! We had lain down to sleep near the dam, and shortly after we had retired to rest the frogs came out of the water. Perhaps the strong wind, causing a movement in the waters, had sent them forth. They came in large numbers and leaped about to their hearts' content. Here one tumbled on the blanket of a sleeper, there another placed his wet feet on the face of another, and you heard screams in the darkness, as of persons shrinking back from cold baths. It was thought that the attack could be repulsed by blows from hats and boots. But the amphibious enemy had not the least inclination to sound the retreat. They unceasingly renewed the attack, and were continually being supported by fresh reinforcements from the dam. The issue at length hung in the balance, and the shame of a possible defeat filled us with apprehension. Woe is me! The human beings retreated. Here one man snatched up his bedding and fled—and there another. I must record it. Our warriors lost the battle, and were forced to evacuate their positions before an attack of—Frogs!!
In the afternoon we proceeded. Nothing of interest took place. Each day we travelled some distance. The red sand of the desert was in evidence, and the level plains remained as dreary as ever. It was very dry, and the heat was often very fatiguing. Water was procurable from dams and wells only; the water of the former was often dirty, and that of the latter brackish. We had often to drink where our horses drank, and where the geese and ducks swam. On one occasion, after we had boiled our small kettles and drunk our corn coffee, we heard that we had made coffee with the water of a dam in which shortly before some 400 soldiers had bathed! How dreary it is to be in a country where there are no springs and no streams.
In the course of our wanderings through the sandy plains we came to the farm of a man named Stiglingh, and there I saw for the first time what a farm looked like where the English had burnt down the house.
There stood the walls with black borders to the doors and windows and along the gables, proving that the building had been a prey to the flames. The tops of the trees before the house were scorched, and a vine lay half torn from the wall against which the owner had trained it. It was dreadful within to go from room to room and view the total destruction there. The heaps of ashes showed that the devastation was complete.
And what was the effect of this spectacle on the burghers?
Fear? Dismay?—No, resistance! Everyone who contemplated the ruins only felt the more deeply the wrong that was done to our people. Here was a nation which prided itself on its love of freedom, depriving a little people of their independence; and doing this in the most cruel manner, robbing them of their cattle and destroying their dwellings. Indignation and a sterner resolve to resist were aroused by the sight of the ruin. Those black borders round the gaping windows and doors conjured us not to lay down our arms and beg for mercy; no, but to keep the war going. The enemy had shattered all hopes of reconciliation.
I will describe how the house-burning was generally done. A burning party of the British came on a farm, and the soldiers would begin by chasing the poultry about and killing them. The officer in command immediately gave the occupants a short time to carry out food and clothing. The time given was usually so short that they were still busy carrying out things when the flames would burst forth. The incendiaries generally put the chairs and benches on the dining-room table, tore down the curtains from the windows and stuffed them in between the chairs. Then paraffin oil was squirted over everything, and the light applied. Soon dense clouds of smoke arose and the house was in flames.
The head of the house here—so his wife told me—was ill when the burning took place. Notwithstanding that he was taken prisoner. His wife—for the English had not yet begun to capture women—had to take refuge in an outhouse and stable with her children, where I found her, subsisting on meat and mealies.
We left this farm in the afternoon with the object of crossing the railway that night. Kopje Alleen soon hove in sight, and we passed it, leaving it on our right.
Kopje Alleen! Is there elsewhere on earth a geographical object so insignificant, but glorying in such world-wide fame, as thou. O Kopje Alleen! I call to mind how, thirty years ago, I heard of thee, and travelling towards thee, I counted the days which would pass before I should behold thee, and be filled with admiration. At last thou didst loom on the horizon! But I could not believe that it was thou, Kopje Alleen, whose fame had spread far and wide—thou mere mole on the face of the veld. But a cripple is an easy first among lame people; and here thou standest, monarch of the undulations of the sandy plains.
The thorn-trees here, the red sand in the road, the hard tufts of grass in the veld, all reminded me of the neighbourhood of Kimberley—and I was not surprised to learn that the diamond mine of Mr. Minter was close by.
Having off-saddled a little while near the flat hill where there had been a fight the week before, we went on in order to cross the line before daybreak. What sensations arise within one when such a task has to be undertaken. Will there be patrols of the enemy on the line? will shots be fired? will there be confusion? These are questions we ask ourselves. But we must suppress our emotions, and whatever there may be in store for us we must be prepared for everything.
This night march was similar to the others. We saw the Southern Cross shining in the skies. In the east there rose first the Pleiades, then Orion, then Sirius, and still we went on and on; but how slowly, owing to the waggons and carts lagging far behind. The sky above was constantly changing. The Southern Cross which had set rose again, and at last Sirius shot down his rays perpendicularly upon us, and yet we had not reached the railway line. And then, to our high-strung nerves how loud seemed every sound in the stillness of the night,—the order had been given that we should proceed in the greatest silence, but what a noise the trolleys and carts made, and how loudly the pots and pans which were carried on the carts and pack-horses sounded; and oh! why did those three foals whinny so incessantly? We felt sure that the English had become aware by all these noises of our coming, and were waiting for us at the line.
Thus three parts of the night passed away. "How far is it still?" we asked. "Half an hour!" is the reply. After half an hour we ask again, "And how far is it now?" "Three-quarters of an hour!" Suddenly a sharp point of light glints in the east. It must be a patrol fire. No, it is the morning star, and before long the rosy dawn begins to tint the eastern horizon! After all, we shall not reach the line before daylight.
But there the leading horses are beginning to halt at a little gate. We reach it and pass through. The horses grind small stones under their hoofs. In the twilight we see two rails pass under us—we have crossed the railroad!
There were no English to hinder us in our march over, and from the side of Ventersburg Station, where their camp was, they could not now advance, because our corps of scouts had at midnight destroyed the line between them and us. General Botha now restricted himself to breaking down the telegraph poles, and destroying the wire for the distance of a thousand yards.
We now proceeded to the beautiful farm of Mr. Minter. Nothing happened excepting that shots were fired at some soldiers, who had gone out from the camp near the station to reconnoitre.
When we crossed the railway we left behind the wide sandy plains, and we wished them farewell with all our hearts. General Botha intended now to make attacks on the enemy from the south side of the line.