Mafeking, January 3rd, 1900.
New Year's Eve drew to itself much of the sentiment which is usually associated with that event. We perhaps did not ring the old year out and the new year in, because the sonorous clang of bells presages in these times the advent of shells. When the enemy lay their gun upon the town the bell at the outlook rings once; when its precise direction has been located it peals according to the number which has been given to that direction. Then there comes the firing-bell, by which time all good people should have taken cover. It will be seen, therefore, that the ringing of bells has a particular significance, and one from which it is inappropriate and inadvisable to depart. But our celebration of New Year's Eve was a quiet gathering of men drawn from the various points of the town, who assembled within the shadows of the English Church to sing a hymn and give voice to our National Anthem. It had been raining during the evening; the air was fresh and fragrant, and the ground was very damp. They came in their cloaks; they carried their rifles and wore their bandoliers, since it was not a time to chance the possibilities of an attack. There were perhaps one hundred of them, and had it been convenient to allow a general muster, the whole garrison would have very willingly attended. When everything was ready the great stillness of the night was broken gently by a prelude from the harmonium, which, dropping to a low tone, became a mere accompaniment to the human voices. Then the volume of music grew somewhat fuller until it carried in its depths the voices of the singers merged into one torrent of stirring melody; then there was a fresh pause, and as the echoes of the hymn died away, lingering in the rafters of the building until countless spirits seemed to be taking up the refrain, the voice of the preacher broke out in words which manfully endeavoured to cheer the congregation. We stood and listened, rapt with an attention which gave more to the scene than to the exhortations of the man, and waiting for the time to sing the National Anthem. In these moments, when one is so far from the Queen and the capital of her great Empire, the singing of the National Anthem has a weight and meaning much finer and much greater than that imparted to the hymn when the words are sung at home. Presently the voices took up the hymn, throwing into the darkness of the church some whiteness of the dawn which will usher in the days of peace upon the termination of the war. The National Anthem, sang amid these surroundings, was incomparably beautiful, seeming to strengthen the irresolute, even cheering those who were already strong, and imparting to every one a happier frame of mind and a greater spirit of contentment. Scenes on a smaller scale, but identical in purpose, were enacted at almost every one of our posts, and the hour of midnight must have borne to the watchful sentries of the enemy some slight knowledge of the pleasing duty upon which the garrison was engaged. It was only for a moment—just so long, indeed, as it took to sing the verses of the anthem. Then, when this was over, the harmony of night fell once more upon the garrison.
The New Year has brought to Mafeking and the garrison that is beleaguered within its walls, no signs of the fulfilment of the prophecy that relief would come by the end of December. Indeed, the closing year of the nineteenth century was ushered in with the boom of cannon and the fire of small arms, and in a style generally which does not differ from any one of the many days during which the siege and bombardment have lasted. There was no cessation of hostilities similar to that which characterised Christmas Day; firing began at an early hour in the morning from the enemy's artillery, and did not terminate until the evening gun gave a few hours' peace to the town. For quite a fortnight there has been no such heavy fire, and it would seem that, for our especial edification, the authorities in Pretoria had sent to the commandant of the Boer forces that are investing us, a New Year's gift of three waggon-loads of ammunition. A new gun was also despatched to them, and, its position being constantly shifted, its fire has since played upon every quarter of the town. For the moment we had attached no great importance to this new weapon, but after the first few rounds it was discovered to be employing what are called combustible bombs. These new shells do not usually explode, seeming to discharge a chemical liquid which ignites upon contact with the air. They are also filled with lumps of sulphur, and so severe might be the damage from this new agency of destruction which the Boers have turned against Mafeking that the most stringent orders have been issued for any one finding these shells to see that they are immediately buried. At present, beyond a few unimportant blazes in the gardens of the town, no damage has been caused, while, in the meantime, our situation here has in no way altered.
It would appear that our resistance is beginning to exasperate the enemy, driving him to a pitch in which he is determined to respect neither the Convention of Geneva nor the promptings of humanity. Again, despite the innumerable warnings which he has received, for two days in succession has he made the hospital and the women's laager the sole object of his attentions. Yesterday the shells fell sufficiently wide of these two places to justify the broad-minded in giving to his artillery officers the benefit of the doubt; but to-day it is impossible to find any extenuating circumstances whatever in his favour, and I very much regret to have to state that through the shelling of the women's laager many children's lives have been imperilled, many women wounded. From time to time every effort has been made to give to the gentler sex the most perfect immunity, but it would seem as though we can no longer consider as safe these poor innocent and helpless non-combatants. The children of some of the most respected and most loyal townspeople have been killed in this manner, just as they were romping within the trenches which encircle their retreat. For two hours this morning the Creusot and quick-firing guns of the enemy fired into the laager, creating scenes of panic and consternation which it is not fitting to describe. Nine one-hundred-pound shells burst within the precincts of that place in the space of an hour, and in palliation of this there is nothing whatever which can be said, since the enemy had posted a heliograph station upon a kopje a few thousand yards distant from the point of attack. As the big shells sped across the town to drop within the laager beyond, the enemy's signallers heliographed their direction to the emplacement of Big Ben. Our own signalling corps intercepted the messages from the enemy, reading out, from time to time, the purport of the flashes. The first shell was short, and the enemy's signallers worked vigorously. The second was too wide. The third fell within the laager itself, the pieces piercing, when it burst, a number of tents. To this shot the heliograph flashed a cordial expression of approval. These actions upon the part of the Boers, as repeatedly pointed out to them, make it almost impossible for us to regard our foe as other than one which is inspired with the emotions of a degraded people and the crude cruelty and vindictive animosity of savages. Just now, when the press of our feelings is beyond confinement, there is nothing but a universal wish that we may speedily be relieved and so enabled to enjoy the initiative against the Boers. When that moment comes it must not be forgotten that we have suffered bitterly, and in a way which must be taken as excusing any excesses which may occur.
As I returned from a visit to the women's laager Colonel Baden-Powell was lying in his easy-chair beneath the roof of the verandah of the Headquarters Office. Colonel Baden-Powell is young, as men go in the army, with a keen appreciation of the possibilities of his career, swayed by ambition, indifferent to sentimental emotion. In stature he is short, while his features are sharp and smooth. He is eminently a man of determination, of great physical endurance and capacity, and of extraordinary reticence. His reserve is unbending, and one would say, quoting a phrase of Mr. Pinero's, that fever would be the only heat which would permeate his body. He does not go about freely, since he is tied to his office through the multitudinous cares of his command, and he is chiefly happy when he can snatch the time to escape upon one of those nocturnal, silent expeditions, which alone calm and assuage the perpetual excitement of his present existence. Outwardly, he maintains an impenetrable screen of self-control, observing with a cynical smile the foibles and caprices of those around him. He seems ever bracing himself to be on guard against a moment in which he should be swept by some unnatural and spontaneous enthusiasm, in which by a word, by an expression of face, by a movement, or in the turn of a phrase, he should betray the rigours of the self-control under which he lives. Every passing townsman regards him with curiosity not unmixed with awe. Every servant in the hotel watches him, and he, as a consequence, seldom speaks without a preternatural deliberation and an air of decisive finality. He seems to close every argument with a snap, as though the steel manacles of his ambition had checkmated the emotions of the man in the instincts of the officer. He weighs each remark before he utters it, and suggests by his manner, as by his words, that he has considered the different effects it might conceivably have on any mind as the expression of his own mind. As an officer, he has given to Mafeking a complete and assured security, to the construction of which he has brought a very practical knowledge of the conditions of Boer warfare, of the Boers themselves, and of the strategic worth of the adjacent areas. His espionagic excursions to the Boer lines have gained him an intimate and accurate idea of the value of the opposing forces and a mass of data by which he can immediately counteract the enemy's attack. He loves the night, and after his return from the hollows in the veldt, where he has kept so many anxious vigils, he lies awake hour after hour upon his camp mattress in the verandah, tracing out, in his mind, the various means and agencies by which he can forestall their move, which, unknown to them, he had personally watched. He is a silent man, and it would seem that silence has become in his heart a curious religion. In the noisy day he yearns for the noiseless night, in which he can slip into the vistas of the veldt, an unobtrusive spectator of the mystic communion of tree with tree, of twilight with darkness, of land with water, of early morn with fading night, with the music of the journeying winds to speak to him and to lull his thoughts. As he makes his way across our lines the watchful sentry strains his eyes a little more to keep the figure of the colonel before him, until the undulations of the veldt conceal his progress. He goes in the privacy of the night, when it be no longer a season of moonlight, when, although the stars were full, the night be dim. The breezes of the veldt are warm and gentle, impregnated with the fresh fragrances of the Molopo, although, as he walks with rapid, almost running, footsteps, leaving the black blur of the town for the arid and stony areas to the west, a new wind meets him—a wind that is clear and keen and dry, the wind of the wastes that wanders for ever over the monotonous sands of the desert. It accompanies him as he walks as though to show and to whisper with gentle gusts that it knew of his intention. It sighs amid the sentinel trees that stand straight and isolated about the Boer lines. He goes on, never faltering, bending for a moment behind a clump of rocks, screening himself next behind some bushes, crawling upon his hands and knees, until his movements, stirring a few loose stones, create a thin, grating noise in the vast silence about him. His head is low, his eyes gaze straight upon the camp of the enemy; in a little he moves again, his inspection is over, and he either changes to a fresh point or startles some dozing sentry as he slips back into town.