There were many deaths at Spearman’s, and the burying ground was under the shadow of the clump of trees which stood at the back of Spearman’s Farm, and of which burying place I have already spoken. Those who died were carried away to the mortuary-tent, and there each body was sewn up by the coolies in the brown army blanket or in a sheet. The sewing was after the manner of the sewing up of a package. The brown blanket, however, formed but a poor covering at the last, and it made little mystery of what it shrouded. Beneath its tightly drawn folds there was shadowed something that was still a man, for was there not the clear outline of head and chin and shoulders and feet? When the body was ready it was brought out of the tent, placed upon a stretcher, and carried to the grave. Over the bodies of the officers was thrown the Union Jack, but the bodies of the soldiers were covered only by the brown blanket or the sheet.
There was one funeral which I have in mind, on the occasion of which eight were buried - eight who had been struck down on Spion Kop - four non-commissioned officers and four men.
The funeral party drew up near to the mortuary-tent, and halted there in precise military formation. There was the firing party, who went first, with inverted rifles; then came the bearers, and then a small company from the regiments of the dead.
Some little way off stood a cluster of men who had come, in a shy, apologetic sort of way, to see the last of their pals. They seemed to think that their presence near by the formal procession was an intrusion, and they huddled together, some ten of them, at a distance. From their attitudes one inferred that they did not wish to be considered as taking part in the funeral. They were pretending to be merely onlookers. They were restless, and disposed to shuffle their feet, or they kicked the earth up absently with the toes of their boots.
Some of the ten kept their eyes fixed upon the mortuary-tent, to watch the bodies come out. As each of the blanket-covered objects was brought from the tent into the sunlight there were murmured comments from this small knot of untidy men - these men who did not want to look like mourners, but who were mourners indeed. "That’s surely Ginger," says one of the number, pointing to the body last brought out. "No, that ain’t Ginger," says his companion. "Ginger never had a chest on him like that. That’s more like Jimmy Evans. Jimmy held hisself like that often."
So they talked, and they kept up fairly well this pretence at a casual conversation. But some could not trust themselves to speak, and these kept their backs to the tent and kicked at the earth absently. Those who took part in the apparent nonchalant talk had a struggle, I think, to keep their voices from breaking and their eyes from becoming dim. The "things" they were bringing out of the tent, done up in blankets, had once been men who had, perhaps, enlisted with them, who probably hailed from the same town in the Old Country, and who were the subjects of many memories.
When all the bodies were ready and the stretchers in line, the procession started, and marched slowly and silently round the kopje and along the glade that led to the trees by Spearman’s Farm.
But for the tents of a far-off camp the veldt was a desert. There was scarcely a human being in sight. There was none of the pomp of a soldier’s burial; no funeral march; no awed crowd; no tolling of bells; no group of weeping women in black clothes; no coffin borne on a gun-carriage and distinguished by the helmet and accoutrements of the dead. There were only the eight bundles in the brown blankets on the eight stretchers. And some little way in the rear were the slouching company of the ten, who did not want to be regarded as mourners, and who, with occasional "sniffing," and perhaps a surreptitious wiping of eyes with a shirt cuff, were shuffling along with a poor affectation of indifference.
In due course the last resting-place is reached, and here are eight separate graves in a line, and at the head of them stands the chaplain. He has on a college cap, a white surplice, riding breeches and putties. He reads the service with the utmost impressiveness. The men who form the firing party and the escort are ranged round the place of burial in precise military lines, and, in spite of the blazing sun, every head is bared. The words of the chaplain alone break the silence, although now and then there comes across the plain the boom of the naval gun. And here, under the dazzling sky of Africa, and at the foot of a kopje on the veldt, the eight dead are laid in the ground.
There are no onlookers except myself and the little group of ten. They stand in a cluster at a respectful distance. Their heads are bare, and more than one man has hidden his face in his helmet, while others have turned their heads away so that their mates shall not see their eyes. Their pretence at indifference and at having been drawn to the funeral by mere curiosity is now of the very slenderest.
As the graves are being filled up the funeral party marches back to the camp with a brisk step. The slovenly ten, who are not taking the part of mourners, scatter. They wander off in twos and threes, and they have become curiously silent. Some have dragged out pipes from their pockets, and are filling them absently. One is whistling an incoherent fragment of a tune. They look towards the horizon, and perhaps see nothing but the barren veldt, or perhaps they see a familiar village in England, and within a cottage in the small street the figure of a woman with her face buried in her hands.