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I continued hospital existence for two or three days more, when I was sent up to be attached to the Yeomanry left in the town, the 43rd (Suffolk) I.Y. I still had a splint—not the s[lint—on, and my arm and hand were in a sling. I was put into a tent with one or two others in their camp on the rising ground to the west of the town. They were not glad to see me, as I could do no work whatever, and made an extra mouth to fill. It was a long time before I could persuade them that I was to draw rations from them, and for days I used to have to go apologetically up to the quartermaster- sergeant’s tent to remind him that I was there, and, moreover, that I was hungry and had not been served out with so-and-so. This is the kind of thing that would happen—On rum- night I would come out, when the usual cry of “Rum up! ” rang out, with my mug and wait my turn till the last, when every one else had got theirs. Then I would go up and ask if I might have some, feeling rather like Oliver Twist, though I had not yet had any, and then the worthy sergeant and his myrmidons would stare at me blankly, and he would say he was sorry, but I had not been drawn for that time, but I would be remembered next time; meantime, wouldn’t I ask some of the men for some of theirs ? I was sure to get a little. Then I would say it didn’t matter in the least, and crawl off, rumless, to bed.

This kind of thing continued, with regard to bread, meat, and all rations, for some days, and then I heard that I was to take up my kit (I had no rifle) and go down to the town and report myself to Captain Greathead, commandeering office, for light duty. I should mention that before I got this order I wrote a letter, under date 5th December—”My wrist is much better, but still very weak. I do no duty yet, so am having quite a holiday. Methuen has not come back yet, so I am still with the Suffolks. I expect I shall rejoin in a week or two. The worst of it is I shan’t get my mails. I have no horse, rifle, or anything, and go and do where and what I like. I shall get all your letters in a lump, with, I hope, some Pioneer tobacco. It is very rainy. Rains in torrents nearly every day, with intervals of tropical heat. Really no news since last time. . . . We were in great excitement the other day. A despatch rider came in to say the Boers were moving on the town, and we were going to be besieged. We were all paraded and told our posts in case of attack. We have three or four guns, and good defences, so they’d have a job. But nothing has happened yet I think they are rather chary of attacking places unless they are about 20 to i now. We have a library here, and I read voraciously. I got half-way through ‘Dombey and Son,’ but it wants England, winter, and a cheerful fire, etc., for Dickens. I have also read Weyman, Haggard, and lots of them, also ‘Dolly Dialogues.’ The library is presided over by a little army clergyman. 3d. monthly. It is very quaint to see rough, savage-faced Tommies crowding eagerly round the bookcase, and hear the subdued remarks they make.”

Another letter, written from my new quarters ten days later, will explain my position :—

“Commandeering Office,

“Zeerust, Dec. 15, 1900.

“I was told to clear out of the camp, where I was attached to the Suffolks, with no duty, and to come down here on ‘light duty,’ as a step higher than ‘excused duty,’ because of my wrist So now I have got the iob of orderly at the commandeering office. I have a room to myself, and three black boys to look after my horse, cook the grub, and look after my room generally.” My duties were very varied. “I nave to ride about with blue O. H.M. S. envelopes to different parts of the town. I also have to see that the niggers feed and water, etc., eight or ten commandeered horses we have in a stable at the back. There is a mule with a swelled leg which I bandage and put hot fomentations on, and a horse with its nose torn by barbed wire which I bathe in carbolic, etc. My wrist is much better, but it is a slow job. I haven’t got any of your letters yet, and I can’t draw any pay. I suppose I’ll get all your letters in a bunch sometime. But till then I am both newsless and stony! . . .

“…It is good news about the Kaiser and other sovereigns telling Paul he needn’t expect any help. But of course the rank and file of the Boers will never know anything about that; their commandants will take jolly good care that they don’t. A field cornet deserted from their laager and came in and surrendered the other day. I saw him being escorted down the street, a big, tall man with a black beard, felt hat, nice new khaki coat and trousers, and a good horse. He said the latest news they had heard was that our men were all dying of disease and being killed in thousands. He also said, on seeing the quiet, prosperous appearance of the little town, that no one who did not know would think there was a war at all! He says, too, that many of the Boers in laager have no arms, and even go on sentry without arms, and that they are utterly demoralised, and have nothing but meat and maize corn to eat No groceries of any kind. But as all this is exactly what we have been hearing for the last six months, I was not so profoundly impressed with the news as I might have been.

“Two or three days lately I have been out with Captain Greathead (commandeering officer) superintending a gang of niggers ploughing on a farm 2 miles out. He stayed there about half an hour, and then left me and rode home I was supposed to make those boys (always called ‘boys,’ though they may be 100) work, and swear at them generally. As I hardly know a word of Dutch, and nothing at all about ploughing, it might have seemed rather funny to a white onlooker. I have to issue their rations every day, too. At first I could hardly keep my countenance when they all crowded round with their tins and mugs. ‘Scoff, please, baas ’ (scoff means grub). I give them a spoonful of sugar and five biscuits, and they go away quite contented.

“One of the town police came up to me in a great hurry just now, wanting me to lend him a horse to go out and arrest a woman who was known to have taken food out to her husband in the laager. I had just lent him my mare and my one spur, and told him to ride her on the grass, as she is tender in one foot, when he said, ‘Why, here is the lady,’ and he went up to a very respectable, pleasant- looking woman walking along with a little girl, both with their parasols up. She smiled very pleasantly indeed on him when he came politely up, but you should have seen her face change when he delicately hinted that she was ‘wanted’! She was supposed to have gone this afternoon to the laager, and he was expecting to catch her in flagrante delicto beyond our outposts, but was saved that trouble, and my horse a gallop. The latest report is that some troops are going home in January. But what can one believe? All the same, it is quite possible we may hear something definite in January. Whew! it is simply melting! I had to give evidence in the little court of justice yesterday, in the conviction of two niggers who had been playing some pranks with their waggon in connection with this farm they are ploughing 2 miles out I only had to say I had given a pass to one of the niggers in question on the morning of that day, a pass allowing him and his waggon to go past the outpost to the farm. I hope you got my last letter inclosing the ‘tikkie’ and two sixpences in Oom Paul money. I should like to get a whole set, but they are harder to pick up every day now. A penny is the most valuable, ’92 pennies especially. They cost from 8s. to £1 here. Then comes a 5s., then a tikkie (3d.), then 6d., then 2s. 6d., 2s. and the is. is quite common. Now I am going to the library to change a book. I have just read the ‘Three Musketeers ’ again.”

I was soon to be joined by another derelict, a brawny Scotchman from some Colonial sapper corps. He is mentioned in the following letter dated 23rd December :—”Still here, and no news of Methuen coming back. The latest I heard was that the 10th were garrisoning Lichtenberg, which comes somewhere between here and Mafeking as far as I can make out, something like this (sketch). A lot of Boers are hanging round here in small parties,, but I don’t think they will ever make a definite attack. One man of the 43rd was taken prisoner by them the other day along the road to Ottoshoop. He was going out on picket, and walked straight into a dozen of them round a small rise among some rocks. They took his horse, rifle, and bandolier, and let him go. They also collared a waggon full of Xmas cheer for us on the way from Mafeking yesterday. There was a ball here two nights ago, but officers only represented the ‘millingtary.’ I send you a few bits of paper—(1) a bit of a message from an officer to the general I picked up after an engagement; (2) my list I made for shopping in Mafeking; (3) a sheet of Z.A.R. Government paper, of wnicn, of course, no more will ever be made; hold it up to the light; (4) a few stamps and crests, and one of Methuen’s Proclamations. You see in the watermark of the paper the coat of arms, up above the lion rampant, and the Dutchman with his rifle, down below the national ox-waggon for trekking. In the middle the anchor, and below all their motto:—

‘Eenuraght maakt magt ’ (Unity is strength);

at the bottom is just the stamp. It is rather a curio, I think. The C. Officer gave it to me. He is a great man for curios. He has got two Transvaal flags, two cavalry swords, Dutch policeman’s baton, chains used in Boer gaols, bullets, cartridges, and bits of shell innumerable. He is a very decent chap, and has set us up (I say ‘us,’ because a man from a Colonial corps, who has been all over the world—a miner, prospector, and everything of that sort in Australia and Klondike, a regular rough pup, hard and rugged—has joined me; he was at a loose end, having been taken prisoner at Krugersdorp, and being let go, and put on this road, tramped it here in four days, more than 100 miles!),—has set us up, I say, with lots of things; we sport a table, chairs, a teapot, plates, cups, etc. The only thing is, I haven’t a farthing. I tried to draw pay from the paymaster here—no go. I tried the Suffolk I.Y.—no go either. I don’t mind for myself, because we get plenty of grub, but of course the niggers expect something now and then.”

The next letter is dated Sunday, 30th December, 1900. "I am all in the dark here still, and no further developments. One or two convoys have been in here lately, and the place has been provisioned for six months, but have had no chance of rejoining the 38th. The Boers here are growing bolder, and every day we expect an attack. On Thursday night I thought we were in for it It was about 10 o’clock; my mate was asleep, and I was lying on my wooden pallet reading by candlelight All was perfectly still, when suddenly, ‘Boom—m—m! ’ the crash of a 15-lb. gun, and then the shriek of a shell over our heads. Sutherland started up, crying ‘What’s that? what’s that ?’ I thought it must have been one of our guns, as if it had been a Boer gun firing into the town we should have heard the shell burst Then we discussed it, and came to the conclusion it was the alarm gun, and that the B.’s had begun an attack. We blew out the light, and sat on our beds and waited. Neither of us had a rifle, and he said he would lie in wait and strangle a Boer and take his rifle and cartridges (he would, like a shot, too), while I resolved upon a table-knife, as being neat and fairly effective. As we sat there in the dark, G. came panting up. ‘Are you fellows awake ? ’ (as if we could nave been asleep with that gun going off just over our heads!) ‘Yes,’ we said.

“Then stay here and be reaay; the Boers are attacking us. You stay and wait for orders.’ He was tremendously excited, and left us so. He came in again in a few moments, but went to the office, and I went out to him and asked him where the attack was, because I had heard no firing. He mumbled something incoherent, and rushed off. I then went out into the street and found an excited little group of civilians and native police gathered round the Intelligence Officer (chief of scouts), who was issuing all the rifles he could get hold of to civilians. Old men were pressing forward, and eagerly seizing Martinis and sporting rifles, and asking for cartridges. I asked for two rifles, but was told there were no more, and as everybody seemed quite mad and could tell me nothing, I went away. Just as I was leaving the guard-room I saw one man hauling in a case of big sporting cartridges, and vainly trying to fit them into his Lee-Metford rifle.

“Then a native scout came up, saying that the Boers had been seen coming up in large numbers. But I heard no firing, so I went back, and we both got into bed. In the morning I heard that some native police (who are posted nightly on the outskirts of the town) had seen some Boers certainly, and had been fired upon and had fired in return; but it was a wild, dark, stormy night, they had overestimated the numbers, and had come back much frightened and reported a general attack. But I never heard the true and exact account of it Anyhow, it keeps us on the alert S. and I have got rifles and ammunition now. The weather is at its hottest just now. Greathead has lived in the country twenty years, and he said that Friday was the hottest day he had ever known here. It was said to be 99 in the shade on Thursday and 113 on Friday. I can’t say I felt uncomfortable at all. I was surprised when I heard that the hot weather had reached its climax, and that it never got any hotter.”

I did not write again till 6th January, 1901.

“Time’s getting on, but still no news, nor is there likely to be, as we are practically besieged. The wires were cut on the 2nd, so we are now cut off from all communications. There has been a little desultory sniping since I wrote last, but nothing worse. I have had no letters, of course. I believe our mails get out now and then by black runners. We get no news whatever of the war. For all I know peace may have been declared a week ago, and this be only the tailing off—the last venomous shots of a few irreconcilables. Methuen, I believe, is down Vryburg way, and they may be contemplating some big move. I have got rid of that stupid mare I told you about” (The letter never reached.) “Such a pity. Big and strong and would go well too, but broken- winded, ‘roared’ when she trotted fast or cantered, and a hopeless, stupid jibber. The only thing that would conquer her was the stick. Spurs were no earthly use; frightened and flustered her, and made her ten times worse. So I discarded them, and when we were trotting quietly and she would suddenly stop dead with a jerk that nearly sent me flying over her head, I used to whack her till I forced her past the waggon, or house, or troop of horses, or whatever it might be that she wanted to stop at. I had some battles royal with her sometimes. I went out once with some ‘boys ’ to unload some ploughs into a field they were going to plough the next day. I stopped till they were nearly all unloaded, and there was only a harrow or two to take out when I started to ride off home. I got on, but nothing on earth would induce her to leave the waggons and boys and trot off. She leaned heavily up against the waggon, squeezing my leg against the wheel, and every time I slammed her and urged her forward she would get at a greater angle and shove with all her might against it, snorting all the time in the most terrified way. The idiot! I was furious, but daren’t go on hitting her, as she had nearly broken my leg, and if she went on might get my foot in the spokes, or the mules might get frightened and move the waggon on. So I left off, and tried patting her and calming her down, and arguing a bit with her, but still no good. So then I told one of the drivers to touch her up behind with his ox-hide whip; you know the sort of thing. The handle is a straight, pliant bamboo like a fishing rod, and about the same length, and the lash is about twice that length, and made of tough ox-hide. A Kaffir driver can take a piece out of a bullock's hide, any one of his team, and any part of his body. I bent forward so as to be out of the way, and at the first crack she quivered all over, but did not budge ; I loosened the reins right out so as to give the brute every chance. Crack ! another one, and she shifted uneasily from the wheel. Then crack ! again, a hardish one, and she was off. I thumped her with my spurless heels till we got out of the field on to the lane, and then quieted her down.

"She trotted along nicely till we came to a place where a road crossed our path. “I must turn off here,' says she. 'No, go straight on,' says I. ‘But I must turn off here,' says she. 'No, you mustn't.' 'Then I won't go anywhere,' she says. I tried gentle coaxing, then whacking, but broke my switch. So I got off. 'Ha, ha!' she laughed. 'Beaten, are you? Got to get off, eh?' 'Oh, no,' I said. ' I am going to get another stick to flog you with, my lady.' So I chose one, and trimmed it, and mounted again with great difficulty. By this time we were both 'fair latherin'.' I gave her another chance, and then recommenced hostilities. She bucked, started, and jibbed. She turned round and round, and ran backwards, and did every mortal thing but go forward ; but I clung on desperately, and, keeping her head towards the opening, pounded her till I could do no more, when I changed hands and ‘continued the motion ’ with my left. In the end she had to go, and I arrived home, to confront the wondering Sutherland, dripping but victorious. That sort of thing is all very well when you are free to use your hands, but it is a different matter when you are encumbered with a rifle.

“A day or two ago S. and I had to saddle up and go out in the pouring (pouring, mind) rain at 5.30 a.m. with the captain and a waggon and a dozen mounted infantry. The job was to go out about 2 miles and bag some goods from a deserted farmhouse, where it was known that Boers were, and had been, all round the place. I had some trouble to get her out of the yard; and when at last we did get into the street, the waggon and the others were round the corner. She refused to stir. I yelled for a stick. I thumped her with the rifle. The rain came down in torrents. Some loafing niggers produced a stick, and with this and a crowd of niggers hooting and driving her from behind I got her to the corner. Of course she wanted to go straight on and not round the corner. Anyhow, she delayed me five or ten minutes, and there was I in the pelting rain, already wet through, with my overcoat (you know, the same old khaki one) clinging all about me. Then and there I resolved that I would get rid of her at any price.

“By the way, we had a bit of an adventure that day. We had to cross a deepish drift in carrying the barbed wire and other things to and from the place and the waggon. The Boers let us alone. They were snug in houses, I should think, and did not see the fools of English slopping about in the rain under their noses. Every time we crossed the stream, of course, it was higher. We went across on our horses first, then left them on the far side while we carted the things across to the waggon, wire, and cast-iron piping and poles, etc. The last time I really thought we should have to swim for it. It was up to our waists, and very swift and strong. The officers were away on the near side and did not know how it was rising. So we told them that we could not carry anything more across, and that it would be a near go now, even with the horses. So we all ran to our horses, except two men who had left theirs on the other side. We mounted and plunged in, one of the Tommies holding on to my mare’s tail. For a wonder she behaved sensibly, and by keeping her head up stream we battled across, but I thought we were done for about mid-stream. She kept slipping, gliding further down stream, and losing her foothold and finding it again, and the man hanging on behind let go when we got into the slow running part on the other side, with a loud yell of triumph, and fell headlong forwards into the water, and struggled up the bank, laughing. I asked him why he had let go, and he said he was afraid the mare might lash out behind when she got into shallow water. Then we rode homewards, but had to stop outside Zeerust for three hours while the stream went down, as we could not cross it. It runs round the town. During this time I swopped my mare for a little Basuto pony owned by one of the M.I. I hope he will turn out a success. I think he ought to, with feeding and attention. . . .

“It is one year yesterday since I joined the I.Y.”

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Category: Gaskell: With Lord Methuen in South Africa
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