R.M.S. Dunottar Castle,

Cape Town, Tuesday, October 31st, 1899.

The brains of the army were being packed into the trains on that morning of departure at Waterloo Station. That was why there was a crowd so great, so clamorous, and so attentive; and now that I know something more about the brains of the army I see that the people who thronged the platforms had drawn justification out of that strange bag of principles which govern the actions of a multitude. It was a valuable freight which sped down to Southampton, and ever since has been folded within these tiny walls and swung and tumbled across the ocean. To think of all the brains in one box, and that dwindled into a speck and lost for all these days! The box is unprotected too, and I, for one, can scarcely sight a strange sail without half wondering if the Boers have not somehow contrived to have just one small ship in waiting to capture the brains of the army. But the achievements of modern warfare still drag lamely behind romantic fiction; we are safe, the Boers are dull, science is slow, and the British Intelligence Division may still boast at least some reputation. Of the quality of this brilliant staff which is to be the brains of the British army operating in South Africa more falls to be said in its appropriate place.

War wears a double face. One face is a mask which has been thrust upon it, and this face is all laughter; the other is the natural face of war, and it is all tears. The two are not seen as alternatives, but always side by side. At Waterloo Station there it was—the eternal double face of war. Beside a bawling, singing, hatless, perspiring, triumphant face, a face straining, clinched, stricken, speechless—a face of unfathomed woe. As the train moved out of the station the long frieze of faces was drawn past one’s carriage, the higher faces crushed into the architrave formed by the top of the carriage window. The first few faces were distinct—sad and glad; but the platform was incredibly long, the train quickened, and we said goodbye to a composite picture. At Southampton, again the double face of war. It filled the wharves as, the oldest captain said, they had never been filled before, and, surging, it craned itself up to the vessel’s decks; in the one character it urged us on, in the other it beckoned us back. You turned to the seaward side, and there was a placid face that was only inscrutable. Southampton Water might have been a lake that reached to you from the foot of the grounds below the white, castled house; the small boats crept softly along under the bushes; the whole thing was elegant and artificial and unruffled.

At last we were off, and then a cry of farewell crackled below the ship and spread; along the lines it went—such a shout as the oldest captain had never heard at Southampton before. And then we on the Dunottar Castle glided away till the screen of faces was watered down into the vague solidity of the quay walls. One excursion steamer ran alongside us for a few moments; her passengers swarmed at her side to snatch a last glimpse of Sir Redvers Buller and his staff; the water streamed through the open work of her paddle-box on that side, the other paddle flapped at the water, and the vessel, like a wounded duck, fell speedily into our wake. A little later came darkness, the red light of the Needles, and then the growing roll of the Channel. Thus the brains of the army started for South Africa.

On the monotony—or what we choose to think the monotony—of a modern voyage it were useless to dwell. Really a sea voyage is almost the only means left by which we may easily and suddenly escape from end-of-the-century life; it is a time to be prized and cherished and used in a new and wholly peculiar way; it is a secret door for our convenience and our profit. Yet most of us inexcusably neglect to appreciate it; our intolerance of the days spent at sea becomes continually greater as science makes a modem voyage continually shorter. We reckon time by our meals—it is so long after breakfast or before dinner—and the daily miracles of the changing latitudes are performed in vain. The tropical night, not heralded by twilight, shuts down on us suddenly, and ten minutes after daylight the foam at the vessel’s side, now illuminated by the electric lights of the ship, is darting in snow-white patches right and left on to an inky field; the dense clouds of the trade winds, heavily banked on the horizon, are at night the most tremendous and frowning battlement of the world; the Southern Cross holds a strategic position in the sky, and is the private property of the Southern peoples.

But these things are hardly good enough to save us from our preoccupying sense of monotony. What has the ship herself done for us? The passengers are a characteristic ship’s company bound for the wars. You may suppose that the operations of a British army are too regular to admit the casual and irregular adventurer. You may be right, but the casual adventurer disagrees with you. There are at least ten passengers on board this ship who mean to find adventure, and almost certainly will find it, but at the moment they have not the least notion how.

Where the fighting is, there are the English gathered together. I remember how it struck me when I was waiting in Thessaly for the Greek war to begin. Every night I dined in a cafe where all round me was the unintelligible chatter of an aviary. Suddenly the war began; four nights later I dined again in the cafe, and at dinner I became conscious that the buzz of the cafe was somehow changed. English, I found on observation, was being spoken on my right, also on my left, and indeed, when I came to notice it, behind me, and—yes—in every part of the room. The teeth of war had been sown and the harvest of armed Englishmen had risen from the ground.

There are among us names well known in the modern history of South Africa. There is, for instance, the family of Mr. Woolls-Sampson, most implacable enemy of the Boers, renowned for having fought that duel with rifles in which he received four bullet wounds, and his enemy, the Boer, five. The Boer still carries five bullets in his body. Later Mr. Sampson was imprisoned as one of the Reform Committee. Unlike most of the others, he refused to petition for his release, and at last, after thirteen months, was released on the occasion of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Now he is major of the Imperial Light Horse.

A mutograph—that is the name hit upon for the instrument which takes the continuous photographs for the biograph—is a familiar figure of the decks; a huge square box of a camera, on an iron tripod, which is found on examination to be full of burring electrical works. It looks as though it would require a team of artillery horses to bring it into action on the field, and its crew of three men have more than once been unable to train it in time on a ship that grew rapidly up from the horizon. But it will be limbered and unlimbered rapidly enough, no doubt, when the time comes, for to-day we could scarcely go to war without it. On some afternoons it has been placed so as to command the hurricane deck, where the General, his staff, and the rest of us promenade before dinner. “You can catch me if you can,” says the General, “but I won’t pose for you.” Perhaps he was caught, perhaps he was not, but if caught it was with a shoal of small fry.

All day the staff officers study technical writings, examine maps, and lay their heads together, and on to such solemn confabulations perhaps drift the strains of the intermezzo from “Cavalleria Rusticana” performed, with one finger, in the music saloon. A quoit thrown at a bucket strikes and incenses an eminent cartographer whose head is bowed in meditation. Such ridiculous contrasts are inevitable on a passenger ship which carries the brains of the army.

The doctors have been quite busy. They have lectured to us on the efficacy and advisability of inoculation against enteric fever, pointing out that the statistics gathered during the epidemic at Maidstone were overwhelmingly convincing. And at the end of each lecture some of us have ranged ourselves in a line, and as we passed the archdoctor sitting before his little witches’ cauldron each of us was stabbed in the side with the hypodermic syringe dipped in the typhoid serum. One inoculation protects you from typhoid; two inoculations, we are told, secure you against it for at least two years. My own symptoms after receiving the minute wound were the symptoms of others—first an Elysian lassitude, and then headache and fever for perhaps twenty-four hours. After that nothing remained but stiffness in the side, and that too was gone in three days.

From the monotony of the passage two incidents stand out and wear a certain distinction. On Monday, October 23rd, we overtook an Aberdeen White Star vessel, the Nineveh, south of the equator. The Dunottar Castle altered her course so that we passed the hired transport near enough to throw a biscuit on board. The New South Wales Lancers, clay-coloured, thronged her decks and her rigging, and our own clay-coloured troops stood solid on the fo’c’sle head. While the Dunottar Castle straddled the seas the smaller ship dived and reared buoyantly with the slow rhythm of the ocean on the northern fringe of the “Trades”; now her sharp fiddle-bows divided the water till that dusky white immutable figurehead with the folded arms stooped to the water; now the water fell away from her green sides till the red bilges showed like the sides of a gold-fish.

“Is Sir Redvers Buller on board?” the Nineveh signalled.

The rising yelp of her siren was answered by the steady, profound blast of our fog-horn. Major Rhodes—”one of the brothers,” as one hears him called—the chief signaller of the staff, ran to the fo’c’sle head and signalled somehow with a handkerchief. The mutograph was desperately trained on the Nineveh, but too late. “What won the Cesarewitch?” was the last question which reached us, and then the Nineveh, still fluttering with handkerchiefs and ringing with cheers, fell back into our wake and the distance.

On Sunday, October 29th, the Australasian, also of the Aberdeen White Star Line, came in sight. It is strange how different associations breed different practices. Men and women who would not stop in Regent Street if a hansom fell in pieces before them, will spend hours watching a speck on the horizon when they are in mid-ocean; will stream up from the saloons and the cabins to see a poor mean little brig shuffling and drifting through the doldrums. But the meeting with the Australasian was more important than that; it was the most dramatic encounter at sea that any of us could call to mind, or was likely to experience again. When we sighted her she quickly came near to us. She was coming from the Cape, not going to it, and since she was coming from the Cape, why she must have news—news only three days old.

Think of the days we had fed only on speculation; think what it was to be without news of the war for two weeks; remember that we had the brains of the army on board, and then realise the curious mixture of voracity, impatience, excitement, and emotion with which we altered our course to come quite near the approaching vessel, burst out our signals from the mast, tumbled down the companions to our cabins for glasses and cameras, returned, and—waited. I, for one, will always believe that the Australasian slackened almost to dead slow as she approached us; but there is the captain’s evidence to the contrary, that she never altered her speed. At all events we came side to side with her at last, and then some one discovered that she had a long black board hung on her ratlines, and on the board there was—was it?—yes, not a doubt of it—writing.

Would the letters never stop flickering in the end of one’s glasses? The ship would be by in a moment, and why on earth hadn’t she come nearer? But at last the words drew out and separated themselves from the continuous line of chalk. We read—

“Truce.” Yes, “Truce.” What, already?

No—“Three”; that was it—“Three.”

“Three battles,” so we read, catching the last words as the Australasian slipped past us—“Three battles; the Boers defeated : Symons killed.”

In a few minutes the Australasian was hull down in the distance, but her quick transit had made an incredible difference to us; we looked on the sea with enlightened eyes.