DULNESS INTERMINABLE—LADYSMITH IN 2099 A.D.—SIEGES OBSOLETE HARDSHIPS—DEAD TO THE WORLD—THE APPALLING FEATURES OF A BOMBARDMENT.
November 26, 1899.
I was going to give you another dose of the dull diary. But I haven't the heart. It would weary you, and I cannot say how horribly it would weary me.
I am sick of it. Everybody is sick of it. They said the force which would open the line and set us going against the enemy would begin to land at Durban on the 11th, and get into touch with us by the 16th. Now it is the 26th; the force, they tell us, has landed, and is somewhere on the line between Maritzburg and Estcourt; but of advance not a sign.
Buller, they tell us one day, is at Bloemfontein; next day he is coming round to Durban; the next he is a prisoner in Pretoria.
The only thing certain is that, whatever is happening, we are out of it. We know nothing of the outside; and of the inside there is nothing to know.
Weary, stale, flat, unprofitable, the whole thing. At first, to be besieged and bombarded was a thrill; then it was a joke; now it is nothing but a weary, weary, weary bore. We do nothing but eat and drink and sleep—just exist dismally. We have forgotten when the siege began; and now we are beginning not to care when it ends.
For my part, I feel it will never end.
It will go on just as now, languid fighting, languid cessation, for ever and ever. We shall drop off one by one, and listlessly die of old age.
And in the year 2099 the New Zealander antiquarian, digging among the buried cities of Natal, will come upon the forgotten town of Ladysmith. And he will find a handful of Rip Van Winkle Boers with white beards down to their knees, behind quaint, antique guns shelling a cactus-grown ruin. Inside, sheltering in holes, he will find a few decrepit creatures, very, very old, the children born during the bombardment. He will take these links with the past home to New Zealand. But they will be afraid at the silence and security of peace. Having never known anything but bombardment, they will die of terror without it.
So be it. I shall not be there to see. But I shall wrap these lines up in a Red Cross flag and bury them among the ruins of Mulberry Grove, that, after the excavations, the unnumbered readers of the 'Daily Mail' may in the enlightened year 2100 know what a siege and a bombardment were like.
Sometimes I think the siege would be just as bad without the bombardment.
In some ways it would be even worse; for the bombardment is something to notice and talk of, albeit languidly. But the siege is an unredeemed curse. Sieges are out of date. In the days of Troy, to be besieged or besieger was the natural lot of man; to give ten years at a stretch to it was all in a life's work; there was nothing else to do. In the days when a great victory was gained one year, and a fast frigate arrived with the news the next, a man still had leisure in his life for a year's siege now and again.
But to the man of 1899—or, by'r Lady, inclining to 1900—with five editions of the evening papers every day, a siege is a thousand-fold a hardship. We make it a grievance nowadays if we are a day behind the news—news that concerns us nothing.
And here are we with the enemy all round us, splashing melinite among us in most hours of the day, and for the best part of a month we have not even had any definite news about the men for whom we must wait to get out of it. We wait and wonder, first expectant, presently apathetic, and feel ourselves grow old.
Furthermore, we are in prison. We know now what Dartmoor feels like. The practised vagabond tires in a fortnight of a European capital; of Ladysmith he sickens in three hours.
Even when we could ride out ten or a dozen miles into the country, there was little that was new, nothing that was interesting. Now we lie in the bottom of the saucer, and stare up at the pitiless ring of hills that bark death. Always the same stiff, naked ridges, flat-capped with our intrenchments—always, always the same. As morning hardens to the brutal clearness of South African mid-day, they march in on you till Bulwan seems to tower over your very heads. There it is close over you, shady, and of wide prospect; and if you try to go up you are a dead man.
Beyond is the world—war and love. Clery marching on Colenso, and all that a man holds dear in a little island under the north star. But you sit here to be idly shot at. You are of it, but not in it—clean out of the world. To your world and to yourself you are every bit as good as dead—except that dead men have no time to fill in.
I know now how a monk without a vocation feels. I know how a fly in a beer-bottle feels.
I know how it tastes, too.
And with it all there is the melinite and the shrapnel. To be sure they give us the only pin-prick of interest to be had in Ladysmith. It is something novel to live in this town turned inside out.
Where people should be, the long, long day from dawn to daylight shows only a dead blank.
Where business should be, the sleepy shop-blinds droop. But where no business should be—along the crumbling ruts that lead no whither—clatters waggon after waggon, with curling whip-lashes and piles of bread and hay.
Where no people should be—in the clefts at the river-bank, in bald patches of veldt ringed with rocks, in overgrown ditches—all these you find alive with men and beasts.
The place that a month ago was only fit to pitch empty meat-tins into is now priceless stable-room; two squadrons of troop-horses pack flank to flank inside its shelter. A scrub-entangled hole, which perhaps nobody save runaway Kaffirs ever set foot in before, is now the envied habitation of the balloon. The most worthless rock-heap below a perpendicular slope is now the choicest of town lots.
The whole centre of gravity of Ladysmith is changed. Its belly lies no longer in the multifarious emporia along the High Street, but in the earth-reddened, half-in visible tents that bashfully mark the commissariat stores. Its brain is not the Town Hall, the best target in Ladysmith, but Headquarters under the stone-pocked hill. The riddled Royal Hotel is its social centre no longer; it is to the trench-seamed Sailors' Camp or the wind-swept shoulders of Cæsar's Camp that men go to hear and tell the news.
Poor Ladysmith! Deserted in its markets, repeopled in its wastes; here ripped with iron splinters, there rising again into rail-roofed, rock-walled caves; trampled down in its gardens, manured where nothing can ever grow; skirts hemmed with sandbags and bowels bored with tunnels—the Boers may not have hurt us, but they have left their mark for years on her.
They have not hurt us much—and yet the casualties mount up. Three to-day, two yesterday, four dead or dying and seven wounded with one shell—they are nothing at all, but they mount up. I suppose we stand at about fifty now, and there will be more before we are done with it.
And then there are moments when even this dribbling bombardment can be appalling.
I happened into the centre of the town one day when the two big guns were concentrating a cross-fire upon it.
First from one side the shell came tearing madly in, with a shrill, a blast. A mountain of earth, and a hailstorm of stones on iron roofs. Houses winced at the buffet. Men ran madly away from it. A dog rushed out yelping—and on the yelp, from the other quarter, came the next shell. Along the broad straight street not a vehicle, not a white man was to be seen. Only a herd of niggers cowering under flimsy fences at a corner.
Another crash and quaking, and this time in a cloud of dust an outbuilding jumped and tumbled asunder. A horse streaked down the street with trailing halter. Round the corner scurried the niggers: the next was due from Pepworth's.
Then the tearing scream: horror! it was coming from Bulwan.
Again the annihilating blast, and not ten yards away. A roof gaped and a house leaped to pieces. A black reeled over, then terror plucked him up again, and sent him running.
Head down, hands over ears, they tore down the street, and from the other side swooped down the implacable, irresistible next.
You come out of the dust and the stench of melinite, not knowing where you were, hardly knowing whether you were hit—only knowing that the next was rushing on its way. No eyes to see it, no limbs to escape, no bulwark to protect, no army to avenge. You squirm between iron fingers.
Nothing to do but endure.