"De Aar," and the Africander guard flung himself out of his brake-van.
De Aar! After forty-eight hours of semi-starvation in a brake-van, the name of the junction, in spite of the ill-natured tones which gave voice to it, sounded sweeter than the chimes of bells. It meant relief from confinement in a few square feet of board; relief from a semi-putrid atmosphere—oil, unwashed men, and stale tobacco-smoke; relief from the delicate attentions of a surly Africander guard, who resented the overcrowding of his van; relief from the pangs of hunger; relief from the indescribable punishments of thirst.
Yet at its best De Aar is a miserable place. Not made—only thrown at the hillside, and allowed by negligence and indifference to slip into the nearest hollow. Too far from the truncated kopjes to reap any benefit from them. Close enough to feel the radiation of a sledge-hammer sun from their bevelled summits—close enough to be the channel, in summer, of every scorching blast diverted by them; in winter, every icy draught. Pestilential place, goal of whirlwinds and dust-devils, ankle-deep in desert drift—prototype of Berber in a sandstorm—as comfortless by night as day. But as in nature, so in the handiwork of men, even in the most repulsive shapes it is possible to find some saving feature. De Aar has one—one only. Its saving feature is where a slatternly Jew boy plays host behind the bar of a fly-ridden buffet. Here at prices which, except that it is a campaign, would be prohibitive, you can purchase food and drink.
But at night it is not an easy place to find. The station is full of trains, and, arriving by a supply-train, you are discharged at some remote siding. A dozen wheeled barricades—open trucks, groaning bogies piled with war material—separate you from the platform. You dare not climb over the couplings between the waggons, for engines are attached, and the trains jolt backwards and forwards apparently without aim or warning. Up over an open truck! You roll on to the top of sleeping men, and bark your shins against a rifle. Curses follow you as you clamber out, and drop into the middle way. A clear line. No,—down pants an armoured train, a leviathan of steel plates and sheet-iron. You let it pass, and dash for the next barricade. Thank heaven! this is a passenger train. As it is lighted up like a grand hotel you will be able to hoist yourself over the footboards and through a saloon—"Halt! who goes there?" and you recoil from the point of a naked bayonet. "Can't help it, orficer or no orficer, this is Lord Kitchener's special, and you can't pass here!" It is no use. Another wide detour; more difficulties, other escapes from moving trains, and at last you find the platform.
De Aar platform at night. If the management at Drury Lane ever wished to enact a play called "Chaos," the setting for their best scene could not better a night on De Aar platform. Each day this Clapham Junction of Lord Kitchener's army dumps down dozens of men, who are forced for an indefinite period to use the station as a home—tons and tons of army litter and a thousand nondescript details. The living lie about the station in magnificent confusion—white men, Kaffirs, soldiers, prisoners, civilians. A brigadier-general waiting for the night mail will be asleep upon one bench, a skrimshanking Tommy, who has purposely lost his unit, on the next. Even Kitchener's arrival can work no cleansing of De Aar. It only adds to the confusion by condensation of the chaos into a more restricted and less public area.
But our first needs are animal. Stumbling over prostrate forms, cannoning against piles of heterogeneous gear, we make the buffet. A flood of light, the buzz of voices, and the hum of myriads of disturbed flies, and we live again. Filthy cloths, stained senna-colour with the spilt food and drink of months, an atmosphere reeking like a "fish-snack" shop, a dozen to twenty dishevelled and dirty men of all ranks clamouring for food, two slovenly half-caste wenches. That is all, yet this is life to the man off "trek." There is even a fascination in an earthenware plate, though its surface shows the marks of the greasy cloth and dirty fingers of the servitors.
A lieutenant-general and his staff have a table to themselves; we find a corner at the main board, where the meaner sit. After food, news. De Wet has invaded the Colony with 3000 men. He was fighting with Plumer to-day at Philipstown. Then we begin to understand why we were summoned to De Aar. The little horse-gunner major, who vouchsafed the news, had just arrived with his battery from somewhere on the Middelburg-Komati line. Five days on the train and his horses only watered four times. That was nothing at this period of the war, when the average mounted man was not blamed if he killed three horses in a month. The major did not know his destination or what column he was to join. Delightful uncertainty! All he knew was that his battery was boxed up in a train outside the buffet, and that it would start for somewhere in half an hour. It might be destined for Mafeking, or it might be for Beaufort West; but he was ready to lay 2 to 1 that within six weeks his battery would be on the high seas India bound. Wise were the men who took up this bet, for the little major and his battery are in South Africa to this day.
Food over, it was necessary once more to face the maze of De Aar platform. It may seem strange, but when you are on duty bound, it is easier, once the right platform is gained, to find the officials at midnight than in the day. Under martial law few travellers have lights; fewer are allowed, or have the desire, to burn them on the platform. Consequently a light after midnight generally means an official trying to overtake the work which has accumulated during the day.
"Railway Staff Officer? Yes, sir, straight in here, sir."
A very pale youth, in the cleanest of kit, whitest of collars, and with the pinkest of pink impertinences round his cap and neck. He never looked up from the paper on which he was writing as he opened the following conversation—
Pale Youth. "What can I do for you?"
Applicant. "I am here under telegraphic instructions."
P. Y. (taking telegram proffered) "Never heard of you."
A. "You must have some record of that wire!"
P. Y. "I never sent it. It must have been sent by the Railway Staff Officer. He's asleep now. Come back in the morning and see him!"
A. (furiously) "You d——d young cub!—is this the way you treat your seniors? What do you belong to?"
P. Y. (Jumping up nervously) "Oh, I beg your pardon, sir; I thought you were one of those helpless Yeomanry officers. They are the plague of our lives. I will go and wake the R.S.O." [Disappears. Returns in five minutes.]
P. Y. "The R.S.O. says that you must report to the office of the line of communications. They may have orders about you. You will find the brigade-major in a saloon carriage on the third siding outside the Rosmead line." [Salutes.]
We go out into the night again, wondering if perdition can equal De Aar for miserable discomfort, and De Aar officialdom for inconsequence. The third siding, indeed! It was an hour before the saloon was found in that labyrinth of cast-iron.
The brigade-major was there, a wretched worn object of a man, plodding by the eccentric light of a tallow dip through the day's telegrams. Poor wretch! he earns his pittance as thoroughly as any of us do. Again we drew blank. "Never heard of you." All we could get out of him was, "You had better bed down in the station and await events." Poor devil! so worn with work and worry that he looked as if a simple little De Aar dust-devil would snap his backbone if it touched him. So we were turned adrift again in the old iron heap to swell the army of vagrants who live by their wits upon the communications.
It was about two in the morning before we found our servants. The soldier servant is a jewel—but a jewel with some blemishes. If you tell him to do anything "by numbers," he will do it splendidly; but he does not consider it part of his duty to think for himself, consequently you have always to think both for yourself and your servant, and that is why on this occasion we found ours sitting on our rolls of bedding at the far end of the platform. It had never struck them that we should want to sleep in a place like De Aar. Disgusted, we tried the hotel. Here they loosed dogs on us and turned out the guard. Still more disgusted, we returned to our bedding, and sardined in with the ruck and rubbish on the platform.
Sunrise in South Africa. The sun knows how to rise on the veldt. When first seen it is as good as a tonic. It makes one feel joyous at the mere fact of being alive. But this feeling wears off with a week's trekking, especially when the season gets colder, or a night-march has miscarried. Then you never wish to see the sun rise again. There was a time when a man who boasted that he had never seen the sun rise was branded as a lazy sloth, an indolent good-for-nothing, who willingly missed half the pleasures of life. After twenty months continuous trekking in South Africa one is not sure that one's opinions on this subject fall into line with those of the majority. For after a baker's dozen of sunrises one has generally reached that state when the greatest natural pleasure is found inside rather than outside of a sleeping-bag. But in spite of the general detestation in which De Aar is held, the neighbouring hills furnish, in the quickening light of dawn, studies in changing colour so voluptuous, varied, and fantastic that the wonder is that all the artists in the world have not fore-gathered at the place. But familiarity with all this beauty reduces it to a commonplace. It just becomes part of the monotony of your daily life, especially if you have, as we had that morning, to wait your turn before you could wash, at the waste-water drippings from a locomotive feed-pump. Here you fought for a place, jostled by men who at home would have stepped off the pavement and saluted. But after a few months of war, at a washing-pump there is little by which you can distinguish officers from men, unless the former have their tunics on. From the washtub to chota haziri. The buffet is not yet open, but a dilapidated Kaffir woman on the platform is doling out at sixpence a time a mess of treacle-like consistency which is called coffee. What would you think if you could catch a glimpse of us? What would the bright little maid who brings in the tea in the morning say, if she could see us now? Certainly if we came to the front-door she would slam it in our faces, and threaten us with the police!
But we must be up and doing. It is an extraordinary day at De Aar. Every one is bustling about. Staff popinjays hurry up and down the platform. Stout elderly militia colonels, who would never be up and dressed at this hour in ordinary circumstances, are heckling the R.S.O., who has more starch in his tunic than has ever been seen in a tunic before. What does it all mean? Then we remember the naked bayonet of the previous night. Lord Kitchener is at De Aar. Oh, Hades!
We feel his presence, but it is not long before we see him. How he must worry his tailor. Tall and well-proportioned above, he falls away from his waist downwards. It is this lower weediness which evidently troubles the man who fashions his clothes. But it is his face we look at. That cold blue eye which is the basilisk of the British Army. The firm jaw and the cruel mouth, of which we read in 1898. But presumably this is only the stereotyped "military hero" that the papers always keep "set up" for the advent of successful generals. None of it was visible here. A round, red, and somewhat puffy face. Square head with staff cap set carelessly upon it. Heavy moustaches covering a somewhat mobile mouth, at the moment inclined to smile. Eyes just anyhow; heavy, but not overpowering eyebrows. In fact, a very ordinary face of a man scarcely past his prime. Hardly a figure that you would have remarked if it had not been for the gilt upon his hat—in fact it was all a disappointing discovery. He was pacing up and down with his hands on his hips, and elbows pointing backwards, talking good-naturedly to a colonel man, who was evidently just off "trek," and with his overgrown gait and ponderous step the great Kitchener did not look half as imposing as his travel-stained companion.
The chief was explaining something to the colonel. They paced up and down together for a few minutes, then stopped just in front of us, and the conversation was as follows:—
Chief. "All right; I will soon find you a staff. Let me see; you have a brigade-major?"
Colonel. "Yes; but he is at Hanover Road!"
Chief. "That's all right; you will collect him in good time. You want a chief for your staff. Here, you (and he beckoned a colonel in palpably just-out-from-England kit, who was standing by); what are you doing here? You will be chief of the staff to the New Cavalry Brigade!"
New Colonel. "But, sir—"
Chief. "That's all right. (Reverting to his original attitude.) Now you want transport and supply officers. See that depot over there? (nodding his head towards the De Aar supply depot.) Go and collect them there—quote me as your authority. There you are fitted up; you can round up part of your brigade to-night and be off at daybreak to-morrow. Wait; you will want an intelligence officer. (Here he swung round and ran his eye over the miscellaneous gathering of all ranks assembled on the platform. He singled out a bedraggled officer from amongst the group who had arrived the preceding night in the van of the ill-natured Africander guard.) What are you doing here?"
Officer. "Trying to rejoin, sir."
Chief. "Where have you come from?"
Officer. "Deelfontein—convalescent, sir."
Chief. "You'll do. You are intelligence officer to the New Cavalry Brigade. Here's your brigadier; you will take orders from him. (Turning again to the colonel and holding out his hand.) There you are; you are fitted out. Mind you move out of Richmond Road to-morrow morning without fail. Good-bye!"