The driver leaned out of the cab of his engine and gave the brigadier a little of his mind.
"Look here, I am a civilian; I know my duties. I had my eight bogies on, and by the rights of things I had no business to take on your beastly truck—and now I tell you that the line is not safe, and here I stay for the night. Bear in mind that you are now dealing with civilian driver John Brown, and he knows his duties."
"My hearty fellow!" answered the brigadier, who had commanded a Colonial corps too long to be put out by "back-chat" from a representative of the most independent class in the world, "that is not the point. If we were all to do our duty rigidly to the letter, we should get no forwarder. It is not a matter of saving this train, it is a matter of a gentleman keeping his word. I have given my word that I will march out of Richmond Road to-morrow at daybreak. You wouldn't like it on your conscience that not only had you made a pal break his word, but you had also been the means of leaving a gap in the line for De Wet. Duty be hanged in the Imperial cause! What did Nelson do at the battle of Copenhagen? Now this is just a parallel: I know that you are loyal and sportsman to the backbone; I want you to be the Nelson of this 'crush.' I know I can't order you—but I know that you are a sportsman, and as a sportsman you will not give me away. Look here, I am just going into the telegraph-office for ten minutes. Think it over while I'm there!"
The driver's face was a study, and as for Fireman Jack, he just smiled all over his dirty countenance. There is only one way to a Colonial's heart, and you must be shod with velvet to get there. We then adjourned to the little shanty that served Deelfontein for a stationmaster's office. We—that is such of the staff of the New Cavalry Brigade as the brigadier had been able to collect in De Aar.
"Where's a map?" asked the brigadier. The chief of the staff looked at the intelligence officer. The intelligence officer looked at the supply officer. A map! No one had ever seen a map. But a "Briton and Boer" chart had been part of the chief of the staff's home outfit, and after considerable fumbling it was produced from his bulging haversack.
"Well, you are a fine lot of 'was-birds' with which to run a brigade: but this will do. Now, Mr Intelligence, jot down this wire:—
"From O.C. New Cavalry Brigade to O.C. first squadron 20th Dragoon Guards to arrive at Richmond Road.
"On receipt move with all military precautions at once to Klip Kraal, twenty-six miles on the Britstown Road. I will follow to-morrow morning. Look out for helio. communication on your left, as another column is moving parallel to you to the south."
"There," said the brigadier, "we have got over that difficulty, and anticipated Kitchener's orders by twelve hours. May Providence protect those raw dragoons if old Hedgehog is in the vicinity. Three days off a ship and to meet Hedgehog is a big thing!"
The dirty and smiling face of Fireman Jack was poked in at the doorway.
"Please, sir, the driver says as how he is ready to move, and would like to start as soon as possible."
"Hearty fellow!" said the brigadier; and then as we climbed into our saloon again he added: "There is only one way of treating these fellows. Treat them as men and they are of the very best on earth; combat them, and they won't move a yard. Some one at De Aar ordered an extra truck on to this man's train, and he has been sulking ever since. Now that he's on his mettle and emulating Nelson, you will see that he will bustle us along. Nothing but a dynamite cartridge will stop him. My fellows in Natal were just the same."
Two hours later, just before it was dark, we ran into Richmond Road. The driver jumped off his engine and strode across the platform. "General," he said, with the frank familiarity of the Colonial, "I should just like to say that I had shaken hands with you. I wish that there were more like you; we should all be better men. Good-bye and good luck to you, sir!"
It is not intended in these papers to compile a historical record of the operations in South Africa to which they relate. But in order that the part which the New Cavalry Brigade played in the campaign which arrested De Wet's invasion in February 1901 may be intelligible, and in order that the readers may better understand the peregrinations of our own particular unit, it may be expedient here to give a brief outline of the initial scheme which, sound as it may have appeared, within twenty-four hours of its birth became enshrouded in the usual fog of war. After outlining the scheme all we can hope is that these papers may furnish occasional and momentary gleams of light in that fog, since their object is not to build up contemporary history, but to furnish a faithful record of the life and working of one of the pieces on the chess-board of the campaign—a piece which, in this De Wet hunt, had perhaps the relative importance of a "castle."
De Wet's long-promised invasion—of which Kritzinger's and Hertzog's descent into Cape Colony had been the weather-signal—was now an accomplished fact. He had invaded with 2500 to 3000 men and some artillery. Plumer had located him at Philipstown, had effectually "bolted" him, and, in spite of heavy weather, had pressed him with the perseverance of a sleuth-hound in the direction of the De Aar-Orange River Railway into the arms of two columns in the vicinity of Hautkraal. A week previous to this, as soon as it was known that De Wet had evaded the force intended to head him back when moving south down the Orange River Colony, the railway had been taxed to its utmost to concentrate troops on the Naauwpoort-De Aar-Beaufort West line. Day and night troop-trains, bulging with khaki and bristling with rifles, had vomited columns, detachments, and units at various points upon this line—Colesberg, Hanover Road, De Aar, Richmond Road, Victoria West, and Beaufort. Lord Kitchener himself, at a pace which had wellnigh bleached the driver's hair, had hied down to De Aar in his armoured train. Plumer had diverted the invasion west, Crabbe and Henniker and the armoured trains had kicked it over the railway-line. Kitchener was content. If De Wet followed his jackal Hertzog into the south-western areas, the columns on the line from De Aar downwards were to move west as parallel forces and tackle the invader in turn. Each would run him till exhausted, with a fresh parallel to take up the running from them as soon as they were done; while at the end, when the last parallel was played out, De Lisle as a stop stood at Carnarvon, ready to catch the ripe plum after the tree had been well shaken. Admirable plan—on paper. Admirable plan if De Wet had only done what he ought to have done—if he had only allowed himself to be kicked by each parallel in turn, churned by relays of pom-poms, until ready to be presented to De Lisle. But De Wet did not do the right thing. He was no cub to trust to winning an earth by a direct and obvious line, where pace alone would have killed him. He was an old grey fox, suspicious even of his own shadow, and he doubled and twisted: in the meanwhile Plumer ran himself "stone-cold" on his heels, and the majority of the parallel columns, played by his screen of "red herrings," countermarched themselves to a standstill. The old, old story, which needs no expansion here. Admirable plan, if only the British columns had been as complete at their rendezvous as they appeared on paper. We were the New Cavalry Brigade—the 21st King's Dragoon Guards and the 20th Dragoon Guards, just out from home; the Mount Nelson Light Horse, newly raised in Cape Town; a battery of R.H.A., and a pom-pom. But where were we. We were due to march out of Richmond Road at daybreak on the morrow. Two squadrons of the 21st King's Dragoons and one of the Mount Nelson's were with Plumer—Providence only knows where—learning the law of the veldt. The rest of the Mount Nelson's and one squadron of the 21st King's Dragoons were at Hanover Road. One squadron of the 20th Dragoon Guards was at Richmond Road; two squadrons were in the train on the way up from Cape Town. The guns at least had arrived. Yet we were about the value of a "castle" on the chess-board designed to mate De Wet.
"Now we shall have to take our coats off."
The brigadier was right. It was no mean affair to arrive at sundown at a miserable siding in the Karoo, called by courtesy a station, to find its two parallels of rails blocked with the trucks containing the nucleus of a cavalry brigade, and to get that nucleus on the road by daybreak. The supply column was all out, the battery half out—these were old soldiers; but the two squadrons of 20th Dragoon Guards had not yet awakened to the situation. The brigadier looked up and down the platform, gazed a moment at the long tiers of laden trucks, and then made the above remark.
And we had to take our coats off. The 20th were new but they were willing; and it is difficult to say which hampers you most, an over-willing novice or an unwilling expert. You who sit at home and rail at the conduct of the campaign, rail at the wretched officer, regimental or staff, little know what is expected of him. You have your type in your mind's eye—an eyeglass, spotless habiliments, and a waving sword; you pay him and expect him to succeed. Your one argument is unanswerable. You place the greatest man that you can select to guide and cherish him, therefore if he does not succeed it must be through his own shortcomings. In your impatience you opine that he has not succeeded. Therefore he must be ignorant, indifferent, and incompetent. Little do you realise the injustice of your opinion. You sweat, during a war, an intelligent class—the same class, be it said, from which the best that your universities can produce is drawn,—you sweat it as no other educated class would allow itself to be sweated in the whole civilised world, and yet, though men drop in harness for you by dozens every month, you turn upon them and revile them. Can you not appreciate the fact that it is not always the medium, through which the Great Head you have selected works, that is in error,—that the pilot's hand may be at fault, and not the steering-gear? Take us that night at Richmond Road. New troops, new staff, little or no information, and an order to be in position at a point 50 miles distant in 36 hours. If bricks have to be made, has not the workman a right to expect to be supplied with the ingredients? Is the blame altogether his if, when exposed to the heat of a tropical sun, his hurriedly constructed clay crumbles to pieces for want of the straw with which his taskmaster failed to supply him? We think not. But that night at Richmond Road we had no time to ruminate upon our difficulties. We had to surmount them, and with our brigadier we took our coats off and buckled to the job.
1. To Intelligence, New Cavalry Brigade, Richmond Road, from Intelligence, De Aar.
"You must organise your intelligence locally, impossible to supply so many columns with men from here. Will see what can be done later. Authorise such expenditure as you think fit."
2. To Int. N.C.B. from Int. De Aar.
"De Wet Expert reports De Wet moving towards Vosberg. Plumer still in touch. Hertzog, Brand, Pretorius, all between Prieska and Vosberg with large quantities remounts for De Wet. Theron has been detached by De Wet, moving south rapidly to join Brand, intention attacking Britstown. Local farmers Hanover and Victoria West districts collecting to assist invaders. Inform New Cavalry Brigade. This wire is repeated to Intelligences Victoria West, Carnarvon, Fraserberg, 'Chowder' Cape Town, Orange River, Beaufort, and Chief Pretoria."
3. From Brigade-Major New Cavalry Brigade, Hanover Road, to O.C. N.C.B. Richmond Road.
"Hope to move out from here to-morrow. No trains available. As ordered by you, proceed by road to Britstown. Saddles for Mount Nelson's not yet arrived."
4. From Ass. Director Transport De Aar to O.C. N.C.B. Richmond Road.
"Impossible to equip you with more mule transport than has been forwarded to you; will make up your deficiencies with ox transport, which will be waiting for you at Britstown when you arrive."
5. From O.C. De Aar to O.C. N.C.B. Richmond Road (60871).
"Proceed with extreme caution, as local rebel commando under Van der Merwe said to be collected at Nieuwjaarsfontein between you and Britstown. As extra precaution you may take the company of Wessex Mounted Infantry, stationed at Richmond Road, with you as far as Britstown."
6. (Six hours later) "Vide my 60871. Wessex M.I. countermanded."
These only represent a portion of the communications which were waiting for us in the telegraph-office at Richmond Road. But they are a fair enough sample to illustrate the difficulties with which the brigadier had to contend. The communication about the rebel gathering at Nieuwjaarsfontein moved him to moralise. "Alas for my advance squadron! If I believed that it were true, I would move out at once with what we have got and nab those rebels. But as it is I will leave it to the advance squadron, and we will supply the burial-party in the morning! Look here, Mr Intelligence, you have got to form an Intelligence Department to-night. You had better set about it at once."
The Intelligence officer walked out into the clearing in front of the station and surveyed the scene. It was now too dark to see his face; but there was that something in his attitude that betrayed the feeling of utter hopelessness which possessed him. It is in just such an attitude that the schoolmaster detects Smith Major's failure to prepare his Horace translation before that youth has hazarded a single word. The Intelligence officer had been ordered to raise an Intelligence Department for the brigade. Trained in the stern school of army discipline, he had no choice but to obey. And with this end in view he left the precincts of the station. Then the absolute impossibility of the situation dawned upon him. Not a soul was in sight, and even if there had been, though the powers of the press-gang officer were vested in him, he did not know a word of the Dutch or Kaffir tongues. He stood upon the fringe of the gaunt Karoo. On either hand stretched a waste of lone prairie—a solitude of gathering night. Out of its deepest shades rose masses of jet-black hill: the ragged outline of their crests bathed purple and grey in the last effort of the expiring twilight. Already the great dome of heaven had given birth to a few weary stars, and but for the shrinking wake of day still lingering in the west the great desolate pall of night had fallen upon the veldt—the vast, mysterious, indescribable veldt!
But as treasure-trove is found when the tide is at its lowest ebb, so often when the wall of impossibility seems an insuperable mass of concrete, it is found to be the merest paper. As the Intelligence officer, awed by the great solitude of the sleeping veldt, stood musing on its fringe, a voice hailed out of the darkness—
"What ho! Whose column is that?"
A moment more and a mounted man cantered up, and a young Africander threw himself out of the saddle.
"Whose column?" asked the new-comer.
"The New Cavalry Brigade!"
"No; who are you?"
"I'm one of Rimington's Tigers. I'm attached to Henniker's column, and I've been sent down here to round up a man who lives about these parts!"
"Have you got him?"
"No. Who may you be? Have you got a match?"
The Intelligence officer felt in his pocket, and an inspiration came to him as he fumbled for the matches.
"How did you see me? I never saw you, and you were against the sky-line."
"A cigar is a big beacon, old chap!" Then the Tiger struck a light, and for the first time realised that he was talking to an officer. "Oh, I beg your pardon, I thought that you were a civilian."
In the short life of the match each had taken stock of the other,—the one, a pleasant-faced Imperial officer, the other a hard-bitten Colonial. The Intelligence officer was the first to speak.
"Do you speak Dutch and Kaffir?"
"Are you in a giant hurry to get back to Henniker's?"
"I'm not wearing myself out with anxiety."
"Well, look here, we shall probably meet Henniker in the course of the next few days. Come along with us till we strike your column. I am Intelligence officer of this brigade, and I want to get together some sort of an Intelligence gang to-night. We start at 4.30 to-morrow morning."
"In what capacity do you want me?"
"As my chief guide. Do you know this country?"
"I have often been through it; but I'll soon find some one who does. Have you got any boys?"
"Not a soul. I've only just this moment arrived!"
"Well, we must have boys. Where are we to go?"
"Then we want a white guide and at least four boys. Yes, I'll come, sir. What's the force?"
"It's an embryo brigade; but when we get it together it will be quite a handsome force—three regiments and six guns!"
"Yes, the Mount Nelson Light Horse."
"Never heard of them, but you now want to raise these boys. What kind of a man are you? Do you go straight in up to the elbows, or do you play about in kid gloves?"
"How do you mean?"
"Well, will you come down to a farm over there, and back me up in everything that I do? We can get all we want there!"
"I'll back you up in everything that is in accordance with the exigencies of the service."
"That I don't wear kid gloves——?"
"Come along, then; we'll soon round up a gang!"
A quarter of a mile brought the two men to the enclosure of a little Karoo homestead, nestling in a hollow in the veldt. The Tiger was leading his pony, and after he had tied it to the rail outside, they walked boldly up to the verandah. They were greeted by an excited dog, and a minute later the door was opened by a tall cadaverous-looking youth.
"What do you want?"
The Tiger answered in Dutch. The farmer had evidently seen him before, as he bridled angrily.
"Oh, it's you, is it?" came the answer. "You have come back again. Well, I am sorry we have no forage for you!"
"It is not forage I want. Where is your father? Here is an officer who must see the 'boss.'"
"I tell you the 'boss' is not here. But will not the officer come in. Good evening, mister, come in here. I will bring a light!"
The two men were shown into a sitting-room, and the youth disappeared. A moment later a slender girl of about seventeen whisked into the room with a lamp, put it on the table, and disappeared. But the light had shone upon her just long enough to show that she was very comely. The true Dutch type. Flaxen hair, straight forehead and nose, beautiful complexion, and faded blue eyes. The farm evidently belonged to people of some substance. The room, after the manner of the Dutch, was well furnished. Ponderously decorated with the same lack of proportion which is to be found in an English middle-class lodging-house. Harmonium and piano in opposite corners,—crude chromos and distorted prints upon the walls; artificial flowers, anæmic in colouring and glass-protected, on the shelves; unwieldy albums on the table; coarse crotchet drapings on the chairs; the Royal Family in startling pigments as an over-mantel. For the moment one might have fancied that it was Mrs Scroggins's best parlour in Woburn Square.
After considerable whispering in the passage, the mother of the family, supported by two grown daughters and three children with wide-opened eyes, marched into the room.
"Good evening," and there was a limp handshake all round.
The attitude and expression of the good dame was combative. She was stout, slovenly, and forty. And the first impression was that she had once been what her pretty daughter was now at seventeen. There is nothing of the beauty of dignified age in the Dutch woman past her prime.
"Where is your man?" asked the Tiger.
"He has gone to Richmond to sell the scaapen."
"And your sons?"
"I have no sons."
The Tiger threw open the photograph album on the table, and put his finger on a recent photo of two hairless youths in bandoliers. The likeness to the good lady in front of us was unmistakable.
"Who are these?"
"My sister's children," came the glib answer.
"Good," said the Tiger, as he slipped the photograph out. "I shall keep this. Who is the young man who opened the door."
"Good; then he can come along with us. How many boys have you on this farm?"
"They have all gone with my man."
"All right, I am going round to see—bring a candle. All right, don't make a fuss, my good lady. Don't take that lamp; the officer will stay here while I go out."
The stout frau produced a piece of paper, and laid it on the table with all the confidence of a poker-player displaying a Royal Flush. The Tiger picked it up and read:—
"This is to certify that Hans Pretorius can be implicitly trusted to give all assistance to the military authorities. He has furnished the required assurances.
The Tiger held the slip of paper and photograph side by side for a moment, and then slowly lit the former in the flame of the lamp. The women and children stood solemnly and watched the blaze. Only the pretty girl showed any emotion. The faded blue of her eyes seemed to darken. She said something. It sounded like "hands opper." How the Dutch hate the English Africander!
The Tiger only laughed as he said, "You wait here, sir, while I go round the premises. Come along, Mrs Pretorius."
The Intelligence officer had not been alone five minutes before the door opened and the pretty daughter appeared with a glass of milk on a tray. The look of indignation had disappeared—a smile lurked on the pretty features. Now the Intelligence officer was tired and thirsty—a glass of milk was most refreshing. Moreover, he was an Englishman—a pretty face was not without its charms for him.
The Daughter. "Please, sir, the Kharki is taking Stephanus with him. You will not let him do that. There will be no one left to look after the farm and to protect us from the boys."
Intelligence Officer. "Who is Stephanus?"
D. "He does not stay here; he is" (then the blue eyes filled with tears)—"he is—my sweetheart!"
I. O. (softening) "But we will not hurt him; you will have him back in a few days."
D. "Who can say? You are going to make him fight, and then I shall never see him again. Oh, please, sir, don't take him" (and a hand—a fair dimpled hand—rested on the Intelligence officer's sleeve).
I. O. (moving uncomfortably) "I am afraid that I must; but no harm shall come to him, that I promise!"
D. "But he doesn't know the way, and you will shoot him if he shows you a wrong road."
I. O. "He will know all that we want him to know."
D. "Where will you want him to take you? I know he doesn't know the way."
I. O. "Why, he has only to go to Britstown!"
D. (the tears drying) "And you promise me that you will not harm him?"
I. O. "Of course I won't."
D. "Oh, thank you." She was gone, and the Intelligence officer was left to his own thoughts. It had slipped out unawares. He had been caught: he realised that much as soon as the word had left his lips. He had yet much to learn.
There was a noise in the verandah. The Tiger had arrived with Stephanus, four ponies, and three native boys.
"This will do for a start, sir; we will amplify on the march!"
But as the Intelligence officer handed over his department to the quarter-guard of the 20th Dragoon Guards for safe keeping until the morrow, Miss Pretorius was saddling a pony in the kraal. She had to find her father before daybreak. Her father with his two sons was at Nieuwjaarsfontein!
Richmond Road is not a township. It is only a railway-station, but it boasts of one winkel adjoining the railway buildings. Here the O.C. of the New Cavalry Brigade had taken up his quarters for the night, and here the Jew proprietor had arranged food and lodging for the staff. Part barn, part shop, and part dwelling, this dilapidated hostelry is typical of its kind. You meet with them all over the South African veldt. You bless them when they shelter you from the wind and rain; curse them when, housed in a six-storeyed mansion, which boasts the same legend over the door—hotel—you remember to what you were at one time reduced by the chances of a soldier's life.
The brigadier was just sitting down to the only meal that the slatternly wife of the Jew could produce—a steaming mess of lean boiled mutton—when the Intelligence officer returned from his adventure.
"Come and sit down, Mr Intelligence; have you raised a band of robbers yet?"
"Yes, sir; I've collected a trooper of Rimington's Guides and some boys."
"You seem a brighter fellow than I took you for. Well, here you are; here is another telegram for you. We ought to come right on the top of the swine to-morrow."
To Intelligence N.C.B. from Int. De Aar.
"Gathering of rebels at Nieuwjaarsfontein confirmed from two sources. Repeated, &c."
The Intelligence officer kept his own counsel. He felt certain that there would be no gathering at Nieuwjaarsfontein when the force arrived. But he had bought his experience, and determined to profit by the same in the future.
"I think that we have a chance of a show this jaunt," said the brigadier, after somebody had produced a bottle of port. "This is about the best plan that K. has thrown off his chest. But I am afraid that Plumer will spoil it. He is a holy terror when he gets on a trail. That is his great fault: you will never catch these fellows by holding on to a trail after you have been on it three days. I don't care how red-hot it may be. You run yourself stone-cold, only to find that your quarry has outlasted you. Now, after De Wet crossed the railway at Hautkraal, Plumer's obvious move was to Strydenburg. They could have pushed stuff out there to him from Hopetown. K. wants De Wet to go south-west into the loop of the J which our five columns make. Now, if Plumer, Crabbe, & Co. stick to him, he'll break back to the Orange River as sure as fate. But if Plumer lets him alone, and we are not messed about by too many general-men, we'll have him. Once De Wet gets south as far as Britstown he's a dead bird. But we shall be messed about by too many generals. See, how many have we?—Five. That's enough in the way of cooks to spoil any pottage. But personally I don't think De Wet will be the good little fly and walk into our pretty parlour. They don't ask me for opinions; but if I was running this show, I would have halted Plumer on the railway, left the J as it is, and collected an infernal 'push' of men north of the Orange River. I should have held a line from Mark's Drift to Springfontein. When I had got that, I would have turned our sleuth-hound Plumer loose again. Then all we fine fellows could have played with De Wet until he was sick of the Colony. We could then escort him to the Orange River, and the 'pushes' on the far side would have picked up the pieces. But here we are; may Providence guide him to us! I'm for bed. Good night!"
 Commandant Judge Hertzog.
 A special Intelligence officer was told off to watch De Wet's movements.
 "Chowder" was telegraphic address of general commanding line of communications in Cape Colony.
 Rimington's Guides wear a piece of leopard-skin in their hats, and are known as Rimington's Tigers.
 Native boys.
 Farm working hand.
 Traitor. Lit., Hands upper—i.e., surrendered man.
 The Boers speak of all British soldiers as Kharkis.
 Lord Kitchener is commonly spoken of as "K." in South Africa.