has wings shall tell the matter."—ECCLES. x. 20.
The day after my arrival at Setlagoli some natives came in with apparently well-authenticated news of an English victory near Vryburg. They also asserted that the line was already being relaid to Maribogo, and that the railway servants had returned to that station. I drove over at once to prove the truth of their statements; of course, I found they were all false, except the fact of the station-master having returned to the barricaded and desolate station. I discovered him sitting disconsolately at the door of his ruined house, gloomily perusing "Nicholas Nickleby." On returning home, I was delighted to find interesting letters from Mr. and Mrs. Rochfort Maguire, who were shut up in Kimberley, as was also Mr. Rhodes. The latter had despatched them by a boy, ordered to continue his journey to Mafeking with other missives and also with some colonial newspapers. These latter, only about a fortnight old, we fairly spelled through before sending them on. They were already so mutilated by constant unfolding that in parts they were scarcely decipherable, but none the less very precious. Two days later arrived a representative of Reuter's Agency, whom I shall call Mr. P. He had come by rail and horseback straight from Cape Town and he was also under orders to proceed to Mafeking; but his horses were so done up that he decided to give them a few days' rest. I took advantage of his escort to carry out a long-cherished desire to see the wreck of the armoured train at Kraipann. Accompanied by a boy to show us the way, we started after an early lunch. As it was a Sunday, there was not much fear of our meeting any Boers, as the latter were always engaged that day in psalm-singing and devotions. We cantered gaily along, passing many Kaffir huts, outside of which were grouped wondering natives, in their Sunday best. These kept up a lively conversation with our guide as long as we remained within earshot. I was always impressed with the freemasonry that existed in that country among the blacks. Everywhere they found acquaintances, and very often relations. They used to tell me that such and such a man was their wife's cousin or their aunt's brother. Moreover, as long as you were accompanied by a native, you were always sure of certain information concerning the whereabouts of the Boers; but to these latter they would lie with stupid, solemn faces. When we neared Kraipann, we came to a region of rocks and kopjes, truly a God-forsaken country. Leaving our horses in the native stadt, we proceeded on foot to the scene of the disaster. There was not much to see, after all—merely a pilot armoured engine, firmly embedded its whole length in the gravel. Next to this, an ordinary locomotive, still on the rails, riddled on one side with bullets, and on the other displaying a gaping aperture into the boiler, which told its own tale. Then came an armoured truck—H.M.'s Mosquito—that I had seen leaving Mafeking so trim and smart, but now battered with shot; and lastly another truck, which had been carrying the guns. This had been pushed back into a culvert, and presented a dilapidated appearance, with its front wheels in the air. The whole spectacle was forlorn and eerie. All the time I gave cursory glances right and left, to make sure no Boers were prowling about, and I should not have been surprised to have seen an unkempt head bob up and ask us our business. But all remained as silent as the grave. Swarms of locusts were alone in possession, and under the engine and carriages the earth was a dark brown moving mass, with the stream of these jumping, creeping things. I had soon gratified my curiosity, and persuaded my companion, who was busy photographing, also to leave this desolate spot.
The Boers continued to ride roughshod over the land, commandeering oxen and cattle, putting up to public auction such Government properties as they had seized at the different railway-stations, and employing hundreds of Kaffirs to tear up the railway-line. Our enemies were perfectly secure in the knowledge that no help could come for months, and the greater number believed it would never come at all, and that the "Roineks" were being cut to pieces in the South. They openly stated there would be no more railway traffic, but that in future trade and transit would be carried on by transport riding—i.e., by ox-waggon, their favourite amusement and occupation. In the meantime the cry of the loyal colonists went up from all sides: "How much longer can it last?"
After a few days Mr. P. duly returned from Mafeking, having had a risky but successful trip in and out of the town. He reported it all well, and that the inhabitants were leading a mole existence, owing to the constant shelling. The Boers evidently preferred dropping in shells at a safe distance to risking their lives by a storming attack. With great pride Mr. P. showed me a basket of carrier pigeons, by which he assured me I could now communicate swiftly and safely with the garrison. He was even kind enough to send off one at once on a trial trip, with a short note signed with his name, informing Colonel Baden-Powell that I was at Setlagoli, and that I would be able to forward any letters or information they might wish to send. I had never had any experience of such birds, and was delighted to think how much quicker they would travel than old Boaz. When the pigeon was released, however, I must confess it was rather disturbing to note that it did not seem at all sure of the direction it should take, circling round at least twenty times in the air. However, Mr. P. assured me this was their usual habit, and that this particular bird knew its business, having taken several prizes; so, as it eventually disappeared, I thought no more about it. The next day Mr. P. left for Cape Town, and passed out of our ken, but we were soon to be reminded of him in an unpleasant fashion.
On going into the dining-room to lunch one day, I saw little Mr.——, a kinsman of Mrs. Fraser's, and particularly short of stature, with an axe in hand, in the act of taking up the boards in a corner of the room, revealing as he did so a sort of shallow cellar, with no light or ventilation. Watching the operation was another man, an Englishman, the dispossessed manager of a local store, who had sought a temporary lodging at the hotel, and was a big, strong individual, over 6 feet in height. I inquired in amazement, of this strangely assorted pair, what they were trying to do. "We are going to hide, Lady Sarah," chirped the former. "The Boers are on the premises." So saying, he was about to descend into the cavity, and evidently expected the companionship of his tall friend. When I pointed out to them that they would probably suffocate in this modern Black Hole of Calcutta, the little man proceeded to dance round the room, still shouldering his axe, jibbering the while: "I will not go to fight; I am an American. I will not be put in the front rank to be shot by the English, or made to dig trenches." The whole scene was so comic that I sat down and laughed, and the climax was reached when the cock-sparrow, who had always talked so big of what he was going to do and to say to the Boers, crawled under the old grand piano in the farther corner of the big room. I was forced to tell him that no American or Englishman could be found in such an ignominious position, should the house be searched, and I even assured the little gentleman that I did not think it was the least likely his services would be wanted. The other man, whose position was more risky, I advised to lie down on the sofa and feign illness; and I really believe anxiety and worry had so preyed on him that he was as ill as he looked. When calm had been restored, I sat down to lunch, Mrs. Fraser coming in at intervals to report what our visitors were doing at the store. They had demanded coffee and many tins of salmon and sardines. Of these delicacies they seemed particularly fond, eating the latter with their fingers, after which they drank the oil, mixed for choice with golden syrup. After their repast they fitted themselves out in clothes and luxuries, such as silver watches and chains, white silk pocket-handkerchiefs, cigarettes, saddles, and even harness, taking altogether goods to the amount of about £50. This amusement finished, they proceeded to practise shooting, setting up bottles at a distance of about 50 yards. We followed all their doings from behind the green Venetian blinds, kept down on account of the heat. Up to this time none of them had come up to the house, for which we had reason to be grateful, as the "dop" they had found, and quickly finished, was beginning to affect their demeanour and spirits, particularly of the one named Dietrich, who appeared to be the boss of the party. At last the immediate reason for their visit filtered out. This slightly intoxicated gentleman inquired of Mr. Fraser where they could find a man named Mr. P. and the English lady of whom he had written. The old gentleman, who could be more than common deaf when he chose, affected utter vacancy at the mention of these individuals, merely stating that he knew a man of the name of P. fifteen years ago. Then the whole story was told. They had captured our pigeon, with its tell-tale note. This confiding bird had flown straight to the laager, had perched on the General's house, where it had been shot by this same Dietrich, and we owed the present visit to the information supplied therein by Mr. P., Dietrich informing us he attributed this occurrence to the Almighty working for the Boers. They stated they were now awaiting the arrival of the Veldtcornet and of Mr. Lamb, a neighbouring farmer, whom they had sent for, and they proceeded to make their preparations to spend the night. After supper we were relieved to hear Mr. Lamb's cheerful voice, as he rode up in the dark with the jovial Dietrich, who had ridden out to meet him, and who, it appeared, was an old friend of his. I must say the pleasure of meeting was more on the Dutchman's side than on the Englishman's. By this time the former was quite intoxicated, and Mr. Lamb cleverly managed to get him to his room, and after having, as he thought, disposed of him, he came and joined us on the stoep. There we freely discussed our visitors, and were having a cheery conversation, when I suddenly looked up, and round the corner of the verandah saw the unsteady form of a typical Boer—slouch hat, bandolier, and rifle, complete—staggering towards us, truly a weird apparition. The rising moon shining on the rifle-barrel made it glitter like silver. I confess I disappeared round the corner to my room with more haste than dignity. To Boers by daytime, when sober, I had by now become accustomed, but at night, after liberal doses of "dop," armed with a loaded rifle, I preferred their room to their company. Luckily, Mr. Lamb was equal to the occasion, and persuaded Dietrich to return to his quarters, in spite of his assurance that he (Dietrich) "was the man who watched, and who did not sleep." With the morning arrived nine or ten more, including the newly-appointed Veldtcornet, by name De Koker, who had been lately convicted of sheep-stealing. After a long idle morning and more refreshments, they all adjourned to the living-room, where, with much difficulty, one of them stumbled through the reading of a printed proclamation, which enacted that "This country now being part of the Transvaal, the residents must within seven days leave their homes or enrol themselves as burghers." Nothing was mentioned about fighting, so all there complied with what was required—namely, to sign their names on a blank sheet of paper. By evening all had left for Mosita, as Mr. P. had also mentioned Mr. Keeley's name in his unlucky note. Three, however, remained to keep a watch on myself, and one of these, I regretted to observe, was the jovially-inclined Dietrich. It can be imagined that our irritation with Mr. P. was great for having so foolishly mentioned names and places, and still more with the idiotic bird, the real origin of a very unpleasant two days. I reflected that, if these were the tricks carrier-pigeons were wont to play, I greatly preferred the old nigger as a letter-carrier in wartime.
We were not to wait long for more developments. Next day at dusk arrived a large cavalcade, which included Mr. Keeley, a prisoner. He went on with his escort at daybreak, leaving us full of sympathy for his poor wife. I sent by his bodyguard, under the command of another Dietrich, brother to the drunkard, who seemed a decent sort of man, a letter to General Snyman, begging for a pass into Mafeking to rejoin my husband. Mr. Keeley told me their Intelligence Department was very perfect, as they had been aware of every one of my movements since I left Mafeking, and even of my rides during the last fortnight. He also told me General Cronje and a great number of Boers had left Mafeking and trekked South. This encouraged me in my belief that it would be better for me to be in that beleaguered town than to submit to the possible insults of Boer sentinels at Setlagoli.
The next day was Sunday, and in the morning returned the energetic Veldtcornet De Koker. He had heard of my letter to Snyman, and, wishing to be important, had come to offer me a pass to the laager for a personal interview with the General, assuring me the latter was always very polite to ladies. He even wished to escort me there that very day. However, I had no mind to act hastily, so I made an excuse of the mules being away—also that I did not like to travel on a Sunday. This latter reason he fully appreciated, and arranged with me to come to his house the following day, for which purpose he left me a permit, vilely scrawled in Dutch. I mentally reserved to myself the decision as to keeping the rendezvous. We sat down to breakfast together, although, as he could speak no English and I could speak no Dutch, the conversation was nil. He was pleased with the cigarette I offered him, and observed me with some curiosity, probably never having seen anything approaching an English lady previously. Before he left, I complained, through an interpreter, of the insobriety of my self-constituted sentinel Dietrich, remarking it was quite impossible I could stand such a man dogging my footsteps much longer. He promised to report the matter, and insisted on shaking hands with great cordiality.
It was fortunate I had not accompanied De Koker, for that very evening back came Mr. Keeley, who had luckily succeeded in satisfying the suspicions of General Snyman, and who had received a permit to reside on his farm during the war. He brought me a letter in Dutch from the same authority, refusing, "owing to the disturbed state of the country," to give me a pass to Mafeking, and requesting me to remain where I was, under the "surveillance of his burghers." It was exactly the surveillance of one of his said burghers I wished to avoid; but there seemed no possibility of getting rid of Dietrich, who evidently preferred his comfortable quarters at the hotel to roughing it in the laager. I was exceedingly disappointed, and also somewhat indignant with Mr. Keeley, who firmly believed, and was much cast down by, some telegrams he had read out in the laager, relating the utter defeat of 15,000 English at the Modder River; 1,500 Boers, he stated, had surrounded this force, of which they had killed 2,000. I stoutly refused to credit it till I had seen it in an English despatch. But all this was enough to subdue the bravest spirit; we had received practically nothing but Dutch information during the last six weeks, telling of their successes and English disasters; we had seen nobody but our enemies. Even if one did not allow oneself to believe their tales, there was always a sort of uncomfortable feeling that these must contain some element of truth. Fortunately, however, I was reading an account of the Franco-German War in 1870, and there I found that the same system of inventing successes was carried on by the French press right up to, and even after, the Emperor's capitulation at Sedan. So it was comforting to think that, if it had been necessary to keep up the spirits of paid and regular soldiers, it must be a thousand times more essential for the Transvaal authorities to do so, as regards their unpaid mixed army, who had no encouragement to fight but knowledge of successes and hopes of future loot. All the same, it was a great trial of patience.
This news must have been a garbled account of the fighting with Lord Methuen's column.