"Hail, fellow! well met!"—SWIFT.
Next morning I was awakened at 6 a.m. by Mr. Drake knocking at my door, and telling me I was to be ready in half an hour, as Colonel Baden-Powell had consented to exchange me for Petrus Viljoen. This exchange had placed our Commanding Officer in an awkward position. The prisoner was, as I stated before, a criminal, and under the jurisdiction of the civil authorities, who would not take upon themselves the responsibility of giving him up. Under these circumstances Lord Edward Cecil had come forward and represented to Colonel Baden-Powell that it was unseemly for an Englishwoman to be left in the hands of the Boers, and transported to Pretoria by the rough coach, exposed to possible insults and to certain discomforts. He even declared himself prepared to take any consequent blame on his shoulders, and, being the Prime Minister's son, his words had great weight. As a matter of fact, Petrus Viljoen was anything but a fighting man, and could be of very little service to our enemies. The burghers had told me his presence was so persistently desired from the fact of the republic having private scores to settle with him. In any case, he was very reluctant to leave Mafeking and the safety of the prison, which fact had influenced Colonel Baden-Powell in finally agreeing to the exchange.
As may be imagined, I could hardly believe my good fortune, and I lost no time in scrambling into my clothes while the cart was being inspanned. A vexatious delay occurred from the intractability of the mules, which persistently refused to allow themselves to be caught. The exchange of prisoners had to be effected before 8 a.m., when the truce would be over, and I shall never forget how I execrated those stubborn animals, as the precious minutes slipped by, fearful lest my captors would change their minds and impose fresh conditions. However, at length all was ready, and, escorted by some artillery officers, I drove to headquarters, where I was requested to descend in order to have another interview with the General. Again an inquisitive crowd watched my movements, but civilly made way for me to pass into the little room where General Snyman was holding a sort of levee. The latter asked me a few purposeless questions. I gravely expressed a hope that his eyes were better (he had been suffering from inflamed sight); then he rose and held out his hand, which I could not ignore, and without further delay we were off. About 2,000 yards from Mafeking I noticed the enemy's advanced trenches, with some surprise at their proximity to the town; and here we met the other party with a white flag escorting Mr. Viljoen, who looked foolish, dejected, and anything but pleased to see his friends. He was forthwith given over to their care, the mules were whipped up, and at a gallop we rattled into the main street. From the first redoubt Colonel Baden-Powell and Lord Edward Cecil ran out to greet me, and the men in the trench gave three ringing English cheers, which were good to hear; but no time had to be lost in getting under cover, and I drove straight to Mr. Wiel's house, and had hardly reached it when "Creechy" (a Dutch pet-name which had been given to the big siege gun) sent a parting salute, and her shell whizzed defiantly over our heads.
Then commenced a more or less underground existence, which continued for five and a half months; but, surrounded by friends, it was to me a perfect heaven after so many weeks passed amidst foes. I had much to hear, and it took some time to realize all the changes in the little town since I had left. First and foremost, the town guard were coming splendidly out of their long-protracted ordeal. Divided into three watches, they passed the night at the different redoubts, behind each of which was a bomb-proof shelter. Those of the second watch were ready to reinforce the men on duty, while the third were only to turn out if summoned by the alarm-bell. All the defences had, indeed, been brought to a wonderful pitch of perfection by the C.O. First there was a network of rifle-pits, which gave the Boers no peace day or night, and from which on one side or the other an almost incessant sniping went on. These were supplemented by dynamite mines, the fame of which had frightened the Boers more than anything else, all connected with Headquarter Staff Office by electric wires. In addition there was barbed-wire fencing round the larger earthworks, and massive barricades of waggons and sandbags across the principal streets. All this looked very simple once erected and in working order, but it was the outcome of infinite thought and ever-working vigilance. Then there was a complete system of telephones, connecting all the redoubts and the hospital with the Staff Office, thereby saving the lives of galloping orderlies, besides gaining their services as defenders in a garrison so small that each unit was an important factor. Last, but certainly not least, were the bomb-proof shelters, which black labour had constructed under clever supervision all over the town, till at that time, in case of heavy shelling, nearly every inhabitant could be out of harm's way. What struck me most forcibly was that, in carrying out these achievements, Colonel Baden-Powell had been lucky enough to find instruments, in the way of experienced men, ready to his hand. One officer was proficient in bomb-proofs, the postmaster thoroughly understood telephones, while another official had proved himself an expert in laying mines. The area to be defended had a perimeter of six miles; but, in view of the smallness of the garrison and the overwhelming number of the Boers, it was fortunate the authorities had been bold and adventurous enough to extend the trenches over this wide space, instead of following the old South African idea of going into laager in the market-square, which had been the first suggestion. The town was probably saved by being able to present so wide a target for the Boer artillery, and although we were then, and for the next few weeks, cut off from all communication with the outer world, even by nigger letter-carriers, and in spite of bullets rattling and whizzing through the market-square and down the side-streets, the Boer outposts were gradually being pushed away by our riflemen in their invisible pits. While on this subject, I must mention that a day spent in those trenches was anything but an agreeable one. Parties of six men and an officer occupied them daily before dawn, and remained there eighteen hours, as any attempt to leave would have meant a hail of bullets from the enemy, distant only about 600 yards. They were dug deep enough to require very little earthwork for protection; hence they were more or less invisible by the enemy in their larger trenches. These latter were constantly subjected to the annoyance of bullets coming, apparently, from the ground, and, though other foes might have acted differently in like circumstances, the Boers did not care for the job of advancing across the open to dislodge the hidden enemy.
In a very few days a new bomb-proof shelter had been constructed for me, and to inaugurate it I gave an underground dinner with six guests. This bomb-proof was indeed a triumph in its line, and I must describe it. About 18 by 15 feet, and 8 feet high, it was reached by a flight of twelve wooden steps, at the top of which was a door that gave it the privacy of a room. It was lighted besides by three horizontal apertures, which resembled the very large portholes of a sailing-ship, and this illusion was increased by the wooden flaps that could be closed at will. The roof was composed of two lots of steel rails placed one above the other, and on these were sheets of corrugated iron and a huge tarpaulin to keep out the rain. Above, again, were 9 feet of solid earth, while rows upon rows of sandbags were piled outside the entrance to guard against splinters and stray bullets. The weighty roof was supported, as an additional precaution, on the inside by three stout wooden posts, which, together with the rather dim light, most apparent when descending from the brilliant sunshine outside, gave the bomb-proof the appearance of a ship's cabin; in fact, one of my visitors remarked it much reminded him of the well-known print of the Victory's cockpit when Nelson lay a-dying. The interior panelling was painted white. One wall was entirely covered with an enormous Union Jack, and the other was decorated with native weapons, crowned by a trophy of that very war—namely, the only Mauser carbine then taken from the Boers. To complete the up-to-date nature of this protected dwelling, a telephone was installed, through the medium of which I could in a second communicate with the Staff Headquarters, and have due notice given me of "Creechy's" movements. In this shelter it was certainly no hardship to spend those hot days, and it was known to be the coolest place in town at that hot season of the year.
On Sundays we were able, thanks to the religious proclivities of the Boers, to end our mole existence for twenty-four hours, and walk and live like Christians. To almost the end of the siege this truce was scrupulously observed on both sides, and from early dawn to late at night the whole population thoroughly enjoyed themselves. The relieved expression on the faces of all could not fail to be apparent to even a casual observer. Pale women and children emerged from their laager, put on their finery, sunned themselves, and did their shopping. The black ladies went in a body to the veldt to collect firewood with all their natural gaiety and light-heartedness, which not even shell-fire and numerous casualties amongst themselves seemed seriously to disturb. Those of us who had horses and carriages at our disposal rode and drove anywhere within our lines in perfect safety. The first Sunday I was in Mafeking I was up and on my pony by 6 a.m., unwilling to lose a moment of the precious day. We rode all round our defences, and inspected Canon Kopje, the scene of the most determined attack the Boers had made, the repulse of which, at the beginning of the siege, undoubtedly saved the town. From there we looked through the telescope at "Creechy," whose every movement could be watched from this point of vantage, and whose wickedly shining barrel was on the "day of rest" modestly pointed to the ground. Returning, we rode through the native stadt, quite the most picturesque part of Mafeking, where the trim, thatched, beaver-shaped huts, surrounded by mud walls, enclosing the little gardens and some really good-sized trees, appeared to have suffered but little damage from the bombardment, in spite of the Boers having specially directed their fire against the inhabitants (the Baralongs), who were old opponents of theirs. These natives were only armed by the authorities when the invaders specially selected them for their artillery fire and made raids on their cattle. The variety and sizes of these arms were really laughable. Some niggers had old-fashioned Sniders, others elephant guns, and the remainder weapons with enormously long barrels, which looked as if they dated back to Waterloo. To their owners, however, the maker or the epoch of the weapon mattered little. They were proud men, and stalked gravely along the streets with their precious rifles, evidently feeling such a sense of security as they had never experienced before.
On the Sunday I alluded to, after our ride we attended morning service, held as usual in the neat little church, which, with the exception of a few gashes in the ceiling rafters, caused by fragments of shell, had up to date escaped serious injury. The Dutch Church, on the other hand, curiously enough, was almost demolished by shell-fire at the beginning of the siege. We then drove up to the hospital, where Miss Hill, the plucky and youthful-looking matron, received us and showed us round. This girl—for she was little more—had been the life and prop of the place for the past two months, during which time the resources of the little hospital had been taxed almost past belief. Where twenty was the usual number of patients, there were actually sixty-four on the occasion of my first visit. The staff was composed of only a matron and three trained nurses. In addition to their anxieties for the patients, who were being so frequently brought in with the most terrible injuries, these nurses underwent considerable risks from the bombardment, which, no doubt from accident, had been all along directed to the vicinity of the hospital and convent, which lay close together. The latter had temporarily been abandoned by the nuns, who were living in an adjacent bomb-proof, and the former had not escaped without having a shell through one of the wards, at the very time a serious operation was taking place. By a miraculous dispensation no patient was injured, but a woman, who had been previously wounded by a Mauser bullet while in the laager, died of fright.
The afternoon was taken up by a sort of gymkhana, when a happy holiday crowd assembled to see the tilting at the ring, the lemon-cutting, and the tug-of-war. At this entertainment Colonel Baden-Powell was thoroughly in his element, chatting to everyone and dispensing tea from a travelling waggon. In the evening I dined at Dixon's with our old party, and, really, the two months that had elapsed since I was at that same table had effected but little change in the surroundings and in the fare, which at that early stage of the siege was as plentiful as ever, even the stock of Schweppes' soda-water appearing inexhaustible. Besides this luxury, we had beautiful fresh tomatoes and young cabbages. The meat had resolved itself into beef, and beef only, but eggs helped out the menu, and the only non-existent delicacy was "fresh butter." This commodity existed in tins, but I must confess the sultry weather had anticipated the kitchen, in that it usually appeared in a melted state.
The most formidable weapon of the Boers was, naturally, the big siege Creusot gun. The very first day I arrived in Mafeking "Creechy" discharged a shell that killed a trooper of the Protectorate Regiment, who happened to be standing up in the stables singing a song, whilst four or five others were seated on the ground. The latter were uninjured, but the dead man was absolutely blown to bits, and one of his legs was found in the roof. A few days after two more shells landed in the market-square, one going through the right window of the chemist's shop, the other demolishing the left-hand one. Some of the staff were actually in the shop when the second shell came through the window, and were covered with dust, broken bits of glass, and shattered wood, but all providentially escaped unhurt. Others were not so fortunate, for a nigger in the market-square was literally cut in half, and a white man 100 yards away had his leg torn off. Again, in Mr. Wiel's store a shell burst while the building was full of people, without injuring anyone; but one of the splinters carried an account-book from the counter and deposited it in the roof on its outward passage. Indeed, not a day passed but one heard of marvellously narrow escapes.
As the heat increased, the shelling grew certainly slacker, and, after an hour or two spent in exchanging greetings in the early morning, both besieged and besiegers seemed to slumber during the sultry noonday hours. About four they appeared to rouse themselves, and often my telephone would then ring up with the message: "The gun is loaded, and pointed at the town." Almost simultaneously a panting little bell, not much louder than a London muffin-bell, but heard distinctly all over the town in the clear atmosphere, would give tongue, and luckless folk who were promenading the streets had about three seconds to seek shelter, the alarm being sounded as the flash was seen by the look-out. One afternoon they gave us three shots in six minutes, but, of course, this rapid firing was much safer for the inhabitants than a stray shot after a long interval, as people remained below-ground expecting a repetition of that never-to-be-forgotten crashing explosion, followed by the sickening noise of the splinters tearing through the air, sometimes just over one's head, like the crack of a very long whip, manipulated by a master-hand. The smallest piece of one of these fragments was sufficient to kill a man, and scarcely anyone wounded with a shell ever seemed to survive, the wounds being nearly always terribly severe, and their poison occasioning gangrene to set in. There were many comic as well as tragic incidents connected with the shells of the big gun. A monkey belonging to the post-office, who generally spent the day on the top of a pole to which he was chained, would, on hearing the alarm-bell, rapidly descend from his perch, and, in imitation of the human beings whom he saw taking shelter, quickly pop under a large empty biscuit-tin. Dogs also played a great part in the siege. One, belonging to the Base-Commandant, was wounded no less than three times; a rough Irish terrier accompanied the Protectorate Regiment in all its engagements; and a third amused itself by running after the small Maxim shells, barking loudly, and trying to retrieve pieces. On the other hand, the Resident Commissioner's dog was a prudent animal, and whenever she heard the alarm-bell, she would leave even her dinner half eaten, and bolt down her master's bomb-proof. On one occasion I remember being amused at seeing a nigger, working on the opposite side of the road, hold up a spade over his head like an umbrella as the missile came flashing by, while a fellow-workman crawled under a large tarpaulin that was stretched on the ground. These natives always displayed the most astonishing sang-froid. One day we saw a funny scene on the occasion of a Kaffir wedding, when the bridegroom was most correctly attired in morning-dress and an old top-hat. Over his frock-coat he wore his bandolier, and carried a rifle on his shoulder; the bride, swathed in a long white veil from head to foot, walked by his side, and was followed by two young ladies in festive array, while the procession was brought up by more niggers, armed, like the bridegroom, to the teeth. The party solemnly paraded the streets for fully half an hour, in no wise disconcerted by a pretty lively shelling and the ring of the Mausers on the corrugated iron roofs.
Quite as disagreeable as "Creechy," although less noisy, was the enemy's 1-pound Maxim. A very loud hammering, quickly repeated, and almost simultaneously a whirring in the air, followed by four quick explosions, and then we knew this poisonous devil was at work. The shells were little gems in their way, and when they did not burst, which was often the case, were tremendously in request as souvenirs. Not much larger than an ordinary pepper-caster, when polished up and varnished they made really charming ornaments, and the natives were quick to learn that they commanded a good price, for after a shower had fallen there was a helter-skelter amongst the black boys for any unexploded specimens. One evening we had a consignment into the road just outside my bomb-proof, attracted by a herd of mules going to water. Immediately the small piccaninny driving these animals scampered off, returning in triumph with one of these prizes, which he brought me still so hot that I could not hold it. It used often to strike me how comic these scenes at Mafeking would have been to any aeronaut hovering over the town of an evening, especially when the shelling had been heavy. Towards sundown the occupants of the various bomb-proofs used to emerge and sit on the steps or the sandbags of their shelters, conversing with their neighbours and discussing the day's damage. All of a sudden the bell would tinkle, and down would go all the heads, just as one has often seen rabbits on a summer evening disappear into their holes at the report of a gun. In a few minutes, when the explosion was over, they would bob up again, to see if any harm had been done by the last missile. Then night would gradually fall on the scene, sometimes made almost as light as day by a glorious African moon, concerning which I shall always maintain that in no other country is that orb of such brightness, size, and splendour. The half-hour between sundown and moonrise, or twilight and inky blackness, as the case happened to be, according to the season or the weather, was about the pleasantest time in the whole day. As a rule it was a peaceful interval as regards shelling. Herds of mules were driven along the dusty streets to be watered; cattle and goats returned from the veldt, where they had been grazing in close proximity to the town, as far as possible out of sight; foot-passengers, amongst them many women, scurried along the side-walks closely skirting the houses. Then, when daylight had completely faded, all took shelter, to wait for the really vicious night-gun, which was usually fired between eight and nine with varying regularity, as our enemies, no doubt, wished to torment the inhabitants by not allowing them to know when it was safe for them to seek their homes and their beds. There was a general feeling of relief when "Creechy" had boomed her bloodthirsty "Good-night." Only once during the whole siege was she fired in the small hours of the morning, and that was on Dingaan's Day (December 16), when she terrified the sleeping town by beginning her day's work at 2.30 a.m., followed by a regular bombardment from all the other guns in chorus, to celebrate the anniversary of the great Boer victory over the Zulus many years ago. Frequent, however, were the volleys from the trenches that suddenly broke the tranquillity of the early night, and startling were they in their apparent nearness till one got accustomed to them. At first I thought the enemy must be firing in the streets, so loud were the reports, owing to the atmosphere and the wind setting in a particular direction. The cause of these volleys was more difficult to discover, and, as our men never replied, it seemed somewhat of a waste of ammunition. Their original cause was a sortie early in the siege, when Captain Fitzclarence made a night attack with the bayonet on their trenches. Ever afterwards an animal moving on the veldt, a tree or bush stirred by the wind, an unusual light in the town, was sufficient for volley after volley to be poured at imaginary foes. By nine o'clock these excitements were usually over, and half an hour afterwards nearly every soul not on duty was asleep, secure in the feeling that for every one who reposed two were on watch; while, as regards Colonel Baden-Powell, he was always prowling about, and the natives revived his old Matabele nickname of "the man that walks by night."