"There is a reaper whose name is Death."—LONGFELLOW.
We celebrated Christmas Day, 1899, by a festive luncheon-party to which Colonel Baden-Powell and all his Staff were invited. By a strange and fortunate coincidence, a turkey had been overlooked by Mr. Weil when the Government commandeered all live-stock and food-stuffs at the commencement of the siege, and, in spite of the grilling heat, we completed our Christmas dinner by a real English plum-pudding. In the afternoon a tea and Christmas-tree for the Dutch and English children had been organized by some officers of the Protectorate Regiment. Amongst those who contributed to the amusement of these poor little white-faced things, on whom the close quarters they were obliged to keep was beginning to tell, none worked harder than Captain Ronald Vernon. I remember returning to my quarters, after the festivity, with this officer, and his telling me, in strict confidence, with eager anticipation, of a sortie that was to be made on the morrow, with the object of obtaining possession of the Boer gun at Game Tree Fort, the fire from which had lately been very disastrous to life and property in the town. He was fated in this very action to meet his death, and afterwards I vividly recalled our conversation, and reflected how bitterly disappointed he would have been had anything occurred to prevent his taking part in it. The next day, Boxing Day, I shall ever remember as being, figuratively speaking, as black and dismal as night. I was roused at 4.30 a.m. by loud cannonading. Remembering Captain Vernon's words, I telephoned to Headquarters to ask if the Colonel and Staff were there. They had all left at 2.30 a.m., so I knew the projected action was in progress. At five o'clock the firing was continuous, and the boom of our wretched little guns was mingled with the rattle of Boer musketry. Every moment it grew lighter—a beautiful morning, cool and bright, with a gentle breeze.
In Mr. Wiel's service was a waiter named Mitchell, a Cockney to the backbone, and a great character in his way. What had brought him to South Africa, or how he came to be in Mafeking, I never discovered; but he was a cheerful individual, absolutely fearless of shells and bullets. That morning I began to get very anxious, and Mitchell was also pessimistic. He mounted to the roof to watch the progress of the fight, and ran down from time to time with anything but reassuring pieces of intelligence, asking me at intervals, when the firing was specially fierce: "Are you scared, lady?" At length he reported that our men were falling back, and that the ambulances could now be seen at work. With marvellous courage and coolness, the soldiers had advanced absolutely to under the walls of the Boer fort, and had found the latter 8 feet high, with three tiers of loopholes. There it was that three officers—Captains Vernon, Paton, and Sandford—were shot down, Captain Fitzclarence having been previously wounded in the leg, and left on the veldt calling to his men not to mind him, but to go on, which order they carried out, nothing daunted by the hail of bullets and the loss of their officers. Thanks to the marvellous information the Boers constantly received during the siege, no doubt from the numerous Dutch spies which were known to be in the town, Game Tree Fort had been mysteriously strengthened in the night; and, what was still more significant, the gun had not only been removed, but General Snyman and Commandment Botha were both on the scene with reinforcements shortly after our attack commenced, although the Boer Headquarter camp was fully three miles away. Without scaling-ladders, it was impossible to mount the walls of the fort. Our soldiers sullenly turned and walked slowly away, the idea of running or getting under shelter never even occurring to them. Had the Boers then had the determination required to come out of their fort and pursue the retiring men, it is possible very few would have returned alive; but, marvellous to relate, and most providentially as we were concerned, no sooner did they observe our men falling back than they ceased firing, as if relief at their departure was coupled with the fear of aggravating the foes and causing a fresh attack. The Boers were exceedingly kind in picking up our dead and wounded, which were immediately brought in by the armoured train, and which, alas! mounted up to a disastrous total in the tiny community which formed our garrison. No less than twenty-five men were killed, including three officers; and some twenty or thirty were wounded, most of them severely. The Boers told the ambulance officers they were staggered at our men's pluck, and the Commandant especially appreciated the gallantry required for such an attack, knowing full well how difficult it would have been to induce the burghers to make a similar attempt. About 10 a.m. a rush of people to the station denoted the arrival of the armoured train and its sad burden, and then a melancholy procession of stretchers commenced from the railway, which was just opposite my bomb-proof, to the hospital. The rest of the day seemed to pass like a sad dream, and I could hardly realize in particular the death of Captain Vernon, who had been but a few short hours before so full of health, spirits, and confidence.
Recognizing what a press of work there would be at the hospital, I walked up there in the afternoon, and asked to be made useful. No doubt out of good feeling, the Boers did not shell at all that day till late evening, but at the hospital all was sad perturbation. There had only been time to attend to the worst cases, and the poor nurses were just sitting down to snatch a hasty meal. The matron asked me if I would undertake the management of a convalescent home that had to be organized to make more room for the new patients. Of course I consented, and by evening we were busy installing sixteen patients in the railway servants' institute, near the station. To look after the inmates were myself, four other ladies, and one partly professional nurse. We arranged that the latter should attend every day, and the four ladies each take a day in turn, while I undertook to be there constantly to order eatables and superintend the housekeeping. On the first evening, when beds, crockery, kitchen utensils, and food, all arrived in a medley from the universal provider, Wiel, great confusion reigned; and when it was at its height, just as the hospital waggon was driving up with the patients, "Creechy" sent off one of her projectiles, which burst with a deafening explosion about a hundred yards beyond the improvised hospital, having absolutely whizzed over the approaching ambulance vehicles. The patients took it most calmly, and were in no way disconcerted. By Herculean efforts the four ladies and myself got the place shipshape, and all was finished when the daylight failed. As I ran back to my quarters, the bugle-call of the "Last Post," several times repeated, sounded clear in the still atmosphere of a calm and beautiful evening, and I knew the last farewells were being said to the brave men who had gone to their long rest. Of course Mafeking's losses on that black Boxing Day were infinitesimal compared to those attending the terrible struggles going on in other parts of the country; but, then, it must be remembered that not only was our garrison a very small one, but also that, when people are shut up together for months in a beleaguered town—a handful of English men and women surrounded by enemies, with even spies in their midst—the feeling of comradeship and friendship is tremendously strengthened. Every individual was universally known, and therefore all the town felt they had lost their own friends, and mourned them as such.
From that date for three weeks I went daily to the convalescent home. The short journey there was not totally without risk, as the enemy, having heard of the foundry where primitive shells were being manufactured, and which was situated immediately on the road I had to take, persistently sent their missiles in this direction, and I had some exciting walks to and fro, very often alone, but sometimes accompanied by any chance visitor. One morning Major Tracy and I had just got across the railway-line, when we heard the loading bell, and immediately there was a sauve qui pent among all the niggers round us, who had been but a moment before lolling, sleeping, and joking, in their usual fashion. Without losing our dignity by joining in the stampede, we put our best foot forward, and scurried along the line till we came to some large coal-sheds, where my companion made me crawl under a very low arch, he mounting guard outside. In this strange position I remained while the shell came crashing over us, a bad shot, and continued its course away into the veldt. Another evening the same officer was escorting me to the institute, and, as all had been very quiet that afternoon, we had not taken the precaution of keeping behind the railway buildings, as was my usual custom. We were in the middle of an open space, when suddenly an outburst of volleys from the Boer trenches came as an unpleasant surprise, and the next moment bullets were falling behind us and even in front of us, their sharp ring echoing on the tin roofs. On this occasion, as the volleys continued with unabated vigour, I took to my heels with a view to seeking shelter; but Major Tracy could not be moved out of a walk, calling out to me I should probably run into a bullet whilst trying to avoid it. My one idea being to get through the zone of fire, I paid no attention to his remonstrances, and soon reached a safe place. The Boers only learnt these detestable volleys from our troops, and carried them out indifferently well; but the possibility of their occurrence, in addition to the projectiles from "Creechy," added greatly to the excitement of an evening stroll, and we had many such episodes when walking abroad after the heat of the day.
In January, Gordon was laid up by a very sharp attack of peritonitis, and was in bed for over a week in my bomb-proof, no other place being safe for an invalid, and the hospital full to overflowing. When he began to mend, I unfortunately caught a chill, and a very bad quinsy sore throat supervened. I managed, however, to go about as usual, but one afternoon, when I was feeling wretchedly ill, our hospital attendant came rushing in to say that a shell had almost demolished the convalescent home, and that, in fact, only the walls were standing. The patients mercifully had escaped, owing to their all being in the bomb-proof, but they had to be moved in a great hurry, and were accommodated in the convent. For weeks past this building had not been shot at, and it was therefore considered a safe place for them, as it was hoped the Boer gunners had learned to respect the hospital, its near neighbour. Owing to the rains having then begun, and being occasionally very heavy, the bomb-proofs were becoming unhealthy. My throat was daily getting worse, and the doctor decided that Gordon and myself had better also be removed to the convent, hoping that being above-ground might help recovery in both our cases. There was heavy shelling going on that afternoon, and the drive to our new quarters, on the most exposed and extreme edge of the town, was attended with some excitement. I could scarcely swallow, and Gordon was so weak he could hardly walk even the short distance we had to compass on foot. However, we arrived in safety, and were soon made comfortable in this strange haven of rest.
As I have before written, the convent in Mafeking was from the commencement of the bombardment picked out by the enemy as a target, and during the first week it was hit by certainly ten or twelve projectiles, and reduced more or less to a ruined state. At no time can the building have laid claims to the picturesque or the beautiful, but it had one peculiarity—namely, that of being the only two-storied building in Mafeking, and of standing out, a gaunt red structure, in front of the hospital, and absolutely the last building on the north-east side of the town. It was certainly a landmark for miles, and, but for its sacred origin and the charitable calling of its occupants, would have been a fair mark for the enemy's cannon. Very melancholy was the appearance it presented, with large gaping apertures in its walls, with its shattered doors and broken windows; whilst surrounding it was what had been a promising garden, but had then become a mere jungle of weeds and thorns. The back of the edifice comprised below several large living-rooms, over them a row of tiny cubicles, and was practically undamaged. The eighteen convalescent patients had been comfortably installed on the ground-floor, and we had two tiny rooms above. This accommodation was considered to be practically safe from shells, in spite of the big gun having been shifted a few days previously, and it being almost in a line with the convent. On the upper floor of the eastern side a large room, absolutely riddled with shot and shell, was formerly occupied as a dormitory by the children of the convent school. It was now put to a novel use as a temporary barracks, a watch being always on duty there, and a telescope installed at the window. Since the nuns left to take up their abode in a bomb-proof shelter, a Maxim had been placed at one of the windows, which commanded all the surrounding country; but it was discreetly covered over, and the window-blind kept closely drawn to avert suspicion, as it was only to be used in case of real emergency. To reach our cubicles there was but a single staircase, which led past this room allotted to the soldiers—a fact which left an unsatisfactory impression on my mind, for it was apparent that, were the convent aimed at, to reach terra-firma we should have to go straight in the direction of shells or bullets. However, the authorities opined it was all right; so, feeling very ill, I was only too glad to crawl to bed. Just as the sun was setting, the soldiers on watch came tearing down the wooden passage, making an awful clatter, and calling out: "The gun is pointed on the convent!" As they spoke, the shell went off, clean over our heads, burying itself in a cloud of dust close to a herd of cattle half a mile distant. This did not reassure me, but we hoped it was a chance shot, which might not occur again, and that it had been provoked by the cattle grazing so temptingly within range. I must say there was something very weird and eerie in those long nights spent at theconvent. At first my throat was too painful to enable me to sleep, and endless did those dreary hours seem. We had supper usually before seven, in order to take advantage of the fading daylight, for lights were on no account to be shown at any of the windows, being almost certain to attract rifle-fire. By eight we were in total darkness, except for the dim little paraffin hand-lamp the Sisters kindly lent me, which, for precaution's sake, had to be placed on the floor. Extraordinary noises emanated from those long uncarpeted passages, echoing backwards and forwards, in the ceiling, till they seemed to pertain to the world of spirits. The snoring of the men on the relief guard was like the groans of a dying man, the tread of those on duty like the march of a mighty army. Then would come intense stillness, suddenly broken by a volley from the enemy sounding appallingly near—in reality about a mile off—and provoked, doubtless, by some very innocent cause. Many of these volleys were often fired during the night, sometimes for ten minutes together, at other times singly, at intervals; anon the boom of a cannon would vary the entertainment. Occasionally, when unable to sleep, I would creep down the pitch-dark corridor to a room overlooking the sleeping town and the veldt, the latter so still and mysterious in the moonlight, and, peeping through a large jagged hole in the wall caused by a shell, I marvelled to think of the proximity of our foes in this peaceful landscape. At length would come the impatiently-longed-for dawn about 4 a.m.; then the garrison would appear, as it were, to wake up, although the greater part had probably spent the night faithfully watching. Long lines of sentries in their drab khaki would pass the convent on their homeward journey, walking single file in the deep trench connecting the town with the outposts, and which formed a practically safe passage from shell and rifle fire. Very quickly did the day burst on the scene, and a very short time we had to enjoy those cool, still morning hours or the more delightful twilight; the sun seemed impatient to get under way and burn up everything. Of course we had wet mornings and wet days, but, perhaps fortunately, the rains that year were fairly moderate, though plentiful enough to have turned the yellow veldt of the previous autumn into really beautiful long green grass, on which the half-starved cattle were then thriving and waxing fat. The view from our tiny bedrooms was very pretty, and the coming and going of every sort of person in connection with the convalescent hospital downstairs made the days lively enough, and compensated for the dreariness of the nights. The splendid air blowing straight from the free north and from the Kalahari Desert on the west worked wonders in the way of restoring us to health, and I began to talk of moving back to my old quarters. I must confess I was never quite comfortable about the shells, which seemed so constantly to narrowly miss the building, although the look-out men always maintained they were aiming at some other object. One morning I was still in bed, when a stampede of many feet down the passage warned me our sentinels had had a warning. Quickly opening my door, I could not help laughing at seeing the foremost man running down the corridor towards our rooms with the precious Maxim gun, enveloped in its coat of canvas, in his arms as if it were a baby. "They're on us this time," he called out; then came a terrific explosion and a crash of some projectile against the outer walls and doors. The shell had fallen about 40 feet short of the convent, on the edge of the deserted garden. Many explanations were given to account for this shot, none of which seemed to me to be very lucid, and I secretly determined to clear out as soon as the doctor would permit. The very next day we had the narrowest escape of our lives that it is possible to imagine. There had been very little shelling, and I had taken my first outing in the shape of a rickshaw drive during the afternoon. The sun was setting, and our little supper-table was already laid at the end of the corridor into which our rooms opened, close to the window beside which we used to sit. Major Gould Adams had just dropped in, as he often did, to pay a little visit before going off to his night duties as Commandant of the Town Guard, and our repast was in consequence delayed—a circumstance which certainly helped to save our lives. We were chatting peacefully, when suddenly I recollect hearing the big gun's well-known report, and was just going to remark, "How near that sounds!" when a terrifying din immediately above our heads stopped all power of conversation, or even of thought, and the next instant I was aware that masses of falling brick and masonry were pushing me out of my chair, and that heavy substances were falling on my head; then all was darkness and suffocating dust. I remember distinctly putting my hands clasped above my head to shelter it, and then my feeling of relief when, in another instant or two, the bricks ceased to fall. The intense stillness of my companions next dawned upon me, and a sickening dread supervened, that one of them must surely be killed. Major Gould Adams was the first to call out that he was all right; the other had been so suffocated by gravel and brickdust that it was several moments before he could speak. In a few minutes dusty forms and terrified faces appeared through the gloom, as dense as the thickest London yellow fog, expecting to find three mutilated corpses. Imagine their amazement at seeing three human beings, in colour more like Red Indians than any other species, emerge from the ruins and try to shake themselves free from the all-pervading dust. The great thing was to get out of the place, as another shell might follow, the enemy having seen, from the falling masonry, how efficacious the last had been. So, feeling somewhat dazed, but really not alarmed, as the whole thing had been too quick for fear, I groped my way downstairs. Outside we were surrounded by more frightened people, whom we quickly reassured. The woman cook, who had been sitting in her bomb-proof, was quite sure she had been struck, and was calling loudly for brandy; while the rest of us got some soda-water to wash out our throats—a necessary precaution as far as I was concerned, as mine had only the day previously been lanced for quinsy. By degrees the cloud of dust subsided, and then in the fading light we saw what an extraordinary escape we had had. The shell had entered the front wall of the convent, travelled between the iron roof and the ceiling of the rooms, till it reached a wall about 4 feet from where we were sitting. Against this it had exploded, making a huge hole in the outside wall and in the other which separated our passage from a little private chapel. In this chapel it had also demolished all the sacred images. It was not, however, till next day, when we returned to examine the scene of the explosion, that we realized how narrowly we had escaped death or terrible injuries. Three people had been occupying an area of not more than 5 feet square; between us was a tiny card-table laid with our supper, and on this the principal quantity of the masonry had fallen—certainly 2 tons of red brick and mortar—shattering it to atoms. If our chairs had been drawn up to the table, we should probably have been buried beneath this mass. But our most sensational discovery was the fact that two enormous pieces of shell, weighing certainly 15 pounds each, were found touching the legs of my chair, and the smallest tap from one of these would have prevented our ever seeing another sunrise. Needless to say, we left our ruined quarters that evening, and I reposed more peacefully in my bomb-proof than I had done for many nights past. The air at the convent had accomplished its healing work. We were both practically recovered, and we had had a hairbreadth escape; but I was firmly convinced that an underground chamber is preferable to a two-storied mansion when a 6-inch 100-pound shell gun, at a distance of two miles, is bombarding the town you happen to be residing in.