"There never was a good war or a bad peace."—BENJAMINFRANKLIN.
On Sunday morning, June 4, we packed into a Cape cart, with four siege horses in fair condition, and started to drive to Zeerust. It was a glorious day of blue skies and bright sun, with just enough breeze to prevent the noonday from being too hot. As we left Mafeking and its outworks behind, I had a curious feeling of regret and of gratitude to the gallant little town and its stout citizens: to the former for having been a haven in the midst of fierce storms during all these months; to the latter for their stout arms and their brave hearts, which had warded off the outbursts of the same tempests, whose clouds had hung dark and lowering on our horizon since the previous October. We also experienced a wonderful feeling of relief and freedom at being able to drive at will over the very roads which we had seen covered by Boer waggons, burghers, and guns, and, needless to say, we marked with interest the lines of their forts, so terribly near our little town. We noted the farmhouse lately the headquarters of General Snyman, standing naked and alone. Formerly surrounded by a flourishing orchard and a carefully tended garden, it was now the picture of desolation. The ground was trampled by many feet of men and horses; straw, forage, packing-cases, and rubbish of all kinds, were strewn about, and absolutely hid the soil from view. Away on the hill beyond I spied the tiny house and hospital where I had spent six weary nights and days; and between these two buildings a patch of bare ground nearly half a mile square, indescribably filthy, had been the site of the white-hooded waggons and ragged tents of the laager itself. The road was of no interest, merely rolling veldt with a very few scattered farmhouses, apparently deserted; but one noticed that rough attempts had been made in the way of irrigation, and that, as one approached the Transvaal, pools of water were frequently to be seen.
A shallow ditch was pointed out to us by the driver, as the boundary between Her Majesty's colony and the South African Republic, and after another eight or ten miles we saw a few white roofs and trees, which proved to be Otto's Hoep, in the Malmani Gold District, from which locality great things had been hoped in bygone days, before the Rand was ever thought of. At the tiny hotel we found several officers and men of the Imperial Light Horse, who, warned by a telephone message from Mafeking, had ordered us an excellent hot lunch. The proprietor, of German origin, could do nothing but stare at us while we were eating the meal, apparently amazed at finding his house reopened after so many months of inactivity, and that people were actually prepared to pay for what they had. We soon pushed on again, and just after leaving the hotel a sharp turn brought us to a really wide river, close to where the Imperial Light Horse were encamped. Our driver turned the horses' heads towards it, and without any misgivings we plunged in. The water grew deeper and deeper, and our thoughts flew to our portmanteaus, tied on behind, which were practically submerged. Just then the leaders took it into their heads they preferred not to go any farther, and forthwith turned round and faced us. The black coachman, however, did not lose his head, but pulled the wheelers round also, and we soon found ourselves again on the same bank from which we had started. Had it not been for a kind trooper of the Imperial Light Horse, our chances of getting across would have been nil. This friend in need mounted a loose horse, and succeeded in coaxing and dragging our recalcitrant leaders, and forcing them to face the rushing stream. Once again our portmanteaus had a cold bath, but this time we made a successful crossing, and went gaily on our way. The road was now much improved and the country exceedingly pretty. Many snug little houses, sheltered by rows of cypress, tall eucalyptus and huge orange-trees laden with yellow fruit, their gardens intersected by running brooks, appeared on all sides; while in the distance rose a range of blue hills, at the foot of which we could perceive the roofs of Zeerust.
As the sun was almost sinking, clouds of dust arose on the road in front, denoting a large body of men or waggons moving. A few weeks—nay, days—ago these would have been a burgher commando; now we knew they were our friends, and presently we met Major Weston Jarvis and his dust-begrimed squadron of the Rhodesian Regiment, followed by a large number of transport waggons, driven cattle, and donkeys. This living testimony that war was still present in the land only disturbed the peaceful evening landscape till the long line of dust had disappeared; then all was stillness and beauty once more. The young moon came out, the stars twinkled in the dark blue heavens, and suddenly, below the dim range of hills, shone first one light and then another; while away to the left, on higher ground, camp-fires, softened by a halo of white smoke, came into view. The scene was very picturesque. No cloud obscured the star-bespangled sky or the crescent of the Queen of the Night. Still far away, the lights of the little town were a beacon to guide us. The noise and cries of the camp were carried to us on the gentlest of night breezes, and, to complete the calm beauty of the surroundings, the deep, slow chime of a church-bell struck our ears.
We had reached our destination, and were in a few minutes driving through the quiet little street, pulling up in front of the Central Hotel, kept by a colonial Englishman and his wife. The former had been commandeered twice during the war, but he hastened to assure us that, though he had been at the laager, and even in the trenches before Mafeking, he had never let off his rifle, and had given it up with great pleasure to the English only the day before. This old-fashioned hostelry was very comfortable and commodious, with excellent cooking, but it was not till the next day that we realized how pretty was the town of Zeerust, and how charmingly situated. The houses, standing back from the wide road, were surrounded by neat little gardens and rows of cypresses. Looking down the main street, in either direction, were purple, tree-covered hills. A stream wound its way across one end of the highway, and teams of sleepy fat oxen with bells completed the illusion that we had suddenly been transported into a town of Northern Italy or of the Lower Engadine. However, other circumstances contributed to give it an air of depression and sadness. On the stoeps of the houses were gathered groups of Dutch women and girls, many of them in deep mourning, and all looking very miserable, gazing at us with unfriendly eyes. Fine-looking but shabbily-clad men were to be met carrying their rifles and bandoliers to the Landrost's late office, now occupied by Colonel Plumer and his Staff. Sometimes they were leading a rough-coated, ill-fed pony, in many cases their one ewe lamb, which might or might not be required for Her Majesty's troops. They walked slowly and dejectedly, though some took off their hats and gave one a rough "Good-day." Most of them had their eyes on the ground and a look of mute despair. Others, again, looked quite jolly and friendly, calling out a cheery greeting, for all at that time thought the war was really over. I was told that what caused them surprise and despair was the fact of their animals being required by the English: "requisitioned" was the term used when the owner was on his farm, which meant that he would receive payment for the property, and was given a receipt to that effect; "confiscated," when the burgher was found absent, which signified he was still on commando. Even in the former case he gave up his property sadly and reluctantly, amid the tears and groans of his wife and children, for, judging by the ways of his own Government, they never expected the paper receipt would produce any recognition. Many of the cases of these poor burghers seemed indeed very hard, for it must be remembered that during the past months of the war all their things had been used by their own Government for the patriotic cause, and what still remained to them was then being appropriated by the English. All along they had been misled and misinformed, for none of their leaders ever hinted there could be but one end to the war—namely, the decisive success of the Transvaal Republic. It made it easy to realize the enormous difficulties that were connected with what was airily talked of as the "pacification of the country," and that those English officers who laboured then, and for many months afterwards, at this task had just as colossal and arduous an undertaking as the soldiers under Lord Roberts, who had gloriously cut their way to Johannesburg and Pretoria. Someone said to me in Zeerust: "When the English have reached Pretoria their difficulties will only begin." In the heyday of our Relief, and with news of English victories constantly coming to hand, I thought this gentleman a pessimist; but the subsequent history of the war, and the many weary months following the conclusion of peace, proved there was much truth in the above statement.
Two days later we heard that Lord Roberts had made his formal entry into Pretoria on June 5, but our journey thither did not proceed as smoothly as we had hoped. We chartered a Cape cart and an excellent pair of grey horses, and made our first attempt to reach Pretoria via the lead-mines, the same route taken by Dr. Jameson and the Raiders. Here we received a check in the shape of a letter from General Baden-Powell requesting us not to proceed, as he had received information that Lord Roberts's line of communication had been temporarily interrupted. The weather had turned exceedingly wet and cold, like an English March or late autumn, and after two days of inactivity in a damp and gloomy Dutch farmhouse we were perforce obliged to return to our original starting-point, Zeerust. A few days later we heard that Colonel Baden-Powell had occupied Rustenburg, and that the country between there and Pretoria was clear; so we decided to make a fresh start, and this time to take the northern and more mountainous route. We drove through a very pretty country, with many trees and groves of splendid oranges, and we crossed highly cultivated valleys, with numerous farms dotted about. All those we met described themselves as delighted at what they termed the close of the war, and gave us a rough salutation as we went on our way, after a friendly chat. Presently we passed an open trolley with a huge red-cross flag flying, but which appeared to contain nothing but private luggage, and was followed by a man, evidently a doctor, driving a one-horse buggy, and wearing an enormous red-cross badge on his hat. At midday we outspanned to rest the horses and eat our lunch, and in the afternoon we crossed the great Marico River, where was situated a deserted and ruined hotel and store. The road then became so bad that the pace of our horses scarcely reached five miles an hour, and to obtain shelter we had to reach Eland's River before it became quite dark. A very steep hill had to be climbed, which took us over the shoulder of the chain of hills, and rumbling slowly down the other side, with groaning brake and stumbling steeds, we met a typical Dutch family, evidently trekking back from the laager in a heavy ox waggon. The sad-looking mother, with three or four children in ragged clothes, was sitting inside; the father and the eldest boy were walking beside the oxen. Their apparent misery was depressing, added to which the day, which all along had been cold and dismal, now began to close in, and, what was worse, rain began to fall, which soon grew to be a regular downpour. At last we could hardly see our grey horses, and every moment I expected we should drive into one of the many pitfalls in the shape of big black holes with which the roads in this part of the Transvaal abounded, and a near acquaintance with any one of these would certainly have upset the cart. At last we saw twinkling lights, but we first had to plunge down another river-bed and ascend a precipitous incline up the opposite bank. Our horses were by now very tired, and for one moment it seemed to hang in the balance whether we should roll back into the water or gain the top. The good animals, however, responded to the whip, plunged forward, and finally pulled up at a house dimly outlined in the gloom. In response to our call, a dripping sentry peered out, and told us it was, as we hoped, Wolhuter's store, and that he would call the proprietor. Many minutes elapsed, during which intense stillness prevailed, seeming to emphasize how desolate a spot we had reached, and broken only by the splash of the heavy rain. Then the door opened, and a man appeared to be coming at last, only to disappear again in order to fetch coat and umbrella. Eventually it turned out the owner of the house was a miller, by birth a German, and this gentleman very kindly gave us a night's hospitality. He certainly had not expected visitors, and it took some time to allay his suspicions as to who we were and what was our business. Accustomed to the universal hospitality in South Africa, I was somewhat surprised at the hesitation he showed in asking us into his house, and when we were admitted he claimed indulgence for any shortcomings by saying his children were ill. We assured him we should give no trouble, and we were so wet and cold that any roof and shelter were a godsend. Just as I was going to bed, my maid came and told me that, from a conversation she had had with the Kaffir girl, who seemed to be the only domestic, she gathered that two children were suffering from an infectious disease, which, in the absence of any medical man, they had diagnosed as smallpox. To proceed on our journey was out of the question, but it may be imagined that we left next morning at the very earliest hour possible.
This very district round Eland's River was later the scene of much fighting, and it was there a few months afterwards that De la Rey surrounded an English force, who were only rescued in the nick of time by the arrival of Lord Kitchener. At the date of our visit, however, all was peaceful, and, but for a few burghers riding in haste to surrender their arms, not a trace of the enemy was to be seen.
The next day we reached Rustenburg, where we stayed the night, and learnt that General Baden-Powell and his Staff had left there for Pretoria, to confer with Lord Roberts. Our gallant grey horses were standing the strain well, and the worst roads as well as the most mountainous country were then behind us; so, without delay, we continued on the morrow, spending the third night at a storekeeper's house at Sterkstrom. Towards the evening of the fourth day after leaving Zeerust, we entered a long wide valley, and by degrees overtook vehicles of many lands, wearied pedestrians, and horsemen—in fact, the inevitable stragglers denoting the vicinity of a vast army. The valley was enclosed by moderately high hills, and from their summits we watched helio messages passing to and fro during all that beautiful afternoon, while we slowly accomplished the last, but seemingly endless, miles of our tedious drive. At 5 p.m. we crawled into the suburbs of the Boer capital, having driven 135 miles with the same horses. The description of Pretoria under British occupation, and the friends we met there, I must leave to another chapter.