R.M.S. 'Dunottar Castle,' at sea: October 26, 1899.
The last cry of 'Any more for the shore?' had sounded, the last good-bye had been said, the latest pressman or photographer had scrambled ashore, and all Southampton was cheering wildly along a mile of pier and promontory when at 6 P.M., on October 14, the Royal Mail steamer 'Dunottar Castle' left her moorings and sailed with Sir Redvers Buller for the Cape. For a space the decks remained crowded with the passengers who, while the sound of many voices echoed in their ears, looked back towards the shores swiftly fading in the distance and the twilight, and wondered whether, and if so when, they would come safe home again; then everyone hurried to his cabin, arranged his luggage, and resigned himself to the voyage.
What an odious affair is a modern sea journey! In ancient times there were greater discomforts and perils; but they were recognised. A man took ship prepared for the worst. Nowadays he expects the best as a matter of course, and is, therefore, disappointed. Besides, how slowly we travel! In the sixteenth century nobody minded taking five months to get anywhere. But a fortnight is a large slice out of the nineteenth century; and the child of civilisation, long petted by Science, impatiently complains to his indulgent guardian of all delay in travel, and petulantly calls on her to complete her task and finally eliminate the factor of distance from human calculations. A fortnight is a long time in modern life. It is also a long time in modern war—especially at the beginning. To be without news for a fortnight at any time is annoying. To be without news for a fortnight now is a torture. And this voyage lasts more than a fortnight! At the very outset of our enterprise we are compelled to practise Mr. Morley's policy of patience.
We left London amid rumours of all kinds. The Metropolis was shrouded in a fog of credulous uncertainty, broken only by the sinister gleam of the placarded lie or the croak of the newsman. Terrible disasters had occurred and had been contradicted; great battles were raging—unconfirmed; and beneath all this froth the tide of war was really flowing, and no man could shut his eyes to grave possibilities. Then the ship sailed, and all was silence—a heaving silence. But Madeira was scarcely four days' journey. There we should find the answers to many questions. At Madeira, however, we learned nothing, but nothing, though satisfactory, is very hard to understand. Why did they declare war if they had nothing up their sleeves? Why are they wasting time now? Such were the questions. Then we sailed again, and again silence shut down, this time, however, on a more even keel.
Speculation arises out of ignorance. Many and various are the predictions as to what will be the state of the game when we shall have come to anchor in Table Bay. Forecasts range from the capture of Pretoria by Sir George White and the confinement of President Kruger in the deepest level beneath the Johannesburg Exchange, on the one hand, to the surrender of Cape Town to the Boers, the proclamation of Mr. Schreiner as King of South Africa, and a fall of two points in Rand Mines on the other. Between these wild extremes all shades of opinion are represented. Only one possibility is unanimously excluded—an inconclusive peace. There are on board officers who travelled this road eighteen years ago with Lord Roberts, and reached Cape Town only to return by the next boat. But no one anticipates such a result this time.
Monotony is the characteristic of a modern voyage, and who shall describe it? The lover of realism might suggest that writing the same paragraph over and over again would enable the reader to experience its weariness, if he were truly desirous of so doing. But I hesitate to take such a course, and trust that some of these lines even once repeated may convey some inkling of the dulness of the days. Monotony of view—for we live at the centre of a complete circle of sea and sky; monotony of food—for all things taste the same on board ship; monotony of existence—for each day is but a barren repetition of the last; all fall to the lot of the passenger on great waters. It were malevolent to try to bring the realisation home to others. Yet all earthly evils have their compensations, and even monotony is not without its secret joy. For a time we drop out of the larger world, with its interests and its obligations, and become the independent citizens of a tiny State:—a Utopian State where few toil and none go hungry—bounded on all sides by the sea and vassal only to the winds and waves. Here during a period which is too long while it lasts, too short when it is over, we may placidly reflect on the busy world that lies behind and the tumult that is before us. The journalists read books about South Africa; the politician—were the affair still in the domain of words—might examine the justice of the quarrel. The Headquarter Staff pore over maps or calculate the sizes of camps and entrenchments; and in the meantime the great ship lurches steadily forward on her course, carrying to the south at seventeen miles an hour schemes and intentions of war.
But let me record the incidents rather than their absence. One day the first shoal of flying fish is seen—a flight of glittering birds that, flushed by the sudden approach of the vessel, skim away over the waters and turn in the cover of a white-topped wave. On another we crossed the Equator. Neptune and his consort boarded us near the forecastle and paraded round the ship in state. Never have I seen such a draggle-tailed divinity. An important feature in the ritual which he prescribes is the shaving and ducking of all who have not passed the line before. But our attitude was strictly Erastian, and the demigod retired discomfited to the second class, where from the sounds which arose he seemed to find more punctilious votaries. On the 23rd we sighted a sail—or rather the smoke of another steamer. As the comparatively speedy 'Dunottar Castle' overtook the stranger everybody's interest was aroused. Under the scrutiny of many brand-new telescopes and field glasses—for all want to see as much of a war as possible—she developed into the 'Nineveh,' hired transport carrying the Australian Lancers to the Cape. Signals were exchanged. The vessels drew together, and after an hour's steaming we passed her almost within speaking distance. The General went up to the bridge. The Lancers crowded the bulwarks and rigging of the 'Nineveh' and one of them waggled a flag violently. An officer on our ship replied with a pocket-handkerchief. The Australians asked questions: 'Is Sir Redvers Buller on board?' The answer 'Yes' was signalled back, and immediately the Lancers gave three tremendous cheers, waving their broad-brimmed hats and gesticulating with energy while the steam siren emitted a frantic whoop of salutation. Then the speed of the larger vessel told, and we drew ahead of the transport until her continued cheers died away. She signalled again: 'What won the Cesarewitch?' But the distance was now too great for us to learn whether the answer gave satisfaction or not.
We have a party of cinematographers on board, and when they found that we were going to speak the 'Nineveh' they bustled about preparing their apparatus. But the cumbrous appliances took too long to set up, and, to the bitter disappointment of the artists, the chance of making a moving picture was lost for ever; and indeed it was a great pity, because the long green transport, pitching in the sea, now burying her bows in foam, now showing the red paint of her bottom, her decks crowded with the active brown figures of the soldiers, her halyards bright with signal flags, was a scene well worth recording even if it had not been the greeting given in mid-ocean to the commander of the army by the warlike contingent which the need or convenience of the Empire had drawn from the Antipodes.
South of the line the weather cools rapidly, and various theories are advanced to explain the swift change. According to some, it is due to the masses of ice at the Antarctic Pole; others contend that it is because we are further from the land. But whatever the cause may be, the fall in temperature produces a rise in spirits, and under greyer skies everyone develops activity. The consequence of this is the organisation of athletic sports. A committee is appointed. Sir Redvers Buller becomes President. A two days' meeting is arranged, and on successive afternoons the more energetic passengers race violently to and fro on the decks, belabour each other with bolsters, or tumble into unforeseen troughs of water to their huge contentment and the diversion of the rest.
Occasionally there are light gusts of controversy. It is Sunday. The parson proposes to read the service. The captain objects. He insists on the maintenance of naval supremacy. On board ship, 'or at any rate on board this ship,' no one but the captain reads the service. The minister, a worthy Irishman, abandons the dispute—not without regret. 'Any other clergyman of the Church of England,' he observes with warmth, 'would have told the captain to go to Hell.'
Then there is to be a fancy dress ball. Opinions are divided. On the one part it is urged that fancy dress balls are healthy and amusing. On the other, that they are exceedingly tiresome. The discussion is prolonged. In the end the objectors are overruled—still objecting. Such are the politics of the State.
Inoculation against enteric fever proceeds daily. The doctors lecture in the saloon. One injection of serum protects; a second secures the subject against attacks. Wonderful statistics are quoted in support of the experiment. Nearly everyone is convinced. The operations take place forthwith, and the next day sees haggard forms crawling about the deck in extreme discomfort and high fever. The day after, however, all have recovered and rise gloriously immune. Others, like myself, remembering that we still stand only on the threshold of pathology, remain unconvinced, resolved to trust to 'health and the laws of health.' But if they will, invent a system of inoculation against bullet wounds I will hasten to submit myself.
Yesterday we passed a homeward-bound liner, who made great efforts to signal to us, but as she was a Union boat the captain refused to go near enough to read the flags, and we still remain ignorant of the state of the war. If the great lines of steamships to the Cape were to compete against each other, as do those of the Atlantic, by increasing their speeds, by lowering their rates, by improving the food and accommodation, no one would complain, but it is difficult to see how the public can be the gainers by the silly antagonism I have described. However, the end is drawing very near, and since we have had a safe and prosperous journey criticism may well waive the opportunity. Yet there are few among the travellers who will not experience a keen feeling of relief in exchanging the pettiness, the monotony, and the isolation of the voyage for the activity of great enterprise and the interest of real affairs: a relief which may, perhaps, be shared by the reader of these letters. Yet if he has found the account of a dull voyage dull, he should not complain; for is not that successful realism?
News at last! This morning we sighted a sail—a large homeward-bound steamer, spreading her canvas to catch the trades, and with who should say what tidings on board. We crowded the decks, and from every point of view telescopes, field glasses, and cameras were directed towards the stranger. She passed us at scarcely two hundred yards, and as she did so her crew and company, giving three hearty cheers, displayed a long black board, on which was written in white paint: 'Boers defeated; three battles; Penn Symons killed.' There was a little gasp of excitement. Everyone stepped back from the bulwarks. Those who had not seen ran eagerly up to ask what had happened. A dozen groups were formed, a hum of conversation arose, and meanwhile the vessels separated—for the pace of each was swift—and in a few moments the homeward bound lay far in our wake.
What does it mean—this scrap of intelligence which tells so much and leaves so much untold? To-morrow night we shall know all. This at least is certain: there has been fierce fighting in Natal, and, under Heaven, we have held our own: perhaps more. 'Boers defeated.' Let us thank God for that. The brave garrisons have repelled the invaders. The luck has turned at last. The crisis is over, and the army now on the seas may move with measured strides to effect a final settlement that is both wise and just. In that short message eighteen years of heartburnings are healed. The abandoned colonist, the shamed soldier, the 'cowardly Englishman,' the white flag, the 'How about Majuba?'—all gone for ever. At last—'the Boers defeated.' Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!
So Sir Penn Symons is killed! Well, no one would have laid down his life more gladly in such a cause. Twenty years ago the merest chance saved him from the massacre at Isandhlwana, and Death promoted him in an afternoon from subaltern to senior captain. Thenceforward his rise was rapid. He commanded the First Division of the Tirah Expeditionary Force among the mountains with prudent skill. His brigades had no misfortunes: his rearguards came safely into camp. In the spring of 1898, when the army lay around Fort Jumrood, looking forward to a fresh campaign, I used often to meet him. Everyone talked of Symons, of his energy, of his jokes, of his enthusiasm. It was Symons who had built a racecourse on the stony plain; who had organised the Jumrood Spring Meeting; who won the principal event himself, to the delight of the private soldiers, with whom he was intensely popular; who, moreover, was to be first and foremost if the war with the tribes broke out again; and who was entrusted with much of the negotiations with their jirgas. Dinner with Symons in the mud tower of Jumrood Fort was an experience. The memory of many tales of sport and war remains. At the end the General would drink the old Peninsular toasts: 'Our Men,' 'Our Women,' 'Our Religion,' 'Our Swords,' 'Ourselves,' 'Sweethearts and Wives,' and 'Absent Friends'—one for every night in the week. The night when I dined the toast was 'Our Men.' May the State in her necessities find others like him!