A sudden order from General Hunter; a morning of preparation; a commotion of dismantling, packing, harnessing, saddling; handshaking and well-wishing; cheers ringing, hoofs clattering, dust rising beneath wheels and many feet, a backward glance along the road, and—Good-bye to Mafeking. An episode in the lives of men, and one which, in spite of the excitement that went before it, will probably leave a small though deep impression. Life there was dull beyond words, perhaps because there must be a reaction after seven months of excitement, and because the nature of man is elastic, springing quickly back to the commonplace when an unusual element in its circumstances has been withdrawn. I tried hard to fancy that the people of the garrison bore in their faces or manners some sign of the strain which they had undergone. But the months seemed to have left no traces except on the buildings and on the cemetery; or perhaps their mark upon the besieged men was set beneath the surface scanned by a casual observer. At any rate, the people of Mafeking could not successfully be exhibited in a show of wonders, and they took less interest in their food than did we, their deliverers, who lived with them for a while in what might be called "poor circumstances." Strange to say, the only way in which to secure an ample meal in Mafeking was to give a dinner-party, when all sorts of things were produced from secret reserves and—charged for.
Brigadier-General Mahon's column left Mafeking on Monday, May 28th, taking the road that runs southward beside the railway, and I think that everyone breathed a sigh of satisfaction when we were once more fairly on the road. "The Happy Family" someone called Mahon's force, and there was certainly never a more united company. He is the kind of leader—considerate, strict, careless of unessential formalities, careful of all essential details, jolly of face, kind of eye, a good companion on the road, a rock of strength and confidence in the field—who is obeyed in the spirit as well as the letter, and for whom men would gladly march their feet to blisters. It need hardly be said that he is an Irishman—"Ould Pat Mahon God bless 'um!" as a friend of mine said that morning; and the remark was strangely apt, in spite of the Brigadier's youth and the fact that his name is Bryan.
For four days we marched southward in easy stages across a stretch of country that was almost blighted by the scarcity of water; we never had water through which the bottom of a white cup could be seen; nearly always we had to share with the mules and horses the vast puddle known in that country as a pan, and at every puddle or waterhole, as the mules churned it up into inky mud, the wish was the same—"If only we had some engineers!"
At Maritsani siding we found the first really serious break in the railway. For about three miles the line was completely wrecked, and two culverts, one (over the river) spanned by unusually long girders, had been blasted in the middle and were lying broken in the gap. Even here it was easy to distinguish between the work of the trained German or French engineer and that of the ordinary rank-and-file Boer. The Boer did not understand dynamite, but he had a very fair idea of destruction from the spectacular point of view, and his work made by far the finer show. One might almost think that children had been at work, so laborious and futile were his efforts. The permanent way for perhaps two miles was bodily uprooted, each length of rails with the sleepers attached, and laid along the embankment. Not a thing was destroyed; the fishplates, four to each joint, were lying at a convenient distance, and even the bolts and nuts for securing them were disposed in little heaps. All that the repairing party had to do there was to replace the lengths of line, couple them, and shovel in the ballast. But the mile on which the trained engineer had been at work probably took four times as long to repair. Here a dynamite cap had been attached to the middle of each rail, with the result that there was a piece about six inches long blown out of every length, and that meant that all the old way had to be taken up and an entirely new one laid down. One thing I did envy this simple-minded enemy of ours, and that was the pleasure he must have experienced in doing one bit of damage. Towards one culvert the line sloped down in a long gradient, and on this a couple of trucks and a van had evidently been placed and allowed to run down to the culvert, where, the bridge being gone, they plunged into the gap. Think of the glorious smash! The trucks must have got up considerable speed. And picture the crowd waiting expectantly for the final catastrophe. I must say that I should have liked to see it.
The destructive spirit had evidently been satisfied by this gorgeous sacrifice, for nine miles of the line and telegraph wires running southward from Maritsani were untouched, and at Kraaipan, where we met the repairing party from the south, the damage was nearly repaired.
On the Thursday night we marched from Kraaipan to a point four miles north of Maribogo station, and during the march we heard a whistle in the far distance. A message was sent to the advance guard, and the train was "held up" while we gleaned some news from the officer in charge. To us who had been living in the wild for more than a month the great hot, hissing, bubbling engine was a strange sight, and we stood gazing at it open-mouthed like yokels, and stretching out our hands towards its warm body. When we had learned the news it moved off into the darkness with a shriek, and we resumed our march with a strange sense of cold and silence. Early next morning (June 1st) the column marched into Maribogo, where it was to receive ten days' provisions and a complete supply of remounts—new wings for the flying column. Hunter and the components of his force were to rendezvous at Lichtenburg on June 7th.
Setting out from Maribogo on Sunday morning, June 3rd, we entered the Transvaal at about midday, and reached Geysdorp in the afternoon. Hart's brigade had left Maribogo a few hours before us, and we passed ahead of it at Geysdorp. After having been long with only mounted troops we thought the infantry brigade a slow and primitive thing; but we envied it the drums and fifes, to the music of which the Irishmen were stepping along bravely when we passed. Although their destination, like ours, was Lichtenburg, we marched at different times of the day, for even in this large country there was not room on the road for both brigades. While they were yet asleep in their bivouacs we were at breakfast, and their reveille generally found us setting out on the march.
The awaking of a column on these dark, cold mornings is ghostly and mysterious. The first trumpet-call trembling through the chill starlight brings one back from dreams to the world. The cavalry trumpeter plays a longer and more ornate flourish than that sounded by the infantry bugler, but reveille is all too short on a winter morning. From under one's shelter one sees the camp return to life—first a match glowing here, then the smoke and crackle of a fire there, until acres of ground are scattered with flame. Then the sound of voices begins to insinuate itself—one never knows exactly when it begins—until the air is lively with the cries of the cheerful Kaffir. Darkness still on the ground and cold starlight in the upper air; but eastwards a very sharp eye might notice a kind of lightening of the gloom. And cold, bitterly cold, one gratefully withdraws beneath blankets the hand that was experimentally stretched out. In one's own little camp the stir is also beginning; fires being kindled, shadowy figures moving through the gloom, the sound of horses munching corn. Presently the air vibrates to another trumpet-call—"Stables"; and the few horses (chiefly among the artillery) that know the calls begin to neigh and paw the ground. Now the sky above the eastward horizon has faded to the palest blue, revealing the heads of horses and men where one thought there were only trees, and along the lower edge of the blue comes another line, like a fine silver wire. It grows broader and fades into the blue, but in its place comes a sheet of dull crimson. Millions of miles away God sets it on fire, and it kindles, glows, flushes to scarlet, melts into gold, until from the gold flows amber, and from amber the pure white wine of daylight. All the old colours rush westward across the sky; the veldt glows with tints that have no name nor description in our dull tongue; yet these are the mere drip and overflow of the dayspring.
Small wonder if amid such an entertainment one forgets the bustle in the now visible camp, and smaller still if one forgets that one ever wanted to sleep. Another trumpet sounds—"Boot and saddle"—and the bustle becomes acute as the mules are harnessed and horses saddled. And from some near squadron which is to form the advance guard are heard the few sharp orders that are necessary to transform it from a crowd of men and horses to a military unit. "Fall in. Number!" And the numbers run down a switchback of sound as each man shouts his own. "Stand to your horses. Prepare to mount. Mount. Advance by sections from the right. Walk—march!" And with the last word the day's work begins.
On Tuesday morning I had ridden on far in advance of the column in search of buck. There was very little cover, and at the first shot they were off like the wind, so I gave it up. Just beyond the ridge where I had been shooting I came upon the pan of water that was to be our outspan, and beside the pan was a farmhouse, outside of which stood a little group of people. An old woman, a young man, a girl, two middle-aged matrons, a man horribly deformed—people of different ages and manners, yet having in common one startling thing: they were all shaking with terror. It was startling because they were the only living creatures except birds and springbuck that I had seen for miles of that lonely march. The heath stretching to the sky north and south and east and west; the muddy pan; the poor house and outbuildings; the solitary horseman; the terrified group—these filled the picture; and it was not without misgivings that I approached the house.
"Oh, sir" (it was one of the matrons speaking English with the pleasant deliberation of a Dutchwoman), "was it you whom we heard shooting on the hill?"
When I said that it was they all gasped with relief, and the women broke out into a clamour of talk and questioning. Was the army coming? Were there many troops? Where were the Kaffirs? Was I sure that there were no Kaffirs about? When I had reassured them on the point the deformed man spoke.
"The Kaffirs are jumping about. Ja! They have looted my farm. All my stock also. We are afraid. I am waiting to go to my farm, which is one hour over the hill, but when I heard your gun I was afraid the Kaffirs were near. They know we are only women or sick men here, and they have guns, and they are jumping about. Your Colonel at Mafeking gave them guns, and now they run about stealing and murdering. All last night I dared not move from here, although we have no food. I was afraid, and so were these ladies, knowing they were jumping about. Now I go to my farm."
He called a black boy, who presently brought round a miserable cart drawn by two skeleton ponies. One of the women got in. There was no need to ask the fierce little cripple why he had not been on commando, and I was wondering how he was going to get into the cart, when he gave a great leap, and, climbing nimbly into his seat, drove away.
When he had gone the woman of the house began to pour out a woeful tale. Her husband—was he dead or alive? No news for three months; no letters or telegrams. Even the casualty lists had ceased to reach them. Her babe was dying for want of milk food. Could I give her a tin? General Hunter's men had broken up her kraal to use the wood for burning, and all her goats had wandered off and she had no one to send to look for them. These few logs of wood were all she had to bake bread with; would I ask the General to see that the soldiers did not take them? And then the Kaffirs! It was a piteous tale launched on a flood of tears. Possibly it was exaggerated; people have different ways of asking for help; but the terror in the woman's eye when she spoke of the Kaffirs was genuine. And I remembered the cripple's phrase—"The Kaffirs are jumping about."
Captain Bell-Smythe, the brigade major, came up presently, and I found him willing, as he and General Mahon had always been, to listen with patience to the long recital of woe. A sentry was put over the house and gardens to protect them from the desecrating foot of Tommy, and I know that a tin of milk was furnished out of the scanty stores of the headquarters' mess.
As for the Kaffirs, that trouble turned out to be a very real one. On the next day's march four were captured by a patrol of General Barton and shot, and it almost seems as though their blood were upon the heads of those who failed to disarm them after the siege of Mafeking was raised. I heard that the reason given was that it would offend the Barralongs, who had fought so bravely in defence of their staadt; but surely it had been better to offend them than allow them to run their heads into a noose. The Kaffir trouble was like a shadow on our march; they imagined that they had old scores to pay off; they paid them with remarkable fidelity to their own austere sense of justice; and it was felt that in suffering death they were bearing the punishment for more than their own misdeeds.
Incidents such as these marked the days of our march to Lichtenburg. But our family was breaking up; Colonel Rhodes and Sir John Willoughby, who had worked so hard on the relieving march, left us at Maribogo; one by one my fellow-correspondents were departing; one officer after another who had been with us on some special service was being withdrawn.
And suddenly my own summons came. Over thousands of miles of sea-bed it found me at a spot where the telegraph instruments never spoke before, and may never speak again until the end of Time. We were encamped fifteen miles from Lichtenburg, in a place made green by a clear and brimming river. I had wished to send a telegram, and the obliging orderly had undertaken to tap the temporary wire and "call up" Lichtenburg. So the instruments were connected in the green field, and soon the voice of the man at Lichtenburg was heard. The first thing he did was to ask if anyone of my name was with the column, and when he found I was there he said there was a cable for me. He read it to me over the wire, with the result that I did not send my telegram. And presently the voice ceased, the wire was disconnected, and (although I had been hoping that the message would come) I went about like one under sentence of death.
We came on into Lichtenburg the next day, once more passing the Irish Brigade with its childish pipes. General Hunter's division was now complete, and I had not seen so great an encampment of tents since leaving Lord Methuen at Boshof. They surrounded the pretty town—long lanes arched by great willows trembling over streams such as run clearly through the streets of all South African villages. On the next day Mahon's column, proceeding in advance of the Division, was to set out towards Rustenburg, while I rode forty miles westward into Mafeking.
The day at Lichtenburg was very busy, occupied by those miserable duties that affront the softer feelings. To dismantle and sell the moving home that, as though by a miracle, has been nightly disposed through hundreds of miles of road travel, and to part from horses that have served you well and shared your dangers, if not your alarms, is to suffer a new and painful damage to the affections. It was here, also, that I had to say good-bye to Major Pollock, with whom I had been living for the last five months. Some correspondents live always alone, and some like to join with several of their fellows in a large mess; but I think that our arrangement (when one is so fortunate in one's companion as I was) is by far the best. Of course the newspaper correspondent has to remember that he is the rival and not the ally of all his fellows; but in the South African war there were many occasions when two correspondents might work together to the advantage of both newspapers, and there were few occasions when a correspondent could obtain any advantage or information which was not shared by all the rest. At such times, of course, when they did arise, we used to become very silent as to our immediate intentions, and the subject which was uppermost in both our minds was shunned. But so long as my companion was with me I never lacked a home on the veldt.
The happiest endings and the lightest farewells are indeed serious; they punctuate life, and set a period upon chapters that may not be revised. Out of the dust of preparation rose once more the pillar of cloud that had hovered over the column for hundreds of dusty miles; and soon to an accompaniment of stamping feet and jingling harness it moved on, leaving me behind as it had left so many others—not all to go home, but some to sleep beneath the roadside bushes. General Mahon waited, chatting, until the last waggon had passed, and then he also, who had been the pleasantest of companions as well as the most respected of commanding officers, rode away with that stiffening of the back with which your true soldier ever turns from private to public affairs. I looked after the vanishing column, and felt as though every prop of existence had been knocked from under me. I had been one amongst a thousand, a mere molecule in a large mass, moved hither and thither without reference to my desires or efforts; and I resented the restoration of independence. Strange contradiction! We crave and struggle for individuality; here was mine restored to me, and I looked at it askance. The tail of the column disappeared round a bend in the road. Was this indeed the end of the chapter?
Not quite the end. As I set out on the westward road I met a half-battalion of the Scots Fusiliers returning to camp from exercise, marching at ease. Each company was headed by a piper who swung and swaggered, blowing deep into the lungs of his instrument. As one company passed, the measured bleat and squeal of the pipes faded and merged into a sound heralding the approach of another. The gorgeous uniforms were absent; but even the shabby khaki, stained with the soil of long marches and hard fights, could not obliterate that perfect harmony of movement which marks the first-class regiment.
I stood to watch them go by. The last company approached; the piper, his head thrown back, so deeply drunk of sound that his soul seemed to float on the steady hum of the chanter, set the rhythm to ranks of men stepping out to the inspiring discord. I turned my horse's head; before me the road stretched long and lonely; behind was the bustle and stir of the camp. A file of officers marching behind the column hailed me with envious congratulation when they heard where I was going. But they did not know that, just for one moment, I would have given the world to turn and follow the piper.