The news relative to the tearing up of the railway line, and the cutting of the telegraph wires at Spytfontein, spread fast and freely on Sunday morning. Rather by good luck than good management there happened to be an armoured train lying at the railway station, and into it, with a promptitude that augured well for his popularity, the Colonel ordered a number of his men. The train had not proceeded far when it was discovered that the rails had been displaced at points nearer home than Spytfontein. They were soon relaid, however, by the Royal Engineers, and the train in due course reached its destination. A number of residents in the neighbourhood were taken on board for conveyance to the beleagured city. These included the local stationmaster, whose services were not likely to be in demand for some weeks,—three as we conceived it. It shortly became evident that there were Boers in the vicinity who had been watching the progress of operations, and had deemed it prudent to sing dumb until the train made a move for Tiome. They then opened fire and hurled several shells at it; but though a carriage was struck by the fragments, no serious damage resulted. In appreciation of the compliment, the invisible soldiers sent back a disconcerting volley, which led, as excess of gratitude often does, to some confusion. It proved, indeed, to be a kindness that killed one burgher and wounded half-a-dozen. The armoured train steamed back to Kimberley in triumph.
Meanwhile the excitement in town was great. The situation, in all its bearings, was being eagerly discussed by gesticulating groups of men and women. Intelligence arrived that the enemy had cut off our water supply; and the public were commanded to use what remained in the reservoir with circumspection, and for domestic purposes only. The public became duly alarmed, and just retained sufficient presence of mind to take a drought by the forelock, by filling their buckets, crocks, and cooking utensils with water. It was one of many little contingencies that had not been bargained for; the idea of water evaporating while there was yet tea to brew with it was both ridiculous and appalling. But there was not much danger of such a calamity; the reservoir was yet half full, and when it was empty, ways and means could be devised—with the permission of De Beers—to fill the tea-pots. The ladies were reassured.
Huge posters, proclaiming Martial Law, adorned the dead walls, and were being eagerly scanned by the populace. The publicans of the town had been noting events with the composure of men who had already made their "piles"; but they were, nevertheless, smitten with sudden fury when they read that all bars and canteens were to be shuttered each evening at nine o'clock. They showered anathema upon the Colonel, and gave expression to opinions of his administrative capacity which were at variance with the views of people outside the "trade." Pedestrians were warned against walking out before six in the morning, or after nine in the evening—under pain of a heavy penalty. All persons not enrolled in the defence forces, the proclamation went on to say, were to deliver up whatever arms and ammunition they possessed. This was an article of much significance and importance. We had in our midst a number of people, enjoying the rights and privileges of British subjects, whose "loyalty," in the minds of the authorities, was an uncertain quantity. Their sympathy with the Boers was natural enough; but it was at the same time too deep—in the eyes of Martial Lawyers—to be compatible with the duty due to the Queen. A house to house visit was inaugurated by the police—the sequel to which was the lodgment of some twenty persons within the solid masonry of the gaol. The most prominent of the prisoners was one employed as a guard in the mines. De Beers had always been credited with a desire to observe strict impartiality in their choice of servants, and the prisoner had hit upon a curious way of demonstrating his appreciation of such a policy. Ever since they had learned to handle an assegai the pugnacious natives shut up in the compounds had been spoiling for a fight; and, having heard of the Ultimatum, they were just then particularly restless, and keen on expediting a Waterloo. The obliging guard had thrown open the gates to gratify the "niggers"—on condition that British heads only were to be hit! The natives itched to hit somebody, and could not afford to let slip so good a chance by dilly-dallying over details. They agreed to the terms; but were fortunately herded together again before they could strike a blow. It may have been only a slip of the tongue on the guard's part; but the canons of martial law held such "slips" to be unpardonable. The one in question lost a man his liberty for two years, and his billet for ever.
The public were enjoined to hold no communication with the enemy, and to give them no direct nor indirect assistance. Finally, the proclamation informed us, a Court of Summary Jurisdiction had been established, armed with power and authority to hang traitors until they were dead; to confiscate their property; to lash them (when they escaped death); and even to deal severely with Imperial persons who failed to comply with the various regulations set forth in the plain English of one who had the advantage of being only a Martial lawyer.
It was not until eleven o'clock—during the hours of Divine Service—that the hundred thousand ears adorning the anatomy of the human population were first shocked by the horrisonous banshee wail of the hooters. The music was awe-inspiring, and ineffably weird. It seemed to portend the cries of the dying; and it was small wonder that the people subsequently endeavoured—as they did successfully—to have a more tuneful instrument employed. The immediate effect of the alarm was to send members of the Town Guard running from their respective homes and churches to the Town Hall, and thence, in orderly squads of four, with grim and stern faces, to the redoubts. Non-combatants, in compliance with the proclamation, went reluctantly to their houses. Tram-loads of scared women and nonchalant babies were hurried in from Beaconsfield. The streets were soon deserted. There was no panic; but many a poor woman felt that the life of a husband, a father, a lover, or a brother was in jeopardy, and many a fervent prayer went up to heaven.
The battle, however, did not begin. Large commandoes of Boers had been seen hovering about, and by boastful display had given us the impression that they purposed attacking the city. It was merely display; the wily Boer did not yet mean business. He eventually betook himself to coffee as a more profitable way of spending the afternoon. Late in the evening the Town Guard entertained some similar ideas with respect to tea, and were permitted to go home and drink it there.
Next morning, the armoured train was out early; but the Boers discreetly connived at its effrontery—having, doubtless, still in their minds unpleasant recollections of its volley-firing. At Modder river, twenty miles away, the enemy, it was said, were making prisoners of inoffensive persons, and blowing up the bridge. Bridges seem to have been their pet aversions everywhere. At Slipklip one was blown sky-high; and artistic skill was displayed in the picturesque wreck that was made of Windsorton Road Station.
The town, preparing for anything that might happen, presented a scene of bustle and confusion. What with strengthening and extending the defence works, levelling native locations (which might possibly prove advantageous to the Boers as a cover), and finding new homes for the evicted, Kimberley looked a stirring place—though train and telegraph services were suspended.
The ranks of the Town Guard were being augmented daily; fresh men were coming up in batches to be "sworn in." There was no medical examination, nor any such bother. Anybody in trousers was eligible for a hat, a bandolier, and a rifle; and lads in their teens affected one-and-twenty with the sang froid of one-and-forty. Camp life, and, mayhap, a little fighting, would be a novelty—for three weeks. Certain employers were at first disposed to keep their employees exclusively to the work they engaged them to perform; but the most obtuse among the captains of industry were soon made to realise that such an attitude, if persisted in, would scarcely pay. This truth was brought home to them so forcibly that they forthwith developed the fighting spirit, and became the most blood-thirsty entities in, the service of the Queen. All were needed, and When afterwards a merchant found himself "officered" by his factotum, he enjoyed (after a fleeting spasm); the humour of the revolution as much as anybody.
The manner in which the drills were muddled through at the beginning was primitive and amusing. The agony depicted on the faces of the "raw"; the hauteur of the seasoned campaigner; the blunders of the clerks; the leggings of the lieutenants: made spectators risk martial law and laugh in the face of it. Ever and anon, the butt of a rifle would come in contact with some head other than that of him who carried the gun, and the victim—not the assailant—would be sharply reprimanded for omitting to "stand at ease." The marching and the turning movements were comical, too; but practice did much to make perfect the amateur soldiers in mufti. They, naturally, desired a little target practice. With many of them experience in the use of arms had been limited to a snowball, a pop-gun, or a bird-sling; and they were not only dubious of their marksmanship, but fearful that their rifles in the rough and tumble of war's realities would "kick" to pieces their 'prentice shoulders. The authorities, however, could not allow ammunition to be wasted; it might all be needed for actual warfare. This only tended to make the men anxious to try conclusions with the Boers—or, better still, the foreign officers who, it was supposed, directed operations "from behind, when there was any fighting," like the Duke of Plaza Tora in the play.
The De Beers Corporation continued with untiring energy to do what in them lay for the further protection of the town, and on Monday offered to provide the military with a thousand horses. The offer was gladly accepted. It was decided to form a mounted corps of men who could ride well and shoot straight. We had a good few denizens of the Rand in our midst, and there was no difficulty in finding men proficient in both accomplishments to place on the backs of the horses. There came into being, accordingly, the famous Kimberley Light Horse—a corps destined to play an heroic, a tragic part in defence of the Diamond City. To the refugee the pay was convenient, the work bracing and congenial, and the prospect of "potting a Boer" not at all bad. With the Light Horse were soon to be associated some hundreds of the Cape Police (who came in from Fourteen Streams); and the combined forces inflicted considerable damage, and were a perennial source of irritation to the enemy all through. De Beers came out strong in another direction by heading the list of subscriptions to a Refugee fund which had been opened. The amount subscribed ran up to four figures. Much distress prevailed, and the Refugee committee set about distributing the fund to the best advantage. The ladies came out strong here, and gave yeomen service—scooping out flour, meal, tea, and sugar to the needy, and in sifting and rejecting, with rare acumen, the bogus claims of the "Heaps" who affected humble poverty.
The Summary Commission sat for the first time, and with a courageous disregard for the despotism of red tape, proceeded to business. The first case called was that of one, Pretorious, whose open and vehement condemnation of the war, and the policy that led to it, had rendered him an object of suspicion. A search of his house had resulted in the discovery of a revolver and two rifles, with ammunition to suit all three. The Proclamation had been very clear as to the seriousness; of this offence, and the penalty it entailed. The Court pronounced the accused guilty, and sentenced him to six months' imprisonment. The cases of minor offenders were postponed, and some of the prisoners awaiting trial were released on bail. The fate of Pretorious was paraded by mischief-makers as something which had produced a salutary effect in the Dutch element at large. It induced them to cultivate a remarkable reticence; but reticence is not essentially a product of good government.
On Wednesday, the Boers—in so far as their demeanour could be gauged from a distance—betrayed a tendency to wax indignant with us and our determination to fight. Large numbers of them perambulated to and fro, keeping nicely out of rifle range. A section of the Town Guard went out to the Intermediate Pumping Station, and sought to entice them into battle; but they were not to be drawn. The Beaconsfield Town Guard was afterwards deputed to try its powers of persuasion—to no purpose. The armoured train was finally resorted to as a decoy; but beyond eyeing it from a distance—and if looks could smash, it would have been reduced to small pieces—the Boers made no attempt to catch it. So far from being lured or wheedled by us, they rather conveyed by their wariness that green had no place in their eyes.
A copy of a Boer proclamation, which had been wafted into Kimberley by a cynical breeze, gave rise to much astonishment and criticism. In substance, it presented the Transvaalers with all territory north of the Vaal river; the Free Staters with the Cape Colony; and the British with—the sea! The Colonel read and appreciated the excellence of the joke, but thought it politic to give people who lacked a sense of humour a little illumination. He, accordingly, issued a counter-proclamation which made the "point" of the other clear: it was not to be taken seriously. The British element, which largely predominated, found scope for their humour in the Boer proclamation; that the enemy should limit his pretensions to portions of a single continent was surprising. Punch subsequently published a cartoon which represented President Steyn artistically painting all territory south of the Equator a pleasing Orange hue. Oom Paul, looking on in dismay, enquires: "Where do I come in?" "Oh," Steyn replies airily, "there is the rest of the British Empire."
But to return to the proclamations. Colonel Kekewich had yet another to draft; the conduct of the natives compelled it. Many of the aborigines were addicted to drinking more than was good for them of a species of brandy—a fiery concoction, with a "body" in it, called Cape Smoke. They staggered through the streets, rolled their eyes, flourished big sticks, and sang songs of Kafirland in a key that did not make for harmony. So the Colonel reasoned that he might as well write out another proclamation while he was about it, and had pen and ink convenient. He restricted the sale of "smoke," and decreed that all Kafir bars and canteens were to remain open between the hours of ten and four o'clock only. He also provided for the imposition of heavy penalties upon all and sundry who dared to disobey.
The bar-keepers, it need hardly be said, were angry; it was going rather too far, they thought. Was it the province of a military man to advocate, still less to enforce, temperance? Had not the "black" an "equal right" to quench his thirst? The canteen-men thought so; some of them, indeed, were sure of it, and went so far as to defy "despot sway," by ignoring it. They continued ministering to the needs of the horny-handed sons of toil. But the police—miserable time-servers—would do their duty; they were forced to uphold the Colonel's law, and to requisition the services of the celebrated local "trappers." The rebel Bonifaces were thus duly indicted, arraigned before the Summary Court, and heavily fined or deprived of their licenses.
The death of a sergeant of the Diamond Fields' Artillery threw a gloom over the city. He was mourned for as one who, indirectly, had sacrificed his life in defence of Kimberley. It was our first casualty; and made us wonder how many more there were to be—or rather, if there were to be any more.
Friday came, and with it came two English prisoners who had made good their escape from the Boers. Their story was interesting. They carried Martini-Henry rifles, but (as they explained) given a choice in the selection, would have chosen Mausers. Their friends, the enemy, had presented them with the weapons—conditionally; all they had asked in return was that the recipients should join the Republican ranks. The Englishmen scratched their heads, hesitated about striking a bargain, and were promptly commandeered. They determined, however, to get the best of the bargain at last; they escaped; and here they were in our midst, easing their consciences with expressions of their intention to restore the rifles to their rightful owners when the war was over, and as much of the ammunition as possible, on the instalment plan, while it lasted.
They had heard pitiful tales of the straits to which we had been reduced. Imaginative natives had assured them that there was "no more Kimberley"; the "fall" of Mafeking, forsooth, had staggered us so much that we did not want to fight. We were in our last gasps for a drop of water. Terrible guns were being wheeled to the diamond fields, to scatter it to the four winds of heaven. The diamonds were first to be blown out of the mines, and with them the local "imaginative" shareholders; while the Verkleur was to be unfurled Over the City Hall. All the perishable property was to be confiscated, and consumed as a sort of foretaste of what was due to the proud invaders' valour. Such was the romance dinned into the ears of our visitors. Happily, they made allowances for Bantu palsy, and did not hesitate to ignore it.
Saturday proved altogether uneventful, and prolific in nothing but outrageous lies. One item of news, however, was but too true: the good folk of Windsorton had surrendered to the Boers. Intelligence of a more agreeable nature followed soon after. Cronje's repulse at Mafeking, and the British victory at Glencoe, made us hopeful at the end of a week, the beginning of which had looked so ominous; and nearly all things were to our satisfaction on Saturday night when the third part of our "time" had formally expired.