The day of opportunity for reflection was with us again, and since so little occasion for action presented itself we talked about war in peace. The man in the street—omniscient being!—discussed it threadbare on the pavement. A man who knew the Boers was the man in the street. He knew the British army, too, though; and was sanguine of its ability to go one better—the shrewdness of which view was loudly applauded. And he really did much to make morbid people easy, and to lighten the burden of weak minds. The man in the street was respected. It was deemed a privilege to chat on the situation with this exalted personage, whom it took a rare and great occasion to make.
On the Stoep, after dinner, the history of the 'eighty-one struggle was reviewed and punctuated with commentaries on the character of Mr. Gladstone. The probable date of the relief column's arrival was settled, and the consequent discomfiture of the enemy laughed at. The talk was all of war. The children on their way from Sunday school halted the passer-by to enquire "who goes there"; they formed fours, stood at ease, and shouldered sticks enthusiastically. The natives shut up in the compounds eulogised the sword in their own jargon; they were filled with ambition to lend an assegai in the fray, and to have a cut at the people who treated them as children—with the sjambok!
It was remarkable the unanimity of opinion which obtained among Kimberley men at the beginning of the campaign with reference to the attitude of the Free State. They were in the first place convinced that war was certain, inevitable, unavoidable; Great Britain would enforce her demands, and the Boers would "never" give way to them. So much was agreed. But the idea of the Free State joining hands with the Transvaal—to stand or fall with it—was ridiculed as a monstrous proposition. England had no quarrel with the Free Staters, and they were not such "thundering fools" as to pick one with England, or to be influenced by shibboleths bearing on the relative thicknesses of blood and water. When, however, we learned how very much mistaken folks may be, the "villainy" of President Steyn was—rather overstated, and the continued independence of his country pronounced an impossibility.
This was all very well; but it involved some inconsistency, in that we had veered round to the belief that the Transvaal would never have faced the music alone, and without the aid of the neighbouring State! That is to say: war was certain from the beginning; the Free Staters were equally certain to be neutral; but since they were not neutral, responsibility for the war was theirs, and theirs only. Perhaps it was; but how was the view to be reconciled with our previous positiveness to the contrary? As a fact, few were conscious of any weakness in their way of laying down the law, and they (tacitly) admitted their fallibility.
On Monday the enemy betrayed signs of activity in the building of a redoubt opposite the Premier Mine. This was disappointing; it looked as if the purpose was to place a gun in the redoubt—to shy shells at the Premier. A special edition of the Diamond Fields' Advertiser lent colour to the assumption. The Boers, the special stated, had a gun fixed up at Mafeking, and had actually trained it on that town. The shells, we were assured, had not burst; but (flying) they could hit a man in the head, we thought. Whence they (the Boers) got the gun was a puzzle to not a few; and how they managed to make it "speak" was beyond the comprehension of others. "They might have another gun," these people exclaimed in horror! They might indeed; the question soon ceased to be one of speculation, for when a body of the Light Horse attempted to cross the Free State border, the boom of "another gun" was unmistakably real. Shell after shell was burled at the Light Horse; none of them were hit, and not having bothered bringing artillery with them, they were unable to retaliate.
Later in the day an express rider made his way through the Boer lines. The most interesting news he was able to impart was summed up in the Proclamation he carried in his pocket. It bore reference to the prohibition by the Governor of the sale of arms and ammunition throughout the Cape Colony. It was feared that the Africanders might buy the goods and throw them across the border; it had been done. But information in disproof of this was forthcoming when the story reached us that a number of the Cape Dutch had risen in rebellion and needed the weapons for themselves! Kimberley's voice at once favoured the extreme penalty—death for high treason! Even moderate men, who allowed for racial sympathies, held that neutrality was in the circumstances the proper attitude to assume. But the local extremist—and he was the man of the hour—argued that the object of the rebels was to sweep the English into the sea, and to make Africa the exclusive privilege of the Africander. In the evening, a terrific explosion was heard; a dynamite magazine had been blown up at Dronfield. It was stated that some people went up along with it; but that part of the story has yet to be verified.
All this made Wednesday an interesting day, but the gallant Colonel had yet to crown it with his quota. Having previously omitted to fix a charge for meal and flour, he now brought back to their normal modesty the prices of the two commodities. The two hardly provided sufficient material for a proclamation, but with some stretching they were made to do so. It was easy to discover a disparity in the relative quantities of the two foodstuffs in Kimberley; we had a great deal of the one, and comparatively little of the other. Thus when Kekewich in his wisdom deemed it prudent to take precautions, the populace did not object. We knew in our wisdom that precautions were superfluous, but we approved, in a general way, the principle of prudence. The proclamation accordingly ordained that every loaf baked in future should be three parts meal and one part flour. The bakers were given the recipé gratis, with instructions to sell it (the bread, not the recipé) cheaply, namely, at three pence per loaf. Theoretically, the new loaf was to prove a palatable change; practically, the wry expression of countenance it evoked in the process of mastication demonstrated the contrary. The bread was light "khaki" in colour, and only in this respect was it fashionable;—not too fashionable, because "Boer meal" was its chief ingredient, and racial prejudice was strong. The sweetness of the old-fashioned white loaf was wanting, and we soon clamoured for its restoration. But the brazen baker would talk of colour-blindness, and insist that yellow was white. And when we hit upon the plan of demanding brown bread, the fellow would argue that yellow was brown! When black was asked for—well, we did not ask for that. But there was no option in the matter; the Colonel's prescription had to be accepted. The sensible course was to try to acquire a taste for it; and we did; we succeeded—too well!—until at last we could not get enough of the dough. The unkindest cut of all, however, did not come until pies, pastry, and sweet cakes of all kinds were pronounced indigestible. The refined cruelty of this revolutionary decree was bitterly resented; not only by the confectioners, whose shop windows were works of art, but also by the public, who loved art. Even gouty subjects and folk with livers protested. As for the ladies, the war on sponge cakes almost broke their hearts. Pastry was to many of them a staple sustenance, and conducive—besides being nice—to a, wan complexion. Five o'clock teas lost prestige; the tarts were gone. It was a case of Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark. The propriety of a deputation to the Colonel, to test his gallantry, was mooted; but the proposal, strange to say, found no seconder. Meanwhile, he (the Colonel) was on the trail of the butcher again. Prior to the promulgation of the eight-penny regulation the butcher had been in his element, charging what he liked, and liking generally a shilling. The small people in the trade had sold their cattle to their richer brethren who now made hay in the "ample sunshine" with great ardour. Their prices, it is true, had been limited by proclamation; but they still catered for the wealthy classes, and the "greater number" suffered much in consequence. Some people could get no meat, and when the Colonel awoke to the situation he suddenly limited the allowance of each adult to half-a-pound per diem. A howl of indignation followed, and Kekewich was denounced as a "high-handed vegetarian." To be limited to less meat in a day than a man was accustomed to "shift" at one meal, was at once "too much" and "too little." Even this restriction worked badly. Coaches and fours were driven through the proclamation; the well-to-do got good weight, and the toiler—shinbone! The system of meat distribution was a source of trouble to the end.
Friday morning was one to live in our memories, it brought the execrable hooters again. No pen-picture can be drawn of their effect on the nerves; their unearthly melody must be heard. It sounded incidental to carnage, and wailed forth that the enemy was at last about to grapple with us. The shops were promptly closed; employers and employees rushed off in carts, on bicycles, or on foot to their respective redoubts. It was admirable: the readiness, the despatch with which every man hurried to his place. Women and children—liable to arrest—hastened to their homes. Soon the streets were completely deserted, save by the alert constable who walked his 'beat'—ready wherever he saw a head (outside a door) to crack it. All ears were strained to hear the first shot; and the suspense was probably more poignant than in later times when we had grown accustomed to the cry of wolf.
But there was no first shot; the cautious Boer had not made up his mind to beat us just yet. By a series of elaborate movements he had affected to gird his loins for a swoop that nothing could withstand, and adroitly managed the while to capture some oxen and horses—the property of our local Sanitary Conductors. When this was discovered, a batch of mounted men were deputed to ride out and question the legality of the proceedings. The enemy, nothing loth, opened the arguments themselves with a pungent volley, and when our side proceeded to reply, through a similar medium, the other would not listen. Later in the afternoon the Light Horse went out again, and got near enough to unlimber their guns and to plant a few shells among the Boers who guarded the route to the Reservoir. In this skirmish one of the Cape Police was killed—a regrettable circumstance which brought our list of deaths up to five.
The enemy still kept showing signs of activity, and of resolution to make it not only impossible to get out of Kimberley, but also unpleasant to live in it. They brought a gun as close as they dared to the De Beers Mine, and impudently endeavoured to shell it. They seized a second position at Kamfers Dam, and placed a second gun there. We had good people in Kimberley who asserted that the gentle Boer knew not how to use a gun; that he considered it so much lumber, an incumbrance. These were apart from the school given to postulate that the farmers had no guns to use. No need to say that both theories were dispelled, by sight as well as by hearing. Much attention was devoted to Otto's Kopje—our most exposed position—and many missiles dropped dangerously close to it. They burst, too, though nobody was hit. But they burst; and that was a visible fact that astounded a host of knowing people. There was a story in circulation about a respectable refugee from Johannesburg who, irritated by the fallacies that passed for facts in regard to Boer armaments and resources, always made it a point to speak the truth on the subject. He was an Englishman, quite loyal, and stimulated by a glass of beer was one evening in his boarding house unfolding the facts of the case. He discoursed fluently on the calibre and the accumulation of modern instruments of warfare he had beheld in Pretoria with his own eyes. His candour nettled his listeners, and on going outside he was threatened by one with pains and penalties if he did not curb his tongue and be careful. Another gentleman indulged in some vigorous criticism of spies and traitors in the abstract; while a third produced a pocket-book and took down the name of the frank offender, with a view to having him arrested. They went on in this strain until quite eight or ten muscular men had formed a cordon round the transgressor. "What did I say?" he enquired, plaintively. "You said a lot too much," was the crushing retort. One Ajax finally removed his coat and invited the Radical to a fistic encounter in the garden—if he felt aggrieved. The challenge was declined, more in sorrow than in anger, and the clamour subsided.
Contempt for the Boers, their methods of warfare, and their resources, was so marked that facts—traitorous things—were best left unspoken.
We had been informed that the ranks of the enemy had been largely augmented by commandoes from the north. Thus when on Saturday morning an alarm was raised we expected a tug-of-war for sure. The Boers were apparently massing for a concentrated attack on Wesselton, which was situated a couple of miles from the city proper. The day was particularly ugly; a dust storm blew with blinding fury. The portion of the Town Guard on duty the previous night had just settled down to slumber when they were obliged to jump out of "bed" and betake themselves in hot haste to their posts. But the Boers were only joking; they retired after an out-of-range demonstration of pugnacity. The citizen soldiers went back to "bed," but ere their winks had totalled forty they were again roused by the sacred goose-cackie of the hooters and again running to their trenches. The scenes in the streets were pretty similar to the pictures of the day before. We waited six hours, in expectation that "the hope which shone through them would blossom at last." It was all in vain; the Boers—incorrigible humourists—would not be serious, or draw close enough to be shot at. It was suggested that the hooters told them a march was not to be stolen on us; hence so many postponements of the "fall" of Kimberley. The sound, the weirdness of the hooters in itself, would keep back a braver foe. We wanted them silenced, however, and were beginning actually to desire a fight. All the hardships of active service, minus its real excitement, were ours; and the cadets of the Town Guard—who cared not whether they lived to be one-and-twenty—were dying to fire and definitely to learn from the "kick" of a gun whether there was really "nothing like leather."
Other things contributed to the eventfulness of Saturday; the Boers continued to display the same ominous energy, digging trenches, erecting forts, and making themselves generally comfortable—pending our submission to the inevitable like practical men. To emphasise the wisdom of surrender on our part, it was freely stated that the town was to be bombarded from Kamfers Dam. There was a feeling—it was in the air—that mischief was brewing. In obedience to a sudden order, the women and children of Otto's Kopje and the West End were hurried into the city for better protection. Finally, a letter from the Boer Commandant was received by the Colonel, the contents of which went far to justify the feeling of anxiety which was abroad.
The Commandant was a Mr. Wessels—and a very courteous gentleman his note proclaimed him. After some conventional preliminaries, he commenced by suggesting how natural it would be if the Dutch families living in Kimberley desired to betake themselves to more congenial surroundings. The Colonel thought it would be natural. Mr. Wessels would take it as a favour if said families were permitted to trek. Mr. Kekewich would gladly grant the favour; but the people concerned could not take a natural view of the matter at all; they decided to remain where they were. Mr. Wessels next graciously proposed that all women and children, irrespective of race, should be expatriated. The Colonel was still anxious to oblige, but the women, unfortunately, were not. They scouted the proposition. Its impertinence had attractions, but they declined to leave. It was too ridiculous; living in a desert as they were, with railway communication cut off on every side. They never heard the like! The surrender of the entire city was the final little favour solicited by the Commandant; and lower down it was hinted that the bombardment of Kimberley would be the painful alternative to a refusal. Here all courtesy was brushed aside, and Wessels was challenged to "take it—if he could."
In the evening a "special" was published which contained a few vague assurances of the satisfactory progress of the war in Natal; also some items concerning Mafeking, and the philosophic pluck of Baden-Powell. "The British troops," the special protested, "were rapidly arriving." At the redoubts the news was enthusiastically digested to the strains of "Rule Britannia," "Tommy Atkins," and kindred national ballads. The troops were arriving, but had not yet reached Kimberley. The prophets were false; the three weeks were over; but not so the siege. One, two, aye, three weeks more of it distinctly stared us in the face.