For vegetables, too, our livers waxed torpid, and our blood boiled in vain. The potato was gone; the benefits conferred on posterity by Sir Walter Raleigh were at length realised in a negative way. Miniature "Murphies" fetched four pence halfpenny each, while an adult member of the genus at ninepence was worth two of the little ones. Mr. Rhodes may have luxuriated on potatoes (cum grano salis!) but few others were so very Irish. The De Beers Company owned a large garden, and that this should have been given over to the hospital was a delicate consideration of which even the dyspeptic could not complain. Cabbages were a dream. Of cauliflowers a memory lingered. Soft words buttered no parsnips. Onions were "off"—so we went on weeping. Everything in the garden but some wizened carrots had withered away. Such carrots! small, cadaverous, brick-coloured things, no bigger than a cork, as dry, as masticable, and, still like a cork, with little save a smell to commend their indulgence. But like the donkeys that we were, we ate them every time!
Talking of corks reminds me of bottles, and the precious little that was in them. We had no whiskey; think of that, ye Banks and Braes! There were nice crystal brands in the hotel windows, but—I shall be dealing later with oils. Sceptical tipplers, whose every feature spelled whiskey, were reduced to the painful necessity of diluting their sodas with lime juice; and so strongly did the "claret" taste of timber that the beverage was adjudged a non-intoxicant with extraordinary unanimity! Port and sherry, being beyond our reach, were despised, like our neighbour's sour grapes. The publican, however, had good spirits still; Cape brandy (or "Smoke," as it was called) found a market at last, and swelled heads enormously. But if the signs and portents of a drought in beer and stout were to be trusted, the unkindest cut of all was yet to come. And it did come. In the thirsty clime of Kimberley the consumption of the brewer's goods was large; and in the restaurants, with bars attached, good meals were sold cheaply to facilitate the sale of the beer which "washed" the food down. When the drought came the proprietors of these delectable taverns promptly raised their charges by fifty per cent., albeit the value and the variety of the victuals had lessened. Men in receipt of good wages loved beer and indulged the passion freely. The addition of the Imperial allowances to their incomes had intensified their thirst. Then there were the unusual conditions under which they lived, the paucity of provisions, the great heat—all these things tended to damage temperance and to exalt the flowing bowl. A multitude suffered when beer and stout gave out. The tipplers grew pale and visibly thinner; nature made her exactions with unwonted abruptness. A certain degree of sympathy was felt for the Bacchanals, by none more sincerely than by the druggist—artful old quack! It was to him the sufferers had to turn, to such straits were they reduced. Drugs were booming, and the druggist, not satisfied with the normal hugeness of his profits, slipped into the fashion and fleeced all round with unprecedented flagrancy. A purgative proclamation—classing pills as "necessaries"—was called for, but it never came. Obese folk, fearful that their flesh was falling off in lumps, drank freely of cod liver oil. On the other hand, fragile creatures of delicate mould thought black tea not only cheaper but ever so much nicer. Of course, the poor chemist was not responsible for tastes. He had much to answer for; but he was really sorry for the nerves and the penury of the poor.
With Monday came three despatch-riders who reported that heavy fighting had taken place—somewhere; the authorities declined to tell us where. The Boers remained docile all day; the heat was oppressive, but their silence was more generally attributed to a tardy realisation of their position. The military were unusually alert and watchful. The public graciously approved of this watchfulness, but pooh-poohed the danger of invasion. We were tired hearing day after day that an attack on the town was to be made "to-night"; it was to be "taken" six nights out of every seven, the last being, if I mistake not, the one on which General French was feted at the Kimberley Club.
Elaborate arrangements were made on Tuesday for the better protection of our cattle. The quadrupeds, Dutch and English, were on the best of terms—a happy augury, surely, for the amity which would unite the bipeds of the land when the war was done. We had a batch of natives employed digging trenches for the cattle-guards. A patrol was at hand to nip in the bud any interference with the work which might be contemplated. If the Boers did interfere, so much the better; interference would involve a fight, and from a friendly tussle in the sun the patrol was not averse. On the south and west sides the enemy still laboured at their fortifications. We knew not what to make of this; it nonplussed us. We had ceased ascribing it to want of knowledge: for we had, reluctantly, let it down on us that the Boers knew as much of the Column's movements as we did ourselves. But of course we also knew that the Boer was a child in such matters as generalship and tactics.
Every afternoon, at this period, the "child" delighted in trying to hit the head-gear of the Premier Mine. Whether it was the red flag that floated at the top or the thing itself he sought to tatter is uncertain. At any rate, it was no easy matter to hit the head-gear, as the gunner had long since discovered, nor, could he hit it, to smash it. Hundreds of shells were thrown at it, but it was never struck, and to damage it materially it would be necessary to strike it more than once. Its substance was tough—what Bismarck would have called iron painted to look like wood. Another object of Boer wrath was the searchlight. Night attacks were supposed to be the enemy's forte, and it was only the difficulty of extinguishing the candle that delayed our extinction. And so perhaps it was; we never knew for certain, for the difficulty of applying the snuffers remained insuperable to the end. Numberless missiles were shot at the searchlight, but its radiance was never dimmed for a moment.
The most important of the thousand and one rumours circulated on Tuesday was that a place called Jacobsdal had been taken by Methuen. We were not pleased to hear it. Being anxious to give Kimberley away to his lordship for nothing, we were at a loss to know why he should go out of his way to lay hold of a town when a city offered. There were, however, extenuating circumstances, in that a vast quantity of provisions had been seized at Jacobsdal. Provisions were now in our eyes of greater value than diamonds even! On Wednesday the Advertiser corroborated the rumour (re Jacobsdal); it gave details of the whole brilliant achievement, and sundry absorbing items anent the digestiveness of the confiscated supplies. All this was highly interesting; but unfortunately it was all untrue; it was discovered to be fiction. It was not the first lie (not quite), but none other had been so quickly, so frankly exposed. Our newspaper had been misinformed, and candidly told us so.
The De Beers directors, looking a little emaciated from anxiety rather than want of nourishment, assembled in Stockdale Street to hold their adjourned meeting. But the Column had not yet come in, the Chairman announced. The public, who were growing sarcastic, opined that the Kafirs imprisoned in the compounds knew it! Mr. Rhodes suitably explained how sorry he was to disappoint again; the fault was not his; he was not (he confided) in the confidence of Lord Methuen. A further postponement was unavoidable, and the meeting dispersed for a week. The period was significantly long.
The happiest section of the community was the composite collection of human units that constituted the Town Guard, and lived in the camps. There were to be found representatives of all nationalities—English, Dutch, Irish, Scotch, German, Norwegian, French, etc. With the local (Kimberley) variety there intermingled all sorts and conditions of refugees. Men of wealth, of high social standing and education were there, sleeping in the same "bed," playing cards and competing in "anecdotage" with the sons of toil. From the very beginning of the siege the Town Guard had had to "rough it" in rations. It was black tea or blacker coffee for breakfast; sorry soup and meat (the osseous joints that made the soup) for dinner; the breakfast again for tea—that made up from day to day the dreary menu. The Mayor, indeed, had for a little while managed to administer currant buns (it was not easy always to find the currant) for supper; but even prior to the official proclamation of their indigestibility they had gone the way of all luxuries. The generosity of the public, however—the female portion of it especially—must not be forgotten. Substantial presents, which were always acknowledged through the columns of the Press, came frequently to the camps. The cynics detected astuteness in this rush into print; but while they mourned the frailty of human nature, as instanced by the vanity competitions in the papers, they humbled themselves to the Greeks so far as to partake of such gifts as were offered. Tobacco, cigarettes, and other dainties were received, and consumed with rude rapidity. Every man was supposed to be responsible for the safety of a tin pannikin, out of which to scald himself drinking hot tea (for it had the merit of being hot—if a black draught has any). But there were soldiers who denied having been supplied with "cups"; whose appeals for pannikins were persistently flouted by the military utensil-keeper-in-chief. The "tape" of the Service could not tie up mendacity! The lives of honest martyrs were thus spent in an eternal borrowing quest, and the petty larceny of pannikins was a common and popular crime. Many a heated, yet amusing, quarrel, many a storm in a porringer relieved the monotony of camp life.
Concerts did it, too, at frequent intervals; and fine concerts they were. At the Reservoir camp they were particularly excellent, not the least interesting "turns" being the sanguinary "sword speeches" of the Officer Commanding. Comic and melodious songs were rendered with equal gusto; the Royal Artillery rivalled the D.F. Artillery, and Tommy Atkins, the merchants, shopboys, clerks, and "civies" generally. The services of an Irishman—born great, by virtue of the brogue with which he kicked Off to Philadelphia—were in great demand at all the halls. One night the Chair was occupied by the Senior Officer, surrounded by his staff, in a halo of cigarette smoke. He (the Chairman) had a box in front of him, doing duty as a table; a rough programme lay before him, and two candles, with long beer bottles serving as candelabra, threw sufficient light on the "table," and lit the cigarettes. The president had bottles in front of him, containing something still more illuminating than tallow (judging by the hue of the faces privileged to sample it), from which the ring round the "table" from time to time regaled itself. Many an envious glance was shot at the ring; and by-the-by it was wonderful the celerity with which the diffidence so marked at the outset disappeared when it was observed that vocal contributors (soloists) were by courtesy entitled to a "pull" from the bottles. Everybody wanted to sing, and dismal howlers who, ordinarily, would die first, were driven, tempted, lured, impelled to howl for drink. The liquor, generously diluted with minerals, was served out in pannikins; and when the concert ended the National Anthem was taken by storm, as also were the empty bottles to squeeze, lick, and drain to the dregs.
The Boer guns continued to sing inexplicably dumb; Wednesday was dull. The ladies, who had been pretty free in their criticisms of the Boers, were saying hard things of people nearer home. They had a grievance against the butcher and his manipulation of the meat. The clamour at the shambles of the butcher despot was growing in volume. Hungry masses crowded the shops, and that some should emerge meatless from the melee was inevitable. Nepotism was reputed to be much in vogue. The Colonel had curbed the meat vendors in the matter of price; a strictly limited number of oxen were slaughtered daily, but the number was sufficient to provide everyone with his or her half-pound of flesh. This arrangement, however, was to some extent rendered nugatory by cute people who had what was pithily termed "a leg" of the butcher. Thus a "friend," or a monied acquaintance, could get as much meat as he could eat (a good deal!)—which amounted to the legitimate share of perhaps half a dozen starving creatures who had cash in the bank! In practice the system of distribution did not work well; the State interference was no doubt a blessing; but it was a mixed blessing.
On Thursday a mounted force re-visited Carter's Farm to entice the Boers into battle. In pursuance of this purpose some shells were expended; but the Boers disregarded the challenge. The rumour-monger, who had an explanation for everything, interpreted their silence to mean that the guns had been requisitioned to oppose the advance of Methuen, who did not seem to be making great headway. One of the sights of Thursday was a khaki horse! We were in this connection accustomed to such diversity of shades as black, grey, white, and brown; but a painted quadruped had never before been seen in Kimberley. The authorities were responsible for the painter's assault on the lily. It would appear that a high percentage of white and grey horses had been shot in the several sorties; hence the necessity of varnishing the survivors. The white animals were more discernible to the eye behind a Mauser. Condy's Fluid was the "varnish" utilised; and curious to relate, one noble steed was, not khaki, but green after treatment. Perhaps he wanted to be shot.
A fund for the benefit of the families whose bread-winners had fallen in the defence of Kimberley was opened on Friday. The right man put the collection in motion; Mr. Rhodes, on behalf of De Beers, headed the list of subscriptions with ten thousand pounds. The Diamond Syndicate followed with two thousand. The Mayor, with the sanction of the Town Council, gave two hundred; and the citizens' "mites" were very decent indeed. It was also decided to erect a memorial in honour of the dead; for this object seven hundred pounds was subscribed. The Refugee Committee continued to perform their duties with unabated energy. It was creditable to all concerned that nothing was left undone to lighten the burden of the poor; and the deftness—not to speak of the charity—of the ladies in the scooping out of meal and sugar was admirable.
Saturday was heralded in by the music of the Column's cannon, which verily had charms to soothe our savage breasts. It was lyddite melody; the lyddite shells were singing. It was a siege article of faith, a siege truism, that the Boers could not long stand up to a British bombardment; and it was an accepted dogma that lyddite was the article utilised to knock them down. We had read and heard (and magnified) much of what lyddite could do; our ideas of its decimating powers were elephantine—and white at that. Sometimes we pitied the Boers; but were not cognisant, of course, in such weak moments, of the disinfecting qualities of bottled vinegar; we did not then know that a portable cruet formed part and parcel of each burgher's kit. It did not need a protest from General Joubert against the use of lyddite to confirm our impressions of what it could do. The local Press was alarmingly eloquent on lyddite; we read not only of what it could do, but consistent accounts of what it had actually done. At a certain battle, for example, a lyddite shell fell among seventy Boers; and when the smoke cleared away only eight remained alive, seven of whom were asphyxiated by the fumes! We were glad that one escaped. Many similar tales were printed for our delectation, and our credulity—being of the siege order—was pathetically fine.
In the afternoon we opened fire with our big gun. The Boers retaliated with unusual fury, and, I am sorry to add, with unusual effect, for in the duet, which lasted several hours, a missile killed Sergeant-Major Moss and wounded six men. The death of Mr. Moss caused very general regret; like many who had gone before him, he was a well-known townsman; like others, too, he left a wife to mourn him. The body of a white lad who had disappeared some weeks before was discovered on Saturday; and these two additions brought up our total of deaths to forty-four. It may be well to explain that the list included three or four natives. The natives are human beings; but some people cannot see it.
So closed the fifty-sixth day of the siege. Two months had rolled by, at traction engine speed. Some impatience manifested itself; the food was all wrong. But we looked forward, and were sustained by the ultra-jolly Christmas that would be ours. The few who had promised themselves an Antipodean Yuletide in the frost—or slush—of merry England could not keep their words. The most would have to be made of the coast towns. What an exodus it would be! To sniff the salt air; to fight our battles over again; to fondle the missing (gastric) links that would litter the Christmas table! The "greater number" could not of course go far from the Diamond City. But Modder River was near. There were the time-honoured annual excursions to that modest watering-place and now famous battlefield to excite the imagination, where "shells" could be gathered of more historic value than the "common" ones by the sea.