Christmas Eve—a memorable day in its own way—dawned in due course. It was not the siege alone, with its attendant inconveniences, that made it memorable. It was not that the season accentuated the want of enough to eat; nor was it the absence of the time-honoured turkey that tried us most. There was something else besides, namely, the capers of the sun. Thermal phenomena are of course not strictly pertinent to my story. But I feel impelled to digress for a little and warm, as it were, to this new element of discomfort, provided doubtless as a Christmas Box by the thoughtful clerk of the weather. To those of us who were enjoying our first taste of a sunny southern summer the heat of the day was excruciating; it literally took one's breath away. A man could not even read; he tried to, in the hope of falling asleep incidentally. But in vain. 'Nature's soft nurse' was not to be cajoled by artifice. There was no air, no breeze to fan her softness. The thermometer registered on its imperturbable face one hundred and seven in the shade, at which experts who had passed the whole of their summers in the furnace of the Diamond City inveighed against the slowness of the instrument and its lapse from the path of rectitude. The cant of the day ordained the twenty-fifth of December the "hottest day of the year." Well, the newcomers felt that if it were to be redder than the twenty-fourth they might jump into the Kimberley mine, without danger of landing on their feet, and enjoy a better pudding in a better and (perhaps) cooler world. It was a day to make one fed in all seriousness that life is not worth living; and to a man fresh from over-sea the association of Christmas with such weather—to say nothing of the victuals!—was the acme of satire. There is no whiteness in the African Christmas, and for the first time in their lives the newcomers sighed for a "green" one! A "green" one would cool the atmosphere, and a cooler atmosphere would content us. We would gladly let the turkey and the pudding pass if the Turkish Bath would go too. Had the shade of Santa Claus, or the flesh and blood of anybody, come loaded with poultry for our "stockings," we should not have said, thank you. Our appetites were gone. They were gone, and all we asked was that they should be restored for Christmas Day—just as if Claus had indeed made amends for the cruel kindness of the "Clerk!" It was kind of Sir Alfred Milner to arrange a congratulatory flash of compliments (by signal from Modder River) and to wish us all sorts of luck. One sort would have sufficed: the kind contained in a record output of rain. Would it come? First it would—and then it would not. A duststorm intervened by way of compromise; it was a breeze—hot, choking, blinding, but still a breeze. We got thunder and lightning, too; but the rain hesitated—as if it knew there was little left to soak in Kimberley. It ultimately relented, however, and came down in torrents through the night.
Christmas Day itself! It had come, cool, delicious; the change, the metamorphosis in the weather, the disappearance of the azure sky was strange and lovely. Those shifting, hustling clouds, how pleasant they were to look at. The day was the antithesis of its predecessor—the mildest we had had for a long, long time. It was a relief to find that the "hottest day of the year" was a figurative expression used to denote the middle of summer. Our fears of cremation were entirely dissipated—as sometimes happens in the case of passengers to the Cape who, sweltering in a broiling sun outside the tropics, marvel how they are to toe the Line.
It thus came to pass that our interest in breakfast was after all considerable. I shall confine my congratulations to the genius of one resourceful landlady who furnished, in addition to "mealie-pap" allowed by "Law," some illicit tit-bits of meat, as a surprise! But she did not cease staggering humanity until a small dish of butter was produced. Real butter!—the lady's character made her word sacred. It was an astounding phenomenon in itself, but the sharing of it in a season of famine with poor relations like her boarders was the kindest cut of all. Butter it was; we remembered the taste, and there was the circumstantial evidence of our eyes. We had once been taken in by dripping; but there was no mistaking the species in the dish on Christmas morning. There it was in all its luscious sallowness, and the smacking of our lips betokened an appreciation of all that we had lost in the weeks gone by. Many, alas! missed more than their butter. Speaking generally, the 'Xmas breakfast consisted of black tea, khaki bread, and golden syrup—an appetising rainbow on a "merry" morning. The menu at dinner was little better; it stirred up sad recollections of the past. Pudding (worthy of the name) was nowhere. We had imitations; apologies for puddings, plain—and hard—as a pikestaff, were everywhere. They were not essentially cheap, because eggs, the chief ingredient, were fabulously fresh. As for the geese that laid not, well, they did not cackle either; their bones had long since been mumbled. But there were self-denying citizens who actually preserved some beer and stout for Christmas Day! These good stoics—stoical only to be epicurean—were proud of their will-power. Indeed they ostentatiously affected intoxication and horrified everybody—with their bad acting.
For the men who were obliged to spend the day in camp there was not much to live for in the eating line. So everyone thought, at least, when the fight for leave of absence had begun. But Mr. Rhodes, with characteristic thoughtfulness, sent a lot of nice things to the camps, which changed the situation and made men regret their anxiety to spend Christmas at home. The quantity of what was styled Cape brandy consumed in camp baffles computation. The effects of the swim were bad, too—not because there were so many drunk—Christmas comes but once a year—but because of the awful aftermath. Numbers were ill, very ill, indeed; and it was a blessing, all things considered, that none were dead. In the camps, life, although boisterous, was not exactly merry; but it was a Christmas, as was afterwards declared with chivalrous unanimity, than which nobody had ever spent a better. Nobody had ever felt so sick the next morning, and that was most likely the standard by which the measure of the merriment was gauged.
His Excellency's congratulations were the innocent cause of a little friction. Had it not been for his example the "compliments of the season" might have been left unsaid; good taste and good sense would have conspired to let them lapse. There was something incongruous about wishing a man a happy Christmas. Let a man be ever so sympathetic and cordial; let him mean—not wisely but too well; let his accents ring true as steel: it was still difficult to convince one that there was no suggestion of sarcasm in the greeting. But the Governor had changed the situation; he had set the fashion—had reminded us that the fashion with its conventions and courtesies was an element, a blessing, of our civilisation; and that we were not permanently outside the pale. It was nevertheless trying to be taken by the hand and wished "a merry Christmas" by every brazen Napper Tandy in the town. It was, as I have said, all the fault of the Governor; the custom was adhered to in deference to His Excellency rather than with malice prepense on the part of a friend to indulge in wanton candour. There were monsters who out of sheer, crass good nature did offend; but even they took care to couple with their "remarks" an apologetic laugh, which was intended to convey that the joke, though carried far, was just a joke. The wags—the species was not yet extinct—were especially felicitous. They treated the subject as a very original piece of humour indeed. Their treatment of it gained them an occasional cuff in the ear, and they had to be discriminative in their choice of victims. Everybody was not to be wished "returns of the day" with impunity.
The happiest people in the world on Christmas Day were the wise and simple natives. They foregathered in the streets and revelled to their hearts' content. All day long they sang, danced, and laughed; they held orgies (in honour of the Colonel) and corroborees of the kind described by de Rougemont—the Washington of France. The antics of our dusky tragedians and comedians made a striking spectacle, and were quite as entertaining as the performances of the highly rated Harrys, Irving and Lauder. There was a moral in the orgies—though we did not draw it. The natives were happy; short commons did not trouble them or mar their enjoyment in the slightest. With us it was far otherwise; we had anticipated a different Yuletide; the natives had not. The natives made the most of theirs; we the least of ours. Some of us had dreamt of dining in Europe. Others of us had visions of beer drinking at the coast. A great many would fain have taken the waters of Modder River. But all were disappointed, dour, and sorrowful—all save our true philosopher, the native.
The twenty-sixth of December is proverbially a sad day. It was so with us, but not sadder than the day before. A few shells were sent out among the Boers to ascertain how they got Christmas over them; and they by way of reply made some good practice on the Premier Mine. A water-pipe was mutilated, and a man standing near had the pipe knocked out of his mouth by a piece of shell. A good deal of desultory firing went on for several hours. The enemy's guns were obviously handled by men who knew what they were about, and we soon afterwards definitely learned (what we had long suspected) that there were French and German experts behind them. The remainder of the day was dusty, stormy, and uninteresting.
Lord Methuen's guns made a noise on Wednesday. Their booming, with intervals of silence, went on all day; from Kimberley shell after shell could be seen bursting in all directions. Our confidence began to revive; indeed it had never waned so far as the capabilities of the Column were concerned; and we were satisfied that a second assault on Magersfontein would be crowned with success. The excuses advanced on behalf of those most responsible for the failure of the first attack were legion. That they had not been given half enough men for the job was a favourite plea; and Buller (who had his hands full in Natal) was reviled for not supplying more. The indications of a renewal of active hostilities, however, which Wednesday brought, enkindled hope again and promised a happy New Year. It was still a sore point with us to see the exchange of signals going on night after night; to think that we—the people!—should be kept in ignorance of their meaning. But it was in harmony with the Military methods in general; and some people vowed that if ever the hat went round for the Colonel they would not put a cent in it, so help them! How much the Colonel was perturbed by this dire threat there was no evidence to show. But a Proclamation was soon forthcoming—which would certainly not conduce to the filling of the hat. His (the Colonel's) proclamations had for the most part made us swear by him; the one of which I now speak made us swear at him! And our language will be pardoned when I explain that the decree struck at the one commodity it was in our power to get enough of. There was such a commodity, and that was bread. Until this atrocious edict saw the light it had been our privilege to, enjoy carte blanche in bread. It was the last of our privileges—too simple and sacred, one would have thought, for even an autocrat to have dared to trample on.
Flour, meal, Kafir corn, mealies, etc., were also to be controlled by the socialists (they had red flags up); but the main insult, added to the injury already inflicted by the quality of the State loaf, lay in the suggestion that we ate too much bread, and that we were in future to be limited to fourteen ounces per diem! Already limited to nothing at all in vegetables and to a glorified bite of beef, it was not surprising that an angry chorus of protest was raised against the Government. People asked, in their indignation, if they really lived in a British Colony? Could such an interference with the freedom of the subject be brooked for five minutes? Of course the query was beside the question, but everybody was beside himself with rage. Where was the Military despotism to stop? In the meantime, while men in the street raved, shrewd housewives were acting. At the first note of alarm they had started scouring up their pans and determined to encourage thrift by baking their own bread. They would thus supplement their allowance of the readymade article, and by the same token snap their fingers at that "ass" in excelsis—Martial Law. But they reckoned without their host; there is nothing asinine about Martial Law; a closer perusal of the proclamation would have taught them that Kekewich and Gorle were old soldiers; that anybody buying meal or flour could not buy bread, and vice versa. Even "mealie-pap," ad lib., we had perforce to forego; the "Law" allowed it but once a day. Then there was a worse feature than this limitation indicated. "Mealie-pap" without milk was bad enough; minus sugar it was unthinkable. But the "Law" would not permit us to sweeten the "pap" any more—that is to say, the reduced allowance of sugar was all too little for neutralising the insipidity of black tea. We were also restricted to a fixed complement per unit of tea and coffee—as much as we required in any circumstances, but, ironically enough, a little more than we required of the stimulants in their undiluted nastiness. An elaborate system was set up garnished with red tape, and a large clerical staff filled the Town Hall for the purpose of receiving affidavits, affirmations, and of issuing "permits" to all and sundry who might feel averse from succumbing to a sudden, in contra-distinction to a slow, starvation. The possession of a "permit" entitled the holder to purchase the "regulation" quantity of provisions for one week, at the expiry of which period he or she would be required to have his or her "permit" renewed, if he or she desired a renewed lease of life. The tumult at the Town Hall was remarkable; the people swarmed there like locusts; the ordeal one had to undergo for a "permit" involved cruelty to corns. Matters improved when the excited multitude were at length persuaded that one representative of each family sufficed to conduct negotiations in respect of their right to vegetate. No storekeeper could supply more than the exact quantity specified in a "permit," nor dare he refuse to sell on a false plea.
All these drastic changes were the outcome of the Colonel's proclamation. His action was pronounced grossly unconstitutional. What our Rulers meant by it, what such arbitrary interference with the liberty of the stomach portended, we could not tell. Some ascribed it to pure "khaki cussedness"; others maintained that the Military aimed at stretching the duration of the Siege to six months—that they might be lifted by a short cut to promotion. Such were our views of collectivism; and if the Military left ear did not tingle it must have been frost-bitten.
Mr. Rhodes liked the latest inscription on the Statute book as little as anybody else. On Thursday he contributed one thousand pounds to the Widows' and Orphans' Fund. We liked this liberality, and there was a consensus of opinion that the Colossus was a "wonder." During the day a Despatch Rider brought him a bundle of newspapers, which he rather indiscreetly handed to the Advertiser, to dole out at retail rates on sheets of notepaper. Thus 'news much older than our ale went round'—but no; the papers were dated only three weeks back, and we had had no ale for at least a month. Any intelligence of the outside world, however, was interesting (save what we read of Belmont). The details of Buller's repulse at the Tugela did not make good reading. What we read of streams of transports laden with troops was better; as also was the item that Warren—who knew much of Boer wiles—was steering through the Karoo. We took it that he was to join Methuen, but were afterwards annoyed to learn that his destination was Natal. The situation in Natal appeared to be serious. Still, our opinions of our spoonfeeders remained unaltered; we still assumed that they suppressed or minimised the seriousness of things in Kimberley. Our attitude was perhaps uncharitable, and deserving of the rope—of half-hanging at least; but the weather was so hot; we felt so hungry and thirsty. There was no need to starve us, to deny us bread; we believed that we might be safely granted a slice or two more—until the British flag was hoisted in Pretoria. We had, it is true, rather hugged the delusion that it would have been up for Christmas Day. But even in the light of that error of judgment we could appreciate the puerility of conserving supplies as if the dogs of war were to go on barking until doomsday.
A special meeting of the City Council was held in the afternoon; and although opinions were divided as to the precise form its protest against the new order of things should take, nobody doubted that it was for such a purpose the meeting was convened. We were all wrong. It was simply resolved at the Town House to wish the Queen a Happy New Year; and thereby demonstrate not only the unswerving loyalty of her distant subjects, but their sang froid also in days of stress and danger. It was an excellent idea; the taking off of hats to the Queen was general. The Colonel signalled to Lord Methuen; that gentleman communicated with Sir Alfred Milner; and he in turn cabled Kimberley's sentiments to Her Majesty. There was no mention of the bread; it was an omission; but it might have sounded "conditional," irrelevant, or even have detracted from the value of our good wishes; and it was hardly worth risking being suspected of loyalty to one's bread—unbuttered! Besides, our friend the enemy (the Colonel, not the Boer) personally supervised the despatch of messages, and he was quite artful enough to suppress reference to eating matters if he thereby served the "Military Situation."
Friday was quiet—in the cannonading line; the wind and dust were bellicose enough. Fodder was scarce, and the animal creation was sharing with us the privations of a siege. Hundreds of horses were turned out to "grass." To be reduced to dependence on Karoo grass was a sad fate for the poor quadrupeds. On a billiard table they could have feasted their eyes at least on green; but the veld could not offer even that ocular consolation. Hay and straw were at a premium; the "fighting" horses had first call, and they were numerous enough to make hard the lot of the steeds of peace. The poor cart horses were sadly neglected; it was pitiful to behold their protruding ribs, their forlorn looks. Every sort of garbage was raked up to keep them alive—second-hand straw hat mashes being the most notable repasts in vogue. Cab-men were obliged to descend from their boxes and face the dignity of labour with a pick and shovel. The dearth of fodder brought down the prices of beasts, and thenceforward they were sold for songs—ditties to the tune of thirty shillings. Half-a-dozen horses were on one occasion sold for seven pounds—animals that were worth a great deal more each. The purchasers took risks of course. But the booming of cannon was still to be heard in the land—it boomed all the afternoon—and the possibility of keeping the quadrupeds alive until the Column came to the rescue was not yet despaired of.
Saturday was the seventy-seventh day of our investment, with relief not yet in sight. True, it was within hearing; but so it had been three weeks before, on Magersfontein day. We were weary of this interminable thunder, which showed us no results. Colonel Kekewich was as reticent as ever. Of guesswork there was plenty. Had Methuen not had time sufficiently to augment his forces to cut his way through. The troops were in the country; we were placated with the information that they were "falling over one another in Cape Town." This comforting gem glittered less in our minds as the days sped past, and the prospects of a speedy liberation receded correspondingly. The delay was to us incomprehensible. We fell back on our old theory, that the more protracted the Siege the greater the fame and honour for the men to whose 'prentice hands had been committed the destinies of a free community. It was hard to believe that these armed martinets could play with their responsibilities in such a crisis. Did they realise its gravity? Were facts being witheld? Was the true and actual condition of the city as regards provisions and the contingencies to which their scarcity might lead—were these things being properly represented to the public and to Sir Redvers Buller? In our wisdom we feared not. Scepticism and suspicion, born of disappointment, were in our hearts. Our conclusions may not have been sound; we lacked a proper knowledge of the difficulties confronting the army; but we did feel that if the real state of affairs had been explicitly indicated to the Commander-in-Chief, a column would have reached Kimberley sooner. We were not so far away from Orange River, where thousands of troops had been massing for weeks. We were not so far out of the way as Mafeking. Nor were we like the defenders of Ladysmith entombed within towering kopjes. No; to snap our bonds was a relatively easy task. Little provision had been made for a prolonged investment, and we had fifty thousand stomachs to cater for. So much was plain. If Kimberley were to be sacrificed to the "interests," forsooth, of the campaign, British honour would be tarnished. Such a procedure would be not only brutal, but a tactical blunder as well. We felt strongly that the relief of Kimberley was an indispensable preliminary to success, and, by reason of our proximity to the Free State border, the way that would soonest bring the war to a successful issue—
But hark! Wherefore that wild halloo. Ah, there was news, charming news. Lord Roberts had set sail for South Africa, to take over supreme command. Hurrah for good old "Bobs!" We felt instinctively, or somehow, that the little General could be trusted to dig for diamonds. The news of "Bobs" made a chink in the cloud and disclosed its silver lining. Kitchener, who accompanied Lord Roberts as Chief of Staff, had shown in his generation some skill as a pioneer of deserts; the Karoo would be child's play to him. The Soudan was a region in which our interest was rather academic; but the killing of the Khalifa was announced and applauded with the rest. Oom Paul's political extinction would soon follow, and Kimberley would emerge with a whoop from captivity.