The fault of my nature — a stripped saddle — a fickle moon — we miss the drift — dogs and geese — danger ahead—we are pursued—the news of Sannah's Post disaster—disconsolate—starvation or a bullet—my guide deserts me.
April 1 and 2.—Perhaps these two days will live more vividly in my mind than any others, unless it be the two which followed; but this much I can say, that both mentally and physically I have undergone an experience which, thrilling, exciting, and eventful as it was, is one I have no desire to undergo again. I have something in my nature which is a doubtful acquisition—the desire to explore unknown and dangerous depths without weighing, or at least caring to reckon, the cost of consequences. I veritably believe that if hell were not an abyss which dead men only tread, and from which there is no "return-ticket," I would go there and chance getting out of a place which my many friends have told me I have, metaphorically, already been to!
Notwithstanding the fact that I could have made a comparatively easy journey to Bloemfontein via Mafeteng (in Basutoland) and We-pener, I determined to get past the Boer screen if possible, and make the short cut to Thaba Nchu, although I had the previous day been informed that heliographic communication with that place had suddenly ceased. I wrote a hurried letter, gave my servant instructions to go with my luggage by an ox-waggon which was taking some white gangers via Wepener to Bloemfontein; and with my saddle - bags and holsters filled, and a rug under my saddle, I started from Maseru at 9 a.m. on Sunday, April I, to ride through the enemy's lines. My guide, who had two day's before got safely through, was a native of Thaba Nchu, and knew the country well, but he declined to go too near to where we had information of the Boer laagers !
So on a hot bright first of April I bade farewell to Maseru, and started down the Basuto side of the Caledon river. We rode quietly on, my guide hardly understanding a word of English. At about two o'clock we off-saddled for an hour at a friendly spruit, and there I ate half the good things Lady Lagden had given me, and drank a little lime-juice and water with which I had filled my water-bottle. I was carrying in one bag a shirt, pair of socks, sponge, nail, tooth, and hair brushes, a piece of soap, my writing-pad, a towel, and three handkerchiefs. In the other was my lunch and dinner, as I hoped to reach Thaba Nchu early in the morning. In one holster I had my Mauser pistol loaded, and twenty rounds of ammunition; in the other, a tin of tobacco and some kodak spools. My mackintosh was rolled up over the holsters; and I had on over my khaki kit a sam-brown belt, to which my Zeiss glasses and purse were attached, while my water-bottle and kodak were slung over my shoulders. We must have ridden fifteen miles when we started again at 3, and by 5 o'clock, when we reached one of the Basuto police patrols, we had done quite twenty-four miles. The country over the border was reported clear of the Boer patrols, so I finished my food, and, at the request of my guide, decided to start at 6 p.m. when the sun went down. The native expected the journey to occupy eight or ten hours, but everything had to depend on circumstances and on the difficulties we encountered. My worst thought was, that perhaps Thaba Nchu had been evacuated, but we had heard no firing the previous day.
The new moon rose at six. It was but a streak in the darkening sky. I turned the few shillings in my pocket and wished for luck— then mounted my pony. The Basuto corporal said, " God preserve you, sir ! " and we started for the drift on the Caledon river. Something went wrong at once. We missed the drift, and I found myself up to my thighs in water and my pony swimming. It was only for a moment, but it was a distinct discomfort to start the journey with clinging breeches and boots full of water. A figure loomed in front of us as we climbed the opposite bank. It was a black man. He brought us news of heavy firing the previous day in the neighbourhood of Thaba Nchu, but he thought the road we were taking — a circuitous one via Koro's Kop and Mabola—was quite clear. We spoke in muffled tones, and rode on at a fast "triple."
Striking slightly south of west, we could mark our course by the top of Koro's Kop, which rose giantlike above the horizon some fifteen miles distant. The silence of the night was broken only by the pitter-patter of our ponies' feet,—even the crickets and the frogs seemed to have lost their power of speech. A light some way to our right flickered, went out, and reappeared again, but still my guide rode on, deviating slightly from his course. The warm close air changed suddenly into n damp, penetrating, cold vapour, as we passed through some valley, and as quickly changed again as we emerged from it. A dog began barking furiously, and was answered by a distant cur, and the hills in my imagination seemed to echo with their horrible noise. But still on we rode at a pace that must have been quite six miles an hour. The tension, the loneliness, and the silence began to prey upon my nerves. I imagined I saw figures jumping up and lights all round me, but in reality the dogs had stopped barking, and instead, the bull - frogs were shouting at our intrusion. Then a fresh sound broke upon my listening ears. It was that of a flock of geese aroused from their slumber, and they made night hideous with their cackle. We must have been near a farmhouse, for a light shone out at once, and first one and then another dog barked. My guide turned sharply to the south. The farms were all Dutch, and they harboured the night patrols. I thought of the Roman legend of the geese which saved the Capitol, and turned quickly after his shadow. A little farther and he stopped suddenly. So did I! He was off his pony in a twinkling. I followed suit. "What was it?" "Nothing," he said,—"we rest few minutes, give horse feed." I drew a sigh of relief. I thought at least we had tumbled into a Boer laager, so overstrung had my nerves become. I struck a match in my hat, lit my pipe, and looked at my watch. It was about half-past nine! A quarter of an hour's rest, and off we went again, this time at a much slower pace. There was some doubt as to whether there was a Boer patrol or laager at Koro's Kop, round the southern base of which we were travelling. Suddenly another flock of geese began to cackle, a dog barked, and a light shone from the window of a farmhouse close to our left. We quickened our pace, got off the hard track, and hurried past. Then, with that danger left a mile astern, we turned abruptly to the right as if for Mabola. It was about 11 o'clock when my guide stopped and said, " I leave you now, you hold horse; friends here tell me where Boer is." Reluctantly I assented, and found myself alone, holding the two ponies in the pitch-dark night, every nerve strained to see the objects in front of me, to catch the least sound of approaching danger. I had been alone a minute or two—it seemed an hour— when I heard a noise as of a door opening, and instantly my ears were greeted with a chorus of howling dogs. I distinguished voices speaking, I even heard some order given in Dutch. Still the dogs barked noisily. I must have been alone ten minutes when a horse trotted past me some distance away and neighed. I jogged my ponies in the mouth in the fond hope of stopping their reply. In vain. First one and then the other answered the stranger. I heard muffled sounds and the clatter of horses' feet on the still night air, and I strained my ears to ascertain their direction and their meaning. Hurried steps came towards me! What were they ? I held my breath and hesitated whether to make a bolt for it with the aid of my compass. " Hist! " It was my guide. What a relief! With him came two blanketed nisoers. It was their kraal he had visited, their dogs which had nearly made me fly. My guide muttered in broken English and in a subdued voice, " This very lucky; big Boer patrol close by; these men want two bob show us another drift over Loeew river." Here was a lucky escape ! Half a mile farther on was a drift we had intended crossing. It was there this patrol was posted! I told my guide I feared the patrol was alarmed by the sounds I had heard, but I had barely finished speaking when we heard the tread of horses, and hastily agreeing to the terms, we started off as fast as possible after our new guides over the veldt. They found the drift, and I lost six shillings in paying them two ! The danger was over, and we struck south again.
We jogged on uneventfully, distinguishing the early fires of a Boer laager in the distance, and hearing from another friendly native that a small British force had arrived in the neigh-bourhood yesterday, but considerably to the south of where we were. It was 3.30 in the morning when I suggested an hour's halt, to which my guide assented, as I thought that, on daylight appearing, we could reconnoitre our position, and gallop instead of walk the rest of the distance. Some of you have never faced an unseen but expected danger. I strongly advise you to avoid doing so if possible. I started full of bounce, and by the time I off-saddled at 3.30 a.m. I was physically and mentally worn out. The strain of seeing and listening in the dark, the want of knowledge of my own as well as of the Boer positions, the fact that I carried my life in my hands, and the physical exhaustion from riding nearly twenty hours in wet clothes and for the last four in bitterly cold weather, told severely on me ; but wrapping myself up in my blanket, wet with the horse's sweat, I laid my head on the saddle and was soon fast asleep. It was nearly five when I woke, and raining pitilessly. The lightning, very vivid, alone lit up the skies, and the thunder growled ominously. We caught our horses, saddled up, and started again. As the cold grey morning broke, Thaba Nchu loomed in the distance about ten miles to the north-west. We made for it, but just as I was hoping my journey was at an end we heard of its evacuation by the British troops —the previous day, it was said. Disconsolate, I turned away, and getting into a donga, I pulled out my map and consulted my guide.
The natives had told him that the Boers were in force between Thaba Nchu and Bloemfontein, but that a British detachment had occupied Dewetsdorf, a village about eighteen miles south of where we were. Could I reach it ? Without rest it was impossible. My pony was completely done up. It was twenty-four hours since I had left Maseru, and we must have covered nearly sixty miles. There was a store about three miles off belonging to one Dickey—a Scotchman. I determined to try it, and with difficulty kicked my pony along to within half a mile. Then I sent my guide on to see if the coast were clear, and if I could get food. He returned saying they would not serve me, and would shoot me if I came near. The owner was in Bloemfontein. Here was a pretty position ! I turned back and off-saddled under a small kopje, and my guide deserted me, saying it was too dangerous to go on.