On to Dewetsdorf — a second Steyn — misgivings — rough treatment—I am taken to General De Wet's commando—strange companions—a curious guard—the Boer plans are revealed to me—in a Dutch farmhouse—the floor preferable to the bed—I play a game of bluff—I escape—at Peter Kelly's farm— an Irishman's kindness.
The morning of April 2 improved, and ten o'clock found me drying myself in the sun, my pony knee-haltered grazing fry my side, my saddle-bags emptied of all food, myself a stranger in an enemy's country! A few farmhouses were scattered about down the road I intended to take to Dewetsdorf, a black man was driving a herd of sheep in my direction, some oxen were ploughing a piece of land, and a Kaffir boy seemed more intent on watching me than the horses he was there to tend. I kept myself awake for fear of being caught in my somewhat exposed position, and watched my pony that it should not graze too far from me. I wanted water, but there was no spruit at hand, and I decided to wait till I moved on before searching for it. Two Boers, armed with rifle and bandolier—one full-bearded and old, the other so young that a razor had probably never crossed his chin—rode past me. I don't think they saw me, though they might easily have done so, and I wondered how they could be moving quietly down a road which was reported as occupied by our troops; but it was no use wondering, so I saddled my reluctant pony and moved on at eleven o'clock. My progress was terribly slow — not more than two miles an hour; I might kick and coax my pony, it was of no avail—the poor beast was stiff and done up. I met the black man driving the sheep, and, finding he could speak English and was talkative, elicited from him the statement that the British troops were in Dewetsdorf, and that I could get water at a small house a mile farther on. With hope revived I pushed on and stopped at the house. A Dutchman was cleaning pig's trotters and his wife washing some children. The man spoke English perfectly—called himself Steyn—said he belonged to the President's family—told me he was not commandeered—gave me water—insisted on my off-saddling—showed a great aversion to, and wished me to leave, my revolver—told me he had been watching me on the kopje—that a big Boer commando was on the road in front of me —and that I had no chance of getting through. He further urged me to "swop" horses with him and take a fresh one, but after that I mistrusted the man, and, much as I should have enjoyed a drive, I refused his offer of a cart if I would leave my pony. The fact was, I think, he would have liked to take me single-handed, but my height and my pistol rather overawed him. With many misgivings I left the house and struck off the road on to a hill path. I had been moving on for an hour scanning the country with my glasses and noting a great bustle of single horsemen riding in all directions, when the village of Dewetsdorf came into sight, about ten miles distant. I got off my pony and searched it thoroughly. A big building in the centre, from which a flag was flying, was evidently a church or the landrost's house, but I could not tell the colour of the flag, though the sun lit brightly up the corrugated roofs of a snug little village. What was I to do ? I had two alternatives—either to wait till dark and try to reconnoitre the place ; or to ride boldly on, see the landrost, and ask for a pass through to Bloemfontein, if the British were not in occupation. I decided on the latter course. I was in dire want of food, and if I once off-saddled I might never get my pony on. Moreover, my fears might have been groundless. So on I went, avoiding the main road and taking a bee-line at a foot's pace for Dewetsdorf. I saw horsemen passing and repassing, and my fears were in no way allayed from the fact that they were not in khaki. They must have seen me too, but they did not trouble themselves to inquire what I was doing, and about three in the afternoon I found myself about a quarter of a mile from the village, and knew that the flag which was flying was that of the Orange Free State. To go back was impossible. I resolved to face it out, and seeing a Boer approaching the town from a path which converged with mine, I waited for him, wished him " Good morning," asked him if he would conduct me to the landrost, and told him I was a non-combatant Englishman. He rode in with me, but I liked him not, and T found myself immediately surrounded by twenty armed Boers and a prisoner in their hands. " Who are you ? " " Where do you come from ?" " You'll have to come with us now," were shouted at me. I explained that I was a journalist and photographer, and I had ridden in to see the landrost. That worthy was in a Cape-cart close by, and I asked him with as much authority as I could muster for a pass through to Bloemfontein. It was no good. He himself, he told me, had been made to hand over the keys to the British the day before, that they had gone early this morning, and that he was now a prisoner of the Boers for having taken the British oath. One man seized my pistol, another my Zeiss glasses, and a third my purse. A fourth, a rough bearded man of an inferior class, who subsequently turned out to be the village blacksmith, pulled me off my pony. I was powerless to resist, and bore the indignity with the best grace possible under the circumstances. " Hullo, cocky!" shouted a cheeky youth; " Verdomte Rooinek," hissed a Dutchman in my ear; " How do you like it ?" said another, and so it would have continued, but for a man of coarse manner, grey beard, and fifty years, ordering me peremptorily into a cart seated for four, but which already held five ! My pony was taken from me with my saddle-bags, holsters, and rug, and all I was left with was my kodak, my water-bottle, and a few shillings in my pocket. " My pony can't go another yard," I said, as I saw a man fully armed jump on to it; " it has already done about seventy miles during the last thirty hours, and I want food. I have had none since the previous night, and I am starving. Surely you can behave like gentlemen." A loud laugh greeted my remonstrance ; but one man, kinder than the rest, brought me a cup of coffee and a hunk of bread and cheese for which I had no appetite, while the man who bestrode my pony lashed it unmercifully. " Come on, now, we're not going to wait for you any longer," said the old man of fifty, Joubert by name, the field cornet of Dewetsdorf; and I was bustled into the cart with its six mules. Where was I going? I soon found out. An order had been issued for every man to be at a certain place by sundown. There was to be a big fight, and I was to go with them to the main commando, there to see General De Wet, who was in command. I made the best of a bad job and squeezed myself in between the two drivers on a very narrow seat. One of them spoke English fluently. He was called Smuts, and he growled at having been commandeered. He told me the men had no right to take anything from me except my arms, and he asked me if I would give him my belt or my saddle - bags ! There was a certain grim humour which tickled me hugely when at a farmhouse we stopped for tea, and I was asked by the thieves if I would give them the articles they had respectively stolen! I told them that if I must part with my goods I eared little who had them, and I handed my spurs to another beggar! All I asked for was the little I had in my saddle-hags, and a friend in need kept his eye on the blacksmith who had got hold of them and rescued them for me. I was the centre of a gaping crowd at the farmhouse. Women and children, black men and white, all came out and stared, so I stared back at them with my trusty kodak, and hope I have got some interesting reminiscences. Had freedom not been denied me I should have enjoyed the scene, so novel was it to me. Here was an insight into the Boer method of warfare, his dress, accoutrements, and character, I had never anticipated, and you may be sure I made full use of it. My German tuition when a boy stood me in good stead, and I was able to follow much of their conversation. But the most curious feature was that they nearly all talked English, and many were British born with British names, or colonists descended from the great Anglo - Saxon race. And they prided themselves too, these old men of sixty and young boys of sixteen, on fighting against the British; but through all their rough, uneducated, unmannered boasting I think I detected a feeling of utter hopelessness of their cause. Some were riding capital ponies, others artillery and cavalry horses with their feet branded with the British regimental numbers — captured in some previous fight. There were men in short coats and boys without any; some on our cavalry saddles, others on blankets only. They were all armed with the well-filled bandolier and Mauser or Martini rifles, and some wore "smasher" and others "billycock" or straw hats. They rode very long in the stirrups. On the pummel of the saddle each man carried his coloured blanket or coat, while well-filled haversacks hung from each side. There were about fifty of this motley crew—mostly farmers, I think—who drank the coffee and swore and smoked and spat on the wooden floor. I was roused from my thoughts by a rough pinch of my shoulder from the field cornet, who ordered me to " get up, Mr Rosslyn." So in I got, and on we jolted towards the rendezvous, which was plainly in sight some six miles distant—a farmhouse nestling under a fringe of kopjes. And the men shouted " Forrard! " and " Tallyho ! " and the women who drove cheered them on, and I almost imagined I was going to a " chasse-au-cerf " instead of to a deadly man-hunt.
We arrived at the Boer rendezvous as the shades of night were fast falling, and the sinking sun lit up a busy row of figures moving hither and thither on the sky-line. The laggards who had accompanied me were quickly ordered up to the front with a word of rebuke, while I received orders to return to Dewetsdorf under the care of the landrost and a man called Villanel, the telegraph clerk, who had also got to answer the Boer general for taking the English oath. It was a curious and, I should imagine, an almost unique incident that I, a prisoner, was sent back in the custody of two other prisoners; but I think my jailers felt their position more seriously than I did mine. At any rate, they both tried to make me comfortable as we started back in the dark, and whilst I listened to them discussing their probable punishment, I began to plan my escape. I had learnt that the British force had only left this morning from Dewetsdorf, and was believed to be on the road to Beddersburg. It was their departure which had caused the summoning of this Boer commando, whose intention it was to cut off this little British force if possible. The fight was expected next morning. I gleaned that the British had no guns, that the Boer commando was then about 1400 strong, and would be reinforced during the night by another 800 with six guns. I heard, too, of a British defeat at the Waterworks near Sannah's Post the previous Saturday, when, according to the Boer version, we had lost 800 killed and wounded and 400 prisoners, and they had also captured waggons, varying in number from 75 to 205, and nine guns, their own loss being one killed and two wounded— the usual number! How could I get to our force to warn them of the impending danger ? Here was an opportunity I must risk at all costs. I had asked many questions and been answered quite frankly, my captors never dreaming of my possible escape, and I knew the direction of Reddersburg and still had my compass. I was in this reverie when wre pulled up at a small farmhouse, my guards declaring it impossible to go farther in the dark, so we outspanned and entered the farm, and were given, after a very long Dutch grace, German sausages, bread, butter, and fresh milk, whilst half-a-dozen daughters with an unprepossessing mother waited on us. The conversation was all in Dutch, but I gathered they were talking of me and of my guards' position, which they felt acutely. We went early to bed, and any hope of escape vanished when I found we all three had to sleep in one little room. Oh, the stuffiness of it! They wanted me to share the big bed, but I preferred the floor, and, tired out, I slept till five, when we started again for Dewetsdorf. My jailers were even more friendly, and discussed their own feelings to me so interestedly that I soon saw how the cat jumped, and- that they were more afraid of falling into the British than the Boer hands. I saw my game, and I bluffed accordingly. I told them that if it had been discovered that they had left Dewetsdorf without a pass they would either be shot by the British or banished to St Helena, but I added coaxingly, " If you like, I will go down the road to Reddersburg, catch them up, and explain matters for you, so that nothing will happen." It was a master-stroke. They were overjoyed, and agreed. The question was, " How was I to go ? and how far was it before I could strike the Reddersburg road ?" They couldn't drive to the road without going through Dewetsdorf, and that was no good to me or them. So they found two blacks and paid them five shillings to take me a mile or two over the veldt and show me the road. They also gave me the position of a farm belonging to one Peter Kelly, an Englishman, who they said would help me on. A hearty handshake and I was off, hungry but thrilled at my good fortune, yet all the time dreading my ability to reach any friends on foot and armed only with my kodak and an empty water-bottle. I had gone a couple of miles when one of my guides signalled to me to lie down, and not far from me a Boer passed across the open ground. On we went again, and by ten o'clock I saw not only the road but the trees round Peter Kelly's farm about six miles off. I had to pass several other homesteads, but there was nothing for it, so I parted with my guides and set off at a fast walk. Though I met two or three dangerous-looking customers, they were unarmed and let me go unmolested; and at midday, hot, hungry, thirsty, and exhausted, I threw myself on Peter Kelly's mercy, and told him my story. He promised to send me through in a cart, and told me the British force had camped at his farm the previous night and left that morning at five for Reddersburg, which was a little more than a two hours' drive. He thought the road quite clear; and this blessed, good-natured Irishman, who had, however, fought against us at Stormberg, received my warmest thanks as I started off at 1 o'clock on Tuesday, April 3.