A change of quarters—a glimpse of Kruger—inside the "birdcage"—our daily life—an ingenious roulette-table— the American consul — my second Sunday in Pretoria—the Rev. Adrian Hofmeyr—cricket under difficulties—we start a magazine—some statistics —prison clothes—four-footed companions.
April 21. — The guard and carriage I asked for were sent to fetch me away from the racecourse about midday yesterday, and having said good - bye to Mr De Santos and Mr Hellawell, I shook hands with the commandant, after taking a photograph of him. If Pretoria cannot boast of its main thoroughfares, it can at any rate claim to being an ideal situation for a town. My road led me through two or three streets which apparently intersect one another at right angles, and along each were rows of low, but neat, villas or bungalows, with an occasional church spire or imposing building to relieve the monotony. High evergreens, blue gums, and tall willows shade the inhabitants from the heat of the noonday sun; and a little river, now only a stream, seemed to form the northern boundary of the town. I passed close to where President Kruger was sitting on the stoep of his humble home, which faces his own private place of worship, and, crossing the river, soon got a glimpse of the " birdcage," as I have since christened it, which held our British officers as prisoners of war. I was driven to a building outside this " cage," next to which were lined a row of white tents, evidently tenanted by the guards, and there introduced to my new commandant, Westernink by name, who, with two other imperious assistants, requested me to empty my pockets of their contents. With a forward movement one of them made as if to search and feel me thoroughly, but I was in no mood for this performance, and protested that I had come from the racecourse, where I had been a week. At the same time I showed my watch, handkerchief, tobacco pouch and pipe, all of which I was allowed to retain. "Your money, please." Again I objected, but I was promised a receipt, a form of discharge I had as much respect for at that moment as I had for the Boer official promise. "Take off your camera." This was more than I could bear, but it had to go, and then I asked that my valise might be examined in my presence. This was agreed to. What a search they made, these officious officials! And yet they did miss something, much to my relief and amusement — something in the shape of this and the previous chapter and letters from men to officers! Although it was nothing of any great importance they overlooked, I preferred to make certain of its safe custody after my previous experience, so what appeared superficially like a biscuit tin full of tobacco, cigars, and cigarettes, was allowed to remain as part of my personal property. The lining of my overcoat, which I had had carefully sewn up a few hours previously, owing to its ragged condition, curiously enough contained a Dutch illustrated paper and some old ' Standard and Diggers' News '—at least so I found when the gentleman in question ripped it open! The papers in this establishment were evidently not contraband of war, and were replaced in the lining! The valise was then rolled up again, and I was escorted to the entrance of the cage, formed of double gates about 8 feet wide and 5 feet high, with nails pointing uppermost stuck into the top. On the other side of this gate, and surrounding an area of about 200 by 100 yards, was a laced and interlaced 4-feet-wide wire entanglement, and inside this a 10-feet-high wire-netting; so, as I was pushed inside, I realised that escape was practically impossible, and almost wished myself back at the racecourse. I was at once the centre of a small knot of bearded, curiously dressed human beings, and but for a babel of questions in the English tongue, I think I might have been forgiven had I mistaken them for Boers.
But Spencer, whom I had parted with at the station, relieved me from any doubt as to whether I should hold my tongue or not, and M'Whinnie soon came out to hear where I had been since I left him last week. I went with him to inspect my new quarters in a huge tin building in the centre of this "birdcage." I found it divided into three partitions, the one from where I entered being about 100 yards long by 20 broad, with four long rows of beds about 3 feet apart, and near me five cold-water bathrooms.
As I walked through to where every one was moving, in answer to a tinkling bell, I met Ricardo of the Blues, Tristram of the 12th Lancers, Charlie Grenfell, late of the 10th Hussars, and Ansell of the Inniskilling Dragoons, who used to hunt with me in Fife in the good old days. These were the only men I knew as I looked round the dining-room, where we sat on wooden benches at four long tables, if I except the unfortunate officers who were taken with me near Reddersburg. Beyond the dining-room were the kitchen and a kind of store and office combined, to which I was subsequently introduced to get anything I might want for my personal comfort. Lieut. Grimshaw, Dublin Fusiliers, and Lieut. Smith, Gloucester Regiment, have undertaken the commissariat department for us, and a busy time they must have had, judging from the crowded room and the number of orders taken down.
After lunch, which, if meagre, consisted of an excellent piece of roast beef and some bread and jam, which we washed down with water or lime-juice, as whisky and wine were not allowed, I found a place to pitch my bed, which had been supplied to me; and after talking the whole afternoon till my tongue refused to articulate any longer, we went to dinner at 7.30. This meal, like lunch, did not occupy many minutes — a little soup, some roast mutton, and bread and jam, forming the simple bill of fare; but I found the tables divided into little messes, each one having its own sub-mess-president, who catered for all the additional luxuries we might require. The mess to which I have been attached, as there was a vacant place at it the day I arrived, consists of Captain M'Whinnie, Royal Irish Rifles, Lieut. Ansell, Inniskilling Dragoons, Lieut. Duhan, Kitchener's Horse, Lieut. Metge, Welsh Regiment, and Captain Vaughan, Kitchener's Horse. Dalian and Vaughan are both retired officers.
The tables were hardly cleared of the necessary impedimenta by the "batmen," thirty-two of whom have so far been allowed, when cards, dominoes, and chess - boards took their place, and at the farther table a red cloth of some dimensions, with a covered bottle in the centre, soon attracted my curiosity.
I found the most cleverly and ingeniously devised roulette - table I had ever seen. In place of a disc, a ball, and little numbered cavities, was a circle of cards composed of an ordinary whist pack without court cards, but with a "joker" as "zero"! The bottle I had noticed was used as a pivot in the centre for turning an indicator, while on either side of this centreboard were similar whist packs arranged in four columns, with "Pair" and " Impair," " Manque " and " Passe " and " Rouge et Noir" marked out in squares like those at Monte Carlo. You could back hearts, clubs, diamonds, or spades, or any of the columns and numbers, and the bank, generally made up of playing shareholders, paid the correct odds to the punters when they won. Of course the game was in counters, and was kept within the meaning of an "amusement" and not a "gamble," and according as you won or lost the account was entered in the mess bill, which was settled every month. But the counters, from Johannesburg, were very limited, and the game was so popular that at a later date it was decided to issue " five-pound notes." The artist's clever forgery, with the assistance of the hectograph, was so ingenious that I reproduce one of the twenty-seven issued.
At the other tables I saw piquet, cribbage, whist, and poker being played, but bridge and chess were evidently the most popular, and there was one officer who was a marvel at the last game, and could beat three others, playing each their own board, while he himself sat blindfolded.
About ten o'clock the electric light, which is in this building, as well as all round our cage, was switched off, and we lighted our candles and turned into bed. Mine was next to M'Whinnie's, and it was a long time, owing to my new surroundings, the opening and shutting of doors, and the hum of conversation, before I fell asleep, to dream of the strange fate which had led me to this prison, and of my poor unfortunate comrades in their enforced captivity.
I can't say I slept well. The room was draughty, and if we shut the windows it became stuffy. Moreover, a frog came in and croaked at our misfortunes, but I was asleep when M'Whinnie shook me and laughed at my boast that I should be up at six o'clock. The "bath parade" was rather an amusing sight—which I watched from my bed—some hurrying to beat a comrade in the "turn," others strolling leisurely along, seeming to be indifferent whether they bathed or not, as they smoked their cigarette. It gave me an insight, too, into the night-dress fashion, and what was mostly worn on the feet: prison-shoes supplied by the authorities here seemed to prevail; while most people had pyjamas of a more or less ruddy hue, caused by the red sandstone dust which forms the floor of this building. It took a long time to get a bath when there were only five for 140 men; and "waiting their turn" would have made an interesting and amusing snapshot. So the breakfast bell rang, and tinned fish, and Quaker oats, with fresh or condensed milk (according to the supply of the former, which was very limited), were eagerly and quickly swallowed. After breakfast those who had chairs sat out and read, others wrote letters in the dining-room, while many of us, after a quiet cigarette or pipe, set to work on quoits, cricket, and even chess. There are some here, too, who seem to be ever walking—walking like the lions at the Zoo—round and round their cage. Poor devils, what a life! And so another day was added to the long number, and some can already claim to have done " six months' hard." One thing I noticed was that most of the officers, especially the seniors, refrained from mentioning the story of their capture. Perhaps they were sick of telling it, for I am sure there were few who could be ashamed of their misfortune.
Some days after I was sent for to see the American consul. So the good man had come at last, and I rushed eagerly, almost too eagerly for the guard who escorted me, to the outer building, where I met Mr Adalbert Hay and his vice-consul.[Mr Coolidge] "I am afraid they won't let you go," were almost the first words I heard. I think my face must have bespoken my feelings, for Mr Hay added, "But I will do all I can: the matter is not yet closed." I told him all I could, but he said, "I can do very little here, and must get permission for everything." It appears that I have imprisoned myself by my own writing. " Your pen will be your ruin some day," my father once said to me, and his words came ominously to my memory at this moment. " They think you were a galloper to Lord Roberts, and were carrying information," added Mr Hay. I granted that one or two sentences in my diary might have given that impression, but Mr Hay had not been allowed to see it. "Anyway," I said, "you can point out that the diary was written subsequent to my capture, between Kroonstad and Pretoria, was never concealed, and," I added, much to Mr Hay's amusement, " every writer ' embellishes' to make his writing readable." "Then, too, the papers say you have a commission in Thorneycroft's." "You can honestly deny that," I added. "If I had a commission I could never have left the regiment. Of course I was ' attached' for the three weeks I was in Natal. I have no reason to deny that." He left me with the promise that I should know my fate definitely in a day or two, and I came back quite decided in my mind that I was here till Pretoria was taken.
Mr Hay is a very young man for the important and difficult position he has been called on to fill. He has a charming manner and a very clever face. His career will probably be interesting to me to follow, especially as I once had the pleasure of meeting his brilliant father when he was America's representative at the Court of St James'.
To console myself, I have been spending money right and left. I have ordered a table, chest of drawers, and a washstand, and, aided by M'Whinnie's bed and my own, shall form a room in the shape of a laager, in the hope that, as everything goes contrariwise in this world, when it is quite furnished and comfortable I shall be handed my warrant of release! But I don't really expect it. As I was coming in at dusk I noticed a small crowd at the entrance gate, and went inquiringly to discover its cause. It was only an everyday occurrence —the arrival of that famous newspaper the ' Volksstem,' which is allowed in every evening, after being thoroughly searched by the commandant. Needless to say, it brought no news, and its pages were filled with the usual corrupt paragraphs, chiefly of Dutch origin, to blind its readers' eyes to the truth, and to the only possible outcome of the war.
April 22. — There were two deviations on Sunday from the ordinary daily routine of this monotonous life—(1) divine service, and (2) no ' Volksstem.' In the dining-room I had noticed a small harmonium, and at it a man who appeared to be composing, while occasionally he accompanied himself and sang. It appears that the gentleman in question was a Mr Hofmeyr, and that the harmonium had been presented to him by his comrades in prison. I think Mr Hofmeyr is rather a remarkable person; at anyrate he is gifted, clever, and popular. He is a cousin of the Bond Hofmeyr. He is not a soldier, but one of three non-combatants here; and though he does not look like one, he is a clergyman of the Dutch Reformed Church from Cape Colony. I think his imprisonment is due to spite at his being a Colonial, British in sentiment and Dutch in name and origin, and to the too common fault of his being a platform orator. He was on a holiday for his health in the neighbourhood of Kimberley, and I believe had done nothing worse than advocate a peaceful solution of the war before it broke out, when he was arrested and sent here. The ' Times' will know him well, as he was one of their correspondents, and in his new home he has the distinction of having made himself the snuggest compartment with red baize, pictures from illustrated papers, and a writing-table at which he spends most of his time finishing his book on prison life and the character of the Boer. Moreover, he is identifying himself with some of us in the issue of a magazine of which I am to be the editor: but more of that at a later period. I stopped to give this brief sketch of Mr Hofmeyr because he is our " parson," and lie read the service to - day with great charm, recalling with his somewhat foreign accent a well - known Scotch minister. Moreover, his extempore prayer, extremely beautiful, reminded me rather of "kirk" than church, and the memory of an old home must be sweet to any prisoner in a foreign land. The absence of the ' Volksstem' did not lengthen our day appreciably, as in place of its plausible news we set to work to concoct in our own imaginative minds the doings and undoings of De Wet and Lord Roberts.
Monday and Tuesday are very much like Friday and Saturday, but the barber comes on Tuesdays and Fridays, and we are escorted and remain under guard in a room in the outer building to get our hair cut. Now that I have undergone this very necessary operation, I own to being a fair representative of such an establishment as this is! We had a cricket match on Monday in a very limited space, using a tennis-ball and stick, with two boxes for wickets. The match was between the North and South sides of the dormitory, and our side (the North), after an amusing game, won by three runs. It is exercise at anyrate, and helps to pass the time. In the afternoon a few of us met to discuss the details of the new magazine, and having found some excellent artists we have decided to run one for "private circulation" only. A typewriter, some hectographs, paper, and various inks have been ordered, and as Editor I have appealed to every one for contributions.
Though I have told you practically all our daily routine I might add a few details which may prove of interest, and help me to pass the time, which already weighs heavily. Our number is now exactly 145, it having been swelled yesterday by the arrival of two "jail birds," Captain Bates, CP., and Captain Kirkwood, S.A.L.H., who have both been considered so dangerous that the hero of Kuruman and this other officer have suffered the extra indignity of four months in jail. They did not, however, look much the worse for their treatment, but presented an amusing contrast as they were marched in, Captain Bates being a very short, stout man, and his mate an enormously tall burly figure. The arrival, too, is announced of three of Brabant's Horse, taken just a fortnight ago at Wepener, where the battle seems still raging, and from appearances gives Lord Roberts the chance of the war of " bagsino; the lot." There are fifty-four regiments represented in this prison, and every branch of the service has supplied an unwilling delegate, if I omit the Imperial Yeomanry, which, however, to judge from the ' Volksstem,' is not to be left in "splendid isolation." There are five colonels, fifteen majors, and thirty captains. The rest are subalterns or magistrates, with Hofmeyr, Charlie Grenfell, and m)7se]f, the trio of non-combatants. There are forty-seven who have been prisoners six months, and the last arrivals from the seat of war were the eight officers who came here with me just a fortnight ago, except those five I have just mentioned. I am not sure that even their nearest and dearest relatives would recognise some of them with their beards and odd garments, for by way of comfort the authorities have supplied us all with suits of clothes, not with the broad - arrow, but according to the latest style a la costermonger, with pearl buttons down the sides of the trousers! I have already told you of our chief occupations, but one of the greatest grievances is the absence of nearly all English newspapers. The committee have some idiotic reason for withholding these, and even the letters are months old in most instances. Neither Mr Hofmeyr nor Charlie Grenfell have been allowed a single one. I hope the same will not be my fate—nor does any one know if the letters we write are forwarded. Judmns: from the telegrams we have asked to be sent, it is probable that letters, if not actually detained, are at least delayed for weeks, as some telegrams handed in to the commandant a fortnight ago have not yet been sent off. So the evils of press censorship are not wholly one-sided! Amongst us we have two or three four-footed friends, a collie dog, a black cur something like a dachshund, and a little terrier pup with a long curly tail. It is reported that a young baboon we have also got took the latter up in its arms to the top of its perch, and evinced much interest in it!