No. 0 Cheapside—furnishing my laager—a rat invades it—an indignity—something about escapes—everyday life — the ' volksstem ' — has Lord Roberts succeeded?
May 1.—I told you before that our prison was divided into long rows of beds. One side we call " Rotten Row," and now the other has been christened " Cheapside." My office is No. 0. I don't think it is a bad name for my habitation—at any rate it has been accepted,—and my bed space (infringing, I am afraid, somewhat too much on that of my neighbour) is now known by that address. By dint of extravagant expenditure (some £10 or £12) I have surrounded my room with red baize—about 12 yards it took—and I have got M'Whinnie to move his bed inside the enclosure, thus giving us a space of about 12 feet by 7 in which we sleep and I write. I have got a table and a chest of drawers. The latter, as you may imagine, is not for my clothes, as I have none worth mentioning, but it keeps everything from the red dust of the floor, especially the " copy " for the new magazine, with which I am flooded.
When I " built" my room I decided to paper the baize, as Mr Hofmeyr had done, with illustrations from the picture papers, but my example was soon followed, and it has been a difficult business to secure cuttings of interest from the ' Sketch' of two and three and even four years ago, which some kind individual sent us. One wall is, however, finished, and over my table and little washstand next to it are photos from the one ' Sphere; I got from Colonel Moller and others from the ' Sketch/ The army is well represented by Lords Roberts and Kitchener, and many other minor " big bugs " whom I know. The stage, too, occupies a large space—Miss Julia Neilson, Miss Violet and Miss Irene Vanbrugh (with whom I am reminded of Trelawny of the Wells), Miss Maud Jeffries, whom I have honoured with a frame of light blue tape (originally round a packet of chocolate), Miss Evelyn Millard, and Miss Dorothea Baird; while the Queen surmounts them all, and is surrounded by many of her most distinguished ministers and governors. On either side are the headings ' Sphere' and ' Daily Mail,' in whose interests I am now an unjustly detained and probably long-forgotten prisoner. Last night a rat did me the honour of searching my laager, probably for the paste (made of flour) which holds the pictures to the wall, and then walked over me. The brute effectually put an end to any sleep I was trying to get, as I shivered with cold under my thin covering. This dormitory is like a vault at night, and damp too, as we are on the bare earth, and the frogs, snakes, and insects, of which I am bringing home a fine collection, formed an excellent topic for a natural history debate.
We have really entered the winter season, but the climate is splendid, though the nights are so cold and damp that it requires at least four blankets to keep me warm. This Mayday we have been subjected to one of many indignities. A number of the guard, armed with revolvers and batons, under the superintendence of the commandant, searched the building. Our bedding and clothes, and even the oil-cloth mats, were turned up, and there is apparently a rumour prevalent in Pretoria that we are being supplied with arms, and intend trying to overpower our guard! A more nonsensical canard was never invented. It is a practical impossibility to escape from this cage-work of wire, surrounded as it is by armed guards, though there was a determined but futile attempt made just before I arrived, and before the 10-feet-high wire-netting was put inside the wTire entanglement, a description of which I have already given you. It appears that a plan had been arranged whereby the electric wires (which run through this building in the roof) were to be cut, and a rush made in the darkness for the fence. Everything was ready, supplies done up in parcels, and two officers (adepts in electricity) had succeeded in extinguishing the lights, at the expense of burnt fingers. The rush had been made for the fence by those who intended going, when a warning was heard, and was followed by a volley from the guards. It was a case of sneaking back to the building again, and darkness alone prevented any loss of life, though several bullets are said to have come through the building. Hence these extra precautions! I don't think either the commandant or the guards can be blamed for their subsequent severe treatment of us all, and we have only ourselves to find fault with for countenancing these really absurd and impossible attempts at escape.
The subsequent escape of the other officers from the Staats Model School was so ingenious and thrilling, that it will almost bear a very short description. The three officers were Captain Haldane, Lieut. Le Mesurier, and Sergeant Brockie. When they heard that the British officers were to be removed to other quarters, these three set to work to hide themselves under the floor of their prison. A fourth officer, Lieut. Frankland, gave them every assistance in the way of supplying them with the necessaries of life, and so well was the secret kept that I do not believe there was one officer in the prison who did not think that they had really escaped. Their quarters were searched by the commandant and his guard ineffectually, but to the dismay of the underground officers the removal of their above-ground comrades was delayed for over a fortnight! All this time the would - be runaways were lying " doggo "! "What such a captivity in such a confined space must have meant you will all realise! The day of removal came at last, and by this time any chance of catching the fugitives must have departed from the minds of the Transvaal authorities. The result was that the Staats Model School was left untenanted and unguarded, and in the quiet of the night these three splendid fellows, who had originally planned the Winston Churchill escape, found themselves outside Pretoria. Their subsequent journey has, of course, been already graphically described by Captain Haldane in ' Blackwood's Magazine' for August and September, and is well worth reading.
Day after day follows monotonously. There is a chess tournament in progress, disclosing some great ability in the game, though Lieut. Duhan of Kitchener's Horse is facile princeps. The roulette - table forms a comparatively harmless exchange of counters each night; and two boxes and sticks and a tennis-ball give twenty-two of us a daily game of cricket and its attendant exercise. In another place four commanding officers play their quoits; and indoors and out are to be seen men drawing, caricaturing, and painting, while the staff of the new magazine struggle manfully against almost overwhelming difficulties to produce the first number. Will we ever be free? Assuredly, but when?
" Are there any lies to - day? " is almost invariably the first question in the morning; and since I have been here the ' Volksstem' has been no sooner bought than it is thrown away with the same old story in it: " Our losses are 1 killed and 1 wounded. Our brave burghers are full of courage. By the grace of God the wounded man is nearly well again!" From what I can glean Lord Roberts has had his great chance at Wepener. Has he succeeded? The line of country from Lady-brand to Bloemfontein (vid Thaba Nchu and Sannah's Post) should be in our possession and strongly held. The Caledon river forms an eastern boundary which the Boers will never have dared to cross for fear of the Basutos. Where, then, is De Wet? Where are Limmer, Grobler, and their commandos who were surrounding Wepener and holding Dewetsdorf? They ought to be at St Helena by this time! Perhaps they are! How we long for news! How sick we are of the ' Volksstem'!