Monotony — how it was avoided — our strange dress — an explanation—a curious feeling—a large demand—kopje-right.
May 17.—It is sixteen days since I last touched upon my daily life — sixteen days which to many have seemed like sixteen years, but to me like sixteen minutes, so great and strong a master is Occupation. In a birdcage, whose perimeter is just 600 yards, nigh upon 150 of her Majesty's subjects, chiefly British officers, are living on the word Expectation, and daily searching a southern and western horizon (the other sides being closely guarded by small kopjes) for any sign or change which may indicate the approaching day of their release. From morning until night those who know not how to obtain Occupation and those who fruitlessly strive to get it live only on Expectation, now fanning it into an unnecessary flame if any news, be it reliable or untrustworthy, is brought surreptitiously by black or white man, now resigning themselves silently to the advent of another day if the tidings so eagerly looked for are not vouchsafed them.
It is a piteous sight and a really terrible experience this confinement. The stout man grows thin, the thin grows stout. So far so well. But inquire into its cause. It is not the absence of food that makes the stout grow thin, nor its exceptional quality which makes the thin grow stout. It is not the fault of a delicious climate, nor the somewhat restricted area of our exercise-ground; it is not the feeling of degradation which oppresses, but it is Monotony, Monotony, Monotony — monotony which chills the heart, monotony which drives many of us into a state of despondency, monotony which in one case has already resulted in mental aberration, monotony which bids fair to weaken the very strongest in his convictions that it is now only a matter of days before the war is over, before the Expectation we have lived on daily, some for seven long months, is at length fully realised. Yes, there is only one great cure—Occupation. Many of us find it—some in a greater, others in a lesser degree; and according to the man's temperament, so does he show himself inwardly aud outwardly to his fellow-prisoners. Round me, as I sit writing on a delicious autumn afternoon, shielded from the glare of a hot sun by one of the only two shrubs in the enclosure, I can see a rubber of 44 bridge" between four of the Royal Irish Rifles; two or three others, like the lions at the Zoo, taking the well-known constitutional 44 round and round "; some writing, some drawing, and others reading the few books we are allowed from the public library, to which the majority subscribe. A major of the 44 Fighting Fifth" has built himself a miniature sangar quite out of proportion to his burly frame, which lies protruding from it in pensive indolence; the champion of chess is showing two players how he could win the game with either white or black pieces; and Jacko, the monkey, is chattering his rage, like a spoilt child, to one of the servants who has put some washing out of his reach, mindful of the day when Jacko was the cause of making him " do double." From the other side of the building comes the pitter-patter of many feet, as the younger and more active join in a heated game of hockey on the hard, red, dusty ground; and indoors the lazy, the unemployed, the disheartened, lie unoccupied on their straw mattress, snoring complacently, or staring at the wooden roof as they smoke their pipe or Boer cigarette for want of better Occupation. Who can blame them? But in the dining-room—the terracotta banqueting-hall, as we have termed the wooden-benched and unfloored shed—a man is playing on the small harmonium music which brings back memories of home; two others are struggling with a magnificent map, fearful in their expectation that Lord Roberts's arrival will thwart the completion of their occupation; and a third (one of the Scottish Rifles) is vieing with Pinero in his attempt to write a second Tanquerayic play.
Curiously costumed are we all. Many, as was natural, arrived kitless from a too distant reconnaissance! Others, more fortunate (can I use the word?), came " bag and baggage." To all of us have the Transvaal Government supplied a suit of prison apparel, from size " fours " to large " eights," — from an undertaker's cotton twill to the smartest set of boating flannels. The black soon becomes red, and the white still redder; while the length and breadth of the full-cut trousers soon share the shrinkage of the Stock Market on a day of panic. Ties are rare commodities of dress, and those who don them wear all shapes and colours; while overwear and underwear are as unique in their eccentricity as to remind one of the days when Lady Cardigan startled the racing world on entering the other "Birdcage" at Newmarket. Slouch hats of the tawdriest description, pulled down over the eyes, almost defy the identity of once well - known faces, now covered with hirsute adornments of all shapes and sizes; and the fashion - monger, were he among us searching for " copy," would assuredly predict a quick return to the Dundreary period of the early sixties of the last century.
And why have the last sixteen days since I last wrote passed like so many minutes to me? The answer can only be, Occupation. The new Magazine is out! It is called ' The Gram.' Why? I will quote you a sentence from my leading article in doubtful explanation. "To ask such a question is your good luck, for the word will come so familiarly to the eyes and ears of those who made the Staats Model School their dwelling-place, that Major Sturges's selection of the title was accepted nem. con., on the principle that, a little knowledge being a dangerous thing, it was better to accept the word in its entirety rather than inquire too closely into its mysteries." The fact is that at the last prison the officers called any news they got "grams," with a prefix, such as Kaffir - gram, and those of us who were fortunately not there believed the word would be acceptable to the majority. I told you in a previous chapter of the difficulties I was contending with in its production, but on May 12 the hectographs succeeded in producing 62 complete copies. Every word of its 48 pages was written in my own hand-writing. It is folio size, and on different kinds and thicknesses of paper. The contributions are really first-rate, and the illustrations show what extraordinary talent we have amongst us. I sent home a copy by Mr Hofmeyr, whom I have already alluded to. He was released on May 12, quite unexpectedly, after just seven months' imprisonment, and we all gave him a tremendous " round" as he left us, for England I believe. He will be much missed, and was deservedly popular. Nature is a curious thing. The genuine pleasure we felt at the departing one's good fortune gave place to a feeling of desperate despondency at being left behind. How selfish! but perhaps it was only natural! and then a few clays more and resignation succeeded despondency, and Occupation and Expectation reigned supreme. The dinner-bell is ringing, and as the meat was impossible at lunch I must go and try again, and will finish this to-morrow. Au revoir.
May 18.—I do not know that a few quotations from our new Magazine, the ' Gram,' will not be of interest to you, as the copy I sent may never reach home, and the number has been limited by " Censor Hektograph." Captain White, R.A., who did a most admirable front cover and several other illustrations, has proved himself no mean poet, as the following lines, describing this place to his mother in "The Letter," will testify:—
" Dear Mother,—In case you're bemoaning my lot,
Or lamenting the cruel fatality
Which has forced me to sample this far-away spot,
And partake of Oom Paul's hospitality,—
I'll endeavour as well as I can to relate
How your gallant Adolphus is faring,
After being entrapped through the harshness of fate,
While out for an innocent airing.
The whole is enclosed by a trifle of wire,
An obstacle scarcely worth mention;
There's no hunting just now, but to flag it I hear
Is the new M. F. H.'s intention.
The table's so clean; with a cloth we dispense,
Though some sybarites cherish this custom:
The knives are just wiped with a rag—an immense
Gain of time; besides, washing might rust 'em.
Our water is served in the washing-stand jugs
("We're a total-abstaining society);
We drink it from glasses and tea-cups and mugs,
Of which there's a charming variety."
Owing to the overcrowding in this prison, and inconvenience thereby arising, Lieut. Tristram, 12th Lancers, wrote a letter to the editor suggesting an examination for further applicants for admission! One question was: "State in as few words as possible why you were captured? " Another asked: " What do you know of the scheme for converting the cavalry into dismounted infantry and mounting the West Riding regiment?"
Perhaps one of the most amusing features of the paper was the section headed "Night grams by our own special sleep - walker." The " sounds of revelry by night" are quite extraordinary in our dormitory, and the following paragraph may amuse you:—
Thursday night was signalised by a spirited competition between Captain P-ll-k and a frog. The fact that the gallant captain had long been practising for this event enlisted the strong sympathies of his audience, and many were the shouts (of encouragement, no doubt) which greeted his opening efforts. The result of the contest, which lasted from 11.45 p.m. to 12.30, was unanimously given in favour of Captain P-ll-k.
We have a story in the first number more wonderful than any the ' Wide World Magazine ' can produce; an " orfis boy's letter" which would rival that of the " Pink 'Un "; a double acrostic; a chess column and problem; whist hands; a serial story (which, as it was begun by Mr Hofmeyr, will never be finished); personal paragrams a la T. P. in ' M. A. P.'; and a fashion article. Natural history is represented by an article on the " Ant Lion" by Lieut. Metge, Welsh Fusiliers, which would do credit to the ' Field'; and last, but by no means least, we have caricatures and cartoons which would tax Phil May's best endeavours to outdo. One of them represents President Kruger at the head of a corps of Transvaal women, and was suggested by a paragraph in the 'Volksstem' which stated that the women had asked for arms and ammunition, and for permission to go to the front! The cartoon is headed, " Beware, Bobs, of Kruger's Reserves!" Another is a caricature of Lieut. Duhan of Kitchener's Horse, in which he is admirably depicted as Mephistopheles. But perhaps the most unique is "Ye Ancient Coat of Arms." It appealed very forcibly to those who had been prisoners in the Staats Model School. On either side stand as "supporters" the commandant and secretary; above, "a lion furious, couchant, bound secure"; the four quarters depict incidents of life there, while below is the motto, " Dum spiro spero." To one of the quarters in explanation are the following words: Arms: Quarterly: 4th—" Three officers escapant, fugitant; commandant rampant searching on roof. Background azure starred proper." This of course is an allusion to the extraordinary escape of Captain Haldane, Lieut. Le Mesurier, and Sergeant-Major Brockie. All the above illustrations are by Lieut. Frankland of the Dublin Fusiliers. He is only twenty, and really very clever.
The ' Gram Almanac,' by Lieut. Wake, 5th Fusiliers, is another splendid drawing of the two prisons we have occupied, and our transportation from one to the other. One of the events recorded in the Almanac is that £705 was collected here for the soldiers at Waterval. The whole paper is 48 pages, and you can understand that I have not lacked Occupation in writing it. So many had to go without a copy that I decided to put up a few spare sheets for auction. The result was stupendous. The whole copy only cost 2s. 6d., but 10s. 6d. was bid for 3 pages! and £3, 19s. was realised for about 36 pages, so keen was the desire to possess it! If I can find time I am going to try and do a reprint, but meanwhile am busy with the second number, .which is due to appear on the Queen's birthday. The American consul, the Dutch doctor, the commandant, and many English residents, are begging for copies, but it is for " private circulation," and is " Kopje-right "!
Note.—A facsimile reproduction of the whole three numbers of the 'Gram,' the issue of which will be limited, is in course of publication, price £1, Is., and can be obtained on application to the author of this book, or to the publishers of the reproduction, Messrs Eyre & Spottiswoode.