The last ten days—a telegram—Neil Haig—the Queen's birthday — a valuable magazine — the sound of cannon—general excitement—a visit—a grant for officers — the day-of-release lottery — unexpected visitors — the Boers beg the officers' assistance— genuine news at last — an extraordinary scene— I obtain permission—church square in the dead of night — Kruger and his gold depart — arrival at Waterval — the men receive the news—a dramatic episode.
Tuesday, May 29. — Still Pretoria, and still prisoners! We have, however, not been so down in our luck that we could not engage in athletic sports, nor so unmindful of our Queen that we could not remember her birthday, nor so lazy that the second number of the ' Gram' could not be produced. So the last ten days have been quite eventful; and more than this, I got a telegram from London through the American consul, " Is Rosslyn well?" That was all, but few will realise how much we can appreciate the smallest recognition, the slightest consolation, and the shortest message of remembrance in this hateful confinement. It was my first word from home, and I have been a prisoner eight weeks to-morrow.
The sports took place on the 18th, and were a great success. Neil Haig of the Inniskillings —as a bookmaker—with his huge burly frame and long brown beard, was quite one of the central figures. Those who had been taking long and regular exercise were soon able in the races to show their superior stamina over those who had taken none.
The Queen's birthday gave rise to a good deal of controversy on the subject of etiquette, but when the men from Waterval sent a message to their officers asking permission to send a telegram of congratulation to the Queen, the matter was immediately clinched, and a humble and dutiful message forwarded to her Majesty from us all. On the same day the second number of the ' Gram' was successfully produced, after many difficulties. I think it was even a better number than the first; but to show the interest which the paper has aroused, I may mention that one sheet fetched 10s. 6d., although the price of the whole number was only 2s. 6d. Three officers who had luckily drawn copies sold them for £5 a-piece!
" What's that?" " Listen! " We were all standing about outside after breakfast. There was dead silence for a minute or two, and then burst from a hundred throats, " By Jove, it is!" There was no doubt about it this time. We were listening to the dull growl of distant cannon. Our experts told us it could not be more than twenty-five miles distant, and the smiling faces were a decided contrast to our usual downcast and resigned appearance. Yet there was a possibility, if not the probability, that that eagerly looked for day of release might be deferred for a month or six weeks if—and rumour was strong on the subject—if we were removed to Lydenburg or some other distant up-country resort. I dared scarcely picture the despairing faces I should see if this occurred, nor foretell the despondency which would succeed our expectation, and dash mercilessly to the ground the hopes we had treasured and so long anticipated: but I must turn from gloomy thoughts to the happier future.
Everything was in an uproar! Preparations for departure were made. Arrangements for the future were discussed. A clump of trees was described as an incoming force, and a cloud of dust suspected as caused by Krugers departure! In the joy and excitement Jacko's tail was pulled fearlessly and incessantly, and he eventually betook himself over the fence, and surrendered to one of our Hollander guards, though he was subsequently liberated " on parole "!
At midday Mr Adalbert Hay (the American consul), Mr Leigh Wood (manager of the Natal Bank), and Mr Kalt (secretary to the committee), in charge of prisoners of war, turned up at Chancery House. They were immediately closeted in Colonel Hunt's jagah. Speculation was rife as to the cause of their visit, and it was not until lunch time that we knew its purport.
They had come to announce the division of the British Government's allowance of £25 for the imprisoned officers, and the Transvaal's assent to its mode of distribution! Just four months after its allocation! But a word of exoneration is due to Mr Leigh Wood, and, I believe, to Louis Botha also, who only took the matter in hand a very short time ago, and soon made good use of their fertile brains and powers of persuasion.
The announcement made, we lunched. All the morning we had fed on the distant reports of big guns, and we consequently ate with reason, and drank with still greater moderation. We had been allowed wine since the Queen's birthday! During the afternoon, a rumour reached us that Johannesburg was ours. One rumour gave place to another. Exaggeration succeeded exaggeration. So we lived for seven hours. The drawer of the 30th May in the "day of release" lottery was sought for, and being the lucky possessor and the least panic-stricken individual, I offered it for £3 (the value of the " sweep " being £76), as I did not believe that to-morrow's setting sun would see the British occupation of Pretoria! The ' Volksstem/ newsless and scandalous as ever, arrived, and went, as it always does when the editor is writing, to the waste-paper basket, and then the third bell rang— for dinner. Oh yes! we went to dinner, excited certainly, knowing that the end was imminent, but little realising what was in store for us. Colonel Plunt (our senior officer) had barely sat down on his rug (as the seats are hard), when the secretary appeared, and behind him, through chinks in the door, we recognised the two faces we had seen at mid-day. What had brought the American consul and Mr Leigh Wood up at such an hour? In a moment it flashed on us that something unusual must be occurring to bring our visitors up a second time and at that hour of the night. We were not long in suspense.
A loud cheer went up as Mr Wood (who has done so much for us) sat down at the prison-board, next to the Colonel, and a still louder as Mr Adalbert Hay also joined us. Then came the usual hubbub of conversation, till Colonel Hunt made a statement. A deadly silence reigned. " I want twenty officers to go to Waterval to-night, to be with their men in case of any unfortunate outbreak, which, I am warned, is not impossible. The officers who go will be on parole." That was all he said. Such a scene followed as baffles description. The officers, under Colonel Carleton, were quickly chosen from the regiments most strongly represented. The news soon leaked out that our " experts" were not wrong, and that our forces were close at hand, and might be in at any moment. We had gone round Johannesburg, or the western column had cut in between; President Kruger, though expressing a wish to die in the streets, had been persuaded to remove his Government to the East (the actual locality and hour of departure being doubtful); and the inhabitants, fearing disorder at Waterval, had been compelled to crave the assistance of British officers! Moreover, it was said that the attorney (Mr Smuts) and Mr De Souza were on their way up. Here was a pretty kettle of fish! and but for there having been a serious side to the matter, the comedy which was being played might truly have been described as Gilbertian. The silence relapsed into the former hubbub, extra port was sought, and the gathering lingered far longer than the wooden benches and servants were accustomed to, to discuss the turn of events. Colonel Hunt proposed the health of the American consul amidst tremendous cheering, but no one could play the "Star-spangled Banner" on the harmonium! We toasted Leigh Wood, who had done so much for the prisoners. We cheered the commandant, and he " replied in gracious terms "; we sang " God Save the Queen," unmindful of the pain we might be causing our fallen foe, whose representatives were within the four walls; we gave a " Hip! Hip! Hurrah! " for the secretary, which he acknowledged with a bow; and, as a well-known Colonial officer put it to me, we were as hysterical as "little France." Don't be ashamed of it, I beg of you. Freedom and Liberty were what we were fighting for! " Twenty British officers out on parole! and no press representative!" I begged, but I had begged in vain, till Mr De Souza arrived at the hour of departure and sanctioned my going too. It certainly was a night of Boer contrition. I rushed in again, seized two rugs and a pair of boots, left some injunctions about my papers, and, squeezing a few cigarettes and cigars, a pencil and some foolscap, into my pocket, found myself outside again and on parole!
It would be as well to note here that the conditions on which the twenty British officers accepted the Transvaal authorities' invitation to look after their men were, that they should be themselves on parole whilst at Waterval, and that none of the men should be removed. How this was disregarded is told in a sub-sequent chapter.
Rugs and valises were thrown pell-mell on the 'bus and carriages in waiting, and away we went to the suburban station of Petersberg (where I had first disembarked), to join the special train which was in waiting to convey us to Waterval. Of course the 'bus stuck in the drift at the bottom of the hill—there is always some precursor to a midnight adventure—and some of us had to unload in order to proceed. De Souza had gone first, to show the way and—to get refreshments! But with a strong electric light, Church Square must have smiled (if it was not irreverent), as I did, to see the procession stop right in the middle of the town, while friend hailed friend, refreshments were procured, traces and couplings mended, and fresh horses inspanned. The few passers-by, who were not " in the know/' wondered what the d—I was happening when British officers, khakid and helmeted, were offering themselves as splendid marks for the stray bullets of many an unpaid mercenary from every quarter of the globe. A few panic-stricken inhabitants stopped, stared, and bolted, and in a minute the usually quiet Pretoria was astir with the rumour that the British officers had broken out and taken possession of the town. Then the procession was re-formed, and though one cab lost its way, and the one in which I was seated was stopped by some excited foreigners who threatened to keep us unless we told them why we were trekking, we eventually reached the station, and soon found ourselves at Waterval. We passed on our way the President's special train, which was to take him to the east, and noted the movements of certain heavily-laden waggons which were at the same time conveying the last bit of treasure to the railway station.
It was midnight when we reached Waterval. An armed guard of about fifty men allowed us to pass to the commandant's house, where we were received by that Dutch worthy and his secretary, and also by Lieut. Nesbit, who had been a prisoner there since October 13. Surrounded by a crowd of armed burghers, the scene in the dead of night would have attracted the notice of many a painter of sensational incident. The roll was called to see that we were all present, and then the commandant was informed we were on parole, and that the guard which was pressing round on us must be dismissed. This was done, but I afterwards listened to some of the guards discussing the meaning of the word "parole"! After much scratching of their heads, I heard one of them say, " It means we can all go to bed"! — a definition which evidently pleased the majority. Thus, at any rate, they showed their confidence in the British officer's word of honour! When the commandant and the guard heard the news, it flew like wildfire to the camp, and for fear of any preconcerted plan, Colonel Carleton decided to call up the noncommissioned officers and make them the bearers of the message to the men that their officers were present, that their release was only a matter of hours, and that order should be strictly maintained.
The arrival of our train had certainly not disturbed the inmates of the prison, for within the cage, not 100 yards distant, the silence of sleep reigned supreme; but in a moment the drowsy camp was awake. From a hum of conversation the news gathered strength as it new from street to street and from corner to corner, till it assumed the proportions of a mighty roar. Cheers went up; the sound of feet could be heard as the men rushed hither and thither in the hope of seeing their officers; and then the noise gradually subsided, till the whole camp seemed to sleep once more. Meanwhile another scene, quite as dramatic, was being enacted in the commandant's house. Whiskies and sodas appeared as if by magic, and Hollander and Britisher, officer and Boer peasant, prisoner and warder, joined in a •universal scene of congratulation, in a mutual expression of esteem and a general glass of Robert Brown's four - crown Scotch whisky. It was a scene which, to the casual observer, must have savoured of the ludicrous, and I wondered if my eyes were deceiving me, and whether quarrels and wars were as easily patched up in other parts of the world. Such was the humour of the situation! At 4 a.m. I went off to Lieut. Nesbit's hut, and, as I fell asleep, I dreamt of what could possibly be in store for me after the experiences of this first thrilling night outside the prison which had confined me for the past eight weeks.