WE had now been scouting for a month as peacemakers rather than warriors, for our business was to induce armed Boers to take the oath of neutrality, or of loyalty to the Empress Queen.
This duty gave us a good idea of Dutch farm-life in the Federal States.
We hardly knew one day from another, but it was the first week in June when our miscellaneous corps reached a small basin of veldt almost surrounded by stony mounds. It was like a sandy desert through which a mighty torrent had once swept, leaving boulders exposed when it ceased, but there was a bit of green herbage on which our horses were grazing, and Karroo bushes.
After a twenty miles' march, we rested here at sundown —my sergeant said it was but a few miles from Bethlehem. We thought we were-pretty safe, as the Boers had then trekked from this locality further north.
It was sunrise when I woke with a pain at my left ankle. I was lying on a bit of tarpaulin on the ground under a gun waggon. It was a long greyish snake that had been my bed-mate. Rising gently on my left elbow, I seized it under the gills and dispatched it with my kit knife.
I had been in a heavy sleep—you always sleep like death when on the march—but I was wide awake now, and found that several comrades were on the stir, yawning and rubbing their eyes, as Lance-Corporal McFerguson, of the Imperial Yeomanry, was bringing round hot coffee from the mess tent to some of his company. I was glad of a drink for the night had been chilly.
O ye who stay at home at ease, with downy beds on which you make an impression, how can I make you understand a stony bed that makes an impression on the slumberer?
I was stiff, and had the back-ache.
I got up and surveyed the bivouac, and tried to think I was empire-making, serving Queen and country, winning glory and prize-money—perhaps a decoration, though only a poor Volunteer private.
I lit my pipe, wondered how I could distinguish myself that day, and sallied forth to reconnoitre, all by myself, on foot.
The air was very clear and so refreshing. A stray bird cried overhead, and I should have liked a shot, but mustn't. A sprawling .spruit ran near by, with a bit of scrub on its banks, the scene of a little steeplechase the night before, for the Imperial boys are every one fine sportsmen. •
It looked a desolate place, and yet I thought this is just what every farm site looked when these Boers trekked hitherward. Walking on I disturbed some locusts in the grass, for we had had a swarm the previous evening, who shared our supper.
When I reached the rivulet with its rushy margin, I had the satisfaction of capturing a small porcupine, with whose quills I write my love letters. He was asleep and my knife did the deed when I found out the vital part of the ball of spikes. It was not the easiest thing to kill or carry. Stripped of its skin it made a savoury meal for a Kaffir boy.
The different companies were aroused in a quiet way, and breakfast served in picnic style. The men were very jolly, as up to now we had not seen much skirmishing, and had no sickness.
Then the order was given to form companies, and we were put in extended ranks for the march, with the Maxims in the van, followed by the cavalry; and some infantry bringing up the rear, with the convoy.
Issuing through a sort of nek in a low range of hills, we had a fine prospect of open country, and could see several small farms separated by a few miles, with stone-fenced pasture land, crops, gardens, and orchards.
As we neared them we met a couple of little, stunted, curly-headed, dusky Bushmen, who could talk a little English, and from them we learnt that there had been a bit of fighting in the "village" yonder a day or two before.
Seeing a white flag flying from the chimney of a redbrick house, with stables and cart sheds in the rear, a dozen of us were detailed to advance with caution, for it might be a Boers' ambush.
However, a woman and a child came out, and our guide explained our peaceful mission. The woman said, " We want to be friends with the English."
Then a Boer came out, and supposing he was the husband, several of us entered the house to search it for rifles. I picked up two empty cartridges from the mud floor in the large living room, and in another room we discovered three young men hid under a fourposter.
We induced them to come out, and they swore allegiance, giving up their Mausers. They were the old man's sons, and had deserted from a commando a few days before.
In another farm house we found a woman and six young children. There was a grave in the front garden, under a large and fruitful mulberry tree, where the husband and father was buried. The woman burst into tears as she pointed to it. She was plump and clean. Sergeant Blenkinsop, who is a widower, remarked to me, " If I could talk Taal, I shouldn't mind making love to her, poor thing, for the sake of the bairns"—and the well-tilled fields as well, I thought, for the clay land bore heavy crops of corn, judging by the stackyard.
There are hundreds of widowed farmers in South Africa, and though they are plain of feature and not up to British domesticity, it was a common remark in the squads I joined that some of our fellows who wished to settle in the country could not do better than leave their addresses with lone widows having lucrative farms on their hands.
Now my friend the sergeant, who had been in the wars, and was a hero in my sight—was also rotund, sentimental, and withal a bit of a naturalist.
He lingered at the six feet of green raised mound, with a cross at the head and bordered with red roses and arum lilies, (the head of the homestead had fallen at Glencoe, said the vrau), and as the lieutenant shouted, in his imperious, gruff voice, " Look sharp, men!" I pulled him away to his duty.
He must, however, stare at the front of the verandah, trellised in red fuschias and clematis, and admire in particular the flower beds.
Then we entered the white-washed " parlour" and looked at the gun rack over the mantelpiece, into the cupboards (where there was plenty of jam), on the rough beams, from whence hung strings of onions and other things. Right through the bed chambers, on the ground floor of course, into the daub and wattle stores behind.
The sergeant was very minute in his examination and I was his A.D.C. He might have been taking an inventory.
All at once I missed him, and found him in the vinery, munching a melon, for which he said he had given the head gardener (an elderly darkie in a straw hat and trousers) a copper bearing the image and superscription of Oom Paul.
By-the-bye, gentle reader, you should know that in familiar parlance, the heads of families hereabouts are addressed as tanta and oom (aunt and uncle).
As I mounted my nag at the gate I noticed on the thatched roof of the house a monkey. It was Blenkin-sop who drew my attention to it, and his close observation at that particular place made me ask him if he had left his address with Mrs. Weissells — he had to take her name and address, though the place and people seemed innocent.
He winked "yes." Presently he said, "Why didn't you have a go at the fruit? she said, ' Help yourselves, gentlemen?' So the guide said."
I reminded him of the strict orders against looting.
" He must have been a market gardener," he went on in a whisper. " Did you "see the orange and lemon grove? No 1 Nor the cherries and peaches? No! I never told you my father was a horticulturist." There was another merry twinkle in his eye.
Then came the order down the front—" Right about face, quick march," for we had been brought to a sudden halt, while the Major scanned the horizon with his field glass. He was often doing this, sweeping all points of the compass, but now he was looking after the men sent out two or three miles ahead.
We were making for another farm, I saw a man skulking along, dressed in a brown jacket, moleskin trousers, and leather gaiters. He dodged behind a willow tree, and out from a milk bush and lump of prickly pears sprang a red buck well antlered.
My horse made an instinctive bolt for it, but we had to deny ourselves, and hold on under the baking sun, rising to its zenith.
Blenkinsop gave me a running lesson on the botany of the interland, much of which I forget; but we often came across the ice plant and beautiful ferns. He was no less well-informed about the rocks—granite, gneis, sandstone, clay, trap, shale, and when we struck some red sand, he scented ironstone.
We passed fields of mealies, Indian corn, the chief food of the natives, also sweet potatoes, coffee, barley, and sometimes a patch of pineapples. The eucalyptus or gum tree, he could smell a quarter of a mile off, and of course bananas and date palms were met with here and there, also the Cape gooseberry and the Dingaan apricot.
I was pleased to recognise the dandelion, the daisy, and the geranium; they seem to be among the flora wherever I roam.
Hullo 1 What's that? A loud report of some sort from the east -where a dark cloud was rising.
"Haiti" came along, and instantly we saw the lightning flash and the artillery of the cloud-land rumbled nearer.
So we spurred on to the village, which was composed of mud kraals chiefly, but it had its inn.
Here we rested for a couple of hours, and after mess, Blenkinsop and I had a voyage of discovery.
" Can you tell one black from another, sergeant—Hottentot, Kaffir, Baralong, Bushmen, Basutos, Bechuanas, Zulus?"
" Well, you see, there is not much variation in their physique, except the Bushmen are stunted by living in caves. Have you seen the paintings on their caves? But you can tell the difference by their lingo if not by their colour."
He struck for the inn for a drink of native beer made from millet, and our presence drew a swarm of naked humanity. They were not afraid of us—that was certain.
Even the black beauties did not blush that they were in a state of nature.
When they enter a town, such as Durban, or Pieter-maritzberg, they have, by law, to wear a leathern apron, or some other dress, because, they say, the men are ashamed of them.
But speaking generally, both native sexes wear fringes from the loins.
Being teetotal I had a glass of buttermilk and it was "goot."
What a babel it was!
Enter two Afrikanders, who having called for drinks, enter into a serious dialogue. Now for my phonography. Here's a specimen I
The one says to the other, " Wei, hoe gaat het met jou? How does the .world use you?" "O, slecht— badly." " Hoe kom—what's the matter?" " De wereld is duivelsch stingy and suspicious, zy wil my nie ver-trouw nie; ni eens een five-pound note of the Cape of Good Hope Bank leen nie." "Ik het jammer ver jou— I'm sorry for you." " Toe dan, help me aan een beetje geld; I'm awfully hard-up." "Kerel, ik het nie a five-pound note nie, zelfs van the Cape of Good Hope Bank." " Well, ik hit hier een klein billetje that ik will discount in the Standard Bank; schryf maar your name achter op." " Nie kerel; ik het gezweer it zal mooit weer myn naam op een bill zet nie; I've had too many losses that way, en de vrouw zeg ik moenie." "Ja, daar het je de wereld just as she is; there's the world for you. Zoo behandelt my de wereld."
We were waited upon by a German girl in a short blue skirt and wooden shoes; she had her red hair tied up with red ribbon. The host was her father, and the reims on the rafters made me think he was a cattle dealer as well.
Before the twinkling stars came out, we had collected a quantity of arms, working in so many squads.
We passed quite a variety of occupations. An ostrich farm differs considerably from a horse ranch, and a pine garden from a sheep kraal. As there are several months, now the winter has set in, without rain, the wells and dams are frequent. Irrigation, I thought, would work wonders among the turnips, strawberries, and such like —at least, the sergeant said so.
Then as to the poultry, we might have ducks and chickens for dinner daily, they were everywhere, as well as pigs, and so cheap.
We got up a gala at night, both for our amusement and that of the village natives.
With the rising pale moon glinting through the chestnuts, and thorns skirting the ample green—with the sky lamps shining brightly—the Seven Sisters, Southern Cross, and fiery Mars in particular—I sat me on a mimosa-grown ant-hill to watch the strange and noisy native games, and the short military tournament.
The merry nigger band, playing on stones, drums, and reeds, was the unique and discordant accompaniment of marvellous jigs by men and women dressed in blankets and feathers, whose dizzy gyrations spoke well for the soundness of their heart and lungs. The war dance by a chief's son, with assegai, knobkerrie, and skin shield, was a great attraction to us.
And, of course, we gave them a chorus or two of a patriotic kind, finishing with the National Anthem, which excited and pleased them immensely.
While this was going on two oxen had been roasted in the camp, and the "joints" were brought down for a feast—a little uproarious, and sans cirhnonie,—for these very carnivorous brethren are born gluttons, and as usual left only bare bones for the dogs.
When we retired we received a pressing invitation to come again before long, to which our spokesman, Sergt. Blenkinsop, for it was a non-com's, affair, replied, " O certainly, my dear friends, we have come to stay, you know," at which there was a broad grin and display of ivories on many an ebony face, with a hop, skip, jump, and clap, as the bright millenium vision dawned upon them—of Britannia's rule and freedom. Then they quietly dispersed to their huts.
Expecting rain, (which didn't come), our tents had been pitched and blankets served out. As we turned in, the events of the day were discussed with animation, and every man had a story to tell, It was remarkable what different things they had seen en route—which, however, was often the case. One had watched a tiger in the distance, another a wolf in a jungle, a third a wild cat in a tree, a fourth a squirrel, and so on. One boasted of the arms he had brought in, another of the Boer babies he had kissed 1
In one respect there was perfect unanimity in this little circular debating class of recumbent figures, whose feet supported the tent pole—we all agreed that we had earned our country's pay that day, and carried out the commanding officer's injunction. We had left behind us the sweet odour of a good name, though khaki-clad invaders, for our business, as he said, when we started out, was to pacify . the district, and fighting was only admissible in self-defence.
" Lights out" had long passed by, and at length heavy breathing and an occasional snore told me that one by one the warriors bold had fallen into the arms of Morpheus, while somehow the experience of the day, with tender thoughts of home so far away, kept one awake, till, as the sentry's measured footfalls died away into the midnight stillness, even he, settling his head on his hard saddle pillow, like a weary child, muttering a little lullaby of prayer, dozed off also.—(Trooper A. B.)