A Boer town is not laid out on systematic lines, as one sees towns in America, or Canada, or Australia. The streets seem to run much as they please, or as the exigencies of traffic have caused them to run. I doubt if the plan of a town is ever drawn in this country. People arrive and settle down in a happy-go-lucky manner, and straightway build themselves a home. Their homes are places to live in; not to look at. There is an almost utter absence of architectural adornment everywhere. My eyes range over a large number of dwellings. They are nearly all alike--plain, square structures, plastered snow white. There is a double door in the centre of the front, and a window at each side of the door. A stoep, about six feet wide, rises a foot from the pathway, and there is nothing else to be seen from the outside front. These houses look bare and bald, and are as expressionless as a blind baby. To me most houses have an expression of their own. In an English town a quiet walk in the dawning, making a survey of the dwelling-places, always leaves the impression that I have gleaned an insight into the character of the dwellers therein. The cheeky-looking villa, with its superabundance of ornament, is a monument in masonry to the successful mining jobber on a small scale. The solemn-looking, solid dwelling, standing in its own grounds, where every flower bush has its individual prop, where the lawn is trimmed with mathematical exactitude, and not one vagrant leaf is allowed to stray, speaks with a kind of brick-and-mortar eloquence of virtue that has never grasped the sublime fulness of the Scriptural text which saith: "The way of transgressors is hard!" That is the home of the middle-aged Churchman, whose feet from infancy have fallen amidst roses. He has never erred, because he has never known enough of human sympathy and human toil and struggle to feel temptation. The coy little cottage further on, surrounded by climbing roses and sweet-smelling herbs, where the gate is left just a little bit open, as if inviting a welcome, seems to advertise itself as the home of two maiden sisters, who, though past the giddy girlhood stage, still have hopes of being somebody's darling by-and-by.
But in a Boer town most of the piety is knocked out of a man. You stare at the houses, and they stare back at you dumbly. There is nothing pretentious or rakish about any of them; no matter how riotous a man's imagination might be, he could never conjure up a "wink" from a Boer house, though I have seen houses in other parts of the world that seemed to "cock an eye" at a passing traveller and invite him to try the door.
They have only two styles of roofing their dwellings--either the old-fashioned gable roof, or the still older kind of "lean-to," the latter being nothing but a flat top, high at the front and running lower towards the back, in order that the rain water may carry off rapidly. They paint their doors and windows a sober reddish brown, for your true Boer has an utter contempt for anything gaudy or gay. He leaves that sort of thing to his nigger servants, who make up for their master's lack of appreciation in the matter of colour by rigging themselves out in anything that is startling in the way of contrasts, for if the white master is a Puritan in such things, the nigger servant, male and female, is a perfect sybarite.
Right opposite where I am sitting a family group, or all that is left of the family, is sitting, as the custom is at evening, out on the stoep. On the side nearest me is a young widow. I have made inquiries concerning her. Her husband was killed fighting against our troops at Graspan. She, poor thing, is dressed in deepest mourning. Her dress is made of some heavy black material, and has no touch of white or any colour anywhere to relieve its sombre shades. On her head she wears a jet black cap, which rises high and wide, and falls around her neck and shoulders. The cap is fashioned much after the style of the sun bonnets worn by the peasant women of Normandy, but hers is black, black as the grave. She has rather a nice face, a good woman's face, pale and refined by suffering. No one looking at her can doubt that she has suffered, and suffered as only such women can, through this brutal, bloody war. I thought of the widows away in our own land as I looked at her sitting there, so silently and sadly, with her thin white hands clasped on the black folds of her lap. On one hand I plainly saw the gold circle shining, which a few months ago had meant so much to her; now, alas! only the outward and visible sign of all she had been and of all that she had lost. Behind her the snow-white wall of the house, sparkling in the red rays of the setting sun; at her feet only the white slate of the stoep. And well enough I knew that under the proud Empire flag many a widow as young and as heart-broken as this Dutch girl would watch the sun go down as hopelessly as she, and I could not help the thought which sprang to my soul--God's bitter curse rest on the head of the man, be he Boer or Briton, who brought about this cruel war.
On the street in front of the house where the widow sat I noticed a group of niggers. Some of them were merely local "boys," who worked for the townspeople. They were dressed in the usual nigger fashion, in old store clothing, patched or ventilated according to the wearer's taste. One fellow had on a pair of pants that had at some former stage belonged to a man about four times his size. The portion of those pants which is usually hidden when a man is sitting in the saddle had been worn into a huge hole, which the nigger had picturesquely filled by tacking on a scarlet shawl. As the pants were made of navy blue serge the effect was unquestionably artistic, especially as the amateur tailor had done his sewing with string, most of the stitches running from an inch to an inch and a half in length. Still, he was only one of many in similar case, so that he did not feel in the least degree lonely. There were other niggers there--"boys" belonging to the mule-drivers of the army. These "boys" nearly all sported a military jacket and some sort of field service cap, which they had picked up somehow in camp. The "side" these niggers put on when they get inside odds and ends of military wearing apparel is something appalling. They swagger around amongst the civilian niggers, and treat them as beings of a very inferior mould, whilst the lies they tell concerning their individual acts of heroism would set the author of "Deadwood Dick" blushing out of simple envy.
The nigger girls cluster round these black veterans like flies around a western water hole in midsummer, and their shrill laughter makes the air fairly vibrate as they bandy jests with the cheeky herds. The girls are rather pleasing in appearance, though far from being pretty. As a rule, they wear clean print dresses and white aprons; they never wear hats of any kind, but coil a showy kerchief around their heads in coquettish fashion. They are not particular as to colour, red, blue, yellow, or pink, anything will do as long as it is brilliant. The skins of the girls are almost as varied as the headgear. The Kaffir girl is very dark, almost black. The bushman's daughter is dirty yellow, like river water in flood time. Some of the other tribes are as black as the record of a first-class burglar, but they have bright black eyes, which they roll about as a kitten rolls a ball of wool in playtime.
But whether they are black, brown, or coffee-coloured, they are all alike in one respect--every daughter of them has a mouth that is as boundless as a mother's blessing, and as limitless as the imagination of a spring poet in love. When they are vexed they purse that mouth up into a bunch until it looks like a crumpled saddle-flap hanging on a hedge. When they are pleased the mouth opens and expands like an indiarubber portmanteau ready for packing; that is when they smile, but when they laugh their ears have to shift to give the mouth a chance to get comfortably to its destination. They have beautiful teeth, the white ivory showing against the black foreground like fresh tombstones in an old cemetery on a dark night. It is amusing to watch them flirting with the soldier niggers. They try to look coy, but soon fall victims to the skilful blandishments of the vain-glorious warriors, and after a little manoeuvring they put out their lips to be kissed, a sight which might well make even a Scotch Covenanter grin. They suck their lips in with a sharp hissing breath; then push them out suddenly, ready for the osculatory seance, the lips moving as if they were pushed from the inside by a pole. The "boys" enjoy the picnic immensely. As a matter of fact, these "boys" always seem to me to be doing one of four things. They are either eating, smoking, sleeping, or making love; and they do enough love-making in twenty-four hours to last an ordinary everyday sort of white man four months, even if he puts in a little overtime. One of the most charming things noticeable about a Boer town is the plenitude of trees in the streets. They are often ornamental, always useful for purposes of shade. There is no regularity about their distribution; they seem to have been planted spasmodically at odd times and at odd positions. There is little about them to lead one to the belief that they receive over much care after they have been put into the soil. I have found a very creditable library in pretty nearly every Boer town that I have visited, and it is a noteworthy fact that all of our most cherished authors find a place on their book-shelves. One other thing I have also noticed, which, though a small thing in itself, is yet very significant. In nearly every hotel, and in many of the public places, portraits of our Queen and members of the Royal Family have been hanging side by side with portraits of notable men, such as Mr. Gladstone, Lord Salisbury, Mr. Chamberlain, and Mr. Rhodes. During the course of the war all kinds and conditions of Boers have had free access to the rooms where those portraits were to be seen, but now I find that no damage has been done to any of those pictures, excepting those of Mr. Rhodes and Mr. Chamberlain. This has not been an oversight on the part of the Boers, for I defy any person to find a solitary picture of the two last-named gentlemen that has not been hacked with knives. But the Queen and Royal Family photos have in every case been treated with respect.