Strangely enough, I was a prisoner in the very room where I am penning this epistle only last Saturday night. I left here in the centre of a Boer commando, with a bandage over my eyes, on Sunday morning, and returned to the spot surrounded by British "Tommies" a few days later.
All the glory of this bloodless victory does not rest with the general who commands the column. To Captain Tennant no small meed of praise is due. This officer was here on secret service before hostilities commenced, and he did his work so thoroughly that the country is as familiar to him as paint to a barmaid. He is one of those men, unfortunately so rare in the British Army, combining dash and dauntless pluck with a cool, level head. If he gets his opportunity, England will hear more of this officer. I have been intensely struck by the class of officers by whom General Gatacre is surrounded. They all look like soldiers. I have not seen a single dude, not one of those wretched fops of whom I have seen only too many in South Africa. They speak like soldiers too. No idiotic drawl, no effeminate lisp, no bullying, ill-bred, coarseness of tongue; they are neither drawing-room dandies nor camp swashbucklers, but officers and gentlemen--and, I can assure you, the terms are not always synonymous, even under the Queen's cloth. I have seen mere lads in this country leading men into action who in point of brains were not fit to lead a mule to water, and others who, in regard to manners, were scarcely fit to follow the mule. But, thank God, the Boers have taught our nation this, if they have taught us nought else--that it needs something more than an eye-glass, a lisp, a pair of kid gloves, and an insolent, overbearing manner to make a successful soldier.
But let me get amongst the Boers. I was only a prisoner in their hands for about a month, yet every moment of that time was so fraught with interest that I fancy I picked up more of the real nature of the Boers than I should have done under ordinary circumstances in a couple of years. I was moved from laager to laager along their fighting line, saw them at work with their rifles, saw them come in from more than one tough skirmish, bringing their dead and wounded with them, saw them when they had triumphed, and saw them when they had been whipped; saw them going to their farms, to be welcomed by wife and children; saw them leaving home with a wife's sobs in their ears, and children's loving kisses on their lips. I saw some of these old greyheads shattered by our shells, dying grimly, with knitted brows and fiercely clenched jaws; saw some of their beardless boys sobbing their souls out as the life blood dyed the African heath. I saw some passing over the border line which divides life and death, with a ring of stern-browed comrades round them, leaning upon their rifles, whilst a brother or a father knelt and pressed the hand of him whose feet were on the very threshold of the land beyond the shadows. I saw others smiling up into the faces of women--the poor, pain-drawn faces of the dying looking less haggard and worn than the anguish-stricken features of their womanhood who knelt to comfort them in that last awful hour--in the hour which divides time from eternity, the sunlight of lusty life from the shadows of unsearchable death. Those things I have seen, and in the ears of English men and English women, let me say, as one who knows, and fain would speak the plain, ungilded truth concerning friend and foe, that, not alone beneath the British flag are heroes found. Not alone at the breasts of British matrons are brave men suckled; for, as my soul liveth--whether their cause be just or unjust, whether the right or the wrong of this war be with them, whether the blood of the hundreds who have fallen since the first rifle spoke defiance shall speak for or against them at the day of judgment--they at least know how to die; and when a man has given his life for the cause he believes in he is proven worthy even of his worst enemy's respect. And it seems to me that the British nation, with its long roll of heroic deeds, wrought the whole world over, from Africa to Iceland, can well afford to honour the splendid bravery and self-sacrifice of these rude, untutored tillers of the soil. I have seen them die.
Once, as I lay a prisoner in a rocky ravine all through the hot afternoon, I heard the rifles snapping like hounds around a cornered beast. I watched the Boers as they moved from cover to cover, one here, one there, a little farther on a couple in a place of vantage, again, in a natural fortress, a group of eight; so they were placed as far as my eye could reach. The British force I could not see at all; they were out on the veldt, and the kopjes hid them from me; but I could hear the regular roll and ripple of their disciplined volleys, and in course of time, by watching the actions of the Boers, I could anticipate the sound. They watched our officers, and when the signal to fire was given they dropped behind cover with such speed and certainty that seldom a man was hit. Then, when the leaden hail had ceased to fall upon the rocks, they sprang out again, and gave our fellows lead for lead. After a while our gunners seemed to locate them, and the shells came through the air, snarling savagely, as leopards snarl before they spring, and the flying shrapnel reached many of the Boers, wounding, maiming, or killing them; yet they held their position with indomitable pluck, those who were not hit leaping out, regardless of personal danger, to pick up those who were wounded. They were a strange, motley-looking crowd, dressed in all kinds of common farming apparel, just such a crowd as one is apt to see in a far inland shearing shed in Australia, but no man with a man's heart in his body could help admiring their devotion to one another or their loyalty to the cause they were risking their lives for.
One sight I saw which will stay with me whilst memory lasts. They had placed me under a waggon under a mass of overhanging rock for safety, and there they brought two wounded men. One was a man of fifty, a hard old veteran, with a complexion as dark as a New Zealand Maori; the beard that framed the rugged face was three-fourths grey, his hands were as rough and knotted by open air toil as the hoofs of a working steer.
He looked what he was--a Boer of mixed Dutch and French lineage. Later on I got into conversation with him, and he told me a good deal of his life. His father was descended from one of the old Dutch families who had emigrated to South Africa in search of religious liberty in the old days, when the country was a wilderness. His mother had come in an unbroken line from one of the noble families of France who fled from home in the days of the terrible persecution of the Huguenots. He himself had been many things--hunter, trader, farmer, fighting man. He had fought against the natives, and he had fought against our people. The younger man was his son, a tall, fair fellow, scarcely more than a stripling, and I had no need to be a prophet or a prophet's son to tell that his very hours were numbered. Both the father and the lad had been wounded by one of our shells, and it was pitiful to watch them as they lay side by side, the elder man holding the hand of the younger in a loving clasp, whilst with his other hand he stroked the boyish face with gestures that were infinitely pathetic. Just as the stars were coming out that night between the clouds that floated over us the Boer boy sobbed his young life out, and all through the long watches of that mournful darkness the father lay with his dead laddie's hand in his. The pain of his own wounds must have been dreadful, but I heard no moan of anguish from his lips. When, at the dawning, they came to take the dead boy from the living man, the stern old warrior simply pressed his grizzled lips to the cold face, and then turned his grey beard to the hard earth and made no further sign; but I knew well that, had the sacrifice been possible, he would gladly have given his life to save the young one's.