I have a weakness for scouts. Good scouts seem to me to be of more importance to an army in the field than all the tape-tied intelligence officers out of Hades. They don't get on well with the regular officers as a rule, because scouts are like poets--they are born, not manufactured. They are people who do not feel as if God had forsaken them for ever if they don't get a shave and a clean shirt every morning, they are just a trifle rough in their appearance and manners; but they ride as straight as they talk, and shoot straighter than they ride. They have to be built for the business. All the training in the world won't make a scout unless nature has commenced the job; mere pluck is not worth a dog's bark in this line of life, though without pluck no scout is worth a wanton woman's smile. A good scout wants any amount of courage; he wants a level head--a head of ice, and a heart of fire. He wants to know by instinct when to rush onward and chance his life to the heels of his horse and the goodness of God, and he wants to know with unfailing certainty when to crawl into cover and hide. He must understand how to ride with no other guide than the lay of the country, the course of the sun, or the position of the stars. He must have eyes that note every broken hill, every little hollow, every footprint of man or horse on the veldt.
He must be an excellent judge of distance, of time, of numbers. He must be able to tell at a glance whether a cloud of dust is caused by moving troops or by the action of the elements. Above all, he must be truthful, not given to exaggeration of his friends' strength or his enemy's weakness. When he makes his report it should need no corroboration. If a scout is worth his salt, his advice should be accepted and acted upon promptly.
I often go out with the scouts; they are the eyes of the army. A man who knocks around with scouting parties knows more, sees more, hears more of the real state of affairs than nine-tenths of the staff officers ever know, hear, or see. Men fresh from the Old Country seldom make good scouts. Take the Yeomanry, for instance. They are plucky enough, but not one in a hundred of them has the making of a scout in him. All his fathers and his grandfather's and his great-grandfather's breeding trends in other directions, and there is an awful lot more in the breeding of men than most folk imagine. The American makes a good scout. If he knows nothing of the life, he soon picks it up. So does the Australian, and the Canadian, and the Colonial-born South African. Something in the life appeals to them. They get the "hang" of it with very little trouble. There are some English-born men, however, who develop into rattling great scouts. These men are mostly adventurous fellows, who have roamed about the world, and had the corners knocked off them. I have two of them in my mind's eye just at present. One of them is an Irishman named Driscoll, Captain of the Scouts who are the eyes and ears of Rundle's army. The other is an Englishman named Davies, a captain in the same gallant little band. The first lieutenant is a Cape colonial of English extraction, named Brabant, a gallant son of a gallant general. Captain Driscoll is a typical Irishman, just such a man as the soul of Charles Lever would have revelled in, a man of dauntless daring, with a heart of iron, and a face to match. Strangely enough, the captain does not pride himself a bit on his pluck, but he thinks a deuce of a lot of his beauty. As a matter of fact, he has the courage of ten ordinary men, but he would not take a prize in a first-class beauty show. (Lord send I may be far from the reach of his revolver when this reaches his eye.) He has that dash of vanity in his composition which I have found in all good Irishmen, and he prides himself far more on the execution his eyes have done amidst the Dutch girls than of the work his deadly rifle has wrought in the ranks of the Dutch mea Yet, if you want to know if Driscoll can shoot, just go to Burmah, where for ten years he held the position of captain in the Upper Burmah Volunteer Rifles. That was where I heard of him first, as the most deadly rifle and revolver shot in all the East.
The Boers know him now as the prince of rifle shots and the king of scouts. He is standing in the wintry sunlight just in front of my tent as I am writing, one hand on the bridle of his horse, rapping out Dutch oaths with a strong Cork accent to a nigger who has not groomed his pet animal properly. The nigger is very meek, for past experience has told him that Irish blood is hot, and an Irishman's boot quick and heavy. He is a picturesque figure, this Celtic scout leader, just such a picture as Phil May could bring to life on a sheet of paper with a few strokes of his master hand. He is about eleven stone in weight, and, roughly, five feet eight, clean cut and strong, with a face which tells you he was born in Cork, and had knocked about a lot in tropic lands; eight-and-thirty if he is a day, though he swears at night around the camp fire that the pretty Dutch girls have guessed his age as twenty-seven. He wears a slouch hat, around which a green puggaree coils lovingly. In his right hand his rifle rests as if it felt at home there. His coat is worn and shabby, khaki in colour; riding pants of roughest yellow cords, patched in places unspeakable, leggings around his sinewy calves, and feet planted in neat boots make up the whole man. He is clean shaven except for a moustache, dark brown in colour, which sprouts from his upper lip.
In his softer moments Driscoll tells us that it used to "cur-r-r-l" before he had the "faver" in Burmah, and on such occasions we assure him that it "cur-r-rls" even yet. It is more polite to agree with him than to cross him--and a lot safer. He is as full of anecdote as heaven is of angels, and I mean to use him in the sweet days of peace, unless some stay-at-home journalist niches him from me in the meantime. Driscoll and Davies are fast friends. The Englishman is not such a picturesque figure as the Irishman. Englishmen seldom are, somehow; but he is a man, a real white man, all over. He is rather a good-looking, well set-up young fellow, who always looks as if he had just had a bath; not a dude by any manner of means, but a fellow with a soft eye for a pretty ankle, and a hard fist for a foe--one of those quiet chaps a man always likes to find close beside him in a row. Driscoll almost weeps over him to me sometimes. "He's the devil's own at close quarters," says the Irishman. "Never want a better chum when it comes to bashing the enemy. If he could only shoot a bit 'straighther and talk a bit sweether to the colleens he'd be perfect." All the same, I have, and hold, my own opinion concerning the "talking." Many a smile which the gallant Celt appropriated to himself as we rode out of a conquered town seemed to me to belong of right to the rosy-faced Welsh lad on the off-side. To hear these two men chatter over a glass of hot rum in my tent at night one would think they had never faced danger. Yet never a day goes by but one or the other of them has to run the gauntlet of Boer rifles; whilst Jack Brabant, who is death on cigars or anything else that will emit smoke, and who curls up and says little, has been near death so often that it will be no stranger to him when it comes in all its finality.
Driscoll was in Burmah when the news came of the first disaster to the Irish troops in South Africa. He threw up his business as lightly as a coquette throws up a midsummer lover, and started for the war. At Bombay he was stopped by a yard or two of red tape, and had to go back to Calcutta, where he used his Irish tongue to such purpose that he got a permit to leave India, and made his way to the scene of trouble. He first joined General Gatacre as orderly officer. Later he was attached to the Border Mounted Rifles as captain, and did splendid service at the battles of Dordrecht and Labuschagne's Nek In the latter place he was the first man to gallop into the Boer laager before the fight had ceased. Captain, then Lieutenant, Davies was as close to his side as a shadow to a serpent, and they only had fourteen men with them at the time. After this Driscoll, whose skill as a scout had been remarked on all sides, was ordered to form a body of fifty scouts to act as the very eyes of the rapidly moving Colonial Division under General Brabant. This was promptly done, most of the men picked being Colonial-born Britishers. Soon after the formation of his band, Driscoll, with fifty men, attacked Rouxville from four sides at once. Dashing in, he demanded surrender of the place, as if he had an army at his back to enforce his demands, a piece of Irish impudent valour that would have cost every man amongst the little band his life had the Boers known that he was unbacked. But they did not know it, and consequently surrendered, and he hoisted the British flag and disarmed the residents--a really brilliant piece of work, for which Driscoll's Scouts have up to date received no public credit.
The Scout and his men took a warm part in the, very warm fight at Wepener, where many a good Briton fell. He had lost a good few fellows in the many fights, but Driscoll's name soon charmed others to his little band. At Jammersberg Drift the Scouts were so badly mauled that over a fourth of their number were counted out, but the places of the fallen men were soon filled, and to-day the number is almost complete. Driscoll has one especially good quality. He never speaks slightingly of his enemy unless he well deserves it. Few men have had so many hand-to-hand encounters with the burghers as he has; few men have held their lives by virtue of their steady hand on a rifle as frequently as this wild, good-natured, merry Irishman has done. Yet of the Boer as a fighter he speaks most highly. "He don't like cold steel, and shmall blame to'm," says Driscoll, "but for the clever tactics he's a devil of a chap, 'nd the men who run him down are mostly the men who run away from him. They're not all heroes, any more than all women are angels. Some of 'em are fit only for a dog's death, but most of 'em are good men; and if I wasn't an Irishman I wouldn't mind being a Boer, for they've no call to hang their heads and blush when this war is over."
I asked him if he had ever of his own knowledge come into contact with anything savouring of white flag treachery. "Once I did," said the great scout, and for a while his eyes were filled with a sombre fire which spoke of the volcano under the genial human crust. "Onct," and he lapsed into the brogue as he spoke; "only onct, and there's a debt owin' on it yet which has got to be paid. It was at Karronna Ridge. I was out wid me scouts, 'nd I saw a farmhouse flying the white flag--a great flag it was, too, as big as a bed sheet. I'm not sure that it was not wan, too. I rode towards it, thinking the people wanted to surrender, and sent two of me men, two young lads they were--good boys, eager for duty. I sent 'em forward to ask what was the matther inside; and when they got within fifteen paces of the house the Boers inside opened fire from twenty rifles, and blew 'em out of the saddle. I had to ride with me little troop for dear life then, for the rocks all around us were alive with rifles. That house still stands; but if Driscoll's name is Driscoll it's going to burn, and the cur who flew the white flag in it, if I can get him, for the sake of the dead boys out on the veldt there. That's the only dirty trick I knew them play, and they must have been a lot of wasters, not like the general run of their fighters."
Three nights ago Driscoll, Davies, Brabant, and twenty men camped in a farmhouse a long way from the British lines, for these men scour the country for many miles in all directions. The night was cold and rough, a bleak wind whistling amidst the kopjes half a mile away. Just as the scouts were sitting down to supper, the farmer's wife rushed in, and said to Driscoll, in a voice between a sob and a scream, "Do you know, sir, that our burghers are in the kopjes, and are watching the farm?" and as she spoke she wrung her hands wildly. The Irish scout rose from the table and bowed, as only an Irish scout can bow, for the "vrow" was about thirty years of age, and pleasing to the eye beyond the lot of most women. "I am awfully glad to hear it, madam," he said in his execrable Dutch. "I've been looking for that commando for a week past. As they have doubtless sent a message by you, please send this back for me. Tell their officers, if they will accept an offer to come and dine with Driscoll's Scouts here to-night, they shall be made welcome to the best we have in the way of kindness. For it must be cold waiting outside in the wind. Tell them they shall go as they come, unmolested and unwatched, and in the morning we'll come out and give 'em all the fight they want in this world." Then, sweeping the floor with a graceful wave of his green puggareed soft slouch hat, Driscoll bowed the astonished dame out of the dining-room, whilst his officers and men nearly choked themselves with their hot soup, as they noticed him surreptitiously drawing a pocket mirror from his breeches pocket. For well they knew that the dare-devil leader was thinking far more of the effect his looks had had on the Dutch housewife than of the effect of his message on the enemy. Yet, at the first promise of dawn, he unrolled himself from his blanket on the hard floor, and was the foremost man to show in the open, where the enemy's rifles might reach him. But no rifles sounded, for the Boers had declined the invitation both to supper and breakfast.