Lindley and Heilbron were each in telegraphic communication with all the other towns still in our possession, and consequently also with each other; but no telegraph line ran between the two. A message from one to the other had to travel viâ Johannesburg and Kroonstad, involving a delay of several hours. It was our task to make good this missing link. Haste was required, for the British were already marching on Kroonstad, whence the Government was preparing to retire, ostensibly to Lindley, but in reality to Heilbron.
Unfortunately the material wherewith the new line was to be built had not yet arrived from the Transvaal. The inspector decided not to wait, but to build the line without it.
"Build a line without material? Impossible," you say. Not at all. You forget the fences; we did not.
Our first care was to obtain a list of those farms along the road whose fences joined. This did not take many hours. Being joined here by a lineman, who had charge of half a dozen natives and a waggon, we loaded our luggage on the latter, as well as a sack or two of meal—the only foodstuff we could obtain, and began work, each armed with a spanner and a couple of iron tent-pegs.
The fences were in bad repair, many of the stone poles having fallen down and the wires being broken and tangled every few hundred yards. Lifting the heavy stones and repairing and untangling the barbed wire was unaccustomed work, and soon our hands were covered with cuts and bruises. The distance by road between the two points is only about forty miles, but owing to the fences running at all angles to each other we had about seventy miles to cover. This it took us a week to do, rising early, working all through the day, and continuing in the moonlight at night. By buying a couple of sheep to supplement the bags of meal, and drinking a gall-like imitation coffee brewed from barley, we managed to fare well enough, and better than thousands of others are faring to-day.
Our communication with the starting-point continued fairly good until we came within six miles of Heilbron, when it suddenly failed. I went back along the line, and eventually found the fault. After having repaired it and given my pony an hour's rest, I took a short cut for Heilbron, and arrived there at ten that night, only to find that during the time occupied by my return ride the wire had again stopped working. Having been in the saddle since six in the morning, I could do no more that night, although the Government, now installed here, was anxiously awaiting the resumption of communication. Early the next morning I started back. I considered it best to start testing from the middle of the line, and therefore went by road instead of following the fence. A few miles out of town I met De Wet's force, which was just retreating from Ventersburg. The men and animals were weary and dusty, but there was no depression noticeable; hope seemed to spring up afresh after every defeat, and those who thought of the result at all were confident that, as the song of the camp had it, "No Englishman shall ever cross the Vaal."
And now I shall try and draw you a picture of what I saw next. It was a scene painfully humiliating for a Boer; what it was for an Englishman I leave you to judge.
Coming along in the dusty road was a little drove of cattle and horses, about twenty in all, shaggy animals, and of all sizes, evidently the entire stock of some small farmer. Mounted astride on ponies, driving the sorry herd, their faces sunburnt, their hair all in a tangle, and their air the most dejected possible, were two young girls of about fifteen and seventeen years. Following them was a rickety old waggon. Under the hood sat an aged man and his wife, the parents of the two girls. Not a soul to help these poor creatures in their wild flight. They did not even know whither they were fleeing—anywhere to keep out of the hands of the enemy. Slowly the little caravan passed out of sight. Who can tell what regrets for the past were felt by the aged couple?—what hopes for the future by the helpless lasses?
When I reached the intermediate station I found that the fault lay on the Lindley side. Towards Lindley I rode, testing the line frequently, but the sun went down and I was still testing. It grew too dark to see the wire distinctly, so I made for a farmhouse near by to seek shelter for the night. I knocked at the door, whereupon the light within was immediately extinguished. A minute or so after a native servant came round from the back. I gave him my horse to take to the stable, and waited for the door to be opened. Presently the Kafir returned and asked me to follow him to a side door, which he opened for me. I stepped inside, and found myself in the presence of about a dozen Boers, all armed, and all gazing at me as if they had paid for the privilege. There was something tense in the situation.
I broke the ice by asking them if they took me for a ghost. As soon as they heard me speak in Dutch the fixed stare gave way to a general grin. Then they explained, with a sigh of relief, that the zealous servant had told them with bated breath that I was a bold, bad Englishman, whereupon they had made the above preparations for receiving me. I did not fail to curse the native's stupidity, after which we sat down to a plentiful dinner. When this was over the mistress of the house made us a large bed on the floor, and soon my strange bedfellows and myself were slumbering like a lot of little cherubs.
Leaving early the next morning, I followed the line without any success until within four miles of Lindley. Then I noticed a long column of vehicles and cavalry trekking over the hill to my right and towards the town. Presently an old Boer came driving by.
"Do you know what that is?" he asked, pointing to the column.
I observed the column attentively. Yes, he was right. The mystery was explained. Naturally enough we could not get into communication with the town when it was already occupied by the enemy. The British had heard that the Government was in Lindley, and had therefore made this sudden march, whilst we believed them to be still in Kroonstad. It was most important that the President should know the news immediately. I at once attached the vibrator to the line and called up Heilbron.
"Here P. The English are in Lindley."
"The English are in Lindley."
"Please tell the President what I say."
Silence. Presently the reply came—
"Here Postmaster-General. The President says impossible. Enemy still in Kroonstad."
"Not much! Here they are, before my eyes. Please believe that there is no mistake."
"Wait a bit." Then, "Where is Piet De Wet?"
"Probably cut off, and on the other side of the town."
"Can you remain there for a while?"
After a while, "You may return now."
"Had I not better remain and watch their movements?"
"Yes, do so."
I remained in the neighbourhood that night and the next morning, but the enemy lay quiet in Lindley, so I returned to Heilbron.
When I reported myself to the Postmaster-General, he said—
"The President wants to see you."
I thought I was going to get into a scrape for not having been able to report anything further. However, I followed the Chief to a small building a few doors lower down the street.
Entering, we found ourselves in a fairly roomy office, where two or three gentlemen were engaged in an earnest discussion. After being introduced to them I was taken into an inner office. Seated at a table, writing, was President Steyn.
Although attired in plain black, like any other lawyer, there was a dignity in his bearing, and a force of character in his manner, that could not fail to make an impression on my mind, young as I was.
"Well," he said, calling me by name, "where do you come from?"
My embarrassment was so great, in spite of the friendly smile that accompanied these words, that I could only stammer—
"From Winburg, President," alluding to the last time I had seen him.
"No, no! I mean to-day."
"Oh, from Lindley. But I could not find out much more. Some think their next move will be towards Bethlehem, others think they are coming on here."
"Ah! Well, I know now that your information was correct, and I am satisfied with your work. I hope you will continue to be so successful. Now, go out there again, see what they are doing, and report to me."
"Thank you, President," was all I could say, as he shook my hand, and I retired, highly gratified, as you may imagine.