My first thought was that my pony would have to be shod before I could expect him to carry me any further. I found Judge Hertzog, then Chief of Commissariat, in the street, a young man still, of medium height, whose clear brow and incisive speech marked him out from amongst the crowd of farmers, policemen, and idlers that constantly surrounded him with requests for this, that, or the other lacking article or animal.
He gave me an order to have my pony shod before all the others, a very important stipulation, for the ambulance horses had been waiting to be shod for a week. He added that he would supply us with other horses, but there were none to be bought. I told him I knew of a farmer who had a horse for sale at eighty pounds.
"Yes, he asks us eighty, and presently the enemy will come along and take it for nothing," replied Hertzog.
I went to the blacksmith and handed him the order.
"Yes, everybody wants to be first," said that worthy; "but first come first served, says I."
"But this is for special service."
"Can't help that."
"Do you mean to disobey the orders of the Government?"
"Oh, no, not I! But I have no nails; may have some in a day or two."
"Whose are those you are using now?"
"They belong to the despatch riders' corps."
I at once sought out the captain of the corps and persuaded him to count me out thirty nails. I then returned to the smith and held a candle for him whilst he shoed my horse. When I led the animal away I found that it was lame.
"That's nothing," said the smith. "It will soon pass."
"Oh, no. Just pull that shoe off and put it on again."
This he did, and then the lameness disappeared. I took the animal to the stable, filled the crib with fodder, overhauled the vibrator, packed my saddle-bags, and went to bed.
Early the next morning I started, making straight for the intermediate station.
After three hours' riding I met a mounted policeman riding at full speed, or the best imitation of it that his mount could produce. "The English are coming!" was all he uttered as he passed by. When I reached the farmhouse I heard shots falling just beyond the hill. The womenfolk on the farm were in a pitiful state of distress. They had ornamented the roof of the house with a white flag, following the custom then prevailing in those parts threatened by the enemy.
"They've been fighting all the morning," they said, wiping their eyes, "and now our men are retreating. Whatever will become of us?"
I stabled my horse, walked to the fence, attached the vibrator, and called up Heilbron. No reply. The line was down again!
This discovery put me into a pretty bad temper. Presently about a dozen Boers came galloping along from the fighting line. On seeing me, the leader reined in and shouted—
"What the devil is this? What are you doing here?" He took me for an Englishman, and thought this a good opportunity to gain distinction. Thoroughly roused by his bullying tone, I retorted—
"And who the devil are you? And where the devil are you running away to in such a hurry?"
Taken aback, he faltered—
"Oh, I have orders from my commandant, which I must keep secret."
"Yes, I know your kind of orders. Get away, and don't interfere with men who are doing their duty." The band thereupon cleared off. Then a despatch rider came dashing up, his splendid black entire specked with foam.
"I have an urgent despatch for the Government," he said, after we had made ourselves known to each other, "but my mount is about done up after all the riding about I have done away on our left."
"Give it me," I said; "I'll repair the line and send it through."
He handed me the message, and we walked over to the farmhouse. Whilst we were drinking a cup of coffee crowds of burghers rode past in retreat. Nearly every one stopped and asked for a glass of milk, a loaf of bread, or a few eggs. Their wants were supplied as far as possible. In every case money was offered, and in every case it was refused.
With the despatch in my pocket I could not delay, so I took my nag and rode back along the fence. The very first test I made I found the line in order again. I transmitted the despatch, adding that there was nothing to stop the enemy from taking Heilbron that night. This news caused some consternation, as may be imagined, and the Government left Heilbron immediately.
When I had finished I saw coming towards me a young Free Stater, who had been sent out from Heilbron to remove the fault, which he had succeeded in doing.
"Let's go back to the farmhouse after sunset," I said, "and see if the British are there already."
We waited till dark, and then carefully rode to the farm, making as little noise as possible. When near the house we dismounted, cautiously approached, and peered through a window. Everything was quiet. We knocked. The housewife opened the door, pale and agitated.
"They have not been here yet?" I asked.
"No, but we expect them every minute."
We brought our horses into the yard, so as to be at hand, and entered the house.
"Your husband is not back yet?"
"No, but they say he is safe."
The door opened noiselessly, and the man himself stood before us. He had also taken a look through the window before entering. He placed his gun in a corner, kissed his wife and children, and shook hands with us.
"We've had a hard day;" he said, "let's go in to supper."
After the meal, even more silent than is habitual amongst us, where talking at table is almost as bad form as making a joke with a minister would be in Sloper's Scotland, our host told us that the English had camped on the spot where they had fought, and that he did not think they would march till daylight. It was best for us to sleep there that night, and leave with him before dawn.
"Father, can I go too?" asked his son, aged thirteen.
"No, my boy, you must stay and help mother to manage the farm. It will be a long while ere father returns."
"Oh, father! I'm too old to stay in the house, like an old woman. Besides, I'm afraid they will make me prisoner."
"Do you think they catch children like him?" his mother asked anxiously.
"No, I don't think they are so cruel," I replied; "but one can never tell."
"Well, they won't get the chance," said the plucky little fellow. "As soon as I see them coming, I shall take my mare and go and hide in the hills."
The mother did not say anything. She bore up bravely, as our women ever do, Heaven bless them! Was it not but some ten miles from this very spot that years before a handful of our pioneers had gained the victory at Vecht Kop, when the women loaded the guns and handed them to the men as the latter unflinchingly beat back the tremendous horde of maddened blacks that flung themselves against the hastily drawn circle of waggons. Does not one old lady still bear the scars of the nineteen stabs she received on that day? Our women are women indeed, and worthy mothers of the race that yet shall people all Africa and rule itself.
Do not think I am flying too high. The average Boer family numbers ten children. Boys are in the majority. If at present we have thirty thousand warriors (I am not counting the wasters), it follows that in two generations we shall have three hundred thousand. Taking the proportion then, as now, of ten to one, Britain will have to employ against us in 1940 no less than three million men! And when that time comes, the children of to-day will have the recollection of the concentration camps and of a few other little trifles to strengthen their backbone.
The concentration camps! Fit subject for Dante, who in the Divina Comedia portrays as no other can the maddened heart of a father doomed to see his children waste away before his very eyes. There are many relentless Ugolins among the Boers to-day.
I firmly believe that a steady process of infanticide was never intended to be the raison d'être of these camps; no civilised nation could deliberately sanction a system cemented with the bones and blood of innocent babes. And the British are a civilised nation.
No, the fault does not lie in the system itself, but in its application. It is a humane idea carried out inhumanely, so inhumanely that when the Black Hole of Calcutta is forgotten Englishmen will still hang their heads for shame at the mention of concentration.
What the Levite concubine's outraged flesh was to Israel the infant mortality is to the Afrikanders of the Cape and Natal, who, a hundred thousand strong, may at any moment lose their self-control and throw in their lot with their brethren. Then Britain will tear the bandage from her eyes, but it will be too late.
Let me remind Canon Knox-Little, and those other divines who can complacently view the children's Golgotha, of the words of their Master: "But whoso shall offend one of these little ones, it were better that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea."
But to return. After the usual reading of the Gospel, we retired for the night. Our sleep, however, was none too secure. At about two o'clock the dogs set up a terrible howling. My heart beat loudly. We were in for it now! But no, it was only the farmer's son, who came to tell us to get ready.
We rose at once. Our host said a long good-bye to his wife and children, and we rode away in the misty night, a keen wind cutting through flesh and bone.
After a very long hour we reached the house of our guide's brother.
We got in without awakening the inmates, and entered a small bedroom, where two young men were lying asleep. They woke on hearing us move about, and struck a match.
"Good morning," I said; "rather early, isn't it?"
"Yes," they replied, waiting for me to explain. I kept quiet, however, and watched the expression on their faces gradually change from surprise to uneasiness, and from uneasiness to alarm. Then I briefly explained the situation to the young men, after which we went to sleep in our chairs till daybreak, when the servant entered with the morning coffee.
Our guide took us into the parlour and introduced us to his sister-in-law. He then left to rejoin his commando.
We stayed to breakfast, and then also left, making for Heilbron, but not feeling quite sure as to whether we should reach it before the enemy. After travelling a couple of hours we observed half a dozen horsemen appear against the skyline on our left. From the way they were spread out we judged them to be English. To make sure we rode a little nearer. On coming round one of the numerous undulating bulten, we saw three horsemen making for us at full speed. We at once wheeled round and took up a position behind some rocks. When the horsemen came closer we found that they were Boers. They told us, however, that the men first observed by us were really British, which accounted for their haste, and that the whole column was following just behind.
Now that we had located the enemy we felt more at ease. The scouts were riding near the road along which the wire ran, about seven miles from the town. Cutting across in plain sight of the enemy, we fixed the vibrator to the fence, and called up Heilbron. We heard the instruments working in the office, but got no reply to our hurried call. The scouts were about fifteen hundred yards away. We continued calling; they continued approaching, carefully inspecting every foot of ground before them. It seemed strange to us that the scouts of a column on the march should search for the enemy within five hundred yards only of the main body. But perhaps that is what they teach at Sandhurst. Presently the head of the column came in sight from behind the rise. The scouts were now within eight hundred yards. We quietly mounted our horses and rode away. They gave no sign of having observed our movements. When some distance away, we looked back and saw that the whole column had halted, about seven thousand men.
We reached Heilbron to find the place practically deserted. Wishing to see the enemy enter the town, we delayed our departure. Some hours passed, and nothing happened to denote the proximity of the British. We feared that they might be surrounding the town before entering it, so we left for Frankfort, following the road taken by the President the night before.