We had gone about a mile, when suddenly a score of horsemen made their appearance on top of the rise before us. Not knowing whether they were friends or foes, we swerved away to the left, regaining the road by a detour. After sunset we saw a small bonfire blaze forth about three miles away in the direction we were going. We hardly knew what to make of such an unusual sight. The night was a fairly dark one, but we pushed on rapidly. In the middle of a hard canter my horse suddenly struck his forefeet against some obstacle, and came crashing down upon his head. It was an anxious moment for me. When we had disentangled ourselves I hastened to feel the pony's knees, and found to my joy that they were but little damaged. Whilst still laughing over this mishap, we heard voices to our right. We listened for a moment. First came the question in English—
"Where are they?"
Then the reply—
"Don't know where they are now."
This was enough for us, and we sped forth as silently and as fast as possible.
On approaching the bonfire we heard more voices—Dutch this time. We rode up to the group standing round the fire. Several friends came forward to greet us, and we became aware that this was the President's party—about thirty men in all.
"Where are your sentries?" I asked.
"Just going out now."
"Who is in charge?"
"The President's secretary."
Calling the latter aside, I said—
"I don't wish to cause an alarm, but on coming along about a mile from here we heard men calling to each other in English. At one o'clock the British were only fifteen miles from here; your bonfire may have drawn a patrol hither."
"What is it? Who has arrived?" asked Steyn, coming out of his tent. We gave him all the information we had gained. He immediately ordered all lights to be extinguished, and sent the guard to find out what the voices meant. All were relieved when it turned out to have been merely a couple of the President's bodyguard searching for their horses.
Early the next morning a couple of deserters were brought in. They had been caught trying to slip past in the night. One said he had a sick son at home, and was only going to see him, perhaps for the last time. The other was going home to fetch better horses, and so forth. They were so unfortunate as to call upon the Deity to testify to the truth of their assertions. This roused Steyn's ire.
"How dare you be guilty of such sacrilege?" he cried. "It is this cursed habit of yours of using God's name upon every trivial occasion that makes our enemies think us a nation of hypocrites! Back to your commandoes at once!"
The men slunk away. We enjoyed their discomfiture in a measure, for, with all reverence for true religion, it must be confessed that many of these gentry thought psalm-singing all that was required of them, and did not hesitate to leave their less "elect" brethren to bear the brunt of the fighting.
After breakfast I walked down to the telegraph line connecting Heilbron and Frankfort, which ran past this point. Taking about ten yards of "cable" wire, I cleaned about a foot of it in the middle, tied one end to my spanner, and threw the latter over the line. The swing carried it over a second time, the two ends hanging just above the ground. Attaching one end to the instrument, I heard the English telegraphist in Heilbron calling up Kroonstadt, and the Boer telegraphist in Frankfort working to Reitz.
I immediately climbed the pole and cut the Frankfort side of the line. Then I took another piece of cable, and connected the earth terminal of the vibrator with the telegraph pole. The British signals now came through beautifully clear. The first message that passed was one from General Hamilton to Lord Roberts, announcing his arrival at Heilbron, the details of the two engagements fought during the march, the number of killed and wounded, and the state of his force—"often hungry, but cheerful." Then followed some others of lesser importance. The President's party were just driving away. I left my assistant with the vibrator, ran across to the road, and handed His Honour the messages. He smiled as he read the report and appeared highly gratified. After a few words of encouragement to me he drove on, and I returned to the line. The signals were now so weak, however, that nothing could be distinguished.
We saddled our horses and rode towards Heilbron, intending to try again closer to the town. We had not gone far before the captain of the despatch riders and one of his men overtook us. They had been ordered by the President to place themselves at my disposition. Four men would have attracted too much attention, however, and I persuaded them to return. We two rode on until almost on top of the hill overlooking Heilbron, when we dismounted. Drawing the horses behind a low stone wall, we attached the instrument to the line. I listened. There were no fewer than five different vibrators calling each other, some strong and clear, others sounding weak and far, like "horns of Elfland faintly blowing." Presently the disputing signals died away, and one musical note alone took up the strain.
Never was lover more absorbed in the thrilling sound of his divinity's voice than I in the notes of that vibrator, seemingly wailing up from the bowels of the earth.
Nor was my attention unrewarded.
"From Chief of Staff, Honingspruit," came the words, "to General Hamilton, Heilbron." Then followed orders. How Hamilton was to march from Heilbron; how Broadwood was to move from Ventersburg, the entire plan of campaign for the next few weeks! A mass of information to gladden the heart of our steadfast chief. "Hurrah!" we whispered to each other, as I carefully put the precious message in a safe place.
Then some harsh, grating sounds were heard in the microphone. The wires were evidently being overhauled in Heilbron. Complete silence followed. Hearing a couple of shots fired on our left, we removed all traces of our work and rode back to our starting-point, well satisfied with the valuable information we had so fortunately obtained. I at once sent my assistant after the President with the despatch. Fearing that the enemy might send a patrol here during the night, I left for Frankfort, and arrived there at midnight. Before leaving, however, I had instructed my assistant to join up the line where I had cut it, if upon his return the next morning he should find the place still free from the enemy.