The little village of Frankfort was wrapped in slumbering darkness when I entered it. Cold and hungry after the five hours' journey, I did not scruple to knock up the Postmaster. With an instinct of good-fellowship that did him credit, he at once made me welcome; breaking up a couple of empty boxes, we made a rattling fire, and soon big gulps of cocoa were chasing the last few shivers from my wearied frame.
My last thought as I wrapped my blanket round me and stretched myself out on the floor was of the despatch I had sent after the President. Suppose my messenger lost the document or was captured! But I would soon know, for if I found the line joined through at eight o'clock, according to my orders, it would be a proof that he had returned and found the coast clear.
The little office was crowded with busy clerks when I opened my eyes the next morning. Casting a rapid glance at the clock, I saw it was almost eight. There was no time to lose. I grasped the useful little vibrator with one hand, flung the blanket into a corner with the other, and set off, calling to the native servant to follow with a ladder. It was not advisable to operate under the eyes of the townspeople, so I marched across the bridge and into the veld, until a suitable spot was reached. No sooner had I thrown my wire over the line than I again heard British and Dutch signals intermingled. Good! My message was safe.
The Kafir shinned up the pole and cut the wire, permitting the British signals only to come through. I listened intently to the various more or less interesting messages being exchanged by the enemy. Presently a new and stronger note broke in—
"Hello! Here, Sergeant-Major Devons. Who are you?"
Devons? Those are the fellows that we fought at Ladysmith. But what—how comes he here? Listen——
"Here, Heilbron. We're just waiting to leave. Crowds of Boers on the hills."
"Ah! I say, I've pushed on, quite by myself, for fully twelve miles," said the hoarse note of the non-com.'s vibrator. "When I reached Roberts' Horse the chief said I was d——d lucky to get through!"
"Good on you!" replied his admiring hearer. "This is a bit different from old Tyneside, ain't it?"
"Cheer up; we shall soon be in Pretoria."
"Confound you!" said I, dashing my fist on the key, "you're not there yet!"
To prevent myself from interrupting them, advertently or otherwise, I had taken the precaution to disconnect the battery, so my little outbreak did no harm.
Then the sergeant-major sent a long message to his chief, Captain Faustnett, duly informing the latter of the distance he had come, all by himself, and of what the officer commanding Roberts' Horse had said, after which the Heilbron man remarked—
"Good-bye, we're off." Silence followed.
The net result of the morning's work was the knowledge that Hamilton was leaving Heilbron at that very moment, and leaving it ungarrisoned. This information I hastened to communicate to my chief, with the result that within a very short space of time we were again in telegraphic communication with that town and in possession of several hundred sick and wounded that the British had kindly left to our care. At Spion Kop we wanted their wounded, but did not get them; here we did not want them in the least, but we got them all the same.
My next task was the maintenance of the fence line between Frankfort and Reitz. A testing station had been established half-way between the two villages, consequently the communication was fairly good and there was not much for me to do. One day a message arrived from my chief in Pretoria, asking me to go thither, and accompany him northwards when the capital should be abandoned. The Postmaster-General of the Free State, however, insisted upon my remaining a few days longer.
A little while after De Wet's commando entered the village about a thousand strong. The rumour went that De Wet was going to rest for a week and then strike a heavy blow. No sooner had the column halted on the bank of the river than De Wet himself rode over to our office, accompanied by his secretary. They wrote out a few telegrams, and then De Wet entered into conversation with the Postmaster-General. His tone and manner lacked the slightest cordiality. He asked the Postmaster-General whether he was sure, quite sure, that the British side of our telegraph lines was always cut, so that the enemy could not tap our messages. Yes, the chief was quite sure. But De Wet thought it best that instructions to that effect should be re-issued, so as to leave no excuse for any possible negligence. This suggestion was carried out on the spot.
The chief then introduced me to De Wet. Compared with Louis Botha, or almost any other of our generals, De Wet presented but a sorry sight. His manners are uncouth, and his dress careless to a degree. His tactlessness, abrupt speech, and his habit of thrusting his tongue against his palate at every syllable, do not lessen his undeniable unattractiveness. But De Wet, if he lacks culture, certainly has an abundance of shrewdness, and is not without some dignity at times. And I must confess that it is chiefly owing to De Wet and Steyn that the war did not end with the fall of Pretoria. What is the secret of his success? This, he has one idea, one only—the independence of his country. Say to him—
"If the English win——" and he breaks in—
"If the heavens fall——"
Choosing his lieutenants by results only, he is assured of good service. An incorrect report, and the unlucky scout is tried by court-martial.
Whilst giving this modern Cincinnatus due credit for his undoubted smartness, it must be borne in mind that the movements of the Free State forces were generally determined by the Oorlogscommissie, a body made up of President Steyn, Judge Hertzog, Advocate De Villiers, and two or three other prominent men, whose trained intellects concerted the plan of campaign, De Wet being entrusted with its execution. He had power to alter details according as circumstances might dictate, but that was all.
And he had men to aid him like General Philip Botha (third of three brothers, generals), Commandant Olivier (now captured), Captain Theron (killed near Krugersdorp), besides others whose names have never been heard of, but who, if De Wet were captured to-morrow, would be both willing and able to take his place.
One peculiar feature of the Afrikander character is the complete absence of anything approaching hero-worship. Perhaps this is due to the habit of ascribing success to the favour of Providence. However this may be, it is certain that General Joubert's death hardly excited even a momentary thrill of regret, in spite of his years of service as Commandant-General. As for erecting a monument to the memory of any of our great men, why, we are all equal, they say, and anyone could have done as much.
Notwithstanding this characteristic of the people, De Wet, secure in the favour of the Government, knows how to make himself obeyed and respected. I have seen burghers retreat who, upon being stopped and threatened with death by their officer, have torn open their coats and shouted, "Shoot! Shoot me, if you dare! I shall not turn back!"
I cannot imagine anyone venturing to take up this attitude towards De Wet. He would certainly not hesitate to carry out a threat through any fear of the consequences. And yet it was my fortune to incur his displeasure. It came about in this way. The chief sent for me one day and said—
"You have asked to be allowed to return to the Transvaal. But there is a chance for you to do some very important work just now. Do you mind remaining three or four days longer?"
"Not at all."
"Very well. De Wet leaves to-morrow. You will accompany him. He wants you to tap the British lines near Kroonstad. You may attach yourself to Scheepers' corps, but you will be in no way subordinate to him, and you will use your own discretion in the execution of your duty. He will give you every aid and assistance. Try and get a horse from him, as we are short."
The chief then showed me a map whereon was marked out our line of route. It was evidently going to be an exciting adventure, and I thanked him warmly for having selected me to take part in the expedition. I then went and hunted up Scheepers, whom I found in his tent. This is the same Scheepers who later operated in Cape Colony, and whom Chamberlain has taken such a dislike to. I can assure the Secretary for the Colonies that Scheepers is an amiable and harmless young man, who would probably now be teaching a Sunday-school class had Joseph not been such a dreamer.
"Well, Scheepers," I said, "so I am to accompany you to-morrow. Can you supply me with a horse?"
"That will be difficult," he replied, "but if money can buy one you shall have it."
This seemed good enough. Early the next morning the commando was on the march. Scheepers had kept his word and sent me a horse. It was not an attractive animal outwardly, being of an indefinite shade between white and grey, and with an unnecessary profusion of projections adorning its attenuated frame. However, there was no time to lose, and I mounted the steed, trusting it might possess moral qualities which would atone for its physical defects.
The animal went very well as long as I did not interfere with the bent of its wayward desire, which was to proceed in any direction but the right one. Have you ever steered an extremely willing young thing through her first waltz? If so you will know what my feelings were after the first hour. And now just imagine that the waltz lasted for four hours, and you will have some idea of my sufferings, for that is the length of time I was compelled to spend on the back of my new acquisition.
Scheepers had sent a couple of men on ahead a few days before in order to see if the coast was clear. One of his heliographists and myself now rode ahead of the column, planted a heliograph on a suitable spot, and called up towards a high hill beyond Heilbron, where it had been arranged that the two scouts should be about this hour. Scarcely had our heliograph glittered for a moment in the sun when back from the hill came a long flash of light.
"What news?" we asked.
"All quiet," came the reply.
We returned to the column, which was marching wonderfully slowly, and informed Scheepers, who was pleased to find his men so punctual. As we rode along he asked me a few particulars about the vibrator, wire tapping, and so on. I told him how at Spion Kop the wire failed at the very moment it was needed most.
"Yes," he remarked thoughtfully, "trifles often make all the difference. I had an experience of that myself one night not so long ago. We had laid a nice little trap near Kroonstad, put a charge of dynamite on the rails, placed the men in position, and waited for a train to come along. After a few hours of suspense the latter appeared, and just as it was going over the charge I pressed the button. What do you think happened?"
"The unexpected, I suppose?"
"Precisely. To our disgust the dynamite did not do the rest, and the train puffed tranquilly past. One of my battery wires had become disconnected in the dark, and through that one little detail the whole thing was spoilt."
"At least from your point of view," I said jestingly. "But think what a narrow escape you had yourselves. The train might have stopped, a searchlight might have thrown its piercing gleam over your waiting band, and a volley from a battery of maxims might have strewn the shuddering veld with your palpitating bodies!"
"Oh, no danger of that!" replied Scheepers lightly; "we knew there were no Graphic artists on board!"
Towards sunset the head of the column halted, nine miles from Heilbron, having done only twenty miles during the whole day's march. I say the head of the column, because the body of it was still straggling somewhere along the road, to say nothing of the tail. We went to bed hungry, the men with the waggon being too lazy to make a fire. I consoled myself with the prospect of a good breakfast in Heilbron the next morning, and slept as well as the cold would let me.