When we reached Reitz, on our way to Bethlehem, another young Transvaaler and myself obtained permission to try and reach the Transvaal. The enemy's columns were traversing the intervening country in all directions, but we determined that the attempt was worth making. Bidding good-bye to our Free State colleagues, we left the little village that was later to become famous as the scene of the capture of the Free State Government, and retraced our way to Frankfort. The send-off given us took the form of a little reunion in the parlour of the modest hotel. Here there were gathered together some dozen young Free Staters, and an impromptu smoking concert was held. Everyone present was compelled to give a song or recite something. The first on the programme was Byron's "When we two parted," which was sung with fine effect by a blushing young burgher. Next came the old camp favourite, "The Spanish Cavalier." The sentimental recollections induced by these two songs were speedily dissipated by a rattling comic song in Dutch, "Op haar hot oog zit'n fratje" A few recitations followed. One of the reciters had just enunciated the lines—
"Within the circle of your incantation No blight nor mildew falls, No fierce unrest, nor lust, nor lost ambition, Passes those airy walls"—
when a mocking voice came floating in at the window—
"Are you referring to Downing Street?" It was a captured British officer, who, roaming about the village, had been attracted by our revelry. He was evidently no follower of the expand-or-burst policy of the British Cabinet.
This appropriate interpellation put an end to the proceedings. We set off, unarmed, as we had sent our Mausers back to the Transvaal some time before, and mounted on a pair of nags that were plainly unfit to make the journey. Long before we reached Frankfort, in fact, my companion's horse gave in. We rode to a farmer's house near the road to try and find another mount. A boy of thirteen was the only male person on the farm. Yes, he had a pony. Would he exchange it for ours, and take something to boot? No fear, what he wanted was cash. How much? Thirteen pounds. But thirteen is an unlucky number; better take twelve. In that case, he would prefer to take fourteen. The pony was worth the price, the cash changed hands, and we continued our journey. Some miles from Frankfort we met two Boers, who told us that they had also meant to return to the Transvaal, but had heard that the enemy were so close to Frankfort that they had decided to turn back. We determined to continue, however, and shortly after dark we cautiously entered the village. The enemy had not yet arrived, but were expected early the next morning. We consulted one of our friends in the village, who advised us to try and cross the railway near Standerton. We decided to follow his advice, and left early the next morning. A few miles out of town we observed several horsemen to our left. Fearing these were British, we swerved to the right, cutting across country. Keeping a good look-out, we continued our way till evening, when we were overtaken by a farmer driving a cart. He was lame and had never been on commando, but on the approach of the British columns had left his home to their mercy. He conducted us to the modest cottage of his brother-in-law, where we found a bed for ourselves and stabling for our horses. Before sunrise the next morning we were again on our way. Through the thick mist we saw several horsemen approach a house standing solitary in the veld. They dismounted and entered the dwelling. Anxious to know whether these were friends or foes, we rode thither. Making as little noise as possible, we managed to gain the spot unobserved, and found that they were Boers. They gave us each a cup of steaming coffee, black and bitter, but none the less acceptable, directed us on our way, and wished us good luck. Towards noon we reached a hamlet named Cornelia, where we introduced ourselves to the leading inhabitant, with whom we lunched. Here my horse refused to feed, showing strong symptoms of papies. There was no help for it, however; he had to carry me, sick or well. Some miles further we reached the house of an English farmer. He had the consideration to conceal his satisfaction at the approach of his countrymen and the kindness to doctor my horse for me. The poor animal was in such a pitiable state that it could hardly stand. After swallowing a dose of strychnine, however, it improved wonderfully, and we were enabled to continue, but naturally at a very slow pace. That evening we slept at a farmer's house near the Vaal River. Here we heard that there was a Boer commando lying near Greylingstad, and thither we directed our way. As we rode through the Vaal the next morning we felt a genuine thrill of joy at setting our feet once more upon our own soil. That afternoon Greylingstad came in sight, but what a bitter disappointment! Instead of finding our own commandoes here, we found the place occupied by a large British force. We reined in on the veld, gazed at the British camp, and then at each other. To our left lay Heidelberg, to our right Standerton, both held by the enemy, and in front of us stood the tents of a British column at least five thousand strong!
Whilst we were still discussing the situation a Bushman mounted on a scraggy pony and seated on a sheepskin saddle came riding along. We hailed him and asked him where he was off to. He told us he belonged to a party of half a dozen Boers, who, hidden just over the hill, had sent him to see what we were. We ordered him to lead us thither. When we approached the spot it was to find the men all on their feet, rifles loaded and cocked, ready to lay us low should we prove to be Englishmen. We lost no time in dissipating their fears. They explained that they belonged to the commando which had been lying here, and which only the day before had retired on the approach of the enemy. They themselves, having been on a visit to their farms near by, had got left behind. I at once suspected that they meant to lay down their arms, but it would never have done to say so, so I contented myself with demanding their advice as to the best way of rejoining the aforesaid commando. They were not very anxious to rejoin it themselves, and consequently represented the matter as being extremely difficult. At length they showed us a farm near the British camp, and recommended our going thither, as the people there would be able to give us all possible help. We reached the farm just after sunset to the accompaniment of barking dogs and hissing geese. The door was opened by a feeble old man, who, with his equally aged wife, were apparently the only occupants of the place. As soon as it was evident that we were friends, however, two strapping sons made their appearance from a kopje behind the house, where the clatter of our horses' hoofs had caused them to take refuge. They informed us that they had followed the enemy's movements throughout the day, and that the line was so well guarded that our getting through was extremely unlikely. But we could sleep there that night, and the next morning we could see what was to be done.
During the evening the old father recounted, with much humour, his experience of Theron's merry band. How they had come there in the middle of the night, knocked him up, stabled their horses in his yard, asked for bread, brod, brood; eggs, eiers, ejers, in all the dialects under the sun, how they had actually plucked the oranges from his trees, until he was forced to ask Theron to station a guard in the orchard! But the next morning they had paid for everything, and ridden away, singing and shouting.
Nothing in the old gentleman's manner to show that the enemy were camped only four miles away, although he knew very well that they would visit him the next day, and probably deprive him sooner or later of all he possessed. Only down the face of his white-haired wife rolled silent tears as she gazed at the bearded faces of her stalwart sons and thought of the long farewell that they would bid her on the morrow!
When we rose the next morning we lost no time in making for the high, boulder-strewn kopje behind the house. Here we found the farmer's sons, armed, their horses at hand, gazing through a large telescope at the British camp, which could be plainly distinguished with the naked eye.
Presently a small party of scouts left the camp and came in our direction, riding slowly, and eyeing every little rise or depression in the ground with the utmost distrust. They reached a farmhouse lying between their camp and ourselves, and after a while we saw a cart leave the farm and drive towards the camp. Another Boer laying down his arms, beguiled by Buller's blarney! Then the scouts came nearer and nearer. When within a thousand yards or so they encountered a troop of mares grazing on the veld. Round and round these they rode, plainly intending to annex any that might suit them. My friends were strongly tempted to fire on these cattle thieves. Only the thought of their aged parents restrained them, for they well knew the result would be the burning down of their home.
It was plain that the scouts were making for this farm. We hurried down to the house, saddled our horses—mine still suffering and hardly able to go at a trot, and went to say good-bye to our hosts.
"Yes, my children," said the old lady, "it is better to go, for should the British find you here they would only treat us the worse for it. And we have sorrow enough, God knows. Come and see my son, my sick and suffering son, who perhaps will never rise from his bed again!"
She conducted us into a bed-chamber, where, pallid and worn, his wife seated by his side, lay the wreck of a once splendid specimen of manhood, now, alas! in the last stage of some wasting disease—the result of privations endured on commando. All that we could do was to speak a few weak but well-meant words of comfort to the afflicted family, and then leave them to their fate.
The sons promised to follow us later, as they wished to remain in the neighbourhood to see what became of their home. My friend and myself rode to another farm in the neighbourhood, undecided as yet whether to make the attempt to get through the enemy's lines or to turn back; crossing Roberts' lines of communication in the Free State was easy enough, but here we had Buller to deal with. Upon reaching this farm we found the occupants greatly excited. A Hottentot had just arrived from a farm already visited by the enemy, bearing Buller's proclamation, printed in Dutch and English, and promising protection, compensation, and I know not what all, to those who came in and surrendered. The entire household and several armed Boers from the vicinity gathered round the farmer. No one dared to read the proclamation aloud. It was handed from one to the other, shamefacedly, as if there were something vile in the very touch of the document.
I anxiously watched the varying expression of their features, as interest struggled with patriotism. Wearied of strife and fearful of losing the result of years of hard work, the assembled men felt a strong inclination to accept the enemy's offer. But no one dared give utterance to his feelings. Eye met eye, and glanced away. It was easy to see what the result would be. It was plainly my duty to protest, but what could I do, a stranger, a mere youth? What could I say to these men, who had already given proof of their devotion on many a bloody field, and who only recoiled now when brought face to face with the supreme test—the sacrifice of their hearths and homes? I ventured to point out, however, that those who had already surrendered now bitterly regretted it, and added that the very nature of the case made it impossible for the British to carry out their promises. They listened in silence. My words may have had some slight effect; in any case, the Hottentot was sent back without a definite reply. It was useless to expect any aid from these men. Leaving them to decide their own fate, we started back for the Free State.