It was no easy matter to pass through the British forces that lay massed around the mountain-chain. We were two thousand horsemen, and our vehicles, carts, ox-and mule-waggons formed a procession fully six miles long. When we trekked out of the nek strict orders were given that there was to be no loud talking and no matches struck. This latter was especially hard on such a crowd of inveterate smokers. I remember whilst we were riding mutely along, listening to the creaking and jolting of the waggons, and wondering whether we were going to get through, or what the alternative would be if we did not, we suddenly saw someone deliberately strike a match and light his pipe.
"Who struck that match?" came from the front. Then the delinquent himself spoke up—
"It's this confounded Kafir of mine. Was it you, Jantje?"
"Yes, baas," responded the dutiful black, bobbing up and down on his master's spare horse.
"Give him twenty with the sjambok."
"Right!" Jantje and his master turned out of the road, and soon the unmistakable thwack! thwack! of the sjambok could be heard, mingled with subdued ejaculations in Kafir and Dutch. But judging by the expression on Jantje's features by the camp fire that night, as he blew long fragrant clouds into the gaping nostrils of his envious friends, I have my doubts about that thrashing.
We halted frequently to allow the straggling ox-waggons to close up. Then we would dismount, stamp our chilly feet, draw our overcoats or blankets closer, and discuss trivialities. During one of these halts a horseman came dashing up from the rear—
"General, there's a doctor behind who has just come through the enemy's lines. He asks you to wait for him."
"Tell him to hurry!"
We sat down and waited. In about half an hour's time another horseman came hurrying along. Here at last! No. Only another messenger. Another long wait, and finally the doctor arrived. He squatted down next to De Wet, and in a low voice related how he had been unjustly captured by the British some weeks ago, how they had sent him to Johannesburg and kept him in prison until now, only liberating him after repeated requests for a hearing. His tale was listened to in silence and with deep attention. When it was told the order was given to mount, and on we trekked again past the sleeping British camp. Presently the moon rose, and by its light we passed a lonely farmhouse. Beware its slumbering inmates when the British come along to-morrow, for are not they responsible for the telegraph line which runs across the farm, and which we have cut in half a dozen places! No doubt the house will be burnt, and all the stock confiscated. But never mind, the owner has surrendered and is living under British protection—protection whereof he is going to get a taste now, so why should we pity him? On we go until long past midnight, when we halt in a secluded little valley. Our horses greedily swallow the icy water, and then eagerly crop the tasteless dry grass, for our waggons are too far behind, we can give them no mealies to-night.
The next morning a cloud of dust in our rear showed that we were being pursued. Whilst we were hastily inspanning and upsaddling, Theron came in from the right, bringing with him a captured Hussar. One old Boer, who had his little boy with him, brought the youngster up to the soldier and said—
"Now, sonny, you've never seen an Englishman. Here is one. Look at him well; you must shoot lots of them yet."
"Go away," said one of the Boers, "what do you mean by staring at the man like that? Don't you know any better than to insult a helpless prisoner?"
"I'm sorry," said the old man, turning away, "I don't want to hurt his feelings; I only wanted to show my son the game he must track one day."
The little boy cried when they led him away, saying—
"I 'ants my 'ickle khaki, I 'ants my tame Englishman!"
"Don't cry," said the old man, "father will catch you some to-morrow."
The little fellow's eyes brightened with anticipation, and his tears gave way to smiles. Sure enough his father came into camp a few days later driving before him two diminutive steeds bending beneath the weight of two corpulent khakis. He called his son and said—
"Now, sonny, here are the soldiers I promised you."
The little fellow looked them over carefully. Then his lower lip began to pout, and tears rolled down his cheeks.
"What's the matter, my son," asked the astonished father, "doesn't he like his khakis?"
"No, daddy," replied the little chap, striving with his tears.
"Why not, my lad?"
Then the child's restraint gave way, and he burst out—
"Oh, daddy, they're not—sob—real—sob—soldiers at all!"
They were two of the C.I.V.
But to return. As soon as the waggons were ready they were sent on along the winding valley, whilst the horsemen and artillery took up a position on a neighbouring hill and awaited the British attack. This took the form of continuous shelling until sundown. As soon as darkness fell the horsemen took a short cut and rejoined the waggons, which in the meantime had gained a considerable start. President Steyn and his secretary accompanied De Wet during the day and had a taste of the enemy's shell-fire. When we asked the secretary that evening how he had liked the ordeal he said he could hardly describe his feelings whilst it lasted, but when the shelling ceased it was the heavenliest sensation of his life. So if you want a heavenly sensation you know now how to get it.
We had an ambulance staff with us, but were sometimes obliged to leave our wounded behind, because we knew very well the enemy would be only too glad to get hold of our doctors and deprive us of all medical help.
On crossing the railway near Honingspruit we captured a train. From the newspapers taken out of the mail-bags we learnt that we were being closely pressed, and that hopes were entertained of our speedy capture. We did not grudge the papers the pleasures of hope; what we objected to was their crocodile tears over us poor misguided, ignorant burghers, who were too stupid to see the beauty of becoming exultant British subjects, like the Irish. We also learnt that Steyn was ill, that he was hiding on a farm near Heilbron, that he was a prisoner in De Wet's camp, that his mind had given way, that he wouldn't let De Wet surrender, that De Wet wouldn't let the burghers surrender, that the burghers wouldn't let Steyn surrender, ad fin. ad nauseam.
As we had a distinct object in view, i.e. to bring Steyn to Kruger, we generally preferred to avoid unnecessary engagements. But we could show our teeth when we liked. We were laagered near Vredefort one day when the pursuers made a sudden dash forward, coming within a mile or so before they were observed. On this occasion there was no hasty flight. The cattle continued peacefully grazing around the waggons, whilst the horsemen went to meet the enemy. There was a brief exchange of shells, and then our men charged with such good effect that the British were forced to retire. They followed us at a more respectful distance after that.
De Wet kept his plans so secret that very few knew for certain whither we were bound. The President called me into his tent one morning and asked me a few questions about the roads near Balmoral, where the Transvaal Government was at that time. I happened to have a map with me, and so was able to supply the desired information. He then told me to take a couple of heliographists and try to get into communication with one of the Transvaal commandoes near Potchefstroom.
We climbed one of the numerous hills lying around and called up towards Potchefstroom, but got no reply. As we sat chatting, keeping our eyes fixed on the dark ridges in the distance, one of my companions remarked—
"This reminds me of a fine trick I played on the English a few months ago. We were trekking along quietly one day when I observed a heliograph glitter on a hill about ten miles away. I at once fixed my instrument, and soon learnt that it was a British helio post. I sent him a heliogram saying that we were a small party of British in danger of capture, and asking that an escort should be sent to bring us in. The next day the escort walked into our arms! We took the rifles and let the prisoners go—about a hundred men. The next day the British heliographist called me up again and reproached me for telling him such a deliberate lie!"
"And what did you reply?"
"Oh, I said, 'g.t.l.'; you know what that means!"
Espying a pretty little cottage in the valley below, I rode thither to try and buy a loaf of bread, leaving the others to continue calling. On the way down I noticed a telegraph wire running in the direction of Potchefstroom. In the farmhouse were only two young girls, the elder a charming golden-haired fairy with tender eyes of cornflower blue. And her smile!—it was enough to make one say all kinds of silly things just for the pleasure of seeing her ripe lips part, revealing her wholesome, even little teeth! No wonder I delayed my departure! I left at last, however—not without the loaf of bread—and made for the camp. I had not gone far before I met one of the burghers, who told me Steyn and De Wet had gone up to the helio post a little while before. What would they say when they found me absent from my post! I approached the camp in anything but an enviable mood, and was just off-saddling when the two leaders returned. Like a flash the thought came to me of the telegraph line I had seen.
"President," I said eagerly, before he could speak, "there's a telegraph line near here. Shan't I go and try to tap it?"
He looked at me very seriously for a moment, and then replied, a smile breaking through the frown, "Yes, go on, you should have been there already." Saved again! I went, but needless to say, if I heard any secrets that evening it was not through the medium of a telegraph wire!