"On Sunday we shall hold service in Potchefstroom," announced the commandant. Ah! Something definite at last! The men's hearts grow light as they polish their rifles, for are not they going to behold their dear ones soon? No one thinks of doubting the commandant's word; he is our leader, what he says must be true. How we shall get in none know, but get in we shall, all are sure of that. One morning my two comrades are sent to spy the town. My horse's unshod hoofs are tender as my lady's hands; I have searched the plains for a dead horse wearing shoes. Of all the carcasses I find the hoofs are gone, cut off by sharper comrades. I must remain behind. At night the order is given, "March!" Cheerfully the column trots out of camp; we who have no horses follow it with wistful eyes. There are girls in the town too, ah! such girls! Complexions a dream of purity, mystic, melting eyes, and hair a silken web to weave sweet fancies through.
At midnight my two friends return. What, the others gone already? And you still here! No, mount, saddle, hurry, sick or well, go we must, and come must you! And perhaps, after all, if we ride steadily, who knows? If my horse fails, why, we will loot another on the road.
We do not take the spoor, we slip across the veld; my mount treads gingerly, but what odds? After to-day he shall rest for a week!
We near the town. Everything is deathly quiet. Where is our commando? Cautiously we enter the streets, riding far apart, rifles ready. Halt! here comes a horseman. Don't fire, he is unarmed. Why, 'tis but a boy! Where's the enemy? Where's the foe, quick? What! Deserted the town? We look around and see a long string of Boers come speeding along about a mile behind. Hurrah, we are first in! We race into the market square, crowds of people, and halt at the Government Buildings. Up with the Vierkleur! Ah, the proud exultation of seeing our own flag once more float over the ancient capital! Women press around, young and old, beautiful alike in pure emotion of patriotic joy, eager to greet their war-worn men.
My sons, do they live? God be praised, they are here. The father fell at Belmont, but He has spared the sons!
And mine, I say, and mine; three they are, boys yet—what, no more? All I have—all I had gone for ever! Oh, Lord, uphold us! Welcome home, my boy. Your brother, is he well? Speak! Ah me! I loved him best; it is my punishment At last! my love, my husband! Happy day! Hush ... a hymn peals forth and wafts our thoughts to One above, a harmony of mingled joy and sadness. The last solemn notes die away, and we separate—joyous couples to make mirth together, sad widows to weep alone.
How strange to sit at a table once more, to hear again the melody of girlish voices! "Sweet are looks that ladies bend on whom their favours fall." Let us bask in the warmth of your smiles to-night; to-morrow the cheerless veld again!
Tales to boil the blood are told, barbarous brutality. Our commandant's daughter dragged before the provost-marshal. The gun found buried in your yard; your father's work? No, my own. You lie! Out you go—property confiscated, furniture sold; go seek the commandoes and ask them for shelter!
A widow, husband killed. Clear out, furniture confiscated! Why? Your sons are fighting; you are a rebel! I'll teach you to remember Major C———.
But in a skirmish Major C——— is killed; joy of the widowed and fatherless. Homage to our noble women, patient under persecution, steadfast in adversity, cheerfully sending forth their nearest and dearest to battle to the end!
On the morrow a sharp alarm note is sounded. An officer gallops from house to house. Quick! saddle and ride; meet at Frederikstad! Myself and a comrade are quickly speeding thither, our brief Valhalla over. On the road we overtake and pass parties of twos and threes, all on the same errand. At last we approach the rendezvous. Up the hill rides a dense body of cavalry; down near the station horsemen dash in and out, to and fro, like busy ants. On the hill a few footmen leisurely stroll about, rifle in hand. What means all this commotion? We pass a Kafir hut.
"Are those Boers or English, outa?"
"Yes, baas, it's our own people."
"Yes, look, that's the commandant ahead on his roan. Come along!" We near the horsemen. The last man dismounts as we approach; his companions are disappearing over the rise; he shifts his saddle forward, staring at us intently. A tall, well-built fellow, red hair, chin scrubby, dust-covered features. A bayonet at his side—by heavens! an Englishman!
"Frank, it's a khaki," I whisper, "keep straight on."
The soldier looks me in the face as we slowly pass him. I feel my cheeks burn and turn my head away. His gun stands in the bucket; we can shoot him, but then, the others? We wear top-boots and riding-breeches, hats pinned up at the side; he is in doubt—perhaps we are scouts just come in. He mounts his horse and rides after his comrades.
Now turn and away, over boulders and bushes for dear life! Suddenly a dozen scouts file down the hill, two hundred yards off. I wave my hat and beckon them to follow. They halt, perplexed. Then a few bullets whistle by, and we see the scouts come dashing after us. But the bushes are high and the boulders loose; we are down the hill now, over the flats and away! Down to the river—the bridge is destroyed! Never mind, through we go, and then turn round to smile at our pursuers.