When at last the Kinfauns Castle carried us on a sunny evening out of blue emptiness into Cape Town harbour and dumped us down on dry land, about thirty of us who were on our way to the front took elaborate farewells—only to meet again twelve hours later in the vestibule at headquarters.
No one was in the least excited by our arrival. If we were special service men, we were told that there were no instructions for us, and that we had better turn up three or four times a day and look at the order-board. If we were correspondents, heads were shaken, and smooth-spoken people with stars and crowns on their shoulder-straps said they doubted very much whether Lord Roberts would grant any more passes. If we were nobodies who had come out (with more or less direct encouragement from the officials) in the hope of getting commissions, we were turned away like tramps, and told that there was "nothing for us." It was all rather flattening and dispiriting.
When we turned up again at headquarters next morning we found the place empty but for a Kaffir charwoman snuffling over her brushes: Lord Roberts gone, Lord Kitchener gone, all the staff gone, stolen away like thieves in the night, gone "to the front." No one was left in authority, no one knew anything about us; so we went to the barracks and worried irresponsible officers who would have moved heaven and earth for us if they could, but they "had no instructions." At last, in a remote corner of the barrack buildings, someone discovered a major who was in charge of the Intelligence Department. Didn't we all fall upon him like birds of prey! In half an hour the telegraph that connected Cape Town with the Commander-in-Chief was thrilling all our wants northward; in six hours half the special service men were flying about the town collecting sardines and whisky and ink; in twenty-four hours only a few of us were left, still worrying the unfortunate major. Then the wires began to come back from Lord Roberts saying that no licence must be granted to this man and that; that there were more than enough correspondents at the front; and at this news some of us began to quake. At this critical point, when I was wandering in the corridor of the post office, I found the Press Censor, all alone and unguarded; so I fastened upon him and drove him, the kindest and most amiable of men, into his office, and stood over him while he wrote a long telegram to the chief, in which many reasons were given why I should go to the front. The result was that I received the desired privilege, but when I left Cape Town many men were still haunting the barracks and the post office.
My week of waiting was a busy time, but in the intervals between sitting down before staff officers, interviewing possible—and impossible—servants, and trying horses, I contrived to see a little of the Cape Town life in those martial days.
One seemed to be no nearer the war there than in London or Manchester. Troops marched to the station and disappeared into the night; so they did at home. There were hospitals there, filled with wounded men; none so large or so full as Netley. There was a big camp there; not so big a camp as Aldershot. And the place was full of officers, coming and going, even as Southampton had been crowded with officers pausing on their way to or from the war. Then there was at Cape Town something like a famine of news; by far the latest and most trustworthy came from London. Things that thrilled us out there and were cabled home in hot haste were found to be stale news in England. As the storm blows over the cliff far out to sea, but leaves the hamlet on the shore in absolute peace, so Cape Town seemed to be sheltered by the big, dominating mountain from all the home-going news, and to abide in peaceful ignorance while the telegraph-rooms resounded to the talk of the needles.
I rather dreaded the hospitals, but they were magnificent. To see so many men bearing pain bravely and cheerfully were privilege enough; but to find men who had undergone the most dreadful tortures soberly begging and hoping to be sent back to the front showed one what can be accomplished by discipline and an ideal of conduct. Here is an example. Two men lay side by side in the Wynberg hospital. One had five holes in his body, made during a charge by as many bullets. He had nearly recovered. The other had been shot while lying down, and the bullet had passed along his back and touched the base of his spine, paralysing him for ever. Both men were almost weeping; the first with joy because there was a chance of his returning to the front, the second with grief because he was powerless to help his comrades any more. I could cite a hundred examples of the astounding spirit that such men displayed. I do not think that we at home ever doubted their bravery on the field, but the kind of endurance that is seldom bred but by long habit and early training was to be found no less universally in these hospital beds. The people of Cape Town had done well in the matter of hospitals, and fully half the accommodation was provided by public subscription. But Government hospitals were far from efficient in their equipment, as well as far from sufficient in their accommodation. Many things that would be regarded as necessaries in a pauper hospital at home had to be provided at Cape Town for the Government hospitals by private bounty.
I walked over to the infantry camp at Sea Point one morning with Mr. Rudyard Kipling. As we neared the camp we overtook a private carrying in his hand a large pair of boots. Mr. Rudyard Kipling asked if we were on the right road, and the man said—
"Yes; are yer goin' there? Then yer can tike these boots. I 'av to entrine at twelve o'clock, and I ain't goin' ter miss it fer no blessed boots. 'Ere, tike 'old," he continued, thrusting the boots into Mr. Kipling's hand, "and give 'em to Private Dickson, B Company; and mind, if yer cawn't find 'im, jest tike 'em back ter Williams, opposite the White 'Orse."
Mr. Kipling promised faithfully, and gave a receipt, which he signed; but the man did not notice the name.
"My friend," said Mr. Kipling, "you'll get your head chaffed off when you get back to the guard-room."
"What for?" vainly asked the man, and departed, while we continued our way towards the camp.
No sooner were we inside the railings than Mr. Kipling was accosted by a military policeman.
"What are you doing here? You must get out of here, you know, sharp!"
"I'm taking these boots to Private Dickson," said Mr. Kipling.
"Well, you ought to take them to the guard tent, and not go wandering about the camp like this. Out of it, now!"
Now Mr. Kipling had a pass from the Commander-in-Chief to go wherever he pleased in South Africa, and, besides that, he is Rudyard Kipling, whom private soldiers call their brother and father; so the situation was amusing.
Just then a police sergeant rode up and said, "Please, sir, I lived ten years with the man as you get your tobacco from in Brighton; anything I can do for you?"
"Yes," said Mr. Kipling, "I want this man taken away and killed!"
The youth was much confused, but he had done his duty; so Private Dickson had his boots, and great was the mirth and loud the cheering about the tents of B Company.
This police protection of the camps was surprisingly close, but one learned the reason when one had moved about for a little while among the military authorities. For here, even in the heart of British territory, the Boer spy was feared; he was thought to be the servant of an agency hardly less invisible and powerful than the Open Eye of the Mormons; and one was told that his machinations were as patent as his secrecy was perfect. One morning a section of the railings surrounding picketed horses would be found demolished; on another the whole milk supply of a camp would be infected by some poisonous bacillus. It seems almost incredible, but it is true that all such mishaps were attributed to Boer treachery. In the popular imagination the Boer agent moved undiscovered amid the daily life of Cape Town; at noon in the busy street; in the club smoke-room; in the hotel dining-room—a woman this time, arrayed in frocks from Paris, and keeping a table charmed by her conversation. And yet the objects of this superstitious dread were allowed to have qualities that made some of our officers dislike their business. An English officer said to me one night:
"One can't say it here without being misunderstood, but I love the Boers, even though I am fighting them. My father was a colonist, and these men were like brothers of his. I have been in houses here where I knew there were guns stored for the enemy, and where the sons would probably be fighting me in the field, and the people have almost cried when I have been going away; neither of us talked about it, but each knew what was in the other's mind. People say they're like animals, and perhaps they are; at least they're like animals in this, that once you make them distrust you, you'll never win their confidence again. And they don't trust us."
That officer is well enough known, and universally admired as a smart soldier; but not everyone who sees the keen soldier, anxious above all things for his own country's success, realises with what conflicting emotions he goes to the fight.
I was anxious to see a real live Boer, as I thought it quite improbable that I should see one at the front; half the officers and men who had been wounded had never seen one of the enemy. So, having heard that our Boer prisoners—450 in number—had been landed from Her Majesty's ship Penelope and encamped at Simonstown, I went there to visit them.
From Cape Town the land stretches an arm southward to the Cape of Good Hope and Bellows Rock, where it divides the Atlantic from the Indian Ocean. The mainland runs about as far southward, so that the arm partly encloses the waters of False Bay; and in the hollow of its elbow nestles Simonstown. This is a cluster of white houses on the sea-beat foot of a hill that sweeps upward to the giddy white clouds. All day long at that season the hill is steeped in sunshine; all day long its lower slopes reverberate to the assault of the rollers while the summit is folded in the silence of the upper air. Close in-shore half a dozen cruisers were lying like rocks among the deep moving waters; the St. George's ensign floated from the shore flagstaffs, and an air of whiteness and tidiness proclaimed the naval station.
The railway from Cape Town runs so close to the shore of the bay that you cannot hear yourself speak for the noise of bursting surf. It brought me to Simonstown in the full glare and heat of the afternoon. The prisoners were encamped about a hundred yards out of the town, and as we walked through the street we spoke with pity of men imprisoned on such a day. What we expected I do not quite know—dungeons perhaps, or cells hewn out of the rock—but it was with something like a shock of disappointment or relief (according to our notions of appropriate treatment for prisoners) that we caught our first view of the encampment. Just beyond the town the hillside takes a gentler slope, dipping a lawn of sea-grass into the water; and it was upon this charming spot, enclosed with a double fence, that the prisoners were quartered. We pressed our faces against the wires and stared, much as one stares in the Zoo at a cageful of newly-arrived animals that have cost a great deal of money and maybe a life or two. Fine, big men, stalwart and burned brown by the sun; stern-looking, but with that air of large contentment they wear who live much alone and out of doors; massive of jaw and forehead, moulded after a grand pattern. They were lying on the grass, standing in little groups, sauntering up and down in the hot sunshine, playing cricket with ponderous energy, bathing and sporting in the clear apple-green water. It was not their contentment that surprised me, but the perfection of their circumstances. They were encamped on such a spot as people pay large sums for the privilege of pitching tents upon; they were numerous enough to make themselves independent of alien company; the sun was shining, the sea breeze blowing; they had food and drink, and tobacco to smoke; where they bathed an eight-oar gig from the Powerful swung on the swell, not so much to prevent escape as to render assistance to tired swimmers.
So our prisoners blinked in the sun and listened to the organ-note of the surf, and brooded on the most beautiful picture I have ever seen: masses of bare rock towering into the bright sky, and an endless pageant of seas rolling grandly homeward from the south, from the infinite purple and blue of the Indian Ocean, grounding at the edge of the green lawn and showering snow upon the hot rocks.