With its independence, handed over amid the imposing circumstance of arms, Bloemfontein lost something of its charm. The noise and dust and commotion of the army did violence to its pastoral quietness, and the pretty shops put up their shutters at midday as though in maidenly horror at the eagerness of crowds of soldiers running amuck like children with their Saturday pennies. I entered the town early enough to see what its normal condition must be, and there was something rude and unkind in the din of the multitude breaking on this quiet place where the bees sang loud in the streets, and the midday idler slumbered upon the doorstep.
To be sure, one had opportunity for studying the soldier in a new setting, but the study is one that requires time; the average Tommy is an oyster to strangers. He varies to the tune and colour of his surroundings; on the veldt, where hardness is to be endured, he is the "good soldier," the patient, strong man; under fire he is a fierce creature, still obedient to his habit of discipline, but hot for combat; in the town, with money in his pocket, he is a little child. Indeed, after weeks of absence from places where money is of value we all share in this rejuvenation, and if you had been in Bloemfontein on any one of these fine days you would have seen men of every age and rank, from generals to trumpeters, wandering about the streets, agape at the shop windows, chinking their money in their pockets, and buying things for which they had no kind of use.
The British officer afield is a very different creature from the gilded ornament of an English mess. His face is scorched and peeled, he is generally (unless he be a staff officer) very ill-clad; he has a ragged beard; he esteems golden syrup the greatest luxury on earth; he ceases to be ashamed of originality in thought or expression; he altogether fails to disguise what a good fellow he is. But in a very short time the neighbourhood of a club, the possibility of a bath, the presence of barbers and tailors, by a mysterious and marvellous working, reverse his development, and the little graces which endear him to society at home begin to reappear. So long as the sole of his boot was tied to the uppers by a piece of string, he could not look you in the face with any pretending; but when the cobbler has done his office, and the tailor has sewn up the rent breeches, the spell is broken.
We "occupied" Bloemfontein so completely that, after the first few days, I was glad to take the road again. We occupied the club, we occupied the shops and hotels, we occupied even the homes of the simple townspeople; and we occupied the streets, so that all day the town resounded to the din of tramping feet. When one has slept for a month under the stars, sheets and a roof are stifling; so as the railway was not yet open, Major Pollock (of The Times) and I decided to go to Kimberley by road, assured that the moral effect of the proclamation would keep us out of danger from the Queen's enemies.
Our little caravan set forth by moonlight, taking the road travelled by the left-hand column of the three parallel columns that had advanced on Bloemfontein, and somewhat to the north of that taken by Lord Roberts and the central column, with which we had gone in. The journey itself was uneventful enough, full of the little interests and anxieties and pleasures of the road, full of joy for the travellers, but without serious interest to anyone else. There was just enough risk of encountering a commando to give the necessary spice of adventure; two despatch-riders—not mine, by the good fortune of half a mile—had been captured the day before, and we kept a bright look-out. But by the time we came across them the commandos were forlornly  dispersing. For the rest, there was the unending charm of the climate and the place; the gorgeous evenings, when sunset and moonrise encircled the horizon in a flame of gold and silver; the spring-cold mornings, with the veldt glowing from violet to purple and crimson; the noonday rest in some deserted farm garden; the bed at nightfall, with the sound of horses munching their corn for a lullaby—all the circumstances of simple travel accomplished by the means that nature has provided. After having been for so long in the company of 30,000 men we found the loneliness and quietness refreshing, and we passed almost unnoticed through the birds and beasts and flowers. We swam once more in the muddy Modder, now quite an old friend. The track of the army was marked for us in two ways—one ludicrous, the other tragic; both unmistakable. For all along the way bright tin biscuit canisters of the Army Service Corps shone like diamonds in the sun; and all along the way, at intervals, tired and sick old cavalry horses stood by the roadside, each surrounded by a crowd of foul aasvögels, the vultures of South Africa, waiting.
The chief party of Boers which we encountered was at Abraham's Kraal. While we were breakfasting about two dozen of them cantered up, of whom about six were armed. If I had qualms, I hope I did not show them when I said "Good-morning." I fell into conversation with one of the Boers, and mentioned incidentally that, from their point of view, the game was up, and that I supposed he knew that anyone who interfered with peaceful Englishmen would be hanged. He was a sulky fellow, but he took my word for it, and presently we began to talk. These Boers were in low spirits about the war, and spoke of it without enthusiasm or hope. Most of them were Transvaalers, and two spoke with an unmistakable Glasgow accent, but on the whole they were gruff and uncommunicative, and, as they cast envious eyes from their own sorry nags to our well-conditioned mounts, I was glad to wish them good-day. They had come to bury the dead from the Dreifontein fight, and from what they told me of the still unburied Boers both there and at Paardeberg, I gathered that their casualties all along the line had been heavier than we had thought.
I have said that the neighbourhood of the Boers made our journey exciting, and there was one point at which the excitement became very nearly painful. We had made a long stage one day, and at about sundown arrived at the Modder, which we intended to cross at a drift near Koodoesrand. This was the dangerous neighbourhood, and we were anxious to push on and cross the river before encamping for the night. The banks of the Modder at this drift are about forty feet high and almost precipitous, the path down to the drift being little better than a track worn at a long diagonal down the bank. It was steep enough going down, but when we had crossed the shallow river and begun the ascent of the other bank we found the track very soft and almost perpendicular. By fetching a compass and putting the horses to it at a great pace the two Cape carts managed to reach the top, but a four-wheeled American waggon stuck fast at the bottom and could not be moved. At that moment the last of the daylight ebbed, and darkness began to quench the sunset embers.
We tried unhitching the teams from the Cape carts and hitching them to the waggon, but we only succeeded in breaking harness. It was after the second attempt, when we were all standing hot and angry after our unavailing exertion of whip-cracking and shouting, that we suddenly saw a light shine out from the edge of a low kopje about two miles in front of us. One of us lost his head, and by speaking his fears communicated the malady.
"There are the Boers," he said, "and if they haven't heard us yelling they must have seen the light from our lanterns. The sooner we get out of this the better."
There was nothing for it but to unload the waggon and carry the contents up by hand, and this we did in an agony of excitement, staggering and sweating up the steep path with portmanteaus, beds, valises, cases of tinned provisions, kettles, bottles, saucepans, bags of harness, oats, and guns. The empty waggon was easily drawn up to the top, and then we must reload it again with a burden which seemed to have swollen enormously since it was unpacked. We were working so frantically that we had not even time to look at the kopje, but when at length I glanced at it I saw that a strange thing had happened.
The light was now suspended about thirty feet above the hill.
Had they a balloon? Major Pollock and I gazed blankly for more than a minute at that mysterious shining, which seemed to rise higher and higher. More than a minute: just so long did it take us to remember that Orion rises low in the west!
Now for what will remain with me as the crowning impression of this journey. The road we took led through a fairly fertile country, and that in the Free State means that there generally was grass instead of karoo. There were many farms; we probably passed twenty in the course of ninety miles. Each of those farms I visited, and at each stood aghast at the ruin that had been wrought. Signs of looting one expected—the looting of food-stuffs and livestock and necessaries; that, after all, is but a kind of self-defence, and I suppose it is allowable to live upon an enemy when one invades his land. But the destruction that had here taken place was wanton and savage. One seemed to travel in the footsteps of some fiend who had left his mark upon every home, destroying the things that were probably most prized by the owners, and destroying with a devilish ingenuity that had saved him all unnecessary labour. For example, in one little farmhouse I found a flimsy, showy, London bedroom suite that was clearly the pride of the establishment, with its wardrobe and full-length mirror. The destroyer had smashed just what could not be mended—the mirror and the marble top of the washstand. In another cottage I found an old clock that had ticked, most likely, for years on end in the quietness of the little home; its hands were torn off, and its works strewn upon the floor. In every house the little bits of rubbish that adorn the homes of the poor were destroyed or disfigured; in all were the same signs of violation, the same marks of the beast.
It has always seemed to me that a little farm in a lonely country contains more than anything else the atmosphere of a home. It is self-centred; there you see all the little shifts and contrivances which result from the forced supplying of wants that cannot be satisfied from outside. And when such a homestead is deserted, I think the atmosphere is only the more pronounced; the disused implements find voices in the silence and cry aloud for their absent owners. But when all that is personal and human in such a place is ruined, the pathos turns to tragedy. One farm I found absolutely gutted save for a great and old Bible which stood upon a table in the largest room. It was a beautiful folio, full of quaint plates and fine old printing, and bound in a rich leather that time and the sun had tanned to an autumn gold. While I was regarding it the breeze came through the window and stirred the yellow leaves, exposing a pencil-marked verse in the most pastoral of psalms: "Hy doert my nederliggen in grasige wenden; Hy doert my sachtkens aen seer stille wateren." There was something impressive in the accident: the old book stoutly reminding the chance passer-by that present evil cannot affect the ultimate good, promising amid rude circumstances a time of quietness. He was an old man who owned that book; his name and age were marked upon the leaf; I think, to judge by the signs of handling, that he had the heart of its contents; and I hope that whatever his bodily circumstances, his soul retained some of the peace of the "grasige wenden."
Who is responsible for all this mischief it is hard to say. I am sure that the English soldiers, thoughtless though they may be, would not stoop to this sort of purposeless outrage. I do not like to accuse the colonial troops as a whole either, although I suspect that some of them, some whose own homes had been destroyed by the enemy, might conceivably have taken vengeance in kind. It is thought by many whose opinion is valuable that the Kaffirs were here, as in Natal, responsible for much of the damage; and that is a view which one would willingly take, for it would acquit English-speaking troops of a miserable suspicion. Perhaps the thing is well-nigh inevitable, for I know what pains Lord Roberts took to prevent it; and it may be as well that we should recognise it as one of the realities of war. For myself, the horrors of actual fighting did not touch me half so nearly; I have seen men killed close to me and been less shocked than I was by these domestic outrages. To die, for the one who dies, is nothing; it affects him not at all; he is absent. But here was not death, but outrage on the foundations of civilised life; outrage upon living people, who suffer and remember.
 For the time being.