There was a burial party going out to Spitz Kop early the next morning, and Major Pollock and I had leave to go with it. No one was armed, the ambulance being preceded by an orderly carrying the P.M.O.'s bath-towel. When we came near to the Boer pickets we rode on with the bath-towel, while the Red Cross flag waved over the ambulance; and had come quite close before we distinguished the two figures sitting amongst the large brown boulders of the hill.
They both spoke English and treated us with civility. They were both farmers from the neighbourhood of Boshof, and had a keen appetite for news of the town. We were soon deep in an examination of their weapons—one of them had a beautiful Mauser sporting rifle, hair-sighted, of which he was extremely proud; altogether we had quite a friendly chat. They gave us the best information they could as to the whereabouts of our dead and wounded, but it seemed that the Boer ambulance party had been out working all night, and had recovered nearly all the wounded as well as the bodies of two dead.
We went on behind the kopje into a level space surrounded by ridges, and as we advanced (the bath-towel well to the fore) mounted men began to appear from behind the ridges. First by twos and threes, then by sixes and dozens, from north and south and east and west the black figures came cantering towards us, until our little party was surrounded by, I suppose, three or four hundred mounted men. The babel of talk was deafening; everyone had something to say about the fight of yesterday; and in addition to that it was easily apparent that merely as Englishmen we were objects of absorbing interest to these pastoral Free Staters. I know that my tobacco-pouch was empty in about two minutes, and I presently fell into more particular conversation with the Boer doctor, who had been up all night attending to his own and our wounded. It was a rough-and-ready kind of first aid that he gave; a whisky-bottle filled with carbolic dressing hung from his saddle on one side, and on the other were rolls of lint and bandages; but I believe that the ambulance equipment in the laager was thoroughly complete. He told me of one of our men who had been wounded in the thigh, and had been seen late the night before crawling about on the ground; but when they had brought back a stretcher for him they had not been able to find him. The doctor thought he knew where he was likely to be, so I volunteered to go with him and search the place. The doctor and I, therefore, with one other Boer, rode away towards the west.
The wind was blowing strong from the west, choking down our voices as we tried to speak while we rode; and therefore we had no idea until some hours later of the excitement that was caused by our departure. It seemed that the Commandant, who had been engaged in conversation with our doctor, had ordered that no one should advance any farther into the Boer position, and that the empty ambulances must be sent on to receive the dead and wounded. Indeed we heard afterwards that the friendly outpost which we first encountered had got into very hot water for allowing us to pass. When I galloped off, therefore, I was unconsciously disobeying a very important order, and several of the Boers and our own party shouted after me that I must come back; but riding against a stiff breeze none of us could hear a word, and we were so soon out of sight and over the ridge that the Boers, with a shrug, left me to my fate. Pollock called the second in command (a Scotchman, I regret to say) to witness that I had not heard the order, and he promised to intercede on my behalf with the Commandant, who was a son of General Cronje of Paardeberg fame.
I had now better return to my own adventures. With my two companions I soon reached a rocky plateau, where the horses had to choose their steps carefully amongst the sharp stones, and searching thus for about an hour we had a long and interesting conversation. I remember asking one of them what his real feeling was about their chance of success.
"We shall win," he said, with that simple confidence, born of ignorance and self-trust, which is often a dangerous element in a force opposed to us. "Lord Roberts with all his army cannot leave Bloemfontein; we oppose him there. Your Lord Methuen cannot advance here; he has had to retire twice."
We knew that they would thus interpret Lord Roberts's delay and his contradictory orders to Lord Methuen, but it was rather galling not to be able to deny it.
"We have no dislike for the English," the man went on; and it was at least true of him and many of the Free Staters whom I met, although it was not true of all the Transvaalers. "You are brave soldiers and you fight well and we can respect you, but you are led astray by Joe Chamberlain." His face darkened when he uttered the name; I had a glimpse of a man hated by a nation.
"Rhodes, too," he said, but with less hatred and more contempt. "If we had caught him in Kimberley we should have killed him, but if we don't kill him——" and he named an alternative in which he clearly saw a Providence working on behalf of the wronged.
I asked him a little later what he thought of our generals and of whom he was most afraid? He was quite ready with an opinion.
"There is no difference," he said, with a lofty air, "it makes no difference to us; we take them as they come. First come first served." He was even impartial. "Your Lord Methuen has been blamed for Magersfontein, but the English do not know that we were as much surprised and scared as he was when his troops stumbled on us in the dark. It was a very near thing for us. We are not afraid of Kitchener of whom you talk so much. Roberts? Yes, he is a fairly good general, but alone we do not fear him. Roberts and Kitchener together are good; we do not like them. But alone we will take them on any day."
Although we talked for a long time I did not really learn much from these Boers, who represented the most unthinking class. Just as I had found the English colonists to conduct their arguments in a circle and constantly to bring forward the same old statements, so I found these Boers repeating the same assertions over and over again: that the Lord was on their side; that they must prevail in the end; that they could not trust us; that we had played them false; that we were really after their gold-fields; "if there had been no gold in South Africa there would have been no war." They spoke as men who repeated a lesson; yet I am bound to say that they spoke with sincerity, and although they seemed to speak parrot-wise, they probably accepted current forms of speech as giving the best expression to a deep and universal conviction.
We had been riding for nearly two hours, when one of my companions noticed marks on the ground evidently made by a man dragging himself along. We followed this spoor down the rocky slope where ferns and little shrubs divided the stones. It wound about, choosing the smoothest places, covering altogether a distance of about a mile; it led us at last to the shade of a mimosa bush, where the poor soldier had ended his duty and journey together.
There was nothing to be done now but to rejoin my party, and when I expressed a wish to do so the doctor said, "This will be your nearest way," pointing to a barrier range of low hills. They lay in the right direction, so I rode on for about a mile and a half, the two Boers still accompanying me, until we reached the top of the nearest hill. What was my surprise to see lying below me the smoke and waggons and picketed horses of the enemy's laager! The Boers, to the number of perhaps seven or eight hundred, were sitting or lying beneath trees that made a circle round the mile-wide basin. I glanced at the faces of my companions with some misgiving, but honesty was written there.
"I have no business to be here, you know," said I. "We shall all get into a row." They preceded me down the slope, and, with a presentiment that I should get out again, I slipped out my pocket compass and made a mental note of the bearings of the laager from Spitz Kop, the head of which was visible about six miles away. There was a small farmhouse which appeared to be used as headquarters; round this were twenty or thirty waggons piled with cases, but, so far as I could see, no forage or oats. There were either three or four guns; there were certainly four gun-carriages, but one of them may have been a limber. As we came into the basin a small, young-looking man, to whom I was introduced as the Commandant, met us.
"Please remain here," he said to me sharply; and as he led the doctor away, pouring forth a stream of Dutch, I gathered that my poor friend was getting into trouble. At last Cronje came back and addressed me, speaking English very imperfectly. This is the substance of what he said—
"You should never have been allowed to come here, and it is my duty to detain you as a prisoner."
I remonstrated. "I'm a non-combatant, sir."
"I cannot help that. You are here and you have seen this place, and I must send you to Pretoria, whence, if the authorities are satisfied that you are a genuine non-combatant, you may be sent to Delagoa Bay. It was very foolish of you to come here."
I explained that I had come in ignorance, not knowing where my guide would lead me; that I had come to look for a wounded man, and under the protection of a flag of truce; that the whole thing was an unfortunate accident, and that he should treat it as such.
Much to my surprise he seemed to waver. "If I were to let you go"—and he looked at me sideways—"would you undertake to give no information?"
I suggested that the question was an unfair one. "You know how you would answer it yourself, sir."
"Yes" (he was melting), "we are honourable also, and to our own side first of all. I have spoken of you with the doctor," he said, looking at me kindly for the first time, "and I shall let you go. By rights you ought to go to Pretoria. Of course your general may come and attack us here, and your information will be useful, but we are strong enough for all the English. Bring his horse," he shouted to someone standing by, and to me, "You may go. No, you may not!" he added sharply; and then, with a smile, "not until you have had a cup of coffee."
Upon this civility we parted, but it was not until I had rejoined my anxious friends with the ambulance that I began to suspect Commandant Cronje of a piece of pleasantry. Major Pollock, it appeared, had interceded on my behalf so effectually that my fate had been decided and my safe return promised long before I had met the Commandant. He afterwards entertained himself by playing upon my anxiety, which, I have no doubt, was apparent enough.
But now the ambulance was slowly returning from the place whither it had been sent to receive the dead bodies. A place for the grave was chosen where a thorn tree spread shadows on the ground. There were stony hills all round, encircling a wide and green basin just within the Boer lines, and it was beside one of these that the grave was dug. The ground was very hard and the labour severe; it was at least two hours before the fatigue-party, working in short shifts, had excavated a resting-place for the two bodies. While they were working the Boers gathered round us to the number of a couple of hundred. They were very silent, eyeing us with an absorbed interest that embraced every article of our equipment. Men of the humblest peasant class, poorly—in many respects wretchedly—clad, they presented, in their ragged and shabby apparel, a sharp contrast to our Yeomanry soldiers, who seemed, by comparison, trim and well cared for. The Boers wore their ordinary clothes, which were relieved by only one military touch—the bandolier. This was generally of home manufacture, and in many cases was a touching and significant document of affection. "Thought flies best when the hands are easily busy"; ah, how many thoughts and fears had been worked into those bandoliers when busy fingers wrought them in the far-away farmhouse! In some of them, I thought, portraits of the makers were to be discovered. Fancy stitches and cunning invention which provided for thrice the usual number of cartridges told one tale; flannel paddings which sought to make of the military appointment a winter garment told another. The Boers, I suppose, envied us our serge and whipcord, but to examine their homely makeshifts was to realise that even the art of Stohwasser may leave something to be desired. Although they eyed us diligently they had now fallen strangely silent; they offered us little conversation, but spoke freely in low tones amongst themselves; they replied to our questions with a brief civility that did not encourage any very brisk intercourse. We soon gave up the attempt and lay down under the shade of the ambulance in our sheltered hollow, listening to the wind singing in the thin vegetation of the hill above us.
The sound of picks ceased at last, and an orderly came to report that the grave was ready. The stretchers were withdrawn from the ambulance and exposed two bodies stained with soil and blood—one shot through the lungs, another through the head; neither of them remarkable for the dignity that death is supposed to lend to the meanest features, both looking strangely small and almost grotesque in their crumpled postures: two troopers of the Yeomanry, known (as it happened) to not one man of the crowd; and now emerging, before they reached a final obscurity, to be for a moment a mark for all our thoughts and eyes. They were laid beside the grave; the Boers ranked themselves upon one side, we upon the other; the doctor opened his book and, shyly enough, began the service. A bird flew twittering and perched on the thorn above us, making the office choral.
You are to remember that there were present to us just the simplest facts of life. Hills and the naked sun, great winds and death—before these we may cease to make believe; they tune and temper us to accordance with pulses which, if only we are honest, will give us back multiplied our own faintest vibration. Honesty is easy when we can forget ourselves; and here, where the wind seemed to pluck the words from the reader's mouth and carry them to the hills that matched them in grandeur, they cut the last link between us and our selfish thoughts and fears, imparting a sense of world-without-end, making us one with our feathered clerk who, his red-brown wings folded, wove a thread of song into the Psalm. In that texture of admonition and prayer are many seizing pictures: man walking in a vain shadow and disquieting himself in vain, heaping up riches, ignorant who shall gather them: man turned to destruction: our secret sins set in the light of one countenance: a displeasure in which we consume away: a wrathful indignation that can make all our busy years as a tale that is told. The first thought in each of us had been, "There, but for the grace of God, I lie"; but the bird's song seemed so to chase away all shadows of self-pity that Death appeared in his natural order with the wind and rain and sun; no more unkind than they.
At a signal the bodies were placed in the earth. No hateful furniture; clay against clay: they seemed almost to nestle in it. A trooper covered one face with his handkerchief, his comrade shielded the other with a branch of mimosa; and while the words flowed to an end we stood, Dutchmen and Englishmen, our small quarrel for the moment forgotten, face to face with clear truth and knowing for once the taste of sincerity. It was a good prayer to pray, that at our own last hour we should not fall from that charity for any pains of death.
It seemed a natural thing for us to shake hands with the Boers before we turned to resume this game of hostility in which we stumbled upon such great issues. It was a silent ride home, and I need not say that it went sore against the grain with me to make my report to Lord Methuen and the Intelligence Department respecting the position of the laager. My thoughts were not upon compass bearings and distances, but in the sun-steeped basin where the grave was; and all day long I had a picture in my mind of two groups of men united in one human emotion, but now seeking each others' lives. At night, long after the camp slept, I lay awake with the echo of the graveside "last post" ringing in my ears, and, because of the appetite for effect that afflicts us in weak moments, I was teased and worried by a sense of incompleteness. In a military camp, after "last post" and "lights out" have been sounded, no bugle save that which sounds an alarm may be blown until the hour of reveille. The soldiers under the hill had been trumpeted to their last sleep; in a few hours I should hear the morning call: why should they never hear it again? Suddenly my irrational complaint was silenced as certain words of Saint Paul to the Corinthians reverberated in my mind. After all, it was well; one night was but a little longer than the other; and, those words being true, my troopers should wake to a familiar sound.