After a hard and anxious week, Sunday was indeed a day of rest. We enjoyed it because we felt instinctively that an enemy who sincerely believed that Providence was necessarily on his side, would leave us unmolested on the Sabbath. We were therefore justified in feeling a sense of immunity from stray shells and bullets. We enjoyed the day, too, because it gave us time and opportunity to look about us; to make a general inspection; and to pronounce the arrangements for the city's defence satisfactory. The volunteer forces had assumed gratifying proportions, and their eyes were all "right." Walls and buildings on the outskirts of the town, which might serve as a cover for the invader—in the improbable event of his drawing so near—or that might stand within the zone of our gun-fire, had been ruthlessly levelled to the ground. A high barbed wire fence surrounded the various camps, and the vigilant piquet had orders to shoot down anybody who attempted to cross it. Every imaginable precaution had been taken to hold the fort at all costs. The rumour-monger had formally made his debut, and was busy drawing upon the reservoirs of his excellent imagination, and disseminating information gathered from a mystic source known only to himself. He knew the exact day and hour of the entrance into Kimberley of the British troops; he could detail their plans to the letter, and a lot more than anybody else (including the British troops) concerning them. The rumour-monger became a character, a siege character, an adventitious celebrity, destined to receive attention from a facetious press and the tongues of men. So the day passed, with plenty to encourage, plenty to talk and laugh about, plenty to predict about, plenty to see and hear, and as yet, thank goodness, plenty to eat and drink.
Early on Monday morning, a mounted detachment, accompanied by the armoured train and two hundred men of the Lancashire Regiment, went forth to reconnoitre. The procession was an imposing one; at least the Boers encamped at Scholtz's Nek appeared to think so; they made no attempt to interfere with it, and thus debarred the procession from interfering with them.
But meanwhile domestic concerns were getting serious, and absorbing the minds of the people. The grocers of Kimberley are a respectable and, in the aggregate, a public-spirited body of citizens; they are men of substance; most honourable; most humane, too; and, as events were to show, most human. With fine foresight they detected in the conflagration of patriotism which consumed the consumer, a chance of bettering themselves. Having a constitutional right to do it, they took this tide in their affairs at what they (rather hastily) conceived to be its flood. Actuated by motives of the new ("enlightened") self-interest, they had proceeded to run up the prices of their goods by nice and easy gradations of from ten to twenty, thence to fifty, and were well on their way to a hundred, per cent., when a thunderbolt, an unexpected projectile, smashed the ring. It was a pity, in a way, for the process of welding the ring, so to speak, had been carried out with admirable skill. Rich folk, whose balances at the bank ran into six, and seven, figures, had commenced operations; they were buying up supplies of all and sundry, and hanging the expense. People with a thousand or two were nowhere in the aristocratic rush, and they waxed indignant; they could buy a quantity of provisions, to be sure; but semi-millionaires could buy so much more—a shop or two, perchance. Thus it was that the "comfortable classes" deemed it their duty to protest. And right royally did the common people, who had only the sweat of their brows, join in the protest. The public, in fine, were thoroughly roused, and denounced in unmeasured terms the conduct and the "enterprise" of the grocers. The women were much alarmed; they collected together in wrathful groups to enquire where the matter was to end, and with peculiar unanimity, not to say satisfaction, to prophesy a revolution. This bound in the cost of living brought us nearer to a state of panic than ever did the sharp practice of the Boer artillery. The Colonel heard of it—what did he not hear? Deputations waited on him; his intervention was solicited; he agreed to intervene. And then came a splendid exhibition of the autocracy of Martial Law. We had not yet seen all that it could do (far from it!), and it was a pleasure, in the circumstances, to see the Colonel put his foot down, since the step was highly approved and ratified by the people.
Forth from Lennox Street, accordingly, another popular proclamation was launched, A whole page of our local newspaper was commandeered for its insertion. By virtue of the powers reposed in him, Colonel Kekewich fixed the prices to be charged for "necessaries," such as tea, sugar, coffee, meat (the butchers also had been brushing up their Shakespeare). Goods were to be sold practically at ordinary rates; and if any storekeeper charged more, or affected to be "sold out" of this, that, or the other, the Colonel was to be told, and he would talk to the storekeeper. There followed, of course, a grand slump. The combination of the "upper" and "lower" middle-classes was irresistible. The Commanding-Officer's prompt action was highly esteemed, and even those who afterwards inveighed against him most severely (for other actions) never denied him credit for it.
Paraffin oil is worthy of special mention. Coal not being much in evidence in the diamond fields—where the sun is ever shining with all its might—paraffin was an important factor in the culinary sphere. When, therefore, a few gentlemen formed a syndicate, to vaunt their loyalty in a crisis by cornering all the kerosene in town, another outcry followed. They bought all they could lay hands on at market price (sixteen and six per case), and next day imperturbably continued buying at twenty-five shillings. On Tuesday the wide-awake vendors asked fifty shillings, and were paid it cheerfully. Another sovereign was added to each case of what remained on Wednesday, and the seventy shillings was put down without a murmur. How much farther the bidding would have gone will never be known, for a vicious little bird must needs tell the Colonel all about it. That gentleman happened to be engaged in his favourite (proclaiming) pastime; he sat ruminating on the high price of coal, and evolving schemes to bring wood back to its proper level. The latter article was what the poorer classes used as fuel. The Colonel had no scruples about dotting down a reasonable figure for coal; but wood was new to him; he sympathised with the woodman, yet could not spare the tree. Water (sold in casks) had evinced propensities to bubble over, and to prevent consequent waste it was necessary to make it simmer down to its normal tepidity. Having settled these little difficulties, the worried autocrat was about to affix his signature to the magic manuscript, when the little feathered informer alighted on his shoulder and warbled "wacht-een-beitje, what price oil?" The Colonel had no hesitation in pouring it on troubled waters, by making eighteen shillings the maximum charge per case.
What the feelings of the syndicate were is not recorded. There was only one thing certain, the deal was not a profitable thing—for the buyers. Rumour had it that one gentleman, "with a pigtail," had paid fifty shillings each for two hundred cases. The story was false—rumour is never quite right; the man wore no pigtail. A Celestial speculator indeed he was, but he had long since discarded, if he had ever sported, his national plait.
The afternoon brought a fight—a fight at last. Nothing less sensational could explain the wave of excitement that set men, women, and children struggling in a wild scramble for the debris heaps, which commanded a view of the match. Yes; a battle at last, was the cry on all sides,—varied with divers witticisms apropos of the "beans" the Boers were sure to be given. The military critic, perched high above everybody else, held his glass to his eye, giving expression the while to a paradoxical longing to be "blind," etc. He criticised, candidly, the tactics displayed by both sides—but this chapter would never be finished if I reproduced, in their entirety, the banalities of the military critic.
The railway line had been torn up again, and a patrol of mounted men under the command of Colonel Scott-Turner had been out since early morning to superintend repairs. The repairs were soon effected, and after the patrol had rested at Macfarlane's Farm it meandered in the direction of Riverton. A large body of the enemy shortly became visible to the right of Riverton, and after a little seductive manoeuvring on the part of Turner's men, they were drawn within range of Turner's rifles. The rifles went off; a few Boers toppled from their horses, while the rest drew rein and rode back at a goodly speed. Reinforcements, however, were galloping to their assistance, and soon a lively duel was in full swing. Colonel Kekewich, who was an interested spectator away back on the conning tower, thought he detected a movement on the enemy's part to surround Turner; and to frustrate this design, he forthwith despatched a "loaded" armoured train. The maxims (in the armoured train) came into play, and spread confusion in the Boer ranks. Their Commandant was killed and left behind on the field. The rifle duel was maintained with dogged perseverance on both sides for some time afterwards. We were not without losses—three men having been killed and nineteen wounded. The enemy's casualties were estimated to be thirty. Our men had conducted themselves throughout with conspicuous courage and coolness, though many of them were quite new to the game of war. To the Boer, too, a meed of praise is due; for, contrary to popular tradition, he could—and did—fight a good fight on the open veld. Turner's force returned to the city, well satisfied with their first brush with the enemy. The news which appeared in a special edition of the Diamond Fields' Advertiser, relative to the successful dash of Atkins at Elandslaagte (Natal), added to the enthusiasm that prevailed during the evening; and made optimists—there were no pessimists—more sanguine than ever in regard to the speedy capitulation of the Boers.
Our men, on Thursday, patrolled in different directions—alert for a second encounter, if the fates were propitious. But the foe declined to oblige; he lay low all day, presumably imbibing coffee. In the afternoon, heavy rains, which made piquet duty none too pleasant, came down in torrents. Tents had just been pitched at our redoubts in the nick of time. The three men killed on Tuesday were buried with military honours. The funeral was large—the Colonel, his staff, and several sections of the Town Guard marching in processional order.
Meanwhile a detachment of the Cape Police were endeavouring, with all due prudence, to lure the Boers into battle. But they did not succeed. It was advanced as an explanation of this singular inactivity that the nerves of the enemy were shattered—since Tuesday. It was rumoured, too, that a number of our "friends" had gone off on a recuperating pilgrimage to Windsorton and Klipdam—two villages which had been taken without the waste of a cartridge and placed under the Verkleur. Looting operations, it was said, were being carried out on an extensive scale, and property was being destroyed. Such was the local estimate of Boer shortcomings—based on flimsy data, or no data at all. In Kimberley, we only laughed at looting, and if the Boers effected an entrance we had no objection to the exercise of their talent for vandalism. We said so; because we were profoundly confident of our collective capacity to keep them out. Cynicism was the fashion. There was so much to say on the great topic, and so little to read about it. The evenings seemed so long; at half-past five, when the shops were closed, it appeared to be much later. Nice people exchanged visits as usual, albeit they had to be home at the disgustingly rural hour of nine o'clock, sharp. It was amusing sometimes to watch the abnormal strides of fat men and women, and to see them dodging the night patrol when they had to do a ten minutes' walk in five. The patrol was not a policeman. Oh, dear, no; he was far more stern, and had banished his politeness for three weeks. If at nine-fifteen you wished to be directed to Jones Street, you would be shown the way to the gaol instead. No explanations would be accepted, no protests heeded, no excuses listened to; no consideration for persons, no bank-balance however huge, would soften the inflexible patrol. "I did not read the proclamation," would not do; you must have heard of it. You might swear you had not, or at the insulting sceptic, but he would neither yield nor apologise. He was always armed with a rifle, and accompanied by three or four men with ammunition. It was a common experience with us to wake up during the night and list to the same old hackneyed dialogue. "Halt!" in a voice of thunder, "who goes there?" "A friend," would be the invariable response, the tone, pitch, and temper of which would be regulated by the "pass" the friend had or had not in his pocket. "Advance, friend, and give the countersign," Excited families would by this time have their heads thrust through the windows to watch the denouement. Satisfactory explanations would generally follow the final command; but occasionally a babel of recrimination would ensue, and become gradually indistinct as the poor law-breaker was hustled off to prison.
The people, for the most part, sat on their steps, discussing the events of the day, the paucity of news, the doings of the army, the destruction of the Republics and the probability of its easy accomplishment by Christmas (1899). They would break off now and then with a reference to the activity of the searchlight. The searchlight was of powerful calibre and shed a brilliant radiance which, revolving, illuminated the surrounding country. Needless to say, it shone all night; a surprise visit from the Boers was out of the question. We felt light-hearted on Saturday, and profoundly satisfied, that we were too intrepid for the enemy. Our patrols kept vainly seeking to provoke a quarrel. At the camps the "Death of Nelson," and "comic" melodies not less doleful, were rendered with much feeling. At the hospital, the wounded were doing well, and one man was quite himself again. They were extremely well tended, and thanks to public solicitude, were the recipients of countless delicacies, including bottled cheer.
Thus two weeks were over—well over, it was affirmed. Alas! we had another sixteen to put behind us; but no; nonsense! what am I saying? Even the wags, and everyone was inclined to be waggish in the first great fortnight of faith, never put the number higher than eight, lest their jokes should lose point or their wit its subtlety.