The three weeks were over, and there was nothing to show that our inspirations in regard to the duration of the siege might yet prove to be substantially true. No immediate prospect of relief was observable, and our thoughts mechanically took a gloomy turn. How sanguine we had been, to be sure. Hardened sinners there were, of course, to sing that fine old chorus, "I told you so!" They never did! Nobody had ventured to tell us anything so inexplicit. The three weeks dogma had never been questioned. It was not, however, the detraction from our repute as prophets that saddened us, so much as the wearing off of what was novel in our beleagured state. It was beginning to pall a little. The day was beautiful, and notable for an absence of dust. In the morning, the Colonel sent out a patrol to have a look around. He also issued some stringent regulations, affecting the privileges and liberties of persons residing outside the town's barriers. These good people were thenceforward obliged to submit to the indignity of being searched, as a condition precedent to permission to come or go like ordinary mortals. The right to read their newspaper across the breakfast cup was also denied them; the duty had to be performed In town, lest the wind should blow the local journal into the hands of the enemy and reveal—nothing at all. The position of the barrier guard ceased to be—if it ever were—a sinecure, and he was kept busy picking pockets, examining bills, perusing love-letters, written in all sorts of prose, and in verse which was homely, if not exactly Homeric.
As already pointed out, the day was fine, and the Boers were silent; so that, recent disappointments notwithstanding, there was little credit in being jolly on such a Sunday. The Tapleys of the city had accordingly no great trouble in inducing us to amuse ourselves. The united bands of the Kimberley and Lancashire Regiments were to give a concert in the Public Gardens; and at four o'clock some thousands of people, arrayed in their best, had gathered there. The Gardens were crowded; cares were forgotten; the Boers were chaffed; while the strains of the melodists were awaited with pleasurable anticipation. At the psychological moment the music began. The tune was not unfamiliar; we had heard it before—and prayed that we might not hear it again! It was not from the bandstand the discord was wafted; when I say, in a word, it was the hoot of the hooters, sounding the alarm, it will be understood how far from soothing was its spell. The exodus from the grounds was a treat to watch; the ladies in their finery made a dash for home, while the gentlemen rushed for their rifles with equal despatch. The bandsmen laid aside their lutes for more deadly instruments, and prepared themselves to give the Boer as much music as he cared to face. It was altogether a magnificent dissolution, rapidly accomplished. And, of course, it was as usual, all for nothing. Wessels was a wag.
Monday morning revealed the Boer clans foregathering in force on the south side of the city. The citizen soldiers were quietly directed to get behind their sandbags, while a mounted body was ordered out to anticipate events, and, if practicable, to knock over a few of the clansmen. But it was only bluff again. Our women folk, although they dreaded a fracas, were particularly impatient of this time-honoured game. During the day, a good many shells were expended on the Premier Mine. The mines, it may be said, were the objectives of special bombardments until the end; but, so far, we were not inclined to think highly of the enemy's marksmanship. The shells fell a long way short, albeit not so short as at first; the aim was improving. Given time, the Boer would yet hit his target; but of course he would not get time.
Practice was resumed next morning at an hour sufficiently preternatural to deprive us of a portion of our legitimate sleep. We rose early in Kimberley—long before the lark—to our credit be it sung; but four o'clock was too far removed from breakfast time, and four was commonly the hour chosen by the churlish Boers to commence operations throughout the tedious months of our investment. The whiz and the explosion were not invariably audible, but the boom was always heard. Our "friends" rarely missed making a noise, and, to secure proper rest, this break-of-day penchant sent people early to bed. A big gun had been placed by the enemy on the top of Wimbleton Ridge, wherefrom—as our Garrison Orders grandiloquently stated—"the strength of the fortress of Kimberley was tested." The shells landed safely on the bare veld, and even when the dissatisfied gunners brought their gun closer, no harm was done. Wimbleton was three or four miles away, and we were not therefore in a position to reciprocate the attentions we received from it. Another assault was subsequently made on the Premier fort. Our seven-pounders were this time able to do a bit of bowling, and a ball was hurled at the enemy's wickets that stopped play for the day.
There was considerable elation in town at the non-success of the Boer as an artillerist, and the belief was entertained that his stock of ammunition would soon be blown to the winds. Nearly a hundred shells had been thrown at us, without angering or damaging anyone or anything save—a cook and his cooking-pot! The cook resided in a redoubt; his pot had had the lid broken, and worse still, the stew it covered driven through the bottom of the utensil, to be incinerated in the blaze beneath; and he vowed—well, the profanity entwined in his vow of vengeance will not admit of its publication. The whole bombardment was a grand joke. In the Law Courts, where the Criminal Sessions were being conducted in the ordinary way, the lawyers waxed witty. The witnesses responded. Even the prisoners laughed sorrowfully as each abortive boom rang out. It was a superb joke. The judge let fall some funny things and the jury smiled—without prejudice. His lordship said it was a novel experience for him, as indeed it was for all of us, who were to live and learn that— the last laugher laughs best.
The results of the Colonel's mild and forbearing efforts to keep the natives in check were not satisfactory. The exuberance of the Kafirs knew no bounds; they continued to glory in intoxication, and to "do" the breadth of the streets, like the gay Bohemians of more advanced civilisations. They did more; they defied authority, and varied their pleasures with occasional bouts of house-breaking and burglary. They appropriated such property as they could lay hands on in the sequestered houses of the West End, and played tug-of-war with mahogany that lacked the merit of being portable. An epidemic of looting prevailed—and fine sport it seemed to offer.
But Colonel Kekewich did not think it a time for sport, and lost no time in ventilating his thoughts on the subject. Drastic measures were adopted to suppress the fun. Another proclamation adorned the dead walls—decreeing that native bars and canteens were to be closed altogether. To deal effectively with the hooligan school stern methods were necessary, and total prohibition was the initial step—a step highly lauded by the public in general, and by the white topers of the city in particular. The coloured bibbers were thus suddenly reduced to water, and some twenty of them—caught red-handed in crime—were lashed and sent to prison for two years. One or two got off with a caution, and with instructions to preach to the locations on the heinousness of hooliganism, and of the power of Martial Law to hang "boys" for less than murder—as the next roost-robber would learn to his cost. No remarkable curiosity to be learned in the "Law" was afterwards manifested for some time.
As for the aggrieved liquor people, the Colonel's proclamation well-nigh broke their backs. Their feelings must be left to the sympathetic imagination of the reader. That thirty thousand of her Majesty's subjects should be "by law forbid" to quench their thirst was incredible. That men in the "trade" should by consequence suffer financial loss, and have the sweat of their brows, as it were, confiscated, was an evasion of the Constitution (superseded though it was by Martial Law) which outraged the name of liberty. It was a bitter pill to swallow; but it had to be swallowed under pain of penalty for even a grimace. Some of the patients could not let the purgative down; they deliberately let nature take its course—the sequel to which was the mobilisation of the Trapper Reserves for active service. And still the slimness of the native contrived to dodge the wiles of civilisation. With the assistance of some Coolie shop-keepers (who acted as middlemen) he yet managed to drink a fair share. But the middlemen, too, were hauled over the coals. A few Indians went so far as to establish without license little canteens of their own, thereby outraging all law, civil and military. In such cases the canteens were confiscated. The Summary Court had altogether a busy time, and the Official Interpreters, Dutch, Kafir, and Indian, were "sweated" at last.
Wednesday was quiet; so also was Thursday, our peace being marred by neither shells nor hooters. The hooters, indeed, were never to do it again—a graceful concession, for which we gave thanks; their cat-calls had been so nerve-shaking. The monotony was relieved on Friday by some shells which came right into the city—as far as the Post Office. They omitted to burst. The boom of a gun, which had been wont to play havoc with the nervous, had come to be regarded as of no consequence, a mere tap on a drum, eliciting a nonchalant "Ah, there she goes," and nothing more. Everybody was alive for fragments of the dead missiles; curio-hunting was a craze, and hundreds of people were ever ready to pounce upon the projectiles that wasted their sweetness on the desert air. The tiniest crumb of metal was treasured as a valuable memento. The shells fell and broke as would a tea-pot, a brick, or an egg of the Stone Age. No explosion followed; no fragments flew to hurt one's ribs, or to play the dentist with one's teeth. The missiles declined to burst.
It was natural that much speculation should arise as to the cause of this anomalous state of things; and there were people to doubt its being so much due to obstinacy on the part of the shells as to inexperience on the part of the Boers. One wiseacre held that the missiles were antique and obsolete relics of the 'eighty-one struggle. Others questioned whether "the Boer" then knew that shells were invented. A lot more contended that "the Boer" was unacquainted with the mysteries of a fuse, and knew as little about "timing" a shell as he did about discipline. One or two suggested, tentatively, as a solution of the puzzle, that "he had forgotten to put the powder in." Another argued that he did not know how; while there were a few who doubted whether "the Boer" considered powder in any sense explosive. There was a garrulous "bore" (from somewhere over-sea, not Holland) who advanced a still clearer elucidation of the mystery. "What was Rhodes doing in Germany for twelve months," he cried, "tell me that?" The relevancy of this rather startling query was a little obscure, but somebody replied: "He was visiting the Kaiser." This was too much for our interlocutor; he pitied our ignorance of the world, lamented our neglected education, and, as if our weakness in arithmetic was peculiarly discreditable, deplored our inability to put "two and two together."
Alarms were now nightmares of the past, and the people could pursue their avocations undisturbed and undistracted. There was little firing in the afternoon—nothing more deafening than a rifle-shot. A Boer, on sniping bent, was hit by one of our sharpshooters; three men approached, and two only were observed to rush back with their shields. Of what the British troops were doing we knew nothing. Thousands of them, it was said, were congregated at Orange River (seventy miles away), and we were curious to know when they were to "move on"; only curious—not impatient. The summer was yet in its infancy (as also was the siege) and our patience was destined to be lost soon enough. Meanwhile, we had not much cause for complaint in the matter of food. Meat, some said, they found it hard to procure; one young lady asserted positively that her family had had no meat for dinner on Sunday, and that she herself had to dine off "tea." She was the daughter of a public house, too! Just fancy the daughter of a public house having to do with "tea" for dinner! Hers, however, would have been a case of exceptional hardship; there was the "half pound" for everyone who went shopping in time.
We were startled from our slumbers at an early hour on Saturday morning by the booming of artillery and a succession of very distinct explosions. The shells fell broadcast, and whistled—while we sought vainly to see them—with a disconcerting whiz above our heads. Their contact with mother earth resulted in a loud crash; it was hard to believe that the theorist who opined that the Boers had "forgotten the powder" (before) was a clever fellow. They had remembered it this time; its odour was everywhere. It was our first real taste of a bombardment, and a nauseating taste it proved. Men and women had a vague belief that hundreds must be dead. Consternation reigned; and when it was reported that a woman had been killed in Dutoitspan Road, the excitement was at its height. The fatality sent a thrill of horror through the people, who awaited in dread anticipation the news of further massacres. The victim was a poor washerwoman, and the possibilities it conjured up before the mind's eye made her death doubly unfortunate. But, happily, no further damage to life or limb was to be recorded. A good many houses were hit, though not injured materially. A shell entered the Gresham Bar, and it was surprising that so few glasses should have been smashed; more marvellous still that the fair bar-tender should have remained fair; she was merely frightened. As for the proprietor, he held up fairly well. There was a hole in his roof (I don't mean his head), but he made the price of a decent patch in ten minutes. The men about town flocked in to have a laugh at the mess, and were amazed to find a bottle intact, or a bigger utensil to drink from than a "thimble" indeed.
Feeling against the Boers grew strong. Enquiries about the British troops, their movements, their dilatoriness, were sternly renewed; it was reckoned time to "clear the border." That Colonel Kekewich was angry goes without saying; he despatched two mounted forces in opposite directions to record a general protest. One of these, led by Colonel Scott-Turner, rode towards Otto's Kopje. The enemy, however, were apparently prepared for Turner; they opened fire with a gun, and endeavoured to cut him off. In this they failed; they drew rather too near, and so far from intimidating the fighting Colonel, enabled him to register his protest very forcibly. Nine Boers were shot down; three on the British side were injured. Meanwhile the force under Major Peakman was protesting at Carter's Farm. The enemy there made a bold effort to silence Peakman. But a Maxim gun has a remarkable gift of the gab; the Major had one with him, and he let it do all the talking—with results that quickly drove the Boers beyond the range of its Phillipics.
Notwithstanding these castigations, or perhaps because of them, the bombardment was resumed in the afternoon. Wesselton was assailed; a few shells also fell into Kimberley, with no serious consequences. Silence reigned at six o'clock. It was an exciting finalé to the week. The morrow would be Sunday, and glad we were to hear it. And still relief was deferred; but the troops were at Orange River, and seventy miles, they told us, was a trifle in darkest Africa. That they (the troops) would soon arrive did not admit of a doubt. And then?—and then the Boer would run away or die.