The commandeering of cattle was an industry now well established. It was a pleasing spectacle, on Sunday morning, to behold the results of the preceding night's operations as they were driven through the streets, and to witness the unconcern with which the languid quadrupeds suffered the loss of their independence. Nor was the calm indifference with which their drovers received the compliments shouted at them by passing Imperialists one whit less admirable. The sight of the enemy's preserves excited a degree of interest which might be equalled—not surpassed—by the phenomenon (in pre-war days) of a procession of white elephants. And in the general chorus of favourable criticism—favourable because they were cheap, probably, if not exactly "gift" animals—nobody looked the cattle in the mouth. Very popular were these confiscations; and in view of so many augmentations of the stock at Kenilworth, it was not too much to hope that the ravenousness of the public appetite would be allowed its wonted scope. No longer was there meat for breakfast, not even on Sunday morning when we had leisure to masticate it. To tell anybody, to hint the heresy that eight ounces of meat sufficed to preserve health, would be indiscreet. To suggest that an extra plate of porridge with a few sardines thrown in (that is, to follow) might make up the deficiency, would be rude. Tinned sardines, salmon, crawfish, brawn, and such eatables were not reckoned fish at all; they were eaten—to stave off starvation—but they did not appease. As for butter; we had none for our bread! Fresh butter was unprocurable. Even the salted unguent sold in tins was hard to get, and only a very good customer could buy a tin, at a huge price, from his grocer. The hens stood the test of the times better, and laid their eggs generously as if nothing had happened. But their numbers were small, and not sufficient to provide for local consumption at any time—still less so since chops had been proscribed. The owners of the birds, sad to say, were in many cases small, too—mentally; they ate more eggs, in lieu of butter, on toast than was necessary. The price of eggs kept daily moving up by sixpences and shillings, and they were yet comparatively cheap at elevenpence each (each egg!). But it was some comfort, however cold, that money could buy eggs. They were indubitably fresh, but beyond the reach, too "high" (at elevenpence) for the average man, or even for men of substance opposed on principle to eating money. Ham and bacon, also, were expensive. The local pork had never been highly prized. The African pig is more noted for his speed than for the rashers he offers when his race is run; he is tough, and grunts vapidly; his tail corrugates rather than curls; he eschews jewellery—his nose is free; and the land also being free, he pays no rent. But the ox was "off" (in large measure), and the pig, hitherto despised, had come to be looked up to as an asset and a "gentleman."
In the afternoon a heavy hailstorm passed over the town; the clatter of hailstones—of enormous size—was unprecedented. It furnished a new and refreshing topic of conversation, and the war was dropped for full five minutes—while the shower lasted. Rumours Of a meditated attack on the enemy's fortifications were the subject of much speculation; that the morrow would be a big day was the general feeling at bedtime.
The big day came round in due course; we had a big thunderstorm, but in no other respect was Monday large. The Boers signalised the occasion by the inauguration of a new plan of campaign, which, if the gods were kind, would soon compel the surrender of the Diamond City. The plan—like all great plans—was simple; a dozen guns were trained on Kenilworth, where browsed the precious bullocks upon whose safety hung the fate of Kimberley. To kill them all was the end in view. Inspirited by the thought of the hunger and the "fall" that would follow, the enemy poured forth a liberal fusillade upon Kenilworth. The cattle-guards, exposed to grave danger, never shirked their duty. It was not until the Boers had well warmed to their work that we managed by the play of a Maxim to cool their ardour. The new departure was a failure. A most incomprehensible bombardment was subsequently opened on an isolated place, called "the Brickfields," where no animate thing above the bite of a mosquito lived, moved, or had its being.
The exigencies of our position necessitated the cultivation of early rising; but the Boers had, so far, invariably set the ball rolling; they had acquired a knack of irritating us in their choice of unexpected moments for starting operations day by day. On Tuesday the practicability of reversing this order of things was tested by our gunners. The effect was not clearly apparent, but our shell excited commotion—it wakened somebody, for the Boers could be seen moving about. Retaliation soon followed; on the Brickfields again, a choice of objective which was quite inexplicable. There was nothing there to hit but bricks. The enemy—perhaps obsessed by the thought that he had filled us with terror—may have assumed that the place was being used as a refuge. Some believed that the Town Hall was aimed at, for our confidence in the skill of the Boer gunners had yet to ripen fully. The firing was continued for some hours until the venue was changed to Kenilworth, with no better success than before.
We had a fair supply of ammunition for such guns as we possessed, and in order to make it last as long as possible, economy was rigorously observed. One day, however, De Beers astonished the Colonel by offering to manufacture shells, ad lib. The Colonel smiled; he was inclined to regard the proposal as a joke of the Company's Chairman. But he was persuaded to permit the test of a few samples made in the workshops, and lo!—to his infinite astonishment the results were all that could be desired. The missiles conducted themselves properly, and—contrary to "expert" opinion—burst at the right moments. There being plenty of the requisite raw material, a hundred shells were made in a day. This was a great advantage and was appreciated to the full. Mr. Rhodes knew the Boers loved him, and, by way of reciprocity, he had engraved on the base of each shell: "With compliments from C.J.R." His initials sufficed; the Boers knew him well. The conceit excited much mirth in town, as it doubtless did among the enemy.
Another letter in the afternoon; from the Boer General to Colonel Kekewich. It concerned the Dutch again. The Colonel—patient man—intimated in reply that the families in question had already twice refused to leave him, and that he could not force nor drive them. The Boers, we gathered from their envoy, were sick with typhoid fever, sick with dysentry, sick of the war altogether—so sick, indeed, that part of our visitor's mission was to borrow medicines and a doctor. That we should have proven so obstinate in our resistance had not been anticipated. Well, the Colonel could not refuse the medicines; he sympathised with the sufferers; but in view of the fact that the borrowers had already commandeered a doctor, he could not see his way to lend another.
We had set the ball rolling with such success in the morning that it was determined to give it the last kick in the evening as well. To make certain of this, a gun was charged and "sighted" while there was yet light; and at nine o'clock a shell was sent hurtling through the shades of night. Its effect, of course, was not observable; but if it were to startle the enemy as much as the gun's boom did the whole of us, C. J. R. and his unseasonable "compliments" must have fallen foul of some "remarks."
Next morning the gift was not at all gracefully acknowledged. The unfortunate brickfields were pelted again; it was enigmatical; that Mr. Rhodes should be reckoned "a brick," by Boers, was improbable; rumour had it that his blood was hungered for. Some shells were hurled also at the grand stand of the race-course. Finally, the enemy appeared to suspect that the cattle might have had a hand in the despatch of the nine o'clock missile, and he bombarded Kenilworth with great gusto.
The houses of a number of our citizens were built immediately outside the city boundary; and a strong feeling existed not only against permitting these dwellings to be occupied, but also against allowing some of their occupiers (who were Dutch) to remain outside the gaol. A section of these people made no secret of their sympathy with their kindred across the Vaal, nor of their belief that the war was being waged on false issues. They were thus tempted to lend the Boers a little practical assistance. Nor were they long in finding ways and means to negotiate the loan; they arranged a code of signals which enabled them to communicate with their friends. They had precious little of importance to tell—unless the siege value of eggs could be so classed. Anyhow they were caught signalling one night, and on the following morning were arraigned before the Summary Court.
This was the popular version of the story. How far it was true, I am not in a position to say; but the charge was not sustained by the evidence. The prisoners were acquitted, and ordered to find accommodation within the city. The Court took advantage of the occasion to throw out a general hint about the inadvisability of permitting anybody to reside near the borders of a beleagured town.
We had held a grand review of our forces on the opening days of the siege. The Regulars, the Light Horse, the Town Guard, etc., had filed past the Colonel and the Mayor, amid the plaudits of the people and the music of the band. The afternoon brought recollections of the demonstration. The Boers appeared to be holding a pageant of their own—for our edification, no doubt. For several hours they were marshalled on the veld with a demonstrativeness that seemed to say: "You might as well give in at once; look at the size of us!" Their size was certainly impressive; more so than their proficiency in drill. We beat them hollow at drill; so hollow that we laughed arrogantly and loud. The Boers could shoot well; but what was that—without drill!
On Thursday morning we were still laughing when the guns of Wimbleton proceeded to query our hilarity. Wimbleton Ridge, unfortunately, was rather far away; we were unable to respond. Whether it was that the revels of our risible faculties were ultimately attributed to the cattle-stealing of Wednesday night, an energetic assault was suddenly opened on Kenilworth. It is true, we had affected a tidy confiscation; but that joke was now old—too old to laugh at. We had some "snipers" all day endeavouring to worry the Boers. A mounted patrol, also, worried them. In the afternoon the rain came down to complete their misery, and the imperturbable oxen were let browse in peace.
And from another quarter there was coming worry, to shatter the dreams, the hopes, the "castles in the air" of Kimberley. The Relief Column was approaching; this time for certain. We had heard like legends before, but they were only legends (before). The Column was really coming. A native had come in with the news. Now, of a white man's reliability a doubt would not be tolerated; but the native!—well, the native had acquired a reputation for bad, bold mendacity that was altogether too unscientific to be appreciated by a close and subtle aristocracy. Still, the story was nice; we liked to believe it. There are natives and natives—there is even a Booker Washington—all men are not liars. The Press, too, attached credence to the tale, and that went far to convince us of its truth. A glance at the paper next morning established the veracity of the Bantu.
"We are authorised to state that a strong force has left Orange River, and is moving forward to the relief of Kimberley."
Such was the message. The joy was universal. In a few days the column would be with us. Kimberley would be free. The siege was over! Hurrah, the people shouted with an enthusiasm only transcended in degree by the resolute contempt with which the reported approach of French was greeted in the following year. The Queen was sung of with rare earnestness and lung power. The Colonel was toasted and praised at the bars. Baden-Powell was promised help; the Mayor was patronised. The column was drunk to, not wisely, but too well; while Tommy Atkins' glories as a soldier and a man were chorussed in unmeasured terms—and time. For the rest—we were generous—the Boers we could forgive. But they must all be captured; in the interests of the campaign it was not expedient that one should escape. Where should they be housed? The gaol was not large enough. The Town Hall was suggested. But the mines were finally selected—with exquisite irony; for we little dreamt that the thousands destined eventually to be driven there should be—our friends, indeed, but not our friend the enemy!
Friday was quiet, and a very jovial day in town. The Boers—in blissful ignorance of their approaching doom—occupied themselves in disfiguring the railway line still more. It was not easy to do; but it was done. In the afternoon two tremendous explosions were heard. "There go the culverts," was the expression in every mouth. And so it was; the culverts were blown to pieces.
The Colonel and his officers were getting weary of the cautious methods of warfare of which the enemy never seemed to tire; and the opportunity of inflicting a good and stunning blow was a consummation devoutly wished for in military circles. The Column was coming, and nothing in the way of a telling stroke had yet been struck—nothing worthy the vaulting ambition of a soldier accomplished. Fighting is a soldier's profession, and the peculiar opportunities afforded by a siege, for the acquirement of fame and distinction, were too rare to be let pass unseized. How much the Commander and his staff may have been influenced by considerations of this kind, is not easy to say. But signs were not wanting that a serious endeavour was to be made to induce Mahomet to meet, as it were, the Mountain half way. The Regulars were looking to their bayonets; the Light Horse were being equipped with brand new steel; and—to make a long story short—at break of day on Saturday morning a large body of infantry (composed of Regulars and Irregulars) under the command of Colonel Chamier set out in a southerly direction, towards Carter's Farm, with general instructions to make things hot for trespassers. The enemy in possession of the Farm were thus to be debarred from assisting their confreres at a point where another British force was to operate with more serious intent. To ensure the success of this ruse, the services of a section of the Town Guard were requisitioned for out-flanking purposes on the one side; while the geographical position of the railway line permitted the utilisation of the armoured train for similar service on the other. The infantry kept steadily advancing until they secured a position which enabled them to rattle with their rifles to some purpose—the artillery behind them also helping. Their object was soon achieved; the Boers were forced to devote their energies exclusively to their own defence. They sat tight—obedient to the number one law of nature—engrossed in blazing at the foe before them, which was precisely what the foe before them wanted.
In the meantime the real game was being played on the western border. All our available mounted men, led by Colonel Scott-Turner, had crossed the Lazaretto Ridge, and actually drawn close to a Boer camp—unobserved. When the sentry did open his eyes and had challenged our advance agents no verbal response was made; but a rifle went off, and the sentry fell. The Boers were of course instantly aroused by the report; they rushed to their trenches, and a fierce rifle-duel ensued. From the muzzles of the Mausers a withering volley came. Some of Turner's men fell from their saddles, but the rest, nothing daunted, pressed their advantage and charged pell-mell upon the foe. The Boers fought gallantly, but were unable to resist the fury of the onslaught; some of them threw down their arms; others made a dash for liberty; while not a few fell fighting to the last. Thirty prisoners were taken; also a large quantity of rifles. Seven Light Horse men were killed; twelve were seriously, and fifteen slightly, wounded. Colonel Scott-Turner, who was hit in the shoulder, had his horse shot under him. Thus ended the most serious sortie of the siege—so far.
The townspeople had assembled in concourse to welcome the warriors home. Cheer after cheer rent the air as they passed, intermingled now and then with a murmur of pity, suggested by the sight of a riderless horse. Scott-Turner was the recipient of a special salvo, which nearly unsaddled him again; and the other officers were bored to death bowing their acknowledgments along the route. Privates with bandaged eyes or arms were also singled out for vociferous greeting, only they passed the bowing, and were not a bit bored. The Mayor himself, smoking a cigar, came along in his own goods van! There was no mistaking his identity; it was the Mayor—the Mayor of the Diamond City in a wooden chariot! not indeed in his robes of State, but—in the flesh! A flaming Red Cross waved above the Mayoral van, and a long string of vehicles, adorned with like emblems, followed. It was to the credit of the merchants generally that they had voluntarily placed their horses and wagons at the disposal of the military. Had all the combatants been stricken hors-de-combat there were facilities on the spot for their immediate conveyance to hospital.
The prisoners, who followed in the wake of their conquerors, were the great objects of curiosity and interest. One or two spectators started groaning; but a nudge, or failing that, a kick sufficed to correct their bad taste. A weary, travel-stained group the captives looked—with their unkempt locks and unshaven faces. No need to throw mud at them. The universal feeling was rather one of sympathy, even of admiration, for brave men whom fortune had omitted to favour.