Three and three make six weeks. We were not yet free—not quite. Our period was doubled. The wary seers who "told us so" had triumphed; and they exploited their intuition for what it was worth, or rather for a great deal more, since clearly it was not worth much. They had triumphed (by a short head, so to speak), or said they had. What matter. They were minor prophets; and the nearness of Methuen and his Column enabled us to bear the trumpet-blowing with equanimity and good humour. The monster head-lines of the Advertiser—delightful paper!—proclaimed it "the last week of the siege!" It was placarded on the walls. The newsboys shrieked it abroad. The man in the street confirmed it. The populace believed it. The grocer beamed, and the haberdasher made bold definitely to state the date on which a particular reel of cotton could be purchased. It even stimulated the hotel-keepers to discover hidden spirits. The last week of the siege! how comforting it sounded; and what potent influence it possessed to soothe temperaments unadaptable to siege life.
The funerals of the brave men who had fought their last fight on Saturday took place in the afternoon. A funeral is a mournful thing always; but here were six young men, cut down in the heyday of their lives, being conveyed to their last resting-place. Most of them had been esteemed citizens of the town in defence of which they died. It was this, the circumstances under which they fell, the feeling that it was for the preservation of the homes of the people they had given up their lives, that evoked so much sympathy and sorrow. Thousands of mourners attended to pay the fast tribute of respect to the dead. The various sections of the Town Guard in processional order followed the coffins to the cemetery.
Many things occurred in the course of the day to enhance our satisfaction with the prospect of emancipation. At eleven o'clock an alarm was sounded, and the services in the churches were in consequence cut short. The half of the Town Guard enjoying their day off had their relaxation cut short, too—unnecessarily, as it turned out. Fifty or sixty Boers were prowling about, a powerful glass enabled the zealous look-out to explain. It was a mere storm in a teacup, not by any means the first that had raged in that fragile utensil. This capped all past tempests, and made the men who had been off duty exceedingly angry, and the men who were on, exceedingly gay. Mafeking, however, was fighting on still; and many Boers had been killed in Natal. The piece-de-resistance was the last to come. It concerned our own Relief Column, whose progress the enemy had had the temerity to impede at Belmont. How their hardihood had been rewarded with "cold steel"; how they had quailed before it; how they had fled before the conquering Methuen: these and other details, in all their charming vagueness, were received with rapture. It was fine news; and wounded men in the hospital, about to die, changed their minds and lived when they heard it.
We had a visitor—an emissary from the Boers—on Sunday. And though he turned out to be a Scotchman!—so brimful of hope and good humour were we that the circumstance detracted little from the cordiality of his reception. He was a doctor, the doctor whose services had been commandeered by the practical Boer. Some of us felt disposed to doubt his nationality; but the gentleman talked Scotch—that is, English—dialectically and broad; and when he shook hands familiarly with a few local members of his profession, the sceptics were silenced. Show me your company, etc., did not apply. The main point, however, was, his business. What did he want? He wanted medicines, surgical instruments, and things—a request which occasioned much shoulder-shrugging apropos of the medico's "nerve." That he served the Boers in his professional capacity only, was evidenced by the candour with which he opened his heart when queried as to the fortunes of the family who had taken a loan of him. He admitted a loss of one hundred killed and wounded Boers in the recent fight. This was rather higher than our own estimate—and we were not given to minimise on the wrong side. It was wonderful. Whether the learned doctor exaggerated—but why should he (a Scot) in such a case?—unless indeed the canny one desired to please and make sure of his medicines. Anyhow he got his medicines (including a personal prescription, from his "ain country"), and with a bow of gratitude departed.
The Diamond Fields' Advertiser was quite readable on Monday. It contained news, and less of the fiction (culled from old magazines) with which it had been regaling us for weeks. On Monday we read of modern London, and of transports, fights, etc. (in the present war). We were engrossed in the news when the Boer guns began to play. Three shots were fired, and we had to admire the impudence of an enemy who acted as if the coming Column gave him no concern. The missiles hit nobody, although one was facetiously alleged to have winged a locust. These insects swarmed the land—it was difficult to avoid hitting them—and one was not missed. We got more shells in the afternoon, but they did no harm whatsoever.
The predominant and all-absorbing subject of discussion was the Column, its coming, its movements generally. We felt a little disappointed at the delays which the opposition it had encountered rendered unavoidable. But we were not despondent, nor hyper-critical—not yet. The bombardments might be written down a fiasco, and what after all did it matter whether relief came to-morrow, or not till the day following. Still, these delays upset plans and calculations. They upset bets and wagers, and the "bad losers" who villified both Briton and Boer with delightful impartiality. They upset diary-writers—prospective meteors in the firmaments of literature—and they upset the magnates of the De Beers Corporation, whose annual meeting had been fixed for that day. The meeting had to be postponed until Thursday, in order that the dividend declared might immediately be cabled, in accordance with custom, to the shareholders throughout the world. The wires were bound to be in flashing order by Thursday. It was re-assuring to find oneself in agreement on that head with a rock of common sense like Mr. Cecil Rhodes.
Ten more shells were pitched at us on Tuesday, only one of which reached its destination; the other nine went off at a tangent somewhere else, to the chagrin of curio company promoters. It would have been more tactful of the Boers, we thought, to have reserved their ammunition for a more aggressive foe. No great attention, however, was paid to their extravagances, and from anything in the nature of repartee we refrained. There was more serious work in hand; preparations were going on apace to open up an avenue for the Relief Column. The Town Guard were ready; the Light Horse, the Imperial troops, and the armoured train were also to the fore. This formidable combination was soon on its way to the Schmidt's Drift Road, where it found shelter behind some friendly ridges. The Boers occupied Spitzkop and were looking across at us with curiosity—not unmingled with uneasiness, we felt sure. They maintained a rigid silence, and made no attempt to interfere with our arrangements until the armoured train came into view. The ridges we occupied were afterwards shelled, and the Diamond Fields' Artillery responded. While this not too bloody duel was in progress, a body of mounted men had received instructions to take up a position away to the right of Spitzkop.
It grew dark eventually, and we decided, or rather got orders, to remain where we were for the night. Given a choice we would have done nothing of the sort; it was chilly weather outside canvas; we had not come prepared for a bivouac, and we had no great coats nor blankets. But they were subsequently sent out to us. To satisfy the pangs of hunger, which were asserting themselves with increasing importunity, we tried (advisedly) the pockets of the coats, and there found the goods required. There were belated "Guards" who got blankets only. How they fared is not recorded, but I believe they asked for more! The firing had by this time ceased on both sides; but the impression was that it would be resumed early next morning; that a battle was imminent, and a sleep desirable but not at all imminent. Our "beds" were too strange and cold for sleep—as in the case of peaceful people when travel necessitates a departure from feathers to planks of straw. We watched the play of the searchlight, and were interested observers of a responsive gleam from Modder River. The Column was there for a certainty. We had been listening all day to the booming of guns, but had yet no idea that it was connected with the battle of Modder River. Ultimately we ceased chattering, and charmed Morpheus at last—all unconscious of the sad morrow.
For a sad morrow it was. The most tragic day of the siege! A rumour ran riot that Scott-Turner had been killed; but the people would not believe it. Colonel Scott-Turner dead! It was hard to convince the populace of the fate of the gallant Colonel; harder still to inculcate that over with him to the great majority had passed twenty-four of his followers. But so it was. Of the survivors thirty were wounded!
Some seventy or eighty mounted men had attacked the Boers in possession of Carter's Farm (which had been re-taken), and had carried the Farm in the face of a withering fire from the enemy—who fell back upon a stronger position. Nothing daunted, our men brought up their guns and prepared to repeat their success. The Boers resisted fiercely, but were eventually driven back to a third line of defence. Night was rapidly descending, but this notwithstanding, the Light Horse were ordered to complete their victory. It was in this last rush that their daring leader was struck down. The third position was actually taken; but the disappearance of the light rather handicapped the gunners. The enemy was re-inforced, and the remnants of the Light Horse were obliged to evacuate the ground that had cost them so much.
These are the bare facts of the affair—the facts which came to light. Contradictory opinions as to whether there had been a blunder were freely expressed. On the conflicting theories advanced I refrain from commenting. It did not, for the moment, concern the people at large upon whose shoulders the blame rested. Twenty-four dead! and Scott-Turner one of them. Seventeen of the number had been well-known and respected citizens. The Diamond Fields' Advertiser commented on the fight as a "triumph" for British arms. This point was, to put it mildly, debatable. The feeling uppermost in the mind of the plain man was that nothing had been accomplished that could compensate for the loss of so many brave men. The consoler who argued that the losses on the other side exceeded ours did not console. Nor did the vapourings of him who prated of what we, acting in conjunction with the Column, would presently give the Boers. The disaster enkindled a distrust of the military which remained inextinguishable to the end. Wherefore the need of risking so many lives, at such a moment, with a Column outside, on its way to set us free? That the critics—and they were legion—should search for motives was inevitable; and the tactics of the military were promptly attributed to a desire for glory (here below). This may have been an erroneous, a wild conclusion; but it was jumped to with great satisfaction. Theoretically, the idea of getting in touch with the approaching troops was good; but it was a premature effort—how awfully premature we knew at last. Our defenders were few enough to defend the perimiter of the city. How were we to hold the positions we had sought to get possession of? To this and much more (after the event) the public demanded an answer. They asked in vain; for under the "Resolute Government" of Martial Law, public opinion is an Irishism.
The funerals made a most impressive spectacle. The troops and Volunteers with the bands of their respective regiments headed the cortege. There was profound sadness in the faces of the vast assemblage that crowded the streets. The twenty-four coffins were lowered into the graves, amid a solemn silence broken now and then by the Ministers of religion who read the burial services. It was an awe-inspiring scene, that will be long remembered in the Diamond City.
The signalling went on as usual in the evening. Heavy fighting, we were told, had taken place at Modder River, with considerable loss on both sides. That was all; it was enough; news of that nature was not satisfying. The De Beers Directors assembled to hold their adjourned meeting, and to adjourn it again. Mr. Rhodes acknowledged that he had been wrong in his calculations. Everybody was wrong, but nobody except Cecil played the candid friend.
Friday was peaceful; an opportune occasion for reviewing our losses. All told, forty lives had been lost. The recent disaster brought down upon the military authorities a chorus of adverse criticism. It had been discovered, too, that it was not the first disaster; and for the losses sustained in the earlier sorties the Colonel and his advisers were also condemned. This was hard on the military, whose conduct of previous operations had been extolled by the men in the street who now inveighed against it. There were, of course, fair-minded people who were too honest not to remember this; but they could not forget their meat allowances; and they wrathfully connived at the hard sayings without going so far as to join in their dissemination. But, indeed, what with regrets, tragedies, dry bread, and indifferent dinners—their combined effect was not to lift us high above ourselves (later on, the altitude was better). Down at the railway station extensive preparations were being made for the revivial of traffic. Hundreds of men were employed laying down new rails, and widening the terminus—to provide space for the miles of trams in the wake of the Column. The Royal Engineers, accompanying the troops, were repairing the line as they advanced. Other people, who knew better, had it that a new railroad through a circuitous route was being made. This was asserted with a positiveness, a clearness, as it were, of second sight that cowed all promptings of common sense. But it was not of supreme importance by what route the train came, if it only came soon. Not a few were indifferent as to whether it ever came (in); they would be satisfied with a seat in a truck going out. We were anxious to know what was going on in the world. An intense longing for a glimpse of Stock Exchange quotations existed in some quarters; others were dying to "back" horses; and there were guileless people whose sorrows were epitomised in a sigh for a letter, or two, (or a dozen) from home, and corresponding assurances that all was well there. We speculated a good deal on the probable depth of the piles of correspondence accumulating for each of us. The letter-sorters were not enjoying their holidays; we hoped—we knew they would soon end. Had we dreamt that they were to lengthen into another seventy days, the dream would assuredly have killed us. But, thank goodness, in the watches of the night our sleep was not haunted by the spectral truth. Seventy hours assimilated better with—our dreams. There was the Column busy signalling and settling it all with the Colonel. The Colonel was certainly a reticent man; he gave us precious little data, to supplement our faith. But the nearness of Methuen was data enough for us. It did not do, it was foolish when it was useless, to be too curious. It was puzzling, to be sure, to watch the movements of the Boers, or rather their lack of movement. That they saw the signals and knew what to expect went without saying. And yet they perversely showed no signs of running away. On the contrary, they kept improving their defences and generally indicating that they had come to stay. We liked the hardihood of this attitude; but were on the whole inclined to pity the poor beggars. Defiance, in the circumstances, could only mean annihilation for them. Kimberley reasoned thusly: Kimberley reasoned well.
Saturday made it still clearer that the ineffable enemy, so far from being frightened, was obdurate yet. Large commandoes of Boers had joined the besiegers during the night. All day long they toiled like Trojans, digging trenches. At Oliphantsfontein they erected a new camp and made their fortifications unassailable. We could only conclude that they purposed making a stand. The fatuousness of such a course was clear to us; for with the aid of the Relief Column we would presently be in a position to attack the Boers from many sides; to hem them in; to cut off retreat; and to kill or make prisoners of them all. It was a bold conviction; we still viewed things through Napoleonic glasses.
It was stated that President Steyn was outside, to stimulate the burghers with his presence and eloquence. The news was interesting, and the hope was fairly general that no worse fate would be his than that of a prisoner of war. There were also some particulars of the Modder River fight; the Boers had been driven from their kopjes; hundreds had been shot; thousands made prisoners; and whips of guns captured. This was not quite a proper version of what happened at the Modder (it is questionable whether we were ever made acquainted with the actual facts); but we believed it all; it sounded well. One of the funny features of the siege in its earlier stages was the readiness on the one hand with which a practical community swallowed good news, however false; and the stern disinclination evinced on the other to be "taken in" by the truth when it chanced to leak out and happened to be disagreeable.
Such was the condition of affairs when forty-nine long days had crept by. As to the brightness of the immediate future no misgivings existed. The days would soon shorten to their normal duration, and be all the happier for the antecedent gloom. Relief could not in the nature of things be very far away. Ah, no; it never was; that was the pity of it—the irritant destined to deepen our disgust—to nourish our discontent. At Mafeking they were spared at least the galling consciousness of relief so near, and yet so far. The irritation, however, was not to be felt yet. We looked confidently to an early release—so confidently that the decadence of dinners did not distress us. We considered it of relatively little consequence that provisions were becoming scarce; they would last another fortnight "in a pinch," we thought. As for luxuries, we talked of them, and promised shortly to make up for lost time. The anticipated reunion between bread and butter was a sustaining thought. The Column might be trusted to carry with it a sufficiency of firkins to achieve that glorious end; and we were meanwhile content to be fastidious in our choice of jams, and to be the bane of our grocer's existence.