The pleasures of Sunday were on the wane. The outbreak of war had detracted little from its peace; but its dinners were—oh, so different! Sunday had formerly been in the main an occasion of abandonment to the joy of eating. The propriety of such a custom may be open to question; but we had turned over a new leaf—until the perusal of the old one would be feasible again. Our bad habits were compulsorily in abeyance: the "good tables" were gone. The Simple Life is a splendid thing, but unless voluntarily adopted it sheds all its splendour. Delicacies had long been falling victims to galloping consumption, and at this date had totally succumbed to the disease. Worse still, the "necessaries" were more or less infected, and disposed to go the way of the dainties. Meat troubles maddened everybody. The beef was all neck. Everybody said so. Not one in ten, it seems, ever managed to secure a more tender morsel from the flesh of these remarkable bovine phenomena (for they were oxen, not giraffes!) The meat was indiscriminately chopped up in the shambles, and the odd one (in ten) who had not his legal complement of "neck" alloted him was just as likely to be given for his share—to take or leave—a nose, his due weight of tail, a teat or two, or a slab of suet, as any more esteemed ration from the rib. It was laid down that favouritism had no place in Martial Law; but we were not all Medes and Persians in Kimberley. The rush for meat between six and eight o'clock in the morning was one of the sights of the siege: It sometimes happened that people, after a long wait, would throw up the sponge in despair and go home meatless; the odds were that they had not missed much, but their grievance was not the less real, nor their "language" the more correct, on that account. There were persons who never tried to get meat; and they were probably the wisest—'the world knows nothing of its greatest men.' In the scramble for precedence a fight occasionally ensued. The special constable did his best to keep order; but he had only a truncheon; he had no other weapon, not even a helmet—that awe-inspiring utensil!—to cow the multitude. Numbers of people deliberately transgressed the "Law" by turning out at five in the morning to make sure of their meat; and the Summary Court was kept busy fining these miscreants ten shillings each, with the usual "oakum" alternative. One lady (in a letter to the Editor) drew a vivid picture of the rush for meat. She had travelled a good deal, she told us, and had "roughed it" on Boxing nights; she had been (unaffectionately) squeezed to suffocation in London. But nowhere outside the Diamond Fields had she encountered the rudeness that springs from ten thousand empty stomachs! Who now shall say that hunger is good sauce?
There were, besides meat troubles, minor grievances increasing every day. A plate of porridge was a thing of the past; and milk of course was an antediluvian quantity! All the tinned milk had been commandeered for the hospital. Nobody objected to the priority of that institution's claims; but it was complained that the quantity commandeered was excessive, unnecessarily large. Eggs were one and a penny each (each egg!), which sum few could afford to pay, and a number, whose economic souls revolted at it, declined to pay, through sheer respect for proportion. There was nothing to fall back on but "mealie-pap," an imitation porridge, made of fine white mealie meal; the very colour of if tired one; white stirabout, connoisseurs opined, was not a natural thing. There were scores who would not touch "mealie-pap" with a forty-foot spoon. But they changed in time; "I am an acquired taste," cries Katisha; so is "mealie-pap." We acquired the taste for it, just as people do for tomatoes (where were they!) or a glass of vinegar and water. This hew porridge was not new to the natives; they dissipated on it three times a day, and were satisfied so long as they had sugar to make it doubly fattening. It was all so unlike the piping times of peace! Sunday was now a bore, productive chiefly of ennui. On Monday one could at least scour the town in search of something to eat; and many a coolie shop was invaded by bluffers, dressed in the "little brief authority" of a Town Guard's hat, who endeavoured to bully the coolie into unearthing hidden stores. But to no avail; the coolie was not to be frightened, nor even excited, by hat or pugaree. His stock of good things had indeed been reduced to lozenges, sugar-sticks, and other dental troubles.
Nothing startling was expected on Monday; but we were disappointed. The noise sounded like the roar of thunder; we had heard similar sounds emanate from Modder River; but these were undoubtedly louder and nearer. It soon became evident that they could not be thunder-claps; they were too continuous and unceasing. We listened for six hours to the incessant booming of British artillery—the finest in the world! What else could it be! Would there be a Boer left, we asked ourselves, would one survive to depict the carnage around him. The guns in action must have numbered forty or fifty. Soon a great rush was made for the debris heaps on the Reservoir side—whence, through a glass, the shells could be seen bursting in rapid succession at Spytfontein. Strong though the position admittedly was, its defenders could never resist a cannonade so awful. It was the famous, disastrous battle of Magersfontein that was in progress. But of that we then knew nothing. We knew not that hundreds of the Highland Brigade lay dead, nor that while Kimberley was brimming over with enthusiasm at the prospect of immediate freedom, dismay was rampant everywhere else. There we were, twenty miles from the scene of slaughter, looking on, not only ignorant of the truth, but entirely mistaken in our assumption that it was what we wished it to be.
The sight of what appeared to be a balloon (and we soon discovered that it was nothing else) excited tremendous interest. It ascended and descended repeatedly during the battle, apparently for the purpose of locating the enemy and directing the fire of Methuen's guns. We had been inundated with narratives of the extraordinary strength of the positions into which Boer ingenuity had converted the kopjes of Magersfontein. No further attention was paid to these tales, for lyddite was a terrible thing—that could move kopjes. It was but a matter of hours until the Column would be with us, unless, indeed, it paused for rest. The next day, we felt, would end the Siege of Kimberley, and bring again into vogue good dinners, buttered bread, and—something to drink.
When firing ceased at length, the Beaconsfield Town Guard determined to make a noise on their own account. The easiest way to do it was to sound the alarm; and they did sound it, with right good will. They had observed a large party of the enemy clearing out of Alexandersfontein, and were possessed of an hallucination that it portended an attack on Beaconsfield. These wolf-cries, however, were venial faults; they denoted watchfulness; we were not disposed to take umbrage at small things; it was a day of victory. No suspicion of the truth flashed through our minds to upset our comfortable conclusions. Our ignorance was bliss; the folly of wisdom was to manifest itself all too soon.
The Advertiser had news at last—authentic news and fresh; and forth from Stockdale Street was launched a three-penny "Special," to tell of the balloon "we" had seen and of the cannon "we" had heard. That was all. We put down our tickeys without a murmur. In the fulness of our hearts we said the paper had to live. The revenue from its advertising columns was a cypher, since there was so little to advertise about, and so little need to advertise anything that was about. The "ads." had fallen off only in the sense that they were no longer paid for. They were still printed (to fill up space); and very annoying reading they made. Before, there was some truth in them; now, there was none. How we sighed for the times of extreme individualism.
In the afternoon a football match was played. The gate-money was handed over to the Widows' and Orphans' Fund. Our happy speculations on what happened at Magersfontein served a good purpose here in stimulating the generosity of the spectators. A team of our visitors (the Lancashire Regiment) lined up against the pick of the Citizen Soldiers. The game was well contested, but the superior discipline of the Colonel's lot told, and they won.
At break of day on Tuesday the Column's guns were at it again. This was disappointing, inasmuch as it led us to infer that some Boers were yet alive at Magersfontein. And our ardour was further damped by the De Beers directors who instead of formally dispersing until the next day, once more adjourned their meeting—sine die. What did it mean? A Special was shortly forthcoming and was bought up eagerly, while many eyes were being strained to catch a glimpse of Lord Methuen's legions in the distance. The Special gave us news of a fight, indeed; but not of the fight; it was Modder River over again. In fine, we were sold again, for the Modder River fight was—if not quite ancient history—as remote from our thoughts as the "famous victory" at Blenheim in ages past. Despatch riders had been coming and going, we knew all about the River battle, and after an interval of fifteen days an ambiguous "slip" was slipped upon a too confiding clientele! It was sharp practice; and its employment at a moment when suspense had thrown us off our guard was superb. We bristled with indignation, but the coup (as such) was splendid. We, the victims, were not entirely blameless; we had had ample experience of the risk attached to speculation in Specials. It was ever thus. An ancient number of the Cape Times would drop from the clouds, and for weeks the news it contained would be administered in homeopathic doses to the public at three pence per dose. It was good business. "Slip" was the appropriate appellation bestowed upon the Special. Sometimes two or three "Slips" would be issued on the same day. One would come out early, after which a huge blackboard, intimating in chalked capitals that "important news" was to appear in a later edition, would be carried round the town by two black boys. And though the news was never important, the enterprise was a success. To the smart sets the limited reading matter the "half sheet of notepaper" contained was a positive recommendation; and at afternoon (Natal) teas there was many a "Slip" between the cup and the lip.
Time passed; and still the Column came not. We felt disgusted rather than distressed; we were yet confident of the Column's invincibility. Various tit-bits of secondary interest were served out to humour us, and a startling rumour was put in circulation—a rumour round which clung no element of justification to soften the wrath it aroused.
A meeting composed of the Military authorities and a few leading civilians had been held some days before, and the subject of its deliberations had at length come to light. It was proposed and debated at this meeting that—when railway communication had been restored—all women, children, and non-combatants should be sent away to the coast! This would mean some twenty-seven thousand whites, together with natives, coolies, etc.—about forty thousand people. The idea behind all this was to make Kimberley a garrison town, to stock it well with provisions, and afterwards to allow the Boers—if they were so disposed—to re-mutilate the line to their hearts' content. The "Military Situation" would not admit of the employment of a host of men to guard it.
The scheme was immediately howled down. The ladies, it need hardly be said, were well in the van of opposition. They foregathered in the streets, and with arms fixed resolutely akimbo denounced the contemplated outrage as a monstrous tyranny—enough to make them "turn Boer," indeed, as one lady luridly put it. Whither would they go? Would the "Military Situation" answer whither? There were women of mature years who, given a choice between hanging and a whirl day and night through the Karoo, would almost favour the suspension of the constitution! But apart from physical inconvenience, the idea of forsaking their homes and husbands was too ridiculous. The notion of living in tents on potted beef and adamantine biscuits was shuddered at. The whole project was voted a wild-cat scheme (and Mr. Rhodes agreed). After the spartan bravery they had displayed for two months, the ladies regarded this new and wanton strain on their loyalty as inhuman. Their protest was loud and dignified; and when the women are concerned in a public protest the men are—oh, so mere! And the men in khaki were no exception to the rule; they were cowed, with all their munitions of war. They had decided on no definite course of action; or said they had not—to save their face. Their plans were essentially tentative; and, besides, the railway train—an important factor—was not just yet able to carry far a scheme of compulsory migration.
Thursday came; but not so Methuen. It was allowed that the Noble Lord could hardly be expected to gauge accurately the violence of our hurry; nor to conceive, however noble his imagination, that our hens laid eggs at eighteen pence apiece. We got another glimpse of the balloon to cheer us, and were also edified in the course of the day with news of the Belmont battle. The Belmont battle was a stale story when the Modder River fight was fresh, and the latter was now in all conscience stale enough. Of Magersfontein, not a word. This reticence in regard to Magersfontein intensified our curiosity; it was the parent of a pessimism that was to thrive. Common sense and the dictates of reason would clamour for recognition. Between the struggle at Modder River and the publication of its result there had been no interval to speak of. The fight of Belmont had occasioned no departure from the exercise of the "new diplomacy." We had heard of the collision and of the victory at Graspan almost simultaneously. But we were not yet acquainted with the sequel to the clash at Magersfontein; it was a solemn secret. There was news that Cronje had decamped from Mafeking and was at Modder River with an augmented force; but this did not for the moment interest us. In his (Cronje's) alleged quarrels with the Free Staters we had no immediate concern. What they told us of his inglorious retreat from the north was not to the point; it was enough that he had been wafted south by an ill wind that might blow us no good luck. All these tit-bits made news in the abstract, but were foreign to the mystery surrounding what happened at Magersfontein. Something was wrong; but the policy of prolonging the suspense was not right. Every nook and cranny in the hospital were being held in readiness for the sick and wounded (presumably accompanying the Column), and a vague fear was entertained that all the nooks and crannies might be needed. Who could tell?
More news in the afternoon—the wrong sort again. A faded (pink) copy of the Cape Argus was mysteriously smuggled through. Not a line of it alluded to Magersfontein. A screw was loose somewhere; our distrust of the Military increased. Could it be, was it conceivable that Methuen had been worsted at Magersfontein? That indeed was a reasonable conclusion to draw from the reticence of our Rulers. But it was not strictly logical, and besides—we liked it not. We preferred to attribute the silence to a way they have in the army; to the Colonel, who did not take tea with our Editor (it was said)—for Special reasons. We sympathised with the boycott; but the conduct of the "sojers" tended to cause a reaction in the Editor's favour. Our paper would tell the truth and shame the devil if the Censor, who was also a "sojer," did not unblushingly forbid it. We were oddly ingenious at times when the monotony clamoured for variation.
But to return to the Argus. It was affecting in its puffery of the beefsteak pudding that ninepence purchased in Cape Town; and poignantly prolix in its conception of how Horatius held the bridge of Modder River some five-and-twenty years ago (sic). The Boers, we gathered, had been knocked about at Ladysmith, and Mr. Morley had sympathised with them in London. All this would have been entertaining, even exciting, before Magersfontein; but after? it annoyed us.
On Saturday a sort of "boiling oil" turn was given by the rumour-monger. We heard wild stories concerning the annihilation of the British army. The air was red with blood. No importance was attached to these ghastly theories—they were nothing more—but their effects were depressing; they threw an atmosphere of gloom over the city, which was reflected in a thousand faces. What was once a "frigid falsehood" had been modified to mean a "gross exaggeration." This connoted a slight departure from sentiment, a tendency to reason, to think more dispassionately. Anxious as we were to get again in touch with the world and what it could offer to eat, we could no longer evade the sorrowful conclusion that siege figures, like every other, make four of two and two.
In the distance the cannon kept booming intermittently; nothing but boom. Our besiegers' guns were being used to check the advance of Methuen. There remained only one piece of ordnance, nicknamed "Old Susannah," to keep Kimberley in order. The Premier Mine was the recipient of some lumps of love from this amorous gipsy; but nobody was smitten by her charms.
The death of the Mayor of Beaconsfield was announced in the afternoon. In him the Town Guard lost a capable captain, and Kimberley a worthy citizen. Saturday was Dingaan's day—a sad reminder of the rejoicings associated with the anniversary, and which had to be skipped for once. Despite the prevailing glumness, however, the populace turned out to patronise a gymkhana entertainment at the Light Horse camp. The bands of the two regiments contributed musical selections; admission was free (which accounted for a packed "house"); but when the hat was artfully passed round for our charity we winced, and were only partially satisfied that it was at our discretion surreptitiously to put in it what we would from a button to a shilling.
Amid such gala surroundings the week ended. We were still in the dark, the doings of the Column were yet enveloped in mystery. The thunder of its artillery had lost its charm, and indeed a great deal of its noise. Dame Rumour, the lying jade, was saying nasty things, but downhearted—what! not much! The last flash on Saturday night was from a manufactured gem. The Boer Army was in Cape Town, if you please!—with their guns on Table Mountain—and all the Britons in the sea—swimming home to dear old England! Well, no matter; Kimberley would fight on, constitute a "new Capital," perhaps, or fall, if fate ordained it, with its face to the foe.