Everything was going from bad to worse, and though the tropical weather was not conducive to heartiness of appetite the dishes on our tables were distressing. To attempt to compute the countless creature comforts missing at this stage of our sorrows would be ridiculous; nor do I propose inflicting on the reader a reiteration of what remained to keep body and soul together. Discussion on the Column and its catering potentialities had come to be proscribed, and lamentations over the sufferings of the inner man were as bitter as if all hope of alleviation had vanished for ever and hunger was to be our portion for all time. Indeed, when matters became worse a better spirit of resignation was manifested. To the seasoned campaigner roughing it on the Karoo our fare, plenty of it, might seem good, luxurious even; but to us, with very little of it, surrounded by the civilising influences of knives and forks, serviettes, plates, teapots, no end of pepper and insufficient salt—it wore a different aspect and seemed anything but luxurious. Yet that was our position day after day, Sunday after Sunday, and the irony growing grimmer all along with unfailing regularity. At the camps the menu was practically the same, but the graces of civilisation were happily less in evidence there. There were fortunate possessors of aviaries, and people who owned hens that produced no protoplasmic fruit, who could have a bird for dinner occasionally. A brisk business in fowls was done in the streets. The birds fetched enormous prices. Very young ones of sparrow proportions, not long out of the shell, were slaughtered wholesale, to pander to the palate of—perchance a member of the Society for the prevention of cruelty to animals. And here a tribute is due to him or her who, rising above the selfishness—the siege selfishness—of the majority, invited a friend now and then to share their good fortune. There were such noble souls; their numbers were few—not ten per cent, of those in a position to be hospitable—but all the more precious for their rarity. It was a sight to fill one with envy to see the cherished chickens being carried through the streets as carefully as if they were worth their weight in gold—as indeed they nearly were. Ever and anon the bearer of a bird would be saluted by a passer-by who would desire to know its price. On hearing it he would enjoy a good laugh, or relieve his feelings with a good oath in deprecation of avarice so naked. Another would pause and say nothing, but with a baleful gleam in his eye would set himself to measure the proportions—not of the chicken, but of him who carried it, while he mentally calculated his chances of success in a tussle, and shaped in his mind a desperate resolve to enjoy one good meal and then die, or perish, anyhow, in the attempt. All the provision shops were still open, but there was nothing for sale in half them. Tinned meats had given out; this was considered the last straw, even by the fastidiously clean, and the toxicologist who liked his salmon fresh. Five, ten, twenty shillings, any sum would be given for a tin of anything, and such bribes (despite Martial Law) were frequently placed in the hollow of a merchant's hand, the while he was beseeched in a whisper to slip a friend a can of something carnal. But the grocer was adamant every time; he could not do it; and a display of principle is easy when it springs as much from necessity as from good emotions. The Military Authorities had been commandeering goods of all sorts—"bully beef" among the rest—and storing them away in the catacombs of Kimberley. Now, the public were anxious to know the meaning of the corner in "bully beef"; but nobody could explain it. A vast quantity of cigarettes had been commandeered, too; but nobody could explain that either. Most of the "paper," it may be said, was not smoked; it was handed back to the tobacconists when the siege was raised, and possibly some canned things were surrendered as well. The hospital was certainly pretty full; care was taken that the invalids were not neglected, and many things were being preserved for their exclusive use. This was only as it should be. But "bully beef" was not reckoned just the ideal food for invalids; and wicked people accordingly found solace in suggesting that the military looked suspiciously well-fed. It got abroad, too, that there were tons of provisions (consigned to Mafeking) lying at the railway station, and the populace wanted to know why they were not commandeered, and sold at a profit that would go far towards covering the then estimated cost of the war. The possibility of forwarding them to their destination was out of the question; how were they to be sent out of Kimberley? Or how into Mafeking? The military had the power to let us eat these things, but they would not exercise it. They preferred to allow the butter—think of it!—to melt and ooze through the chinks of the boxes; the cheese—great gorgonzola!—to wax almost too high; and the potatoes—O Raleigh!—to rot ere they decided to annex them. When these facts were made known the indignation aroused was very general. Our prejudice against the khaki grew stronger than ever. Who was Gorle? The Army Service Corps had come into prominence, and much of its bad management was rightly or wrongly attributed to a Major Gorle. But the Military did not put their feet in it firmly until they reduced the cattle-looting wage from a pound to half a sovereign. The natives engaged in this hazardous occupation had been hitherto in receipt of twenty shillings for every animal captured; and they not unnaturally resented the curtailment of their commission. They declined to jeopardise their lives on half pay, and went out on strike. From that day onward the cow-catching industry languished; and though some of us held that the Colonel personally was in matters monetary above suspicion, like Cæsar's wife, we did not forget that he was also an Absolute Monarch, like Cæesar himself.
It was reported in the afternoon that news of Magersfontein had been gleaned at last, but that owing to the presence of spies in our midst efforts were being made to keep it secret. We gathered, however, that the Highland Brigade had been sufferers in a sanguinary struggle. That was all—except the usual accompaniment—the essential corollary to every recorded battle—that the Boer losses had been numerically frightful. Definite official reports were not forthcoming; nor confirmation of rumour. But we were satisfied that Methuen had been checked; we were constrained to confess, we consented to believe that he had at least been checked.
Next day we were more fully convinced; the terrible truth was revealed at last. All our sympathies went out to the brave men who had tried to fell the barrier that blocked the way to Kimberley. Their failure was a blow to our hopes; but personal considerations were for the moment taboo. And, curiously enough, although the world was ringing with criticism of Methuen we in Kimberley blamed nobody. Even the "Military Critic" was dumb. Lord Methuen rose in our estimation to the level of a hero, who had driven the enemy before him from Orange River, to fail only in the last lap. Even now, perhaps, the people of Kimberley, looking back at the events of the past, would be reluctant to join in the criticism his name evokes. The facts, of course, speak for themselves; and it did seem strange to see soldiers like Buller and Warren being arraigned, and Gatacre getting recalled, while others passed through the fire officially unscathed. Speaking of Gatacre, we—having just been made acquainted with the Stormberg affair—were saying nasty things of him. Monday was altogether a miserable day, with the outlook far less bright than our fancy had painted it.
On Tuesday the muffled booming of the British guns at Modder River was heard again. It was hard to credit the evidence of our senses, that Methuen had retreated. Still, we were not to be entirely disheartened while there remained the possibility of a drive to the sea for Christmas. At a meeting of the Town Council a new Mayor (Mr. Oliver) was chosen for the year 1900. General Clery, we were informed, was getting towards Ladysmith; the news was vague, but we were glad to hear it. Any news not bad was good. The old proverb is wrong; for who would dare after all the suspense we had endured to put "no news" in the "good" category.
The shopkeepers—wise men—had found comfort in hard work, and were making elaborate preparations for Christmas. The jewellers cut a fair show, and the drapers, too, But the grocer took, or rather would have taken, the cake if the "Law" allowed it to be baked. His enterprise knew no limits; his display of holly (and indeed of everything else) was unprecedented. The collection of odds and ends exhibited was picturesque to a degree (no more can be said for it). There were no jellies, no tempting hams, no imported puddings nor nude poultry, none of the solid, savoury things associated with the festive season. There were none of these; but holly, mistletoe, and Chinese lanterns made a fine phantasmagoria. There were neat and compact packets of starch, interspersed with tins of mustard, to tickle the palate of the hungry passer-by; while scented soaps, in lovely little wrappers, intermingled in malodorous profusion. Bottles of sauces never heard of by the present generation, and which yet bore traces of the solidified cobweb of half a century, were much in evidence. So, too, was Berwick's baking powder, as a sort of satire on the absence of such essential constituents as eggs, milk, flour, whiskey, raisins, etc. (we had plenty of suet). Reckitt's blue was there in abundance—a finger-post, as it were, to the shade of the entire exposition. Condy's Fluid was not the least appetible thing on show. Bottled parsley and kindred mummied souvenirs of pre-historic horticulture, half buried in heaps of shrapnel bullets (ticketed sweet peas!) and other ammunition of a like digestive kind, were also to the fore to sustain the fame of Christmas. But starch was the all-pervading feature of every shop-front. In one window a solid blank wall of starch was erected, with a row of sweet-bottles on top. One would think that our linen at least should have been irreproachable; but it was not; because the Town Council happened to be experimenting on the practicability of establishing Municipal Wash Houses, with a view to economising water—not, as the actual results suggested, to the saving of starch.
Lieutenant-Colonel Peakman had succeeded the lamented Scott-Turner, and on Wednesday long before daybreak he led a picked force towards Webster's Farm, to steal a march on the napping enemy. The napping enemy, however, was alive to the propriety of utilising but one eye in the lap of "Nature's soft nurse." He could not see much with the open optic, but he could hear with the one ear he had taken the precaution of keeping open also. Of the good sense of this precaution Mr. Peakman was somewhat abruptly apprised by the crack and blaze of a hundred Mausers. Nothing daunted he returned the salute right gallantly, and with a doggedness that obliged the Boers to retreat, firing as they went. The enemy's gun at Oliphantsfontein soon chimed in with some well-directed shells, one of which failed to burst and was secured intact as a valuable trophy. Nobody was hurt, and the force got back to town without further molestation.
A concert was given in the evening at the Reservoir camp, the takings (£20) going to the Widows' and Orphans' Committee. There was no lack of entertainment at all the camps, although the men did not feel so cheerful as their comic singing was intended to denote. Numerous presents continued to find their way to the redoubts. Cigars and tobacco, fruits from the De Beers horticultural department, and an odd pint of wine from the casks of the Colussus were periodically received to brighten the lives of the citizen soldiers. An odd bottle, or rather an odd dozen, of "Cape Smoke" found entry at times. Impure though the commodity was—there is no smoke without fire—a little of it on a raw morning was not amiss. Some erred, unfortunately, in not confining themselves to a little of the lava. Eruptions often ensued. One gentleman, on a certain occasion, was so inflamed with martial ardour after a too copious indulgence in the "brandy" that it resulted in his discharge from the Town Guard—for over-doing his duty. He was one night on sentry duty and challenged an officer, one officer, whom he failed to identify, or compute—"in the dark," as he explained. Having courteously yelled out to the intruder to halt, and on being quietly assured that "a friend" went there, the alert sentry presented arms and called in solemn, stentorian accents upon his friend to "advance within six inches of the muzzle of this rifle and give the countersign!" It was due to a lucky accident that the officer knew the countersign, and was not buried next day. Another genial tippler disported himself during business hours in less serious fashion. He was not so fastidiously exact about killing his man by inches. On the contrary, when his "friend" had proclaimed himself a friend indeed, he was superciliously informed: "You have got to say 'Tiger' before you come in here!" "Tiger" was the countersign; and it was only the humour of the incident that enabled the worthy sentry to keep the Marshal's baton in his knapsack.
Under the direction of Major Gorle, the Army Service Corps was extremely energetic in the general regulation of foodstuffs. Colonel Kekewich seemed bent on starving us. Now, if there remained no less drastic alternative to surrender he could have starved us by consent. To the principle of the ordinance there was no open opposition. But it was ridiculous to start starving us so soon, and we were far from imagining that it should ever be necessary to start at all. The Commissariat was being largely extended, and the Colonel had drafted another proclamation. He had already taken care that the flour should be made to stretch for years—the colour of the bread never permitted us to forget that—and he now commanded that all the tea and coffee in town must be submitted for analysis. Every ounce of chicory in the city, he proclaimed, must be handed over to the Commissariat within twenty-four hours; or, by Jingo!—Martial Law! The ladies clung to their caddies and protested; but in vain. The gallant Colonel insisted—reluctantly; he had a heart; but he had also, so to say, a partner (Mr. Gorle)—as inexorable as the "Mr. Jorkins" whom Dickens has immortalised. This arbitrary conduct on the part of Kekewich and Gorle did not stop at tea and coffee; it was only a beginning, a preliminary step in the military dispensation. How far the transactions of the firm would extend we were not yet to know; but the details of the massacre at Magersfontein, which kept pouring in, indirectly suggested that the business might extend very far indeed. The losses sustained at Magersfontein were more appalling than we were at first led to believe. They were a bitter sequel to the memorable cannonade of ten days before. How inappropriate had been our jubilation! The citizens forgot their personal woes in sorrow for the brave men who after a series of brilliant successes had perished in the final effort. Magersfontein hit us hard, though we knew nothing of the "blazing indiscretions" connected with that fatal assault on positions of peculiar strength and impregnability. Its consequences meant another delay, perhaps a long one. Meanwhile our resolution grew stronger to hold Kimberley though the heavens should fall. Eating, after all, was a habit—a bad habit with some of us—which we could not give up in a day. But the story of Magersfontein diverted our thoughts from provisions. Let the Boers but come within range of our rifles, and then, ah, then there would be squalls! But would they do so; would they screw their courage to the sticking point? It was feared not, more particularly in view of the supposed existence of dynamite mines around Kimberley. The train was laid; the fuse was there to ignite the powder that would blow up a hostile army. The mere suggestion of such a contretemps was enough to make the Boers think twice before drawing near enough to be shot at. Belief in the existence of these mines was widespread. How far it was warranted, it is hard to say. The enemy had heard something of them, and burning though was his desire to blow up the diamonds he did not quite court a flight towards heaven in their company. He had seen what dynamite applied to culverts and bridges could do, and doubtless fully measured the indignity of so disentegrating, not to say violent, a manner of quitting this world for a good one.
On Friday a party of the Lancashire Regiment went out to cut off a Boer water supply at Curtis Farm. A body of the Light Horse with guns accompanied them—as a hint to the enemy that intervention would be resented. The Boer ignored the hint and lost no time in lodging his protest against our infringement of "the game's" rules. The "Lanks.," however, were not to be deterred; they stuck stoically to their work until their object was accomplished. Our guns had meanwhile kept hurling defiance at the enemy; but there were no casualties on either side. These aquatic operations seriously inconvenienced the Boers; they compelled them to make wide detours, to travel a long distance for water around the great ring which encircled Kimberley; the short cuts were dangerous. A sad thing happened when night came. A corporal in charge of a piquet went out to inspect his men. Unfortunately the sentry on duty was unaware of the fact, and on the corporal's return he was mistaken in the darkness for a marauding Boer—with the pitiable result that the sentry shot him dead.
In the morning we had news again. It was simply the truth concerning Colenso; fiction could not improve a deal on the loss of ten or twelve British guns. We were unaccustomed to so much candour in the matter of reverses, and this brutal revelation of the truth overwhelmed and astonished us—though we could scarcely pretend that we had not asked for it. A "Slip" unfolded the tale in all its naked veracity. It was news, fair and square value for the "thruppence," as siege value goes; but we were in no mood to appreciate the novelty of that; the circumstances were too distressing. Buller was roundly abused, and his staff also were included in a comprehensive denunciation; so that whoever was at fault in the Colenso collapse did not escape the wrath of Kimberley. As one of the Pitts (was it one of the Pitts?) has aptly said: "there are none of us infallible, not even the youngest of us." Not even Lord Methuen, as we had sadly discovered. The brightness of our Christmas prospects was beginning to fade.
It faded a great deal when typhoid fever broke out in the Light Horse camp. The outbreak was attributed to the uncertain water we had to use, since the purer supply had been cut off. The new water was none too good. We had been repeatedly warned to boil it before drinking it, and were now adjured to do so. A large number heeded the warning, but the perverse majority heeded it not; they did not find it convenient to spare fuel to boil what was not essential to the creation of the "cup that cheers" when there is milk in it. Scurvy was playing havoc with the native population. These trials and tribulations did not enhance our festive dispositions on the eve of Christmas. A programme of sports attracted all the Tapleys; but there was little until evening, when the scramble for the good cheer that was not in the shops had begun, to enable one to remember that Yule was nigh.
The scene was one that will be long remembered in the Diamond City. It was only the very large stores that had anything to sell. Before the war broke out Abrahams and Co. had purchased an immense stock of foodstuffs; but a great hole had been made in it, and it was to be much greater after Christmas. It was at Abrahams', therefore, that the multitude swarmed. The traffic in sweet peas, jams, and raisins was heavy. Boer meal with imported raisins in it was the richest possible pudding! The sale of sweets was unprecedented—so unprecedented that toothache was an epidemic until French relieved it. How the shop assistant clung to his reason is a mystery which has yet to be solved. Behind the counter he was hampered by the local elite: Judges, Doctors, Directors, etc., who would never say die (from hunger) while they lived. Outside the counter the madding throng felt likewise. But the great ones were able to help themselves; they inspected the shelves, perused the labels of every antiquated sauce and pickle bottle in stock since the "early days," and placed the best of these relics of a pre-consolidated era in heaps aside for Monday's dinner. There were special constables on duty within and without the store, which was as full as an egg; and when after a while it was apparent that this congestion retarded business, the hundred Christians nearest the door were hustled into the street with all the "good will" in the world. But the relief came too late; the clock struck nine ere half the multitude were served—or even formally satisfied that blood is not in turnips. Of the merry season we were wont to enjoy, the busy throng was the sole reminiscence. Its good things were absent. But that bitter truth did not make less keen our hunt the slipper pursuit of Christmas fare.