The last day of the year and the distant thunder of artillery burst upon us simultaneously. That the peace of the Sabbath should be broken by music not exactly sacred (or melodious) was strange. The old year would be rung out in a few hours, in company with our Utopian expectations. All our hopes of a rare New Year were, like our Christmas phantasies, dashed to the ground. The morrow promised to be rare enough in a melancholy sense, but it would not be New Year's Day. There was but one ray of comfort to sustain us, namely, the approach of the hero of Candahar; for although a certain period of waiting had yet to be endured—ere another famous march could be accomplished—the coming of Roberts disposed us to think kindly of Job. At the same time we prayed that the need for patience would not last too long. Any nonentity—be he General or Private—who could bring relief to Kimberley would eclipse the fame of a bigger man than "Bobs."
Passing by the Town Hall one could not fail to be struck by the contrast between its desolate appearance on Sunday afternoon and the bustle of its precincts on week days. The building had only recently been erected and was situated in the centre of the Market Square. The Square itself was an exceptionally spacious one, and the Hall added an ornament to the city, which was the more imposing and conspicuous in that it practically stood alone as such. It was a magnificent structure, quite new, as I have stated; but it probably saw more wear and tear during the Siege than it would otherwise have seen in the course of half a century. A few days prior to our investment the building had been completed, and, immediately after, a two days' holiday had been proclaimed by the Municipal Authorities—dear old servants of the people! No Czar's writ ran in Kimberley then. Amid the plaudits of the democracy the Hall had been duly declared "open." The Mayor, in the blazing dignity of his Magisterial robes, surrounded by the wealth and intelligence of the city, had delivered an historical address. The Councillors had followed, and the several ex-Mayors since the year of one had expatiated felicitously on the architecture of the "Ornament," the merits of the architect, and the enterprise of the contractors. "There was a sound of revelry by night"—for two consecutive nights. Two awfully fancy dress balls were given; and had the shade of the Duchess of Richmond waltzed from the heavens to the waxed floor of the hall, it would have assumed flesh and blood again on beholding the picturesque costumes of every age and court presented to its spectral view. I will not prolong a description of those halcyon days of Municipal splendour in these of common khaki. Let it suffice to add that the "lamps shone o'er fair women and brave men." The "cannon's opening roar" was soon to be heard in the land; but all unmindful of the nation of farmers the "shopkeepers" tripped it on the toe.
Well, we were besieged; and the great Hall was adapted to very different uses. It was made headquarters. Within its walls the Town Guard were formally "sworn in," and supplied with hats, rifles, bandoliers, and ammunition. Hundreds of distressed refugees congregated there, for one of the Offices of the building had been transformed into a benevolent grocery shop, presided over by benevolent ladies. There also did mass some thousands of natives to gather their picks and shovels and pay. The Town Hall was the pivot round which revolved all sorts and conditions of men. Overrun inside and outside by roadmakers, citizen soldiers, and municipal officers (whose military dignity had raised their souls above scavenging), it was bad enough. But when the rich and poor of all classes and sexes were forced to join in the scramble for a bit to eat, it was worse. Until the "permit" system had come into vogue, money could buy much (of what was going); but the "permit" system lowered mammon to his rightful level. Money for the moment had lost its value; a "permit" was all-important—even Croesus himself would have starved without one. To procure these useful scrips all sorts of formalities had to be entered into, and the amount of time lost in waiting to prove one's right to live was provocative of many an oath, at the expense of the British army. Kafirs, coolies, Europeans of all nations, the wealthy the poor, and the lowly—all struggled to procure the precious "permit," as if they were at all hazards determined to gain one week's respite before finally succumbing to hunger's pangs. It must be owned that the work was carried on more smoothly when the black sheep were separated from the white, and when different days were assigned for attending to the residents of each of the respective wards into which the town was divided. The incompetence of the military in civil affairs added to the grievances of the people; complaint against the administration of the "Law" was as loud as the clamour against the "Law" itself. The bother entailed in the procuring of authority to purchase food, and in the purchase of it, was extreme. The food was not worth it; but life is precious (or was then), and one had in a very literal sense to live. A man had sometimes to stand from six to eight o'clock in the morning to buy his paltry bit of offal, hoof, or fat, as the case might be, and after he had rested on his feet for two hours his turn would come to draw his miserable allowance—if somebody else had not drawn it for him. Such accidents happened often enough to make a good many foreswear meat altogether. Usually, however, the unfortunate would be consoled with a "precedence ticket"—for next day! so that he could live on the certainty of a succulent morrow. From ten o'clock to four might be passed in waiting for one's grocery ticket; and, finally, from four to six could be whiled away at the crowded store in a frantic effort to catch the State assistant's eye. Oh, it was a happy epoch in our lives—an epoch during which vows were registered against being "let in" for such happiness again, or against living it through while a 'bare bodkin' was left unconfiscated.
It was the last day of the year, with nothing to elate us but the coming of Bobs. Hope deferred maketh the heart sick; ours were so ill that but for Bobs they must have ceased to beat. It was disconcerting to learn that Warren was in Natal, for it had been stated that Methuen was merely waiting Sir Charles to join him ere again attempting to fight his way to Kimberley.
New Year's Day! New Year's Day, indeed! Our Scotchmen sighed. Black tea for breakfast on New Year's Day was too much for them, and not a few of them (and others) felt constrained to take kopje dew instead. They drank brandy—so labelled in the tavern, but more widely notorious as "lyddite" in the town. Brandy had crimes committed in its name, and lyddite was a happy and appropriate appellation. Even vinegar could not counteract the effects of lyddite (i.e. bottled lyddite). As for the materials used in the manufacture of this explosive, well—necessity is the mother of invention; and the invention was well protected. It was only noted that methylated spirits and certain chemicals were scarce; and a suspicion prevailed that these were lyddite ingredients—a suspicion which afterwards proved to be well-founded when publicans were prosecuted for using them as such. One of the peculiarly lamentable features of the Siege was a certain tendency on the part of men, who drank little or nothing in normal times, to dissipate in desperation on this unique brand of brandy.
It was dry bread with many on New Year's Day. Even syrup was extinct. Nothing remained, to be taken or left (they were generally left), but a few jars of treacle. Dripping graced the table, but nobody touched it; it was too ghastly pale for a substitute, too unctuous for anything. The poor Native's breakfast was of "mealie-pap" exclusively; and from a hygienic standpoint he was perhaps better off than any of us.
Many things occurred to make the day interesting, or say, rather, out of the common; but the palm was easily carried off by the Colonel's "gift." I have had occasion to allude to the parsimonious action of the military in curtailing the allowances paid to natives for captured cattle and thereby paralysing the incentive that usually induces humanity (black or white) to face danger. This untimely experiment in economics had discouraged the Natives and practically sent them out on strike. There were no cattle coming in, and so the Colonel thought it would be a good thing to reduce our meat ration from half a pound to a quarter, and that of little boys and girls with capacious stomachs to two ounces! I must leave to the imagination of the reader the effect of this proceeding on the part of the man who made and administered Martial Law. The promulgation of the half-pound regulation had been resented as an injustice; but now the "Military Situation" demanded a still more drastic fast. The Military regime became more and more unpopular; it was declaimed against with finer gusto and eloquence. The new enactment was too much even for the "Law's" apologists; it alienated their sympathies, and afforded them excuse and opportunity to associate themselves at last with the rightful indignation of their fellow-citizens. As for Kekewich, we—or as many of us as might survive his snacks—determined that he should be made explain himself to the Queen. It was a glad New Year altogether, with every probability of its gladness continuing "all the year round."
As if he had got wind of the Colonel's coup, and looked on it as a menace to the success of his own starvation policy, the Boer (on Tuesday) by way of expediting things opened fire on the cattle at Kenilworth. A supreme effort was made to wipe them out. The effort was futile; the cows chewed the cud under fire with inimitable nonchalance, while the goats, our whiskered pandoors, with fine satire sagaciously cocked their horns. Not that we cared. The non-success of the bombardment was if anything disappointing (I say it advisedly). What substantial difference was there between four ounces of ox's "neck" and nothing at all. None to speak of. Besides, we suspected the law-givers, who doubtless deemed themselves, like royalty, above the "Law." Did not the Colonel represent the Queen? Nay, more; could he not exclaim with the great Imari in the play, "It is the 'Law,' I made it so." In short we had a notion that the Colonel and his staff did not weigh their own rations. So that if the Boers had succeeded in slaughtering the cattle there would have been satisfaction in the thought that the military had had to suffer with the rest and been served right indeed. Eggs were too expensive, to be thought of; two shillings each (egg) was their market value in the New Year. They were fresh of course, beyond yea or nay they were fresh (since none could be imported); and to be sure, absolutely sure, of that was delightful—to millionaires and roost-keepers. The exactions of the local egglers formed the subject of much adverse criticism, but they excused their medicinal charges on the plea that they had nothing save eggs to sell.
Soon after the issue of the new four ounce edict a learned doctor delivered a public lecture and eloquently assured us that we ate too much meat! He urged us to eat less of it, for our health's sake. Now, the doctors of the Diamond City were hard worked during the Siege; so much so that they were still allowed (by special arrangement) the half-pound ration. This was right and proper. But there was none the less a piquant irony in the principles of a propagandist who was eating twice as much beef as anyone else and could stand up to utter precepts so strikingly at variance with his practice! The good doctor no doubt knew that new-laid missiles were too costly, and too fresh, to be thrown away; but he deserved them; the audience did not say so; but their eyes blazed kindly.
On Wednesday sports were held at Beaconsfield to cheer up the children of the township. Sweets, ginger-beer, and tea (neat) were served out, and were relished by the little ones who were too young to be particular. It may be said that cricket, football, and smoking concerts went on as usual, though how the players and the comic songsters managed to spare wind (on the diet) for such strenuous recreation is a mystery. Football on four ounces of fat was a strain. No doubt our open air life did some of us a world of good, and in many instances it was not easy to recognise in a bronzed civilian soldier the erstwhile sallow clerk or shop-assistant.
It was at this stage of our travail that the Basuto Chief (Lerothodi) followed up the fashion of the day by launching a proclamation of his own which commanded all his people to return at once to Basutoland. Now, we had shut up with us in Kimberley some thousands of this worthy tribe. They received their Chief's command and set about preparing for instant departure, with the Colonel's blessing. We white folk were not at all sure that the Boers would be so gracious with their blessing. The process of starving us into submission was in full swing (and succeeding, alas! but too well). It was thus obvious that a reduction so substantial in the gross total of stomachs to be catered for would not tend to starve us the sooner. But the enemy did not deem it politic to attempt the task of driving Basutos and Britons to the sea together. The sympathies of the powerful Basuto chief were not on their side, and it would have been unwise to have risked offending him. So it was that the natives were permitted to pass unmolested to the kraals of their childhood. The enemy did not like it—any more than did King John when he signed the Great Charter—but it had to be.
In the meantime some news had come in to which the Colonel was pleased to give publicity. It was astonishing all the trifling tit-bits we did hear; and they occasionally excited interest—until discovered to be of home manufacture—the distinctive work of local genius. On this occasion, however, the tit-bit was "Official," and to the effect that the rebels at Douglas had been routed by the Canadian volunteers. This was gratifying; we blamed the rebels for our own beleagured state, and the moral lesson of the rout at Douglas might hasten the discomfiture of the gentlemen who surrounded us. I have yet to learn that it did in any shape or form.
It was triumphantly proclaimed in the afternoon that our patrols had brought in a host of Republican cattle; and when almost simultaneously with this announcement two proclamations were issued from Lennox Street, it was more than hoped, it was assumed, that the meat ordinance was to be relaxed. But it was not so. The first of these monuments to circumlocution had a final rap at the canteen. There were a few bars and canteens outside the barriers of the town; the Colonel said they should be closed, and closed they were—the proprietors, strange to say, assenting with a will. This alacrity was not consistent with their earlier diatribes against military despotism; but the fact was that since "lyddite" had been found out the experts were chary of making it, and the public still more chary of drinking it. There was some risk in selling it, too, so—clear the course for the "Law."
The second proclamation was all of wax and tallow. It commanded that all lights must in future be extinguished at half-past nine. We were thus considerately given half an hour to undress and lie reading books in bed after having been turned away from a perusal of the stars. We might have liked a little time for supper—but what am I saying!—there were no suppers; at least nobody was expected to commit a capital offence. But such miscreants existed, and kept their heads. It must in fairness be explained that they were for the most part possessors of obstinate hens that would not lay eggs. Eggs were firm at twenty-five shillings a dozen, and the hen that remained so contemptuous of mammon, so unredeemed by cupidity, so unmoved by the "golden" opportunity, most certainly deserved death. Therefore it was that an odd tough member of the feathered tribe was now and then discussed in secret. There was little conviviality about these gatherings assembled in back rooms where the light could burn with impunity. The unsuspecting night-patrol would pass blindly by, oblivious of the illegally illuminated junket within.
But indeed it must be confessed that few people took seriously the wax and tallow proclamation. The boarding-house keepers, of course, championed it and its author's wisdom (for reasons)—with a zeal that contrasted strangely with their condemnation of grander enactments. Landladies apart, however, the populace pooh-poohed the Gilbertian decree. Some regarded it as a mere precaution against a surprise visit from the Boers. But this was wrong, for the proclamation permitted the use of electric and acetylene lights at all hours. It was purely an economic question with the Colonel. Cynics opined that we should later on be offered the tallow to eat; and that the prohibition of the use of starch in our linen would be the precursor of some stiff emergency rations. The public, I say, disregarded the candle law, and the night patrol was kept busy dotting down in the light of the moon the numbers of a thousand houses. Unfortunately for the ends of Justice (!) the transgressors were so outrageously numerous that the heavy undertaking of arraigning half the city was not thought feasible. Only a few particularly refulgent "criminals" were hauled up and fined. Where sickness darkened a house the "Law" allowed a candle to light it, the whole night, if necessary, and invalids were accordingly as thick as leaves in Vallombrosa! An epidemic of all the ills that flesh is heir to raged in the land. Hypochondriacs moaned with their tongues in their cheeks in the presence of the prying night-patrol. Fevers flourished; multitudes were prostrated by influenza; the pleura played the devil with innumerable lungs. Anybody who was not a malingerer was voted a fool, an altruist. A magistrate, commenting on the great plague and the manner in which the majesty of the "Law" (the majesty of Martial Law!) was being outraged, averred that from his own doorstep every night at eleven o'clock he gazed at hundreds of illuminated houses. It was true; and we used to wonder which his worship was—an invalid, an altruist, or an owl!
We held a position at Otto's Kopje from which our men occasionally made things unpleasant for the Kamfers Dam Laager. The Boers, naturally, did not like this, and they in turn sometimes harassed the defenders of the kopje. But Kamfers Dam was shortly to be made quake, for it had just leaked out that a gigantic gun was in course of construction at the De Beers workshops; that men who knew their business were sweating at it day and night. Opinions were much divided as to the probable utility of this instrument. Some were disposed to pity the poor Boers when it was ready for action, while others were not less inclined to lament the fate of the poor Briton who would sit behind it, to get blown to pieces by a botched piece of mechanism. The withering criticisms passed on this prospective product of De Beers were anything but re-assuring. It was useless to try to impress on the morbid critic that there were skilled Woolwich men engaged in the manufacture of the gun. The argument would be crushed by that expressive figure, "rats!" The scorn with which these rodents were slung by the tail in the face of anyone who believed in "Long Cecil" (the gun had been so named out of compliment to Mr. Rhodes) was conclusive. Where was the necessary material to come from? Oh, De Beers had the material, the optimist would reply. But optimists, once so ubiquitous, were now as rare as radium. Our prophets had for their reputations' sake altered their tactics. Experience had taught them that the roseate view of things was the least likely to be sound, and they now revelled in predictions of an otto—not of roses. They prepared us, with a vengeance, for the worst. "To-morrow" was ever to be a day of tragic enormity for Kimberley. The local Armageddon was to begin (daily) at day-break; the enemy's guns were always being augmented; the town was to be razed to the ground, and, unless surrender was prompt, all its inhabitants with it. Thus did a spirit of despondency continue to depress the people and the prospect of emancipation grow dimmer and dimmer.
Besides the prophets of evil there was a set of cynics who sneered at all things, the incapacity of the Town Guard, its Officers, etc. For a long time the favourite boast of these gentlemen was that they had refused commissions in the Town Guard. It was true; and it is worth recalling why. At the beginning of the Siege little coteries were formed, "rings" were established, private meetings held—at which gatherings it was settled who was to be Captain of this Section, who Lieutenant of that, and so forth. All these matters were amicably fixed up, to the satisfaction of all concerned—including the vintner. It was assumed that the scale of pay would, as in the Regular Army, be in accordance with rank. The consideration was of course a minor one; but still the disgust of the coteries was profound when it was announced that the Imperial allowances to Town Guards were to be uniform; that a Captain was to receive for his services no more and no less than a Private. It was a disconcerting sequel to some skilful wire-pulling, and the martial ardour of the wire-pullers dropped in a trice to zero. Their dignity demanded their resignations, and their dignity's ruling was bowed to. These injured people would not be led into action by a raw volunteer; and they confided to every ear that would hear that the citizen soldiers could be trusted in a crisis—to shoot each other! But imagine the discomfiture of these veterans when at a later stage an army order, retrospective in its operation, was issued which cancelled the original monetary conditions of service for Officers and non-commissioned Officers, and increased the rates of pay to which their respective ranks entitled them. This order was only less effective than a bombshell in crushing a dignity already injured; and the gusto with which the Colonel and the Civil Commissioner were relegated to Connaught was excusable.
A good deal of rumbling was heard on Friday; it might have been thunder, or perchance artillery. Some said it was nature; others that it was guns' work. But nobody seemed to think that it mattered a great deal. We had grown tired of noise, nothing but noise. The whistle of the armoured train, which kept patrolling the line (the bit that was left of it) was more interesting, sometimes an innocent soul would allow his fancy to beguile him into hoping that the whistle portended the approach of a Cape Town train, with food and mail-bags, and he would march off to the station on desperate speculation to meet it.
In pursuance of an idea which had long occupied his thoughts the Colonel despatched a mounted force to cross the border into Free State territory—at which we could look across with the naked eye. What good purpose the visit was to serve was not obvious; but it was attributed to a desire on the Colonel's part to win the distinction of being the first to invade the enemy's territory. At any rate, the distinction was won. The men had not far to travel; and they did not go far when they crossed over, for the Oliphantsfontein camp blocked the way. The Boers were awake, but the audacity of the raid would appear to have deprived them for the moment of their visual senses. The Light Horse drew quite close ere the propriety of halting was suggested to them. The suggestion was naturally expected to issue in the first instance from the cannon's mouth; but the guns said nothing, and their silence emboldened our fellows to persist in their breach of etiquette until they made a startling discovery, namely, that the guns had been removed. This unexpected slice of luck so inspired the invaders that they advanced rapidly and drove out the enemy, whose resistance was feeble. A general inspection followed; the pantries and cupboards of the houses around were the objects of a special scrutiny, but not a bone, not an egg, not a crust was found! In one house a Boer lance with a white rag for pennon was picked up. This curio was carried back to town, and ultimately became the property of an enterprising curiosity shop-keeper, who cut artistic bullet holes in the pennon with his scissors—thereby adding largely to its curiousness. The bullets that made the holes were also a good line, and "sold" well (in fact, everybody). Nothing else occurred to make Friday noteworthy.
Saturday completed the round dozen weeks of siege life. How many more were to follow? Alas! our seers were discredited. They were silent; but hollow though time had branded their vaticinations the silence of the seers was not exactly golden. The prevailing pessimism was heart-breaking. At a critical stage, when a cheerful optimism was almost essential to the preservation of one's mental balance, we were tactlessly stuffed with the "lone lorn" lamentations of a Mrs. Gummidge. But Roberts was coming, and he was a "great" soldier—far greater than Wellington, or even Napoleon (a mere Corsican!) We hungered for news of his plans. Roberts, we took it, was not the man to sanction the alleged intentions of his subordinates—the callous mediocrities who would let Kimberley work out its own salvation. It was reported at this time—for the better security of our peace of mind—that a grand march was to be made on Bloemfontein, while Kimberley was to live on air and fight away.
In the afternoon a balloon appeared in the air. It attracted much attention, and set everybody speculating on what its business in the air precisely was. Our nautical experts (who had been at sea for three weeks anyhow) opined that it was "steering" for the Diamond Fields. It must have collided with a "Castle," for it never came into port.
Balloons, indeed, were seen very often, and a great deal of time was devoted to the study of their movements. In the silence of the night a practical joker would rush out with a field-glass in his hand and shout "balloon!" at the top of his voice. The desired effect—of bringing the whole street out of bed to see the balloon—was easily produced. The star-gazers would thus spend an hour or so minutely examining all the stars in the firmament in their endeavours to select the one that most resembled a balloon. This was not easily done—the stars being much alike to the stupid naked eye—but they would near the point of agreement on the question; and then the confounded night-patrol would come along with his gun, and the observers would have to rush for the cover of their blankets. When it was thought that the patrol had passed two thousand yards there would be a general sneak back to begin over again the search for the needle in the great haggard of the heavens. Everybody had his or her own particular planet to minimise. The brightest planets were naturally the more general choice, albeit distance might in the circumstances be expected to lend a dimness to the view. Venus was essentially a very nice balloon; numbers swore by Jupiter; Mercury had a heavy following. Taurus was indeed a "Bull"; and Mars! talk of Mars being inhabited; we identified its inhabitants as being necessarily British. There were thirteen signs in the Zodiac. Anybody who called a star a star was called an ass. "That's no star," your exasperated kinsman would retort, "do you take me for a blind fool." And it only required a fixed, steady gaze of ten minutes, without winking, to convince the most sceptical that it was indeed "no star"; that it did "move"; that it was "too large" for a star; that it was absurd to consider it not a balloon. The Milky Way (as per diverse opinions) was one vast creamery of balloons, undiluted by the "poetry of heaven!" In fine, among all the things that twinkled there were only some half dozen that hushed the voice of controversy. It was certain there remained at least five luminaries, five unmistakable stars, to wit, the Southern Cross. Paul Kruger once expressed astonishment that the British had not annexed the moon, if it were inhabited. Well, the moon, though there is a man in it, was, shall I say, too large, too obviously itself, to deceive the Imperial eye. We left the recluse in the moon alone, to smile in dreary solitude; interference with him would spoil the moonshine.