But all these far-seeing mortals had fallen discredited from their high estate; and it was at this pregnant turning point in our fortunes that the need of a little originality (for their credit's sake) appeared to strike them. They set themselves to weave a romance as weird, as diabolical, as their perverted ingenuity could suggest. And a masterpiece it proved to be.
They began to tell us of horseflesh, to recite legends of how under conditions similar to ours it had been eaten, positively eaten, in the past by human beings, who without it would have died, and who did not die when they ate it! For our part, we should have elected to die first—but I must not anticipate. Gradually and tentatively—just as a man who saw virtue in cannibalism would hem and haw before he advocated its practice—the subject of horseflesh was furtively discussed in whispers, which ultimately developed into audible commentaries in regard to its odour, taste, and general nutritiousness. A plea for cannibalism could scarcely encounter fiercer opposition or evoke greater disgust than did the mere suggestion of horseflesh, even as a last resort, a possible infliction, an alternative to surrender. In no circumstances would we tolerate it. The very name of such a diet was revolting to our conservative tastes, and filled us with horror; it was bad form to mention it. If the British army ever brought us to such a pass terrible things would happen; loyalty would be a memory of the digestive past; wholesale forswearing of allegiance to the Queen would be the patriotism of the day. Horseflesh indeed! The dish was hounded down as something too utterly inconsonant with the culinary decencies of civilisation.
So strong and bitter was the feeling against the horseflesh fable—for fable, our anger notwithstanding, we insisted it was—that thinking meat-eaters began to look upon it as a bad omen, and to wonder why a baseless rumour should stir up so much indignation. Tales of this kind, whether or not they tallied with probability, had come to be pooh-poohed, to be treated with disdain. Hence it was rather odd that an anecdote so racy should excite so much ferocity.
Meanwhile, the enemy, unaware of our internal troubles, had placed three new guns on Wimbleton Ridge. This was ominous; it brought about an armistice; that is, a cessation of hostilities in the war of words against Gorle and his hippophagous designs. A bombardment was expected; and as we might easily have our teeth incapacitated by the shells, the absurdity of bidding the hoofed gentleman good-day before we met him gave us pause in our campaign against his friends. But the assault was directed to Kenilworth; the cannon rattled all day with a view to killing the cattle sheltered there. Our guns, after a while, took part in the firing, and when the smoke cleared away the kine were still there—on their feet. A second contingent of Basutos had taken their departure in the morning, and as they did not return we presumed they had passed in safety through the Boer lines. This accommodating spirit, while their policy of exhaustion was doing so well, must have gone against the Boer's grain; but then Lerothodi was a sleeping dog; it was important that he should be let lie.
The vindication of the fama was completed on Monday when horseflesh in all its naked iniquity was offered for sale, as horseflesh, at the Washington Market. Its virtual effect was to reduce our meat ration by a quarter; the authorities with rare consideration refrained from extremities, and started us with small doses of one ounce added to three of ox-flesh. Perhaps some credit was due to the military for horse-feeding us by degrees; but certain it is, they never got it. The people generally declined to intermix their curtailed rations with "strange food" of any kind; and the strange food accordingly remained in the shambles to do service another day—when means could be employed, if need be, to exorcise the demon of fastidiousness that had taken possession of us.
Our historians, our booky men, were on Tuesday glib to inform us that the Siege had now extended to eighty-seven days—the exact duration of the Siege of Lucknow. The tribulations of Lucknow were comparatively short and sweet; for our troubles, horseflesh made us feel, were only about to begin. Our clamour for relief had abated, and, except for an occasional spasmodic outburst, Methuen was left in peace. Agitation in the wilderness was futile; it could not hasten emancipation from the thraldom of Martial Law. We developed a lethargy on the broader (Imperial) issue. The guns still threshed the air, but with an increasing feebleness suggestive of the Column's return by easy stages to Orange River. Our disappointments had been manifold, and whispers with reference to the ultimate terms of surrender were not uncommon. Not that there was in any mind a disposition to give in until it was humanly impossible to hold the fort. But it was coming to that stage. Horseflesh on the top of other trials had implanted the canker of despair in more than one sensitive soul. We had a great deal of horseflesh of the tram and cab kind, and much as the obligations of Empire might induce us to perform, it was too much to expect us to rise to the occasion on foreign food. The physical needs of the moment demanded something less repulsive to the palate. No wonder the gloomy picture of digging trenches for the Boers obtruded itself on our mental vision. Opinions conflicted as to the aggregate quantity of meal and flour in the military stores; most people held the view that it was much less than was actually the fact. The scarcity of fodder, too, was felt acutely, and necessitated the curtailment of the tram and cab services. More horses had to be unharnessed and sent out to graze on the veld!—to live, as it were, on their wits. It was even rumoured that some Indian members of the community were inviting tenders for a supply of cats, and were prepared to pay for them as much as two shillings per puss. No evidence, however, in support of this tale from the Hills was forthcoming; nor was it in any event likely to prove a remunerative venture, since rabbit pie—ever a convertible term—would be the last delicacy to inspire trust where all animal food was suspect.
In the afternoon, two visitors entered the city. One had little to tell, but the other made amends for his companion's taciturnity with a graphic, Othellonian description of the dangers he had passed, and his wondrous experiences for many days and nights. He had, it appeared, a regard for Mr. Rhodes, (who is less popular in the Free State than in Kimberley), and the Government across the border had arraigned him on the charge of being "a Rhodes man" (whatever that is). For this high crime and misdemeanour he had been sentenced to three years' imprisonment. But the Rhodes man resented the injustice, and, with his friend, contrived to escape. After a series of peripatetic adventures they were more dead than alive when the head-gear of De Beers burst upon their view. The spectacle revivified them, and with a desperate rally they crawled undetected through the Boer lines, to an asylum in which they were glad to find even horseflesh to eat.
Wednesday was in no way eventful; lassitude had gripped the people. This was the more noticeable in that our friends outside appeared to be uncommonly vigorous. They devoted great attention to their redoubts, to strengthening them, and conducted themselves like men who were sanguine of the fall of Kimberley. They bombarded us lightly in the afternoon, on the chance of stretching hors-de-combat a unit of the garrison—not more than one or two, as they had no special desire to prejudice the appeal they felt sure we must soon make for food. They did not want that consummation delayed a moment longer than was necessary. It would leave them free to establish railway communication between Kimberley and Bloemfontein; they had such a scheme in contemplation.
All these things, however, were now of secondary interest; it was the horseflesh peril that held the field. The masses were still determined never to submit to such an ordinance on the eve of the twentieth century; the innovation was too horrible. But the military, undaunted by popular opposition, were bent on making the horse acceptable; and their next move was to equalise the proportions of the two species that constituted a ration. The effect of this little twist of the screw was to reduce our meat ration (nobody allowed that horseflesh was meat!) to two ounces. The ounces from the ribs of the tougher animal were left severely alone—by the majority of the people. On the other hand, controversialists of strong anti-vegetarian views were forced to experiment. Their verdicts differed. Some of them knew a little about cooking, and they were "not surprised." Others, who knew nothing of cooking, re-harnessed the horse at once; while a third school, expert in the culinary art, triumphantly overcame their prejudices, but were afraid openly to smack their lips. Unanimous approval or toleration was never forthcoming, and, for myself, I am most inclined to respect the judgment of the heretics who pronounced the equine dish "as good as the meat that was going." It was certainly not better, and to make it universally acceptable it would require to have been very much better.
On one "point" agreement obtained; it was admitted on all sides that the horse tasted sweet. One might suppose the adjective to be a recommendation; but it was not so; quite the contrary (the nearer the bone, etc. does not apply to a saddle of horseflesh). And yet there were people who liked their porridge sweet! who, after wasting their allowance of sugar in it, would go running about the streets to borrow a little sugar for their tea. Had it been practicable to utilise a little horse-essence for the tea, all would be well. But it would hardly do. Nobody ventured even to hint at the adoption of such a course to a neighbour; with borrowing rampant it was undesirable to be on other than amicable terms with the lady next door.
Time passed, and our antipathy to horseflesh abated not a jot. It did not improve on acquaintance, we were told by those who tried it, while the self-respecting persons who would not so demean themselves were no less bitter in their diatribes. It was useless to argue that the horse was a "clean" animal. He was deemed too useful, too tough, too sinewy, too hard-working to be digestible. We could not connect a horse-chop with what was fit for human consumption. Most of us indulgently spared the butcher the trouble of weighing it; we preferred—with an air of dignity—to take the two ounces that civilisation sanctioned, and to forego the rest. And there were numbers who did not consider it worth while enduring a certain jostling for the right half of their ration; it was not worth it—and they might get the wrong half! The meat man did not like the boycott at all; he wanted to get rid of his surplus sirloins, and the asceticism of those who preferred to thrive on black tea enabled him to invite the unparticular people to pick and choose the rib—the equine rib—they liked best. The authorities, to do them justice, had acted straightforwardly in differentiating between the two animals; no deception in the way of palming off the one for the other was permitted. But in the confusion things got mixed; and the poor butcher, who was only human, succumbed in spite of himself to strong temptation. Whether he was governed by the motive of doing a little wrong for sake of a great right is beside the question. The great right was done. In veterinary circles the meat dispenser was relished as a rather daring "perverter," while hundreds of smart people began to enjoy their pseudo-beef. And when afterwards informed of the "mistake" they did not seem to care, but went on serenely pandering to the butcher's genial ambidextrousness.
On Thursday a good many shells fell in the neighbourhood of Scholtz's Nek. With an energy which few had hitherto been disposed to give him credit for possessing, the enemy continued to engross himself in establishing, as it were, a fixity of tenure. This growing feeling of security which animated our friends was most depressing. True, it was something to hear that the Boers at Ladysmith had been repulsed with heavy loss—if it were true. It was something; but it was not much. Privations had developed our bumps of Provincialism; the claims of Empire took a secondary place, as also did the fortunes of Ladysmith. One authority stated that forty-five thousand Boers had been killed or wounded in Natal. But these figures, to be correct, would necessarily have embraced the warriors outside Kimberley—who were much alive! The figures were afterwards reduced to four, and eventually to two. But these important amendments were not proposed and carried for weeks after the events to which they related, by which time we were so deep in the slough of despond over something else that we could not sink deeper. We were still in the dark as to the progress of the campaign. No accurate accounts of the disasters, mishaps, and reverses that marked its opening stages were placed before us. Brief and garbled references to Stormberg, Colenso, and Nicholson's Nek were allowed by "Law" to illumine the columns of the Press—getting lightly treated as trifles of no consequence. There existed a small, astute minority who hazarded unpleasant opinions of these "trifles." Our Teutonic friends candidly expressed the view that England, to save her Empire, must shortly sue for peace; but though they were just as anxious as anybody else to see the Column come in, too much weight was not attached to what foreign fellows said. The Advertiser, too, though ever sanguine in its editorial columns, was sometimes indiscreet in its humour. It gave us, for example, an anecdote anent the utterances of a certain prominent Boer, which was in no wise calculated to allay the unrest prevalent since Magersfontein. The Boers, he said, were willing to make peace at their own price, and that price included a full recognition of their Independence, an indemnity of twenty millions of money, and a perquisite in the shape of Natal for the Transvaal. For the Free State it was stipulated that the border should be widened to admit Kimberley back to the fold. These were extravagant terms; they were amusing, as amusement goes—or might go in the ordinary trend of things. But when coupled with other symptoms—the misfortunes of the army, the reticence of the authorities, the uncanny demureness of the fourth estate—they were not conducive to peace of mind. Had there been aught that was good to tell it would have been proclaimed with glowing candour; the "new diplomacy" would have exercised its sway in riotous triumph. The Military, it was conceded, knew everything. Unanimity obtained on that point. But it stopped there. On the question of the Colonel's reticence, its cause, effect, wisdom, or unwisdom, discord was rife. Acute ones had hit the nail on the head, but they could not drive it home. Every man, or set of men, had his or their own peculiar theory to expound. The army, some said, was marching on Bloemfontein with a view to expediting our relief by forcing the Boer back to defend his own State. Against this it was maintained that Kimberley was outside the ambit of the army's high and mighty consideration. Others argued that the Colonel's policy of "mum" was mainly intended as a protest against the traffic in "Specials." We were all weary; the strain was weakening our mental faculties; the most sensible and philosophic cherished the queerest thoughts. As a cynic observed, one night at souchong, it took a siege to test one's intelligence—and it tried the cynics as much as the non-intellectual. All honour to those gentlemen—lay and clerical—who by dint of hard work and in doing good preserved their equilibrium. We had, on Thursday, an instance of their worth in the establishment of a cook-house to supply the native population with cooked rations. This was a praiseworthy innovation, for wood and such fuel as Mars permitted to be combustible were extremely scarce. The native had been cured of his weakness for the dismemberment of mahogany; indirectly the cooking-depot warded off a "relapse," and was altogether an Institution creditable to its founders.
Friday came and went unmarked by incident of note; but no; we were told—it was something new to be told anything—that a Cape dorp called Kuruman had thrown up the sponge. The place had been poorly garrisoned, and the end was not unexpected—in Official quarters. We protested against the military habit of publishing things we did not want to know, while all knowledge of more important events was kept hermetically sealed in one or half a dozen heads. We were not altogether consistent in this, but—no matter. Saturday wound up the unlucky thirteenth week of our sorrows. It saw us emaciated, thirsty, and filled to satiety with the romance of isolation. It found us irascible, contumacious, with an aptitude for fluent swearing at the tales (of how light we had grown) unfolded by the weighing-machine. It found us in lucid intervals conjuring up visions of a beer saturnalia when—alas! when the barrels were full again. It heard us howling against horseflesh and the devilish ingenuity of him who discovered a precedent for roasting it; it heard the chorus, "where is the Column?" and the mocking echo answering "where!" It heard many divergent opinions as to what the Column was going to do; some contending that it was waiting to be re-inforced by the "Sixth Division"; more dictating with fiery rancour that it was for the "Seventh Division" the Column waited; another insisting that the "Seventh Division" was operating a thousand miles away—and all of us knowing about as much of the Sixth or Seventh Division's movements as Plato did of ping-pong! The need of Army reform was much felt and talked of. But there was behind this conflict of tongues a weary but firm determination to keep unfurled at all costs the flag of no surrender.