It was an illustration of the people's enduring pluck, this dogged resolution of no surrender. Not that they felt conscious of any particular heroism; the thought of capitulation as a means of escape from discomfort suggested itself to nobody. In moments of mental depression it might have crossed an ultra-pessimistic mind and been brooded over as a consummation that no Spartan bravery could enable us to avert. But to the masses the notion was unthinkable; the idea of surrender would not bear discussion; it was never discussed. Against Martial Law as such we did not so much complain; it was an evil, but to some extent a necessary evil; and however prone we were to find fault, however scathingly we condemned the machinations of the "Law," or the stern "will" of its maker, the possibility of yielding to the other enemy was never entertained for one moment. No proposal of the kind was ever made.
And when it is remembered that the nature and extent of the things they endured had at this period increased beyond the mere inconveniences of Siege life, it will be conceded that the citizens of Kimberley played a worthy part. They saw disease and death busy in their midst; they saw the natives succumbing to the ravages of scurvy and kindred ills; they saw sickness playing havoc with the white population; they saw their families in sore need of the necessities of existence, and young children—hardest of all—dying from want of nourishment. The infant mortality was truly heart-rending. It is recorded that thirteen babes were buried in one day. The authorities had adopted measures to conserve milk for the young and the invalided, but with only partial success. When matters were at their worst a further effort was made to induce the privileged few who could still call their cows their own to send milk to a central depot for distribution among the children of the poor and middle classes. And the appeal was not a vain one; the response was generous; it lessened the mortality. To-day, the men of the Diamond Fields can look back and laugh at their harsh judgments, their not too sweet reasonableness towards the "Law" of the land. They acquitted themselves well on the whole; for an imperturbable spirit covers a multitude of foibles. The citizens held Kimberley in spite of everything, and never swerved from the fulfilment of what they felt to be a sacred duty.
Sunday brought a dreary repetition of a siege Sunday's monotony. The situation had been discussed threadbare, and there was little else to converse about. The dust outdoors was blinding, and the people for the most part dozed over books. That was the cardinal mercy vouchsafed us; we had books to read, and never were they so ravenously devoured. Reading was much in vogue; it was a siege innovation—a very good one, too. Persons who had never hitherto believed in the pleasure to be derived from books were disillusioned, and driven, as it were, to cultivate a taste for literature—as men in gaol often are. It may therefore be set down as portion of the good resulting from evil, this teaching of people to value mental nourishment. The importance of the physical variety was only too well understood.
On Monday many shells fell into the west end of the town. Our West End was not like London's; there were few houses in it, and they were unoccupied. Mafeking, it was said, had driven back the besiegers, and, it was added, had "possibly" been relieved from the north ("possibly" was thought distinctly good). It may have been so; but we did not believe it. There had all along been a great deal of chopping and changing anent the position of the Mafeking garrison. We were at one time told that Mafeking "fell" before our Siege began. We could, and always did, take a more dispassionate view of Baden-Powell's plight than we could or would take of our own.
Tuesday morning brought the 'signal sound of strife'; no day brought any more. The belching of the guns sounded nearer than on the Monday, but that was small consolation, for it had sounded near and afar off alternately for many days. There is a modernised game of blind man's buff in which the blind one is set to find a hidden ping-pong ball, and is aided in the search by a fugue played on the piano. The nearer she (or he) approaches the object of her (or his) search the louder grows the music (the fugue) and vice versa. It seemed to us that Methuen not only knew the game but was passionately fond of it. It was our privilege in the afternoon to behold the twinkling of a balloon. It being broad daylight the stars were not visible. Still, sceptical wiseacres refused to come outside to see the sight; they guessed it was "the sun." A variety of colours were to be seen about the balloon; the sceptics said it was a rainbow. But there was no mistaking it in the light of day; the thing was really a balloon. The rumour-monger seized his opportunity and circulated all over the city that portion of the Column were visible, or had halted, rather, at Kraalkop, where they ought to be visible. Kraalkop accordingly was watched intently for eight and forty hours, but no sign of a human presence rewarded the vigil. The Boers, meanwhile, evinced no signs of scenting danger from any quarter, and with their usual nonchalance kept leisurely shying shells at Kimberley. These missiles were intended probably for the redoubts, as they fell mainly on the outskirts of the town. They exploded on the hard roads, and suggested plenty of melancholy speculation as to the precise number of them that would be needed to double up for ever the entire population. Fever continued to play havoc with both natives and Europeans. The Siege was growing warm, insufferably warm, and the weather that nature gave us was in all conscience hot enough. In our fourteenth week of hunger and thirst matters were as bad as they could be—until the meat Directorate proceeded scientifically to confound the fallacy in their own peculiar way.
The half and half regulation had been in operation some days—a few eating all they got—others only half of it—more again touching no meat at all lest they should (horrible thought!) mistake one half for the other. This state of things did not satisfy the Authorities, and they proceeded to push the horse—practically down our throats. The feelings of the civilised citizens of the Diamond City can be better imagined than described when they read in the daily bulletin at the Washington Market that they would get—not all horse indeed, but, in the words of the song, "it was near it." It was decreed that our ration should henceforth consist of four-fifths horse-flesh and one-fifth meat proper. This reduced our allowance of solid (familiar) food to less than one ounce, or in other words to the dimensions of a small cake of tobacco minus several pipefuls! It may well be doubted whether Gilbert has ever conceived anything so quaint. I will not dwell on its whimsical side, nor on the feelings its realism stirred in the breasts of the suffering multitude. In effect it caused a serious secession from the ranks of the party who had abstained altogether from horseflesh. For when it came to a choice between no meat at all on the one side, and Boer bread and porridge exclusively on the other, it occurred to the seceders that even horse blood is thicker than water; so they passed under the yoke of hippophagy with perfect composure. Still the party that suffered this defection lost neither prestige nor numerical strength, for the four-fifths' standard made vegetarians of many who had tolerated—while it lasted—the principle of equal rights, or two ounces of each animal. A transposition of parties occurred. But none abstained from opening the floodgates of their wrath on the authors of the latest menu. The authors' apologists, for—tell it not in Gath!—they had apologists still, argued that there were restaurants in Paris where cooked horse was a speciality. But special pleading so palpable only aggravated the prevailing resentment to the dish. There were a great many customs in Paris equally foreign to our, shall I say, Imperial ways; together with a plethora of scientific chefs who could metamorphose anything—rats as well as horses. There were revolutionaries in France in sufficient numbers to make traffic in gruesome dietary pay; and plenty of fodder, besides, with which to "fatten" beasts. All this gammon respecting Continental precedent and taste was beside the question; it only invited gratuitous vituperation of the French nation. An ugly feature of the traffic was suggested by the fact that horses were dying from sheer starvation. The Sanitary Authorities had become experts in the use of the revolvers with which they expedited the demise of the poor beasts. Everybody has doubtless known of the repulsion one feels against partaking of the flesh of a cow that dies a natural death. All of us, perhaps, have unconsciously relished it at one time or another, when butchers were above suspicion. But when it was a question of a horse—well, I will not conjure up the horror of the situation. The horses used for food were all slaughtered; but the suspicion existed that they might not have been, and to lay the bogey in minds governing old-fashioned stomachs was not easy. These old Whigs argued that the meat we ate was "dead" meat, from "dead" animals (which was indisputable). All this apart, however, it was manifest even to the devil-may-care fellows who are usually satisfied with enough of a thing, that the horses were "too thin." The Authorities kept inviting owners to sell their beasts for "slaughtering purposes"; good prices were offered for "fat horses." Advertisements (in huge capitals) to this effect disfigured our newspaper for a long while, and though we did not regard it as such it was a nice piece of humour. The "fat" horses were all too few for fighting, and were reserved for fighting. The artfulness of "slaughtering purposes" can be appreciated accordingly.
Wednesday was interesting, Colonel Chamier having persuaded Kekewich to let him off on a little expedition. He took with him a small battery of guns, a picked force of mounted men (on "fat" horses), and wended his way towards Alexandersfontein. On the journey he divided his force and left half of it with a Maxim at a Mr. Fenn's farm. The jolly Boers had evidently, and not unnaturally, assumed that they had cured us of our weakness for meanderings. An attack was the last thing they looked for, and Chamier got well within range of the great camp unobserved. And then the battle began. The enemy, taken by surprise, suffered much in their efforts to regain their trenches. In the meantime a large party of Boers from a neighbouring arc of the circle that encompassed Kimberley were endeavouring to cut off Chamier's retreat. But it was with tactics of this sort that the men at Fenn's were instructed to deal; and they did deal with them, effectually. Unconscious of hidden danger, the unsuspecting Boers in the course of their operations drew near to the farm. And it was then, and not till then, that into their midst came a shower of bullets that spoiled their plans. In the melee a Boer horse (a plump one) was triumphantly captured and preserved for dissection. The men shortly afterwards returned to town, having learnt all that they wanted to learn, and inflicted more damage than they had hoped to inflict. They were bombarded on the journey home, but their casualities were nil.
On their entrance into Kimberley they met an enthusiastic baker (with his breadcart), who was not in a position to confer V.C.'s all round; but he bombarded each member of the force with something quite as precious, namely, a loaf of bread. The "regulation" allowance was only a paltry fourteen ounces, which the lightest of Light Horsemen was capable of demolishing for breakfast. The generous baker—Martial Law and proclamations notwithstanding—could not resist the opportunity of throwing the beam of a good deed on this naughty world; and when he found he had not sufficient loaves to go round, so far from regretting his quixotic rashness, he galloped back to his bakehouse for more. It was a graceful act—reckless, heroic—and the recipients of the dough were not lacking in gratitude. But, alas! the Commissariat were; they bristled with anger! How dare a baker be generous in the teeth of the penalties attached to kindness and such weaknesses. How dare he flout so outrageously the canons of Martial Law. Who was Czar! Was Kekewich king! Was Cæsar (Imperial Cæsar) dead and turned to—flour! The offence was unprecedented in its heinousness. Threats of prosecution followed; but the offending baker apologised; and though the more rigid of our disciplinarians, given their way, would have roasted him in his own oven, the flexible ones deemed shooting too good for him, and accepted his apology by way of compromise.
But Wednesday will be remembered for more than a sortie, and the baker's rebellion that ensued. On that day was formally established our celebrated "Soup Kitchen." Among the sheaves of suggestive letters to the Editor, for the better management, economy, and distribution of supplies, the epistles relating to the need of a soup department had attracted most attention. The idea was not a bad one; it was practicable, and had much to commend it. But still the feeling of the people was that so long as they were allowed an unmixed ration of the roast beef of old England or young Australia (same Empire) it was preferable that they should be permitted to make their own soup—a poor thing, perhaps; but their own.
The advent of a joint more accustomed to shafts than to skewers, however, was a horse of a different colour; so different, in fact, that all the virtues of a great common kitchen, the saving it would effect, and the good side of Collectivism generally, dawned simultaneously upon everybody by some magical inspiration. The advantages of a Soup-house were at once recognised, and the wisdom of such a creation was immediately acclaimed by a host of astute correspondents. The idea took root, germinated, "caught on," so to say, as the one and only panacea for our ills. So strongly was the scheme approved that arrangements for the flotation of a semi-philanthropic, semi-military company were settled forthwith. All the best names available (for reasons which will be more obvious in due time) were placed on the list of Directors. Mr. Rhodes, the millionaire, would not lend his name for inscription on a prospectus that was not bona fide; and such respected signatories as Mr. and Mrs. Maguire, Doctor Smartt (who also was "well," bedad), and other public personages of high character and probity were a good guarantee for the quality and purity of the State Soup; while the skill of Captain Tyson (who undertook the duties of honorary chef) was incontestable. All these names were easily procured. It was laid down with solemn emphasis, as a primary article of faith, that the soup was to be made from oxflesh, and nothing but oxflesh. The horse was to be banned! That was the cardinal condition of the success anticipated for the venture; and the guarantees on this head were, in view of the status of the guarantors, accepted unreservedly. Mr. Rhodes, indeed, went a step further than the rest; he guaranteed a contribution of vegetables from the De Beers garden; and the Colonel, not to be outdone, permitted the soup to be thickened with mealie meal. The allowance was to be at the rate of one pint per adult, at three-pence per pint. That the value given for the humble "tickey" was good the success of the scheme proved beyond contention. Hundreds of pints were disposed of—the Directors in person superintending the sale and wielding the ladles. The supply did not at first correspond with the demand; thousands who had assembled with their jugs were turned away disappointed. The great things expected from the Kitchen were realised; the excellence and the flavour of the broth surpassed expectations. The ordinary meat ticket sufficed, and its presentation at the Kitchen entitled the holder to as many pints of soup as (and in lieu of) the number of meat rations for which the ticket was good. The fame of the broth travelled far. Egg-cup-fuls of the liquid were exultingly passed round to the wary, suspicious ones; and these proud sceptics by extending to it the charity of their silence most eloquently admitted the groundlessness of their horsey apprehensions.
The visit of an envoy from the Boer camp aroused a good deal of curiosity. What did he want? The Colonel would never tell. But there was much sinister speculation abroad which, taken in conjunction with the unabating activity of the Boers, was the reverse of comforting. The unconditional surrender of the town had, it was whispered, been demanded in explicit terms, and with equal explicitness refused. The consequence of this refusal was the thought uppermost in every mind. The gentlemen outside were numerically stronger than ever, and more at ease, too. They had—if report ever spoke truly—intimated to the "Volunteer" camp, in some way not explained, that they had just returned from their Christmas holidays; that their absence accounted for the "quiet time" we had been enjoying; but that they would presently be giving us "beans." They certainly know how many make five; and their facetiousness in close proximity to a large British Column was beyond us.
There was yet another pronouncement to complete the eventfulness of the day, and to cause a lull in the domestic warfare waged against the Colonel and his Ironsides. By dint of hard work day and night the great thirty-pound gun constructed by De Beers was finished at last. Big things were expected from it; the surprise and consternation it was likely to create was a pleasing reflection. The construction of such a piece of ordnance in the middle of a desert was considered something to be proud of, and that reflected credit on the genius of Mr. Labram, who had planned it. Long Cecil (as it was called), in all its pristine perfection, was submitted to the public gaze, and was at once the cynosure of all eyes. On Friday it was tested, with complete success. The boom, at close quarters, was loud and alarming; and it required the despatch of a second shell to satisfy non-spectators that the gun had not been blown to pieces by the first. A few missiles were sent into the Intermediate Station, a couple of miles distant. Whether anyone was hurt did not transpire, but the moral effect produced was unmistakable. A panic appeared to ensue, and vehicles of all sorts were hurriedly requisitioned to enable the Boers to get away with their goods and chattels from the Intermediate to a more healthy station. Private letters were afterwards unearthed in which no attempt was made to conceal the alarm occasioned by this unexpected visitation.
But the new gun was only a diversion, while the stream of invective against horseflesh went on like the brook for ever. It is an ill wind that blows nobody good; the truth of this was well exemplified in the luck of the dogs. The poor animals looked shockingly thin and wasted, and had for a long time been unable to move about with their wonted agility in pursuit of locusts and mosquitoes. The mongrels that had any fight or vitality left in them would engage in a terrific struggle on the streets at night for the contents of the refuse buckets which our primitive sanitation laws permitted to obstruct the pathways until morning. It need hardly be said that there was not much in the way of crusts, scraps, or bones to appease canine hunger, and the resultant keenness of the competition made the night extremely hideous. This snarling struggle for existence had gone on night after night to the supreme annoyance of martyrs who would fain have slept, and who urged (in letters to the Editor) the wholesale destruction of the snarlers as a work at once humane, essential, and congenial. This was in pre-horse food days, when the ox was paramount on our tables.
But now all was changed, and every dog had his day indeed! The brutes—not knowing the difference—revelled in horseflesh. The people who could not look at it gave it all to their dogs; while the most enthusiastic equine meat-eater invariably left a trifle behind him. Canine gluttony was a source of much amusement, envy, or disgust (according to the individual temperament); and the ubiquitous cynic reminded one of a good time coming when the horse would be locally extinct and "fat dog" the daintiest of diets. The irony of it all was that there were still at Kenilworth some hundreds of oxen, in perpetual danger of being "sniped "; and the populace argued (not unreasonably) that to force on us irrational rations was in the circumstances a callous thing. There were doubtless considerations to palliate this procedure on the part of the Protector, but we would not see them. The cattle were there in sufficient numbers to feed us until relief arrived. True, relief appeared to be remote, but our view was that (if a calamity were to be averted) it must come within a month at the outside. And what a pretty denouement it would be, we said, if, through thrusting "strange food" upon us until the Column came in, there were left a monster herd of jubilant bullocks to swell the chorus of welcome! And, if I mistake not, they did actually swell it. At any rate, General French was reported to have been highly indignant when informed of how much more useful than palatable the horse was, and to have ordered its exclusion from the abattoir forthwith. We had to continue vegetating on Siege rations for two weeks after the arrival of French; but from the first moment of his entry the nightmare of horseflesh troubled us no more.
Those dark days were not without their humours withal; and there was a piquancy in the very imperviousness of our risible faculties to their correct appreciation. Asses and mules—it was said—were butchered in common with horses, and discussion was wont to be rife on the relative merits of the three animals in their new sphere of usefulness. The difficulty involved in distinguishing a steak of one from a steak of another was no small one; but donkey was reputed to taste sweeter than common horse—a questionable recommendation!—and the advocates of this theory were called cannibals. The mule had its backers, too; it was the gentler animal, they contended in sustainment of their preference. But all three beasts had acquired a fresh interest, notoriety, and dignity; and it was edifying to watch men, not noted for their sporting proclivities, eyeing an animal with the knowing look of a connoisseur that seemed to say: "I wonder what he would taste like." Whether it was that, being so cheap he might be regarded "gift horse," or for some less occult reason, the points of a beast were never looked for in the mouth. His age, for example, might strike a thinking person as an important factor to be remembered in the summing up of a horse's fitness for the grill. But the people generally never thought of that, and were mainly influenced in their judgments by the spareness or fleshiness of the animal's hindquarters. On Saturday the atmosphere was thick with rumours of imminent trouble. The precise terms of the Boer ultimatum we did not know, but that an ultimatum had been received was not denied. We heard of a fifty-pound gun (bigger than ours!) being put into position on the Free State border—with a view to instilling in us the wisdom of recognising the inevitable. The less formidable instruments of torture nearer home were also being augmented. There was a feeling that events of an uncommon character were on the march. People talked of presentiments—one being that the Baralongs outside Kimberley were being armed to assist in our annihilation. The much debated topic anent the likelihood of the Sixth Division being sent to join Methuen was settled at last—to our chagrin. It had gone off at a tangent somewhere else. Who knew that the Seventh Division would not follow suit? In any case, weeks had to pass before the Seventh (being still at sea) could get anywhere. Our prospects of speedy liberation were therefore none too excellent. The Empire was passing through a crisis, and if Kekewich had had only the statesmanship to make known to us the truth, the plain unvarnished truth, we might have been less captious in our criticisms of things both local and Imperial. Even the new gun, in common with the times, was out of joint and undergoing repairs at the workshop.
Nutritious food of any sort was now a rarity in real earnest. Eggs were hard at a price per dozen that purchased a gross in the not too cheap days of peace; while ducks and drakes, no bigger than crows, but worth their weight in diamonds, were too heavy for the patrons of paste. The military people had an extensive variety of precious birds stuffed away in their own selected aviaries. They had also seized upon all the cigarettes in town. Now, this was held up as a well-grounded and specific grievance against the military. It was conceded that the sick and wounded had first claim on our humanity; and the chicken monopoly, had it stood alone, would not have invited criticism. But the cigarette appropriation was reckoned a scandal. There was an abundance of matches in the military stores—but nowhere else. The tobacconists were selling off, at quadrupled rates, quantities of ancient, nasty-smelling "safety-matches," which but yesterday, alas! they would have paid us to bury somewhere! Of course there were wide possibilities of economy in this direction—the one match often putting the kettles to boil in half a street. The waste in the matter of pipe-kindling had to be modified, and the mediæval makeshift of flint and steel restored. The fierce rays of Sol, through the media of our monocles, were also utilised to light cigars. What else on Saturday? Yes, Mafeking, they said, was fighting on still; and Generals Buller and Warren had forded the Tugela, en route to Ladysmith. That their plunge might stimulate Methuen to burn his boots and brave the turgid waters of the Modder, was the fervent wish of Kimberley at the end of fourteen weeks of irksome, emaciating duress.