The whirligig of the enemy (time, not the Boer, not the "Law") had again carried us to the beginning of another week. The Sundays were now exceedingly dull, and on the particular Sabbath with which I am dealing little worthy of record came within the sphere of my observations. I shall therefore—in the absence of matter of graver import—take advantage of its Sunday silence to say a word or two about the Diamond Fields' Advertiser. The views of the besieged in regard to their local print had undergone a change. They had at one time been proud of their paper. It had formerly been conducted on well-defined principles; and it was its departure from these principles to the status of an "Organ" that preached, but which at the frown of a Draconic Colonel practised not its articles—it was this that brought down upon its head the wrath of the local democracy. The authorities had for a while permitted the paper to publish war-scraps; but whether it was due to a tendency on the Editor's part to expand these allowances, the privilege was withdrawn and scraps were proscribed. Even the fiction in the columns of our journal was subjected to a rigid censorship; and when the Public had expected it to be voicing their protests against the Russian government of the day, the paper was virtually in Slavonic hands and controlled by the Czar himself. Its eight large pages had been reduced to four small ones, which became better known as the "Official Gazette" of the district. But though we read in it garrison orders from time to time, the three-penny novelette of the town would have been a more fitting designation. It had once quoted from a London contemporary a statement to the effect that hundreds of lives had been thrown away at Magersfontein in an attempt to rescue Cecil Rhodes! Our "Organ" was then independent enough to retort that there was, besides Mr. Rhodes, the fate of thousands of British subjects to be considered. But now it was far otherwise; the independence of tone had vanished. Instead of dignified sarcasm, we were apologetically regaled with parallels of all the sieges in the world's history—Troy, Plevna, Sebastopol, Paris, etc.—and calmly assured that our tribulations weighed lightly in the balance with what was suffered in the brave days of—"wooden" horseflesh!
Still the journal, though it evoked the displeasure of its quondam admirers, doubtless acted for the best in a difficult situation; and there were many who might have overlooked the "parallels" were it not for the advertisements. For through the advertising columns we were perpetually being pressed by the merchants of the city to come in and buy everything that makes life worth living! All the dainties an aspirant to gout could wish for were, according to our "Official Gazette," to be had for the asking. At the hotels, "Highland Cream Whiskey" was for ever arriving; and "O.K." (another thistle!) kept "licking 'em all" with monotonous invincibility. Iced beer was on tap; the champagne was sparkling; the wine needed no bush. The cheese was still alive (on paper). Cakes, hams, jams, biscuits, potted fish, flesh, and good red herring were, so to speak, all over the shops. This was the sort of pabulum our morning sheet supplied by way of breakfast for inward digestion, and there was an irony in the meal which its uniqueness did not help to make palatable. Absent-minded people still went shopping for luxuries gone but not forgotten; to provoke a premature "April fool" from the startled grocer, who was powerless to make real the chimeras that haunted the jungles of the shoppers' imaginations. Even practical (new) women would sometimes think of Bovril, and rush off to buy it all up, only to find that it had been bought up long ago, and that not for nothing had so much money been expended in the booming of that bullock in a bottle! Our boarding-house tariffs were ridiculously low (the paper said) at seven or eight pounds per month; while the allurements of the boating and the creature comforts of Modder River, and the balminess of its breezes, were dangled before our eyes with aggressive cynicism. The shipping agents were most attentive to detail in regard to the departure of vessels from Cape ports—just as if the availability of aerial tugs, to convey us to the coast, went without saying. Such were the irritating features of our morning paper. Their humour was utterly lost on us; they only served to sharpen the unhappy appetites of all whose fatal misfortune was ability to read.
Nasty stories had been told with reference to the reign of terror to be inaugurated on Monday. But they did not materialise; the rule of Martial Law—bad to beat—remained unbeatable. The expected rarely happened, and peace was oftener than not the characteristic of the prophets' red-letter-day. Such occasions gave us scope and opportunity to discuss the Kabal that ran her Majesty's writ, and to wonder whether it (the writ) should ever again be pacemaker to the people's will. The spectacle of a number of Union Jacks floating on the breeze was the most startling incident of the day. What did the transformation mean? A wild conjecture seized us; it was a moment of unalloyed joy when the fond thought of Kimberley's relief having been accomplished during the night flashed across our minds. But our jubilation was short-lived, for the Boers presently fired a salute with intent clearly to tatter rather than honour the Flag—in defence of which Long Cecil, tattered itself, was unable to play a part.
The echoes of a heavy cannonade were the feature of Tuesday. This led us to infer that the much-vaunted "siege train" (which was the talk of the city) had begun its work of devastation. The inspiration of itself would not have been the harbinger of consolation—we were long listening to sound and fury, meaning nothing—but we were quick to associate it with the unfurling of the Flag, to put the two "straws" together—and sigh!
"The Column," our Gazette asserted, "had made a most successful reconnaissance." But experience had taught us how to estimate a bald, non-committal statement of that kind. Our faith in the Column had been shaken; so much so that cynics hummed, with impunity, that the "little British army goes a long, long way." We dared to doubt the bellipotence of the Column. The wisdom of self-help was brought home to us at last. We were fast learning to put not our trust in Columns, and to ponder the possibility, handicapped though we were, of hewing from within a way to freedom.
Meanwhile Long Cecil, successfully treated, was again in the arena. A few "compliments" were jerked at the Kamfers Dam Laager; the Boers were made to feel that they had a foeman to deal with worthy of their lead. The success of the gun and the skill of him who made it were on every lip. The theme occasioned as much enthusiasm as could be expected from hearts saddened by disconsolation. And the man in the moon, too far distant to betray the grimness of his smile, looked silently on. Favourable accounts of the progress of events in Natal conduced to the serenity of the evening. The night was so still and grand that it seemed almost a pity to seek refuge in repose; and when ultimately we did persuade ourselves to retire it was to dream of Long Cecil and his potentialities—a sanguine dream of self-reliance and ability to burst our bonds.
But, oh! what a change came over its spirit in the middle of the night; when startled from our slumbers by the hissing of shells in the streets we awoke to a sense of what was real. In the blackness of the early morning it was hard to connect the booming of cannon with reality. The shells were falling and bursting in rapid succession. It was the inauguration of a nerve-ordeal; the prelude to a terrible day; the beginning of a bombardment long-sustained and fierce.
Not for long did the guns blaze in vain. A young girl lay dead, struck down in the privacy of her bedroom. Shell after shell came whistling through the air, jeopardising the reason of scared women, in terror for the safety of their children. Men rushed about everywhere seeking shelter for their families. A gentleman walking in the Dutoitspan Road had his hat unroofed, and a young lad was prematurely put out at elbow by a piece of shell which passed through the sleeve of his coat. Half a score of guns poured forth a heavy fusillade until eight o'clock, when a short interval for breakfast was conceded.
Fast and furious fell the instruments of destruction into every street and alley that throbbed with human life—smashing tables and delfware, ripping up floors, and spreading alarm abroad in the land. The Public Library was the recipient of a missile that played havoc with a hoary tome. Public buildings and churches were peppered indiscriminately. Saint Cyprian's—ventilated before in the same accidental fashion—was holed again. All Saints' fared little better. The Catholic Cathedral was slightly damaged. Saint Augustine's was hit; and, judging by its battered walls, the Dutch Reformed Church went nearer to demolition than any other. No structure with any pretensions to size escaped. The Town Hall was subjected to a fierce assault; for into the Market Square, to the right and left of the hall, in front and in rear, the shells fell in abundance. But the solid walls of the building were not tested, which was strange in view of its exposed position and the large area it covered. Inside, the busy officials were hard at work, pandering to the needs of the hungry throng who sought dispensations from starvation, and who dared not venture out again lest they should die hungry withal. The Town Hall towered impregnable—impervious to the myriad battering-rams that yearned to lay it low. As if it had occurred to them that the chances rather favoured finding the Mayor at home, the Boer gunners subsequently launched through the roof of his store in Jones' Street a shower of shrapnel which riddled the occupants of a compartment in the upper storey. The Mayor, fortunately, was not one of these; when the smoke cleared away it was found that the injured consisted of some handsome wax figures. At Beaconsfield a youth was struck, and another projectile went so near to putting a poor old woman, who lay upon a sick bed, beyond the borders of eternity that her feeble limbs were deprived of the couch's solace. An Indian subject of the Queen had his bungalow shattered. Not even the hallowed sanctuary of the "Law's" guardians was held sacred, for a missile telescoped a policeman's helmet—which, happily, was off its head at the moment.
All day long existence was made well-nigh unendurable. None knew the moment when an account of one's individual stewardship might be demanded. It is in trials of this kind that mankind is most vividly impressed with the reality of being in life and death simultaneously. That these trials surpassed any that had hitherto ruffled the noiseless tenor of our way was a truism. But coming at a moment when our nerves were sufficiently unstrung by the dearth of tonics, they were doubly enervating. Stomachal grievances were forgotten, and few ventured to desert the imaginary security of their homes to face the risks the redress of grievances would entail. Thus did the hours creep on until darkness with its interregnum of peace had fallen on the city.
But the interregnum was of brief duration, for, to our unspeakable horror, the bombardment was resumed at nine o'clock. If in the clear light of day the shells were trying, what were they in the night! A ghost story well told in the daytime perturbs a superstitious mind; but to feel queer at its recital in the night one need not necessarily be superstitious at all. This new departure intensified the strain and went far to make faint many a heart that had until then remained stout. The guns were fired with longer intervals between the shots; the shells did not follow on the top of one another as in the day; but one nocturnal projectile excited as much terror as did ten when the sun was shining. Far into the night—for hours after midnight—the war was waged, and sleep denied the pleasure of steeping our "senses in forgetfulness." To sleep was nearly impossible, and at the first peep of dawn to recline on a bed at all was not easy, so fierce and sudden was the energy with which a dozen guns commenced to bark in chorus.
And with sad results. The men in the redoubts enjoyed comparative immunity from the dangers of the bombardment; it was mainly the women and children in the houses who had to bear the brunt of the assaults. A lamentable instance of the pity of it was only too soon forthcoming. In the house of a Mr. Webster (who was in camp with his regiment, the Volunteers) his wife and children were at breakfast, when crash! through the roof came a shell on top of the tea-pot. The mother sustained fearful injuries, to which she subsequently succumbed. Her six-year-old child was also killed; her second son had his leg and arm broken; while her youngest child—a little girl—was badly bruised. The stricken family were removed to hospital amid a shower of shells, which continued with unabashed fury to seek whom they slaughter. Nearly all our public buildings were hit, and the places of worship were again a mark for the vandal. Houses everywhere were damaged, and extraordinary indeed were the escapes of their distracted occupiers. No less gracious was the kindly fortune that shielded those whom duty, caprice, or foolhardiness brought into the streets. One family stuffed away in the ostensible security of a coal-hole vegetated there all day. They were grateful for their modern ark, but outraged nature disapproved and caused a shell to pierce it. Nobody was hurt, remarkable to relate, and the frightened household ascended with alacrity to take their chances in a purer atmosphere. In every part of the town the shells kept falling. Beaconsfield appeared to be the most favoured hunting ground, for its Sanatorium was not only a colossal structure but the home of the Colossus himself. Hundreds of shells dropped in its vicinity, while the millionaire went round the city in a cart, to all outward seeming as little concerned as the most penurious of men. Some weeks before a grazier who had fallen into the hands of the Boers had been assured that it was Rhodes they wanted—not Kimberley. Such a revelation in the case of a personality less notable or less esteemed might have made things awkward for him.
Forty-five minutes were allowed for lunch—an interval which the Boers considered long enough for them—and no doubt for us, too, since they might fairly assume that we did not get much to eat. But on our side there was the trouble and delay involved in the getting of it. To jostle about in a crowd for an indefinite period of time for sake of a scrap of flesh meat—and such meat! such flesh!—required rare ravenousness of appetite; and the bursting of a shell in the midst of a surging mass of humanity was so certain to be attended by fatal results that it was only the very healthy who bothered battling for so little.
The forty-five minutes were of brief duration, and the assault was promptly renewed when the clock struck two. First came the boom; then the warning whistle; next the boom of a second gun almost before the bursting crash of the first shell had proclaimed its contact with terra firma. It was not the numbers of the killed (because they were marvellously few) that awed the people so much as the possibilities of the situation. The guns were fired at long range, and ten or fifteen seconds had to elapse ere anybody could be sure that his turn had not come. Had a closer range been feasible the bombardment might have been more destructive, but the suspense would have been less trying. The shells fell thickly the whole afternoon. Never, hardly ever, was there a lull as the iron roofs of the houses continued to be fitted for service as rough observatories which enabled us to see balloons indeed. Several mourners attending a funeral on its way to the cemetery narrowly escaped dismemberment, by a missile which dropped behind the hearse. The Fire Brigade were alert and ready for contingencies; the brigade station at the Municipal compound was singled out for attack; and it looked as if the skill of the Boers in picking out and disabling the Officers in the field extended to the town, for the Chief of the firemen was struck while standing on his own doorstep. He received a few ugly cuts, as also did two of his children.
And where all this time, it may be asked, where was Long Cecil? Long Cecil had been doing its best, but with the odds so long as ten to one against, its best was a negligible quantity. It sent shell after shell in one direction, then in another, but the enemy heeded it not at all; and though it may have irritated the Boer a little and done all that one gun of its calibre could do, it did not mitigate the perils of the populace. That it had done its best was undeniable, but it sank in the public esteem for other reasons. It was reputed to have killed two women in the Boer camp with its "compliments." I cannot vouch for the truth of the story, but it was seized upon to intensify the growing aversion to the whilom bepraised product of Colonial enterprise. The report converted hostile head-shakes into voluble "I told you so's," and swelled the feeble chorus that had prophesied ill of Long Cecil from the beginning.
Why did the Military insist on aggravating the enemy? This was our new shibboleth. We had, practically speaking, been left unmolested until Long Cecil sounded its timbrel. Hence the bloody sequel! Now, all this would have been in better taste had not those of us loudest in the gun's condemnation been equally boastful anent the fear it was to put into the hearts of the Boers. They were to be taught that Long Cecil was a thing to conjure with. In fact, Long Cecil had accentuated what is known in vulgar parlance as the Jingo spirit. But it had failed to come up to expectations, and all that was left—the dregs of our chivalry—was gone; and perhaps the highest form of chivalry extant now-a-days is consistency. The forty-eight hours' bombardment had been threatened long ere Long Cecil emerged from the workshop in the panoply war. But it was enough for the nonce to have even an inanimate scape-goat with which to relieve our grief—in the absence of something mellow to drown it in.
Firing ceased at six o'clock, and many families, waiving the discomforts of the trek, had already betaken themselves to the redoubts, away from the centre of assault. They remained there all night, needlessly, as it happened. Friday was not looked to with any particular pleasure; but apart from some deliberate attempts to snap-shot the Sanatorium we had little to disturb us. The device of fixing the lens on the local library was next resorted to; a shell dropped on its doorstep, and Beaconsfield church had a like experience. One or two guns kept firing irregularly all day. A shell entered a kitchen and made a complete wreckage of its culinary appliances. Long Cecil, at this stage, made some excellent practice, upsetting presumably the kitchen at Kamfers Dam, as several women were among those who fluttered hither and thither for shelter. Long Cecil was a surprise to the Boers; they had heard of the gun, and inclined to regard its existence as a myth. They had laughed at the visionary who had tried to piece it together; and there were not a few among ourselves who had shared their incredulity.
The proceedings of the previous two days had banished any timidity that had existed hitherto in the ranks of the town's defenders. They were eager for a fight. The sweetness of revenge was appreciated in some measure, and those who might in other circumstances have shirked personal danger, or collapsed in its presence, had their nerves steeled for a fair and square encounter. Our defences were never tested; we were beginning to wish they were. A determined and persevering effort on the Boers' part might have made them masters of Kimberley. The victory, however, would have been of the Phyrric order.
Saturday came. The common trials of the great bombardment had lulled the food warfare, and the thoughts of all were directed to the provision of adequate protection for life and limb. The erection of forts and shelters was going on everywhere. The work had been inaugurated when the bombardment was at its height, and the muscular energy it brought into play was magnificent. The "boys" (natives) were kept at it like Trojans, under the personal supervision of their respective white chiefs; and the chiefs themselves, unaccustomed though they were to an implement less mighty than the pen, perspired beadily and willingly with the pick and shovel. Even the ladies, regardless of blisters and the snowy whiteness of their hands, revelled in the role of navvy. Hallowed little garden patches were ruthlessly excavated; converted into "dug-outs"—disagreeably suggestive of the grave—and these were covered over and hedged in with sacks of earth. The apartments thus improvised were excellent in their way, but somewhat damp and dismal. They were not strictly well ventilated, but the atmosphere without was so redolent of smoke and powder that sanitation had lost in importance. Moreover, one could always stick one's head out of the burrow to inhale the outer air if it were considered fresher than what saluted the nostrils within. Of course these shelters did not offer so much security from danger as their occupiers fancied (I have already instanced how the recesses of a coal-hole had not been proof against invasion); but they were splinter proof. If husbands and fathers did magnify the protection they afforded, their motives were kind.
In the meantime we were not left entirely unmolested. The Beaconsfield Sanatorium continued to be the chief object of Boer solicitude. Smokeless powder was being employed, and the boom of the particular guns in action was not audible, or, if audible, so faintly as to be mistaken for the Column's artillery. We had a man placed on the Conning Tower whose duty it was to blow a warning whistle at sight of the flame of the enemy's fuse. But the whistle—not always heard—was only too apt to be connected with a policeman in distress.
The forty-eight hours' ordeal was not repeated, and interest in eating matters was soon revived. The comparative calm of Saturday incited us to have recourse to all sorts of tricks to unearth what was eatable. The Soup Kitchen was a huge success, and had they not been already well endowed with this world's goods the distinguished waiters in charge of the department might have waxed rich. Thousands of pints were served out daily; indeed there was never a supply sufficient to feed the multitudes that swarmed round the cauldrons containing this delicious elixir of life. One of the most remarkable sights of the Siege was, not the gravity of doctors, lawyers, directors, etc., presenting tickets for soup—that was piquant enough—but the number of young ladies, votaries of fashion, who emerged from the melee bedraggled and flushed with their pails of nectar, to all appearances not only forgetful of the convenances, but beaming with smiles of triumph. It may have been because their charms were enhanced, artful wenches! Enhanced, in any case, their charms were.
The Kitchen was booming, but the generality of people had in their enthusiasm so far failed to observe that the quality of the soup had sadly deteriorated. It had been degenerating day by day. Condiments were no longer available; mealie meal was withheld, and the soup had thus become thinner and less seasoned. But the trade had been established, and business continued brisk. There was no competition (unfortunately), and our newspaper kept assuring us with unnecessary gush that horseflesh was excluded from the Kitchen, and that accidents were impossible. The meat used was strictly orthodox. The Press dilated speciously on the economy practised under the system and on its general advantageousness. Universal confidence was reposed in the Soup Directorate.
But, alas and alack! one fatal day an evil-minded fellow got a lump of something solid in his jug, and instead of holding his peace he held a post-mortem examination and essayed to prove by some Darwinian process of reasoning that the opaque thing was more apish than orthodox! Prior to the date of this inquest, however, people had grown so habituated to the soup that they could not give it up if they would. They went on dutifully consuming it—just as everybody still does his beer, the recent poisoning revelations notwithstanding. They ate all they could get of it; it was in truth an indispensable necessity. The Kitchen was a blessing—in disguise, the wits said—and the most aesthetic, though not without misgivings, in the end gave the broth the benefit of the doubt. Only a small band of martyrs elected to bleed at the shrine of principle; they declined to stultify their stomachs with "horse soup." This was a reckless assumption, indicative of a shocking disbelief in human nature; an inexpedient conclusion. They were all honourable men on the Kitchen Committee. What! all? the reader may exclaim. Well, all but one, perhaps—who told an interviewer in London that "horseflesh made excellent soup!" But that was long afterwards; and, moreover, proved nothing. The gentleman in question no doubt acted discreetly, before unbosoming himself, in placing six thousand miles of sea between him and the Kitchen. For that matter greater iniquities than his have been condoned to give prejudice a fall.
The Italian and American Consuls had protested on behalf of their respective governments against the recent indiscriminate assault upon non-combatants. We were pleased to hope that the protests were not unavailing. They were in conformity with the spirit, if not with the letter, of International Law; and it was stated that the Boers desired to stand well with any and every nation that might possibly make real their Utopian dream of European intervention. Of course, they were doing well alone; it is conceivable that they now felt less the need of extraneous assistance. Their energy and enterprise betokened self-reliance; the will with which they used their picks and shovels was enigmatical to the British mind. They seemed metaphorically to defy all Europe and America. And the reply received by the Consuls was quite in accord with a consciousness on the Boer side of "splendid isolation." It suggested that they (the Boers) would esteem it a privilege to provide the protesters with an escort to convey them to a place of safety, if that would satisfy. It did not satisfy, and there the correspondence ceased.
It was thus the week ended—the enemy active, vigorous, supercilious; while we in Kimberley felt fretful, hungry, and sick at heart; but too thoroughly inured to hardship to shrink from or even to question the duty of fighting the battle to the bitter end.