The fierceness of the assault to which we had been exposed was the great subject of discussion, but it was not until the sluggish pendulum of Siege time had again swung round to the Sabbath that we freely and without dread of interruption gave full expression to our feelings towards the foe. The inconsistency of a nation so profuse in Christian professions was much discussed, and ignoring our own shortcomings in the same respect, to say nothing of the essential cruelty of all wars, we readily requisitioned our best resources of invective—to show what charity really was. We had been living in stormy tea-cups for a long while; our fury was usually more ungovernable than this or that grievance warranted; but we had never before given way to such rhetorical excesses, against not only the Boers, but the Military, as well—Lord Methuen, the Mayor, the Colonel and his Staff. Even Lord Roberts was snapped at. They were all in turn metaphorically tarred and feathered.
But these, after all, were old offenders; their faults and idiosyncrasies had been reviewed often. The occasion demanded a new scapegoat; and we determined to find him. We looked across the broad expanse of veld and bitterly reflected on a destiny that circumscribed our freedom within the barriers of a town; that denied us even the wild freshness of morning uncontaminated by the miasma of city streets. In this frame of mind we easily drifted into speculation on first causes. We began to ask ourselves upon whose shoulders the blame primarily rested for conditions which made such slavery possible; how it came to pass that a few toy-guns and a handful of soldiers had been deemed sufficient to protect Kimberley; and finally to vote the error of judgment incompatible with good administration. And then we remembered that the Bond was a powerful organisation, that a Bond Ministry was in Office. The needed scapegoat, in the person of the Prime Minister, was thus easily discovered. He it was who pooh-poohed the necessity of arming Kimberley, and we accordingly lost no time in setting him up in the game of Siege Aunt Sally as a popular target for our rancour. And pelted he was with right good will. The genial Mr. Quilp, when he found himself deserted by his obsequious flatterer, Sampson Brass, cried out in the seclusion of his apartment at the wharf: "Oh, Sampson, Sampson, if I only had you here!" and he was considerably consoled by his operations with a hammer on the desk in front of him. The feelings of Mr. Quilp were understood, if not respected in Kimberley.
The name of the Prime Minister had not been long added to our "little list" when a local liar led off mildly with intelligence of the Premier's resignation. We improved on this by assuming that his resignation was obligatory—that he had been "dismissed." That he had been arrested was the fiction next resorted to; and finally it was blazoned forth that he had been dismissed from the world altogether. After that he was let rest, and we returned to the misdemeanours of men, in and out of khaki, whose turns had not yet come. Let me observe in passing that the Prime Minister was—as we learned subsequently—more sinned against than sinning. His apologia, and the extent to which he had been wronged and misrepresented are matters outside the scope of these memoirs. But they shed a lurid light on the picturesque canards we swallowed—and digested with an ease that any ostrich would envy.
While engrossed in these denunciations of everything and everybody, Sunday glided by—glided, for the pendulum was not so slow on Sundays. We prepared for the worst the Boers could do on the morrow—rumour said it was to be very bad—and were in no way disposed to be comforted by the message, on the seriousness of our position, which the Colonel was credited with having despatched to Lord Roberts. We were unenlivened by the talk we heard on all sides as to the probable effect of the Foreign Consuls' protests; in optimistic quarters it was felt that the protests would lead to "intervention" of a kind rather different from that bargained for by brother Boer. The war, it was asserted, might stop "very suddenly." Well, of course, it might stop in certain eventualities, or it might not; the sky might fall, but we might easily die (on the diet) before it came down. The Boers toiling at their trenches outside cherished no illusions on these points. Their magazines had been blown up, but, the road to Bloemfontein being clear, they could replenish them. Plumer's proximity to Mafeking (notified in the afternoon) would have been of more significance in our eyes had not experience prejudiced us against faith in proximity value, Methuen's proximity to Kimberley, for example, aggravated our sorrows in a very special way.
On Monday Lord Methuen kept telling us from the wilderness that he was there and still alive. The vitality of the enemy, however, concerned us more. Operations were started early; three shells presumably intended for the Sanatorium landed in Beaconsfield. The first two fell harmlessly, and the charm associated with the third was no less disappointing—to an outsider. The charm surrounding the life of Mr. Rhodes was more tangible; it appeared to extend to the roof that covered him. The greater part of the day was peaceful; but the Military were the Military, war was their profession; and a fight with the foe being for the moment impracticable, they ingeniously set about renewing the strife with their erstwhile friends—who, like Sancho Panza, clamoured merely for something to eat. Our recent experiences had tended to moderate our claims in this regard; we had become inured to bad living; our constitutions had had time to wax weak; our appetites were less hearty. Matters appertaining to the stomach had reached a sad pass. Mealie meal, ad lib., was no longer possible, and porridge—well, the good that it had done lived after it, though we had never acknowledged the actual doing of it. Rice was issued to Indians exclusively, and, albeit they got nothing else, they had on the whole rather the better of Europeans. The exhaustion of our golden syrup made the children—young and "over-grown"—weep. We had been reduced to the ignominy of cultivating a toleration of what was called treacle, and even that nauseous compound was drifting towards extinction. They were hard times for all who could eat their soup; they were harder still for those whom the look of it satisfied. To these latter a tribute of praise for consistency is due, whatever may be said of their sense. The pathos of it all was that we got plenty of tea. We had no milk, and because we needed in consequence all the more sugar we were given less; and as "mealie-pap" had pride of place on the menu the day's allowance of sugar was only too apt to be recklessly monopolised in giving that a taste. We were observing a protracted lenten season, a more rigorous fast than any Church prescribes. The local Catholic Bishop appreciated the gravity of the situation when he suspended the Church's law against the use of meat on Fridays. Eat it when you can (which might be only one day in the week, Friday as likely as any other), this edict amounted to in effect.
But we had yet fourteen ounces of bread to preserve us, the whole of which ration was sometimes polished off by mid-day meal time. There could be no modification in that direction. Fourteen ounces of bread was needed to sustain life. But the Military apparently thought otherwise; they suddenly intimated that we must endeavour to keep its lamp aflame on "ten!" The Commissariat reckoned it possible; so the new "Law" was set in motion without compunction. A number of Fingoes preferred to die at home for choice, and with leave of the Colonel made an effort to get there. Unhappily, they were not allowed a choice; the Boers drove them back "to die with the English." Unlike the Basutos, the Fingo tribe was not physically or geographically in a position to make reprisals for such indignities. Besides, the English, the Boers knew, would be bound to share their last crust with their black brethren, and they wanted us to get to the last crust stage at our earliest convenience.
Contrary to expectation, nothing exciting occurred on Tuesday. The enemy again concentrated their fire on the Sanatorium; they evidently esteemed starvation, however expedient as a means for shuffling off the common herd, a little too good for a thinker in Continents. According to documents which had been found in the pocket of a Boer prisoner, Mr. Rhodes was awaiting a favourable opportunity to escape in "a big balloon!" This strange idea may have been responsible for the efforts made to lay the great balloonist.
A cricket match was played in the afternoon by twenty-two disciples of Tapley; and sundry flashes of congratulation—adulatory of our gallant stand—were exchanged between our Mayor and Port Elizabeth's. These messages were soothing, but none of us acknowledged it. Soft words, alas! only reminded us of parsnips. And soon we should be without bread. The bread question was the topic of the hour, and gave rise to more acrimony than had any antecedent injustice. Such unwonted severity in the administration of Civil affairs was a strain on the loyalty of a people self-governed since they were born. The view was stoutly maintained that the situation was not so bad as to warrant the adoption of such drastic measures. They were straining the limits of human endurance too callously. Nothing could alter our resolve to dispute with the Boer every inch of the ground we defended. So much was agreed. But the tendency to famish us displayed by our Rulers was not calculated to improve the morale of a civilian, or any, army. It did not bespeak the early relief of Kimberley. Actions like Kekewich's and Gorle's in the matter of bread fostered feelings of indifference. They would not stimulate the town's defenders to shoot better or to fight the more tenaciously in a crisis. With troops pouring into the country, wherefore the need of so much supererogation? A hungry man capable of demolishing a ten ounce loaf—a siege product—in ten bites might well echo wherefore indeed!
On Wednesday Lord Methuen could be heard banging as usual. In the early days, the halcyon days of optimism, the banging would have been exhilarating to a degree; but the march of events had compelled us to reason better. The day was uncommonly quiet; even the diurnal fling at Mr. Rhodes was omitted. Lies, rumours, sensations, fabrications were still rampant. A poster in all the paraphernalia of Official authority, proclaiming the relief of Mafeking—four months too soon!—adorned the walls of the Town House. General Buller, we were informed, was about to unlock the door of Ladysmith—"the key had been found." But evidently the lock had not, as was proven by the subsequent disastrous retreat across the Tugela.
Business was at this period conducted in more orderly fashion at the Washington Market, partly due, no doubt, to the unmixed "meat" put up for sale. Everything was simplified; the Authorities had developed into wholehoggers in horseflesh. A placard bearing the grim inscription, "horse only" was flaunted in the market place. The arrangement saved the butcher much troublesome computation—untrammelled as he was by bovine fractions—and injured trade agreeably. It kept off the folk who had no dogs, and others who preferred to take the State Soup, with their eyes shut. All the cattle slaughtered were exclusively for the Kitchen. The "Law" decreed it; it was in the "Gazette," and was nothing if not in equity. The quality of the soup was poorer than ever; the quantity offered for sale was suspiciously large, and, oh! so inferior to the article served out with a flourish of ladles a week before. Many took the pledge against it (some of them broke it), but there were plenty less aesthetically constituted who could dissipate on two pints! We could yet buy carrots, dry, tough little things; but they were vegetables beyond question, and there is much in a name where horses are cooked. They (the carrots) were sold by the State at threepence a bunch, and the people still made wild rushes to purchase them. A force of police was always on duty at the vegetable, the carrot wing of the market, and it was interesting to watch the human nature in everybody, including strong men not ordinarily credited with much of it.
Thursday was uneventful. The quasi-official statement relative to the relief of Mafeking was contradicted. The peculiarity of the proceeding—of contradicting an agreeable canard—not the contradiction itself—occasioned surprise; it was so unusual. Some people attributed it to a desire on the Colonel's part cheaply to vindicate Official veracity in all things—not injurious to the "Military Situation!" All our little troubles and kicks against the pricks had to be subordinated to the "Military Situation." The quality of the very horse we ate was due to the "Military Situation." The local situation, with its alarming death roll, was a trifle light as air beside the other. Had the Colonel in his wisdom seen anything in its suppression advantageous to the "Military Situation," the truth anent Mafeking would hardly have seen the light. The "Military Situation" was sacrosanct, supreme, inviolable! It was a fetish, a sort of idol that the "Law" commanded all creeds and classes to worship.
In the afternoon an occasional shell was jerked into the town. Kenilworth was loudly barked at for an hour; and the correspondent of the London Times, while driving in the suburb, narrowly escaped being bitten. But no cattle were hit; that was the pity of it. We could have forgiven the Boers much had they only killed the oxen, and provided us with something rational to eat, in spite of the Colonel and his horses.
Friday was all excitement; we had a glimpse of the balloon again, waltzing at a high altitude in the heavens, the Column's artillery the while maintaining a continuous uproar. Soon a terrific report was heard, which was presumed to have been caused by the explosion of a Boer magazine. A lyddite missile had done the deed; no "common" shell, we argued, could have created such a noise. After an hour the balloon disappeared, and we were of the earth earthly once more. Late in the evening some harmless shells dropped into the streets, and a second catastrophe befel a Boer magazine.
Saturday again. Lord Methuen proclaimed it through the throat of his cannon. Long Cecil—pretending to deduce from their silence that the Boers imagined it to be Sunday—was most profuse in the distribution of "compliments." But no acknowledgment came back, no error was admitted, and the day dragged itself to an end, leaving little in its train to turn one's thoughts from gloomy retrospection.
It was at this time that practical people began to express amazement at the conduct of their less practical neighbours. A new epidemic had broken out. The doctrine of self-help was being practised with a vengeance. The pleasure of gardening was the newest discovery. In short, the notion of growing vegetables on our own, so to speak, since we could not buy them readymade, had come to be acclaimed as the higher sagacity. The curious feature of this departure was that it should grow in popularity as the Siege approached its appointed end. Relief or no relief, the vegetables would not be wasted. But the practical people only laughed at economic platitudes. Vegetable seeds were in great demand, and families were everywhere to be seen reclaiming their ten by ten feet patches of common-age—where half a blade of grass had never grown before! Some enthusiasts, to enlarge their holdings, went even so far as to pull down their untenanted fowl-houses. The soil was not so favourable to horticulture as it might have been, but the best was made of it. Inspired by a determination to live as long as possible we ruthlessly uprooted our flowers, and conjured up visions of unborn potatoes and cabbage. If the Military kept whittling down our rations, if we were to be permitted only to nibble like so many birds, the vegetables might one day serve as a dernier ressort. Who could tell?
The enterprise displayed was admirable; but—had we to wait till the vegetables grew? Were they to grow while we waited? This sudden zeal for the development of the land recalled the song of the condemned Irishman who took advantage of his judge's clemency, and with characteristic humour selected a gooseberry bush from which to be hanged. When the objection was raised that "it would not be high enough," he expressed his willingness to wait till it grew!
This policy of despair irritated the landless classes, and some of them were mean enough to remind us that Martial Law forbade the use of water for gardening purposes. But the reminder only furnished the workers with a fresh incentive; it made their work a real as well as an ideal pleasure. The possibility of breaking the "Law" (with impunity) was worth a deal of productive, or unproductive, labour. The bread ordinance had not increased our respect for "benevolent" despotism. Any chance of setting at naught the absolute prepensities of our legislators (with a watering-can or by judicious keyhole stuffing, to hide the light) was duly availed of.
No amount of the portentous signalling that went on night after night could resuscitate our faith in the Military. An age ago the Magersfontein misfortune had put off indefinitely the long-expected succour. We had been made to feel our insignificance beside the "Military Situation." Our population after all was mainly black, but black or white, we were nothing to the "Military Situation." Sickness might increase, and troubles multiply; Kafirs and children might perish in batches; meanwhile the "Military Situation" decried even a tear.