The pen-ultimate Sunday of our captivity was notable for nothing but the average crop of rumours which had characterised every day of our Siege existence. The listlessness of the people stood out in marked contrast to their sanguine outlook when the Siege was young, and when the folly of prophesying unless one knew remained not only, as it were, unsmoked but outside our pipes altogether. Still—to pursue the metaphor—our pretensions in the role of prophet had clearly ended in smoke. Happily, the disillusioning fog had come upon us by degrees. The cheerfulness with which we had resigned ourselves to bear the first-class misdemeanant's treatment of a cut and dry "three weeks'" imprisonment but exemplified, we had thought in all seriousness, the traditional sporting instincts of our race; and though it was not over-pleasing to our traditional pride, the destruction of our dogmas had not been taken to heart. Our faith in the invincibility of the British army had long continued unshaken. The interval between the expiry of the period (of three weeks) which with the collective wisdom of all the wizards we had decreed to be a synonym for the Siege's duration, and the morning of the pronouncement relative to the advance of the Column from Orange River, had had its tedium neutralised by a cheerful vituperation of Gladstone's defective statesmanship in the year of 'eighty-one and his wicked efforts at a later date to "give Ireland away too." The move from Orange River had occasioned general rejoicings. Unaccountable delay ensued. One disappointment was followed by another. Anxiety began to manifest itself. The dire stage of doubt was reached. Hunger, thirst, and horseflesh succeeded in due order; until at last we saw:—
What shadows we are,
And what shadows we pursue.
We pursued them no longer—in the Siege sense. "All the pleasing illusions, which make power gentle and obedience liberal," were gone. The eating and the drinking were gone. Even the surreptitious read in bed was but a relic of joy; the penalty of burning the candle at both ends was being paid. To have a bath was a crime; a little water was allowed for tea and soup only. Soda-water was the sole product of the lemonade factories; but the quality of Adam's ale tasted worse and was more suggestive of typhoid in that form than in any other. Made into tea it was better, until the Military, with fears for the nerves of the "Military Situation," indirectly curbed our excesses in the cup that does not inebriate. A proclamation was issued which actually went so far as to establish by "Law" the number of ounces of fuel to be used by householders! Expert landladies declared the number (six ounces) insufficient; the cynical boarders said it was too much! The medical men had been entreating us—vainly, for the most part—to boil the water before drinking it in any form, and had proclaimed it inimical to health in its raw state. But the "Military Situation," bless you! could not be compromised by microbes, and if extravagance in fuel involved a possibility so awful it had to be crushed with an uncompromising hand.
Such were the anomalies prevailing; taken in conjunction with the ever-increasing seriousness of our position they were hard to bear with patience. Our hopes of relief were at zero. "Three months more" would sum up a fair consensus of opinion in regard to the further continuance of the Siege. Oh, it was said, the food would not last so long. But it had been undergoing such a process of stretching; who knew how much farther it would not be carried. The authorities were capable of anything. A death or two (or twenty-two!) from starvation would not soften hearts obsessed by an elusive "Situation." Surrender, however, was out of the question; having gone so far we could not turn back. The Flag, too, whatever the Standard-bearers might be, was worth keeping aloft. Exacting too much it was; but there was no alternative, save surrender, to the lowering of it.
Our mental machinery being thus rusted for want of the oil of contentment it is not incomprehensible that the bulk of the people should have come to regard the Siege as a thing interminable; and faith in miracles was not the average citizen's predominant characteristic. The mere mention of the Column provoked a jeer. Numerous philosophers came into being. Shakespeare was never so highly appreciated, nor so famous; never reckoned so "clever," nor quoted so generally; scarcely heard of before, indeed, by some of the new philosophers. His Hamlet's soliloquy (which accorded with our mood) was considered very good.
Monday came and went quietly enough, the enemy's attention being given entirely to Kenilworth. It made no difference to us whether the cattle lived or died; we regarded the assault as a waste of energy. A few horses—the irony of it!—were slaughtered by the shells intended for the oxen. The mutilation of the latter would have been far more advantageous to the Civil "Situation," and—how nice if the Boers had been better shots!
Throughout Tuesday a good many interchanges took place between the rival artillerists. Long Cecil made some excellent practice, while the Boers occupied themselves with Beaconsfield. A few raps were attempted at the Sanatorium hall-door, as an intimation that a special eye ogled the visitors; and some projectiles which fell in the rear of the Kimberley Club indicated that the same vigilant optic was alive to the fact that Rhodes lunched there. It may here be mentioned that Mr. Rhodes often brought his lunch—fresh eggs and the like!—to the hospital to give to some wounded soldier with unimpaired digestive mechanism. Otto's Kopje was assailed during the day, and havoc was played with a few trucks—rusted with ease—at the railway station.
The inevitable calm which precedes a storm was felt on Wednesday. The morning passed quietly. Whispers of imminent woe were painfully common. Rumour, subordinating love, ruled "the Court, the camp, the grove." It was not literally defined, this surpassing evil; its exact nature was locked up in the breasts of the Authorities. Hours rolled by; dinner-time (the time for dinner) passed; sufficient for the day is the evil thereof; we were beginning to think that we had received the day's allotment, when a boom rang through the startled air! Now, a boom (in warfare) is not an harmonious note; but one gets accustomed to discord as to most other things. It was not the boom that was strange; it was the loud, unearthly chord it seemed to strike; the dread whiz which followed; which blanched faces, and sent the timid housemaid diving beneath the bed out of harm's way. Was it an earthquake?—the buildings shook. A fearful crash dissipated the notion. A fearful crash, indeed; but a material sound—a relief from its weird, unnerving prelude. Individuals living miles apart asserted that the missile had seemed to shoot past their ears. Yet one shell had caused all the tumult. The awful whiz was repeated again and again. The great six-inch gun from Mafeking had started its work of destruction. The crisis had come. The last and bloodiest act of the tragedy had begun—with no knowledge on our side that it was the last, to sustain us.
It had come without warning; when the heat was insufferable, and the town a veritable Sahara as regards facilities for quenching thirst; when the tension was at its worst; when sickness, disease, and death were busiest. It had come, in fine, with a crown for the sorrows of Kimberley.
From an artist's point of view a town with high stone buildings would have offered better raw material for picturesque ruins. In Kimberley we had but one substantial building that would meet the necessities of the case, viz., the City Hall. It was the only imposing structure we could boast of, and was by consequence the harder to hit, albeit some creditable tries were made to hit it. Large holes were dug in the Market Square, in which process of grave-digging by storm a little girl was injured—not by a shell, but by the volley of small pebbles it displaced. This class of buckshot—apart from the missiles themselves—did a good deal of light skirmishing about the calves of people's legs, and threw dust in their eyes with the force and fury of a "south-easter." One gentleman, meandering in the Square, narrowly evaded dismemberment, and was fortunate in getting off with a slight bruise. Another hissing monster went tearing through the roof of the Buffalo Club, upsetting a billiard table, and laying it out a disordered heap of firewood on the floor. Fire-wood was worth something; and since chips of his anatomy were not in the heap—perchance to be utilised in the cooking of horseflesh for somebody else to eat—its grateful proprietor conducted himself with resignation.
Meanwhile the scattered fragments of the same mischievous projectile careered gaily through the air. One piece—no bigger than a Siege loaf—with sardonic humour embedded itself in the stomach of a horse and killed it instantaneously. This was pitiful, for the animal had been fed, and was in the very act of being shod. The smith escaped unhurt. Another missile tested the metal of a boiler, in a house in Belgravia, by smashing it into scrap-iron. Whether the shell was intended for a batch of bread in the adjoining oven is uncertain; the satisfactory fact remained that the bread was unbroken. Buildings which had been but imperfectly ventilated by the smaller shells had proper port-holes made in them, and chimney-tops went down like nine-pins. We were, in short, in a couple of hours afforded a grim conception of what modern munitions can do. To that extent the assault was instructive. But that extent was small and did not impress our common sense—which, by the way, was small, too, and not at all common.
At six o'clock the firing ceased, and the "Mafeking terror" was allowed to cool. I might as well explain here that our surmise was entirely wrong. The gun came from—nobody knew where; but everybody said, from Mafeking. We said more; the Cape Government (the Bond Ministry) had purchased it in England for the Transvaal, in furtherance, as was implied, of the projected sweeping of the English into the sea. This was a hugged delusion until some fool dispelled it by discovering the gun to be a "creuzot" which had been purchased in France by the Transvaal. But it mattered little where it had been purchased; it was a tangible reality, a presage of sanguinary import. It was a time for action; and maybe the picks and shovels did not rise to the occasion! Fort-making was the rage; the men worked with a will—the women acting as hod-carriers—to make the graves in which they hoped to live as deep as possible. All over the city the navvies—amateur and professional—sweated and panted, so successfully that unless the shells were to levy direct taxation on the people in the forts, well, the pieces might skim their heads but they could not cut them off. The little garden patches were pitilessly disembowelled of the vegetable seeds so recently planted. We had lived to see them grow, but up they had to come lest we should be planted ourselves.
In the meantime our friend the enemy—more intimate and candid than ever—appeared to be fully sensible of the havoc the new weapon was capable of causing. All ears were strained to catch the first sound of the Kamfers Dam monster. It was sighted at low range, and the boom, whiz, and crash seemed to jumble all together. The comparative corks with which we had been assailed hitherto used to shoot high into the air, whistling several bars of music before touching terra firma, and by careful attention to time it had been to some extent possible to dodge them. So at least it was stated. The day waned, and the attack was not renewed. It was suggested that perhaps the gun had "bust"; but the straw was too thin to be worth catching at.
It was quite four o'clock in the afternoon ere the first shell hurtled through the air. The heat in the open was suffocating, and the rush to the underground atmosphere was not the less brisk on that account. A constant assault was maintained for two hours. Shops, boarding houses, and private dwellings were battered indiscriminately. A studio in Dutoitspan Road was broken up; the Central Hotel was struck; and two little children were slightly hurt. But the saddest incident of the day was the death of a young man—an employee of the Standard Hotel—who was struck down at his work mortally wounded. One or two persons had their shins kicked by passing fragments. Numerous wonderful escapes were heard of. What with the vibrations of the demoralising water-melons and their hap-hazard propensities in the choice of victims, it is difficult even vaguely to convey an idea of the test to which the mettle of the people was put.
The bombardment was to have a dramatic termination, for the last heavy projectile hurled into Kimberley landed in the capacious premises of Cuthbert's Boot Store. Nobody was hit; but not many minutes had passed when dense volumes of smoke followed by flames issued through the windows—until at last the building had developed into a mighty bonfire. What everybody long feared had at length happened. The excitement was intense; hundreds of men, women, and children flocked to the burning pile. The Fire Brigade used the hose for what it was worth; but to no avail; the house was doomed, and finally was completely gutted. When the blaze was at its height a few small shells fell amid the gesticulating throng of sight-seers. A stampede followed; but nobody was struck, mirabile dictu; and there was a general alternative run away and sneak back as each missile exhausted itself.
There was an element of romance, more startling than the fire itself, in all this. It was thought that the building (Abraham's Store) adjacent to the one in flames was in grave danger, and the united exertions of the firemen were ultimately directed to the task of saving it. Within its hallowed walls was collected the bulk of our confiscated food! It had been stored away by order of the Czar, and was guarded day and night by a strong detachment of well-armed Cossacks. This circumstance lent, it need hardly be said, a piquant and absorbing interest to the progress of the blaze. It was of supreme importance—to the "Military" as well as minor "Situations"—that the supplies should be preserved. What a glowing page it would be in the war's history that the enemy three miles away had compelled surrender by burning our provisions! For ourselves, we got so little of the provisions to eat that we should not have been particularly broken-hearted by the contretemps. Familiarity breeds contempt, and we Were familiar with the "Military Situation"; its exactions were so absurdly impalpable. It was natural, therefore, that the activity of the Military should have provoked a certain amount of chaff from the multitude of hungry civilians. The chaff went round, anyhow, whether it was natural or not. Officers tripped over officers in the wildest confusion, ordering, shouting, swearing, and directing the shop-boys, the soldiers, and the Kafirs who toiled like demons to throw the threatened foodstuffs into the street in an impossible space of time. The men tumbled and staggered in clusters, while the advantages of being a native unencumbered by the collars of our celestial civilisation were conspicuously apparent. We had our eyes wide open for all possible pickings; but so also had the rascally Cossacks. Only one gentleman (a most respected citizen) got off with a case of—candles! Barrels of oil were rolled into the streets (between files of soldiers, lest anyone should roll a barrel home), to the indignant surprise of the people thus afforded ocular demonstration of the extent to which the commandeering mania had been carried; it was worse even than they had thought—which is saving a great deal! When everything had been finally heaped outside, steps were taken forthwith—to carry them in again. All danger of their ignition had long since vanished; and the mob dispersed in a wild rush as the clock chimed nine.
What a day Friday was! Beginning at six in the morning the firing was kept up unceasingly until night-fall. All day long the death-dealing projectiles swept like a hurricane through the city, terrorising, killing, lacerating, surpassing previous visitations by odds that were long indeed. We had had sufficient evidence to judge of what the great gun at Kamfers Dam alone could do. But on Friday we were pelted from all directions with a fury unknown hitherto. The first bulletin to send a thrill of horror through the people—huddled away in holes—contained intelligence of the deaths of a well-known lady and her infant child; they had been struck down as they emerged from their shelter for a breath of fresh air. In Woodly Street a huge missile went clean through the roof of a house, shot past the heads of a lady and gentleman seated on the stoep, fell on a soft patch in front of the door, and burst with a deafening thud five feet under ground. With the aid of a pick and shovel the fragments were exhumed and pieced together in the presence of the pallid spectators; and had the next shell fallen on or near the same spot (as sometimes happened) the results would have been more calamitous. Many persons had an idea that they were safer in the streets than in houses where the additional danger of flying furniture was ever present. Several exciting escapes were witnessed in the Market Square, and shells fell thickly in the vicinity of the fire station. A telephone pole had a semi-lunar lump neatly cut out by a passing missile. With undiminished fury the bombardment proceeded, battering down walls and gables, and filling hearts with a desire, a longing for vengeance, to be duly indulged when the fates were propitious.
It was growing late on this tragic Friday when a profound sensation was caused by a rumour which excited universal awe. George Labram had been killed by a shell at the Grand Hotel. It sounded incredible, so improbable and astounding, that he of all others, he who had achieved greatness in adverse circumstances by constructing a large gun, the famous Long Cecil—that he should be a victim. Labram dead! Was it a fabrication? Alas! no; it was true; a sad, a lurid incident, hardly needed to mark the day memorable. There was a pathetic strangeness in the fatality that gave rise to philosophic reflections.
Emboldened by a conviction that we should presently be glad to supplicate for food and quarter, the enemy relaxed not their energy. It must not be supposed that our guns were idle all this time. Long Cecil plied pluckily to hit back, and succeeded in frustrating the ambitious efforts of the Boers to draw their guns still nearer. They were rather too close as things were, however, and with the aid of the Maxims we successfully besought the enemy to fling away ambition. To that limited extent we defeated Boer designs. Lord Methuen's sympathetic coughs in the bed of the Orange River were heard at intervals throughout the day, the long, enervating day which did terminate at last. Worn out by its trials though we were, sleep was not easily coaxed to weigh our eyelids down; like other "necessaries," it was rare indeed.
Contrary to expectation, the ferocious assault was not resumed on Saturday morning. It was a blessed interlude, too; there was so much to whistle about with unbated breath. The prejudice against the Boers and the arrogant gentlemen who led and fed us was at its fiercest. How was it all going to end? A feeling of desperation, engendered by the sufferings of their families, permeated men's hearts and filled them with a readiness to dare much, to sacrifice a great deal. The situation was critical, and many a reckless plan to ease it emanated from minds normally prudent. The outcry against the Military rose to a high pitch; the air was reeking with denunciations apropos of their culpability for—things in general. Their manipulation of the victuals, as I have endeavoured to show, did not pre-possess many in their favour, and fresh complaints in this connection were constantly forthcoming. Information was being suppressed, we cried; our actual condition and circumstances were being misrepresented; the notoriety of individuals was being purchased at the expense of the "greater number!" Of course, these charges had been in the air for a long while; but after Friday they, though still much in the air, matured in intensity. Dissatisfaction was expressed on all sides. We—some of us—were willing to admit the necessity of Martial Law, its rigours, severity, and discipline; but it was too much to expect us to stand mutely by while the Military gabbled of the "Military Situation," and (as we suspected) inwardly built temples of fame in the air, in which they would merit a prominent niche when, say, half a year had passed; when the last horse-chop had frizzled on the pan; and when incidentally numbers had been killed, maimed, or starved!
The clamour developed. No fuel was needed to feed the spreading flame of resentment. None was needed, but it was supplied all the same—and from a most unexpected quarter, namely, the Diamond Fields' Advertiser! It was a startling denouement. The chains that bound the "mighty engine" were burst asunder. The spell of militarism was broken; the people's paper was itself again, and the people took it to their hearts as the champion of their rights and privileges. Its leading article on Saturday summarised the situation in a nutshell. It is too good to pass. Commenting on the version of our sorrows supplied by signal, the sturdy organ in a manner after our own hearts let flow the following deluge of consoling truths:—
"... What are the facts? We have stood a Siege which is rapidly approaching the duration of the Siege of Paris; we have practically defended ourselves with citizen soldiers; for, thankful as we are to the Imperial garrison, their numbers have condemned them to play a secondary role; we have raised a large body of mounted troops, who have on two occasions attacked the enemy's strongholds with the most magnificent gallantry; and through the genius of Mr. Labram—whose tragic death yesterday has sent a thrill of sorrow through the whole community—we have been able not merely to supply ammunition for the pop-guns sent to Kimberley, but also to produce in our workshops the only weapon capable of minimising the terrible havoc and destruction caused by the enemy's six-inch gun, throwing a projectile weighing 100 pounds broadcast over the town at range of three miles. They shout to us, 'Have patience!' Will they remember that we have fought alone and unaided for four long months? Will they remember that we are situated practically in the centre of a desert, 600 miles from the coast, and have been compelled from the beginning to depend on our own resources, and that our lives are daily and hourly exposed to danger? Is it unreasonable, when our women and children are being slaughtered and our buildings fired, to expect something better than that a large British army should remain inactive in the presence of eight or ten thousand peasant soldiers? Surely the time has come to put in plain English the plain truths of the situation. We have been influenced in the past by various considerations, notably a desire to avoid compromising what is called the 'Military Situation.' We have now come to the conclusion that respect for the 'Military Situation' merely means deceiving our own people. The Press correspondents cabling to the London papers are actually not permitted to mention that Kimberley has been bombarded by a six-inch gun! This is indeed the last straw, and if only for the sake of future record we take this opportunity of placing the naked truth before our readers."
Lively indeed was the satisfaction which greeted this unexpected change of policy. But there was little time for jubilation, for after breakfast the shells came whistling through the air. They were delivered in a desultory fashion, and in the afternoon at still less frequent intervals. Happily, little damage was done and firing ceased at sunset. It was over for the week; the prospective respite of thirty-six hours was a pleasing thought; the morrow would be Sunday, and Sunday was sacred. Precedent and our sense of the fitness of things alike justified the assumption. But it did not occur to us that the chimes of midnight were yet many hours off, nor that from eight o'clock to twelve the unkindest cut of all was to be administered.
There was something terribly unearthly in the sound of the whizzing destroyers as they careered across the houses in the blackness of the silent night. This was the hardest strain of all, and more trying to the nerves than anything they had to endure in the clear light of day. It was a never-to-be forgotten ordeal in the lives of the good folk of Kimberley. From his high and dangerous perch on the conning tower the bugler ever and anon blew his bugle, suggesting to the scared housemaid the psychological moment for a plunge beneath the bed. On each application of the fuse to Long Tom the bugle rang out in clarion tones its warning to seek cover. It made plaintive melody in the nocturnal stillness, bespeaking the death-knell perchance of many. Nobody was abroad, excepting a solemn procession of men wending its way to the cemetery with all that was mortal of George Labram. Cannon in front of them volleyed and thundered—to avoid which the late hour had been chosen for the burial.
Thus closed the long and dreadful week. Over-wrought women and children emerged from their sodden refuges to court a long-deferred rest, if they might, for after the events of the night anything might happen. Who was to tell what the morning might not show?