- Transcriber's Note: Inconsistent hyphenation and inconsistant spelling in the original document have been preserved. Obvious typographical errors have been corrected in this text. For a complete list, please see the end of this document. -
ON THE HEELS OF DE WET
THE INTELLIGENCE OFFICER
William Blackwood and Sons Edinburgh and London MCMII
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN 'BLACKWOOD'S MAGAZINE.'
This short history is an amplification of a diary kept by the author during the late war, which amplification, through the courtesy of the editor, was published as a series of papers in 'Blackwood's Magazine.' The author is well aware of the shortcomings of his work, which he presents to the public in all humility, after asking pardon from such of the performers on his stage as may see through the slight veil of anonymity in which it has been attempted to enshroud them. If any should think the few criticisms which have crept into the text unjust, will they bear in mind that the regimental officer has suffered, in silence, much for the sins of others. It is the author's conviction that cases were rare when the ship did not sail true enough: in the beginning she may have badly wanted cleaning below the water line, but she never failed to answer her helm. It was more often the man at the helm than the sailing quality of the vessel that was at fault, and the marvel is that she was of sufficiently tough construction to be able to stand the stress incurred by indifferent seamanship.
PAGE I. THE BIRTH OF THE BRIGADE 1
II. THE MEET! 15
III. BEE-LINE TO BRITSTOWN 45
IV. THE FIRST CHECK 75
V. A NEW CAST 103
VI. A POOR SCENT 133
VII. "POTTERING" 155
VIII. STILL POTTERING 184
IX. TO A NEW COVERT! 214
X. JOG-TROT 246
XI. FULL CRY 292
ON THE HEELS OF DE WET.
THE BIRTH OF THE BRIGADE.
"De Aar," and the Africander guard flung himself out of his brake-van.
De Aar! After forty-eight hours of semi-starvation in a brake-van, the name of the junction, in spite of the ill-natured tones which gave voice to it, sounded sweeter than the chimes of bells. It meant relief from confinement in a few square feet of board; relief from a semi-putrid atmosphere—oil, unwashed men, and stale tobacco-smoke; relief from the delicate attentions of a surly Africander guard, who resented the overcrowding of his van; relief from the pangs of hunger; relief from the indescribable punishments of thirst.
Yet at its best De Aar is a miserable place. Not made—only thrown at the hillside, and allowed by negligence and indifference to slip into the nearest hollow. Too far from the truncated kopjes to reap any benefit from them. Close enough to feel the radiation of a sledge-hammer sun from their bevelled summits—close enough to be the channel, in summer, of every scorching blast diverted by them; in winter, every icy draught. Pestilential place, goal of whirlwinds and dust-devils, ankle-deep in desert drift—prototype of Berber in a sandstorm—as comfortless by night as day. But as in nature, so in the handiwork of men, even in the most repulsive shapes it is possible to find some saving feature. De Aar has one—one only. Its saving feature is where a slatternly Jew boy plays host behind the bar of a fly-ridden buffet. Here at prices which, except that it is a campaign, would be prohibitive, you can purchase food and drink.
But at night it is not an easy place to find. The station is full of trains, and, arriving by a supply-train, you are discharged at some remote siding. A dozen wheeled barricades—open trucks, groaning bogies piled with war material—separate you from the platform. You dare not climb over the couplings between the waggons, for engines are attached, and the trains jolt backwards and forwards apparently without aim or warning. Up over an open truck! You roll on to the top of sleeping men, and bark your shins against a rifle. Curses follow you as you clamber out, and drop into the middle way. A clear line. No,—down pants an armoured train, a leviathan of steel plates and sheet-iron. You let it pass, and dash for the next barricade. Thank heaven! this is a passenger train. As it is lighted up like a grand hotel you will be able to hoist yourself over the footboards and through a saloon—"Halt! who goes there?" and you recoil from the point of a naked bayonet. "Can't help it, orficer or no orficer, this is Lord Kitchener's special, and you can't pass here!" It is no use. Another wide detour; more difficulties, other escapes from moving trains, and at last you find the platform.
De Aar platform at night. If the management at Drury Lane ever wished to enact a play called "Chaos," the setting for their best scene could not better a night on De Aar platform. Each day this Clapham Junction of Lord Kitchener's army dumps down dozens of men, who are forced for an indefinite period to use the station as a home—tons and tons of army litter and a thousand nondescript details. The living lie about the station in magnificent confusion—white men, Kaffirs, soldiers, prisoners, civilians. A brigadier-general waiting for the night mail will be asleep upon one bench, a skrimshanking Tommy, who has purposely lost his unit, on the next. Even Kitchener's arrival can work no cleansing of De Aar. It only adds to the confusion by condensation of the chaos into a more restricted and less public area.
But our first needs are animal. Stumbling over prostrate forms, cannoning against piles of heterogeneous gear, we make the buffet. A flood of light, the buzz of voices, and the hum of myriads of disturbed flies, and we live again. Filthy cloths, stained senna-colour with the spilt food and drink of months, an atmosphere reeking like a "fish-snack" shop, a dozen to twenty dishevelled and dirty men of all ranks clamouring for food, two slovenly half-caste wenches. That is all, yet this is life to the man off "trek." There is even a fascination in an earthenware plate, though its surface shows the marks of the greasy cloth and dirty fingers of the servitors.
A lieutenant-general and his staff have a table to themselves; we find a corner at the main board, where the meaner sit. After food, news. De Wet has invaded the Colony with 3000 men. He was fighting with Plumer to-day at Philipstown. Then we begin to understand why we were summoned to De Aar. The little horse-gunner major, who vouchsafed the news, had just arrived with his battery from somewhere on the Middelburg-Komati line. Five days on the train and his horses only watered four times. That was nothing at this period of the war, when the average mounted man was not blamed if he killed three horses in a month. The major did not know his destination or what column he was to join. Delightful uncertainty! All he knew was that his battery was boxed up in a train outside the buffet, and that it would start for somewhere in half an hour. It might be destined for Mafeking, or it might be for Beaufort West; but he was ready to lay 2 to 1 that within six weeks his battery would be on the high seas India bound. Wise were the men who took up this bet, for the little major and his battery are in South Africa to this day.
Food over, it was necessary once more to face the maze of De Aar platform. It may seem strange, but when you are on duty bound, it is easier, once the right platform is gained, to find the officials at midnight than in the day. Under martial law few travellers have lights; fewer are allowed, or have the desire, to burn them on the platform. Consequently a light after midnight generally means an official trying to overtake the work which has accumulated during the day.
"Railway Staff Officer? Yes, sir, straight in here, sir."
A very pale youth, in the cleanest of kit, whitest of collars, and with the pinkest of pink impertinences round his cap and neck. He never looked up from the paper on which he was writing as he opened the following conversation—
Pale Youth. "What can I do for you?"
Applicant. "I am here under telegraphic instructions."
P. Y. (taking telegram proffered) "Never heard of you."
A. "You must have some record of that wire!"
P. Y. "I never sent it. It must have been sent by the Railway Staff Officer. He's asleep now. Come back in the morning and see him!"
A. (furiously) "You d——d young cub!—is this the way you treat your seniors? What do you belong to?"
P. Y. (Jumping up nervously) "Oh, I beg your pardon, sir; I thought you were one of those helpless Yeomanry officers. They are the plague of our lives. I will go and wake the R.S.O." [Disappears. Returns in five minutes.]
P. Y. "The R.S.O. says that you must report to the office of the line of communications. They may have orders about you. You will find the brigade-major in a saloon carriage on the third siding outside the Rosmead line." [Salutes.]
We go out into the night again, wondering if perdition can equal De Aar for miserable discomfort, and De Aar officialdom for inconsequence. The third siding, indeed! It was an hour before the saloon was found in that labyrinth of cast-iron.
The brigade-major was there, a wretched worn object of a man, plodding by the eccentric light of a tallow dip through the day's telegrams. Poor wretch! he earns his pittance as thoroughly as any of us do. Again we drew blank. "Never heard of you." All we could get out of him was, "You had better bed down in the station and await events." Poor devil! so worn with work and worry that he looked as if a simple little De Aar dust-devil would snap his backbone if it touched him. So we were turned adrift again in the old iron heap to swell the army of vagrants who live by their wits upon the communications.
It was about two in the morning before we found our servants. The soldier servant is a jewel—but a jewel with some blemishes. If you tell him to do anything "by numbers," he will do it splendidly; but he does not consider it part of his duty to think for himself, consequently you have always to think both for yourself and your servant, and that is why on this occasion we found ours sitting on our rolls of bedding at the far end of the platform. It had never struck them that we should want to sleep in a place like De Aar. Disgusted, we tried the hotel. Here they loosed dogs on us and turned out the guard. Still more disgusted, we returned to our bedding, and sardined in with the ruck and rubbish on the platform.
* * * * *
Sunrise in South Africa. The sun knows how to rise on the veldt. When first seen it is as good as a tonic. It makes one feel joyous at the mere fact of being alive. But this feeling wears off with a week's trekking, especially when the season gets colder, or a night-march has miscarried. Then you never wish to see the sun rise again. There was a time when a man who boasted that he had never seen the sun rise was branded as a lazy sloth, an indolent good-for-nothing, who willingly missed half the pleasures of life. After twenty months continuous trekking in South Africa one is not sure that one's opinions on this subject fall into line with those of the majority. For after a baker's dozen of sunrises one has generally reached that state when the greatest natural pleasure is found inside rather than outside of a sleeping-bag. But in spite of the general detestation in which De Aar is held, the neighbouring hills furnish, in the quickening light of dawn, studies in changing colour so voluptuous, varied, and fantastic that the wonder is that all the artists in the world have not fore-gathered at the place. But familiarity with all this beauty reduces it to a commonplace. It just becomes part of the monotony of your daily life, especially if you have, as we had that morning, to wait your turn before you could wash, at the waste-water drippings from a locomotive feed-pump. Here you fought for a place, jostled by men who at home would have stepped off the pavement and saluted. But after a few months of war, at a washing-pump there is little by which you can distinguish officers from men, unless the former have their tunics on. From the washtub to chota haziri. The buffet is not yet open, but a dilapidated Kaffir woman on the platform is doling out at sixpence a time a mess of treacle-like consistency which is called coffee. What would you think if you could catch a glimpse of us? What would the bright little maid who brings in the tea in the morning say, if she could see us now? Certainly if we came to the front-door she would slam it in our faces, and threaten us with the police!
But we must be up and doing. It is an extraordinary day at De Aar. Every one is bustling about. Staff popinjays hurry up and down the platform. Stout elderly militia colonels, who would never be up and dressed at this hour in ordinary circumstances, are heckling the R.S.O., who has more starch in his tunic than has ever been seen in a tunic before. What does it all mean? Then we remember the naked bayonet of the previous night. Lord Kitchener is at De Aar. Oh, Hades!
We feel his presence, but it is not long before we see him. How he must worry his tailor. Tall and well-proportioned above, he falls away from his waist downwards. It is this lower weediness which evidently troubles the man who fashions his clothes. But it is his face we look at. That cold blue eye which is the basilisk of the British Army. The firm jaw and the cruel mouth, of which we read in 1898. But presumably this is only the stereotyped "military hero" that the papers always keep "set up" for the advent of successful generals. None of it was visible here. A round, red, and somewhat puffy face. Square head with staff cap set carelessly upon it. Heavy moustaches covering a somewhat mobile mouth, at the moment inclined to smile. Eyes just anyhow; heavy, but not overpowering eyebrows. In fact, a very ordinary face of a man scarcely past his prime. Hardly a figure that you would have remarked if it had not been for the gilt upon his hat—in fact it was all a disappointing discovery. He was pacing up and down with his hands on his hips, and elbows pointing backwards, talking good-naturedly to a colonel man, who was evidently just off "trek," and with his overgrown gait and ponderous step the great Kitchener did not look half as imposing as his travel-stained companion.
The chief was explaining something to the colonel. They paced up and down together for a few minutes, then stopped just in front of us, and the conversation was as follows:—
Chief. "All right; I will soon find you a staff. Let me see; you have a brigade-major?"
Colonel. "Yes; but he is at Hanover Road!"
Chief. "That's all right; you will collect him in good time. You want a chief for your staff. Here, you (and he beckoned a colonel in palpably just-out-from-England kit, who was standing by); what are you doing here? You will be chief of the staff to the New Cavalry Brigade!"
New Colonel. "But, sir—"
Chief. "That's all right. (Reverting to his original attitude.) Now you want transport and supply officers. See that depot over there? (nodding his head towards the De Aar supply depot.) Go and collect them there—quote me as your authority. There you are fitted up; you can round up part of your brigade to-night and be off at daybreak to-morrow. Wait; you will want an intelligence officer. (Here he swung round and ran his eye over the miscellaneous gathering of all ranks assembled on the platform. He singled out a bedraggled officer from amongst the group who had arrived the preceding night in the van of the ill-natured Africander guard.) What are you doing here?"
Officer. "Trying to rejoin, sir."
Chief. "Where have you come from?"
Officer. "Deelfontein—convalescent, sir."
Chief. "You'll do. You are intelligence officer to the New Cavalry Brigade. Here's your brigadier; you will take orders from him. (Turning again to the colonel and holding out his hand.) There you are; you are fitted out. Mind you move out of Richmond Road to-morrow morning without fail. Good-bye!"
The driver leaned out of the cab of his engine and gave the brigadier a little of his mind.
"Look here, I am a civilian; I know my duties. I had my eight bogies on, and by the rights of things I had no business to take on your beastly truck—and now I tell you that the line is not safe, and here I stay for the night. Bear in mind that you are now dealing with civilian driver John Brown, and he knows his duties."
"My hearty fellow!" answered the brigadier, who had commanded a Colonial corps too long to be put out by "back-chat" from a representative of the most independent class in the world, "that is not the point. If we were all to do our duty rigidly to the letter, we should get no forwarder. It is not a matter of saving this train, it is a matter of a gentleman keeping his word. I have given my word that I will march out of Richmond Road to-morrow at daybreak. You wouldn't like it on your conscience that not only had you made a pal break his word, but you had also been the means of leaving a gap in the line for De Wet. Duty be hanged in the Imperial cause! What did Nelson do at the battle of Copenhagen? Now this is just a parallel: I know that you are loyal and sportsman to the backbone; I want you to be the Nelson of this 'crush.' I know I can't order you—but I know that you are a sportsman, and as a sportsman you will not give me away. Look here, I am just going into the telegraph-office for ten minutes. Think it over while I'm there!"
The driver's face was a study, and as for Fireman Jack, he just smiled all over his dirty countenance. There is only one way to a Colonial's heart, and you must be shod with velvet to get there. We then adjourned to the little shanty that served Deelfontein for a stationmaster's office. We—that is such of the staff of the New Cavalry Brigade as the brigadier had been able to collect in De Aar.
"Where's a map?" asked the brigadier. The chief of the staff looked at the intelligence officer. The intelligence officer looked at the supply officer. A map! No one had ever seen a map. But a "Briton and Boer" chart had been part of the chief of the staff's home outfit, and after considerable fumbling it was produced from his bulging haversack.
"Well, you are a fine lot of 'was-birds' with which to run a brigade: but this will do. Now, Mr Intelligence, jot down this wire:—
"From O.C. New Cavalry Brigade to O.C. first squadron 20th Dragoon Guards to arrive at Richmond Road.
"On receipt move with all military precautions at once to Klip Kraal, twenty-six miles on the Britstown Road. I will follow to-morrow morning. Look out for helio. communication on your left, as another column is moving parallel to you to the south."
"There," said the brigadier, "we have got over that difficulty, and anticipated Kitchener's orders by twelve hours. May Providence protect those raw dragoons if old Hedgehog is in the vicinity. Three days off a ship and to meet Hedgehog is a big thing!"
The dirty and smiling face of Fireman Jack was poked in at the doorway.
"Please, sir, the driver says as how he is ready to move, and would like to start as soon as possible."
"Hearty fellow!" said the brigadier; and then as we climbed into our saloon again he added: "There is only one way of treating these fellows. Treat them as men and they are of the very best on earth; combat them, and they won't move a yard. Some one at De Aar ordered an extra truck on to this man's train, and he has been sulking ever since. Now that he's on his mettle and emulating Nelson, you will see that he will bustle us along. Nothing but a dynamite cartridge will stop him. My fellows in Natal were just the same."
Two hours later, just before it was dark, we ran into Richmond Road. The driver jumped off his engine and strode across the platform. "General," he said, with the frank familiarity of the Colonial, "I should just like to say that I had shaken hands with you. I wish that there were more like you; we should all be better men. Good-bye and good luck to you, sir!"
* * * * *
It is not intended in these papers to compile a historical record of the operations in South Africa to which they relate. But in order that the part which the New Cavalry Brigade played in the campaign which arrested De Wet's invasion in February 1901 may be intelligible, and in order that the readers may better understand the peregrinations of our own particular unit, it may be expedient here to give a brief outline of the initial scheme which, sound as it may have appeared, within twenty-four hours of its birth became enshrouded in the usual fog of war. After outlining the scheme all we can hope is that these papers may furnish occasional and momentary gleams of light in that fog, since their object is not to build up contemporary history, but to furnish a faithful record of the life and working of one of the pieces on the chess-board of the campaign—a piece which, in this De Wet hunt, had perhaps the relative importance of a "castle."
De Wet's long-promised invasion—of which Kritzinger's and Hertzog's descent into Cape Colony had been the weather-signal—was now an accomplished fact. He had invaded with 2500 to 3000 men and some artillery. Plumer had located him at Philipstown, had effectually "bolted" him, and, in spite of heavy weather, had pressed him with the perseverance of a sleuth-hound in the direction of the De Aar-Orange River Railway into the arms of two columns in the vicinity of Hautkraal. A week previous to this, as soon as it was known that De Wet had evaded the force intended to head him back when moving south down the Orange River Colony, the railway had been taxed to its utmost to concentrate troops on the Naauwpoort-De Aar-Beaufort West line. Day and night troop-trains, bulging with khaki and bristling with rifles, had vomited columns, detachments, and units at various points upon this line—Colesberg, Hanover Road, De Aar, Richmond Road, Victoria West, and Beaufort. Lord Kitchener himself, at a pace which had wellnigh bleached the driver's hair, had hied down to De Aar in his armoured train. Plumer had diverted the invasion west, Crabbe and Henniker and the armoured trains had kicked it over the railway-line. Kitchener was content. If De Wet followed his jackal Hertzog into the south-western areas, the columns on the line from De Aar downwards were to move west as parallel forces and tackle the invader in turn. Each would run him till exhausted, with a fresh parallel to take up the running from them as soon as they were done; while at the end, when the last parallel was played out, De Lisle as a stop stood at Carnarvon, ready to catch the ripe plum after the tree had been well shaken. Admirable plan—on paper. Admirable plan if De Wet had only done what he ought to have done—if he had only allowed himself to be kicked by each parallel in turn, churned by relays of pom-poms, until ready to be presented to De Lisle. But De Wet did not do the right thing. He was no cub to trust to winning an earth by a direct and obvious line, where pace alone would have killed him. He was an old grey fox, suspicious even of his own shadow, and he doubled and twisted: in the meanwhile Plumer ran himself "stone-cold" on his heels, and the majority of the parallel columns, played by his screen of "red herrings," countermarched themselves to a standstill. The old, old story, which needs no expansion here. Admirable plan, if only the British columns had been as complete at their rendezvous as they appeared on paper. We were the New Cavalry Brigade—the 21st King's Dragoon Guards and the 20th Dragoon Guards, just out from home; the Mount Nelson Light Horse, newly raised in Cape Town; a battery of R.H.A., and a pom-pom. But where were we. We were due to march out of Richmond Road at daybreak on the morrow. Two squadrons of the 21st King's Dragoons and one of the Mount Nelson's were with Plumer—Providence only knows where—learning the law of the veldt. The rest of the Mount Nelson's and one squadron of the 21st King's Dragoons were at Hanover Road. One squadron of the 20th Dragoon Guards was at Richmond Road; two squadrons were in the train on the way up from Cape Town. The guns at least had arrived. Yet we were about the value of a "castle" on the chess-board designed to mate De Wet.
* * * * *
"Now we shall have to take our coats off."
The brigadier was right. It was no mean affair to arrive at sundown at a miserable siding in the Karoo, called by courtesy a station, to find its two parallels of rails blocked with the trucks containing the nucleus of a cavalry brigade, and to get that nucleus on the road by daybreak. The supply column was all out, the battery half out—these were old soldiers; but the two squadrons of 20th Dragoon Guards had not yet awakened to the situation. The brigadier looked up and down the platform, gazed a moment at the long tiers of laden trucks, and then made the above remark.
And we had to take our coats off. The 20th were new but they were willing; and it is difficult to say which hampers you most, an over-willing novice or an unwilling expert. You who sit at home and rail at the conduct of the campaign, rail at the wretched officer, regimental or staff, little know what is expected of him. You have your type in your mind's eye—an eyeglass, spotless habiliments, and a waving sword; you pay him and expect him to succeed. Your one argument is unanswerable. You place the greatest man that you can select to guide and cherish him, therefore if he does not succeed it must be through his own shortcomings. In your impatience you opine that he has not succeeded. Therefore he must be ignorant, indifferent, and incompetent. Little do you realise the injustice of your opinion. You sweat, during a war, an intelligent class—the same class, be it said, from which the best that your universities can produce is drawn,—you sweat it as no other educated class would allow itself to be sweated in the whole civilised world, and yet, though men drop in harness for you by dozens every month, you turn upon them and revile them. Can you not appreciate the fact that it is not always the medium, through which the Great Head you have selected works, that is in error,—that the pilot's hand may be at fault, and not the steering-gear? Take us that night at Richmond Road. New troops, new staff, little or no information, and an order to be in position at a point 50 miles distant in 36 hours. If bricks have to be made, has not the workman a right to expect to be supplied with the ingredients? Is the blame altogether his if, when exposed to the heat of a tropical sun, his hurriedly constructed clay crumbles to pieces for want of the straw with which his taskmaster failed to supply him? We think not. But that night at Richmond Road we had no time to ruminate upon our difficulties. We had to surmount them, and with our brigadier we took our coats off and buckled to the job.
1. To Intelligence, New Cavalry Brigade, Richmond Road, from Intelligence, De Aar.
"You must organise your intelligence locally, impossible to supply so many columns with men from here. Will see what can be done later. Authorise such expenditure as you think fit."
2. To Int. N.C.B. from Int. De Aar.
"De Wet Expert reports De Wet moving towards Vosberg. Plumer still in touch. Hertzog, Brand, Pretorius, all between Prieska and Vosberg with large quantities remounts for De Wet. Theron has been detached by De Wet, moving south rapidly to join Brand, intention attacking Britstown. Local farmers Hanover and Victoria West districts collecting to assist invaders. Inform New Cavalry Brigade. This wire is repeated to Intelligences Victoria West, Carnarvon, Fraserberg, 'Chowder' Cape Town, Orange River, Beaufort, and Chief Pretoria."
3. From Brigade-Major New Cavalry Brigade, Hanover Road, to O.C. N.C.B. Richmond Road.
"Hope to move out from here to-morrow. No trains available. As ordered by you, proceed by road to Britstown. Saddles for Mount Nelson's not yet arrived."
4. From Ass. Director Transport De Aar to O.C. N.C.B. Richmond Road.
"Impossible to equip you with more mule transport than has been forwarded to you; will make up your deficiencies with ox transport, which will be waiting for you at Britstown when you arrive."
5. From O.C. De Aar to O.C. N.C.B. Richmond Road (60871).
"Proceed with extreme caution, as local rebel commando under Van der Merwe said to be collected at Nieuwjaarsfontein between you and Britstown. As extra precaution you may take the company of Wessex Mounted Infantry, stationed at Richmond Road, with you as far as Britstown."
6. (Six hours later) "Vide my 60871. Wessex M.I. countermanded."
These only represent a portion of the communications which were waiting for us in the telegraph-office at Richmond Road. But they are a fair enough sample to illustrate the difficulties with which the brigadier had to contend. The communication about the rebel gathering at Nieuwjaarsfontein moved him to moralise. "Alas for my advance squadron! If I believed that it were true, I would move out at once with what we have got and nab those rebels. But as it is I will leave it to the advance squadron, and we will supply the burial-party in the morning! Look here, Mr Intelligence, you have got to form an Intelligence Department to-night. You had better set about it at once."
* * * * *
The Intelligence officer walked out into the clearing in front of the station and surveyed the scene. It was now too dark to see his face; but there was that something in his attitude that betrayed the feeling of utter hopelessness which possessed him. It is in just such an attitude that the schoolmaster detects Smith Major's failure to prepare his Horace translation before that youth has hazarded a single word. The Intelligence officer had been ordered to raise an Intelligence Department for the brigade. Trained in the stern school of army discipline, he had no choice but to obey. And with this end in view he left the precincts of the station. Then the absolute impossibility of the situation dawned upon him. Not a soul was in sight, and even if there had been, though the powers of the press-gang officer were vested in him, he did not know a word of the Dutch or Kaffir tongues. He stood upon the fringe of the gaunt Karoo. On either hand stretched a waste of lone prairie—a solitude of gathering night. Out of its deepest shades rose masses of jet-black hill: the ragged outline of their crests bathed purple and grey in the last effort of the expiring twilight. Already the great dome of heaven had given birth to a few weary stars, and but for the shrinking wake of day still lingering in the west the great desolate pall of night had fallen upon the veldt—the vast, mysterious, indescribable veldt!
But as treasure-trove is found when the tide is at its lowest ebb, so often when the wall of impossibility seems an insuperable mass of concrete, it is found to be the merest paper. As the Intelligence officer, awed by the great solitude of the sleeping veldt, stood musing on its fringe, a voice hailed out of the darkness—
"What ho! Whose column is that?"
A moment more and a mounted man cantered up, and a young Africander threw himself out of the saddle.
"Whose column?" asked the new-comer.
"The New Cavalry Brigade!"
"No; who are you?"
"I'm one of Rimington's Tigers. I'm attached to Henniker's column, and I've been sent down here to round up a man who lives about these parts!"
"Have you got him?"
"No. Who may you be? Have you got a match?"
The Intelligence officer felt in his pocket, and an inspiration came to him as he fumbled for the matches.
"How did you see me? I never saw you, and you were against the sky-line."
"A cigar is a big beacon, old chap!" Then the Tiger struck a light, and for the first time realised that he was talking to an officer. "Oh, I beg your pardon, I thought that you were a civilian."
In the short life of the match each had taken stock of the other,—the one, a pleasant-faced Imperial officer, the other a hard-bitten Colonial. The Intelligence officer was the first to speak.
"Do you speak Dutch and Kaffir?"
"Are you in a giant hurry to get back to Henniker's?"
"I'm not wearing myself out with anxiety."
"Well, look here, we shall probably meet Henniker in the course of the next few days. Come along with us till we strike your column. I am Intelligence officer of this brigade, and I want to get together some sort of an Intelligence gang to-night. We start at 4.30 to-morrow morning."
"In what capacity do you want me?"
"As my chief guide. Do you know this country?"
"I have often been through it; but I'll soon find some one who does. Have you got any boys?"
"Not a soul. I've only just this moment arrived!"
"Well, we must have boys. Where are we to go?"
"Then we want a white guide and at least four boys. Yes, I'll come, sir. What's the force?"
"It's an embryo brigade; but when we get it together it will be quite a handsome force—three regiments and six guns!"
"Yes, the Mount Nelson Light Horse."
"Never heard of them, but you now want to raise these boys. What kind of a man are you? Do you go straight in up to the elbows, or do you play about in kid gloves?"
"How do you mean?"
"Well, will you come down to a farm over there, and back me up in everything that I do? We can get all we want there!"
"I'll back you up in everything that is in accordance with the exigencies of the service."
"That I don't wear kid gloves——?"
"Come along, then; we'll soon round up a gang!"
* * * * *
A quarter of a mile brought the two men to the enclosure of a little Karoo homestead, nestling in a hollow in the veldt. The Tiger was leading his pony, and after he had tied it to the rail outside, they walked boldly up to the verandah. They were greeted by an excited dog, and a minute later the door was opened by a tall cadaverous-looking youth.
"What do you want?"
The Tiger answered in Dutch. The farmer had evidently seen him before, as he bridled angrily.
"Oh, it's you, is it?" came the answer. "You have come back again. Well, I am sorry we have no forage for you!"
"It is not forage I want. Where is your father? Here is an officer who must see the 'boss.'"
"I tell you the 'boss' is not here. But will not the officer come in. Good evening, mister, come in here. I will bring a light!"
The two men were shown into a sitting-room, and the youth disappeared. A moment later a slender girl of about seventeen whisked into the room with a lamp, put it on the table, and disappeared. But the light had shone upon her just long enough to show that she was very comely. The true Dutch type. Flaxen hair, straight forehead and nose, beautiful complexion, and faded blue eyes. The farm evidently belonged to people of some substance. The room, after the manner of the Dutch, was well furnished. Ponderously decorated with the same lack of proportion which is to be found in an English middle-class lodging-house. Harmonium and piano in opposite corners,—crude chromos and distorted prints upon the walls; artificial flowers, anaemic in colouring and glass-protected, on the shelves; unwieldy albums on the table; coarse crotchet drapings on the chairs; the Royal Family in startling pigments as an over-mantel. For the moment one might have fancied that it was Mrs Scroggins's best parlour in Woburn Square.
After considerable whispering in the passage, the mother of the family, supported by two grown daughters and three children with wide-opened eyes, marched into the room.
"Good evening," and there was a limp handshake all round.
The attitude and expression of the good dame was combative. She was stout, slovenly, and forty. And the first impression was that she had once been what her pretty daughter was now at seventeen. There is nothing of the beauty of dignified age in the Dutch woman past her prime.
"Where is your man?" asked the Tiger.
"He has gone to Richmond to sell the scaapen."
"And your sons?"
"I have no sons."
The Tiger threw open the photograph album on the table, and put his finger on a recent photo of two hairless youths in bandoliers. The likeness to the good lady in front of us was unmistakable.
"Who are these?"
"My sister's children," came the glib answer.
"Good," said the Tiger, as he slipped the photograph out. "I shall keep this. Who is the young man who opened the door."
"Good; then he can come along with us. How many boys have you on this farm?"
"They have all gone with my man."
"All right, I am going round to see—bring a candle. All right, don't make a fuss, my good lady. Don't take that lamp; the officer will stay here while I go out."
The stout frau produced a piece of paper, and laid it on the table with all the confidence of a poker-player displaying a Royal Flush. The Tiger picked it up and read:—
"This is to certify that Hans Pretorius can be implicitly trusted to give all assistance to the military authorities. He has furnished the required assurances.
"(Signed) L——, Resident Magistrate."
The Tiger held the slip of paper and photograph side by side for a moment, and then slowly lit the former in the flame of the lamp. The women and children stood solemnly and watched the blaze. Only the pretty girl showed any emotion. The faded blue of her eyes seemed to darken. She said something. It sounded like "hands opper." How the Dutch hate the English Africander!
The Tiger only laughed as he said, "You wait here, sir, while I go round the premises. Come along, Mrs Pretorius."
The Intelligence officer had not been alone five minutes before the door opened and the pretty daughter appeared with a glass of milk on a tray. The look of indignation had disappeared—a smile lurked on the pretty features. Now the Intelligence officer was tired and thirsty—a glass of milk was most refreshing. Moreover, he was an Englishman—a pretty face was not without its charms for him.
The Daughter. "Please, sir, the Kharki is taking Stephanus with him. You will not let him do that. There will be no one left to look after the farm and to protect us from the boys."
Intelligence Officer. "Who is Stephanus?"
D. "He does not stay here; he is" (then the blue eyes filled with tears)—"he is—my sweetheart!"
I. O. (softening) "But we will not hurt him; you will have him back in a few days."
D. "Who can say? You are going to make him fight, and then I shall never see him again. Oh, please, sir, don't take him" (and a hand—a fair dimpled hand—rested on the Intelligence officer's sleeve).
I. O. (moving uncomfortably) "I am afraid that I must; but no harm shall come to him, that I promise!"
D. "But he doesn't know the way, and you will shoot him if he shows you a wrong road."
I. O. "He will know all that we want him to know."
D. "Where will you want him to take you? I know he doesn't know the way."
I. O. "Why, he has only to go to Britstown!"
D. (the tears drying) "And you promise me that you will not harm him?"
I. O. "Of course I won't."
D. "Oh, thank you." She was gone, and the Intelligence officer was left to his own thoughts. It had slipped out unawares. He had been caught: he realised that much as soon as the word had left his lips. He had yet much to learn.
There was a noise in the verandah. The Tiger had arrived with Stephanus, four ponies, and three native boys.
"This will do for a start, sir; we will amplify on the march!"
But as the Intelligence officer handed over his department to the quarter-guard of the 20th Dragoon Guards for safe keeping until the morrow, Miss Pretorius was saddling a pony in the kraal. She had to find her father before daybreak. Her father with his two sons was at Nieuwjaarsfontein!
* * * * *
Richmond Road is not a township. It is only a railway-station, but it boasts of one winkel adjoining the railway buildings. Here the O.C. of the New Cavalry Brigade had taken up his quarters for the night, and here the Jew proprietor had arranged food and lodging for the staff. Part barn, part shop, and part dwelling, this dilapidated hostelry is typical of its kind. You meet with them all over the South African veldt. You bless them when they shelter you from the wind and rain; curse them when, housed in a six-storeyed mansion, which boasts the same legend over the door—hotel—you remember to what you were at one time reduced by the chances of a soldier's life.
The brigadier was just sitting down to the only meal that the slatternly wife of the Jew could produce—a steaming mess of lean boiled mutton—when the Intelligence officer returned from his adventure.
"Come and sit down, Mr Intelligence; have you raised a band of robbers yet?"
"Yes, sir; I've collected a trooper of Rimington's Guides and some boys."
"You seem a brighter fellow than I took you for. Well, here you are; here is another telegram for you. We ought to come right on the top of the swine to-morrow."
To Intelligence N.C.B. from Int. De Aar.
"Gathering of rebels at Nieuwjaarsfontein confirmed from two sources. Repeated, &c."
The Intelligence officer kept his own counsel. He felt certain that there would be no gathering at Nieuwjaarsfontein when the force arrived. But he had bought his experience, and determined to profit by the same in the future.
"I think that we have a chance of a show this jaunt," said the brigadier, after somebody had produced a bottle of port. "This is about the best plan that K. has thrown off his chest. But I am afraid that Plumer will spoil it. He is a holy terror when he gets on a trail. That is his great fault: you will never catch these fellows by holding on to a trail after you have been on it three days. I don't care how red-hot it may be. You run yourself stone-cold, only to find that your quarry has outlasted you. Now, after De Wet crossed the railway at Hautkraal, Plumer's obvious move was to Strydenburg. They could have pushed stuff out there to him from Hopetown. K. wants De Wet to go south-west into the loop of the J which our five columns make. Now, if Plumer, Crabbe, & Co. stick to him, he'll break back to the Orange River as sure as fate. But if Plumer lets him alone, and we are not messed about by too many general-men, we'll have him. Once De Wet gets south as far as Britstown he's a dead bird. But we shall be messed about by too many generals. See, how many have we?—Five. That's enough in the way of cooks to spoil any pottage. But personally I don't think De Wet will be the good little fly and walk into our pretty parlour. They don't ask me for opinions; but if I was running this show, I would have halted Plumer on the railway, left the J as it is, and collected an infernal 'push' of men north of the Orange River. I should have held a line from Mark's Drift to Springfontein. When I had got that, I would have turned our sleuth-hound Plumer loose again. Then all we fine fellows could have played with De Wet until he was sick of the Colony. We could then escort him to the Orange River, and the 'pushes' on the far side would have picked up the pieces. But here we are; may Providence guide him to us! I'm for bed. Good night!"
 Commandant Judge Hertzog.
 A special Intelligence officer was told off to watch De Wet's movements.
 "Chowder" was telegraphic address of general commanding line of communications in Cape Colony.
 Rimington's Guides wear a piece of leopard-skin in their hats, and are known as Rimington's Tigers.
 Native boys.
 Farm working hand.
 Traitor. Lit., Hands upper—i.e., surrendered man.
 The Boers speak of all British soldiers as Kharkis.
 Lord Kitchener is commonly spoken of as "K." in South Africa.
BEE-LINE TO BRITSTOWN.
"Not bad for a green crush."
The brigadier sat down on the edge of a great slab of rock to watch the baggage over the nek. It was a typical South African nek. An execrable path winding over the saddle of a low range of tumbled ironstone. Just one of those ranges which force themselves with sheer effrontery out from the level of the plain. Loose sugar-loaf excrescences which stud the sea of prairie with a thousand flat-topped islets, and weave the monotony of landscape peculiar to this great continent. The rough post-cart track led down into a vast amphitheatre, so vast that Western Europe can furnish no parallel to it. Yet its counterparts are met and traversed every day by the countless British columns now slowly darning the gaping rent in Africa's robe of peace. Who, if they had not known, would have said that the beautiful panorama, which the morning sun now unveiled before us, was a theatre of war? Away at our feet stretched mile upon mile of rolling Karoo and blue-grey prairie. True it was punctuated and ribbed with stunted kopjes. But still the everlasting plain predominated, until it was lost in an autumn haze which no sun could master. Immense,—a land without a horizon, a land every characteristic of which inspires a sense of independence and freedom. A sensation—an intoxication, to be felt, not to be described. Why should men fight in a land such as this? Surely there is room for all! The very animals of the field, ignorant of the selfishness bred of a limited pasturage and restricted space, are docile and free of vice. But with man it is different.
The dweller on the open plain learns freedom. The lesson of cramped cities is avarice—that the fittest may survive. Who shall blend the two? There, as we stood with our loins girt for war, did that great peaceful prairie unfold before us. As the morning sun grew stronger, the everlasting grey of the Karoo became jewelled with brighter tints. The middle distance of the plain was spangled with a streak of winding silver. A river tracing its erratic course between the kopje islets. At intervals along its banks the eye rested upon the patches of darker green. The home plantation of some farm, glimpses of whose whitewashed walls even now caught a glint from the strengthening sun-rays. Here was a stretch of yellow furrow—the finger of civilisation on a virgin waste. Here spots of shimmering white, where the surface of a dam reflected the flooding light of day. Here and there a flock of sheep relieved the monotony of the everlasting grey. While across our front a bunch of brood-mares were galloping in the ecstasy of day and freedom, and a bevy of quaintly pirouetting ostriches gave life to the wonderful picture. And presently a little fan of brown dots opened out on the grey below—opened out and diverged in pairs. Dots so small and insignificant that they looked like ants upon a carriage-drive. Out and out they spread, till they seemed lost and merged with the brood-mares and ostriches, now ceasing their wild movements and grouping in mild amazement at the strange invasion. And still the dots diverge. It is the advance-guard of our column—heralds of selfish man bringing horrid war into this peaceful vale. As the dots mingle with the ant-heaps on the plain, or are lost in the folds of the grey prairie, a pillar of dust rises from the centre of the fan. A larger mass of brown—the battery and its escort—a great kharki caterpillar creeping across the grey,—it is time to be moving, the last mule-waggon has topped the nek, and the last of the rear-guard are leading their horses up the post-cart road.
"Not bad for a green crush!" said the brigadier as he prepared to follow down the hillside. "Hullo! what is that?"
A spark had shown out of the misty distance. A little glitter. It came, trembled a second, and disappeared. Again it came, a many-pointed star, winking and shivering.
"Some one is calling up. Here, signaller!—where is the brigade signaller?"
A great dragoon tumbles out of his saddle and begins to arrange his tripod. In a few seconds his mirror has caught the sun in answer to the twinkling star in front.
"Who is it?"
A silence broken only by rhythmic clicks, as the signaller catches the distant conversation, and his monotonous reading of the code. A stolid assistant takes it down. "'T' group, 'W' group, 'I' group, 'Enna,' 'E' group—Major Twine, sir."
"Oh, the advance squadron. Well, that's satisfactory; we shall not have to bury them after all. What have they got to say?" and the brigadier sat down on his rock again as the signaller spelt out the message.
"Am moving now on Nieuwjaarsfontein. Parties of mounted Boers on both flanks. Have not been molested." Here the signaller broke down.
"Something has gone wrong, sir. They have gone out!"
For a moment the light again twinkled in frenzied haste. "Breaking station—shooting!" then all was dark.
"I think, sir," ventured the signaller, "that they have broken up the station because some one was shooting at them."
"Very likely. Here, Mr Intelligence, just you get on your horse and gallop up to the main body. Tell Colonel Washington that I want to send an officer on to the advance squadron, now twenty-five miles in front of us: would he be so kind as to send one back to me. Don't waste time!"
Down the steep hillside, threading through the rumbling mule-trollies, with their teams zigzagging in the throes of a heavy drift, and their groups of chattering drivers, whose black polished faces are aglow with negroid bonhomie. "Aihu, Aihu. Bom-Bom. Scellum Oom Paul. Scellum President Steyn." Then a crack from the great 12-foot whip-thong, sounding like a well-timed volley. At the bottom of the incline a small spruit. There on the bank stands Willem the Zulu. A dilapidated coaching-beaver on his head. A square foot of bronzed chest showing between the white facings of an open infantry tunic. His nether limbs encased in a pair of dragoon overalls, with vivid green patches on the knees. Was there ever such a picture of savage good nature and childishness as the giant Willem swung the great bamboo haft of his whip above his head, and chided or exhorted his team straining in the drift! "Come up, Buller," to a favourite ass. "Kruger, you scellum," to a refractory lead, while the great thong cracked like a pistol as the leather hissed between the culprit's ears without touching a hair on its hide.
Splash through the drift. "D—n it, sir, can't you let a horse water in peace." And as you feel the springy Karoo beneath your animal's stride, you catch the lament of some officer whom you have hustled in the drift.
That first gallop in the morning! Although we who have been out here for months may hate the very mention of the veldt, yet if we live to go home we shall live to regret that we ever left it. We may curse its boundless wastes—curse that endless rise which so often has lain between our tired bodies and the evening bivouac; but the curses will die over the rail of an ocean steamer and with the fading lights of Cape Town, while the memory of the exhilarating air, the freedom, the stirring adventure lurking in every dip and donga of that wind-swept, sun-dried, war-racked expanse of steppe, will live with us for ever. Who can forget those autumn mornings, when the horse, influenced by the same exhilaration as his rider, races across the spongy soil; playfully shies at a half-hidden ant-heap; with cat-like agility avoids the dangerous bear-earth; when all seems strong, and young, and full of life; when war is forgotten, until the rocket-bird falls slanting across your path, and its plaintive note calls back to your memory the whine of the Mauser bullet! Yes, it is good to be a soldier. The chances are heavy; but, all told, it is worth it.
"Where the devil are you galloping to? Don't you know that you shouldn't approach mounted troops at that pace?"
You feel inclined to tell the cavalry colonel, fresh from the Curragh, that we had left all that behind eighteen months ago. But discipline rules experience, and automatically the respectful hand is up to the helmet-peak.
"The general's compliments, sir. He wishes to send an officer on at once with a message to Major Twine. Will you kindly detail one of your officers. He is to come back with me to the general at once."
"Oh, you are from the general, are you? Here, Sturt," turning to his adjutant, "send Mr Meadows back with this officer to the general. And you, sir, don't you in future come galloping up like that into my regiment."
"Very good, sir."
* * * * *
"Now, Mr Intelligence, I don't want you here any more. You have got to find out something about this road. I shall expect you to know all about those farms by this evening. So get along with your robbers. You can call yourself an egg-and-milk patrol, if you like. I should like some eggs for breakfast. Unless we strike Burghers, I halt at the first convenient water after eleven—from eleven until two. Go and find that water, and don't get shot."
Back again to the front. By throwing a circle the main body is avoided, and ten minutes' canter brings you to the advance-guard. To the brain of the advance-guard would have been perhaps a more truthful statement, for the subaltern commanding the leading troop is riding alone along the post-cart road. His men are but dots strung out on either flank like buoys in the Hoogly. The subaltern himself is full of importance, grievances, and map-study.
Subaltern. "Why haven't you given me a guide?"
Intelligence Officer. "There is only one road, and that is as clear as a pikestaff."
Sub. "It is the principle that I go on."
I. O. "Well, continue to go on it. You are doing all right."
Sub. "That is not the point. I ought to have a guide and an interpreter. This is not the only road in the whole bally country, I presume?"
I. O. "Well, here we are. There are five of us. You only have to command us. That's what we are here for."
The subaltern with evident disapproval took stock of the Intelligence officer and his following—the Tiger and three nondescript black boys.
Sub. "Have you been here before?"
I. O. "Never."
Sub. "Have your boys?"
I. O. "I cannot say. They speak no known language!"
Sub. "Great Heavens! I call it murder to send us out like this."
A dragoon sergeant galloped in from the right flank.
Sergeant (in great state of excitement). "Please, sir, mounted men have just crossed our front."
Sub. "Which way?—how many were there?"
Sergeant. "About five thousand, sir!"
Sub. "Great Caesar's ghost! Five thousand!—did you count them, sergeant?"
Sergeant. "No, sir; nobody saw them, sir: it was only their tracks. There are so many they are all over the place, so I think that there must be about four or five thousand!"
I. O. "I'll send my men to look at them!"
Sub. "Yes, do. I'll go too; but I will first send a note back to the column."
I. O. "I wouldn't do that yet. It may only be a herd of springbok!"
The subaltern did not disguise his look of scorn at this reflection. But John the Kaffir, with the aid of the Tiger, announced that the tracks in question had been made on the previous day by Major Twine's squadron—perhaps eighty strong. So much for circumstantial evidence. But this is nothing. It is not fair to judge new troops on their first day on the veldt. If that sergeant is alive to-day, you might stake such credit at the bank as you possess that he would not only give you the correct number to within five of the group which made the spoor, but would also give a fair description of the nature of the party and the pace at which they had travelled. Such is experience.
At eleven o'clock, except that the ridge of hill had been left behind, it seemed that no impression had been made upon the great waste of Karoo in front of us. But the road led down into a pretty little glen, formed by the shelving banks of a tiny river. In the early days some wandering Voortrekker had chanced upon the fascinating spot, had marked down the crystal stream and fertile grazing. Here he had out-spanned his team, drawn fine with days of trekking, and his bivouac had grown into a permanent abode. Here he had lived and died, and no doubt his great-grandchild now owned the pretty little homestead where the column was to make its midday halt. All Dutch homesteads are the same, yet there are not two alike, which is a paradox in which every one who has trekked across the veldt will agree. There are the same kraals and cattle-runs. The home plantation surrounded with stone walls. The same outhouses and forage-lofts. The artesian well, with its fluttering windmill. The dam with dirty water, the little low-roofed dumpy dwelling, washed white, half-swing doors, low stoep, and trellis front. It is in their topographical surroundings only that they differ. The one will stand bleak and exposed upon a dreary plain, the other will nestle coyly behind a grove of pointed gum-trees in some kloof or gully. Chance and nature alone decide if in structure and setting they please the eye. Man is indifferent. A house is to shield him from the elements, not to improve the landscape or impress the passer-by.
Although the Intelligence officer knew little about the science of his new office, yet he had common-sense, which is a soldier's most valuable attribute, and he knew better after eighteen months of war than to ride haphazard into a farm-house, even though the farm-house was in Cape Colony. He borrowed two men from the advance-guard, and, with the aid of the Tiger and his boys, reconnoitred the environs before he sent back to the general to tell him that he had found an ideal spot for the midday halt. Then as the advance-guard occupied the nearest eminences, he handed his horse over to one of the boys and walked up to the stoep of the farm-house. The farmer and his frau stood on the verandah to welcome him, and, as is their wont, their family of girls of all ages crowded in the open door behind their parents to gain a view of the Kharkis. Just as the inevitable hand-shake had taken place, up cantered the Tiger.
"Here we are, sir. These are the kind of people we have to deal with," and he produced two gaudily framed pictures—President Kruger and President Steyn. "Our worthy host made a miscalculation this morning, for I found a Kaffir girl hiding these in the bushes."
"What do you mean?"
"Don't you see, sir, yesterday morning a commando was here. Then our loyal friend had these two pictures hanging up in his parlour. Last evening the squadron of 20th Dragoons passed through. Uncle here saw them coming, so he hid away Oom Paul and Steyn and put the Queen and the Prince of Wales on the wall. After the squadron had gone he expected his commando back again, so up go the Presidents. We came along first, so there had to be another transformation-scene, which I have partially disturbed. I'll bet my bottom dollar that their Royal Highnesses are now adorning the parlour." (Sinking his voice.) "It's a very fair weather-cock, sir; we are not a hundred miles from a pretty strong commando. It must be under some influential leader, or we shouldn't have this little burlesque."
The farmer smiled benignly and pressed his hospitality upon the troops. Nor had the Tiger been mistaken. There, sure enough, upon the walls of the sitting-room reposed coloured portraits of the late Queen and King Edward, while, as the Intelligence officer stepped into the room, a strapping daughter sat down to the piano and played the first bars of the National Anthem. Poor subterfuge, since the damsel had overlooked the Free State favour pinned upon her breast!
"Eggs—butter? Yes, they had both; they would only be too glad—would not the general take food with them?"
The main body had just come in, the gunners were watering their horses, the Dragoons taking out their bits. The gunners knew what it meant, and the little major, who for some reason had undone his gaiter, shouted, without changing his attitude, the only necessary order, "Hook in!" To the Dragoons the muffled reports meant nothing. For all they knew or cared at the moment that hollow echoing rhythm might have been a housewife beating carpets. But the General, the Intelligence officer, and the Tiger knew.
Here came the news. A heavy dragoon, sweating from every pore, his face portraying the satisfaction of a man first shot over, came galloping in. He handed to the general a slip of paper from the subaltern in command of the advance-guard:—
"11.55. Enemy firing on my left flanking patrol—about fifty mounted men advancing towards me. I am on a rise 500 yards to the south-west of the farmhouse."
"That is a good boy," said the brigadier musingly, as he swung round on his heel and took in the topography of our position at a glance. "A very clear report. Here! you tell the officer commanding the pom-pom to take his gun up on to that rise. And you" (turning to another of his staff), "tell Colonel Washington to send a squadron with the pom-pom! Wait, don't be in a hurry; hear me out, please. Tell him that the squadron is to extend, take the rise at a gallop—dismount just before it reaches the top. Now you may go."
Then turning to the chief of the staff, "Have you got a match? Thanks. Now, tell Freddy to send two of his guns on to that rise south of the dam. Send a troop with him. I will be here with the rest to await developments!"
"Order given, sir!" and the Intelligence officer touched his cap.
"Good. Now you go with the pom-pom. I shall be here; let me know developments. Get along. Don't argue!"
Already the pom-pom is trotting out of the farmhouse enclosure and the squadron of Dragoons extending on the plain beyond. The faces of the gunners are as impassive as if they were about to gallop past at a review. They have been doing this sort of thing for months; it has no novelty for them. But with the Dragoons it is different. This is their first engagement; you can see it in the countenances of the men nearest you. The excitement which whitens men's cheeks and makes every action angular and awkward.
"Second Squadron 20th Dragoon Guards—Gallop!"
"Pom-pom—Gallop!" comes the echo.
The Boers must be close up, for the advance-guard is falling back. They are coming back for all they are worth. It will be a race between us and the enemy for the possession of the ridge; please Providence that we may be there first, for of a truth he who loses will pay the stake. The officers realise this, and sitting down to their work they make the pace. The wild line careering behind them suits itself to their lead; instinctively in its excitement and inexperience it closes inwards. Only 200 yards more. The sky-line is clear and defined. No heads have appeared as yet. One hundred yards! Now we are under the rise, the horses feel the hill—a few seconds and we shall know who has won the race. "Steady, men, steady!" Up goes the squadron leader's arm. "Halt! Dismount!" A chaotic second as the frenzied line reins in. "'Number Threes.' Where are the 'Number Threes'?"—"Way for the pom-pom." The straining team crashes through the line. The dismounted troopers follow their officers up the slope. A moment of suspense—and a long-drawn breath. We are first. There are the Boers dismounting a hundred yards away. "Action front, the pom-pom." "Down men, down!"—come the hoarse orders, and a ripple of fire crackles along the summit of the rise. "Let them have the whole belt." Pom-pom-pom-pom-pom-pom! The little gun reels and quivers as it belches forth its stream of spiteful bombs. For a moment the Boers return the fire. Then they rush for their horses, and in as many seconds as it takes to light a cigarette are galloping ventre a terre across the plain in an ever-extending fan. The merciless lead pursues them. The Dragoons spring to their feet to facilitate rapidity of fire, while the pom-pom churns the dry dust of the veldt into little whirlwinds among the flying horsemen. Five hundred yards away stands a kopje. In three minutes the last of the Boers have placed it between them and the British fire—except for the three or four that lie motionless upon the plain.
"Now we shall have it!" and the pom-pom captain turns to the squadron commander. "I advise you to make your men lie down again. I'm going to man-handle my gun down the slope."
"Click-clock, click-clock, click-clock!" go the Mausers. The Boers are on the top of the kopje. It is to be their turn now. No; there is a roar behind the farm, then another, and another. Then three little white cloud-balls open out on the lip of the kopje.
"Good little Freddy!" soliloquises the pom-pom captain as he snaps his glasses into their case. "He was watching them. I must get my beauty to the end of this rise, to catch them as they leave."—"Pom-pom, limber up!"
Boom-boom-boom. Three more little puffs of white over the kopje. Click-clock once, and the brush was over. What was it worth? Four mangled rebels on the veldt, and one stalwart dragoon, with white drawn face and sightless eyes turned to the beautiful blue of heaven!
The brigadier cantered up to the rise. A section of Horse Artillery rumbled up after him. "Look here," he said to the squadron leader, "you must get your men on to that kopje: they are not worth pursuing—there are not more than twenty of them. If I were you I should open out, divide and gallop round both flanks of the kopje; it's open veldt beyond, and we'll look after you from this ridge. You won't see any more of them than their tails. Don't pursue beyond 3000 yards. My orders are to go to Britstown, not to wear my horses out over scallywag snipers!"
* * * * *
"We must push on and get touch with our loose squadron to-night," said the brigadier, as he and his staff made a hasty midday meal off tinned sausages and eggs cooked by the terrified women of the farmhouse. "I wonder what has happened to that poor little subaltern boy that I sent on this morning. Ah! here's Mr Intelligence direct from the bloodstained field; now we shall know the damage!"
Brigadier. "Any Boer wounded?"
Intelligence Officer. "Yes, sir; two, and two killed."
B. "Are the wounded talkative?"
I. O. "One is too far gone, sir; the other is quite communicative."
B. "Well, what has he got to say?"
I. O. "He lies about himself. Swears that he is a Free Stater; but as a matter of fact his name is Pretorius, and he is a son of the farmer from whose wife we got our guides last night. By the merest chance we took a photograph of the farmer's two sons out of an album we found at the farm. And here is one of them wounded to-day. From his account it appears that a man called Lotter is here with a commando, and that he and his have just brought off rather a bad thing. Lotter's commando only joined the rebels returning from Nieuwjaarsfontein about an hour ago. The rebels knew that our advance squadron was at this farm last night, and when they saw us here, they mistook us for Major Twine, and knowing his strength attacked in good heart."
B. "I thought it was something of that kind. Well, we need not eat our hearts out about Twine. Those swine won't be taking any more to-day, especially now that they have reason to believe that we are about. But we won't waste time; we'll go on in half an hour. Send word round, and then come and have some food!"
* * * * *
As the shadows began to grow long across the level of stunted Karoo we had placed another ten miles behind us on the road to Britstown. Never a further sign did we see that day of our enemy. But this is typical of this free fighting on the open veldt. Your enemy comes upon you like a dust-devil—he appears, strikes, wins or loses, and then disappears again as suddenly as he came. You fight your little battle, bury your dead, shake yourselves, and forget all about the incident. This, it may be assumed, for the last year has been the nature of the life which all mounted men have led out here.
Just before the sun set, enshrouded in a curtain of rising mist, we reached a great ridge of table-land. A particularly wild and forsaken tract of country.
"We shall have to halt at the first water," said the brigadier. "What an unholy place to camp in! Well, if there are no Boers it doesn't matter. It's lucky that we had a turn-up against those fellows to-day. They will hardly stomach a night-attack with the echo of a pom-pom chorus still ringing in their ears. Is that a flag?"
The advance-guard were beginning to show like stunted tree-trunks upon the sky-line on our front. Yes; it was a flag. There was work for the lumbering dragoon signaller again. Slowly he spelt out the message: "No enemy have been seen. Ridge is clear. Right flanking patrol had touch with rear troop of Major Twine's squadron, now moving on Nieuwjaarsfontein. Lieutenant Meadows, rejoined, reports Major Twine's squadron seen several bodies of enemy; his squadron has been sniped, but not seriously engaged. Country very open on far side of ridge. Good camping-ground and water at foot of ridge."
"Good business!" said the brigadier, turning to his chief of staff. "Will you canter up and mark out a camp? It's a great relief to find that that advance squadron hasn't been scuppered."
A more dismal camping-ground could not have been found. The fair veldt seemed to have vanished. Instead of a sprinkling of farms, there was only one human habitation within sight—a miserable edifice of mud and unbaked bricks belonging to a Boer shepherd of the lowest type. The dam was a natural depression formed by what appeared to have been the crater of some long-extinct volcano. The country surrounding it was of the roughest, and to make the situation more depressing, with sundown great banks of cloud had gathered in the west. The brigadier might well be anxious for his small force of raw troops in such a fastness, and it is easy to appreciate the feeling which prompted him to personally post the night pickets. But raw troops, raw transport, all will settle down in time, and an hour after sundown the men were having their food.
Before the main body moved into camp the Tiger had made a discovery. He had found a wounded Boer in the shepherd's shanty. A stalwart young Dutchman, with his right hand horribly shattered by a pom-pom shell. The youth was in great pain, and, as the Boer so often has proved, was very communicative under his hurt. He was a Free Stater from Philippolis, and belonged to Judge Hertzog's commando. He was one of fifteen scouts sent by Hertzog, under a commandant called Lotter, to pick up the Richmond rebels and take them down to Graaf Reinet, where De Wet's invaders had orders to concentrate, before undertaking the more desperate venture of the invasion. He indorsed the other wounded man's version of the attack they had made upon us in the morning, and he also volunteered the information that Brand, Hertzog, and Pretorius were due to attack Britstown—our destination—this very evening. This information so far interested the brigadier that he ordered an officer's patrol from the 20th Dragoon Guards to leave camp at 3 A.M. and ride right through to Britstown without a halt, so as to arrive there by nine or ten in the morning. It was important to know if Britstown had been attacked, since until the concentration took place on the morrow the garrison there was weak: it was also important that the general officer commanding the combined movement should know of the deflection from Hertzog's commando which we had encountered. Lieutenant Meadows, having proved so successful in avoiding the enemy in the morning, was again entrusted with the mission, and he was given Stephanus as his guide.
* * * * *
The gathering clouds did not prove simply a seasonable warning. A great icy blast swept up the valley, driving a broad belt of stinging dust before it, and the bivouac was smitten through and through by a South African dust-storm. Five minutes of fierce gale, with lightning that momentarily dispelled the night, then a pause—the herald of coming rain. A few great ice-cold drops smote like hail on the tarpaulin shelter that served headquarters for a mess-tent. Then followed five minutes of a deluge such as you in England cannot conceive. A deluge against which the stoutest oil-skin is as blotting-paper. A rain which seems also to entice fountains from the earth beneath you. In ten minutes all is over. The stars are again demurely winking above you, and all that you know of the storm is that you see the vast diminishing cloud, revealed in the west by the fading lightning-flashes, and that you have not a dry possession either in your kit or on your person.
"Not much fear of sleeping sentries to-night," said the chief of the staff as we cowered round a fire under the waggon-sail.
"No; and it is just as well: it is on these sleepless nights that 'brother' is fond of showing himself," answered the brigadier. "I don't like all these Free Staters about. They may be able to stir up the new crop of rebels into doing something desperate. Raw guerillas, with a leaven of hard-bitten cases, are always a source of danger. But I think that we worked our own salvation in the skirmish this morning. They would hardly believe that we should have such a small force with so many guns. No; our luck was in to-day, when they discovered us instead of Twine's squadron. We shall make something out of the 20th. They are the right stuff: that squadron went for that rise to-day in splendid style. The Boer cannot stand galloping. I may be a crank—they believe that I am one at Pretoria—but I am convinced that I have discovered the true Mounted Infantry formation for the sort of fighting that we are now experiencing out here. If you find your enemy in any position that you can gallop over, without riding your horse to a standstill, go for him in extended order. You will get more results from an enterprise of this kind than from a week of artillery and dismounted attack. I hear that D. claims to have originated this formation. Why, I was practising it with my fellows in Natal before D. was born, or rather when he was an infant in the knowledge of war. I am as convinced that I am right as I am that the rifle is the cavalry-man's arm. It is not for shock tactics that you require to mount men nowadays: the use of a horse is to get into the best fire-position in the shortest possible time. The battles of the future will be decided by rifles and machine-guns, not by lance and sabre. There's heresy for you; but it's my honest conviction!"
 The double report made by a small-bore rifle.
 The major commanding the battery R.H.A.
 I.e., Brother Boer.
THE FIRST CHECK.
The first lesson brought home to the Englishman in South Africa is, that he must not judge the country by any European standard, for as long as he continues so to do he will find himself at sea. To show surprise is to declare ignorance—and the British and Dutch South Africans, after the manner of all superlatively ignorant races, have the profoundest contempt for those in whom they themselves can discern ignorance. Thus when the kindly eminence of a hill gives you a ten-mile view of some tiny townlet—a view conveying no inkling of the importance of the centre which you are about to approach—it is well to be silent. For the Colonial is surely more imaginative than the phlegmatic Englishman—and the sorry collection of tin shanties and flimsy villas, which at so great a distance appear to you of little more significance than a farm with straggling outhouses—represent to his mind a town, and he will resent a less appreciative rating of them. This may appear unreasonable: it is, but it is none the less true; and in a great measure the variance of focus between the English and the Colonial mind has been responsible for the girth-galling which at the beginning of the war marked our efforts in harness with our colonial confreres. We have heard all the defects of the British officer, because the Colonial thinks quickly and lightly, and wastes no time in giving expression to his thoughts; we have not heard so much of the defects of the Colonial, because the British officer, while focussing his opinions less rapidly, though more seriously than the majority of Colonials, reserves his criticisms. But they are an easy people to manage if you can preserve your silence without offending their vanity. They admire in the Englishman the qualities which they themselves have not yet fully developed; but it cuts them to the quick if the evidence of superiority is thrust upon them. Thus, when the officer commanding the advance-guard, looking down the great straight road leading into Britstown,—a track which would have done credit to the Roman Road at Baynards,—commented unkindly upon the township, the Tiger was hurt, and thought unpleasant things about British cavalry subalterns in general, and the officer in command of the advance-guard in particular. But then Britstown had been a town to the Tiger ever since he could remember. Until he had arrived at man's estate and visited Kimberley and Cape Town, Britstown had been the town of his imagination and Beaufort West his metropolis. To the officer commanding the advance-guard, Britstown and Beaufort West, if rolled into one, would hardly have earned the dignified classification of a village. The mental focus of the two men was at variance, and the Tiger felt that the subaltern possessed the stronger lens. Yet man for man, on horse or foot, clothed or naked, to the outward eye he was not a better man. It is here that the feeling lies.
The brigadier halted the advance-guard upon the rise. He wanted to know something about Britstown. The ugly rumour of Brand's intention to storm and sack it was still with us. As yet there had been no news of Lieutenant Meadows and his patrol. Three hundred yards to the right front was a tiny farm. A solitary upstart on the bare veldt. An architectural nightmare in red brick. Already a patrol from the advance screen of dragoons was edging towards it, lured by that magnetism irresistible to every British soldier. A magnetism prompted from beneath the belt, and which no military precaution, or experience, or solicitude for personal safety will eradicate from the canteen-bred soldier. If our scouts had been as farm-shy as so many of them have proved gun-shy, it would have made an appreciable difference in the casualty lists of the campaign. The brigadier looked upon the farm. It cannot be said that he found it fair, within the artistic meaning of the phrase. But there was a pan, which meant water for the horses, and doubtless there was a hen-house and a buttery.
"Mr Intelligence, we will have breakfast at that farm. Let the advance-guard move on another half-mile, then Freddy will be able to water his horses in comfort. Here, who is commanding the advance-guard? Have you told your men to rally on that farm?"
"Then you had better look after them."
Away the youth went at a gallop, and it was about time, as the right flank had evidently divined success in the attitude of the first patrol, which had stopped at the farm, and the ungainly red edifice was exercising its magnetic effect upon the whole advance-guard. When the officer commanding the advance-guard arrived, dragoon No. 1 already had his head buried in a bucketful of milk, while dragoon No. 2 was indiscriminately stuffing as many eggs and pats of butter into a square of red handkerchief as the said square would contain.
The brigadier moved up to the homestead, and threw his reins to his orderly. The family paraded on the stoep, as all Dutch families do on similar occasions. And, as is the custom of the country, the brigadier shook hands with them all with great dignity. But he had no eyes for Oom Jan of the massive head and bushy beard, no eyes for the stout madam his frau, nor for his six solid and lumpy daughters, for he was busy breaking the tenth commandment. In front of the house, on the beaten clay clearing, stood a truly magnificent carriage—a four-wheeled family spring-cart, rich in upholstered cover, electroplated bits, and cut-glass finishings. The brigadier examined it carefully, and then sent his orderly to fetch the commandeering officer. In this case it was the supply officer, a quick-witted boy, who at the moment believed that he was a subaltern, but who really was the youngest brevet-major in the British army.
Brigadier. "Look here, Mr Supply; I want you to value this sham-a-dan."
Supply Officer. "Very good, sir; it looks a good cart."
B. "Do you know your Shakespeare?"
S. O. "No, sir. I was a militiaman; but I'm becoming educated in the matter of South African carts, and I have found that even with fair usage and good drifts paint will sometimes come off."
B. "Quite so; you have made my point, in spite of your modesty with regard to your upbringing. What is the full limit at which you may requisition a spring cart?"
S. O. "Forty pounds, sir."
B. "What would you think is the value of this one?"
S. O. "Thirty-nine pounds ten shillings, sir!"
B. "I think that you are right to within a few pence. Make out a receipt for it, and then come and have breakfast. Here, Mr Intelligence, tell my servant to put the ponies into this cart. Now I call that a suitable conveyance for a general officer. I have never had a decent cart since I've commanded a column. In fact, I have almost been ashamed to sign myself as O.C. of a brigade, when my sole possession has been a broken-down Cape cart with only one spring. Self-respect is half the battle in the success of life. With a cart like that I shall be able to insult with a light heart every column commander with whom I am told to co-operate. Look here, Mr Intelligence; I am going to be a real live brigadier in future. Just you get me the regalia in Britstown—a pink flag and red lantern. I don't see why—but what do you want——?"
A howl had set up in chorus from the family on the verandah of the farm, and old Oom Jan came sidling up to the brigadier hat in hand.
Oom Jan. "But the commandant won't take my cart?"
Brigadier. "Dear me! no—no commandant will take your cart."
O. J. "But see, they are putting the horses in!"
B. "You will get a receipt."
O. J. "For how much?"
B. "Forty pounds."
O. J. "No, no. Only last year I gave L120 for it."
B. "I would gladly give L120; but I am not allowed. Besides, you are getting full value, and I will leave you my old cart."
How much longer the altercation might have lasted would have depended on the duration of the general's good-humour, had not another issue of more moment prejudiced Oom Jan's case. A dragoon had cantered up from the rear-guard, with the two little square inches of paper torn from a notebook which mean so much in war.
"A party of about six mounted men are hanging on my rear. If they approach any closer I shall fire upon them. They seem very persistent, and do not mind exposing themselves."
As the brigadier handed the note to the chief of the staff, the threatened firing broke out in the rear. Breakfast was declared ready at the same moment. The brigadier listened. Two more shots were fired, and then silence.
"That," said the brigadier, "is a very one-sided battle. It can wait until we have had our food. I am not going to allow six men to play 'Old Harry' with my digestion."
As the meal progressed, in came another fleet orderly.
"Regret to say that party reported on my rear was Lieutenant Meadows, who should have been in Britstown this morning. He lost his way in the night. I am sending him in to you to explain. I regret that we have shot one of his horses."
Brigadier. "I thought it was a one-sided battle. I don't know which is the bigger fool, the officer commanding the rear-guard or the youth who has lost his way in the dark. Did you give him a guide, Mr Intelligence?"
Intelligence Officer. "Yes, sir; I gave him the tame burgher Stephanus whom we roped in at Richmond Road."
B. "Those crimped men are no good. He slipped them in the dark, I bet. Hullo! here is the boy. His peace of mind, I fancy, wouldn't be worth much at a public auction."
A smart-looking, though travel-stained, little dragoon subaltern cantered up, dismounted, and saluted. The brigadier was right; he did not look particularly happy. There was a moment of silence while the brigadier took a spoonful of marmalade, then he turned to the boy.
"Well, my pocket Ulysses, what is the extent of your adventure?"
Meadows. "Got lost, sir!"
Brigadier. "And your guide?"
M. "Had to leave him behind, sir!"
B. "Which means he left you!"
M. "He tried to, sir; but he didn't get far!"
B. "What happened?"
M. "First he took us wrong—took us back along the road we had come by. Then when I talked to him he tried to bolt, and I had to shoot him!"
B. (suddenly becoming interested) "The devil you did! Have you had anything to eat? Sit down and have some food. Did you kill him?"
M. "No, sir; I left him with that other wounded Boer in the mud hut near the last camp. But he is very sick. We did what we could for him."
B. "Evidently! Are you sure that he was leading you wrongly?"
M. "Yes, sir. He was taking us back along the road by which we had come from Richmond Road. We stumbled upon one of my own men's water-bottles which he had dropped earlier in the day. As soon as the guide saw what it was, he tried to do a bolt."
B. "Circumstantial evidence, I think; verdict and sentence in one. Well, you at least have the satisfaction of knowing that you have brought your man down. But next time don't hit a refractory guide so hard. I have an idea that if you shot less straight you might have been able to carry out your orders even with a refractory guide. Where are the telegrams? Hand them over to your colonel, and tell him to send another officer on with them at once. No; give them to me. Here, Mr Intelligence, off you go. Just get into Britstown as quickly as you can. As we haven't seen any smoke curling up over the landscape, I take it that Brand and Co. have postponed their good offices. But if anything is wrong, mind you manage to get one of your party back to me with the information."
* * * * *
The Intelligence officer and the Tiger had not left the column a mile behind them when they met a Cape cart coming along the dusty road from Britstown. It was driven by a youth of some eighteen summers, who stopped his pair of mules with the greatest unconcern to the signal from the Tiger.
Tiger. "Good morning. What is your name?"
Driver. "Good morning. Naude."
T. "Where have you come from?"
T. (who was now close up to the cart and busy in examination of it) "What have you been doing in Britstown, and how long have you been there?"
D. "I have been there about ten days: my wife has been confined there!"
T. "So you have taken her out for a drive to-day?"
D. "No. How could I?"
T. "Then you have been driving another lady?"
T. "What have you got those two cushions on the seat for? What's the good of lying? Where are you going now?"
D. "Back to my home!"
T. "Where is that?"
D. "Drieputs, two hours on."
T. (decidedly) "Now, look here; it is no use lying any more. I will tell you what you have been doing and who you are. You are the son of old Pretorius of Richmond Road. Yesterday you were on commando with Lotter; your brother was shot and taken by us. I don't know where you slept last night; but this I do know, that yesterday you drove a wounded man into Britstown, and probably a lady as well. The lady came from Nieuwjaarsfontein. For you see those cushions you have on your front seat came out of the Nieuwjaarsfontein sitkomer. I have got a similar one, which I took myself from the farm. So don't lie any more. Tell me who is in Britstown?"
D. (who had lost his air of stolid indifference, and was beginning to move uncomfortably) "Britstown is full of Kharkis; they are coming in now fast."
Intelligence Officer. "Is this road clear into the dorp?"
D. (with polite sarcasm) "You may ride along this road in perfect safety."
T. (cheerily) "That is more than you can, my friend. (Turning to Intelligence Officer.) This man has evidently, sir, carried information to Brand's people and a wounded man into Britstown; see the blood on the back of the seat. I should keep him a prisoner, sir—send him back to the column with a man. Besides, if I am to stay with you, sir, I should like his cart and mules. They are good mules, you see. They have been into the town and back, and have scarcely turned a hair!"...
There was no doubt as to the occupation of Britstown when the Intelligence officer and his escort crossed the vlei, which is the principal outlying feature of that typical little South African township. The De Aar road was one block of moving transport, and the usually quiet main street of the village was alive with troops. Of a truth a concentration was taking place, and the Dutch were not amiss in their simile when they likened a British concentration to a flight of locusts.
Very few of you will have ever heard of Britstown. Yet, like so many other obscure South African townships, this war has brought it a history. Nor is the historical record which has been built up for it of extraordinary merit. There will be many in the ranks of a certain favoured corps who will scarcely treasure the memory of that little wayside asylum. We remember when the papers were full of the exploits and valour of this returning corps—then Britstown found no mention. Yet its associations, pleasant though they may not be, are closely interwoven with its short-lived history. The story is told to-day over the hotel-bars of the little township by gleeful Colonials. Told how in open fight, a handful of rebel farmers—perhaps our friends the brothers Pretorius and Stephanus were amongst them—drove two companies of England's elite every mile of the twenty-two which lie between Houwater and Britstown. The Colonial, clinking his glass,—shallow in his taste and appreciation,—glories in the story, which is writ large in rebel little Britstown to this day, and will be for all time.
A militia picket is astride the road. None—at least by the main highway—may pass into the confines of the town without permission. The stolid country lout of a sentry views all new-comers with suspicion. But the deadlock is saved by the arrival of a dapper, chubby-faced youth, clean of person, well groomed in habiliments and gear.
"I am the staff officer of the town commandant. What can I do for you?"
Intelligence Officer. "What I want is the telegraph-office."
Staff Officer. "Certainly, sir; but what do you belong to? Are you with the main column?"
I. O. "Dear me, no. I have just come in from the New Cavalry Brigade!"
S. O. "Yes; we are expecting you. You are to camp on the south side of the town. Just under the parapet of those defences. Those are our southern defences. What do you think? Brand had the impertinence to send in last night and demand our immediate surrender. That we, Britstown, should surrender——!"
I. O. (brutally) "And did you? Look here; you will have to wait until the general comes in for your camping arrangements. All I want is the telegraph-office."
S. O. "Of course we did not surrender. Why, we have made this place impregnable. There are three companies of my regiment here, to say nothing of the local town-guard."
I. O. "Oh, hang the town-guard! You trot along and find the chief of our staff. I have other things to think about. By the way, has the rest of the New Cavalry Brigade come in here? The Mount Nelson Light Horse—they are marching from Hanover Road?"
S. O. "No; but there is some ox-transport for you with the Supply column. How far back is your general?"
I. O. "About three miles. Thanks." (Intelligence Officer and the Tiger canter on.)
Tiger. "Please, sir, did he say that the De Aar column was in?"
I. O. "Yes. Why?"
T. "Only the bulk of Rimington's—that is, Damant's—Guides are with it, and I should like to go and see them as soon as I have shown you the telegraph-office. I will also try and find out what young Pretorius was doing in here last night."
In five minutes a "clear-the-line" message was on its way to "Chief, Pretoria," to tell him that the concentration ordered two days ago had taken place. To us, following the fortunes of one small unit in the great move, it will appear that in our forty-eight hours' association with the New Cavalry Brigade everything has proceeded as could have been desired by the master-mind. But it was not so. Almost before the last of the horses had been detrained at Richmond Road, the whole nature of, and necessity for, the movement had changed. In short, everything had turned out as the brigadier had anticipated. Plumer, with the tenacity for which he is famous, had clung to the rear-guard of De Wet's column, snatching a waggon here and a tumbril there, until he himself could move no farther. De Wet had outlasted him, and had, moreover, seen that it would be useless to carry out his original programme. So he doubled and doubled again, with the result that the cleverly devised scheme of relays of driving columns was out of joint, and a dozen units were uselessly spread out over the veldt a hundred miles from the place in which the invader was catching his breath, within jeering distance of the column which had ran itself stone-cold in his pursuit. So within forty-eight hours of the start the whole plan had to be reconstructed. This reconstruction was explained to the New Cavalry Brigade through the medium of one hundred and four telegrams which were awaiting its arrival at Britstown. As the majority conveyed contradictory instructions, the piecing together of the real meaning partook of the nature of one of those drawing-room after-dinner games with which yawning guests at winter house-parties are beguiled. The first cover that was opened deprived the brigadier of his chief of the staff. That officer was ordered to proceed without delay to take up the command of a mobile column to be formed at Volksrust, the other end of the world—that is, the world with which we are at present concerned.
"Don't open any more till we have fed," said the brigadier. "A man with an empty stomach has no mind. We will have a fat high tea at the local Carlton, and then devise strategy."
A general in the field is a great man. But a general in a town at which half-a-dozen Colonial Corps have concentrated is of no account. In the street men pass him by without recognition, and in hotels private swashbucklers in smasher hats literally hustle him.
"This table is reserved for the commandant," said the ample hostess of the Britstown Carlton.
"Who is the commandant?" queried the brigadier.
"Major Jones," came the answer.
"Well, I'm——! this beats cock-fighting. This is the result of martial law and the control of the liquor licence!—a well-fed major reserves seats, while a hungry general stands!" and the general and staff of the New Cavalry Brigade occupied the reserved table, and became guests of the hotel in common with thirty dishevelled troopers, who had passed into the hotel, representing themselves to the dazed militia sentry at the door as officers. The food may not have been of the best, but it was in abundance; and in a quarter of an hour the brigadier was prepared to study his instructions.
B. "Now, Mr Intelligence, since they see fit to remove my chief of the staff, you have got to be maid-of-all-work. You and I have got to run this brigade until the brigade-major turns up. He must be a bit of a 'slow-bird,' I think, or he would have been here with the rest of my hoplites by this. Do you know anything about staff work?"
Intelligence Officer. "Nothing, sir!"
B. "So much the better; you will then have a mind ripe for tuition. Now I will give you a lesson. You have two pockets in your tunic. The right pocket will be the receptacle for 'business' telegrams, the left for 'bunkum.' Now for the telegrams!"
It would be beyond the scope of this sketch to give the contents of the one hundred and four telegrams which had accumulated in forty-eight hours. It will suffice to state that ninety-seven were relegated to the "bunkum" pocket, and seven retained as conveying intelligent orders worthy of consideration. It is superfluous to mention that the whole of the messages sent by the local intelligence departments and by the De Wet expert were dismissed as "bunkum," often without perusal. As the brigadier pertinently remarked: "I suppose that the poor fellows have to justify their existence as members of the great brain-system of the army. The only means by which they come into prominence is by squandering the public money, and they only hurt those who take their information seriously. They do you no harm if you consistently ignore their existence, and don't worry to read their messages."
The sum-total of the messages of instruction which the brigadier had so quaintly filed as "business-material" was information from the Chief, Pretoria, that the plan of the operations was changed. That our general was to co-operate—a word of very elastic meaning, and responsible for much velvet-covered mutiny during the present campaign—with the columns in his neighbourhood which, over and above the skeleton of the New Cavalry Brigade, had concentrated that day at Britstown. A message in cipher gave an inkling of the plan which had risen phoenix-like out of the ashes of the original dispositions. De Wet, instead of being enticed south, was to be driven north into the loop of the Orange River between Prieska and Hopetown, where Charles Knox's column and a column of Kimberley swashbucklers would be ready for him. The Britstown columns, and the brigadier of the New Cavalry Brigade co-operating, would push north—wheel into line with the panting Plumer, now north of Strydenburg, and then "Forward away!" Now, just as the original scheme had, when on paper, presented a very reasonable and common-sense stratagem, so with the new incubation. But there were three main factors over which the gilt cap at Pretoria had no control, and which dished this, as they have dished ninety-nine out of every hundred of schemes which were undertaken during the guerilla war. The first of these three lay in the fact that the strategy was a conformation to the enemy's movements. This naturally gave him time to think and to develop his counter-move, with all advantages in the balance. No. 2 is to be found in the timidity of certain of the column commanders. Men who proverbially take every opportunity of sacrificing the main issue to pursue some subsidiary policy. Men whom De Wet loves, and whom he plays with, decoys, and bluffs until he achieves his object. Men whose heart will not take them, like Plumer, "slap-bang" along the course which must lead to heavy conclusions, if the enemy will fight; but who prefer to fritter away the morale and efficiency of their columns in pursuing a phantom enemy. Choosing a country in which an enemy as sagacious as the Boer would never operate, these men are careful not to leave the security it affords, though their telegrams to headquarters build up the statistics which have misled our calculations throughout the war. The third reason is just as deplorable. It is the passive resistance evinced between column commanders, who are called upon to co-operate. These leaders, instead of sinking all differences in one common objective, work rather as if they were employed in a business competition. And why is this? Ask of the man in Pretoria with his hand on the tiller. Is not centralisation the cause of it all? Does not the centralisation of the guiding authority mean that all success is judged by personal results,—that the "brave" is selected for preferment who can claim to have the most scalps dangling from his waist-belt. This is the nature of the war for which the British nation is content to pay many millions a-month!