With Buller in Natal by G. A. Henty
Chapter I. The Bursting of the Storm
A group of excited men were gathered in front of the Stock Exchange at Johannesburg. It was evident that something altogether unusual had happened. All wore anxious and angry expressions, but a few shook hands with each other, as if the news that so much agitated them, although painful, was yet welcome; and indeed this was so.
For months a war-cloud had hung over the town, but it had been thought that it might pass over without bursting. None imagined that the blow would come so suddenly, and when it fell it had all the force of a complete surprise, although it had been so threatening for many weeks that a considerable portion of the population had already fled. It was true that great numbers of men, well armed, and with large numbers of cannon, had been moving south, but negotiations were still going on and might continue for some time yet; and now by the folly and arrogance of one man the cloud had burst, and in thirty hours war would begin.
Similar though smaller groups were gathered here and there in the streets. Parties of Boers from the country round rode up and down with an air of insolent triumph, some of them shouting "We shall soon be rid of you; in another month there will not be a rooinek left in South Africa."
Those addressed paid no heed to the words. They had heard the same thing over and over again for the past two months. There was a tightening of the lips and a closing of the fingers as if on a sword or rifle, but no one replied to the insolent taunts. For years it had been the hope of the Uitlanders that this would come, and that there would be an end to a position that was well-nigh intolerable. Never before had a large body of intelligent men been kept in a state of abject subjection by an inferior race, a race almost without even the elements of civilization, ignorant and brutal beyond any existing white community, and superior only in the fact that they were organized and armed, whereas those they trampled upon were deficient in both these respects. Having no votes, these were powerless to better their condition by the means common to civilized communities throughout the world. They were ground down by an enormous taxation, towards which the Boers themselves contributed practically nothing, and the revenue drawn from them was spent in the purchase of munitions of war, artillery, and fortifications, so enormously beyond the needs of the country, that it was no secret that they were intended not only for the defence of the republic against invasion, but for a general rising of the Boer population and the establishment of Dutch supremacy throughout the whole of South Africa.
The Boer government was corrupt from the highest to the lowest. The president and the members of his family piled up wealth to an enormous amount, and nothing could be done without wholesale bribery. The price of everything connected with the mining industry was doubled by the supply being in the hands of monopolists, who shared their gains with high state officials. Money was lavished like water on what was called secret service, in subsidizing newspapers to influence public opinion throughout Europe, and, as it was strongly suspected, in carrying on a propaganda among the Dutch in Cape Colony, and in securing the return of members and a ministry secretly pledged to further in every way the aims of the Presidents of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. The British and other aliens were not only deprived of all rights of citizenship, but even freedom of speech and the right of public meeting was denied them; they were not allowed to carry arms except by a special license, their children were taught in Dutch in the schools, they had no right of trial by jury; judges who had the courage to refuse to carry out the illegal behests of the president were deprived of their offices, and the few editors of newspapers representing the Uitlanders--as all men not born in the state were called-were imprisoned and their journals suppressed.
Intolerable as was such a state of things to a civilized community, it might have been borne with some patience had it not been that the insolence of their masters was unbounded. Every Boer seemed to take a pleasure in neglecting no opportunity of showing his contempt for the men whose enterprise and labour had enormously enriched the country, and whose superior intelligence he was too grossly ignorant to appreciate. A Boar farmer would refuse a cup of water to a passing traveller, and would enforce his refusal by producing his rifle immediately if the stranger ventured to urge his request. Of late the insolence of the Boers had greatly increased; the manner in which England had, instead of demanding justice with the sternness and determination that the circumstances called for, permitted her remonstrances to be simply ignored, was put down as a consciousness of weakness. And having now collected arms sufficient not only for themselves but for the whole Dutch population of South Africa, the Boers were convinced that their hour of triumph had come, and that in a very short time their flag would float over every public building throughout the country and the Union Jack disappear for ever.
The long discussions that had been going on with regard to a five or seven years' franchise were regarded with absolute indifference by the Uitlanders--even the shorter time would have afforded them no advantage whatever. The members from the mining districts would be in a hopeless minority in the assembly; and indeed, very few of those entitled to a vote would have cared to claim it, inasmuch as they would thereby render themselves citizens of the republic, and be liable to be commandeered and called upon to serve in arms, not only against the natives, upon whom the Boers were always making aggressions, but against England, when the war, which all foresaw could not long be delayed, broke out.
For months the negotiations went on between President Kruger and Mr. Chamberlain, the British colonial minister, and the certainty that the Boers were bent upon fighting became more and more evident. Vast quantities of rifles, ammunition, and cannon poured into the Transvaal, their passage being more than winked at by the Dutch ministry of Cape Colony.
It was that day known that President Kruger had thrown off the mask of a pretended desire for peace, and that an ultimatum had been telegraphed to England couched in terms of such studied insolence that it was certain war must ensue. The greatest civilized power on earth would have shown less arrogance towards the most feeble. Not only was England called upon to send no more troops to South Africa, but to withdraw most of her forces already in the country, and this by a state that owed its very existence to her, and whose total population was not more than that of a small English county.
The terms of that ultimatum had just become known in Johannesburg, and it was not surprising that it had created an intense excitement. All had long felt that war must come, and that at an early date, but the step that had now been taken came as a surprise. From all appearances it had seemed that the negotiations might be continued for months yet before the crisis arrived, and that it should thus have been forced on by the wording of the ultimatum showed that the Boers were satisfied that their preparations were complete, and that they were in a position to overrun Natal and Cape Colony before any British force capable of withstanding them could arrive. England, indeed, had been placed in a most difficult position. The ministry were not unaware of the enormous preparations that the Boers were making, and had for some time past been quietly sending out a large number of officers and a few non-commissioned officers and men to the Cape. But so long as there was a hope that the Boers would finally grant some redress to the Uitlanders, they could not despatch any considerable number of troops, for had they done so they would have been accused not only on the Continent, but by a section of Englishmen, of forcing on a war with a weak state, whereas in point of fact the war was being forced on by a country that most erroneously believed itself to be stronger than England. The Boers of the Transvaal knew already that the Orange Free State would join them at once, and believed firmly that every Dutchman in Natal and Cape Colony would at the signal take up arms.
Presently a gentleman detached himself from the crowd in front of the Exchange, and joined a lad of some sixteen years old who was standing on the other side of the street.
"Well, father, is it all true what they say?" the latter asked--"that Kruger has sent such an ultimatum to England that war is certain?"
"It is quite true, Chris; war is absolutely certain. Kruger has given the British Government only two days to reply to the most insolent demand ever addressed to a great power, and worded in the most offensive manner. I imagine that no reply will be given; and as the ultimatum was sent off yesterday, we shall to-morrow morning be in a state of war."
"Well, father, there is no doubt what the result will be."
"No doubt whatever as to the final result, but I am afraid things will go very badly for a time. I am glad, very glad, that Kruger should have sent such an ultimatum. It cannot but be accepted as a defiance by all England; and I should say that even the opposition, which has of late continually attacked Mr. Chamberlain, will now be silenced, and that Government will be supported by all parties."
After a quarter of an hour's walk they arrived at home. It was a handsome house, for Mr. King was one of the leading men in Johannesburg. He had come out with a wife and son ten years before, being sent by some London capitalists to report to them fully upon the prospects of the gold-fields. Under his advice they had purchased several properties, which had been brought out as companies, and proved extremely valuable. He was himself a large holder in each of these, and acted as manager and director of the group. "What is the news, Robert?" his wife asked, as he and her son came in. "I have had three or four visitors in here, and they all say that there is quite an excitement in the town."
"It has come at last," he said gravely; "war is inevitable, and will begin in twenty-four hours. Kruger has sent one of the most extraordinary demands ever drawn up. He calls upon England to cease sending out troops, and to speedily recall most of those now in South Africa, and has given two days for a reply, of which one has already expired. As it is absolutely certain that England will not grant this modest request, we may say that the war has begun. I wish now that I had sent you and Chris down to Durban a fortnight ago, for there will be a fearful rush, and judging by the attitude of the Boers, I fear they will make the journey a very unpleasant one. As we have agreed, it is absolutely necessary that I should remain here. There is no saying what steps the Boers will take with reference to the mines; but it is certain that we must, if possible, keep them going--not for the sake of the profit, which you may be sure Kruger will not allow to go out of the country, but because if they were to be stopped it would cost an immense deal of money to put them in working condition again, especially if, as is likely enough, the Boers damage the machinery. I shall do as little work as I can; and the Boers will not, I fancy, interfere with us as long as they can benefit by the working. For myself, I would risk any loss or damage rather than aid in supplying them with gold, but for the sake of our shareholders in Europe I must do my best to save the mines from destruction. Indeed, if I don't work them, probably they will do so until the end is at hand, and will then do as much damage as possible. You know we have agreed on this point." "Yes, I suppose it is best, Robert; but it seems terrible leaving you alone here, and I shall be in a perpetual state of anxiety about you."
"I don't think there is any occasion for that; as long as I am working the mines and they are taking the gold, which no doubt they will have to repay when our army are masters here, they will not interfere with me. They treat us badly enough, as we know; but they love the gold even more than they hate us, so I have no fear whatever as to my personal safety. I am afraid, dear, that for a time things will go very badly with us. Already we know that commandos have gone forward in great strength to the frontier, and I should not be surprised if the whole of South Africa rises; at any rate, the Boers are confident that it will be so. Gladstone's miserable surrender after our disasters at Laing's Nek and Majuba have puffed them up with such an idea of their own fighting powers and our weakness, that I believe they think they are going to have almost a walk over. Still, though it was certain that we should have a hard time whenever war came, we have been hoping for years that England would at last interfere to obtain redress for us, and we must not grumble now that what we have been so long expecting has at last come to pass. I believe there will be some stern fighting. The Boers are no cowards; courage is, indeed, as far as I know, the only virtue they possess. In the long run they must certainly be beaten, but it will only be after very hard fighting."
"What do you think they will do, father?"
"I can't say what they will do, but I am sure that what they ought to do is to merely hold the passes from Natal with enough men for the purpose, and to march their whole force, broken up into half a dozen columns, into Cape Colony. There is no force there that could resist them, they would be undoubtedly joined by every Dutchman there, and I am convinced that the Africander ministry would at once declare for them, in which case England would have to undertake the tremendous work of conquering the whole of South Africa afresh, for certainly she could not allow it to slip from her hands, even if it should prove as stern a business as the conquering of half India after the Sepoy Mutiny. Now to business. Fortunately we sent down your clothes and everything we had of value to our friends the Wilsons, at Durban, six weeks ago. What you have remaining you must leave behind to take its chance. You will be able to take no luggage whatever with you. We know how terribly the trains have been packed for the past fortnight, and a week ago almost all the carriages were commandeered for the use of the troops going south.
"You must take with you a basket of provisions, sufficient, if necessary, for two or three days for you both. There is no saying how long you may be on your way to the frontier; once beyond that you will, of course, be able to obtain anything you want. But you need expect no civility or courtesy from the Boers, who, indeed, would feel a malicious pleasure in shunting you off into a siding, and letting you wait there for any number of hours. You must mind, Chris, above all things, to keep your temper, whatever may happen. You know how our people have been insulted, and actually maltreated in scores of cases, and in their present state of excitement the Boers would be only too glad to find an excuse for acts of violence. I was speaking to you about it three days ago, and I cannot impress it too strongly upon you. I have already given you permission to join one or other of the corps that are being raised in Natal, and if anything unpleasant occurs on the road, you must bottle up your feelings and wait till you get a rifle in your hand and stand on equal terms with them."
"I promise that, father. I think, after what we have had to put up with here, during the past two or three months especially, I can bear anything for these last few days."
"Yes, Chris; but it will be more trying now that you have your mother under your charge. It is for her sake as well as your own that I impress this so strongly upon you. Now, will you go down at once to the railway- station and enquire about the trains? I shall go myself to the manager and see whether I can get him to make any special arrangement in your mother's favour, though I have no great hopes of that; for though I know him well, he is, like all these Dutchmen in office, an uncivilized brute puffed up with his own importance."
Chris started at once, and returned an hour later with a very discouraging report. The station was crowded with people. No regular trains were running, but while he was there a large number of cattle- trucks had been run up to the platform, and in these as many of the fugitives as could be packed in were stowed away. As soon as this was done the train had started, but not half the number collected on the platform had found room in it. His father had left a few minutes after him, and presently returned.
"From what I can hear," he said, "there is no chance whatever of your being able to get any accommodation, but must take your chance with the others. Viljoen told me that except the waggons there was not a carriage of any sort or class left here, and that there was no saying at all when any would return; but that even if they did, they would be taken for the use of the troops going south. All he could say was that if, when I came down to the station with you, he is there, he will see that you go by the first waggons that leave."
"That is something at least," Mrs. King said quietly. "I certainly do not wish to ask for any favour from these people, and do not want to be better off than others. I have no doubt that it will be an unpleasant time, but after all it will be nothing to what great numbers of people will have to suffer during the war."
"That is so, Amy. And now I think that the sooner the start is made the better. The rush to get away will increase every hour, and we shall have the miners coming in in hundreds. Many of the mines will be shut down at once, though some of them will, like ours, continue operations as long as they are allowed to."
"Make your basket, or bag, or whatever you take your provisions in, as small as possible, mother. I saw lots of baggage left behind on the platform. You see, there are no seats to stow things under. I should say that a flat box which you can sit on would be the best thing. And you will want your warmest cloak and a thick rug for night."
"I have a box that will do very well, Chris. Fortunately we have plenty of cold meat and bread in the house. I shall not be more than half an hour, Robert."
In less than that time the party were ready. Chris's preparations had been of the simplest. He carried over his arm a long, thick greatcoat, in the pocket of which he had thrust a fur cap and two woollen comforters. He had also a light but warm rug, for he thought it probable that he might not be able to be next to his mother. He had on his usual light tweed suit, but had in addition put on a cardigan waistcoat, which he intended to take off when once in the train. In his pockets he had a couple of packets of tobacco, for although he seldom smoked, he thought that some of it might be very acceptable to his fellow-passengers before the journey was over. He wore a light gray, broad-brimmed wide-awake, with a white silk puggaree twisted round it, for the heat of the sun in the middle of the day was already very great, and would be greater still when they got down to Natal. The box, which a Kaffir servant put on his shoulder, was about eight inches deep and a foot wide, and eighteen inches long.
"What have you in it, mother?"
"Two tin bottles of cold tea, each holding a gallon."
"I should hardly have thought that we wanted as much as that."
"No; but there may be many women who have made no provision at all, thinking that we shall at least be able to get water at any of the stations we stop at. I have a small tin mug, and that joint of meat; the rest of the box is filled up with bread-and-butter. I have cut it up and spread it, so that it packs a good deal closer than it would do if we put the loaves in whole."
Mr. King had his wife's thick-wadded winter cloak and a rug over his arm, and a small hand-bag with a few necessaries for the journey. Mrs. King was in her usual attire, and carried only a white umbrella.
"We look as if we were starting for a picnic rather than a journey that will last three or four days," she said with an attempt at gaiety. "There is one comfort, we shall have nothing to look after when we get to the end."
Chris walked on ahead to let his father and mother talk together, for although all arrangements had been discussed and settled during the past two or three days, there was much they had to say to each other now that the parting had come. The lad was a fine specimen of the young Uitlander. A life passed largely in the open air, hard work and exercise, had broadened his shoulders and made him look at least a year older than he really was. He was a splendid rider and an excellent shot with his rifle, for his father had obtained a permit from the authorities for him to carry one, and he could bring down an antelope when running at full speed as neatly as any of the young Boers. Four days a week he had spent in the mines, for his father intended him to follow in his footsteps, and he had worked by turns with the miners below and the engineers on the surface, so that he might in the course of a few years be thoroughly acquainted with all the details of his profession.
The last two days in each week he had to himself, and with three or four lads of his own age went for long rides in search of sport. A couple of hours every evening were spent in study under his father's direction. He was quiet in manner, and talked but little. He deeply resented the position in which the British population in the Transvaal were placed, the insolence of the Boers towards them, and their brutal cruelty towards the natives. The restraint which he so often found it necessary to exercise had had no slight influence on his character, and had given a certain grim expression to the naturally bright face. Many had been the discussions between him and his friends as to the prospect of England's taking up their cause. Their disappointment had been intense at the miserable failure of the Jameson raid, which, however, they felt, and rightly, must some day have a good result, inasmuch as it had brought out the wretched position of the Uitlanders, who, though forming the majority of the population, and the source of all the wealth of the country, and paying all the taxes, were yet treated as an outcast race, and deprived of every right possessed by people of all civilized nations.
They had wondered and fretted at the apathy with which the enormous warlike preparations of the Boers were regarded at home, and the fact that they were permitted to become a formidable power, capable of offering a desperate resistance even by the armies of England; whereas, before they had been enriched by the industry and enterprise of the immigrants, they had been in danger of being altogether wiped out by the Zulus and Swazis, and had only been saved by the interference on their behalf of the British power. Thus, then, while the war-cloud had been slowly but surely gathering, the lads had watched the approaching crisis with delight, unmingled with the anxiety and foreboding of the capitalists, who, without doubting what the end must be, were sure that enormous losses and sacrifices must result before their deliverance from Boer oppression could be obtained.
The scene at the station was an extraordinary one. Men, women, and children of all ranks were crowded on the platform; the greater capitalists, the men whose fortunes could be counted by hundreds of thousands, had for the most part left, but many who in England would be considered as rich men had remained in the town till the last moment, to make their final arrangements and wind up their affairs. With these were well-to-do storekeepers, with their wives and families, together with mining officials, miners, and mechanics of all kinds. Piles of baggage rendered movement difficult, for many had supposed that the regular trains were still running, and that they would be able to carry away with them the greater portion of their belongings. The scenes at the departure of the previous trains roughly awakened them to the fact that all this must be abandoned, and women were crying and men cursing below their breath at this last evidence of Boer indifference to the sufferings of those by whose work they had so greatly benefited. Mr. King soon found that the manager was still there, but on speaking to him he shrugged his shoulders, and said:
"I do not see what I can do. Look at the crowd there. When the waggons come up there will be a rush, and I have no men here to keep such a number in order."
"I see that, Mr. Viljoen, but if you would send a man with us to where the waggons are standing in readiness to come up, my wife could take her place then."
"Yes, I will do that at once. You had better go with her outside the station, and the porter shall take you on from there. If you were to get off the platform here and walk up the lines, others would notice it, and there would be an immediate rush."
He called to one of the porters on the platform, and gave him instructions, and in a few minutes Mrs. King was seated on her box in the corner of a truck, which, with a few others, had a covered roof, although it was entirely open at the sides. In the next half-hour eight or ten others, who had been similarly favoured by the manager, joined them. All these were known to the Kings, and it was a great relief to them to find that they would travel together, instead of being mixed up with the general crowd. They had packed themselves together as closely as possible, so that when the train became crowded there should be no room for anyone to push in among them. Among the party was John Cairns, a great chum of Chris's. He and his father and mother had been waiting for two hours at the station, and he told him that there were seven or eight of their companions there.
"We will take our seats on that side," Chris said, "and as we move in shout to them to join us. It will be a great thing to get as many people we know in here as possible."
Presently the train began to move. Fortunately, at the spot where it drew up, a group of their acquaintances were clustered together, and these all managed to get into the truck, which was speedily filled up until there was scarce standing-room. Three minutes later the train moved on. A great number were left behind, although everyone made as much room as possible, women especially being helped in after the trucks seemed absolutely choke-full. As soon as the train was fairly in motion many of the men climbed up on to the roofs of the covered waggons, thereby relieving the pressure below, and enabling all the women to sit down. Others ranged themselves along the sides, sitting on the rail, and so minimizing the space they occupied. But even with all this, the women were packed inconveniently together. All, however, were so much pleased at their good fortune in having got away that there was no complaining or grumbling. That the journey would be a long one, all knew; but at least they had started, and would soon be a free people in a free country. Chris and his friends had been among the first to climb up on to the roof, and they sat down in a group at one end of it.
"It is going to be pretty cold here to-night, and desperately hot to- morrow," Chris said; "but we can put up with that. I would stand it for a month rather than stop any longer among these brutes." There was a general murmur of agreement.
"Thank heavens," one of them said, "the next time we meet them will be with arms in our hands. We have a long score to pay off, and we shall, I expect, have plenty of chances. The Boers are boasting that they will soon drive the last Englishman out of South Africa, and seem to regard it as a sort of general picnic. They will find out their mistake before they have done."
"Still, we must not think that it is going to be a picnic our way," Chris said. "They have quite made up their minds that every Boer in Cape Colony and Natal will join them at once. If they do, it will be a very long business to put them down, though I have no doubt it will all come right in the end. Do you know anything about the others?"
"I know that Peters and Carmichael and Brown went off with their people last night, but I don't know about the others."
"Capper and Willesden and Horrocks went yesterday," another lad said. "Sankey and Holdsworth were on the platform, and no doubt got into another truck.
"There are seven of us here," Chris said, "and as six have gone on, that makes thirteen certain, and there are eight more to come. Most of us will stop at Pietermaritzburg, but I suppose some, whose friends are going straight home, will go down with them to Durban."
"There will not be many who have to do so," another said. "Sankey's people and Carmichael's are going to Cape Town, but, so far as I know, all the others will stay and see it out either at Maritzburg or Durban. Do you think that we should take any others with us, Chris?"
"I don't think so. You see we all know each other, and it would be a nuisance having fellows with us of whom we know nothing. They might not pull with us, while we have been so much together that there is no fear of our having any disagreement. I think we have all pretty well settled that it will be much better to act by ourselves, instead of joining any of the corps that are sure to be formed down there. Still, if we knew one of the men getting up a corps--and some of our people are pretty sure to do so--I do think it would be a good plan to join, if they would accept us as a sort of independent troop, ready to act with them when there is any big fighting, and to go about on our own account at other times. You see, none of us will want any pay. We shall all furnish our own horses and arms, and shall therefore be on a different footing from men who have to draw pay and be equipped at the public expense; and I don't see why any officer commanding a troop in one of these corps should object to our joining him on those terms. But anyhow, I feel sure that we should be able to do a great deal more good by being free to move where we liked, and to undertake expeditions on our own account, than if we were to act in a more regular manner."
There was a general chorus of agreement.
"Now, how long do you think it will be before we cross Laing's Nek? Of course we ought to be there by to-morrow morning. It is only a hundred and fifty miles, and at fifteen miles an hour, which is about their usual rate of travelling, we should cross the frontier at two o'clock, for it was about four when we started. But there is no saying. My father thought we ought to take four days' provisions with us; I think we could hold out for that time."
"You don't mean to say, Chris, he thought it possible we might be as long as that?" "He did think so, Peters. He considered that we might be shunted off very often to let trains with men and stores for the troops go on ahead of us."
"Well," the other replied, "I don't care so much for myself, though I don't say that it would be lively to be stuck up here for four days and nights, but it would be awful for the women; and I should say that very few of them have got more than enough provisions for a day. Still, of course, if we are shunted at a station we shall be able to buy things."
"I am not so sure of that," Chris said. "You know what the Boers are at their best; and now that they believe the time has arrived when they are going to be the absolute lords of all South Africa, they are so puffed up that there is no saying what they may do to show their hatred and contempt for us. And whatever happens, you fellows, you must keep your temper. My father spoke to me very strongly about it. You must remember that they will not mind what they do, and would shoot any of us down on the smallest excuse, knowing well enough that we are helpless, and that it is unlikely any enquiry would ever be made, or anyone punished even if they shot a dozen of us. We must remember that we intend to pay off old scores later on, and that we mean to do it with interest."