The Siege of Kimberley Part 10

The Siege of Kimberley -

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When Major Rodger had officially apprised the Colonel of his glorious victory, gyps and re-inforcements were immediately despatched to a.s.sist in the holding of the acquired position. It was soon strongly garrisoned, and though theatrical preparations for its recovery were not wanting, no serious attempt was made to re-take it. From the adjacent ridges (a mile off) an odd sh.e.l.l came hurtling; and thus was an avenue opened up for the Column that was always coming, and never came.

Cheering auguries there were in plenty, but we guardedly declined to be cheered, and pretended to sn.i.g.g.e.r sceptically at the auguries. It might be that the Boers _had_ been "driven out of Colesburg," but we did not believe it, on principle. From the same source we learned that Cronje was a prisoner; but he was _not!_ so that our incredulity was in a measure justifiable to the end. It was conceded, it was being made manifest daily that the housing of so many people for any length of time in the over-crowded mines was opt of the question. But that was a consideration to which the "Military Situation" could not resonably be expected to play second fiddle.

Despite, therefore, the concrete evidence of impending developments; despite the distant dust-clouds which only Cavalry, and a good many of them, could cause; despite the chaos reigning in Boer circles--we still declined to be hoodwinked on the never-to-be-forgotten morning of Thursday, the fifteenth of February. On the night previous the sounds of a heavy musketry duel had been heard. A force had been sent out to frustrate Boer encroachments and the fury with which (as per expectation) the lost Alexandersfontein was to be regained. This force effected a _coup_, and by a series of tricks alarmed the enemy contiguous to Alexandersfontein into a belief that a bayonet charge in strength was contemplated, the consequence being that they (the Boers) beat the air with bullets for full three hours. Three guns had been trained on our new "possession." To dislodge its garrison, however, more vigorous measures were called for; and desperate though they continued to grow, the Boers had no bayonets, without which it was hardly possible for them to achieve their purpose. Long Tom at Kamfers Dam was too far off to communicate with the proud usurper; it had perforce to content itself with the city streets, into which the kept falling for some hours in the forenoon--until positively the last of the missiles ended its blaze with a groan at eleven o'clock! That the bombardment would be resumed when the gun had "cooled" n.o.body thought of doubting for an instant; and when three hours had sped, when the gun had had time to become a veritable cuc.u.mber, the rumour-monger, positive, superior, laconic to the last, attributed its silence to a "loose screw!" But, for us, the screw was never tightened; Kimberley had indeed heard the last of Long Tom. Our scepticism, however, remained robust, and would not permit us to treat with aught but ridicule the vaunted wonders with which the day was to be fraught.

The Colonel and his staff still comported themselves with Patrician dignity (as befitted their station), only condescending occasionally to utter unofficial words of cheer. But these utterances were taken for what they were worth, and the experience of four months had taught us to estimate their value at rather less than nothing. When, therefore, towards two o'clock in the afternoon the unfolding of a tale descriptive of an approaching body of eight thousand cavalry had begun, we derisively snapped our fingers at the story. With amazing persistence the narrative was shouted aloud, and with a positiveness which such angry retorts as "Am I a fool!" "Don't come it on me!" "You're a liar!"

etc., could not subdue. Undaunted the heralds of the oncoming Column carried their message to every ear, to be accepted or rejected. The bulk of the people stipulated to "see" the Column, and then they "might"

believe; and it was hard even to induce them to get on to the roof for a view. The ladies in the mines, who, uncomfortable as they were, had a horror of being fooled any more, also perversely refused to stir until they _saw_ the Column; it was not easy to persuade them that an adjournment to the surface of dull earth was an indispensable preliminary to the testimony of their eyes. Courier after courier arrived with the grand and glorious news; and when men on the conning tower were observed to cheer frantically, wave hand-kerchiefs, and gesticulate insanely, our flinty nature humbly condescended to soften.

When all in turn beheld the huge body of cavalry drawing nearer and nearer to Kimberley, the tears began to roll and the pent-up emotion of four weary months was freely given way to! From verandahs, from windows, redoubts, and debris heaps the roars of welcome were sent across the veld. Advance-stragglers, exhausted and travel-stained, presently arrived, to have their b.u.t.tons cut off their coats, the feathers plucked from their hats, their arms wrenched from their sockets, and to be hugged with merciless and enervating tenderness in the wild paroxysm of an ultra-Irish _cead mile failte!_ The Siege was raised! The suspense and sorrow were over! The lowering, ever-darkening cloud had broken--turned inside out to dazzle with the sheen of its lining our unaccustomed eyes. We were free again; to revel in pastry and jam, and ham and eggs, in chops and steaks, in mealies, b.u.t.ter, bread, and _pate de foie gras_; at liberty to drink, to mix our drinks, to risk "swelled head" and indigestion if we so willed, as we most certainly did. It was over; we had fought a good fight; and in the conviction that it was worth going through it all for the ineffable delight of the final emergence we sent our hats into the air with an abandon and disregard of the proprieties that was very, very rude.

The Siege was raised! by French--not Methuen; Codlin was the friend, not Short! The enthusiasm never slackened, and when late in the afternoon the General with some of his officers visited the Kimberley Club, the climax was reached. Cheer after cheer rent the air and shook the trees.

The hand-shaking crusade shook the spheres. Nine o'clock struck; but much we cared; the warning notes had lost their terrors; they startled not the joyous groups crowding the streets, laughing, whistling, singing, crying, dancing, or hilariously toasting French (in the saloons) on Siege soda-water! Not the least pathetic feature of it all was the length and wryness of our deliverers' faces when they sought to buy refreshments--a tin of something--cup of anything--and the loud laugh that spake the vacant wares of the gay _restaurateur_ as he brokenly explained the Permit Law with all its "tape" and pomps. The exodus from the mines was necessarily slow, and midnight had long pa.s.sed ere the last of the refugees was restored to the glimpses of the moon.

In the meantime our friends the Boers had taken to flight. Their guns (including Long Tom) had vanished, and Long Cecil kept barking furiously to expedite their departure. The Boer positions were soon occupied by British troops; large quant.i.ties of provisions and forage which had been left behind were duly confiscated; while French's ordnance was subst.i.tuted for the guns that had so long intensified the heat of a Kimberley summer. In town all was bunting and gladness. The red, white, and blue bedecked the houses, the lamp posts, the tram-cars, the barrel-organs, the monkeys, the dogs, and the horsefles.h.!.+ The relief of Kimberley was an accomplished fact. The issue of the campaign was no longer in doubt.

Little now remains to be told. There is no need to speak of the rapidity with which railway communication was restored, or of how amid general rejoicings a train steamed into the city and steamed out again choc-a-bloc with pa.s.sengers in cattle trucks. Nor need I pity the lot of the postal officials when the sorting of a million letters had begun. It is not for me to tell of the joy of reading them; to dwell on the Dronfield fight; the evacuation of Magersfontein; the _tableau_ at Paarderberg, of its chastening effects on the "Military Situation." Nor may I speculate on how well or wisely we ate and drank when gormandism was again in consonance with law-abiding citizens.h.i.+p. All these things were _after_ the Siege.

For the rest, the citizens had responded to the call of duty with a spontaneity worthy of the highest praise. They had "roughed it" in their tents uncomplainingly (sulking only on occasions, like Achilles). All honour, all grat.i.tude to the good men and women who had spent themselves so unselfishly for the common good. The De Beers Corporation merit a meed of commendation for the manner in which they rose to a recognition of their responsibilities. An expression of regret is due to the Commanding-Officer for the impatience with which we had treated his proclamations and chafed under Martial Law. Our att.i.tude had been oftentimes unfair. But the Colonel's _regency_ had in the main been conspicuous for high ability, considerateness, and a firmness that could have scarcely been dispensed with. Finally, Mr. Rhodes--by virtue of his beneficent, unceasing labours on behalf of the beleagured population--stood higher than ever in the affections of the people among whom had been spent so many years of his life. This narrative may be fittingly closed with a peroration of his--since it reflects the feeling of the citizens as a whole, which has been my aim throughout. "When we look back" said the Colossus, "upon the troubles we have gone through, and especially all that has been suffered by the women and children, we have this satisfaction, that we have done our best to preserve that which is the best of commercial a.s.sets in the world--the protection of her Majesty's Flag."

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